Tuesday, January 12, 1999

Lights out at Montebello!

Last night several local observers were treated to a great night at the Mid Peninsula Regional Open Space Districts's Montebello location. If not for late clouds, I might have been tempted to stay until moonrise!

I was first to arrive, about 5:15 p.m., finding just a couple of other cars in the parking lot. I was troubled to find, on my drive northward along highway 35 toward Page Mill Road, that there was some high cloud to the north and west. Of course, I thought I was cursed, not having had a good observing night in what seems like ages. I could deal with a lack of observing in seasons like last year's El Nino, when you know there is little hope. In ways, it is a more cruel fate to have the hope, the tease, turned into celestial road-kill by just enough cloud to chill the heart of deep sky observers. However, the clouds stayed north and west, and left Montebello clear for a good portion of the evening.

Just after my arrival, I found Venus up quite high. Out came my 10" f/5.6 scope Pliskin, and after a quick collimation, the cloudy planet was in view. It's brightness is always astonishing, and the phase, a bit less than full, was obvious. As the sun continued to fade in the west, the brightness of Venus seemed to increase dramatically, until it was as bright or brighter than any of the incoming jet headlights we see on approach to SFO from this observing site. Venus was dazzling. I wonder how bright and large earth would look if it were possible to observe from there?

Rich Neuschafer arrived and pulled out his 78mm Takahashi and set it up on a Gibraltar mount. Nice easy way to go. By then, I was observing Jupiter. I kept telling him how much detail was visible, and to get out the 7", but it seemed like there might be dew, and the quick setup was more reasonable for what could easily be a short night. Jupiter had all four moons on one side, spaced in pairs and at a bit of an odd angle for those accustomed to seeing them all nicely along the equatorial plane. The Great Red Spot was showing a ton of detail... seeming to have a dark core, with a heavy brown line coming from the meridian along polar side of the SEB and extending about half-way along the GRS. The SEB itself was split, a nice white rift running on the EZ side of the GRS. Really wonderful view (if you're into that sort of observing). I was using about 190X with a Meade Research grade Ortho (correct me someone, Jay... if that's wrong). There were more bands than I wanted to count, and one large festoon hanging into the Equatorial Zone from the North Equatorial Belt. Had I spent much more time studying it, I would have probably noted other objects too. But, I was just so astonished at the incredible steadiness, I could hardly believe it. So, up I went to Saturn.

Saturn. Perfection. The rings looked like they were razor edged. Cassini's was wider than an L.A. freeway. Just amazing. A dark area appeared to show outside Cassini's Division, very near the outer edge of the rings. The surface of the planet was creamy gold. The shadow of the ring, the "missing" notch of ring where the disk's shadow falls upon them as they curve perfectly behind the planet.. and even a black line at the outer edge of the rings in front of the giant ball. It was a feast. Saturn is certainly the most decadent of optical deserts, except for the occasional great comets. I found myself wanting to turn on my laptop computer just to identify Saturn's moons... the small, nearly "not there" points of light around it. Damn, am I starting to sound like Bill Arnett?!?! ;-) I think I actually do like these close to home targets.

But.. only on nights like last night, when the atmosphere is rock steady and the seeing is all there.

For a while, Rich and I thought we'd be the only ones observing. It was very well past sunset, and nobody else had arrived. Out to the west, I pointed out the zodiacal light. I had seen it last week at Montebello as well. It is obvious, and extends halfway up the sky almost to zenith. I stood around for a bit, looking, naked eye, and really not feeling like hooking up the laptop, even though that was the only place I could find objects in the current sky that I had not observed (on the Herschel list). I realized I had no energy, no desire, and perhaps it was time to stop observing for a while. I think it is something every amateur goes through. Things change, you run out of objects, friends come and go, lots of things come into play. I looked at my printout of Herschel objects, almost desperate to find some object that a 10" Dob could see from a near town sky, but all that was left were some mag 14 or dimmer galaxies off in Eridanus. Fat chance. So, I moped around for a while.

Probably around 7 p.m., a series of vehicles pulled into the lot. A van, a car, a Jeep. The van and car drove to the south end of the lot and three people emerged. I do not know who they are, and only later that evening when they are tearing down do I go over and say hello. There are two SCT's back there... one a Celestron 8", the other I didn't get a good look at. I talked with one of the observers and found myself amazed at the variety of people who are on TAC, and how they all come out for the same pleasure. Different politics, jobs, likes and dislikes, but they all enjoy the sky. Such thoughts make me feel better about the hobby. Another observer who arrived late has an SCT set up on a Tuthill Mount. Very interesting setup! I say hello, and then get back to my scope.

Even though I had been at wits-end over what to do, what to observe, I got lucky. Ken Head showed up, and we had probably our best opportunity to observe together. Ken owns a Celestron Ultima 2000, but is getting the star-hopping bug. True, you can turn off the GoTo on his scope, but this was a chance for him to try something new. I opened up my Tirion SkyAtlas 2000 to page 10. Into Cetus. I though why not just start observing everything on the charts in a particular part of the sky. Cetus was up high, and almost due south... the darkest part of the sky at this site. Ken came over and asked what I was looking at, and I showed him NGC 1032, located just 46 arcminutes north of Delta Ceti (SAO110665). I noted that the galaxy appeared to be involved with some foreground stars, and seemed elongated. I had no idea what the magnitude was, since the Tirion Atlas does not list magnitude, and I had lent out my SkyAtlas 2000 Companion that contains all this good data. The galaxy is in fact very elongated, and according to The Sky is a mag 12.91 spiral 3.3 x 1.1 minutes in size. I think this must have been pretty dim.

Next I moved on to NGC 1073, just over one degree away toward the east. My notes show what I saw was large and dim, very dim. The Sky confirms this (I am referring to it as I write this), having a size of 5.0' x 4.6' at mag 11. It was significantly dimmer than NGC 1032, even though it is almost 2 magnitudes brighter. Just goes to show how light spread out over a larger area dims down. If we were able to view this galaxy in detail, we'd see a gorgeous barred spiral. I will need to revisit some of these brighter objects with my bigger scope in dark skies, to see what can be squeezed out visually.

I now moved back to Delta Ceti, and nudged the scope just east in search of NGC 1055. This galaxy sits just a bit over half a degree east from the bright star. You know the field when you run into a bright pair of stars, that form a nice triangle with the galaxy. The stars are mid mag 6 and mid mag 7, yellow-white and yellow-orange. My notes say the galaxy is large and dim, 2 stars near, with some stars embedded. The stats on it are mag 11.62, 7.6'x2.7'. this is a biggie. The DSS image shows a spiral with a large central bulge, more so than the Sombrero, and lots of dust along the edge of the disk. All I could tell in my 10" was that it seemed very big.

Ken looked, and thought too that it was dim. So, I moved the scope a half degree south to M77 (NGC 1068). This one was easy. Bright, but rather small. The core was fantastically bright. Is this one of the Seyfert active galaxies? I bet so. The view showed a spiral that was face-on, with the disk being noticeably dimmer than the core. There was no detail in the disk. It is mag 9.64, and amazing to me... 7.0'x5.9' in size.

Now Ken was helping me find objects in the field of view. His visual acuity is quite good, as he picks out detail very easily. NGC 1087, our next object was just over one degree to the east southeast of M77. Taking the star Delta Ceti and the location of M77, you can draw a line right to this object (a little more than the same distance). My notes say this galaxy is fairly bright and "mid-size" (what the hell does that mean?). I suppose it means that compare to a 7'x6' galaxy (M77), this one is noticeably smaller... and is, at 3.7' x 2.3'. NGC 1087 shines at mag 11.32... not too difficult to see.

In the same field as NGC 1087 was the more difficult to see NGC 1090. My notes say "dim, as big as 1087". At mag 12.43, it certainly should seem dimmer, and it does have comparable size at 4.1' x 1.7'. The galaxies fit nicely into the field of my 19 Panoptic's 54.5 arcminute view... being only 15 arcminutes apart. I have to admit, NGC 1090 was a challenge.

Next on the chart was NGC 955. This one is easy to find, as it sits just west of mag 5.3 star 75 Ceti. 75 Ceti sits almost on a line between, but closer to, Delta Ceti and Mira. Mira is currently quite bright... I think brighter than 75 Ceti. Anyway... NGC 955 is 24 arcminutes off 75 Ceti, so it is easy to hunt with the star in view. But, the star is sooo bright, you need to just about get it out of the field to see the galaxy! My notes support removing the bright star from the field, saying the galaxy is very dim and small. It lists at mag 13.04 (really! into the 13's from Montebello!) 2.8' x 0.7' spiral. I believe Ken saw the shape... I couldn't.

I asked Ken if he'd find the next galaxy. I tried pointing out 75 Ceti and where the scope was pointing relative to it, and suggested continuing west about the same distance covered between the star and our current position. Well, a Dob takes a bit of getting used to, and Ken was too conservative in his distance estimates. But there would be some good success for him later. I moved the scope and popped in NGC 936, which I noted as being bright. Somewhere in the same field should be NGC 941. After lots of averting, jiggling the scope, etc., a faint smudge began to appear. It was ghostly how it seemed to glow just at the periphery of my vision. I noted NGC 941 as very dim, dimmer than NGC 955, but large. Now I'll check... ... NGC 941 shows as mag 12.4, which is not outrageously dim, and size is 2.7' x 2.0' which is not so large as to spread the light much. Perhaps it was a momentary few minutes of "bad seeing" that caused this to look so dim. Meanwhile, NGC 936 lists at mag 11.0, but is quite large at 4.7' x 4.1'. It is a mystery to me why 941 was so difficult to see.

Again I asked Ken to try finding a galaxy. NGC 958 is just a tick under 2 degrees south of the last pair. Another way to envision its location is using 75 Ceti and Mira to form a line. Now, travel just under half-way toward Mira, then the same distance south, and you will be on the field (roughly). Ken came close this time, but was again reluctant to move the scope enough. I placed NGC 958 in the field, and found it to be mid-brightness with averted vision, elongated with some stars embedded. It is listed at mag 12.2 and elongated at 2.5' x 0.6'. This one too was not very easy to detect, and I think Ken is the one who described its shape to me.

I was now having fun. It is much more fun, for me, to work as a team. I started suggesting to Ken that he purchase a large Dob. I think he'll catch the bug. Heh heh heh. More training....

Again Ken's turn. On to NGC 1052. This object is a good distance from our other quarry. Looking at a chart, there is a nice line of six stars that meander across the sky about 30 degrees elevation, horizontally. They are in Eridanus... east to west... 34-Gamma Eridani, 26-Pi Eridani, 23-Delta Eridani, 18-Epsilon Eridani, 13-Zeta Eridani and 3-Eta Eridani. Just west of those is a nice quadrangle of stars in lower Cetus, right on the border with Eridanus, 83-Epsilon Ceti, 72-Rho Ceti, 76-Sigma Ceti and 89-Pi Ceti. All are naked eye stars down to 5th mag as the dimmest. This area I recall from prior observing sessions. It is rich, big time rich, in galaxies. NGC1052 is one of four galaxies visible in marginal skies in a 10" scope. Using Epsilon-Ceti and Eta-Eridani (Azha) as the base of an equilateral triangle, NGC 1052 is north at the apex. Ken found the area, but was just a touch off line, a bit right (west), but he was quickly getting his bearings. NGC 1052 I logged as bright, possibly a spiral (it is difficult to recall if Ken or I, or both, were picking out the detail), with NGCs 1035, 1042 and 1048 in the same field. I don't think we can claim seeing 1048 (actually two galaxies, 1048 and 1048A) as they are in the mag 14 range. But, 1035 I logged as dim and elongated (listed at mag 13.17 2.2' x 0.7' spiral), and 1042 and 1048 and dim and appearing as one galaxy (which in fact it was, just being 1042, which is mag 11.83 and 4.7' x 3.6'). This field was a blast to identify, as 1035 was definitely a ghost, but with work, you knew you were seeing it.

Now Ken would hit one. Looking at the Tirion chart, we saw that NGC 1084 could be had by going from NGC 1042 to NGC 1052, then out to a bright star (mag 6.5 SAO 130083), then beyond about the same distance. At that time Jay Freeman, who arrived shortly after David Kingsley, called out to Rich and I to come look at six stars in the Trapezium in his 70mm scope. I did. I saw. I shook my head. I was having trouble doing it with 10 inches earlier. Typical Jay.

Walking back over to Ken, he said he had something in the field of view. I looked, and after first disputing he had NGC 1084, I realized I was wrong, and Ken had used a Dob to track down a FFO! Cool! Good going Ken! We logged it as being bright as NGC 1052, elongated, Ken saying it looked like a tilted spiral. It lists as mag 11.47 and 3.2' x 1.8' and... spiral. Nice catch, Ken.

By now, the hum of people talking at the observing site was quite noticeable. Everyone was enjoying themselves. Fog had rolled over the hills to our south and buried the city lights toward Los Gatos and San Jose. Even to the north and east, the lights were dimming out. I thought of the last line in one of my favorite old Arthur C. Clarke short stories The Nine Billion Names Of God, "'Look' whispered Chuck and George lifted his eyes to heaven (there is always a last time for everything.) Overhead, without any fuss, the stars were going out". Well, here, it was lights out at Montebello. The city was disappearing. The sky was ablaze with stars. The Milky Way ran horizon to horizon, along with the zodiacal light. Messier Objects became easy naked eye targets.

It was magical.

Soon though, Jay Freeman began to pack up. He feared dew, and would prove correct. But in the meantime, Ken and I continued. We tracked down NGC 1140, which I logged as dim, and nearly stellar. The Sky lists it as mag 12.5, dim and stellar. Good! I wasn't sure I had that one, but the description confirms it.

On to NGC 991. Looking at the chart, we could see that by going back to NGC 1052 and NGC 1035, we could draw a line in the eyepiece pointing us toward the wide double stars 80 Ceti (very red and mag 5.5) and 77 Ceti (orange and mag 5.7). The stars are just under a degree from NGC 1035, and have a separation of just over 19 arcminutes. Arriving at the double star, going north at a right angle brings NGC 991 into view. My notes simply state, dim and large. It lists at mag 12.38 and 2.7' x 2.4' in size. It is a difficult target, showing little structure, without more aperture. By placing NGC 991 at the southwest edge of my field of view, I was able to pick up NGC 1022 on the north eastern edge of the field. NGC 1022 is brighter than 991, although it is dim. It also appears to be large. It measure out at mag 12.08 and 2.4' x 2.0'... similar to 991.

Now, a couple pulled over by the entrance gate and were laughing and perhaps sharing a bottle of good wine. Kind of a celestial picnic. We could overhear them remarking at how the stars were just unbelievable. We would invite them down shortly.

I decided on one other object before returning to my Herschel Hunt. NGC 895 is a dim small galaxy in Cetus. It is stuck somewhat in the middle of nowhere, just south of Mira where the stars are few and the galaxies are many. But this one had no other companions in the immediate vicinity, so it would at least not be confused with others. I found another double star to use as reference with Mira... mag 5.5 57-Ceti and mag 7.3 SAO 129797 (didn't see that one naked eye though!). After several minutes I was looking at the target, which was a rather unremarkable smudge.

I then decided to look at Monoceros, and logged the small open cluster NGC 2311, but was getting a bit tired and wanted to just relax, look at the bright stuff, and hear some tourists squeal when seeing Saturn and M42.

We invited the couple down. A cabbie from San Francisco and his friend, a woman in the software industry in Palo Alto. They had been drinking a nice 91 Cabernet, and offered to share. Nice, but nobody accepted. The woman looked first at M42. Major cow! She almost couldn't remove herself from the eyepiece. It was a Jody Foster Contact scene... "it's so beautiful".... etc., loads of fun. The fella too, cowing out. Saturn was another eyepopper for them. They could not believe what they were seeing. Clouds then moved in from the north, leaving little but small sucker-holes to look through. We packed up. The woman took a TAC flyer and said they'd be back. It is fun, isn't it?

So, after a blase start to the night, where I felt like retiring the scope for a while, friends, strangers and a good night reinvigorated my soul. I'm ready for more.

Bring on the fog. Lights out at Montebello!

No comments: