Time Enough, and Worlds

April 21st wasn’t perfect; the morning was overcast, despite predictions of being clear, and even by sundown there were long streaks of low sky-crud that made the decision to drive all the way to Eagle’s Ridge seem a dubious one. But the allure of the Clear Sky Chart forecast was enough—for the first time since December 28th, there was a potential for clear, moonless skies, even if only for a few hours.

Four of us—myself, Jerry, Bill B, and Dan R—decided to take the risk; even if it proved fruitless, it wasn’t a bad evening for a drive. I arrived last, having had to beg out of dinner with the rest of the family to get on the road while it was still daylight. As it was, I had a hard time remembering the exact location of the BLM road to the summit, and the road itself was so covered with post-winter debris that the sky was darkening fast by the time I made it to the observing site. I hadn’t been to Eagle’s Ridge proper since the first week of June 2016.

Sky conditions weren’t great as I set up Bob the (12.5″) Dob, but it was fairly obvious that they were going to improve. Jerry and Dan had the 20″ TriDob assembled already; as I was finishing setup, they were checking out the shadow of Ganymede on Jupiter’s disk. The last time I’d seen Jupiter was at a public event (First Quarter Friday) in early March, and the planet was low enough then that it was downright dim in the Dob. Now, with six or seven weeks of extra altitude, it was back to its brilliant self, the Ganymede shadow a dark pinprick near the planet’s northern limb.

Seeing was crummy, in Jerry’s estimation and in reality, but it would be fine for hunting Herschel galaxies. As we waited for the sky to get dark enough, I zipped around among some of the brighter spring galaxies, pleased to have the scope back in action. (I had forgotten the December 28th session, which took place much farther down the road, and kept telling myself that I hadn’t had a Herschel session since September. I wasn’t that far off.)

Many of my targets for the evening (formal and informal) were in Hydra, but much of the region I was intending to explore was still (to my surprise) blocked by the surrounding terrain. While I waited for that section of sky to clear the horizon, I turned westward a bit. But even though the sky had darkened enough, there was a substantial haze to the south, and my observations there were more than a little bit hampered by that haze. I plowed ahead, eager to make up for lost time.

MOON: 25 days (rise at 3:53 AM), 27% illumination
TRANSPARENCY: variable, 4-7
SQM: not taken
NELM: about 6.4
WEATHER CONDITIONS: temps in 50s, occasional cirrus blowing through, winds high

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

NGC 2855 (Hydra): 5′ S (very slightly) P an 8th/9th-mag star—about 2.0’ across—galaxy has a brighter core; averted brings out maybe a stellar nucleus (seeing not great, hard to tell about nucleus)—core region is 0.75 across, maybe a bit smaller—galaxy halo seems slightly elongated NP-SF—galaxy is obvious, reasonably bright, a bit brighter than typical HII object–field peppered with stars, star nearest galaxy is brightest—NF galaxy by 15’ is a small triangle of 10th/11th-mag stars—NP bright star by 9’ is upside-down kite pattern with wide part to N, galaxy is S tip of kite

NGC 2811 (Hyd): not an easy target due to transparency issues—elongated NF-SP—narrow, 1.5 x 0.75—core is brighter, fairly tight core, not diffuse, about 0.5’—no stellar nucleus, even in averted—probably inclined spiral—not impressive enough for H400, but this is probably due to poor transparency–to NF by 7’ is a 9th-mag star—almost due P by 3’ is an 11th/12th-mag star—NP galaxy by 5’ is the F tip of a small isosceles triangle of 11th/12th-mag stars—F galaxy by 18’ is the P vertex of a large scalene triangle that’s made of 8th/9th-mag stars and is 20’ on the long side, which runs N-S in field—SF galaxy is kind of ‘Y’ pattern of 11th/12th-mag stars; some of the points in ‘Y’ are double stars—‘Y’ is 6’ top-bottom and is upside-down starting from N

After these two, I spent some time in the Hydra/Antlia border region. But the haze was frustrating; the guide stars I needed for my targets in the region (NGC 3109 [a large Local Group spiral], the Hydra I cluster [again], and NGC 2997 [again], among them) were hazed out by a magnitude or two, making them very difficult to find so far , and I ultimately passed on my targets there entirely.

After another hour or so, the sky began to clear more completely. But the wind was increasing quickly, and by the time the sky was 3/4 free of clouds, it had become difficult to control both Bob the Dob and the TriDob due to the gusts blowing across the exposed spur road. My charts and observing list both went sailing in the breeze more than once, despite my attempts at anchoring them down. And my interest in chasing small, previously-undiscovered targets went out the window as well, with the scope blowing around in azimuth circles.

I stuck to objects from memory for the rest of the evening: Messier objects and easily-remembered NGCs. It wasn’t a total loss–any time with scope and stars is valuable, and the aesthetics of deep-sky objects are a worthy goal under any conditions. It was disappointing to have only logged two new objects from the Herschel lists, but two was better than the none I’d registered in the last four months, and it was something of a spiritual balm to have been able to gather starlight once again.

Jerry, Dan, and I left well after 2 AM. Bill stayed to accompany his camera as it took another of his brilliant time-lapses, and to capture more of the Lyrid meteors that had sporadically punctuated the evening.