Stargazing Chills

by Marcus Peachey | Feb 1, 2023 | 0 comments

Bubble Nebula and M52
Bubble Nebula and open star cluster M52. Photo © Shaphan Shank.

Oh, no, I thought as I stepped out the door. Supper was over and darkness was falling. An hour or two earlier it had been snowing quite hard, but now the sky was starting to clear off, and it was getting colder. I would rather not go out with my telescope on a cold evening like this, but the moon wouldn’t be in my way, and it looked as if the sky would be clear enough in another hour. I had learned soon after I started stargazing that you can’t pick and choose which evening suits you best to go out. If the sky is good, I go out because I might not get another good evening for a while.

I walked up to my usual stargazing spot and set the heavy telescope down, feeling none too enthusiastic in the chilly night breeze. It was 32° F (0° C), but I didn’t really consider that too cold since we had been having rather cool temperatures the last couple days.

After opening my viewing session by looking at the two majestic planets, Jupiter and Saturn, I settled down for some real deep space stuff. I decided the Helix Nebula in Aquarius would be my first target.

For some reason I can never remember where all the stars of Aquarius are located, so I studied the star map a little until I felt confident that I could find the Helix. Swinging my telescope in that direction, I was faced by an obstacle. A cloud had drifted by and covered the area where I wanted to search.

I looked in the direction of Cassiopeia. Here it was clear enough, so I decided to search for an object which I had recently read about.

M52 is a rather nice open cluster, and right nearby is a faint nebula named the Bubble Nebula. The article I had read stated that this nebula is faint, so I wasn’t sure if I would find it. I located M52 easily enough, but after searching for what seemed to be a long time, I was ready to admit that this nebula is too faint for my telescope.* Then . . . what was that? I looked harder, then straightened and looked up to discover another small cloud had drifted by and covered much of the whole constellation Cassiopeia.

By now I was feeling rather blue about my defeat in the search for the nebula, and I was cold. I couldn’t understand why I was so cold if it was only 32°, but decided I’m not as used to these cooler temperatures as I had thought. I decided to try to forget about the cold and enjoy the night sky.

I pointed my telescope in the direction of Cetus the Whale, where several galaxies reside that I always like to view in early winter. I soon located M77, a small face-on spiral galaxy I enjoy since it is small but bright, and usually I can see some spiral structure. Now as I peered into the eyepiece, I tried to focus on the beauty of the galaxy, but my mind was more on how cold my hands were becoming.

Then I turned to another galaxy farther south, NGC 253, but discovered my finder scope was frosted over, so I had difficulty finding it.

I made a hasty attempt at locating a small galaxy which I’m not very familiar with in Pegasus. But the attempt lasted only until the warmth in my hands vanished and I stuck them into my pockets again.

I wasn’t sure what to do now. The cold was creeping in everywhere—through my boots, through my pockets where my hands were hiding, through my coat where my body was shivering and shaking. But I was not ready to admit the cold was chasing me into the house, away from stargazing.

I swung over to Mars, which was fairly high in the sky. As I peered into the eyepiece, I could see that the atmosphere was unsteady because the planet was shimmery and shaky. Or was it only me shivering and shaking? I still was able to see the dark areas called “mares,” similar to the dark areas on the moon.

But I had enough now. I was no longer enjoying myself, I decided, so I might as well go inside and do something else I enjoy—sleep.

When I entered the house, I looked at the thermometer—20° F (-7° C). I was astounded. No wonder I had been cold! This was the coldest we had had yet this fall. I no longer felt so defeated once I realized it was no longer just 32° F!

The next evening was again cold and clear. But this time, unlike the evening before, it was very calm with no breeze. I decided to brave the cold again, but with more clothing.

So once again I carried my telescope up to my observing spot. This time I also brought along some anti-fog spray to use on the finder scope lenses.

Once again I pointed my telescope in the direction of the Helix Nebula. I was using my 25 mm eyepiece (48x) since this nebula is large and dim and can be seen better with lower magnification. After finding and viewing it for a bit, I exchanged the eyepiece for my 9 mm one, which gives more power. But I couldn’t see the nebula as well since it filled almost my whole field of view and didn’t contrast as well with the darker sky.

The Bubble Nebula in Cassiopeia was still niggling in my mind even after my defeat of last evening, so I searched for it again. The sky seemed much darker and clearer than it had last evening, but still I couldn’t find the Bubble Nebula. So I moved southwest to a completely different nebula, a planetary. This nebula is called the Blue Snowball Nebula and looks just like the name implies, a small blue ball.

Then I moved farther east again to another planetary nebula, M76, also called the Little Dumbbell Nebula. This nebula is rather small and dim, but still easily visible. In my telescope it looks like a small rectangle with the middle squeezed in. Then I moved farther south to a galaxy which I’m not very familiar with, NGC 891. Not much detail is visible in this one, but it appears rather small and bright and looks like an edge-on galaxy.

I’m more familiar with NGC 7331, which lies farther southwest in Pegasus. Tonight this galaxy was almost straight overhead, and my view of it was stark and clear. It was so clear, I imagined I could almost see the group of faint tiny galaxies that are supposedly located nearby, namely Stephen’s Quintet.

The excitement of the clear views I was getting tonight was keeping me warm, but I was running out of new objects to see.

By holding my finger over my flashlight to dim it, I scanned the star map and decided to try to locate a new galaxy in Cetus, only several degrees southeast of the star Diphda. But first I looked at my “pet” galaxies, NGC 253 and M77 with NGC 1055 nearby.

I finally found the new galaxy NGC 247, but I could hardly see anything but a faint haze. It appeared rather large, but I couldn’t make out whether it was edge-on or face-on or in between. Nevertheless, I had the satisfied feeling of having bagged a new object.

I pointed my telescope upward once more and got a grand view of M31, a beautiful galaxy. Then I looked at Saturn and Jupiter again. While I was in the area of Jupiter, I located the planet Neptune and got my best view ever of it. Not much was visible, except a small pale blue ball, but the view was so clear I imagined I could almost see its moon, Triton.

When I stepped inside the warm house, I had that satisfied feeling I always have after a good evening of stargazing—the feeling you get from studying the wonderful creation and realizing what an almighty Creator we have.

*Emission nebulae are most easily seen when using a UHC or OIII filter. The light they emit is faint, and neighboring starlight washes out the nebulosity. By blocking the wavelengths of light the stars produce, the background becomes black, providing contrast for the faint nebulosity to be more easily viewed.

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