South in Winter

Why am I doing this?

I’ve often asked myself this question regarding astronomy—not in an exasperated sense, but in an attempt to understand what about astronomy compels me to load up a vehicle with heavy-ish equipment and drive away from “civilization,” spending many (frequently uncomfortable) nighttime hours in pursuing faint smudges of light before tearing the heavy gear down and making a tired drive home.

It’s a question I still can’t really answer.

I have, by my count, made 468 field recordings—dictations at the eyepiece—of 548 objects, totaling more than 43 hours of notetaking time. This represents the smallest fraction of the actual observing I’ve done—it doesn’t include the years I spent learning the sky from my backyard in Cincinnati, the years I spent there hunting the Messier objects and the brighter NGCs of summer, the years in Findlay Ohio, Eagle River Alaska, and Carbondale Illinois where I would observe faithfully but not take notes on what I’d seen, the thousands of hours I’ve spent working with the public to show them the sights I’ve seen and answering questions about the universe, the reobservations of favorite objects and looks through other observers’ telescopes; it doesn’t reflect the time and money spent acquiring an enviable collection of telescopes, eyepieces, books, and other paraphernalia. While other interests and diversions waxed and waned, astronomy has been the one constant in my life since I was 12, and was a notable element even in my younger years.

And yet, when asked what I find so compelling about seeing into the universe, I can’t muster up a good explanation. I’m sure part of the answer is the esoteric nature of what we do—tracking down obscure distant objects in forgotten corners of the sky. Obscure things have always intrigued me; it’s why I chose an esoteric theme involving hundreds of little-known languages for my M.A. thesis in linguistics. Part of astronomy’s appeal is also (no pun intended) universal—almost everyone has some interest in gorgeous pictures of deep-space objects and/or the patterns of the constellations and the dance of the planets and Moon among them. And part of it is almost certainly a spiritual/metaphysical yearning to make connection to the greater universe of which we’re an infinitesimal part. But these don’t add up to a concise answer for why I’m willing to spend cold hours on a mountain ridge alone, trying to eke out details in a tiny image of a distant galaxy so dim that it’s barely visible as anything more than a sliver of brightening against the background sky.

Why am I doing this?

The question—and how to answer it in a blog post—helped keep me awake on the drive home from my latest excursion down to Eagle’s Ridge. It had been a somewhat challenging session, with temperatures below freezing, gusty winds that sprang up early after twilight faded, and the isolation of observing alone… all on a mere four nights’ sleep the night before. But it was a productive session nonetheless, with observations of twelve more Herschel galaxies and several non-Herschel targets, including both a personal bete-noire and an object that allowed me to add to a quirky list of my own making.

Unable to cajole anyone else in EAS to come out observing on a cold Monday night, and Jerry and Kathy being in Hawaii, I went out to the site alone. (Bill Basham would later tell me that he had thought about driving out, but decided to stay closer to home.) My plan was to attempt the road to Eagle’s Ridge—I needed the better southern horizon on the ridge than what the gravel pit (our secondary site nearby) could provide—and fall back to the gravel site if the road to the ridge was too snowy. Fortunately, the ridge road had only a dusting of snow on it, and there were snow-free tire tracks all the way up. I made it just after sunset, with the sky still bright enough to set up. Rather than waiting by the scope as darkness fell, and with no-one else to talk to, I got back into the van until it was acceptably dark to begin Herschel hunting.

I had brought with me some extra gear. Expecting frost, I had brought my Celestron Powertank and Randy Beiderwell’s portable hair dryer, for the sake of defrosting fogged-over eyepieces if need be. And I also brought my iPad, which had tonight’s potential target list plugged into Sky Safari. To protect the iPad from the cold, I put it in a thermal bag designed for transporting hot food, and then chucked a quartet of chemical handwarmers into the bag with it. This worked reasonably well for a while. Having the iPad also allowed me some background noise to keep away any foraging critters (bears, Smilodon, etc.), or at least alert them to my presence. I ended up listening to the Nerdist’s interview with Saoirse Ronan on a loop, so as to not have to keep fiddling with the iPad unnecessarily.

EAGLE’S RIDGE SPUR ROAD (43° 48′ 17.9496” N, 122° 42′ 45.6912” W)
MOON: 28 days; 4% illuminated, rose at 6:01 AM
SQM: not checked
NELM: 6.6
WEATHER CONDITIONS: temps in low 30s/high 20s, considerable breeze starting from 8:30; frost on exposed gear by 7:30

Others present: none

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

NGC 1187 (Eri)—not fully dark yet—big, diffuse, not particularly easy glow—forms a squashed pentagon with four stars—very poorly defined—has a measure of central brightening but no visible nucleus—brighter core region—inclined spiral?—elongated NP-SF—3.5′ x 2.5’—poorly defined so hard to tell where halo ends—inner region is about 1.0′ x 0.67′ and comes gradually to halo—4.5′ NP from center of galaxy is a 9th-mag star; S slightly P that star by 4′ is a 12th-mag star; S of that star by 5′ is an 11th-mag star; an 11.5-mag star F and very slightly S that star by 3.25’—galaxy is NF vertex of this pentagon—pentagon elongated major axis N-S—just outside edge of field, 26′ SF galaxy, is a 10th-mag star—N of galaxy by 19′ from galaxy’s center is a 9.5-mag star

Some time back, I had set the odd goal of observing a galaxy in every constellation visible from my local observing sites. There’s no scientific value to this, and it’s unlikely to be finished without a massive scope (as Sagitta and Scutum have no galaxies plotted even on the TriAtlas, meaning that I’ll have to plumb even deeper than that set of charts is able to go). But there’s an odd appeal about this to me, and it will push me to explore parts of the sky I wouldn’t normally bother with.

One of these lost corners of the sky is the constellation of Caelum, the Chisel. Caelum is a small, dim constellation just east of Eridanus and south of Lepus. It boasts one notable object: the distorted spiral galaxy NGC 1679, which somehow even escaped the attention of Halton Arp when compiling his groundbreaking Atlas of Peculiar Galaxies.

I had set an alarm to alert me to the galaxy’s 7:16 PM transit time—the time at which the galaxy would be at its highest point in the sky, and therefore at its best visibility. Unfortunately, the galaxy’s meridian transit was still behind the mountain ridge, and I had to wait another several minutes before it would be above a low spot in the ridge enough to observe. Even at that point, it wasn’t the most impressive of objects, but it fulfilled a need to find something within Caelum, and was a rewarding object all its own.

NGC 1679 (Cae)—a bit of a wish fulfillment—very low in sky, barely cleared top of the ridge—could easily overlook, but definitely noticeable—not a threshold object—elongated mostly N-S, maybe N slightly P-S slightly F—very diffuse and weakened by altitude—decent-sized—a little bit of irregular central brightening, an odd shape—maybe a very faint stellar nucleus flashes in averted—has a 14.5-mag star on NP edge of halo that makes it hard to see if there’s a nucleus or not—threshold star on SP edge of halo—2.25′ x 1.75’—[very bright satellite through NP edge of field]—difficult halo to define—P and a little bit N of galaxy by 6′ is the more-southern of a pair of 11.5-mag stars; other in pair is NP the first; separated by 2’—NP galaxy by 5′ is a 14th-mag star—galaxy seems a bit triangular pointing to N very slightly P edge

I had also hoped to sweep up NGC 1512 in the more-southerly constellation Horologium (The Clock). But there was no chance of this at Eagle’s Ridge, as the galaxy and nearby bright stars Alpha and Delta Horologii would never make it above the ridge-line. They may barely be possible from Eureka Ridge, which has the best southern horizon of our regular observing sites, but even then, the galaxy will be a ghost of its expected brightness.

My observations on this night were, as I discovered later, considerably hampered by atmospheric extinction down at low altitudes. Many of my targets were within ten degrees of the ridge-top, and suffered from the extremely poor seeing and unexpectedly-poor transparency there; although the sky seemed decent-enough down there, my estimates of stellar magnitudes at the lower declinations were as many as 1.5 magnitudes too low.

NGCs 1332, 1325, 1319, 1315 (Eri)—1332: very bright—kind of a miniature NGC 7331?—elongated NP-SF—has a bright core and an obvious substellar nucleus—2.25′ x 0.75’—well-defined—hard to get good focus this low—galaxy has threshold star just S of nucleus off edge of halo; star difficult to hold—N of galaxy by 8′ is a very faint fuzzy glow, no discernable size, just very small weak diffuse glow, another galaxy? [??] Mainly averted object—NP 1332 by 22′ is a 9th-mag star—field immediately around galaxy is otherwise pretty barren of stars—SP 1332 by 29′ is 1325: considerably more difficult, partly because it has a brightish (12.5-mag) star on NF edge—galaxy elongated SP-NF—due F by 1′ from center of galaxy is a threshold star—more diffuse than 1332—hard to tell if there’s a nucleus because of star on edge—has some moderate central brightening—2.0′ x 0.67’—another star NF the star on galaxy’s edge by 3.75′; that second star is 13th-mag—S of galaxy by 8′ is an 10th-mag star—P galaxy by 16′ is a line of three stars, of which brightest is in middle; brightest is 12th-mag, other two are 13.5-mag—S of galaxy by 17′ is another group of stars—back to line of three, which is about 3′ long; brightest star is NP star next to it by 0.75′, while third star is 2.25′ the brightest—halfway between that line and NGC 1325 is 1319: very difficult glow of indeterminate size and shape—elongated NF-SP?—hard to hold steady in direct vision—[fogged up eyepiece]—0.75′ x 0.5’—may have very very faint stellar nucleus—threshold star just off NP end of galaxy—back to line of three stars: 10′ NP the brightest star in the line is a 0.75′ glow (1315): has a 14.5-mag star SF galaxy by 1.5’—stellar nucleus that pops in averted—very diffuse galaxy, but brighter than 1319—a little more concentration than 1319—not well defined—easy to miss 1315 and 1319 without knowing they were there

My next target was also a bit of a wishful-thinking object. NGC 1532, along with its attendant galaxy NGC 1531, is one of the most striking spiral galaxies in photographs, and had always been problematic from Illinois due to southern light pollution. Here, as with NGC 1679, I had to wait for the pair to clear the ridge; even diminished by the altitude, 1532 was impressive.

NGCs 1532, 1531 (Eri)—way down low, on edge of ridge—seeing is very poor—1532: a huge galaxy, even considering conditions—elongated SP-NF—4.5′ x 0.75’—has an obvious substellar nucleus and bright core—well-defined halo—no traces of bend in arms—1531: P 1532, very slightly N of 1532’s nucleus—elongated P-F—0.5′ x 0.3’—a wide sliver of darkness between two galaxies—doesn’t have a visible nucleus—slightly brighter core—NP 1531 by 3′ is a 14th-mag star—these galaxies are in a long triangle of bright stars; brightest (8.5-mag) is to NF of the center of 1532 by 14′; SP of 1532’s nucleus by 7′ is an 11.5-mag star and P the nucleus by 8′ is an 11th-mag star; stars separated by 7’—F 1532 is a pair of 13.5-mag stars, separated by 2.5′

And then it was back to Herscheling for the rest of the evening:

NGC 1353 (Eri)—seeing is better here than at previous galaxies—elongated NP-SF—has an obvious nucleus—brighter core—pretty well-defined, can see all the way to the edge—2.25′ x 0.75’—2.5′ SF from nucleus is a 13th-mag star—a 14th-mag star SP galaxy by 6’—NF galaxy by 15′ is a pair of stars; brighter NP fainter by 3.5′; mags 11.5 and 12—F slightly N of galaxy by 13′ is an 11th-mag star—pretty nice galaxy

NGC 1114 (Eri)—one of most difficult Herschels I’ve looked at so far—getting windier—galaxy a bummer—very very faint glow—elongated N-S—very very diffuse—poorly defined—2.0′ x 0.5′?—almost no central brightening—from SF to NP, galaxy is third element in a line of four (including three stars)—”elements” are roughly equally spaced—star at SF end is 8th-mag; next is 8.5-mag, then galaxy, then at NP end of line is an 8th-mag star; all four elements in line spaced 8-10′ from the next; whole line about 30’—seeing poor down here—passed over galaxy at least once

It’s no exaggeration to say that NGC 1114 may be one of the most difficult objects in either of the Astronomical League’s Herschel observing programs. A dud, at least in these conditions.

It was well-compensated for by the next target.

NGC 1421 (Eri)—very impressive!—just S of “Zaurak bend”—elongated N-S—3.0′ x 0.67’—fairly well defined, particularly on N end—N end a little wider than S end—not a lot of central brightening to galaxy—diffuse but well defined—2/3 of the way from S to N is a dark obscuration across galaxy’s width—3′ off S end F is a threshold star—P galaxy and a bit N by 3′ is a 13th-mag star—N very slightly P galaxy’s center by 7′ is a 14th-mag star—S and SF the galaxy is an irregular grouping of 9th-12th-mag stars that takes up a big chunk of S and SF edges of field—NP galaxy by 20′ is a diamond of stars whose major axis runs SP-NF and is composed of 10th/12th-mag stars; major axis 7′ long

The Zaurak Bend is one of two asterisms I use for finding objects in Eridanus. Consisting of Gamma (Zaurak, “The Boat”; there’s also an actual US warship named after the star), Pi, Delta, and Epsilon Eridani, the Zaurak Bend is a mere zig-zag of stars prominent mostly for being the only real bright stars in the immediate vicinity. It’s not even a real asterism; I’ve called it the Zaurak Bend since my Cincinnati days, as it was the only part of the constellation visible from my backyard other than Beta Eridani. Epsion Eridani is noteworthy for both its proximity (it’s the 10th-closest star to the Sun) and for having one of the first extra-solar dust disks discovered; the presence of a dust disk is a sign of a possible planetary system. No planets have yet been verified around Epsilon Eri, but time will tell. The dust disk is itself noteworthy.

The other asterism I “created” in Eridanus lies just below the Zaurak Bend, and consists of Tau4, 5, 6, 7 Eridani and 15 Eridani. This group resembles (at least to my cave-painting inspired brain) a downward-pointing radio dish, as seen in Episode 8 of Carl Sagan’s Cosmos, in which Sagan fast-forwards the constellation Cetus until it looks like a radio telescope. The “Radio Dish” is a pretty feeble attempt at asterism-defining, but it works for me; the NGC 1332 group and NGC 1353 were all found using it, and I’d intended to go back for the NGC 1228/1229/1230 group in the Dish as well, but got sidetracked and didn’t return to it.

At this point, the wind had become an issue. I had noticed frost on my telescope’s shroud as early as 7:30, and the wind could be heard increasing in strength on some of my recordings. The cold by itself wasn’t a huge deal, although the chemical warmers I was using weren’t very effective tonight even in my gloves. Worried about my iPad being impacted by the below-freezing temperatures despite the precautions I’d taken, I took the iPad into the van and sat for a little while, running the heater for a bit in the dark, trying to warm my hands up a bit more. By the time I got back to observing, I was reasonably warmed up. It didn’t last long; it took me quite a while to star-hop over to my next target, despite it being in a star-rich region.

NGC 1762 (Ori)—tiny elliptical-ish—maybe 0.5′ round—not overly dim, but quite small—has a brighter core region and substellar nucleus—pretty well-defined galaxy amid a rich field—ADS 3623 P galaxy by 23’—ADS 3623 is yellow-white primary, bluish secondary; primary 7th-mag, secondary 9.5; primary SP the secondary; separated by 0.3’—brightest star in galaxy’s field is closest vertex of a triangle NP galaxy; brightest star (10th-mag) is 8.5′ NP galaxy, and is F-most vertex of triangle; bottom of triangle runs P-F and is 6′ long; P-most vertex is 11th-mag; third vertex is N of other two, NP brightest by 4′ and is 13th-mag

NGC 1832 (Lep)—much brighter than 1762, not bad—smallish, 1.0′ round—diffuse halo, brighter core, no visible nucleus—just outside halo on F side is a 12.5-mag star—N slightly F galaxy’s nucleus by 5′ is an 10.5-mag star; NF that star by 3.5′ is a 12th-mag star—galaxy forms NF vertex of a triangle with an 11th-mag star P and very slightly S by 11′; S very slightly P by 12′ is an 11.5-mag star—F galaxy by 18′ is a double star; very unequal components; separated P very slightly S-F very slightly N; brighter component F; separated by 0.4′; 11th and 13th-mags—double star N very slightly P galaxy by 8′; aligned P very slightly S-F very slightly N; F star is brighter; 13th– and 14th– mags, separated by 0.5’—seeing really mushy now

NGC 2283 (CMa)—a lot of nothing—quite difficult—extremely diffuse, no central brightening—inside a close triangle of 14th/15th-mag stars, two to N, one to S—hard to gauge galaxy’s dimensions, 1.5′ round?— two “brighter” vertices of triangle are on N side of galaxy; 14th/14.5-mags, with 14th-mag star NP galaxy, 14.5-mag to NF; third vertex on S edge of galaxy—P galaxy by 10′ is an 8th-mag star

NGC 2339 (Gem)—faint but obvious—1.75′ round—some slight irregularly-bright central concentration, very faint nucleus or threshold star slightly to NF center of glow—not well defined—galaxy bracketed to P and N slightly F sides by 12th-mag stars; star to P is slightly brighter than other; star to NF about 3′ from galaxy’s center; star to P is 3.5′ from center of galaxy; halfway between galaxy and star to P is a 14.5-mag star—15th-mag star 2.5′ S slightly F galaxy—13th-mag star F and slightly S galaxy by 4.5’—brightest star in field is one of a trio along N and NF edges of field; N slightly F galaxy by 19′ is a pair of 9th-mag stars separated by 3.5′; one is P slightly N the other; F and slightly N of galaxy by 20′ is an 8.5-mag star

I knew of the bright supernova in NGC 2525, but hadn’t prepared a chart for it—stupidly, as it turned out. Usually, with extragalactic supernovae, I would sketch the scene. I hadn’t remembered to bring my sketching gear, though, so I was stuck here. I took extra care to note every star in the vicinity of the galaxy, which was a lot; it’s the middle of the winter Milky Way, after all. When I originally wrote this post, I thought I had figured out which star was the supernova, but the more I looked at photos of the supernova and compared them with my notes, the less certain I became. So I’ve edited the notes a bit to remove the supernova reference; if I can’t positively identify which star was the supernova from my descriptions, I’m not going to claim to have seen it.

The galaxy also produced an unfortunate effect: try saying “NGC 2525” without doing it to the tune of Zager & Evans’ “In the Year 2525.” It stuck with me the rest of the night.

NGC 2525 (Pup)—Zager & Evans joke here—interesting galaxy—large, very diffuse glow—elongated P-F-ish—not much central concentration—2.5′ x 2.0’—whole lot of faint stars scattered around it—off P edge is a 13.5-mag star; that star has a threshold-level star 0.25′ due P—on S edge of the galaxy is a pair or trio of threshold-level stars about 1′ from galaxy’s halo; F and slightly S that group is another 15th-mag star—just on N edge of halo is a 14.5-mag star; another 14.5-mag star just beyond halo by 1′ on F side of galaxy—galaxy between a squiggle of 4 stars to S and a 9.5-mag star N of galaxy; brightest in squiggle (11th-mag) is on NP end, 5′ from center of galaxy; second-brightest star in squiggle on SF end—star to N of galaxy 6′ from galaxy’s edge; leading from N edge of galaxy up to SP side of that star is an arc of five 14.5/15th-mag stars

By now, I had starting getting chilled again. My list of galaxy targets was huge; I could’ve spent the whole night there, alternating between the telescope and the interior of the van. I could have also gotten a nap in the van before heading home. But I was starting to lose steam, having operated on only four hours’ sleep and almost no food all day. Much as I regretted the idea, I needed to think about heading home. Time, then, for one more target, another low-lier altitude-wise, and probably the best of the night.

NGC 2613 (Pyx)—interesting galaxy—large edge-on spiral—elongated P slightly N-F slightly S—3.25′ x 0.75’—irregular central brightening along length, very mottled—well-defined galaxy—a number of faint stars N and S of it—brightest of these is a 13.5-mag star P galaxy by 2.5′ from galaxy’s center—14th-mag star due N of galaxy’s center by 1.5’—brightest in field are NP galaxy; one (10.5-mag) is NP galaxy by 8′; other (10th-mag) is NP that star by 5′; NF galaxy by 9′ is an 11.5-mag star

It was tough to pack up. Clear nights in February were a rarity here in the Willamette Valley, at least in the three winters I’ve been here. But this last winter has been the best I’ve had in that three years with regards to observing; we managed at least one good session per Moon-dark phase, and I was less starved for starlight than I had planned for when October rolled in.

Nonetheless, I regretted leaving so early. The early spring galaxy fields were starting to rotate into view; Leo and the Big Dipper (and the rest of Ursa Major), Hydra and Lynx and Camelopardalis were all becoming prominent, and there were still winter galaxies to plunder. (I had missed NGC 1162 in Eridanus, for example, despite it being on my list.) For once, I let discretion get the better of me, and with no-one else there for encouragement, I slowly stowed my gear for the drive back down the mountain.

The mountain road is only 10.5 miles from the Ridge to the bridge that marks the junction with Lost Creek Road. This takes easily half of the driving time needed to get to and from Eagle’s Ridge, and requires much more concentration than the highway/town half of the drive; deer, fallen branches, and axle-busting potholes are among the hazards of the return trip down, and on this night, there was also frost on the road to make it just a little more treacherous.

By the time I hit Lost Creek Road and higher speeds, my concentration began to pall. I had a can of Pepsi (yuck) for caffeine, but chose not to use it. Instead, I spent much of the remaining drive pondering the question, trying to formulate an answer while getting safely home.

Why am I doing this?

The answer never came to me.

But I would most certainly be back out the next clear Moon-dark night with another list of galaxies, giving in to whatever need starlight fills.




Singing on the River of Silence

January 13th had been forecast to be clear for quite a few days, an isolated blue island amid a sea of white blocks on the Clear Sky Chart for Eagle’s Rest. As it was a Saturday night with a day off before a couple of work shifts—not to mention the first potential observing session of the new year—I’d been eagerly awaiting the opportunity to haul a scope or two out of town for some dark-sky time.

My initial plan, as the day grew closer, was to haul out the EAS 18″ scope for some extreme observing: Abell planetary nebulae, some of the more-difficult Hickson groups and Abell galaxy clusters (plus a few Shakhbazian groups), and a number of unusual nebulae (including Gyulbudaghian’s Variable Nebula around the star PV Cephei). I spent about four hours plundering the interstellarum Deep-Sky Atlas for targets, creating an observing list in Sky Safari that I could take out with the iPad as an adjunct to the iDSA.

And yet, on the morning of the 13th, I had a change of mind. The CSC was now showing the transparency going to crap before midnight. I’d been considering taking Bob the (12.5″) Dob to pick off a few more Herschel galaxies anyway, but figured the time I’d taken to make a list for the 18″ would force me to commit to the larger scope and fainter targets. The CSC was the final decider, though; there was less impetus to take the big scope if I was only going to get six or so hours out of it (an excuse, really—six hours was plenty of time). So when 3 PM rolled around, it was Bob the Dob that got loaded into the Caveman-Mobile for the fifty-minute trip southeast.

I was the second member of EAS to get to the gravel site, having left a bit earlier than I normally get to—Bill B was already there, setting up his astrophotography gear and getting the tedious process of polar alignment underway.  Not knowing where anyone else was going to set up (or what gear they would bring), I wandered around the gravel dump for a few minutes, looking for a spot that was neither too muddy nor too uneven. I finally started setting up on a newly-graveled section of the site, one that led into an opening in the woods surrounding the clearing. Jerry and Dan R pulled in a few minutes later and started to unload the 20″ TriDob; Joe E and his friend Roger (and Roger’s grandson) pulled in toward the edge of the clearing shortly after Jerry and Dan.

But the sky wasn’t nearly as clear as any of us had expected.  As I’d driven down to the site, I’d noticed rolling layers of thin, cirrusy haze covering much of the sky, and the crud was pretty all-encompassing from the gravel dump-site. As the sky darkened, there were far fewer stars cutting through the muck than one would see from this site on a completely-clear night. By the time it was truly dark, it seemed as though we’d wasted our time driving down. Cetus, Pisces, and Eridanus (the constellations I’d planned to spend most of my time in) were discernible only as their most-basic figures—almost the way I saw them from light-polluted Cincinnati when I was first learning the sky—with none of the many faint stars that usually filled them in from sites like this one. The farther-southern constellation Sculptor, in which several of my Herschel targets resided, was already well below the treeline from the gravel site.

The issue here was transparency, rather than cloud cover. Clouds can be dealt with; unless the sky is completely covered, it’s a matter of observing through the gaps in the clouds. With poor transparency, though, a thin layer of haze, cirrus, smog, or whatever can gunk up the entire sky, preventing extended nebulous objects (including galaxies) from shining through. In poor seeing, double stars and planets suffer the most, while galaxies and nebulae are somewhat less affected. (I’ve rarely observed in great seeing conditions, but great transparency can be had when there’s no humidity or smoke causing problems.) These three factors—cloud cover, transparency, and seeing—can and often do dictate how an observing session is planned and carried out. For now, the transparency was a serious issue.

I’d planned to work on Sky Atlas 2000.0 charts 18, 10, 11, and 4 this particular night, sweeping up the Herschel 400/HII objects on those charts. After a couple of looks at some of the Chart 10 objects (NGCs 217 and 665), however, I realized that the whole western sky was pretty-well off-limits for the time being; the cirrus in that direction made those two galaxies glow at a mere fraction of their expected brightness.  Chart 4 targets were still a possibility, though, even though I’d have later opportunities for those higher-declination objects than the soon-to-disappear targets on the other three charts. But better for the moment to observe overhead, where the muck was thinner, than down low in the west where I’d be looking through thicker layers of gunk. I wasn’t yet ready to give up on the night.



EAGLE’S REST (gravel pit) (43°50’07.0″N, 122°44’45.0″W)
MOON: 27 days; 9% illuminated, rose at 5:44 AM
SQM: 21.4 (at 10:30 PM)
NELM: not checked
WEATHER CONDITIONS: temps in low 40s, slight breeze

Others present: JO, DR, BB, JE, OG, DB, others

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

NGCs 891, 906, 910, 911 (And): 891: not as obvious as on some nights but better than previous two galaxies I searched for tonight (217 and 665)—elongated S slightly P-N slightly F—8.5′ x 1.25′ (at its widest)—in Dob Hole at moment—in averted vision, dust lane is pretty obvious—fairly apparent brighter core/central bulge—galaxy reasonably-well defined—just off F side by 1.5′ from galaxy’s center is a double star of two 13.5-mag components aligned P very slightly S-F very slightly N, separated by 0.5’—NP from center of galaxy by 4′ is an 11.5-mag star—SP center of galaxy by 12′ is another double of equal-mag (11.5-mag) components aligned SP-NF and separated by 0.5′; NF star is closer to galaxy and very slightly fainter than other—galaxy has a 13th-mag star just on SP end—also has an 11th-mag star on P side halfway from center to N end—brightest star in field is of 7th-mag and is 22′ SF galaxy [NGC 898 not visible in poor conditions]—F and somewhat S of that star is a line of three stars, 9th/10th– mags, unevenly spaced, running NP-SF in field and marking the N end of a trapezoid containing much of Abell 347—N slightly F the two of those three stars closest to the 7th-mag star (which are separated by 3.5′) by 5′ is brightest and N-most visible galaxy of Abell 347 (NGC 906): 0.75′ round—fairly undefined with no real central brightening or nucleus—S from those three stars on N end of Abell 347 are the two stars making the S side of the trapezoid, 9′ long, line oriented SP-NF—about halfway between these two stars is second Abell 347 galaxy (NGC 910): 0.5′ round—little bit of central brightening—in averted, maybe a nucleus—third galaxy (NGC 911): due S of star on top line of three (farthest from 7th-mag star) by 2’—0.5′ round with prominent stellar nucleus—not well defined at all but fairly obvious–have seen more galaxies here before, but poor transparency really hampering the view

I had observed NGC 891 several times before; it’s one of the standout galaxies of any season, and a good test of the sky clarity. Even somewhat diminished by the cruddiness of the sky, it was still impressive enough to take notes on (I hadn’t bothered with the other galaxies I’d observed tonight already). I’d seen seven galaxies in Abell 347 on previous occasions but only managed three this time—a further sign that tonight was far from optimal. Nonetheless, we all pressed on with our agendas. Taurus was better placed amid the cirrus than some of the other constellations I’d intended to work in (I took a glance at the Nu Eridani trio [NGC 1618, 1622, and 1625] and found them still under too much haze-cover), so after an undetailed look at NGC 1514 (the Crystal Ball Nebula, a planetary), I went after the two galaxy targets the constellation held:

NGCs 1587, 1588, 1589 (Tau): still disappointing due to transparency—1587: more S of two by 12’—N of an upside-down Big Dipper asterism pouring out to S, oriented (slightly N)P-(slightly S)F—7.5′ due N of asterism star where “bowl” meets “handle”; asterism stars all 9th-10.5-mags—galaxy is roundish, 0.75’—fairly well-defined—brighter core and substellar nucleus—N of 1587 by 3′ is a 12th-mag star—P galaxy by 7′ is a 10th-mag star which has a 12.5-mag companion SF by 1′–another galaxy (NGC 1588) off to F side of 1587, almost in contact—1588: 0.3′ round?—very very slight separation between 88 and 87—up to 1589: elongated N very slightly P–S very slightly F—1.125′ x 0.5’—halo much broader in averted—reasonably well-defined—has an obvious bright core region and stellar nucleus—brightening along major axis—NF center of galaxy by 1′ is a 13th-mag star—trio here much better than Nu Eri trio ATM

Oggie pulled up into the clearing with his Zhumell Dob; not long after, Dan B and his daughter (and some of her friends) came down from Eagle’s Ridge proper, where they’d been observing. Dan commented that the winds on the Ridge were too strong for decent observing, reinforcing Jerry’s notion that we were better-off in the tree-lined gravel pit.

I took some time off from Herschel galaxies to explore the winter sky away from the late-fall galaxy fields. The transparency was gradually improving, and I hoped for it to be at least average before I went back into galaxy “work.” My list for the 18″ scope had included supernova remnant IC 433 in Gemini’s foot, but I was unable to ferret any traces of the nebula out of the background—even going with the wider (1-degree) field of the Meade 24mm SWA eyepiece and a UHC filter. NGC 2174 (in Orion’s club) showed a minor wealth of detail, however, along with the embedded open cluster NGC 2175. I failed to turn up Sharpless 2-261, Lower’s Nebula, even after ten minutes or so of sweeping in the right area of the sky.

I ducked down into Monoceros to take my chances with some of the bright nebulae there: the Rosette was quite striking, its central void plainly apparent amid the flower-like hydrogen cloud; Hubble’s Variable Nebula was a small but bright fan-shaped glow with well-defined edges; the Cone Nebula was beyond the grasp of my scope, but its attendant star cluster (NGC 2264, The Christmas Tree Cluster) was brilliant. I’ve long wanted to chase after the long string of reflection nebulae (starting at NGC 2175) that trail along toward Gamma Monocerotis, but got sidetracked and didn’t get to it.

I also had a treat courtesy of Jerry’s TriDob: the Horsehead Nebula, as easy to see as it could be and the best view of it I’d had since that long ago trip to the late, lamented Star Hill Inn. The illuminated strip behind the nebula, IC 434, shimmered like a faint auroral curtain running 1 o’clock-8 o’clock through the field, with the Horsehead itself—Barnard 33—silhouetted against it, an inky-black projection that was very obviously between us and IC 434. The NGC 2023 portion of the nebulosity wrapped cotton-like around its host star somewhere around 6 o’clock from the Horsehead. Dan commented that he couldn’t make out the direction the Horsehead was facing, just the black nebulous notch of the silhouette. I thought the Horsehead was facing toward 8 o’clock, but wasn’t totally sure; Jerry confirmed that this was indeed the right direction.

The constellation Eridanus winds its way south and west from Orion’s bright blue foot Rigel. It’s a fairly shapeless constellation, in keeping with what it represents: a celestial River, sometimes thought to be the River Po in Italy. A river in the city-state of Athens was later named the Eridanos, after the constellation. The constellation itself is a dim, winding string of stars that disappears below the southern horizon for mid-Northern observers, terminating in the 1st-magnitude star Achernar. The vast majority of the constellation’s objects of note are galaxies, many of them large and impressive targets for telescopes; there is also a bright planetary nebula (NGC 1535, sometimes called Cleopatra’s Eye) and a very difficult globular cluster (The Eridanus Cluster, not to be confused with the Eridanus Galaxy Cluster, centered on NGCs 1400 and 1407 [c.f.]). This globular was the object of an intense search and triumph by your Caveman way back in ’98 during his trip to the Star Hill Inn—one of the defining moments of his astronomy “career.”

Tonight, I was dredging the River for galaxies… Herschel galaxies, specifically those clustered around that portion of the River that flows by Orion’s foot. With the transparency temporarily improved, it was time to take advantage of the better conditions and capture photons from those Herschel objects still drifting above the treetops.

NGC 1779 (Eri): improving transparency (about 5 now)—galaxy elongated mostly P-F—0.67′ x 0.3, quite small—has a brighter core and a faint substellar nucleus visible with direct—not well defined—may extend to just under 1.0′ x 0.5′ in moments of better transparency–in field with a great many stars of a great range of magnitudes—SF galaxy by 2′ is a 13.5-mag star—a 13.5-mag star F very slightly N by 3’—4.5′ NF galaxy is another 13.5-mag star—NP galaxy by 6′ is a 12th-mag star; P that star by 9′ is an 11th-mag star

I did get caught up here in interest in Comet PanSTARRS, which Jerry had swept up in the 20″ scope, and made sure to take my turn gazing at this cosmic interloper. The comet was hardly an impressive sight: a faint wispy glow, like that of a diffuse elliptical galaxy (such as NGC 147). I don’t recall seeing a tail, although a couple of us did manage to catch a few glimmers from the comet’s nucleus. I noticed around this time that Oggie, Dan B and the kids, and Roger and his grandson had all left during the previous hour.

Somewhere during that time, the transparency had hit a peak. The Milky Way glittered brightly at the meridian. Orion, Gemini, and Auriga shone steadily and brilliantly against a dark background tapestry; Leo and Hydra’s head emerged from the treetops to the east. It was true that I’d seen much better skies here, but at the moment it was hard to be critical. The sky and its hidden jewels beckoned.

We also stopped by Messier 46, a naked-eye open cluster in the constellation Puppis. M46 is a rich cluster, made even more interesting by the apparent membership of a planetary nebula (NGC 2438) among its stars; the nebula is in fact just over halfway between us and the stars of the cluster, and therefore a mere line-of-sight coincidence.

And then it was back to a field I’d already observed earlier in the evening, when the transparency was awful:

NGCs 1618, 1622, 1625 (Eri): all lie in an arc N of Nu Eridani—1618 and 1622 both elongated SP-NF—1625 elongated NP-SF—1618: 12.5′ N vary slightly P Nu Eri—pretty diffuse—has a somewhat brighter core—not well-defined at all—not even brightest of three, despite Herschel seeing only 1618 of trio—1.0′ x 0.5’—Nu makes it very hard to view galaxies here—NF 1618 by 1.75′ is a 14th-mag star—F and slightly N by 1.75′ is a 12.5-mag star–11th-mag star SF galaxy by 3.5’—F and slightly S by 8′ is NGC 1622: 11′ N slightly F of Nu Eri—almost same size as 1618, but has less halo—1.0′ x 0.3’—brighter central region and faint substellar nucleus—galaxy NP a triangle of 11/12.5/13th-mag stars that are about halfway and F a line between 1622 and Nu Eri—sky is boiling down here now—triangle: F-most vertex is brightest star in it, equidistant from Nu and 1622 at 7′, SF 1622 and NF Nu—largest of three galaxies is NGC 1625: 10′ SF 1622—best defined of three—not too diffuse—not much central brightening, just a glowing streak —elongated NP-SF—1.67 x 0.3’—has a 12th-mag star just off P end—due N of galaxy by 6.5′ is an 11th-mag star—S by 4′ is a 12th-mag star

NGC 1637 (Eri): big roundish face-on spiral—super-diffuse, not well-defined at all—roundish, 2.5’—has a smallish brighter core, maybe central 0.75’— every now and then a faint hint of substellar nucleus which is better seen in averted—core offset to SP side—bracketed to N and S slightly F by stars 7′ from galaxy’s center; star to N is an 11th-mag; star to SF is 12th-mag—12th-mag star just off N slightly F edge of halo—13th-mag star N of galaxy by 3.5′ from edge of galaxy’s halo—NP galaxy by 14′ is a 10.5-mag star that has an 11.5-mag star to N by 2′ and a 13.5-mag star SF by 2′

NGC 1700 (Eri): not at all remarkable by the standards of Herschel galaxies—N slightly F 62 Eri—reasonably bright but small—0.75′ x 0.67′–in averted the halo pops more—slight bit of elongation maybe P-ish-F-ish—bright core—bright substellar nucleus—[very slow satellite through N edge of field, moving P-F]—not well defined, halo mostly vanishes without averted—11th-mag star SP galaxy by 2.5’—8.5-mag star NP galaxy by 6’—N slightly F galaxy by 17′ is a 10th-mag star—an arc of 8th/10th-mag stars along F edge of field from galaxy from NF to SF—”giraffe-like” asterism (including 62 Eri) extending its neck SF to NP from 62, with one leg N of 62 and 62 in the southern leg

NGC 1507 (Eri): really difficult at the moment; perhaps 6 transparency; seeing poor—long, thin N-S streak—just S of cool round asterism that takes up most of the edges of the field N of the galaxy, made of mostly 9.5/10th-mag stars; asterism about 30′ round—galaxy is almost “flat”—2.25′ x 0.3’—has very little central brightening—SF the S end of the galaxy’s halo by 3′ is an 11th-mag star—13.5-mag star just P the middle of the galaxy—galaxy well defined, better defined on F edge as if dust lane on that edge [no visible dust lane, but a dark “jut” into NF end of galaxy]—9′ due N of galaxy is bottom of round asterism—passed over galaxy the first time I looked for it here

By this point, the transparency was starting to fail again—just as the Clear Sky Chart had predicted. Naked-eye stars were taking on halos across much of the sky, and the fainter stars that filled in the spaces between the familiar, named ones were dwindling in number. The winter Milky Way, so spectacular through Orion, Monoceros, and Canis Major, had started to lose its definition. Time for observing was growing short.

NGCs 1600, 1603 (Eri): last for the night—transparency decaying again—”typical” NGC galaxy—reasonably bright—a bit elongated N slightly P-S slightly F—fairly poorly defined—sometimes more halo visible—1.0′ x 0.5’—brighter core that’s fairly small—no nucleus?—interior of galaxy seems “jumbled” somehow, as if irregularly bright—surrounded on P and S sides by a group of faint stars—to S by 2.5′ from center of galaxy is a 12th-mag star—due P by 2.5′ is a 12.5-mag star—NP by 3′ and 4.5′ is a pair of 12th-mag stars—NF galaxy by 12′ is an 8th-mag star—NP galaxy to NP edge of field is an interesting ‘Y’ asterism with fork to SP and stem to NF; star to end of stem is brightest; stars are 8th/10th-mags—just F and slightly N of galaxy by 2.5′ is another galaxy (1603): excruciatingly faint—0.75’—no central brightening at all—very difficult—just on threshold of direct vision—even averted doesn’t help much—this part of sky in poor viewing position

Jerry and Dan R began to tear down the TriDob; Dan was a church organist (among his many other talents) and needed to be home by 1 AM to be ready for his morning work. Joe had left at some point earlier after our view of M46 and NGC 2438. I spent several minutes absorbed in a view of the Orion Nebula—how could one not do so when the nebula was visible?—before beginning to tear down my own gear.

Jerry and Dan headed out. I waited with Bill B to make sure he got all his gear stowed. It was an old habit from my Carbondale days: as the AASI president, I made sure to always be the last man out of the observing field, to make sure no-one got left behind. I never minded being the last person out; at Giant City or Crab Orchard, I often stayed out observing long after the others went home, but here it was more a matter of safety. Having seen bears in the woods near one of our observing sites, I would have been uncomfortable leaving someone on his own unless his camper was nearby for shelter if need be.

Gear stowed, we headed home. There was a fair amount of fog on the drive down, and a surprising amount of traffic driving up the road as we descended it. And then the highway home, only half the total drive, with a headful of galaxies and a van full of Caravan.


… echoes of december…

A week after our previous excursion, we found ourselves again out at Eagle’s Rest under clear December skies—an unlikely occurrence, given my previous winter experiences here in the Willamette Valley. The CSC forecast was as good as I’d seen it for a winter’s night, so there was no doubt I’d be making the nearly hour-long drive. Herschel objects awaited.

The fog was ominous, however. In fact, it didn’t even wait for nightfall this time; it was already pea-soup dense by the time I reached Highway 58 south, letting up only slightly down at the “bottomlands” along Rattlesnake/Lost Creek Road. Fortunately, despite the fog, I was able to find the bus stop at the end of Eagle’s Rest Road, the stop that we all used as a landmark for turning up the mountain.

I left the fog behind early on the trip up, but there was still the unsettling feeling that it would make its presence felt before long. Even though it was perfectly clear at the gravel site, I didn’t start unloading my gear, choosing instead to wait for the others and their opinions.

Jerry and Joe E pulled in a couple of minutes after me. None of us was quite willing to commit to going up to the Ridge yet; we had a new member (Dan B, owner of Doge, who had trekked out to Eureka with us during the summer) who had been to neither of the Eagle’s sites and might not know his way up, and I was leery of taking the Caveman-Mobile up on the gravel road if it was icy. After a few minutes’ hedging, though, we decided to take the risk and go the final four miles to the spur road at Eagle’s Ridge, our decision further abetted by Jerry’s contacting of Oggie G (as Oggie knew Dan and would pass along the message that we’d gone to the “summit”) in a moment of good cell reception.

It was not a simple drive up. The ridge itself is only 3.4 miles farther up the mountain than the gravel site, but it’s not a fast 3.4 miles—the road winds in ways that roads shouldn’t wind, and the last half-mile is a steep climb up rutted gravel. This particular night, the gravel was also spotted with patches of ice—some of them large and treacherous. This was where I ran into trouble, getting stuck about a third of the way up, with Jerry already at the top and Joe behind me in a vehicle much more capable of handling the conditions.

At length, Jerry walked down to see what had happened, and he and Joe managed to help me extricate the van from where it was stuck. Once we got the van moving, I kept it moving until I got to the Ridge spot at the junction; I felt bad leaving Jerry to walk, but I think Joe must’ve given him a ride up (I don’t recall at this point). I waited for them before we decided to pull onto the spur road and set up, Dan finding his way up as I was putting my scope together. (Jerry had to walk down to the junction to direct Dan to the spur road site, as he went too far up the road in the opposite direction.)

I had no intention of staying past midnight this particular night, as I had a four-day run of work beginning the next morning. But this looked to be a pretty spectacular night, and with clear winter nights so rare here, I needed to make some headway on the Herschel lists while conditions allowed it. So I got to work as quickly as possible—our wait at the gravel site and my getting stuck on the road having used up the evening twilight—jumping in just before 7 PM with what turned out to be the brightest member of a long chain of galaxies in Pisces… one I had first seen at the 2016 Oregon Star Party, which by now seemed an eternity ago.


EAGLE’S RIDGE (spur road)
MOON: 22 days (44% illuminated; rose at 12:56 AM)
SQM: 21.5 (at 11 PM)
NELM: not checked
WEATHER CONDITIONS: temps in low 30s, breezy early

Others present: JO. JE, DB

All observations: 12.5″ f/5 Discovery truss-tube Dobsonian, 14mm ES 82˚ eyepiece (112x, 0.7˚ TFOV); 10mm Delos (158x, 0.5˚ TFOV) used for observation of Arp 141

NGCs 198, 200, 194, 193, 204, 203, 182  (Psc): galaxy central–chain goes on a long S-N way and a bit P–198: diffuse round glow–somewhat brighter core–does not have a visible nucleus–1.25′–not well defined, fades into background–gradually brightens to core but halo fades out–galaxy is N-most vertex of an isosceles triangle–to SP by 5.5′ is a 11.5-mag star; to SF by 5.5′ is a 10th-mag star; two stars separated by 8′–long side of triangle is to the S edge of field–N of galaxy by 3.5′ and 4.5′ are two 12th-mag stars–NF 198 by 6.5′ is a second galaxy (NGC 200):  elongated NP-SF–1.25′ x 0.75′–equally bright as 198–not much of a core but a substellar nucleus–face-on spiral?–almost due N of NGC 200 by 5.5′ is an 11th-mag star–NP that star by 6′ is a third galaxy (NGC 194): smaller than previous two–slightly elongated N-S–1.0′ x 0.75′–brightish substellar nucleus but not much visible core–not particularly well defined, fades away raggedly–N slightly P 194 by 5.5′ is a 7th-mag star–12′ N of that star is NGC 193: has a 13th-mag star on SP edge of halo–roundish–has diffuse halo with a brighter core–no real nucleus visible–F and slightly S by 3.5′ is a 10.5-mag star–F and slightly S of that star by 4′ is NGC 204: round–quite diffuse–very poorly defined–1.0′ round–distinct substellar nucleus–may have a threshold star just off SF edge of halo??–13.5-mag star 2′ to NP–back to the 10.5-mag star between 193 and 204: due N by 7.5′ is another fainter galaxy, NGC 203: very intangible–brighter nucleus that’s most obvious thing about it–0.67′ round–extremely diffuse, very difficult, could be mistaken for a threshold star in poorer seeing–N of that galaxy by 11′ is an 8th-mag star–back to 198: 21′ SP 198 is an 8th-mag star–SF that star by 4′ is another galaxy (NGC 182): quite diffuse–1.25′ round–substellar nucleus and slightly-brighter core–quite diffuse–one of brighter galaxies in group; none are “bright” and all would be better served by a few more inches of aperture

NGC 175 (Cet): very very diffuse, plus seeing “soft”–largish galaxy–slightly elongated P slightly N-F slightly S–1.5′ x 1.25′–has a very faintly brighter core–core not well defined–very faint nucleus, threshold star on P edge of halo?–forms nearly-isosceles triangle with an 11th-mag star F very slightly N of galaxy by 5′ and a 12th-mag star S very slightly F of galaxy by 4.25′–two stars separated by 6.5′

NGC 337 (Cet): very interesting galaxy–a colliding pair P-F? [No]–bright galaxy with irregular-shaped core–elongated NP-SF–large galaxy–2.0′ x 1.5′–SP point of pentagon of stars–no nucleus–N very slightly P galaxy by 6′ is a double star of NP-SF aligned components separated by 0.5′; SP star 12.5-mag, NF star 13th-mag–5.5′ NF galaxy is an 11th-mag star; 4.5′ NF that star is an 11th-mag star; NP by 6′ is the brightest in pentagon at 10th-mag which is separated from double star by 5′ from fainter component–5.5′ NF of galaxy in middle of pentagon is 13th-mag star 

NGC 428 (Cet): nice large diffuse galaxy–elongated P somewhat N-F somewhat S–2.5′ x 1.75′–bracketed on P slightly N and F slightly S edges of halo by 13th-mag stars–just off NF edge of halo is a 13.5-mag star–irregularly bright, almost mottled–long brighter central region that makes up inner 50% of galaxy–halo irregularly bright and pretty well defined–no visible nucleus–bracketed on NP and SP by 9th-mag stars each 6′ from center of galaxy–due F galaxy by 9′ is a 10.5-mag star–on NP edge of central brightening are a couple of very faintly brighter spots

NGC 636 (Cet): surrounded by brightish stars in an interesting field–galaxy pretty bright–roundish–0.75′ round–bright core and bright substellar nucleus–well-defined halo–probably elliptical–forms a diamond with two 14th-mag stars and a 13th-mag star; one of 14th-mag stars is 3′ SF and other is 3′ N very slightly F; 13th-mag star is 3.5′ F slightly N the galaxy–S very slightly F galaxy by 7′ is an 10.5-mag star; SF that star by 7.5′ is another 10.5-mag star–star S slightly F galaxy is southernmost vertex in triangle of one 10.5-mag and two 9th-mag stars whose N side is 17′ long and other two sides are 20′ long–brightest star is NF galaxy by 16′ and other 9th-mag star NP galaxy by 16′

NGC 779 (Cet): very bright edge-on spiral–TriAtlas has wrong orientation–galaxy elongated N slightly P-S slightly F–very large–2.5′ x 1.3′–obvious stellar nucleus–brighter core/central region–well defined–no hint of a dust lane–to S of galaxy by 4.5′ is a 12th-mag star–S slightly P galaxy by 11′ is the brighter of a double star, which is 10th-mag and fainter is 13.5-mag; fainter component is SF brighter by 0.67′–N of galaxy by 8.5′ is a 12th-mag star–NP galaxy by 10′ is a 12.5-mag star–Messier-quality galaxy!

Jerry’s primary target of the evening was asteroid 3200 Phaethon, and he located it among the stars of Auriga. I’d never seen an asteroid visibly drift before, and took a break from faint(ish) galaxies to take advantage of the opportunity; it was incredible to see a natural object move among the stars at such a rate of speed.

NGC 1045 (Cet): least-impressive individual galaxy so far this evening–0.75′ x 0.5′–elongated SP-NF–bracketed to N and SF by brightish stars; star to N is 10.5-mag 7′ from galaxy; 9.5′ SF is an 11th-mag star–galaxy fairly diffuse and not well-defined–somewhat brighter core and a substellar nucleus–maybe a threshold star on SP edge of core, almost like a double nucleus–just outside field of view to F and SF (22′ each away from galaxy) are 10th-mag stars–NP galaxy by 11′ is a double star: less than 0.25′ separation; 11th-mag and 12.5-mag components; brighter star SP fainter

NGC 991 (Cet): very very large diffuse galaxy–pretty round–very little central brightening, no nucleus–central 80% very slightly brighter–3.0′ round–poorly defined–13th-mag star just on S very slightly F edge of halo–SF galaxy by 9′ is a double star of 11.5 and 12.5-mag stars separated by 0.3′, with brighter F very slightly S of the fainter–on P very slightly N edge of field 14′ from galaxy is a 11.5-mag star–SP galaxy by 8′ is the F-most, 11th-mag vertex of an isosceles right triangle of 10.5- and 11th-mag stars; star P slightly N of it by 7′ is also 11th-mag; star 7′ S very slightly F-most one is 10.5-mag; hypotenuse faces SP and is 9′ long

As I settled in on my next target, NGC 1022, I stopped to check something; when I looked back, the star field had changed—one of the stars was moving exceedingly slowly through the field. I watched as it passed over the galaxy, calling for Jerry and Dan to have a look. This was the first of several geosynchronous satellites I would sweep up while scouring the skies in Cetus and Eridanus this particular evening.

NGC 1022 (Cet): much brighter than 991–1.3′ round–pretty well defined–small fairly-bright core and stellar nucleus–galaxy has a 13.5-mag star N slightly F by 2.5′–12th-mag star 5′ F very very slightly S of galaxy–10th-mag star NF galaxy by 10′–P and P very slightly N of the galaxy is a small triangle of 10th- and 11th-mag stars; two 11th-mag stars on side of triangle closest to galaxy, 12.5′ P galaxy; 10th-mag star 3′ P very slightly N of the more-S of the 11th-mag stars; 11th-mag stars separated by 4.5′; S-most of 11th-mag stars has a couple of threshold stars P very slightly S of it and F very slightly S of it–12.5-mag star 5′ SF galaxy

NGC 1084 (Eri): very very bright impressive galaxy–also Messier-worthy–elongated SP-NF–2.25′ x 1.25′–large bright core but no detectable nucleus–well-defined halo–due N by 14′ is the middle star of a bent line of three 10th-mag stars bending slightly toward galaxy; middle star is 10th-mag; 10th-mag star P slightly N of it by 6′; 10.5-mag star F and very slightly N of middle star by 7′–galaxy forms tip of arrowhead-shaped pattern with these three stars–two 12th-mag stars between galaxy and brighter stars in bent line; one N very slightly P by 9′ and one N very slightly F by 10′–S very slightly P galaxy by 12′ is a 12.5-mag star–13th-mag star SP galaxy by 7′–SP galaxy by 35′ is a 7th-mag star–SP galaxy is a pair of 8th- and 9th-mag stars 30′ from galaxy separated by 2.5′; brighter is P slightly N of the fainter–poor seeing this low

NGCs 936, 941, 955 (Cet): contrasting galaxies–936: considerably bright–large diffuse halo and small bright core, substellar nucleus–well defined–elongated P slightly N-F slightly S–core region only 25% of total diameter–1.75′ x 1.25′–has bent/crook asterism to NP; “handle” of crook is NP galaxy by 5.5′ and is 11.5-mag; 9.5-mag star NP that star by 4′; NP previous star by 4′ is 10th-mag star; 4′ NF that star is 10.5-mag star–NP brightest star in crook by 17′ is a 7.5-mag star; F and somewhat N of 7.5-mag star by 6′ is a 9th-mag star; 10th-mag star N slightly F previous by 7′–back to 936: F and slightly N of galaxy by 5.5′ is a 13th-mag star; SF that star by 5′ is a 12th-mag star; N of that star by 7.5′ is NGC 941: faint, diffuse, but fairly obvious–elongated NP-SF–1.5′ x 1.0′–poorly defined–NF galaxy by 17′ is a 12th-mag star–F and slightly N of 941 by 33′ is another galaxy (NGC 955)–much brighter than 941–elongated SP-NF–1.25′ x 0.67′–bright nucleus–brightish central region along length–definitely an inclined spiral–SF by 3′ is a 13th-mag star–F and S of galaxy by 11′ is a 12th-mag star–NF galaxy by 25′ is a 6th-mag star that’s somewhat reddish (even to my colorblind eye)–F and somewhat N of galaxy by 25′ is an 8th-mag star

NGC 1032 (Cet): reasonably bright–elongated SP-NF–1.25′ x 0.67–has a brighter core and substellar nucleus–fairly-evenly illuminated–maybe sharper on S and F edges?–forms a tiny diamond with three 13th- and 14th-mag stars; two 13th-mag stars are P (by 1.5′) and N slightly F (by 2′) of the galaxy and the 14th-mag star is NF the galaxy (by 0.75′)–N of the galaxy by 16′ is an 8.5-mag star–NF the galaxy by 21′ is a 10th-mag star–S of the galaxy by 5′ is an 11th-mag star–SP the galaxy by 16′ is a double star, the brighter component of which is about 0.25′ SP the fainter; 11th- and 12.5-mag stars

NGCs 1199, 1188, 1190 (Eri): 1199 quite bright–supposedly in the middle of Hickson 22, but can see two other galaxies with a LOT of effort–1199: elongated SP-NF–1.25′ x 0.75′–has a brightish core and a substellar nucleus–fairly well-defined/evenly illuminated–N slightly F by 3′ is a 12.5-mag star–due N by 6′ is a 13th-mag star–F the galaxy by 8′ is an 11th-mag star–star due N of galaxy: N slightly P that star by 3′ is a very faint glow elongated N-S (1188)–no central brightening–0.67′ x 0.3′–extremely faint, just above threshold-level–SP 1199 by 11′ is an 11-mag star–SP 1199 by 4′ is a fleeting apparition of a galaxy (1190) that is a smudge in averted–seemingly elongated NP-SF but too faint to be sure or to estimate size

NGC 1209 (Eri): not far from Hickson 22–P-F glow–1.25′ x 0.75′–edge-on or inclined spiral? [elliptical]–bright stellar nucleus and bright middle–halo well defined, regularly illuminated–F by 13′ is an 11th-mag star–6′ F and slightly S is a 13th-mag star; due S that star by 5′ is a 12th-mag star–NP galaxy by 7′ is a 12.5-mag star–19′ SF galaxy is the N-most vertex of a small triangle of 10th- and 11th-mag stars; this N-most vertex is the brightest at 10th-mag; SF that star by 4.5 is an 11th-mag star; another 11th-mag star 5′ F and very slightly S that last star; long side between brightest star and second 11th-mag star is 8′

NGC 1172 (Eri): fairly faint, apparently elliptical galaxy–slight SP-NF elongation–1.0′ x 0.75′–has a brighter core and faint substellar nucleus–not really well-defined but low in sky–due P galaxy by 3′ is a 13th-mag star–S very slightly P galaxy by 5′ is a 12.5-mag star–F and very very slightly N by 2′ is an 10.5-mag star–even more P galaxy by 8′ is an 11.5-mag star

NGCs 1400, 1407, 1393, 1391, 1394, 1383 (Eri): two ellipticals (likely) separated by 12′–1400: elongated very very slightly SP-NF–1.5′ x 1.25′–gradually brightening to somewhat brighter core and substellar nucleus–SP galaxy by 2′ is a 15th-mag star–S of galaxy by 19′ is an 8.5-mag star–double star due P galaxy by 15′; components are 10th- and 12.5-mag separated by 0.5′; brighter component SP fainter–12′ F and slightly N of 1400 is 1407: much bigger–pretty round–1.5′ round–slight bit of NP-SF elongation?–galaxy is N-most vertex of a triangle with a 13th-mag SF by 4.5′ and SP that star by 4.5′ is a 12.5-mag star (about 6.5′ S of galaxy)–N of galaxy by 6′ is S-most (13th-mag) vertex of another triangle of 12th- and 13th-mag stars; a 12th-mag star 3.5′ N very slightly P that star; 13th-mag star P very slightly S of second star by 3.5′–back to 1400: 20′ NP galaxy is brighter of a pair of galaxies (1393)–fairly obvious–elongated NP-SF–0.75′ x 0.67′–not easy but well defined–small brighter core and substellar nucleus–NF that galaxy by 5.5′ is another (1391)–much fainter–elongated P very slightly S-F very slightly N–0.5′ x 0.3′–almost no central brightening to speak of but a very faint stellar nucleus–N very slightly F 1391 by 1.5′ is a 15th-mag star; NF that star by 2.5′ is another galaxy (1394): elongated N-S–brighter than second of group–obvious substellar nucleus–0.67′ x 0.3′–better defined than previous–1.5′ N of 1394 is a 13th-mag star that disrupts view of galaxy–back to 1393: P slightly N galaxy by 8.5′ is a 12.5-mag star; NP that star by 7′ is another galaxy (1383): elongated SP-NF–reasonably well defined but faint–brightish substellar nucleus–0.75′ x 0.5′–SP galaxy by 1.5′ is a 13.5-mag star–NF galaxy by 1.25′ is a 14th-mag star

At this point, I was torn between my desire to keep observing and my need to make sure I got at least four hours’ sleep before my shift the next morning. I’d had Mrs. Caveman load me up with caffeine while shopping earlier in the day, so I could make it through eight hours on scant sleep, and it was certainly a rare thing to have such a great night in December. Against my common sense, I plowed on ahead.

Jerry had been looking for planetary nebulae with bright central stars for part of the night, and had shown me NGC 40 as a good example. I suggested NGC 1501 in Camelopardalis, and remembered that I had looked for Arp 141—the Deep Sky Forum’s “Object of the Week” for the first week of the month—at the gravel pit the previous time out, being skunked then both by the treeline and the early Moon rise (1501 is in Camelopardalis not far from Arp 141; hence the connection). Here, though, this colliding pair of galaxies was well placed, and there were several other objects along the way that I wanted to observe.

I took long looks at NGC 2683, the UFO Galaxy in Lynx, and NGC 2403 in Camelopardalis while working my way toward Arp 141. I had observed both of these before, but had only taken notes on the former; why I didn’t take any on 2403 (a Herschel object) while I was there I can’t say. I had also seen UGCs 3714 and 3697 (the Integral Sign Galaxy) before, but couldn’t pass up another shot at the Integral Sign—it was as elusive and fascinating as on the previous occasion. I eventually made my way over to my intended target, and was quite surprised to see it so easily, despite mistaking one of its nuclei for a star.

UGC 3730 (Arp 141) (Cam): DeepSkyForum’s Object of the Week: using 10mm Delos–difficult but obvious–1.0′ long–radiating S from a 14th-mag star [actually one of the galactic nuclei in this colliding pair]–wedge-shaped–0.5′ wide at the base–a couple of little knots within it, including one a third of the way down from the star to the base–along the edge of the base is brighter, with a knot at the end of the base–a knot on P side just off end of base–galaxy is definitely an irregular object–not consistently bright–isosceles triangle of 11th- and 12th-mag stars N slightly P galaxy; triangle 1′ on two sides and 1.25′ on long side–to P and SP is a Capricornus-shaped asterism made mostly of 10th- and 11th-mag stars–SF of the galaxy by 15′ is a 9th-mag star

By this point, the three of us all decided to call it a night, with the Moonrise imminent and having seen our share of celestial wonders for the evening. I took one long lasting look at the Orion Nebula—never break down the scope without a look at M42, as skipping it is nearly a cardinal sin among astro-types.

Teardown after a session usually takes about a half-hour from covering the primary mirror to pulling the van out onto the road. Unlike past drives down from Eagle’s Ridge, I went first, so as to ensure that the van was able to manage the icy gravel without hitting someone driving in front of me. Past the ice, I expected the fog from earlier in the evening, so thick it could’ve been used in Monty Python and the Holy Grail, to be waiting for us. But even the fog had retreated by this hour, and the drive home was considerably easier than the drive out had been.