A Great White Brooding Silence

I. February was not kind this year; the Willamette Valley skies were uniformly grey, even when they weren’t actively dumping rain on us. After our spectacular session to close out January (and the fine skies we observed for a few days each Moon-dark cycle in the months before that), this felt almost like some sort of karmic retribution. And just as the late February/early March dark cycle hove into view on our 10-day weather forecasts, all hell broke loose, in the guise of 15-18 inches of snow in a two-day stretch. A whole forest’s worth of trees came down in the Valley, crushed under the weight of snow and ice and made wore by the fact that many had already started to bloom. Between the tree damage and the snow, the roads to Eureka Ridge and Eagle’s Rest became completely impassable.

But we persevere, as always; let nothing stand in the way of determined astronomers. With our two main sites inaccessible and the College Hill Reservoir unsuited to “serious” observing, we cooked up an alternative; having used the Dexter State Recreation Area for many years as the site of our dark-sky public star party, and having standing permission to use the site so long as the gates were open, we made our usual trek south to Eagle’s Rest/Ridge and kept going until reaching the Dexter Reservoir on the first night that the forecast held.

We arrived before dark, to avoid being locked out when the park closed. (This would not, of course, prevent us from getting locked in, should the rangers not see us.) The rangers passed by without treating to boot us out; the park superintendent might have given us permission to be there, but did the security folks know this? The parking lot was still half-covered with snow or ice, and the temperatures were falling quickly. We set up hastily, keeping an eye on passing vehicles while waiting for darkness to fall. Our proximity to the highway meant that my voice had to compete with road noise on my recordings.


DEXTER STATE PARK (parking lot) (43˚ 55′ 06″ N, 122˚ 48′ 48″ W)
MOON: 27 days old (5% illuminated); rose at 5:34 AM
SQM: not checked
NELM: 5.5
WEATHER CONDITIONS: foggy-ish, dewy early, icy parking lot (lots of threat of rangers)

Others present: JO, DB, Bill M, RA, OG, Leticia, a couple others

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

NGC 2186 (Ori): This cluster is about 60% of the way from Betelgeuse to 8 Mon. It’s quite compact, 3.5′ x 1′, and elongated roughly P-F. It’s not a well-detached cluster but is pretty obvious. On the due N central edge is a solitary bright (10th-magnitude) star; S very slightly F that star by 1′ is the brighter of a close pair with the fainter N of the brighter by 8″; these are 11thand 12th magnitudes, and form the F edge of a small triangle; from the 10th-magnitude star SP by 1.25′ is a 13th-magnitude star; these three form a triangle overlaid across the rest of cluster. The cluster’s not very rich (twenty-five stars?) but has a great magnitude range. If the two stars on the F edge of the triangle are actual cluster members, the stars here range from the 10th-magnitude star down to 14th magnitude. A number of very faint stars become visible in averted on the P edge. On the F edge, within 1.5′ of the F edge of the triangle, is a number of 12.5/13th-mag stars that are fairly obvious. From the double star due SF by 2.5′ is a 9.5-magnitude star; 3′ N from the 10th-magnitude star at the N is an 11.5-magnitude star. Flanking the cluster P slightly S by 5′ from the 10th-magnitude star is another 10th-magnitude star; there’s another 7′ F very slightly N of the first 10th– magnitude star. The brightest in the field is a 9th-magnitude star just on the S edge of the field, 18′ from the double star.

NGC 2194, Skiff J0614.8+1252 (Ori): The final one Herschel 400/II object in Orion, and a really fine one! This is a very rich, very obvious cluster of considerably faint stars, near the end of Orion’s Club. This open cluster is 7′ round and contains fifty or sixty stars, mostly magnitude 13.5 and lower; the majority of the brighter stars (12.5-13th magnitudes, maybe a couple in the 11.5-magnitude range) are on the F end. There’s also a fair amount of unresolved background haze. A rectangle of stars is overlaid roughly P-F over the top of the cluster; on the SF corner of the rectangle is the cluster lucida, which is 11.5 magnitude, and is also the N vertex of a larger triangle to the S of the cluster. The majority of the brighter stars in the cluster form a ‘V’ with the lucida at the SF tip; this then bends N slightly P and then due F; the point star [where the ‘V’ bends] lies at the N slightly P of the lucida; each branch of the ‘V’ is 1.75′ long; there are four stars in the S branch and four in the F branch (both including the point star). From the lucida N very very slightly F by 5′ is a 10.5-magnitude star that’s not likely an actual cluster member; N very slightly F that star is a little shrimp-shaped asterism that’s 1′ on its longest axis. From the lucida S very very slightly P by 4′, almost due S of the cluster itself, is a 10th-magnitude star which, with the lucida, forms the P edge of the larger triangle mentioned earlier; from the lucida SF by 4.25′ is the third vertex of this triangle, which is 11.5 magnitude. 15′ F very slightly N of the cluster, with the lucida centered in the eyepiece, is what looks like another cluster [Skiff J0614.8+1252]. This one is elongated N-S, 5′ N-S x 1.75′ P-F. It’s much sparser than 2194, with twelve 12.5-13.5 magnitude stars. SF that group by 5′ is another cluster-like concentration [not an actual listed cluster] that’s roundish and 3′, with the majority of its brighter stars on the S edge, running SP to due S, and another brighter star on the NvsF corner; the cluster/asterism looks like a small sailboat, with ten or twelve stars of 11.5-13th magnitudes. 13′ SP from the lucida of 2194 is the SP end of a line of twelve stars that’s roughly straight (with a few kinks in it) ; four or five of these form a triangle at the SP end of the line and the rest form a train running NF from there; these stars are mostly 10.5-11.5 magnitude. Due S from the lucida, starting 15′ due S and running 17′ S very slightly F from there is another long serpentine “rope” of thirteen stars, most of which are between 10.5 and 11.5 magnitude. This is a very intricate field, with two clusters and two prominent asterisms; the brightest star in the field of 2194 is SvsP the lucida by 16′ and is 10th magnitude.

My next target was NGC 2232, and I took extensive notes on it. But when I tried to reconcile my notes (which were confusing just to listen to) with a photograph of the cluster, I couldn’t do it. So I left the notes unfinished and will have to reobserve the cluster at a point where I can do a better job of it.

NGC 2236 (Mon): A very interesting cluster! The main body of this one centers around a 10.5-magnitude star which is the only brightish one in it; this “main body” is 1.25′ around and the majority of the stars in it are quite faint; there’s no unresolved background glow, but averted vision is needed to resolve the fainter stars. There are twenty stars within 1.5′ of this lucida, the majority of them to the SF of the lucida (which is the NP corner of the main body), with a few S of it and a few NF it. The majority of cluster stars are 13thmagnitude and fainter. From this main body, the cluster extends N and then loops P and then S and looks very much like a shrimp, with the end of its tail almost due S of the main body by 4′; it also extends N from the lucida for 1.25′ before heading SP and then due S of the main body. This cluster is a difficult object; there are lots of bright stars in the field, and it would be easy to pass over the cluster entirely. This is obviously a cluster only once one notices the majority of stars that are visible around the lucida; otherwise, it’s not totally obvious at first [although my secondary may well be fogged as well]. The majority of stars in the “tail of the shrimp” and around N of the main body are in the 13th-14th magnitude range; there’s a largish magnitude range unless excepting the lucida as a cluster member. There are twelve stars in the loop/tail. From the lucida NF by 8′ is the more S of a pair of 9th-magnitude stars; these are separated N very very slightly P-S very very slightly F by 1.25′. From the lucida due N by 18′ is the more S (and brighter) of a very bright pair, which is 7th magnitude, with an 8th-magnitude star 2.25′ NP it; the brighter one also has a 12th-magnitude star due N of it by 12″; this may be an actual double. This cluster itself is somewhat difficult at first, but quite excellent once you actually see it. 

And this ended our first session at Dexter. It was fairly short, but the cold and the gradual dew shut us down, one by one, and I had no real desire to stay there freezing by myself in average conditions. It would be nearly a week before we had clear skies and motivation to come out again, but we would be ready for the opportunity.

II. Dan B and I were the only ones to make the drive to Dexter the next time out. (I vaguely recall another session between the two that I couldn’t attend, so I don’t know if anyone else made it out in the interregnum.) Our observing session was still most exactly as long as the previous one. It felt even colder.

As with our earlier session, I stayed with open clusters; conditions just weren’t quite good enough for galaxies or nebulae. A couple of these clusters were cases of confused identity, where there was uncertainty about what grouping actually constituted the cluster in question.


DEXTER STATE PARK (parking lot) (43˚ 55′ 06″ N, 122˚ 48′ 48″ W)
MOON: 3 days old (12% illuminated); set at 9:21 PM
TRANSPARENCY: 6; decent glow of winter MW through Auriga.Monoceros/Puppis
SQM: not checked
NELM: 5.7; M47 visible to the naked-eye
WEATHER CONDITIONS: hazy, temps in mid-30s, no breeze, moderate dew

Others present: DB

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

NGC 2204 (CMj): Conditions aren’t great but good enough for observing this cluster; there’s also an annoying obscuration/glare in the eyepiece as I observe this one. I found this cluster after several evenings’ attempts (at both Dexter and Eagle’s; it was obscured by trees or mountains at the latter). The cluster is quite large and is due S of a 6th-magnitude star; the N end of the cluster lies 8′ due S of that star and is marked by cluster’s brightest star, which is 9thmagnitude. The cluster is ‘X’ shaped, with one branch running N-S, and the lucida is on N end of that; the other bar runs PvsS-FvsN and 2nd-brightest in the cluster (10thmagnitude) is on SP end of that second bar; N-S line is the minor axis at 7′ long and the other axis is 8.5′. On the S end of the minor axis is a pair of 11th-magnitude stars that are not exactly N-S to each other, the N star is also very slightly F. The P side of the N-S axis is somewhat empty relatively; there’s the bright star at the end of the P axis, and then until the star at the middle of the ‘X’ there’s nothing really obvious, although there’s a clump between the star at the center of the ‘X’ and the star at the P end of the P-F axis; this clump has three or four stars “just this side of threshold”; it’s more visible as a group than as individuals; there’s one star between the clump and the star at the P end of that axis. Starting with the star at the cross of the ‘X’, there are five stars on the F end of that axis. The majority of stars in the ‘X’ are, especially on the S and F parts, in the 12th/13th-magnitude range. The cluster is not well detached but is very rich, although most of the stars are threshold/averted objects, especially on the N-S axis; there are fifty stars minimum. The brightest in the field is the 5th-magnitude star N of the cluster, which is also the NP corner of a square; this square is 1.75′ per side, and the star on the SF corner of square is its 2ndbrightest at 8.5magnitude. This is an interesting cluster, but wouldn’t have noticed it at first glance under these conditions; its “clusterness” improves with concentration, just as it did with NGC 2236 a few nights before. 

NGC 2251 (Mon): Conditions aren’t “nebula-favorable” tonight, so I’m going to skip the nebulosities that I need to get, despite the fact that I’m right by the Rosette Nebula (among others). This is another interesting cluster, one divided into three major sections: the central-most of these is an arc of three stars, of which the S-most is a (probably optical) double, the 9th-magnitude primary of which is the brightest in the group and the secondary of which is 11th  magnitude; the secondary is due P the primary by 10”. N very slightly F the primary of the double by 0.67′ is a 10th-magnitude star; N very very slightly F the primary by 1.3′ is an 11th-magnitude star, and with the double, these make the central group in the cluster. N of that group is a 2.5’ long P-F line of stars running P very slightly N-F very slightly S; the star at the P end of this is due N of the primary by 4.25′ and is the 2nd-brightest in that group at 11th magnitude; the 10.5-magnitude star at the F end of that group is its brightest. In the middle of that line is the S edge of a very small triangle, consisting of two 11th -magnitude stars and one 14th -magnitude star, with the first two actually within the line of stars and the 14th-magnitude star slightly N of that line; the triangle is no more than 0.3′ on two sides and twice that on its long side. [The seeing has gone to crap at this point.] SF the primary of the double (the lucida) is the last major group in the cluster, which runs N slightly P-S slightly F in the field and contains the majority of the cluster’s brighter members; there are twelve stars here of 11th-12th magnitudes and a number of fainter ones; this group stretches 3.5′ major axis and 1.25’ on its minor axis; star on the P-most end of this group is F the primary by 2’. Overall, this is not a superbly well-detached cluster but is pretty obvious and eye-catching nonetheless, due to the presence of so many 10th/11th-magnitude stars in the area. The whole of the cluster is about 10′ NP-SF x 4.5′ SP-NF. NP the primary of the double by 5′ is another noteworthy star, a 9.5-magnitude star that’s isolated there away from the central group and equidistant from the short N line. The central region of the cluster has a number of faint background stars which are not well resolved even in averted; there are four primary stars (including the double as two). The cluster is pretty rich (with thirty-five stars) and contains a pretty large range of magnitudes, from the 9th-magnitude lucida down to below 13th magnitude.

NGC 2252 (Mon): This one is another controversial cluster; Seligman has the bright object as the cluster, but the DSO Browser has it somewhat removed from this location. I’ve been seeing a lot of crustaceans tonight, as this looks like another shrimp-shaped cluster. It’s perched on the NF edge of the Rosette, which is quite visible in the field to the SP.  The cluster is an obvious group that looks pretty established as a unity, reasonably cluster-like. It runs 12′ N-S and at the N end it bends P-ward, which is where the “shrimp-ness” comes in; the head of the shrimp is roughly diamond-shaped, with the brightest in the cluster sitting at the NP end of the diamond’s minor axis (which is 1.25’, with the major axis 2.25’). The brightest star here is 9th magnitude and the three others in the diamond are 11th magnitude. There are twenty-four stars in this group, most of them along the N-S. In the middle of the N-S chain is what looks like a double, two 13th-magnitude stars separated N-S by 6″; there’s another star due P them by 0.3′ that’s 12th-mag (making this a trio, then). Due F the shrimp pattern, F slightly N of the double/trio, is what the DSO Browser considered the cluster to be: a P slightly S-F slightly N line 2.25′ long that has three stars; the star on the P end is 11.5 magnitude and the star on the F end 10th magnitude; the star in the middle is due P the star on the F end by 1.25′ and is 13th magnitude. (The NGC/IC Project had this second part as the cluster as well–naturally, as the DSO Browser uses images created for the NGC/IC Project.) The whole area is teeming with asterisms; there’s a large Collinder cluster (Cr 106) NF it; from the bright star at the NP (lucida) of the shrimp F slightly S by 30′ is a very small, almost-equilateral triangle of bright stars; the brightest of these is the SP vertex, which is 8th magnitude; the two others in the triangle are 9th magnitude; the NP side of the triangle is slightly longer at 0.67′, while the other sides are 0.5’.

NGC 2301 (Mon): A beauty! This cluster is quite a bit away from the Rosette, in the hinterlands of Monoceros, SF 18 Mon. It’s a fine, rich cluster that seems to have tendrils of dark nebulosity around it. Its primary feature is a N-S pair at center of cluster; these are 8th (the cluster lucida) and 9th  magnitudes, separated by 0.3’, with the brighter S of the fainter; the southern star is somewhat reddish. These are on the NF end of an ellipse that curls SP from there—it’s a rather poor ellipse or kidney shape. From the fainter of the pair P very slightly N by 0.67′ is a 10th-magnitude star; with the double, this forms the N end of the ellipse; four stars form the S end. The ellipse is 2.5′ x 1.75′ at widest; it’s wider toward the S end, then narrows farther N. The  other four stars in the ellipse are in the 10.5-12th-magnitude range. Off the S end of the ellipse is a brighter star that’s 8.5 magnitude and is the NP end of a parenthetical arc of four stars that sweeps S and then SP from there and stretches 7.5′ due S from that first star (the 8.5); the arc bows SF and then proceeds around to due S of the 8.5-magnitude star: SF, due S of the second star, and then SP so that it ends due S of the 8.5 star; second star S from that is 8th magnitude; the third star 9th magnitude and the one at the S end of the “parenthesis” is also 8th magnitude. The cluster itself is quite obvious and rich with forty stars in an 8’ diameter. From the fainter of the bright central pair, even more N from there by 1′ from the fainter is a star of equal (9th) magnitude. Due N of the pair (and maybe slightly P) is a line of three equally-spaced stars; this is N slightly P the dimmer of the pair, with the P-most of the three 4.5’ from the fainter of the pair; the two on the ends of this line are 10th magnitude; the star in the middle of the three is 12th magnitude; the three span 0.67’. NP the star on the P end of the trio by 0.75′ is another of that same magnitude (10th) that forms a small triangle with that trio. F the cluster and possibly part of it are a pair of smaller asterisms; one is a mini Sagitta with its arrowhead P-most and 4.3′ FvsN of the brighter of the double; this extends F and very slightly N from the arrowhead for 2′ and the stars at the end of the arrow are separated by 0.3′; F the more N of the stars at the end of the arrow by 1.75′ is a 9th-magnitude star; S of the arrow and slightly F is the middle star in another “curve” that’s 3′ SF the arrowhead; this branches S and then NF from that middle star; the majority in the curve are 11-13th magnitudes; the star on the NF end of the curve is the faintest in the curve; on the S end of the curve, the 11th-magnitude star has a 12th-magnitude companion NP it by 0.25’.

NGC 2286 (Mon): This cluster marks the last of the northern Monoceros stuff I need in the Herschel lists aside from several nebulosities, and in many ways reminds me of NGC 2301. It’s bigger than 2301, rectangular, and NP-SF oriented; it’s also quite a bit fainter than 2301. The cluster spans 11′ x 7’. It’s not as well detached as the previous. There are many fainter stars and fewer bright ones, with the majority of 12th-14th magnitudes; overall, though, there’s a large magnitude range among the fifty stars here. The majority of the bright stars form the outline of the overlaid rectangle; the cluster somewhat reminds of the “water jar” in Aquarius (not the Y-shaped asterism but the one seen in some artwork, sometimes representing the streams of water pouring from the Jar itself; this includes Delta Aqr) On the NP end, there are several trios of stars; the three stars NP corner are tight, with the brightest on the S end of that trio, which extends N from there; the SP vertex of the rectangle is a trio with the third star being threshold magnitude. The cluster’s dominant feature is a small triangle on the S edge just a bit S very very slightly F the center of the cluster; as with 2301, these are N-S to each other, with the  brighter to the S by 0.5’; these are 10th and 10.5 magnitudes; the 10.5 magnitude star is the right angle vertex of this little triangle, with the 12th-magnitude third vertex due P it by 0.75’. Along the S edge of the rectangle, moving NP from that previous triangle, is another triangle, the brightest member of which is the 11th-magnitude N-most vertex, which is 5′ NP the brighter of the right triangle; it is flanked on the SF by 0.3′ by a 13th-magnitude star and on the SP by 0.5′ by another of 13th magnitude. These triangles are the most obvious feature of the cluster and comprise a large percentage of what’s on the S edge of the rectangle. F slightly S from the bright star in the right triangle (the S-most vertex in the right triangle) by 7′ is the slightly-fainter in a pair of much brighter stars (9.5/9.7 magnitudes), with the brighter 1.5′ NF the fainter. NF that bright star in the right triangle by 8.5′ is the S-most in an arc (and brightest in the arc at 10th magnitude); this arc stretches 4.75′ and includes four more stars running N-NP, with two faint other stars in a triangle at the S end of the arc with the 10th-magnitude star. The middle of the rectangle is the richest region of the cluster, and this runs along the major axis of the rectangle across the cluster’s middle; it’s also a bit richer toward the NP end, where eight stars form a NP-SF ellipse near the NP vertex of the rectangle; this  ellipse is 4′ x 1.75’. [I originally misidentified the cluster, on my recording, as NGC 2282.]

By this point, Dan had already left. I wasn’t quite ready to go yet, although my energy was flagging a bit. I decided on one last object, given the low horizon to the south (which Eagle’s Ridge simply didn’t have); it happened to be my favorite of all open clusters.

NGC 2362 (CMj): My favorite open cluster, which I’m taking notes on even though the seeing is getting really poor. A stunner! The cluster surrounds 4th-magnitude Tau Canis Majoris. (The view here is more magnification than I would normally use, as I prefer keeping clusters “compact” in the eyepiece, which keeps their unity more apparent.) Tau is a brilliant blue-white. The cluster is roughly triangular-shaped, with the N edge running P very slightly N-F very slightly S, and Tau just S of that edge; the triangle of the cluster body points S very slightly P from Tau. The triangle has a P edge running mostly N-S and a F side which runs S very slightly P-N very slightly F; the N edge is 5′ long and the other two are 6.5’. The cluster is very well detached/unified, and very rich, with seventy stars of a great range of magnitudes (if Tau is included); the majority of stars are in the 10th/11th-magnitude range, but they extend down to below 13th magnitude. Tau has a pair of very close companions that are F and NF; these are 6″ apart; the one to the F is brighter at 10th magnitude, the other 12th. N of Tau by 3.25′ is the P end of a small clump that runs 1.25′ P very slightly S-F very slightly N and includes six stars; this is outside the frame of the main cluster; there’s a gap between the N edge of the cluster and the clump, and this gap is a couple of arcminutes wide on average; the two stars on the P and F ends of clump are the brightest in it at 10.5 magnitude. Due F Tau by 7′ is a 7th-magnitude star; due N of Tau by 24′ [outside the edge of the field] is a 5th-magnitude star.

And that was that. With the Moon already a presence in the sky, there would likely not be a followup session for a couple of weeks; with luck, we’d get at least one opportunity in the post-Full phase.

III. One opportunity was what we got, but I was the only one to take it.

Of our three sessions in March, this one was the poorest in terms of conditions—naturally, it was the one in which I decided to go back to observing galaxies again. Clusters, as readers might have noticed, take me longer to describe than galaxies; there’s just too much to say about them. So, despite the fact that I had a number of open clusters to still “collect” in Auriga, Gemini, Canis Major, and Puppis (along with a number of nebulae that were well beyond their best visibility), I was chomping at the bit to get back to the object class I prefer. I did something of a disservice to these observations, then, but  I was still glad to get them under my belt. After the initial galaxy duo, I dropped back to clusters until the sky steadied down well enough to return to the realm of the extragalactic.


DEXTER STATE PARK (parking lot) (43˚ 55′ 06″ N, 122˚ 48′ 48″ W)
MOON: 25 days old (20% illumination); rose at 5:10 AM
SQM: not checked
NELM: 5.6
WEATHER CONDITIONS: temps in low 40s, breezy, not yet dewy; some visible patches of cirrus sweeping through

Others present: none

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

NGCs 2274, 2275 (Gem): It’s not yet totally dark, and there’s lots of thin cirrus crud sweeping through the sky, but I’m going to start anyway. This galaxy pair lies just SE of Theta Gem. NGC 2274 is an elliptical galaxy for certain, and has NGC 2275 visible just N of it. The pair is situated below a large grass-whip shaped asterism (or an ‘s’ with the top flattened). 2274 is faint, round, and quite small (0.5’ diameter), and has a brighter core and (possibly) a stellar nucleus. The halo is pretty diffuse and quite thin; the core makes up most of the galaxy. The galaxy as a whole doesn’t really pop in the field; it would be pretty easy to sweep over it due to its size and faintness. 1′ N is 2275: this one is no more than 0.5′ x 0.25′, elongated N-S? This little galaxy is very diffuse, with no real discernable details, no core/nucleus. On the S very slightly P and N, on opposite edges of field, roughly 20′ from 2274, are 9th-magnitude stars which are the brightest in the field. P very slightly S of 2274 by 1.5′ is a pair of stars, the brighter of which is S slightly F the fainter by 0.3′; these are 12.5 and 13th magnitudes. S of 2274 by 1.75′, and SP by 2′, are 12.5-magnitude stars.

NGC 2158, M35 (Gem): Although the seeing sucks right now, this is still a striking pair! NGC 2158 is still somewhat diminished in these conditions; but it’s better to observe clusters in mediocre conditions than galaxies, so we plow on ahead. NGC 2158 lies 25′ SP the center of M35.  The cluster has a very “finely ground” and granular appearance, but is pretty well resolved despite the sky working against it. It’s 3.5′ diameter and incredibly rich. On the SF-most edge is a prominent 10.5 mag star; there’s a sprinkling of brighter resolved stars, mostly in the 13th-magnitude range, especially on the S half of the cluster; perhaps eighteen individual stars are resolvable here, with the rest of the hundreds of cluster members being an unresolved background glow. If the 10.5-magnitude star is a member of the cluster, then there’s a wide range of magnitudes here; otherwise, it’s a fairly narrow range, from 12th-magnitude down to threshold. It really does appear like a fairly distant globular cluster. NF the cluster and stretching 7′ is an airplane-like asterism, with its “wings” running NP and SF and the “fuselage” running SP-NF, with the tail widening toward cluster and the nose pointing away; the tail is an equilateral triangle, 2.25′ on a side, consisting of two 10th- and one 10.5-magnitude stars; the 10.5-magnitude star is the S vertex of the triangle with the others NP and N of it. Halfway between the triangle and the cluster is a smaller triangle: there are two stars on its P side, these are the closest to the cluster and are 12th-magnitude, separated N-S by 0.67′; F the S-most of those two stars by 0.5′ is a 13th-magnitude star. The other two stars in the airplane “fuselage” are both 9.5 magnitude. The  “wings” are composed of three stars each, on each side of the “fuselage,” and the wings span 9′ long; the whole “airplane”  is 9′ x 7′.

M35 is 20′ round (it’s a little flatter on the S edge) and contains two primary lines of stars, one straight along the S edge and a more condensed arc starting at the N edge and running NP. The line on the S runs P very slightly N-F very slightly S, 2/3 of the way from the N edge across the cluster (averaging about 12′ from the N edge) and is 12′ long. The cluster is well detached from the rich Milky Way background and quite rich, with well over 100 stars in its 20’ diameter, but not a huge magnitude range despite a lot of brightish stars; the majority average magnitude 10.5. There are lots of little patterns and chains among the member stars. The cluster’s brightest star is on the SF end of the S line and is 7.5 mag; it’s also the F-most vertex of a small isosceles triangle of which the other two stars are due P (a 10th-magnitude star) and NP (a 10.5) by 1′; these two are about 0.75′ apart. The S line starts on the due S edge of cluster and contains five stars, plus the triangle on the end; the second brightest star in this line is on the P end and is 9th-magnitude; the second and third stars (moving F) are each the N end of a 1′ line of three. The N arc/line is more interesting; it’s better defined, 7′ long and has its two brightest stars on its ends; the F end star is on the N edge of the cluster, due central; this arc runs SP, and the star at the NF end is the brightest in the line/arc at 7.5 magnitude; it has S very very slightly P it by 0.5′ a 9th-magnitude star. The star at the P end of this arc is 8th-magnitude; the arc has twelve total stars, including several triangles. 

NGC 2129 (Gem): Sticking to clusters a bit longer, as the sky is starting to clear somewhat. This is a really obvious, well-detached blot of stars, in the foot of Gemini P 1 Geminorum and near to M35. It’s elongated 6’ P-F,  x 3′ N-S. There are thirty stars in the cluster. Its most obvious feature is its minor axis; on the S end is the brightest star in the field at 7.5 magnitude; on the N end of the minor axis is an 8.5-magnitude star. NGC 2129 is in a way like M6: it’s vaguely butterfly-shaped; the minor axis breaks it into two roughly equal lobes. N of the star at the N end of the minor axis is a close pair, of which the brighter is more S by 0.25′; these are 11.5 and 12.5 magnitudes, and kind-of serve as the “butterfly’s” antennae. A third prominent cluster star is on the NP corner of the cluster (which is roughly rectangular, with the antennae sticking out of the rectangle); this star is 10th magnitude and is due P the star on the N end of the minor axis by 2.75′. F that same star on the N end of minor axis (the 8.5-magnitude star) by 0.75′ is a prominent 10.5-magnitude star. The cluster has a great magnitude range; the N central region around the 8.5-magnitude star is the most-crowded part of the cluster. 

NGC 2415 (Lyn): Back to galaxies now. This one is a troublemaker; I’ve looked for it before with no success and it’s easy to see why; it’s small, though not particularly faint, just a 0.5′ spot with a bright large core and a very thin faint halo. In some ways, it looks like a small, faintish planetary nebula. At this magnification, I’m not picking up a nucleus, although a 14th-magnitude star 0.67’ N of the galaxy and a 14th-magnitude star 0.75′ S make it hard to tell. The galaxy’s core is pretty bright and makes up most of the galaxy’s diameter. To the F of the galaxy and very very slightly N by 1.67′ is a 9.5-magnitude star that also distracts from the observation. Due P by 2′ is a 12.5-magnitude star. The brightest in the field is 5.5-magnitude 70 Gem, 22′ SF the galaxy. 9.5’ N of the galaxy is the primary of a really interesting double, which is 9th-magnitude and has P very very slightly S by 12″ a 12th-magnitude secondary. NP the primary by 3′ is an 8th-magnitude star. This is probably a nice galaxy under darker skies, but it’s not particularly outstanding here. 

NGC 2841 (UMa): A real gem!  This is a highly-inclined spiral in UMa’s front foot. It’s 4.0’ x 0.75’, elongated NP-SF, with a long, diffuse halo that’s not super-well defined, a bright 0.5’ core, and a bright stellar nucleus. On the NP end of the halo is an embedded 11th-magnitude star; there’s another star embedded in the NP end, 1.25′ SF from the first, but this one is fainter at 13.5 magnitude. 1.75’ S slightly P the 11th-magnitude star is another 13.5-magnitude star. F the 11th-magnitude star by 6′ is the brightest in the field, which is 8.5 magnitude. S of the galaxy by 23′, just outside the field, is a superb double consisting of two 9th-magnitude components separated P-F by 0.3′ (the P-most of the pair is very slightly brighter). A fantastic galaxy!

NGC 2841 was definitely the highlight object of the month, yet I haven’t gotten to return to it: by the time we had clear skies again—in May—I had other objects to worry about, and had forgotten to return. Now, as I write this, it’s summer, and the galaxy is unfavorably placed for most of the night.

NGC 2681 (UMa): A little galaxy, much smaller than 2841 but still impressive and easy to notice in the field. It has a 1.25′ halo that’s roundish and pretty weakly defined, and a small bright core with a very bright stellar nucleus.  1.75’ P the galaxy and very very slightly N is the F of a pair of 13th-magnitude stars, with the brighter P very slightly N of the fainter by 0.5′. Due F the galaxy by 1.5′ is a 13.5-magnitude star; SvsF that star by 1.67 is another of the same magnitude. F and very slightly S of the galaxy by 10′ is a 9th-magnitude star that’s the brightest in the field; a 10.5-magnitude star lies due N of the galaxy by 8′.

NGC 2639 (UMa): If I didn’t know better, I’d say this bright, not-particularly-large galaxy is an elliptical. It’s 1.25 x 0.67, elongated NP-SF, and pretty well defined. A brighter core is smeared out along its major axis. It’s hard to tell if there’s a visible nucleus; even averted doesn’t seem to pull one out. 2.5′ SF from the center of the galaxy is a 14th-magnitude star. The brightest in the field is 14′ S very slightly P the galaxy and is 8.5 magnitude; it has a 10th-magnitude star P very slightly N of it by 6′. N of the galaxy by 7.5’ is the bend point of a ‘V’ of stars, with three on the F side and one to the NP (which is the brightest of the four at 10th magnitude, and is 8.5′ NP the galaxy). The “bend point” star is 11th magnitude; there’s another of equal brightness S slightly F that one by 2.5’; SF the second star by 4.5’ is another 11th-magnitude star,  and these last two form a nearly-equailateral triangle with the galaxy. The third star on this F side is 4.5′ F slightly N of the galaxy.

NGC 3067 (Leo): A nice elongated (almost edge-on) spiral, elongated 0.75’ x 0.3’ P-F. This one has a brighter central region/core and a pretty well defined halo. It’s followed by two triangles of stars; more noteworthy is a large right triangle whose closest vertex to the galaxy is 4′ F very slightly N of the galaxy and 10th magnitude; the 9.5-magnitude right-angle vertex is NF the first vertex by 8′, and the third vertex (10th magnitude) is NP the right-angle vertex by 11′; the right-angle vertex has 1.25′ due N of it a 13th-magnitude star. Another bright right triangle F the galaxy includes the brightest star (9.5 magnitude) in the field, 23′ F very very slightly S of the galaxy.

My observing chair had been in dire need of repair for months; it wouldn’t actually be fixed until May, and its presence was sorely missed. I had resorted to using a 2-step ladder as a chair, and if I perched just on the edge of the bottom step, it gave me two heights at which I could observe. Problem was, this was terrible for my back, as I had proven to myself several months before and every observing session since. So now, I elected to treat my son back by standing all the time, which made my feet hurt constantly. (Australopithicines have notoriously weak arches.). And by this point of this particular night, my feet were on the verge of rebelling and joining a body that knew how to care for them better.

NGC 3254 (LMi): This galaxy is ghostlier and more diffuse than any so far tonight. It’s highly inclined, elongated 1.3’ x 0.3’ due SP-NF, and pretty obvious (despite its diffuseness) in an interesting field. The core region is very small and bright relative to the halo, which is more distinct in averted vision but still hard to trace the full extent of; the halo is pretty poorly defined. There’s no nucleus visible, although there’s a possible flash of one in averted vision, but not enough to confirm it. There are many bright field stars here, including a pair due F the galaxy, separated by 1.25′, with the brighter N very slightly P the fainter; these are 9.5 and 10th magnitude, with the brighter 5.75′ F very slightly N of the galaxy. P very very slightly N of the galaxy by 8.5′ is a 10.5-magnitude star, and in the same direction (almost due P) by 2.5′ from the core is a 14th-magnitude star. Due N of the galaxy by 12′ is a 9th-magnitude star; there’s a 6.5 magnitude star 6′ P somewhat N of
that star, and from the 6.5-magnitude star P by 4.5′ is an 11th-magnitude star that may be double; there’s a 10th-magnitude star 7′ NF the 6.5-magnitude star, making the 6.5-magnitude star the middle of a ‘Y’ pattern.

NGC 3652 (UMa): one of the more difficult and underwhelming of the evening, up in the region where Ursa Major borders on the Leos. This is a mostly N-S glow, 0.75’ x 0.3’, quite diffuse and ghostly and quite a bit fainter than most others tonight. I had to use the TriAtlas and others to be sure that I had the right galaxy. It’s not well defined, and its central region/core is only very marginally brighter than the halo and doesn’t have much in the way of definition. The field is similarly non-descript: F the galaxy by 18′ is an 8.5-magnitude star; SvsP galaxy by 17′ is a 9.5-magnitude star. NP the galaxy is a largish triangle of 11th-magnitude stars, the closest of which is 9.5′ P somewhat N of the galaxy; P slightly S of that star by 3′ is another; from the star second star 6.5’ N slightly F by 6.5′ is another 11th-magnitude star.

NGCs 3665, 3658 (UMa): This one is better than NGC 3652 by a fair margin, a fine elliptical-looking galaxy up between 55 and 57 UMa. It has a largish halo and a bright core with a substellar nucleus, and extends N-S 1.75′ x 0.75′.  The core is fairly small, not particularly well defined, and blends gradually and indistinctly into the halo, which fades out rather than coming to a defined edge. There are not a lot of stars in the field; the brightest in the field, a 9th-magnitude star, lies P very slightly S of the galaxy by 14′. F very very slightly S galaxy by 3.75′ is the P-most of a line of three stars, the brightest of which is 12th magnitude; there’s a 12.5-magnitude star F that star by 2.5′ and a 14th-magnitude star F that second star by 1.25′. N very slightly P the galaxy by 7′ is the NF end of a serpentine line that has eight stars in it and terminates at an 11.5-magnitude star 8′ P slightly S of the galaxy; the star at the NF end of the line is 13th magnitude. Off the end of that line, 8.5’ S very slightly P the star at the P slightly S end of the line, is another galaxy (NGC 3658) that is considerably smaller and fainter than 3665; it’s 0.5′ diameter and more ghostly than 3665, but has a very small core that’s much more concentrated than the halo; the halo is very diffuse.  Either this galaxy has a stellar nucleus or there’s a really faint star just S of the core; the galaxy lies due S of the brightest star in the field by 9′. 

My feet were done. The only astronomy-related thing that made them hurt worse was standing on the ladder that accompanies the 18″ EAS scope; there, my arches got the full brunt of my weight so that I could stay steady on the rungs. But I couldn’t justify another fifteen minutes standing scope-side, and so I decided to take my barking dogs home, letting their final work of the night be pushing gas and brake pedals.

NGC 3813 (UMa): This may be my last target for the night because my feet are killing me and it’s getting dewy. But it’s another fine galaxy, 1.3’ x 0.3’ and elongated P-F, and maybe a bit wider on the P end than the F end, rather than being regularly elliptical-shaped. It isn’t as well defined as many this evening, a little ghostly, with a large but not very distinct core and no discernable nucleus. The edges of the halo are not well defined. The galaxy is bracketed by faint (14th-magnitude) stars to the P and F. Just outside the F edge of the halo is a 14th-magnitude star and a couple of 14th-mag stars are on the P side, starting 2′ from the center of galaxy . P slightly S of the galaxy by 14′ is the brightest star in the field at 8th magnitude. NF the galaxy by 17′ is a 9.5-magnitude star; due S of the galaxy by 9′ is an 11.5-magnitude star with a 12.5-magnitude star NF it by 4′.

I made it home shortly after midnight, staggering from the car with feet aching and eyepiece case in hand. Reflecting on these notes after the fact—and very much distanced from the moments in time that they represent—it’s easier to say that it was worth it than I might’ve been able to say at the time. And yet some of the objects of March were showpieces, and many more were worth another visit when time made itself available.




With Crystal Spangles Dight

Our run of clear-sky runs for the winter of ’18-’19 came to an end in January. The New Moon phase was well and thoroughly obliterated by clouds and rain, as so many have been since we moved here. It was only by quirk and timing of the Moon that got any observing in during January at all; the very end of the month yielded one single night worthy and promising enough to fill the van with telescope gear and make the haul down to Eagle’s Ridge for a night among the stars and the elements.

But what a night it would turn out to be.

It hadn’t snowed appreciably yet in the valley, not even up into the lower mountains of the Cascade Range in which Eagle’s Rest mountain is situated, and on the side of which Eagle’s Ridge runs. Usually by the beginning of the year the narrow, winding Eagle’s Rest Road had gotten slightly treacherous, and its last half mile a struggle for a non-four-wheel-drive vehicle such as the Caveman-Mobile (hell, the last half-mile could be a struggle even without snow). But the drive was remarkably smooth sailing, perhaps as an augury of how remarkable the conditions in the sky were to become. As we were setting up—Jerry, Dan B, Frank, and Robert were the other hardy souls to make the trek—the sky conditions were pretty good but visibly getting better. By the 10 PM, they were as good as any I’d ever seen anywhere.

I started out with a couple of open clusters while still waiting for evening twilight to completely fade. Rather than continue with the Herschel clusters across Auriga and Gemini—which I needed to observe—I took advantage of the conditions to plow through the various nebulosities of Orion and Monoceros. It turned into the Night of the Living Nebulae. (In retrospect, I should’ve also taken advantage of the conditions to look for the fragments of Simeis 147, the huge supernova remnant in Taurus that’s eluded me for years, but that will have to wait a bit longer.)


EAGLE’S RIDGE (junction)
MOON: 26 days (16% illuminated); rose at 4:29 AM
SQM: 21.75
NELM: not checked

WEATHER CONDITIONS: temps in mid-40s, no breeze, no dew, spectacular skies

Others present: JO, DB, FS, RA

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

NGC 1662 (Ori): The first item on the agenda for tonight is the well-known Klingon Ship Cluster, NGC 1662. It’s not a particularly rich cluster, with twenty-three stars, but is well detached from the starry background and very obviously a cluster. The Bird of Prey pattern makes up the majority of the 14′ diameter and includes seventeen or eighteen of the cluster’s member stars, including the vast majority of the brighter ones. The pattern consists of a small diamond of stars that contains five stars, including the 8.5-magnitude lucida; this diamond serves as the head of the ship, and the “wings” to the F side extend NP-SF. The major axis of the diamond runs SP-NF, with the lucida on the NF of the diamond. 0.75′ S very slightly P the lucida is the brighter component of a double star; the brighter component, 9.5 magnitude, has an 11th-magnitude companion 10″ S very slightly F. P the primary of this double by 0.75′ is a 9.5-magnitude star, and NP the double’s primary, 0.3′ P the cluster lucida, is the fourth star in the diamond, which is 10thmagnitude. The 8.5-magnitude lucida also forms the S-most vertex of an isosceles triangle with a 8.5-magnitude (very slightly fainter than the lucida) star that’s 2.25′ N of it and a 9th-magnitude star 1.5′ to the NF; these also form the brightest section of the cluster and the middle of the “ship.” The N-most wing of the ship is composed of five stars, of which the N-most is the brightest at 9thmagnitude; this star is on the NP end of the cluster, 6.25′ NP the cluster lucida. Due S of this 9th-magnitude star by 0.5′ is an 11th-magnitude star, and 2.5′ almost due F of the 9th-magnitude star is an 11th-magnitude star; there’s a 12th-magnitude star F very slightly S of the 11th-magnitude star by 0.75′. The S Wing” of the cluster is made up of three stars with a couple of much fainter stars sprinkled throughout. F somewhat S of the lucida by 5′ is a 9.5-magnitude star; there’s another 9.5-magnitude star S very slightly P the previous by 1.5′ and a 12th-magnitude star 1.5′ SF that star. The two wings and the diamond make up the great majority of the cluster. Outside the outline of the Klingon ship, there’s also an 11th-magnitude star N very slightly F the lucida by 5′. An arc of stars loops between the two wings to the SP and forms the remainder of the cluster; this consists of seven or eight stars of 11th-magnitude and brighter, and a few fainter stars. The 8.5-magnitude cluster lucida is the brightest star in the field.

NGC 1663 (Ori): This cluster is a much different proposition from 1662. It’s fairly difficult and only somewhat detached but not overly obvious as a cluster, and it doesn’t stand out very well at first. This is a very jumbled mess of a cluster. It’s fairly poor, with three main bright stars in an arc on the S-SP, and the rest in the 12th-14th-mag range. It reminds me more than a little of NGC 6664 in Scutum in shape, with that trio of brighter stars arcing SP to due S of the cluster and the remainder (fifteen to eighteen stars) N of those three. The whole cluster extends 7′ x 3.5′ (N-S major axis, P-F minor). The three brighter stars include the 10.5-magnitude lucida, which is at the S tip of an arrowhead pointing S, just like 6664; NP the lucida by 2.75′ is another star of very nearly equal brightness; 2′ N of that second star is an 11.5-magnitude star. There’s also a 13th-magnitude star F very very slightly S of the lucida by 1.25′. The dimmest of the three brighter stars is at the SP corner of the remainder of the cluster, which branches out NF and N from there. On the N end is a P-F line of four stars of which the two on the P end are close together, 0.5’apart, and the remaining two spread out by 1.5′ apart from there; there are the two close, then 1.5′ F to the next and then another 1.3′ to the fourth; from the F-most of those four N very slightly F by 1.3′ is the more S of a pair of 13th-magnitude stars (all four of these brighter ones are in the 12th-13thmagnitude range). From the dimmest of the three brightest NF by 1.25′ is the P-most of a pair of 13.5-magnitude stars separated by 0.5′.

By now, the sky had darkened as much as it was going to, and the seeing and transparency had both improved to 7s.

NGC 1788 (Ori): Hanging out near Beta Eri, this is a little reflection nebula in Orion. It’s small but easily noticed in the field, and has a 2′ major axis (running N very slightly P-S very slightly F) x 1.5′ minor axis (90 degrees from major). The texture is wispy and considerably cloudlike. On the S slightly F end is a bright knot a few arcseconds in diameter, with an 11.5-magnitude star embedded; on the opposite end, the N slightly P end, is a 10th-magnitude star, N very slightly P the knot by just under 1.5′; SP that star by 1.5′ is a 14th-magnitude star. N very very slightly P the 10th-magnitude star is another 9.5-magnitude star that’s 5′ N very very slightly P the first. The nebula itself is inside a diamond of bright stars that are among the brightest in field; this includes a second 9.5-magnitude star (to the N very slightly P of the nebula); from the 10thmagnitude star [the one inside the nebula] P very very slightly S by 6.5′ is an 8.5-magnitude star; there’s another of the same magnitude 11′ S very slightly F the 10th-magnitude star; from the 10th-magnitude star F very very slightly N by 10′ is another 8.5-magnitude star (the brightest in the field is farthest from the nebula, S very very slightly F, at 8.5-magnitude, just slightly brighter than the other 8.5-magnitude star). NF the 10th magnitude star by 13′ is the 8.5-magnitude bend star of a wedge of seven star that points to the SP of the field; from that star NP and F very slightly N are three stars in each direction forming a “duck flight” that stretches 13′ end-to-end; the other six stars in the wedge are in the 10.5-12th-magnitude range. The UHC filter is no help at all, of course, as this is a reflection nebula. The knot is still visible, as is some of the fuzz between the knot and the star N very slightly P it; however in the unfiltered view, just on the NP edge of the nebulosity there appears to be a notch or darkening on that edge; seems like a bit of dark nebulosity arcing around from the N to the S between the nebula and the bright stars in the diamond along that way. It’s definitely darker in the NP-SP region and down S around the blob of nebulosity.

M79 (Lep): This is the third-last Messier/NGC globular for me, as I’ve taken notes on all the others visible from mid-latitude North America; only NGC 2419 and M68 remain. (I’ve also done a number of the Palomars, a Terzan, and many of the other non-NGC globulars visible from my latitudes.) M78 is decent-sized and very bright, with a busy, packed 1′ core and 1.75′ halo, and with outliers to 4′, especially along the N rim. The brightest of these outliers are due N of the core by 1.75′. The cluster itself is about 6 CC [actually a 5]. There’s lots of resolution down into and beyond 14th magnitude. The brightest of the outliers is 12thmagnitude. The cluster is not overly well resolved in the core itself and is no more than granular there, but does break out quickly into resolution. A string of stars that stretches due S from the cluster may not be cluster members but are of the same magnitude range (13th-14th); these stretch 5.5′ S of the core, almost like a kite string; the arc along the N edge is the top of the kite, with the cluster in the middle of the kite and the string trailing S toward the brightest star in the field (8.5 magnitude, due S of the cluster by 9.5′). F that star by 3′ is a knot of three 13th/14th-magnitude stars that at first glance looks nebulous. P the globular by 5′ is a 1′ long P-F string of three 13th-13.5-magnitude stars.

NGCs 1977, 1973, 1975 (Ori): Off into the Orion Molecular Cloud now, with the Running Man complex. This large field of reflection nebulosity is 30′ across at its widest (the S part) and roughly triangular; 20′ N-S. There are two primary sections, the wide S part and the N section, which is primarily focused around a pair of bright double stars and consists of NGCs 1973 and 1975. The S section, which is 7′ thick, is much the longer of the two. It surrounds a group of stars roughly in the shape of a cartoon diamond/gemstone, with the point to the S and four stars marking the facets on the N edge. The star on the point is magnitude 9.5. Moving F-P across the “top” of the gemstone: N slightly F the point star by 3.5′ is a 6th-magnitude star; N of the point star by 4′ is a 7.5-magnitude star; N slightly P the point by 4.5′ is a 5th-magnitude star; due NP the point by 5′ is a 10th-magnitude star; halfway between that star and the point star is a 12th-magnitude star. From edge to edge, the top of the diamond is 6.5′. S very slightly P the point star by 1′ is an 11th-magnitude star. The nebula is brightest along N arc of stars and the middle of the diamond and then streams 13′ P from that arc, and several arcminutes further F (dipping S-ward) from the arc, although it’s less distinct on the F side. Between the P-most star in the arc and the 12th-magnitude star in the middle of the P side, and slightly S of that line, is a large knot of dark nebulosity jutting N-ward into the nebula; the bottom edge of this knot disappears into the larger space between the Running Man complex and M42/43, but the upper chunk of the knot is prominent where it’s silhouetted against the bright background. From the brightest star in the arc (42 Orionis, the 5th-magnitude star) 0.67′ SP is a 14.5-magnitude star. This knot of dark nebula is 3.5′ x 2.5′, with its major axis P-F, and it has really high opacity. Another knot lies off the F edge (and slightly S) of the gemstone, but this one is much less opaque, so tenuous it’s hard to gauge its size; this knot lies 5.75′ SF the 6th-magnitude (F-most) star in the arc and is maybe half the size of the other knot. N of the gemstone and the nebulosity around it is an variably-opaque dark lane that runs mostly P-F but juts N in the middle; this one is 2′ wide except just N of the brightest star in the gemstone by 5′, where the N-ward-jutting notch gives the dark lane the appearance of a “thunderbird” pattern, with the notch as the thunderbird’s head; this dark nebula occupies the middle of the triangular structure of the entire Running Man complex and runs 13′ P-F and is about 4′ thick between the head and the bottom of the wing structure.

The N part of the whole complex features stars at the N tip and along the P edge of the triangle. There are two obvious double stars/pairs and a third bright star along the P edge of the complex. Starting at the N tip of nebula triangle: a double of 10thand 11thmagnitudes separated by 0.25′, with the brighter to the NF and the fainter to the SP; these lie amid the diffuse 0.75′ glow of NGC 1975. 4.5′ SP that double is the brighter of a 7.5- and 11.5-magnitude pair; the secondary is NP the primary by 0.67′, amid NGC 1973. 2.75′ SP from the brighter of the second pair is a 9th- magnitude star; the area between those three stars/pairs is all shrouded in fainter nebulosity and the head of the thunderbird is due F the pair in the middle by 5′. The UHC filter has an interesting effect: it dims a lot of the nebulosity (as you’d expect because this is reflection nebulosity) but enhances the section P the gemstone pattern; this stretches over toward an 8.5-mag star that’s 15′ P the brightest star in the gemstone [42 Ori]. Otherwise, the filter made much of the nebulosity (and thus the contrast in the region) disappear, making the dark lanes invisible.

All I could say at this point was “Wow.” Just as I had done so examining the Lagoon and Trifid Nebulae during the summer. Expansive nebulae such as those and the Running Man complex were objects that absolutely demanded dark western-American skies to see in their full glory. No previous observation of the Running Man could’ve prepared me for how detailed and awe-inspiring it truly is in outstanding conditions. But the sky was still getting better….

NGC 1980 (Ori): This brilliant cluster lies just S of the Orion Nebula, so close that part of the outer bubble of M42 sweeps through the stars at the cluster’s NP end. (I first looked at the cluster with UHC still in from observing NGC 1977.) It’s unmistakable as a cluster, dominating the field with Iota Orionis as a member alongside several other piercingly-bright stars. The cluster has a classic 60s rocket shape, like something from one of that era’s sci-fi movies, with a teardrop-shaped fuselage and fins on the back. The brightest member of the cluster is a beautiful double or triple star [Iota Orionis] with a 3rd-magnitude primary and an 8th-magnitude secondary SF by just under 0.25′; due P the secondary by 0.75′ is a 10.5- magnitude star; the two brighter are almost certainly a pair but the third may be an outlier. This double/triple lies on the SF edge (at the wide end) of the teardrop-shape which is the head of the rocketship. There are eight other stars in the teardrop, which stretches 8′ x 5.25′ NF-SP; Iota Ori lies on the F end of the minor axis. SP Iota by 3.75′ is an 8.5- magnitude star with a 9th-magnitude star N very very slightly P by 3.5′; 3′ N very slightly F that star is another 9th-magnitude star; NF that second 9th– magnitude star by 3.3′ is a 10th-magnitude star; SF the 10th– magnitude star by 0.5′ is a 14th– magnitude star that may be a very close double; from the 10th-magnitude star (the N-most in the rocketship) almost due S by 2.75′ is another 10th-magnitude star that has an 11th– magnitude star 1′ due P it; from this last 10th-magnitude due S by 3.5′ is Iota Ori. The “base” and fins of the rocket are made up of a line of three pairs: from the primary of Iota due S by 8′ is a 7.5-magnitude star; P that star by 1.5′ is a 10th-magnitude star; SP Iota by 8′ is the NF of a pair (4.5- and 5.5-magnitude stars) separated by 0.67′ with the N-most the brighter; 1′ due N of that brighter of the two is a 9th-magnitude star; from the brighter of that last pair P slightly S by 3.3′ is the brighter of another pair, which is 8.5-magnitude and has a 9.5- magnitude star N very slightly P by 0.5′; from the fainter of the last pair P slightly N by 1.25′ is a star of 10.5 magnitude. Together with the teardrop, these form the body of the cluster. The SF part of the loop of the Orion Nebula sweeps through the N end of the teardrop; not quite in contact with Iota; this begins 12′ P Iota and sweeps F and N.

NGC 1990 (Ori): Although I know this doesn’t exist from doing a little research, this “nebula” gives a good convincing impression of being real, although it might probably be just because my optics aren’t super clean. If a nebula isthere, it’s about 30′ across and centered on Alnilam. At moments, it does indeed look like there’s a lot of very diffuse hydrogen gas here, surrounding this searingly bright star.

I can sympathize with the astronomers of yore seeing something at the location of NGC 1990. Had I not had access to the collective observing acumen of the crew at CloudyNights.com, I would’ve certainly fallen for this non-existent phantasm myself.

NGC 1999 (Ori): A little “dark keyhole” nebula, S of NGC 1980 and M42, the whole complex of which it’s part of. This is a small nebula, 1.5′ round, with pretty well defined edges compared to most of the other flocculent reflection nebulae sprinkled around Orion. This one almost looks like an elliptical galaxy with a bright core (which here is a brightish star of 10thmagnitude and only-slightly cottony outer fringes. The dark “keyhole” is actually visible but tiny at this magnification, and is due P the star at the nebula’s center; it’s no more than 10″ across, and its shape is not possible to discern at this magnification. In the UHC filter, there’s an impression that S of the nebula by 4.5′-5′ there seems to be another nebulous spot that’s extremely tenuous and impossible to hold steady or estimate size. In averted vision, there’s definitely something there, and a second possible nebula SP the main nebula by 2′; this second nebula is also a very small, tenuous fuzzy spot, very very difficult; the first one mentioned is definitely the stronger of the two, although no detail is possible. The O-III filter wipes out the entire complex, although NGC 1999 is still somewhat visible. This is not an overly impressive field for Orion; there’s a squiggly pattern of stars, almost an open ellipse, to the N of the main nebula, with a bright (8th-magnitude) star at the N end and a 9th-magnitude star due N of the nebula by 15′; this squiggle has nine stars in it and extends 13′ N somewhat P-S somewhat F. To the NP of the nebula by 4.5′ is an 11th-magnitude star. Due P the nebula by 11′ is the middle star in a prominent line of three; the middle star of this trio is double, with a 10th-magnitude primary and a 13.5 magnitude secondary separated by 0.25′, with the secondary N of the primary. From the primary 2.67′ N very slightly F is a 10th-magnitude star; from the primary S very slightly P by 1.5′ is an 11th-magnitude star. The brightest star in the field is 20′ due F the nebula and is 8th-magnitude; it has an 9th-magnitude star NP it by 1.25′.

As had happened on a few other occasions the last year, I had difficulty removing O-III filter again. It made me reluctant to use it for the rest of the night, lest it get stuck in the eyepiece I’m using for the Herschel survey. This was the only negative to the night.

NGCs 2023, 2024; B33 (Ori): Back toward Alnitak, over by the Horsehead Nebula, and—I CAN SEE THE HORSEHEAD WITH NO FILTER! It’s little more than a dim dark spot that stays put in position against the background when I’m rocking the scope, but it’s more than just a vague impression. But I’ll get to the Horsehead in a few minutes, because my actual prey here is NGC 2023: this is another small nebula of the kind that’s so common in Orion, a reflection nebula around a reasonably-to-fairly bright (in this case, 8th-magnitude) star. The nebula is just under 2.5′ diameter and roundish, but it’s cut off abruptly by darkness along the N to SP on the P side, so it’s not fully round. To the SF of the bright star in the nebula by 2.5′ is a 12th-magnitude star; 9.5′ P and very very slightly S from the nebula’s illuminating star is an 8th-magnitude star; and the Horsehead Nebula, B33, lies 9′ S very slightly P that second star. None of the famous Horsehead shape is visible, just a roundish dark blot, a vague bit of darkness 3.5′ around that precedes from the dark cutoff on NGC 2023’s P side and seems to be a part of the same dark obscuring cloud. S very slightly F the Horsehead is a faint double with the brighter component 0.5′ SF the fainter; these are 12thand 14thmagnitudes. 2.25′ S of the 12th-magnitude star is an 11th-magnitude star.

N of NGC 2023 by 18′ is the S edge of the Flame Nebula: as I expected from seeing the Horsehead unfiltered, the Flame really excellent tonight!! It’s necessary, of course, to keep Alnitak out of the field for a good view. The Flame spans 13′ N-S and 12′ P-F and is divided into three lobes by dark nebulosity. The F-most lobe runs P very slightly S-F very slightly N and is 4.5′ x 1′. From the F end of that lobe and stretching N for 12′ is the largest lobe, slightly bisected itself; from the F end of the first lobe is a 0.67′ gap where the dark lane runs and then the nebula picks up again and runs another 4′, then narrows where the dark neb crosses it again, then takes off N again; the dark vein here is 0.67′ wide across middle of that lobe, and the N part of that lobe (N of the dark nebula) stretches between two stars: just N of the dark narrowing in this lobe, on the P side of the lobe, is an 11th– magnitude star; at the N end of that lobe is a 10th-magnitude star; that lobe is widest (about 2.25′) between the two stars. The third, P-most lobe runs parallel to the second one; the dark lane is 3.5′ thick along there, fades out to the N, and runs from the P edge of the first lobe, between the 2ndand 3rdlobes, and then fades out at the N where the contrasting bright nebulosity fades out. The third lobe is the widest of the three, runs NP from the first lobe and mostly fills a triangle of three stars: the S vertex is 12th-magnitude [a geosync satellite “drifts” past it as I’m recording!]; 5.5′ N very slightly P that star is an 11.5-magnitude star; P that star by 7′ is a 9.5-magnitude star; Alnitak is SP that third vertex by 7′. The triangle formed by those three vertices is filled with nebulosity, especially between the first two stars (the S and N vertices) and to the P of them, where the brightest part of the Flame is. With the UHC, I’m less impressed with Flame in UHC than I thought; it’s disappointing. The extent of the nebula is bigger overall but the lobes blur together; there’s more ghostly nebulosity in the background that smears everything together and detracts from the Flame’s character. NGC 2023 is also greatly diminished in the UHC, but the Horsehead is a slight bit darker, although if I hadn’t seen the Horsehead without the filter I probably wouldn’t have found it with the filter [I should’ve used the OIII as well, but didn’t want to risk screwing it in and getting it stuck in the eyepiece again].

Stunning. That’s all I can say. Had I thought about it, I should’ve borrowed someone’s H-Beta filter, as it’s the only one to really bring out the nature of the Horsehead itself. But I was in a zone and didn’t want to interrupt it, even for an experience I might not be able to duplicate again.

NGCs 2071, 2064; M78; Bernes 106 (Ori): Another reflection nebula, a little one N very slightly F M78 by 15′. This one is not a very noteworthy object compared to most of those I’ve seen tonight. It’s roundish but pointed on the S edge, and roughly 1.75′ diameter. Amid the nebula is a 10th-magnitude star; another 10th-magnitude star lies NP the nebula by 3.5′. The nebula is textured in the same way but more so than M78; it’s got that reflection-nebula flocculence, especially on the S end and especially in averted vision where the texture really comes out—there are several slightly-brighter striations in it, very thin, like the inner texture of NGC 1514. The star inside the  nebula is located more to the N end so nebula extends farther S, and is bright enough to make viewing the striations in the nebula difficult. Around the nebula is a star-poor field due to the presence of lots of dark nebulosity, which is very visible in its contrast with the field tonight. M78 is very similar to 2071, but has two stars embedded: one on the N edge and one S very slightly P the first, both of them magnitude 10.5; a third star is embedded just inside the S edge and is 13thmagnitude. The two brighter stars are separated by 0.75′ and the more S of those is almost due N of the 13th-magnitude star by 2′. M78 is 3.5′ N-S and 4.25′ P-F . The N edge is very well defined because the band of dark nebulosity between the two nebulae cuts off the light on the N edge of M78. M78 has very gossamer appearance to it; it fades out on the other three edges and is poorly defined there where it fades into the dark nebulosity. The ring of dark nebulosity surrounding this group is darkest N and NF of 2071; there are no bright stars in that region for 28′ to the F of 2071, only pitch blackness and a couple of very very faint (14th-magnitude and lower) stars. The region S of M78 also very dark, although there’s another patch of reflection nebulosity S slightly P M78, 19′ from the star on M78’s N edge; this is just a tiny knot 0.3′ across [Be106], seemingly shrouding a 14th-magnitude star; 6′ P slightly S of the bright star on the N edge of M78 is a slightly larger (than the previous) knot that’s quite diffuse [NGC 2064], perhaps 1′ across, but has no star visible in it; this second patch is SF a 10th-magnitude star by 3′. This is a very interesting/intriguing field, with four nebulae possible in field when M78 is centered.

Bernes 106 is a pretty obscure little nebula, and identifying it took a surprising amount of digging. And yet it wasn’t even difficult in the eyepiece.

I ended up taking notes on a few more open clusters; one was in the vicinity of some of the little nebulae on my list, but the others were my only other Orion objects. Best to add them to the inventory tonight and be done with Orion altogether.

NGC 2112 (Ori): The Rush Cluster, a cluster that’s pretty obviously a cluster by default, given that it’s the only condensation of stars in the region; the starry background is poorer here so the cluster stands out more. The cluster is embedded within Barnard’s Loop, and some of the nebulosity is clearly visible through the region as I sweep [given the conditions, I should’ve taken the time to explore Barnard’s Loop further!]. It’s a reasonably-rich cluster (25 stars?) about 9′ across with a wide magnitude range; on the NP corner is the brightest at 10.5-magnitude and there’s a roughly-rectangular or bent trapezoid of brighter stars across the face of the middle of the cluster; there are a few other brighter stars, with a few extending from the rectangle NP; these are in 11.5-magnitude range, with seven of these between 11thand 12thmagnitudes and the rest mostly 13thmagnitude and fainter. The rectangle is oriented N-S and is 2.5′ long, 1.3′ on the S end and 1.75′ on N end. There are several clumps of faint stars here. The most obvious of these is 1.25′ off the NF corner of the rectangle; this clump has six quite faint stars in the 14th-magnitude range and fainter in an ellipse that’s 1′ x 0.3′ with its major axis N-S; another clump lies 1.25′ due S of the SF vertex of the rectangle, with three or four very tightly packed faint stars. The other main concentration is on the N edge of the rectangle and slightly F, and there are a number of unresolved stars in this clump; a 13th-magnitude star at that corner and then N of that by 0.3′ is a knot of unresolved stars. Due N of the cluster by 14′ from the N edge of the rectangle is a 9.5-magnitude star. The brightest star in the field is NF the cluster, 19′ from the NF vertex and is 8.5 magnitude.

NGC 2170, vdB 69 (Mon): This is near the P end of the long chain of nebulous knots extending from Orion into Monoceros, near Gamma Mon. NGC 2170 is supposedly one of the brighter ones in the chain. It’s certainly obvious, though not really eye-grabbing at this aperture and magnification. The nebula is small, 1′ across, and quite like NGC 2023 in texture, with an embedded 10.5-magnitude star; due S of that star by 1.5′ is an 11th-magnitude star; N of the 10.5-magnitude star by 0.75′ is a 13th-magnitude star. Due NP the nebula by 14′ is the brightest star in the field, at 6.5-magnitude. F the nebula by 8.5′ is a 9.5-magnitude star that also appears to have some faint reflection nebula [vdB 69] around it; this is even smaller than 2170, much fainter, and smaller (0.5′ diameter). Almost due N of this second nebula is a 10′ long string of nine stars, with the brightest (at magnitude 9.5) on the P end; this string runs P slightly S-F slightly N in the field, a zig-zag; the rest of its stars are mostly 11thmagnitude with a couple slightly fainter.

NGCs 2182, 2183, 2185 (Mon): These patches of nebulosity are not far from NGC 2170, but the starhopping sure seems like it. NGC 2182, the Herschel object, is another quite small, faint reflection nebula, with another brightish star (9.5-magnitude) embedded. The nebula itself is 0.75′ diameter, but seems distorted a bit because on the F, just outside the nebulosity, is a 12.5-mag star, F the 9.5-magnitude star by 0.5′. P the 9.5-magnitude star and slightly N by 2′ is a 12.5-mag star. Due S of the nebula by 13′ is the brightest star in the field, which is 7.5-magnitude. F very slightly N by 23′ is a quartet of stars aligned roughly P slightly S-F slightly N, 2.5′ x 1′ and those too seem shrouded in nebulosity, a decent-sized but fairly faint patch [2185]; more obvious than it should be because of its size (there’s so much here that could be reflection nebulosity!). P slightly N of the larger patch by 3.25′ is another small patch [2183] that doesn’t seem to have an obvious associated star in it; this patch is F very slightly N of 2182 by 21′, and is no more than 0.3-0.5′ round; it’s not obvious at first glance due to the lack of an illuminating star.

NGC 2215 (Mon): I’m starting to lose the winter constellations now, into the interfering trees on the Ridge. This is a relatively sparse and average but fairly obvious cluster, pretty compact, about 8′ diameter. It has about thirty stars, many/most in the 12th-magnitude range and pretty uniform in distribution, to the point that it’s tough to pick out a defining feature; there aren’t many faint stars to fill in the spaces between the brighter ones. On the SP edge is a slightly richer knot that has several of the few fainter stars in it. On the F side, about 2/3 of the way across the cluster, is the greatest concentration of the majority of the fainter cluster stars; they run N-S along that side. P the cluster by 13′ is the brightest star in the field at 8thmagnitude. S very slightly F the cluster by 10′ from the cluster center is a very compact trio of stars in a 0.3′ line; these are equal (13th) magnitudes and at first glance look like something more interesting.

My notetaking was starting to wind down. It had been an exhilarating night so far, and though I wasn’t ready to pack up and call it a night, I was starting to get tired (and a bit sloppy in my observations). With one more object in Orion, I managed to close the book on the Hunter as far as Herschels went, before turning my optics toward some of the bright spring galaxies that were rising into prominence in the east.

NGC 2169 (Ori): The famous ’37’ Cluster, although at the moment it looks more like an upside-down 7 with a capital Greek sigma. This is a very bright, interesting cluster, very detached and obvious even in a crowded field. It’s not tremendously rich in number but enough so for its size (5′ x 3′, elongated NP-SF). Even more appropriately, the 7 has seven stars in it; the 3 has thirteen stars in it, although a couple also lie outside the edge of the 3. There’s a huge magnitude range here.  The ‘3’ almost looks more like an X or hourglass, adding in a couple of slightly-fainter members. The cluster lucida (and brightest in the field) is on the NP corner of the ‘3’ and is a tight double, with the brighter star NP the fainter; these are 8thand 9.5 magnitudes. 0.25′ P slightly N of the double star is a 12th– magnitude star; F the double by 0.5′ is a 9th-magnitude star which has another 9th-magnitude star 0.75′ S very slightly P it; from the first of the 9th-magnitude stars F slightly S by 1′ is a 10th-magnitude star, and from the more S of the 9th-magnitude stars and forming the midpoint of the X/hourglass (0.3′ S of the second 9th-magnitude star) is an 11th– magnitude star. The S half of the ‘3’ has three 9th– and 10th-magnitude stars and then two fainter ones trailing the F-most of the brighter ones; the brightest in this part of the ‘3’ is the SF corner, which is 9thmagnitude. There’s a 2.25′ gap between the bright double and the F edge of the top of the ‘7’. The top of the ‘7’ only has two stars: an 11th-magnitude star that’s closest to the top of the ‘3’ and a 9th– magnitude star 1.25′ NP the 11th-magnitude star; from the 9th– magnitude star 3.25′ S very very slightly P is a 13.5-magnitude star that’s the bottom end of the ‘7’ stalk. The brightest in the stalk is an 8th– magnitude star 2′ due S of the 9th– magnitude star.

There’s no way to observe winter’s bounty of nebulae without observing M42/43, the Great Nebula in Orion, and I spent quite a while doing so. (I also took a good look at the Rosette Nebula in Robert’s 8″ binocular scope.) We managed to snag a last look at Comet Wirtanen, 41/P, and one more comet whose name escapes me at this far a remove from that night.

Of the galaxies, then. M51 was as good or better than I’d ever seen it, its spiral structure unmistakable even in the 14mm eyepiece. M101 was also stunning, its plethora of individual nebulous patches and star clouds impossible to miss, including some well removed from the shimmer of the galaxy’s halo-glow.  I had excellent looks at M94 in Canes and NGC 4565 in Coma Berenices through Jerry’s 12″ binocular scope, and made sure to check out the Leo favorites, NGC 2903, the Leo Trio, and Hickson 44, the small quartet in the Lion’s mane.

It was well past 2 AM and heading toward 3 AM by the time we’d seen enough for the night. Jerry’s final set of SQM readings averaged nearly 21.8; he said that the conditions were probably better than he’d ever seen at Eagle’s. They were certainly the best I’d ever observed in; at Flagstaff’s Anderson Mesa, I didn’t have the superior telescope gear I had now, even if the sky itself was as good, and the same went for my week-long trip to the late, lamented Star Hill Inn in New Mexico back near the turn of the century—the first time I’d ever seen the Horsehead Nebula.

It hardly mattered that it would be more than a month before we could observe again, and that we’d have to use a new venue to do so.



Chances are that if you attended an astronomy event in southern Illinois in the past thirty years, you met Bob Morefield. Bob was the proverbial pillar of the community, not just for his love of promoting astronomy in the community, but for his work as a Scoutmaster, a devoted historian of the Carbondale/Murphysboro/Du Quoin region, an officer of the Sons of the American Revolution, and the telephone lineman who had to get out of bed in the middle of the night to keep southern Illinois on the grid.

But it was as an amateur astronomer that Bob had his true calling. As a high school student, he’d won numerous science fair awards for home-built telescopes, most (if not all) of which he still owned. With these, he began his 60+ years of astronomy notes, keeping inventory of the objects he observed over the years. As the treasurer and membership director of the Astronomical Association of Southern Illinois—positions he held for most of the club’s twenty years (so far) of existence—Bob knew pretty much every amateur astronomer in the “south third” of the state of Illinois, and this was how I came to meet him.

When Mrs. Caveman and I moved to Carbondale from Alaska, we made sure to first contact the local astronomy club, so that we’d have a social contact in the community even before we got there. Two weeks after arriving, we joined AASI at their (then) annual dinner meeting at Giant City Lodge, where we met Bob and his wife Betty, sharing a table with them at dinner. We hit it off right away; they were warm, accepting, and easy to talk to, with a lot of common travel experiences. In fact, they were off to visit relatives in a tiny German town—relatives who lived right next door to Mrs. Caveman’s  host family when she spent a semester living in Germany.

Over our years in Carbondale, we spent more hours with Bob than just about anyone else we knew there. Bob knew that I’d be up for observing just about anytime he wanted to do some stargazing, and we organized and manned public astronomy events dozens of times over the years. When Bob felt like he could no longer physically handle the setup and teardown of his 12.5″ Discovery Dobsonian, he left it to me to do. “Take it out anytime you want,” he said, “but make sure I get a chance to look through it.” After an observing session—either a public event or one of AASI’s scheduled or impromptu club sessions—we’d often stop by Denny’s for ice cream or some such. There was always a lot to talk about, astronomy-related or otherwise. When I became president of AASI, Bob was the one who had to drop an occasional reminder that the club newsletter needed to be sent out the week before the monthly meeting, to keep me on schedule. And Bob was the one who could be counted on to give the “What’s In The Sky” talk every month, keeping us all informed about upcoming sky sights and events in an easy, accessible manner that was probably a relief from the more-esoteric topics I often talked about at the meetings.

Bob was one of the best friends of my adult life, and moving away from Carbondale was all the more difficult because he wasn’t in the best of health. He mentioned to me that he hoped he’d be around to see the 2017 solar eclipse, and doubted that he’d live to see the eclipse of 2024. (I told him I fully expected him to see both.) Before my family and I  moved to Oregon, Bob agreed to sell me the 12.5″ Dob—the best telescope I’ve ever used, of any size and type—considering that I would get more use out of it than anyone. (This, of course, is why the scope has been christened “Bob the Dob”; we had taken to naming many of my daughter’s stuffed animals after the person who had given them to her, and it only seemed right to continue the practice.) And when our 2017 eclipse trip was over and we had to head back west, Mrs. Caveman and I joined Bob and some of the other AASI alumni who’d left for different climes for one last stop at Denny’s.

Bob died this April, one month to the day after being diagnosed with cancer, and ten days before I was scheduled to fly back to Carbondale to visit him. But this isn’t about me; it’s about Bob, and the family he’s left, and the community of which he was such an important part. It will be impossible to observe through the telescope he owned without remembering his sense of humor, his vast wealth of knowledge, and his desire to know even more. And every starry night will be a memorial to him, one more profound than anything I could write here.


And on a Dark December Night

I. It still seems impossible, but our luck held steady for another month. After solid observing runs in October and November, we managed to make it three for three for the autumn/winter stretch. Even the temperatures this early December were conducive for long hours at the eyepiece.

With snow and ice at the higher elevations, we kept to the Eagle’s Rest gravel pit site for the three nights in December. I wasn’t comfortable with the idea of trying to push the Caveman-Mobile up to the ridge with non-winter tires, and as most of my remaining targets for this time of year were at higher declinations, there was no worry about the treelike at the gravel pit blocking the view.

This first night was fraught with intermittent cloudy patches. Jerry decided to pass, having other things he needed to do anyway, so Dan B and I were the only ones of the usual suspects to make the trek out. Conditions were mediocre, but for December, mediocre would do.


EAGLE’S REST (gravel pit)
MOON: 27 days; 6% illuminated, set at 3:27 PM
TRANSPARENCY: 5-6 (variable, some cirrus coming through, possibly clearing later)
SQM: not checked
NELM: 6.2

WEATHER CONDITIONS: temps in mid 40s, some considerable waves of clouds rolling through, very breezy, damp but not much dew

Others present: DB

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

NGC 1444 (Per): This cluster is not particularly obvious at first glance, due to the fact that it’s small and fairly star-poor, with only about sixteen stars. It’s primarily composed of two individual clumps. If the brilliant double star on the SF end of the larger clump is a cluster member, there’s a wide range of magnitudes here, although most of the stars appear to be in the 12th/13th-magnitude range. The larger clump is diamond-shaped and has a bright double star at the SF end, which is also the S end of the major axis (2.25′) of this larger clump; the minor axis consists of four 12th/13th-mag stars running SP from just N of the brighter component of the double, to end due P the double. The first clump consists of the double star, a 13th-mag star on the opposite end of major axis, and the line on the minor axis , which is 1.25′ long and runs SP-NF. The star at the F end of the minor axis is 1′ N of the double; the brighter component of the double is also the brightest star in the field at 7th magnitude; it has PvvsN of it by 9″ a 10th-magnitude star as its secondary. 3.75′ SP the brighter component of the double is the brightest star in the smaller clump, which has five stars in it and looks like a backward numeral ‘7’; the brightest in this smaller clump is 12thmagnitude, and this star is on S end of the clump. There’s a 13.5-mag star PvsS of the brightest in the clump by 0.3′; N and NF the 12th-magnitude star, each by 1′, are two 13th-magnitude stars that form the top of the ‘7’ and are separated by 0.5′.The fifth star in this clump is 0.5′ NF the brightest and is 14th-magnitude.This second clump is 1.5′ x 0.5′ (it’s widest at the N) and is roughly triangular.The diameter of the whole cluster is 5′ SP-NF x 2.25′ (along the major axis of the larger clump). 14′ SF the brighter star in the double is a 7th-magnitude star that’s very slightly dimmer than the double’s primary.

NGC 1513 (Per): Part of the expanse of clusters around the hand of Perseus, this is quite a rich and obvious cluster. It’s pretty round, and about 11′ in diameter. NGC 1513 contains about fifty stars, most of them 13thmagnitude and fainter; many of these are threshold objects (due in part to the poor seeing?), and there is a fair amount of unresolved glow among the stars here. On the N edge is a solitary 9.5-magnitude star that may or may not be a cluster member. The primary feature of the cluster is an ellipse of brighter stars (mostly 11thmagnitude) that runs 5′ x 3′ SP-NF; this ellipse is outlined by twelve stars and extends from just S of the cluster center to the SF edge of the cluster—the ellipse and the cluster itself share a SF edge. Near the SF edge is a double star/pair with 12th-and 13th-magnitude components separated by 15″, with the primary SP the secondary. Between the ellipse and the 9.5-magnitude star is a barren patch that’s largely devoid of stars. On the SP corner of the cluster is a small knot of perhaps five very faint stars clumped very close together. Just on the due P edge of the cluster is an 11th-magnitude star that’s quite obvious due in part to its isolation from other brighter cluster members; this star is 8′ P slightly S of the 9.5-magnitude star on the N edge. 11′ F slightly N of the star on the N edge is the brightest in the field at 8.5 magnitude; there’s a 9th-magnitude star 9′ S of the 8.5-magnitude star.

The wind picked up progressively as the evening rolled on. Usually, it caused few problems in the gravel pit, because the trees acted as a windbreak (as they usually do at Eureka Ridge). Tonight, though, it seemed to come from just the right angle to be a problem, billowing my laminated Sky Atlas 2000.0 around on my table and flipping the large pages constantly. We pressed on—even though the forecast was for a few more decent nights, we didn’t want to bet on the accuracy of a December forecast.

NGC 1545 (Per): This is a fine, very large, quite obvious and detached cluster. It’s not overly rich given its size, with fifty or so stars, but has a great range of magnitudes and a number of bright apparent doubles. The most eye-catching aspect of the cluster is a triangle of bright stars at cluster center, with the cluster’s brightest star (at 7thmagnitude) on its SF corner. This star has an 8th-magnitude star N very slightly P by 1.25′ and a 9.5-magnitude star 2.5 P it; these make up the triangle. The 8th-magnitude star has a 13th-magnitude star due P by 20″. On the N edge of the cluster proper, 7.5′ N of the 7th-magnitude star, is the primary of another double; this is the second-brightest in the cluster (at magnitude 7.5) and has a 10th-magnitude companion 15″ to the N. From the 9.5-magnitude star on the P end of the bright triangle, and trailing SP, is a 16′ long curving chain of 11th– 12th– and 13th-magnitude stars that continues out of field and terminates near a 5th-magnitude star (cf.). SF the cluster lucida by 16′ is another 7th-magnitude star which may be a shade fainter than the lucida. Also SF the lucida, by 4′, is the middle of a small not-quite-square of eight or nine 11th-, 12th-, and 13th-magnitude stars; this square is very roughly 2.5′ per side; its NP-facing edge has three stars on it, the SF-facing edge has four stars, two just outside the frame of the square, and there’s an obvious star near the center of the square, somewhat toward the P edge. The NF vertex of the square is a close double, 12th– and 12.5-magnitude stars separated by 10″. Back to the cluster lucida: 7′ P very slightly N is the F-most of  pair of 10.5-magnitude stars, with the other 1.3′ P it. Overall, the cluster has an interesting bird-like shape to it, with the bright double on the N edge as its head and the small square as its tail; the long arc to the SF marks out one wing, while a much-less well-defined arc from the lucida F marks the other wing. SP the cluster, perhaps 21′ from the lucida and just on the edge of the field, is a 5.5-magnitude star which has N slightly P it by 18′ (just outside the field) a 5th-magnitude star; this is the star to which the long trailing arc stretches.

NGC 1528 (Per): From NGC 1545, drawing a line through the 5.5- and 5th-magnitude stars and proceeding N brings us to this beautiful, very rich cluster. It’s immediately identifiable as a cluster, very large, and triangular, roughly isosceles. Its vertices are on the N, SP, and SF. The N vertex is 10.5 magnitude; the star on the SP vertex (the S-most of three similarly-bright stars, of which the brightest is in the middle) is 11thmagnitude. The SF vertex is actually a tight trio, with a 10.5-magnitude star flanked to the SP (by 0.3′) by a 12th-magnitude star, and to the NF (by 1′) by an 11.5-magnitude star. The 15′ P edge is the shortest of the three; the S edge is 17′ and the F edge 18′ long. The cluster has an interesting texture, with a lot of small clumps within it, and about 75 stars are in it, from 10thmagnitude down to 14th, although the majority are in the 10.5-11.5 magnitude range. The fainter stars are mostly arranged in the clumps, of which at least four of these are along the F edge, which is the best defined of the three edges and runs NP-SF; there are too many of these clumps to describe them all. The interior of the cluster is also quite clumpy. One prominent clump is 5.5′ due S of the N vertex of the cluster; this clump is a smallish triangle of four 12th-magnitude stars; the long side of this clump runs 0.75′ SP-NF. Halfway along the P edge is an irregular pentagon of brighter stars; the P-most of these stars is the brightest in the cluster—and the field—at 9thmagnitude. The major axis of the pentagon runs P-F and is 4.5′ long, with a minor axis of 3′. This pentagon is the most obvious feature of the cluster. Starting at the 9th-magnitude star and running F very slightly S through the cluster is the largest quantity of the cluster’s brighter stars; this averages a few arcminutes N of the cluster’s S edge.  A pair of bright stars (9th– and 10thmagnitudes) lie 30′ S of the N vertex of the cluster triangle, the fainter P the brighter by 0.67′. SF the N vertex by 33′ is a 7th-magnitude star.

NGC 1491 (Per): Something slightly different from the open clusters so far this evening. This is a little blotch of nebula, one of several in the lineup on this Sky Atlas 2000.0 chart. With no filter, the nebula is a 3.0′ x 1.5′ cloud extending S very slightly P-N very slightly F. On the F side, just outside the main mass of the nebula, is an 11th-magnitude star. On the SP edge is a close pair of 14th-magnitude stars; another faint pair/double lies just off the N tip of the nebulosity, very slightly P. Due N of the nebula by 10′ (very slightly P the 11th-magnitude star) is a 10th-magnitude star, which is the F-most star in a 25′ meandering stream of stars that runs mostly P-F. SF the nebula by 21′ from the 11th-magnitude star is another double/pair, with a 9.5-magnitude star that has a 13.5-magnitude companion 0.5′ due N of it. In averted vision, there’s a hint of irregularity in the brightness of the nebula, especially on the F side. There’s not much shape to the nebulosity, but the brighter mass is surrounded by a faint outer envelope; the nebula gives a vague impression of a barred spiral galaxy, with the main mass as the central bar, giving the whole an appearance slightly reminiscent of NGC 7479. With the UHC filter in place, the irregularity in brightness, or texture, is much more apparent. The F edge of the nebula is much more distinct or cut off, especially to the N end. On the SP end is a “hook” that appears to stretch toward the P slightly, although this needs more magnification to draw out. The nebula shows a somewhat triangular shape, being wider at the SP end than the NF. Oddly, the star on the F edge seems more detached from the nebulosity with the filter than without, although some of the nebulosity seems to curl toward the star from the S. The P side is less diffuse. The whole of the nebula spans 3.25′ x 2.25′ with the filter in place.

My next target was one that had skunked me in November, and was still quite a pain on this night. I had spent a fair amount of time researching it in the days since that last failure, so I knew better what I was looking for.

NGC 896 (Cas): Had a tough time tracking this one down; I missed it at the end of the last November session, and it took me a while this night, too. This nebula is a detached chunk of the Heart Nebula, difficult to track down but not excessively difficult to see (given that I still have the UHC filter in from NGC 1491). The nebula is roughly rhombical (?), elongated SP-NF, with a 10th-magnitude star on the SP. The NF edge of the nebula is a detached chunk that’s separated from the larger piece by a gap or dark lane that’s about 1.5′ wide on average. A couple of stars are embedded in this northern section. From the 10th-magnitude star SF by 2.25′ is another slightly brighter portion of the nebula; due F the 10th-magnitude star by 6′ is a fourth section of the nebula, and this also has a few embedded stars. The section to the NF could have its own number, given its prominence and detachment from the rest; this piece is 2′ around and has faintish stars on the F and SF sides. The main portion of the nebula is about 6′ across and flattened across the N and NF. The whole complex is 9′ x 6′ overall; it’s quite diffuse, and none of it is particularly well defined, although the NF chunk is a little bit more obvious than most of the rest. The minor axis is offset to the S end of the major axis. In averted vision, there’s another brighter section on the SF of the main portion, about 1.5′ across. Every now and then the transparency seems to steady, and the NF section of the nebula appears bilobed, like M76, with the “pinch” across the middle and the two lobes N-S. The nebula also extends slightly P the 10th-magnitude star. Without the filter, the nebula is much more difficult, and I doubt I would’ve spotted it without much more searching (and luck). The brightest portion is around and just F the 10th-magnitude star. There are two stars, 11.5 and 12.5 magnitude, F and SF the NF portion of the nebula; the brighter star is the more northern, and these are separated by 1.25′. The SF end of the nebula has three stars embedded and this is one of the most visible portions of the nebula. A triangle of brighter stars lies S of the nebula: due S of the nebula is the triangle’s N vertex, which is 10thmagnitude; due F by 8.5′ is a 10.5-magnitude star; SP the 10.5-magnitude star by 9.5′ is a 9.5-magnitude star. The first vertex of the triangle is 12′ S of the star on the SP corner of the nebula. This nebula is one of the more-difficult of the fall Herschels, and it’s a testament to WH’s observing skill that he swept this one up.

NGC 1624 (Per): This is an unusual, small nebula, much easier than 896. This one has an embedded cluster, which is rather poor in number with only six visible stars. The brightest star (11.5 magnitude) is very close to the nebula’s center. The nebula itself is cottony in texture but not particularly well defined or impressive; it looks like a reflection nebula (gauzy, rather than cloudy) despite the fact that the cluster might imply that it’s an HII object. It’s roundish, about 3.25′ across. Without the filter, the nebula is quite a bit fainter but still pretty obvious. The cluster sits at the SF “joint” of a zig-zag of perfect right angles, which extends 4′ NF and NP from the cluster; from the NP end, it takes a right angle SP for a further 2′. The stars in this zig-zag are mostly 12th-14thmagnitude, with the second-brightest in the pattern a 12.5-magnitude star on the NF end. A 9.5-magnitude star 17′ SF the cluster is the brightest in the field; there’s also a 10.5-magnitude star 20′ F the cluster.

With the temperatures and the wind conspiring to make the observing more like work that it should have felt, we began discussing whether it was time to leave. Dan was working with the club’s new Revolution imager and was about done with it, so I made sure to catch one (actually two) more object, another that I’d been putting off for a long time:

NGCs 869, 884 (Per): The showpiece of this (and many another) evening, the Double Cluster is perhaps the most magnificent object in the autumn sky, with the possible exception of M33. The two components, NGCs 869 and 884, are both well detached from the Milky Way and very obvious, even to the naked eye. NGC 869is dominated by two 6.5-magnitude stars, both brilliant blue-white. One is in the cluster’s center, the other 2.5′ N slightly F the first. F slightly S of the first of these (the one at cluster center) is a flattened-top/kite shaped pattern with its long end to the SP and the three brighter stars to the N and F. The kite is 0.5′ on the F and NF sides and 0.67′ on the P side; the three stars along the NF are 8.5-9.5 magnitudes, while the S (fourth) star is 10thmagnitude. P slightly N of the central 6.5-magnitude star is an elongated ellipse of stars which contains six brightish and two faintish stars; this is about 1.0′ P-F and 0.5′ N-S. The kite and the ellipse are the two most-obvious features of the cluster beyond the pair of 6.5-magnitude stars. NGC 869 is about 20′ across, not particularly round, and contains more than a hundred stars within that diameter. From the central 6.5-magnitude star and running N slightly P is a 17′ long chain/line of stars that hooks SP at its N end; most of the stars in this chain are in the 11th-magnitude range. 19′ P slightly S of the central 6.5-magnitude star is the more-northern of a pair of bright stars; this star is blue-white and 6.5 magnitude, while its companion, 1.75′ to the S very slightly P, has a slight reddish cast and is 7thmagnitude. NGC 869 has  large magnitude range, and the majority of the brighter stars are in the central region around the 6.5-magnitude star. There are several largish ellipses of brightish stars on the P side, about 7-8′ P the pair of 6.5-magnitude stars; these contain many of the fainter cluster stars. The majority of the brighter stars in the cluster are in the 10.5-11thmagnitude range.

The center of NGC 884 lies 26′ F very slightly N of the 6.5-magnitude star at the center of NGC 869. NGC 884 is a little less detached than NGC 869, with a smaller range of magnitudes and a slightly-dimmer average magnitude (11th?). It’s also somewhat smaller at about 12′ and a little less rich than 869 (about a hundred stars). The central region of 884 is marked by a pair of small triangles. The more-northern triangle is slightly smaller; at its NP end is an 8th-magnitude star, the brightest in this triangle (and second-brightest in this central part of the cluster); due S of this star by 0.5′ is a 9.5-magnitude star; S slightly F the first star by 0.4′ is a 10th-magnitude star. From the NP vertex of this triangle S very slightly F by 2.25′ is the brightest in the second triangle—an 8.5-magnitude star—which is the S-most vertex in this second triangle. Due N of this star by 0.75′ is a 9th-magnitude star, and N very slightly F the first (S-most) vertex by 0.5′ is a 9.5-magnitude star. From the NP vertex of the first triangle N very slightly P by 6′ s a 6.5-magnitude star; there’s a 7th-mag star NF that one by 12′. The first triangle is in the S end of the richest part of the cluster; the second triangle has some threshold star in it and a few around it that are just above threshold, but this part of the cluster is still somewhat less rich in this aperture.  Along the axis of the two triangles (NP-SF) are obvious clumps of faint stars, one 6′ NP the NP triangle and one 6′ SF the SF triangle. N of the first triangle and running parallel with its NF side is a trio of 10th/11th-magnitude stars that’s 0.5′ end-to-end.  A number of bright stars are scattered around the P and N sides of the field, but these may well be unassociated with the cluster itself.

It hardly needs to be said that this is a magnificent area of the sky—these two clusters would each be one of the highlights of the autumn, and together are one of the most spectacular objects in the heavens!


II. The next night it was Dan’s turn to pass, as he had work obligations the next day. Conditions were somewhat better, even down to the temperature. Jerry had the Revolution imager this time, and he arrived just after me into the clearing. We were later tonight; I felt less urgency in getting out to the site, as I had dinner with the in-laws and a visiting family friend, and the constellations I was going to search could use just a little more time to rise to a good viewing position.

Tonight was a night for Big Game. I was counting on two specific objects tonight and not much else; instead, it turned out to be a considerably productive night.

EAGLE’S REST (gravel pit)
MOON: 28 days; 4% illuminated, rose at 5:39 AM
TRANSPARENCY: 6 (variable, some cirrus coming through)
SQM: not checked
NELM: 6.2

WEATHER CONDITIONS: temps in mid-upper 40s, some thin clouds rolling through, breezy but not affecting inside clearing, damp but not much dew

Others present: JO

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

M33; NGCs 604, 595; ICs 135, 136, 137, 139, 140, 143; A14, A115?, A116? (Tri): Going to start tonight with another that I’ve been dreading, making sure that I get it while the sky conditions are pretty good. M33, the Pinwheel Galaxy, is one of the most remarkable objects in the sky—to my mind, the most spectacular galaxy visible from Earth, although more dependent on sky conditions than the more-celebrated M31. Even at first glance a number of nebulous patches are visible in the easily-traced spiral arms. The galaxy extends a huge 40′ x 16′ (at least) S very slightly P-N very slightly F, with a brighter interior pattern of milky spiral arms and a mottled 2.5′ diameter core region, although a possible flicker of a stellar nucleus may also be visible. On the N edge of the core is a somewhat-bright star; on the NP side of the core is a dark fissure or gap. Of the spiral arms, the “heavy” one, starting F the core and sweeping S to SP, is the most obvious and detailed, although the arm that contains NGC 604 [the Herschel object here], which starts P the core and sweeps N to NF, is also plainly apparent. To the S, 16′ S of the core, is an 8th-magnitude star that’s the brightest in the field, and the galaxy extends past this to the S.

Both of these arms are speckled with knots and puffs of visible starstuff; my identifications of most of these have a slight bit of uncertainty to them. A scattering of faint (13thmagnitude and fainter) stars are visible across the galaxy’s face, and a prominent pattern of six of these is notable S of the core. These six stars extend SP-SF and wrap around one of the larger knots (IC 139/140) in the S spiral arm; this knot is about 5′ SF the core toward the N end of the southern arm and extends 2′ x 1′ S very slightly P-N very slightly F in averted vision. SP this large knot by 5.75′ is another patch (IC 137) toward the most-obvious part of the S end of that spiral arm; this patch is 1.25′ in diameter, and makes up, with IC 139/140, much of that heavy southern arm, which sweeps a little bit S and P from IC 137. SP the core by 7′, P the two larger glows that make up much of the southern arm, is another small spot (A14?) that’s a little bit fainter than most of the previous and about 0.5′ in diameter, with a substellar knot within it. F very slightly S of the core by 6′ is yet another diffuse or nebulous patch (IC 135) that’s 1′ across; this one is fainter than the ones in the heavy southern arm, but seems itself to be part of an extension or short arm that juts out F the core and then S; this extension is N and F of the heavy arm. Another patch (IC 136) is to the S of the previous, 8′ SF the galaxy’s core, and these two make up the bulk of the definable extent of this third arm/extension; the second of these patches is the larger, about 1.5′ long. NP the core by 4′ is another small spot (NGC 595) that’s 0.25′ across; it’s more difficult than the previous (A14), and has a 14th-magnitude star 1.5′ NF it. 8′ NF the core is another glowing patch (IC 143) within the northern arm of the galaxy, and this spot is somewhat larger but fainter than 595, with a 14th-magnitude star just on its F edge that detracts from the view of the patch.

NGC 604 itself lies due NF the core by 12′. It’s about 0.5′ across and has an 11th-magnitude star 1′ to the SF and a 13th-magnitude star 1.25′ to the S; these stars and NGC 604 form a small triangle, whose third side (between the two stars) is just over 1′. NGC 604 has a distinctly brighter center and is fringy on the edges, like a small planetary nebula. The visible extent of the galaxy stretches at least 10′ further N and P beyond 604. At times, the transparency seems to clear and the northern arm of the galaxy stands out nearly as well as the southern, making the galaxy’s noted ‘S’-shape unmistakable. This isn’t even the best I’ve seen M33 (that might’ve been at the Mill Creek Retreat near Van Buren, MO), and it’s still so detailed that I don’t know if the description here is adequate. A very faint satellite runs N of the galaxy, moving from SF to NP, during my observation.

With the UHC filter, the galaxy comes even further to life, its glow diminished much less overall than I would have expected. NGC 604 is much brighter with the filter, although its center is quite diminished—is this the site of a star cluster? The nebula is elongated slightly P slightly N-F slightly S. NGC 595 is also well enhanced and brighter than the rest aside from 604. IC 135 also becomes more apparent with the filter. SP the core by 17′ is another nebulous spot (A116?), probably an HII region given that I didn’t note its presence without the filter. 6′ N of this spot is another obvious 0.3′ spot (A115?). In general, the S half of the galaxy is more enhanced by the UHC than is the N half.

A spectacular object in all. I could’ve spent a whole night on it alone—and probably will at some point.

NGC 1348 (Per): This problematic cluster required parts of two nights to positively track down, for some reason; it’s not really that difficult (although the seeing isn’t great right now). It’s not overly well detached and fairly poor, with no more than twenty stars in a 7′ x 4′ area (major axis P-F, minor N-S). Most of the stars are of magnitude 13 and fainter. The main body of the cluster is fairly compact, with a not-quite-square frame. The SP corner of the almost-square is the cluster’s brightest star at 11thmagnitude; due F by 1.25′ is a 12th-magnitude star; due N of the 11th-magnitude star by 1.3′ is a 13th-magnitude star; the fourth vertex of the almost-square is NF the 11th-magnitude star by 2′ and is 13.5 magnitude.. The majority of the stars in the cluster are along the S edge of the square or just S of it; these are weakly resolvable at best, with a number of 14th-magnitude-and-fainter stars among them. An 4.5′-long arc of stars bends SP and then P from the 11th-magnitude star on the almost-square’s SP, terminating on the P end with a 12th-magnitude star. There’s a bright asterism of five stars on the P edge of the field, due P the cluster; it consists of three 10th/11th-magnitude stars in a P-F line and two more that arc 4′ N and then NP from the star on the F end of the line. Several other 10th/11th-magnitude stars inhabit the field—none of the 10th-magnitude stars stands out as being brighter than any other. N very slightly P the cluster lucida by 11′ is the S-most of a prominent pair, which is 10.5 magnitude; its 12th-magnitude companion lies due N by 1′.

NGC 1582 (Per): This is a considerably large but fairly sparse cluster, with a number of brightish stars. It’s not well detached, and could simply be a slightly-denser Milky Way field. There’s a pretty wide range of magnitudes here, from 9thto 14th, although which ones are actual cluster members is hard to determine from a simply visual scan of the field. The cluster consists primarily of a pair of arcs, offset against each other like a pair of misaligned parentheses; taken together, they form a rough ellipse some 18′ x 9′. The northern arc begins with a 9th-magnitude star at the P end of the cluster. F slightly N of this star by 4′ is the P-most of a close trio; this star is 10thmagnitude, with another 10th-magnitude star N slightly F by 0.5′ and a 12th-magnitude star due F the second 10th-magnitude star by 0.25′. The final star in this N arc is 7.5′ F slightly N the first star in the arc and is just a shade fainter. The southern arc begins with a 9th-magnitude star 9′ SF the F-most star in the northern arc; due F this 9th-magnitude star by 3.25′ is a 9.5-magnitude star, and a 10th-mgnitude star is NF the previous star by 4.5′; this last has a 12th-magnitude star F slightly S of it by 6″. About 1/3 of the way from the star on the F end of the northern arc and the star on the P end of the southern arc is a 1.5′-wide string of seven 12th/14th-magnitude stars running P-F. SP the star at the P end of the northern arc is a small pentagon with a very small S edge: the N-most star in the pentagon is the brightest at 10thmagnitude and is closest to the star at the P end of the northern arc at 5′. F slightly S of this star by 2′ is another 10th-magnitude star with a 12.5-magnitude star SP it by 0.67′. From the second 10th-magnitude star SP by 2.25′ is an 11th-magnitude star; 0.67′ due P that star is another of 11thmagnitude (these last two make up the short S edge of the pentagon); and NP that star by 2.5′ is an 11.5-magnitude star that’s the pentagon’s final vertex. If this pentagon is part of the cluster, it extends the cluster’s area to 23′ x 9′.

With M33 and NGC 604 off my list of Herschels, and time still being in great supply, I decided to catch the next one early.

M31, M32, NGC 206 (And): M31 may not be at the same level of detail as M33, but it’s still a huge object that would reward greater scrutiny with a more-detailed chart. The galaxy is a vast glow, seemingly more tangible than any other galaxy in the northern hemisphere. It’s elongated SP-NF and extends at least 106′ x 24′, measuring the width from the P-most of the dark lanes to the F side. The huge core is at least 4′, with a substellar nucleus easily visible. Two dark lanes are notable on the P side: one due P the core by 4′ and the other 2.5′ P the first. The lane closer to the core is 1′ at its widest and runs 30′ SP-NF; this one is the more prominent of the two, by dint of having greater contrast against the smooth glow of the galaxy’s halo. The second dark lane cuts off the halo on the P side (there’s some very weak halo-glow on its P side, but not enough to make the dark lane stand out as much as the first one does) and is 0.75′ wide and 23′ long; it is more diffuse and less-defined on its S end, where it gradually disappears as the halo fades out.

SsP the nucleus is an embedded star of 12.5 magnitude. There are a number of stars embedded here, and a prominent group of them lies N of the nucleus by 10′-12′. NF this group, 22′ N of the nucleus, is a 9th-magnitude star that’s the brightest embedded in the halo. SF the nucleus by 23′ is M32: this satellite galaxy is elongated 2.75′ x 1.75′ N slightly P-S slightly F, and quite well defined (unlike M31, which fades away indistinctly into the sky background). M32 has a very bright almost-stellar nucleus but not much of a core; the brightness increases gradually from halo to core, then very suddenly to the nucleus. N slightly P M32 by 5.5′ is a 10th-magnitude star.

NGC 206, the Herschel object here, lies 38′ SP the nucleus of M31. This stellar association, listed as a nebula in both Sky Safari and Sky Atlas 2000.0 (my two primary sources now), is elongated N-S and extends 4.0′ x 1.5′.  It’s very diffuse, and not particularly bright but certainly obvious when panning across M31. A 13th-magnitude star sits just F off its N end. Averted vision really helps to bring out the full extent of 206. SP the object by 7.5′ is the N-most of a N-S pair of 10.5-magnitude stars separated by 2.5′; with the S star maybe another 0.3-magnitude fainter. The UHC filter may give NGC 206 a slight bit of contrast boost, but not really enough to make a statement about the object’s composition without consulting a good reference.

I’ll return to M31 et al. on another occasion to do a more-definitive exploration of it (including at powers high enough to track down some of its globular clusters). For now, though, this was a really fine view of our closest major neighbor in space. (I explored and took notes on M110 back in October, so skipped it tonight.)

NGC 1514 (Tau): This is an excellent, large planetary nebula with a bright (10thmagnitude) central star. I’ve taken sketchy notes on this one before, but this will be a better visit. The nebula is extremely diffuse, elongated a bit NP-SF (2.5′ x 2.25′). With the OIII—I found the nebula with the UHC still in the eyepiece after examining NGC 206—the nebula’s elongation is much more noticeable and its outer perimeter is better defined.  The swirly, irregularly-bright  internal structure that gives the nebula its name (the Crystal Ball Nebula) really stands out in the OIII; there’s a prominent small dark notch intruding inward from the S slightly P edge. 10″ N very slightly P the central star is a particularly bright speck or knot which appears more easily and is steadily holdable in averted vision. The nebula’s perimeter is considerably more ragged with the OIII in, especially along the SP and NF, where it’s more diffuse. The nebula sits within a field of bright stars. 8′ due S of the central star is an 8.5-magnitude star; another 8.5-mag star is N very slightly P the nebula by 9′, and there’s a 9.5-magnitude star 14′ P slightly N of the nebula. A few very faint (14th/14.5-magnitude) stars lie within a 7′ radius of the nebula.

NGC 1535 (Eri): Night of the Showpiece Objects continues with this outstanding planetary nebula, located in the hinterlands of Eridanus. (I’m actually observing it through a gap in the trees.) It’s a bright one and easy to sweep up, even low in the sky and with no filter. It’s 0.67′ in diameter and round, with a distinct blue cast to the usual planetary-nebula grey. Even without a filter, the edges of the nebula are fuzzy with an obvious outer fringe. It has a notably-brighter inner region and an obvious central star (13thmagnitude?). The OIII filter really brightens the nebula although further details at this magnification are quite fleeting. The surrounding field is quite populous with stars; due P the nebula is a small triangle of 13.5/14th-magnitude stars, with the long side to the S. SP the nebula by 7.5′ is the F-most vertex of an isosceles triangle, a 10th-magnitude star; there’s a 10.5-magnitude star SP that star by 3.5′ and a 12th-magnitude star 3.5′ NP the 10th-magnitude star, and these three form the triangle. F very slightly S of the nebula is a further diamond of strs, the N-most two of which are the brightest: P-most of these is the brightest at 11thmagnitude; NF that star by 1.75′ is an 11.2-magnitude star; from that star SF by 2.75′ is a 12.5-magnitude star; 2.25′ P slightly S of that star is a 12th-magnitude star. (I didn’t get much time on the nebula with the OIII as the nebula disappeared back into the trees.)

NGC 1647 (Tau): A very large, loose open cluster, fairly detached due to the relative diminishing of the Taurus Milky Way in its vicinity. It’s still pretty obviously a cluster, rather than a field of random brightish stars. It’s also quite large, about 40′ x 30′, with the major axis running P-F (minor axis N-S). Sixty stars are here, the majority between 10.5 and 12thmagnitude. There are a lot of pairs and little triangles in the cluster; the most obvious feature of the cluster being a small triangle in the center of the N edge. This triangle consists of  9th- and 9.3-magnitude stars, separated by 0.5′, with the brighter P slightly N of the fainter, and a 12th-magnitude star 0.75′ due S of the 9th-magnitude star. 5′ SP the 9th-magnitude star is the brighter of a pair; these are 10thand 10.5 magnitude, with the brighter 0.75′ S of the fainter. Due P the first triangle is another triangle: its brightest star is 10′ P the 9th-magnitude star in the first triangle, and is 10thmagnitude; 0.67′ N very slightly P that star is an 11.5-magnitude star, and an 11th-magnitude star is N very slightly F the 10th-magnitude star by 0.75′. The brightest star in the cluster is a shade brighter than the first 9th-magnitude star, and is 10′ N very slightly P the former one; a 9.5-magnitude star is N very slightly P this brightest star by 2′. Due S of the cluster, 22′ due S of the first 9th-magnitude star is a 7.5-magnitude star, and a 6th-magnitude star 5′ to the SF is the brightest in the field.

By now, I was actually tired. We hadn’t been out that long, but it felt like we had. Rather than overextend our welcome, and with an hour’s drive home, we decided it was getting to be time to close out the session. My final object, though, turned into something of a puzzle.

NGCs 1746, 1750, 1758 (Tau): I haven’t had one of these cases of confused identity since I was working through Cygnus, but here we are. NGC 1746 supposedly contains the smaller clusters NGC 1750 and 1758, but my sources here aren’t much help. (Archinal & Hynes would come to my rescue, but after this observation; I would re-observe these the next night, with clearer notes.) Just looking at the agglomeration of stars in the eyepiece, it’s not really possible to discern two or three separate objects here. 1746, overall, is a 40′ spray of about ninety stars of all sorts of magnitudes. I would suspect [wrongly] that NGC 1750 is the fainter, slightly-richer patch on the NF side; there’s a concentration of faint stars there that might be a single collective. The F side of 1746 is bounded by a “crook” of bright stars: The N-most of these is 8th magnitude; SF it by 9′ is a 7.5-magnitude star; SP that star by 13′ is another 8th-magnitude star; S very very slightly P  that star by 8′ is another 7.5-magnitude star. These four make up the F boundary of the cluster, but the three northernmost also bracket the clump of fainter stars that may be NGC 1750. The primary component of “1750” is a small clump of stars that’s S of the N-most of the previous four stars by 6′. This clump is 0.75′ x 0.5′ and oriented S very slightly P-N very slightly F; it contains six or seven stars in a roughly-diamond shape, with the brightest in the clump (at 10.5 magnitude) on the S tip of the diamond. There are a couple of other faint stars just N of the diamond and a scattering to the S and SF. P the first clump by 6.5′ is another smaller clump of five even fainter stars (12th-14thmagnitudes). P this second clump is a tiny equilateral triangle of 11.5- and 12.5-magnitude stars about 0.67′ on a side. S very slightly P the triangle by 8.5′ is the N-most of a pair, which is 9.5 magnitude and has a 10th-magnitude star due S by 0.3′. If this is indeed NGC 1750 here, it’s about 6′ across and not overly rich but with a fairly-small range of magnitudes. NGC 1758 is also contained here, but I’m at a loss where it might be.

With a mystery to solve and a better forecast for the next (and final) night of the December run, I had some more research to do.

III. One last December night, unless the nights on the other side of Full Moon were as inviting. Even though this particular night was New Moon, the Clear Sky Chart for the next two nights wasn’t promising, and the 10-day forecast was downright bleak. Not wanting to even consider the possibility of good nights in January, I planned to make this last December night even more productive than the previous one had been.

Jerry was there, and both Dans (B and R). Jerry had the 20″ TriDob, and Dan B had an array of scopes, including his 11″ SCT and a 5″ refractor. Throughout the night, we had to stop and look at objects in each others’ scopes, because they were too good to pass up: Comet Wirtanen, M74, M77, the Horsehead Nebula, NGC 1055, and the tight Mars/Neptune conjunction. My notes also recorded a lengthy conversation about comedy and what fit the definition.

I borrowed a spare observing chair from Jerry (thanks, Jerry!). It made observing infinitely more comfortable, and reminded me that I still hadn’t repaired my own chair.

EAGLE’S REST (gravel pit)
SQM: 21.35
NELM: not checked

WEATHER CONDITIONS: temps in mid-40s, very little breeze, damp but not much dew, a few clouds low in sky that did not intrude on the areas observed

Others present: JO, DB, DR

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

NGC 1502 (Cam): Starting with a very underappreciated object, NGC 1502. This is a beautiful, well-detached and obvious cluster, pretty rich (fifty stars), with a large range of magnitudes. I know the Toadstool asterism is pretty far from here, but that’s exactly what this cluster reminds me of: the tip of this toadstool’s cap points NP, the stalk runs NP-SF, and a number of faint stars S of the “stalk” represent the ground. The most obvious feature here is a pair of 7th-magnitude stars, separated 0.3′ NP-SF, which lie in the middle of the S edge of the toadstool’s cap. This double also forms the SF edge of a small parallelogram; both members of the double have a 13.5-magnitude star N of them: the S component of the double has its companion 0.25′ to the N and the N component has its companion 0.3 to the N. A lot of pairs/doubles abound in this cluster; another lies 1.25′ P the S component of the 7th-magnitude pair, with an 11.5-magnitude star 4″ NP a 12.5-magnitude secondary. Due N of that 11.5-magnitude star by 0.5′ is another of the same magnitude; the two 11.5-mag stars form the parallelogram with the 7th-magnitude pair. An 8th-magnitude star, 5′ NP the N-most of the 7th-magnitude stars, serves as the top of the toadstool’s cap. The P side of the toadstool runs from that star 4.5′ SP to a 10th-magnitude star that has a 10.5-magnitude star N very slightly F it by 0.75′. The S side of the toadstool runs 5′ from the SP vertex to a 10.5-magnitude star; from this star, the F side of the toadstool spans 6.25′ back up to the 8th-magnitude star NP. Between the SF vertex and the 7th-magnitude pair, 1′ P the SF vertex, is another interesting double, with the brighter component NF the fainter by 3″; these are 11th  and 12thmagnitudes. The stalk of the toadstool is represented on its P side by 10th– and 11th-magnitude stars separated NP-SF by 1.75′. The “ground” here runs parallel with the S side of the toadstool and runs an average of 4.5′ S of it; it’s represented by a series of 13-magnitude and fainter stars, with a couple slightly brighter toward the P end. A bright pair is P the cluster, with an 8th-magnitude star NF a 10th-magnitude star by 0.75′; the 8th-magnitude star is 5.5′ SP the star at the tip of the toadstool. The brightest star in the field, at 7thmagnitude, lies 20′ SP the star at the tip of the toadstool.

NGC 1501 (Cam): This lovely planetary nebula is an excellent example of the type, a ghostly but obvious disk that’s completely obvious even sans filter. It’s about 0.75′ across and largely round, with no real color or central star visible (which is surprising; I’d always thought 1501 to be one of the planetaries with a bright central star). Even at this low magnification, there’s a lot of interior mottling visible, as with NGC 1514 but not quite so obvious. The edges of the nebula are a little more diffuse on the NP and SF. With the OIII filter, not much detail is added; the bright outer rim of the disk is a little more substantial, and a small void seems to lie just inside the N edge. The nebula lies in the middle of the F side of a triangle of 13th– and 14th-magnitude stars; this side of the triangle is 5′ long. The brightest of the three vertices of the triangle is to the NP of the nebula. Due S of the nebula by 6′ is a double/pair oriented N very slightly P-S very slightly F, with the brighter the more northern of the two by 12″; these are 13thand 13.5 magnitudes. This double sits at the F end of a 2.25′ line with two even-fainter stars. NP the nebula by 9′ is a 9.5-magnitude star with a 10th-magnitude star NP it by 5.5′. F the nebula by 11′ is the brightest in the field, an 8th-magnitude star.

NGC 1579 (Per): This small nebula is pretty easy even without a filter. It’s very diffuse, with no “clean” edges to it, and brightest on its F side. With averted vision, there appear to be two separate lobes, with a fainter one SP the main mass as if there’s a dark lane separating them. The whole is elongated SP-NF and about 2.0′ x 1.0′. Averted vision also brings out a couple of stars near/at the center of the brightest part of the nebula (the central 0.5′). S of the nebula (and a very slight bit P) by 2.25′ is a faint double star, with 12.5- and 13.5-magnitude components separated by 0.3′, with the brighter P slightly N of the fainter. 2.5′ due N of the nebula’s center is an 11th-magnitude star; 9.5′ further N  is another 11th-magnitude star. NF the nebula by 2.75′ is a 12.5-magnitude star with a 13.5-magnitude companion 0.75′ SP it. The brightest star in the field is due P the nebula by 12′ and is 7thmagnitude. S of the nebula by 12′ is a 9.5-magnitude star that’s the SP end of an arc or crooked line of four; the others in this line are 10th, 10.5, and 12.5 magnitudes and the line trails away to the F slightly N. The UHC filter, as I suspected, is of little help here, as this appears to be a reflection nebula. The only improvement is a very slight contrast boost in the separate lobe to the SP.

NGC 1605 (Per): This is a really tricky, difficult cluster, one that I could have easily swept over if I didn’t know exactly what I was looking for. It’s really quite faint, almost nebulous, with most of the stars just on or below the threshold level. The cluster actually benefits from rocking the scope slightly to get a fix on it. It’s elongated roughly P-F, and extends 4.75′ x 4.25′. Not at all well detached due to its faintness, but it’s obviously very rich (a count of the stars isn’t possible given their faintness; there’s obviously a very narrow magnitude range here). On the S edge is a line of 13.5/14th-magnitude stars that are the brightest in the cluster, with a knot of them on the SF corner; a couple of these are also on the P edge. The brightest star is 13.5 magnitude and is just inside the cluster’s F edge. The brightest in the field is a 7.5-magnitude star 9.5′ F very slightly S of the cluster. Another brightish (10thmagnitude) star is S very slightly F the cluster by 14′; this star is flanked on the N (by 1.25′) and S (by 0.5′) by 12th-magnitude stars.

NGCs 1750, 1758 (Tau): A return engagement, trying to make sense of the tangle of clusters (or “clusters”) here. On my previous exploration, I noted the clumps of stars on the cluster’s F (especially NF) side; this is actually NGC 1758, with NGC 1750 being P and SP that area. Starting at the little equilateral triangle of 12th/13th-magnitude stars on the N central part of the field, 1750 is S of that triangle, and also due P the bottom two bright stars on the F edge of what’s considered NGC 1746 (see previous notes). 1750 mostly consists of a large N-S ellipse, 11′ x 7′, which has a small isosceles triangle in its N end, F very very slightly S of the ellipse; the brightest star in both triangle and ellipse is SF the F-most vertex of the tiny equilateral triangle by 1.67′; this star is 9.5 magnitude and is the P-most in the isosceles triangle. F very slightly N of the 9.5-magnitude star by 2.25′ is an 11th-magnitude star; 2.5′ F slightly S of the 9.5-magnitude star is another of 11thmagnitude, and due F the second 11th-magnitude star by 0.25′ is a 13th-magnitude star (there’s a fourth star in the triangle, a 12th-magnitude star on the triangle’s S edge, 1.25′ F very very slightly S of the 9.5-magnitude star). The majority of the stars in 1750 are in the P and SP edges of the ellipse (there are twenty-four in the ellipse in total); the most obvious feature here is a bright double star of 10th– and 10.2-magnitude stars, with the fainter S of the brighter by 0.3′, and this pair is near the P slightly S edge of the ellipse. NGC 1750 is not well detached at all from the rest of NGC 1746, let alone from the background, and it’s not certain what led to it being considered a separate object. P very slightly N of the 10/10.2-magnitude double star by 18′ is a small, faint asterism that looks like a backward Lyra, with its triangle to the NF corner; the stars in this asterism are all in the 12.5/14th-magnitude range. N and NF “Lyra” is an 11′ long line of stars that stretches SP-NF and has ten stars of a wide range of magnitudes in it; the brightest of these is 8.5 magnitude.

NGC 1664 (Aur): this is a welcome break from very faint or barely-existent clusters. This striking object is just off the “nose” of Auriga. It looks for all the world like a Valentine-heart balloon with a long, trailing string (Jerry called it the Kite Cluster, but says that it looks like a stingray.) It’s 12′ long N very slightly P-S very slightly F, and 6′ at its widest (across the heart). There are sixty stars here, so it’s quite rich, and the majority of these are in the 11th/12.5-magnitude range. A number of slightly-brighter stars are along the F edge. The cluster is quite well detached from the starfield and is very obviously a cluster, as opposed to a chance gathering. S very slightly F by 6′ from the star where the “heart” meets the “string” is the brightest star in the field, which is magnitude 7.5. The heart opens to the N very slightly P and the string runs S and arcs S very slightly P at its S end. The string contains nine prominent stars and is 7′ long. Between the two lobes of the heart and running NP is a fairly obvious string of six 13th-magnitude and fainter stars.

The temperatures had plummeted throughout the evening, but the transparency—pretty variable throughout the entire week—had become considerably better. It wouldn’t last, but it didn’t need to for much longer.

NGCs 1817, 1807 (Tau): A pair of large open clusters S of the horns of Taurus, these two are a good example of contrast. NGC 1817 is the Herschel object here, but as it would be a waste not to take notes on nearby 1807 (a pretty fine cluster in its own right) I’m going to do so. NGC 1817 is pretty large (15′ x 13′, major axis P-F), quite rich (eighty stars?), and well detached. It’s roughly rectangular, with a high concentration of 12th-magnitude stars; the only concentration of brighter stars is on the P side. The NP corner of the cluster is marked by a 9th-magnitude star, the brightest in the cluster, and it has an 11th-magnitude star 0.3 to its F very slightly N. Three other bright stars line the cluster’s P side: (from N-S) a 9.5-magnitude star SF the 9th-magnitude star by 5.5′, another 9.5-magnitude star S slightly P the previous one by 2.67′, and a third of 9.5 magnitude 3.25′ S slightly F that star. (The N-most of these is very slightly brighter than the others, the S-most very slightly fainter.) The second of these, the P-most, is surrounded by several fainter stars (11th/13thmagnitude) to the N and S. Outside the S boundary of the cluster is an interesting pair, two 10.5-magnitude stars separated N very slightly P-S very slightly F by 0.25′, 19′ SF the 9th-magnitude star on the NP corner. Toward the F side of the cluster are two obvious clumps of stars, one on the NF corner and one on the SF. The clump on the SF is slightly brighter and contains six stars, while the NF clump is larger and roughly V-shaped (pointing toward the P side), with nine stars in it. NGC 1807 lies 23′ P very slightly S of the NP corner of 1817. It’s much brighter but coarser and less rich, with thirty stars in a 14′ x 10′ area (major axis P-F). The N-S axis is marked by a majority of the cluster’s brighter stars, including a bright triangle in the middle of the line. The NP vertex of this triangle is a double star, consisting of 10thand 11th-magnitude stars separated by 10:, with the fainter due P the brighter. S very very slightly F by 1.25′ is a 9th-magnitude star; from the primary of the double due F by 1.25′ is a 10th-magnitude star. The cluster is a vague stick figure, like NGC 457, with its head to the P slightly S and the feet stretched toward NGC 1817; the arms extend N and S from the central triangle. The star at the S end of the figure’s arms is the brightest (at magnitude 8.5) and S-most in the cluster, and is 5.5′ S very slightly F the double star; a 95-magnitude star sits at the N end of the arms, 5′ N very slightly F the double.

NGC 1857 (Aur): A pretty cluster to end with, as it’s considerably colder now and the transparency (so good not long ago) is starting to decline. This is a well-detached cluster, even in the rich Auriga Milky Way. It has a huge magnitude range, from a 7th-magnitude star just N of the cluster’s center down to 14thmagnitude. The cluster is considerably rich, with some sixty stars packed into a 9′ x 8′ area (major axis SP-NF) that’s shaped something like a five-pointed star. The majority of the faintest cluster members are gathered toward the S, S of the lucida. Aside from the 7th-magnitude star, the most obvious feature of the cluster is a star-chain running from the lucida SP, twelve stars in a 5′ arc that terminates at a 12th-magnitude star that also serves as the tip of one of the five-point star’s branches. Another branch extends 4.5′ S from the lucida and ends at an 11th-magnitude star. NP the lucida by 3.5′ is a 9th-magnitude star; just S of the lucida by 0.75′ is a small group of three or four faint stars of 12thand 13thmagnitudes. To the S end is a clump of ten very faint (13.5 magnitude and fainter) stars; this clump is 1′ x 0.3′, with its major axis N-S. Just N of the lucida is a scattering of cluster members. N of the cluster by 14′ is a prominent triangle of 9th– and 10th-magnitude stars. NP the lucida by 18′ is a 7.5-magnitude star; another of the same magnitude lies due P the lucida by the same distance.

By the time I finished my notes, we’d been observing for almost exactly four hours. But, as with the previous nights, they’d been extremely productive hours. I felt like I could observe for several more, but I also knew the drive home would be taxing, and the “observing rush” would fade by the time I got home. Considering how rarely I got to observe in December here in Oregon, every object I managed to take notes on was a year-end bonus. So we tore down scopes for the evening, pleased with what December had given us and hardly daring to hope that January might be as generous.


Echoes of December

Tuesday, December 5th, found Mrs. Caveman and I on a bit of a mini-vacation to Seattle. The reason was simple: the fourth-to-last ever concert date in America by the great John “Mahavishnu” McLaughlin, British guitarist without peer and one of my own most-important musical influences. As a discovery of the great Miles Davis, McLaughlin helped in the creation of fusion jazz; as founder of the incandescent Mahavishnu Orchestra, McLaughlin took fusion to its most groundbreaking and eclectic extreme. As he was to perform a whole set of Mahavishnu music, there was no chance I was going to miss this show—I’d already missed out on King Crimson’s Seattle dates, and Midnight Oil’s Portland shows had sold out within an hour—so I snapped up a pair of tickets for the 5th, McLaughlin’s Portland show having already sold out before I could even get the date squared away with the Mrs. (The fact that the original Mahavishnu violinist, Jerry Goodman, is the brother of my next-door neighbor and was likely to be a special guest at the Portland show led to no small amount of head-meeting-desk on my part.)

The concert was spectacular. McLaughlin was ably supported by his protege, Jimmy Herring, and Herring’s band The Invisible Whip; their music was like a more fusoid version of Phish. McLaughlin’s own band, the 4th Dimension, was ridiculously good (especially bassist Étienne M’Bappé, who should make bass-worshippers forget about Victor Wooten). I actually got misty-eyed during the final bows—that this colossus of the jazz scene was hanging up his fretboards at age 75, playing as well as ever, was a jarring reminder of the inexorable creep of age.

We took the train home the next day, and it was during the train trip that I saw an e-mail through the EAS vine—skies were clear, and telescopes were being dusted off for a rare December session. A quick check of the Clear Sky Chart quelled my disappointment at being in transit home, rather than in transit to observe; the next night looked even better, and the forecast for the next whole week was optimistic.

So I spent Thursday prepping for a cold few hours at Eagle’s Rest, the gravel-pit site 4.4 miles down the road from Eagle’s Ridge. The Ridge was likely to be under a fair amount of snow, and Jerry had reported that high winds had prevented him from setting up on Wednesday night; he had ducked back down to the Rest, which was ringed with trees and thus avoided much of the wind. (This was also the drawback to using the Rest–anything below about 20˚ altitude was pretty much blocked out.) I wasn’t willing to test the Caveman-Mobile’s tires on a snow-covered gravel road, so I’d asked if we could observe from the Rest, which was below the snow line.

I was first there on Thursday, and started setting up as soon as I got there. It looked like a fine night, if a short one (Moonrise was at 9:33). The great advantage to winter observing is that the sky darkens so early; it’s possible to get six hours’ observing in and be home around midnight. Jerry and Kathy pulled up as I was unloading the scope, and after a brief bit of chatting, we finished putting scopes and gear together and settled in for the sky to darken. (Jerry tested Bob the Dob’s mirror with his new Ronchi eyepiece, and the grid of perfectly-straight lines it generated indicated a superb mirror. We all knew that already—Jerry had already complimented the 12.5″ primary—but it was nice to see it confirmed.)  Oggie arrived somewhat afterward, rounding out our dedicated quartet.

My plan, as it so often did, involved the Herschel 400 and Herschel II lists. Tonight {and the next time out, if it happened soon) was to be spent in Pisces and in snagging NGC 821, my last object in Aries.  Given the early Moonrise, I got straight to work once it was dark enough.


EAGLE’S REST (gravel pit)
MOON: 19 days; 77% illuminated, rose at 9:33 PM
SQM: 21.4 (at 9 PM)
NELM: not checked
WEATHER CONDITIONS: temps in low 40s, air still

Others present: JO, KO, OG

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

NGCs 7541, 7537 (Psc): pair of very elongated glows—7541: much the brighter and larger of the two—elongated P very slightly N-F very slightly S—off F end of galaxy just beyond edge of halo is a 13th-mag star—galaxy 2.25′ x 0.5’—pretty well defined—irregularly bright—has brighter central region but not a visible nucleus—7537: more ghostly, fainter—has a brighter core and substellar nucleus—elongated P slightly S-F slightly N—1.25′ x 0.3′, but hard to tell ends of halo—definitely noticeable in field but not easy at all—galaxies separated by 3.5′; 7537 is S and slightly P 7541—P the pair and slightly S of 7541 (in middle of two) by 7.5′ is an 11th-mag star—S slightly P 7537 by 9′ is a pair that are the N edge of very small scalene triangle; pair consists of 12.5- and 13.5-mag stars; brighter closer to galaxies and NF the dimmer star by 0.3’— almost due F 7541 by 24′ is a 10.5-mag star—N very slightly P 7541 by 30′ is a 7th-mag star

NGCs 7562, 7557 (Psc): above Circlet—7562: quite small—roundish at first glance—maybe has a little bit of P-F extension on very ends of halo—1.25′ x 0.75’—quite bright—brighter core that makes up majority (80%) of diameter—substellar nucleus—in middle of a line of three 10th-mag stars; one to NP by 9′, one SF by 8′, one SF by 11′; closer one SF is slightly fainter than other two—to N, NF, and F slightly S of galaxy are 13.5-14-mag stars, each about 3.5′ from galaxy (not quite a square)—P galaxy and very slightly N by 4.5′ is another extremely faint and extremely diffuse galaxy (7557)—very small—slightly smaller than 7562—very difficult, better in averted—threshold-level star a couple of arcminutes S of galaxy—seems to have very very faint nucleus but not much core—galaxy round? hard to tell—noticeable in direct vision, but not much more visible than that

NGC 7785 (Psc): up near Omega Psc—bright but fairly small—elongated very slightly NP-SF—1.0′ x 0.75’—fairly well-defined—regularly illuminated—bright core—stellar nucleus—threshold star 0.5′ N slightly F—another threshold star 3′ due NF—galaxy in middle of triangle, brightest star (8.5-mag) 5.5′ to P very slightly N; S very slightly F galaxy by 3.5′ is 10.5-mag star, other 10.5-mag F and slightly S by 3.3’—NP galaxy by 13′ is an 8th-mag star—P slightly N galaxy by 13′ is an 11th-mag star

NGC 7832 (Psc): down by parallelogram inc. 27 and 29 Psc—very small, roundish, nondescript galaxy—very slight NP-SF elongation—0.67 x 0.5’—slightly brighter core and fairly-obvious substellar nucleus—NF galaxy by 8′ is a 9th-mag star—SP by 18′ is an 8th-mag star—SF by 3.5′ is an 11th-mag star; F and slightly S of that star by 2′ is a 10.5-mag star

Although not on my list, I had noticed that Hickson 98 was nearby on the TriAtlas chart. I’m always on the lookout for Hickson Compact [Galaxy] Groups, as there’s not much more interesting than small clumps of galaxies. That the members of this one had NGC numbers made it impossible to pass up, as I was very likely to be able to see it in a “mere” 12.5-inch scope.

NGCs 7783A, 7783B, 7783C (Hickson 98) (Psc): tough! Using Delos to split—galaxies are 15′ S of an 8th-mag star and 2′ S of a 10th-mag star—very difficult to separate—piled on top of each other—almost due F the group by 5.5′ is a 12th-mag star—main “mass” of galaxies (7783A/B) is elongated P very slightly N-F very slightly S—main mass is 1.25′ x 0.3’—appear to be a couple of distinct nuclei involved, although one may be very faint star, possibly outside main mass (so faint it’s hard to tell!)—SF main mass is a detached section that may be another galaxy (7783C)—very difficult to separate!

NGCs 488, 490 (Psc): 488: large and impressive—elliptical profile although I know it’s an Sa spiral—large halo—3′ x 2.25’—elongated mostly N-S, maybe S very very slightly P-N very very slightly F—small bright core and a substellar nucleus—just off S slightly F edge of halo is a 12th-mag star—SP galaxy by 3.5′ is a 10.5-mag star—due F galaxy by 9′ is an 8th-mag star; SF that star by 14′ is a 10th-mag star—N very slightly P galaxy by 6′ from halo is an 11th-mag star—N of galaxy by 12′ is a 13th-mag star; not quite halfway between that star and 8th-mag star F 488 is a threshold-mag glow (490)—very small and faint—NF 488 by 8′ —mostly an averted-vision object—star just off S edge of 488’s halo and the star SP 488 are two middle and two brightest stars in a line of four evenly-spaced stars, each about 3.5′ apart that run along edge of field due F to P slightly S of 488

My next target, NGC 524, was at the center of a very busy group, according to the TriAtlas. I spent extra time here ferreting out as many of the other members of the 524 Group as I could manage without being absolutely painstaking about it; there were only about 90 minutes before Moonrise, and I had a number of other galaxies I wanted to get to.  But I spent about a half-hour here in this rich degree of sky, and was well rewarded for it.

NGCs 524, 518, 516, 525, 522, 532 (Psc): 524: in complicated field—bright, round galaxy—1.75′ round—bright core and bright stellar nucleus—well-defined galaxy—surrounded by a group of faint stars; to N slightly F by 2′ is a 13th-mag star; S very slightly P by 2′ is a 12.5-mag star; 2.5′ SF galaxy is a 13th-mag star; 1.5′ F slightly S of galaxy is 14.5-mag star—SP 524 by 6′ is a 10th-mag star; 6′ that star is another 10th-mag star; P and slightly S of that second star is a faint glow (518): elongated P very slightly N-F very slightly S—very small, 0.5′ x 0.25’—has threshold stars to SP and P slightly S—in averted a flash that there’s a stellar nucleus but no other real brightening—not well-defined—back to 524: P and slightly N of 524 by 10′ is another faint galaxy (516): larger and brighter than 518—0.75′ x 0.3′ but not well defined—elongated SP-NF—has some central concentration but hard to define—very faint averted-level substellar nucleus—NP 524 by 8′ is a 10.5-mag star—due F that star by 2.5′ is a 11.5-mag star—10.5-mag star forms an isosceles triangle with 524 and 516—N of 524 by 9′ is a thin N-S streak (525): very difficult—0.67′ x 0.5’—has a 12.5-mag star NP by 2′ that makes observation difficult—very faint central concentration, maybe very faint stellar nucleus—N of 525, 30′ N of 524 is 522: larger and brighter than others except 524—elongated SP-NF—1.25′ x 0.5’—not much central brightening—in steady moments a faint core is visible but no nucleus—in fairly-barren field—10th-mag star 17′ due N of galaxy—SF 524 by 19′ is a largish glow (532), brighter than others in group aside from 524—elongated SP-NF—1.5′ x 0.5’—irregularly bright—not much core, but occasional flash of stellar nucleus?—better defined than other small ones in group, second-most impressive of group after 524

NGC 514 (Psc): very round, very very diffuse galaxy—almost no central brightening at all—core is only very slightly brighter than halo and largish—face-on spiral?—2.25′ round—threshold star on F edge of halo—due F galaxy by 2.75′ is a 9.5-mag star that obstructs view—not much detail in galaxy—P and slightly S of galaxy by 3.5′ is a 13th-mag star—SF galaxy by 7′ and 9′ are 12th– and 11.5-mag stars (respectively)—these make up southern edge of equilateral triangle whose N vertex is 13.5 mag

NGC 718 (Psc): near Al-Rischa—1.25′ round—gradually brightening to substellar nucleus—well defined—nice obvious galaxy—not a lot of detail—23′ due P (just out of edge of field) is northernmost of a long zig-zag line of seven 9th-12.5-mag stars that starts at N and moves S, bends F, and continues S; northernmost star is 9.5 mag, 24′ due P 718; 3.5′ S slightly P that star is brightest in pattern at 9th-mag—S slightly P galaxy by 5′ is a 12th-mag star—10th-mag star N of galaxy by 9.5′

NGCs 741, 742 (Psc): in non-descript field—741: galaxy fairly interesting—round, with large brighter core—substellar nucleus—1.25′ round—pretty well defined—on F side of halo looks as if a bit of detached halo or contacting galaxy (742)—P and very slightly N of 741 by 2.25′ is an 11.5-mag star—N and very slightly P 741 by 5.5′ is brighter and more-southern of a very faint pair (13.5 and 14.5-mags) separated by 0.5′ with fainter due N brighter—on N, P and F edges of field are 11th-mag stars forming a triangle—galaxies just inside southern edge of triangle, in middle of edge

NGC 821 (Ari): very bright—small—round—obvious core—maybe a difficult substellar nucleus?—brightish (9.5-mag) star just on NP edge of halo—S very very slightly P by 2′ from galaxy is a 13.5-mag star—galaxy well defined—12′ N very slightly P galaxy is an 8th-mag star—on SF edge of field is an arc of four 11th-mag stars, from due S of galaxy to F galaxy

By the time I was done with NGC 821—which cleared out the constellation Aries as far as Herschel objects went—the sky was starting to brighten slightly, with the Milky Way fading in richness. The Moon hadn’t yet risen, but it was making its presence known already.  The Orion Nebula was just above the treetops from my position in the clearing, and I spent a few minutes crunched down awkwardly, peering into a very low eyepiece at this most stunning of celestial objects.  I also swept up the Crab Nebula before deciding  that it was time to call it a night. (Earlier, I’d seen NGC 188, the most-northern and possibly the oldest open cluster in our sky, in Jerry’s Trackball.)

Leaving an observing session is always difficult when the sky is still clear, but I had no regrets this night. It had been a fine, rewarding session, neither too brief nor too exhausting, and not even cold enough to require using gloves (although chemical hand warmers had been a great boon). I’d captured 10 more Herschels, a number of other galaxies in the vicinity of my intended targets, and an intriguing Hickson group that I would need to return to if the weather forecast stayed true. As I write this, a few days later, the sky is still clear and inviting, and my gear is awaiting being loaded into the van for another trip down to the mountain.