California Nebula and the return of Orion

Posted by XTSee on 25th October , 2008

With clear skies gradually returning now that the colder evenings of autumn are upon us I have been enjoying the views of the heavens while walking my trusty dog Ben on the public footpath in fields at the back of our house. For stargazing I suppose I’m lucky that I can be out in the complete darkness of the fields in just 2 minutes. While he chases out rabbits I crane my neck upwards to look at the Milky Way, and Ben wonders why I’m walking so slowly, then impatiently stops and runs back as if to say “What have you found?“.

It is now nearly a full year since I first got my Orion Skyquest XT10i newtonian reflector and I have learnt a good deal about astronomy, and come to appreciate the splendour of the universe even more. A year ago I had not really “seen” the Milky Way properly. Of course I knew it was there, but I suppose I never really understood which constellations it passes through, and generally mistook what I was seeing for very light haze or cloud. Now when the sky is clear and bright enough I can easily make out its shape as it passes overhead through Cygnus and Cassiopeia. I think its fascinating that we are inside this galaxy looking outwards through its spiralling arms into deep space, and that there are so many millions of stars in our own galaxy, that they just look like a misty haze!

Last night while looking through the telescope my wife came out to me and for just the second time since getting my scope she looked through it and was amazed at the beauty of the Pleiades and then the double-cluster between Perseus and Cassiopeia, saying “My god, there’s thousands of stars!“, two sights I knew would be dead quick to locate and show her before she got too cold or bored. She seemed truly astounded.

My mission last night was to try and see the California Nebula, recommended in the October edition of Sky at Night magazine. Big, red and shaped like a foot, NGC1499 next to Xi Persei and 12 degrees north of the Pleiades is named after the USA state it is supposed to look like. Apparently from a dark site it is possible to see this quite large nebula (think 3 Moons long) as a misty patch with your eyes, and with binoculars, or with a low-power eyepiece in the telescope (use low-power otherwise you’ll be looking straight through it, rather than at it). Well try as I might I just could not see it. My eyes were quite well dark adapted, and I tried to see California with my 20×80 binos and with my 38mm SWA eyepiece, and even using my recently purchased Baader UHC-S Filter with my Hyperion 13mm and 25mm Plossl. I tried for a good half-hour to make out what I thought should be a fairly obvious night-time feature, but to no avail. In comparison I was pleased to be able to make out M37 tonight, the dimmest of the clusters in Auriga, and one I was unable to see on a previous occasion when there was a full Moon. Oh well, you win some, you lose some! I suppose my backyard is simply not dark enough?

Have you been able to see the California Nebula? - Did you find it difficult?

To make up for the disappointment of not seeing NGC1499, I focused on the Andromeda galaxy, and took in its huge size, and pondered on the possibility of a little planet somewhere in the Andromeda galaxy with some guy looking up and out towards their nearest neighbour called The Milky Way. A theoretical “dopple-ganger”!

At about 1.00am I noticed that Orion was rising above the house behind ours, and I watched patiently for my first chance this autumn to view the great Orion Nebula. As it came into view and I focused carefully to get the best image I was transported back in time a year to the very first night, my “first light” when after I had finished building my scope I eagerly took it outside and lined it up on Orion.

Welcome back Orion.

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