The Best Part of the Ketchup

by Jeff Wilkerson
Jeff Wilkerson
Photo by Timothy Edberg
Leaning Toward Light Photography

It is a well established scientific fact (and I should know because, you see, I am a scientist, at least as far as you can tell) that 93 times out of 100 the best part of any activity is the anticipation prior to the actual event. A few years ago, I told you about one of the cherished spring rituals of my youth. At this point you might be thinking, "Hey, he's always talking about when he was a kid. It's a little tiresome." I really don't feel like I need to explain myself to you but it just so happens that I like to talk about those days because things were better then, as I will explain shortly. Where was I? Oh yeah, while the snow was still piled on the ground I'd comb through fishing catalogs checking out the hot, new lures released for the upcoming season. As the first fishing trip approached, I'd clean my gear and sort the lures in my tackle box. Next I'd sort my lures and clean my gear. Then I'd clean lures and sort gear. All the while I was picturing the fish each lure was going to catch on that first trip of the spring. I saw four pound bass leaping out of the water into the warm sunshine. Never mind that the first trip usually brought a steady, cold rain, three lost lures, a hooked finger and no fish so much as seen. Even Mr. Spock understood the importance of anticipation. He once said something like (OK. I admit I am getting lazy. Once upon a time I would have done the research necessary to get the exact quote. I fully expect my salary for these articles to be cut in half), "You may find that wanting is far more desirable than having." Of course, we still have the seven that aren't best in anticipation. It turns out that six of these are most enjoyed in recollection. I recall just a few years ago trying to hike back to the truck after a long day. As usual we overestimated the remaining daylight and underestimated the length and difficulty of the trail ahead. Not dressed for the stiff wind that kicked up as night fell, we found ourselves clawing straight up a bald rock in the darkness. Now, I look back and think, "Ahh, those were the days," but I suspect I was thinking something different at the time. I'll leave the remaining one percent of events to your imagination since everything is better that way.

I've been thinking about all these things because I recently planned an observing session and found myself looking forward to it immensely. I planned to do some serious globular cluster observing. Globulars are favorite targets of mine and late spring/early summer is the perfect time to see them. I hadn't had a good observing trip in a while so I figured I'd take the Center's 8" Meade to a dark site and make it an all night session. I usually approach such trips the same way I approach hiking and fishing trips these days. That is, I try to avoid any pesky planning and just get in the truck and drive. This approach heightens the sense of adventure, particularly if part of the pesky planning involves stopping to fill up with gas. I tried a different tack with this trip. I sat down with Burnham's Celestial Handbook and made a list of all the globulars I planned to hunt down. The list included sizes, magnitudes and notes about each object. The Celestial Handbook is a wonderful tool for this task and I recommend it to anyone who plans to spend any time with a telescope. (Be sure to tune in next month when I review Colin Powell's autobiography.) I enjoyed reading about each object and seeing pictures of them. The list grew to contain 69 globulars and I planned to find each one of them. One of the things that makes anticipation superior to actual happening is that we are all super-heroes in our dreams. If I were particularly slick with a telescope (I'm not) and I didn't get distracted easily (I do), I'm sure I could find 69 mostly faint globular clusters in one night. It is however impossible, or at least very silly, to let reality ruin a good anticipation, so I planned to see more globulars in one night than I had ever seen previously.

Well, I had a time pinning down an exact date for my trip and I was busy. The days kept slipping by and before I knew what had happened we were past the new moon and headed towards full. I never freed up the time or energy to make the trip but thought I might see how many of these globulars I could find in a few hours, from the parking lot across the street from where I live. Sure the street light is annoying but nothing's perfect. With a two week vacation planned for early June, I was hoping to squeeze in the observing but there were a lot of things to be done at work and I never made it to the parking lot.

Always willing to be flexible, I took my binoculars with me to see what globulars I could find with them during my fishing trip. It rained most of the time I was gone and I was about to give up the globular hunting when the weather broke and we had a very nice, clear evening. There was as little haze as you're likely to find in southwestern Kentucky during the middle of summer. I almost passed up the observing chance since I had been arising at 4:30 each morning to go fishing but the call of the dark sky was too strong and I took out the binoculars.

M13 is the most famous of globulars and the easiest to find. It was very nice in the binoculars and I spent too long looking at it if I wanted to see many clusters on my list. I scanned up to M92 in Hercules' head and had little trouble locating it although 12 x 50 binoculars proved better at the task than the 7 x 50 binoculars that I usually carry. After these two clusters I paused for a while and watched meteors flash by. Then I scanned the Milky Way with my binoculars before recalling that I was supposed to be looking for globulars and I tracked down M3 in Canes Vanatici. This cluster is second only to M13 in the northern sky and jumps right out at you. M4 is also simple to find since it is very near Antares, the bright orange star in Scorpius. Get the star near the left edge of your binocular field of view and the cluster will be hanging there, impossible to miss, near the right edge. This cluster is loose and straggly compared to all the others when you look through the binoculars. It almost has the feel of a distant open cluster but is a little too dense for that. All four of the clusters just mentioned are easy to find and offer pleasant views in binoculars. I managed to catch a view of M62, a small but bright cluster located in Scorpius and a little difficult to tell from a star in hand-held binoculars, before being pulled away by the familiar splendors of Scorpius and Sagittarius. There were M6 and M7, two splendid open clusters that come alive in binoculars. The Lagoon and Trifid nebulae are spectacular, as is the open cluster M23.

I gave up my viewing after about an hour and a half and far too many mosquito bites. I had seen five of the 69 clusters that I set out to see and I didn't have the benefit of a telescope. The cool quiet of a California mountain was replaced by the muggy air of southwestern Kentucky full of mosquitoes and chiggers, some of whose marks I still bear. An all night session shrunk to less than two hours and I was too exhausted to enjoy it the way I'd planned. Still, I guess that short session was better than any hours and hours of anticipation but it couldn't stand up to the miraculous nights when I was younger. The midwest didn't have any haze or bugs in those days. I didn't get tired either and I always saw what I set out to see plus a few other things.


Globular clusters in Scorpius.