Wyoming Observation Report - July 2001
by Mies Hora
I just returned from a family visit to western Wyoming, where I was fortunate to observe in near perfect conditions. You know the old saw about real estate: "Location, location, location". It definitely pertains to astronomy. Wyoming is big star country. This was my first real long distance observing session, and I am sharing it in the hopes that it will give you ideas and encouragement for your own out-of-state viewing adventures.
Location 2 miles from Atlantic City, an old mining town with a population of "about 57". Site is 40 miles south of Lander, WY which has a population around the size of Stony Point (7,000). The nearest small town to the south is several hundred miles away. Low rolling hills in desert plateau landscape. Translation: absolutely no light blooms on horizons (or noise of any kind, for that matter... the total lack of distraction was downright weird).
Viewpoint 360 degrees, southern view extends at least 75 miles.
Height 7,600 ft. above sea level. Air so thin it makes you occasionally gasp for oxygen.
Time July 18th and 20th (new moon), both nights from 9 pm to 3 am.
Temperature 75 - 80* day, 45 - 55* night
Sky Conditions Cloudless, transparent, dry (no dew), jet black background, only ambient light from the Milky Way itself. Steadiness maximal after midnight both nights. Minimum magnitude 6.5 - 7.0 skies... I easily eyeballed M15 (which is mag 6.4).
Equipment Portability was paramount. As this was a family trip, I could not bring equipment that would overwhelm me. It had to be easy. The setup I chose weighs a mere 20 lbs. complete:
- Scope 6" Intes MK67 f/12 1800mm Maksutov Cassegrain w/ 2" Intes diagonal. Scope comes with airline overhead compatible black carry case. Optics 1/6 wave or better and 1/15th wave on the diagonal. Textbook star tests (hats off to ITE and Mike Palermiti). Custom-made flexible foam dew/light shield by Jack Schwartz weighs nothing and doubles as great packing for the mount too.
- Finder 1x Rigel Quik Finder. Small, lightweight and a pleasure to use (asta la vista Telrad)!
- Mount TeleVue Telepod tripod and head equipped with 2160 encoders and a Sky Commander DSC module which I velcroed right onto the mount. Although built for 4" or smaller refractors, the Telepod is rock solid for my short 16" OTA. I installed custom quick release Ken Dauzat dovetail and saddle brackets to make setup and balancing a snap. Smooth motion, fast damping (less than 1 second), and reliable friction screws make this mount ideal for my travel criteria.
- Eyepieces I was too worried to bring my whole set of EPs in case of theft or loss on the trip, so I settled for only what was needed to get the job done.
- Low power wide field: 2" 30mm Wide Scan Type II by Kokusai Kohki. Sold by Apogee, this amazing EP has 84* FOV, weighs much less than a 35 Pan or 31 Nag (and costs about 1/2 as much so not a major loss if damaged, lost or stolen). While definitely not as flat/sharp edge to edge as the latter, when using a slow f/12 scope like the MK67 it performs beautifully and provides 60x power with exceptional color-free contrast and precision in the center 3/4 FOV.
- Mid high power: 13mm Orion Lanthanum Wide Field, 65* FOV. This sweet ep performs like a champ in any scope and affords 139x power of wide field close-in detail from my scope.
- High power: As stand-ins for my priceless set of Clave' plossls, I brought along 9mm and 7mm U.O. Orthos. Possibly the best value in astronomical equipment available today, these $59 four-element ep's actually ended up not being much used, as 180x was about the max effective with my 6" scope.
- Surprise: I bought a TV 8-24 mm zoom lens on Astromart recently that proved invaluable during my observing sessions. Small and light, this 1-1/4" wonder is amazingly sharp for a seven element design and really is convenient in that it allowed me to find just the right power quickly when looking at a variety of difficult deep sky objects. While no match for a top quality ortho or plossl, the benefits of this utility ep can't be ignored, especially if you want to keep your load light and your viewing simple (highly recommended for traveling astro-nuts). Note that FOV is 40 (24mm) to 55* (8mm).
- Binos Orion's workhorse 10 x 50 UltraView binos are inexpensive ($159), weigh just 32 oz. and have 6.5* FOV -- the perfect way to gulp crisp stereo star clouds in a way that few scopes can. Fall off in the outer 10% of FOV is evident in these optics, but at this price, hey, who's complainin'. For perfection you can easily drop a grand for Zeiss or Fujinon, but your stomach will somersault when your luggage turns up missing!
- Reference S&T's Messier and Caldwell Cards have most of the best in waterproofed simplicity while DeepMap 600 fills in the gaps. I got off the beaten track with Stephen O'Meara's Deep Sky Wonders, a fantastic compilation of Walter Scott Houston's observing columns. The lists of objects in this book are a gold-mine for "M13 weary" viewers.
- Incidentals I borrowed a simple folding lawn recliner (for binos) and a plastic armchair (for scope) from my dear sister-in-law which extended my viewing sessions by hours in relative comfort. Fruit, hot herbal tea, water, cookies, warm head gear, lens tissue, extra batteries, screwdriver... you know the drill.
After twilight and well after pinching myself twice to verify that I was indeed standing under a more stellar bowl of the heavens than I've ever experienced, I got down to some serious observing. As I looked around I couldn't help but be struck by the sensation that I was on a ship traveling through outer space. The Earth fell away behind me and I gaped at the overwhelming expanse, overflowing with timeless treasures of every description. Globs, nebs, planet Mars, clusters, asterisms, star clouds. Milky Way dust lanes were picture book. I almost didn't want to use any optics other than my own two 20/10 eyeballs to view that first night. My binos quickly added even more detail to the views. Messiers and NGC's like a swarm of bees.
A star alignment or two later I cranked the Sky Commander into action. Because of the supreme viewing conditions from horizon to horizon in every direction, I chose to tackle that which we RAC'ers rarely see in all their splendor, even in Summer... the southern deep sky objects. Scorpius' tail was completely visible, even a globular like NGC 6352 beneath Scorpius. And the Teapot was brewing up a cloud of steamy wonders which I soaked up like a thirsty Brit who's been locked up in solitary for a lifetime. I immediately discovered that my "little" 6 inch aperture Intes was performing like an 8" would back on the East Coast. Medium size globs like M92 (mag 6.5) actually resolved to center. Others like M2, 3, 4, 5, 13, 15, 19, 22, 28 were salt and pepper. Galaxy dust lanes in the Sombrero were visible and the arms of M51 snuck out to startle me.
With the low power 30mm ep, M31, 32 and 110 were all in the glowing FOV, the lanes and extensions on 31 just staggering. I only started to crave more aperture on the large nebulae like the Eagle, Omega and Lagoon, as a six inch just can't compete with apertures over 10" for the subtle wispy detail and extensions of those objects. But myriad, usually dim globs in Ophiuchus just shined like headlights... NGC 6284, 6293, 6342 and 6356. Bad a bing, bad a bong. Planetaries like the Ring, Large & Little Dumbell, Cats Eye, Owl, etc. came through beautifully. In these conditions, my OIII filter didn't add much to the party. In short, there was little that the scope missed and much more than many larger scopes grab in lesser (read East Coast) locations. The Intes MK67 is an all around performer. It splits doubles effortlessly, pulls in flat, contrasty, wide-field views, and is a killer planetary (f/12 remember) scope. Not surprisingly, ol' red boy Mars was as uneventful as back East, just too much atmosphere (on Earth & Mars) even here to make out much detail.
Wielding my trusty DSC and the handy maps/guides, I soared through every seasonal Messier and probably a hundred other obscure objects during those two incredible nights/12 hours. The Pleiades even showed up around 3 am for a grand finale. I stopped every hour for refreshment and another gander at the spectacle by eye, then again with the binos for perspective and identification, before returning to the mak-cass. I returned to certain objects to see if the conditions were different from my first view and usually found that views were sharper after midnight. We're talking real education here. It's like seeing the night sky for the first time. Lots of time and NO clouds, dew, trees, towns, glows, people, lights, cars, responsibilities, sounds... nothing.
I got buzzed by one or two insects, but never bitten.
Needless to say, I'm already planning my next trip out West, probably to the exact same spot. I'm in the starting stages of construction (after a year of R&D) on a portable ultra-light 12.5" f/6 motorized dob (aperture still wins), which will definitely accompany me on the next visit to Wyoming, a Grand Teton of observing locations. I own a kick-ass 11" Starmaster Zambuto dob, which I would have loved to have had along, but it isn't exactly "airline portable".
Oh yeah, Atlantic City also happens to sport a dang fine 1800's style restaurant, hearty grub for star-struck cowboys and galaxy gallopers like you and me. Save up your miles and plan for paradise. Nirvana is now when you travel with the appropriate equipment to a place like this (9.5 out of 10). It just doesn't get much better!