Friday night I went up to the Peak to catch-up on my H400 list. Having spent most of my March and April sessions on Herschel Sprints, and being clouded out in May, I was surprised to notice at how fast the sky had moved. I had many targets in UMa, Cvn, and Vir, but they are all setting soon after astronomical twilight. I used to never pay attention to the changing of the constellations, but now it’s of primary concern in my astronomical life planning.
This part of the list is dominated by elliptical galaxies, so many of which have the same description (stellar nucleus, glowing core), differing in their brightness, degree of elongation, and position angle. I try not to get bored with them, keeping in mind their vast distance, the wonder of light, and thinking of all the life which could be lurking in there. All the same, it was a delight to come across striking and unusual objects on the trail, along with quite a few lagniappes. All with 20” f5.25 reflector, 121x, 0.7°. Transparency was excellent but seeing was average; it was windy all night and at times my scope weathervanes while I was taking notes or checking my chart.
NGC 3998, 3982, plus 3990 & 3972, UMa: Four galaxies in FOV! 3998 was bright, with stellar nucleus, 3:2 NW-SE, diffuse faint halo. Just west of it is 3990, a small elliptical glow NW-SE. 3972 is further to the SW, a large, dim 4:1 elongation, NW-SE, AV needed to bring out the halo. 3982 to the far SW in the field, a little smaller than 3998, glowing round patch brighter in the middle.
NGC 4026, UMa: Bright round ball of a core with a long thin halo running N-S. Like a ball with a spear through it.
NGC 4631 plus 4627, Cvn: Wow! Huge, long and thin, running W-E. Brighter core lopsided to the E, a larger mass of core with a spiral arm spanning out edge on? Floating just above and to the SW of center is a small bright patch, NGC 4627, which might be orbiting 4631? [I found later it is a dwarf elliptical, called the “calf” next to the “whale” 4631].
NGC 4656 plus 4631, Cvn: Immediately saw as two galaxies, both with dim halos with flowing cores, and seem to be interacting [It seems this just might be one galaxies, with two bright components, but it is twisted]. The larger and brighter is 4656, running SW-NE, and 4631 is 4657. [Later I find this referred to the Hockey Stick. BTW 4631 was just out of the FOV to the N, I wonder if it is exerting some influence on 4656?]
NGC 4485 & 4490, Cvn: Wow! 4490 is larger, elliptical SSW-NNE, bright core and mottled halo—not spiral, rather clouded. 4485 is smaller, 3:1, N-S. There is the faintest of wisps coming from 4490 to 4485, suggesting interaction? [they are!]
NGC 4449, Cvn: A nice ragged, mottled mess! Some bright spots scattered in the halo [these are HII regions]. Glowing core, halo spreads to a fan shape to the S
NGC 4085 & 4088, UMa: 4085 is large, WNW-ESE, with a bright round bulge for a core that makes it look like a flying saucer. 4088 is to the NNE, a thin streak with a glowing core. Nice!’
NGC 4565, Com: Wow! Beautiful long edge on, 5:1, NNE-SSW. The bright core seems to float. The tips of the halo keep going to edge of FOV with AV! Seems to be a dark lane running along the eastern ridge of the halo.
For the ride home in the morning, I had the company of a cricket which had stowed away in my gear. I released it in my backyard upon arriving home, hopefully to keep me and my family company through the summer.
PS. The above was my original post to a local forum; what follows are other musings I had while writing the draft of the report, worth preserving here:
I have become more keenly aware of the passage of time, taking up astronomy. Phases of the moon, if we care to notice; most of us only track it to see when there will be a new moon so we can go out to observe. Usual milestones, kids finishing school, graduations, deaths of older family members. But in the stars: in March I waited until 2am for Coma Bern to pass meridian, standing atop the ladder to see it; now it was fast setting in the west, and to keep up with H400 I could observe standing and crouching.
How many small elliptical stellar nucleus can you take—and then wow! Interacting, edge on, something interesting. Moving well through the Virgo cluster then the wind moved my scope; when I looked after making a note I was lost. But what a place to be lost in! 7 galaxies in view! As if the universe said, forget looking at that, how about this? You try to remind yourself of how special it is, how many millions of light years it has traveled to reveal itself to you, you think of all the stars, planets, and even life that is there.
We see the plants change – rings of Saturn tilt up and down, if we watch long enough. Transits of Galilean moons, the red spot. Planets move closer or further apart. A large part of astronomy is to understand the motion of the universe – Kepler building on Brahe’s observations, Newton.
Astronomy reveals our transience to ourselves. In the time it has taken for the light of the Virgo galaxies to travel to us, the sun has taken dozens of laps around the milky way – if we could be timeless and observe the sky as it changes, we would see the stars flowing past; at times we plunge into a star cloud and others we are nearly flung out of the arm, giving us new perspectives on deep space and, looking down, on our own galaxy, seeing more of its face than we can see now, being caught in its disk. And those galaxies too spin, if we were able to see them as they are at this moment, omnipresent vision, some might still be spiral but they’d be unrecognizable to us. The interacting galaxies would have continued their dance into new and endlessly strange contortions.
For the ride home I had the company of a cricket which had stowed away in my gear. Or was that my heart trying to talk to me?
Later, 2:30am Virgo having gone too low for me to continue, I scanned the milky way which I had simply ignored up to then. I viewed many objects which I had seen for the first time less than a year ago; and was pleased to find them without referring to a chart. Trifid, M24, Lagoon. The swan nebula, which with the help of a OIII filter filled out and turned into the omega nebula. The ring, which showed more darkening and squashed roundness, but no central star. NA nebula. The veil, which was visible without filter but OIII really made it come out – traced it around, east, west, triangle. Andromeda clearing the trees to the east of the lot. Summer is coming!
The sky is a mirror; what am I in this immensity of time? What is my place? Do I reveal myself to me, looking at these objects and thinking of them?
“The stone is a mirror which works poorly. Nothing in it but dimness. Your dimness or its dimness, who's to say? In the hush your heart sounds like a black cricket.” Charles Simic, The World Doesn’t End