Sunday, February 2, 1997

Photon Feast with dessert!

Yesterday, the San Francisco bay area had a one day break from the cloudy/rainy winter we have been having. It was a thoroughly inexplicable occurance, since this was a nearly moonless Saturday. So, after the usual morning family obligations, I began fielding phone calls from astro-friends wondering who was going to Fremont Peak. Everyone had a bad case of photon-deprivation were ready to rumble on down....

Leaving the south bay, the drive is short... 37/10000ths of a light second and you're at the Peak. You're there in a flash. What a great trade... that quick drive to see objects 50 million light years away... plus some spectacular "object du jour" that were unique and unexpected...

Arriving at "The Peak" at 3:30pm, I found the observing area nearly full. Huh? Is this mid-summer or early February? What's the deal with the crowd? Ah... yes.... the lure of clear skies... enough to make any California astronomer brave the near freezing night temperatures!

I set up the 14.5" dob and began admiring the variety of equipment. Want to check out a wide array of astronomy gear? The Peak is da'place. 20" homebuilt dob, 18" Obsession, 18" Sky Design, 17" homebuilt dob, 12.5" Orion dob, 8" Meade SCT, 8" Meade LX 200, 12" Meade LX 200, 18" JMI NGT, 6" Cave Newtonian, 7" Questar (loaded), 4" Takahashi, 6" Astrophysics, 5" Astrophysics, Astrophysics Traveller... many, many others... and ... oh... the 30" Challenger reflector in the Fremont Peak Observatory.

As twilight was becoming night, we started looking for some satellites one member of our group had sent us as an observing schedule. Satellites? Well, what the heck... maybe its cool... I did enjoy seeing the Shuttle re-enter last summer. I got my 10 x 50 binos ready...

First was... the "Disco Ball".... heh heh heh... I can't believe I was looking for something named after one of (IMO) the wierdest fads in American dance. OK... just above Polaris... 6:44pm... HEY....WHAT'S THAT? Unreal! That buggers blinking erratically, quickly, brightly... it's the Spastic Saturday Night Fever Sat! Kewl... ;-) It was quite a sight. A half dozen of us or more watched that 7' mirror covered sphere tumble across the darkening sky.

Soon after, a few degrees above Deneb, the bright visage of Mir crossed. Man, that baby moves. I tried to see a supply ship nearby, but was unsuccessful.

I have to admit that awhile later I was probably the only person at Fremont Peak who was unable to find NOSS cross the northern sky. NOSS is three satellites flying in formation very close to each other. I had seen it a year ago... and believe me, seeing such a strange sight might lead one to consider the possibility of alien visitation.

Now it was dark enough to observe. The Hershel Hunt began. Forty *7&&))*@ minutes to try and find the first one in Eridanus. Arrrrrrrr.. blow it off... too low.... to bright on the western horizon. Up to... Gemini? Yes... nicely placed if you don't mind using a ladder. First to ngc2371/2372, a bi-lobed planetary just south of Castor and Pollux. Hmmm... seen it before. OK... on to some galaxies... ngc's 2274 2389 2435 2481 and 2275. These were all easy targets, with good bright stars to hop from. These galaxies ranged from (approx) mag 13.5 to 14.5, and all were small objects.

Soon, Gemini was near zenith, making it difficult to operate the dob, so we began woking Leo. I had been in Leo the past two years, looking for Herschel objects, and my observing partner questioned whether we were nearing the end of the constellation. Ha! Leo is sooooo rich, I showed my friend three unmarked pages of objects still to be located.

Most of these objects seemed to be in the areas between the upper-back-side of the curve of the "question mark" and Leo Minor, and between Regulus and the Hydra/Cancer border. Ngc's 3900 2872 2906 2968 2970 3020 3067 3070 3274 3300 3437 3016 2874 and 3024. Some of these were *very* small... on the order of .5" x .7" of arc, and 13th magnitude and dimmer. Several challenging objects were west of the back triangle of stars in Leo, toward Leo Minor, where there are few good stars to hop from.

About now, one member of our crew came by and asked about a supernova in a distant galaxy located in Virgo. We looked through my 14.5" and felt we could see a bright point of light in the galaxy, winking in and out. Over to the 12" LX-200 to comfirm the location... yes... right one... and the blinker was there in that scope too. Over to the 18" Obsession, confirmed! Imagine... seeing the light emitted from a single star at such distance! Good stuff.

Now, it was getting cold. There was ice forming on the tops of several cars. I had enough layers on to make movement noticeably affected. But, any moisture in the atmosphere had frozen out, and the sky was very clear. It was about 2:30am and I moved up toward Ursa Major. This is another incredibly rich area for galaxy hunters. As I began, I thought of the Hubble Deep Field photo, and was, as always, humbled by the size and depth of the cosmos. But, I pressed on despite my insignificance. :-) Since I had done so little work in Ursa M, I had lots of nice bright stuff to look at! All mag 11 - 11.5, what a treat. I hit ngc's 3992 2681 2976 2975 and 3077. My partner had sat down in his chair as I swung up toward this section of sky. His replies to any discussion had been reduced to Cro-Mag grunts and at times, simple non-responsiveness. Soon, he was having uncontrollable yawning attacks and I knew he had to go before we all were afflicted. So, off went my friend, with about four or five other vehicles. I suddenly felt alone.... as I was the only scope set up on that part of road.

I walked over to the other big dobs and two LX-200's. Everyone was sitting, relaxing, talking, drinking coffee and hot chocolate, looking forward with anticipation to comet Hale-Bopp. From memory I began naming summer ngc and Messier numbers to try on the 12" LX-200. We kicked around in "summer" for a while, and thought about shirtsleeves and shorts (and mosquitos), about cold drinks on warm nights, short-all-niters, trips to darker skies, and more.

Now fatigue was beginning to take over. I walked aimlessly around for a while... looking to the east for the bright traveller to appear. I had not seen the comet since last fall when it was in Scutum. Would it really be *that* much bigger and brighter?

Suddenly, a disembodied voice in the dark called me to some 16 x 70 tripod mounted binoculars. ____OH____MY____GOD

What a coma. Was that a plume off the side of the nucleus? It must be. Look how big and bright it is. Is it another Hyakutake? No way. No, it is different, magnificent in its own right. This comet was not the "beauty queen" we saw a year ago March, this comet was, instead, specatular for its sheer size and activity. I had to see it through a telescope!

I walked over to the 6" AstroPhysics. Well, the nucleus had an active geyser spouting 90 degrees away from the tail. In the fountain was, well, clouds. And, material was not just coming off in the plume, but all around the nucleus. the coma itself was quite a sight... think of how the Ring Nebula is illuminated brightly at the edges of the "bubble" but not in the center. That is how HB's coma appeared to me. Like a distended upside down "U" with the area behind the nucleus being (to me) clear in appearance. The coma was bright along the edges, and the side with the brilliant fountain had a brighter coma.

And to think this is going to become brighter and larger....

I went up to the observatory and had a look through the 30". The fountain had the appearance of clouds as it seemed to have come off the nucleus in waves or bands. This one will be a DON'T MISS IT show in a month.

About then I began noticing the all nighters fatigue showing among others. One fellow, trying to look through a dob at the comet, rocked back a bit too far and rolled onto his rear-end and back (no harm). Someone pouring hot chocolate seemed to miss their cup and spilled the hot liquid all over the roof of their car (quickly melting the ice).

I had enough observing. The dawn was quickly approaching. It was after 5am. I crawled into the back of my truck, dressed like an Eskimo on Mars, and quickly was asleep.

I awoke at 8:30 to the sun ringed by a multicolored halo from high thin clouds extending in a V shape from Sol to the north-western horizon. We had tasted every last morsel of this flukey break in California's winter weather pattern. It was delicious, and I certainly had my fill.

As I stumbled out of my truck, all that was left were a few other all niters asleep in their vehicles, and a good size hot chocolate pond in the parking lot.

I drove relaxedly down the hill, past the horses with their winter coats, past the cows having breakfast, past the sheep and past the rushing stream following San Juan Canyon Road... back toward "civilization" a mere 37/10000ths of a light second away...

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