In That Quiet Earth

I. With a successful October observing run in the books, I immediately began to resign us to striking out the rest of the fall and through the winter—there was no way we could be lucky enough to get another stretch of clear, Moonless nights until April. Could we? It seemed to be a fundamental truth of living in the Pacific Northwest that we were damned to miss the wonders of the winter skies entirely, save for possible fleeting glances through rapidly-closing sucker holes in the clouds: the astronomy equivalent of Whack-A-Mole.

And yet the forecast for New Moon week in November held promise, at least in its second half. So when the night of New Moon rolled around, and the Clear Sky Chart promised a decent evening of observing, there was no hesitation in making the drive up Eagle’s Rest and braving the chilly temperatures to proceed in my quest to observe more of the Herschel 800.

Only three of us made the trip: Jerry, Dan B, and my Australopithicene self. We’d obviously expected more, as we set up in the road junction, rather than the flatter, smaller spur road site. Conditions weren’t all that great—it was hazy, and even a strong, consistent breeze wasn’t enough to keep a heavy layer of dew from settling in from the get-go—but even mediocre skies would do when the next clear night could be months away. By the time the sky darkened enough to observe, even a muted Milky Way was a welcome sight. I picked up in Cygnus, with the two objects I had remaining there.


SQM: 21.18
NELM: not checked
WEATHER CONDITIONS: temps in low 40s, cold and clammy, windy, dewy

Others present: JO, DB

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

NGC 6826 (Cyg): A fine object to start November’s run with—The Blinking Planetary. This one is way up high in Cygnus now. It’s a very bright, fairly small planetary, roughly the same size as the Saturn Nebula at 20″ round. The famous blinking effect is easily apparent on this night, the 10.5-magnitude central star swallowed up by the nebulosity in averted vision. At this aperture and magnitude, there’s little structure seen, although there’s a fuzziness to the nebula’s edge that’s not visible directly, especially on the N edge; the nebula may be elongated very slightly P-F. With the O-III filter in, the nebula dominates the entire field and overwhelms its own central star. The blinking effect disappears with the filter in. The nebula’s fringe is more apparent, and it swells the size of the nebula to over 20″. Any hint of internal detail there may have been is washed out in the overall brightness of the planetary with the filter in place.  The field is fairly dense with brighter stars: due S of the nebula by 1.67′ is an 11.5-magnitude star; 16′ due N of the nebula is an 8.5-magnitude star, the brightest in the field. 16′ N very slightly P the nebula is a 9th-magnitude star that is the F-most and brightest vertex in a small triangle that’s oriented roughly N-S; from that star -.5′ N very very slightly P is a 10.5-magnitude star, and a also a an 11th-magnitude star 0.75′ SP the 9th-magnitude star.  S very slightly P the nebula by 10′ is a 10th-magnitude star that’s the brightest and S-most star in a smallish trapezoid of six stars: some of these are within the trapezoid, and all six range to about 13thmagnitude. The trapezoid is 2′ x 1.75′ with the major axis running SP-NF and the brightest star as the SP vertex. 28′ due P the nebula—and thus outside the field—is a bright double star [16 Cygni] which is in a lijne of three doubles/pairs; 16 Cyg consists of two 6th-magnitude stars separated NP-SF by 0.67′.

With both of my remaining Cygnus objects being planetary nebulae—the ghostly death-shrouds of Sun-like stars—I opted to stay with that object class for the rest of the evening (not realizing that the evening would be fairly short). Observing planetary nebulae practically demands the use of an oxygen-III filter, which suppresses all wavelengths of light beyond the oxygen-III band (in which planetary nebulae happen to radiate their strongest) so that the nebulae appear brighter and more contrasty. My O-III filter is particularly suppressive, so that it’s somewhat difficult to use, and its threads don’t mate up with those in my workhorse eyepiece, the ES 14mm 82˚ Nagler clone. This being the case, I kept the filter handy and minimized the amount of threading in/unthreading it as much as possible.

Worse than the filter issues, the dew had become a considerable nuisance. I had to constantly check my secondary mirror  to ensure that it was clear, and it took several uses of Jerry’s hair dryer to keep the secondary from being useless; it was during my observations of the next object—of which I took three separate sets of notes, reflective of the dew status of the secondary—that I first noticed how far gone the secondary had become. Despite having a permanently-mounted secondary heater, the dew at some of our sites often simply overwhelmed the technology. (I need to crank up the sensitivity of the heater so that it works more consistently, but this requires taking the secondary out, and uses more 9-volt battery power.)

NGC 7008 (Cyg): The Night of the Planetary Nebulae continues with the Fetus Nebula, perhaps my favorite object in the whole class. It’s a quite large object with irregular brightness and a wealth of detail. The appearance of the nebula as a whole is not entirely unlike that of the Crescent Nebula. The central star isn’t visible but the nebula’s interior is mottled and teeming with structure. The nebula isn’t quite elliptical; it’s more a rounded-cornered diamond or an ellipse laid over a rhombus. It’s elongated mostly N-S with a P-F minor axis, 1.5′ x 1.0′. The N half of the nebula has more detail than the S half, and the F side is dominated by a dark void, almost like an “opening” there, as if the nebula had been bent around it. There may be a very faint star embedded in the NP quadrant, or it may be a small knot of brighter nebulosity. A bright double star sits on the S slightly F tip of the nebula, with the brighter component at 9.5 magnitude and a 10.5-magnitude secondary 20″ due S of the primary. With the O-III in, there are several knots on the N end, which is much more morphologically complicated than the S half. The dark void on the SF quadrant is even more apparent, and the brighter portion of the nebula resembles a question mark with a very short stem, with the brighter member of the double star being right on the stem to the S and the dark void as the opening of the “hook.” There’s a much brighter region on the N slightly F edge, about 0.3′ from the due N tip, and another brighter region on the due P side at the end of the nebula’s minor axis, along the arc of the question mark. [It was at this point that I noticed that my secondary mirror had completely dewed over, despite the secondary dew heater; after a good drying, I returned to the nebula.] After the drying, the N end of the nebula is even more impressive; the brightest part of the whole begins at the bright knot in the N end and sweeps SP. There’s another distinct knot on the P edge, and the nebula dips back S and SF from there. Now that the secondary mirror is clear and the filter is out, I can see some of the extra stars that Jerry pointed out from his scope, scattered across the nebula’s face: there’s a threshold star just outside the P edge of the nebula, another just above threshold N very very slightly F the brighter component of the prominent double by 0.5′, and another NF the previous one by 8″. Two other stars are nearby the primary of the double star: 2′ F the primary is a 12th-magnitude star, and SP that primary by 3.5′ is the brighter of another double or pair; these are 11.5 and 12.5 magnitude, separated by 20″, with the brighter P slightly N the fainter. The brightest star in the field is SF the nebula by 15′ and is 10thmagnitude, and a slightly fainter (10.2?) star is NF the nebula by 21′, right on the edge of the field.

NGC 7354 (Cep): This underappreciated planetary nebula was a bummer to find for some reason, even though I swept for it with the O-III filter still in the eyepiece. With filter in place, its edges are fuzzy and not as well defined as NGC 6826, although the nebula is in size and appearance otherwise quite like 6826 (only a fair amount fainter and somewhat more diffuse). It’s about 22″ diameter, though possibly very slightly elongated P very slightly N-F very slightly S; this impression of elongation is fleeting and hard to sustain. No central star is visible, with or without the filter. With the O-III removed, there’s a 14th-magnitude star S very slightly P the nebula, just outside the edge of the halo by 15″, and a threshold star lies SF the nebula by 1.25′. The nebula is still pretty obvious in the unfiltered view. N very slightly P by 3.5′ is the brighter of a pair/double (11.5 and 11.7 magnitudes), with the fainter 0.5′ F the brighter. The fainter of another pair lies 8′ N slightly P the nebula; these are separated by 0.67′ N-S and are 10thand 10.5 magnitude. The brightest star in the field is NF the nebula by 16′ and is 9.5 magnitude. A 10th-magnitude star lies 13′ S very slightly F the nebula. 

It wasn’t enough that the dew was nearly impenetrable and the transparency and seeing were wildly inconsistent; now, clouds were actively starting to seep their way across the northern sky, toward the south. Our New Moon night was about to be curtailed by the same forces of nature that had made it possible in the first place. Time, perhaps, for one more object. 

NGC 40 (Cep): Way up near the North Celestial Pole, this is a really impressive object. The central star is considerably bright as such go (11thmagnitude) and is surrounded by a small bright internal knot, around which is a dark “ring” or circular void. The nebula is elongated slightly N-S, about 0.75′ x 0.67′. The outer perimeter is quite indistinct and fuzzy. The P edge of the nebula is a bit brighter than the rest, and the F edge is brighter than either the N or S. With the O-III filter, not much changes; it’s actually a surprise how little the filter does. It mostly “blows out” the middle of the nebula and makes it appear more evenly-illuminated, reducing the nebula to two brightness gradients and making the central star vanish. The nebula is bracketed on the NF and S by brightish stars: to the NF is a 9th-magnitude star (the brightest in the field) and to the S is a 9.5-magnitude star. These are both 3.67′ or 3.75′ from the nebula. The star to the NF has a fainter companion (12.5 magnitude) N slightly P of it by 0.5′, and the star to the S has a 10.5-magnitude star 2.75′ P very slightly S of it. SP the nebula’s central star by 1′ is a 12.5-magnitude star, and 13′ N of the nebula is a 9.5-magnitude star.

It had been less than two hours since I began taking notes toward the Herschel lists, but the sky and the dew were conspiring to put an end to the proceedings. I was, surprisingly, not too disappointed—the next few nights had better forecasts, and even a couple of hours under the night sky had been satisfying. After a few looks at some of the fall showpieces, we packed up for the trip down the mountain, knowing that we’d probably be back the next night.

II. We did indeed head back out the next night, spurred on by a CSC forecast that started off good and improved as the day went on. I prepared for a long evening, plugging in my power tank to charge all day, and loading up on extra warm clothing. I was chomping at the bit until the hour before sunset—the time I usually leave, as it gives me a full hour to make the fifty-minute drive and enough remaining daylight to set up without the need for a flashlight.

Only Jerry and Robert A were able to join me on the mountain, so we set up on the spur road, where the ground was flatter. Jerry had his larger trackball scope there, and Robert his terrific 8″ binoscope, most of which was 3D-printed. We chatted while setting up and then settled in while darkness fell.

Rather than proceed into the deep winter skies, which were rising in the east, I continued among the circumpolar constellations—primarily Cepheus and Cassiopeia. My first target for the evening was the Cepheus open cluster NGC 7160, which I had also taken notes on during the second night of our October run (and which I had forgotten to strike from my Sky Safari observing list). A comparison with my impressions from October is enlightening, and demonstrates how differently an abstract object can be viewed from session to session.


EAGLE’S RIDGE  (spur road)
MOON: 1 day; 2% illuminated, set at 6:02 PM
SEEING: 5-8, got better as evening went on
TRANSPARENCY: 7 (variable, some cirrus coming through)
SQM: 21.2
NELM: not checked
WEATHER CONDITIONS: temps in low 40s, no dew, slightly breezy (JO called one of best nights at Eagle’s)

Others present: JO, RA

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

NGC 7160 (Cep): This is a bright, compact cluster, but not a very rich one. Depending on how one defines its boundaries, there are between ten and fifteen stars here. The cluster is composed of two main small groups: on the F end, and including the two brightest stars in the cluster, is a small keystone pattern, and on the P side of the cluster is a small triangle. The keystone consists of a 7th-magnitude star with an 8th-magnitude star 1′ SF; NF the 8th-magnitude star by 1.5′ is a 10th-magnitude star, and 0.5′ N very slightly P of the 10th-magnitude star is a 12th-magnitude star. SP the 7th-magnitude star by 1.75′ is the F-most of the triangle, a 9.5-magnitude star; due P by 0.5′ is a 10th-magnitude star, and 0.75′ SP the 10th-magnitude star is a 9th-magnitude star. From the 12th-magnitude star in the keystone to the 9th-magnitude star in the triangle is 4.25′; the minor axis of the cluster runs from the 7th-magnitude star in the keystone to an 11.5-magnitude star 1.75′ NP it. 4′ SF the end of the keystone (and due S of the 8th-magnitude star) is an 11th-magnitude star with an 11.5-magnitude star NF it by 0.5′; if these are part of the cluster, they’re fairly removed from the rest of the cluster. From the brighter of that pair due S by 4.5′ is the dimmer of another pair, which is 11.5 magnitude and has an 11th-magnitude star F very slightly S by 0.5′. From the 7th-magnitude star NP by 10′ is the brightest star in the field, which is 6.5 magnitude.

NGC 7023 (Cep): A difficult object to observe and describe, the Iris Nebula is an extremely diffuse blotch of reflection nebulosity amid a much darker envelope of dust. The reflection nebulosity is centered on an 8th-magnitude star and runs 2′ N very slightly F of the star and 3.5′ S very slightly P; the brightest bits are N and just S very slightly P of the star. The minor axis is 1.5′ long. In averted vision, there’s a dark notch that approaches the star from the P but doesn’t quite touch the star. The bright nebulosity here has a wispy appearance to it, rather like the Pleiades nebulosity as it appears on photographs. NF the 8th-magnitude star appears to be another faint extension of the nebula. S very slightly F the 8th-magnitude star by 3.25′ is a 12.5-magnitude star, one of the few within 20′ of the “central” star. Much of the field is covered by a “dead zone” of dark nebulosity that rather suddenly yields to a brighter starfield, especially on the F side (it’s a more-gradual yielding on the P side); this dead zone extends a long way (perhaps 20′) S of the 8th-magnitude star, and within it, the only stars of note are a pair of 10.5-magniude stars on the P edge, the closer of which is 7.5′ P very slightly S of the 8th-magnitude star. 4.75′ P very slightly S of this pair is another, fainter pair. This object gives the distinct impression that it has a lot more to reveal in a larger aperture—that the 12.5″ is only scratching at the surface of what can be visible here.

NGC 7142 (Cep): This is a fine, exceedingly rich cluster of fifty stars with a lot of indefinable starglow strewn within it. At first glance, the cluster isn’t particularly well-detached, but it becomes more “clusterlike” as one observes it and the faint glow of the unresolved stars is drawn out. There’s a fairly-wide range of magnitudes here, although the majority of the resolved stars are within the 13th/14th-magnitude range. The cluster is roughly triangular, pointing toward the N; the F side is 9′ long, the P side is 8′ long, and the S side (the least-defined of the three) is 8.5′ long. The F side is defined by three 10.5-magnitude stars (including the N and SF vertices of the triangle) and bows outward in the middle, with 4.5′-5.0′ between the three stars on that side; the two more northern stars on that side are slightly closer together. The N-most vertex is the S-most and brightest star in a group of five that extends N-ward. The SP vertex of this triangle is 12.5 magnitude. The middle region of the triangle is the richest in terms of resolved stars, while much of the unresolved glow extends from the middle through the P side of the triangle and somewhat beyond. Much of this background glow is almost nebulous in averted vision. There’s a clump near the triangle’s center that’s composed of five 13th-magnitudish stars in a 2′ x 0.75′ area; there’s also another obvious clump in the middle of the P side, containing five 12.5- to 14th-magnitude stars.  The brightest star in the field is 8′ NF the N-most vertex of the triangle, and is 8.5 magnitude.

NGC 7129 (Cep): A small, poor cluster of six stars with bonus nebulosity. The stars are arranged in a pattern resembling the constellation Delphinus, with the small diamond to the NF side of the cluster and the body/tail stretching to the SP. The star on the P end of the diamond is the cluster’s brightest. The major axis of the diamond runs 1.5′ P-F, the minor axis 1.0′ N-S; the vertex to the N (0.5′ NP the star on the F end of the diamond) is much fainter than the others at threshold level, and is not always held steadily. The P vertex is 10.5 magnitude, the F vertex 12.5 magnitude, and the S vertex 11thmagnitude. SP the star on the P end of the diamond by 2.25′ is the SP end of the “tail,” which is a 10.5-magnitude star; NF that star by 0.67′ is an 11th-magnitude star, the other in the tail. There are stars SF and NP the main pattern of the cluster that are probably not cluster members. The diamond is filled with reflection nebulosity, which is brightest around the two brightest stars and stretches toward the stars in the tail without enveloping them. The brightest star in NGC 7129 is N slightly P the star at the N end of 7142 by 23′.

NGC 7380 (Cep): This is another nebulous cluster, but far more impressive than the previous. The Wizard Nebula—that this one has a proper name and NGC 7129 doesn’t may say something about their visual interestingness—comprises a fairly-rich cluster of perhaps forty stars in a triangular pattern. The stars span a wide range of magnitudes, and the cluster is pretty well detached and quite obvious in the starfield. The P vertex of the triangle is the cluster’s brightest star at 8.5 magnitude. F that star by 8′ is an 11th-magnitude star and N very very slightly P the 11th-magnitude star is a 10.5-magnitude star; these are the three vertices of the triangle. The cluster itself expands a bit beyond the boundaries of the triangle, to about 12′ overall. S very slightly P the F-most vertex (the 11th-magnitude star) is a 2.5′ string of five or six 12th/13th-magnitude stars. The F edge of the triangle is the best-defined and has many of the cluster’s fainter stars along it; there may be some unresolved stars among the nebular glow. Eight stars (counting the N and P vertices) define the triangle’s N edge, with six along the S edge. The brightest portion of the nebula runs along the F edge of the triangle. Without a filter, it’s hard to tell if there are any other brighter patches, but a dark obscuration runs along the S edge of the triangle, beginning near a bright pair of stars P the cluster (cf.) and running roughly F and somewhat S for 18′; this obscuration is 3.5′-4′ wide. With the UHC filter, the nebulosity is generally much brighter but evenly-illuminated, and mostly spans the confines of the triangle, without many knots or brighter patches. It stretches somewhat NP of the N-most vertex of the triangle. In averted vision, a brighter spot can be seen just N of a 12th-magnitude star that’s 1.67′ N of the SF vertex of the triangle. The view through the O-III filter is only slightly better than the unfiltered view and not a good as with the UHC; in the O-III the little patch on the F side disappears. With both filters, the small chain of stars running S of the SF vertex of the triangle may appear to contain some nebulosity. The pair of stars P the cluster (the pair from which the dark obscuration extends) is P the P-most vertex of the triangle by 6′; these are 9thand 7.5 magnitude, with the brighter NP the fainter by 0.5′. NP the brighter of the two by 9′ is the brightest star in the field, which is 6thmagnitude. From the P vertex N very slightly F by 13′ is another 9th-magnitude star; N slightly F that star by 13′ is another 6th-magnitude star, which has a 10th-magnitude star 0.75′ to the NP.

By this time the previous night, dew and clouds had conspired to drive us off the mountain; tonight, there was no trace of either (although we suspected a few belts of high-level cirrus had been creeping through from time to time). Even my eyepiece case—usually the first thing to get covered with dew—was completely dry. The sky was quickly steadying down as well, and the seeing had already exceeded the predicted level.

NGC 7419 (Cep): Another among a run of fine, interesting clusters here in Cepheus. This one looks nebulous at first glance but soon resolves into about twenty stars over a haze of beyond-threshold starglow. The cluster is obviously elongated NP-SF, and the 8.5-magnitude star at the NP corner—if an actual cluster member—is far brighter than the rest of the cluster stars (most of which are in the 13.5-and-fainter range). Many of these fainter stars are gathered on the cluster’s S end. The cluster is 4.0′ x 1.5′ with about sixty stars overall. There’s an obvious double or very close pair on the SF end, a pair of 13.5-magnitude stars separated N-S by 4″; halfway between this pair and the bright star on the NP end is a 10.5-magnitude star, and between this star and the double is a granular cloud of faint unresolved stars that resolves into a spray of stars in averted vision. Due F the 10.5-magnitude star is another patch of unresolved stars, 0.25′ across, near the F end of the cluster’s minor axis. Due S of the 10.5-magnitude star by 8′ is a 10th-magnitude star, and from that star F very slightly S by 3′ is a 9.8-magnitude star. 1.25′ NF the 8.5-magnitude star at the NP corner of the cluster is the brighter of a pair (11th– and 13.5-magnitude stars), the fainter N of the brighter by 0.3′. From the 8.5-magnitude star NP by 10′ is the brighter of yet another pair; the brighter of the two is the brightest star in the field at 7.5 magnitude, with a 10th-magnitude companion 10″ S very slightly F the brighter.

NGC 7510 (Cep): This cluster is a knockout, and a showpiece cluster for this aperture—the best cluster in Cepheus! It’s very rich and well detached, an arrowhead of more than fifty stars set within a triangle of 8thand 8.5-magnitude suns. The member magnitudes range from 9.5 (a single star on the F corner of the cluster) down to threshold level; many of the brighter (10.5-12thmagnitude) stars are in chains across the cluster, the two most-notable of which converge at the 9.5-magnitude star. One of these chains runs along the S edge of the cluster, from the lucida P very slightly S for 2.75′, and contains five stars including the two on the ends; the star on the P end of that chain is 10.5 magnitude. The other prominent chain runs due P from the 9.5-magnitude star and contains four stars (most of which are multiples) plus the lucida. These chains actually don’t stretch all the way to the 9.5-magnitude star; there’s a gap of 1.25′ between that star and the F-most star in each chain, but the illusion is that they both meet at the lucida. The star that marks the cluster’s N-most point is 2.25′ NP the 9.5-magnitude star and is 12.5 magnitude. The majority of the threshold/unresolved stars in the cluster are in the N half between the 12.5-magnitude star and the more northern of the two prominent chains. The sides of the cluster proper are about 2.75′ each, although a couple of much fainter (13.5-magnitude) stars are F the cluster lucida slightly, extending the S edge of the cluster. NF the lucida by 9′ is a bright double/pair, components of which are 8.5 and 12.5 magnitude, with the primary N of the secondary by 10″. F slightly N of this double by 4.5′ is another 8.5-magnitude star, and 19′ SP the double is an 8th-magnitude star that’s the brightest in the field; these three stars (the double, the 8th-mag and the 8.5-mag) form the triangle in which the cluster is bounded. This is a superb object that deserves to be much better known!

Seeing had sharpened considerably by this point, and my primary mirror seemed to have long since reached equilibrium. Stars were steady tack-points in the eyepiece. Conditions tonight were proving to be even better than the CSC had predicted, and the seeing was on its way to being the sharpest I’ve experienced here in Oregon.

NGC 7635 (Cas): The Bubble Nebula seems, on photographs, to be a showpiece object; the reality, however, is quite more underwhelming at this aperture. The majority of the visible nebulosity surrounds a 9th-magnitude “central” star, but without a filter only a 1′ segment, mostly P and N of this star, is plainly seen in direct vision. In averted, the F side of the star, and arcing S-ward, is a hint of the F arc of the bubble itself. With the UHC filter, the nebula is considerably enhanced: the F-side arc of the bubble is much more apparent and defined but still quite faint in averted vision, and the remainder of the bubble is still not seen. The central 1′ glow is also much brighter with the filter, and another detached chunk of nebulosity is apparent some 2′ N of the 9th-magnitude star; this separate section is about 0.5′ across and really improves in averted vision. In the filter, the whole arc of the nebula—from the S end of the F-side arc to the secondary chunk N of the 9th-magnitude star—is about 3.5′ x 2.0′. Overall, this is another object that really would benefit from a substantial increase in aperture. From the 9th-magnitude star SP by 6′ is a the brightest star in the field, at 7th-magnitude, and from the 9th-magnitude star SF by 7.5′ is another of 9thmagnitude. 11′ NP the “central” 9th-magnitude star is a 9.5-magnitude star that’s the N-most vertex of a very flat triangle 1′ long; NF the central star by 13′ is the brightest (at 10th-magnitude) in another small triangle. The impressive M52 is outside the field, 39′ to the NF.

NGC 7789 (Cas): The autumn sky’s best open cluster! Caroline’s Rose is almost indescribably rich, with 150 or more stars packed into a 14′ round area (a nice change from triangular-ish clusters). It’s very obviously a single entity, and well detached in that it’s considerably denser than any standard Milky Way field. The majority of the stars are of 13thmagnitude or fainter. On the P side, running mostly N-S, is a run of sixteen brighter stars (11th/12thmagnitude), which hooks P a bit on the S end and then back NP for one more star; that last star is the brightest in the run at 10.5 magnitude and the P-most star that’s obviously a cluster member, and then P very very slightly S of that star by 1.67′ is a very small clump (maybe 0.3′ around) with perhaps seven 13th/14th-magnitude stars; even further P slightly N from the 10.5-magnitude star by 4.5′ is an 8.5-magnitude star, and a 9th-magnitude star lies 5.5′ NP from the 8.5-magnitude star. There’s a detached group outside the NF edge of the cluster some 12′ from cluster center; this group is an NP-SF running line with seven stars (and some unresolved) that spans 4′ in length. The famous dark lanes that give the cluster its flower-like appearance are quite obvious tonight. On the N edge of the cluster is a 4.5′ x 1.0′ dark arc whose ends point to the SP and SF; this lane has a few cluster members N of it. The second lane is on the NP corner of the cluster, running NF the aforementioned 10.5-magnitude star, and spans 5′ x 1′; this dark spot has no cluster members N of it. On the S edge of the cluster, forming a “pair of parentheses” with the lane on the N edge, is one of similar size and shape to the N-most lane; this one starts near the cluster’s SP corner, arcs S, and then back to the NF, almost like a smile. Just N of the cluster’s center is a lane that runs P-F 7′ x 0.5′; below this lane, halfway between this lane and the one on the S edge, is a smaller spot that’s 1.5′ long and is wider at the F end (0.67′) but narrows as it runs to the P. So in total there are four lanes running across the cluster and the one that runs NF from the NP edge of the cluster. This is a stunning, intricate object that yields new details with every passing moment spent observing it!

Jerry took a series of SQM measurements to get an indicator of the sky darkness and transparency. The 21.2 he got was surprisingly poor, but there was little doubt the seeing was far superior to the transparency. We all remarked on the sharpness of the star-points, even at higher magnifications; Jerry said that it was probably the best night seeing-wise that he’d ever had on Eagle’s Ridge.

NGCs 7790, 7788 (Cas): NGC 7790 is an impressive little cluster, a bit like a more-distant NGC 7510: it’s also an arrowhead-shaped spray of stars, pretty obvious and rich, with a decently-wide range of magnitudes. There are about forty stars here, with some granular, unresolved glow among them. On the P end is a diamond of stars with axes of 2.0′ x 1.5′; the major axis runs SP-NF, the minor NP-SF, with the minor axis offset toward the S slightly. The stars on the SP, P, and NF of the diamond are the three brightest in the cluster, with the one due P at 10.5 magnitude, the SP and NF stars 11thmagnitude, and the fourth in the diamond (the SF star) at 12thmagnitude. The cluster is 4′ x 1.5′, with its major axis running P-F and a 13.5-magnitude star at the extreme F end. The majority of the fainter stars are gathered halfway between the 13.5-magnitude star and the 10.5-magnitude star on the P end of the diamond. SF the 10.5-magnitude star by 5.25′ is a 10th-magnitude star; SP the cluster by 13′ is a 6th-magnitude star, while the brightest in the area, a 5.5-magnitude star, is due F the cluster by 23′. S of the 10.5-magnitude star by 11′ is a very close, almost-equal double (10thand 10.2 magnitudes) whose components are separated by 5″ NP-SF each other, with the SF of the double the fainter by a slight amount. F that double by 0.3′ is a 12th-magnitude star. NP the cluster by 18′ is NGC 7788: a much smaller cluster at 1.5′ diameter, it’s also quite rich. Its 9.5-magnitude lucida is perched on its P edge, and the cluster contains perhaps eighteen stars plus a bit of unresolved glow.

My notes for NGC 7762 are a mess, perhaps befitting an object that was tough to track down.

NGC 7762 (Cep): Sky Safari has this one plotted wrong, which contributed to the considerable delay I had in finding it. It’s roughly halfway between Caph (Beta Cas) and Errai (Gamma Cep), and is pretty good-sized; it’s not super-obvious or very well detached, but it’s plainly a cluster. There are about 30 stars here, many of which fall into the 12th/13th-magnitude range. The cluster’s most obvious feature is a stripe of seven closely-packed 12th-magnitude stars, 1.5′ long, that runs N very slightly P-S very slightly F. This line is near the middle of the cluster proper. A 10.5-magnitude star 7.5′ NP of the line marks the NP (and right-angle) vertex of the triangular shape of the cluster. SP this vertex by 9′ is the P-most vertex of the triangle, which is 11th-magnitude. An 11.5-magnitude star 15′ SF the right-angle vertex serves as the third vertex. N of the “stripe” of stars by 1.5′ is a small knot of stars, no more than 0.3′ across, which contains six stars of 14thmagnitude and fainter. 12′ F very slightly S from the right angle vertex is an 8th-magnitude star with a 13.5-magnitude star P very slightly N of it by 0.5′; 1.5′ N slightly F the 8th-magnitude star is a 10.5-magnitude star with a 13th– magnitude star 0.25′ due P it; 6.5′ F the 10.5- magnitude is an 8.5- magnitude star. SP the cluster, 17′ SP the star in the middle of the “stripe” is the brightest star in the field, which is 5thmagnitude and bluish.

Although it was still before midnight, we’d been observing for close to five hours already (thank you early sunsets!), and despite the rush from observing in such excellent conditions, we were all beginning to feel a bit fatigued; Robert also had work the next morning. With an hour’s drive home and having reached a good stopping point, I chose one more Herschel object from my list, one that I had somehow missed during my previous forays into Cetus and Eridanus.

NGC 1162 (Eri): Finally gotten to this… unspectacular little galaxy in Eridanus, after having accidentally skipped over it last winter. It’s not really worth the wait, with the caveat that all galaxies are worthy of awe in their own right. This one is round and 0.75′ across, with a somewhat brighter, compact core and a substellar nucleus. (Admittedly, the sky down this low isn’t as dark or transparent as it is higher in altitude/declination.) It’s in a pretty interesting field with a lot of brightish background stars. NF the galaxy by 5.75′ is the P-most vertex in a right triangle, at 11thmagnitude; the 12th-magnitude right angle vertex lies 3.75′ due F the 11th-magnitude star, and there’s a 12.5-magnitude star 3.25′ S of the right-angle vertex. Beyond the triangle, there is another 12th-magnitude star 4′ S of the galaxy, and an 11th-magnitude star 6.75′ NP the galaxy. The brightest in the field is a 9.5-magnitude star S very slightly F the galaxy by 12′; and, 26′ N very slightly P the galaxy (and outside the field) is a slightly reddish 6th-magnitude star.

So our evening of superior seeing reached an end, with a needed but pretty mediocre galaxy. Along the way, I had also observed Comet 46/P (Wirtanen), the barred spiral galaxy NGC 1300, NGC 1360 (the Comet Nebula) in Fornax, M15 (as always), the glorious Local Group spiral galaxy M33, which was overflowing with detail, the Orion Nebula (a stunning object as always, particularly in Robert’s binoscope), and the planet Neptune, always a target when it’s in the sky. By the time I got my gear disassembled and stowed, it was well after midnight, and I arrived home through foggy streets somewhere around 1:30 AM.

III. The forecast for the next two nights was mediocre, and I had other obligations regardless. Our next clear night would likely be the last one for November, given the advance of the Moon, and so I made sure to take one last stab at the whale for the month when conditions finally proved amenable.

Although Jerry couldn’t make it, we set up in the road junction with the expectation that we’d have a fair number of observers. Jeff L was there setting up when I arrived, and Dan B pulled up in short order; he had his daughter and her friend Jazlyn in tow. Surprisingly, no-one else from EAS showed.

The Moon made its presence felt early on, but was already behind the trees by the time the sky grew dark. The sky wasn’t nearly as good as our previous night out, but it was still mostly clear; the occasional wave of cirrus rolled through, and the sky near the horizons (where we could actually see the horizons from the junction) was pretty cruddy. Overhead, though, conditions were good enough.

I’d prepared to wade through the extensive list of Herschel objects in Cassiopeia; these were mostly open clusters, and most of them in and around the ‘W’ pattern of the constellation’s brighter stars. Aside from the Virgo Cluster, there may not be a comparable area of sky so densely-packed with Herschel objects. After taking a view of the lovely triple star Iota Cassiopeiae—ostensibly to check the seeing overhead—I got down to my long-delayed survey of Cassiopeia’s riches.


MOON: 4 days; 17% illuminated, set at 8:11 PM
SEEING: 5 (Variable)
TRANSPARENCY: 5+ (variable, some cirrus coming through; gunky at horizons although MW still fine)
SQM: 21.2
NELM: not checked
WEATHER CONDITIONS: temps in mid 40s, some high clouds rolling through, very breezy, no dew to speak of

Others present: JL, DB, Ruby, Jazlyn

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

NGC 129 (Cas): The first of a whole night in Cassiopeia, and an obvious cluster, well detached and moderately rich with 50 stars. The cluster overall spans about 12′ P-F x 8.0′ N-S. Its most-prominent feature is a right triangle of brighter stars (9th/9.5 magnitude) spanning across the middle of the cluster: the right-angle vertex is the F-most of the three, and is 9.5 magnitude; 3.25′ NP is the second vertex, which is 9thmagnitude; the third vertex is SP the right-angle vertex by 3′ and is also 9thmagnitude. The hypotenuse runs N very slightly P-S very slightly F and is 3.75′ long. This triangle is overlaid upon an irregular ellipse of fainter stars, mostly in the 11th/12th-magnitude range; this ellipse is elongated NP-SF, and the three stars in the triangle form part of the ellipse. A mostly-straight line of seven (mostly 11th/11.5-magnitude) stars, F the right-angle vertex of the triangle by 4.5′, runs 3.75′ N very slightly P-S very slightly F and forms the F edge of the cluster. There are a couple of stars P the NP vertex of the triangle, and these form the cluster’s NP bound. From the SP vertex of the triangle S by 2.5′ are a couple of cluster members that mark the S end of a line that runs S-NF along the F edge of the ellipse. S of the right-angle vertex by 13′ is the brightest star in the field, which is 5.5 magnitude. SF the right-angle vertex by 11′ is a 9th-magnitude star. F slightly N of the right-angle vertex by 9′ is the P-most of a pair of 8.5-magnitude stars; the second is due F the first by 1.5′; NF the second of these by 0.75′ is a 10th-magnitude star. NP the NP vertex of the triangle by 2.75′ is a small clump of seven 12th-magnitude stars (and maybe a couple of 13thmagnitude); this clump is 0.75′ across.

NGC 136 (Cas): The epitome of ‘compact,’ NGC 136 is no more than 1.25′ across but very rich and dense with stars. These stars are primarily fainter than magnitude 13; there are two that bright on the N edge of the cluster. It’s not much more than a nebulous spot, almost like a loose, small and distant globular, and very much a singular object despite not being overly well detached from the rich background. The field surrounding the cluster is pretty evenly-populated with stars, but there are no real patterns or asterisms that stick out.  SP the cluster by 5.5′ is the brightest star in the field at 7.5 magnitude; 0.67′ S very slightly P that star is a 12th-magnitude star. N slightly P the cluster by 12′ is a 10th-magnitude star, and due N of the cluster by 3.5′ is an 11th-magnitude star. SP the cluster by 17′ is a 16′ long straight line running S-NP, containing fifteen stars of 9thto 11.5 magnitudes; the brightest in this line is 9thmagnitude and on the S end of the line; P that star by 6.5′ is another of the same magnitude.

NGC 225 (Cas): This cluster is very bright, but not one of the richer or more detached open clusters I’ve done so far. There are only about twenty stars here, and of a fairly narrow range of magnitude; most are of 8thor 9thmagnitude. The cluster is roughly triangular (as so many seem to be!); it’s 15′ on the F side, 13′ on the N side, and 8′ on the P side. The most distinctive feature of the cluster is a line of stars on the F side that runs due N-S and has a couple of “kinks” in it; it’s 9.5′ long and has five stars in the 8th/9th-magnitude range and a few that are fainter; the bottom three in the line form a flat isosceles triangle whose long side is 3.5′ and the other two sides 2′; the N-most in this triangle is brighter than the other two by 0.5 magnitude (at 9thmagnitude); then there’s a gap between this star and a 12.5-magnitude star N of it by 2′ and two 10th-magnitude stars and three much fainter ones. The main body of the cluster itself is also triangular, and it shares S and NP vertices with the larger triangle as well as P and N edges (although the N edge of the larger triangle extends out to the N end of the line on the F side. The line on the F side of the larger triangle runs parallel to the F side of the smaller; there’s an average gap of about 4.5′ between the two sides). The shared S-most vertex of the two triangles is 11thmagnitude. 2.25′ F very slightly N of the shared NP vertex of the triangles is a double star of 11thand 12.5 magnitudes, with the secondary F the primary by 13″.

By this point then sky was already deteriorating somewhat, and the seeing and transparency had proven to be extremely variable from moment to moment. The wind had also picked up, becoming a sussurus of noise in the background of my recorded notes. Jeff measured an average of 21.2 on his SQM–as good as the fine night previous on the spur, but still below the average we got at the junction. Not knowing if we would get completely crude out or not, I pressed on.

NGC 381 (Cas): A fine, fairly-rich cluster of perhaps forty stars in a 5′ diameter. It’s moderately-well detached, in a field containing a couple of very bright stars and a couple of interesting asterisms. The stars in the cluster range from an 11th-magnitude beacon just on the N edge down to below 13th magnitude, perhaps to 14th. The majority of the stars are on the fainter end of this range. There’s a prominent group of very faint stars on the SP edge of the cluster and a clump of brighter stars on the SF edge. There’s also an obvious string of 11th-magnitude stars, perhaps five, that stretch 8′ N from the cluster lucida. 10′ F slightly S of the 11th-magnitude star is a 7.5-magnitude star, and an 8th-magnitude star is 18′ NF the 11th-magnitude star. S very slightly P the cluster is an interesting asterism of seven stars running S-NP for about 4′; around the middle of this asterism are a few threshold stars that give a fleeting impression of nebulosity; the brightest in this asterism is one the NP end and is 16′ S very slightly P the lucida. NP the cluster are two other clumps of stars: one is 11′ NP the 11th-magnitude star and is a small line of four in the 11.5/12.5-magnitude range; this line runs 1.25′ N-S. The second clump is 17′ NP the previous clump and smaller, perhaps 0.75′ round, with eight stars of 12th-13.5 magnitude, with its brightest star on its SP corner.

NGC 436 (Cas): Another compact but very distinct cluster. The central “body” of NGC 436 spans 1.5′ and has on its N edge a close double: 11.5-mag components separated by 8″ N very slightly P-S very slightly F. S of the N component of this double by 1.25′ is an 11th-magnitude star, and this and the double from the major axis of the cluster’s rich central region. Twenty of the cluster’s thirty stars are in this region, which is also bounded by an 11.5-magnitude star 0.5′ S very slightly F the S component of the double, and another 11.5-magnitude star SP the N component of the double by 1.5′. The area between these is filled with faint stars, especially to the S; between the two brighter ones on that end is an averted-vision clump of unresolved stars, and the cluster has a centralized clump which is “smeared” toward the P side. The cluster’s overall dimensions are 4.5′ x 1.67′. There’s a conspicuous line of three stars S of the cluster, running P-F, that ends SF the cluster; the faintest of these is the P-most and 11.5 magnitude, and it’s 3′ S very very slightly F the double star by 3′; F this star by 1.75′ is a 9.5-magnitude star, and F that star by 2′ is a 10th-magnitude star. Due S of the first of these three by 2.75′ is an 11th-magnitude star, which forms a right triangle with the previous group of three. P the double star by 14′ is the brightest in the field, a 7th-magnitude star, which is on the P edge of an asterism that ‘s vaguely Capricornus-like and consists mainly of 9.5-11th-magnitude stars.

NGC 457 (Cas): The famous ET/Owl/Dragonfly/WALL-E Cluster is one of the showpieces of the autumn sky, and one of the best objects for public outreach event for any season. It’s also the nicest cluster in Cassiopeia regardless of which aperture one uses. It’s a large, quite rich (eighty stars) and very well detached cluster with a wide range of magnitudes, from 5th-magnitude PhiCassiopeiae down to 13thmagnitude. (Phi1may not actually be a member of the cluster.) Phi1 and 7th-magnitude Phi(2.25′ P slightly S of Phi1) form the SF end of the cluster, which extends 15′ to the NP and contains more than eighty stars in its borders; from the ends of the figure’s arms is 22′. On the NF corner of the cluster (the more-F foot of the figure) is a 9th-magnitude star, and the NP foot is a star of magnitude 9.5. The figure’s F arm/wing runs mostly P-F, while the P arm/wing runs SP-NF. The P arm is slightly less-defined than the F arm, and is composed primarily of two 9.5-magnitude stars which each have SF them by 1′ an 11th-magnitude star; these four make up most of the P arm. The F arm also has four stars: the P-most of these is the cluster’s third-brightest star at 8.5-magnitude and is the “joint” where the arm meets the figure’s body. The star at the F end of the arm is 10th-magnitude and lies 9′ NF Phi1. There are three primary subgroups around the center of the cluster: a bright double star of 10th-magnitude components (N slightly P-S slightly F each other, separation 0.25′) lies halfway between Phiand the NP foot of the figure, and a pair of small triangles lie SF the double; the closest to the double has as its brightest star its P-most vertex, 1.25′ S slightly F the southern component of the double; NF that star by 0.75′ is a 12th-magnitude star; F very slightly N of the P-most/brightest in this triangle by 0.67′ is the brighter of a double (11th and 12th magnitudes, the brighter 6″ N of the fainter). The second triangle lies just less than halfway from the bright (10th/10th) double to Phi2; NP Phiby 3.75′ is the S-most and brightest (9.5 magnitude) of this second triangle; NP that star by 0.67′ is the 10th-magnitude right-angle vertex of this second triangle, and the third vertex is 10.5 magnitude and 0.3′ NF the right-angle vertex. NP Phiby 1′ is a small rhombus of 12th– and 13th-magnitude stars that is about 0.5′ on each axis. A superb object.

By now, the wind was fairly howling in the background; in listening to my voice recordings from the evening, there are times when my voice is hard to hear over the rumble of the wind. It only moderately-affected our gear, rippling the shroud on my telescope and occasionally blowing my charts open to a different page. But the sky was still clear, and the transparency had improved a bit as the wind blew the sky clean.

NGC 559 (Cas): A very rich, obvious and well-detached cluster, with sixty stars compressed into a 3.5′ area. These don’t have a particularly wide range of magnitudes. Most prominent are three brighter stars that form a small isosceles triangle, with its base to the SF and its tip to the NP; the stars along the base are 0.3′ apart, with the more southern of the two being the brightest in the cluster at 11thmagnitude and the other 11.5; the star at the triangle’s tip is NP the brighter star by 1′ and is just a shade dimmer (11.2 magnitude?). This triangle bounds the brightest, densest part of the cluster, with the cluster spreading out SP and NF from that and the brightest portion toward the NF end of the cluster. The cluster overall is roughly rectangular, although the brightest stars mark out a circle. The rectangle is elongated SP-NF. The F side of the cluster has a long string of stars along it with the two at the base of the isosceles triangle as part of it; the line runs 1.75′ NF from those stars and also contains six or seven 13th/14th-magnitude stars; this line defines the F edge of the rectangle. 1.5′ SF the two stars at the triangle’s base is an 11.5-magnitude star; SF that star by 1′ is a clump of discrete 13th-magnitude and fainter stars. NP the cluster, about 3′ NP the star at the triangle’s tip, is a 10.5-magnitude star; P very slightly N of that star is another 10.5-magnitude star; 2.5′ due P that star is an 11th-magnitude star. The cluster is halfway between the two brightest stars in the field: F the cluster by 12′ is a 7.5-magnitude star; P the cluster by 11′ is an 8.5-magnitude star. S of the 7.5-magnitude star is another small isosceles triangle, the tip of which is 10.5 magnitude and is S of the 7.5-magnitude star by 1.67′ and the two stars on the base are F and F very slightly S of that 10.5-magnitude star and are both 12thmagnitude; these are separated by 12″ and oriented SP-NF to each other.

NGC 637 (Cas): Another smallish, pretty rich cluster, one of many gems here in Cassiopeia. This one contains 25 stars in a 2.5′ diameter, with a wide range of magnitudes among them. A delta pattern of brighter stars is superimposed upon the fainter (13.5 magnitude and below) majority; many of those in the delta are in the 10th/11th-magnitude range. The P-most of these, which is the “bend” of the delta, is actually a double, with the 10th-magnitude primary S of the fainter by 7″; the secondary is 11thmagnitude. The primary of this double is the brightest star in the cluster. S of the primary by 1′ is a 10.5-magnitude star, while another 11th-magnitude star is 0.67 NF the primary; NF this second star by another 0.67′ is the dimmest of the delta stars at 12thmagnitude. Due N of the primary by 2′ is another 10th-magnitude star. Due F the lucida by 3′ is the brighter of a pair (10.5 and 11thmagnitudes), with the brighter P very very slightly N of the secondary by 20″. Several bright stars are in the field as well: there are three 8th-magnitude stars, one S very very slightly P the lucida by 9′, with another 7.5′ SF that star, and the third 17′ NP the lucida; this last star is also the F end of a string of four stars that runs SP from that star, with a gap between the 8th-magnitude star and the next one SP.

NGC 654 (Cas): NGC 654 is one of a trio of impressive clusters on the eastern side of Cassiopeia’s ‘W’ pattern, and probably second among the three in visual impact. It’s a showy splash of forty stars, roughly triangular, and with a wide range of brightnesses, well detached from the surrounding starfields. It’s fairly rich, especially across the middle of its 5.75′ x 5.0′ span. The SF vertex of this triangular cluster is both the brightest star in the cluster and in the field at 7thmagnitude, and even to my colorblind eyes has a slightly reddish hue. The SP vertex of the triangle is P the previous star by 3.5′ and is 9.5 magnitude; the N vertex is N of the lucida by 4.5′, but is formed from a tiny triangle of two 12th– and one 14th-magnitude stars, with the two brighter forming the little triangle’s S edge. The three vertices are the cluster’s most obvious feature. The secondary axis of the cluster runs roughly P-F and consists of five 11.5-magnitude stars, of which the two on the F end form the N edge of a diamond which includes the cluster’s 7th-magnitude lucida as its SP vertex, with a 12th-magnitude star F the lucida by 1′. The lucida is on the S end of the diamond’s minor axis (1.3′ long; the major axis is 2.25′ and oriented NP-SF. Just N of the middle of that P-F line, right in the middle of the cluster, is its most-concentrated clump of stars, which is roughly 2′ P-F and 1.25′ N-S. Although the field is fairly populous, little stands out around the cluster.

NGC 659 (Cas): The second of the eastern Cassiopeia trio, and probably the least of the three. It’s smallish and moderately-rich, with forty stars, and pretty obviously a cluster, although it’s less detached than many of the previous clusters I’ve done. The cluster is round, but the predominant bright stars form a pentagon, out of the bottom of which some of the cluster spills out. The pentagon’s major axis runs NP-SF and is 1.75′. The minor axis is 1′ and runs SP-NF. The NP vertex of the pentagon is 11.5 magnitude and lies at the NP end of the major axis; S of it and very slightly F is a trio or triple star, of which the brightest is in the middle at 11.5 magnitude; this has a 12.5-magnitude star to the P by 15″ and a 13th-magnitude star F by 6″. From the middle star in the trio SF by 0.67′ is a 10.5-magnitude star that’s the brightest in the pentagon; 0.67′ due F that 10.5-magnitude star is an 11.5-magnitude star that lies on the SF end of the major axis; N of that star by 1.3′ is a 12.5-magnitude star that’s the NF-most vertex of the pentagon. SP the cluster is a trio of very bright stars of which the star in the middle is the brightest in the field at 6th magnitude; this star is SP the triple star by 11′; P that star by 5.5′ is a 7th-magnitude star; SF the 6th-magnitude star by 8′ is a 7.5-magnitude star (these three form their own triangle). Due F the cluster by 19′ from the triple star is another 7.5-magnitude star. From the triple star N slightly F by 40′ is the N-most star in NGC 663 (cf.).

NGC 663 (Cas): The third, most-impressive, and largest of the trio of clusters on the eastern side of Cassiopeia’s W, NGC 663 is somewhat reminiscent of NGC 457.  The cluster’s four most-prominent stars are on the N end; there are no very bright stars here, and so the range of magnitudes here is less extreme than that of 457. The cluster is very rich, with eighty stars, possibly as many as a hundred in its 9′ x 9′ area. The brightest star, at magnitude 8.5, is on the due N edge of the cluster; there are two 9th-magnitude stars on the NP corner. The richest concentration of stars lies due S of the 8.5-magnitude star. There are at least two fine doubles (or pairs): one due F the lucida by 1.25′, with the brighter P the fainter by 5″, at 9th and 10.5 magnitudes; this and the cluster lucida form the upper end of a roughly-elliptical section of the cluster and serve as the “eyes of a Santa Claus-like figure, with the remainder of the ellipse forming his beard, running N-S 3.5′ and 2.5′ P-F and containing the majority of the fainter cluster members. The other notable double/pair consists of a 9.5-magnitude star with an 11.5-magnitude secondary F the primary by 8”; this double is SP the 8.5-magnitude lucida by 3′, and with another 9.5-magnitude star 1.25′ P slightly N of the double, these form the P arm of the Santa figure. SP this 9.5/11.5-mags double by 1′ is yet another double, 10.5 and 11thmagnitudes, separated by 6″, with the fainter NF the brighter. The other arm of the Santa figure is SF the lucida and consists of two unequal magnitude stars: an 11th-magnitude star 5.75′ SF the lucida, with a 9.5-magnitude star 1′ F and very slightly S. The stars marking Santa’s feet are a 10.5-magnitude star S of the lucida by 8′ (the P foot) and an 11.5-magnitude star SF the previous by 1′. These two also form the S edge of a parallelogram with two 10.5-magnitude stars to the N: one due N of the P foot by 2.5′ and one NF the P foot by 1.67′.

NGC 1027 (Cas): Of all the clusters I’ve observed tonight, this one is probably the least. It’s well out in the Cassiopeia hinterlands, and not particularly easy to find. The cluster is roughly round and 14′ in diameter, but fairly weak in terms of population, with thirty stars. The cluster is not overly-well detached, just somewhat denser than the typical Cassiopeiac star field. The magnitude range is pretty extreme, with a 7th-magnitude star near the center of the cluster and a number of stars of 13thmagnitude. (The 7th-magnitude star is also the brightest in the field.) NF the 7th-magnitude star is a very thin right triangle with three equally-spaced stars on the S edge; the star in the middle of this edge is 2.75′ F slightly N of the lucida, and is the brightest in the triangle and the second-brightest in the cluster at magnitude 9.5; NP that star by 1.67′ is a 10th-magnitude star, and 1.67′ F very slightly S of the 9.5-magnitude star is an 11th-magnitude star which has an 11.5-magnitude star 0.75′ N of it; the 11th-magnitude star is the right-angle vertex of the triangle. The richest section of the cluster is NP the 7th-magnitude star and begins in an arc just N of the P-most star in the right triangle, running S roughly toward the lucida and the P slightly N; the ned of this arc is a pair of 12.5-magnitude stars and a 13th-magnitude str that the closest of these to the 7th-magnitude star, at 1.75′ P. Defining the S edge of the cluster is a pair, 10th and 10.5 magnitudes, with the fainter 4.5′ S of the 7th-magnitude star and the brighter F the fainter by 1.67′.

NGC 1027 was the last of the Cassiopeia clusters on my list. I still had NGC 896 (a small patch of nebulosity) remaining on my list for Cassiopeia, but I wasn’t able to track it down even after twenty minutes or so of searching. (It didn’t help that Cassiopeia was in an awkward position at that point, very near the zenith.) Jeff had gone home some time earlier, and Dan was considering calling it a night as well. I could hardly argue; I was at a good stopping-point, and it was just chilly enough that I wouldn’t mind leaving for the warmer environment of home. I’d accomplished quite a lot this evening, and during this run—there’d be no disappointment now.

After a few stops by some showpiece objects—M31, the Double Cluster, etc.—I tore down my gear for the long drive home, satisfied with the spectacular sights I’d looked upon and by the details I’d wrung out of them.



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.