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The Jewel Box and the Sprinkler

by Perry Pezzolanella

Traveling to a distant land always means new and unusual experiences. In an unfamiliar land even the simple pleasure of observing the sky can be full of challenges and surprises. Aruba promised my first view of the southern sky with totally new and beautiful constellations. The Southern Milky Way is packed full of star clusters and nebulae; I could not wait to see it.

The sunset was swift, and twilight was brief as promised on our first night in Aruba, Saturday, February 21, 1998. I quickly found Canopus, the second brightest star in the sky, well above the southern horizon with Orion nearly overhead. Gemini and Taurus were beyond overhead and I had to turn towards the north to see them comfortably. They were upside down. As I looked back towards Canopus in the dark sky, I quickly found the False Cross to the left of this brilliant star. It appeared tilted towards the left and was almost more kite shaped. It is called the False Cross because it can easily be confused with the Southern Cross, which would not rise until midnight. We were very tired from the long day of flying so we agreed to have dinner at a familiar Pizza Hut and go to bed early. There would be many nights ahead for observing.

I spent quality time Sunday night getting oriented with all the new constellations since I wanted to earn my Astronomical League Southern Sky Binocular Certificate by observing 50 deep sky objects. I had a list of 73 to choose from and I knew I had a chance since I came prepared with detailed star charts provided by Al Mlinar. We were all huddled near the big boulders outside the patio door of our resort, the Tierra del Sol, trying to shelter ourselves from the unceasing trade winds. It was hard to hold my 10x70 binoculars steady in the 20-30 mph winds. Suddenly I heard a loud hiss! The snakes in Aruba are shy and do not attack you, so it could only be.. oh no.. the sprinklers! We were on the edge of a world-class, professional golf course. Occasionally the brisk winds would catch the water and give us a quick misting. Fortunately, it was a balmy night at 80 degrees. The condo’s automatic patio light added to our challenges. Since we had no way to shut it off, we simply threw a beach towel over it giving the wind something more to play with. Finally, at midnight, I saw the Southern Cross rising in the southeast! Comparing it to the False Cross setting in the southwest, I realized that they really do look alike. I stayed out only until clouds began to hamper the view a short while later, and then called it a night.

The False Cross was vivid on Monday evening. I knew this was the big night for the certificate and I was ready by 11 P.M. At 11:20 P.M., I easily found my first target, NGC 2451, a large, beautiful open star cluster with silvery stars and a bright, lonely golden star in Puppis. This constellation along with Vela and Carina kept me busy long into the night. This is the heart of the Southern Milky Way that is hidden below our southern horizon in New York. My main goal that night was to see the Jewel Box Cluster located in Crux, the Southern Cross. The haze was not too bad and there were no clouds. The temperature once again hovered near 80. We finally took the cover off the patio light and loosened the bulb so I could try to reach my goal. The sprinklers were on again giving us an occasional misting, but this time I was determined to see the Jewel Box Cluster. Almost everyone else called it a night, but I was not about to give in to a man-made rain shower. I had over a dozen objects logged when I noticed the brilliant Orion-like glow of Eta Carinae, a massive, dying star that is expelling a huge, impressive nebulous cloud. Tom Battles was the only one to tough it out with me. At 12:55 A.M. my persistence was rewarded - the Jewel Box Cluster! Tom pointed his C90 f/5.6 telescope at it. It appeared as a glittery group of silvery stars in a pattern that reminded both of us of a flock of geese. The Jewel Box was scrutinized for a full half-hour until I noticed the Mighty Omega. Omega Centauri is the number one globular star cluster in the galaxy and is ranked even better than M13 in Hercules. It was easy to see and appeared like a huge cotton ball. Tom quickly focused on it and it was truly 3-D. Omega Centauri appeared perfectly round with a bright, compact center and hung in front of the background. We could only wish for a large telescope. (I saw it for the very first time in 1997 from Phoenix, Arizona). I pressed on into the night as Alpha and Beta Centauri rose to join the Southern Cross for a beautiful sight. Tom and I were packing up for the night when I noticed Scorpius literally leaping above the eastern horizon ready to pass in front of me like a huge hammer-head shark! From our perspective near the equator that is what Scorpius appeared to look like. Finally, at 3 A.M. I went to bed with the satisfying thought that I found 24 southern sky objects. I was nearly halfway to my certificate.

Clouds and haze hampered the next night, but Wednesday evening the 25th I found a small globular cluster in Columba. I had to get to bed early that evening in preparation for the big total solar eclipse the next day. I was up at 5 A.M. but had no time for a dedicated sky search since I had to prepare for the journey to our eclipse site on the other end of the island. I still had energy left at the end of the awesome eclipse day. (It must have been the rum in the Planter’s Punch). Al likewise was eager so we both stayed up until 1 A.M. I found two more star clusters before the infamous “night clouds” hampered viewing. These low, fast-moving clouds were always coming and going almost every night during our stay on Aruba. By now I was used to the strong winds and the sprinklers. I started to doze off, so Al and I called it a night.

Friday night was my last chance to complete my certificate. We watched our last sunset over the Caribbean from Aruba; it was beautiful. The persistent haze and high clouds prevented us from seeing the green flash and the Large Magellanic Cloud. After a relaxing dinner at the Old Canucu House, I was expecting clear skies. Already the “night clouds” had rolled in and my hopes for the Southern Sky Certificate were dashed. There was one last glimmer of hope as I got up at 3 A.M., but looking out of my bedroom window, I saw nothing but clouds. I went back to sleep with the satisfaction that I had found 27 of the 50 required objects. There would be other opportunities to complete it in the future. I truly had a great time observing a beautiful part of the universe that I had never seen before.