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
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…
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.


Exploring the Summer Sky

The summer months can be a tricky time for observing. The nights are short, the weather is erratic and dew starts to build up on the telescope as soon as the serious observing begins. Nights that are clear, calm and cool are rare to come by and should be taken advantage of. I did just that on the night of July 10-11 from 10:45 pm to 1:30 am.

Starting with the Solar System
Viewing conditions were difficult, looking through the turbulent summer atmosphere, views of Mars were less impressive at high magnifications. Also, Mars continues to move farther from us, having made its closest approach to Earth on May 30, 2016 at a distance of 47 million miles, making surface detail harder to make out each night.

One of the highlights of the night, as usual, came from Saturn. With the Cassini Division in full view, this planet always tends to be more forgiving of rough atmospheric conditions, particularly compared to Mars and Jupiter. I was able to try out my new iPhone adapter with the telescope and after some initial alignment difficulties over the eyepiece was able to get a short video.

After being processed through Registax 6 and Adobe Premiere Elements, this image was the final product.

Saturn, 7-10-16

Into Deep Space
The main targets of the evening were Deep Sky Objects. I’ve been chipping away at the Messier List for about six years. These 110 objects are considered some of the best to view and most are attainable with affordable binoculars and telescopes if you are in an area with low light pollution.

Globular Clusters:
Of all the views from this night, the globular clusters were the most difficult to find and disappointing to see. These dense collection of stars were partially drowned out by light pollution and the Moon that had yet to fully set. M80 and M92 were two new ones that I was able to mark off my list. M13 was an impressive show, even with the viewing conditions working against it. The Hercules Cluster is one of the most impressive globular clusters in the sky. I find it hard to focus the object correctly because of how dense the star field is. Various levels of focus almost seem to bring out new layers of detail.

Open Clusters:
M18 (2)These collections of stars always impress me with their elegance and simplicity. Not nearly as dense and “fuzzy” as globular clusters, open clusters can be difficult to find but rewarding to discover. Take M18 for example, to verify that I had the correct collection of stars, I had to consult my star chart (Sky Safari 4 Plus on my iPhone) that I was in the correct region of the sky.  I did this by counting stars and comparing patterns between what was in my eyepiece and what the chart on my app showed. M23, M26 and NGC 6633 rounded out the list of open clusters viewed.

Supernova Remnants:
One of my favorite sights of the summer sky are the five to eight thousand year old supernova remnants of the Eastern and Western Veil Nebula. I wasn’t sure if NGC 6960 and NGC 6995 would show up from my viewing site, but sure enough with the help of an O-III filter they did. The scale of these two objects is an impressive sight and their ghostly outlines are fitting for the remnants of a dead star.

One last Planet
By around 1:30 am, I started to get tired but noticed that there was one planet which had just moved high enough for me to view. Neptune is the farthest planet from the Sun, making it one of the more difficult ones to spot, excluding dwarf planets, sorry Pluto. At 400x magnification, I could make out a faint circular disc with a blueish gray tint. Not bad for something 2.8 Billion Miles away.

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.

Viewing Super Nova Remnants and Nebulae, “Oh, was that Dim Fuzzy Cloud it”

Supernova Remnants and Planetary Nebula can be a disappointment for most casual observers. It’s a lot more difficult to wow people with the faint glow of a cloud like object than it is to show the bright and detailed craters of the Moon or the rings of Saturn. For me, viewing these “faint fuzzies” is more about the challenge of finding them and the story they tell. What is the story behind the creation of the Veil Nebula? How far do I star hop to find M27, the Dumbbell Nebula?  On this night, I turned my attention to these types of objects and enjoyed the sights and stories they provided.

The Eastern Veil Nebula
This ghostly figure is all that remains of a dead star’s super nova. Some 5 to 8 thousand years ago the dying star exploded and flung its gasses into the far reaches of space.  The stretched out Veil Nebula is what we see of those remnants, today. Star hoping from Deneb down to Gienah, I found the Eastern portion of the Veil Nebula. It’s ghostly appearance is easy to miss unless you knew what you are looking for. The large 2 degrees of view provided by my 2in. 38mm Q70 Orion Eyepiece provided enough room to fit all of this portion of the nebula in sight. Having an O-III filter for my eyepiece would have greatly helped with this particular Nebula because of the type of light waves it sends out.

The Dumbbell Nebula

It’s easy to understand why this planetary nebula in the Vulpecula Constellation was the first of its kind to be discovered. Scanning the skies and coming upon it on purpose or accidentally, leaves little doubt that this is something unique. When certain sized stars near the end of their life they eject out layers of gases which create the amazing views of a planetary nebula. With a magnitude of 7.5, it is easily visible and displays a slight grayish blue hue.

Think about this next time you view these or other deep sky objects. The distance from Earth to the Dumbbell Nebula is roughly 1,360 light years. Meaning that, when the light we see today through our telescopes left the Dumbbell Nebula it was the year 651 on Earth. Looking at these distant objects turns a telescope into a time machine peering back in time over thousands, hundreds of thousands and even millions of years. While deep sky objects may not always “wow” like the planets, the journey to find them and stories they tell make them a sight to be hold.

Starlog: June 30, 2011 and July 1, 2011

The Good Ole South

You would think that after a few months of putting the telescope in the same place every night, I would have thought to move it to reveal a different part of the sky.  Trees generally block my view of the far South, but tonight I switched things up and moved the telescope next to my parents new 2010 Dodge Minivan (this thing is like the space shuttle, it has awesome features).

Finding Pluto…Yeah Right
The initial goal for the evening was to hunt down Pluto, located to the South a little bit above Messier 24, the great Sagittarius Star Cloud.  That was until I viewed M24 and realized how dense it was with stars.  I might have actually viewed Pluto tonight, but it would be near impossible to know which of the thousands of stars I was looking at was everyone’s favorite dwarf planet.  Talk about finding a needle in a hay stack, this picture of the star cloud to the right shows how difficult a task it was.

The Messier Bunch
While planning the night, I noticed that Pluto was near a few Messier objects I had never viewed.  This would be a perfect opportunity to check off some more objects for my ultimate messier hunt.  Located to the South West of Sagittarius were the Eagle Nebula, Swan Nebula, Sagittarius Star Cloud, Trifid Nebula and the Lagoon Nebula.  All were a treat to view, with the exception of the Eagle Nebula, which I had a particularly hard time making out for some reason.

The Lord of the Ring

Nothing tonight compared to the spectacular view received by viewing Messier 57, the Ring Nebula, for the first time.  It appeared as a very defined circular cloud of smoke with a gray hue in the center.  Viewing at 120X magnification revealed it’s circular definition even further (A good example of what I viewed can be found to the left).  Its defining shape comes from a star, very similar to our own sun, that has used up all of its hydrogen and is shooting gasses out into space as it dies and becomes a red giant.  While, most nebula’s have the same faint cloud like shape, the Ring Nebula is something truly unique that seems as though it was stamped onto the sky.

Star Log: July 10, 2010

Hubble Space Telescope Image of the Ring Nebula

(Just a little better than what I saw….a little)