Last week I promised to write about the flashlight at night as a metaphor for stargazing techniques — and I'll get to that in due time. But first I want to write about my observing session last weekend.
The forecast for Saturday night was good, so I made the long drive to my country home just to get in five or six hours of stargazing between the end of dusk and moonrise. I obviously wanted to look for Comet Hartley 2, which I did. (See my brief observing report.) But I also wanted to get to my deep-sky bread and butter; Sue French's Deep-Sky Wonders columns. Due to vagaries of weather and schedule, I hadn't done either the October or November 2010 column yet, and I also had an old one (September 2006) to catch up on.
Can a little 3-page column really keep a deep-sky observer busy for hours with a pretty big telescope at a fairly dark site? You bet it can — and then some!
First of all, Sue has a gift for finding fascinating, oddball objects that don't make most people's regular observing lists. I'd never seen either NGC 7281 or 7261 before, and as Sue says, they turn out to be connected by a charming (though totally accidental) chain of stars, which she calls the Dit-Dit-Dit asterism. And I'd never even contemplated observing the interesting planetary nebula Minkowski 2-51. That one took me a bit of work.
But the real payoff came when I hit IC 1396, the huge star cluster and nebula in Cepheus. I'd made several forays into this object before, but Sue's guidance gave me that critical little nudge to get to the next deeper layer of understanding of this vast, difficult, enigmatic object.
This was the first time I'd tracked down the dark Elephant Trunk Nebula, IC 1396A, which is a favorite subject for astrophotographers but challenging to pick out through the eyepiece of a telescope. And it was certainly the first time I'd though to look for Struve double stars or dark Barnard nebulae inside IC 1396.
And then, to cap it all, what Sue describes as "the little-known planetary nebula Preite-Martinez 1-333." Little-known indeed! Where does Sue find stuff like this? How many people besides her have ever viewed it through a telescope? Not many, I bet.
It was also a vindication of the hard work I'd put into labeling the photo shown above. It took some serious effort to pinpoint the location of PM 1-333, but sure enough, there it was. "Faintly visible with averted vision, but a narrowband filter makes it fairly easy," just as Sue said.
I'm not done with IC 1396, mind you — not by a long shot. Like the Great Orion Nebula, this is an object to last a lifetime. Next time, I think, I'll revisit it with a smaller telescope, something that can fit the whole nebula in one field of view, like my 4-inch refractor or the 4.5-inch StarBlast.