Observing report: Between the clouds

February 9, 2010

We’ve been having lots of cloudy and rainy weather here in the LA basin, so when a clear night comes along I try to take full advantage. Last night was clear, so I grabbed my 15x70s and went out to see the clusters between Cassiopeia and Perseus.

I made a New Year’s resolution to get through the Messier list this year. Right after I started on that project, I found out that some people–including Jay Reynolds Freeman–had done the whole list with 50mm binoculars. I hadn’t ever taken on a binocular observing project, so I decided to do the AL Binocular Messier Club at the same time. Plus, I would have felt like a wuss knowing that people had done the list with 50mm bins and I hadn’t even tried with my 15x70s. 🙂

The first week of January was pretty clear here and I got through almost all of the Messier objects that can be easily seen from my suburban skies at convenient hours. No M76 or M78 yet, at least not with the binoculars (M78 did fall to my 6-inch Dob). It was enough to get me hooked on the challenge and pleasure of tracking down faint fuzzies with binoculars, so I decided to start the Deep Sky Binocular Club, too.

I started that club a few weeks ago with what western objects I could get, before they get too close to the sun, or more depressing yet, too far down into the LA light dome (I’m at the far eastern edge of LA county). Then I went on through Orion, Lepus, Puppis, Gemini, Auriga, Taurus, and so on. A couple of weeks ago I was looking at my tally and realized that I’d gotten so busy with the southern stretches of the winter Milky Way that I’d forgotten about the circumpolar constellations! Which is a shame, Cassiopeia was the first constellation I learned when I got into amateur astronomy in earnest, and was a frequent stop on my earliest observing runs. And the stretch from Cassiopeia to Perseus is huge for the Deep Sky Binocular Club, with about a quarter of the objects on the list. I didn’t realize that until I’d gotten through most of the rest of the evening sky and was wondering why my tally wasn’t higher. Then I “discovered” how crucial Cass and Perseus are.

Then it started raining. A LOT.

As I compose this, it is raining. But last night was clear so I went cluster-hunting. I live in a back house with a big open parking area between it and the front house. This affords a decent bowl from which to observe without too much interference from local lighting. I usually wear a dark hooded sweatshirt and pull the hood up over my face so only my eyes are showing. With patience and good dark adaptation I’ve seen some things that I would have thought impossible in these skies, including the M galaxies around Canes Venatici and the Crab Nebula.

I didn’t start off with the Cass clusters. I wanted another crack at M78, and while I was waiting for my eyes to settle into observing mode I swept up M42 and M43, M35, and the Auriga M clusters. All very pretty, but they didn’t help M78 appear out of the murk. Sometimes right after a rain the transparency is just shocking, but sometimes there are mixed clouds and haze that really put the hurt on the faint fuzzies. Last night was one of those nights. M78 will have to wait for darker skies (maybe this weekend).

So I switched over to Cassiopeia and its neighbors. I started with the Double Cluster, which I’d seen umpteen times before but never logged for the Deep Sky Bino Club. And I was off and running. Here are the rest of my notes for the evening:

Tr 2 – Two chains of faint stars intersect to form the shape of a flying wing. Delicately beautiful.

Stock 2 – Extremely large, vase-shaped assemblage of faint stars. IMHO, rivals Double Cluster in binoculars, although its appearance is very different.

Markarian 6 – Dense patch of light, no granularity, makes a nice contrast with nearby Mel 15.

Melotte 15 – Larger and sparser than nearby Mark 6, but with more bright stars. Reminds me of a hybrid of the Double Cluster clusters.

NGC 663 – Obvious and granular even in these skies, brighter than nearby NGCs and even M103.

Kemble’s Cascade – Lovely curving chain of stars of varying brightnesses, anchored by NGC 1502 on one end and a counter-curving arc of bright stars on the other. Bright stars plus cascade make extended S shape.

Stock 23 – Jumps right out even in the surrounding rich starfield. Dominated by four bright stars in a flattened kite shape.

Cr 463 – Large aggregation of faint stars, smaller and dimmer than Stock 2, in a nice trapezoidal asterism not far from the pole.

All of these bizarre designations are explained in the official AL Deep Sky Bino Club list, and all of the listed objects are easy to find in the Pocket Sky Atlas.

I’d also tried for NGCs 129, 436, 457, and 7789, but didn’t pick them up. I think it was partly sky conditions–Cass was getting down into the LA murk–and partly observer conditions. I usually refuse to give up on something unless I have really put in the effort, maybe half an hour of laying flat on my back with every surrounding glint of light blocked out and lots of searching with averted vision. But last night I was cold and tired, and didn’t spend more than 4 or 5 minutes on any one thing.

Still, I ended the night with 10 more objects knocked off the Deep Sky Bino Club. The clouds can do whatever they want today, I’ve got a little victory energy to run on.

One comment

  1. Do you know if its possible to use my binoculars to look at the stars even if I live in the city?

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