The first time I took a telescope out into the country I didn’t need to go very far. I had been using my new scope in the driveway which wasn’t bad. Our town was small and not brightly lit and I could find spots in the drive where direct lights didn’t shine into my eyes as I looked in the eyepiece. But, still, everyone said you should try to get to as dark a sky as possible so I did. A friend very generously offered up a bit of land just north of town and I went there a number of times. Over the next few years, I visited many more spots for stargazing in the area, always looking to escape man-made lights which are also found almost everywhere in the United States and in really bizarre places.
Windmills dotted the landscape at home even then. Not the giant white windmills we know today but the old ones that pull up water for livestock. Probably for this reason, I’ve always loved having a windmill in the foreground as I look at the sky. That doesn’t happen nearly so much now that I’m on the east coast and observe primarily up in the mountains. Some times, when I’m back in Oklahoma I try to get a picture of the stars with a windmill as a foreground object but something usually interferes: Photographic error, nothing scenic behind the few windmills I can easily access, not having permission to be on land owned by people who either don’t know me or remember me as thinner, younger and less bearded person.
In an earlier post I described getting myself out to a ranch about 50 miles south of Buenos Aires. I rented a nice old farmhouse for three nights and, as it happened, it was next to the stables and a windmill. Like right next to the windmill. It was quite loud when the wind kicked up. The stable is behind the windmill in the photo below and the house to the right under the tree..
I had brought a pair of binoculars and some astrophotography gear. My plan was to set up the gear and take some pictures of the southern sky while learning my way around with the 10x50s. I just needed a clear night. I got two.
Saturday was cloudy and threatening rain all day. When the above picture was snapped, it was starting to clear and by 9:30pm was completely clear. Buenos Aires threw up a significant light dome in the north but, fortunately, I had a copse of trees blocking that light dome which only extended about a third of the way up the sky. And I know the northern sky very well. My gaze would be turned firmly south. For this, it was a great site.
I set up about ten yards to the left of where the picture was snapped, about five yards from the corral, and the horses kept me company as I executed my plan to be blown away by the southern sky.
1) If you’re not aware, the southern sky is not the same as the northern. Standing on earth, you can only ever see half the universe from any given point and, depending on your latitude, a significant fraction of the universe is ALWAYS hidden from view by the planet on which you stand. By traveling to the southern hemisphere, a northerner can gain access to a lot of sky he wouldn’t normally see. I’ve been lucky enough to spend two previous nights under a clear southern sky. First in Salvador, Brazil in 2006 when I found a south-facing beach hidden from city lights. Second in Mendoza, Argentina where I met up with a very friendly astronomy club who took me up into the Andes and introduced me to mate and the Large Magellanic Cloud.
2) I built a really cool 8″ telescope specifically for this journey to the Southern Hemisphere and went through some trouble lugging it to the continent. I then left it in Santiago. Genius, I am. (To be fair, this trip to the ranch came about late and up until the last minute it looked like I’d be clouded out. My time in Chile is much more open and the skies generally clearer. I hadn’t planned on getting clear nights outside the city in Argentina).
Okay, so on Saturday and Sunday I happily hunted objects up in the sky and had a few jump out at me. The Magellanic Clouds were higher than I’d ever seen them and they really do look like clouds. On Saturday, there were still some clouds hanging about after dark but it was clearing fast. I waited a fair bit of time for full clearing before I realized the clouds I were seeing were, in fact, the Milky Way’s biggest, brightest satellite galaxies.
Because of where the solar system is located in the galaxy and Earth’s tilt, the Milky Way is much brighter and there are more close stars in the southern sky. I had seen this once before and it’s stunning. I more than doubled my exposure to the southern sky this weekend but am still not used to it. The Milky Way around Eta Carinae is just incredible. There are open clusters laid out like stars in the north.
Anyway, I spent four hours each night cruising the Milky Way and listening to the horses talk to each other. Probably about me. I’ll perhaps write up my observing log for the blog but I’m not sure how many people reading would care about the details. I’m also still working on processing my “real” astrophotos from the night. However, I finally managed to capture a windmill with some stars in the background. They didn’t come out perfect, not by a long stretch, as the lenses had begun dewing up and my attempts to un-dew them caused a few artifacts (most notably, diffraction spikes on the bright stars). But, all things considered, I’m pretty happy.
The Large Magellanic Cloud. I “missed it by that much”. Look through the legs of the windmill, about halfway up from the bottom and you can make out the Small Magellanic Cloud hiding. It was quite low at that point and invisible to the naked eye.
The Milky Way. The Eta Carinae nebula is the pinkish spot straight up from the windmill. The Southern Cross is down to the left from the nebula, even in height with the vanes. Beta and Alpha Centauri (in that order) are down and to the left from the cross, two bright stars one straight above the other. Alpha, our nearest star system, is the lower and brighter of the two.