Wednesday, December 16, 1998

Eskimos in Winter

Wednesday the 16th of December, about a dozen bay area amateur astronomers held a close-to-town star party at Montebello Regional Open Space Preserve on the eastern ridge of the Santa Cruz mountains above Palo Alto. The day had set record heat temperatures for the area... very much a spring day. There had been talk of going to Fremont Peak that evening, but reports from Tuesday night were of very strong winds across the entire bay area at elevations above 1,000 feet, and there was the chance that conditions, while improving, might not be calm enough to warrant an hour drive each way, for what could have been disappointment. So, Montebello was the choice... allowing local observers to "risk" only 15 to 30 minutes drive with skies significantly better than down in the light hole.

Early views of Jupiter were outstanding through Peter's 14.5" Starmaster and the two 6" f/7 brand new AP's that were already set up. It was not even dark, but the views of Io sitting on the darkened limb of Jupiter, and the huge NEB festoons, were outstanding. If I had gone to Fremont Peak, I would have packed my larger Dob, but tonight my goal was to continue my near-town Herschel 400 hunt with a 10" f/5.6 Dob. Just for the heck of it, I had done a very fine collimation during the afternoon, and the results on Jupiter and the sharp point of stars made it worth the effort. The view of the small white disk of Io actually intruding onto the disk, then completely against the disk of Jupiter was, fantastic. Nice way to start the night!

As the sky darkened, Mojo (Morris Jones) arrived. He shared views through the various scopes. Others would arrive to join Peter, John, Mike and me. By about 8 p.m., there was quite a star party going on. I'm sure it was the warm December temps and pent up photon deprivation that prompted such a good turnout.

I decided first to look for an object I had seen last week, NGC615 in Cetus, just to get started up again. I had my laptop computer running The Sky as my chart. I decided to go to a higher mag eyepiece, since I was using a smaller scope and wanted near the same field size as I am used to, so I put in the 12mm Nagler and used that almost exclusively for finding and viewing during the night. Well, NGC615 was not there. Well... yes it was, but it was confusing. The star pattern on-screen was not matching the eyepiece view. Mojo and I kept looking and saying it was wrong. But, it turns out the view was correct after all... several of the stars we were looking for were, upon closer inspection of the on-screen descriptions, non-stellar. These were super-dim little babies that would never show up in the bright skies of Montebello. With those items removed form the star pattern, things matched up.

So, on to the other objects. I completed the November Herschels by viewing galaxies (all numbers are NGC) 185 and 278, open clusters 225, 436, 457, 559, 637, 654 and 659 in Cassiopeia. My notes indicate that 663 was very nice, and in fact, another observer (David) had just been looking at it in a pair of Canon 15x40 image stabilizer binoculars. I asked to use the binos. Ever so carefully, he placed the strap around my neck, and I enjoyed the view. They are very nice (and expensive) binos. I certainly understand his being so cautious "handing them off"! One of the other clusters was fun to see (well, several were fun, but...) 436 was right at the feet of the "ET Cluster" (457). I used 436 as an example for other observers of how nicely software works to identify star fields from the eyepiece. Peter and I matched the view literally star for star, between eyepiece and computer screen. There is no doubt about "having" an object when there is such a high degree of confirmation.

For me, observing parties are a combination of serious "hunting" observing (scope and Telrad star hopping) and socializing. I spent quite a bit of time looking through other equipment, which helped keep me fresh at the eyepiece from about 6 p.m. until after 1 a.m. That's a long observing session.

The next objects on the list was NGC 40, the nice little fuzzy planetary in Cepheus. This was an easy target to hit, and a fairly bright "no mistaking it" object. On to the remaining objects in Cetus. NGC 157, and 247 were galaxies, and 246 a very often visited large planetary nebula. 247 was elusive, and I spent far too much time trying to see it. David saw it in his 7" Starmaster, Peter in the 14.5", but I cannot say a definite "yes" in the 10". Oh well, another night... what I got last night was a "maybe."

Now I moved down to Sculptor. I can hardly believe old Herschel saw NGC 613. It must have been a horizon grazer for him. But, it was not difficult to see from Montebello. The object is located nicely on a direct line between Alpha Sculptor and Nu Fornax. The last object on the November list was NGC 598 in Triangulum. I thought to myself, okay, up high overhead, bound to be something dim, but at least it is in the right part of the sky. NGC 598 is also known as M 33. We could see it (detect it) naked eye. Naked eye at Montebello? Hey... that sounds pretty damned transparent, doesn't it?

About that time, Peter pulled the Eskimo Nebula in with the 14.5". At about 220 diameters, there were two nicely defined shells, obvious in the object. People were quite jazzed at seeing this sight. Such clarity was a first for me. Nice scope Peter! I then suggested NGC2371/2372, a bi-lobed planetary up toward Castor and Pollux in Gemini. With enough power, it was easy to see two distinct lobes on the little gray fella.

Back to my scope, I pulled in M 33. Not a bad view, considering the location. With the galaxy up high overhead, the entire central concentration of the galaxy was visible. Hints of spiral arm were in evidence. One and maybe two of the HII regions shown. Oh... to be in a black sky, what a sight this would be!

Now, I moved to the December list of Herschel objects. The way I divided the H400 is, 2 hours of R.A. at zenith at midnight, per month. December's objects were now up high enough that the entire list was available to view.

First was NGC 891, the fine edge on spiral galaxy in Andromeda. In this sky, it was barely visible. I remember looking at it at Pacheco a few months ago, on a cold night, when the dust lane in this galaxy looked black as ink, bisecting the object's nice needle shape. Tonight was a "detect it" night.

I moved back to Cassiopeia, to open cluster NGC 1027, then back down to Cetus for a series of galaxies - 908, 936, 1022, 1052 and 1055. In the process of star-hopping, I couldn't help but notice that it was easier to see Mira than a few months ago... am I right here... has it suddenly brightened? Bordering Cetus is Eridanus, and I moved on to two more galaxies - 1084 and 1407. NGC 1407 was remarkable in that I could also pick up NGC 1393 and 1400 in the same field of view. I wonder what the real magnitude of 1393 is, since The Sky lists it at mag 14, and I don't think I'm picking up that dim an object in a 10" near the city.

I heard some commotion over by Peter's scope. I heard the word Horsehead. Really? From "in-town" (so to speak)? Nah. I went over. David was glued to the eyepiece. He was there perhaps 30 seconds, but it seemed like 10 minutes... I couldn't wait to see if it was true. Well, black as ink, there was a clear view of the elusive object, framed against a brighter background. Not just a "maybe" amorphous darkening, but this time, a distinct black area with shape. The H-Beta filter sure helps! Another nice view in Peter's scope. He wins "view(s) of the night" award with the Eskimo and Horsehead. Outstanding!

By now, the hours of observing were beginning on wear on me, and it was late on a work night All I had left on my December list were several objects, mostly open clusters, in Perseus. Many of these were dim and needed to be confirmed by their surrounding star fields. However, the first two seemed familiar... NGCs 869 and 884. Sure 'nuff, the Double Cluster. The H400 is fun in that many bright familiar objects are in it, Messier and non-Messier, and after looking at the dim "is-it-there" stuff, big and bright is a nice surprise and change of pace. My next object was a galaxy, NGC 1023, but I took no notes on this one... a sure sign of fatigue. But I was able to finish up on NGC's 1245 and 1342, both nice open clusters. I always talk-down open clusters, until I begin getting a good dose of them. Then I find, like galaxies, clusters too have character. Some are big and bright, easy to detect and confirm, others are the faintest wisps of stars, looking like a bit of frost on glass in the cold of winter.

The night was a complete success. Other than my marine cell battery dying, and then my truck battery draining, everything was just right. Even the weather cooperated... no dew, no cold... it was like a warm spring night, all night at Montebello, when really, by all rights, we could have been dressed like Eskimos in winter.

Monday, December 14, 1998

Little by little, the stars came out...

I waited for my neighbors to turn out their backyard stadium lights before going out again tonight to observe...

Earlier in the evening, I had two scopes set up, the 10" f/5.6 (mine) and a 10" f/4.5 (my daughter's). My daughter wanted to learn to star hop. Made me smile. So, I started her off by recognizing the Great Square of Pegasus, which she already knew, and then "hop" a few stars to Mirach (Beta Andromedae), which is the jumping off point for M31. But, to make it easy and test her ability to detect fainter stuff, I had her stop on Beta. There, she had no trouble finding NGC404. She was jazzed.

"How about another, dad?!!!!" she pleaded. So, up to Saturn we went. I instructed her that we were after M77, in Cetus. So, I showed her how to drop down from Saturn to about 7 o'clock (on an imaginary non-digital clock) to a star, then over to the east to the "bend" described by Alpha, Gamma and Delta Ceti. Soon, she was claiming to see M77 every time she moved the scope around Delta. With a bit of help, she found the fuzzy. She liked doing this.

Meanwhile, I was trying to find NGC615 in Cetus, a too dim object for my backyard. But, it was there! I was amazed, and thought "this will be a great night" once the light-cretins turned off their stupidity out back. Mimi then went on to view M45, several individual bright stars and several passing airplanes, before going in to do piano practice. Her scope is still not balanced properly and will need to be torn apart again to get it right.

I began on my in-town Herschel 400 list again. On to NGC185, one of M31's pals. I couldn't find it. Damn. The light. Damn the light. I went in. I had a special coffee and played on the computer. I watch Allie McBoring, weird show. Finally the lights out back were gone.

I ran out, down jacket and Soviet Ushanka on. My Telrad was fogged. I swapped in a fresh eyepiece and resumed seaching for NGC185. I could now just make out the dim star 22-Omicron Cass, at mag 4.7.... uh.... 4.7? But I can nearly get mag 6 in my backyard on a good night! No NGC185. Over and over, the same swath of stars, no joy.

I turned the scope back on NGC404. Barely there, like a mag 15 glimmer. I'd been moisted out. Sheeeee.... well, never mind.

I turned to M42. Always pretty. Bumped up the power from the 20 to the 10 mm. Trap looked decent, but only 5 stars tonight. The black behind the wide stretch of the Nebula's sweeping arms was like a thick cloak. Stars in the bright part of the nebula were points on grey velvet. Really beautiful to see.

I shot up to M35, which was a trick at higher power with a soaked Telrad. Dropped back to the 20 and got the cluster. A quick peek, then over to it's line-of-sight neighbor NGC2158. The NGC was there, but not bright. I decided to bump up the power and try to "see" this thing. Back in went the 10 mm. I looked for a few minutes, and little by little, the stars came out. It pays to take the time to "see" what you're looking at.

It was not a great observing. But... even a bad night observing is better than a date with Allie McBeal.

Wednesday, December 9, 1998

Starting over, back to the 400...

Wednesday the 9th of December, several local San Francisco bay area observers met at the Mid-Peninsula Regional Open Space District's Montebello site for a clear but cold observing session. With frost thickly layering the back deck at my home (a thousand feet or so lower than Montebello) each of the past four mornings, I came prepared for what a Californian would consider Siberian conditions. Fortunately, the chill was not as intense as the prior nights, and other than unusually bright skies for the site, and some high clouds moving in from the north after 10 p.m., it was wonderful to get out, see some new and familiar faces, and spend some time looking through a telescope.

I brought my 10" f/5.6 home-made Dob "Pliskin" (I like it, Dave) to start a list that seemed appropriate from a brighter sky location with a smaller scope (after all, I regularly share observing sites with Jay Freeman, a master of small aperture object detection).

As usual, there is a lot of catching up with friends that goes on, and after about 40 minutes talking about people moving, selling homes, observing from different parts of the country, my eyes were acclimated and I got down to business. I had printed the November Herschel 400 objects off TAC's web-site ( listed under "Observing - what to view". Somehow, my list printed oddly, so I am sure I missed some objects.

The first item was an old familiar one, NGC205, aka M110. While substantially dimmer than M31 and M32, it was easy to view. I could also tell from the diminished brightness of M31, that the sky was indeed rather poor and I would be "working" to detect some of the dimmer objects on the list.

I next moved to NGC404, another good object for calibrating sky conditions. Being located in the same 72X field of view as Beta Andromeda (Mirach), this has to be one of the easiest objects (short of the moon, sun, Jupiter or Saturn) to locate. Can you think of any other super-easy targets (maybe the Ring Nebula) to point a newbie at? Anyway, NGC404 was smallish, after viewing NGC205, but still, reasonably bright and larger than many other Herschel's I have viewed. It is a round galaxy, looking kind of like a smaller, bright Crab Nebula.

Next up was NGC752. My 19 Panoptic was no match for this object, a very large open cluster with many bright stars. I suspect the cluster would make a good binocular object. I could tell I was on the object by sweeping across it and seeing how dramatically the star population dropped off. In fact, this area, just between the wide end of Triangulum and the sweep of Andromeda, is much more a galaxy rich hunting ground than it is a place to find object (or than field stars) in our own Milky Way. For example, just off NGC752, I was searching out NGC688 (mag 13 galaxy in a very rich cluster) from the Sierra Nevada high country last summer.

About this time, two TACies that I had not met before came over and noted I had a Dob. I am terrible with names, and I apologize to them if they're reading, but I don't remember who you are (but I'd know your voice in a flash). One of them asked if he could point my scope at something. Well, I get in plenty of observing, so what the heck, go ahead. Now, I really, really don't mind, because I do observe so much, and I have already seen these Herschel objects while working the entire list in larger aperture, but... after an hour or so, the two newbies left my telescope and began looking at and through the other nice selection of scopes, that included a Ceravollo HD215 (I hope that's right, Peter), a brand new 6" AP, 7" Starmaster Classic, 14x70 binos mounted on a tripod, 3.5" Questar, a 10" Meade reflector on an equatorial mount, 8" Celestron SCT, and probably one or two others. All in all a nice turnout, and plenty for first-timers to a TAC observing session to enjoy themselves with.

Back on track now, my next target was NGC772. This one is also situated in an easy location for Telrad users, being off mag 2.7 Sheratan (Beta-Arietis) and mag 4.8 Mesarthim (Gamma-Arietis). Easy jump from there to this roundish object. The Sky lists it at mag 10.30, my list software shows over mag 11.5. Strange. Anyway, it did appear round and have a bright core. Not difficult at all to view.

Now for the "fun" (being facetious) stuff. Small open clusters buried in the Milky Way. Oh joy. Every grouping of stars in the Milky Way looks like a cluster. Maybe these "clusters" are just "made-up" to drive amateurs batty. Well, I did find the first one, I think. NGC129 in Cassiopeia. Not difficult to find, sitting mid-way between and slightly out from the line described by mag 2.8 Navi (Gamma-Cassiopeiae - center star in the "W") and mag 2.4 Caph (Beta-Cassiopeiae). The reason I have problems with these sort of objects is there is no way to know what the star field really looks like unless you use a computer in the field. Well, I usually do, but last night, although I had it, I did not "power up"... choosing to work for my successes using the Tirion SkyAtlas 2000. The charts are good, but the computer makes print charts seem archaic.

I tried next to locate NGC136, which on the chart is right next to NGC129. I thought I found it, a dim haze, but I now think I missed it. The computer is also very good at giving object sizes, which the print chart did not. If I was thinking, I'd have use my SkyAtlas 2000 Companion. In it, this object is nicely described as 1.2 minutes in size (I was looking for something much larger), and "20 stars; detached, weak concentration of stars toward center; moderate range in brightness; poor, very faint, small cluster; dist = 14.3KLY; br*=13.0p". Such info is invaluable when searching.

Enough work on open clusters... they can be more frustrating than a stellar mag 15 galaxy.

Moving to the south, I began trekking around in Cetus. NGC615 was fun and easy. I used a line from mag 3.6 Eta-Ceti to mag 3.8 Theta-Ceti and beyond until my eyepiece view showed mag 5.9 SAO129371. The chart showed four galaxies around this star - NGC615, NGC636, NGC596 and NGC584. All were identifiable, two pair on each side of the star. I found 596 difficult, and that surprised me as the three of the objects are Herschel 400 targets, with the easier galaxy NGC636 not being on the list. Must be a surface brightness thing. If you get a chance to look at these, you should.... it is fun to see this little galaxies in line with the bright star.

Nearly between the mag 3.9 star Baten Kaitos (what a name! Or... Zeta-Ceti) and mag 3.6 Tau-Ceti, sits NGC720. My notes say this galaxy has a bright core and appeared to both Leonard Tramiel me that it might be barred. My list program says its magnitude is between 11.5 and 12, while The Sky calls it mag 10.19, elongated, with a bright core. I guess the elongation stood out as a possible bar. I'd sure be interested in knowing how one listing can be over 1.5 mag different in brightness than another!

My last object in Cetus for the night was NGC779. This one would prove a bit trickier to star hop to, as at first it appeared to be in an area with few decent landmarks. I had to study the surrounding area before I came up with a plan. I can see how the person who defined Cetus' shape drew in the lines. I would reach NGC779 by using two pair of stars as markers. Both pair are in the "back" of the whale. I began at what many people recognize as the "bend" in the tail, near M77. Those stars (three) are mag 2.9 Menkar (Alpha-Ceti), mag 3.6 Kaffajidhma (Gamma-Ceti) and mag 4.0 Delta-Ceti. From there, looking west, I could see a faint line of four stars that end at a brighter pair. The four stars are mag dim Mira (Omicron-Ceti), mag 5.9 SAO129665, mag 5.5 SAO129490 and mag 5.9 SAO129371.

Beyond those were the two bright stars Theta-Eta and Eta-Ceti. Now, below the first two SAOs I mention, is a mag 5.7 star SAO129624. With these three forming a recognizable triangle, it is easy to drop on NGC779. A lot of work, but the galaxy is quite nice, bright (but dimmer than NGC720) and obviously elongated.

The night was wearing on. It was getting chilly. My toes, regardless of neoprene socks with liners and Sorrels, were feeling like they belonged in the grocery store meat counter. But, it was not yet even 10 p.m.

I next hunted down NGC651 in Perseus. This was fun, since I had to come off the stars in Andromeda to get there, and the constellation was dead overhead. Neck strain, turning in circles until I looked like a drunk (no, no Mexican Coffees last night) about to topple. What a sight I must have been (glad it was dark!). I used mag 3.1 Beta-Trianguli to draw a line to and through mag 2.3 Almach (Gamma-Andromedae) to mag 4.2 Phi-Persei. Just under a degree further on that line and... surprise! The Little Dumbell - M76. It is fun when you don't look at the Messier numbers ahead of time and land on something obviously outstanding. M76 easily showed a bi-lobed structure, was quite bright and for a planetary, relatively large.

I now moved south, down to darker skies, into Pisces. NCG488 would appear to be as challenging to locate as NGC779 was, until I realized it had the same solution. A series of stars defining the constellation's line, which were just identifiable naked-eye. Soon, jumping from mag 4.3 Alrescha (Alpha-Piscium) to mag 4.8 SAO110206, then mag 4.7 Nu-Piscium, mag 5.1 Mu-Piscium. A quick turn south and I could see mag 5.3 89-Piscium. The galaxy lay just between Mu and 89. Not bad! My notes indicate a fairly bright galaxy with a single notably bright star in the field. The Field Guide says the galaxy has many arms, so I'll have to visit this one again in darker skies... it is also 100M-LY distant, which I find simply mind-boggling....

My last target for the night in Pisces was NGC524. This was just a short jump back up above Mu-Piscium, and easy to land on. My notes say it was easy to see, bright, probably face on, and I wondered if I was seeing other galaxies in the field. Only NGC524 shown on the Tirion 2000. Now that I look at The Sky on my PC, I can see I was detecting other galaxies, as this is a very rich galaxy cluster. What scares me though is, other than nearby NGC489 at mag 13.0, the other perhaps dozen galaxies are all mag 14 or dimmer. Probably floaters, right? ;-)

The last two objects for the night were NGC252 and NGC288. I won't go into 253 much, as it is a showpiece object that is probably written about extensively. Let's put it this way, if you haven't seen it, get your telescope out asap and look. It is big, bright, has lots of dust and HII regions. It's a killer galaxy. NGC288 I had seen before, but it never ceases to amaze me how large it is for its dim appearance. It must be at least 15 minutes in diameter (okay, The Sky says 13.8 minutes... close), and is highly resolved, but all the stars are dim. I wonder if this is just extinction due to its low altitude for us northern observers. Anyone still reading this from down under? I know you have Omega and 47 Tucane, but, what does 288 look like to you?

With my toes finally getting really uncomfortable, my fingertips beginning to feel like frozen toes, and the thought of black ice forming on the mountain road if I stayed later, I packed up, poured a cup of full strength and returned to the land of bright skies. I plan to come back to Montebello with my 10" Dob, and continue the bright Herschels. It is fun to start over, when the entertainment is good. Hopefully the weekend will be clear, and I'll get to some really decent skies...