Hurricane Fran

Observing notes from Friday, September 6, 1996

Way out in the Atlantic ocean, deep in the tropics, Hurricane Fran was born. She was known as the little sister to Hurricane Edouard who had just flirted with the eastern seaboard. Well Hurricane Fran grew up fast!!! She set her sights on Raleigh, and slammed into the coast with 115mph winds. She kept her strength as she moved inland. The eye basically pasted right near or over my house. It still looks like a war zone out there. Thousands of trees are down everywhere. Power lines are down everywhere. Roads have been turned into rivers. As of today, Friday September 13, I still do not have electrical power at my house. My roof leaks like a sieve when it rains from the shingles I lost. You can see broad paths through the woods where tornadoes spawned from the storm cut their way through. If anyone ever doubts the destructive power of nature, let them be in the path of a hurricane.

The Day After

By the afternoon of Friday, September 6, the rain and clouds have given way to bright, blue skies. By the time the sun sets, the sky is clean and crisp. As the sky darkens, an incredible, glowing Milky Way stretched from one horizon to the next. Since everything was "dead" (i.e. no street lights, no traffic lights, no building lights, no porch lights, no car lot lights, no nothing), there was no light pollution. The Milky Way actually looked like a river of stars, flowing across the heavens. The star clouds of Sagittarius looked just like fluffy clouds. I could easily see star clusters with the naked eye. I could trace the dust lanes of the Milky Way near Cygnus. I just couldn't believe the multitude of stars that were visible. Leaping fallen trees in a single bound, I dashed inside to grab my telescope.

A dark sky means deep sky, so I set up the 10" f/4.5 reflector. My wife Lynn was on the back deck with me, so I decided to entertain her a little with some celestial eye candy. My first object was Jupiter, blazing away in Sagittarius. All four Galilean moons were visible. Io and Ganymede were right up against the disk. Lynn was really impressed with the view. Later on, I could make out a shadow transit from one of the moons but I'm not sure which one. Since it was basically beside Jupiter, I also zoomed in on the globular cluster M22. It was an impressive ball of stars. I would think that it would rank about 2nd after M13 as the best globular for northern hemisphere observers.

Lynn was scanning the area with binoculars and asked me about a couple of star clusters. She was eyeing M6, the Butterfly cluster, and M7 in Scorpius. Both are open clusters and were easily visible to the naked eye that night. They filled the eyepiece of the scope with blazing, distant suns.

I then moved the scope to M27, the Dumbbell nebula in Vulpecula. It really stood out with such a dark sky. Lynn made the comment that it looked 3-D. While she viewed it with the scope, I "scoped" it out with a pair of 10x50 binoculars.

Next up was M13, the Great Globular cluster in Hercules. I love this globular. It fills the entire eyepiece with stars. It can also really stand up to higher magnifications. I tried to see the "Y" pattern that some people report. Some say it is the arrangement of stars while others say it is an optical illusion. I thought I could see it, but wasn't sure. Anyway, M13 is a truly glorious sight.

Next up on the celestial tour was M57, the Ring nebula in Lyra. It looked like a very distinct, gray smoke ring against the black sky.

Lynn was getting tired, so I thought I would show her one more object before she went in. I pointed the scope at a "star" rising in the south eastern sky. She uttered a resounding "cool !!!" when she looked into the eyepiece. Of course that "star" was the showcase of our solar system, the ringed planet known as Saturn. Although the rings are still quite thin, the planet still puts on a good show. We picked up a couple of the moons to one side of the planet.

I decided to try for a new object. I pointed the scope almost directly overhead, at the star 52 Cygni, of course in Cygnus the Swan. The Veil Nebula leaped out at me!!! It extended down from the star like a big swirl of vapor. It was very distinct and very bright. On the other side of the star, I could see the nebula broaden out, and seem to dissipate into space. I popped in my UHC filter and I heard myself utter that ultimate word of approval, "Cool !!!". The filter helped me see more of the nebula and with better contrast. I think the Veil is going on my list of favorites. It's not your normal, round patch of light. It is a winding nebula with distinct edges and a unique shape.

Next, I decided to try for the planet Uranus. I didn't have a current star chart, but I knew the general area it was suppose to be in. After moving my scope to the proper location in Capricornus, I used my 6x30 finder to narrow my search. I found three "stars" that I suspected as being the planet. The first two proved to be stars, but the third seemed to be a little different. Looking through the telescope, the slightly green disk of Uranus was easily visible. There was no mistaking this planet for a star. I was amazed at how bright it was for such a distant world.

Since Uranus was kind of easy, I decided to try for Neptune. In doing so, I came across the globular cluster M75 in Sagittarius. I could see how Messier might confuse this globular with a comet. It was a featureless, little ball of light. I couldn't resolve the individual stars. This was also a new object to be added to my list of observations. I never could positively identify Neptune. I had a couple of suspicions, but I don't think I really saw it. Next time I'll use a star chart to find it.

I decided to take a break from the scope and scan the Milky Way with my 10x50 binoculars. I went up and down the celestial river, taking in the thousands of stars I could see. I could easily see the North American nebula in Cygnus, which was a first for me. I could see knots and lanes of dust that give the Milky Way some of its beauty. I laid down on the deck, and looking up, I felt like I was falling into the sky.

Back at the scope, I brought M20, the Trifid nebula into view. This nebula is located in Sagittarius, above the spout of the "teapot" asterism. This was the first time that I've scrutinized it with a telescope. It was beautiful. The three dust lanes that give the Trifid its name were very prominent. I could also see the reflection part of the nebula. Just to convince myself that I was actually seeing the Trifid, and with this much detail, I moved the scope down to M8, the Lagoon nebula, also in Sagittarius. This cluster and nebula showed up quite well in the eyepiece. The dark "lagoon" of the nebula was readily seen, even though I was half viewing it through some branches of the back yard trees.

Next up on my observing list was a trio of long range objects. I fixed my sights on M31, the beautiful, famous galaxy in Andromeda that can easily be seen with the naked eye. I could stare right at it with my unaided eye. Since I had no light pollution to contend with, I didn't even need to use averted vision. Through the scope, the companion galaxies of M32 and M110 seemed quite bright. I could see the round shape of M32 and the elliptical shape of M110. As for M31, the central dust lane could be traced from one side of the eyepiece to the other.

Since I was in the neighborhood, I decided to look up M33, the Triangulum Galaxy. It was an easy find with my 10x50 binoculars, even though it was right over my roof top. The view through the scope was rather dim. The galaxy looked rather large in the eyepiece, but I couldn't make out much detail. It hinted at some structure, but nothing I was sure about. This object should be saved for viewing when it is higher in the sky.

The last object of the night was the Double Cluster in Perseus. I usually save this double, open cluster for colder months, but couldn't resist viewing it since I could clearly see it with the unaided eye. This is my favorite open cluster, and it is always great at filling the eyepiece to the brim with bright stars. I could see the Pleides star cluster in Taurus and the star Capella in Auriga rising in the east. It won't be long before the fall and winter constellations are here.

Hurricane Fran came through North Carolina with a fury. It left a lot of devastation in its wake. I was particularly fond of having shingles on my roof. But the one good thing it did was give me a night of fantastic, celestial sights. Now that the light pollution has returned, I wish I had a big switch in my house that I could use to turn out all the lights of the city. A lot of people will remember the night that Hurricane Fran passed through town. I will too. But I will also carry fond memories of the night after Fran. It was a night lit only by starlight.

Jeffrey L. Polston

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