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.