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20 February 2004:
M44, M67, Coma Star Cluster, Collinder 70, M51, NGC 5195, M35, NGC 2158, M65, M66

Friday night I visited Sourbrot (Belgium), one of my favourite dark sky sites, together with 7 other observers from the local astronomy group. As I got out of the car, I immediately noticed that the sky was very transparent. The constellation of cancer was completely visible to the naked eye, with at its heart the big star cluster M 44. I got out my 7x50 binoculars and scanned the area for M 67, the other Messier object in cancer. It was visible just 1.25 degrees west of Alpha Cancri (Acubens).

After setting up my telescope (8-inch f/10 Klevtzov-Cassegrain) I aimed it at M 67. It is a very rich cluster. At 100x I counted about 50 stars. at higher magnification more stars popped into view. The stars are spread over an area of 30'. There are several chains and clumps of stars, but also a few dark lanes, with no stars at all. There was no glow of unresolved stars. To the northeast a bright star was visible. There are not many stars that form patterns (like triangles, squares etc.) so sketching it quickly was impossible. This will take you at least two hours if you are a beginner (like me), so I decided to leave the sketching for a next observing night

After observing M 67 for almost an hour I took a short break. I noticed that Leo was already high in the eastern sky. To the north east of Leo lies Coma Berenice, the only constellation that is named after a real person, queen Berenice II of Egypt. The Coma Star Cluster was visible to the naked eye. This is a beautiful binocular object. In 7x50 binoculars it filled almost the whole field of view (6 degrees) with bright stars. For more info on the Coma Star Cluster please follow this link.

In the west, Orion could be found. I pointed the 7x50 at Collinder 70 (Orion's belt), a stunning view. I did not count the stars, but I estimate that I saw at least 40 to 60 stars splashed over the 6 degree field of view, with the three bright Belt stars in the centre.

I returned to my telescope and the next half hour I spent with M 51 and its companion NGC 5195, in Canes Venatici. I immediately spotted the two bright cores of the galaxies. I could not detect the spiral arms of M 51, but using averted vision I saw the big outline of the galaxies disk as a very faint, grey circular smudge of light, at least 7 to 8 arc minutes wide. From my own light polluted backyard, this would be impossible. I only see the two bright cores from there.

Then, I had a look at M 35 and NGC 2158 through a 10-inch dobson. This is definitely my favourite couple of open clusters. They where visible in the same field of view, using a low power eyepiece. M 35 was completely resolved, while NGC 2158 was a glow of unresolved stars. Just imagine that M35 lies at a distance of 2.800 light years, while NGC 2158 lies at a distance of 14.000 light years, five times as far as M35!

Finally that night I had a look at M 65 and M 66 through an 8-inch Vixen Klevtzov-Cassegrain. This couple of galaxies in Leo was very easy to detect, much better than in my own backyard. As I was looking at M 65, the clouds started to cover the sky.

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