“Astronomers know how to party,” said my older daughter. We talked on the cell yesterday as I drove to Long Lake Conservation Center in north-central Minnesota to join the Minnesota Astronomical Society for their annual Northern Nights Star Fest. Partying astronomers are a different breed from the normal party crowd. For one, no one drinks. But we do love food, sharing stories, laughter and all the rest. Star parties are opportunities for sky lovers to escape the city lights and dig into a dark sky. And oh my, the sky was dark last night.
After a delicious dinner of ribs and cheesy potatoes, we were fortified for the night. Or at least until the “midnight snack,” the traditional time to recharge with muffins, cold cuts, hot dogs and essential coffee before tackling the wee hours before dawn. In a field dotted with several dozen telescopes, amateur astronomers quietly went to work looking for or photographing a hundred different sights we otherwise rarely see.
Cirrus clouds put the scare into us early, but they blew off, leaving the Milky Way and a host of stars to dominate. From my house, the southern Milky Way always competes with the light dome over Duluth, Minn. Here, the southern sky was untainted by artificial sky glow. I couldn’t take my eyes off of it.
Most of us worked on individual, self-assigned projects or goals. One fellow wielded a giant telescope in search of “flat” or edge-on galaxies. Another concentrated on finding instances in the sky where two deep-sky objects — star clusters, galaxies, nebulae — are paired up in the same field of view to earn his Two in the View observing certificate. Others photographed or hunted the current crop of comets including 21P/Giacobini-Zinner, recently featured here. All made the most of an exceptional sky.
I used my 15-inch to look for pretty double stars and faint galaxies near the constellation Pegasus the Flying Horse. Not to give you the impression we all just “got to work.” Sharing what you see and what you know is an essential part of attending a star party. Fellow observers would circulate and an extend an invitation to view something they were excited about in their telescopes.
“Anyone want to see the Blue Snowball Nebula?”
“I’ve got comet 29P.”
“The spiral arms in M33 are amazing.”
“We’ve got the Dumbbell Nebula in view.”
he combination of quiet and shared time with other amateurs made for a perfect evening.
When you’re outside for hours under a dark sky with no lights around except for the occasional red flashlight, your eyes become thoroughly dark-adapted, and you can see faint stars and other features of the night sky otherwise invisible. Around 12:30 a.m. I noticed a faint, diffuse patch of misty light in eastern Aquarius called the gegenschein. About a fist across, the gegenschein (GAY-gen-shyne) is a brightening within the zodiacal band, a much larger feature that extends all around the sky centered on the ecliptic, the path taken by the sun, moon and planets through the constellations of the zodiac.
I’ve seen parts of the band before, but this was longest swath I’d ever viewed. Composed of dust motes and bits of rocky grit deposited by comets and asteroids, it’s about 8° wide and very faint. Seeing it all indicates a great sky. The gegenschein portion is brighter because it lies directly opposite the sun at a place in the sky called the anti-solar point. Like a full moon, it gets full, face-on lighting from the sun, making it glow more brightly than dust illuminated “side-on.”
I invited others to look and a few saw the gegenschein and maybe the zodiacal band. Even I was a little skeptical, the reason I finally took a photo. And there it was!
Northern Night Star Fest boosted my spirits, presented the opportunity to renew my friendships with club members, and was a great way to spend a night with a bunch of wonderful and passionate people. Thanks especially to John Marchetti with the club for making me feel so welcome and for smashing up the dry ice for the comet demonstration with a big hammer!