The Backyard Legion

Jack Kramer

Probably all of us have gotten up well before dawn on a clear, dark, cold morning to take the dog out or get the newspaper. Or perhaps that's normally when you head off to work. Everything's darker at that hour because a lot of the ground illumination that plagues us in the evening has been turned off. Have you looked up at the sky and marveled how bright the stars appear? Have you longed for the time and/or gumption to set up a telescope and take a look around? On a morning in late October, I got up wide awake at 5:00 a.m. and decided to act on impulse. As an added incentive, it happened to be around the peak of the Orionid meteor shower, which is a remnant of Comet Halley. I did see some bright, fast meteors, but judging by their radiants, most did not appear to be Orionids. There's a certain urgency observing at this hour - the dawn will soon put an end to your sky wandering. I set up the copyscope and checked out some of the usual "hot spots": M42 in Orion, M35 in Gemini, and the "Christmas Tree" Cluster (NGC 2264) in Monoceros. With Taurus high overhead, the Crab Nebula (M1) seemed like a worthy target. To my surprise, it was fairly easy without a nebula filter even in this small scope! Leo was well up in the east, so maybe some galaxy hunting was in order. But the bright background through the telescope indicated that the Sun was beginning to make its presence felt. Looking overhead, it was still fairly dark. Without paying attention to any particular constellation, I noticed an enticing string of faint stars. Exploring this with the scope revealed a loose cluster of stars nearby. Taking in the naked eye view, I found myself aimed at the heart of Auriga. I hadn't stumbled across a true cluster, but just an asterism near the center of the "Flaming Star" Nebula (I.C.405). Of course, it wasn't possible to detect any of this nebulosity under the present conditions. But there were lots of true clusters around; this is a rich part of the winter Milky Way. This is the way a lot of newcomers approach observing - doing some unplanned looking around, then spotting something interesting that arouses a curiosity. A good star atlas answers a lot of such questions. By now it was 6:00 a.m. and the sky was brightening. Fortunately, I didn't have to go into the office today, so there was time to have a cup of coffee and read the paper. It had been worth the effort to climb out of the sack so early. What a great way to start the day!

Published in the December 1993 issue of the NightTimes