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01 October 2006

A new comet was discovered the following dawn very close to Saturn, and we came very close to it !! Slow progress for our observing speeds

This observation session proved eventful, atleast for Akarsh, if not for me. And moreover this was an eventful day in history of comet-world, as a new discovery was made by David Levy on the same day we were observing at dawn of Oct. 2nd. And the best part is that we were the closest to it, that is closest to the same field but couldn't hit the jackpot.

Our Schedule:

The regular three of us, Akarsh, Shashank and me left for Hosahalli late at around 4:30 PM at a time when it started raining torrentially in North Bangalore and the road was wet all the way until Dodballapur, around 40 km from here. I, despite having gone the previous day also, came along with us again, with only 1.5 hours of sleep inbetween the observing sessions!!! (see the next paragraph for more) As we neared Dodballapur, we had wet roads but no rain. At Dodballapur, when we got down from the bus, we saw terribly overcast skies except for a few blue patches here and there, with the bright, half-moon invisible! We boarded the Hosahalli bus at 6:30 PM
(strangely, it was not at all crowded this time) and as we went towards the valleys, we could see the moon and clouds scattering moonlight. The bus took a deviation towards another village, 4 km away from Hosahalli, and as it stopped, we could see Scorpius and Draco. Jupiter was just setting and one could see its diffuse light through the haze. We got off at Hosahalli School, and when we looked up, we were really surprised to see half-clear skies - however, drowned in moonlight. There were patchy clouds, which vanished by 8:00 PM.

The sky was clear till 11:00 PM after which haze set in and we could do no observation. At 1:00 PM, when the moon set, we were asleep. (It has been probably a coincidence, that clouds come when the moon is about to set. Same experience was with me just the previous night). We got up at 5:00 AM, only to see ABSOLUTELY CRYSTAL CLEAR SKIES, with insignificant patches of fog here and there as well as some slight light-pollution. The Winter Milky Way was good. Orion shone in all majesty. Several open clusters appeared as naked eye patches. Saturn had just risen...

Previous day:

Just a day before this observing session, I had gone with my friend Neetesh on Saturday expecting Akarsh and Shashank to arrive as originally decided there but after reaching there came to know that they both have got delayed with some work at the planetarium and cancelled the program. So only both of us had to stay back there. It was a partly clear night until the bright Moon was there, once it set the clouds and fog arrived in it's place always being there to play a spoil-sport! ! So I had just been waiting for it to clear and could sleep only from 1am to 2:30 am. Next day, Sunday, Akarsh and Shashank both of them were sure of going so I didn't want Akarsh to race further in his count of celestial objects observed if the skies would have been clear, so I was forced to go with no sleep ever since!! I mean I never got to sleep even in the day-time for even few minutes!!! But Sunday too the sky was much clearer than Saturday ONLY when a bright half-Moon was there and as soon as the bright Moon set, clouds and fog as usual like the previous day crept in. Nothing surprising about Mother Nature in teasing some dedicated observers. Common and happens. But in moments of sudden clearing both the days, we got some wonderful naked-eye views.

So coming back to the topic, here are the proceedings of the night:


Akarsh's observations :

This had been a "Silver Jubilee Observing Session" for Akarsh, as he crossed 250 (found by him) objects during this session, which is 25% of his 1000 objects goal. This time, he saw 8 new objects - 3 galaxies and 5 open clusters. The new ones were Fornax A, NGC 404 (Kissing the star Beta Andromedae), NGC 1326 (Near Fornax A). All objects except two galaxies in the Fornax region were seen in strongly half-moon lit skies!!!

Our observations :

We started looking for objects in bright Moon-light (which was interfering the entire sky irrespective of direction) instead of waiting for it to set and hence wasting that much time. This shows that it does not require really dark skies for observation and a dedicated astronomer need not be deterred by moon's phase or city lights!

The galaxies we observed include Fornax A, Andromeda Galaxy, M32, M110, Sculptor Galaxy, Triangulum Galaxy, The Phantom. True to its name, the Phantom (M74) was practically invisible in the moonlight. One could see the hazy patch, but there was no distinct boundary at all! The highlight was NGC 6946 "Fireworks Galaxy" in Cepheus which I, at the extreme limit of my visibility could detect vaguely the super-faint face on spiral, and I showed it to Akarsh too which he could not detect without some imagination! The position predicted by me was EXACT as verified by software. This was one of the most insane and faintest/toughest objects 'felt' by me until now because it is a large face-on faint galaxy!! Very very faint and very low surface brightness, and this was especially rendered as invisible because of the strong half-Moon light. So obviously I wont prefer to count this new addition to my list, very unfortunately! Open Clusters observed include some very nice ones like the NGC 7243 in Lacerta, NGC 6910 near Sadr in Cygnus etc.

Objects included the two faint objects M56 and M71, and also M27 (Dumbbell). M57 (Ring) and few other objects. Tried also for Barnard comet both the days in the strong interfering light and I was so close to it both times that you can say I was literally looking over it! But it's faded too much now, not easy for a 8". So this is bidding a last farewell to Barnard because it's going to be tough to see it the next time, it'll have further faded. 120 years long-wait now till it returns next!! Could not attempt Comet Faye again.

Our count (The race & competition involved):

My observing speed and progress has been pathetic in the last few times, with no more than only a couple of objects being spotted. This day was eventful for Akarsh and Shashank but it was a real pathetic halt to me, both of them progressed with new objects this time but both my consecutive days I couldn't do just anything than stare at their efforts and luck!! From around 240 objects I had just moved to 242 during past 2-3 observing sessions!! that too both open clusters, ONLY. I really need to improve better and faster. All can be blamed on the unpredictable and torturing weather conditions, and this horrifying pity-less treatment by Mother Nature.

We're VERY obsessed with increasing our counts to the maximum possible that's why we are SO much after it.

Shashank has now hit a mark of 112 objects (found by him) and I am at 242-243. Currently Akarsh is leading the race between both of us (him and me), he's overtaken me by just a dozen objects, which I hope to cover up in the next 2-3 clear observing sessions. It's always a close race between both of us, and he has taken the lead so he always possesses that cutting edge over me! He's just over 250 or so, with most of his count including open clusters. If I lay my hands on many open clusters, I'm sure I can shoot much ahead from the current count of ONLY 30.

Akarsh's really expecting to increase our count to 400 but I'm hoping for the number 500 and odd, before next year's monsoons, that is during this whole winter observing season. This is what he has to say "We are all facing slow progress otherwise, of about 100 objects per "effective" year of observation. .. I guess open clusters should help us boost our speed. Besides, we are going closer and closer to the limits of our telescopes' capabilities (8-inch with which almost all of our observations have been done), so progress will become exponentially slower...."

After all weather has been the most responsible factor for the deterioration of our speeds.

About Comet-Levy (The new discovery on the very day):

Hundreds of observers and comet-hunters throughout the world observing the ringed planet on the dawn of October 2, missed discovering this and getting it named it for themselves, except the veteran David Levy, finally it was ONLY his experience and luck to nail it down. In a foreign comet yahoo-group, the noted and experienced comet-hunter and discoverer Don Maccholz also says that he missed this object quite a few times during his dawn comet-hunting sessions.

This was in such a fantastic and easy position this day, that it was in the field of Saturn in a wide-field telescope!! (look below for the finder chart) We too just had a quick glance at Saturn not knowing we'll be missing the biggest opportunity of our life. We would have never ever imagined the importance of observing Saturn and giving a detailed look near it as we were totally unaware of the new celestial visitor lurking close to it. How could we have ever thought? Well, this is the best and nearest chance lost for having it being named as Comet Amar!!!

Finder chart for Comet Levy during it's discovery position:

This is the discovery position of the latest Comet Levy in the same field of Saturn!! The bright yellow circle is Saturn and the object at the left is the new Comet Levy just a degree away.