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.




May 9th–a Monday–was both a productive day/night of observing and an incredibly frustrating one.  The morning treated us to a transit of Mercury through occasional clouds; Randy B and I had scopes set up at the nearby high school (the one my daughter attends), and saw about 100-120 kids take looks through our scopes (I used my wife’s 4.5″ Orion Starblast, the only scope for which I have a solar filter).  Some good questions from some interested kids, and one of the classes–a music class, of all things–provided some entertainment (a contralto clarinet and a Hohner Melodica; the contralto clarinet was using a 3D-printed reed).

As the forecast was fairly promising, I made my way before sunset down to Eagle’s Ridge to take advantage of the end of the Moon-dark phase.  Yet although the Moon was only three days old (13% illumination), it was a nuisance until almost midnight. Its position in Gemini stymied my attempts to catch many of the early spring objects left on my list… as did the dew, which was again an unwelcome presence on the usually-dry Ridge.

Jerry Oltion and Dan R were there as well; Jerry had the 20″ TriDob with him, and the two of them were working through some of the large springtime planetary nebulae.  My own list included more of the Herschel objects in Leo, Leo Minor, Hydra, and Sextans. But by the time the Moon had vacated, the dew began making eyepieces fog up and the cold (it was only 44˚, but felt much colder) made the observing uncomfortable.  I spent time shuttling between my scope and Jerry’s as the conditions turned to shit.

I began, as usual, with a long look at Jupiter as the sky continued to darken. Collimation was a bit of a chore, and required a bit more tweaking than usual–the seeing wasn’t particularly great, though, so Jupiter never really steadied down.  As it turned out, I only made three good observations the whole night, one of which ended up being a stupid (but nonetheless rewarding) mistake.



MOON: 3 days (13%), set at 11:46 PM



SQM: 21.4 (midnight)

NELM: about 6.8

WEATHER CONDITIONS: temps in mid 40s, moderate-heavy dew

Others present: JO, DR


NGC 2964/68 (Leo): 2964: much the larger and brighter, possibly twice as large—not round—looks like nearly face-on spiral—halfway between two stars—to preceding side is 11th/12th mag star, to F side 9th mag star, -64 is 8’ between each of them—fogging eyepiece—extended mostly P-F—2.5’ x 1.75’—irregularly bright—definitely presence of spiral arms—almost has Cat’s-Eye nebula look to it—maybe stellar nucleus—nucleus comes and goes w/averted—large core inside halo—2968: NF -64 by 8’—about 1.5’ in both axes, although not really round—F by 4’ is 10th mag star—large core, 75% of galaxy’s dimensions—has stellar nucleus in averted, sometimes popping in direct—on other side of 10th mag star next to -68 is supposed to be 2970—not sure I can see it—7th mag star on NP edge of field when 10th mag star is centered

After this one, I went to Jerry’s scope to observe Jones-Emberson 1 (the Headphones Nebula in Lynx, which I had first observed back in February) and Longmore-Tritton 5 in Coma Berenices; I’m not sure I definitively saw LoTr5. I’d been tracking down the Sextans Trio (NGCs 3165, 3166, and 3169) and had it in the eyepiece when Jerry said he’d gotten LoTr5, and when I was done looking at the planetary, I couldn’t recapture the Sextans Trio; it had sunk lower in the sky and my eyepiece had fogged up to where it needed a blast from Jerry’s hair dryer.  Not wanting a recurrence, I took the only two working chemical hand warmers I had, pulled out the hair tie I used to make myself look at least a bit evolved, and hair-banded the hand warmers to the sides of my eyepiece. I didn’t get to take notes on the Sextans Trio, missing out on three Herschel objects I needed.

I did manage to track down NGC 2623 in Cancer, the merging triple system I’d been after for years.  It was a marginal observation at best, very low in the sky and very dim in the eyepiece. It was so marginal, in fact, that I didn’t bother taking notes on it.  All the times I’d searched for it and I finally glimpsed it–and no notes to show for it. I was impatient and frustrated by the conditions, and had a crappy attitude as a result. That’s one other thing that’s changed over the years–as I’ve become a better observer, I’ve expected so much of myself and my equipment that the annoyance I feel when things don’t go perfectly is more tangible and more lasting.  Usually, observing is fun and contemplative; here, I feel a bit more pressure to take advantage of the super-dark skies, even if the conditions aren’t otherwise as good as they could be. It probably didn’t help that it had been a long day–I’d been up since 7 and hadn’t caught a nap before setting out to observe, which usually helps things.  That can’t be an excuse, though.  When things start going poorly, I need to recall the real reasons I do this.

I spent some further time poking around in Leo, giving up on the Frosty Leo Nebula (too low by that point) and, as always, catching the Leo Trio.  I also gave up on Mayall’s Object (Arp 148) in Ursa Major, which was extremely marginal the last time I looked for it and wouldn’t be visible with the moonlight. Jerry and Dan were looking at M81 and M82, and I suggested looking for Holmberg IX, a dwarf satellite of M81. Jerry picked it up in Sky Safari and then moments later in the eyepiece of the 20″.  It was a faint-but-pretty-obvious spot to M81’s following side.  Jerry also pulled up NGC 3077, another member of the M81 group, an easy target with a large, bright core.

Back to my scope.  We had been wanting to observe the famous Draco Trio (NGCs 5981, 5982, and 5985), a particularly photogenic trio of galaxies of very different visual types (edge-on spiral, elliptical, and face-on spiral).  So using the dimmest light possible to read my charts, I zeroed in on these three:

5981/5982/5985 (Dra; Draco Trio)—long edge-on is about 3, 4’ long—can’t tell if it has dust lane at this power, might have—has definite nuclear bulge and stellar nucleus—maybe 3.5’ x 1.0—to F (slightly N) side by 5’ is 9th mag star—2nd galaxy is 9’ from edge on—smallish, brightish, maybe 1.5’ round glow—star just touching it on NF side—large core—compact halo—almost looks like NGC 4361 in Corvus—third galaxy mostly averted object, very difficult—not sure I’m seeing

Jerry took a look at this group as well, having had it on his own list of targets for a while. He verified my observations of the three, also noting the difficulty of the third galaxy. In the meantime, he’d tracked down Hoag’s Object, a very difficult but rare ring galaxy in Serpens, a perfectly-circular object appearing in the 20″ as a dim substellar core perfectly centered in a ghostly, round, averted-vision disk. Not a stunning object in the eyepiece, but remarkable to see such a remarkable object. My mood brightened quite a bit.


Hoag’s Object, a.k.a. PGC 54559, in Serpens Caput. A rare ring galaxy, formed by the collision of a smaller, denser galaxy straight through the core of a larger spiral (probably on a perpendicular trajectory). Amazingly, another such ring galaxy can be seen inside the ring of Hoag’s Object. The view through the 20″ TriDob was nowhere near this detailed, but just seeing this object was a treat. Photo courtesy NASA/STScI.


I spent some time wandering among some of the bright globular clusters of late spring/early summer, including M13, M5, and M3.  Only Saturn compares to the bright globulars among objects visible in the northern hemisphere in terms of knock-your-socks-off impact; even the Orion Nebula takes a back seat to M13. I thought of chasing down Seyfert’s Sextet in Serpens again, but Jerry beat me to it. We decided that we could pick out five of the six objects (but not the tidal tail) in the 20″ with the mediocre seeing. Another excellent sight.

My next target was Hickson 58, on the Leo/Virgo border. By now, the dew had taken control of the observing session, at least on my scope. Hickson 58 was a poor group, belying its reputation, and I attributed this to the dew and the seeing. Instead, I took notes on nearby NGC 3810:


NGC 3810 (Leo)—quite large—v. diffuse—must be close-to-face-on spiral—about 3.5’ x 3.0’—elongation N-S-ish—galaxy framed within large triangle (40’ on long side) of 8th/9th mag stars—other bright star (?) is SF—galaxy has large core (2.0’) which also seems to be elongated N-S—not sure if stellar nucleus—core seems brighter on S end

I decided that this was enough for my scope tonight; my secondary had fogged over again, and I didn’t feel like pestering Jerry for more of the hair dryer. I joined him and Dan for the next hour at the 20″, checking out the Veil Nebula, the Cat’s Eye Nebula and its “adjunct” brighter halo portion IC 4677, and M51.  All stunning objects. The truly revelatory object we looked at, however, was the North America Nebula complex (including the Pelican Nebula)–HOLY CRAP! The North America Nebula was jaw-dropping, a gossamer haze remarkably North-America shaped, the Mexico portion the most-easily visible, and the whole area looking quite a lot like a photograph of the region.  I’m pretty sure I blurted out something profane as I looked in the eyepiece, a reaction to so easily seeing an object I’d never seen before.

As a final target–Jerry and Dan also deciding that they’d had enough–we wandered among the galaxies of Abell 1656, the Coma Galaxy Cluster, hopping from galaxy to galaxy as easily as hopping among the Pleiades. Galaxies littered the field… and the next field, and the next. Panning around the central galaxies (NGCs 4889 and 4874) revealed tiny glows–our earthbound views of vast, multi-trillion star island universes 1/3-billion light-years away–all the way down to the threshold of vision.

And with that ego-crushing bit of cosmic perspective, we broke scopes down and headed off on the hour-long drive home.

Postscript: in typing up my notes, I usually check out Steve Gottlieb’s notes on the NGC objects at The NGC/IC Project (, to see both how good my note taking was and to gather more information about the objects I’d observed. In looking through his notes on the Draco Trio the next day, and comparing them to mine, I was puzzled by discrepancies: Gottlieb (one of the great amateur astronomers) noted that the “third” galaxy in the Trio–which neither Jerry nor I saw well–was supposedly the brightest of the three. Digging back through my notes and memories of that night, I realized that I’d been looking in the wrong spot, and hadn’t seen the Draco Trio at all; I had stumbled across NGCs 5963 and 5965, a couple of degrees to the north, having misread the Sky Atlas 2000.0 chart in the dim red light and mistaken 5965 for 5985 (the third member of the Trio isn’t plotted on SA2K, leaving 5963/5965 and 5982/5985 both rendered as pairs on the chart). So I had made a dumb mistake but, as it turned out, had instead found an interesting pair of objects I might otherwise not have thought to look for. And the actual Draco Trio will still be there the next time out.

And that’s the way this goes sometimes.


A brief observation note from a couple of weeks ago.

At the end of a long stretch of work, and with several clear nights passed by in favor of getting enough sleep to function at work, I managed a brief escape to Eagle’s Ridge with a number of other EAS fellows.  It was not the best night in terms of conditions, but any reasonably clear night with no Moon is better than the best night of television or wasting time constantly refreshing the same half-dozen websites to see if anything new has cropped up.

Jerry was already there when I got there, getting the 20″ TriDob set up and collimated; Bill B was putting together his imaging rig.  (Bill would camp at Eagle’s Ridge that night.)  As I started unloading gear, Frank, Bruce, and Randy arrived, followed shortly by Joe (who had never been to the Ridge before).  Quite a contingent for a cirrusy evening with increasing winds.

And the wind certainly made a mess of things, as it became a more-omnipresent force in the hours between twilight and midnight.  As night advanced, the gusts blew away the majority of the annoying, transparency-killing cirrus, and nearly blew my star atlases away with it. Sky Atlas 2000.0 got weighed down by an eyepiece case on one side and the first edition-first volume of Uranometria 2000.0 on the other.  My copy of the new Jumbo Pocket Sky Atlas (a.k.a. the “Jumbo Shrimp”) sufficed for much of the evening; where it didn’t, I had some printouts from the TriAtlas.

My plans for observing this evening went by the wayside a bit. I had hoped to work on my “Night of 100 Galaxies” program (a play on the Night of 100 Stars network TV extravaganzas of the 70s… get it?), which featured several of the Abell galaxy clusters and a number of other groups visible in the early Spring sky (and included the galaxies in Leo’s hindquarters and several noteworthy isolated galaxies to boot). But the wind kept blowing my scope upward toward the zenith, making it necessary to hold onto it while observing, and this made looking for faint–if not threshold-level–galaxies a chore.  I did see several galaxies in Abell 779 (in the southeast corner of Lynx) and in the NGC 3158 Group (in Leo Minor) from my list of groups.

But discrete objects were the order of the evening, for the most part. I observed Wild’s Triplet and Copeland’s Septet again (the latter also through Jerry’s 20″), NGCs 3718 and 3729 and Hickson 56 in Ursa Major, The Antennae (NGCs 4038/9, an interacting galaxy pair in Corvus) and nearby planetary nebula NGC 4361, NGC 3115 (the Spindle Galaxy) in Sextans, and NGCs 5346 and 5746 in Virgo, almost all from memory.

I took notes on only one object, partly due to the wind; it was tough to hold the scope steady and track into the wind while dictating notes… but that’s partly an excuse. The real reason was that I was racing through objects again, impatient to take the time I needed to get real detailed observations.  This was unproductive, but had become a habit. A bad one.



MOON: 29 days, did not rise



SQM: not taken

NELM: about 6.8

WEATHER CONDITIONS: temps in 50s, occasional cirrus blowing through, winds high (tapering off after midnight)

Others present: JO, FS (Frank Szczepanski), BB, RB, BH, Joe


NGC 2997 (Ant)—down so low in sky I am seeing trees in the FOV—pretty blurry—galaxy 6’ x4’—slightly mottled, even in poor view so low—bright star maybe 10th/11th mag in galaxy’s halo, about 3’ from core on P side—core is about 3/4’ across—maybe stellar nucleus visible in averted, very elusive—galaxy framed in dipper-shaped group of stars of equal mags, bright line/zigzag of 7th/8th/9th mag stars to F side

Several other observations stood out.  I spent some time looking in southern Ursa Major for two objects of great astrophysical interest.  Markarian 421 is a blazar, a supermassive and super-energetic black hole/quasar at the core of a galaxy some 400,000,000 light-years away; I found it without much trouble at the corner of a diamond-shaped asterism of bright stars near Ursa Major’s back foot.  Not much to look at, but a lot to ponder on, and probably the farthest object I had ever observed (until an hour later, anyway).

I then turned to a very nearby patch of sky in Ursa Major for a trickier object: Arp 148, or Mayall’s Object.  This pair of galaxies consists of an edge-on spiral galaxy impacting a larger, more diffuse spiral galaxy through the larger galaxy’s core; the result is a ring galaxy, as if someone chucked a rock (the edge-on) into a pond and watched the ripples flow outward (forming the ring galaxy). In photographs, the object looks like the famous Doc Egerton photo of a bullet bursting through an apple–or, more prosaically, Pac-Man engulfing a pizza.  (The eagle-eyed California observer Alvin Huey refers to the edge-on galaxy as “The Penetrator,” so make of that what you will.)


Mayall’s Object, Arp 148.  What happens when galaxies go flying through each other. Picture courtesy NASA/Hubble Space Telescope Science Institute.

In the eyepiece, though, this interacting pair was eye-bleedingly faint.  I spent a good ten minutes staring at the spot, sweeping the field with averted vision and nudging the scope along to track it (as well as holding on so it didn’t blow over in the wind).  On several occasions, a threshold-magnitude blur, perhaps 1′ total, flickered out from the spot indicated on Huey’s chart… enough to make me suspect that I’d seen it, but not enough to actually count it as “seen.”  Must return to this one and take notes….

Much easier was NGC 3242, the Ghost of Jupiter Nebula (or the CBS Eye Nebula, depending on your source). Randy and I had talked about atlases a bit, as he inquired about my copy of “the Jumbo Shrimp” after seeing it on my table.  He noted NGC 3242 on the chart that was open, and I pointed out the guide star (Mu Hydrae) used to find it.  Randy found it in his Trackball scope in only a minute or so.  I swung my scope over to the spot and spent a few minutes on the nebula myself; it had been one of the first NGC objects I had found in my 8″ scope back in Cincinnati a geological epoch ago.

Jerry had looked at Markarian 421 in my scope back when I was observing it, and had gone looking for 3C 273, the “nearest” (at more than 2.4 billion [!] light-years away) and brightest quasar.  Although appearing as a star-like point in the wilds of Virgo, it was still awe-inspiring to know that that tiny point of light was an object with more than 4 trillion times the energy output of our Sun, just over a quarter of the way to the edge of the observable universe.  A humbling thought, if any was needed.

It had been a good session, but time to go home.  Jerry started packing up; Randy and Bruce had driven up together and had already left, while Frank had left an hour before them. Had conditions been a bit better, we might have stayed most of the night, but with an hour’s drive ahead, and a kid to get to school in the morning, best to not stay out too long. In looking back at this session, it had been much more productive than I’d recalled, with interacting galaxies a prominent part of the night.


This one’s for you, Kylie.



Rites of Spring

April has so far turned out to be far less a cruel month than was March.  Two nights after my attempt at the Herschel Sprint, I was back out observing, having taken the previous night off to catch up on the rest I was sorely lacking.  This time, I went to the EAS’ closer-by observing site, Eureka Ridge, in the Coastal Range.

I was rather late to arrive, having spent part of the evening at my daughter’s school art gala.  I hadn’t been to Eureka Ridge before, and didn’t relish the idea of driving there at night.  The road to the site was a bit rough, full of potholes and washboard stretches, but I made it there in one piece–if a bit low on gas. Four others had set up already: Jerry, Randy B, Bill “Dr. Lapser” B, and Cory W.  A good group to observe with: three other Dobs (two of the Porta-Ball type) and an imager (Bill).

The site is on a high ridge overlooking a logging site; it slopes downhill to where the loggers have been tearing things up. The effect of this is that the site has excellent horizons to the east, south, and west.  The “road,” such as it is, is typical of construction-site roads, but was fine for setting up on.  Sunset was already fading as I chose a spot and began to set up.

The skies were average in quality but dark.  Smoke had filtered in from some nearby fires and the transparency was already only average. Nonetheless, we made the most of it until the dew began to settle (it wasn’t as bad as in Illinois; I could’ve observed longer but for the clouds that began rolling in).

The most notable feature early on was the impossible-to-miss zodiacal light, a triangular glowing wedge stretching from the area the Sun had gone down in to just above the Pleiades.  I had never seen it before (at least that I noticed), and was a bit dazzled by how obvious it was here. Consisting of sunlight reflecting off of dust in the plane of the solar system, the visibility of the zodiacal light can be a good indicator of sky darkness.

My goals this evening were to observe a number of the planetary nebulae on the Astronomical League’s Planetary Nebula program before moving into a list of my own making (The Night of 100 Galaxies,” a survey of Hickson and Abell clusters with a few other interesting objects mixed in for variety).  As it turned out, after observing the first few planetaries (and only taking notes on the first of these), I lost some interest in tracking down tiny pinpoint planetaries and decided (in another occurrence of Rare Night Syndrome) to work instead on a mix of objects from the 100 Galaxies list and “Forgotten Gems of the Spring Sky,” a presentation I’m giving to the Eugene Astronomical Society later in April.


EUREKA RIDGE (43 52′ 38.88″ N, 123 18′ 33.32″ W)

MOON: 25 days (Last Quarter), rose 3:55 AM



SQM: 21.4 (midnight)

WEATHER CONDITIONS: temps in 40s, moderate dew after midnight, haze/smoke in air, slight breeze—zodiacal light bright and obvious, reaching past the Pleiades by 9:15

Others present: JO, RB, BB, CW 


IC 2165 (CMa)—tiny planetary—maybe 8”?—responds well in  O-III—no central star—with UHC, better view—slightly blue w/o filter (found without)—almost looks as if there’s an outer shell around bright center—if true, maybe 1.0’ diameter—possibly elongated E-W—“central part” really sharply defined—squashed little triangle of stars to F side—“center star” of triangle fairly bright (?)

After IC 2165, I also observed Jonckheere 900 in Gemini and NGC 2346 in Monoceros before turning to galaxies.

I’d bought an extra charging battery for my iPhone, which I use to record my notes and which usually runs out of power in about twenty minutes. Yet for all of the galaxies I observed, I took notes on only two groups–both of which were very deserving.

I ended up observing the NGC 4485/90 pair, NGC 4424, NGCs 4327 and 4361 (The Whale and Cub), NGC 4656/7 (The Hockey Stick), NGC 4565, NGC 5746 in Virgo, the Leo Trio, M53/NGC 5053 (Coma globulars), NGC 5634 (globular in Virgo), NGC 3344 in Leo Minor, M95, M96, and M105 (with its two attendant galaxies–the Trio within a Trio), NGC 3115 in Sextans, and Copeland’s Septet in Leo in addition to these others–most of these will factor into my presentation, as they’re almost all impressive objects.  I regret not taking notes on Copeland’s Septet, but will observe it again at next opportunity. Jerry and I spent a fair amount of time trying to discern individual galaxies amid the two glowing patches we observed in the eyepiece.

I also tracked down Wild’s Triplet, a nastily-faint trio in Virgo, also known as Arp 248.  I’m quite proud of finding this one in average conditions with “only” a 12.5″ scope.  Jerry and I compared notes as we observed it, using his copy of Sky Safari to discern the orientation of the three interacting spirals in the group.


Arp 248 (PGCs 36733/36723/36742; Wild’s Triplet; Vir)—a bright (8th mag) field star—brightest of 3 galaxies 60% of the way between that star and an 11th-mag star off to F edge, bright star on P edge—two stars separated by 15’—another star to S of dim star by 8’, same mag—galaxy in middle and one just S of that are two brightest—middle one [PGC 36733] has tiny bit of central condesation—about 0.5’ or a bit more—no PA possible—S of that is second brightest [PGC 36723], separated by 3’ or so—more diffuse, no concentration—all really small, need 10mm—third galaxy [PGC 36742] exceedingly difficult, not convinced I’m seeing, certainly can’t hold even averted

The sky was degrading in quality a bit; I spent some time casting about for a new target.  Jerry tracked down the Ursa Minor Dwarf Galaxy, a largish threshold-level glow seen mostly by sweeping his scope back and forth over the field.  It was most definitely there–a satellite galaxy of our own Milky Way, so dim that it had eluded detection until its discovery on a photographic plate in 1955. An A+ find in a 12″ scope!

My own next find was Hickson 68, a stunning small cluster of galaxies in a corner of Canes Venatici:


NGC 5350/5354/5353/5355/5371 (Hickson 68; CVn)—at center of field is bright star, 7th mag—above by 4’ is 2’ round, very diffuse galaxy (NGC 5350)—slight central condensation—averted brings out possible stellar nucleus—to SF side are two brighter, smaller galaxies—more northern (NGC 5354) is more diffuse—both about 1.5’—almost touching—more northern slightly more diffuse, slightly larger—one farthest south (NGC 5353) smaller but has brighter core—star-like nucleus—forming triangle with these three, farher from star on F side is smaller, almost “edge-on” (NGC 5355)—0.5’—oriented SP-NF—fairly obvious but would need to know where to look—between this last and previous pair is 14th star—when group drifts toward P edge of field, at top of field is much larger diffuse galaxy (NGC 5371)—3.5’—just off to F edge of galaxy is 8th star— maybe 0.5’ core—stellar nucleus visible in averted but not direct—subsumed into core

This one immediately vaulted to the top of my galaxy-group list, and to my computer desktop–an absolutely beautiful little group, wrapped around a bright golden star and followed by a larger, obviously-spiral galaxy.

Not long after, the dew had reached a point where Randy and Jerry decided they’d had enough; they’d been out the night before (Jerry had observed four consecutive nights), and  the dew was a sign to them to call it a night.  With my gas tank low and not being too familiar with the roads back to civilization, I decided they were right.  Bill had already started tearing down his imaging gear, having taken at least a half-dozen sets of shots.  Jerry and Randy headed out first; I waited with Bill until he was ready to go (a habit from my AASI days–the President of the club should be the last man out of the observing field).  Bill stayed for a few extra minutes; he said he’d follow in case I ran out of gas.  I agreed to this for pragmatic reasons.

Although not as productive as my attempt at the Herschel Sprint, Wild’s Triplet, Copeland’s Septet, and especially Hickson 68 had made this session a success.  The sketchbook is going to be getting several new entries the next time out.