Monday, May 16, 2016

Deep South Spring Scrimmage

Last weekend the opportunity came to observe under darker skies than my local area from the Feliciana Retreat Center. Located in rural Louisiana, there are no large cities in any direction within at least 100 miles other than Baton Rouge, which is over 50 miles away. As such the Milky Way is easily visible and faint objects readily appear in the eyepiece when the skies are clear and transparent. This year I was only able to attend during the final night, but at least thirty people attended during the three day stargaze. I loaded up the 15-inch and left home with the goal of observing some galaxies, a comet that recently passed very close to the Earth and the planets Mars, Jupiter and Saturn. I also brought along a new acquisition. a 90mm Maksutov-Cassegrain and a solar filter to observe the Sun during the daytime.
  
 
One of the objects I looked at was the pair of galaxies NGC-5544 and 5545 in Bootes. One galaxy is a face on spiral, the other is an edge on lenticular or spiral galaxy that appears to be in front of the face-on galaxy. Together the were easily visible through the mediocre transparency that prevailed that night as an exclamation mark with two brighter centers at 227X. It high surface brightness allowed me to see it from the local club's darker sky site, which has a lot more light pollution than rural Louisiana.




 
Another galaxy I observed was the peculiar galaxy NGC-4027 in Corvus. This one armed spiral galaxy lies close to the interacting galaxies NGC-4038 and 4039, which together are known as "The Antennae Galaxies" because of the long streamers of stars ejected from both. The irregular structure and it's single spiral arm appeared quite plainly at 181X. I also stopped to look at NGC-4038 and 4039, which showed much of their distorted structure but no sign of the tidal tails of stars both pulled out of each other. NGC-4027 is in close proximity to the other galaxies, suggesting that it and the other two disturbed each other before it continued onwards away from them. All three are fine objects for observers interested in peculiar and interacting galaxies.




 


Last month the comet 252P-LINEAR and a smaller companion passes closer to the Earth than any other comet since Lexell's Comet in 1770. At closest approach they were three and two million miles away, a very close pass on the part of this potentially hazardous object that will cross our orbit around the Sun every 5.3 years. In fact, it appears this comet was disturbed by Jupiter and sent into its present orbit no more than a few hundred years ago. At the time when they were closest to the Earth, they were visible only from the southern hemisphere near the south celestial pole. It since moved northwards and is now shining at 9th magnitude in Ophiuchus, at a distance of more than 27 million miles away. I found it quite easy to find with the 15-inch, and other observers had a good view of the comet with much smaller telescopes than mine. In its appearance 252P-LINEAR looked like a face-on, low-surface brightness galaxy.


Other objects I observed was the galaxy M-51 and its companion NGC-5194. It's spiral arms and hints of H-II regions were evident, and so was the distorted structure of NGC-5194. The globular cluster M-3 shattered into thousands and thousands of stars, and so did M-4 in Scorpius. Jupiter, Mars and Saturn showed their stuff through the 15-inch, and even through the 90mm Maksutov were pleasingly sharp and detailed. The Sun through the same telescope and the full aperture glass solar filter I brought along showed a number of small sunspots and two larger ones. I didn't get around to observing nearly as many objects as I planned on, but I enjoyed the pleasant night under the stars.