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.

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