A Night Observing on the Blue Ridge Parkway

Of the seven Messier targets remaining, none can be viewed from my home and with time off from work coming to a close, few opportunities remain to complete the summer portion of my list. This was the setup for my trip to Back Creek Valley Overlook on the Blue Ridge Parkway July 28/29 from 10:45 PM to 12:45 AM.

Back Creek Valley
Jupiter can be seen in the top of the image!

Arriving at the site, I was relieved to see that no one else was present. This was my first time observing on the Parkway by myself. At first I was a bit uneasy, but after setting up and focusing on the targets of the evening, it was quite a peaceful experience. When I stepped out of my car the brightness and density of the Milky Way stretched from the dark horizon facing South to the Northern horizon where it was absorbed into the light dome of the city. It was a spectacular site that I have never seen stretched across the entire night sky.

Tonight’s Big Three: M20, M24 & M16
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Using Saturn as a starting point, I worked my way through the dense core of our galaxy first coming across M20, the Trifid Nebula. Trifid appeared quite dim with some visible structure and two bright stars right at its core. Even under dark skies this was a difficult target but averted vision did help to reveal some of the famous cracks in its core.  M24, the Sagittarius Star Cloud is one of the few Messier objects that I have needed to use a 2 in. eyepiece to properly observe. The wide field of view revealed the stunning density of this cluster. Viewed from the Blue Ridge Parkway, it was much more impressive than at home. M16, the Eagle Nebula was the most difficult target to view this evening. It was actually more visible through my 9×50 finder scope than through the telescope. An O-III filter and averted vision helped to bring out the nebulosity and structure that surrounded several stars. As I worked my way up the core of the Milky Way I came across some objects viewed before but that were much more impressive for a darker sky location. The Omega Nebula was truly stunning and appeared to pop out from the background sky with a three dimensional quality and the Lagoon Nebula was a much more impressive sight than its nearby neighbor Trifid. Using the 9×50 finder scope and 2 in. eyepiece to slowly work up and down the core of our galaxy just to see what I would come across was one of the most unique observing experiences of my life.IMG_3561

Two More for the Night: M55, M72
Moving away from the Milky Way led me first to M55, a large but dim globular cluster appearing more like a round nebula. The size of this globular was impressive and some fine detail was apparent at higher magnifications. M72 was an unimpressive small and dim globular cluster with no fine detail.

The Final Two…
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After finding the five main objects for the evening I made an attempt at M33, the Pinwheel Galaxy and M74. Both were too low to the horizon for such dim objects. My plan is to come back to the Parkway in early November to observe them which would bring an end to my Messier list before the end of 2019.

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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…