Saturday, March 25, 2000

Always the Messier Monster

Early afternoon on Saturday the 25th of March, the sky was mucky with clouds and a slight breeze put a spring chill in the air. I had heard some reports of clearing coming and so, decided to head to Henry Coe State Park about one hour drive southeast of my home.

My daughter Mimi had been waiting for an opportunity to knock out the last of her Messier list, the lone remaining M83. She had started this list just a bit less than a year ago, up at Fremont Peak, on a two night observing session where she logged perhaps forty Messiers, then, during the summer had taken the total up over one hundred. During the winter, as skies allowed, she knocked out the remainders from our backyard, except for M83.

So, this day, even with the clouds, I asked Mimi if she would accompany me. The first question was, of course, would she be able to get M83. I explained that it would not be in a good position until at least 11 p.m., and that we could go and see what the sky would allow. Trooper that she is, her answer was a very decisive "yes"...

Off we went. Traffic had its usual rubbernecking backup where the bay area empties out into the south counties heading down highway 101. Soon though, we were at our turnoff, heading for the eastern hills bordering the community of Morgan Hill. The further we drove, the more city we left behind. I could not help but think of those first two nights Mimi got to use her 10" f/4.5 Dob to begin her Messier list. This time though, she was not just a green amateur, but had grown during the year into a good and knowledgable observer. People state wide, and in fact, due to the Internet, people world wide, had followed her progress, sending both of us e-mails with praise and encouragement for her. Was I proud? I think so.

So we drove, up through small communities in the lower hills leading to Anderson Reservoir, past the landslides that yearly narrow the road. Up past happy cows, chickens, climbing the windy road listening to old rock songs on the FM dial. Paradise. The sun glinted off the distant lakes to our west as we climbed the green hills toward our observing site. The congestion and tension of the city melted away more with every turn in the road. Green hills and wildflowers were our escape.

One member of our star party was there when we arrived. Paul LeFevre greeted us and all the talk immediately turned to the sky. Clearing to the south and north, but lots of cloud due west and overhead. It did not look promising, but the satellite loop was said to be encouraging. Others arrived and stepped out into the chill breeze. Winter clothing was already being pulled out before dark. By the time the sun set, 20 to 30 scopes were set up and we watched as patches of sky would appear here and there.

For the first few hours we played with sucker holes, picking out bright objects as available. It was fun in a way, you didn't know where you'd be observing next, and views would range from lousy to excellent. It was very changeable until about 9 p.m. During this part of the evening one of the Iridium sats passed overhead, broke and homeless. Later we would see a rather unusual satellite.

Mimi was busy with Laura Navarrete, who came up with Richard. They were in Richard's car, on the cell phone to friends, playing computer games, and keeping busy. I'm so glad to see other people bringing well behaved kids to star parties!

Suddenly around 9, the sky literally opened up. There was some low crud layers, in fact we were in one as evidenced by the dew on seats and car roofs. My scope did not dew at all. I began observing almost immediately in Ursa Major, the clearest and darkest part of the sky. I continued with my friend Ken (we shared my 18" Obsession this nite), logging objects off the big Herschel list. Some were fairly obvious, others needed verification by position on The Sky running on a laptop in the back of my truck.

It was fun. I was checking on Mimi when Ken called me over. He was looking for a galaxy when he said he had a geosynchronous satellite in the eyepiece. I looked. Blink, blink, blink. It sat there as the star field drifted by. Others looked. Phil Chambers heard us talking, looked at the location and said "that can't be a geosynchronous satellite" ... it was not to our south, over the equator, where such satellites are orbited.

So, what was it? A possible answer was a few feet away and approaching. Jay Freeman began talking about the Russian Molnya (sp) class satellites. He explained that from parts of the ex-Soviet Union the geosynchronous satellites sit too low to the horizon to be useful, prompting the Soviets to put their own communication system up. Their satellites were on very long elliptical orbits, and there were enough of them that sufficient numbers were always "up." Jay suggested timing the pulses for a minute so some satellite enthusiast could perhaps identify what we had observed. Ken timed and I counted. Almost 22 pulses in a minute. The location was roughly just north of the middle two stars in the handle of the Big Dipper... at 10:30 p.m. (roughly). The location was Henry Coe State Park. I would be interested if someone does figure out what this object was. While counting flashes, I did notice it was making very slow motion through the star field.

We continued on in the Herschel, but the chill and perhaps just the excitement of being out under a clear sky was tiring me. We didn't do our usual "hard core" session, but instead also wandered around looking through other scopes, talking and relaxing.

Mimi suddenly appeared from in the car, and looking south exclaimed "There's Corvus! M83 is up!" But it wasn't up much. It was in the goo near the horizon. Still, Mimi ran to the bumper of the truck, climbed up and used The Sky to locate M83 on the computer. We talked for a few minutes about which stars were which. Off she ran to her 10" Dob. Hunting around, she couldn't find it. Back to the computer, then a suggestion about using right angles in the naked-eye stars patterns to navigate. Back to the scope...

I had heard it just this way 109 times... a voice filled with serious excitement tacitly asking that I come over... "I think I've got it"...

A lousy but definite view of M83 was in the eyepiece. Wooo hooo! Mimi pumped her fists into the air. Yes! It is fun to see such enthusiasm. Other observers began coming over congratulating her and agreeing it was a lousy view! :-)

Mimi, in less than a year, had accomplished what others either don't attempt, or take years to do. She learned patience, having asked over the past three months when M83 would be up. She also learned the feeling of succeeding in a long term goal. It was gratifying to see the pride and feeling of accomplishment. I congratulated her too, of course, but made sure to step away a bit while other observers came by to see.

When it was her turn at the eyepiece again, she recentered and said "I want to keep this one in for a while and savor this!"

What had begun as a cloudy night with slim hopes of any observing, turned into a night my daughter will remember for a long time. So will I.

I played around a bit more in Ursa Major while Mimi, still at her scope called to me asking what else she could find. I would mention this M number and that. She would shoot to the computer and center it on-screen, then return to her scope. "I think I've got it"... again and again

Jay Freeman mentioned to Mimi that many of Messiers are on the Herschel 400. Later that night, on the drive home, tired and happy, Mimi asked about what Jay had said. I told her yes, she had a very good start already on the Herschel 400. "Have you done it, dad" she asked. I told her I've seen enough Herschels already that I surely have seem the ones on the 400 list. Then she asked "What are people going to call me now, now that I'm doing the Herschels?"

"Mimi" I said ... "no matter what you do now, I think people will call you the Messier Monster."

Kids are fun. Mimi is looking forward to next weekend with her telescope.

Tuesday, March 21, 2000

Left foot of Gemini

The sky looked so good all afternoon, around sunset I hauled my 10" f/5.6 Dob out back and set up for what would be a short night of urban deep sky observing. I had so much fun last time I did this, using the new finder (11x70 U.O.) and the Messier series Astro Cards, I decided to do the same.

As darkness settled in, I got out the Messier card for M35, and went about hunting the many small open clusters in the area. It was lots of fun. Matching star patterns off the card in the finder scope, I found it fairly easy to navigate. Of course, having such distinctive star patterns as those around M35 made for familiar territory, adding to my success for the night. Aside from a spectacular view of the curving strings of stars in the giant cluster, I logged five that are not so easy from an in town location.

I started off with NGC 2129, a smallish open cluster off the toe of Gemini's left foot. In the finder, I could see the end star in the constellation, and a short distance away, a pair of doubles equidistant and with almost equal separation. On my Messier card, it showed the cluster at the location of one of the doubles. Looking in the eyepiece, at first all I saw were the doubles. Then, as I looked more carefully, one of the doubles began showing a fairly nice condensation of stars surrounding. NGC 2129 has many stars. It is small, with the bright double involved in the cluster. It is quite a nice cluster and would be worth revisiting in better skies and with more aperture.

I then tried for IC 2157, only because it was on the Messier card. It was fairly easy to star hop to the position, and surprisingly I saw something. At first I thought I had inadvertantly gone too far and was on NGC 2158, which was my next target... the distant open cluster that is such a nice contrast with M35 in the same field of view. I was quite sure of this, until I nudged the scope over toward M35 and saw the real 2158. I could hardly believe it... I had IC 2157. It was toward the double side where the second double had shown in the finder when looking for 2129. It was very dim, what I describe as light frost on a window pane, barely showing some form, it was quite diffuse. It lay in a north/south orientation and seemed to be about 15'x 10' in size. There were perhaps six or seven brighter members to the cluster, with many dim stars interspersed.

Next is was easy to get to NGC 2158. This target eluded me earlier, when I had made it my first target for the night. However, after looking at IC 2157, this one literally jumped out at me. It is much brighter, round with many stars and seemed involved in some of the outliers of M35 on the big cluster's SW side. It is an interesting object as it is thought to be the same size as M35, but its great distance makes it small and dim by comparison.

Another object that I had never tried for previously was Cr89. This one was above the foot, west of M35. Very large, perhaps larger than M35, it is a poor cluster perhaps 60' in size, containing several bright stars set apart from one another in arcs, with diffuse and dim stars between. There was a definate hazy feeling to the entire area probably indicating many dim stars. After some careful study, I felt it was greater in size than M35 with several distinct chains.

The last object I counted for the night was NGC 2175. It was difficult to locate, diffuse, perhaps up to 18' in size with a possible 12' knot of stars 12' to its NW. Perhaphs five brighter members stood out from the stellar foam that glowed lightly between and within the larger portion of the cluster.

Objects I did not count for the night were M42, M65 and M66, some dim galaxies in the belly of Leo and NGC 2903 in the tip of the Lion's nose.

It was good to be outside. I've left the scope set up to encourage my going out with a solar filter in the morning.

Let's hope the weekend fools us with pristine dark and transparent skies!

Friday, March 3, 2000

A break in the weather

There was talk during the week of spring temperatures making a short appearance in the bay area for Friday, and after some mailing list discussion a group of observers decided to try again for clear skies at Henry Coe State Park.

Upon arriving at the observing site, I found I was the only one there. Stepping out of my truck, a stiff westerly wind blew cold in my face. Facing the wind, I looked at the cloud bank over the Santa Cruz mountains, with Mt. Madonna peeking above, and south above the range running east along highway 152 from Fremont Peak to Pacheco Peak, past Elephant's Head, Lover's Leap and finally our other observing site at Whiskey Flat. The clouds to the southeast would slowly encroach on us as the night wore on, but they did not deter us from having, finally, a good night to observe.

As the sun set into the low clouds atop the western range, a haze began laying in over the valley and San Jose to the northeast. The reds and golds of the illuminated clouds combined with twilight to bring an old familiar feeling of relaxation, peace and anticipation. The stars were coming out. Observers were guessing at the bright stars popping out. Capella, Sirius, Procyon and the obvious group in Orion, Jupiter and Saturn heading toward the west. By true astronomical dark, we probably had 25 scopes set up in the parking area. There was an audible buzz about, as the stars were out, for the first time in what felt like months.

Even before true dark, we were looking for faint objects on our observing list. The night would take us through several objects in the Herschel catalog in Cancer and Ursa Major.

In Cancer, we logged a total of ten new objects Of those, five were individual galaxies that were interesting to find, but sat alone in the eyepiece. A complete listing of objects is at the end of this report. The other five in Cancer were interesting.

NGC 2783, UGC 4689 and NGC 2789 comprise Hickson 37a in Cancer. The brightest member, NGC 2783, is a mag 12.6 (sb 13.9) 2.1' x 1.5' elliptical situated conspicuously between two mag 8 stars, and seems involved with several other star or galaxies. In retrospect, looking at this object's photo, I wish I'd gone to high power. I will do so at a darker site, as there are easily two other galaxies involved. About 16' NE is the edge on galaxy UGC 4689, easily visible at mag 13.6 but sb 13.2, a 2.0'x0.7' slash of light running NE to SW. 25' SE of 2783 is the round galaxy NGC 2789, mag 12.2, sb 13.5 at 1.9'x1.9'. In a good dark sky, an additional 8 galaxies would be present.

After Cancer rose to sit in Dobson's hole, we decided to wake the big bear from its winter hibernation. We would confirm 29 objects in the constellation, of which two groups stand out.

NGC 3757 was the main target in a group that comprised 4 galaxies. 3757 is a small, yet bright, round galaxy, shining at mag 12.6 with an sb at 12.7. In size, it is no more than 1.0'x1.0'. The bright star 35' S of the galaxy shines at mag 6.8, with a close pair to its WNW. To 3757's NNE and about 22' away is UGC 6604... an elliptical about 1.0' in size. On the opposite side of NGC 3757 but only about 14' distant is UGC 6575, the mag 13.6 (sb 13.2) spindle pointing almost N/S with an extent of 2.0'x0.4'. Another edge on is NGC 3795, 25' to the E of 3757. 3795 is a mag 13.1 (sb 13.1) nearly identical in size to UGC 6575, just 1" larger in each dimension. Surprisingly I failed to note UGC 6616, a bright but extended galaxy SE of 3757... I suppose at 2.3'x2.1' and mag 13.7 it was just a bit to dim for Coe on this night.

The other group that was an eyeful was ARP 224. There were more than just Arp 224 in this and neighboring fields, I'm certain. I started with NGC 3921, at 2.1'x1.3' it is classified elliptical. It was brighter in the middle, shining at mag 12.4 (sb 13.4). A short 5' W is MCG9-19-213, a small spiral looking more like a planetary at 0.5'x0.3' and appearing brighter than its mag 14.1 due to its compact size. The same distance N of 3921 is NGC 3916, an Sb type galaxy almost mag 14, but an sb at 13.3... the galaxy is noticeably elongated at 1.6'x0.4' in an ENE/WSW orientation. Continuing away from 3916 in the same direction another 13' will place you at NGC 3913, a largish galaxy with a low surface brightness. The galaxy is mag 12.6, but its sb of 14.5 makes is more of a challenge... this is a function of the light being spread over a 2.6'x2.6' area of the type Sd object. 42' E of 3921 sits the eye catching edge on spirals NGC 3972 and 3982. 3972 is a type Sbc galaxy at mag 12.3, sb 13.7, and 3.9'x1.1' in a NW/SE orientation. 3982 appears almost round at 2.3'x2.0', and is type Sb, appearing bright due to its mag 11 and sb 12.5 ratings. This area is just amazing when first observed. Also in the field are NGC 3998 and NGC 3990 a bit east of 3972.

Another group I will not describe in detail, but worth visiting is centered around NGC 4335 and includes; NGC 4364, NGC 4362, NGC 4284 (Markarian 207), NGC 4284 and NGC 4290.

The ebb and flow of the evening had me doing concentrated observing for a few hours, then relaxing by walking around and looking at other equipment, or talking with others about equipment, raising kids, status of other observing sites, and so on. Gradually, the clouds from the east moved in and passed zenith. It was past 3 a.m. and only a few observers remained, all agreeing what a great night it had been. We were lucky to get a break in the weather. It was a fun and well deserved observing session. Next morning we awoke to find all the cities buried under fog. During the later part of the evening, one could tell this was the case as the sky became quite dark, and the cities appeared as small circular glows under the low clouds. By 9 a.m. the fog was blowing east up the hills, and soon engulfed us. We drove down the mountain, back into the cloudy winter we've grown accustomed to.

Technical data
Date March 3, 2000
Telescope 18" f/4.5 Obsession
Finder Telrad
Eyepiece 20mm Nagler Type II
Star atlas The Sky level 4 V5 by Software Bisque
Limiting magnitude 5.8 at the bowl of the Big Dipper
Temps temperate, much like a spring evening... perhaps down to the high 40's.
List of objects observed
Catalog number mag sb type size (")
NGC 262813.313.4Sc 1.1x1.1
NGC 266112.813.4Sc 1.4x1.3
NGC 276412.913.1E 1.5x0.9
NGC 278312.613.9E 2.1x1.5
UGC 468913.013.2S0? 2.0x0.7
NGC 278912.213.5S0a 1.9x1.9
NGC 255813.013.7Sab 1.7x1.3
NGC 258213.013.3Sab 1.2x1.2
NGC 267913.314.4SB0 1.8x1.8
NGC 375712.612.7S0 1.1x1.1
UGC 657513.613.2Scd 2.0x0.4
NGC 379513.113.1S 2.1x0.5
UGC 660413.9
NGC 377012.912.4SBa 1.0x0.7
NGC 380912.712.4S0 1.0x0.8
NGC 378212.513.5SBc 2.3x1.3
NGC 379612.512.6S 1.3x0.9
NGC 380912.712.4S0 1.0x0.8
NGC 383512.412.7Sb 1.9x0.8
NGC 392112.413.4Sap 2.1x1.3
MCG 9-19-21314.1
S? 0.5x0.3
NGC 391613.913.3Sb 1.6x0.4
NGC 391312.614.5Sd 2.6x2.6
NGC 397212.313.7Sbc 3.9x1.1
NGC 398211.012.5Sb 2.3x2.0
NGC 397713.414.3Sab 1.7x1.5
NGC 399810.712.5E2p 2.7x2.2
NGC 399012.612.6S0 1.4x0.8
NGC 398512.612.6Sm 1.3x0.8
NGC 416112.912.5S 1.1x0.7
NGC 414913.713.7SBc 1.3x0.9
NGC 427112.613.1E-S01.5x1.3
NGC 433512.413.5E2 1.9x1.5
NGC 436212.614.3S 0.7x0.36
NGC 4634(see below)
NGC 428413.514.5Sbc 2.5x1.2
NGC 429011.813.1SBb 2.3x1.6

(NGC 4364 - we observed something as displayed on The Sky, but upon reviewing other data, this object is listed as a duplicate for NGC 4362. This will need revisiting).