Gold in My Pocket

The mid-October Moondark phase (roughly from Third Quarter to First Quarter) seemed promising, at least based on the Clear Sky Chart forecasts. With the sky darkening at a decent hour, I would be able to get home from work, eat dinner, and get to whichever site we would decide to use on a given night—especially if the scope was already loaded into the car.

Several days before the Moon gave us a suitable respite from its presence, I had gotten an email from a local fellow with a telescope to donate: “a 90mm scope, numerous eyepieces and filters.” And so on the Sunday before the dark run commenced, Mrs. Caveman and I ran over to pick up the gear from the very kind gentleman on our way to a visit with some friends at a local winery.

Those friends included Loren and his wife Donna, and about halfway through our visit, I decided to open up the case and box of telescope gear for Loren and I to sift through. “Christmas in October,” I called it.

The scope turned out not to be one of the ubiquitous ETX-90 Maksutov-Cassegrains of which we’d had at least a dozen donated since I’d been in the club, but a 90mm Orion MakCass of better quality: the mechanics were solid, and the optics looked pristine. It came with a 26mm Orion Sirius Plossl (a decent beginner eyepiece) and a 1.25” Shorty Barlow for doubling the magnification of the Plossl, a couple of Tasco 0.965” eyepieces (oddly, although these will pair with my 1950s-vintage 60mm Tasco refractor, if they’re usable), a bunch of camera filters, and, even more oddly, a slide-projector lens. There was also a like-new Telrad and an old University Optics 8 x 50 right-angle correct-image finderscope with helical focus and a purplish-blue color not unlike that of Meade’s classic era; this had an odd crosshair pattern to it that I’d never seen used before. Loren’s eyes lit up at the finder.

We seem to have telescope “harvests” every couple of autumns or winters, in which several telescopes (and their related sundries) get donated to EAS out of the blue; these almost always have hidden gems in their cases or boxes. While we haven’t yet had a full harvest this year, this small donation did indeed bring with it several pearls of great price, as I discovered upon opening a small wooden box that came in the larger paper-ream box in which the whole lot was given to me.

The box contained eyepieces… but what eyepieces they were.

The first one I noticed was a homemade-looking thing, with huge eye and field lenses and a tarnished bare-metal barrel that was etched with “1-1/8” and “43x” on it (whatever scope gave it 43x I couldn’t say); the lenses were a bit scuffed, but otherwise seemed in decent shape for having been left unprotected in a box filled with rotting foam and other metal things rolling around in it. This was followed by a 4mm Criterion Ortho, Criterion being a long-defunct manufacturer of good telescopes from about 1950-1981.  There was also a filter of indeterminate type; judging from the reflective coatings, it was some sort of nebula filter.

But the real gems were still in the box, in battered old Ziploc-style baggies: a trio (25, 12, and 8mm) of Clavé asymmetric Plössls, possibly of the 3rd Generation, before Clavé was bought by Kinoptic. This was a staggering find; I whistled when I unwrapped them from their worn-out baggies. Clavés are some of the best European eyepieces ever made, perhaps only bested by Zeiss’ Abbé Orthoscopic eyepieces, which could fetch anywhere from $4500-$9000 for a complete set, depending on condition. The Clavés aren’t quite so pricey, but were still valuable. These were in surprisingly good condition, given that they’d been stored and forgotten with no eyepiece caps and nothing but thin bits of plastic to protect them. To say that I was stunned by the discovery would have been an understatement. 

(Dan B, telescope-lending coordinator for EAS, was less enthused. “Tarnished, patina’d brass,” he would later call them, more interested in stuff that we could loan out with telescopes than in relics of bygone eras of amateur astronomy.)

This changed my observing calculus a bit for the next few sessions. I needed to give these eyepieces some thorough testing; if their glass was in as good a shape as it looked, the Clavés might be a bonanza for EAS’ planetary observers.

I. My first opportunity to put the new gear to the test came on the Friday after we got it.

Eureka Ridge had opened for the hunting season; Jerry, Dan B, Loren, and Robert joined me in the small ridgetop clearing, having taken turns using Jerry’s grass whip to beat the vegetation down to a suitable length. (It was a matter of extreme annoyance that the road was open for the hunters, as it was assholes and their gun fetishism who had gotten the site closed in the first place.) The conifers that ringed the southern edge of the clearing had grown quite a bit since our last session there, but it was still as good a place to spend a night’s observing as anything outside of Linslaw.

It was a night that had to be short. Mrs. Caveman had spent the week in DC, and was due to come home that night; at the last moment, Loren’s wife Donna asked if she could pick up Mrs. C at the airport, letting me off the hook. Nonetheless, I felt somewhat duty-bound to be there when she got home. 

Rather than any of my own gear, I took the new scope and its assemblage of eyepieces. (I forgot the finderscope, which Loren had wanted to borrow.) Setup was remarkably quick—I attached the slow-motion mount to the camera tripod and the scope to the mount. Done. 

But to what end? The sky was considerably smoky—still—as a result of the Waldo Lake (Clear Creek) fire, which seemed as if it would burn forever. We could tell even before the sky got dark that the transparency was mush; it might’ve been poor even if there’d been no smoke at all. It hardly mattered, though; Moonrise was at 9:15, so none of us were expecting a night of “serious” observing anyway.

The 90mm Orion was a bit wobbly on the mount, but with the 26mm Sirius Plossl, the views—of M11, Saturn, Jupiter, and eventually the Moon—seemed quite sharp. The scope was easy to bring to (and keep) focus, stars were tiny pinpoints, and the Cassini Division in Saturn’s rings was visible even at such low power and in such mediocre conditions.

Of course, I wasn’t there to test the Sirius. With an unexaggerated air of anticipation, I put the 25mm Clavé in the focuser.

The view was sharp, but… it was still a 25mm eyepiece, no matter the quality. Nothing suggested that it was degraded or damaged in any way, fortunately, so at least there was that.

The other two Clavés, the 12 and 8mm, yielded similar results: they were quite sharp, but between the conditions and the 90mm MakCass primary optics, I wasn’t blown away by them. They certainly weren’t lacking in any aspect, but this was obviously not the best test of their performance. One criterion of note, though—the Clavés were extremely lightweight compared to more-modern designs with twice the internal glass.

I left shortly after moonrise, so that I would be home before Mrs. Caveman got there. The others stayed behind, no doubt amused by my fascination with low eye relief and narrow fields of view.

II. The next night held greater potential, forecast-wise and in terms of equipment. Having tested the 90mm Orion a bit, I decided to go for broke; the 20-inch Obsession was the weapon of choice, and Linslaw the site of its deployment. I still brought the Clavés along, despite the admonition that they were better-suited to focal ratios much slower than the Obsession’s f/5.

There were no vehicles parked at the top when we arrived this time. It was the only thing that went right all night.

The sky was a dull, faded blue as I set up; Dan and Loren arrived as I began putting the big scope together. 

I was in the process of collimating the scope when I heard Loren curse. This by itself wasn’t unusual, but then Dan let out a swear of agreement.

The rear passenger-side tire on Loren’s truck was flat.

We’d pretty much expected someone to get a flat at one of our sites; the rough, bumpy roads made it a matter of when, rather than if. I stayed out of the way as Loren and Dan tackled the tire change, as the last thing they needed was a semi-human nosing into the process. I noticed as they were working on the tire that the valley in the distance was filling up with fog.

The process of changing the tire was itself a disaster. Loren’s truck seemed to be hiding the jack and tire iron; it was easier to get them from Dan’s truck than to find them in Loren’s (or even in the manual for Loren’s). Worse, they couldn’t locate the spare, and when they did, the assembly that held it under the truck had rusted so badly that it was impossible to spring the spare free from its housing. All in a truck that Loren had bought new only a few years ago.

Loren and Dan took another set of turns trying to break the spare free as Jerry pulled up. He also took a turn at the stubborn spare, but they all decided it was a futile effort after the third go-around. With no tire available, there was only one choice: Dan and Loren would make the 45-minute drive back to Eugene, grab a tire from Dan’s truck, and drive back. Otherwise, they’d be leaving Loren’s truck at Linslaw overnight until Loren and Donna could get the tire changed. That left me and Jerry to wait until they returned, making use of whatever the sky gave us.

Which wasn’t much, honestly. The sky was as smoky—or moreso—as the previous night. I browsed around the usual setting summer showpieces; those lower in the sky suffered badly from the smoke and horizon gunk. Even at higher altitudes, the deep-sky objects available were clearly diminished by the conditions.

But we made the most of it. I took no notes on anything, as it “wouldn’t be fair” to the objects. Jerry had started watching a transit of Europa across Jupiter’s clouds; I swung the Obsession over that way, only for Jupiter to be too low—the roof of the Flex blocked the view.

Loren texted: they were going to his house to get a tire from his other truck. He told us we were free to leave, but we chose to wait anyway. The smoke seemed to be clearing slightly, so there was potential for better observing within the next few hours. Dan inquired about the conditions; I told him things might be looking up. (Awful pun unintended.)

It was while I was atop the ladder observing NGC 7789—Caroline’s Rose—that I noticed that the fog had crept right to the edge of the crag. Jerry hadn’t noticed it either, and it provoked “oh, shit” exclamations from both of us. Within a few minutes, the fog rolled up the edge of the crag and blanketed the whole mountaintop. My observing was basically over for the night; Jerry stayed watching the Europa transit, sharing the view once I had covered up the Obsession’s primary mirror.

Eventually, even Jupiter was buried in the fog. Jerry packed up his trackball scope, which took all of five minutes. I began tearing down the Obsession; with the upper cage and truss poles removed, I was able to show Jerry how loose the ground-board mounting bolt had gotten. As it was a captive bolt, there wasn’t much we could do about it on-site, so we made plans to do a tune-up day with some of the club scopes, before wrestling the huge mirror/rocker-box assembly up the ramps into the Flex.

We heard Dan’s truck well before the headlights flashed across the west side of the crag; the fog made them seem almost tangible. Loren unloaded the fresh tire. It wasn’t the right size; as it was slightly bigger than the other tires, Jerry suggested putting it on the front of the truck and bringing one of the front tires to replace the flat one, so as not to cause problems with the differentials. (I, of course, knew absolutely zero about this sort of thing.)

It took the three of them less than fifteen minutes to finish the job. Dan hadn’t assembled his scope and Loren hadn’t even started unloading his, so there was nothing remaining to be stowed beyond jacks and tire irons. After a search of the observing area, we headed down the mountain: I led the caravan, being least-likely to be useful should Loren have trouble with the oversized tire; Dan followed me, then Loren, with Jerry following behind to make sure Loren made it to Springfield without incident. 

The drive home was mostly fog-free, even as we dropped in elevation. I pulled into the driveway to a clear but hazy sky, Jupiter and the few bright stars visible from my yard shining softly through the smoke and light pollution.

III. Night Three of the October dark-sky run finally found me getting some notes on objects, although it was not without its own travails. (How disappointing that a rare week of clear, Moonless October skies was so beset with [admittedly First-World] problems!)

With forecasts all over the map, we settled on the Oxbow as our site of best opportunity. As it was mid-week, and I was working, this was a bit more of a strain; the treacherous hour-long drive meant that I’d have to leave by midnight in order to get home at a decent time (it would still result in a 19-hour day and only four hours’ sleep before the next… but this was science!). I was in need of some solid observing time, and some progress on my various projects, so I wasn’t going to quibble.

I arrived at the pullout first; Loren, Robert, and Jerry pulled up not long afterward. The sky was smoky but looked to be passable—given the previous couple of observing attempts, this was good enough. Scopes were assembled and the long, chatter-filled wait for darkness began.

The great drawback of the Oxbow as an observing site is its relative remoteness; even at Linslaw, we were able to receive Internet and phone signals. But on this paved area on the side of a maintained county road, we seemed to be farther from civilization than at any of our off-road observing haunts. One manifestation of this is the fact that there’s no contact with the “outside world,” in that our phones are essentially cut off due to lack of signal. As a result, I can never access the POSS images from Sky Safari, which are useful in finding difficult field galaxies.

Normally, that’s all that I would have to put up with. Tonight, though, my phone decided to be a colossal asshole, first with the TriAtlas; in attempting to access the app, I got a prompt of “Unable to Verify App: A connection to the App Store is required for the first launch of TriAtlas on this iPhone. Please connect to the Internet and try again.” What in the sweet tapdancing Cthulhu was this? I’d used the TriAtlas for years, on every phone I owned. What was this “first launch” crap, and since when did I have to have Internet service for basic apps?

At least Sky Safari worked… for about a half hour, long enough for me to track down my first two targets: a Shakhbazian-esque galaxy chain in Aquarius, noted by New York amateur Ivan Maly on the Deep Sky Forum; and Herschel “remainder” galaxy NGC 7183, which lay nearby. The galaxy chain, anchored by the galaxy PGC 68036, was an averted-vision smear of light, completely without detail. I spent about ten minutes with it before acknowledging that it wasn’t going to yield enough to take notes on, at least tonight.

NGC 7183 did show enough. I switched from Sky Safari to the Voice Recorder app, ready to take notes on it….

…and immediately got the “Unable to Verify App” prompt.

For such a spiritual pursuit, astronomy certainly can bring out the off-color language; I don’t recall which profanity was the first one out, but I’m pretty sure I got to them all. I’m also sure I had to restrain myself from chucking my phone over the edge of the paved overlook. Without the Voice Recorder app, my evening was essentially over already; I’d driven an hour for almost nothing. Even though the sky wasn’t great, I’d really hoped to make some progress on my various observing projects, only to be thwarted by some inexplicable out-of-the-blue bit of operating system nonsense. (Nonsense being a much nicer word than I’d originally typed.)

The clincher: clicking back to Sky Safari brought up the same. damned. prompt.

My phone was essentially locked up, and with it, my ability to find objects, my ability to describe objects, and, well, even my actual list of objects for the month. I sat in my chair for a few minutes, tracking NGC 7183 pointlessly… until a light bulb went off overhead.

Purchased apps might not work, but what about native apps? Like the Voice Memos app that comes inboard with the phone?

I brought up the app. No prompt! Just as importantly, I still had my Jumbo Pocket Sky Atlas in the Flex—if I could remember some of my planned targets, I could make things work out at least a little bit in my favor. But first, I already had a suitable target in the eyepiece, and another I found along the way….

MOON: 23 days (set at 3:51 PM; 37% illuminated)
SEEING: 6, 5
SQM: 21.11
NELM: not checked
WEATHER CONDITIONS: temps to mid-50s; slight dew; air still; cool but not cold
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 7183 (Aqr): It’s a smoky night but the sky is decent anyway. This galaxy is large, elongated roughly P-F, extending to 2.25’ x 0.67’. It has a quite diffuse, poorly-defined halo. There’s a smallish, somewhat-brighter core; at this magnification there doesn’t seem to be a nucleus. To the S somewhat P and S somewhat F are a couple of brighter field stars; the brightest in the field is the star S somewhat F, which is 10th magnitude; the star to the S somewhat P is 11.5 magnitude; both are 3.75’ from the galaxy and are 3.5’ apart, aligned roughly P-F to each other. From the galaxy P somewhat N by 3’ is a 12.5-magnitude star. There’s a 14.5-magnitude star 3.5’ P slightly S of the galaxy and a 10.5-magnitude star 12’ P somewhat S of the galaxy; there’s also a 15th-magnitude star N very slightly P the galaxy by 2.25’. The 7mm Nagler does nothing for the galaxy; it’s so diffuse that it’s hard to see at all now, and there’s no nucleus even at this magnification. 

I stumbled across the next galaxy while searching for NGC 7183. I probably had already taken notes on it, as it was a really impressive object, and was probably in one of the Herschel lists I’d already done. But here, with the 20-inch Obsession and an observing agenda I couldn’t access, there was no reason not to take notes on it again.

NGC 7184 (Aqr): This is the very impressive (even in the gunk) NGC 7184. I’d imagine this one needs much better skies to see the full extent; it’s 5.5’ x 1.0’ (at the middle) at 80˚ PA; it tapers quite a bit at the ends of the spiral arms. Near the F end of the galaxy is a 13th-magnitude star that’s surprisingly less distracting than it should be. The galaxy has a large bright core and an occasionally-visible stellar nucleus. The core at times seems round and then at times seems like it smears toward the F—maybe both? Under better conditions I’d say the halo is probably mottled; it’s much more diffuse and not particularly well defined, especially on the P end. Along the F side are a couple of stellarings along the F side, along the length of it, that are occasionally visible in direct vision but are easier in averted. It especially seems like 1/3 of the way from the nucleus to the star on the F end, and slightly S of that line, there’s a particular stellaring that’s brighter [this is actually an embedded 15th-magnitude star]. That star on the F end is about 2.5’ from the nucleus; from the nucleus 5’ P is a 13th-magnitude star that has an 11.5-magnitude star NP it by 1.25’; from that star 3.75’ N somewhat P is a 12.5-magnitude star that has another 12.5-magnitude star 1’ N very slightly P it, and then from the 11.5-magnitude star (the more N of that first pair) P very slightly S by 6’ is a 12th-magnitude star. A great galaxy!—I didn’t intend to takes notes on it, but why not?? With the 7mm, the stellarings and the nucleus are more apparent, but focus is too indeterminate down there.

I don’t actually recall how I found NGC 7392; it’s not on the Pocket Sky Atlas, and with Sky Safari and the TriAtlas both kaput, I had no other means of finding it (or identifying it, had I swept over it). Perhaps I remembered it being close to Neptune (which I had just finished observing). Regardless, I ended up with notes on it somehow.

NGC 7392 (Aqr): A really considerably bright galaxy, this is currently not far from Neptune, really, but it’s also just P the bottom of the “streams of water” in Aquarius. The galaxy is elongated 110˚ PA, so P somewhat N-F somewhat S, and spans 1.5’ x 0.67’. The halo is pretty well defined; it has a large, substantially-brighter core that’s not very gradual, and a definite stellar nucleus (especially in averted vision). It’s not super easy to hold in direct vision at this altitude, but it’s doable. N of the galaxy by 1.67’ is a 13th-magnitude star that has a 14.5-magnitude star 0.67’ N of it; from that star N slightly F by 2.25’ is the brightest in the field, which is 11.5 magnitude. From the galaxy F somewhat S (so along its major axis) by 2.67’ is a 13th-magnitude star; there’s another 13th-magnitude star S of the galaxy by 4.5’. With the 7mm: seeing is dogsh*t down here, but the nucleus looks a little less stellar. Another really nice galaxy!

Among all the deep-sky objects, my favorite targets to observe are globular clusters and galaxies—particularly galaxies in groups, and even more particularly galaxies in chains or strings. A large-aperture telescope is generally necessary for these latter objects, given the scarcity of available subjects, although there are some fine examples to be had with more-modest scopes.

The best of these—and the finest in the northern sky—is the NGC 383 chain in extreme northern Pisces, up near the Andromeda border. This chain is one of the most-obvious segments of the massive Perseus-Pisces Filament, one of the largest-known structures in the Universe, stretching from Abell 426 in Perseus down through Andromeda, Pisces, Aries, and Pegasus in our skies. This is one of my favorite observing targets, easy to find and rewarding to study. With my resources at a minimum, it was time to take notes on this string of cosmic fluff (despite the somewhat-declining seeing and transparency).

NGCs 383, 382, 386, 385, 384, 380, 379, 374  (Psc): I’m finally taking notes on this group, which is my favorite galaxy chain. Starting with NGC 383, which is the brightest in the chain and is the largest of the lot; it’s 1.25’ round, with a gradual, brighter core and a pretty well defined halo; here in the 14mm I think I see a faint substellar nucleus. S slightly P 383 by 0.5’ is another smaller galaxy [NGC 382]; it’s also round, but much more diffuse and has either a tiny brighter core or a substellar nucleus to it; it’s about 0.25’ round and is pretty poorly defined. Continuing S slightly P for 1.5’ is a 12th-magnitude star. 3.3’ S somewhat F 383 is a difficult small (0.3’) spot [NGC 386] with a faint stellar nucleus but not much of a core; it’s very tough. [I missed NGC 387 here.] From 383 S by 5.5’ is the more N [NGC 385] of a pair of galaxies: the larger of the pair, it’s 0.75’ round, with a small bright core; it’s much more diffuse than 383. S slightly P by 1.67’ is another [NGC 384] that’s 0.5’ diameter; [so many of these are vaguely roundish!] this one is diffuse and poorly defined but has a gradually-bright core. From 383 N somewhat F by 5’ is a 12th-mag star; also from 383 4.5’ N somewhat P is the more S [NGC 380] of another galaxy pair; this is the second-brightest in the group and is smaller than the one N of it at 0.67’ diameter, but it has a diffuse halo, a very concentrated bright core and a stellar nucleus.  2.25’ N very slightly P that one is the second of that pair [NGC 379], which is elongated N-S, 0.75’ x 0.5’, and has a very gradual core to it but no apparent nucleus. It’s well defined; the one to the S of it is much less so.  3.5’ N slightly F [379] by is an 11.5-magnitude star; N very slightly P that galaxy—3’ due P the 11.5-magnitude star —is a 12.5-magnitude star. From [379] N slightly P by 17’ is NGC 374, which is much more diffuse and less well defined than the others, elongated NsP-SsF, 0.75’ x 0.3’; it’s bracketed to the SP and NF by a pair of 14.5-magnitude stars, and has a very weak core but fleeting stellar nucleus. With the 7mm, these are great! I love this group! The S-most galaxy [384] in group has a really bright nucleus. [385] doesn’t seem to. 383 is a juggernaut compared to the others, especially the little one SP and the one SF [386] that is mostly nucleus at this magnification, with a very poorly defined halo. [380] has much better concentration and a very bright nucleus compared to the others. 374 may have a substellar nucleus, but standing up on the ladder is killing my legs and I can’t be sure; I think it does. 

(The NGC 383 chain in Pisces; NGC 374 is out of the top of the frame. Image courtesy Sloan Digital Sky Survey.)

I wasn’t overly satisfied with my notes, and will likely redo them on a better occasion; I missed a few of the galaxies, and my discomfort on the ladder—that step-height issue I’d struggled with before—led to rushing through my descriptions.

Meanwhile, Loren was observing NGC 7027 in Cygnus, which I had taken notes on what seemed like forever ago.

Robert left; he had to get his kids to school in the morning. I would have to follow soon, as I had work the next day; I had to remind myself that this was mid-week, and I hadn’t done weeknight observing since I started at the factory in April of ’21.

Feeling a bit in the zone despite the pain in my feet (I’ll shut up about it eventually!), I went through a few pages in the Jumbo Pocket Sky Atlas, looking for recognizable targets. I found one in Cetus, and a fine target (or trio of targets) it was.

NGCs 273, 274, 275 (Cet): Doing this one because I had the means to find it with my phone basically dead; this is the 273/274/275 trio in Cetus (inversus); the most obvious is NGC 274, of course, which is 0.67’ in diameter and poorly defined but has a much brighter [than the halo] core that’s fairly abrupt and a substellar nucleus; in contact with it to the SF, about 0.75’ center to center, is NGC 275, which is 0.75’ diameter, very diffuse, very weakly concentrated and fairly even in illumination. 8’ N somewhat F 274 is a 10.5-magnitude star; 14’ SF 274 is an 8.5-magnitude star. N slightly P 274 by 11’ is NGC 273, which is 0.75’ x 0.3’, elongated roughly P-F, and is probably not as well defined as it seems it should be; I suspect the low altitude isn’t helping. It does have a small bright core but no visible nucleus; it also has a 14.5-magnitude star NP it by 0.75’ that’s quite distracting; F the galaxy by 2.5’ is a 13th-magnitude star. With the 7mm, I’m not expecting much, but that’s when surprises happen. With the 7mm, 274 definitely has a substellar nucleus; 275 still has no significant concentration. In averted vision, I may be getting a stellar nucleus to 273, but it’s really hard to tell; if we were even 10˚ farther S it would be a huge help.

It normally takes between thirty and forty minutes to break down the Obsession and load it (and all its attendant gear) into the cramped quarters of the Flex; I waited a while this time for the others to wrap up their own observations for the night, so as not to blind them with the Flex’s automatic head- and tail-lights. I had the whole scope and gear broken down, waiting to load the moment the last observer started packing up.

I still felt pretty alert, no small feat considering that my day had begun at 5 AM. It would take every remaining bit of energy to negotiate the tricky, hourlong drive home. Yet even as I pulled into my driveway, I was planning ahead for the next session out, creating contingencies for unworking phones and reshaping my observing list for a night of lesser conditions.

IV. I somehow found the energy for two nights in a row, interspersed among three full days’ work. This time we stayed closer to home, at Eureka Ridge, which was still open but also still hazy with smoke.

It was just Loren and I this time; given the forecast, it wasn’t surprising that others chose not to make the trip. I arrived at the small clearing on the logging road that wends along the ridgetop and waited for Loren to get there, so as not to start setting up the Obsession in a spot that might interfere with his own scope.

Loren pulled up, and we debated the merits of the evening’s sky. Was it worth setting up? The smoke was clearly an issue, but would it impair our observing to a serious degree? I started unloading the Obsession; the worst that could happen would be that I had to tear it back down and reload it.

As the sky darkened, Loren was convinced. Conditions might not be great, but they would allow for observing some of the brighter targets we were after. With every clear night until April an opportunity not to be squandered, the perfect was (as always) the enemy of the good.

One of the first things I checked was the various apps I used; all of them worked. As I suspected, the previous night’s phone failure was due to the lack of a signal. It still was supremely annoying, and I had prepared my laminated Sky Atlas 2000.0 with post-it flags so that I wouldn’t be without either charts or an agenda for the evening.

I’d arranged my observing agenda several different ways and printed it out, sorted by constellation, object type, and degree of difficulty. This would allow me to work specific areas of the sky, concentrate on a given observing program (flat galaxies, galaxy clusters, etc.), or choose targets based on the sky conditions. Tonight would be one for the “easier” stuff; the “Shakhbazian-esque” galaxy chain in Aquarius, noted by Ivan Maly on the Deep Sky Forum, was all but invisible as I zeroed in on its location, so there was no question of seeking out distant galaxy groups. In that light, I started with a few of the Herschel remainders.

MOON: 24 days (set at 4:19 PM; 28% illuminated)
SQM: 21.11
NELM: not checked
WEATHER CONDITIONS: temps to mid-50s; some dew; air still (breezy beyond ridge); cool but not cold
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 7393 (Aqr): Starting off here on a smoky evening at Eureka Ridge; having struck out on that PGC galaxy chain of Ivan Maly’s and a couple other things, we’re looking at NGC 7393 in Aquarius. The galaxy is elongated P-F, and subtends 1.25’ x 0.67’; it seems to be pretty well defined, but it also seems to be brighter on the P side; it’s definitely irregularly illuminated in the halo, and also has considerable internal brightening or concentration to it. It’s really hard to make heads or tails out of it at this magnification—something about the galaxy is visually “off.” 3.5’ N somewhat P the galaxy is a 13th-magnitude star that has a 14.5-magnitude star P it by 0.75’, and then N somewhat F the galaxy by 4.5’ is the more S of a pair of 14.5-magnitude stars that are roughly N-S to each other and separated by 0.5’; the more S of those is slightly brighter. The brightest star in the field is S somewhat F the galaxy by 7.5’ and is 10.5 magnitude, and it has an 11.5-magnitude star 1.5’ S somewhat F it. 7’ S somewhat P the galaxy is a 12.5-magnitude star that has an 11.5-magnitude star S very slightly P it by 2’. In the 7mm: higher magnifications tonight are just not working—I think that’s too much power, as the seeing is just not that good. The galaxy’s core is definitely shunted toward the P side; it’s distinctly brighter on that side. There also looks to be a threshold star embedded in the F edge, where it tapers. It’s very hard to get a good focus.

Surprisingly, given that it was October, the mosquitoes were particularly annoying on the night; I could hear them buzzing on my audio notes.

NGC 7469; IC 5283 (Peg): The very interesting NGC 7469 in Pegasus is situated down by the diamond of stars I use to find NGC 7479. There is a blazing nucleus to this little galaxy, which also has a gradual and very slightly brighter core. The galaxy is elongated P slightly N-F slightly S; it’s 0.75’ x 0.3’. Given how bright the nucleus is, at first glance you could mistake the galaxy for a star with some thin faint halo around it from poor transparency. 0.5’ F the galaxy is a 15th-magnitude star; SF the galaxy by 5.5’ is an 8.5-magnitude star, and N somewhat F the galaxy by 6.5’ is an 8th-magnitude star. N somewhat P the galaxy by 3.5’ is an 11th-magnitude star. Between the two 8th/8.5-magnitude stars is a rough parallelogram/trapezoid (it’s much narrower on the N end) of 12th/13th-magnitude stars; I’m not going to detail all of them. 13’ due S of the galaxy is a 9th-magnitude star, which is the N-most vertex in a little isosceles triangle that points toward the F; the 9th-magnitude star has 1’ S of it an 11th-mag star; there’s a 12th-magnitude star F slightly S of the 9th-magnitude star by 1.5’. Going back to 7469: 1.3’ N slightly F the galaxy is a more ghostly, diffuse little galaxy [IC 5283] that’s smaller and thinner than 7469; it comes and goes with variations in the transparency. It looks to be an edge-on, and the major axis has a little central brightening along it; it’s elongated 0.67’ x 0.2’ P slightly N-F slightly S. Let’s throw the 7mm in here and see what we get. [Happiness is a warm eyepiece.] I can’t get over how bright the nucleus is in NGC 7469; that 15th-magnitude star F it is really jumping out now, and this is not helping [IC 5283], though—it disappears, for the most part, but jumps out a bit on occasion with variations in the conditions. [5283] may have a threshold star in or around it somewhere; I’m getting that “sparkle vision” effect, but it’s hard to pick it up. There may be a threshold star on the N edge of it.

The seeing and transparency were both proving to be highly variable; several times, I noted that IC 5283 had almost disappeared in the field, and that the stars had bloomed into indistinct disks. I carried on.

Loren was busy stalking my planetary-nebula nemesis, Sharpless 1-89 in Cygnus. He eventually threw his hands up on that one and moved on to IC 5117.

NGCs 7679, 7682; UGC 12628 (Psc): NGC 7679 sits within the Circlet of Pisces, and is another small galaxy with a very bright nucleus. It’s quite round, 0.67’ across, with only a gradual and slightly brighter core but that very strong stellar nucleus. The halo is pretty well defined. The galaxy is bracketed to the P slightly N and N very slightly F by a couple of fainter stars; the star to the P very slightly N is about 2.3’ from the galaxy and is 12th magnitude; the one to the N very slightly F is about 2’ from the galaxy and about 13.5 magnitude. P somewhat N of the galaxy by 5.25’ is a 9.5-magnitude star that has due P it by 2.25’ a 13.5 magnitude star. F somewhat N of 7679 by 4.5’ is another galaxy [NGC 7682] which is more diffuse and less concentrated; it does have a stellar nucleus and a well-defined halo to it. It’s 0.5’ x 0.3’, elongated N very slightly P-S very slightly F. [suddenly] There’s another one [UGC 12628] in the field down there. From 7679 9’ SF is a roughly N-S line of five stars, most of which are of 13.5 magnitude. That line is 1.75’ long; there are four in the N half of the line (three in a row and one slightly P), and then a gap, and then the final star. Just F that line by 3.5’ is an extremely difficult, diffuse glow of low surface brightness, that has little central concentration at all; it’s round, 0.75’ diameter, and very very ghostly; I picked it up with averted vision earlier and can just hold it in direct; averted definitely helps with this one. Even at 7mm, 7679 could be a fuzzy star, as bright as its nucleus is. With the 7mm, the second galaxy looks to have some very tenuous brightening along its major axis; I’m no longer sure it has a nucleus in there or not. [UGC 12628] shows a little better too. It sometimes looks like… I don’t know if that’s a nucleus or a threshold star; I’m just getting sparkle vision there near that galaxy, probably enhanced by the fact that it’s so difficult to hold the galaxy steady.

Adventures in Automatic Transcription, Part Something or Other: the Voice Recorder app transcribed “tenuous” as “tiny ass.” While an apt description of some of the Shakhbazian groups’ components or some of the planetary nebulae I’d observed, accuracy was needed here.

With time growing short again, and work looming in the morning, I had only time for one or two more objects. The one I had in mind was, like the centerpiece of the previous night, a whole bunch of targets rolled into one.

NGCs 202, 203 [211], 193, 204, 199, 194, 200, 198, 182 (Psc): This is gonna be a long one, because this an excellent, extensive galaxy chain in Pisces that starts at the N with NGC 202 and also stretches all the way down to NGC 198 and lower. The galaxy chain starts 7’ S slightly P a 7.5 magnitude star with NGC 202, [I’m gonna skip a lot of the field stars here unless they’re necessary] which is about 0.75’ x 0.3’, elongated 170˚ PA (N very slightly P-S very slightly F); it has a distracting 13.5-magnitude star 0.75’ F it. The galaxy is fairly well defined and has an elongated, very slightly brighter core; I do think every now and then there’s a nucleus visible. 5.5’ S of the galaxy is a less-diffuse, better-defined, elongated P slightly S -F slightly N galaxy [NGC 203/211] which is 0.67’ x 0.3’; it has a non-stellar nucleus, but a very weak core. 8’ S slightly P that galaxy is a 9th-magnitude star that has an 11th-magnitude star 3.67’ S slightly P, and the 9th-magnitude star has 2.5’ P very slightly N of it a larger galaxy [NGC 193] which is 0.67’ round and well defined, with a small brightish core and a faint stellar nucleus; it also has a 13th-magnitude star 0.5’ S slightly P it, just outside the halo. Back to the 9th-magnitude star: F very slightly S of it by 4.25’ is another galaxy [NGC 204] which is elongated very slightly N-S, 0.67’ x 0.5’, with a poorly-defined and diffuse halo, a small, gradual, slightly-brighter core, and a substellar nucleus; it also sometimes seems like there’s a threshold star embedded in it that gives it a double “nucleus.” From the 9th-magnitude star 12’ S very slightly P is a 7.5-magnitude star; from that star F slightly N by 5’ is another diffuse galaxy [NGC 199] which is poorly defined; it’s 0.67’ diameter, with a small, very abrupt core and a faint substellar nucleus. 6’ S somewhat F the 7.5-magnitude star is an even larger galaxy [NGC 194] that’s 0.75’ diameter, with a moderately well-defined halo and a slightly-brighter core, perhaps a trace of a stellar nucleus; that galaxy has 10’ S somewhat F it an even larger galaxy [NGC 200] that’s very diffuse, with very weak central concentration; at first I thought it was round, but now I think it’s NP-SF oriented, so 1.0’ x 0.75’, also with weak central concentration; this is a fairly bright galaxy, with a faint stellar nucleus; averted vision really helps draw out the nucleus. It also has SP it a pair of 12.5-magnitude stars separated by 1’, and those are N very slightly P-S very slightly F to each other, and along that line, about 3.5’ from the S of those two stars, is another large galaxy [NGC 198], which is about 6’ S very slightly P the previous galaxy and is even more diffuse and rounder; it’s 1.25’ round, with a large, weak core but no nucleus and a poorly-defined halo. That galaxy has a 9.5-magnitude star 5.5’ S slightly F it and also has 5.5’ P somewhat S of it an 11.5-magnitude star; from that star 16’ P somewhat S is a 7.5-magnitude star, and that star has 3.75’ F somewhat S of it another galaxy [NGC 182] that’s 1.0’, roundish, and better concentrated than most of the previous ones despite being poorly defined; it has a very weak core but a substellar nucleus.

Better conditions might have yielded a few more galaxies along the chain; there were surely a number of UGC or PGC galaxies in those fields. 

But no matter. It had been as productive a run as we could make it, all told; when I was a younger caveman looking skyward, I would’ve never dreamed I’d be regularly observing under skies as good as these, even in their compromised state.

I packed up with no regrets. Loren was done first, and he headed out after making sure I didn’t mind. 

After finishing the stowing of my observing chair (always the last item in with the Obsession load-in) and taking the covers off of the Flex’s headlights, I swept the clearing with a headlamp beam. Leave nothing behind except starlight.

I drove out, hopeful that we’d get another opportunity at the next Moon-dark phase, but satisfied with what I had done during this one. I’d managed to leave the 7mm Nagler in my coat pocket, along with my phone. Autumn may indeed carry more gold in its pocket than the other seasons, but the real gold in my pocket wasn’t an expensive eyepiece; it was the audio journals of my voyage through the backwaters of the autumn night.  

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