My Observing Log: July/August 1999

11:30 p.m. 21 July 1999 PDT (0630 22 July 1999 UTC)

My C5+ is coming up on its first birthday, and I might just be silly enough to bestow it a name (hearkening back to a recent SAA thread). To prepare for that kind of silliness, I decided to do some observing—sort of to balance it out. It was pleasant to get a chance to do just that, since we had been socked in by a persistent marine layer for much of the last month and a half. :(

I had taken it out for a look at M22 for the first time the previous night, and had found it without much trouble, by using the finderscope as a kind of poor man's Telrad—sighting it with both eyes. I knew roughly where it was, though I didn't have any reference stars to guide me. (My skies in that region, at about 30 degrees altitude, are about mag 3.5 to 4.) With a 32 mm Plossl in the scope, yielding a true FOV of a bit over a degree, I had no trouble finding it, the milky skies notwithstanding.

I'd say it's considerably more granular than M13, my first globular. I could make out a few individual stars from the general "pile of salt" haze that constitutes the bulk of the globular. Of course it's a far cry from its appearance in photos or even under dark skies, but the one time I had the scope in truly dark skies, I looked at planetaries, galaxies, open clusters—everything but globulars. I'd guess that it would look far better there—I don't know for sure, but I'm curious to find out. Too bad I rarely get the chance.

After M22, I swung over to M27 and M57, still with the 32 mm in place. I was surprised at how easily I found them even in light polluted skies, and even without the nebula filter (Orion Ultrablock). Again, I think that lends credence to my theory that your observing ability increases with time, even after that initial burst—it might just be difficult to tell at the time. M27 was a rectangular glow, unremarkable without the filter; with the filter, I could begin to make some of the interior details, but it was tough. But I'll have plenty of opportunities in the coming months to try!

M57 was bright and obvious, again without the filter. With the filter, the donut quality was evident even at 39x, although to be rather more precise, I should agree with David Nakamoto and say it looks more like a red blood corpuscle (without the color, of course!). Or a smoke ring, I think that's rather accurate too.

Then back to Sagittarius and an attempt at the Lagoon Nebula, M8. I remembered how I easily I saw it with the unaided eye from a plane a month or so ago, and it was frustrating not to be able to see it now. Trying to sight it through the finder didn't work either. Finally, I pulled out my mag 6 atlas, the Cambridge Star Atlas, and figured it was about 6 degrees north of gamma Sagittarii, the tip of the spout, and a bit west of it—just a tad.

That did it. The open star cluster next to M8, NGC 6530, is what drew my attention first. But with the UltraBlock in, I could definitely make out the nebula around the star to the southwest. I know it's bigger than just that, but it was still fun to observe. I'm sure as I get to know it better I'll see more detail in it.

I tried to go up another degree and a half to M20, the Trifid Nebula, but couldn't see it. I confirmed I was in the right area—a single star to the south of a squashed pentagon—using my planetarium program, but try as I might, I couldn't make out any hint of a nebula. That will have to wait for darker skies, I suppose.

I did find an open cluster by accident, though, hunting around for M20—M21, just to its northeast. It was not an impressive cluster in these skies, but again, it's probably much better in the dark (!). Still, it was pleasant to see the fine white pinpoints, sprayed as they were on a milky purple background.

I also brought the C5+ around to M13, which was then sinking in the west. It was powdery and fine, a bit smaller than M22, but somehow rounder and smoother. I couldn't see any individual stars in it—again, I'm hoping that's the skies and not the scope.

My last intended target was M51. I knew this was going to stretch the limit of my powers, as unremarkable as they might be right now. I first limbered up with Mizar and Alcor, and found the split comfortably easy—Mizar and Mizar B, that is. Then M51. It is just about directly south of Mizar/Alcor, and forms a right triangle with that pairing and Alkaid, the tip of the handle. I knew I had the right place, since M51 forms a not-too-stretched-out triangle with two field stars to its north. But even with the reducer/corrector in place, the nebula filter on the 32 mm Plossl, I simply could not make it out through the haze. That definitely will have to wait until darker skies.

After that failure, I returned to something familiar—the Double Cluster. In many parts of the country, this pair of open clusters is an unaided-eye patch of fuzz, but not here. I had to rely on where I recalled it being; it forms a tallish, inverted isosceles triangle with the easternmost pair of stars in Cassiopeia's W. After fiddling around a little bit with the telescope controls, I found it in the main eyepiece—it was even too hard to see through the finder! But it was still a breathtaking sight, with the 32 mm Plossl and reducer/corrector yielding a nearly 2-degree FOV.

My final target of the night was M25. I actually found it, bumped the scope and lost it, and at last reacquired it. I recalled an SAA thread that identified it as a possible candidate for a "spiral-shaped open cluster." Do I think it looks like a spiral? Well, there are curving arms arcing out of the interior of the cluster, but they curve in different directions. Maybe it looks more like a pointillistic version of the Antennae.

By this time it was 1:00 my time, and I had to get up reasonably early the next morning, so I packed it in. It took just a little over 2 minutes to put away everything; it's getting more and more streamlined each time.

12:15 a.m. 29 July 1999 PDT (0715 29 July 1999 UTC)

Since my last message, my telescope's first birthday, narf, has passed, and I've christened it, Opus. It looks a little squat and waddly, and it's dressed in black and white. Plus it thinks it can see things that aren't there, and so forth. All in all, not an entirely inappropriate nick.

This morning was mostly clear and comfortably cool, about 60 degrees. That is one of the benefits of living in Santa Monica. The limiting magnitude, not at the zenith, but where I was working most of the night, was about 4.5, though it sure seemed worse! That is not one of the benefits of living in Santa Monica.

A just-past-fool—err, I mean full—moon was up at the crack of darker twilight last night, and that combined with a persistent marine mist threatened to make deep sky use difficult for me. I decided to stick it out, though, because by the time I got out under the stars, Mars was already well toward the horizon.

I decided to start with something relatively easy—M7. Though, to be sure, none of my targets are generally that hard; they are somewhat hard to find through the bright moonlight, however. M7 forms a somewhat elongated right triangle with the spout side of Sagittarius's teapot, and is wide and bright enough to find easily through the finder. A view through the eyepiece at 24x revealed a broad spatter of stars, the brightest of which looked (to me, at least) like a sailboat.

After a while gazing at that, I moved up to M6, by moving up parallel to the outer edge of the spout. M6, also known as the Butterfly Cluster, has five exceptionally bright stars, which look a little like a deformed house roof, with a parallelogram on one side—faintly resembling that in Lyra—and one more star on the other side. These five stars all reside in the upper, larger wings of the "butterfly." It took a little while for the butterfly to make itself apparent, but after it sank in, it was hard to unsee.

I'd heard people talking about the Double Double on SAA recently, and I decided to give that target a quick look. Seeing was not steady enough, or my eyes not fine enough, to make out even any elongation at 24x, but each pairing was just beginning to split noticeably at 52x, and they were clearly split at 88x. A fine sight on a night with average seeing (5).

While I was up at this neck-breaking zenithal point, I revisited M57. I didn't check the limiting magnitude at the zenith, but it might have been even worse than in Sagittarius, which was then at about 25 degrees altitude, because the moon was so much closer. Still, the smoke ring was evident at both 24x and 52x, without the UltraBlock. The filter made the ring easier to see, but I couldn't claim to see any additional detail.

With that, I returned to Messier Objects I've Not Seen Yet (MOINSY), currently a rather large set, but one contracting all the time. The next to go were M18 and M24. M24 you can find by extending a line roughly north from the center of the teapot base through the Tiptop of the Teapot, and then just about again as far. But I didn't look for M24 first—I headed for M18, which is just a bit further north of it.

Here, it got hard, because there were basically no unaided-eye stars there for me, and even very few (maybe three) through the finder. A Telrad would have been nigh useless. I decided to bring out my little laptop and fire up the old planetarium program. One of the advantages of observing on moonlit nights is that you just don't worry as much about preserving your night vision. Also, no red flashlight is required (or helpful).

It took a while, but I finally did nail M18. It is smaller than the other open clusters I've seen recently, and dimmer—at least, it seemed that way. The stars in M18 seemed to twinkle more than in the other clusters, too, even through Opus himself. Perhaps I should have waited for better seeing, but it was getting late and there were a couple of other things I wanted to see.

M24 is the Sagittarius star cloud, listed as an open cluster but really an exposed portion of the Milky Way. It was visible as an unimpressive patch through the finder, but through the eyepiece it became a revelation. It contains about 50 to 100 stars bright enough to see easily even under the conditions, and knowing its nature, I stared long enough to make out several additional hundreds of dimmer stars, forming a shimmering backdrop. This is really a beautiful piece!

My final target for the night/morning was M28, a globular cluster just a little north of the Teapot's Tiptop. I actually didn't hold out much hope for seeing this object, given the conditions and Sagittarius beginning to sink toward the horizon, but you can't tell without trying, so I snuck little Opus over.

The right general region is pretty easy to find, given its convenient location, so the tricky part was recognizing whether I'd seen the right object. Based on my planetarium program, my quarry was near a pattern of one bright star and two dimmer stars, lying on an east-west line with each of the two dimmer stars. I located the bright star and the two dim stars, twiddled the RA knob—and found nothing. There's this fuzzy thing east of the bright star, but that appeared on the screen to be a loose gathering of 8th-magnitude stars.

A little frustrated, I sat and thought for a minute. Then it occurred to me that my field stars were in the wrong orientation. I'd been thinking it was correct because the mirror diagonal on Opus flips the view left-to-right, and looking at a non-reversed image on the laptop. I pressed a key, and the laptop view mirror reversed itself. Then I saw my undoing: Stacked on top of my pattern was an identical pattern, only dimmer and mirror-reversed!

                                  .  .

             +     .            O  <— M28

                   .                                  *
                .   .  .
                  .   .    <— loose gathering
                               of stars

                The View Through Opus, Mirror-Reversed

What I had thought was the bright star in my pattern was really the brighter of the two dim stars, and what I thought was a loose gathering of 8th-magnitude stars that I couldn't see clearly was really M28 itself! My mood considerably lightened by that realization, I spent the next 10 minutes looking at the globular. Visually it was not arresting, but the mere fact of finding it in these conditions was exhilarating.

Blessed with a son but cursed with his odd sleeping habits, I had to pack up Opus and his pickled herrings for the rest of the night. If you've read this far, and you're a beginner with a small scope, I hope I've convinced you that you can still do deep sky observing, of sorts, when the Full—err, I mean Fool—Moon is out.

9:15 p.m. 14 August 1999 PDT (0415 15 August 1999 UTC)

I'd just joined the Los Angeles Astronomical Society, and they had their monthly dark sky observing party up at Lockwood near Mt Pinos this past Saturday. For a time it seemed unclear whether or not I would be able to go, and then it was the skies that seemed unclear, but I decided to go ahead and make the trip, basing that on a webcam showing clear late afternoon blue over Frazier Park.

Santa Monica was socked in with clouds as I left at around 7:20 p.m., too late to make it by sundown but still early enough to make it before serious observing began. By the time I made it to the San Fernando Valley, the sky was clear with a moderate amount of haze that I hoped would hide some of the skyglow from Los Angeles.

It was nearly dark when I arrived at Lockwood at around a quarter to nine. At first I thought I'd just push my car in, but I walked the 300 yards to the campground and found they wouldn't mind if I just drove with my parking lights. So I walked back to my car, amidst the wildly barking dogs, and drove back.

I found a pad and quickly set up. I found to my dismay that along the way I had lost the cap to my TeleVue star diagonal; I'd been meaning to rubber band it in place but had never gotten around to it, and now it appeared it was too late. At least, I thought, there were far worse things to lose.

From the start it was clear what a difference dark skies make, even moderately dark skies. I started off with the relatively bright M8, the Lagoon Nebula. I had seen it previously, of course, but it was a dim smudge with the UltraBlock in. Here, with the 32 mm Plossl and the f/6.3 reducer, it was an intense mottling, with the dark channel running like a river through it.

M20, the Trifid Nebula, is a combination of an emission nebula and a reflection nebula, which appear red and blue respectively in photos. Through Opus, of course, there was nary a whiff of color. On the other hand, the best of photos still don't give a good idea of the delicacy, the fragility of the nebula when seen through an eyepiece. To me, it looks like flower petals spreading out from the center.

My previous Sagittarian globular was M28, just a bit north of lambda Sagittarii (the Tiptop of the Teapot). Now it was obvious through Opus, a heap of spilled salt in an incredibly rich starfield. The number of stars seen in a degree-and-a-half wide field of view in these skies simply overwhelmed me. After revisiting it, I spent a while with two dimmer globulars near the base of the Teapot, M69 and M70. These are smaller, dimmer conglomerations of stars, and if I were E.C. Krupp, I'd probably say something about incipient steam bubbles, but I'm not, so I won't. :)

Dark skies are always a good time to check out the unaided-eye deep sky objects, so I trained my eyes toward M31, the Andromeda Galaxy. This spiral galaxy is some 2.2 million light years away, though some recent estimates put the distance somewhat greater than that. From that distance, whatever it might be, it appears as a small elongated smudge, perhaps as large as the moon (which had set already, so it was hard to tell). That, however, is only the relatively bright core. Opus revealed the full 3-degree extent of M31's disc, which spans across two separate fields of view, as well as a very dim dust lane across the northwest side of the disc. I could also make out its nearby bright companion, M32, and its dimmer companion to the northwest, M110, otherwise known (perhaps better known) as NGC 205.

I then remembered that I have considerable trouble finding M4 through the Santa Monica light pollution, and since it had engendered a bit of discussion on SAA, I thought I'd have a look for myself. It is simple to find—it is west and just a tad south of Antares, the heart of Scorpius the Scorpion. It forms a pentagon with Antares, 22 Scorpii, sigma Scorpii, and a fainter star just south of rho Ophiuchi. Under these skies, M4 was an obvious patch, which Opus partially resolved, and of only moderate surface brightness, partly because it is so close to us, just a bit under 8,000 light years away.

Another object that is invisible from Santa Monica is M51, the Whirlpool Galaxy, along with its apparent companion, NGC 5195. These two appear to be connected via one of M51's spiral arms. However, the conventional wisdom is that this is only an optical illusion, due to a chance alignment between the two galaxies, of which NGC 5195 is the more distant. It is believed, though, that they did gravitationally interact, which accounts for NGC 5195's distorted appearance. The two galactic nuclei were obvious, and also showed a circular-seeming halo surrounding M51. From time to time it seemed that there was an intimation of spiral arms, but it was not easy to tell. This pair was already only 20 degrees above the horizon, so perhaps this will have to wait until next spring for a better look.

For some reason I had never tried to look for M11, the Wild Duck Cluster in Scutum, and I looked there now. It is just southwest of lambda Aquilae, and a star-hop that takes you through it, composed by Alan MacRobert, can be found in the September 1999 issue of Sky and Telescope. My planetarium program shows this as a fan-shaped dense cluster, and through the scope the fan shape is even more prominent. The stars are so dense that it is at first difficult to believe that it is an open cluster and not a globular. But one big difference is that the entire cluster is resolved pretty much right down to the core, and that's not possible at all with the globulars (at least not with 5 inches).

My next two targets were M16, the Eagle Nebula, and M17, the Omega, which are right next to each other, north and south, a bit to the southwest of gamma Scuti. M16 is well known from Hubble photos, in which it exhibits an unusual amount of three-dimensionality; seen "live" through a small telescope, it is considerably more ethereal, with thin fingers of darkness faintly making their way through the emission nebula.

M17 also has a fan-shaped nucleus, not unlike M11, but it is big, surrounded on all sides by a fainter pillow of illuminated gas. I sat transfixed for a long time, gazing at the subtle textures. There is a lot to be found in this object, which you certainly can't gather completely in one sitting.

At this point, I took a break and visited the trailer set up at one end of Lockwood. It's illuminated largely by red lamps, but it's bright enough that I thought it was OK to take my laptop back there and look up the locations of Uranus, Neptune, and Pluto, and draw them into my atlas, the Cambridge. Re-emerging into the darkness, I removed the 32 mm Plossl and the reducer/corrector and replaced them with a 15 mm Plossl.

Uranus and Neptune were both easy to find; neither displayed anything like a disc until I used a 9 mm ortho, and then only barely. As expected, nothing in the way of detail could be seen on either. I was able to locate the region of Ophiuchus where little Pluto was currently hiding, but Opus is never a favorite to find it with its scant 5 inches of aperture, and as it was Pluto was already only at about 15 degrees of altitude. The dimmest stars I could see at the eyepiece were just about 12.5 magnitude, not too bad for the altitude but far too bright a lower limit to locate the ninth major planet (for now). Still, it was nice to think that I was looking right where it ought to be, even if Mickey's pet was too shy to reveal himself to my flightless fowl.

I thus enlisted the assistance of Dana's 13.1-inch Coulter. I'd actually met Dana (I hope I have the spelling correct) last time when he showed me the Helix through the dob. For a Coulter dob it seems to have pretty decent optics, and the correct star-field was eventually located—Pluto is at this time in a little triangle of 6th-magnitude stars just west of zeta Ophiuchi. Unfortunately, as those of you with the March 1999 issue of Sky and Telescope can easily verify, it was just then passing very near a mag 12.8 star, which made it a bit difficult to distinguish Pluto, but there was a very dim point of light just next to it, which I will guess to be Pluto. To be sure I would have to revisit the site in a couple of days in order to confirm the sighting, but I'll probably be unable to do that.

I decided to stop my main observing for the night. For a coda, though, I did something I often do—revisit old favorites. I found it almost more difficult to find M27 through the finder than usual, since there were now dozens and dozens of stars in the finder's field of view, rather than the usual six or seven. But find it I did, just as I heard people marvelling at the view through the 13.1-inch at the same thing. I spent the next few minutes relaxing at the views of M57, a sharply defined smoke ring, and the wonderful Double Cluster in Perseus, faintly visible by unaided eye, a sparkling study in contrast through Opus.

I packed up my stuff and walked around, looking at what people were observing through their scopes. Dana and the dob were looking at NGC 6572, a small bright planetary with a very distinct blue-green hue. Aside from the color, it looks like a star at low magnifications, but higher magnifications show a sizable disc. It was a nice, quiet way to end the beautiful evening at Lockwood. A nicer way to end the evening at home was finding that the cap to my star diagonal had dislodged itself while Opus had still been sitting in my front passenger seat on the way to Lockwood, and was now peacefully dozing among the loose papers and herring remains.

1:00 a.m. 25 August 1999 PDT (0800 25 August 1999 UTC)

After a long hectic day, it was nice to get out under a bright, moonlit night <grin> and do some planetary observing. Jupiter and Saturn were not terribly high in the sky, but steady seeing made up for it, and the cool but not cold night air made cooldown a matter of a few minutes. I would rate the seeing a 7, while the limiting magnitude was a poor 4, due to the prominent moon as well as substantial man-made light pollution.

Jupiter was first, at 83x, 140x, 167x, and finally at 280x. The last was generally a little too much for the seeing, but on occasion a few details slipped through that were too small to see at lower magnifications. The Great Pale Spot, just past meridian, was easier to see at 167x, but the higher power revealed more detail on a couple of festoons on the equatorial side of the NEB. As always, the NEB was a quite colorful orange-brown, while the SEB was a more subdued grey-brown. There were a few times when it looked as though there was an elongated oval to the trailing (celestial east) side of the GRS, but I couldn't be sure.

Saturn was best at 167x. Most of the time, the Cassini division was visible, which is generally indicative of pretty good seeing for here, although to be honest, the division is also easier this year than the few preceding years because of the more open ring face—they span almost as much north-south as the planet does.

There seemed to be a dark spot at the southern edge of the equatorial zone, on the trailing (celestial east) side. The crepe ring (C) was visible where it passed directly in front of the planet, and possibly at the extremities of the ring as well. I could make out no evidence of the spokes in the B ring which some on SAA have posted about.

I went back and forth between the two planets for about a half hour, and concluded with a brief examination of Plato's craterlets. The central one was pretty easily visible, and two other ones were intermittently evident. It occurs to me that I should probably get Rukl's atlas pretty soon so I have something else to do on moonlit nights (well, astronomy-wise, that is).

Copyright (c) 1999 Brian Tung