January 20, 1996

Observing from the Arctic

...at least that's what it felt like this past Saturday night (01/20/96). But, the skies were clear, and I could hear the stars calling my name (or maybe that was Lynn telling me to shut the door because I was letting in cold air). I set up my 8" SCT just after dark (did I mention how cold it was). I did a rough polar alignment using a compass. I plugged everything in and got started. I knew the mirror would need collimating since I'd been fiddling with the screws the day before. My first target was the brightest star, Sirius, in the constellation Canis Major, the dog. A few turns on the collimation screws and I was ready to observe. Sirius blazed with all its glory. When movie special effects do a shining star on a Christmas tree, they must use Sirius as a model. The brightness literally seems to make your whole eyepiece glow. I tried to make some adjustments on the scope and lost the view of Sirius. In trying to reacquire it, I ended up on M41, an open, dense, cluster in Canis Major. What the heck, I might as well observe it. It was a pretty little smattering of stars that filled my eyepiece at 80x power.

Next up on the list was the obvious, M42, Orion's Nebula. This is a glorious sight in any telescope. Green wisps of nebulosity went beyond the edges of my eyepiece. I backed down the power to 50x. Still, this is such a large nebula, it's hard to take it all in. The cute little asterism, Trapezium, only adds to the beauty of M42. M43, basically an attachment of M42, was visible, of course. I moved the telescope around, trying to ride the edges of the nebula. This is easily the showcase of the deep sky!!!

Next up was a trip back inside to warm up. Let me get this over with....yes I made numerous trips back in the house because I was freezing my tail off!!! Yes, since Lynn was up and around, I kept ruining my night vision. It was either that, or frostbite...you make the call. One trip netted me some hot chocolate. Another trip and I added about three more layers of clothes. The thermometer outside was reading 25 degrees. The slight wind of course added some wind chill. The cold eventually drove me back inside for the night, but not before I bagged a few more celestial targets.

Back outside, I lined up on Betelgeuse, in the shoulder of Orion. I love to observe this orange star, especially after observing such a bright contrast, like the blazing white Sirius in Canis Major. Try to imagine what Betelgeuse would look like from Earth if it were in the place of our sun, old Sol. Not only would it fill the sky, it would BE the sky! Betelgeuse would extend beyond the orbit of Earth, even Mars!!! That is what you call a big star folks...they don't call them supergiants for nothing.

Next up was the Pleides, M45, in the shoulder of Taurus. This beautiful, open cluster of blue-white stars is always too big for the eyepiece, no matter what power I use. Many people (lots of non-stargazers) have looked up to see this little "dipper" shaped groups of stars (many proclaiming they have seen the actual Little Dipper). I love naked-eye observing, but this cluster needs to be seen through a telescope to really appreciate the size and beauty of it, not to mention the number of stars actually there (about 250). A few times I though I could see a hint of nebulosity, but I'm not sure it wasn't just the brightness from the bright members of the group.

At this point, something rustling in the leaves in the backyard, at the treeline, gets my attention. We have LOTS of deer in the area, but this was too small. I shine my little mini-mag flashlight in the general direction of the sound, and little amber eyes "glow" back at me. "Here kitty-kitty"....no response. We dumped some scraps out there earlier, so the little feline must be having a snack. Anyway, back to observing.

Next up on the list was M1, the Crab Nebula in Taurus. I'm amazed that I find it so quickly (especially since a year or two ago I couldn't find the thing to save my life...and the fact that it is so huge..about 6 minutes). M1 is of course, the "remains" of a star that went supernova (i.e. it got blowed up). It was visible in the sky during 1054AD (as recorded by the Chinese). That must have been a truly amazing sight. I could see a hint of structure in the gray-green "cloud".

Next up was M44, the Praesepe or Beehive cluster, right smack in the middle of Cancer, the Crab. I hadn't planned on observing it, but since it was obviously visible to the naked eye, I felt it was taunting me, so I swung my telescope in that direction. This is a bright, open cluster, quite scattered, with over 200 member stars. Some of the stars look slightly orange to me, and seem to contrast with some of the dimmer members of the group. This is a great cluster for binoculars (the Pleides is as well). It looks like a nebula to the naked eye.

Next up was NGC 2392, the Eskimo Nebula in Gemini, the Twins. This one took a few tries to locate. I keep going back and forth from looking at the sky, to looking at a chart, trying to figure out the best way to "starhop" my way to it. After I got my telescope pointing at the right location, I found it. I was amazed at how small it was, especially after observing large objects like the Crab Nebula and the Dumbbell Nebula. It looked just like the coma of a comet. For a little bit, I even considered the fact that it was a comet. I went to the books to get more information. According to the books, it is small, only .7 minutes. Besides, what are the odds of a comet being right where the Eskimo Nebula is suppose to be??? Comet Polston was not discovered Saturday night. Anyway, the nebula had a definite blue or aqua color to it. I upped my power, and I could see it as a disk, but I could never see it as a ring (since it is a ring nebula with a central star). I did think the blue color was really pretty against the black background of the sky.

The "kitty" was still rustling in the leaves out back, so I decided to take a break from the eyepiece and see if I could identify the furball. I had seen a couple of cats slinking through the yard before. They wouldn't approach me. I guess I'm too new to the neighborhood and they don't know how much I really love cats. Anyway, I broke out the BIG Maglite...you know, the one you can whack someone over the head with and they would be in a coma for a week...the one you can take down a grizzly with...the one that could serve as a grenade launcher...the one...you get the idea). With the click of a button, a blazing column of white light sprang forth from the cold, black, metal tube. I adjusted the beam to a spotlight, and pointed it in the "noisy" direction. Again, the glowing amber eyes gazed back at me, but now I could see that they were not attached to a cat. Instead, looking back at me was a beautiful, silver fox (what did you think I was going to say....Bigfoot???). His big, bushy tail almost seemed bigger than he was. He looked at me, pranced about 4 feet away. Then I guess he determined that I was only holding a flashlight and returned to his foraging spot. I even got Lynn to come outside in the cold (have I mentioned it was really cold) and take a look.

Back at the telescope, my next target was M97, the Owl Nebula in Ursa Major, the Big Dipper (or big bear if you want to be technical about it). This object also took me a few tries. The hard part was that it was the fact that my equatorial, fork-mounted scope, was hard to point in that direction. I had to do an impression of Saturday Night Fever disco move just to get under the finder scope. The telescope didn't want to move in the usual up and down direction since I was so close to the celestial pole. A Dobsonian telescope would have been great in this situation. After a few cramps and studying the star chart, I just pointed the finder's crosshairs where I thought it should be. And I got it right!!! This is a large planetary nebula, glowing gray-green (but dimly). I could see a little structure, but I couldn't make out the "owl eyes". The cold was also starting to get to me, so I was saying who cares about detail, I'm just glad I found it.

The next, and sadly the last object I observed Saturday night was M108, in the Big Dipper (right next to M97). I pointed the scope right at it on the first try!!! M108 is a nearly edge-on, spiral galaxy. I could see a very elongated glowing haze, with a hint of dust clouds. What really amazed me was this bright dot I could see, slightly off center. I figured it was a foreground star, but since I've never looked at M108 I didn't know. Of course I was hoping I had discovered a supernova (like the one in M51 last year). It definitely looked like it to me. Back to the books. One description of M108 says it has a very bright nucleus. I concluded that was the case and that's what I saw (but if there are reports of a supernova discovered in M108, remember that I saw it first!!!). I wanted to try for a few more objects, but the winter night just got the best of me.

All in all, it was a great observing night (even with the arctic temperatures). I saw some items I haven't seen before (Eskimo Nebula, Owl Nebula, M108), and visited a few "old friends". I encourage all of you to get out there and observe when you have clear skies (even if it is cold). Many nights I'm too lazy to set up the telescope, so I'll just grab a pair of binoculars. You'd be amazed at what you can find with just binoculars. Of course, a telescope really puts you out there. With every new object I find, I think it gets easier to find them. Keep me informed on any observing sessions you have, whether it be naked eye, binocular, or telescope.

Happy observing,

Jeff Polston

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