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Seeing the Unseeable
Submitted: Tuesday, 10th April 2007 by Richard Brown

Seeing the unseeable; or how I occupied one moonlit, fuzzy evening

A couple of years back I used to take my then13 year old son to Blacksmiths Beach near Newcastle for a morning surf before school.  I would jog along the shore and he would surf until 7am, then back home and ready for the day.  A nice routine in summer. I remember seeing him one particular morning and shaking my head.  There he was at the shore, trying to catch a wave – but there was no wave.  Just a small ripple of a few inches tapping the sand.  But there he was.  Actually standing on his board and calling to me to acknowledge that he did indeed get propelled by those pathetic squirts of brine he had the imagination to call “surf”.

I underestimated my son’s love of the water and his absolute determination to have a surf – after all he had dragged himself out of bed to be at the beach early in the morning so he wasn’t going to go home empty handed.  Desperado is what such surfers are called.

Just tonight I realized that there is a bit of the desperado in me also.  Not for the waves but for the sky.  It is Monday 2nd April 2007.  The full moon (well it might as well be!) is pretending to be a shooter’s spotlight blinding all look its way and making me wince at the thought that I might hear a loud “crack” and find myself rabbited!  And there is a high, not so thin veil of ice clouds wafting so thick in places that the brightest stars fade to dull smears.  Either moon or cloud would make the hardiest ‘stronoma sigh and go back inside to watch The West Wing.  But not me.  No.  I want to see something. Anything will do. Moon’s too bright for normal retinas.  Saturn is very nice but, you know.  In fact why don’t I see just how faint an object I can actually see tonight.  Set myself a little challenge – you know like they say to do in the beginner’s books on observing.  So I switch on the computer and open Stellarium.  Hmmmm… moon’s in Virgo – let’s have a look and see what we can see in Virgo!

Outside on the cement slab (formerly the home of the lawn locker) stands my 10” LX200R just nodding through its final set – up dance.  It has a bipping conversation with some satellites, then swings away to the highest, neck – craiking star available for a confirmation.  Yes, Mr Meade, that’s Sirius alright – in fact it’s still there at the back of my eyelid as a nice afterimage for a good minute or two after I have moved the scope.  Thanks for that understatement of stellar light, Meade programmers.  Finally all set.  I  search for my  red torch and realize I can actually read my log book by the moonlight!   OK first cab off the rank….hmmm…how about I try some galaxies…. ah!  M104.  I push the buttons and the scope locks onto M104.  I look.  I see nothing. No, that’s not true.  I see fuzzy sky and bright luminous glow!  But no Sombrero.  No dusty line – just glare.  Right now my telescope is an eye – piercing 5 degrees from the moon. But wait!  I haven’t given up just yet!  I try a light pollution filter – nothing.  A moon filter – nothing.  I even try my $39.95 Cancer Council Polaroid’s – you just never know!  Nothing. Ok so it was a bit ambitious.

Alright then, let’s try Centaurus A, NGC 5128.  The scope swings – and – blow me down! I can see a faint ball of fuzz with a dark lane or even two!.  A 7th magnitude galaxy 31 degrees from the full moon with a layer of ice cloud in front of it that would hide Jack the Ripper.  BUT! It is there – the almost comical looking “hamburger” peers at me through the glare and cloud.  Not the best view I’ve had of it I must admit.  But there with detail just the same!  I am amazed.

Full of lunar (or is that lunatic?) energy now, I rush inside to make a celebratory cup of tea and glean some more targets from the computer!  Yes, galaxies are the go!  I harvest a pile and head back out to the moonlit slab.  I must say that the shadows of the wattle trees on the cement and my glistening white mug full of tea make for a jolly pleasant evening scene!  Sure beats fumbling in the dark for everything.  For a few moments I ponder a life as possibly the country’s only dedicated “Full Moon” amateur, if only for the very nice décor!  A sip of brew and back into the search. The galaxies results are as follows;

 Name   Mag.  Type   Distance from moon in deg Did I see it? 
 M104, Sombrero in Virgo   8.0  Spiral Galaxy   5  What do you think?
 Centaurus A  7.0  Irregular Galaxy   31  Yes! With dust lanes!
 IC 4296 in Centaurus   10.6  Galaxy   23  No
 NGC 3557 in Centaurus   10.4  Galaxy   39  Possibly – not sure – maybe – sort of – ish
 M95 in Leo   9.7  Spiral Galaxy   45  No

A few others I looked at really were totally covered by cloud so they don’t get a start.

Well, one definite sighting from the galaxies.  So what about globular clusters?

 Name   Mag.  Type   Distance from moon in deg  Did I see it?
 NGC 5286 in Centaurus   7.6  Globular Cluster   40  Yes.  Clear shape
 Omega centauri   3.7  Globular Cluster   36  Yes, of course!  Individual stars easily seen
 NGC 2808 in Carina   6.3  Globular Cluster   68  Yes, compact

The globulars seemed not to suffer as much from the moonlight as did the galaxies, understandably I suppose as they were resolvable stars.  They were also a bit further from the moon.

So, now with some deep sky fish in my bag, I went inside for a refill of tea and to collect a few planetary nebulae from the computer.  By the time I got back outside it was getting close to 10pm and the clouds were looking really serious to the south and west.  Only a few more minutes of really bad viewing and then there would be really non – viewing.  So off I went into the realm of PN’s.  And this is what I found among the full moon and the ice clouds;

 Name   Mag.  Type   Distance from moon in deg Seen?
 NGC 2867 (C90) in Carina   9.7  Planetary nebula (0.2 min)  64  Yes. Easily seen from background.  Definite disk.
 IC 2448 in Carina   12.0  Planetary nebula (0.1 min)  70  Yes.
 IC 2501 in Carina   11.3  Planetary nebula (0.4 min)  62  Unsure – maybe
 NGC 3918 in Centaurus   8.1  Planetary nebula (0.4 min)  48  Yes
 I 2553 in Carina   9.0  Planetary nebula (0.2 min)  61  Maybe

The clouds were now well and truly dominating the scene and my little moonlight effort was over.  It was close to 11 pm and time to pack all my bits and pieces away – I hate this part of it all.  But the night had been well worth it!  I proved to myself that, depending on the object, a full moon and/or poor skies due to high cloud need not spell a total waste of a night.  I imagine that without the cloud I would be able to see more detail and more objects.  Well up to a point at any rate.  My advice for a full moon deep sky session (did I actually just say that?) is this;  Forget about galaxies and enjoy the globulars and the planetary nebulae.  It is rather pretty to see Omega centauri “backlit” as it were.  And very rewarding to see a 12th magnitude planetary staring back at you when it is not really the accepted wisdom to see such a faint thing on such a pitiable night.  So now you have no excuse on moony, fuzzy nights.  They can be seen!  I have seen them!  And for my next effort, how about a rainy quasar?……


Observing Report by Richard Brown (bkm2304). Discuss this report on the IceInSpace Forum.


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