Observation Report, Camp Rio Blanco, 14-April-2018

Girls Scouts of South Plains and greater Crosbyton area
Richard Craig Celestron 150 XLT (6″ F/5 reflector)
Gary Leiker 12″ Meade SCT
Scott Harris & Lesley C8
Mark Smith 10″ F/5.5
Humble Narrator GSO 8″ dobsonian

The last astronomer from Lubbock to arrive, I pulled into Camp Rio Blanco at about 10:20, and aligned my Rigel & 50mm Right-Angle finders to Castor by 10:45. I installed the Explore Scientific 28mm 68* eyepiece to start things off, offering some of the widest fields of view I can get out of my scope, and proceeded to examine M42, swimming in a sea of disordered turbulence near the horizon this mid-April evening. The Trapezium showed up, as well as the rose-shaped nebulosity, but the wavering, watery low-power view guaranteed that higher power would not be rewarded this evening, at least not anywhere near the horizon, but I would find the “seeing” this night not conducive to high power, even towards the zenith. Scott forewarned me of this, and he was right.

But I have to test everything for myself, so I put in a 5mm T6 Nagler, for a whopping 246x view, only to find Castor turned to mush, so, indeed, no high powered viewing this evening; the skies didn’t support it. Fortunately, my 11mm T6 (112x) was enough to split the pair, and Alpha Geminorum resolved into a pair of tight, white pinpoints.

So I returned to wider powered views, putting M37 into the eyepiece. I loaned Richard my ES 28mm 68* eyepiece for him to find M35 as well, and I, having used that same eyepiece to find M35 with ghostly NGC 2158 beside it, dropped a SuperView 42mm into the focuser to continue my wide angle, 2″ eyepiece viewing experience in my dobsonian. Although M37, probably my all time favorite open cluster, or at least a serious contender to M11, looked very, very nice in my SV 42mm, I prefer the vista in the ES 28mm 68*. Somewhat higher magnification with not a whole lot loss of field, it’s hard to beat in my dobsonian.

But Richard was about finished and he soon packed up and left, so I put the ES 28mm 68* back in the focuser and continued on my star path to M36, then M38 with its ghostly NGC 1907 companion. It’s odd to me how many star guidebooks miss this simple collection of open clusters. M35 (with NGC 2158), M37, M36 & M38 (with NGC 1907) form a nice grouping of Messier open clusters, with the orderly first and last having faint, much more distant NGC open clusters behind them providing ghostly companions to these “bookends”, with the two out-of-order clusters in-between. Fellow astronomer and dragonfly enthusiast Jerry Hatfield has christened M38 the “Zia” cluster, after the symbol that centers the New Mexico state flag, and to which M38 has a modern-artsy-ish resemblance.

Mark Smith put M81/M82 into the eyepiece, and was that a sight! That old 10″ F/5.5 has some nice optics, and Mark was sharing the views. Besides these two, one could pan over from M81 and pick up NGC 3077 as well. A nice set. And Gary Leiker was able to fish out M100 in Coma Berenices in his 12″ SCT. It was dim, but pretty, the 12″ of aperture demonstrating its photon grabbing capabilities. Didn’t see much of Lesley, it was pretty cool when I arrived and only got colder as the night went along, so she spent most of her time in Scott’s pickup with blankets on herself. Scott, on the other hand, kept his C8 on Jupiter, which, as the night evolved, turned from a churning white dot to at least a wavy striped planet, the higher it got above the horizon (tho never high enough to be good and stable, given its present, pre-opposition position in the sky). Was good to have our only engaged couple out, tho. Even love birds should be able to fly to the heavens from time to time.

After meandering between Taurus and Auriga, I returned to Gemini to try and grab NGC 2392, the Eskimo Nebula, the vast, dying ember of a white dwarf shrouded in its thrown off shells of gas, giving it a distinct, gray-aquamarine eskimo-parka appearance. After some interaction with my copy of the Sky & Telescope Pocket Atlas, I found our hooded, glowing, post-fusion stellar friend.

From Gemini, I went to Cancer and the Beehive, M44. Andrea and her mother, Victoria, came by briefly to observe with the other Girl Scouts in bed, as Richard headed out. The Beehive was glowing in the sky overhead, with Mark borrowing my Pan 24, and me hot on the heels of the Eskimo, having put in the 1.25″ Tele Vue 11mm T6, tried to show her the Beehive through my dob with the Tele Vue 16mm T5. Although it affords just over a degree in my dob, that’s not nearly enough to frame the Beehive very well, but it is obvious that M44 is, indeed, composed of a bunch of individual stars, and Andrea was impressed, so there ya go.

Although Andrea and Victoria didn’t hang around too long to see, next up for me was the nearby colorful double star Iota Cancri. Although pretty, I enjoyed splitting Gamma Leonis, Algieba, more. It’s tighter, and although the colors are more subtle, there is a difference between them (cream and gray-green to me). Their tightness, along with the higher power required to separate them, made them more challenging and consequently satisfying to split than the wide Iota Cancri.

Gary, Scott and Mark began to pack up, but I fell deeper into outer space — 21 million light years away to the Pinwheel Galaxy, M101 in Ursa Major. For the rest of the evening I’d use the 1.55* field the 2″ Explore Scientific 28mm 68* eyepiece affords in my scope. Although always faint and ghostly, the spiral arms could just be made out in these dark, eastern Crosby County skies off the Caprock in my 8″ dob. And 23 million light year away M51, the Whirlpool Galaxy, technically in Canes Venatici, but closer to the end star of the Big Dipper, Alkaid, than Cor Coroli showed forth its round galactic arms. Of course, one gets two galaxies here, with nearby dwarf galaxy NGC 5195 interacting with its huge, spiral armed master, M51.

In the neighborhood, I went down just below to the “bottom right” of the bowl of the Dipper and observed the 46 million light years away edge-on galaxy M108, along with the mere 2,030 light year distant Owl Nebula, M97. Fellow astronomers gone, it was me, the sky, the coyote calls and the cool of the April deep-evening.

Noticing Arcturus, I jumped over to the globular cluster M3 in Canes Venatici, some 33,900 light years distant. This is a nice sight framed against the sky, but it was back to Leo and galaxies, as New Moon in Spring calls for. Turning my attention to the underbelly of the Lion, I was able to frame the squat triangle that M95, M96 (squat “top”), and M106 comprise. Also, M106 has the adjacent NGC 3384 just off to its side, and just outside the “bottom” of the triangle in my newtonian reflector. They make a great pairing, and point to a bunch more faint NGC’s up, closer to the belly of Leo. A wonderful place to graze, but I was beginning to feel the cold and still wanted to get in the famous Leo Triplet, so broke off my underbelly oogling and was off to the hind leg.

And just down the hind leg, of course, lies the Leo Triplet of galaxies, M65, M66 with NGC 3628 as the flat top of the triangle, such majestic beauties about the Lion’s thigh.

My send-off vista would be M104, the Sombrero Galaxy, just above Corvus in Virgo, 31-odd million light years distant. The dust lane was visible, and this was a wonderful sight to end a beautiful evening. I hope the Girl Scouts enjoyed it. I know I did. A special thanks to Charles Barker for inviting us and having us out.

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