Wednesday, November 7, 2001

Looking out my backdoor...

I went out to my backyard observatory last night and finding almost zero dew decided to pull off the tarp covering my 14.5" Dob. The sky was quite dark by Los Gatos standards, although the seeing was a bit unsteady. Still for views of deep sky objects it would suffice. I continued my pursuit of objects in Aries listed in the Night Sky Observers Guide. I used 20mm and 12mm Nagler Type II eyepieces, a Telrad, 11x70 Unitron finder, Tirion SA2000 Deluxe and Uranometria.

My first object was NGC 1012. The area was already familiar to me after hunting galaxies in the vicinity several nights ago. I usually think of Aries constellation lines being comprised of only the bright star Hamal and dimmer Sheratan to its SW. But NE of those two is a dimmer triangle of stars, remarkable in the finder, comprised of 41 Arietis at mag 3.6, 39 and 35 Arietis at mag 4.5 and 4.6 respectively. To the SE of 35 Arietis sits another bright star, helping establish direction for hopping off the bright triangle. Arcing gently away to the W from 39 Arietis are mag 8 and 7.5 stars. The galaxy sits between the two stars, just slightly NE. The galaxy was dim. Like whisper only sometimes audible, this galaxy revealed itself after first finding the location with the 20mm eypeiece (100x), then bumping the power up with the 12mm (183x). It appeared round with a possible stellar core, and showed only occasionally with averted vision. A chain of several stars ran E/W to its N. The chain had a "dimple" in the line pointing N near where the galaxy was located. The brightest stars in the chain were to the NE of the galaxy. I enjoyed the easy star hop to this object.

I found the next object listed as DoDz1, an open cluster. This object would take me to the other dimmer triangle of stars that make the other "horn" of the Ram, SSE of the other. The stars making this dimmer triangle all have mags in the mid-4, which make them more of a "glow" to the naked eye, rather than being resolvable. Their designations are 48, 57 and 58 Arietis. It is easy to hop around this area, and I found a pair of stars outside the triangle to the E good markers to tell direction. I headed S off 48 Arietis passing mag 5.8 47 Arietis and continued in that direction 3 degrees until I found the bright pair 45 and 46 Arietis. These stars are in a nice field full of other bright stars that help point the way W almost 2 degrees to mag 5.3 42 Arietis. DoDz1 is conspicuous there even in the finder. 2 bright stars running N/S with 3 not quite as bright running E/W make up the main components of this easy open cluster. At first that is all I saw. When I put in the 12 Nagler a dim haze of stars filled the space between the 5 bright ones. The haze looked rather like nebulosity. With the 5 "jewels" in this mist of stars, I bet the view from a darker site would be stunning.

Next was the galaxy NGC 1134, an easy hop from DoDz1. With my finder on 42 Arietis, I could see the next star in my hop, 43 Arietis, 2 1/2 degrees S. The galaxy was twice that distance S. It was very dim though and required tapping the scope to confirm.

NGC 1156 was in the same category, very faint, requiring tapping to confirm the haze. The galaxy is located between the two triangles in Aries. I used the brighter triangle to draw a line from 35 to 41 Arietis, then continue on to mag 6 49 Arietis, a notable double. To the SE is 52 Arietis at mag 5.5. Using these stars I could find the correct field close by to the W. The galaxy showed just occasional hints, with a very faint star close to its N and a brighter star still further N in the field of view.

Thinking that my night was going to be essentially dim galaxies that were mere hints tapping the scope and using averted vision, I took a break to just look at the sky for a while.

Those of us who look at the sky regularly know we can see it differently than most. Still, at times I am like most folks who, when seeing the stars, look at them as "the sky" and see it as a monolithic, two dimensional ceiling, a "skyscape" that is close, a constant that generations have viewed and counted on to return, familiar, assuring, season after short season. Other times, like last night, when I've lost myself in the eyepiece, those societal restraints peel away momentarily. It then becomes travel in space and time to mysteries created by forces we can't comprehend. At those times I see beyond the familiar and the universe reveals just a bit of its fantastic detail. I see things my ancestors could not fathom consciously or create in dream. The thin veil protecting our physical and psychological existence lifts. It is then I think of how enormous, deep and mysterious a place that perceived "skyscape is. And amazingly, it is just out my backdoor. How lucky we are to be able to enjoy and in a real sense be stimulated firsthand by such amazing creations!

I had finished the list in Aries and now looked for new targets. Andromeda was high and in a good direction from my observing pad. I turned the scope toward NGC 80.

This object sits just east of the Great Square of Pegasus, outside the line between Alpharatz and Algenib. The finder reveals several stars to hop from. The brightest is mag 4.8 89-Pegasi. 45' to its E is a mag 7 SAO. These two established my position. To the N a mag 7 then a mag 6.2 star, then NE is a close double that shows well in a finder. Very near the double is a cluster of galaxies containing NGC 80 and 83, the brightest of perhaps a dozen, mostly extremely faint. NGC 80 and 83 were relatively easy and could be held constantly with averted vision. The pair ran N/S in the field, with 83 to the N and sitting just W of the apex of a small triangle of stars. NGC 80 sat alone.

My final target for the night was NGC 160. It is an easy hop from 29 to 31 Andromedea, which are the first pair of stars in the chain that describes the constellation. Use the two stars as a pointer south to mag 4.0 34 Andromedea. Just over a degree W is a grouping of four or five bright stars that stand out. Another degree W is an obvious bright double with mags of 6.2 and 7.2. NGC 160 sits close by and S of the dimmer of these two stars. NGC 169 is W and close to the brighter star. 160 was much easier to detect, with 169 being only glimpsed occasionally between the pair of bright stars.

It was nearly 11 o'clock, and I had planned on a short night. The night had been very nice. Very little dew had formed. A slight chill in the air was made more noticeable by gentle breeze that constantly rustled the fall leaves on the trees around my house and dancing down the street. Orion was fully risen, helping announce the approaching winter.

I looked up at Taurus and decided to peek at Saturn. I so rarely do this, it is always a treat. The seeing was indeed a bit soft.. the detail was okay but not great. Shading on the planet was obvious in the subtle bands of cream and tan. The Cassini division was black, but beyond that, I did not look for more detail. A bright set of moons stood off to one side. The ring, now tipped steeply toward us, shown behind the ball of the planet. The edge of the planet seemed to have a crisp dark line along its edge where it clipped part of the view of the ring behind it. I brought my wife out to look, and enjoyed the expected ooohs and aaaahs.

Again I looked up at the sky. After a night outside with the telescope, I again saw it differently than others do.

I tipped the scope down, turned on its night light and tucked it under the tarp. The convenience of backyard observing is wonderful. Like playing a musical instrument, practice improves performance, increases enjoyment and appreciation. I like being able to play regularly. I'll practice more tonight.