Getting to Know The Universe on a First-Name Basis

(Observing Named Objects at Fremont Peak, March 3, 1997)

by Akkana Peck

I don't know about other people, but I find that I'm not always familiar with the common names for deep-sky objects. Someone will say "Hey, I looked at the Ghost of Jupiter last night, and it was wonderful!" and I'll have no idea where that is or whether I've ever seen it, nor even how to look for it since my star atlas doesn't list common names.

Seeking to remedy this embarrassing situation, and reasoning that any object interesting enough to have a common name probably had some attribute which made it an interesting visual object, I resolved that the star party of May 3, 1997, would be a "named object" night.

I started by printing out Hartmut Frommert's web page of "Common Names for Deep Sky Objects" (, and, armed with my H-B atlas and an old copy of the Revised NGC, looked up each object and made a list of the ones which were likely to be visible, along with which C-chart they were on in the atlas. Then I listed them in approximate order of appearance, so that I wouldn't miss the early- evening objects.

The weather at Fremont Peak looked unpromising. High clouds had plagued northern California all week, and Saturday didn't look much better. But just after sunset, most of the clouds and wind disappeared, making for better conditions than we'd seen in a month.

My first playpen was Monoceros. I had a new 'scope out, a little 6" f/4 (actually a little faster than that) which I'd recently built up out of a mirror purchased at a swap meet. First light for this telescope had been Hale-Bopp, the previous (mostly cloudy) weekend, and I was looking forward to seeing how well it did on the Rosette (NGC 2237/9/46).

Unfortunately, I hadn't had time to rig a finder or sight tube on the new RFT, so I wasn't quite clear where I was pointing at any given time. I pointed toward Monoceros and swept for a while at low power with a UHC filter, looking for the Rosette. Eventually I noticed a fairly obvious nebula, and called a friend over to check the identification. He didn't think it was the Rosette, and drew a ladder pattern for me to look for. I swept again, and immediately saw the ladder, just like my friend's picture -- and around it, the dim glow of the Rosette. Hardly impressive; I guess I'll have to wait until fall to see what this little RFT makes of the Rosette when it's high in a dark sky. I'm still not sure what the first nebula was -- presumably either the Cone or Hubble's Variable Nebula (probably the latter), both of which were also on my list, but without knowing quite where I was pointing, it's hard to be sure.

Now it was dark enough for more serious observing, and I switched to my "real" 6" Newtonian, the f/8 Cave. My next target was the "Antenna" or "Ringtail" galaxies, NGC 4038-9. I'd seen pictures of them many times, but had never seen them in person. My RNGC listed their magnitudes as 12 and 12.5 respectively, and so wondered whether they'd be possible in a 6", but since then I've heard other sources list them as mag 10. In any case, whatever their true magnitudes, they were quite easy in the 6", and it was very easy to see the notch where the two galaxies met. The long "antennae" were not visible (no surprise), so I wandered over to some nearby big iron and tried it in a 12" LX200, an 18" Obsession, and a 20". All three showed much more nuclear detail than my 6", including the "black eye" on one of the two nuclei, but none, to my eye, showed the antennae. Later that evening, I had a chance to try the view through the 30" in the observatory; even then, I could not see the antennae, but could see the barest beginnings of the base of the brighter antenna (rather like the short-exposure image in Burnham's).

As long as I had the chart open to Corvus, I explored some of the other sights in that area -- 4361, 4027, 3887, M68, and 3962. Unfortunately, I lingered too long in Corvus; the next object on my list, the Clown nebula (2392) in Gemini, was already too low, and I wasn't able to find it.

Next was the Ghost of Jupiter, NGC 3242. I'd seen this object before, in an 18", but had never found it myself. Finding the bright green disk of the planetary was easy, but seeing detail was not. At 181x I could see that the outer edges were fainter than the central area, but it was nothing like the delicate shell-within-a-shell that I had seen a few months earlier through the 18". A UHC filter increased its contrast with the background sky, but hurt the detail in the object.

I took a break for a while, to wander around and look through other telescopes. Several (four?) Dobs were seeing first light that night, including a lovely blue/green homebuilt 16". (It's a wonder the skies were so clear, with so much virgin glass present.) A small group of us hiked across the park to the observatory, where we convinced the people running the 30" to look for Omega Centauri (a vast disappointment -- huge, but too low in the sky, unresolved even in the 30") and were unable to find NGC 5128 (Centaurus A) in a 10" set up outside the observatory. The seeing overhead was relatively steady, and Mars was showing well in several telescopes.

Then it was back to my named-object list. I discovered that I had missed any chance at the "Eight-burst Planetary" in Vela; I don't know what an "eight-burst planetary" is, but the name sounds sufficiently dramatic that I intend to keep trying for it. I found the Blinking Planetary (6826), which was challenging to find because of its size -- I needed 181x to see it as a disk (normally I use 48x to locate objects). The planetary didn't perform its "blink" trick very well in my 6" at 181x, for some reason (the nebula has two shells of different colors, one perceived better by rods, the other by cones; look at the nebula directly and the outer parts disappear; look away and they wink into place). One observer noted that the effect seemed very sensitive to magnification; I didn't try a range of magnifications to test this theory.

By this time, both the sky and my alertness had deteriorated to alarming levels. I tried to find the Cateye nebula (6543) but kept failing to see it. Eventually someone else found it for me, I determined that I had been using the wrong two pointer stars, tried again, and still failed to find it. Eventually I did see it in the 6" (quite bright, no problem) but decided that I was obviously past my observing prime and it was time to pack up. A nice 8x42 binocular view of the Veil nebula rising over the trees concluded an excellent evening of observing.

...Akkana | astro page