Refractor Red Meets a Newcomer

1998 May 23

My date for the 23 May 1998 star party at Fremont Peak State Park, near San Juan Bautista, California, had a modest interest in astronomy, and a respectable lay background in it from reading and educational TV. I was eager to make sure her first experience with telescopes was neither boring, chilling, nor tiring. My first step was advance encouragement to bring plenty of layers of warm clothing. Fortunately, she complied.

Fronts and fog made the weather iffy, so I had loaded both buckshot and birdshot -- I packed my Meade 5-inch f/9 ED refractor and my Vixen 55 mm f/8 fluorite refractor. We used only the latter instrument. If I do say so myself, the little fluorite was resplendent, freshly refinished in day-glow red and gloss black: I call it "Refractor Red", with due apologies to paleontologist Robert Bakker and to any sickle-clawed predators whom I may have the uncommon fortune to meet. It drew the appropriate razzing from fellow observers, once they had donned sunglasses, partially covered their eyes, or simply backed off a few tens of meters, and could see what was causing all the glare.

The evening began with pretty solid fog, but by the end of the slide show and talk about the history of Fremont Peak Observatory, well delivered in the newly-renovated building by former ranger Rick Morales, the marine layer had settled. We went back to the southwest parking lot and set up the Vixen.

Rick had showed slides of several objects that were well-placed, and that, together with my date's prior knowledge of astronomy -- she particularly remembered the "Cosmos" TV series -- provided a lead-in to the night's observing. I started with a bright star -- Capella -- not too far up the sky, so she could learn to focus the telescope in a comfortable position. It can take beginners quite a while to learn this fundamental skill. Fortunately, my date was a registered nurse, and very familiar with fancy medical equipment: She showed none of the fear of turning knobs that sometimes bothers strangers to telescopes.

In due course she had a reasonable focus, and remarked that the star had moved a bit. At only 37x (12 mm Brandon eyepiece), it had been available for several minutes, but she understood at once when I reminded her that the Earth was rotating, and when I said, "see what that knob does" (the mount was a late-model Vixen altazimuth, with controls on flexible shafts), she immediately discovered that it moved the telescope up and down, thus allowing her to recenter Capella. "What does the other one do," she asked, "move it sideways?" Bingo!

Having shown that stars come singly, the next step was a double. I was going to use Polaris, since it doesn't move very rapidly as the Earth rotates, but there was enough haze to make it difficult, even at 110x, so I put the 12 mm Brandon back in and located Mizar. "Don't you have an observing chair?" she asked, as her knees hit the hard pavement -- Mizar was crossing the meridian not far north of the zenith. I did, but it was buried in the car, under the 5-inch. Anyhow, Mizar and its companion, and Alcor, provided a proof of the existence, and a hint of the complexity, of binaries. She remarked that the star did not seem to stay in focus -- it would be sharp for a few seconds, then blur out. I correctly figured out and explained that she did not have the focus set right: Her eye was straining to accommodate, and succeeding for a while, then failing when the muscles tired. She refocused, and seemed to have no further difficulty.

How about stars in bulk? The Beehive was well placed, and provided a good view of a star cluster with bright members. It more than spanned the 37x field, so I had her compare the view through the finder -- and incidentally explained what it was for -- and also pointed out the naked-eye fuzzy patch that was the same object. Then I moved the telescope to nearby M67, for a view that showed the shape of the smaller cluster as well as some of the resolved stars.

If M8 or M42 had been up, I would next have shown a region of star formation, with both newborn stars and some of the dust and gas from which they had originated, but no such luck. So I next pointed the Vixen to M13, part way up the eastern sky. At only 37x, it wasn't showing any more than a hint of graininess, but she understood the analogy of a swarm of stars, like a swarm of bees, the more so because Rick had shown a slide of the object.

We talked about the difference in number of stars, location, and likely age, between galactic and globular clusters, and I next dialed up a galaxy, M104. The little Vixen was too small for a really spectacular view, but I introduced the notion of averted vision, and she -- a nurse, remember -- immediately understood about the differing capabilities of rods and cones, and was able to detect the elongation of the galaxy. She commented that it took conscious effort not to look directly at a subject of attention; that is another thing beginners have to learn. Then I pointed the telescope at the heart of the Virgo galaxy cluster -- Rick had shown a slide of a more distant galaxy cluster -- and got M84 and M86 into the same field. She was able to hold both galaxies, and also nearby M87, when I moved the telescope to it. I was pleased to note that I could hold several other galaxies in the M84/M86 field at 37x in the 55 mm fluorite: The first two galaxies in Markarian's chain, NGC 4435 and 4438, were direct-vision objects for me, and I could also hold NGC 4387 and 4388 steady with averted vision. My date wasn't sure about the Markarian's chain galaxies, so I didn't mention the other two, so as not to discourage her.

Lyra had cleared the tree tops, and there had been a slide of M57 in the talk, so I found the Ring Nebula. Its high surface brightness permitted a greater magnification, and I wanted to be sure she saw the ring, so I put in 110x (8 mm Brandon and 2x Celestron Ultima Barlow). She was indeed able to see the small doughnut.

We also borrowed a look at M96 and its supernova SN1998bu, through a nearby 10-inch Newtonian. The supernova was apparent at 40x, and more so at 112x. My date knew enough to understand what she was seeing, and that it was a rare sight. Later, she asked some quite solid questions about the different kinds of nucleosynthesis that lead to a supernova and happen within it.

Then we put the Vixen away. After a coffee break, we walked back over toward the observatory building, hoping for a look through some of the larger equipment there. Unhappily, we arrived as the fog did, so we just chatted a while, and then left.

All in all, it was a successful night, both for the newcomer and for Refractor Red.

Jay Reynolds Freeman; 1998 May 25