Skywatch with Bill Irwin – Fall 2019

The Bells Lake Observatory is about 600 ft from our home. Behind the observatory and to the sides are forested or hay meadows. Bells Lake is 200 ft to the east. It is usually very quiet here, except for birds rustling along the shore. When you add the night sky and the vastness of space to that… well, I warned you.

There are two parts to the observatory: the observing deck and the warm room. The roof over the observing deck is a light welded framework with green tinted polycarbonate panels like you find in greenhouses. It is fairly easy to lift one end and roll it back on tracks over the warm room. The walls fold down to about hip height and, voilà, inside has become outside.

Two telescopes sit on piers that are isolated from the floor, so you could jump up and down and not disturb the image.

An observatory has its main orientation to the south, because the stars rise in the east, culminate due south, and set in the west. You get a brief chance to see the southernmost stars in constellations such as Scorpius and Sagittarius. The tail of the Scorpion is below the horizon, but the stinger is visible from our latitude. Sagittarius actually looks like a teapot, complete with steam coming from its spout. The star clouds are dense in this region, looking towards the galactic centre.

As the season rolls on, the warm room makes it possible to stay out longer and be comfortable. Over the course of a few hours, the stars move on and new things rise in the east. It gets even darker and cooler. Having a warm space only a few feet from the scope makes observing into the cold season possible without needing Arctic gear. The telescopes have to be at outside temp due to thermal air currents disturbing the image. Even a person walking in front of the scope will make the image go fuzzy due to body heat. When my cat climbed into the reflector tube onto my mirror, it was worse than that!

As fall progresses, you will see the Pleiades rising by the end of the session—certainly the most famous of the galactic open clusters. Towards morning you will see Orion and, finally, Sirius, the brightest star, in Canis Major, the big dog.

The stars move on towards the west as days pass due to Earth’s revolution around the Sun, but the time that it gets dark is also a bit earlier each night this time of year. As a result the summer stars, such as the famous summer triangle, tend to stay around until late fall.

A pair of good binoculars in dark Cariboo skies can show an amazing amount of stars especially when you sweep the Milky Way. Many faint fuzzies are visible, which you can later examine with a telescope.

Although it wasn’t completely dark last night, we observed the crescent moon, Jupiter, and Saturn. Even though the objects were low in the South, the air was steady and the detail in my refractor telescope was stunning. The shadows along the lunar terminator, the dark/light boundary, are at their greatest and the craters have real depth. At full moon, it is possible to examine the maria, or lunar “seas”, and the prominent craters, but the contrast is lower. There is always something to look at.

Jupiter and Saturn will continue to be highly visible in the south as fall sets in. A good spotting scope will show the moons of big Jupe and how they change positions nightly. There are few things more thrilling than seeing that Saturn actually has rings, even though you already know that and have seen it a million times in magazines and TV documentaries. Like seeing the moon for the first time in a scope with really good optics, there really is nothing quite like it.’

Amateur astronomy does require some dedication. Things like the brightness of the moon, crummy weather, and having to go to work discourage the forming of the habit. But when it’s good, it’s good. Your mind is lifted off the Earth and something changes. Some of the views at the star parties in those really big scopes you have to go up a fruit ladder to look in are never forgotten.

For more info about the Bells Lake Observatory near Horsefly, BC, I can be reached at irwin8sound@gmail.com.

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