Milk Does A Body Good

Observing notes from the evening of Saturday, June 12, 1999

I had been anticipating this observing session for over a year. Ever since I first heard about Grayson Highlands state park in Virginia from some club members, I was wondering what it would be like to go there. Located in the Blue Ridge mountains, just across the border of North Carolina, the park is about a four and a half hour ride from the Raleigh area. Club members visit the site two or three times during the summer. This time, I made the decision to give it a try, along with my three year old daughter, Victoria. Also along for the trip were co-workers Michael King and Brian Andrews. The general frame of mind is that we are camping out and if it happens to be clear, we'll do some observing. Well, Friday night was a cloudy night. A few times it did clear enough to see quite a number of stars but within a few minutes it was clouded over again. So, Friday night was spent by the campfire, roasting marshmallows and listening to the night sounds. We had a few barred owls in the area. Their calls were echoing through the forest and really sounded kind of eerie at times.

Saturday morning greeted us with mostly blue skies. With the birds singing and the chipmunks scurrying about our campsite, it was an excellent day to explore our surroundings. We decided to hit one of the local trails that ventured down to a creek. The trail proved to be longer and more rugged than we anticipated. I guess the difficult part was that not only was I hauling my camera equipment, but I also hauled Victoria for most of the way. Even so, the creek was a fascinating area to explore. We sat upon the rocks, with our feet in the cool water and was greeted by nature everywhere we looked. The creek itself was beautiful. It cascaded down the numerous rocks and boulders. There were quite a few small waterfalls. We could see minnows and small trout swimming about. Salamanders also crawled to and fro, from one rock to the next. As I lifted a stone to try and follow a salamander, a crayfish scurried out. We could see evidence of beaver activity (by the gnawed trees) and actually saw a beaver along the roadside (just watching cars go by) later in the day.

Back at camp, as the sun slipped below the distant mountains, the sky did its final clearing rather nicely. Some low clouds and haze hung in the extreme western skies, but not much to worry about. As Victoria ran around with other "camp kids" on the grassy field beside of the campsites, I set up my 8" Schmidt-Cassegrain. I had originally planned on doing some photography, but then decided the night would be dedicated to visual observing. As the stars came out, so did the other campers. They were curious about all the telescopes being erected. The forest ranger came by with some of his family. We all participated in giving brief astronomy lessons and giving peeks through our telescopes. I kept mine pointed at Venus and everyone was delighted at seeing the roughly half phase. Even Victoria took a couple of peeks at Venus. As the crowd dwindled, and as we all got our various kids to bed, everyone settled down for a fantastic night of stargazing. I determined I would visit some old astronomical favorites as well as seek out some new objects from the Herschel list.

I know, I know, you're trying to figure out the meaning behind the title to these notes. Maybe I should rephrase the title to be, "The Milky Way Does A Body Good". As the Milky Way rose above the tree tops, it was absolutely gorgeous. Michael even asked me if that was clouds in the sky, that's how prominent it was. Several times during the night, I left my telescope to just sit down and take in the sheer beauty and multitude of stars. The Milky Way literally stretched from one horizon to the next. It was a visual treat. Following the path flown by Cygnus, you could see splits, and rifts, and star clouds. You could see the dark areas. The Milky Way really took on a textured look. I almost felt like I could run my hand through the sky and the stars would disperse like a trail of smoke. In fact, the view was so incredible that I made a point of not looking at it with binoculars. I didn't want to spoil the impression it made with a magnified view. I spoke with one gentleman would didn't have a telescope, but preferred to sit and watch the Milky Way (with a brandy in one hand) as it crossed the sky.

As beautiful as the Milky Way was, I didn't let it distract me from doing some good observing. Although I had been observing Venus every since setting up my telescope and letting it cool down, the official start of my observing session was with that smoke ring in the sky, M57. Known as the Ring Nebula, M57 is located in the constellation of Lyra. I didn't linger too much on this object since I visit it all the time. The next object up was the globular cluster M13 in Hercules. This one never fails to impress me. This star cluster is huge and fills the eyepiece with thousands of stars. Despite the magnificent beauty of M13, it does have a rival in the sky at the same time. The globular cluster M22 in Sagittarius competes well with M13. M22 is also big and bright and if it wasn't so close to the horizon for northern viewers (as in northern hemisphere, not Yankees), it would get much more attention and praise from observers.

Next up was the planetary nebula M27, located in Vulpecula. Known as the Dumbbell Nebula, this planetary really does resemble its namesake. Some people also call it the Apple Core Nebula, which would also be a fitting description. In either case, the object is bright and easy to see and a wonderful object to show any newcomers to the hobby.

I then decided to pan around in the Sagittarius area of the sky. The Lagoon Nebula, M8, was an easy find. The cluster and nebulosity filled the eyepiece and with the dark skies, no filter was necessary. With a short little hop, M20, the Trifid Nebula slid into view. The triple dust lanes that give it its name were readily apparent as well as the reflection part of the nebula off to one side. Next up was M17, known as the Swan Nebula. Some people also refer to it as the Omega Nebula. This nebula, like the Dumbbell Nebula, also resembles its namesakes. M17 is big and bright and has lots of structure. Michael and I actually compared views of it with a narrow band filter versus without. We found that while the filter did offer a little more contrast, it wasn't all that great. This attests to how great an observing site Grayson Highlands is.

From the Swan Nebula, I push the scope up into the Serpens region to find M16, the Eagle Nebula. I found that this cluster was off center from the concentration of the nebulosity (similar to M8). Though I could definitely see the nebulosity, I could not make out an eagle shape.

A good test of a dark site is trying to view the Veil Nebula in Cygnus. The Veil is easy to find because a portion of it snakes right pass the star 52 Cygni. The trouble is actually seeing the nebula since it is so faint and light pollution can really mask it. In my backyard, I need to use a narrow band filter to coax the delicate nebula out of the background glow. Here at Grayson Highlands park, the skies were dark enough that no filter was needed. I also looked at other portions of this super nova remnant through Michael's telescope.

Using Michael's telescope, I also spied on a few other celestial delights. The Whirlpool Galaxy, M51, was one of them. I could see both components and definitely detected the spiral nature of the galaxy. M51 is located in Canes Venatici. I also spied on M104, the Sombrero Galaxy in Virgo. The dark dust lane that divides the galaxy was easy to detect. I also observed the galaxy M108, located in Ursa Major. I actually observed this object before M104. I was trying to find the Sombrero first, but got the numbers mixed up with Michael's LX200. Even so, M108 is still a wonderful object to explore. It is a bright, elongated galaxy with some apparent mottling. The last object glimpsed with Michael's telescope was the double star Albireo in Cygnus. I just like to look at the sheer beauty of this dazzling blue and gold pair.

Since I had driven over two hundred miles to be at this dark site, I figured I might as well use it to hunt down some more Herschel objects. After aligning my setting circles using the star Spica in Virgo, I dialed in the coordinates of the first object on my list. NGC5897, a globular cluster in Libra, was an easy find. It is kind of spread out and dim, but it did hint a little at resolution. Still, it almost fades into the background glow.

The next object was NGC6144. Located in Scorpius, this globular cluster is also kind of spread out and dim, but I could see it well. It also gave a hint of resolving, but nothing definite. There was a relatively bright star, a little off center, that really stood out to me. It is probably a foreground star, but it is still pretty neat.

Next up was NGC6451. This open cluster is also located in Scorpius. It is very dim and very small. It is a small concentration of stars in an otherwise very well populated star field. It barely shows up, but it is there.

The planetary nebula NGC6781 was the next object I dialed in. Located in Aquila, I found it prominent, but mostly looking like a blob. At times it seemed to have a square shape. I don't know if this was true or just my imagination.

With a pleasant surprise, the setting circles placed my next object, NGC6826, dead center. I must admit though, when I first looked into the eyepiece for this planetary nebula located in Cygnus, I was disappointed. I didn't think it was in the field of view. But like I said, it was dead center. This planetary is very small and kind of looks like a star. I had to pump up the magnification a little to see it better. If you stared straight at it, the nebulosity would seem to disappear, to be replaced by the central star. It was a pretty cool effect.

My next object of the night was another globular nebula in Sagittarius. I found NGC6440 to be very small and dim, like a lot of other globulars in the Sagittarius region. I almost missed it. Try as I might, I could not get it to resolve. Another point I should make was that the southern skies were quite unstable when compared to the rest of the sky and this could have been a factor with some of my viewing in this area. In the same field of view, I also found NGC6445, a planetary nebula. It was easy to see and looked slightly elongated. It also looked like it had something across the middle. This could have been some mottling or an illusion, but that's the way it looked.

Next up was NGC6514, an open cluster with some nebulosity, also located in Sagittarius. And also to my surprise, this was the Trifid Nebula again. My Herschel list just has the NGC numbers so I didn't know I was dialing in the Trifid Nebula. See my notes above for a description of what I saw.

My last Herschel object of the evening was NGC6520, another open cluster in Sagittarius. This was a nice, small, compact cluster. Even though it was small and compact, the members also gave me the impression of being kind of sparse. The stars also kind of looked like a ringlet, with an orange colored star in the center forming a bull's eye. I actually got Michael to take a look at it to confirm the circular pattern to make sure I wasn't imagining it.

The best view of the night came from a set of large binoculars. Club member Craig Zerbe had them trained on the globular cluster M5, located in Serpens. The view knocked me for a loop. I kept thinking who was that silly person saying "ooh" and "aah" and "oh man!" and then I realized it was me! I don't even have the words to describe the sheer beauty of what I saw. Impressive in its own right, M5 took on a three dimensional look. It felt just like I was looking through a ViewMaster. I kept wanting to reach for the lever to switch to the next slide. It was as if I had walked up to a large picture window of a spaceship, and looked out as we slid past the immense globular cluster. It was simply breath taking.

We also spied on the galaxies M81 and M82 located in Ursa Major. It was quite a pleasant view. I was struck by how easy and apparent it was to see the shape of the galaxies as well as some structure. The large binoculars were also turned on the galaxies M31 (known as the Andromeda Galaxy), M32, and M110. Of course, the gigantic M31 basically filled the few. Its central dust lane was readily visible.

Although the trip to Grayson Highlands state park is long and tiring, the view of the Milky Way on this dark night made it worthwhile. All the other objects I observed were just icing on the cake. If my backyard were this nice, I would never get any sleep! I can hardly wait until my next session under the stars.

Jeffrey L. Polston

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