More Warming Than Any Wine

A cruel, cloud-sodden winter is ending, without a single observing session since November. I had gotten a new Delos—a 14mm, to replace the 14mm Explore Scientific 82-degree that had been my workhorse until it shredded the threads on my O-III filter—for Christmas, with no opportunity to test it out. This was somewhat characteristic of Willamette Valley winters, but worse than usual; the one clear night the group had all winter, I was wiped out by a horrendous respiratory virus and spent that entire week in bed. Even the November session was awful, despite being at least somewhat productive.

I. The 18th was a Friday, an early-shutdown day at the factory, and predicted to be clear and of average transparency at least until Moonrise. Others in the EAS Irregulars had been out observing the Monday night before, when the weather had been milder. Now, the night after an EAS meeting, there were few takers despite Linslaw’s promise. It was also peak night for the 2022 Leonids, which had been reasonably active according to reports from around the country. This made it even stranger that no-one else wanted to venture out.

I loaded Bob the Dob (and related sundries) into the Flex, all systems go. My post to the e-mail list was greeted rather negatively; only Loren—who had grown up in Nebraska and North Dakota, and so was used to horrendous winter weather—was willing to brave the conditions. But how bad could they really be? I went off for an after-work nap; with Moonrise after 1 AM, it might be a good night for sweeping up many of the remaining Messier objects on my list, if nothing else. I didn’t have a “hardcore” agenda for the night, so it would be fairly-easy work.

When I woke up, it was already getting dark. This wasn’t as critical as it would’ve been earlier in the year; the objects on my evening’s list weren’t going to be in a good observing position for several hours yet. It would be a nuisance to drive out and set up in the dark, but hardly an insurmountable one. I made sure to put on every conceivable layer of clothing I could, and had charged the batteries to my electric gloves overnight. I was as ready, I thought, as I could be.

Loren was already there and raring to go. So was the wind, whipping across the crag and down into the valley. It took me all of ten seconds to realize why none of the others had come out–they’d all been reminded of the ghosts of winter Linslaw sessions past, when the wind and the cold combined to make even brief observations hazardous and unpleasant in equal measure. My question about how bad the conditions could be was answered with icy, seemingly gale-force derision.

As I was setting up, Loren let out a whistle—a Leonid, and a really bright one! I was too busy collimating my scope to have seen it. I’d missed a huge number of spectacular meteors that way, staring into the eyepiece at some vanishingly-faint target while the show went on above without my attention.

With the sky already sufficiently dark and telescope and gear assembled and ready, there was no time to waste. The Pleiades—my first deep-sky object, as I had seen them with my father’s 7 x 50 Korean War binoculars (without his knowledge) back when Carl Sagan’s Cosmos first aired—awaited, well above the Eugene skyglow to the east.

MOON: 24 days (rose at 1:03 AM; 28% illuminated)
SQM: 21.27 (10 PM)
NELM: not checked
WEATHER CONDITIONS: temps to 37˚; no dew; windy; excruciatingly awful
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

M45; The Pleiades (Tau): One of the two most insanely-detailed Messier objects, the Pleiades/M45 (the other being M42 itself, the Orion Nebula); there’s really no way to do good notes on this aside from picking one Pleiad and starting with it, so we’re going to use Alcyone [Eta Tau], because it’s the brightest of the lot (at 3rd magnitude). Alcyone has a small isosceles triangle of stars to the P and NP, the brightest star of which [24 Tau] is 2’ P slightly N of Alcyone and is 7th magnitude; it has an 8.5-magnitude star P very slightly N of it by 1.25’; that star has NF it by 1’ another 8.5-magnitude star. From Alcyone N slightly P by 11’ is a 7th-magnitude star; that star has P somewhat S of it by 4.5’ a 9.5-magnitude star. 17’ P somewhat N Alcyone is a 7.5-magnitude star, and that 7.5-magnitude star has a tight pair SP it by 4.5’; those are NP-SF each other, separated by 0.67’ and are both 8th magnitude; the one to the NP is a little bit brighter. [It’s hard to know where next to go from here!]… P somewhat N Alcyone by 29’ is the SF vertex in a trapezoid of stars with a very narrow NF end, or a narrower NF end; that star [20 Tau; Maia] is 4th magnitude and has P somewhat N of it by 10’ a 4.5-magnitude star [19 Tau/q Tau; Taygeta]. From the first star in that trapezoid N very slightly F by 10’ is the fainter [22 Tau; Sterope] of the two on the skinnier N end of the trapezoid; that star is 6.5 magnitude and has a 6th-magnitude star [21 Tau; Asterope] P very slightly N of it by 2.5’. From [Maia] N slightly P by 30’ is a 5.5-magnitude star [18 Tau] that has N of it a SP-NF asterism which consists of a rough parallelogram and a couple of stars on the NF end of it that form something like a “tail.” 

Back to Alcyone: S of it by 12’ is the N-most in that long, flattened ‘V’ that trails S-ward; it’s one of the defining features of the Pleiades. it has six primary stars, all of which are roughly in the 7th/8th-magnitude range; they seem to get a little fainter as they proceed S-ward; from the first of these S by 6.5’ is the second, and then S very very slightly P of that one by 4.75’ is the vertex star of that V; SF that star by 3.67’ is the next star; SF that star by 4.75’ is another, and then the last one is S somewhat F that star, and this last one is the faintest of the group and is about 4’ from the one NP it. The vertex star of the ‘V’ is the brightest of those in it. And then from the star at the S-most end of that ‘V’, F somewhat S by 12’, is a 5.5-magnitude star. 19’ SP Alcyone is Merope, which is 4th magnitude; from Merope P somewhat N by 22’ is another blazing 4th-magnitude star [17 Tau; Electra] that has a 5.5-magnitude star [16 Tau; Celaeno] N very slightly P it by 11’, and that star is 15’ P somewhat S the first star in the trapezoid [Maia] that I mentioned earlier. From Alcyone F very slightly S by 24’ is a 4th-magnitude star [27 Tau; Atlas] with a 5th-magnitude star [28 Tau; Pleione] N of it by 5’; that 4th-magnitude star has an 8th-magnitude star [26 Tau] S very slightly P it by 12’; [Atlas] has a 6.5-magnitude star S somewhat F it by 22’, and from [Atlas] SF by 17’ is a 7th-magnitude star that is the brighter component of a double; it has an 11th-magnitude star SP it by 5”. 

The Pleiades as a whole are about 1.5° in diameter; the cluster just goes on a long-ass way (scientifically speaking), and the nebulosity seems to be much brighter (or much more obvious, anyway) around the more-N stars in general—with the exception of Merope, which really seems to be the most nebulous of all of them. I’m not getting any kind of shape to the nebulosity; I could probably throw the 7mm in here and try to pick up that nebula better around Merope, but the wind is just too damned oppressive. This is obviously a cluster, despite its huge area; there’s little more than “dead space” around it, kind-of a ring of emptiness around the cluster, so it’s well detached. I don’t know that I would describe it as rich, but it’s so spread out that it’s hard to do an easy census here; I didn’t count all of the much fainter stars in here because there are obviously too many within the confines of the cluster—I’d be here all night. There’s obviously a pretty wide range of magnitudes here—even just between the 4th-magnitude stars and 9th-magnitude stars, there’s a five-magnitude range. So that’s the Pleiades, my first deep-sky object ever, and one of the most-difficult to do justice to with simple verbal notes. 

The Pleiades is (are) one of those objects far better observed in modest aperture—binoculars, small telescopes—than large aperture; the vast size of the cluster makes observations such as the one above a “forest for the trees” affair. The cluster, so beautiful when seen as a whole, loses its appeal when examining a few individual stars at once (as that’s all the relatively-tiny field of view of the 12.5-inch Dobsonian could gather). In binoculars, the Pleiades are a sight that will forever haunt the nostalgic corners of my caveman brain, a scattering of blue-tinted jewels on a tapestry of dark night. It was important to note this amid the boilerplate routine of my “formal” astronomical observations—what magic astronomy holds for its adherents isn’t often captured in the process of merely taking notes.

Given the incredible strength of the winds biting through my coat, sweatshirts, and other layers of clothing, it was fortunate that I knew my way to these Messier objects by heart, so as not to waste time; letting go of the telescope seemed to invite a wind-related accident. This was primal, even elemental stuff: survival astronomy. After briefly popping into the Flex to open up a six-pack of chemical hand warmers (into my pockets and parka mittens they went), and a quick perusal of the sky to assess the position of the Auriga clusters, I spun the telescope in that direction. The wind tried to spin it the other way.

M38; NGC 1907 (Aur): The second Messier of the night; I’m working in Auriga now, tackling the three bright ones there. M38’s major axis is roughly P-F; it’s about 18’ P-F by 16’ N-S. At the due N end of the cluster, there’s a long, N very very slightly P-S very very slightly F line of stars that’s the cluster’s most unmistakable feature; there’s a little detached clump of considerably-fainter stars there at the S end of the minor axis that may not actually be members of the cluster, but I used that to denote the S fringe of the cluster—if that’s not part of the cluster, then I’d say that the minor axis is about 13’. The line at the N end of the minor axis has about twelve stars in it and is fairly detached from the rest of that axis; there’s not a lot going on between that line and directly S-ward to that little clump on the end. The cluster is somewhat butterfly-shaped, with that line on the N as the head end. Overall, the cluster is very obviously a unified object; it’s quite well detached from the Milky Way background and very rich, with at least 125 stars here, most of these in a fairly-narrow range of magnitudes; there’s a large number in the 10th-11th magnitude range, and a sparser substrate of 11th/12th-magnitude stars. Then there’s a number that are fainter than that, in a third strata that’s comprised of 13th-14th magnitude stars. The lucida of the cluster, an 8.5-magnitude star, is on the far F end of the major axis, and that axis semi-terminates there. There’s a trio of stars NF that lucida and running N that are fairly-evenly spaced; those are all in the 12th-magnitude range. The major axis runs from the lucida P slightly S, roughly all the way across the cluster. The lucida is actually the brightest star in the field; 40’ SP it is a single reddish 6th-magnitude star. This is a particularly-impressive cluster; it’s hard to go into much detail with it because there’s such a uniformity of brightnesses in there. The stars are clumped in multiple places: there’s the line at the N and several more, along and around the minor axis; in particular, there’s the clump at the far S end of that axis, and then 3’ N somewhat P that clump is another, which is extended N-S and consists of a bunch of considerably-fainter stars than the average; those are all 13th-14th magnitude, but there’s a good number of them there; and then 4’ there’s N somewhat F or N slightly F that S-most clump is another that’s mostly triangular, but in averted vision shows a number of fainter stars peppering it. 

So that’s Messier 38, but 38’ S very slightly P its lucida is another small cluster [NGC 1907], which mostly consists of a 1.75’ circle of stars, but extends from that circle N slightly P-S slightly F; the S slightly F end is marked by two considerably-brighter (10th-magnitude) stars that are P very slightly N-F very slightly S to each other and separated by 1’; at the N slightly P end of that whole assemblage is an 11.5-magnitude star. That central clump is very rich; it has about 25 visible stars in it, over some background averted vision glow. Overall, the cluster is 5’, from the F of the pair to the S to the 11.5-magnitude star to the N slightly P. It’s quite easily visible as a cluster, a very rich little cluster, with about 50 stars in its borders. The two stars on the S end may not actually be part of it; if they aren’t, then the cluster has a pretty narrow magnitude range: mostly 12th-13th magnitudes, maybe a single 11th-magnitude star right at the center of the clump. A well-detached companion to M38.

While I was taking notes on M38, Loren was observing Jones 1, the huge planetary nebula in Pegasus and a favorite of mine; I stopped over for a look and to help verify the sighting. It seemed stronger in his 18-inch Obsession than I expected on this night. I had visually estimated the sky at 21.4 on the SQM, but hadn’t had a chance to actually take readings.

Holy hell, it was horrendous up on the crag. The wind was knifing through my many protective layers as if I wasn’t even wearing them. My electric gloves were still holding up, but when they finally gave out, it would be miserable—no chemical warmers would be able to fend off this wind chill. It almost felt like jumping into a bath of ice water, only doing so every five-to-ten seconds… which was how often the wind blasted across the crag. When I finally got out the SQM, it not only gave consistent readings in the 21.27-21.25 range, it also repeatedly gave temperature readings of 37˚ F. It felt much colder. Having been in Fairbanks, Alaska, in -57˚ F, I honestly couldn’t recall which felt worse. I’d had to take off my gloves to use the SQM, and my hands were raw by the time I was done holding the little device aloft.

I’d only have enough left in me to take notes on the remaining two Auriga Messiers; given how long my audio notes were, I’d be lucky to make it through both.

M36 (Aur): This is the second of three in Auriga, M36, and damned if this one isn’t roughly the same orientations as M38—it’s much brighter, but P-F it’s about 15’, and N-S roughly the same; I’m going to call it circular, even though the actually pattern resembles a stick figure like the butterfly of M38 or the ET cluster, only richer across the middle. In this cluster it’s a little harder to ascertain a lucida, as there are several stars that could fit the bill; there are two on the very N (actually a little bit N slightly P) from the main body of the cluster; there’s one on the SF and one on the SP that could be the lucida; even more notable is a pair separated by 10” that lies just F the center of the cluster; those are roughly equal at magnitude 9.5. That pair is roughly just SF the center of the cluster; there’s also a 9th-magnitude star P very slightly N of them by 1.5’ that I’d say is at the center of the cluster. This is an obvious cluster; again, its individual stars are brighter than those of M38, with a field of dimmer stars overlain by a strata of 9th/10th-magnitude stars; there’s an area several arcminutes in diameter at cluster center that contains the greater concentration of fainter stars. The two stars to the N end are P very very slightly S-F very very slightly N to each other; those are about 2’ apart and roughly equal magnitudes, with the one on the F a little bit brighter; those are 9.5 and 10th magnitude; the P of those two has a 12.5-magnitude star P very slightly S of it by 0.3’. There’re about 80 stars here; it’s less rich than M38; many of the stars are in the shape of a capital ‘A’ that basically comprises that minor axis, the N-S axis, and then there’s a string of three to the F that kind of trail off F slightly N and form the left arm of a stick figure with the ‘A’ at the center. (The right arm is composed of a string of 10th/11th magnitude stars. If anything, this cluster kinda resembles a five-point star, except doesn’t come to a nice sharp point at the N end.) Then 11’ SP the 9.5/10th-magnitude pair is a 9th-magnitude star that has a 12th-magnitude star 0.67’ N somewhat F it, and those two mark the SP corner of the cluster. If I can identify a single lucida I think it’s a star in the SF quadrant, which is 6’ S somewhat F the double or pair at the middle and is 9th magnitude.

My left hand suddenly registered as having gotten cold—the amber light on my glove had gone out. I had a spare battery in my pocket, but I’d have to take both gloves off to swap the batteries. By the time I managed to get the spare battery hooked up (they were about the size of a flip-phone), my hands were both almost numb.

Loren, having observed three of the planetary nebulae he’d been pursuing (Jones 1, NGC 7139 in Cepheus, and Abell 82 in Cassiopeia), tore down his scope for the night, the better to watch for Leonids (and, I thought, to escape from the wind if the conditions continued to worsen. They did.).

I noted: “… the wind and the cold have just gotten so vicious that it’s not really much point in continuing beyond this one aside from self-hatred.” They may be the truest words I’ve ever spoken into my notes.

M37 has long been a favorite; this was made permanent in my mind at Northern Arizona University, where I ran the 24″ Arthur Adel Cassegrain telescope on Friday public-outreach nights. Our binder of outreach-worthy objects called this one “The Gold-Dust Cluster,” and while I’ve not sussed out the origins of the nickname, it’s certainly an apt one.

M37 (Aur): This is M37, the richest of the Messier clusters after M11, a spectacular object with (just as with M11) its lucida conveniently dead in the center. The cluster is about 16’ round, with a very rich 6’ central concentration, and along the outer F and SF perimeter there’s a kind of a ring of stars; there’s also a triangular 3’ x 2’ clump on the N end that’s detached from the rest of it; to the P there’s a scattering of fairly random-looking and “non-patterned” stars. This is obviously a cluster, very detached from the background and the rest of the Auriga Milky Way; like M38, it has a fairly narrow magnitude range (mostly in the 11th-12th magnitude range); the lucida, just about right at the center, is 9th magnitude and really stands out when you first examine the cluster. There must be 200 stars here! After the lucida, the next-most noticeable feature of the cluster is the dark nebulosity that seems to pervade it; running N-S and F the lucida, and spanning basically the whole N-S length of the cluster, is a vein of dark nebulosity that branches to the P from its N end and cuts across most of the cluster in a 7’ x 1.67’ vein that runs across the N part of the cluster, then bends due S at a right angle towards its F end, runs F the lucida for about 9’, and then ends – that strip is about 0.75’ wide, and at the S end of that, it splits NF and SP. From the lucida SF is a minor vein of that dark nebulosity which connects to the larger N-S strip; that area has no visible stars from the lucida SF. That SP-NF strip at the end of the N-S vein also has another one running parallel… no, it’s not so much that it runs parallel, it’s that there’s just a giant blob there. That whole SP-NF bit of nebulosity on the S end of the cluster is in total 4’ thick at the NF end and 5’ or 6’ on the SP end and runs 10’ long; instead of being two parallel strips, it’s a single big one that’s got a faint incomplete line of stars that runs across its major axis, and looks like it divides the darkness into the two individual discrete dark nebulae, but it doesn’t; it just overlays that larger one. On the P edge of the cluster and also running N-S is a long 12’ vein of dark nebulosity that’s variably thick; there’s about 12-13 stars overlaying it that don’t break it up into smaller chunks. From the lucida due F by 7’ is a pair, N very slightly P-S very slightly F, separated by 1’; those are both 10.5 magnitude, and the S-most of the two has a 13th-magnitude star 0.3’ N very slightly P it; it’s actually a line of three. The brightest star in the field is S very slightly P the lucida by 20’ and is 8.5 magnitude, and that star has 9’ P slightly S it a 6.5-magnitude star that’s just outside the field with the cluster centered.

I don’t believe I’ve ever packed up so quickly, or with absolutely zero regrets. The five minutes it took me to break down Bob the Dob—which I had to do without gloves (the battery in the right-hand glove had died as well, leaving me with one gloved hand and one in a parka mitten)—were excruciating, made worse by the torque I needed to use in order to get the truss poles free. By the time I was done, my fingers felt as if I’d ripped the skin off of them down to the bone.

I loaded the scope parts and sundries into the Flex, bundling up against the wind even further as the hatch closed. Loren hadn’t seen any Leonids in the twenty minutes since he’d put his scope away and, despite his greater hardiness, had had enough. I started to exchange pleasantries, and he said what we’d both been feeling.

“[Screw] this—let’s get outta here!”

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