December 11, 2019

Extreme Observing: Challenges on the Edge

Astronomy is a life long pursuit. The universe and time are so vast, I have yet to meet someone who has truly seen it all, even from our sometimes beleaguered vantage point here on Earth. Some targets, like Saturn or the ring nebula, are never tiring to look at. However, as I rack up the years of observing, I find it fun and refreshing to push my skills to the edge. Call it Extreme Astronomy, a sport of sorts. Popular Messier marathons are in this vein. I find that this kind of pursuit can sharpen my skills and hone my knowledge. While I never tire of showing folks Andromeda during public observing, it can be fun to aim at a lesser known object that no one else at the star party has in the eyepiece. Anyhow, below are my top 12… some I’ve seen, some I’ve attempted, and some I know of but have yet try. I’ve tried to keep things as “visual” as possible (i.e. telescope only!), but technology can present is own challenges as well. After all, I’d hate to think I’ve finally seen everything!
1. The moons of Mars- At around 15th magnitude, the bashful moons of Phobos and Diemos are usually swamped in the glare of Mars around opposition. Sky and Telescope usually prints a finder chart around this time, and a occultation bar eyepiece is handy to block the glare of the Red Planet.
2. Gegenschein- Absolutely pristine dark skies are a must for this one! This is a faint counter glow that occurs in the night sky opposite to the sun.
3. Einsteins’ Cross- The allure of seeing the effects of gravitational lensing with your own eyes is compelling. I’ve heard of this being spotted with the 51″ telescope at the Steward Observatory outside of Tucson; instruments down to 18″ would still have a chance. Located in the constellation Pegasus, the foreground galaxy PGC 69457 shines at magnitude +14. An excellent link for locating it is:

http://www.skyhound.com/sh/archive/sep/Q2237+0305A.html

4. Sirius B- This is probably the supreme double star challenge and ironically, one of the most well known! Again, the main problem is sighting the faint white dwarf in the blazing glare of its primary. Sirius B is currently at a separation of 7″ arc seconds and on its way towards its farthest separation of about 10″ at apastron in 2025; then it begins its long fall back in its 50 year orbit to periastron at 3″ in 2046. When will you first spot it?
5. The Central Star of M57- Sure, everyone has seen the ring nebula… but have you visually sighted its faint 14th magnitude central star?
6. Saturn thru the Rings- A good visual challenge when the rings are tilted wide open. It is possible, though difficult, to sight the limb of the planetary disc through the Cassini division in its rings. Few have been successful in this high power challenge.
7. Daytime Planets & Stars- One of my favorites. Venus is cool to see in the daylight; I’ve also managed to see Jupiter and Mars at opposition shortly before local sunset. Again, pristine skies, beforehand knowledge of a landmark the object may be near, like a tower or flag pole also helps. Occulting the sun with a foreground object like a peak of a roof or drifting clouds can increase chances of success. Finally, a close conjunction of the moon with a daytime star or planet can “lead” you to your quarry.
8. Venus at inferior conjuction- No, I’m not talking about a transit of Venus… this one is only possible at extreme northern lattitudes, like a place that the sun doesn’t or barely clears the horizon in the winter. I once accomplished this unusual feat from North Pole Alaska at a latitude of 64N 45′ in January of 1998. The sun was just below the horizon, and Venus was about 5 degrees above it.
9. Aurora Borealis- Easy to spot, but suprisingly few have seen this ghostly apparition. This is one of my favorite sky sights; a good aurora can cast shadows on the ground. Visible only a handful of nights from the lower 48, they can be so bright from the Arctic as to routinely frustrate deep sky observers.
10. Porrima- Another double star teaser, this one is getting easier as it moves out on its 169 year orbit. It currently stands at a separation of less than an arc second but should break 5″ by 2038 (I’ll be 70 and hopefully can still make it to the eyepiece by then!)
11. Extremely Old or New Moons- This is a cult amoung visual observers;I know that the Tucson Amatuer Astronomers Association made this a challenge at Gates Pass outside of town every lunation. The current record for a naked eye sighting stands at 15.5 hours past new.
12. A Total Solar Eclipse- Sure, millions have seen them… I put this on the list because part of the challenge is to get to one! The path of totality almost always seems to transect Outer Mongolia or the Negev desert, never your backyard. I have yet to see one, and I’ve traveled the world. Ah well, theres always the North American eclipse in 2017…

These are just an ad hoc top 12 that I’ve compiled; hopefully, their are a few newbies here for even the most veteran observer. Please mention any of your favorites in the “comments” section as I’ll be adding more in the future!

Comments

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Trackbacks

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  2. [...] for something truly elusive? Astronomy has no shortage of the fleeting and ephemeral when it comes to challenges. This week’s challenge will require supremely dark skies and persistence.We’re talking [...]

  3. [...] for something truly elusive? Astronomy has no shortage of the fleeting and ephemeral when it comes to challenges. This week’s challenge will require supremely dark skies and persistence.We’re talking [...]

  4. [...] for something truly elusive? Astronomy has no shortage of the fleeting and ephemeral when it comes to challenges. This week’s challenge will require supremely dark skies and persistence.We’re talking [...]

  5. [...] for something truly elusive? Astronomy has no shortage of the fleeting and ephemeral when it comes to challenges. This week’s challenge will require supremely dark skies and persistence.We’re talking [...]

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