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Log, May 3, 2002

35 people. The sky was clear all night with a transparency that was good if not great. On our scale of 0 to 10, the night was probably a 6.5. Since our scale is roughly pyramidal, (more 0 and 1 nights than 2 or 3, in turn more than 4 or 5s with only a tiny handful rating a coveted 9 or 10), a 6.5 is pretty good. For example we could easily see detail in the Milky Way by eye and spot M31, M4, and M11 without a pair of binoculars. The air was in the upper 40s and low 50s, but a wind that was practicing to become a hurricane blew on and off most of the night. Several folks with large surface area telescope didn't bother to set them up in this nascent gale.

Ernie, Doug and Les set up various motorized tripods with 35mm cameras trying to see if they could catch the planetary groupings of Saturn, Mars, Mercury and Venus which dominate the early evening western sky. Lights from planes, cars, and the like may have made this attempt a waste of film. We shall see.

We started with Mercury. As soon as it darkened enough we spotted Comet Utsunomiya and its tiny tail was just a few arc minutes from Mercury. They were the first of many interesting things to be seen tonight. We had sort of planned an assault on the "Grand Slam" (all eight planets and the Moon in a single night). We might have made it except that Neptune and Uranus have managed to place themselves behind one of the few tall trees we have in the southeast. [We're in a conservation and wildlife park, so cutting down healthy trees is a no-no. So is doing anything to harm a tree's health.] We'd have had to stay until 4:30 for Uranus to clear the tree. Since taking a portable telescope outdoors away from that perfidious healthy tree doesn't count, and because getting home awake and alert counts more than tagging the last two planets, we gave up the chance. We displayed Saturn, Venus, and Jupiter for our visitors. We quickly scanned Mars since at this point we were still considering the Grand Slam.

During an observation of Pluto we wondered if we'd found a nova about 4 arc minutes to Pluto's SW - a star (or something) that does not appear in the Hubble Data Base was easily seen in that position. Needless to say we got quite excited, but not quite so reckless as to send an astronomical telegram to the IAU. Well, it saved some egg on our faces because it was no nova. [Sigh]. It looked promising. Not only was it not in the Hubble Data Base, but it wasn't any of the thousand brightest asteroids either. It was stellar in appearance which ruled out a comet. Only a nova seem to fit the bill. But as Carl Sagan was wont to say "extraordinary claims require extraordinary proof". It wasn't in the Hubble Data Base but it certainly was in the Palomar Palomar DSS plate overlaying which we have superimposed on the Hubble Data Base Map. As you can see, there is clearly a star of the correct magnitude right where we spotted it, about magnitude 14. In fleeting moments we were able to see a number of fainter stars as well, and these are confirmed by the DSS photo. The Hubble database lists a magnitude of 15.9 for the faintest plotted star we could see.

So no nova, but it was still interesting how easily Pluto was seen, given the trouble we've had seeing it on previous occasions.

One of the things which I find most embarrassing is not being able to recognize the obvious. Few things are more obvious than Vega, but we have had such a string of bad weather that the old Lyre has managed to cover the distance from the western to the eastern horizon in what seems like no time. OOPs and mega-oops. A visitor with a pair of binoculars asked what the fuzzy patch was between two stars I couldn't place (albeit one was Vega!). I couldn't spot his fuzzy patch until I looked at some maps and said to myself "Thou art duller than a doorknob". Thus chastised I went to shame facedly tell him that he had found Ikeya Zhang. Looking at Ikeya Zhang in the 16" there were definite traces of two tails as sketched.

We tackled a new group of galaxies, of which several were paired or tidally interacting. Our first new pair were spotted when we happened to turn to NGC4656 - the interesting galaxy where we spotted a hook in the spiral arm and what appeared to be in interacting or superimposed smaller system. Les looked at this strung out galaxy and spotted a knot which he through looked like a second smaller galaxy gravitationally interacting with the larger. Others confirmed his sighting, noting that the "tail" bent just past this second galaxy. This was again confirmed by another Palomar DSS photo! The second galaxy in the knot is NGC4657.

Another first time pair were NGC4631 (a large spiral) with its smaller satellite NGC4627. For our third "pair" we picked the famous Whirlpool M51 with its satellite NGC5295. We were favored with moments when this pair high overhead were remarkably clear. Multiple arms could be seen easily with the long trail towards the satellite clearly defined.

NGC4565 (another first timer) looks a great deal like the Sombrero M104 which we also viewed. NGC4565 is smaller and dimmer but almost equally edge-on. When we turned to the famous Ring Nebula, we had a surprise. I think for the first time that anyone can remember, we spotted not only the Ring, but a very nearby faint galaxy. We identified it as PGC62532, but there is a possibility it is IC1296. In either case the total magnitude would only be in the 15th or 16th magnitude. Very good for the conditions. Either IC1296 or PGC62532 would be a first for the 16". Another first timer NGC4667 seemed to have a "hole" at the end of an arm. We aren't certain what that might be. Perhaps it is a foreground dust cloud. Our final first timer was NGC4559, a large oval galaxy. We added seven target to our telescope's life list tonight, not bad.

Newcomers to our list are fine, but we certainly did not neglect to look at the showpieces of the sky tonight. M35 was satisfying. The Eskimo (NGC2392) looked in on us from his parka. If M35 is around, how can we miss M37? We looked at the asterism "Stargate". We examined Castor. The Great Hercules Cluster [M13] lived up to its billing. Literally hundreds of individual members were clear and steady in spite of the windy conditions. Its not really surprising when M51 shows its magnificent structure, but it is surprising when a low contrast object like M101 does the same. I've seen detail there I cannot remember seeing before. The Owl [M97] which is a planetary nebula clearly showed the dark areas we call its eyes, although its beak [the central neutron star] wasn't evident. Most of us feel that M5 was the premier target of the night. It was stunning. We looked at the very red star T Lyra. Tonight, it must be in one of its inward cycles because it was a bit more orange than red. We cast our eyes on 5 Serpens and Albireo. I think that M11 was our final target although we had adjusted the dome to scan the horizon to look for Neptune and Uranus. Of course all we saw was a big tree.

By now we were down to Doug, Steve and Les. We asked "Should we stay?" One look at the Moon rising in the East and we said "Nahhh!"

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I'd like to thank Doug for covering the log during the past two weeks. I've also shamelessly stolen his words from a message to me as part of this weeks log. Thanks Doug!

-Les Coleman

Leslie Coleman
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Leslie Coleman
Entry Date:
May 3, 2002
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Leslie Coleman's Log
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