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Out There

Milky Way from Fremont Peak

Mark Wagner


“Now let's jump far outside to a galaxy that looks much like our own ....”


NGC7008 in Cygnus sketched by Mark Birkmann, 408X through 40-inch Newtonian with Orion Ultrablock filter

NGC7293, the Helix Nebula in Aquarius. sketched by Bill Ferris, 63x through 10-inch Newtonian with O-III filter.

NGC7331 in Pegasus, sketched by Mark Birkmann, 30-inch Newtonian


This month's new moon is the last for summer 2002. Night time temps are already heading lower and fall's crisp evenings are on approach. Take this opportunity to visit one of the higher local dark sky sites while weather conditions make them attractive.

Fremont Peak State Park is the venerable observing heart of amateur astronomy in the greater South San Francisco Bay Area, and beyond. The "Peak" is a beautiful setting for our hobby. Enjoy a picnic or BBQ dinner under old oaks while enjoying the spectacular sunsets over a coastline spanning from Santa Cruz to Monterey bay. If the fog is in over the coastal plain the effect is surreal, and what a treat you'll be in for when night brings out mag 6+ skies! At 2,600 feet, the Peak is one of the higher local perches from which to observe.

There are several spots ... the southwest lot, just below the Peak trail, along Coulter Row, or if you are an FPOA member up by the observatory (check with FPOA for current access rules). Each location has its own unique attributes. And as an added bonus, if the observatory is open you can enjoy views through the 30" Newtonian "Challenger." Even the 11 mile drive up San Juan Canyon Road out of San Juan Bautista is worth the trip ... a beautiful drive to an island of amateur astronomy, less than an hour south of San Jose!

This month's deep sky targets sit between right ascension 21 and 23, placed comfortably rising in the east for two hours after astronomical dark on new moon (September 6).

Start with the interesting planetary nebula NGC7027 in Cygnus. This is a bright object at mag 8.5 and only 3600 light years distant. My notes describe it as an "easy target close to two bright stars E of Deneb. Fuzzy at 70x. At 195x the planetary begins to show elongation and its bi-lobed shape. At 350x it is clearly bi-lobed and a gray-green. The west end is a bit larger and notably brighter. A star may be embedded in the extreme western end."

While you are near NGC7027, if you are under dark skies pop in an Ultra High Contrast (UHC) filter and lowest power eyepiece for a cruise along NGC7000, the North American Nebula, and perhaps if you're lucky the Pelican Nebula as well.

NGC7008 is a mag 13.0 planetary nebula. This one is barely in Cygnus, but is a remarkable object worth hunting down. Use Deneb (Alpha Cygni) and Alpha Cephei (Alderamin) as the guide stars. At 170X using an Orion Ultrablock filter the object appeared annular and elongated slightly NNE-SSW. A very bright knot was on the northern edge with a pair of stars almost touching the southern edge. This is a great target for dark skies and more magnification!

NGC7092 is better known as M39. This is a dazzling open cluster. Its 35' diameter nearly fills the field of view in my 20 Nagler. I called it a "poor-man's M45" in my notes. This one is easy to see in a modest finder 9 degrees east northeast of Deneb. Look at two more open clusters in the immediate area while visiting M39. NGC7067 is a small rich cluster less then one and a half degrees southwest of M39. Some literature refers to nebulosity around this object, can you detect any? Finally head just over one degree southeast from NGC7067 to NGC7082, an open cluster nearly as large as M39, and bright, but scattered - somewhat of a poor cluster, but offering you some variety and gives a better appreciation of the big Messier nearby.

You may be surprised to learn that the next object is visible even from Houge Park on a good (moonless) night! NGC7293 is nearly the size of the full moon. Better known as the Helix Nebula, this object was for decades described as a challenge object for amateur astronomers. With today's larger apertures and specialty filters such as a UHC, getting good views of the Helix has become trivial. This is the closest and largest (apparent size) planetary nebula in our skies and the view can be stunning. On good nights you can detect what appears as two rings, one overlaying the other, giving an impression of the helical structure for which the object is named. To find this, a good bet is to start with a binocular - the low surface brightness of the Helix shows up much more readily in a 7x or 10x binocular than it does with higher magnification in an unfiltered telescope.

So far all objects have been part of our home Milky Way galaxy. Now let's jump far outside to a galaxy that looks much like our own, NGC7331 in Pegasus. I use it as a target to gauge transparency from home near Houge Park in my 8" and 10" telescopes. If I can detect NGC7331 easily, I am in for a good night! NGC7331 is bright, pretty large, very elongated and nearly edge on. Maybe you can see some dust lanes. All this from our vantage point only 48 million light years away! Several other challenging galaxies dot the neighborhood and make good dark sky targets - NGC7335, 7340 and 7337 form a triangle east of NGC7331 and in the same field of view. Move 30 minutes south-southwest of 7331 and check out Stephan's Quintet. This small interacting group of galaxies can be detected in small apertures, but to get all five members you will need high magnification and dark, dark transparent skies.

When the fog comes in around Fremont Peak, there is no rival in the bay area. Steadiness, transparency, dark skies - the Peak has it all. It is the right type of place for a deep sky observer to hunt quarry such as Stephan's Quintet or to pluck out the fine details of the Helix or NGC7027. I hope you get out there while the weather permits. Enjoy that sunset over the fog-covered Pacific and the friendship you'll find sharing views with other observers you'll find at Fremont Peak.

Mark Wagner


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