Spy in the Sky

Observing notes from the evening of Wednesday, May 3, 2000

With clear skies beckoning, Jeff McAdams and I decided to meet at the Big Woods observing site for a night of stargazing. The weather forecast had been flip flopping from clear, to fair, to clear skies. I knew there was a big cloud bank approaching from the south west but it appeared to be stalled over the mountains. As I approached the site, there was a huge bank of clouds on the western horizon but they cleared out after the sun dipped below the horizon.

I did have ideas about doing some photography but the observer's bug had bitten so I decided to let my eyes collect the ancient photons instead. I was using my 8" Schmidt-Cassegrain while Jeff had his 10" f/5 Newtonian. I tried to follow a strict plan of observing the Herschel 400 objects in one constellation but Jeff was jumping around the sky and I followed suit. All of my objects netted were galaxies with the exception of one lone globular cluster. The spring sky really is a time for hunting galaxies.

The lightning bugs were also out in force. In fact, some of them were so bright that I think they might have affected my night vision! They flew about, their internal lights set to strobe. Every now and then I would think that I saw a meteor but it would turn out to be a lightning bug. One of them landed on my corrector plate cover and when into some type of frenzied flashing dance. I'm surprised he didn't burn out his bulb!

Our first astronomical target of the night was the galaxy M104 in Virgo. Known as the Sombrero galaxy, this remarkable island universe of stars has a very prominent and dark dust lane running its length. I love it when galaxies offer up something unique about them that makes them stand out and be noticed. Though M104 is a beautiful galaxy, it was the galaxies NGC4631 and NGC4656 located in Canes Venatici that stole the show. These two galaxies are big and bright. Their elongated, edge-on appearance really catch your attention. They look like ghostly "lady fingers", floating in space. NGC4631 was the larger and brighter of the two, and dominated the eyepiece.

As beautiful as the galaxies were, they were not the highlight of the evening. As astronomers at remote sites, we huddle around our telescopes, spying on ancient light from distant parts of the universe. Sometimes you can seem quite alone. But tonight, Jeff and I were reminded that we were not alone. In fact, someone was spying on us. Jeff had come across NGC4631 before we had officially figured out which galaxy it was. I was carefully noting where in the sky his telescope was pointed so that we could compare it to the star chart. I picked out this asterism of stars as a landmark. As I started for the star chart, the asterism moved! I noticed that three of the "stars" were slowly making their way across the sky. They were in the shape of a triangle and they were "flying" in formation. Remarkable! The fact is, these "stars" were actually satellites. I've heard of them before. I think they work together to triangulate positions on the earth. It was kind of spooky, watching them glide silently across the night sky. I got the feeling that a spy in the sky was actually spying on us.

Though it took too long for it to get dark, and I had to pack up a lot sooner than I wanted, it was still a fruitful night. I got in a good handful of Herschel 400 observations and enjoyed the company of a fellow stargazer as we searched out the celestial wonders of the night sky. You'll find a list of the objects I observed below:

M108. Galaxy in Virgo. Beautiful, bright galaxy. Dust lane easily visible, running the length of the galaxy.

NGC4478. Galaxy in Virgo. Pretty much round. Not too much too it. Kind of bright. Stellar core that pops in and out, very sharp. Right next to M87, in the same field of view.

NGC4245. Galaxy in Coma Berenices. Very faint and small. Round. Relatively bright core compared to the rest of the galaxy.

NGC4274. Galaxy in Coma Berenices. Oblong or edge-on galaxy. Runs east-west. The center is brighter than the rest of the galaxy and kind of seems offset a little.

NGC4278. Galaxy in Coma Berenices. Same field of view as previous galaxy. Round with bright core. Very small.

NGC4314. Galaxy in Coma Berenices. Pretty much featureless. Brighter center. Round or kind of an oval shape. Can fit this galaxy and the previous two within the same field of view.

NGC4631. Galaxy in Canes Venatici. Awesome. Remarkable. Beautiful. Bright, elongated streak, running east-west. Long and thin. Just to the north of the hub is a faint star. It almost appears attached.

NGC4656. Galaxy in Canes Venatici. Same field of view as previous galaxy. This one is also a thin, long, edge-on, elongated galaxy. Smaller and dimmer than previous galaxy, but similar shape. One end of it seems kind of brighter and/or irregular.

NGC5248. Galaxy in Bootes. Oval. Relatively large and bright for its size. Nucleus is brighter and galaxy has a mottled, splotchy appearance. The core is kind of stellar.

NGC5466. Globular cluster in Bootes. Very large and faint. Faintness probably from being spread out so much. Although it had a speckle look to it, I couldn't really resolve it into individual stars like I can with some of the better globular clusters.

NGC5557. Galaxy in Bootes. Very small. Round. Dim. Pinpoint stellar core. Not much detail.

NGC5676. Galaxy in Bootes. Relatively small. Oblong, oval shape. Mottling. Center is brighter with some irregular patches.

NGC5689. Galaxy in Bootes. Little, fuzzy blob. Tiny and faint. Bright core. With some applied power and averted vision, it does have an elongated shape.

Jeffrey L. Polston

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