The South Plains Astronomy Club is a small group of active astronomers who enjoy observing under the beautifully dark West Texas skies while being serenaded by coyotes and night birds. We’re a friendly bunch who enjoy showing newcomers the night skies and discussing the latest in telescopes, astro-imaging, astronomical discoveries and space exploration.

Observation Report — Gott Observatory, Sunday night, March 24th, 2019
Posted by Collin Smith.

Attendees & optics:
Darien Perla 8" SCT imaging system
Darien's friend
Tom Heisey Big binoculars
Mark Smith 10" F/5.6 dobsonian
Richard Craig Mak 102
Wade Estepp binoculars
Gary Leiker Celestron Edge 8 SCT
Scott Harris NexStar 8SE
Steve Maas 5" Meade Maksutov + binoculars
Your Humble Narrator WO 110mm ED with EQ-3 alt-az mount

I arrived late, even by my standards. I had many family obligations that kept me busy late, but by 22:30 or so, I rolled in to the Gott and did my best to set up as quickly as possible. Unfortunately for me, the EQ-3 alt-az mount I have fashioned, with its metric bolt and two counterweights, is heavy as sin, and took a bit of huffing and puffing, grunting and general pain to establish on the far concrete pad, the main pad pretty busy with everyone's gear. I was glad to see that, actually. It's always good when there's a lot of people and equipment set up. In fact, I didn't see Richard by his Mak, and he might not have bothered to set it up, but we had plenty of scopes on the pads, so views were readily available.

I can only report on the things I saw, but I did overhear others talking of various items in their eyepieces, so without further ado . . . I recalled Tom Heisey discussing M78 and Barnard's Loop with Mark Smith as I set up. Later Tom caught M81/82. Don't recall him saying anything about NGC 3077, but perhaps he got that one, too. Darien was busy imaging NGC 2903 in Leo for a good portion of the night when I was there. I know Mark Smith put Mars in the eyepiece, even though it was low in the west. This is just what I heard about. There were certainly other targets others put in their scopes, but I was too busy finding or setting up or otherwise too preoccupied to commit to memory the astral adventures others murmured of.

I set up my finderscopes (Baader Sky Surfer III and Orion 7x30mm RA) to Cor Coroli. The color variation was apparent, but not outstanding because I started the evening with my 2" ES 28mm 68°, which produces a mere 23.57 power view. Now it's got 2.88° true field of view, so not half bad, but puny on magnification. But that's a good power to find things with, and since I was in the neighborhood, I put M51/NGC 5195 into the eyepiece. Well, I've seen it better, but again, a nice widefield view on a hazy night.

Being in the neighborhood, I next put the huge, faint face-on spiral M101 into the refractor. It was mostly a blob, but Mark, who was having trouble finding it, kindly allowed me to loan him my Meade 25mm HD 60 and navigate his beast to the beautiful galaxy's shores. It was more substantial in his 10", for sure! I've seen it much better in darker, more transparent skies, but still pretty nice in Mark's big light bucket. Both Mark and I tend to look too "low" for M101, not realizing how "high" the triangle-top M101 is to the base of Alkaid and Alcor in the Dipper's handle. Before leaving Ursa Major, I successfully put my refractor on the M97/M108 pair.

I framed the Double Cluster (NGC's 869 & 884), then M45, the Pleiades. Steve urged me on to M44, the Beehive, and there she was, a geometric jumble of stars. Moving back to Taurus, I picked up M1, which was an uninspiring fuzz ball.

I ventured further south to try and find Gary's "discovery" of NGC 2362 in Canis Major — a pretty little set of white stars dominated by Tau Canis Majoris, finally putting 1.25" eyepieces in my scope. From there it was a very short walk over to h3945, the Winter Albireo – large orange-ish primary with a small blue secondary, remarkable.

By this time Wade and Steve had called it a night. It was getting a little colder, as the hours climbed to the end of Sunday toward Monday. I had taken off Monday morning, so wasn't as concerned as others, I suppose, about the late hour, but cold asks its own price. I was well dressed for a cold night, and it served me well, especially later.

I moved on to the lovely quartet of M35-38, in a line from the Geminid Castor's foot into Auriga the Charioteer. They're interesting for many reasons, but one very nice thing is that they're both in order and out of order. M35 is the first, followed by M37, M36, and finally M38, so it starts and ends where it should, but is mixed up in the middle, kind of like me I suppose. My wife feels that way. M35, 2,800 light years away, is, in our earthly perspective on 3-D outer space, closely bordered by NGC 2158, an open cluster some 11,000-plus light years distant.

The absolute gem of the series, and certainly a candidate for "most beautiful open cluster in the northern skies", is M37, a glittering array of white loyal thanes surrounding their bright Orange Chieftain. At some 4,500 light years, M37 delights my eye every time I get to behold its heavenly glory.

M36, next in line, is referred to by astronomer friend Jerry Hatfield as the Zia Cluster, because it somewhat mimics the Zia pattern on the New Mexican flag. And the end of our quartet is the "Starfish Cluster" M38. At 3480 light years, M38 is, like M35 at the beginning, also "haunted" by a distant open cluster "ghost" NGC 1907. NGC 1907 is from 4,200 to 5,900 light years away, so not the same distances of M35 and NGC 2158. M38 & NGC 1907 are much closer in outer space (but not very close at 720 light years apart using the most optimistic figures possible). Ironically, from our earthly perspective, M38 is a bit farther from NGC 1907 in terms of arc seconds in our skies compared to the Geminid cluster pair.

I tried to pick out some details with higher power on M42, which had sunk low to the horizon, but the stars of the Trapezium flickered rather wildly even in my 16mm T5, so trying to get the E and F stars was not an option this evening.

Gary and Scott broke their scopes down, and only Richard was still there by the time I put Castor in the eyepiece for a close split, only fitting after all the fiddling with his left foot down below. Clouds had come and gone, but the wind had picked up. It was time to head home.

As I turned off the Observatory road onto the Hardy-Ramanujan Number county highway, the large, waning gibbous almost-Last-Quarter Moon bathed me in an enthusiastic white amidst the darkness, greeting me from the East like a puppy dog's wagging tail.

Observation Report — Saturday night, February 23rd, 2019
Posted by Collin Smith.

Steve Maas 5" Maksutov
Scott Harris Zhumell 8" dob
Gary Leiker Orion 12” dobsonian
Humble Narrator SkyWatcher 6” dobsonian

I arrived about 21:15, with the “Guthrie boys” already observing. I was much more prepared for the cold weather this evening than last time I’d come out. Last time I somehow forgot my deep respect of the winter learned the hard way through five in Iowa immediately proceeding my moving to Lubbock, but being lazy about astronomy, and too Texas-centric in my demeanor got the best of me. This time, having been reminded Lubbock winters, especially those out in the country, can bite pretty well, I was in layers with my full-length down coat. My feet still got so cold they felt they were burning by the end of the night, but at least my wool socks kept them as warm as possible for the two plus hours I was able to get in.

I foolishly forgot my Orion magnetic one-pound counter-weight, so had to forego my optical finder, making do with the simple Baader Sky Surfer III Red Dot finder. That wouldn’t turn out to be such a big mistake this evening due to upper atmospheric turbulence preventing us from using high power. With low power the best choice for most of our evening, the red dot plus a two inch eyepiece did rather nicely.

I aligned the red-dot to the central FOV of my eyepiece via a streetlight along the horizon, then fine-tuned it on Mars. Didn’t bother to spend any time on Mars, small orange orb that it was in my Explore Scientific 28mm 68°, yielding 43X and a 1.59° field, but proceeded immediately to the Andromeda complex low in the west, M31, M32 and M110. For some reason, I didn’t attempt to split beautiful Almach right there beside them, overlooking it — duh. But there were plenty of targets, so I went for Eta Cassiopeiae, an easy split, visible even in the ES 28mm 68°. Looked a little better in my 16mm Nagler T5, but not bad in the ES 2-incher, if a little tight. Steve made a nice split of it with my Meade 25mm HD-60 in his Mak. While I fruitlessly searched for Mirach’s ghost, too low for me to find with a mere 6” scope, Gary had the Leo triplet in his 12” dob, and that was a nice sight, even if the flat top NGC 3628 was dimmer than it should be in a 12”. That would change later as it rose in the sky, but now with it still low in the east, and after our 60mph winds on Saturday, a bit murky at that location yet in the sky.

The 60mph winds were SO bad, that the first four-way stop sign one comes to rather quickly after the curve up Frankford just north of the railroad tracks & 84 was bent, and barely looked like the traffic proceeding from the south needed to stop at all, bent so strongly toward the east after the day’s blast. Despite this, and even though I brought out my 6” dob for the added stability a dobsonian makes in any kind of wind, we literally had almost no wind the entire night. A small breeze here and there, but a refractor on a light-weight mount would have fared well enough. With Scott bringing out his 8” dob, I’d wished I’d brought out a wide field refractor, but I honestly didn’t think a refractor would be worth a hoot in the wind. Ha!

I hunted down M33 in Triangulum, with the results one might expect low in the muck with a mere 6”. Scott and Gary went after M81/M82 and NGC 3077. Their views were wonderful! The turbulence in the upper atmosphere might be disturbing our high powered views, but the photons that flooded into our eyepieces at low powers rendered the galaxies quite nicely! Gary got the detailed view, and Scott managed a nice, wider angle view.

I thought I had an advantage with my GSO 42mm SuperView eyepiece, yielding a true 2° field of view, but Scott had his Pan 35mm in his Z8 and man did that thing have some true field of view! The 1.93° that thing splashed into the eyepiece delivered all 200mm of the primary for a very, very nice 35X view. The Double Cluster, NGC 869 & NGC 884, were very nice in my SW 6” dob at 28X in my GSO, but Scott’s Z8 with Pan 35 stole the show. He got the best view out of that target, for sure. And the exact same scenario got repeated at M45, the Pleiades. The ES 28mm 68° did a nice alternative, at 1.59°, but the Pan 35 and the Z8 were just that much better on these targets. Hats off to Scott!

We went after M1 and that was a nice experience. Gary’s big 12” dob put up as good a view of the Crab Nebula as I’ve seen at the Gott. There were hints of filaments in the Crab’s shell, not as dramatic as I’ve seen in 10” scopes out at Emma, but beginning to approach them, and quite a feat when one considers the considerably more light polluted skies at the Gott compared to Emma.

We looked at M42, and it was here we established, once and for all, that the upper atmospheric turbulence was too much for high power, as we tried in vain to find E and F in the Trapezoid of M42. Not a big feat on a clear night for such scopes, even my 6”, but with the amount of turbulence encountered on Saturday night the 23rd, nigh impossible. Oh well, the nebulous filaments spread out in glorious trails in Gary’s 12”. This scope is made for those kinds of views, and Gary came through with the money shot on M42.

Next we dug up the globular M79 in Lupus. A nice globular, but a bit difficult to get more details due to our lack of high power, its southerly location, and within the outer reaches of the Lubbock light dome out at the Gott. It was a nice blob, though.

We split the Winter Albireo, Hershel 3945, and what a beautiful pair it is, orange and light blue. Around this time, Steve had packed up his scope and had had enough of the cold. He’d arrived first, and I understood only too well by the time he left why he might want to leave, as the cold was beginning to bite Gary and me plenty.

But since we were on the Winter Albireo and Steve was leaving, he gave us the news – the real Albireo, Beta Cygni, has proven to be an optical binary only, and NOT a true gravitational binary. According to GAIA, the European Space Agency’s sky-mapping spacecraft currently doing painstaking measurements of astronomical objects the heavens over, the two stars are some 60 light years apart, and not moving in the same exact directions, and so are merely an optical double, and not a gravitationally bound binary pair. Read about it here. Read it and weep? Well, it’s kind of tough-love astronomy news, to be sure, but there’s always been a lot of debate on the issue, and now it appears over, and with a scientific ending. C’est la vie, et vive la science!

While Gary was looking for h3945, well, he found sumpin’ else – NGC 2362. This is an open cluster not far off the top of the Canis Major’s hind star Wezen. Tau Canis Majoris is the primary star in this cluster, and it kind of looks like a “white” version of M37. It really doesn’t look a whole lot like M37, but it is genuinely beautiful. It’s near the size of the Pleiades Cluster, M45, but about 10 times farther away. 8 light years across, like the Pleiades, but instead of 445-odd light years away for M45, the Canis Major open cluster is a whopping 4,500 light years distant. It is so lovely that the late Patrick Moore included it in his list as Caldwell 64. It’s covered in Turn Left at Orion on ppg 66 & 67, and the coordinates are RA 07h 18.6m, Dec -24° 59’. Tau Canis Majoris dominates, surrounded by a glistening host.

I put M51 and NGC 5195, the Whirlpool Galaxy and its satellite, in the eyepiece and that set off an Ursa Major celestial rush the likes of which ain’t been since since Californie in ’49. Besides that couple, we picked up the M108/M97 pair, a mostly edge-on galaxy and round planetary nebula, respectively, on the other side of the Big Dipper, just off Merak. Followed this up with M109 just outside the other side of the bowl, near Phecda. We dug out M106 at something around Phecda and Chi Ursae Majoris and out between them a little toward Alkaid, if that makes any sense.

Scott spotted the light dome in the east announcing the impending waning gibbous moon. Gary finished the evening up on the Leo Triplet, M65-M66-NGC 3628. This time they were closer to zenith, and were a nice site in Gary’s 12”, NGC 3628 much more apparent than before. I nabbed open cluster M35 accompanied by the ghostly NGC 2158 in western Gemini to finish off the night, the moon cresting the horizon and ending our dark sky adventure.

In emails from Mark Monk, I learned he came out earlier, around 6:30 or so. He left when no one else showed up. We waited till later given the dust and wind earlier, and wanted to avoid that as much as possible. Too bad but we will do this again. Also, I got an email from Robb Chapmann who went out to Emma. He said the final road to the cemetery had been plowed up and was extremely rough and difficult to drive over. I suppose it might be time to talk to the Crosby County sheriff again.

A nice night under the stars, and the frost that covered parts of my telescope was a testament to the cold and our determination to enjoy the heavens anyway. My toes in particular, and feet generally, were in pain, but it had been worth it. By the time I made it to the Loop at 4th Street, my feet were fine. It was nice to get back to a warm home.



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