Winter Sky

Observing notes from the evening of Saturday, January 31, 1998

Well we finally got some clear skies around here and I was itching to do some deepsky observing.  Michael King, Jeff McAdams, and I decided to meet at Farrington Point, Lake Jordan, North Carolina.  This is a nice place in that it has semi-dark skies.  They are disappearing fast because of the light pollution from Raleigh, Durham, and Chapel Hill.  We set up in the parking lot of a boat launching area.  The only down side is that since it is a public boat launch, we get a lot of people "cruising" through from time to time.  It's worst during the summer because in addition to the "cruisers", we also have the boaters.

Well tonight was definitely a winter night....especially for us southerners.  I got there first, not too long after sunset.  A dark sky glittering with winter stars greeted me.  The brilliant stars of Orion were dazzling.  Sirius, the dog star was blazing away, like a giant beacon for all astronomers.  Taurus, with the red Aldebaran, led his charge against Orion.  The winter night sky is magnificent.

Did I mention that it was winter?  It was doggone cold!!!  It didn't take long before the temperature slipped below freezing.  The projected low was around 25 degrees that night and I think it made it.  But I was prepared for it.  I was dressed like an Eskimo, with several layers of clothing to help keep me warm.  I even had a ski mask on.  All this plus a thermos of coffee meant I was serious.  Michael and Jeff arrived in short order and we assembled our telescopes.  I had my 8" Schmidt-Cassegrain, Michael had his 8" f/4.5 Newtonian, and Jeff had a 4" refractor.  We got down to business.

Our first attempt of the night was to try and see Comet Tempel-Tuttle.  This is the parent of the famous Leonid meteor shower.  You only get a couple of times to see this comet since it has a 33 year orbit.  No matter how hard we tried this night, the comet eluded us.  We just couldn't find it, even with fresh star chart printouts in hand.  We could easily see the Triangulum Galaxy, M33, but no comet.  I'll try again soon.

Our first successful observation was the jewel of the winter sky, the Orion Nebula, M42.  The size and brightness of this nebula never ceases to amaze me.  I could see wisps of clouds through the eyepiece that seemed to extend forever.  The stars within the nebula shown like diamonds on green velvet.  M43, basically an extension of M42 was also clearly visible.  The Trapezium, the four power house stars of the Orion Nebula, beckoned for a closer inspection.  I decided to see if I could see more than the four typical stars.  I've heard about many people seeing 5 and 6 stars.  Well it didn't take long before I saw a tiny fifth star, which was confirmed by Jeff and Michael.  I tried for a sixth star, but never could find it.  I didn't really know where to look.  I should also mention that while in the area I also observed NGC 1981.  This is a cluster of stars very close to M42 that is surrounded by blue nebulosity.  I could easily see the nebulosity around the cluster.

My next target of the night was the Flame Nebula, just off the Zeta Orionis star (the left most belt star) in Orion.  The Flame Nebula was "burning" bright!  It was easy to see, and without using averted vision.  The division, sometimes called the "tank tracks" were clearly visible.  With the Flame Nebula being so easy, I decided to try for the Horsehead Nebula.  It took me a while to identify the star field.  When I finally found the right stars, I set about the task of trying to see the nebula.  I could see some nebulosity around a couple of stars in the area, but alas, the Horsehead Nebula has eluded me again.  I just could not see it.  I'll try again.

My next target was the Rosette Nebula in the constellation of Monoceros.  It didn't take me long to identify the cluster, and with the help of a Lumicon UHC filter, the nebula filled the eyepiece.  This is one huge object.  It is also very faint.  Jeff came over to take a look because he wanted to confirm he could see it.

I think swung over to the open cluster of M41 in Sirius.  This is an easy cluster to find that even stands out well in binoculars.  I think I could just detect it with the naked eye using averted vision.  With M41 in the bag, I went in search of the open cluster M93.  Located in the constellation of Puppis, a simple star hop got me there.  I might have seen M93 during one of my other observing sessions but it was definitely confirmed on this night.  It's a dense little cluster.

The next object I observed was the globular cluster M79.  Located in the constellation of Lepus, I gazed at this small ball of stars through Michael's telescope.  I also took a chance to "scope" out the galaxies M31 and M32 in Andromeda while I was at the eyepiece.

Back at my scope, I decided to go for some new objects.  I easily slid over to the open clusters of M46 and M47, located in Puppis.  They were easy to find, but difficult for me to identify.  I  had a hard time trying to figure out which cluster was which.  I finally noted that M47 had brighter star members in it.  M46 seemed more spread out and dimmer.  I also picked up the open cluster of NGC 2423 which is right beside the other two and also a new observation for me.  All three clusters make a tight little triangle in the sky.

Next up on the observing list was M1, the Crab Nebula in Taurus the bull.  Although prominent in the eyepiece, it really didn't show much detail.  All I could make out was a glowing smudge.

I then decided to go after another new object.  My next target was the open cluster M48, in Hydra.  It didn't take much of a star hop to find this rich little cluster.  Jeff then called me over to glance at the Perseus Double Cluster in his refractor.  It was truly a glorious sight.  This is one of my favorite clusters.  He had tack sharp stars in the eyepiece.  There was a multitude of stars.  Any more and they would have spilled out and onto the ground.

Since Leo was starting to paw its way above the tree line, I decided to do a little galaxy hunting.  After a little bit of searching, the pair of galaxies M65 and M66 slid into view.  I really love it when you can get more than one galaxy in the eyepiece.  M65 is a very elongated galaxy with a bright core.  M66 is more plump and typical of a spiral galaxy.  It was pretty neat sight.

Excited by the sight of M65 and M66, I decided to go after another pair of galaxies.  It took quite an effort to get M81 and M82 into the eyepiece.  Located in Ursa Major, they are very close to the north celestial pole.  For anyone who has used a fork mounted Schmidt-Cassegrain, you know the difficulty in pointing this type of instrument toward the north.  I had to do the limbo to get up under the finderscope.  After about four tries and three back cramps, I finally had M81 and M82 in view.  They are just glorious.  M81 is a big, fat spiral galaxy.  M82 is an elongated, skinny galaxy.  They are well worth the effort to observe them.

About this time, Jeff and Michael started complaining about the cold.  I had told both of them to dress like Eskimos, but they didn't listen.  Since they started packing up I decided to call it quits too.  It was pretty cold.  Everything was frosting up.  I usually use the trunk of my car as a table.  It was hard to keep the charts from sliding off.  Not only did the trunk have frost on it, but the star charts did too.  They actually looked kind of neat that way.  The frost adds a little glitter to it.  All in all, it was a pretty productive observing session.  I saw a few new objects and some old familiar ones.  The night was topped with a brilliant meteor streaking just to the right of Orion.  I hope my next session is just as good.

Jeffrey L. Polston

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