2/3/03 - A Night at Fiddletown

by Bob Czerwinski


Making the Monday afternoon trek with my 18" Starmaster, I arrived at Bob Kestner's Fiddletown site about an hour before sunset. For those of you who have been there, one of the dogs associated with the property adjacent to, and just east of, Kestner's property, has just given birth to puppies, and is definitely letting everybody know that she doesn't want *anybody* coming near her pups! With the new mom and her children now calling an outdoor blue-tarp sheltered area home, puppy whimpers could occasionally be heard during the night.

Conditions looked promising, and I was anxious to see what that Double Quasar in Ursa Major would look like from this location. My primary observing plan involved the continuation of my Herschel 2500 work, primarily in Gemini and Leo, although I had quite a few items to try and pick up relatively early in the low southern sky. Many of these items were stragglers, items I'd missed because of time constraints, being too late in the season, or I just simply couldn't find 'em on previous outings.

With the sky darkening, the triangular shaped glow of the zodiacal light was very evident, angled-up from the WSW horizon, stretching about 40-degrees through Aquarius and Pisces. I always think of the zodiacal light's evening showing as more of a springtime phenomenon, but I guess that would just have to do more with the angle of the ecliptic with respect to the horizon. During the spring, the plane of the ecliptic would be more perpendicular to the western horizon, so the zodiacal light is probably just more noticeable then. Guess I just haven't paid the activity enough attention.

The temperature, which was 55F when I arrived (although it felt 70'ish in the sunshine), dropped to 45F by sunset, and quickly moved into the high 30's. Humidity increased from about 50-percent to a bit over 80-percent, but soon dropped back into the high 70's-percentage range. Between 8:00pm and midnight, the average temperature/humidity reading on my Radio Shack thingy was 37F/78%.

To check the early seeing, I began my evening with views of Polaris, Castor and Theta Orionis (the Trapezium). Polaris and its dim companion were certainly distinct, but Polaris was definitely in a small-snowball stage. Uh-oh. That spelled possible trouble for a later attempt of the Double Quasar. Castor, however, was a relatively easy split, and the E & F stars of the Trap were certainly no trouble at all; you could drive a truck through the gaps associated with them and the A & C stars, respectively.

Okay, I'll admit I took a long early-evening look at Saturn, too. The Cassini Division was sharp and rock-steady everywhere you looked, and the C-Ring (aka Crepe Ring) was easily visible. I recall Jay Freeman once describing it as "gauze." I'm not certain if I truly detected the Encke Minimum, but there appeared to be a slight drop in brightness in the center of the A-Ring. While I was at it, I pulled up Saturn on TheSky, and went searching for its moons. At the eyepiece, Enceladus and Tethys were nicely paired together, SE of Saturn's disk. Dione and Rhea were a bit further out, to the NE of Saturn's rings. I tried and tried and tried, but could not locate Mimas, which should have been just to the east of the rings. Bright Titan was out to the south, with Enceladus and Tethys pointing right to it. Hyperion, which should have been to the SW of Titan, was a no-show for me as well, even with the TheSky providing the directions. Iapetus was waaay off to the west of Saturn, but easy to locate, again thanks to TheSky. After Iapetus, I went back to the east side of Saturn, but no amount of coaxing or imagination could bring Mimas to light. Sure would have liked to have seen Mimas and Hyperion, but I'll settle for six of eight.

Off to Galaxyland...

I started far to the south, hunting three items in Lepus. The first on my list was NGC 1794. Very faint, small and roundish, I also had this galaxy listed as "Dup of 1781," but my notes for 1781 say "nonexistent." Hmmmm... I obviously need to do some homework on this item. The galaxy was relatively easy to identify in the field, sitting between two widely-spaced pairs of 10th~11th-mag double stars.

Next in Lepus was NGC 1888/1889, near the border of Orion. Now I've seen 1888 before; it's relatively faint and elongated NW-SE, but odd'ish looking. 1889, which I'd never logged before, is actually a small bump on the east side of 1888, very faint and tiny, but which explains that odd look to 1888. Took a while for me to appreciate 1889 being there.

Last in Lepus was NGC 2124. This galaxy was fun to observe as it sits in the middle of a rich star field. Elongated N-S and relatively bright. A beautiful sight.

Next I headed after two items in Puppis, starting with NGC 2566. This was a large galaxy, but faint and ill-defined, with no core that I could make out. Sits in a pretty rich field, too, with small IC 2311 nearby.

The second item in Puppis was NGC 2578. Took me much longer than I thought it would to find this small faint galaxy. Seems like everything in Puppis sits in a rich star field, this being no exception.

Then on to Canis Minor to find NGC 2402. Although nothing to write home about, it's a very easy star-hop from Beta Canis Minoris (Gomeisa) to Gamma Canis Minoris to 2402. Just a dim patch of light, sitting along side the two southern most stars of a chain of four to the galaxy's NW. The chain of four stars serves as a great guide to the galaxy.

I also had just one item to find in Canis Major, NGC 2327. About three eyepiece-fields from Theta Canis Majoris, 2327 is a small reflection nebula surrounding a star. A much dimmer second star was in there, too, but I don't know if it's associated with the nebula, or if it was just a foreground or background item.

Moving higher into the sky, my next few targets were in Orion. Some of these I've definitely seen before, but didn't have them logged. I started off with NGC 1670 and 1678, both residing in the same field. Both are relatively faint and small, with 1670 slightly elongated. From there I moved on to 1682 and 1684, both in the same field, along with 1683 and 1685. 1683 - which wasn't on my list - was a tough one to identify, extremely faint when compared with the other three. If TheSky hadn't identified its position in the field, I'd likely have missed it. 1682, 1684 and 1685 were easy to identify, with 1684 clearly the brightest of the group. NGC 1924 was next on the list, an easy hop from the western edge of M42, just a degree or so away. 1924 was relatively bright and easy to find. I know I've seen this a number of times, but why I didn't have it logged I'll never know.

I logged two open clusters in Monoceros, NGC 2225 (which is really at the core of OC NGC 2226), and 2262. Well, I'm not certain about 2262. TheSky identifies its location as RA: 06h 38m 24.0s, Dec: +0111'00" (Epoch 2000), but the Dreyer description of "very compressed, irregularly round, brighter middle, stars extremely small" seems to fit a concentration of stars centered around RA: 06h 39m 39s, Dec: +0108'20", which was about a quarter-field away in my 17mm Nagler eyepiece. Again, more homework for me to do. And on an open cluster no less! What's this world coming to?! <grin>

Well, rather than drag you through everything else I logged - more southern-sky selections and then a host of galaxies in Gemini and Leo - let me hit the Double Quasar, QSO 0957+561AB, in UMa for a moment. In a nutshell, there was no sign of it. The seeing to the north was still a bit soft when I went after it about 1:00am, and even though it was easy to find the field (thanks to big 'n bright NGC 3079), I even had trouble just making out the 14th magnitude "signpost" asterism pointing to the QSO. I tried a couple more times later on, but the sky in that direction didn't improve. Excellent seeing is certainly a requirement for this QSO, and so far I'm only batting .333. (Guess I shouldn't complain, huh.)

After going nowhere with the Double Quasar, about 1:30am I chased down two of the readily visible comets now in the sky, C/2001 HT50 (LINEAR-NEAT) in Monoceros, and C/2002 Y1 (Juels-Holvorcem) in Bootes. This is quite a time for comet viewing, with about a half-dozen of 'em currently visible in small to moderate 'scopes. Catch 'em while you can!

I did return to Saturn about 11:00pm, and also took a look at Jupiter. By this point in time the Encke Minimum - or whatever it's being called these days - was clearly evident as a broad darkening in the center of Saturn's A-Ring. I couldn't clearly identify a division at the outer edge of the A-Ring, even though I suspected it from time to time. Still no sign of Mimas and Hyperion. I'm not surprised about the former moon, but I am surprised I couldn't find the latter. Maybe I was just focusing my attention on the wrong location. When I finally turned the 'scope on Jupiter - gawd, was that thing bright! - the planet was a mass of chaotic activity, both in the equatorial zone and the north/south equatorial belts. The GRS was close to the limb, about to rotate out of view. Planetary viewers would have had a blast on Monday night. :^)

Oh, yeah. About 9:30pm, just for the heck of it, I looked to the south to see if Canopus was visible, but couldn't find it. There are some trees off in that direction, but even walking back and forth a bit so that I could view the distant horizon, I couldn't see the star. Canopus was probably just a degree below the horizon, maybe even less.

All in all, it was a great night. I finally called it quits at 3:45am, and headed home at 4:30am. For those interested, the temperature/humidity at 4:00am was 32F/74%. Hit some serious Tule fog on the way back to San Jose, the worst of it on I-5, just south of Stockton. Traveling at 30-35mph, I was being passed by folk easily doing twice that speed. Scared the bejeezus out of me! Commute traffic was a lot of fun, too, especially when I reached 205/580. Cat-napped for a bit once I got home, but *really* slept well last night!