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Spectacular Silent Nights - Sep. 6/7

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Posted by Glenn Muller on September 21, 2002 12:18:05 UTC

Here is a report I submitted for our club's newsletter:

SPECTACULAR SILENT NIGHTS!

We hadn't expected a fire drill Saturday night; so when Grant yelled "Glenn. Gail. There's an aurora happening!" I was only half-way into my long johns. Seven of us had made the trip to Silent Lake Provincial Park, the weekend of Sept. 6/7/8, and the dark skies were proving to be all that Stewart Attelsey had promised. The first night, Friday, we were actually able to detect the large but faint galaxy M33 with naked eye averted vision.
Twenty kilometres south of Bancroft, the park's wooded campsites provided enough shade throughout the day for sleeping, and comfort stations with washers, dryers, showers and ice provided for those other necessities. The parking lot we used for observing overlooked the lake, and although most of the immediate horizon is blocked by trees there was such a plethora of stars overhead, the difficulty was in deciding where to start. For Gail and I, this was settled by the appearance of Ann Milovsoroff. Not having viewed the Cosmos through a telescope before, once our 6" dob was ready to go, she got a newbies tour of Albireo, M13, M31, M57, M29, Herschel’s Garnet Star and NGC’s 869 & 884 - the Perseus Double Cluster. We expounded as best we could but I was happy when Grant Dixon arrived to really flesh out what she'd seen through the Pentax 21mm eyepiece.
Ann had been urged to join us by her friend and co-worker, Margaret Walton, and while waiting for us to show up had already seen eight or nine meteors. We saw several more that night and, later, Gail found an article in the September issue of S&T (page 86) that listed a few minor showers for this period.
Using The Night Sky Observer's Guide and Cartes Du Ciel software, my observing plan covered several patches of sky. This was just as well since Sagittarius was obscured by trees and Ursa Major was partially washed-out by what could have been a precursor to the next night's display. Still, before Stewart arrived with his 20" Obsession, I managed to add to our log small globular M56, open cluster NGC 752 and galaxy NGC 5907.
By midnight, Capella was up and the Pleiades appeared for an inventory count. Without magnification I was able to spot seven stars but others got as high as eleven. When we saw Aldebaran, however, we knew Saturn wouldn't be far behind. Sure enough, by two o'clock, the ringed wonder cleared the tree line and I could make out Cassini's division and the planet's shadow on the rings with a 7mm eyepiece (171x).
Cindy Bingham had called to say she was on Hwy 115, so we continued observing. When she finally arrived, about three a.m., the site was so dark that she circled us without spotting our location. We caught her before she made the exit, a good move since she'd brought REALLY fresh doughnuts! Sugar-charged, we trekked over to the lake where Orion could now be seen reclining. With Castor and Pollux popping up we might have waited for Jupiter only, by four-fifteen, our equipment was dripping with dew and since we were tired we made the decision to head back to camp.
The park was fully-booked but our neighbours were no more annoying in the morning than we probably had been earlier (slamming car doors in the wee hours), so we got enough sleep. Grant and Doreen had brought their canoe so went off to explore the lake - which turned out to be three lakes; Cindy and Stewart had to go into Bancroft for food; and we would have visited Ann but unable to remember which site she was contented ourselves with a couple of books in the shade. Glad we did as a red-shouldered hawk landed on a branch not ten feet from our chairs. Apart from a doe and a couple of chipmunks, this was the tally of our wildlife spotting. I didn't mind at all, having been invaded by raccoons and squirrels often enough for that particular novelty to have worn off. AND thanks to the drought the camp was virtually bug-free!
Anyway, you probably want to know about the aurora.
We were sitting around Stewart's camp while he made clam chowder - not drooling only because we'd already eaten. Through a hole in the forest canopy I could see Vega, and thinking that Ann might be waiting at the parking lot, Gail and I decided to get our warm clothes on and head over. We were changing in our tent when Stewart looked up and wondered why the sky was getting lighter instead of darker. The sound of revving engines and Grant's call to arms told us all we needed to know, and within minutes we had seats in the orchestra pit for the most concerted display of Northern Lights I've ever seen. Obviously, descriptions fail to do justice; suffice it to say that from a bright blue northern horizon rose great cathedrals of light, shimmering with white, red, and green bars, and giant "angels" materialized near the zenith. There were two shows that night, each lasting about forty five minutes yet, in between, I still managed to bag clusters M30, M72, M73, NGC 7009 - The Saturn Nebula, small, blue, planetary nebula NGC 7662 and a small, nearly edge-on, spiral galaxy in Pegasus – NGC 7331.
Overall, I would rate the skies as better than Starfest - even without the Teapot - though we felt it unfortunate that so few people were able to make the trip. The drive through Toronto was thankfully unimpeded, but Gail and I would return any time.

Glenn

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