Share The Stars

Observing notes from the evening of Saturday, September 6, 1997

With the skies still holding out pretty good, I was really itching to do some more observing. Although I had a pretty good session a couple of days ago, I can never get enough astronomy. As it turned out, my nephew, Chuck Poole, and I ended up heading out late Saturday night to a dark, remote spot for some summer stargazing. I wasn't really looking to see anything new, I just wanted to share the stars with someone who doesn't get out there that much. Sometimes it's a lot of fun playing teacher at the telescope. Armed with my 8" f/10 Schmidt-Cassegrain in the back of my dad's truck, we headed out.

We went to a field located in the Sandhills of northern Scotland County, NC. This area is mostly federal game land, crisscrossed by unpaved roads. It offers nice dark skies, although it is often used by the military during some of their training. The field was located behind an old, abandoned, and might I add very spooky church, at the intersection of two dirt roads. The scope was quickly set up and we started out our nightly stargazing with the king of the planets, Jupiter.

Jupiter offered us four Galilean moons and two prominent belts. The seeing wasn't that good so I didn't really want to push my magnification. Nonetheless, the view was impressive to someone who hasn't observed the sky that much. Next up came Saturn, with its beautiful ring system. My nephew uttered the typical

I then began the astronomy lesson. First up was the Great Globular Cluster in Hercules, M13. I explained how globulars orbit the halo of our galaxy. They can contain hundreds of thousands of stars. They are so named, because of their globe-like appearance. I also showed him two other globulars for comparison. We looked at M15 in Pegasus, with its bright central core. It appears as a smaller cluster, and more concentrated. We then looked at M71, a dimmer globular in Sagitta.

Our next stop was the other kind of cluster, the open cluster. We zoomed in on M11, the Wild Duck Cluster in Scutum. I explained how open clusters are congregations of stars that are "loosely packed". Their "membership" can range from just a handful of stars to several hundred. We spied on the Double Cluster in Perseus. It beautifully filled the eyepiece from one side to the next. Using binoculars, we found the Coat Hanger cluster in Vulpecula. Since we were out pretty late, we also caught the "thirty something" clusters in Auriga, M36, M37, M38. These were barely above the horizon good, but still put on a good show in the eyepiece. I can hardly wait for fall and winter. The last open cluster was an unaided eye view of the Pleiades in Taurus, just above the eastern horizon.

Our next astronomy lesson was on galaxies. These island universes, contain millions of stars, and are located millions of light-years away. Our prime example was M31, the Andromeda Galaxy. It was easily visible to the unaided eye and glorious in the eyepiece. Moving M31 from one side of the eyepiece to the other, I was also able to get a view of M32 and M110. The elongated shapes of M110 and M31 compared nicely to the round shape of M32.

We then slid down into the constellation of Triangulum to pick up M33, a beautiful face-on spiral. M33 usually takes large apertures and very dark skies to appreciate. Its large size contributes to its low surface brightness. Even so, with averted vision, we could definitely see two major spiral arms sweeping out and back from the nucleus.

Next up were a couple of planetary nebulas. Planetary nebulas get their name from the fact that they usually present a round disk in the eyepiece. They are the outer atmospheres of stars, "puffed" off as the star continues its evolution toward the end of its main sequence life. Our first target was the magnificent planetary M27, the Dumbbell Nebula in Vulpecula. This large, bright planetary is so named because its brightest portions resemble a dumbbell shape. Some say it's more like an apple core. In any case, it was very impressive from our site. I then swung over to the Ring Nebula, M57 in Lyra. This planetary looks like a smoke ring, floating in space.

The observing session was going pretty good. The skies were pretty dark and the Milky Way was very prominent. A bat would flutter around us every now and then as we sipped on some coffee I hastily made. A light breeze and cooler temperatures than usual seemed to have kept the mosquitoes at bay. During the entire session we only had two cars travel by on the dirt roads, oblivious to the fact that some stargazers were in the middle of the field. We also spotted a few meteors zipping across the heavens.

Next up on the astronomy lesson was super nova remnants. These remnants are basically what's left over after a star tears itself apart with a violent explosion. We explored the Veil Nebula in Cygnus. The "s" shape (I call it "snake shaped") near the star 52 Cygni was readily apparent. It was even more pronounced with the UHC filter.

Our last targets of the night were double stars. We started with the colorful blue and gold pair of Albireo, in Cygnus. My nephew was really impressed. We then moved over to the Double-Double in Lyra. We had a little trouble splitting the foursome since the skies were not all that steady. We just could make them out. Next up was the North Star, Polaris in Ursa Minor. My nephew remarked how faint its tiny companion was. Next was SAO 21732, known as 24-Eta Cassiopeiae. My star chart listed this one as a gold and purple pair. And yes, the secondary did look kind of purple. I think it must be an optical illusion. The last double star was SAO 35947, known as 8-Sigma Cassiopeiae. The charts list this one as blue and green. We could definitely say one star was blue, but would not say the other star was green. It looked like it was kind of blue also.

We had a most enjoyable night. As we packed up the equipment, a strange sound started coming from the edge of the trees. It started out, and don't laugh, as a nasal whistle. You know the sound, when someone is breathing through their nose, and it makes a whistling sound. This noise preceded to get louder and louder. Was it a bird? It almost sounded fake, like someone in the woods making animal sounds. Then it changed. It started varying in speed and octave. It got to a point where it sounded like monkey chatter from some South American jungle. I guess it was just a spooky sound to go along with that spooky church. Nonetheless, it was a great observing session.

Jeffrey L. Polston


Listed below are all the objects observed. Objects with an asterisk are new objects for me.

Jupiter, Capricorn

Saturn, Pisces

M13 (NGC 6205), globular cluster, Hercules

M15 (NGC 7078), globular cluster, Pegasus

M11 (NGC 6705), open cluster, Scutum

M36 (NGC 1960), open cluster, Auriga

M37 (NGC 2099), open cluster, Auriga

M38 (NGC 1912), open cluster, Auriga

M31 (NGC 224), galaxy, Andromeda

M32 (NGC 221), galaxy, Andromeda

M110 (NGC 205), galaxy, Andromeda

M33 (NGC598), Triangulum Galaxy, Triangulum

M27 (NGC 6853), Dumbbell Nebula, Vulpecula

M57 (NGC 6720), Ring Nebula, Lyra

NGC 6960, Veil Nebula, Cygnus

M45, The Pleiades, Taurus

* SAO 21732, 24-Eta Cassiopeiae, double star, Cassiopeia

* SAO 35947, 8-Sigma Cassiopeiae, double star, Cassiopeia


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