Wednesday, May 20, 1998

Photons Return!

Great to see the sky again. How I have missed it. After the rainiest season in recorded bay area meteorological history, it was great to see a blown forecast result in clear in-town skies! How fun to observe from one's own backyard!

It was a clear and sunny day in Los Gatos. I pulled out my little scope, the 8" f/6.75 Dob, and placed a 5" solar filter over the aperture. I expected the skies to cloud up for the forecast drizzle that evening, so I decided to do some solar viewing. The face of Sol was clear, except for a few blemishes slightly off the center of the disk. One nice pair, and several smaller spots more away from center, trailing off toward the limb. Glad to get in some observing! So, I walked back in my house to do more work, thinking that my eyes had gathered all the telescopic photons they would until the weekend.


Evening began to set in as the puffy clouds dispersed. By 9 p.m., when the sky was becoming dark, there was nothing but clear overhead. While working during the day, as I waited for programs to complete running, I continued printing Uranometria-like charts from Software Bisque's _The_Sky_. I now had 200 charts in a binder, and thought they might work better for me than the HB AstroAtlas. Not that the HB is bad, it is quite a good set of charts, but Urano, combined with Tirion's Sky Atlas 2000 had a special application for my observing program.

Back in the house, called up the freeware program NGP to print out a list of mag 10 and brighter object, which I hoped would all be visible in my backyard. The NGP program's "quick list" printout shows NGC#, R.A., Dec., Mag., Type, Constellation, Tirion, Uranometria, Size and class. So, my Tirion and Urano type charts would make a nice combination of wide views (Tirion) and close views (Urano).

I had sorted my list alphabetically by constellation, and then in descending order of magnitude. Mags in NGP are approximate, done in half-mag steps.

Outside, I put in my trusty old 35mm Ultrascopic. This would be different for me, after using my 19 Panoptic exclusively for the last year. But change is good, right? This combination would have me viewing at 40X.

First on my list was Canes Venatici, and NGC5272, AKA M3. No charts needed here. Bingo.... in the eyepiece. Mag 6.4 no problem, but none expected. Nice view, sprinkling of stars condensing evenly to the core. Now up to NGC4258 (M106) at mag 8.3 and found by hopping from Gamma (Phecda) in UrsaM to SAO 44127 (mag 5.6). M106 was an easy sweep from there. No problem finding this one.

I was wondering what my limiting magnitude was. I now know my backyard will get me down to at least mag 5.6, so I am not too unhappy for a location in the burbs.

Still in Canes Ven, my next target was NGC4736 (M94). Located just toward the handle of the Dipper, roughly from the mid-point between Cor Caroli (Alpha) and Chara (Beta) and in Canes Ven, this target is almost too easy. More challenge is more fun, but the galaxy was nice to see, glowing there, in the bright sky, at mag 8.2. Funny, but NGP shows this at mag 9.5. Who can tell me why there are such significant differences in mag between different sources?

Next, up to NGC4631. But wait! This NGC is not a Messier! Is it possible to see in town? Only one way to find out :-) Glowing dimly at mag 9.3, this beauty is there, for sure, even in town. It is elongated, and I think but cannot confirm that I may have viewed NGC4656 at mag 10.4, a nice elongated galaxy a short hop away from 4631. How did I find 4631? Star hopped from Cor Caroli to SAO 63070. It is an easy sweep about 1/3 the distance toward mag 5.1 SAO 63288, and you're roughly on NGC 4631. So neat! A for sure non-Messier and a probable.

Now the real fun starts. I'm down to the dims in CVn. NGC 5055, the Sunflower Galaxy also known as M63. What! NGP says mag 10 (or dimmer), _The_Sky_ says mag 8.19! Grumble grumble grumble. I wonder if the Millennium Star Atlas would be worth getting?

Anyway.... M63 was no problem to see. Draw a line between the end star in the Big Dipper's handle (Alkaid) and head in the direction of M51. Now, keep going until you find.... ha! Cor Caroli. Isn't that convenient (sounds like Dana Carvey there).... Now, a bit over 5 degrees back toward Alkaid and slightly away from the bowl of the dipper, M63 will be the only bright object you come across. Very nice sight!

Things were going really well about now. So, I decided to try my new observer's eye patch. After a bit of feeling silly (sillier) at looking like a pirate at a cannon in my own backyard, I became accustomed to the patch, and began enjoying the sensation of observing with both eyes open. I can see how this is effective in relaxing the observing eye. So sorry if I look like Long John Silver at star parties from now on, but if you get one of these inexpensive observing aids, I think you'll join the pirate crew too!

On next to an object that a few people on sci.astro.amateur said yesterday either could not be seen from suburbia, or looked like two dots. NGC 5194, M51. No chart necessary here. On it in a jiffy (lots of practice). Not only were the "dots" visible, but M51 clearly had lots of "disk" around it. I could not distinguish structure in the spiral, but the haze of the arms was definite. Maybe the doubters need to move or improve their observing techniques. :-)

Now I was one eyed, there in the clear cool night, and having a Mexican Coffee. What could be better? ARrrrrghhhh Matey!!!! Avast ye lubbers, we're after booty here.... your photons or yer lives! ;-)

It was now time to leave the friendly hunting dogs and move to the rich and luxurious locks of queen Bernice. Coma Berenices was high overhead by now. It was almost 11 p.m., and still quite pleasant outside. The first target in Coma was NGC 5024, a globular cluster aka M53. NGP says it is mag 8.5, _The_Sky puts it at 7.7. Whatever. It is not well resolvable at 40X, and is noticeably dimmer than M3. It is easy to find by drawing an imaginary line from Arcturus (Alpha) through it's close neighbor Murphid (Eta), and continuing that line until you bisect two stars of mag 4.5 (the lower) and mag 5.5. These stars are not quite twice the distance out beyond Arcturus and Murphid. The mag 5.5 star is certainly there naked eye, but it takes a bit of looking to see it. M53 is just off this mag 5.5 star (SAO 100443), just under a degree back toward Bootes. While there, I worked and worked and worked to see NGC5053, a dim globular near M53. It took some time, but thanks to the detail on my new Urano-like charts, I was able to find a star pattern that was recognizable and pointed at the right spot. There it was, glowing dimly at mag 9.8, 5053. That was a highlight of the night!

Off to NGC 4826. This is a mag 9 galaxy also known as M64, or the Blackeye Galaxy. It is located off SAO 82550, a mag 5.1 star that continues a line toward the Coma cluster from the mag 4.5 and 5.5 stars that I used to find M53. The Blackeye Galaxy was easy to find, and to see. I believe there were even hints of mottling, where the shiner should be.

The last object in Coma was NGC4725. I used SAO 82550, which is near M64, and naked eye found SAO 82537 (mag 5.1) and its close neighbor SAO 82515 (mag 5.8). NGC4725 is 1/3 of the distance from the pair of stars toward our M64 finder star. This galaxy is dim and elongated, but there, detectable at mag 9.1.

I finished the evening jumping into Hercules. I had another "Coffee" by now, and was very relaxed and already satisfied with what I could see from in town. I am quite sure that there would be a good number of non-Messier NGC's at about mag 10 and under that would be observable from my backyard. But, back to Herc.

I had a peek at both M13 and M92, both on my list. These are so easy they are hardly worth mentioning as "finds".... but still, the difference in appearance in an 8" scope was dramatic. M13 was gorgeous, many stars resolved with what appeared to me to be fairly even distribution throughout the cluster. M92 was, by contrast, very condensed at its core, with faint stars toward the outside of the cluster. M92 was almost stellar at the core, with its brightness dropping off rapidly. I also looked for NGC6207 by M13, but, not using a chart and at mag 12.6, no way! But I had to try.

And that's the moral of in town observing. You *have to try*. It is surprising what can be seen. And it sure is more enjoyable than looking at the computer or watching the late news.

My final thought as I packed the scope into the garage, very satisfied.... how good to have the Photon's Return!

See you all at the Peak this weekend!