Backyard Stargazing

by Marcus Peachey | Jan 1, 2023 | 0 comments

Andromeda Galaxy
Andromeda Galaxy. Photo © Shaphan Shank.

“Good night, Dad and Mom,” I said as I strode to the door, clad in a winter coat, hat, and boots.

“Good night,” they replied—Mom with a sigh, glad she wasn’t so consumed with a desire to lose sleep, and Dad with a slightly amused look on his face. Usually I get all kinds of reactions from my family on an evening like this. Some sigh with sympathy, others smile in amusement, but only a few beg to join me in my nighttime adventures.

For I am a stargazer! A nice clear, moonless night can mean only one thing for me—losing an hour or two of sleep in exchange for some rare pleasure, which usually doesn’t happen more often than three times a month. But what is losing sleep compared to all the memories of gleaming star clusters and awesome galaxies?

Most people have an interest of some kind—bird watching, hunting, or something. But I have yet to meet the first person who shares my enjoyment of stargazing to the same extent as I do.

I stepped out onto the porch where my 10-inch Newtonian telescope was waiting. The October night was clear and calm, one of those moonless, cloudless nights which make any true stargazer’s heart beat with anticipation of an exciting time under the stars.

I carried my telescope up behind the house onto the cement pad which used to be the foundation of an old pig barn. This spot is ideal since it is away from the busy road and the house, with a shed between to protect my eyes from the light straying out of the windows.

I mainly use a 9 mm eyepiece, 100° apparent field of view (AFOV), which gives me about 130 power. This seems to be the ideal spot between high and low power, and, the fact is, I don’t have an eyepiece that gives me more power. I have one that gives me 48 power, but this eyepiece is a cheap, low-quality one which came with the telescope. I rarely use it since it has a 52° AFOV and rarely provides better views than the larger one.

One night, within the first half year of buying the telescope, I decided to clean the primary mirror, so I took it off. Not knowing that touching the mirror is a strict no-no, I proceeded to wash it the way my mom cleans windows. I got the mirror sparkling, but the mirror elements are fragile, and cleaning them with a cloth can harm them. For information on how to clean telescope mirrors, ask someone who knows, as this article doesn’t focus on telescope care.

While I had the mirror off, I noticed the clips holding the mirror in place were loose and, like any true repairman would, I tightened them.

That evening I attempted to do stargazing, but the views were terribly blurred. I soon realized that tightening the clips had flattened the mirror, which is supposed to be concave, and that resulted in blurred, smeary views of the stars. So I loosened them, but got them too loose. That allowed the mirror to flop around, and it continually slipped out of collimation.

Here I am, almost a year later, and the mirror is still not like it was before that fateful evening. I’ve gotten it to the point where it’s pretty good, but still not perfect. Just today I had adjusted the screws on the clips again, and now I was ready to see the results.

I swung the telescope around until I had it pointing at the beautiful planet Saturn. Anxiously I peered into the eyepiece and adjusted the focus. But, once again, disappointment. Saturn’s over-all appearance was quite plain, but the small details like the Cassini Division in its ring system and the bands of lighter and darker-colored clouds were all smeared out.

So I swung over to Jupiter. Same story. Only the over-all appearance was visible, such as its two main bands of darker red clouds and the moons, but no small details of swirls and curls of the cloud structure.

After I was done with the planets, I was ready for some real deep space objects. When viewing galaxies or nebulae, small details are seldom visible anyway.

Sagittarius the Archer constellation holds quite a wide variety of bright and interesting objects. But this being near the end of October, Sagittarius was already quite low in the sky, so I didn’t view any objects there.

I aimed the scope toward the globular star cluster in Hercules, M13. This star cluster is one of my favorites. A dense glowing ball of stars with less dense edges, this cluster was the first one I viewed after getting my telescope. I can still remember that awed feeling that swept through me upon seeing all of those thousands of stars in such a tight ball.

Next I moved to M57, the Ring Nebula in Lyra. This one has become one of my favorite planetary nebulae, but not because it is large and colorful. Color is seldom, if ever, visible in any space objects except planets and some planetary nebulae. I like this one because of its intriguing appearance. It is rather small and looks like a perfect smoke ring. And sometimes I imagine I can see a faint orange color, but only when the sky and my scope and my eyes are all in perfect condition.

Soon I was ready to view objects that are less than familiar to me. I located a small blue planetary nebula, NGC 6818, somewhere between Capricornus and Sagittarius. I didn’t spend much time viewing it since no detail was visible, and it just looked like a typical planetary nebula, small and blue.

So I moved farther east where a more interesting planetary is located, NGC 7009. It is named the Saturn Nebula since it is about the same size as Saturn and has a hint of small projections out of its sides, giving it the appearance of having a ring like Saturn. Through a larger telescope, these projections would be more obvious, but through my 10”, I can barely see them.

M72, a small dim globular cluster, is also located right nearby, so I studied that for a bit. No individual stars are distinguishable in this cluster with my telescope at the usual 130 power. It is just a blob of fuzzy, glowing light hanging in space.

On the other side of Capricornus, however, is another small globular cluster, M30. In this cluster individual stars are visible. In fact, this cluster is rather interesting. It has several strings of stars hanging downward, which makes it look like a round man with very thin legs. In reality, the strings of stars would probably be sticking upward, but since Newtonian telescopes flip the view of objects horizontally and vertically, these stars seem to point down. But reversed views really don’t matter in space, for in outer space there is really nothing like up or down.

M2, another decent globular, is also in the vicinity but farther north on the northern side of Aquarius. I like this cluster. It appears to have a large number of stars close together, resulting in a bright and compact cluster.

I saw too many objects to mention each one in detail, so I’ll only describe the most impressive ones.

I got a good view of the Veil Nebula in Cygnus. This nebula is large, but not very bright. It takes experience to view dim large objects like this, but once you can see this nebula, it is rather pretty. (An OIII filter increases contrast by blocking light of other wavelengths.)

M31, the brightest galaxy in our skies, was my next target. This galaxy is visible to the unaided eye once you know where to look. But it is so dim that if you stare directly at it, it disappears, so you have to either look toward the side of it or keep your eyes moving across it to be able to see it.

As I moved my eyes from side to side to get a good view of it, suddenly it seemed so plainly visible that a strange thrill went through me, as if I were seeing an unearthly object, which indeed I was. That plain view lasted only a fraction of a second, but I was awed.

Then looking at it through the telescope, I got my best view ever—a large bright center with glowing edges that spread out so far I couldn’t even see the whole thing in one field of view. I had to move the telescope from side to side to view it all. I could also plainly see the dark lane of dust on one side, which I had been wanting to see for so long.

Then I moved to the Triangulum galaxy, M33. This galaxy is quite different in appearance, being directly face-on and quite a bit dimmer than M31, though it appears almost the same size.

Now I was ready for some different objects, open star clusters. Usually I don’t spend a lot of time pursuing these if I have other objects to view. But Cassiopeia holds some interesting ones, as I soon discovered.

The one that held my interest the most was NGC 7789. I thought that cluster was rather tight for an open cluster, but the interesting thing about it is that it looks almost exactly like a rose. I have viewed it a number of times, and it never ceases to awe me. Another interesting one is NGC 457, which, with a little imagination, looks like an owl. Another interesting object a little farther east is the large Double Cluster in Perseus. This cluster is visible to the unaided eye, but looks nicer in binoculars. But real views come in a telescope at low power.

By now it was rather late, and the early winter constellations were rising. So I located Cetus the Whale. This constellation holds several galaxies which I find very fascinating. I pointed the telescope toward M77 and peered in. There it was—a small, but bright, face-on galaxy. This galaxy is very pretty since spiral structure is visible. And right beside it was the edge-on galaxy NGC 1055. It appeared brighter than it had last winter, but that was probably because my eye is becoming well-trained at viewing dim objects.

I was now becoming chilly and sleepy, but decided to view one more object, NGC 253, another galaxy farther southeast. This galaxy is tilted at an angle, not being directly edge-on or face-on. However, it is very beautiful. Usually I can see mottled areas in this galaxy if the light pollution is not too severe. And tonight it wasn’t, so I got a good view. However, I have often wondered how it would actually look in completely dark skies.

But now I had been viewing for an hour and a half, so I decided to go in. As I climbed the stairs to my room, I carried with me that satisfied feeling that I always get after a good night under the stars. I had a good time in spite of the fact that my telescope was not performing its best. But if I adjust the screws again, maybe I’ll get it perfect. Who knows?

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