Tuesday, April 2, 2002

When Galaxies Come Out

It was a very productive night. Consider that it was foggy for several of the dark hours.... maybe 2 out of 4 1/2. We were able to observe some objects when the fog was just a haze, with "blooms" around the brightest stars. I logged most objects in at most 3 hours, and I ended up with 76 new galaxies logged. Those were in about 45 different eyepiece fields. A few fields contained 5, 6 or 7 "easy" galaxies. Some solitary galaxies were outstanding due to their position among bright stars, or as parts of star chains.

But I'll start with the beginning. Getting to Coe was a contrast between the city at its worst and the tranquility of a country road. My usual one hour drive from Los Gatos to Coe took nearly an extra half hour. The Friday afternoon traffic was much worse than usual, starting back on highway 85. Dead stop, 5 mph was "speed"... but, this was Tuesday, at 3:30 p.m. What was at play was construction on 101. And not really construction, but a sign to go slow for trucks entering. It was life as a snail. 10,000 snails on southbound 101.

The traffic broke finally at the Coyote golf course, where the construction zone ended. Good news is this is due to be completed in 2003. I have to report also that when I finally entered normal rush hour traffic, there was a big rig driver trying to do 90, weaving and tailgating. Never seen anything so dangerous in traffic (at least not since I was a teenager).

Fortunately I've learned when in those situations, to go with it, rather than earning an ulcer or accident.

Once off the freeway I found my gas foot relaxing. The drive up East Dunne road was a treat. Green grasses, California Poppy, wild mustard, blue lupine, the old oaks overhanging the road as you rise above the lake climbing the eastern hills. I find this a great prelude to the night. Driving to local observing sites, within an hour or so of home, is really a treat.

I was the first at Coe. There was a steady western breeze and definite chill. What was more a concern was the high haze layer. Only a small part of Mt. Madonna's peak across the valley was visible. The valleys south toward Dinosaur Point were high with thick white fog, looking as if it was about spill over. Fremont Peak was invisible.

Sunset gave us a spectacular view of a heavily darkened orange sun that, when dropping into the top of the thick haze layer, developed an oblate brighter orange "hat" that flattened and finally disappeared. As the sky grew dark, the top of the fog stood up high to our west and began to move over us,

Things were very wet. We were trying to observe when the fog was not "too" thick. Richard was being successful, although I kind of hate to look at objects under those conditions, since I know it has to be a lousy view :-( But I did it anyway.... heck, I was set up, and I could see things, sometimes. Richard got off to a ripping start, just landing on target after target. I heard him laughing "hey... I can't believe how easy this is.... I'm going to buy a lottery ticket!"... but not so easy for me. He probably had 10 objects before I landed my first.

We went on like that for a couple hours. A 14.5" primary dewed up. We used a hair dryer to clear secondaries and eyepieces. It seemed every time the sky opened up for five minutes or so my secondary would fog over. One of our party was ready to pack it in and leave. But, it was early, and we all decided to wait.

What happened was amazing.

All at once it was as if the tidal wave washed back to sea. The fog dropped hundreds of feet. It was clear. Then it came back up, and dropped again. It did this three or four times, then the fog stayed down.

There were no city lights. Anywhere. The ranger's house was the only visible light (well, one other downhill to the west, but it was not "in your eye"). It was awesome. The sky was quite black, not gray. I should have done a limiting magnitude count, but I wasted no time and got right to my Herschel lists.

I won't describe all the views I had. But here are a few highlights.

NGC4264 is a small round galaxy in Virgo that has 6 other galaxies under mag 14 within 90 x 40 minute section of sky. I assume this is the heart of Abell 1516. The location is a bit tricky, since there are no bright reference stars, but I used mag 3.9 Zaniah (Eta Virginis) to point to mag 5 16-Virginis 4 degrees to its north, then continue that line another 2.7 minutes. This was a fascinating field.

NGC4438. It is almost cheating to list this one, as it is part of the famous Markarian's Chain in the heart of Virgo. The entire chain was easy tonight. I counted 10 galaxies as part of what I think is the Chain. NGC4438 is easily located using a line from Vendamiatrix and Denobola.

NGC4608 sits in the eyepiece field with NGC4596. Both are bright. I don't want to give away what I find so unusual about this pair of galaxies. Have a look at a DSS image. I will say that I love their setting, with three bright stars framing them just to their east. Note also IC3467 north of NGC4608. This is listed as Abell 1586. I wonder how many members there are to this cluster. I could see three.

NGC4612 is one of those targets that, if in an empty field, would have little appeal. I like it due to its setting in a string of stars. In fact, the star pattern is so distinctive that when I saw it, I would have been able to pick out a galaxy at the limit of visibility. Fortunately, this galaxy is plenty bright, and it shares the field with NGC4623.

NGC4760 again provides views of a pretty galaxy field (3 in one field) mixed in with a interesting star field. At the W end of the field sits NGC4742, a bright galaxy close to a the nice doulbe star WDS 8684 (mags 6.5 and 9.3). NGC4760 is in the middle of the field and is part of a notable curved chain of stas running predominantly N/S. NGC4781 completes the eastern end of this line of galaxies, sitting just SW of a bright star that combined with WDS 8684 brackets the galaxies like bookends. The star is also part of a notable "L" shape of stars that trails away to the E. NGC4790 is also nearby, and combined with the other three galaxies forms a larger "L" mimicking the shape of the stars.

I'll mention NGC4929 only because you will notice NGC4921 WSW in the field, and as you move that direction you'll find Abell 1656 and several bright galaxies. This is an easy location to find in Coma Berenices... I used Arcturus to draw a line through mag 2.6 Murphid and to SAO100439 which is the S end of Coma B's stick figure (this is where M53 and NGC 5053 are located), then turned N almost 10 degrees to the double star (Beta Comae Berenices) at that end of Coma. The galaxies are just W of this double.

The star Gamma Hydrae forms an easy to find right angle with Spica and the southern stars of Corvus. Just about 5 degrees N is mag 4.7 GSC 6116:1517, providing a jumping off point to NGC5037. This is a wonderful field to observe. Several galaxies immediately jump out, but NGCs 5054, 5047 and 5044 dominate the field. My target was 5037, which is WSW of 5047, and NGC5035 to the NNW of 5037 completes a nice rectangle of galaxies. To the W of 5035 is NGC5030, just off one of the brightest field stars. Looking a bit more carefully, you can also pick out NGCs 5049 and 5046 E and NE of 5044.

The next two object that were interesting were NGC5447 and NGC5462, both emission knots in M101. Using field stars as references, it was very easy to pick out these targets. I can understand how they could come to have their own NGC numbers, as both look like they could be small galaxies in front or behind the huge sprial. M101 was magnificent. It appeared to fill a good half of the field of view and showed nice, but subtle, spiral shape extending far from the core. The more I looked, it seemed the more I saw. This was a nice target on which to slow down and enjoy the view of a real showpiece. For detail, I think only M51 surpasses and a small handful of other galaxies surpass this one.

Down low in Virgo toward Libra are the stars 107-Virginis and Syma (Iota or 99-Virginis). These two point west a short distance to NGC5426 and NGC5427, a very close pair of spiral galaxies that, in DSS images, appear to be interacting. It is an easy location to land on.... there are some good bright stars in the field, but hardly necessary, as the galaxies are readily apparent.

I finished off the night with a few more targets, the moon had risen, and the sky was brightening. I was very pleased with how everything had turned out.

I packed up and sat back for a while. The soft glow of moonlight on the tops of the clouds hugging the mountain landscape to the south was almost surreal. Think of the tranquil feeling evoked by the paintings of Maxfield Parish and you can get a flavor for what the scene appeared like. The sky was still dark, the 3rd quarter moon hung low in the east over the mountains of fog.

I looked up at the sky for a while. I thought about the ancients who looked at the same sky, wondering what was out there, attributing to their gods shapes that humanized the great mysteries of night.

Spring was overhead, announced by Arcturus and Spica. I thought about the tale of the poor murdered farmer Icarius, his Virgin daughter Erigone and their Little Dog who took their lives in grief. I had spent a good part of the night hunting jewels among the stars that remembers the girl. I looked west for her Little Dog, but could not see it any more.

I drove down the mountain, through the thick fog, and emerged below and under it where the sky disappeared into a pleasant memory.

No comments: