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.