March 9, 2018: Finally! A Clear But Cold Night at the Dark Site

On Wednesday night, after last month’s windy failure, I finally got a good night out at the DAS Dark Site.  Well, half a night anyway, before I felt like a popsicle and packed it up and went home.  I was out for three hours, but what a three hours!

The afternoon was glorious in the mid-50s. I got out to the dark site at 6pm, just moments after the sun went down, and the temperature immediately dropped to freezing.  For once, the forecast was finally correct.  “No problem,” I thought.  “I’m wearing two hats, wool socks, boots, and 4 layers; and the last layer is my below-freezing ski jacket that always makes me so hot that I sweat.  I’m ready.”  Well, even though it was only in the mid-20s, me and Bruce, the other DAS member out there, were freezing our rumps off, requiring frequent trips to the warming hut.  At least there was absolutely no wind whatsoever.

I finally got the full shakedown of the fully-loaded Orion Sirius Pro that I’ve been wanting.  By “fully-loaded”, I of course had the C9.25 on it, along with the Mak and the ‘frac on the other side.  It’s three, three, three scopes in one!  It takes a solid half hour to set it all up, but it’s well worth it.

The key difference on the night was that I had completely figured out the “align as you go” procedure.  This is where you move from one object to the next, and at each object, you tell the mount, “No, it wasn’t there.  It’s actually here,” and you center the object and realign.  Yes, it’s a royal pain in the rear, requiring about ten button presses each time in the freezing cold, but it increases accuracy immensely.  I’ve finally got the hang of this mount!  Yay!

Slews were off only by about half a degree – always placing the object towards the left edge of the field of view for some reason.  I would guess that this is probably due to some kind of backlash reason, where you have to approach the object and make the final adjustments to it the same way that the mount itself approaches it, to tighten up the gears/belts, etc.  But no matter!  Everything was in the field of view.

Another thing I noticed this time as opposed to last was that the scope was perfectly level.  The bubble was right in the center of the little circle.  Last time, it was a little bit off, and I ignored it.  I wonder if that contributed to the errors last time.

Without the wind violently vibrating the scope, I finally was able to do a compare and contrast with the C9.25 versus the Mak, to see if that extra 1 1/2 magnitudes is meaningful or not.  Boy, it sure is!  I mean, no duh, right?  Winter is the time of open clusters, and through the C9.25, they were all brighter and fuller than through the Mak.  It was like falling in love all over again for the first time.

Of course, the Orion Nebula itself was stunning.  It looked even better than it had from here at home – there’s an extra 1 1/2 magnitudes you get out at the dark site because, duh again, the sky is darker.  Orion had a real 3D appearance to it.  I didn’t experiment to see if I could see the F star in the Trapezium because since the conditions were good, I was like a kid in a candy store, flitting from one object to the next!  I also have to remember to try the Ultrablock filter on the nebula, too.

I observed exclusively with the ES 24mm 68 in the C9.25 all night, giving me 62x and 1.1 degrees when used in combo with the focal reducer and the stock prism diagonal.  In fact, it was giving me a smidge more than 1.1 degrees – I could fit the entire Pleiades in the field, from Atlas and Pleione on one end (in the handle of the dipper) to Electra and Taygeta on the other (in the bowl), with a smidge of black space to spare on either side.  Stellarium says that that’s around 1.15 degrees.  Woo-hoo, the C9.25 is a widefield instrument!  (heh heh)

It wasn’t a great view, actually – the Pleiades are meant to be viewed more bunched together with more black space around them than that.  They looked just terrific in the ST-80, though – I never get tired of looking at them there.  I was really there to see if I could catch the Merope Nebula.  Try as I might, I could not see it.  Ah well.  But in reality, I didn’t really try too hard, spending only 5 minutes on it, as I was bouncing around the sky.

The ST-80 was great for another couple of new objects as well.  Well, new to me, of course.  One was the Alpha Persei Association.  This is a loose cluster of stars around Mirfak – which is Alpha Persei, the brightest star in Perseus.  It’s just over 4 degrees across, which the ST-80 is perfect for observing.

The Alpha Persei Association (Mel 20).  Mirfak is the bright one above and to the right of center; Delta Persei is at left.  Credit:  Roberto Mura

Later in the evening, I saw something hanging out by Leo’s rear.  No, not the guy I was out observing with, the constellation.  It looked like Leo the lion had gas and farted out a cloud.  Fortunately, the guy I was out observing with, Bruce, identified it for me – it was the constellation Coma Berenices, Queen Berenice’s Hair.  It’s the only constellation named after an actual person; she was Queen of Egypt in the third century BC.

Coma is a faint, faaaaaint constellation.  Because my eyesight isn’t as sharp as it used to be, a consequence of being middle-aged, Coma looks like a dim fuzz, a glowing haze.  The brightest star in Coma is magnitude 4.2.  Unless you’re out at a dark site, it’s just plain invisible.  In other words, under light polluted skies, Leo just holds his gas in, like he’s out on a date with a lioness or something.

Melotte 111, the star cluster that dominates the constellation Coma Berenices.
Coma Berenices.  The hair starts at the three brighter stars making an open triangle in the top middle (Gamma), the top left (Beta), and the lower left side (Alpha).  Melotte 111 is the grouping below Gamma.  Credit:  Brian Ventrudo.

Her hair is actually a very large open star cluster, named Melotte 111, about 4 1/2 degrees across.  The Melotte catalogue includes a bunch of these very large open clusters, some of which Messier missed, which are just great for the ST-80.  The Alpha Persei Association is Mel 20; the Pleiades are Mel 22; the Hyades are Mel 25; the Beehive Cluster, M44, is Mel 88.

I always find it exciting and bizarre to “discover” an entire constellation that I basically didn’t even know existed.  I mean, of course I’d heard of Coma Berenices before, but had never even come close to seeing it.  This happened to me a coupla years ago when I was visiting friends out in Northern California.  I came across the constellation Delphinus, the dolphin, a constellation that I had never seen before.  It’s a tiny and faint patch of stars over by Aquila, the eagle.

The Leo Triplet was very cool.  As opposed to only being able to see just two of them like I did last year at Moab with the Mak, all three were easily apparent.  Interestingly, it seemed like M65 was the dimmest of the three – NGC 3628 was much brighter.  M66 is 8.9; NGC 3628 is 9.5, and M65 is 10.3.  Makes you wonder if Messier had made yet another mistake, mistaking the brighter one for the dimmer due to his narrow field of view.

See Explanation.  Clicking on the picture will downloadthe highest resolution version available.
Leo Triplet.  M65 is on top, M66 is beneath it, and NGC 3628 is on the left.  Credit:  Very Large Survey Telescope.  

(I’m headed back to Moab this weekend, and this time we’ll be camping deep in the hinterlands, away from even the minimal light pollution from the town itself.  I’ll be bringing a scope with me.  I’m not sure which one yet, depending on the amount of room we have in the Jeep we’re renting.  Stay tuned!)

Even the Crab Nebula through the C9.25 was something as opposed to being a ghostly nothing in the Mak.  It was bright, clearly defined, and there was a definite oval shape to it.  But no crab shape.  I guess you need to observe it through Lord Rosse’s 72-inch scope to see that.

I wasn’t really expecting to see the relativistic jets shooting out of the black hole at the center of M87, but I was hoping anyway.  No dice.  (M87 has a massive black hole at its center with jets of energetic gas/plasma shooting out at speeds that are a significant fraction of the speed of light = relativistic jets.)

Image result for m87 relativistic jets
Artist’s conception of the relativistic jets shooting out of M87.
Actual Hubble pic of the relativistic jet shooting out of the black hole at the center of M87.

After M87, I went for M86.  It was right next door; the scope barely had to slew to find it.  And boy, was I in for a surprise.  I saw something that was totally unexpected to me.  At the beginning of one of my most popular posts, I expressed my opinion that galaxies weren’t all that interesting to me.  This is because looking at them with a 5-inch Mak under Manhattan skies just isn’t gonna do much, so I basically ignored them.  Well, I’ve remedied both ends of that equation, moving out to these dark Colorado skies and getting a C9.25.  Between both of those things, I’m going almost 4 magnitudes deeper here than I was back in New York.

Well, looking at M86, there were three galaxies in the field of view, forming a nice equilateral triangle, almost like a face, even prettier than the Leo Triplet.  I had completely unwittingly stumbled upon one end of Markarian’s Chain!

I didn’t realize I had found it at the time; I had to go back to Stellarium and google around before figuring it out.  One reason was because I had my magnitude settings in Stellarium set far, far too restrictively.  They were set at magnitude 9.75, which is just about the limit of my Mak here in the Denver area.  M84, which is the galaxy right next door to M86, doesn’t even show up on the screen at that setting, so its appearance was a complete surprise to me.  I had to readjust my settings all the way down to magnitude 11.5 to even get M84 to show up, and then I the first part of the Chain showed up on the screen.

Markarian’s Chain is a string of about a dozen galaxies, depending on how many of them you count as being part of the chain.  Unfortunately, because I was too dumb to realize I was looking at only one end of the Chain, I did not scan around and look at the rest of it.  These are all part of the Virgo Cluster of galaxies, about 60-65 million light years away, upping the furthest back in time I’ve ever seen.  The light from these galaxies that hit my eyeball left there just after the asteroid hit the earth ending the era of the dinosaurs, the Cretaceous period.

M84-86-87LRGB_700.jpg (491687 bytes)
Markarian’s Chain, beginning just below the center of the photo, and moving up and to the left.  The three galaxies below the center, forming what looks to be an unsmiling face, are M86, M84, and NGC 4388.  M87, sans relativistic jets, is at bottom left, about 1.25 degrees from M86, so I can’t quite get them in the same field of view . . . yet.  Credit:  Alson Wong

Markarian’s Chain is one example of how the constellation Virgo is positively crawling with galaxies.  The Milky Way is part of a different cluster, called (astronomers have great imaginations) the Local Group.  Both of these clusters, and a half-dozen others, make up the Virgo Supercluster, about 110 million light years across.

Local supercluster-ly.jpg
Our Local Group consists mainly of the Milky Way and its 14 satellite galaxies, Andromeda (M31) and its 17 satellites, and the Triangulum Galaxy (M33).

Finding Markarian’s Chain is one thing.  Now, if only they could find his stolen bicycle.  Ba-dum-bum-tssss!  Thank you, thank you, I’ll be appearing in Moab all next week.

I bagged a whole buncha new Messiers, all galaxies (which is the reason I bought this scope in the first place):  M84, M86, M87, M49, M63, M64, M94.  Seven in one night!

All in all, as a general matter, I was disappointed in seeing most of the galaxies I saw.  One “faint fuzzy” appears much like another.  There’s not really much to see there, nothing that really distinguishes one from the other.  I couldn’t discern any dust lanes in any of them.  (I forgot to take a look at M81 and M82.  I know one of them has a dust lane, which I think I saw once before, last year in Moab.)  But then again, I didn’t spend a whole lotta time on any one galaxy.  I was just flitting from one to the next, without even changing magnification.  So, I wasn’t really giving them a fair shot.  Something to shoot for next time.

The Whirlpool Galaxy, M51, is an exception.  I could clearly see the two galactic cores, side by side, along with some glow surrounding the main galaxy.  But even there, there isn’t any structure, no spiral structure visible.  Although I did observe it for only 5 minutes; I can do better if I observe longer, with an eyepatch on my non-observing eye and a t-shirt over my head as a hood.  It was just too friggin’ cold to do anything else Wednesday night.

However, the real fun was seeing the two triplets, especially the surprise one.  Seeing three – or more! – galaxies all at once was just thrilling.  For some reason, it just makes all the difference in seeing more than one at the same time, in the same field of view.  They seem more like galaxies when they come in bunches, and that fires the imagination – what’s going on there?  Is there life there?  I can hardly wait to take another good, long look at the Chain and see what’s there, and to explore the Virgo galaxies in general in more detail.

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