Thursday, September 30, 1999

Smokin & Drinkin...

It had been ages since I'd put a telescope out in my backyard. Even with what everyone said was a cruddy sky, the warm temps and dry conditions were just too tempting, and after the planetary observing remarks on this list over the past day or so, I figured at least I could burn my retina on Jupiter later at night.

I'd been working hard all week, and the household consensus was that I should stay outdoors, to relax and mellow my rather frazzled attitude. I opted for my favorite backyard observing drink, the Mexican Coffee. So, about 9 p.m., out I went, to peek through my 10" f/5.6 Dob, which I'd set up on an Equatorial Platform. The night was wonderfully warm, and the sky looked great.

I would sip my coffee, look up and wonder just how much the smoke from Big Sur was going to hinder transparency. I could probably wonder the same about what my drink would do to steadiness. The combination of smokin and drinkin (hey.... just one coffee, a small one) were part of the observing elements last night.

I began by placing the 20 Nagler in the scope. Up toward M15 I went, and I could tell it would be a decent, if not pretty good night. The cluster was nicely resolved at low power. The wide field of view framed the object nicely... so many times I look in someone's eyepiece at an extremely overblown image, where there is no way to tell what the object really looks like in relation to surrounding "empty" space. The view with the surrounding star field was quite pleasing. I would come back to it later.

My wife Pat came out, coffee in hand, and sat down. We talked about life, business, kids, all sorts of things. It was very relaxing. I pointed the Dob at NGC 7331, just to test transparency. It was there, but barely. Still, "barely" is pretty normal for my backyard, for that object. I called Pat over, and since the Dob was driven by the platform, I was able to place the phantom galaxy in the center of the field so she'd have a chance to pick it up. No dice. Maybe there is something to having a few observations under one's belt to help spot the toughies. BTW, I did not look for Stephens.

Next, Mimi came out. She looked up, grabbed the scope and popped The Ring in, dead center. She still gets a charge out of finding objects. She has 18 Messier's to go before she completes that list. She has begun the Hershel 400 while waiting for the other M's to rise before she tires.

Later, my son and sister-in-law would also come out back, yack with Pat and me, and enjoy the evening. A telescope creates a nice social atmosphere. I like it when my entire family gets out, away from the TV and computers, away from the bright lights, and enjoys time together under the stars. Early fall is a great time, and makes for great memories.

While the others talked, I began looking for Hershel 400 objects. I had to fight my neighbor's kitchen window, where light was spilling out in excessive quantity. I'd shield my eyes every time I'd turn that direction. But, stick-to-it-ivness pays off...

I began in Aquarius, looking for NGC 7009. Some of you will recognize that number as the Saturn Nebula. After a bit of reconoitering in the brighter part of the lower southern sky, I was able to find it, above Capricornus' "bikini", just west of the bellybutton star (13-Nu Aquarii). With a Meade 10.5mm it appeared small, oblate and somewhat green-grey. I had no trouble identifying it, even with the 20mm it was definitely non-stellar.

Just for the heck of it, I decided to look at M2. I don't usually observe it, as it is kind of out in "nowhere"... not a lot of commonly known objects or recognizable asterisms around as reminders. In fact, I had to refer to the chart I was using, an old version of Tirion's Sky Atlas 2000, and the companion book, to find it. M2 is a grand cluster. I found myself marvelling at how large it is. I'd really forgotten. The 20mm eyepiece gave a wonderful view, making me believe that outside the main bright core, where it looks like the cluster begins to diffuse, even out past there, I could detect faint stars that are part of the object.

Back to the Hershel's though.

I moved up to Cygnus, which was just west of zenith. This was high enough to avoid much of the lower light dome. NGC 6866 is an open cluster along the western "wing" of the bird, just north of a line between Gamma and Delta Cygni, closer to Delta. It is not difficult to locate. The cluster seemed large and fairly bright, taking up at least 1/4 of the field (20 Nagler). It appeared somewhat square, with the corners of the square extending in an exaggerated way away from the square, as if someone grabbed each "corner" of stars and pulled them away...stretching out the corners.

NGC 6810 is another open cluster. Cygnus has no shortage of open clusters. This one was interesting too. It occupied perhaps 1/3 of the field. Easy to find, it is just north of Gamma Cygni (the center star in the cross), and in the same field, several bright components in the group.

Now for the challenge. NGC 7008. Arrrhhhh. A darker sky would definitely help this object. When I finally found it (after maybe half an hour... or maybe it was just the smokin and drinkin), it was smudgy, like NGC 7331 had been earlier. There are no really good naked eye guide stars by this object, and all I was using was a Telrad as my finder. I was finally able to notice that this dim planetary nebula was on a line between Alpha Cygni and Alpha Cephei. That helped a lot. The planetary appears (if you could call it an appearance!) to be distended, and have a star involved at one end. It is not what I would call a small planetary, but it is no Dumbell or Helix either.

NGC 7044 is another open cluster. This one was very puzzling, as there were few stars where I expected to find the cluster, yet, around the area were rich star fields. I finally did see it, but I needed to first find NGC 7027, the small planetary nebula close-by, so I had a point of reference to start from. I star hopped to an area that showed a large, sparse cluster with no central concentration. A no shape cluster in the Milky Way. Good luck!

The last Hershel I went for last night was NGC 7062. Another open cluster. Remember the old "pieces-parts" TV commercial, I think it was either about fast-food or chicken? Well, its not that I like going after open clusters, but after a while, all these objects become "pieces-parts" with a few being memorable "meals"... Open clusters, dim globulars, faint galaxies, dark nebulae that you only know is there due to the lack of stars at that location, bright nebulae that is anything but, well, it becomes the "hunt" that is the draw for me, and probably to almost an equal degree, trying to pick out some form or feature from these distant cities of light and dark. But, NGC 7062. There were four bright stars forming a loose square, two brighter ones opposite each other, then two dimmer ones completing the other sides of the square. Along with these four bright stars, there were dozens of dim ones in the group. This was another "in the middle of nowhere" object. I found it by splitting the distance between 62 and 81 Cygni, to find a 5th magnitude star. The cluster is right next to the star, and also has a chain of several, maybe up to 7, stars in the same field of view.

By now it was getting late. I looked up and Jupiter had just cleared the trees east of my house. I put in a 7.5mm eyepiece and went blind. But, it was a nice blind, with all four bright moons lined up on one side, lots of banding showing and several big and long festoons trailing through the equatorial zone.

I cursed the tree that hid Saturn, took in my eyepieces and went to bed.

Not a bad night out back, despite the conditions.

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