Deep Sky Surprises

by Marcus Peachey | Dec 1, 2023 | 0 comments

M78
M78. Photo © Dogwood Ridge.

Anxiously I scanned the sky as I stepped outside the door. Supper was over, and I was headed to the barn to do some chores. Darkness was falling across the valley, and several stars were appearing.

For several weeks it had been too cloudy to do any stargazing. Now, at long last, the skies appeared to be clearing off for good…or at least for tonight.

After my chores, I again scanned the skies. To my relief, only a few scattered clouds remained, and those were fast drifting southward.

I removed the blanket I use to keep the dust off my telescope, and set the scope outside to let the mirrors cool to the outside temperature. This should always be done, especially in the winter, before viewing. If the mirrors are still cooling off, blurred views will be the result. This is especially true when viewing planets or other objects with fine details.

An hour or two later, out I went to my observing spot. Ever since receiving the December issue of Nature Friend, I had been eagerly waiting for a chance to view the Skull Nebula, NGC 246, which Shaphan Shank had mentioned in his article.

I pointed my telescope to Cetus the Whale. I really had no idea how this nebula would appear, other than what the name suggested, a skull. But after searching for a bit, I came across a patch of dimly glowing light. I could barely see it and at first thought it was only my imagination. But after studying hard, I decided this was indeed the nebula.

However, I was disappointed that I couldn’t see it more plainly. Then I realized I had just come out of the house, and my eyes were still not adapted enough to the darkness to view dim objects.

I was almost embarrassed at myself, so I quickly aimed at Jupiter. I was pleasantly surprised at the crisp, clear view, though I had better views this summer when Jupiter was close to opposition.

Then I moved to Neptune, the large blue planet. However, it is so far away that in small telescopes like mine, it is only a small blue ball, about the size of a BB or smaller. No details are visible to my eye.

Next was Mars, the red planet. Through my telescope at 130 power, this planet appears reddish orange with areas across its surface that appear darker, almost greenish. And on one side, which actually would probably be the top or north side, I distinctly saw a white patch. This white patch is either the polar cap or a white cap of clouds over the polar region.

I studied this planet for quite a while. I got my best view ever of it, and I was quite awed. Since Mars is at opposition only once about every two years, I didn’t have my telescope the last time it was so bright and large.

Now I decided my eyes were adjusted enough to view dimmer objects, so I aimed at Orion. This famous constellation holds a well-known deep-sky object, M42, also known as the Orion Nebula. After locating the nebula, I gazed at it for a while. It is very pretty, and its beauty is visible even in small telescopes. It is also quite plainly visible in binoculars, though details aren’t usually visible as they are in telescopes. If you at all have access to a telescope, take time to view it this winter. You won’t regret it.

By now my eyes were in great condition for viewing, so I swung back to the Skull Nebula. Now I could see it quite plainly—a skull-shaped cloud of gas or dust, surrounding some stars which were precisely positioned to mark the eyes and mouth of a skull. As I gazed at it, I almost felt shivery. It looked spooky!

After this, I searched for some galaxies in Eridanus the River. Evidently these were too dim, because I couldn’t find anything in the shape of a galaxy, though I did find a pretty little planetary nebula, NGC 1535.

Taurus the Bull is another rather well-known constellation, possibly because it is located near Orion, or maybe because it is the home of the Pleiades. Many people know the Pleiades cluster well because of its shape, like a little dipper. In fact, many people call it the “little dipper.” The real Little Dipper is farther north and swings around the North Star.

Taurus also holds M1, the Crab Nebula. I pointed my telescope in that direction. When I found it, it appeared brighter than I remembered from when I viewed it last winter. But that is probably because of better trained eyes.

M78 is another nice nebula in Orion, though not as nice as its neighbor M42. I had never seen it before, so I was excited to see how it appeared. I don’t know why I hadn’t viewed it last winter, but back then I was just beginning to discover the wonders in the sky. I had mostly viewed the larger, brighter objects first and left less well-known ones for later.

Now as I searched for it, I really had no idea what to expect. So I was thoroughly surprised to discover a rather bright, pretty nebula! It made me wonder why not more mention is made of this nebula in stargazing books. Perhaps this is because it is so close to the larger, more beautiful M42, and gets overlooked in favor of its brighter neighbor. Surprises like this keep stargazing interesting.

Farther south, in the constellation Lepus, I viewed a comfortable little globular cluster, M79. It gave me nostalgia for summertime when so many of such clusters are visible, especially as now I was becoming chilly.

Gemini the Twins, with its two bright stars marking the heads of the twins, is an easily recognized constellation. I aimed the scope toward a star cluster which I find fascinating, M35. This is a rather large loose open cluster and would be boring to me, except for the fact that a much smaller, dimmer, and more compact cluster lies right beside it, NGC 2158. This smaller cluster is probably much farther away than M35, resulting in its smaller appearance.

The Eskimo Nebula, NGC 2392, was my next target. Not much is visible, except a small blue-green halo surrounding a small star. In photographs, this nebula does somewhat look like an Eskimo face with a fur-lined hood surrounding it.
Now I was getting seriously chilly hands and feet but decided to view several objects in Auriga yet before going inside. This constellation holds three rather interesting open clusters: M36, 37, and 38. M38 is the loosest of them, thus being the least interesting to me, and M37 is the most interesting because of its density of stars.

Auriga also holds a carbon star. Carbon stars usually appear orange or reddish, and this one is no exception. If you take time to actually study them, carbon stars are fascinating, even though they otherwise appear as common stars.

As I switched on my flashlight, I felt quite satisfied with my evening under the stars. I always get that satisfied feeling after such a viewing session. Taking time out of the daily grind of eating, sleeping, and working to study the creation around us is satisfying. As we study astronomy, we discover how little we actually are and how almighty God actually is.

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