Cloudy, clear, cloudy...clear???

Observing notes from the evening of Sunday, August 24, 1997

Judging by the cloud cover during the day, a night of astronomical adventures was the furthest thing from my mind. How to mow the lawn without my riding lawnmower, which refused to start, was my biggest concern. But magically, the mostly cloudy skies gave way to clear blue as the Sun, blazing reddish-orange, neared the horizon. Only a stray cloud lingered in the west. Friend and co-worker Michael King and I planned on an evening of observing. As if the mere wish for clear skies caused it, the clouds rolled in as the Sun dipped below the western tree line. I figured the night was not going to be one for stargazing, so after diner we settled onto the patio furniture on my deck, with the tiki torches flickering. We watched as kamikaze moths charged the flames. Every now and then a star would peek through, but the clouds seemed steadfast in their goal of blocking out the cosmos.

A hole formed over us and slowly the constellations of Lyra and Cygnus took shape. A star would wink on here and wink out there. We pondered whether or not this opening in the clouds was a "sucker hole". You know the ones. They lure you into setting up your equipment only to completely close after you have attached the last accessory. But this hole in the clouds kept widening. We finally extinguished the torches and could see stars from one side of the sky to the next. With the stars glittering overhead, we finally set about the task of setting up the telescopes. I decided to use my 10" f/4.5 Newtonian on its equatorial mount while Michael used his equatorially mounted 8" f/4.5. My goal was to observe and his goal was to photograph.

My first target of the night was the open cluster M11, located in the constellation of Scutum. This is a bright and fairly dense cluster that is very easy to find. It is also known as the Wild Duck cluster. At times I thought I could see the duck shape and at other times I wasn't sure. Either way, this is a beautiful cluster. There was a bright star that was just off center and two stars that looked similar to a wide double right beside the cluster.

My next target was the open cluster of M26, also in Scutum and only about 3 degrees from M11. M26 is a tiny cluster, almost invisible against the background of stars. I could see four prominent stars, kind of in a kite shape. M26 was a new observation for me.

Next up on my observing list was the globular cluster M72, located in Aquarius. This was a faint cluster that appeared mottled. I really couldn't resolve it. From M72, I moved over to M73 just about a degree and a half away. M73 appears as an asterism of four tiny stars, shaped like a "Y". They were between 11th and 12th magnitude. I have no idea why this is considered a Messier object because it is so tiny and easy to miss. Both M72 and M73 were new observations for me.

The globular cluster of M75 was the next astronomical object I spied on. Located just inside the boundaries of Sagittarius, the cluster has a bright core. I found that I could not resolve it. I might have come across this cluster while observing last year but I will make this my official record of first sighting.

Next up was the king of the northern hemisphere galaxies. I'm talking about the Andromeda galaxy, M31 of course. It is always big and bright. The off center dust lane could be seen stretching from one end of the galaxy to the other. The mighty galaxy spanned my entire eyepiece. The companion galaxy M32 could be seen glowing brightly just a short distance away. It has a bright core and almost appears as a fuzzy star. The galaxy of M110 could also be seen, glowing faintly a little further away and in the opposite direction. M110 appeared as a dim smudge. If it weren't for M31 being nearby, it would be easy to overlook M110.

My next target was NGC 7331. This huge, magnitude 10.3 galaxy is quite bright in the eyepiece. It is located in Pegasus and a new object for me. NGC 7331 is very elongated, and has a bright core.

I then slid my telescope over to the constellation of Aquarius to pick up the Saturn Nebula. I was pleasantly surprised at the brightness of this irregular shaped planetary nebula. I could definitely see an oval shape, but could never really see it as looking like Saturn. Maybe only large scopes and photographs show it as looking like the ringed planet.

I then pushed my telescope toward the heart of Cygnus, in search of M29. With the help of binoculars, I located this open cluster then put my scope on it. I could see about 8 stars that were prominent. I was actually quite disappointed. M29 might slightly resemble a cluster in the binoculars but through the scope it almost appears like the multitude of other stars surrounding it. No matter what it looked like, you can mark this as another new observation for me.

Since I was in the neighborhood, I zoomed in on M27, the Dumbbell Nebula. Located in Vulpecula, this big and bright planetary nebula has become one of my favorites. The dumbbell shape was easy to see, although it looks more like an apple core to me. Even my 10x50 binoculars gave a pretty good view of this nebula. I followed M27 with an observation of M57, the Ring Nebula in Lyra. This ghostly smoke ring really stands out against the black background of space. I varied the power somewhat, trying to see if I could discern the central star. I never could.

Located in Capricorn, Jupiter was next on my list. Even through the 6x30 finder, I could see the Galilean moons lined in a row, like a string of cosmic pearls. With the power of my telescope, I watched as Io slid in front of Jupiter's disk. It showed as a tiny white dot. I didn't stay up late enough to see the shadow transit. I then slung my telescope over to my last object of the night, Saturn, located in Pisces. Since it was getting late, I didn't scrutinize this world too long. I could see a handful of moons scattered about, looking like bees buzzing around a hive. The Cassini division in the rings was quite evident as well as the shadow of Saturn on the rings behind the planet. I'll pick another night to observe Saturn and its moons in more detail.

For night with a sky that couldn't make up its mind on whether to be cloudy or clear, it turned out to be quite good. I found a lot of new objects and observed some familiar ones.

Jeffrey L. Polston


Listed below are all the objects observed. Objects with an asterisk are new objects for me.

M11 (NGC 6705), open cluster, Scutum

* M26 (NGC 6694), open cluster, Scutum

* M72 (NGC 6981), globular cluster, Aquarius

* M73 (NGC 6994), group of stars, Aquarius

* M75 (NGC 6864), globular cluster, Sagittarius

M31 (NGC 224), galaxy, Andromeda

M32 (NGC 221), galaxy, Andromeda

M110 (NGC 205), galaxy, Andromeda

* NGC7331, galaxy, Pegasus

NGC 7009, Saturn Nebula, Aquarius

* M29 (NGC 6913), open cluster, Cygnus

M27 (NGC 6853), Dumbbell Nebula, Vulpecula

M57 (NGC 6720), Ring Nebula, Lyra

Jupiter, Capricorn

Saturn, Pisces

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