On this day after Valentine's Day, the sky-gods showed us their love by giving us great conditions for the Star Party at Ransom Canyon. High clouds that had been hanging around all day promptly dissipated after sundown, leaving us with clear, stable viewing conditions. You could tell conditions were good because the stars showed very little scintillation and the light dome from Lubbock was much less prominent in the west. There was no wind, and temperatures ranged from near 60° F at sundown to the upper 40's late in the evening.
With the good turnout of Members, we had a wide variety of scopes ranging from my 80mm refractor up to Mark Monk's 9.25" SCT (see the photo below). We had only a handful of visitors show up for the event but, in a way, this was good because we got to observe a lot of different objects instead of constantly having to show and re-show Venus and M42 to everyone. This event was much more like the observing sessions that we've had in the past at the Gott Observatory. I didn't get a chance to see everything that everyone was targeting, but in this report I'll try to cover some of the more impressive things I did see.
First, let me describe the things I targeted with my scopes. I had two scopes— a 5" Maksutov and an 80mm Orion refractor. I was able to catch Mercury with the Mak just before it slipped below the ridge to the west. Even though it was close to the horizon, the stable viewing conditions allowed me to resolve it as a disk without appreciable distortion. I had searched for it earlier with binoculars but missed it in the still-bright western sky. Venus was brilliant high in the western sky. Through the 5" Mak with a 20mm objective, it appeared like a miniature "last-quarter Moon". Using a polarizing filter with the lens (that I usually reserve for looking at the Moon) allowed me to remove a lot of glare from this bright object, making its shape much easier to see. I've got to remember to try to use higher power on it next time.
I spent most of my time with the 80mm refractor targeting relatively large objects. Using a 26mm objective provided around a 3° field-of-view (FOV). The Pleiades were directly overhead and were a fine target. M42 and its surroundings fit nicely in the FOV. I observed it several times over the course of the evening and, late in the evening, conditions were dark enough so that I thought I could detect the nebulosity of the Running Man Nebula above M42. With Spring coming, the Beehive (M44) was around 30-40° above the horizon in the east, and was a great target in the little refractor. Another great target was the open cluster M41 in Canis Major. It's just some scattered stars in my 5" Mak, but in the 80mm refractor it was a relatively tight cluster of stars— really nice.
Collin had set up his larger refractor adjacent to my location, so I got to see a bunch of nice things through it. The Double Cluster was nice, as was the view of the galaxy pair M81 and M82. His view of the ET Cluster was really good, framed nicely within the FOV. But perhaps the best things I saw through his scope were the double stars η Cassiopeiae and HD3945 (the Winter Albireo). Both of these doubles are so impressive, and the contrastiness of the refractor made the components very distinct.
I spent most of the rest of the evening going between the other scopes in the group. Again, I didn't catch everything the others targeted but I can report on a few of the things I saw. Several of the scopes had great views of M42, with the Trapezium showing up distinctly under the stable conditions. Scott reported that he could even resolve the E component in his 8" SCT. I caught a good view of the Tau Canis Majoris Cluster (NGC 2262) in Mark Monk's scope. Another great object Mark targeted was the only decent globular cluster in the winter sky, M79 in Lepus. This is a small, tight cluster, but Mark's 9.25" showed it nicely and even resolved it under higher magnification.
Perhaps the best (and most surprising) object viewed was Hubble's Variable Nebula (NGC 2261) in Monoceros. I had always regarded this as a small, dim object suitable only for imaging. However, Gary Leiker pulled it up in his 8" SCT and— there it was— a relatively bright glowing little "fan" of light. Mark Monk also pulled it up in his scope, with it resembling a small comet. I was really surprised! I suppose the good viewing conditions helped us pick this target out.
There was probably a lot more to be seen but, by 10 PM, the humidity from the snow that had melted a few days before was noticeably increasing. Most of the scopes were starting to fog up, turning every star into a "planetary nebula". So we packed up and called it quits. It was a great evening of observing, especially for mid-February!