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.
SUNSET: 7:55 PM
MOON: 21 days (rose at 11:00 PM; 65% illuminated)
NELM: not checked
WEATHER CONDITIONS: temps to low 60s; no dew; no breeze, pleasant
OTHERS PRESENT: JO, KO, RA, JA
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.
SUNSET: 7:35 PM
MOON: 27 days (rose at 3:32 AM; 5% illuminated)
TRANSPARENCY: 7, 8
SQM: 21.54 (10 PM), 21.71 (2 AM)
NELM: not checked
WEATHER CONDITIONS: temps to mid-60s; no dew; air still; felt chilly
OTHERS PRESENT: DB
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.
SUNSET: 7:33 PM
MOON: 27 days (rose at 4:42 AM; 1% illuminated)
TRANSPARENCY: 6, 7
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.
SUNSET: 7:31 PM
SEEING: 7, 8
NELM: not checked
WEATHER CONDITIONS: temps to mid-60s; no dew; air still; felt chilly
OTHERS PRESENT: JO, KO, DB, RA and family
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  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:  is very much elongated and obvious at this magnification;  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?  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.
SUNSET: 7:31 PM
MOON: 4 days (set at 9:40 PM; 21% illuminated)
TRANSPARENCY: 6, 5
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
OTHERS PRESENT: none
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.
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.
SUNSET: 7:30 PM
MOON: 5 days (set at 10:11 PM; 31% illuminated)
SEEING: 8, 7
TRANSPARENCY: 7, 6
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
OTHERS PRESENT: JO, LR, DB, AF, RB
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  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.
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