2019 US South-West Overland Adventure - Omega Centauri

By: Vlad Fedosov
04/26/2019

Over the last few years, I have come to the conclusion that I really like to explore the world in the spring. Everything is just more green and fresh. An added benefit is that all the summer vacationers are still in hibernation, so I get to avoid most of the crowds. For the spring of 2019, I decided to visit Death Valley National Park. This has been on my bucket list of places to visit for a while and it also presented a great opportunity to do some good observing! I planned to drive down to Death Valley to some exploring of the area for 1.5 days and then setup my gear to do some southern sky observing and EAA for 3 nights. One of the targets I really wanted to see down south was the globular cluster Omega Centauri. It was only 6° above the horizon in Death Valley so I was a bit unsure if it was going to happen…


As the trip got closer I was forced to realize that my first attempt to go in March was ruined by the weather. It rained so much the week of the new moon in Death Valley that there was a 10-mile long “lake” that formed. My second and last chance to go on the trip was in April around the new moon. I really could not go later than this as I get busy with work closer to the summer and it will be too hot in Death Valley for me. Unfortunately, the weather for April was not very astronomy friendly either. It was not supposed to rain but was still partly cloudy. Seeing this I decided to change the trip into more of an overland adventure and knock out one of my other bucket list items which was to visit Moab in Utah.


Instead of bringing a relatively high-end EAA capable setup I just brought my grab-and-go Meade ETX-125 OTA setup and headed down to Death Valley. Once there I was quite impressed by the scenery as there was quite a bit more to see there than what I had imagined. While driving around the national park I did keep an eye out for a campground that had a really open view of the southern horizon. After checking out a few places I found Texas Springs campground. Not much of a campground as it is basically a parking lot…. BUT the southern horizon was visible almost to 0°. It was perfect!


Later in the day having set up camp I was relaxing during the last hour of sunlight. Boy does it get windy in Death Valley. The wind gusts were so strong at one point that I had to turn my truck around so that my rooftop tent did not act as much of a sail. Once nighttime came close the clouds rolled it. Since Omega Centauri was not going to be at its optimal position until about 2am I decided to take a nap. At some point, I woke up to it raining during the night. Great I thought and went back to sleep. When my alarm clock went off at 1:30 am I looked up at the sky(my tent has windows on the roof) and was greeted with a star-filled sky!


I got the 5” mak setup and was on the hunt for Omega Centauri! I looked at the star chart and started to look at where it was supposed to be in the sky. It was low to the horizon but I quickly identified that it should be visible. Once I located where it was supposed to be at relative to other bright stars I immediately noticed a star in its position. I then realized that this was the cluster itself! It was a naked eye object even being only 6° above the horizon!


I quickly pointed my scope at it and the dream of observing this object was finally realized. It was big. Honestly, for whatever reason I expected it to be even larger. I always thought that it would be at least twice the size of m13. I guess I did only have 5” of aperture. After getting enough of the big daddy of globular clusters I proceeded to check out a few other deep sky objects before calling it a night.


The rest of the trip was amazing as I ended up driving through parts of California, Nevada, Arizona, Utah, Idaho, Oregon, and Washington. There were no other clear nights so observing was not really possible but I will leave you with some of the amazing scenery that I saw along the way…