Wednesday, November 18, 1998

Is Bad Luck or No Luck Better?

Yesterday, midday, looking at clear skies, I decided to pack the truck and make only my second mid-week trip ever to Fremont Peak, thinking I could do some good dark sky observing for four to five hours before midnight.

I arrived at the Peak, finding it apparently deserted. No sign of Ranger Mike and family, nor any other observers or campers. Thinking I could leave my dob in the truck and use the 30" Challenger, I went to the lock box containing the observatory key, but found it open and empty. Looking up to the observatory I noted the curtains were open, even though the building appeared closed.

Up I went, to find Robert Hoyle's car parked on the east side of the building. Knocking on the door, Robert greeted me. He was there using the 30" for astrophotography. He has taken some beautiful shots on that instrument, but for me, it would be my scope that night, not the Challenger. Tough luck.

So, I started to set up. The 20" Obsession is not that difficult to manage, with a big enough vehicle and ramps. The scope comes with detachable wheelbarrow handles, and can be up and running in about 10 leisurely minutes. Once set up, I looked at the sky, where some early clouds were now disappearing, and tongues of fog were creeping into the south valley below Fremont Peak. Looking up, I noticed something that always drives me crazy. I had put the upper tube assembly on the telescope.... backwards. I can't believe how often I do that! I know better, but it happens a good one third of the time or more. Am I telescope dyslexic? I stomped around, cursing my stupidity, my repeated stupidity, repeatedly. It was getting cold, and I had to take down again to set up correctly! Bad luck!

But, once that job was done, and I calmed myself down from my self-directed tirade, I got down to the business of collimating. This is always a snap for me (an ability that did not come without much trial and trauma). The secondary looked oddly off center. Damn! What was going on? Out came the tools and after much fiddling, the alignment looked close. Now to tweak the collimation screws on the back end. I turned and turned. Nothing was moving as it should. It was like some cruel joke... turn, turn, crank, whale on the mother, sweat.... nothing... then POP.... the mirror jumped past the dot. Damn, damn! What's the deal? Um.... check the mirror sling.

The mirror was completely off the sling. What BAD luck! Not having the proper tools along to loosen the sling, I tipped the scope well forward toward horizontal and grunted the mirror toward zenith with one hand, while gradually sliding the sling back around its earthly end. Freaking fingerprints on the edge of the glass. Now, I was not only sweating like a Leonid storm (no, not the wimpy type we just had, but the real deal), I was completely, totally aggravated. How could this get any worse? This is such bad luck... maybe I should tear down and go home. I am just glad Robert was mostly in the observatory and did not have to endure my language or demeanor.

The sky was looking sooooo nice by now, and my collimation was so right, I could not leave. I took a walk over to the top of Coulter Row to see the sunset colors and check for others in the park. The place was empty. The view offshore was clear, as far a I could see. There was a rainbow of reds, oranges and purples out far on the horizon where the sun had set. It was one of those California postcard views that don't seem like they could really be true. The crispness of approaching winter, nary a breeze and the quiet of nothing but one soul and the universe laid out before my feet and above me, from the beauty of the place I spend my relaxation hours, to the home above from where I and all I know came from. Fremont Peak's solitude and spectacle are a soothing balm for the spirit.

Feeling much better, I walked back to the observatory side of the park and began to set up my computer, shielded from dew in the rear of the truck. It is a perfect setup. The 20" Dob 12 feet from the truck, my computer running The Sky for my star chart for the evening, and two home-printed books containing a printout of the SAC Deepsky Database, full of enough targets to last more years than I care to think of.

I decided to see what I could in Aquarius, up high in the south, transiting about this time of night. On to NGC6959. After a bit of hunting, there it was. The first object is, for some reason, usually the toughest for me. There were at least four galaxies in the field of view. I was jazzed. This, after all the early problems setting up, was worth it! I walked back to the computer to zoom into the eyepiece field of view and.... the battery died. All I could think of was the trite saying about the only luck one has being of the bad variety. I shut down the computer and thought to myself, I don't have a regular star atlas with me. I'm dead. I'm done. I've seen other observers have temper tantrums at the Peak when things turn to caca, and now I was going to have one. Look at the sky.... it's gorgeous! Then, I realized the power cords on the computer and inverter were probably long enough to reach the cigarrete lighter in the truck. And, after a lot of rearranging and fumbling, I was again happily turning my computer back on and back at the eypeiece. Bad luck? Bah! Real observers find a way to make their own luck! Right?

Looking in the eyepiece, I could not find my little galaxies. It was like I was losing my vision. What was this? Why was this sooooooooo frustrating? Why? Because now, my secondary was dewed up. Waaaaaaaaa! ARrrrrggggghhhhh! Son-of-a-blue-streak!!!!!! This was doom. This was tooo much.

Robert Hoyle lent me an extra Orion dew zapper and battery he had.

Life was good again.

I am sold on dew zappers.

What the heck, it was only another 30 minutes of pain now passed and turned again to joy. I was ready to observe.

On to NGC7301, a faint edge-on galaxy in Aquarius.

Well, I looked and looked, and finally, there was a smudge. Again, like before, I turned toward my computer. Zoomed in and saw what the star patterns should look like in the eyepiece. Back to the eyepiece and...

Are you laughing yet? Can there be anything else gone wrong?


My eyepeice was now dewed. My cherished 19 Panoptic. The eyepiece I use for ALL my deep sky hunting. Taking a bath. Doing the backstroke, or even worse, the deadman's float. What a run of wrong luck.

15 minutes later, I'd de-dewed it. Now, with my gloves off my hands, one over the Telrad, the other sitting over the eyepiece when I'm not viewing through it, now, now.... I was finally ready to get down to business.

But the views were not very pleasing.

It was then I realized I was looking into a solitary cloud. Damn. Okay, maybe another part of the sky. But, the more I looked around, the more the lone cloud's friends appeared.

Someone, something, who knows, intended me to NOT observe. The sky was quickly clouding over, from the west. Not at star in sight that way, and high cirrus overhead and now, dimming out Orion in the east.

I used extreme caution packing up.

I did not want anything else to go wrong.

Cold, frustrated, with wet equipment, I climbed into the truck and said goodby to Robert.

I was relieved to get off the mountain road and back on the freeway without mishap. I obeyed all the driving laws on the ride home. Don't toy with bad luck.

I walked in the door at 11 p.m., Pat most surprised to see me home early. She asked me what had happened, and I related a bit of the night's story. I was going to ask her how things had been at home, and what the weather forecast on the news for this weekend, but decided to not push my luck.

Pat told me if I'd stayed, I would probably have fallen off the ladder. What do you think?

Friday, November 13, 1998

Nice Night

Yes, from twilight until I left Houge Park after 11, Saturn and Jupiter looked very nice. The GRS was as obvious as I've ever seen it, maybe even more, as it spun around the disk over a few hours. There appeared to be several good festoons hanging off the NEB into the equatorial zone. The definition of the zones and belts was quite good, and the planet had very nice color. Saturn was beautiful, with a wonder gold-cream color, easy to see zones, Cassini's Division was obvious enough to drive a Suburban through. I think the best views were with a Meade 10.5mm and Nagler 9mm. We tried a Takahasi 7mm LE, but it was a bit much for the seeing. This was in my 10" f/5.6 Dob.

Knowing to not expect dark sky quality, I put M15 in the 10" and was nicely surprised by the cluster breaking up decently. Several visitors looked at it and were able to see it was a cluster, although its brightness certainly was not as good as on other occasions.

Other objects the public saw were M42 (although low, the nebula was obvious and we could, even at lower power with an 18mm eyepiece, see 5 stars in the Trapezium without trying hard), M35 (Jack Z was pulling in the more distant NGC that is the visual comapanion to M35), M31/M32, M57 (easy as ever), NGC404, NCG7331, ET Cluster, Albireo, negative results on M74 and M33. Alan Nelms then used my old "Season Star Chart" to find several nice double stars... he was knocking them out with ease.

The public at Houge Park was lots of fun. What began as a disappointing afternoon looking at the clouds and cancelling a night a Pacheco, turned into a worthwile evening with friends and visitors.