More Warming Than Any Wine

A cruel, cloud-sodden winter is ending, without a single observing session since November. I had gotten a new Delos—a 14mm, to replace the 14mm Explore Scientific 82-degree that had been my workhorse until it shredded the threads on my O-III filter—for Christmas, with no opportunity to test it out. This was somewhat characteristic of Willamette Valley winters, but worse than usual; the one clear night the group had all winter, I was wiped out by a horrendous respiratory virus and spent that entire week in bed. Even the November session was awful, despite being at least somewhat productive.

I. The 18th was a Friday, an early-shutdown day at the factory, and predicted to be clear and of average transparency at least until Moonrise. Others in the EAS Irregulars had been out observing the Monday night before, when the weather had been milder. Now, the night after an EAS meeting, there were few takers despite Linslaw’s promise. It was also peak night for the 2022 Leonids, which had been reasonably active according to reports from around the country. This made it even stranger that no-one else wanted to venture out.

I loaded Bob the Dob (and related sundries) into the Flex, all systems go. My post to the e-mail list was greeted rather negatively; only Loren—who had grown up in Nebraska and North Dakota, and so was used to horrendous winter weather—was willing to brave the conditions. But how bad could they really be? I went off for an after-work nap; with Moonrise after 1 AM, it might be a good night for sweeping up many of the remaining Messier objects on my list, if nothing else. I didn’t have a “hardcore” agenda for the night, so it would be fairly-easy work.

When I woke up, it was already getting dark. This wasn’t as critical as it would’ve been earlier in the year; the objects on my evening’s list weren’t going to be in a good observing position for several hours yet. It would be a nuisance to drive out and set up in the dark, but hardly an insurmountable one. I made sure to put on every conceivable layer of clothing I could, and had charged the batteries to my electric gloves overnight. I was as ready, I thought, as I could be.

Loren was already there and raring to go. So was the wind, whipping across the crag and down into the valley. It took me all of ten seconds to realize why none of the others had come out–they’d all been reminded of the ghosts of winter Linslaw sessions past, when the wind and the cold combined to make even brief observations hazardous and unpleasant in equal measure. My question about how bad the conditions could be was answered with icy, seemingly gale-force derision.

As I was setting up, Loren let out a whistle—a Leonid, and a really bright one! I was too busy collimating my scope to have seen it. I’d missed a huge number of spectacular meteors that way, staring into the eyepiece at some vanishingly-faint target while the show went on above without my attention.

With the sky already sufficiently dark and telescope and gear assembled and ready, there was no time to waste. The Pleiades—my first deep-sky object, as I had seen them with my father’s 7 x 50 Korean War binoculars (without his knowledge) back when Carl Sagan’s Cosmos first aired—awaited, well above the Eugene skyglow to the east.

MOON: 24 days (rose at 1:03 AM; 28% illuminated)
SQM: 21.27 (10 PM)
NELM: not checked
WEATHER CONDITIONS: temps to 37˚; no dew; windy; excruciatingly awful
All observations: 12.5″ f/5 Discovery Dob, 14mm ES 82˚ eyepiece (112x, 0.7˚ TFOV) or 7mm TeleVue Nagler (225x, 0.36˚ TFOV) unless otherwise noted

M45; The Pleiades (Tau): One of the two most insanely-detailed Messier objects, the Pleiades/M45 (the other being M42 itself, the Orion Nebula); there’s really no way to do good notes on this aside from picking one Pleiad and starting with it, so we’re going to use Alcyone [Eta Tau], because it’s the brightest of the lot (at 3rd magnitude). Alcyone has a small isosceles triangle of stars to the P and NP, the brightest star of which [24 Tau] is 2’ P slightly N of Alcyone and is 7th magnitude; it has an 8.5-magnitude star P very slightly N of it by 1.25’; that star has NF it by 1’ another 8.5-magnitude star. From Alcyone N slightly P by 11’ is a 7th-magnitude star; that star has P somewhat S of it by 4.5’ a 9.5-magnitude star. 17’ P somewhat N Alcyone is a 7.5-magnitude star, and that 7.5-magnitude star has a tight pair SP it by 4.5’; those are NP-SF each other, separated by 0.67’ and are both 8th magnitude; the one to the NP is a little bit brighter. [It’s hard to know where next to go from here!]… P somewhat N Alcyone by 29’ is the SF vertex in a trapezoid of stars with a very narrow NF end, or a narrower NF end; that star [20 Tau; Maia] is 4th magnitude and has P somewhat N of it by 10’ a 4.5-magnitude star [19 Tau/q Tau; Taygeta]. From the first star in that trapezoid N very slightly F by 10’ is the fainter [22 Tau; Sterope] of the two on the skinnier N end of the trapezoid; that star is 6.5 magnitude and has a 6th-magnitude star [21 Tau; Asterope] P very slightly N of it by 2.5’. From [Maia] N slightly P by 30’ is a 5.5-magnitude star [18 Tau] that has N of it a SP-NF asterism which consists of a rough parallelogram and a couple of stars on the NF end of it that form something like a “tail.” 

Back to Alcyone: S of it by 12’ is the N-most in that long, flattened ‘V’ that trails S-ward; it’s one of the defining features of the Pleiades. it has six primary stars, all of which are roughly in the 7th/8th-magnitude range; they seem to get a little fainter as they proceed S-ward; from the first of these S by 6.5’ is the second, and then S very very slightly P of that one by 4.75’ is the vertex star of that V; SF that star by 3.67’ is the next star; SF that star by 4.75’ is another, and then the last one is S somewhat F that star, and this last one is the faintest of the group and is about 4’ from the one NP it. The vertex star of the ‘V’ is the brightest of those in it. And then from the star at the S-most end of that ‘V’, F somewhat S by 12’, is a 5.5-magnitude star. 19’ SP Alcyone is Merope, which is 4th magnitude; from Merope P somewhat N by 22’ is another blazing 4th-magnitude star [17 Tau; Electra] that has a 5.5-magnitude star [16 Tau; Celaeno] N very slightly P it by 11’, and that star is 15’ P somewhat S the first star in the trapezoid [Maia] that I mentioned earlier. From Alcyone F very slightly S by 24’ is a 4th-magnitude star [27 Tau; Atlas] with a 5th-magnitude star [28 Tau; Pleione] N of it by 5’; that 4th-magnitude star has an 8th-magnitude star [26 Tau] S very slightly P it by 12’; [Atlas] has a 6.5-magnitude star S somewhat F it by 22’, and from [Atlas] SF by 17’ is a 7th-magnitude star that is the brighter component of a double; it has an 11th-magnitude star SP it by 5”. 

The Pleiades as a whole are about 1.5° in diameter; the cluster just goes on a long-ass way (scientifically speaking), and the nebulosity seems to be much brighter (or much more obvious, anyway) around the more-N stars in general—with the exception of Merope, which really seems to be the most nebulous of all of them. I’m not getting any kind of shape to the nebulosity; I could probably throw the 7mm in here and try to pick up that nebula better around Merope, but the wind is just too damned oppressive. This is obviously a cluster, despite its huge area; there’s little more than “dead space” around it, kind-of a ring of emptiness around the cluster, so it’s well detached. I don’t know that I would describe it as rich, but it’s so spread out that it’s hard to do an easy census here; I didn’t count all of the much fainter stars in here because there are obviously too many within the confines of the cluster—I’d be here all night. There’s obviously a pretty wide range of magnitudes here—even just between the 4th-magnitude stars and 9th-magnitude stars, there’s a five-magnitude range. So that’s the Pleiades, my first deep-sky object ever, and one of the most-difficult to do justice to with simple verbal notes. 

The Pleiades is (are) one of those objects far better observed in modest aperture—binoculars, small telescopes—than large aperture; the vast size of the cluster makes observations such as the one above a “forest for the trees” affair. The cluster, so beautiful when seen as a whole, loses its appeal when examining a few individual stars at once (as that’s all the relatively-tiny field of view of the 12.5-inch Dobsonian could gather). In binoculars, the Pleiades are a sight that will forever haunt the nostalgic corners of my caveman brain, a scattering of blue-tinted jewels on a tapestry of dark night. It was important to note this amid the boilerplate routine of my “formal” astronomical observations—what magic astronomy holds for its adherents isn’t often captured in the process of merely taking notes.

Given the incredible strength of the winds biting through my coat, sweatshirts, and other layers of clothing, it was fortunate that I knew my way to these Messier objects by heart, so as not to waste time; letting go of the telescope seemed to invite a wind-related accident. This was primal, even elemental stuff: survival astronomy. After briefly popping into the Flex to open up a six-pack of chemical hand warmers (into my pockets and parka mittens they went), and a quick perusal of the sky to assess the position of the Auriga clusters, I spun the telescope in that direction. The wind tried to spin it the other way.

M38; NGC 1907 (Aur): The second Messier of the night; I’m working in Auriga now, tackling the three bright ones there. M38’s major axis is roughly P-F; it’s about 18’ P-F by 16’ N-S. At the due N end of the cluster, there’s a long, N very very slightly P-S very very slightly F line of stars that’s the cluster’s most unmistakable feature; there’s a little detached clump of considerably-fainter stars there at the S end of the minor axis that may not actually be members of the cluster, but I used that to denote the S fringe of the cluster—if that’s not part of the cluster, then I’d say that the minor axis is about 13’. The line at the N end of the minor axis has about twelve stars in it and is fairly detached from the rest of that axis; there’s not a lot going on between that line and directly S-ward to that little clump on the end. The cluster is somewhat butterfly-shaped, with that line on the N as the head end. Overall, the cluster is very obviously a unified object; it’s quite well detached from the Milky Way background and very rich, with at least 125 stars here, most of these in a fairly-narrow range of magnitudes; there’s a large number in the 10th-11th magnitude range, and a sparser substrate of 11th/12th-magnitude stars. Then there’s a number that are fainter than that, in a third strata that’s comprised of 13th-14th magnitude stars. The lucida of the cluster, an 8.5-magnitude star, is on the far F end of the major axis, and that axis semi-terminates there. There’s a trio of stars NF that lucida and running N that are fairly-evenly spaced; those are all in the 12th-magnitude range. The major axis runs from the lucida P slightly S, roughly all the way across the cluster. The lucida is actually the brightest star in the field; 40’ SP it is a single reddish 6th-magnitude star. This is a particularly-impressive cluster; it’s hard to go into much detail with it because there’s such a uniformity of brightnesses in there. The stars are clumped in multiple places: there’s the line at the N and several more, along and around the minor axis; in particular, there’s the clump at the far S end of that axis, and then 3’ N somewhat P that clump is another, which is extended N-S and consists of a bunch of considerably-fainter stars than the average; those are all 13th-14th magnitude, but there’s a good number of them there; and then 4’ there’s N somewhat F or N slightly F that S-most clump is another that’s mostly triangular, but in averted vision shows a number of fainter stars peppering it. 

So that’s Messier 38, but 38’ S very slightly P its lucida is another small cluster [NGC 1907], which mostly consists of a 1.75’ circle of stars, but extends from that circle N slightly P-S slightly F; the S slightly F end is marked by two considerably-brighter (10th-magnitude) stars that are P very slightly N-F very slightly S to each other and separated by 1’; at the N slightly P end of that whole assemblage is an 11.5-magnitude star. That central clump is very rich; it has about 25 visible stars in it, over some background averted vision glow. Overall, the cluster is 5’, from the F of the pair to the S to the 11.5-magnitude star to the N slightly P. It’s quite easily visible as a cluster, a very rich little cluster, with about 50 stars in its borders. The two stars on the S end may not actually be part of it; if they aren’t, then the cluster has a pretty narrow magnitude range: mostly 12th-13th magnitudes, maybe a single 11th-magnitude star right at the center of the clump. A well-detached companion to M38.

While I was taking notes on M38, Loren was observing Jones 1, the huge planetary nebula in Pegasus and a favorite of mine; I stopped over for a look and to help verify the sighting. It seemed stronger in his 18-inch Obsession than I expected on this night. I had visually estimated the sky at 21.4 on the SQM, but hadn’t had a chance to actually take readings.

Holy hell, it was horrendous up on the crag. The wind was knifing through my many protective layers as if I wasn’t even wearing them. My electric gloves were still holding up, but when they finally gave out, it would be miserable—no chemical warmers would be able to fend off this wind chill. It almost felt like jumping into a bath of ice water, only doing so every five-to-ten seconds… which was how often the wind blasted across the crag. When I finally got out the SQM, it not only gave consistent readings in the 21.27-21.25 range, it also repeatedly gave temperature readings of 37˚ F. It felt much colder. Having been in Fairbanks, Alaska, in -57˚ F, I honestly couldn’t recall which felt worse. I’d had to take off my gloves to use the SQM, and my hands were raw by the time I was done holding the little device aloft.

I’d only have enough left in me to take notes on the remaining two Auriga Messiers; given how long my audio notes were, I’d be lucky to make it through both.

M36 (Aur): This is the second of three in Auriga, M36, and damned if this one isn’t roughly the same orientations as M38—it’s much brighter, but P-F it’s about 15’, and N-S roughly the same; I’m going to call it circular, even though the actually pattern resembles a stick figure like the butterfly of M38 or the ET cluster, only richer across the middle. In this cluster it’s a little harder to ascertain a lucida, as there are several stars that could fit the bill; there are two on the very N (actually a little bit N slightly P) from the main body of the cluster; there’s one on the SF and one on the SP that could be the lucida; even more notable is a pair separated by 10” that lies just F the center of the cluster; those are roughly equal at magnitude 9.5. That pair is roughly just SF the center of the cluster; there’s also a 9th-magnitude star P very slightly N of them by 1.5’ that I’d say is at the center of the cluster. This is an obvious cluster; again, its individual stars are brighter than those of M38, with a field of dimmer stars overlain by a strata of 9th/10th-magnitude stars; there’s an area several arcminutes in diameter at cluster center that contains the greater concentration of fainter stars. The two stars to the N end are P very very slightly S-F very very slightly N to each other; those are about 2’ apart and roughly equal magnitudes, with the one on the F a little bit brighter; those are 9.5 and 10th magnitude; the P of those two has a 12.5-magnitude star P very slightly S of it by 0.3’. There’re about 80 stars here; it’s less rich than M38; many of the stars are in the shape of a capital ‘A’ that basically comprises that minor axis, the N-S axis, and then there’s a string of three to the F that kind of trail off F slightly N and form the left arm of a stick figure with the ‘A’ at the center. (The right arm is composed of a string of 10th/11th magnitude stars. If anything, this cluster kinda resembles a five-point star, except doesn’t come to a nice sharp point at the N end.) Then 11’ SP the 9.5/10th-magnitude pair is a 9th-magnitude star that has a 12th-magnitude star 0.67’ N somewhat F it, and those two mark the SP corner of the cluster. If I can identify a single lucida I think it’s a star in the SF quadrant, which is 6’ S somewhat F the double or pair at the middle and is 9th magnitude.

My left hand suddenly registered as having gotten cold—the amber light on my glove had gone out. I had a spare battery in my pocket, but I’d have to take both gloves off to swap the batteries. By the time I managed to get the spare battery hooked up (they were about the size of a flip-phone), my hands were both almost numb.

Loren, having observed three of the planetary nebulae he’d been pursuing (Jones 1, NGC 7139 in Cepheus, and Abell 82 in Cassiopeia), tore down his scope for the night, the better to watch for Leonids (and, I thought, to escape from the wind if the conditions continued to worsen. They did.).

I noted: “… the wind and the cold have just gotten so vicious that it’s not really much point in continuing beyond this one aside from self-hatred.” They may be the truest words I’ve ever spoken into my notes.

M37 has long been a favorite; this was made permanent in my mind at Northern Arizona University, where I ran the 24″ Arthur Adel Cassegrain telescope on Friday public-outreach nights. Our binder of outreach-worthy objects called this one “The Gold-Dust Cluster,” and while I’ve not sussed out the origins of the nickname, it’s certainly an apt one.

M37 (Aur): This is M37, the richest of the Messier clusters after M11, a spectacular object with (just as with M11) its lucida conveniently dead in the center. The cluster is about 16’ round, with a very rich 6’ central concentration, and along the outer F and SF perimeter there’s a kind of a ring of stars; there’s also a triangular 3’ x 2’ clump on the N end that’s detached from the rest of it; to the P there’s a scattering of fairly random-looking and “non-patterned” stars. This is obviously a cluster, very detached from the background and the rest of the Auriga Milky Way; like M38, it has a fairly narrow magnitude range (mostly in the 11th-12th magnitude range); the lucida, just about right at the center, is 9th magnitude and really stands out when you first examine the cluster. There must be 200 stars here! After the lucida, the next-most noticeable feature of the cluster is the dark nebulosity that seems to pervade it; running N-S and F the lucida, and spanning basically the whole N-S length of the cluster, is a vein of dark nebulosity that branches to the P from its N end and cuts across most of the cluster in a 7’ x 1.67’ vein that runs across the N part of the cluster, then bends due S at a right angle towards its F end, runs F the lucida for about 9’, and then ends – that strip is about 0.75’ wide, and at the S end of that, it splits NF and SP. From the lucida SF is a minor vein of that dark nebulosity which connects to the larger N-S strip; that area has no visible stars from the lucida SF. That SP-NF strip at the end of the N-S vein also has another one running parallel… no, it’s not so much that it runs parallel, it’s that there’s just a giant blob there. That whole SP-NF bit of nebulosity on the S end of the cluster is in total 4’ thick at the NF end and 5’ or 6’ on the SP end and runs 10’ long; instead of being two parallel strips, it’s a single big one that’s got a faint incomplete line of stars that runs across its major axis, and looks like it divides the darkness into the two individual discrete dark nebulae, but it doesn’t; it just overlays that larger one. On the P edge of the cluster and also running N-S is a long 12’ vein of dark nebulosity that’s variably thick; there’s about 12-13 stars overlaying it that don’t break it up into smaller chunks. From the lucida due F by 7’ is a pair, N very slightly P-S very slightly F, separated by 1’; those are both 10.5 magnitude, and the S-most of the two has a 13th-magnitude star 0.3’ N very slightly P it; it’s actually a line of three. The brightest star in the field is S very slightly P the lucida by 20’ and is 8.5 magnitude, and that star has 9’ P slightly S it a 6.5-magnitude star that’s just outside the field with the cluster centered.

I don’t believe I’ve ever packed up so quickly, or with absolutely zero regrets. The five minutes it took me to break down Bob the Dob—which I had to do without gloves (the battery in the right-hand glove had died as well, leaving me with one gloved hand and one in a parka mitten)—were excruciating, made worse by the torque I needed to use in order to get the truss poles free. By the time I was done, my fingers felt as if I’d ripped the skin off of them down to the bone.

I loaded the scope parts and sundries into the Flex, bundling up against the wind even further as the hatch closed. Loren hadn’t seen any Leonids in the twenty minutes since he’d put his scope away and, despite his greater hardiness, had had enough. I started to exchange pleasantries, and he said what we’d both been feeling.

“[Screw] this—let’s get outta here!”

We Interrupt This Program…

… for a profanity-laced political broadcast on behalf of the Sensible Party.

When I started this blog back in 2014, I told myself that I would never stray from its purpose as an online journal for my astronomical observations and other astronomy-related musings (equipment reviews, astronomy news, etc.) I also told myself that I wouldn’t get into political discussions within my posts; aside from some commentary about the local sovereign-citizen/military hardware dinguses—the kind who start forest fires at our observing sites—I’ve managed to hold true to that promise as well.

That promise to rise above political commentary here look a beating this last week, courtesy of the Florida state legislature: a micro-brained Florida congresscritter named Jason Brodeur introduced a bill in session that would require any blogger who writes about Governor-Clown Ron DeSantis, his right-hand meat-puppet Ashley Moody, or any other member of the Florascist Executive Cabinet or legislature to register with the state or be fined for writing about them. Furthermore, the writer of such a blog post would have to pay every time they update the blog following a mention of any member of the Florida executive, legislative, or judicial branch.

The bill, Florida Senate Bill 1316: Information Dissemination, can be read here. Local reporting of it can be read here.

Although I am not a paid blogger—at least not yet—and this bill specifically targets those who earn income from blogging, the implications are clear, and the slippery slope is both a steep slope and very slippery: criticism of the fascists running the state of Florida will not be tolerated and will, gradually, be stamped out. DeSantis—a tiny, pitiful gastropod of a man—already made his intentions clear this year when he replaced the Board of Directors governing the Disney property with a team of hand-picked cronies, from the semantic prototype of Karen herself to an Alex-Jones-quoting nutball preacher, all because Disney had the temerity to do the right thing (for once) and speak out against DeSantis’ “Don’t Say Gay” horseshit. (gay gay gay gay gay gay gay.) Now, he (in all likelihood acting through bootlicking toadies like Brodeur) is seeking to control the narrative in case those meanies in the blogging community dare question his AUTHORITAH. What is it about these authoritarian assgaskets that they can’t handle being mentioned in a negative light? They would’ve never survived the days of Johnny Carson or David Letterman monologues, let alone someone as unfiltered as the great venom-slinger himself, Frankie Boyle. If they can’t handle the criticism, they shouldn’t invite it so blatantly.

My apologies for this reluctant but necessary digression. But as a writer, I won’t stay silent while (literally) free speech is stifled by Generalissimo DenebianSlimedevil and his appalling Gormlesstapo, a loathsome collection of spirochetes who have plans to take their localized infection to the national body politic. Because once they’ve started going after those who profit from words, they’ll try to do the same with those of us who write for free. Brodeur’s bill, regardless of whether it passes, is a clear shot across the bow of the 1st Amendment, and there’s little to suggest the current American judiciary would find cause to intervene should it be enacted into law.

Gold in My Pocket

The mid-October Moondark phase (roughly from Third Quarter to First Quarter) seemed promising, at least based on the Clear Sky Chart forecasts. With the sky darkening at a decent hour, I would be able to get home from work, eat dinner, and get to whichever site we would decide to use on a given night—especially if the scope was already loaded into the car.

Several days before the Moon gave us a suitable respite from its presence, I had gotten an email from a local fellow with a telescope to donate: “a 90mm scope, numerous eyepieces and filters.” And so on the Sunday before the dark run commenced, Mrs. Caveman and I ran over to pick up the gear from the very kind gentleman on our way to a visit with some friends at a local winery.

Those friends included Loren and his wife Donna, and about halfway through our visit, I decided to open up the case and box of telescope gear for Loren and I to sift through. “Christmas in October,” I called it.

The scope turned out not to be one of the ubiquitous ETX-90 Maksutov-Cassegrains of which we’d had at least a dozen donated since I’d been in the club, but a 90mm Orion MakCass of better quality: the mechanics were solid, and the optics looked pristine. It came with a 26mm Orion Sirius Plossl (a decent beginner eyepiece) and a 1.25” Shorty Barlow for doubling the magnification of the Plossl, a couple of Tasco 0.965” eyepieces (oddly, although these will pair with my 1950s-vintage 60mm Tasco refractor, if they’re usable), a bunch of camera filters, and, even more oddly, a slide-projector lens. There was also a like-new Telrad and an old University Optics 8 x 50 right-angle correct-image finderscope with helical focus and a purplish-blue color not unlike that of Meade’s classic era; this had an odd crosshair pattern to it that I’d never seen used before. Loren’s eyes lit up at the finder.

We seem to have telescope “harvests” every couple of autumns or winters, in which several telescopes (and their related sundries) get donated to EAS out of the blue; these almost always have hidden gems in their cases or boxes. While we haven’t yet had a full harvest this year, this small donation did indeed bring with it several pearls of great price, as I discovered upon opening a small wooden box that came in the larger paper-ream box in which the whole lot was given to me.

The box contained eyepieces… but what eyepieces they were.

The first one I noticed was a homemade-looking thing, with huge eye and field lenses and a tarnished bare-metal barrel that was etched with “1-1/8” and “43x” on it (whatever scope gave it 43x I couldn’t say); the lenses were a bit scuffed, but otherwise seemed in decent shape for having been left unprotected in a box filled with rotting foam and other metal things rolling around in it. This was followed by a 4mm Criterion Ortho, Criterion being a long-defunct manufacturer of good telescopes from about 1950-1981.  There was also a filter of indeterminate type; judging from the reflective coatings, it was some sort of nebula filter.

But the real gems were still in the box, in battered old Ziploc-style baggies: a trio (25, 12, and 8mm) of Clavé asymmetric Plössls, possibly of the 3rd Generation, before Clavé was bought by Kinoptic. This was a staggering find; I whistled when I unwrapped them from their worn-out baggies. Clavés are some of the best European eyepieces ever made, perhaps only bested by Zeiss’ Abbé Orthoscopic eyepieces, which could fetch anywhere from $4500-$9000 for a complete set, depending on condition. The Clavés aren’t quite so pricey, but were still valuable. These were in surprisingly good condition, given that they’d been stored and forgotten with no eyepiece caps and nothing but thin bits of plastic to protect them. To say that I was stunned by the discovery would have been an understatement. 

(Dan B, telescope-lending coordinator for EAS, was less enthused. “Tarnished, patina’d brass,” he would later call them, more interested in stuff that we could loan out with telescopes than in relics of bygone eras of amateur astronomy.)

This changed my observing calculus a bit for the next few sessions. I needed to give these eyepieces some thorough testing; if their glass was in as good a shape as it looked, the Clavés might be a bonanza for EAS’ planetary observers.

I. My first opportunity to put the new gear to the test came on the Friday after we got it.

Eureka Ridge had opened for the hunting season; Jerry, Dan B, Loren, and Robert joined me in the small ridgetop clearing, having taken turns using Jerry’s grass whip to beat the vegetation down to a suitable length. (It was a matter of extreme annoyance that the road was open for the hunters, as it was assholes and their gun fetishism who had gotten the site closed in the first place.) The conifers that ringed the southern edge of the clearing had grown quite a bit since our last session there, but it was still as good a place to spend a night’s observing as anything outside of Linslaw.

It was a night that had to be short. Mrs. Caveman had spent the week in DC, and was due to come home that night; at the last moment, Loren’s wife Donna asked if she could pick up Mrs. C at the airport, letting me off the hook. Nonetheless, I felt somewhat duty-bound to be there when she got home. 

Rather than any of my own gear, I took the new scope and its assemblage of eyepieces. (I forgot the finderscope, which Loren had wanted to borrow.) Setup was remarkably quick—I attached the slow-motion mount to the camera tripod and the scope to the mount. Done. 

But to what end? The sky was considerably smoky—still—as a result of the Waldo Lake (Clear Creek) fire, which seemed as if it would burn forever. We could tell even before the sky got dark that the transparency was mush; it might’ve been poor even if there’d been no smoke at all. It hardly mattered, though; Moonrise was at 9:15, so none of us were expecting a night of “serious” observing anyway.

The 90mm Orion was a bit wobbly on the mount, but with the 26mm Sirius Plossl, the views—of M11, Saturn, Jupiter, and eventually the Moon—seemed quite sharp. The scope was easy to bring to (and keep) focus, stars were tiny pinpoints, and the Cassini Division in Saturn’s rings was visible even at such low power and in such mediocre conditions.

Of course, I wasn’t there to test the Sirius. With an unexaggerated air of anticipation, I put the 25mm Clavé in the focuser.

The view was sharp, but… it was still a 25mm eyepiece, no matter the quality. Nothing suggested that it was degraded or damaged in any way, fortunately, so at least there was that.

The other two Clavés, the 12 and 8mm, yielded similar results: they were quite sharp, but between the conditions and the 90mm MakCass primary optics, I wasn’t blown away by them. They certainly weren’t lacking in any aspect, but this was obviously not the best test of their performance. One criterion of note, though—the Clavés were extremely lightweight compared to more-modern designs with twice the internal glass.

I left shortly after moonrise, so that I would be home before Mrs. Caveman got there. The others stayed behind, no doubt amused by my fascination with low eye relief and narrow fields of view.

II. The next night held greater potential, forecast-wise and in terms of equipment. Having tested the 90mm Orion a bit, I decided to go for broke; the 20-inch Obsession was the weapon of choice, and Linslaw the site of its deployment. I still brought the Clavés along, despite the admonition that they were better-suited to focal ratios much slower than the Obsession’s f/5.

There were no vehicles parked at the top when we arrived this time. It was the only thing that went right all night.

The sky was a dull, faded blue as I set up; Dan and Loren arrived as I began putting the big scope together. 

I was in the process of collimating the scope when I heard Loren curse. This by itself wasn’t unusual, but then Dan let out a swear of agreement.

The rear passenger-side tire on Loren’s truck was flat.

We’d pretty much expected someone to get a flat at one of our sites; the rough, bumpy roads made it a matter of when, rather than if. I stayed out of the way as Loren and Dan tackled the tire change, as the last thing they needed was a semi-human nosing into the process. I noticed as they were working on the tire that the valley in the distance was filling up with fog.

The process of changing the tire was itself a disaster. Loren’s truck seemed to be hiding the jack and tire iron; it was easier to get them from Dan’s truck than to find them in Loren’s (or even in the manual for Loren’s). Worse, they couldn’t locate the spare, and when they did, the assembly that held it under the truck had rusted so badly that it was impossible to spring the spare free from its housing. All in a truck that Loren had bought new only a few years ago.

Loren and Dan took another set of turns trying to break the spare free as Jerry pulled up. He also took a turn at the stubborn spare, but they all decided it was a futile effort after the third go-around. With no tire available, there was only one choice: Dan and Loren would make the 45-minute drive back to Eugene, grab a tire from Dan’s truck, and drive back. Otherwise, they’d be leaving Loren’s truck at Linslaw overnight until Loren and Donna could get the tire changed. That left me and Jerry to wait until they returned, making use of whatever the sky gave us.

Which wasn’t much, honestly. The sky was as smoky—or moreso—as the previous night. I browsed around the usual setting summer showpieces; those lower in the sky suffered badly from the smoke and horizon gunk. Even at higher altitudes, the deep-sky objects available were clearly diminished by the conditions.

But we made the most of it. I took no notes on anything, as it “wouldn’t be fair” to the objects. Jerry had started watching a transit of Europa across Jupiter’s clouds; I swung the Obsession over that way, only for Jupiter to be too low—the roof of the Flex blocked the view.

Loren texted: they were going to his house to get a tire from his other truck. He told us we were free to leave, but we chose to wait anyway. The smoke seemed to be clearing slightly, so there was potential for better observing within the next few hours. Dan inquired about the conditions; I told him things might be looking up. (Awful pun unintended.)

It was while I was atop the ladder observing NGC 7789—Caroline’s Rose—that I noticed that the fog had crept right to the edge of the crag. Jerry hadn’t noticed it either, and it provoked “oh, shit” exclamations from both of us. Within a few minutes, the fog rolled up the edge of the crag and blanketed the whole mountaintop. My observing was basically over for the night; Jerry stayed watching the Europa transit, sharing the view once I had covered up the Obsession’s primary mirror.

Eventually, even Jupiter was buried in the fog. Jerry packed up his trackball scope, which took all of five minutes. I began tearing down the Obsession; with the upper cage and truss poles removed, I was able to show Jerry how loose the ground-board mounting bolt had gotten. As it was a captive bolt, there wasn’t much we could do about it on-site, so we made plans to do a tune-up day with some of the club scopes, before wrestling the huge mirror/rocker-box assembly up the ramps into the Flex.

We heard Dan’s truck well before the headlights flashed across the west side of the crag; the fog made them seem almost tangible. Loren unloaded the fresh tire. It wasn’t the right size; as it was slightly bigger than the other tires, Jerry suggested putting it on the front of the truck and bringing one of the front tires to replace the flat one, so as not to cause problems with the differentials. (I, of course, knew absolutely zero about this sort of thing.)

It took the three of them less than fifteen minutes to finish the job. Dan hadn’t assembled his scope and Loren hadn’t even started unloading his, so there was nothing remaining to be stowed beyond jacks and tire irons. After a search of the observing area, we headed down the mountain: I led the caravan, being least-likely to be useful should Loren have trouble with the oversized tire; Dan followed me, then Loren, with Jerry following behind to make sure Loren made it to Springfield without incident. 

The drive home was mostly fog-free, even as we dropped in elevation. I pulled into the driveway to a clear but hazy sky, Jupiter and the few bright stars visible from my yard shining softly through the smoke and light pollution.

III. Night Three of the October dark-sky run finally found me getting some notes on objects, although it was not without its own travails. (How disappointing that a rare week of clear, Moonless October skies was so beset with [admittedly First-World] problems!)

With forecasts all over the map, we settled on the Oxbow as our site of best opportunity. As it was mid-week, and I was working, this was a bit more of a strain; the treacherous hour-long drive meant that I’d have to leave by midnight in order to get home at a decent time (it would still result in a 19-hour day and only four hours’ sleep before the next… but this was science!). I was in need of some solid observing time, and some progress on my various projects, so I wasn’t going to quibble.

I arrived at the pullout first; Loren, Robert, and Jerry pulled up not long afterward. The sky was smoky but looked to be passable—given the previous couple of observing attempts, this was good enough. Scopes were assembled and the long, chatter-filled wait for darkness began.

The great drawback of the Oxbow as an observing site is its relative remoteness; even at Linslaw, we were able to receive Internet and phone signals. But on this paved area on the side of a maintained county road, we seemed to be farther from civilization than at any of our off-road observing haunts. One manifestation of this is the fact that there’s no contact with the “outside world,” in that our phones are essentially cut off due to lack of signal. As a result, I can never access the POSS images from Sky Safari, which are useful in finding difficult field galaxies.

Normally, that’s all that I would have to put up with. Tonight, though, my phone decided to be a colossal asshole, first with the TriAtlas; in attempting to access the app, I got a prompt of “Unable to Verify App: A connection to the App Store is required for the first launch of TriAtlas on this iPhone. Please connect to the Internet and try again.” What in the sweet tapdancing Cthulhu was this? I’d used the TriAtlas for years, on every phone I owned. What was this “first launch” crap, and since when did I have to have Internet service for basic apps?

At least Sky Safari worked… for about a half hour, long enough for me to track down my first two targets: a Shakhbazian-esque galaxy chain in Aquarius, noted by New York amateur Ivan Maly on the Deep Sky Forum; and Herschel “remainder” galaxy NGC 7183, which lay nearby. The galaxy chain, anchored by the galaxy PGC 68036, was an averted-vision smear of light, completely without detail. I spent about ten minutes with it before acknowledging that it wasn’t going to yield enough to take notes on, at least tonight.

NGC 7183 did show enough. I switched from Sky Safari to the Voice Recorder app, ready to take notes on it….

…and immediately got the “Unable to Verify App” prompt.

For such a spiritual pursuit, astronomy certainly can bring out the off-color language; I don’t recall which profanity was the first one out, but I’m pretty sure I got to them all. I’m also sure I had to restrain myself from chucking my phone over the edge of the paved overlook. Without the Voice Recorder app, my evening was essentially over already; I’d driven an hour for almost nothing. Even though the sky wasn’t great, I’d really hoped to make some progress on my various observing projects, only to be thwarted by some inexplicable out-of-the-blue bit of operating system nonsense. (Nonsense being a much nicer word than I’d originally typed.)

The clincher: clicking back to Sky Safari brought up the same. damned. prompt.

My phone was essentially locked up, and with it, my ability to find objects, my ability to describe objects, and, well, even my actual list of objects for the month. I sat in my chair for a few minutes, tracking NGC 7183 pointlessly… until a light bulb went off overhead.

Purchased apps might not work, but what about native apps? Like the Voice Memos app that comes inboard with the phone?

I brought up the app. No prompt! Just as importantly, I still had my Jumbo Pocket Sky Atlas in the Flex—if I could remember some of my planned targets, I could make things work out at least a little bit in my favor. But first, I already had a suitable target in the eyepiece, and another I found along the way….

MOON: 23 days (set at 3:51 PM; 37% illuminated)
SEEING: 6, 5
SQM: 21.11
NELM: not checked
WEATHER CONDITIONS: temps to mid-50s; slight dew; air still; cool but not cold
All observations: 20″ f/5 Obsession Dob, 14mm ES 82˚ eyepiece (181x, 0.45˚ TFOV) or 7mm TeleVue Nagler (363x, 0.21˚ TFOV) unless otherwise noted

NGC 7183 (Aqr): It’s a smoky night but the sky is decent anyway. This galaxy is large, elongated roughly P-F, extending to 2.25’ x 0.67’. It has a quite diffuse, poorly-defined halo. There’s a smallish, somewhat-brighter core; at this magnification there doesn’t seem to be a nucleus. To the S somewhat P and S somewhat F are a couple of brighter field stars; the brightest in the field is the star S somewhat F, which is 10th magnitude; the star to the S somewhat P is 11.5 magnitude; both are 3.75’ from the galaxy and are 3.5’ apart, aligned roughly P-F to each other. From the galaxy P somewhat N by 3’ is a 12.5-magnitude star. There’s a 14.5-magnitude star 3.5’ P slightly S of the galaxy and a 10.5-magnitude star 12’ P somewhat S of the galaxy; there’s also a 15th-magnitude star N very slightly P the galaxy by 2.25’. The 7mm Nagler does nothing for the galaxy; it’s so diffuse that it’s hard to see at all now, and there’s no nucleus even at this magnification. 

I stumbled across the next galaxy while searching for NGC 7183. I probably had already taken notes on it, as it was a really impressive object, and was probably in one of the Herschel lists I’d already done. But here, with the 20-inch Obsession and an observing agenda I couldn’t access, there was no reason not to take notes on it again.

NGC 7184 (Aqr): This is the very impressive (even in the gunk) NGC 7184. I’d imagine this one needs much better skies to see the full extent; it’s 5.5’ x 1.0’ (at the middle) at 80˚ PA; it tapers quite a bit at the ends of the spiral arms. Near the F end of the galaxy is a 13th-magnitude star that’s surprisingly less distracting than it should be. The galaxy has a large bright core and an occasionally-visible stellar nucleus. The core at times seems round and then at times seems like it smears toward the F—maybe both? Under better conditions I’d say the halo is probably mottled; it’s much more diffuse and not particularly well defined, especially on the P end. Along the F side are a couple of stellarings along the F side, along the length of it, that are occasionally visible in direct vision but are easier in averted. It especially seems like 1/3 of the way from the nucleus to the star on the F end, and slightly S of that line, there’s a particular stellaring that’s brighter [this is actually an embedded 15th-magnitude star]. That star on the F end is about 2.5’ from the nucleus; from the nucleus 5’ P is a 13th-magnitude star that has an 11.5-magnitude star NP it by 1.25’; from that star 3.75’ N somewhat P is a 12.5-magnitude star that has another 12.5-magnitude star 1’ N very slightly P it, and then from the 11.5-magnitude star (the more N of that first pair) P very slightly S by 6’ is a 12th-magnitude star. A great galaxy!—I didn’t intend to takes notes on it, but why not?? With the 7mm, the stellarings and the nucleus are more apparent, but focus is too indeterminate down there.

I don’t actually recall how I found NGC 7392; it’s not on the Pocket Sky Atlas, and with Sky Safari and the TriAtlas both kaput, I had no other means of finding it (or identifying it, had I swept over it). Perhaps I remembered it being close to Neptune (which I had just finished observing). Regardless, I ended up with notes on it somehow.

NGC 7392 (Aqr): A really considerably bright galaxy, this is currently not far from Neptune, really, but it’s also just P the bottom of the “streams of water” in Aquarius. The galaxy is elongated 110˚ PA, so P somewhat N-F somewhat S, and spans 1.5’ x 0.67’. The halo is pretty well defined; it has a large, substantially-brighter core that’s not very gradual, and a definite stellar nucleus (especially in averted vision). It’s not super easy to hold in direct vision at this altitude, but it’s doable. N of the galaxy by 1.67’ is a 13th-magnitude star that has a 14.5-magnitude star 0.67’ N of it; from that star N slightly F by 2.25’ is the brightest in the field, which is 11.5 magnitude. From the galaxy F somewhat S (so along its major axis) by 2.67’ is a 13th-magnitude star; there’s another 13th-magnitude star S of the galaxy by 4.5’. With the 7mm: seeing is dogsh*t down here, but the nucleus looks a little less stellar. Another really nice galaxy!

Among all the deep-sky objects, my favorite targets to observe are globular clusters and galaxies—particularly galaxies in groups, and even more particularly galaxies in chains or strings. A large-aperture telescope is generally necessary for these latter objects, given the scarcity of available subjects, although there are some fine examples to be had with more-modest scopes.

The best of these—and the finest in the northern sky—is the NGC 383 chain in extreme northern Pisces, up near the Andromeda border. This chain is one of the most-obvious segments of the massive Perseus-Pisces Filament, one of the largest-known structures in the Universe, stretching from Abell 426 in Perseus down through Andromeda, Pisces, Aries, and Pegasus in our skies. This is one of my favorite observing targets, easy to find and rewarding to study. With my resources at a minimum, it was time to take notes on this string of cosmic fluff (despite the somewhat-declining seeing and transparency).

NGCs 383, 382, 386, 385, 384, 380, 379, 374  (Psc): I’m finally taking notes on this group, which is my favorite galaxy chain. Starting with NGC 383, which is the brightest in the chain and is the largest of the lot; it’s 1.25’ round, with a gradual, brighter core and a pretty well defined halo; here in the 14mm I think I see a faint substellar nucleus. S slightly P 383 by 0.5’ is another smaller galaxy [NGC 382]; it’s also round, but much more diffuse and has either a tiny brighter core or a substellar nucleus to it; it’s about 0.25’ round and is pretty poorly defined. Continuing S slightly P for 1.5’ is a 12th-magnitude star. 3.3’ S somewhat F 383 is a difficult small (0.3’) spot [NGC 386] with a faint stellar nucleus but not much of a core; it’s very tough. [I missed NGC 387 here.] From 383 S by 5.5’ is the more N [NGC 385] of a pair of galaxies: the larger of the pair, it’s 0.75’ round, with a small bright core; it’s much more diffuse than 383. S slightly P by 1.67’ is another [NGC 384] that’s 0.5’ diameter; [so many of these are vaguely roundish!] this one is diffuse and poorly defined but has a gradually-bright core. From 383 N somewhat F by 5’ is a 12th-mag star; also from 383 4.5’ N somewhat P is the more S [NGC 380] of another galaxy pair; this is the second-brightest in the group and is smaller than the one N of it at 0.67’ diameter, but it has a diffuse halo, a very concentrated bright core and a stellar nucleus.  2.25’ N very slightly P that one is the second of that pair [NGC 379], which is elongated N-S, 0.75’ x 0.5’, and has a very gradual core to it but no apparent nucleus. It’s well defined; the one to the S of it is much less so.  3.5’ N slightly F [379] by is an 11.5-magnitude star; N very slightly P that galaxy—3’ due P the 11.5-magnitude star —is a 12.5-magnitude star. From [379] N slightly P by 17’ is NGC 374, which is much more diffuse and less well defined than the others, elongated NsP-SsF, 0.75’ x 0.3’; it’s bracketed to the SP and NF by a pair of 14.5-magnitude stars, and has a very weak core but fleeting stellar nucleus. With the 7mm, these are great! I love this group! The S-most galaxy [384] in group has a really bright nucleus. [385] doesn’t seem to. 383 is a juggernaut compared to the others, especially the little one SP and the one SF [386] that is mostly nucleus at this magnification, with a very poorly defined halo. [380] has much better concentration and a very bright nucleus compared to the others. 374 may have a substellar nucleus, but standing up on the ladder is killing my legs and I can’t be sure; I think it does. 

(The NGC 383 chain in Pisces; NGC 374 is out of the top of the frame. Image courtesy Sloan Digital Sky Survey.)

I wasn’t overly satisfied with my notes, and will likely redo them on a better occasion; I missed a few of the galaxies, and my discomfort on the ladder—that step-height issue I’d struggled with before—led to rushing through my descriptions.

Meanwhile, Loren was observing NGC 7027 in Cygnus, which I had taken notes on what seemed like forever ago.

Robert left; he had to get his kids to school in the morning. I would have to follow soon, as I had work the next day; I had to remind myself that this was mid-week, and I hadn’t done weeknight observing since I started at the factory in April of ’21.

Feeling a bit in the zone despite the pain in my feet (I’ll shut up about it eventually!), I went through a few pages in the Jumbo Pocket Sky Atlas, looking for recognizable targets. I found one in Cetus, and a fine target (or trio of targets) it was.

NGCs 273, 274, 275 (Cet): Doing this one because I had the means to find it with my phone basically dead; this is the 273/274/275 trio in Cetus (inversus); the most obvious is NGC 274, of course, which is 0.67’ in diameter and poorly defined but has a much brighter [than the halo] core that’s fairly abrupt and a substellar nucleus; in contact with it to the SF, about 0.75’ center to center, is NGC 275, which is 0.75’ diameter, very diffuse, very weakly concentrated and fairly even in illumination. 8’ N somewhat F 274 is a 10.5-magnitude star; 14’ SF 274 is an 8.5-magnitude star. N slightly P 274 by 11’ is NGC 273, which is 0.75’ x 0.3’, elongated roughly P-F, and is probably not as well defined as it seems it should be; I suspect the low altitude isn’t helping. It does have a small bright core but no visible nucleus; it also has a 14.5-magnitude star NP it by 0.75’ that’s quite distracting; F the galaxy by 2.5’ is a 13th-magnitude star. With the 7mm, I’m not expecting much, but that’s when surprises happen. With the 7mm, 274 definitely has a substellar nucleus; 275 still has no significant concentration. In averted vision, I may be getting a stellar nucleus to 273, but it’s really hard to tell; if we were even 10˚ farther S it would be a huge help.

It normally takes between thirty and forty minutes to break down the Obsession and load it (and all its attendant gear) into the cramped quarters of the Flex; I waited a while this time for the others to wrap up their own observations for the night, so as not to blind them with the Flex’s automatic head- and tail-lights. I had the whole scope and gear broken down, waiting to load the moment the last observer started packing up.

I still felt pretty alert, no small feat considering that my day had begun at 5 AM. It would take every remaining bit of energy to negotiate the tricky, hourlong drive home. Yet even as I pulled into my driveway, I was planning ahead for the next session out, creating contingencies for unworking phones and reshaping my observing list for a night of lesser conditions.

IV. I somehow found the energy for two nights in a row, interspersed among three full days’ work. This time we stayed closer to home, at Eureka Ridge, which was still open but also still hazy with smoke.

It was just Loren and I this time; given the forecast, it wasn’t surprising that others chose not to make the trip. I arrived at the small clearing on the logging road that wends along the ridgetop and waited for Loren to get there, so as not to start setting up the Obsession in a spot that might interfere with his own scope.

Loren pulled up, and we debated the merits of the evening’s sky. Was it worth setting up? The smoke was clearly an issue, but would it impair our observing to a serious degree? I started unloading the Obsession; the worst that could happen would be that I had to tear it back down and reload it.

As the sky darkened, Loren was convinced. Conditions might not be great, but they would allow for observing some of the brighter targets we were after. With every clear night until April an opportunity not to be squandered, the perfect was (as always) the enemy of the good.

One of the first things I checked was the various apps I used; all of them worked. As I suspected, the previous night’s phone failure was due to the lack of a signal. It still was supremely annoying, and I had prepared my laminated Sky Atlas 2000.0 with post-it flags so that I wouldn’t be without either charts or an agenda for the evening.

I’d arranged my observing agenda several different ways and printed it out, sorted by constellation, object type, and degree of difficulty. This would allow me to work specific areas of the sky, concentrate on a given observing program (flat galaxies, galaxy clusters, etc.), or choose targets based on the sky conditions. Tonight would be one for the “easier” stuff; the “Shakhbazian-esque” galaxy chain in Aquarius, noted by Ivan Maly on the Deep Sky Forum, was all but invisible as I zeroed in on its location, so there was no question of seeking out distant galaxy groups. In that light, I started with a few of the Herschel remainders.

MOON: 24 days (set at 4:19 PM; 28% illuminated)
SQM: 21.11
NELM: not checked
WEATHER CONDITIONS: temps to mid-50s; some dew; air still (breezy beyond ridge); cool but not cold
All observations: 20″ f/5 Obsession Dob, 14mm ES 82˚ eyepiece (181x, 0.45˚ TFOV) or 7mm TeleVue Nagler (363x, 0.21˚ TFOV) unless otherwise noted

NGC 7393 (Aqr): Starting off here on a smoky evening at Eureka Ridge; having struck out on that PGC galaxy chain of Ivan Maly’s and a couple other things, we’re looking at NGC 7393 in Aquarius. The galaxy is elongated P-F, and subtends 1.25’ x 0.67’; it seems to be pretty well defined, but it also seems to be brighter on the P side; it’s definitely irregularly illuminated in the halo, and also has considerable internal brightening or concentration to it. It’s really hard to make heads or tails out of it at this magnification—something about the galaxy is visually “off.” 3.5’ N somewhat P the galaxy is a 13th-magnitude star that has a 14.5-magnitude star P it by 0.75’, and then N somewhat F the galaxy by 4.5’ is the more S of a pair of 14.5-magnitude stars that are roughly N-S to each other and separated by 0.5’; the more S of those is slightly brighter. The brightest star in the field is S somewhat F the galaxy by 7.5’ and is 10.5 magnitude, and it has an 11.5-magnitude star 1.5’ S somewhat F it. 7’ S somewhat P the galaxy is a 12.5-magnitude star that has an 11.5-magnitude star S very slightly P it by 2’. In the 7mm: higher magnifications tonight are just not working—I think that’s too much power, as the seeing is just not that good. The galaxy’s core is definitely shunted toward the P side; it’s distinctly brighter on that side. There also looks to be a threshold star embedded in the F edge, where it tapers. It’s very hard to get a good focus.

Surprisingly, given that it was October, the mosquitoes were particularly annoying on the night; I could hear them buzzing on my audio notes.

NGC 7469; IC 5283 (Peg): The very interesting NGC 7469 in Pegasus is situated down by the diamond of stars I use to find NGC 7479. There is a blazing nucleus to this little galaxy, which also has a gradual and very slightly brighter core. The galaxy is elongated P slightly N-F slightly S; it’s 0.75’ x 0.3’. Given how bright the nucleus is, at first glance you could mistake the galaxy for a star with some thin faint halo around it from poor transparency. 0.5’ F the galaxy is a 15th-magnitude star; SF the galaxy by 5.5’ is an 8.5-magnitude star, and N somewhat F the galaxy by 6.5’ is an 8th-magnitude star. N somewhat P the galaxy by 3.5’ is an 11th-magnitude star. Between the two 8th/8.5-magnitude stars is a rough parallelogram/trapezoid (it’s much narrower on the N end) of 12th/13th-magnitude stars; I’m not going to detail all of them. 13’ due S of the galaxy is a 9th-magnitude star, which is the N-most vertex in a little isosceles triangle that points toward the F; the 9th-magnitude star has 1’ S of it an 11th-mag star; there’s a 12th-magnitude star F slightly S of the 9th-magnitude star by 1.5’. Going back to 7469: 1.3’ N slightly F the galaxy is a more ghostly, diffuse little galaxy [IC 5283] that’s smaller and thinner than 7469; it comes and goes with variations in the transparency. It looks to be an edge-on, and the major axis has a little central brightening along it; it’s elongated 0.67’ x 0.2’ P slightly N-F slightly S. Let’s throw the 7mm in here and see what we get. [Happiness is a warm eyepiece.] I can’t get over how bright the nucleus is in NGC 7469; that 15th-magnitude star F it is really jumping out now, and this is not helping [IC 5283], though—it disappears, for the most part, but jumps out a bit on occasion with variations in the conditions. [5283] may have a threshold star in or around it somewhere; I’m getting that “sparkle vision” effect, but it’s hard to pick it up. There may be a threshold star on the N edge of it.

The seeing and transparency were both proving to be highly variable; several times, I noted that IC 5283 had almost disappeared in the field, and that the stars had bloomed into indistinct disks. I carried on.

Loren was busy stalking my planetary-nebula nemesis, Sharpless 1-89 in Cygnus. He eventually threw his hands up on that one and moved on to IC 5117.

NGCs 7679, 7682; UGC 12628 (Psc): NGC 7679 sits within the Circlet of Pisces, and is another small galaxy with a very bright nucleus. It’s quite round, 0.67’ across, with only a gradual and slightly brighter core but that very strong stellar nucleus. The halo is pretty well defined. The galaxy is bracketed to the P slightly N and N very slightly F by a couple of fainter stars; the star to the P very slightly N is about 2.3’ from the galaxy and is 12th magnitude; the one to the N very slightly F is about 2’ from the galaxy and about 13.5 magnitude. P somewhat N of the galaxy by 5.25’ is a 9.5-magnitude star that has due P it by 2.25’ a 13.5 magnitude star. F somewhat N of 7679 by 4.5’ is another galaxy [NGC 7682] which is more diffuse and less concentrated; it does have a stellar nucleus and a well-defined halo to it. It’s 0.5’ x 0.3’, elongated N very slightly P-S very slightly F. [suddenly] There’s another one [UGC 12628] in the field down there. From 7679 9’ SF is a roughly N-S line of five stars, most of which are of 13.5 magnitude. That line is 1.75’ long; there are four in the N half of the line (three in a row and one slightly P), and then a gap, and then the final star. Just F that line by 3.5’ is an extremely difficult, diffuse glow of low surface brightness, that has little central concentration at all; it’s round, 0.75’ diameter, and very very ghostly; I picked it up with averted vision earlier and can just hold it in direct; averted definitely helps with this one. Even at 7mm, 7679 could be a fuzzy star, as bright as its nucleus is. With the 7mm, the second galaxy looks to have some very tenuous brightening along its major axis; I’m no longer sure it has a nucleus in there or not. [UGC 12628] shows a little better too. It sometimes looks like… I don’t know if that’s a nucleus or a threshold star; I’m just getting sparkle vision there near that galaxy, probably enhanced by the fact that it’s so difficult to hold the galaxy steady.

Adventures in Automatic Transcription, Part Something or Other: the Voice Recorder app transcribed “tenuous” as “tiny ass.” While an apt description of some of the Shakhbazian groups’ components or some of the planetary nebulae I’d observed, accuracy was needed here.

With time growing short again, and work looming in the morning, I had only time for one or two more objects. The one I had in mind was, like the centerpiece of the previous night, a whole bunch of targets rolled into one.

NGCs 202, 203 [211], 193, 204, 199, 194, 200, 198, 182 (Psc): This is gonna be a long one, because this an excellent, extensive galaxy chain in Pisces that starts at the N with NGC 202 and also stretches all the way down to NGC 198 and lower. The galaxy chain starts 7’ S slightly P a 7.5 magnitude star with NGC 202, [I’m gonna skip a lot of the field stars here unless they’re necessary] which is about 0.75’ x 0.3’, elongated 170˚ PA (N very slightly P-S very slightly F); it has a distracting 13.5-magnitude star 0.75’ F it. The galaxy is fairly well defined and has an elongated, very slightly brighter core; I do think every now and then there’s a nucleus visible. 5.5’ S of the galaxy is a less-diffuse, better-defined, elongated P slightly S -F slightly N galaxy [NGC 203/211] which is 0.67’ x 0.3’; it has a non-stellar nucleus, but a very weak core. 8’ S slightly P that galaxy is a 9th-magnitude star that has an 11th-magnitude star 3.67’ S slightly P, and the 9th-magnitude star has 2.5’ P very slightly N of it a larger galaxy [NGC 193] which is 0.67’ round and well defined, with a small brightish core and a faint stellar nucleus; it also has a 13th-magnitude star 0.5’ S slightly P it, just outside the halo. Back to the 9th-magnitude star: F very slightly S of it by 4.25’ is another galaxy [NGC 204] which is elongated very slightly N-S, 0.67’ x 0.5’, with a poorly-defined and diffuse halo, a small, gradual, slightly-brighter core, and a substellar nucleus; it also sometimes seems like there’s a threshold star embedded in it that gives it a double “nucleus.” From the 9th-magnitude star 12’ S very slightly P is a 7.5-magnitude star; from that star F slightly N by 5’ is another diffuse galaxy [NGC 199] which is poorly defined; it’s 0.67’ diameter, with a small, very abrupt core and a faint substellar nucleus. 6’ S somewhat F the 7.5-magnitude star is an even larger galaxy [NGC 194] that’s 0.75’ diameter, with a moderately well-defined halo and a slightly-brighter core, perhaps a trace of a stellar nucleus; that galaxy has 10’ S somewhat F it an even larger galaxy [NGC 200] that’s very diffuse, with very weak central concentration; at first I thought it was round, but now I think it’s NP-SF oriented, so 1.0’ x 0.75’, also with weak central concentration; this is a fairly bright galaxy, with a faint stellar nucleus; averted vision really helps draw out the nucleus. It also has SP it a pair of 12.5-magnitude stars separated by 1’, and those are N very slightly P-S very slightly F to each other, and along that line, about 3.5’ from the S of those two stars, is another large galaxy [NGC 198], which is about 6’ S very slightly P the previous galaxy and is even more diffuse and rounder; it’s 1.25’ round, with a large, weak core but no nucleus and a poorly-defined halo. That galaxy has a 9.5-magnitude star 5.5’ S slightly F it and also has 5.5’ P somewhat S of it an 11.5-magnitude star; from that star 16’ P somewhat S is a 7.5-magnitude star, and that star has 3.75’ F somewhat S of it another galaxy [NGC 182] that’s 1.0’, roundish, and better concentrated than most of the previous ones despite being poorly defined; it has a very weak core but a substellar nucleus.

Better conditions might have yielded a few more galaxies along the chain; there were surely a number of UGC or PGC galaxies in those fields. 

But no matter. It had been as productive a run as we could make it, all told; when I was a younger caveman looking skyward, I would’ve never dreamed I’d be regularly observing under skies as good as these, even in their compromised state.

I packed up with no regrets. Loren was done first, and he headed out after making sure I didn’t mind. 

After finishing the stowing of my observing chair (always the last item in with the Obsession load-in) and taking the covers off of the Flex’s headlights, I swept the clearing with a headlamp beam. Leave nothing behind except starlight.

I drove out, hopeful that we’d get another opportunity at the next Moon-dark phase, but satisfied with what I had done during this one. I’d managed to leave the 7mm Nagler in my coat pocket, along with my phone. Autumn may indeed carry more gold in its pocket than the other seasons, but the real gold in my pocket wasn’t an expensive eyepiece; it was the audio journals of my voyage through the backwaters of the autumn night.  

Ghosts and Shadows

Shakhbazian 317; image centered on PGC 8329. Courtesy/copyright Sloan Digital Sky Survey.

Late September and October bring with them a sense of urgency for the astronomy-minded in the Willamette Valley—the frequent weeks-long stretches of clear nights end at this point on the calendar, replaced by months of uncertainty: will this weekend be the first/last opportunity of the rainy season? Every break in the clouds, every blue box on the Clear Sky Chart raised a glimmer of hope, one often dashed by the reality of living in the Pacific Northwest. They call them “sucker holes” for a reason.

I. So when the Clear Sky Chart went blue for several nights during the September/October Moon-dark phase, the effect was roughly akin to a house full of dogs seeing their master gathering up their leashes for a walk: a virtual stampede out of town to the site of best forecast. In this case, Linslaw Point, and a stampede missing some of the usual suspects; Dan B was ill, and Loren was in North Dakota for the week. But Jerry, Mark, Robert A, and Alan were on-board, and we made an immediate beeline caravan for the Coastal Range once sunset hit T minus 60.

For the first time since April, I brought out the heavy artillery—EAS’ 20-inch Obsession. I was scheduled to go back to work in October, and I needed to be physically ready for it. What better way to test this than by negotiating my way around the massive scope? Loading it into the Flex hadn’t been a huge problem for my reconstructed foot or anything else; perhaps the rigors of using it in the field (specifically, on the crag) would be less demanding than they might at first seem.

To this end, I had an agenda tailor-made for the big scope: flat galaxies, Hickson groups, some Shakhbazian groups, a couple of the remaining Herschel objects, some objects I’d observed previously without taking notes on (eg. PGC 70994, the difficult ring galaxy in Pisces) and a few of the Deep Sky Forum’s past Object of the Week entries. I’d also managed to scare up a couple of extremely-obscure galaxies in Sagitta for the sake of my idiotic quest to observe a galaxy in every constellation, Sagitta being one of only two constellations with no galaxies brighter than 15th magnitude (Scutum being the other, and likely the most difficult of all).

I managed to get the Obsession assembled with only minor difficulty and a few lesser swear words. Collimation was a different story; despite my having put the scope together at home that morning, it was still far out of optical alignment. Jerry had done some work on the upper tube assembly (UTA) to clean up the previous issues with collimation, and had rebuilt the dew-heater system so that it actually worked. This had necessitated quite a lengthy pre-observing collimation session at home, to make sure I didn’t have to spend an hour in the field getting the critical alignment correct. But the secondary-mirror holder was still a nightmare to work with—a pox on three-point secondary mounts!—and I’m sure even George Carlin would’ve suggested that I dial back on the profane phraseology I used while getting the blinkered secondary to stay where it needed to stay.

Ultimately, the wretched secondary holder got centered up and stayed there. I went to the back of the telescope and dialed in the primary mirror, then checked the secondary again. Success! After a few minutes’ tweaking of the Telrad alignment, the whole scope was ready to go. Now, all that remained was for the sunset glow to fade to black (or at least dark grey, given the natural airglow and the light dome from Eugene/Springfied, mostly blocked by the sandstone crag).

MOON: 28 days (set at 6:40 PM; 3% illuminated)
SQM: 21.4
NELM: not checked
WEATHER CONDITIONS: temps to 55F; no dew; slight breeze
All observations: 20″ f/5 Obsession Dob, 14mm ES 82˚ eyepiece (181x, 0.45˚ TFOV) or 7mm TeleVue Nagler (363x, 0.21˚ TFOV) unless otherwise noted

Unwilling to waste a moment, I went straight for my first Sagitta galaxy, UGC 11385, on the constellation’s far western end. But though I had the location correct, I was unable to winnow the galaxy out from the star field. I didn’t look that tough on the POSS plate, and I had the right field, but… nothing. I stared into the field for several minutes. Still nothing.

Not wanting to give up, I scooted the giant scope over to the eastern end of Sagitta for my second target. This one took little time to extract from the field.

PGC 64467 (CGCG 447-1; Sge): The first galaxy on my first night back with the 20-inch, and we’re going after the hard stuff already: this is PGC 64467 in Sagitta, and it is exactly what one would expect from a 15.44-magnitude galaxy. This is part of my quixotic quest to view a galaxy in every constellation; I only had two candidates in Sagitta and this one, I thought, was going to be the more difficult of them, but the UGC just was not willing to be seen (part of this is because Sagitta is in an awkward part of the sky for the ladder and, therefore, my feet). But this little galaxy is sandwiched between two 12.5-magnitude stars that are about 1.3’ apart, N and S of it. The galaxy is extremely faint, and elongated N-S; it cannot be more than 0.3’ x 0.2’. It’s very diffuse and weakly defined, and only in averted vision here in the 14mm does it show any sort of central brightening; I’ve already used the 7mm Nagler on it, and it didn’t really enhance the view at all. The two 12.5-magnitude stars bracketing the galaxy form the N end of the P-most of a pair of arcs, like a pair of inward-bowing parentheses. 2’ S somewhat P the S of the two 12.5-magnitude stars is an 11th-magnitude star, and then 2’ SP that star is a 10.5-magnitude star; these finish off the P of the two arcs. The other arc is almost as much a “V”-shape, with the 11.5-magnitude vertex of the “V” 2’ S slightly F the galaxy, and the S end of that F arc or “V”-shape is a little scalene triangle. NF the galaxy by 5’ is the brightest star in the immediate field, which is 10.5 magnitude; N slightly F the galaxy by 2.75’ is a 10.5-magnitude star that has P slightly S of it by 0.5’ an 11.5-magnitude star. With the 7mm back in, there’s a very faint star N very very slightly F the galaxy, about half the distance from the galaxy to the more N of the two 12.5-magnitude stars. That galaxy is just there in direct vision, but very ghostly and intangible. Nonetheless, that is a galaxy in Sagitta, where only two are within range of a standard amateur telescope.

In the background, Mark and Robert were animatedly discussing Elon Musk, Starlink, and the potential for amateur space travel; Mark was still setting up his astrophotography rig. In the foreground, however, I was experiencing the drawbacks of my astronomy ladder. The wide steps—the reason I’d bought it—were certainly a huge boon for my tormented feet; they were spaced so far apart, however, that the eyepiece of the Obsession always seemed to be either a half-step too low or a half-step too high for comfortable viewing. I needed to build a tray for the top of the ladder, too, like I had done with the green ladder for the EAS 18-inch scope, as the “shelf” atop the ladder was too small for more than an eyepiece or two, and then only if they were lying down. Worse, the rail the shelf attached to was rickety and a bit frightening to lean against. I’m sure it was probably safe, but it felt too dainty to lean my full weight against. And the four feet on the ladder made it harder to position that Jerry’s tripod ladder. Still, those 10″-wide steps made being on the ladder bearable, compared to every standard ladder I’d ever used.

I’ve observed Hickson 88 in Aquarius a number of times; it’s not hard to locate, and the three NGC-designated galaxies are quite easy, even in the 12.5-inch scope. The fourth is quite difficult, but there it was, in the eyepiece of the 20-inch Obsession. The seeing and transparency that low in the sky were fairly murky, but I’m not going to let that stop me from a target I really want to observe.

NGCs 6978, 6977, 6975; PGC 65612 (Hickson 88; Aqr): I’ve taken notes on Hickson 88 before, but certainly not with a 20-inch scope. The three NGC galaxies are really pretty obvious tonight, while the PGC is coming and going as the transparency wavers. The NGCs are all S somewhat P-N somewhat F to each other, with the brightest one, NGC 6978, on the N somewhat F end. It’s elongated P slightly N-F slightly S, about 1.0’ x 0.3’, and moderately-well defined, with a stellar nucleus and a somewhat brighter core; the core is a little bit on the gradual side. 1.3’ S somewhat P NGC 6978 is a 14.5-magnitude star, and then 1.25’ S somewhat P that star is NGC 6977, which is rounder, 0.75’ diameter, with a small, gradually arrived-at, somewhat-brighter core but no visible nucleus; the halo is moderately-well defined. 1.75’ S somewhat P NGC 6977 is NGC 6975, which is the most diffuse of the three; it’s about 0.67’ diameter, with a very faint, poorly-defined halo and a slightly-brighter core. 2.5’ P NGC 6975 is a 12th-magnitude star, and then from that star S slightly P by 1.5’ is PGC 65612, HCG 88D, which has a 12.5-magnitude star S of it by 1.3’. F somewhat S of NGC 6975 by 3.5’ is the dimmer of a pair, which is 11.5 magnitude and has a 10.5-magnitude star 0.75’ F very slightly S of it. With the 7mm PGC 65612 pops out a little bit more; it’s 0.5’ long, elongated P-F, very very thin, very evenly illuminated as well, but very ghostly and only intermittently visible in direct vision. At this magnification, the nucleus in NGC 6978 really shows well.  The halo-core distinction in NGC 6977 is very gradual, and the central concentration in NGC 6975 is more apparent than I saw it earlier. 

I could’ve taken longer notes, but the group was in a slightly-awkward spot for me on the ladder—just as PGC 64467 had been—and my legs were starting to cramp up. This would be a recurrent theme throughout this dark run.

In the spirit of giving stupid nicknames to deep-sky objects—a specialty of some astronomy writers—I’m going to call Hickson 88 the Three Stooges Galaxies, with the PGC galaxy as Shemp; maybe the nickname will stick. (It’s still a better nickname than “The Deer Lick Group.”)

Not far from Hickson 88 is one of my personal bêtes noire, MCG-1-53-12, a.k.a. PGC 65506. This flat galaxy is one of the few visible in the early-fall regions of the sky; I’d already made several attempts at observing it, with varying degrees of failure. Only on one or two occasions had I seen enough of the galaxy to confirm the sighting, and none of them was convincing enough to take notes one it. Now, though, I was able to hold the galaxy steadily enough to describe it.

MCG-1-53-12 (PGC 65506; Aqr): Finally—the long-sought PGC 65506 in Aquarius. I’ve glimpsed this flat galaxy before but was never really sure that I could say that I saw it, but I’ve finally got a solid-enough sighting to confirm it. The galaxy is between the right-angle vertex of a small triangle to the P and NP and a pair to the F, of which the S of the pair is the brighter. It’s 1.3’ x 0.125’, and really takes averted vision to hold steadily, so only just a 1 on the averted-vision scale but barely holding. It’s elongated perfectly 180˚ in PA (or 0˚). The right-angle vertex of that little triangle is 1.25’ P very slightly N of the galaxy and is 13.5 magnitude, and has N slightly P it by 1.25’ a 14.5-magnitude star; from the right-angle vertex P slightly S by 1.75’ is a 13th-magnitude star that finishes the triangle. From the galaxy F very slightly N by 2’ is the S of that pair, which is 12.5 magnitude and has a 13.5-magnitude star 0.5’ N very slightly F. The view in the 7mm is still ridiculously faint. The galaxy is actually not bad here at 362x; although the field is significantly darker, there’s just enough added contrast to pop the galaxy a bit. It’s very even in illumination, with no central brightening to it. At this magnification, the N star in that pair F the galaxy is actually a double—it has a 15.5-magnitude star P it by 10”—and that right triangle is actually more like a diamond due to an added star (we’re going to forget that for now and just keep calling it a right triangle because it’s more fun to talk about). 

I had intended to pass on that particular galaxy tonight, and am pleased that I didn’t.

Jerry was showing Dan R NGC 206, the star cloud in M31; he’d asked me for the NGC number. My caveman brain was full of NGC numbers, an annoying Rain Man-esque tic that was a source of amusement for my EAS colleagues. I’m not sure how or why it came to be that way.

On the opposite end of Aquarius, just south of the Water Jar asterism, is one of the easier of the Shakhbazian Compact Groups. The Shakhbazians (colloquially) are a level beyond the Hickson Compact Groups in observing difficulty: much more distant, much fainter, much smaller on average than the Hicksons, and some of the most-challenging galaxy groups for telescopes of any aperture. (It should be noted that several of the Hicksons are also in the Shakhbazian catalogue.) My quarry here was Shakhbazian 331, a roughly north-south string of six galaxies no more than 1′ long. I often refer to the Shakhbazians when in the field, usually in a comedic manner (on a smoke-laden evening: “looks like good skies for Shakhbazian hunting,” etc.), but I was bound and determined to take notes on several of these obscure groups during this dark cycle. Lo and behold, Shk 331 was immediately apparent in the eyepiece. Both Dan R and Jerry took skeptical looks and were impressed to see this tiny glow, the feeble combined light of these ephemeral, ancient (z = 0.0534, 750 million light-year distant) galaxies.

PGCs 96867, 96865 (Shakhbazian 331; Aqr): The first of several Shakhbazian Compact Groups on my agenda, this is Shakhbazian 331 in Aquarius. I know there are at least four galaxies here, but although they’re definitely there in the eyepiece, they’re almost impossible to separate at this magnification. These form a difficult (but not excruciatingly so!) collective glow that’s 0.75’ in diameter; it’s fairly obvious when you first look at the field. 4.25’ S of the galaxies is a 12.5-magnitude star that serves as something to latch onto in the field, and 12’ F very slightly N of the group is a 7th-magnitude star that’s a real annoyance in the eyepiece. 2.75’ N of the group is a 14.5-magnitude star, and then 7’ N of the galaxies is a 13th-magnitude star. Other than the galaxies, there’s not a lot going on in this field; there’re a couple other stars in there, but nothing particularly noteworthy aside from the galaxies. With the 7mm, there are at least two distinct objects here: a larger one N of the other by 0.25’, the larger one about twice the size of the smaller one at 0.25’ diameter. The sky’s just not supporting this magnification, making the view more difficult overall.

My notes were less-extensive than I would have liked, but I was operating at close to the margins for Linslaw and the 20-inch scope on the night.

The air felt damp, but was still warm enough that I wasn’t yet using my winter coat. (I often used it simply for the pockets; with my phone in the upper left and my glasses in the upper right, I could take notes hands-free, and the other pockets allowed for filters and other eyepieces, in addition to the 50-year-old North Face mittens I’d inherited from my dad.) I commented, during my notes on Shk 331, that dew seemed imminent, despite not being indicated on the Clear Sky Chart forecast.

I stopped by Neptune and Triton while in Aquarius, and then wandered through my observing list for a bit. A number of objects (among them the flat galaxy UGC 12281 in Pegasus, the Pisces ring galaxy PGC 70994, and Hickson 91 in Piscis Austrinus) weren’t showing well in the nearly-damp air, especially those in the low south. Others seemed fine–at least, good enough for a set of audio notes. Chief among these was a trio of flat galaxies, the better for making further headway in the AL Flat Galaxy program.

(It was not until writing this entry that I discovered that I had been spelling Piscis Austrinus wrong for decades; it’s Piscis, not Pisces.)

UGC 12423; NGC 7518 (Psc): Here in Pisces with UGC 12423, and there’s a distracting brighter galaxy due S of it; that galaxy is really interesting because it has actual detail to it beyond being just a faint, thin flat galaxy. UGC 12423 actually does have some distinctive central concentration and is quite well defined; it’s elongated in position angle 135˚ and spans 1.5’ x 0.1’. Additional distractions from the galaxy include a couple of faint stars to the SF; there’s a 14.5-magnitude star 2.5’ SF the galaxy and an 11th-magnitude star 2.25’ P very very slightly S; P the galaxy by 1.67’ is a 14.5-magnitude star, and just S of the galaxy by 0.75’ is a 15th-magnitude star. F very slightly N by 1.75’ is the P-most vertex and brightest vertex in a small (almost-) right triangle; that star is 13th magnitude and has a 14th-magnitude star F somewhat N of it by 1’; that star is the right-angle vertex, and it and the third vertex, N very slightly P it by 0.67’, are both 14.5 magnitude. UGC 12423 is fairly obvious, despite the distraction of the larger galaxy [NGC 7518] to the S, 6.5’ S of UGC 12423; this galaxy is elongated P slightly N-F slightly S, 0.1’ x 0.75’ and is pretty poorly defined, although it definitely has a slightly brighter core and a substellar nucleus that shows much better in averted vision. The larger, brighter galaxy really blossoms at 7mm: the core is much more distinct, the nucleus very much apparent; UGC 12423 is also much easier, which is not always the case with flat galaxies. It seems to be a little more evenly illuminated with this magnification than it was at 181x, and much better defined.

I somehow missed UGC 12426, a much fainter edge-on galaxy 9.5′ N slightly F UGC 12423. Missing obvious field galaxies—this too would be a theme of this dark run. Perhaps this impatience was due to the blustery, cool wind that would finally drive me into my winter coat an hour later.

Somehow, I managed to drop my phone off the ladder while recording. Had it been damaged, my evening would, for all intents and purposes, have been over.

The famous Cartwheel Galaxy, which had just been imaged by the Webb Space Telescope, had also been the subject of a recent thread on Cloudy Nights. I had suggested attempting it with Bob the (12.5-inch) Dob, a suggestion which was met with some skepticism from the thread participants (largely because of my northern latitude than because of aperture or skill). Having brought out the Obsession, I thought I would see how the galaxy—perhaps the most-famous ring galaxy of all—might appear in the larger aperture first. With the Cartwheel culminating soon, I had actually suggested it as a target for Jerry’s 20-inch TriDob, as he was casting about for interesting targets.

He found the Cartwheel and its two attendant PGC companions with his usual quickness, but the view wasn’t promising. The two smaller galaxies were quite obvious, but the Cartwheel itself was an extremely-tentative, tenuous thing, its core tiny and very faint and its halo damn-near invisible in the horizon muck. We compared our impressions to verify that we were seeing it, and we certainly were—there was just so little to see that wasn’t drowned out in the poor visual signal-to-noise ratio of the low southern horizon. I passed on the Cartwheel when my culmination alarm sounded. Perhaps another night….

So it was back to flat galaxies, and several fine consolation prizes.

PGC 2526 (Cet): PGC 2526 is really surprisingly obvious here, almost due P Deneb Kaitos in Cetus. The galaxy has a 14th-magnitude star superimposed on it toward the F; just off the F tip is a 15th-magnitude star, but let’s talk about the galaxy first. It’s hard to tell because of the superimposed star, but it looks like just P that superimposed star is a little bit of central brightening. The galaxy is oriented in 80˚ PA, and is about 1.75’ x 0.25’; the halo is well defined Due N of it by 2.67’ is a 13th-magnitude star, and then 3.25’ N very slightly P that star is a 14.5-magnitude star that has a 15.5-magnitude star F it by 0.5’. This is a pretty barren field; its brightest star is 10’ F very slightly S of the galaxy and is 11.5 magnitude. P the galaxy by 13’ is another 11.5-magnitude star (this one might actually be brighter than the other one), and then S somewhat P the galaxy by another 12’ is another 11.5-magnitude star. Hopefully the 7mm Nagler will be able to separate out that star from the galaxy…. In the 7mm, that 15th-magnitude star just on the F edge of the galaxy actually has a little bit of space between it and the galaxy; it’s just a tiny bit S of the F end of the galaxy. The slightly-brighter central region is irregular in brightness. I’m surprised this galaxy got missed by WH, JH, and the other great observers, although it’s right in the “shadow” of a naked-eye star. 

Even better was the next (and the evening’s last) flat galaxy.

NGC 522; ICs 102, 101 (Psc):
 NGC 522 in Pisces is a really, really fine flat specimen, in a field with at least one other galaxy. It’s oriented in 45˚ PA and spans 2.5’ x 0.3’. The halo is irregularly bright but well defined; it does have a small brighter central core, although I’m not really picking up a nucleus. The galaxy has a threshold star due N of it by 1’; S somewhat F by 3.25’ is a 13.5-magnitude star that is the P-most in a (mostly) P-F line of three that also has one branching off of the center, turning it into a stubby capital ‘T’; F that star by 2.25’ is another of 13.5 magnitude; F that one by 3.5’ is another of the same magnitude, and 3’ S slightly P the one in the middle is a 14th-magnitude star. NF the galaxy by 3.5’ is a 15th-magnitude star; there’s a 15.5-magnitude star F the NF tip of the galaxy by 0.75’, and then from the center of the galaxy SP by 8’ is a smaller galaxy [IC 102] that’s about 0.67’ round and much more difficult; it’s not a great direct-vision target. This second galaxy may actually be elongated a little bit P-F, 0.5’ x 0.3’ (if that); it’s reasonably well defined but very very ghostly, and has a very slightly brighter core to it but no nucleus. 5’ P somewhat N of that galaxy is another [IC 101], which is actually a little bit easier to see and is elongated… it’s about 0.67’ x 0.3’, elongated 130 PA (roughly NP-SF); that one has a brighter core but no visible nucleus, and it’s sandwiched between two stars: S slightly P it by 1’ is a 15th-magnitude star and there’s a 13th-magnitude star N slightly F by 2.5’. NGC 522 should show pretty well in the 7mm…. Wow. At this magnification, 522 is really huge, really striking! The two threshold stars really pop out. This galaxy is distinctly irregularly bright and well defined. Of the two galaxies to the P, [IC 102] is pretty uniformly bright, but [IC 101] has a faintly brighter core. Great field! 

Jerry and Dan had left during my observation of NGC 522; Robert and Alan had left some time before. Mark and I were the only ones remaining on the crag, and Mark had gone back into his truck for a nap while his imaging rig continued its tireless work. has perhaps the best English-language astronomy discussion forums on the Internet. I’ve referred to them several times here on this site, and it’s not hard to see why after perusing them; they cover a wealth of topics and have a user base that includes many of the leading luminaries of amateur astronomy. They also provide a wealth of information that isn’t available anywhere else (at least not without a great deal of scouring search engines).

One such tidbit popped up on the deep-sky subform in late November of 2017, courtesy of CN user Redbetter, one of the more-dedicated and experienced deep-sky observers on the site. In the process of tracking down Hickson 21, he had starhopped from the star Tau1 Eridani, and had discovered something unexpected there—a small galaxy, tucked right next to this naked-eye star, which was not charted in any available star atlas (or planetarium app) and which had no known designation. During the discussion, it was noted by the dean of modern observers, Steve Gottlieb, that the galaxy had been observed by the great double-star observer S. W. Burnham in 1890 at Lick Observatory, but had remained lost among Burnham’s papers; it had later been catalogued in the Lyon-Meudon Extragalactic Database (LEDA) which formed the basis for the PGC (its LEDA number, LEDA 2816331, was the same as its PGC number, although the LEDA designation supersedes the PGC here).

After reading the discussion, I resolved to observe this nearly-unknown little galaxy, and I finally had the chance. It was, as the CN thread noted, surprisingly easy, if rather nondescript.

LEDA 2816331 (Eri): A discovery from a CloudyNights thread, this is Redbetter’s Galaxy, LEDA 2816331, tucked right next to the overpowering 4.5-magnitude star
 Tau1Eridani; the galaxy is 2’ P slightly S of Tauand is surprisingly bright for an object that has gone undiscovered or unobserved for that long. It’s elongated roughly NP-SF, about 0.5.’ x 0.3’, and pretty evenly illuminated (although Tau1 is so bright any details in the galaxy would be difficult to discern anyway). The galaxy has P slightly S of it by 1.75’ a 15th-magnitude star. It’s actually a pretty uninteresting field star-wise; there are a couple of other field stars in there, but nothing really noteworthy. 

Mark had begun to dismantle his rig, its photon capturing having finished for the night. Time for one final target.

With modern atlases being based on computer databases, it’s no small surprise that occasional quirks find their way into their pages. One such quirk is the inclusion of a pair of Zwicky galaxies (II Zw 5 in Cetus and III Zw 66 in Coma Berenices) on the charts of both Sky Atlas 2000.0 and the ubiquitous Pocket Sky Atlas. Despite being far too faint for most amateur optics and for the liking of most observers, these little galaxies still draw attention to themselves by dint of being included in the two most popular atlases ever made, simply because they have erroneous magnitude/surface brightness numbers in the source catalogues for those atlases. In any event, I had already looked for III Zw 66 with Bob the Dob during my epic Virgo Cluster run in 2017. Now, with a larger scope and somewhat better skies, the second of these Zwicky interlopers rounded out one of my best-ever nights of observing.

II Zw 5 (LEDA 10192; Cet): Something of a weird triumph here: this is the galaxy II Zwicky 5 in the tail of Cetus, and in a way it’s surprisingly easy given its obscurity. It’s roundish, no more than 0.25’, and occasionally visible in direct vision (but mostly in averted). The galaxy marks the N-most vertex in a small isosceles triangle; 1.3’ due S of it is an 11.5-magnitude star, and SP it by 0.75’ is a 13.5-magnitude star. 12’ due N of the galaxy is the HD 16763, the star that I used to find it in Sky Safari because the galaxy wasn’t listed; that star is 7th magnitude, and has an 11.5-magnitude star 0.3’ S slightly P it and 0.5’ F slightly S of it a 13.5-magnitude star. 9’ due S of II Zw 5 is the NP-most star in a line of three that stretches N somewhat P-S somewhat F; that first star is 11.5 magnitude, and S somewhat F from there, each by 1.67’ from each other, are a 13th-magnitude star and an 11th-magnitude star. In the 7mm Nagler the galaxy is fairly featureless, but even more difficult to see because the field’s been darkened too much; there’s not much to say about it, other than that it’s there, although it really helps to get the HD star out of the field. 

It was now well after 3 AM. I’d spent six hours of traipsing up and down a ladder, in the middle of the night, looking at objects that, not that long ago, would have been beyond the capabilities of amateur telescopes.

Mark was packing up; I had no hesitation in doing so myself. It had been an exhilarating return to big-scope observing. My feet (and, frankly, the rest of me) hurt quite a bit, having been forced into positions that 54-year-old joints shouldn’t be required to hold, on a somewhat-wobbly ladder that nonetheless provided a measure of comfort from the usual narrow rungs. It was always nice to have an observing session reach a natural end, one that didn’t leave me thinking of “one last object,” and this one certainly fit that bill. I’d satisfied a need for distant starlight from obscure corners of the universe, and other, future nights offered further opportunities.

II. As good as the night of the 23rd had been, the next night might’ve been even better.

It’s a cardinal sin in astronomy to leave one’s optics in a car all day if it can be avoided; letting the mirrors heat up in a closed vehicle just means that the necessary cooling-down needed for best viewing would take far longer. But I wasn’t about to unpack the whole Flex only to reload the monster Obsession later in the day—certainly not with my foot only at 80% recovery. I could arrive at Linslaw earlier and get the cooling-down started sooner instead. (I really need to get the cooling fan—perhaps more than one!—set up and running on the mirror box.)

My agenda was a continuation of the previous night. I had a tendency to make an observing list that was far too extensive for one night, or even for a single entire dark run, so I had plenty of targets to choose from, sorted numerous ways: by object type (if I felt I was neglecting one, or just for variety), by expected visibility rating (1 being easiest, 5 most difficult; this was useful if the conditions were either spectacular or marginal), or, as I usually had them sorted, by constellation (so that I would be able to work along the meridian, where objects were at their highest in the sky and thus most clear of the obscuring effects of the Earth’s atmosphere).

Despite being largely “past their prime,” I began the evening with some of the last of the summer globulars. M55 was still in good position, and was (as always) stunning; I also stopped by NGC 6366 and M14 in Ophiuchus, and M30/Palomar 12/NGC 6907 in Capricornus. NGC 6908, an edge-on galaxy seemingly “attached” to one of 6907’s arms, was also easily visible. I even turned northward to Cepheus and NGC 6946, the so-called Fireworks Galaxy.

It was just myself, Jerry, and Mark at Linslaw on this particular night—and a fine one it turned out to be, despite the unusually-low SQM numbers. 21.4 didn’t do it justice, but that was the reading from the 11:00 hour.

In setting my agenda, I had added a number of galaxies in the oft-ignored constellation Equuleus, the dimmest constellation in the Northern Hemisphere and the second-smallest of all the 88 constellations. As Equuleus was just about to reach the meridian, this was the best place to start.

MOON: 29 days (set at 7:00 PM; 1% illuminated)
SQM: 21.4 (too low?)
NELM: not checked
WEATHER CONDITIONS: temps to 53F; no dew; breezy later; chilly; detailed Milky Way
All observations: 20″ f/5 Obsession Dob, 14mm ES 82˚ eyepiece (181x, 0.45˚ TFOV) or 7mm TeleVue Nagler (363x, 0.21˚ TFOV) unless otherwise noted

UGC 11671 (Equ):
 UGC 11671 in Equuleus is a bizarre peculiar galaxy that in photographs resembles a backward pair of parentheses touching in the middle, and it is in contact with a 10.5-magnitude star in a field of several other fairly bright stars. UGC 11671 is a roughly triangular-ish glow that seems to be stronger on the F side, and is about 0.75’ per side. The star that’s touching the galaxies on the N (I suspect this is an interacting pair rather than a completed merger) is 9th magnitude and has N slightly F it by 1.25’ an 11.5-magnitude star, and that star has 1.75’ F slightly S of it another 10.5-magnitude star; the 11.5-magnitude star also has a 13th-magnitude star N very very slightly F it by 1.5’. The star that’s in contact with the galaxies also has S slightly P it by 1.5’ a 15th-magnitude star. The brightest star in the field is S somewhat P the galaxies by 10’.  The S edge of the galaxies is a little more ragged, less evenly-illuminated that the rest. With the 7mm Nagler, there’s a brighter non-stellar spot visible on the S end of the P galaxy, and the more F of the pair has a noticeably-brighter strip that runs parallel to the F edge; that strip of brightness is fairly obvious but not greatly brighter than the rest of the galaxy. An interesting object!

My gripe about the ladder continued; this galaxy was also at just the wrong altitude for comfortable viewing. It didn’t help that the ladder was also just up against the scope, so that even my heartbeat made the eyepiece view vibrate. The seeing, however, was quite excellent, even without the 20-inch mirror being fully cooled; I began to think I’d even be able to use my 4.8mm Nagler on some of these objects if the seeing held.

Writing note: the auto-transcriber on my voice notes transcribed “Equuleus” as “a cool ass.”

I lingered in Equuleus a bit longer, to check out a fine field of small galaxies there. Although I had several other denizen galaxies of the Little Horse on my list, I also had plenty of other objects elsewhere in the sky to get to; rather than “mop up” all of my targets in Equuleus, I picked up a few and then moved along, saving some for the next night/Moondark phase/autumn season.

UGCs 11700, 11694; PGC 66324 (Equ): This is a field of little galaxies here in Equuleus, but the main attraction here, even though it’s not the brightest in the field, is UGC 11700. It lies 4.5’ due N of the vertex and brightest star of a little checkmark of four stars that runs P slightly N from that vertex for one star and N slightly F for the other two. The galaxy is definitely a beneficiary of averted vision; it’s 0.75’ x 0.5’, elongated N-S, and not well defined; it has a notable core and possibly a very, very faint stellar nucleus, as well as a threshold star on the NP. 1.3’ N very slightly F is the brighter of a pair, which is 14th magnitude and has a 15.5-magnitude star about 10” N slightly P it.  The brightest star in the field is about 16’ F slightly N of the galaxy and is 9th magnitude. The vertex of that little checkmark is 4.5’ S of the galaxy and is 11.5 magnitude; the star P very slightly N of it by 0.67’ is 13th magnitude; N slightly F the vertex by 0.75’ is a 13.5-magnitude star, and 0.75’ N slightly F that star is a 12th-magnitude star. 5’ due N of the galaxy is an 11.5-magnitude star, and then from the galaxy 8’ P very slightly N is an 11.5-magnitude star; N very slightly F that star by 2.3’ is another galaxy [PGC 66324]: this one is a lot fainter and much more diffuse than UGC 11700, and has a 15.5-magnitude star 0.75’ SP it. This galaxy is not well-defined; it may have a little bit of NP-SF elongation, perhaps 0.5’ x 0.3’, but not much in the way of central concentration. From that 11.5-magnitude star S by 9’ is the S-most vertex of an isosceles triangle; that star is 12.5 magnitude and is on the NF edge of another galaxy [UGC 11694] that’s brighter than the other two by a considerable margin, although it’s not particularly well defined; this one is about 0.67’ x 0.5’ and is elongated SP-NF, and has a brighter core region that really is distracted from by that star on the edge, which kind of overwhelms most of it (averted vision really helps bring out that brighter core). From that star on the galaxy’s edge NP by 1.75’ is an 12th-magnitude star, and there’s another 12th-magnitude star N of that star by 2.25’. so we are gonna go up to 7mm and see what we get; this is a nice little field of galaxies up here in Equuleus. OK I hope I can still be heard on the recording. In the 7mm, there’s definitely a stellar nucleus to UGC 11700. That’s a decent little galaxy as tiny galaxies go; it’s better defined at this magnification. [PGC 66324] has a broadly concentrated core and there’s more halo visible at 7mm; it stands out better at the higher magnification. There’s also a nucleus to [UGC 11694]; it too is better defined, although the star is mucking up the view, of course. It has a small, distinct, brighter core and an averted-vision nucleus.

The seeing was already noticeably softer than when I first started. And my legs were already showing the wear and tear of the previous night’s observing session, in addition to the discomfort they might be feeling from this night’s activity. Adrenaline would carry me for a while, but I wasn’t sure I could do (essentially) an all-nighter such as the night before.

I had given the September presentation at the meeting of the Salem astronomy club, NightSky45; it was an encore performance of my previous EAS talk “Forgotten Gems of the Autumn Sky. Among those “forgotten gems” was NGC 663 in Cassiopeia, one of a number of bright open clusters on that constellation’s eastern side. One of my slides was a wide-field photograph of NGC 663 and several nearby clusters, and one of those clusters was the dim, rich blast of star-powder catalogued as IC 166. Seeing that cluster in my slideshow was intriguing; I love the really-rich-but-dim type of open cluster (NGC 7789 in Cassiopeia, on the western side, was the prototype of these agglomerations of sibling stars), and I had added it immediately to my list. With Cassiopeia well above the sandstone crag, now was a good time to observe it.

IC 166 (Cas): From faint, difficult galaxies to a faint, difficult open cluster; this is the surprisingly dim glow of IC 166 in Cassiopeia, and at 112 X it is mostly background glow. It’s 6’ across, round, and mostly unresolved, even in the 20-inch. It has a string of eleven stars running largely N slightly P-S slightly F through what might roughly be the middle of it; the brightest of these stars is the obvious cluster lucida, which is 13th magnitude and lies just F where the center of the cluster would be. From the lucida 2’ N very slightly P is a 16th-magnitude star that has 5” P somewhat S of it a 15th-magnitude star. SF the lucida by 1.25’ is a 14.5-magnitude star. 0.75’ N somewhat P the lucida is a 16th-magnitude star that actually is not steadily held; from the lucida P by 10” and S slightly F (also by 10”) are two 15.5-magnitude stars. On the P edge of the cluster, 3.25’ from the lucida, is a 12th-magnitude star that I don’t think is a cluster member; there’s also a pair of 11th-magnitude stars, separated by 0.75’; the F-most of those is the right-angle vertex of a little triangle that includes the other 11th-magnitude star; that star is 3.67’ N slightly P the lucida; the other 11th-magnitude star lies P very very slightly S of it by 1’, and it also has a 14th-magnitude star 0.5’ S very slightly F. The brightest star in the field is 7’ P very slightly S of the lucida; that star is 9th magnitude and has a 12th-magnitude star P very slightly N of it by 0.67’. The 7mm Nagler really doesn’t help the glow much contrast-wise, but it does spread out that slate of stars overlaid across it: there’s the lucida, the one P slightly N it, and the one S very very slightly F it by 10”; it’s probably more like 0.25’, and then there is, 0.67’ S slightly F of the lucida, a very very tight pair; those are slightly fainter than the ones that are closer to the lucida; there’s the 15th/16th-magnitude pair on the N edge that I mentioned previously (there are actually about four of them on that edge); the 16th-magnitude star also has F it two extremely-faint stars of 16.5 or 17th magnitude, and those are separated N-S by 0.3’. Even at this magnification that background glow is unresolved, but that’s also about the only thing that identifies this as a cluster as opposed to an asterism of really faint stars. This is obviously an incredibly rich cluster with all that background glow; it’s pretty poorly detached up here in the dense Cassiopeia Milky Way. If all of its “brighter” stars are cluster members, along with the background glow, then it has a quite a range of magnitudes in it. This is a really fascinating object! 

I managed to go back to faint galaxies without leaving Cassiopeia, tracking down an object I had seen several times but hadn’t taken notes on. Maffei 1 was discovered only in 1968, along with Maffei 2; these gigantic elliptical galaxies are difficult optical targets, as they lie within the rich Cassiopeia Milky Way (as seen from Earth), and were discovered via infrared survey plates.

I had seen Maffei 1 several times before, all with the 12.5-inch scope. I was surprised to see it so weakly in the Obsession.

Maffei 1; Czernik 11 (Cas): Back to difficult galaxies, and one that I’ve seen much better in somewhat lesser conditions with a smaller scope. I had to use the 24mm Meade 5000 SWA to starhop from the Double Cluster; I’m probably the only person to use the spectacular Double Cluster to stop at something insignificant like this. Maffei 1lies amidst the poor, asterism-like open cluster Czernik 11, which—to be entirely honest—looks slightly like a miniature Draco or cosmic sperm cell. The galaxy is very elusive tonight, but I can definitely tell that there’s something there. I’m surprised it’s this difficult, as I’ve seen it before much more easily than this; it’s a very faint, indistinct, unconcentrated glow, 0.5’ x 0.3’, and elongated P-F. The NP end of Czernik 11 is a little pentagon, and the “tail” of the cluster trails away to the SF, then loops NF, and then SF again; the whole thing is about 4.5’ long. The 12th-magnitude cluster lucida is part of that pentagon, and lies SP Maffei 1 by 0.5’. N slightly F the lucida by 0.5’ is a 14th-magnitude star; NP that star by 0.67’ is a 13.5-magnitude star; from that second one P by 1’ is a 12th-magnitude star that’s just a shade dimmer than the lucida, and then from that star S slightly P by 1’ is a 13.5-magnitude star. 1’ S somewhat F the lucida is the brighter of a pair, which is 14th magnitude and has 0.3’ SF it a 14.5-magnitude star. I’m not going to note the whole of Czernik 11, but it has along its tail end, toward the F, some unresolved glow, and it’s kind of interesting that follows the path of the brighter stars. The brightest star in the field is 12’ P somewhat N of the lucida and is 9th magnitude. In the 7mm, the galaxy is much more obvious but still quite difficult; direct vision shows it better, but it’s very unconcentrated and poorly defined, with no real central concentration at all. (In previous observations of it, from the Mill Creek Yoga Retreat and elsewhere, I’ve observed a somewhat brighter core in it.)  I doubt Maffei 2 will even be visible considering how tenuous this sighting of Maffei 1 has been.

And yet Maffei 2 was visible, if only just.

Maffei 2 (Cas): The two Maffei galaxies are really difficult tonight; I’m sure this one’s always difficult—this is Maffei 2, and it is very much an averted vision object 90% of the time; I’m only getting occasional flashes of it in direct vision, but it’s definitely there. It’s situated between two little triangles, an isosceles right triangle made up of three 14.5-magnitude stars, and then a little perfect isosceles triangle P the galaxy. The galaxy might actually have some visible central brightening to it, and it helps to look toward the P to see it; it’s round, about 0.3’ diameter. The right-angle vertex of the triangle to the F is about 2’ to the F somewhat N the galaxy, and then that star has 1.67’ due F it the second star; the third lies due S of the right-angle vertex by the same distance. P somewhat N of the galaxy by 2.25’ is the F star at the base of the isosceles triangle; that star is the brightest of the three in the triangle and is 12th magnitude; P that star by 1’ is a 13th-magnitude star, and then from that 12th-magnitude star 2’ N very very slightly P is a 12.5-magnitude star; from that star 4’ NP is the brightest in the field, which is 8.5 magnitude and has N of it by 1.25’ a 13th-magnitude star. With the 7mm, there’s a threshold star F slightly N of the galaxy by less than 0.25’. Even at this magnification, it takes a break in the transparency for the galaxy to clearly appear. That is as difficult as anything I’ve ever observed.

Jerry laughed at my last comment, repeating it out loud as if he found it unbelievable. I suspect that he, and the other EAS Irregulars, were continually amused by my target choices, and how I often described faint objects as “surprisingly easy.”

The pain in my feet forced me to sit for several minutes; I’d spent too much time on objects that were in a bad position for my ladder.

Transcription note: the app transcribed “ridiculously hard” as “rude Deculus Lee hard.” I’m still trying to figure that one out.

In doing some examination of the POSS plates, I discovered that Maffei 2 is much stronger on the red plate than on the blue—no doubt due to its infrared emission and the reddening of the galactic plane. This would, of course, also help explain why a caveman with red-deficient vision would have a difficult time seeing the galaxy. (Maffei 1 is more equal between the red and blue plates.)

I stayed in the northern reaches for my next object, Böhm-Vitense 5-3. This planetary had been on my radar since January; now, on the other side of summer, I was finally able to track it down. The seeing helped, having suddenly become particularly solid.

Böhm-Vitense 5-3 (PK 131-05.1; Per): This planetary nebula is surprisingly visible with no filter, very faint up here in Perseus. It’s a very round, ghostly nebula which looks like, even if this magnification, it might be hinting at annularity. The nebula itself is about 0.5’ around, maybe a little less; it has a distracting 11th-magnitude star due F by 0.75’.  In averted vision, it seems like the rim is a little stronger on the N and NF edges. The nebula forms a roughly-equilateral triangle with that star to the F and a 13th-magnitude star N slightly F the nebula by 0.67’; but then 1’ N very slightly P the 13th-magnitude star is an 11.5-magnitude star, so the nebula also forms the SP tine of a small ‘y’ pattern that points N. There are a number of bright stars in the field, of which the brightest is 8.5 magnitude and lies S somewhat F the nebula by 15’, and then S somewhat P the nebula by 6.5’ is a 9th-magnitude star; the 8.5-magnitude star is in the middle of what I would call kind of a “shepherd’s crook” asterism of seven stars that’s oriented P-F and spans 3.5’, of which the 8.5-magnitude star is both in the middle and the most S of the seven. In the 7mm… the nebula really pops out at this magnification. The annulus is surprisingly much easier to see here. The rim does not seem to be perfectly defined; the outer edge of the nebula is fuzzy. No central star or color or anything is visible. Adding the O-III filter: I’m still not really picking up any detail on this that I couldn’t get before, although… yeah, it’s almost as if now it’s the S edge of the rim that’s the brighter, if only just slightly. 

This was my first opportunity to use the Astronomik O-III filter that I’d acquired while recovering from surgery. I was careful not to use it in the 14mm Explore, which had eaten the threads on my old Lumicon O-III on the cold February night on which I’d originally planned to observe B-V 5-3. The filter was darker than I’d recalled from using Dan’s Astronomik, although I was in a painful position on the ladder—practically on tiptoe—and didn’t have the patience to keep observing much after installing the filter.

My energy level wasn’t quite as high as it had been the night before; I was stopping between objects to sit and give my aching legs and feet breaks. At one point I almost dozed off in my chair—I didn’t feel tired, but I was obviously running out of steam.

Autumn nights aren’t to be wasted. I pressed onward, lower in the south, with a couple of flat galaxy fields in Cetus. But first, I spent some time with the excellent NGC 908, one of two grand spirals in Cetus that easily showed spiral structure (we had looked at the other, NGC 157, in Jerry’s scope earlier). And with Aries fully above the horizon, I had time to stop in on Uranus as well.

Instead of two moons of Uranus, high power revealed what might well have been three—Oberon seemed to have joined Titania and Ariel on the night. It was an extremely tentative sighting that even the Delos wouldn’t have pulled out further (I don’t think), but at least three times, I noted a faint speckle of light near the position indicated on Sky Safari.

What the hell—I was roughly in the general vicinity of a longtime quarry; why not go for it? Van den Burgh 16 is a reflection nebula in extreme eastern Aries, near the border with Taurus. I had first noted this little nebula as a small green block on the first edition of Sky Atlas 2000.0, but had always assumed it to be out of the grasp of any of my scopes in inferior skies. Here at Linslaw, with the 20-inch? If I was ever going to get a look at the nebula, it would be here.

After a few moments of panning around, I located the starfield, and… there it was.

A faint, gossamer glow surrounded a 9th-magnitude star to the P and F sides—it was considerably tenuous but undoubtedly there. I had been fascinated with the identity of this small cloud of silicate dusts for decades, and I had it in my eyepiece…

… at a level at which I could barely stand on the ladder.

I couldn’t take notes on the nebula, as it hurt too much to stoop at the knees, and it put too much pressure on my feet. I could only occasionally stand on tiptoe on a lower step in order to peer into the eyepiece. And the nebula was only rising, so it would be getting higher and less accessible as the night went on.

I had to abandon taking notes on vdB 16. Perhaps I would get a chance later in the autumn or winter if the skies cleared, but for now, I had to let it go. So back to the flat galaxies it was.

PGC 6966 (Cet): My first flat galaxy of the night, and it’s a really surprisingly-good one considering it’s “only” got a PGC number. This is PGC 6966 in Cetus, and it’s in a fairly-barren field, although there are a number of the stars in the field that are actually considerably bright. 

I went to move the ladder for better positioning, bumped the scope, and then whacked my eyepiece in the bargain. My recorder app’s transcription routine has learned my favorite swear words by heart, as it had plenty of opportunity to demonstrate while I inspected the damage (there was none, fortunately) and struggled to recapture the galaxy. The wind rumble on my recording added to the chaos, as it picked up in the cool night air.

After much searching and swearing, I’ve managed to recover the galaxy–this is PGC 6966 in Cetus, one of the better flat galaxies that I’ve seen recently. It’s a direct-vision object, very easy, in a fairly-barren field, although the stars that are present in the field are a little bit on the brighter side of things. The galaxy’s elongated about 165˚ PA, so N very slightly P-S very slightly F. It’s impressively large and wider in the middle, 2.25’ x 0.3’, with some moderate central brightening and a quite-well defined halo. About 1/3 of the way from the S end to the N, it has a 15th-magnitude star just off the F side.  5.5’ S slightly F is a 10.5-magnitude star; NF by 3.25’ is an 11th-magnitude star. Due P the galaxy by 8’ is a 10.5-magnitude star that has a 9.5-magnitude star N of it by 6.5’, a 10th-magnitude star 8’ P slightly S of it, and a 9.5-magnitude star S slightly P it by 15’.  In the 7mm Nagler: that’s a great flat galaxy there! It’s definitely irregular in brightness, but very well defined at this magnification. I don’t honestly know how this one got missed by, say, the Herschels or somebody, because this is a really impressive galaxy; it’s much brighter than some of the NGCs I’ve seen. The middle 1’ is considerably brighter than the rest; that might be partly illusory due to the presence of that star in the F side, but I don’t think so—I think that’s legit central brightening there, with the only the ends of the spiral arms fading away. 

I somehow missed PGCs 1071479 and 1071790, just outside the N-NP end of 6966.

Jerry headed out, having finished packing up while I was taking notes on PGC 6966. Given the uptick in the wind, it was a sensible move… certainly more sensible than staying to find one more galaxy. The wind was almost blustery by now, and the seeing and transparency were deteriorating. I took a few minutes’ break; Mark was wrapping up his imaging for the night.

I had to hold on to the Obsession to keep it from blowing off-target; this made it difficult to swap eyepieces. And, of course, I was in between steps on the ladder. (I can’t really call them rungs, so….)

UGCA 14; PGCs 2800, 986866 (Cet): UGCA 14 shares the field with a brighter highly-inclined galaxy that shows some central concentration; UGCA 14 at times looks to be the larger of the two, although quite a bit fainter. It’s of course very thin and pretty uniformly faint. (There was a second there where I thought I saw a nucleus, but no….) The galaxy is elongated almost perfectly P-F, 90° PA, and spans 1.67’ x 0.3’. The galaxy to the N [PGC 2800] is angled about 10˚ PA, with a small, brighter core and the occasional flash of a nucleus that’s not helped by having a 15.5-magnitude star 2’ F very slightly N. The two galaxies are about 4’ apart, center-to-center. There is definitely a nucleus to this brighter one; it’s 1.0’ x 0.3’ and I thought I saw…yeah, 5.5’ N very slightly F that galaxy is an evenly-faint, very small glow [PGC 986866], 0.25’ diameter, that has a 14th-magnitude star F slightly N of it by 1.75’. SP UGCA 14 is a Sagitta-like asterism with a 9th-magnitude star at the tip; 2.67’ F somewhat S of that star is an 11th-magnitude star, and then 5’ F slightly S of that star is a 12th-magnitude star that has a 13th-magnitude star 1.25’ S very very slightly P it. UGCA 14 is actually a little harder to discern in the 7mm, and it’s in a bad position with me on the ladder, so I’m going to have to curtail the observation. The galaxy may have a threshold star off the P end.

I came down from the ladder with something like a sense of relief. It’d been an excellent night observation-wise, but I was in legitimate pain from the knees down. Had it been worth it?


Packing up was slow; Mark asked if it was OK to proceed ahead. Of course—I didn’t expect anyone to wait up for me. The president should always be the last one out anyway, as I’d been insisting since my southern Illinois days. Mark headed down the mountain as I was getting my ladder, table, truss poles, and other sundries stowed, having waited until I got the huge mirror/rocker box pairing loaded safely.

After finishing load-in, I did a once-around of the field with my headlamp, to make sure that nothing had been left by any of us. Satisfied, I turned my car-seat heater on, backed into the gravelled clearing at the base of the crag, and headed slowly down the mountain toward home.

III. A week passed, during which only one night was clear; the others were either cloudy or smoked out, as the Waldo Lake fire(s) was/were still out of control. I skipped the one clear night, so as to give my extremities a well-deserved respite. Our monthly-ish First Quarter Friday public outreach night was hazy, but cleared up well enough for me to show the stragglers Neptune and Triton, as well as a superb transit of Io across Jupiter, with Io becoming visible on the planet’s face as it reached the darkened limb (shout-out to EAS’ Aneesa Haq for spotting both Triton and Io before anyone else!). I had planned to go to Linslaw after FQF broke up for the night, but was too wiped out by the time I got the Obsession torn down and loaded; Dan B and Mark had gone to Linslaw (Dan at the lower site, as he was still feeling the aftereffects of his illness), but their early reports seemed to indicate that conditions weren’t worth the drive. I was almost relieved, and let myself relax enough so that when Dan texted and said that conditions had turned excellent, I was already mentally checked-out.

Finally, on the night of the actual First Quarter Moon—and less than two days before I returned to work—personal energy and sky conditions converged to summon me out to Linslaw again. With my agenda already at hand, I was prepared to give the early autumn dark-sky run one last charge.

Mark was in Arizona; Jerry and Kathy had spent the day traveling and were taking the night off, and Loren was still in North Dakota. So it was just me and Dan up on the crag as sunset began… and the two hunters who’d left their truck parked at the top and ventured down the hillside to pursue God knows what. (The night before, Dan had seen a mountain lion chasing a raccoon across the road up—the first time we’d seen any major fauna along that stretch of gravel road.)

We called down to make sure that they knew we were there, and went ahead with setting up. It was while I was collimating the Obsession that the hunters made it back to their truck; they were somewhat irritated that we’d scared off their deer by shouting down to them, although they were clearly swallowing some of their irritation. We apologized, having been unaware that it was deer season. The two of them—father and son, most likely—seemed to let it go, asking that if we used the site, not to make so much noise during the month that deer were fair game. Fair enough. We talked for a few minutes before they drove off; I could only imagine their conversation as they drove back home.

The Moon was still an inescapable presence as I finished collimating the optics and aligning the Telrad to the scope’s optical path. I checked out the terminator, the line between light and shadow on the non-Full Moon, where the craters are in their starkest relief—with the big scope, this was painfully akin to having an optometrist’s light shone in one’s eyes during an exam, and would prevent deep-sky observing for at least a half-hour while dark adaptation slowly recovered from the assault. No matter; we had 3.5 hours between sunset and moonset.

The Moon was in Sagittarius, right in the thick of the Milky Way action; I scoped out some of the bright globulars at a greater remove from the immediate vicinity of our primary natural satellite, also spending significant time on the available planets and their moons. Conditions weren’t great: the seeing was soft, the transparency diminished by smoke or a damp marine layer. Possibly both.

Nonetheless, it was while observing Neptune and Triton, a half-hour before Moonset, that I stumbled across what would become my first object of the night—an entirely serendipitous right-place/right-time “discovery” that would be a harbinger of the observing night ahead.

MOON: 7 days (set at 10:23 PM; 41% illuminated)
SEEING: 6, 7
SQM: 21.4
NELM: not checked
WEATHER CONDITIONS: temps to 58F; slight dew later; air still and hazy; mild but clammy 
All observations: 20″ f/5 Obsession Dob, 14mm ES 82˚ eyepiece (181x, 0.45˚ TFOV) or 7mm TeleVue Nagler (363x, 0.21˚ TFOV) unless otherwise noted

PGC 71913 (MCG-1-60-14; Aqr): I stumbled across this surprisingly-bright little galaxy while observing Neptune and Triton, and it’s easily visible despite the presence of the nearly First Quarter Moon
. The galaxy is 0.5’ NF an 11.5-magnitude star and is roundish, 0.5’ diameter, with a pretty well defined halo and very broad central concentration, although it does come to an almost-stellar nucleus. The halo seems to be brighter along its S edge. From the 11.5-magnitude star N slightly P by 2.75’ is a 12th-magnitude star that’s just slightly dimmer than the one next to the galaxy, and then from that star N somewhat P by 1.75’ is a 13th-magnitude star; Neptune is 4’ S somewhat F the 11.5-magnitude star; Triton is 10” N very slightly P Neptune ( I believe it was listed as 13.6 magnitude right now; obviously, with Neptune so close, it’s a bit of a challenge). 

Although this first galaxy was in Aquarius, I spent the majority of the night working through Pegasus, Pisces, and Cetus; picking off the galaxies in Equuleus would have to resume at some unspecified later time. Sunset long ago faded and moonset just finished, it was time to plow ahead on my agenda, mediocre conditions be damned.

UGC 11964; NGC 7241 (Peg): This galaxy pair consists of a flat galaxy, UGC 11964, and its much larger, very bright and impressive companion NGC 7241 in Pegasus; we’ll start with U11964 because it’s the target here. It’s a very, very difficult, phantasmic streak of 1.0’ x … I’m barely even capable of measuring it; it’s only a few arcseconds thick at best, maybe 7” ? The galaxy is oriented in 45˚ PA. On the NF end of the galaxy, just P that and very, very slightly N, there’s a threshold star that just flickers into view every now and then and that’s interfering with the observation; it also doesn’t help that there’s a 10.5-magnitude star 2.25’ F somewhat S. There’s no detail at all discernible with this galaxy; it’s just hovering on the verge of visibility. It does have, F slightly N of it by 2.25’, a 15th-magnitude star. 3.75’ NP the galaxy is the F-most in a line of three, all of which are 13th magnitude, and that line is 1.5’ long and runs NP from that star; the second star is 0.3’ NP the first, and the third star is along that same line 0.75’ from the second. no we’re 1.75’ S of the first (F-most) star in that line is another of 13th magnitude, and then, again from the first star in that line of three, 2.3’ SP is a 10.5-magnitude star. UGC 11964 has just about disappeared at the moment; but 3.25’ NF the 10.5-magnitude star that’s F somewhat S of it is an 11.5-magnitude star; that star has a 12.5-magnitude star N slightly F it by 2.3’, NGC 7412 is almost directly between those two stars (it’s a little bit P those two but parallel) and stretches nearly from one to the other; the star on the N end is just a little bit F the actual N end of the galaxy; the star in the S end, the 11.5-magnitude star, is also the P-most vertex of a triangle and has a 14th-magnitude star SF it by 0.5’; the 11.5-magnitude star has a 14.5-magnitude star due F it by 0.75’ and a 13.5-magnitude star N somewhat P it by 1.5’; that 13.5-magnitude star has a 16th-magnitude star N somewhat P it by 0.5’. This galaxy is disrupted-looking or distorted; it’s obviously a spiral, but the core is skewed toward the S end; the galaxy is 2.25’ x 0.67’ and that 0.67’, the widest part of it, is down closer to the 11.5-magnitude star; the core there is is 0.5’ long and much brighter than the halo; that 11.5-magnitude star is just off the southern tip of the core and the galaxy slightly extends farther S beyond that star. There’s no nucleus visible on this one; the halo is pretty well defined, almost teardrop-shaped. I’ve spent more time on that one than the flat galaxy because it’s just got much more detail; the flat galaxy is not showing well at all. The 7mm is too much power for the flat galaxy under these conditions; that’s definitely a threshold star there on the NF edge, but the galaxy is otherwise barely visible now at this magnification. The NGC galaxy is also somewhat washed out, although there seems to be mottling indistinctly visible. 

Given how weak UGC 11964 appeared on the POSS plates, I was impressed to have seen it at all. Finding it had to be considered something of a triumph.

My next two targets had been on my agenda for years; in fact, UGC 12281 was the very first flat galaxy I had searched for, and was the first time I’d ever actually heard of specific “flat galaxies.” I had seen it a couple of times over the years, but never with the certainty I wanted in order to take notes on it. It bedeviled me yet again on this night, a razor-slash ghost of light in a field with several distracting bright stars. It may take a perfect night before I can document UGC 12281 to my satisfaction.

The other target was PGC 70994, the X-shaped ring galaxy in Pisces. How can a ring-shaped object also be X-shaped? Because the “hub” or core of the galaxy is elongated from the collision that formed the ring, and the ring itself is oriented edge-on (like a flat galaxy!) to our line of sight. I’d also seen this one before, twice, but it was extremely tenuous both times; nonetheless, I have a suspicion that this object, like UGC 12281, will impress and show more detail under better conditions than I had this first weekend of October.

Over the course of the last year or so, I’d started wondering if my transparency ratings at Linslaw were too generous. Certainly, on nights where the SQM read 21.7+, there was no reason to suspect that this was the case, as on those nights the Milky Way was overflowing with dimension and detail (these nights corresponded with the dry summer season in the Valley). But in the spring and autumn, especially lower in declination, the sky seemed somewhat murkier than in the summer; the site’s proximity to the ocean and the marine layer no doubt had a greater effect than I may have taken into account on previous occasions. Maybe it was time for me to start assessing the transparency with two different ratings, or perhaps simply to revise the number down to an average of the two halves of the sky. (My notes for this set of entries don’t factor this into the transparency ratings.)

There is some overlap between the Hickson and Shakhbazian catalogues; some of the Hicksons were, for various reasons, included in the Shakhbazian catalogue. Hickson 97 was one such—it’s also known as Shakhbazian 30. I did not know this until much later, as I was cleaning up my transcriptions. Regardless of the name, this was one of the more enjoyable observations of the whole run.

ICs 5357, 5356, 5351, 5359 (Hickson 97; Shakhbazian 30; Psc):
 So this is Hickson 97, which brackets a 10.5-magnitude star that has 3.25’ due P it a 13th-magnitude star that has just 10” N of it a 14th-magnitude star. 2.5’ P somewhat N the 10.5-magnitude star is the largest and brightest of the Hickson galaxies [IC 5357], which is 0.75’ x 0.5’, with a well-defined halo, a suddenly-brighter core and a stellar nucleus; the galaxy is elongated N very slightly P-S very slightly F, about 165˚ PA. 3.5’ due S of that galaxy is a second [IC 5356] that is well defined, considerably fainter, and roundish, at 0.5’ diameter, with a large (compared to the halo), slightly-brighter core and a trace of a stellar nucleus visible in averted vision. It has 0.75’ S slightly P it a 15th-magnitude star that has another 15th-magnitude star 0.75’ S very slightly F it; that last star is S of the galaxy by 1.3’. That galaxy also has 0.75’ NF it a 15th-magnitude star that has a 14.5-magnitude star 0.75’ NF it. I made a mistake earlier: I said this group surrounds a 10.5-magnitude star and a 13th-magnitude star due P the 10.5-magnitude star by 3.25’, and that 13th-magnitude star had a fainter star N of it—that fainter star is actually the third galaxy in the Hickson [IC 5351], which is quite small; it’s no more than 0.3’ and is pretty well defined, but it has kind of a substantial stellar nucleus to it, which is why I mistook it for a star in the poor transparency; the halo wasn’t very clear and I just saw the nucleus to it, without much of a core. The fourth galaxy [IC 5359; PGC 72430; MCG-1-60-36] was there a minute ago, and is an edge-on streak; it’s a third of the way from that previously-noted 10.5-magnitude star to a 10th-magnitude star that’s 5’ F very slightly N of the 10.5-magnitude star; the 10th-magnitude star also has 0.75’ NP it a 12th-magnitude star. That last galaxy, the edge-on, is barely visible and is 1.5’ F the 10.5-magnitude star; it’s 1.0’ x 0.1’, and is elongated in 135˚ PA. It may have a very small core/nucleus region to it. The 7mm really brings out the first three galaxies; [IC 5356] is elongated in 45° PA and is about 3:2 elongation; the fourth galaxy is almost impossible at the moment. There’s not much in the way of detail on the edge-on, but it does seem a very slight bit brighter in the center.

I missed two photographically-obvious PGC galaxies to the SF: PGCs 72461 and 72457.

I took another short break after Hickson 97 to let my feet rest; my non-repaired left foot hurt even more than the reconstructed right. One additional fix to the ladder: adding a pad to the top step, so that I could sit/kneel on it more comfortably. I also needed to ask Jerry about the “foot shelves” or removable steps he built for his old observing ladder.

My observing agenda often consists primarily of small objects, faint objects, and small faint objects, with a few larger or brighter targets thrown in for either specific reasons or for a break from the eye-straining majority. I’d included NGC 157 and NGC 908 in Cetus for just this reason (and because the spiral structure was obviously visible), but had already observed those the night before. I had also observed my next target previously, but included it on my list in order to take better notes on it… and because it was something of a showpiece in the larger optics of the Obsession.

NGCs 128, 130, 127, 126, 125 (Psc): If you keep looking for more-obscure stuff, your patience is eventually rewarded with something that’s impressive: this is the NGC 128 group in Pisces, and there are at least five galaxies here that are fairly easy to pick up. NGC 128 is a bright, well defined, somewhat-irregular galaxy that’s 2’ long, with tapering, fading arms; it’s oriented in 180˚ PA, due N-S, with a substellar nucleus; it’s 2.0’ x 0.3’, the core making up the middle 0.75’ of the galaxy (I know it’s got that irregular, box-shaped core, but at 181x I don’t really get a good sense of this). NF NGC 128 by 1’ is a tiny fuzzy spot [NGC 130] with what looks like a stellar nucleus to it; 0.75’ NP 128 is another small round galaxy [NGC 127] that’s much more diffuse, with no central concentration to it; it’s fainter than the one NF; neither is more than 0.25’ around, but both are pretty well defined. 4.75’ S slightly F NGC 128 is a 12.5-magnitude star; there’s a 12th-magnitude star SP 128 by 3.25’, and then from that star 1.67’ S somewhat F is another galaxy [NGC 126]: this one is oriented in 120˚ PA, so N somewhat P-S somewhat F, and spans 0.5’ x 0.3’; it’s diffuse and poorly defined and has a very small, gradually-brighter core that’s only slightly brighter than the halo; it also has 1’ SF it a 15.5-magnitude star, which is a distraction from the galaxy. 7’ P very slightly S of NCC 128 is a fourth galaxy [NGC 125], which at first seemed to have some N-S elongation, but now seems to be more just roundish; it’s the second-brightest in this group and is 0.67’ in diameter, with a sudden, brighter core, a substellar nucleus, and a reasonably well-defined halo; S very slightly P it by 0.75’ is the more-N of a pair of 12.5-magnitude stars; these are separated by 0.3’, with the S one S slightly F the more-N one. Speaking of bright… there’s NGC 128 in the 7mm, which I think is actually too much power, because the little “ears” are really hard to see now; the other galaxies are much better, but those two are not looking so hot. Switching to the 10mm Delos… wow, the Delos really brightens things up! (I can’t get over how much better this eyepiece is than all of my other ones.) [NGC 125] really is quite a fine object; it’s got a really striking nucleus. [NGC 126] is really quite well defined here, in opposition to my previous comments. The two “ears” of 128 are not particularly easy at this magnification, but they are still noteworthy, especially in averted vision. An excellent group!

While I was describing NGCs 127 and 130, NGC 128’s “ears,” the entire crag lit up, as if hit by a helicopter searchlight; the light lasted for less than a second. Dan and I both gave startled shouts. A fireball meteor had burst over us! Dan had caught the tail end of it as it disintegrated, but I had only seen its flash on the ground and the upper end of the telescope.

It took more than a minute to get back to observing the NGC 128 group; my notes are full of stunned chatter between the two of us. Had I seen the meteor, I might no doubt have likened it to one of the 1998 Leonids that I had seen from Sapello, New Mexico, on a night when the meteors rained down like a Roman-candle fight between the gods. It surely would’ve been the brightest meteor I’d caught since then.

Strangely enough, despite knowing that my next target contained multiple galaxies, it didn’t connect with me that it might’ve been a Hickson Compact Group; when I went through my transcription, I simply wrote it up as if it was a group of unrelated galaxies. This meant that I also forgot to look for the fourth galaxy in the group (IC 184 obviously didn’t count due to its distance from the others), because one of the criteria of Hickson groups is that they have at least four members.

PGC 7557/MCG-1-6-22; PGCs 7553, 7550; IC 184 (Hickson 14; Cet): This is the PGC 7557 group in Cetus, in an area where you can’t swing a dead nutria without hitting a PGC galaxy of some size; these are a little bit difficult because they’re wedged in between a 9th-magnitude star to the S and an 8th-magnitude star to the N; those two stars are about 6’ apart, and the first galaxy [PGC 7557] is N very slightly F the 9th-magnitude star by 1.75. It’s the fainter of the two, 0.67’ x 0.25’, elongated N-S. It’s pretty diffuse, with very very little central concentration, although every now and then I do get a flash of something like a stellar nucleus there. The brighter of the two galaxies [PGC 7553] is N somewhat P the previous one by 2’, and is elongated… when we’re looking at these little faint guys it’s hard to tell, but I think it’s the NP-SF or some variant thereof. It’s bigger and better defined than the previous galaxy, 0.75’ x 0.3’, and considerably brighter, with some gradual central concentration up to a faint stellar nucleus. From the 8th-magnitude star 8’ N very slightly P is a 10.5-magnitude star, and that star has another galaxy [IC 184] N very slightly P it by 2.67’; this one is elongated roughly N-S, and may be the brightest of the bunch; it’s the most obvious, certainly, and has a gradually-brighter core and a faint stellar nucleus to it. With the 10mm Delos, [PGC 7553] really leaps out, but there’s another [PGC 7550] NP that one by 1.75’, a little tiny speck of a galaxy that’s pretty much an averted-vision object; it’s 0.25’ x 1.25’, maybe N-S elongated? There’s not much to it; it’s not very well concentrated, with no core or anything to latch on to. The galaxy well to the N of those three [IC 184] is quite impressive in the Delos; it’s a little thing and not very bright but it still shows up really well. It has an obvious nucleus and an elongated core and is quite well defined. (I do wish I could get the stars out of the field, those 8th- and 9th-magnitude stars.)

When I started observing Hickson 14, it was just barely at standing height—I could keep my feet on the ground while looking into the eyepiece. A couple of minutes into the observation, though, I needed about a quarter-step on the ladder.

From Hickson to Shakhbazian. This next might be my favorite observation of the whole run, and a target I’ll make multiple return trips to.

PGCs 8315, 8330, 8329, 8340, 8328, 96667 (Shakhbazian 317; Cet): Had it not been a great night already, this would have clinched it;
 this is Shakhbazian 317 in Cetus, and I am really impressed that it shows so well on a night when the transparency seems so poor. This is a very challenging string of galaxies beginning N of a 12.5-magnitude star and proceeding NF from there; or, rather, the 12.5-magnitude star has a 13th-magnitude star S very slightly P it by 2.75’, and then from the 12.5-magnitude star 2’ N very slightly F is the first of the galaxies [PGC 8315] in the string; this one is somewhat diffuse, but it does have either a very small brighter core or a substellar nucleus, possibly both; if it is both, then the core is not very bright. That galaxy is about 0.5’ in diameter and pretty well defined. 2.75’ NF that first galaxy by 2.75’ is the first of a pair of tiny galaxies; the first of these [PGC 8330] looks smaller than the other, maybe 0.25’ at best, with almost no central concentration at all. The next [PGC 8329] is F somewhat N of the previous; those two are separated only by 0.67’, and the second one is much the brighter; it’s 0.5’ in diameter, with a small, sudden, very slightly brighter core and a very faint stellar nucleus. From that galaxy 2.75’ NF is a 13th-magnitude star, and that star has 0.67’ S somewhat F it another small galaxy [PGC 8340]; this one is round, with a very slightly brighter small core and a very faint stellar nucleus. With the 10mm Delos, the nucleus is really popping out of [PGC 8315]. It looks like there’s another galaxy [PGC 8328] between [PGC 8315] and [PGC 8330]; there’s a very diffuse, very difficult faint (but not averted-vision) object there, about halfway between [PGC 8315] and [PGC 8330]; the nucleus is now really obvious in [PGC 8329]. There may actually be a second one [PGC 96667] there on the NF end, 1.3’ due S of [PGC 8340]; it’s very small, but has a distinct nucleus to it, and there may be a 16th-magnitude star just off the NF edge of it. So that’s six galaxies there; I know there are more that I could probably tweeze out with higher magnification on a more-transparent night, but that’s a fantastic sight nonetheless.

The seeing and transparency both visibly wavered while I was observing Shakhbazian 317; there might have been some largely-invisible cirrus or the like moving through Cetus at the time. The southern reaches of the sky seemed a bit hazy, but no worse than usual. The air was clammy, as if on the verge of dewfall, but that too was common here in the early fall.

I somehow missed PGC 8326, which was situated next to PGC 8328. I will, of course, have to revisit Shk 317 under better conditions regardless.

I had previously observed NGC 100 with EAS’ fine homemade 18-inch scope, but after observing fainter quarry for much of the evening, I was ready for something easier. I needed better notes on it anyway.

NGC 100 (Psc):
 NGC 100 is a very fine flat galaxy!  It’s about 3’ x 0.25’, oriented in 70˚ PA; it doesn’t have much in the way of central brightening, but it still looks mottled or irregular in brightness, and is well defined. Every so often I get a hint that the F side of the galaxy has a sharper cutoff; I won’t say if it’s a dust lane. The galaxy has a 13th-magnitude star 4.5’ SP it, and then 1.75’ S very slightly P the galaxy is a 15th-magnitude star. 10’ F somewhat S is the brightest in the field, which is 8th magnitude. P somewhat N by 5.5’ is a 12th-magnitude star. Along the major axis to the N, just outside the N end of the galaxy, is a 15.5-magnitude star that has another 15.5-magnitude star NP it by 1’; there are a lot of really faint stars in the near vicinity of the galaxy. 12’ P somewhat S of the galaxy by 12’ is a 10th-magnitude star that’s part of a long arc of nine; that star is third from N, and the arc starts at the P edge of the field and terminates S of the galaxy. 

I decided, in a moment of sheer laziness, that the view in the 14mm Explore was enough, and I didn’t need the Delos. Observing was supposed to be fun, right? (That’s the excuse I’m providing, and I’m sticking with it.)

UGC 260 (Psc): UGC 260 is not actually that far from NGC 100, and is also a reasonably-bright galaxy; I’m always mystified at some of the stuff that gets missed up there by great observers of the past, and this is one of those objects. This one is 2.0’ x 0.25’, elongated in PA˚ 20. The central third is slightly brighter than the rest of it, and every so often there seems to be a nucleus visible that’s skewed a little bit toward the P edge. It has a 13.5-magnitude star F slightly N it by 2.25’; that star has a double star N of it by 2’, consisting of a 13.5-magnitude star that has a 14.5-magnitude companion to the S by 4”. 3’ N of the galaxy is a 14.5-magnitude star. There’s an asterism N of the galaxy that kind of looks like a tilted F-16 headed toward the P, with a vaguely N-S line of three as the tail and a row of fainter stars just N of the galaxy (including the double and the 14.5-magnitude star N of the galaxy) as the S-most of the swept wings. The S-most star in the “tail” is 8’ N somewhat F the galaxy and is 12th magnitude; it has 3’ N very slightly P it another 12th-magnitude star, and that star has a 10.5-magnitude star 1’ N of it. The brightest star in that F-16 asterism is 7’ NP the galaxy and is magnitude 9.5. The seeing isn’t steady enough for the 7mm, but it does show that the “nucleus” is a 15.5-magnitude star just outside the P edge of the galaxy.

How did I miss PGC 1652, just P UGC 260?

I had the 7mm Nagler in my pocket, and used it rather than jumping down to get the Delos for UGC 260.

It was nearly 3 AM now, and I’d had a night full of wonders. I could’ve stopped there—Dan was dozing in his chair—but the Universe was pressing me to keep going, in the same way that religious or military people feel called by some higher power. I had more to observe, because there was more to observe.

Palomar 2 (Aur): One that wasn’t on my agenda for the night: Palomar 2 in Auriga. I’m more than a bit surprised that I picked this up as easily as I did, but this both brighter and larger than I expected; it’s 1.25’ in diameter, and obviously quite faint and diffuse, but unmistakable in the field. Inside the cluster, on the SP side, is an individual star that’s visible above the background glow of the cluster. 2.25’ F very slightly N of the cluster is a 13.5-magnitude star that has a 15th-magnitude star 0.5’ N of it. 8’ S somewhat F the cluster is an 11th-magnitude star; there’s a 10th-magnitude star S of the cluster by 10’; then N somewhat P the cluster by 6’ is a 13th-magnitude star at the NF end of a squashed narrow trapezoid that is elongated P-F. Due N of the cluster by 14’ is the brightest in an arc of three; that star is 11.5 magnitude, and has F very slightly S of it by 2.25’ a 12.5-magnitude star that has 4’ SF it a 12th-magnitude star. 

Pal 2 was in quite a bad position for me ladder-wise; I had to stop in the middle of the observation for a minute’s rest.

Spurred on by Palomar 2, I swung the scope back south for a globular that was on my list, one that I had seen before in similar conditions but with the smaller 12.5-inch scope. I fully expected it to be my last object for the night.

NGC 1049 (For): After all of my galaxy hunting, it’s odd that I’m ending with globulars, although this one was at least on the agenda. I’ve seen NGC 1049 before under similarly-mediocre conditions and with a smaller scope, but this is probably the better of the two views. I suspect it’s bigger than 0.3’ in diameter, but this far north, that’s about all I can see of it. The cluster does come to a nearly-stellar point in the center. The surrounding field is really barren (probably a function of atmospheric extinction as much as of an actual dearth of stars there); there’s an 11.5-magnitude star due N of the cluster by 7.5’, a 13th-magnitude star P very slightly S of the cluster by 5’, and a 13.5-magnitude star 10’ S very very slightly F the cluster. 16’ S very very slightly P is an 8th-magnitude star, and N somewhat F by 15’ is a 10th-magnitude star that has a 10.5-magnitude star due F it by 3.75’.  We’ll try the 7mm here; it’s gotta be good for something tonight. (I know there are other globulars there; I don’t know that I’ve got the patience for them.) The seeing down there is atrocious right now, like looking across the bottom of a swimming pool. At this magnification, the cluster looks a little bit lumpy, actually; as if there are more stars resolved on the P side.

Adventures in transcription: the auto-transcriber wrote “Fornax Dwarf Galaxy” as “floor next to worse galaxy.” Maybe I just enunciate poorly….

But I noticed, as I was finishing with NGC 1049, that there was another similar (but smaller) spot in the vicinity, one that was clearly non-stellar. Could it be another…?

Fornax 4 (For):
 This one is a real surprise, given how appallingly-low we are in the sky—NGC 1049 is only 11˚ above the horizon, and this second Fornax Dwarf globular is S of it. Using the 8th-magnitude star S very slightly P NGC 1049 as a guidepost; that star has F slightly S by 8’ a tiny fuzzy speck… well, it’s actually not that tiny, relatively; it’s a little under 0.25’ diameter. It seems to have a threshold-level star N very close to it, but it’s jumping around; I’m having that “sparkle vision” effect there. From the cluster SF by 5.5’ is the P-most of a triangle, which is… in the terrible atmospheric extinction down there I’m gonna say that’s 13th magnitude; it has 1.3’ F somewhat S of it an 11th-magnitude star that has 0.75’ S very very slightly P it a 13th-magnitude star. That’s a pretty incredible sighting under the circumstances! It doesn’t look like much, but knowing what it is makes it more than worth the effort; I’ll have to return here with a chart to find the others if I can.

I didn’t know which globular this one actually was until I got home and was able to check Alvin Huey’s Local Group observing guide, and it annoyed me that I didn’t have his guide chart for the Fornax Dwarf (“for next worth,” according to the app) globulars with me at the time, given that I had NGC 1049 on my observing list; that was a distinct lack of preparation on my part. The next time out with the 20-inch, I’ll be ready, as I now have the chart stored on my phone.

It was after 4 AM that I started teardown of the monster scope—six hours since I began my first set of notes, and nine hours after getting the Obsession assembled. I had put in twenty hours’ observing during the three nights of the late September/early October run… not a bad stretch quality-wise, and phenomenal quality-wise (despite the sometimes murky skies). Flat galaxies, galaxy groups, faint globular clusters, planetary moons… I may not have done valuable scientific work, or accomplished something tangible and lasting, but this was my calling. As Carl Sagan had put it, I was the Universe knowing itself.

I had no regrets as I tore down the big telescope for the night; the observing session had reached a natural and fulfilling end, and I still had energy for the drive home. Dan headed out just ahead of me, as I was stowing my table and ladder in the Flex (on opposite sides of the Obsession).

I took a last look around the site, checking for anything we might’ve left behind, and then a final glance at the rising winter stars. There would no doubt be a few more opportunities to stargaze before the rain and clouds broke in the spring, but if I had seen the last of the autumn sky for 2022, it had been a glorious hurrah.


Raga Hemant is a post-monsoon season autumn raga. The first video shows its contemplative aspect, the second a more-virtuosic side. Both performances put into sound the exhilaration of the fall stargazing season. The lead instrument in both is the sarod, a fretless cousin of the sitar.

Something of Jubilee

[Editor’s note: I had forgotten, when writing my previous entry, that there was one other observation at the end of April, after the one described there; I have since added it to the previous post. There were no object notes taken due to the sky conditions on that occasion, but I added it for completeness’ sake.]

Ah, September.

I’ve written before about my fondness for the nights of autumn—the rise of the delicate constellations of the Celestial Ocean, the perfect temperatures, the end of the Midwestern humidity and plagues of mosquitoes. Sitting on the sidewalk at my parents’ house with my C8, digging my first NGC objects (6905 and 6934) out of the grey, light-ravaged sky amid the incandescent glow of a dozen lampposts and porch lights, Led Zeppelin setting the stage from somewhere near my feet. There was a quality to the air in the Midwest autumn that I’ve spent my whole life trying to find words for—a scent/aura/feel that has defied my caveman vocabulary for the fifty years that I’ve been aware of it. In a way, the only word that can describe it is raga: “that which colors the mind.”

Those qualities aren’t in the air in the Willamette Valley, but others exist here that have their own mystique: namely, the quality of a dark, Moonless night spent atop a small, cozy mountaintop, with the stars—innumerable from these remote locales—seemingly ripe for plucking from the sky’s grasp. In western Oregon, there’s a breath of finality on the September winds: the knowledge that the turn of the seasons brings with it blankets of unrelenting clouds and months of unyielding rain. Elsewhere in the Northern Hemisphere, astronomers might spend the colder months fine-tuning (or purchasing!) their equipment, venturing into the cold night only for a few glimpses at the winter sky’s many treasures; here at 44N/123W, the nights are warm enough for long observing sessions, if the skies could only manage to stay clear. September was, more often than not, the end of our regular treks for the year, and the start of an unwanted, externally-enforced hibernation.

For me, late August and early September of 2022 was a sort of rebirth. My surgically-repaired right foot had reached a point where the unreconstructed left foot was usually the source of greater and more-persistent pain. I had ventured out observing in early August, hauling my 70mm TeleVue Pronto (a mighty beast, to be sure) up to the Eagle’s Ridge spur or Linslaw Point a couple of times, wheels courtesy of Dan B; I was still at that point nowhere near capable of driving for more than a couple of minutes. I made great headway on the Astronomical League’s double-star program during this stretch, picking up where I left off with it in 2019, the last time I did a couple of nights of double stars. Those nights were just as valuable for the company—my astronomy tribe, always willing to put up with whatever nonsense I had come up with—as for the quality of the observing. But I was almost desperate to get back to the observing I know best, with the telescopes that had become extensions of my caveman self.

Eventually, wheeled knee-carts and crutches gave way to a three-point cane, and Pronto—always ready for action; hence the name—gave way to Bob the Dob. In Warren Ellis’ classic comic series Transmetropolitan, characters routinely had mechanical or electronic augmentations done to their bodies, even when doing so looked utterly ridiculous; this 12.5-inch Discovery Dobsonian was my augmentation, almost as much a part of me as my own eyes. It was time to don the beast again, to begin again to extract ancient photons from obscure corners of the infinite.

This year, autumn’s advent hours also marked the peak of fire season. Waldo Lake was burning—not in the way that Lake Erie used to burn in the 1970s from all of the pollutants, but from extended drought and assholes who were too good to follow common sense and sensible rules. The smoke from the Waldo fires (and others) was to diminish the sky quality in the Valley for well over a month… a minor inconvenience compared to the suffering it caused those living in the area, to be sure. It’s always easy to overlook the more-serious consequences of our damage to the environment when complaining of unusually-low SQM readings or litter at our observing sites; we’ve become pretty spoiled by the quality of our observing conditions. My nostalgia for the nascent days of my astronomy life is a good check on this—how much I managed to accomplish in the always-grey skies over my childhood home, with more-modest equipment!

I. Under most other circumstances, I wouldn’t be going out on a Sunday; I’d have work the next morning, and it wouldn’t be a good idea to start the work week off tired. But coming off of surgery—and already being surprisingly behind on my recovery schedule—I had little else to do. The only issues were whether or not I was capable of hauling a 12.5-inch telescope out, and if I could handle walking around the crag with its uneven, rocky ground (the observing area itself being flat and gravel-covered).

At least, I thought those were the only issues; I discovered another as I was collimating the scope. Having sat idle in my garage since (essentially) February, the scope had been covered yet vulnerable to the considerable dust of multiple remodeling projects that had occurred in the house during my recovery. Sitting slightly elevated in its rocker box, the mirror box—open on the bottom for circulation—allowed a thick coating of said dust to get deposited on the mirror. And as if that wasn’t bad enough, the astronomy gods decided to troll me further by adding a trail of mouse tracks scampering across the mirror face.

So much for searching for the faint and obscure on the night. As darkness fell and I began aligning the Telrad finder with the telescope optics, the effects of the dust became apparent: a loss of contrast on fainter targets and haloes of scattered light around brighter stars. My agenda for the night was for naught. So was my dignity; Jerry promptly pronounced Bob the Dob’s mirror to be the filthiest he’d ever seen, and the notion that the EAS president would let his prized mirror fall into such a state provided fodder for the others for the rest of the night.

One of the advantages about being a compulsive type-A list maker is having contingency plans for such circumstances. I was disappointed about being unable to finally get back to my usual aperture-challenging stuff, but I was also a substantial number of objects short of finishing my notes on the whole Messier Catalogue. As I had done by using the Pronto several weeks before, I learned to take what the conditions and optics gave me.

Jerry had the 20″ TriDob; Dan and his coworker Colleen, visiting from San Diego, had Dan’s own 20″ Explore Dob; Mark was imaging with a new (as far as I could tell) refractor, taking frames of the eastern Veil Nebula. Dan’s challenge was Einstein’s Cross, a multiple-lensed quasar situated well behind its lensing galaxy. Jerry was doing “tourist things,” looking at whatever seemed interesting. He had already shown me the dust lanes of the Andromeda Galaxy and G1, the Local Group’s largest globular cluster; this had been my best-ever view of G1, even though it killed my foot to climb the step or two required on Jerry’s ladder to get to the eyepiece.

All things considered, Bob the Dob was even performing well. While waiting for full darkness, and for my first Messier target to heave into observing position, I spent several minutes examining Saturn and its attendant moons. This caused no small amount of further ribbing from my cohorts, who took great glee in pointing out that I’d been reduced to examining planets and their satellites. I did manage, however, to spot Enceladus for the first time (of which I was aware); I even stuck with it for a while, impressed with not only the sky conditions and the view of the Saturnian system, but with the collimation of the scope—despite the long layoff, the scope had held decent collimation in the garage, and I had gotten the mirror alignment spot-on (even accounting for the pain that crouching behind the scope during the collimation process had caused).

Finally, four hours after sunset, my first Messier target was ready for observing.

MOON: 2 days (set at 8:55 PM; 4% illuminated)
SQM: 21.4
NELM: not checked
WEATHER CONDITIONS: temps to 60F; slight dew; air calm 
OTHERS PRESENT: JO (20”), DB, Colleen, MW
All observations: 12.5″ f/5 Discovery Dob, 14mm ES 82˚ eyepiece (112x, 0.7˚ TFOV), 7mm TeleVue Nagler (225x, 0.36˚ TFOV), or 4.8mm TeleVue Nagler (323x, 0.25˚ TFOV)  unless otherwise noted

M73 (NGC 6994; Aqr):  Starting off with M73, since I’m doing bright stuff here due to my mirror being disgustingly dirty after several months’ layoff; it’s nothing more than a Y-shaped asterism of four stars; the P-most star is 11.5 magnitude; the middle star is F very very slightly S of it by 0.3’ and is 12th magnitude; from that star F very very slightly S by 0.67’ is the brightest of the four stars, which is 10.5 magnitude; from the middle star F very very slightly N by 0.67’ is the fourth star, which is 11th magnitude.  Even in the really cruddy conditions and with a cruddy mirror there’s no real nebulousness here that Messier thought he saw. 12’ P the P-most of the stars is the brightest star in the field, which is 9th magnitude, and then from the P-most star in the cluster 21’ S very slightly F is a 9.5-magnitude star.  16’ F very slightly S of the P-most star in the group is a 10th-magnitude star.

M73 was an unusual choice with which to begin; it’s one of the most mundane of the Messier objects (only the double star M40 is less interesting from a telescopic standpoint), and I had the entirety of the Sagittarius Milky Way objects to take notes on (except for M8 and M20—both of which I’d done during the Herschel lists—and the globular clusters, all of which I’d taken notes on already for various reasons). The open clusters M6 and M7, in Scorpius, were already past their prime and buried in the horizon muck, I’d forgotten about M26 in Scutum, and the Cygnus clusters M29 and M39 were still high overhead and would require standing to take notes on until they’d had time to sink lower in the sky. So M73 it was… especially considering that all the neighboring Messiers (M2, M72, and M30) had also been noted extensively as part of my globular cluster project.

Dan, meanwhile, had found the lensing galaxy for Einstein’s Cross, but had yet to spot any of the lensed-quasar images around it.

I “observed around” for a while, still a bit torqued by the condition of my mirror, until my next few objects cleared the trees above the crag. That’s right—I was actually looking north. First it was planets, now it was facing the wrong way. And I even spent the rest of the evening that way.

M103 (NGC 581; Cas): Since we’re knocking Messiers out here, this is M103, which astoundingly enough I’ve never taken notes on before; it’s a bright triangular splash of stars, with its yellowish 7th-magnitude lucida on the N slightly P end. The triangle’s other two vertices are a 10.5-magnitude star due S of the lucida by 4.75’ and an 8th-magnitude star SF the lucida by 5.5’. From the lucida 3’ S slightly F is a reddish 8.5-magnitude star, and S of that star by 1’ is a 9.5-magnitude star. S very slightly F the lucida by 0.25’ is a 10th-magnitude star, and 0.25’ S very slightly F that star is an 11.5-magnitude star. There’s no doubt that this is a physical cluster, even though it’s in a fairly rich field. If all of those stars that I’ve named are members of the cluster, then it has a very wide range of magnitudes, from 7th magnitude down to 14th, with a large number of members in the 11th- and 12th-magnitude range; there are at least 20 of those within the confines of the triangle, most of them between the lucida and the N-S pair (the reddish one and the one that’s 1.25’ S due S of that). M103 is very well detached; there are about 60 stars visible here, including several N/NP/NF the lucida that are quite faint. S-ish of the lucida is a 2’ long arc of four that runs P slightly S-F slightly N, whose brightest star is 10.5 magnitude and is the third from P (so the second from F); the star 0.75’ to the P slightly S of that one is the second-brightest in the arc at 11.5 magnitude, and has S of it by 0.67’ another star of 12th magnitude; the 10.5-magnitude star has 0.67’ S slightly F it an 11th-magnitude star, and the four in the arc and the other two S of those form kind of a Japanese torii gate pattern. F somewhat N of the lucida by 14’ is the NP and brightest vertex of a small triangle of 8.5/9th-magnitude stars and it has S of it by 1’ the second star; from the first vertex 0.75’ F is the third (and slightly faintest) of the three in that little triangle. From the cluster lucida 4’ F somewhat N is a very small knot of faint stars, of which the majority seem to comprise a tiny line that runs roughly P-F; that knot may be 1’ in diameter and has six stars in it, of which the P-most looks like the brightest; those are all in the 14th-magnitude-plus range. The brightest star in the field is the cluster lucida; S of it by 18’ is a 7.5-magnitude star.

I should note, for no real reason at all, that my automatic transcription software rendered “Messiers” as “messy ass.”

Dan and Colleen left shortly after I finished my notes on M103; his patience in ferreting out the lensed quasar hadn’t been rewarded, but his persistence was impressive. I would’ve given up on it after half an hour.

I had somehow talked Jerry into looking at one of my favorite galaxy groups—the 1 Arietis group—in the 20″ scope. After a fine view of the galaxies, and my feet rebelling against the idea of climbing the ladder again, I went back to my scope and Cassiopeia’s other Messier object.

M52 (NGC 7654; Cas): This is M52; it’s about 12’ diameter, but perhaps not very round; it’s almost stick-figure shaped, with the head a slightly-detached clump that is N of the main body of the cluster. It’s very rich; there are at least 120 stars visible, with an overlay of fifty 10.5-magnitude to 12th-magnitude stars and many that are fainter. The lucida lies on the due P edge, and is 8th magnitude; there’s a 1.75’ stripe of nine stars right N of the center of the cluster, about 4.25’ F the lucida, and there’s a smaller group just N of that, and then the main bulk of that stripe is to the S; it’s almost like there’s a dark lane that cuts that… not in half, but cuts off the three stars on the very N end. That dark lane runs P somewhat S-F somewhat N, and spans most of the diameter of the cluster; it branches out on the F somewhat N end and is 0.75’ wide, and terminates about 2’ F the lucida; SF the lucida by 2.5’ is another dark nebula that’s about 1.67’ round, and then just P the stripe of stars, and running parallel to it, is a dark spot that’s about 0.67’ wide.  It’s the dark nebulosity that makes that stick figure so prominent; the head of the stick figure is about 4.67 NF the lucida and runs basically N-S; it’s a triangle whose P edge is about 0.25’ long; the N-most star is 12th magnitude and the S-most is 13th magnitude, and these make up the P edge of the triangle; 0.67’ SF the N-most vertex in the head is an 11th-magnitude star; and from the N-most vertex 9” S very very very slightly F is a 14.5-magnitude star. This is a very detached and obvious, very rich cluster; if the lucida is a member, it has a really large range of magnitudes.  The stick figure’s F foot is comprised of a very small triangle whose NP-most star is SF the lucida by 7.5’; that star is 10.5 magnitude. The other foot is S very slightly F the lucida by 5.5’ and is composed primarily of a 12th/12.5-magnitude pair that are separated by 0.3’, with the brighter star to the N. SF the lucida by 15’ is the brightest star in the field, which is magnitude 7.5, and from the lucida N very very very slightly P by 10’ is a 9th-magnitude star. The lucida has a yellowish or orange cast to it, but with my colorblindness it’s really hard to tell if that’s illusory or not. 

Jerry took several sets of SQM readings, in different parts of the sky; they averaged 21.4. This was a surprise, as the conditions seemed better than that. Just from my naked-eye and telescopic observations, I’d have thought it to be closer to 21.6. I’d also talked him into searching out a recent Deep-Sky Forum “Object of the Week”: Abell Galaxy Cluster ACO 3744, down in the southern reaches of Capricornus. The primary galaxies in this group all had NGC numbers (7016-7018), so I thought it might be a good test of scope and sky, to say nothing of the observers. We picked the three main galaxies out pretty easily, even catching PGC 66149 with some difficulty. This would normally be no real challenge for a 20-inch scope, but this close to the horizon, anything faint was challenging.

By this point it was almost 2 AM, and we were all thinking about wrapping things up. One more Messier object had cleared the trees above the crag. Jerry started to tear down the huge TriDob, while I went back for a final set of notes on the night.

M34 (NGC 1039; Per): M34 is going to be my last object for the night. It’s very spread out; the central portion is about 11’ N-S x 9’ P-F and is very prominently grouped into pairs. The central “core” is fairly well detached from the Milky Way; there’s this core group, and then the outliers stretch out to about 35’. There are about 75 stars in all; those may not all be cluster members, but there’s definitely a drop off in density past that 35’ boundary; assuming that’s all cluster, there’s a pretty wide range of magnitudes here. It really does fade out beyond that larger group, so I’m going to say that’s the whole cluster, and that it is both fairly well detached from the surroundings and has quite a range of magnitudes. The brightest star in the field is 7.5 magnitude; it’s S somewhat F the middle of the core group and has a string of four stars starting N very very slightly P it by about 1’ and extending P very very slightly S, then due P, and then cutting NP to terminate 3.25’ from the lucida; those are mostly 11th magnitude, although the one closest to the lucida is considerably fainter (at 12.5 magnitude). The central region of the cluster contains six basic pairs of stars; the pair at the S end of that group is the brightest at 8th and 8.5 magnitude; the 8th-magnitude star is about 8’ NP the lucida [most of the following measurements are from this star], and then the 8.5-magnitude star is 1.5’ P very very slightly N of the 8th-magnitude star; from the 8.5-magnitude star NP by 5.25’ is another 8.5-magnitude star that has a second 8.5-magnitude star NF it by 0.3’. From the 8th-magnitude star N very very slightly P by 4.75’ is a 9th-magnitude star that has a 9.5-magnitude star N somewhat P it by 0.5’, and then from the 8th-magnitude star 4.25’ N slightly F is a 9th-magnitude star that has a 9.5-magnitude star 1’ F it. From the 8th-magnitude star 10’ N is a 9.5-magnitude star that has a 10.5-magnitude star N of it by 0.75’; that star has an 11.5-magnitude star F it by 0.3’. From the 8th-magnitude star NF by 10’ is another 8th-magnitude star that has N slightly P it by 0.25’ a 10th-magnitude star; that pair is somewhat outlying from the main body of the cluster, kind of F the N end of the main body. From the lucida 34’ N slightly P is a 9th-magnitude star; there’s another 38’ N very very slightly F the lucida. From the lucida 2.75’ F is the N vertex of a small isosceles triangle whose base is the longer side and is about 1.3’ long; the two other sides are 1’ long, and the three stars in that triangle are all 11th-12th magnitude. 12’ P very very slightly S of the lucida is another 8.5-magnitude star; there’s a 9th-magnitude star 11’ F very slightly N of the lucida. Overall, this is a very clumpy cluster, everything in pairs; there are several other more-outlying pairs that I didn’t talk about, but that central group is where the majority of the bright stars are; it’s a fairly centrally-concentrated cluster with a lot of outlying space. between the lucida and the 8th- and 8.5-magnitude pair, so F that pair, is what seems like dark nebulosity, and also some NF that pair; there’s a fair amount of dark nebulosity there and in the vicinity of the lucida and therein N-ward. 

Jerry finished packing up; Mark was still taking frames of the Veil. I began my own teardown, my first in almost exactly five months. It was hard to walk straight after the punishment my foot (feet, actually; the left hurt just as much, though in different places and manner) had endured, and I had to back the Flex up to the scope so I didn’t have to carry it more than a few feet. Driving… that too was painful. The trip home was going to be pretty brutal.

But despite the cruddy mirror, the mock disparagement of my peers, the changes to my observing agenda, and the shrieking nerves in my feet, it had all been well worth it.

II. Later that day, Jerry and Kathy came over to the Australopithecus residence and helped me clean the horrifically-dirty primary mirror. This is always a nerve-wracking affair, especially when taking the mirror cell out of the scope; a moment’s carelessness can result in scratching the fragile optical surface—or far worse. It only takes one look at an “accident” thread on to turn the stomach of the hardiest amateur astronomer; I’ve seen images of 20″ mirrors shattered into a hundred major pieces. The general rule of thumb has always been to clean a mirror only when it absolutely needs it, to avoid the possibility of such a tragic outcome. It was a rule that I always took to heart.

The 12.5-inch mirror at the heart of Bob the Dob; the dust and mouse trails are readily visible. The black circle above center is a target for collimating tools.

But this was just such a moment of necessity; the dust layers on the 12.5-inch mirror were actually going to prevent me from doing the observing I needed to do. So out came the mirror cell, into my kitchen sink, the heavy glass disc tilted up for the water to run over it. We gave it a good soak before even touching the surface—first with a distilled water/Dawn dish soap mix applied with cotton balls (two drops of Dawn in a bowl of water; each surgical-cotton ball only used for one pass across the mirror face), then with fingertips soaked in the same water mix, the better to feel any remaining particles on the mirror surface. Then a double rinse of distilled water, with the mirror tilted further to get the water to run almost completely off; any remaining droplets were blotted up with the corner of a KimWipe.

It wasn’t a perfect clean, largely because there were too many spots in the coating. I’d been planning for several years to have the mirror recoated, and cleaning it like this only reinforced the need to do so. The coating on Bob the Dob’s mirror was at least 23 years old, and the scope had spent thousands of hours in use, often in Midwestern humidity (in which air pollutants could adhere to the mirror surface in the dampness). It was well past the point where it could give the best possible images, and the visible coating spots were only a sign that there were other issues with the coating that we couldn’t see.

Jerry and Kathy, as usual, wanted nothing in return; I insisted that they take two of my precious cans of Kilkenny’s Irish Ale as compensation (it’s not available in the States, and we’d purchased it on our June trip to Vancouver). Getting that mirror safely cleaned and reinstalled was priceless, and giving up 1/4 of my Kilkenny’s stash was a small cost to pay.

Earlier that morning, I had done further reading about ACO 3744, the Abell Galaxy Cluster we had observed in Capricornus the previous night. As it turned out, two of the “galaxies” we’d spotted were actually double galaxies, galaxies in close interaction. So instead of seeing four galaxies in the cluster, we’d actually spotted six. Jerry was mildly intrigued by this; he wasn’t really into the faint stuff as much as I was, but it was still an impressive observation given the low declination of the cluster and the sky quality that far south.

I don’t remember if the forecast for that night was amenable for observing or not; in any event, we stayed home. (My feet were still aching from the previous night, anyway.) With several clear nights upcoming (according to, and the following night also looking good on the Clear Sky Chart, I would still soon be able to give a measured assessment of the state of the 12.5-inch mirror, and of the skies in the Valley.

What I hadn’t really counted on was the incoming new layer of smoke from the Waldo fires. Linslaw was out of the question, as the smoke was blowing that direction; even Mark wasn’t willing to risk it for more Veil data. Even though it was closer to Waldo Lake, the Eagle’s Rest amphitheater was our better bet. So although the smoke was easily visible from atop the reservoir hill near my (and Dan’s) home, we—Dan, Colleen, and Loren—decided to give it a go.

I arrived first. The sky was clearly compromised; I hesitated to set up the scope until getting a verdict from the others. So I waited there as darkness began to descend on the roadside pullout, until Dan and Colleen, and then Loren drove up.

Dan started to set up; I followed suit. Loren kicked back in a chair with a can of Coors, heckling us from the sidelines—he was going to wait until it was fully dark to assess whether to set up his 18-inch Obsession.

I had no real agenda set for the night, as we didn’t know how the transparency was going to suffer from the smoke, and with the 12.5-inch mirror cleaned, I could pursue more-difficult quarry than I had the previous time out. But the sky wasn’t going to cooperate on that front, so it was another night of Messiers—hardly a disappointment, really, given how terrible the fires were and how much smoke they were producing. (Yes, I was somewhat worried about the possibilities of ash on the mirror.)

At length, Loren decided to assemble his scope; our comments about the rather-decent (all things considered) seeing and transparency eventually wore him down. He ended up observing two of the planetary nebulae he had on his own list, and dubbed the evening a success, despite the somewhat-worsening smoke as the night went on.

For my part, I got one Messier object in before the smoke got to be too much.

EAGLE’S REST (amphitheatre)
MOON: 4 days (set at 9:35 PM; 15% illuminated)
SQM: 21.2
NELM: not checked
WEATHER CONDITIONS: temps in 80s throughout; no dew; air still; very smoky
All observations: 12.5″ f/5 Discovery Dob, 14mm ES 82˚ eyepiece (112x, 0.7˚ TFOV), 7mm TeleVue Nagler (225x, 0.36˚ TFOV), or 4.8mm TeleVue Nagler (323x, 0.25˚ TFOV)  unless otherwise noted

M26 (Sct): On a very smoky, subpar night; this is M26, which is overlaid by a diamond-shaped pattern that has an extension running N. The major axis of the diamond runs 2.3’ P very slightly S-F very slightly N; the minor axis runs about 1.5’. The diamond has a number of stars in and very very closely gathered around it; that N-ward extension runs N and then NF from the N-most vertex for about 2.3’, and has nine stars of 12th magnitude and fainter in it; the star at the very end of the N very slightly F end of that arc is 12th magnitude. The P-most star in the diamond is the brightest in the cluster by far (but barely the brightest in the field) at 9th magnitude; the one on the F end of the major axis is the second-brightest at magnitude 10.5; the star at the N end of the diamond is the faintest in the diamond at 11th magnitude, while the star at the S end of the minor axis is 10.5 magnitude. There are a number of stars of 13.5-14th magnitude present, many of them along that arc to the N and around the N-most vertex of the diamond; that extension has what may be some unresolved background glow along it. The SF edge of the diamond has stars streaming F-wards and SF-wards from it for a couple of arcminutes; there are a number of really faint stars there. 3.5’ SP the cluster, S of the P-most vertex in the diamond, is another clump of perhaps nine stars; that clump is 1’ across, containing four obvious brighter stars of 11.5 and fainter down to about 13.5; those make up a small trapezoid, with the long (N) side roughly parallel to the P to SP edge of the diamond, and the brightest in that clump is on the NP edge. If that clump is part of the cluster, then the whole is about 7’ N-S x 5’ P-F; it’s a fairly rich little cluster, especially the main component, with about 45 stars total; it’s pretty well detached from the background, although everything is pretty well detached here with so much in the background washed out by the smoke; NP the cluster, 11’ NP the cluster lucida, is a star of 9th magnitude that’s slightly fainter than the lucida, and N somewhat P by 3’ from that star is a 10.5-magnitude star, From the cluster lucida 12’ P somewhat S is a 10.5-magnitude star with a 12.5-magnitude star N slightly P it by 0.25’. P very very very slightly S of the lucida by 4’ is the brighter and closer of a pair that are P-F each other; the brighter of the two is 11.5 magnitude and it has a 12th-magnitude secondary F it by 0.25’.

Dan took some SQM readings; we were all curious as to the effect of the smoke on the transparency. Surprisingly, it was as high as 21.2—hard to believe that it was only 0.1 lower than our average at the amphitheater. (Jerry would note that the club’s Sky Quality Meter—which Dan and I used, passing it back and forth as needed—seemed to read 0.1 higher than his own personal SQM. I wondered if perhaps my readings over the last couple of years were too generous, or if Jerry’s SQM was too pessimistic.) Rather unsurprisingly, the SQM also indicated that temperatures were still in the 80s at this time of night. I’d put on a pair of extra socks before leaving the house, but that was all I was using for cold-weather gear. Even so, I was still sweating.

There were no other Messier clusters in prime observing position, and I wasn’t going to take notes on M16 (the Eagle Nebula) or M17 (the Swan Nebula) under sub-par conditions; faint nebulosity would be be rendered invisible from the smoke. Saturn had risen, though, and was in decent enough position, despite being low in the south and thus in the denser part of the smoky atmosphere. I was once again reduced to planetary observing. The horror; the shame.

The previous night out, I’d had my first confirmed sighting of Enceladus—I had probably seen it before without recognizing it or acknowledging it. Tonight, there were a whopping six moons of Saturn visible in the 12.5-inch scope: Rhea, Tethys, Titan, Iapetus, Mimas, and Dione. (I made note of this at 10:43 PM.) Enceladus was apparently lost in the planet’s glare; I should’ve bumped up the magnification to give it some separation from Saturn’s disk. The seeing wasn’t great, though, so there was no guarantee I’d have spotted it. In retrospect, I’m disappointed that I didn’t bother—it would’ve been nice to get that seventh moon.

Saturn’s moons during my observation. Hyperion was magnitude 14.8 at the time; this would be difficult but not impossible under normal conditions, but the smoke rendered it invisible.


Before we packed up, Dan, Colleen, and I did an eyepiece shootout—his 9mm Explore 100˚ versus The Precious, my 10mm Delos. I’m not sure how Dan and Colleen felt about it, but to my eye the Delos was the clear winner in terms of transmission and ergonomics. I could be biased, but….

We headed out by 11:30. For this night, I was pleased to make use of the amphitheater’s one advantage over Linslaw: the relatively-short drive home.

III. Our third night of the run took place under clearer skies, and was far more productive.

First, I had business to take care of—our trivia team (Mrs. Caveman, Cavemanette, our rugby-playing British friend, Dan B, and myself; a.k.a. The Flat Universe Society) had to defend our title for the fourth week out of five. Without Dan, though, we only managed second place, as the music category stumped us. (Dan would’ve gotten enough of them right for us to have won again.) So by 8:45 I was off to Linslaw, making the rare post-sunset drive out to the crag. I made it there and got set up before the Moon even set.

Linslaw had both the better sky and smoke forecasts, as the amphitheater was buried under a haze of burning Waldo Lake. We were expected to cloud over between 2 and 3 AM, and that’s exactly what happened; before that, though, the observing far surpassed the average seeing, transparency, and SQM ratings.

Having made some headway on the Messier objects I’d yet to take notes on, I opted to continue the project. M6 and M7 were visible but in poor position; M16 and M17 would also wait for next year so I could catch them at their best. The rest of the Sagittarius objects, though, were still well placed. The hunt was on.

MOON: 6 days (set at 10:23 PM; 34% illuminated)
SQM: 21.2
NELM: not checked
WEATHER CONDITIONS: temps to 58F; slight dew; air still; cool
OTHERS PRESENT: JO (12” trackball), MW
All observations: 12.5″ f/5 Discovery Dob, 14mm ES 82˚ eyepiece (112x, 0.7˚ TFOV), 7mm TeleVue Nagler (225x, 0.36˚ TFOV), or 4.8mm TeleVue Nagler (323x, 0.25˚ TFOV)  unless otherwise noted

M21 (Sgr):  M21 is a very coarse cluster and not really that well detached, maybe moderately so, and not particularly rich; it has a decent range of magnitudes, starting with the cluster lucida, which marks the vertex of the swoosh symbol that makes up the most obvious and most populous part of the cluster; that star is 7.5 magnitude, and has N somewhat P it by 0.5’ an 8.5-magnitude star; there’s another 8.5-magnitude star 1.25’ F very slightly N of the lucida, and continuing in that line—that’s a perfectly straight 2.5’ line on the F side—from that second star 0.75’ F very slightly N is a 9.5-magnitude star that has 0.5’ F very slightly N of it an 11.5-magnitude star; that makes up the “swoosh” in the center of the cluster; there’s a fair amount of unresolved glow around those, particularly around the lucida; averted vision shows a number of 14.5- and 15th-magnitude stars in that area. 1’ F somewhat S of the lucida is another 9.5-magnitude star. 2.75’ due N of the lucida is the F-most vertex of a small right triangle that also looks to be part of the cluster, and is the second-most obvious feature here; that star is 9th magnitude, and it has a 10th-magnitude star 1.25’ P it that is the right-angle vertex of that triangle; that star has N very very slightly F it by 1’ another 10th-magnitude star. From the lucida 11’ due S is an 8.5-magnitude star; there’s another 8.5-magnitude star S somewhat P by 4.5’. The whole of the cluster is about 7’ N slightly P-S slightly F x 3.5’ P-F. In the area between the swoosh and the little triangle, there are two streams of faint stars that arc like a pair of parentheses up toward the F-most vertex of the triangle, from roughly around the area around the lucida; those are all fainter stars,11th-12th magnitude, and there are nine or ten stars in the two arcs. Overall, there are about 50 stars here in the cluster. 

I had to really crane my neck to get a good view in the eyepiece, as M21 was already a bit too low to observe comfortably. The seeing came and went, so poor at times that the stars rippled visibly, as if viewed through the air above a hot desert road. Fortunately, my next target was a little higher in altitude for both my neck and my note-taking.

M23 (Sgr):
 M23 is much richer, much better detached from the background than M21; it could almost be surrounded by dark nebulosity, it’s set apart so well from the background. It also has a much narrower range of magnitudes. What looks like the cluster lucida is on the NF edge of the main body of the cluster and is 8th magnitude; the majority of the stars in the cluster (and I’d say there are no fewer than 100 here) are in the 9.5- to 11.5-magnitude range. The cluster is vaguely roundish; assuming that this whole region is the cluster, the main body of it is about 25’ in diameter, with three really interesting features to it. The middle section of the main cluster body is roughly rectangular; it runs N somewhat P-S somewhat F and is about 7’ x 3.25’; the S end of the F edge is an arc of five stars, of which the middle one is much the faintest; that arcs due N-ward gradually, starting from the F side of the rectangle and comes to the NF vertex of the rectangle, which is on the due N of the cluster’s main body; the two N vertices there are both 9.5 magnitude; the NP vertex is also the SF vertex of a little tiny “keystone of Hercules”-shaped asterism. The S somewhat F end of that rectangle is actually kind of an arc itself of four stars, and on the S edge of the cluster there’s a 7’ long arc that sweeps from its brightest star on the F end, runs P very very slightly N from there, and terminates in a little right triangle whose right-angle vertex is the faintest and F-most of the three in that triangle. The other two interesting features here are… 5.5’ due N of the rectangle’s NF vertex is a 10th-magnitude star that is the P-most in an 11’ long stream of stars that runs F very slightly N from that star and has generally fainter stars than those in the cluster; the majority of those are in the 11th- and 12th-magnitude range. And on the due NP corner of the cluster and running NP from there is a line of 11th-/12th-/12.5-magnitude stars, with a couple of 13th-/13.5-magnitude stars in there as well; there are about nine stars in that line, which runs 8’, has a gap, and then on that same line is the brightest star in the field, which is magnitude 6.5. So that is M23, and it is a much better, much more unified-looking object than M21, and kind of an underrated object in the Messier catalog.

The two “easier” Sagittarius M clusters done, I now had one I was dreading. The Small Sagittarius Star Cloud, M24, was an object of such splendor and detail that describing it all seemed impossible; I could spend the entire night on it. Looking back at it, I probably should’ve given it more than the half-hour I spent with it, and should’ve been more accurate with the time I did give it. Few objects in the sky offer more to the observer; in many ways, it’s the closest thing that Northern Hemisphere observers get to the Magellanic Clouds, satellite galaxies of the Milky Way that can only be observed from the Equator or further south.

M24, M18; NGC 6603; Collinder 469; Barnard 92, 93 (Sgr): So much to describe here I’m not going to an even remotely good job of getting through it. This is M24, the Small Sagittarius Star Cloud, and the mind is boggled at the splendor of it all. I’m starting at NGC 6603, the fainter, extremely rich open cluster that’s situated toward the NF end of the star cloud. NGC 6603 almost looks like a distant globular: it’s 5’ in diameter, tremendously rich, very obviously a cluster, well separable from the background (even one as rich as the Small Sagittarius Star Cloud). The member stars have a very narrow range of magnitudes—95% of the stars in it are of the 14th magnitude, one exception being a very obvious 13th-magnitude star on the SF edge. Like M4, this cluster has a very obvious line of stars running across its face, from NP-SF, where there is obviously a much greater concentration of stars, although the rest of the cluster is pretty evenly concentrated. This is an incredibly rich cluster, a sprinkling of stardust, kind of along the same lines as NGC 2158 in Gemini. The cluster has S of it by 4.67’ a 7.5-magnitude star; due P that star by 13’ is a 6.5-magnitude star; from the 7.5-magnitude star 9’ F very slightly S is an 8th-magnitude star; S somewhat P that star by 8’ is the brighter of a pair, which is 7th magnitude and has an 8th-magnitude star 0.3’ NF it. 14’ N very slightly F NGC 6603 is the S edge of a large complex of dark nebulosity that runs N slightly F from there for about 24’, and the N slightly F edge of that becomes a much more opaque dark nebula about 5’ in diameter. 23’ due N of NGC 6603 is another very opaque dark nebula that runs roughly P-F and is about 7’ x 3.5’-4’ at its widest; at the P end of that, it branches out into a much larger complex that is about 24’ x 6’ and consists of several clumps of varying opacity; in the S end of that complex, about 27’ N very slightly P 6603, is a 1’ knot [“the pacifier”] of very faint stars amid the nebulosity; those stars are considerably faint, with one 11.5-magnitude exception on the S end of that little group. From NGC 6603 17’ P somewhat N is another knot of stars that seems to be a cluster; it’s 2’ in diameter and has the majority of its brighter stars on the periphery. N of that little clump is another long vein of P-F dark nebulosity [Barnard 93] spanning 20’ x 7.5’, which branches S-ward and is very, very opaque. Just S of that piece of dark nebulosity—P slightly S of that last clump of stars—is another clump [Collinder 469] that’s 2.5’ in diameter and has a number of brighter (11.5-/12th-magnitude) stars on its N end; this is roughly triangular, with the long axis running N-S. From that clump 15’ P somewhat N is a solitary faint star embedded in another large, very opaque dark nebula [Barnard 92] that’s a rough ellipse spanning N-S 15’ x 9’ and is denser along the F edge. These last two really opaque dark nebulae are the so-called “Coal Miner’s Lungs.” 

God, there’s so much to talk about here…. 28’ S somewhat P NGC 6603 is the N end of a N-S line of stars that’s about 6’ long and has eleven stars in it; from its S-most star, it branches N very very slightly P in a line of five stars. 19’ S very slightly P NGC 6603 is the N-most vertex of a triangle of bright stars that has a few extra stars in it; that star is 7.5 magnitude and has a 6.5 magnitude star S very slightly P it by 6’ and an 8.5-magnitude star S very slightly F by 3.75’. That 6.5-magnitude star is itself the S-most vertex in a little right triangle, with the RA vertex N of it by 1’. The whole of the star cloud runs SP-NF for no less than 1.5˚, maybe 2°; it’s riddled with so much dark nebulosity that I’d be here all night trying to describe it. [I don’t know where this is in relation to the rest of the star cloud, as I didn’t give a starting point]: There’s a 15’ long string of 10.5-to-12th magnitude stars running almost P-F in a really graceful arc that terminates on its P end with a little knot of stars; there’s a very close (6”?) double in that knot (or pair) that are P-F to each other and are both about 11.5 magnitude; 6’ N of that pair of stars is the N end (and brightest star) of a N-S string of seven stars; that star is 9.5 magnitude, and then there’s a gap, and then 4.5’ SP from the S-most star in that line is another long (13’) line of stars composed of a bunch of little knots of stars; the star at the NF end of that is the brightest in that line and is 10.5 magnitude; from the star on the NF end of that and running P-ward is another line, so these last two form an awkward ‘V’ about 8’ long on this end (the line that runs P-F); that branches on the end and terminates with a 10.5-magnitude star that has an 11th-magnitude star N very slightly P it by 1.25’. 

Wandering through the star cloud here gives maybe the greatest feeling of being immersed in space that I’ve ever had. The S edge of the star cloud is delineated by a long, dense patch of dark nebulosity that starts from about 23’ S of NGC 6603 and stretches well over a degree, fracturing at its S end, and also has a branch that runs F-ward for some distance. 80’ N of NGC 6603 is another of what looks to be a cluster; this may actually be M18.  It’s about 7’ x 3’, with major axis running S slightly P-N slightly F, and consists of a rough ellipse of twelve stars on the N end and a smallish right triangle; the ellipse is flat on the F side, so it’s not a very good ellipse. Its brightest star is on the due P edge, and that star is 8.5 magnitude and is the lucida of this little group; F somewhat N of it by 1’ is a 9th-magnitude star; there’s another 9th-magnitude star 1’ due F that one that marks the NF edge of the ellipse; from that star 1.5’ S is a 10.5-magnitude star; from that 10.5-magnitude star 1’ S slightly P is a 10th-magnitude star, and then 0.3’ S of that star is another 10th-magnitude star; 1.3’ P from that second in the pair is another 10th-magnitude star, and from that star almost due N by 1.67’ is the lucida of this group. From the lucida here NP by 2.5’ is a 10th-magnitude star that has a 10.5-magnitude star P very slightly S of it by 1.75’, and then from the lucida S very slightly P by 3.25’ is the N-most and right-angle vertex of a triangle, which is also 10th magnitude; S slightly P that star by 1.25’ is another star of 10.5 magnitude; the third vertex is 2.3’ F slightly S of the right-angle vertex and is also 10.5 magnitude. [added] That was indeed M18; it’s very well detached and obviously a cluster, with a fair brightness range. It’s not particularly rich, but I didn’t note all of the stars; there are a number in the 11th-12th magnitude range and also in the 13th-14+ magnitude range. That little triangle on the S end has several other stars in it, especially P the short side of the triangle; the ellipse has only a few extra hiding in it.

A magnificent region. I almost feel as if I’ve seen the face of infinity.

On researching M24 more thoroughly at home, I discovered that I’d missed four actual clusters—Turner 2, 3, and 4, and Markarian 38—and several planetary nebulae within the star cloud proper. Next summer, I may have to do a more-accurate and more in-depth survey of M24 while scooping up the remaining quartet of Messiers in the region.

I almost missed one as it was; M25 nearly escaped my notice as I was preparing to head up into Cygnus. Fortunately, it was still in decent position.

M25 (Sgr): I missed M25 as I was starting to head up to M29 in Cygnus, but remembered it at the last minute. This is another cluster in the Sagittarius Milky Way that’s surrounded by what looks like dark nebulosity, so the cluster is standing out well from the surroundings. It’s pretty well detached, with a wide range of magnitudes; if all of these are cluster members, then it’s moderately rich, with about 80 members. Within this kind of ring of dark nebulosity, the stars cover an area 30’ across, operating under the assumption that this is all part of the cluster; there are a number of really bright stars here. It’s fairly concentrated toward the center, with the densest part housed within a triangle of which the SF vertex is just barely the brightest in the field at 6.5 magnitude; it has a 7.5-magnitude star due F it by 4.75’. From the lucida 13’ due NF is a 7th-magnitude star that has a 9.5-magnitude star 1.25’ P very slightly S of it; 16’ NP the lucida NP is another 7th-magnitude star; from the lucida SF by 14’ is a 9th-magnitude star. [I don’t totally trust these magnitude estimates due to the seeing and probable atmospheric extinction.] From the lucida 4.75’ P somewhat N is an 8th-magnitude star that is the N-most point in the rich part of the cluster, and then from that star SP by 5.25’ is another of 8th magnitude, and that star has a 9.5-magnitude star 1’ F slightly N of it. Between the lucida and that N-most star in that group is a very obvious pattern, almost like a little mantle-clock shape; the base of it runs P somewhat N-F somewhat S, and it has a loop on the N side of that line that kind of provides the “clock face”; the base has three stars toward the N end, of which the second is the brightest at 9th magnitude; that one has P somewhat N of it by 0.5’ a 9.5-magnitude star and a 10.5-magnitude star SF it. From the lucida 1’ P very very slightly S is the star on the S end of the base of that little clock asterism; that star is 9th magnitude and has a 10.5-magnitude star N of it by 0.75’; the 10.5-magnitude star has another of 10.5 magnitude P somewhat N of it by 0.67’; that star has due P it by 0.3’ a 9.5-magnitude star, and then S very slightly P that last star is the 9th-magnitude star in the N end of the clock-face asterism. From the cluster lucida 2.75’ S very slightly P is the brightest star in a 4.3’ P-F line; that star is the second one from the F end and is 9th magnitude. Due P that star by 1.5’ is the N and brighter of a pair of 9th- and 10.5-magnitude stars, separated N-S by 12”. SP that line, about 9’ SP the lucida, is a trapezoid whose short end is to the S and whose long end is to the N; the long end is about 3.25’; the NP vertex of that trapezoid is 9th magnitude and is 9’ SP the lucida; that star is also the S-most vertex of the cluster’s primary triangle pattern; the trapezoid has within it, toward the P side, a S very slightly P-N slightly F line of three 10th- and 11th-magnitude stars; that line is 1’ long and its middle star is F very slightly S of the 9th-magnitude star by 1’.

I made note that the seeing had deteriorated appreciably since I’d started observing, and it was especially bad at the lower altitudes. Fortunately, my next (and last) Messier objects were considerably higher in the sky. Unfortunately, they’d require standing in order to observe them; I had to lean on my cane in order to balance while peering into the scope.

M29 (Cyg): It’s been a while since I stopped by M29, one of the starker Messier clusters but not without charm. The cluster essentially consists of two arcs that bow together in the middle, creating the “cooling tower” shape that earned the cluster its nickname. The P arc is composed of three bright stars; the F arc consists of five. Starting from the SP we have a 9.5-magnitude star; 1.25’ due N of that star is an 11.5-magnitude star; 1’ P slightly N of the 11.5-magnitude star is an 8.5-magnitude star; P slightly N that star by 0.67’ is a 12th-magnitude star; from the 12th-magnitude star due P by 0.67’ is a 9th-magnitude star, and from that star N by 1.25’ is a 11.5-magnitude star. Proceeding to the F arc, from the star on the SP: F somewhat N by 2.75’ is a 9th-magnitude star; from that star N somewhat P by 1.67’ is another of 9th magnitude; from that star N very slightly P by 1’ is a 10.5-magnitude star; from that star F very slightly N by 1’ is a 9th-magnitude star, and from that 9th-magnitude star NP by 1.75’ is a 10.5-magnitude star. M29 is fairly detached; I think it’s pretty obvious it’s a cluster, even in the starry Cygnus fields. There are some fainter stars present in the cluster, namely several in the 12th- and 13th-magnitude range in between the two arcs. Overall, the cluster is maybe 5.75’ round, with 25 total members—not one of the richer clusters, but worth a look every now and then. 

There were definite traces of cloud rolling through by now, visible to the eye down low along the western and southern horizons, but still seen only as distortions in the seeing as they passed overhead. The CSC was again right on the money; by the time 2 AM rolled around, we’d be clouded out. For me, it would be just about right on time—the only Messiers I’d have left later in the sky would be M74 and M77, and they would take a couple more hours before they were in any position for me to take acceptable notes on them. Time, then, to finish up for the night.

M39 (Cyg): M39 is one of the toughest to identify of all of the Messier star clusters, and it took a lot of comparing with the photograph to make sure that I had it, because it could otherwise be just a random collection of bright stars up there in Cygnus. There are a lot of 6.5-/7th-magnitude stars here, all the way down to 13th or 14th magnitude, but it remains uncertain if those are all cluster members. The cluster is roughly triangular and most of it fits well within the 42’ field of the 14mm ES eyepiece, so that’s a pretty good size estimate for the cluster, 42’. The bottom edge of the triangle runs roughly P-F; the F end of it—the SF vertex of the triangle—is the brightest star in the field at magnitude 6.5; P it by 9’ is an 8.5-magnitude star that is the F end of a shallow arc of three that’s actually P very very slightly N of the lucida; 2.5’ P very very slightly S from that 8.5-magnitude star is a 9th-magnitude star; there’s a 9.5 magnitude star 1.5’ P that star, and those three comprise the arc. And then 5.25’ P from the P-most in the arc is an 8th-magnitude star; P that star by 11’ is a 7.5-magnitude star which is the SP vertex of the triangle. From the lucida 27’ N somewhat P is the N-most vertex of the triangle, which is 8.5 magnitude, and 27’ S somewhat P from that star is the SP vertex of the triangle. the most obvious feature in the cluster is the pair at the middle of the triangle; 18’ P somewhat N from the lucida is the brighter of that pair, which is 7.5 magnitude; the second in the pair is F very slightly S of it by 0.75’ and is 9th magnitude. From the brighter of that pair 6’ due N is a 7th-magnitude star, and from the brighter of the pair 6’ N somewhat F is an 8th-magnitude star; from the brighter of the pair 6’ F very slightly S is another 6.5-magnitude star that has a 10th-magnitude star 1.5’ S slightly F and a 9th-magnitude star F somewhat N of it by 5’. From the N-most vertex 4.75’ S very slightly F is an 8th-magnitude star. From the SP vertex of the triangle 14’ F somewhat S is an 8th-magnitude star that’s the N-most in a N-S line of five, of which the three at the S end are very faint and form a tiny triangle themselves; 0.75’ S of that 8th-magnitude star is a 10th-magnitude star, and the N-most vertex of that little triangle is S of that star by 0.5’ and is 12th magnitude; the other two in that little triangle are 13th magnitude. That accounts for all of the brighter members of the cluster; there are several others in the 10.5-magnitude and slightly-fainter range—about 40-50 stars scattered over the area, but it’s hard to tell if the fainter ones are cluster members. It’s a fairly sparse cluster and not at all well detached; there’s so much around it that only the brightnesses of the stars gives a real indication that it might be a unified, coherent entity versus being just a scattered starfield of bright stars. 

I spent a bit of time on some of the Messier objects I’d already long since observed: M30, M2, M15. By the time I was done with those, clouds had swallowed up much of the sky. Mark and Jerry had already started stowing their gear; I took their lead, hampered by my troublesome feet and appreciative of their offers to help. My circus, my elephants, so to speak; I needed to be able to handle the chore of teardown on my own.

By the time I got home, the stars were completely buried in the sky muck. But it had been a fantastic night, regardless of the mediocre-to-useless conditions: notes on seven Messiers, and the riches of the Small Sagittarius Star Cloud burned into my caveman brain.

IV. The next night was our monthly public observing session, a.k.a. “First Quarter Friday.” Or it would have been, if clouds hadn’t made a mess of it. We did our best for an hour before even the sucker holes vanished in a welter of thick stratocumulus clouds.

Normally, when First Quarter Friday is clouded or rained out, we considered the next night to be a rain date. But this time, no-one was available to cover the Saturday night; Dan was out of town, Jerry had other obligations, and the other usual suspects had their own obligations. Which was fine by me–the forecast at Linslaw was spectacular.

Only Robert and Mark were interested in a trip out, surprisingly. But the vehicle that came down the gravel road toward me as I started the climb up the mountainside was neither of them; this one had hunting lights all over it, and they were blazing, even though sunset was still twenty minutes away. They didn’t yield, either—cars coming down hills were, by state law, supposed to yield to those heading up. I had to pull over to let them past or they would’ve run me off the road. This was potential trouble, made all the more real by the fact that they turned around to follow me.

I drove faster the rest of the way up than I had before, hoping to lose them on the way up; only on the final, steep climb did I let the gas off. Mark was at the top, already getting his astrophotography rig calibrated. As I started to unload my gear, I told him about the truck that had been following me, although it seemed as though I’d lost them.

A few minutes later, another vehicle came up the mountain. Robert? No, it was the truck that’d followed me. How they knew that particular side road was the one I had taken, I still don’t know.

The driver and his passenger checked out Mark, our gear, and I for a moment.

“Hey,” the driver said. “Does this road go through?”

“It’s a dead end,” I said, motioning around the crag.

“Oh. All right, then–we’ll just turn around.”

They knew that it was a dead end, I’m sure of it. They’d been there before; whether or not they were responsible for the piles of spent AR-15 and 9mm casings that usually littered the site I didn’t know, but these guys absolutely knew that the road didn’t go through from atop the crag. They were checking out what we were doing because it was somehow a threat to their own activities… which I’m certain were illegal.

Whatever the case, they did indeed turn around. I went back to setting up, half-expecting our unwanted visitors to return.

A few more minutes went by, and another vehicle came up the hill. This one was Robert’s, though, so at least our numbers were better. Robert’s wife Tiffany was with him, for the first time in quite a while.

As darkness fell, it was clear that the forecast wasn’t wrong—the sky was glorious. Even past its prime, the Milky Way glittered from horizon to (I assume) horizon, from the spout of Sagittarius’ teapot through Cassiopeia, just above the crag; Perseus sparkled through the conifers that dotted the top of the sandstone crag. Arcturus, low in the west, still shone steadily. The Summer Triangle stars gleamed almost planet-like and unwavering. The Moon, even at First Quarter, seemed isolated from the rest of the sky, its light-scatter held to a minimal radius by an atmosphere blown clear of the recent smoke and clouds. Perhaps the wind was coming from the east—even the damp ocean air seemed absent.

With moonlight still a factor, but not wanting to waste any of the night, I poked through the Astronomical League’s open cluster list for a bright target that could withstand the Moon’s presence. It didn’t take long to find one.

MOON: 24 days (set at 11:36 PM; 57% illuminated)
SQM: 21.4 (seemed more like 21.6 or better)
NELM: not checked
WEATHER CONDITIONS: temps to 55F; slight dew; some breeze
All observations: 12.5″ f/5 Discovery Dob, 14mm ES 82˚ eyepiece (112x, 0.7˚ TFOV), 7mm TeleVue Nagler (225x, 0.36˚ TFOV), or 4.8mm TeleVue Nagler (323x, 0.25˚ TFOV) unless otherwise noted

NGC 7063 (Cyg): Due to the continued presence of the Moon in the sky, I’m starting tonight with NGC 7063 in Cygnus, a bright, coarse open cluster that is not really that well detached from much of the background; there’s an asterism off to the NF that’s slightly bigger than 7063 that could just as easily be another cluster. But NGC 7063 has an 8’ major axis that’s oriented NP-SF and a 4.5’ SP-NF minor axis; it’s roughly rectangular. There are about 25 stars in that region, many of them between 8.5 and 10th magnitude; there are also quite a few much-brighter stars around the area, including a 6th-magnitude bluish-white star [69 Cygni] NF the cluster by about 20’; in fact, that is the brightest star in the field. The middle part of the cluster, almost directly across the middle of the cluster, is the richest part of it; there’s a line of stars that extends roughly N-S, and that is the most distinctive feature here. The P side of the cluster, which runs NP-SF, is a fairly complete line; there are ten visible stars along that side; there’s also (off the SF vertex of that line, S and SF that), a wedge pattern pointing to the S that I suspect is probably not part of the cluster, but consists mostly of fainter background stars. The F-most vertex of the cluster’s rectangle is the brightest star in the cluster, the lucida, at 9th magnitude, and is slightly reddish-looking to my caveman retinas. SF that star by 3.3’ is a 10.5-magnitude star. From the lucida 1.3’ N somewhat P is a tight double or close pair whose components are 11th and 12.5 magnitude; the primary is 10” P somewhat S of the secondary. And then from the lucida 3’ P slightly N is a 9.5-magnitude star; there’s another 9.5-magnitude star P slightly N of that one by 2.25’; from the first of those 9.5-magnitude stars—the one more toward the middle of the cluster—F very very very slightly S by 0.67’ is a 12th-magnitude star with a 13.5-magnitude star N of it by 0.25’, and from that 9.5-magnitude star S by 1.25’ is the brighter of another pair or double, which is 11th magnitude and has N slightly F it by 12” a 12.5-magnitude star. P the lucida we have the first of the 9.5-magnitude stars, and then P that star we have the second; from that second 9.5-magnitude star P slightly N by 3.25’ is an 11th-magnitude star, and 2’ NF that same 9.5-magnitude star is an 11.5-magnitude star that has an 10.5-magnitude star S very very slightly P it by 0.5’; then from the 11.5-magnitude star 1’ N very very slightly F is a 10th-magnitude star, and from that star P very very slightly N by 1.25’ is another 10th-magnitude star. From the cluster lucida 7.5’ is another star of nearly equal brightness.

One observation in, and my feet were already pissed off with all the standing.

My agenda for the night—such as it was—included mostly the Herschel “remainders,” those objects (almost all of them galaxies) that William Herschel had discovered but didn’t make the cut for the Herschel 400/Herschel II lists. Most of these were relatively feeble, though, and required some sorting through; having observed a few of these remainders, I was inclined to use the 20-inch Obsession on them for the sake of perhaps eking out any possible details. The 12.5-inch scope just wasn’t quite enough aperture for the job… or at least, for making most of these objects interesting. Most were small and faint, and were certainly not suitable quarry for Bob the Dob with the Moon wrecking the view.

I took some time to observe Saturn again, making sure not to mention it to anyone else in hopes of avoiding the ridicule. The planet’s four brighter moons—Tethys, Dione, Rhea, and Titan—stretched out in a line, trailing away from the planet’s northern pole; 13th-magnitude Mimas was barely visible, nestled in the crook of the rings and the planet’s disk.

I also spent some time with Robert’s remarkable binocular telescopes, the 80mm “Heart” and the 50mm “Magic.” These were not merely homemade binoculars; they were essentially dual-mounted telescopes, using standard 1.25″ telescope eyepieces and nebula filters. In a sense, not was like having a TeleVue Pronto for each eye. Large-scale nebulae like the North America/Pelican Nebula complex, the Veil, and the Heart & Soul Nebulae jumped straight out of the eyepieces, unmistakable against the inky background. The Cocoon Nebula fluoresced like the head of a comet in a tail of pure blackness, the dust lane from which the nebula erupted. Large open clusters like the Double Cluster lay foregrounded against a rich glow of millions of unresolved stars. This was how to observe objects like the Small Sagittarius Star Cloud!

Eventually, the Moon sank below the western horizon, and it was time for faint galaxy-light—observing at vast distances beyond our own galaxy’s nebulae and star clusters.

NGC 7391 (Aqr): The first galaxy of the season for me, NGC 7391 in Aquarius, F the Water Jar. I’ve looked at a couple of these remaining Herschel galaxies here and don’t think the 12.5-inch does them justice, but this one is an elliptical, so I don’t think that it’s gonna show that much more than I get here. this is maybe 0.67’ diameter, with a dim halo, a sudden, bright core, and a quasi-stellar nucleus that flashes out at good moments of seeing and transparency. The field has a number of bright stars in it, which is fairly distracting; about 1’ N of the galaxy is a particularly-annoying 12.5-magnitude star, and from that star F slightly N by 1.75’ is a difficult 14th-magnitude star. From the galaxy 8.5’ NP is a 9.5-magnitude star; there’s a 9th-magnitude star NF the galaxy by 10’. SF the galaxy by 12’ is another 9.5-magnitude star; there’s a 10th-magnitude star 13’ S slightly F the galaxy. The brightest star in the field is about 22’ SF the galaxy—just on the edge of the field—and that star is 8th magnitude; it has a 9.5-magnitude star S very slightly P it by 6.25’ and a 13th-magnitude star 1.25’ NF it; in fact, that 8th-magnitude star is a double, with a 12.5-magnitude star F somewhat S of it by 5”. I thought for a moment I saw another galaxy near that double, but I can’t isolate it (if it was even there). 

NGC 7458 (Psc): Another in a long line of very small galaxies in the Herschel catalogue, this is NGC 7458, in Pisces; my admiration for WH just increases every time I see how difficult some of these little bastards are. The galaxy is 6.5’ S slightly P a 9th-magnitude star, and that star is the brightest and NF vertex of a small isosceles triangle whose two equal sides are to the N and the F and the long side to the SP; the other two vertices are 12th magnitude (the P one maybe a little brighter than the other) and those are 2’ P very slightly S and 2’ S of the 9th-magnitude star. The galaxy is quite small; it’s 0.75’ x 0.5’, and is elongated S very slightly P-N very slightly F. It doesn’t have much in the way of a halo, but does have a brightish elongated core; I’m not really getting a nucleus at this magnification… maybe in averted vision? What there is of the halo is pretty well defined. P slightly N of the galaxy by 10’ is a 9.5-magnitude star, and then F slightly S of the galaxy by 16’ is an 11th-magnitude star; on roughly the same line, 6.5’ F slightly S of the galaxy along that same line, is a 12th-magnitude star. Even in the 7mm Nagler, I’m not convinced there’s a nucleus in this galaxy; there’s a threshold star, however, F very very slightly S of the galaxy by 1.25’, and then 3’ F the galaxy is a 14th-magnitude star. The extra magnification really makes the core of the galaxy stand out.

I was still rusty at this, missing PGC 70289, just to the following (east) side of NGC 7458.

The Pleiades had crested the crag; Robert beckoned me over for a look. I’d seen the Pleiades a hundred times in binoculars—they were the first object I’d ever looked at with binoculars as a kid, having pilfered my father’s 7 x 35 Korean War-era bios from the closet at home upon seeing the cluster mentioned in Carl Sagan’s Cosmos. But I hadn’t ever seen them like this: in the “Magic” binoculars, the stars of the cluster seemed suspended in the foreground, the trees of the crag pushed well into the background. After thousands of hours of astronomical observing, I was still capable of being astonished.

NGC 7311 (Peg):
 Up into Pegasus now, with NGC 7311, which lies between the Water Jar of Aquarius and the Great Square. This little galaxy is not overly impressive; it’s about 0.75’ x 0.3’ and elongated N very very slightly F-S very very slightly P. It has a pretty obvious stellar nucleus, and a smallish brighter core; the halo is pretty well defined. 5.5’ N very very slightly F the galaxy is a 10.5-magnitude star that’s the F-most vertex in a small isosceles triangle; it has a 13.5-magnitude star 1.75’ NP it and a 13th-magnitude star P very very slightly N of it by 0.75’; the third vertex of the triangle is 3’ P very slightly S of the 10.5-magnitude star and is 13.5 magnitude. S very very slightly P the 10.5-magnitude vertex in that little triangle by 2’ is a 14th-magnitude star. The brightest star in the field is F the galaxy by 14’; that star is 9th magnitude and is the N-most vertex in a backwards lowercase Y-shaped pattern, and that star is at the “bottom” of the stem; 8.5’ SP it is a 10th-magnitude star that has 1.5’ S slightly F a pair of 14.5-magnitude stars, separated N very very slightly P-S very very slightly F to each other by 0.3’; the 10th-magnitude star marks the middle of the Y, and it has 6’ S of it an 11th-magnitude star, and also has 7’ P very slightly S of it an 11th-magnitude star that has a 13.5-magnitude star 0.75’ F very slightly N of it. I’m going to switch to the 7mm, as I think there’s detail yet to be seen on this galaxy… In the 7mm, it has an extended core that may not be totally uniformly bright, almost like there’s a dark slash running just S of the nucleus; it seems to cut the core in two.

Again, my rust showed: I missed NGC 7312, 16’ N slightly F 7311. In looking at the Palomar plates, the “dark slash” I noted doesn’t seem to exist, either; the galaxy looks extremely normal. I’ll need to observe this one with the 20-inch Obsession to see if I can figure out what it was that I’d seen there.

Robert and Tiffany left around this point; I hoped our truck-driving stalkers wouldn’t return now that our numerical advantage was gone.

NGC 7515 (Peg):
 NGC 7515 is also in Pegasus, up towards Markab, kind of between Markab and the Circlet of Pisces. This is a more-diffuse galaxy than the majority of those that I’ve done tonight: it’s roundish, with a slight bit of N-S elongation; it’s about 1’ x 0.75’, so larger than the few that I’ve done so far. It’s also much more broadly-concentrated than the others; this looks more like a face-on spiral than, say, an elliptical. It has a broader, gradual, slightly-brighter core and a substellar nucleus; I was thinking that might be a tiny sudden core amid a gradually-brightening halo, but I do think that’s a substellar nucleus there. This is kind of an interesting little specimen. It has 8’ S very slightly F it the N of a pair of 9th-magnitude stars, separated by 0.5’ N very slightly P-S very slightly F to each other. N somewhat F the galaxy by 11’ is an 11th-magnitude star, and there’s a 10.5-magnitude star F slightly N of the galaxy by 8.5’; that star is the right-angle vertex of a small triangle, which has 1.67’ P very slightly N of it a 12.5-magnitude star and a 13th-magnitude star N very slightly F by 2’. The galaxy has a 14th-magnitude star SP it by 2’ and another 14th-magnitude star S somewhat F it by 3’. In the 7mm, the halo of the galaxy appears irregular in shape and/or brightness. This is one of the better “Herschel remainder” galaxies that I’ve done in a while; there just seems to be some real detail to be had. This would be another good one to follow up on with the 20” scope.

I observed a few more of these galaxies, trying to find some that seemed like suitable targets for the 12.5-inch. Most of them just seemed so feeble that it was almost unfair to not give them their due with the larger aperture. I also took cursory looks at NGC 1 and NGC 2, both of which also needed the greater aperture of the Obsession. Fortunately, I had a couple of changeups on my observing list, one of which was just due to reach the meridian. But first, I stopped by WLM, the Wolf-Lundmark-Melotte galaxy at the “prow” of Cetus, and IC 1613, another dwarf galaxy just to the northeast of WLM. Both galaxies were large, difficult, dim smudges that were nonetheless members of the Milky Way’s Local Group of galaxies, our own inter-galactic “neighborhood.” I’d see both before in the 12.5-inch scope, and taken notes on WLM, but I would use the 20-inch the next time I planned to take notes on them.

But on to an odd one…

Blanco 1 (Scl): A really unusual one; I’m doing it not necessarily because it’s on any list, but because it’s there: the very large, very sprawling open cluster Blanco 1 in Sculptor, which is a very poor cluster over a degree across. There’s really not much in there at all, especially considering its size. It doesn’t look much like a cluster, even; it’s more just a very slightly denser part of the background here in Sculptor. Starting over on the NP side, there is a 5th-magnitude star [Zeta Scl] which is whitish-blue and is the cluster lucida; 4.67’ S of it is the S-most vertex of a nearly-equilateral triangle; that vertex is 10.5 magnitude and has 1.67’ F somewhat N of it an 11.5-magnitude star; from the 10.5-magnitude star 2’ N very very very slightly P is another 11.5-magnitude star. From the lucida 2.3’ NP is a 12th-magnitude star; F the lucida by 16’ is a pair of 10th-magnitude stars, separated N very very very slightly P-S very very very slightly F each other by 1’; there’s another pair, 10.5- and 11th-magnitude stars, 15’ F slightly S of the lucida, and those are also separated by 1’, and are oriented P somewhat S-F somewhat N to each other, with the brighter to the F somewhat N. From the lucida 37’ NF is a 6.5-magnitude star that has a 7.5-magnitude star S very slightly F it by 7’; 35’ SF from the lucida is a 7th-magnitude star that’s in the middle of a longer chain that runs NP-SF; that whole chain is about 40’ long; that 7th-magnitude star is seventh from NP (counting the pair at the very NP end of that as separate stars); there’s a pair of 12th-magnitude stars in the middle of that chain; continuing SF after that pair, there are six more stars, and the chain terminates in a pair separated N slightly F-S slightly P to each other by 2’; the more-S of those is the brighter at 8th magnitude, with the more-N being 9th magnitude. That covers the majority of the bright stars in Blanco 1; there are no more than 50 stars in this area; it’s not very well detached, and there is a fair amount of brightness range among the member stars: a number of single-digit magnitudes (from 5th to 9th), but not a huge number of fainter stars of 11th magnitude and fainter. 

I’m not sure why Blanco 1 appealed to me; maybe, like the smaller open cluster NGC 7826 in Cetus, its appeal was that it was so out of place in the autumn sky near the South Galactic Pole. The cluster wasn’t much to look at, but it was still satisfying to actually observe it. And it was nice to be off my feet, as they were both causing a lot of pain (though for different reasons).

Uranus was high enough now for a good view. Having had beautiful, steady views of Saturn, Jupiter, and Neptune already, I decided to add the seventh planet to the roster. The planet’s greenish disk was easy enough to pick out of the starfield; it was just about at naked-eye visibility anyway, and nothing in the area was as bright. But I had a glimpse, at 112x, of a fleck of light several planet-diameters away at about 2 o’clock… an impression that had me scrambling for the 7mm Nagler.

At 225x, that impression had solidified. There, right outside one of the bright diffraction spikes visible in the eyepiece, was one of the moons of Uranus. No… two moons.

I reached for Sky Safari, surprisingly hopeful that what I was seeing was true, that these weren’t filed stars or illusions. I’d never seen any of Uranus’ moons in one of my own scopes—I’d seen Neptune’s moon Triton several times, and I’d seen a couple of Uranus’ moons in Jerry’s 20-inch scope, but never in my own, and never in one of this aperture class. But they were real, here. I called Mark over for a look, and he acknowledged seeing them as well. It was difficult to tell from Sky Safari (I had forgotten to refresh the time on the app and didn’t do so until later, so the field didn’t totally match), but it seems we were looking at Titania and Oberon, huddled up by the diffraction spike. Maybe they others would make a planetary observer out of me yet….

My last two objects for note-taking on the night were the last autumn Messiers I needed: M74 in Pisces and M77 in Cetus. I did take a brief detour up to the NGC 383 group, in the end of the northern fish of Pisces, up at the Andromeda border. I plan at some point to sketch the NGC 383 group, but now was not that time. Now was time for the most-difficult of the Messiers.

M74 (Psc): This is toughest of the Messier objects by most estimations (including mine): M74 in Pisces. The galaxy is framed within a couple of pairs of stars, one to the F, one to the P. It’s very diffuse, as befits its reputation; the halo is 7.0’ across, roundish, with a small, brighter core that’s about 0.67’ across; I don’t see a nucleus… perhaps what I’m seeing is a larger nucleus, and the core is largely subtle and/or absent? This is a very, very ghostly galaxy; they’re debating on CloudyNights whether or not to call it the Phantom Galaxy. I’m always nostalgic for Messier’s note about its visibility (“…one can make it out with more certainty in fine, frosty conditions.”). It’s moderately well defined, even given how diffuse the halo is, and the halo is considerably irregularly bright; it seems as if, on the SF and up toward those two stars on the F, there’s a gap in the halo; there’s a sharper cutoff there like an intrusion; I don’t see any on the corresponding opposite side, but there’s a suggestion of spirality there. The F side of the halo is definitely more tenuous. The more-S of the two stars on the F side is due F the nucleus (or where the nucleus would be) by 3.75’; that star is 13th magnitude, and there’s an 12.5-magnitude star N of it by 1.3’, and from that star 2’ P very slightly N is a 14th-magnitude star; from that 14th-magnitude star P very very slightly N by 1.75’ is a 14.5-magnitude star. From the center of the galaxy SP by 3’ is a 13th-magnitude star; that star has a 14th-magnitude star NP it by 1.75’; from that star 2.25’ P somewhat S is a 13th-magnitude star that has 1.25’ P very slightly S of it a 13.5-magnitude star, and the 13.5-magnitude star has 2’ N of it what looks like a clump of stars, with the brightest on the S point of it, and that is about 0.3’ diameter (there may only be two other stars in that, but they’re considerably faint). From the center of the galaxy P very slightly S by 11’ is the brighter of a pair of 12th-/13th-magnitude stars, with the 13th-magnitude star 1.25’ F somewhat S of the brighter one. 12’ N slightly P the galaxy is a 10.5-magnitude star that’s the second from F in a 14’ line of four that extends P very very slightly N-F very very slightly S. Extra magnification isn’t theoretically ideal on a low surface brightness object like this one, but I’m going to throw the 7mm Nagler in here anyway, against my best judgment; I’d really like to bring out that intrusion if possible. OK… this is not a better target for higher magnification, at least this high… but there seems to be, on the NP edge of the galaxy, a little greater definition of the halo there. At this magnification, the galaxy is definitely irregularly bright; it has a suggestion of knottiness and mottling to it. That little knot of stars, the one to the P of the galaxy, only has two more in it; there’s definitely a faint close pair there.

I gave an enormous yawn during the recording; it was pretty embarrassing to hear when transcribing my notes.

By now it was after 3 AM, and my feet and consciousness were both telling me it was time to start winding the night down. One last object to end the dark cycle on; one last Messier before the winter constellations took over the starry tableau.

M77 (Cet): M77 has always seemed to me to be one of the brighter of the non-Virgo/Coma Messier galaxies, and I don’t understand this reasoning behind saying it’s faint when it really isn’t at all; I know that what we see in “normal” amateur scopes is primarily the central part, and the spiral arms extend a long ways out from there. The visible part spans 3.0’ x 2.3’ and is elongated N very very slightly F-S very very slightly P. It has a very well-defined, almost blazing core that is fairly suddenly arrived-at, and a bright substellar nucleus as well. 1.5’ F very very slightly S [I hope that’s my stomach rumbling] is an 11th-magnitude star; due F the galaxy by 4.75’ is a 12th-magnitude star. 4’ N very slightly F the galaxy is a 13th-magnitude star. P somewhat N of the galaxy by 10’ is an 11.5-magnitude star; there’s a slightly-distracting 14th-magnitude pair N somewhat P the galaxy by 8’, and those are oriented P-F to each other and separated by 0.5’. N somewhat F the galaxy by 11’ is a 9th-magnitude star that is the P-most in a line of three; 1.25’ F very very slightly S of it is a 12th-magnitude star, and 1.75’ F somewhat S of that star is an 11.5-magnitude star. From the galaxy S very very slightly P by 6.5’ is a 12th-magnitude star that has a 12.5-magnitude star F very very slightly N of it by 2’. That’s quite enough of the field stars, so we’ll throw the 7mm on there. At this magnification, there’s a hint that, from the F and running N, there may be a spiral arm beginning on the outer edge of the halo and running N; there also seems to be a very small dark intrusion into the halo from the SP, and the core seems to be irregularly bright.  At moments it seems as if there’s like a dark nebula on the P side of the galaxy—it just cuts the light off there, but I know that’s not the case; there are also moments that the halo appears a little grainy. 

I thought briefly about swinging the scope over to M42, the Great Orion Nebula, but avoided the temptation; doing so would no doubt result in me staying for another hour, looking for all the winter showpieces. Better, then, to keep my fingers crossed that we would get some clear nights over the next several months, when I could give those treasures of the winter sky their full due. For now, it was time to cover and disassemble the scope, to get my gear stowed, and to put my aching feet to the task of driving home.

In some ways, I’d returned home already, and it felt as if I’d never left.

Setting Sages Questioning

Wild’s Triplet, Arp 248. Image is 30′ x 30′. Courtesy POSS-II.

[Note: this entry has been edited to include the second observation, which was inexplicably left out in the previous version.]

Two more observations before surgery; two more before unusually-relentless rains wiped out May and part of June.

April had already proven difficult, weather-wise. Where we usually had several days of clear Moonless skies during the month, we’d only had one day early in the month, and now only two toward the end. With a week before I had my foot cut open and three months of rehab afterward, I had no hesitation getting out when a halfway-decent forecast finally presented itself. Nor did most of the others, really—having been cooped up by the rain, the Irregulars were champing at the bit. And so we made the 45-minute pilgrimage out west toward the sandstone Linslaw crag, in pursuit of individual agendas but a singular goal: the capture of ancient starlight.

With the 20-inch Obsession and new ladder in tow, and galaxy season well underway, it was time for another round of chasing down flat galaxies. By the time I was healed up, it would be time for the flat galaxies of autumn, of which I had barely scratched the surface.

As darkness overtook daylight, our first actual target for the night was SN2022hrs, the brilliant supernova in NGC 4647 (the companion galaxy to Messier 60). This was one of the brightest extragalactic supernovae I’d ever observed, reaching better than 12th magnitude in our estimation [although officially only 12.3 at its peak]. EAS members would end up tracking this supernova all the way into July. Five scopes lingered on the supernova; Robert even viewed it in his 50mm binocular scope (“Magic”).

Two hours after sunset, it was time for note-taking and more-structured observing. I started with an object that I had previously seen from Eureka Ridge in the 12.5-inch scope, but which really deserved notes made through the Obsession.

MOON: 23 days (rose at 3:15 AM; 46% illuminated)

SQM: 21.60
NELM: not checked
WEATHER CONDITIONS: temps to low 40s; humid with slight dew; air still; chilly
All observations: 20″ f/5 Obsession Dob, 14mm ES 82˚ eyepiece (181x, 0.45˚ TFOV) or 7mm TeleVue Nagler (363x, 0.21˚ TFOV) unless otherwise noted

NGC 3044 (Sex): First for the night—probably the last night until September—is NGC 3044 in Sextans. I’ve seen this one before; I first got it in the 12.5-inch scope and made a note to come back to it because I was so impressed with it then. This is a huge, very underrated edge-on/flat galaxy, elongated 100° PA. It’s an irregularly-bright galaxy with no central brightening (or widening, for that matter), and there’s no real hint of a nucleus here. The galaxy is not razor thin; it’s 4.25’ x 0.4’. It seems as if the SF end is the brighter end; both of the ends fade out gradually, but the NP end is stretched out a little longer and more diffusely than the SF. 1’ N of the NP end of the galaxy is a 14.5-magnitude star. 6’ NP the galaxy is a 12th-magnitude star with a 13.5-magnitude star S of it by 0.5’. P somewhat N of the galaxy by 8’ is an 11.5-magnitude star; 3’ SF the galaxy is a 13th-magnitude star that has another 13th-magnitude star S of it by 2’. The brightest star in the field is 15’ N very slightly F the galaxy and is 10th magnitude; it has a 14th-magnitude star P very very slightly N of it by 0.5’. In the 7mm Nagler: the galaxy is huge at this magnification; there’s still no real nucleus or core visible. But it seems like on the NP end there’s a detached segment that’s very slightly brighter than the rest of it—I mentioned that it was irregularly bright, and that’s really coming out here. It’s hard to get a good read on that detached bit beyond its presence there. This is certainly one of the better objects in the Flat Galaxy Catalogue.

Loren had built a riser for his 18-inch Obsession, the better to track down horizon-scraping planetary nebulae like NGC 3132 and NGC 2818. He was unsatisfied with it on the evening, though, and while observing NGC 3044, I stopped to help him and the others lift his scope down from the riser. (It was quite a team effort, judging by the conversation in my audio notes.) Apparently, Dan had been observing the Draco Trio at the time, as I warned him about the “false trio” that I’d stumbled across several years before.

But back to the task at hand, with a galaxy significantly more difficult than the previous. (And speaking of hands, I’d already gone to my electric gloves for warmth; the evening was already well into the “hibernation” range of temperatures.)

UGCA 221 (MCG-3-28-15; Hya): A really difficult one here, UGCA 221 in Hydra, down near Alkes (Alpha Crateris). This galaxy is very wraithlike and difficult but pretty immediately noticeable when swept into the field; the eye definitely says there’s something there, even though it’s very difficult to detect and hold. It’s 2.0’ by 0.25’, with almost no real identifiable characteristics to it at all. Averted vision doesn’t really help it that much— actually, it’s almost as difficult in averted vision as it is in direct. I’m gonna say it’s 160˚ PA, but I’m certainly not gonna hold to it; it’s so faint you could probably convince me it was 90˚ if you wanted to. At moments, it seems like the S end is more diffuse than the N, although everything about this is diffuse and poorly defined. (You’d think a flat galaxy would be fairly well defined, but not this one.) It really is just kind of a glow. There are some vaguely noteworthy stars in the field, but the galaxy is so faint it’s even hard to get distances from it: 5’ due P the galaxy is the N-most of a pair, angled NP-SF to each other and separated by 0.67’; those are both 12th magnitude, with the one to the NP somewhat brighter than the other… maybe 12 and 12.5 magnitude. Due N of the galaxy by 2.75’ is the SP star in an arc of three; that star is 12.5 magnitude and has a 13.5-magnitude star 2’ F very very slightly N of it, and that star has an 11.5-magnitude star NF it by 2.5’. The brightest star in the field is 13’ SP the galaxy and is 8.5 magnitude. So let’s throw the 7mm on this one and see if anything improves; as we saw from NGC 3044, just adding the magnification doesn’t necessarily mean anything.
 At this magnification, there still isn’t much to the galaxy: no core, no nucleus, no strip of central brightening… just a really weak wraith of a galaxy. I wish I had more to say about it, but there’s just not that much there. 

I’d been planning for several Springs to return to Wild’s Triplet with heavier artillery, having first (and unexpectedly) seen this trio at Eureka with the 12.5-inch several years before. Since then, I’d forgotten about it, or put it on the back burner, or only thought of it when I had the 12-5-inch out. But the topic had reappeared on CloudyNights, and so I made sure to add it as a break from the flat galaxies in my agenda. And here it was:

PGCs 36733, 36723,36742 (Wild’s Triplet; Arp 248 [Vir]): After several years of forgetting about it and not going back to it, this is Wild’s Triplet. Once again, I’m impressed with how bright the “main two” of these galaxies are; the third one is very difficult. But I could see all of them in my 12.5-inch scope, one of the most-difficult things I’ve ever seen in that scope, and from Eureka Ridge no less. But here, the two more S galaxies are unmistakable; I’m really surprised at how easy they are (the third one is just a real bugger tonight), but it’s the second one from P [OK, that was a good momentary look at the third one], the largest one of the group, [PGC 36733], that’s the most obvious of the three. In the 14mm, it’s 0.5’ in diameter, with a distinctly obvious core and every now and then what looks like just the faintest flash of a nucleus. Even in averted, though, it doesn’t steady up. The galaxy’s not smoothly round; it’s kind of irregular-shaped overall, even if the overall effect is roughly round. (This magnification probably isn’t the best to use; this might be one for the Delos.) The P-most of the three galaxies [PGC 36723] is second in brightness, and it’s not particularly bright; the first one I noted is really bright relatively for what it is; this second one is much more diffuse, 0.5′ x 0.3′, and elongated somewhat P-F; it’s P very slightly S of the brightest one by 2.5’. It’s much more diffuse, much less defined, but does have a smallish brighter core to it; I know these three are all interacting, but I wonder if it’s being pulled in the direction of the other one and that’s the cause of the visual distortion. For a second, [36733] seemed to have a tiny sliver extending from the S edge of the core toward the F; this was more than illusory, it was almost certainly there. The third galaxy [PGC 36742] is very much an occasional averted vision flash about 1.75’ N slightly F [36733]. But I can’t do anything to get a good visual fix on it; it’s just a tiny faint spot. It may have a nucleus, though, which is what I’m picking up every so often. From [36733] N very very slightly P by 6.5’ is a 7.5-magnitude star that is a huge unavoidable distraction from the galaxies, and that star is the P-most vertex of a little isosceles triangle; the other two stars are F slightly S of it by 2.25’; the third one is 1’ S very slightly P that one (the second vertex that I mentioned is 14th magnitude, and the third vertex is 13.5 magnitude). 5.25’ S very very slightly P [36733] is an 11.5-magnitude star. So I’m going to go ahead and change eyepieces and see if I can pick that third one out a little bit better. There’s definitely a stellar nucleus to [36733].  The third [36742] is very slightly N-S elongated, but very small, and that was a nucleus that I was seeing in that one too; I know I saw that in the 12.5-inch, but I’m surprised as hell as to how. This is too much power for it. [36742] is super diffuse other than that nucleus, and might be 0.25’ x 0.125’. There’s another glimpse of a possible spiral arm or whatever off [36733]; it definitely seems to extend from the N to the P, which is the opposite direction from the earlier sighting I had of such an extension. That galaxy also seems to be extended P from the nucleus; or, rather, the nucleus is not centered in it. It’s good to revisit this group after several years with both more experience and larger aperture.

I suspect it won’t be long before I return to Wild’s Triplet yet again—a fascinating group.

One of my heated gloves had died; I had to switch it out for an unheated one with a chemical handwarmer in it. But to hell with inconvenience; this was SCIENCE.

NGC 4703; PGC 43343 (Vir): One that’s not as impressive in the eyepiece as it is in photographs: NGC 4703 in Virgo, P and N of Spica, and it is not as easy as one might expect from an NGC. (I know that generalizations like that aren’t scientific.) This one is surprisingly long in averted vision; in averted, it’s about 2.75’ x 0.3’ at the middle, and is elongated in PA 160˚. There is definitely a core there, a central bulge; it has obvious central brightening and central enlargement to it, and the overall appearance is clearly irregularly bright. The spiral arms just peter out completely—that’s why averted vision is so important on galaxies like this; without averted, this is only about 1.5’ long. S somewhat P the galaxy by 8’ is a 7.5-magnitude star; S of the galaxy by 6.5’ is a 12.5-magnitude star, and then further S of the galaxy, 10’ S, is an 11.5-magnitude star that has S very very slightly F it a diffuse little galaxy [PGC 43343] with a small, slightly brighter core to it and a very, very diffuse halo; that galaxy is no more than 0.75’ around. There may be a substellar nucleus, but it’s intermittent at best. In the 7mm, 4703 also seems to have a nucleus, a very faint stellar one. The arms definitely need less in the way of averted vision to see at this magnification, and that central region, the brighter central region, is much more obvious. That’s a really fine galaxy; I don’t have much more to say about it at 7mm, but the extra magnification really helped on this one, and it’s definitely got a good presence to it.

I noticed, while taking notes on NGC 4703, that Scorpius had risen; Antares flickered in multi-colored splendor through the haze circling low around the horizon. (The changing colors of a star low to the horizon meant that there was considerable turbulence to the atmosphere—not uncommon along the horizons at Linslaw, due to its proximity to the Pacific Ocean.) Would I even get to observe Scorpius again this summer? Several bright Lyrid meteors added to the evening spectacle throughout; I even saw a few of them.

Meanwhile, Robert was packing up to leave. I suspected most of us would be following fairly soon; four-plus hours after sunset, the chill in the air was substantial. For me, I’d been awake since 5 AM, having put in a full day at the factory. My caveman brain was going a million miles per minute, but I had to admit that the shambling corpse it was housed in was pretty run down already.

Robert left while I was taking notes on my last object for the night. This was more noteworthy than it seemed—the crag had space for six vehicles at most, and then only if parking and telescope setup allowed for that many vehicles to pass. I usually parked at the far end, setting up my scope on the eastern-most flat space in the observing area; this time, I was closer to the western edge, near the road up/down the crag. This meant that Robert had to negotiate his car between my scope and Dan’s, as well as Loren’s truck. The resultant maneuvering required headlights, which required covering our heads to preserve dark adaptation (for those of us still observing; Loren guided Robert through). It took several minutes, but he eventually made it, with Loren soon after him. During the course of Robert’s departure, I added a friendly “drive careful,” which drew snickers from the others; I warned them not to taunt the group linguist on his grammar (the words that I used were, quote, “I will roast somebody’s ass.”).

Meanwhile, my final galaxy for several months continually called me back to the eyepiece.

NGC 5073 (Vir): Another from the 160-170˚ PA club tonight, this is NGC 5073 in Virgo, and it’s a long, fairly-bright-as-such-things-go streak, maybe 3.0’ x 0.3’. It’s actually a really well-defined galaxy; there’s no real sense that there’s more to it that’s visible in averted vision or anything like that. This is a good example of how the visible profile of a flat galaxy creates a different expectation than that of a face-on spiral—even though it’s an NGC, you think it should be brighter than it is; it’s still certainly readily apparent, but not as it would be if it was more inclined, with the core visible. I’m gonna just average it and say it’s about 165˚ PA, with even illumination all the way along the major axis. This is one of the few that I’ve done where you can actually see the taper in the spiral arms to its full extent.  N very slightly P the galaxy by 6.5’ is a 9th-magnitude star that has a 14th-magnitude star SF it by 1’, and then 0.5’ P slightly S of the 9th-magnitude star is a 15th-magnitude star. Then from the galaxy N slightly P by 3.75’ is a 15th-magnitude star, and from the galaxy P somewhat S by 5’ is a 12th-magnitude star with a 14.5-magnitude star 10” N slightly F it. 9’ S very very slightly P the galaxy is the N-most of a pair, which has S very very slightly F it by 0.75’ the second and brighter star; those are 13th and 12th magnitude. The brightest star in the field is P somewhat S of this one by 14’, just on the edge of the field, and is 8.5 magnitude.
With the 7mm Nagler, I’m seeing a fair amount of irregularity to the surface brightness here, but again, it’s just a really well-defined object—there’s still no sense that there’s anything beyond the directly visible extent of it. There may be, in the galaxy’s N end, a very, very faint embedded star, just above threshold level. I’m actually suspecting a quasi-stellar nucleus in averted vision (despite talking about how everything with this one is apparent in direct). This is a really beautiful and classic, though not overly bright, flat galaxy.

Dan and I joked about my not using my 10mm Delos, which he refers to as “the Precious.” I was back to fearing for the eyepiece’s safety, and made it a Spinal Tap reference, in which Nigel tells Marty not to touch or even look at one of his guitars.

I drove home after a final, lingering look around the site. A lot could happen in the three months I was going to be laid up—what if, for some reason, I never made it to Linslaw again? We had fair warning that Eureka Ridge was going to be gated off, but what if someone gated off the road to Linslaw? What if the gun worshippers or the forest squatters made it unsafe or unusable? This was the best observing site I’d ever had. It felt like sacred ground.

Despite my self-assurances, the drive home seemed like a finality.

II. We had one more observation before the month closed and my foot got opened up and the unseasonal rains came.

The lot of us convened at the Oxbow that next night, as it was the site of best forecast—and a fairly middling one, at that. We could tell the transparency was mediocre, even in daylight; a literal purple haze colored the southern reaches of the sky, and there was a “softness” to the sky behind the rocky hills in every direction. Still, this was a final swing at celestial glory for a considerable while, and none of us was willing to pass it up. (Prescient for the others, given the amount of rain that was to come.)

There were three 20-inch scopes, an 18-inch scope, and Robert’s binoscopes arrayed in the observing area, all of them making use of the better conditions early; things were predicted to get worse sky-wise as the night progressed.

MOON: 22 days (rose at 3:15 AM; 48% illuminated)
SQM: 21.2
NELM: not checked
WEATHER CONDITIONS: temps to upper 40s; slight dew; slight breeze, hazy; chilly
All observations: 20″ f/5 Obsession Dob, 14mm ES 82˚ eyepiece (181x, 0.45˚ TFOV) or 7mm TeleVue Nagler (363x, 0.21˚ TFOV) unless otherwise noted

While waiting for it to get fully dark, and hoping the transparency would be good enough for me to examine a few more flat galaxies, I stopped in on some of the familiar spring showpieces. Hickson 44, in Leo’s mane, was the most impressive I’d ever seen it; even the fourth galaxy, faint NGC 3187, stood out clearly from the background, and nearby NGC 3190 showed the barest hint of a dust lane. This was astounding—in such mediocre transparency, fine details and dim objects were still well within our grasp.

I continued on: NGC 2903, the Leo Trio, the Antennae Galaxies (accidentally sweeping up NGC 4027, a distorted one-armed spiral, along the way; I’d already taken notes on this one with the 12.5-inch), and the Sombrero (M104). But as I observed these galaxies, I could tell that we were already losing the already-tenuous transparency.

I started on my list for the night, but it was already too late. Each of the flat galaxies I’d made note to explore was fainter than the one before it. These were already difficult objects to observe; decaying sky conditions made them—if not impossible to take notes on—then certainly so diminished that it wouldn’t be “fair” to take notes on them now. I’m sure I dropped a few epithets off the ladder as my chances of taking notes came to an end for the season.

What to do when the big scope is set up and the faint stuff just can’t cut through the haze? Look at brighter stuff. The seeing was still decent, at least, so I simply went back to the first object class to have captured my attention: globular clusters. Spring isn’t prime time for globulars, but enough of them were visible to make the rest of the evening worthwhile: the M53/NGC 5053 pairing, NGC 5466 in Boötes, M3, NGC 5634 in Virgo, NGC 5694 in Hydra (an object of great nostalgia for me, as it was the most-difficult object I’d seen with my 8″ SCT in Cincinnati, and I was proud of the observation), M5 in Serpens, and M107 in Ophiuchus. I would’ve ended with M13, but it was still thoroughly buried in the light-dome of Eugene (which was worse than usual because of the reflecting haze).

But the transparency continued to dwindle, to the point that even the globulars were visibly diminished. We yielded, as a group, to the failing sky.

I packed up more slowly than usual and was last one out for the tricky drive home.

Pine Mountain Breakdown

Our previous observing session had been a one-off, rather than part of an extended run; our next two dark cycles would be the same (well, after getting clouded out for March, that is). The early April dark run could’ve been a multi-nighter, except for the fact that at least a couple of us decided to make the first night an epic.

Dan B had been keen to go somewhere beyond our immediate local sphere (Linslaw, Oxbow, Eureka [if open], and the various sites along Eagle’s Rest Road). The lot of us in The EAS Irregulars had discussed running down to Champion Saddle, but hadn’t had a chance to check the driving conditions on the way up; with winter still an ongoing concern and no reports on the maintenance of the one accessible road to the mountain summit, we abandoned the idea as potentially unsafe.

It was Dan who suggested Pine Mountain, the site of the University of Oregon’s research facility. Pine Mountain sits between Bend and Brothers, off OR-20; I’d been past it several times, but had never driven up. The facility was amateur-friendly, offering tours and camping for those willing to make the trip; although it was still closed post-COVID, the road to the observatory still provided several places for intrepid amateur astronomers to set up their own gear for exploring the universe. And although conditions were predicted to be somewhat iffy, the site was a Bortle 2 and had tremendous potential. It was also a 3-hour drive from home.

Dan had procured lodging in Bend for when the observing was done. Having decided (after much waffling) to make the trip, I was unsure whether to take him up on the offer to stay there or to drive home afterward. I didn’t really want to pay for a hotel, given how expensive the gas would be to get there, but I also didn’t want to drive home after nearly 24 hours of being awake.

Mrs. Caveman insisted that I take her car, given the price of gas and the car’s MPG versus that of the Flex. This then altered my observing plans somewhat; I’d planned to take the 20″ Obsession, but it wouldn’t fit in the car. In the course of my discussion with Dan, he offered to bring his 16″ Explore Dob along with his own 20″ Explore, letting me use the 16″. This would be perfect, providing the aperture I’d need to dig into the springtime flat galaxies; I loaded Bob the Dob into the car for redundancy’s sake.

Dan left for the mountain just after noon; I followed a half-hour later, making sure I had a full tank of gas, plenty of cold-weather gear, enough lactose-free food to last a couple of days, and plenty of caffeine for the trip home. I spent the trip gleeful at the thought of having the early-spring galaxy fields, one of my favorite regions of the entire sky, to sift through; my list of galaxy targets was heavily skewed toward the Cancer-Leo-Sextans-Hydra slice of the heavens.

Once east of Bend, traffic on OR-20 thins out dramatically. This was welcome, as the turnoff to Pine Mountain Road comes up quickly, and I had no GPS to warn me; I was able to bring my speed down enough to follow the few signs. The observatory, of course, was closed; I continued past it, getting directions over the phone from Dan to the spot he’d chosen as an observing site.

It was dusty, but so was eastern Oregon as a whole. The view to the south reached almost all the way to the horizon, although the north was partially obscured by stands of tall conifers; east and west were both largely obstruction-free. Dan was already setting up when I got there, having two scopes and their attendant sundries to unload. An older couple hiked by, surprised to see anyone else there, as we put the two big scopes together, and we chatted about astronomy for several minutes before they returned to their trek. I was a bit uncomfortable using someone else’s telescope, given the idiosyncrasies each had—I was well attuned to the quirks of Bob the Dob, and had become fairly accustomed to the sometimes-cranky 20″ Obsession, but I’d only ever had some brief looks through the 16″. It would take a bit of getting used to, as would the site itself.

There was some urgency to be productive on the evening, as it could be my last observing session until the autumn: I had gotten scheduled for surgery on my right foot, having four corrective procedures planned for the end of the month. This would sideline me from May through August, at least as far as using my own scopes and driving went, and would probably affect my observing for some time even after that. I was scheduled off from work for three months, given the extent of the surgery, but my podiatric surgeon had my full confidence, and I was ready to be free (or close to it) from the merciless pain my feet had been causing for more than fifteen years.

None of the other Irregulars made the trip, unsurprisingly, having opted to stay close to home. Dan and I were joined by Karen, his professor friend from Willamette University, and Carolyn, a coworker who lived in Bend and was also a member of EAS, having borrowed one of the club’s library scopes. Closed in somewhat due to the trees, the site seemed somewhat cramped, despite everyone having ample space. Dan had set the two Explore scopes fairly close to where we had parked, given the need to hand-carry their various components.

Dan was busy making some adjustments to the secondary of the 20″ scope when the first alarming moment of the night happened—the whole secondary assembly came off in his hand. Had he not been there to catch it, it would have smashed into the big 20″ mirror and caused who-knows-what amount of damage to both optical surfaces. I was impressed by the relative lack of cursing as Dan set about jury-rigging a fix for the secondary crisis, especially compared to my language over a stuck filter five weeks before.

I offered to set up with Bob the Dob so that Dan could use his 16″ scope, but he was determined to get the 20″ up and running. It took a while, but his determination to get the big scope in working order paid off, and Bob the Dob stayed in the car.

At length, scopes were fine-tuned, finders were attached and aligned, and we waited for nightfall to reveal the sky’s secrets to us.

PINE MOUNTAIN OBSERVATORY (43˚ 48’ 38.27” N, 120˚ 57’ 36.96” W)

MOON: 2 days (set at 9:31 PM; 3% illuminated)
SQM: 21.5
NELM: not checked
WEATHER CONDITIONS: temps down to upper 30s; no dew; increasing wind; cold; clouds/haze increasing after midnight
OTHERS PRESENT: DB, Karen, Carolyn
All observations: 16” Explore Scientific Dobsonian (1826mm f/4.5); 14mm ES *82 eyepiece (130x, 0.63˚ TFOV) and 7mm TeleVue Nagler (261x, 0.3˚ TFOV)

UGCA 150 (MCG-1-24-1; Hya): We’re up at Pine Mountain, having kinda last-minute decided to come out (if you can call making a 3-hour drive “last minute,” anyway), and this is the flat galaxy UGCA 150 in Hydra, just west of Alphard by about 4°. This particular galaxy is quite bright in photographs, but not nearly as apparent in the eyepiece; this is largely because it has a really annoying 8.5-magnitude star just P it, just outside the galaxy’s edge, right around the brightest part of the galaxy. The galaxy is oriented in position angle 45˚. There’s another problem, too: there’s a star toward the SP end of it and a pair of very close stars just F the NF end of it, but the galaxy doesn’t run in a line perfectly along those stars; the stars at the N end are just P the end of the galaxy, and with all those stars interfering, it sometimes looks almost like the galaxy is running the opposite direction [as if that makes any sense], like it’s at 135˚ instead of the 45˚ PA the galaxy is actually oriented. I suspect there should be texture visible in this galaxy, possibly in the 20-inch, or even the 16-inch here without the presence of the 8.5-magnitude star; the galaxy is quite large, maybe 4’ x 0.3,’ and quite bright, but it’s also easy to see why Herschel and later observers missed it. The two stars in the N end are very faint, 14th and 15th magnitude; the one at the S end is moderately brighter, maybe also 14th magnitude* [I’m using Dan’s 16” Explore Dob, so it’s a little hard to get used to]. The more S of the pair at the N end is about 1’ F somewhat N the 8.5-magnitude star, and the star at the S end, which is 14.5 magnitude, is 0.75’ S very very slightly F the 8.5-magnitude star. From the 14.5-magnitude star F somewhat N by 4.5’ is an 11th-magnitude star; that star has a 14th-magnitude star S of it by 1.75’; then from the 8.5-magnitude star F by 7’ is a 9th-magnitude star that’s the P-most vertex in a scalene triangle which also consists of a 10.5-magnitude star F by 4’, and that star has SP it by 2.5’ an 11th-magnitude star. From the 8.5 magnitude star 19’ P slightly N is the brightest star in the field, just on the edge of the field here in the 16-inch scope, and that star is very slightly yellowish and is magnitude 5.5. I’m going to try the 7mm Nagler here and see if I can get a better look at the galaxy by spreading those stars out a little bit: this really would be a showpiece flat galaxy if it weren’t for the stars there; they just absolutely play havoc here with observing the galaxy, which otherwise almost qualifies as bright. I want to say that there’s texture visible to it, and it’s a little bit mottled, but it seems to be just below the threshold of vision (even in the 7mm), like unresolved stars in a distant open cluster. I cannot quite make out a core or a nucleus to it, as that 8.5-magnitude star just screws up everything; in moments, it almost seems like there’s a core there just F the star, but with that star nearby, it’s almost impossible to pick out any sort of contrast feature. If not for the presence of that star, this might be one of the showpieces of the Flat Galaxy Catalogue.

In going back over my notes, I noticed that my magnitudes and distances were farther off than usual—the result of using a scope with which I wasn’t familiar. That wouldn’t explain, however, why the 14th-magnitude star marked [*]—the star to the SP end of the galaxy—doesn’t exist, at least on photographs. Sometimes things like that happen, but it’s still disappointing when it does.

I looked at a couple of other flat galaxies from Gemini, Leo, and Cancer—NGC 2357, UGC 4171, UGCs 5164 and 5173—and was disappointed there, too. The sky seemed hazy somehow, in ways that weren’t noticeable to the naked eye but showed up in the SQM readings. I would’ve judged the conditions to be 7/7 for seeing and transparency, but the eyepiece view didn’t lie. I began whittling my list down to NGCs, working from the basic supposition that the average NGC galaxy would be more obvious than the average UGC galaxy.

NGCs 2820, 2814, 2820A (UMa): Up in Ursa Major now, with NGC 2820, which has a little companion that also is very flat. NGC 2820 is 2.5’ x 10”, oriented about 80˚ in position angle. It’s irregularly bright; I wouldn’t say there’s a core or nucleus visible here in the 16”, but the halo is definitely showing some mottling or variation brightness-wise. There seems to be a dark gap along the major axis, a little dark fissure towards the P end. The galaxy has a number of 10th- and 11th-magnitude stars in its immediate field, including an 11th-magnitude star that lies along the major axis of the galaxy about 4.3’ to the P very slightly S of where the center of the galaxy lies. 6.5’ S of the galaxy is another 11th-magnitude star; there’s an 11.5-magnitude star 2.5’ F very very slightly S of that star, and then from that 11.5-magnitude star 4.5’ F somewhat S is the more N of a pair that’s separated by 0.5’, that star is 12th magnitude, and just a shade brighter than its companion to the S. Going back to the 11th-magnitude star P NGC 2820: 1.25’ N very slightly F that star is another galaxy [NGC 2814]: this one’s oriented 180˚ PA and is 0.75’ x 0.125˚; it’s stouter than 2820, and it has some central brightening along the major axis that 2820 doesn’t have. 2820 does not really show much of a distinct halo; it just fades out a little more toward the P end; it may be weighted a little bit more toward the F end. This other little galaxy is really not that much fainter; it’s just much smaller than 2820 (although it has that star distracting from it as well). Let’s try the 7mm here: this group really lives up to the perceptions I had in the 14mm, and the 7mm just reinforces what I’ve seen at the lower power: the smaller galaxy really kind of springs out; and 2820 is definitely “weighted” toward the F end. At very fleeting moments, it looks like there might be an incredibly faint nucleus to 2820, but that’s just an impression and I can’t say for sure that it’s real. It almost looks like there’s yet another galaxy there to the P between 2820 and that star 4.3’ P… yeah, there’s definitely another galaxy [NGC 2820A] there: It’s pretty faint… I wonder if it’s visible in the 14mm and I just missed it. It’s roundish, about 0.3’, and definitely has either a very very small brighter core or a faint substellar nucleus that called attention to the fact that something was there; it’s almost obvious here in the 7mm. Putting the 14mm back in to see if I can get a fix on it… yep, it’s there; I mistook it for a very faint star that wasn’t worthy enough to include, and yet there it is. That’s a really interesting group, the NGC 2820 group in Ursa Major.

Three different sources gave three different names for the third galaxy in the group: Sky Safari referred to it as UGCA 159; Steve Gottlieb noted it as NGC 2820A, while the Night Sky Observers’ Guide makes reference to it as IC 2458. I stuck with Gottlieb’s designation, as it’s the most thoroughly-researched, despite Sky Safari’s ubiquity; the Webb Society notes that the discoverer, Guillaume Bigourdan, had intended the IC designation to go to a knot in the halo of NGC 2820, so that designation is incorrect anyway. However, Courtney Seligman, another authoritative source, warns against using NGC numbers with alphabetic suffixes, and uses the IC designation for the galaxy. To make matters worse, Sky Safari notes two actual objects here, with the other, overlapping object called PGC 4533011. (This all goes to show how tricky it can be to catalogue and refer to discrete astronomical objects.)

One more bit of carelessness: I completely missed the giant face-on spiral NGC 2805, which would’ve been faint but should’ve been pretty apparent in the field with the 2820 trio.

My quest for flat NGC galaxies led me from Ursa Major to Canes Venatici… not where I expected to be working on the night, but offering the chance to take notes on two showpiece objects.

Around this time Karen left.

NGC 4183 (CVn): This guy is the fainter-than-it-looks-on-photographs-but-still-very-intriguing NGC 4183 in Canes Venatici, which is not far from the actual “Silver Needle,” NGC 4244, but is quite a bit dimmer. I’m actually considerably surprised this is not a Herschel object of any sort; it’s his discovery, but I would’ve thought this would be a more-noteworthy object on the various lists of Herschel objects. It’s oriented 170˚ PA, 3.5’ long, somewhat irregular in brightness, and a little irregular in width, too—it seems to be a little thicker on the S end, but there’s also a 14.5-magnitude star in the S half on the F side, not far from the end of the visible length of the galaxy, which makes it seem a little more stout on that end, where it’s close to 0.3’ wide; it tapers a little bit toward the N. The galaxy has three notable stars to the P, SF, and F, and there may be a visible nucleus to it, but it’s hard to tell; that star on the SF flank is very distracting, but every now and then, there seems to be a flicker of nucleus amid the galaxy glow. P the galaxy by 2’ is another 14.5-magnitude star; SF that star by 2.5’ is a 14th-magnitude star that almost looks like a really tight double at this magnification; and then 3’ SF that star is a 13th-magnitude star that is also 5.3’ S somewhat F the galaxy; and then F the galaxy by 6’ is a 13th-magnitude star. N of the galaxy by 8’ is a 10.5-magnitude star; there’s another of the same brightness N somewhat F the galaxy by 10’, and then N of the galaxy by 13’ is an 11th-magnitude star; those last three stars form a very obvious triangle N of the galaxy. I’m really surprised this was not on the Herschel lists, the 400 and the second 400, because it is most definitely apparent enough to be, and certainly worthy of interest. In the 7mm there’s definitely a little bit of… not necessarily a core, but a little bit of added brightness to the middle of the galaxy. I’m not picking up the nucleus that I thought I was getting earlier; the nearby star is even more distracting at this magnification, so if there’s a nucleus there it’s vanishingly faint; there’s also what looks like a 16th-magnitude star just F the middle of the galaxy, and that may have been what I saw as a nucleus earlier. That’s quite a fine galaxy at this magnification too!

Next up was a galaxy I’d taken notes on already, but was one of the very best flat galaxies in the sky; it deserved another observation. Meanwhile, Dan was showing Carolyn M13, which was now low in the east. The cold had begun to sink in, affecting my already-questionable concentration; I could also hear the wind beginning to surge on my audio recordings.

NGC 4244 (CVn): One of the biggest of the flat galaxies, NGC 4244, a.k.a. the Silver Needle Galaxy; this one is 14.0’ x 1.0’. It seems (and I don’t know if this is for real) that the central 4’ is much brighter, and almost like there’s a central bulge, but I don’t know; that may just be illusory, because it’s brighter in the middle as opposed to necessarily being wider in the middle (?). There’s no nucleus visible. The galaxy is elongated almost perfectly 45°, SP-NF in other words. and every now and then there may be a flash of a quasi-stellar nucleus. Near the galaxy’s NP end, there’s a 12.5-magnitude star that has a 13.5-magnitude star P very very slightly N of it by 2’. SP the 12.5-magnitude star by 2.5′, along the length of the galaxy, (so just outside the edge of the galaxy and about 3’ from the center of the galaxy) is a 15th-magnitude star. From the SP end, 9’ almost due SP the center of the galaxy, is the N-most in a line of three; that’s the faintest star in that line at 13.5 magnitude; it has a 12.5-magnitude star S of it by 0.67’, and then 1’ SF that star is a 13th-magnitude star. Then from the center of the galaxy, S slightly P by 14’, is a 9.5-magnitude star. NF the galaxy by 16’ is an 11.5-magnitude star. Even at low power such as 112x, this is a really stunning, very-underappreciated, very-underrated galaxy. With the 7mm, the galaxy dims out quite a bit but fills the field of view. It’s surprisingly even in illumination, with no expected dust lane; even the brighter core region sort of smooths out, levels out, at this magnification. The 15th-magnitude star on the NP edge of the galaxy, about 3’ N slightly P from galaxy center, is actually a double; it’s hard to get a fix on it, but I think it’s oriented almost N-S to each other; the S component of that is very, very slightly brighter, and they’re quite close (8”, if that). The S end of the galaxy is a little bit more diffuse and vanishes into the background more than the N end does; I wonder if that’s in part because the stars at the N end help define it. There appears at the S end to be a brighter patch slightly beyond the more obvious part of the galaxy, like a star cloud or something there, an NGC 206 analogue for this galaxy. Incredible!  

Carolyn left as I was taking notes on NGC 4244. With the later-spring constellations (Virgo, Bootes, eastern Hydra) now available for plundering, I could turn back to the more-southerly reaches I’d planned to work, although these were “later” constellations than I’d really expected to mine. And yet the sky conditions were still a source of frustration. Dan and I took numerous SQM readings from various spots in the sky, repeatedly getting divergent results; I simply noted an overall average of 21.5, as the result of two meters that didn’t seem able to agree.

I continued to skip taking notes on galaxies after initially looking in on them: PGC 24479, NGC 5170, NGC 4157 all got passed over in favor of brighter galaxies or better nights.

It was during my initial stab at NGC 5170 that Dan’s phone rang—a startling sound in the quiet night. But answering didn’t initiate a connection, and no-one responded when Dan answered. He noted that it was Carolyn, and tried to return the call; it wouldn’t connect. So he waited a few moments until it rang again.

I continued poring over my observing list while Dan got the story from Carolyn: she had taken a wrong turn driving down the mountain and had gotten her car stuck off the side of the road. So he apologized for the forthcoming headlights and took his truck down the road for a rescue mission.

By now, the cold and the breeze had me reconsidering my plan to spend all night observing. The sky wasn’t great, either, but that was the least of my concerns. I had a three-hour drive home, should I try to make it, and even though the night had been enjoyable so far, I wouldn’t be able to stay much longer if I was to attempt the trip. I would wait until Dan came back before helping disassemble the 16″ Dob and heading out—normally, I’d always try to be the last one out, as the club president, but Dan was an experienced camper and was always well prepared.

I locked in on the very difficult galaxy UGCA 311, preparing to take notes on it, when a truck drove up the road, stopping only twenty feet from where I was set up. I assumed it was Dan, but the truck stayed on the road rather than pulling in to where he’d set up his scope. I kept my back to it, not wanting a direct look at its night vision-destroying headlights (they had already compromised my dark adaptation enough), but also unsure whether it was a wise idea to not keep an eye on the truck’s occupants. They waited for a few moments, perhaps a full minute, before driving off further up the road.

A bit creeped out by the encounter–I’m a lot leerier of two-legged animals than four-(or more)-legged ones while observing–I kept my eyes shut to restore my dark adaptation. I would need it just to find the galaxy again, let alone make the observation productive. A few minutes later, I’d recaptured the faint sliver of light in the eyepiece, tracking it for several further minutes while my eyes still readjusted to the night.

UGCA 311 (MCG-1-33-60; Vir): This is the quite difficult UGCA 311 in Virgo, a very, very ghostly object 2.25’ x 8”, elongated in PA 100˚. It’s seriously difficult and really needs averted vision for a good look, but is clearly visible in direct vision. It is distracted from by a 7.5-magnitude star that’s 9’ S slightly P; there’s another 7.5-magnitude star 25’ F very very slightly S of the previous one. The galaxy has a 14th-magnitude star 3.75’ F slightly S, so along the major axis, and then 4’ F slightly N is another of the same magnitude; those two form an almost-equilateral triangle with the center of the galaxy. There’s a 13.5-magnitude star 3.67’ NP the galaxy, and then N very very slightly P the galaxy by 8’ is a 12th-magnitude star. There’s not a lot to the galaxy; it’s very very tough to hold. In the 7mm: interestingly, the galaxy looks as if it’s no longer evenly illuminated, although the star makes it difficult; there’s definitely a sense that the galaxy isn’t a continuous glow, with something like a darker patch toward the NP end. 

My notes were short; the cold won out. Even my electric gloves weren’t proof enough against it. I got back in the car to warm up, waiting for Dan to return. Worse yet, I mislabeled my notes as UGCA 331, which led to endless confusion when I went back to check them later—the Flat Galaxy Catalogue uses the galaxy’s MCG designation, and my misidentification took considerable checking and rechecking to clear up.

It took a surprisingly long time—nearly 2:00—before he made it back, and he had a pretty harrowing tale: Carolyn had gone off the road just opposite a sheer drop, which Dan hadn’t seen well in the dark. In the process of extricating her car, he’d come perilously close to going off the other edge himself.

I let him know that I was pretty much done observing for the night; he was pretty much done himself, after his adventures in towing. So we packed up the two scopes, the spring stars yielding to summer; Scorpius poked its head above the horizon while Vega shone through the trees to the northeast. Dan again reiterated his offer of lodging in Bend. But it was only 3 AM when we had everything packed up and ready to go; surely I could manage a three-hour drive home, loaded with caffeine and loud music.

I’ve done a lot of stupid things in fifty-plus years, some of them even in the name of astronomy; one such was the drive home from Champion Saddle on little sleep. But Champion Saddle was only a ninety-minute drive from home; Pine Mountain was twice that distance, and that assumed that the driver takes the most-direct route. Which I didn’t, making a wrong turn going past Bend and not realizing it until I was well on the way.

I forget now where I pulled off the road to check my phone’s map app; it may have been after seeing the row of semis pulled off the road, their hazard lights on, or after being followed by a police car for fifteen minutes between Bend and Sisters. Wherever it was, it was far enough out of the way that the app had added forty minutes to the trip versus the route I’d taken driving to Pine Mountain. Now I would be pushing the gas-tank’s capacity, too.

I stopped in the town of Sisters, having found a 24-hour gas station. But the pumps weren’t registering any of my credit cards, and I drove away fueled by a useful, sleep-dispelling burst of anger, hoping that the car’s own estimate of its remaining gas was accurate and not an overestimate.

The exhaustion caught up to me around the Clear Lake turnoff; all the caffeinated drinks—which I’d finished before reaching Sisters—hit me by McKenzie Bridge, where we’d observed seemingly forever ago. Driving at night, it was possible to forget how badly destroyed the surrounding area had been by the previous few years’ forest fires, the miles upon miles of charred trees barely noticeable in the pre-dawn light as they sped past.

After several instances of split-second sleep at the wheel and a urinary tract that had reached a caffeinated critical mass, I reached a well-lit gas station somewhere around Leaburg, still 45 minutes from home. I took care of the latter problem first; if I was going to die in a car wreck, at least I wouldn’t have pissed myself beforehand. (Assuming that the place had security cameras, I found a convenient tree on the edge of the parking lot.) I then proceeded to walk several laps around the car, pretending to look for a non-existent problem (again, for the possible cameras’ sake); this took five minutes in the cold air, which served the cause of re-energizing my alertness better than a bottle of grape Jolt, and without the unpleasant side effects.

I reached home just as the Sun was breaking the horizon and sat slumped at the steering wheel for several minutes before trudging into the house, swearing that I’d never do something that stupid again, even as I reminded myself that the evening full of galaxies had totally been worth the danger.

So Fair the Sky

Between the first weekend of October and the last weekend of February, stargazing in the Willamette Valley largely ground to a halt. Intermittent breaks in the clouds and rain allowed some of the other EAS Irregulars to sneak in some observing breaks, but these were mostly short and had lesser skies than our spring or summer sessions. And with my work schedule, I couldn’t even get out for those.

I watched the e-mail list with envy as the sky for those five months occasionally took pity on photon-starved Oregonians and gave them succor—those nights that proved to be both clear and Moonless always happened during the week, when I had work the next morning. (Yes, the sky did get dark early enough that I could eke out a few hours’ observing before it got too late, but I was usually too tired from a 5 AM wake-up call to risk an hour’s winding drive home in the dark.)

So I waited for clear skies, absent Moon, and weekend to coincide. And, finally, they did.

It took until the last weekend of February, and the forecast gave us only a few hours before clouds were to take over again. But a few hours would do; I had three planetary nebulae to take notes on from the Astronomical League list and one from the Deep Sky Forum, and any other time left over would go toward the winter/early spring highlights that I hadn’t seen in a whole year. The Eagle’s Rest amphitheater site had the best Clear Sky Chart, so off we went.

I arrived first; Dan B, Jerry, Loren, and Robert also made the trek out, and we kept one eye on the still-cirrusy sky as we assembled telescopes and staked out our small individual spaces in the roadside clearing.

All of my “required” nebulae were in the Index Catalogue (IC), which was a supplement to the better-known New General Catalogue (NGC). Two of these were in Perseus, as was Bohm-Vitense 5-3, an intriguing planetary that featured as the Deep Sky Forum’s Object of the Week on January 9th. The fourth nebula for the night was IC 2165 in Canis Major, for which I’d taken a sparse set of notes several years ago.

EAGLE’S REST (amphitheatre)
MOON: 24 days (rose at 3:32 AM; 28% illuminated)
SQM: 21.2
NELM: not checked
WEATHER CONDITIONS: temps to 29F; no dew; air still; cold
OTHERS PRESENT: JO (20”), DB, RA, LR (18”)
All observations: 12.5″ f/5 Discovery Dob, 14mm ES 82˚ eyepiece (112x, 0.7˚ TFOV), 7mm TeleVue Nagler (225x, 0.36˚ TFOV), or 4.8mm TeleVue Nagler (323x, 0.25˚ TFOV) unless otherwise noted

IC 2003 (Per): Here at the amphitheater with the 12.5-inch, and I’m looking at IC 2003 in the back foot of Perseus; it’s surprisingly not just easily visible, but easily visible as a non-stellar object a few arcseconds in diameter, perhaps 8”. The nebula very clearly has a brighter center that looks stellar, and at first it seemed to display a little bit of maybe bluish (maybe greenish) color; it’s so small it’s hard to tell, but it seems like it did have some actual color to it. It also has a faint star just off the P slightly S which is 13.5 magnitude, and also due N of it by 1.3’ is another 13.5-magnitude star that has N slightly P of it by 0.67’ a 13th-magnitude star. The nebula and its companion star form the S-most vertex of a diamond: due N of it by 5.25’ is a 10.5-magnitude star; from the nebula almost due NP by 3.25’ is an 11.5-magnitude star, and then N slightly F by 2.75’ is a 10th-magnitude star that has an 11th-magnitude star F very very slightly S of it by 0.75. SF the nebula by 2.25’ is an 11th-magnitude star that’s an outlier from the diamond. N very slightly F by 17’ is the brightest star in the field, which is 8th magnitude. The UHC filter really brightens the nebula; it’s now the brightest object in the diamond, just slightly brighter than the 10th-magnitude star to the N slightly F. It’s still very much a non-stellar object, and I’m still not totally sure, as with the unfiltered view, that there’s anything fuzzy or diffuse to be seen there. This is going to be another one with which the magnification makes all the difference. So with that said, let’s try the O-III. 

The conversation, as it usually did, took numerous convoluted paths as we observed; somehow, as I was swapping filters, it ranged from new names for the Eskimo Nebula (NGC 2392) (my suggestion was “The Itel’men Nebula,” after the Itel’men people of Kamchatka, whose language I had studied quite a bit while working on my Master’s degree; mentioning Kamchatka of course required a digression on the game Risk) to the new astronomy ladder I’d gotten for Christmas, to the obscenely-high power Jerry was using on NGC 2392, to a quality assortment of Monty Python references, and all of it caught on my audio recording. And in all of this, I managed to not only lose the nebula, but to make the mistake that had been inevitable for so long: I got my O-III filter stuck in my 14mm Explore Scientific Nagler clone… which just happened to be my workhorse eyepiece.

The amount of profanity that ensued would’ve made George Carlin or Frankie Boyle wince. Dan, Jerry, and Loren all took turns trying to extricate the filter; we even used a pair of pliers, writing the old filter off as a loss. Nothing worked—the filter remained stuck. One planetary in and I was ready to call it a night. Fortunately, Dan came to the rescue, loaning me his 14mm Explore to use in place of mine. I went sans O-III for the night, not thinking that I simply could’ve swapped my own eyepiece in when the time came to use the O-III, using only the UHC for filtration. Magnification always beat filters anyway, in my experience, so perhaps I could make it work.

It took me several minutes to recapture the nebula, cursing all the while. I apologized to the others later.

With the O-III stuck in the 14mm, we move straight to the 7mm, where the nebula is very much a non-stellar object with some real dimension to it; it definitely has a bright core region, but my certainty that there was a central star is no longer quite as obvious. There’s now a fringey halo visible, but the distinction between the brighter inner region and the fuzzy outer halo is not that great, even at this magnification—not like they are in some of these; this one just kind of smoothly bleeds from concentrated to unconcentrated moving outward from center. The 10th-magnitude star to the N slightly F has a 13.5-magnitude star 0.75’ P very slightly N of it  (this is a lot more visible with this magnification than in the 14mm), and the P-most vertex also has S very slightly F it by 15” is a 13.5-magnitude star (which I don’t know how I missed earlier). That’s a really good little tiny nebula; I wish they were all this good at higher powers! With the UHC, the inner region definitely brightens up in relation to the outer parts, so it’s definitely showing that distinction better, and there’s no real chance to say that there is a central star in there with the UHC in. I feel as if one should be visible among all the middle region there, but I just can’t ferret it out; it’s probably only just a shade brighter than that core region. With the 4.8mm… oh yeah, that’s excellent! Focus is fiddly at this magnification, but this is a great very small planetary, one of the better ones I’ve seen. The fuzz is just all the more obvious at this magnification. It almost appears to be a little lopsided on the N slightly F edge, as if there’s an embedded stellaring or very faint star there. Wow!

With my groove slightly back, it was only a short hop-skip-jump—just over two degrees—to my second nebula, IC 351.

IC 351 (Per): This one, IC 351, is pretty near IC 2003, and it’s somewhat smaller than IC 2003 (6” vs 8”), not much above stellar, but it still in the unfiltered view has a funky non-stellarness and a very slightly bluish tint [rather than an actual color] to it. And it’s very, very slightly diffuse on the edges, unlike IC 2003, which was very clearly pretty well-defined at lower magnifications. This one could in fact be a little more distant version of 2003. I found it using a very small triangle that’s F somewhat S of it, the brightest star of which is about 3.5’ F somewhat S of the nebula; it’s magnitude 9.5, and it has SP by 0.5’ a 12th-magnitude star that has a 13th-magnitude star P somewhat N of it  by about the same distance, and then from the nebula S by 3.25’ (and so forming an almost equilateral triangle between the nebula, the little compact triangle, and the star here) is a 12.5-magnitude star; those stars form an almost equilateral triangle—it’s not perfect, but which of us is? N of the nebula by 6.5’ is an 11.5-magnitude star, and then further N of the nebula by 17’ is a very close pair that has to be a double; the S-most of those two is what I measured from, and those are both 10.5 magnitude, separated SF-NP to each other by 6”. The seeing is just a little bit unsteady enough for me to be unable to tell if one or the other is very slightly brighter. S of the nebula by 13’ is a 9th-magnitude star that has an 11th-magnitude star NP by 0.25’. The UHC filter definitely brightens things up contrast-wise; it doesn’t do much else to the view at this magnification, but the nebula’s now almost the equal of the 9.5-magnitude star to the F somewhat S. So we’ll remove the filter and go with the 7mm, which among other things really brings out the triangle and the non-stellar quality of the nebula, as well as the fact that there’s a 15th-magnitude star P slightly N of the nebula by 0.3’. Even at this magnification the nebula resembles a distant version of IC 2003Adding the UHC filter nets a great contrast gain! The halo is a little more apparent now with the filter; in many of these, the fringe disappears when I put the filter on, but this one responds “normally.” I think the central star is more apparent in this one, but it’s still hard to pick out of the interior. This one has a better-defined core/halo distinction than IC 2003, with the halo standing out much better with higher magnification. With the 4.8mm Nagler, the seeing isn’t helping at all, and I’m not able to focus enough for more detail. That 15th-mag star really stands out better, though.

I noticed that Dan’s eyepiece had no problems with the UHC filter….

I’d intended to pick up Bohm-Vitense 5-3 while in the area; a much fainter nebula, it lay up in the northern regions of Perseus. But it also currently fell right into the Eugene light-pollution dome, which was much worse at the amphitheater than at Linslaw; even if I could manage to winnow it out of the light pollution, it wouldn’t be worth taking notes on it when I could wait and pick it up more on the rise in the autumn. There were patches of cirrus here and there in the sky, too, as the CSC had said there would be; we probably didn’t have long before the sky was crudded over.

I had already done two of the three nebulae I’d had on my agenda for the night, and the third wasn’t really an option. So I swung the scope down to Canis Major and IC 2165, just past the meridian. My previous set of notes on this one wasn’t adequate, so now was as good a time as any to correct that problem.

IC 2165 (CMj): Up near The Greater Dog’s head is IC 2165, and it’s not as easy a find as the previous two; there are fewer landmarks here, and it’s a little less obvious than the others (2003 was the easiest). The nebula still yields up at a cursory glance that it’s non-stellar. It has a Baby-Eskimo profile to it at 14mm. There’s a very bright, very tiny core present with a possible (likely?) central star and a very thin, faint bit of outer fuzz (less than the other two). N somewhat P the nebula by 6’ is an 11th-magnitude star, then N very slightly F the nebula by 3’ is a 12th-magnitude star; there’s a 13th-magnitude star F very very slightly N of the nebula by 2.67’. The nebula and the two stars almost make an equilateral triangle. N very very slightly F the nebula by 1’ is a 13.5-magnitude star. 12’ F very very slightly N of the nebula is the brightest star in the vicinity, which is 8.5 magnitude, and that star is the S-most in a diamond that was my landmark for finding the nebula: 2’ N very very slightly P that star is a 12th-magnitude star; there’s a 10.5-magnituide star 1.67’ F very slightly N of the first star; and from the first star 2.5’ P somewhat N is an 11th-magnitude star; those make up the diamond, and were measured from the brightest/first vertex. So with the UHC in, the nebula leaves little doubt that it’s not a star; the filter really boosts the contrast. The nebula appears concentrated to a really sharp central star or point, and is as bright as the brightest star in the diamond; it’s lost a bit of its non-stellar character, but has a little bit of a “blinking” effect where it becomes more non-stellar the more you look away from it (shades of NGC 6826). With the 7mm, the nebula a lot more concentrated, maybe 2” across, much smaller than IC 2003 and less than half the size of IC 351, with no real color (I wasn’t sure at first). With the UHC added: aside from the contrast increase and the 7mm, the nebula is still not showing any nebulous character (although it’s still obviously non-stellar); although it may be the worsening seeing at fault. Moving to the 4.8mm Nagler really brings out the non-stellar character to its best; the nebula has a very tenuous, fuzzier outer edge, although the seeing is breaking down at this magnification. The central star, which seems like it’s just below the threshold of visibility, is not really discernable at this magnification.

By the time I finished my notes on IC 2165, much of the western sky was under a blanket of cirrus (including M42, the great Orion Nebula, which I hadn’t looked at in nearly a year). I poked around in Leo for a few galaxies—NGC 2903, Hickson 44–and over into Cancer for a brief look at M67, even as the others started disassembling their gear. I made sure to give Dan his eyepiece back before he got his eyepiece cases stowed.

The amphitheater has two advantages over our other sites: it has the most-usable southern horizon among them (a smaller window, but less haze than Linslaw has in the very low south) and the shortest drive home. This latter was particularly welcome on the night, as I spent most of the drive stewing over the damned O-III filter. I was home by 10:15 and on the internet at 10:30, looking for solutions, and by midnight had ordered a filter wrench from ScopeStuff and an Astronomik O-III filter from High Point Scientific (courtesy of a Christmas gift certificate from Dan). The wrench, a 3D-printed open ring with handles, made short work of the recalcitrant filter, removing it intact from the barrel of the 14mm. The Astronomik was briefly backordered (like so much astronomy gear these days, thanks to the pandemic), and wouldn’t arrive until galaxy season was well underway, and few suitable targets were available. Appropriately, our next observing opportunity would also only arrive once galaxy season was underway.

But at least I couldn’t complain about the ancient Lumicon anymore. Now, I just had to do something about the problematic eyepiece barrel….

Lighting the Way to Winter

The Milky Way as seen from Eureka Ridge, through the trusses of the TriDob. Photo by Rob Brown, taken via cell phone.

The first weekend of October opened the month with promise. The forecasts all looked good—given the way Willamette Valley Octobers usually close, however, there was some urgency in the cooling air. Any clear nights in the last three months of the year had to be viewed as, potentially, the last opportunities of the year.

I. Our first session out happened on the first night of the month, and off to Linslaw we went. The sky was somewhat cirrusy and the forecast called for cold, dewy conditions. But there was no passing on the night, as our chances for the year were likely running out—and this was no time to be spoiled.

Dan pulled in just after me, along with his friend Karen; Mark was already there with his astrophotography rig, and Robert A had his smaller binoscope set up. I had the 20″ Obsession, the biggest scope on the field, with an agenda geared for it: flat galaxies and several tough open clusters.

But the conditions just weren’t quite there. My first few flat galaxies had no real presence; the transparency was pretty cruddy, and the seeing was poor. I noticed the poor seeing while examining Jupiter and Saturn as the sky darkened, and M11, M72, and M15 after twilight had faded. Even in the dark sky, we could notice cirrus clouds drifting through low in the south, and in the light dome off to the east. This meant that it was also probably passing unseen overhead, affecting both seeing and transparency, and the early (11:00) SQM reading of 21.20 reflected this. So there was little point looking for flat galaxies, or any faint galaxies, which left my agenda down to open clusters and the occasional showpiece object.

Having spent some time with M15, I noticed that one of open cluster targets was close by. In need of some productivity, I headed the big Obsession up that way.

MOON: 25 days (set at 5:03 PM; 21% illuminated)
SEEING: 5, 6
SQM: 21.20 (11 PM), 21.33 (12: 15 AM)
NELM: not checked
WEATHER CONDITIONS: temps to low 50s/high 40s; quite dewy; air still; felt chilly at times; occasional cirrus rolled through low in the south and east
All observations: 20″ f/5 Obsession Dob, 14mm ES 82˚ eyepiece (181x, 0.45˚ TFOV) or 7mm TeleVue Nagler (363x, 0.21˚ TFOV) unless otherwise noted

King 9; NGC 7245 (Lac): Up here at Linslaw on a night that’s not really turning out to be as good as we’d hoped, but we’re making the best use of it that we can. What we’ve got here is King 9, an open cluster in Lacerta up near Cepheus and Cygnus. It lies very near a larger cluster that’s elongated NP-SF and is SP King 9 (I observed this other one for the Herschels but don’t remember the number [NGC 7245]).  King 9 is a small, quite faint, quite compact cluster approximately 1.5’ diameter, with its brightest star on the due N, and that star is only 13.5 magnitude and is slightly separated from the rest of the group, which lies to the S and is obviously very, very rich but very, very distant. With that star and the rest of the cluster stars, the cluster is vaguely triangular, with a wider base to the S end. There is a lopsided, roughly X-shaped pattern of stars—like a trapezoid with two extra stars—that lies NP the cluster (I used that asterism as my field identifier); the nearest of the stars in that pattern to King 9 is N somewhat P by 5.5’. There is a 9th-magnitude star S very very slightly F the cluster by 3.25’ and an 8.5-magnitude star N very very slightly F the cluster by 10’. The larger cluster lies about 5.5’ SP King 9.  This is obviously quite a rich little cluster, with a lot of granular unresolved glow, kind of lost in the field (so not well detached); you have to kind of sweep it through. 1.25’ almost due P the cluster is what looks like a small knot of two or three faint stars in the 14th- to 15th-magnitude range. SP the cluster by 1.5’ is a 12th-magnitude star. King 9 is a very interesting, obviously extremely-distant object, and given that I looked for it with the 12.5-inch scope when I was cataloging the other cluster for the Herschel programs, I’m disappointed but not totally surprised that I didn’t see it then. It’s in a very, very  busy field, and that star to the N very very slightly F the cluster is the brightest in the field. In the 7mm, there’s clearly the “brighter” star to the north and a couple of much fainter ones on that S end of the cluster; the remainder of the cluster looks to be just on the verge of resolution. That group/knot to the P is a trio; two very close together (the two P-most); a third star is SF the second one. [NGC 7245] is kind of a fine object too, but King 9 is what we’ve been after, up there in Lacerta.

The dew and general dampness of the night air, combined with the falling temperature, conspired against us even as the sky conditions slightly improved. I spent time with Neptune and its large moon Triton (always a thrill to spot, given its minuscule size and vast distance) before moving on to Uranus, whose retinue of moons was entirely invisible on the night. NGC 772 and its companion galaxy NGC 770 were somewhat unimpressive just above the brightest part of the Eugene skyglow, a far cry from their usual poke-in-the-eye brightness. I also took a long look at M31, its two bright satellite galaxies M32 and M110, and its more-distant satellites NGC 147 and NGC 185. I noted M31’s largest star cloud, NGC 206, which on this night appeared merely as a brightening in the galaxy’s southern end. Robert had already gone; with the others beginning to tear down, I took a last lingering look at NGC 891, its needle-like form diminished by both eastern-sky light pollution and humid, hazy air.

With a decent forecast for the next night and everyone else yielding to the conditions, I began to break down and stow the monster scope and its ancillary gear. Even with only one set of notes to my credit for the night, it had still been a worthwhile trip out to the crag, and a better use of the evening than staying home flipping through channels or searching for meaning on the Internet. I arrived home shortly after midnight, hoping for better skies on the second—perhaps last—night of the early-October run.

II. The next night seemed to promise similar conditions, but only at the temporarily-open Eureka Ridge; Linslaw, The Oxbow, and Eagle’s Rest all seemed less than optimal on the Clear Dark Sky forecast. So in search of the best sky, and knowing the gate was open, we convened at Eureka Ridge for a reunion with the old place.

The crew this evening included Dan B and Robert—their second in a row—as well as Jerry and Rob Brown, “the tensegrity guy” from OSP ’16. It was nice being back at Eureka, although it was apparent early on that the night’s observing conditions would be pretty much the same as the previous night (only slightly less dark, given the expected difference between Eureka and Linslaw, the latter having darker skies ninety-nine times out of a hundred). As with the previous night, I was armed with the 20″ Obsession.

It was a slightly-more boisterous evening, perhaps due to our resignation at the relatively-mediocre sky quality. Rob fit into the EAS Irregulars group well—as we were setting up, I decided to park the huge Obsession squarely in the road, unconcerned with anyone attempting to drive through; anyone doing so was up to no good and probably there poaching wildlife, so the hell with them. Rob commented that “I don’t really know you, but I like your attitude.” And so the banter was constant throughout the evening, in contrast to the last night’s more-studious feel.

Although I stuck to the same agenda as on the previous observing session, I was more prepared to abandon it in the face of the conditions. I stuck to the planets early on and throughout the night, the transparency (which affects the visibility of diffuse or nebulous objects more than it does star clusters or planets, and more than does the seeing) being worse to the eye than the seeing was. After a spell of planetary observing, it was on to what should’ve been some straightforward work on the “Herschel remains,” those 1600 or so discoveries of William Herschel that weren’t a part of the Herschel 400 and the Herschel II (second 400).

MOON: 26 days (set at 5:35 PM; 13% illuminated)
SEEING: 5, 6
SQM: 21.10 (11 PM), 21.24 (12: 15 AM)
NELM: not checked
WEATHER CONDITIONS: temps to low 50s/high 40s; extremely dewy; air still
All observations: 20″ f/5 Obsession Dob, 14mm ES 82˚ eyepiece (181x, 0.45˚ TFOV) or 7mm TeleVue Nagler (363x, 0.21˚ TFOV) unless otherwise noted

NGC 7165 (Aqr):
 This observation is a tip of the hat to William Herschel, because I don’t have the slightest idea how he found this, NGC 7165 in Aquarius; I’m working on Herschel IIIs now because most of my October agenda is still too low in the sky and the conditions are kind of soft again like last night. This galaxy is one of the most difficult Herschel-related objects I’ve seen, and I honestly have no idea how he found it from England—I’m using the 20-inch and this is still difficult. The galaxy is elongated roughly P-F, and it’s bracketed by 2’ each to the SF and the P very slightly N by two stars; the one to the SF is brighter (12th magnitude) than the one to the P very slightly N of the galaxy (12.5 magnitude). The galaxy is about 0.75’ x 0.5’ and reasonably well defined but considerably faint. It has a definite stellar nucleus to it; the core is very, very gradually arrived at, and only very slightly brighter than the halo. The star to the SF has a 15th-magnitude star N very very slightly F it by 1.25’, and the star to the P very very slightly N has 1.5’ N of it a 14.5-magnitude star that has 1.75’ almost due P it another 14.5-magnitude star; those three stars form a little right triangle, with the second vertex as the right-angle vertex. The galaxy is quite diffuse, but the P edge is very, very slightly brighter than the rest of it, just barely… and everything with this galaxy is “just barely.” The brightest star in the field is N very slightly F the galaxy by 12’ and is 9.5 magnitude. 

As with the previous night, the sky just wasn’t conducive to faint galaxies; my second target—something of a miracle find in the murky skies—provided ample evidence that it wasn’t a “galaxy night.”

While putting together my agenda for the early fall, I’d decided (as I often do when using the Obsession) to throw in a couple of ringers, objects that were difficult even in the best-case scenarios (as if the flat galaxies usually weren’t difficult enough). One such was PGC 70994, a polar-ring galaxy in Pisces, which I found in Jimi Lowery and Alvin Huey’s guide to such ring galaxies. This galaxy—at an immense distance of nearly a billion light years!–resembles a tiny ‘X’ in photographs due to the offset of the polar ring to the nucleus, and would be one of the most distant galaxies I’d observed… if I could find it.

Narrowing down the galaxy’s field by means of a small right triangle that lies SP the galaxy and a bright star S slightly F the galaxy, I began scanning the spot near the center of the POSS image of the galaxy. Sure enough, an exceedingly-faint, elongated spot, just above the threshold of direct vision, made its presence visible in just the place where the galaxy should appear. I rocked the scope slightly, noting the motion of the object with the foreground stars. Success!

Surprised and a little bit impressed, I watched the galaxy drift through the field repeatedly, recentering it whenever it got within a couple of arcminutes from the edge of the field. After ten minutes, though, I didn’t feel confident in taking notes on the galaxy; it was so faint in the poor conditions that I didn’t feel that the conditions would do it justice. Writing this ten months later, I regret not taking notes on the galaxy, but I would insist on taking a new set of notes on it in better conditions anyway. I switched to the 10mm Delos, noting an immediate but very subtle improvement in the view through the better eyepiece. Still, it wasn’t enough to persuade me to reach again for the recorder.

Rob stopped over at the Obsession, hoping to use it with his homemade spectroscope; he and Dan and Jerry had been using it for much of the evening in their own scopes. (Dan ended up buying it from Rob.) He asked what I was so intently observing; I offered him a look. He wasn’t quite sure he saw it, but was intrigued by my insistence in looking at barely-visible smudges.

I eventually yielded the scope to Rob for the spectroscope. He turned it upon Gamma Cassiopeiae (Navi), the middle star in the ‘W’ pattern of Cassiopeia, prodding me to take a look. I hadn’t looked through a spectroscope before, but knew what to look for—a color spectrum with a series of black lines in it, each line the signature of a chemical element present in the star.

This one was different, and I quickly saw why Rob had chosen this particular star: the star’s spectrum didn’t just contain the black absorption lines, it also contained several narrow glowing lines (particularly in the green end of the spectrum), showing that the star was also emitting radiation in an unusual manner; in this case, Gamma Cass was showing Balmer lines, those that indicated that the star was surrounded by a disk of circumstellar gas, and was in fact the prototype of the Be Stars, those surrounded by such disks.

This felt like actual science, as opposed to merely observing objects (no matter how detailed my notes from the observing). I could foresee myself buying one of Rob’s spectroscopes and spending some of my precious observing time cataloguing spectra. It was a brief chill of revelation, of the thought of contributing data points to the body of scientific knowledge. At a time when science seems to be slipping away from us, this almost felt like something forbidden, in addition to being inherently valuable.

I followed Rob over to Dan’s scope as we checked in on a planetary nebula. Planetaries are particularly good objects for spectroscopes, as the devices can immediately identify a stellar planetary amid a crowded field; planetary nebulae usually emit strongly in the lines of oxygen, (especially the O-III line, which is why an O-III filter is so effective in observing them). The particular planetary we observed was NGC 6752, the Emerald Nebula, known for its strong green/blue color (depending on the observer). Sure enough, the oxygen lines practically leapt out of the spectrum. For someone who’d dreamed his entire life of being an astronomer, this was exciting stuff!

At some point during our spectroscopic musings, I heard the familiar whine of a hair dryer. It hadn’t occurred to me that throughout my observation of PGC 70994, the Obsession might’ve been compromised by a fogged-over secondary mirror, but there was Jerry, drying off the secondary of his scope. Dew had indeed hit us hard; my table, my eyepiece case, and the shroud of the big scope were all dripping with it. I checked on the secondary and was alarmed to find a sheen of moisture across the outer 50% of its diameter. Several minutes with the hair dryer cleared most of the secondary, but there was little doubt that it would return; the beams of our laser pointers and red flashlights revealed considerable water vapor in the air.

Secondary cleared and sky conditions ever-so-slightly improved, I stopped back in on the NGC 7769 trio in Pegasus; I’d made a note to do so with the 20-inch. The view was impressive, although still not as much so as I might’ve hoped. Still, it was a galaxy trio, and a bright one, and seeing an entire distant galaxy in the eyepiece was awe-inspiring (let alone seeing three of them at once). I followed up with some other favorites: the NGC 470 trio in Pisces and the group around the fine double star 1 Arietis. Somehow, I passed up a look at Stephan’s Quintet.

By now, our collective energy level had flagged. it was nearly 1:00 AM; I had no idea how we’d managed to make it so long on a night that seemed so mediocre, if not downright discouraging to our endeavors. A phone alarm had gone off, signifying an astronomical event worth watching—in this case, the ingress of Io’s shadow as the tiny volcanic moon passed in front of the disk of Jupiter.

Transits of Jupiter’s moons across the planet’s face happen all the time; they aren’t rare. I frequently ignored them when we were “out in the field,” as I often had some eye-strainingly faint object in the eyepiece and didn’t want to have to find it again. But with little else of import to observe at the moment—and in fact otherwise preparing to call it a night—I dropped the Obsession onto the field of Jupiter and watched the tiny pinpoint shadow creep its way onto the giant planet’s face.

After a flurry of chatter, the observing field fell silent. The tiny black pinprick shadow drifted onward onto Jupiter; Io itself could be seen, brightly-lit by sunlight, against the darker bands of Jupiter’s atmosphere. The Great Red Spot seemed great again, after years of diminished size and shade, an unmistakable dark birthmark rotating out of view as the quiet minutes passed.

Soon after the GRS’ passage onto the other side of Jupiter, we started deconstructing our gear and observing site. Gear was broken down and packed into its designated slots, Tetris-like, in vehicles whose makers could’ve never considered such use for their creations. Cases were dried off before stowing; mental checklists were run through; oaths were occasionally uttered as parts refused to separate or small pieces hit the ground and hid among the rocks and grass.

I checked the secondary mirror before wrapping it in its foam sheath and shoving it carefully into the bass drum case it lived in. The secondary was so dewed over it looked as if it had been snowed on. The primary was still dry; the mirror box/rocker box was wheeled up the ramps into the Flex, with the drum case loaded in afterwards, fitting between the wheelbarrow handles on the mirror box. I left the lid off the drum case to allow the secondary to dry—never lock moisture in with optics, as glass can mold as easily as food, and mirror coatings are susceptible to the ravages of dew-locked pollutants and tarnish.

The last of the gear stowed, we exchanged notes on the evenings, followed by goodbyes and wishes for safe driving home. I’m sure I wasn’t the only one of us who took a lingering look around the Eureka clearing in a headlight beam—who knew when the gate might next be open for us to use the dear old site again? Places suitable for our esoteric purposes were harder to come by than they seemed, and such places so relatively near to town, yet so sufficiently dark, were rarer still.

The constellations of autumn, themselves such a source of nostalgia in my caveman brain, wheeled silently overhead. The wonders of the night, somehow undiminished by the comparatively-subpar sky conditions, still echoed through my awareness as if ongoing. I paused in the driver’s seat, door open, not wanting to leave the stars behind. Dan waited, his truck running behind me, for me to get moving.

I drove out of the clearing, along the ridge, somehow knowing that it would be a new year before I would again be taking notes on the mysteries of the universe.

Under Harvest Skies

September is the last month that astronomers in the Willamette Valley can usually count on for a weekend of clear skies, even if it’s necessary to dodge around a visible Moon. Unlike in the Midwest—where September augurs in a few months of the year’s best observing—here in Oregon, it’s the time when clouds begin their months-long assault on the night skies.

I. Our late August/early September dark phase started early—early enough that it couldn’t even really be counted as part of the “dark phase” proper. Feeling a need for some starlight, we headed up to Linslaw on an evening that offered only an hour or so of darkness before the rising of a 65%-illuminated Moon, knowing fully well that “serious” observing would be impossible.

I took along my (relatively) recently acquired 102mm Unitron refractor, wanting to give the old dear some photons after a lengthy hiatus from night skies. That was, to me, the best use of these Moonlit nights—using scopes that didn’t get out as often, so as to tune them up a little more and see what they could do. I certainly had plenty of scopes to choose from.

The Unitron had a few issues in need of working out. I needed a better finder setup, as the Telrad I’d used the last time out proved to be too cumbersome for the scope. The tripod tray that came with the alt-az mount (the mount I was using tonight) was missing when I got the scope in the first place, and though I’d been making a new one, I had previously been using a length of chain to keep the tripod legs opened to the optimum position. Most pressingly, the tripod had horrific upward drift, most likely due to the counterweight being positioned incorrectly… if it was even the correct counterweight for the scope at all. In the Science Center’s storage space, it was hard to tell what went with the Unitron and what didn’t.

With Bob the Dob or Petunia (EAS’ 20″ Obsession), I had a routine regarding packing the Flex with the requisite telescope gear, and I knew what gear needed to be loaded up. The Unitron was different: the huge optical tube box, the alt-az tripod head, and the tripod legs all went, as well as the small-but-clunky case that held the various focuser attachments and the diagonal. What I forgot, due to getting distracted while loading up, was the tripod tray that I’d built, which sat in my desk chair at home even as I pulled up at Linslaw.

Normally, a tripod tray was no big deal; it’s often just a triangular shelf for setting down eyepieces, filters, and such. On the giant Unitron tripod, though, it has a more-important function: keeping the legs from separating so much that the whole scope collapses. Before I set about making one—which was functional but still unfinished—I’d been using a length of chain wound through the tripod legs to keep them secure. Tonight, though, I’d left the tray at my desk and the chain on my workbench. Oops.

It was Jerry to the rescue, as always, with a length of rope in place of the chain. Not as stable as either of us would have liked, but it held, through the experiments in finding proper balance for the scope and through the evening’s otherwise relaxed, even freewheeling, observing.

Aside from Jerry and Kathy, who had the 20″ TriDob and a 10″ Trackball scope, Robert A and his daughter were there to give a test run on one of Robert’s new binocular-scope designs. We compared views of various objects throughout the night, in addition to keeping to a few objects that each scope was best capable of handling. I had my first-ever look at the Cocoon Nebula through both the binoscope (which beautifully displayed the dark dust lane leading up to the bright nebula) and the 20″ (which revealed the bright nebula itself, albeit with an H-Beta filter for assistance; we later saw the nebula sans filter). Robert showed off great views of the Lagoon/Trifid region in Sagittarius and the Double Cluster/Stock 1 in Perseus. Jerry provided an amazing view of the Crescent Nebula and my first-ever sighting of Pease 1, the tiny, star-like planetary nebula in the globular cluster M15 (my favorite globular, as I’ve noted several times in this blog). Of course, I’ve been unable to find Pease 1 convincingly enough to take notes on it in my own scopes, so I can’t count it for the Astronomical League’s Planetary Nebula program yet.

MOON: 21 days (rose at 11:00 PM; 65% illuminated)
SQM: 21.37 
NELM: not checked
WEATHER CONDITIONS: temps to low 60s; no dew; no breeze, pleasant


The Moon was scheduled to rise at 11:00, but not before I’d put the Unitron through its paces. My 14mm Explore Nagler clone, which was my usual workhorse eyepiece, was pretty cruddy on the night, so I primarily used my 24mm Meade 5000 SWA eyepiece, a knock-off of the TeleVue Panoptic; I also had with me a 1.25″ Erfle of some vintage, which I’d been wanting to test out for some time. (It was not the 2″ Edmund Erfle I’d bought from EAS a couple of years earlier, which was a fine eyepiece for slower scopes but wouldn’t work in the Unitron due to the barrel size.) Before it was totally dark, I tracked down a number of the summer showpieces, all of them fairly-easily found: M11, M4 and M80 in Scorpius, M22, M28 (an underrated globular cluster in Sagittarius), the “double globular” NGCs 6522 and 6528, and M2 and the M72/M73/NGC 7009 (Saturn Nebula) grouping in Aquarius, just above the bikini-bottom pattern of Capricornus. I continue to be amazed by the optics on the old Unitron; as sleeked-up and dusty as they appear to the eye, they still deliver astoundingly well for a scope that had suffered such neglect (and even for one that hadn’t).

For curiosity’s sake, I turned the scope toward northwest Pegasus. This was about as high in altitude as the scope could go without the balance issue being a problem. I’d intended to find NGC 7331, the big, bright Andromeda-like spiral that was used as a leaping-off point for Stephan’s Quintet.

I wound up finding Stepan’s Quintet first.

A small, faint-ish fivesome of galaxies that was a reasonably-difficult target in scopes of single-digit aperture, Stephan’s Quintet was a target I frequently took a glance at on autumn evenings. I expected it to be difficult (if not impossible) in the Unitron, but there it was, a tiny blur at 24mm. With the 14mm out of action for the night, I went straight up to the club’s 7mm Nagler. What had been a mere smudge at 24mm split out into three, sometimes four, indistinct ephemeral glows (the fifth eluded me).

Jerry, Kathy, and Robert all verified the sight. With a 4″ refractor, we all clearly observed a group of objects which had once been considered near-impossible for such scopes and such apertures.

I swung the scope back up to NGC 7331. A beautiful, large inclined spiral, it was bright, obvious, and somewhat anti-climactic after observing Stephan’s Quintet.

The Moon soon made its presence felt. I spent some time with Jupiter and Saturn, glorious as ever and sharp as could be through the refractor, then hopped over to the Moon itself for a while. Jerry and Kathy started tearing down the big TriDob after also getting some lunar observing in. I spent a few moments on a favorite summer/autumn double star—Gamma Delphini, the Dolphin’s Nose—before beginning the teardown process on the massive old Unitron itself.

It had been a short but incredibly rewarding night—a bonus session before the “real” dark phase began—and we headed for home with no regrets.

II. Our next session happened on the following Friday. As it was Labor Day weekend, I had a now-rare opportunity for three nights of observing during the week; the forecast, in an intersection of serendipity and synchronicity, looked more than adequate for all three, and even excellent in one criterion or another. With the first night’s forecast being equal to the west and southeast, Dan B and I headed west for the sandstone crag at Linslaw, while Jerry, Frank, and Robert opted for the shorter drive to the Eagle’s Rest amphitheater. I don’t recall the numbers from Eagle’s Rest, but conditions at Linslaw were exceptional.

I had with me the old warhorse, Bob the Dob, set to take advantage of the dark, transparent and steady sky. Having used the 1.25″ Erfle eyepiece with the Unitron the previous time out, I brought both it and the heavy 2″ Edmund Erfle I had acquired a couple of years before; I’d picked up a barrel extender that would allow me to get the necessary amount of focuser travel with the ancient Edmund. While waiting for the sky to get fully dark, I put the two Erfles through their paces—less as a comparison between them and more to simply test them in the medium-fast optics of the 12.5″ f/5 Dobsonian. Both performed admirably on some of the summer’s showpieces: The Veil Nebula; M11 (The Wild Duck Cluster) and its attendant dark nebulae; and Barnard’s “E”, a pair of large, extremely-opaque dark nebulae in Aquila. These were tough, contrast-dependent objects for the Erfles, and they performed quite well; each only had a sweet-spot of about 50% (i.e. the innermost 50% of the field displayed sharp, non-distorted stars), but that was to be expected; the Erfle wasn’t designed for fast optics (below about f/7 or f/8), but I was pleased with both of them.

The seeing was crisp already, even before the day’s warmth had dissipated. Jupiter and Saturn displayed a rare sharpness as sunset faded; usually, the combination of evening turbulence and heat radiating from the cooling telescope mirror combined to make early-evening views of the planets something akin to peering at them from under the surface of a swimming pool. Tonight, though, the two gas giants already approached a level of definition they rarely achieved at 2 AM on a good night.

As astronomical darkness neared, I peered in on a couple of final “warmup” targets. First was sn2021wuf, an impressive extragalactic supernova in the Hercules galaxy NGC 6500 [more on this one in a bit], followed by the huge, faint globular cluster NGC 6366 in Ophiuchus, a favorite of mine under dark skies. I also observed several targets in Dan’s 16″ Dob: M17 and M8 (both superb) and the asteroid 84/Julia, which was speeding its way through Aquarius at 9th magnitude—easy binocular brightness!

By 10 PM, though, it was time for “serious” observing to begin.

MOON: 27 days (rose at 3:32 AM; 5% illuminated)
SQM: 21.54 (10 PM), 21.71 (2 AM)
NELM: not checked
WEATHER CONDITIONS: temps to mid-60s; no dew; air still; felt chilly
All observations: 12.5″ f/5 Discovery Dob, 14mm ES 82˚ eyepiece (112x, 0.7˚ TFOV) or 7mm TeleVue Nagler (225x, 0.36˚ TFOV) unless otherwise noted

NGCs 6372, 6371 (Her):
 I’m constantly amazed at William Herschel’s attentiveness with some of these objects he discovered.  This is a very, very diffuse, faint galaxy in Hercules, NGC 6372; there’s another galaxy nearby that’s even smaller but not nearly as noticeable as 6372, and is even more diffuse. But 6372 doesn’t really offer much in the way of detail either; it may have a very, very slightly brighter core to it. The galaxy lies NP the northern part of an irregular diamond of stars whose N-most vertex is marked by a pair, with the brighter star to the P; drawing a line between the two stars (from the fainter through the brighter one) brings you to the galaxy. The galaxy shows much better in averted vision: it’s round, pretty evenly dim in surface brightness, and no more than 0.75’ in diameter. It lies N very slightly P the brightest star in that diamond by 4.75’; that star is 9.5 magnitude, and from that star 3’ N somewhat P is a 12th-magnitude star; there’s an 11.5-magnitude star NF the 9.5-magnitude star by the same distance, so those make up a roughly-equilateral triangle; from the 9.5-magnitude star N very very slightly F by 4’ is the brighter of the pair, which is 12th magnitude and has 0.3’ F very very slightly S of it a 13th-magnitude star; this pair and the previous triangle make up the diamond. 2’ P slightly N from the primary of the pair is the galaxy. Due S of the galaxy by 11’ is a 9.5-magnitude star; the brightest star in the field is 19’ due N of the galaxy and is 7.5 magnitude, and from 6372 P somewhat N by… I’m not getting a good “fix” on the second galaxy [NGC 6371] at the moment; it’s a lot smaller than 6372 and is pretty much entirely an averted vision object. In the 7mm, I still don’t get much in the way of detail in 6372, and the other galaxy is still really difficult to pin down.

NGC 6389 (Her): All of these Hercules galaxies so far have been little faint things; this one’s a little better than most. This is NGC 6389, in a very interesting field filled with stars of a large range of magnitudes (some of them really bright, too). The galaxy is clearly elongated, NP-SF, and is a fairly diffuse glow which in averted vision has a small, brighter core and maybe a nucleus, too (it’s very hard to hold steady, if real). This one’s about 1.25’ by 0.5’; it’s a little bigger and quite a bit brighter than NGC 6372, and much better defined than 6372 was. Again, it’s elongated NP-SF and it has stars in both of those directions: there’s a star NP by 6’ that is 12th magnitude; the star 2.3’ SF the galaxy is 11.5 magnitude and has a 12.5-magnitude star S of it by 1.25’. From the galaxy SP by 4.3’ is an 11.5-magnitude star. F very slightly S of the galaxy by 15’ is the brightest star in the field, which is magnitude 5.5 and really annoying.  N slightly F the galaxy by 8’ is an 8.5-magnitude star that has a 10.5-magnitude star 1.5’ SP. 

These nondescript Hercules galaxies were part of my endeavor to observe all of William Herschel’s discoveries; having finished the Herschel 400 and the second Herschel 400 (a.k.a. the Herschel II), I still had some 1600 to go. These little galaxies very much fit the stereotype of the remainder: faint, smallish, largely indistinguishable from each other. As an inveterate galaxy hunter, though, these were still pure gold, even if my notes seem a testament to minor disappointment.

The next one was tougher, as I kept honing in on a brighter but smaller galaxy whose starfield didn’t match in Sky Safari.

NGC 6555 (Her): Still working through my “leftover” Herschel objects; this is the very diffuse, ghostly, featureless, and low surface brightness NGC 6555. (These are all in that area in far eastern Hercules near the Lyra border.) This is one of the biggest so far of the bunch, 1.25’ in diameter, with no distinct features to be found. The galaxy just kind of falls away into the background; it’s not well-defined, and has no real identifying features: no core, no nucleus, no anything. It’s in a field with quite a few faint background stars, including an interesting little asterism, a kind of zigzag that’s 3.25’ long, that lies P somewhat N the galaxy by about 7’; I used this asterism to help locate the galaxy. 2.75’ FsS of the galaxy is the brighter and more N of a pair of stars, which is 11.5 magnitude and has a 12.5-magnitude star SP it by 0.5’. N very slightly F the galaxy by 3.5’ is an 11.5-magnitude star that has a 13.5-magnitude star F somewhat N of it by 0.75’; this may actually be part of another pair, but it’s hard to tell at this magnification. N very slightly P the galaxy by 2’ is a 12.5-magnitude star; there’s one of 12th magnitude NP the galaxy by 4’, and then P somewhat S of the galaxy by 6’ is a 10th-magnitude star. Almost due F the galaxy by 13’ is a 9th-magnitude star. 

Aside from these galaxies, I had also included on my list several open clusters that still remained among Herschel’s catalogue. Most of said clusters were listed in the modern NGC as “non-existent” objects, either not matching Herschel’s descriptions or celestial positions, or later determined to simply be agglomerations of field stars. A few which actually resembled clusters turned out to be asterisms, groups of unrelated stars that gave the appearance of being legitimate clusters. (The obvious, real clusters Herschel discovered were, by and large, included in either the Herschel 400 or Herschel II programs by the writers of those programs.) But my patience for the clusters on my night’s agenda was thin; I wasn’t that thrilled to be checking uninteresting clumps of stars against Sky Safari versions of the Palomar Observatory survey plates to make positive identifications. And having worked through some of the Hercules galaxies on the agenda, I was ready to make some headway on one of the actual programs I was working on.

The wind picked up a little bit, somewhere during a discussion of the film In The Loop. My stomach rumbled loudly enough to be heard over the wind and my voice on my audio recordings. At his own scope, Dan was observing Neptune and its largest satellite, Triton.

Abell 82 (Cas): Having paused on the ridiculous faint galaxies and irritating, barely-identifiable open clusters, I’ve moved into the realm of planetaries again. This is the very, very difficult Abell 82, one of several planetaries in Cassiopeia that are on my list this month. Using Bob the Dob, I could not have found this without the O-III filter; I wouldn’t have seen it at all. It almost wants to be visible with no filter but just isn’t quite there… it’s so difficult right now it’s almost painful to stare at. The nebula is on the longest edge of a diamond whose stars I’m noting here without the filter: the closest star to the nebula is NP it by 1.5’ and is 11th magnitude; from that star 6’ F slightly S is another 11th-magnitude star; from that star SF by 5.5’ is an 11.5-magnitude star; there’s another 11.5-magnitude star P somewhat S of the previous by 4.75’. The nebula actually surrounds a couple of faint stars; the brightest of these is 13th magnitude, and there are also a couple of 14th-magnitude stars in there. (The 13th-magnitude star is the one I used to measure to the stars in the diamond.) One of those embedded stars could be the central star, but it’s hard to tell which—most likely the 13th-magnitude star, due to its location. From the 13th-magnitude star F very very slightly S by 1.3’ is a 13.5-magnitude star; 0.67’ S very very slightly P the 13th-magnitude star is a pair of 14.5/15th-magnitude stars. The brightest star in the field is 26’ N slightly F the nebula (so not really in the field) and is magnitude 5.5. Without a filter, in averted vision, one might suspect something nebulous there; having that group of faint stars embedded in the planetary adds to the challenge by distraction. I’ve used both of my filters already; each has a different response. The UHC suggests a slightly irregular shape to the nebula, while the O-III shows it as round and possibly even annular. With the UHC, I still need averted to see it 100% of the time. The nebula almost looks like a faint galaxy here, with a very, very slightly brighter core; this is weird because I think it’s an annular nebula (an effect of the multiple stars in the middle?). [In fact, Abell 82 isn’t annular, so my memory and perceptions of it are incorrect.] The O-III yields the strongest response; the embedded stars have all vanished, of course… and there’s not the same sense of annularity I had before. The nebula’s 1’ round and irregularly bright in its interior. Difficult^3!! I can see it with certainty in direct vision with the O-III, although the best I can do is make out that it’s round. It’s very, very diffuse, with no “solid rim” around it. Using the 7mm with no filter, there’s definitely a pair of 14th-magnitude stars on the nebula’s S rim, separated by 0.25’. The nebula is suspectable with direct vision, but shows little more than a largely-featureless glow. With the UHC in the 7mm… this is too much magnification; the nebula’s almost completely invisible. For once, the 14mm seems the optimal magnification [should’ve used the Delos!]. I don’t think I’ll bother with the O-III, given how difficult it is with the 7mm. The 12.5-inch scope is definitely not enough aperture for this nebula.

My list for the week included two other planetary nebulae in Cassiopeia; having logged the first (and most difficult), there was no sense leaving the other for another night. The second one would have to wait, however, until I had checked out the Neptune/Triton duo in Dan’s scope. (I also noted several fine meteors on the evening.)

IC 1747 (Cas):
 This little one is definitely gonna get a visit from the 7mm. This is IC 1747 in Cassiopeia, and it’s actually pretty obvious; it’s small but definitely not stellar, even at this modest magnification. It’s roundish, with no central star and no visible color. (It specifically is nebulous looking, which is always a good quality in a planetary.) The nebula is 10” across and very well defined. No other details are visible at this magnification. It’s in a really fascinating field, because it’s part of a long, very sinuous, “backwards S”-shaped asterism that stretches P-F for about 18’, then P the nebula is kind of a head of… if this was a snake, that would be the head end, which consists of two not-quite-parallel strands of three stars and then extends/moves F and S, and then N toward the nebula, and then continues F and N for about 11’ before beginning to dip S-ward again. There are about twenty stars in that “snake,’ with the nebula near the “bottom,” the S-most point; it’s a little bit N of that. (There are three stars P it that are more S-ward.) Due N of the nebula by 0.75’ is a 12.5-magnitude star; due N even more, 4’ N of the nebula, is a 10th-magnitude star with a 12th-magnitude star P very very slightly S of it by 1.75’. F very very slightly S of the nebula by 14’ is the brightest in the field, which is 9th magnitude. From the head-end of the “snake” P very slightly S is another long asterism; this one looks almost like the constellation Perseus with its own head end, the F end, closest to the nebula. That trails P slightly S with one arc while the other arc extends P slightly N, and the whole asterism spans about 10’ P-F. At this magnification, the nebula’s pretty uniformly bright, and I don’t expect miracles from the filter. The UHC boosts the nebula’s contrast a lot and reveals a solid rim to the nebula; it’s a very uniform disk at this magnification, but there’s not much else to see. I may just skip the 7mm and go straight to the 4.8mm… one thing’s for certain, though: I won’t be able to lose the field with those two asterisms there. So with the O-III, the nebula becomes the third-brightest object in the field; it really leaps out. Once again, though, there’s not much added detail. With the 7mm, (since it was already at hand!), the nebula’s definitely not *just* a disk at this magnification; it’s a little bit fuzzier but still very small. Still no central star. With the UHC, even at this magnification, I’m getting hints of an inner disk and tiny faint fringe around it.  Moving up to the 4.8mm, but only because the sky seems able to support it…. Wow! Now there’s some irregularity to the brightness in the nebula’s interior, even with no filter—not a lot, but it’s definitely not as smooth as it was at lower power. There’s a rough outer edge here beyond the rim of the disk. With the UHC added (!), it almost looks as if there’s a darker spot on the SF in the interior, and the whole disk is most definitely fuzzy on the edge, too. 

Cassiopeia was high over the crag now; a glance to the south showed the autumn constellations well ascendant. Capella was nearly free of the Eugene light dome; Fomalhaut, the lonely first-magnitude lucida of the low-south (from Oregon, anyway) constellation Pisces Austrinus, gleamed right on the meridian. Pegasus, one of the hallmark star-patterns of the fall, perched high in the south, halfway between the horizon and the zenith straight overhead.

IC 289 (Cas): The last of the Cassiopeia planetaries I need (for now), this is IC 289, and is not at all what I was expecting. This is a disk about 0.5’ in diameter and very, very, very ghostly; it looks so much more solid in photographs, but once you see it you don’t lose it. It’s in a surprisingly plain field for Cassiopeia, but it does have a number of faintish stars around it, the brightest of which is S very very slightly F by 1.75’ and is 10th magnitude. At this magnification, there’s no central star, but there’s a little tiny bit of brightening to the nebula’s interior; the whole of the nebula is pretty faint, though. N very slightly F it by 0.75’ is a 13.5-magnitude star; due F by 1.3’ is a 13th-magnitude star. Due N by 5’ is the SF vertex of a parallelogram, of which all four stars are 10th/10.5 magnitude. Adding the UHC, there’s still no color or anything but it’s definitely brighter and somewhat larger, maybe 0.67’ diameter now. This magnification isn’t ideal; I know there’s inner structure that isn’t coming through. The O-III punches it up even more; the NF edge seems a little bit brighter with the O-III. In the 7mm, it’s even less bright, still ghostly and diffuse, without a very strong outside edge or rim. The O-III darkens the field and the nebula to an unusable degree. With the UHC, there’s a sense of internal NP-SF brightening, almost like a galaxy bar, that’s pretty definite. 

Somehow, it had only been three hours since I’d begun taking notes. Granted, we’d been at the crag since at least 7:30 (always arriving in time to set up during daylight), so three hours of observing involved six hours of total time. I’d gotten off of work at noon, but hadn’t left until almost 1 PM (due to an excessively-talkative coworker), had a short nap, and loaded up for a 6:30-ish departure, so it had been a full day. Having logged the three Cassiopeia planetaries, I’d accomplished as much as I’d intended, if not more; the three Hercules galaxies I’d taken notes on were gravy. I still had two more nights of observing, forecasts willing.

I ended the night’s work with looks at Uranus and the Neptune/Triton pair in my own scope, and a perennial fall tradition: a long gaze at the glorious M15, leading Pegasus past the meridian. Then it was time to tear down for the hourlong drive home in the dark, the other celestial wonders of the autumn awaiting their turn to be looked upon with awe.

III. The next night’s forecast was best for The Oxbow site. Not having been there in a while—since mid-March, in fact—I actually looked forward to the twisty-turny drive.

As opposed to the previous session, we had quite a crowd on this particular night. Dan B and Alesha were there, and Robert A as well; Jerry was there, too, followed shortly by Rob Brown and his son Quinn. I’d met the Browns at the 2016 Oregon Star Party, where they were demoing their helmet-mounted binoculars and innovative, collapsible “tensegrity” telescopes.

Having left Bob the Dob and its ancillary equipment in the Flex, I stuck to an observing agenda geared to the 12.5″ scope: more of the Herschel “leftovers” (including a couple of the “non-existent” open clusters and a planetary nebula) and a few bright galaxy groups. With most of the Astronomical League’s planetary nebula program finished as far as the 12.5″ scope went, I could afford to spend a night doing a less-regimented observing plan. I had a few in Perseus and Pegasus and some scattered planetaries here and there, but having finished the trio in Cassiopeia, nothing was urgent.

I got to observing a whole hour earlier than the previous night, thanks to starting with open clusters. Somehow, the seeing was even better for much of the night than it had been at Linslaw the night before, despite a breeze that rumbled on my audio files. The parking area filled with background chatter: science discussions, equipment geeking, and intertextual and surreal humor.

MOON: 27 days (rose at 4:42 AM; 1% illuminated)
SQM: 21.42
NELM: not checked
WEATHER CONDITIONS: temps to mid-60s; no dew; air still; warmish
OTHERS PRESENT: JO, DB, AF, RA, Rob and Quinn (from OSP)
All observations: 12.5″ f/5 Discovery Dob, 14mm ES 82˚ eyepiece (112x, 0.7˚ TFOV) or 7mm TeleVue Nagler (225x, 0.36˚ TFOV) unless otherwise noted

NGC 6837 (Aql):  Here at the Oxbow tonight, working on whatever parts of my various projects are available to the 12.5-inch; I’m currently in Aquila with NGC 6837, an open cluster that I gave up on a little too early last night; it follows Terazed and Altair by a couple of degrees. The cluster is rather elongated, somewhat well detached from the dense Aquila Milky Way, not very rich (20 stars?), and contains a moderate range of magnitudes. There are two primary groups in this cluster, each with its own lucida; the two lucidae are pretty similar in brightness. The northern group is the richer, with 8 stars visible; the southern group is just a straight line of three stars oriented NP-SF, with its brightest star at the F end, and that star and the southernmost star in the northern group are both 11.5 magnitude; they’re separated by 2’. The cluster is overall oriented N-S, spanning roughly 3.25’ x 1.25’, with its major axis running N-S. 0.3’ P slightly N from the lucida of the S part (the three in the line) is a 13.5-magnitude star; there’s a 13th-magnitude star P very slightly N of that one by 0.5’, and those three comprise the S group. Of the N group, the lucida forms the bottom of a little kite or diamond-gemstone figure; from the lucida of the N group, almost due N, is the P-most (by 1’) of the stars at the top of the diamond shape, and that star and the others in the top edge of that diamond shape are all 13.5/14th magnitude and all very evenly spaced at about 0.3’ apart. That diamond-gemstone is about 1’ across, and there is some unresolved glow in the background of the N part, which is the richest part of the cluster. From the lucida of the N group P slightly S by 17’ is the brightest in the field, which is 6th magnitude. From the same star (that lucida) F somewhat S by 10’ is an 8th-magnitude star; from the lucida of the N group 8’ N very very slightly F is the brighter of a pair/double, which is 8.5 magnitude and has a somewhat bluish 10.5-magnitude secondary SP it by 10”. Even more interesting than the cluster, though, are the dark nebulae in the field, including one due P the cluster by 8’; this one spans 5’ x 4’ roughly N-S and is pretty opaque. There’s also a prominent one N of the cluster by the pair/double star that’s also N-S and spans 5’ x 4’.

One of the great advantages of Linslaw versus the Oxbow and the amphitheater is that the observers are elevated well above the road; here at The Oxbow, every vehicle of yahoos that drives by blasts the observers with its headlights. Sure enough, just as I’d begun taking notes, a pickup truck with hunting lights came flying along the treacherous road. Two more would follow during the next observation.

NGCs 6840, 6843 (Aql): This is the less-obviously-a-cluster NGC 6840, about 40’ SP from 6837. NGC 6840 is the larger of the two, about 6’ x 4’, elongated SP-NF, and has a decent range of magnitudes: there are a number of 11th/11.5/12th-magnitude stars and then also a fair number in the 13th- and 14th-magnitude range, but there doesn’t seem to be a lot of unresolved glow involved; there are maybe twenty stars in all. As with NGC 6837, this cluster is somehow fairly detached from the Milky Way despite the richness of the background here.This is another cluster that’s divided into two distinct parts; there are about ten stars in each, although there are a few cluster members joining the two. The S part of the cluster is a rough ellipse of stars, most of them in the 12th-magnitude range. In the N part, the majority of the stars are in a line that stretches P slightly N-F slightly S, and all but about three of the stars in the northern part are in that line; one of the stars that’s not a part of that line is actually the lucida of the cluster (although only by a couple of tenths of a magnitude) at 11th magnitude, and that is on the NF corner of the cluster; this star is 1.5’ almost due N of the 12th-magnitude
star on the F end of that line. The line stretches P slightly N for about 2.5’; there’s also one star very slightly S of that line that’s fairly obvious. This isn’t really a very rich cluster; it’s more a semi-obvious cluster-like object, and has been accused of being “non-existent” in the RNGC. There’s yet another cluster-like object [NGC 6843] F very slightly N of 6840, and this one is actually almost more cluster-like than NGC 6840 is: it’s 10’ N-S in major axis by 4’ P-F. It’s most populous on the northern edge, and looks rectangular with a slight extension to the SF; this second group has about twenty-five stars in it, most in that 11.5 to 13.5 range, although the SF extension has some unresolved background glow in it. 12’ S very slightly P the lucida of NGC 6840 is the brightest star in the field, which is 7.5 magnitude; 5.25’ S somewhat P that star is the N end of a 2’ line of 13.5 and 14th magnitude stars that’s very eye-catching when you look at that brightest star in the field. Of interest is the fact that there are dark nebulae P the cluster that help define it; there’s a particularly obvious one S slightly P of the 7.5-magnitude star, and that little 2’ line of faint stars is just on the F edge of that nebula, which runs about 7’ x 5’, N slightly P-S slightly F. There’s another obvious dark nebula SP the cluster by 8’, and that one is 9’ x 6’, running roughly N-S.

From open clusters to (temporarily) galaxies, even those in all the wrong places.

NGC 7052 (Vul): This guy is NGC 7052, a galaxy in Vulpecula, which is not where you expect to find a lot of galaxies. It’s 1.25’ x 0.67’ and has a faint stellar nucleus; it’s kind of hard to pay attention to it because it also has an 11.5-magnitude star
1.5’ almost due F. It does have a brighter core region that it gradually brightens to. The halo’s pretty well defined. It’s a pretty obvious little galaxy, better than the typical anonymous-type galaxy; it’s easy to tell it’s a Herschel discovery, as it fits the profile of his “lesser” galaxy discoveries. 1’ N very very slightly P the 11.5-magnitude star is a 14th-magnitude star; 1.5’ N very very slightly P the galaxy is another 14th-magnitude star; from the 11.5-magnitude star S slightly F by 4’ is a star that’s a tenth brighter. N of the galaxy by 4.5’ is a little triangle of 13.5-magnitude stars which is 1’ on the S edge and 0.75’ on the N and P edges. The brightest star in the field is S very very slightly F the galaxy by 14’ and is 8.5 magnitude. In the 7mm, there’s a threshold star just on the F edge of the galaxy. There’s a fourth star due P the N-most star in the triangle by 0.67’, and that is 14.5 magnitude.

NGC 7076 (Cep): A lone planetary for the evening: this is NGC 7076 in Cepheus, an obscure planetary that nonetheless is visible unfiltered at 14mm. It is 0.5’ in diameter, round, and seems to have (in averted vision) at least one stellar point embedded in it; it’ll need more magnification to make that determination for certain. N of it (so forming a perfect line with the nebula) there are two faint stars; one is 14th magnitude and 1.25’ N of the nebula, and then there’s also a 14th-magnitude star 2’ N of the nebula. It’s in an interesting field; there are a number of asterisms nearby, but other than the two faint stars, there’s nothing within about 5’ of the nebula. The brightest star in the field is P slightly N of the nebula by 16’ and is 7.5 magnitude. N slightly F the nebula by 12’ is the second-brightest, which is 8.5 magnitude and is at the S end of a hook of five stars; there’s a little triangle N very slightly P, then the really bright one, and then one N very slightly F that one that joins with the triangle. The nebula is diffuse; at first glance you might not notice it, but once you spot it you don’t lose it. With the UHC, the two faint stars are killed but the nebula leaps out; it seems to be irregularly bright, like there’s fine internal structure too small for the magnification. It doesn’t come off as annular, certainly. Oddly, it almost has a kind of M78 appearance with the filter at this low magnification. The O-III really pops out the nebula… it makes it brighter than does the UHC, without adding any real further detail. Using the 7mm, there’s definitely an embedded star toward the F side of the nebula. (An off-central star?) Adding the UHC “smears out” the nebula; it’s really diffuse now, but the whole field is otherwise too dark at this magnification.

This was a pretty casual night—my notes even indicated “lots of looking; not many notes,” although there are few indications of what objects I might’ve looked at without taking notes. I can hazard a few guesses, but nothing more solid than that (apparently, a lot of underwhelming sights went unnoted). It was three hours between my last two sets of notes; given how late the final set was started, it must’ve been a fun, mellow night’s observing. As it was, I saved the best for last.

NGCs 7769, 7770, 7771 (Peg): This is the NGC 7769 group in Pegasus, on a night when a lot of small galaxies that I’ve been looking at have been either really underwhelming or quite difficult, despite how good the naked-eye sky looks. This is a really fine trio, considerably better than the majority of what I’ve seen so far. NGC 7769 is the P-most and the brightest; It has a bright core that very suddenly comes to a stellar nucleus. It’s elongated P-F, but only just; it’s about 1.5’ by 1.3’ and quite bright, quite obvious. The halo is not very well defined; it kind of dies away into the background. 2’ S very very slightly P of the galaxy is a 13.5-magnitude star; P somewhat N of it by 7’ is another 13th-magnitude star, and that star has P somewhat N of it by 3.3’ a 10.5-magnitude star. F somewhat S of 7769 by 5.25’ is NGC 7771, which is the largest of the three by a fair margin. It’s a very impressive mid-sized spiral, 2.0’ x 0.67’ and elongated P very slightly S-F very slightly N, with a largish, somewhat brighter core; there doesn’t seem to be a nucleus. 2’ F slightly N of 7771 is a 13th-magnitude star, and then just S of the P end of 7771 is NGC 7770, which at this magnification is not that easy to separate. 7770 is round and small, maybe 0.5’, with a brighter core and well-defined halo; it doesn’t seem to have a nucleus visible. (I imagine this trio would look especially great in the 20-inch.)  With the 7mm Nagler, there may be a nucleus hidden in 7771, and it almost seems like I should be able to pull a dust lane out of 7771 as well, but I can’t quite get it at this aperture; the halo is less defined than it seemed in the 14mm. There’s still no nucleus in 7770. The 7mm reveals a tiny bit of dark space between 7770 and 7771, so at least at this aperture/magnification, they don’t seem to be in full contact. NGC 7769 is kind of slightly mottled/irregularly bright here; there seems to be on the NF end some tidal distortion, almost like on that end like the spiral arms have been pulled NP a bit; every now and then there’s a moment they seem… not exactly detached, but pulled on—kind of the opposite you’d expect, considering that 7770 is on the SP end.

The others had started packing up while I was finishing my notes; the tricky hour-long drive beckoned, as did another clear night after this.

IV. The following night was that of New Moon proper. The forecast again favored The Oxbow; for perhaps the first time, our little observing group (The EAS Irregulars) would use the site on consecutive nights. (I’m not sure why this had happened before—the drive, perhaps?)

This time, I had heavier artillery: the 20″ Obsession. I’d been wanting to get notes on the supernova in NGC 6500, which was still prominent and well-placed for observing, and the rest of my agenda was designed around the extra aperture: flat galaxies, a planetary nebula I’d taken notes on with the 12.5″, and another attempt at one that had foiled me previously.

As with the previous night, we had a good-sized group, and spirits were high; the background chatter on my recordings threatened at times to overwhelm the sound of my own voice. Conditions were, notably, not quite as good as the other two nights had been, and our SQM readings “only” reached 21.2 by the time twilight ended. (It was a measure of how spoiled we’ve gotten that we considered 21.2 to be indicative of a “poorer” night.) But the company made up for the slightly-diminished conditions.

As usual, I hit some of the summer highlights before diving into my agenda: M8 and M20, M11, and the huge globulars M22 and M55, the latter of which required the use of a gap in the mountainous southern horizon in order to see. The huge mirror on the Obsession hadn’t come to ambient temperature yet, but the views were still pretty fine. (Loose globulars like M55 were excellent for testing seeing and transparency, as they easily show less resolution when conditions are soft; if seeing and transparency are both good, the cluster will resolve into stars more cleanly and more completely.)

Astronomical twilight was over; NGC 6500 awaited.

SEEING: 7, 8
SQM: 21.45
NELM: not checked
WEATHER CONDITIONS: temps to mid-60s; no dew; air still; felt chilly
All observations: 20″ f/5 Obsession Dob, 14mm ES 82˚ eyepiece (181x, 0.45˚ TFOV) or 7mm TeleVue Nagler (363x, 0.21˚ TFOV) unless otherwise noted

NGCs 6500, 6501; SN 2021wuf (Her): My first object for the night is actually a trio: NGCs 6500 and 6501 and supernova 2021wuf, which is ostensibly in NGC 6500 but appears right between the two galaxies.
 The two galaxies are pretty similar, both about 1.0’ across, with obvious cores and nuclei and broad, diffuse halos. NGC 6500 might have a touch of N-S elongation to it. It has a gradual, broad core and a stellar nucleus, and its halo is a little bit less defined and more diffuse than that of NGC 6501. NGC 6501 lies 2.25’ NvsF 6500. 6501 has a brighter core than NGC 6500, one that’s a little more suddenly arrived-at and smaller than 6500’s, and its halo is a little better defined. F somewhat N, just outside the edge of 6501’s halo, is a threshold star. The SN is 1.25’ from each of the galaxies, almost square in the middle, and is approximately 13.25 magnitude. It’s at the P end of an arc of three stars that’s 1’ long; the star at the F end of the arc is also visible, 0.75’ from the SN, and is 14.5 magnitude. I don’t see the star between the two at this magnification [I know it’s there from having seen photographs of the supernova]. NGC 6500 has 1.75’ P very very slightly N of it a 13th-magnitude star; 6501 has 1’ N somewhat P of it a 14.5-magnitude star. F 6500 by 6’ is the brightest star in the field, which is an obvious, very close double of equal components that looks like a miniature Mesarthim; these are both 7.5 magnitude, separated P very very slightly N-F very very slightly S by 3”. In the 7mm, the threshold star on the F somewhat N of NGC 6501 is definite. All three stars in the arc are visible now, although the one in the middle is faint as can be, perhaps 16th magnitude. There’s also a very faint star between the SN and 6500, not quite halfway between the two galaxies, N slightly F NGC 6500. There’s also a faint star NP 6500 that’s close to threshold level.

I’ve gotten more interested in extragalactic supernovae in recent years; you’ll likely find more of them accounted for in this blog going forward (depending, of course, on the frequency of their occurrence).

Next up was a return visit to an interesting planetary nebula I’d first observed from the Oxbow the year before. This one is an entry in the AL’s Planetary Nebula program, so I’d been planning to take notes on it with both the 12.5-inch and 20-inch scopes; having done so with the 12.5-inch already, I left out some of the extra notes on field stars and concentrated on the nebula itself.

NGC 6765 (Lyr): What we got here, aside from a failure to communicate, is NGC 6765, that really weird planetary in Lyra, which looks much more like an edge-on galaxy than a planetary nebula. It is bracketed to the due P by a 9.5-magnitude star and to the NF by one of 11th magnitude. The planetary is 1.0’ x 0.25’, elongated SP-NF; just off the NF end, outside the halo of the nebula by about 10”, is a 16th-magnitude star that’s very very difficult. The nebula is wider in the middle and tapers on the ends like an edge-on spiral galaxy. With the UHC, the nebula brightens right up. There’s a brighter spot on the NF end of the nebula—not the star, but the nebula itself is brighter there (I first noticed this in the unfiltered view but it’s blatantly obvious now). The nebula looks to be almost multisegmented along the length of it, and is narrower at the SP end. With the O-III, the view is quite similar; the main stripe of the nebula is much wider with a faint diffuse halo using the filter. With the 7mm now… a great view with no filter! In the 7mm with the O-III filter, the nebula is definitely irregular in brightness along the major axis; it almost looks like NGC 1055, sans actual dust lane. The SP end of the nebula is much more diffuse; if it was actually a galaxy, you’d say the core is off-center to the NF. Really fascinating object!

For whatever reason, Dan and I ended up singing the Doomsday Machine theme from the original Star Trek. (I don’t know, either.) Jerry and Kathy came over to take a look at NGC 6765, so we talked about the nebula for a few minutes before I headed off to the next one.

“The next one” was also a return engagement, although I had come up empty on my previous attempt. Apriamashvili 2-1 wasn’t on the AL list; I had first noticed it in Alvin Huey’s guide to observing planetary nebulae, where it seemed like it should be a relatively-easy object to observe (based on the picture… further proof that pictures can be completely deceiving in astronomy). Having failed to see it the first time despite having the field exactly correct, I’d resolved to be successful the second time. This despite the fact that there were no observations of the nebula to be found online or in print—even Kent Wallace’s massive Visual Observations of Planetary Nebulae had no record of it. And, as it turns out, the nebula is no longer classified as a planetary, but rather a compact HII region within a molecular cloud.

Whatever it is, I detected something at the correct position after some concentrated staring at the field.

Apriamashvili 2-1 (PK 035-00.1; Aql): A return engagement here at Apriamashvili 2-1, which skunked me on my previous attempt to find it. This planetary nebula was completely invisible in the 14mm eyepiece, no matter what filter I used, but here in the 7mm it’s visible as a barely-out-of-focus star. I tried using the O-III on it with the 7mm and got nothing, but without the filter it’s definitely there, in the short side of a tiny right triangle, due N of the 12.5-magnitude right angle vertex by 0.67’. 1’ due P the right angle vertex is a 9.5-magnitude star, and then the third star in the triangle is 14th magnitude and N very slightly P the right angle vertex by 0.75’. (This triangle isn’t exactly a right triangle, but it’s close enough.) There’s a vaguely football-shaped asterism mostly P of the little triangle by 7’ (to the F-most star in the asterism) and that’s what I used to verify the field. That’s almost all that’s left for me to do with this one, because there’s no detail whatsoever; it’s just a little almost-stellar point, and I had to rely on the photograph of the field in order to find it, because there is no way I would’ve recognized it as what it is otherwise. It is only very, very, very vaguely non-stellar. I’ve been here before with this one and had no luck, largely because I didn’t start at 7mm; I started with the 14mm and gave up. So hooray, perseverance! With filters, there’s nothing there; either filter just completely blots the nebula out.  if I didn’t know better, I’d say the nebula was a threshold star that I was looking at, which would explain why it’s getting killed by the filter, but there’s no mistaking that there’s something non-stellar there. 

Adding to the difficulty of Ap 2-1, Sky Safari has it plotted in the wrong place; they have it in the hypotenuse of that little triangle as opposed to the short edge. (And the spelling is inconsistent, too.)

I spent the better part of the next three hours alternating between my agenda and some of the late summer/early autumn highlights. Most noteworthy among all of the objects I observed that night (hell, that whole month) was M33, the giant face-on spiral in Triangulum, which was the most stunning I’d ever seen it; even during the discussion of my next object, I was still raving about the detail in M33’s spiral arms. Also excellent in the 20-inch scope was the NGC 7769 trio, from last night. Of the objects on my agenda, nothing really registered; perhaps the open clusters were too open and the flat galaxies too flat (too dim, more likely, although I’ve taken notes on some that were barely visible). Whatever the case, I went three hours before making another recording; I returned to my note-taking with a respectable flat galaxy in the fields of Triangulum.

NGC 973; IC 1815 (Tri):
Back to flat galaxies now with NGC 973, which is accompanied by another small galaxy in the field. NGC 973 is elongated in position angle 50˚, so it’s pretty close to being due SP-NF. In the 14 mm eyepiece, it has a fairly obvious brighter central region, ghostly arms, and spans 1.5’ x 0.3’. The ends of the spiral arms are very indistinct; the galaxy almost looks like a very thin rectangle because the ends of the arms don’t taper that much at this magnification. There seems to be a threshold star just N of the SP end. 4.5’ due SP the galaxy is a 7.5-magnitude star that has a 12.5-magnitude star S slightly P it by 1.5’; that star has another 12.5-magnitude star SP it by 0.67’. Due S of the galaxy by 2.25’ is a 14.5-magnitude star; S of that star by 2.5’ is the second galaxy [IC 1815], which is roundish with a tiny bit of NP-SF orientation. It has a very obvious stellar nucleus and a brightish, smooth, gradually-arrived at core; this galaxy is 0.5’ x 0.3’ and has S somewhat F it by 1.75’ a 15th-magnitude star that has S very slightly F it by 3.5’ a 9.5-magnitude star; 1’ due F the 15th-magnitude star is a 15.5-magnitude star. In the 7mm, there’s a little irregularity to the brightness of 973; it’s still pretty ghostly. The smaller galaxy is much brighter and more obvious, even more so than 973.

Robert and his family had long since left; Jerry and Kathy were finishing their teardown and were almost ready to head home.

Two small galaxy trios lay nearby NGC 973. I managed to catch both in the 14mm eyepiece.

NGCs 1066, 1067, 1060, 1061, 1057; UGC 2201 (Tri):
 Last of a very productive night. This is a field of small galaxies, with the centerpiece being NGC 1066; it’s part of an interesting pair, and then P it is a trio of galaxies fairly well removed from the 1066 pair. NGC 1066 is pretty diffuse, weakly defined, and comes gradually to a brighter central point that’s not necessarily a nucleus (as noted at this magnification, at least); it could be a tight core rather than a nucleus. The galaxy is elongated P very very slightly S-F very very slightly N and spans 1.25’ x 0.75’. 3.75’ F very very slightly N of it is an 11.5-magnitude star, and then almost due N of 1066 by 2.5’ is a very, very diffuse, very poorly-defined glow [NGC 1067]. This second galaxy is 1.0’ round, with very low surface brightness; there’s no real central concentration to it at all, just a vague, ill-defined glow. 7’ S very very slightly F 1066 is a 7.5-magnitude star. 4’ P slightly N of 1066 is a 12.5-magnitude star; 1’ P slightly S of that star is a 14th-magnitude star. P slightly S of 1066 by 9’ is the largest, brightest galaxy in the field [NGC 1060], which is elongated P-F, with a very prominent core and a substellar nucleus. The core is a very large percentage of the galaxy’s visible extent, the halo being pretty thin. This one’s slightly larger (1.5’ x 1.0’), brighter, and considerably better defined than 1066. F it by 1’ is a 15th-magnitude star, and due N of it by 2.5’ is another galaxy [NGC 1061]. This one is elongated almost due N-S, but is only 0.75’ x 0.5’ and has only some slight central concentration: a very vague, somewhat dim core that’s very, very gradually arrived at. NP [1060] by 4.67’ is another very faint, very diffuse and poorly defined galaxy [NGC 1057] that’s reasonably large (1.0’ x 0.67’) and elongated NP-SF. It almost looks like an interacting pair that are NP-SF to each other, with the NP one the smaller of the two. The 7mm Nagler is too much power for the conditions, so I’m going to use the Delos instead: [1060] is very much elongated and obvious at this magnification; [1057] may have an occasionally-visible nucleus. What I thought was a double or interacting galaxy there is actually a galaxy with a pair of threshold stars in contact with the galaxy on the NP. Back to NGC 1066 and its companion… it sure seems there’s a third galaxy [UGC 2201] P those two making an equilateral triangle? [1067] has a 15th-magnitude star P very very slightly S of it; the other possible galaxy seems to be S of that star, but I can’t get a good fix on it.

It was about damn time I started using the 10mm Delos in observations, rather than being afraid of getting it dirty via usage. What’s the point of buying a $350 eyepiece and keeping it in its case… especially when it’s the best eyepiece I have by a considerable amount? Dan B has taken to referring to the Delos as “the Precious,” Gollum-like, and I have to admit that the sarcasm is well-earned. If any eyepiece should be my workhorse, it should be this one.

In researching the identities of the galaxies in the NGC 1066 group, I came upon a dilemma. Some sources considered UGC 2201 to be NGC 1062; most identified a very tight nearby double star as NGC 1062, and the very difficult galaxy rounding out the 1066 trio as UGC 2201. I’m sticking to the latter, as that’s the explanation that Courtney Seligman, Harold Corwin, and Steve Gottlieb all go with.

With a full sixty-minute drive home looming, it was a good time to end the night, and a good group of galaxies on which to do it. I’d had a rewarding evening; if it was to be the end of September’s observing, I’d be satisfied with what I’d done. Fortunately, there were still two good observing sessions left for this Moon-dark phase.

V. The Clear Sky Chart for the following Friday looked more than promising; that Saturday looked like a mixed bag conditions-wise, so September’s second weekend looked to be a one-off, maybe the last observing session for the cycle (and for September, it turned out). With the Obsession still loaded in the Flex, it was time for another deep run at the early autumn sky.

Although we had the makings of a small group when the evening began, I ended up observing alone; Jerry was feeling ill after a couple of vaccinations and chose to stay home, and Dan B’s daughter wasn’t feeling well, so he stayed home as well, texting me during my drive out. Fortunately, we were planning for Linslaw, which was the only one of our sites I was really comfortable observing from alone. I was less comfortable using the Obsession by myself, given the potential for accidents with the ladder (particularly during setup and teardown, when I had to wrangle the huge upper-cage assembly onto the truss poles from one side of the scope; holding the upper cage while on the ladder was awkward).

The scope went together without incident, and quickly enough that I could watch the falling of darkness—there’s something almost mystical about the falling night and emergence of the stars while anticipating the observing ahead. Ideally, we arrive early enough to finish setting up our scopes before sunset; giving us time to sit back and experience the shift from day to night in its totality. As twilight deepened, I went through some of the summer highlights (M22, M80, M4, M16, M17), Jupiter and Saturn (also allowing me to gauge the seeing and the rate of cooling of the Obsession’s mirror), and a succession of easy globular clusters: M54, M69, M70 (all along the bottom of Sagittarius’ teapot) and NGC 6366 in Ophiuchus, a good test of the sky darkness.

The seeing and transparency were slightly off the standard of the previous weekend, as the CSC had predicted; the transparency was expected to worsen as the night went on, but both qualities were still quite good at the moment. I again started my “official” observing with one of the Herschel leftovers.

MOON: 4 days (set at 9:40 PM; 21% illuminated)
SQM: 21.45 (11 PM), 21.51 (12: 45 AM)
NELM: not checked
WEATHER CONDITIONS: temps to low 50s/high 40s; dewy; air still; felt chilly/clammy; clouds rolled through low in the south and east several times
All observations: 20″ f/5 Obsession Dob, 14mm ES 82˚ eyepiece (181x, 0.45˚ TFOV) or 7mm TeleVue Nagler (363x, 0.21˚ TFOV) unless otherwise noted

NGC 6956; UGCs 11620, 11623 (Del): A Herschel discovery, NGC 6956. This is a diaphanous P-F glow of about 1.25’ x 1.0’ with a very diffuse, irregularly bright halo that’s still pretty well defined, but it’s hard to tell what’s going on inside the halo because just to the F, on the edge of the galaxy glow, is an 11.5-magnitude star that really [expletive] up the view. Due P that star there’s a tiny brighter core (or substellar nucleus) that’s fairly suddenly arrived-at in averted vision. The P side of the galaxy is particularly diffuse (hopefully this irregularity shows up better in the 7mm). Due N of the galaxy by 1.75’ is a 13.5-magnitude star; the same distance N of 
that star is a 12.5-magnitude star; 1.25’ due F that star is a 9.5-magnitude star. Due N of the galaxy by 7.5’ is an 11.5-magnitude star that’s the NP end of an arc of three that has SF it by 1.67’ an 11.5-magnitude star that has a 12.5-mag star 1.25’ S very slightly F it. From 6956 7’ S somewhat F is another galaxy [UGC 11620] which is 0.3’ round, with a very slightly brighter core and very diffuse halo; it almost looks like a pair, although what might’ve (at first glance) been another galaxy is actually a faint star on the S slightly F about 0.3’ from the galaxy; 15” S of that faint (14.5-magnitude) star is a 13th-magnitude star that messes up the view of that galaxy. In the 7mm, the bright star on 6956’s edge also has a pair of very faint stars due F it, the brighter of the pair NF the fainter, and those are 14.5 and 15.5 magnitudes. 6956 has a little more concentration N-S, particularly in averted vision. There may be another tiny, faint galaxy SP 6956; there’s a small equilateral triangle of 12.5/13.5-magnitude stars, 0.67’ per side, and then N very very slightly P the triangle is an unequal pair, with the P very very slightly S component much the brighter; the third galaxy [actually a very faint triple star] lies almost exactly between the triangle and that pair. That galaxy looks elongated a bit P-F-ish; it’s quite diffuse, poorly defined, and may have an extremely faint stellar nucleus to it. Back with the 14mm for the other galaxies: due F 6956 by 7’ is a 13.5-magnitude star, and that star has a 14.5-magnitude star 0.3’ F it, and that star has a small galaxy [UGC 11623] F it; that galaxy is 0.75’ diameter, VERY diffuse, and had a broad, very, very slightly brighter core it arrives gradually at. With the 7mm again, there’s little extra detail in that last one; it’s very diffuse and not well defined.

I was incorrect about the triple star being an extra galaxy, but left that section of notes intact as a reminder not to get confused by it again (also known as “going full Messier”).

With Capricornus in good position, I stopped to check out the M30/Palomar 12 pairing before heading off into Pegasus for my next two targets. The transparency was becoming hit-and-miss, although the seeing had steadied out. The SQM readings consistently hit mid-21.4 levels—a bit low for Linslaw, but still fine.

10: 41
NGCs 7550, 7547, 7549, 7553, 7558 (Hickson 93; Peg): A fine group here in Pegasus, anchored by the elliptical NGC 7550 [HCG93A], which is round, with a very obvious bright core that may have a stellar nucleus—kinda classic elliptical profile. It’s 1.0’ across, but not well defined. Due S of 7550 by 3’ is a 12th-magnitude star; P very very slightly S by 2’ is a 14th-magnitude star, and 1.75’ NP that star is the second galaxy [NGC 7547; HCG93C], almost due P 7550. It’s smaller and more diffuse than 7550, with some P-F elongation, 0.75’ x 0.3’. It has a more gradual core that’s not very bright but is quite apparent; a nucleus may be intermittently visible. From 7550 NP by 3.5’ is a 14.5-magnitude star; from that star 2.5’ N slightly F is an 11th-magnitude star; F that star by 1.25’ is the third Hickson [NGC 7549; HCG93B], which is due N of 7550; this one is harder to get a fix on; it’s much more diffuse than the others, 1.25’ across, roundish, irregularly bright, poorly defined and much more diffusely illuminated. F that galaxy by 3.75’ is the fourth Hickson [NGC 7553; HCG93D], which has a distinct non-stellar nucleus that’s the first thing visible on it; the halo is quite faint and vaguely roundish; this one is 0.67’ and very diffuse, with very low surface brightness and not much in the way of a core. A distracting 15th-magnitude star lies SF it by 1.3’. That star has F it by the same distance a 14th-magnitude star. Elongation in 7547 is very apparent at 7mm; it’s obviously a spiral given its brightness profile, although this is still quite subtle. It does have a stellar nucleus. 7549 also has some P-F elongation at this higher magnification. 6’ F slightly S of 7550 is another galaxy [NGC 7558; HCG93E], that has almost due S it a N-S pair of faint stars; this last galaxy is 0.3’, roundish, and very diffuse, with little central concentration; it’s 
very difficult. It either has a faint star nearby (?) or a nucleus [YES]; that nucleus may be illusory due to the proximity of a faint star to the galaxy.

NGCs 7578A, 7578B; PGCs 70936, 70943 (Hickson 94; Peg): Despite being exceedingly difficult, faint, and small, Hickson 94 is surprisingly obvious in the eyepiece. The collective glow of the galaxies has a few faint stars intermingled; the galaxies and the stars form a kind of wedge that points to the P. This is a very difficult observation, because these galaxies are so small; the SF point of the wedge is a star of 14.5 magnitude, and this’ll be my reference point. 7’ P very slightly N of that star is the S of a pair of stars, which is much the brighter of the two; that star is 12.5 magnitude, and it has due F it by 7” a 14th-magnitude star, with another of 14th magnitude N slightly P it by 0.3’. From the 14.5-magnitude star almost due N by 8’ is a 10.5-magnitude star that’s the P-most vertex in an isosceles triangle with the “point” star almost due F it and the third star due SF it; the N side of the triangle is 3.3’ and from the first vertex to the third is 4.25’ (so the long side); the second and third stars are both 12.5 magnitude. From the 14.5-magnitude star F very very slightly N by 9.5’ is a 9th-magnitude star with another of 9th magnitude F somewhat N of it by 3’. The third vertex of the isosceles triangle has SP it by 1.5’ the fainter of a pair, which is 15.5 magnitude and has SP it by 0.25’ a 15th-magnitude star, and from that star S very slightly P by 1’ is a tiny glow [PGC 70943; HCG 94C] that is very difficult at this magnification, but is the outlying galaxy in Hickson 94. In order to get any kind of read on this group, I’m going with the 7mm Nagler, although the seeing’s not really good enough. On the N edge of the group, second in from the F end is a 15th-magnitude star; P very very slightly S of that star on the N edge/F end is the brightest of the galaxies [(NGC 7578B; HCG94A] and the last object on the N side F, just F the 15th-magnitude star, is a tiny, faint galaxy [PGC 70936; HCG94D] that’s so small and fleeting my eye is watering trying to get a fix on it. Looks like three galaxies on that edge, including the point of the wedge, which is a diffuse but reasonably-sized galaxy [NGC 7578A; HCG94B]: maybe 0.25’ diameter and very diffuse. 7578B is the most concentrated of the group. The outlier, H94C, looks to be elongated N-S. Only the point galaxy is bigger than about 15”. I’m not a good enough notetaker to say much else. The 10mm Delos brings out the galaxies, especially the outlier. It popped out the triple star, too. It’s still hard to get a fix on these. There may be a tiny core to the point galaxy [7578A]. The galaxy P the star at the N end of the wedge is the brightest (NGC 7578B); it’s a little more concentrated than the others.

I don’t know if my observing skills or note taking would have been better had this been a Saturday, but I was definitely feeling the effects of having been awake since 5 AM for work. (In transcribing my notes on the two Hickson groups, I noticed how unfocused they were, with even more digressions and tangents than usual.) The seeing had definitely gotten worse, too; I was pleasantly surprised to spot Triton when I swung the big scope over to Neptune. The sky had gone soft, hazed over by unseen cirrus.

I left Linslaw early, unsure whether Saturday would be usable for astronomy or not; regardless, I still had a forty-five minute drive home, and the sky conditions weren’t worth getting even more tired for the trip. I tore down the big scope reluctantly, yet hopeful we could make something out of Saturday, my last chance for the cycle.

VI. Saturday turned out to be one of the best nights of the run, not just in terms of conditions, but in terms of observations.

The 20-inch scope and its attendant gear remained in the Flex from the previous couple of nights, aired out several times during the day (to keep the heat from building up too much and requiring additional cooling before observing—not an optimal state of affairs, but somewhat preferable to unloading the big scope each morning). I still had a lengthy list of potential targets left from the beginning of the run, and some of them would surely be worthy this evening of a long set of descriptive notes.

Jerry and Ruby were feeling better, so they, Dan, and Alesha headed up the mountainside; Loren joined us a few minutes later. We arrived early, the better to be assembled and ready to experience the falling darkness. The horizon was a bit hazy, but the sky overhead seemed pretty clear. The Moon was to set just as the sky was dark enough to begin taking notes; after getting the Obsession set up and collimated, I jumped in on a globular-cluster hunt while waiting for the Moon and the last dredges of sunlight to pass from the darkening sky, using the 10mm Delos to log M22, NGC 6642, M28, NGC 6638, NGC 6522, NGC 6528, Djorgovski 2, NGC 6520 and B86, M2, M72, NGC 6934, NGC 7006, M54, M69, and M70 as the Moon slinked toward the horizon. The Delos again proved its worth, resolving some of the smaller globulars (M72, NGC 6934, etc.) better and more deeply than I’d ever seen them.

It was midnight before I got started on my actual observing plan. Too many interesting objects vied for my attention: Hickson 88, NGC 7009 (The Saturn Nebula), M73, and NGC 7492 in Aquarius (I logged M73 and NGC 7009 with M 72, given their proximity); NGC 7479 and M15 (of course) in Pegasus; M74 and NGC 660 in Pisces; the 1 Arietis galaxy group; M33; and the Perseus Galaxy Cluster. Despite the weather differences between the Midwest and the Willamette Valley, autumn remains my favorite observing season, so these highlights only served to reinforce my love for exploring the universe. And in a sure sign of the change of seasons, I started my actual note-taking in Pisces.

MOON: 5 days (set at 10:11 PM; 31% illuminated)
SEEING: 8, 7
SQM: 21.45 
NELM: not checked
WEATHER CONDITIONS: temps to low 60s/high 50s; no dew; occasional wind early; some haze low in the south and east eventually became clouds
All observations: 20″ f/5 Obsession Dob, 14mm ES 82˚ eyepiece (181x, 0.45˚ TFOV) or 7mm TeleVue Nagler (363x, 0.21˚ TFOV) unless otherwise noted

UGC 12304 (Psc):
 After a great deal of checking out summer and autumn highlights waiting for it to get fully dark, I’m here at UGC 12304 in Pisces, a faint but obvious flat-galaxy streak that’s 1.3’ by less than 0.25’, maybe 10”, in 120˚ PA. This galaxy is very phantasmic, with no central brightening at all. It lies in a field with a number of very bright stars, most obviously an 8.5-magnitude star 5’ S very slightly P; 5.5’ F the galaxy is the middle star of an arc of three (actually four, but one is much fainter than the others) that extends S slightly P-N slightly F; that star is 10th magnitude. The 10th-magnitude star has 2.5’ due N of it an 11th-magnitude star; from the 10th-magnitude star S slightly P by 2’ is a 14th-magnitude star, and 1.75’ further in the same direction (S slightly P) is a 10.5-magnitude star that’s the S end of that arc. From the galaxy due N by 5.5’ is a 10.5-magnitude star that has a 13th-magnitude star SF it by 2.3’. That’s a really ghostly galaxy, but it’s somehow also quite bright—it was immediately obvious when it came into the field and there was no doubt that it was the target; I actually was expecting something much more difficult. The 7mm Nagler “fattens” the galaxy more than it lengthens it, if that makes any sense—it adds to the width more than to the major axis. There’s a really faint star 2’ to the SF, perhaps of 16th magnitude.

I sifted through my observing agenda, weeding out objects too low in the sky (i.e. in the horizon-girdling haze), those past the meridian (many of which were still viable, but why would I, given the fall panoply?), those that seemed from the POSS plates to be less rewarding… I had a lot of excuses for the stuff on my list, and kept scrolling through it until something “fun” popped up.

I’d seen the NGC 68 group before, but never with the 20-inch (or the Delos), and certainly never this well.

NGCs 68, 69, 70, 71, 72, 74; PGC 1208 (And):
This is the NGC 68 group in Andromeda, and it’s much more interesting than much of what’s on my actual agenda for the night. It lies just off the NF corner of Pegasus, and boy, this is a great view; I’ve started with the 10mm Delos, but I’ve put the 14mm back in for the sake of getting accurate distances and magnitudes. I’ve observed this group before (including at the 2016 Oregon Star Party), so I sort-of knew what I was getting into here. The group is centered around an equilateral triangle of galaxies; the three in the triangle are the most prominent, and then there are a couple of other ones that are smaller, fainter, and a little more far-flung. To complicate things, the galaxies are overlaid on a triangle of faint stars; what’s difficult here is separating the galaxies from the stars. NGC 68 is the P-most and brightest of the three in the equilateral triangle; it and the other two in the triangle are somewhat comparable in size (between 0.5’ and 0.75’ diameter). NGC 68 is the only one of the group that has a bright core (bright relative to the halo, anyway), although the core is small and not itself easily defined; these galaxies are all otherwise pretty faint and more-or-less pretty well defined in the halo, but fairly diffuse. Due F NGC 68 by 0.75’ is a 14th-magnitude star; 0.75’ NF that star is another 14th-magnitude star, and immediately between those two is one of the other galaxies in the equilateral triangle [NGC 70]; this is the most diffuse of the three galaxies in the triangle, but it’s also a little bigger than NGC 68 (0.67’ diameter?). From the first of the 14th-magnitude stars SF by 1’ is another star of equal brightness, and the third of the galaxies [NGC 71] in the equilateral triangle is between the first and third star and S; so SF NGC 68 by 1.75’. This last galaxy is about the same size as NGC 68, and has a somewhat brighter core as well; none of the three has a nucleus (at least at 112x). From [NGC 71] S very very very slightly F by 1.75’ is another galaxy [NGC 72]: this one is elongated P-F, 0.67’ x 0.3’, and has a somewhat brighter core as well. 6’ P NGC 68 is the middle star in a bend of three; that star is 10.5-magnitude, and it has both 4.3’ N very slightly P an 8.5-magnitude star and 3.75’ SP an 11th-magnitude star. Those galaxies are all tightly packed; I know from the earlier Delos view that there are a couple more in there, but at this magnification they’re being difficult. F [NGC 72] by 5’ is one [NGC 74] that’s elongated NP-SF; it has similar dimensions (0.67’ x 0.3’) but is decidedly more diffuse and more broadly concentrated than [NGC 72] and requires concentration to hold on to. Back to the 10mm Delos: S slightly F NGC 68 is another, smaller galaxy [NGC 69]; it’s 0.3’ round, with either the occasional flash of a nucleus or a threshold star just on the P of it. From [NGC 72] 1.25’ F very slightly S is another diffuse glow; this other one [PGC 1208] has a tiny core that’s considerably brighter than the halo, and also has a distracting 15th-magnitude star 0.75’ F very very slightly S of it. So aside from the three in the equilateral triangle there’s the one to the S slightly F [NGC 72, the biggest of those]; there’s one P that one [NGC 69] and S slightly F of NGC 68; there’s one F NGC 72 ([PGC 1208], which is the last one I just described) and then there’s the one 5’ F NGC 72 that I described earlier [NGC 74], so there’s seven galaxies right there. Wow! the 7mm Nagler just makes ‘em jump right out. NGC 68 is still the brightest of the three in the little triangle; [NGC 70] is still the most diffuse and unconcentrated. [NGC 69] comes to a tiny stellar nucleus; it’s hard to tell, as our seeing’s not as good as it was earlier (though it’s still not bad). A fantastic group!

I was sloppy with the notes here, missing NGC 67 and a couple of other tiny galaxies that I should’ve picked out.

The NGC 68 group put me in mind to explore another nearby galaxy group that I’d seen before: Abell 347. This one lies just F the grand edge-on spiral NGC 891, between Andromeda and Perseus. NGC 891 was a flat galaxy on my list, and I should’ve taken better notes on it than my previous attempt, but I was too taken with the Abell cluster to do so (despite the fact that, on this night, 891 was a jaw-dropper, with a dust lane one could drive a tractor along).

NGCs 911, 909, 906, 914, 910, 912; UGC 1866; PGCs 9203, 9151 (AGC 347; And): I’ve seen Abell 347 numerous times, but this is by far the best view of it I’ve ever had. (NGC 891 is the best I’ve ever seen it, too—not sure why I didn’t take notes on it as well.) NGC 911 may be the most concentrated of the group; it’s roundish with a suddenly brighter core and a substellar nucleus. It’s about 0.67’ in diameter, pretty well defined, and lies 2’ S of a 9th-magnitude star that has F it by 3’ an 11.5-magnitude star. P very very slightly N of that bright star by 5.75’ is a 9.5-magnitude star; due P that star by 2.3’ is a 9th-magnitude star. 2.3’ NF the 9.5-magnitude star is another galaxy [NGC 909], which is more diffuse and less concentrated than 911 but has a sharper, almost stellar nucleus and a very broadly concentrated core; it’s also about 0.67’ in diameter. That galaxy has 3.5’ N very slightly P it another, even less concentrated galaxy [NGC 906], which is slightly elongated (0.75’ x 0.67’) NP-SF and is more diffuse, with a very broadly-concentrated core that’s only a little brighter than the halo. NF that galaxy by 10’ is an even more diffuse and larger galaxy [NGC 914], with an even more broadly concentrated core that’s barely brighter than the halo, which is very diffuse and ill-defined; it’s elongated a little bit P very very slightly N-F very very slightly S, and is 1.0’ by 0.75’. 9’ S very very very slighty P NGC 911 is another brightish galaxy [NGC 910], maybe the second brightest in the group; it’s elongated N slightly P-S slightly F and has a much sharper core to it that’s much brighter than the halo, and a possible trace of a faint stellar nucleus. This galaxy is in the thick of another section of the Abell cluster: F slightly S of 910 by 4’ is another [NGC 912] that’s fairly round (0.5’ diameter), fainter and less concentrated than the other galaxies here, and has a very weakly defined core. Due P NGC 910 by 4.5’ is a N-S pair of stars that are separated by 0.5’, with the N one 13th magnitude and the S one 14th, and the 14th-magnitude star has SF it a very unconcentrated S slightly P-N slightly F streak [UGC 1866], that has a tiny core or substellar nucleus to it; this one spans 0.75’ by 0.5’, and is made more difficult by the presence of those two stars P it. 4.5’ S slightly P NGC 911, so about halfway between it and [NGC 910] and a little bit P a line between those two, is another faint galaxy [PGC 9203] that’s made more difficult by having a 14th-magnitude star just outside the F end of its halo; this galaxy is elongated P very slightly S-F very slightly N and has a definite stellar nucleus to it, with a small poorly-defined core; this one is 0.5’ by 0.3’. That field is just teeming with galaxies! I suspect that those are all members of the Abell cluster, and that there are more in there, too. In the 7mm, the N-most galaxy [914] is just as diffuse as can be; it has no features visible at all (even at 7mm): no core, no nucleus, no nothing. [PGC 9203] has a very faint trace of a nucleus visible at this magnification. So in the 10mm Delos, the star on the P end of that group of 8th/9th/10th-magnitude stars along the north edge of the cluster (the bright ones that I’ve referred to in the past) has P slightly S of it by 2.5’ another very faint, featureless glow [PGC 9151] about 0.5’ x 0.25’; it also happens to have a star just SP it that’s making it difficult to view. I could spend an hour here tracking down these little galaxies (and probably should!). 

Loren heard me raving about NGC 891 and paused in his own agenda to come have a look. In addition to NGC 891, I should’ve taken better notes on NGC 898, another, tinier edge-on spiral a half-degree SF 891. (It must be some sort of astronomy-based laziness; that’s all I can think.)

With winter constellations well on the rise, I took a break from sub-arcminute galaxies to hit a few other, showier objects: M1 (the Crab Nebula) and NGC 1514 (the Crystal Ball) in Taurus, and the M35/NGC 2158 pair in Gemini. Gemini already!

The other observers were starting to think about calling it a (tremendous!) night, with some cloud muck now infringing on the starriness at higher altitudes. (I was thinking the same thing, although I wasn’t willing to admit it.) Realizing that we were winding down for the night, I went back to the list for one more object; maybe if I kept observing, the others would too.

IC 194; PGC 7834 (Psc): After poking around through my agenda for a while, I’ve come across this decent flat galaxy, IC 194. It was easy to locate, as it’s just SF Al-Rischa in Pisces (Alpha Piscium), the “knot” star in the Pisces pattern (and a striking double star). This is a pretty small flat galaxy; it’s only about 1.25’ x perhaps 0.125’, elongated almost N-S (10° position angle, max).  Even at this magnification, though, the galaxy does have a distinctive and noticeable nuclear region; in averted vision, especially, it even looks like there might be a stellar nucleus. The galaxy is distracted from by an 8th-magnitude star 9’ almost due N of it, and then 3.75’ F is a 10.5-magnitude star; that star has 0.67’ S slightly F it a 13th-magnitude star. 2.75’ S very very slightly P the galaxy is a 13th-magnitude star. The 10.5-magnitude star also has 3.75’ SF it a very indistinct, extremely faint, almost averted vision glow, just a tiny, tiny spot [PGC 7834]. In averted vision the spot has a stellar nucleus, which is all that’s visible when you look directly at it; it’s only in averted vision that the rest of the galaxy really comes out. (Wow, I’m actually impressed I saw that second galaxy, because in the 7mm it almost disappears. But there it is.) In the 7mm Nagler, there’s definitely a nucleus to IC 194 that I only suspected in the 14mm. That is not an easy galaxy!

The others were already starting to break down their gear. With the need to tear down and stow the huge Obsession and the sundries that go along with it, and with the sky conditions now a step down from their levels at midnight, there wasn’t really any point in prolonging the inevitable. It had been a fantastic night and a rewarding dark run; I had no regrets and plenty of detailed notes from a wide variety of fascinating and esoteric objects.

I was still trying to comprehend the vastness of the autumn galaxy fields as I pulled into the driveway at home.

VII. It seems inevitable that the musical heroes of my past (and present) should be returning to starstuff in greater numbers; musicians who were in their late twenties or early thirties during my formative years are in their sixties and seventies now, and the musician lifestyle probably takes years off of the average lifespan anyway. But it still shocks to hear the news—even more so when it’s someone even younger.

Two titans of progressive rock died between this post and my previous one. Gary Brooker of Procul Harum left the earth only a week after I posted my last update. “The Captain” was quite possibly the best male singer in prog rock, equaled only by the great Jon Anderson. In a genre not known for vocalists, Brooker’s blues-influenced, soulful singing stood out from the pack; it also endeared him to an audience outside the genre and made him a much sought-after session guest as well. He brought authenticity to even the most esoteric, surreal lyrics, and he sounded as glorious in his final performances as he did when cutting “A Whiter Shade of Pale” for the first time 55 years ago.

I never saw Brooker perform live, but I saw Alan White four times with Yes. White passed in late May, only a week or so after withdrawing from Yes’ latest scheduled tour; his health had been declining for some time, at least as far as playing the drums went. A rock-solid drummer capable of handling extraordinarily complex music, White also added vocals and songwriting capability to several already-overflowing Yes lineups, and it was his peacemaking, diplomatic nature that helped keep the volatile Yes environment from exploding on numerous occasions. (Little-known fact: White wrote and performed the melody and piano on “Nous Sommes Du Soleil,” the final movement of the Tales From Topographic Oceans suite.) And of course, he was the hand-picked drummer of John Lennon on the performances and sessions that birthed both “Imagine” and “Instant Karma,” the latter being an air-drummer’s magnum opus until supplanted by “In the Air Tonight” and “Tom Sawyer.”

It was only hours after learning of White’s passing that death hit much harder and closer to home. I heard it in the voice of my brother Chris the moment I answered the phone: Chris’ best friend, Mark Miller, had died from a stroke only two weeks after his mother’s own passing. Miller—we never used his first name; he was just “Miller”—was a friend of mine as well, but was Chris’ roommate from his ill-considered Cincinnati Bible College days, and had officiated Chris’ wedding. I used to hang out with Chris’ CBC gang, playing Illuminati, watching MST3K, and regularly attending concerts with them, and at a time when I was trying to find my place in the world post-high school, Chris’ friends were mine, too.

Chris had nearly been kicked out of the Bible college numerous times for violations of the dress and conduct codes: earrings, spiked hair, drinking beer off-campus, decorating the dorm room with Sex Pistols and Ramones posters instead of Amy Grant or Michael W. Smith…. the school rewrote their conduct code after Chris left, and Miller was only slightly less disruptive. Their dorm room was where you’d find the best music on campus: Echo & The Bunnymen, Violent Femmes, The Alarm, The Call, Big Country, Midnight Oil, the Psychedelic Furs… if you’d hear it weakly on 97X (“Bam!… The Future of Rock & Roll!”), you’d hear it loud in that dorm room.

And in person, too; most of the concerts I went to in the late 80s and early 90s were with Miller, his brother Don, and Chris (I went to prog-rock shows with my cousin Roy and Mitch Honnert, one of my most-loyal high school friends, and to the “alternative rock” shows with Chris and crew). It was at a Midnight Oil show at Ohio’s Blossom Music Center that our localized mosh pit broke an entire row of seats, and at an Oils show at Ohio Wesleyan University where Miller and Don nearly threw down with a group of drunk frat boys who were harassing a group of girls; Peter Garrett himself stopped it by calling out the frat morons from the stage. We were at a Call concert in Cincinnati when the guitarist for the opening act, Screaming Trees, did a Nigel Tufnel by slamming his guitar down on stage mid-song and stomping off (we laughed about that one for months), and at a They Might Be Giants show at the same venue when John Linell declared that “grunge is over, people!”

It was Miller who stopped on a busy highway in Cincinnati to help Mrs. Caveman when her car got a flat tire during rush hour, and Miller who provided much-needed diversions for my brothers and I when our mother was dying of cancer (and when our father had died only weeks prior). It was Miller who did missionary work in Ireland (in part so he could drink Irish beer and go to concerts) and in Laos, where he helped people in material ways well beyond mere religion. At a time when too much of American Christianity is obsessed with political gains at the expense of helping the downtrodden and broken, Mark Miller understood the whole point of ministering. He always seemed to show up when people needed help the most, delivering compassion and winking sarcasm at just the right times.

is solas na vlahas taraish antail sha agat, my friend.