SMAS Star Party, October 5th 2002
Observing Report by Michael McCulloch
The Smoky Mountain Astronomical Society hosted a star party at a Unicoi Crest overlook (shown right) on the Cherohala Skyway on Oct 5th, 2002. About 8 persons attended through the course of the evening and at least four telescopes were setup, including the club's 20" (shown below). I brought my Celestron Nexstar 8 that I've owned for about 2 1/2 years.
Upon leaving very clear skies in Knoxville, I was concerned that fog might develop later in the evening since the dewpoint at 5:30 PM was well above the forecasted low for the night. However, I took the chance and made the drive to Unicoi Crest. The roads are all well marked and the drive was easy via Hwy 411, Hwy 68, and the Cherohala Skyway. I arrived at the overlook at about 7:40 PM. The conditions were not reassuring as the 4450 ft. overlook was mostly enveloped in clouds upon arrival.
At about 8:15 PM, the clouds began to clear and I was rewarded with continually improving views of the summer Milky Way as darkness fell. The sky was awash with stars. I had not seen such skies since a vacation to the Grand Canyon some 7 years ago. I could see actual structure in the Milky Way -- dark dust regions, clusters, etc. The Unicoi Crest overlook is a truly dark sky site for this area. The sky was much better than I had even experienced on a recent Big South Fork visit.
I aligned my goto scope with Antares and Polaris and placed M27 (Dumbbell Nebula) in the scope. The view was the best I've seen in my scope and many stars were visible in the field as well as some structure in the nebula itself. At that point, Bob Arr was gracious enough to loan me his 1 1/4" O-III filter to try to coax more detail from the nebula. Additional structure was noted, but the O-III filter did darken the field considerably (almost too much for my tastes).
As it grew darker I went straight for the star clouds of Sagittarius. I observed M16 (Eagle Nebula), M17 (Omega Nebula), M8 (Lagoon), M24, M22 (very nice glob), M54, and M70. All were the best I'd ever seen with my scope. While observing M17, a satellite crossed the field of view. I just swept my scope through Sagittarius for a while noting the mind-boggling number of stars. I went to M11 (Wild Duck Cluster) and was stunned. I'd seen hints of the "diamond dust" of the faint stars in the cluster before, but this time I could actually resolve the "dusting" of some fainter stars in the center of the cluster.
I then headed for M57 (Ring Nebula) and increased the magnification. Again, it was the best detail and contrast I'd ever seen with my scope. M13 was excellent as usual. I struggled all evening to get my bearings and pick targets because there were so many constellations visible that I've never seen from city locations. For example, many stars were visible in Ophiuchus which are normally never seen from my typical observing sites (that I formerly considered dark sites).
Several meteors were noted during the evening. I must have seen 12 or so myself. I walked around for a while seeing what other folks were doing. Bob Arr (shown right) offered to show me NGC7789 in his 14.5" Starmaster with his 2" Widescan II, 30 mm eyepiece. The view was stunning. So many stars! That was my first taste of the oft-described "porthole" effect of a good 2" eyepiece. I had dreaded the moment... Now I have to have 2" eyepieces. :-)
I went back to my scope and located Uranus. I increased the magnification to 200x and was rewarded with a small, blue disk. At that point, a cloud moved in and the skies were blocked for 5-10 minutes. However, it eventually dissipated. This occurred perhaps three times between nightfall and 11 PM. After about 11 PM, a slight breeze picked up and the skies became very clear until I left at midnight.
The downside of the evening was the heavy dew. I used a nylon jacket to drape over my scope when I left it and upon returning, the jacket was soaked with water. Everything was getting wet fast. I begged a 12 V blower after observing Uranus and temporarily dried the corrector of my Nexstar 8 (I did have a dew shield that worked for a while), but it was a losing battle for the rest of the evening with my scope.
I did get some additional views of M31, M33, the Double Cluster in Perseus, as well as some more obscure open clusters in the Perseus region. All were excellent.
Bob Arr then again offered up some views in his scope of the Veil Nebula, M33 (Pinwheel Galaxy), and the Pleiades. The view of the Veil (the O-III filter really helped here) was incredible and it was the first time I'd really seen it at a scope. Bob even allowed me to drive the scope and follow the circle of the Veil. Before leaving, I grabbed my binoculars (the only thing that was still dry :-) and observed the Milky Way around Cygnus. I even saw a faint meteor streak through the field of view at one point.
The evening was a success and I truly enjoyed the dark sky, along with the hospitality of Bob Arr. My parent's home is only 36 miles from Unicoi Crest, therefore I may make many more visits in the future! It is more convenient, with less traffic, than similar locations in the Smokies.