Night Vision

Observing notes from the evening of Sunday, March 5, 2000

With the promise of clear skies in the forecast, a few club members and myself headed to Pettigrew State Park for a night of star gazing. Pettigrew is located just off highway 64 toward the coast of North Carolina. It's location (i.e. in the middle of nowhere) aroused suspicion that it may have dark skies. It is situated right on Lake Phelps, which is a natural, shallow lake. Michael King and I rode together and this was the maiden voyage of my newly acquired, used Coleman pop-up camper.

Many things can affect our vision. Have you ever walked out into the bright sunlight, and could barely open your eyes beyond a squint? How about walking indoors from a bright sunny day (or bright snowy day)? This is the worst. Although your eyes are wide open, your pupils are so constricted that you can't see anything. Everything is dark and shadowy. Then there are times when we are outside, in the dark of night, and it seems pitch black. We envy the owl or cat, who seem to make their way leisurely through the inky darkness, without stumbling or bumping into every little thing. We wish for that kind of eyesight. The astronomers among us wonder what the night sky would look like with this type of night vision.

Well the night at Pettigrew State Park made me feel like I had the night vision of a nocturnal animal. The skies were so dark that they seemed to take on an eerie three dimensional look. Accustomed to my city skies, the black space between the stars didn't seem quite right. My biggest surprise was when I looked through my finder scope polar align my mount. When I point toward Polaris I expect to see Polaris with a handful of other stars. But the skies were so dark at this site that I wasn't initially sure which star was Polaris! A multitude of other stars filled my field of view. It was the same with other stars I looked at. When I usually point toward a bright star, such as Sirius, to make sure that my finder is still aligned, I rarely notice any other stars in the field of view. But on this night, other stars in the field of view were quite prominent.

With my new found night vision, I set upon my search for more Herschel 400 objects. Here's the list of objects for this observing session:

NGC3626. I found this galaxy in Leo to be a fuzzy oval with a bright core. If was kind of like a fuzzy star, but didn't offer much detail.

NGC3628. Also located in Leo, NGC3628 is a beautiful, elongated, edge-on galaxy. It is very bright and prominent. With averted vision, I could see a dust lane going through it, almost bisecting it. I also had M65 and M66 in the same field of view.

NGC3640. Another galaxy in Leo. It was kind of an oval. Basically a fuzzy spot with a bright core.

NGC3630. Another galaxy in Leo. NGC3630 was similar in appearance to NGC3640, but not quite as bright. It is not a Herschel 400 object.

Rosette nebula. Located in Monoceros, this open cluster with nebulosity is not much without a filter. Using my Lumicon UHC narrow band filter, the nebula blazes away. I could see filaments and structure all over the place. I used the 40mm eyepiece because the nebula is very large and it fills the view. Gorgeous sight!

NGC3655. Another galaxy in Leo. It was quite unremarkable. It was a round or slightly oval patch. It had a bright, but not stellar core. It was very small.

NGC3686. Another galaxy in Leo. It looks round but I seemed to see some structure or mottling. It almost seemed to have an outer envelope which could be some spiral structure. There were definite brightness variations would be indicative of spiral arms.

NGC3684 and NGC3681. These two galaxies are also in Leo and in the same field of view as NGC3686. In fact, it was pretty neat because they were straight in a row. There were smaller and more round than NGC3686. These objects are not Herschel 400 objects.

NGC3810. Another galaxy in Leo. This one was relatively bright, oval, and had some structure or mottling. The stellar center was not steady, but rather it popped in and out. Seems like I can see a little bit of structure to the north. Pretty neat sight.

NGC3900. Another galaxy in Leo. It was a small oval. It is located in a little group of stars, shaped like a right triangle with the galaxy being along the hypotenuse. The oval shape runs north-south. It had a bright, little center.

NGC3912. Last Herschel 400 galaxy in Leo. This galaxy is very, very faint. It had a brighter core, but not much too it overall. I could hardly tell that it is there. If it wasn't for my detailed computer star chart, I might have missed this one since it's so dim. I matched up the pattern of stars in the eyepiece until I finally located it.

NGC2974. A galaxy in Sextans. It was pretty neat because it has very prominent star involved toward western edge of the galaxy. If you concentrate on the galaxy, you will see that it is kind of an oval shape. It has a bright stellar core, but it's almost hard to see because of the foreground star being so bright and prominent. It's like this star wants to be the "star" attraction in my eyepiece (horrible pun, I'm sorry to say, was intended). In fact the star kind of makes the galaxy seem like a lens flare.

NGC3115. Another galaxy in Sextans. It's also called the Spindle Galaxy. This is a very sharp, edge-on galaxy with a stellar, concentrated core. The northern edge seems really sharp and prominent, like a dust lane. The mottling is quite evident.

NGC3166 and NGC3169. Both galaxies in Sextans and fit into the same field of view. NGC3166 is to the west, and has a bright stellar core. It has a round, slightly oval shape. NGC3169 is a little more oval in shape and seems to have a star involved or a bright core. Both fit in the field of view very nicely.

M3. Globular cluster in Canes Venatici. This is a glorious globular cluster that is resolved to the core. It is a very pretty, bright ball of stars. Hundreds of pinpoints of stars could be seen.

NGC2859. Galaxy in Leo Minor. There wasn't much to it. It was a little, round, fuzzy spot with a little bit brighter center. I found it pretty boring as galaxies go. I suggest anyone living there consider relocating to a more exciting galaxy.

NGC3245. Another galaxy in Leo Minor. It was a small, oblong galaxy with a bright core. It ran north-south. This was a little, faint galaxy.

NGC3277. Another galaxy in Leo Minor. There was nothing remarkable about it. It was considerably round with a bright core. That's three galaxies in this constellation that are "duds".

NGC3294. Another galaxy in Leo Minor. This one is a little bit better than the previous ones. It has quite a bit of extension and mottling with some structure. It looks like it has an edge or something to the north.

NGC3344. Another galaxy in Leo Minor. Okay, the galaxies are getting better. This one is a pretty cool, open face spiral. There is a star involved, maybe two. It has bright center with lots of mottling and structure. Averted vision suggests some arms.

NGC3395. Another galaxy in Leo Minor. It is kind of oval shape. It's faint, with a somewhat bright, but not stellar, center. It almost looks like a double core, but more than likely it is another star involved.

NGC3414. Another galaxy in Leo Minor. Now we are back to the dull galaxies. This one is kind of brighter in the center. It's a little, fuzzy, oval patch. In other words, boring.

NGC3432. Another galaxy in Leo Minor. This one is pretty cool. There's some shape and definition to it. It is elongated and narrow, with two stars involved, one at each in. Each end appears bigger, or rather thicker than the middle section. It kind of gives the impression of the memorial over the USS Missouri in Pearl Harbor. Pretty neat. It was nice to see something different

NGC3486. Another galaxy in Leo Minor. This is a face-on spiral, but I couldn't' see much structure. There was a pinprick of a stellar core.

NGC3504. Another galaxy in Leo Minor. This is one more of the pitiful galaxies. It was round with a bright core.

M13. Globular cluster in Hercules. Now this is a spectacular sight. This cluster is the king globular of the northern regions. It definitely resolves to the core. I could see hundreds upon hundreds of suns. M13 is very bright, very big, very concentrated, and a wonderful sight in the eyepiece. I also found what I call the companion galaxy to M13. NGC6207 is a faint little oval patch, that will fit within the same field of view as M13, in a low power eyepiece. I think this object is often overlooked because of the grandeur of M13.

M51. Galaxy in Canes Venatici. Also known as the Whirlpool galaxy, this is a beautiful, bright galaxy. I could easily see the companion or "attachment" (as some call it), NGC5195. M51 displayed beautiful spiral structure.

M4. Globular cluster in Scorpius. Despite being down in the horizon murk, this was still seen as beautiful, concentrated globular.

Ring nebula. Located in Lyra. It appeared as a ghostly smoke ring, floating among the stars.

Omega Centauri. Globular cluster in Centaurus. This is a really cool, extremely large globular cluster that is hard to see because it is so far south. Even so, it was easily visible in my 8x50 finder scope and it really energized the eyepiece of my telescope. It had a speckle look to it since it was hard to resolve through the horizon murk.

NGC5128. Galaxy in Centaurus. Also known as Centaurus A, this is quite a cool galaxy. It is a round galaxy with a very prominent dust lane bisecting it.

The best view of the night was of M51, the Whirlpool galaxy, through Eric Honeycutt's 22" telescope. The exciting view almost knocked me off of the ladder. Without a doubt or exaggeration, it literally looked like a photograph. I could trace the spiral arms from the core to the outer edges. I could even see structure in the "companion" that I've only seen in photographs. And all of this was with direct vision, no averted vision. With astronomy, at least when it comes to objectives, size does matter.

This turned out to be an excellent night for star gazing. My night vision helped me to see objects better than I have seen them before, and inspired me to take many breaks during the observing session to just sit back and look at the skies with the naked eye. During the course of the night, I also saw a handful of meteors zipping along. I had a wonderful time.

Jeffrey L. Polston

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