My Observing Log: March/April 2000

11:20 p.m. 10 March 2000 PST (0720 11 March 2000 UTC)

I've been forced to wait for two things recently. One, my April 2000 issue of Sky and Telescope, which finally arrived today, about two or so weeks after many other people had received their copy. I think for some strange reason it just takes a long time to get to the west coast.

The second thing I've had to wait for is a clear night here in Santa Monica, where it has been either raining or cloudy fairly steadily in the last month or so. Finally, a clear night coincided with a non-busy one.

When I set up, of course, none of the major planets were visible from my set-up spot in the backyard. (It is rather obstructed by our house to the west.) And, as it turned out, the seeing was horrible. After some discussion with Brian Skiff, I've decided again to reconsider how to express seeing—as bulk plus blur. The bulk motion was negligible, but the blur was pretty bad—about 3 seconds of arc or so at first, settling down to about 2 arcseconds later in the night (hence Bubl 0/3 to 0/2). It was really making a mess out of Regulus. Anything other than casual collimation was hopeless.

As it happened, my first two targets were in that area anyway. I had tried to look for M65 and M66 from my previous home, where the limiting magnitude was typically more like 4.0 or 4.2. On this evening, the limiting magnitude was about 4.6. I starhopped from x Leonis, and quickly found these two using my 32 mm Plossl for 39x. Hoping for a better view, I switched that eyepiece out for my Vixen zoom. A few moments of twiddling revealed that M65 was best seen at about 17 mm (for 74x), whereas M66 was brighter and could take more magnification. It was best seen at about 12 mm, for 104x. Under these conditions, neither galaxy showed much detail at all, but these different powers did make them easier to see.

My other two targets were M81 and M82, which I had seen before, but under darker skies, although they were lower in the sky at that time. Now they were along the meridian, as high as they would ever get. I first tried to eyeball where they were in the sky, but the problem with the C5+ mount, as many of you know, is there is this section in the sky within about 25 degrees of the pole, where it is rather awkward to use the finder. I decided I probably wasn't going to get anywhere that way.

I decided to star-hop my way there. At first, I planned on using the map in Sue French's fold-out section in the Sky and Telescope, but that ended up being insufficiently detailed. Eventually, I settled on my planetarium program. Starting from Dubhe, the pointer star closer to the pole, I laboriously star-hopped through the eyepiece toward my quarry. I didn't do a careful count, but I'd guess that I made about 15 eyepiece-wide moves before arriving at my final destination. Maybe at some point I'll draw out a map and illustrate where I went.

Even under rather light-polluted skies, I wasn't disappointed. M81 is a diaphanous blur with a fairly concentrated bright center, and of course M82 is its cigar-shaped self. They didn't show too much detail, but given the conditions and the scope, what there was was pretty breathtaking. It was awkward kneeling there on the concrete, craning my neck slightly upwards toward the eyepiece, but it was still awe-inspiring. Incidentally, I made these observations at 39x; I tried the zoom, but possibly because of the bad angle, it was hard for me to tell if the view was improved any by the use of different magnifications.

Update: My notes remind me of observations I forgot to note here—that of M41 and M44. I had seen M44 several times before, but always in a pair of binoculars (Celestron 10x50 Pros). This was the first time I had seen it through Opus. M41 I had actually seen through the scope previously, but had for some reason neglected to record it.

9:50 p.m. 1 April 2000 PST (0550 2 April 2000 UTC)

It'd been a while since I had last visited Lockwood, and I had a lot of galaxies left on my undone Messiers list, so I made it a point to go up this Saturday night. Due to this and that, I didn't get out of the house until about 8:00, by which time the sun had long ago set. I hadn't planned on running a marathon, but that sealed the deal on that anyway.

It's not a short drive; I arrived at the site at about 9:30 or so, by which time most of the regulars were already there. One of the nice things about Opus, my 5-inch SCT, is how quickly I can set him up. It took about 10 minutes, including porting things from the car. While I was walking back and forth, I reacquainted myself with a nice guy I'd met last time. I've never seen his face (!), but I recalled that he had an ETX-90 the last time, which he has since traded in for a Celestar 8.

I also met David for the first time, most of which is because it was his first time up. He had his Pennington book out—which a lot of them did—and was presently hunting M68 and encountering a bit of trouble. (He did later find it and caught up during the Virgo rush.) I had planned mostly to go galaxy hunting, but I hadn't seen M68 either and it seemed as likely a place to start as any. I put in the 32 mm Plossl along with the f/6.3 reducer (24x) and got ready to go. (I saw this session as sort of a whirlwind tour, in order to pick places to revisit later on.)

M68 is a dim globular off of Corvus. It's actually in Hydra, but Hydra is a large, spread-out beast with no clear pattern. It does contain a fifth-magnitude star which can be found by running a line from delta Corvi, through beta Corvi, and about half as far again. M68 is then in the same wide field of view, perhaps a half-degree to the northeast. It's an unassuming cluster, and fills in part of the western branch of a "V" of eighth-magnitude stars.

Before heading off to Virgo, I decided to take a look at M51 and its companion, NGC 5195. I had caught a glimpse of these through Opus last September, but at that time, it was falling already before twilight had really ended, and I expected I'd see more detail this time.

I wasn't disappointed—the pair showed a nice, wispy set of arms, so distinctive that my first impression, almost spoken out loud, was "Hey, they go the wrong way!" (Because I was using a star-diagonal, and had only seen it previously in pictures or through Newtonians.) I even fancied I saw the dust lane run through the companion, but I am not sure. I put in the zoom on this set; they showed the most detail at about 18 to 21 mm of focal length (37–43x).

Now to Virgo. I admit that in the rush, I had arrived at Lockwood with no idea how to proceed. As I said, I wasn't preparing to run a marathon anyway. So, I spent a couple of minutes with my Cambridge Star Atlas, working out a path. The one I ended up taking is probably one that many amateurs have worked out, I suspect because it's easiest. It's not necessarily the fastest, of course. I began at epsilon Virginis, found the pairing of rho and 27 Virginis, and moved just a degree or two north to M59 and M60.

Pennington calls M59 "fainter and smaller than the run-of-the-mill" Virgo galaxies in the Messier catalogue. In any event, M60 is distinctly brighter, though they appeared to be the same size. NGC 4638 was also visible in the same field, though CSA doesn't list it in their catalogue; according to the note on Chart 11 (where the cluster is located), this was because of the large number of galaxies in the area and suggests that NGC 4638 would ordinarily have been on the list, at magnitude about 11. In my notes, I also find that I detected what appeared to be a vague northwest-to-southeast axis, even though that galaxy is nearly circular in appearance; it may be that I picked up a whiff of NGC 4647, which is about as bright as NGC 4638 but only about 2 or 3 minutes to the northwest of M60.

I moved over about a FOV to M58, which I found somewhat underwhelming but still significantly brighter than NGC 4638. Moving quickly north, I found M89 (Pennington: "unremarkable in most respects"; Tung: "dim and round") and M90. M90 is considerably brighter and more interesting; my notes say "shows NNE-to-SSW axis." Pennington's illustration seems to confirm my suspicion.

M91 is about a degree even further north from M90. Its magnitude of 10.2 is dimmer than the other Virgo galaxies I had found up to this time, but it is also smaller in extent, so it was not difficult to see. My notes reveal "a vague east-to-west axis"; Pennington's picture shows it as more ENE-to-WSW.

Having ascended Parnassus, so to speak, I had to climb down, and I began by moving a little westward to M88. In contrast to the previous couple of galaxies, I found this one fairly bright, with a distinct NNW-to-SSE axis, which Pennington has instead as northwest-to-southeast. Descending a couple of degrees, it was relatively easy to see M87, which is a surprisingly condensed, very bright spot, trivial to see with direct vision. On the other hand, it wasn't easy for me to verify that I had picked out the right object, and I had to drop down to 20 Virginis to make sure. As I say, it had a surprisingly sharp condensation at the center which I hadn't expected based on photographs.

M84 and M86 were next, about a degree to the west-northwest of M87. At first I wasn't sure I had found the right pair; maps show them as not quite being on an east-west line, which I had them almost exactly. But a couple of minutes of scanning the field assured me I had found them. As I expected from their magnitudes, I found M86 slightly but noticeably warmer and brighter than M84.

For the next three galaxies on my list, I started at an entirely new star, the fifth-magnitude star, 6 Coma Berenicis. Through the finder, 6 Com (hey, maybe someone ought to "buy" 3 Com?) is at the head of a line of three stars that point to the east-northeast. M98 is easiest of all to find from 6 Com, by heading directly westward about a half a degree. My notes, increasingly poorly handwritten in the cold (OK, it was 30 degrees, I'm a California guy, all right?), claim it is "reasonably bright" (!), with a northwest-southeast axis. Pennington has "nearly edge-on spiral that is relatively bright and easy to see."

I said there were three stars in that line, but perhaps I should say they were stars A, B, and D, for there is a noticeable gap between the second and third stars. Directly south of where that C star should go (if it existed), about a degree or so, is M99. My notes show merely "dimmish, roughly round." Despite this, M99 is very clearly a spiral galaxy in pictures and Pennington's sketch. Finally, at the tail of those three stars, we find M100, which I apparently found to be "large and diffuse."

From here on out, it got a little scattered. My next target was M85, which can be found about a degree east of 11 Coma Berenicis. Pennington's book shows what seems to me a good way to find it (though I didn't use it); it's at the fourth corner of the square begun by the stars alpha, beta, and gamma Com. I called it "average" in brightness, by which I meant it was by and large the same experience, magnitudewise, as the other Virgo galaxies. I also thought it was very close to a field star, which turned out to be no field star, but rather the fairly condensed NGC 4394! (I should have known this, for both galaxies are plotted in CSA.) I also noted that M85 seemed to show considerable mottling, more so than the other Virgo galaxies.

I didn't see M64, unfortunately; that was one of the negative consequences of unplanned viewing. My next quarry, instead, was M49, back down in Virgo. I found it "very bright, very condensed," which doesn't seem right in comparison to Pennington's sketch—at least, not the "very condensed" part. Of course, I didn't have Pennington with me at that point, by design. In any event, I found little to recommend M49 other than the mere fact of having seen it.

In contrast, M61 I found rather intriguing. Running up north from eta Virginis, we find the fifth-magnitude star 16 Virginis (there sure are a lot of fifth-magnitude stars, aren't there?). Just about 1.5 degrees north of there is M61. In my notes, I find, "At Dubhe's position in a little 'Big Dipper' of its own. Almost planetary [nebula] in appearance." Indeed, I found it vaguely reminiscent of the Ring, with the outer edges (probably the spiral arms) perceptibly brighter than the inner portion.

I could hear other people running marathons in the darkness, and at that point, people were oohing and ahhing over M104, the Sombrero Galaxy. I found M104 by first sighting on yet another fifth-magnitude star about 5 degrees northeast of delta Corvi, then jumping up north about 1.5 degrees. What a beautiful sight this was, definitely justifying all the hubbub! It was smaller than I expected (big surprise, I suppose), but it made up for its size with exquisite detail. Of course all deep-sky objects benefit from averted vision, but this one took the cake for the evening, with the famous dust lane quite noticeable nearly exactly east-west across the middle. I popped in the zoom again for this one, and the detail was particularly evident with the zoom set at 15 mm for about 52x. (Just in case you 5-inch-SCTers want to check this one out for yourself.)

More galaxies: I had seen M65 and M66 from my driveway in Santa Monica under considerable light pollution; under darker (mag about 5.7) skies, they were much easier to find, both of them showing considerable elongation. I also found it trivial to see NGC 3628, which wasn't quite visible that night in Santa Monica. I moved on to the other set of Leo galaxies, M95, M96, and M105. My notes say about the former pair only that M96 appears noticeably brighter and somewhat more condensed than M95. On M105, I wrote, "Hard to distinguish from NGC 3384, which it almost overlaps." NGC 3389, which is also in the field of view, I didn't see, but perhaps I'll look for it the next time.

I ended up with a pair of Ursa Major galaxies. I had found M97, the Owl Nebula, on my previous trip to Templin Highway, but I had somehow neglected to look for M108, the galaxy between it and beta Ursae Majoris. I saw it this time, finding it "dimmer than expected" (though I'm not sure what I expected, since I didn't know its magnitude of 10.0), and with a distinct east-west axis (of course). M109, on the other hand, is off gamma Ursae Majoris, the other bottom bowl star. I found this dim, too, brighter than M108, apparently, but "almost washed out in gamma's glare."

At this point, it was nearly one in the morning, I had been observing for a bit over two hours, and a contractor was coming over to visit my house Sunday morning at nine (really eight, because of the switch to daylight savings time), so I packed it up. I should mention that I saw a view of M5 through the aforementioned C8 that was nice, as well as a view of M51 through a 10-inch handmade f/6 that was considerably brighter than mine. The most exquisite views (through other people's scopes) were that of omega Centauri, that great globular cluster, and the Sombrero through a very nice dob of unknown size (but I'll guess 17 inches) that was on a tracking platform. Very convenient, and nice optics to boot!

Copyright (c) 2000 Brian Tung