Log, Aug 24, 2001

104 people. For a wonderful change, skies were clear from horizon to horizon and the Observatory teemed with excited people - in other words exactly what we want. Seeing was quite decent but not as wonderfully stable and clear as 10 days earlier. After three weekends of terrible weather the skies finally cleared today and the promise was there for some fine stargazing at FDO. Our public, also eager for some viewing after many Friday and Saturday disappointments, came out in big numbers. The air was still a bit humid, but was cloud free from start to finish.

Doug had donned his janitor's cap (one of many that the staffers wear), and arrived early with vacuum cleaner in hand to give the observatory a good seasonal clean out. Along with the usual accumulation of dirt, dust, dried grass and cobwebs went probably a hundred spiders and their homes. Sorry guys!

Les, Steve, Joe, Art, Tom and Marcie soon arrived, along with quite a few public, wondering when they could see something through the scope. We usually tell folks it's best to wait until it's dark. Some of them believe us!

We had a Girl Scout troop visit us from Adams up in the northwest corner of Massachussets. This must have been quite a ride for them. A second Girl Scout came from Charlestown. You can't get much closer than that. Les held one of his sidewalk sessions where he points out the bright stars of the summer evening as they wink on one by one. As is quite common during the summer we had visitors from the New York City area who saw their first view of the Milky Way. It is not uncommon to have city dwellers know that the Milky Way exists, but who are amazed to realize that it is a huge band of illumination easily seen by people.

We had many visiting astronomers set up telescopes in all sizes. Art set up his 10" Dobsonian and was moving between M31, the Moon and a hole lot of other targets for the crowd. Our old friend Hank Rayno set up his 20" Obsession Dobs in its usual place in the parking lot. Paul, who is almost a regular now, had his 4.5" short focal length refractor. We had an 8" SCT next to Hank's monster, and finally we had a whole lot of binoculars include a 9x63 on a tripod. People who had to contend with long lines were able to see more objects simply by visiting privately owned scopes. Many thanks to all our visiting scope owners who shared time with our guests.

After most people had seen the moon we moved the 16" over to Mars - due to popular demand. Mars has now receded 20 million miles farther from Earth than it was at opposition two months ago (62 million vs. 42 million miles) so it is noticeably smaller and dimmer. It is also showing just an 87% phase. The dust storm seems to be subsiding somewhat, but detail on the surface was still scant. We did make out the Hellas basin and Syrtis Major, but that is about all. We look forward to the August 2003 great opposition, when Mars will be nearly twice it's current size and 6 times brighter. It will also be 11 degrees higher in the sky, aiding in visual observation from out latitude.

We have a problem when we have large crowds. Staying on a single target such as the Moon or Mars for several hours is a major disservice to people who would like to get a balanced menu of items during a reasoanble period, say dark until 11 PM. However, pulling away from a crowd pleaser like the Moon or Mars, really disappoints children and even adults who have never seen these objects in a fine telescope. Sometimes people got a chance to use exterior telescopes, but even with Art's dobsonian and an array of private telescope, we had nothing with the versatility and size similar to the 16". One of our members, Steve Brandt has come up with a creative and generous solution. He is letting us use his Meade LX200 12" as a secondary telescope.

When Steve's LX200 12" arrives, Steve plans to set it up pointing at "old favorites" freeing up the dome's LX200 16" for deep space objects. Steve's 12" with its GOTO controls will be able to achieve the same magnification as the 16" exept on nights of extraordinary clarity and stability. For example, Mars at 350x in the 12" and Mars at 350x in the 16" will provide nearly identical views. It will be an extremely rare night when we can crowd the limits of the 12" (around 600x) so that we actually can see finer detail on Mars in the 16" (up to 800x). This will be a huge improvement in providing a wide ranging sky experience when we have large groups like tonight.

It is nearly impossible to keep track of where each of the "field telescopes" were pointed. I guess it isn't too far off when I say, almost anything you can imagine which was in the sky tonight. M31 was viewed through at least seven scopes and binoculars. M54, the Swan nebula, the Omega nebula, the Dumbbell, M7, M6, Alireo, Alcor/Mizar were among the targets I got a chance to view through visitors scopes. I'm sure that this barely scratched the surface because I was bouncing here and there making sure as many people had as good a time as we could offer.

Moonset was 11:04 PM, and it was pretty close to that time before all of the public had gotten their first viewing in. Someone over on Arnolda Drive, just outside of Ninigret Park, has installed some gazillion candlepower floodlights on their property. Although they don't shine directly at the dome, they do illuminate the whole northern end of the park, hindering our viewing in that direction. The directors will work with George Bliven and the town officials to have the lights removed. (There's bound to be a lighting restriction near the nature preserve; if not, there will be!)

Even with the distracting lights, the sky over FDO began to really show off as the moon set. We showed the remaining public both M8 (the Lagoon Nebula), and M17 (the Swan) using the Oxy III filter - which does wonders for these objects. Next we moved on to the fine globulars M2 and M15. Near M15, just north of the star Enif, Joe spotted an interesting asterism of stars while scanning the area on SkyMap Pro. We checked it out in the 16" - very nice, and surprising that it had never been given some sort of designation. So we promptly labeled it "Joe's Cluster"!

Looking into Aquarius we checked out the fine double star Zeta Aquarii. Magnitudes 4.3 and 4.5, both yellow, and just 2.2" apart. This is a pretty good test for 4" to 6" scopes on typical nights. Nearby we observed the famous Helix Nebula, NGC7293. This bright but huge planetary has such a low surface brightness that it is difficult to discern any detail even in large scopes. Inserting the Oxy III filter does a lot to show the doughnut shape, which covers an area about 1/2 the diameter of the moon! We also observed NGC7009, the Saturn Nebula, which was better seen without the Oxy III.

Some of our astronomer visitors tonight included Hank from Woonsocket and his 20" Dobsonian, and our newest regular visitor Satish, from Walpole. Satish observes with an 8" LX200 and had some new equipment to try out tonight - so he didn't actually get inside the dome until 2 AM! We also welcomed Gino from Cranston who came down with his new 6" Dobsonian.

In Capricornus lie the planets Neptune and Uranus, and many observers find these distant worlds fascinating in the 16", since we can see a number of their moons. Tonight we saw Neptune's Triton, and Uranus' Titania, Oberon and Ariel. Also in Capricornus we observed the fine globular M30 (better than most of us recalled) and, just for a challenge, Doug tracked down Palomar 12, a small 13th magnitude globular that was not even discovered until the Palomar Sky Survey in the 1950s. This faint glow definitely earned "Smudge of the Week" honors! Just over the line into eastern Sagittarius we observed NGC6818, the "Little Gem Nebula" - a small oval shaped planetary. It is apparently so named due to its intense blue color.

Turning westward for a while we looked at old favorites M13, M92 (fine globulars in Hercules) and the marvelous M27 (the Dumbbell) in Vulpecula. We easily found Comet Linear 2001 A2, in western Sagitta. It is now probably only about mag. 9.5 or 10, and just a fuzzy ball in the 16" We may not see it again, but it will return to our part of the solar system in 41,065 years! Looking next at M57, the Ring nebula, At 340X, Joe and Doug both spotted the elusive central star, winking in and out at magnitude 15.3. Just outside of the ring, on the west side, Doug spotted a 15.7 magnitude star, the faintest we could see during this session.

By 1:30 AM we noted that Saturn had risen to a respectable viewing altitude (17 degrees), so we swung the scope all the way around to check it out. The rings are spectacular this year, now inclined more than 26 degrees from our line of sight. We initially were able to see six moons - Titan, Rhea, Dione, Enceladus, Tethys, and Iapetus. With a more careful look we also spotted faint Hyperion (mag 14.2) and suspected that we saw Mimas - which is always very close to the outer ring. Later at night, when Mimas had swung out to its extreme eastern elongation, we definitely could see it. So that made all the eight visible Saturnian moons. There is one more "original" moon (i.e., discovered long ago) called Phoebe, but it orbits nearly 8 million miles from Saturn, and as it is approx. magnitude 16, we probably could not see it in the 16" - even if we knew precisely where to look, which we don't. (At this point Les left us for the night, as he had drawn the primary duty assignment for Saturday night, and didn't want to be found nodding off at the controls! )

In Perseus we observed the open cluster NGC1342 and the somewhat infrequently observed M76 - the "Little Dumbbell" or "Cork Nebula". This interesting object is twice the size of M57, but at only magnitude 11.0, doesn't show well in small scopes. In the 16", however, it is clearly seen as two connected lobes of gas, looking rather like a fat bow tie. Also in Perseus was the interesting galaxy NGC1023, with a just a bit of a hook on one outer arm.

In Andromeda we observed the fine edge on spiral galaxy NGC891. At a 9.9 total mag. it is rather large, 14' x 3', so not all that bright. But the 16" clearly showed the long dark dust lane running through the length of the galaxy. Satish had just observed it outside in his 8", and could not see the lane at all. Even the galaxy proper was just a faint sliver. Doug had observed it earlier in the week from light polluted Webster in his C8, and could barely see the galaxy at all! Also in Andromeda we viewed, at Satish' request, the Blue Snowball Planetary, NGC7662. Yes, it looks just like its name! Lastly was NGC7640, a fine edge on barred spiral that shows rather well in the 16"

Next came Cygnus, a treasure trove of deep sky wonders. We observed the bright planetary NGC7027, looking very much like a smaller version of the Saturn nebula, and the famous Blinking Planetary (NGC6826). For reasons we're not quite sure, this planetary seems to nearly disappear when you look right at the obvious central star. But switch to averted vision and it blinks back on! Doug has been following the progress of Nova Cygni 01-2, near 63 Cygni. It reached visual magnitude 6.6 about a week ago, but by tonight had faded to magnitude 9. How long will it stay in view? No one knows.

The highlight of the whole long night was our exploration of the wonderful Veil Nebula in Cygnus, around and east of the star 52 Cygni. This vast expanse of filamentary gas is difficult to detect in medium to large scopes without proper filtering - due to low surface brightness and little contrast. Surprisingly, however, parts of it can easily be seen in 50 mm binoculars. Doug noted this tonight, especially the bright eastern crescent. In the 16" without filtering the nebula is certainly visible, but not very impressive. Pop in the Oxy III filter, however, and Wow! Fine twists, filaments and knots snap into view, and the entire expanse of the nebula, in four major sections, can easily be toured by using the scope's slewing buttons. In fact, we enjoyed a fascinating experience tonight. The spot that the 16" is looking at shows up on Sky Map Pro's charts as a blinking cursor. So while Joe toured the Veil at the eyepiece Satish and Doug were able to watch his progress on the outline of the Veil on SkyMap Pro. In fact, they were able to guide Joe along to interesting areas and to slew the scope from one detached area to another as he watched at the eyepiece! All three guys took turns doing this, and could have spent the entire night just on this magnificent object! Readers of this log should be sure to ask for an opportunity to try this "tour" - it's a blast!

Despite the late hour (now after 3:30 AM) Doug swung the scope up high into Cassiopeia to observe a long time favorite of his, the open cluster NGC7789. This swarm of 300 to 500 stars is one of the most impressive in the heavens, and would be better known if it were just a bit brighter. It looks quite good in an 8" scope, is better in a 10", but in the 16" is simply dazzling! Joe and Satish were not familiar with it and were both awestruck with the cluster's richness, including scores of stars down to magnitude 15. We'll be observing this one many more times!

For their final planned stop the guys swung the scope eastward to view mighty Jupiter, now rising into good position. The giant planet will be cruising through Gemini this season, nearly overhead on late winter nights. Only three moons were visible at this time, as Io was hidden in Jupiter's huge shadow. But the Great Red Spot was quite prominent.

A glance to the SE showed the sword of Orion climbing above the horizon, so just as dawn was starting break, the three tired astronomers couldn't resist the season's first look at M42 - the Great Orion Nebula. It was spectacular. as usual, despite its low position and the encroaching light. In another month it will be available in a fully dark sky, and at a (somewhat) more reasonable hour.

With daylight approaching there was nothing more to do but head home. So Satish, Joe and Doug buttoned up the scope and the dome, paused on the way to their cars to admire lovely Venus, and hit the road at 5:25 AM - ending one of the more memorable nights at FDO in a very long while!

-Les Coleman

Leslie Coleman
Leslie Coleman
Entry Date:
Aug 24, 2001
Published Under:
Leslie Coleman's Log
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