Observing Under Dark Skies in Arizona

By Paul Knight on April 10, 2016 — 2 mins read

I attended the American Planning Association’s national conference in Phoenix, AZ, on April 2-4. I flew in early, rented a car, and drove for two hours west into the desert, seeking a dark sky. And I found it.

Months before the APA conference I had finished reading a book by Paul Bogard titled The End of Night. It inspired me to take the conference’s location as an opportunity to see some truly dark skies (I live in Atlanta so those opportunities are strictly unavailable here). I asked the friendly users at CloudyNights.com what observing sites they recommended outside of Phoenix. After numerous suggestions, I decided on the Antennas Site which is used by the Phoenix Astronomy Society. The site is a couple of miles south of I-10’s Exit 53.

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Once I arrived at the site, there were already a dozen guys out setting up their scopes. Refractors, dobs, and SCTs were all represented. A 24″ dob would prove to provide my favorite view of the night; more on that in a second.

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Having just flown in from Atlanta, I had to pack light so I brought my beloved 20×60 Zeiss stabilized binoculars which made for an easy carry-on item.

Observing conditions for the night were ideal with temperatures in the 60’s, super steady seeing, and super dark skies (Bortle 2). Even after the sun fell below the horizon it took a surprisingly long time to become dark. The zodiacal light–which I had never noticed before–was annoyingly bright. But once the lights subsided, everyone started looking through their scopes and saying “Wow!” Apparently, it was some of the best seeing conditions these veteran amateurs had seen in a long time. I was lucky to have picked a perfect night to be out there.

In addition to my binoculars I also packed a travel tripod and stool, which made sketching and observing very comfortable. The following sketches were made using my 20×60’s:

M81-82 Sketch 20x60
Above: Sketch of M81 and M82 galaxy pair. Approximate sketch time was 15 minutes. Post processing in Photoshop to invert and crop.

M51 Sketch 20x60
Above: Sketch of the Whirlpool Galaxy (M51). Approximate sketch time was 10 minutes. Post processing in Photoshop to invert and crop.

M41-42 Sketch 20x60
Above: Sketch of the Orion Nebula (M42). Approximate sketch time was 15 minutes. Post processing in Photoshop to invert and crop.

Below is a GIF image comparing my sketch of the Orion Nebula to a photograph of the same region. It is difficult to get all the proportions and separations right, especially toward the edge of the field of view. But the primary purpose of sketching is not necessarily the end product, like a camera’s photograph. Instead, sketching helps you see and observe that much better. It forces your eye to take note of every detail, which is why I do it.

M41-42-Sketch-20x60-Compare-to-Photo

I was very pleased with the performance of my binoculars. But I had a great time looking through everyone else’s scopes. My most memorable view was of the Whirlpool Galaxy (M51) through a 24″ dobsonian. I have never seen galactic structure like that with my own eyes before. I was blown away. Below is a rough simulation of what I saw in the eyepiece (I blurred a photo taken off the internet).

M51 simulation through 24 in Dob

It was a great night, and I appreciate all the PAS members who let me use their scopes. I hope to join them again the next time I’m out in Arizona.

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