Friday, February 27, 1998

Two nights of stars!

The last weekend of February, 1998, I was hoping to get in one night of observing, after what seemed an interminable stretch of cloudy and wet skies. Friday morning, conditions were not looking good, and so, I made other plans for the evening and notified my friends on this mailing list. I took the lack of replies or comments to mean either I don't have any friends, or pretty much everyone agreed that the night did not look good.

Very late afternoon, my prior engagement canceled, and I thought, why not just go and see what turns out. I knew the road to Coe was open, so I headed south. Halfway there, I realized I had not put a message out on the list, and thought, well, it had been a long time since I was able to do any solitary observing, and of course there was the possibility of running into other amateurs at Coe who, like me, thought "why not".

Stopping off for a quick junk food much at East Dunne in Morgan Hill, I thought, hey... I left a message with Ranger Dooley of Pacheco Park, letting him know some of us might be coming down on the weekend. And so, thinking of real solitude, a better road, and the possibility of evaluating that site's main (gravel) lot for future wet weather use, I changed plans and followed 152 to the Dinosaur Point turnoff. The gate was locked, but I have the combination, and after some resistance the combination worked and the gate fell open.

So there I sat, a throw together picnic of brie and baguette, chocolate, Mexican coffee, sunset, crows, cows, coyotes, and a clearing sky. It all felt so good, to be out, to be away.

The lot at Pacheco is not "small" gravel, but it is not large either. The 14.5" dob had no stability problems at all. My feet did not feel individual rocks, so I would not have a problem setting up there in the future.

Now came the observing. I had just finished my dinner and saw the sky open nearly full. It had been so long since I was out like this, just one on one with the sky. The telescope became not a piece of equipment, but an extension of my eye, and the sky, darker than any I remember locally in some time, was my companion for the evening. And she was a *great* looking companion! Funny thing is, as I worked over some of the small open clusters in Canis Major and Puppis, I found myself looking longer and longer, naked eye, at the sky.

It was like being with an old friend, someone lost for years that rekindles some warm familiarity. All my old friends came back to me, just looking, pretty much naked eye. There were some clouds that would drift through, and turn the night into a game of "name that constellation"... kind of a celestial jigsaw puzzle where you could see only some of the pieces and you needed to figure out where they fit.

So, I did that until the effects of the workweek intervened and called me into the truck for sleep.

For the record, Jay Freeman was correct about Pacheco and local fog. Toward the end of the evening, fog became an increasing problem. When I awoke, it was to green hills, draped in fog, with the dawn sun painting the distant clouds in the east from below the horizon. Hot coffee, a stretch of the legs, and I knew that I was rejuvenated. It seemed like ages since I was so satisfied with a night out.

I arrived home, cleaned up and took care of the typical weekend chores. I had had phone calls and e-mails from several friends, some of whom had guessed that I was out observing. We all wondered about observing that night (Saturday), but the sky looked like typical February 1998. The consensus was to not go. Still, there were those little prodding e-mails that just kept arriving, mostly from the contingent in Boulder Creek (Shade and Robinson) who seemed eager to get out. The suggestion was made that we could try the Bonny Doon airport with the Santa Cruz Astronomy Club. I had never been there and decided that it was at least worth a drive up to look at the location, and since my truck was still packed from the night before it was easy to do.

The Bonny Doon airport faces, and this is a guess from memory, mostly north-south along its runway. It is a very nice wide open space with little problem from local light pollution. The dome of Santa Cruz and San Jose are noticeable, although under proper conditions would not pose much of a problem to observers. I think the biggest problem there would be dewing/fog.

Sandra Macika had asked earlier, by e-mail, if I would bring a telescope for her. Since all I had was the 14.5", I decided I would again enjoy the pure relaxation of just eye balling the sky. I have had so many nights of "work" at this hobby, searching for the small and faint, that the "big picture" was again a nice way to pass the evening. So Sandra had a 14.5" scope and 27 Panoptic to play with for the evening. Marsha set up close to Sandra, and the two of them began a pre-Messier Marathon, to warm up for the real event next month. I lent Marsh the 19 Panoptic, to increase the magnification of one particular object, and she immediately fell in love with the "wide-field" look and feel of the design. I played "guide" for the evening, suggesting which Messier to hunt next, offering a bit of help here and there, and confirming hits. If I recall, their list of finds included:

M1, M74 (tough in both scope), M33, M31, M32, M110, M42, M43, M35, M46, M47, M45, M44, M67, M105, M96, M96, M65, M66 and possibly a few I do not recall. Not a bad night for a practice Marathon!

Perhaps Bill Arnett will either post the URL for a suggested Messier Marathon hunting order, or mail a copy to the list, so we can get ready for the real event next month.

The western sky began to fade, as clouds crept higher over the horizon, until all but the easternmost stars burned with their normal intensity. The night was done. People from TAC's mailing list who attended were (aside from me) were Sandra Macika, Jay Freeman, Marsha Robinson, Mike Shade, Jeff Blanchard, John Pierce, some of whom are members of the Santa Cruz club. Several other members of the Santa Cruz club were there as well (other than Chris Angelos, I don't recall names). Thanks to the Santa Cruz club for their hospitality!

For me, It was a great weekend... not perfect observing by any means. Just being out, after what felt like ages, was refreshing. I wondered if I had waited a few hours if the sky would clear again, but after two nights, I was quite satisfied. It was fun to look at the sky again as the "big picture" instead of though the less than one degree view of I had grown accustomed to. I had done something I hadn't done in many, many years, finding it exciting and enjoyable. Getting out for a little piece of the heavens is a good thing.

Tuesday, February 17, 1998

A short night of opens.

After being deluged in the morning, looking at threatening clouds in the afternoon, calling off a trip to Montebello, and resigning myself to working, the sky opened for a few hours between twilight and 8 p.m.

I took the opportunity to give my 10" f/5.6 dob a breath of fresh air, letting the mirror cool and settle, while I ate dinner and watched darkness fall. I had printed out a backyard list a few nights before, and, putting on my winter coat, but leaving it open, went out to enjoy the cool of the winter night and hunt objects that I had left years before at the bright end of the Herschel list.

Since my list was sorted alphabetically, I began in Auriga. I knew it would be a short night, since the weather report was for clouding to come in just a few hours. So, in went my 19 Panoptic, out came my rarely used Tirion 2000, red light and micro-cassette recorder. I rarely record verbal descriptions of my views, but tonight I thought it would be a nice change, perhaps forcing myself to take better account of what I was observing.

My list is sorted first by constellation, from bright to dim., with the limit set at mag 10. All the objects in the first constellation were open clusters. I started with NGC2099, better known at M37. Located just off the imaginary line drawn from Theta-Aurigae and Beta-Tauri, and slightly "away" from Auriga, this is an easy target, and a spectacular one. This open cluster took up easily half the field in the 19 Panoptic. A bright star sits in the approximate center of the cluster, with a circular somewhat empty area extending away, meeting wreath of dimmer star that seem condensed and moving away from the core of the cluster. In some ways, this object looks like it has spiral galaxy-like arms leading to strings of outlying stars in the group. The field of view was completed by a few bright field stars toward the edges. It is a nice view!

Next on the list was NGC1960, M36. What a difference from one cluster to the next! M36 is much more sparse, but takes up about the same field of view ad M37. I would guess it has half or fewer stars then the previous target, but more of them were bright than in M37 and fairly even in magnitude overall. The cluster appeared to have a significant number of pairs and some faint outlier. Between the first two clusters, my preference is M37, with many more embedded stars.

I moved just a bit toward the center of the constellation, stopping on NGC1912, M38. I would characterize this one as a mix of the prior two.... somewhat in between the sparseness of M36 and the density of M38. Watching for a bit, some dim components begin popping out of the background, encompassing perhaps three dozen fairly bright stars. The cluster took up over half the field of view. One nice aspect of viewing M38 is, off to one side is a small and dim cluster NGC1907. The view of the two together reminds me somewhat of the great open cluster M35 in Gemini, and the smaller NGC cluster next to it. However, NGC1907 seems pretty dim, yet there, from in town. Funny, 1907 is described in The Sky (Bisque) as mag 8.19, and dense. Dense yes, but mag 8? I described it as a nice, tight smudge of stars, taking up at most a fifth of my field of view. Brightness sure depend on where you are viewing from!

Now I moved away from the big and bright (again, a relative statement)... moving away from the recognizable form of Auriga, toward Gemini. NGC2281 is in a rather empty portion of in-town sky. I worked off of Castor, Pollux and one of Gemini's arms to get to this object.. There are a couple of dimmer stars in the region that just barely popped in and out with averted vision, one being very close to the cluster. The cluster is about two thirds the size of Auriga's Messier object, but it much poorer in number of stars. There are some dimmer components that are "strung out" away from what I would term the "body" of the cluster, with the cluster itself looking like a curved "V" shape, with the stingers of stars forming one long and one short leg off the body. The stars in this cluster are all about the same magnitude, and I detected many doubles. I would guess there are about 30 stars I could see in the group. When you find this cluster, there is no mistake about it, since there is not really much else in the area. This is quite different from looking for open clusters in the heart of Cepheus or other dense portions of the Milky Way! As for clusters, 2281 is really pretty nice and interesting.

I moved to NGC1664, magnitude in the mid 7's, just off the point in the "Kids" near Capella. For the uninitiated, the "Kids" are three stars very close to Capella. Capella, being the "goat star", has, according to mythology, its young offspring the "Kids", held in the arm of Auriga the Charioteer. Anyway.... 1664 is not hard to find, but it is not an outstanding open cluster. I had to sweep around several times before I was convinced I had found it. The cluster occupies about a quarter of my field of view, containing rather dim stars, with some very dim ones embedded in the group. The group looks V shaped, with two long, pronounced stringers of stars coming off it, along with a few bright field stars in my field. By the time I'd finished looking at this object, I found myself enjoying it, likening it to very fine sugar spilled on a dark black cloth.

I continued on to NGC1893. This cluster is "outside" the line described by Theta and Iota Aurigae, nearby M36 and M38. I *like* this cluster! Not that it is spectacular in and of itself, because it is a mid 7 magnitude in town (dim), but even here, in my backyard, I can tell that it is embedded in nebulosity! Compared to the other fields I'd been viewing tonight, this one looks "grayer" and mottled. The cluster itself appears rather large, almost as large in total area as the Messiers in Auriga, but it is much more sparse with many, many dim stars. It appears the nebulosity is obscuring part of the cluster, resulting in the cluster appearing to be more of an arc of dim stars, with the nebula blotting out the core. While I was watching, a satellite went through the field, which was kind of startling. The cluster did seem to have a void in it's center, where the nebula was located. I'd like to look at this one with a good UHC filter. This whole area looks like it is rich in nebulosity, and just begging for a dark sky site for more exploration!

By this time, clouds were again appearing in the area, and objects were getting dimmer. I went back to the Kids, and jumped to the area where NGC1778 was supposed to be. I say supposed to be, because this one was getting into the difficulty of being an LX-200 object. I did find the cluster, and it was not spectacular, taking up about one forth the field at most. The stars were pretty even in magnitude, with possibly some less bright components, but it was so dim that it might be imaginations rather than actual stars. There were a couple dozen stars in a tight grouping, some doubles in the bunch, and about five stars that are brighter magnitude than the rest.

By now, the sky was really beginning to cloud over. But, only two more objects in Auriga. HOLD THOSE CLOUDS! ;-)

I moved to a point between Alpha and Iota Aurigae, near a naked eye group of five dim stars to hunt down NGC1857. I did find it, but what a job! It is a rather dim in-town object. It revealed itself as being almost galaxy-like in smudginess (shades of the Herschel list mag 14 galaxies!), taking up perhaps a fifth the field of view. The stars are very dim, almost impossible to resolve into individual stars, although four or five brighter components do peek out from the haze. Both on the chart, and in the field of view, a brighter star stands close by. In fact, it is in the same field of view, being a nice bright white-yellow.

I took a break at this point and took my dog out front for a comfort break. Looking toward San Jose, I could see clouds moving in with no end in sight. Shortly thereafter, I packed up the scope, put it away in the garage, feeling satisfied that I got outside and pulled in a few photons for about an hour. I can't wait until the skies begin really clearing.

I sat down to write this report, and took another look out back. Perfectly clear. Winter is a fickle mistress for amateur astronomers.

Sunday, February 15, 1998

In town observing report

Last night (2/15/98), Rich Neuschaefer and Archer Sulley and I were out in the backyard of my home in Los Gatos, where my 10" f/5.6 dob was set up. Last year my neighbors along the back fence, used some sort of Agent Orange to clean up their weed-patch (which they've let grow back this winter), which proved very effective in taking out my 25 year old 15 foot tall oleanders, so I could insted enjoy the nice bright kitchen lights and pasta-fest until past 11 p.m. Am I pleased? Well, I've never had very good luck with picking neighbors. :-(

Anyway, we had a pleasant evening outside, in our winter jackets. The sky was very nice to see again! However, as Jay noted in his Fremont Peak Road report, there was some dewing, as evidenced by the haze on my Quickfinder, and the sky brightness was noticeable (even when sheilding my eyes from my neighbor's kitchen kleegs).

It was hazardous duty too, since the deck in my backyard is partial still. That should change soon, since our sauna arrives today and that will allow the construction dudes to get the rest of the surface boards down relatively quickly, if we get a dry day or two in the near future. So, we were walking along the main support 6x6's between the house and observing area.

We did get in a few objects, between lots of talk. I had printed out a list of =<>

I hear we may get a break on Wednesday, in which case I'd be up to going to Montebello. If it pans out, who else might be interested?