New Age Astronomy

Observing notes from the evening of Friday, January 7, 2000

Well, that feared date has come and gone. Many people thought that chaos would reign as the calendar turned over to January 1, 2000. Since computers rule the world, and some old software made calculations based on the last two digits of the year, some thought that the year 2000 would be calculated as 1900. Some thought the power plants would fail, nuclear reactors would melt down, airplanes would fall from the sky, and money would not be had as banks folded. None of this came to pass. Though there were fireworks everywhere, the turn from 1999 to 2000 came and went with a whimper. We are now in a new age. While the argument of exactly when the millennium starts, either 2000 or 2001, fueled many nerdy debates, the world kept turning and civilization still stands. Most importantly to me, the stars did not fall from the heavens. The constellations are still the old friends I have come to know and love. The deepsky treasures that they contain continue to thrill all astronomers who happen to search them out. They have been there for many years before the year 2000 and will remain many years after the year 2000 is a distant memory. Although the market for telescopes continually marches toward the future with new electronic features, this new age astronomy will be no different from the astronomy of years gone by. On this evening of January 7, 2000, I made my first observations of the New Year, and of the new age. The clear skies and bright stars still call my name and I will always answer their call.

A handful of us gathered at the Big Woods observing site at Lake Jordan, North Carolina. Including myself, we had a crew of about 7 people. I set up my 8" Schmidt-Cassegrain and continued my search for Herschel objects. I'm getting quite good at using my setting circles and each observing night had become more fruitful that the previous one.

The first object of the night that my trusty setting circles helped me find was NGC1647. This open cluster is located in Taurus. There was nothing much spectacular about it. It is a large, scattered cluster with uniform magnitude members. Most of the stars seem to be toward the white portion of the spectrum. Again, there was nothing spectacular about this cluster.

The next object on my list was NGC1817. This open cluster is also found in Taurus. While it is rather faint and large, I found it to be more concentrated than the previous star cluster. The members did seem a little more faint but at the same time more numerous. There were lots of stars seen in the background. A handful of stars, maybe 10 or so, seemed brighter than the rest. It was kind of like they were sitting on top of the rest of the cluster.

I swung my telescope over into the Orion region to track down a nebula known as NGC1788. This faint nebula barely registered to my eyes at first. It kind of reminded me of a planetary nebula. There was a dim star involved, which would show up as a little twinkle.

The constellation of Orion is a great place to explore. My next object was NGC1980, a cluster of stars with some nebulosity. This star cluster was very sparse but had members that were quite bright. The nebulosity could be seen as a faint glow around the brighter star. The stars were quite pretty and toward the blue end of the spectrum.

Next up on my list was NGC1999, also located in Orion. I've seen this described as a bright nebula with some dust. To me it looked like a star involved in some nebulosity. In other words, it looked like a fuzzy star. The nebulosity, although easily seen, just doesn't really stand out.

The next deepsky wonder to appear in my eyepiece was NGC2024. This nebula in Orion sounded familiar to me and it was. I just dialed in the coordinates and took a look. It was the Flame nebula, which I have observed many times before. It is located right beside the zeta star, known as Alnitak. This bright star can really over power the nebula and cause you not to see it. NGC2024 is a very large nebula and quite faint since it is spread out. It kind of fades into the background. I could see a couple of darker lanes or divisions that give it that flame look. It kind of looks like a burning bush to me but I have heard it described as the "tank tracks" nebula. It's a wonderful nebula to explore if you have a good night for it.

The last object in Orion I gazed upon was NGC2169, an open cluster. I found the cluster to be quite small and sparse. The members, about 15 or 20 stars as far as I could tell, are pretty bright. The cluster had a boxy or parallelogram shape. It is a very small grouping as compared to others I have seen.

I then entered into the realm of Gemini. My first object within the Twins was the open cluster known as NGC2129. This was a pitiful excuse of a cluster. Why even classify this object as a star cluster? It did have two bright prominent members in a north-south track that were surrounded by dimmer stars. But generally I wouldn't even call this a cluster since I could see plenty of other stars in the eyepiece, which means the actual cluster does not stand out well as a concentration.

The next star cluster I observed in Gemini was NGC2158. And to my surprise I have also seen this one before. That's the thing when I am using setting circles. I don't always know exactly where I'm pointing when I dial in the coordinates. Sometimes I just dial them in and look into the eyepiece without first checking to see where my telescope is pointing. It's a habit I need to break. NGC2158 is a little fuzzy spot to the side of beautiful open cluster M35. I saw it a few years ago in my 10" Newtonian and my first thought was that it might be comet because it appears as a unresolved fuzzy spot with a low power eyepiece. It's kind of like a satellite cluster of M35. When you pump up the power a little but this cluster starts to shine (pun intended). The fuzzy spot is resolved into many, many dim stars. This is a very dense, tight cluster. It's quite pretty.

NGC2266 was the next open cluster in Gemini that I gazed upon. This rather small cluster has one star that is particularly prominent while the others are really dim. The cluster almost seem to have a glow or nebulosity but I think that this is actually just lots of tiny dim stars, that are part of the cluster, glowing with their combined light.

The open cluster of NGC2355 presented a small but nice concentration of dim stars. Also located in Gemini, the cluster seemed very tight. There is a brighter star toward the north end. After zooming in a little bit (i.e. increasing the power), I could see lots of tiny, dim stars, 30 or so, maybe more. It was actually very pretty.

The next object on my list within Gemini actually represents two Herschel objects. NGC2371 and NGC2372 are two lobes of a planetary nebula. It looks kind of neat. It is irregular and elongated. I call it the Peanut nebula. I could also see a star twinkling in one of the lobes. I don't know if that's the central star or not.

My next object in Gemini was the planetary NGC2392. This is one I have visited quite a few times before. It also goes by the name of Eskimo nebula. It was very prominent and bright tonight. It has a blue hue to it. The central star could be easily seen with direct vision. It pops right out at you. I could also see some structure in nebula too. I couldn't see the Eskimo face, but rather it seemed more like a ring within a ring. I could see dark areas or mottling.

The next unremarkable cluster within Gemini that I spied on was NGC2395. These lackluster Herschel clusters can really dampen the spirits at times. Even so, this cluster did have some shape to it. It was kind of oblong, running north-south. The members were very faint and scattered. The stars seemed more rich on one side than the other.

The last Herschel object of the night was the open cluster NGC2420. Still within Gemini, this cluster looks like an open cluster should look like. It was small and dim, but the concentration of stars did stand out from the background stars. It formed a tight, compact grouping.

I finished out the night with two wonderful galaxies within Ursa Major. Can you guess which ones? M81 and M82 form one of my favorite galaxy pairs. They are neat in that they both fit within the eyepiece at the same time and the galaxies have contrasting shapes. M81 is nice, bright, big oval galaxy. It has a very concentrated core, which seems stellar. There is star involved toward one end. M82 on the other hand, has a thin, cigar shape. I could see lots of dark dust lanes and lots of mottling. Viewing M81 and M82 is a great way to end an observing session.  In addition, M82 is also a Herschel object known as NGC3034.

I must say that my first observing session of the year was quite successful. I tracked down some new Herschel objects and realized that some of them were not all that new and unfamiliar after all. On top of a good observing session, I also had good fellowship with other stargazers. I hope my next celestial hunt will be just as productive and pleasing.

Jeffrey L. Polston

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