Wes's Online Observing Log
2020 December 14: Geminid Meteor Shower

On Saturday, the Clear Sky Chart showed some possible clearing early Monday morning. By Sunday, this had been pushed back to about 4am Monday. When I looked at the forecast maps the chart was based on, they showed broken cloud bands rather than a definite clearing spell. I wasn’t too optimistic, but decided to prepare anyway.

On Sunday evening, there were a few cloud breaks, but all proved to be short-lived sucker holes. I stood outside for a while and saw a couple of Geminids in the breaks, but nothing spectacular. I decided to try to get some sleep but to set an alarm every 75-90 minutes to get me up to look out. The first few alarms yielded more clouds, but when I got up at 1:45 I saw clear sky. The only question was: where to go?

My main close-in meteor observing site was a no-go after the recent snow, as it involves a very steep and narrow access road. My main quickie observing site in winter is a wildlife area that is officially closed between 10pm and 4am (I usually use it for evening observing, and by 10pm I’m frozen or dewed up anyway). There was a site about 25 minutes to the SW where I had observed Comet NEOWISE, and I thought it would be a good meteor observing site due to the good horizons. I had closer alternatives to the west, but they had poorer horizons and more skyglow. I also had a farther alternative to the South, but since it was technically closed after sunset and also technically over the border in California I decided against it. I hit the road just before 2am, headed SW. After I cleared the city, I started seeing Geminids. I forget the number I counted, maybe as many as 10. That was really impressive since I was watching the road and could only see a small part of the sky near the horizon. I saw a couple of fireball-class meteors.

The last few miles to my site were packed snow, so I took about 30 minutes to get there. Skies remained clear, although I could see a faint glow of distant lights off some clouds in the south. I also saw a low cloud bank to the west over the Cascade Mountains, and just hoped that it would stay put.

I set up my sleeping bag and started counting meteors at 2:36am. Rates seemed decent, and the Geminids were bright without producing any more fireballs. Skies could have been a bit more transparent, but generally the limiting magnitude was around 6.5. Trouble hit about 10 minutes in with a passing cloud band, but that went away fairly quickly. Big trouble hit 30 minutes in with more clouds, enough to make me quit counting for 20 minutes. After that, it would clear up for a few minutes and then cloud up for many minutes. The clouds were coming from the south. Only my first 30 minutes were really productive data. In those 30 minutes, I saw 28 Geminids and 6 other meteors. Mean Geminid magnitude was 1.6. An equivalent ZHR would have been about 62, so the Geminids were likely already on a steep decline from their peak.

I left for good at 4:30 after a light snow started falling. After a few minutes on the road, I emerged into clear skies. I’m not sure; maybe the clouds only picked on the immediate vicinity of my observing site. I saw fewer Geminids on the way back—about 4. One was really neat as I looked up to see it streaking in the direction I was headed. It felt close and 3-dimensional. I decided to pull in at my close-in site at the wildlife area, since it was after 4am. If the skies stayed clear, I could get in an hour of counting before twilight became too bright.

I started my hour at 5:06am. There were a few clouds early, and then I had unobstructed skies. Transparency wasn’t great, and my limiting magnitude was 6.3. For the hour, I counted 30 Geminids and 6 other meteors. I saw a couple of near-fireballs, and a bunch of Geminids from Procyon-bright to Sirius-bright, but none of the ground-lighting fireballs I was hoping for. Mean Geminid magnitude was 1.3, and the ZHR was about 47.

In a way, it was a stroke of good fortune for me to see anything from this year’s Geminids. It is just so rare to get good weather conditions this time of year. In another way, it was frustrating because I know I didn’t see the shower at its best. If only the clearing had happened earlier … But maybe I should have tried a closer site, or set my alarm for 30 minutes earlier, or just gone out and camped somewhere.

November 17: Leonid Meteor Shower

The Clear Sky Chart showed a tantalizing break in the clouds on Tuesday morning from about 3am-5am. I made plans to go to my default meteor observing site, which is up on a ridge. Unusually for November, there wasn't any threat of ice or snow; after a couple of cold and wet days, the temperature was climbing overnight as a warm, dry wind picked up. It was 46 degrees when I left my house a bit after 3am, and 51 degrees when I left my observing site a bit after 6am!

I woke up at 2am and it was still cloudy. I went back to bed. By 3 or so, I could sort of see enough breaks in the clouds to make it worthwhile. I got up and drove to my site. The last bit of cloud was retreating to the north by the time I got there. The wind was ripping, but I had observed the Orionids on a much colder windy morning in October, so I wasn't too concerned. I had planned to take a look at Comet C/2020 M3 (ATLAS) in Orion before I started in on the Leonids, but it would have been useless to set up a scope in the wind, so I settled for detecting it as a fuzz patch in my 8x42 binoculars. The comet was just north of a little reverse-C-shaped asterism. I grabbed my tarp, sleeping pad, and sleeping bag, threw them down and got on top of them before they could blow away. I was happy to see a magnitude 0 Leonid while I was doing this.

It was 3:43am (11:43 UT) when I started counting. In 27 minutes, I saw 3 Leonids, 3 sporadics and 2 Taurids. Then the clouds returned. I was clouded out for the rest of the hour, and I only saw 2 Leonids and 1 sporadic in sucker patches. At 4:43am, clouds had retreated enough for me to give it another go. I fought through just over an hour of observing time with a couple of short cloud breaks, and saw 10 Leonids, only 2 sporadics (!) and 1 Taurid. The wind was the real show. I was snuggled in my bag in a bit of a hollow, letting the wind come upslope and pass over me, but during the watch it occasionally swirled and turned from behind me, picking up debris and dropping it on my face. I was still blinking it out of my eyes and brushing it off my face for the rest of the day despite taking a shower when I got home. During some gusts, it felt like the ground was shaking. The wind may have hurt my perception of fainter meteors, because I didn't see many despite a limiting magnitude between 6.3 and 6.7 in the clear areas. The brightest meteor was a -2 Leonid.

There was a lot of log truck traffic on the road below me. For my departure, I got behind one of the big rigs and followed it down the narrow road so that I wouldn't have to meet another one coming up at me. I did catch Mercury as I drove home in bright twilight.

SPECIAL: Mars in October/November 2020

I was pretty negligent over the summer about viewing Mars. I'm trying to rectify that now. During July, I was preoccupied with Comet NEOWISE. During August, there was a lot of sap coming down in my driveway from the locust trees. During September, air quality was often hazardous or unhealthy from forest fires. But beginning in October I've been more motivated to let the Dob cool off on my deck and then stay up late to observe and sketch Mars, at least a couple of times per week weather permitting.

On the evening of October 17, our museum held a local star party to view planets, and the seeing actually cooperated. In truth, it was only average, but so many times it is mush. I was actually able to show people detail on Mars in addition to Jupiter and Saturn. So that was cool.

Sketches: A 4-pack of Mars sketches in October 2020

I also had a good run of observing during the first few days of November with Solis Lacus on view. On the evening of November 1, seeing started out average, then temporarily went bad with an "ill wind" before becoming quite steady. On the next evening I got out a bit earlier and was rewarded with even steadier conditions and some bright white cloud bands against dark features on the south following limb.

SPECIAL: 2020 Orionid Meteor Shower

I got in two observing sessions for the 2020 Orionid meteor shower. I actually skipped the morning of October 21st, the shower's nominal peak, in order to get enough sleep to function at work. But on the morning of Tuesday, October 20th, I got up around 2am and headed for one of my nearby dark sites. I started counting meteors at 2:53am (9:53 UT).

Skies were really nice, with vivid Milky Way detail. The temperature was relatively balmy, in the 40s (F), and there was no wind to speak of. There was a lot of truck traffic on the gravel access road, apparently a logging operation in the nearby forest. I was shielded from any headlights; I was just glad I didn't meet any of the trucks on the steep road into or out of the site.

Meteor activity was OK and very consistent. I ended up observing for 3 hours and counting exactly 100 meteors. 49 of these were Orionids and 14 were Taurids. 30 were sporadic (non-shower) meteors, and there were a few each from the Epsilon Geminid and Leonis Minorid minor-shower radiants. Most of the meteors were faint. I saw one fireball, an Orionid of magnitude -3. This one was yellow. Most of the other bright Orionids were bluish or greenish. Orionid hourly rates were 14, 18 and 17. Limiting magnitude was 6.7. I would consider this normal activity for this date.

On Thursday, October 22nd, I was at it again. I started counting at 2:45am. The biggest difference was the wind. It was cold and probably blowing at around 20 mph from the east. As I was setting up, it got hold of my foam sleeping pad and would have sailed it off a cliff, but the pad caught in a small tree and I was able to save it. Once I was down in my sleeping bag in a little hollow, the wind wasn't that big of a bother. The same heavy truck traffic rolled by during my session.

Thursday morning meteor activity was a definite uptick from Tuesday. I saw 20 Orionids during my first hour, and it only took me 36 minutes to see another 20. There were a couple of nice bursts of meteors, with 5 in one minute at 4:07am. That was when I had planned to take a bathroom break, but as the meteors kept falling, I postponed it for a couple of minutes. Orionids were again mostly faint; I didn't see any Orionid fireballs during this session, and only a few negative magnitude meteors. The brightest meteor was a Leonis Minorid fireball of -3. This minor shower always produces a few bright meteors on Orionid mornings. They are a lot like the Leonids of November--very fast and usually leaving a persistent train. The train left by Thursday morning's fireball lasted for about 30 seconds. As I was starting my third hour of observing, the wind died. Unfortunately, this was accompanied by a haze that slowly spread from the west. I ended up calling it a morning after 2.5 hours. I had counted 113 total meteors including 65 Orionids for an average hourly rate of 26. That's a pretty typical Orionid maximum. I also saw 10 Taurids, 7 Epsilon Geminids, 4 Leonis Minorids, and 27 sporadics. Limiting magnitude was 6.7 again before the haze intervened; the Gegenschein was prominent just east of Mars and the Zodiacal Band stretched faintly eastward in Taurus until it hit the Milky Way.

August 11/12: 2020 Perseid Meteor Shower

Our County Museum usually does a Perseid party at Fort Klamath Museum, a site with Bortle 3 skies. 60+ people showed up this year ... at least we were pretty spread out. Most people just come for an hour or so to look through some telescopes and see a few meteors.

Skies were good Tuesday evening, a relief after some smoke from a distant forest fire on Monday evening. Nice contrast when sweeping the Milky Way with binoculars in Sagittarius and Scorpius. Over in the west, Comet NEOWISE was an averted vision object naked eye; my naked-eye estimate of its magnitude was 6.5. In binoculars, it still showed a bright coma and a fan-shaped dust tail of up to 4 degrees, and I thought I could pick out the ion tail split. Seeing was a bit mushy, making planetary views through the telescopes somewhat disappointing.

The Perseids put on a good show in the evening considering the low radiant altitude, and everybody got to see some nice meteors. I transitioned to meteor counting at 10:37pm and put in five hours of effective observing time.

10:37-11:37pm. 38 Perseids and 8 other meteors. Limiting magnitude 6.7, nice sky. Brightest Perseid was magnitude -2; mean Perseid magnitude was +2. Rough Perseid ZHR=85 +/- 14

11:37pm-12:37am. 32 Perseids and 8 other meteors. Limiting magnitude 6.7. Brightest Perseid was a -6 fireball that exploded in the west and lit up the ground. Mean Perseid magnitude was +1.8. Rough Perseid ZHR=57 +/- 10.

1:15-2:15am. 41 Perseids and 7 other meteors. Limiting magnitude 6.4, the Moon beginning to take its toll. 6 Perseids of negative magnitude, up to -2. Mean Perseid magnitude was +1.4. Rough Perseid ZHR=67 +/- 6.

2:15-3:15am. 41 Perseids and 10 other meteors. Limiting magnitude 6.2, a few thin clouds to the north didn't block anything but transparency seemed to take a slight hit. 7 Perseids of negative magnitude, up to -2. The first meteor of the hour was a beautiful red earthgrazing sporadic. Mean Perseid magnitude was +1.6. Rough Perseid ZHR=67 +/- 6.

4:32-5:32am. 55 Perseids and 8 other meteors. Limiting magnitude 6.1. 3 Perseids of negative magnitude, including a -3 fireball near the northeast horizon. Mean Perseid magnitude was +2.1, and the preponderance of fainter Perseids was noticeable. Rough Perseid ZHR=84 +/- 11.

All in all, it was a subpar Perseid display, and the Moon was in an awkward spot and had more of an impact on the morning sky than I had hoped. But the sky was clear, mosquitoes were scarce, and, hey, 248 meteors during my count plus a bunch seen casually early and during breaks was a lot more than most people saw.

SPECIAL: Comet C/2020 F3 (NEOWISE)

Morning of July 4:

I went to a trailhead on a hill near my house to see if I could catch Comet NEOWISE, or at least to see if the site might work during the next several mornings as the comet gets a bit higher. I got there just before 4:00am, and I figured the prime time for seeing the comet would be 4:15-4:30. The Moon had just disappeared behind the higher ridge to the west, and Jupiter, Saturn and Mars were arrayed across the southern sky. Venus was just appearing over a hill to the east; strongly diminished by haze so that I didn't recognize it as Venus and thought it was a terrestrial installation until it detached itself from the hill.

There was some dark muck on the northeast horizon, and of course I was looking over the city lights of Klamath Falls, but I figured that light pollution wouldn't be a big deal as the sky would be pretty bright once the comet was up. The clouds would be more of a problem. At first there was no sign of noctilucent clouds, but a curious glow further north eventually bloomed into a nice display. I retrieved my camera and tripod from my car and set up to take a few exposures of the glowing ripples.

I kept scanning the horizon with binoculars, and at 4:23 or so the comet cleared a dark cloud/smoke band.

A couple of pics of the comet:
http://skytour.homestead.com/files/NEOWISE20-2.jpg and http://skytour.homestead.com/files/NEOWISE20-1.jpg.

The photos (Canon Rebel XS, 55-250 lens at 163mm f/5.6 and 250mm f/5.6 for 3.2s and 1.6s at ISO 800) pretty much match the binocular view. Bright stellar pseudonucleus, tail of about 0.5 degrees with a V-shape near the pseudonucleus. The comet did become naked-eye, and was more prominent to the eye a bit later in the game (around 4:38am). I could pick out a bit of tail naked-eye. It was fainter than Beta Tauri (magnitude 1.65), but Beta Tauri was higher in the sky so there is differential atmospheric extinction to deal with. By the time the star and comet faded out at around 4:52 am they were pretty much the same brightness. My naked-eye estimate of the coma brightness is around magnitude 1.5.

Morning of July 5:

No noctilucent clouds this time and a more transparent sky in general. I picked up the comet tail first as it cleared the distant trees and admired it in my 20-60x, 80mm spotting scope. The pseudonucleus was strongly reddened, a glowing orange ember with bright extensions giving rise to a curving tail, yellowish against the bluing sky. I would say the coma is holding steady at magnitude 1.5. The comet was much easier with the naked eye this morning, and the tail appeared brighter and slightly longer. Tail length in binoculars was about 1.5 degrees, and I could see the tail with my naked eye as well. Photo.

Morning of July 6:

Another clear morning with no noctilucent (or other) clouds visible from 42 degrees N. The comet was a bit less well-placed this morning, rising from behind a hump on the horizon. I could make out the comet's tail a few minutes before the head rose, reminiscent on a smaller scale of Hale-Bopp during a Messier Marathon session near Maupin on the morning of 1997 April 7. At first I thought the coma had faded somewhat, but after looking at comparison stars I concluded that transparency near the horizon was just a bit worse this morning and the coma brightness is holding steady within the limits of my estimates. The tail appeared brighter and more structured, if not much longer. I could trace it for at least 2 degrees, but who can say when a comet tail fades into the background? After the comet got above some of the muck, the naked eye view was quite a bit better than the previous morning. I wouldn't quite say the comet is obvious if you're not looking for it, but both head and tail are easy once located.

NEOWISE at 4:05am
NEOWISE at 4:19am

I took my 10" Dob along for the first time this morning. The comet was stunning. Seeing didn't support more than low power, but at 47x, the pseudonucleus was bright yellow with asymmetric projections from the sides. The northern side of the tail had a sharper edge to it and was bright for a greater distance. An orange 6th-magnitude star (visible in the 4:19 pic above) shone from within the dark void down the middle of the tail, just 5' from the pseudonucleus.

After I pulled away from the comet, Mars looked pretty good despite the mediocre seeing, with a bright South Polar Cap and dark maria.

Mornings of July 7th and 8th:

The comet appears to be holding pretty much steady in brightness. Tail length is somewhere around 5 degrees or a bit more. To a dark-adapted eye, both head and tail are obvious on a casual glance at the sky during the prime viewing time.

July 7th, 3:55am. The tail
July 7th, 3:57am. Head's up!

July 8th, 4:02am.

The ISS passed by (large animated GIF, July 8th, 3:48am).

Morning of July 9th:

The comet is still hanging in there. It did seem to be a touch fainter this morning. I got a decent naked-eye estimate of the coma magnitude as 1.8. This morning was the first time I got to see the comet before the end of astronomical twilight. The gibbous moon meant that conditions were about Bortle 6, and there is still a substantial amount of murk near the horizon, so the comet looked better after it was up 4-5 degrees even though the sky was brightening. Tail length was 4-5 degrees.

Morning of July 10th:

Comet head is fading just a bit--I estimated it at magnitude 2.1 this morning. Tail is actually a bit longer--up to 8 degrees, probably more visible due to the moon being fainter. The tail broadens into a faint "cloud" on its south side as it fades into the sky background.

Evening of July 10th:

An observing buddy and I went out to a site on the California-Oregon state line last night, and were able to pick out the comet in evening twilight. It was pretty much buried in the haze, and the northern horizon at the site wasn't that great, but the comet showed the intense pseudonucleus and a short V of tail. It was relatively easy in 8x42 binoculars, and just marginal naked eye. About 9:45pm. Capella and Menkalinan were already behind a hill, and there are no other bright stars nearby to point the way. I ended up dropping down from Omicron Ursae Majoris to approximate the azimuth.

I also saw comet C/2019 U6 Lemmon between Leo and Virgo (visible in binoculars, but basically just a fuzzy coma--fairly low in the sky as well) and C/2017 T2 PanSTARRS in Canes Venatici (fainter, but nice structure with a parabolic coma with jets and a faint fan-shaped tail of about 1/2 degree in the 10" Dob).

Evening of July 11th:

Windy with a few clouds. I ended up viewing the comet as it sank toward the Cascades and specifically the rim of Crater Lake in the distance.

Mornings of July 12th and 13th:

I went to a darker site on these mornings. The tail is broader and longer with a length of over 10 degrees, and an ion tail is faintly visible in photos. Wide angle view at 3:48am. Closer framing at 4:04am. The comet appeared very similar on July 13th; maybe a bit fainter.

Evenings of July 13th and 14th: Our museum presented the first of a string of local star parties. The comet was bright and easy from the edge of the city. I spent most of the time sharing views, but made the following note on the evening of the 14th when I hauled out the 10" Dob:

The pseudonucleus had a blue tint to it, and the inner coma immediately around it had a striking emerald hue in my 10" Dob. From a Bortle 5 site, roughly 10 degrees of dust tail were easy with the naked eye once the sky was dark enough. I couldn't make out the ion tail visually.

Photos from July 13th at 10:28pm and July 14th at 10:48pm.

Evening of July 15th: Another local star party. A forest fire had started to the west of our site; the smoke was being blown to the west and away from the area of the sky with the comet in it. It did make for a dramatic view, and I took an image that contained the glow from the fire, a train of Starlink satellites, and the comet.

I did another local star party on the 16th, casually viewed the comet from my deck on the 17th, and skipped the 18th due to smoke.

Evening of July 19th: I went a bit farther afield. The comet has faded quite a bit, and the coma is now 3rd magnitude. The tail remains impressive from a dark site, with the dust tail at least 13 degrees long and an ion tail of similar length visible naked eye and in binoculars.

Evening of July 20th: I went to my local-dark site both to view NEOWISE and to see Comet C/2019 U6 (Lemmon) in the same field as M89.

Much like the previous night, both tails were impressively visible. Both were around 15 degrees in length. I tried to see if I could see blue color visually in the ion tail as I did with Hale-Bopp, but I couldn't. In the 10" Dob, NEOWISE was a feast of color. The pseudonucleus was small and intensely white, immediately surrounded by a very small bright hazy area. Outside of this is a classic cyan coma that fades gradually. A long bright jet on the preceding side, fanning out more or less perpendicular to the tail. A fainter, shorter jet on opposite side, and a modest curved jet opposite the tail. Thin central tail spine. First part of tail is cyan like coma, and then seems to fade a bit before being supplanted by bright yellow of dust tail. Faint streaks in tail. Edge better defined on the following side. Lower power (47x) shows the broad fan preceding and the split on the following edge where the ion tail separates. Sketch at 104x. Photo.

C/2019 U6 (Lemmon): A more typical fuzzy coma with a faint nucleus surrounded by a small inner coma. This condensation offset a bit to the west of center. Coma slightly oval with a rough E-W elongation. Comet larger but with lower surface brightness than M89 in same mid-power field. Low-power field also includes M90, but I opted to sketch at 104x with M89 and the faint galaxy pair NGC 4550 and 4551.

Evenings of July 22nd and 23rd: July 21st was mostly cloudy. So was July 22nd, but I went out to see the comet. It was more of a triumph just to see it in the murk. The 23rd was clear but very windy. The comet continues to fade, but after moonset 10 degrees of dust tail were visible to the naked eye at a Bortle 5 site.

Evening of July 24th: One last star party for the comet, this time from a site that would have been Bortle 3 without the Moon. A few clouds, and the comet had faded even more but was still visible to the naked eye with approximately 10 degrees of tail.

2020 May 21-23: Mercury-Venus Conjunction

I observed the Mercury-Venus conjunction on 3 consecutive nights, with the Moon joining the pair on May 23rd. On the 21st, I took a quick look from a local site with an OK horizon. The planets were closest together on this evening, with Mercury slightly lower. Mercury overtook Venus on the 22nd, and I saw the pair from a church parking lot where our local museum held its first star party since March. On the 23rd, I went up to my local dark site and saw a nice sunset over Upper Klamath Lake followed by the planets and Moon playing hide-and-seek among the clouds.

2020 April 21/22: Lyrid Meteor Shower

I was able to observe the Lyrids for 2 hours from a local dark site on the morning of April 22.

There were a couple of cloud patches left when I got set up, but these moved off to reveal a beautiful sky. A bit soft to the north, my local light dome to the south, but a nice sweet spot in between. Limiting magnitude varied from 6.4 to 6.8 overhead. At times the north wind was bracing, and made me glad I was down in a sleeping bag instead of at the eyepiece of my Dob.

I was able to observe for 2 hours from 1:22-3:23am PDT. The first hour was more productive, with 17 Lyrids and 15! other meteors. The number of sporadics was rather stunning for this time of year. I remember averaging 5 sporadics per hour under similar conditions in 2017. At least 5 meteors seemed to trace back to somewhere in eastern Cygnus. The CMOR radiant map shows a cluster of radiants in this area, possibly 2 or more minor shower sources.

Activity dropped off in the second hour, with 9 Lyrids and 9 sporadics. I had planned to watch for another 15 minutes or so based on how long I thought I could stay up and still make it through work, but the clouds came back at the end and cut that short.

The brightest meteor of the morning was a Jupiter-bright Lyrid that was the second meteor that I saw, just over a minute into my watch. After starting out with 3 meteors in 2 minutes, there was a 6-minute lull broken by a sporadic and then an 8-minute lull. I also suffered through a 15-minute dead period in the middle of the watch and 6 minutes of nothing at the end. There were some other nice meteors, but nothing exceptionally bright. Average magnitude for the Lyrids was 2.4, and for sporadics was 3.1. Overall, it looked like a nice, standard Lyrid peak. A relaxing session.

2020 April 13/14: 3 Comets

I made my first venture outside the city since the "Stay Home, Save Lives" order went into effect. Since it was only 15 miles away, I felt that it qualified as local. Besides, I was likely to be very socially distanced.

I wanted to catch 3 comets in the evening sky. C/2019 Y4 (ATLAS) had recently fragmented and I hoped it would show some interesting detail. C/2019 Y1 (ATLAS) was a comet I hadn't seen yet, and C/2017 T2 (PanSTARRS) was becoming an old friend. I took a quick look at all 3 of them before settling in to sketch them.

C/2019 Y1 (ATLAS): Oval coma condensed to a stellar nucleus surrounded by a bright inner coma. Elongated especially to the NNE, a brighter jet in this direction. Also elongated to SSW. Large, faint outer coma. Impressively detailed on a subtle level.

C/2017 T2 (PanSTARRS): Very condensed. Faint stellar nucleus surrounded by bright inner coma. Slight N-S elongation suspected; otherwise round. Faint stars to the east lend impression of an elongation to the E. Not sure if this is real. Bright star (HD24296; magnitude 6.6) is fiery orange.

C/2019 Y4 (ATLAS: Diffuse, like a faint edge-on galaxy at first glance. Brightest portion is a large oval area west of center. A couple of faint stellar condensations within appear to have their own comas. Overall elongated to ENE, with a hint of a central spine. Subtle asymmetry--sharper cutoff on N side.

2020 February 12/13: The Pup!

I finally caught the Pup (Sirius B) for the first time. 10" f/4.5 Dob, 330x, latitude 42 North. I had tried a few times over the past few years, usually near the beginning of morning twilight in fall. I always wound up disappointed--Rigel is always so easy, the seeing is pretty good, and these few years are supposed to be when the Pup is easiest. How am I not seeing it?

I'm not sure what was different this time. It wasn't the greatest night overall. Seeing was admittedly above average but far from rock-steady as I looked at Mercury and Venus in the twilight. The temperature was plummeting well below freezing, I was fighting eyepiece fogging, I was at a close-in site that was reasonably dark but not really up to my standards, so after examining my main targets (Comets C/2017 T2 and C/2018 N2) I was ready to call it a night. While observing the Trapezium and Rigel, I thought the seeing was good enough that it might be worth trying for the Pup. When I first looked at Sirius, I wasn't so sure I had a chance, but the seeing was variable and Sirius had some time to climb yet. I caught a glimmer in the eastern diffraction spike during a few moments of better seeing at 165x, but it was gone when I switched to 190x so I wasn't sure. I looked up the position angle, and it did look as if the Pup should have been in the diffraction spike at that time and would be clear of it in a little bit. I moved back to Rigel and thought that 330x (7mm Nagler T6 with a barlow, go figure) gave me the best star images and contrast. And, eventually, I moved back to Sirius and there it was, clear of the spike and outside the bright fire of Sirius A. It looked like a dull, bluish-gray spark. After that, I could hold it except during occasional air tremors.

All I can say is that the Pup must be pretty finicky about seeing conditions. The air just has to be steady enough to put enough of the light from Sirius A into the central pattern that the Pup stands out. Even with the glare, it looked brighter than the 11th-magnitude star a couple of minutes to the north and east; it's just that if the turbulence overwhelms the star pattern the Pup is gone.

2019 December 23/24: 2 Comets

I've been busy with other stuff recently (bought a house), but I have gotten in several recent observing sessions. On the evening before Christmas Eve, I went to a local site and tracked down two comets.

C/2017 T2 (PANSTARRS) was easily visible in my 10" Dob. I saw it as condensed with an intense nucleus, bright asymmetric coma about 1.5' across, and gradually fading tail about 3' long and pointing southward.

C/2018 N2 (ASASSN) was tougher, particularly because I was using an online chart that didn't show its precise position. I eventually ran across it, a game of "find the comet" in a rich star field. The comet was small (diameter about 45"), round, and somewhat condensed in the center without a stellar nucleus. 

2018 January 6/7: 2 Comets

I got out for a short session on this Saturday evening to view and sketch a couple of comets. Skies were average with limiting magnitude 6.7-6.8. The temperature was dropping rapidly, and eyepiece fog was a problem.

C/2017 T1 (Heinze) was near Cassiopeia. I picked it up immediately in my 10" Dob at 47x. It was a diffuse, somewhat elongated object. I tried an UltraBlock nebula filter, which sometimes firms up the view of diffuse comets; there was essentially no response. At 104x, the inner coma was more well-defined and parabolic, with an essentially stellar nucleus. The outer coma was very diffuse, and traced out to a diameter of about 4'. A tail about 10' long extended to the E, and arose from a spinelike jet that appeared to split. The comet's westward motion was obvious within a few minutes.

Comet C/2016 R2 (PANSTARRS) was in Taurus near the Hyades. It, too, was readily if faintly visible at 47x, but smaller and more condensed. At 165x, the inner coma was condensed, but no discrete nucleus was visible. The outer coma appeared faint and irregularly round, growing with averted vision to a diameter of about 2'. The coma was smeared into a short tail 2-3' long to the ESE.

After the comets, I dropped down to Orion to look at M42 and surroundings. Seeing was pretty decent with 6 stars in the Trapezium readily visible, but I had problems with moisture in my eyes. I also looked at the Flame and Horsehead complex. I could make out the dark void of the Horsehead at 104x without a filter, but there was little context. At 47x with the H-Beta filter, the almost-invisible glow of IC434 became bright, allowing the Horsehead to become a silhouette, albeit small at this magnification. The view was very dim with the filter at 104x; I have an eyepiece that produces 76x, which gives a better scale of the Horsehead itself, but it is a narrower-field eyepiece that doesn't provide as much context.

2017 November 19: 3 Familiar Comets

I am behind on observing logs. I still haven't posted my Oregon Star Party/Total Solar Eclipse report from August.

After the star party, there was a long run of smoky skies from forest fires, followed by mostly cloudy weather conditions. I did a short, rather slow Leonid observing session on the morning of November 18th under skies with a lot of fog and haze around the edges. On the morning of the 19th, I hoped for better skies in order to catch 3 comets I had seen before.

C/2017 O1 (ASASSN) was well-placed above Polaris. I had seen this one during OSP in August. I star-hopped from a pair of naked-eye magnitude 5.5 stars, and the comet was easy enough to see in my 10" Dob at 47x. It was faint with a small, inconspicuous central condensation (DC~3). Coma was round, about 8' in diameter and faded into the background. An UltraBlock narrowband filter firmed up the view a bit and increased contrast in the inner coma. Coma maybe slightly elongated to SW.

Transparency was decent high in the sky, with a limiting magnitude of 6.8. My next target, Comet 62P/Tsuchinshan, was in Leo near the M65/66/NGC 3628 group and just above the haziest part of the sky. I had previously seen this comet in 2004. It was easy at 47x, looking fairly condensed and bright. Unfortunately, sky condiions deteriorated soon after I acquired it, and it never again matched my initial impression. At 104x, I rated it as DC~5 with a coma about 4' in diameter and elongated to the WNW. There was a hint of jet structure in PA~290°. The surrounding sky turned milky and lost contrast during the observation.

I didn't have much hope of seeing Comet 24P/Schaumasse given the hazy conditions. I had seen 24P during two previous apparitions, in 1993 and 2001. The field was nearly white at 47x from fog and smoke. Fortunately, transparency improved markedly over the space of a half hourand I was able to pick up a little smudge at 165x. Coma was round, slightly brighter in the middle (DC 2 or 3) with a diameter of about 2'. I noticed the comet's motion to the ESE during the observation. Even as conditions improved, twilight encroached, and I packed up in the frosty 15°F dawn.

July 15/16: 2 Supernovae

This Saturday night promised to be a good opportunity to get the scope out and observe without worrying about being too tired the next morning. Astronomical twilight ended at 10:50pm and the moon would rise at about 12:30. In between, I decided to hunt down two fairly bright supernovae in spiral galaxies.

The night was decently transparent, and above average for summer. At midnight, I got a limiting magnitude of 6.9 near the zenith in Lyra. Seeing started out at about average and deteriorated a bit, resulting in blurry and wobbly views of Saturn. I also kept my magnification relatively low on the deep sky objects.

My first target was SN2017erp in NGC 5861 in Libra. I starhopped south from Beta Librae, passing the galaxy NGC 5885. NGC 5861 was immediately visible as a faint oval smudge at 114x, and the supernova was visible as well. The supernova popped in and out of direct vision, but I held it better when I increased the magnification to 165x. The supernova was about the same brightness as a nearby field star of magnitude 13.9, in line with current measurements.

NGC 5861 was oval, elongated NW-SE with a slightly brighter core and major axis, but no stellar nucleus. Overall, it was fairly dim but visible with direct vision. A fainter halo was visible with averted vision. Nearby galaxy NGC 5858 to the NW shared the same field at 165x. It was tiny but had high surface brightness, a stellar nucleus surrounded by a bit of bright fuzz. Sketch

The other supernova, SN2017eaw, was high in the northeast in the large galaxy NGC 6946. I'm reasonably familiar with this galaxy, a spiral with low surface brightness in a rich starfield. When I put my scope on it, the supernova was visible at any magnification. SN2017eaw was about the same brightness or slightly brighter than the adjacent magnitude 13.1 field star. NGC 6946 is a compelling galaxy with lots of structure right at the limit of my 10" scope. I used 114x to frame the field and find the supernova, but the inner structure of the galaxy showed up much better at 165x. Features such as a faint knot in one arm, and a star just east of the nucleus, were only visible at the higher magnification. Sketch

An auroral display was possible, but didn't materialize at my site with a compromised northern horizon and imminent moonrise. I rounded out the early morning with casual observations of M8, M20, M17, M16, and the Veil and North America nebulae.

2017 April 22: Lyrid Meteors

I counted meteors for 3 hours on the morning of April 22nd. Skies were good with limiting magnitudes between 6.7 and 6.9. Meteor activity was about as expected: 34 Lyrids for an average of 11 per hour, 6 Antihelions and 15 sporadics. The highlight of the session was a Lyrid fireball of magnitude -6 that ended in a terminal burst in Ursa Major. This brilliant bluish meteor left a persistent train for about 30 seconds.

The Lyrids were bright on average with a mean magnitude of 1.8 (mean magnitude for the sporadics was 3.0 and for the Antihelions was 1.8). The final hour was marginally the most active with 15 Lyrids.

2017 April 3: 4 Comets in the Morning

I've been in a non-observing rut for a long time. Before this month, the last time I had my 10" Dob out was in September. I've either been too tired from work, or focused on other activities, or the weather hasn't cooperated. I finally dusted off the Dob (literally) a few days ago, and the promise of some "new" comets to observe in the morning sky spurred me to wake up during predawn hours, on a Monday no less.

My first target was Comet 41P/Tuttle-Giacobini-Kresak, fresh off its close approach to Earth. It was easily visible in my 10x42 binoculars near Alpha Draconis as a fuzzy patch among bright field stars. In the 10" Dob at 47x, it showed as a large, diffuse patch with a slightly squashed oval inner coma and a nonstellar central condensation. The brightness dropped off rapidly away from the center. The comet's eastward motion against the starry background was visible within a few minutes. When I attached the UltraBlock narrowband filter, this significantly increased the prominence of the outer coma and made a broad tailward extension (7' long in PA 260) more obvious. Total coma diameter was roughly 15'. Sketch.

Raising the power to 104x increased the detail visible in the inner coma and revealed a stellar pseudonucleus and better showed jets on each side of the central condensation that contributed to the oval appearance of the inner coma.

Next I turned to C/2015 V2 (Johnson), in Hercules. At an elevation of about 85 degrees, this comet was in Dobson's Hole, but also in a nice dark sky. It was visible as a faint fuzzy star in the binoculars, but looked like a classical comet when I turned the Dob on it. It had a round coma with a bright central condensation and stellar pseudonucleus, and an obvious tail about 10' in length in PA 300. Coma diameter was about 2.5'. A couple of faint streamers were visible in the tail. Sketch.

Some clouds had passed through earlier in the night, and at first the eastern horizon didn't look promising. But by 5am when I turned my attention to Comet C/2017 E4 (Lovejoy), that area of the sky was clear. The comet was easily visible as a strongly condensed, compact object in binoculars. In the Dob at 104x, it was an oval object with high surface brightness and a prominent cyan hue. It had a bright central condensation and a bar-like structure along the major axis of the oval. I was unable to see the long tail visible in photos. Coma dimensions were about 4' x 2', with the coma elongated roughly N-S. Sketch.

I was fighting twilight and trees to find my final comet of the morning, C/2015 ER61 (PANSTARRS). I needed to relocate the scope to clear trees, and then I still didn't get it in the right spot. The sky was brightening, and my field was partly obstructed by a carport, but the comet rose high enough that I was able to catch it at 104x as a faint, round fuzz, brighter in the center. Sketch.

2016 December 28: Comet 45P

I got a quick, rough view of 45P/Honda-Mrkos-Pajdusakova this evening from my yard. The comet was surprisingly easy in 10x42 binoculars despite deteriorating conditions. I also pulled out my old 60mm refractor and viewed it at 27x. The comet was moderately to strongly condensed (DC ~6), with a coma about 3' in diameter and magnitude ~7.5. I wasn't sure about a tail in binoculars; I didn't see a tail in the refractor.

2016 December 12 and 13: Casual Geminids

I got in a couple of short casual Geminid watches during cloud breaks. On the morning of December 12th, I watched for 13 minutes from 5:21-5:34am PDT and saw 4 Geminids, 1 Sigma Hydrid and 1 sporadic. On the morning of the 13th, I watched for 52 minutes from 5:00-5:52am PDT and saw 21 Geminids and 1 sporadic. I saw a couple of fireball-class Geminids on the 13th, both bright white with a violet tinge.

2015 January 23/24: Triple Shadow Transit on Jupiter

I got out at around 9pm PST (5:00 UT). My scope had been cooling for 90 minutes, but hadn’t reached equilibrium. Also, there was rapid small-scale scintillation. The shadows of Callisto and Io were readily visible on the roiling disc of Jupiter. Io itself was invisible. Viewing was most comfortable at 104x, and there was little if any fine detail visible on Jupiter.

I took a look at Comet Lovejoy (faded a bit, still naked eye, several degrees of bright tail). Transparency was mediocre and humidity was high. Air temperature was on its way to the upper 20’s (F).

At around 9:30pm, I came back to Jupiter and started a rough sketch. Seeing was still rough, but I used 165x and occasionally 208x to try to see as much detail as possible. I hoped to catch Io when it was partially eclipsed by Callisto’s shadow. I noticed a prominent (considering the conditions) projection/festoon from the southern edge of the North Equatorial Belt following the moon shadows. I included it in my sketch. With the poor seeing conditions, the shadows of Io and Callisto appeared merged for a number of minutes. At 9:48pm, I positively noted the appearance of Io as a dusky gray spot at the tip of the festoon. Io transformed the look of the festoon from a projection with a trailing component (presumably connected to an invisible Equatorial Band) to a pointed projection with a ball at its tip. Io darkened and became more prominent through 9:50pm before fading and becoming essentially invisible again a bit before 9:52pm. At the same time, Io’s shadow visibly started to pull ahead of Callisto’s shadow, although the two remained merged until 9:58pm.

The next big event during the transit was the occultation of Callisto’s shadow by Io. A broken cloud band moved through at around 10pm, and the remnants were still present during the beginning of the occultation. The changing obscuration made it difficult to judge the prominence of Callisto’s shadow from moment to moment. Callisto’s shadow had always been significantly more prominent than Io’s. By 10:17, I thought I could see a bit of attenuation in Callisto’s shadow. At 10:20:45pm, Callisto’s shadow appeared grayish and slightly less prominent than Io’s, but I didn’t see any internal detail. By 10:23:30pm, Callisto’s shadow was equal to Io’s, and by 10:24:20pm was clearly superior again. Overall, this was a very subtle event.

At 10:26, I could see the disc of Callisto as a dark spot in the southern section of the North Equatorial Belt on the following edge of Jupiter. At 10:28:40, Europa’s shadow started to impinge on the disc, completing the triple shadow assemblage. I sketched the view as seen at 10:43pm.

At 10:53pm, I noted that Io’s shadow had left the disc. At 11:01, I could see Io proper as an intense white spot in the limb darkening on the preceding edge. Meanwhile, Europa proper was approaching the following limb. For a brief moment, bright satellites were touching each limb while three dark spots were on the disc. I made this the focus of my final sketch centered at 11:09pm. Afterwards, seeing finally improved to a solid average, and I spent some time digging out as much planetary detail as I could.

January 13/14

I viewed and sketched comet C/2014 Q2 (Lovejoy) through my 10x42 binoculars. The comet remained an easy naked-eye object, a "fuzzy star" of magnitude 3.8. I couldn't see a tail with the naked eye. In binoculars, the comet showed a 25' coma and a rather faint but obvious tail that stretched for at least 4 degrees in PA 75. The first 0.5 degree of tail was bright and prominent; the next 2 degrees were easy to see and showed some fine structure. After that, the tail was faint and diffuse, fading into the sky background.

The pseudonucleus was a bright stellar nugget at the center of a pale cyan inner coma. There were a couple of projections from the inner coma. One was at PA 100 and about 20' long, blending into the south edge of the tail. The other, broader and fainter, was in PA 345 and manifested as a brighter patch in the outer coma.

Fine linear structure was faintly visible in the tail, particularly in the brighter part near the coma and along the northern edge. I tried to capture this in my sketch.

2015 January 7/8

I went out for a little over an hour tonight (Wednesday evening) to catch C/2014 Q2 (Lovejoy) between evening twilight and moonrise. Skies were variable due to local wood stove smoke, but at the clearest I could see down to magnitude 6.7 in Taurus.

I had gotten a quick look at Lovejoy through 10x42 binoculars and with the naked eye Tuesday evening. I had noted its magnitude as about 4.1 naked eye (4.3 through binoculars). Coma diameter was large, maybe 25’ in binoculars, and a very faint, short tail was visible in binoculars. I didn’t do a detailed estimate tonight, but the comet looked a smidgen brighter.

Tonight, I concentrated on viewing the comet through my 10” Dob and making a sketch. The comet had a huge round coma with a diameter of maybe 20-25’ (difficult to determine where the coma faded into the sky background). The coma had a definite cyan tint. There was a bright stellar pseudonucleus at the center of the coma—this appeared to be about 9th-10th magnitude at 47x. The inner 5’ or so of the coma was bright and condensed, surrounded by a zone of moderate brightness out to a diameter of 10’ and then by a diffuse outer shell. A tail was faint but obvious in PA ~65. I tried to determine the tail length in binoculars and at several low powers in my Dob, and invariably lost it at about 1° from the center of the coma. Tail width was 5-10’. Some very faint, fleeting structure was visible in the tail at 36x and 47x in the Dob.

At low powers in the Dob, I also saw a broad, brighter extension of the coma from PA ~120-170. Maximum length of this was about 15-20’, so it was mostly superimposed on the coma. I suspect this is a dust fan, and it seemed to have a warmer color tint than the rest of the coma. A few of the photos that I’ve seen show hints of this feature; others do not, maybe because the coma is overexposed. I don’t think it is illusory, though.

I took a quick look at the area around the pseudonucleus at 104x just as the sky was deteriorating with the impending moonrise, and saw some subtle structure there as well.

2014 November 17/18

Monday evening, I braved the cold for a short evening session with my 10" Dob. Skies were mediocre with some local wood stove smoke and high clouds. Naked eye limiting magnitude was 6.3.

My main target was Comet C/2014 Q3 (Borisov). The comet was in Ursa Minor, not far from the star Eta UMi. I starhopped to the comet and found it extremely faint and diffuse, a hazy spot that kept nagging at my vision. The comet appeared to be about 6 arcminutes in diameter, fading into the sky background and essentially round. There was a very slight central condensation. I estimated the comet's magnitude as 10.5 and the degree of condensation as 2. The comet showed a moderate to strong response to my Orion UltraBlock filter (a narrowband nebula filter). With the filter, it was more obvious and better-defined. The comet's motion to the SSE was obvious after 30 minutes or so.

Sharing the low-power field was the little galaxy NGC 6412, just over the border in Draco. The galaxy was much smaller than the comet (diameter <2 arcminutes) and much more condensed. The galaxy was readily visible with direct vision, and more obvious than the comet. Using comparison stars, I estimated the galaxy's magnitude as 11.9. I really liked this combination of two objects where the smaller and "fainter" one was easier to see, so I had to sketch it. I printed out the Cartes du Ciel starfield and sketched the comet and galaxy on it.

2014 August 20-24: Oregon Star Party Report

2014 July 26/27

I did 1.5 hours of meteor observing, ending in morning twilight. Skies were slightly better than the previous morning. The first half-hour was amazingly productive with 22 meteors! Of course, it was immediately followed by a 15-minute drought. I saw a total of 50 meteors: 11 South Delta Aquarids, 9 Perseids, 5 Anthelions, 2 Alpha Capricornids and 23 sporadics.

July 25/26

I got out for a split evening/morning session. There wasn’t much smoke on the horizon, but the sky didn’t seem to be as dark or have as much contrast as normal. Limiting magnitude high in the sky ranged from 6.4-6.6. Seeing was average.

My first target was comet C/2013 UQ4 (Catalina). It was visible in my 10” Dob as a ghostly blur with little condensation. I got fleeting glimpses of a possible stellar nucleus. The comet seemed to fade in and out with direct vision. The comet responded modestly to the Orion UltraBlock filter - at 104x, the inner coma seemed more defined with the filter in place. Averted vision revealed a diffuse outer coma 7 arcminutes in diameter. The overall shape of the coma was round, but the slightly brighter inner portion seemed to expand to the SW. I estimated the comet’s magnitude at 12.0 in the 10” at 47x. Sketch.

I visited Seyfert’s Sextet (Hickson 79 or the NGC 6027 group) again. The group itself is easy as a fuzzy object at any power in the 10”. Using powers between 165x and 330x, I could make out 3 separate members with difficulty. Different sources give different designations to the members. The easiest one is often labeled as NGC 6027E. Just across from it is NGC 6027A. At times, NGC 6027 joined them in a triangle. The other members avoided detection. Even if seeing all the member galaxies is a long shot in a 10”, I’d like to try them on a night of pristine transparency at OSP and also look at them in a big scope.

A little more poking around and an extended tour of the Veil Nebula, and then I went in for a nap. At 2am, I did an hour’s meteor observing. I saw 18 meteors: 7 South Delta Aquarids, 7 sporadics, 3 Perseids and an Anthelion. Better transparency would likely have increased my total significantly. There were nice bright meteors from both active showers, but no fireballs.

I set the scope back up and took an extended look at M33. The big galaxy showed awesome structure, best at 165x even as it spilled out of the field. I verified that I could see the four superimposed NGC knots (604, 595, 592, and 588) and also picked out some of the IC objects. Obviously, if the weather cooperates at the Oregon Star Party, I will do a detailed sketch.

My real target of the morning was comet C/2014 E2 (Jacques). The comet, just 9 arcminutes NE of 5th-magnitude star 14 Aurigae, was obvious in 10x42 binoculars and looked like a very condensed globular cluster (similar to NGC 1851 in Columba). The 4.5-arcminute coma was bright and evenly-illuminated in the binoculars.

In the 10”, the coma at first appeared round with a bright nonstellar central condensation surrounded by a brilliant inner coma and gradually-fading outer coma. The coma diameter as seen through the scope at 165x was 3 arcminutes. As the comet gained altitude and I gave it extended attention, the coma looked more fan-shaped with a wispy tail to the W (ion tail?) and a short, broad elongation to the S (dust tail?). At 47x, I could trace the ion tail for about 10 arcminutes. A couple of jets were visible in the inner coma. The comet’s motion to the NW was obvious over 20 minutes as it passed by an 11th-magnitude star. Sketch.

June 28/29: A Long Session

On Saturday night/Sunday morning, I went out for a “long session”. I spent about 4 hours observing. My first target was the recently-discovered supernova (SN 2014bv) in NGC 4386 in Draco. There are quite a few middling galaxies in the area. NGC 4386 has a bright center and fuzzy rounded inner region. The oval disc is broadly elongated NW-SE. The SE half of the disc is brighter and more defined. The galaxy fades sharply along its NE edge, leaving a dark gap between the edge and SN 2014bv. The supernova competes with the galaxy’s nuclear region as far as brightness. Sketch.

While in the area, I looked at other galaxies including the very nearby NGC 4291 and 4319. I gave a shot at the quasar Markarian 205 near NGC 4319, but I couldn’t pull it out though I’ve seen it before. Seeing was decidedly below average, and transparency was decent but not pristine (limiting magnitude about 6.6 at the zenith). There was a lot of moisture in the air. Other galaxies I stopped at were NGCs 4133, 4589, 4648, and 4750. All of these are easy 11th-12th magnitude objects with little detail visible.

Summer observing means I’m thinking about the Oregon Star Party coming up in August. The advanced observing list this year is a “pick 10” from a variety of objects, some of which are well beyond my reach with a 10” scope. Others are borderline, and a few are straightforward. The NGC objects embedded in M101 are on the list. I didn’t really tackle them tonight, but I took a quick look at the big galaxy and saw a few of the prominent star clouds. I also poked around the galaxies within a few fields of M101 while I was in the area.

Also on the advanced list is the planetary nebula M 2-9, or Minkowski’s Butterfly. I wasn’t sure what to expect when I hopped to this one, but it was actually visible as a faint elongated haze with a bright center. Despite the mediocre seeing, I pumped the power up to 330x and could see a strongly elongate shape with a stellar center. The OIII filter did nothing to enhance the nebula. I made a quick sketch. This one is easy and interesting enough that I will probably dedicate some real observing time to it at OSP.
Another object on the OSP advanced list is Seyfert’s Sextet, with the stipulation that at least 5 of the 6 component galaxies need to be identified. I remember looking at this once or twice before in my 10”. It’s a bit of a confused mess, relatively easy to see as an irregular lumpy blob but hard to get a handle on what’s what. I would definitely want a much better sky to try to make sense of this one.

After seeing a post on Cloudy Nights, I printed out the finder chart for the blazar 3C 454.3. Normally around 17th magnitude, this quasar has recently been in outburst to magnitude 14 or brighter. The blazar sits just 15” from a 13th-magnitude star. It was easy enough to find, and sure enough I saw the faint double star. The blazar seemed a bit fainter with softer light than its line-of-sight companion. Of course, at these low light levels, no color was visible.

After some showpiece observing and a little break, I tackled my only cometary target of the session. C/2013 UQ4 (Catalina) was in Andromeda near the borders of Pisces and Pegasus. This comet is brightening and moving to the NW at a good clip. It was easily visible at all powers in my 10” Dob. Catalina featured a relatively large, round coma about 3’ across and gradually fading out at the edges. There was a stellar pseudonucleus and bright inner coma offset to the east. The inner coma was elongated toward the west. I estimated the comet’s magnitude as 11.0. An Orion UltraBlock filter improved the contrast and visibility of the outer parts of the coma at low powers. The comet’s motion was noticeable minute-to-minute, especially as the coma separated from a 14th-magnitude star. Sketch.

2014 June 21/22: A Short Session

My schedule has been such (isn't it like this every spring?) that I let three months go by without getting the Dob out. Now evening twilight lasts until after 11pm, so staying up to observe is a bear. Even though I wasn't at my best, I threw in what I used to call a "short session" (1.5 hours) on Saturday night.

My first target was the comet C/2012 K1 (PANSTARRS). On New Year's Day, the last time I saw this comet, it was a very faint morning object. Tonight, it was a bright evening comet, visible in my 10x42 binoculars, but also swiftly approaching the trees to my west as the sky was getting dark. I managed a hurried sketch.

The coma was bright, strongly condensed, and slightly bluish. The comet was sandwiched between two bright field stars of 9th and 10th magnitude. Its inner coma was parabolic with a small, essentially stellar central condensation. The diffuse, rapidly-fading outer coma was about 2.5' in diameter. There was a hint of a very faint eastward-pointing tail about 12 arcminutes in length.

After that, I mainly poked around showpieces, as I normally do when I'm shaking the rust off. Skies were excellent overhead but a bit murky near the horizon. Seeing was unimpressive. Some of the non-M objects I swept up included the little planetary NGC 6891 in Delphinus (small with a bright central star and two blue shells) and three galaxies in Draco (NGC 6503, NGC 6340 and NGC 6643).

May 5/6: Eta Aquarid Meteor Shower

I woke up to clear skies on the morning of May 6th. As I was setting up at 3:15am PDT (10:15 UT), I saw a magnitude +2 Eta Aquarid earthgrazer, which I took to be a good sign. I observed from 10:22-11:45 UT, and saw a smattering of Eta Aquarids against a fairly rich sporadic background. Unfortunately, the shower was not nearly as active as it was in 2013 (but I had better success than most of my past Eta Aquarid attempts). I live at latitude 42.6 N, so this shower is always a pretty marginal event.

In 1.2 hours Teff, I saw 11 Eta Aquarids (mean magnitude +1.5) and 10 sporadics (mean magnitude +2.5). Skies were decent, with a limiting magnitude of 6.8 at the beginning of the watch. Twilight gradually took its toll. Limiting magnitude was still 5.7 at the end of the watch, but I saw no meteors during the last 15 minutes.

The Eta Aquarids were fast, typically with wakes and short trains. The best of the morning was a long-pathed –3. I didn’t see much color in the Eta Aquarids.

2014 February 17

With a small window between twilight and moonrise, I went out to see and sketch Supernova 2014J in M82. Skies were OK; a bit moist with a few high clouds. Still, the galaxy was very impressive as usual, and didn't suffer much even when the moon was lighting up the eastern sky. The supernova was at about magnitude 11.5. I didn't see any color in it. My sketch was a bit hurried, but should communicate my impression.

I also took a quick look at Jupiter. Seeing was below average, but Europa's shadow was on the disc and I could occasionally just make out the Great Red Spot as it neared the edge.

2014 January 1

I did a morning session to sketch the three comets that I viewed on December 29th. I started with C/2013 R1 (Lovejoy). The comet was a faint naked-eye object of about magnitude 5.8. In binoculars and at low power in my 10" Dob, one degree of bright tail was visible, plus another degree or so of very faint tail in PA 335 degrees. The coma was about 5' in diameter and dominated by a bright stellar nucleus with two broad "wings" projecting from its sides and sweeping tailward. The western side of the tail was brighter with more structure; the eastern was more diffuse. Sketch.

C/2012 K1 (PANSTARRS) was on the threshold of direct vision and popped out with averted vision. A condensed coma 1' in diameter with a bright nonstellar core was bracketed by several 14th-magnitude stars. The coma appeared to be slightly elongated E-W. Sketch.

C/2012 X1 (LINEAR) was a bright 9th-magnitude object. It formed an isosceles triangle with 9th- and 11th-magnitude field stars, although the symmetry was soon disrupted by the comet's noticeable motion to the southeast. The coma was round and about 3' in diameter with a stellar nucleus offset to the southeast. A bright core was surrounded by a faint envelope. There was subtle asymmetry in the coma, with the core being brighter on the north side and a couple of projections to the south and east. A short tail, brighter in the center, projected about 3.5' in PA 310. Sketch.

2013 December 28/29

I planned a split session where I would observe some deep-sky objects and Jupiter during the late evening and then get up before dawn to see comets. The evening session was pretty much just poking around. Transparency was good and the air fairly dry. I hit stuff like M42-43, M78, and the Flame and Horsehead. After the Horsehead, I swept up some other H-beta filter objects such as IC 2177, IC 405 and Sh2-235, but I didn't do any sketches or note-taking. I swept through a bunch of galaxies in western Ursa Major as well, and visited NGC 2403. It was cold enough to be a bit uncomfortable. Seeing was initially pretty bad, but by midnight it calmed down enough for me to see Europa's shadow ingress onto the globe of Jupiter and catch the beginning of the transit by Europa itself. There were a couple of bluish, looping "garlands" on the southern edge of Jupiter's Northern Equatorial Belt, although overall detail was a bit muted.

In the morning, I wanted to observe three comets--C/2013 R1 (Lovejoy), C/2012 X1 (LINEAR), and maybe C/2012 K1 (PANSTARRS). I got up at 4am, knowing the moon would be up by 4:30 and might be an issue even though it was a thin crescent. Comet Lovejoy was about magnitude 5.7 and near the edge of naked-eye visibility at its low elevation. A couple of degrees of tail were visible in 10x42 binoculars and in my Dob at 47x.

I passed by C/2012 X1 on my way to the fainter C/2012 K1, intending to come back later. C/2012 K1 was allegedly magnitude 13 or fainter, so I didn't know whether I would see it. It was only a little over a degree away from the bright C/2012 X1, so I thought I would try. At 104x and 165x, I was able to pull a small, fuzzy spot out of the sky background, next to a 14.7-magnitude star. As I was making a confirmatory sketch, the sky conditions deteriorated. Unpredicted high clouds moved in and stayed for the rest of they day.

2013 December 25

Weather recently has been mostly clear (except around the peak of the Geminid meteor shower, which was clouded out) but frigid. Early December saw 16" of snow fall in about 24 hours, followed by temperatures dipping to 20 below zero. As a result, I haven't been out with the scope. I finally made it out on Christmas evening. Winter evenings here aren't great for transparency (wood stove smoke) or seeing (rapidly-falling temperatures), but this one was better than most. Limiting magnitude reached 6.8, but was variable. Jupiter often wore a hazy halo. Seeing was a bit nervous, Antoniadi IV or sometimes III.

I started out with the Crab Nebula, and enjoyed the subtle shape and detail in this old favorite. I thought it looked best at 208x with no filter. I poked around a few other bright winter sights and decided that the air wasn't transparent or dry enough for faint diffuse nebulae. I went after faint, condensed comets instead.

C/2011 J2 (LINEAR) was near Polaris. This comet was reportedly around 13th magnitude. I thought I saw a milky spot at the comet's position at 47x. 104x revealed a faint, very condensed coma right next to a 14th-magnitude field star. I decided to wait to sketch the comet until an hour or so later, when its motion would separate it from the star.

290P/Jager was in eastern Auriga not far from the homely little open cluster NGC 2281. I glimpsed the comet at 47x, but it was better-seen at higher powers. I rated its visibility at 165 as AV1 or AV2 on the averted vision scale (possibly glimpsed occasionally with direct vision). The coma was small and round (about 1' in diameter), and condensed in the middle. I thought there might be a stellar nucleus displaced a bit to the north of center. I estimated the comet's magnitude as 12.9. Sketch.

Returning to C/2011 J2, I initially had a hard time seeing it. When I did see it (at the AV3 averted vision level), it popped out as a very small and condensed, round, nonstellar core with a silvery hue and possible elongation to the NE. The coma diameter was only about 30' or so. I didn't do a formal magnitude estimate, but something around 13.5 would be about right. Sketch.

November 29: Brewington, Nevski, and Lovejoy

After watching ISON's not-quite-demise play out on the web, I decided to go out and look at the comets I could actually see. I started in the evening with Comet 154P/Brewington, well-placed in Pegasus. The Clear Sky Clock had predicted average transparency, but conditions were actually very good. The Zodiacal Band was faintly visible from Taurus to Pisces.

I hopped to Brewington at 47x in my 10" Dob, and was a bit annoyed at finding the coma overlaying a 12th-magnitude field star. I poked around some DSOs for an hour or so (M33 looked really nice at 104x) while I waited for the center of the comet to move eastward from the star a bit.

Brewington was a bit easier to see than in October, but is still a faint, mostly diffuse object. At low power, the outer coma responded well to my Orion UltraBlock filter. The coma was about 5' in diameter and round, although harder to see on the western edge where the field star interfered. At 104x, the comet showed a small central condensation about 1.5' x 1' and elongated N-S. At the edge of averted vision, the condensation appeared parabolic, opening to the east. The condensation was slightly brighter in the middle, but I didn't see anything stellar in there. Sketch.

I retired for the evening, put the Dob in my car, and got up at 3am to go after more comets. I hadn't seen C/2013 V3 (Nevski) yet, so after a quick naked-eye and binocular look at C/2013 R1 (Lovejoy) I sought out this newer comet in Leo. I swept into the field and said to myself: "Wow, that's a diffuse mess." Nevski, also near a field star looked a lot like Brewington--a little smaller, a little brighter overall, but even less condensed. The UltraBlock filter didn't help with Nevski, and I could see as much of the coma at high powers as at low ones. Nevski was about 4' in diameter and essentially round. With effort at 104x and especially at 165x I could see a vague, slightly brighter condensation displaced a bit to the NW of center. There were several threshold stars in the coma that confused matters. In fact, the whole star field was surprisingly rich for this area of the sky. Sketch.

A meteor (maybe 5th or 6th magnitude) streaked from east to west across my 104x field at 3:52am and left a faint, glowing wake that lasted a second or so.

After I finished my Nevski sketch, I estimated the limiting magnitude using a couple of International Meteor Organization star count areas, and got 7.1 and 7.3. That's better than I've ever gotten from my yard. Unfortunately, things went downhill pretty quickly as even the 16%-illuminated moon made a dent when it cleared the trees. I think some thin clouds moved in as well.

I looked at Jupiter. Seeing was just fair, but a lot better than it has been recently. Ganymede's shadow was obvious against the disc.

Comet Lovejoy was an easy naked-eye fuzzy star with a hint of tail visible. I estimated its magnitude at 4.4. The comet formed a naked-eye double with a star of magnitude 6.4.

In 10x42 binoculars, it looked much the same as 5 days ago, with a bright coma and a tail that was obvious for about 3 degrees and could be traced with difficulty for another degree or so. The tail looked like a bit fainter and less detailed than on the 24th.

In my 10" Dob at 47x ... wow! A stellar pseudonucleus in a slightly bluish inner coma surrounded by a gray outer coma, with a tail looking like a gray contrail against the black sky and spreading out gradually as I traced it over three fields of view.

At higher powers, the inner coma continued to be full of subtle detail. The central condensation appeared wedge-shaped with a bright center and several jets projecting. The bluish color of the coma seemed more subdued this morning. Sketch.

I took a quick look at C/2012 X1 (LINEAR), but the crescent moon was reasonably close and twilight was encroaching. The view hadn't really improved over 5 days ago.

November 23/24: Lovejoy and LINEAR

With ISON now lost to the dawn, I got up early on November 24th to sketch Comet Lovejoy through binoculars and then set up the Dob to look at Lovejoy and C/2012 X1 (LINEAR).

Despite moonlight, Lovejoy remained an easy naked-eye object. A tail was obvious in binoculars for about 3 degrees, then faded but could be traced with difficulty for another degree or so. This morning, the tail appeared to be two-branched. The galaxy M63 was visible in the same binocular field. Binocular Sketch.

The coma was slightly bluish with a stellar nucleus, and appeared diffuse on the southern side with the suggestion of a short dust fan. All of these characteristics were more obvious in the telescope. Telescopic Sketch. The comet's motion was pretty fast--the star in the coma west of the nucleus was northeast of the nucleus 10 minutes earlier. The jets in the coma are a bit exaggerated on the sketch, and I concentrated on the inner coma so the tail is just roughed in. There appeared to be a short, broad dust fan to the east-northeast of the nucleus (toward the top of the sketch) that made an obtuse angle to the main tail extending to the northwest.

Comet C/2012 X1 (LINEAR) was lower in the sky, and the 62%-illuminated moon took a bit of a toll on it. It was still easy to find as a fuzzy spot at low power in the 10" Dob. Higher powers revealed a small, bright nucleus and a parabolic inner coma that was brighter on the south side and opened toward the north. A fainter round shell about 3.5' in diameter was at the edge of visibility. Sketch.

November 21-23: Lovejoy and ISON

With news of ISON brightening, I went out on the morning of November 21st. I drove to a park with a decent eastern horizon and got there at around 5:20am. I was away from home with only my 10x42 binoculars on hand. Comet Lovejoy was an easy target in the binox, and in fact an easy naked-eye object even in moonlight. Limiting magnitude was 5.7, and I'd estimate Lovejoy's magnitude as around 4.9. The coma was large and fuzzy (10-15' in diameter?), condensed in the center but with no stellar nucleus visible at 10x. 1 degree of rather bright tail was visible, and beyond that another degree faintly visible.

ISON was in low clouds near the horizon to the upper right of Mercury. When I first saw it in the binox, it was quite starlike with a hint of tail. It was strongly reddened at low altitude, but as it rose the still-stellar coma took on an icy-cold green tint. A rather thin, faint tail stretched out for a couple of degrees, and seemed brighter on the SE side. I never was positive that I could see ISON with my naked eye. ISON Sketch.

I visited the same park on November 22nd and 23rd, with an eye toward taking some quick shots of ISON. I had decent success on November 22nd. ISON Photo. Ison was to the right of Mercury, with the frozen Lost River in the foreground. In the photo, Saturn is buried in the twilight glow to the lower left of Mercury. On the 23rd, ISON was at about the same altitude as Saturn, but to the lower right of Mercury. The comet, at roughly magnitude 4, didn't brighten appreciably, and I didn't see it with binoculars on the 23rd despite good conditions. It did turn up as a very faint elongated fuzz in photos I took on the 23rd, but nothing to write home about.

November 8/9: Binocular Comets

I spent a couple of weeks away from home and away from my scope. I wasn't feeling very good this morning and woke up to clear skies. I was staying in Klamath Falls, and in the past I have been quite unimpressed by sky conditions at in-town star parties at the Klamath County Museum. But here, maybe a dozen blocks away and a bit uphill, skies were actually pretty good. When my eyes were dark-adapted, I got a limiting magnitude of 6.4 in Ursa Major.

My first binocular target was C/2013 R1 (Lovejoy). I swept it up to the east of the Beehive. Wow! This comet was bright in binoculars. I suspected that I would be able to see it with the naked eye, and I did after my eyes were dark-adapted. I estimated Lovejoy's magnitude as 5.3. The comet had a fuzzy coma with a bright center. The coma appeared about 8' in diameter and a bit squashed, with a diffuse eastern edge and a tail 15-20' in length extending to the west.

I decided to go back to bed and get up when I might have a chance to view Comet C/2012 S1 (ISON) and C/2012 X1 (LINEAR). The problem with ISON was that it was behind trees, but eventually it cleared them and I saw a faint, elongated fuzzy patch. The coma was small, maybe 2' in diameter. A very short tail about 8' in length pointed westward. I estimated ISON's magnitude as 7.6.

In the brightening twilight, I also looked for C/2012 X1 (LINEAR) and managed to just glimpse it as a very small, round hazy spot.

November 1/2: Comet Brewington

I viewed 154P/Brewington again. Skies weren't great (Friday night football lights and some wood stove smoke), but limiting magnitude was 6.6 up in Pegasus and the comet (near Alpha Aquarii) was high enough to be above the worst of it.

In my 10" Dob, the inner part of the coma was visible with direct vision at 47x. This was just a small (<1' diameter) smudge close to a 14th-magnitude field star. With averted vision, a very diffuse outer coma stretched to about 3' in diameter. At higher powers, there was a faint stellar nucleus of about magnitude 14.3, and the inner coma appeared slightly elongated E-W. Overall, the comet was round, and I estimated its total magnitude as 11.4. The comet's motion toward the NE was evident after 10-15 minutes. Sketch.

October 15: Morning Comets Again

I observed between moonset and twilight on the morning of October 15. It was 23 degrees F, but felt a lot colder. Limiting magnitude was 6.8-6.9 overhead, but there was a slight milky look lower on the horizon, and patches of river fog sometimes drifted by down at ISON's altitude. The zodiacal light was very bright just before the start of astronomical twilight.

I went for C/2013 R1 (Lovejoy) first, as it was in a more transparent area of the sky. It was a quick and easy starhop from Delta Monocerotis, and obvious in my 10" Dob at all powers. Lovejoy seemed a bit less condensed (DC=3 with a very faint stellar nucleus) than it did 10 days ago. There was a parabolic inner coma about 1.5' across, brighter on the edges and spreading into a short, broad fan in PA~300. This was surrounded by a large, diffuse halo that was round and about 5' in diameter as seen through the 10" Dob. I estimated Lovejoy's magnitude at 10.0. Sketch.

I also managed to see Lovejoy through 10x42 binoculars. It was just a very faint hazy spot perhaps 9' in diameter. With binoculars, I estimated the magnitude as 9.0.

Comet 2P/Encke has also changed since my last observation. It has gotten quite a bit brighter and a little more condensed. Encke was quite easy in 10x42 binoculars, appearing as a round little blob about 10' in diameter with soft edges and a slightly brighter center. I estimated its magnitude as 8.1.

In the 10" Dob at 47x, Encke showed a small central condensation near the western edge of a slightly lopsided coma. Several faint jets curved out to form a fan to the east, including a central spine about 7' long in PA~80. The longer I looked, the more prominent the jets appeared against the faint glow of the coma. Rough Sketch.

Once again, I saved C/2012 S1 (ISON) for last. After a starhop from Mars, I found the comet in a sparse telescopic star field. The comet was near the center of a misshapen pentagon of 10th-magnitude stars. ISON has grown and brightened in the past 10 days, and this morning I was able to see a stellar nucleus for the first time. At 47x, I estimated the coma diameter as 4' and the tail length as 10' centered in PA 290. Coma magnitude was 10.0. At 165x, the tail was brighter along the central spine and on its southern edge. I was not able to see ISON in binoculars. Sketch.

October 5/6: 3 Evening Comets

After my morning session with three comets, I decided to focus on comets the following evening as well. The temperature stayed above freezing. Skies were average for this site; I estimated the limiting magnitude as 6.7 in Pegasus at the end of the session. I had said a conditional farewell to C/2012 F6 (Lemmon) in September, but the comet has remained bright enough to view in my 10" Dob. Not too far from the head of Draco, it also remains well-placed in the sky. At 47x, I immediately swept it up as a small fuzzy spot in a confusion of stars. At 165x, the comet was attractively placed a couple of arcminutes from a pair of 14th-magnitude stars. The comet was about 2' in diameter and maybe slightly elongated E-W. It was moderately condensed, but without a stellar nucleus. The coma magnitude was 12.3. Sketch.

My second comet was also a "hanger-on", C/2010 S1 (LINEAR). This comet has remained pretty consistent in appearance. This is a small, compact object that responds well to magnification. I starhopped from the Coathanger to this one. At 165x, I could see the comet as a round fuzz adjacent to several stars. I bumped the power up to 330x for my sketch. The comet is strongly condensed, although I didn't detect a stellar nucleus. With extended averted vision, I could trace the coma out to a diameter of about 45 arcseconds. There appeared to be a diffuse elongation to the SE. I neglected to make a magnitude estimate, but 12.5-13 would be a good bet. Sketch.

Finally, I got to see something new: Comet 154P/Brewington in Aquarius. At 47x, I could barely tell that there was a ghostly, poorly-condensed haze in the field. 94x was a better power. Brewington's coma responded to a narrowband nebula filter, but not as strongly as 2P/Encke's. Brewington's coma was 3' in diameter and nearly round. The inner 1' of coma was slightly brighter and seemed to be better defined on its eastern edge. I estimated Brewington's magnitude as 11.8. Sketch.

2013 October 4/5: 3 Morning Comets

I left my 10" Dob on the deck to cool off overnight. I got up before 3am to check out 3 comets in the morning sky. The air was cold, but transparency was pretty good (limiting magnitude probably around 6.8 overhead).

My first target was 2P/Encke in Lynx. I previously saw this comet in 1994 and 2003. Once I starhopped to it at 47x, Encke was an obvious fuzzball at all magnifications. The surrounding star field was very pretty with a couple of bright star chains. The comet's eastward motion was obvious within a few minutes.

Encke showed a coma about 5' in diameter, round or diffusely elongated a bit to the NE. A small, fairly weak central condensation was displaced to the west of the coma's center. A narrowband filter (Orion UltraBlock) made the outer coma better-defined, although it did not reveal any additional detail or extent. I estimated the coma magnitude as 10.0. Sketch.

C/2013 R1 (Lovejoy) was a quick starhop from Beta Monocerotis, although I noticed my Telrad was beginning to frost up. Lovejoy was also an easy object from the get-go. Its coma was smaller but more condensed than Encke's. A 12th-magnitude star was embedded in the coma, and the comet's motion brought the coma's center ever closer to the star. My impression was of a triangular central condensation with a stellar nucleus. Overall, the coma was about 2' x 2.5' and elongated in PA 270. I didn't try a magnitude estimate due to interference from the star. Sketch.

Finally, there was (will it or won't it disintegrate) C/2012 S1 (ISON). ISON was buried in the bright zodiacal light near Mars, and the sky background was disappointingly bright. Seeing wasn't good at 20-30 degrees altitude, either, as Mars was twinkling to the naked eye. Nevertheless, ISON was an obvious elongated smudge at 47x, and much easier than when I last observed it on September 11th. I switched to 165x for a sketch, but had persistent problems with eyepiece fogging in the 24 degree (F) air. ISON had an inner coma about 1' in diameter, with a possible outer envelope about double this. The coma appeared more condensed at low power, but with no stellar nucleus. A faint tail extended for 3.5' in PA 295. I estimated ISON's magnitude as 11.1, compared to 11.8 back on September 11th. Sketch.

2013 September 9/10 and 10/11: Hello, ISON

I went after ISON on the morning of September 10th. There was a little bit of scuzz (residual forest fire smoke) around the horizon, but ISON was well above it by 5am. The zodiacal light did brighten the sky a bit. Zenith limiting magnitude was 7.0.

I starhopped to the field from the Beehive at low power and since there were only a few minutes of astronomical darkness remaining I went right to my 7mm Nagler (165x). I probably should have used 76x instead, but I wanted to darken the background as much as possible and I expected ISON to be small and condensed and possibly in need of higher magnification to be revealed as nonstellar.

The seeing was a bit nervous, but not too bad considering the low elevation (15-20 degrees). My finder chart (printed from Cartes du Ciel) wasn't too precise, so I stumbled around the field a bit. A magnitude 14 field star caught my eye first as looking a bit nebulous (later, back at the computer I saw that it was double, which probably contributed to that effect). After a few minutes, I picked up ISON as a ghostly smudge that was larger than I expected (about 1.5' in diameter). The comet was just a couple of arcminutes WSW of a magnitude 11.5 star.

I followed ISON for about 20 minutes before twilight blotted it out. The comet appeared slightly elongated to the NW (PA 290), pointing toward a field star of magnitude 14.5. The coma seemed just slightly brighter in the middle, with no definite nucleus (the mediocre seeing may have affected my impression). Sketch.

On September 11th, I also viewed the comet. It appeared much as the previous morning. I estimated its magnitude at 11.8, and its size as 2' x 1.5' elongated in PA 300.

2013 September 7/8 and 9/10: Goodbye PANSTARRS, Farewell Lemmon

I observed these two past-their-prime comets on two evenings during my stay at a dark-sky site. I sketched them on the evening of September 7th and then estimated magnitudes and sizes on the evening of September 9th. Limiting magnitude was good on both nights, 7.0-7.1 high in the sky.

When I first starhopped to C/2011 L4 (PANSTARRS) in northern Bootes, I thought I saw a faint fuzz at 47x. I didn't pay much attention and bumped the power up to 165x, which usually is a good power for small comets. I didn't see much at 165x, but when I pulled back to 76x, PANSTARRS jumped out at me as a diffuse patch ~2 arcminutes in diameter and slightly elongated in PA 285. There was a very weak central condensation that was difficult to see at higher power. Viewing for an extended period really paid off by bringing out more of the faint outer coma. Total coma magnitude was roughly 12, but the comet was a fairly difficult object. Sketch.

C/2012 F6 (Lemmon) was much easier, more condensed, and obvious at all magnifications. Two stars of 13th and 14th magnitude stood 0.5' and 1' away from the central condensation. The comet had a broad parabolic coma about 1.5' x 2' and elongated to the NE. A faint stellar nucleus was visible at 165x. I estimated Lemmon's magnitude at 11.5. Sketch.

2013 August 12/13: Perseid Meteor Shower

Since the Perseids were the most strongly-favored shower peak in this bad year for meteor showers, I was disappointed to log a measly 2.7 hours of official observing time. Work, weather, family obligations and the Oregon Star Party all contributed. I tried a watch on the morning of the 11th at OSP, but clouds soon rendered it useless. I had to pick up my aunt at the train station on the evening of the 11th, and between the lack of sleep I got during OSP and the impending work week I was in no condition to observe on the morning of the 12th.

So, I settled for a session on the morning of August 13th. Looking at the data from other observers, the 12th was definitely the best morning for the Western US. Perseid rates were definitely far removed from their peak by the time I got set up at 1:11am, and over 2.7 hours of observing time I saw 111 Perseids for an average of 41/hour. 42 other meteors including some long-pathed Alpha Capricornids and Eta Eridanids added to the display. For brief spurts, especially around 3:00am, the Perseids were really exciting, but there were also some devastating lulls.

The brightest meteor I saw was a -4 Perseid that had a bright head but left a train that only lasted for a couple of seconds. Other notable meteors included a magnitude 0 Perseid that showed violet and orange tints, a magnitude 1 Perseid that was strongly orange, a magnitude 2 Alpha Capricornid that was red and nebulous, and a magnitude 0 earthgrazing sporadic that left a train visible for 5 seconds. Overall, the Perseids were of about normal brightness, with an average magnitude of +2.0. Sporadics were faint at a mean magnitude of +3.3.

There was a bit of smoke early on, but it quickly dissipated in a mild breeze. Limiting magnitude was as good as 6.9 at the zenith, and hovered around 6.7 for most of the session.

2013 August 8-11: Oregon Star Party 2013 Report

August 3/4

I had originally planned to view Supernova 2013dy in NGC 7250 a week ago, but smoke from the Whiskey and Douglas Complex fires made me cancel that session. Unfortunately, the smoke has persisted. August 3rd was the first reasonably decent evening we've had since the smoke first blew in. Smoke was still in evidence, especially in the light-polluted areas within 30-50 degrees of the horizon. Above that, the skies weren't too bad. I actually reached a limiting magnitude of 6.9 overhead, above average for my yard. However, that was achieved when I was fully dark adapted and had been viewing faint objects through the telescope for over an hour. In the 10" Dob, I made it down to magnitude 15.7 around M57, but with more difficulty than on July 12/13, and the central star was not visible. Seeing was decent, maybe a bit better than average. In any case, this was an important shakedown session before next week's Oregon Star Party.

I quickly star-hopped from the naked-eye star HR8485 to the faint galaxy pair NGC 7248 and NGC 7250. The two galaxies are separated by about 17', so I had visions of sketching them together. However, they are so small and indistinct that they are swallowed up by a wide field of view and only worth detailed examination at high magnification. The 13th-magnitude supernova in NGC 7250 was readily apparent at any magnification; however, the galaxy itself was tiny and diffuse. It did respond well when I pushed the power to 330x and spent some time sketching the sparse star field surrounding it while at the same time taking in the galaxy's subtle structure with averted vision. The galaxy's most prominent feature was a brighter core about 1/4 of the way between the supernova on the north and an 11th-magnitude field star to the south, and displaced a bit to the west of this line. The core was small, round and quite condensed. A mottled streak of light projected south of the core for about 45", and occasionally I could detect a very faint oblong halo surrounding this. North of the core, the galaxy was fainter and seemed to stop short of the supernova, although at the very limit of my vision I could occasionally detect a projection hooking around to the west of the supernova. Sketch.

NGC 7248 was actually a slightly easier target, but with very little detail visible. It showed a round core with a stellar nucleus, and with averted vision I could make out a very faint elliptical halo about 1' x 0.75' elongated NW-SE. Sketch.

July 12/13

I planned this night as a make-up session for my clouded-out attempt at some planetary nebulae around Aquila. I wasn't too impressed with the sky conditions at first. The Milky Way lacked the contrast that it has on really good nights, and my naked-eye limit was magnitude 6.7 (at or just below average for my yard on summer evenings). On the positive side, the atmosphere was pretty steady.

I sketched a couple of the planetaries. NGC 6852 is a medium-sized and faint planetary sandwiched between a couple of faint stars. It appears as a faint oval spot at medium powers. My OIII filter made everything too dim at higher powers, so I settled for the Orion UltraBlock filter at 230x. With this configuration, the faint star just to the SSE of the nebula seemed to alternately merge with and separate from the disc. NGC 6852 seemed more or less round or with a slight NW-SE elongation. A couple of brighter spots were visible on the NW and NE edges, and the rim seemed a bit better defined on the SE edge. The interior seemed irregularly darker. Sketch.

NGC 6781 is an old favorite, so I was surprised it wasn't included in my list of objects that I have sketched through the 10" Dob. This large planetary appears perfectly round. Unlike NGC 6852, this one takes high power and the OIII filter well. Detail is subtle, but repays extended gazing. The rim still appears perfectly round and well-defined, but the southern half is broadly brighter with some mottling leading to a helmet effect. The center of the nebula and the north part of the rim are dimmer. A faint star almost touches the rim on the NE side. The starfield is suppressed by the OIII filter, but is intimidatingly rich when the filter is removed. Sketch.

After these planetaries, I went to the Ring Nebula. I was very surprised to catch a quick glimpse of the central star at 330x. I could see stars to at least magnitude 15.7 around the Ring, and I didn't have my chart that showed fainter stars. It's possible I could have dug out the magnitude 16.1 star if I knew its location. The central star remained an AV4 object (visible only with averted vision, and substantially less than 50% of the time). I tried for IC 1296, the very faint galaxy near the Ring, and initially came up empty. In darker skies, I have found this galaxy surprisingly visible in my 10" at high power. Eventually, I managed to come up with it as a small fuzzy spot at the AV3-AV4 level.

Emboldened by these results, I decided to check in on a few of the objects on this year's Oregon Star Party advanced list of dwarf galaxies and large planetary nebulae. I observed the following:

* PK 59-18.1 (Abell 72). I think I've looked at this faint planetary in Delphinus before. The main issue is a scattering of stars around the planetary that make it difficult to pick out the faint haze. One segment of the disk shows up better than the others. Surprisingly, filters didn't seem to help much on this one.

* UGC 11557 in Cepheus. I don't think I've looked at this faint galaxy before. It isn't much, but it's visible and looks a lot like ... a faint galaxy!

* PK 104-29.1 (Jones 1). I've sketched this large planetary before. It appears very washed-out and low-contrast (but still visible) without a filter, but the OIII filter brings out a lot of detail.

* PK 72-17.1 (Abell 74). I've certainly missed this huge and very faint planetary before, even under very good skies. But I tried it anyway and could make out a very faint glow with an OIII filter in place. I think I was only seeing about a third of its circumference (apparently a brighter portion). I didn't sketch it as I was about at my limit, but I certainly closed the book on this session looking forward to a showdown with this object at OSP if the skies cooperate.

July 5/6: Comets PANSTARRS and Lemmon

I spent a bit of time playing around with viewing familiar objects such as M5, M27 and M11 through my different eyepieces before turning to the fading comets that were stars of the spring sky. First up was C/2012 F6 (Lemmon), parked near Beta Cassiopeiae. Lemmon's coma was concentrated and round like an unresolved globular cluster, but had an off-center stellar pseudonucleus. A faint cyan tinge was visible in the inner coma. Coma diameter was about 3.5'. A very faint, fuzzy tail was visible to the SSW, no more than 10' in length. Sketch.

I starhopped to C/2011 L4 (PANSTARRS) from Alpha Draconis. The comet has faded considerably since last month, and I could no longer make out an antitail. The comet showed a ghostly parabolic coma about 3' across and fading gradually into the sky background. There was a small, non-stellar central condensation. The coma widened to the ENE, and there was a suggestion of a start of a fan-shaped tail, but this couldn't be traced for more than a few arcminutes. Sketch.

I intended to go out again on July 6/7 to observe some planetary nebulae, but some surprise clouds proved to be so persistent that I packed it in. While trying to find something to look at in a clear area of the sky, I sketched the galaxy NGC 5665 in Bootes. This little galaxy is visible as an oval smudge at low power in the 10" Dob. At 230x, It showed a bright, bulging inner region surrounded by a diffuse halo. There was a hint of mottling near the nonstellar nucleus. Overall, the galaxy was elongated NW-SE, with dimensions of about 2' x 1.5'. Sketch.

June 10/11: No Gamma Delphinid Meteor Outburst

Alerted to the possibility of a meteor outburst, I did a quick 45-minute session under good skies from 8:15-9:00 UT on June 11. I saw 8 sporadics and 2 anthelions, but no good candidates for the putative Gamma Delphinid shower.

June 7/8: Comets PANSTARRS and Lemmon

I definitely don't get out with the Dob as much as I used to--hectic work schedule and not enough energy left at the end of the day, plus competing hobbies that favor the daylight hours. On this Friday night, the stars aligned (so to speak) and I thought I'd give it a go, at least to visit these two comets. C/2011 L4 (PANSTARRS) was favorably positioned near the North Celestial Pole, so I hunted it down right after the sky got dark (which is none too early in June). I had some issues with finding a decent place to set up while dodging all the neighbors' porch lights, but I finally settled in.

PANSTARRS has faded considerably since I last viewed it in April, and was difficult in binoculars due to its proximity to a bright 7th-magnitude star. I was able to see it better a bit later when it had moved a bit, and at that time I estimated the comet's magnitude at 9.4. In the 10" Dob at 44x, the comet showed a round coma about 4' in diameter with a stellar pseudonucleus offset a bit to the NW of center. A couple of small jets were visible to the SE, the beginning of a fan-shaped tail that stretched for 25-30' in PA 130. Even more striking was the antitail that stretched for at least 1 degree in PA 355. The first 20' or so of the antitail were narrower than the coma and had a higher surface brightness than the other tail; beyond that, the antitail broadened and gradually faded into the sky background. The starfield seemed pretty crowded for this region of the sky. Sketch.

Naked-eye limiting magnitude was 6.7. The seeing sucked, so I didn't spend much time on Saturn and only glanced at a few showpiece objects before retiring for a quick nap.

Comet C/2012 F6 (Lemmon) graced the morning sky not far from M31. It was quite easy in binoculars; I estimated its magnitude at 8.0. In the 10" Dob at 44x, Lemmon showed a round coma 7' in diameter. The coma was fairly condensed, but lacked a stellar pseudonucleus or any internal structure to speak of. It had a faint cyan tinge. A faint, narrowly fan-shaped tail extended for at least 25' and maybe up to 40' in PA 235. There was a hint of faint linear structures in this tail, as well as a thin northern branch in PA 250 that may have been the ion tail. Sketch.

May 5: Eta Aquarid Meteor Shower

I had only seen a few Eta Aquarids during a few years--this shower is difficult to observe from latitude 42.6 North because the radiant is still low in the sky at the start of astronomical twilight. Also, the weather is usually bad, or the Moon is in the way, or I'm sick ... This year was better, and the shower showed signs of higher-than-normal activity.

I got out for about 1.5 hours of observing this morning. I didn't quite make my planned 3:15am start time, but as I was setting up I did see my first Eta Aquarid (a +3 earthgrazer) at 3:15 (1015 UT). A couple of minutes later, I saw a brighter one as I started my watch.

Activity was pleasantly high, with a few lulls (droughts of 10, 8, and 11 minutes) and one big spurt (5 Eta Aquarids and 1 sporadic in 1 minute around 1118 UT). For the first half-hour (radiant elevation 5-10 degrees), the Eta Aquarids all showed earthgrazer characteristics, with long paths and persistent trains even on the fainter meteors. A memorable orange ETA of -1 shot for about 70 degrees directly overhead and faded out behind me.

I ended up seeing 24 Eta Aquarids and 10 sporadics. Skies were average for most of the watch, with a little dip in the limiting magnitude as the moon rose above the ridge to the east and quick deterioration due to twilight during the last 18 minutes of the watch (which only produced 4 meteors). The Eta Aquarids were not especially bright, with nothing brighter than -1 and a mean magnitude of 2.2.

This morning's session went much better than my previous attempts to view the Eta Aquarids (the best "highlight" I could find in my logs was a grand total of 6 ETAs in 45 minutes in 2002 [also 9 in one hour in 2008]).

Observer: Wesley Stone (STOWE)
Location: Chiloquin, OR (42d 35m N, 121d 52m W)
Method: Counting/Tape Recorder
Date: 2013 May 4/5

Interval 1: 1017-1059 UT
Teff: 0.694h
F: 1.11
LM: 6.62
Total Meteors: 13
ETA 9 [-1, +1(3), +2, +3(2), +4(2)]
Spo 4 [+1, +3(2), +5]

Interval 2: 1059-1129 UT
Teff: 0.493h
F: 1.11
LM: 6.55
Total Meteors: 17
ETA 13 [-1(2), 0, +1(2), +3(4), +4(2), +5(2)]
Spo 4 [-1, +2, +3(2)]

Interval 3: 1129-1147 UT
Teff: 0.298h
F: 1.11
LM: 6.29
Total Meteors: 4
ETA 2 [+3(2)]
Spo 2 [+1, +2]

2013 April

I spent a week housesitting at a nice dark site, but for the most part the weather didn't cooperate. I got in two short but productive observing sessions. On the evening of April 11th, I decided to hunt down Comet 63P/Wild near the sickle of Leo. On my way there, I stopped by my old favorite galaxy NGC 2903. I'm not sure whether I ever noted the fainter galaxy NGC 2916 before, but since it showed up on my finder chart for Comet Wild and was in the same low-power field as NGC 2903, I looked for it and found it readily visible in my 10" Dob at 44x. While a small smudge, it was of moderate surface brightness and showed interesting detail at higher powers. Overall, the galaxy consisted of an oval halo elongated N-S. The brighter central portion lacked a stellar nucleus, but did have a small central condensation in the middle of a thin N-S bright area. The galaxy also seemed to bulge a bit in the E-W dimension at the center. To the SE of the center, there was a darker area that could represent a dark lane or space in between spiral arms. I bet this galaxy would look very interesting through a very large aperture telescope. Sketch

I starhopped over to Comet Wild, which was NOT visible at low power. Even at 165x, it was difficult to hold without averted vision. It initially appeared as a very small round condensation, and my eyes kept being drawn to phantom images or faint nearby stars. With prolonged observation, the comet became more obvious and I could see that the small central region was surrounded by a larger, very faint halo. The comet was round overall and the total coma diameter was about 4', although the brighter central region was only about 1' in diameter. Sketch

On the morning of April 17th, I was frustrated by clouds that eventually cleared off before morning twilight leaving just a bit of high haze behind. I took the opportunity to view Comet C/2011 L4 (PANSTARRS). The comet is in Cassiopeia now. It is circumpolar from Oregon, but is higher in the predawn sky.

The comet was still an impressive naked-eye object, appearing as a diffuse streak about 1 degree long. I'd roughly estimate the integrated magnitude (coma + tail) as about 4.5. Binoculars revealed more detail, but didn't extend the tail length.

The comet was a nice sight in my 10" Dob at low power, sitting in an impossibly rich star field. A 10th-magnitude star was just south of the coma, and over the 30 minutes or so that I observed the comet it moved northward away from this star. The coma diameter was about 4', with a bright almost-stellar pseudonucleus. The coma and the brightest part of the tail were yellowish. Two tail components were visible--a bright, narrow wedge in PA 350 degrees that extended over a degree while fading gradually; and an antitail that emerged in a sharp spike about 20' long in PA 115 degrees. A faint, fan-shaped glow was visible in the angle between the antitail and the main tail. Sketch

I was able to take a quick check of the comet with naked eye and binoculars on the morning of April 21st at the onset of astronomical twilight. The comet was still a naked-eye object, although it had faded somewhat. I was able to get a good estimate of the magnitude of the coma by itself (m1). With the naked eye, the coma magnitude was 5.8, and with 10x42 binoculars, the coma magnitude was 6.5. The tails appeared much as they had on the 17th.

2013 March: Comet PANSTARRS

I had some rotten luck with clouds being in the wrong place for several days. On Wednesday the 13th, I had to work until 8pm but managed a quick view of the comet through binoculars before it sank into clouds.

I finally got a decent view of the comet on Thursday evening, March 14th. It was readily visible in 10x42 binoculars at 7:45pm, and within 10 minutes or so I got some naked eye glimpses. The comet looked slightly orangish in binoculars against the bright blue twilight sky.

Here's a pic of the comet at 8:04pm

The head is very strongly condensed, with an essentially stellar pseudonucleus as seen through binoculars, and the tail is pretty short, maybe a degree or more in length. I could see a short section of the tail with my naked eyes. I would put the coma magnitude at +1 or a little fainter, although the variable thin cloudiness didn't let me get a really good estimate.

Here's a wider shot with the comet above tree branches. The star to the upper left of the comet looks to be 4th magnitude Delta Piscium.

The comet sank pretty quickly, and there were thick cloud bands on the horizon.

Here's the view at 8:16pm

Five minutes later, the comet emerged from the bottom of the dark cloud in the photo, but it was strongly reddened and dimmed by atmosphere. I lost it for good at around 8:25.

I also saw the comet on Friday evening, March 15th. There was still a thick cloud band on the horizon, and the seeing was terrible so viewing the comet through a small refractor didn't reveal any fine detail.

My best views of the comet came on Sunday, March 17th. I estimated the coma magnitude at +1.4, and the tail stretched for 2-3 degrees. There was still enough murk along the horizon that the views were better earlier despite the brighter sky.

I saw the comet again on Friday, March 22nd. The comet was still an easy binocular object, but only a marginal naked eye object in the moonlight, twilight and haze. I estimated the coma magnitude as +2.8 with the naked eye, suggesting a very significant fading. I could maybe scratch out a degree or so of tail.

On Friday, March 29th, I got my first views of the comet without competition from twilight or moonlight (but still very low in the sky). The comet, despite having faded to ~magnitude 3.9, was an easy naked-eye object with about a degree of tail. In binoculars, it was impressive, with a broad and bifurcated tail stretching for 3-4 degrees. I made a quick sketch through my 60mm refractor, and also took a wide-angle photo to capture the mood of the scene.

January 2/3: Quadrantid Meteor Shower

I observed the Quadrantids for 1.8 hours from my yard on the morning of 2013 January 3, from 1228-1418UT. Temperature was a frigid 1.5F (-17C), and the sky was very clear without a hint of fog or haze. On the downside, the moon was shining off 2 feet of snow. I blocked the moon behind a spruce tree and accepted some obstruction from this tree and another tall tree in my field. Limiting magnitude was a steady 5.8.

Meteor activity was slow at the beginning of the watch, and picked up in fits and starts thereafter. I ended up seeing 58 Quadrantids and 13 other meteors. Mean Quadrantid magnitude was 1.5, while the sporadics averaged 2.5. Ten Quadrantids were in negative magnitudes, but none brighter than -3. Most of the brighter Quadrantids were yellowish, and only a few left wakes. One highlight: a spectacular magnitude +1 earthgrazing sporadic that was orange with a well-defined train. A -5 Iridium flare also gave me a start, as did occasional chattering noises from mystery creatures stirring in the dark.

Observer: Wesley Stone (STOWE)
Location: Chiloquin, OR (42d 35m N, 121d 52m W)
Method: Counting/Tape Recorder
Date: 2013 January 2-3

Interval 1: 1228-1322 UT
Teff: 0.888h
F: 1.11
LM: 5.82
Total Meteors: 28
QUA 23 [-2, -1(3), 0(4), +1(2), +2(3), +3(6), +4(4)]
Spo 3 [+1, +3(2)]

Interval 2: 1322-1418 UT
Teff: 0.916h
F: 1.11
LM: 5.78
Total Meteors: 43
QUA 35 [-3, -2(2), -1(3), 0(4), +1(7), +2(6), +3(9), +4(3)]
ANT 1 [+3}
COM 2 [+2(2)]
Spo 7 [+1, +2(3), +3, +4(2)]

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