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Log, Nov 9, 2001

24 People It had been a spectacularly beautiful day around southern New England, but in keeping with our streak of bad luck with the weather, clouds began to gather over Frosty Drew as sunset arrived. Although we had periods with large patches of clear skies for a couple of hours, conditions deteriorated throughout the evening, with decreasing transparency and thicker clouds.

Nonetheless, those staff and visitors arriving early were treated to some interesting views. Doug and frequent guest Hank were first on the scene, and they enjoyed a moderately bright Iridium satellite flare at 6:05, just above and east of Capricornus. By then it was already dark enough to see comet C/2000 WM1 Linear in binoculars, shining at about magnitude 7.5 in central Perseus, 3.5 degrees SE of Delta Persei. Les soon arrived, as did more visitors, and before long all were enjoying views of the comet in the 16" scope. The core was bright and fairly large, and there was a faint, broad tail streaming off to the WNW. The motion of the comet was obvious in only about 10 minutes time, as it glided SW of a 13th magnitude star. It has brightened by at least two magnitudes since our last FDO observation 3 weeks ago and will continue to do so as it approaches Earth, reaching naked eye visibility around Dec. 1. By Dec. 15th it should be near magnitude 4.0, passing through Sculptor, low in our southern skies. It is then expected to brighten even a bit more into January, but it will only be visible then from the southern hemisphere. Now 60 million miles from Earth it will close to about 29 million on Dec. 2, and will reach perihelion (closest to the sun) on January 22, at a distance of 51 million miles - inside the orbit of Venus. Coordinates for the comet are available at Sky & Telescope's website: http://www.skypub.com

With no moon to hinder our observing we anticipated some really dark intervals of sky, but increasing upper level moisture kept limiting magnitude to about 5.5 - not good by FDO standards. Still, we enjoyed nice views of two fine open clusters in Perseus, M34 and NGC1528, and the lovely colored double star Gamma Andromeda - one of the sky's finest. Nearby we spied the very elongated edge on spiral galaxy NGC891, with its prominent dark lane showing clearly even under mediocre conditions. Moving toward the south we tackled the bright but large and diffuse galaxies NGC253 (easy) and NGC247 (much dimmer). These two nearby galaxies require very clear skies and a dark southern horizon, as they lie quite low in our New England skies, just below and above the Cetus/Sculptor border. Moving over to Pisces we examined the fine face on spiral galaxy M74 - its core was quite bright, but we were able to detect only traces of the circular spiral arms, using averted vision. These objects will all be much better seen on a darker night.

Galaxy hunting is an area of observational astronomy not enjoyed by all, especially novices, as very few galaxies look much like their photographs - even in large amateur scopes like the 16" at FDO. So we quickly turned to two much brighter objects: Saturn and Jupiter. Saturn is now approaching opposition (Dec. 3) and is a truly fine object, with its rings sharply tilted from our line of sight. Despite only fair conditions last night we were able to see six of its moons, and some fairly good ring structure and surface detail. Even dim Mimas occasionally popped into view as it swung out from (but very close to) the west edge of the planet's rings around 10 PM. Jupiter was impressive, as usual, even when viewed through high thin clouds. There were no moon transits to observe, but the Great Red Spot made its appearance late in the evening, and considerable cloud structure was noted during brief moments of clarity.

From 8 to 10 PM Les held the Myths, Legends and Lore section of our course offerings. Les regaled the attendees with the classical myths from Greece and Rome, mentioned some of the alternate myths from Africa, Asia and North America. Sprinkled throughout were a few modern myths such as Jean Giraudoux's 1938 play Amphitrion 38 in which one learns how chaste Alkmene manages to become a mother to twin half brother's [Hercules and Iphicles] by two lovers [Amphitrion and Jupiter] on the same night while being perfectly faithful to her beloved husband and remaining unaware of her unique feat. A clue: Jupiter enlists the aid of Mercury, another of his out of wedlock offspring. Mercury besides being the speediest of the gods, was also the god of pranks, practical jokes, thieves and commercial enterprise. For more, see Les or better yet read the play. There were a few war stories about trips to other observatories and the joys of mountain climbing gear on icy nights on the outside of a Kitt Peak Telescope enclosure.

While Les was babbling, Steve, Joe, Tom and Doug were all on hand in the observatory. The dome provided welcome relief to all from moderate winds and temperatures in the mid 30s, and a newly designed "Fandango" tool made quick work of the problem whenever the dome refused to move on command. Steve was unable to bring his 12" LX200 this week, but it was just as well, since conditions were not as we'd have liked - far from it, in fact.

As the evening wore on the few decent views were confined to the SE and Orion. We had looked at an old favorite, M37 in Auriga, but the viewing in that direction was less than inspiring. Even M42 was just a ghost of its usual self, although still an impressive sight, especially for first time visitors. Despite the haze we were able to easily spot six stars in the Trapezium, and Rigel was an easy split at 214X. By 11:30 PM the sky conditions had worsened even more, making any additional observations pointless, so Les, Steve, Joe and Doug reluctantly closed up shop and headed out the gate at 11:58 PM.

Next weekend we anticipate a good show from the annual Leonids meteor shower. In fact, one of the great meteor storms in recent memory may occur just prior to dawn (EST) on the morning of Sunday, the 18th. Accordingly, if the weather cooperates, FDO will be hosting an all night event on Saturday/Sunday to observe the shower. Les has already posted some news of this and will have more details soon, especially once we get a feel for the weather prospects for the weekend. Let's all keep our fingers crossed! A word of thanks to Doug who wrote all but one paragraph. Les was not at the eyepiece much tonight until the clouds really thickened.

-Les Coleman

Leslie Coleman
Author:
Leslie Coleman
Entry Date:
Nov 9, 2001
Published Under:
Leslie Coleman's Log
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