Plettstone, February 1-2, 2003

by Albert Highe

The forecasts and satellite images projected clearing skies on Saturday, so I headed to Michelle's private observatory in the Sierra Foothills.

Saturday, 2/1/03

My journey east toward the Sierra Foothills was aided by a respectable westerly tail wind. By early afternoon, the wind had completely cleared the skies over the Central Valley. However, clouds still lingered over Merced, and Plettstone was completely socked in as I drove up. However, by 7:30PM, the wind had cleared our skies as well. I didn't expect seeing to be good. However, we were pleasantly surprised. The 5th star in the Trapezium could be seen 80% of the time and the 6th was intermittent. Jupiter was fabulous at 220X. The Great Pale Spot was clearly defined and showed detail around its edge. A brown barge was clearly evident in the northern equatorial belt. Jupiter's moons were disks. Michelle told me the views of Saturn, high overhead, were even better.

The wind brought colder temperatures. The temperature dropped to the high 30's with %RH initially the 80's. Later, the humidity climbed and some dew formed. However, occasional use of the dew zapper kept the optics dry. By the time we began observing, the wind had almost completely died. Only an occasional puff interrupted the calm. It turned out to be a rather good, pleasant night. Of course, it was DARK.

Scope17.5" f/4.5 ultralight
Eyepiecesmostly 9mm Nagler Type 6 and 14mm Radian.

This is still the first year using my 17.5", so I like to take the time to look at old favorites (and nemeses) from dark sites with the greater aperture. Here are some highlights from Saturday's casual program.

I began with hunting down NGC1179 (12.0, 4.9'X3.8'), one of my nemeses. This galaxy in Eridanus stands out in my memory among the hundreds of objects plotted in Sky Atlas 2000. I found it one of the more difficult galaxies to observe. I have often wondered why it was included in SA2000 when there are plenty of other galaxies that are easier to see, but aren't plotted. Using a DSS image of the area, I was able to confirm its location. Sure enough, at 222X I could just detect a fairly large, low surface brightness, circular patch with averted vision. At 400X, the patch was a little more prominent and I could make out a slightly brighter small central core.

Of course I had to view M42, but I focused more attention on the "lesser" nebulae nearby. In particular, I spent a lot of time on M43. My notes from previous observations simply describe this nebula as comma-shaped. However, in dark skies with the 17.5" at 222X, it is clear that I haven't given this nebula enough attention. Almost anywhere else in the sky, it would be an outstanding object. At higher magnification, it looked more like a developing embryo. The 7th magnitude star within M43 is a little too far north of the "head" to be the embryonic eye, but I took it to be such. The curving western edge is brighter than the rest of the "body/tail" and I associated it with the developing backbone. Other variations across the nebula could be developing organs. This is without filters.

M79(8', 8.7') I've never seen this globular cluster in Lepus with much aperture. It was approximately 25 above the horizon. At 222X it was a very pretty view. The dense core was surrounded by countless resolved pinpoints of light.
Thor's Helmet/NGC2359An OIII filter brings out this nebula extremely well. I had one on my 9mm Nagler, providing 222X. The large central bubble is asymmetric. Most of the bubble has a brighter, thin edge, especially to the west. On the other hand, the eastern edge is faint and diffuse, giving the impression that the circle is broken. The western edge is the top of the helmet, and the eastern edge is the opening for Thor's head. Along the north and south are angled slashes of nebulosity that form the helmet's wings. The southern section is quite a bit brighter, but both were obvious. A couple of other wisps of faint nebulosity are nearby. This was quite a nice view. But I had the opportunity to view this region with Jon's 25" a couple of years ago. The image is etched in my mind. Unfortunately, it has become the standard by which I judge all images of this region and nothing else has ever measured up.
M46/NGC2438This is one of my favorite objects. It was absolutely stunning at 143X. I have always seen the planetary nebula NGC2438 as a disk of fairly uniform brightness. At 222X, I could see that it is actually a ring with a fairly thick band and a darker central area.
M82A great view at 222X. Lots of bright knots and irregular dust lanes. I never get tired of looking at this galaxy.

Sunday, 2/2/03

Except for a few clouds during the early afternoon, we had clear blue skies all day. We also enjoyed clear skies all night. The temperature dropped as low as 33F with %RH in the high 90's. However, the wind was absolutely calm, so it didn't seem very cold. Most of the dew froze out - I had a layer of ice on my observing table and windshield. However, dewing wasn't too much of a problem on the optics unless I happened to breathe on the eyepiece or secondary. The dew zapper made quick work of that condensation. Seeing and transparency were even better than last night. Six stars in the Trapezium were easy, and when I wasn't looking at eye-candy, I hunted down faint fuzzies at 400X for a good part of the night.

Scope17.5" f/4.5 ultralight
Eyepiecesmostly 5mm Tak LE and 9mm Nagler Type 6.

The highlight of tonight was searching out ultra-small and ultra-faint fuzzies in the Perseus Cluster, Abell Cluster 426. Having observed the "easier" galaxies in this cluster at the end of last year, all I have left are the ultra-difficult. Nevertheless, with the very good skies on Sunday, I quickly added 15 galaxies to my list, bringing the total to 205. 127 of these galaxies lie within 1 of NGC1275. For more details, see

Did I mention that it was DARK?

Thanks Michelle.