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Log, Sep 24, 2004

25 people. Tonight was one of those frustrating nights when things could have been nicer if it wasn't for the brightest target in the sky - the Moon. To make things worse, there were enough high clouds and cirrus streamers to make any though of really dim fuzzies a fantasy. Easily the best candidate for the seldom coveted award of "Smudge of the Week" went the Pinwheel Galaxy M33. Joe and I have seen it a zillion times in the past but we both agreed that if we didn't know what it looked already, we still would have no idea what it looked like.

However even the Moon has a hard time destroying the elfin beauty of a globular cluster. M13 truly looked like a pile of diamond like points on a grey-black velvet background. M13 is a special favorite of mine. It was the first object I turned to see when my Questar was delivered more than a quarter century ago. After the lesser instruments which I had used prior to the Questar, the image was mind blowing.

The inner planets are all either rounding the back side of the Sun or are early morning objects. So we were restricted to the outer three planets. On a bright night like this, finding Pluto against a non-descript background was hopeless. Strangely enough we were able to pick up Titania (at 13.9) when we turned to Uranus. It is only 0.1 magnitudes brighter than Pluto but we had the huge advantage of being able to use Uranus as a guide to spotting it. There was a somewhat brighter field star in the image which we had to warn viewers to avoid. The disk of Uranus was quite evident. Neptune was smaller and slightly bluer. It would seem that Triton which is 0.3 magnitudes brighter than Titania should have been visible too but Neptune was ten degrees closer to the Moon then Uranus and the white haze made any attempt at this most distant moon we can spot impossible.

People started to ask about seeing the Great Galaxy in Andromeda - M31. M31 is easy to spot on a dark night even to the uneducated eye. Yet is often a disappointment in the telescope. On all but the darkest nights the great arms of M31 fade into the background. It is hard to spot the boundary between M31 and the sky when there is any competition such as the Moon. I set up my big binoculars in the field while Joe honed in on the 16". Without doubt, the 16" showed the core more clearly but the field of view of the binoculars may have had the upper edge in showing the galaxy to best advantage. However, one thing that the 16" has all over binoculars is when I nudged the core of M31 to the far right of the eyepiece and displayed M110 in the same field of view. Quite simply M110 was invisible in the binoculars.

We swung the telescope to both Nu and Mu Andromeda. These stars along with the fairly bright star Beta Andromeda form the zigzag the takes us to M31. I cannot remember anything very memorable about either of these stars except that they can be used as pointers in binoculars and are practically useless as pointers at typical 16" eyepieces magnifications. Two weeks ago I turned to a very nice pair called Gamma 1 Arietes. At 3.88 and 3.93 magnitudes respectively, they form about as perfectly matched pair of double stars as can be found in the sky. I joked that some Aavso double star people could spot the magnitude differences of 0.05 supposedly, but that it must be inconvenient to have to have your eyeballs calibrated every month at a center outside Washington DC. I for one can spot absolutely no difference in the brightness. As a tougher object, we moved to 1 Arietes. At 5.83 and 6.63 with a color difference as well, it was possible to note differences here. A bit later on in the night we swung the telescope to Albireo and Alcor/Mizar. I also picked these stars up in the binoculars. Albireo was as always simply stunning. In the binoculars, you could see that the star was stretched with shading differences but no dark space between them. While Alcor and Mizar were easily seen in the binoculars, I could not make out any space between Mizar's two parts even though they were a wide 14" apart in the binoculars.

The Ring Nebula (M57) showed the "smoke ring" easily in the 16" but binoculars failed to show any indication of the structure although you could just barely make out a "star" where I knew the Ring was located. The central star of the Ring was not evident at all. Joe put on the O-III filter and turned the scope to the Dumbbell (M27). With the filter in place, the Dumbbell was very nice. Certainly the Pinwheel had nothing to fear about losing the "Smudge of the Week" award. Perhaps the Dumbbell without the filter might have been a worthy candidate but....

The Moon was a candidate for additional filtering. We played the standard trick of eyepiece projection onto a white piece of paper. It was possible to create an image of the Moon with good definition to 11" inches - the size of the paper. The image on the dome was even more huge - more than a yard wide but lacked detailed on the ribbed structure of the curved dome. Joe and I pointed out details of the craters, the central ejected masses where the penetrating meteor threw out the crater and other points like the shadows along the terminator.

From time to time people bring this or that neat astronomical gadget to the Observatory. Recently we have been getting more and more visits from Nick T. who has been demonstrating a growing fascination in our skies. He has been bringing a really neat gadget which he has loaned to me several times while I have been doing our star hopping sessions out on the lawn about the Observatory. It is a laser pen which shoots a brilliant green beam for literally hundreds of feet into the air. It is so clearly superior as a pointer to the giant flashlight we once used or the so called "star stick of science" (a pole with a red illuminated cone) that there is simply no comparison. I told Nick that come Christmas my list would have an Orion Skyline on the top. Well Christmas came very early this year. I was flabbergasted when Nick donated the unit to the Observatory. What a wonderful gift. Of course, Nick is more than welcome to visit his gift each and every clear Friday night. Nothing would please me more than to see Nick leading a star hopping party in the near future with his donated laser pen. Many many thanks Nick.

-Les Coleman

Leslie Coleman
Leslie Coleman
Entry Date:
Sep 24, 2004
Published Under:
Leslie Coleman's Log
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