Saturday, September 11, 1999

A dark night at Coe

Saturday afternoon, the 11th of September, my daughter Mimi and I headed south of San Jose to a little used observing site, Henry Coe State Park in the mountains east of Morgan Hill. We had suggested it for a star party since our usual location at Fremont Peak has recently been used as a staging are for building construction, and the longer term question of access to various parts of that park, actually, the preferred areas in the park, are in flux and seem rather ill defined. So, it seemed like an opportune time to check out some of the other observing locations. Next month, plans are to again use an alternate site. Perhaps we will find a better situation and realize that for many, the attachment to Fremont Peak is only sentimental.

We drove up East Dunne Road, which climbs rapidly above the valley containing Morgan Hill and Gilroy. Soon, civilization gave way to a windy mountain road paralleling for a time Anderson Lake (man made), then turning into the wilds of California's coastal range mountains. 30 minutes later we entered a large parking lot 1/2 mile before the park entrance (if you are driving this, the lot is just after the only cattle guard you will drive across). There were a handful of observers, mostly the die hard regulars, standing in a steady breeze and looking at the high haze visible in all directions from the excellent horizons at this location. We thought we'd be alone.

As sunset approached, others began arriving. By nightfall, we had between 25 and 30 telescopes set up, with others still carefully driving in taking the last parking spots around the lots perimeter. We had quite a crowd. We met new people, who somehow felt the saw an SJAA announcement for a Coe star party while visiting Orion Telescope, and others who went to Fremont Peak and found it empty other than the crew from Orion training on equipment. There were a good number of first timers too. It is great to have such a wide range of experience and abilities, and equipment at the star party. It is one of the benefits of joining in. The new observing site was very nice for such a large group, as is Pacheco.

Once dark, my daughter took up the Herschel 400. Eleven years old and I had her using my 18" Obsession. I sat back and did a little coaching. While she may be a Messier Monster, this was not so easy. Of course, while doing the Messiers with her 10" Coulter, she was using about 75X, and the Obsession, a much larger instrument to aim and maneuver, was at 115X. At that magnification, I am pleased that she found anything. Mimi located several Herschel objects, and found out for the first time what it is like to be unable to find a target. She located NGCs 6934 and 7006, globular clusters in Delphinus, was unable to get to NGC 6905 (a smallish planetary in the same constellation), so she tried the familiar, M13. But, the sky had turned so much she couldn't place the Keystone in Hercules. Some minor coaching, starting at Arcturus, moving up to Corona Borealis, and she found the right place. Then she said something that startled me. "I can see M13"... what? I can see it. I looked up to the spot. Nothing. I've seen it naked eye at Lassen and Sierra Buttes, but here, at "bright" Henry Coe? Mimi grabbed the 18", swung it toward her mark, and it was immediately in the eyepiece. What better proof could she have chosen? Mag 5,9 M13 unaided in 11 year old eyes. Can you imagine what that must be like?

After M13, Mimi moved to Andromeda and found The Blue Snowball (NGC 7662) which showed remarkable color. Then she tried a new Messier for her, M34 in Perseus, which she had no trouble identifying, then back to Andromeda to NGC7686, an open cluster at the other "end" of a three star asterism used to find the Blue Snowball. Mimi had a friend spend the night the day before our observing trip, so she was tired. After finding one last object, M74 in Pisces, she turned in. Inside the truck, her head just a few feet away from me, as I used my computer at the tailgate. I stepped away for a short minute to say hi to a friend, came back and asked Mimi how she was. She was already sleeping.

Now I began my program, after three hours of watching my daughter having fun. My plan was to work out of The Night Sky Observer's Guide (TNSOG), beginning in Andromeda. Since it was rising nicely in the east.

Before describing what I observed in the eyepiece, I can report that many people expressed their pleasure with the observing site. Excellent horizons, and it seemed close enough in darkness to Fremont Peak to be a good alternative. This night however, would get nicely dark, as the fog would fill in all the valleys, including over San Jose, and by the end of my observing session only glowing circles of light softly illuminating small areas of the underside of the fog would be visible from Henry Coe. If not for the possible forest fire smoke, or just general haze in the atmosphere, it would have had all the ingredients of a perfect night. As it was, it was a very enjoyable night.

I began on NGC 80. This object is an easy target, sitting at the southwest border of Andromeda, where it meets the great square of Pegasus. Using the eastern stars of the great square, Apharatz and Algernib, NGC 80 sits just east of the mid-point of the distance between these stars. It is an easy Telrad find., the western edge of the Telrad almost touching the "line". The object was easy to detect due to a small triangle of mag 11 stars about 10' NE. Right at the triangle is NGC 83, a faint smudge that at first glance might be mistaken for a forth star making a parallelogram out of the small triangle. Both NGC 80 and 83 are in the mag 13 range, and were not difficult to detect. 7' WNW of NGC 80 is another small galaxy, NGC 91 at mag 14.2, near a 13th magnitude star. NGC 91 is one of the Arp Peculiar Galaxies, and is interesting looking on the DSS image. While there were several other dimmer galaxies in this area, I moved on.

Next was NGC 160. This galaxy held a treat, since there was a *very* close pair in the same field. But first, NGC 160 is also easy to locate with a Telrad. Find the first pair of stars in the sweeping constellation Andromeda, starting at the singular star Alpharatz. You should be on mag 3.3 Delta Andromedae, and see mag 4.3 30-Epsilon Andromedae 1.5 degrees south. These two stars point to a spot where the center of the Telrad will point, with the left edge of the Telrad almost touching mag 4 star 34-Zeta Andromedea, a few degrees to the north. In the eyepiece, two stars of mag 7.2 and 6.2 make for easy field identification. Mag 13.2 NGC 160 is almost south of the mag 7.2 star, while a pair sit about 5' SE of the mag 6.2 star. The pair are NGC 169 at mag 13.2 and, perpendicular to it and virtually touching is IC 1559, a mag 14.7 glow. Both galaxies are elongated, and higher magnifications help break them apart into individual components.

Want a really easy galaxy? Go back to the dimmer of the finder stars in the sweep of Andromeda, mag 4.3 30-Epsilon Andromedae. Put the Telrad right there. If your sky is dark enough and your scope large enough, you'll find NGC 183, a mag 14 round galaxy around 10' north of the bright star. There are several other galaxies in the field, but I did not detect them. If you want another easy NGC galaxy (which was in TNSOG for the night, but I've seen it so, skipped it) is NGC 404. Look it up... an easy one for beginners.

NGC 214 was next on the list (after skipping NGC 205 [M110]). NGC 214 lies about 8' SW of a mag 9 and mag 10 tight pair of stars. It is faint and diffuse. I did not detect a nucleus. This object too is easy, if you use your Telrad and 34-Zeta Andromedae for reference.

NGC 233 came next (after skipping M31 and M32). This is another easy target, where the Telrad's 2 degree circle virtually touches Delta Andromedae (the mag 3.3 star in next to Alpharatz). The galaxy sits 15' E of a couple mag 9 stars, and there is a linear complex of mag 7 and 8 stars containing two pair mag 9, 10 and 11 stars between, and to the E and N of the galaxy. The star patterns are very noticeable.

Now we begin to find groups of galaxies, beginning with NGC 252. Placing the mag 4.3 star 30-Epsilon Andromedae just outside the NW edge of your Telrad circles, you should find the field. You should see a mag 5.5 star 30' east of NGC 252, and four pairs of stars all with the same position angle to the galaxy's west. Roughly 10' EENE of mag 13.3 NGC 252 you will see mag 14.2 NGC 260 (on the way to the mag 5.5 star), and not all that difficult to the WNW will be mag 14.5 IC 1584.

NGC 679 yielded a large number of galaxies all easy eyepiece field star-hops from each other. NGC 679 is located in Andromeda, on the Triangulum border, just west of the bright open cluster NGC 752 (a good landmark). The galaxy is nearby two nice pairs of mag 7 stars, slightly offset from each other in the same PA, with a mag 9 star between the closest components to each pair. It is very distinctive. This mag 12.8 galaxy is about 13' west of the mag 9 star, and bright enough to be an easy target. I had at first accidentally landed on a very nice small edge-on galaxy, NGC 669 at mag 13, roughly 32' WSW of 679. Moving W from 669, you cross a mag 7 star, and 11' further north you find UGC 1251, a dim little spiral galaxy at mag 14.9. Moving back to 669, then E from there, you will find mag 14.2 UGC 1277 next to a 8.1 star, then further east, near a mag 9.6 star is mag 13 NGC 688. Moving back up to the two pair of bright stars with the dimmer center one, I found IC 1732 (mag 14.93) between the northern bright pair. East of the middle star were two obvious galaxies, UGC 1338 (mag 14.99) and UGC 1339 (mag 14.68). To their NW I also logged UGC 1319 (mag 14.5), and further NW UGC 1308 (mag 13.77) and NGC 687 (mag 13.20). There were many other galaxies in the area, but a lot of this exploring is really just a diversion off the main targets, so I moved on.

I next began by moving over a tick to the east, to the area containing NGC 710. If you consider this group along with that of NGC 679 (above), you can see it is a very rich galaxy field. NGC 710 is a spiral galaxy around mag 14, about 1.3 x 1.2 in size. The easily recognizable group of two bright pair of stars (mag 7's) with the mag 9 between is just SW of NGC 710 by about 20'. You can follow a chain of stars off the western end of the pairs and go ENE to get to NGC 710. But what will really catch your eye here is the group of NGC 704, 705 and 708 in a chain. In the same general area, I was able to hop to NGC 714, but could not see its neighbor NGC 717, and then to UGC 1344, UGC 1350 and UGC 1347. All of these galaxies (and more, if it were darker) were in the FOV of the 20 Nagler I was using. What a great spot to catch galaxies.

Continuing in the same area, I was very surprised to pick up MCG6-5-63, as it is listed as mag 15.6. Either this is a misprint, or there was a moment of exception clarity and steadiness. I saw it, as did others looking in the scope.

I next move onto NGC 752. It is an easy cluster to identify, rich, but spread out, it took up the entire field of the 20 Nagler. It was only possible to appreciate the group by moving to the edges of the cluster in order to get some perspective on its real size. This was nice in another scope using a 35 Panoptic.

I think about this time, a few of us took a break. Cars had been leaving during the night, and while I was beginning to tire a bit, the sky became progressively darker. This was indeed a good night. A bite to eat, some hot coffee, and I was ready to resume.

Again in the same part of the sky (which was by now getting quite high, nearly overhead), I hunted down NGC 759, an elliptical galaxy also called a cluster in Software Bisque's The Sky. It is a mag 13.4 galaxy, pretty obvious. It is WSW of a mag 8 star by roughly 10'. There is also a dimmer pair of mag 10 stars E of the mag 8 star, running NE-SW and about 3' apart. This field would prove frustrating to me, but I would sure learn the star patterns well. I moved NNE from 759, past a mag 7.3 star to IC 178, a faint mag 13.9 smudge. The bright star and a complex chain of stars to the N of the IC object helped identify the proper location. I came back to 759 and headed toward the mag 8 star ESE, then to the two mag 8 stars which I used as pointers to go NE about 4' to IC 1460, a mag 14.6 galaxy that was not too difficult to pick up between three dim stars. I was to try only two more objects, so I moved back across the two mag 8 stars about 18', past a nice easy to ID chain of about four stars in a tight line, to NGC 753. This object was larger than most I'd been looking at, so at mag 12.5 it still seemed rather dim, due to its light being spread over a larger area. From there I decided to head west, past a mag 10.8 star with a nice tight pair close to its S, past another tight pair with the brighter component being about mag 10, beyond still to a mag 9.3 star, where I would turn N toward another mag 9 star. Between the two mag 9's was supposed to be UGC 1400, a mag 13.8 edge-on galaxy. But I did not find it. Maybe I was too tired, and by now the first brightening of morning was showing in the east.

I played around a bit more, looking at the big Messier open clusters in Auriga, then shot down to M42. I finished up looking through a friend's SCT at Beta-Monoceros, the nice triple star, but the seeing was a bit unsteady.

After saying goodby to some friends who were leaving, the rest of the crew crawled into their trucks to grab a few hours sleep before heading down the hill in the morning.

It was a very good night at Coe. I plan to go back. The sky is big there, as the horizons are very good. With the brightness now evident at Fremont Peak, coming from Salinas, Hollister and Soledad, it may be that there is little left to keep me, and perhaps others, at Fremont Peak. There may be little difference between Coe's sky and the Peak's. And, if we are squeezed out and find it difficult to use that park, it is good to know.... better locations are there...

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