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.