Sunday, December 21, 1997

Season of Cold Skies

Each season brings a new feeling to observing at Fremont Peak. The change of temperature, color of sky and earth, the look and number of observers, the piece of our universe on the menu, all add up to distinct flavors. Each season is to be enjoyed, savo red like a good slow, favorite meal spent with friends lost in interesting conversation.

This Sunday I spent at the Peak was the winter solstice. The longest night of the year. Everything from the drive up to the conditions at the Peak set it apart from any other night of the year. On the way out of town, I found traffic to be minimal, sin ce the masses were probably heading home from their Christmas shopping, and the clear skies and brisk breezes made it feel unseasonably cold for the first day of winter in northern California. My favorite part of the hour-long drive is that up San Juan C anyon Road, which is the turnoff from highway 152 east at the historic pueblo of San Juan Buatista. A few short turns off the main highway brings to view sheep, with their coats growing thick, cows huddled together against the wind, horses in shelters, g oats, and assorted non-domesticated wildlife on the ground and in the air. The oaks were all hanging with the Spanish Moss I had first seen at Point Lobos twenty five years ago. The moss will be here much longer than I.

Everywhere I looked on the drive up, the earth seemed to be pulling in its growth, like someone tucking their hands and feet into a nice warm blanket. Our orbit around our local star was bringing a more rugged time of the observing calendar to my part of the world. Still, I had done it before, and was prepared for what many, in colder climes, would laugh at, and dream of, a California winter. Still, for someone who has lived most of his life on the southwest shores of the United States, winter is cold, if only by local standards.

The drive up gave a message of caution for the drive back, which I planned for about midnight, since I had to work Monday morning. In the shady part, and the wet portions of the road, road crews had spread sand. Temperatures were now dipping below freez ing in the area, and this was not anywhere near the elevation of the Peak. After entering the park, I looked up to my right to find Alan Nelms, my observing partner, waving from up on Coulter Row. He looked like he was doing some odd dance. The trees w ere all bare, the grasses of spring and summer gone. I pulled into to observing site and got out of the truck. Alan immediately told me the temp was 41 degrees when he arrived, and felt even colder now. Up above us on the ridge line, branches of the oa ks were swaying in the wind, but we were somewhat protected down in our area. Usually, we avoid Coulter Row because of the traffic and headlights on weekend nights, preferring the less trafficked southwest lot. But this was Sunday, and headlights were no problem after about 8 p.m.

Looking around, I began unloading the scope, and noticing what Alan then commented on. Wild pigs had torn up the bare earth all along the downslope below Coulter Row. These are the same swine the park service hopes to keep out by erecting a fence aroun d the park (perhaps next year). Soon, Alan had his 18" and I had the 14.5" dob set up and collimated. We began to notice the chill and the tranquility of winter at the Peak.

Soon, a Spanish speaking family hiked up the hill to meet us. I gave them views of Venus' crescent, a small reddish Mars sitting very close by, then up to Jupiter. The tourists were astonished to be able to view foreign worlds, seeing details such as ba nding and moons. It is always a rewarding experience seeing another person's universe suddenly expand.

The temps began dropping, and I was not bundled in much of my cold weather gear. Alan was putting on his ski bibs. A car full of day visitors drove by slowly, looking at us as if we were space aliens. I am sure they wondered what Alan was doing, standi ng there with his "pants" (ski-bibs) down around his ankles. Must have thought we were some deviants. Another TAC member, Robert Dannels (?) appeared, and decided to move from the breezy southwest lot to where we were. And that was it for the night. T hree TAC members alone on Coulter Row, atop Fremont Peak, on the longest night of the year. Only the appearance of Jay Freeman late in the evening would alter the makeup of our small winter observing party.

I began the night observing Jupiter and Saturn under low power. I did not think much of the observing conditions, but for the faint fuzzies Alan and I were hunting that night, somewhat soft seeing was not a disaster. So, we hunted down NGC 253 to begin the night, then it was off to the races. We hit a few big galaxies in Sculptor, part of the Herschel 2514, and had to leave the constellation unfinished, perhaps until some all nighter in summer, as the earth's rotation soon put it down toward the mounta in and into the increasing light dome of Salinas.

So, we moved up into Cetus. Again, our quest was difficult, since we had already logged most of the Herschel's in that constellation, above mag 14.5. We found a few, and then headed for the fertile waters of Eridanus, the River.

Eridanus is without doubt one of my favorite places to poach photons. The area is teeming with galaxies. Some big and bright, others mere near-stellar smudges. Most are off in the void, away from many finder stars, making one work at seeing fainter and fainter naked eye targets with which to navigate to the proper eyepiece field. This is why I do not use DSCs. The hunt, the perfecting of naked eye star hopping, the testing of visual acuity, and the increased skill that follows, is all part of amateur astronomy for me. Many are the objects that are really no more than a hint at the threshold of vision, but it is the hunt, and the reward when an object shows distinct character, structure, or is in a massive field of island universes.

The galaxy hunting was extremely rewarding early on, in Eridanus, with many large objects and multiple finds in one field, or near the original targets. A few of the more impressive sights were NGC 1600, accompanied by closeby NGCs 1601, 1603, 1604, 1594 , 1611, 1612, 1613 and IC373. Also, NGC 1653 had NGCs 1654 and 1657 nearby. There were several very large ESO galaxies in the area, but they were out of range for this particular night. Usually, Alan and I would have a chance finding them. It is great to observe with an accomplished fuzzy hunter like Alan, since there are times when he can identify something that I overlook, and vice-versa. Double teaming the universe! But, on the winter solstice for 1997, the sky changed personality rather quickly. One minute Alan and I were popping faint fields of galaxies at will, then, after a quick check of the computer for another target, we both were back at our eyepieces when, I looked at the out of focus stars and began trying to focus them. I couldn't ge t them to pinpoints. It quickly dawned on me the sky conditions had gone completely soft. Just then Alan said "the sky just went" and I laughed out "yeah.... I've been trying to focus" and he said "me too!". We played with fields full of planetary nebu lae type stars for about an hour and a half, then I said let's pack it in, since we'd already had over 5 hours of observing, and this night of all was the least likely for an all-nighter.

I packed up the scope quickly and helped Alan with his. It was tough to bend down to lift the Obsession. I had on jeans, the bottoms of my gore-tex ski suit and a pair of sweat pants, three layers of socks and Sorrels, a heavy long sleeve shirt, rag woo l sweater, lined wind-breaker, down jacket, large ski-jacket, neck gator and Soviet Ushanka hat. I was not cold, but I was not very mobile. :)

When we finally got ready to roll out just after midnight, the temp was 34 degrees. The sky looked deceivingly calm. Only under magnification can one see the turmoil nature hid in winter's longest night.

The ride home was uneventful, and the night enjoyable. I look forward to other good sessions in the season of cold skies.

Saturday, November 1, 1997

A Good Night, On Paper...

Some of our observing group went to the place that has no public name, Saturday night. It is the star party site known only to amateurs in the area, a place away from the public for more serious observers, peace and quiet, darker skies, no headllights, and locked access.

Upon arriving, the day was still hot. Someone commented that this first day of November had reached 88 degrees. The sky was clear, other than what appeared to be some smoke low on the horizon to the northeast in the far distance. The horizons were supe rb. One observer had chats printed for all of Grus, almost unheard of from the San Francisco bay area.

About a dozen of us set up as the the sun was falling behind a low hill to our west. The temperature dropped slightly, and the breeze, noticeable when we arrived, now began to fade. Our host stopped by for a short visit, and commented that the wind would be gone shortly after sunset.

And then the sun set.

A few observers began searching for the young moon, a few degrees above the western horizon. Soon it was visible, along with Venus and Jupiter to its south. Next, Saturn popped out several dozen degrees to Jupiter's east, and then Mars, now sitting west of Venus.

There was lots of talk about the new 6" AstroPhysics seeing first light. The sliver of moon was very easy to see it this outstanding new instrument. We also had a 6" Intes Mini-Micro, 16" and 14.5" homebuilt dobs, an 18"er, Orion Shortube, 8" and 12" Meade LX-200's, AP Traveller, possibly an 8" Celestron SCT (that I didn't see, but expect accompanied its owner), AstroScan and 10.1" Coulter Odyssey.

It was a nice collection sitting under the darkening sky.

The first order of business was dinner and watching for the bright flash of the Iridium flare just northeast of Jupiter. Right on schedule, a dim glow appeared heading south, and suddenly brightened to outshine Venus. The glow produced a bright halo. Just as soon as it appeared, it began fading and vanished. All who saw it were impressed.

One other observer and I then walked down the road about 1/4 mile to the gate, and shut it. We were in for the night, and the rest of the world was out. When we returned, the group had been viewing the Tether and Disco Ball satellites. I missed both, but the sky was so dark by now, the Milky Way looked like powdered sugar strewn across a black background. Well, not quite black. While I believe that the "site that has no name" is darker than Fremont Peak, others in the group felt they are equal. However, nobody could dispute that the light domes familiar from Fremont Peak were gone or significantly diminished from the althernate site.

Since my regular observing partner was not along, I would not use a computer planetarium program for my charts. I had brought along the trusty Herald-Babroff AstroAtlas, which I had not used since perhaps April or May. It would be a night in the water constellations again, my plan being to finish the Hershel catalog in Pisces, then move to Cetus and finally Eridanus.. All these constallations are teeming with Herschel list galaxies.

So, the night began with a successful hunt of NGC 7506 in Pisces. This is an elongated galaxy with a bright core, glowing at magnitude: 14.00, and measuring 1.5 x 0.9 minutes. It was no problem to see, so I felt we were all in for a good night.

Soon I would find the real advantage of the computer database planetarium programs. Of the dozens of Hershels in Pisces, I was down to the last handful. However, the HB Atlas did not show several of them, I guess the question is, are they real, or are they mistakes in the catalog, since my version of The Sky (software) does not show them either. Once my regular observing partner is back, I'll want to look at his program. All the remaining objects in Pisces are small galaxies at mag 15 or dimmer, so they are tough and can wait...

I shot up to the bright stuff in Cetus. What a blast. There is a nice squarish grouping of stars on the Cetus Eridanus border, the eastern pair of stars being Pi and Epsilon Ceti. The galaxy fields just north of this piece of sky were outstanding, with multiple members in single eyepiece views. Later in the evening, I would be working the area again, but across the border along the shores of "the River" constellation.

Although many people would not do so while observing, I had brought a nice bottle of Spanish red wine a friend had given me, which I opened to sip and share with some of the members of the group I knew best. It was to be a relaxing evening, not a mad rush to pack the books with check marks or do any "real science". I found some of the newer observers asking how to locate this object or that, if such and such would show in the size scope they had, and so on. One observer brought his 10 year old son, who wanted to see NGC 891 in the Orion Shortube. I put the 14.5" dob on it, at 107X, and had the typical faint but wonderful view of the edge-on and its distinct dust lane. I got a real charge out of hearing this young man out with the big-boys, and sounding like a real member of t he group, other than being a more polite one. But, boys will be boys, and regardless of the politics and other noises of the night that filled the air, it was a great night.

Several of the socpes, I think three, had Zeiss bino-viewers on them, which is quite impressive in such a small sampling of observers. These people are serious about having fun! I toured around with the wine, enjoying views of different objects in various instruments. M31 was astonishing in the Traveller, with M32 and M110 showing nicely (strangely, M110 show n nicer then M32!). The view of the dark lanes in the 12" LX-200 w/bino-viewers was among the best I've viewed.

So, the evening went that way, observing for an hour uninterrupted, then walking around and visiting.

As the evening wore on Cetus began to drop in the west and Eridanus was high. I decided to move to the higher constellation. The south was quite dark, and there I was again, at Pi and Epsilon Ceti, but east. There are so many galaxies in this region it is pointless to list them. But I did find that here, the HB Atlas was at its very best. Turning to the page for NGC 1426, I found a very crowded field of galaxies. No way could I distinguish one from another. It reminded me of the clusters near the Circlet in Pisces, or just above the point star in Triangulum, many parts of Virgo, and other assorted dense areas of deep space. Outlined, around the area on the map was a shaded box. Inside the box was the designation to one of the more magnified charts. .. the "D" charts. This is very much the feeling I get zooming in and out on the computer to verify objects, and no other atlas I know offers this feature. But, back to the observing part of the story....

Around this area, are 13 to 15 galaxies that can be viewed, depending on one's experience and ability (no, I didn't see them all). The ones I viewed formed a nice chain, appearing from the five o'clock position in my field of view, which I would then move to 11 o'clock, and see other galaxies appearing again at 5. This is a very rich area, and with the galaxies being mostly at the brighter end of mag 13, they are within the reach of scopes smaller than my 14.5".

Soon, the chairs all pulled together, and we began to unwind, sitting and talking, except for the owner of the new AP, who was busy evaluating the new piece of equipment. Soon, he would join us too, and we watched meteors, talked about things much more mundane than astronomy, and finally, disappeard into our vehicles to sleep, or back to our scopes to meet dawn.

I surprised myself in the morning, havning not pushed my observing during the night, and woking not from a computer program, I had found and viewed 53 galaxies. I guess I still know how to use a hard copy star chart. It was a good night, on paper....

Saturday, October 25, 1997

Celestial Deep Sea Diving

Saturday, October 25th promised to be a clear, warm day in the southern San Francisco bay area, and an opportunity for observing at Fremont Peak.

After a few chores at home, I was on an atypically quick freeway drive down the freeways south of San Jose, passing through the local cities of Morgan Hill and Gilroy. Soon, I would turn onto the smaller state highway leading toward the mission town of S an Juan Bautista, above which sits Fremont Peak State Park.

Heading up San Juan Canyon road, I reflected on the seasonal changes I'd witnessed this past year, and considered the cold nights ahead. Cows grazing on the land owned by locals no longer had the pick of fresh grass below their noses, as the landscape was browned by the dry summer. Dried leaves were falling and blowing across the fields and swirling behind my vechicle as I negotiated the familiar curves of the road, enjoying the motion of my truck on the turns. The stream parallel to the road was dry, the Spanish Moss hanging off the native oaks was waiting for the wet season to begin. I thought of the cold of winter, upcoming, and the return of that season's skies.

All to soon, I found myself behind a family either unfamiliar with the road, or uncaring that anyone else was on it, and reduced my speed accordingly to that of a bicyclist on a leisurely ride, and resigned myself to finding other ways to pass the time than becoming irate. Just after they turned off, two other vehicles appeared ahead of me, to assure my drive would be safe and sane.

Upon arriving at the southwest lot in the park, I found the usual early arrivals waiting. I parked next to Alan, who would work the deep with me, as we continued through the Herschel catalog.

After the cursory how-dees, we all began setting up and tuning our equipment. All along, more arrivals made their way up, until we had quite a large crowd. With sunset approaching, I put on my thermals, had a quick dinner, and joined the crowd to watch a spectacular sunset over the Pacific, framed beautifully to the south by the rugged outlines of California's coastal mountain range. Venus sat just below Mars to the west of the Peak. I pictured our planet's orbit between the two... an easy thing to do when our nearest neighbors are so close together in the sky. I wondered how the earth would appear if we could see it out there too. Jupiter sat high over the Peak, and above the trees to the east, rose Saturn. What a magnificent prelude to the evening.

By the time dark began to become noticeable, I walked through the parking lot for a quick telescope count. We had 30 already set up, and a handful more would arrive after dark. The buzz of astronomy talk, laughter, old friends meeting and new aquintance s being made, hung in the air. It is, in my opinion, the flavor of amateur astronomy.... part of the experience and, the way it should be.

Once sufficiently dark, Alan and I, now more heavily bundled in layers of clothing, decided it was time to hit the celestial highway again. We still had plenty of work to do in Pisces, and later, Cetus would be in prime viewing position. These two constellations, named for ocean and sea creatures, made me think of deep-sea expeditions, but in our case, diving the trenches of the sky, away from the well travelled shallows and close-by objects along the shores of the Milky Way. We were heading into the deep of the sky, to view objects as mysterious and rare as those bioluminous creatures of our planet's deep and unknown oceans.

Working Pisces is challenging. The constellation is bright star poor, and once away from the familiar Circlet, and "stringer" fish-line, I found was relying on how many "Telrad circles" away from this or that dim star the target lay. Still, practice mak es perfect, so there is hope for me, and I was fortunate enough to hit the first target with relative ease. NCG 7694 was our first object of the night, its magnitude between 14 and 14.5, it was the brightest of what we would hunt in Pisces. Soon , we wo uld witness strings of galaxies, lone ones with others short fields of view star hops away, some in such tight groups that it was difficult to sort them out, and other that would slip in and out of the edges of vision like those luminous sea creatures appearing momentarily from the dark and deep of our oceans.

I think my favorite galaxy views were the groupings. Two that stand out in Pisces were the area around NGCs 407, 410, 414 and 403, which allowed star hops to 398, 399, 400, 401, 402, 392, 394, 397, with a whole slew of them in the 380's just a short hop away. I also found NGC 180 a nice view with UGC 422, 393 and IC34 very close by.

As the evening passed, we moved to Cetus, where we have done much less work than in Pisces. The brightest new objects we would see there were mag 13 and dimmer, but this would be bright compared to where we'd just been fishing.

I had a wonderful view of NGC 835, the brightest galaxy in a chain of four (833, 838, 839) flanked by NGC 848, MCG2-6-35 (a nice very elongated "slice" of light), MCG2-6-28 and IC 210.

Many of these are very dim, hitting the very low 14's and into the 15's.

Funny, how one's perspective changes... I found myself calling Alan over to look at a "big bright" galaxy, and finding other observers coming over. Only then did I realize that compared to the more common creatures of the deep, these were indeed dim. I was properly informed that it were not "big and bright." Oh, well....

I logged over 40 galaxies, taking time to mingle with our friends, welcome newcomers, watch satellites and just sit back, taking in the spectacle of night. Looking around, the crowd was thinning out bit by bit, and I could already see who the real winter die-hards would be this season... mostly the same crew from last year.

As evening became morning, colder temperatures became more evident. I switched to common objects, like M42, M44, M45 and so on, and I decided to try my new Orion Ultrablock filter, and found the Horsehead Nebula. A friend brought over her 22mm Nagler wit h an H-Beta filter, and the view of the Horsehead was dramatically improved.

A few more views, then the remaining observers pulled their chairs into the now almost ritual circle of friends, and talked for quite some time, punctuated by occasional observing. It was all very light-hearted, joking and friendly. Finally, the moon rose, and with the change from Daylight Saving time to real time, I was beat. I turned in, checking my parking brake carefully, making sure the truck was in gear.

I awoke around 8 a.m., and tore down the telescope. Leaves were blowing across the parking lot, and fall was indeed in full control of Fremont Peak. Next month, I expect our numbers will dwindle, as fair weather astronomers relagate themselves to backyards or other hobbies.

Once packed, the handful of us remaining drove back down the hill, to have breakfast where the common creatures swim.

Good observing, see you all soon.

Monday, October 13, 1997

A Short Night Observing

I had a free hour last night, so I hauled my 8" f/7 dob out back. The sky was very clear, Jupiter and the moon were very bright, and their air was chilly enough to require a sweater. I guess summer is really gone (at least summer evenings).

Funny, how habitual some objects become. There I was, the moon quite large, and of course, I looked for a deep sky object. M15 was just resolving using my 19 Panoptic. The star field it sat behind was pinpoint bright stars. For a moment or two, I wondered what it would be like to be looking out from that cluster toward the sun.... what objects would we see? I suppose it would be all the spring objects, with a bit of a different perspective.

So, after confirming that one could in fact view deep space objects with a big moon out, I decided to look at the offending light source. Well, it was spectacular. Just a bit of 'shake' to the image, but it was really quite steady. Along the terminator, peaks were casting long shadows that crossed crater floors. Craters right on the terminator appeared to be oblong black holes in the surface. Rills were easy to pick out in stark detail. Even days past good viewing, I could find the Straight Wall, Rupee's Ricta (sp, for sure!), the Alpine Valley and more. The markings inside the larger crater walls was outstanding. Oh, yes... I was now using a 10.5mm Meade eyepiece.

Probably the most outstanding view on the moon was Schroeder's Valley (is that right? man, am I moon illiterate!). The "river" coming from atop the volcano was black, the sunlight hitting it just right to clearly define its path. In fact, the flow mark seemed to spread out and fill the plain toward the north. The plain itself seems to be rough, in a nearly rectangular shape, with the long axis heading north from the volcano. The plain had some rubble in it, and was a darker tone than the surrounding areas outside the rectangle.

I hunted around the moon for some time, noting the nice cracks that ran, apparently, under some mountains close to the terminator. I wonder how that happened?

I turned the scope toward Jupiter, and thought "where's the detail"...

I watched for a bit, and suddenly, everything (embellishment) was visible. Well, what was observable (about 9:30 p.m.) was the Great Red Spot. Unless I am mistaken (and there is a new large feature on the planet), the GRS was dead center on the upper (southern) equatorial belt. And what detail! The SEB was obviously pinched in from the souther edge. Between the SEB and the GRS was, or so it seemed, a white curved channel, clearly separating the SET from the GRS. The GRS itself.... well....

I have never, never, seen it so clearly. It was so fantastic, I called my wife out to have a look. She could see it also, with no problem. The thing looked like a BIG EYE on the planet! Further to the south, bordering the GRS, was another dark band. In the NEB, there were lots of disturbances, but I could not really make them out. If I went to my 7mm eyepiece, the view got mushy. I looked at the GRS for quite some time.

I then went indoors for an hour and watched the first episode of Steven Hawkings six part series, which I found interesting and entertaining.

After that, I went outside again for a short time and viewed, you can probably guess, Saturn.

Jupiter was now too low to be useful, so the ringed one was the show. I was amazed at the difference in tone between the southern band just off the rings, and the southern polar area. It seemed to me that there were several bands of like tones, some creamy, others gray. Cassini's Division was no sweat, and although I am never quite sure if I see it, I felt there were hints of the Crepe Ring. A bit more power and steadier skies would have helped. To the north of the rings, the sphere was monochrome grayish white/yellow. I could pick out what I assume were four moons, maybe five if on bright distant one was also a moon (I haven't looked any of this up). Two of the moons, quite dim, were very close together. I would try averting my vision to see if any more moons appeared, but none did. However, by averting, the two close together dim moons were obvious.

It had been a busy day, with work and kids, and I was tired. I went in to watch a bit of the news on tv. It was warm in the house. I began thinking of the winter nights at the Peak, and the possibility of buying some electric socks. It had been a nice night.... so nice that I've left the scope set up in the backyard as enticement to go out again tonight....

Saturday, October 4, 1997

Sky Fishin at Pacheco

Several observers from TAC and the SJAA tried El Rancho de San Luis Gonzaga (a.k.a. Pacheco State Park) Saturday, October 4, 1997. The site is a new state park, bequeathed to the people of California and funded by the generosity of the last owner of the land. The location is somewhat prone to wind, but according to the park Ranger, wind season end (officially) October 1. The drive to Pacheco is an easier on than to Fremont Peak, albeit slower for those who like to combine road racing with astronomy, since portions of the highway get down to two lanes and attract semi traffic. Still, most who went agreed, it is a shorter drive time-wise, notwithstanding the need for patience when one is behind slower traffic.

Our star party consisted of Alan Nelms, Russ Chmela, Bruce Jensen, Jack Zeiders, Leonard Tramiel (sp?), Jim Bartolini, Garret (last name unknown) from Holland and his friend John Gibson, and me. A nice size group with a good variety of equipment.

The horizons at Pachecho are very nice. As twilight faded into night, I found myself enjoying a spectacular view of a 3 day old moon with nice earth shine, Venus up to its left, and close together Mars and Antares. I can see why the ancient Arab observers named the heart of the scorpion Antares, translated as "rival of Mars". It would be easy to confuse the two. To the east, the earth's shadow rose as a dark line. Overhead, Vega and Deneb popped out, and soon, the sky was filling with our neighbors in the Milky Way.

The light domes from the population centers are considerably muted compared to Fremont Peak and other closer-to-town sites I've observed from. Still, this night was bright compared to my other time at Pacheco. Fortunately the transparency was quite good.

Alan and I poked around at some of the big bright easies for a while, waiting for darkness to complete. Views of M51, M22, M13, M15, M2 were good with the exception of M51, which showed spiral arms with no structure, since it was already down in the dirt.

Once dark, we put out our "gone fishin" sign, and began working the remaining Hershel objects on our list in Pisces.

What a constellation! Although Pisces lacks bright stars, making hoping at times challenging, there is soooooo much to see in this section of sky! All in all, we logged 48 galaxies, several in clusters. It was nice to use Alan's laptop computer running The Sky with the Hubble Guide Star Catalog. The amount of detail possible in identifying star patterns, makes it possible to have positive identification of many objects that would be otherwise impossible, especially when dealing with galaxy clusters. The computer is a *great* tool.

During the evening, three groupings of galaxies were particularly memorable. If these Pisces targets were fish, each would have been a stringer full of tasty beauties, all obtained with a sufficient fight to make the contest interesting. The first was a grouping of NGCs 200, 203, 204, 193 and 186 (I'm sure there were one or two others in the group, but my notes do not show it)... there must have been 6 galaxies glowing faintly behind the foreground stars. The next cluster was associated with our search for NCG 379. Once there, we confirmed the positions of 393, 382, 386, 384, 385, 386, 374 399 and 403. I'm sure there was one more in the group that my notes do not detail.... so imagine, walking across eleven galaxies in roughly one degree of sky. What a spectacular piece of the universe!

One thing that surprised me about that grouping was Jack Zeiders. Sitting back by his scope, he heard Alan and I discussing the prospects of hunting this group of galaxies. Jack said "oh.... you're looking for" so and so.... and he was right on the money. I began chuckling... just when I begin feeling like I'm becoming an accomplished observer, there's someone there to remind me how much I have to learn. Jack began calling the group by their Arp designation. When I viewed it, I was reminded of last year at Mt. Lassen, when Zeiders showed the same group to me in his 17" dob. If you can, check out this group... it is a very nice chain of galaxies.

A few other groups included NGCs 495, 499, 501, 483, 507 and 517, and lastly, NGC7556, 7546, 7532 and 7534.

While searching Hershel's can be tedious, with many appearing as small, nondescript smudges alone in the field of view, it is too cool when one runs into an entire school of fish like we did last Saturday.

Along with the Hershel hunt, we all enjoyed sharing observing stories and looking through each others telescopes. One particularly nice view was through a 6" Astrophysics, pointed at 52 Cygni. An 0III filter brought out a wealth of detail on the wider side of the Veil Nebula... in fact, to me the Nebula seemed to break out into three branches at that location. I was also enjoying, when the seeing would steady, outstanding views of Saturn. Cassini's was no challenge... there were pinpoint images of four moons, one very small and dim and really showing what an AP can do. Awesome.

Part of the evening, those parts where I was not glued to my eyepiece, I would kick back and enjoy the wide vistas the old Rancho Gonzaga provided. The horizons are simply the best I have seen at any of the bay area observing sites I have tried... so much so that it is really enjoyable to stroll around a bit, look at the low line of hills surrounding the area at a distance, and just take it all in.

By 2:30, clouds began forming in the west. At first there were just a few, then began increasing. Alan, Bruce and Jim took off. I was looking at Orion (naked eye and in the scope), and realized a cloud was covering the area between the Hunters legs. It looked like an enormous nebula.

Jack was tearing down, Bruce was in dreamland, and Russ was thinking of a short nap, so I climbed into the back of my truck for the night.

I awoke alone in the park Sunday morning. I was a beautiful sunny day. Ranger Dooley came by and we talked for a while about Fremont Peak and Pachecho, how they compared. Some equestrians began showing up. I sat back and poured some still hot coffee, and enjoyed watching people getting ready for their hobby, brushing the horses, joking and enjoying themselves.

I had a great night. I plan to spend more time at Pacheco, and plan to still visit the Peak regularly too.

Thursday, September 25, 1997


I was working late last night, and was able to take breaks out in my backyard peeking through my 8" f/7 dob. Jupiter was only occasionally steady enough to see any detail in the bands, although the moons were a nice sight. If it had been steadier, I might have confirmed a shadow transit between roughly 10 pm and 11 pm... but the planet looked like it was underwater most of the time.

I did have some nice low power views of Saturn though. Seeing the planet, with its ring sharply defined against a sprinkling of stars, was very enjoyable. I was looking at the distribution of Saturn's moons, around 11:30 pm, thinking how nicely they formed a crescent around the planet, when I began looking very carefully, and found I could see 5 moons. Here, in ASCII art is an attempted diaghram...

--0-- x
x x x

This observation was from my backyard. The two moons on the left were quite dim. The one on the left, below the ring, was just visible and blinking in and out.

Is it unusual to pick up 5 moons from a suburban backyard?

One thing I have found, when observing time is limited (mine, by my current work schedule), the bright objects are the ones I tend to look at.

Also, following up the comment about the background stars in my view of Saturn...

I also peeked at M15 and M2. I was using my 19mm Panoptic, which nicely resolved both globulars. I had one of those moments of amazement when looking at M15 and thinking how relatively close the field stars were compared to the tight ball of light centered in my FOV. The whole view suddenly took on a 3-D feel.

Friday, September 5, 1997

Four Wheelin' at Fremont Peak

Yes, the name is relevant. But first, I am tired, writing this at 9 p.m Sunday night, so, sorry for any errors...

This weekend was only my second 2-niter observing this year, not counting the summer trip to Mount Lassen. I arrived at Fremont Peak about 7:15 Friday evening, finding Ken Head, John Hales and Michelle Stone waiting. Soon, Rich Neuschaefer, Rod Norden and Bill Arnett showed, and a new observer names Steve (sorry I forgot your last name if you're reading). Apologies, if I left anyone out.

The sky looked good and the fog layer thick, as the sun dropped and the earth's shadow rose. Our equipment was set up and the I was naturally drawn to a piece of equipment next to Steve's car. Wow! 120mm binoculars, off a Japanese World War II naval vessel. These babies were the beefiest binos I have ever seen. Unmounted, Steve told me, they weighed 46 lbs. These binocs performed beautifully on the Double Cluster in Perseus, and M31 in Andromeda. In fact, with the 3 degree field of the binos, it was easy to pick out M32 and M110 around the main galaxy.

Rod, Rich and Bill were the planetary representatives for the evening, John and Michelle were playing with an ST4, practicing autoguiding, Steve was doing some photos via his 10" LX-200, and I was, well, as usual, bringing up the rear with the faint stuff.

The sky was not very good, as bands of long thin clouds cycled through all night. However, there were opportunities to view in through large open spaces between the cloud bands. I worked Cassiopia, finishing off the Hershel objects (open clusters) in the constellation, then on to Andromeda, Draco and Cetus. All prime Hershel territory, lots of galaxies.

I was using the old 14.5" dob made by Crazy Ed (one of our list members), and stayed almost exclusively with the 19 Panoptic, yielding 107X. It seems the perfect eyepiece for finding faint objects, and still, giving some hints if there is detail in the target. Occasionally I would drop in a 10.5mm or 7.5mm, but only when looking at Jupiter, Saturn or Uranus.

Speaking of Saturn, the view through the 7" Astrophysics was absolutely spectacular. The detail in the rings, the subtle shading on the disc, the moons, all provided more enjoyment than I had time for. Oh, to have such a scope and be able to sit at that eyepiece for hours rather than having to settle for shared views. Our group is fortunate to have several high quality refractor owners (yes, the owners and their equipment are all high quality!).

During the night, a few highlights were view of M33, with outrageous mottling, dark blotches and bright HII regions, and later, NGC253, which looked like a photo, filling the field of view. If any of you have not viewed 253 before, put it on your list, it is a buster of a galaxy, and this is the time of year for it.

I was tired and had hit a number of Hershel objects, so, decided to call it a night. Rich, Steve, Michelle and Bill were still going strong, but Hales and I need our rest. From somewhere in my semiconsciousness, I heard Arnett leave, and then as the others turned in, the peak was nothing more than a symphony of crickets.

Now for the four wheelin' part of the tale. The person involved is the owner of a 180mm f/9 EDT AstroPhysics APO refractor. Had put his tube assembly away in the back of his Toyota truck, and stretched himself out in the cab of the vehicle with his feet across the cab toward the passenger door. He was parked next to me, both our vehicles facing the top of the road that enters the southwest parking lot. We were headed downhill.

Before any more details are provided, the owner is safe and well at home tonight, and the lesson is to always check your parking brake and turn your wheels uphill.

I awoke to the strange sound of tires rolling. I sat up on my cot and witnessed the Toyota slowly rolling away from the pier assembly that had held the 180 APO. "What's he doing" I thought, in a state of confusion. Why is he leaving without starting his engine, and leaving the pier. Suddenly, as the truck picked up steam in its downhill roll, I realized the occupant must be asleep. I jumped up and yelled "HEY .... WAKE UP!" but the vehicle by them had attained perhaps 20mph and was crashing through the flimsy guard railing along the top of the road, and, with frightening suddenness, plunged from sight down the mountainside.

Oh my God! I ran toward the other sleepers yelling to get up, that a car was going down the mountain. At that time several "WHUMP.... BUMP... BUMPs" could be heard down the mountain. The truck had crashed and now it was quiet.

I turned and ran, through the missing guard rail and down the hillside, finding my way by starlight. Very soon, Steve was behind me (this guy is quick, but I guess his military conditioning helped... I was on a massive adrenaline rush). Steve shone his mag-light down the ravine and there, wobbling up toward me, I saw a red sweatshirt...

"You all right?" I yelled. "Uh, well.... I think so" came the reply. We got back down to the truck quickly. It was turned sideways and leaning 30 degrees. The passenger quickly said, in true refractor owner fashion... "I hope the telescope's okay". "The telecope?" I said. I was incredulous. The guy was lucky to be alive, or at least not seriously injured, and he was worried about the scope!

He wanted to drive the truck back uphill right away, but I suggested we wait until daytime to see what we were facing. We all hiked back up, dodging poison oak and only then realizing just how far the truck had traveled down the canyon.

It took several hours to calm down. That sort of excitement and exertion is an astonishing combination. In the morning light we would see the truck had traveled at least 100 yard beyond the fence, the first 20 yards being a good grade but gentle, the last 80 or more being steep enough to make walking somewhat challenging at times. Near the bottom of "Mr. Toad's Wild Ride" was an old roadbed traversing the hill. At that point, the tire tracks from the truck stopped, replaced by a large divit. Landing spot was about 20 feet beyond. The occupant had been thrown from the cab of the truck during the airborne portion of the ride.

The truck owner was not seriously hurt (a few bumps and bruises). The truck was not damaged. The scopes was unfazed. The two bottles of wine were not broken. The truck went into 4-wheel-drive and I found myself chasing it up the hill.

All was well with the world.

You might wonder what the occupant of such a mishap might think during the ride. Since there was a tarp over the windshield (to block the morning sunlight), the rider could not see. He was also disoriented when the first bumping woke him. He thought we were having an earthquake. Once beyond the gentle slope, he thought we were having a big earthquake. When he hit the launching ramp near the bottom, he thought "This is THE BIG ONE!!!" and the damage must be incredible.

At that point he realized what was happening, and he became separated from the airborne vehicle.

We didn't get any sleep after that experience.

The day passed uneventfully, other than an enjoyable ride in my now out-of-mothballs Datsun 280ZX ride down to the market in San Juan Bautista for food and drink. Back up at the observing site, we sat and yacked, drank, ate and relaxed. I still could not sleep. I knew I'd be tired that night.

At 2:30, Alan Nelms drove in. Then, we sat and wondered where everyone was on such a clear and warm day...

By dark, we had 21 telescopes and owners set up in the lot. Here is a rundown on the great variety of equipment present:

8" f/6 Newtonian, 10" LX-200, 14.5" f/5.2 dob, 10" LX-200, 8" Meade equatorial Newtonian, Celestron 8" Ultima 2000, 9.25" f/5 equatorially mounted newt, 5.25" f/5 equatorially mounted Newtonian,8" Celestron SCT on a G-11 mount and Pronto piggy-back, JMI NGT-18, 225mm f/12 Takahashi SCT, 11" f/4.5 dob (from SJAA loaner program), 8" Meade SCT (a good one!), 18" f/4.5 Obsession, 14.5" f/5.6 dob, 180mm f/9 EDT AstroPhysics APO refractor on an AP 800 mount, 16" f/5 dob, 100mm f/10 Zeiss refractor, 8" f/6 dob, 8" LX-200 and a 6" Intes Maksutov.

If you want to check out equipment, these star parties are a great place to do it!

Dinner time came. Hales and I opened our canned dinners and enjoyed the gourmet fare together. A little wine to wash it down, toasting the owner of the stunt vehicle with some of the surviving vino.

The fog cover, which had completely surrounded the peak on Friday night, was missing. This would be a brighter night. Bands of clouds once again began appearing. I walked among the valley of the dobs for a while, enjoying the site of so many people in one place, sharing their enjoyment and knowledge. Alan and I began working the Hershel list again.

Things were back to normal... except that I'd had no sleep.

By midnight, lack of sleep was hitting me hard. I was beginning to wobble. Soon, I was sitting. After a few minutes I climbed into the sleeping bag on my cot, laid back and watched the sky become much needed sleep.

I never thought an observing trip could be such an adventure.

Tuesday, September 2, 1997

Io Show Off!

I have been working long hours lately, and have not had much time to even step out the back door to observe. Last night I was out at 10:45 and 11:30, but the sky was soft and unsteady, so looking at the best backyard object (Jupiter) was not very satisfying.

I decided to leave the scope out back, as incentive to take a peek tonight. So, about 9:20 I went out, put in the 7.5mm and pointed the 10" at Jupiter.

Detail was coming and going, and of course, my eyes had not acclimated yet. I went inside to turn out some lights and see how Daniel was doing with his homework, when I noticed a present my parents had brought him years ago... a little Tasco refractor with the designation 30 x 30 on it. I was up for laugh. Outside I went, and held it like a pirates spyglass. After a while, I found Jupiter... a small cream colored dot in the midst of a reddish glow. What garbage! I sat the toy down, and took another peek in the 10"....

Suddenly the sky steadied and Jupiter was showing a very distinct shadow transit past the meridian right in the middle of the equatorial zone. Which of the three visible moons was it???? I would glance around, noting what I take to be the GRS on the southern belt, just in from the trailing edge. Around it, popping in and out of view, were three or four white ovals. Below (to the north) of the shadow transit, was a very, very dark line in the northern equatorial belt. It was a literal feast for the eyes!

As I sat enjoying the view, it suddenly dawned on me there was another distinct white oval... on the leading limb, well, almost on the limb, but it was not oval....

In a moment of clarity, there sat Io, just beginning to peek over the limb of the planet, its shadow following it across. I watched as the GRS, the shadow and Io all moved across. Soon, Io was a definite bump on the limb, then, just as quickly, it was breaking away from the Jovian background, revealing itself against the black of space. The shadow was now all that remained of the dual transit.

What a sight! It all took about 20 minutes, and satisfied my craving for some telescope time after a very busy day of work.

I watched for a bit more, enjoying the subtle color variations of the many zones on Jupiter's face. The GRS now was approaching the meridian,perhaps in another 30 minutes or so, along with the white ovals shepherding it. The shadow moved a bit more. The distance between Io and the planet increased.

The clouds began to approach, and I went in to write to you all. Maybe we'll have a good night at Montebello. My appetite has been whet.

Monday, August 25, 1997

An audience with royalty

What a night! I took the scope out about 7pm to cool down, while I cleaned the swamp (my pool was rather green). It had been a gorgeous day with just a few small clouds.

My daughter Mimi, 9 years old, helped my collimate the scope. She did an admirable job. The scope of the day was my 10" f/5.6 tie-dye.

As darkness started, I just peeked at star images... Alberio, Vega, Altair, Arctutus. I was fairly pleased with what I was seeing.

I went in the house and played on the computer for a while (work). As darkness filled the sky, my son, Daniel, his friend Eli and my daughter were night swimming, getting the last of their summer vacation ya-ya's out.

About 11:15 I took a peek out back. Jupiter was now clear of the trees and the stars had forgot their twinkle. The Milky Way was *obvious* overhead. It looked like a primo night in Los Gatos.

In went the 19 Panoptic. Sheeee-eeeeee-man-eeeeeeee! Look at the detail. Oh well, low power.. only 107X. But still. That baby was a rock! In went the 10mm Meade. Holy cow... look at the moons! Io and Europa were off on the trailing limb, looking like two small beady eyes. The looked like they might touch. Far off the leading egde sat Callisto and Ganymede. As many of you know, I am not much of a planetary observer, but the view of those two moons, compared to the other pair, was amazing. They were resolved as very definate discs. In fact, all four moons did. But C and G were "big" discs comparatively. G looked yellowish, G somewhat paler, maybe a bit rusty. They were set much wider apart than the smaller close pair.

Well, Jupiter put on a kingly performance. In went the 7.5mm Orion Ultrascopic (190X).... really a decent ocular for the target. There were moments of such clarity, I found myself not breathing. It was astro-apnea. Almost dead on the meridian of the Northern Equatorial Belt, a sight I'd never seen before. Geesh, I hope this is right, becuase I swear I saw it, as did my wife, sister-in-law and Mimi.

There sat, two shadows. Io and Eurpoa's dark twins. One was in the NEB, at the northern edge, the other just below it, off the NEB in the equatorial zone. Toward the trailing edge, just next to the shadow in the NEB, was a large white oval. In moments of extreme clarity there were many white spots in the equatorial zone just inside the NEB. Shooting up from the NEB into the equatorial zone just off the meridian toward the trailing edge was what I assume to be a very large festoon, like a diagonal slash pointing back toward the trailing limb.

Observing the planet for 45 minutes, the positions of Io and Europa makedly changed. They were dancing together around their magnificient host. Now, they lay diagonal to eachother relative to Jupiter. Their shadows pushed further toward the leading edge.

My wife and sister-in-law would gasp during moments of extreme still and transparency. It was transfixing.

Looking up, left of the large oak in my neighbors yard, I noticed the Great Square of Pegasus up high. Saturn? :-) Just in position. Where in the yard could I haul the scope? Well, I found that I had just enough room to place the scope between the redwood deck and pool. I could balance on the coping... hovering above the deep end. Saturn was amazing. My wife looked and marveled at the view, but my sister-in-law was concerned about the precarious location. Further back into the yard we went, onto the grass. There, we set up and viewed Saturn for about 15 minute. Cassini's division was like a black marker 3/4ths out toward the edge of the rings. Across the souther face of the planet's disc was a large darker band. The inner edge of the rings cut a black line across the face of the planet. Moons were sprinkled here and there. While I enjoyed Saturn, and the beauty of her rings and the clarity of the view, I knew, with no doubt, Jupiter was king.

The scope was airborne again, hovering over the swimming pool as I heauled it back to the Jupiter side of my backyard. Again, there were moments of clarity that I have not seen in over a year. Supreme detail. I am not sure of this either, but unless I am mistaken, on the upper (southern) equatorail belt, just appearing from the trailing edge, was the Great Red Spot (well, maybe it should now be called the Great Slightly Darker Spot). All the detail was there in the best moments. White ovals, festoons, double shadows transit, anywhere from 6 to maybe a dozen belts (or, maybe 8, depending on what is considered a belt and what is not), the GRS, two pair of moons flanking the giant planet, two of the moons almost touching while moving.

It was a great night. When conditions are just right, deep sky observing can't hold a candle to the king and queen of our solar neighborhood. It is rare that so many wonderful sights can be enjoyed in one evening. I was very lucky.

Saturday, August 9, 1997

Chillin at the Peak

What a Saturday. I had been planning to go to Chews Ridge with Hales and Shade, but my son had demonstrated his persistence admirably in pestering me to take he and his sister boogy-boarding at one of the beaches south of Santa Cruz. I had bought a wet-suit and board the day before, again, at my son's insistence, so there was no getting out of it on Saturday. I'll make this part of the report short. I had fun, my kids had fun, the water is bearable when clothed in a rubber suit. The rip-tides were quite strong, and I think I was drained from the exertion.

After arriving home, I packed up both kids and my equipment in the Suburban and headed over to Dean's. In went all his equipment. There was no spare room in the truck when we pulled out at 6:30pm.

Arriving at the Peak, we found Alan Nemls, Richard Navarrete, Ken Head and Rich Neuschaefer. There were also a couple other unknown observers. All were over by the ranger's house, nobody was at Coulter or the SW lot.

The weather was perfect. When we left San Jose, the wind was strong and dense clouds hung ominously over the coastal range. But, here, at Fremont Peak, we were in an oasis of calm and clear.

The moon hung high above the transmission towers as darkness rose in the east. Soon, our eyepieces were all brightly illuminated and lunar detail was quite good, although there was some atmospheric distortion due to not very steady seeing. Still, Luna was putting on a good show.

There was a public program at the observatory, and a good number of astro-tourists. Rich was handing out TAC information sheets, and Ken was gathering signatures on the "change-the-name" petition, as the visitors viewed through their scopes.

Meanwhile, I was enjoying bright views of M22, M13, B86 (well, a "bright view" is a true misnomer on that object), M57, M27, Alberio, the Veil Nebula, M28, and assorted other big-n-brights.

Over the towns surrounding the Peak, heavy fog and clouds settled in. It was one of the darkest nights in recent memory. Faces lost all detail, and only by someone's voice could you recognize them. However, all was not well at the Peak.

Dew soon fogged my eyepieces and Telrad. And, a slight breeze began.

I continued to observe, fighting the dew. How could I forgo such a dark night. The moon was going to drop soon, and my "real" observing could start.

Mother nature is certainly in control at the Peak. For a mid-August weekend, it was rather chilly. I had on my thermals, jeans, sweat pant, t-shirt, sweater and heavy jacket. I even had to put on my winter hat when my ears became chilled. The cold was becoming more noticeable, as the breeze was becoming more pronounced.

Moon set brought out the wind. The breeze had changed into a strong wind blowing from the south. It was cold, and dobs were useless. We spent some time observing through a 5" AstroPhysics and 5" Takahashi refractor. We saw two limb-events on Jupiter, probably the same moon crossing onto the face of the planet, and later emerging. It is amazing to watch. There was also an easily seen shadow transit, GRS and several white ovals to be seen.

But the wind kept up. The dew was gone, but the wind was really a worse problem.

One of the unknown observers, looking at the dark clouds now starting to hide the Great Square of Pegasus, worried aloud about rain. He was set up to sleep on a chaise lounge. Dean and I had cots and sleeping bags. My kids had the truck. I thought, there was no way it would rain.

We had anticipate possible observing problems for the evening, so a few members of our group brought up bottles of wine. We sat at the bench behind the restrooms, which provided a wind block. We kept listening to the wind howl, we'd sip some wine, and talk about telescopes, mounts, eyepieces, observing trips, storms of the past, and other subjects.

The hour grew late, and no more observing would take place. Members of our group who were not camping over left for home. The wind was still strong, and the clouds thick overhead. There were no city lights.

I crawled into my sleeping bag, tired from fighting the ocean in the morning, the wind and cold at night, thinking about rain.

Just then, the zipper on my bag opened all the way up to the bottom. My bag was shot. I put on my winter boots and more warm clothes, and tried to sleep while listening for rain.

Such trips to the Peak make the exceptional nights all the more special.

Saturday, June 28, 1997

Fremont Peak 6/28 ( newbies rule! ;-)

Saturday the 28th of June began mostly cloudy, as viewed from my window in Los Gatos. I had plans to clean the mirror of the 14.5" Dob and slowly pack for Fremont Peak, while watching the sky for improvement. The 14.5 had been washed only a month or so prior, but I had a surprising discovery Tuesday night at our near-town star party at Montebello Open Space Preserve... there was a very well defined pair of raccoon footprints near the edge of the mirror. I had obviously had a curious visitor my last time a Fremont Peak, when it was breezy and I did not use the shroud to shield stray light. The footprints came of just fine, and I decided to lave the 14.5 closed up pending the dark sky weekend 80-90 of us will spend at our star party in the Sierras over 4th of July weekend. So, I took my tie-dyed 10" f/5.6 Dob out for a relaxing evening.

I had posted to TAC's mailing list that I would be happy to help anyone who wanted to tackle the month's Messiers and Hershels (from the 400 list), and knew a few people were interested. So, I would save my intensive observing for the Sierras and just let some "newbies" (a term I wish at times could be applied to me, since I would get to relive all that initial astro-observing excitement!) get some experience at star hopping and training looking at some dinner objects than the usual bright M's.

About 2 p.m. my 9 year old daughter and I pulled out of the driveway, stopping at a grocery store for our picnic dinner. What a feast she chose. Fresh fruit salad, pitted Greek Calamata olives, Havarti and Meunster cheeses, German potato salad, fresh sourdough baguette, extra dry Columbus salami and beer (for me). The kid has good taste already. On the road, we experienced the usual rubber-necking slowdown on the freeway when someone was changing a flat tire. I will never understand the fascination.

The as we approached Morgan Hill, the clouds were sufficiently sparse to encourage me that we might have a good night, but up ahead, past Gilroy where I could now see Fremont Peak in the distance, clouds hung over the mountain like a unwanted visitor that only comes when you have other plans.

Up San Juan Canyon Road, my daughter was enjoying seeing the grazing sheep, horses, cows, longhorn cattle, and goats. It is a beautiful leisurely drive through Eden.

When I pulled into the observing area, there were already half a dozen or more members of our observing group set up. The best spots were gone. I find myself wondering if Jim Bartolini every really goes home. But, I pull out the 10", set up and begin looking at the sky. No clouds. Amazing.

The afternoon wore on, and some of us walked over to the observatory. Kevin and Deni Medlock were set up with a Takahashi CN212 Cassegrain-Newtonian, ready for a night of CCD. A 20" Obsession, 8" Meade SCT, Celestron CG11 and Paul Barton's old C11 were set up by the observatory. Along Coulter Row, John Kuklewicz and Crazy Ed were relaxing, telescopes, set up, along with another observer who I didn't recognize.

Around 5 p.m. a group of us gathered in the southwest parking lot to discuss the future of Fremont Peak for astronomy, what the long term status of the observatory was, and what possibilities were realistic for developing the side of the park with the ranger's quarters. The Medlocks, who are intimately familiar with the California Parks system, had much interesting information, and ideas.

My daughter needed to fuel up, so we had our gourmet dinner, watching Venus brighten in the western sky. We watched fog form to the west, south and east of the Peak, with some spilling over the top. Dew formed on the roofs of our vehicles and on chairs. Would this be a lost night?

As darkness began, the breeze stopped and so did the fog. A layer settled into the valley south of the Peak, and some wisps occasionally fingered around the Peak to the west, but we stayed dry.

Some park visitors wandered through the group's observing site. Imagine the curiosity these first timers must have felt, seeing perhaps 15 telescopes of all shapes and sizes set up. We had an 18" Obsession, 16" home built Dob, 12" LX-200, 10" LX-200, 13.1" Coulter Dob, 15" Obsession, 5" Takahashi refractor, 10" f/6 Dob, 10" f/5.6 Dob, 8" reflector in an aluminum tube on old plumber pipe mount, 8" Coulter Dob, 12.5 "Mellow Yellow" Dob (two part aluminum tube design... a "must see"), Meade ETX, 8" Celestron Ultima 2000, 6" Intes Maksutov, and others I am sorry I do not remember. It was a great turnout. The visitors had views of the bright globulars, Mars, Venus, the Ring Nebula, Alberio and other favorites as the sky darkened more. I especially enjoyed showing objects to the visitors, as they were all very interested young adults from the neighboring town of San Juan Buatista.

Two observers with our group wanted to work the July Hershel, which we had printed out off TAC's web-page. We began with the now famous Cat-Eye Nebula in Draco. This is a very green planetary. The ETX owner joined me in the hunt (I think he considers himself a newbie), as did the owner of the 10" f/6 (who, I believe has thus far spent his time on Messiers). We used the Herald-Bobroff Atlas as our guide, along with a Tirion 2000. I soon realized the newbie had a very good feel for star hopping, and turned the task of chart reading and star hopping over to him. I was just along for the ride, and to be occasional help. The night flew by, working globulars in Ophiuchus. The area is dense in globular clusters (more globulars in that constellation than any other). Some were easy to detect, others were quite faint. One object was a mag 14 planetary nebula that the newbie passed saw, but didn't think was the planetary (I helped confirm that one). The image of the night though was the single field view of ngcs 6440 and 6445. One is a small globular cluster with a very nicely condensed core, diffusing out evenly. The other is a planetary nebula close to the same angular size as the globular. The part that I found interesting was, the planetary was a ring... bright at the edges and dim in the center, while the globular was just the opposite (bright core, dim edges). It was like a photo with its negative in view.

The planetary itself was not really circular, more elongated (perhaps bipolar). Along the long axes, the planetary appeared to dim, looking almost like there was a break in the gas ring. We viewed it under several different magnifications.

In the east, the moon began graying out the sky, subtler at first, then with increasing insistence. Before it got to bright, I popped the 10" on B86 in Sagittarius, always one of my favorite view. My newbie friend enjoyed the view too. Then, up to Jupiter. A large festoon hung off one of the central bands. The view was crisp with two moons on each side in my 19mm Panoptic. Jumping to a 7mm, the image deteriorated significantly.

The moon now sat above the trees to the east, and the party was coming to an end. All had fun. Some worked seriously on observing programs, others who are occasional participants cruised the bright stuff and enjoyed viewing through the wide range of equipment available. For me, the night was an educational one. I had fully expected to have to "walk" a few nebies through use of a star chart, help them star hop, and show them how to confirm a find. Much to my surprise, I had little to do. The newbies showed me that with a decent sky, well collimated scope, Telrad type finder and a good star chart, they could accomplish a lot in one evening.

I wondered... were they really newbies, or not?

The troops pulled out between 2:30 and 3 a.m., and soon Rich Neuschaefer, Bill Arnett and I sat talking about those things that began the evening... Fremont Peak and the State. The sky was still a feast for the eye. The conversation changed to astronomy clubs, boards of directors, how the internet may be changing the way astronomy organizations interact with members. It was an interesting discussion that continues to be food for thought.

The breeze picked up a bit again, and chilled us. We decided that the evening was over and to tear down our scopes. Suddenly, Bill called out that we should come over. In the 12", there sat a Saturn, our first view of the season. The Cassini Division shown clearly, now that the angle of the rings is angle increasing. One dark band was obvious on the planet. It was a very nice view, and a great way to end the night.

I got into my truck, where my daughter was sleeping, and soon I was emulating her.

Thursday, May 29, 1997

Deep targets in Lightville

Last night was so comfortable outside, I took a few eyepieces out back to keep my telescope company. I had been waiting for a nice evening to use my 8" f/7 Dob with its newly bathed mirror. At 10pm, there were no clouds visible, so I began.

First stop was the nice double in Bootes... is it Epsilon? Well, at 186X it was very tight, but split. I could tell the seeing was pretty steady.

Looking south, I wondered what M104 would look like. Using my 20mm Meade I zero'd it in. What a nice field... a curving row of fairly bright stars to one side, and there, offset by itself, the glow of the galaxy... an obvious "spread" of light with, using averted vision, a bulge and dark streak. I was fascinated that it could be seen with this much detail... not bright like a dark sky would yield, but still... :-)

On to the pair in Leo's back-leg.... M65 and M66. Easy stuff. I kept wondering what it would look like in my 10" sitting in the garage. But, the 8" was such fun to use, I stuck with it. Looking at 65 and 66 I begin thinking I might as well try to see NGC3268. Well, I was surprised. There, off to one side, was the dim third galaxy. Averted vision showed it to be long and wide, with a position angle nearly identical to that described by the line between the two Messiers. This was surprising.... I have seen 3268 from in town before, but I had not tried it in an 8" (usually the 14.5), since I had failed on previous occasions with my 10". This was going to be a good (but short night).

How about some globs? M5, M13 and M3 all resolved into beautiful, contrasty distant cities of stars. By now, I had put away the 20mm Meade and discovered my 19mm Panoptic worked very nicely in the 8". I would view these globulars at 74X (the 19mm), and then really get a good close look at 133X with a 10.5mm ocular. Again, the seeing was fabulous. I was finding myself gazing askance for long periods at each object, fascinated at the clear, clean pinpoints that tightened into brilliant knots in each of these targets.

So, what would be fun to try? M51 is *always* a challenge in town. It is up high, but that also puts it more into the city light to my north (it is nicely dark in my backyard looking south, but turn around and there's San Jose). :-) Look at that.... the 8" was picking up disks around the two central components of the object. Now I was smiling. What would be *neat* to get in town?

Up high in the southwest, the glimmering outline of Bernice's Hair was visible. Up went the scope, and right away I ran into a galaxy. This one was a bright round or eliptical one, but not my target. A bit of scanning soon revealed NGC4565. I was stunned. Again, it is not like dark skies, but even in the city, with neighbor's lights brightening the neighborhood, there was an obvious streak of light in the eyepiece. It was large, and, could I see a dust lane? I don't know. Sometimes imagination invades the field of view. But, there were certainly times I felt there was a clean view of the small central bulge and dust lane in this, my favorite of edge-on galaxies.

Finding success, I jumped back up into the Leo/Virgo border, and found it almost easy pickings. M100, M99 and others.....

All I could think of at this point was how the night before we cancelled at Montebello, and hoped that Friday and Saturday nights would be as clear and steady as this one.

I went into the house to get a coffee, helped my wife put the last kid to bed, caught a few minutes of the local weather report on TV, then suggested we go outside for a quick peek through the scope.....

I stepped out back, looked up, and waived my wife off. High stuff had again moved in.

I packed up the eyepieces and called it a night.

It was a very nice, relaxing evening of deep sky observing, just steps outside my back door.

Friday, May 9, 1997

Galaxies, Dark Skies and Warm Nights!

Several members of The Astronomy Connection (TAC) spent a great evening at Fremont Peak last Friday. The top-side weather was more cooperative than we'd seen in many weeks, and down low, the fog rolled in sufficiently to turn it into one of the darkest n ew-moon weekend nights in the past few years.

I was set up with my rickety-old 14.5" f/5.6 dob. I was surprised to find the collimation almost exact upon set up. A quick tweak and all was right with the world, at least within walking distance. My two children, wife and 6 year old yellow lab "Jones " were along. Jones and my son were having a great time with a long time astronmer who is an accomplished juggler. My friend got help from our resident collimation expert "Gary" and his 18" f/4.5 Obsession was ready for action. The rest of our group we re less convinced than we that down on Coulter would be the best southern horizon, so they set up just up the road at the overlook parking lot. I guess they just liked the eye-popping view of the California coastline from Santa Cruz to Monterey that can be had from their vantage point. Aside from Gary, who was set up for CCD, Jim was there with his 16" home-built "big-blue" dob, Bill with the 12" LX-200, Richard with his double mount holding a C90 and Orion 80mm short-tube, Dean with the 5" Astrophysics, Akkana with the 4" and 6 " RFTs, and an assortment of others. The rest of "the group" were set up over by the observatory... John with a 7" Astrophysics, Rich with a 7" Astrophysics, Gil with his 100mm Zeis-o-Physics, Mike with the JMI 18, and David with the 12" Orion dobbie. SJAA pres Jack Z was set up there with his 17" home-built dob as well.

Thin clouds hung off the coast, but did not move inland at all. Slowly, fog moved in over the coastal cities, raising expectations that we could have a very good night. Before dark, I spent time viewing the thin crescent moon, Petavius' main crack, was very obvious, and a great sight.

Wondering what power would resolve the Ghost of Jupiter in the still bright twilight, I was able to find a couple guide stars just blinking in and out. The big blue ball appeared quickly at 107X. Nice greenish-blue, and unmistakable. Thnking that was e asy, I jumped over to M104. Someone commented that the bright twilight was not really very good for galaxy hunting, but there it was, nice and broad, with the dust lane prominant. I jumped up to M51, which already showed good spiral structure. Quickly, before Gemini dropped into the horizon, I took a look at the Eskimo nebula to confirm what someone on sci.astro.amateur had told me... that they liked the blinking effect of that planetary more than that of the Blinking Planetary in Cygnus. I think I have to agree!

As darkness began to settle in, and the fog became thicker, my wife made dinner. Several of us sat, ate, had some cold drinks and watched the stars appear. My daughter took off to the ranger's house to spend some time with his daughter. The Peak is a magical place to bring a family.

Once it was reasonably dark, Alan and I got back to the Herschel list. This would be a fine evening for that endeavor. The sky was cloudless and it was getting truely dark. There was no need for hats, boots or jackets... the temperature was very comfor table. We began our searches back in Coma Berenices, where we had left off last week. There are enough Herschel objects just in Coma for several observing sessions, and my time in that area is surely going to span several years.

As usual, I chose the Tele Vue 19mm Panoptic for viewing. It has a sufficiently wide field with which to locate objects, yet, enough magnification to show them well. Not in this order, here are the galaxies Alan and I viewed in Coma:

  • ngc4189 - large and round galaxy, with galaxies ngc4193 (small) and ngc4206 (large edge on) in field.
  • ngc4237 - elongated galaxy, close to M98. ngc4283 - Round galaxy close companion ngc4274, IC779 (mid 14's?), NGC4314 and ngc4245 in or near field.
  • ncg4312 - nice elongated galaxy very close to M100. ngc4377 - small round galaxy with bright core.
  • ngc4379 - round galaxy, in same field as edge-on ngc4396. ngc4421 - round galaxy very near 4379 and 4396.
  • ngc4455 - nice eleongated galaxy. ncg4489 - very eleongated galaxy, same field with ngc4498.
  • ngc4525 - small elongated galaxy in same field with very dim ngc4502 (both my references are mag 15).
  • ngc4540 - fairly bright roundish galaxy with ic800 and ngc4523 in same field.
  • ngc4595 - smal, dim galaxy, alone in the field, but close to large elongated ngc4559. ngc5016 - small roundish galaxy alone in the field.
  • ngc5116 - nice dim elongated galaxy. ngc4634 - with ngc4633 - nice view of 2 dim elongated galaxies.
  • ngc4286 - nice field with ngc4278 and ngc4283.

During the night, Bill, Jay and Akkana, came by and asked to view IC4167 in Hercules. This is a small and elusive galaxy between M13 and ngc6207. I had seen it on several occasions through a 17.5" dob that TAC member Ray owns, but never in the 14.5". With averted vision, I had no trouble seeing its dim glow. Others requested more power, so out came the 19mm and in went a 10.5. I liked the view better at lower power. Of course, since we were right there, we enjoyed the views of M13 and ngc6207. Onc e our friends curiousity was satisfied, Alan and I got back to real observing. ;-)

Since there are times that Alan and I do not find our targets simultaneously, we will stray off looking at other objects while waiting for each other. Mine included M3, Barnards Galaxy, M22, M28, M2, M15, LDN108, ngc6522 and ngc6528 ("twin" globulars), M4, ngc6144 (globular by M4), Veil Nebula (no filter). I especially enjoyed the tendrils and blackness of the dark nebulae in Sagittarius. The darkness snaking and curling through the star fields of the central bulge of the Milky Way are truely delightfu l. And, as usual, looking at the brighter objects listed in this paragraph (with a few exceptions!) after looking at faint fuzzies all night is a real treat.

The most unexpected thing I heard all night, prompting a quiet chuckle, was Bill, after looking at IC4167, commenting on how bright ngc6207 is. My, my, just a few months ago, he'd be remarking about how dim 6207 is! Its all perspective... and experience...

All to soon, the east began to brighten. Jupiter was rising high, and my eyelids were getting lower. My new cot was calling. I lay back with the expanse of the universe my ceiling, watching the million suns glow in the distance, until the blackness of sleep put them out.

Observing with a group is great fun. If you are an active observer, or want to learn about techniques and equipment, and live in the San Francisco bay area, you are welcome to join us for our observing get-togethers. The schedule is on our web-page.

Tuesday, April 15, 1997

Quick observing in Los Gatos

After all the comments about the hair-n-muck covered mirror my 8" f/6.9 little dob received at the Messier Marathon last month (nobody even would touch it), I decided to clean both primary and secondary today. I let my 12 year old son get some experience, so I watched and advised, and he did a decent job. Then I did it again to get it really clean (boy, did I get tired scrubbing that thing! ;-)

We went out back and played with the collimation for a bit, and then I pointed it at the moon (yes, me, looking at the moon), and was astonished at the clarity the little scope provided. I was using my 35mm Orion Ultrascopic, and it was dazzling. But, I kept thinking the seeing was coming and going, so I did not get too excited. I peeked around and found Sirius, and decided to star test. What a surprise. Nice rings inside and out of focus. I love slow scopes!

Darkness fell, and it was a shirtsleeve night. I only wish we'd get a night like this at Fisher! I looked at Mars and with a 3.8mm Ultrascopic was able to detect some surface features. A bright spot on the limb, probably the polar cap. Some hints of dark markings, and another white spot near but just off center. Being a deep-sky-guy... I really can't tell you what I was seeing. I'll leave that to the Hacksaw (if you don't know who that is, feel free to ask). Soon it was nice and dark, even with a good 1st Q moon out. So, back to the moon I went. Believe it or not, and this has only happened once before, I was so interested in one crater near the terminator, I decided to draw. Yikes! I could feel full-blown lunacy sweeping over me as I stood with my kitchen light on behind me, peering through the eyepiece, then down at the piece of paper. It was really quite enjoyable once I loosened up and began having fun with it (instead of seeking perfection). I am no lunar artist, but I have posted the sketch to a URL:

Have a look. Maybe someone can tell me what I was seeing (it is a very distinctive crater).

After I finished drawing, I moved to the back of the yard and, using a Meade 10.5mm, popped right onto M81. Boy was I surprised. I had to get my 19mm Panoptic for a wider field to confirm what I was seeing by finding M82 in the same field. This little scope gets good images in town! Then, the test. After some hunting and grunting, I actually detected the cores of M51 and that other smudgey blob. I was impressed I could even see it. M109? No way. M108 or the Owl... ha, not here. The Eskimo? Dropped right on it.... and it did the same trick as the blinking planetary in Cygnus (stare at it, the nebulousity disappears and its just a star, look away slightly and it becomes a nebula again). Down to M35... need aperture... but still nice. Then into Leo... M65 and M66 are there, and not too bad, but the 14.5" in dark sky it's not!

A phone call interrupted me, and when I went back outside the mood was broken. I covered the scope, and went in. About an hour outside, and it was great. Sometimes I think the quick "mental breaks" in my backyard are the most rewarding (but maybe I'm just rationalizing between new moons).

Friday, April 4, 1997

Freezing in Coma

A few brave souls fought Friday (4/4) afternoon San Francisco bay area traffic to Henry Coe State Park in order to beat the crowds of comet-crazies that were sure to decend like flame-driven moths to local observing sites on Saturday. Richard Navarrete and I found each other at a red light on the freeway turnoff heading up to the park, 15 miles from our destination.

The road soon narrowed into two twisting lanes, leading us to and around Anderson Reservoir. People were fishing along the banks, some setting up for the night. The road narrowed in places to a single lane, where gravity and weather conspired to cover man's intrusion, but our path was still passable. Up by a local farm Richard slowed almost to a stop on a hairpin turn to the right, and as I followed, there stood several peacocks, one in full display turning toward me, colors shimmering in the late afternoon light. Continuing uphill, we passed several hillside pastures with both milk cows and longhorn steer, the Coyote Valley, Morgan Hill, Gilroy and the greater bay area receding behind us as we climbed the roadway toward a night away from the present.

Soon we arrived at our destination. The only company there were three trucks with empty horse trailers attached. The owners were on a multi-day ride in the park, as evidenced by the tags stating they must be out in two days. The only sign that a living being had been there was a large "don't step in it" spot by one of the trucks.

The wind was cold. You Arctic types from the mid-west of or eastern seaboard of the US, or those heartiest of observers north of the border, you in Scotland or Alaska, forgive me if I tell you that the wind cut through us like a gale-blown icicle. Before sundown, I was in most of my heavy winter clothing. But for a few layers of low cloud to our west, the sky was clear.

Soon, Hale-Bopp and Sirius appeared. Betelgeuse, Rigel, and Cappella soon followed. Regulus, then the whole sky began shining white points and the Milky Way glowed crossing above Canis Major, Orion and into Auriga. Hale-Bopp was skirting San Jose's light dome to the northwest. The tail measured between ten and fifteen degrees naked eye, depending on where you felt it disappeared in Cassiopeia. The dust tail was easily the more noticeable of the two.

The wind began to die, but the chill would not go. More clothing went on. I turned my back to the city glow to face the south and east, where nothing seemed to intervene between me and the stars.

I had worked a bit of Coma Berenices the prior week, enjoying the rich galaxy fields. Reading about this part of the sky a few days afterward, I found most galaxies to be in the neighborhood of 40 million light years distant, but some, and I will hunt them down, are part of the actual Coma cluster, and 400 million light years distant. There is something magical about seeing that ancient light.

The viewing really started about 8 o'clock. I quickly landed on the first galaxy I was looking for, and though I am not a superstitious person, I always like an "easy" first object to put me in a "successful" frame of mind. Believe me, there is nothing worse than hunting for 40 minutes for an object that turns out to be a dud "almost-ain't-there" smudge. Coma was fun, because the nice triangle of dim stars flanked on the sides by brighter landmarks make navigation easy. The challenge is, being sure you are looking at the correct object, there are so many.

My favorite had to be east of Denebola (Leo's tail). A short hop and you are looking at galaxies galore around M98 and M100. 98 is a nice spiral tilted slightly from edge-on toward us. It is huge in comparison to other Herschel objects. Crossing the naked eye "locator" star almost diagonally, M100 comes into view. It is face on and awesome. These are the two galaxies I used to "galaxy hop" through the crowded fields of smaller island universes. Starting at M100, and moving away from M98, once finds a pair of bright stars, one closer to the big galaxy. Following the line described by the galaxy and closer star, one will come to a pair of galaxies: NGC4302 and NGC4298. They are easily in the same field. I had mistakenly located another pair at first, looking at them and thinking "wow -- these are dim and almost inseparable to me" ... but something did not seem right. Backtracking, I tried again, and success! Two gorgeous galaxies, one nearly edge on, the other almost face on, came into view. They are not bright as the brightest Messier's, but these are big and (I will need to read up on them) may be interacting. They are a great sight.

I was not cold now. Up and down the ladder. A few of my "flavored" coffees also helped keep me warm. By now, Rich Neuschaefer and Jay Freeman had arrived. Navarrete had been busy shooting photos of Hale-Bopp. The place was still empty. What a treat! Concentrated, uninterrupted observing! Almost no headlights. Darkness to my face! I was beating up Coma until it was a zenith, then I tried Bootes. After a few confirmed finds, and pegging a mag 14 (not bad for the unsteadiness of the night), I sat down.

Richard told me I had logged a lot of galaxies. I did not think so. It was so relaxing, so refreshing. What did I have... 15 total, maybe? We sat back, and talked of the cold, the summer, the Milky Way, families, health insurance, dark skies, the comet. Two hours later it was 2 a.m. and we decided to pack up and find the comfort of our own beds. Family awaited us in the morning.

I drove down the mountain, narrowly missing an opossum crossing the road. The night fishermen had lamps glowing off the side of the road around Anderson Resevior. Soon, it I was heading back to the land of fast food and pavement. Back to the land of modern light.

Richard read a temperature sign off the side of the freeway on the way home at 2:30. 38 degrees down *off* the mountain.

I logged 37 Herschel in a relaxed and very enjoyable short night. But it was a cold night, freezing in Coma.

Friday, March 28, 1997

Comet Crazies and two nights

Friday night, The Astronomy Connection (TAC) held a star party at a middle school in Los Gatos, California, for the public to come out and get aquainted with Comet Hale-Bopp. As sunset approached, the number of telescopes we had exceeded 20, brought in by active observers from Monterey, the upper San Francisco peninsula, and out into the East Bay. This is a large geographic area, and can testify to the desire and willingness of like-minded observers to travel unusual distances to share views and camaraderie. Before the sun fell behind the Santa Cruz mountains, roughly a hundred interested members of the public had gathered, along with local newspaper photographers, looking at the hardware, which included an 18" Obsession, 18" Sky Design, 17" home-built, 14.5" home-built, several 10" and 8" dobs, a number of Meade LX-200's ranging in size from 12" down to 8's, a Celestron Ultima 2000, Astrophyics 130 and Traveler, Takahashi 128, Miyauchi 20x100 binoculars, and many other wonderful optics. The crowd loved it.

Soon, the comet blinked into view below a few wisps of cloud drifting slowly in the west, from north to south. The excitement in the crowd was electric, as all heads turned northwest and voices murmured "right there" and "just under *that* little cloud. Binoculars and telescopes quickly swung into action. The owner of the 12" LX-200, being new to large crowds at events pushed by the press, commented to me twice that there were "too many people!" And in fact, had we fewer than what at that point must have easily been 25 telescopes set up, the crush would have been unbearable. Lines were long at all the equipment, and more people could be seen streaming into the school yard from the parking lot.

All sorts of questions were asked. What are the "rings" around the front of the comet. What will happen to it? Have they ever hit the earth and what would happen? What are they made of? How large are they? Where do they come from? And, of course, the usual gasps of amazement and comments on the beauty of the view in binoculars, where the extent of the visible tail could be appreciated.

We received thanks from so many people, it was an extremely rewarding evening. Of course, when the comet dropped into the muck, scopes turned to the other celestial delights. M42, Mars showed wonderful detail in the 5" Takahashi and in a 17" dob (with off-axis masking), M41, M46, M81 and M82, M65 and M66 with (much to my surprise) the companion NGC3628, and many other objects.

Finally, about 11:30, the crowds had gone home, as had many of the scopes. Although there was some haziness that night, making the sky brighter than it might otherwise be from that location, all who were there agreed that for an in-town site, it was worth coming back to. We will hold another star party there on April 11, and I expect the comet fever will have reached maximum brilliance by then.

The next day many TAC participants drove to Fremont Peak ahead of the expected crowds. I picked up my observing friend and loaded his 20" Obsession into the back of the truck, making the 14.5" already in there look rather small. :-(

It was an unusually warm day in early spring, probably at or above 80 degrees, and not a cloud in the sky. Even the air quality was good, as the hills all around Silicon Valley were visible with surprising clarity. We drove down highway 101 (a.k.a. the "El Camino Real" or King's Highway) toward San Juan Bautista, through the usual bottleneck of gawkers viewing someone getting a traffic citation in the median, past the discount outlet malls, past the appetizing aroma of garlic that permeates Gilroy . Suddenly, looking up, we were amazed to see a cloud above.... OH NO.... above Fremont Peak. Could it be that the only cloud in northern California decided to park itself over our observing site? Or, was the park so packed already that what we are seeing is the smoke from hundreds of afternoon bar-b-ques? After winding our way (painfully slowly, when my buddies' 20" scope is in tow) 11 miles up San Juan Canyon Road, the road opened up into the top of Fremont Peak. Look... thin clouds. No campfires with weenies smoking up the sky. What was this? Around the bend to our setup area, we found several TAC members there already. They told us a controlled burn was taking place to our south toward Salinas, but things were improving rapidly.

So, we decided to stay. The park was relatively empty, except for some hikers, so things seemed to be okay.

Soon, much of the equipment that was at the in-town event the night before, began showing up. Double parking was a first time sight for us. As dark approached, tourists began appearing everywhere. It rapidly occurred to me that the park had become inundated with tourists. After dark set in, one could look down the hillside to the camping areas and literally see lines of cars, some with headlights on, others with them off, in a slow parade around the single lane roads of the park. We heard all parking places were occupied, and rangers were for the first time to my knowledge, directing traffic in the middle of nowhere on a mountaintop 2300 feet above the Monterey bay. What a zoo.

The comet was to blame, of course. I watched the comet until real dark set in, then the 14.5" and 20" began hunting Hershel objects.

This would be fun. For the first time I was entering the confines of Coma Berenices. The objects, unlike other dimmies I'd been viewing lately, were big and bright. And there were so many! Probably the most frustrating experience was looking for M88, because all we had was an NGC number to work with, and our chart (HB Astro-Atlas) only showed it as a Messier number. We kept checking the coordinates, saying "yes.... it should be right about THERE.... but "there" it wasn't". Finally we looked in the Uranometria Field Guide and sure enough, the phantom NGC was indeed M88. It was also fun to work a compact area of the sky. after such large constellations as Cetus, Draco, Ursa Major, Leo, etc. I became much more familiar with the stars in Bernice's Hair. Of the memorable sights, the old favorite NGC4565, with it's width, brightness, and super dark dust lane, certainly ranked high. Also fun was placing the eyepiece (19mm Panoptic) on M84 and walking galaxy by galaxy to and beyond M91, all in all, perhaps up to a dozen galaxies viewed by just drawing the field of view toward myself, with never a field without a galaxy in view. What a rich part of the universe we can see with a modest sized telescope!

But, the night had it's downsides too, at least for serious galaxy hunting. Each time I would abandon the eyepiece to check a chart or peek over toward the comet, I would turn around to find some stranger at my eyepiece, just an interested member of the public amazed to find "big" telescopes to look through. Of course, since we are all ambassadors of the hobby, courtesy stopped me from telling them to get the hell of the ladder and go away ;-) and instead I would usually put the object back in the field of view and explain what they were seeing. It is always fun... although it makes me think of the solitude and long nights we had during the past winter, observing without the comet, the tourists, the fires, the traffic jams and hordes of gawkers that made the past weekend unforgettable.

Soon this comet will pass, remembered fondly for its beauty and how it for a moment stimulated the public's imagination and interest in astronomy, and we will return to the normal craziness of summer time observing at Fremont Peak. Just a few more weekends until then.

I think the next dark sky TAC event will not be until the comet passes. Peace and quite are beginning to sound like a nice companion.