Sunday, November 27, 2011

Thanksgiving thanks to Herschel

Tonight was the third clear night in a row here at the Lost Pleiad Observatory, and unfortunately, the last night of this extended Thanksgiving weekend.   I knew that I would not last as long tonight so decided to concentrate on just two constellations in my Herschel 400 observing program, Triangulum and Pegasus.  Together these constellations account for 6 of the Herschel 400 objects and one of them in particular is quite captivating...

Triangulum - The Triangle:

Click to enlarge
NGC 598 - The Triangulum galaxy, M33.  This object has always been fascinating to me.  I have seen it with naked eye averted vision from Portal, AZ., and on other occasions been unable to see it in binoculars.  It has a very low surface brightness and despite it's large apparent size, detecting any spiral structure is a challenge.  My best view has actually been in my TEC 140 APO from Portal, AZ.  Tonight, in my 12 inch SCT I was able to make out the "S" shape of the galaxy, as well as several knots in the arms, particularly the northern arm.  The small nebular HII region NGC 604 was the brightest.  Not one of my best, but the sketch at left was completed tonight (0345 UT 11.28.2011) using a magnification of 145x.

Pegasus - The Winged Horse:

NGC 7217 - A fairly large and slightly elongated 11th magnitude galaxy with a slightly brighter nucleus.
NGC 7331 - A famous target in this constellation that I have observed in many different telescopes.  Very bright, elongated galaxy with a very bright elongated nucleus, containing an even brighter central region.
NGC 7448 - Large galaxy, much fainter than previous two.  No detail seen- slightly elongated.
NGC 7479 - Another galaxy that I have observed frequently in the Schulman 32 inch telescope at the Mount Lemmon SkyCenter where I work.  This galaxy is quite elongated in the eyepiece, but no trace of the spiral arms is noted tonight.  Slight brightening in the middle.
NGC 7814 - A very bright elongated galaxy with a very bright but small nucleus.

Herschel 400 count:  65 down, 335 remaining!

Herschel 400 ~ Part Deux

William Herschel
Well, night number two of the official Herschel 400 observation program was more relaxed than the aggressive pace of night number one.  Last night, (Saturday night) I headed out a little bit later to continue my observations.  We are just past new moon, and with a long Thanksgiving holiday weekend it is wonderful to have these dark nights with no reason to get up early in the morning.  Unfortunately, the seeing (atmospheric stability) was basically garbage {I had some better adjectives, but this is after all a family friendly blog} in the best of moments.  Bright stars were blobs of shimmering light and even the faint stars were hard to bring into focus.  I consoled myself thinking about all those great nights we do have here in the desert and went ahead using a maximum magnification of 145x under what were truly very transparent skies.  All observations made with my Meade Instruments 12 inch LX-200 SCT telescope.  I took several breaks to drink some mint tea and just gaze naked eye at the milky way.  Last nights constellations were in the same general areas as night number one and consisted of Auriga, Taurus, Orion, and Eridanus.  While it may seem like a lot of sky, (and in truth, it is) these four constellations only represent 19 of the Herschel 400 objects.

Auriga- The Charioteer:

NGC 1664 - An open cluster that displays several relatively bright stars, spread well apart, with a nice line of faint stars leading away from the cluster.
NGC 1857 - Another open cluster with many more stars than the above cluster; more condensed and generally a more pleasing view.
NGC 1907 - A fainter cluster than the ones above, but I'd still consider it bright overall although it contains many more faint stars.
NGC 1931 - As stars go this is nothing unusual for an open cluster...however, near the center is a very bright patch of nebulosity that contains three very close stars.  Most of the time, due to seeing, only two stars were visible but at high power during the fractions of a second where things steadied, a third star popped into view.
NGC 2126 - A medium sized open cluster with about 20-30 stars.
NGC 2281 - Another typical open cluster.  Unremarkable.  About 10 bright stars with a smattering of fainter ones.

Taurus - The Bull:

NGC 1647 - A very large cluster nearly filling the field of view (eyepiece TFOV = .7 degrees) with several brighter stars.
NGC 1817 - A pretty open cluster with well over 100 stars, the richest cluster yet tonight!  Less than .25 degree in size.

Orion - The Hunter...I've spent a lot of time in this constellation and previously observed most of these objects:

NGC 1788 - A bright patch of nebulosity with two stars embedded.  It is irregular in shape.
NGC 1980 - Another bright nebula at the end of the sword of Orion.  Small, surrounding the star Iota Orionis.  Often ignored in favor of it's famous neighbor, the Great Orion Nebula.
NGC 1999 - Another "bright" nebula.  Not much to look at visually, but photographically this is the famous "keyhole" nebula, containing a true dark void (not dust) in it's center.
NGC 2022 - Yes, a planetary nebula...probably my favorite class of deep sky object due to their subtle nature.  This one is definitely blue/green with a brighter center.  No sign of the central star.
NGC 2024
NGC 2024 - The Flame nebula- have seen this in much better detail from a darker site...still obvious in the suburbs, but rather ghostly.  Dust lanes most visible when Zeta Orionis is moved out of the field of view.  Image at right copyright Adam Block/Mount Lemmon SkyCenter/University of Arizona
NGC 2169 - A nice compact grouping of similarly bright stars that exactly form the numerals "3" and "7"...I recognized this cluster at once as the "37" cluster but did not recall the NGC number!
NGC 2186 - A compact group of fainter stars, maybe 30 of them...a deep sky stepchild in this constellation.
NGC 2194 - An unusually shaped cluster, almost a rectangle.  Fairly bright and rich and well condensed.

Eridanus - The River:

NGC 1084 - This is an elongated galaxy that appears a little brighter than its listed 12th magnitude.  No details seen.
NGC 1407 - A round galaxy with an obviously brighter nucleus.  These targets are low on the horizon making observations challenging.
NGC 1535 - A striking planetary nebula that is quite blue in color.  Quite round.  The central 2/3 of the nebula is markedly brighter than the outer 1/3.

59 objects down, 341 to go!

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Herschel 400, the official start

Often when observing at night, I tend to follow a familiar pattern.  I will observe any planets that are in the sky, I make sketches of any available comets, I visit some of my favorite Messier objects, and then I'll pick a constellation and observe some of its deep sky objects until I am ready to head indoors.  Last night was a very dark and clear night at the Lost Pleiad Observatory, and on a lark I said to myself  "self, lets finally, officially, start the Herschell 400."  Now faithful reader, you have been brought in on one of my secrets...I talk to myself.  Why, you ask?  Well, to be honest, I usually agree with myself.

According to Wikipedia, The Herschel 400 are a "subset of William Herschel's original deep sky catalog of 2,500 deep sky objects, selected by Brenda F. Guzman (Branchett), Lydel Guzman, Paul Jones, James Morrison, Peggy Taylor and Sara Saey of the Ancient City Astronomy Club in St. Augustine, Florida, USA circa 1980."  They represent 400 of the brighter deep sky objects cataloged by William Herschel and are all observable from mid-northern latitudes.  I have probably observed well over half of these objects already, but I have done so in a haphazard fashion and being a poor note taker, likely have no record of many of them...and even where records exist in my notes, they are written in a notebook by date of observation and are not collected or organized in any fashion whatsoever.  As a resource, click here for the Herschell 400 catalog arranged by constellation published by the Astronomical League.

Distribution of Herschel 400 objects
Red = Galaxy///Green = Nebula///Yellow = Star Cluster

We just had a fairly wet storm leave the area and temperatures last night were much cooler than they had been over the past few weeks.  I had a feeling that the night could be one of the few at my observatory where dew would actually be a concern.  I pulled the dew shield for my 12 inch SCT out of storage, screwed it on.  After observing Jupiter and taking a look at comet C/2010 G2 (Hill) (ephemerides here), I began to officially observe the Herschel 400.

The darkest and best skies from the Lost Pleiad Observatory are to the North and East and I decided to start my observations in the constellation of Andromeda...that and alphabetically they are first on the list, so it just seemed the right thing to do.  All observations are made at  magnifications of 145X and 234X, with occasional looks at planetary nebula and galaxies at 305X.  While transparency was excellent last night, the seeing 9atmospheric stability) was average to below never really became steady.  Regardless, in order of NGC designation:

NGC 891
Andromeda - The Princess

NGC 205 - Also known as M110 this is a large satellite of the the Great Andromeda Galaxy and at low power shares the view with M31 herself.
NGC 404 - Very close to the orange star Beta Andromeda, commonly called Mirach...sometimes called the Ghost of Mirach.  Moving the star out of the field of view reveals a brighter nucleus and a round galaxy.
NGC 752 - One of only two Herschel 400 objects in Andromeda that I do not recall observing.  An open cluster of stars, pretty, bright and not condensed.  Magnitude 5.7
NGC 7662
NGC 891 - An old favorite.  This is an elusive edge on galaxy that I have observed in almost every telescope of decent aperture I have used.  Dust lane visible with averted vision, quite ethereal.  Sketch above right made with the Mt. Lemmon SkyCenter 32 inch Schulman Telescope
NGC 7662 - The Blue Snowball nebula shows a nice blue color and increasing the magnification reveals the incomplete bright inner ring.  Sketch at left also made with the Schulman 32 inch.
NGC 7688 - The other Herschel 400 object in Andromeda not previously observed.  Another bright open cluster...what else is there to say?

Aries (A good second constellation as it is my "sign"):

NGC 772 - A small 8 x 5 arcminute galaxy which is slightly elongated.  No sign of arms, however, the nucleus is somewhat brighter than outer areas.  Also known as Arp 78.

Cassiopeia - The Queen.

NGC 129 - Open cluster, attractive with many bright stars, probably 30-40 overall.
NGC 136 - A very small, faint, condensed patch of light...averted vision reveals a smattering of elusive pinpoints of light.  Apparently an open cluster, but perhaps I am observing something in the background of the cluster?
NGC 185 - Also known as Caldwell 18, this is a small galaxy that seems slightly disturbed using averted vision.  Also, a touch elongated.
NGC 225 - Another open cluster of bright stars...probably better in binoculars.
NGC 278 - A small round galaxy with a brighter nucleus.  Just a couple arcminutes in diameter.
NGC 381 - One of the nicer open clusters so far with 50 - 70 stars, many of them faint giving the cluster a busy appearance.
NGC 436 - Yet another open cluster, containing many brighter stars with a few multiple stars among them.
NGC 457 - One of my favorite open clusters out there...looks best at low power where it looks like a winged creature.  I like to call it the Owl, but at Halloween call it the Bat...some locals call it the Kachina Dancer.  Whatever the name, it appears to have two bright eyes staring back at the observer while spreading it's wings wide.
NGC 559 - Another open cluster, bright stars, not very impressive.
NGC 637 - Duplicate of the above!  Different stars, same impression in the 12 inch scope...yawn...
NGC 654 - OK, a little better in the eye candy department with twice as many stars as the above two objects and a higher level of condensation.
NGC 659 - Back to basics...maybe 10 cluster members well spread apart.  Where are my (goto) binoculars?
NGC 663 - Now we are talking!  Many faint stars, well condensed, at 145 power this cluster should be more famous.  It has a delicate appearance with a dark lane running the length of the cluster.
NGC 1027 - Another open cluster, typical of others in this constellation.  Bumping the telescope I think I can detect a subtle nebulosity enveloping this cluster...averted imagination?  Maybe...Worth returning to at a truly dark site.
NGC 7789 - Wow!  This is a beautiful cluster with well over 100 stars.  As I continue to observe this cluster it started to appear as if it had a spiral shape to it...maybe time to get some rest.  I took a walk around the yard to get the blood flowing, took a drink of water and came back to the scope.  Sure enough, this cluster has a distinct spiral shape to it...once noticed I can not avoid seeing this obvious pattern.  Favorite Herschel 400 object in Cassiopeia!!
NGC 7790 - What else?  Another open cluster...about 30 stars gathered together...a let down after the previous cluster, but typical of these Cassiopeia clusters.

Cepheus - The King.

NGC 40
NGC 40 - This is a favorite planetary nebula that I have observed and sketched a couple times previously (example at left).  The central star is easily visible in a circular shell of nebulosity with a bright "polar caps".  Also known as Caldwell 2.
NGC 6939 - A well populated open cluster with many chains of stars emanating from its central regions.  Probably upwards of 75 stars.  In a lower power telescope one can observe this pretty cluster together with the galaxy below
NGC 6946 - A small low surface brightness galaxy that is very nearby to the cluster above.  No sign of spiral arms, and only a slight brightening toward toward the nucleus.  Also known as Caldwell 12, The Fireworks Galaxy.
NGC 7142 - Run of the mill open cluster- 20+ stars, fairly bright.
NGC 7160 - Barely an open cluster in the 12 inch scope...not many stars at all, although they are relatively bright ones.
NGC 7380 - A bright cluster embedded within some nebulosity.  From a dark site this would likely be striking.
NGC 7510 - Open cluster (too many of these tonight!) with approximately 30 stars in the cluster.  Relatively bright at magnitude 7.9

Perseus - The Hero.

NGC 651 - Planetary nebula widely known as the Little Dumbbell, M76.  Pushing the power up to 305 reveals the bipolar nature of this nebula with brighter regions at the poles.  Hints of the nebulous looping extensions noted when nudging the scope, although these would likely be invisible if I did not know they are there from previous observations.
NGC 869 and NGC 884 - The famous "Double Cluster" is the only object tonight for which I pulled out the 56mm plossl.  At very low power I can almost appreciate the beauty of these two objects, containing several hundred stars, including some colorful stars near the center of each cluster.
NGC 1023
NGC 1023 - This is a bright elongated galaxy nicely offset by a chain of stars south of the galaxy.  A bright nucleus with some faint extensions make for a sight unique so far tonight.  I took a break from simply observing and sketched this galaxy as seen at right.
NGC 1245- An open cluster, containing a fair number of stars, somewhat condensed with stars of similar brightness.
NGC 1342 - Another open cluster, not much to note, maybe 40 stars.
NGC 1444 - Small and faint cluster of stars, Herschel must have been sleepy by this point!
NGC 1513 - This is an interesting cluster in that it is shaped somewhat like a "U" is a bright a large cluster with 30 to 40 stars.
NGC 1528 - This is also an interesting open cluster with dark lanes passing between the lines of stars.
NGC 1545 - Final open cluster of the evening...and not an impressive one by any stretch.  Dominated by two brighter stars.

Well, that is my report on night one of the official Herschel 400 observing run of the Lost Pleiad Observatory.  I may try and get a few more objects in tonight, but am already quite happy with my Thanksgiving weekend start.  40 objects down, 360 to go!  That means that if I average one object per night I should finish in a year...we'll see!

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Photon Phix

Click to enlarge
First time since November 5th that I've been able to observe and sketch the Sun- Life has been busy and the few chances I have had to observe at all have been quick looks at Jupiter in the evenings.  I am a fairly dedicated solar observer so I was excited to have time on my hands this morning to get my photon fix.  At 8:30 AM the sky was partly cloudy and it looked like I would have enough of a clearing to observe and sketch the Sun.  Turns out I was being fairly optimistic as it took me about an hour and a half to make the sketch due to passing clouds.  At one point I had to take a solid 20 minute break from sketching.

Seeing was fairly poor overall between passing clouds and the mostly unsteady air overhead- perhaps a 1 or 2 out of 5.  The sketch was completed at 1721 UT (10:21 MST) using my Lunt Solar Systems 60mm pressure tuned hydrogen alpha telescope.  During the time of my sketch, active region 11354 near the eastern limb exhibited a mild flare.  I do not know what time the flare started or ended due to the clouds but I noticed it at approximately 1645 UT.  While there are several numbered active regions on the face of the Sun right now, none of them were that remarkable.  The complex of three regions rounding the northeast limb are enticing and perhaps the next several days will see some nice activity.  The large filaments in the east are quite dark, which indicates that they are much cooler "waves" in the surrounding sea of plasma.

For comparison purposes, below are images taken by the Solar Dynamics Observatory Atmospheric Imaging Assembly.  The image at left was captured at 1727 UT and the image at right captured at 1722 UT, essentially the same time as my sketch.  I have flipped the SDO images horizontally to match the orientation of my sketch with west at left.

Friday, November 11, 2011

NGC 7008 by eye and camera

Adam Block/Mount Lemmon SkyCenter/University of Arizona
We continue to be completely clouded out here in the Old Pueblo (Tucson), prohibiting any observational astronomy day or night.  At least we are in the bright moon period so I am not missing too much.  Just this week, Adam Block published an image of NGC 7008 that was captured at the Mount Lemmon SkyCenter using the 32 inch Schulman telescope. It is quite a beautiful planetary nebula, with a pair of bright (relatively) colorful stars to the south of the nebula.  Looking at the nebula, I immediately recognized the object as one that I had sketched earlier this year.  At left is the image and below is my sketch.  Together they illustrate the difference between what can be seen with the eye versus a camera.  In both the image and sketch, North is up and West is to the right.  I completed my sketch on the night of July 2nd 2011, using my 12 inch LX200 SCT and a 10mm Pentax XW eyepiece yielding a magnification of 305X.

This nebula resides in the constellation of Cygnus the swan, approximately 2800 light years away.  It was discovered by William Herschel in 1787 and is sometimes known popularly as the "fetus nebula."  This nebula resulted from a brief phase near the end of life of the central star when it was shedding off its outer layers.  This process resulted in a much cooler star, known as a white dwarf.  Incredibly, that single star has created a nebula that is about one light year in diameter!

You can see some of the other examples of the world-class imaging being done at the Mount Lemmon SkyCenter by Adam Block and guests of the programs by visiting this web page.

Saturday, November 5, 2011

Sunspot region 11339

Click to enlarge
Currently, there is a massive sunspot region in the northern hemisphere of the Sun that has rotated into view over the past several days.  Numbered region 11339 is large, complex, and already responsible for a X class solar flare.  We are between weather fronts here in Tucson, and today the atmospheric stability was as bad as I have seen it in some time.  I observed the Sun in white light using very low magnification (approximately 55X) to make the sketch at left.  During the time of my sketch there were only fractions of a second every now and then where the seeing stabilized at all.  I suspect there are many more small spots and pores in regions 11339 and 11338 than I was able to capture.  As it was, this sketch took me about 40 minutes to complete, as I patiently waited to spot spots.  I completed the drawing at 2020 UT (1:20 MST).

For comparison, below is the Mount Wilson Solar Observatory Daily Sunspot Drawing:

Click to enlarge

This is a video I created using the freeware program JHelioviewer that shows the rotation of this spot group from about 2000 UT on 11/2 through 2000 UT today.  The data is from the Solar Dynamics Observatory Atmospheric Imaging Assembly (AIA):