Saturday, November 1, 1997

A Good Night, On Paper...

Some of our observing group went to the place that has no public name, Saturday night. It is the star party site known only to amateurs in the area, a place away from the public for more serious observers, peace and quiet, darker skies, no headllights, and locked access.

Upon arriving, the day was still hot. Someone commented that this first day of November had reached 88 degrees. The sky was clear, other than what appeared to be some smoke low on the horizon to the northeast in the far distance. The horizons were supe rb. One observer had chats printed for all of Grus, almost unheard of from the San Francisco bay area.

About a dozen of us set up as the the sun was falling behind a low hill to our west. The temperature dropped slightly, and the breeze, noticeable when we arrived, now began to fade. Our host stopped by for a short visit, and commented that the wind would be gone shortly after sunset.

And then the sun set.

A few observers began searching for the young moon, a few degrees above the western horizon. Soon it was visible, along with Venus and Jupiter to its south. Next, Saturn popped out several dozen degrees to Jupiter's east, and then Mars, now sitting west of Venus.

There was lots of talk about the new 6" AstroPhysics seeing first light. The sliver of moon was very easy to see it this outstanding new instrument. We also had a 6" Intes Mini-Micro, 16" and 14.5" homebuilt dobs, an 18"er, Orion Shortube, 8" and 12" Meade LX-200's, AP Traveller, possibly an 8" Celestron SCT (that I didn't see, but expect accompanied its owner), AstroScan and 10.1" Coulter Odyssey.

It was a nice collection sitting under the darkening sky.

The first order of business was dinner and watching for the bright flash of the Iridium flare just northeast of Jupiter. Right on schedule, a dim glow appeared heading south, and suddenly brightened to outshine Venus. The glow produced a bright halo. Just as soon as it appeared, it began fading and vanished. All who saw it were impressed.

One other observer and I then walked down the road about 1/4 mile to the gate, and shut it. We were in for the night, and the rest of the world was out. When we returned, the group had been viewing the Tether and Disco Ball satellites. I missed both, but the sky was so dark by now, the Milky Way looked like powdered sugar strewn across a black background. Well, not quite black. While I believe that the "site that has no name" is darker than Fremont Peak, others in the group felt they are equal. However, nobody could dispute that the light domes familiar from Fremont Peak were gone or significantly diminished from the althernate site.

Since my regular observing partner was not along, I would not use a computer planetarium program for my charts. I had brought along the trusty Herald-Babroff AstroAtlas, which I had not used since perhaps April or May. It would be a night in the water constellations again, my plan being to finish the Hershel catalog in Pisces, then move to Cetus and finally Eridanus.. All these constallations are teeming with Herschel list galaxies.

So, the night began with a successful hunt of NGC 7506 in Pisces. This is an elongated galaxy with a bright core, glowing at magnitude: 14.00, and measuring 1.5 x 0.9 minutes. It was no problem to see, so I felt we were all in for a good night.

Soon I would find the real advantage of the computer database planetarium programs. Of the dozens of Hershels in Pisces, I was down to the last handful. However, the HB Atlas did not show several of them, I guess the question is, are they real, or are they mistakes in the catalog, since my version of The Sky (software) does not show them either. Once my regular observing partner is back, I'll want to look at his program. All the remaining objects in Pisces are small galaxies at mag 15 or dimmer, so they are tough and can wait...

I shot up to the bright stuff in Cetus. What a blast. There is a nice squarish grouping of stars on the Cetus Eridanus border, the eastern pair of stars being Pi and Epsilon Ceti. The galaxy fields just north of this piece of sky were outstanding, with multiple members in single eyepiece views. Later in the evening, I would be working the area again, but across the border along the shores of "the River" constellation.

Although many people would not do so while observing, I had brought a nice bottle of Spanish red wine a friend had given me, which I opened to sip and share with some of the members of the group I knew best. It was to be a relaxing evening, not a mad rush to pack the books with check marks or do any "real science". I found some of the newer observers asking how to locate this object or that, if such and such would show in the size scope they had, and so on. One observer brought his 10 year old son, who wanted to see NGC 891 in the Orion Shortube. I put the 14.5" dob on it, at 107X, and had the typical faint but wonderful view of the edge-on and its distinct dust lane. I got a real charge out of hearing this young man out with the big-boys, and sounding like a real member of t he group, other than being a more polite one. But, boys will be boys, and regardless of the politics and other noises of the night that filled the air, it was a great night.

Several of the socpes, I think three, had Zeiss bino-viewers on them, which is quite impressive in such a small sampling of observers. These people are serious about having fun! I toured around with the wine, enjoying views of different objects in various instruments. M31 was astonishing in the Traveller, with M32 and M110 showing nicely (strangely, M110 show n nicer then M32!). The view of the dark lanes in the 12" LX-200 w/bino-viewers was among the best I've viewed.

So, the evening went that way, observing for an hour uninterrupted, then walking around and visiting.

As the evening wore on Cetus began to drop in the west and Eridanus was high. I decided to move to the higher constellation. The south was quite dark, and there I was again, at Pi and Epsilon Ceti, but east. There are so many galaxies in this region it is pointless to list them. But I did find that here, the HB Atlas was at its very best. Turning to the page for NGC 1426, I found a very crowded field of galaxies. No way could I distinguish one from another. It reminded me of the clusters near the Circlet in Pisces, or just above the point star in Triangulum, many parts of Virgo, and other assorted dense areas of deep space. Outlined, around the area on the map was a shaded box. Inside the box was the designation to one of the more magnified charts. .. the "D" charts. This is very much the feeling I get zooming in and out on the computer to verify objects, and no other atlas I know offers this feature. But, back to the observing part of the story....

Around this area, are 13 to 15 galaxies that can be viewed, depending on one's experience and ability (no, I didn't see them all). The ones I viewed formed a nice chain, appearing from the five o'clock position in my field of view, which I would then move to 11 o'clock, and see other galaxies appearing again at 5. This is a very rich area, and with the galaxies being mostly at the brighter end of mag 13, they are within the reach of scopes smaller than my 14.5".

Soon, the chairs all pulled together, and we began to unwind, sitting and talking, except for the owner of the new AP, who was busy evaluating the new piece of equipment. Soon, he would join us too, and we watched meteors, talked about things much more mundane than astronomy, and finally, disappeard into our vehicles to sleep, or back to our scopes to meet dawn.

I surprised myself in the morning, havning not pushed my observing during the night, and woking not from a computer program, I had found and viewed 53 galaxies. I guess I still know how to use a hard copy star chart. It was a good night, on paper....