My wife likes to talk about my mistress. She even bought me one once. Two, in fact. One time she was out shopping with friends, standing in line, and the friend, let’s call her “Lizzie” to hide her identity, asked Mary if I was out with the mistress that night. “Yes,” Mary replied. Lizzie said, “Yeah, I thought I saw her in his car.” Of course, the poor ladies in line with Mary and her anonymous friend had no idea that they were talking about a telescope. You see, that is what Mary calls them. I have five and like any set of mistresses, they have different personalities and serve different purposes.
There is the “Old One” which is the one my parents got me when I was 13 and which none of my friends will touch because they’re afraid of my reaction were they to damage it. I love my friends, and certainly my wife, far more than any inanimate object. Still, I can see their point.
There is the “Fat One”. That’s the big Dobsonian Mary bought/allowed in 2006 and which is the main scope I use now.
Then there is the “Cheap One”. Everyone needs a cheap one. A little ST-80 Mary also bought me one Christmas long ago when I complained about the difficulty of setting up the Old One.
Do you see a trend? I have yet to mention a mistress I’ve paid for. Life’s been good so far.
I finally bought one that I call “Red” even though it’s a white tube. But it’s a Hydrogen Alpha scope for looking at the Sun. It’s exceedingly good at this one thing and completely useless for anything else. The hydrogen alpha line is at 656.3 nm and is very, very red. Hence, Red.
Which brings us to the subject of the blog. (Finally, you think.) This particular one I call “Frankenstein”. For, you see, I built it. I’m pretty much on build 4 at this point but this is it. This scope was built for the single purpose of coming to South America on this program and here we are.
If you recall my observing trip in Argentina, I mentioned I hadn’t taken the scope to Buenos Aires. It fits neatly into one case but that’s an extra case and I was very skeptical that I would get a clear night away from the city in the month we spent in Argentina. I was wrong but I didn’t regret the decision. The southern sky is overwhelming and a couple of nights with an atlas and binoculars was very useful to acquaint myself with stars I’ve rarely seen and never toured on my own.
But when I saw that we had a free weekend (unplanned) and that it was to be clear, I threw the scope in the case and headed for the hills. Literally. Santiago sits tucked up against the Andes which, when the air is clear, tower above the city to the east. My target was an astronomy inn/campground I visited while here last May up the Cajon del Maipo just outside a town called San Alfonso. Last May it was cold and rainy and I didn’t see anything. I had high hopes for Saturday night.
I made a last minute decision to rent a car. There is a Europcar place less than 10 minutes from the apartment and I can head toward San Alfonso (in the Maipo Valley) without encountering much traffic. This was a great decision because it meant I could take more gear, food and clothes and, at the end of the trip, I didn’t have to re-pack everything neatly, just toss it in the car and head out. I was able to get the car back within the 24 hour window that got me a good discount.
I arrived earlier than I’d told them so I tried to go to the Yeso reservoir about 15 miles past San Alfonso. Remember that scare we had last week that there would be no water in Santiago? The problem was that the water volume was too high for the water treatment plant to handle without damage so it was shut down. That water came from the Yeso reservoir and when I arrived at the turn for the reservoir, I found a lot of crews trying to repair numerous mudslides and flood damage. I will try again later.
Finally at the inn (Los Nogales Roan-Jase if you’re curious), I unpacked the scope and assembled it. I can do this in about half an hour but I dawdled and took my time. By 3pm, I was set up for the evening and the sky was clear, despite an updated forecast for partly cloudy skies. I proceeded to sleep until 7, which was great. I woke to clouds, which wasn’t. But if astronomy has taught me anything, it’s patience, so I calmly had dinner and walked around a bit. By 9, it had, in fact, cleared and I got the scope collimated and tuned up for some lunar viewing.
The moon was upside down. And wrong way around. This was the first time I’d had a chance to look at the moon from the southern hemisphere and it was as freaky as looking at the stars.
And then I set about observing. I won’t bore you with the details. But the gems of the southern sky are better than those in the north. There is no way around that fact. I started with 47 Tucanae which is a globular cluster that, were it not in the same sky as Omega Centauri, would probably rank as the best glob visible. This was the main mission for the evening as it, and the Small Magellanic Cloud which it sits almost in front of, are sinking fast and will be poorly visible the rest of my time here. I then viewed four more objects that simply blew me away and leave me unable to describe: the Tarantula Nebula, which is a complex of gas and dust in another galaxy and it’s still better than almost any Milky Way nebula we can see, the Eta Carinae nebula, the Jewel Box cluster and Omega Centauri. I viewed a few more objects but I kept coming back to these four. Go ahead and google pictures but photos are misleading. Almost every object is a showpiece in photos (if you are interested in why, ask) but through a scope many/most are dim, featureless objects. These four were like looking at…
I’ve had an idea for an essay for a long time that I can’t quite get right so I’ll give the plot here. Imagine you bought a house across from the Grand Canyon. Right up on the edge. From your dining room, you can look out across the canyon, the changing light as the sun crosses the sky and storms build and discharge over and over. It’s a stunning place. Now imagine that you decide, completely on your own, to put up thick drapes and you keep them closed. That’s basically what we’ve done. We have an entire universe of beauty crossing the sky every single night but we hunker inside and yet we keep millions of bright lights on just in case we have to go out.
I shared a view of the Moon with Diego, 10, and Jorge, 5 and their father, Rodrigo. The kids were amazed and very enthusiastic. They were camping down in the campground and couldn’t believe the sky when I suggested they look up. Rodrigo was happy enough with me for making his kids happy that he brought up a bottle of wine which we shared for a while. Diego loved the Tarantula while Jorge was a little young to process that one. I was having a discussion with Diego about Chile and what I liked about it that I thought was going pretty well. I was congratulating myself on my ability to talk with a young Chilean in Spanish. He then switched to English and said, almost without accent, “Where in the United States are you from?” Ah, well. Turns out he goes to a school that is taught entirely in English.
Clouds rolled through sporadically all night and around 1:30 a serious bank took hold. I packed it in for a few hours of sleep but got back up at 4:30 to see the center of the Milky Way rising and Scorpius well up in the eastern sky. These are things one usually has to wait for May or June in the north and I was happy to poke around with the scope for another couple of hours until the sun came up.
The return was not smooth. First, I slept through telling the host that I needed to leave early so the gate was still locked when I walked down at 8. No matter, I had some tea and breakfast and watched the canyon wake up. I got back in good shape – driving in Santiago on Sunday morning is about like driving in Hydro – but as I came in the building I encountered the weekend doorman. I haven’t been here for a weekend yet so he doesn’t know me. I’m tired and concentrating on the Dobsonian tube I’m carrying so it took me a minute to realize he was taking exception to my presence. Somehow, the telescope I was carrying didn’t make me look official. I managed to let him know who I was and proceeded to make four trips to unpack the car. I took the car back but somehow arrived without the card I’d used to book it with so they couldn’t take off the “guarantee” hold they’d placed on it ($500!!!) so I had to walk back to get the card and then back to the rental place. All in all, I came through the front door, which the doorman has to unlock for me, coming and going, 7 times in the space of an hour. I bet he knows me next weekend.
So, a productive, fun night. I learned I can rent a car and get around. I learned I need some warmer clothes. And I learned that Frankenstein is going to serve her purpose just fine.
Home for the night. The terrain reminds me a lot of the Davis Mountains in west Texas. If you then moved the Rockies up next to it and made them 30% taller.
Frankenstein set up to look at the moon.