My Observing Log: March/April 2001

11:00 p.m. 12 March 2001 PST (2001–03–13–0700 UTC)

I went out for a quick spin tonight to make a last final decision on what object or objects to write up for the April issue of the Los Angeles Astronomical Society's monthly bulletin. I write a monthly column on deep sky objects that you can see from the city in reasonably sized telescopes. I had been leaning toward M53, and in fact had already begun the write-up, when someone on sci.astro.amateur mentioned M65 and M66.

I decided to try the galaxies first. This pair makes a trio with the nearby but dimmer NGC 3628. I didn't think there was a chance I could see the NGC galaxy with Opus, my 5-inch SCT, so I concentrated on the Messier objects. They can be found between iota and theta Leonis, also known as Chort. Cool name.

These objects were much more difficult than I remembered them. There was a bit of high-altitude haze in the air, being illuminated rather brightly by the always on Los Angeles lights, but I really expected these galaxies to be a bit more distinct. M65, the smaller of the two, could be seen with some difficulty, toward the west, but M66, which is about a half degree or so to the east and a bit further south, was nearly invisible. No way could these two be considered city showcases!

So that left me with M53, which I had observed with Opus for the first time just recently, and the globular did not disappoint. It can be found just a little to the northeast of alpha Comae Berenices. It was quite distinct and showed quite a bit of detail. At low power, as I've mentioned previously, it showed only a modest north-south elongation, but at higher power (about 60x or so), various knots of brightness began to appear. I decided that I saw a bright spike to the south, one to the northeast, and another hazy patch, closer in, extending somewhat to the northwest. What do you see?

The object was duly written up.

7:30 p.m. 24 March 2001 PST (2001–03–25–0330 UTC)

Finally! Opus hadn't seen a fine set of dark and clear skies in quite some time, and this was the night. The dark of the moon, a Saturday, and at least the sniff of some stars. So many times recently, either it's been cloudy, or we've been busy, or something, but this time there was at least some hope.

It still almost didn't happen. I went to Lockwood with Ben Kolstad and his father, and as we approached Gorman from the south, we kept seeing ominous clouds. Even as close as the Frazier Park exit, it didn't look very good; a few people later told us that they, too, almost turned back at the exit. Fortunately, though, we entered a clearing as we arrived at the observing grounds. There was a menacing-looking bank of clouds to the southwest as we set up, but there still looked like there was a decent amount of time left.

None of us had any time-consuming set-up, so we were ready to go and observe nearly as soon as we had arrived. I had brought both Opus and the Wocket (the 70 mm Tele Vue Ranger) for a final comparison. I looked to the northwest, and saw Cassiopeia falling fast. I thought it might be worthwhile to try for M31.

Boy, was it ever! The stars appeared almost all the way down to the moderately hilly horizon, but even so, it wasn't immediately obvious where to steer the Wocket. I put in the 32 mm Plossl for 15x, to give myself a fighting chance to see it, and guessed as best as I could where to point the scope. Hit it in one: and was M31 ever low. It was an astonishing sight, M31 nearly standing on the horizon—when it sets at this latitude, M31 is nearly vertical. A great way to begin!

I had had to move the Wocket to an optimal spot, away from the rest of the scopes, in order to track down M31, so I now moved it back in with the others. Someone with a brand new 14-inch Teleport was uncertain about the view through it—couldn't tell whether or not it was the scope or the seeing. I suggested that if the blurriness moved around, it was probably atmospheric. (He had been cooling down for about 90 minutes, with a fan.) We looked at Saturn, and in my opinion, he really shouldn't have been complaining. The view was irreproachable, showing Cassini distinctly all around the rings. Sure, that's nothing special, but you must know that the seeing at Lockwood is rarely even average, in my experience. But my view through Opus bore it out; the seeing was above average.

Ben was tracking down M50, so I joined in with Opus. At 52x, the cluster appears sparse, almost lost in the Milky Way. It has the look of an unclasped triangle, with its open edge along the northwest; plus, it has a barely resolved glow about a third of the way out from the center, also to the northwest.

The 14-inch Teleport, to which I would be walking over, quite a few times this night, had found M1, or so they thought. They weren't quite sure, so I went over to take a look. (Yes, very charitable of me, I know.) Sure enough, there it was—very bright, and showing some hints of the mottled structure we all know from photos. Opus showed it, too, but of course much dimmer, although the S or swan shape was still discernible.

Ben was wondering now, whether he had found M78. The Telrad seemed to be pointed in the right place, and when I peered through the eyepiece, it looked like the right thing. Just for comparison's sake, I tried it at 15x through the Wocket. Yes, it's very small at that power, with almost no detail visible at all. I substituted a 15 mm Plossl for 32x, and now it looked much more reasonable, revealing an extended puff of light, extending out to the northeast.

People have been mentioning the Ursa Major galaxies, so I pointed Opus over to M81 and M82. At home, under indifferent skies, M81 is a fairly bright blur, with M82 a subdued cigar, but wow, what a difference under dark skies. M81 is huge! The central bulge is all you can see in urban skies, but at Lockwood, a broad oval disc, perhaps 35 arcminutes in length, could be seen, extending about north-northwest to south-southeast. The disc seemed very uniform to my eyes; I couldn't make out any certain sign of the variation of the arms.

M82, somewhat to my surprise, also appeared larger. (This, also, was at 52x.) The galaxy has relatively high-contrast detail, so I'm no sure I saw that much more detail than I did at home, but it was much more obvious here. Especially prominent was the central exploding X. I recalled that there was a third galaxy in the area, so I popped open my PalmAtlas, for which I had built a little dimming screen in the afternoon, and verified the presence of NGC 3077. This galaxy is surprisingly small, and shows a vague east-to-west elongation. I could otherwise see no detail in this object.

M35 was high in the sky over Orion, and I decided to have a look with both of my scopes. Through Opus (39x), M35 seems to have a central clearing that is not obvious at all through to Wocket (32x); in fact, I had trouble believing that I was looking at the same set of stars! (Part of the difficulty is that Opus is equatorially mounted, and the Wocket is mounted alt-azimuth.) Also, with Opus, I was able to finally track down a quarry I've sought without success at home: NGC 2158! Dim, but very easily seen. I couldn't resolve any stars in the dimmer cluster, which is very much like M35, but about 6 or 7 times more distant; it seemed almost like a nebula, but with incipient granularity. Even after I knew exactly where it was, however, I couldn't be sure I saw it through the Wocket. I thought I saw it a couple of times, but it might have just been my eyes playing tricks on me.

Just thereafter, the 14-inch Teleport owner mentioned that he was going after M35, and I urged him to keep an eye out for NGC 2158 as well. He decided to go after the little guy first, and rather predictably (as you'll see), he called out a minute or so later that he seemed to have found the cluster, but what was this galaxy or nebula thing just above it. I didn't seem to recall any such object near NGC 2158, so I walked over to take a peek.

As you probably guessed, the cluster he had found was M35, and the fuzzy little nebula was none other than NGC 2158! The view through the big scope was nothing short of breathtaking. Not only was the view brighter, but the smaller cluster was resolved into a fine dusting of almost uncountable dim stars. You really do get a sense of depth when looking at a resolved, faraway cluster—it seems to be "behind" everything else.

My next target was NGC 4565, Berenice's Hairclip, but just about then we noticed that the cloud bank which I had noticed when we first arrived was beginning to blanket us. I hurriedly consulted the PalmAtlas, got Opus pointed vaguely in the right direction—and then the clouds were upon us. They were that quick: in the span of about a minute, we went from being able to see most of the sky, to being able to see only the northwest or so.

For about 15 to 20 minutes, it looked like the clouds wouldn't lift, and there was some talk of heading home, but I wouldn't have it. A very similar incident took place in October, with only myself and one other LAAS member sticking behind, and sure enough, it later cleared enough to do some serious observing.

It worked this time, too. Very soon, the setting stars of Orion began to appear, and then the rest of the western horizon, and then, almost as quickly as it had begun, the cloud cover ended, and we were treated again to the clear sky. A bit of high-altitude haze, but we can deal with that, can't we?

I had closed up the Wocket in the meantime, but Opus was still up and available, and I trained it at M51 and NGC 5195. (I had shut off the drive, so it was no longer pointed at NGC 4565.) It looked like the haze was hitting the low-contrast portions of the object; it was very clear that there were two objects there, and the spiral arms of the main galaxy were visible almost as a ring surrounding it, but I couldn't be sure of their orientation, whether they went clockwise or counter-clockwise.

Next up: NGC 457. I was trying to hit a few new objects. This has variously been called the ET Cluster or the Owl cluster, and it's a bit easy to see why: two bright stars that can serve as eyes, and a vaguely bilaterally symmetric form. Pretty close to phi Cassiopeiae, and therefore pretty easy to find, and its form is fairly well known, but otherwise, it's not one of my favorites.

Back to what I was looking for when the clouds hit, NGC 4565. It took just a brief time to find it. (I know that there is another galaxy in the area, but I didn't hunt it down—gotta leave stuff for next time!) It is dim but reasonably easily seen. At its orientation, it looked almost straight left and right in the eyepiece—that meant northwest to southeast. It is incredible to me, stunning even, how edge on this galaxy is. What a reminder of how fragile looking spirals are, with their thin discs having about a 100-to-1 aspect ratio. I could see the bulge well, and also I could make out the dust lane, but only where it crossed the bulge. Elsewhere, it was impossible to tell what was gas and dust (since I mostly saw the arms only with averted vision) and what was merely blank sky. But it was an awe-inspiring sight nonetheless. Definitely one of my top favorites.

That sight reminded me of M64, which along with M53 was one of the last objects on Opus's Messier tour. I couldn't get a good fix on the texture—I saw the dust lane, but I couldn't be sure from the view whether the lane was north or south of center.

The trouble I had had with M65 and M66 when researching my April column for the LAAS bulletin induced me to try these Leo galaxies. They are fairly easily found, being just about halfway between iota and theta Leonis. Again, what a difference these skies make—M65 and M66 are very large! At 52x, M65 takes up about half the field of view (about 25 arcminutes), and M66 uses up about two-thirds (about 35 arcminutes). M66 also showed some mottling structure that I couldn't get to stand still. Nearby NGC 3628 was also visible with some effort. Unlike NGC 3077, in the neighborhood of M81 and M82, NGC 3628 is very large, almost as large as M65. (It might be just as large, but I can't tell because I can't see as much of it.)

Last up for the evening was M104. It was clear that the haze, which was increasing, was playing havoc with the views. The galaxy simply was not as bright as I had seen it back in April 2000, and I could only make out the dust lane intermittently. That, and the somewhat late hour, suggested it was time to end a very satisfying evening.

8:30 p.m. 21 April 2001 PDT (2001–04–22–0330 UTC)

The sky and the weather reports had been vacillating all day, but the Kolstads and I went up to Lockwood anyway, and we weren't too disappointed at the conditions, although we were chilled by them. I only brought Opus, my 5-inch SCT, having left the Wocket behind (I feel it just lags too far back under dark skies), and Ben brought his 6-inch Cave Astrola, newly remounted on a homebuilt Dobsonian style mount. I was especially excited to try this out.

I had previously tried manipulating the Cave on its previous heavy GEM, and it was a real bear, especially near the pole. I had a tough time finding M81/M82 under urban skies—not because they were difficult to find, but because I couldn't seem to maneuver the scope the way I wanted. Within a few moments of setting up the Cave dob (which only took a minute or so—very impressive!), I could tell that the maneuverability had improved substantially. It now went precisely where you wanted it to, and stayed put when you wanted it to. Good job, Ben!

We spent much of the night chasing the same targets, sharing them with some of the dozen or so other people observing around us, occaisionally peeking through other people's scopes, especially Jeff Lipsman's big Teleport computerized dob. The views of M65 and M66 were—but, I'm getting ahead of myself here.

One of our first targets was M35 and NGC 2158. I still am so awed by the appearance of this pair through Opus—operating most of the night with a 32 mm Plossl and the f/6.3 reducer/corrector (about 24x), on account of the poor seeing. M35 is so incredibly rich, with a nice pair of back-to-back parentheses shaped strings of stars stabbing through it. The smaller cluster, NGC 2158, wasn't as easily seen as last time (the sky was a bit brighter at deepest dark, perhaps about magnitude 6.0 or so), but still it was there, in the usual customary spot. It was even better through the Cave, although it took me a while to find it. One of the advantages of using an equatorially mounted scope like the C5+ is that southwest is always in the same direction. In a dob, it depends on where in the sky your target is, and where on the tube the eyepiece is, and so forth. Interesting challenge.

Someone was looking for M1, and I suggested a way to find it—about 1/6 of the way from zeta to beta Tauri, and a little bit lower down. (Taurus was then sinking into the western horizon.) Observing M1 is a lesson in patience—it's one of those objects that doesn't divulge all of its secrets at once. Instead, what you see first is a featureless blur (at least in small scopes). Then, you see a hint of asymmetry, then a vague S or Z shape, then some sniffs of texture here and there, and so on. It's an exercise, that's for sure.

Then to M42, the Great Orion Nebula. What an incredible sight this is, even near the setting sun. The seeing was horrible—the Trapezium looked vaguely quadrangular, but that was all, no resolution at all—but even that lent a sort of ghostly timbre to the nebula's appearance. Of course the nebula is otherworldly, literally, but it looked even more so, with the outlines wavering in the turbulence, and the darkening twilight sky behind it.

One of my favorite globulars is M53, because it is easily seen, even under bright skies. And it's so easy to find, just off alpha Comae Berenices. I only made a quick look at this one, since capturing detail in globulars was an exercise in futility tonight. At home, it's just a blur, albeit a blur with some details; but under these dark skies, even with the poor seeing, it was partly resolved through Opus, down to within perhaps 2 arcminutes of the center.

One of the best single-FOV groupings of galaxies is M65/M66/NGC 3628, halfway between iota and theta Leonis. I still think estimates of their sizes are pessimistic (that is, undersized), but probably not as much as I had thought previously. When I observed these, about 9:30 p.m., they were in the darkest part of the sky, and NGC 3628 was not difficult at all, although I couldn't sniff much detail out of it.

The next object on our list was inspired by the splendid appearance of the Coma Berenices star cluster to the unaided eye. The nearby spindle of NGC 4565 beckoned. Starting from gamma Comae, an arc southward and then to the east finds 4565. I haven't yet found it from home, but again, what a beautiful sight from Lockwood. Delicate yet urgent, a thin wafer, with a dark chocolatey filling—the dust lane—separating the two lobes of the hub. I could make out a slight asymmetry in the separation, indicating that the galaxy wasn't quite perfectly edge on, but showed one face (the southern one) ever so slightly more than the other.

Another beautiful galaxy—a pair this time: M51/NGC 5195. It's a funny thing, the way that spiral structure can be evident without your being able to see it. Something about the texture of light (in Opus) made it evident which way the arms spun—counterclockwise in this scope, with its mirror diagonal. But in the Cave, bits and pieces of arm were now faintly visible, arcing clockwise now.

It was getting chilly, now down to about 35 degrees or so, and hard especially on the feet. M104 was next. This galaxy can be found by passing from gamma to delta Corvi, and then taking a gentle right turn to the north-northeast. It's much smaller than you might expect from the famous pictures of the Sombrero Galaxy. But there's something gratifying about making out the dust lane; it's like seeing a cat's-eye marble from across the room.

Two showy globulars: first M5, and then M13. We found them in Opus and the Cave, and then we trekked over to the Teleport. Wow! Arcs and arcs of stars streaming everywhere. M13 doesn't just look like a crab, it looks like it has hundreds of arms, here, there, everywhere! Just splendid.

Too cold. Now it was time to tear down, but before I did, I showed some neighboring observers M104, and then I kept my promise to myself, one I had made before setting out—that I would observe at least one new object tonight. My selection was a galaxy that I had added to the PalmAtlas catalogue without having observed it. This was NGC 5102, a galaxy about 9 arcminutes long and reasonably bright at magnitude 9.6. The tricky bit is that it is about a third of a degree east of bright iota Centauri, a magnitude 2.7 star. I centered Opus easily on iota, and then slowly swept the field from west to east, keeping a careful check on the western edge of the field of view.

It was an eye-popping effect. Just as iota left the field of view, the blur of 5102 magically appeared. Swing iota back in, and it disappeared again. An entertaining trick. Just to make sure I wasn't fooling myself, I did it again, and it was even more obvious this time. I urge those of you looking for a bit of a challenge with small scopes, or a fun diversion with larger ones, to give this one a try. You won't regret it!

Copyright (c) 2001 Brian Tung