Backyard Astronomer

I am a Newbie 1st Class, still trying to make my way around the telescope without bumping the tripod. I’ve always been interested in astronomy. When I was in grade school I used to get a magazine called Odyssey. This was when the Space Shuttle was new and everyone used to gather around the TV to watch the launch. We had a planetarium at my local junior college (DeAnza in Cupertino, CA) which offered summer courses in astronomy. My first merit badge I ever earned was the Astronomy Merit Badge while attending Camp Hi-Sierra. At Camp Oljato (on Huntington Lake, CA), we would take a barge out to the middle of the lake at night, point out stars using a Q-Beam flashlight, and tell the mythical stories behind the constellations. That’s really as far as I ever got in the hobby.

Thirty years later, a new career in teaching elementary school allows me to spend my summer traveling and camping in our National Parks. I started buying books like Night Sky: A Field Guide to the Constellations, Child’s Introduction to the Night Sky: The Story of the Stars, Planets, and Constellations, and Glow-in-the-Dark Constellations to read with my daughters. While at Zion National Park, we attended a ranger-led evening program about the night sky. The ranger pointed out that Jupiter was right over there… and there was Mars. While at Yellowstone, I’d marvel at the Milky Way filling the sky. Rangers at Devils Tower told us of the Kiowa story about how the rising rock transported the Seven Sisters, or Pleiades, up into the night sky.

I took the plunge and bought a Celestron 8se. My first weekend in the backyard allowed me to share the Moon with my family. Lots of “ooh” and “ahs”. I figured out quickly what everyone on the Beginner Forum was talking about when they said you couldn’t rely on just using the AA batteries in the base of the telescope. Aligning the finder scope went smoothly. Using the StarAlign, I was able to try my hand at using the features offered on the hand control. I discovered the instead of tracking an object, my telescope would slew downwards… which the forum folks attributed to an inadequate power source.

The following week I got the book Left Turn at Orion. I actively started to read the forums in Cloudy Nights and the Stargazers Lounge. This weekend in the backyard, I incorporated the use of the vibration suppression pads at the end of the tripod legs and was now using a fully charged Power Tank to provide power to the mount. When I was going through the steps of StarAlign, I lined up my second star in the finder then transitioned to the eyepiece to center it. This “star” had rings….. Saturn! Another exuberant announcement to the household… come see what I found! More “ooh” and “ahs”.

The forums kept providing me with tips and suggestions. The NexStar User’s Guide arrived. I re-read the directions for my Celestron 8se. I spent more time looking at star charts and then sitting outside trying to make out the constellations. There was Cassiopeia. That must be the Summer Triangle. There was Mars and not far away was Antares. There was Polaris… not as bright as I would have guessed.

Last night I saw my first galaxy and binary star. Andromeda appeared as a faint cloud of light, bulging in the middle. The longer I stayed outside, the more my eye was able to make out. A household announcement brought out everyone but I think they were less impressed than I.

I had tried to find Albireo before, but had no luck. Then last night, there it was… yellow and blue. Beautiful. Everyone had gone to bed, so I didn’t have anyone to share it with (except the cat, who had snuck out the patio door when I had been moving equipment out earlier).

I know I need to start keeping a paper log of my activities. I know I need to start planning my evening of stargazing. I need to develop my ability to star hop and not rely on the hand controllers catalog and GoTo capabilities.

Thanks for letting me ramble – I am really enjoying the hobby.

2016 Summer Trip – Day 57

Devils Tower National Monument, Wyoming. Mount Rushmore National Memorial, South Dakota.

Sunday, July 24th – Left Devils Tower. Bits of rain. Easy drive on I-90. Stopped in Deadwood, South Dakota at Family Dollar for bread and ice. They had neither. Arrived at the Mount Rushmore KOA – that place is like a circus. Dropped the trailer and headed to Mount Rushmore.

Mount Rushmore
Mount Rushmore

Was able to squeeze in a 3pm and 3:30pm ranger program. Helped us understand why the memorial was built and how. The girls finished their Junior Ranger books.

Final Junior Ranger Badges of the trip!
Final Junior Ranger Badges of the trip!

It was pretty emotional for me to complete our last “park” of the trip.

Did we find our park?
Did we find our park?

Bryce Canyon
Grand Canyon
Grand Teton
Wind Cave
Devils Tower
Mount Rushmore
… what a Summer!

2016 Summer Trip – Day 55

Wind Cave National Park, South Dakota. Devils Tower National Monument, Wyoming.

Friday, July 22nd – Toured Wind Cave. Once we entered the cave and started to descend, Emily was scared at first but then was ok. After the tour, the girls finished up their Junior Ranger books and received their badges for Wind Cave.

The day started getting hot. The expectation was temps into the upper 90s. I had gotten a prime parking spot in front of the Wind Cave Visitors Center which allowed me to connect to their wifi. I used the wifi connection to make reservations at the Devils Tower KOA. The heat made me want to camp at a location where we could make use of our air conditioner.

We left the Elk Mountain Campground around 1pm. Elk Mountain Campground is a good place to camp if the weather had been a bit more cooperative. I was disappointed in the lack of any substantial Ranger-led evening program.

It was a nice drive in a northeast direction through a national forest to I-90 where we were only on I-90 to go up one exit. Checked into Devils Tower KOA (located immediately outside the monument) and had some food across the street at the trading post. Ended up getting a pull-thru site next to another ham (KF5SA). He has an HF station mounted inside his trailer.

Quick trip up to the visitors center to get Junior Ranger books (from Ranger Erin Cahill). Attended evening program at the campground amphitheater which was blown out by bad weather into the picnic area.

Devils Tower
Devils Tower

2016 Summer Trip – Day 52

Tuesday, July 19th – Coulter Bay Village, Grand Teton National Park.

Took showers at the facilities here at Colter Bay. Not as nice as Canyon or Grant Village. Ate breakfast at the full restaurant across from the marina. Dropped Christa off at the airport.

Road our bikes to the Colter Bay Visitors Center; saw a documentary about the reintroduction of wolves to Yellowstone at the Colter Bay Visitors Center. Shopped at the bookstore and bought a Sibley’s book on trees, a book by the Muries and a National Park book.

After lunch we attended a program by D.G. House, a Native American artist, who talked about “ledger art“. She was a very dynamic speaker and spoke to the clash of civilizations between the American Indian and the expanding United States.

Had ice cream from the General Store (a recommended daily activity).

Power went out. Everywhere. Heard over the Ranger frequency that it was a major power outage in Idaho. Started to read the book by the Muries.

Hot dogs for dinner. Attend the 7pm amphitheater program about bears (Ranger JJ, Steve Martin look alike). We then decided to go out and look for wildlife. After striking out at Oxbow Bend and Willow Flats, a tip from the ranger frequency led us near Pilgrim Creek where we saw a black bear bounding between the tree line and meadow.

Out for a stroll in Grand Teton National Park
Out for a stroll in Grand Teton National Park

2016 Summer Trip – Day 46

Wednesday, July 13th – Grant Village, Yellowstone National Park. 9:30am Overlook Hike lead by Ranger Miles Augur. We left from West Thumb and started hiking up into the hills overlooking Yellowstone Lake. We ended up hiking through a group of about 8 elk. Perhaps the most amazing experience of the entire Summer.

Picture taken by Sarah
Picture taken by Sarah

Trip to Old Faithful General Store to restock. Not a great selection, but not many other alternatives.

2016 Summer Trip – Day 41

Friday, July 8th – Canyon Village, Yellowstone National Park.

Day trip to Cody, Wyoming. We got on the road later than we should have. We took the road out of the east entrance to Yellowstone. I had never been on this road before. The east entrance appeared to be a good way to pull a travel trailer into the park, but probably not out. The trip was about 90 miles and took around two and half hours.

The big attraction in Cody is the Buffalo Bill Center of the West. You can’t swing a dead cat west of the Missouri River without hitting something connected to Buffalo Bill. But the Buffalo Bill Center is the place to go to learn about ol’ Bill. We got here a too late to take advantage of everything there is to see. This is definitely on the list to return to see again. I honesty think you could spend two days seeing it all.

2016 Summer Trip – Day 30

St. Mary Campground, Glacier National Park, Montana

Monday, June 27th – Girls slept in a bit. I got out the solar panel – great light here for using the solar panel. The batteries really needed the juice. The morning was going to be quiet until…. I ran out of propane! I heard the refrigerator clicking and the check light came on. I tried to light the stove… nothing! We’d last swapped propane in Las Vegas (Day 12). I expected it to last longer.

I should have just gone to St. Mary to see if they exchanged propane canisters but I thought maybe the general store at Rising Sun might. Rising Sun is about 5 miles away and (I found out) does not exchange propane canisters. I turned around and was able to do it at the grocery store in St. Mary. Then we headed back to the campsite where I swapped the propane canisters. The food in the refrigerator was saved.

We rode our bikes to the Visitors Center. The girls got Junior Ranger books. We ate lunch in Babb, then headed into Many Glacier. We made it to the Swiftcurrent Motor Inn where our 2pm hike was meeting. The ranger leading the hike was the same ranger that lead our hike to Grinnell Lake last year (Ranger Monica). After the nature hike, we did a ranger tour of the Many Glacier Hotel. They are in the last year of the renovation plan. We had a fancy dinner at the hotel (topped off by a chocolate fondue dessert) and then drove back to camp. On the way to the Rising Sun Campground for their evening program, Sarah spotted a coyote. The evening program was about the history of the beaver in North America.

2016 Summer Trip – Day 27

Apgar Village/Fish Creek Campground, Glacier National Park, Montana.

Friday, June 24th – We got up early to attend the bird watching ranger program in the morning with Ranger Sarah from Wisconsin. The girls enjoyed the walk and so did I. We were able to use our binoculars to see several birds.

Rains came at about 11am. Ate a second breakfast at Eddie’s, the restaurant in Apgar Village. Went to the Visitors Center and the girls received their Junior Ranger badges for Glacier.

Apgar Visitors Center
Apgar Visitors Center

Went to the 11:30am Junior Ranger program at the Nature Center in Apgar Village. The focus was for younger children; Emily had a good time but Sarah was a bit bored. Ranger Teagan ran the program. After a brief presentation she did an activity with the children were they each were an animal or plant and then formed a food web connected with string. Once one item was eliminated from the web, the rest of the food wed could feel the impact.

We headed back to the trailer, hiding from the rain. After a brief lunch and a nap, we headed back to the Nature Center for a 3pm program discussing the “Peace Park” nature of Glacier being connected to Waterton. Also talked about other Peace Parks.

Next we headed to the Glacier Conservancy book store near the West Glacier train station and picked up a few items. Then to the restaurant in West Glacier for an early dinner where we ate too much. We followed the early dinner by a trip to a gift shop on the other side of the grocery store in West Glacier.

Then a drive to Lake McDonald Lodge where we are awaiting the 8pm Evening Program in the auditorium on Night Creatures. We staked out a corner in the lodge’s lobby, making use of the electrical outlets to charge our laptops. With the campsite’s location in heavy trees and the poor weather, it is difficult to use the solar panel to charge our electronics.