Monday, October 23, 2000

A Wonderful Night

I know many of you have been through teenagers. Well, if astronomy were challenging as teens, I don't know that I'd be very involved. After dealing with poor grades, restrictions, arguments and all associated difficulty, I was in need of some peace and quite. Additionally, my daughter Mimi was busy and frustrated with homework when I went outside to my backyard observatory about 8:30 p.m.

The sky was dark for in town, there was no dew and a slight breeze cooled the air enough to require a light sweater.

First, I looked through the eyepiece at a random piece of sky just to see how the stars looked. I had one of the most unusual feelings I've encountered observing. Putting eye to eyepiece, I looked in and focused. At the very moment I hit focus, it went through, dark, quiet, eerily. Maybe it was a jet, I suspect it was. It was dark against the sky, and perhaps four times longer than its width. Light came out of what may be windows. The windows looked like they could be plane windows. Still, the darkness of its silhouette and the glow from inside it were very unsettling. Especially when I looked up and could not see, or hear, anything. I stood around for a few minutes, just looking at the expanse of sky, and wondering.

I had brought out a copy of the Saguaro (SAC) Deep Sky Database I'd printed a few years ago, and decided to observe the brighter objects in Pegasus. After about 30 minutes of hunting in the SAC, I knew a different "in town" program was in order. Right then Mimi came out to say goodnight. I had a wonderful time with her the prior night, she with her 10" f/4.5 and I, using my 10" f/5.6. We worked Cygnus, checking off Herschels. Only the North American Nebula escaped her. So I suggested she spend half an hour tonight observing before bedtime. We started with NGC 6802 in Vulpecula, but were unsuccessful. We tried until almost 9:30. Mimi wanted to get just one object before turning in, so we looked quickly for NGC 6823, another cluster in Vulpecula, involved with nebulosity. Almost immediately she had her object for the night. We talked about how fun it is to observe together, and that we wished we had more time in the evening. I reminded her that next week the time changed, and it would be dark an hour earlier. She was elated.

Off Mimi went to bed, happy, relaxed, feeling great. I went inside to retrieve the Night Sky Observer's Guide, to try brighter objects in Pegasus. After a few minutes back outside, my son came out. This was very unusual, he has had little interest in astronomy for at least three years, maybe more. Perhaps restricted from TV, music, telephone, etc., could find some father and son time. It was a great opportunity. Soon, I had him pointing my scope at the Ring Nebula. Then the Double Cluster, M31, and M15. Other objects followed. We talked about physics, chemistry, gravity waves, stellar evolution and life cycles. It put a real face on many of the subjects he studies in school... relating the physical universe to his classroom. It was great.

I hope some of the interesting information Daniel learned last night will have a positive effect. At least were able to spend time together, which is a good change. Daniel went inside to get ready for bed.

By now it was 10:30. Pegasus was beginning its descent to the west, and I opened the Night Sky Observers Guide. I was alone with a big sky again.

I first went after NGC 7177. This galaxy sits at almost a perfect right angle Biham (the bend in Pegasus' neck) and Enif, but north of Enif. It is in rather a no-man's-land piece of sky. Fortunately, a distinct chain of three bright stars are nearby (two are naked eye) to point the way. Using my 11x70 finder, I traversed the chain, out past a pair of mag 7 and 8 stars, to the correct position. The galaxy appeared dim and large, elongated north to south with a chain of four stars extending from the galaxy southward. This was a nice view of a galaxy with a bright core. NGC 7177 is mag 11.2, with a surface brightness (SB) of 13.0. This, from a suburban backyard! I used a 12mm Nagler for this and most other observations.

Encouraged, I went for NGC 7217. Just off SAO 72077, it is an easy hop to the correct location. I also use SAO 72077 as a jumping of star to enter Lacerta... very handy point of light... easy to id in an eyepiece, as it is double with both components bright and just over one mag apart at 4.3 and 5.6. The galaxy lies outside the opening of a large "V" of stars, the brightest being mag 6.3. A brightish star lies SE of the galaxy, and the galaxy itself is fairly round, perhaps a spiral, elongated in a NE/SW direction. Views were easy in both the 20 Nagler and 12. NGC 7217 is distinct at mag 10.1 and SB 12.7.

A quick jump to old familiar NGC 7331 was next. This beautiful spiral is usually a test from my backyard. This night it was an easy target, with easy detail in the extent of the spiral arms. Perhaps the best backyard view I've had. The NNE/SSW orientation and the three stars at a right angle to the galaxy's south were quite distinct. I did not, but should have tried for Stephan's Quintet while so close by! NGC 7331 is a mag 9.5 galaxy. However, its surface brightness is low at 13.3. It is easy to see, since its core and inner arms are so bright. The low surface brightness results from the more tenuous arms that are apparent from darker skies and in larger instruments.

By now, I was into it. I was having fun. The world melted away and there was me and the sky. This too was wonderful.

Next I targeted NGC 7332. When I try to find NGC 7331, I invariably use three stars. One is Matar, the bright star out from the Great Square on the way to SAO 72077. The others are the wide bright naked eye "double" SAO 90816 and SAO 90775. These are obvious stars even in a bright sky. NGC 7332 is just west of the double. The galaxy is conveniently located at the midpoint between two low mag 7 stars. An easy target! In the 12 mm it was obvious with a NE/SW orientation. The core was very bright, in fact, with averted vision there was a stellar point in the core. I tried with limited success (very limited) to observe NGC 7339 just to the W. I had perhaps one or two fleeting views. NGC 7332 is fairly bright at mag 11.1 and SB 12.6.

I know I have a decent backyard, considering the proximity of San Jose, but I am surprised at what can be observed from this location. Having the telescope set up with table and charts, just out the back door, really makes it easy to go out.

I would log three more galaxies. The first was NGC 7448, easy in the 12 mm but faint in the 20. My notes place it close but west of the brightest star in the field. It appeared round. This area would be worth visiting again in darker skies with a big scope, as there are 7 galaxies at or under mag 14.5 in about a one degree field. While there, I visited NGC 7454 also. It was the more difficult of the two. It sits very close to a dim star with a brighter star further away on the opposite side of the galaxy. NGC 7454 was very faint in the 12 mm. NGC 7448 is mag 11.7 with SB of 12.9. NGC 7454 is mag 11.8, but its SB of 13.2 makes it much more difficult than 7448. Incidentally, NGC 7448 is part of Arp 13.

My last object, logged after midnight, was NGC 7457. Just off Scheat in the Great Square of Pegasus, this too is an easy location for in-town star-hoppers. I use Markab (the Great Square star that begins Pegasus' neck), and draw a line through Scheat, and continue two degrees further. That puts a chain of pairs of stars in the viewfinder. The southern end of the chains is a jumping off spot toward NGC 7457. The galaxy is medium large but faint in the 20 mm, and just west of a small dim triangle of stars about the same size as the galaxy. On the opposite side of the galaxy but further away is WDS 16436, with another bright star just a touch further west. These stars are actually part of a nice chain of 6 stars arcing westward away from the galaxy. I thought the galaxy was possibly a spiral, elongated NW/SE. A nice sight! NGC 7457 is a good sized galaxy for backyard observers, shining at mag 11.2 and SB 13.6. It must have a very bright central section to overcome suburban skies with that low of a surface brightness!

Knowing that I had work in the morning, I began putting things away. I was surprised to find I had out:

  • 1 Night Sky Observers Guide.
  • 2 Volumes of Uranometria
  • 1 Tirion Sky Atlas 2000
  • Full set of Astro Cards
  • 2 binders full of the Saguaro Deep Sky Database printout.
  • Mimi's Herschel 400 lists
  • 2 flashlights
  • 2 empty containers of "coffee"
  • 3 eyepieces.
  • Pen and notes.
  • Large (6 cell) Maglite (showing Daniel constellations)
  • and a head full of memories.

Its nice to have an observatory at home...a fine place end to a day of challenges.

It was, indeed, a wonderful night.

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