The Galaxies that Bloom in the Spring

I set up my telescope at a favorite spot in Emery County on Friday; the finder scope was attached and aimed accurately; the guide scope was firmly in place; I leveled, balanced and aligned the whole contraption. But a few minutes before midnight I noted in my journal, “I’m having a real April Fool of a night — the telescope is on M87 but I’m being tortured by the inability to focus well.”
Besides the focus problem, the region was cloudy. Shortly before I left home the National Weather Service prediction for a nearby town was “mostly clear,” but the cloud cover was so dense when I arrived that I called Cory and asked her to update the information. Getting on the Internet, she clicked on the NPS prediction and found it had changed to “partly cloudy.”
This was the first night I’d been out on an astronomy expedition in months and I was dismayed by the change in weather. Still, Utah weather is notoriously changeable. And somehow while I fiddled with the focus, the clouds evaporated and the night became calm, steady and dry. Without a moon to interfere, the view was a stunning dome of stars, the slanting Milky Way, and a planet or two.
Next the focusing cleared up. I can’t be certain which had been to blame for the bad focus, a thin layer of clouds blurring the image or the possibility that I had the mirror-lock mechanism clamped in the wrong position — maybe it was both. But after further adjustments the cardboard Mahtinov focusing mask I cut out last year was performing exactly as intended.
Suddenly another obstacle: the galaxy I was observing could not be M87, I decided, because its surrounding field didn’t seem to match what I expected. It must be M89, a nearby galaxy that is also a big elliptical. So I instructed the telescope’s internal computer that it was M89.
Then I couldn’t find anything. I would command the scope to swing over to one familiar skymark or another, but the object stubbornly would not show up in the finder scope. I made further guesses about galaxies that came into view, telling the telescope a spiral must be M90. The night was wearing on and my frustration was rising. Maybe I’d be forced to remove the main camera and the several cables that hung from equipment (so they would not be hitting the telescope when it swung around) and try to realign. That tedious chore would burn up more of the night.
But first I thought I would try syncing on stars that I could see. I told Baby, the telescope, to head over to Vega, which was low in the northeast. When it slewed close to it, I moved the instrument a short distance until the star was centered in the finder scope. I pressed “enter” twice on the hand controls, informing the telescope that wherever it had thought it was pointing, it was really aimed at Vega. Then I did the same for Spica, which was higher in the south-southeast, and farther from where it should have been in the finder.
Go to M87, I next ordered. The telescope slewed right to the first elliptical galaxy I had observed. When I made longer exposures, it became clear that it actually was M87. Earlier I had thrown it off by asserting M87 was something else.
The telescope now knew where it was pointing. The guider worked beautifully — it kept the image smack on target. Starting close to 1 a.m. I took views of M87, a set of galaxies called Copeland’s Septet, and a narrow bright galaxy known as NGC 4565.
This is how NGC 4565 looked when the telescope made it slide into view; I didn’t adjust the aim because Baby was on target and the galaxy was framed in such a pleasing way:

[The galaxy NGC 4565, which I photographed Saturday morning, April 2, 2011. Steve Crouch of Australia, and the Texas astronomer Terry Tuggle — both members of the SBIG Internet discussion group — helped me with the processing. For a larger view, click HERE. Click that view for an even larger one.]
NGC 4565 is nicknamed the Needle Galaxy for obvious reasons. It is a spiral seen almost edge-on, as if we were looking at a CD from the side. The nucleus is a large central bulge, like a cotton ball stuck in the CD’s hole, actually the busy middle of this island universe. Dark dust lanes extend through the sides and bisect the nucleus. Foreground stars of our own Milky Way shine brightly around it.
NASA’s Astronomy Picture of the Day for March 4, 2010, features this galaxy, noting that it is 40 million light-years away. It is a large, glorious color photo, posted HERE, which also shows some more distant galaxies.
I didn’t begin on the Needle Galaxy until 5 a.m. Saturday, and I kept shooting five-minute exposures. Venus rose about 6, looking like a distant headlight on the dirt road, soon bounding higher into the brightening sky. I kept shooting NGC 4565 until dawn washed out the view. There wasn’t time to use the color filters. But before the sky was too light I managed to capture eight usable five-minute exposures, and a “dark” image used to subtract camera defects. The final view I assembled is 40 minutes of luminosity.
It was a satisfying launch of what I hope will be a good, long season of astronomy.

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