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.

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