Make the Best of Winter

Jack Kramer

Yes, the coldest, dreariest part of the year is approaching. Let's hope it isn't as bad as last winter with its ice storms and -26o temperatures. YUCK! Although the dark, crystalline-clear nights of winter are legendary, what normally seems to happen around here is night after night of cloudy skies. Then when we do get a clear night, who wants to freeze for several hours out in the boonies? Let it be known that I much prefer to observe from one of our dark sites....however, when the night is clear but the thermometer plunges, observing from your own backyard allows you to go inside and warm up now and then.

Of course, the drawback for backyard wimps is all that light pollution in our neighborhoods. There's nothing you can do if you happen to live a few blocks from a shopping center or if your neighbor insists on enriching Commonwealth Edison by leaving a yard light burning all night. Just shield yourself from direct lighting. The Moon and planets aren't really bothered by light pollution, and to some extent, open clusters stand up pretty well to a bright sky background. Only the clusters with faint components may be out of reach. But from my backyard, I've been able to see rich clusters with stars as faint as 14th magnitude - they appear as hazy patches in my 10" scope. Planetary nebulae are great targets at this time of year; there are loads of them in the winter Milky Way. Here an Oxygen III filter is a very important tool. A broadband nebula filter also helps on some of the brighter planetaries. Many will be so small that they appear as out-of-focus stars that disappear when you take the filter off the eyepiece. Sometimes when you remove the filter, that'll let you see the central star in the planetary, which otherwise is obscured by the nebulosity that the filter enhances. Because many deep sky objects don't stand out very well in light polluted skies, it's helpful if they're well situated for star hopping...or else it's good to practice using setting circles to best advantage.

My charts are left in the house, so frequent trips inside to plan star hopping routes also contribute to the comfort level. It's important to keep as many inside lights off as possible, and use a flashlight with a red lens, just as you would if you were outdoors at an observing site. As objects are located, I record the observations directly on the computer. To protect night vision, I change the config.db file in dBASE to give a red screen. (This is really hard to read in a lighted room, so after observing, I change it back to the normal colors.)

Some observers strive to avoid the weather even more. Witness the following from Sandy McNamara of the Twin Cities Amateur Astronomers, Inc. of central Illinois.

"Observing out of a window in a darkened room as advocated by some authors may work for observing meteor showers (my personal favorite way to enjoy the December Geminids - perched on a heat register with a cup of hot chocolate) or the moon but is really not suitable for deep sky objects. Try it sometime for an amusing although admittedly nonproductive way to fight winter cabin fever. Make sure to wash the window and work in a completely darkened room. Window glass will degrade the images somewhat but the brighter objects will still be visible. Star hopping will be even more challenging if you have insulated windows since the images can reflect back and forth between the panes producing double and triple images. The mark of an experienced observer is being able to tell the difference between the actual image and the reflection!"

Luckily for those who venture outside, the winter skies are filled with open clusters and planetary nebulae - targets that are reachable despite light pollution. Being able to observe from your backyard makes those cold, crisp nights a good deal more enjoyable (and tolerable). Meanwhile, you might contemplate the coming of spring (galaxy season!) and observing comfortably from a dark site. That's akin to getting a seed catalog in January!

Cold Weather Tip

The next time you buy gloves, look for a pair that has rubber covered fingers or non-slip material on the undersides. These are typically work gloves or those intended for skiers (to better grip ski poles). This type will allow you to get a better grasp of eyepieces and telescope parts without removing the gloves and exposing your hands to the cold.