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.

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