Ghosts and Shadows

Shakhbazian 317; image centered on PGC 8329. Courtesy/copyright Sloan Digital Sky Survey.

Late September and October bring with them a sense of urgency for the astronomy-minded in the Willamette Valley—the frequent weeks-long stretches of clear nights end at this point on the calendar, replaced by months of uncertainty: will this weekend be the first/last opportunity of the rainy season? Every break in the clouds, every blue box on the Clear Sky Chart raised a glimmer of hope, one often dashed by the reality of living in the Pacific Northwest. They call them “sucker holes” for a reason.

I. So when the Clear Sky Chart went blue for several nights during the September/October Moon-dark phase, the effect was roughly akin to a house full of dogs seeing their master gathering up their leashes for a walk: a virtual stampede out of town to the site of best forecast. In this case, Linslaw Point, and a stampede missing some of the usual suspects; Dan B was ill, and Loren was in North Dakota for the week. But Jerry, Mark, Robert A, and Alan were on-board, and we made an immediate beeline caravan for the Coastal Range once sunset hit T minus 60.

For the first time since April, I brought out the heavy artillery—EAS’ 20-inch Obsession. I was scheduled to go back to work in October, and I needed to be physically ready for it. What better way to test this than by negotiating my way around the massive scope? Loading it into the Flex hadn’t been a huge problem for my reconstructed foot or anything else; perhaps the rigors of using it in the field (specifically, on the crag) would be less demanding than they might at first seem.

To this end, I had an agenda tailor-made for the big scope: flat galaxies, Hickson groups, some Shakhbazian groups, a couple of the remaining Herschel objects, some objects I’d observed previously without taking notes on (eg. PGC 70994, the difficult ring galaxy in Pisces) and a few of the Deep Sky Forum’s past Object of the Week entries. I’d also managed to scare up a couple of extremely-obscure galaxies in Sagitta for the sake of my idiotic quest to observe a galaxy in every constellation, Sagitta being one of only two constellations with no galaxies brighter than 15th magnitude (Scutum being the other, and likely the most difficult of all).

I managed to get the Obsession assembled with only minor difficulty and a few lesser swear words. Collimation was a different story; despite my having put the scope together at home that morning, it was still far out of optical alignment. Jerry had done some work on the upper tube assembly (UTA) to clean up the previous issues with collimation, and had rebuilt the dew-heater system so that it actually worked. This had necessitated quite a lengthy pre-observing collimation session at home, to make sure I didn’t have to spend an hour in the field getting the critical alignment correct. But the secondary-mirror holder was still a nightmare to work with—a pox on three-point secondary mounts!—and I’m sure even George Carlin would’ve suggested that I dial back on the profane phraseology I used while getting the blinkered secondary to stay where it needed to stay.

Ultimately, the wretched secondary holder got centered up and stayed there. I went to the back of the telescope and dialed in the primary mirror, then checked the secondary again. Success! After a few minutes’ tweaking of the Telrad alignment, the whole scope was ready to go. Now, all that remained was for the sunset glow to fade to black (or at least dark grey, given the natural airglow and the light dome from Eugene/Springfied, mostly blocked by the sandstone crag).

MOON: 28 days (set at 6:40 PM; 3% illuminated)
SQM: 21.4
NELM: not checked
WEATHER CONDITIONS: temps to 55F; no dew; slight breeze
All observations: 20″ f/5 Obsession Dob, 14mm ES 82˚ eyepiece (181x, 0.45˚ TFOV) or 7mm TeleVue Nagler (363x, 0.21˚ TFOV) unless otherwise noted

Unwilling to waste a moment, I went straight for my first Sagitta galaxy, UGC 11385, on the constellation’s far western end. But though I had the location correct, I was unable to winnow the galaxy out from the star field. I didn’t look that tough on the POSS plate, and I had the right field, but… nothing. I stared into the field for several minutes. Still nothing.

Not wanting to give up, I scooted the giant scope over to the eastern end of Sagitta for my second target. This one took little time to extract from the field.

PGC 64467 (CGCG 447-1; Sge): The first galaxy on my first night back with the 20-inch, and we’re going after the hard stuff already: this is PGC 64467 in Sagitta, and it is exactly what one would expect from a 15.44-magnitude galaxy. This is part of my quixotic quest to view a galaxy in every constellation; I only had two candidates in Sagitta and this one, I thought, was going to be the more difficult of them, but the UGC just was not willing to be seen (part of this is because Sagitta is in an awkward part of the sky for the ladder and, therefore, my feet). But this little galaxy is sandwiched between two 12.5-magnitude stars that are about 1.3’ apart, N and S of it. The galaxy is extremely faint, and elongated N-S; it cannot be more than 0.3’ x 0.2’. It’s very diffuse and weakly defined, and only in averted vision here in the 14mm does it show any sort of central brightening; I’ve already used the 7mm Nagler on it, and it didn’t really enhance the view at all. The two 12.5-magnitude stars bracketing the galaxy form the N end of the P-most of a pair of arcs, like a pair of inward-bowing parentheses. 2’ S somewhat P the S of the two 12.5-magnitude stars is an 11th-magnitude star, and then 2’ SP that star is a 10.5-magnitude star; these finish off the P of the two arcs. The other arc is almost as much a “V”-shape, with the 11.5-magnitude vertex of the “V” 2’ S slightly F the galaxy, and the S end of that F arc or “V”-shape is a little scalene triangle. NF the galaxy by 5’ is the brightest star in the immediate field, which is 10.5 magnitude; N slightly F the galaxy by 2.75’ is a 10.5-magnitude star that has P slightly S of it by 0.5’ an 11.5-magnitude star. With the 7mm back in, there’s a very faint star N very very slightly F the galaxy, about half the distance from the galaxy to the more N of the two 12.5-magnitude stars. That galaxy is just there in direct vision, but very ghostly and intangible. Nonetheless, that is a galaxy in Sagitta, where only two are within range of a standard amateur telescope.

In the background, Mark and Robert were animatedly discussing Elon Musk, Starlink, and the potential for amateur space travel; Mark was still setting up his astrophotography rig. In the foreground, however, I was experiencing the drawbacks of my astronomy ladder. The wide steps—the reason I’d bought it—were certainly a huge boon for my tormented feet; they were spaced so far apart, however, that the eyepiece of the Obsession always seemed to be either a half-step too low or a half-step too high for comfortable viewing. I needed to build a tray for the top of the ladder, too, like I had done with the green ladder for the EAS 18-inch scope, as the “shelf” atop the ladder was too small for more than an eyepiece or two, and then only if they were lying down. Worse, the rail the shelf attached to was rickety and a bit frightening to lean against. I’m sure it was probably safe, but it felt too dainty to lean my full weight against. And the four feet on the ladder made it harder to position than Jerry’s tripod ladder. Still, those 10″-wide steps made being on the ladder bearable, compared to every standard ladder I’d ever used.

I’ve observed Hickson 88 in Aquarius a number of times; it’s not hard to locate, and the three NGC-designated galaxies are quite easy, even in the 12.5-inch scope. The fourth is quite difficult, but there it was, in the eyepiece of the 20-inch Obsession. The seeing and transparency that low in the sky were fairly murky, but I’m not going to let that stop me from a target I really want to observe.

NGCs 6978, 6977, 6975; PGC 65612 (Hickson 88; Aqr): I’ve taken notes on Hickson 88 before, but certainly not with a 20-inch scope. The three NGC galaxies are really pretty obvious tonight, while the PGC is coming and going as the transparency wavers. The NGCs are all S somewhat P-N somewhat F to each other, with the brightest one, NGC 6978, on the N somewhat F end. It’s elongated P slightly N-F slightly S, about 1.0’ x 0.3’, and moderately-well defined, with a stellar nucleus and a somewhat brighter core; the core is a little bit on the gradual side. 1.3’ S somewhat P NGC 6978 is a 14.5-magnitude star, and then 1.25’ S somewhat P that star is NGC 6977, which is rounder, 0.75’ diameter, with a small, gradually arrived-at, somewhat-brighter core but no visible nucleus; the halo is moderately-well defined. 1.75’ S somewhat P NGC 6977 is NGC 6975, which is the most diffuse of the three; it’s about 0.67’ diameter, with a very faint, poorly-defined halo and a slightly-brighter core. 2.5’ P NGC 6975 is a 12th-magnitude star, and then from that star S slightly P by 1.5’ is PGC 65612, HCG 88D, which has a 12.5-magnitude star S of it by 1.3’. F somewhat S of NGC 6975 by 3.5’ is the dimmer of a pair, which is 11.5 magnitude and has a 10.5-magnitude star 0.75’ F very slightly S of it. With the 7mm PGC 65612 pops out a little bit more; it’s 0.5’ long, elongated P-F, very very thin, very evenly illuminated as well, but very ghostly and only intermittently visible in direct vision. At this magnification, the nucleus in NGC 6978 really shows well.  The halo-core distinction in NGC 6977 is very gradual, and the central concentration in NGC 6975 is more apparent than I saw it earlier. 

I could’ve taken longer notes, but the group was in a slightly-awkward spot for me on the ladder—just as PGC 64467 had been—and my legs were starting to cramp up. This would be a recurrent theme throughout this dark run.

In the spirit of giving stupid nicknames to deep-sky objects—a specialty of some astronomy writers—I’m going to call Hickson 88 the Three Stooges Galaxies, with the PGC galaxy as Shemp; maybe the nickname will stick. (It’s still a better nickname than “The Deer Lick Group.”)

Not far from Hickson 88 is one of my personal bêtes noire, MCG-1-53-12, a.k.a. PGC 65506. This flat galaxy is one of the few visible in the early-fall regions of the sky; I’d already made several attempts at observing it, with varying degrees of failure. Only on one or two occasions had I seen enough of the galaxy to confirm the sighting, and none of them was convincing enough to take notes one it. Now, though, I was able to hold the galaxy steadily enough to describe it.

MCG-1-53-12 (PGC 65506; Aqr): Finally—the long-sought PGC 65506 in Aquarius. I’ve glimpsed this flat galaxy before but was never really sure that I could say that I saw it, but I’ve finally got a solid-enough sighting to confirm it. The galaxy is between the right-angle vertex of a small triangle to the P and NP and a pair to the F, of which the S of the pair is the brighter. It’s 1.3’ x 0.125’, and really takes averted vision to hold steadily, so only just a 1 on the averted-vision scale but barely holding. It’s elongated perfectly 180˚ in PA (or 0˚). The right-angle vertex of that little triangle is 1.25’ P very slightly N of the galaxy and is 13.5 magnitude, and has N slightly P it by 1.25’ a 14.5-magnitude star; from the right-angle vertex P slightly S by 1.75’ is a 13th-magnitude star that finishes the triangle. From the galaxy F very slightly N by 2’ is the S of that pair, which is 12.5 magnitude and has a 13.5-magnitude star 0.5’ N very slightly F. The view in the 7mm is still ridiculously faint. The galaxy is actually not bad here at 362x; although the field is significantly darker, there’s just enough added contrast to pop the galaxy a bit. It’s very even in illumination, with no central brightening to it. At this magnification, the N star in that pair F the galaxy is actually a double—it has a 15.5-magnitude star P it by 10”—and that right triangle is actually more like a diamond due to an added star (we’re going to forget that for now and just keep calling it a right triangle because it’s more fun to talk about). 

I had intended to pass on that particular galaxy tonight, and am pleased that I didn’t.

Jerry was showing Dan R NGC 206, the star cloud in M31; he’d asked me for the NGC number. My caveman brain was full of NGC numbers, an annoying Rain Man-esque tic that was a source of amusement for my EAS colleagues. I’m not sure how or why it came to be that way.

On the opposite end of Aquarius, just south of the Water Jar asterism, is one of the easier of the Shakhbazian Compact Groups. The Shakhbazians (colloquially) are a level beyond the Hickson Compact Groups in observing difficulty: much more distant, much fainter, much smaller on average than the Hicksons, and some of the most-challenging galaxy groups for telescopes of any aperture. (It should be noted that several of the Hicksons are also in the Shakhbazian catalogue.) My quarry here was Shakhbazian 331, a roughly north-south string of six galaxies no more than 1′ long. I often refer to the Shakhbazians when in the field, usually in a comedic manner (on a smoke-laden evening: “looks like good skies for Shakhbazian hunting,” etc.), but I was bound and determined to take notes on several of these obscure groups during this dark cycle. Lo and behold, Shk 331 was immediately apparent in the eyepiece. Both Dan R and Jerry took skeptical looks and were impressed to see this tiny glow, the feeble combined light of these ephemeral, ancient (z = 0.0534, 750 million light-year distant) galaxies.

PGCs 96867, 96865 (Shakhbazian 331; Aqr): The first of several Shakhbazian Compact Groups on my agenda, this is Shakhbazian 331 in Aquarius. I know there are at least four galaxies here, but although they’re definitely there in the eyepiece, they’re almost impossible to separate at this magnification. These form a difficult (but not excruciatingly so!) collective glow that’s 0.75’ in diameter; it’s fairly obvious when you first look at the field. 4.25’ S of the galaxies is a 12.5-magnitude star that serves as something to latch onto in the field, and 12’ F very slightly N of the group is a 7th-magnitude star that’s a real annoyance in the eyepiece. 2.75’ N of the group is a 14.5-magnitude star, and then 7’ N of the galaxies is a 13th-magnitude star. Other than the galaxies, there’s not a lot going on in this field; there’re a couple other stars in there, but nothing particularly noteworthy aside from the galaxies. With the 7mm, there are at least two distinct objects here: a larger one N of the other by 0.25’, the larger one about twice the size of the smaller one at 0.25’ diameter. The sky’s just not supporting this magnification, making the view more difficult overall.

My notes were less-extensive than I would have liked, but I was operating at close to the margins for Linslaw and the 20-inch scope on the night.

The air felt damp, but was still warm enough that I wasn’t yet using my winter coat. (I often used it simply for the pockets; with my phone in the upper left and my glasses in the upper right, I could take notes hands-free, and the other pockets allowed for filters and other eyepieces, in addition to the 50-year-old North Face mittens I’d inherited from my dad.) I commented, during my notes on Shk 331, that dew seemed imminent, despite not being indicated on the Clear Sky Chart forecast.

I stopped by Neptune and Triton while in Aquarius, and then wandered through my observing list for a bit. A number of objects (among them the flat galaxy UGC 12281 in Pegasus, the Pisces ring galaxy PGC 70994, and Hickson 91 in Piscis Austrinus) weren’t showing well in the nearly-damp air, especially those in the low south. Others seemed fine–at least, good enough for a set of audio notes. Chief among these was a trio of flat galaxies, the better for making further headway in the AL Flat Galaxy program.

(It was not until writing this entry that I discovered that I had been spelling Piscis Austrinus wrong for decades; it’s Piscis, not Pisces.)

UGC 12423; NGC 7518 (Psc): Here in Pisces with UGC 12423, and there’s a distracting brighter galaxy due S of it; that galaxy is really interesting because it has actual detail to it beyond being just a faint, thin flat galaxy. UGC 12423 actually does have some distinctive central concentration and is quite well defined; it’s elongated in position angle 135˚ and spans 1.5’ x 0.1’. Additional distractions from the galaxy include a couple of faint stars to the SF; there’s a 14.5-magnitude star 2.5’ SF the galaxy and an 11th-magnitude star 2.25’ P very very slightly S; P the galaxy by 1.67’ is a 14.5-magnitude star, and just S of the galaxy by 0.75’ is a 15th-magnitude star. F very slightly N by 1.75’ is the P-most vertex and brightest vertex in a small (almost-) right triangle; that star is 13th magnitude and has a 14th-magnitude star F somewhat N of it by 1’; that star is the right-angle vertex, and it and the third vertex, N very slightly P it by 0.67’, are both 14.5 magnitude. UGC 12423 is fairly obvious, despite the distraction of the larger galaxy [NGC 7518] to the S, 6.5’ S of UGC 12423; this galaxy is elongated P slightly N-F slightly S, 0.1’ x 0.75’ and is pretty poorly defined, although it definitely has a slightly brighter core and a substellar nucleus that shows much better in averted vision. The larger, brighter galaxy really blossoms at 7mm: the core is much more distinct, the nucleus very much apparent; UGC 12423 is also much easier, which is not always the case with flat galaxies. It seems to be a little more evenly illuminated with this magnification than it was at 181x, and much better defined.

I somehow missed UGC 12426, a much fainter edge-on galaxy 9.5′ N slightly F UGC 12423. Missing obvious field galaxies—this too would be a theme of this dark run. Perhaps this impatience was due to the blustery, cool wind that would finally drive me into my winter coat an hour later.

Somehow, I managed to drop my phone off the ladder while recording. Had it been damaged, my evening would, for all intents and purposes, have been over.

The famous Cartwheel Galaxy, which had just been imaged by the Webb Space Telescope, had also been the subject of a recent thread on Cloudy Nights. I had suggested attempting it with Bob the (12.5-inch) Dob, a suggestion which was met with some skepticism from the thread participants (largely because of my northern latitude than because of aperture or skill). Having brought out the Obsession, I thought I would see how the galaxy—perhaps the most-famous ring galaxy of all—might appear in the larger aperture first. With the Cartwheel culminating soon, I had actually suggested it as a target for Jerry’s 20-inch TriDob, as he was casting about for interesting targets.

He found the Cartwheel and its two attendant PGC companions with his usual quickness, but the view wasn’t promising. The two smaller galaxies were quite obvious, but the Cartwheel itself was an extremely-tentative, tenuous thing, its core tiny and very faint and its halo damn-near invisible in the horizon muck. We compared our impressions to verify that we were seeing it, and we certainly were—there was just so little to see that wasn’t drowned out in the poor visual signal-to-noise ratio of the low southern horizon. I passed on the Cartwheel when my culmination alarm sounded. Perhaps another night….

So it was back to flat galaxies, and several fine consolation prizes.

PGC 2526 (Cet): PGC 2526 is really surprisingly obvious here, almost due P Deneb Kaitos in Cetus. The galaxy has a 14th-magnitude star superimposed on it toward the F; just off the F tip is a 15th-magnitude star, but let’s talk about the galaxy first. It’s hard to tell because of the superimposed star, but it looks like just P that superimposed star is a little bit of central brightening. The galaxy is oriented in 80˚ PA, and is about 1.75’ x 0.25’; the halo is well defined Due N of it by 2.67’ is a 13th-magnitude star, and then 3.25’ N very slightly P that star is a 14.5-magnitude star that has a 15.5-magnitude star F it by 0.5’. This is a pretty barren field; its brightest star is 10’ F very slightly S of the galaxy and is 11.5 magnitude. P the galaxy by 13’ is another 11.5-magnitude star (this one might actually be brighter than the other one), and then S somewhat P the galaxy by another 12’ is another 11.5-magnitude star. Hopefully the 7mm Nagler will be able to separate out that star from the galaxy…. In the 7mm, that 15th-magnitude star just on the F edge of the galaxy actually has a little bit of space between it and the galaxy; it’s just a tiny bit S of the F end of the galaxy. The slightly-brighter central region is irregular in brightness. I’m surprised this galaxy got missed by WH, JH, and the other great observers, although it’s right in the “shadow” of a naked-eye star. 

Even better was the next (and the evening’s last) flat galaxy.

NGC 522; ICs 102, 101 (Psc):
 NGC 522 in Pisces is a really, really fine flat specimen, in a field with at least one other galaxy. It’s oriented in 45˚ PA and spans 2.5’ x 0.3’. The halo is irregularly bright but well defined; it does have a small brighter central core, although I’m not really picking up a nucleus. The galaxy has a threshold star due N of it by 1’; S somewhat F by 3.25’ is a 13.5-magnitude star that is the P-most in a (mostly) P-F line of three that also has one branching off of the center, turning it into a stubby capital ‘T’; F that star by 2.25’ is another of 13.5 magnitude; F that one by 3.5’ is another of the same magnitude, and 3’ S slightly P the one in the middle is a 14th-magnitude star. NF the galaxy by 3.5’ is a 15th-magnitude star; there’s a 15.5-magnitude star F the NF tip of the galaxy by 0.75’, and then from the center of the galaxy SP by 8’ is a smaller galaxy [IC 102] that’s about 0.67’ round and much more difficult; it’s not a great direct-vision target. This second galaxy may actually be elongated a little bit P-F, 0.5’ x 0.3’ (if that); it’s reasonably well defined but very very ghostly, and has a very slightly brighter core to it but no nucleus. 5’ P somewhat N of that galaxy is another [IC 101], which is actually a little bit easier to see and is elongated… it’s about 0.67’ x 0.3’, elongated 130 PA (roughly NP-SF); that one has a brighter core but no visible nucleus, and it’s sandwiched between two stars: S slightly P it by 1’ is a 15th-magnitude star and there’s a 13th-magnitude star N slightly F by 2.5’. NGC 522 should show pretty well in the 7mm…. Wow. At this magnification, 522 is really huge, really striking! The two threshold stars really pop out. This galaxy is distinctly irregularly bright and well defined. Of the two galaxies to the P, [IC 102] is pretty uniformly bright, but [IC 101] has a faintly brighter core. Great field! 

Jerry and Dan had left during my observation of NGC 522; Robert and Alan had left some time before. Mark and I were the only ones remaining on the crag, and Mark had gone back into his truck for a nap while his imaging rig continued its tireless work. has perhaps the best English-language astronomy discussion forums on the Internet. I’ve referred to them several times here on this site, and it’s not hard to see why after perusing them; they cover a wealth of topics and have a user base that includes many of the leading luminaries of amateur astronomy. They also provide a wealth of information that isn’t available anywhere else (at least not without a great deal of scouring search engines).

One such tidbit popped up on the deep-sky subform in late November of 2017, courtesy of CN user Redbetter, one of the more-dedicated and experienced deep-sky observers on the site. In the process of tracking down Hickson 21, he had starhopped from the star Tau1 Eridani, and had discovered something unexpected there—a small galaxy, tucked right next to this naked-eye star, which was not charted in any available star atlas (or planetarium app) and which had no known designation. During the discussion, it was noted by the dean of modern observers, Steve Gottlieb, that the galaxy had been observed by the great double-star observer S. W. Burnham in 1890 at Lick Observatory, but had remained lost among Burnham’s papers; it had later been catalogued in the Lyon-Meudon Extragalactic Database (LEDA) which formed the basis for the PGC (its LEDA number, LEDA 2816331, was the same as its PGC number, although the LEDA designation supersedes the PGC here).

After reading the discussion, I resolved to observe this nearly-unknown little galaxy, and I finally had the chance. It was, as the CN thread noted, surprisingly easy, if rather nondescript.

LEDA 2816331 (Eri): A discovery from a CloudyNights thread, this is Redbetter’s Galaxy, LEDA 2816331, tucked right next to the overpowering 4.5-magnitude star
 Tau1Eridani; the galaxy is 2’ P slightly S of Tauand is surprisingly bright for an object that has gone undiscovered or unobserved for that long. It’s elongated roughly NP-SF, about 0.5.’ x 0.3’, and pretty evenly illuminated (although Tau1 is so bright any details in the galaxy would be difficult to discern anyway). The galaxy has P slightly S of it by 1.75’ a 15th-magnitude star. It’s actually a pretty uninteresting field star-wise; there are a couple of other field stars in there, but nothing really noteworthy. 

Mark had begun to dismantle his rig, its photon capturing having finished for the night. Time for one final target.

With modern atlases being based on computer databases, it’s no small surprise that occasional quirks find their way into their pages. One such quirk is the inclusion of a pair of Zwicky galaxies (II Zw 5 in Cetus and III Zw 66 in Coma Berenices) on the charts of both Sky Atlas 2000.0 and the ubiquitous Pocket Sky Atlas. Despite being far too faint for most amateur optics and for the liking of most observers, these little galaxies still draw attention to themselves by dint of being included in the two most popular atlases ever made, simply because they have erroneous magnitude/surface brightness numbers in the source catalogues for those atlases. In any event, I had already looked for III Zw 66 with Bob the Dob during my epic Virgo Cluster run in 2017. Now, with a larger scope and somewhat better skies, the second of these Zwicky interlopers rounded out one of my best-ever nights of observing.

II Zw 5 (LEDA 10192; Cet): Something of a weird triumph here: this is the galaxy II Zwicky 5 in the tail of Cetus, and in a way it’s surprisingly easy given its obscurity. It’s roundish, no more than 0.25’, and occasionally visible in direct vision (but mostly in averted). The galaxy marks the N-most vertex in a small isosceles triangle; 1.3’ due S of it is an 11.5-magnitude star, and SP it by 0.75’ is a 13.5-magnitude star. 12’ due N of the galaxy is the HD 16763, the star that I used to find it in Sky Safari because the galaxy wasn’t listed; that star is 7th magnitude, and has an 11.5-magnitude star 0.3’ S slightly P it and 0.5’ F slightly S of it a 13.5-magnitude star. 9’ due S of II Zw 5 is the NP-most star in a line of three that stretches N somewhat P-S somewhat F; that first star is 11.5 magnitude, and S somewhat F from there, each by 1.67’ from each other, are a 13th-magnitude star and an 11th-magnitude star. In the 7mm Nagler the galaxy is fairly featureless, but even more difficult to see because the field’s been darkened too much; there’s not much to say about it, other than that it’s there, although it really helps to get the HD star out of the field. 

It was now well after 3 AM. I’d spent six hours of traipsing up and down a ladder, in the middle of the night, looking at objects that, not that long ago, would have been beyond the capabilities of amateur telescopes.

Mark was packing up; I had no hesitation in doing so myself. It had been an exhilarating return to big-scope observing. My feet (and, frankly, the rest of me) hurt quite a bit, having been forced into positions that 54-year-old joints shouldn’t be required to hold, on a somewhat-wobbly ladder that nonetheless provided a measure of comfort from the usual narrow rungs. It was always nice to have an observing session reach a natural end, one that didn’t leave me thinking of “one last object,” and this one certainly fit that bill. I’d satisfied a need for distant starlight from obscure corners of the universe, and other, future nights offered further opportunities.

II. As good as the night of the 23rd had been, the next night might’ve been even better.

It’s a cardinal sin in astronomy to leave one’s optics in a car all day if it can be avoided; letting the mirrors heat up in a closed vehicle just means that the necessary cooling-down needed for best viewing would take far longer. But I wasn’t about to unpack the whole Flex only to reload the monster Obsession later in the day—certainly not with my foot only at 80% recovery. I could arrive at Linslaw earlier and get the cooling-down started sooner instead. (I really need to get the cooling fan—perhaps more than one!—set up and running on the mirror box.)

My agenda was a continuation of the previous night. I had a tendency to make an observing list that was far too extensive for one night, or even for a single entire dark run, so I had plenty of targets to choose from, sorted numerous ways: by object type (if I felt I was neglecting one, or just for variety), by expected visibility rating (1 being easiest, 5 most difficult; this was useful if the conditions were either spectacular or marginal), or, as I usually had them sorted, by constellation (so that I would be able to work along the meridian, where objects were at their highest in the sky and thus most clear of the obscuring effects of the Earth’s atmosphere).

Despite being largely “past their prime,” I began the evening with some of the last of the summer globulars. M55 was still in good position, and was (as always) stunning; I also stopped by NGC 6366 and M14 in Ophiuchus, and M30/Palomar 12/NGC 6907 in Capricornus. NGC 6908, an edge-on galaxy seemingly “attached” to one of 6907’s arms, was also easily visible. I even turned northward to Cepheus and NGC 6946, the so-called Fireworks Galaxy.

It was just myself, Jerry, and Mark at Linslaw on this particular night—and a fine one it turned out to be, despite the unusually-low SQM numbers. 21.4 didn’t do it justice, but that was the reading from the 11:00 hour.

In setting my agenda, I had added a number of galaxies in the oft-ignored constellation Equuleus, the dimmest constellation in the Northern Hemisphere and the second-smallest of all the 88 constellations. As Equuleus was just about to reach the meridian, this was the best place to start.

MOON: 29 days (set at 7:00 PM; 1% illuminated)
SQM: 21.4 (too low?)
NELM: not checked
WEATHER CONDITIONS: temps to 53F; no dew; breezy later; chilly; detailed Milky Way
All observations: 20″ f/5 Obsession Dob, 14mm ES 82˚ eyepiece (181x, 0.45˚ TFOV) or 7mm TeleVue Nagler (363x, 0.21˚ TFOV) unless otherwise noted

UGC 11671 (Equ):
 UGC 11671 in Equuleus is a bizarre peculiar galaxy that in photographs resembles a backward pair of parentheses touching in the middle, and it is in contact with a 10.5-magnitude star in a field of several other fairly bright stars. UGC 11671 is a roughly triangular-ish glow that seems to be stronger on the F side, and is about 0.75’ per side. The star that’s touching the galaxies on the N (I suspect this is an interacting pair rather than a completed merger) is 9th magnitude and has N slightly F it by 1.25’ an 11.5-magnitude star, and that star has 1.75’ F slightly S of it another 10.5-magnitude star; the 11.5-magnitude star also has a 13th-magnitude star N very very slightly F it by 1.5’. The star that’s in contact with the galaxies also has S slightly P it by 1.5’ a 15th-magnitude star. The brightest star in the field is S somewhat P the galaxies by 10’.  The S edge of the galaxies is a little more ragged, less evenly-illuminated that the rest. With the 7mm Nagler, there’s a brighter non-stellar spot visible on the S end of the P galaxy, and the more F of the pair has a noticeably-brighter strip that runs parallel to the F edge; that strip of brightness is fairly obvious but not greatly brighter than the rest of the galaxy. An interesting object!

My gripe about the ladder continued; this galaxy was also at just the wrong altitude for comfortable viewing. It didn’t help that the ladder was also just up against the scope, so that even my heartbeat made the eyepiece view vibrate. The seeing, however, was quite excellent, even without the 20-inch mirror being fully cooled; I began to think I’d even be able to use my 4.8mm Nagler on some of these objects if the seeing held.

Writing note: the auto-transcriber on my voice notes transcribed “Equuleus” as “a cool ass.”

I lingered in Equuleus a bit longer, to check out a fine field of small galaxies there. Although I had several other denizen galaxies of the Little Horse on my list, I also had plenty of other objects elsewhere in the sky to get to; rather than “mop up” all of my targets in Equuleus, I picked up a few and then moved along, saving some for the next night/Moondark phase/autumn season.

UGCs 11700, 11694; PGC 66324 (Equ): This is a field of little galaxies here in Equuleus, but the main attraction here, even though it’s not the brightest in the field, is UGC 11700. It lies 4.5’ due N of the vertex and brightest star of a little checkmark of four stars that runs P slightly N from that vertex for one star and N slightly F for the other two. The galaxy is definitely a beneficiary of averted vision; it’s 0.75’ x 0.5’, elongated N-S, and not well defined; it has a notable core and possibly a very, very faint stellar nucleus, as well as a threshold star on the NP. 1.3’ N very slightly F is the brighter of a pair, which is 14th magnitude and has a 15.5-magnitude star about 10” N slightly P it.  The brightest star in the field is about 16’ F slightly N of the galaxy and is 9th magnitude. The vertex of that little checkmark is 4.5’ S of the galaxy and is 11.5 magnitude; the star P very slightly N of it by 0.67’ is 13th magnitude; N slightly F the vertex by 0.75’ is a 13.5-magnitude star, and 0.75’ N slightly F that star is a 12th-magnitude star. 5’ due N of the galaxy is an 11.5-magnitude star, and then from the galaxy 8’ P very slightly N is an 11.5-magnitude star; N very slightly F that star by 2.3’ is another galaxy [PGC 66324]: this one is a lot fainter and much more diffuse than UGC 11700, and has a 15.5-magnitude star 0.75’ SP it. This galaxy is not well-defined; it may have a little bit of NP-SF elongation, perhaps 0.5’ x 0.3’, but not much in the way of central concentration. From that 11.5-magnitude star S by 9’ is the S-most vertex of an isosceles triangle; that star is 12.5 magnitude and is on the NF edge of another galaxy [UGC 11694] that’s brighter than the other two by a considerable margin, although it’s not particularly well defined; this one is about 0.67’ x 0.5’ and is elongated SP-NF, and has a brighter core region that really is distracted from by that star on the edge, which kind of overwhelms most of it (averted vision really helps bring out that brighter core). From that star on the galaxy’s edge NP by 1.75’ is an 12th-magnitude star, and there’s another 12th-magnitude star N of that star by 2.25’. so we are gonna go up to 7mm and see what we get; this is a nice little field of galaxies up here in Equuleus. OK I hope I can still be heard on the recording. In the 7mm, there’s definitely a stellar nucleus to UGC 11700. That’s a decent little galaxy as tiny galaxies go; it’s better defined at this magnification. [PGC 66324] has a broadly concentrated core and there’s more halo visible at 7mm; it stands out better at the higher magnification. There’s also a nucleus to [UGC 11694]; it too is better defined, although the star is mucking up the view, of course. It has a small, distinct, brighter core and an averted-vision nucleus.

The seeing was already noticeably softer than when I first started. And my legs were already showing the wear and tear of the previous night’s observing session, in addition to the discomfort they might be feeling from this night’s activity. Adrenaline would carry me for a while, but I wasn’t sure I could do (essentially) an all-nighter such as the night before.

I had given the September presentation at the meeting of the Salem astronomy club, NightSky45; it was an encore performance of my previous EAS talk “Forgotten Gems of the Autumn Sky. Among those “forgotten gems” was NGC 663 in Cassiopeia, one of a number of bright open clusters on that constellation’s eastern side. One of my slides was a wide-field photograph of NGC 663 and several nearby clusters, and one of those clusters was the dim, rich blast of star-powder catalogued as IC 166. Seeing that cluster in my slideshow was intriguing; I love the really-rich-but-dim type of open cluster (NGC 7789 in Cassiopeia, on the western side, was the prototype of these agglomerations of sibling stars), and I had added it immediately to my list. With Cassiopeia well above the sandstone crag, now was a good time to observe it.

IC 166 (Cas): From faint, difficult galaxies to a faint, difficult open cluster; this is the surprisingly dim glow of IC 166 in Cassiopeia, and at 112 X it is mostly background glow. It’s 6’ across, round, and mostly unresolved, even in the 20-inch. It has a string of eleven stars running largely N slightly P-S slightly F through what might roughly be the middle of it; the brightest of these stars is the obvious cluster lucida, which is 13th magnitude and lies just F where the center of the cluster would be. From the lucida 2’ N very slightly P is a 16th-magnitude star that has 5” P somewhat S of it a 15th-magnitude star. SF the lucida by 1.25’ is a 14.5-magnitude star. 0.75’ N somewhat P the lucida is a 16th-magnitude star that actually is not steadily held; from the lucida P by 10” and S slightly F (also by 10”) are two 15.5-magnitude stars. On the P edge of the cluster, 3.25’ from the lucida, is a 12th-magnitude star that I don’t think is a cluster member; there’s also a pair of 11th-magnitude stars, separated by 0.75’; the F-most of those is the right-angle vertex of a little triangle that includes the other 11th-magnitude star; that star is 3.67’ N slightly P the lucida; the other 11th-magnitude star lies P very very slightly S of it by 1’, and it also has a 14th-magnitude star 0.5’ S very slightly F. The brightest star in the field is 7’ P very slightly S of the lucida; that star is 9th magnitude and has a 12th-magnitude star P very slightly N of it by 0.67’. The 7mm Nagler really doesn’t help the glow much contrast-wise, but it does spread out that slate of stars overlaid across it: there’s the lucida, the one P slightly N it, and the one S very very slightly F it by 10”; it’s probably more like 0.25’, and then there is, 0.67’ S slightly F of the lucida, a very very tight pair; those are slightly fainter than the ones that are closer to the lucida; there’s the 15th/16th-magnitude pair on the N edge that I mentioned previously (there are actually about four of them on that edge); the 16th-magnitude star also has F it two extremely-faint stars of 16.5 or 17th magnitude, and those are separated N-S by 0.3’. Even at this magnification that background glow is unresolved, but that’s also about the only thing that identifies this as a cluster as opposed to an asterism of really faint stars. This is obviously an incredibly rich cluster with all that background glow; it’s pretty poorly detached up here in the dense Cassiopeia Milky Way. If all of its “brighter” stars are cluster members, along with the background glow, then it has a quite a range of magnitudes in it. This is a really fascinating object! 

I managed to go back to faint galaxies without leaving Cassiopeia, tracking down an object I had seen several times but hadn’t taken notes on. Maffei 1 was discovered only in 1968, along with Maffei 2; these gigantic elliptical galaxies are difficult optical targets, as they lie within the rich Cassiopeia Milky Way (as seen from Earth), and were discovered via infrared survey plates.

I had seen Maffei 1 several times before, all with the 12.5-inch scope. I was surprised to see it so weakly in the Obsession.

Maffei 1; Czernik 11 (Cas): Back to difficult galaxies, and one that I’ve seen much better in somewhat lesser conditions with a smaller scope. I had to use the 24mm Meade 5000 SWA to starhop from the Double Cluster; I’m probably the only person to use the spectacular Double Cluster to stop at something insignificant like this. Maffei 1lies amidst the poor, asterism-like open cluster Czernik 11, which—to be entirely honest—looks slightly like a miniature Draco or cosmic sperm cell. The galaxy is very elusive tonight, but I can definitely tell that there’s something there. I’m surprised it’s this difficult, as I’ve seen it before much more easily than this; it’s a very faint, indistinct, unconcentrated glow, 0.5’ x 0.3’, and elongated P-F. The NP end of Czernik 11 is a little pentagon, and the “tail” of the cluster trails away to the SF, then loops NF, and then SF again; the whole thing is about 4.5’ long. The 12th-magnitude cluster lucida is part of that pentagon, and lies SP Maffei 1 by 0.5’. N slightly F the lucida by 0.5’ is a 14th-magnitude star; NP that star by 0.67’ is a 13.5-magnitude star; from that second one P by 1’ is a 12th-magnitude star that’s just a shade dimmer than the lucida, and then from that star S slightly P by 1’ is a 13.5-magnitude star. 1’ S somewhat F the lucida is the brighter of a pair, which is 14th magnitude and has 0.3’ SF it a 14.5-magnitude star. I’m not going to note the whole of Czernik 11, but it has along its tail end, toward the F, some unresolved glow, and it’s kind of interesting that follows the path of the brighter stars. The brightest star in the field is 12’ P somewhat N of the lucida and is 9th magnitude. In the 7mm, the galaxy is much more obvious but still quite difficult; direct vision shows it better, but it’s very unconcentrated and poorly defined, with no real central concentration at all. (In previous observations of it, from the Mill Creek Yoga Retreat and elsewhere, I’ve observed a somewhat brighter core in it.)  I doubt Maffei 2 will even be visible considering how tenuous this sighting of Maffei 1 has been.

And yet Maffei 2 was visible, if only just.

Maffei 2 (Cas): The two Maffei galaxies are really difficult tonight; I’m sure this one’s always difficult—this is Maffei 2, and it is very much an averted vision object 90% of the time; I’m only getting occasional flashes of it in direct vision, but it’s definitely there. It’s situated between two little triangles, an isosceles right triangle made up of three 14.5-magnitude stars, and then a little perfect isosceles triangle P the galaxy. The galaxy might actually have some visible central brightening to it, and it helps to look toward the P to see it; it’s round, about 0.3’ diameter. The right-angle vertex of the triangle to the F is about 2’ to the F somewhat N the galaxy, and then that star has 1.67’ due F it the second star; the third lies due S of the right-angle vertex by the same distance. P somewhat N of the galaxy by 2.25’ is the F star at the base of the isosceles triangle; that star is the brightest of the three in the triangle and is 12th magnitude; P that star by 1’ is a 13th-magnitude star, and then from that 12th-magnitude star 2’ N very very slightly P is a 12.5-magnitude star; from that star 4’ NP is the brightest in the field, which is 8.5 magnitude and has N of it by 1.25’ a 13th-magnitude star. With the 7mm, there’s a threshold star F slightly N of the galaxy by less than 0.25’. Even at this magnification, it takes a break in the transparency for the galaxy to clearly appear. That is as difficult as anything I’ve ever observed.

Jerry laughed at my last comment, repeating it out loud as if he found it unbelievable. I suspect that he, and the other EAS Irregulars, were continually amused by my target choices, and how I often described faint objects as “surprisingly easy.”

The pain in my feet forced me to sit for several minutes; I’d spent too much time on objects that were in a bad position for my ladder.

Transcription note: the app transcribed “ridiculously hard” as “rude Deculus Lee hard.” I’m still trying to figure that one out.

In doing some examination of the POSS plates, I discovered that Maffei 2 is much stronger on the red plate than on the blue—no doubt due to its infrared emission and the reddening of the galactic plane. This would, of course, also help explain why a caveman with red-deficient vision would have a difficult time seeing the galaxy. (Maffei 1 is more equal between the red and blue plates.)

I stayed in the northern reaches for my next object, Böhm-Vitense 5-3. This planetary had been on my radar since January; now, on the other side of summer, I was finally able to track it down. The seeing helped, having suddenly become particularly solid.

Böhm-Vitense 5-3 (PK 131-05.1; Per): This planetary nebula is surprisingly visible with no filter, very faint up here in Perseus. It’s a very round, ghostly nebula which looks like, even if this magnification, it might be hinting at annularity. The nebula itself is about 0.5’ around, maybe a little less; it has a distracting 11th-magnitude star due F by 0.75’.  In averted vision, it seems like the rim is a little stronger on the N and NF edges. The nebula forms a roughly-equilateral triangle with that star to the F and a 13th-magnitude star N slightly F the nebula by 0.67’; but then 1’ N very slightly P the 13th-magnitude star is an 11.5-magnitude star, so the nebula also forms the SP tine of a small ‘y’ pattern that points N. There are a number of bright stars in the field, of which the brightest is 8.5 magnitude and lies S somewhat F the nebula by 15’, and then S somewhat P the nebula by 6.5’ is a 9th-magnitude star; the 8.5-magnitude star is in the middle of what I would call kind of a “shepherd’s crook” asterism of seven stars that’s oriented P-F and spans 3.5’, of which the 8.5-magnitude star is both in the middle and the most S of the seven. In the 7mm… the nebula really pops out at this magnification. The annulus is surprisingly much easier to see here. The rim does not seem to be perfectly defined; the outer edge of the nebula is fuzzy. No central star or color or anything is visible. Adding the O-III filter: I’m still not really picking up any detail on this that I couldn’t get before, although… yeah, it’s almost as if now it’s the S edge of the rim that’s the brighter, if only just slightly. 

This was my first opportunity to use the Astronomik O-III filter that I’d acquired while recovering from surgery. I was careful not to use it in the 14mm Explore, which had eaten the threads on my old Lumicon O-III on the cold February night on which I’d originally planned to observe B-V 5-3. The filter was darker than I’d recalled from using Dan’s Astronomik, although I was in a painful position on the ladder—practically on tiptoe—and didn’t have the patience to keep observing much after installing the filter.

My energy level wasn’t quite as high as it had been the night before; I was stopping between objects to sit and give my aching legs and feet breaks. At one point I almost dozed off in my chair—I didn’t feel tired, but I was obviously running out of steam.

Autumn nights aren’t to be wasted. I pressed onward, lower in the south, with a couple of flat galaxy fields in Cetus. But first, I spent some time with the excellent NGC 908, one of two grand spirals in Cetus that easily showed spiral structure (we had looked at the other, NGC 157, in Jerry’s scope earlier). And with Aries fully above the horizon, I had time to stop in on Uranus as well.

Instead of two moons of Uranus, high power revealed what might well have been three—Oberon seemed to have joined Titania and Ariel on the night. It was an extremely tentative sighting that even the Delos wouldn’t have pulled out further (I don’t think), but at least three times, I noted a faint speckle of light near the position indicated on Sky Safari.

What the hell—I was roughly in the general vicinity of a longtime quarry; why not go for it? Van den Burgh 16 is a reflection nebula in extreme eastern Aries, near the border with Taurus. I had first noted this little nebula as a small green block on the first edition of Sky Atlas 2000.0, but had always assumed it to be out of the grasp of any of my scopes in inferior skies. Here at Linslaw, with the 20-inch? If I was ever going to get a look at the nebula, it would be here.

After a few moments of panning around, I located the starfield, and… there it was.

A faint, gossamer glow surrounded a 9th-magnitude star to the P and F sides—it was considerably tenuous but undoubtedly there. I had been fascinated with the identity of this small cloud of silicate dusts for decades, and I had it in my eyepiece…

… at a level at which I could barely stand on the ladder.

I couldn’t take notes on the nebula, as it hurt too much to stoop at the knees, and it put too much pressure on my feet. I could only occasionally stand on tiptoe on a lower step in order to peer into the eyepiece. And the nebula was only rising, so it would be getting higher and less accessible as the night went on.

I had to abandon taking notes on vdB 16. Perhaps I would get a chance later in the autumn or winter if the skies cleared, but for now, I had to let it go. So back to the flat galaxies it was.

PGC 6966 (Cet): My first flat galaxy of the night, and it’s a really surprisingly-good one considering it’s “only” got a PGC number. This is PGC 6966 in Cetus, and it’s in a fairly-barren field, although there are a number of the stars in the field that are actually considerably bright. 

I went to move the ladder for better positioning, bumped the scope, and then whacked my eyepiece in the bargain. My recorder app’s transcription routine has learned my favorite swear words by heart, as it had plenty of opportunity to demonstrate while I inspected the damage (there was none, fortunately) and struggled to recapture the galaxy. The wind rumble on my recording added to the chaos, as it picked up in the cool night air.

After much searching and swearing, I’ve managed to recover the galaxy–this is PGC 6966 in Cetus, one of the better flat galaxies that I’ve seen recently. It’s a direct-vision object, very easy, in a fairly-barren field, although the stars that are present in the field are a little bit on the brighter side of things. The galaxy’s elongated about 165˚ PA, so N very slightly P-S very slightly F. It’s impressively large and wider in the middle, 2.25’ x 0.3’, with some moderate central brightening and a quite-well defined halo. About 1/3 of the way from the S end to the N, it has a 15th-magnitude star just off the F side.  5.5’ S slightly F is a 10.5-magnitude star; NF by 3.25’ is an 11th-magnitude star. Due P the galaxy by 8’ is a 10.5-magnitude star that has a 9.5-magnitude star N of it by 6.5’, a 10th-magnitude star 8’ P slightly S of it, and a 9.5-magnitude star S slightly P it by 15’.  In the 7mm Nagler: that’s a great flat galaxy there! It’s definitely irregular in brightness, but very well defined at this magnification. I don’t honestly know how this one got missed by, say, the Herschels or somebody, because this is a really impressive galaxy; it’s much brighter than some of the NGCs I’ve seen. The middle 1’ is considerably brighter than the rest; that might be partly illusory due to the presence of that star in the F side, but I don’t think so—I think that’s legit central brightening there, with the only the ends of the spiral arms fading away. 

I somehow missed PGCs 1071479 and 1071790, just outside the N-NP end of 6966.

Jerry headed out, having finished packing up while I was taking notes on PGC 6966. Given the uptick in the wind, it was a sensible move… certainly more sensible than staying to find one more galaxy. The wind was almost blustery by now, and the seeing and transparency were deteriorating. I took a few minutes’ break; Mark was wrapping up his imaging for the night.

I had to hold on to the Obsession to keep it from blowing off-target; this made it difficult to swap eyepieces. And, of course, I was in between steps on the ladder. (I can’t really call them rungs, so….)

UGCA 14; PGCs 2800, 986866 (Cet): UGCA 14 shares the field with a brighter highly-inclined galaxy that shows some central concentration; UGCA 14 at times looks to be the larger of the two, although quite a bit fainter. It’s of course very thin and pretty uniformly faint. (There was a second there where I thought I saw a nucleus, but no….) The galaxy is elongated almost perfectly P-F, 90° PA, and spans 1.67’ x 0.3’. The galaxy to the N [PGC 2800] is angled about 10˚ PA, with a small, brighter core and the occasional flash of a nucleus that’s not helped by having a 15.5-magnitude star 2’ F very slightly N. The two galaxies are about 4’ apart, center-to-center. There is definitely a nucleus to this brighter one; it’s 1.0’ x 0.3’ and I thought I saw…yeah, 5.5’ N very slightly F that galaxy is an evenly-faint, very small glow [PGC 986866], 0.25’ diameter, that has a 14th-magnitude star F slightly N of it by 1.75’. SP UGCA 14 is a Sagitta-like asterism with a 9th-magnitude star at the tip; 2.67’ F somewhat S of that star is an 11th-magnitude star, and then 5’ F slightly S of that star is a 12th-magnitude star that has a 13th-magnitude star 1.25’ S very very slightly P it. UGCA 14 is actually a little harder to discern in the 7mm, and it’s in a bad position with me on the ladder, so I’m going to have to curtail the observation. The galaxy may have a threshold star off the P end.

I came down from the ladder with something like a sense of relief. It’d been an excellent night observation-wise, but I was in legitimate pain from the knees down. Had it been worth it?


Packing up was slow; Mark asked if it was OK to proceed ahead. Of course—I didn’t expect anyone to wait up for me. The president should always be the last one out anyway, as I’d been insisting since my southern Illinois days. Mark headed down the mountain as I was getting my ladder, table, truss poles, and other sundries stowed, having waited until I got the huge mirror/rocker box pairing loaded safely.

After finishing load-in, I did a once-around of the field with my headlamp, to make sure that nothing had been left by any of us. Satisfied, I turned my car-seat heater on, backed into the gravelled clearing at the base of the crag, and headed slowly down the mountain toward home.

III. A week passed, during which only one night was clear; the others were either cloudy or smoked out, as the Waldo Lake fire(s) was/were still out of control. I skipped the one clear night, so as to give my extremities a well-deserved respite. Our monthly-ish First Quarter Friday public outreach night was hazy, but cleared up well enough for me to show the stragglers Neptune and Triton, as well as a superb transit of Io across Jupiter, with Io becoming visible on the planet’s face as it reached the darkened limb (shout-out to EAS’ Aneesa Haq for spotting both Triton and Io before anyone else!). I had planned to go to Linslaw after FQF broke up for the night, but was too wiped out by the time I got the Obsession torn down and loaded; Dan B and Mark had gone to Linslaw (Dan at the lower site, as he was still feeling the aftereffects of his illness), but their early reports seemed to indicate that conditions weren’t worth the drive. I was almost relieved, and let myself relax enough so that when Dan texted and said that conditions had turned excellent, I was already mentally checked-out.

Finally, on the night of the actual First Quarter Moon—and less than two days before I returned to work—personal energy and sky conditions converged to summon me out to Linslaw again. With my agenda already at hand, I was prepared to give the early autumn dark-sky run one last charge.

Mark was in Arizona; Jerry and Kathy had spent the day traveling and were taking the night off, and Loren was still in North Dakota. So it was just me and Dan up on the crag as sunset began… and the two hunters who’d left their truck parked at the top and ventured down the hillside to pursue God knows what. (The night before, Dan had seen a mountain lion chasing a raccoon across the road up—the first time we’d seen any major fauna along that stretch of gravel road.)

We called down to make sure that they knew we were there, and went ahead with setting up. It was while I was collimating the Obsession that the hunters made it back to their truck; they were somewhat irritated that we’d scared off their deer by shouting down to them, although they were clearly swallowing some of their irritation. We apologized, having been unaware that it was deer season. The two of them—father and son, most likely—seemed to let it go, asking that if we used the site, not to make so much noise during the month that deer were fair game. Fair enough. We talked for a few minutes before they drove off; I could only imagine their conversation as they drove back home.

The Moon was still an inescapable presence as I finished collimating the optics and aligning the Telrad to the scope’s optical path. I checked out the terminator, the line between light and shadow on the non-Full Moon, where the craters are in their starkest relief—with the big scope, this was painfully akin to having an optometrist’s light shone in one’s eyes during an exam, and would prevent deep-sky observing for at least a half-hour while dark adaptation slowly recovered from the assault. No matter; we had 3.5 hours between sunset and moonset.

The Moon was in Sagittarius, right in the thick of the Milky Way action; I scoped out some of the bright globulars at a greater remove from the immediate vicinity of our primary natural satellite, also spending significant time on the available planets and their moons. Conditions weren’t great: the seeing was soft, the transparency diminished by smoke or a damp marine layer. Possibly both.

Nonetheless, it was while observing Neptune and Triton, a half-hour before Moonset, that I stumbled across what would become my first object of the night—an entirely serendipitous right-place/right-time “discovery” that would be a harbinger of the observing night ahead.

MOON: 7 days (set at 10:23 PM; 41% illuminated)
SEEING: 6, 7
SQM: 21.4
NELM: not checked
WEATHER CONDITIONS: temps to 58F; slight dew later; air still and hazy; mild but clammy 
All observations: 20″ f/5 Obsession Dob, 14mm ES 82˚ eyepiece (181x, 0.45˚ TFOV) or 7mm TeleVue Nagler (363x, 0.21˚ TFOV) unless otherwise noted

PGC 71913 (MCG-1-60-14; Aqr): I stumbled across this surprisingly-bright little galaxy while observing Neptune and Triton, and it’s easily visible despite the presence of the nearly First Quarter Moon
. The galaxy is 0.5’ NF an 11.5-magnitude star and is roundish, 0.5’ diameter, with a pretty well defined halo and very broad central concentration, although it does come to an almost-stellar nucleus. The halo seems to be brighter along its S edge. From the 11.5-magnitude star N slightly P by 2.75’ is a 12th-magnitude star that’s just slightly dimmer than the one next to the galaxy, and then from that star N somewhat P by 1.75’ is a 13th-magnitude star; Neptune is 4’ S somewhat F the 11.5-magnitude star; Triton is 10” N very slightly P Neptune ( I believe it was listed as 13.6 magnitude right now; obviously, with Neptune so close, it’s a bit of a challenge). 

Although this first galaxy was in Aquarius, I spent the majority of the night working through Pegasus, Pisces, and Cetus; picking off the galaxies in Equuleus would have to resume at some unspecified later time. Sunset long ago faded and moonset just finished, it was time to plow ahead on my agenda, mediocre conditions be damned.

UGC 11964; NGC 7241 (Peg): This galaxy pair consists of a flat galaxy, UGC 11964, and its much larger, very bright and impressive companion NGC 7241 in Pegasus; we’ll start with U11964 because it’s the target here. It’s a very, very difficult, phantasmic streak of 1.0’ x … I’m barely even capable of measuring it; it’s only a few arcseconds thick at best, maybe 7” ? The galaxy is oriented in 45˚ PA. On the NF end of the galaxy, just P that and very, very slightly N, there’s a threshold star that just flickers into view every now and then and that’s interfering with the observation; it also doesn’t help that there’s a 10.5-magnitude star 2.25’ F somewhat S. There’s no detail at all discernible with this galaxy; it’s just hovering on the verge of visibility. It does have, F slightly N of it by 2.25’, a 15th-magnitude star. 3.75’ NP the galaxy is the F-most in a line of three, all of which are 13th magnitude, and that line is 1.5’ long and runs NP from that star; the second star is 0.3’ NP the first, and the third star is along that same line 0.75’ from the second. no we’re 1.75’ S of the first (F-most) star in that line is another of 13th magnitude, and then, again from the first star in that line of three, 2.3’ SP is a 10.5-magnitude star. UGC 11964 has just about disappeared at the moment; but 3.25’ NF the 10.5-magnitude star that’s F somewhat S of it is an 11.5-magnitude star; that star has a 12.5-magnitude star N slightly F it by 2.3’, NGC 7412 is almost directly between those two stars (it’s a little bit P those two but parallel) and stretches nearly from one to the other; the star on the N end is just a little bit F the actual N end of the galaxy; the star in the S end, the 11.5-magnitude star, is also the P-most vertex of a triangle and has a 14th-magnitude star SF it by 0.5’; the 11.5-magnitude star has a 14.5-magnitude star due F it by 0.75’ and a 13.5-magnitude star N somewhat P it by 1.5’; that 13.5-magnitude star has a 16th-magnitude star N somewhat P it by 0.5’. This galaxy is disrupted-looking or distorted; it’s obviously a spiral, but the core is skewed toward the S end; the galaxy is 2.25’ x 0.67’ and that 0.67’, the widest part of it, is down closer to the 11.5-magnitude star; the core there is is 0.5’ long and much brighter than the halo; that 11.5-magnitude star is just off the southern tip of the core and the galaxy slightly extends farther S beyond that star. There’s no nucleus visible on this one; the halo is pretty well defined, almost teardrop-shaped. I’ve spent more time on that one than the flat galaxy because it’s just got much more detail; the flat galaxy is not showing well at all. The 7mm is too much power for the flat galaxy under these conditions; that’s definitely a threshold star there on the NF edge, but the galaxy is otherwise barely visible now at this magnification. The NGC galaxy is also somewhat washed out, although there seems to be mottling indistinctly visible. 

Given how weak UGC 11964 appeared on the POSS plates, I was impressed to have seen it at all. Finding it had to be considered something of a triumph.

My next two targets had been on my agenda for years; in fact, UGC 12281 was the very first flat galaxy I had searched for, and was the first time I’d ever actually heard of specific “flat galaxies.” I had seen it a couple of times over the years, but never with the certainty I wanted in order to take notes on it. It bedeviled me yet again on this night, a razor-slash ghost of light in a field with several distracting bright stars. It may take a perfect night before I can document UGC 12281 to my satisfaction.

The other target was PGC 70994, the X-shaped ring galaxy in Pisces. How can a ring-shaped object also be X-shaped? Because the “hub” or core of the galaxy is elongated from the collision that formed the ring, and the ring itself is oriented edge-on (like a flat galaxy!) to our line of sight. I’d also seen this one before, twice, but it was extremely tenuous both times; nonetheless, I have a suspicion that this object, like UGC 12281, will impress and show more detail under better conditions than I had this first weekend of October.

Over the course of the last year or so, I’d started wondering if my transparency ratings at Linslaw were too generous. Certainly, on nights where the SQM read 21.7+, there was no reason to suspect that this was the case, as on those nights the Milky Way was overflowing with dimension and detail (these nights corresponded with the dry summer season in the Valley). But in the spring and autumn, especially lower in declination, the sky seemed somewhat murkier than in the summer; the site’s proximity to the ocean and the marine layer no doubt had a greater effect than I may have taken into account on previous occasions. Maybe it was time for me to start assessing the transparency with two different ratings, or perhaps simply to revise the number down to an average of the two halves of the sky. (My notes for this set of entries don’t factor this into the transparency ratings.)

There is some overlap between the Hickson and Shakhbazian catalogues; some of the Hicksons were, for various reasons, included in the Shakhbazian catalogue. Hickson 97 was one such—it’s also known as Shakhbazian 30. I did not know this until much later, as I was cleaning up my transcriptions. Regardless of the name, this was one of the more enjoyable observations of the whole run.

ICs 5357, 5356, 5351, 5359 (Hickson 97; Shakhbazian 30; Psc):
 So this is Hickson 97, which brackets a 10.5-magnitude star that has 3.25’ due P it a 13th-magnitude star that has just 10” N of it a 14th-magnitude star. 2.5’ P somewhat N the 10.5-magnitude star is the largest and brightest of the Hickson galaxies [IC 5357], which is 0.75’ x 0.5’, with a well-defined halo, a suddenly-brighter core and a stellar nucleus; the galaxy is elongated N very slightly P-S very slightly F, about 165˚ PA. 3.5’ due S of that galaxy is a second [IC 5356] that is well defined, considerably fainter, and roundish, at 0.5’ diameter, with a large (compared to the halo), slightly-brighter core and a trace of a stellar nucleus visible in averted vision. It has 0.75’ S slightly P it a 15th-magnitude star that has another 15th-magnitude star 0.75’ S very slightly F it; that last star is S of the galaxy by 1.3’. That galaxy also has 0.75’ NF it a 15th-magnitude star that has a 14.5-magnitude star 0.75’ NF it. I made a mistake earlier: I said this group surrounds a 10.5-magnitude star and a 13th-magnitude star due P the 10.5-magnitude star by 3.25’, and that 13th-magnitude star had a fainter star N of it—that fainter star is actually the third galaxy in the Hickson [IC 5351], which is quite small; it’s no more than 0.3’ and is pretty well defined, but it has kind of a substantial stellar nucleus to it, which is why I mistook it for a star in the poor transparency; the halo wasn’t very clear and I just saw the nucleus to it, without much of a core. The fourth galaxy [IC 5359; PGC 72430; MCG-1-60-36] was there a minute ago, and is an edge-on streak; it’s a third of the way from that previously-noted 10.5-magnitude star to a 10th-magnitude star that’s 5’ F very slightly N of the 10.5-magnitude star; the 10th-magnitude star also has 0.75’ NP it a 12th-magnitude star. That last galaxy, the edge-on, is barely visible and is 1.5’ F the 10.5-magnitude star; it’s 1.0’ x 0.1’, and is elongated in 135˚ PA. It may have a very small core/nucleus region to it. The 7mm really brings out the first three galaxies; [IC 5356] is elongated in 45° PA and is about 3:2 elongation; the fourth galaxy is almost impossible at the moment. There’s not much in the way of detail on the edge-on, but it does seem a very slight bit brighter in the center.

I missed two photographically-obvious PGC galaxies to the SF: PGCs 72461 and 72457.

I took another short break after Hickson 97 to let my feet rest; my non-repaired left foot hurt even more than the reconstructed right. One additional fix to the ladder: adding a pad to the top step, so that I could sit/kneel on it more comfortably. I also needed to ask Jerry about the “foot shelves” or removable steps he built for his old observing ladder.

My observing agenda often consists primarily of small objects, faint objects, and small faint objects, with a few larger or brighter targets thrown in for either specific reasons or for a break from the eye-straining majority. I’d included NGC 157 and NGC 908 in Cetus for just this reason (and because the spiral structure was obviously visible), but had already observed those the night before. I had also observed my next target previously, but included it on my list in order to take better notes on it… and because it was something of a showpiece in the larger optics of the Obsession.

NGCs 128, 130, 127, 126, 125 (Psc): If you keep looking for more-obscure stuff, your patience is eventually rewarded with something that’s impressive: this is the NGC 128 group in Pisces, and there are at least five galaxies here that are fairly easy to pick up. NGC 128 is a bright, well defined, somewhat-irregular galaxy that’s 2’ long, with tapering, fading arms; it’s oriented in 180˚ PA, due N-S, with a substellar nucleus; it’s 2.0’ x 0.3’, the core making up the middle 0.75’ of the galaxy (I know it’s got that irregular, box-shaped core, but at 181x I don’t really get a good sense of this). NF NGC 128 by 1’ is a tiny fuzzy spot [NGC 130] with what looks like a stellar nucleus to it; 0.75’ NP 128 is another small round galaxy [NGC 127] that’s much more diffuse, with no central concentration to it; it’s fainter than the one NF; neither is more than 0.25’ around, but both are pretty well defined. 4.75’ S slightly F NGC 128 is a 12.5-magnitude star; there’s a 12th-magnitude star SP 128 by 3.25’, and then from that star 1.67’ S somewhat F is another galaxy [NGC 126]: this one is oriented in 120˚ PA, so N somewhat P-S somewhat F, and spans 0.5’ x 0.3’; it’s diffuse and poorly defined and has a very small, gradually-brighter core that’s only slightly brighter than the halo; it also has 1’ SF it a 15.5-magnitude star, which is a distraction from the galaxy. 7’ P very slightly S of NCC 128 is a fourth galaxy [NGC 125], which at first seemed to have some N-S elongation, but now seems to be more just roundish; it’s the second-brightest in this group and is 0.67’ in diameter, with a sudden, brighter core, a substellar nucleus, and a reasonably well-defined halo; S very slightly P it by 0.75’ is the more-N of a pair of 12.5-magnitude stars; these are separated by 0.3’, with the S one S slightly F the more-N one. Speaking of bright… there’s NGC 128 in the 7mm, which I think is actually too much power, because the little “ears” are really hard to see now; the other galaxies are much better, but those two are not looking so hot. Switching to the 10mm Delos… wow, the Delos really brightens things up! (I can’t get over how much better this eyepiece is than all of my other ones.) [NGC 125] really is quite a fine object; it’s got a really striking nucleus. [NGC 126] is really quite well defined here, in opposition to my previous comments. The two “ears” of 128 are not particularly easy at this magnification, but they are still noteworthy, especially in averted vision. An excellent group!

While I was describing NGCs 127 and 130, NGC 128’s “ears,” the entire crag lit up, as if hit by a helicopter searchlight; the light lasted for less than a second. Dan and I both gave startled shouts. A fireball meteor had burst over us! Dan had caught the tail end of it as it disintegrated, but I had only seen its flash on the ground and the upper end of the telescope.

It took more than a minute to get back to observing the NGC 128 group; my notes are full of stunned chatter between the two of us. Had I seen the meteor, I might no doubt have likened it to one of the 1998 Leonids that I had seen from Sapello, New Mexico, on a night when the meteors rained down like a Roman-candle fight between the gods. It surely would’ve been the brightest meteor I’d caught since then.

Strangely enough, despite knowing that my next target contained multiple galaxies, it didn’t connect with me that it might’ve been a Hickson Compact Group; when I went through my transcription, I simply wrote it up as if it was a group of unrelated galaxies. This meant that I also forgot to look for the fourth galaxy in the group (IC 184 obviously didn’t count due to its distance from the others), because one of the criteria of Hickson groups is that they have at least four members.

PGC 7557/MCG-1-6-22; PGCs 7553, 7550; IC 184 (Hickson 14; Cet): This is the PGC 7557 group in Cetus, in an area where you can’t swing a dead nutria without hitting a PGC galaxy of some size; these are a little bit difficult because they’re wedged in between a 9th-magnitude star to the S and an 8th-magnitude star to the N; those two stars are about 6’ apart, and the first galaxy [PGC 7557] is N very slightly F the 9th-magnitude star by 1.75. It’s the fainter of the two, 0.67’ x 0.25’, elongated N-S. It’s pretty diffuse, with very very little central concentration, although every now and then I do get a flash of something like a stellar nucleus there. The brighter of the two galaxies [PGC 7553] is N somewhat P the previous one by 2’, and is elongated… when we’re looking at these little faint guys it’s hard to tell, but I think it’s the NP-SF or some variant thereof. It’s bigger and better defined than the previous galaxy, 0.75’ x 0.3’, and considerably brighter, with some gradual central concentration up to a faint stellar nucleus. From the 8th-magnitude star 8’ N very slightly P is a 10.5-magnitude star, and that star has another galaxy [IC 184] N very slightly P it by 2.67’; this one is elongated roughly N-S, and may be the brightest of the bunch; it’s the most obvious, certainly, and has a gradually-brighter core and a faint stellar nucleus to it. With the 10mm Delos, [PGC 7553] really leaps out, but there’s another [PGC 7550] NP that one by 1.75’, a little tiny speck of a galaxy that’s pretty much an averted-vision object; it’s 0.25’ x 1.25’, maybe N-S elongated? There’s not much to it; it’s not very well concentrated, with no core or anything to latch on to. The galaxy well to the N of those three [IC 184] is quite impressive in the Delos; it’s a little thing and not very bright but it still shows up really well. It has an obvious nucleus and an elongated core and is quite well defined. (I do wish I could get the stars out of the field, those 8th- and 9th-magnitude stars.)

When I started observing Hickson 14, it was just barely at standing height—I could keep my feet on the ground while looking into the eyepiece. A couple of minutes into the observation, though, I needed about a quarter-step on the ladder.

From Hickson to Shakhbazian. This next might be my favorite observation of the whole run, and a target I’ll make multiple return trips to.

PGCs 8315, 8330, 8329, 8340, 8328, 96667 (Shakhbazian 317; Cet): Had it not been a great night already, this would have clinched it;
 this is Shakhbazian 317 in Cetus, and I am really impressed that it shows so well on a night when the transparency seems so poor. This is a very challenging string of galaxies beginning N of a 12.5-magnitude star and proceeding NF from there; or, rather, the 12.5-magnitude star has a 13th-magnitude star S very slightly P it by 2.75’, and then from the 12.5-magnitude star 2’ N very slightly F is the first of the galaxies [PGC 8315] in the string; this one is somewhat diffuse, but it does have either a very small brighter core or a substellar nucleus, possibly both; if it is both, then the core is not very bright. That galaxy is about 0.5’ in diameter and pretty well defined. 2.75’ NF that first galaxy by 2.75’ is the first of a pair of tiny galaxies; the first of these [PGC 8330] looks smaller than the other, maybe 0.25’ at best, with almost no central concentration at all. The next [PGC 8329] is F somewhat N of the previous; those two are separated only by 0.67’, and the second one is much the brighter; it’s 0.5’ in diameter, with a small, sudden, very slightly brighter core and a very faint stellar nucleus. From that galaxy 2.75’ NF is a 13th-magnitude star, and that star has 0.67’ S somewhat F it another small galaxy [PGC 8340]; this one is round, with a very slightly brighter small core and a very faint stellar nucleus. With the 10mm Delos, the nucleus is really popping out of [PGC 8315]. It looks like there’s another galaxy [PGC 8328] between [PGC 8315] and [PGC 8330]; there’s a very diffuse, very difficult faint (but not averted-vision) object there, about halfway between [PGC 8315] and [PGC 8330]; the nucleus is now really obvious in [PGC 8329]. There may actually be a second one [PGC 96667] there on the NF end, 1.3’ due S of [PGC 8340]; it’s very small, but has a distinct nucleus to it, and there may be a 16th-magnitude star just off the NF edge of it. So that’s six galaxies there; I know there are more that I could probably tweeze out with higher magnification on a more-transparent night, but that’s a fantastic sight nonetheless.

The seeing and transparency both visibly wavered while I was observing Shakhbazian 317; there might have been some largely-invisible cirrus or the like moving through Cetus at the time. The southern reaches of the sky seemed a bit hazy, but no worse than usual. The air was clammy, as if on the verge of dewfall, but that too was common here in the early fall.

I somehow missed PGC 8326, which was situated next to PGC 8328. I will, of course, have to revisit Shk 317 under better conditions regardless.

I had previously observed NGC 100 with EAS’ fine homemade 18-inch scope, but after observing fainter quarry for much of the evening, I was ready for something easier. I needed better notes on it anyway.

NGC 100 (Psc):
 NGC 100 is a very fine flat galaxy!  It’s about 3’ x 0.25’, oriented in 70˚ PA; it doesn’t have much in the way of central brightening, but it still looks mottled or irregular in brightness, and is well defined. Every so often I get a hint that the F side of the galaxy has a sharper cutoff; I won’t say if it’s a dust lane. The galaxy has a 13th-magnitude star 4.5’ SP it, and then 1.75’ S very slightly P the galaxy is a 15th-magnitude star. 10’ F somewhat S is the brightest in the field, which is 8th magnitude. P somewhat N by 5.5’ is a 12th-magnitude star. Along the major axis to the N, just outside the N end of the galaxy, is a 15.5-magnitude star that has another 15.5-magnitude star NP it by 1’; there are a lot of really faint stars in the near vicinity of the galaxy. 12’ P somewhat S of the galaxy by 12’ is a 10th-magnitude star that’s part of a long arc of nine; that star is third from N, and the arc starts at the P edge of the field and terminates S of the galaxy. 

I decided, in a moment of sheer laziness, that the view in the 14mm Explore was enough, and I didn’t need the Delos. Observing was supposed to be fun, right? (That’s the excuse I’m providing, and I’m sticking with it.)

UGC 260 (Psc): UGC 260 is not actually that far from NGC 100, and is also a reasonably-bright galaxy; I’m always mystified at some of the stuff that gets missed up there by great observers of the past, and this is one of those objects. This one is 2.0’ x 0.25’, elongated in PA˚ 20. The central third is slightly brighter than the rest of it, and every so often there seems to be a nucleus visible that’s skewed a little bit toward the P edge. It has a 13.5-magnitude star F slightly N it by 2.25’; that star has a double star N of it by 2’, consisting of a 13.5-magnitude star that has a 14.5-magnitude companion to the S by 4”. 3’ N of the galaxy is a 14.5-magnitude star. There’s an asterism N of the galaxy that kind of looks like a tilted F-16 headed toward the P, with a vaguely N-S line of three as the tail and a row of fainter stars just N of the galaxy (including the double and the 14.5-magnitude star N of the galaxy) as the S-most of the swept wings. The S-most star in the “tail” is 8’ N somewhat F the galaxy and is 12th magnitude; it has 3’ N very slightly P it another 12th-magnitude star, and that star has a 10.5-magnitude star 1’ N of it. The brightest star in that F-16 asterism is 7’ NP the galaxy and is magnitude 9.5. The seeing isn’t steady enough for the 7mm, but it does show that the “nucleus” is a 15.5-magnitude star just outside the P edge of the galaxy.

How did I miss PGC 1652, just P UGC 260?

I had the 7mm Nagler in my pocket, and used it rather than jumping down to get the Delos for UGC 260.

It was nearly 3 AM now, and I’d had a night full of wonders. I could’ve stopped there—Dan was dozing in his chair—but the Universe was pressing me to keep going, in the same way that religious or military people feel called by some higher power. I had more to observe, because there was more to observe.

Palomar 2 (Aur): One that wasn’t on my agenda for the night: Palomar 2 in Auriga. I’m more than a bit surprised that I picked this up as easily as I did, but this both brighter and larger than I expected; it’s 1.25’ in diameter, and obviously quite faint and diffuse, but unmistakable in the field. Inside the cluster, on the SP side, is an individual star that’s visible above the background glow of the cluster. 2.25’ F very slightly N of the cluster is a 13.5-magnitude star that has a 15th-magnitude star 0.5’ N of it. 8’ S somewhat F the cluster is an 11th-magnitude star; there’s a 10th-magnitude star S of the cluster by 10’; then N somewhat P the cluster by 6’ is a 13th-magnitude star at the NF end of a squashed narrow trapezoid that is elongated P-F. Due N of the cluster by 14’ is the brightest in an arc of three; that star is 11.5 magnitude, and has F very slightly S of it by 2.25’ a 12.5-magnitude star that has 4’ SF it a 12th-magnitude star. 

Pal 2 was in quite a bad position for me ladder-wise; I had to stop in the middle of the observation for a minute’s rest.

Spurred on by Palomar 2, I swung the scope back south for a globular that was on my list, one that I had seen before in similar conditions but with the smaller 12.5-inch scope. I fully expected it to be my last object for the night.

NGC 1049 (For): After all of my galaxy hunting, it’s odd that I’m ending with globulars, although this one was at least on the agenda. I’ve seen NGC 1049 before under similarly-mediocre conditions and with a smaller scope, but this is probably the better of the two views. I suspect it’s bigger than 0.3’ in diameter, but this far north, that’s about all I can see of it. The cluster does come to a nearly-stellar point in the center. The surrounding field is really barren (probably a function of atmospheric extinction as much as of an actual dearth of stars there); there’s an 11.5-magnitude star due N of the cluster by 7.5’, a 13th-magnitude star P very slightly S of the cluster by 5’, and a 13.5-magnitude star 10’ S very very slightly F the cluster. 16’ S very very slightly P is an 8th-magnitude star, and N somewhat F by 15’ is a 10th-magnitude star that has a 10.5-magnitude star due F it by 3.75’.  We’ll try the 7mm here; it’s gotta be good for something tonight. (I know there are other globulars there; I don’t know that I’ve got the patience for them.) The seeing down there is atrocious right now, like looking across the bottom of a swimming pool. At this magnification, the cluster looks a little bit lumpy, actually; as if there are more stars resolved on the P side.

Adventures in transcription: the auto-transcriber wrote “Fornax Dwarf Galaxy” as “floor next to worse galaxy.” Maybe I just enunciate poorly….

But I noticed, as I was finishing with NGC 1049, that there was another similar (but smaller) spot in the vicinity, one that was clearly non-stellar. Could it be another…?

Fornax 4 (For):
 This one is a real surprise, given how appallingly-low we are in the sky—NGC 1049 is only 11˚ above the horizon, and this second Fornax Dwarf globular is S of it. Using the 8th-magnitude star S very slightly P NGC 1049 as a guidepost; that star has F slightly S by 8’ a tiny fuzzy speck… well, it’s actually not that tiny, relatively; it’s a little under 0.25’ diameter. It seems to have a threshold-level star N very close to it, but it’s jumping around; I’m having that “sparkle vision” effect there. From the cluster SF by 5.5’ is the P-most of a triangle, which is… in the terrible atmospheric extinction down there I’m gonna say that’s 13th magnitude; it has 1.3’ F somewhat S of it an 11th-magnitude star that has 0.75’ S very very slightly P it a 13th-magnitude star. That’s a pretty incredible sighting under the circumstances! It doesn’t look like much, but knowing what it is makes it more than worth the effort; I’ll have to return here with a chart to find the others if I can.

I didn’t know which globular this one actually was until I got home and was able to check Alvin Huey’s Local Group observing guide, and it annoyed me that I didn’t have his guide chart for the Fornax Dwarf (“for next worth,” according to the app) globulars with me at the time, given that I had NGC 1049 on my observing list; that was a distinct lack of preparation on my part. The next time out with the 20-inch, I’ll be ready, as I now have the chart stored on my phone.

It was after 4 AM that I started teardown of the monster scope—six hours since I began my first set of notes, and nine hours after getting the Obsession assembled. I had put in twenty hours’ observing during the three nights of the late September/early October run… not a bad stretch quality-wise, and phenomenal quality-wise (despite the sometimes murky skies). Flat galaxies, galaxy groups, faint globular clusters, planetary moons… I may not have done valuable scientific work, or accomplished something tangible and lasting, but this was my calling. As Carl Sagan had put it, I was the Universe knowing itself.

I had no regrets as I tore down the big telescope for the night; the observing session had reached a natural and fulfilling end, and I still had energy for the drive home. Dan headed out just ahead of me, as I was stowing my table and ladder in the Flex (on opposite sides of the Obsession).

I took a last look around the site, checking for anything we might’ve left behind, and then a final glance at the rising winter stars. There would no doubt be a few more opportunities to stargaze before the rain and clouds broke in the spring, but if I had seen the last of the autumn sky for 2022, it had been a glorious hurrah.


Raga Hemant is a post-monsoon season autumn raga. The first video shows its contemplative aspect, the second a more-virtuosic side. Both performances put into sound the exhilaration of the fall stargazing season. The lead instrument in both is the sarod, a fretless cousin of the sitar.

Gifts From The Universe

Australopithicenes, like humans, are generally non-hibernating animals; activity may slow during the winter months, but it rarely ceases altogether. Even among those of the astronomy persuasion, sufficient stargazing opportunity is enough to drag the weary out into the cold and/or damp to partake of the starry panoply. 

The winter of 2020/2021 provided none of those opportunities. After the September wildfires in the Willamette Valley, we had one observing session until March, when the crappy weather of the western Oregon winter finally began to break and the heavens revealed themselves once again. Had I not finished the Herschel 400 and Herschel II programs the previous spring—had the winter of 2020 not been unexpectedly generous in clear nights—I would be stuck until 2022 before I would have an opportunity to close out those two long-running projects.

Now, of course, I had other projects to work on… most notably, the Astronomical League’s Planetary Nebula and Flat Galaxy observing programs. And while the flat galaxies beckoned, it was the planetary nebulae that needed more urgent attention after the constant rains of the previous five months.

I. And so it was that, when the first Clear Sky Chart forecast came through showing a Moonless night free of clouds and having decent transparency, the astronomers of the Willamette nearly fell over ourselves getting out of town. We convened at Linslaw Point; Mark was set up already, prepping his imaging gear; Jerry and Dan R had the 20″ TriDob, Loren his 18″ Obsession, and I brought Bob the faithful Dob, the better to try to finish the planetary nebula observations I needed before repeating them all with the 20″ Obsession. Dan B and Alesha had his refractor/11″ SCT combo, as he’d sent his 16″ Dob mirror off for recoating at Spectrum. As darkness fell, we managed some wilderness socializing; most of us had had numerous get-togethers during the long hiatus, but it had been a long damp spell as far as social observing went. And when the magic hour of astronomical twilight arrived, it was back to “work.”

MOON: 28 days (set at 4:32 PM; 2% illuminated)
SEEING: 7, 5
SQM: 21.49-21.53
NELM: not checked
WEATHER CONDITIONS: temps to lower 50s; no dew; mild breeze, pleasant


All observations: 12.5″ f/5 Discovery Dob, 14mm ES 82˚ eyepiece (112x, 0.7˚ TFOV) or 7mm TeleVue Nagler (225x, 0.36˚ TFOV) unless otherwise noted

IC 418 (Lep): Got a full house here at Linslaw: Loren and Mark and Jerry and Dan and Dan and Alesha; this is the first time this year that I’m observing with the intent to take notes. We’re starting off with a nice look at IC 418 in Lepus, which I’d taken notes on before at Steve Rogers’ house in Murphysboro. It’s fairly small, but nowhere near as tiny as those stellar-sized planetaries; as seen in the 14mm with no filter, this one’s 10” in diameter, quite round, and has a very bright central star relative to the nebula. The central star (not accounting for extinction from the nebula) looks to be about 10th magnitude. The color of the nebula that’s so noticeable in photographs isn’t quite there visually, at least for colorblind me; it’s definitely not the color that you would expect from a planetary: there’s definitely a trace of color, even if it’s not really identifiable, it’s almost brownish or tan. Due F the nebula by 2.5’ is a 12.5-magnitude star, and then S somewhat P that star by 1.5’ is a 13.5-magnitude star. NP the nebula by 3.5’ is another 12.5-magnitude star that has a 13.5-magnitude star NF it by 0.5’, and those two stars look vaguely fuzzy, like there are unresolved stars in the area, but even in averted I’m not really able to pick anything up [There’s a 16.8-magnitude galaxy, PGC 949730, between the two stars—I must have glimpsed it to have made a note of it.]. F slightly N of the nebula by 17’ is a 9.5-magnitude star; there’s a 10th-magnitude star 10’ F somewhat S, and that is the right-angle vertex of a right triangle that consists of those two brighter stars and the nebula. P very very slightly N of the nebula by 10.5’ is a pair angled SP-NF to each other, with the NF one the brighter; those are separated by 0.5’ and are 11th and 12th magnitudes. I don’t know that it’ll be possible to use the 7mm Nagler for much tonight because the seeing isn’t super steady, at least this early; it’s not bad, but down this low it’s probably only 5 1/2 or 6 (which actually isn’t bad especially for Eugene in the winter). Without the UHC filter, there was a sense that the interior of the nebula was irregularly bright and there were areas of darkness within it, as small as it was; now, with the filter added, the interior’s just kind of blown out or “overexposed.” It’s clearly the brightest object in the region, but now the central star really isn’t discernible amid the nebula itself; it’s just very very bright and the quality that it had with the unaided, unfiltered view is kind of overwhelmed: the very delicate spectral look to it is overwhelmed by having the UHC on it, and the color isn’t visible like it was. Let’s just try the O-III just to say that we did it… but I definitely prefer the unfiltered view to the contrast-boosted version the O-III provides. In the 7mm, the nebula is definitely much brighter and more impressive, the central star still very easy. The SF edge of the rim is just a little brighter than the rest of the shell (I did note this in the 14mm as well); there may be a gap in the nebula toward the NF, and I’m definitely getting a sense like there’s a slightly brighter envelope just around the central star between the mottling and the rim, and that the outer rim is slightly broken up or incomplete. The odd color of the nebula is less evident in the 7mm than in the 14mm.

Before my switch from the 14mm to the 7mm, I stopped by Loren’s scope to take a look at Hind’s Crimson Star, one of the deeper-red carbon stars in the heavens. It appeared pale orange to me, in part because it wasn’t at brightness minimum, where carbon stars are usually at their most colorful, but also due to my eyes’ poor red sensitivity.

And then, back to planetaries, and the other one I’d taken notes on from Steve Rogers’ house in Murphysboro those (seemingly) many years ago.

NGC 2022 (Ori): The Collarbone Nebula—not one of my favorite nicknames, but at least it’s understandable, given that the nebula lies in the collarbone region of Orion. A pox upon the insistence on giving all objects popular names! This is the other one I took notes on (with IC 418) at Steve’s house in Murphysboro six or seven years ago, and this is definitely a more impressive look at it than I had then… obviously, given the quality of the skies there. In the 14mm, the nebula appears 0.3’ across. It has a brighter central region that makes up about 3/4 of that diameter, and a fuzzy outer edge at which the brightness drops off pretty considerably. I’m not picking up a central star, although there are suggestions that one should be visible. There’s no color to note, as with IC 418, just the greyness typical of most nebulae. From time to time I get a hint that there’s a stellaring on the S slightly P edge of it, but otherwise the disk itself doesn’t seem to have any irregularity in brightness; for a few moments I thought I saw a dark streak across the middle of it, but that was likely just illusory. NF the nebula by 1.5’ is a 13.5-magnitude star; there’s a 12th-magnitude star the same direction about 1’ from the 13.5-magnitude star, and then almost due N of that star by 1’ is another 12th-magnitude star. 1’ due F that last 12th-magnitude star is a 14th-magnitude star that’s surprisingly uncertain and difficult to hold. SP the nebula by 3’ is another 12th-magnitude star, and there’s another P slightly N of the nebula by 3.5’. The brightest star in the field is 7.5 magnitude and is P somewhat N of the nebula by 12’; it’s the middle star in a N slightly P-S slightly F line of five stars; the second from the S end of that line is a faint double, and the 7.5-magnitude star also has one P very very slightly S of it by about 1’; that faint double is oriented N-S and the two are about 12.5 magnitude, separated by 0.25’. With the UHC… oh, wow! That brightened the nebula a hell of a lot, actually. It definitely seems like there is an extra brightening on the SP. There’s also an impression here in the UHC that the nebula comes to a brighter point in the center, and I’m not sure I can shake that impression. Swapping in the O-III…  the view is similar to that in the UHC, but the nebula’s even brighter. There’s still no central star, beyond a hint that there should be; the central region is another “step” brighter than it was before. With the 7mm Nagler… that’s a great view!  At times there seems to be some annularity or a darker center, but I still don’t think it’s real; I did note it in the 14mm, but it didn’t seem certain beyond a fleeting impression. The SF quadrant seems to be a little bit more diffuse than the rest, a little less defined. There also seems to be a little tuft or filament of fainter nebulosity coming off the F side, just a tiny bit to the N; that’s only visible in averted vision. The previous impression of something on the SP quadrant is still there; I’m pretty sure there’s something in the nebulosity at that point—either an embedded star or a stellaring within the nebula itself.

The breeze turned cold, rumbling in the background of my audio notes. Time for gloves to go on, preferably with hand warmers stuffed inside.

During the course of this observation, Loren was observing NGC 1535, the bright Eridanus planetary dubbed “Cleopatra’s Eye,” and our conversation turned to an injury he’d suffered at the site. I won’t delve into details, but will make note of it here for history’s sake; future generations of Willamette Valley observers will speak of it with hushed whispers.

NGCs 2452, 2453 (Pup): This is a planetary that gets to go on the never-before seen list, NGC 2452 in Puppis, and it’s just south of a fine open cluster [NGC 2453]—how these did not make the Herschel 400 and Herschel II lists, I don’t know. [Possibly because William Herschel didn’t discover them… duh.] The nebula is decent-sized: perhaps 0.3’, and rather faint, but not super-faint; it’s definitely noticeable immediately upon seeing the cluster. These two are in a very nice Milky Way starfield. The center of the nebula is very slightly dimmer than the outer edge, but there’s no notable central star, and there’s certainly no real color to the nebula. (Seeing’s not great down here; we’re pretty low.) Due S of the cluster by 5.75’ is a double star or pair separated by 0.3’, and these are roughly P-F to each other; they’re pretty equal at 11th magnitude. There’s also a 10th-magnitude star 8’ SP the nebula. The brightest star in the field is P slightly N by 13’ and is 9th magnitude. The brightest star in the cluster is 9.5 magnitude and lies 9.5’ N very very slightly F the nebula; it’s the N-most corner of the cluster, and has 1.25’ S slightly F it a 10.5 magnitude star; and then S slightly F that star by 1.25’ is an 11.5-magnitude star. In between those two fainter stars, and following those, is the bulk of the cluster in a triangular 1.25’ splatter. The cluster extends from there to the SF by 2.5’, and is much richer on the S and the SF ends, with a scattering of brighter stars over the top of a very dense rich patch, with a lot of stars beyond resolution. But the nebula is the primary object of interest here, so let’s throw the UHC filter in here and see if anything happens. With the filter the contrast makes it seem much brighter, but there’s still not a lot of detail to be had; there’s no sense that there is a central star or anything. I’ve noticed in doing these nebulas that the smaller ones benefit much more from the added magnification of the 7mm Nagler than they do from the filters; I don’t think the UHC helps or even the O-III helps quite as much as just doubling the magnification with the 7mm eyepiece. So with the 7mm, there is a very faint star just outside the edge of the fringe on the N, just outside of the nebula. The nebula itself seems to display a little bit of irregularity in brightness and in internal shape, internal structure; the center seems very vaguely dimmer than the rim. That star to the N, the threshold star, almost seems nebulous in and of itself; obviously it’s not, but it almost seems that way. Every so often I get a trace of darkness in the nebula’s interior, and there does seem to be some irregularity to the shape of the internal disk. It’s a nice little nebula at this magnification.

It was during the previous observation that I noticed something glowing in the rough patches of ground near where I was set up. It turned out to be a glowworm, possibly from the same species as the one Jeff L had discovered at Eureka Ridge during a previous observing session. I watched the glowworm to make sure it didn’t come my way, where it could get injured accidentally. It eventually wandered the opposite direction, and I went back to observing with my full attention on the sights in the eyepiece.

The next few objects required sitting on the ground, getting lower and lower in the sky. Given the poor transparency down that low, and the presence of the Roseburg light dome, it was difficult finding even naked-eye guide stars, let alone the ghostly shells of dying suns.

Mi3-6 (Pyx): Sitting on the ground here (as usual), with the small, not overly-impressive, but nonetheless interesting Minkowski 3-6 in Pyxis. It’s quite small, but still, even down this low, it’s still pretty obviously not stellar, maybe 8” across. It has a number of faint stars N and P it, including a pair of which one is due P by 1’, and that is 12.5-magnitude; there’s one of almost equal magnitude, just slightly fainter, P very very slightly N of that star by 0.67’. 22’ F somewhat N of the nebula is a bluish-white 7.5-magnitude star. N very very slightly P the nebula by 14’ is a double: a 9th-magnitude star that has 5” S very slightly P it an 11th-magnitude star. From the nebula S slightly F by 5.5’ is the brighter of another pair; those may have only 7” separation, and consist of an 11th-magnitude star with a 12.5-magnitude star S very very slightly F it. 7’ S slightly P the nebula is another 11th-magnitude star. With the UHC, the nebula brightens considerably and gives even greater evidence of its non-stellarness. It seems like it might be very, very slightly oblong, elongated SP-NF slightly, but it’s very very difficult to tell at this magnification. Oddly enough, in the UHC, I almost get a sense that the central star is visible; it could just be the interior of the nebula, with there being a very, very small faint outer halo or outer rim around that interior.With the O-III, I’m not really getting much of a distinction from the view in the UHC, at least at first glance; it’s still definitely one of the brighter objects in the field now with the increase in contrast. The nebula seems almost smaller in the O-III than in the UHC, as if there was an outer halo to it before that’s gone now, and the sense that it’s an extended object isn’t there anymore either. With the 7mm… that’s the way to look at it! It’s plain as day non-stellar; this is by far the best view of it. Again, it seems like there’s an outer fringe or halo to it that wasn’t certain at lower power. The elongation seems to really be there, NvvsP-SvvsF; it’s 8” x 5”—very slight but definite. Maybe there IS a central star visible… perhaps in averted vision it’s visible, but it may be that the center of the nebula’s just that much brighter now. This is definitely the best view of the nebula.

Spurred on by my success in finding a non-NGC planetary so far south, I pressed my luck further.

NGC 2818 (Pyx): OK, I’m gonna pat myself on the back for this one, because I did not think I was gonna be able to find it from here at this latitude. This is NGC 2018 in Pyxis, for which the designation works for the cluster and for the planetary; we’ll argue about that one for a while, but the cluster, down this low, is very, very hazy, very faint; the individual stars are considerably faint for the most part; there’s a scattering, especially on the N end, of star-pairs, the majority aligned N-S. But the nebula is visible about 2/3 of the way from N-S in the cluster. The nebula’s elongated almost due P-F and spans 0.5’ x 0.3’. It’s pretty faint and very diffuse down here and might be mistaken for a faint galaxy. 11’ P very very slightly S of the nebula is a star that looks to be about 9th magnitude [it’s actually 9.5], but extinction is a problem here. 3.75’ NP the nebula is an 11th-magnitude star, and again that’s probably kind of a false magnitude. The cluster is very ambiguously-defined and looks to be about 10’ x 6’ P-F; due S of the nebula by 2.75’ is a knot of stars just on the edge of resolution, and there look to be about four or five stars there of 14th and 14.5 magnitude. F very slightly S of the nebula by 2.5’ is a 12th-magnitude star; again, it’s probably a lot brighter. There’s no real hint of a central star to the nebula, and no color in it but gray. Nor is there much in the way of a central brightening to it here at this magnification unfiltered. So we’re going to throw the UHC on it. (I’d  still like to have time enough to go for the Eight-Burst, but I’m going to show off this one to show Jerry and Dan when I’m done.) The cluster is going to disappear because it’s relatively very faint, and it’s gonna just leave the nebula. The UHC really brings the nebula out; it’s still not great. The nebula is brighter N-S on the N-S axis than it is on the major axis, and the ends of the major axis are rather indistinct. I’m going to say that it’s more like 0.67’ x 0.3’. It really really looks like a galaxy from this latitude. I want to try the O-III and see what we come up with. In the O-III, the cluster even looks better suddenly. The cluster is kind-of detached, with a huge range of magnitudes and lots of unresolved background glow; there are probably 18 actual members plus the background glow. The nebula’s definitely brightest on the S end of the minor axis, but it’s really hard to tell anything else because the O-III just kills it. With the 7mm… oh, wow.  It almost has a rectangular shape to it. That change to the 7mm is a huge gamebreaker here. The nebula’s kind of vaporous on the ends of the major axis, and still no hint of a central star. A great view, considering how far south this is and how mediocre the seeing is. If this passed overhead, these would be a really famous pair of objects!

I had to check my recording app during this set of notes, fearing that I’d forgotten to start recording. Having done so once, I wasn’t taking chances with these more-difficult objects; who knows when the next opportunity to observe them will arise?

I also made sure to tell Jerry and Dan R to take a look at the NGC 2818 pairing; they were fans of the M46/NGC 2438 combo in Puppis, so the opportunity to see another planetary/open cluster pairing was a rare one. They were more than interested, even if it required sitting on the ground to look.

The next target was one that I’d seen decades before, with only my 70mm Pronto, on a memorable trip with not-yet-Mrs. Caveman and her then-landlords from Flagstaff. It would be a good one to end the evening on, too… if I could find it with no visible guide stars.

NGC 3132 (Vel): This one is the last of what’s been a very productive night, and it’s one I’ll again pat myself on the back for finding—this is NGC 3132 in Vela, the Eight-Burst Nebula, as seen from 44° North latitude, so hey, congratulations to me. I can’t believe I found it down here, basically with no guide stars! It’s an impressively large nebula– still smaller than I anticipated it being, but also very very impressive nonetheless. I’m using the UHC at the moment; I’m almost literally scraping the horizon here to find it; we are about 5° above the horizon, judging from the Telrad. So the nebula does not show a whole lot; it’s fairly bright but there’s not a lot of detail forthcoming. I did find it without the UHC, and the central star is still visible regardless. The nebula is elongated NvsP-SvsF and is much more indistinct on the N end than the S; on the N end, it kind of fades out gradually. It’s about 0.75’ x 0.5’. I’m just astounded that this thing can be seen from up here; I did see it from the Panamint Valley a long time ago (25 years ago!), in the Pronto, but it was tiny then, obviously. It’s very very diffuse on the edges, especially along the major axis. No color is visible… hardly a surprise given how low it is, and the fact that it’s near the meridian but still in the light dome from Roseburg. (I’m taking the filter out to get some notes on the field.) The central star is really bright; I’m sure my estimate will be way off, given the amount of extinction down this low, but it appears to be about 10th magnitude. SF the nebula by 2.3’ is the more N of a pair of 11th-magnitude stars, separated by about 1’ from the second, which looks a little tiny bit brighter and lies about 1’ SvsP the first. PvsN the nebula by 5.75’ is the P of a P-F pair, of which the P is considerably the brighter at magnitude 10.5, with an 11th-magnitude star F by 0.67’. NsF by 10’ is what I would normally say would be a 9th-magnitude star [it’s 9.5]; it’s the P-most of an arc of three that proceed FvsS and then SsF in 4’ increments; due S of the nebula by 16’ is the brightest in the field, which is probably an 8th-magnitude star [it’s 8.5].  In the 7mm Nagler, this is a really fine planetary nebula (even for this far south), with what looks like a lot of gauzy internal texture in the central region, which is not quite 0.5’ around the central star, and then the ends of the shells extend farther from it. I can only imagine what this one is like from about 15° farther south (since my only other sighting was with a 70mm scope). It reminds me a little bit of NGC 1501 in Camelopardalis; it also has a little bit of NGC 1514 (the Crystal Ball) in it. That is a really awesome nebula!

Loren had left, and others were following. Having showed Jerry and Dan the Eight-Burst, and with all of us in agreement that it had been a fantastic night, we packed up, leaving Mark to finish his images underneath a still-starry sky.

II. Our next observing session took place on the other side of New Moon; as expected of March, clouds and clear skies took alternating turns throughout the month. The Clear Sky Charts for the region showed the Oxbow as the site with the best observing conditions, so off we went on the difficult, winding drive down to the southwest. I wasn’t totally focused this particular evening; I had an endoscopy the next morning, to figure out the source of my random choking episodes. I was also annoyed by my phone’s insistence on switching back to Standard Time at random intervals (as we’d just switched to PDT), which meant that I had to keep track of the start times on my observation notes so that they were accurate. And at some point while we were setting up, Dan commented that my winter gear made me look like Yukon Cornelius from the old Rankin/Bass Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. It was a gag that stuck around all night.

I was working at higher declinations tonight—fortunate, given the uneven southern horizon at the site. Conditions weren’t great, but the stars beckoned.

The Oxbow crew (L-R): Jerry’s 12″ binoscope, Loren and his 18″ Obsession, Dan B and his hybrid 11″ SCT/5″ refractor rig, and yours truly with Bob the Dob. Robert A had not yet arrived. Photo by Jerry Oltion (hence his absence from the photo).

MOON: 3 days (set at 10:50 PM; 8% illuminated)
SQM: 21.56
NELM: not checked
WEATHER CONDITIONS: temps to upper 40s; no dew; breezy

All observations: 12.5″ f/5 Discovery Dob, 14mm ES 82˚ eyepiece (112x, 0.7˚ TFOV) or 7mm TeleVue Nagler (225x, 0.36˚ TFOV) unless otherwise noted

J320 (Ori): Back at the Oxbow. We still have a waxing crescent moon hanging out for another couple of hours in the sky, but we’re looking at some bright little planetaries tonight, so I’m making it work; the very first one of the night, which I’ve been tracking for quite a while, is Jonkheere 320 in Orion, and after several nights’ attempts at getting this one I’ve finally done it. This is quite a small nebula with just a tiny bit of N-S elongation, around what’s either a very bright central region or a central star that’s just overpowering everything (I suspect the latter). That central star looks to be 10.5 magnitude. The nebula spans 7” x 4”; it’s distinctly non-stellar, but between the moonlight and everything else, it’s kind of hard to get a fix on the actual nebulosity. The nebula makes up the NP corner of a pentagon that has kind of a “king’s crown” shape to it; it’s flattened at the top and very wide. The nebula is also the NF vertex of a small flat isosceles triangle, and is on the following end of the long side of that triangle. Due P the nebula by 1.75’ is a 13th-magnitude star; there’s a 12th-magnitude star about 1.5’ SP that star, and those are the stars in the little triangle with the nebula; the nebula and the 12th-magnitude star are separated by about 3’, and then S somewhat F the nebula by 4.75’ is a 9th-magnitude star; and that star and the nebula make up one side of the pentagon. F the nebula by 16’ is an 8th-magnitude star which has another 8th-magnitude star S very slightly P it by 3.75’; the two 8th-magnitude stars make up one side of the crown-pentagon, the nebula and the 9th-magnitude star make up the other, and the point, the top of the crown of the pentagon, is a 10.5-magnitude star F somewhat N of the nebula by 9’. The nebula shows a little more character in the UHC; if that’s the central star, it’s just as bright with the filter, so I don’t think it’s actually the central star, just a tiny bright central region within the nebula. That’s a difficult pickup; there’s no color or anything in terms of detail at this magnification. With the O-III, the nebula is equal in magnitude to the 9th-magnitude star, so the filter boosted the contrast for sure, but it hasn’t improved the view much otherwise; it’s slightly fuzzy but still not super-easy to pick out as a nebula at first glance. Seeing just is not good enough for the magnification of the 7mm Nagler, but once again, the 7mm does more than the filters in the 14mm do. It’s definitely a nebulous object now, and I couldn’t say that with certainty at 112x at first glance. There’s still just a little bit of N-S elongation here even in the poorer seeing; maybe 7” x 5” (so basically the same dimensions as in the 14mm), but there’s definitely a faint central star visible in addition to the brighter central region.

I made a note to start using my 4.8mm Nagler on these smaller planetaries, in addition to the 7mm; the 4.8 would yield 328x with a 15-arcminute field. (True to form, as of this writing, I still haven’t done it.)

Loren’s current agenda is the AL’s list of carbon stars, and he and Dan were busy tracking down FU Monocerotis, which was near minimum and proving to be a difficult find (as it would be, among the rich starfields of Monoceros). This led to a spate of “FU, Mon” jokes throughout the night.

J900 (Gem): Sticking with our Jonkheeres here; this is J900 in Gemini, and it was a bugger to find, too. It is just above stellar, and without working from a photograph I could not have found it; as it was, it took me quite a while. The nebula is no more than 7” and has a 12.5-magnitude star just outside of it on the SP. There’s no color. As with J320, J900 has either a central star that overwhelms most of the nebulosity or a very bright, very small core; in this case, I think it’s a visible central star. Our seeing appears to have steadied up again, too, so I’m now able to get a much better focus. I’m also higher in the sky than I was here up in Gemini. The nebula is third from P in a long line of 8th- and 9th-magnitude stars that stretches pretty much across the entire field; at the P end is the brightest in the line, which is P the nebula by 14’ and is 8.5 magnitude; there’s a 9th-magnitude star 5’ P very very slightly N of the nebula. F very very slightly N by 9’ is a 9th-magnitude star. Due F the nebula by 15’ is a 9.5-magnitude star that is at the S very slightly F end of a 2’ long line of fainter stars. I fished the O-III out of my pocket first, so we’ll start with it: OK, that’s almost too overpowering for the nebula; it really greatens the contrast, but doesn’t really help distinguish it from the background stars that much; it eliminates the 12.5-magnitude star almost entirely, but doesn’t do much else. It’s distinguishable as a nebula mainly by its lack of focus… although the filter does make the halo around the central star seem brighter, as opposed to the whole outer envelope; the central star/nexus of nebula is much, much brighter. Changing filters, I think the UHC does a better job here because it doesn’t brighten the nebula as much as the O-III, but doesn’t strip away the obvious nebulous character to it; it works as a nice middle ground. It’s distinctly more nebulous here than in the O-III, and the 12.5-magnitude star is still barely visible. This is the best view of it in the 14mm; I might’ve recognized it as a planetary without knowing it was there in the field. With the 7mm: this is absolutely the best view; it really separates the 12.5-magnitude star from the nebula. This is also the best view as far as identifying it as a nebula; it displays much more nebulous character in the 7mm. The seeing is still not great, but the nebula is definitely nebulous here in ways that it wasn’t at 112x: it has actual, tangible size to it now. There’s still no color in it, but it’s unmistakable as a planetary here in the 7mm, even with the UHC added.

Historical tidbit: Robert Jonckheere was a French astronomer (likely of Flemish extraction) who specialized in double stars.

It had started getting legitimately cold on the rough, paved outcropping of the site, and the breeze had turned more distinctly into wind. I bundled up further. Jerry, Robert, and Dan were busy comparing notes on the Orion Nebula, and Loren was still engrossed in the carbon star hunt, so I don’t know if I looked even more like Yukon Cornelius after adding more winter clothing.

Mi1-7 (Gem): Staying in Gemini with Minkowski 1-7, but this one is much more difficult than the Jonckheeres. Sky Safari lists it as 0.3’ x 0.2’, but I’ll be damned if I see it as anything but an out-of-focus spot; it has little dimension to it beyond an averted-vision 6” spot. I don’t see it elongated, but it has a very distracting 10th-magnitude star 1’ PvsN it and a 14th-magnitude star F it by 0.75’, and those two really confuse the eye. NP by 14’ is a 9th-magnitude star that has a long string of eight 12th-/12.5-magnitude stars that extends almost due F it; it’s not a perfectly straight line; six of the stars are in that line and two are kind of out of line. S of the nebula by about 8’ or 9’ each (SP and SF) is a pair of stars; the pair to the SP is separated by about 0.67’ and the one to the SF by about 1’; then S very very slightly F by about 13’ is a little scalene triangle of stars with its major axis N-S. Let’s try the UHC here and see what happens, because Sky Safari’s measurement is pretty far off while even the photograph doesn’t show anything beyond just a tiny tiny tiny substellar disk. Let’s take a look and see if there’s anything to be had there with the UHC (this is a Minkowski, so it’s not likely to be as poor as some of the other barely-above-stellar planetaries). The UHC definitely boosts the contrast; the nebula’s fuzzy, and the central star/bright core of the nebula is distinctly brighter than it was without the filter, so I’m thinking that’s a core region rather than a central star. No change in color. It’s impressive how much brighter the nebula is with the filter, because this one is really, really tough for a Minkowski; without the filter, I would not have even really thought of that as a nebula. This one might be able to take the 7mm. With the O-III, yeah… that’s the best view so far. The nebula’s definitely at least 6” across, possibly as much as 8”; it does not really want to come to a crisp focus, but with the O-III and averted vision, the central region of the nebula is almost as bright as the 10th-magnitude star 1’ to the P very very slightly N. Even in the O-III, averted vision helps quite a lot; looking straight at the nebula definitely suppresses it. In the 7mm, it has a hint of a trace of a central star, but not much. It’s distinctly a disk in the 7mm; the brighter center or central star, whichever, of the nebula seems skewed towards the SP corner of it, and the little halo around it stretches a little further in the other directions. In blinking it with the UHC, that impression that the center of the nebula’s skewed to the SP is a little stronger; it feels like there’s a central star there, but I’m pretty sure there isn’t one detectable. That’s actually a really nice nebula—the nicest one so far, and it was the least interesting in terms of the 14mm view, so that was a great improvement. (I wish I could use the 4.8 Nagler on these more often, but the seeing breaks down too easily here in the valley.)

Robert decided he’d had enough, with work in the morning and a long hour’s drive back to civilization. (It was amazing how isolated one could feel on the edge of a substantial road.) As he headed out, I realized how cold I had gotten sitting there, picking these tiny nebulae out of the inky March sky. I decided to set off in search of bigger quarry, with the early spring sky now at the meridian: Abell 31 in Cancer, one of the largest of all planetaries as seen from the skies of Earth.

The nebula lies across the southern half of a diamond of bright (8th/9th magnitude) stars, and though I found the diamond, I wasn’t able to glean more than a photon or two of the nebula, no matter what eyepiece-filter combination I used. (And it would need to be a lower-power eyepiece anyway, given the nebula’s huge size [15’!])

After twenty minutes of futile searching, I gave up on Abell 31, turning to one of its less-known Abell brethren, which had been discussed the previous day on the CloudyNights forum. It turned out to be one of the most-difficult observations I’ve ever made:

Abell 20 (CMi): Inspired by a thread on CloudyNights, I decided to go after this one anyway, despite its difficulty and the fact that it’s not on the Astronomical League Planetary Nebula program list. This is Abell 20 in Canis Minor, and there’s no way I would’ve seen it without knowing exactly where to look; this is just above the level of “an impression.” The nebula’s 1’, maybe 1.25’ in diameter. But it takes real work, even in averted vision. There’s a couple of faint stars to the SP, and maybe a central star (?).Those two faint stars are SP the nebula, one SP the other by about 0.3’, and then P very very slightly S of the nebula by about 3’ is a 10th-magnitude star that has a 12th-magnitude star 2.25’ P somewhat S of it. From the nebula SP by about 20’ is a double star, or pair, of 8.5 and 11th magnitudes, with the brighter S of the fainter by 0.5’, and then following that pair/double for about 7.5’ is a string that kind of resembles Cygnus, with the pair where Albireo would be. That star that looks like it’s the central star for the nebula is probably is 14.5 magnitude at best, maybe 15th; it may not even be directly in the center, and it looks like it has an equally-faint star N of it by about 0.67’. The O-III doesn’t help that much at all, although there is some improvement; I can hold the nebula fairly well for moments, it’s a super ghostly disk… barely, barely there. This one almost needs a hood to see, but in averted vision it is definitely there… but it is really hard to hold steady for any length of time. There’s not really a whole lot to say regarding detail, but it is visible at an eye-watering level. The O-III made it definite, but it’s not pulling out any extra detail. With the UHC, it’s still definitely there, but not quite as strongly as with the O-III. It’s not really visible with direct vision at all, but in averted, it seems like the nebula might be a little stronger on the F edge, as opposed to the P, but not a lot of other detail is visible. Surprisingly, the 7mm gives a dramatically better view than does the 14mm; I didn’t expect this to be the case with a more-extended nebulous object. It’s definitely more visible in averted here than in the 14mm averted. Filters in the 7mm are too much, though, and even the UHC makes the nebula even harder to see. Returning to the 14mm… once again, the nebula’s not very distinct at all. The unfiltered 7mm offered the best view of this ultra-faint planetary.

And with that—and a lingering look at M42—we collectively called it a night.

III. Two weeks later, we were back at Linslaw, catching some of the few dark hours before Moonrise. Although we would spend almost as much time getting to and from Linslaw as we would observing, there was no reason to waste a clear March forecast, or the camaraderie that comes with being humbled by the grandeur of the universe.

I had roughly an hour and fifteen minutes between astronomical dusk and Moonrise; with the Moon being almost full, its effects would be noticed even before it rose. I spent the falling darkness trying to track down NGC 1886, a flat galaxy in Lepus, but it was already past meridian and very low in the sky, showing next to nothing as I waited. So it was onward to planetary nebulae, then, and whatever the sky had in store.

I had, however, forgotten to take a previous target—Minkowski 3-6—off of my Sky Safari list since I had observed it two weeks before. This led to a repeat observation; while there was nothing inherently wrong with taking another set of notes on a planetary with the same scope, it took time that I might’ve used on an object I hadn’t seen (or at least taken notes on) before.

MOON: 17 days (rose at 10:27 PM; 96% illuminated)
SQM: 21.54
NELM: not checked
WEATHER CONDITIONS: temps to low 30s; no dew; some substantial breeze;” cold but not unbearable”

All observations: 12.5″ f/5 Discovery Dob, 14mm ES 82˚ eyepiece (112x, 0.7˚ TFOV) or 7mm TeleVue Nagler (225x, 0.36˚ TFOV) unless otherwise noted

Mi3-6 (redux)(Pyx): I’ve already failed to find anything to write about with NGC 1886, a flat galaxy in Lepus (which, to be fair, is well past meridian), but I’m doing better here with Minkowski 3-6, a small not-quite-stellar planetary in Pyxis. We’re sitting on the ground here and the nebula is, while not obvious, at second glance you definitely notice that it’s not stellar in the 14mm with no filter. The seeing’s not horrible down this low; I’d say it’s probably a six, so it’s about as good as I could ask for. This is a reasonably bright nebula; it’s about 10th magnitude, maybe 10.5, and it lies at the F end of a P-F little not-quite-arc of 12th- and 13th-magnitude stars. P the nebula by 1’ is a 12.5-magnitude star, and 0.67’ P very very very slightly N of that star is a 13th-magnitude star. S slightly F the nebula by 5.5’ is an 11th-magnitude star that may be double; it’s hard to tell at this magnification, but I suspect it is—I think the faint companion is S very very slightly F the primary, and there may be another one almost due F the primary, but I’ll get those better when I use the 7mm. N very very slightly P the planetary by 8’ is the more S of a pair that are almost N-S to each other; the N one is slightly brighter, but they’re very very close in magnitude; I’ll say those are 12th- and 12.2 magnitudes, separated by 0.3’. P very very slightly S of the S of the pair by 4.5’ is an 8.5-magnitude star that has a 9.5-magnitude star N very very very slightly P it by 1.5’, and then from the more-N of the close pair (the 12th/12.2 pair) N slightly P by another 5.5’ is an 8th-magnitude star. The brightest star in the field is F very very slightly N of the planetary by 21’ and is 7.5 magnitude. I want to say the nebula is 8” diameter; it looks round, does not look elongated at all, but it is very plainly not a stellar object. With the UHC, it’s definitely got some size to it. It has a very small, bright center which could be a central star, but it also has a little bit of an envelope. It’s very bright now; with the UHC, it’s the equal of the 9.5-magnitude star, and it’s got a nice field to help find it tooWith the O-III in, the field is almost intolerably dark; other than the 7.5-magnitude star, the nebula’s the brightest thing in the field; it definitely gives an appearance of maybe swelling up to about 10”, with the filter pulling in the nebula’s envelope a little bit. With the 7mm… I was right about the star SsF the nebula; it’s a double with another very faint star due F it by about 0.5’. And between the planetary and the close pair to the N very very slightly P, there’s a little almost-isosceles right triangle of 12th- and 13th-magnitude stars, with the right angle vertex closest to the planetary by 2.75’; the right angle vertex is the brightest of the three of them. The planetary definitely has a brighter core, versus a central star that’s outshining the rest of the middle of it, so there is an interior region that’s brighter as opposed to a point source with an envelope around it. With the UHC, at moments, it almost looks as if there are two brighter elements to the middle of the nebula, almost like it’s got a bright edge and the central star peeking through; it’s kind of hard to hold it that steady. With the O-III, the area around the nebula’s so dark it’s hard to get a good view. I’m still getting the sense that there are two different brighter elements in the middle of the nebula, like a central star and something else, but I’ll need a better image because the POSS plate isn’t good enough. With the O-III, there’s definitely an increase in the fringe on the outside edge.

At the very least, it was a more comprehensive set of notes than the previous entry.

As I was taking notes, Loren used a term that had caught my linguist’s ear more than once before: “boughten,” as in an alternate past participle of “buy.” This was a construction I had only ever heard from Mrs. Caveman’s cousin, and was indigenous to North Dakota, as far as I knew; Loren being from North Dakota, this made perfect sense, and added a data point to my informal survey of the word. Jerry chimed in, however, that he knew of people in Wyoming who used that construction as well. I needed to make a more-formal inquiry about it, apparently.

I had time, I thought, for one more object. So it was back to Gemini, for one of the larger planetaries in the sky: Abell 21, the Medusa Nebula. But the Moon was already making its presence felt, and its extra illumination—even while still below the horizon—caused havoc with this huge, faint, tenuous object. So after several minutes of notes, I abandoned the effort. While I wanted to capture my impressions of the Medusa, it needed to be under sympathetic conditions. And these were decidedly not. The next night’s forecast looked promising, so perhaps I would get another chance.

IV. I didn’t actually get that other chance the next night—while the forecast was for average-to-above-average conditions, the reality wasn’t that good. My plans were for the Medusa, the Headphones Nebula (Jones-Emberson 1) in Lynx, and the Owl Nebula, in addition to further attempts at Abells 35 (Hydra) and 36 (Virgo). The latter two had eluded me in the 20” in better conditions than this particular night was offering, so it was time for a change of plans.

When the transparency is poor, high-surface brightness objects should be the order of the day (night), and those planetaries listed above didn’t qualify (with the exception of the Owl, which was pretty high up and is actually pretty bright). Although the night didn’t quite reach “poor” levels, I rated it a 5 for transparency, which was absolutely the barest minimum level at which I would take notes on an object. Not wanting to waste an early spring night, I changed tactics and settled on a few of the small, bright planetaries still in optimal observing position.

Apparently, there was a sense of urgency among the group, as we had another full house up on the point tonight. Jerry and Dan R were there with the 20” TriDob; Mark and Loren had their regular gear, and Dan B and a coworker had Dan’s 11” SCT—Dan’s 16” Dob primary was significantly delayed in getting recoated.

MOON: 19 days (rose at 11:47 PM; 83% illuminated)
SQM: 21.4 (early, probably poorer later)
NELM: not checked
WEATHER CONDITIONS: temps to mid 50s; insignificant dew; mild breeze; many mosquitoes; felt colder than it was

All observations: 12.5″ f/5 Discovery Dob, 14mm ES 82˚ eyepiece (112x, 0.7˚ TFOV) or 7mm TeleVue Nagler (225x, 0.36˚ TFOV) unless otherwise noted

IC 2149 (Aur): It’s been a frustrating start tonight; the sky is pretty cruddy, so I’m not doing the larger Abell (and similar) planetaries as I’d planned, but I am looking at the moment at the very bright, quite small IC 2149 in Auriga. I struggled a bit with this one; for some reason, it took me forever to figure out the field orientation—I flicked the nebula with the UHC and O-III filters a few times to know that I had the nebula identified, but I was at sea trying to identify my cardinal directions. The nebula has a very bright central star or bright inner region; I’m gonna call it 10th-magnitude, although it could even be 9.5; it’s considerably bright. At first glance, it’s not really obvious as a nebula at this magnification; averted vision really brings out the nebulous character to it. It appears to be about 9”, and has no color beyond Planetary Nebula GrayTM. It’s in a very active field, with a number of little triangles and pairs; due S of the nebula by 12’ is a small triangle, the N-most vertex of which is the faintest at about 11.5 magnitude; it has a 10th-magnitude star 0.75’ SP it, and from the 11.5-magnitude star F slightly S by 1.25’ is a 9th-magnitude star; continuing that line from the faint star in the triangle through the 9th-magnitude star and extending it out and a little further S by another 1’ is a faint pair, roughly N-S to each other, separated by about 0.25’, and those are both 14th magnitude. S slightly P the nebula by 8’ is a 9.5-magnitude star; there’s another 9.5-magnitude star N very very slightly F the nebula by 7.5’. The brightest star in the field is due SF the nebula by 18’ and is 7th-magnitude. P very very slightly N of the nebula by 15’ is the F-most vertex of another tiny triangle; that star is 11th magnitude and it has a 9th-magnitude star P very very slightly N of it by 1’, and that star has a 12th-magnitude star N of it and very very slightly F by 0.5’. Adding the UHC really brightens the nebula up; unfortunately, it didn’t make the seeing or transparency any better. But the nebula is now the second-brightest object in the field after the 7th-magnitude star, and is distinctly non-stellar now even at first glance. In fact, I think it’s grown in size… to the point that the stars all seem to have a little bit of gunk around them, but the nebula certainly has more so, and more tangibly so; it may be 0.25’ now, and the inner 8-9” is a brighter central region with the rest a faint fringe around it. With the O-III, the nebula is now almost tied with the 7th-magnitude star as the brightest object in the field; it’s just a little bit fainter than that star. It’s definitely brighter and having greater contrast than in the UHC; it’s still really hard to get a fix on a central point, focus-wise, so I’m not convinced that there’s a central star there; that may just be a brighter inner region. The outer halo is a little bit overwhelmed, I think, by the filter, because it’s now a little harder to see it. With the 7mm Nagler, that is a nice little nebula—in fact, the detail it shows in the 7mm is roughly equivalent to the UHC view in the 14mm. Here, there definitely seems to be a central star buried in there, because it’s coming to a much-finer point at center; I’m skeptical that that’s all nebulosity in the middle. But at this magnification, the inner region is definitely a surrounding of the central star of several arcseconds in size, with an outer envelope pretty plainly visible around it. The brightest vertex of the little triangle to the due S, the F-most vertex, also has N of it by 0.3’ a 13th-magnitude star. Adding the UHC filter to the 7mm requires me to pull the eyepiece out to reach focus. Although it was difficult at first glance in the 14mm, the outer fringe is much more shaggy or “fringey” in the 7mm. The central star is blotted out by the filter and the nebula-induced contrast gain, but there’s a brighter interior region of 8” or so in the center. With the O-III, it’s even harder to focus; the addition of that filter overwhelms the fringe and reduces the nebula down to little more than the brighter interior.

I caught myself singing bits of Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf throughout filter and eyepiece changes here—surely that was more of a Böotes thing than an Auriga thing.

We also had a second brilliant pass of the ISS for that night while I was taking notes on IC 2149. Much as I’m generally dismissive of man-made space stuff, there’s nothing quite like watching a Venus-bright object coursing silently across the sky; there’s something decidedly eerie about an object that bright and fast moving with no sound. (Incidentally, I’m giving up noting the presence of satellites during my observations—there are just too damned many of them, and they’re rarely noteworthy anymore.)

Something Loren said prompted a “Carbon Star Wars” joke, which should’ve fallen flat but didn’t.

IC 3568 (Cam): Although this one is right above the Little Dipper of Ursa Minor, it’s actually in Camelopardalis. This is an easy, obvious planetary; there’s no doubt about this one, even at first glance. It’s similar to IC 2149 in Auriga, the one that I just finished taking notes on, but this one is even more obvious. It’s 12” in diameter, with a bright whitish interior and a fuzzy exterior/outer envelope; there’s either a stellaring or an actual very faint threshold star on the P very very slightly S side of the nebula. Due S of the nebula by 1.75’ is an 11.5-magnitude star; the nebula itself is about 10th magnitude. There’s another 11.5-magnitude star P very very slightly S of the nebula by 4.5’, and the two stars and the nebula form a very narrow isosceles triangle, with the nebula on the N end of the base. F the nebula and slightly N by 7.5’ is a 10th-magnitude star; N very slightly F the nebula by 1.5’ is a 14th-magnitude star, and then SF by 5.25’ is the middle star in a little Sagitta-like asterism; that star is 13.5 magnitude. F slightly N of that star by 2.5’ is a 12.5-magnitude star, and from the middle star (the 13.5-mag) SP by 2’ is the N component of a double star or pair; those are N very very very slightly P-S very very very slightly F to each other, separated by 0.25’, with the N one being slightly brighter, and those are 13.5 and 14th magnitudes. With the UHC in, there’s clearly a central star shrouded in the interior. This seems very common with these smallish planetaries, at least visually—a buried central star with a bright interior region around it– and the UHC does a nice job brightening (or increasing the contrast of) the brighter interior. In averted vision the outer fringe is also a little brighter, and maybe that’s actually what effect the filter is having—it’s brightening the fringe enough that it’s harder to differentiate it from the bright interior. With the O-III, the nebula is clearly the brightest object in the field. It’s a little hard to focus, but boy, does the contrast increase brighten the nebula right up! That’s a really nice little planetary! The outer halo on this one accounts for only a total of about 4” of the 12” total; the interior region is much larger with this one, I think, than with a lot of these smaller planetaries, relative to the visible halo. Swapping in the 7mm Nagler, that is definitely a threshold star on the P edge of the nebula; it looks like it might be just on (or just inside) the edge of the halo. I’m pretty certain here is a central star visible there, barely peeking through the brightness in that in the interior of the nebula, that center region. The star just off the P almost has a nebulous character to it. With the UHC added, there’s a substellar point in the middle that’s reasonably bright; it can’t be the central star, but perhaps just a tiny inner portion of the interior. The fringe is much more visible at this magnification, but it’s also a nightmare to get a good focus on. The view in the O-III is very similar to that in the UHC here in the 7mm, but the seeing has worsened, so the O-III is a little less useful at the moment. The boundary between the brighter interior region and the fringe is a lot less defined than it was in IC 2149; it’s really hard to make the distinction between the two, unlike in IC 2149, where there was a much more obvious cutoff. I do think this is the “better” of the two visually, as far as displaying detail, although both of these so far tonight have been underrated little nebulae.

Usually at Linslaw, Mark sets up his astrophotography gear in the middle of the clearing, Jerry sets up on the edge overlooking the road, Dan, Loren and I park and set up next to the sandstone crag, and anyone else fills in where there’s space. For those of us next to the crag, observing north is difficult, as the crag blocks most of the view (but also most of the significant light dome of Eugene/Springfield). It also, as on this night, makes for a bit of paranoia—there were skritchings and scrabblings on the crag all evening, the sounds of small creatures scampering to and fro as they went about their nocturnal business. While not overly worried about getting attacked by something, I did wonder if at some point I’d wind up with a chipmunk or kangaroo rat falling off and landing in my scope.

With my two high surface brightness nebulae done, the transparency collapsing again, and Moonrise on the way, I decided to damn the conditions and turn to an oft-overlooked gem of the spring sky—one that I rarely give the consideration it deserves:

M97 (UMa): Last one for the night, I think, as we’re quickly losing our transparency. This is the Owl Nebula, M97, and it’s not as crisp as I’ve seen it before, and the famous eyes are not very distinct at 14mm with no filter; at particular moments they stand out more, especially in averted vision. The eyes are to the NP and SF; I think the NP eye is a little more obvious. The nebula is not as well defined as the little ones I’ve been looking at tonight; it’s much more diffuse-edged. I’m not getting a real sense of the central star at all. (I think the seeing and transparency did just get a little bit better.) The nebula is 3.25’ in diameter. N very very very slightly F the nebula, 3’ from the center, is an 11.5-magnitude star; there’s a 13th-magnitude star almost due S of the nebula by about 3.5’, and that one has a 13.5-magnitude star F it by 2’; the star to the N very very very slightly F also has a star F it by about 2.5’. The nebula also has a 14.5-magnitude star F it by 5.5’. NP the nebula by 12’ is the S-most of a line of three evenly-spaced stars that runs from that star N very very very slightly P, and those three stars are each about 4’ apart; those are all 10.5 magnitude. And then PsS the nebula by 19’ is a bluish-white 7th-magnitude star. F somewhat S of the nebula by 11’ is a V-shaped pattern of five stars with the “hinge star” of the ‘V’ at the F; those stars are in the 10th- to 12th-magnitude range, and each arm of the ‘V’ is 5-6’ long. (We’re losing our transparency fairly quickly; I’d say in at least half the sky we’re down to about a 5.) In the unfiltered view, the nebula’s edges are more diffuse than those of the smaller nebulas, and with the UHC this is even more true; the N and S quadrants, especially, are very diffuse but vaguely brighter; just under 3’ diameter of this is distinctly brighter, and the outer 0.25’ is kind of irregular. The eyes are much more obvious. The striations in the outer edges are kind of more obvious on the NP; I’m not picking up the little tendril bits like I was before. I don’t know why I’ve always resisted looking at this nebula as a showpiece, because it deserves it. Using the O-III, the edges appear even more ragged; I can’t say that the eyes are as strongly-visible as they were in the UHC. Even in averted, I think it’s better in the UHC (although this could be specific to my filter, too.) On the SF, in fleeting moments, there’s a little separation or gap between the outer edge and some of the inner region, like a bit of slightly-detached fringe at that spot. I think here the SF eye is a little better-defined than the one to the NP. With the 7mm, everything’s blown out; the nebula’s fainter, but I seem to be getting traces of the central star every so often. [Moonlight rising now.] The eyes are very difficult at this magnification. There seems to be, on the NP edge of the 3’ brighter portion, a slightly brighter area there 0.25’ long.  The 7mm view isn’t the way to go, compared to the 14mm; the extra magnification and sky darkness don’t offset the extra blurriness. With the UHC in the 7mm (I won’t have time, with imminent Moonrise, for both filters), there’s an interesting twist: the eyes almost give an impression of annularity that doesn’t exist; it’s hard to get a fix on them with the filter in. On the rim to the N (maybe I was wrong earlier) there is indeed some extra brightness. This is too much magnification, and the UHC doesn’t help much; there are better views in the 14mm with either filter. With the O-III in the 7mm, the nebula is actually hard to see; the filter destroys the field, and the eyes are much harder to see against the rest of the nebula. Moving the scope helps. With the unfiltered view in the 7mm, every now and then, the eyes seem as if they smear together; this refers to my earlier comment about the annularity; there isn’t a ring, but something like a dark diagonal line across the middle. The internal brightness shadings are very complex in the 7mm with no filter.

Meanwhile, Loren was providing views of NGC 3242—the Ghost of Jupiter Nebula—through his 18” Obsession.

I suspected that it was the Moonrise—although the Moon was still below the horizon—that was contributing to the poor sky conditions, with the extra glare scattered across the visible sky. By the time the Moon broke through the horizon, we were already tearing gear down for another fortnight, anticipating better skies when we returned to the sandstone crag.