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.

A Perfection of Thought

The July Moon-dark cycle began auspiciously, with clear skies and willing observers from the outset. The Moon hit Third Quarter on July 1st, and several EAS members hit the road in pursuit of dark skies. Robert A, Loren, and Frank headed for the amphitheater at Eagle’s Rest; as it was a Thursday, I stayed home, encouraged by the weekend forecast. A number of the other EAS Irregulars stayed put as well, rather than take advantage of the short but clear night, saving energy for the longer sessions on the horizon. The planetary nebulae—and the rest of the summer splendors—waited patiently for our arrival.

I. Friday night, we split into two parties: a group at the Oxbow (including Jerry, Dan R, Loren, and Robert); and my caveman self, along with Dan B, Alesha, and Mark W, at Linslaw. (Alan had asked to come along but had backed out at the last minute out of necessity.) There had been a serious accident on the road out to Linslaw that had stopped traffic, so we ended up arriving a little bit later than we’d intended. Once atop the crag, telescopes were quickly assembled and electronic gear fired up for the breezy night ahead. Winter coats were donned fairly early as the post-sunset temperatures plummeted quickly, bottoming out in the low 50s (which, after the daily highs, felt pretty damn cold, even without taking the wind into consideration). And as we usually did when our group was split among multiple sites, we intended to gloat about whatever SQM ratings we got, even though the Oxbow might well have equal or better.

My agenda, as it had been in June (despite being interrupted by a one-animal stampede) was to work further through the Astronomical League’s Planetary Nebula program. The end of the first half of it was in sight—I was about 3/4 finished observing the list with the 12.5″ scope, but had the vast majority yet to observe with the 20″. If this weekend’s (and the next’s) forecasts held up, I could end July with only four or five planetaries left to observe with the 12.5″.

Kicking off my agenda this particular night was perhaps the most famous planetary nebula of all, the first one I ever found, and maybe the easiest to find. As soon as astronomical twilight ended, I went to work.

MOON: 24 days (rose at 1:47 AM; 29% illuminated)
SQM: 21.54-21.64 (between Hercules and Draco)
NELM: not checked
WEATHER CONDITIONS: temps to upper 50s; some dew; mild breeze
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

M57 (Lyr): Here at Linslaw for the first of what’ll hopefully be a three-night run. I’m starting off (as planned), with M57; this is the first time I’ve ever taken notes on The Ring. [I’m starting off with it because I’m waiting for my two in Sagittarius to rise, and because this one is going to tick a lot of boxes for me in terms of things that I need to see and take notes on.] It’s an embroidery hoop stretched over with gauzy fabric more than it is a Cheerio, or a donut, or any of the other culinary descriptions. The nebula is basically colorless—it’s that trademark planetary nebula gray color—and is elongated P slightly S-F slightly N, 1.25’ x 1.0’. The rim, the ring, the bright portion, averages about 8” to 10” wide, and is very well defined; the interior is fairly regularly bright, and the annularity, of course, is unmistakable—it’s the most-annular planetary after maybe the Helix (I don’t really think even the Helix comes this close). There’s a 13th-magnitude star 1.25’ due F the center of the nebula (the central star is not visible at this magnification, nor is the IC galaxy that’s NP the nebula; it may be visible at higher powers [we’ll go all the way to 4.8mm]). S of the nebula by 5.67’ is an 11th-magnitude star; SP the nebula by 5’ is the F-most, the NF member, of a perfectly-straight SP-NF chain of stars that has five members and a few that are not entirely a part of it; that star is 11.5-magnitude and it has a 12.5-mag star SP it by 1.5’; that star has SP it by 2.5’ a 10.5-mag star; that star has SP it by 1.67’ a 12th-mag star that has SP it by 1.25’ another of 12th magnitude; from the last star F by 1’ is a 13.5-magnitude star, so the SP end of that line is actually a small triangle. P very very slightly N of the nebula by 5’ (so roughly forming an equilateral triangle with the star at the NF end of that line I just described) is an 11th-mag star that has 1.5’ F very very slightly S of it—so between that star and the nebula—a 12th-mag star; those two stars form the S edge of a triangle with the missing IC galaxy [IC 1296]. The brightest star in the field is N somewhat P the nebula by 12.5’ and is 8.5 magnitude. There’s another star N very very slightly P of the nebula by 1.5’, which is 14.5 magnitude and is barely visible at this moment and magnification. Adding the UHC to the 14mm doesn’t overexpose the middle of the nebula like I thought it would; if anything, the rim of the nebula is now much more prominent than the center, suppressing the middle of the annulus; it’s also made the rim less defined and “fuzzier” than it was. There’s distinct addition to the outer glow now that the filter has been added. I can’t pick out specific points around the rim that are brighter; in averted, maybe the SP is a little more diffuse than the rest? I don’t know that I’ve noticed this before; I also don’t know (to my shame) that I’ve really studied the Ring before with this aperture. In both filtered and unfiltered views, the light across the middle of the nebula has a “milky” texture or feel to it. Switching filters to the O-III: oddly enough, the O-III predictably suppresses the field and blows up the contrast of the nebula, but the view is otherwise much the same as with the UHC, although the SP and generally the P side of the nebula have greater diffuseness than the rest of the rim, as was also seen to a lesser degree in the UHC. 

IIn the 7mm Nagler, multiple faint stars appear around the nebula; there’s one to the NvsP that might be 15th magnitude; the one I mentioned to the N very very slightly P looks to be double (or a pair). The galaxy still doesn’t show up, even at this magnification. On the F very very slightly N side of the nebula, just inside the rim, there looks to be a concentric dark striation in the rim which is very small; there’s also a greater sense of the diffuse outer edge at this magnification, especially on the P and SP sides; there’s more diffuseness there. [nice to have an eyepiece the filters thread into nicely] I’m not seeing the central star unfiltered, so not that kind of night. With the UHC… the nebula is SO bright… but the filter here does the same things as in the 14mm, making the gossamer quality of the interior and outer edge more evident, almost like there’s dew on the eyepiece around it (but there isn’t). I’m pretty sure I’ve never seen this much of the halo beyond the rim before. There’s also a little added bit of fringe to the NP that’s noteworthy. There’s no central star or visible color; I know others have seen color before, but not me, and not tonight. With the 4.8mm (rather than putting the O-III in the 7mm)… WOW! That’s extraordinarily good! The fringe is all the way around the nebula here unfiltered. It looks like a Romulan plasma bolt (from “Balance of Terror”.) There’s still no central star visible [maybe Jerry will get it tonight?], and no galaxy, either. The nebula’s interior, across the annulus, is darker here than at low power. (Surprising?) This is my best-ever view of this nebula aside from seeing the central star with Jerry. I may be, at fleeting moments, getting the core of the galaxy very very very faintly with averted vision. Just letting the nebula drift through the field is a killer… what a view!

As I finished my notes on M57, I felt a bit of regret: I had no notes from the first time I’d observed it, or any of the other Messier objects. I had nothing to compare my observations to—to see how far my observing skills had grown over the years—and no record of when I’d first observed it. That moment had most certainly been in the backyard of my childhood/young adult home in the suburbs of Cincinnati, and likely in April or May of 1987, not long after I got my first scope (an SP-C8, one of the first black telescopes in Celestron’s line). But my first impressions were lost to time, never to be relived or recovered.

From the “northern” Ring Nebula to the “Southern Ring Nebula.” I had observed NGC 6563 (and several of the other planetaries on my agenda tonight) before, at the Brothers Star Party, and also last month, when I was rudely interrupted by large, fast animal crashing into the amphitheater gate right behind me. But I now had the opportunity for more accurate, more thorough notes, so I was going to reobserve this one and the others I had first swept up in the central Oregon desert four years prior. The seeing down so low in Sagittarius was mediocre and the transparency pretty poor—the brightest part of the Milky Way seemed to terminate right near Baade’s Window, above the “Teapot Spout” of the constellation—and I had to sit on one of my ankles, as the ground was too low to comfortably peer into the eyepiece and my chair (even at its lowest) was too high. But personal discomfort was a secondary concern; there were nebulae to be observed.

NGC 6563 (Sgr): From the northern Ring to the Southern Ring, NGC 6563, and I’m hoping to get through it before getting charged by an animal this time. This is of course a bit of a letdown after M57; it’s rounder than M57 but without visible annularity at 14mm. (Seeing is not great down here.) It’s a considerably-obvious, reasonably-bright little nebula. It has some P-F elongation to it, spanning 0.67’ by 0.5’. The nebula is colorless, with no central star, no annularity, and no real bright rim; it does seem to be a little brighter on the P side and a little more diffuse on the F (especially to the F somewhat S), and the whole thing is fairly diffuse around the perimeter. The nebula’s in a fairly rich field, as you’d expect being immediately adjacent to the Galactic Center as seen from here on Earth—lots of really faint stars and unresolved starglow in this field. There are a couple of brighter field stars: due S by 12’ is a 7.5 magnitude star; there is a 6th-magnitude star P very very very slightly N of the nebula by 15’, and from that star S very slightly P by 7.75’ is a 7th-magnitude star. 6’ F very slightly N the nebula is a 10th-magnitude star. More in the nebula’s immediate vicinity: almost due N of it by 0.75’ is a 13th-magnitude star. There’s a 12th-magnitude star P somewhat N by 1.3’, and SF the nebula by 1.5’ is a 12.5-magnitude star. 4.5’ SF is the closer of a pair or double, the two stars of which are separated N-S by 10”; those are both 11.5 magnitude, with the one to the S a very slight bit brighter. With the UHC filter… that’s such a better view than the O-III’s going to provide. The filter certainly brightens it up contrast-wise; now, it has a visibly-brighter central region with the diffuseness around it, and that was not really as obvious in the unfiltered view; there was a lot less distinction between the central region and the diffuse outer layer. It is bright, I’ll give it that, especially in the filter; this is probably a superb object overhead in the Southern Hemisphere. With the O-III, the nebula’s expanded to 0.75’ x 0.67’; there’s a lot more visible outer diffuseness to it. It’s definitely more diffuse in the O-III, so that’s pulled in more of the outer envelope. Switching to the 7mm Nagler now; the 4.8mm won’t help as much down this low here. It’s already tough to get a good focus in the 7mm. In the 7mm, the nebula’s really quite impressive, even down this low! Again, I’m not picking up real annularity here for something called the Southern Ring; it’s just not giving me what I expected: it’s bright, quite diffuse on the outer edge, with a more-substantial inner disk to it than at the lower magnification. Even in averted vision, I’m not picking up the annularity.  It is a nice nebula, though. With the UHC in the 7mm (and through the horrendous image boil down here), the nebula almost looks like there’s a very small branching, to the S, of the diffuse part of the nebula. In averted, every so often, I get a sense that there might be some irregularity to the brightness in the center, almost but not quite annularity. The O-III should get it, but it just renders the view too dark. It almost looks like, on the S edge of the inner disk, there’s a stellaring present (?). I’m just not getting a good sense of annularity in any filter/eyepiece combo—it’s too dark with the filters and too low for the seeing… a bad combination, even for a planetary.

The breeze had subsided a bit by this point, but the temperature was still falling. I made a note to jump on an Astronomik O-III filter as soon as I could, to replace the old Lumicons I was still using. I think I’ve made this note a dozen times by now.

Before moving on to the next planetary nebula, I stopped by Jupiter to watch the ingress of Io’s shadow on the limb of the planet. I didn’t always bother with transits, when they distracted me from my regular observing agenda. Tonight, though, this one was a welcome break.

I had also observed the next target before (noted at the previous link and here), but not in as much detail. It required sitting on my chair at its lowest setting and craning my neck sideways; I’m starting to wonder if the reduced neck flexibility on my left side is the result of too many observations like this.

NGC 6629 (Sgr): This one’s also put me in a bit of a bind because of its altitude; this is NGC 6629 in Sagittarius, a small but obvious planetary nebula that very much with the unfiltered view looks like one of those really small ones that’s got the “miniature Eskimo” style, like IC 3568 or IC 2149, where it’s got a very small bright central region and the layer of diffuse fringe around it. It is colorless; I don’t know that there’s a central star visible due to the brightness of the center, which may or may not be shrouding a star. The nebula is 9” in diameter, and round–if it’s elongated, it’s certainly not enough to notice at this magnification. It is bracketed by bright stars in three directions: 7’ due N of the nebula is the brightest star in the field, which is 8th magnitude; 2’ SF is a 9.5-magnitude star; there’s a 9th-magnitude star 10’ P very slightly S of the nebula. 2.25’ N very slightly P the nebula is an 11.5-magnitude star, and S very slightly P that star by 1.25’ is the more N of a pair (it’s probably an actual double); those are separated by 10” NsP-SsF, and are 12.5 and 13.5 magnitude, with the brighter one to the N. With the UHC filter, there’s a tremendous contrast gain. The nebula is not quite as fuzzy now, but definitely more well defined as a disk. I’m going to skip the O-III in favor of the 7mm, which I think will be more useful. With the 7mm, the nebula definitely has that Baby Eskimo hallmark, the IC 2149/3568 look. NP the nebula, just outside of it, there’s either a threshold star or a tiny faint extension of the outer fuzz in that direction. With the UHC added to the optical train, there’s a little more fringe visible now than before (the filter brought it out rather than suppressing it). (Help, help—I’m being suppressed!) With the 4.8 the disk breaks down at this magnification and the fringe takes over. I don’t think that’s illusory, either; the eyepiece really breaks down the border between the disk and the diffuse outer layer, and really makes the nebulous character stand out. This is a good little nebula; it takes magnification really well.

I had intended to head back up into Cygnus after Sagittarius, but it was getting a bit late now, and given the choice between starting Cygnus or finishing Aquila, I opted for the latter. (Regardless, I didn’t get to finish Aquila.) But the planetaries in Aquila had a shorter “shelf life,” being more southerly; I’d be able to work in Cygnus all the way into late October while still having decent enough sky placement for most of them. So Aquila it was, starting with another object I had first “discovered” at Brothers.

In comparing my notes between Brothers and Linslaw, I was surprised to find the Brothers observations hinting at much greater detail. This was no doubt a transparency issue—the two sites were of similar darkness (although Linslaw had the huge light-pollution dome from Eugene Springfield off to the east; Brothers only had Bend), but Brothers had the benefit of being inland farther, away from the humid ocean air that sometimes made Linslaw’s skies murkier than they would normally be.

Sh 2-71 (Aql): The first one of three remaining in Aquila, and it’s a real trick; this is Sharpless 2-71, and I had to have a photograph to identify it, because it’s really proving difficult here. The nebula’s a low surface brightness glow around a 13.5-magnitude star; the glow is elongated N-S—that’s the easy part, but the visible extent is only about 0.75’ x 0.3’. This is much an averted vision object. To the P side of the nebula is an arc of three stars, of which the one in the middle, the brightest of the three, is due P the nebula by 2.67’; that star is 11th magnitude and is also the right-angle vertex of a little right triangle of which the N-most star is also the N-most in that arc, and that star is N of the right-angle vertex by 1.5’ and is 12.5 magnitude; the third vertex of the right triangle is due P the right-angle vertex by 0.75’ and is 13th magnitude; the third star in the arc is S somewhat F the right angle vertex by 2.67’ and is 11.5 magnitude. From the right-angle vertex P very very slightly S by 3.5’ is a 9.5-magnitude star; from the 9.5-magnitude star SP by 9’ is the brightest in the field, which is 7th magnitude. F very very slightly N of the nebula by 3’ (from the central star) is a 12th-magnitude star, and due N of the central star by 1.75’ is a 14.5-magnitude star. (The arc of three stars has been a big help finding the nebula, both from the POSS and the field itself.) This is one where I believe the filter is going to be a real necessity, so let’s see what the UHC does with it…. The filter makes it distinctly more obvious, but it’s actually quite difficult at this magnification to get a good idea of the shape and size of the nebula; it’s almost football shaped. The filter has definitely brightened it up; the P and F edges are now better defined than the N and S. The central star is still holding barely visible against the filter. The nebula spans a full 1.25’ x 0.75’ with the filter in, and is extremely diffuse even though the P and F edges are more concentrated. The O-III filter definitely helps brighten it even more! I’ve lost the sense that the P and F are better defined; it’s all very diffuse now and the central star has disappeared. The brightness is irregular throughout (hopefully the 7mm will pull this out more). The inner texture seems almost lumpy. With the 7mm Nagler, there’s not much of a sense of the nebula at all. The central star is obvious but the nebulosity really diminishes at this magnification. Adding the O-III to the 7mm, the filter really wrecks the nebula. “Backing down” to the UHC… now that I know where it is from the 14mm, it’s hard not to notice the nebula in the 7mm, even though the UHC overwhelms it at this magnification. I can still tell it’s there, but there’s no detail visible that I didn’t get before. Odd that the 14mm had the best views, but the field is just too dark in the 7mm. Kind of a disappointment, especially compared to my initial view of it at Brothers. 

The wind had picked up audibly, creating a nasty rumble on my audio recordings. With Moonrise imminent, I had time for just one more object—one that proved to be a frustrating way to end the night.

Vy 2-2 (Aql): Racing the moon here, but this is one of the most difficult ones I’ve done in a while, and I needed multiple photographs to confirm and flickering with the O-III filter to verify that this is Vyssotsky 2-2 in Aquila; it is another absolutely-stellar, completely-indistinguishable-from-a-star planetary nebula, with only the barest non-stellar character to it once I’ve identified which one it is. It looks for all the world to be a 13th-magnitude star. There’s no color at this size and magnification, no identifying features like a central star or a visible disk anything like that, just a tiny stellar point. It’s in an active field: P the nebula by 1.25’ is an 11.5-magnitude star, and S very very slightly P (so forming almost a right triangle with the nebula as the right-angle vertex) by 1’ is a 13th-magnitude star. N of the nebula by 1.67’ is a 13.5-magnitude star; F very slightly S of it by 1.75’ is a 13th-magnitude star, and also F very slightly S of it by 4’ is a 10.5-magnitude star. N slightly F by 12’ is the brightest star in the field, which is 8th magnitude; SP the nebula by 11’ is a 9.5-magnitude star. The O-III filter was what I used to flicker the nebula to identify it, and that’s about as much I think it’s the filter is going to do, so we’re going to skip going to the filters in order to go straight to the 7mm Nagler here. (I should probably go straight to the 4.8mm, but with Moonrise imminent, we’ll skip that step this time.) Granted, the seeing isn’t as good as it was before, but even at this magnification the nebula still looks for all the world just like a 13th-magnitude star. But this being what it is, I’m going to go ahead and try the UHC on the 7mm– see if it makes any difference whatsoever. With the UHC in the 7mm eyepiece, the nebula is still as near as stellar. The magnification doesn’t even have the benefit of making it look fuzzy on the edges; it’s just a stellar, stellar point, one that almost even focuses like a star. I’d planned to skip using the 4.8mm due to imminent Moonrise, but I’m going to do it anyway and see if I can get anything at all out of this nebula—it doesn’t have any features whatsoever to make it identifiable as a planetary other than the fact that flickering with a filter does something. All I can say with the 4.8mm is that this may be the most-stellar planetary of all the ones I’ve done; there’s nothing about this that looks nebulous whatsoever. It still even focuses like a star, even at this magnification. Bah! Fie! A pox upon it!

(Yes, I actually used those words in my audio notes.)

With that—and with the Moon having crested the horizon—it was time to go. In a few hours, we would reconvene at the crag for another round of celestial wonders, but for now it was time for teardown and the long drive home.

II. The next night brought more of the same. I still had a target (NGC 6803) remaining in Aquila, but with Cygnus ascendant at sunset and plenty of objects within, I chose to stay amid the Swan, saving the final Aquila planetary for a future date. 

The minuscule critters on the sandstone crag rustled and bustled much of the evening. The warmth of the day disappeared along with the Sun; by the time we were ready to start observing—the end of astronomical twilight—I was already wearing my winter coat, and not just because it afforded me extra pockets for eyepieces and filters (although that was certainly a good reason). The brisk breeze threatened to eat through the multiple layers I had put on to avoid getting chilled on the exposed point.

MOON: 25 days (rose at 2:08 AM; 23% illuminated)
SQM: 21.42 
NELM: not checked
WEATHER CONDITIONS: temps to low 60s; some dew; some wind; fog rolled in at 1:54 AM and shut down observing suddenly

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

Campbell’s Hydrogen StarBD+30 3639 (Cyg): It’s still pretty early, with fireworks going on and off in the direction of Florence on a breezy night, and we’re already on Campbell’s Hydrogen Star in Cygnus, which I’ve been following for a little while, having backtracked from Psi Cygni. This is an above-stellar planetary that in moments of poor seeing is pretty hard to tell from a star, but when the seeing steadies it’s definitely non-stellar at 112x.  It legendarily has a reddish color (I of course don’t see it that way), but it’s definitely an obvious off-white to me. The nebula is 9.5 magnitude and looks composed of a central star with a very small shell around it, maybe 3-4” diameter. Compared to the field stars, it’s just a tiny bit out of focus. The nebula has N very slightly F it by 3.3’ a 10th-magnitude star which has NF it by 4.5’ a 9.5-mag star. S very very slightly P the nebula by 2.5’ is a 12th-magnitude star. P very slightly N of the nebula by 5.5’ is a 10.5-magnitude star; the two 10th/10.5-magnitude stars and the nebula form a small right triangle with the nebula as the right-angle vertex. The brightest star in the field is F somewhat S of the nebula by 14’ and is 8.5 magnitude and is the F-most vertex of a nearly-equilateral triangle with a 10.5-magnitude star 1’ to the P and a 12.5-magnitude star 1’ to the NP. The nebula also has SP it by 2’ the N end of a knot of faint stars 1’ in diameter. There’s a half dozen stars in that knot, which will likely show up better as the magnification increases. I know that UHC or O-III filters supposedly don’t do anything to improve the view of this planetary and H-Beta is the only one that does, but let’s check anyway, starting with the UHC…there is some response, with the nebula brightest of the three (with the 10th- and 9.5-magnitude stars) in the arc. The nebula is slightly more non-stellar than before, but not to a great degree… would still be easy to miss it without knowing it’s there. The color is still not overly distinctive or notable and certainly not reddish. With the O-III, the nebula loses its nebulous character and is indistinguishable from a field star. Now the star at the NF end of that arc of three is the brightest of the three, even with the filter in. Bumping up to 7mm, this is one of these rare objects where the object is as good at 112x unfiltered as in any view I can generate. (Seeing is actually pretty damn good right now). So with the 7mm, the nebulous characteristic is even more pronounced. The little knot of stars contains six or seven members; the nebula also has a 14th-magnitude star 0.5’ almost due S of it. At this magnification, it seems that the nebula has a visible envelope around a central star. The star is shining right through. (The 14mm definitely provides a more-pleasing view of the nebula, however.) With the UHC, the filter preserves the nebulous character; it’s now the brightest object in the field: a couple arcseconds’ diameter, no more than 3-4”, but definitely a disk. (The O-III didn’t work at 14mm, so I’m not going to use it here.) With the 4.8 Nagler, I’m getting a decent focus; seeing’s not great but there are moments when the nebula flashes out. It’s definitely a disk around a central star, and considerably bright at this magnification. A nice view of it.  

I’d had Campbell’s Hydrogen Star on my list for years, if not decades; although it was tiny and unimpressive, I still felt a measure of satisfaction at having seen it. The next few planetaries, however, weren’t anyone’s idea of worthy targets.

NGC 6881 (Cyg): This is the uninspiring and almost impossible to discern NGC 6881 in Cygnus, and up until this the big joke of the night was (for some reason) Bugs Bunny as Leopold Stokowski, but I think this nebula beats it in terms of sheer jokeness because, even in the excellent seeing that we have at the moment, this is nothing more than what looks like a 14.5-magnitude star; it has to have been discovered spectroscopically, because there’s no way anybody except maybe Barnard would’ve noticed this as anything but just a faint field star. It is the P-most vertex in a little irregular diamond with a 13th-magnitude star SF it by 0.75’ and a 14th-magnitude star NF by 0.67’, and then F it by 2’ is an 11.5-magnitude star. The most noteworthy feature of the field, and the brightest star, is almost due NP the nebula by 4.25’ and that star is 8.5 magnitude; it has F very slightly N of it by 1.3’ a 9th-magnitude star, and it also has a 10.5-magnitude star S of it by 0.5’. Also in the field, 3.5’ S very very very slightly F the nebula, is a 9.5-magnitude star; F somewhat S of the nebula by 6’ is another 9.5-magnitude star. F very slightly N of the nebula by 4’ is another 9.5-magnitude star that is the second from N in a NP-SF arc of four; the other three are considerably fainter; that line or arc is about 3’ long.  Every one of those little asterisms is more noteworthy than the nebula itself. It has no presence whatsoever. I had to use the O-III to flicker the nebula to even identify it; it’s really hard to pick out even from the POSS plate, and the UHC did next to nothing on it. With the UHC properly threaded into the eyepiece, that little triangle, the bright one to the NP the nebula, actually at least gives you something to lock on to in the field because there’s nothing to identify otherwise. With the O-III… yeah, the filter kills the two fainter stars in the diamond with the nebula, but leaves the two on the P-F axis of it, the nebula and the star F it. There’s just nothing there; no detail, no nothing, just a “star.” [A bird calls.] That bird call? 10 times more interesting than this nebula. It’s just as uninteresting looking at with the 7mm as it is with the 14mm. At least at this magnification, it looks like there may be a really faint star just N of the nebula by a few arcseconds. There, that just made it twice as interesting as it was. Yeah, there’s definitely a star there. With the O-III in the 7mm, maybe now there’s a little bit of something non-stellar to it, but only just; it’s barely brighter than it was. So let’s try the 4.8mm to see if there’s any point to sticking with this one. The sad thing is I bet this one’s on Sky Atlas 2000 taking up space. OK, with the 4.8mm there’s a little tiny bit of presence to the object, a little more than at 7mm. But if that is more than 2”, I don’t know… yeah, it’s non-stellar, considerably more so than at the 7mm. so let’s go ahead and throw the O-III on the 4.8; I can’t believe I’m even going to do this, but I’ve got to be able to say something about it. Nice field, maybe.

It was the first week of July and I had to put my gloves on.

NGC 6833 (Cyg): This nebula is NGC 6833, another one of God’s little disappointments: just another really, really stellar planetary (at least at the 14mm level). I had to flicker this with the O-III because it’s very, very stellar, looking for all the world like an 11.5-magnitude star. Seeing is excellent and steady right now despite the wind, so the fact that I can’t make this out beyond “stellar” says all that needs to be said about it. The nebula has no color, no real definable quality to it as a nebula; its only quality is “very, very, very stellar.” It’s in a pretty crowded field. F somewhat S of it by 5’ is a 9th-magnitude star; due SF by 12’ is an 8.5-magnitude star. F slightly N by 2.75’ is a 10.5-magnitude star; there’s another 9th-magnitude star 6’ N very very slightly P. S slightly P by 3.67’ from the nebula is the central star of a little tiny ‘Y’ whose stem star is its F-most; the closest star of that Y to the nebula is 3’ S very slightly P and is 13th magnitude; that’s the end of the northern tine; the southern tine ends from the previous star SP by 0.67’ and is 12.5 magnitude. The star at the center of the Y is 0.5’ S of the first star (the N tine) and is also 13th magnitude; the star at the end of the stem is 1’ F somewhat S the first star and is 13th magnitude. The nebula looks to have a threshold star (maybe as bright as 14.5 magnitude) almost due S of it by about 0.3’. Putting the UHC in here to see what happens; again, I had to use the O-III to flicker for it. We’re not going to get much out of this at this magnification, but I definitely want to try the two filters on this object and see what the response is (I already know what it is with the O-III, but not at length). The UHC brightens it up, but there’s no more detail to be had with that filter, just a contrast boost. [I lost the field putting in the O-III; I guess the question would be “do I really give a shit enough to go back to it?” … got it back now, but still don’t know how I lost it.] It still looks stellar with the filter, but now outshines the star to the F very very slightly N by a fair margin. In the 7mm, [and the seeing’s really sharp, even in the 7mm], the nebula still doesn’t have much/any non-stellar character, but has that aforementioned threshold star to the S. The nebula also has another 14.5-magnitude star P somewhat S of it by twice the distance as the one to the S [so 0.67’]. Adding the O-III, we get a 2” diameter to the nebula, just barely above stellar. There’s no way you’d even think to look twice at this as anything but a star. Using the 4.8 Nagler, though probably only unfiltered… almost even a decent focus at this magnification. Still not convinced I’d still be able to identify this as anything but a star without real concentration.

Jerry had identified Pluto within the confines of the dense Sagittarius Milky Way; he was currently giving observing directions within the field to Dan and Loren.

NGC 6884 (NGC 6776; Cyg): This is the case of mistaken identity known as NGC 6766 (to Sky Safari) or as it’s better known to the rest of us, NGC 6884. This one is very, very slightly non-stellar at 14mm, and it looks to be about 10th magnitude; it’s reasonably bright, just very, very small. It does have a 12th-magnitude star 1.67’ P slightly N. Due S of the nebula by 11’ is a slightly-wavy line of four stars, with the brightest on the F end; that brightest star is 9.5 magnitude; the line runs almost perfectly P-F and is about 3.75’ long. 18’ NP the nebula is the brightest star in the field, which is 9th magnitude and has a very slightly dimmer 9th-magnitude star P slightly S of it by 4.75’, and then from the nebula P very slightly S by 21’ is an 8.5-magnitude star; P somewhat N of the nebula by 9’ a 9.5-magnitude star. NF the nebula by 1.75’ is a 13th-magnitude star; there’s a 14.5-magnitude star S very very slightly P by 1.67’. I’ve already had to do the flicker test on this object as well—this is kind of like the white trash district of the planetary nebulae; these are just really really disappointing. (This’ll hopefully kind of end the white trash district of the planetaries because I’m a little fed up with them; they aren’t as fun as they were last summer.) I’m going to skip the UHC; the O-III really nails the contrast boost and a little tiny bit of the size, particularly in averted vision. It’s now rather Neptune-sized, 3-4”, but with no more detail. With the 7mm, there’s actual legitimate size to this thing now. I think this is another one of those mini-Eskimo types. So let’s try the UHC first in the 7mm. With the UHC, there’s not a lot more detail than the unfiltered view: the nebula’s considerably brighter now (with greater contrast, rather), but there’s no more detail and it’s still just a bright Neptune-esque tiny disk as opposed to something with an outer envelope or anything. I think I can be pretty sure that that’s what it is: just a disk, without much else to identify it. With the 4.8mm, the seeing’s not as good as it was earlier, but there’s still sizable dimension to the nebula, even if just a couple of arcseconds. There’s a faint star 2’ N very very slightly F which is 15th or 15.5 magnitude.

Having seen Pluto, Dan was attempting to dig out Stephan’s Quintet. Mark had gone to sleep in his truck; his laptop was chiming away, warning of impending meridian flip (which would require a major adjustment to his telescope to keep imaging his current quarry (NGC 6946–appropriately, the “Fireworks Galaxy”). The rest of us debated whether we should wake him up; fortunately, he’d already set an alarm for the occasion.

Loren started to pack up, having actual work in the morning. Jerry noted, rather ominously, that the valley below the crag had filled up with fog, visible even in the darkness. I paid it little attention, having settled my scope on the best target of the evening so far: the fine Cygnus planetary NGC 7026.

NGC 7026 (Cyg): This nebula is the first of the night that’s “worth” something, NGC 7026, also in Cygnus; I want to get a few of these better ones before I go so I can feel rewarded by something. This one’s plainly apparent to the unfiltered view, with a 9.5-magnitude star just F very very slightly N of the center of it. This nebula is brighter toward the center but not with the really intense brightening that a lot of them have. It doesn’t seem to have a central star. It’s a bit oblong N-S, perhaps 15”x 10”. Very diffuse around the edges and even inward toward the middle. It resides in an active field; in fact, there’s a 4.5-magnitude star S very slightly F it by 13’ and a 7.5-magnitude star N very slightly P it by the same distance. P slightly S of the nebula by 7’ is another 7.5-magnitude star that has a 12th-magnitude star 10” NP it; from the nebula S slightly F by 12’ is another 7.5-magnitude star. The UHC definitely pulls out the center of the nebula, increasing the contrast by a huge amount and bringing out the elongation. With the O-III, the 4.5-magnitude star to the S very slightly F has a reddish cast to it, but this could be a residue of the filter on the bright star. The nebula’s distinctly elongated now—this is a fine object! This filter has also “solidified” the diffuseness of the edges and made it more tangible. With the 7mm unfiltered, the elongation looks to be S very very slightly F-N very very slightly P, and the nebula actually looks at times as if it has a dark lane along the major axis, just a thin black slash down the middle. So let’s get a filter in the 7mm; I’m not going to go with the 4.8mm because I’d like to get to 7027 before the night is out. The O-III’s a little too much, but it still gives that impression that there are two separate halves to this nebula on the P-F, divided by a distinct dark lane.

I noticed, while I was observing, that the sky seemed to be fading in the eyepiece. Once I pulled away from the scope, it was obvious why—the fog had left the valley, surrounding us so quickly and thoroughly that I couldn’t even see my observing comrades. I could hear them through the mist, almost gleeful at the opacity and suddenness of its arrival.

There was nothing to do but tear down, completely engulfed in the cold mist. We may have made record time getting off the crag; the drive back down was surreal in the dense fog, and every mile of the trip home seemed like a gamble. It was a relief pulling in to my driveway after almost thirty miles of grey-out, and I wasn’t even concerned that I didn’t get to finish my notes on NGC 7026.

III. The forecast for Linslaw on the 4th of July was clear; we gathered first at Loren’s for a cookout and some fireworks. The others expressed surprise that I wanted to go up to the crag again, after two previous nights. But with a rare three-day weekend, I needed to make every clear night count, even if it was a holiday. Unable to convince anyone else, I went out alone.

There was no doubt where I would begin. Conditions weren’t as good as the previous night had started out, but they were good enough.

MOON: 26 days (rose at 2:32 AM; 12.9% illuminated)
SEEING: 5, 7
SQM: 21.31-21.42
NELM: not checked
WEATHER CONDITIONS: temps to low 60s, but felt cold by midnight; slight breeze that died off about midnight
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 7026 (redux; Cyg): Following up where I left off last night—I’m here alone, with the UHC in the 7mm because I didn’t get to it last night before the fog hit. Seeing’s not as good as last night, but the nebula has still the obvious elongation and dark lane to it, although the bifurcation is much more difficult tonight. There’s a lot of diffuseness around the edges, especially to the N and S. Transparency is much better than last night, as evidenced by the dark nebulae everywhere, including the brightest star in the field—between that star and the 7.5-magnitude star P slightly S the nebula by 7’ or so—between those stars is a long dark mass of decent opacity that’s bordered on its F edge by a 4.5’ long NP-SF-ish string of 13th and 14th-magnitude stars. So the nebula, those two stars (the 4.5 mag and the 7.5 P slightly S of the nebula), and another 7.5-magnitude star SF the nebula form a parallelogram with the dark nebula in the P edge and the nebula at the NF vertex.

Gradually, the conditions improved, even as the temperature fell. I had freshly-cleaned eyepieces, too; I was always reluctant to do any cleaning on astronomical gear, given the risk of sleeking the glass of eyepieces, lenses, and mirrors, but I also needed every bit of contrast I could get for some of these objects, and I wasn’t going to get it with cruddy optics.

My powertank and/or dew heater were a different story. One or the other of them was finally starting to give up the ghost. The indicator lights on both were lit, but somewhere along the line there was no power getting to the dew strip that kept my eyepiece from fogging over. Linslaw usually didn’t have dew problems in the summer, but I hated taking the chance.

I intended to work down “the back” of Cygnus, the area on the constellation’s northeastern end; numerous planetary nebulae lurked here in this dense section of the Milky Way. The next one on my path was Sharpless 1-89, but a lengthy search yielded absolutely nothing. I knew this one would be tough—it was listed on the interstellarum atlas as a target for scopes larger than 12″—but I expected to eventually triumph over it. No such luck. So it was onward to the next nebula, one of Cygnus’ better planetaries.

NGC 7027 (Cyg): After a considerable amount of time failing to find Sh 1-89, I’ve gone back to this one near C Cygni. This little guy is considerably bright, very small (15” P-F x 12” N-S), and with the faintest tinge of green? This is another of the IC 3568/Baby Eskimo types, with a central star (?), a denser interior, and a bit of outer diffuseness. The inner region is well defined but the outer edge is a little harder to get a fix on. Every now and then in averted vision it looks like the central star pops out; this is difficult to hold steady—perhaps just a bright point-like center? I’ve seen this one at Giant City but didn’t like my notes from it then. The nebula’s in a not-particularly active field for Cygnus; P very very slightly N of the nebula by 2.25’ is a 12th-magnitude star; due P the nebula by 5.5’ is an 11.5-magnitude star; 5.25’ P somewhat N of the nebula is another 11.5-magnitude star; these three stars form a triangle or a capital ‘Y’ with the nebula as base of the stem. NP the nebula by 11’ is a 9th-magnitude star; P the nebula by 0.5’ is a 14th-mag star. There are several 9th/10th-magnitude stars on the S and SF end of the field. F the nebula by another 5.25’ is a small knot or clump of stars of which the two on the S end are the brightest; the clump is about 1.25’ N slightly P-S slightly F by 0.67’ P-F; the star at the extreme S end of that is 11.5 magnitude and it has a 12.5-magnitude star N slightly F it by 0.3’. (Got a lot to say about the starfield; the nebula is a little trickier to find details for.) Adding the UHC makes the nebula the brightest object in the field. Here, there definitely seems to be an outer halo that wasn’t visible before, with the portion of the nebula I was looking at before the brightest portion of a greater whole; it seems to be 0.3’ across with the extra halo. This expanded halo is definitely more noticeable on the P side; it seems to be visible unfiltered and not even difficult once the UHC is removed. (The nebula has such a high surface brightness I could use the 4.8mm no problem, too.) With the O-III: the diffuse circular halo is definitely real in the O-III; it’s quite bright.  In the unfiltered 7mm: oh, yeah! Now not only does the whole disk of the nebula pop out more, with the diffuse glow really strong, but the elongation in the nebula really shows up too—it’s elongated P slightly N-F slightly S; I still don’t know if I’m seeing the central star, but there’s a considerably-brighter central region (especially on the P end). That’s a fine nebula; not quite at the IC 2149/3568 level, but a good one nonetheless. [A little wary of animals tonight after the amphitheater experience.] The 7mm also really pops that 14th-magnitude star P the nebula out. With the O-III, the brightness of the nebula just jumps out of the field. It’s really hard to get detail with the filter; it just seems like too much for the conditions and eyepiece. With the UHC: [getting tired a bit] I’m still seeing the halo in the UHC; it’s a little more mottled than in the O-III, with some possible striations in it to the N slightly F and S slightly P. My impression at this magnifiation and with the UHC is that the halo is oriented in a slightly different direction than the “core,” but it’s hard to gauge for certain. With the 4.8mm Nagler and no filter, the nebula is definitely oblong, and the 14th-mag star jumps out. Even the core has an irregular edge, and the transition from core to halo is irregular. I’m also getting a really good impression that the nebula might be pinched in the middle; in moments it seems like the core is bilobial or peanut-shaped. There’s some projection of the core out the P end of the major axis, the core jutting into the halo a tiny bit. A fine object.

IC 5117 (Cyg): Considerably easier than I expected, this is IC 5117 in Cygnus. It’s very small but not actually stellar; there’s something odd about it that would attract attention when sweeping through the field, and it’s definitely better in averted vision, but it’s so tiny it’s hard to get a handle on it in the 14mm. The nebula seems to be 13th magnitude. It’s the SP vertex of a tiny right triangle; F very very slightly N of it by 0.3’ is a 10th-magnitude star that’s the right-angle vertex of the triangle; almost due N of the nebula by 0.67’ is a 13th-magnitude star. The triangle formed by the nebula and those two stars comprises the S-most (on the S end of the N-S minor axis) vertex of a diamond; at the other end of the N-S axis, 4.5’ N very slightly F the nebula, is an 11.5-magnitude star; P somewhat N of the nebula by 4’ is a close double (?) that is the P-most vertex of the diamond: the S-most component of that double is the brighter; those are separated by 5” and the primary is 10.5 magnitude and the companion is N slightly F it and is 12th magnitude. From the nebula F somewhat N by 3.75’ is an 11th-magnitude star that has a 12th-magnitude star 0.3’ P very very slightly S. (These all comprise the diamond.) There are a lot of other faintish stars in this crowded field. The brightest in the field is SP the nebula by 17’ and is 9th magnitude and has a 12th-magnitude star S slightly F it by 0.3’. Adding the UHC: nice! The nebula is now the equivalent of (or slightly brighter than) the star F very very slightly N of it in that triangle. I can certainly see it better in direct vision than before, although there isn’t much more detail at this magnification. With the O-III, the nebula’s definitely brighter than the star next to it, and much easier in direct vision. I’m not sure I could identify it with the filter in, as the non-stellar quality disappears. In the 7mm Nagler: focus is a little uncertain, but the nebula still has an out-of-focus quality that often comes with these really tiny ones. Going to go straight to the 4.8mm, skipping the filters: there’s a tiny disk visible in the 4.8mm that didn’t show in the 7mm. The 13th-magnitude star to the N of it in the triangle is double, with a 14th-magnitude companion S slightly F the primary. Seeing has gotten better, so I’m going back to the 7mm. I like this nebula—it’s tiny and substellar but does have some presence that many of the other stellar planetaries don’t. With the UHC in the 7mm, there’s just a hint of a disk—not like in the 4.8mm, but there’s a real sense of dimension here, not like there’s a central star or anything beyond a substellar point or the idea that there’s a disk emerging. Swapping the UHC for the O-III in the 7mm, the nebula takes on additional contrast and is the brightest object in the field. The disk-quality is enhanced here. The seeing is steadier; if there was a central star to be found, it might be possible now, but I don’t see any sign of one.

Less than an hour to go before Moonrise. At the pace I’d been working on these AL planetaries, that would leave me two more objects at best, and probably only one. The evening had flown by; no-one else was present to complain about my choice of music (a combination of L.A. hardcore, international non-English punk, some Japanese and Quebecois metal, and a few odds and ends) or my talking to myself (or, rather, my phone), and even the scurrying critters on the crag kept their silence.

I’d expected this last one to be difficult (a la Sharpless 1-89), and was pleasantly surprised—as it seems I often am with these nebulae—to find it a quality target.

Hu 1-2 (Cyg): A little more something than many of the others I’ve done during this run, this object is very slightly elongated P-F, maybe 6” x 4”, with no color. This nebula doesn’t come to a star-like point; it’s a little more dimensional. It takes direct vision OK but is definitely stronger in averted, and has 0.25’ just SF it a 14th-magnitude star that’s also a nearly-averted object. It also has 1.25’ N very very slightly P it a 13th-magnitude star; due P it by 2’ is an 11.5-magnitude star that’s almost equal magnitude to the nebula; the P star and the nebula form an almost-right triangle with a star S very slightly F the nebula by 3.5’ and that star is 10.5 magnitude. N slightly F the nebula by 4.5’ is an 11th-magnitude star that has a 12th-magnitude star S slightly P it by 0.75’. N very very slightly F the nebula by 7’ is another 10.5-magnitude star; there’s a 9.5-magnitude star 6.5’ P slightly N of the nebula. The brightest star in the field is F slightly S of the nebula by 20’ and is 8.5 magnitude. S of the nebula by 13’ is what looks like a cluster, like a mini Pleiades with the dipper pouring out to the SP; this is about 2.5’ x 1.25’; the SP-most star is its brightest at 11.5 magnitude; most of the rest are 12th-14th magnitudes. I should also point out that the 8.5-magnitude star is involved in a really interesting narrow zigzag of stars with a few bright stars and a lot of dim ones. The UHC filter really brings the nebula out. It’s definitely non-stellar, a little disk with a diffuse outer edge, and may be a couple arcseconds bigger with the filter. It definitely has a brighter, distinct center to it, but not a lot of other detail is visible. This is one small planetary I can say I would’ve noticed right away if it drifted into the field. With the O-III, the nebula is still brighter, with good filter response. Elongation is still noted, but not much else. WOW—the 7mm really adds character to the nebula: it’s elongated P slightly S-F slightly N, and definitely has a brighter central region with diffuse edges around it. The faint star just to the SF it is really popping out now. The nebula comes to a bright point, but I can’t say for sure it’s a central star. A good little nebula at this magnification. [can’t tell if it’s moonlight coming up] That zigzag of stars is so astoundingly regular it has a lot of character here; it’s really noteworthy, the distance between its stars being very uniform. The zigzag has eight stars (one is really faint); the third from S is the brightest (at 7.5 magnitude), but it’s out of the field with the nebula centered; each of the stars is separated by 1.75-2.0’ from each other. With the O-III: the filter just clobbers the field but the nebula brightens a lot. A lot of the outer halo disappears, but you can really see why they call it the Baby Dumbbell (although the view is very unaesthetic with the filter). With the 4.8mm, the nebula is definitely bi-lobed. Nice! Adding the UHC to the 4.8: there’s no way to mistake this for anything but a planetary with the 4.8/UHC combo. It definitely deserves the time I spent with it!

The Moon was still below the horizon, but only just. It was time to go, though; there were other planetary nebulae in need of being scoped out, but this wasn’t the night for them. It had been a rewarding night. Time, now, to call it done and drive home, with the successes of the session left to speak for themselves.

IV. The next Friday—the next night I could get out, given work—found Robert and I at the amphitheater to start, as conditions there were markedly better on the Clear Sky Chart than at Linslaw. The previous night, several of the Irregulars had been down to the Oxbow, but most had reasons for passing on Friday. I was ready for a long session, though—at least as long as I could manage on so little sleep. The sky and weather conditions certainly made the trip worth it.

EAGLE’S REST (Amphitheater)
SQM: 21.28
NELM: not checked
WEATHER CONDITIONS: temps to upper 60s; almost no dew; air still—almost perfect!
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 6803 (Aql): Here at the amphitheater on a night that could turn out to be exceptional—seeing is really sharp, transparency is solid, and we’re at NGC 6803, which has been difficult to track down, although tonight I’ve gotten it before it was totally dark. Unlike a lot (or most) of the other stellar ones, this one has a quality to it that makes it stand out on second glance; you don’t catch it on first glance, but when trying to isolate which star is the nebula, you can do it without a filter, although I still used the O-III to flicker it. Now that it’s dark and the seeing is as good as it is, there’s surely a quasi-stellar appearance to it. It’s in a really fine Milky Way field with a lot of visible dark nebulae around it. There’s a particularly large, opaque dark nebula to the F somewhat N by 10’, and a larger but less-opaque one SP the nebula that runs from S slightly P to N somewhat P the nebula; the darkest part of this one is at the S end. Unfiltered in the 14mm, the nebula may have a very, very tiny disk, 2” at best. It has a 10.5-magnitude star 1.75’ to the N very very slightly P; there’s a 12.5-magnitude star 1’ S slightly P it. Due F the nebula by 6.5’ is another 10th-magnitude star; from that star F slightly S by 3’ is a 9.5-magnitude star. From the nebula N by 14’ is a 9th-magnitude star that has 1’ P very very slightly S of it a 10th-magnitude star that has an 11.5-magnitude star 2.25’ P very very slightly S of it. The brightest star in the field is 20’ F somewhat S of the nebula and is 8th-magnitude, and is on the S end of a 9’ long cloud of stars with about ten brighter ones overlaid on it, including a pair of 10.5-magnitude stars separated by 0.5’ that lie 1’ SF the 8th-magnitude star and form a triangle with it. There’s also a 9.5-magnitude star P somewhat N of the nebula by 13’. I don’t think the filters will help much at this magnification, but we’ll try anyway. With the UHC, the nebula is brighter but also gains a bit of appreciable non-stellarness, maybe to 3-4” size now. That’s all the detail the filter adds; I can’t tell if this is a Baby Eskimo-type nebula or just a bright central star with a faint disk. With the O-III, the nebula’s the second-brightest object in the field after the 8th-magnitude star; it really jumps out, but there’s still no more detail. So with the 7mm, [can lose yourself in these dark nebulae!], seeing is still superb; this is a great view of the nebula. There might be a central star in there, but even averted vision isn’t really helping much to spot it. With the UHC on the 7mm, the nebula gives an (admittedly not great) impression that its edges are not abrupt or a bright rim; there’s more of a diffuse edge (although this is really pushing it). Even in direct vision, you can tell it’s definitely not a star. With the O-III, I’m getting roughly the same impression, but the nebula’s a LOT brighter now. There’s definitely an idea that that’s a Baby Eskimo-type nebula. Still no lock on the central star, although the filter would suppress it anyway. I definitely get a sense that there’s a fringe-covered disk there, although confirmation is still lacking. Moving up to the 4.8mm in the great seeing: there’s a really threshold level star, maybe two, right next to the nebula, one NP and one almost due P the nebula. It’s definitely a fuzzy nebula now, with no solid bright rim; it’s hard to separate a bright central disk from the rest. A fine little object! I was prepared to be disappointed, but this is definitely one of the better stellar planetaries. Adding the UHC filter: there’s a small bright central region that comes to a brighter quasi-stellar point, but no central star is visible. The fuzziness to it seems stronger on the NF, maybe with a bit of elongation that direction as well. A good view of a tiny planetary!

I noticed, as I was setting up, that there was a 1/8″ pinhole in my mirror coating. While not a catastrophe—a telescope optic can take a surprising amount of dirt, grime, and deterioration—it was yet another reminder that I’d been putting off shipping the mirror out to be recoated. I’d be sure to send it off once summer was over. [Narrator: he didn’t.]

I took a break from the planetaries for a while to take notes on one of Herschel’s open-cluster discoveries, continuing in my quest to observe all of Herschel’s objects. From somewhere up the road came a distant gunshot, a not-so-subtle reminder that not everyone out in the woods at night here was interested in scientific pursuits or the aesthetic appreciation of the universe—some just wanted to get drunk and blow shit up.

NGC 6561 (Sgr): With the planetaries now done for the moment (just for the moment), we’re now looking at more of the Herschel stuff that hasn’t been covered by either of the other lists; this one is NGC 6561, in Sagittarius, which is a sprawling open cluster. It spans 11’ major axis by 8’ minor axis, and has kind of a brightish ‘X’ of stars overlaid on it, near the center of which is a tiny triangle containing two equal-magnitude stars and a fairly considerably fainter one. The major axis is roughly N-S, and the minor axis is not quite perpendicular to that; the minor axis runs SP-NF. The cluster lucida, which I suspect is probably a foreground star, is at the S end of the major axis and is 8th magnitude. At the N end of the major axis is another small triangle that’s much fainter than the one near the center; its northernmost star is the true N end of that axis, and is 11.5 magnitude (as are the other two stars in that triangle); they’re all three very considerably equal. S very very slightly P that star by 0.67’ is another of 11.5 magnitude, and the third lies 0.67’ P somewhat S of the second one, and the first and last stars in that triangle are separated by 1’—so isosceles but not equilateral. The SP and NF ends of the minor axis are composed of two 9.5-magnitude stars; the one on the NF end is a very slight bit brighter. The triangle in the middle consists of two 8th-magnitude stars, of which the S one is very slightly brighter; those are separated N-S by 0.5’, and P very very slightly N of the S of those two by 0.3’ is a 10th-magnitude star; those three comprise the triangle in the middle. Assuming that those are actual cluster members, the cluster has a huge range of brightnesses; there are 35 stars, perhaps, overlaid across some indeterminate unresolved background glow that I think is actually part of the cluster, rather than brightness in the rich Milky Way here. The cluster’s in an area where it’s hard to say that it’s detached from the MW at all, and at first glance it’s sparse enough to not really stand out, so not particularly detached, but is fairly rich and has a large range of magnitudes. 

In transcribing my notes on NGC 6561, I noticed a substantial amount of nebulosity strewn around the region in photographs, including a number of patches I probably should have noticed (and certainly would have attempted with a filter had I known they were there). That’s one of the drawbacks of not looking at photos or reading descriptions of objects before observing them; I prefer getting my first impressions at the eyepiece, so as not to color my notes, but it occasionally—like with NGC 6561—means that I miss interesting features that would be worth pursuing.

Although it was still fairly early, I was getting tired. Waking up at 5 AM for work (despite having had a short shift and having gotten a few hours of napping in) was tough on the observing schedule, and it showed in my notes. (Go figure.) I also had the added complication of Mrs. Caveman being gone for university business all week, meaning that I was the beneficiary of the dogs’ restless nights and their need to investigate the yard while it was dark out. 

But there was still time to observe, so it was back to planetary nebulae. Having finished Aquila (finally!) and with only one more object in Cygnus (the troublesome Sharpless 1-89, which needed the increased aperture of the 20″ Obsession), it was on into Lacerta.

IC 5217 (Lac): It’s still fairly early, but I’m here at the very small IC 5217 in Lacerta; this is another planetary that’s actually very similar to NGC 6803 in that it’s a tiny nebula in a populous starfield, but there’s just something odd about it that identifies it, even at low magnification like I’m using here with the 14mm. Seeing is still really sharp, but there’s something odd about this “star,” that when you’re looking at the field, you think “that’s got to be the one.” It doesn’t come to a nice sharp focus, but obviously has a very, very tiny disk, no more than 2-3”. I used the UHC to flicker and identify the nebula, although it’s reasonably identifiable anyway. There’s no color to it. The nebula’s in a busy field in the Lacerta Milky Way; a wide range of magnitudes are present. The nebula could pass as a 10.5-magnitude star at first glance. 1.75’ S very very slightly P it is a 10th-magnitude star; F very very slightly N of the nebula by 2.75’ is a 10.5-magnitude star with a 12th-mag star F very very slightly N of it by 1.25’; from the 10.5-magnitude star S very very slightly F by 0.25’ is a 13th-magnitude star. From the nebula N slightly F by 3’ is an 11th-magnitude star that has an 11.5-magnitude star 1.5’ F slightly S of it, and from the nebula 6’ due N is a 10.5-magnitude star that’s the second in from F on the N and F side of a long ‘V’ shaped pattern; that branch of the ‘V’ contains four stars and runs NP-SF; the P branch, which runs roughly N, is much more populated; the F branch is 7’ long and the P branch about 9’; the point/hinge star is 10.5 magnitude, and the V points roughly N-ward—certainly the P arc of the V does—to the second-brightest star in the field, which is 7.5 magnitude and lies 14’ N very very slightly P the nebula. From the nebula N slightly F by 20’ is the brightest in the field, which is very slightly reddish and is 6.5 magnitude. With the UHC, the nebula is equal in brightness to the star S very very slightly P it, so roughly 10th magnitude; that’s a big contrast boost, although it still remains only very slightly non-stellar. With the O-III, the nebula just leaps right out. It has a little more bulk than in the UHC, a little more substance to the disk. It’ still too tiny to get details, so onward we go to the 7mm Nagler. With the 7mm unfiltered, it’s a little tiny disk, with maybe a tiny halo around it as well. It still responds very well to the UHC: there’s a little central region with an outer halo, a Baby Eskimo-type again. Still no color or elongation, no central star. The O-III provides the best view of the nebula; the outer fringe seems pretty substantial and significant here.

Robert was ready to head out by this point; even if I wasn’t keen to observe at the amphitheater alone, my tiredness and lack of focus made it a good stopping point. I had finished Aquila and Lacerta, and had only one planetary nebula remaining in Cygnus… one which would require heavier artillery than the 12.5″ scope to observe.

Home beckoned.

V. We returned to Linslaw for the final night of July’s observing run—there was still time left in the Moon-dark phase, but we were about to run into another of our seasonal nemeses… forest fire smoke. Although nowhere near as bad as the previous year, the fire season would nonetheless wipe out the better part of six weeks with regard to astronomy and most other outdoor activity (and that’s not even to mention how many homes and properties were destroyed).

For this particular night, we split our group in two: Mark, Bruce S, and I stayed at the normal “upper” Linslaw site on the crag, while Dan B, Alesha, and some of their friends took the lower site below us in the valley. The lower site was more susceptible to dew and fog, but was shielded from the heavy breezes that sometimes afflicted those on the crag.

I had indeed brought the 20″ Obsession, but had made the mistake of not assembling it at home and adjusting the mirror cell. We had cleaned and tuned up the scope earlier in the spring, but had only used it once since then; in the meantime, the mechanical elements of the mirror cell had sat idle and gotten well out of adjustment. Much more out of adjustment, in fact, than I could properly fix by myself in the field. With much profanity and a lot of impatient tinkering, I managed to get the monster scope ion a semblance of collimation, although I was afraid to even sneeze around it for fear of having the whole mirror assembly completely collapse.

While waiting for the sky conditions to improve, for the big mirror to cool to ambient temperature (or at least a passable approximation of such), and for my quarry to rise into a decent viewing position, I went through a list of objects that were already well placed for observing: Saturn (surprisingly decent in poor seeing), the Corona Borealis Galaxy Cluster (of which some galaxies were visible but very disappointing), and NGC 6802 (always a fine sight in a big scope). I also took a tour of globular clusters, from the showpiece M13 and M5, through M4 and M80 in Scorpius (which afforded me the opportunity to sit down and rest my feet due to their low declinations) and M15, rising low in the east. Even M51, the Whirlpool Galaxy, looked OK given the conditions.

Eventually, it was time to work on the one object I had brought out the Obsession for.

MOON: 1 day (set at 9:57 PM; 1.1% illuminated)
TRANSPARENCY: 7 (predicted 8)
SQM: 21.54
NELM: not checked
WEATHER CONDITIONS: temps to mid 60s; no dew; occasional strong breeze
OTHERS PRESENT: MW, BS (DB and crew went to lower site)
All observations: 20″ f/5 Obsession Dob, 14mm ES 82˚ eyepiece (181x, 0.45˚ TFOV) or 7mm TeleVue Nagler (363x, 0.21˚ TFOV)

Sh 1-89 (Cyg):After repeated attempts with the 12.5” scope, I’m finally getting enough visually to take notes on Sharpless 1-89, a planetary nebula in Cygnus that’s one of the most difficult Items in the entire Astronomical League Planetary Nebula list. It’s fairly mid-sized, actually, as planetaries go, but very, very tenuously held. I’m using the UHC filter at the moment because the nebula was invisible without it; the nebula’s just a little streak, elongated NP-SF 0.75’ by 0.3’, and there’s a star or knot at the SF end that was visible in the unfiltered view with direct vision, and was the only thing that tipped me off that the nebula was there. I’ve looked for this one several times in the 12.5” and have had no luck with it. I know where to look, I’ve had the exact field; the field is only a few degrees from NGC 7026, which I did a few nights ago, but this nebula has been a real bastard otherwise. There’s no color, and not much in the way of definition either; it’s got that spot or embedded star on the SF end, but otherwise, it’s pretty diffuse and pretty hard to get a read on, at least with the UHC at 14mm in the 20 inch. I’m going to actually swap the filters out here; there is nothing of this nebula visible at all with no filter, except for that knot—averted vision maybe shows a very slight bit; but this was not at all visible in the 12.5” the last several nights I’ve been out to look for it. Let me dig out the O-III filter; I want to see what kind of response we get with it, given that this is a planetary that shows more on the red POSS plate than the blue. With the O-III filter there’s actually very little there, and the UHC is by far the better filter for this; it’s just an extremely very very faint diffuse streak with the O-III. The nebula kind of swells out a little bit after prolonged observation with the O-III, looking a little beefier than it was earlier… especially in averted vision, which really helps with this filter on this object. With the filter out now, I can barely tell that there’s something there, but only because I’ve seen it; I would not notice that if I didn’t know exactly where to look. 12’ NP the nebula is a little ‘x’ of 11.5/12th-magnitude stars; it’s about 1.75’ by 0.75’ and has its faintest star on the NP; it’s not a perfect ‘x’, but it’s a good asterism to use to find this object. NF the nebula by 2.75’ is a pair or double of roughly-equal magnitudes; those are 13th magnitude and are separated NP-SF by 10”. F somewhat N of the nebula by 1.67’ is an 11th-magnitude star, and then 7’ F very slightly S of the nebula is a 10.5-magnitude star which is the brightest in the field. I’m glad I finally wrestled this one out; I figured it would take the 20-inch when I saw it in the Interstellarum atlas, but I was hoping for that not to be the case. [I wonder if it would be visible in the 12.5-inch after seeing it in the 20 inch.] The 7mm Nagler is just overkill; it’s not really helping either. The knot or embedded star (I think it’s got to be an embedded star by the way it responded to the filter, which is to say that it basically disappeared)… even unfiltered in the 7mm there’s almost nothing there. I can’t see anything in the O-III filter; this is just not my night. [Actually thought I had the UHC in, as it had been in the wrong box.] OK, well, we know the O-III is not really helpful. But even with the UHC in the 7mm it’s like there’s just too much magnification or something because the nebula’s very difficult. The knot is still visible though, but the nebula itself, at this magnification, just goes away. A really difficult object, maybe the most elusive on the AL list outside of Abells 35 and 36.

I finished my notes at almost 1 AM, stepping down from the ladder and taking a casual assessment of the sky; a quick check of the SQM yielded average scores of 21.54, which were fine, but not as good as we’d seen at Linslaw on some past summer occasions. 

With a half-hour teardown and load-in and an hour drive home, it was probably a good idea to call the evening done. I’d accomplished what I’d come to do, and had all but finished the summer planetaries; only a handful of AL planetaries remained in the autumn and winter skies (plus the two Abells mentioned in the notes, which were both late spring objects). Mark and Bruce were still observing, but it was time for me to start getting the giant Obsession disassembled.

My tool-and-optics-cleaning kit was left open for some reason, and a large earwig was making its way along the inside edge of it. I spent an inordinate amount of time trying to evict the creature and momentarily succeeded—it simply crawled back in. I left the kit open until it was time to stow it in the Flex, giving the kit a quick going-through before closing it up. If the earwig was still in there, it wasn’t my responsibility anymore to account for his poor life choices.

Unusually, I was the first one off the crag, I felt a momentary twinge of guilt at leaving so early, but was tired enough when I got home that I didn’t need to justify it.

VI. Ian McDonald died Wednesday. The co-founder and musical genius behind the original King Crimson, McDonald ranked just below Neil Peart, Mel Collins, and Chris Squire in terms of musical influence on my formative days (ironically, McDonald was Collins’ predecessor in Crimson). I suppose there’s truth in the idea that “you know you’re old when the heroes of your youth start dying in waves,” but that hardly prepares one to see the news as it comes across the computer screen.

Few musicians were McDonald’s equal: he played the flute, saxes, clarinet, keyboards, guitar, bass guitar, vibraphone, marimba, dulcimer, and zither with equal dexterity, and added crucial background vocals to both Crimson’s work and that of both Foreigner (of which he was also a founding member) and his own solo work, as well as his work with Crimson drummer Michael Giles. He also arranged and produced In the Court of the Crimson King, Crimson’s breathtaking debut album, in addition to writing much of the music; this music—a melancholic swan song for a history and a world that could have been—has a hold on me to this day, 37 years after I first experienced it.

That Magical Light

The transition to summer observing, with its planetary nebulae and globular star clusters in abundance, accompanied several changes at ground level for me and the others in the EAS Irregulars. Being generally exhausted from work, I had time only to observe on the weekends; with sunsets being so late in the summer, observing couldn’t even really begin until 11 PM, and I needed to be awake for work by 5:30 to monitor the conditions of my digestive tract before spending the day at an injection press. This meant that at best, I got four nights a month to observe. So many targets, so little time.

The bigger transition was one of convenience. The great old Caveman-Mobile, which had served me so well for the last eight years in hauling telescopes up mountains and families cross country, had finally developed a chronic-but-incurable ailment; having put several hundred more dollars into replacing nearly everything on the dear old thing that could be replaced, we could no longer justify another $600 repair. It was time to retire the poor beast from active service while its dignity remained intact.

Enter the new Caveman-Mobile, a 2011 Ford Flex—an odd-looking beast that nonetheless somehow had room for the 20” Obsession and all of its paraphernalia and still drove like a luxury vehicle. Mrs. Caveman and her father tracked the monster down near Seattle and flew up to get it, taking it for a high-speed sojourn on the way home. Although I was somewhat dubious of this vaguely station-wagon-looking thing being an adequate replacement—-it seemed too pristine for the kind of heavy lifting needed to get to our sites of night-sky communion—there was no real turning back.

The Flex’s first excursion to an observing site actually occurred during the day, checking out a site that Dan B had been monitoring for some time. We had been searching for a site closer to town that could serve as a short-night site (i.e. one that we could conveniently use for a couple of hours, as opposed to hauling everything out to Linslaw for a full night’s work), and Dan had found this one—on rural Fisk Road—that appeared to pass muster. It was like a closer, mostly-paved Eagle’s Ridge, an intersection of a couple of gravel roads with a convenient widening to the side of the intersection where several telescopes could be set up. There were a few trees partially blocking the southern view, and the full light-pollution dome of Eugene/Springfield would be mostly visible, but the site seemed adequate for nights when we didn’t want the full drive time to and from Linslaw.

Two panoramas of the new Fisk site, directions added.

The weekend after our initial recon of the Fisk site, we headed there for a christening of sorts. With (waning gibbous) Moonrise coming shortly after astronomical darkness, we made it a casual evening; Dan and Alesha, Loren and Donna, and Jerry and Kathy and Dan R joined Mrs. Caveman and I for an on-site potluck to kick off the late May-early June Moondark phase. It was also a night for trying out a couple of recently-donated telescopes: a 130mm Celestron something-or-other that wasn’t a dreaded Bird-Jones-type scope, but was actually rather fine optically, and a really old (1976 vintage) 8” Celestron Schmidt-Cassegrain with the classic orange tube and all original accessories. I brought along my own black-tube 8” Celestron—my first telescope—to give it some dark-sky time.

It was a thoroughly enjoyable evening, with no expectations of serious observing to be done, but lots of high-spirited talk and telescope evaluation. (The 130mm Celestron has since been introduced into the EAS telescope-lending library, while the orange-tube classic 8” still needs some adjustments and fine tuning.) We left after Moonrise, with surprisingly strong winds howling up the road and plans to return the next night for somewhat more serious observing.

I. Jerry, Dan, and I arrived at Fisk well before sunset; Dan and I got there first and did some more exploring of the site, including climbing over one of the berms and checking out a large open field (which was slightly overgrown in patches) that lay beyond the accessible road. We’d never be able to haul larger scopes over the berm, but it was certainly a tempting possibility.

Jerry arrived a bit later, bringing with him one of his latest projects: a homemade electric guitar. He and Dan exchanged a few songs (Jerry had an amplifier running off of one of his 12-volt batteries), no doubt annoying some of the neighbors; I had visions of some of the nearby rustics trying to figure out where that rock-n-roll was coming from in the middle of the woods.

Dan B in concert. No Stairway!

The wind howled all night, apparently funneled up the road by the trees. Huddled into a corner of the clearing that was blocked from the brunt of the wind, we still had to deal with its effects, often hanging onto telescopes to prevent them from being buffeted about. The roaring of the wind made my audio recordings a chore to transcribe; in some ways it was fortunate that I only had three sets of notes from the evening. Conditions otherwise weren’t great, either; several intruding waves of cirrus caused temporary havoc as they passed through, and the seeing was particularly poor until after midnight.

In addition to working on the AL Planetary Nebula program, I’ve also undertaken to take notes on all of the 2450 objects that William Herschel catalogued during his spectacular and unequaled career. With the Herschel 400 and Herschel II programs already under by belt, and a number of others beyond those, I had at least 900 of Herschel’s discoveries in my repertoire. What was particularly welcome about the remainder of Herschel’s objects was that there were hundreds in every season; if I was stuck on another program, or didn’t have the motivation for, say, a list of flat galaxies on a given night, there were always more Herschels to dig into.

Tonight’s agenda consisted of both “the remaining 1600” of Herschel’s galaxies, clusters, and nebulae, and several of the planetaries on the Astronomical League’s program list. But I spent the first part of the night (and some time between Herschel objects and waiting for some of the needed planetary nebulae to rise) observing globular clusters, enjoying views of M13, M92, and NGC 6229 in Hercules, along with NGC 5634 in Virgo, M80 in Scorpius, and M71 in Sagitta. When all else is exhausted, globular clusters-—my first and ultimately foremost favorite type of deep-sky object— are a source of unending wonder and cosmic glory.

MOON: 20 days (rose at 12:44 AM; 71% illuminated)
SEEING: 4, 6
SQM: 21.33
NELM: not checked
WEATHER CONDITIONS: temps to mid-50s; no dew due to strong winds; some cirrus waves throughout the night

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 5468, 5472 (Vir):This is a Herschel object, while I’m waiting for planetaries to rise in Cygnus, Aquila, Lyra, and Draco; this is NGC 5468 in Virgo, seen in very variable transparency and strong wind. The galaxy is extremely diffuse; there’s no core to speak of, although in averted vision there’s a substellar nucleus that pops into view every now and then (or possibly a very tiny core). The galaxy is round, about 2.0’ diameter, very diffuse and poorly defined. It’s unevenly bright; the interior of the glow is kind of irregular; it appears that there may be a bar or something in it that’s just a touch brighter than the rest of it, oriented almost P-F; it’s hard to hold this for certain, but it’s always the same direction. NF the galaxy by 2’ is a threshold (14.5-magnitude) star. The brightest star in the field is only 4.25’ S slightly F the galaxy and is 8.5 magnitude. Due F the galaxy by 5.5’ is a 13th-magnitude star that has just P it by a couple of arcseconds a tiny faint glow (NGC 5472) that comes and goes with the variable transparency. It’s hard to get a fix on it; it may have a stellar nucleus, as there’s a hint of another stellar object there. From the star just F that galaxy, NP by 0.75’ is a 14.5-mag star. S very slightly F the 8.5/9th-magnitude star by 8’ is a 9.5-magnitude star; then S very very slightly P that star by 4.5’ is an 11.5-magnitude star that has a 14th-magnitude star 0.75’ S very slightly P it. From the 11.5-magnitude star P very slightly N by 6.5’ is an 11th-magnitude star.

NGCs 5427, 5426 (Vir): This is a really fine interacting pair in the back end of Virgo, NGCs 5427 and 5426, with -27 being due N and considerably larger; there’s a very faint (14th magnitude?) star right between the two of them. NGC 5427 is quite diffuse and not really well defined; it does have a distinctly brighter interior. It’s roughly round, with maybe a tiny bit of P-F elongation; this is indeterminate enough that I’m not going to say anything beyond the fact that it’s 1.67’ round. It’s roughly the same size as NGC 5468, actually, but considerably brighter. As with 5468, there is some inner irregularity to the brightness, if not outright mottling; there’s a very, very slightly brighter core that’s also very small; this is obviously a face-on galaxy. I’m actually going to say this is 1.75’ x 1.67’, very slightly elongated P-F. Every so often, there’s a flicker of a tiny, faint nucleus. (Immediately due S of the galaxy, exactly between the two galaxies, is a 14th-magnitude star that distracts from whether either galaxy has a visible nucleus, but I think they both do.) NGC 5426 is elongated N-S and has a brighter core that’s also elongated N-S within a 1.5’ x 0.75’ halo. The outer edges are pretty unevenly defined, but appear better defined to the S. It almost appears as if the two galaxy’s haloes are trailing slightly to the P, as if they’ve had material pulled off of them in that direction, but this is just an impression and I wouldn’t say anything about it with certainty. This would be a stunning pair in the 20”! At moments, with 5427, I get a feeling like the F edge has a little better definition, or a little more brightness, like there’s a subthreshold spiral arm on the F edge. 5426 also has the occasional flash of a nucleus. The core is 18” long (i.e. between 0.25’ and 0.3’). There is dark space between the two galaxies where the star lies, so they’re two distinct and discrete objects. Some very faint stars lie to the S; there’s a 14th-magnitude star S very slightly F 5426 by 7’; S very very slightly F 5426 by 7’ is another 14th-magnitude star. NF the pair, 11’ from 5427, is a 12th-magnitude star. SP 5427 by 12’ is an 11.5-magnitude star that’s the NP of a very thin flat scalene triangle, with a 12.5-magnitude star F somewhat S by 1.75’; from that star S very very slightly F by 1’ is a 13.5-magnitude star. There’s a very flat isosceles triangle F very very slightly S of 5426, actually a diamond, with the NF vertex very faint compared to the others; the point star in the isosceles triangle, the “roof-top” star, is a very close pair.

We took SQM readings about midnight, and were surprised to get 21.33s (on average) between us. The sky didn’t really seem quite that dark, due in large part to the unshielded light dome from the cities taking up most of the eastern half of the sky. The trees to the south weren’t a dealbreaker, at least.

With Cygnus and the higher-declination summer constellations well above the trees to the east now, I stopped by the Veil Nebula, the Dumbbell (which I’d already taken notes on), and the Ring Nebula (which I hadn’t, but I wasn’t willing to take notes on it in less than excellent conditions, as befitting its showpiece status). I also skipped taking notes on NGC 7027 in Cygnus, as it looked somewhat diminished from even my previous observations of it from the Giant City State Park visitor center parking lot. I didn’t want to go home empty-handed on the planetary-nebula front, though, so I revisited an object that I’d recently observed from The Oxbow. It, too, was diminished from its previous apparition, but for reasons unbeknownst to me, I pressed on with the observation.

NGC 6742 (Abell 50; Dra): After a huge amount of searching (it was a tough starhop from 16 Lyrae), this is the difficult (more difficult than it needed to be anyway) NGC 6742. I had found this previously at the Oxbow under apparently much better conditions, because here it’s a difficult object, really requiring averted vision to pick out at first, and that was not the case at the Oxbow when I saw the first time. It’s about 0.3’ across, round, just on the border between direct and averted vision (depending on the moment-to-moment sky conditions). It’s mostly just above the averted vision threshold, so it is visible in direct, but it’s not easy. It’s just a very round, very faint nebula with no obvious annularity, although the S rim in good moments looks to be a fair bit sharper than the rest. In the moments of much better seeing and transparency that we’re getting through here, the nebula looks substantially bigger; it might be 0.5’. There’s no central star, but it does have a faint star F slightly N of it by 0.75’; that star really interferes with the nebula, and is 13.5 magnitude. Also distracting from the nebula is the 8.5-magnitude star SP it by 3.5’; that star is the N end of a small zigzag of fainter stars; this zigzag is about 3.67’ long and has its second-brightest star (which is 11th magnitude) at the S end. There are a number of brightish stars in the field but the 8.5 to the SP is the brightest. N of the nebula by 9’ is the S end of another asterism of somewhat brighter stars, including a couple in the 9th/10th-magnitude range. With the UHC, the nebula is substantially “better” but pretty small, more like 0.3’ again (how does that work?). It’s significantly brighter now, a solidly direct-vision object. There’s still no annularity, but the S rim definitely seems a little brighter than the rest; it almost seems like the brighter part of the rim lies slightly inside the nebula and there’s some fringe around the S edge. The O-III filter really brings out the nebula! There’s a dramatic difference between the view in the two filters: now, the nebula’s substantially brighter again than in the UHC, which I didn’t expect based on the previous work I’ve done on the AL planetaries. The impression that the S end of the rim is brighter isn’t seen in this filter. Again, the nebula is distinctly round, and still 0.3’ diameter. The seeing’s gone to crap again, but I’ll throw in the 7mm Nagler anyway. Seeing is terrible at this magnification, but the nebula still pops right into view. I’m constantly amazed at how much just increasing the magnification is better than just adding a filter to the 14mm. With the 7mm, I’m still not getting a central star, but the nebula’s yet again much brighter. Adding the O-III makes the nebula almost unviewable in combination with the 7mm. Back to the UHC: it’s at least observable with this filter in the 7mm. The S rim still looks slightly more obvious and brighter than the rest; it’s obviously a UHC feature, and not merely a figment of my imagination. This is not a bad little nebula with the right combo; the 7mm and the UHC work pretty well.

Several times during the observation, a curiously warm (almost hot) breeze blew through, wiping out the seeing, drowning out my voice on my notes, and feeling as if—in Dan B’s words—we had “waded into someone’s pee spot in a swimming pool.”

About halfway through my notes on NGC 6742, Dan witnessed a brilliant fireball traveling west from Scorpius. As so often happens (to most of us!) during an observing session, Jerry and I were looking in the opposite sides of the sky, missing the meteor entirely.

The Moon crested the horizon, washing out the Milky Way entirely, completing the job the Eugene/Springfield light-pollution dome had started. We packed up our scopes, unsure of the long-term viability of the site due to the persistent winds, biding our time until weekend nights, Moonless hours, and clear skies coincided again.

II. The next weekend provided a better opportunity for observing, at least on the eastern side of the Valley (i.e. the Eagle’s Rest amphitheater, the only one of our Eagle’s sites that I was willing to drive to). Oddly, only Robert was willing to join me for observing; Jerry had his Friday book club, and Dan and Loren also had other plans.  On this particular night, having some extra comrades would’ve likely made a big difference in how the night turned out.

The “amphitheater” was a roadside pullout big enough for perhaps four cars. Until two years ago, it had been hemmed in by trees to the north and west, and by hills to the east; only the southern horizon—the direction of greatest astronomical interest—was clear, overlooking a steep drop into the valley. Now, though, timber and real estate interests had combined to clear-cut the entire northern quadrant, exposing stargazers to the glare of the double city. In place of the trees, some company had installed a large metal gate, for keeping out anyone who might venture past the roadside and into the clearings they had made. Wind frequently blew from the north and through the gate, adding to the nuisance of the light pollution; to remedy this, we often (as tonight) parked near the fence and parallel to the road, using our vehicles as simultaneous windbreaks and light blockers.

My agenda was the same as the previous session: Herschels (mostly galaxies) until target planetaries rose. Most of the Herschels were chosen from Alvin Huey’s guide to the Herschel III list, an unofficial list compiled by Thom Lorenzin from the best of the remaining 1600+ objects not included in the Herschel 400 or Herschel II programs. The sky was a cirrusy mess, but was clearing fairly quickly. And exactly two hours after sunset, I got started with my notetaking.

EAGLE’S REST (amphitheatre)
MOON: 26 days (rose at 3:22 AM; 20% illuminated)
SQM: 21.26
NELM: not checked
WEATHER CONDITIONS: temps to upper 50s; no dew; mild breeze; cool but not particularly cold; considerable haze at sunset which cleared off by 11:30
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 5690 (Vir): While waiting for some of my planetaries to get into a good observing position, we’re looking at some Herschel IIIs in the meantime; this one is NGC 5690 in Virgo, a nice edge-on spiral– not really a flat galaxy because it doesn’t have the right dimensional ratio; it’s about 2.5’ long and 0.67’ wide, elongated due NP-SF (so about 135˚ position angle) and has a very faint (I’m going to say 14.5 magnitude) star on the SF end inside the halo. Observing the galaxy is very difficult because it has a 6.5-magnitude star 3.25’ due P that’s hugely disruptive to the observing. I can’t really get that star outside the field enough to get a good eye on the details here; I can’t tell if the galaxy is mottled and irregularly bright along the length of it, or if it appears that way because it has that threshold star on the end. It’s a pretty fine galaxy, with a pretty well-defined halo. NP the galaxy by 7’ is a 10.5-magnitude star that’s also 5.5’ N slightly P the 6.5-magnitude star. Due SF the galaxy by another 6.5’ is the right-angle vertex of a small triangle; that star is 12th magnitude and has N slightly F it by 1.5’ an 11.5-magnitude star; and then F somewhat S of the right-angle vertex by 2’ is a 13.5-magnitude star. N slightly F the galaxy by another 6.5’ (so almost forming an equilateral triangle with the galaxy and the 10.5-magnitude star) is a 12.5-magnitude star; and F the galaxy by another 7’ is another 12.5-magnitude star that has 0.5’ due P it a 14th-magnitude star.

NGC 5792 (Lib): NGC 5792 is apparently in Libra, but it’s actually very, very close to the Virgo border; it’s also in the very close vicinity of a distractingly bright star which happens to be P very slightly N of the galaxy by 1.0’. The galaxy is elongated P-F; it’s about 2.0’ x 1.0’, and has a much brighter core region that’s 0.67’ across; every so often there’s a very very brief flash of an extremely faint substellar nucleus. The P-F extensions of the galaxy are very poorly defined and diffuse; they are revealed primarily with averted vision. That core region is pretty bright, though. The star that’s P very slightly N of the galaxy is 9.5 magnitude; there’s another 9.5-magnitude star NF the galaxy by 6’, and that star has a 13.5-magnitude star N very slightly F it by 0.3’, and also has NP it by 1.5’ an 11th-magnitude star. 3.25’ NP the galaxy (so between the galaxy and the 9.5-magnitude star) is a 14th-magnitude star. Also NF the galaxy by 12’ is a 9th-mag star. N slightly F the galaxy by 14’ is a 10th-magnitude star.

As I was observing NGC 5792, I watched a pair of brightish satellites cross the field, both on the exact same trajectory—most likely some of Elon’s Folly.

NGC 5921 (SerCap): This is our third Herschel III object while we’re waiting for Aquila and the tail of Scorpius to rise; this is NGC 5921 in Serpens, and it is definitely a more interesting galaxy than should be limited to the 14 mm; I tried the 7mm Nagler, but the sky’s just not good enough for it really; I think this one needs a bigger aperture for a good look. It’s in a pretty crowded field; there is an arc of four stars to the south of it, and the galaxy is also bracketed on the P very slightly N and F very slightly S by stars almost equidistant from the galaxy. The galaxy itself is elongated S very very slightly P-N very very slightly F, about 1.75’ x 1.0’. It has a brightish stellar nucleus and a core somewhat brighter than the halo; the core is extended N-S… I don’t want to say that that’s a bar, but (especially in averted vision) there are definitely hints that that’s the case. The halo is reasonably bright and fairly well defined, and that inner region here is fairly complex; this is one that really would deserve a good look with the 20-inch. (They all do, really.) The number of bright stars in the area of the galaxy makes it a little bit harder to get a focus on it as well: here in the 7mm, the brightest of those stars in the galaxy’s immediate vicinity is F very slightly S of the galaxy by 2.75’ and is 10th magnitude; there’s a 12.5-magnitude star the same distance P very very slightly N of the galaxy, and that star also has between it and the galaxy (so about 0.75’ F very very very slightly S of the star) is a 14th-magnitude star. The arc of four S of the galaxy begins due S of the galaxy by 4’ with an 11th-magnitude star; NP that star by 1’ is a 13th-magnitude star; N very very very slightly P that star by 1.67’ is a 12.5-magnitude star; from the 12.5 magnitude star NF by 1.3’ is a 12th-magnitude star; and that 12th-magnitude star is halfway between the previous star and the galaxy, in a perfect line with those. The brightest star in the field is SP the galaxy by 12’ and is 8.5 magnitude.

NGC 5962 (SerCap): NGC 5962 in Serpens Cauda is a bright little galaxy, and a pretty impressive one as these things go. It’s elongated P very slightly N-F very slightly S (about 100 degrees position angle) and spans 1.5’ x 1.0’. This one is actually more diffuse than most of the ones I’ve looked at tonight, at least halo-wise, and not particularly well-defined, but it does have a fairly small (0.67’) but gradually much brighter core to it and more than just a hint of a stellar nucleus—in averted vision, anyway; it’s not easy to lock it down, as it’s quite faint. The galaxy lies within a pretty attractive starfield, featuring a wide magnitude range. Due N of the galaxy by 3’ is a 12th-magnitude star; there’s a 13th-magnitude star 4.5’ N somewhat F the galaxy and a 10th-magnitude star 13’ NF. 11’ S slightly P the galaxy is a 10.5-magnitude star, and then F slightly S of the galaxy by 16’ is a 7th-magnitude star that’s kind of in the middle of a N-S oriented asterism; this asterism is about 12’ long and vaguely rectangular. 6.25’ P very very slightly N of the galaxy is the more S of a pair; that star is 11.5 magnitude, and it has a 12th-magnitude star almost due N of it by 1’. This is kind of a nice little galaxy to be relegated to the “other” 1600 Herschel objects.

By the time I finished with NGC 5962, Scorpius and Sagittarius had risen into a decent position for working through the remainder of their planetary nebulae. I had seen my target planetaries in those constellations numerous times before—especially the Bug Nebula, one of Scorpius’ showpiece objects—but either had no notes on them, or had notes that were inadequate for the fulfillment of the AL program. Whatever the case, it certainly wasn’t a chore to reobserve them (even though I had to be sitting on the ground at the roadside in order to catch them). The only negative was their extremely low declination; the Bug Nebula was only 6˚ or 7° off the horizon, and the two I had on my list after that were of similar declinations. The lousy seeing that low made the observation a challenge, but there was little chance of being able to do better at a future date; I could always observe them again if the seeing in the deep south was better at Linslaw, where we planned to be on Saturday night. Getting these low objects would enable me to work on the several I had remaining in Cygnus the next night. And I didn’t have much time for the Bug anyway, as it would be disappearing into a bank of trees in less than an hour.

Robert left just before I started taking notes on the Bug.

NGC 6302 (Sco): This is a difficult look way down low at the Bug Nebula, NGC 6302 in Scorpius, down here in the really poor seeing close to the horizon. The nebula is 1.75’ P-F by not quite 0.67’ N-S. It looks very much like a galaxy with a bright core that’s about the central 0.3’ and what looks like a central star visible as a nucleus in the galaxy analogy. The central star is hard to tweeze out from the rest of the brighter central region. The nebula’s very indistinct on the ends; on the P end it looks as if there’s something of a slightly brighter knot present. There’s no color to the nebulosity. SP the nebula by 10’ is what seems to be—it’s truly hard to tell because of the inevitable atmospheric extinction—a 9th-magnitude star. Due N of the nebula by 4.75’ is the N-most vertex of a scalene triangle composed of 12th-magnitude stars; there’s another SP the first by 1.25’ and a third 2.67’ due P from that first vertex. SF the nebula by 3.25’ is yet another 12th-magnitude star, and P somewhat N of the nebula by 2.5’ is an 11.5-magnitude star. Let’s try the UHC; I don’t know that the 7mm is going to be much use down here with the seeing, but we’re eventually going to try it anyway; I want to start with the UHC. The UHC really brightens the nebula. The supposed “central star” seems to be just a point in the brightness of the nebulosity, because it’s very, very bright now in the filter, and that shouldn’t be the case if it’s merely a star. The filter also helped to define the diffuse ends of the nebula: the P end has much better definition now; it’s much more distinct and tendril-like, while the F side is a little more diffuse and doesn’t really come to a distinct “sharpening” like the P side does. In fact, the P side seems a little bit longer, more extended, so the central region is kind of offset to the F. It really does look like a galaxy in this seeing. I think the view with the O-III filter is going to be roughly the same as in the UHC, given how low we are in the sky. With the O-III, the bright tendril on the P end twists N-ward a tiny bit; but the filter really brings out the F side too, the diffuse end which kind of fans out a bit, almost like a guppy’s tail. Again, that central region is almost glaringly bright, but that would imply that there’s not a central star that’s the visual driver of that, because it wouldn’t have brightened that much. So we’re gonna try the 7mm Nagler here. In the 7mm Nagler, that impression that the tendrils on the P end hook N-ward is well enhanced at this magnification. Adding the UHC first to the 7mm, that tendril to the P still gives that impression that there’s a tiny brighter knot at the end of it. It almost reminds me of NGC 772 in Aries, the way the one arm sweeps out, because that’s really dramatic how much more it is on the P than the F. In the O-III, the impression that I had in the UHC that there is more N-S depth along the middle, like there’s a vertical “stripe” there along the middle, is a little enhanced, but it’s really hard to get a focus on anything here. There also seems to be (and I noticed this earlier, both in the 14mm and the 7mm with the UHC) from the bright center NF, there’s just a tiny jut of brighter material out the top of the nebula heading NF, just a couple of arcseconds long; it’s not perfectly P-F and confined to that axis; it’s heading a little bit NF from there. That is a really fantastic planetary, even though the seeing’s not very good for it!

I wasn’t a fan of the amphitheater site as a lone observer. There was too much potential for an encounter with the locals; I was generally not afraid of observing alone, but close encounters of the two-legged kind always made me a bit leery, especially out in the hinterlands like this.

I had previously observed NGC 6563 at the Brothers Star Party in 2017, under much better conditions. Here, again, I had to sit on the ground in order to observe my target, while staring through the densest part of the atmosphere as seen from my vantage point.

NGC 6563 (Sgr): This one is right in the Teapot spout, and it is NGC 6563, a.k.a. the Southern Ring, although in the 14mm and this low in the sky, there is no real annularity to be had; certainly not in this seeing. (I should say, though, that the seeing really steadies down well, and when it does, even this low, it definitely makes a difference.) The nebula is about 0.67’ round… well, it’s elongated a little bit P-F, so 0.75’ x 0.67’, just a very very slight bit of elongation roughly P-F. Knowing that this is an annular nebula, I’m surprised at how evenly illuminated it is; it’s not like the Cheerio or anything… there may be a a very very very faint rim around the periphery; it’s very hard to hold that impression steady. There’s no central star, no color, but it’s an obvious nebula when you hit the field. A couple of very bright stars are in the field: about 12’ due S is a 7th-magnitude star, while 15’ P somewhat N is a 6th-magnitude star, and from the 6th-magnitude star due SP by 8’ is another 7th-magnitude star

The galloping happened before the crash; I didn’t have enough time to get to my feet before something smashed into the metal gate with a loud CLANG. It was a full two seconds before I was able to focus enough to yell at whatever it was, which was my usual tactic when confronted by unwelcome wildlife (skunks aside; I usually just whistle when I know skunks are nearby… for obvious reasons). With the new Caveman-Mobile between me and the gate, I couldn’t see what had collided with the gate, or if it was still there… it seemed to have run off, but what if it hadn’t? It sounded large—bigger than me, anyway—and its footfalls had sounded more than a little like hooves. Perhaps a deer or an elk. But (as Jerry noted after I shared the incident with the other Irregulars) if it was indeed some sort of local ungulate, what had spooked it enough to cause it to run into the gate? Nor did I know, with the Flex in the way, which side of the gate said animal had run into.

Rattled by the incident, I lost both focus and interest in NGC 6563. I had no plans to leave, but I certainly wasn’t going to put myself at the disadvantage of sitting on the ground if the same creature—or its pursuer, had there been one—came back for a second engagement. I scrolled through my list via Sky Safari until I found a target that would keep me off the ground, one in good observing position and in an area of sky where the seeing was much better… an object that had bedeviled me the last couple of times I’d searched for it.

NGC 6807 (Aql): Here we have the utterly-stellar-and-completely-indistinguishable-from-a-star NGC 6807 which, at least in the 14mm at 112x, gives no hint whatsoever as to its identity; you have to really stare at this thing in order to realize it’s not a star, and in a crowded field like this there’s no way you would. It’s roughly the equivalent of a 12th-magnitude star, maybe 11.5, with very, very little to look at; it has just the tiniest bit—I mean, almost imperceptible—of non-stellarness; I had to flicker with the O-III filter in order to make anything out of it. It has a 10th-magnitude star N very slightly F it by 1.5’; there’s an 8.5-magnitude star F somewhat N by 11’. 18’ SP the nebula is the brightest star in the field, which is 6.5 magnitude, and F somewhat S by 20’ are a couple of clumps that could possibly be open clusters; I’m not gonna really do much with those, because I’m here with the nebula and I don’t want to lose it. So let’s go with the UHC, although I don’t think filters are going to have much effect other than brightening it, because it’s so tiny. So with the filter, the nebula is now the equivalent of the 10th-magnitude star N of it, but that’s it; there’s no fringe, no central star, anything, just a faint tiny stellar point. With the O-III, the nebula’s now brighter, considerably brighter, than the star N of it. So upward we go, to the 7mm Nagler, to see if there’s any detail or any improvement in size or anything to distinguish this planetary from a star. With the 7mm, focus is still really problematic; there’s still no distinct means of identifying this as a nebula; it’s just stellar. So we add the O-III… still nothing; still no identifying features; I can’t really focus it sharp enough to tell if there is a disk visible, but it’s now considerably brighter than the star next to it… but that’s all I get with the O-III in the 7mm.

My stomach rumbled while I was taking notes on NGC 6807. Or perhaps it was a cougar or a ravenous Bugblatter Beast or a sandworm or something. (It was loud enough to register on my audio notes.) Whatever the case, I was distracted enough by the earlier incident that further observing had lost its appeal.

I packed up earlier than I’d intended, leaving my agenda for the evening only half-finished.

III.  I don’t recall (at this remove) why only Dan and I went out to Linslaw the next night; it might have been that the others went out to the amphitheater, or perhaps they just stayed home. Whatever the case, I needed to get out again, if only to put the previous night’s events behind me.

Linslaw was the perfect place to do so. I had no qualms about observing there alone, if need be; the sandstone crag at Linslaw was the only one of our active sites that was unlikely to be encroached on by other people during the night, and we had yet to encounter any wildlife there aside from the tiny, scampering lizards whose scamperings we heard but never saw (and the occasional bat, nighthawk, or owl). Dan was there, anyway, although I also knew that should a Smilodon or some such apex predator choose to add astronomer to its diet, Dan could outrun me by a substantial margin.

But none of that intruded on the evening as much as the mediocre conditions. By the time astronomical twilight officially ended and the “real” observing began, the SQM was reading a surprising 21.33 (better than the sky appeared), but the transparency and seeing were only passable. The air was cool and damp and clammy. And the sky was lousy with satellites, both to the naked eye and in the eyepiece, as I prowled among the early summer showpiece objects, waiting for darkness to finish falling.

Little matter, though—galaxies awaited.

MOON: 27 days (rose at 3:42 AM; 9% illuminated)
SQM: 21.33-21.54
NELM: not checked
WEATHER CONDITIONS: temps to mid-40s; heavy dew; air still; cold and clammy
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 5669; PGC 51945 (Böo): I’m working on Herschel IIIs for the time that we have available to us tonight, because I don’t think the conditions are great for doing “serious” stuff; I’m currently looking at NGC 5669 in southern Böotes, which is a large diffuse round glow of irregular brightness. The galaxy’s really poorly defined and large, at about 2.5’ diameter. It has just the barest hint of a core, which is largish but just slightly brighter than the halo; no nucleus is present, but there’s some SP-NF glow in the interior of the galaxy that could be a bar; there could be spiral structure here. The galaxy isn’t bright, certainly, but I’ve been tracking it for a while, and we’re about still about 10-15 minutes from full astronomical darkness; it showed up identifiably fairly early on and I’ve just been following it since then. It’s bracketed to the N somewhat P and due NF by field stars; the star on the N somewhat P is somewhat brighter at 11.5 magnitude and is about 6’ from the galaxy; the one to the NF is about 12.5 magnitude and is 7’ NF the galaxy, and is also the N-most vertex in a small right triangle: the right angle vertex is P somewhat S of that star by 1’ and the third vertex is about 1.3’ almost due S of the first; the right-angle vertex is 14th magnitude; the third vertex is also of 14th magnitude. NF the galaxy by 15’ is a 10.5-magnitude star; there’s also a 10.5-magnitude star P somewhat S of the galaxy by 17’. This galaxy is an impressive sight; I’ll have to re-observe it with the 20 inch. I had an impression that there’s another galaxy [PGC 51945], a really small one, SP of the star to the N slightly P the galaxy by 3.75’ and P somewhat N of 5669 by 6; there’s just a very very very difficult diffuse spot, and that’s really all it is; it’s just a spot that really comes and goes. Averted vision really helps bring it out; I thought I’d seen it early on, but I kind of dismissed it because I couldn’t replicate it, but now it definitely seems like there’s something there.

In planning for the evening, I had flipped through Alvin Huey’s free PDF guide to the Herschel III objects, a subset of the brightest Herschel objects remaining after the Herschel 400 and Herschel II programs. Due to the unpredictability of the lower altitudes at Linslaw, I planned to stay higher in the sky; this led to wandering the galaxy fields of Boötes and Canes Venatici for the night, rather than trying immediately to finish my planetary-nebula wanderings in the lower reaches of the sky.

My next target, although I had forgotten so until I actually had it in the eyepiece, was popularly known as the Heron Galaxy, due to its obvious appearance on photographs.

NGCs 5394, 5395 (CVn): I’ve gone off the path a little bit, because my SkySafari doesn’t have the entire Herschel III in it, but this is the interesting interacting pair NGC 5394 and 5395; 5395 is kind of dominant here because of its size and brightness compared to 5394. This is a really excellent pair of interacting galaxies this has got to be an Arp [Arp 84]. I’ve discovered that a lot of these Herschel IIIs are really kind of crying out for the 20” Obsession to do a little more investigating on them. NGC 5395 is a long N-S slash that’s pretty well defined and has a 13.5-magnitude star just off the S end; it’s about 2.0’ x 0.75’, with a long streak of central brightening down the major axis. There’s nothing really resembling a standard core or nucleus, though. It seems as though the F side is a little better defined than the rest; it’s not a poorly-defined galaxy, but the F edge seems a little sharper, and it’s more diffuse on the P. The central brightening seems offset to the F edge as well. NGC 5394 is 1.75’ N slightly P from the center of NGC 5395. 5394 has a much more concentrated, very small core and a probable substellar nucleus. It’s only 0.3’ diameter. I don’t see actual contact between the galaxies, although I suspect it’s there, just out of reach in the 12.5”. (All field-star distances are from NGC 5395.) N somewhat P NGC 5395 by 10’ is a 10.5-magnitude star; there’s another almost due N of the galaxies, 15’ from NGC 5395. SP the galaxy by 17’ is another 10.5-magnitude star; there’s a 9.5-magnitude star SF the galaxy by 18’. SP the galaxy by 5.75’ is an 11th-magnitude star. S very slightly P the galaxy by 11’ is the N-most of a line of three; that star is 11th magnitude and has an 11.5-magnitude star S very very slightly F it by 0.75’, and then from the 11.5-magnitude star S slightly F by 2’ is a 12th-magnitude star.

I should’ve observed this one with the 7mm Nagler, or at least the 10mm Delos (the best eyepiece I own), but didn’t do so; the excuse I gave myself was that the transparency wasn’t good enough. What really wasn’t good enough was my list of excuses.

I stayed in Canes Venatici the rest of the night. The seeing improved even as the humidity—an infrequent problem up on the crag—increased; the stars shone with a rare steadiness through a visibly-apparent haze.

NGCs 5112, 5107 (CVn): NGC 5112 is another very diffuse, large, probably close to face-on spiral. (There’re probably a lot of unknown extra galaxies up there in that region that didn’t make it in the Herschel 400 or the Herschel II.) This is a big one, but still fairly bright; it’s elongated F somewhat N-F somewhat S and covers 2.25’ x 1.25’, with a very very diffuse halo and a somewhat-brighter core but no nucleus. It is brighter along the minor axis as well, but in a much more diffuse manner, which is odd for a face-on or inclined spiral and may mean there’s a bar there. (Right now, the seeing’s sharp as a tack.) The galaxy is really poorly defined; its light just falls away into space with no clear boundary to it. The galaxy has a distracting star about 1.75’ S slightly F the center, and that star is 13th magnitude; there are a number of other bright stars in the field that are difficult on the observing. F very very slightly N of the galaxy by 6.5’ is a 9th-magnitude star that has a 10.5-magnitude star F very very slightly N of it by 2.25’ and a 12.5-magnitude star S slightly F the 9th-magnitude star by 3’, and that star has NF of it by 1.5’ a 13.5-magnitude star. N slightly P the galaxy by 10’ is a yellowish 7th-magnitude star that has P very very slightly S of it by 6’ a 10th-magnitude star. P very very slightly S of the galaxy by 17’ is a 9th-magnitude star. Almost due S of the galaxy by 12’ is a 13th-magnitude star, and due P that 13th-magnitude star by 4’ is another galaxy [NGC 5107] which has almost the same orientation as NGC 5112 but is much smaller and somewhat more concentrated; it’s 1.25’ x 0.25’, oriented P slightly N-F slightly S, a thin little short streak of a galaxy. This smaller galaxy is much better defined and fairly faint but still reasonably obvious; it’s well-defined and fairly even in brightness. The 13th-magnitude star that’s due F the second galaxy also has a 13.5-magnitude star F it by 2.75’.

With the transparency failing, I checked the SQM, expecting no better than a 21.2. The 21.52 it registered was far beyond both what I expected and what the sky appeared to show. I then shone a red light on my scope’s secondary mirror, expecting it to be covered with dew; that too exceeded my expectations by being perfectly clear.

The sky was clearly diminished from its usually summer clarity, and even from the level it had been as it got dark. I flipped through Huey’s Herschel III guide for another—likely final—target in the vicinity of NGC 5112, something to close out my notetaking for this Moon-dark phase, finding several to choose from and picking the best of the lot.

NGC 5301 (CVn): This is the interesting not-quite-flat galaxy NGC 5301, which I saw in Alvin Huey’s guide to the Herschel III and assumed would be super easy, but it’s surprisingly… it’s relatively easy, but it’s not quite as impressive as one would expect from the photograph, which kind of gives the lie to the idea of photographs as good indicators, although it’s still a fine sight. The galaxy’s elongated N slightly P-S slightly F, about 2.5’ x 0.75’, so pretty much an edge-on galaxy, but not quite flat; based on the strict definition of a flat galaxy, I don’t think it qualifies. But it’s reasonably bright; there’s no straining to see it. The galaxy is a little brighter on the N end than the S. It’s well defined and not at all diffuse; it has just a strip of central brightening, with a faint substellar nucleus but no core. Due S of the galaxy by 2.75’ is a 12.5-magnitude star; there’s an 11.5-magnitude star SF the galaxy by about 2.5’. The S and slightly brighter of a pair lies NF the galaxy by 4.25’; that star is 12th magnitude and has a 13th-magnitude star N of it by 0.75’. There’s also a 14.5-magnitude star NP the galaxy by 2.67’. The brightest star in the field is 18’ F somewhat N of the galaxy and is 9th magnitude, and it has a 10th-magnitude star due P it by 2.75’. There’s a bright isosceles triangle P the galaxy: P somewhat S of the galaxy by 9’ is a 9.5-magnitude star; there’s a 10th-magnitude star P somewhat S of that star by 5’, and those two form the base of the triangle, and then from the first star NP by 6’ is another 10th-magnitude star; that one’s maybe just a touch fainter than the others.

I checked in on some of the summer globulars, then tore down my gear. Dan was already loaded up, starting down the mountain. I followed a few moments later, the galaxies still wheeling above, their feeble light crossing the vast expanse of space to fall unseen on the sandstone crag.

All Things Possible

May was a busy month, both personally and astronomically. I had ended up starting yet another new job—one much more physically demanding than I’m probably capable of at this point in time, and one that has ended up confining my observing sessions to weekends (generally no more than two per month, given the lunar cycle). Meanwhile, the night skies above transitioned from nearly-endless galaxy fields to the advent of the summer Milky Way and its plethora of “nearby” galactic objects (star clusters and nebulae). This was a chance at some last few flat galaxies until the fall, and the relatively-few planetary nebulae that dotted the spring skies before the rich hunting grounds of the summer took hold of the night.

I. The second weekend in May brought with it our first observing opportunity. Although several members of our group-within-a-group (which we’ve sort-of informally dubbed “The EAS Irregulars”) had plans, those were quickly adapted to allow for some guerilla astronomy on the familiar sandstone crag at Linslaw. With my now-truncated observing schedule, every opportunity was one to be taken. Jerry would arrive after his book club meeting was finished, while Loren and Robert arrived at roughly the same time I did. Feet aching from a week on cement floors, I stayed with the old workhorse Bob the (12.5”) Dob, rather than standing on the ladder beside the 20” Obsession all night.

MOON: 26 days (set at 4:29 PM; 11% illuminated)
SEEING: 6, 7
SQM: 21.64 (did not look as good to the naked eye)
NELM: not checked
WEATHER CONDITIONS: temps to upper 40s; some dew; cool and clammy
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 3501, 3507 (Leo): We’re starting off what may not be a short night with NGC 3501; I wasn’t going to bring the 12.5” scope to do flat galaxy work, but at the end of a long workday I also wasn’t about to bring the 20” and then spend the whole night on the ladder murdering my feet. This is a pretty fine flat specimen here: it’s about 2.75’ x 0.25’, elongated in PA 30˚. The galaxy has fairly even low surface brightness along its major axis. There’s an occasional trace of a nucleus, but not much in the way of a core; in better moments, the nucleus has some distinct presence. It has a neighboring galaxy in the field with it, which I’ll expound on in a bit. There are also some very faint threshold-level stars (as opposed to bright threshold level stars, I guess) F it and NF the galaxy, but they’re very difficult to pin down. NP the galaxy by 7’ is the brightest star in the field, which is 9th magnitude and has N somewhat P it by 3.25’ a 12th-magnitude star. NF the galaxy by 10’ is a 10th-magnitude star that has an 11th-magnitude star N of it by 3’, and that star has just P it the second galaxy (NGC 3507); that star is in the halo of this smaller galaxy, very close to the core. This second galaxy is 1.5’ across, with a very diffuse halo and a somewhat brighter core; in averted vision, it looks like it’s got a stellar nucleus to it, but the nucleus is hard to hold, due in part to the 11th-magnitude star there

Jerry had arrived while I was working on NGC 3501; he and Robert were in the background discussing Elon Musk (and his SNL hosting gig) while Jerry was setting up his scope. The temperature had already plummeted after sunset, becoming surprisingly cool for May, and it was already more humid than usual at Linslaw. With the clammy weather, it was already time for gloves.

NGCs 3454, 3455 (Leo): NGC 3454 is not an easy target here in the 12.5”; the neighboring galaxy is much, much brighter and much more obvious. The two galaxies bracket an 11th-magnitude star. 3454 is a little needle; it’s pretty small, only 1.25’ long and maybe 10” wide at center, angled in PA 110˚. It has pretty even and low surface brightness; it’s fairly obvious when you know it’s there, but…. The galaxy is about 1.67’ N very very slightly P that 11th-magnitude star. There’s really not a nucleus or a core, anything that flashes out; it’s a fairly evenly bright (evenly dim is more like it) galaxy. Due S of that 11th-magnitude star, by 1.75’, is the companion galaxy (NGC 3455), which is considerably easier to see. It’s 1.0’ round and diffuse; it seems to have some P very very slightly S-F very very slightly N extension, like a bar in it, with a very slightly brighter core in the middle. This extension is slight, and the galaxy spans 1.25’ x 1.0’.  F very very slightly N of this galaxy by 5.5’ is an 11.5-magnitude star, and from NGC 3545 N very very very slightly P by another 4.0’ is a 13.5-magnitude star. I like that S-more galaxy a lot; it’s an interesting target, maybe even more so than the galaxy that’s actually on my list. I’ll need to revisit these with the 20” when Leo rolls around again.

Although I often reached for the 7mm Nagler for higher-power views of my targets (more often with planetary nebulae, but frequently with galaxies as well), the chill, damp weather helped squelch my interest in doing so this particular night.  Even though I was taking notes, I was more inclined to keep my gloves on and my equipment arsenal minimal than I was to be as thorough as I usually was. Obviously, I’ll want to revisit some of these galaxies under better conditions and greater aperture. I could complete the AL’s Flat Galaxy program entirely with the 12.5-inch scope, certainly, but that wouldn’t really do justice to the galaxies I was observing.

NGC 4019; PGC 37931 (Com): Just following Denebola here with NGC 4019, which may actually be over the border in Coma. It’s not a bright galaxy, but it has some presence in the field. It’s in position angle 135˚, pretty much due NP-SF. It’s fairly small; 1.0’ x 7” or so (these are all so  infinitesimally thin… all less than 0.25’, so I might as well just give the major axis on some of them).  It’s fairly evenly dim; there’s not much going on visually here regarding core, nucleus, or any distinctive features.. S slightly F the galaxy by 3.5’ is a 14th-magnitude star that has due S of it by 2.5’ a 10th-magnitude star, and every so often in averted vision I get a flash… yeah it’s definitely there, F very very slightly N of the 9.5-magnitude star by 2’ is another tiny faint fuzzy spot [PGC 37931] that forms an almost equilateral triangle with the two stars, the 13th and the 9.5. It’s just a speck. Also P 4019 by 3.5’ is a 12.5-magnitude star.

NGC 4517 (Vir): A great contrast with the previous, this is the very impressive NGC 4517, inside the arms or the head of Virgo, and it’s a massive galaxy compared to what I’m usually after with these flat galaxies. It’s not a super-bright galaxy, but it’s very, very diffuse and long, elongated in PA… 90˚ (?); it almost reminds me of NGC 3109, the “other” (disputed) Local Group spiral. This is no less than 8.0’ x 1.25’; it’s tapered at the ends, especially the F end, and seems to peter out more in the F half. It’s brighter in the center, but there’s not really what I would actually call central brightening; there’s no core or nucleus or anything. The galaxy shows hints of being irregular in brightness; the S edge is much more distinct and cut off (is this a possible dust lane?). The most noteworthy feature, aside from its hugeness and flatness, is the 11th-magnitude star on the N edge just F center, just on the edge of the halo. Just P the 11th-magnitude star is a kind of a darker vein that runs more P-F (?). That P end, from the 11th-magnitude star P-ward is very irregularly bright or mottled; it seems to have a brighter patch just on the P end before it fades out. Just inside the P end is a threshold star. There are several other noteworthy stars here; F that star, toward the F end of the galaxy and very very slightly N (also outside the halo but by a bit more than the 11th-mag) is a 13.5-magnitude star; those are separated by 3’; 3’ F very slightly S from the second star (so just past the end of the galaxy) is a 14.5-magnitude star. From the 11th-magnitude star due S by 4.5’ is a 12th-magnitude star that is the right-angle vertex of a triangle with the 11th; F very very slightly N of the right-angle vertex by 3.5’ is a 13th-magnitude star; from the right-angle vertex N very very slightly F by 1.3’ is a star of 14th magnitude. That’s a fantastic galaxy!

Although these are good notes on NGC 4517—yet another galaxy that needs the extra aperture of the Obsession (really, they all do)—I managed to somehow miss NGC 4517A in the field. Perhaps its surface brightness was too low, or perhaps I rushed too much in my observations.

By midnight, we’d all had our fill of photons. It had been a fine night’s observing, but the weather won out. I took time for a final object before joining the others in tearing down and heading back to our light-swamped city.

NGC 4197 (Vir): Remaining up here in the head region of Virgo with NGC 4197, and it’s back to the relatively-smaller galaxies like those I was looking at earlier. This one is pretty faint but fairly unmistakable; it’s immediately noticeable in the field. Position angle about 40-45˚; 1.75’ x 0.2’. There’s not a lot of central brightening but what there is is more toward the S end; the NF end, is much more diffuse than the rest. It’s somewhat-irregularly bright, but not what I would call “mottled.” 1.5’ S of the galaxy is a 14.5-magnitude star; due F the galaxy by 3.75’ is a 12.5-magnitude star that has due S of it by 3.75’ an 11th-magnitude star. Even further due S of the galaxy by 9’ is an 11.5-magnitude star. There’s also a small right triangle whose 12.5-magnitude right-angle vertex is P very slightly S of the galaxy by 6.5’. This is a fairly faint but fairly obvious flat galaxy for this aperture.

II. A week later, it was back to planetary nebulae; these would turn out to be among the most difficult planetaries I needed for the AL Planetary Nebula list owing to their deep-southern declinations. I hadn’t realized, when I initially went through the AL’s list, how many of these there were lurking among the crowded, horizon-hugging fields of Lupus and southern Scorpius; they were a challenge not only because of their low altitude but for the brief period of time each of them remained observable. I had just a month or so for NGC 5873 in Lupus, for example. With opportunities limited, there was no time to waste.

Needing flat, low southern horizons, Linslaw was the only choice to observe from. (Had we not been effectively banned from using Eureka Ridge, it would’ve served just as well, if dewier.) I gave Alan a lift out; Jerry was setting up as we arrived. Mark, of course, was already set up, and was running his imaging rig through some preliminary paces as I parked the Caveman-Mobile, while Loren was on his way over after work.

Conditions weren’t great. The transparency—the clarity of the air—was average at best, with strands of cirrus drifting through; this also affected the seeing (the steadiness of the air). One of these cirrus tides went through as I was taking notes on my first object. The temperature wasn’t unpleasant, though, especially compared to the previous excursion. The waxing crescent Moon was still in the sky, too, and would be until past midnight.

I had my old phone with me, rather than the newer one with the better battery. This meant that I needed to conserve battery power in order to get through the list of objects I’d assembled. And I needed a good run of planetaries tonight, to keep on pace with the AL list; as I intended to reobserve all 110 of the planetaries on the list with the 20” (giving me multiple observations of each), I really needed to get through all of them in the 12.5” scope this year.

Ironically, although my first target was indeed a planetary nebula, it wasn’t actually on the AL list.

MOON: 4 days (set at 12:32 AM; 16% illuminated)
SEEING: 5 (3)
SQM: 21.58
NELM: not checked
WEATHER CONDITIONS: temps to mid-40s; no dew; mild breeze, cool to cold
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

IC 972 (Vir): IC 972 here, in Virgo, is the first one of what hopefully is a productive evening of planetary nebula hunting here at Linslaw. The Moon is still being a bit of a problem right now. This is a very indistinct not quite 1’ diameter glow with some slightly uneven brightness. It’s very diffuse and quite difficult here in direct vision in the 14mm unfiltered, with the Moon still being problematic; averted vision helps a great deal. I suspect this is actually not a bad little nebula when the moon isn’t a problem. The nebula has NP it by 3.67’ a 12th-magnitude star, and it has 2.5’ N very very very slightly F it another 12th-magnitude star; continuing 6.5’ N very very slightly F the nebula is a 9.5-magnitude star that has an 11.5-magnitude star SF it by 1’. NP the 9.5-mag star by 5’ is an 11th-magnitude star; from the 9.5-magnitude star 6.5’ almost due N is another 9.5-magnitude star, and there’s a 10th-magnitude star NF that star by 3’. Going to go ahead and throw the UHC in the UHC pops the nebula out well, but it’s still diffuse and undetailed. Maybe 0.67’ or 0.75’ diameter. Every now and then in averted, it looks like there’s some “shape” to it other than just being round. There’s no central star or anything at this magnification. The O-III definitely bumps the contrast on the nebula way up: the edges of the nebula in the O-III have more distinctiveness or definition to them; I’m still not 100% sure of annularity, color, or any other detail. This is the only view where the nebula is a little “crisp” around the edge. Averted vision still really helps. There seems to be something at threshold level on the NP edge, even in the filter (so it wouldn’t be a threshold star), a little stellaring of nebulosity that’s very tentative.

The International Space Station made a spectacular pass overhead as I was observing IC 972; earlier, the Chinese equivalent had made a scene itself, traveling in a roughly-perpendicular trajectory. Jerry tracked the ISS in his scope, announcing that the solar panels were quite visible on this pass. (In fact, the number of naked-eye satellites visible on the night was kind of ridiculous… and would become even moreso quickly.)

I wandered about the sky for a while, waiting for my next target to reach a favorable position. With Ophiuchus well placed, I took a tour through some of its globular clusters, also stopping by its brightest galaxy, NGC 6384. I also paid a visit to an old friend, NGC 5894, a small, visually-unremarkable globular cluster in the tail of Hydra. One of the Milky Way’s most distant globulars, NGC 5894 was also one of the prized observations from my early days as an observer, when I found it from the garishly-overlit skies of Cincinnati with a “mere” 8-inch scope.

I heard a shout—from Robert, I think—and turned toward the direction the shouter had indicated. It took no time at all to see what the commotion was about: across the northern sky wormed a greenish glow, at least three, maybe four, degrees long, changing shape as it crawled from east to west. Although it was dark, I didn’t need light to tell that all eyes on the crag were glued to the weird, squirming green coil making its way through the sky.

The telescope wasn’t necessary to identify this particular flying object—or series of flying objects, as we all knew it to be. This was a chain of Starlink satellites, recently launched, the folly of our recent Saturday Night Live host. Bob the Dob split them with ease, a whole string of fast-moving starlike specks flashing through the eyepiece field. I lost count; there were sixty in the chain, but I didn’t stay with them that long in the scope. The naked-eye view was the most compelling; we followed the chain until it faded from sight behind the small copse of trees atop the bluff and into the dome of the city, blocked from our view by the sandstone crag.

Fifteen minutes later, we had only just gotten back to our individual tasks when a glorious meteor fireball gashed its way across the southern sky, almost completely east to west, leaving a persistent smoke trail behind it. I’m pretty sure we applauded; whatever successes we each had on the night, just being at Linslaw for the night’s fireworks was enough. We’d hit the most dramatic man-made and natural sights imaginable in the night sky—how could those be topped?

We followed up with an observation of the brilliant nova in Cassiopeia. Not as spectacular to our eyes as what we’d witnessed already, but even moreso when the astrophysics involved were weighed in. It was astonishing that this nova was still a going concern to such a degree; discovered in March, the nova had continued to flare, reaching naked-eye brightness the week before this.

Then it was back to my list, and an object far off the beaten path. The Moon was still present, low in the west. More intrusive was the flickering screen on the back of Alan’s camera, a neon-sign glow straight ahead that (albeit dimly) lit up the ground in front of me every few seconds.

NGC 5873 (Lup): This is one of the more difficult sightings I’ve done, ever:  a planetary in Lupus, NGC 5873, which is tiny and faint and difficult in the poor seeing down this low… and we are really low, a couple of degrees above the horizon tops [8˚ from the horizon, 6˚ from the mountaintops], about a Telrad and a half diameter off the horizon. The nebula is faint, but it’s also identifiable fairly quickly as being just barely non-stellar. The nebula serves as the NF vertex of a diamond having a star of equal magnitude (and I’m actually gonna say that equal magnitude is 11th) P very very very slightly S of it by 1.75’;  S very very very slightly P by 2’ is a 12th-magnitude star, and from the nebula SP by 3.25’ is a 12.5-magnitude star; those stars comprise the diamond. Due N of the planetary by 4.25’ is a 12th-magnitude star, and then from the nebula due NF by 5.5’ is a 9th-magnitude star. F very slightly S of the nebula by 15’ is the N-most of a pair of nearly equal-magnitude stars oriented N very very slightly P-S south very very slightly F to each other, separated by 0.5’, with the N one the brighter; those are 9.5 and 10.5 magnitude; SP the brighter one by 2.75’ is another 9.5-mag star. I suspect that with the filters, there still won’t be much to look at, and this is a very difficult object anyway; it’s so far south to be notable as a planetary of the stellar variety, and I don’t think anything’s going to be much useful for it. Wow, did the UHC filter just blow that up! The nebula’s a rival for the brightest thing in the field now. There’s still no detail, but it’s definitely a remarkably bright little thing with the filter in.. I don’t think I would’ve ever known that this was down here (or bothered with it) without it being on the AL list. I’m not even going go to the O-III; I’m just going to put the 7mm in here and see what happens. The seeing is just terrible down here… OK… there’s almost no way to get a focus on anything down here with the 7mm; still, it’s slightly larger than stellar. It may be a little bit elongated, maybe, with some SP-NF elongation. Adding the UHC in here with the 7mm… with the UHC, it’s still really bright, but anything detail-wise is washed out by the low altitude and crappy seeing.

Jerry and I took SQM readings with the Moon now set; it was useful to occasionally use both his SQM and the one owned by EAS (currently in my possession) to keep track of their calibration with each other. We each had several readings of 21.57 and 21.58 over in the vicinity of Corona Borealis (a useful part of the sky for such readings, due to the relative sparseness of the starry background there), the close agreement likely demonstrating that both meters were in good working order.

NGC 6072 (Sco): After a side detour to poke around with M5 and Seyfert’s Sextet, this is NGC 6072, again way down scraping the horizon, and it’s a much more impressive specimen that it has any right to be down that low. It’s about 0.75’ around and irregularly bright across its dimensions; it’s brighter more N-S than P-F, with the F edge especially kind of vague and ill-defined. The nebula is very irregularly round, and not well defined at all (this is with no filter); it’s very obvious even with no filter, and even down this low (it’s less than 8° from the mountaintops here). It’s surrounded to the roughly P and roughly F by a bunch of fainter stars in the 12th/13th magnitude range. Due N of the nebula by 7’ is an 8.5-magnitude star (I probably need to account for extinction more than I am). That 8.5-magnitude star is actually the point of a narrow isosceles triangle, and has F somewhat N of and NF it by 6.5’ each a pair of 10th-magnitude stars, and those are themselves separated by 2.5’. P slightly N of the nebula by 2.25’ is a 12.5-magnitude star that has another 12.5-magnitude star almost due P it by 1.5’. F by 4’ is a 12.5 magnitude star that has NF it by 1.67’ a star that looks to be an actual double and has a fainter companion S very very slightly F by 15”; those are 12th and 13.5 magnitude; and the brighter of that pair has a 12.5-magnitude star N very very slightly P it by 1.25’. This seems well worth taking the time to examine; it’s by far the best planetary of the night so far, so we’ll go ahead with the UHC:  it’s hard to get focus down here, but the filter provides a nice contrast boost, although the seeing’s still so poor. This planetary almost resembles a small, very distant globular, not like a galaxy like some of these other fainter, mid-sized ones do. The O-III really brings out the brightness of that N-S axis in a way that the UHC did not. I want to say that it’s elongated that direction, but it isn’t; it’s almost like the Dumbbell, round but much brighter in one axis, almost like a bar across the middle of a rounder general glow. Aside from that, there’s just not much else coming through, so we’re going to head on to the 7mm. [Going to pass on Ton 2, which I’d hoped to scout for, because the sky isn’t good enough. The advantage to working this low in the sky: I can use my chair as a table, as I’m sitting on the ground.] So the 7mm… seeing is crap down there, and I don’t know that the 7mm is bringing out any more detail. (I feel like these notes are poor quality, but I can’t do much with nebulae this low.) The S edge seems more well delineated, a little sharper than the rest of the nebula; the interior brightness is quite irregular. 1/3 of the way from N-S, there’s a roughly P-F kind of dark slash or occlusion against the brighter part of the nebula. I don’t know at this point if filters even have any use, what with the terrible seeing this far south. There’sa kind of vaguely Dumbbell-ish impression in terms of overall shape, but… it’s really, really hard to make out anything in the way of detail, other than the fact that there’s detail to be had that I can’t make out.

On some of these nebulae, I feel like I have to wrack my brain to come up with enough of a description, particularly when the sky conditions won’t support the observation. This is how I end up with long sets of notes on some of the tiny, stellar objects like NGC 5873. NGC 6072 was a considerably more impressive object, but I still found myself sometimes grasping at barely-relevant thoughts while trying to make this one seem more memorable than it might have really been.

Note to self: get a new, better O-III filter. It’s past time.

NGC 6153 (Sco): NGC 6153 is showing up really well considering its closeness to the horizon; I would be willing to say it’s less than 4° above the horizon here, because we’ve got a couple of hills that rise a couple of degrees above the actual horizon. (I starhopped from NGC 6139, the globular up there, to find it; we’ve hit this nebula right at the meridian by sheer luck.) The nebula is very obvious; it’s smallish, roughly 0.3’ around, maybe 0.4’, but it’s the southern vertex of a very compressed diamond which is longer in the P-F axis than the N-S axis, at the S end of which is the nebula. The middle of this nebula is pretty nicely bright, but there’s no central star to speak of, although it kind of hints that there may be. The F side of the nebula’s a little bit sharper defined, but that’s all relative down in this muck. The N-S axis on this diamond is about 2.75’, and the star at the N end of that axis, again with no accounting for extinction, looks to be of 10th magnitude. The P-F axis is about 4.25’; the star at the F end of that axis is the brightest not just in the field, but certainly the brightest in the diamond at 8th magnitude; there’s a 10th magnitude star at the P end of the P-F axis. The 8th-magnitude star is NF the nebula by 2.67’ and the star at the P end of the axis is 2.75’ from the nebula. The 8th-magnitude star is also the primary of a pair/double, with a 14th-magnitude star FvvsS by 15”. From the P end of the diamond, P slightly S by 3.75’, is an 11th-magnitude star that may be double, but I can’t tell in the seeing, and SP that star (the supposed double) by 2’ is an 11.5-magnitude star. The UHC filter does basically nothing; the field looks almost unchanged. So out with that filter and in with the O-III; I think this nebula will shine a bit in the 7mm, as I’m still impressed with how good the nebula looks despite the conditions. In the O-III, it’s really bright, but the focus just isn’t happening. It’s more evenly illuminated with the O-III. The 7mm Nagler doesn’t let me focus at all down here, but it does show some irregularity to the outside of the nebula’s rim; it’s definitely more indistinct. No central star is visible at either magnification; the seeing is so poor I’d never be able to focus on it if there was one. The S arc of the nebula is a little brighter than the rest, but only very vaguely; certainly the S half is a bit brighter and better defined than the N. I’m sure this would be a really nice object even from 10˚ farther south.

Loren began packing up for the drive home, citing the wounded pride that comes with difficulty in finding some of one’s targets for the evening. He was doing far better than I was at the same stage of our observing careers, having completed the Herschel 400 only two years after getting involved with astronomy, and currently working on carbon stars; finding an individual, specific star in an out-of-the-way starfield in some obscure constellation takes a lot more skill than one might think.

“The Universe is a harsh mistress,” I replied, citing a much-loved (and very true) aphorism on amateur astronomy.

I’ve often likened astronomy to fishing—sometimes the process is the only reward a session provides. The fish aren’t biting; the faint glimmer of a galaxy just eludes even a skilled observer. There’s the enjoyment of the search, or of being on the water, but the fisherman or observer ends up with an empty bucket, and the communion with nature is the only takeaway. Regardless, it’s a more-rewarding pursuit than being blasted with televised nonsense or frittering away slivers of one’s lifespan (and intelligence) on Internet detritus.

Time and energy were running low. All that remained on my agenda for the evening was a re-observation of a planetary I’d caught before from Eureka, but on a much better night than this one; unsatisfied with my notes from that (seemingly-ancient) session, I’d resolved to do better. The results were mixed, to say the least. I’d hoped to also get the Bug Nebula, NGC 6302, only a few degrees away from my current target, but my phone battery had also dwindled to a minimum.

NGC 6337 (Sco): This is not an easy find compared to the last two, but it’s there and distinctly so; it’s much better in averted version. This is NGC 6337, the Cheerio Nebula, and with the greyness of the sky down there and the poor seeing, it’s a tough catch. It’s a very ill defined… I shouldn’t say ill-defined, because the edges are decently defined, but the glow itself is not really an easy one to hang on to. Moving the field, or moving the scope, helps a great deal, but it’s still pretty ghostly; you can barely see it in direct vision, and averted helps a great deal—in averted vision, it’s quite apparently round. But it’s just a ghostly disk about 0.75’ across. It’s relatively easy to see that there’s a nebula there; it just might catch the attention without knowing that it’s there, as it’s fairly obvious though quite faint. A number of faint field stars are nearby and detract from the view; the brightest of these are SF and NF, with the one to the SF the brightest in the field at 10th magnitude, while the one to the NF is 11.5 magnitude. The 10th-magnitude star is 3.5’ from the nebula, and the 11.5-magnitude star 2.75’, and those are separated by 4.25’. There’s a very, very thin scalene triangle of stars to the N slightly F of the nebula by 13’; the brighter of the two P stars is the brightest in the field, 18’ N slightly F the nebula, and it has SP it by 0.3’ the second star; those are 8th and 10th magnitude respectively; there’s a 9th-mag F very very slightly N of the brighter star by 2’, and that triangle is the signpost for finding the nebula. In the poor seeing, all of the stars look like they’re all underwater. The UHC just pops this sucker right out! The nebula is 0.75’ across, and with the UHC one can definitely suspect the annularity. The ring itself seems to stand out a bit more from the darker interior. Averted vision is still a big help in observing the nebula. There seems to be a star on the SP just outside the nebula that wasn’t possible to separate from the glow of the nebula without the filter; that’s unusual. But the central star and the other stars that I know are “within” the nebula aren’t visible at all. With the O-III, the view is roughly similar to that in the UHC, but the O-III brightens the center of the nebula to an extent that the annularity is harder to pick out. There’s no color, no central star… but in averted the annularity seems reasonably strong. The rim seems strongest on the NP. Using the 7mm Nagler, unfiltered, it’s still visible. There’s definitely a star on the SP just outside the nebula; there’s also one on the N very very slightly F as well. With the UHC/7mm, the nebula’s barely visible. The annularity now seems as if the F edge is better defined than the rest. The O-III doesn’t do a good job with it; especially in the poor seeing, although it does make the annularity stand out.

Loren left first, with some trepidation. Living in Springfield, he had a longer drive home than any of us. And none of us knew of any 24-hour gas stations along the way. I always made sure to keep the van at least ¾ full when driving out to Linslaw, but I’d also run afoul of the fuel gods while observing. It wasn’t a comfortable feeling. We only half-kiddingly promised to give him a lift home if he ran out of gas along the way; I offered to let him spend the rest of the night at the Caveman Cave if he didn’t think he could make it all the way home. My voice was thoroughly hoarse from all of the notetaking and chatter of the evening, and the need to talk above the considerable breeze that rumbled in the background (and frequently the foreground) of my audio notes.

And so closed May’s first Moon-dark phase. When we reconvened at month’s end, it would be under significantly-different circumstances.

(Loren made it home; the gas station on the far west outskirts of Eugene was indeed a 24-hour stop.)

Yet Another Strange Land

Our first observing session of the April Moon-dark phase happened without me; Robert and Jerry stopped by the Eagle’s Rest “amphitheater” on the 9th to catch a few photons before the clouds rolled in. It was two nights later, on Sunday the 11th, that I was able to come down from the trees and gather up some starlight. Of the rest of the EAS Irregulars (as we dubbed our little group-within-a-group), only Jerry was undeterred by the weather forecast.

I.The Clear Sky Chart forecast called for clear, mostly-transparent skies with poor seeing and 12-16 MPH winds, but that wasn’t quite what we got. Some high clouds drifted through during the early part of the session; this was common at Linslaw, with the ocean less than a half-hour’s crow flight away. The seeing wasn’t great, but wasn’t as terrible as expected, although the transparency wasn’t quite as good as the prediction, either—at least early on. The wind was another matter, though; it rumbled and roared on my audio recordings of the session, and occasionally drowned out my voice. It also made it difficult to work on planetary nebulae, as I had to let go of the scope at times in order to swap out eyepieces and nebula filters, leaving the scope at the mercy of the wind. (You wouldn’t think a 75-pound telescope would be vulnerable to a 20MPH wind, but such a finely-tuned and –balanced instrument is easy to blow off course in an unexpected gust.)

But we prevailed, as we had to in order to glean ancient starlight from the sky we were given.

SEEING: 6, 7
SQM: 21.78 
NELM: not checked
WEATHER CONDITIONS: temps to upper 30s; no dew; very windy; high clouds early
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

Struve 742 (Tau): Up here at Linslaw with Jerry on what’s turning into a breezy night, looking at a Struve double star I’ve stumbled across between the Crab Nebula and the outer horn of Taurus: the two are not quite equal magnitude; the preceding of the two (they’re roughly P-F) is a little bit fainter. I’m gonna say those are 7th and 7.3 magnitude, separated by about 7” [actually 4”]. 

I don’t normally take notes on double stars, unless they’re on the Astronomical League’s double-star list, and then there’s a sketch involved with the note-taking. But this one was pretty striking, and well worth the effort; I swept over it while looking at the Crab Nebula. And then it was on to planetary nebulae, and one that I’d started back in March only to give up for a better night; tonight wasn’t great, but was better than my previous attempt.

The wind and the cold combined to make the observing rather uncomfortable; I was already stopping to put my gloves on.

Abell 21 (Gem): Abell 21 is the first object on tonight’s agenda here at Linslaw, on a not horrendously cold, but very gusty, windy night so far on the crag. Seeing and transparency are a little bit iffy, or a little bit variable, rather, so things have come and gone a little bit; at the current moment it looks a bit better than it did earlier, so we’re gonna presumptively go ahead and start the notes here. The nebula is a very, very indistinct gossamer glow some 12’ roughly SP-NF, and is definitely weakest on the NP. I unfortunately know a little bit more about this nebula visually than I like to know before I find something, but it is definitely distinctly not a full annulus—rather a crescent—with the opening to the P, especially the NP. The brightest portions of the nebula are those to the F and SP. The F-most (and brightest) portion lies between a 10.5-magnitude star 7’ S very very slightly F the nebula’s center and an 8th-magnitude star 18’ N very very slightly F the center. Those two stars are about 24’ apart. 9’ N of the 10.5 magnitude star (so between the two stars) is an 11.5-magnitude star, and one of the brightest portions of the nebula is 4’ N slightly P that star; it’s a very ill-defined slightly-brighter patch roughly 1.25’ diameter; it’s very very very indistinct and tenuous. Running from that brighter patch and through the 11.5-magnitude star for 8’ is one of the brighter arcs of the nebula, helping to define the nebula’s F edge. 6’ NP the 10.5-magnitude star is the middle of a 6’ long spray of ten 13th/14th-magnitude stars; that spray runs NP-SF. N of the middle of that spray by 3.67’ is another very ill-defined patch of nebulosity; it’s on the nebula’s SP quadrant and due N of the middle of the spray, and is roughly 1.67’ diameter. There’s not really anything that could be identified as the central star; it’s so poorly-defined that it’s hard enough just to identify the center of the nebula. At the moment, the F arc of the nebula is a little bit more apparent, running along through the 11.5-magnitude star.

With the UHC… that’s really impressive! One would expect the glow of the nebula to pop out more, and it really does; the arc on the F side, in particular, takes on a whole new life. The filter almost completes the arc of the whole nebula, from the F side all the way around; the brighter patches I’d noted previously are considerably brighter still. In averted vision, the whole area of the nebula seems filled with nebulosity, as opposed to being a crescent shape; it seems more completely filled-in than it is in reality. The arc to the SP is substantially brighter and runs 3’ x 1’ P slightly N-F slightly S. It’s gained a lot of “bulk”; this is the area the filter improves the most, even more than the F-most. From the 11.5-mag star on the F arc up to the brighter node on the NP is significantly brighter as well—not quite as much as the SP portion, but it makes the whole F arc of the nebula substantially more impressive. Rocking the scope back and forth really brings out the interior of the glow, where the annulus should be. (Got a lot to talk about for something so indistinct and vague.) This is really impressive with the UHC. The NP quadrant, where the nebula’s kind of broken open, almost has a straightish edge across it, that edge of the really faint nebulosity; it’s not razor-straight but generally so from the N edge down to the SP. The O-III really brings the whole nebula into view. Those two brighter chunks are quite obvious now, especially for an Abell planetary. The F (outer) rim of the F arc, between the 10.5- and 11.5-magnitude stars, is a little better defined, a little bit sharper than the rest of it (I didn’t notice this with the UHC). This is not at all an obvious object, but averted vision and rocking the scope make it stand out from the background.

While I was taking notes, Jerry and I also discussed a couple of extragalactic supernovae that were currently visible: one in NGC 3310—which Jerry looked for with his 12” binoscope, but couldn’t find; and the one in IC 3322A, which he did find, and which I would visit later.

And then it was off on an extensive hunt for another planetary rather similar to Abell 21. The wind continued to rage (somewhat mildly, admittedly, but it felt like rage to those of us on the sandstone crag).

JnEr1 (Lyn): After a great deal of searching and having to start over a couple of times during the search, using 27 Lyncis as the “home star,” I have finally—and only through the use of the UHC filter—been able to extract Jones-Emberson 1, the Headphones Nebula, from the background. It’s being very difficult tonight; I’ve seen it before, under slightly worse conditions darkness-wise, and it appeared better than this, but we’re gonna take what we’ve got. The nebula–and I have the UHC in at present–is a glow of approximately 6’ diameter. It has a couple of embedded stars in it: a 13th-magnitude star just outside the N edge of the nebula, and a 13.5-magnitude star to the S that’s somewhat inside the nebula. F slightly N of the nebula by 7.5’ is a 10.5-magnitude star that serves as the F-most vertex of a small isosceles triangle, the N and S sides of which are 2.25’ and the P side of which is 1.67’; the NP vertex is 12.5 magnitude and the SP vertex is 14th. N very slightly P the nebula by about 9’ is an 11th-magnitude star. Due P the nebula by about 6.5’ is an 11.5-magnitude star, and then almost due S of that star is another 11.5-magnitude star which lies 8’ from the middle of the nebula. Every so often the transparency seems to improve a little bit, and in averted vision a hint of annularity to the nebula becomes visible, with brighter portions along the rim to the NP and SF; these are very indistinct though—this nebula’s actually worse than Abell 21 in that regard; the outer edges here are much less distinct than they were in the Medusa. With no filter, I’d be really hard-pressed to tell there’s anything in the field, even in averted vision. [There’s a bright asterism that I’ve used as “home” for the nebula, consisting of an almost-equilateral triangle of 9.5/10th-mag stars, and that is 1.3/1.75’ on a side; S and SP that triangle is an arc of three, the N-most of which is the brightest in the field at 9th magnitude, and then P very very slightly S of that by 4’ is an 11.5-mag star; from that star P somewhat N by 2.67’ is a 10.5-mag star.] With the O-III, the disk of the nebula is visible in direct vision, but there’s not even the sense of annularity there was in the UHC; I’m still getting a little more definition on the NP and SF arcs, where the “headphone cups” must be, although this is in part an averted-vision thing. Even though it doesn’t show a regular annulus, there’s definitely irregularity in the interior brightness, but it’s very indistinct as to discreet details. (Rocking the scope helps.)

Jerry was currently observing one of the many galaxies dubbed “The Needle Galaxy,” this one NGC 4424 in Canes Venatici. I turned my attention to an object I’d attempted to find several times over the years, unsuccessfully, and one not on any of the AL lists I’d been working on. It had been discussed recently online, and that discussion had refueled my determination to find it. With clear(ish) skies and some extra time, I wasn’t going to let it go this time, even with the wind howling in the background.

Frosty Leo (IRAS 09371+1212; Leo): One that’s not on the Astronomical League list, but has been much discussed on CloudyNights this week; this is Frosty Leo, IRAS 09371+1212, and boy, is it a tiny little bastard, but one that’s considerably bright. Even in the 14mm it’s clearly non-stellar: it actually looks extended N very very very slightly P-S very very very slightly F and perhaps 8” x 5”. N slightly F this protoplanetary by 0.75’ is a 12.5-magnitude star, and that star is the S-most vertex of a diamond that consists of two other 12.5-magnitude stars and a 14th-magnitude star: N slightly P that first 12.5-magnitude star by 2.5’ is another of the same magnitude, and then NF the first star by 2.75’ is yet another of magnitude 12.5, and then 3.5’ N slightly F from the first 12.5-magnitude star is the 14th-magnitude star. The brightest star in the field is N slightly P the nebula by 12’ and is 8th magnitude, and it has 2.5’ N slightly P it an 11.5-magnitude star, and then S of the nebula is a line of four stars that’s about 10’ long and consists of three 12th/13th-magnitude stars (actually two more of magnitude 12.5 and a pair that’s almost due S of the nebula; the pair consists of 13th- and a 14th-magnitude stars, separated SP-NF each other by 10”, with the SP star the brighter), and an 11.5-magnitude star which is at the SP end of that line; the line is actually angled P somewhat S-F somewhat N and the F-most star (one of the 12.5-mags) is F somewhat S of the nebula by 5.75’. This nebula definitely needs the 7mm Nagler, but first… I know it’s a protoplanetary but I’m going to try the UHC anyway, even though I don’t think it’ll do much of anything. And my suspicions are confirmed; the UHC doesn’t really do much of anything to improve the view. It’ll be a function of magnification to make any difference. So because the UHC did nothing, I’m going to skip trying the O-III and just plop the 7mm in here. In the 7mm, every so often the transparency clears, giving the nebula a distinctly bilobed character. It’s clearly elongated NsP-SsF, and big enough that I might’ve given this a second look while sweeping the field. The N lobe looks a little smaller than the S one, and in moments of great clarity, there’s a (possibly illusory?) trace of space between the two lobes.

Jerry had somewhat miraculously tracked down Hoag’s Object—a perfect ring galaxy in Serpens, and a difficult target even in much larger scopes—in his binoscope while I’d been taking notes, but he did stop over to check out Frosty Leo. (It’s called “Frosty Leo,” by the way, because of the amount of water ice that’s been detected within the nebula.)

One character flaw that had been bothering me in my recent observations was my unwillingness to use more of my eyepiece arsenal in observing some of these difficult objects. In addition to the 14mm and 7mm eyepieces (the latter belonging to EAS), I had at my disposal a 6mm Radian, a 4.8mm Nagler, and my prized 10mm Delos… none of which I used with any regularity, and all of which would be useful on these varied planetaries. Why wasn’t I using the 4.8 Nagler on these tiny objects? Why didn’t I use the 10mm Delos on the larger ones like Abell 21, where the 7mm was too much power but where the 158x the Delos offered might be perfect? Part of this was the constant worry of having to clean the prized Delos if it was to get dirty somehow, but that didn’t explain my reluctance to use, say, the 4.8 Nagler, which would be eminently useful in gleaning extra detail from the stellar and barely non-stellar objects I was running across. I made a mental note to do so in the future, as there was no good reason not to.

I spent a fair amount of time searching for Abell planetaries 35 and 36—the former in Hydra, the latter in Virgo. These are huge nebulae, among the biggest in the sky, but devilishly faint and vulnerable to imperfect sky conditions. Neither was able to grant me even the faintest trace of their existence, even using my 24mm Meade SWA eyepiece. Of all of the planetary nebulae on the AL list, these were proving to be beyond the 12.5” scope and my eyes; it wouldn’t be until my sojourns in Cygnus that I would strike out again so thoroughly to find one of these dead star remnants.

Jerry had already observed the bright nova in Cassiopeia, which was remarkably still visible, and had moved on to another extragalactic supernova—this one in NGC 5018. Meanwhile, I was aiming my own scope at the previously-noted IC 3322A, which in addition to currently hosting a supernova was also a member of the Flat Galaxies Catalogue.

IC 3322ASN2021hiz; NGCs 4365, 4370 (Vir): Having struck out with the last couple of planetaries that I needed (Abells 35 and 36), I’m taking a bit of a detour to get a couple of nice flat galaxies in, starting with a really impressive one that is hosting at the moment a very bright supernova. We’re in the head of Virgo, where everything is of course galaxies; this is IC 3322A. The galaxy is 2.67’ long by about 10” wide, and the supernova is very much at the N tip, possibly 8” from the N end of the galaxy on the inside of the galaxy’s halo. The galaxy is elongated 150˚ PA. It has the classic flat-galaxy brightness profile to it: little in the way of nucleus or central bulge; arms fading out at the ends. There’s mottling evident along the galaxy’s length, which isn’t often enough the case with these flat galaxies. The S end is much less distinct than the N, but it could just be the supernova drawing attention to that side; the supernova is as bright as 12th magnitude. This is definitely one of the more impressive extragalactic supernovae I’ve seen. There’s no nucleus, but 1.67’ F the middle of the galaxy is a 14.5-magnitude star; that star has another of the same brightness due P by 0.75’. NP the galaxy by 5.5’ is a 10th-magnitude star, and then P very slightly S of the galaxy by 4’ is a 13th-magnitude star. 20’ P somewhat N of the galaxy is a much larger, brighter galaxy [NGC 4365]; very bright and unmistakable, with a stellar nucleus and brighter core; the core is 0.3’ diameter but gradually arrived at; the halo is 2.75’ x 1.75’ and is elongated P slightly S-F slightly N. That galaxy is bracketed by a 12th-magnitude star to the N slightly P by 3.3’ and an 11th-magnitude star S somewhat F of the galaxy by 5.75’. The larger galaxy doesn’t come to a crisp halo/core distinction and is not well defined; the edges just fade out into the background. NF that galaxy by 10’ (and therefore NP IC 3322A by 18’) is a smaller, much more diffuse galaxy [NGC 4370], with a very poorly-concentrated core, a diffuse poorly-defined halo and no visible nucleus. This galaxy is elongated P very slightly N-F very slightly S, 1.67’ x 1.0’. [I could probably go on for hours about all the galaxies up here!] In the 7mm, the large galaxy doesn’t show much more detail. The smaller one is a little irregular in brightness across its halo. IC 3322A is just a really nice edge-on galaxy, although the supernova kind of overshadows the rest of it. At this magnification, the galaxy extends N a little bit beyond the SN. A nice flat galaxy for the 12.5-inch scope!

I had previously observed NGCs 4365 and 4370 before, but had made no mention of IC 3322A; I had either not seen it, or had ignored it because it wasn’t part of my agenda that week. This time, I missed IC 3322 to the due N of IC 3322A, which was also in the field, despite panning around looking for other galaxies. So much for being observant!

Having had a productive observing session, and having had enough of the cold and the wind, we decided to save some energy for the next night (i.e. later that day), which also boasted a clear forecast, albeit with somewhat better seeing… and even more wind. We called it a night, having seen multiple extragalactic supernovae and a few of the larger planetary nebulae that I was already late in getting to.

II. Frank joined Jerry and I later that night at Linslaw. I think we might have bailed on the night—or gone elsewhere—had we anticipated the even stronger winds that awaited us when we got to the crag, although the conditions weren’t enough to deter us from setting up.

I had brought along the 20” Obsession this time, having decided to take a break from planetary nebulae to focus on flat galaxies (and other objects, some just for the hell of it). You might expect the 20” to be more stable in the wind than the 12.5”, but this doesn’t account for the amount of surface facing the wind and the even-greater smoothness of the 20” azimuth bearings. Several times I had to hold onto the scope to avoid it blowing around in circles. Jerry’s binoscope was heavier and less-slick in azimuth; it also didn’t have a wind-catching shroud around it like the Obsession did. Frank’s own binoscope (which he had brought of his myriad scopes) was similarly more solid in the wind, although Frank himself was fairly displeased with the conditions on the crag.

MOON: 1 day (set at 8:41 PM; 1% illuminated)
SQM: 21.58 
NELM: not checked
WEATHER CONDITIONS: temps to upper 40s; no dew; very windy; wind eventually drove us off mountain
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

IC 2531 (Ant): We’re back at Linslaw for Round Two and starting off with an obscure one way down low in Antlia, IC 2531. The seeing is pretty crummy down here—it of course has moments where it’s a little bit better; the scope collimation isn’t great, either, as this is the first session since we cleaned the mirror and disassembled the scope. This galaxy is a huge kind-of-a little-brother to NGC 891 in Andromeda. Certainly in the pictures that’s what we’re looking at here; it’s a long thin streak with a noticeable central hub. (I actually “discovered” this one first on photographs and decided that I had to look at it.) But the dust lane that helps make it a clone of 891 is nowhere near visible… or at least obvious; the seeing down that low is no better than a 4, so it’s not the best of conditions, but this may be the best chance I get at it, given how low it is and how briefly it’s visible from this far north. The galaxy is no less than 5’ long; it’s 0.5’ wide at the hub. It looks as though there’s texture to it that should be visible but is just out of reach, because of the seeing and transparency at this altitude; it kind of hints, especially in averted vision, that there’s more detail that’s just below the threshold of visibility right now. It’s situated in a surprisingly active field for being in Antlia, which is always thought to be pretty desolate (Luginbuhl and Skiff refer to it as “the astral Empty Quarter”). The galaxy is pretty close to due P-F in elongation; might be 85° position angle, maybe even 90°. It’s really hard to get a fix on because of the altitude/declination and the poor seeing. There are several notable groupings of stars around the galaxy, starting just off the P end, 3.5’ P very very slightly S of the Galaxy’s center, at a 13.5-magnitude star with another of the same magnitude P very very slightly S of it by 0.67’. NP the central hub by 2.25’ is a 14th-magnitude star with another of the same magnitude N slightly P it by 0.75’. There’s another 14th magnitude star FsS of the hub of the galaxy by 2’, and there’s also, 3.3’ F very very slightly N of the galaxy’s central hub (so just north of the F end of the galaxy from the central hub) a 14.5-magnitude star. 6.5’ due N of the galaxy by is the middle star of a roughly N-S arc of three stars; that star is 12th magnitude and has another of the same magnitude 1.25’ S very slightly F it, and also has an 11.5-magnitude star N very slightly F it by the same distance. The S-most of that bend of three, the second of the 12th-magnitude stars, also has another of equal magnitude F it by 1.5’, and that star has a 13.5-magnitude star 0.67’ N very slightly P it. There’s a bright right triangle of stars that I actually used to help find the galaxy; this is SF the galaxy, with its S-most (and brightest, at 9th magnitude) vertex actually 10’ due SF the galaxy; the right-angle vertex is N somewhat F it by 1.75’, and the third vertex is 1’ NP the right-angle vertex; those two are both 10.5 magnitude. There’s no point in using higher magnification given the lousy seeing down here, but I’m plenty impressed by the view in the 14mm.

Jerry and I both commented on how fine a galaxy IC 2531 was, and how being so far north kept us from winnowing out the fine objects in that part of the sky.

Having extracted the gorgeous galaxy from the reaches of Antlia, I spent the remainder of the evening on the ladder, observing targets in parts of the sky more suited to the conditions, even as being on the ladder was less confortable due to the regular gusts of cold air that billowed around our little “mountaintop.” To say the wind was howling by this point would be underselling it a bit; the noise on my audio was a constant roar. (Perhaps because of the winds, Frank was discussing air shows he’d been involved with, as well as some pretty harrowing tales of his time in Vietnam.)

Hickson 40 (Hya): In the 20”, this couldn’t be more obvious, and considering that it’s a bunch of PGC galaxies, that’s pretty impressive. A great little compact group! It’s located roughly halfway between two 10.5-magnitude stars. There are three distinct objects here: the brightest galaxy [HCG40A] is approximately in the middle [wind blows scope away from my hands]; it has a stellar nucleus (a bright one), a compact little core, and a pretty well-defined 0.3’ x 0.25’ halo elongated N-S. NF that galaxy by 0.75’ is the second brightest [HCG40D], and that one has a brighter core and a PvsS-FvsN halo that spans 12” x 10” and is more diffuse than that of the brightest of the group; it also seems that there’s a threshold star on the F slightly S side of this second galaxy but no visible nucleus. Just S of the largest of these galaxies is a larger indistinct glow that consists of multiple galaxies, including two edge-ons [HCG40C/E] that I’m not able to separate/resolve at this magnification. That glow is very generally NsP-SsF oriented and in very brief moments, it looks separable into its constituent galaxies. At the S end of the group, in moments of better seeing/transparency, there’s an identifiable core and a very very faint substellar nucleus, but the two edge-on galaxies are just a diffuse indistinct glow between that last, S-most one [HCG40B] and the largest one. That third group (the two edge-ons and the S-most discrete object) is 1.25’ x 0.67’ in total. The brightest of the galaxies is almost exactly between the two 10.5-magnitude stars, 10’ from each. The 10.5-magnitude star to the SP is the S-most vertex (and SP vertex) of a right triangle, with its right-angle vertex NF that star by 2.67’; NvsP the right-angle vertex by 2.3’ is the third vertex, which also lies exactly in line with the brightest galaxy in the group and the star to the SP; the right-angle vertex is 12th magnitude and the third is 11.5. Due S of Hickson 40 by 16’ is another 10.5-magnitude star. [I have to let go of the scope for a second to get the 7mm Nagler so I can split the galaxies apart; this is risky in the wind. I’m impressed that I could let the scope go that long and the wind didn’t blow away the galaxies!]  The two N components are very much separated out in the 7mm, with a star on the SsF edge of the N-most; that N-most galaxy has both a threshold star on its NP edge and a stellar nucleus. The glow between the “big” galaxy and the one to the farthest S definitely has a definite shape to it, although it couldn’t be identified as intersecting edge-on galaxies; the more P of the two in that glow has more “presence” to it than the other. I can definitely see three main galaxies, while the fourth and fifth blur together. The third, the one to the far S of the group, has the occasional flash of a very faint substellar nucleus and a tight core that bleeds out into its compact halo. 

I called Jerry over for a look at HCG 40; Frank had already started packing up. 

NGC 3365 (Sex):NGC 3365 is set in one of the most barren fields I’ve seen in a long time. It’s a big flat galaxy with almost nothing within 10’ of it; it’s pretty close to N-S in elongation; it looks to be 170° in PA. It spans 3.5’ x not quite 0.5’. No nucleus is visible, and there’s not much in the way of a central bulge; the illumination is pretty even except at the very ends of the spiral arms. 4.5’ NF from the center of the galaxy is a 15th-magnitude star; SF it by 8’ is an 13.5-magnitude star, and then from that star P somewhat S (so SvsP the galaxy) by about by 10’ is a 14th-magnitude star. This is how much I’m for reaching for field stars here! There are a couple of brighter ones on the periphery, and there’s also a triangle within a triangle outside the N edge of the field, whose N-most vertex is the brightest star in the area at 9th magnitude. I don’t know what’s more intriguing about this: the flat galaxy or the absolutely barren field immediately around it; the emptiness of the field definitely makes the galaxy hard to miss. The galaxy seems to be a little bit more diffuse on the S end than on the N, but the galaxy doesn’t really seem to have any mottling or anything else to it detail-wise; it’s a very smooth brightness gradient.

While I was taking notes on NGC 3365, Jerry was observing M92, the “other” globular cluster in Hercules. We traded views during a lull in the weather.

Just as on the previous night, I struck out on Abell 35, the large planetary in Hydra. Either I was going to need perfect conditions to find it (and Abell 36), or I was probably going to have to head south to view them above the horizon muck and the distant (but prominent) glow from Roseburg. So I wandered around the sky a bit, observing familiar targets with the huge scope, and finally settling on one that I’d never bothered with before.

NGCs 4676A, 4676B (ICs 819, 820; The Mice; Com): We are pretty close to the end of the night here; it’s been a good night despite the wind and the chill. We’re closing out with an interesting sight, The Mice in Coma Berenices, which aren’t on any of my lists except the mental one I keep. (These are pretty close to the meridian, so it’s a long way up the ladder.) These galaxies are both pretty small; they’re actually quite similar in appearance. The more P of the two, which is elongated roughly due N-S, is quite diffuse, reasonably well-defined, and has a somewhat brighter core but no nucleus; the main “body” of the galaxy is 0.3’ long, but the tail (it’s the only visible tail between the two of them) is elongated due N-S, but bends P just a tiny bit at the very N end; the tail is 1.25’ long. The second galaxy is brighter and more concentrated, with a more-obvious core than the first, and is slightly-better defined; the core is reasonably large compared to the halo. The galaxy is elongated 0.3’ x 0.25’ and is elongated SP-NF; it has no tail visible. These two form an almost-right triangle (as the right-angle vertex) with a 10th-magnitude star almost due F (a bit S) by 5.75’ and a 12th-magnitude star 9’ almost due S of the galaxies. The 12th-magnitude star has a 14th-magnitude star NsP it by 2’; the 10th-magnitude star to the F has a pair of 15th-magnitude stars SsF it by 0.5’ and 0.1’, so those are roughly in a line. In the 7mm Nagler, the galaxies blur out badly, but the extra magnification does yield a bit more detail. The more F of the pair may have a tiny very, very faint stellar nucleus that flashes every now and then, and definitely has a better-defined core that the P galaxy; in the P galaxy, the core is smeared into the halo with little definition. There’s about 0.3’ of space separating the two galaxy cores.

Having survived the conditions until after 2 AM, we agreed that it was time for lower elevations and warm drives home. My notes said that “the wind drove us off the mountain,” but considering that we’d been there for more than five hours already, that would’ve been hyperbole.

III. Two nights later—after having thawed out—I joined Dan B back at the crag. The CSC forecast was mixed with regards to sky conditions, but showed little dew and even less wind. With the previous session’s gale still fresh in the memory, Frank and Jerry opted for the amphitheater rather than the darker but more “elemental” observing to be had at Linslaw Point.

So we made it a bit of a competition, texting across the Willamette Valley to compare notes on the observing conditions. Not long after we’d gotten set up, Dan and I knew we’d gotten the better end of the deal; the amphitheater crew was already dealing with partly cloudy skies. We could see those same clouds low in the east from the edge of the crag; it was only a matter of time before they arrived our way.

With the Moon still present early, I turned the giant scope toward it, spending considerable time examining areas along the lunar terminator—specifically the region around Mare Fecunditatis, and especially the chain of three deep, shadow-ridden craters on the N side of the mare. I’m not much of a lunar observer, and am pretty unfamiliar with most of the surface features—I know the Straight Wall, and the Lunar Alps, and the craters Tycho and Copernicus, and that’s about it. Yet another question I should answer: given that the Moon makes deep-sky observing impossible at least two weeks each month, why don’t I spend some time observing the nearest world whose surface we can see?

As the Moon sank toward the horizon, it was evident that the sky crud Jerry and Frank were contending with was having some impact as it spread west, toward where Dan and I were set up. I’d taken some readings with the SQM, only to disagree with them from just eyeballing the sky; it didn’t look as good as the numbers indicated. But we were already set up, and I wasn’t going to abandon the session just because of some high cirrus haze… at least not while we weren’t totally clouded out. So it was time for deep-sky, and making do with what the sky-gods gave us.

MOON: 3 days (set at 10:46 PM; 8% illuminated)
SEEING: 6, 7
SQM: 21.51 
NELM: not checked
WEATHER CONDITIONS: temps to upper 50s; no dew; slight breeze, high cirrus haze to the E that became problematic later in the session
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 2997 (Ant): I had not intended to take notes on NGC 2997 tonight, but I’m gonna do it anyway—this is too good a look at it to pass up, even as down in the muck as it is; the transparency’s not awful down there, but the seeing is pretty atrocious. This is such a wonderful galaxy in photographs, and this is a really nice look at it here, despite everything working against it. The galaxy is elongated P-F and covers a considerable 8.0’ x 5.0’. It’s difficult to trace the outer halo here; I know it’s face on, obviously, but I didn’t notice a lot of the halo at first so I overlooked it in the eyepiece. It’s very diffuse and poorly-defined, with a 0.5’ core  that is not particularly well defined, and every so often it seems as if there might be a very broad nucleus in there, but I’m not sure that’s true. From the middle of the core, about 2.67’ SP, there’s an 11th-magnitude star that’s inside the edge of the halo there, and halfway between the core and that star there’s a darker gap in the halo that has to be space between the spiral arms; that gap stretches from S of the core counter-clockwise up to the N and is about 3.5’ long—from S of the core it sweeps NP, N, and NF. The halo itself is quite mottled or irregular in brightness.  Due F the core by 3.25’, toward the outer edge of the halo, there’s a very very very faint (14.5 magnitude?) star that doesn’t quite seem totally stellar; this could be just the effect of being inside the halo. That star has SF it by 1.75’ a 14th-magnitude star that is the right angle vertex of a triangle, with the star in that edge of the halo and a 13.5-magnitude star due NF the RA vertex by 2.25’. F somewhat S of the core [??] by about 1’ there’s another glimmer inside the halo that’s hard to define; it also looks non-stellar. I’m losing some of my definition of the galaxy here, probably due to the high cirrus crud that’s over in the west; the moon is still up which is not helping either, although it’s in a much better position than it was when I started. The part of the halo from N of the galaxy’s core and sweeping down toward that star on the F edge is just a tiny bit better defined there; this may be the edge of that spiral arm. (There’s quite a lot of detail to be had here.) Almost due P the galaxy, near the P edge of the field (so 12’) is an 8.5-magnitude star; there’s a 9.5-magnitude star F slightly N of that one by 4’. F slightly S of the galaxy, also by about 12’, is a 7.5-magnitude star that is the right-angle vertex of a very bright triangle of stars; 5’ due S of that one is an 8th-magnitude star, and F the right-angle vertex by 7’ is a 7th-magnitude star. From the 8th-magnitude star, S very slightly F by 4’, is a 10.5-magnitude star. The northern arm of the galaxy that sweeps down to the F side seems to be significantly better defined in moments of better sky, and that dark gap between the core and the star to the P somewhat S edge is quite well defined, especially in averted vision; the arm that the gap is separating from the core is not really that well-defined, and seems to be the weaker of the two arms. 

By this point, some honest-to-Crom clouds had rolled in, although they were fairly confined to portions of the sky I could avoid. (Of course, the clouds one could see usually meant that there was a lot of higher-altitude stuff we couldn’t see.) Jerry had texted Dan: he and Frank were reduced to observing through sucker holes (clear “windows” in the sky that promised some fleeting observing, only to cloud over just as the observer pointed his scope that direction). The wind had also picked up a bit, although it was still bearable and had little impact on the observing.

PGC 36026 (MCG-3-30-3; Crt): I’m here in Crater with the somewhat difficult, diffuse PGC 36026; this flat galaxy has some decent size to it, but no real concentration or internal structure or much of anything anything detail-wise to it at all: no nucleus, no central bulge, just a very evenly illuminated streak (and faint at that, at least in the 14 mm). The galaxy extends 2.0’ x 0.3’ and is pretty much 180° PA, maybe 175° at least. It doesn’t look 100% straight; there’s a little bit of a kink to it on the N end where it bends very slightly F. (Averted vision is your friend with this one, especially as the seeing’s still not good down there.) It has a number of faint stars nearby: 1.67’ due P the galaxy is a 14th-magnitude star that has a 14.5-magnitude star P very veryslightly S by another 1.3’; the first star also has a 15th-magnitude star S slightly F it by 1.3’. 2.5’ SF from the center of the galaxy is another 14.5-magnitude star. N very very slightly P the galaxy by 4.5’ is an 11th-magnitude star; there’s an 11.5-magnitude star NF the galaxy by 7’. 13’ N of the galaxy is a 9.5-magnitude star that’s the brightest in the field. With the 7mm Nagler, the extra magnification almost kills the galaxy; the 14mm is a much better view.

I lost the galaxy during the eyepiece switch, while trying to wrestle the 7mm Nagler into the focuser; I ended up pushing too hard and throwing the scope off target. Fortunately, it was a minor matter to get back on target.

And as with the planetary nebulae, I don’t understand my reticence in using the 10mm Delos, which would’ve provided a better view of the galaxy. I need to move past this; the Delos isn’t doing any good just sitting in my eyepiece case.

I took twenty minutes to try to track down the eye-bleedingly faint globular cluster Palomar 3 in the dim constellation Sextans. Try as I might, though, I couldn’t ferret out the cluster from the dark grey background, even though I knew I had the field exactly correct. I suspect the poorer transparency was to blame (at least that’s what I’m going with). I planned to make another attempt on the cluster when I next had the 20” scope out at Linslaw, but we all know what happens to such plans.

I stayed in the borders of Sextans for my next target, but it was harder to track down than I’d anticipated; I’d accidentally left the comet tracking on in Sky Safari, which filled the screen with spurious objects that looked like stars at first glance on the screen.  I also had to swap out my two-step stepladder for the bigger 6’ ladder, which surprisingly felt more stable than the smaller one. (I never thought I’d say that.)

UGC 5708 (Sex): Going for some higher-declination galaxies now, so I can stay out of the murkier reaches of the sky.This guy is UGC 5708 in Sextans, and it took quite a while to figure out where it was. I’m still thinking that the transparency’s going to hell on us here… but the galaxy is another one of those that’s almost due N-S in orientation; it’s pretty much 180° PA. This galaxy’s difficult to observe because it not only has a bright star on the due N, it also has a faint one just P it toward the S end. The galaxy is 2.0’ x 0.25’ and is pretty diffuse but not a difficult find. I noticed it right away, but it’s almost even harder to study it when it’s centered in the field better—the star on the N end just really screws up the observing; it’s about 11.5 magnitude and really makes it hard to get a good read on the galaxy; the star just P the galaxy near the S end is much closer to threshold, probably 15th magnitude. The galaxy doesn’t have a classic flat galaxy profile (no nucleus, no central hub); it’s even a little bit mottled, a little bit irregular in brightness. SF it by 4’ is the F-most star in a P very very slightly S-F very very slightly N elongated diamond of 12th-magnitude stars: from that star 4.25’ P somewhat S is another of 12th magnitude, maybe slightly fainter than the first; from that star 2.75’ P somewhat N is an 11.5-magnitude star; from that star 2.75’ F slightly N is another 11th-magnitude star that has one of 15th magnitude 0.75’ N very very slightly P it; the galaxy lies N very slightly F of the 15th-magnitude star by 2’. With the 7mm Nagler, the galaxy is even more difficult—the extra magnification is not doing the galaxies any favors tonight; I’ve got a lock on the star P the galaxy’s S end, but the galaxy is wiped out by the extra magnification; even in averted vision, it’s hard to see.

Dan had work the next morning and had to leave; he’d packed up while I was observing UGC 5708, apologizing for his departure, then headed off down the tricky gravel road that spiraled down the side of the crag.

UGC 5341UGC 5339 A/BPGC 28676 (Leo): At a really interesting field here near the Sickle of Leo, almost exactly halfway between the end of the Sickle and the star just above Regulus. My primary target is the flat galaxy UGC 5371, and of the ones that I’ve done so far tonight, this is definitely the most difficult; although I’ve often passed on the really-difficult flat galaxies in favor of those that are more “worthy” of taking notes on, I’m doing a note on this one anyway because of the excellent field it’s in. The galaxy is elongated about 45° PA (so due SP-NF), and is just a faint diffuse glow about 2.0’ x 10”, without much of any detail to be seen in it; it’s very, very difficult to pick up anything visually. It’s halfway between and just P the point halfway between two stars of 14.5 and 14th-magnitude, with the fainter to the S very slightly F and the brighter N very slightly F, each by 2.25’.  N somewhat F by 9’ is an 8.5-magnitude star with a 13th-magnitude star 1.3’ NsF it; F slightly S of the galaxy by 8’ is a 9.5-magnitude star. What’s really interesting here aside from the main galaxy—which is really just a phantasm of a galaxy—S very slightly P the galaxy by 10’ is the brighter pair of a trio of galaxies; these two are obviously in contact; these are brighter than the third member of the group and lie S slightly F and N slightly P each other; the one S slightly F [UGC 5339B; MCG+4-24-005] is 0.25’ and has a brighter but more diffuse core and a not particularly well-defined halo; every so often there’s a trace of a stellar nucleus; this galaxy is 0.3’ x 0.25’, elongated P slightly N-F slightly S (position angle was hard to acquire given the faintness and size of the galaxy). The galaxy to the N slightly P [UGC 5339A; MCG+04-24-004] has a little more concentration to its core but no nucleus, and is generally even less defined than the previous. The cores of these two galaxies are separated by 0.3’, center-to-center. 2’ P somewhat N the more N of the pair is another galaxy [PGC 28676] of the same size, this one fainter and even more diffuse, with a slightly-brighter core; this galaxy is much more difficult than the pair. Those three galaxies make up the F edge of a diamond: 2.75’ S of the S-most of the three is a 14th-magnitude star; there’s a 13th-magnitude star 2.5’ P very very slightly S of the S-most of those galaxies; those two stars and the three galaxies make up the diamond. Back to UGC 5341 with the 7mm (even though haven’t had good results with it tonight): UGC 5341 has roughly faded into the background, and is now a very, very difficult catch; the others are somehow still present. The more northern member of the pair is elongated S very slightly P-N very slightly F and has a fainter core than its companion. Every so often, 0.67’ NF the N member of the pair, it looks like there’s another galaxy or a threshold star: very small, brutally faint… I think it’s another galaxy. No, it’s a threshold star. An excellent field!

Having worked through several denizens of the Flat Galaxy Catalogue, I ended the night—and the month, given the current Moon phase—with my second new Hickson group in as many nights.

Hickson 67 (Vir): My last one for the night: this is Hickson 67 in Virgo, a fine little group. It’s only minutes past the meridian, so it’s in good observing position, and the seeing is kind of good right now; at the moment, though, in the 14mm, I’m only seeing two obvious galaxies: there’s an elliptical [NGC 5306;HCG67A] and then 3.5’ NP the elliptical is an edge-on [HCG67B] that’s much bigger and is elongated not quite SP-NF, maybe 20° PA. There’re also some distractive elements here, because due S of the elliptical galaxy by 5.5’ is an annoying 9th-magnitude star, and then NP the elliptical galaxy by about 0.67’ is a 14th-magnitude star, and then P slightly S of thatstar by 1.25’ is a double star or pair, NP-SF to each other, with the brighter one to the SF, and those are separated by about 15”; those are 15th and 14.5 magnitude. The 9th-magnitude star to S is part of a kind of a funky T-shaped asterism that stretches from a 14th-magnitude star P very very slightly S of the elliptical galaxy by 6.5’ and stretches SF, runs through the 9th-magnitude star, and the top of the T is formed by two pairs that are SF and due F the 9th-magnitude star. But the elliptical galaxy is 1.0’ round, with a thin, poorly-defined halo and a somewhat-brighter core that takes up at least a third of the galaxy’s diameter; there’s a fairly smooth transition from halo to core, and there also seems to be a very faint substellar nucleus there. The edge-on galaxy to the NP is 2.25’ x 0.3’ and in keeping with the rest of my flat galaxies tonight (I don’t know if this is considered an official flat galaxy or not; it’s got the right ratio of dimensions [7:1]), it’s pretty evenly illuminated across the way; there’s not a lot in terms of central brightening or anything noteworthy; it’s pretty dim but fairly obvious (especially in averted vision), and when you look toward the elliptical you see the edge-on unmistakably there. I don’t believe I pick up a third or fourth galaxy there (and Hickson groups have at least four members, so they have to be here somewhere). So let’s go ahead and put the 7mm in here… with the 7mm, it’s again hard to focus; the jetstream has parked itself over us, making the seeing really crappy at this magnification. With the 7mm, I’m getting a very difficult third galaxy [HCG67C], N of the elliptical but almost in contact. This one is really, really diffuse; there’s almost nothing to grab onto. It’s only 0.25’ or 0.3’ diameter, with no central brightening; it just looks like an extension of the elliptical. Exceedingly difficult in the poor seeing!  I know there has to be a fourth in there, but I can’t see it. Wait a minute… Got it!  The fourth member [HCG67D] is SP the elliptical by 0.5’, and a little easier than the third, perhaps 0.25’ diameter at best; in averted vision, it looks like it might have a little central concentration; it forms a not-quite-isosceles triangle with the elliptical and the star to the NP the elliptical. This fourth member lies outside the halo of the elliptical, while the third member, the one to the NF, looks like it could be just a contact artifact or a distended streak of the halo pulled N-ward.

Although I’d only managed three nights’ observing for the month, I was pretty pleased with what I’d been able to observe; I’d made headway on three of my projects and had seen some fascinating sights. This—more than checking objects off of a list—is the true reward of observing: being able to explore forgotten corners of the universe, studying objects that had only ever been seen by a relative handful of people, and appreciating them for the magnificent natural structures that they were, from the ghostly shells of dying Sun-like stars to the basic building blocks of the Universe itself (the galaxies) and the smallest structures those building blocks could form (the compact galaxy clusters). And the next month would bring yet other strange lands for observing and contemplating, some hundreds of millions of light-years away, others closer to home.


When I originally started this blog, I had intended to give each observing session its own entry, in order to give a sense of the individual character that each session has. As free time (and energy) has diminished, updates to the blog became less individual and more grouped together by dark cycle, following in part the artifice of the manmade calendar. This means, of course, that updates have been less frequent; it also means that—given that some updates are 20,000+ words long—more time passes between updates, and therefore the memory palls a bit when trying to recall the events of a certain months-ago period of time.

This may explain why I simply forgot to write, in my last entry, about what was the biggest observing event of the March Moon-dark run: the Messier Marathon, this year occurring a couple of weekends too soon, on the night of March 12-13. It was the more-successful of my two attempts at this deep-sky challenge (simply due to the fact that the sky conditions were good throughout the night), although it fell rather stupidly short of full success. However, given how tantalizingly-close we were to full marathon-hood, it certainly has the EAS Irregulars stoked to try again in 2022.

The Messier Marathon—for those unfamiliar—is an all-night observing event based upon the astronomical quirk that, for one weekend late in March, all 110 objects in Charles Messier’s famous catalogue of deep-sky splendors can be seen in the course of a single night. This is due to the placement of the Sun in the sky; as our local star resides in the western half of the constellation Pisces, the nearest Messier object (M74, in eastern Pisces) is nearly 30˚ away… giving just enough time after sunset to catch M74 before it also sets. And the last object in the marathon—M30, in Capricornus—rises a mere 45 minutes before the Sun, making it extremely difficult to catch in the morning twilight.

The early days of the Messier Marathon brought some of the most overwrought, hilarious criticism imaginable from those who felt that it reduced observing to a rote scavenger-hunt type of activity. “I certainly hope no-one gets caught up in this Messier Madness,” wrote one finger-wagging critic in Deep Sky magazine. “It’ll cost you more than you know,” scolded another, leading to my invention of the phrase WTF?. In the days since, the Messier Marathon has become something of a fixture of March astronomy events, most of the critics left to huff ineffectively on the sidelines.

I had attempted the Messier Marathon only once before; on that occasion—with Fred Isberner down in the Crab Orchard National Wildlife Refuge, between Carbondale and Marion, IL—we netted 87 objects in five hours, as the first few hours of the evening were cloudy and the last few hours before dawn were also clouded out. That time, during the mid-Marathon lull (between the end of the Virgo/Coma galaxies and the rise of the summer Milky Way objects), Fred and I were startled—to put it mildly—by the noisy, intense battle between two large predators, occurring less than 70 yards away behind a copse of trees. 

There were two basic differences between that previous attempt and the current one, aside from the location and the company: the skies here were clear, and the weather was cold. Back at Crab Orchard, we’d had unseasonably-warm weather for staying out all night; in fact, we’d been treated to a spectacular display of fireflies in the hours after sunset while the sky had still been cloud-riddled. Here, there were no fireflies, no clouds… and no warmth.

Jerry was there, of course, and Dan B; Loren was there, too, but wasn’t planning to stay all night and kept to his carbon-star agenda. Jerry had previously done 109 of the 110 Messier objects from a place in southern Arizona; Dan had never tried a marathon before and was eager to give it a go. For my part, I had somewhat forgotten that we had discussed doing a Messier marathon that particular night, and was less prepared than I like to be for an observing all-nighter.

SQM: 21.35 (at 8:30); 21.67 (at 3 AM) 
NELM: not checked
WEATHER CONDITIONS: temps to mid 40s; moderate dew; slight breeze
All observations: 12.5″f/5 Discovery Dob, 24mm Meade 5000 SWA eyepiece (66x, 1.04˚ TFOV) 

I didn’t take real notes; there was no opportunity to do so. Things moved too quickly for that. (Astro-sketching guru Jeremy Perez once did a Messier Marathon in which he sketched every object—a stunning accomplishment.) My notes for the night simply recorded the time I spotted each object, and the observer in whose scope I observed it. The latter was important, as I wasn’t set up in a position to get all of the early evening Messiers; we shared views of some of the earliest ones as a way of observing all 110. As sunset faded, I tracked down M74—the most difficult object in Messier’s list, under even normal circumstances—while Jerry picked up M77, allowing us to cover both critical objects the moment the sky darkened enough.

Rather than my usual eyepiece for finding things—the 14mm Explore Scientific Nagler “clone”—I used the 24mm Meade Series 5000 SWA, which was a clone of the 24mm TeleVue Panoptic. (Had I known at the time that these eyepieces were ripoffs of TeleVue’s designs, I’d have bought the real thing.) The 24mm had a distinct field-of-view advantage, and as I wasn’t really going to be examining the Messiers closely, I didn’t need the extra magnification that much. The 24mm was a fine eyepiece, so the views it gave lacked very little in terms of clarity and sharpness anyway.

A number of fanatically-devoted observers perform what’s called the M3, or “Messier Marathon by Memory.” In this version of the marathon, no charts or apps can be used to find the objects; it all has to be done strictly from memory. I can find perhaps a third of the Messiers by memory, most of them winter or summer objects. This allowed me to work out of sequence from the Pennington list, sweeping up those objects I didn’t need extra time to track down as time and the sky dictated. This included the Orion objects, the Auriga clusters, M46 and 47 in Puppis, the Crab Nebula (M1), the Leo Trio, several of the Ursa Major galaxies, and of course the naked-eye clusters, the Pleiades (M45) and the Beehive (M44).

The Virgo Cluster is always the most challenging segment of a Messier Marathon—not just finding the galaxies, but identifying which is which. In this, using a scope like the 12.5” is almost a disadvantage, as it reveals a great many more galaxies beyond merely those Messier discovered, and it’s necessary to ID them properly. I had done this segment of the marathon before, using the Virgo Cluster chart in Sky Atlas 2000.0, but that was the unlaminated edition of the atlas, and I’d had a transparency with the Messier galaxies highlighted and numbered that I used as an overlay. I still have that atlas and the overlay, but I hadn’t thought to bring them this time; I only had the laminated edition, which was somewhat smaller, and I had no table to put it on to use (my table being at home with a partially-completed jigsaw puzzle on it); I was stuck with Sky Safari, which is a fantastic but less-elegant method of planning an observing session. As it was, starting with M84 and M86 at 10:54, I wrapped up the last member of the Virgo/Coma Cluster, M85, at 11:37 PM. (Pennington’s sequence, oddly, puts M85 at 37th in order, continuing the rest of the cluster at 53rd with M61. Given that M84 and M86 are the most-easily found members of the Virgo/Coma Messier group, there’s no good reason not to begin with them when attempting a Messier Marathon without the Sky Atlas 2000.0 chart.)

We worked our way through the list, checking off chunks of it at a time. Jerry had provided copies of the list he used—from Harvard Pennington’s The Year-Round Messier Marathon—which was considerably different from the list I regularly used (from a long-ago internet source I don’t even recall). The two sequences were similar, but had some significant differences; Pennington has the Cygnus/Lyra/Sagitta/Vulpecula objects before those in Ophiuchus, for example; his sequence of the Coma/Virgo galaxies is also, as already noted, quite a bit different. Nonetheless, we plowed on; as distasteful as it was to consider the cosmic splendors as objects to be checked off of a list without any description or study, there was some satisfaction in watching the blanks fill up with times and initials.

From first spotting M74 at 7:30 and ending Coma/Virgo at 11:37, it was a scramble until 1:07, when I picked up M5 in Serpens. At that point, with the Realm of the Galaxies behind us, we waited for the summer Milky Way objects to rise. As I did at Crab Orchard, I spent part of the lull searching fruitlessly for Omega Centauri. I did manage to spot NGC 5128, the Centaurus A radio galaxy, but it was such a weak sighting through the horizon muck and light pollution that I wouldn’t count it as being “seen.”

The summer objects—in Lyra, Cygnus, Vulpecula, Ophiuchus, Serpens, Scorpius, and northern Sagittarius—took a little over two hours to finish, putting us at just after 4:30 AM. Ten objects remained, most of them low in Sagittarius; one was in Pegasus, three in Aquarius, and one—Messier 30—in Capricornus. M30 was always the most difficult in the Messier Marathon, as it rises so soon before the Sun. But with our attempt at the marathon taking place two weeks before the optimal date, even the Aquarius objects were essentially impossible; morning twilight would blot them out before they were in an observable position. As it was, I needed about half an hour for the remaining Sagittarius globulars (M #s 54, 69, 70, 55, and 75) to rise above the horizon muck for a decent view. Rather than wait it out in the cold, I went back into the Caveman-Mobile to do a bit of reading, alarm set to prevent dozing off or losing track of time.

I woke up with dawn smeared across the sky. None of the curses I shouted made it through the van’s walls, fortunately, but there were many of them. Getting out of the van, I realized that even getting the Sagittarius objects was a lost cause: the Milky Way, Sagittarius, Pegasus, and all but a few dozen of the brighter stars in the entirety of the sky were gone, swallowed up in the breaking morning.  The 2021 Messier Marathon was over, and falling asleep had left me stuck at an even one hundred objects. 

My log sheet from the 2021 Messier Marathon, frozen eternally at 100 objects.

The lightening sky illuminated what we had glimpsed in the darkness: the valley below the crag had filled with fog during the night, leaving us “stranded” on a dry redoubt of clear sky. Across the foggy valley, a few other high spots poked through, looking for all the world like islands on a misty sea. Passages from William Hope Hodgson and C.S. Lewis rolled around in my brain; certainly, we had become dawn treaders after our long night’s endeavor. 

Morning. Photo by Jerry Oltion.

The three of us who remained—Jerry, Dan, and myself—briefly compared notes. Jerry had hit 103 objects, Dan 97 (many of which he’d never seen before). That put us at a perfect average of 100. 

Having lasted the night, running this most unusual of races, there was nothing else to do but pack up for the sunlit drive home.

Gifts From The Universe

Australopithicenes, like humans, are generally non-hibernating animals; activity may slow during the winter months, but it rarely ceases altogether. Even among those of the astronomy persuasion, sufficient stargazing opportunity is enough to drag the weary out into the cold and/or damp to partake of the starry panoply. 

The winter of 2020/2021 provided none of those opportunities. After the September wildfires in the Willamette Valley, we had one observing session until March, when the crappy weather of the western Oregon winter finally began to break and the heavens revealed themselves once again. Had I not finished the Herschel 400 and Herschel II programs the previous spring—had the winter of 2020 not been unexpectedly generous in clear nights—I would be stuck until 2022 before I would have an opportunity to close out those two long-running projects.

Now, of course, I had other projects to work on… most notably, the Astronomical League’s Planetary Nebula and Flat Galaxy observing programs. And while the flat galaxies beckoned, it was the planetary nebulae that needed more urgent attention after the constant rains of the previous five months.

I. And so it was that, when the first Clear Sky Chart forecast came through showing a Moonless night free of clouds and having decent transparency, the astronomers of the Willamette nearly fell over ourselves getting out of town. We convened at Linslaw Point; Mark was set up already, prepping his imaging gear; Jerry and Dan R had the 20″ TriDob, Loren his 18″ Obsession, and I brought Bob the faithful Dob, the better to try to finish the planetary nebula observations I needed before repeating them all with the 20″ Obsession. Dan B and Alesha had his refractor/11″ SCT combo, as he’d sent his 16″ Dob mirror off for recoating at Spectrum. As darkness fell, we managed some wilderness socializing; most of us had had numerous get-togethers during the long hiatus, but it had been a long damp spell as far as social observing went. And when the magic hour of astronomical twilight arrived, it was back to “work.”

MOON: 28 days (set at 4:32 PM; 2% illuminated)
SEEING: 7, 5
SQM: 21.49-21.53
NELM: not checked
WEATHER CONDITIONS: temps to lower 50s; no dew; mild breeze, pleasant


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

IC 418 (Lep): Got a full house here at Linslaw: Loren and Mark and Jerry and Dan and Dan and Alesha; this is the first time this year that I’m observing with the intent to take notes. We’re starting off with a nice look at IC 418 in Lepus, which I’d taken notes on before at Steve Rogers’ house in Murphysboro. It’s fairly small, but nowhere near as tiny as those stellar-sized planetaries; as seen in the 14mm with no filter, this one’s 10” in diameter, quite round, and has a very bright central star relative to the nebula. The central star (not accounting for extinction from the nebula) looks to be about 10th magnitude. The color of the nebula that’s so noticeable in photographs isn’t quite there visually, at least for colorblind me; it’s definitely not the color that you would expect from a planetary: there’s definitely a trace of color, even if it’s not really identifiable, it’s almost brownish or tan. Due F the nebula by 2.5’ is a 12.5-magnitude star, and then S somewhat P that star by 1.5’ is a 13.5-magnitude star. NP the nebula by 3.5’ is another 12.5-magnitude star that has a 13.5-magnitude star NF it by 0.5’, and those two stars look vaguely fuzzy, like there are unresolved stars in the area, but even in averted I’m not really able to pick anything up [There’s a 16.8-magnitude galaxy, PGC 949730, between the two stars—I must have glimpsed it to have made a note of it.]. F slightly N of the nebula by 17’ is a 9.5-magnitude star; there’s a 10th-magnitude star 10’ F somewhat S, and that is the right-angle vertex of a right triangle that consists of those two brighter stars and the nebula. P very very slightly N of the nebula by 10.5’ is a pair angled SP-NF to each other, with the NF one the brighter; those are separated by 0.5’ and are 11th and 12th magnitudes. I don’t know that it’ll be possible to use the 7mm Nagler for much tonight because the seeing isn’t super steady, at least this early; it’s not bad, but down this low it’s probably only 5 1/2 or 6 (which actually isn’t bad especially for Eugene in the winter). Without the UHC filter, there was a sense that the interior of the nebula was irregularly bright and there were areas of darkness within it, as small as it was; now, with the filter added, the interior’s just kind of blown out or “overexposed.” It’s clearly the brightest object in the region, but now the central star really isn’t discernible amid the nebula itself; it’s just very very bright and the quality that it had with the unaided, unfiltered view is kind of overwhelmed: the very delicate spectral look to it is overwhelmed by having the UHC on it, and the color isn’t visible like it was. Let’s just try the O-III just to say that we did it… but I definitely prefer the unfiltered view to the contrast-boosted version the O-III provides. In the 7mm, the nebula is definitely much brighter and more impressive, the central star still very easy. The SF edge of the rim is just a little brighter than the rest of the shell (I did note this in the 14mm as well); there may be a gap in the nebula toward the NF, and I’m definitely getting a sense like there’s a slightly brighter envelope just around the central star between the mottling and the rim, and that the outer rim is slightly broken up or incomplete. The odd color of the nebula is less evident in the 7mm than in the 14mm.

Before my switch from the 14mm to the 7mm, I stopped by Loren’s scope to take a look at Hind’s Crimson Star, one of the deeper-red carbon stars in the heavens. It appeared pale orange to me, in part because it wasn’t at brightness minimum, where carbon stars are usually at their most colorful, but also due to my eyes’ poor red sensitivity.

And then, back to planetaries, and the other one I’d taken notes on from Steve Rogers’ house in Murphysboro those (seemingly) many years ago.

NGC 2022 (Ori): The Collarbone Nebula—not one of my favorite nicknames, but at least it’s understandable, given that the nebula lies in the collarbone region of Orion. A pox upon the insistence on giving all objects popular names! This is the other one I took notes on (with IC 418) at Steve’s house in Murphysboro six or seven years ago, and this is definitely a more impressive look at it than I had then… obviously, given the quality of the skies there. In the 14mm, the nebula appears 0.3’ across. It has a brighter central region that makes up about 3/4 of that diameter, and a fuzzy outer edge at which the brightness drops off pretty considerably. I’m not picking up a central star, although there are suggestions that one should be visible. There’s no color to note, as with IC 418, just the greyness typical of most nebulae. From time to time I get a hint that there’s a stellaring on the S slightly P edge of it, but otherwise the disk itself doesn’t seem to have any irregularity in brightness; for a few moments I thought I saw a dark streak across the middle of it, but that was likely just illusory. NF the nebula by 1.5’ is a 13.5-magnitude star; there’s a 12th-magnitude star the same direction about 1’ from the 13.5-magnitude star, and then almost due N of that star by 1’ is another 12th-magnitude star. 1’ due F that last 12th-magnitude star is a 14th-magnitude star that’s surprisingly uncertain and difficult to hold. SP the nebula by 3’ is another 12th-magnitude star, and there’s another P slightly N of the nebula by 3.5’. The brightest star in the field is 7.5 magnitude and is P somewhat N of the nebula by 12’; it’s the middle star in a N slightly P-S slightly F line of five stars; the second from the S end of that line is a faint double, and the 7.5-magnitude star also has one P very very slightly S of it by about 1’; that faint double is oriented N-S and the two are about 12.5 magnitude, separated by 0.25’. With the UHC… oh, wow! That brightened the nebula a hell of a lot, actually. It definitely seems like there is an extra brightening on the SP. There’s also an impression here in the UHC that the nebula comes to a brighter point in the center, and I’m not sure I can shake that impression. Swapping in the O-III…  the view is similar to that in the UHC, but the nebula’s even brighter. There’s still no central star, beyond a hint that there should be; the central region is another “step” brighter than it was before. With the 7mm Nagler… that’s a great view!  At times there seems to be some annularity or a darker center, but I still don’t think it’s real; I did note it in the 14mm, but it didn’t seem certain beyond a fleeting impression. The SF quadrant seems to be a little bit more diffuse than the rest, a little less defined. There also seems to be a little tuft or filament of fainter nebulosity coming off the F side, just a tiny bit to the N; that’s only visible in averted vision. The previous impression of something on the SP quadrant is still there; I’m pretty sure there’s something in the nebulosity at that point—either an embedded star or a stellaring within the nebula itself.

The breeze turned cold, rumbling in the background of my audio notes. Time for gloves to go on, preferably with hand warmers stuffed inside.

During the course of this observation, Loren was observing NGC 1535, the bright Eridanus planetary dubbed “Cleopatra’s Eye,” and our conversation turned to an injury he’d suffered at the site. I won’t delve into details, but will make note of it here for history’s sake; future generations of Willamette Valley observers will speak of it with hushed whispers.

NGCs 2452, 2453 (Pup): This is a planetary that gets to go on the never-before seen list, NGC 2452 in Puppis, and it’s just south of a fine open cluster [NGC 2453]—how these did not make the Herschel 400 and Herschel II lists, I don’t know. [Possibly because William Herschel didn’t discover them… duh.] The nebula is decent-sized: perhaps 0.3’, and rather faint, but not super-faint; it’s definitely noticeable immediately upon seeing the cluster. These two are in a very nice Milky Way starfield. The center of the nebula is very slightly dimmer than the outer edge, but there’s no notable central star, and there’s certainly no real color to the nebula. (Seeing’s not great down here; we’re pretty low.) Due S of the cluster by 5.75’ is a double star or pair separated by 0.3’, and these are roughly P-F to each other; they’re pretty equal at 11th magnitude. There’s also a 10th-magnitude star 8’ SP the nebula. The brightest star in the field is P slightly N by 13’ and is 9th magnitude. The brightest star in the cluster is 9.5 magnitude and lies 9.5’ N very very slightly F the nebula; it’s the N-most corner of the cluster, and has 1.25’ S slightly F it a 10.5 magnitude star; and then S slightly F that star by 1.25’ is an 11.5-magnitude star. In between those two fainter stars, and following those, is the bulk of the cluster in a triangular 1.25’ splatter. The cluster extends from there to the SF by 2.5’, and is much richer on the S and the SF ends, with a scattering of brighter stars over the top of a very dense rich patch, with a lot of stars beyond resolution. But the nebula is the primary object of interest here, so let’s throw the UHC filter in here and see if anything happens. With the filter the contrast makes it seem much brighter, but there’s still not a lot of detail to be had; there’s no sense that there is a central star or anything. I’ve noticed in doing these nebulas that the smaller ones benefit much more from the added magnification of the 7mm Nagler than they do from the filters; I don’t think the UHC helps or even the O-III helps quite as much as just doubling the magnification with the 7mm eyepiece. So with the 7mm, there is a very faint star just outside the edge of the fringe on the N, just outside of the nebula. The nebula itself seems to display a little bit of irregularity in brightness and in internal shape, internal structure; the center seems very vaguely dimmer than the rim. That star to the N, the threshold star, almost seems nebulous in and of itself; obviously it’s not, but it almost seems that way. Every so often I get a trace of darkness in the nebula’s interior, and there does seem to be some irregularity to the shape of the internal disk. It’s a nice little nebula at this magnification.

It was during the previous observation that I noticed something glowing in the rough patches of ground near where I was set up. It turned out to be a glowworm, possibly from the same species as the one Jeff L had discovered at Eureka Ridge during a previous observing session. I watched the glowworm to make sure it didn’t come my way, where it could get injured accidentally. It eventually wandered the opposite direction, and I went back to observing with my full attention on the sights in the eyepiece.

The next few objects required sitting on the ground, getting lower and lower in the sky. Given the poor transparency down that low, and the presence of the Roseburg light dome, it was difficult finding even naked-eye guide stars, let alone the ghostly shells of dying suns.

Mi3-6 (Pyx): Sitting on the ground here (as usual), with the small, not overly-impressive, but nonetheless interesting Minkowski 3-6 in Pyxis. It’s quite small, but still, even down this low, it’s still pretty obviously not stellar, maybe 8” across. It has a number of faint stars N and P it, including a pair of which one is due P by 1’, and that is 12.5-magnitude; there’s one of almost equal magnitude, just slightly fainter, P very very slightly N of that star by 0.67’. 22’ F somewhat N of the nebula is a bluish-white 7.5-magnitude star. N very very slightly P the nebula by 14’ is a double: a 9th-magnitude star that has 5” S very slightly P it an 11th-magnitude star. From the nebula S slightly F by 5.5’ is the brighter of another pair; those may have only 7” separation, and consist of an 11th-magnitude star with a 12.5-magnitude star S very very slightly F it. 7’ S slightly P the nebula is another 11th-magnitude star. With the UHC, the nebula brightens considerably and gives even greater evidence of its non-stellarness. It seems like it might be very, very slightly oblong, elongated SP-NF slightly, but it’s very very difficult to tell at this magnification. Oddly enough, in the UHC, I almost get a sense that the central star is visible; it could just be the interior of the nebula, with there being a very, very small faint outer halo or outer rim around that interior.With the O-III, I’m not really getting much of a distinction from the view in the UHC, at least at first glance; it’s still definitely one of the brighter objects in the field now with the increase in contrast. The nebula seems almost smaller in the O-III than in the UHC, as if there was an outer halo to it before that’s gone now, and the sense that it’s an extended object isn’t there anymore either. With the 7mm… that’s the way to look at it! It’s plain as day non-stellar; this is by far the best view of it. Again, it seems like there’s an outer fringe or halo to it that wasn’t certain at lower power. The elongation seems to really be there, NvvsP-SvvsF; it’s 8” x 5”—very slight but definite. Maybe there IS a central star visible… perhaps in averted vision it’s visible, but it may be that the center of the nebula’s just that much brighter now. This is definitely the best view of the nebula.

Spurred on by my success in finding a non-NGC planetary so far south, I pressed my luck further.

NGC 2818 (Pyx): OK, I’m gonna pat myself on the back for this one, because I did not think I was gonna be able to find it from here at this latitude. This is NGC 2018 in Pyxis, for which the designation works for the cluster and for the planetary; we’ll argue about that one for a while, but the cluster, down this low, is very, very hazy, very faint; the individual stars are considerably faint for the most part; there’s a scattering, especially on the N end, of star-pairs, the majority aligned N-S. But the nebula is visible about 2/3 of the way from N-S in the cluster. The nebula’s elongated almost due P-F and spans 0.5’ x 0.3’. It’s pretty faint and very diffuse down here and might be mistaken for a faint galaxy. 11’ P very very slightly S of the nebula is a star that looks to be about 9th magnitude [it’s actually 9.5], but extinction is a problem here. 3.75’ NP the nebula is an 11th-magnitude star, and again that’s probably kind of a false magnitude. The cluster is very ambiguously-defined and looks to be about 10’ x 6’ P-F; due S of the nebula by 2.75’ is a knot of stars just on the edge of resolution, and there look to be about four or five stars there of 14th and 14.5 magnitude. F very slightly S of the nebula by 2.5’ is a 12th-magnitude star; again, it’s probably a lot brighter. There’s no real hint of a central star to the nebula, and no color in it but gray. Nor is there much in the way of a central brightening to it here at this magnification unfiltered. So we’re going to throw the UHC on it. (I’d  still like to have time enough to go for the Eight-Burst, but I’m going to show off this one to show Jerry and Dan when I’m done.) The cluster is going to disappear because it’s relatively very faint, and it’s gonna just leave the nebula. The UHC really brings the nebula out; it’s still not great. The nebula is brighter N-S on the N-S axis than it is on the major axis, and the ends of the major axis are rather indistinct. I’m going to say that it’s more like 0.67’ x 0.3’. It really really looks like a galaxy from this latitude. I want to try the O-III and see what we come up with. In the O-III, the cluster even looks better suddenly. The cluster is kind-of detached, with a huge range of magnitudes and lots of unresolved background glow; there are probably 18 actual members plus the background glow. The nebula’s definitely brightest on the S end of the minor axis, but it’s really hard to tell anything else because the O-III just kills it. With the 7mm… oh, wow.  It almost has a rectangular shape to it. That change to the 7mm is a huge gamebreaker here. The nebula’s kind of vaporous on the ends of the major axis, and still no hint of a central star. A great view, considering how far south this is and how mediocre the seeing is. If this passed overhead, these would be a really famous pair of objects!

I had to check my recording app during this set of notes, fearing that I’d forgotten to start recording. Having done so once, I wasn’t taking chances with these more-difficult objects; who knows when the next opportunity to observe them will arise?

I also made sure to tell Jerry and Dan R to take a look at the NGC 2818 pairing; they were fans of the M46/NGC 2438 combo in Puppis, so the opportunity to see another planetary/open cluster pairing was a rare one. They were more than interested, even if it required sitting on the ground to look.

The next target was one that I’d seen decades before, with only my 70mm Pronto, on a memorable trip with not-yet-Mrs. Caveman and her then-landlords from Flagstaff. It would be a good one to end the evening on, too… if I could find it with no visible guide stars.

NGC 3132 (Vel): This one is the last of what’s been a very productive night, and it’s one I’ll again pat myself on the back for finding—this is NGC 3132 in Vela, the Eight-Burst Nebula, as seen from 44° North latitude, so hey, congratulations to me. I can’t believe I found it down here, basically with no guide stars! It’s an impressively large nebula– still smaller than I anticipated it being, but also very very impressive nonetheless. I’m using the UHC at the moment; I’m almost literally scraping the horizon here to find it; we are about 5° above the horizon, judging from the Telrad. So the nebula does not show a whole lot; it’s fairly bright but there’s not a lot of detail forthcoming. I did find it without the UHC, and the central star is still visible regardless. The nebula is elongated NvsP-SvsF and is much more indistinct on the N end than the S; on the N end, it kind of fades out gradually. It’s about 0.75’ x 0.5’. I’m just astounded that this thing can be seen from up here; I did see it from the Panamint Valley a long time ago (25 years ago!), in the Pronto, but it was tiny then, obviously. It’s very very diffuse on the edges, especially along the major axis. No color is visible… hardly a surprise given how low it is, and the fact that it’s near the meridian but still in the light dome from Roseburg. (I’m taking the filter out to get some notes on the field.) The central star is really bright; I’m sure my estimate will be way off, given the amount of extinction down this low, but it appears to be about 10th magnitude. SF the nebula by 2.3’ is the more N of a pair of 11th-magnitude stars, separated by about 1’ from the second, which looks a little tiny bit brighter and lies about 1’ SvsP the first. PvsN the nebula by 5.75’ is the P of a P-F pair, of which the P is considerably the brighter at magnitude 10.5, with an 11th-magnitude star F by 0.67’. NsF by 10’ is what I would normally say would be a 9th-magnitude star [it’s 9.5]; it’s the P-most of an arc of three that proceed FvsS and then SsF in 4’ increments; due S of the nebula by 16’ is the brightest in the field, which is probably an 8th-magnitude star [it’s 8.5].  In the 7mm Nagler, this is a really fine planetary nebula (even for this far south), with what looks like a lot of gauzy internal texture in the central region, which is not quite 0.5’ around the central star, and then the ends of the shells extend farther from it. I can only imagine what this one is like from about 15° farther south (since my only other sighting was with a 70mm scope). It reminds me a little bit of NGC 1501 in Camelopardalis; it also has a little bit of NGC 1514 (the Crystal Ball) in it. That is a really awesome nebula!

Loren had left, and others were following. Having showed Jerry and Dan the Eight-Burst, and with all of us in agreement that it had been a fantastic night, we packed up, leaving Mark to finish his images underneath a still-starry sky.

II. Our next observing session took place on the other side of New Moon; as expected of March, clouds and clear skies took alternating turns throughout the month. The Clear Sky Charts for the region showed the Oxbow as the site with the best observing conditions, so off we went on the difficult, winding drive down to the southwest. I wasn’t totally focused this particular evening; I had an endoscopy the next morning, to figure out the source of my random choking episodes. I was also annoyed by my phone’s insistence on switching back to Standard Time at random intervals (as we’d just switched to PDT), which meant that I had to keep track of the start times on my observation notes so that they were accurate. And at some point while we were setting up, Dan commented that my winter gear made me look like Yukon Cornelius from the old Rankin/Bass Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. It was a gag that stuck around all night.

I was working at higher declinations tonight—fortunate, given the uneven southern horizon at the site. Conditions weren’t great, but the stars beckoned.

The Oxbow crew (L-R): Jerry’s 12″ binoscope, Loren and his 18″ Obsession, Dan B and his hybrid 11″ SCT/5″ refractor rig, and yours truly with Bob the Dob. Robert A had not yet arrived. Photo by Jerry Oltion (hence his absence from the photo).

MOON: 3 days (set at 10:50 PM; 8% illuminated)
SQM: 21.56
NELM: not checked
WEATHER CONDITIONS: temps to upper 40s; no dew; breezy

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

J320 (Ori): Back at the Oxbow. We still have a waxing crescent moon hanging out for another couple of hours in the sky, but we’re looking at some bright little planetaries tonight, so I’m making it work; the very first one of the night, which I’ve been tracking for quite a while, is Jonkheere 320 in Orion, and after several nights’ attempts at getting this one I’ve finally done it. This is quite a small nebula with just a tiny bit of N-S elongation, around what’s either a very bright central region or a central star that’s just overpowering everything (I suspect the latter). That central star looks to be 10.5 magnitude. The nebula spans 7” x 4”; it’s distinctly non-stellar, but between the moonlight and everything else, it’s kind of hard to get a fix on the actual nebulosity. The nebula makes up the NP corner of a pentagon that has kind of a “king’s crown” shape to it; it’s flattened at the top and very wide. The nebula is also the NF vertex of a small flat isosceles triangle, and is on the following end of the long side of that triangle. Due P the nebula by 1.75’ is a 13th-magnitude star; there’s a 12th-magnitude star about 1.5’ SP that star, and those are the stars in the little triangle with the nebula; the nebula and the 12th-magnitude star are separated by about 3’, and then S somewhat F the nebula by 4.75’ is a 9th-magnitude star; and that star and the nebula make up one side of the pentagon. F the nebula by 16’ is an 8th-magnitude star which has another 8th-magnitude star S very slightly P it by 3.75’; the two 8th-magnitude stars make up one side of the crown-pentagon, the nebula and the 9th-magnitude star make up the other, and the point, the top of the crown of the pentagon, is a 10.5-magnitude star F somewhat N of the nebula by 9’. The nebula shows a little more character in the UHC; if that’s the central star, it’s just as bright with the filter, so I don’t think it’s actually the central star, just a tiny bright central region within the nebula. That’s a difficult pickup; there’s no color or anything in terms of detail at this magnification. With the O-III, the nebula is equal in magnitude to the 9th-magnitude star, so the filter boosted the contrast for sure, but it hasn’t improved the view much otherwise; it’s slightly fuzzy but still not super-easy to pick out as a nebula at first glance. Seeing just is not good enough for the magnification of the 7mm Nagler, but once again, the 7mm does more than the filters in the 14mm do. It’s definitely a nebulous object now, and I couldn’t say that with certainty at 112x at first glance. There’s still just a little bit of N-S elongation here even in the poorer seeing; maybe 7” x 5” (so basically the same dimensions as in the 14mm), but there’s definitely a faint central star visible in addition to the brighter central region.

I made a note to start using my 4.8mm Nagler on these smaller planetaries, in addition to the 7mm; the 4.8 would yield 328x with a 15-arcminute field. (True to form, as of this writing, I still haven’t done it.)

Loren’s current agenda is the AL’s list of carbon stars, and he and Dan were busy tracking down FU Monocerotis, which was near minimum and proving to be a difficult find (as it would be, among the rich starfields of Monoceros). This led to a spate of “FU, Mon” jokes throughout the night.

J900 (Gem): Sticking with our Jonkheeres here; this is J900 in Gemini, and it was a bugger to find, too. It is just above stellar, and without working from a photograph I could not have found it; as it was, it took me quite a while. The nebula is no more than 7” and has a 12.5-magnitude star just outside of it on the SP. There’s no color. As with J320, J900 has either a central star that overwhelms most of the nebulosity or a very bright, very small core; in this case, I think it’s a visible central star. Our seeing appears to have steadied up again, too, so I’m now able to get a much better focus. I’m also higher in the sky than I was here up in Gemini. The nebula is third from P in a long line of 8th- and 9th-magnitude stars that stretches pretty much across the entire field; at the P end is the brightest in the line, which is P the nebula by 14’ and is 8.5 magnitude; there’s a 9th-magnitude star 5’ P very very slightly N of the nebula. F very very slightly N by 9’ is a 9th-magnitude star. Due F the nebula by 15’ is a 9.5-magnitude star that is at the S very slightly F end of a 2’ long line of fainter stars. I fished the O-III out of my pocket first, so we’ll start with it: OK, that’s almost too overpowering for the nebula; it really greatens the contrast, but doesn’t really help distinguish it from the background stars that much; it eliminates the 12.5-magnitude star almost entirely, but doesn’t do much else. It’s distinguishable as a nebula mainly by its lack of focus… although the filter does make the halo around the central star seem brighter, as opposed to the whole outer envelope; the central star/nexus of nebula is much, much brighter. Changing filters, I think the UHC does a better job here because it doesn’t brighten the nebula as much as the O-III, but doesn’t strip away the obvious nebulous character to it; it works as a nice middle ground. It’s distinctly more nebulous here than in the O-III, and the 12.5-magnitude star is still barely visible. This is the best view of it in the 14mm; I might’ve recognized it as a planetary without knowing it was there in the field. With the 7mm: this is absolutely the best view; it really separates the 12.5-magnitude star from the nebula. This is also the best view as far as identifying it as a nebula; it displays much more nebulous character in the 7mm. The seeing is still not great, but the nebula is definitely nebulous here in ways that it wasn’t at 112x: it has actual, tangible size to it now. There’s still no color in it, but it’s unmistakable as a planetary here in the 7mm, even with the UHC added.

Historical tidbit: Robert Jonckheere was a French astronomer (likely of Flemish extraction) who specialized in double stars.

It had started getting legitimately cold on the rough, paved outcropping of the site, and the breeze had turned more distinctly into wind. I bundled up further. Jerry, Robert, and Dan were busy comparing notes on the Orion Nebula, and Loren was still engrossed in the carbon star hunt, so I don’t know if I looked even more like Yukon Cornelius after adding more winter clothing.

Mi1-7 (Gem): Staying in Gemini with Minkowski 1-7, but this one is much more difficult than the Jonckheeres. Sky Safari lists it as 0.3’ x 0.2’, but I’ll be damned if I see it as anything but an out-of-focus spot; it has little dimension to it beyond an averted-vision 6” spot. I don’t see it elongated, but it has a very distracting 10th-magnitude star 1’ PvsN it and a 14th-magnitude star F it by 0.75’, and those two really confuse the eye. NP by 14’ is a 9th-magnitude star that has a long string of eight 12th-/12.5-magnitude stars that extends almost due F it; it’s not a perfectly straight line; six of the stars are in that line and two are kind of out of line. S of the nebula by about 8’ or 9’ each (SP and SF) is a pair of stars; the pair to the SP is separated by about 0.67’ and the one to the SF by about 1’; then S very very slightly F by about 13’ is a little scalene triangle of stars with its major axis N-S. Let’s try the UHC here and see what happens, because Sky Safari’s measurement is pretty far off while even the photograph doesn’t show anything beyond just a tiny tiny tiny substellar disk. Let’s take a look and see if there’s anything to be had there with the UHC (this is a Minkowski, so it’s not likely to be as poor as some of the other barely-above-stellar planetaries). The UHC definitely boosts the contrast; the nebula’s fuzzy, and the central star/bright core of the nebula is distinctly brighter than it was without the filter, so I’m thinking that’s a core region rather than a central star. No change in color. It’s impressive how much brighter the nebula is with the filter, because this one is really, really tough for a Minkowski; without the filter, I would not have even really thought of that as a nebula. This one might be able to take the 7mm. With the O-III, yeah… that’s the best view so far. The nebula’s definitely at least 6” across, possibly as much as 8”; it does not really want to come to a crisp focus, but with the O-III and averted vision, the central region of the nebula is almost as bright as the 10th-magnitude star 1’ to the P very very slightly N. Even in the O-III, averted vision helps quite a lot; looking straight at the nebula definitely suppresses it. In the 7mm, it has a hint of a trace of a central star, but not much. It’s distinctly a disk in the 7mm; the brighter center or central star, whichever, of the nebula seems skewed towards the SP corner of it, and the little halo around it stretches a little further in the other directions. In blinking it with the UHC, that impression that the center of the nebula’s skewed to the SP is a little stronger; it feels like there’s a central star there, but I’m pretty sure there isn’t one detectable. That’s actually a really nice nebula—the nicest one so far, and it was the least interesting in terms of the 14mm view, so that was a great improvement. (I wish I could use the 4.8 Nagler on these more often, but the seeing breaks down too easily here in the valley.)

Robert decided he’d had enough, with work in the morning and a long hour’s drive back to civilization. (It was amazing how isolated one could feel on the edge of a substantial road.) As he headed out, I realized how cold I had gotten sitting there, picking these tiny nebulae out of the inky March sky. I decided to set off in search of bigger quarry, with the early spring sky now at the meridian: Abell 31 in Cancer, one of the largest of all planetaries as seen from the skies of Earth.

The nebula lies across the southern half of a diamond of bright (8th/9th magnitude) stars, and though I found the diamond, I wasn’t able to glean more than a photon or two of the nebula, no matter what eyepiece-filter combination I used. (And it would need to be a lower-power eyepiece anyway, given the nebula’s huge size [15’!])

After twenty minutes of futile searching, I gave up on Abell 31, turning to one of its less-known Abell brethren, which had been discussed the previous day on the CloudyNights forum. It turned out to be one of the most-difficult observations I’ve ever made:

Abell 20 (CMi): Inspired by a thread on CloudyNights, I decided to go after this one anyway, despite its difficulty and the fact that it’s not on the Astronomical League Planetary Nebula program list. This is Abell 20 in Canis Minor, and there’s no way I would’ve seen it without knowing exactly where to look; this is just above the level of “an impression.” The nebula’s 1’, maybe 1.25’ in diameter. But it takes real work, even in averted vision. There’s a couple of faint stars to the SP, and maybe a central star (?).Those two faint stars are SP the nebula, one SP the other by about 0.3’, and then P very very slightly S of the nebula by about 3’ is a 10th-magnitude star that has a 12th-magnitude star 2.25’ P somewhat S of it. From the nebula SP by about 20’ is a double star, or pair, of 8.5 and 11th magnitudes, with the brighter S of the fainter by 0.5’, and then following that pair/double for about 7.5’ is a string that kind of resembles Cygnus, with the pair where Albireo would be. That star that looks like it’s the central star for the nebula is probably is 14.5 magnitude at best, maybe 15th; it may not even be directly in the center, and it looks like it has an equally-faint star N of it by about 0.67’. The O-III doesn’t help that much at all, although there is some improvement; I can hold the nebula fairly well for moments, it’s a super ghostly disk… barely, barely there. This one almost needs a hood to see, but in averted vision it is definitely there… but it is really hard to hold steady for any length of time. There’s not really a whole lot to say regarding detail, but it is visible at an eye-watering level. The O-III made it definite, but it’s not pulling out any extra detail. With the UHC, it’s still definitely there, but not quite as strongly as with the O-III. It’s not really visible with direct vision at all, but in averted, it seems like the nebula might be a little stronger on the F edge, as opposed to the P, but not a lot of other detail is visible. Surprisingly, the 7mm gives a dramatically better view than does the 14mm; I didn’t expect this to be the case with a more-extended nebulous object. It’s definitely more visible in averted here than in the 14mm averted. Filters in the 7mm are too much, though, and even the UHC makes the nebula even harder to see. Returning to the 14mm… once again, the nebula’s not very distinct at all. The unfiltered 7mm offered the best view of this ultra-faint planetary.

And with that—and a lingering look at M42—we collectively called it a night.

III. Two weeks later, we were back at Linslaw, catching some of the few dark hours before Moonrise. Although we would spend almost as much time getting to and from Linslaw as we would observing, there was no reason to waste a clear March forecast, or the camaraderie that comes with being humbled by the grandeur of the universe.

I had roughly an hour and fifteen minutes between astronomical dusk and Moonrise; with the Moon being almost full, its effects would be noticed even before it rose. I spent the falling darkness trying to track down NGC 1886, a flat galaxy in Lepus, but it was already past meridian and very low in the sky, showing next to nothing as I waited. So it was onward to planetary nebulae, then, and whatever the sky had in store.

I had, however, forgotten to take a previous target—Minkowski 3-6—off of my Sky Safari list since I had observed it two weeks before. This led to a repeat observation; while there was nothing inherently wrong with taking another set of notes on a planetary with the same scope, it took time that I might’ve used on an object I hadn’t seen (or at least taken notes on) before.

MOON: 17 days (rose at 10:27 PM; 96% illuminated)
SQM: 21.54
NELM: not checked
WEATHER CONDITIONS: temps to low 30s; no dew; some substantial breeze;” cold but not unbearable”

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

Mi3-6 (redux)(Pyx): I’ve already failed to find anything to write about with NGC 1886, a flat galaxy in Lepus (which, to be fair, is well past meridian), but I’m doing better here with Minkowski 3-6, a small not-quite-stellar planetary in Pyxis. We’re sitting on the ground here and the nebula is, while not obvious, at second glance you definitely notice that it’s not stellar in the 14mm with no filter. The seeing’s not horrible down this low; I’d say it’s probably a six, so it’s about as good as I could ask for. This is a reasonably bright nebula; it’s about 10th magnitude, maybe 10.5, and it lies at the F end of a P-F little not-quite-arc of 12th- and 13th-magnitude stars. P the nebula by 1’ is a 12.5-magnitude star, and 0.67’ P very very very slightly N of that star is a 13th-magnitude star. S slightly F the nebula by 5.5’ is an 11th-magnitude star that may be double; it’s hard to tell at this magnification, but I suspect it is—I think the faint companion is S very very slightly F the primary, and there may be another one almost due F the primary, but I’ll get those better when I use the 7mm. N very very slightly P the planetary by 8’ is the more S of a pair that are almost N-S to each other; the N one is slightly brighter, but they’re very very close in magnitude; I’ll say those are 12th- and 12.2 magnitudes, separated by 0.3’. P very very slightly S of the S of the pair by 4.5’ is an 8.5-magnitude star that has a 9.5-magnitude star N very very very slightly P it by 1.5’, and then from the more-N of the close pair (the 12th/12.2 pair) N slightly P by another 5.5’ is an 8th-magnitude star. The brightest star in the field is F very very slightly N of the planetary by 21’ and is 7.5 magnitude. I want to say the nebula is 8” diameter; it looks round, does not look elongated at all, but it is very plainly not a stellar object. With the UHC, it’s definitely got some size to it. It has a very small, bright center which could be a central star, but it also has a little bit of an envelope. It’s very bright now; with the UHC, it’s the equal of the 9.5-magnitude star, and it’s got a nice field to help find it tooWith the O-III in, the field is almost intolerably dark; other than the 7.5-magnitude star, the nebula’s the brightest thing in the field; it definitely gives an appearance of maybe swelling up to about 10”, with the filter pulling in the nebula’s envelope a little bit. With the 7mm… I was right about the star SsF the nebula; it’s a double with another very faint star due F it by about 0.5’. And between the planetary and the close pair to the N very very slightly P, there’s a little almost-isosceles right triangle of 12th- and 13th-magnitude stars, with the right angle vertex closest to the planetary by 2.75’; the right angle vertex is the brightest of the three of them. The planetary definitely has a brighter core, versus a central star that’s outshining the rest of the middle of it, so there is an interior region that’s brighter as opposed to a point source with an envelope around it. With the UHC, at moments, it almost looks as if there are two brighter elements to the middle of the nebula, almost like it’s got a bright edge and the central star peeking through; it’s kind of hard to hold it that steady. With the O-III, the area around the nebula’s so dark it’s hard to get a good view. I’m still getting the sense that there are two different brighter elements in the middle of the nebula, like a central star and something else, but I’ll need a better image because the POSS plate isn’t good enough. With the O-III, there’s definitely an increase in the fringe on the outside edge.

At the very least, it was a more comprehensive set of notes than the previous entry.

As I was taking notes, Loren used a term that had caught my linguist’s ear more than once before: “boughten,” as in an alternate past participle of “buy.” This was a construction I had only ever heard from Mrs. Caveman’s cousin, and was indigenous to North Dakota, as far as I knew; Loren being from North Dakota, this made perfect sense, and added a data point to my informal survey of the word. Jerry chimed in, however, that he knew of people in Wyoming who used that construction as well. I needed to make a more-formal inquiry about it, apparently.

I had time, I thought, for one more object. So it was back to Gemini, for one of the larger planetaries in the sky: Abell 21, the Medusa Nebula. But the Moon was already making its presence felt, and its extra illumination—even while still below the horizon—caused havoc with this huge, faint, tenuous object. So after several minutes of notes, I abandoned the effort. While I wanted to capture my impressions of the Medusa, it needed to be under sympathetic conditions. And these were decidedly not. The next night’s forecast looked promising, so perhaps I would get another chance.

IV. I didn’t actually get that other chance the next night—while the forecast was for average-to-above-average conditions, the reality wasn’t that good. My plans were for the Medusa, the Headphones Nebula (Jones-Emberson 1) in Lynx, and the Owl Nebula, in addition to further attempts at Abells 35 (Hydra) and 36 (Virgo). The latter two had eluded me in the 20” in better conditions than this particular night was offering, so it was time for a change of plans.

When the transparency is poor, high-surface brightness objects should be the order of the day (night), and those planetaries listed above didn’t qualify (with the exception of the Owl, which was pretty high up and is actually pretty bright). Although the night didn’t quite reach “poor” levels, I rated it a 5 for transparency, which was absolutely the barest minimum level at which I would take notes on an object. Not wanting to waste an early spring night, I changed tactics and settled on a few of the small, bright planetaries still in optimal observing position.

Apparently, there was a sense of urgency among the group, as we had another full house up on the point tonight. Jerry and Dan R were there with the 20” TriDob; Mark and Loren had their regular gear, and Dan B and a coworker had Dan’s 11” SCT—Dan’s 16” Dob primary was significantly delayed in getting recoated.

MOON: 19 days (rose at 11:47 PM; 83% illuminated)
SQM: 21.4 (early, probably poorer later)
NELM: not checked
WEATHER CONDITIONS: temps to mid 50s; insignificant dew; mild breeze; many mosquitoes; felt colder than it was

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

IC 2149 (Aur): It’s been a frustrating start tonight; the sky is pretty cruddy, so I’m not doing the larger Abell (and similar) planetaries as I’d planned, but I am looking at the moment at the very bright, quite small IC 2149 in Auriga. I struggled a bit with this one; for some reason, it took me forever to figure out the field orientation—I flicked the nebula with the UHC and O-III filters a few times to know that I had the nebula identified, but I was at sea trying to identify my cardinal directions. The nebula has a very bright central star or bright inner region; I’m gonna call it 10th-magnitude, although it could even be 9.5; it’s considerably bright. At first glance, it’s not really obvious as a nebula at this magnification; averted vision really brings out the nebulous character to it. It appears to be about 9”, and has no color beyond Planetary Nebula GrayTM. It’s in a very active field, with a number of little triangles and pairs; due S of the nebula by 12’ is a small triangle, the N-most vertex of which is the faintest at about 11.5 magnitude; it has a 10th-magnitude star 0.75’ SP it, and from the 11.5-magnitude star F slightly S by 1.25’ is a 9th-magnitude star; continuing that line from the faint star in the triangle through the 9th-magnitude star and extending it out and a little further S by another 1’ is a faint pair, roughly N-S to each other, separated by about 0.25’, and those are both 14th magnitude. S slightly P the nebula by 8’ is a 9.5-magnitude star; there’s another 9.5-magnitude star N very very slightly F the nebula by 7.5’. The brightest star in the field is due SF the nebula by 18’ and is 7th-magnitude. P very very slightly N of the nebula by 15’ is the F-most vertex of another tiny triangle; that star is 11th magnitude and it has a 9th-magnitude star P very very slightly N of it by 1’, and that star has a 12th-magnitude star N of it and very very slightly F by 0.5’. Adding the UHC really brightens the nebula up; unfortunately, it didn’t make the seeing or transparency any better. But the nebula is now the second-brightest object in the field after the 7th-magnitude star, and is distinctly non-stellar now even at first glance. In fact, I think it’s grown in size… to the point that the stars all seem to have a little bit of gunk around them, but the nebula certainly has more so, and more tangibly so; it may be 0.25’ now, and the inner 8-9” is a brighter central region with the rest a faint fringe around it. With the O-III, the nebula is now almost tied with the 7th-magnitude star as the brightest object in the field; it’s just a little bit fainter than that star. It’s definitely brighter and having greater contrast than in the UHC; it’s still really hard to get a fix on a central point, focus-wise, so I’m not convinced that there’s a central star there; that may just be a brighter inner region. The outer halo is a little bit overwhelmed, I think, by the filter, because it’s now a little harder to see it. With the 7mm Nagler, that is a nice little nebula—in fact, the detail it shows in the 7mm is roughly equivalent to the UHC view in the 14mm. Here, there definitely seems to be a central star buried in there, because it’s coming to a much-finer point at center; I’m skeptical that that’s all nebulosity in the middle. But at this magnification, the inner region is definitely a surrounding of the central star of several arcseconds in size, with an outer envelope pretty plainly visible around it. The brightest vertex of the little triangle to the due S, the F-most vertex, also has N of it by 0.3’ a 13th-magnitude star. Adding the UHC filter to the 7mm requires me to pull the eyepiece out to reach focus. Although it was difficult at first glance in the 14mm, the outer fringe is much more shaggy or “fringey” in the 7mm. The central star is blotted out by the filter and the nebula-induced contrast gain, but there’s a brighter interior region of 8” or so in the center. With the O-III, it’s even harder to focus; the addition of that filter overwhelms the fringe and reduces the nebula down to little more than the brighter interior.

I caught myself singing bits of Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf throughout filter and eyepiece changes here—surely that was more of a Böotes thing than an Auriga thing.

We also had a second brilliant pass of the ISS for that night while I was taking notes on IC 2149. Much as I’m generally dismissive of man-made space stuff, there’s nothing quite like watching a Venus-bright object coursing silently across the sky; there’s something decidedly eerie about an object that bright and fast moving with no sound. (Incidentally, I’m giving up noting the presence of satellites during my observations—there are just too damned many of them, and they’re rarely noteworthy anymore.)

Something Loren said prompted a “Carbon Star Wars” joke, which should’ve fallen flat but didn’t.

IC 3568 (Cam): Although this one is right above the Little Dipper of Ursa Minor, it’s actually in Camelopardalis. This is an easy, obvious planetary; there’s no doubt about this one, even at first glance. It’s similar to IC 2149 in Auriga, the one that I just finished taking notes on, but this one is even more obvious. It’s 12” in diameter, with a bright whitish interior and a fuzzy exterior/outer envelope; there’s either a stellaring or an actual very faint threshold star on the P very very slightly S side of the nebula. Due S of the nebula by 1.75’ is an 11.5-magnitude star; the nebula itself is about 10th magnitude. There’s another 11.5-magnitude star P very very slightly S of the nebula by 4.5’, and the two stars and the nebula form a very narrow isosceles triangle, with the nebula on the N end of the base. F the nebula and slightly N by 7.5’ is a 10th-magnitude star; N very slightly F the nebula by 1.5’ is a 14th-magnitude star, and then SF by 5.25’ is the middle star in a little Sagitta-like asterism; that star is 13.5 magnitude. F slightly N of that star by 2.5’ is a 12.5-magnitude star, and from the middle star (the 13.5-mag) SP by 2’ is the N component of a double star or pair; those are N very very very slightly P-S very very very slightly F to each other, separated by 0.25’, with the N one being slightly brighter, and those are 13.5 and 14th magnitudes. With the UHC in, there’s clearly a central star shrouded in the interior. This seems very common with these smallish planetaries, at least visually—a buried central star with a bright interior region around it– and the UHC does a nice job brightening (or increasing the contrast of) the brighter interior. In averted vision the outer fringe is also a little brighter, and maybe that’s actually what effect the filter is having—it’s brightening the fringe enough that it’s harder to differentiate it from the bright interior. With the O-III, the nebula is clearly the brightest object in the field. It’s a little hard to focus, but boy, does the contrast increase brighten the nebula right up! That’s a really nice little planetary! The outer halo on this one accounts for only a total of about 4” of the 12” total; the interior region is much larger with this one, I think, than with a lot of these smaller planetaries, relative to the visible halo. Swapping in the 7mm Nagler, that is definitely a threshold star on the P edge of the nebula; it looks like it might be just on (or just inside) the edge of the halo. I’m pretty certain here is a central star visible there, barely peeking through the brightness in that in the interior of the nebula, that center region. The star just off the P almost has a nebulous character to it. With the UHC added, there’s a substellar point in the middle that’s reasonably bright; it can’t be the central star, but perhaps just a tiny inner portion of the interior. The fringe is much more visible at this magnification, but it’s also a nightmare to get a good focus on. The view in the O-III is very similar to that in the UHC here in the 7mm, but the seeing has worsened, so the O-III is a little less useful at the moment. The boundary between the brighter interior region and the fringe is a lot less defined than it was in IC 2149; it’s really hard to make the distinction between the two, unlike in IC 2149, where there was a much more obvious cutoff. I do think this is the “better” of the two visually, as far as displaying detail, although both of these so far tonight have been underrated little nebulae.

Usually at Linslaw, Mark sets up his astrophotography gear in the middle of the clearing, Jerry sets up on the edge overlooking the road, Dan, Loren and I park and set up next to the sandstone crag, and anyone else fills in where there’s space. For those of us next to the crag, observing north is difficult, as the crag blocks most of the view (but also most of the significant light dome of Eugene/Springfield). It also, as on this night, makes for a bit of paranoia—there were skritchings and scrabblings on the crag all evening, the sounds of small creatures scampering to and fro as they went about their nocturnal business. While not overly worried about getting attacked by something, I did wonder if at some point I’d wind up with a chipmunk or kangaroo rat falling off and landing in my scope.

With my two high surface brightness nebulae done, the transparency collapsing again, and Moonrise on the way, I decided to damn the conditions and turn to an oft-overlooked gem of the spring sky—one that I rarely give the consideration it deserves:

M97 (UMa): Last one for the night, I think, as we’re quickly losing our transparency. This is the Owl Nebula, M97, and it’s not as crisp as I’ve seen it before, and the famous eyes are not very distinct at 14mm with no filter; at particular moments they stand out more, especially in averted vision. The eyes are to the NP and SF; I think the NP eye is a little more obvious. The nebula is not as well defined as the little ones I’ve been looking at tonight; it’s much more diffuse-edged. I’m not getting a real sense of the central star at all. (I think the seeing and transparency did just get a little bit better.) The nebula is 3.25’ in diameter. N very very very slightly F the nebula, 3’ from the center, is an 11.5-magnitude star; there’s a 13th-magnitude star almost due S of the nebula by about 3.5’, and that one has a 13.5-magnitude star F it by 2’; the star to the N very very very slightly F also has a star F it by about 2.5’. The nebula also has a 14.5-magnitude star F it by 5.5’. NP the nebula by 12’ is the S-most of a line of three evenly-spaced stars that runs from that star N very very very slightly P, and those three stars are each about 4’ apart; those are all 10.5 magnitude. And then PsS the nebula by 19’ is a bluish-white 7th-magnitude star. F somewhat S of the nebula by 11’ is a V-shaped pattern of five stars with the “hinge star” of the ‘V’ at the F; those stars are in the 10th- to 12th-magnitude range, and each arm of the ‘V’ is 5-6’ long. (We’re losing our transparency fairly quickly; I’d say in at least half the sky we’re down to about a 5.) In the unfiltered view, the nebula’s edges are more diffuse than those of the smaller nebulas, and with the UHC this is even more true; the N and S quadrants, especially, are very diffuse but vaguely brighter; just under 3’ diameter of this is distinctly brighter, and the outer 0.25’ is kind of irregular. The eyes are much more obvious. The striations in the outer edges are kind of more obvious on the NP; I’m not picking up the little tendril bits like I was before. I don’t know why I’ve always resisted looking at this nebula as a showpiece, because it deserves it. Using the O-III, the edges appear even more ragged; I can’t say that the eyes are as strongly-visible as they were in the UHC. Even in averted, I think it’s better in the UHC (although this could be specific to my filter, too.) On the SF, in fleeting moments, there’s a little separation or gap between the outer edge and some of the inner region, like a bit of slightly-detached fringe at that spot. I think here the SF eye is a little better-defined than the one to the NP. With the 7mm, everything’s blown out; the nebula’s fainter, but I seem to be getting traces of the central star every so often. [Moonlight rising now.] The eyes are very difficult at this magnification. There seems to be, on the NP edge of the 3’ brighter portion, a slightly brighter area there 0.25’ long.  The 7mm view isn’t the way to go, compared to the 14mm; the extra magnification and sky darkness don’t offset the extra blurriness. With the UHC in the 7mm (I won’t have time, with imminent Moonrise, for both filters), there’s an interesting twist: the eyes almost give an impression of annularity that doesn’t exist; it’s hard to get a fix on them with the filter in. On the rim to the N (maybe I was wrong earlier) there is indeed some extra brightness. This is too much magnification, and the UHC doesn’t help much; there are better views in the 14mm with either filter. With the O-III in the 7mm, the nebula is actually hard to see; the filter destroys the field, and the eyes are much harder to see against the rest of the nebula. Moving the scope helps. With the unfiltered view in the 7mm, every now and then, the eyes seem as if they smear together; this refers to my earlier comment about the annularity; there isn’t a ring, but something like a dark diagonal line across the middle. The internal brightness shadings are very complex in the 7mm with no filter.

Meanwhile, Loren was providing views of NGC 3242—the Ghost of Jupiter Nebula—through his 18” Obsession.

I suspected that it was the Moonrise—although the Moon was still below the horizon—that was contributing to the poor sky conditions, with the extra glare scattered across the visible sky. By the time the Moon broke through the horizon, we were already tearing gear down for another fortnight, anticipating better skies when we returned to the sandstone crag.


Bill Basham died in February. 

Bill (and/or his wonderful timelapse videos) featured in quite a few stories I’ve told over the years on this site. He was quite a remarkable man: a physician, an astrophotographer (largely self-taught), a camera expert, and a pioneer of the early days of the Internet. He was also a terrific storyteller, a purveyor of (not always clean) jokes, a fine brewer of tea, a provider of Fig Newtons, and about as good an observing comrade as anyone could ask for. We missed him for quite some time before he left us; his battle with ALS had taken away his ability to join us on whatever mountain road we would set up on. But we never forgot him, and we never will—Bill frequently comes up in conversation when we’re observing, because there are so many stories about him to fit so many occasions. He leaves a legacy of helping others, of advancing multiple technologies, and of making his companions’ lives better for having known him. I could only hope to be half the person he was.

Bill photographing M51. Photo courtesy of Jerry Oltion.
One of Bill’s later time-lapse videos. Be sure to visit his channel.