Archive for March 2021

The Southern Cross by Commercial Airlines Pilot: James Yeager

March 29, 2021

Jim Yeager has always allowed me to use any of his aerial photos, which over the years have included, a beautiful photo of the Barringer Crater in New Mexico, covered with snow, and the Mount Potosi Observing Complex in SW Nevada. Both of which I’ve used in previous blog articles and other.

I really like the following image, as I’ve never seen the Southern Cross.

Jim’s notes and photo:

Here is somewhat of clear picture taken with an iPhone using a 3 second exposure on a descent out of 41,000 feet about 100 miles north of Lima, Peru.

You can see Alpha and Beta Centauri pointing to the Southern Cross.

The residual cockpit lights, moonlight behind us, and the haze of high altitude cirrus kept us from seeing the Magellanic Clouds.

Other aerial photos by Jim Yeager:

Incredible and Remote Private Observatory in the Mountains of Western North Carolina

March 23, 2021

I have seen many private observatories over the past 40 years (plus) as an amateur astronomer, but nothing to the level of this one. It has bedrooms, a darkroom (for the days of film) kitchen, living room, bathrooms, without stairs, but with a “handicap” ramp to the observing room on the second floor. Even some stained glass windows.

It is so hidden on top of a mountain that “seemingly” few living near the facility were/are aware of its existence. Deb and I found this amazing.

The owner of the observatory might want to keep it private, so, my reason for not sharing more information as to the location, but it’s only a little more than an hour from our house.

Deb and I were invited to come for this visit by the owner. When leaving, we were told to come back at any time, but for some reason, we’ve not been able to find our way back. Maybe this year?

When we drove around the last curve going up the mountain and saw the observatory, we both thought it looked like a small castle which might be found in Scotland or England. You decide…

The following photos were made on April 25, 1993. Roger Ivester

In the following picture:

Note the photo propped against the wall behind Debbie, which was a very renowned and famous photo of one section of the Veil Nebula which (at that time, and in the days of film astrophotography) was considered extraordinary. The Veil Nebula is a supernova remnant.

September 2020 OBSERVERS CHALLENGE _Veil Nebula

A highly viewed and studied deep-sky object by both amateur and professional astronomers alike.

The supernova photo was taken using a 6.3-inch Takahashi reflector. The primary telescope in the dome is a 7-inch Astro-Physics refractor, as pictured below.

iOptron CEM70 – Center Balanced Equatorial Mount: By Guest Host: Mario Motta

March 19, 2021

I was considering making a take-apart mount but finally realized I could not build one light enough with all the features I desire, so, I purchased an iOptron CEM70G mount. (guilt for an amateur telescope maker!)” Mario Motta

My story:

Up to this point I have always built my own equipment, such as my 32-inch f/6 reflector telescope in Gloucester, Massachusett, which is my main telescope for imaging, and in a dome attached to my house.

At the end of this year I will be retiring, and per my wife’s wishes will be spending winter months in Naples Florida at our second home. However, in my Florida location I can’t build a dome for a number of reasons. This is due to (hurricanes, building restrictions, etc.)

I was considering making a take apart mount but finally realized I could not build one light enough with all the features I desire, so, I purchased an iOptron CEM70G mount. (guilt for an amateur telescope maker!)

The head weighs only 30 pounds , tripod another 30 pounds, for a manageable weight, yet, tracks very well (3 arc sec error periodic error), is very sturdy, can carry a 70 pound weight load, so it can handle up to a 14-inch scope easily. It has a built-in polar scope alignment guide scope. It even has WiFi, and 4 USB ports. 

Why the center mount instead of a german equatorial or a fork? At 43º North latitude (my 32-inch sits in a handmade fork) or german equatorial which works fine.

Look at the following images as following, “German equatorial”and see that at 43º, the center point of gravity pushes through the main mount, and weight of scope and dec axles pushes down the polar axle, a fork also works the same way.

However…at 26º N latitude, the weight of the scope and counter weight is very far forward, putting all the stress on the forward polar bearing.

Not very stable: A fork overhangs badly.

Now let’s see what a center mount does:

At 43º North latitude, it works well, but all the thrust is on the rear bearing and a german equatorial may be best. Now see what it looks like at 26º N latitude. (see image center mount) Here the weight of the scope is directly over the center of the polar axis, the weight is evenly distributed on both bearings, thus can handle a heavier load with less stress, overall an ingenious design. In reality this is nothing new, what this is… is a miniature English “cross axle mount”.

I built one for a 16-inch scope in the 1980’s and it worked very well.  See the following photo following the M42 image:

In summary, if far north, fork or german equatorials are best, but if closer to the equator, a center mount or cross axle is best.

An Image of my new mount is attached, with a small 6-inch RC for test purposes. My plan is a 12 -14 inch on this mount. The following Image of M42 (test subject, not a long great image, but more of a proof of concept for location and mount. (this image was made unguided).

The English Cross-axle I built in 1985, with my older 16-inch f/4.5 home made telescope.

I’m proud to say: My current 32-inch f/6.5, and every part is hand-made

NGC 2685 – Galaxy In Ursa Major – March 2021- Observer’s Challenge Report # 146

March 18, 2021


Compiled by:

Roger Ivester, North Carolina


Sue French, New York

March 2021

Report #146

NGC 2685, Galaxy In Ursa Major

Sharing Observations and Bringing Amateur Astronomers Together


The purpose of the Observer’s Challenge is to encourage the pursuit of visual observing. It’s open to everyone who’s interested, and if you’re able to contribute notes and/or drawings, we’ll be happy to include them in our monthly summary. Visual astronomy depends on what’s seen through the eyepiece. Not only does it satisfy an innate curiosity, but it allows the visual observer to discover the beauty and the wonderment of the night sky. Before photography, all observations depended on what astronomers saw in the eyepiece, and how they recorded their observations. This was done through notes and drawings, and that’s the tradition we’re stressing in the Observer’s Challenge. And for folks with an interest in astrophotography, your digital images and notes are just as welcome. The hope is that you’ll read through these reports and become inspired to take more time at the eyepiece, study each object, and look for those subtle details that you might never have noticed before.

This month’s target

German astronomer Wilhelm Tempel discovered NGC 2685 in 1882 with an 11-inch refractor. Loosely translated, his discovery description reads: Good II-III; round; with a small star in the middle; stands 4′ south of a 10th-magnitude star. 

In the Hubble Atlas of the Galaxies, Allan Sandage states, “NGC 2685 is perhaps the most unusual galaxy in the Shapley-Ames catalogue.” While most astronomers would agree with this, there remain various opinions as to why. NGC 2685 is generally regarded as a polar ring galaxy wrapped in exterior hoops of gas and dust aligned nearly perpendicular to the plane of the galaxy’s lenticular disk. The rings may have been birthed by a merger and/or accretion event. A less touted viewpoint is that this galaxy is strongly warped, and the semblance of rings is merely the result of projection effects.

This perplexing galaxy lies roughly 50 million light-years away from us. As seen photographically, the unusual array of gas, dust, and resultant stars entwining the Helix gives rise to its name. The galaxy may also house a supermassive black hole. Sue French

The complete “final” March Observer’s Challenge report:

Mario Motta: Observer from Massachusetts

I managed to image the March object a few weeks ago, which was a good thing as the weather has been pretty bad since.

NGC 2685, taken with my 32-inch home-built f/6.5 telescope with ZWO ASI6200 camera, 3 hours imaging, using RGB and Lum filters. Processed in PixInsight. This is a very Interesting galaxy in that it is a “polar ring seyfert” galaxy, with one galaxy “spearing” directly into another spiral galaxy at right angles, causing intense new star formation, why the intense blue hue from new star bursting activity. It is 42 million LY away in Ursa Major. 

I have also attached NGC 660 for comparison, another polar ring galaxy which I have imaged, that shows the polar ring structure more distinctly for illustrative purposes.

Barry Yomtov: Observer from Massachusetts

For the first two months that I’ve participated in the Observer’s Challenge I’ve used a RASA 11 (which is an 11-inch Schmidt-Cassegrain) with great super-fast f/2.2 optics. A notched light pollution filter and an IR cut filter for imaging galaxies.

Unfortunately three weeks ago, my mount decided to get a mind of its own, so it’s now out for repair. Fortunately I still have my previous fast optics system:  A 9.25-inch Schmidt-Cassegrain with a Hyperstar lens providing f/2.3.  

The field of view between the two optics is roughly 15% larger for the 9.25/Hyperstar, which has only 71% of the light gathering as compared to the 11-inch RASA. The 9.25-inch does not have the custom notched frequency light pollution filter as that of the RASA.

This was also my first imaging experience with this combination of optics and the ZWO CMOS camera. 

What’s most or more important…imaging could still continue!

The following is my NGC 2685 image which was taken on March 9th 2021 which is a composite of 107 images at 30 second exposure’s, taken with a ZWO ASI183 pro-cooled color for a total exposure of 54 minutes.

My processed image was able to distinguish the helical bands which are perpendicular to the main galactic disk; as given the name Helix Galaxy. 

This image is about 40% cropped from the original, but the field of view still shows two smaller very faint edge-on galaxies to the SW of NGC 2685, which is about the four o’clock position in the image. That’s part of the fun of wide-field imaging during galaxy season…you never know how many other galaxies will show up.  

Roger Ivester: Observer from North Carolina

Date: February 3, 2021

Telescope: 10-inch reflector

Sketch Magnification: 114x

Field of View: 1/2º

Description: Small, fairly bright, elongated NE-SW, brighter bulged center with a stellar nucleus. I last observed this galaxy on March 11, 1996, from the same location and telescope with almost identical results.

From my 5.0 NELM suburban location, it is very easy to locate and see with the 10-inch, but with very little fine detail. The stellar nucleus required a magnification of 183x, and averted vision. It was my plan to observe this galaxy with my 6-inch reflector for a comparison. Hopefully, I can make this comparison next year.

Glenn Chaple: Observer from Massachusetts

This month’s Observer’s Challenge, NGC 2685, is a lenticular galaxy with a twist. It has a ring of stars, gas, and dust that runs perpendicular to the plane of the main galactic disk. Such rarities are known as polar ring galaxies. These cosmic oddities are likely a result as a collision or gravitational interaction between two galaxies, one of which is lenticular. The appearance of the whorls surrounding NGC 2685 give it the nick-name the “Helix Galaxy.”

Those with computer-controlled scopes will find NGC 2685 at coordinates RA 8h 55m 34.8s, Dec +58° 44’  03.9”. If you locate deep sky objects via the star-hop method, begin your search at the 3rd magnitude star Muscida (omicron [ο] Ursae Majoris), shown in upper right of Chart A. Aim your telescope midway between Muscida and 5th magnitude 17 Ursae Majoris (Chart B), and you should come across a pair of stars of magnitude 6 and 7 that are about a degree apart. Chart C shows the location of NGC 2685 between these two stars.

NGC 2685 was discovered by the German astronomer Wilhelm Tempel on August 18, 1882. Studies indicate a distance of around 40 million light years and a visual diameter of some 50,000 light years, about half that of the Milky Way.

Mike McCabe: Observer from Massachusetts

Having been presented with a crystal-clear night in early March, it seemed like a good idea to take a shot at observing the March Observer’s Challenge object. Yes, it was cold, and yes, it was breezy, but nights with transparency like that seen on the 6th only come around here a handful of times a year. And am I glad I did! This target needed that transparency to be seen well.

The area where NGC 2685 resides is an easy star hop from Muscida, the tip of the Great Bear’s nose. What’s not so easy is knowing that you’re in the right place at first glance. That field is DIM, and the galaxy is even dimmer. At low power there is just the vaguest hint of something aside an 11th magnitude star, but what it is is not immediately apparent.

Pushing the power up to 140x clarifies things quite a bit. It then became clear that I was definitely looking at a galaxy, which was obviously elongated and situated north-south along the long axis. Averted vision kept revealing a bright spot, but I couldn’t be sure if it was actual brightening towards the center of the galaxy or a star superimposed in front of it.

Doubling the power to 280x actually enhanced the nebulosity a little, but didn’t do much to resolve the question of core, or star? It wasn’t until I was warm and snug inside the house and on a computer that I was able to ascertain that what I was seeing was indeed brightening at the center of the galaxy. In the eyepiece of a scope with just 10-inches of aperture, the brighter core does indeed have what I’d call a “sharp edge” to it.

Aside from the observation of the target, the good transparency led to me being able to discern stars down to nearly 15th magnitude in the field of view, so that was fun. I even almost considered going for April’s target in Leo on this very clear night…almost, but then my scope and all my gear got up and went into the garage. It seems that they have more sense than me, when it comes to getting in out of the cold. 

James Dire: Observer from Illinois

NGC 2685, a.k.a the Helix Galaxy, is a small, faint galaxy in Ursa Major. The galaxy is located 11 degrees north of the wide, naked-eye double star Talitha (Kappa and Iota Ursae Majoris, magnitudes 3.57 and 3.14. respectively).  The galaxy is roughly 4.4 x 2.3 arc minutes in size and shines at magnitude 11.3. The galaxy is 52 million light years away and is classified as an S0 (Lenticular spiral galaxy).

The Helix Galaxy is dim and small. It doesn’t look like much in any telescope I have seen it.  It appears as an elongated smug with a brighter star-like core.  The galaxy is famous because it has a polar ring of material encircling it.  This is a ring of material perpendicular to the disk of the galaxy.  Most likely this ring was formed by a collision with another smaller galaxy, where the gravity of NGC 2685 ripped the smaller galaxy apart as it was captured in a polar orbit.  

I shot NGC 2685 this month with a William Optics 132mm f/7 Apo using a Televue 0.8x focal reducer/field flattener. My camera was an SBIG ST-4000XCM and the exposure was 60 minutes.  Despite the small telescope and short exposure, I was able to capture and resolve some of the polar ring.

The brightest stars in the image are SAO27026, magnitude 6.3, and SAO27056, magnitude 6.92.  The faintest stars in the image are below magnitude 18. There are about a half dozen other galaxies captured in the image that are very small and between 16th and 18th magnitude.

Joseph Rothchild: Observer from Massachusetts

I observed galaxy NGC 2685 in Ursa Major on March 9th under dark skies in Cape Cod.  I observed with my 10-inch dob.  I had not previously viewed this spiral galaxy.  It was easily found, appearing in a flattened triangle with a nearby star and double star. 

The double star points to the galaxy, which is small, compact, and spindle shaped, without any appreciable features.  It was best seen with a 14mm eyepiece at 111x.

Larry McHenry: Observer from Pennsylvania

NGC 2685 

Is a small +11.3 mag lenticular galaxy located in the spring constellation of Ursa Major – ‘The Great Bear’.

It is about 42 million light years distant, and about 50,000 light-years in size. Being only 31º from Polaris, the galaxy is circumpolar and above the horizon year-round for most observers. Deep images of NGC 2685 show that it is a polar ring Seyfert galaxy showing an outer ring of stars, gas & dust that may have been perturbed by another unidentified passing galaxy or possibly from the breakup and merging of a satellite companion pulled into the main galaxy. NGC 2685 is listed as Arp336 in Halton Arp’s “Atlas of Peculiar Galaxies”.

Visual Screen Sketch:      

03/02/2021 from Big Woodchuck Observatory backyard in Pittsburgh, PA.

Using an 8-inch SCT optical tube @ f6.3 on a GEM mount, with a CMOS/USB color camera and LP filter @ 30-second guided exposure live-stacked for 20 minutes. 

Visually, the galaxy is a small elongated spindle with a brighter bulge at its core and a star-like nucleus.


06/01/2016 from Cherry Springs State Park at the Cherry Springs Star Party, using an 8-inch SCT optical tube @ f/6.3 on a GEM mount, with an analog deep-sky video-camera & IR filter @ 35 seconds, unguided single exposure.

Venu Venugopal: Observer from Massachusetts

Attached is an image of the Helix galaxy I took from my backyard on March 20th 2021.

Scope: 72mm ED refractor with 45 minutes exposure, 10 second sub-exposures.

SharpCap live stacked.

Rony De Laet: Observer from Belgium

NGC 2685 lies so far away from any bright stars that my Telrad did not show any stars to aim at. I aimed at Muscida (omicron UMa) and started starhopping with my 32mm eyepiece and the guidance of the Stellarium+ app. At 60x NGC 2685 is a weak spot S of a mag 11 star. With each increasing magnification, the galaxy reveals more details. I got the best views at 280x with a CLS-filter and 400x without filter. At first sight, the galaxy is an elongated streak of light, brightening to the center. With time, more details become apparent. The nucleus appears stellar with averted vision. The core is quite compact and clearly elongated in the same position angle as the halo. It is my impression that just SE of the core, the spindle shaped halo appears suddenly brighter. A brighter arc of light appears next to the SE border of the core. A weird impression because the galaxy does not have any spiral arms? This might be an optical illusion caused by the sharp border of the SE core. The same phenomenon appears on the N edge of the core, but it is less prominent. The tips of the spindle shaped halo seem to bend both a bit counterclockwise before they fade away.

Site : Bekkevoort, Belgium (51° N)
Date : March 31, 2021
Time : around 20.30UT
Telescope : Taurus 16-inch reflector
FOV: 11.4’
Filter : with and without CLS
Seeing : 3/5
Transp. : 4/5
Sky brightness : 19.7 magnitudes per square arc second near zenith (SQM reading).
Sketch Orientation: N up, W right.
Digital sketch made with Corel Paint Shop Pro X2, based on a raw pencil sketch.

Richard Nugent: Observer from Massachusetts

This month’s object, NGC 2685, also known as the Helix Galaxy, glows at 11th magnitude and can be found in the constellation of Ursa Major. The galaxy has a reported surface brightness of 13.8, and with this type of object, a dark sky is preferred while using a telescope/eyepiece combination which yields an exit pupil of around 2mm. This object lies only 3.8 degrees away from Omicron Ursa Majoris, Muscida, the tip of the Great Bear’s nose. I enjoy star hopping to objects and from Muscida, I located magnitude 6.5, HD 73029. From there, I hop 2 degrees to magnitude 6.3, HD 75487. NGC 2685 lies midway between this star and slightly fainter HD76216. The galaxy is adjacent to an 11th magnitude star. 

During this era of the COVID pandemic, my observing has been restricted to my home in Framingham, (MA) where light pollution has reduced the NELM to about magnitude 4.8 under Bortle Class 7 skies. I was able to view the galaxy with 10- and 20-inch telescopes on nights of good transparency. 

Michael Covington is quoted as saying “All galaxies deserve to be stared at for a full 15 minutes.” and this wise advice should be kept in mind when observing this month’s object! Using the 10-inch, at first, I could see nothing at the galaxy’s location. But in time its ghostly light started to become visible.  The longer I observed the brighter the glow became. Tweaking the magnification to darken the background helps as does jiggling the telescope a bit. After about 20 minutes, the galaxy appeared as a small, faint, diffuse, oval-shaped glow which could be detected with direct vision and better with averted vision. The view through the 20-inch yielded a better view with the galaxy nicely apparent with direct vision. No hint of detail could be seen nor could the helix structure. 

Will I ever return to this faint fuzzy? Only if I can view it under darker sky conditions. Why should you observe this object? To gain an appreciation for your telescope’s capabilities and to become a better observer. 

How to Choose Your Telescope Magnification – Sky and Telescope Magazine: By Al Nagler

March 9, 2021

One of the best articles I’ve ever read concerning the calculation of everything involving telescope eyepieces.

I was fortunate to meet Al Nagler a few years ago. Such a nice guy….

Virgo Diamond: Faint Five Star Asterism: Repost

March 6, 2021

The Virgo Diamond – Faint Five Star Asterism

April 3, 2012

     Have you ever heard of the Virgo Diamond?  No…I’m not talking about the large group of stars, comprised of Cor Caroli, Denobola, Spica, and Arcturus, also called the Virgo Diamond.  I’m talking about a basically unknown and very tiny asterism in Virgo which makes a beautiful diamond shape, comprised of five faint stars.  If conditions are not good this asterism can be difficult, especially the faint companion of the western-most star.   

     When I first read about the Virgo Diamond back in 1993, I became immediately interested, and could hardly wait to see it for myself.   The Virgo Diamond seems to be as unknown today as it was back in 1993.  I know of only a very few amateurs who have observed this most intriguing deep-sky object.

     If you’re interested in learning more about this fascinating object, please continue reading, and you too might want to test your observing skills in an attempt to see all five stars of the “Virgo Diamond.”  

Virgo Diamond: In the December 1, 1991 Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society , Noah Brosch (Tel Aviv University, Israel) discusses his investigation of a newly discovered asterism in Virgo.  Five stars all appearing brighter than 13th magnitude, comprise a diamond shaped area with sides only 42 arc seconds long.  The probability is small that five stars with similar brightness could be so closely aligned by chance, and Brosch suggests that the stars of the diamond are physically associated.  The diamond is located at:  RA: 12:32.8   Dec: -0.7

Direct Source:  Sky and Telescope Magazine, May 1993, page 110

     My first observation of the Virgo Diamond came on the night of April 14th 1993.  I was using a 10-inch f/4.5 reflector at 190x which presented a faint grouping of four stars.  I was unable to see the fifth star.  The stars range in brightness from 10.9 to 13.7 in magnitude.  Please don’t underestimate this very faint asterism.  If conditions are not good, even the four primary stars can be difficult.  

     Since that night in 1993, I have observed this object many times, however, always seeing only the four primary stars.  However, this changed on the night of April 12th 2012.  The conditions were excellent, and using a 10-inch reflector, I saw the illusive fifth star at a magnification of 266x.  I could not hold the fifth companion star constantly, and averted vision was required.  Exciting to say the least….after all of my attempts over the years to see the fifth star.  

     It should be noted that excellent seeing and high magnification are essential for observing all components of the Virgo Diamond.  

The northern most star is TYC 4948-53-1 (Magnitude 10.9) The brightest and easiest of the diamond.  (RA  12h33m18.96s   Dec.  -00.38m32.3s) 

The western star (the double) is magnitude 12.1

The southern star is magnitude 13.7

The eastern star is magnitude 13.5

Tom English of North Carolina, using a 16-inch SCT described a fabulous view of all five stars using 194x and 387x.

Fred Rayworth of Las Vegas could see the fifth star using a 16-inch Reflector at 130x, but could not hold the faint companion constantly, even from the desert southwest.  

Sue French of New York could see the faint companion using both a 130-mm apochromatic refractor and a 10-inch reflector.  

Jaakko Saloranta of Finland, using an 8-inch reflector, under less than ideal conditions managed to see the elusive fifth star, despite a focuser that kept freezing up under extreme cold conditions.

The following is a pencil sketch from that special night of April 12th 2012, using only a No. 2 pencil on a blank 5 x 8 note card.  The colors were inverted using a scanner. 


The following image by James Dire of Hawaii.  “The image is a 20 second exposure.  Please note the streak below the diamond.  This is a geosynchronous satellite that I watched move from west to east across the field during multiple 20 second exposures.  I know it is a geosynchronous satellite because the Virgo Dimond is a few arch minutes below the celestial equator, the satellite was moving east with respect to the background stars, and the streak is 5 arc minutes long on the 20 second exposure.  Five arc minutes per 20 seconds translates to 360º (one orbit) in 24 hours.  This is my first geosynchronous satellite on an image.”  James Dire

Virgo Diamond 20s

The following image was taken by Don Olive of North Carolina from the Tzec Maun Observatory in Western Australia, using an Epsilon 180 mm corrected Newtonian.  


I’m hopeful that you will attempt the Virgo Diamond, and if you do, I feel certain it will become a favorite springtime object for you also.  Remember, it’s a tiny asterism, with very faint stars, so a good night and high magnification is a must.  

Good luck in your quest to see the Virgo Diamond…and the fifth and most difficult component.  

Roger Ivester

Edmund Scientific of Years Past

March 6, 2021


Edmund Scientific was the company that really fueled my interest in amateur astronomy. From the following books (pictured below) to my first serious telescope, an Edmund 4.25-inch f/10 reflector.   It came with a 25mm eyepiece, which was called a 1-inch in the advertisements, and also an adjustable Barlow, to vary the magnifications. 

The year…1976:

This following photo of my Edmund reflector is especially important to me.  Not only a picture of my telescope, but also the living room of an old rented house which was built in 1927, and took a fortune to heat.  However, the rent was really cheap, so it was affordable.  I was just getting started with my working career, and most all of my money was required for the essentials of life.   

 This telescope allowed me to see many of the Messier objects to a level I’d never seen before.  And at that time…

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