The Milky Way's Attic

Observing at Fremont Peak, 1996 Dec 7

I sometimes think the winter Milky Way is the galaxy's attic; you find the darndest stuff hidden in odd corners here and there. I was at Fremont Peak State Park, near San Juan Bautista, California, on the night of 7-8 December, 1996, having cast a weather eye to the sky (all across the North Pacific, courtesy of satellites and the worlds-wide web) and decided that the front that stretched from the northern California coast all the way to Hawaii was going to stay put for just a few more hours. It did, despite the best efforts of a buffeting wind to drive it closer, and I was rewarded with some of the most peculiar and wonderful sights.

I spent a while chasing down the "other" supernova remnant in Taurus. Besides the well-known Crab Nebula, this constellation contains S147, a large, old, complex, faint, and tough object, which at the time of Burnham's _Celestial_Handbook_ had never been detected visually. It has been since, and now by me: In my six-inch Intes Maksutov, I made a convincing detection of part of the web of filaments near epoch 2000 coordinates 0540 n26.9, and maybe a few other patches within a degree east and southeast. My observations were made at 27 and 47 diameters, using an Orion UltraBlock filter. I could hold the nebulosity about equally well at either power with the filter, but could not find any trace of it with the filter not in place. This one is a toughie, folks. I would rate it worse than the Sculptor and Fornax Dwarf Galaxies, at least, with this instrument. You never know what more aperture is going to do, though.

While I had the filter handy, I swung the telescope over to the belt of Orion and looked for the Horsehead. This time I was able to see it with the UltraBlock, at 47x, about as well as without it. The last time I tried, I could not see it with the filter in place, but could without -- a quite anomalous result. And a quick look at the Pleiades at the same magnification showed lots of wispy nebulosity, of course without the filter, since these are reflection nebulae.

IC 2177 lies in southeastern Monoceros. At 47x, I found this huge mass of nebulosity fairly easy -- there were two large globs of glow, showing clear shape about the way many atlases plot them. I was not tempted to put in the filter, though it might have shown more.

The Rosette nebula and its associated cluster, NGC 2237 and 2244, and maybe some other numbers, are always fun. I am sure I can see the cluster naked-eye, but have never been so certain of the nebulosity. In any case, the big wreath of glow was easy to trace in the six-inch at 47x, though rather better seen in a smaller instrument at wider field; my Baby Brandon 63 mm refractor took in the whole thing at 22x.

Since the holidays were approaching, I looked at the Christmas Tree Cluster, NGC 2264, again at 47x, and was surprised to find the Cone Nebula readily apparent without any particular effort to look for it, almost like a wedge of darkness protruding "up" from the "top" of the tree. The effect was rather like two contrasting textures of black paint, as if the nebula was gloss black and the nebulous background nearby had a satin finish.

I mentioned that there had been discussion of NGC 2359, "Thor's Helmet", in this newsgroup, and someone with an 18-inch and digital circles dialed it up. This object is indeed spectacular; the view at 128x unfiltered was very nice, with lots of detail showing. The owner of the telescope put in 171x with a filter -- I think it was Lumicon UHC, and claimed the view was a lot better, but I personally did not notice more than a little improvement. One other observer found it in a six-inch Dobson at 48x, also with a filter, and the view was similar, but of course smaller. I had put the Intes to bed by then, so did not try it in my own telescope.

(By the way, it is nice to see a small Dobsonian with high-quality optics. The six-inch I just mentioned is really very fine. Something about the Cave Astrola optical tube assembly, no doubt...)

Another observer had a three-inch Takahashi fluorite on a Tele Vue Gibraltar mount. The Tak fluorite was very nice -- we looked at M31 and M32 at 19x, 25x, and 38x, and could see star cloud NGC 206 and at least one dust lane in the main galaxy. Not bad for a three inch -- almost as good as a four... which is saying quite a lot, for an observation that depends more on raw photon count than on phenomenal wavefront accuracy.

The Gibraltar mount was pretty much junk, however -- albeit handsomely finished junk. At less than 50x, motions started and stopped with noticeable jerks. Brass-on-steel bearings may have been all the rage in the heyday of great refractors, but they were old hat when the Model T Ford was new, and have been made completely obsolete for telescope use by the advent of teflon. Tele Vue sells this turkey for fine telescopes like the Genesis, that can in principle be used at several hundred diameters magnification, but this four-hundred-dollar mount isn't nearly up to it. The Gibraltar is as bad as the wretched and unloved bent-fork Tasco altaz, and nowhere near as good as the typical beginning telescope maker's first-effort Dobson, which will probably track at two or three hundred diameters with no problem at all. Tele Vue should either fix the Gibraltar or rename it the San Andreas...

On the way home from the Peak, I stopped for a meal at the Lyons restaurant in Gilroy. Sometimes I think I observe too much. They know me there -- I'm a regular.

Jay Reynolds Freeman; last updated: 1996 Dec 13