My Observing Log: September/October 1999

1:00 a.m. 10 September 1999 PDT (0800 10 September 1999 UTC)

It was my birthday (actually just one hour past my birthday ended) and the first chance I had had in some time to go out observing. I patched up my QuickCam and decided to do some planet imaging along with my observing. You can see the results here.

Other than that, it was a night of good seeing and poor transparency, a not uncommon combination. While the scope was cooling down, I trained Opus at Jupiter first. The Jovian was still wavering a little in the scope-induced seeing, but clearly evident were the SEB, the NEB, and the NTB. Outside of those, the cloud details merged into a murky grey. The southern side of the NEB had two extended knobs; the 9 mm ortho plus the Barlow revealed these to be festoons, with tails trailing.

Saturn too was a bit swimmy at first, partly because of the scope, partly because it was still a little low in the sky. I took the opportunity to do some imaging. It took a while to find Jupiter, and then it occurred to me to defocus it and turn up the gain on the camera, and the enlarged diffraction rings were easier to capture at least a part of.

I had just captured 10 images of both gas giants when I took off the imaging paraphernalia and put the eyepiece back in (9 mm ortho plus Barlow). By this time the scope had cooled down quite sufficiently and the seeing was magnificent—a 9, with just a slight bit of movement every now and then. The Cassini, spread out to good advantage by the large angle of the rings, was plain to see and as sharp as I have ever seen it. The C ring was evident where it crossed the planet disc, and there were even moments when I thought I saw it against the dark sky between the B ring and the planet, but I can't call it a definite sighting. Still, it was an awe-inspiring sight. I found myself wishing that the Vixen LV zoom eyepiece I was using went even shorter than 8 mm; this was a night when Opus was taking all the magnification I was giving it.

Sadly, those conditions only lasted for about 20 minutes. Then the air steadiness degraded a little, only a little, but sufficiently to make the Division swimmy again. Too bad I didn't use eyepiece projection—at the magnification I used, the planet only spanned about 12 pixels. I'll do it next time, if I get even a sniff of good seeing.

1:00 a.m. 14 September 1999 PDT (0800 14 September 1999 UTC)

This night I did a quick peek, observing Uranus and Neptune. I guess "finding" is a more appropriate word, for with their 3.7 and 2.3 arc second discs, respectively, there's not much to see in the way of detail. It was also an excuse for me to fine tune my computerized analog setting circles routine (see the GOTO question in the Tips section).

I did my usual polar alignment, which consists of plopping Opus down on his workbench, and visually "kind of" pointing the scope toward Polaris. I don't mess around with the altitude setting, as that is a pain to fix on the C5+ (and yes, I still intend to design a fine altitude adjustment mechanism). As a result, it's semi-permanently set to 34 degrees north. This method, which takes all of, oh, about 5 seconds, is sufficient to get me within 2 or 3 degrees of true north, plenty good enough for tracking for visual observing, but nearly good enough for just using the setting circles blindly.

I calibrated the alignment program on Altair in Aquila and Antares in Scorpius. I used a 25 mm eyepiece, not terribly precise, but I felt I could eyeball to within a couple of minutes of arc on each centering. I fed the setting circle readings into my alignment program, requested the current position of Uranus, and dialed it into Opus's setting circles.

Was it there? Hmm, hard to tell. There were two equally bright "stars" in the field of view, one only a bit east of center, the other rather further south. Of course, at 50x, neither appeared anything but stellar. A quick check of my planetarium program revealed that Uranus was the one south of center. Assuming that the field of view through this eyepiece was approximately 1 degree, I'd say Uranus was about 25 minutes from the center. Not terrible, but hardly inspiring either.

Neptune would be harder to identify, were it not for my planetarium program. This time the field of view included some five stars that could have been Neptune. It turned out again to be the one south of center, again about 25 minutes away, nearly out of the field of view. After thinking about it for a moment, I came up with a possible explanation.

My program works by figuring out the distances from the two alignment stars to the target position. The accuracy of this method depends very much on having the separation between the two target stars be represented accurately as well. If, due to axial flexure, this separation isn't what is expected by the program, then significant errors can crop up, especially along the great circle connecting the two alignment stars. Such was with the case here, as Altair and Antares are both reasonably close to the ecliptic, and of course, Uranus and Neptune both are.

I hope to fix this in an update soon. As far as actual observing went, a disc was evident on Uranus as soon as I went to about 139x with the 9 mm ortho. Below that, the disc was simply too small to distinguish from the other stars. The color that Uranus is supposed to exhibit was too hard to see through the bad sky transparency, I think. Neptune didn't show an incontrovertible disc at any magnification I had available with me; by the time I had enough magnification to make Neptune non-point-like, I was able to see the Airy discs of other stars—in fact, I couldn't not see them. Maybe I need a night of somewhat better seeing. It was only fair, about a 5.

1:00 a.m. 20 September 1999 PDT (0800 20 September 1999 UTC)

Tonight, I just wanted to do some planetary observing of the Jupiter and Saturn sort. Jupiter was first. The seeing was unusual; it seemed perfectly steady, I could see absolutely no sign of wavering, and yet considerably less detail was visible on Jupiter than I've seen before. I don't know for certain whether this is just because Jupiter is plain bland now, but I kind of doubt it.

In any case, the GRS was visible and as another SAA poster has put it, I can't believe it is as white as it is. It is pale, mostly creme colored, with just the barest hint of pink. The NEB and one additional belt to the north (NTB?) were both easily visible—in the south, only the SEB could be seen. The NEB had a pair of festoons on its equatorial side; one directly north of the GRS, and another about 50 joviocentric degrees to the leading side of the GRS. But overall, the disc was lower in detail than I've seen it in the past.

All four Galilean satellites were visible. I think that based on how they appeared, that the two larger ones were outermost on either side, and the two smaller ones were innermost on either side. But that's how they orbit too, so it's hardly surprising. (Later note: Indeed they weren't! Callisto and Ganymede were both on the west side of the planet, while smaller Io and Europa were both on the east side.)

Saturn appeared a little better. The Cassini division was easily visible all around the planet, a viewing situation that I think will more commonly occur as the rings widen even further. I could even see the C or crepe ring; I'd count this as my first 100 percent certain sighting of this through Opus. It was only visible at 167x with the 15 mm Plossl and the Barlow. Lower magnifications made the sky glow hide the ring, and higher magnifications were too unclear. It was surprising to me how narrow a band of magnifications revealed this ring. The disc of Saturn is typically more boring than Jupiter's, but even here I could see two festoon-like features. I don't know what was up with Jupiter.

By this time it was well past two in the morning and I looked up and realized that Orion was rising in the sky. I put in my f/6.3 reducer/corrector and examined M42. Only about 15 or 20 degrees up in a seriously light-polluted sky, it revealed only a small, unremarkable puffiness, a scant hint of glorious views to come. Observing the Trapezium at high powers revealed the four main stars—A, B, C, and D—but only a few fleeting questionable glimpses of E, and of course not a whiff of F. (Opus has caught all six before, so we know it's possible.)

While I was in Orion, I examined Rigel with the 9 mm ortho, for (let's see now) 87x. The dim B component of Rigel (it's a double star) was plainly evident, though a little wiggly. I pulled back to the Vixen zoom eyepiece to try for the Crab again, but again it eluded me. It may simply be too hard to see in my light-polluted skies, but I'm going to keep trying until it gets high in the sky.

I used the R/C with the 32 mm Plossl to catch the entire Pleiades in one splendid view. While sighting toward the Pleiades, I was surprised to note that I could see 10 stars by the unaided eye! The stars are all bright enough to see, so I think the main thing is steady seeing and the use of averted vision to locate the stars. Then direct vision is able to see them as well. A nice treat!

I finished up with the Double Cluster in Perseus (although I hop to it from the two easternmost stars in the W of Cassiopeia). It's also framed very nicely by the two-degree wide field of view through the R/C and 32 mm Plossl. Most deep sky objects are lessened by substantial light pollution, but open clusters are least harmed and I always find them nice to look at.

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

This was one of my shorter observing sessions. It had been clear all day, but as I was complaining to one of my former co-workers (no, my astronomy "obsession" has nothing to do with that), we've had a long succession of clear days followed by cloudy nights, and sure enough, as dusk fell, the marine layer condensed and seemed prepared to camp out all night.

Around 10:00, though, parts of the sky seemed to clear a little, but I couldn't get free quite yet. Finally, around midnight, I could set up. By this time, though, the cloud bank was advancing once again. I'm proud to report that I observed on a night with a limiting magnitude of about 0.5 over most of the sky, but fortunately about 1.5 near where I was working, which was Saturn and Jupiter, at 139x exclusively (a 9 mm ortho).

It was too cloudy, though, for even Saturn to reveal much. To add insult to injury, our next door neighbor (we currently live in a town house) had his air conditioning condenser going on right in front of where I set up my scope, which made for suboptimal seeing. I could evade the effects of this to some degree but not entirely. I'm looking forward to moving in the next couple of months.

Even with the A/C running (for no good reason that I can tell), the Cassini division was intermittently visible in the ansae, but never in front of the planet. There was some clotting detectable in the southern belt, and the usual contrast with the lighter equatorial zone was easy to note. Otherwise, observation over a period of about five minutes was unrevealing and worse, unpromising.

I shifted my attention, then, to Jupiter. It's considerably brighter than Saturn and could make its light felt through the cloud cover. By this time, Saturn had vanished; I estimated the limiting magnitude now at about –0.5 (!). I watched as one of the satellites off of Jupiter's leading edge vanished unevenly. In fact, I didn't actually catch it; the cloud bank was so thick and patchy that Jupiter's brightness was going up and down like a seesaw, and at first I thought that the satellite had just dimmed too far. But then Jupiter returned to a semblance of its ordinary brightness with only three of the Galilean satellites remaining, so it must have gotten eclipsed. (Later note: This was Europa, which was predicted to disappear into eclipse at 0715. My watch read 12:18, or 0718, but it's a little fast, so that was probably it.) The changing transparency precluded an accurate determination of how long it took the satellite to dim and finally disappear.

Other than that, surface details were off and on and a bit frustrating. There were a pair of festoons leading off the south edge of the NEB. The trailing of the two led off into an equatorial disturbance that went from leading to trailing (as you might expect). There was a northward kink in the NTB just a little ahead of the trailing festoon. Occasional patterns of detail within the SEB would reveal themselves, but too quickly for me to get a good fix on them. I couldn't see any of the ovals, but I don't know if the bigger ones are visible on this side.

After 20 minutes, the clouds got too bad for even Jupiter observing. The gas giant was still visible by the unaided eye, but the overwhelming lack of transparency made its disc dark and details elusive. I decided to pack it in for the night.

12:30 a.m. 5 October 1999 PDT (0730 5 October 1999 UTC)

After spending all evening packing for a house move, I was determined to unwind with a bout of observing. I only intended to watch Jupiter and Saturn, but as it turned out—well, I'll explain in a moment how it all turned out.

But Jupiter was first, as he often is these days. After a quick check of the collimation, I centered it at 139x. The view was pleasingly sharp at this magnification, but as I found out when I tried it, there was a bit more detail visible at 167x. I'd rate the seeing as about a 5 or a 6, with occasional bursts of very good 7. The equatorial zone, which was mostly quiet the last few times I'd observed, was a riot of activity this time. Ripples of color ran all along the width of the disc, thinning out only at the meridian. The SEB all but phased out toward the leading edge of the disc. I could see hints of a pale oval shape at the start of the disturbance, and later confirmed that this was indeed the GRS. The spike of SEB trailing the GRS bled right into the equatorial zone. The STZ was a brilliant white, in contrast to the SEB's dull brown, and the STB was a wavy thin band.

The northern hemisphere was a bit more subdued, but only a bit. A couple of festoons were visibly hanging from the equatorial edge of the NEB, on the trailing side, and bulges were present both top and bottom on the leading side. The NTB showed a couple of kinks roughly corresponding to the north-edge bulges on the NEB.

Saturn was a treat again, too. Just like last time, I found the crepe ring at 167x, but this time, once I had it at 167x, I could see it at 139x, and it was shown to better effect at that magnification, actually. I thought it might be interesting to try to catch the mid-A-ring Encke minima. I was unable to discern it, but I did see something at the tips of the ansae that might be a related contrast effect. Right where you would expect to see the smooth, extended dip in brightness that is the Encke minima, just to the outside of it, I saw a shimmering crescent-shaped whiteness. It was present on both ansae, though it was brighter on the celestial eastern one (trailing ansa). Has anyone ever seen that effect before? It was very subtle, not at all glaring.

Orion had risen above the muck by about 30 degrees at the belt. I trained Opus at the Trapezium and viewed at 139x. The main four stars were coruscating, and E was intermittently visible—perhaps 10 percent of the time—but absolutely no sign of F. Not surprising given the variability in the seeing.

Then it occurred to me to take advantage of some advice given to me by that longtime SAA deep-sky observer, owner of a C14 named after an invisible 6-foot-plus rabbit, and general all-around level-headed guy, Jay Freeman. I've wanted to see M1, the Crab Nebula, through Opus while in the light-polluted Santa Monica area. Jay suggested that I use the SkyGlow broadband filter and a wide variety of magnifications, two things I didn't have at my disposal last winter when I tried this.

Tonight I slid the SkyGlow filter on my Vixen 8–24 zoom, and started out at 24 mm (52x). A significant amount of sky glow was still visible even with the filter on. I moved into the right area—I know the star field there reasonably well—and focused in on the right spot. Nothing. Just vague sky haze. I looked up—a bit of figuring yielded a limiting magnitude in the area of about 4.0, give or take about 0.2.

From 52x, there was nowhere to go but up, so I very slowly dialed the magnification up, taking care to focus every little bit so as not to lose it. (The Crab is a fuzzy, to be sure, but even fuzzies are helped by a good, tight focus.) The sky brightness decreased quite noticeably, and I chose a point I found comfortable scanning in. Still nothing. I closed both eyes, breathed evenly for about a minute, then opened them again. Slightly brighter nothing this time.

I repeated this tactic for about 15 minutes, without much success but determined to make a solid attempt at it. Finally, it seemed to have done some good. At one point, looking directly at a 10th-magnitude star in the neighborhood revealed a faint blur by averted vision, right where the Crab should be. Not quite ready to believe it yet, I crawled around to the other side of the scope, feeling my way around with my eyes closed, and tried again. Once more there was a faint blur, without much shape to it, but quite definitely a brightening. I sat up from the eyepiece and discovered somewhat to my surprise that I was breathing hard, exhausted. It really had been quite an effort, but it had also been worth it. I took a quick peek at the zoom setting; it was at about 20 mm (63x).

I'm sure I'll see it to better effect under darker skies and through bigger scopes, but nothing will really compare with seeing it at home through Opus himself. A faraway star detonates violently, and thousands of years later, it reveals itself as a barely perceptible fluff of faint cotton in a 5-inch SCT. What a thrill, and what a hobby we've chosen for ourselves!

8:45 p.m. 5 October 1999 PDT (0345 6 October 1999 UTC)

It's a little unusual for me to go observing back-to-back nights, but I had a specific mission this time, something I'd been planning to do for some time: test my analog setting circles pointing program, misleadingly named goto.c (but I doubt I'll change it now). What it does is ask you to point the telescope (it can be any one) at two alignment stars of your choice and enter the analog circle readings. Subsequently, you give it the real coordinates of an object, and it tells you what circle settings to dial in to locate it. It takes care of the alignment error accumulating over time, and it also makes a nodding attempt to deal with non-perpendicular axes.

Since it uses the human user as an "organic encoder," its accuracy is limited to the accuracy of the initial alignment, as well as how perpendicular the two mount axes are. Here's the script from tonight's run, which extended over about half an hour:

% goto
 1.  alpha Aquilae (Altair)               297.695     8.867
 2.  alpha Aurigae (Capella)               79.172    45.999
 3.  alpha Bootis (Arcturus)              213.918    19.187
 4.  alpha Canis Majoris (Sirius)         101.289   –16.713
 5.  epsilon Canis Majoris (Adhara)       104.656   –28.972
 6.  alpha Canis Minoris (Procyon)        114.827     5.228
 7.  alpha Carinae (Canopus)               95.988   –52.696
 8.  alpha Centauri (Rigil Kentaurus)     219.920   –60.835
 9.  beta Centauri (Hadar)                210.956   –60.373
10.  alpha Crucis (Acrux)                 186.650   –63.099
11.  beta Crucis (Mimosa)                 191.930   –59.689
12.  alpha Cygni (Deneb)                  310.358    45.280
13.  beta Cygni (Albireo)                 292.680    27.960
14.  alpha Eridani (Achernar)              24.428   –57.237
15.  alpha Geminorum (Castor)             113.650    31.889
16.  beta Geminorum (Pollux)              116.331    28.026
17.  alpha Leonis (Regulus)               152.094    11.967
18.  beta Leonis (Denebola)               177.266    14.572
19.  alpha Lyrae (Vega)                   279.234    38.783
20.  alpha Orionis (Betelgeuse)            88.793     7.407
21.  beta Orionis (Rigel)                  78.634    –8.202
22.  beta Persei (Algol)                   47.042    40.956
23.  alpha Piscis Austrini (Fomalhaut)    344.412   –29.622
24.  alpha Scorpii (Antares)              247.352   –26.432
25.  alpha Tauri (Aldebaran)               68.980    16.510
26.  eta Tauri (Alcyone)                   56.871    24.105
27.  alpha Ursae Majoris (Dubhe)          165.933    61.751
28.  zeta Ursae Majoris (Mizar)           200.981    54.925
29.  alpha Ursae Minoris (Polaris)         37.946    89.264
30.  alpha Virginis (Spica)               201.298   –11.161

Enter calibration stars by index number: 19 23

Point to alpha Lyrae (Vega)                  
    Enter RA, Dec: 322.6 38.8

Point to alpha Piscis Austrini (Fomalhaut)   
    Enter RA, Dec: 27.9 –29.5

Calibration completed.
Skew factor: 0.999993

Enter desired RA, Dec: 30.594     +10.810     [Jupiter]
Point to RA  74.073 ( 4h 56.3m), Dec  10.921  [off by 15 arc minutes]
Enter desired RA, Dec: 35.160     +57.130     [Perseus Double Cluster]
Point to RA  78.735 ( 5h 14.9m), Dec  57.237  [off by 20 arc minutes]
Enter desired RA, Dec: 297.694509  +08.867385 [Altair (alpha Aquilae)]
Point to RA 341.144 (22h 44.6m), Dec   8.920  [off by 15 arc minutes]
Enter desired RA, Dec: 322.492     +12.167    [M15 (Pegasus Globular)]
Point to RA   5.941 ( 0h 23.8m), Dec  12.262  [off by 10 arc minutes]
Enter desired RA, Dec: 17.432490  +35.620830  [beta Andromedae]
Point to RA  60.917 ( 4h  3.7m), Dec  35.746  [off by 15 arc minutes]
Enter desired RA, Dec: 10.675     +40.866     [M32 (companion of M31)]
Point to RA  54.150 ( 3h 36.6m), Dec  40.993  [off by 10 arc minutes]
Enter desired RA, Dec:

My comments are in brackets [like this]. Note that the alignment star setting circle readings must be given in decimal form; I just did this because it's easier to parse. It would be a simple though tedious process to allow it to accept the sexagesimal notation that's actually printed on the RA circle.

The skew factor is the ratio between the measured separation of the two alignment stars and the actual separation. Here, it's basically one, to the precision of the setting circles, suggesting the transform should be a simple rotation (though that's not how the program recreates the coordinates).

The remainder of the script shows the entered and directed coordinates of six different objects: Jupiter, the Double Cluster, Altair, M15, beta Andromedae, and M32. As you can see, the average error of this small sample was about 15 arc minutes. Nearly all of the error was in right ascension; I didn't measure it specifically, but I would guess that the average error in declination was about 3 to 5 arc minutes. With the exception of the Double Cluster, the center of each object was within the field of view of a 15 mm Plossl on the C5+ (about 0.6 degrees across); with the Double Cluster, of course, plenty of the cluster was visible, even though the center between the two open clusters was just out of the field of view.

One of these objects, M15, I had never seen before; I decided to add it in to legitimize the observing session. This is a nice globular! It seems to have a wedge-shaped arc of stars on the eastern portion, and it also seemed to resolve better on the western edge of the cluster. Not as large as M13, but quite conceivably a better sight with Opus under these skies. I actually didn't trust my program and used the 32 mm Plossl, and found I didn't need it at all—it was the closest hit out of the six.

While I don't intend to use this program a whole lot at the scope—it's simply too easy to star-hop to targets rather than laboriously use the setting circles—it was an interesting exercise in how such programs might work, though to be honest I have no idea how commercial DSC computers actually work and what algorithms they use.

4:30 p.m. 7 October 1999 PDT (2330 7 October 1999 UTC)

In order to save some time for sleep, I did my observing during the day today. Equipped with my reasonably flat Thousand Oaks solar filter, I played around with the finder open (but not looking through it, of course), until I had the sun fairly well centered in it. A look through the filtered main scope revealed dozens of sunspots, including a large one just north of center, with a prominent penumbra perhaps about 20 or 30 thousand kilometers wide.

But my ultimate target was not the sun today. Mercury was located some 18 degrees east and 8.5 degrees south of the sun, having passed superior conjunction a couple of weeks ago and heading toward a mediocre evening elongation of about 24 degrees. Using the setting circles, and of course removing the filter from Opus's face, I was able to locate Mercury as a tiny dot through the main scope, with the handy Vixen zoom set at 24 mm (52x). Strangely enough, it was invisible through the finder.

Dialing up the magnification up to 156x showed Mercury's slightly gibbous (about 85 percent illuminated, according to Sky and Telescope) face. I was surprised that the phase was that evident—I would have estimated it at 70 to 75 percent. I tried instead the 15 mm Plossl, Barlowed, for 167x, and was somewhat surprised to see three or four rather distinct albedo features. The seeing was only so-so (I'd give it a rating of 4 or 5), so I wasn't sure, but 30 minutes of nearly continuous observing didn't sway my belief that I did really see something there.

There was a bright spot near the leading edge of the disc, at about 30 degrees north latitude. This may have been about the spot that was directly underneath the sun; in any case, it was the only bright feature I saw. The remaining markings were all dark patches. In the southern hemisphere, there was a broad swath that ran from about 60 degrees south latitude at the leading edge to about 45 degrees south latitude near the central meridian, which I estimate to be about 40 degrees east longitude.

In the northern hemisphere, there was instead a broad dark marking that ran at about a constant 45 degrees north latitude near the terminator to nearly the leading edge. A somewhat brighter (less contrasty) patch branched off to the south at about the central meridian and ran around the south of the bright spot. I will be posting a sketch of what I saw on my web page, since I think in this case pictures are better than words.

Update: Here's the sketch.

sketch of Mercury

It would be interesting to see if these markings persist, or if they are really contrast effects and other optical illusions after all.

9:30 p.m. 11 October 1999 PDT (0430 12 October 1999 UTC)

My wife Debby is a piano teacher, and she told me recently that the father of one of her students had a 10-inch scope of some sort and wanted to find someone to observe with. I asked her what kind of scope it was, and she said, "I think it was an LX two—"

Say no more. When do we go?

The scope is not Allan's exclusively; he has a share in it, one of about seven of varying sizes. However, since a seventh of the scope would be difficult to use, it really is circulated randomly amongst the participants, though Allan is really the only one to have used it at all frequently.

Debby was busy—teaching, as it turns out—until about 8 at night, so that's when we set out. I went over to Allan's house and watched him pack up the LX200 into the van. It was actually surprising to me that the box wasn't larger; it can be a one-person job, all at once. The tripod is the only extra piece of equipment, and we were on our way.

We went up Interstate 5, into the mountains, and got off at the Templin Highway exit. On the west side of the highway you can turn north onto a short stretch of road, called the Golden State Highway (just as I-5 itself is called). This extends for about 3 miles and then abruptly ends at the bottom of a gentle slope. It levels out briefly near the bottom and that's where we set up. The horizon isn't the greatest and the sky glow is still sufficient to limit us to mag 5.5 skies, but it's better than home.

For all that it was simple to load, the LX200 takes much longer than Opus, my C5+, to set up. Allan also had some trouble configuring it at first, so while that was going on, I decided to go on with my own agenda.

First on my list, to warm up, was M27, the Dumbbell Nebula. Even from my light-polluted town house this object is reasonably easy to find and see, and I was able to find it rather easily in mag 4.5 skies with a pair of binoculars on a business trip once in Phoenix. But it really shines from a dark sky. The hourglass shape is immediately visible, and as I sat there for a few minutes more, the top and bottom of the hourglass gradually extended outward to form the less familiar football shape. Oddly, I found it easier to find new detail if I moved the scope just enough to put M27 out of the field of view, and then moved it back a moment later.

Despite its brightness, averted vision is still quite useful on the Dumbbell; it allowed me to see hints of striations in the nebula, so that it took on something of a mottled nature. It would be hard for me to sketch that out with anything more than a general idea, since these features disappeared the moment I tried to look at them directly.

Next up was Jupiter, just to check the seeing. As is often the case when I head up into the San Fernando mountains to observe, the seeing was fair at best, at least by the standards that I am used to when observing at home. I would rate it as a 3–4, but from what I hear on SAA, the seeing on the west coast is pretty good, by and large, so perhaps others would count this night as reasonable. In any event, little detail other than three belts—the NTB, the NEB, and the SEB—was visible for a few minutes, so I decided to devote my time rather to objects no so easily seen from home. Most of the following objects were observed at 25x, with the 32 mm Plossl and a f/6.3 focal reducer; some were re-examined at 53x with a 15 mm Plossl.

The first of these was M74. On Messier Marathon night, this is a hard object to see, since it sets just as night is really beginning to darken, but on this night it was relatively easy. I found it faint and broad, with a moderate central darkening; I could see no detail to speak of with either direct or averted vision.

M77 is a lone galaxy quite near to delta Ceti, not far from Mira, a well-known intrinsic variable. Through the eyepiece, one finds it even closer to a rather bright (eighth-magnitude?) field star. Unlike M74, M77 is rather concentrated, with a patch of high surface brightness. Just outside that is a halo of sorts, perhaps as wide as the core is, with somewhat lower brightness, then all around the whole of that is a shimmering apron of indistinctly seen dim fuzziness. There was something there, to be sure, but at times I thought it filled much more of the field of view than at others.

Back to something familiar for the next object—M57, the Ring Nebula. In some ways, this is kind of a 'tweener object for a 5-inch SCT like Opus; it's almost too easy to see the "smoke ring" appearance, especially from dark skies, but on the other hand, the central star is completely out of reach. Still, I just like watching this object. I imagine it to be similar to M27, but with the hourglass aimed to point right at us, allowing us to see its limb brightening.

I followed these up with Uranus and Neptune. I brought along my little laptop with my homebrew planetarium program. I recently added the planets, based on Paul Schlyter's page on computing their positions; this can be found at

I find such a tool indispensable when finding planets; using field stars as dim as ninth or tenth magnitude help to confirm that you've found what you're looking for and saves time switching eyepieces to verify the planetary disc. Uranus, at magnitude about 5.7 or 5.8, is an easy object to find, even from home; Neptune, on the other hand, is an 8th-magnitude point of light, and with the grotty seeing, was generally indistinguishable from the stars that surrounded it; it was only its position that made it clear I was looking at the right thing.

Returning to my widest field (about 2 degrees at 25x), I pointed Opus at the M31/M32/M110 trio. At home, in mag 4.0 skies, M31 is reasonably easy to find, M32 is trivial but uninteresting, and M110 is impossible (at least, I have yet to succeed in finding it from there). Even in dark skies, M110 is an unimpressive, faint blur of grey, almost lost in the splendor that is M31. I showed this collection to my friend Allan, since his 10-inch SCT is too long to show all three at the same time.

The dark lane on the M110 side of M31—well, I couldn't see it as such; instead, I perceived it as a darker, more abrupt edge of M31's disc. To qualify as having seen it as a lane, I suppose I would have to see the rebrightening on the other side, away from the bright core. I didn't think to move that core out of the field of view, to allow my eyes to further dark adapt; perhaps I'll try that next time.

Next up was another galaxy, M33. It's sometimes called the Pinwheel Galaxy, but that name is also applied, perhaps more often, to M101, and also less frequently to M99, so other times it's referred to simply as the Great Triangulum Galaxy. Like M31, it can be found near Mirach, or beta Andromedae, but on the other side of Mirach, and about an equal distance away. This is a face-on spiral, and even in photos it seems almost spotty in appearance, as if its spiral arms couldn't make up their mind as to whether to extend or not. Again, I couldn't quite see the arms as such—maybe darker skies would help—but rather as a patchy disc, with clots of faintly seen grey here and there throughout the disc. Very interesting!

I finished up with three familiar objects, almost as if I can't venture too far into the unknown in one session. The first of these was the Double Cluster. Again I showed these to Allan, since they fit very well in a 2-degree field of view. The western one of these showed two very bright and reddish stars; the eastern one just one.

Brocchi's Cluster, otherwise known as the Coathanger Cluster, is found in Vulpecula, but I really think of it as belonging to Cygnus the Swan. (Of course, I also think of M27 as belonging to Cygnus, even though it's technically in Sagitta.) Even Opus isn't the right scope to look at this through; it's too large. Better would be a rich field, short-focus scope like the Pronto/Ranger duo, or a pair of binoculars.

Last was M45. Like the Coathanger, this shows to best effect in a pair of binoculars or a rich field scope, but I still like finishing up with this since it's just so nice to look at. I didn't look for the Merope Nebula and in retrospect I wish I had, but it'll just have to wait for the next time…

I did look through the LX200 a few times, in particular at M27. Through that scope the football shape of the nebula is instantly obvious, which tells you something about aperture which you probably already knew. We also spent some time running through the LX200's object catalog, mostly NGC objects. It has a kind of tour mode in which it finds nice things to look at, which are only identified by the NGC number. Some of these are Messier objects, and we had a fun time trying to identify what the scope was moving to before we looked through the eyepiece.

I don't know about this scope. It was great to look through, nice views and everything, but it was a hassle to set up. Maybe if we went out more often, it would become smoother, but I like being able to just plunk my scope down and start looking. Time and more observing will have to tell, I suppose.

Copyright (c) 1999 Brian Tung