Comet Polston

Observing notes from the evening of Tuesday, March 16, 1999

Another clear night and another group of us are out at the Big Woods site at Lake Jordan, NC.  The skies didn't seem as clear as my last observing session but they did seem a little more steady.  I arrived at the sight a little later than everyone else so I didn't bother to bring my telescope.  I figured there would be plenty of other telescopes for me to look through.

During the course of the night, we tracked down a lot of objects that we are familiar with, plus a few new ones.  We also tracked down Comet Linear (M5) in Ursa Minor.  We used Michael King's 8" LX200 to find the comet.  There wasn't much too it.  It just looked like a little puff of cotton in the eyepiece.  It was very dim, and I really couldn't make out any strong central core.  I also couldn't see much shape beyond round.  Has Comet Hyakutake and Comet Hale-Bopp spoiled us for life?

Well, I guess you're wondering about the title of these notes.  No, there is no Comet Polston currently in our skies.  But, for a brief few minutes on this night, I felt some excitement well up inside of me because I thought I had found a faint fuzzy that was not plotted on our starcharts.  Jeff McAdams was observing NGC4490.  This is a spiral galaxy in Canes Venatici.  As I gazed through the eyepiece of Jeff's 10" Newtonian, I noticed a faint smudge of light to the north of this 10.3 magnitude galaxy.  Jeff said he didn't notice it, so he took another look.  He then confirmed that he saw the faint smudge I described to him.  Looking at some of our printed starcharts, we couldn't figure out if there should be an object there or not.  I felt a small twinge of excitement.

Then Michael gets in on the game and tell's his LX200 to find NGC4490.  Sure enough, we can even see the smudge of light in his telescope.  Since Michael has Software Bisque's TheSky astronomical program running on his laptop, we figure it should have all the information we need about this object.  We center NGC4490 on the screen and zoom in.  NGC4490 is plotted, but nothing else.  Now the excitement is starting to surge a little.  But I've got to be sure.  I go back to the eyepiece and scrutinize the object.  I wanted to be sure we were really pointed at NGC4490 in the first place.  At the eyepiece, I memorize the star patterns surrounding the known galaxy.  Back at the computer, I verify the stars plotted around NGC4490.  We are definitely pointed in the right place and there is nothing else plotted besides the known galaxy.  By now, I'm really starting to think I may have something.  I'm starting to think I should get in car, go home, log onto the internet, and start searching.  Where again is it that you report comet discoveries?  One last thing to do before I race home and become famous.  I need to check the settings on Michael's computer to make sure he is displaying everything.  Yep, clusters, nebula, and galaxies are all turned on.  His magnitude limit is set to 12 and that's pretty dim.  But, I thought I might should make it dimmer just in case.  I set the magnitude limit down to magnitude 16.  When I clicked OK on the dialog, Comet Polston vanished and my heart fell.  There, plotted on the screen for all to see, was the 12.5 magnitude galaxy known as NGC4485.  Within seconds, my dreams of astronomical fame faded away.  I was amazed that we were picking up a 12.5 magnitude galaxy at this site, but I would have much rather to have seen a new cometary visitor that would have had my name attached to it.

Although I didn't discover a comet, it was still a very good night for star gazing.  Just as we were getting ready to pack up, we thought we saw a satellite in the north western sky.  It was kind of late, so we were kind of skeptical of it being a satellite.  A group of us starting staring at it.  We couldn't see any indication of it being an airplane, such as blinking lights or a change in direction.   The neat part is that as we all stared at it, a meteor zipped right by it.  The meteor was even kind of weird.  Instead of the bright, well defined streak of light that we are accustomed to, the meteor seemed to be extended, and carved a wide, fat path that was kind of blurry.  We joked about the satellite being a UFO and the meteor being a missile fired at it.

Here's a list of objects observed during the night:

M42 and M43, the Orion nebula and associated nebulosity in Orion.

M41, open cluster in Canis Major.

M46, open cluster in Puppis.

M47, open cluster in Puppis.

M44, open cluster known as the Beehive in Cancer.

NGC2392, Eskimo nebula in Gemini.

M81 and M82, galaxies in Ursa Major.

NGC2419, globular cluster known as the Intergalactic Wanderer, located in Lynx.  This is an interesting cluster in that it is the most distant globular cluster.  It is well outside the halo of the Milky Way galaxy.  It was kind of dim and couldn't be resolved.  We did have somewhat of a mystery though.  TheSky, MegaStar, and Starry Night all have a star (we assumed a foreground star) plotted right near the center of the cluster.  Yet when we look at the cluster, we see no such star.  We made sure that we identified all the surrounding stars in the eyepiece, but that plotted star is not there.  I think that the database that all the programs are using must be wrong.

NGC884 and NGC869, an open cluster known as the Double Cluster in Perseus.

M3, globular cluster in Canes Venatici.

M91, galaxy in Coma Berenices.

NGC4251, galaxy in Coma Berenices.

NGC4274, NGC4278, and NGC4314, galaxies in Coma Berenices

Mars, another bowl of orange Jello.

Jeffrey L. Polston

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