My Observing Log: January/February 2001

8:15 p.m. 7 January 2001 PST (0415 8 January 2001 UTC)

Outstanding! I was picking up the in-laws at the airport last night, and didn't get home until about 8:15 (0415 UTC). I hurriedly set up Opus—bugger the tube currents—and was rewarded by a sharp-as-a-tack view. At that point, Io was nestled just inside the leading edge of Jupiter's disc, followed by the GRS (darker nucleus in evidence), and followed further by Io's shadow. I was pleased to see Io set off in rather sharp contrast from the belt. Yes, that's the advantage of living in southern California—good seeing and nil cooldown times. :-P

Further to the south was Ganymede's shadow. A quick collimation made sure that all four satellites were identifiable discs. As the event proceeded, I was mildly surprised to see a change in the shape of Ganymede's shadow, just as it was about to exit the leading edge. It actually seemed to elongate and tilt slightly! That would not be the case if Jupiter were at opposition—all shadows should appear round— but I attribute the moderate out-of-round shape to Jupiter being past opposition by a month-and-a-half. Did anyone else notice this effect?

I should also mention two relatively prominent but smallish festoons, separated by about 45 degrees of longitude and bracked symmetrically around the central meridian at about 9:00 local time (0500 UTC). They extended about 2/3 of the way from the NEB down to the equator, and then made a short turn toward the trailing edge.

7:15 p.m. 8 January 2001 PST (0315 9 January 2001 UTC)

I had a rare weekday opportunity to do some observing. Unfortunately, southern California picked Monday to do the first entire day of rain in about 70 days. (Really—that's what it said in the news.) I had been hoping to do a reconnaisance on IC 418, the newly-dubbed Spirograph Nebula (so-called because of its appearance in a recently released Hubble image), for my monthly column in the Los Angeles Astronomical Society's newsletter, but that hope seemed forlorn throughout the day.

Round about four in the afternoon, though, I checked the weather satellites by web, and matters seemed to be improving. The images showed only a thin layer of clouds hanging off the coast, and there seemed every chance that there would at least be some partial clearing before the next front moved in on Wednesday. So, when I got home around seven last evening, I rushed to set up ol' Opus.

As I started around 7:15, the cloud cover was about 90 percent. There were a few gaps, but nothing so large as even a sucker hole. I could see the moon poking through, because of its immense brilliance (full phase), and from time to time, Jupiter was faintly visible, but that was about it. My only hope was the bands of clear sky far to the west-northwest.

At about 7:45, enough of Orion finally poked out for me to recognize Rigel. IC 418 is actually in Lepus, but I found it much easier to star-hop through the finder from Rigel. It is almost smack dab center of the trapezoid formed by Rigel, Saiph (kappa Orionis), Arneb (alpha Leporis), and mu Leporis. Ordinarily, it would be easy to find. This night, however, a cloud came out of nowhere and socked out that entire portion of the sky just as I was about to pounce on my target.

Rather frustratingly, I had to wait another half-hour before I had around a 30-degree sucker hole suitably placed for observing the Spirograph. It was moving quickly to the south, so I would have little time to dawdle. Quickly, I pointed Opus in approximately the right direction. I pulled out my PalmAtlas and tapped away, informing me that IC 418 is located about half a degree eastward of a small trio of seventh-magnitude stars. I found those just barely visible with averted vision through the finder (that's how bright it was, with the full moon plus the usual LA light pollution), and even through the main scope, they were less than stunning.

IC 418's central star is about magnitude 9.2, making it easily but dimly visible through Opus on this night. At 39x (32 mm Plossl), I saw nothing of the planetary's nature—filter or no filter—but that was easy to understand; even the nebula is a scant 10 arcseconds wide. I put in the Vixen 8–24 mm zoom, but even that showed little with the narrowband filter, at either end of the range. Finally, I slid in the one eyepiece I thought wouldn't get deep sky use tonight, and that was the 6 mm Radian.

Success! With the filter in, I could just barely see a thin oval outline surrounding the star. It was nearly subliminal, and not quite round—just barely elliptical. It was not visible with dead-on direct vision, but only the slightest of averted vision was necessary to see it. I would not consider it a tremendously difficult observation, but certainly less impressive than it would be under even average suburban skies. Still, I consider it eminently visible under city skies, if only with a more distant, smaller-phase moon.

Having finally tracked down my quarry, I went for M79. Although I was able to find the right place, again with the help of PalmAtlas, I simply could not make out any sign of the globular. And after 10 minutes, the sucker hole had passed over that area of the sky, too, and that shut me down for the night.

6:30 p.m. 16 January 2001 PST (0230 17 January 2001 UTC)

Seeing as this evening was the greatest eastern elongation of Venus, I decided to trot out the 5-inch SCT for a quick look-see. What I really wanted to do was to leave the scope out to cool for a bit, but the problem is, recently we've had a vorpal squirrel scurrying about our yard, chewing up our lawn furniture. Now, a five-dollar piece of white resin is one thing, but a $1,000+ astronomy set-up is quite another. So I stayed in the wind.

Yes, well, the wind. So that didn't bode well for the seeing, and for once, my expectations were essentially confirmed. Venus fairly bobbed and weaved in the dark dusk, and all I could make out was the phase. (I have, in the past, made out very fleeting cloud detail.) Venus seemed just ever so concave; I would estimate just a couple of days past visual dichotomy. Now, the orbits of Venus and the Earth are both fairly circular, as planetary orbits go, but they are still a little elliptical. What was the difference, in days, between geometric dichotomy and greatest elongation this time?

Higher up in the sky were Jupiter and Saturn, and while they gave better views, it was nothing to write home about. The satellites absolutely refused to settle down into nice, stable discs. Jupiter itself was not exactly a canvas of detail, but I was able to see both equatorial belts and the NTB, and a couple of festoons, about 30 degrees apart, centered about 3 to 5 degrees to the celestial east (trailing edge) of the central meridian. Saturn's ring showed only the Cassini division, and even that faded in and out of view, according to the seeing. The planet's disc showed essentially no detail beyond very broad latitudinal shading.

10:00 p.m. 27 January 2001 PST (0600 28 January 2001 UTC)

Debby's cousin Christine came flying in for the night, and as the sky was clear, Debby asked if she wanted me to take her for a spin with Opus. (No, she did not put it quite that way.) Although she's not immensely interested in observational astronomy, I give her a lot of credit for encouraging what she probably considers to be a kind of borderline behavior. That's OK, I do the same for her. :)

As I do for all non-astronomers, whenever possible, I pointed the scope first at Saturn. Despite generally poor seeing (Saturn was also settling over the house—an unavoidable circumstance in this case), the ringed planet still elicited the standard oohs and aahs. Christine remarked that the rings were so bright. I mentioned that the rings were occasionally brighter than the planet's disc, which I think is right. (It's OK, I already told her I was a geek. She answered that she didn't need to be told.)

Next was Jupiter, but that giant was also subject to the same air turbulence as Saturn. All that could be seen were the two main cloud belts, but that's usually enough for first-timers. But she was a good sport; I took her on a short deep-sky tour. First was M42, of course. Even in bright skies, its menacing, swooping clouds are an awe-inspiring sight. The best view was through the Vixen zoom at 16 mm (78x); the nebula fairly filled the field of view at that power.

The second item on our list was M41. She asked how I was able to find the objects. I told her roughly where it was (straight south from Sirius), but also mentioned that in Santa Monica, it was difficult at best to see through the finder, and there's some value in just knowing where it is. The view through the scope (32 mm Plossl for 39x) was splendid. One forgets, sometimes, how magnificent this cluster is. Unlike M44 to its north, it has depth, layers upon layers of stars. Those aren't real physical layers, of course, but only an illusion, I think, created by intrinsic differences in brightness.

Last was a challenging one for many first-timers, M79 in Lepus. Almost on a straight line from alpha through beta Leporis and the same distance beyond, M79 is between two eighth-magnitude stars. I put those stars top and bottom in the eyepiece, and then the globular was just about in the middle. It took her just a second or two before she discerned it. Good show! Better show, in fact, than M79 itself put on here, but I did point out it was the combined light of hundreds of thousands of stars, each individually too dim to see.

She had to go to bed in order to catch an early morning flight, so we set her up in our spare room. Then, when everyone else was safely ensconced in bed, I finished my astronomical duties. First up was a revisit of IC 418, the planetary in Lepus that I had written up for our club newsletter. Much easier to find and see this time without the moon competing for my attention! The outline of the planetary was dim but relatively easily seen. It will be a difficult object for many of our members, but I think it'll work out. Best seen at 12 mm (104x).

Next was the M81/M82 pair, and I had a much easier time of it tonight. First time I've ever star-hopped to it through the finder. Usually it's a pain in the neck with a fork mount (literally!), but this time, for whatever reason, it was a real snap (figuratively, fortunately). I caught both of them in the field of view at the same time with the 32 mm Plossl, and I guess I can see how M81 might be easier to see than M82. But the odd shape of M82 (the exploding cigar or the dramatic comet) catches my eye so instantly. Then the bright nucleus and dimmer central disc of M81. Under high power (8 mm, 156x), M81 reveals a kind of asymmetry to the nucleus, the slightest hint of a bar. M82 is a riot of detail, a bit of mottling on the western end leading to that detonating X about two-thirds of the way to the east.

I turned Opus toward M35, and I saw again why this was one of Scotty's favorite clusters. Such a wealth of stars; one almost gets the impression of what it would be like to see a globular real close up. I really wanted to glimpse nearby NGC 2158, but although I found the appropriate asterism to guide me to the right location, I was never sure I saw it. There was a glow that kept popping up with averted vision, but I thought it was more likely a contrast effect. My guess is that it will be trivial to see under dark skies.

Then M44, and I confirmed Tony Flanders's point that it's marvelous for small scopes with wide FOVs, but not so wonderful for long-focus SCTs. Even with the 32 mm Plossl for a 1.2-degree FOV, M44 is no more, really, than the sum of its parts. It has a disappointing lack of depth to it. Better sight for the Ranger, but I didn't bring it out this time.

M45, the Pleiades, is much better. It doesn't fit even nearly into the field of view. I could have made it with the f/6.3 reducer, but it was a bit too chilly for me to want to screw around with that thing. Even a half-cluster at a time, the Pleiades are a beautiful sight. I love that crooked chain of stars to the south, the wide double in the middle of the "bowl" to the west of Alcyone, the delicate bubbles of stars strewn throughout the cluster. Wonderful.

Another cluster, more often overlooked, is the lambda Orionis cluster, which marks Orion's head or neck. It is not plotted in the Cambridge Star Atlas, but the presence of phi-1 and phi-2 Orionis already gives the unaided-eye impression of a cluster. In the scope at 39x, this cluster looks like a collapsed diamond with one corner missing. It's a pleasing array of about a dozen bright stars and perhaps a couple of dozen dimmer stars on the next tier.

My next-to-last target was Algieba, an attractive wide-ish double at the neck of Leo the Lion. Even the indifferent seeing couldn't ruin the appearance of this pair at 208x (6 mm Radian). It consists of a second-magnitude primary and a third-magnitude secondary. I didn't make a precise measurement, but I would estimate the position angle to be about 100 degrees, and the separation at about 4 or 5 arcseconds. I'll look it up in a bit. The primary was a bit yellower (hence, cooler) than the yellow-whitish secondary.

That inspired me to take a look at my last target, Rigel, in search of its much dimmer companion. Rigel B is several arcseconds away, but about 7 magnitudes dimmer. I had seen it before, and I had fleeting glimpses of what could have been Rigel B, but I could never confirm it; it was down too low in the mediocre seeing to make out definitively.

8:00 p.m. 30 January 2001 PST (0400 31 January 2001 UTC)

This was a disappointing night. I tried M79 to see how a session of deep-sky observing, but a combination of the first-quarter moon and a low layer of haze made it nearly invisible at all magnifications. Only at the higher-power end of the Tele Vue zoom did a hint of the Lepus globular make itself evident.

Unfortunately, Jupiter and Saturn were no better. With the front having passed over, the high cirrus clouds were playing havoc with the air stability, too. I let the scope cool off for over an hour, but the image was no better at the end of that time than at the start. A couple of festoons could be made out in the northern half of the equatorial zone of Jupiter, and Saturn's Cassini Division faded in and out of distinct visibility, but otherwise, it was a lost night. Well, that happens sometimes.

8:00 p.m. 3 February 2001 PST (0400 4 February 2001 UTC)

Tonight was February's public star party for the LAAS. While this generally means the showcase objects for the night—and this season, that means Jupiter and Saturn—I still try to find time to show some people some off-the-beaten-track sights. Often, these will challenge new observers, but those who succeed can say they've seen something very few people outside out hobby have.

First on the list were the M81/M82 pair. These would be marginal at best through the Ranger, but I've found, after a couple of trials, that the driven C5+ is a better scope to bring to a public party. It took a bit of contorting, but I'm finding that with my PalmAtlas at my side, I'm getting better at finding these two quickly. M81 was a dim but relatively easily seen smudge in the southern half of the field of view at 39x (32 mm Plossl). I think I had a couple of people glimpse it. M82 was a bit harder, I think, for most people. For some reason, its odd shape hits me in a second, especially when I'm not looking directly at it and can make use of my averted vision immediately.

Someone asked to see a globular. The only one that is easily found and seen at this time is M79, in Lepus. As I've mentioned a number of times, it can be relatively easily found using alpha and beta Leporis as pointer stars to the south, and it can be found safely ensconced between two eighth or ninth-magnitude stars. I did have a couple of people just barely see it in the middle of the Tele Vue zoom at 63x (20 mm), but it's satisfying just to say you've seen it.

I was in the midst of pointing Opus toward a blank spot in the low northwest when a voice popped up by my side. "You're looking for M31, aren't you?" I looked up, and it was a young boy, maybe 13 or 14. Ben Kolstad was set up near me and complimented the kid on his sharp navigational skills, and I added my compliments as well. It turned out that Jesse—that was the boy's name—had just gotten a 80 mm f/11 for Christmas, and had evidently spent the intervening month getting quite familiar with the night sky. Well, kids pick this up but quick. And when I finally had it a minute or two later, he saw it immediately. I didn't ask him if he saw M32 beside it, but let's not rush things.

I shouldn't give the impression that all we did was observe faint fuzzies. While the seeing wasn't as fantastic as it had been the last two times I had come up, it was still pretty darned good, and Opus got a few accolades for the nice views he provided on the planets. I did put the moon in for a quick peek, but really only to demonstrate how blindingly bright it is at low power without a filter. And we did also look at the bright fuzzy up at this hour—M42. It doesn't matter where you look at this thing, it's amazing. It just pierces the light pollution.

Last up for the odd sights (we would return to Jupiter and Saturn throughout the night) was gamma Leonis (Algieba). The seeing punctuated this pair with stark sharpness, and it's an especially nice sight for small scopes. I'm sure I'll take a look at this numerous times in the future a bit more closely, when I have my own time to observe.

11:45 p.m. 20 February 2001 PST (0745 21 February 2001 UTC)

The Los Angeles Astronomical Society has its dark-sky parties every Saturday closest to the new moon. Of course, it's an opportunity to see DSOs at their best, but it's also a chance to socialize. If it were just the observing, many people (possibly including even me) wouldn't always make the 90-mile trek out to the site. I spent one mostly cloudy night just chatting with the one other person there (who works the site anyway), and although we only got fleeting glimpses of a few sites here and there, it was still lots of fun.

There's a tendency, when those party dates are approaching, to save the observing for then. This coming Saturday, however, promises to be more than mostly cloudy. With rain in the forecast centering around the weekend, I got impatient and decided last night, on the first clear night in L.A. in a while, to try to finish off the last four objects in Opus's Messier survey.

All four were objects I had seen before in other telescopes, but before I learned a little bit about observing, and certainly I can't always sit at someone else's scope making detailed observations till whenever. The four—three galaxies and one globular—were strewn in a more or less straight line from north to south.

First up was M106, a spiral near the Canes Venatici-Ursa Major border. Photos show an untidy arrangement of arms, seen obliquely. I took a little longer than I expected to star-hop to M106. The sky was not very dark; despite the moonless night, the humidity in the air and the eternal L.A. city glow contributed to a limiting magnitude of about 4.4, perhaps a tenth or two worse than usual.

I began by sighting a spot at the fourth corner of a trapezoid formed by gamma, delta, and epsilon Ursae Majoris. PalmAtlas showed the quarry about 40 percent of the way from a sixth-magnitude star to a seventh—this latter being surrounded by a few eighth-magnitude stars that don't show up on PalmAtlas. Finally, as my eyes began to dark adapt—well, as well as they can under bright skies—a little blur began to take shape. What I saw at first resembled nothing so much as a little fan, extending upward to the north-northwest. The next bit of detail to appear was a thin line extending southward from the hinge of the fan.

When I went in later to consult O'Meara's book, his sketch shows that the brightest section is a triangular knot along the west hand side. Its triangular form undoubtedly accounts for the fan shape I saw. Perhaps the thin line to the south was one of the brighter regions in the galactic arm. I used my zoom to adjust the magnification to best effect—I saw as much detail at 18 mm (about 70x) as at any other setting.

Moving southward from that lofty height were M53 and M64. Both are in Coma Berenices, but I found them easier to locate starting from brilliant Arcturus, the anchor of Bootes. The yellow star was startlingly brilliant, so much so that for a split-second I had the mistaken impression I was seeing Mars. But it wasn't quite that late yet. Moving westward from Arcturus, one chances upon the trio of eta (Muphrid), tau, and upsilon Bootis. M53 is fairly close to alpha Comae, but since that star was lower down in the sky, it was just about invisible in the L.A. glow. Fortunately, it's at almost the same declination as tau Bootis, and conducting a declination sweep westward, alpha was easily seen in the 6x30 finder.

One thing that I'm beginning to see is that PalmAtlas is fairly useful at the finder, but it's just too difficult to use, most of the time, at the eyepiece. It just doesn't go deep enough. I tried hopping at the eyepiece to M53, but the combination of sky glow and too sparse a star field made it too difficult. (Since PalmAtlas already uses up nearly a meg of memory, however, I can't make it go much deeper than it already is—to magnitude 7.5.) It is perfectly sufficient to find all of the objects in the Messier catalogue, though, and probably all the other DSOs I've put in the database. Fortunately, M53 is sandwiched in between alpha and a spatter of sixth and seventh-magnitude stars, and using the finder put me right on.

M53 is the brightest object of the four. At low power, it looks just a little oval, with greater dimension north-south than east-west. At higher power, though (12 mm for 104x), it begins to show its arcs. As many globulars do in small telescopes, the random (or maybe not so random—on this, see an older Usenet article by Tony Flanders) formations of stars arrange themselves, in partial resolution, into branches and twigs. In brighter skies, in turn, these branches and twigs are barely glimpsed, flashing in and out of sight. It took a while, but I decided I could make out three main features. The brightest, to the south, extended like a tree trunk, and then there were two more, one to the northwest, and another to the northeast.

Close by is M64, and just as M53 is a little northeast of alpha Comae, M64 is a little northeast of fifth-magnitude 35 Comae. Again, I found myself unable, without any atlas deeper than magnitude 7.5, to starhop through the eyepiece, but using the finder put me right on. At low power (the 32 mm Plossl for 39x), the Black Eye Galaxy is a slightly east-west extended blur. Pumping up the power further gained little for me, although at 16 mm (78x), I did see a slight mirror-reversed comma shape, with the head of the comma extended east-west (probably the main body of light) and arranged slightly to the northeast, and a sliver of light extending south-southeast from the northwest corner. I can't wait to see what this looks like under dark skies.

Last of all was M83, and I knew this would be difficult. For one thing, as I began my starhop, M83 hadn't even cleared my neighbor's garage! The sky was so poor in this region that the easiest starhop was through the finder again, from Spica (alpha Virginis). A stag's leap asterism led me southwestward to a naked-eye double. The two stars—HD 114946 and 115202—are listed in the Hipparcos database at 125 and 126 light-years away, suggesting that they are actually related. If so, they would have to be separated from each other by about a light-year—hardly an unseen occurrence.

Shifting back southeastward from the double, I came across gamma Hydrae, which is almost exactly third magnitude. Looking out from the scope, with the unaided eye, I could dimly but distinctly see this star in the sky. I estimated the naked eye limiting magnitude in the area at 3.5. Eastward from gamma is a magnitude 6.4 star, which I couldn't see, but dead reckoning got me to magnitude 5.7 HIP 66400, which is just about 3.5 degrees north of M83. Finally, I chanced upon the relatively bright (magnitude 5.8) HIP 66563, with magnitude 7.1 HIP 66539 just to its south-southwest. M83 is nearly at the same declination as the latter, and makes a 120 degree isosceles triangle with the two.

M83 was just barely visible, but it was definitely there. I noted a distinct elongation, which I assumed was the central bar. However, I was unpleased to note that it was not aligned at the angle I expected it to be, based on the depiction in PalmAtlas. It appeared to show an angle of 110 degrees, rather than 70 deg. Later, I would trace the discrepancy to a bug in the program (which I fixed). No other detail was visible—under the conditions, I think it's a threshold observation for me. Best seen at 20 mm (63x).

As a minor coda, I turned Opus back to Algieba, gamma Leonis. The brilliant pair was a nice capstone on the night, especially after the hard work in tracking down and seeing M83.

And on that somewhat anticlimactic note, Opus completed his Messier survey. A marathon, if you will. I wonder what happens to people who complete one of these with a single instrument. Is there a risk of being satisfied and losing the urge to observe? I can only say that I feel the exact opposite. For so long, I've had these last few Messier objects gnawing at me, and now I feel I'm free to pursue some other, murkier objects. Of course I was free to do so before, and I have done, but the lifting of that agenda is palpable.

10:30 p.m. 23 February 2001 PST (0630 24 February 2001 UTC)

Opus invited himself (through me <g>) over to Ben Kolstad's place. (He hasn't, as far as I know, named his telescope yet.) Ben observes from an apartment balcony with a view of only half the sky, sweeping from about southwest, through north, to the northeast. In the late evening, for example, Leo was just barely visible to us bipeds; it was blocked by the apartment roof to Opus (a triped) and Ben's 6-inch f/8 Cave (a uniped).

Still, the view to the north is essentially unobstructed. Saturn could be seen until only a couple of degrees before it set, then light pollution and atmospheric extinction conspired to wink it out. Our first target was M81 and M82. I've now got the hang of finding it in my 5-inch SCT, and was able to do so in about a minute. I think I'm going to have to rethink my claim, made on sci.astro.amateur a month or two ago, that I find it easier to see M82 than M81. Certainly that wasn't the case on this night. M81 was an easily seen fuzzy dot, but M82's streak could only barely be seen, perhaps 30 to 40 percent of the time. Maybe it was the light pollution.

I tried to find it in the Cave, and it was just a bear. It really confirmed my suspicion, which I mentioned much more recently on SAA, that "hand-sky coordination" is really a skill to be learned over a period of time. I simply couldn't get the scope to go where I wanted. I had the spot picked out in the finder (though we had to work on the focus a bit—that's a whole 'nuther story), but I couldn't get to it! It took a few minutes of time fiddling with the massive RA and dec axes before I finally got M81 in the view.

I found the Cave view to be impressively sharp, but a bit dimmer than I expected, given the view in the C5+. Ben and I concluded that since the scope was old, it might need to be refinished, but it seems to have a smooth figure.

We also spent some time tracking down M35 and trying to see NGC 2158 in the murk (that didn't work). Every time I find M35, I have a better sense for the field stars in the area. Makes it much less of a guess, even in severe light pollution.

Also looked at M42 and the Trapezium in particular. A through D were bright and easy, especially at powers of 80x and up, but I couldn't say for sure I saw E. Very dim. Ben suspected it as well in the Cave, but neither of us could verify it. F was invisible to me; I'm not sure Ben tried for it.

Last was h3945, a nice little Albireo-like gem in Canis Major. Its separation is 27 arcseconds, just a little tighter than Albireo, and its stars are magnitude 4.8 and 6.0, so just a little dimmer too. It could not be seen by the unaided eye in these skies, as it was just too low, and even if it had been at the zenith it would have been a very hard find. But through the scope it is a wonderful sight.

Copyright (c) 2001 Brian Tung