THE HUNT FOR THE WITCH HEAD
By Bill Beers, W.A.S Treasurer
A recap from last month…
The first annual Halloween Star Party, west of Cadillac, Michigan was underway. With fourteen people including Vic Singh’s family, we had a variety of different telescopes on site. Being Halloween, Joe VanPoucker, provided everyone with a list of Halloween objects to locate and observe, complete with charts. After reading down through his list, we all decided the main object to find would be the Witch Head Nebula, very appropriate. From pictures I’ve seen, the Witch Head nebula is a beautiful profile of a witch’s head. IC 2118, located in the constellation Eridanus, the Witch Head is very large and very faint, making it a perfect challenge for our star party.
The skies had cleared for us on Friday evening, due to an act of God or Larry Kalinowski’s Indian dance back home. Snow had been predicted all weekend. The temperature was 35 degrees and it would stay clear for three hours, so the observing session and the hunt for the Witch Head was on. This is where we left off last month.
I was working with the 22” Dob, sluing back and forth, up and down, trying to locate the elusive Witch Head nebula. From Joe’s charts, the nebula was near the star Rigel in Orion. Being such a large nebula, I was using a 55mm eyepiece with an O-III filter. After a couple of tries, rechecking the charts, I finally came upon a smudge like object that could resemble a witch’s head. I thought to myself, “this was a piece of cake to find!” I’ll let everyone know so they could come over and take a look. But, a close examination revealed this object was not the Witch Head nebula, but a fog mark on the eyepiece from the heat from my eye being so close to the glass. Darn, back to the drawing board!
After about twenty more minutes of trying to find our prized object, I decided to wait until Eridanus was higher in the sky, hoping this would help, so I proceeded to locate other objects in the sky that were easier to find. Andromeda galaxy, the Crab nebula, Saturn, and the Dumbbell nebula were among the fine looking objects in the big 22” scope.
Expressing my frustration to the others, Vic Singh who was doing astro-photography, said he would take an exposure of the area in the sky where the Witch Head should be and get the pictures developed the next day. I figured this would be a pretty good way of seeing the nebula, since I couldn’t find it. Ten minutes later the clouds rolled in. Our observing session for the night was over. Everyone went back inside to warm up and have a coffee and donut.
The next day Joe V.P. and I drove to Houghton Lake to meet up with his brother to do some grouse hunting. It was nice getting back out into the woods, since grouse hunting is one of my favorite things to do. After a couple of hours of hunting, and no grouse in our backpacks, we headed back to the star party. I’m batting a thousand, no grouse and no Witch Head.
That afternoon, back at the ranch, Vic brought out his pictures of the Witch Head that he had developed that morning. They showed a lot of stars, but no nebula. We wondered if this thing even exists. Vic claimed that he really was only able to take a short exposure last night due to cloud cover and this evening he would try for a longer exposure time.
Saturday night and cloudy. Jim Shedlowsky brought his guitar back out and the sing-a-long began again. It’s a great way to kill time. Around midnight everyone got cabin fever and went outside to check out the skies. A clearing in the west was coming our way. Half an hour later, the sky was clear (another act of God). Blaine went in to make a pot of coffee, since I was banned from coffee duty because of complaints that my coffee is too weak. Astro Blaine makes a great pot of coffee.
Everyone was back to observing again. Since Joe V.P. was busy hogging the 22” again, I helped Blaine re-align his finder scope, which was knocked out of alignment from the wind blowing his scope over that afternoon. If you think Blaine is a perfectionist on the collimation of his scope, his finder scope alignment is no different. We spent the next half an hour aligning his finder scope. A half hour to re-align his finder is not bad considering now any object that is directly in the center of his finder is within .001 arc seconds of being in the center of the eyepiece.
I was confident that Vic would take some really nice astro-photos of the Witch Head, so I wasn’t too concerned about trying to find her on my own since I had failed the night before.
It seemed that Joe was married to the 22” that night so I went over to see how Cliff was doing with his new 11” GPS. All of a sudden, out of nowhere, the clouds covered the sky. Darn. Larry, wake up, we need you again! I guess an hour of clear sky is better than nothing. It never cleared again that night. We all spent the next hour or so drinking Chef Blaine’s coffee under the clouds. Talking to Cliff about his night on his new scope, he casually explained that he had programmed the Witch Head nebula into the computer of his go-to scope and it went right to it. WHAT!!! And you didn’t call us over to look! EEEH! He didn’t want to bother anyone. He claimed that it was faint, but he could see some nebulosity. Good job Cliff, at least someone in the group saw it! Vic did not have enough time to polar align his scope to get a good long exposure astro-photo. And no one else in the group claimed they found it.
Everyone packed up the next day. The 1st Annual Halloween Star Party was over. The hunt for the Witch Head was over. Despite only the few hours of clear viewing, we all had a good time. Congratulations to Cliff Jones, for finding the prized nebula. Now if I can talk Doug “Mr. CCD” Bock into taking a photo of the Witch Head from his backyard, that would be cool!
The Witch Head Nebula, IC 2118 by Gary Stevens