Let There Be Starlight

Observing notes from the evening of Thursday, July 31, 1997

The "dog days" of summer drag on in North Carolina. With 100 degree days, and a billion percent humidity, being outside feels like you’re standing in a hot shower. We’ve had clouds and rain and even the remnants of Hurricane Danny sweep over us. Even when we don’t have towering thunderstorm clouds overhead, the skies are so hazy that even first magnitude stars struggle to shine through.

Then our local weather dude, who usually can’t even match the predictions of my achy joints said, "Let there be starlight". His actual words were something like a "cold front was coming through and we would have cooler temperatures and clear skies". I just did an astronomical translation. Thursday morning greeted us southerners with mostly clear, blue skies and nice cool temperatures. By nightfall, the last few lingering clouds had disappeared and a couple of observing buddies and I made plans for some stargazing.

Jeff McAdams, Michael King, and I met at Farrington Point, Jordan Lake, NC around 10:30 PM. On the drive in I could see the Milky Way glowing brightly in Sagittarius. I set up my 8" f/10 Schmidt-Cassegrain. Jeff had his 10" f/5 Newtonian and Michael had his 8" f/4.5 Newtonian. We set about observing the various objects around Sagittarius and Scorpius.

This first object of the night for me was the globular cluster NGC6441. Located about 2 degrees from the open cluster M7 in Scorpius, NGC6441 is relatively small cluster of magnitude 7.4. This was a new observation for me. It had a mottled appearance.

While attaching and aligning my finder scope, I was able to see the globular cluster M4 in Scorpius. Just over a degree from orange-red star Antares, this large globular is an easy find. It shines at a magnitude of 5.9, but I never really find it that impressive. It just doesn’t leap out at me.

Next up was the Lagoon Nebula, M8, in Sagittarius. The Lagoon Nebula never fails to give a good show. This large emission nebula and its accompanying cluster really fill the eyepiece. The dark rift that makes up the lagoon was easily visible, but using a narrow band filter helped it even better. And of course, you can’t visit M8 without visiting M20, the Trifid Nebula. Located about a degree and a half away from M8, the Trifid Nebula is easy to find, although it is somewhat fainter and smaller. Even so, on this excellent night the dark lanes that give the Trifid its name were visible. I could easily see them in my scope without any filter.

We then moved up to the Omega Nebula, M17 in Sagittarius. This nebula also goes by the name of Swan Nebula and one glance at it will show you why. It really does look like a swan, swimming along the starry Milky Way river. This nebula really holds up well to magnification. At magnitude 6, it’s relatively bright. With increased power, you start seeing more structure in the nebula. To me, the area under the neck of the "bird" seems very dark. I don’t know if this is an illusion or actually a dark cloud. In any case, M17 is quite impressive.

While in the neighborhood, we decided to scoot up to M16, the Eagle Nebula in Serpens Cauda. This object basically shows up as an open cluster with some nebulosity. I don’t know if the eagle shape is visible, even in large scopes. We couldn’t tell where it would be at. Still, this is a great object to observe.

I then decided to go after another new object. The globular cluster M71 in Sagitta was very easy to find since it’s located almost exactly between the Delta and Gamma stars. This cluster was easily resolved and looks quite pretty against the Milky Way. Both Jeff and I thought it looked similar to M4, but better (what ever that means). It think it has more contrast. Since M27, the Dumbbell Nebula was nearby in the constellation of Vulpecula, I also took a look at it. This marvelous planetary is big and bright and never fails to wow me. Next up on the list was another new object. The globular cluster M56 in Lyra was quickly scooped up. It was easy to resolve, but appears similar to the more mundane globulars in Sagittarius.

Next up was the tiny galaxy NGC6207 in Hercules. Located just 27 minutes from the Great Globular M13, this faint 12.2 magnitude galaxy is easy to overlook. I could place both M13 and NGC6207 in my field of view at the same time. I use some nearby stars to find the galaxy. It forms a trapezium shape with three other stars. While in Hercules, I also observed the globular M92. This 6.5 magnitude cluster is very highly resolved and quite a sight in the eyepiece. If not for M13, it might would steal the show in this region of sky.

I then decided to spy on a couple of the outer planets. Uranus, in Capricornus, was an easy find, its tiny pale green disk glowing at magnitude 5.7. Next up was the planet who currently holds the title for being the farthest from the sun, Neptune, which is currently just inside of Sagittarius. Yes, given Pluto's highly inclined and basically weird orbit, Neptune is actually more distant right now. I think Pluto regains the title in 1999 sometime. Anyway, Neptune, with its very tiny pale blue disk glowing at about magnitude 7.8, was also easy to locate. Jeff logged this as his first gander at Neptune.

Since the constellation Andromeda was peaking above the eastern tree line, Jeff decided to reel in the Andromeda Galaxy, M31. The massive galaxy looked pretty good in his 10" scope. The satellite galaxy of M32 was also visible in the field of view. It looks like a fuzzy star compared to M31. It took some searching, but we also spied M110. The light pollution glow from the city of Raleigh almost caused us to miss it.

Next up was a new object that I had just finished reading about in one of my Astronomy magazines. I zoomed in on NGC6826, a planetary nebula in Cygnus. Shining at magnitude 10, it is also known as the Blinking Planetary. While observing, if you looking around the eyepiece field using averted vision, the planetary will occasionally seem to blink out. What happens is that every now and then the light will fall on your optic nerve which essentially is a blind spot. Try it sometime. It's a neat star party trick. :)

Next up was the M57 in Lyra. Known as the Ring Nebula, this planetary looks like a ghostly smoke ring, floating among the stars. I don't know what size scope it takes to see the central star, but we couldn't see anything in the middle using Jeff's 10" scope. This is one of my favorite planetaries.

Jeff decided to cruise around the Veil Nebula for a while. Designated as NGC6960 and located in Cygnus, the Veil Nebula was just barely visible without a filter. A filter really brought out the structure. Jeff concentrated on the outer loop of the nebula which I had not explored before. I was use to sticking right next to the star 52 Cygni. I was amazed at how much other "stuff" is out there. We also took a look at the beautiful double star known as Albireo. This wide pair of gold and blue stars is my favorite double, and one that I love to show to beginning observers. Before moving out of the constellation, we also focused on the North American Nebula. We used a filter to trace out this large nebula near the star Deneb.  I could definitely see the dark area that makes up the "Gulf of Mexico".  I would really like to look at this nebula under dark skies.

Since Jupiter was blazing away in Capricornus, begging for us to pay it some attention, we decided to observe it for a while. All four major moons were visible with Europa being very close to Jupiter's disk. We were trying to decide if Europa was going in front of or behind Jupiter's disk. After some discussion on which way was east and west and which way the planet and moons were moving, we decided it was going behind. We noticed that it was getting dimmer. We glanced away from the eyepiece for just a moment and when we looked back, it was gone! Europa had been eclipsed by Jupiter's shadow. Pretty neat event, but I wish we had witnessed the entire thing.

Just as we were thinking about packing things up, I noticed a bright "star" above the trees. I put my scope on it and told Michael to take a look at a weird looking star. It of course was the planet Saturn located in the constellation of Pisces. This was my first view of the planet this observing "season". The rings are really opening up nicely now. The Cassini division was easily seen. Saturn is definitely the "cool" planet to show a beginner. It will be a favorite star party target in a couple of months. We picked up three moons while observing, Rhea, Tethys, and Dione. We probably were looking at others too, but these are the ones that I definitely identified.

This observing session turned out to be a pretty good one. It was definitely refreshing to have some clear skies and cooler temperatures. During this session, we would see the occasional meteor streaking across the sky. Some where quite bright and left brief trails. Most seemed to be Perseids but a couple of them were sporadic meteors. I hope the upcoming shower turns into a downpour......and of course, the sky is clear.

Jeffrey L. Polston


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

M4 (NGC6121), globular cluster, Scorpius

NGC6207, galaxy, Hercules

M13 (NGC6205), globular cluster, Hercules

* M71 (NGC6838), globular cluster, Sagitta

* M56 (NGC6779), globular cluster, Lyra

* NGC6826, Blinking Planetary, Cygnus

M92 (NGC6341), globular cluster, Hercules

* NGC6441, globular cluster, Scorpius

M31 (NGC224), galaxy, Andromeda

M32 (NGC221), galaxy, Andromeda

M110 (NGC205), galaxy, Andromeda

M16 (NGC6611), Eagle Nebula, Serpens Cauda

M17 (NGC6618), Swan Nebula, Sagittarius

M8 (NGC6523), Lagoon Nebula, Sagittarius

M20 (NGC6514), Trifid Nebula, Sagittarius

M27 (NGC6853), Dumbbell Nebula, Vulpecula

M57 (NGC6720), Ring Nebula, Lyra

Neptune, Scorpius

Uranus, Capricornus

Jupiter, Capricornus

Saturn, Pisces

Albireo, double star, Cygnus

NGC6960, Veil nebula, Cygnus


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