Friday, March 12, 1999

Two Nights, Two Skies (Part II)

What a day Friday, March 12 was. If it were the 13th, and were I superstitious, I would at least have something to attribute the events to.

Looking outside in the morning, the sky was clear and promising. I was going to pack up early, work until 2:30 p.m., then beat the Friday afternoon heading out of town traffic, on my way to Fremont Peak. I could barely wait!

My son had developed a cold on Wednesday, and my wife, waking up with her own head full of flu symptoms, greeted me by saying our boy was having breathing problems, and she was mostly useless the way she felt. But, after fighting with the American medical system (trying to get the pediatrician's office to answer their phone and put a real person on the line), mom and son were off to the doc. I was left with out 7 year old yellow Lab, who also demanded medical care, showing me a very large right eye. My wife called from the doc and said they were on the way to the hospital, with a case of pneumonia. I told her the dog had contracted "Big-Eye" and was off to the vet. It looked like a day of problems, and like I would cancel Fremont Peak due to a house full of sick people who would need care. While at the vet, wife and son returned home, and the dog turned out to have nothing more serious than a canine equivalent to conjunctivitis (pink-eye).

Since things seemed back under control (finally, by 2 p.m.), I pleaded my case for astronomy. I had previously obtained a friend's cell-phone number, so I could offer it, saying I'd be home in 1.5 hours if needed. Well, it worked.

Truck packed with the 20" F/5 Obsession and my 10" f/5.6 Dob, I was off to the Peak. Traffic was brutal. A fire engine and ambulance parted the Red Sea of cars on the way out of town on highway 101. It was a long drive.

Yet, arriving at San Juan Canyon Road in San Juan Bautista, I turned off the highway and into a paradise of early spring. The grasses were all growing back after their winter of dormancy. The color were like a leprechaun's dream come to life. Among the greens were a full running stream to my west, as the road snaked upward around farmhouses and boulders. Bright yellow patches of wild mustard, the gold-orange of California Poppies and the lacy pale green/gray Spanish moss hanging of the native oaks bending over the road, the ridge line views sweeping out to the Pacific ocean, Monterey Bay and Santa Cruz to my west, the fertile valley to my east built by California's San Andreas earthquake fault, make this one of the wonderful moments I associate with my hobby. I do love this place.

Arriving at the parking lot, several friends were already set up. Guilllermo Ortiz' 18" Obsession was already set up. Jim Bartolini with his nicely rebuilt 16" Dob, Bruce Jensen asleep in the back of his SUV already had his 18" Starmaster assembled. John Gleason (maybe you saw his great panoramic photo of the Milky Way on NASA's Astro Photo of the Day recently) had a 6" AP at the ready. Ken Head was there with the 8" Ultima 2000, Marsha Robinson and the 10" Orion Premium Dob. Richard Navarrete arrived after me with his newly acquired 12.5" Meade Dob, and David Cooper was there, although I don't know what type of refractor he had along. There were 9 observers, all looking at the sky, crud up top now, and lots of glop off the coast to our west.

My bout with luck was continuing. One of the turnbuckles on my Obsession's UTA was missing. I was sure it had come off at home. I would have tried observing without it, but Bruce Jensen found a 1/4-20 wing-nut that fit. Saved!

As the sky darkened, we all noted that it was not too cold. Temps has dropped from 52 to 44 degrees in a few hours, but it did not seem to be a real "winter" night. To the west was brilliant Venus, with Saturn above and Jupiter below. Already, Capella shown very brightly overhead. The sky was improving. I felt that now, even before it was completely dark, more stars were visible than last night in Los Gatos.

Before I list the objects I observed, let me tell those of you unfamiliar with California history a bit about Fremont Peak. I'll keep it brief. The Peak (as the local astronomical community refers to it) is surrounded by California's Fremont Peak State Park. The place is a historical landmark. Captain John C. Fremont raised the first American flag over the Mexican state of Alta California atop Fremont Peak in March of 1846. The Mexican governor was surprised at the presence of an armed band of men so close to town (Monterey), and demanded Fremont and his men leave. Fremont refused, and instead built a small fort in the vicinity. Later, realizing he was vastly outnumbered, Fremont acceded to the requests of Thomas Larkin, American consul in Monterey. Incidents of this type were the predecessor to the "Bear Flag" revolt, and California's subsequent entry into Union. A plaque commemorating the incident is now atop Fremont Peak.

The views from atop Fremont Peak make the short hike a must for any visitor, especially for sunset. Fremont Peak is also home now to the Fremont Peak Observatory Association, and their observatory and 30" Challenger telescope. Stop by for a visit if you're in the area.

So, the sun set, and as usual I was getting called around to look at this and that. Some nice views! But, I could hardly wait to put the new 20 mm Nagler in the scope and go to town. Finally, I did, and at about 45 degrees elevation, the scope began heading downhill. Damn! The eyepiece was too heavy! So, I counter weighted the scope with a pair of Converse tennis shoes an Bunshee cords. Some minor adjustments adding a bit more weight (in the shoes), and all was well.

On went the computer and away I went, looking for the last of the prior evening's targets, NGC 2419. I have to say, I mentioned the NGC number and Bruce Jensen immediately piped up "Oh, you mean the Intergalactic Wanderer in Lynx!" ... I was astonished. Richard whispered to me "Bruce is awesome, he remembers everything"... which I believed more and more as the evening wore on and Bruce ID'd more and more objects overheard in the shadowy voices in the dark. I think he should be called "Data" (ah... but only if he were Seven Of Nine!). Well, with much struggle, like someone getting on skis again after a season's absence. Navarrete got it with DSC's, but I struggled. Finally, I succeeded. It is a very nice globular! I've seen many in Ophiuchus with much less brightness and resolution. This is a good object, and amazing that it is 300,000 light years distant. It much be one awesome sight from a couple ten thousand! So, now, question, Data, is the object wandering in, or leaving our galaxy?

Next problem. The battery for the computer died. Damn. Sometimes you just have to plan for the worst. Out came my Tirion 2000 Atlas. It would not many of the objects I was after, but I still could figure their location off the RA and Dec.

I next move to NGC 2541, a galaxy in Lynx. It was not much to write home about, and was a lot of work. Lynx was dead overhead, which is difficult for a Dob, and especially on a ladder (for the 20" f/5). The object I saw was faint and large, maybe 5' x 5' .

I decided to move lower. Ursa Major was in perfect position, and I had a ton of observing to do there (it is packed with entries on the Herschel list of 2500 or so objects). So, to the Big Bear I went.

NGC 2629 lies a bit less than halfway from Muscide, the tip of the Bear's nose, and Polaris. It is a small, faint, round galaxy around mag 13. While in the area I visited NGC 2633 (mag 12.5, fain, smudge), NGC 2646 (round galaxy, mag 12), NGC 2523 (barred spiral at mag 12.4) and NGC 2551 (faint, small galaxy, mag 13, stellar).

Next target was NGC 2639, an elongated galaxy shining at mag 11.8 just off the front "paw" of the Bear. It is conveniently located north the pair of stars marked by Talitha. It is quite small at 1.1.x .6, but does have close by NGC 2681 (round galaxy, mag 10.3, 3.0' and about 2 degrees away), and NGC 2693, another round galaxy at mag 11.7 but smaller, just half a degree from 2681.

I will mention NGC 2756, since it was close to a nice object. NGC 2756 is about 3 degrees away from NGC 2693 toward Dubhe (the far corner star in the Big Dipper). 2756 is not charted on Tirion 2000 (my older version), so I had to plot the location on my chart by RA and Dec. I placed an X on the spot. The galaxy is elongated with a bright core, at mag 13, and larger by 1/3 than NGC 2639. Next to it, and on the Tirion chart, was NGC 2841.

Gorgeous galaxy! this is one of those surprises that makes working all the faint things on the Herschel list even more enjoyable. 2841 sits just off the line described by Talitha and mag 3.2 25-Theta Ursae Majoris (the point star in the very acute triangle). It is large at 7x3, bright at mag 9.3, and showed wonderful spiral detail, including hints of dust. This one is worth a side-trip (it is a bit of a hop at 3.5 degrees from 2756).

There were several meteorites during the night, bright and sporadic. We all took plenty of breaks, enjoyed views through each other's telescopes. Occasionally, you could hear the plaintive wail of someone crying "I need a bigger telescope"... but that's normal.

I continued hunting galaxies, NGCs 2820, 2880, 3182, 3259, 3394, 3471. It became quite a list. Another break, then on to NGCs 3471, 3478, 3549, 3595, 3657, 3668. I could not find NGCs 3415, 3445, 3687, 3733 or 3669. But I continued with NGCs 3674, 3729, 3811 and 3813. It was a pretty bright night.

I had tried for Leo I early in the evening, thinking I (and Richard) could detect a faint glow close to Regulus, but I am logging it as unconfirmed. Later, though, I turned the 20" on Leo II when it was up high and the sky had darkened a bit. We saw a haziness that now, looking on a computer at the position and the star field, makes me feel we saw it. Leo II is listed as UGC6253, a mag 12.6 elliptical and about 12 x 11 minutes, taking up about the center 1/3 of my field of view.

Of the other galaxies I viewed in Ursa Major, the ones I enjoyed the most were where I could make side-journeys to others, close by. With NGC 3657 I was able to easily pick up NGC 3631. With NGC 3811 (round, mag 13, bright core, 2.x1.5), I had a great time hopping around, field to field (as I did with the first one in Ursa NGC 2629), picking up NGC 3769 (mag 12.4, 3x.9 with another tiny object just off it), and NGC 3782 (mag 13 irregular). All these are close to NGC 3811, which is just off mag 3.7 star 63-Chi Ursae Majoris (easy to see, just below the M109 side of the Big Dipper's bowl).

These are all fun and challenging targets for a bright night.

To end the evening, as the orange sliver moon rose at the northeast base of Fremont Peak, I turned the scope on M65 and M66, beautiful structure, the Hamburger was clearly showing between the buns (NGC 3628), M51 had wonderful clear spiral structure, NGC 4565 was huge, M104 was photographic (but earlier in the evening), and assorted other "bright" highlight objects rounded out the evening.

At 4:30 a.m. the three remaining observers (Marsha, who had done 88 Messier's) and Richard (who was having a blast with his new Lumicon Binoviewer on the 12.5" Meade Dob) were all beat. We turned in and slept until about 9 a.m., when I was the last to awaken.

We drove down the mountain, leaving behind memories of what is thus far the best night of the year (there haven't been many!). It was a very good time. Past the farmhouses, the stream, below the hanging Spanish Moss, mustard and poppies. Soon we were back in the fast lane, flying along at 70 mph, leaving it all behind for a while.

We stopped at a restaurant in Morgan Hill, ate breakfast and reminisced about the good night.

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