by Dave Skitt, Observatory Chairperson
If you’ve been reading my emails lately, you know that Dr. Rex Parker, PhD, and I conducted a Keyholder training session on Sunday, March 8, 2020. We focused on the clubs’ expanding Electronically Assisted Astronomy (EAA) capabilities.
As a novice EAA imager, I thought the session went very well. All in attendance exclaimed how rapidly the new EAA technology was evolving and broadening the reach of what can be seen with relatively short exposures. Despite the nearly full moon, the images of M42 with the ZWO camera on the C14 and the Ultrastar camera on the cOrion ADA, 80mm outreach scope were nearly identical. The only difference were the exposure times: 5 seconds with the C14 versus 24 with the outreach scope.
After the session, I stayed behind to practice some more with the outreach scope/camera and iOptron AZM Pro mount. I decided to really test the limits and image some objects in the constellation between Virgo and Canes Virenatici.
Home of globular cluster, M53, the Black Eye galaxy (M64), the Coma Pinwheel galaxy (M99) and the Needle galaxy (NGC 4565), the constellation Coma Viranices (“Viranices Hair”) presents some fine challenges for EAA. I wanted to narrow down what camera settings would work best on this spread of objects.
I started my adventure on M53. But not before I synced the mount on Denebola in Leo and tweaked my focus on nearby Cor Caroli with a N95 focus mask. The AZMP mount got M53 dead on! The Ultrastars’ stacked 20 second exposures revealed it to be a “rather vivid and round nebula of sars”, just as Johann Bode had described it when he discovered it in 1775. Awesome!
Next up, M64. Not nearly dead on but toggling the flip mirror helped me center the fuzzy oval in the eyepiece. Flip back to the camera. Wow! Here, 30 second stacked exposures revealed M64s’ irregular shape, uneven brightness and cool texture. The dark “Black Eye” dust feature was stunning.
Since it was getting late, I decided to skip “the Pins” (M99) and go straight to “the Needle”, NGC 4565. This would be a good challenge to end the night.
Now the AZMP’s slews are quiet. Really quiet. So much so that I wasn’t sure that it had moved far enough to hit the Needle. Rushing in the cold, I typed in 14 days seconds in the exposure box and hit enter. What appeared on the screen took my breath away. I shivered.
Close up, the image looked like a comet. But when viewed six feet from the screen, it looked like a planetary nebula. Had I not cleared the image cache before slewing? Could it be both? I took a screenshot and texted it to Tom Swords, a passionate comet hunter. “That’s not a comet”, Tom replied.
I then texted the image to Dr. Parker along with the RA/DEC coordinates (16h 55m 33.86s/-41o 50’ 51.6”). His extensive background in astro-imaging lead him to believe I had stumbled upon some novel astronomical phenomena. He immediately called Dr. David Nyell at Central Management for Official Sightings and sent him the image and data.
Twenty-four hours later, Dr. D. Nyell replied. “We at CMOS can only state that the object observed at those coordinates is a presumptive positive sighting. The data will be forwarded to the Copernicus Celestial Discovery Center via their Hotline. Please refrain from additional observations until April 5th. At such time we will reassess our position”.
Early Tuesday morning, I received a frantic phone call from someone who identified herself as Vira Di’ Seaz. She exclaimed “the C-CD-C has confirmed that you have caught the CO-VID-EAA-19 virus, aka, the CoronEAA virus. Please self-quarantine yourself at the observatory for 14 days for further observation.”
“Fourteen Days? What do I do after 14 days?”, I blurted out.
After a short pause, Vira replied, “Well…, Corona Borealis will be higher in the sky by then. You could poke around there with your telescope until this whole thing blows over…”!
P.S.: The coordinates given above are for NGC 6231 located in Scorpius. It is labeled in Stellarium planetarium software as the “False Comet Nebula”.