From Ursa Major to Virgo: A Galaxy Quest

Leading into tonight and after nearly 2 years, I had observed 71 of the Messier objects. The remaining 39 objects consisted of 3 Nebulae, 3 Open Clusters, 7 Globular Clusters and 26 Galaxies. It is those last galaxies that give me the biggest mental roadblock and there is no cluster of galaxies more daunting than those in the Constellation Virgo.

8:45 PM to 9:25 PM: Failure in Ursa Major
The evening was originally going to consist of objects in and around Ursa Major. I had a list of 6 targets planned but seeing conditions and light pollution only allowed me to view M106 in Canes Venatici. No other object would show a hint of detail. Frustrated, I noticed that most of Virgo had risen above my neighbors tree. I had not been planned on jumping into this daunting region of galaxies tonight, but thought it was worth a shot.

9:35 PM to 10:45 PM: A Surprisingly Pleasant Trek through Virgo
Starting in the northern portion of Virgo led to initial discouragement with objects such as M96, M85 and others not showing up. At this point, I was starting to become frustrated. Of the 10 objects I had attempted to observe thus far only 1 had been visible. For all others, the star patterns matched perfectly with my charts but where the galaxy should have been a dark void existed. At this point, I’m thinking I will have to go off site to darker skies for more Messier objects than I had bargained for.

I decided to give a few more attempts before calling it a night but this time started from the southern point of Virgo. To my surprise, two galaxies, M59 and M60 appeared in the eyepiece. Moving up Virgo, I used M89 as a central point to jump to M90 and M58. Star hopping took me to M87 and then up to Markarian’s Chain, M84 and M86. One final sweep through Virgo revealed M88. With Ursa Major a bit higher in the sky and observing conditions improved, I moved back over and was able to catch M102 before concluding the night.

Galaxies such as M88 and M90 at +9.36 magnitude were pushing the limit of what I was comfortable verifying as observable targets through my skies. Using 96x magnification and averted vision helped with these observations. Others such as M87 were surprisingly easy to view. Depending on the size and surface brightness of the object it appears the limits of my sky and telescope are around +9.5 magnitude. What I thought would be a nice evening in Ursa Major ended up being a surprisingly productive evening in Virgo. It appears I’ve overcome my Virgo phobia.

11 more down…28 to go…


Testing the Waters of Galaxy Hunting

The Constellation Leo

Upon completion of cataloging four constellations Saturday night, I realized that five galaxies needed for my Messier observing book lay in Constellation Leo. Galaxies have been quite frustrating from the confines of suburban skies. Yet, with a steady atmosphere and the Moon yet to rise, I thought an attempt at these wouldn’t hurt.

Star jumping from Chertan over to M65 and M66 left me pleasantly surprised as these two galaxies appeared prominently through my 8 in. dobsonian at 48x magnification. Being able to view these at +8.91 and +9.16 magnitudes excited me at the potential to observe other galaxies, from my location, in the Messier catalog. 

This led me to test the limits of observing magnitudes even further. I star jumped, with much more difficulty, to M95, M96 and M105. Of these three objects, M96 appeared fairly  easily as +9.13. I used it as the central point to verify the locations of M95 and M105. Of these three M95 at +9.72 was the most difficult to spot, pushing the upper limits of what I could view.

A few things helped with observations this evening:
#1: My eyes were dark adapted fairly well for a suburban neighborhood. 
#2: It was an exceptionally clear and steady night with seeing conditions being very good and transparency at a level 6. 

Up next for the Messier catalog will hopefully be 5 galaxies and the Owl Nebula located in Ursa Major.



Exploring the Early Spring Sky

Returning to Deep-sky objects
Even though Roanoke County has a decent amount of light pollution, probably a 4 or 5 on the Bortle Scale, there are still a great deal of Galaxies, Star Clusters and Nebula visible in the night sky. These DSOs (Deep-sky objects), provide challenging yet rewarding targets for most amateur astronomers. With the assistance of Skysafari 4’s “Tonight’s Best” guide and the Intelliscope Computer Object Locator of the XT8i, the location of some of these more difficult to find highlights of the early spring sky came into view.

March 29, 2016: Highlights
Beginning in the Western portion of the sky, M38, the Starfish Cluster, was visible around 9:05 PM. While observing M38, a satellite passed through the field of view. These kinds of events are pretty common seeing as how many objects are in orbit. To the upper right of the Starfish Cluster, NGC 1907 barely registered as a slight blur at low magnification using averted vision. Moving over to the South West, the Rosette Nebula continues to refuse to reveal itself, but the open cluster that makes up the heart of it, NGC 2244, was a nice sight. Shifting down towards the neighborhood of Orion’s Nebula brought Sigma Orionis, the highlight of the night, around 9:30 PM. What appeared to be a triple star system revealed a 4th star at 200x magnification. In actuality, it is a quintuple star system, but the 5th star is difficult to pick up with amateur equipment. Attempts at viewing the Crab Nebula came up as disappointing as usual, it was barely visible in the Western sky around 10:25 PM. Finishing out the night was the always impressive pair of galaxies known as Bode’s Nebulae, M81 and M82. At magnitudes +8.39 and +6.90, they never disappoint as distinctive galaxies even if they are around 12 million light years from earth.

ISS Passing Near NGC 2395

March 30, 2016: ISS Fly Over
From 8:53 PM to 9:03 PM the International Space Station sailed over Roanoke, Virginia from SW to NE. In an attempt to view it, SkySafari 4 was used to see if the station would appear near any objects during it’s 5 minute pass. This would allow the Computer Object Locator to know where the telescope needed to be pointed before the ISS reached this object, so there could be a quick view of it flying through the eyepiece. Thankfully, at 8:57:51 it would cross near NGC 2395. Right at that time and location, with Lauren looking through the eyepiece and myself looking through the finder scope, we viewed the ISS through the telescope. Traveling at 17,000 miles per hour and being viewed at 48x magnification, the station only appeared in the eyepiece for a second, but the details were impressive. As detailed before from a previous viewing in 2010, the solar panels and cabin compartments of the Space Station were visible. The only difference noticed was that the panels appeared more tilted than on the previous sighting of station back. After the initial contact at NGC 2395, the stations was tracked for another minute or two, on and off, providing additional views as it raced across the sky.

Star Log: March 6, 2010

A beautiful Saturday with temperatures in the mid 50’s led way to an exceptionally clear night here in Clifton Forge.  Going from the light polluted skies of Roanoke to the dark skies of the county never ceases to amaze.  After washing my car (long over due) and working on some lesson plans, I decided to take my scope out with about an hour of sunlight left.  The hope was to get a glimpse of Venus at sun set while allowing the telescope to have a steady cool down.  Unfortunately, Venus was still too low on the horizon to observe (this will change come late spring and summer).

While still close enough to Earth to make out a spherical disc, Mars is moving away from Earth at a fairly substantial rate and will be too far for detail come April.  With that being the case, any chance to view “Big Red” should not be missed.  Tonight’s view was a fairly typical if not unspectacular view.  The atmosphere was very calm, making high magnification planetary viewing sharp; but Mars had little land features to show due to its “boring” side facing Earth on this particular night.  All that could be made out was the northern polar ice cap.  With that said, being able to make out any detail on Mars is still exciting.  Just ask Lauren about the night I had us stay up until 4 in the morning to view Mars through the old DS-114 only to reveal a somewhat bright red star (I’m lucky she hasn’t left me).

M81 & M82
Faint fuzzies are how most people describe deep-sky objects and while I have to agree with this assessment, don’t let the name fool you, these objects are an amazing sight.  Two of the best ones to view in the winter sky are M81 and M82.  My 8-year-old sister Abby described the irregular galaxy M82 as looking like the number 1 in space.  What makes these two objects even better is that with wide enough field of view you will be able to view and compare these spiral and irregular galaxies at the same time due to their apparent location in our sky.   While no structural detail could be discerned from these two objects, knowing that you are looking at an object 12 million light years away and effectively looking 12 million years into the past is an incredible feeling.  Although I have to agree with Abby, seeing the number 1 in space was pretty cool too!

Visual representation of M81 & M82