Stars & Fog at Year’s End

I. 2016 trudged to a merciful end, its final days (appropriately) mostly dreary and grey, well befitting a year that might best be illustrated by a tag-team of Edward Gorey and Oskar Parviainen. It was a year that began in months of grey and rain, punctuated by only three observing sessions in the first three months; a year that gave us whole weeks of clear skies in summer, culminating with the Oregon Star Party experience in early August; a year that ended as it began, with whole months of drizzle and mist and skies that only ever yielded stars during the November Full-Moon cycle. The term annus horribilis was invented for years such as this.

And yet the forecast during the year’s final week showed some promise, and promise was good enough to summon forth a few intrepid astronomy-minded souls who were willing to take a chance on driving an hour to be (possibly) thwarted. So Jerry, his much-learned friend Dan, Oggie G, and I drove into the night and fog to (hopefully) close the book on 2016 with a positive observing note.

The drive seemed portentous, and not in a good way. We had decided on the Eagle’s Rest Road “amphitheater” as our site, as we didn’t know how the road conditions would be higher up the mountain (the whole area had been hit with a worse-than-it-looked ice storm ten days before, and a great deal of tree damage had occurred around the region, in the form of fallen limbs and whole trees), while wanting higher elevation that other spots might have afforded us. Driving to the spot, however, showed thick patches of fog to be an issue in the flats and low spots along the route—how high up Eagle’s Rest did the fog go?

As it turned out, the fog stopped just below the amphitheater (which is simply a wide spot in the road with a fine view to the south). Although the fog would surely swamp our spot within a few hours, we concluded that we were in the best spot for the time being. Jerry and Oggie had been here once earlier in the week, and had noted that there was no traffic along the road–perhaps further indication that the upper parts of the road by our other two sites were less than accessible.

We set up quickly; Jerry had his Trackball, Oggie his Zhumell Dob, and I had brought Bob the Dob. My quarry this night would come from the Cetus/Eridanus/Taurus and Perseus regions—I’d hoped to track down the blazar CTA 102, currently in a cycle of powerful outbursts, but Jerry had noted that he had also tried this the previous time they had been out, and had found the blazar to be buried in the trees already by nightfall. So I tailored my list to what would be near the meridian and how I recalled the skies from the last time I had observed from that spot, nearly an entire year before.

The fog stayed at bay for only a few hours; we could see it creeping up the mountain below us, obscuring everything it swept over and filling the valley to the south like the smoke from a witch’s cauldron. We had arrived at 8:00 or so and the skies vanished into the mist by 10:30, leaving headlamp beams nearly opaque with water vapor.  And yet, those 2-1/2 hours seemed as rewarding as an all-night session, after ten weeks devoid of starlight. We had fine views of M42 and the Columba globular (NGC 1851, right on the horizon); Jerry, Dan, and Oggie compared views of the Horsehead Nebula in various filters between their scopes (I was unable to pick out the Horsehead from the background, although I did manage to see IC 434, the illuminated nebulous strip behind the Horsehead itself.)

My own exploration yielded 8 Herschel galaxies in eastern Cetus, although I stupidly forgot to save my notes for the NGC 1042 group (which had three of the eight Herschels in it). Given that I’d been ten weeks with no observing, notes on five Herschel objects was still satisfying. I had seen NGC 1055 numerous times—it’s often reminded me of a miniature Sombrero Galaxy–but this was the first time I had taken notes on it.

EAGLE’S REST (amphitheater)
TRANSPARENCY: highly variable; 7 early, deteriorated throughout evening
SQM: not taken
NELM: 6.6
WEATHER CONDITIONS: temps in upper 30s, heavy dew; air still

All observations: 12.5″f/5 Discovery truss-tube Dobsonian, 14mm ES 82˚ eyepiece (112x, 0.7˚ TFOV) unless otherwise noted

NGC 1055 (Cet): forming an equilateral triangle with two 7th-magnitude stars. The galaxy is aligned lengthwise with those two. The stars are to the N of the galaxy, separated by 9′. The galaxy is 4′ x 1.5′, elongated almost due P-F. It has a brighter core region, about 1′ and round. No stellar nucleus is visible. The galaxy’s famous dark lane may come and go with averted vision, but it’s very tenuous if it’s there at all. To the NP edge of the galaxy is a small equilateral triangle about 2.5′ on a side. The brightest star in this triangle is the one closest to the galaxy, the SF vertex of the triangle. This star is 12th magnitude, while the other two are 13th magnitude.

NGCs 1090, 1087 (Cet): This pair of galaxies is just following M77. 1090 is the smaller and more-northern of the two. It’s elongated (slightly N)P, (slightly S)F. There is a 12th-magnitude star 4′ due N of the galaxy. The galaxy is elongated 3:2, so about 2.5′ x 1.5′. It’s quite diffuse; in averted vision has a somewhat brighter core. Every now and then a hint of stellar nucleus is visible. Between the two galaxies, angled NP to SF, with the NP star about 10′ due P NGC 1090, is a long arc/line of five stars separating the two galaxies. NGC 1087 is much larger than (and almost due S of) NGC 1090, 3.5′ x 2.5′, and oriented N-S [A really slow-moving satellite is drifting through the field; at first I mistook it for a star]. The sky has cruddied up in Cetus, and the galaxies are dimmer than before. NGC 1087 forms a nearly-equilateral triangle with two 11th/12th-magnitude stars to the NF and SF; the triangle is about 5′ on a side. The galaxy’s halo is irregular in shape and brightness. It has a very large core; the central 2′ of the galaxy is the core, and no nucleus is visible at all.

NGC 1073 (Cet): Another really large, diffuse galaxy. This one is 3.0′ x 2.5′, quite round, and elongated SP-NF, although it’s hard to tell its elongation due to its diffuseness. [Eyepiece fogged despite the best efforts of my dew heater.] Due following the galaxy is an isosceles triangle of 10th/11th-magnitude stars. The galaxy itself is very diffuse, with a large core region; a stellar nucleus is visible in averted vision, although this nucleus wasn’t visible at first. The triangle of stars is elongated to the SP, with the other stars to NF and due SF. The galaxy disappears with the slightest bit of eyepiece fog.

NGC 1070 (Cet): This one is much smaller and brighter than other galaxies I’ve observed so far tonight. It looks like an elliptical. The galaxy is about 1.25′ and round. It has a brighter core region, about ¾ of the galaxy’s diameter, but it’s hard to pick a stellar nucleus out of it if one is present. To the S of the galaxy is a pair of 12th and 13th-magnitude stars, one due S, one P, separated by 2.5′. This is a pretty nondescript galaxy and field. The brightest stars in the field are 8th magnitude, one on the due N edge of the field, 22′ from the galaxy, The other on the due P edge of the field, 20′ from the galaxy. 9′ P and slightly S of the galaxy is a 10th-magnitude star.

II. Two nights later, the Clear Sky Chart for Eagle’s Rest looked even better, and we agreed to convene at the Eagle’s Rest site proper—the gravel pit site where I had done my maiden astronomical voyage in Oregon the year before. I had spent much of the day dealing with Verizon over getting my old phone transferred to the new one I’d gotten for Christmas, and it had taken so long that I was an hour late to the observing site.

I needn’t have bothered, really. The flat and lower-lying areas were clear, but the higher up the mountain I went, the foggier it got. The road was slushy and potentially slick in spots, but the fog…. I knew the evening was likely to end in futility.

I pulled into the gravel site to find Jerry’s car, the 20″ TriDob, and a truck with trailer on it, but not a sign of actual people. I walked around the site for a few minutes. This was odd; Jerry wasn’t likely to leave a multi-thousand dollar telescope alone, and this fact clashed with my suspicion that Jerry and any others in our group had headed up the mountain to scout the Eagle’s Ridge site for better conditions. But as minutes ticked by in the foggy clearing, I began to suspect that they’d been eaten by a Wendigo.

There was a knock on the van window—Jerry. He had been waiting in Bill “Dr. Lapser” Basham’s camper/trailer and hadn’t heard me pull up.  We went back to the camper; it was smallish but cozy, warm, and had fresh tea being made. We chatted for a bit, then ventured outside when a look out the window showed that the fog had broken.

The break only lasted a few minutes, but it was long enough to get a look at the Mars-Neptune conjunction, both planets tucked into the field of view of a 31mm Nagler. They would be closer the next night, but we would be clouded out then. It was still an impressive sight, to see the closest and furthest planets gathered together along our line of sight.

And then the fog slammed shut again. We stood around and talked (mostly about literature and particularly about Mervyn Peake’s magnificent Gormenghast Trilogy) for about an hour, hoping for another break in the fog. It didn’t come. So we packed up the TriDob and Jerry and Dan headed out. I started breaking down Bob the Dob, telling Bill all the while that the skies would clear as soon as I stowed the last of my scope in my van.

And, of course, that’s exactly what happened.

The Milky Way shimmered through the fog, eventually clearing to its full glittering glory. Orion sparkled; Lepus danced above the treeline. Monoceros glowed with the luminance of countless unresolved stars. I briefly thought about reassembling my scope, but it was 11:30 already, and it would be an hour’s drive home–had the sky been clear, I wouldn’t have hesitated to spend the entire night observing. Yet putting the scope back together seemed too much trouble, and it surely would’ve fogged over the moment I did so.

Bill had his time-lapse gear up on the Ridge, clicking away for the night; he was planning to spend the night in the trailer while his camera made its magic. (Bill’s stunning video is below.) For me, though, home won out over setting back up, and I made the drive down the slippery road slowly and reluctantly.