This weekend saw a trip out to “OMSI(Oregon Museum of Science and Industry)’s”:http://www.omsi.org Camp Hancock for a star party. The site is about 190 miles and a nice, scenic drive a little over three hours away from my apartment. Such a distance takes you sufficiently away from Portland to have wonderfully dark skies.
Friday night’s weather was generally cooperative; observers will tell you the transparency was relatively poor, but I think most of us were more than happy that two far more important considerations, darkness and lack of cloud cover, were decent. I spent a good portion of the night trying my hand at astrophotography, the results of which were, as one might expect for my first serious attempt, rather lacking in success. However, it was a good learning experience and a necessary first step.
Saturday night I stuck with visual observing, but unfortunately the weather was far less cooperative and clouds covered us up early in the night. That didn’t stop me from hopping around the sky and catching a number of Messier objects while I had the chance. I wrote down the list of what I looked at that night, so without further ado I present Saturday Night’s Hit List:
The evening started with *M11*, an open cluster in Scutum. I tend not to be particularly impressed with most of the open clusters in Messier’s catalog, although from time to time one comes up that has nicely colored stars or an interesting arrangement. But M11, the Wild Duck Cluster, is really spectacular. It’s much more populated and compact than any other open cluster I’ve seen — at least 680 stars covering 13′ — making it appear significantly more like a globular than any other open cluster I’ve seen. It also has a distinctly brighter and more colorful single star near its center.
Next up were *M10* and *M12*, both globular clusters, in Ophiuchus. Their relative closeness and the fact that Ophiuchus was already partially obscured by the horizon at this point made it hard for me to get my exact bearings within the constellation; I had to find both of them and compare their positions to determine if I was looking at M10 or M12. Average globulars, I’d say.
No viewing session is complete without at least a quick look at *M13*, the globular in Hercules. Everything ever written about M13 includes a statement along the lines of “the finest globular cluster in the northern skies” (in this case from _The Messier Objects_ by Stephen James O’Meara), so I’ll just leave it at that!
*M15* is another globular, this time in Pegasus. It’s another of the brighter globulars in the sky.
Technically in Vulpecula’s territory, I find *M27* using stars in Cygnus as a guide (because, honestly, who really knows Vulpecula?). Known as the Dumbell Nebula, M27 is another staple of my oberving sessions. It’s amazing to think that when you’re looking at the nebula, it’s expanding at a rate of about 20 miles per second. From Earth, that translates to a growth rate of 6″ per century.
I have looked for *M40* a couple times before, but nothing stood out when I was looking. Sure enough, there’s a double star right where it’s supposed to be. The inclusion of M40 in Messier’s catalog strikes me as somewhat odd considering that it is just a double star (slightly above where the handle of the Big Dipper connects to the ladel), but according to my Messier Objects finder chart book Messier was apparently looking for a nebula in the area and ended up just finding this double.
Next I tried looking for M26, another open cluster, but ended up landing on a “faint fuzzy” that looked like either a faint globular or bright galaxy. I knew I wasn’t on M26, but I didn’t know what I had landed on instead. Careful consultation with a star chart (in this case Jim’s copy of _Uranometria 2000.0_ since I forgot my own atlas) led me to the hypothesis that I had stumbled upon *NGC 6712*, a magnitude 8.2 globular in Scutum. After some localized clouds in the area passed (they were beginning to become a problem by this point), I did find M26 and based on everything’s realitive positions was able to confirm I did find NGC 6712. Final confirmation was with a goto scope (you can’t be too careful, right?).
The quest for *M26*, as mentioned above, was also finally successful after an interesting diversion to NGC 6712. M26 is an open cluster in Scutum, and falls into that category of open clusters that just don’t excite me.
No observing session is complete without getting *M31*, *M32*, and *M110* in the same field of view of my telescope. The Andromeda Galaxy, and its companions, look quite marvelous in such dark skies.
*M33*, the Pinwheel Galaxy, is next on the list and close to Andromeda in the constellation Triangulum. Although moving from Andromeda on to M33 is completely unfair to M33, it is still a nice galaxy to look at. Apparently it may be a satellite galaxy of Andromeda, actually orbiting the larger galaxy.
Next up was *M34*, an open cluster in Perseus. I don’t really remember what this one looked like; I’ll have to take better notes next time. Easily overshadowed by the nearby Perseus Double Cluster, which I’m sure I prefer looking at.
While on open clusters, I next went to *M39*. I’m going to have to revisit this one with my new Messier book close at hand to see if I really did land on what is considered M39, it’s pretty open and lacking stars (only 30 stars across its 30′ size). Moving right along…
*M52* was the next open cluster, in Cassiopeia. Again, open cluster, not good notes, no idea what I thought of this one. Must take better notes on these things in the future!
Now on to a much more impressive open cluster: *M45*, the Pleiades in Taurus. Beautiful, bright stars that form a fuzzy splotch in the sky visible to the naked eye, and quite a sight in a nice wide-field view of the area.
Back to globulars, *M56* in Lyra was partially obscured by the clouds overhead, so I didn’t see it as much more than a spot that was brighter than the surrounding area. I’ll have to revisit this one on a clearer night to appreciate it more.
Perhaps the faintest fuzzy in the set of galaxies in Messier’s catalog, *M74* wasn’t too difficult to find in Pisces given the darkness of the skies out at Hancock. Definitely not one that I’ll be seeing too often outside of star parties given its 9.4 magnitude spread across 10′.5 by 9′.5.
Finally, before the clouds completely covered the sky, the last little opening in the sky was at the far end of Andromeda where we enter Perseus’ territory, home of the Little Dumbell Nebula, *M76*. This is another one reserved for skies much darker than those close to home; it’s a very small magnitude 10.1 planetary nebula. The transparency at this point was extremely poor (I may have actually been looking through a thin cloud given that the whole sky except this one spot was overcast), and I couldn’t really see the dumbell shape. I do know it deserves its name, though, because the other time I’ve seen this object was on a much better night for observing and there is a clear resemblance to the larger and brighter Dumbell Nebula.
That wraps up Saturday night’s batch of objects, sadly cut very short (10pm or so, compared to Friday night when I was up past 2am) by the clouds.
Some technical details about the objects in my descriptions above are from _The Messier Objects_, by Stephen James O’Meara. I don’t know magnitudes for these things off the top of my head, yet ;-).