Observing Through 60 Inches
Nothing prepares you properly for your first look at or through a big telescope. We drove to Pasadena and up into the
San Gabriel mountains during the January 2002 new moon weekend. Our destination was the historic 60-inch telescope at Mount
Wilson. Our hosts for the weekend were the Los Angeles Sidewalk Astronomers, who usually set up their homemade reflectors
outside the dome for public star parties.
This weekend they arrived without telescopes, and spent Friday and Saturday
night peering through the eyepiece of the 60-inch telescope instead. I could write an entire article about the the history
of Mount Wilson, the mirrors and telescopes, the current research using adaptive optics with the 100-inch Hooker telescope,
but you can read that yourselves if you are interested. Here is the website for Mt. Wilson Observatory and the Mount Wilson
Observatory Association http://www.mtwilson.edu/General/ for your telescope and history fix.
Before dark, I made sure
to walk by the famous storage lockers. One square foot in size each, a wall of three rows of four lockers bore the names of
some of the famous Mount Wilson astronomers: Minkowski, Zwicky and Hubble, to name but a few. An old phone list on the bulletin
board lists Halton "Chip" Arp, next to one of the many black rotary telephones.
The telescope operator and
Mount Wilson Observatory Association docents have a list of target objects that show well in the 60-inch f/16 telescope. And
in-between objects they tell tales, give telescope and observatory history, and answer any questions you may have. The upper
cage had been removed and the telescope was in its cassegrain configuration for the star party.
With a group of 25
people, it takes about an hour for everyone to view one object. As with most group star parties, many of the participants
seemed to poop out by midnight or so, which meant they had only looked at about 5 objects. After midnight, with a smaller
crowd, we were able to move through objects more quickly, and for those of us who stayed until 5:00 a.m. that meant we got
plenty of observing time. The conditions on the two nights at latitude 118 degrees 3.6 minutes west, longitude 34 degrees
13.0 minutes north were not too bad. The sky brightness at Mount Wilson from Los Angeles is approximately equal to the sky
brightness from the full moon, and the seeing ranged from good to poor. Even so, we had some spectacular views of some amazing
Our first observation on the first night was the blue and yellow double star, iota Triangulum. Next was Saturn,
with six moons (even Mimas) visible and a large brown oval storm on the north equatorial band. The storm was as big or bigger
than the red spot of Jupiter. And speaking of that other big planet, Jupiter's red spot was near the central meridian
too early for observing on the first night, but we went back to it the second night at about 1:00 a.m. and got a real treat!
The red spot hollow sported a black dot of moon shadow near where a tear duct would appear on a drawing of an eye. Right next
to the shadow of the moon, I saw the round beige disk of Europa. The red spot itself was nearly invisible, a washed out faint
pink oval. All belts and zones, including the faint equatorial band were visible. The four of us who were sketching were busy
getting looks at the planets, and then comparing drawings.
Other highlights (for me, at least) were IC418 in Lepus
(the red planetary), Eskimo NGC2392 in Gemini, and Ghost of Jupiter NGC3242 in Hydra at about 800 power. It looked like a
Hubble Photo! The trapezium and surrounding nebula in M42 was spectacular. I was able to see the G star inside the trapezium,
and the telescope operator told me it is not unusual on a sub arc-second night to see a dozen stars inside the trapezium through
this telescope! He also told me that spring and summer are the best observing months, with steady air, and that January is
pretty dismal. NGC3115 needle galaxy in Sextans was one of the few high-surface brightness galaxies we attempted to view,
the other being the Sombrero Galaxy, M104, in Corvus.
But the absolute highlight for me was to clearly see the jet
in M-87. It looked like blobs of material, a string of clumpy clusters, forming a pipe of hydrogen blowing off the elliptical
galaxy and pointing at 9:30 in our eyepiece view at 220 and 440 power. The x-ray images we see of this object do not do justice
to the visual observations. All pictures I have ever seen of the jet show the galaxy overexposed as a bright oval with no
detail and the jet appears outside the oval, almost like a nearby companion cluster or small galaxy. The 60 inches of light
gathering power, and the 50 mm eyepiece view for 440 power, showed the jet forming within the galaxy itself. It was worth
the trip to the southland just to see this object with my own eyes!
Speaking of quasars, we also observed magnitude
17 Q957 +561 A and B, the variable double quasar in Ursa Major. This "double" quasar is the first example found
that demonstrates Einstein's prediction of gravitational lensing. This is a single quasar that has two nearly identical
images caused by the gravitational effect of an (unseen) intervening galaxy. Here's a picture of the quasar and the galaxy,
compliments of the Hubble Space Telescope. http://www.astr.ua.edu/keel/agn/q0957.html
We also observed our nearest
quasar, only 2 billion light-years away, magnitude 12.8 3C273 in Virgo. The strange name "3C273" comes from a radio
survey that detected many strong radio sources in the sky such as this quasar. Not only do these objects emit prodigous amounts
of energy (more than 100 times an ordinary galaxy), they also change in brightness on very small timescales.
on our first night, we walked over to the 100-inch Hooker telescope, and got to stand outside on the catwalk as the dome rotated.
We got a cook's tour (thanks to a friend who is the telescope operator on the 100-inch adaptive optics system), and then
went into the control room, the shop, saw where the 100-inch gets bathed and realuminized, and then, back to the 9-inch thick,
1900-pound 60-inch mirror, for more peeks into the past.
A night on Mount Wilson isn't your typical star party,
and although a deep sky observer may get antsy waiting for a telescope operator to cycle through the crowd to the next object,
it was a deeply satisfying new moon observing weekend. I wonder what Mr. Hubble stored in his locker on those observing nights