OK, that title isn’t fair – but I’m feeling pretty foolish here because I have got to be the last kid on the block to think of something so simple – something I’m sure John does all the time, but I’ve been blinded to by having a small Observatory and so not knowing there was a much easier way for just about anyone to enjoy the night sky on a miserably cold but wonderfully clear winter’s night. Lambda (λ) Airetis and 1 Arietis were the first stars I viewed this way, so let’s first address them before getting into my “new” cold weather strategy.
Lambda (λ) Arietis
RA: 01h 58m Dec: +23° 36′
Magnitudes A: 4.9 B: 7.4
Position Angle 47°
Distance: 133 LY
Spectral Classification: F0V
RA: 01h 50m Dec: +22° 17′
Magnitudes A: 6.3 B: 7.2
Position Angle 165°
Distance: 600 LY
Spectral Classification: G0III
These are easy to find if you’re familiar with the three bright stars that highlight Aries. They make a distinct asterism that I’ve never come up with a name for – it’s like a check mark where some kid hung on the hook and bent it downward. I guess it’s closest to the stem and flag of an inverted eighth note with the brightest star represented by the oval at the other end of the note symbol. But no, the flag runs in the wrong direction. See my problem? Have a solution? If so, leave a comment. Name that asterism!
The three main stars of Aries, the Ram, are Hamal, Sheratan, and Mesarthim – or call them A, B, C if you like – Alpha, Beta, Gamma – α, β, γ – or 2, 3, 4. Hamal is as close to exactly second magnitude as you’ll find. (Compare it to Polaris for brightness – you should see no difference.) Sheratan (2.6) just falls over the edge into third magnitude, and at 3.9 Mesarthim is close to a perfect magnitude 4. I always find Aries by moving southward from Andromeda to Triangulum and then Aries. The constellation is much bigger, of course, than this asterism, and you have to have a lot of imagination to make a ram of these stars. However, Mesarthim is a wonderful double known as the Ram’s eyes that we’ve already written about here.
Hamal and Sheratan are barely 4 degrees apart, so they should fit in your finder or binoculars – in fact the whole asterism – a little greater than five degrees – might fit. And once you’ve done that it is easy enough to spot our two doubles, Lambda and 1. Lambda is the brightest – and center star – of three stars in a little arc – 1 is a bit more isolated, though your finder will show more stars than the chart above. Come to think of it, Lambda might split in a decent-sized finder. I scouted the area with 15X70 binoculars, locating the two doubles, but never thought to try to split Lambda with those – I’m sure I could have if I could hold them steady enough. I was using the 60mm Tasco and there the finder is 6X30, so splitting would be more of a challenge, but I’ll have to try it.
In the 60mm Tasco I saw the stars as pale yellow and light green and they split nicely with the 30mm Tak (32X) , but the 12.5 gave me the best view at 80X. I kept losing the secondary and I glanced up to see if clouds were coming over – then I realized that in the cold I was fogging my eyepiece! Once again, my eyes aren’t working quite the same as Sissy Haas’ who sees these two as “bright white” and “silvery.” But I am in agreement with Webb who saw them as yellow and green – our eyes, our telescopes, the conditions. . . this color business sure is elusive.
Now 1 Arietis is a much different animal as the numbers clearly show. There’s an 8.5 magnitude field star just 6 minutes south of the pair at PA 173° and this not only helps you know you’re looking at the right star, but it also is a good marker for where you should look for the secondary, since the secondary’s position angle is 165°. Of course, with a scope of reasonable size these will be pretty easy to split, but I found them a challenge for the 60mm. The combination of separation (2.9″) and difference in brightness – about ,9 magnitude – put them near the edge of what you can expect of a 60mm scope. There’s a wonderful chart on Page 5 of Haas’ “Double Stars for Small Telescopes” that estimates a scopes capabilities give its diameter, the separation, and the difference in magnitude. My experience with the Tasco and 1 Arietis was right in keep with the estimates given for this chart. It took a 10mm eyepiece (96X) to split and a 7.5mm (128X) did better. A 5mm was too much under these seeing conditions.
OK, cold weather strategy!
Here’s the big discovery – go inside.
I’m serious. the ideal is to pick a room that opens directly to the outdoors. With any luck, it should open on the east, assuming the coldest winds come from the northwest. That way the house blocks the wind. And – with any luck – you will have a relatively unobstructed view of a significant chunk of sky. Then all you have to do is shut the room off fromthe rest of the house and light it with a red light and you have a perfect retreat where you won’t ruin your night vision and where you can not only get warm, but do your reading, review your charts, and write your notes in comfort.
In my case I have the perfect room – my library where I leave the Tasco or Unitron set up – with a raised deck on the eastern side and sliding glass doors – wide enough to get the Tasco through while set up on its tripod – that lead right out onto the deck. (I have reasonable hopes of getting a functional RV-6 Dynascope shortly – another refugee from the ’60s – and leaving it set up in this room ready to be whisked out on a short notice, though, of course, since it is a 6-inch it will require some cool down. )
So here’s how I handled the observation of these two stars – and I have to say, it was my most comfortable winter observing experience ever.
1. I sat in my library, a red lamp by my side, the door closed and the rest of the room dark. I studied the books and charts.
2. I looked at Starry Nights on my portable computer, the red “night vision” feature turned on to preserve my night sight.
3. After bundling up, I walked out onto the deck and spent about 10-15 minutes comfortably finding observing Lambda with the 60mm on an equatorial mount . The temperature was around 17° F with a moderate wind that was nicely blooked by the wall of the house.
4. I came in, drew a quick sketch and wrote these some notes, all in the comfort of the warm library under red light. (Yes, I tookj my coat off – i was in no hurry.)
Revolutionary, no! Brilliant? Yes! But honestly, I have not done this for the past half century or so – never even thought to do it because I had a couple of wrong ideas fixed in my head. The first was that the deck really wasn’t a good place for observing because the heat from the house would interfere with the seeing and if anyone walked on the deck, it would jiggle the telescope. Well, as long as I’m looking away from the house the seeing doesn’t seem to be an issue. And no one else is going to bother to come out and walk on the deck with temperatures below freezing. We crazy folks get to observe alone on such nights.
My other fixed idea was more insidious. I have a tiny little observatory that I love and it does shelter me from the wind and its about 100 feet from the house and it does have room to spread out charts and notes and keep them dry – it even has a red light. But boy it can get cold after an hour or less some times. Still, I have an 8-inch always set up there and can swap in and out some other scopes and I just had it in my head that this was the only logical place to observe when conditions got this numbing.
Wrong. So in case there are one or two other people in the world who haven’t thought of observing this way, but mainly to do penance for my idiocy of not having thought to try this before, I penned this little confession. 😉