Big Woods

Observing notes from the evening of Friday, January 15, 1999

No, I didn't get the name of these notes from some fanciful children's book.  And no, I was not observing from a patch of redwood trees.  Big Woods happens to be an observing site that my club has started using.  It is a park on Lake Jordan, North Carolina.  Although the temperature was dropping rapidly and it promised to be a very cold night, I could not resist the call of clear skies.

Observing partner Michael King picked me up and we met up with a handful of other observers at the site.  Michael brought along his Meade LX200 8" Schmidt-Cassegrain telescope.  It is the latest "member of the family" and a wonderful scope to use.  You just punch in the numbers and it finds the object for you.

We started out the night with M77, a galaxy in Cetus.  M77 has a very bright core and is more or less oval or elliptical shaped.  There was a bright star off from it that kind of had the same brightness as the core.

The next object we collected photons from was NGC 936.  This is a small galaxy and kind of looked like a small diffuse blob to me.  Also located in Cetus, this galaxy offers up a bright nucleus.  One interesting feature is that NGC 936 is the "period" in an asterism of stars that forms a question mark.

Next up on our celestial tour was M79, a globular cluster in Lepus.  Last time we viewed this cluster of stars we were not all the impressed.  I reasoned that it was because of the haze and murk of the sky.  I must have been correct because now we had much nicer skies and the globular really put on a show.  This time we could definitely resolve the stars.  And boy does it have lots and lots of stars.

Since the temperature was getting below freezing, what better time to observe NGC 2392, the Eskimo nebula.  This planetary nebula is located in Gemini and through the Schmidt-Cassegrain telescope it seemed big and prominent.  The central star seemed to be blazing and was very easy to see.  At lower powers, if I stared at the central star, the nebula surrounding it would seem to fade from view.  At a higher power I could more readily hold the nebula in view while I looked at the central star.  Kind of a neat effect.

Our observing "neighbor" next to us had a Meade LX50 10" Schmidt-Cassegrain telescope.  He also had a CCD camera and a laptop.  He had an interesting image on the display that he had taken a few nights ago.  He was imaging one of the Messier galaxies and happened to catch a satellite streaking through the field of view.  The interesting thing was that the satellite was not just a dot, but seemed to have some extended size to it.  AND, as it went through the field, it was rotating and creating a spiraling pattern.  Although everyone hates "space junk" ruining their images, at least this one put on a good show.

Our next calling for the night was a double star in Cassiopeia.  Eta Cassiopeia is a great contrasting color double.  The brighter star is magnitude 3.4, and gold in color.  The 7.5 magnitude companion takes on a purplish color.  The separation is 12 arc seconds.

We decided to throw another star in batch and go for a triple.  Iota Cassiopeia is a very pretty triple star system.  It has a good range of magnitudes and colors.  The brightest member at magnitude 4.6 has a yellow white color.  The secondary member at magnitude 6.9 has dim, purple-brown color.  These stars are separated by about 7 arc seconds.  The third member is 8.4 magnitude and can be easily overlooked.  It is nestled right up against the primary member at about a 2.5 arc second separation.  It has a reddish orange color and provides a good contrast to the other two stars.

Next up on the double star list was Sigma Cassiopeia.  This double has a separation of 3 arc seconds.  They are very close.  Shining at magnitudes of 5.0 and 7.1, they have a nice contrast in brightness.  One is suppose to be green and other blue.  The dimmer one might have seemed a little blue to me but that's all the color I saw in this system.

The last double of the night was the star Rigel, in Orion.  At a separation of 9 arc seconds, this one is kind of easy.  The one difficulty comes in the magnitude difference.  While Rigel blazes away at magnitude .1, the secondary member shines feebly at magnitude 6.8.  Now that's quite a large magnitude contrast.  It's easy to lose the dimmer member in the glare of Rigel if you're not careful.

About this time we went to check out the scope of another observing "neighbor".  He had a Celestron 11" Schmidt-Cassegrain.  The interesting thing was that he had the scope equipped with a Televue bino-viewer.  This neat little device allows you to use two eyes.  While looking at M42, the Orion nebula, I almost fell into the eyepiece!  I could not get over the view.  It was beautiful!  Although I know it was not 3D, it still gave the same effect.  The dark area or lane between M42 and M43 almost seemed like a canyon.  The nebula itself appeared as billowy clouds.  The bino-viewer is a truly amazing piece of equipment.  I also looked at the open cluster M35 but didn't get the same affect.  It might have been zoomed in too much because M35 filled the view and more.  I've heard that it performs great on globular clusters so when M13 rolls around again I'll be begging for a peek at it.

Back at the LX200, we requested a view of the galaxy M81.  The scope flawlessly moved to the correct region of Ursa Major.  This 6.9 magnitude galaxy was seen as a bright oval.  Unlike many of the other galaxies I have observed, M81 does not have an overly bright nucleus.

Located nearby, we spied on the galaxy M82.  M82 is a spectacular, elongated galaxy also within the boundaries of Ursa Major.  This galaxy is big and bright and takes on a cigar shape.  Beautiful!  I could see clumps of dust, snaking through it form the outside to the inside, along the top and bottom.

With everything freezing up, including my nose and toes, we decided to call it a night.  While Michael warmed up in the truck, I did play around with the telescope a little.  I found objects like M33, M45, M1, M37, etc.  I was just jumping from object to object.  I was marveling more at the equipment than at the objects themselves.  Except for the cold (the thermometer read 26 degrees as we pulled out), it was a pretty good night of observing.  The observing evening was punctuated with a meteor that a couple of us caught as it streaked straight through the north polar region.  What a way to end the night.

Jeffrey L. Polston

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