On A Clear Night...

by Mark Wagner

....You *can* see forever...

And that's how it was last night at Henry Coe State Park.

It was a small group, kind of the proto-TAC contingent. Rich, Richard and I, the remaining active early TACos, braved the conditions, gathering at the overflow parking lot in the fading twilight. A first time visitor named Jim was already set up, nice Celestron 11 GPS with a TV 85 riding atop it, both sporting binoviewers. Richard and I set up our 18" Obsessions. The wind and forecast soft seeing convinced Rich to leave his setup in his truck, which turned out to be a good decision as it was not a night for planetary observing.

But, the transparency was astounding. You *could* see forever.

And we confirmed the great transparency shortly after Jerry arrived to complete our small contingent. During the prior week I had printed 25 constellation charts showing the Finnish Triangles, used for determining limiting magnitude. I asked Richard if he would like to do a count with me, so we began. The stars defining the triangle were Castor, Pollux and Mebsuta (Epsilon Geminorum). We began counting. Jerry walked over and asked what we were doing, so I showed him the chart. And so, three of us began counting.

The amazing thing about this count is, I don't think it was truly dark yet. There was a significant light dome from San Jose, behind us. When we first looked up at Gemini I thought "where are the stars"? But the more times we counted, the more we saw. I ended up with 17 to 19 stars. Jerry got to 16. Richard was at 14. Before I say what those numbers correspond to, understand that when we do these counts, we include stars that pop into view then disappear. Is that fair? If one can repeatedly get the star to pop in, yes. So, it takes patience and persistence.

Richard's 14 stars gives mag 6.3 skies. Jerry's 16 is mag 6.5. Mag 6.6 begins at 18 stars.

Soon, the wind calmed and the early dew has subsided. Conditions, other than being soft at high power, were quite good.

This was a night to see deep.

To our south Gilroy sat under a dark cloud, shaped like a Mothership. We could not see the light tower at Fremont Peak, and using binoculars it appeared the Peak was either obscured by clouds between us, or it was in clouds. It was so nice and quiet at Coe, uncrowded, and the horizons so good, I was glad we had chosen as we did. Considering the forecast conditions, we had a very good night.

Four years ago I was actively involved in observing the Herschel catalog. I would go out each observing night and work my checklist, finding some objects interesting visually, others not much to write home about but at least challenging to locate, or challenging to simply tease out of the sky they were so dim or small. There are lots of ways to enjoy observing. But the combination of a personal loss and having completed most of the good weather targets left me with little desire to continue. I looked for other challenges, but, my dislike for unfinished goals finally forced me a few weeks ago to make a list of the specific targets remaining on the Herschel 2500. To my surprise I found I'd observing nearly 2100 objects on the list. What remained now were the dimmest targets of several constellations, and the springtime (bad weather) objects - primarily in Coma Berenices, Virgo and Canes Venatici.

Last night I began on the stragglers, the dimmest of the dim in several nearly completed constellations.

To me, one of the most daunting constellations is Cancer. There are really not very many good stars to hop from. But I found I could use Castor and Pollux to draw a line to mag 4.7 Zeta Cancri and use it and the bright stars around the Beehive to get my bearings. The one big problem I had was the presence of Jupiter. It was soooo bright, I had to block it with my hand at times to try locating where my targets were.

That was the case with my first targets, NGC 2802 and NGC 2803. I found that going from Gamma Cancri to the mag 5.1 and 6.0 visual double 77 and 79 Cancri, I could turn 90 degrees south to locate the position. I tried it and there, in the field of my 20 Nagler (100x) were two dim glows sitting very close together. 2802 is mag 14.3 and 1.1'x0.6'. 2803 is mag 14.3 and 1.1'x1.1'. Having nearly the same redshift, these two galaxies appear to be related.

Before I continue, I have to remark that some of my favorite views of the night tuned out to be through Richard's scope. Richard was chasing open clusters in Monoceros. His "affection" for open clusters is well known. But, compared to many of the barely visible nondescript tiny smudges I would hunt this night, the opens were full of variety and character. I find myself liking them more and more as I continue to observe.

My next target, NGC 2774, is a mag 14.8 fuzzy only 0.8'x0.8' in size. A nice gently arcing chain of bright stars to its north give its position away. Although it is only 1.5 degrees west of the my previous target, it was closer to Jupiter (Destroyer of Dark Adaptation)... and so, presented some challenge. In fact, I could see a spike of light in my eyepiece - thrown by Jupiter - which I began to follow like a moth - until I was almost upon the beacon. Fortunately, good sense overcame fascination in time, and I returned to the hunt for NGC 2774.

If you are wondering... no, I did not look at Jupiter once during the night.

Or Saturn.

I was now down to the two remaining and dimmest targets on the Herschel list in Cancer.

NGC 2783B is, as far as I can tell, actually MCG5-22-20, close to NGC 2783 which sits to its east. These two galaxies along with UGC 4856 comprise Hickson 37B. The NGC component is obvious just north of two bright field stars. But at mag 15.37 and only 0.3'x0.2' the MCG is more challenging. Oddly, I found that the MCG appeared larger than its catalogued size. The third component of the group was much more difficult. Its position is coincident with the bright NGC, and the only hint I had of seeing it was to observe elongation of the NGC in the proper PA to deduce I was actually seeing the dim UGC galaxy and NGC together.

Funny part about NGC 2783B, I worked and worked and worked to find this one. I kept running into the same star fields as my prior target, NGC 2774. I was muttering to Richard what a bear of a time I was having. He finally asked the NGC number and called it up on his computer. I looked and instantly realized I had not "found" it on my computer... I was looking in the wrong place entirely, and in fact is was at an easy location off the head of Leo.

A newbie mistake ;-)

NGC 2604B is three degrees west of mag 4.8 Iota Cancri (the northern spoke star of Cancer). NGC 2604 is bright at mag 13, and at 2.1'x2.1' an easy target. NGC 2605B is MCG5-20-23, and is exceedingly dim at mag 15.6, although it surface brightness is helped along by it diminutive .07'x0.4' size. I had to use 280x and watch carefully to bring out this target.

And with that sighting, I was done with Cancer.

What a relief. The last of the tough constellations, done.

By now another of my "dogs and cats list" (credit to Jay for that term) was up. Puppis was transiting.

I could hardly believe I had M46 and M47 remaining on my 2500 list (of course I'd looked at them many, many, times). So I gave them a cursory glance and checked them off.

NGC 2396 was also nice, just off M47.

NGC 2421 was more of a challenge.

NGC 2438 was fun to see again. How often does one find a bright planetary embedded in a big Messier open cluster!

Probably my favorite open cluster of the night was NGC 2401. It is not bright. It is not big. It is not flashy. I found it by starting at M47 and moving west to a pair of bright stars about 45' west. From there I continued further west about 50' to a wider pair of bright stars with a dim one directly between them. Just west of the northern of these two stars sits the nicest little dim cluster you could ever hope to see. It is what a dim open should look like. Round, compact, distinct. The bright stars it sits next to help create a pleasing setting.

I was quite surprised then to find the three remaining objects I had in Puppis were galaxies. I wish they were opens, after all, many of these dim galaxies are simply little fuzzy spots, and not much more. In fact, I would prefer a sparse open embedded in the Milky Way! ;-)

NGC 2525 is in an area lacking bright stars. But this was one of those cases of pointing the scope and getting lucky. It was right in the center of my eyepiece, first try. It is rather large at 2.9'x1.9', so its mag 12.26 yields a surface brightness of only 13.3. I thought is was dimmer. Imagers may want to look at this target... photographically it is interesting - see http://nedwww.ipac.caltech.edu/img6/1994CAG1..B...0000S/NGC2525:I:103aO+GG385:s1994.jpg

NGC 2566 is another largish faint galaxy. Its 4.05'x2.93' and mag 11.82 yield a 13.1 surface brightness. Photographically, it shows itself as a barred spiral with a dim halo: http://nedwww.ipac.caltech.edu/img6/ohioimages/NGC_2566:I:H:efp2002.gif. But, it is in an easy to locate position by going from mag 3.3 Xi-Puppis to mag 2.8 Rho-Puppis, then just under 3 degrees east-southeast.

I finished Puppis with NGC 2578. It is 2.0'x1.2' and at mag 13.45. I would list its surface brightness, but my source seems incorrect on this one. Another nice galaxy, photographically, it reminds me somewhat of the Blackeye Galaxy. It was relatively easy to locate by hopping the naked-eye chain of Rho-Puppis to 16 Puppis to 19 Puppis, then moving 2.5 degrees east.

By now the night felt cold. There was a slight breeze that at times would pick up and chill my feet and hands. I had toe heater in my hiking boots. I had hand warmers inside the backs of my fingerless gloves, heating the veins close to my skin. I had hand warmers inside my pockets, to warm my fingertips.

But the sky was so good. I felt I could not afford to waste the evening.

I moved to Leo Minor - to a galaxy that had strangely eluded me for several years....

NGC 2955 was my lone remaining target in Leo Minor. It is in an easy to find location. Why did this one give me so much trouble over the years? Mag 3.1 and 3.8 stars Alpha and 38 Lynx provide a good jumping off point. From there mag 4.5 10 Leo-Minoris is a short jump eastward, and NGC 2955 just 1.5 degrees further east-southeast. It is a dim galaxy, but good sized! At mag 13.61 and 1.7'x0.9' its surface brightness must be about 14.

Another constellation off the list...

I finished the night in Leo. However, I did not finish Leo.

The targets were quite challenging.

NGC 3705A is IC 2887. It is trivial to see NGC 3705... it is a bright elongated galaxy that jumps out at you. It is bright enough to be a Messier. IC 2887 sits just off a star to the northeast of the bright NGC. It is small, being only 0.90'x0.13', and very dim at mag 15.5. This target required some time to bring out at 280x.

NGC 4004B. This I take it is IC 2982. Another very small and dim galaxy. 0.4'x0.25' and mag 15.2. I think I may have seen this one, but I need to try again for a more certain observation. I used 280x with averted vision, and thought I had fleeting views just east of the mag 11.5 star. NGC 4004 was a headlight by comparison.

By now the wind had picked up to the point where there were only intermittent moments calm enough to observe. I must have been 12:30 a.m. I had a good six hours of observing. I thought of calling it a night, but figured I'd try one last object.

NGC 3196's location is easy to find. An equidistant line extended from Gamma to 35 Leonis and beyond will put this dim galaxy in a wide field of view. But you'll have to have great conditions to see it. This was the smallest and dimmest object of the night at mag 15.7 and 0.4'x0.2'. Amazingly, it was there, but again required high magnification and patience. I have to believe too that it was the most distant object I observed during the night, with a radial velocity of 15180 km/s.

I have just two targets remaining in Leo...

It was one of those nights when you feel like you could see forever. If not for wind and cold, I would have done an all-nighter.

Richard and I packed up our scopes and popped open a couple ice cold beers. Out came my 12x60 binoculars. A sip. A view. A sip. A view. M81/82. M65/66. M51. Big opens. M42. Sip, sip, sip.

We talked about life, about families.

The wind seed to die down again. We stared up at the stars.

Overhead the stars stared back at us.

We decided to turn in.

From my bed inside I listened top the wind squeak through the windows, gently rocking my truck. I looked up, out the back window as I lay there slowly slipping off to sleep.

It was a great place to be, on a clear night, looking up at forever.