Observation Report — Sunday night, 03-24-2019

Location: TTU Gott Observatory
Attendees & optics:
Darien Perla 8” SCT imaging system
Darien’s friend
Tom Heisey Big binoculars
Mark Smith 10” F/5.6 dobsonian
Richard Craig Mak 102
Wade Estepp binoculars
Gary Leiker Celestron Edge 8 SCT
Scott Harris NexStar 8SE
Steve Maas binoculars
Your Humble Narrator WO 110mm ED with EQ-3 alt-az mount

I arrived late, even by my standards. I had many family obligations that kept me busy late, but by 22:30 or so, I rolled in to the Gott and did my best to set up as quickly as possible. Unfortunately for me, the EQ-3 alt-az mount I have fashioned, with its metric bolt and two counterweights, is heavy as sin, and took a bit of huffing and puffing, grunting and general pain to establish on the far concrete pad, the main pad pretty busy with everyone’s gear. I was glad to see that, actually. It’s always good when there’s a lot of people and equipment set up. In fact, I didn’t see Richard by his Mak, and he might not have bothered to set it up, but we had plenty of scopes on the pads, so views were readily available.

I can only report on the things I saw, but I did overhear others talking of various items in their eyepieces, so without further ado … I recalled Tom Heisey discussing M78 and Barnard’s Loop with Mark Smith as I set up. Later Tom caught M81/82. Don’t recall him saying anything about NGC 3077, but perhaps he got that one, too. Darien was busy imaging NGC 2903 in Leo for a good portion of the night when I was there. I know Mark Smith put Mars in the eyepiece, even though it was low in the west. This is just what I heard about. There were certainly other targets others put in their scopes, but I was too busy finding or setting up or otherwise too preoccupied to commit to memory the astral adventures others murmured of.

I set up my finderscopes (Baader Sky Surfer III and Orion 7x30mm RA) to Cor Coroli. The color variation was apparent, but not outstanding because I started the evening with my 2” ES 28mm 68ᵒ, which produces a mere 23.57 power view. Now it’s got 2.88ᵒ true field of view, so not half bad, but puny on magnification. But that’s a good power to find things with, and since I was in the neighborhood, I put M51/NGC 5195 into the eyepiece. Well, I’ve seen it better, but again, a nice widefield view on a hazy night.

Being in the neighborhood, I next put the huge, faint face-on spiral M101 into the refractor. It was mostly a blob, but Mark, who was having trouble finding it, kindly allowed me to loan him my Meade 25mm HD 60 and navigate his beast to the beautiful galaxy’s shores. It was more substantial in his 10”, for sure! I’ve seen it much better in darker, more transparent skies, but still pretty nice in Mark’s big light bucket. Both Mark and I tend to look too “low” for M101, not realizing how “high” the triangle-top M101 is to the base of Alkaid and Alcor in the Dipper’s handle. Before leaving Ursa Major, I successfully put my refractor on the M97/M108 pair.

I framed the Double Cluster (NGC’s 869 & 884), then M45, the Pleiades. Steve urged me on to M44, the Beehive, and there she was, a geometric jumble of stars. Moving back to Taurus, I picked up M1, which was an uninspiring fuzz ball.

I ventured further south to try and find Gary’s “discovery” of NGC 2362 in Canis Major — a pretty little set of white stars dominated by Tau Canis Majoris, finally putting 1.25” eyepieces in my scope. From there it was a very short walk over to h3945, the Winter Albireo – large orange-ish primary with a small blue secondary, remarkable.

By this time Wade and Steve had called it a night. It was getting a little colder, as the hours climbed to the end of Sunday toward Monday. I had taken off Monday morning, so wasn’t as concerned as others, I suppose, about the late hour, but cold asks its own price. I was well dressed for a cold night, and it served me well, especially later.

I moved on to the lovely quartet of M35-38, in a line from the Geminid Castor’s foot into Auriga the Charioteer. They’re interesting for many reasons, but one very nice thing is that they’re both in order and out of order. M35 is the first, followed by M37, M36, and finally M38, so it starts and ends where it should, but is mixed up in the middle, kind of like me I suppose. My wife feels that way. M35, 2,800 light years away, is, in our earthly perspective on 3-D outer space, closely bordered by NGC 2158, an open cluster some 11,000-plus light years distant.

The absolute gem of the series, and certainly a candidate for “most beautiful open cluster in the northern skies”, is M37, a glittering array of white loyal thanes surrounding their bright Orange Chieftain. At some 4,500 light years, M37 delights my eye every time I get to behold its heavenly glory.

M36, next in line, is referred to by astronomer friend Jerry Hatfield as the Zia Cluster, because it somewhat mimics the Zia pattern on the New Mexican flag. And the end of our quartet is the “Starfish Cluster” M38. At 3480 light years, M38 is, like M35 at the beginning, also “haunted” by a distant open cluster “ghost” NGC 1907. NGC 1907 is from 4,200 to 5,900 light years away, so not the same distances of M35 and NGC 2158. M38 & NGC 1907 are much closer in outer space (but not very close at 720 light years apart using the most optimistic figures possible). Ironically, from our earthly perspective, M38 is a bit farther from NGC 1907 in terms of arc seconds in our skies compared to the Geminid cluster pair.

I tried to pick out some details with higher power on M42, which had sunk low to the horizon, but the stars of the Trapezium flickered rather wildly even in my 16mm T5, so trying to get the E and F stars was not an option this evening.

Gary and Scott broke their scopes down, and only Richard was still there by the time I put Castor in the eyepiece for a close split, only fitting after all the fiddling with his left foot down below. Clouds had come and gone, but the wind had picked up. It was time to head home.

As I turned off the Observatory road onto the Hardy-Ramanujan Number county highway, the large, waning gibbous almost-Last-Quarter Moon bathed me in an enthusiastic white amidst the darkness, greeting me from the East like a puppy dog’s wagging tail.

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