'Oh What A Night!' ... Monday 13th February 2023
Added at 10:00 on 18 February 2023
Monday the thirteenth of February 2023 and there was that faint but unmistakable hint that spring was on the horizon, crocuses were flowering, daffodil shoots a foot tall, and the 'kleep-kleep of oystercatchers at dusk. The Sun had shone in a cloudless powder-blue sky all day and the evening saw me loading all my telescopes and cameras into the boot of the car for a night at the observatory. Over my shoulder in the south west hung Venus and Jupiter blazing out of the twilight, jewel-like in their brilliance. A quick mental check that I had everything and I jumped in the car and headed for Culloden.
Paul and Gerry were already there when I arrived and were in the process of assembling their equipment, Paul with his eight inch Newtonian and Gerry with his 'favourite' six inch Celestron Cassegrain. Eric, who arrived a few minutes later, had a very sophosticated refractor and computer system but unfortunately he just couldn't get it adequately aligned on the night. I had brought my eight inch Newtonian, a William-Optics Zenit 70mm and an I-Optron tracker with a DSLR camera and 105mm lens.
Soon after, the 'crowds' started to arrive and before long an eager throng of astronomers were huddled in groups around the waiting telescopes all keen to get a look at the now fading comet E3ZTF. I located it quickly with my eight inch reflector and a veritable line formed behind the eye-piece! Literally everyone there had a look at the comet, something which none of us will ever see again as it is now speeding out into the vast depths of the solar system and won't return for 50,000 years. It was a magical moment, young and old braving the cold to look at the wonders that the night sky has to offer just as people have done so many thousands of years into the past, sights that never jade and will always inspire the awe and mystery that is our universe.
The camera rig recorded the comet problably for the last time now as it will be too faint to see in the coming days and, as we all know , the skies are rarely as pure and clear as they were on this occasion.
Of course the comet was not the only thing we looked at, the sky was so clear and all the constellations of early spring were arrayed in a boundless dome above us so we used the power of our combined telescopes to search out the faint and the 'fuzzy' alongh the sho witw-stoppers like the great Orion nebula . We attached a contrast filter to an eight inch reflector and pointed it at M42 in Orion; you could almost hear the sound of jaws hitting the ground as folks took turns to look at this cave of gossamer and light . No photograph yet taken will compare with the sight of the Orion nebula when viewed through a telescope, the contrast between the illuminated cloud and the inscrutible darkness of the core is something that can only be witnessed with the human eye alone.
Eric took our members & visitors for a purely visual tour of the night sky, pointing out constellations, asterisms, stars, clusters, and planets, with his trusty laser pointer. The Club's winter targets such as the Winter Hexagon & Triangle, Plaeides, Hyades, Cassiopeia, Perseus, Auriga, Gemini, Orion, the 'Belt Stars', M42, Mars, Jupiter, Venus, and many, many more were eagerly consumed by the enthusiastic onlookers.
As the night wore on we saw many of the night-sky favourites including M1 , M109, M36 and 37, M51, and more besides, Alcor and Mizer the double star and Paul, remarkably, managed to find the companion star of Rigel ! (I saw it too with his telescope ) so he was not 'just seeing things'!
There is little doubt in my mind,and others, that our last club meeting with it's new formula of 'practical and beginner' astronomy helped to swell the number of visitors to the observatory on Monday evening, people were there who had brought their own telescopes and as Eric pointed out at one stage, were it not for the help and advice available on site that they would likely be advertising them for sale next week! ... an exaggeration perhaps but in principle quite true. It seemed ,to me at least, that everyone that was there got just what they individually wanted; advice where it was needed, a guide to find things among the myriad of stars, or simply a chance to look and wonder.
By half past nine or so a bit of haze was forming in the sky, it was getting cold and damp and that signaled the time was right for packing up for home. It had been an amazing night and made so much better by having so many people there, to see parents holding their children up to look into the telescopes, to see people using their new equipment and overcoming the ubiquitous hurdles that comes with that and, above all, to be in company with so many like-minded folk under the stars. I sincerely hope to be doing this again soon !