Just My Luck
Observing notes from the night of Friday, September 17, 1999
A giant, monster of a storm had once again threatened the state of North Carolina. Visions from the 1996 hurricane, Fran, danced in all our heads. Hurricane Floyd headed toward the Carolina coast with sustained wind speeds of 155mph. But as it neared the coast the wind speeds did decline a bit. And although it was still a strong hurricane when it came ashore, it veered to the northeast, sparing the central part of the state from excessive damage. At my house we only lost phone and power for about a day. The eastern part of the state is experiencing horrible floods. Some are calling these 400-year-old floods.
The skies on Friday were bright and clear, scrubbed clean by Hurricane Floyd. And despite a shining half moon in the sky, I decided to set up my telescope on my deck in the backyard. I didn't want to let such good skies go to waste. I was using my workhorse telescope, the Meade LX100 8" Schmidt-Cassegrain. The lady that lives next door and her 8-year-old son came over for a visit and I entertained them and my wife with a few sights through the telescope and a short constellation tour.
The first target of the night was the best "eye candy" object of all, the moon. A moon near first quarter phase is probably the best sight you could ever show someone. It always pleases a crowd and tonight was no exception. I used various eyepieces. I started with my lowest power so they could see the entire moon within the field of view. Then I zoomed in for more detailed observations on the craters and mountains. It was totally awesome. I maneuvered up and down the terminator. The craters stood out in ragged detail since the low light angles give the best contrast.
The mountain ranges Alpes and Apenninus stood out in bold relief. The view seemed better than some of the satellite imagery I've seen of the Earth. What really impressed me were the very long shadows that the mountain ranges were casting, especially the Alpes. Some of the craters had some interesting shadows too. A lot of them looked like black holes, with just their rims illuminated. Some had their central peaks lit up, giving the illusion of a bull's eye. The large ones had shadows from the rim lying across the floor of the crater.
The Alpes valley was clearly visible. It almost looks artificial. It looks like something just came by and scooped it out. In cruising up and down the terminator I also came across a magnificent set of rilles (sometimes called clefts or crevices). These were in the area that is southwest of Mare Vaporium. The detail was remarkable. They snaked along, like some ancient riverbeds. A large group was near the crater Triesnecker. Another rille had the crater Hyginus right on top of it. This is a fantastic area of the moon to explore. As I waited for everyone to look through the telescope, I caught a meteor zipping past the moon on a southerly course. There must have been a pretty bright meteor to be seen so close to bright moon.
My telescope power supply failed on me about this time. Just my luck! My scope started moving rapidly in right ascension. This makes the third time that my 12-volt battery has failed and pretty much tells me it's time to get a new battery. I ran the scope off of house AC power for the rest of the night.
Despite the moonlit skies, I decided to show my guests a couple of deepsky objects. The first object was the Ring Nebula, M57, in the constellation of Lyra. The ghostly smoke ring showed up well and was impressive. This is good object because I find most visitors also are enthralled with the description of how the nebula was formed. From M57, I moved into the constellation of Hercules to spy on the great globular cluster M13. Although the view was quite pleasing, I had more trouble describing this object in a way that could be understood. My typical description as a "ball of stars" didn't seem to register. They were impressed when they realized that each little pinprick of light was a star, but I still had the feeling that they still didn't quite comprehend what they were looking at.
Next up was the double star Albireo in Cygnus. This blue and gold pair of stars got a good reaction. Colored stars are always crowd pleasers. I was also pleased to be asked where in the sky these objects were located. That gave me a chance to show off some constellation and mythology knowledge. Using my Maglite flashlight, I traced out various constellations. We traveled through Hercules, Cygnus, and Lyra. We visited Cassiopeia and Ursa Minor. I pointed out the Summer Triangle composed of the stars Vega, Altair, and Deneb. I also traced out Sagittarius and Capricorn. The distance to Vega and the fact that they were looking at light over 26 years old really fascinated them. It turned out to be a good night to share astronomy.
Later in the night, as the moon raced for the western horizon, I decided to return to the telescope to track down some Herschel objects. And wouldn't you know it, just my luck, my optics were all dewed up. I found that if I sometimes set my Kendrick dew remover control to maximum, it would not work properly. I have turn the knob back just a little bit. I'm not sure what's going on here, but I did get it working. But with that much dew on the corrector plate, I used my wife's hair dryer to zap off the moisture.
My first Herschel object of the night was NGC7331. This dim, oval galaxy in Pegasus didn't have much to show. The core did look kind of bright, almost stellar. As I gazed at the sky, I caught another meteor zipping by. It too was on a southerly path, passing between Jupiter and Saturn. A minute of two later I caught another meteor, heading northward, from Pegasus toward Cassiopeia.
Next up on my list was the galaxy NGC205, also known as M110. Located in Andromeda, I knew exactly where to look for this object. It was just a faint, little, oval patch. There was some brightening toward the center but nothing stellar. It did have some nice colorful stars surrounding it in the eyepiece.
Since I was in the neighborhood, I also took in the gigantic galaxy known as M31. It was big and bright as usual. I could just see a hint of the dust lane. The core of this magnificent galaxy could almost be mistaken for a globular cluster. I also picked up the companion galaxy of M32. This small, round galaxy looked like a fuzzy star. Other than that, it didn't have much detail, but it did have a stellar core.
My next object of the night was the galaxy NGC404, located in Andromeda. It's not too hard to find because it sits right next to the 2nd magnitude star called Mirach. It's a nice, little, round galaxy. It really wasn't much to look at since I couldn't see any detail. In fact, the bright star almost drowns out the galaxy. NGC404 did seem to get brighter toward the middle and kind of had an irregular appearance. It could almost be mistaken for a globular cluster.
An open cluster was my next object to view in Andromeda. NGC752 is a very, very large open cluster, but it's not too spectacular. It fills the eyepiece but it is so scattered you hardly notice the concentration of stars. The stars seem to be toward the blue end of the spectrum, but with a few yellow ones tossed in. The brightness of the members seems mostly uniform with a few brighter members that stand out. The cluster doesn't display well in my 8x50 finder, like some of the more concentrated open clusters you may come across.
Next up on my celestial tour was NGC891, another galaxy in Andromeda. I've seen this one before and it continues to disappoint me. It barely registers to my eyes. It's almost invisible. I'd actually challenge someone to look into my eyepiece, especially a person new to observing, and find the galaxy. It's that hard to see. Yet every description of NGC891 describes it as remarkable and bright with an inky black dust lane running down the center. I just do not see it. I don't know if it's my mediocre skies, optics, or eyes. Through bumping the scope to get a little motion, I am able to see it better. It is long and skinny. There is a star near the nucleus that I guess is a foreground star. Again, this galaxy is needle thin. And again, it is very, very, very faint and dim.
My next deepsky target was a planetary nebula in Andromeda called the Blue Snowball. Designated as NGC7662, this planetary nebula was an easy find. It is small and round and very uniform. It is quite bright and does have a blue color. Even so, it still seems like a typical planetary nebula to me so I don't know why this one gets the special name of Blue Snowball.
The next object to slide into my field of view was another open cluster in Andromeda. NGC7686 is quite a scattered gathering of stars. There wasn't much of anything remarkable about it. There is one yellowish star that kind of stands out in the center. My telescope provides a mirrored image and I did notice a question mark shaped asterism of stars within the center of the cluster.
About this time, there is enough noise from something in the bushes and trees behind my house to get my attention. Curiosity got the best of me and I decided to risk my night vision by aiming the beam of my flashlight in that direction. To my surprise, an opossum wandered onto my lawn. When my light hit him, he raised up on his hind legs and sniffed at the air. I guess from the smell he thought, "hmm .Maglite .3 D cells nothing much to worry about". He headed toward my garden area, which I have already abandoned for the year. Of course, since I never weeded it, it has looked abandoned all summer long. I did dump some old apples and pairs out there a few days ago so I guess that's what the opossum was after. The night has a real good feel to it. I could hear dogs barking in the distance, the sound echoing from the trees across the tobacco fields. I could see Taurus and the Pleides rising above my rooftop. It almost seemed like a winter night. But, I could hear the crickets chirping around my house, which is a good sign that it's not winter. Also, the fact that I wasn't freezing my tail off is another sign that winter is not quite here yet. Still, the sky definitely had a winter look and feel to it. I could see M31 with direct vision. The Double cluster in Perseus could be seen as a fuzzy patch. I could just make out the band of the Milky Way from Cassiopeia through Cygnus. Jupiter and Saturn were blazing away. Jupiter really dominated the sky since it was getting kind of late and it was approaching the meridian.
The next celestial delight to tickle my eyes was NGC598, a galaxy in Triangulum. Also known as M33, this is a gigantic galaxy. But, it is really faint since its surface brightness is spread out over such a large area. Although I could see that something was there, I really couldn't make out the spiral arms. The core of the galaxy was the most visible. And out among the nearby stars, I found a little, fuzzy spot.
This fuzzy spot really got my attention because I was not expecting to see it. Visions of comet discovery danced in my head. I was using Software Bisque's TheSky on my laptop as my star chart. I bumped up all the magnitudes of the objects and turned on the labels. Still, nothing displayed in the spot where I was looking. I could feel a little tinge of excitement. I checked out all the known comets and none were in this area. Could this really be a comet? I made a quick sketch of the area and got connected to the Internet. I downloaded an image of this region of sky from the Digitized Sky Survey. It was hard to get my bearings because M33 is so large, it covered most of the image. Then I saw it, the star pattern that was in my eyepiece. And there, in the picture, was a fuzzy path, exactly like I was seeing. Just my luck! Dreams of comet Polston faded away. A few turns of the pages of Burnham's Celestial Handbook confirms that this object is NGC604. It is actually an emission knot, or HII region within the M33 galaxy. In other words, it's a star-forming region within M33, like the Orion Nebula. First of all, I was really impressed that I could actually see such an object. I thought these were reserved for the really big telescopes. Secondly, it tells me that only a very small portion of M33, the core, was visible in my telescope. Since this is part of the galaxy, M33 is one huge galaxy! My software also has some kind of bug since it didn't properly display NGC604. I finally got it to display, but I'm still not sure why it wasn't working in the first place.
As I paused, to reflect on my lost "comet", another meteor zips through the sky. It went between Perseus and Auriga, headed north.
Since two planets were blazing away in the sky, I couldn't resist them any longer. I swung my optical instrument over to the great ringed planet of Saturn. The view was great and Saturn is looking good. The Cassini division within the rings stands out nicely. I could also see a little detail on the planet itself. There was one, nice band crossing the globe and I thought I saw a hint of one or two more. There were moons peppering the field of view like moths around a flame. Dione was easy to see to one side. Tethys could be found right up under the planet. Enceladus was found under the rings but was kind of hard to see. It kept popping in and out of view. Rhea was easy to find, relatively near Dione. Titan of course, was brightly shining, and found on the opposite side of the planet from Dione. I looked for Mima to no avail. It was just too dim to see. I looked for Iapetus, but it wasn't where the software said it should be. Looks like I found another bug in the program. Using another program to guide me, I think I caught a glimpse of far ranging Iapetus, on the opposite side of the Saturn from Titan.
Even though lots of interesting objects were getting up in the sky now, it was getting kind of late so my last object of the night was the king of the planets, Jupiter. The view was spectacularly awesome. I must say, it was my best view ever of this giant planet. Lots and lots of detail could be seen. The equatorial belts stood out with vivid structure and definition. They seemed irregular, going from thick in some areas to very narrow in others to almost invisible in some spots. I could see all kinds of knots and swirls and festoons, dipping down into the equatorial zones. The equatorial belts almost took on a look of twisted ribbons at times. About half of the southern equatorial almost seemed to be missing. Either that, or its color has really faded. The Great Red Spot (yea right) was seen on the meridian. It had almost no color. It was basically white, but I still could see it pretty well. The spot had lots of swirling detail. In fact, I would say that it stood out tonight because of the structure and detail seen and not because of its color. I could see three of the Galilean moons to one side, Ganymede, Callisto, and Europa. Io was missing, but it's shadow was prominently displayed on the face of Jupiter. That meant it was there, but I just couldn't see it in front of Jupiter. The shadow of Io was very near and above the Red Spot. It looked pretty neat.
This turned out to be a great observing session. I got to bed about 4 AM. I was very tired but very satisfied. As I packed up my equipment, I saw yet another meteor zipping from Pegasus down toward Jupiter. Yes, this was a wonderful night indeed.
Jeffrey L. Polston
* Back to home page *