Last night (4/29) a small group comprising of Rich Neuschaefer, Marsha Robinson, David Kingsley and myself arrived at a breezy Montebello to do some mid-week observing. The wind was a concern from the moment I arrived. Rich was already there, with his 6.1" AP solar filtered and looking at a very nice sunspot. Great detail in that scope! Marsha was there, and David arrived shortly before sunset.
I had brought two scopes, intending to loan Marsha the 10" f/5.6, and use the 14.5" f/5.6 myself. David had set up with an Orion Shorttube 80. There were an uncharacteristicly large number of cars in the parking lot, but nobody in sight. Rich said there were a lot of hikers. And he was right. Just as the sky was beginning to darken after the sun set, perhaps a couple dozen people appeared on the trail at the southeast end of the parking lot, and quickly gathered around the telescopes. It was an impromptu public star party. Turns out this was a Sierra Club hike, and their members were very impressed by the telescopes and view of the (unsteady) moon. The ranger came by and finally broke up the party, otherwise they would have stayed longer.
By the time it was dark, the wind had stopped. All things considered, we had a pretty good sky! I saw little to indicate there was much smoke in the atmosphere, and the stars were fairly steady. I don't think anyone except Marsha had a goal for the night. So, Rich and I joined her in hunting the Messiers.
The list called for M94 to be the first object du jour. This is a nice face on spiral in Canes Venatici, located just toward Ursa Major about midway between Cor Coroli (Alpha) and Chara (Beta). The galaxy has a very bright core, which showed well in the 10", 14.5" and 6". Marsha determined she was having difficulty using the Rigel Quickfinder on the 10", and, since I hadn't used that scope in months, I offered her the 14.5". The Telrad on the 14.5 made all the difference for her. I wish I could figure out exactly what works so well with a Telrad compared to a Quickfinder.
Next, we moved to M63, the Sunflower Galaxy, also in Canes Venatici, just toward the bowl of the Big Dipper from SAO 44549, a mag 4.7 star that was easily visible for me, but more difficult for Rich and Marsha (gee, not really very transparent, was it!). This one was in the eyepiece when I looked. It is *sooooo* much fun when that happens (especially with 14 mag Herschels!).... Rich was on this galaxy quickly too. The AP was really doing nicely on deep sky object. Perhaps I can persuade him to start the Herschel's too! Marsha was having trouble finding the mag 4.7 SAO, so it took some time to get the M object. In fact, I looked through the Telrad and kind of guided her. She saw it, the swung the scope away from the location. After studying the sky again for a short time, she swung the scope back and landed right on the Sunflower. I like that she only checks these off when *she* finds them, herself.
Next on the list was a little thing called M51. Still in Canes Venatici, it is an easy find for those who've been around for a while. Rich and I each have different approaches to this object. He comes off Alcor/Mizar and Alkaid (the end star in the Big Dipper's handle), making a right angle out to M51. I use Alkaid and a mag 5.1 star, SAO 44566, to make a little almost equallateral triangle, with M51 being where the "missing" star should be. If you have not looked for the mag 5.1 star I refer to, go to the midpoint between Alcor/Mizar and Alkaid, then just over half the distance between them toward Canes Venatici. M51 will form a right angle with the mag 5.1 star and Alkaid. I found it with a 12 mm Nagler. Marsha had no trouble finding this one. Rich was already looking for the next one.
In between all the Messiers, David was busy evaluating his new Shorttube. I found it to be a very acceptable portable telescope. I was lending him eyepieces, and got a gorgeous view of M67 and M44 through a 19 Panoptic. Nice telescope... wouldn't mind owning one myself!
But, back to the quarry. Next on the list was M101. I knew this could be trouble. Marsha wanted to go right to it, but I advised waiting for a dark sky. Just then, Rich said he had it in the 6" AP. David looked. I don't know that he saw it. Marsha looked and I think she asked "where is it", I looked and, cupping my hands to block extraneous light, and wishing for an observing hood, or just a large cape to pull over myself, I could just detect a dim brightening in the field. Marsha tried for it in the 14.5. I tried for it in the same scope. Rich found it immediately in the 14.5". Do not let his finder scopes fool you... Rich is a deep sky barracuda. I think Marsha will not consider M101 "hers" until she finds it herself.
We were having such a good time, I didn't want to look at the clock in my truck. So, we kept on going. Rich was already on the next object, which was M3. This one resolved beautifully in the 10" and 14.5". In fact, we must have had a few minutes of sparkling transparency, because these were some of the most enjoyable views I have ever had of the object. Stars popping out to the core, pinpoints, tight at the center, diffusing out to stringers at the edges. If I could have only one type of object to look at, the oldies but goodies globulars would be a likely the choice. We all found M3 easily. Check another one off the list. It is actually fun to revisit the big and bright objects!
Next object was M53. This is a nice globular, but not spectacular like M3, M13, M22, M5, or even some of the lesser visited ones like M92, M10, M12, M2... still, it is worth a visit and a check mark in the observing log. Marsha is quickly gaining experience and ability as a naked eye star hopper. We looked for a couple minutes at the line described between Arcturus and it's close neighbor Murphid (Eta Bootis). If one follows that line, you will eventually come close to the brightest star in Coma Berenices (Alpha). M53 is just a tick back toward Arcturus from there. We were all on that one quickly too.
Now things were about to get tricky. The next hop was to Coma, to find M98, M99 and M100. I was able to quickly identify all three, since I had looked at them just a week prior. Rich did well, finding M98 easily, but Marsha needs some better charts to know exactly where to look. These galaxies are at the shallow end of the great Coma/Virgo deep sky galaxy clusters. The next step for Marsha is into the deep end.
The hour was now close to 11 p.m., and some of us had to be up before 6 a.m., so it was time to pack it in. Just as Marsha drove off, Rich and I noticed the fog rolling in toward us. In 15 minutes, there was no moon even though it had not set, and there were few stars. The scopes were quickly either completely stowed, or torn down to such a degree that it didn't make sense to set back up when the fog suddenly disappeared.
Looking around, it was quite dark. The fog must have settled into the valleys and over the cities. Up top, Ursa Major shined in clear, dark and what appeared to be transparent skies.
It was a fine night. I need to get to Montebello more often.