Astronomy, Interrupted

Tonight started out with grand plans.

After my recent successful observation of HS 0624+6907 from my backyard, I felt bolstered, and eager to try my hand at more urban quasars besides 3C 273 and BL Lacertae. So as darkness began to fall tonight across the finally-clear sky, I set out the 12″ to cool, and started a cursory search for the brightest quasars that would be up this evening. There was 3C 273, of course, though being in Virgo it would be difficult on this particular evening, rising in a light dome. 4U 0241+61 piqued my attention quite a bit, as it’s listed at magnitude 12.2, even brighter than 3C 273; I suppose 3C 273 retains the “brightest quasar” title since 4U 0241+61 is technically a Seyfert (though I have yet to learn much about the distinction). A couple other bright AGN caught my eye as potentially observable, and I made mental notes of them: S5 0716+714 and Q1101+0384.

After it was pretty much fully dark, I went outside (for some reason, I rarely observe during twilight when I’m at home). I decided to start off with another target that had interested me earlier today: T Cancri. The latest edition of the T.A.S. Spectrum included an observing report which stated that it was “almost blood-red”, even better than R Leporis- now this, I had to see! I figured that by observing it in the city, I could get a more colorful impression- everything looks far more colorful in the city- and hitting it as the first object of the night might better harness my color vision, before I got too dark adapted.

I thought I remembered the location on the chart pretty well, so I loaded it up in SkyTools but chose not to look at the chart, and instead went straight to the finder. I was able to see Delta Cnc with the naked eye, and once there in the finder scope, I started to study the area across from the Beehive. Slowly panning around, I figured that a star this red should jump out at me, and what do you know- after only a minute of looking, one star was definitely standing out to me as “very orange”. I centered it as best as I could- I hadn’t aligned the finderscope yet- and put in the Ethos 13mm. It took a bit of panning, but after one false start (“that’s just yellowish!”), I found the star in question. Man, was it deeply colored- just not red! It appeared a deep, burnt orange… very nice, but after reading “better than R Lep” and “blood-red”, somewhat disappointing.

I thought it best to check the chart to make sure I had the right object, and, well, there’s your problem: it was not T Cancri at all! Rather, I seemed to be gazing at X Cancri. The constellation of Cancer, as I am coming to find out, is full of colorful stars! I identified the correct location of T Cancri, and with a bit of difficulty, was able to sweep up the field. As it turns out, T Cancri is considerably dimmer, invisible in the finder scope and faint in the eyepiece. But when I found it, there was no mistaking it- and red it was indeed! Well, redd-ish; it still had a lot of orange, but was definitely among the most intensely colored stars I’ve ever seen. I didn’t have R Lep or Mu Cep handy to compare, but I bet this would put up a good fight against them.

Somewhere along the way, when I first checked out X Cnc, I tried upping the power to test the seeing. First I put in the 7mm Seibert that I’m borrowing from a friend; it gave nicely small star images so I upped the power drastically with a 4mm Plössl and a 2x barlow. Perhaps predictably, I totally lost X Cnc, and wound up having to slew over to Sirius to focus! And /wow/, is Sirius eye-searing, even when greatly defocused in a 2mm eyepiece. Luckily, I was using my non-dominant eye. Not a hint of the pup; and the seeing was positively swimming, with the star images gigantic and bloated (in contrast to the smaller than usual star images of the Siebert). And because I just love getting lost in rabbit holes, I slewed over to Castor to see what kind of test that is for the seeing. (I’ve only looked once, maybe twice before.)

I discovered that in a 12″, Castor isn’t much of a fair test. Despite the bad seeing (never a hint of an airy disk, and strong flickers naked-eye), the split was easy, with the star separated by about 0.8x the “star image diameter”. Based on that, I estimate the star image diameter as 1.66″ and the visible black between them as 1.33″. One component appeared a bit yellower than the other, but I didn’t spend much time on it.

Somewhere along in here, I found myself trying to pick out stars in the region of Cancer, so I stopped to make a naked eye sketch. Several times before the sketch, I got convincing pops of faint stars, but they were gone by the time I had the paper and pen ready, and I couldn’t tease them out again. I wound up only recording three stars; Delta Cnc, Gamma Cnc, and Alpha Cnc. (And while writing this here and now is where I find out that the star that I called “Alpha Cnc” in all of my logs tonight was actually Delta. Oops!)

I hadn’t yet logged the carbon stars, so I spent some time trying to reacquire them, but I wound up getting impatient to move on to something deeper and decided to log them from memory. I wanted to hurry up and move on to some galaxies to use as examples for my novice presentation stating that yes, you really can see galaxies from the city, they’re just hard. Just as I was starting to log the carbon stars, I heard a familiar sound.

So, let me go ahead and talk about how my quasar observing went. Simply, not well. I started writing this post before 11pm tonight, a lot earlier than I would have liked. See… I forgot that it was mosquito season.

I was just beginning the log when that familiar whine filled the air…. no, not a helicopter-sized mosquito, but a sprayer truck. One of the things that I loathe most about my location in the NW Houston area is that we have mosquito sprayers that come through at night during the warm months of the year. When I hear that noise in the distance, leisurely starhopping turns into “how fast can I run while carrying a telescope”. I’m actually pretty impressed with myself; this time I managed to get the 12″ dob, the laptop, the sketch materials, both containers of eyepieces, the finderscope box, the miscellania, and the dog inside in about three minutes, along with putting up the table, observing mat, and extension cord in their spots outside. I don’t think I have to worry about having missed my cardio today! My poor canine observing buddy looked quite confused as I repeatedly sprinted my way in and out of the house.

And in the end… it’s a terrible dejected feeling that I have after having to suddenly cut an observing session short like that. This is not the first time it’s happened by a long shot, and it hurts every time. But I would not feel comfortable staying outside after the mosquito truck comes through. I’ve always been an overthinker; cautious to the point of paranoia. It’s not that I think the stuff they spray will actually hurt me… I recognize, logically, that the chances are slim to none. My grandma used to talk about how she and the neighborhood kids would run along behind the mosquito truck and play in the mist, and that was back when it was worse than it is now. But then, she died of cancer.

I used to have nightmares about mosquito poison; wading through it knee-deep as literal bucketfulls are dumped from above, like some kind of sick splash park. And everyone else would just go about their daily lives; I was the only one who saw anything wrong.

Maybe what gets me is the lack of control. I know that it won’t hurt me, but I still can’t stop them from spraying it on me. It’s the “what if”, what if it did hurt me, could I even do anything to stop them? I’m forced to live in a place that’s suffused with the stuff, whether I like it or not.

Plus, who knows what it does to optics. I’m not going to find out.

In the immortal words of Uncle Rod,

“You can’t win ’em all.”

Just like how you take what you’re given and make the best of it. In this case, combusting lemons didn’t seem like the right answer, so I came back inside and wrote this, and played Minecraft with my brother.

It might be a less-than-great ending to a less-than-great day, but in the end I got a few more observations, a few more memories. And I sure haven’t given up on those quasars yet!

I think I’ll call the city to find out the sprayer schedule.

Clear Skies,
Lauren Herrington
(P.S.: Guess who’s completed 1/13,529,400th of her 230Myr journey around the galaxy? Oh yeah!)

[Editor’s note: This post was back-dated to the date on which it was written, rather than the date on which it was published.]

One Response to Astronomy, Interrupted

  1. EdF June 26, 2018 at 9:15 pm #

    A very enjoyable read!
    The astronomy is interesting, your personality comes through with great clarity. You know it is a good story when I can picture myself standing at the scene chuckling at the scurrying around to avoid the chemical bombardment. I am a reader so I hope there are more stories to come.

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