Go West

… and in July, we did exactly that.

Leaving southern Illinois was difficult; we left behind ten years’ worth of friends and a community that I felt somehow “responsible” for in an astronomy sense.  But it’s in good hands, and plans for the upcoming eclipse continue apace.  Giant City State Park–and Carbondale in general–is the place to be on August 21, 2017.

And now we’re here in Eugene, Oregon, a totally different community.




Summer was hot and clear.  It was typical, in July and August, to have five nights a week be nearly perfect for observing, but all of my gear was in transit except for the 12.5″ Discovery and my 11 x 80 binoculars–my eyepieces were on a moving truck, stupidly, so even if it was possible for me to get out, I couldn’t observe.  By the time the stuff showed up, there was nowhere to put it, as we didn’t have a house, and once we got a house things were too busy for me to go out.  Then classes at the U of O started, and I had even less time; trying to “audition” for a Ph.D. program required all of my meager Australopithicene brainpower.  With the first trimester of classes almost behind me, though, I managed to finagle a free night to observe, just as the famous Oregon winter dreariness began to settle in.  One evening, with four hours before waning gibbous moonrise.

The astronomy club here is always looking for chances to observe, and the e-mail list serve is always buzzing.  They have a number of sites within a two-hour drive, and VP Jerry O–one of the premier telescope builders in the US–suggested a trip out to Eagle’s Rest or Eagle’s Ridge, a pair of sites within forty minutes of home.  The deciding factor in the choice of site would be the amount of snow on the mountain road leading to both sites.  Not having been to either site, I made sure to grab Jerry’s directions and to have the GPS (Isolda, after Dychauk) programmed with the coordinates.  Armed with a new red headlamp, a sheet of Rubylith, and the new interstellarum Deep-Sky Atlas (Field Edition), I took off ninety minutes before the rendezvous time.  Better to have daylight to scout out a new site.

On light-pollution maps, the two sites are of the same class as the Mill Creek Retreat, with the added advantage of having higher elevation.  The disadvantage, as I discovered, was the fact that the road up the mountain was, in spots, a deceptively-slick sheet of ice-crusted snow.  The Caveman Mobile was up to the task of getting me to the site, but just barely.  (Coming down would be more difficult.)  I passed several groups of gun enthusiasts on my way up; one of them warned me of the deteriorating road quality up ahead.  He wasn’t kidding.


Eagle’s Rest and Eagle’s Ridge.  Eagle’s Rest is about a thousand feet lower in elevation than Eagle’s Ridge, which is little more than a flat area between two seldom-used roads. The two sites are about 3.4 miles apart.


Light-pollution map of Eagle’s Rest.  Eugene proper is the red spot closest the large cross; the large red/orange abomination at top center is Portland.

I stopped at the Eagle’s Rest site; the sun had not yet set.  The site is a clearing in the woods, about 200′ across, used in part as a gravel-storage site for road construction, and there was indeed a large pile of gravel off to one side of the clearing.  Coniferous trees of various types blocked off the horizons all around, but enough sky was open above that it was still an eminently-usable spot–not unlike the Giant City State Park parking lot back in Carbondale.  I turned the Caveman Mobile to face the main road, so that I could see if anyone continued further up the road–the other astronomers might be more adventurous.  Eventually, though, three more vehicles made their way up the short path from the main road.

We quickly got to work setting up.  With me this evening were Jerry and his wife Kathy, using a pair of homemade 10″ Portaball-style scopes with hand-ground mirrors; Bruce H, with a largish refractor, with which he spent the evening taking 30-second exposures of various objects; and Pam H, with a 6″ Orion Dob.  I was well-dressed for the weather, with a coat, three sweatshirts, three pairs of pants, two pairs of socks, North Face mittens, a Russian infantry hat, and several chemical handwarmers.  I also had a pair of winter boots, but (as it turned out) I didn’t even need them, and used the mittens only sporadically.  The temperature cooled to 28˚F by the time we tore down, but felt warmer.

Also new to my gear-kit is a 2″ Glatter laser-collimator and Tublug combination, which I had used twice since purchasing it in September.  Superb pieces of equipment, the Glatterworks make collimation quick and ridiculously accurate. (The other occasion on which I used them–at a public event in November–Jerry commented on how fine the Discovery’s mirror was… high praise indeed from someone who knows his mirror craft so well.)  It took only five minutes to get the collimation tack-sharp, although I noticed before packing up for the evening that the scope had gotten in need of recollimation as the night went on.  St. Neanderthal will hopefully bring your Australopithicene a new secondary mirror mount for Christmas.

I had prepared a list of about a hundred potential targets for the evening, but didn’t consult it much.  As is my (bad) habit after a long layoff from observing, I spent much of the evening hitting old standbys–M15 (both before the sky had sufficiently darkened and afterward–gorgeous as always), M2 (breathtaking!), NGC 7479 (spiral arms more apparent than ever), NGC 7331 and Stephan’s Quintet (nicely separable into all five components, although I still saw none of NGC 7331’s companion galaxies, dammit), NGC 772 (Aries), M74 in Pisces (mottled/lumpy halo more detailed than I’d ever seen it).  All of these I found from memory.  I used the iDSA and the iPhone version of the TriAtlas app to sweep up Hickson 88 in Aquarius, catching the same three galaxies of the quartet that I’d seen in Missouri more than a year ago.  They were still brutally faint.  After that, it was up to the Helix Nebula, although I didn’t spend as much time on this Moon-sized planetary as it deserved.

Then it was over to WLM, the Leichtenstein-shaped dwarf Local-Group galaxy in Cetus.  This one was barely above the trees, and suffered from its low altitude; it was extremely difficult with direct vision, appearing as a 15′ long wisp of vapor in a less-than-dark field, one that was hard to discern without rocking the telescope slightly.

It was around this point that several bright white lights came up the road to the clearing–not cars, but iPhones, blinding in the darkness.  They were being wielded by a young couple who had heard our voices; they had gone shooting guns down further on the mountain, and had gotten their car stuck in a ditch after catching a patch of ice.  After the usual “what are you guys doing up here?” questions–always the same when non-astronomers drop in–and some “geez, there are a lot of stars up here” comments, Jerry took them back to their car to see if they could extract it from the ditch.  No such luck.  After a worrisome twenty minutes or so, Jerry’s car rolled back up to the clearing. The kids joined us for some impromptu public observing while waiting for the friend they called to bring his truck.  (It took an hour for the friend to find us.)

After the kids left, I took some time to see what the other observers were up to.  Bruce was from St. Louis, so we spent some time chatting about Midwestern weather and observing conditions; we also got a fine look at the Double Cluster in his refractor.  Jerry tracked down Uranus, Neptune, and Comet PANSTARRS, offering fine looks at all three through his superb home-brewed scope; he then pointed out the naked-eye location of Uranus, to where I was 90% certain that I’d seen it.  Kathy shared views of M57 (the Ring Nebula), NGC 457 (the ET/Wall-E Cluster), and NGC 7789 (Caroline’s Rose, a very rich but faint cluster in Cassiopeia discovered by William Herschel’s sister and collaborator Caroline).

On my list for the evening was G1 (also known as Mayall II), the largest and brightest globular cluster in the Andromeda Galaxy.  I spent several minutes searching for it, thinking that at last I’d found it–a fuzzy spot between two dim stars off M31’s southern flank.  But the angle of the two stars didn’t seem right, and after consulting with Jerry and his iPad (running Sky Safari) and a paper map, I still wasn’t sure.  Jerry offered to let me use the map the rest of the evening, but with time running shorter, I wanted to move along in my list.  A look at the Digitized Sky Survey when I got home made it clear that I didn’t have the right object; what I’d seen was possibly nothing but a threshold star.

Next up was a revisit to one of the most stunning areas of the autumn/winter sky–the region of the NGC 383 Group in extreme northern Pisces.  As noted elsewhere in this blog, the NGC 383 Group is part of the “western” end of the enormous Perseus-Pisces Supercluster, a supergalaxy filament that spans nearly 40˚ of sky and may contain 100,000 or more galaxies.  The NGC 383 and NGC 507 groups are both part of the larger Pisces Cluster, with a smaller group (including NGC 410) between them.  I had resolved to do a field-by-field sketch of this entire area (383/410/507 groups) at some point, but time tonight wouldn’t allow it–it would probably take several nights’ work to do the entire thing.  At this point, there was less than two hours before moonrise, and that would be that as far as galaxies went.

Finding NGC 383 again took long enough–hell, finding Sigma Piscium, one of my reference stars, took a while.  Conditions had deteriorated a bit; the Milky Way seemed less crisp than it had an hour before.  I suspect that moonlight from below the horizon was already having an effect on the darkness.  Once I got a lock on Sigma Psc, though, the 383 Group was easy, and its boomerang shape was obvious in the eyepiece.  I showed the group to the other observers, pleased to have ferreted out something they hadn’t seen before.

I gave the 383 Group a good fifteen minutes before starting my star-hop over to 507 via 410.  I was out of practice with star hopping, and even the TriAtlas seemed not to have enough stars to get me there.  Eventually, though, I drifted across NGC 410, checking the surrounding stars against the TriAtlas chart to be sure that I had the right target. I spotted NGC 407 nearby, and probably tiny NGC 414 as well–it’s also possible that I picked up CGCG 501-119, as I recall four glows in the field.  I had skimmed over a number of others, all of them faint, on my way to 410, but hadn’t stopped to identify them, and my phone’s charge was low enough that I didn’t want to do a voice recording of the entire region.

The area around NGC 507 was even more littered with galaxies, and as I star-hopped over, I swept up these tiny, faint glows by the eyepiece-full. By the time I got to 507–some twenty minutes later, pausing to note the brighter galaxies along the way–I had seen (by my estimation) no less than forty individual island universes in the Pisces/Andromeda region alone, and possibly more.  Most of these would have to go unidentified this evening, but I would be sure to identify them while sketching the area–especially as I should have a comfortable chair to sketch and observe from by that point (I had given my observing chair back to AASI so they could sell it with the rest).  A look at the TriAtlas chart was enough to determine that many of these galaxies hadn’t even made it into the NGC. Many were threshold objects, too, only making their presence known as the scope was moved, slowly, across the fields.

The 507 Group was the final stop of the Perseus-Pisces chain for this evening.  I could’ve continued on across Andromeda and into Perseus, to Abell 262 (the NGC 1275 Galaxy Cluster).  But 507 was a new group to me, and I spent a fair amount of time wandering among its constituents.  Although these galaxies are mostly faint and small and unimpressive, knowing what they are–as well as marveling at their sheer numbers–makes winnowing them out of the netherlands of some otherwise familiar constellations a rewarding pursuit.  There’s something so indescribably awe-inspiring about seeing such a gigantic structure–a filament composed of entire galaxies–that it’s impossible not to feel infinitesimally-small yet simultaneously connected to the universe.  One’s own troubles, one’s own triumphs, one’s own existence, one’s own solar system–even one’s own galaxy–is simply irrelevant at this scale of matter.

By the time I finished with the Perseus-Pisces galaxies, the moon was nearly up.  I realized I’d taken no notes at all during the evening, and had seen few new objects on my list other than the NGC 410/507 groups and the galaxies surrounding them.  I had to change that; I’d made it a habit to take notes on at least one new object each observing session.  I remembered polar-ring galaxy NGC 660 being on my list, and nearby in the sky, so I swung back over to that part of Pisces.  (I also stole another look at M74, which was more vivid than I’d ever seen it.)

NGC 660 was huge and stunning.  I was astounded I hadn’t observed it before.


MOON: 18 days, absent
TRANSPARENCY: 9 ; Cygnus MW very brilliant and detailed; Double Cluster brilliant, separable w/naked-eye
NELM: 6.8
WEATHER CONDITIONS: cool but dry; temps in low 30s, many sporadic meteors and satellites

With JO, KO, BH, PH

8:36 PM
NGC 660 (Psc)–3-4 x 2′ long, fairly bright–12th mag, maybe 13th?–to NP side is close equal pair of stars 2′ apart–directly P, farther from galaxy, unequal pair 4′ apart–galaxy N-S oriented–double nucleus? brighter toward S end–couple of threshold stars to F side–directly S, triangle/wedge shape of 7th/8th stars–definitely companion galaxy to F side by 3′

Sloppy Note-taking 101: got my N-S directions mixed up.  That’s what happens when you don’t do this for a long time.  And while there is indeed a faint companion galaxy to the east (following [F]) side, it’s doubtful that’s what I saw; more likely, I saw the faint, very close pair of stars just south of that companion. The only solution is to re-observe NGC 660 at the soonest possible opportunity, perhaps sketching it, and in any event taking longer to observe it.

By this time, Orion was visible among the trees–unfortunately, his great nebula was buried square in the middle of one of the taller trees.  (So was the Crab Nebula.)  It’s rare to end a winter observing session without seeing the Orion Nebula, but it was necessary this time; moonlight was spreading along the eastern horizon.  Time to pack up and be grateful for the things we had seen.  It had been a fantastic, soul-energizing session, one that had been a long time in the making.

But the evening wasn’t finished.  We knew from the young couple’s road foibles that the drive down the mountain would be a challenge–we just didn’t know how much of one.  Jerry advised us all to stay close as we drove; his experience in Wyoming winters  (and mine in Alaska) had given him plenty of experience driving in subpar conditions.  He led us down.

We hadn’t gone two miles before the spot the shooter had warned me about got Pam’s little car and carried her off the road.  With summer-ready tires on the Caveman Mobile, I also slid to the roadside behind Pam (I brought up the end of the group), but made sure to go to the opposite side.  The van was easy to steer back onto the road, but Pam was stuck, and Bruce and Jerry had rounded the corner.  Minutes passed.  My phone was dead, so I couldn’t contact anyone–I had brought the charger, but not a damned cable.  Arrgh.  And Pam’s phone had no reception up there on the mountain.  I tried pushing Pam’s car back onto the edge of the road, and then rocking it forward and backward, but no luck.  And still no Bruce or Jerry and Kathy.

Finally, headlights shone through the trees.  Jerry and Bruce had needed a place to turn around, and it had taken several minutes before they could do so.  I pulled the van farther up the road, to give us room to work.  Jerry pulled up and off the other side of the road–he had 4-wheel drive and a more compact vehicle, and could get out of trickier spots.  Bruce pulled up behind Pam and turned around.  And promptly got his SUV stuck on the roadside.

First things first. Jerry and I cleared the space around Pam’s car of snow, using nothing but our shoes–neither of us had any other tools for the job.  (Next time!)  It took about fifteen minutes before we could get her car freed, but by clearing the roadside and putting our weight against the car, we managed to push Pam back onto the road.  Then the same for Bruce, who was in less-precarious spot.  After ten more minutes, we were all back on the road–Bruce first, then Pam, me, and Jerry following.

It was a long trip down.  What had taken about twenty-five minutes going up took an hour going down–eight miles in sixty minutes.  And yet it had all been worth it for the photon fix. I got home near midnight, the moon lighting the road all the way back.