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Monday, October 27, 2008

Windy weekend

This was my astronomy club's last observing weekend up in the West Virginia mountains for this year. Friday was rainy and cloudy. The forecast got better for Sat. night, so two of us headed up. But the forecast was wrong. Although it cleared marginally off and on, frequent overcast, fast passing clouds, 35-degree temps, moderately heavy dew and a strong wind made observing difficult. (Yeah, we got it all up here!) On Sunday we moved over to the Shenandoah Mountains in Virginia, where the sky was great, no dew (wow, that's rare around here!), and the wind equally fierce, causing us to abandon our posts sometime after midnight. (The forecast was mostly cloudy and it was fantastically clear.) I did get some good observing in, though, thanks mainly to my trusty windscreen. That thing really has helped eke out observing time on many otherwise unusable nights.

Still, we were able to pick out McNeil's Nebula near M78, which recently has "brightened" (and I use that term loosely) to about 15th magnitude- about where it was when discovered in 2004 by Jay McNeil. In my 10-inch it was very difficult. If you go looking for it, there is a pair of unequally bright stars right next to it, on the side toward M78, so don't mistake them for the nebula. Look for a faint patch very close to those stars. Don't use a nebula filter because it's a reflection nebula. In my friend's 18-inch the nebula was much easier and we could discern some shape to it.

Speaking of reflection nebulas, I've been chasing Gyulbudaghian's Nebula (GM1-29) in Cepheus for about two years now in my 10-inch with no luck. Gyulbudaghian's is a variable reflection nebula similar to Hubble's Variable Nebula in Monoceros, only a lot dimmer. I've only seen it once- last year from Arizona in a 30-inch. Despite what one online poster wrote that it was recently "easy" in his 10-inch, it's always been invisible in mine from the darkest WV mountain skies. But that doesn't keep me from trying. I tried again Saturday night during one of the rare clearings, but despite *possibly* getting a whisper of it a couple of times, I certainly wouldn't say for sure I saw it and chalked it up to wishful observing. So the quest continues.

I had observed the two local cluster dwarf galaxies NGC 185 and NGC 147 before in my 4.5-inch, so I went for them in the 10-inch. I don't have any logs saying I've observed them recently, though I'm way behind on transcribing them. They're close together in the sky, but 147 is quite a bit dimmer than 185. In fact, I hadn't been able to spot 147 in my 4.5-inch, though it did show pretty easily in the 10-inch. They're in Cassiopeia a little more than midway between the W-shaped main asterism of the constellation and the Andromeda Galaxy.

The skies were good enough that we were able to pick out the central star of the Ring Nebula (M57) in the 18-inch, though I confess my eye just isn't what it once was, and I had trouble relocating it after getting a first glimpse. Last year I spotted it a couple of times in the 10-inch at 356x. We also spotted the faint two-armed spiral galaxy IC 1296 nearby, listed at 14.8 mag, in his scope.

NGC 1055 and M77, the Seyfert galaxy in Cetus, showed nicely from the mountains. This pair might make a good "Space Walk Among the Stars" podcast, so I took some notes. NGC 1055 is one of the few galaxies that shows a nice dark lane in medium sized scopes, similar to M104 the "Sombrero Galaxy." It's also very easy to find.

There's a really nice open cluster (one of many) in Puppis that unfortunately never rises high enough in these parts to really show its stuff- NGC 2477. Even so, it's worth a look, especially if you find yourself in a southerly locale. I played around in Puppis for a while and that was one of the objects I simply had to check out again.

Packing up in the wind last night was an experience. Folding up the tarp (used to shield me from the lights across the road, since the windscreen was handling the monsoon coming from the other direction) was like shortening sail off Cape Horn. In retrospect, it was good that we called it quits earlier than we normally would have, since a two-hour drive home in the wee hours is never much fun, especially with the local deer and fox populations on the prowl for suitable locations to become roadkill. Someday I'll have a backyard observatory. Got to get a backyard first, though!

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