Galaxy Quest

Observing notes from the evening of Saturday, February 21, 1998

The day started out with a brilliant sunrise. But soon, the blue skies gave way to puffy white clouds. After midday, the entire sky seemed to be covered with clouds. I was giving up any hope of the planned "extreme photography" session that I was hoping to have that night. Finally, as the sun neared the horizon, some of the clouds started to dissipate. After the sun slipped from view, the sky cleared up nicely. Observing partner Michael King agreed to meet me in the Sandhills area of Scotland County in North Carolina. We set up the telescopes behind an old, abandoned church (that looks kind of spooky), at the intersection of two lonely, dirt roads. I was using my 8" Schmidt-Cassegrain (with f/6.3 focal reducer) and Michael had his 8" f/4.5 Newtonian.

Well, this was suppose to be a major astrophotography session. Of course, "Murphy's Law" ran rampant. It started with the little things with me. After setting up the tripod and telescope, one of the tripod legs sank deep into the soft sand. So, around I go, readjusting the other legs. Then, my power cables got into a hopeless, tangled mess. The balance of the scope was off and the polar alignment left a lot to be desired. Meanwhile, Michael was having his own problems with broken equipment and such. But the stars were glowing brightly overhead and I was determined to get something done.

I started out with the Orion Nebula, M42. The glowing green tendrils seemed to extend forever. The four tiny stars that make up the trapezium were clearly visible. I set up the camera and tried an exposure. I then tried to see if I could finally see the Horsehead Nebula. A couple of times I thought I saw something, but just wasn't sure. I think that if I had used my 10" telescope, I might have just seen it. I tried a piggyback exposure of the region. We'll see how it turns out. My next photographic target was a piggyback shot of the Beehive Cluster, M44, in Cancer. This big, open cluster is delightful in binoculars.

Other photographic targets of the night included the Whirlpool Galaxy, M51, in Canes Venatici. While trying to guide this picture, I actually saw a meteor zip through the field of view. I also tried for the dual galaxies M65 and M66 in Leo. I really don't expect much to come out on film, but I did make at least a little bit of effort. I finally decided to give up on photography and start some visual observing.

Michael had also given up on photography and was looking for deepsky objects. In his scope we saw the Owl Nebula, M97, in Ursa Major. We could just make out a hint of structure. We also saw the galaxy M108, also in Ursa Major and only about 48 minutes away from M97. A bit more of a challenge, Michael found the big spiral galaxy M101. I suggested that he push his telescope toward Virgo. Within a little while, he had a view that contained no less than five galaxies!!! That was an impressive sight.

It was at this point that I decided to join into the hunt and declared this an official "galaxy quest". Michael was having trouble star hopping to M64, the Black-eye galaxy in Coma Berenices. After going back and forth from the star chart to the sky, and moving the telescope here and there, I finally had the unusual galaxy in view. Its large dust lane was very evident.

Then I decided to do something that I had tried a couple of times before, but failed. I really wanted to explore the galaxies in Virgo. But I knew it would be difficult to star hop in the star poor region. I also wanted to positively identify the objects I was looking at (don't want to miss out on Comet Polston). So, I had Michael read out the coordinates to M64 and I set my telescope's setting circles to them. I then asked for the coordinates to the galaxy M84. I dialed them in, looked into the eyepiece.....and....BINGO!!! There was faint fuzzy in there! They worked. I had finally made sense out of my setting circles and had actually found an object with them. M84 is a very bright galaxy. Nearby, in the same field of view, was the galaxy M86. The core of M86 was not as bright as M84 and the galaxy itself seems a tad bigger. And, also in the same view was the galaxy NGC4388. This is a nice edge on galaxy.

Charge!! With Michael reading off the coordinates, I continue to dial in the galaxies. Next up was M58. This galaxy was round with a bright core. And, it was my first official "new" object of the evening. Next up was M59, which was a bright oval galaxy with a bright core. In the same field of view, the galaxy M60 was also visible. Both M59 and M60 were also new objects for me.

Full steam ahead!! Next up on our galactic quest was M98, a very elongated galaxy with a bright core. This was followed by an observation of M99, a face on spiral galaxy. With the setting circles doing their job, we next dialed in M100. M100 looks round through the eyepiece and has a bright core. I could just see a hint of the spiral structure. M100 is famous in that it is used as a mile marker when trying to determine some of the distances in the universe. M98, M99, and M100 were all new objects for my log book.

Next up on the list was the Sombrero Galaxy, M104. The dividing dust lane was clearly evident. The central hub of the galaxy seemed to bulge out. I then dialed in the coordinates for M85, a bright oval galaxy. Right next door, and in the same field of view, was the galaxy NGC4394. Log M85 as a new object for me.

Engage the warp engines!! By now I was really getting excited. The setting circles were finally doing something other that looking like pretty little dials. They were consistently putting the objects in the field of view. Since I was on a definite roll, I plowed further into the sea of galaxies. Next up on the observing plate was M87. It is a very bright elliptical galaxy. I think it is the brightest in the Virgo cluster of galaxies. M88 was next in the eyepiece. It is a very elongated galaxy with a luminous core. After M88, came M91. The galaxy M91 is a fairly large oval. You could see the "bar" of the galaxy stretching across it lengthwise. After M91, I swung the telescope over to M89. M89 had a very sharp, bright core. The brightness of the rest of the galaxy seemed to drop off sharply. It had a dim, hazy look. I then dialed up the large, elongated galaxy of M90. It was a very nice view. The reason I didn't hit these in numerical order was because I was just glancing at my Sky Atlas 2000.0 star chart and calling them out as I came across them. Michael would then look up the coordinates using Orion's Deep-Sky 600 star chart. I would dial in the object, do my observing, and then let Michael observe it. M88, M89, M90, and M91 were all new objects to be marked in my notes.

Next up on the list was M49, a bright round galaxy with a prominent core. This was followed by an observation of M61. M61 is a face on galaxy with the spiral structure barely visible in my 8" telescope. M49 and M61 were both new objects for me.

Although still hungry for even more galaxies, I was actually exhausting the list of Messier galaxies in the Virgo region. For a change of pace, I dialed in M53. M53 is a nice 7.5 magnitude globular cluster in the constellation of Coma Berenices. Now, with a fresh taste for globular cluster, I swung the telescope over to M5. M5 is a spectacular, well resolved globular cluster. It's quite a step up from M53. M5 was a new object for my notes. Why stop there. Next up, and without the aid of setting circles, was the mighty globular cluster M13, in Hercules. This is one of the most impressive globular clusters in the sky for us northern hemisphere observers. It was absolutely beautiful.

Although not normally considered a northern hemisphere object, I decided to dial in the globular cluster known as Omega Centauri. Although visible, it was low on the horizon and washed out by the sky glow. If I concentrated, I could really see the immensity of the gigantic cluster. The last object of the night was NGC5128, otherwise known as Centaurus A. This huge, round galaxy is a very strong radio source. Visually, it has a large, prominent dust lane, dividing galaxy. It barely was detectable in the washed out sky above the southern horizon. It was still pretty neat to see it and it was a first observation for me.

So, what started out as a mediocre night of photography turned into a wonderful night of galaxy observing. I was back on the road, headed for my parent's house by 4 a.m. Scorpius had scurried about half its length above the trees. A waning crescent moon hung over the east south eastern horizon, looking like a giant slice of cantaloupe in the sky. What a lovely sight it was.

Jeffrey L. Polston

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