Valentines Day @ VBO, Kavalur! Observing report - 13th Feb '10

By admin; Published 25 Oct 2010

Wow! What an event! The star party on the night of 13th February 2010 has, for everyone -- surely for me -- etched memories in our personal lives. A respectable collaboration between Professionals (Indian Institute of AstroPhysics) and Amateurs, it was one of the best and biggest star parties in South India, at Vainu Bappu Obvservatory @ Kavalur -- the people, the equipment, the observations and moreover the prestigious location! Further, what a way it was to romanticize with the Stars, prior to Valentine's Day, for us Nature Lovers! :-)

Firstly, we all would like to convey our sincere thanks to BAS member V.S.Shyam, who served a "martyr" for the trip -- he managed to obtain permission for us at the last moment, but unfortunately was not able to make it himself. The youngsters from Bangalore Astronomical Society (BAS), together with their mentors and seniors from Association of Bangalore Amateur Astronomers (ABAA), joined hands with amateur astronomers from elsewhere in Karnataka, and from Tamil Nadu.

The participants : Vivek, Akarsh, Naveen, RaviBabu, KeerthiKiran, Sunil, Kiran, Gautham & Me from BAS [Akarsh for both BAS & IIT-Madras, as with Keerthi for ABAA & BAS]. Veterans Dilip Kumar, Jayanth (President of ABAA) with son Rahul, Chandrashekar, Vijay Kumar and Naveen were from ABAA.

Students from NITk, Surathkal; Cambodge & Arinjoy. Then Balaji & Parthasarthy from Chennai and Mr. Sakthivel from Coimbatore Astronomy Association also graced the occasion. The only girl in the group Divya, a young student represented REAP (the course at B'lore J.N.Planetarium), along with 4 other boys who made it here independently. With this two-dozen-strong line-up, it's now the roll-call of the 'Windows to the Universe' - our equipment.

Akarsh's "Monster" 17.5" f/5 Discovery, no doubt was the highlight (as is always). We had BAS' 6" f/8 Dob, Vivek's 8" f/8, Keerthi's 8" f/8, Chandra's 8" GOTO SCT (which unfortunately had problems setting up, and could not be used), one 5" of Balaji. Last but not least, my 25x100 IF Oberwerk binoculars (whose views I had not imagined would create such uproar & excitement that night!)

BAS'ians reached Kavalur in a booked TempoTraveler by 4 pm, to see Akarsh and ABAA gang who reached earlier, already resting, and we joined the discussions, apart the exchange of greetings in a long time. Some of us fragmented into groups and departed for a tour of the Observatory. First stop was the 2.3-meter telescope (Asia's largest!) which is currently under maintenance. With permission, we entered inside to see the Goliath structure being painted, and the mirror removed (maybe for re-alumnizing). Some of them next headed to the 1-meter telescope [acclaimed for it's Uranus' Ring discovery way back in Jan 1977; and which I too have been most fortunate to have used myself to visually locate a comet, apart other objects! :-)].

By dusk, we all had decided to setup, naturally near the 6-inch visitor telescope, since it offered the best plausible clearance from the all-through tree and overgrowth, and there was a beautiful trimmed lawn around this white 'roll-off-the-roof observatory', welcoming us to settle. While setting up equipment in semi-darkness, we all realized that the skies overhead are turning out to be one of the most scintillating, something atypical for a place covered with clouds like Kavalur, as seen by Akarsh and Me. The cries were soon heard, and remarks that skies tonight will reach ~ 6.4 mag naked-eyes! With the darkness crawling in, we could see many stars, Mars resplendent red, and traces of broad Milky-Way.

Oh, and not to forget some of us could easily trace the orientation of Zodiacal Light, which was seeming not different in color from the background light pollution. However, it was very bright, rising till 70-degrees in altitude, conical (tapering) in shape, tipped slanted in the path of Zodiac (Pisces and into Aries then); these facts confirming it was the evening Z.L.

Within sometime, for rest of the night, Akarsh's "monster" was obviously thronging with a crowd, for views of Andromeda Galaxy, Orion Nebula, M109 galaxy, and M79 globular appearing resolved. No doubt, people were fascinated by the details they saw in it; like 2 spiral arms of M33 galaxy with the emission knot NGC 604 (a feature within the grand galaxy), both the 'Eyes' of Owl Nebula, Horse-Head Nebula barely visible and the dark lane of Cigar galaxy.

The BAS 6" was being used for observing random objects like clusters, nebulae and bright galaxies. Chandrashekar on the other-hand, was battling with his GOTO which was refusing to setup. However, Me with Mr Dilip and Jayanth were getting all avid to observe with my 25x100 (and I had made up my mind this night I would use, and only use this). Everyone kept themselves fruitfully busy, either observing or imaging.

The skies were crisp until now. After everyone relished dinner, we were little disheartened to learn of skies tending to degrade, and dew forming on equipment! The sky background also had brightened due to upper-atmosphere haze. This continued on till midnight, still never damping the spirits of us well-versed-to-be-patient astronomers. We resumed observing with all our equipment, 6-inches, 8-inches, 17-inch and my large binocs. The skies began to improve by midnight and oscillated between good and mediocre for a while.

It is not possible to list the plethora of objects that everyone saw, from their individual equipment in entirety. However, here is a selection of the best:

OMEGA CENTAURI (NGC 5139) - Are there words readily available to describe this unfathomable view, especially when your light-bucket is a Seventeen-Incher?! It looked like one huge cotton fuzz-ball, with atleast 500-countable sugar grains sprinkled all over, and each one resolvable! You go beyond ' oooh & aaah ' when witnessing one of the numero-uno objects in the night sky!

ETA CARINA (NGC 3372) - Well, I do not know what has overtaken me after witnessing this one object through my binoculars mounted on a tripod. I was shaken, stirred and rendered speechless (for sometime even more than the above mentioned globular!). The ' oooh's & aaah's ' that everyone else uttered also must have etched a visual inscription in everyone's minds.

Large wide-field binoculars have their command in a scene like this - a starry-field in the blackness of background, with the expansive nebula with it's wisps and extents really fascinating in the wide-field, giving a contrasty view. A ditto gray-scale version of a great amateur photo!

WHIRLPOOL GALAXY (M51) - Aperture power does it here. The galaxy is clearly split into pretty faint 1 or 2 widely-spaced spiral arms. The mass-transfer arm to it's companion galaxy is well seen, and so is the single star below the core of M51 (also seen in pictures) faking a visual super-nova!

SOMBRERO GALAXY (M104) - A 3-dimensional scape with its central cutting dust lane, actually giving an eerie feeling of a distant system of trillions of suns floating out into the depths of space! It was like the Hubble image of the object glowing in the eyepiece.

Oh we stumbled upon the faint NGC 4945 galaxy in Centaurus when pointed the scope with the Telrad finderscope-not-in-place. This was good to know my eyes still sensed faint objects when in movement.

Yes, and I even managed to show the crowd a nice 9th magnitude (medium-bright) tailed comet called 81/P Wild-2, in Virgo and not far from Spica. I was on to my second comet, one in yet another outburst, 29/P Schwassmann_Wachmann-1. After managing graciously to nail it down with my large binoculars (my visual observing experience did prove worthwhile here, in locating the difficult 10.5 mag fuzz) I was only waiting to have a confirmation at it through the "monster".

As the Nature's timing of our observing session would have it, in less than 2 minutes we had over-head, then ground fog! In the next couple of minutes by 3 am, it was all abruptly and forcibly over! :-(

What could we do? Some retired back to the rooms, some vehicles, and some of us decided to setup a "refugee camp" right there, amidst ground-fog and dew, and called it a night. The morning sunlight had a hard time making through to the ground. By 7am, everyone was nearly making their way out when the fog also started dissipating. We sat adjacent to the 6-inch roll-off-the-roof and had a good chat, pre-breakfast. Mr Dilip was recalling nostalgia, like of how dark the Kavalur skies were back in 1982! We ended up discussing which exotic location our next alliance star-party in March New-Moon should be?

After breakfast, it was time to unload the equipment, in the meanwhile of which, Akarsh and Me had a quick re-visit with our acquainted, former resident telescope-operator Mr. K. Kuppuswamy, the co-discoverer of Uranus' Rings (yes, with the same 1-metre telescope there, back in 1977)!

Later, all done, it was time to move, and we all had to bid adieu with a heavy heart, at the exalting experience we were blessed with.

Links from Members' Albums:

1) Akarsh -
2) Keerthi Kiran -
3) Balaji -
4) Kiran -

5) Gautham -
6) Ravi Babu -