Night of the Geminids

Observing notes from Friday, December 13, 1996

Since this was suppose to be an observing night for the Raleigh Astronomy Club, it started out in a typical bad luck fashion.....cloudy skies. Also, it was the peak of the Geminid meteor shower so I figured that put a double hex on it. And, since it was Friday the 13th, I figured that nailed the coffin shut. Around 5:00 PM the skies still looked pretty bad, but our resident meteorologist in the club said it would clear and gave the go ahead for the meeting. I arrived at our "dark site" about 7:00 PM under clear skies!!! After a few others arrived, I set up my 8" Schmidt-Cassegrain telescope and prepared for a wonderful night of observing.

I used Saturn, lurking in the constellation of Pisces, to line up my finder scope. I didn't really scrutinize it much since my mirror still hadn't cooled down. Saturn's rings are almost paper thin. I could see one major moon. I was also using a new device on my scope. After reading about it on the Internet, I bought and modified a Daisy Electronic Point Sight. It projects a tiny little red dot in the sky. Although it doesn't compare to the Telrad finder, it still helped out a lot.

One of my first targets of the night was the Andromeda galaxy, M31, and its companion galaxies M32 and M110, all in the constellation of Andromeda. It was quite an impressive view to have 3 large galaxies in my field of view at the same time. Of course, M31 dominated, stretching from one side of my view to the next, and beyond. I could just detect its main dust lane. Next, I dropped down about 14 degrees to take a look at M33, in the constellation of Triangulum. I could just make out a hint of its spiral structure. I tried and tried to see this galaxy with the naked eye, but just couldn't do it. If you can do it, it's the most distance object visible to the naked eye.

I then decided to try for some new objects. I picked up the spiral galaxy M74 in the constellation of Pisces. It's a beautiful little galaxy, that barely showed a hint of its structure. I then dropped down into the constellation of Cetus, and star-hopped my way to the round galaxy of M77. This galaxy had a bright, almost stellar core. Both of these were new objects for me. The guy observing next to me, Mark, had picked up something in his scope while cruising through Orion and wanted me to take a look. To me, the stars looked like two tiny headlights, shining through some fog. I recognized it as the reflection nebula, M78.

I then pushed my telescope to the feet of Gemini, to study the open cluster M35. I love this cluster because on its edge, you can see a smaller, fainter cluster called NGC 2158. It's a neat view through the eyepiece. Then I went over to the supernova remnant in Taurus, M1, the Crab nebula. Although this is a nice nebula to observe, the dark skies just didn't help it as much as I had hoped. Meanwhile, Mark was picking up a few objects in Cassiopeia, so I took a look at those. First on the list was the open cluster M52. This was followed by the open cluster M103. Both of these are dense clusters, and are quite pretty. And, both are new objects to me. Since it was in the area, I decided to view the open cluster M34 in Perseus. It's a nice little smattering of stars in the eyepiece.

Then, I swung my scope over to the king constellation of the winter sky, Orion. The Orion nebula, M42, seemed to be blazing in the eyepiece. I also got to observe this nebula through the 24" club scope. It was truly spectacular!!! It looked 3D, and seemed to extend forever. With my scope, I was easily able to see the attachment of M43. Since I was in the neighborhood, I decided to actually try and catch a glimpse of the Horsehead nebula, a target that has eluded me so far. I could easily see the Flame nebula, NGC 2024, beside of the belt star Alnitak. But even though I know I was looking in the right spot, I just couldn't find the Horsehead. I'm going to try for it again during the next dark moon, and use my 10" scope.

The Rosette nebula, NGC 2237, in the constellation of Monoceros was next on my list. Although I think I have glimpsed this nebula before, I definitely saw it this time. It was huge. It couldn't all fit in the eyepiece. My narrow band filter, a Lumicon UHC, really helped to bring out the structure. It almost looked like the pictures I've seen of it, but of course not as bright or detailed. During this time, another observer was giving views of objects in Gemini such as a very unique double planetary, and the Eskimo nebula, NGC 2392. I gladly took a look at them. Later on in the evening, he showed us the Medusa nebula and Hubble's Variable nebula, NGC 2261, also in Monoceros. Hubble's Variable nebula looks just like a little comet, and is relatively bright. If anyone came across it accidentally, they certainly would think they had a major discovery on their hands.

During all this time, meteors were zooming all over the sky!!! The Geminid meteor shower was in a virtual downpour. As soon as we got to the site, my fellow observers and I began seeing meteors. Even as stragglers showed up for the observing session, they immediately asked about the shower since they had seen some of the brighter meteors on the drive in. The meteors ranged from faint little streaks to blazing beacons of light, that left trails lasting for a few seconds. Two of the celestial sky rockets really stood out to me. One was a sporadic, i.e. not a Geminid, that headed from the meridian to the east. It was white, and very bright, it seemed to be pulsating. It looked like the landing lights on a jetliner!!! Another bright meteor was one that went from the meridian toward the southern horizon. It was neat because leafless trees were in the way, but the bright meteor was still visible between the limbs. The Geminids continued to rain down during the entire observing session. There were many loud exclamations of WOW!!! I was actually skittish about looking through the eyepiece of my telescope. It seemed that every time I put my eye up to the scope, someone would yell, "WOW, did you see that one....AWESOME". I was afraid I was missing the best meteors. But there were plenty to go around. Even as I drove home that night, I could still see some of the brighter Geminids streaking through the heavens.

Despite the Geminid fireworks, I still got a lot of observing done. As more objects cleared the eastern horizon, I was able to visit a few more of my celestial friends. One of my targets was the Beehive cluster, M44, in the constellation Cancer. This is an amazing and large cluster. It spills beyond the eyepiece, and has a few colorful stars. After scanning M44, I moved the scope down to a new object for me, the open cluster M67, also in Cancer. It was an easy find, and a dense little cluster.

I then swung the scope over and down to the constellation of Lepus, where I picked up the globular cluster M79. This is a nice, compact globular, but not as bright as some of my favorites. Still, it was impressive and it was a first for some of my observing buddies.

I finished out the night by viewing some of the spectacular objects in the constellation of Ursa Major, which had finally risen enough above the horizon (although the handle of the dipper was still in the trees). After viewing the spiral galaxy M81 and the elongated galaxy M82 in another scope, I decided to check out the view in my own scope. Although it took me a while to find them, I finally had both galaxies in the same field of view. This was truly a remarkable site, to see two vast galaxies at once. My last official object of the night was the planetary nebula, M97, also known as the Owl Nebula. Although I could see some faint structure, I couldn't see the face of the owl.

This was truly a great night of observing. Not only did I observe a lot of new objects, I also visited some old celestial friends (and observing friends). The icing on the cake was the excellent display of the Geminid meteor shower. It was the best meteor shower I have ever seen. I'm really looking forward to my next night under the stars.

Jeffrey L. Polston

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