COCHITI LAKE, N.M. – Clouds didn’t dim the enthusiasm of those who came out to view the heavens at a star party here, Sept. 3, 2016.
Two telescopes were set up on the sandy area at the boat ramp, said park ranger Chris Dohmen. “The location was very adequate for celestial viewing.”
“Being on the sand near water's edge was quite nice!” said Craig Barth, one of the event organizers.
Eleven adults and five children showed up at 7:30 pm with many others, including people from the campground and fishermen, coming and going throughout the event. “My best guess is we had about 40 people total,” Dohmen said. One of the families present even brought one of the telescopes, a small, table-top refractor model.
While it was a warm night with just a slight breeze, the clouds only partially cooperated. During the day, the sky had been cloudy off and on. “On-line weather forecasts stated the clouds would be clearing in spots soon after sunset but clouding over completely sometime between 9:00 and 10:00 pm. We decided to give it a shot,” said Barth. There were patches of open sky between 7:30 and 9:15, when it completely clouded over. “Due to the adverse cloud conditions, we had to do some ‘fishing’ for objects which popped open from the clouds for only minutes at a time”
Despite the shortened viewing time, participants were able to see several planets and constellations. Just after sunset, a sliver of the moon was visible in the western sky as it had not set yet.
“The high-contrast side-on view of the moon’s pocked and cratered surface was rather dramatic,” said Barth. “Mars and Saturn were both quite prominent soon after sunset, and they were arranged in a beautiful triangle with the red giant Antares in Scorpio, 25 degrees above the southern horizon.”
Participants were able to view other celestial objects including the binaries Mizar and Alcor in the handle of the Big Dipper; Albireo at the foot of the Northern Cross; the open cluster NGC 7789 off the bottom of Cassiopeia; rich fields of stars in the Milky Way Galaxy in the Northern Cross; and the Double Cluster in Perseus. Toward the end of the evening the Andromeda Galaxy was visible long enough for a few people to see it before the clouds obscured it again.
The children present were introduced to several constellations including Scorpio; Sagittarius; the Northern Cross; Draco; and Pegasus as they became visible. They also learned how to find the Little Dipper from the two stars at the front of the Big Dipper’s ladle.
“Despite the clouds, participants really got into it. A keen spirit of exploration and adventure animated us all!” Barth said.