Editor's note: A version of this has been previously published on the author's website.
Spring is the best season for astronomy, as far as I’m concerned, because this is when some amazing and reasonably close galaxies are abundant, as seen from Earth’s night-side. Galaxies are my favorite targets out there in deep space. And new moon is the best time for viewing them because at other phases the glare from our orbiting spotlight can overwhelm their details. The most prominent group of galaxies in springtime is the Virgo Cluster, approximately 2,000 galaxies averaging 65 million light-years away.
On Friday, May 3, the day before the moon was completely dark, I packed for the drive to Pit ’n Pole, a favorite site in Tooele County. I hoped to make photos of several of the Virgo Cluster, particularly the beauty called Messier 61, a barred spiral with interesting splits and crooks in the arms.
I was especially anxious to take the photos because, for one reason or another, I had been deterred from a spring galaxy expedition for many years. This April, when the cluster also was in a good position, I was devastated by the death due to cancer of our much-loved and extremely loving friend, Betsy, our orange tabby cat of 14 years. I was nearly paralyzed with grief. This month I haven't felt much better but I thought I should try to resume a normal life.
Packing the Jeep required an ugly load of sweaty work. Since November, road crews have been digging up the street in front of our house for a seemingly endless resurfacing project. They brought in huge banging machinery to break up the old surface, gouged trenches, spread concrete, shoveled, and rumbled and rattled and jiggled our home. That Friday we couldn't drive on the street because, while the south side was paved with new cement, our side was a deep flat gully with cuts too steep and high for cars or hand trucks.
We parked at the nearest spots, down the street and around the corner. A round trip from home to vehicle is about a third of a mile. This meant that my gear had to be moved by hand truck pushed along the sidewalk. Meanwhile, crews were sawing concrete on our side (adjusting a manhole) and sealing cracks with tar on the other. Billowing fumes from the asphalt melting cart and clouds of concrete dust were unavoidable.
I wore a protective respirator, a filter mask over my nose and mouth good enough to shield against "non-harmful sanding, grinding, sawing and insulating particles." Even so, toxic-smelling fumes penetrated. Maybe they leaked around the edges, where I didn't have the mask sealed tightly enough.
A portable astrophoto observatory requires a lot of equipment. Some of it, like the telescope, tripod, wedge and car battery, are too heavy to carry by hand at all. The rest becomes heavy after, say, 30 yards. But our hand truck can't hold much, which meant I made many tiresome treks to the Jeep, hauling tripod after electrical bag after sponge mat after table after.... I finished just in time to shower and rest a while before taking off for Tooele County.
By the end of the day my iPhone pegged my walking, which included setting up in the desert, at 4 1/2 miles.
Plowing along the old Pony Express Trail, I happily glanced into a side mirror and watched the dust fly. When I arrived at Pit ’n Pole the tire pressure indicator lit up on the dashboard. I wasn't concerned, much, as that happens sometimes with a change in temperature. (But that's when the temperature drops, went a nagging thought, not when it's as warm as today.)
I was tired from all that toting and took many breaks while assembling my station. When I hoisted Baby, the telescope, from a table onto the tripod and wedge, I had a tougher time than usual. I don't know whether that's because of my weariness from hauling and loading the Jeep or if, at 73, I've lost some strength. While I was setting up, a nice fellow from the Utah Valley Astronomy Association drove up and began aligning his Dobsonian telescope; I remember his name as Jeremy Jackson.
Ordinarily, Pit ’n Pole is a good spot for astronomy, far enough from Salt Lake Valley to present little light pollution; a desert site, but not filled with powdery dust like Lakeside; not buzzing with off-road vehicles like Knolls; not too far like the Wedge Overlook. Its biggest flaw is that during moist periods it tends to accumulate dew, but that night's dew point was predicted as below the expected low temperature.
Night fell and my agenda was progressing well. Cloud banks hung around but weren't directly overhead. I used the newly revamped focuser (new motor) to bring the stars to sharpness.
Jeremy let me peer through his telescope at M51, the Whirlpool Galaxy, and the globular cluster M22. He showed me a photo he had just taken of another galaxy too.
The night turned bitterly cold and breezy.
Finally all was working and I instructed the tracking program to calibrate. It couldn't. In fact, the image was no longer coming through the tracking camera. Baffled, I shone a light on the front of the 'scope and saw that the outer optical unit, the corrector plate, was a solid sheet of frost. Not only was the night colder than the dew point, but the dew had frozen. It was on most of my other gear too. I had no choice but to call it a night. I put my laptop and camera in the Jeep, crawled into the rear and tried to sleep.
In the morning everything dried out quickly. The frost evaporated from the corrector plate and I lightly brushed it with a camel's-hair brush to get rid of dust. Then I dragged myself around and refocused the finder scope, realigned it and trained the gears. My tired legs ached. I packed and started off.
The warning light was still on.
I checked the tires — the right rear one was low. I decided to look again when I reached the paved road before making up my mind whether to call a tow truck. I kept watching the odometer, which crept along: Would I have a blowout? Six miles to the pavement; five; halfway there. At the Faust Junction, where the old Pony Express Trail meets Utah 36, the tire looked about the same and I decided to drive into Tooele and find a Discount Tire outlet — we bought our tires at Discount, which guarantees them in case of road damage.
Again the odometer crawled. Parked in Tooele, I consulted my iPhone: no Discount Tire in town. The nearest was 19 miles away, while ours was 26. Go for South Salt Lake, I concluded. Luckily, I-80 East was diverted most of the way and I couldn't speed along at 75 mph. Instead, the detour followed a slower route.
At Discount, all four tires showed enough wear to need replacing. They are supposed to hold 35 pounds of air pressure per square inch. The right rear came in at 6. I had all four replaced.