Small Tackle

Observing notes from the evening of Friday, October 15, 1999

You've heard it before. If you are going after the big fish, you'll need the big tackle. That makes sense of course. With that in mind, and the skies being clear on Friday night, I decided to pull out my big tackle and go fishing for Herschel objects. Just after sunset, I setup my 8" Schmidt-Cassegrain telescope. I left it on the deck to cool off for a while. When I returned to start my polar alignment procedure, the skies were completely clouded over! Disappointed, I dismantled my telescope and decided to watch a little television. There was actually a pretty good movie on. It was set in 1865 and featured a bunch of damnyankees picking on one of our southern boys. The Confederate hero finally got the best of them in the end. After the movie I stepped outside for a moment. The skies were totally clear! By that time I was tired and weary of the weather conditions so I decided to leave the 8" telescope in its case. Instead, I went with some small tackle, my 80mm refractor.  I figured I would forgo the methodical searching for Herschel objects and just do some casual observing.  My refractor is a lightweight scope that I can setup and start observing within a few minutes.

I started out the night with M45, the Pleiades star cluster in Taurus. This beautiful, open cluster is comprised of lovely blue stars. Larger scopes and photographs show some blue nebulosity in the region but that evaded my small telescope. Even so, this cluster is so big that is spills out of the eyepiece. If you keep staring at it you'll see a lot of the fainter members of the cluster. This cluster has over 200 members. But you really have to try to not pay attention to the brighter members. With little concentration, you'll start to see dozens and dozens of the lesser-known stars. They are like tiny sparkles in the background. They also make a lot of neat patterns. I could see double stars, triangles, ringlets, and stars running along like a string of pearls. It really was quite beautiful.

The next object I observed was also an open cluster. I found M34 in Perseus. Actually, there's not much to it. It does show up as a nice splattering of stars against the black background but there is nothing very remarkable about it. The scattered members are relatively bright. The stars seemed to be in pairs to me, which seems to be a recurring theme with this type of cluster. I could see two here and two there. I could easily see about five or six pairs of stars, like wide double stars.

The next object I observed was the open cluster known as the Double cluster in Perseus. This cluster is an absolutely amazing sight. It is so beautiful because you have two concentrations of stars in the eyepiece. You really need to have a wide field eyepiece to appreciate this cluster and take it in. This is definitely my favorite open cluster. Each cluster taken alone is not that spectacular. They are scattered. One does seem to have more of a concentration of dimmer members toward the center. I'm really amazed and surprised at the sheer number of dimmer stars visible within the cluster. They are twinkling, little dots, fading in and out. The problem with open clusters is that the brighter members will actually distract you from seeing the total beauty of the cluster taken as a whole. Typically your first impression will be by the brighter members, which is really a false impression. With open clusters you need to relax and take in all the stars. This twin cluster also has the NGC designations of NGC869 and NGC884.

M103, an open cluster in Cassiopeia, was the next object I reeled in on my deepsky fishing expedition. Man, what a boring little cluster. It is very small and scattered (I sure am using that word a lot). It's not a round cluster. It is more of an oval or football shaped grouping of stars. It is fairly uniform. Again, if I relax, I can get more members (the dimmer ones) popping in, but it still is not as concentrated as the previous clusters of the night.

The next object tested the ranges of movement for my scope. NGC752, an open cluster in Andromeda, was almost straight up. It was at the very limits of my scope motion in the vertical range. In fact the slow motion cable was wedged in between the scope and the mount. NGC752 is a very big cluster, but it is composed of very dim stars. A few stars were brighter, but I wonder if they are actual members of the cluster. There seems to be a lopsided concentration of the stars. They are all similar in magnitude and the cluster fills the eyepiece rather nicely.

Hovering near the "goat star" known as Capella, the open cluster of NGC1664 was the next object I hooked. Located in Auriga, this is a very faint cluster and I'm surprised that I found it at all, especially with the 80mm refractor. I could see a smattering of brighter stars in the field of view but I don't think they have anything to do with the cluster. This cluster basically appeared as a faint glow as I panned my refractor across the field. There's a concentration of very small and very dim stars. They barely show up. It's kind of like a sparkling that comes and goes with averted vision. This cluster seems typical of some of the faint clusters that observing partner Jeff McAdams likes to hunt down. If you zoom in with more power, the stars seem to break down and not look like a cluster. The members are so dim it was like looking for "Neptunes." When I was zoomed in, I could see strings of stars, strung here and there. In the wide field view, these strings combine to form the cluster, or concentration. It was quite interesting.

Next up was the open cluster of NGC1778, located in Auriga. Again, this is another faint little cluster that I would usually miss. It doesn't have much of a concentration of stars. This object, like all the other objects I've been finding during this observing session, was found via the star hopping technique. I've been using my Daisy reflex sight, which works like a charm. I just visualize where the object is, like between this star and that star, and the Daisy sight leads me to it. My star map tonight has been the Orion Deepsky 600 map. Anyway, NGC1778 almost seems like two groupings of stars that form one cluster. Though faint, the members are pretty pinpoints of light. There is also one nice little double star nearby.

My 80mm fishing lure next caught the attention of the open cluster M38, also located in Auriga. This is one of the "thirty something" clusters, as I like to call them. The thirty something clusters are the open clusters of M35, M36, M37, and M38. They run from the tip of Gemini's foot into Auriga. M38 is a nice little concentration of uniform magnitude stars. A few seem to outshine the rest but nothing spectacular. It kind of looks like clumps of stars making up the cluster. I almost get the impression of a shape of a square box or an X.

Next up was another thirty something cluster, M36 in Auriga. This one seems even smaller than M38. But for some reason the stars seem more prominent. The members seem to be toward the blue end of the light spectrum. They were not really blue, but just seemed to lean toward that end. This was also the case with M38.

The next open cluster actually looked like a good open cluster should look like. It was M37, another thirty something member located in Auriga. The actual members seemed a little dimmer than the previous couple of clusters, at least to me, but there seems to be more of them and they seem more concentrated. It actually looks like a glowing cloud. When you really concentrate you realize it is not a cloud but many, many pinpoints of light. The shape is not quite uniform. It actually seems to be divided a little bit by a lesser number of stars in one region. Is this illusion for real? It kind of gives me the impression of the lagoon nebula in a way. There is one star that stands out. I don't know why. It may be just a little bit brighter than the rest of the stars.

Okay, that's enough of these open clusters. My next object was M1, the Crab Nebula in Taurus. I normally wouldn't go after it with the 80mm telescope and it was right over my rooftop, which makes for poor seeing. But I know exactly where this object is; beside of the star that is one tip of one horn of Taurus. Since I could easily see the star, I went for the nebula. It was a glowing little patch of light in the eyepiece. It was not quite round, but kind of an oval shape. It was neat to see it and it reminded me of Charles Messier, since he observed all of his objects with a small telescope. I also picked up this very pretty double star not very far way. I pumped up the power to make sure it was really a double and it separated nicely. One member is blue and the other member seemed a little bit brighter, which could mean that it is really brighter or it might just be a little more yellow and giving the illusion that it is brighter.

By this time the dew was really falling pretty heavily and my optics were starting to fog up. I was too tired to worry about fighting the dew so I started wrapping up my observing session. I quickly swung the telescope over the planet Jupiter. I would make out the main two equatorial cloud belts as well as two or three small cloud belts in the northern region. All four moons were visible. I next zoomed in on the planet Saturn, which was nearby. I could make out the Cassini division in the rings and a moon or two, but nothing much more. My telescope was really dewing up fast. The last object of the night was the king of the nebulas, M42, the Orion nebula. Even through the dew covered objective, the star system known as the Trapezium blazed forth. The nebula itself looked like a big swirl of cotton candy. I'm really looking forward to observing it this winter.

All in all, it was pretty good observing session even though it did almost get clouded out. The 80mm refractor proves you can go after some big fish with small tackle.

Jeffrey L. Polston

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