in West Virginia last night.
(Originally posted on the Howard Astronomical League’s newsgroup May 7, 2007)
The Milky Way wasn’t very visible, as
it is low in the sky to the West this time of year, but I could see
the “marble” in binoculars. I went out to my uncle’s hayfield,
braving the smell of freshly-scattered fertilizer, to avoid the two
streetlights at my parents’ house 3 miles north of Moorefield, WV on
US 220 (nearest clear sky clock: Mountain Meadows) in the green
(rural-suburban transition) zone of the Bortle scale. Moorefield’s
lights were visible to the south, and when my eyes adjusted, I could
still see faint glow all around the horizon despite being away from
I observed for an hour and a half (9pm till 10:30pm) last night [May 6].
Directly overhead, Coma Berenices was clearly visible to the naked
eye, normally at best faint haze in Bowie, and really a binocular
object there. I showed it to my sister, who thought it looked like
the letter “N”. I also told her the story of Bernice’s Hair–that
Queen Bernice cut her hair off to give it to Zeus as an offering and
left it in the temple. The next day, the hair was gone and she was
upset that it had been stolen. Not wanting there to be commotion
over the matter, her sycophants told her that Zeus himself accepted
the offering and put it in the sky, and showed her what was then
considered to be part of Leo, particularly, the puffy tail of the
lion. She apparently believed it was her hair and of course,
eventually the IAU made it an official constellation. It is
actually an open star cluster.
In addition, the Beehive (M44 in Cancer) was an easy naked eye
object. Again at best in Bowie, it’s faint haze I’m not sure is
real or imagined. Here, I saw it clearly, wondered what it was,
looked in binoculars, and recognized it then–I saw M44 before I
picked out fainter Cancer!
In binoculars (20×80), several medium to difficult galaxies should
be classified as “Easy” in West Virginia–M51 was easier to find
than the pattern of stars I usually use to find M51 from Bowie. I
could see its satelite galaxy easily, as well as the wisp connecting
the two. Even at Alpha Ridge in my telescope, I need to photograph
it to detect the satelite and the connecting wisp.
M81-M82 was both easy to see and easy to find in WV–look at the
bowl of the Big Dipper, form a diagonal line with the two bowl stars
making the handle connection and the bottom of the bowl diagonally
across from the handle, and continue in that direction for about the
same distance as the length of that diagonal, and land on a star
that’s naked eye in WV, the only one in that position. Point the
binoculars there and M81 and M82 are definite ovals sharing the
field of view with the star, and I thought I saw some of the spiral
structure of M81 too.
Then, M104, the Sombrero, still didn’t look like a Sombrero in WV,
but it was very easy to see in binoculars. Find Corvus, the oddly-
shaped square crow, to the south under Spica. The top left star is
a double star (naked eye optical double in WV). Continue away from
Corvus following the diagonal of the sqaure formed by that double
and the opposite corner (the “beak” of the crow, I think) and pass
by three stars that look like a smile and then three more straight
stars that point down-left at the galaxy. A bright oval in
binoculars in WV.
Other Messier objects were more brilliant than back in Bowie–M13,
the great Hercules cluster, as well as M35, M36, M37, and M38 in
Gemini and Auriga, despite the fact that both constellations were
It’s nice to see the full little dipper–can’t do that in Bowie.
Even the colors of the different stars of the little dipper are
apparent. My sister found Corvus easily, but she thought it was the
It’s also good to see Corona Borealis as a steady, obvious
constellation, unlike in Bowie where I see Arcturus, deduce the
position of Corona Borealis from that, then stare and see how many
stars of the crown are visible that night, often the answer being
one or even none. Same with Bootes.
Toward the end I saw Lyra rising–well, Vega first, and later the
dimmer stars popped out. That means Summer is coming and the Summer
Triangle (and the Summer Milky Way which goes through it) are on the
way. Sure enough, in binoculars, the sky was marbled near the
horizon in the northeast. The Milky Way is coming back.
Speaking of my sister, she only joined me for 5 minutes, it being
too cold and smelly in the field for her. She came at the end of my
session–I admit I ended at 10:30 largely because she turned on the
user-controlled streetlight installed near that field. When I
returned to my parents’ house, my mom said she turned it on for my
benefit, worrying about me being out there in the dark! Sometime I’ll
tell her how astronomers prefer it to be dark.
I did plot the naked-eye stars of the big dipper (not the whole Ursa
Major), so when I return to Bowie on or about Thursday, I can
compare with Starry Night and estimate the limiting magnitude
(probably limited by my eyes as much as by the sky!). [edit: I plotted
stars down to magnitude 5.53].
Mizar and Alcor in the middle of the handle of the Big Dipper were
visible as separate stars, but not easily.
The really bright galaxies–M31 and M33–were on or below the
[Edit--a lot of globulars were clear in binoculars too--M4, M80, M14, M10, M12, M92, M22. In Bowie, M80 is nearly invisible, and M92 is faint.]