Celestial Ramblings

Observing notes from Saturday, February 24, 1996

Although a near quarter Moon hung in the sky, I decided that I definitely needed an observing "fix" since the skies have been rainy/cloudy for the last few days. So, after the sun went down, and I finished watching a few TV shows, I set up the 8" SCT on the deck. I decided to try and polar align the thing using just my finder scope (I was definitely too lazy for the drift method).

Operating the 8" SCT at f/10, my first target was M42, the Orion nebula. Yes, the old stand-by, blazing nebula that you can't help but see in any size scope. I followed some of the wisps of the nebula as far as I could, trying to determine where they stopped and regular space began. M42 reminds me of a big angel fish, trying to gobble-up M43.

Then I tried to find the Flame Nebula around the belt star Alnitak. Failure!!! Even though I have seen it a few times with the 10" f/4.5 reflector, I guess the Moon and the f/10 f-ratio just wouldn't let it shine through. Of course, one of the neighborhood houses had a BILLION flood lights on,...all pointing toward my house!!!

Let's talk about this house. It is a two story house that I see the back of from my back yard. They have two flood lights for every corner, for every floor. They even have a few lights across the house and of course, like the star on a Christmas tree, they top it off with a bright, back porch light. All the lights seem to be pointing straight at my house. They light up my whole backyard, and this house is quiet a ways away from me. It looks like a giant UFO landing. Now this house use to be okay. My problem was mostly with the house that was two over from this one, and still is. But now this BIG house decided they didn't want to be left out, so they out did the "Jones" with more lights. I need to figure out how to build some kind of temporary light blocking system around my deck.

Anyway, shielding my eyes from flood light retina burn, I returned to the night sky. I've now made it a point to try and observe something "new", every time I venture out to stargaze. My first "new" target for this night was M79, a globular cluster in Lepus, just below Orion. After studying the star chart a little, I pointed the scope in the appropriate direction. Easy find!!! This is a compact little ball of stars (of course you say, it's a globular). It seems to be about half the size of M13 in Hercules. Also, at magnitude 8, it's not as bright. None the less, it was easy to find and resolve. As an added bonus, while I was observing M79, a satellite went through my field of view. Now what are the odds of that???

At this point, I decide to give the setting circles a try. So, after applying number 23 sunblock to protect me from those DAMN floodlights, I set my circles, and try to dial in M1, the Crab Nebula in Taurus. I can't find it. I might have been doing something wrong, but I think the culprit was a tripod not quite level. After a couple of futile attempts, I found M1 the old fashion way, I pointed in the approximate location and wiggled the scope around. It had a rather uninteresting dull shine since the moon was nearby. I decided to move on.

Next up was the Eskimo Nebula (NGC 2392) in Gemini. I tried the setting circles again, but couldn't find it. Back to star hopping, which is kind of hard when you are standing on your head. Since Gemini was basically straight up, I really had to do the limbo to get under the finder scope. After a couple of attempts, and star chart referrals, I eventually found it. It's so tiny compared to M1. And the bluish color really stands out against the black background. Neat stuff, or star-stuff as Carl Sagan would say.

Next up was the open cluster M41, in Canis Major. This cluster of stars seems to have one star in particular that always catches my attention. It is a rather orange looking star that just seems out of place. M41 is an easy target, and even binoculars show it well.

My next target was those DAMN floodlights...so after loading up the rifle with as many rounds as it would hold, I opened fire. The bullets shattered the windows and left trails of holes leading up to each light fixture. They all died in a blaze of showering sparks.....OOPS....sorry folks...you slipped into my subconscious.

My next real target was a new one for me. I zoomed in on M50, an open cluster in Monoceros. Although I haven't scrutinized either cluster that well, M50 and M41 seem to be a lot alike. M50, like M41, is a pretty little smattering of stars.

Next I zoomed up to Gemini, just to split the double Castor. Like miniature twins, the two stars shone with all their might, resolved of course as two separate stars.

After observing the twin stars in the twins of Gemini, I decided to try for the twin galaxies M65 and M66 in Leo, the Lion. I found them right away, and this added two more items to my new list. I could tell that M65 was slightly elongated with a somewhat bright core. Although M66 is suppose to be a spiral, I really couldn't see any structure. I could see an oval shape. Neat galaxies, and like M81 and M82, they also fit in the same field of view using low power.

I finished out my telescopic observing with a try for Comet Szczepanski in Ursa Major. This is the comet that was discovered by that dude in Texas just days after I had been observing in the same area of sky!!! Using a star chart I printed out from EZCosmos, I star-hopped my way to the general area. After several attempts, I finally found it. It seemed very washed out, barely visible. Of course with the Moon and magnitude -100 floodlights glaring at me, even Sirius seems washed out. But, I did find it, although I could see no real detail. At times I think it hinted of a fan shape, but nothing I would say for sure. It was just a faint little fuzzy.

As for the giant house of lights, I'm hoping their electric bill this month convinces them that they don't need to burn so many floodlights at night.

I finished out the night by just laying on my deck and staring up at the night sky. I would occasionally scan the heavens with my binoculars, observing clusters like M44, the Beehive cluster in Cancer the Crab, but more or less just took in the entire beauty of it all with the unaided eye. Of course, I was rewarded with a couple of meteors, those celestial speeders, zooming across the sky.

Jeffrey L. Polston

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