Summer Treasure

Observing notes from the evening of Sunday, June 22, 2003

When is it really summer time in the south? Is it after the temperature reaches the 90 degree mark? Is it the strict observance of the summer solstice date? I don't know if there's a particular day that makes me think that spring has ended and summer has arrived. The arrival of the first lightning bugs always makes me think of summer. But sometimes we still get cool weather after luminous insects appear. When the weather gets hot, I do think of summer days and cool swimming holes. But given the dramatic weather changes we can have in North Carolina, every given day can turn out hot, no matter what season it is.

Well this past Sunday I stepped out onto my deck and immediately knew it was summer. Although the sun had slipped below the western horizon, daylight still had its grasp upon the land. The air was warm and the birds flew from tree to tree, chirping and singing. Then a very well fed bat fluttered through my backyard. When I see bats, I always think of summer. This particular one was large and plump. There was enough light to clearly see his brown fur and pointy ears. I could hear the clickity sound bats make as he flew back and forth in search of a meal. I don't know if that sound is from their wings or their "sonar system" they use for hunting. After the bat made several swoops between my house and the trees, I decided to perform a ritual I use to do as a child. I lived out in the country, down a dirt road. As kids, we use to toss up tiny pebbles and rocks as the bats fluttered by. Almost always, the bats would "see" the object on their "sonar" and swoop in to check it out. I had one bat fly all the way to the ground before realizing that my lure was not a tasty meal. So I stepped down off my deck and picked up a small rock. I then had to wait for the bat to approach since he had venture off into new hunting grounds. But as he returned, I tossed the rock up as high as I could. The bat had already passed by the time the rock reached his altitude. But nonetheless, his "sonar" picked it up and he did a 180 degree turn to check it out. In dive bomber fashion, he dropped down on the small rock, briefly grabbed it, and then let it go. No doubt he was disappointed since it would have represented a nice meal in comparison to the other bugs that were flying about. During my observing session, a bat, and I presume the same one, actually swooped quite close to my head. I've often theorized that you could tie a bug to a piece of string and toss it into the air in a sort of "fly fishing" technique in order to catch a bat. Of course, the question to answer then is what would one do with a bat on a string? With my luck he would fly around and around me, hopelessly entangling us together, and finally ending up on my face where he would repeatedly bite my nose until I passed out from shock.

Since there were no clouds in the darkening sky, I decided to do some observing. I haven't had many chances to do any observing due to bad weather so I thought I should take advantage of any clear, moonless sky. Despite strict orders from my doctor not to do any bending or heavy lifting until I have my back, uh, back in shape, I was able to setup my 8" Schmidt-Cassegrain telescope without too much strain. I took my time, and used my knees as best as I could. And despite being less than optimal, I actually used the pier I have in my backyard to set the scope on. I hope to eventually replace it with a better attempt (i.e. deeper, more stable, better location) but it actually worked quite well and I didn't have to setup a tripod or worry about polar alignment. Since my LX100 has now been converted into a LX200, I just turned it on, pointed at a star, told it the name of that star, and it was aligned and ready to go.

As the last traces of twilight gave way to the darkness of night, the lightning bugs came out in full force. They were everywhere. They were in the trees, in the bushes, flying overhead, in the grass, I mean everywhere. The night was filled with hundreds and hundreds of flashing beacons. I even chased down a few and let them crawl about on my hand. It was such a neat sight, seeing my hand light up with a rhythmic green glow. Luckily, the lightning bugs didn't add much to the growing light pollution in my area.

Speaking of which, I was disappointed to see that my skies are even more light polluted than I remember. It seems with each passing month, another housing development pops up or another supermarket opens. My backyard sky is being robbed of some of the astronomical treasures I seek. I tried to continue working on the Herschel 2 list but the galaxies I tried to observe were just too washed out. I need a bigger telescope or darker skies or both. The galaxies were right at the verge of detection, which means with extreme averted vision and moving the telescope a little, I could almost imagine that I detected something was there. It's like having to use ESP to observe, which is not really observing in my book. I want to see shape, and size, and detail. What's the fun in looking at something if you can't really see it? So at this point, I'm not really sure I'm going to continue with the Herschel 2 list. I may just go after the brighter objects, or maybe the globulars and star clusters. Maybe I'll reserve this list for when I'm at darker locations. If I do follow this route, I'm going to need to come up with some other observing goals, such as the Caldwell catalog, or maybe certain types of objects like globulars or edge-on galaxies. I need some interesting stuff.

Despite my disappointment with my attempted Herschel 2 observing, I did manage to observe the main object I was going after. I easily found NGC5694, a globular cluster in Hydra. This observing success is significant in that it was the last object I needed to see in order to complete my Herschel 400 list, part 1. It has taken me quite a while, especially since I pursued it at a leisurely pace without much concern for when I actually finished it. I started observing the Herschel 400 list in April of 1999, so it has taken me a little over 4 years to finish it. That's like getting a bachelor's degree! And I do feel some accomplishment at having graduated from the Herschel 400 school of observing. And I was able to mine some of the treasures of the summer sky, despite it not being as dark as it has been in the past. I always consider the brighter Messier objects of the summertime night sky as astronomical gold.

Here's a list of objects I observed using my 8" SCT in my Fuquay-Varina, NC backyard:

NGC5694. Globular cluster in Hydra. Very faint, small. Can't really resolve it. Mottled. Bright center, almost stellar. Two faint stars to the southwest. Last of my Herschel 400 (part 1) list.

NGC5490. Galaxy in Bootes. Extremely faint. Can only see it by averted vision and moving the scope. Just a faint glow that is barely there.

NGC5520. Galaxy in Bootes. Again, extremely faint. Averted vision and scope movement needed to detect it. Just to the west of two faint stars.

NGC5523. Galaxy in Bootes. Again, extremely faint. Averted vision and scope movement needed to detect it. More elongated in the east to west direction. Just to the south of a tiny star.

At this point, I give up on the Herschel 2 list and go for some old favorites.

M5. Globular cluster in Serpens Cauda. Resolved to core. Tight. Swarm of stars. Brighter star stands out to the southwest of center. It seems to be within the outer regions of the cluster, but don't know if it's part of it or not. Bright cluster. Center seems to glow like a nebula. Very pretty.

M13. Globular cluster in Hercules. Resolved to core. Bright and pretty. Bigger than M5, but the center doesn't seem as compact. There is an overall glow in the middle of this cluster too, but it seems more spread out than M5.

M57. Ring Nebula in Lyra. Beautiful little, glowing smoke ring, floating among the stars. Grayish color. Satellite zipped through while looking at it (second one I've seen tonight).

M17. Swan nebula in Sagittarius. Bright, big. Extended. Swan shape very apparent as a streak, with a little hook at the end (which represents the head of the swan). Always amazed I didn't observe this sooner in my astronomy hobby. Really bright along the swan's back.

M16. Eagle nebula and cluster in Serpens Caput. Nice, big, scattered cluster. Not really concentrated. Looks like a void of stars in the center. I can only see the nebulosity if I use my UHC narrowband filter. But then it really jumps out. Nebulosity is all amongst the stars. It just fills the view. Pretty. Tried to see if I could make out the eagle shape. I pinpointed the location, and could see some variations in the intensity of the nebula in this region, but couldn't actually make out the eagle shape.

M11. Open cluster in Scutum. Beautiful example of an open cluster. Concentrated. Nice cluster. Like the "30 something" clusters in Gemini and Auriga. Not quite round. More extended in east-west direction. Star near center that stands out as bright. Pair of stars to the southeast that stand out. Look like twins. They almost seem to be beyond the bounds of the cluster, but I don't know for sure if they are part of the cluster or not.

M27. Dumbbell nebula in Vulpecula. Dumbbell shape is very evident. Kind of looks like an apple core, running in the north-south direction. With my UHC filter, I see more nebulosity. I can see faint envelopes of nebulosity in the east-west directions. It kind of gives the whole thing an inverse cat's eye look. Large, and bright nebula. Color is grayish white.

Albireo. Double star in Cygnus. One of my favorites. Gold and blue pair of stars. Gold, or yellow member looks brighter, and hence larger. The contrast of color leaps out at you. Nicely separated.

M4. Globular cluster in Scorpius. Nice bright, big globular. Doesn't seem to have that central glow that the other globulars had. Center seems kind of squashed. String of stars running across it, north-south direction.

Jeffrey L. Polston

* Back to home page *