Night: Her Sable Dome Scattered with Diamonds

The forecast had, for several days, been calling for a run of clear nights.  This after weeks of rain, in one of the worst winters I’ve ever seen for astronomy: night after night of thick clouds and Northwestern fogs, while the stars wheeled unobserved above the water-clogged atmosphere. (And no snow, which also sucks.)

Despite knowing that a rare night of clear skies was probably imminent, I had put off making the final adjustments to my new secondary-mirror holder.  Having installed it earlier in January and encountering problems in getting it aligned with the focuser axis, I took it to January’s EAS meeting, where Mel B. and Jerry O. both suggested calling the manufacturer (Astrosystems) for advice.  As I’d gone about installing the secondary in the holder, I had seen how the holder was put together and knew how to make the adjustment I needed, so out came the secondary and a screwdriver, and the whole thing was tweaked to within an inch of its life.

Arriving at Eagle’s Rest, though, I knew that it would take a while to get everything fine-aligned.  I’d assembled the scope in the garage earlier in the day to make a rough collimation; the new secondary holder was considerably different to use, and will continue to take some time to get used to.  Nonetheless, collimating at Eagle’s Rest was a chore, and it took several minutes of Jerry’s time to get the tilt of the secondary right.  (Thanks, Jerry!)

By dark, there were about twelve of us in the small clearing.  Jerry had brought both Mel Bartels’ 20″ f/4.8 TriDob–which Jerry had bought from Mel–and a fellow EAS member, Dan, who had taught anthropology and knew a hell of a lot about a large number of deep-sky objects.  Bill “Dr. Lapser” B. had gone up to the higher-elevation site (Eagle’s Ridge) to do some astrophotography, but joined us later in the morning (!).

The sky seemed to take forever to darken, but as it did so, it was apparent that this was going to be a special night.  (Jerry took several SQM readings throughout the night, getting 21.6 at one point–almost as dark as the Oregon Star Party.)  The seeing was mediocre, however, as there was gusty wind and low-level turbulence off and on throughout the night.  But the clarity of the sky was stunning, and we could heed the Chinese poet’s advice: See into it directly.

My phone battery was low, and as the only way I had to charge it was to run the van, I sought to preserve the battery as much as possible.  As a result, I only took notes on three (technically six) objects.  But of the fifty-five objects observed over the course of the evening, twenty-three were objects that I’d never before observed, and so I missed out on taking notes of many of these; my usual habit is to take notes on objects the first time I observe them.

I began with M37 and M42 as the sky was still somewhat light.  Not much of M42’s nebulosity was visible at that point, and the Trapezium cluster at the nebula’s center was blurry–a sure sign of either unsteady skies and a mirror that hadn’t adjusted to the ambient temperature… likely both in this case.  Once the sky had darkened and both seeing and mirror had settled down a bit, it was time for serious observing to begin.

The first two observations were repeats of the two I had made previously on the Eagle’s Rest Road amphitheater site: NGC 1514, the Crystal Ball Nebula in Taurus, and NGC 891/Abell 347 in Andromeda.  Saving the battery on my phone meant that I didn’t re-record notes for these two as I’d intended, unfortunately.  I made it a point to search for NGC 898, a tiny edge-on spiral galaxy near the much larger/nearer NGC 891 and a member of Abell 347, as I’d missed 898 the last time.  It was not at all difficult, now that I knew to look for it.

Then it was onward to another object that had bedeviled me the last few times out: Palomar 2, a very dim globular cluster in Auriga (of all places!), near the Galactic Anticenter.  I managed to find the field more easily tonight than last time out, and having done so, located the spot where the globular should be.  After several minutes of staring, sweeping the field with averted vision, and slowly panning the scope to look for indeterminate fuzzy glows that moved with the stars, I felt comfortable in saying that I’d found the cluster, but not enough so to verify it as “observed.”  It was just on the threshold of vision but slightly larger than expected.  I asked Jerry to have a look, and he, too, felt that he saw the cluster.  I’ll have to repeat the observation before I’m willing to check this one off the list, though.

I hit some of the showpiece objects while waiting for the last vestiges of twilight to fade. (I should, in retrospect, have looked for Palomar 2 again later in the evening.) By now, it was 7:30 or so; not wanting to waste power on my phone, I avoided checking the time too often. I followed Palomar 2 with Messier 1, the Crab Nebula, showing it to some of the guests that were observing with us.  M42 was spectacular at this point of the evening, although I gave it short shrift in the observing department. I spent more time on NGC 2024, the Flame Nebula (part of the Horsehead complex) than on M42, but with good reason–the Flame was stunningly detailed tonight and easy even without a filter.  I wandered along south from it, picking up the brighter edge of IC 434, the strip of emission nebulosity in front of which the Horsehead is situated, although there was no trace of the Horsehead itself.  Later, Jerry and Dan and some of the others would observe the Horsehead in the 20″, but I was too busy to have a look. (Yeah, I know–I’m stupid!) After the Flame and Horsehead region, I checked in on M78, which was brighter than I’d ever seen it.  It was interesting to scan the immediate environs of M78, noticing the “deadness” of the field due to the presence of the many dark nebulae that are part of the M78 complex.  On this night, they were readily apparent.

One of my main goals for the near future is completing the Astronomical League’s Planetary Nebula observing program, and though winter is chock-full of targets from the program, I took no notes on any of the few that I observed. I quickly sought out Abell 21, the Medusa Nebula, as it was well-placed above the treeline at the site. I had first seen this one–a large, dim glow with a brighter, crescent-shaped rim on the eastern edge–from the model-airfield we once used as a site in southern Illinois, but it was nowhere near as bright as this particular evening. The whole extent of the nebula seemed visible, not just the crescent.  I would later visit the Medusa in the 20″, but it was still beautiful in the 12.5″.

Jones-Emberson 1, the Headphones Nebula, was next.  This giant planetary in Lynx is in the middle of nowhere sky-wise: in what I call the Northern Waste, between Auriga, Ursa Major, Lynx, and Camelopardalis, where stars brighter than 5th-magnitude are few and far between.  JE-1 required a lot of consulting my charts to locate, although there were SO. MANY. STARS. of 6th-magnitude and dimmer visible tonight to use as guide stars.  (I had to repeatedly stop and grok at the star density of the sky–I hadn’t seen this many stars since my 1998 trip to the late, lamented Star Hill Inn in New Mexico.  My night would turn out to be as productive as the nights I spent on that trip.) Although I found JE-1, it was far less detailed than I had expected–just a large round glow, a little smaller than the Medusa, with only a hint of the two brightenings that mark the “headphones.”  Even an O-III filter did little to change this perception.  The seeing tonight would be very variable; I wonder if I caught JE-1 at a point where the atmosphere was especially murky.

My final planetary for the night–wasn’t I supposedly concentrating on them?–was Jonckheere 320 in northwest Orion.  Tiny at 25″ x 13″, it was nonetheless unmistakeable even at 112x, and slightly bluish. The O-III filter brightened the nebula and suppressed the surrounding stars enough to verify the nebula’s identity.  I spent less time on it than I should; this was Rare Night Syndrome, as I’m going to call it–a need to race through as many objects as possible after a long stretch of cloudy nights for fear it’ll be another long cloudy stretch before getting to observe again. This has happened the last several times I’ve gone observing, and I have to stay on task better next time. (Although, in fairness, it had indeed been long stretches of cloudy nights between all of my recent observing sessions.)

I stopped over to the 20″ for a look at the California Nebula, NGC 1499. It was certainly brighter than I’d seen before in Jim R’s 12″ SCT at the Mill Creek Retreat in October of 2014, with a bright leading edge and streaming diffuseness behind it.  Even in a 31mm Nagler (using an H-Beta filter, of course), the nebula filled more than the whole field view–not the most detailed object, but one well-worth another look.

The rest of the night was given over to galaxies, aside from some nebulae and globulars observed in the 20″. The first two of these galaxies had also been on my list to observe for a long time–NGC 2537 (the Bear-Paw Galaxy) and IC 2233, a target on the AL Flat Galaxy list and a difficult grab in the 12.5″ scope.  NGC 2537 was an obvious round glow perhaps 3′ in diameter, with the three primary bright striations amid the galaxy’s midst faintly visible at 112x.  IC 2233 was a 3′ sliver of dim light just south of NGC 2537.  Both the bear-paw shape of NGC 2537 and the entirety of IC 2233 were greatly improved by a view through a 6mm Radian (yielding 245x).  I really need a chair again so that I can sketch some of these objects….

Far-northern galaxies remained the order of the hours for a while. NGC 2403 and IC 342 are face-on spirals in Camelopardalis, both famous and neither of which I’d ever observed.  NGC 2403 is enormous and easy to observe if one can find it in the Northern Waste, covering no less than 12′ x 5′ and full of mottling in its (not observed) spiral arms. At least a couple of individual knots were visible among the galaxy’s arms. (I’m pretty sure one of these was NGC 2404, although I didn’t acknowledge this at the time.) IC 342, even farther afield in the celestial hinterlands, was more difficult; its 4′ core was visible among a rich field of stars, and with patience the galaxy’s halo could be traced to about 8 or 9′.  Both of these galaxies will get revisited the next time out.

Next was NGC 2683, a huge, bright edge-on spiral back in Lynx.  This one was such a spectacular sight that I broke out the Recorder app on my phone and spent some of the precious battery power making a record of it:




SEEING: 6 (at best, variable)


NELM: 7+

WEATHER CONDITIONS: temps in 50s, occasional high winds (blocked by trees)

SQM up to 21.6

With: JO, BB, RB, DR, others


NGC 2683 (Lyn)—beautiful edge-on—about 6’? maybe 1.5 or 2’ thick—elongated almost P-F—10th, maybe 9th mag.—on F side, an arc of three stars with middle star embedded in halo of galaxy—core is 3.5’ long—doesn’t seem to have stellar nucleus—on the S side, a dust lane?—brightness contour more even on N side—S side looks “cut off”— arc stars are 11th-12th mag—another off NP side about 13th mag, about 3’ away from halo—several asterisms of brightish stars in field but galaxy in middle of them, none touching—no companion glows in field

I got my north and south reversed again–I’m really out of practice with this!

I went away from galaxies briefly to pick up nearby fellow Lynx resident, NGC 2419, the Intergalactic Wanderer.  This globular cluster was once considered the farthest such object in the Milky Way, only to be superceded by some of the Palomar globulars, among others.  This is a charming globular, the third object in an evenly-spaced line with two 7th-magnitude stars, is surprisingly bright and large in the eyepiece on a good night; I recall it being tiny in my 8″ SCT from Cincinnati.  Here, it wasn’t even recognizable as that same object.

I took some time again to check out a few objects in the 20″.  First up was Abell 12, visible just east and in contact with the 4th magnitude star Mu Orionis, with the brightness of the star making observation of the nebula more difficult than it should have been. Mel B. had posted an observation of Abell 12 to the  EAS e-mail list, and Jerry had wanted to follow up.  The nebula was quite easy in the 20″ (I had no real luck in the 12.5″), hiding in the star’s “anti-shadow.”

Jerry had also been keen to check out the galaxies that lie among the stars of the Beehive Cluster, as written up in the March 2016 issue of Sky & Telescope.  Up on the ladder, we managed to pick out NGCs 2647 and 2643; Jerry also managed to sweep up NGC 2637, although I didn’t catch this one.  These were all tiny, faint smudges compared to the bright Beehive stars.  With a chair allowing more comfort and patience, I’ll have to search for these in my own scope later this spring.

After several minutes of unsuccessful searching for Abell 31, a huge, brutally-faint planetary nebula in Cancer, in my own scope, I dropped down into Hydra’s neck for a pair of galaxies plotted on the same Sky Atlas 2000.0 chart as Abell 31. NGCs 2713 and 2716 were easy to find and surprisingly bright in the eyepiece, a pleasing pair visible in the same 42′ field of the 14mm 82* eyepiece. 2713 was the larger of the two, and obviously a spiral; 2716 is a small, fainter elliptical galaxy.

By this time, Leo was rising above the treetops. One of my regular targets in the spring sky is NGC 2903–the galaxy Messier and his fellows missed–in Leo’s nose, a large, easy spiral of intermediate type Sb/Sc.  This is one of the non-Messier showpieces of the sky, and was a knockout tonight in the 12.5″ Discovery. Using averted vision offered traces of the galaxy’s spiral arms.

Also in Leo is Hickson 44, a small group of four galaxies in the Lion’s mane.  This is the easiest of the Hickson clusters, and I’ve observed it many times, although I’d only ever seen three of the four galaxies.  Tonight, even the fourth galaxy (NGC 3187) was an easy catch, an S-shaped edge-on that lies exactly along the same line and orientation of larger, brighter NGC 3190.  This group is another favorite, and it was especially rewarding to finally “complete” the quartet by catching NGC 3187.

Yet another favorite in this region of the sky is NGC 3344 in Leo Minor.  This big face-on spiral has a pair of stars in its halo on the F side and a “shimmery” texture to its extended halo.  It’s easily found above the middle of the Lion’s body.  I should’ve looked for the NGC 3413 and 3512 groups (the latter an Object of the Week a few years ago on the Deep-Sky Forum,, but forgot to go back to them.

It was then back north for a while, to a spot south of the Big Dipper’s bowl and a galaxy pair with an additional “secret”: NGC 3718 and NGC 3729. Accompanying NGC 3718 in our sky is a much more distant group of galaxies collectively known as Hickson 56, a sextet of galaxies lying about 425 million light-years’ away (or ten times father than 3718).  Having seen the closer/brighter NGC pair and failed repeatedly at Hickson 56, I didn’t expect the sight that I got when I turned the 12.5″ scope on the field:


NGC 3718, 3729, Hickson 56 (UMj)—actually seeing Hickson 56, plain as day, no mistake—3718: 4’ x 3.5’, roundish—no stellar nucleus—brightest part of core off center amid halo—PA not possible—two stars of 11th mag on SP end of halo—halo a little longer than first thought (perhaps 5′ x 3.5′)—5’ away from those stars, a strip of about 2’ long and 0.5’’ thick running P-F (Hick 56) slack-jawed at its brightness

3729: also has star on S side of halo—3’ x 2’, irregular shape—no stellar nuc—core is slightly mottled—has 12th mag star involved in halo on SP side

Hickson 56: unreal that it’s visible—not separable, almost on verge of separating into 2 or 3 components

Stunned by how easy Hickson 56 actually was and wondering if perhaps I was seeing the wrong thing, I called Jerry over for confirmation (he must’ve gotten tired of this at some point!).  He too saw the group, describing it the same as I did.  I still am stunned at how bright Hickson 56 was, and will definitely intend to observe it again next time out.

I studied the 3718/3729/Hickson 56 field for twenty minutes or so, before moving on to another target that had disappointed me in Illinois: the faint, sprawling (15′ x 6′) inclined spiral NGC 4236 in Draco.  At the Crab Orchard Wildlife Refuge, this galaxy was a mere blur in the eyepiece; at Eagle’s Rest, it was unmistakable and obvious.

Next up was another field that I’d taken notes on before: the Whale, the Pup, and the Hockey Stick (NGCs 4631, 4627, and 4656 respectively).  These are spectacular even in somewhat-lesser conditions, but were jaw-dropping here; I think I picked up NGC 4657 on the tip of 4656.  I shared these with several others at the site; they never fail to impress those who haven’t seen them before, and they resemble their namesakes better than most targets do.

My next target(s) took considerable time to find.  The Integral Sign Galaxy (UGC 3697) and nearby UGC 3714 dwell way up in northern Camelopardalis near the +70 declination line, in an area that was already behind me in the sky. (I only now realized how much time I spent browsing Chart 1 of Sky Atlas 2000.0 that night–a chart I previously used only for Cassiopeia and northern Perseus.) The only bright star within ten degrees of The Integral Sign is Omicron Ursae Majoris (Muscida); under lesser skies, I wouldn’t have even found the feeble guide stars I had to use.  But tonight was exceptionally dark at Eagle’s Rest, and after a long series of hops and backtracks, I managed to pinpoint UGC 3714.  Only then did I manage (using the interstellarum Deep-Sky Atlas) to find the Integral Sign Galaxy, which had eluded me for years.  I could immediately see why.


UGC 3714/3697—Integral Sign (U3679) just a phantom—3’ x maybe 0.5’—appears only with averted—U3714 much easier—3697 between two 7th-8th stars spaced about 30” apart—no curl visible, very flat and straight—no central brightening—very ghostly—occasionally in averted seems to be “pinched” in middle (which doesn’t seem to appear on photographs)

3714: much easier—about 1’ diameter—semi-stellar nucleus—no gradation between core and halo

I concluded my recording by saying that the Integral Sign may have been the most-difficult object I’d ever positively seen.  I’m not sure that’s totally true, but it’s certainly not far from the truth.

Having accomplished a difficult and time-consuming feat–it had taken me the better part of an hour to find and observe the Integral Sign–I turned my scope south again, to the more-familiar environs of Canes Venatici.  I’d recently read about the bright edge-on spiral NGC 4244, and how it was “the definitive” flat galaxy.  While I would consider nearby NGC 4565 the definitive edge-on spiral, NGC 4244 was certainly a knockout, especially after the eyestrain-inducing Integral Sign.  I can’t believe I’d never observed this one before.

Nearby was the only northern NGC globular cluster I hadn’t seen, NGC 4147.  I found it surprisingly quickly, a lone globular in a sea of galaxies.  There was no real resolution into stars here; perhaps a couple flickered among the globular’s hazy halo, but nothing I could confirm.  I stared at this one for a few minutes, realizing that I’d probably acquired the final Northern-Hemisphere globular in the Milky Way that wasn’t a Palomar or fainter.

It was also my final target of the night–at least in my own scope.  There were only three of us left in the clearing (Jerry, Dan, and myself), and so I wandered over to the 20″ scope, where the others were looking at galaxies.  We went through a short list of galaxies with structure: M51, M101, M64, NGC 2903, and the Leo Trio (M65, M66, and NGC 3628).  The views were jaw-dropping; there’s nothing like seeing the spiral arms of M51 filling the entire field of an eyepiece, or counting NGC objects in the arms of M101, M64’s “black eye” structure almost three-dimensional, or seeing the dust lane in NGC 3628 as plain as day.  I could’ve stared at each of these sights for an hour!  The 20″ scope has nearly three times the light-grasp as my 12.5″ (314 square inches vs. 123), and the difference it made was incredible.

We also checked out NGC 4565, the classic edge-on spiral.  The galaxy stretched across the whole field of view, dark lane and stellar nucleus unmistakable.  No view of this galaxy I’ve ever had compared to the view of it in the 20″–it was downright photographic.  The extremely-faint, distant galaxy cluster off the galaxy’s southern tip wasn’t visible, although I was so knocked out by 4565 that I didn’t search for the cluster too closely.

Then it was back to Gemini and Abell 21, the Medusa Nebula. The details in the nebula were much the same as in the 12.5″, but the whole nebula was considerably brighter. We stuck with the cnidarian Gemini theme, heading over to IC 443, the Jellyfish Nebula, a supernova remnant in the Twins’ feet. I’d never seen this one before, despite having had it on my “to observe” list for some time.  The nebula was smaller than I’d expected, but full of filamentary tracery with an O-III filter.  Impressive!  Now that I know what to look for, I should be able to draw this one from the background sky the next time I go observing.

We closed out with several globular clusters: M53, NGC 5053, and M3. M53 was as impressive in the big scope as M3 would’ve been in my own; nearby NGC 5053–one of the hardest NGC globulars, due to its diffuseness–was almost easy. M3 was stunning, countless star-flecks buzzing around a brightly-glowing central hive.

We weren’t overly tired, but it was time to go–sometimes there’s just a logical end to an observing session, and it’s time for the scopes to sleep. It was still a 45-minute drive home, and it was 3 AM by the time we got everything stowed away. After ten hours, my feet were killing me, having walked around on uneven gravel or climbed ladders all night.  Leaving my observing chair back in Illinois was a horrendously-dumb idea, but it did give me a project for the weekend.

I don’t recall the drive home.  It was foggy and the roads were empty, but I pulled into my driveway without being totally sure how I got there. I could recall very clearly, however, where I had been.