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A Night In Wadi Rum

In late August 2001, I traveled to the port city of Aqaba in southern Jordan. Baking in the Arabian sun, Aqaba is a town of 70,000 people, surrounded on three sides by stark desert hills and bounded on the west by the Red Sea. The cityscape is dotted with minarets and large cranes down near the port where freighters unload their containers. This was a business trip-I was doing some consulting work there on behalf of the US Agency for International Development-but I also planned to take advantage of the recreational opportunities available in the area. I intended to use my day off to enjoy the beautiful coral reefs south of the city, and the pristine desert skies in the Wadi Rum nature preserve north of Aqaba at night.

In the last few years, I've given a lot of thought to portable astronomy, and I'm quite pleased with my current setup. So packing was a cinch. I packed my Bogen camera tripod head in my ballistic nylon suitcase, along with my clothes and skin diving gear, while the tripod legs went into a separate padded tripod bag. I checked both bags with the airline through to my final destination. Along with my briefcase, I carried aboard the plane a well-padded faux leather camera bag made by Samsonite that contained my Brandon 80mm f/6 apochromatic refractor, eyepieces, filters, red flashlight, star chart, 1x finder, star diagonal and lens pen. Even with all that gear inside, the bag weighed less than eight pounds and it was effortless to carry it through airports and stow it aboard the plane.

While I have two larger telescopes (a 10-inch Teleport Dobsonian reflector, and 100mm Borg ED refractor), my Brandon 80mm is the one scope I use for international travel. It is extremely compact, measuring 15 inches in length, and very ruggedly built with a protective rubber armor further shielding it from bumps. The triplet lens offers reliable color correction, although there is some spherical aberration evident at high power. The great thing about the scope is that it rides easily on the lightweight Bogen tripod, and can always be kept well balanced due to its internal sliding mounting plate. For eyepieces, I brought three 1.25" University Optics Widescans (20mm, 16mm and 13mm), which have 82 degree fields and excellent light transmission. I also brought a Celestron Ultima Barlow lens and a 5mm Takahashi LE for high power.

One night I borrowed a Jeep and took myself out to Wadi Rum, a desert valley (wadi=valley) located about 40 minutes northeast of Aqaba, best known for its eerie Martian landscape and historic association with Lawrence of Arabia. The road was very good until the last few kilometers, which gets pretty dicey and reminds you that you're in the third world. It's kind of like driving to the Grand Canyon, the surrounding landscape is impressive well before you get there, but when you get to the actual canyon, you know it. Wadi Rum is like that.

Wadi Rum is a protected national wilderness reserve. It's a huge area of flat desert landscape, surrounded on the sides by mountains with starlit profiles. The road ends at the entrance. There are no roads into Wadi Rum. Since I had a Jeep, I just threw it into 4WD and drove out over the sand. I had never gone off-roading in the desert before, particularly not late at night (it was about 11:00 pm when I entered the wadi) and I was slightly nervous that I might get stuck. But I figured it was worth the risk. The temperature was extremely mild, and I could have easily just slept out there in the jeep and walked back to the entrance in the morning. There was a small village there that provides tour guide services to tourists (including towing services?). Anyway, the Jeep was easy to handle on the desert floor, as it's pretty rocky under the thin layer of sand-maybe only 3-4 inches of sand-and I drove a few more kilometers out into the wadi and then set up my telescope.

The new moon had just set and the desert sky was even darker and clearer that it had been from the desert road outside wadi rum. The mountains on the horizon were very dramatic. The air was clean and surprisingly cool-maybe 65 degrees-because Wadi Rum is much higher elevation than Aqaba. There was a mild steady breeze; the air was otherwise extremely quiet. I could hear a pack of dogs howling somewhere in the distance. No other sounds at all. No birds. No leaves rustling. No cars. In the distance I could see the glow of one campfire where either Bedouins or tourists must have been camping, but heard no sounds from them. Very peaceful.

The views were amazing. The Milky Way was so bright and clear that I could easily see all kinds of interesting structure and detail with my unaided eyes. It was like a planetarium but real. There were shooting stars constantly, and they made tremendous impact against the black desert sky and the brightly shining Milky Way. Through my telescope and my Widescan eyepieces, the number of objects I could see in the southern Milky Way was astounding. I saw numerous different nebulas and clusters, and they were so obvious they jumped out of the eyepiece. Despite using an 80mm refractor, it felt almost like I was viewing through a big dob. The amount of detail in globular clusters like M2 and in emission nebulas was spectacular, but I also had the benefit of the incredible wide fields that can only be seen in a small refractor or a pair of binoculars. I should mention that the Widescans totally performed here. Teamed with the Ultima Barlow they provided sharp-to-the-edge 82-degree views that absolutely made the scope disappear.

After a couple hours cruising the southern Milky Way at low power, I swung over to have a look at some familiar objects. The double cluster in Perseus was fantastic. While this showpiece is faintly evident in the Brandon 80 from my suburban Maryland backyard, here stars leaped out brightly against a black sky. Now I know what people mean about "diamonds on black velvet." The Ring Nebula was fantastic in the 13mm Widescan barlowed to 74x. Scores of stars in M13 easily resolved at 96x in the 5mm Tak LE. The Andromeda Galaxy, however, presented the most impressive view of all. While the Brandon hardly picks up Andromeda at all from my backyard, here it was huge and bright, showing rich detail in the core and arms. With averted vision I could make out dust lane structure and even glimpsed what I'm pretty sure were two companion galaxies. While I must admit that M13, M92, M15 and other globular clusters are still better in my ten inch dob from my backyard than they were in the Brandon 80 at Wadi Rum, this is not true of Andromeda, which benefited so much from the dark sky that the low power view in my Brandon outmatched anything I'd ever seen in the ten inch. Finally, I tried for the double-double in Lyrae and was able to get a nice split in the Tak LE at 96x.

Deeply satisfied, I packed away the scope, started the truck and easily drove back to the road. That was about 1:00AM and I drove back to Aqaba listening to mellow guitar music on Israeli radio. What a great night.


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