The Drive In

Observing notes from the evening of Monday, February 8, 1999

With the skies a pretty clear blue, and the desire to get out among the stars, I started begging for spousal approval of an observing session as soon as I got home from work. In all, five star gazers met at Farrington Point, Lake Jordan North Carolina for an evening of tracking down nebulas, galaxies, and star clusters. I was being a bum again, so I didn't bring a telescope. I planned on using the various instruments that the others would bring. Present on this cold night was Michael King (with his 8" f/10 LX200), Donald Major (with his 8" f/6 dobsonian), Jeff McAdams (also a bum), and Jack Rouse (with his 6" Celestron Starhopper).

I didn't have an observing plan. I didn't even take notes. All I had was layers of clothing and thermos full of hot coffee. I just planned on casually observing from each telescope. Since I didn't record any of my observations, I'm relying on Michael's notes. I'll just concentrate on a few of the objects that I remember scrutinizing.

The air was cold and the skies were clear. On the drive out I could tell it was going to be a good night. Through my windshield I could see countless stars and the horizons seem free of haze and murk. As I drove across the last bridge to my destination, Jupiter shown like a celestial lighthouse in the western sky. I could see its reflection in the rippling waves of the lake. It was quite a pretty sight, especially with a golden Saturn not too far above it.

The first object of the night was chosen by Michael. Care to guess what it was? The Orion nebula, M42, filled the eyepiece. Some people get tired of looking at this familiar object, but I never tire of it. It's big and bright, easy to find, but more importantly, it is filled with tons of detail. You have faint stars to track down and wisps of nebulosity to trace out. I could gaze at M42 almost all night long.

While Michael consulted his laptop computer, I instructed the LX200 to find M40. I also secretly asked it to make me a hamburger with a side order of fries, but it ignored me. While the LX200 can do wondrous things, apparently cooking fast food is not one of them. Anyway, the reason I went to M40 was that Michael had tried to observe it a few nights ago and didn't think he had found it. In reality, he was looking right at it but just didn't know how plain and simple it is. M40, located in Ursa Major, is nothing but a double star. It's definitely one of the more obscure objects in the Messier catalog. Apparently Messier noted it and its position while searching for another object. The stars are slightly less than a minute apart and appear white to me.

Next up on the list was M48, an open cluster of stars located in the constellation of Hydra. The stars are bright and the cluster is kind of big. This gathering of stars is quite pretty. When I look at M48, I seem to see everything in "twos". I see a lot of matched pairs of stars. Michael referred to them as "eyes", similar to spooky eyes you see, glowing, from the darkness in a scary movie.

The next object we spied on was the planetary nebula, NGC2392. Also known as the Eskimo nebula, this beautiful object is located in Gemini. Sometimes called the Clown Face nebula, NGC2392 is very small. It only measures about 7/10ths of a minute. But, since it is bright, it is easy to see. It looks like a fuzzy blue star. Boosting the power a little will reveal the central star.

Gemini offers other treasures for those with telescopes. Our next object was NGC2371. This planetary nebula measures about 9/10ths of a minute across, making it slightly larger than the Eskimo Nebula. It too is easy to see.

With the LX200 telescope, NGC2169 easily slid into view. This small, open cluster is located in the club of Orion. Despite its small size, the stars are quite pretty. They seemed to glitter like blue-white diamonds.

At this point, I'd like to mention that it seemed like we were observing from the middle of a Drive In theater. Why? Because since we set up there has been an almost steady stream of cars coming and going. It is the middle of winter and a week night, yet there is no end to the number of cars coming through. We did get a lot of observing done, but the amount of car traffic was really disappointing. Every time a car would head toward us, we would have to crouch down and try to shield our eyes, in hopes of preserving our night vision. The only positive side of this "circus" was the fact that we did show one curious couple a few celestial wonders.

Another positive aspect of this observing session was giving the celestial tour to Donald Major. It had been some time since he had been out under the stars and he's still becoming familiar with the sky. I started him off with the Orion nebula, and from his excited reaction, you would have thought he was watching some fourth of July fireworks. He has digital setting circles on this telescope so I was just calling out the more interesting objects to be seen. Things like M1, the super nova remnant in Taurus, really took on new meaning when I considered that Donald was seeing it for the first time. We jumped from one object to the next. We took in the "thirty something" open clusters, M35, M36, M37, and M38. I pointed out the very dense, open cluster of NGC2158, that is just on the outskirts of M35. When looking at M35 in a low power eyepiece, NGC2158 looks kind of like a comet. And since open clusters were becoming a theme, we also took in the Double Cluster in Perseus. During the course of the night we also took in some galaxies, such as M65 and M66 in Leo. These two galaxies can be seen in the same field of view. We couldn't view these without taking in one of my favorite pairings of galaxies, M81 and M82 in Ursa Major. Donald really liked those.

One object that Jeff McAdams and I wanted to see was M46. M46 is an open cluster located in the constellation of Puppis. I have seen this cluster before. It is quite remarkable. The cluster is big and bright. It is very rich in stars. But, I've never really scrutinized it before. I've only taken glances at it and noted that I saw it. That is the danger of doing quick observations. In wanting to reach my goal of observing all the Messier objects, I probably missed the treasures and beauty hidden within many of the objects I tracked down. I would merely glance at the object a few seconds, note that I saw it, and move on to the next target. So, with this said, what is so special about M46? Well, I'm glad you asked! M46 contains a beautiful planetary nebula, right there, in plain sight, and I can't believe I haven't seen it before.

The planetary nebula, known as NGC2438, is about 5 minutes from the center of the open cluster. It is small but bright and very easy to see. It almost takes on a three dimensional look to it. It looks very much like a little blue ball, floating above the cluster of stars. We really studied this planetary nebula. We pumped up the power and took a closer look. Sometimes it would look like a ring structure. I'm not sure if this was real or imagined. Jeff McAdams also thought he could see somewhat of a ring, or at least the middle was not as bright as the edges. It definitely had a mottled look to it. I have seen pictures of M46 and NGC2438 in various magazines and books. I'm glad I finally took the time to observe this wonderful sight myself.

During the course of the night, we took in quite a few more objects. We spied on the galaxies M95 and M96 in Leo. Both fit in the same field of view. We zoomed in on NGC2261, also known as Hubble's Variable nebula, located in Monoceros. NGC2264, the Christmas Tree cluster also in Monoceros came under our optically enhanced eyes. We dove into a sea of galaxies with the observation of M84, M86,and M86. All three of these galaxies, located in Virgo, were viewed in the same field of view. M64, the Black-eye galaxy, was hunted down in Coma Berenices.

Despite the seemingly constant parade of cars, we did have a pretty good observing session. There was good fellowship between guys who study the night sky. I think each one of us learned something new or saw a new sight. All in all, it was a successful night of star gazing. But, if I had known it was going to be a Drive In, I would have brought some popcorn!

Jeffrey L. Polston

* Back to home page *