A Mountain Meditation, September 2013, Mel Bartels and Jerry Oltion

The sunset is a fiery glow behind Fairview Peak lookout tower to the west, colors muted by the clear air. Earth's shadow is ready for her entrance as a pink band rising above the east. The wind has stopped, the nearby pair of eagles quiet. The Earth, poised momentarily on a precipice, begins its plunge into evening twilight. The eagles fly by us, screaming to each other. Jerry Oltion, having set up his 20 inch telescope, and I are ready for the promise of an exceptionally clear, transparent night.

Here you can see that while Bohemia Mtn/Fairview Peak is relatively close to town, it is in very dark skies with the big light pollution to the north and northwest.

Sunset looking over Fairview Peak Lookout Tower

An eagle

We're at a large gravel spot on the side of the road at about 5,000 feet elevation just short of Bohemia Mountain and the ghost town of Bohemia City. We enjoy spectacular views, steep hillsides, and remnants of mining activities from a hundred years ago on the drive up.
Between us we have 60 years of observing experience. Jerry's a bit of a black box observer, while I'm more of a white box observer. Jerry saunters opportunistically from object to object while I come prepared with my list of dark nebulae, having studied them to death ahead of time.

Per Jerry's black box style, we start with the M13, NGC6207, IC4617 grouping. IC4617 is surprisingly easy, auguring for a spectacular night ahead of us. Jerry wants to see the planetary nebula Pease 1 in the globular cluster M15, so we head over to take a look. The planetary looks like a distinct non-stellar green blob. Since we are looking at grand globular clusters, I suggested the under appreciated M55 just off the southern horizon. Next to it is the faint but resolvable Arp 2 globular.

Jerry then aims at Hoag's Object, a ring galaxy. We could see the ring about 20% of the time with an eyepiece yielding a 4mm exit pupil. Later in researching the galaxy post-observation, I was surprised to read that this is object is considered quite difficult with much larger aperture telescopes. Our observation supports the idea that transparency or clarity of the night matters more than aperture.
Compare to a Hubble Space Telescope image

We checked out the pink Garnet Star that serves as a pointer to the IC 1396 area. It is very bright in a large scope; some defocusing helps with the dazzling light.

It is time to go white box and dive into my list of 11 dark nebulae: Barnards 151, 153, 154, 157, 165, 166, 167, 360, 364, 367 and Vdb 142 - the Elephant's Trunk. I've sketched about 170 dark nebulae so this list was not exactly show stopper quality, but there was one highlight, the Elephant's Trunk. We spent quite a bit of time, observing with different powers and deep sky filters, increasing our ability to see the trunk. We concluded that the object is best see at 4mm exit pupil with an OIII filter, though a nebula filter also helps. As we took turns observing we saw more and more of the object until at least in my mind, I found it to be an exquisitely subtle and beautiful object with the dusky curved boundaries. The whole area, IC 1396, is worth several nights of observing. All of the dark nebulae on my list were in the immediate area. Though it took time, we managed to track them all down, identify them, and describe their shapes and opacity. It may seem at first blush that dark nebulae are not very interesting, but that's not the case. A hundred years ago astronomers hotly debated whether they were empty regions between stars or some sort of obscuring clouds. Today we know that they are clouds of dust. Along with the dark dust come all sorts of interesting Milky Way objects including globular and open clusters and emission nebulae. I find the views compelling. For example, think of the HorseHead Nebula.

For more see my sketches of dark nebulae here.

Finder chart for IC1396, from an image capture of Sky Safari Pro running on a Nexus 7 Android tablet

The Elephant's Trunk, 20 inch at 4mm exit pupil with OIII filter

When I can see the Milky Way painted on the dome of the night sky, I know it is a good night. When the Milky Way billows out like clouds then it is a superb night. Tonight the Milky Way billows with great contrast at the edges. The Gegenshein, backscattering light from solar system's dust, is nicely visible as a several degree glow just to the east-northeast of Capricornus. Jerry used Sky Safari on his iPad to calculate the exact anti-solar point, commanding Sky Safari to point there. Exactly where we saw it in the sky! Later as the night turned to early morning hours, we could trace the Zodiacal Light from the eastern horizon rising at a slant, reaching out and touching the Gegenshein; a sign of near perfect observing conditions. Two-thirds of a state away we could see the light dome of Portland as a two degree smudge of light peeking above the perfect northern horizon - amazing. The light glow of Eugene and the Willamette Valley was hidden behind Fairview Peak to the northwest. Consequently the dark sky and stars stretched from horizon to horizon, giving us a sensation of traveling on spaceship Earth.

Gegenshein to the northeast (left) of Capricornus with the Milky Way to the northwest (right)

We jumped into Galaxy Cluster land, visiting the Perseus Cluster of Galaxies (Abell 426) located 250 million light years distant. This cluster is part of the Perseus-Pisces super cluster of galaxies which consist of thousands of galaxies. Anchored by the monstrous NGC 1275 and 1273, many dozens of galaxies glowed faintly in the eyepiece. We traced the cluster's arms for several fields of view. The cluster betrays the dark matter that it is embedded in, shaped by the baryonic oscillation that occurred 380,000 years into the Universe's start when photons suddenly were able to travel with little interaction as electrons and protons formed neutral hydrogen atoms. This release of photons caused baryons or matter to suddenly compress generating the equivalent of acoustical waves in the early Universe. These waves, 400-500 million light years across now, can be traced by galaxy clusters like the Perseus-Pisces Super Cluster.

Jerry found another favorite cluster, NGC 7619-7626, the Pegasus I cluster, also a part of the Perseus-Pisces super cluster, this cluster located about 180 million light years away. We enjoyed four prominent galaxies along with fainter ones. NGC 7479 was a nice barred-spiral in Pegasus that we could see one arm more prominently than the other. We looked at two edge-on spirals (NGCs 7332 and 7339) in Pegasus that orbit each other and are at right angles to each other. We also saw detail in the Sculptor Dwarf Galaxy, just above the southern horizon.

We also checked out the Andromeda galaxy with both dust lanes especially visible. I busied myself counting stars in the Pleiades with the unaided-eye. I reached 19, my record being 23. Nebulae filled the telescope's field of view.

With the occasional screech of the Eagles, we decided to call it a night at 2:30am, running on adrenalin and excitement, not noticing the tiredness until we were well down the mountain.