Here are a couple of short pieces devoted to poor or impossible observing conditions. If you are taking the time to read them, it is probably cloudy where you are. Enjoy!

On a Rainy Day
11/28/95

November bows to December, and Fall to Winter. The Oregonian claimed that there were only two clear days in October, and if it is possible, this month has been even more cloudy. We deserve the rain, for drought has plagued our region for years. This is merely a year of above-normal precipitation, not a disaster. Still, it is difficult to look out the window without cursing. When will the skies clear again? I missed most of Fall's astronomical events: the Orionid and Leonid meteor showers, Saturn's ring crossings and transits of Titan, and several planetary conjunctions. Last winter's sketches of Mars and Jupiter stare at me from the back pages of my notebook, whetting my appetite. However, this astronomical thirst is itself denied by the moisture-providing clouds. I am drawn to observing logs from my past, and electronic news from areas with clear skies. I know that I can hold on until an East Wind comes shooting down the Gorge once again, driving the clouds back to the coast and drying everything up. On that night, bitterly cold though it may be, I know that I will be outside.



Observations of "Object Y"
12/6/95

Full Moon. Bad seeing. High relative humidity. Limiting magnitude no better than 4.5 at the zenith in a light-polluted sky. In short, the conditions make for a deep-sky observer's nightmare. When there hasn't been a clear night in over a month, a true amateur astronomer can't be picky. There is the obligatory view of Saturn with its rings and moons. On a night like this, enjoy it fully. There is no reason to rush to another object. Planets survive the poor transparency, although bad seeing detracts from detail and resolution.

An 8" telescope makes the Messier objects easy targets, if the sky is halfway decent. With the Moon's glare centered in the southern sky near Taurus, no object is easy. M1 is gone, M35 a washed-out collection of a few dim stars. M74 and M76 are on the very edge of visibility. The Andromeda Galaxy is stripped of its dust lanes and outer regions. Small objects with high surface brightnesses, like M77 and NGC 2392, are the only ones that really hang in there.

Why look for these objects on such a poor night? One answer is: "A bad night skygazing is better than a good night watching TV." The clear weather, as ill-timed as it may be, will probably go away before the Moon departs from the evening sky and is therefore precious. The artificial and natural sky glows combine to send a warning. Unless we control light pollution, this may be as good as the sky ever gets. M35 would normally be a showcase object, a textbook example of an open star cluster for beginning astronomy students. Tonight, it is distinctly unimpressive. Already, Portland's lights drown out the excitement that should go with a first view of the Great Cluster in Hercules or the Ring Nebula. Forget about seeing spiral structure in galaxies from the city. Central and Eastern Oregon still offer dark skies, but not everyone can be persuaded that the trip is worth it. Even when the weather is good, few people will leave an introductory astronomy class with an appreciation for what can be seen in the night sky.

These thoughts are sobering, but a view of the Moon lightens my mood. I forgo the polarizing filter, instead projecting the image onto a sheet of paper held behind the telescope. If it works with the Sun, why not with the Moon? I trace Mare Crisium and the rays of Tycho and Copernicus, enjoying a new perspective from which to observe our satellite. I shut down the observatory, and notice that the conclusion of my observing run coincides with the arrival of the night's first clouds.


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