Saturday, December 30, 2000

Two nights down, one to go

I've viewed NGC 1664 over several nights the past week or so. Last night my notes say (using 10" f/5.6 and 20 Nagler) "Fan shaped cluster to west of a bright star in the field. A chain of stars runs south from the edge fo the cluster. The brighter members of the group seem to form the perimiter of the formation." Another night's notes state "Bright star very close to the southeast side, a chaing going south of the central condensation to its west, another chain to the east."

One of the fun backyard objects from a few nights ago was was NGC1931: "Open cluster with nebulousity. Somewhat mimicking a planetary nebula in size and appearance. With higher power (7mm) three or more stars break apart embedded in the nebulousity."

Another nice surprise was using my 10x50 binoculars on a few objects in the Night Sky Observers Guide (again, in my backyard). Collinder 70 - Orion's Belt stars and their surrounding field are magnificient. The three bright stars are set amid a very rich field. Nice chains curving gracefully through the western to stars, hooking east below and west above, then south around the western end star in the belt. Gorgeous!

Monday, December 25, 2000

What an eclipse!

Woke up at 8 today, realizing there was an eclipse. I didn't know when or how long it would last. Out into the backyard, on went some "solar sunglasses" and I could see something was askew with the sun. Into the house, got everyone up and out to the driveway for a clear view.

What a sight! X-Mas day and the sun and moon putting on a spectacle. I began to feel tingling while watching, only to realize I was barefoot on cold concrete. :-)

Merry X-Mas to all. Great group of people.

Sunday, December 17, 2000

Backyard observing: The Joys of Winter

I've been working on improvements to La Caja de Los Gatos Observatory in my backyard over the past week. Now that the leaves are all of the trees, the observatory is bathed in the bright yellow-white light of a low pressure sodium cyclops to my north-northwest, sticking its head up at least 30 feet into the air, brightly illuminating everything within a very wide radius. I am thinking hard about trying the laser trick. But instead, I have built a light-blind around the northern and western perimeter of La Caja, three poles with dark brown tarp that seems very effective. The alternative of no observing until spring replenishes the tree branches, is just out of the question.

Last night I set up my 10" f/5.6 Dobsonian just at sunset and took a peek at Saturn. At 74X, the rings were dancing. Looking over to Capella, it was like some Fourth of July sparkler, throwing colors in rapid fire. Not a planetary night. Just after astronomical dark had set in, Mimi stuck her head out the back door and asked where her scope was. Since it is a short school week before vacation, her 10" f/4.5 Dob Cassiopeia found its way out to accompany mine.

I had already been been logging objects in Taurus when Mimi got to her scope. She was decked out in full winter observing gear. I think she finds it great fun to be toasty warm on a winter night in the backyard with a clear sky. I like it too. In fact, I think observing with Mimi has become my favorite type of astronomy session. She asked what I was looking at, and I showed her the Astro Card for NGC 1647. Immediately she asked where her Herschel 400 list was. Hey.... why not... maybe she could bag a few, and its fun to both be using 10" scopes to hunt objects together.

I disappeared briefly to get the book, and upon returning, it was off to the races with Mimi.

Whenever Mimi would find an object, she'd want to get right on to the next one. I had to tell her we should take some time to look at what we'd found, and write down some notes. These are our notes for December 17, 2000.

NGC 1647 - this open cluster in Taurus is easy to find. Using the V of the Hyades as a pointer, we came off the bottom (eastern) extension. The four stars were a great yardstick, taking that distance beyond Aldebaran and slightly west to mag 5.0 97-Tauri. A nice V of stars can be seen in a low power field, and the cluster sits just beyond the vertex of the V. A grouping of three double stars seem to define the central portion of the cluster, arcing gently east to west. The brightest star in the field was about 23' S of the center of the group.

Getting to NGC 1746 began at Iota Tauri, a mag 4.6 star situated almost dead center between the ends of the Hyades' V and Taurus' horn stars Zeta and Beta. Oddly, this star, brighter than 97-Tauri, required more concentration and averted vision. Uranometria 2000 reveals a nice star hop from Zeta northwest to the cluster. This is a loose and large group, extending about 40' across, with a more condensed western portion and several bright stars to the south. Two bright stars sit N/S on the eastern perimeter of the group. What makes this cluster special is the pair of other open clusters obviously embedded line-of-sight within the larger NGC 1746. Both NGC 1758 and 1750 are obvious, looking like a pair of fuzzy eyes along the north side of NGC 1746. The two smaller clusters run N/S within their larger host. With some concentration, the smaller clusters break up (suburban skies) into many stars. This is a very nice sight!

Mimi was already cranking. I couldn't keep up with her. I was using an 11x70 finder with a Telrad, Mimi was dropping on objects with just her Telrad and the now too short for her 10" Coulter. We moved on.

NGC 1807 and 1817 sit just inside the constellation boundary line for Taurus, across from 3 naked eye stars in northern Orion. The stars are mag 5.8 SAO 94377, mag 4.8 15 Orionis and mag 4.6 11 Orionis which is also the top of the hunter's shield. These stars made it a snap for Mimi to land right on the two clusters. I worked for about 5 minutes to locate and confirm them. Of the two, NGC 1807 is smaller and contains 3 bright stars and many dimmer components. NGC 1817 is large, and has a noticeable "T" shape where several double stars define the leg of the T, running E/W. It has several bright stars and appears about 30' away from the other cluster.

With that pair of clusters, Mimi finished the Taurus objects for her H400.

Off to Auriga. Looking at Capella and the three stars nearby, Mimi recalled the myth of the Charioteer and the baby goats... The Kids. We would ride the kids over to NGC 1664, a short jump eastward from Epsilon Aurigae. This cluster was a challenge compared our earlier quarry. A bright star sits very close just SE of a chain extending S of a central concentration of stars defining the core of the cluster. Another chain eminates from the core, sweeping to the east. All in all, this is a pretty cluster... a nice swirl of stars.

Still in Auriga we tracked down NGC 1857, a mag 7 open in the heart of the constellation. A chain of three bright stars ranging from mag 4.7 to 5.5 walked us right to the cluster. Mimi found it first. It is described as dense, but I could only see a handful of dim stars around a central bight component. Maybe darker skies would reveal a nice object, but last night, this one was a dud.

Sitting directly between Iota and Theta Aurigae, you will find M38, a beautiful large and rich open cluster with many stars of similar magnitudes. This was our marker to locate NGC 1907, a small yet dense open cluster in the same wide field view as the famous Messier. This view reminds many people of M35 and NGC 2158 in Gemini, although if memory serves me, 1907 is brighter than 2158, and M35 is brighter (by far) than M38. This view is worth hunting down.

Nearby NGC 1931, roughly opposite and a bit SW of NGC 1907 from M38, looks like a hazy star, perhaps a planetary nebula. It is a cluster with nebulousity, but all I see is the small glow that looks like an out of focus star.

Mimi and I were having a great time, she'd find the objects, I'd confirm them, then we'd try describing the together both of us looking in our eyepieces simultaneously. This is how I used to observe with Alan Nelms years ago. I think it is the best way to observe. Mimi is also learning note-taking in the process. Maybe I'll begin sketching soon.

We moved over to NGC 2126, located conveniently slightly west of the mid-point between Beta and Delta Aurigae. It is a compact cluster with many stars... in my backyard skies it was dim but distinct. A bright star is in the field, virtually involved with the cluster.

Mimi had one more Herschel on the list in Auriga. This one would be a challenge, in the middle of an area with few visible stars. So, off we went to NGC 2281. Using SAO 41380, a mag 4.8 star just NW of the cluster as our marker, we had to find it by making a triangle off mag 1.9 Beta and 2.65 Theta Aurigae. But it got us there. A section of the cluster looks like Delphinus, a small asterism resembling the summer constellation. The cluster is bright with about 20 stars involved. It is quite a nice site.

It was now 9:40 p.m. Mimi had been outside with me for just over two hours. She'd logged 11 Herschels and was quite happy. Not a bad weeknight, in fact, a school night. Long observing hours are one of the joys of winter. So are all the open clusters. Why opens? Because, given a chance, they have form and variety, lots of personality, and can be seen more easily from closer in town than nebulae and galaxies... and are not as sensitive to poor seeing as are planets or the moon. With conditions being so fickle in winter... it is nice to have a class of objects that can be seen just out the backdoor.

Mimi went to bed, and I continued for a few more objects. I noted IC 2149 just off Beta Aurigae and with the 12mm Nagler was able to see a small, bright disk. This object would have taken quite a bit more magnification, but conditions were not favorable for that. Another night.

I stood back and looked at the rising sky. Twinkling through my neighbor's tall oak was Sirius. Orion was sitting up decently, so I looked at a mushy Trapezium and decent contrast between the nebula and surrounding blackness. I hadn't been in Monoceros for some time. I moved down to Orion's back-foot, Saiph, then eastward to mag 4.0 Gamma and mag 4.7 HIP 30867. Situated nearly between these naked eye stars sits NGC 2215. Low in the sky still, it was medium size, dim, and resolved into many dozen stars. A bright star sits in the field to the NW and a bright pair further away to the NE.

During a night of observing, there is invariably some view that stands out. NCG 2301 was to be that one for this session. Use mag 4.1 Delta and 18 Monocerotis to navigate, this unusual open cluster can be seen in a large finder. It was spectacular, with two distinct chains of stars at right angles, the brighter one running N/S, the dimmer more diffuse chain running perpendicular to the E and having a fairly dense core at the intersection. This is a fine cluster!

My last object for the night was NGC 2324, a small cluster that appears to be a miniature Pisces, with the vertex of the angle at the eastern end. A bright pair of stars sits to the N, with the open end of this little Pisces to the NNE. This too is a striking view.

I looked again at the sky and thought about my backyard observatory, realizing it is quite a good place. Soon will come Canis Major and Minor, Puppis, Cancer, Hydra... these areas are wonderful winter hunting grounds, full of objects for a night out in the backyard.

Saturday, November 18, 2000

Subjects of the Queen

Saturday the 18th of November was a reasonable day to try Pacheco State Park for a short night of observing. It must be at least six months since I'd been there, and recall being fogged out early on my last visit. This night would offer some good observing along with a fight against dewing and finally, cloud cover. But it was fun.

With temperatures in the 30's all evening, this was only the second occasion I can report ice forming on the shroud of my 18" Dob. Several of you will recall a similarly cold night at Fremont Peak within the past few years. However, sufficient clothing made the temps barely noticeable.

As the sky darkened, I pointed the scope up into Cassiopeia, where I would spend most of the night checking out subject of the celestial queen.

I began 1.75 degrees NNE of mag 2.2 Caph (Beta Cass). Residing in an obvious "V" formation of mag 5 and 6 stars that spanned almost 2 degrees in my finder, there sat what has recently been referred to as Mimi's Red Star. I believe it is mag 6.7 SAO 21020, one of the most colorful stars I've ever viewed. Along with the coppery look of a brand new penny, really intense, close by sat a whitish-blue star, creating a truly magnificent pair. Not far away is another copper star, not quite as intense, but also outstanding. This portion of the local Milky Way seems replete with copper and redder stars. Another good example of coppery stars is the "Pink Buddy" (which morphed into the "Pink Bunny" somehow), Eta Cassiopeia, as described by Jane Houston Jones. I literally could not get over the richness of the tones, and looked at Mimi's star for quite some time, inviting other observers to view it.

Having blown the fuse on my inverter, I put away my laptop computer and got out the Night Sky Observers Guide, Uranometria, Tirion's Sky Atlas 2000, notebook and assorted other references. It proved both challenging and fun to use paper charts. The 10 x 70 finder turned out to be my best friend, showing recognizable asterisms that allowed me to confirm my position, much like the zoomed in eyepiece views of star fields do when using The Sky on my laptop as a chart.

I observed several objects, but these few were the most interesting.

NGC 7635, the Bubble Nebula, was a challenge. Sitting very close to M52, the location is easy to reach. M52 is visible in a large finder. I had been through this area recently, hunting down open cluster Czernik 43, which essentially shares the field of view in my 20 Nagler with M52. Obtaining the orientation of CZ43 allowed certain determination of the direction to the Bubble. The nebula appeared as a glow 3' north of a bright star. Another bright star sat 10' SW of the first star. While visible at 100X without a filter, a UHC certainly helps. The nebula appeared somewhat fan shaped, with the thinner part of the shape toward the close-by star. The nebula may be viewed in part on page 521 of Burnhams, just off the dimmer of the two bright stars at the bottom right of the photo (the image shows M52, and although not mentioned, also contains CZ43).

Abell 82 (PK114-4.1) is a dim planetary nebula sitting close to the showpiece open cluster NGC 7789. I began by placing the cluster in my finder, and orienting myself on the wide pairs of bright stars that almost bracket it. One of the pair of doubles has a trail of stars coming off it, the other does not. A right angle off the solitary pair bring a pair of mag 5.6 and 6.2 star into view, and centered, offer the location of the planetary. Abell 82 appeared dim, with some stars involved, and somewhat elongated toward a bright star to its WWNW. While the UHC filter helped, the OIII did a much nicer job of brining out this rather ghostly object.

If I had thought Abell 82 was dim, the next one, Abell 84, made it seem an easy target. This planetary was larger, with a bright star sat 20' to its south, which helped pinpoint the correct location. I had expected magnification to help this planetary, but found it much easier to view at 100x than at 170. Perhaps that was a result of the filters... I have an OIII that fits my 2" 20 Nagler, but needed to use an 1.25" Ultrablock on the 12 Nagler. The planetary seemed roughly 5' in diameter and slightly out of round.

By this time temperatures were around freezing and my eyepieces would begin to fog when I got too close. I used a blow drier several times to defog. From here on out it was a fight against the elements.

I moved on to PK119-6.1, a small planetary, also in Cassiopeia. I don't recall how I found this one. But I do know that it was not easy, since the planetary is virtually stellar at lower powers. What did stand out was the star, at lower power, appeared rather green, causing me to stop on it. I increased power to 170X and it was still fairly stellar, but giving beginning to appear slightly round, like a shrunken Jovian moon. I took out the OIII and passed it between my eye and the eyepiece. The suspect star stayed bright, all others in the field dimmed. Bingo. It stayed bright while all the others dimmed more.

The last objects that were fun and presented some challenge were three galaxies situated between M31 and Alpha Cass, near three naked eye stars. NGCs 278, 185 and 147. I've seen these before, but I am always fascinated at the differences in three galaxies in such close line of sight proximity.

I found these galaxies by centering the 3 naked eye stars, SAO 36620 being the brightest of the three. Notice that two of the stars are closer together. This will help in star hopping the area, since two of the galaxies are quite dim.

NGC 278 is a bright yet compact round galaxy with a bright core, at magnitude 11.5, surface brightness (SB) 12.2, and 2'x2' in diameter. The core seems to diminish noticeably about 2/3rds of the way toward its periphery. The core is stellar. A bright star resides to the north of the galaxy. This galaxy sits on the opposite side of the naked eye stars from the other two.

NGC 185 is a large dim galaxy, but not such that you would not notice it. Its magnitude is 10.10, but its large angular size dims it considerably compared to 278. NGC 185's surface brightness is only 14.3, a large difference compared to 278. I estimated its size at about 10'x10', found it to contain a bright core and a possible hint of a spiral arm or some form of elongation along the object's western extremity. While 278 looked almost like a large bright planetary at first glance, 185 was a galaxy from the get-go.

Two groups of mirror-image stars separate NGCs 185 and 147. Each pair has a brighter component bracketing a dimmer one to the inside. Going through these stars from 185 to 147 seemed almost like passing through a portal, where the challenge factor suddenly increased.

NGC 147 is a ghost, with a magnitude and surface brightness of 10.5 and 14.5 respectively. Sitting further away from the 3 bright stars than NGC 185, this galaxy is large and amorphous. Perhaps it was deteriorating sky conditions, or a fogged eyepiece, this galaxy was a real challenge. It appeared to be about 8'x 16' and oriented N/S. I could detect what I wrote down as a bright core, but my memory is that nothing was bright.

Of these three galaxies, NGC 147 and NGC 185 are thought to be satellites of M31. In fact, their radial velocities are very close, 185 at -202 and 147 at -193, so they are heading toward us at about the same speed (the same distance away). I wondered if NGC 278 was another member, but its radial velocity is +640, so it is moving away.

Just as these three galaxies grew gradually dimmer and more challenging, so did the sky in general. By 11:30, we were packed up and ready to head out. All things considered, I am glad I went. Observing session for the next four months or more are iffy propositions at best, with an occasional surprise "great" outing thrown in. If you don't go out when you have a chance, it could be a long wait.

As I drove out of Pacheco, and pulled out onto highway 152, I remembered the sky's appearance. First timers were commenting how dark it had been. Yes, it did look dark compared to Coe or other nearby locations. But, clouds to the northwest and east held in some local light domes, leaving the really dark nights for another time. Pacheco in the right conditions can be the best of the local groups.

Saturday, November 4, 2000

NGC 7789 in Cassiopeia

It was fun, even with the fog and chill. I did a count and we had at least 18 telescopes set up in the lot. A very good turnout.

When the final wave of fog overcame the lot, and only a few of us remained (and ended up sleeping there in our vehicles), I looked up to see Jupiter's last rays dim out under the fog. We were done for the night. I looked up again at the sky, although not black, it was quite dark. I couldn't help but think of a universe with no stars. Heat death. Even the lack of stars gives us something to think about.

I can't wait for 3rd Q!

Here's my list from last Saturday:

  • M52
  • Czernik 43
  • Stock 12
  • King 12
  • NGC 7788 & NGC 7790
  • NGC 7789
  • King 14
  • NGC 143
  • NGC 133

The moon and planets were spectacular at times. Ken had so many barlows on his 18" Dob it was unbelievable. We were observing Jupiter and Saturn at over 700X. Saturn was showing detail in my scope at over 1100x. But obviously, the best views were at closer to 400x.

A short but pleasant night...

Monday, October 23, 2000

A Wonderful Night

I know many of you have been through teenagers. Well, if astronomy were challenging as teens, I don't know that I'd be very involved. After dealing with poor grades, restrictions, arguments and all associated difficulty, I was in need of some peace and quite. Additionally, my daughter Mimi was busy and frustrated with homework when I went outside to my backyard observatory about 8:30 p.m.

The sky was dark for in town, there was no dew and a slight breeze cooled the air enough to require a light sweater.

First, I looked through the eyepiece at a random piece of sky just to see how the stars looked. I had one of the most unusual feelings I've encountered observing. Putting eye to eyepiece, I looked in and focused. At the very moment I hit focus, it went through, dark, quiet, eerily. Maybe it was a jet, I suspect it was. It was dark against the sky, and perhaps four times longer than its width. Light came out of what may be windows. The windows looked like they could be plane windows. Still, the darkness of its silhouette and the glow from inside it were very unsettling. Especially when I looked up and could not see, or hear, anything. I stood around for a few minutes, just looking at the expanse of sky, and wondering.

I had brought out a copy of the Saguaro (SAC) Deep Sky Database I'd printed a few years ago, and decided to observe the brighter objects in Pegasus. After about 30 minutes of hunting in the SAC, I knew a different "in town" program was in order. Right then Mimi came out to say goodnight. I had a wonderful time with her the prior night, she with her 10" f/4.5 and I, using my 10" f/5.6. We worked Cygnus, checking off Herschels. Only the North American Nebula escaped her. So I suggested she spend half an hour tonight observing before bedtime. We started with NGC 6802 in Vulpecula, but were unsuccessful. We tried until almost 9:30. Mimi wanted to get just one object before turning in, so we looked quickly for NGC 6823, another cluster in Vulpecula, involved with nebulosity. Almost immediately she had her object for the night. We talked about how fun it is to observe together, and that we wished we had more time in the evening. I reminded her that next week the time changed, and it would be dark an hour earlier. She was elated.

Off Mimi went to bed, happy, relaxed, feeling great. I went inside to retrieve the Night Sky Observer's Guide, to try brighter objects in Pegasus. After a few minutes back outside, my son came out. This was very unusual, he has had little interest in astronomy for at least three years, maybe more. Perhaps restricted from TV, music, telephone, etc., could find some father and son time. It was a great opportunity. Soon, I had him pointing my scope at the Ring Nebula. Then the Double Cluster, M31, and M15. Other objects followed. We talked about physics, chemistry, gravity waves, stellar evolution and life cycles. It put a real face on many of the subjects he studies in school... relating the physical universe to his classroom. It was great.

I hope some of the interesting information Daniel learned last night will have a positive effect. At least were able to spend time together, which is a good change. Daniel went inside to get ready for bed.

By now it was 10:30. Pegasus was beginning its descent to the west, and I opened the Night Sky Observers Guide. I was alone with a big sky again.

I first went after NGC 7177. This galaxy sits at almost a perfect right angle Biham (the bend in Pegasus' neck) and Enif, but north of Enif. It is in rather a no-man's-land piece of sky. Fortunately, a distinct chain of three bright stars are nearby (two are naked eye) to point the way. Using my 11x70 finder, I traversed the chain, out past a pair of mag 7 and 8 stars, to the correct position. The galaxy appeared dim and large, elongated north to south with a chain of four stars extending from the galaxy southward. This was a nice view of a galaxy with a bright core. NGC 7177 is mag 11.2, with a surface brightness (SB) of 13.0. This, from a suburban backyard! I used a 12mm Nagler for this and most other observations.

Encouraged, I went for NGC 7217. Just off SAO 72077, it is an easy hop to the correct location. I also use SAO 72077 as a jumping of star to enter Lacerta... very handy point of light... easy to id in an eyepiece, as it is double with both components bright and just over one mag apart at 4.3 and 5.6. The galaxy lies outside the opening of a large "V" of stars, the brightest being mag 6.3. A brightish star lies SE of the galaxy, and the galaxy itself is fairly round, perhaps a spiral, elongated in a NE/SW direction. Views were easy in both the 20 Nagler and 12. NGC 7217 is distinct at mag 10.1 and SB 12.7.

A quick jump to old familiar NGC 7331 was next. This beautiful spiral is usually a test from my backyard. This night it was an easy target, with easy detail in the extent of the spiral arms. Perhaps the best backyard view I've had. The NNE/SSW orientation and the three stars at a right angle to the galaxy's south were quite distinct. I did not, but should have tried for Stephan's Quintet while so close by! NGC 7331 is a mag 9.5 galaxy. However, its surface brightness is low at 13.3. It is easy to see, since its core and inner arms are so bright. The low surface brightness results from the more tenuous arms that are apparent from darker skies and in larger instruments.

By now, I was into it. I was having fun. The world melted away and there was me and the sky. This too was wonderful.

Next I targeted NGC 7332. When I try to find NGC 7331, I invariably use three stars. One is Matar, the bright star out from the Great Square on the way to SAO 72077. The others are the wide bright naked eye "double" SAO 90816 and SAO 90775. These are obvious stars even in a bright sky. NGC 7332 is just west of the double. The galaxy is conveniently located at the midpoint between two low mag 7 stars. An easy target! In the 12 mm it was obvious with a NE/SW orientation. The core was very bright, in fact, with averted vision there was a stellar point in the core. I tried with limited success (very limited) to observe NGC 7339 just to the W. I had perhaps one or two fleeting views. NGC 7332 is fairly bright at mag 11.1 and SB 12.6.

I know I have a decent backyard, considering the proximity of San Jose, but I am surprised at what can be observed from this location. Having the telescope set up with table and charts, just out the back door, really makes it easy to go out.

I would log three more galaxies. The first was NGC 7448, easy in the 12 mm but faint in the 20. My notes place it close but west of the brightest star in the field. It appeared round. This area would be worth visiting again in darker skies with a big scope, as there are 7 galaxies at or under mag 14.5 in about a one degree field. While there, I visited NGC 7454 also. It was the more difficult of the two. It sits very close to a dim star with a brighter star further away on the opposite side of the galaxy. NGC 7454 was very faint in the 12 mm. NGC 7448 is mag 11.7 with SB of 12.9. NGC 7454 is mag 11.8, but its SB of 13.2 makes it much more difficult than 7448. Incidentally, NGC 7448 is part of Arp 13.

My last object, logged after midnight, was NGC 7457. Just off Scheat in the Great Square of Pegasus, this too is an easy location for in-town star-hoppers. I use Markab (the Great Square star that begins Pegasus' neck), and draw a line through Scheat, and continue two degrees further. That puts a chain of pairs of stars in the viewfinder. The southern end of the chains is a jumping off spot toward NGC 7457. The galaxy is medium large but faint in the 20 mm, and just west of a small dim triangle of stars about the same size as the galaxy. On the opposite side of the galaxy but further away is WDS 16436, with another bright star just a touch further west. These stars are actually part of a nice chain of 6 stars arcing westward away from the galaxy. I thought the galaxy was possibly a spiral, elongated NW/SE. A nice sight! NGC 7457 is a good sized galaxy for backyard observers, shining at mag 11.2 and SB 13.6. It must have a very bright central section to overcome suburban skies with that low of a surface brightness!

Knowing that I had work in the morning, I began putting things away. I was surprised to find I had out:

  • 1 Night Sky Observers Guide.
  • 2 Volumes of Uranometria
  • 1 Tirion Sky Atlas 2000
  • Full set of Astro Cards
  • 2 binders full of the Saguaro Deep Sky Database printout.
  • Mimi's Herschel 400 lists
  • 2 flashlights
  • 2 empty containers of "coffee"
  • 3 eyepieces.
  • Pen and notes.
  • Large (6 cell) Maglite (showing Daniel constellations)
  • and a head full of memories.

Its nice to have an observatory at home...a fine place end to a day of challenges.

It was, indeed, a wonderful night.

Thursday, October 19, 2000

Observing report from La Caja de Los Gatos Observatory

I was very surprised to find a cloudless night upon returning home from dinner out with my family. I had not had a good night to use my new observing area (the observatory) since building it... big moon, clouds, work, etc. So tonight (10/19) I took my 10" f/5.6 Dob outside, with a laptop computer and Herschel 400 list and set up about 8:30 p.m. The sky was clear, but it felt chilly and dew was on my table from the start.

All observations are with a 20mm Nagler Type 2 unless otherwise noted.

I began in Camelopardalis, to my north in the light dome of San Jose. NGC 1501 is a large planetary nebula I last observed at Pacheco State Park a few years ago... actually, I was looking for a nearby open cluster when Richard Navarrete looked in my eyepiece while I was at the computer, and asked "what planetary is that?" ... NGC 1501 had unexpectedly drifted in. Big and bright. Tonight it would not show up until I put in a 2" OIII filter. It was definitely there with the OIII, but at only about 30 degrees elevation, it was not in a good observing position. The planetary was about 1/2 the field of view west of the brightest star in the field.

Next, NGC 1502 (what I was looking for at Pacheco) was wonderful. Also known as Kemble's Cascade, this small bright open cluster is a jewel. A tight pair of bright stars stand out in the middle of the group, with other pairs running mostly east to west on either side of the bright pair. The cluster occupied about 1/5 the FOV, and was visible in my 11x70 finder. This one is worth a look.

NGC 1513 is a dim open cluster, at least in the bright San Jose sky. I had to put in a 12mm Nagler to bring it out of the skyglow. There are many stars in the cluster, with just a few bright ones involved. I looked at this while chasing Mimi through her Herschel 400 list at Lake San Antonio. It sits in a nice "hook" chain of stars, very noticeable. The brightest star in the hook is at the "bottom." The cluster sits 1/2 the FOV from the bright star and occupies 1/3 the FOV. With the 20 Nagler, it was barely noticeable after knowing where to look.

NGC 1528 is in an easy location, and easy to find the my 11x70 finder. It is a very attractive open cluster with may bright stars. Two distinct chains extend west from the center of the group in a northeast to southwest direction, and a distinct condensation of stars sits southeast of the chains. The entire group occupied a quarter to a third of the FOV. This is a very nice group!

NGC 1545 is another open cluster in an easy location. It is a deceiving cluster, at first one thinks there is nothing there but 4 bright stars. After looking a bit, many dim components begin to appear. The cluster is large with 2 very bright stars in the FOV.

The last NGC I went after was 1444. This cluster was exceedingly faint even with the darkened background using the 12m Nagler. It is not visible at all in the 20. The group is a tough in town find, but a bright star very close by to the WNW of the cluster gives a good clue where to look.

I finished by observing M33, a large hazy faint glow. M74 was not visible. NGC 891, forget it. I did have a wonderful view of M110, easy to see, large, distinct. M31 and M32 were, of course, quite easy.

I was cold with the heavy dew on my neck. It was 11 p.m. and I was out of Herschel until the winter nebulae and opens, or the spring galaxies. I packed it in and headed for the warmth indoors.

LocationLa Caja de Los Gatos Observatory
37:13:36N 121:58:25W
Time8:30 p.m. PDT
Conditionshigh humidity, mediocre transparancy below 45 degrees, good above.
Templow 60s to high 50s (F).

Sunday, October 8, 2000

Observing "cat box" and Alberios

I finished a project I've been waiting to undertake for the last 3 years. My wife (Pat) and I have had a friendly ongoing "discussion" over that period of time... she wanted a pond with pump, aquatic plants and fish in the backyard, and I, well, an obervatory. Problem was, we were both eyeballing the same piece of backyard real estate.

Finally, a month ago, we came to a compromise. She now has the first of two ponds out back, in an old brick "fire pit" (popular in the 60's), very nicely done, on her own. The choice piece of real estate now has a 8' x 16' "cat box" (or so one of my cats thinks), bordered by double high 2x4x8's, three 2'x2'x1' (h,w,d) concrete pads spaced equally along the major axis, and filled with gravel (5.5 cubic yards).

I love it! I was out back tonight, getting dewy out there, but still, what a treat!

Now if I can keep the freaking cats out of it!

While I was poking around the bright moon sky, I happened upon Delta Cephei, looking for open clusters. Aha! Another Alberio! Have a look, blue and gold, with gold the brighter of the pair.

Gamma Andromedae is another blue/gold combination, tighter and dimmer than Alberio, but often referred to as like Alberio. I know I've seen several other Alberio-like pairs. So, I began wondering, how many do other observers know of? Can anyone contribute to the "Son Of Alberio" list?

Tuesday, September 19, 2000

Bright night observing from Los Gatos

Bright stars seemed to twinkle frantically as dark set in. I put my 10" f/5.6 Dob and Equatorial Platform outside to cool down and left it to cool down for an hour. Walking outside at 9:30 p.m., the sky was bright. I could barely see the Milky Way... I think it was mostly imagination, knowing where to look. Saggita and Delphinus were both barely showing, a measure of how bright the sky was, probably due to pollutants (other than light).

I went through portions of the Herschel 400 list, which I use for backyard observing. I looked for targets on my list and saw if they were included in any of the Astro Cards. With 20mm Nagler in the focuser, I was at 71X, quite a bit lower power than I am accustomed to. Still, the view through the 20 is spectacular. The only other eyepiece I would use during the night was the 12 Nagler, a jump up to 118X. I also used a Telrad and University Optics 11x70 finder, along with Lumicon's UHC and OIII and Orion's Ultrablock filters.

As you can see by the list below, even in an suburban backyard, with a bright(ish) sky, deep sky observing is possible, and in fact, enjoyable.

NGC 6781, mag 12.0, 1.8', in Aquila is a smallish planetary nebula. I suspected it without a filter, but upon installing the UHC it was an easy target. Although it is described as a "planetary ring" I saw no evidence of a ring, just a fairly solid circle. The object is easy to locate, one third the distance between Delta and Zeta Aquilae.

NGC 6755, mag 7.5, 15.0'. This cluster appeared as a change in contrast, a slight hazy brightening, in a fairly rich Milky Way star field. It was decent size, but otherwise non-descript.

NGC 6756, mag 11.0, 4', appeared as a small "frosty" glow. Not much too this open cluster in suburban skies. I used the stars Delta Aquilae and 63-Theta1 Serpentis as guides, with the cluster being slightly toward Theta on that line.

NGC 6802, mag 8.8, 3.0' in Vulpecula is a cool open cluster! Near "The Coathanger" (naked eye cluster) it sits just east of and about mid-point between Zeta Aquilae and Beta Cygni. The Astro Cards provided a very nice hop to this object. the cluster appears small, dim, and looked like an unresolved globular cluster. The Equatorial Platform helped greatly in identifying this object, as I was able to spend time back and forth at the charts without any drifting. Two tight doubles sit on either side (off-line), both doubles have equal separations and distance from the cluster.

NGC 6820, low surface brightness nebula, 40' in Vulpecula is perhaps barely detectable from my backyard. This looks like a fun target for a dark sky site. I found perhaps two dozen stars in a faint, hazy, emission nebula. It was large, and seemed centered (at least what was the brightest or most visible section) outside two almost parallel chains of stars, outside the wide end of the chains. To locate this position, I star hopped in my finder, starting at Alpha Vulpeculae. The parallel chains of stars identified the place to look. I may try this again tonight with a filter (doh!).

NGC 6823, mag 7.1, 12' in Vulpecula. This cluster is a nice sight, with about two dozen stars, and sits in the center of the nebula NGC 6820. Again, this may be a fine sight in a dark sky. Check it out!

NGC 6834, mag 7.8, 5.0', in Cygnus. Small, compact open cluster, dim haze. There are bright stars in the center of this cluster. Located east of the line between Alberio and Eta Cygni, rather difficult to hop to.

NGC 6866, mag 7.6, 7.0' in Cygnus. This open cluster is as easy to find as NGC 6834 was difficult. Naked eye stars 31 and 32 Cygni can be pointers to the approximate area, just NW of the center point between Gamma and Delta Cygni. I dropped right on this object with only the Telrad. This is a nice compact open cluster with many stars, easy to identify. A chain of bright stars traverses the cluster from north to south.

NGC 6910, mag 7.4, 8.0' in Cygnus. If NGC 6866 was easy to find, this open cluster almost hands itself to you, it is so easy sitting just over 2 degrees north of Gamma Cygni. About 10 stars appear to populate the brighter components, forming a long "Y" (kind of, sort of). Two stars in the Y are brighter than all the others. The cluster is spread out, but still is a pleasing grouping.

NGC 6934, mag 8.9, 5.9' in Delphinus. I've visited this smallish unresolved globular cluster many times before, due to its easy location. Looking at the "Dolphin" one can follow the arc of its tail from the back of the diamond "body" almost precisely to the correct location. The globular, while a poor cousin of the big bright Messier globulars, is still a pleasing find, and unmistakable as a globular cluster. A bright star sits close by to the object's west, with two more stars still further to the west.

NGC 6940, mag 6.3, 31' in Vulpecula. I was surprised to find how large the constellation Vulpecula is. This object is toward the Veil Nebula, a favorite object for amateur astronomers. Two stars point at this open cluster... travel an equal distance away from Cygnus, using 39 and 41 Cygni as your naked eye guide stars. You'll drop right on the cluster. This open is drop dead gorgeous! Big, bright, rich with a stream of stars from the north west to the south east. This one could have easily replaced some of the tiny Messier open clusters! A real treat.

NGC 7006, mag 10.6, 2.8' in Delphinus. Remember how to get to NGC 6934, the globular two objects back? This one is kind of a twin, as far as how to find it. Using the center star in the diamond (the dolphin's back), traverse to the snout, then a little more than the same distance beyond in the same direction. This globular cluster is more of a challenge, dimmer, smaller, and definitely unresolved. At 74x with the 20 Nagler, a bright star sat halfway to the western edge of the field.

NGC 7008, mag 13.0, 1.4' in Cygnus. This one is barely in Cygnus, but is a remarkable object worth hunting down. Use Deneb (Alpha Cygni) and Alpha Cephei (Alderamin) as the guide stars. Place the southern outer ring of a Telrad circle on the center point between the two stars, you should be close to NGC 7008. This planetary nebula is so interesting, I visited it again the next night. Here are the two night's descriptions:

7/18: planetary nebula, fairly bright, largish, bi-lobed? Bright star to south, very close. North edge brighter than south. Interesting object.

7/19: 12mm Nagler with Orion Ultrablock filter. Cool object! Bright, perhaps annular and elongated slightly NNE-SSW. Very bright knot on the northern edge. Pair of stars almost toughing the souther edge. Needs more magnification and a darker sky.

The next night I was out again, but that write-up will need to wait.

It was a nice, but bright night in my backyard. I still got in some very enjoyable observing.

Technical data
Location Los Gatos, California (37:13:36N 121:58:25W)
Scope 10" f/5.6 Dob on an Equatorial Platform
Eyepieces 20mm and 12mm Nagler Type II
Filters Lumicon UHC, Orion Ultrablock
Finders Telrad, University Optics 11x70
Temp 70's
Wind None
Humidity Low
Time 9:30 to 11;30 p.m. PDT

Saturday, August 26, 2000

Out From The Shadow A Night At Henry Coe

Henry Coe State Park sits inland from California's coastal range of mountains. It is the state's largest park by size, and due to the status of wilderness area, possibly the state's least visited on a visitor per acre basis. It sits 2400 feet above a long thin valley containing the communities of Morgan Hill, Gilroy and Hollister, as well as lesser populated towns. One can stand in the overflow parking lot half a mile before Coe's park headquarters, and look south a few dozen miles to the twin summits of Fremont Peak State Park, once the heart and soul of amateur astronomy in the San Francisco bay area.

Saturday the 26th of August, 2000, I arrived mid afternoon to join other readers of TAC's mailing list for a night of observing. I found only one other observer in the overflow lot. An hour later, four of us sat under the shade of the large oak at the southern extreme of the lot. Looking south, I could see fog laying in early around the communities of Gilroy, Hollister and San Juan Bautista. Fremont Peak looked like it might have a dark night. A deep haze covered the valley northward, extending to San Jose, where it was grayish and high. We might have a good night at Coe as well. In the last few hours before sunset approached, many old and new observers drove into the lot, filling it up again almost beyond capacity. By true dark, there may have been 35 to 40 telescopes of all types and sizes. This is always a wonderful occurrence, as people share views, get to meet other members of their avocation, build camaraderie, try each other's equipment, and learn the sky with observers of a wide range of experience and preferences. An observer's dream come true!

Before describing some highlight objects I observed, I'll comment on the wonderful conditions. Temperatures never dropped below the 60's Fahrenheit during the night. Relative humidity was an amazing 19 percent at astronomical dark, rising to perhaps 25 percent with no breeze by the time I turned in at 4 a.m. As the night progressed, all the cities in the valley dimmed out under the thickening low fog, even San Jose was dimmed considerably by about 2 a.m. We could see Fremont Peak above the fog to the south, so observers there must have had some light dome to their north from San Jose as there was to our northwest. But, the transparency and steadiness of the night from our location was outstanding. It was not easy to quit observing.

I began observing what remaining objects I could from my list of Herschel objects. Just the night prior, at Fremont Peak, I was observing with my daughter Mimi, both of us using 10" Dobs, and getting her an earnest start on the Herschel 400 list. My observing program is the complete Herschel list (2500+ objects).

Due to the peculiarities of weather, I have nearly completed the summer and fall objects, with many remaining in winter and spring. In Bootes, I logged 4 dim galaxies before the constellation had descended too low, and was washed out for the dimmest objects by the city glow.

In Bootes I logged NGC 5992, 5993, 5500 and 5579.

I flopped around for a while, not knowing what to look at. Visiting friends, having people come up to my 18" Dob and ask to see this or that object, which I enjoyed doing. I made the rounds for a while. Then a friend came up asking to see a planetary nebula in Lacerta. IC 5217 turned out to be a fun object to find. Located in the northwest part of the "diamond" (head?) of the lizard, this planetary is 1' in size, tiny, near stellar. With my 20 Nagler it appeared very slightly non-stellar, and just a bit more so with the 12 Nagler. The location is between naked-eye stars 3-Beta Lacertae (mag 4.4) and 4.6 4-Lacertae. Just over halfway between these stars, to the north of center, are a pair of dimmer stars, bisecting the line between the bright pair, mag 6.5 and 7.4. Identify the mag 7.4 star by the distinct chain of dim stars, perhaps 10 of them, strung together over a 12' area to the SW from the mag 7.4 star. The planetary is 16' S of the mag 7.4 star. Have fun hunting this one.

After a while, looking at page after page of my Herschel list for some unfound objects, I came upon a handful in Hercules. Many of these were rather forgettable, ranging from dim smudge to extremely dim smudge, nothing really remarkable. However, NGC 6146 would be very nice in a real dark sky, since it is in the midst of a very rich galaxy field. Same could be said for NGC 6166, in even a richer galaxy field. Oh for real dark skies! Another rich cluster surrounds NGC 6173, the next find on my list.

In Hercules, I logged NGC 6146, 6154, 6166, 6173, 6186 and 6372 before it began sinking into the brighter skies.

Out of objects again, I fumbled for a bit. Then I remembered the printout I made of the SAC Deep Sky Database. Lots of objects other than Herschel. Out came the Andromeda listing.

I listed three "objects" as spectacular. First was NGC 72. Located conveniently in Andromeda one third of the distance and on the line between Alpharatz (Alpha Andromedea) and the next star in "the chain" of the constellation, mag 3.2 31-Delta Andromedae, this object at 100x appears to be a fairly large smudge, at about 5'x3'. Upon closer examination, it appeared some stars overlay the object. With progressively higher magnification, eventually up to 302x, the "galaxy" broke up into five galaxies, with hints of two more. All within the small smudge. The group included NGCs 67, 68, 69, 70, 71, 72 and MCG5-1-70. Outside of the group NGC 74 could be viewed averted E some 6'. Many people observed this interesting tight group in my telescope.

The other standout of the night was NGC 83, also in Andromeda. This galaxy is among the brightest of eleven galaxies in the 20mm Nagler's field of view. Find this field 2.5 degrees perpendicular to the midpoint of the line described by Alpharatz and Algernib (the north eastern most star in the Great Square of Pegasus), on the outside of the square. NGC 83 will be among a group of three mag 11.2 stars, all within 2' of the galaxy, and forming a small parallelogram with it. A mag 7.5 star sits 23' E, and a pair of stars separated by 2' sits 14' W of the galaxy. About 6' S of NGC 83 is NGC 80, appearing almost the same brightness at mag 12.1 compared to 83's mag 12.5. Both have surface brightness in the low 13's. Careful study brought out NGCs 90 and 93, mags 13.7 and 13.3, 8' and 10' E of NGC 83 respectively. Interestingly, The Sky by Software Bisque has NGC 90 misidentified as NGC 91. Returning to the little parallelogram of stars that includes NGC 83, look 5' N and find IC 1546 and NGC 85, sitting a mere 1.5' apart in an E/W orientation. These two are a great catch, as both are under 1' in size, with magnitudes in the high 14's but higher surface brightness due to their small size. Almost 3' further N of the last pair is the dim galaxy NGC 86, tiny at 0.6' x 0.2' ... at mag 14 and high surface brightness of 11.5. From here, turn W about 12' to find NGC 79 and IC 1542 , two galaxies in the mag 14 range. The last two objects I found in this field were NGC 94 and 96, sitting close together (5' separation) and N of the line between NGC 83 and the mag 7.5 star to the E. NGC 94 is the closer of the pair to the line, but was a "maybe" with averted vision. NGC 96 was about mag 14, but again, its small angular size gave it a significantly increased surface brightness.

Eleven galaxies in a field no larger than the size of a full moon. What a place!

The total logged objects in Andromeda last night included: NGC 911 (the emergency galaxy!), NGC 7618, NGC 72, 67, 68, 69, 70, 71, 72, MCG5-1-70, NGC 74, 846, 43, UCG 130, NGC 89, 71, 80, 83, 90, 91, IC 1546, NGC 85, 86, 94, 96, 74, IC 1542, NGC 233, 562 and NGC 39.

Not a bad night.

Around 3:30, with only a few of the observers remaining, I trained my scope on M33, HII regions galore. M76 was a fun target, showing a bright bi-lobed shape. M74 was still dim, but obviously a good sized spiral galaxy without much detail. M77 showed its bright Seifert core and round face on spiral disk, but little if any arm detail. A quick jump over to NGC 246, one of my favorite planetaries in Cetus, then NGC 7331 which showed a bright core and lengthy elongation of its spiral arms and three small galaxies nearby. Remembering Jay Freeman's direction on how to easily find Stephan's Quintet, I had no problem getting there, but did not have the nice high power view Jay had the prior night in his C14... still, a nice view at lower power. Back to the Blue Snowball, which I had seen hunting a nearby galaxy earlier in the night.... what a great color!

After several more "tourist" objects, I settled down for some great views of M31. Sitting almost at zenith, the twin dust lanes were so outstanding I began calling people over. I felt as if I was seeing some ragged edges to the lanes, and their sweep was greater than what I ever remembered. NGC 206, the bright emission knot containing blue supergiant stars south of the core looked much like a large galaxy, very obvious. M32 was elongated with a bright core. Detail I see usually in much darker skies were putting whipped cream and a cherry on the top of my night! What views.

I finally swept over to M110. This large elongated galaxy just NW of M31's core is really bright. It stuck me how it is overshadowed by its giant neighbor. Placed almost anywhere else in the sky, it would be a showpiece galaxy, much as Henry Coe State Park and other lesser known sites in the bay area have been in the shadow of Fremont Peak for years. But things change. Coe, Pacheco, Montebello and other locations have emerged as excellent alternatives, exceeding "the Peak" in many important ways.

There was even someone out last night inviting some of us to come to his private property, 4,000 feet high up in the Ventana Wilderness, where he has room to set up telescopes around his observatory and 30" scope... a Fremont Peak ex-patriot.

More on that later. I'm still savoring a really excellent night of observing among so many good friends and acquaintances at a great location... Come join us next time!

Friday, August 25, 2000

Fremont Peak good night

I took Mimi to the SW lot at Fremont Peak last night. There were two other telescopes set up, but the rest of the park seemed empty. By midnight a low fog had buried the coastal cities and it was quite dark. It was also in the 60's all night, until we left just after 1 a.m. That was the sort of night Fremont Peak is for.

Mimi began her Hershel 400 in earnest, bagging 21 objects, some quite dim. We both were using 10" scopes, her's was the blue f/4.5, mine the snakey f/5.6. No computer, just Tirion Sky Atlas 2000 (old version) and Telrad. Mimi thoroughly enjoyed having both scopes the same size, and working the same objects. Kind of reminded me of another observing partner :-)

Thursday, August 24, 2000

Monster Astronomy

My 10 f/5.6 Dob has been sitting in my backyard this week. Telrad covered, dust cover in place. I was going to observe Wednesday night, but fog and low cloud moved in early. When I saw the weather report on last night's early news, I knew the sky would be clear and I looked forward to a quiet night looking through the 20 Nagler and playing with my set of Astro Cards. Sounded perfect!

Around 9 p.m. I went out and began.

My first target was IC 1396 in Cepheus. This cluster is embedded in a large dim nebula. The cluster is large, and not really difficult to identify. In brightish suburban skies the finder I use, a 10 x 70, showed almost exactly the view on the Astro Card... Mu Cephei and a chain of 3 stars in a line, mag 5.7 and a pair at mag 6.5. A tight set of three dimmer stars were outstanding in the cluster, a bright one flanked on opposite sides by a dimmer pair. The cluster itself seemed no problem, lots of stars appearing associated in this area, but there was at first no signs of any nebulosity. But after a little while, a hint of nebula began to appear a18' north of the triple star. I have not confirmed the nebula. There also seemed quite a bit of haziness... kind of granular, throughout the area.

I next moved to NGC 7209, a mag 6.7 open cluster in Lacerta. This area was more difficult than I am accustomed to in my backyard, since it is much more northerly than most my targets, and San Jose is north of my house (and virtually walking distance away), and the constellation stars range from mag 3.8 to 4.6. The sky to the south is much better... I once logged a mag 5.8 star overhead from my house. NGC 7209 was fun, containing about 12 brighter stars with many many more dimly forming a haze around and through the brighter members. A brightish star sits 14' WNW and a dimmer one 12' S of the cluster. This cluster is a nice view.

To challenge myself a bit, I decided to try for NGC 7217, a mag 10.2 galaxy near the double star 29-Pi Pegasi, the front foot of Pegasus. This one was fun to hop to with the finder, and soon I was seeing a 3' dim glow 3' W of a mag 6 star (The Sky has the galaxy misplotted directly on the star). A dimmer group of stars is also close by, 4-'5' N. The surface brightness of 7217 is 12.7, not a bad find for backyard observing!

I didn't plan to stop observing so early, but two open clusters in the bright skies around Cepheus were my last objects. NGC 7261 is about 6' in size and has a few brighter stars standing out among a large number of dimmer ones. This is a rich field, in the Cepheus Milky Way, between 21-Zeta, 23-Epsilon and 27-Delta Cephei, a nice small naked eye triangle of stars at the eastern base of the constellation. Nearby, I was able to find NGC 7235, another open cluster (there are 3 in the area). This one was about 5' in size... small and having one bright star involved with perhaps 4 dimmer ones overlaying many very dim components... nice eyepiece view, easy to identify.

While looking in Cepheus, my daughter Mimi, Ms. Messier Monster, stepped outside and asked if she could find something, maybe just one or two objects. She was patient while I finished in Cepheus, and I turned over the oversized scope to her. The f/5.6 on a tall base is much more difficult for her to manage than her 10" f/4.5.

It had been a long time since we did Monster Astronomy... she swung the scope up toward The Ring Nebula. She reminded me it was the first object she ever found, and was still her favorite do to its unique status. I looked, it was a nice view.

"What's next dad?" I'd heard that before, and I knew what it meant. My night was done. Mimi was at the eyepiece and I was now along for the ride.

I suggested M11, the Wild Duck cluster in Scutum. Describing the arc of stars visible naked eye, Mimi immediately remembered the object being about where the "missing" star in the arc would be. Swinging the scope around, she reminded me M11 was my friend Alan's favorite object. What a beautiful view, even in a 10" from in town. Alan had good taste!

Mimi was now in full observing mode. "Next" she said.. I asked if she wanted something a bit more challenging to find. M92 was high, but past zenith and falling now toward the western horizon. Mimi was using her Astro Cards (I bought them for her), and quickly found the globular. Looking at the card again, she noted that NGC 6239 and NGC 6229 were nearby. I told her 6239 was a galaxy and too dim for our backyard (mag 12.4), and suggested she try for, but not expect to get 6229. After some miscalculation, mistakenly aiming for 6239, she dropped on 6229. The small globular cluster shown easily. Nice find Mimi!

Next, just for fun, knowing just where to go, she bopped over to M13. Nice view.... very big and bright after the prior small glob.

Again, more challenge. I always have trouble with M14, so I tested Mimi. Using the eastern-most star along the bottom of Ophiuchus (35-Eta Ophiuchi) and 62-Gamma Ophiuchi to locate mag 4.5 SAO 141665, Mimi was on the globular with uncanny speed. I'd always remembered this one as a ho-hum object, but I must admit it is a very nice object!

Wanting more, I suggested Mimi try M22. Showing her the Astro Card, she was at the scope and saying the familiar "I think I've got it" that I heard all last year. Nice view! The cluster is large and very rich. From there, she moved west to M28, which she described as small and bright. Looking again at the Astro Card, Mimi went after NGC 6638, a small globular just east and below the tip of the teapot. Bingo! I was very surprised she found it, but it was obvious in the 20 Nagler.

Over the next hour, Mimi went on to log M27, which we looked at with a 2" UHC filter. She loved this object, and proceeded to describe to me the processes that took place to create what we see. Next to M71, buried in the star fields of Saggita. On to M56, comparable but a bit brighter than M71... and in an easy location between Sulafat (14-Gamma Lyrae) and Alberio.

Wanting to continue, she asked again for more challenge. The little globular NGC 6934, off the tail of Delphinus, was next. She scanned around for a bit, then said she thought it was in view. Sure enough, nice, somewhat dim, small.

Next to M15. Mimi enjoyed the bright and small core of this globular. I told her the cluster was collapsing, and that is why the core was so dense compared to the remainder of the object. She wondered if it would eventually form a black hole.

It was now getting late, near midnight. I had planned a couple hours at most to observe, but the Monster was having so much fun. She wanted a few more objects.

I showed her a card with NGC 6940, which I had seen earlier in the week. Cygnus was almost directly overhead, and it was quite a sight to see a little 12 year old pointing a scope nearly twice her height into that position. But before I knew it, she had the large bright cluster. A quick detour over to 52-Cygni, but no Veil Nebula showed. We put in the OIII filter, and suddenly the magical strands of supernova glowed in the field of view. Mimi asked if the filter allowed only certain types of light through. Good thinking!

She again asked for some challenge. I suggested NGC 7331 in Pegasus. This galaxy is mag 9.5, but its large size gives it a surface brightness in the 13's, which is why it can be elusive in the city. Using Matar (44-Eta Pegasi) and the close naked-eye pair 48-Mu and 47-Lambda Pegasi as pointers to the right position, Mimi put a very nice view of the galaxy in the eyepiece. She described it as elongated.

The final object I gave her, on an Astro Card, was NGC 6811, a nice small open cluster just off the tip of the eastern wing (18-Delta Cygni) of Cygnus. In no time, she was showing me a small but distinct cluster. Very nice.

Telling her it was after midnight now, and I had to work in the morning, she took the scope and swung it back over to M57. That is where it all began for her. A memorable favorite.

While I hadn't planned to stay out so late, or to turn my observing session over to my daughter, I have to say, it was a monster of a good time. I think I'll take her out observing again tonight.

Saturday, August 19, 2000

Ten Short Steps to the Universe...

I finally unpacked my 10" f/5.6 Dob from the short and soft night at Montebello last Saturday. 9 p.m. and the sky was just getting dark enough. With Telrad and 20 Nagler, Astro Cards in hand, I set out to see what was visible in a backyard devoid of neighbor's lights. That's right.... no lights. My back neighbors, who for the last few years had treated me to a fully illuminated view of their kitchen, are in mid remodel (ongoing now for 3 summers), and have their window boarded up, hopefully (it would be too good to be true) forever. :-)

I began the night in Ophiuchus, hunting NGC 6572, a mag 8.1 planetary nebula which was at first elusive. I star-hopped to the correct location, but saw only healthy stars. Realizing I might have more success with an OIII filter, I installed one and again looked in the eyepiece. Every star but one dimmed out. Aha! The bright star! A quick look at the Astro Card told me this was a tiny PN. After removing the filter, I looked again at the object. Knowing where to look, the color jumped out... spectacular... this fading star has an almost electric-emerald hue.

The next object too was a planetary, NGC 6210 in Hercules, placed high in the sky tonight. I've seen this one before, many times, but always had difficulty star-hopping to it. I did for a while tonight too, but then looking at the Astro Card realized it was an easy hop from 20-Gamma Herculis across to 27-Beta Herculis, and beyond almost the same distance to the correct field. This planetary seemed smaller than the prior one, but only because it was dimmer and a bit hazier, if that makes sense. It was not as brilliant green either, more olive. I was able to confirm this in the 20mm eyepiece, without a filter it would dim out with direct vision. It did that trick with both 20mm and 7mm eyepieces.

Probably the find of the night was NGC 6369 in the southern-most reaches of Ophiuchus. The serpent bearer was sitting almost horizontal to the horizon, and the section I was after was in the telephone lines, low in the south. I could barely make out the stars to hop with. Then I remembered this object was at the end of a curved chain of stars I use to identify Barnard's "E" (the Pipe Nebula, or the Horse). That did the trick. With the 20mm I was on the right field quickly. But the object, at mag 11.4, would not give itself up easily. I thought I saw a faint haze about 25' off a mag 6.0 star. I used an OIII and UHC filter to help bring out a brighter, but still faint smudge. The UHC seemed to offer a brighter view without really losing any detail. In went my 7mm eyepiece, with an Orion Ultrablock, rewarding me with a very good view of "The Little Ghost" ... one of the nicest little celestial glazed donuts you could hope to find. The obvious ring with its dark center was a treat for a backyard sky.

I've looked at IC 4665 in northern Ophiuchus a number of times before. Located in an area of the sky which is a now defunct "Bull" constellation. Taurus was not the only bull in the heavens. This open cluster is a rather hidden treat. Very large at almost 2/3's of a degree, it appeared to have maybe 30 stars, half being centralized, the other half stragglers clinging onto the outer reaches of the main group. My software program The Sky lists this at mag 4.0, so you can imagine it stands out.

The Astro Cards dealt me a quick trip to Delphinus. This little water creature really has some nice detours. I think the Blue Flash Nebula that someone pointed out to me Saturday night is in that area. But this trip, I was after NGC 6934, a globular cluster trailing the dolphin's tail. The cluster is not large, at about 6', but it is bright, with a definite brighter core, diffusing out evenly. With the 7mm eyepiece, its brightest members were resolving. A bright star marks the position of the globular, sitting foreground to the cluster a small 4' to the west.

I next looked north, into Vulpecula. Other than for M27, I never look in this little piece of sky. But, I was rewarded. NGC 6940 is a beautiful open cluster, with 50+ members in a 30' haze. A few bright members sprinkle the field, with close to half the remaining stars dim by comparison, the other half what I would call faint. This cluster is absolutely worth the trip. I would guess the center 10' of the cluster is very rich.

My next Astro Card pointed me at the North American Nebula, but really, why bother from in town? The card also showed NGC 7027, a very interesting planetary that Steve Gottlieb has shown me with high power in his 17.5" Dob recently. In Steve's scope, the object was bi-lobed, and very unusual looking. However, tonight I kept my 20mm in and enjoyed the gorgeous color. If you remember the Superman movies with Chistopher Reeves, this planetary must be made of Kryptonite, as that seemed the color of its bright glow. Small and a visual mag 8.5, this is a good in-town object.

This was not going to be a long night out back. In between eyepiece views, I was herding our cats into the house. My dog was doing his best to get outside where he could misbehave in the dark, eating things I hesitate to mention in polite company. My son, 16 years old in a few months, was in and out of our kitchen, feeding his hollow leg, flashing the lights on and off. I had a Mexican Coffee, which I'm sure enhanced my observing one way or another. But ahhhhh.... the darkness out back when *our* lights were off. Somebody, please, make sure my neighbors keep that plywood over their kitchen window! ;-)

My final two objects for the night were as disparate as could be. The first was an open cluster in Cepheus. When I think open cluster, I usually think of a large group of stars with many bright members. But NGC 6939 was not in that mold. The cluster was small, and took repeated efforts star-hopping to get a first glimpse. The cluster is not much larger than the previously mentioned globular in Delphinus. It was faint too, with perhaps 6 to 10 bright(er) members peeking out among many, many dimmer components. Helping to locate the object was a mag 7.1 star 14' north. When I pumped up the magnification with my 7mm, I sensed a dim hazy knot of stars to the EENE of the main group contained in the cluster. This open cluster is a bit of a challenge in town, but worth the effort. Don't let anyone fool you, opens can be very interesting, they have more personality than most galaxies.

In contrast to the effort expended on NGC 6939, the last object of the night was pure dessert. NGC 6543 is more commonly referred to as the "Cat's Eye Nebula" in Draco. The roof of my house is north of my backyard, and I had just enough clearance to haul in this object. To say it is bright is an understatement. This planetary nebula was easy to identify by sweeping the neighborhood. What a contrast to the near-stellar planetaries I'd looked at earlier in the evening! A bright star (okay, so mag 9.7 isn't really bright) sat 3' away, a nice contrast in color with the turquoise marble. This object was larger than most other planetaries tonight, other than NGC 6939, but comparing its brightness, the Cat's Eye is the easy winner. Under more mag with the 7mm, there appeared to be an annular quality to this nebula, in a N/S direction.

I had run out of cards. It was after 11 p.m. and life has been so busy lately, I decided to cash in my chips and walk away a winner.

There is a lot to see from a suburban backyard. Ten short steps to the universe... leaving the TV, computer and walls behind, to look up at a starry night and feel the world melt away. I'll pull out my cards again some night soon.

The sky is a great companion. Unique, mysterious, yet familiar. I don't know how people can avoid being captured by the magic of this hobby.

Saturday, August 5, 2000

Fremont Peak report

Once Pat and I finished some business here in town, we jumped into our car, just the two of us (no scope, no kids) and headed down to San Juan Bautista for dinner and to check out the current lighting configuration on the towers. I had wanted to do this since Dave North's report and subsequent admonishment that one must make small sacrifices in order to ascertain the facts firsthand. Dave's report of minimal impact by the new lights seemed to fly in the face of views of those lights from Coe.

So, family commitments behind us, we were enjoying an easy and mostly traffic free ride down 101 and into the town of San Juan Bautista. For years, I'd been going to Dona Esthers for meals, either before observing or the mornings after. But over the past year, Jardin's across the street has replaced it as a favorite. This is due mostly to the outdoor seating, roomy feeling, and the ambiance with live music in the cool and comfortable setting. After a light meal, Pat and I were heading up a familiar, yet little visited route that I have not been through other than one time in the past year.

The drive was nostalgic and fun. Without the bulk of my 7,000 lb. Suburban to deal with, I was enjoying the feel of the road. I hadn't taken my old 1980 Mercedes 240 out on a drive like this in several years. Halfway up, on the open ridge part of the drive, we pulled over and watched sunset over the foggy Pacific. A low layer of cloud sat motionless over much of Monterey bay, on up to Santa Cruz, and fingering its way inland toward the northern foot of Fremont Peak.

Although we did not see a green flash, the light show was just gorgeous. Neon oranges and reds across the horizon, an oblate sun lighting up 10 degrees of sky as it set, finally a flat golden/green glow (I don't think it was a green flash thought), slowly sinking into the Pacific, beginning night.

Pat and I talked nostalgically about days at the SW lot at Fremont Peak, how the crowds would be busily readying their equipment prior to sunset, the laughter, the low hum of voices, friends together enjoying each others company. When the sun would sit low on the horizon, appearing to float on the ocean or a sea of fog, quiet would descend on the crowd, and people would line up across behind the vehicles along the western periphery of the lot, while all eyes watched the sun change shapes and disappear, giving a feeling of an official beginning to the observing session. If ever there was a way to call a meeting to order, that was it!

The remainder of the drive was quick. A familiar sign greeted us at the entrance to Fremont Peak State Park. We passed Coulter Row, where two telescopes appeared to be set up on this 1st Q moon night. Into the SW lot we pulled, where there were two other scopes getting some final tweaks before twilight ended. One observer was familiar, although I promised to not mention who it was and they would not let on that I was seen at Fremont Peak! This observer was testing out a brand new 12" RC. Fun instrument, as the cooling fans created a refreshing breeze when one put their face up to the eyepiece!

As the sky darkened, the new lights on the towers became apparent. I was talking about them with Max, the new camp host. He pointed out that the top light seemed to have lost its "red cap" and now shone white, albeit not so bright as to cast shadows or be overtly obtrusive. While there are a good number of new lights, bringing the total on the two towers to nine, they are *not* much of a problem from the SW lot, since the majority of them are hidden by the mountain or sit so low above the Peak as to be in an area where observing is already not worthwhile.

While talking to Max, we got onto the topic of park rules. This was the result of my remarking to him that I had been coming to Fremont Peak for almost a decade, but that with the rules governing our use being an unsettled issue, I was spending my time elsewhere. Max then surprised me by stating that the "new" rules allowed day use visitors to stay in the park at night, as long as they were using binoculars or telescopes. I was astonished. I told him that a friend had a voice mail message from Mary Pass just last week indicating that issues regarding our use of Fremont Peak had been tabled for the forseeable future due to higher priority issues the department had to deal with. Yet, Max continued, saying he'd seen the new rules in written form, shown to him by Cameron Bowers. Amazing! I thought "how can this be true" and "this is too good to be true"...

The evening at the Peak was a classic summer night. Even with the quarter moon high in the west, the Milky Way was bright. Not Lassen bright, but easily visible across the sky. We were in a temperature inversion, and I would guess after removing my shirt so I was wearing just a t-shirt, that temps were in the mid 70's all night.

We walked east, out of the SW lot, looking at the sky as we passed Coulter Row. A few campers lights were obtrusive up there, but the lack of scopes made conflicting uses a non-issue. As we approached the ranger's house, Pat and I began to talk about Fremont Peak under Ranger Rick Morales' administration. How our kids grew up, up there. Mimi with Rick's daughter Carmen, up in the tree house (that is now gone), or inside watching TV or playing games, safely, happily, while the rest of the park had a feeling of comfort, familiarity, friendship, or being a vital and living entity that fostered a great meeting place for science, education and cooperation. I felt the breath of history, times gone by, as we strode by the big pines and up toward the observatory.

A program was in progress in the meeting room portion of the observatory, but the roof over the scope was closed. The swinging window-shutters were open and the room cooling. A handful of astronomers were up there. Ron Dammann (FPOA president) and Jon Ruyle (TACo with the 25" Obsession) were talking. Pat and I joined them. At one point Ron and I talked about the new lights, I saying that I had to agree with Dave North's assessment that they were not obtrusive from the SW lot, and Ron commenting that he felt they had a negative impact from the observatory. All the lights were in clear view from the observatory. While not attractive, I think they are a minor issue. However, from Coulter Row, they stand tall in the SW.

All this time, while Ron, Jon and I talked, in the background the sound of whistles could be heard clearly eminating from the meeting room of the observatory. I asked Ron who was giving the talk, and what was going on. It was Ranger Cameron Bowers leading a group of kids from Hollister in a game of "Astro-Jeopardy"!!!! By now the roof of the observatory was rolled back, and a new FPOA member was readying the scope. Ron was there to help, if necessary. Into the observatory we went and, peeking my head around the corner into the meeting room, I saw a fully uniformed ranger Bowers in front of a large board with categories and $$ value questions. Cameron would read an astro question, and kids would blow whistles indicating they had the answers. What a hoot! Some of the local astronomers chuckled at this, but know what... kids were hearing science facts and learning. While unorthodox by most standards, this activity fulfilled some of the mission of the park (the astro portion), and it was something Cameron, who has little hands-on observing experience (that I'm aware of) could do to foster interest in the hobby.

I kind of chuckled too.

Leaving the observatory to head back to the SW lot, I turned back to Ron and asked him about the "new" rules Max had talked about. Ron stood there motionless and speechless long enough after my query for me to tap him on the shoulder and say "you hadn't heard this one either, had you?" Well, no, he hadn't. Another case of rumor, or lack of communication, or, well, who knows. Ron suggested asking Cameron, but while our "astro Alex Trabek" had finished final Jeopardy, he was on to other subjects, such as red flashlights, park safety, etc. We walked back over to the SW lot.

I spent some time peeking though the new RC and a NexStar 5. The 5 was kind of fun, punching in NGC numbers and seeing them appear in the FOV. While at the RC, a red flashlight appeared coming up the road. Up to the scope walked an older woman. When she said hello, I knew it was our old camp host, Tinika. What a surprise! I think she'd been to the Peak once before in the two years since the State forced her out. She told me it was the new park administration, and their concerns over liability, the waivers or some other official documentation they were requiring of her, that tore the relationshipo apart. What a shame, Tinika was a wonderful asset, appreciated and cared for by a large number of observers who once frequented that place.

One other piece of good news about the park is that the camp host (Max) now closes the gate to the SW lot at sunset. This I assume is at the direction of Ranger Bowers.

Anyway, before leaving, we walked again over to the observatory. Gone were the kids, leaving a few rather novice observers along with Jon Ruyle and Ron Dammann. The Blue Snowball up in Andromeda was in view, with a 22mm in the focuser. A beautiful view. This night had excellent steadiness and transparancy! The central star shown easily in the aqua glow of the enveloping shell. The shell itself had a rather largish disk, which extended through and beyond a bright inner ring. Really a good view. Next, I got a chance to poke around with the 30 (I am still an FPOA member, at least for this year). I suggested we look at NGC 7331, and from the back end of the monster scope I pushed and pulled, looking through the Telrad, until in just about the right location. Up to the eyepiece I climbed, and sure enough... oh.... wait... that bright smudge was not 7331, but Stephans Quintet. Seriously, the transparancy was so good, that even with a low moon to the west, four components of the Quintet (low power view) were very obvious. After others gawked and talked distances and magnitudes, we swung the scope less than a degree to see 7331, with a bight near stellar core, large central bulge and widespread disk of spiral arms. Four other small galaxies could be seen in the same field. This view was by itself worth the trip.

We said our goodbyes, and walked back to the SW lot. What a wonderful night this had been. It was absolutely a trip back to days gone by.

At the SW lot, a few moments talking with DVJ about his new scope, how he was enjoying having some aperture again after years looking through refractors (meanwhile, talking about how refractorlike the RC's views were). The moon was just setting as we climbed back into the car and started driving down the road.

We had had a wonderful night, seeing old and new friends, some great views, and confirming what Dave had reported about the towers.

We drove down the mountain, a road so well known that to this day, it could almost be driven in my sleep. I hope the camp host knows something I don't about park use by astronomers. I hope to hear positive news about the Peak. For now, it is still a place of nostalgia and controversy.

As we approached San Juan Buatista, I unrolled my window and felt the temperature. The warmth of Fremont Peak was gone.

Thanks to Dave North for the accurate report about the light, and for his word-play that prompted my trip there last night.

Monday, July 31, 2000

Reflections - Too Many Galaxies: The Way It Should Be

Time to sink in, and a way to measure, reflection. These are things a dark sky trip needs to gain perspective. Many times, while the experience is occurring, it is either amazing and so exciting that the senses are overwhelmed and one is incapable of fully appreciating it, or if a regular annual occurrence, one can be jaded and suffer let down by idealizing prior experience. The latter has been my problem at Mt. Lassen over the past few years. After seven years of going, the sky up there is an expectation, not a surprise. It somehow seems less than I remember. Yes, I hear the exclamations and excitement of others, but after enough times, even that does not surprise, or excite.

So it was not until weeks, or a month or so had gone by, and after a few nights observing near the lights of 6 million other San Francisco area residents that I could again begin to assess how unique and worthy an experience a trip to a real dark sky is. This year like last our first trip to Mt. Lassen was the better of two. However, that does not mean the later trip this year was a waste. Beside the sky, which even in poor conditions beats anything we usually get back home, a lot of other factors join in shaping the experience. Trips to McArthur-Burney Falls where the waters fall from a rock face like pieces of The Veil Nebula, the cool aqua blue of the pool below. The beauty of Chaos Craggs reflecting near perfect images in Manzanita Lake. Kids around the campfire, lots of kids belonging to other amateur astronomers, and the sounds of their laughter building lifetime memories. A towrering 32" telescope and four or five of us lifting the mirror into its cell. Friends coming and going... meals together, knowing that people 6,000 feet below are sweltered at 112 degrees while we enjoy the cooler mountain air. Driving to Bumpass Hell over Lassen Pass with the 10,500 foot Peak above us and dacite lava fields on all sides, then beginning to descend into the maw of ancient Mt. Tehama's giant caldera. To our west, the northernmost portion of California's great central valley lay wide and flat, giving way to the coastal mountains beyond hiding the wild beaches and small towns between San Francisco and Oregon. Setting up at Bumpass Hell, it is impossible to not notice the huge lava plugs erupting in frozen magnificence, straining to be free of Lassen Peak. They remind me of Michaelangelo's bound slaves. The memories from these trips are innumerable.

Even in lesser skies then had been hoped for, there was some very good observing! I specifically recall our second night during the second trip. I had resolved to get back on my observing program, and see how much of Bootes I could finish before the constellation dipped below the horizon and disappeared for another season.

I like to observe with friends. Ken Head was set up next to me, and we'd locate and confirm objects together.

We began with NCG 7530, a galaxy that lies between Nekkar (42-Beta Bootis), Bootes' tiny head, and 19-Lambda Bootis which is the bend in his left arm. Two dimmer stars pin down the location, mag 5.7 SAO 45190 and 3 degrees north its twin at mag 5.7 SAO 45145, which lies southerly in a line of naked-eye stars that stretch up, between the bent upper arm of Bootes and Nekkar. This star is very near the position of NGC 7530. By centering this star, mag 6.6 SAO 45133 can be found and used to determine direction to the galaxy. There are several in-eyepiece asterisms that mark the correct location. The nearest, but among the dimmest, are four stars about 12' NNE, forming a Mercedes hood ornament. In the field with NGC 5730 is NGC 5731. Both were seen this evening, easy to view at mags 14.1 and 13.1 visual. Both are about the same size, at 1.6 x 0.4 ... nice slits of light appearing 4 minutes apart, so deceiving!

Next up to NGC 5735, nicely situated along Bootes beltline, just south of the midpoint between the famous double star Izar on his western hip, and eastern star in his belt clasp, 28-Sigma Bootis. Nice when the stars are close by! This galaxy is about 2.5'x 1.8' and is easy to see. Of course, in Lassen's skies, even when not a particularly outstanding night, lots of things are easy to see. About 5' east we observed the small galaxy CGCG6164-14, which at mag 15.7 would be a good find, but with only .5'x.4' of surface area, the magnitude is deceiving, since the surface brightness is something probably in the mid 14's or brighter. If you can get deep, into the 15's, there are actually a nice chains of galaxies on a E/W sweep, one more widespread involving NGC 5735, and another chain to its north. Worth a visit.

The next object was one that I found intriguing. On a line about one forth the distance between mag 4.0 23-Theta Bootis (the top of Bootes left arm) and mag 3.3 12-Iota Draconis (Edasich, the brightest star in the arch of Draco's body) sits NGC 5751, a nice mag 13 spiral galaxy, elongated 2x1 NE/SW at 1.5'x0.8'. A mag 7 star sits nearly north, 24' away, and opposite the galaxy a distinctive cornucopia of stars spreads away from it in a southeasterly cant. The swath of stars extends about 28' and opens to about 16' width. This is a very pretty field of view. However, while Ken was confirming this object I moved 24' due west from 5751 to a bright star, then followed a small curve of stars northward. Pumping up the power to about 280X, I was able to see MK477, a galaxy in a tiny speck. At mag 15.4 or so, with an angular apparent surface area of 0.4'x0.3', it is nearly stellar upon first glimpse. Without additional magnification it would be quite elusive. Reading about this galaxy after the fact, I learned that it is has strong OIII lines. Ever wonder if such a filter would enhance the view of a galaxy? As far as the eyepiece view goes, the galaxy appeared to be the third and southern most "star" in a chain of three, and it nearly bisected a mag 12 and mag 13 star... this type if just fun to find.

Following this find, we went on to log NGC 5754, between Seginus (Gamma Bootis) and Nekkar. This is a fun find due to the closeness of NGC 5755 and NGC 5753. All three are within about 4' of each other, and ranging in magnitude from 13.8 to 15.8.

NGC 5787 is a round galaxy just north of Nekkar. If you use a Telrad, it is an easy find, with the Telrad just touching the outer ring of the finder. You can place this galaxy and four others in the same field of view (48' field in my scope, with a 20 Nagler). NGC 5784, UGCs 9585 and 9583 and CGCG 221-10 showed, but I missed MCG-31-4. Helping locate this group, a pair stars about mag 8.5 lie about 6' apart and 20' north.

NGC 5789 is a mag 13.5 galaxy, just under 1'x1' in size, between Izar and 49 Delta-Bootis (the shepherd's right shoulder). A nice chain of stars with several bright members sits SW of the galaxy, extending about 40' in length. Logged with this galaxy were NGC 5798, UGC 9588 and UGC 9597, ranging in magnitude form mid 13 to high 15.

Finally, the find of the night.

Sometimes, it takes patience to get a great view. It is the thing I suppose that keeps people working lists containing unexciting smudges over months and years. While some would consider this path a boring endeavor, there is no arguing with that the experience pays when something good comes along.

We turned our scopes toward NGC 5875. This galaxy sits between Nekkar (Bootes' head) and Edasich (12 Iota-Draconis), about 2/3rds toward the latter. It is in the middle of nowhere. NGC 5875 has a bright mag 7.3 star (SAO 97410) 24' NW, and a chain of three distinctive stars leading in descending magnitude toward the galaxy SW beginning with the furthest and brightest star about 10' distant. Once you have located NGC 5875, look 6' SW and find two mag 15 galaxies, CGCG274-26 and MK846. Continue in the same field of view another 6' and find mag 14.3 UGC 9741 and MCG 9-25-25 at mag 15.3. Now, head about 16' north toward the aforementioned SAO 97410 to find CGCG274-19 shimmering at mag 15. What a field! But that's not all. Around 18' east of NGC 5875, two other mag 15 galaxies will float into view. These are MCG 9-25-31 and CGCG 274-32.

I spent quite a bit of time looking at this field. I don't know if too many photos can cause eye fatigue, but after this view, I spent time visiting with other observers at the star party. Time flew by. Looking up again, I found I could log maybe one or two more objects in Bootes, but it was dropping quickly. A few more views with multiple galaxies, and it was done.

We spent a while playing in Cepheus, and just cruising around in the Cygnus Milky Way. The views were simply spectacular. Barnard objects were dark holes in rich Milky Way fields. Stars showed colors more vibrantly than I am unaccustomed to. Clusters, asterisms, bits and pieces of creation strewn throughout unexpected places that the eyepiece just happened upon. If only we had skies like this back home!

Eventually the night was done. My once jaded soul was filled with new fuel and my desire for more observing had been rekindled. It was more than enough to let me again know the difference, and feeling I was not exaggerating when asked a months or so prior to the trip how Lassen's skies compared to our regular haunts. I had thought for a moment and said "there is no comparison."

I can look forward again, waiting for better skies, shared views, friends out together under skies that show too many galaxies! The way it should be.

We drove back to camp and sat for a while, sipping cold drinks, talking about the night, friends, whatever came to mind in the hours before dawn. There, seated on a small picnic table, spinning through space for a few blinks of the eye, our tiny piece of infinity. Sometimes, looking out through my telescope, I have the strange sensation of time and distance, and the view loses its two dimensional illusion. I feel the immensity, or really, realize it in the very crude way most humans are capable of. I think of Carl Sagan's "Reflections on a Mote of Dust" ( in part:

We succeeded in taking that picture [from deep space], and, if you look at it, you see a dot. That's here. That's home. That's us. On it, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever lived, lived out their lives. The aggregate of all our joys and sufferings, thousands of confident religions, ideologies and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilizations, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every hopeful child, every mother and father, every inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every superstar, every supreme leader, every saint and sinner in the history of our species, lived there on a mote of dust, suspended in a sunbeam.

It was a great trip. In a wider sense, what a great trip it has been!

It just takes some time to sink in.

ps - Telescope was an 18" f/4.5 Obsession, with a 20mm Type II Nagler unless otherwise noted.

Saturday, July 22, 2000

(old times return) Comet Crazies Invade Coe

What a difference a day can make. After spending an enjoyable evening at Houge Park in San Jose on Friday night, where the seeing was a bit soft and the sky was better than usual but still no great shakes, I ventured to Henry Coe State Park on Saturday afternoon. Arriving in the lot, I was surprised to see many cars and telescopes already set up. I picked a place along the upper lot on the east side and, over the next several hours watched as the perimeter, then middle of the area clogged with amateur astronomers. I couldn't figure out what precipitated such a mass turnout.

As the breeze (which was described as hurricane force prior to my arrival) settled down and the sun turned the west into an incredible display of black silhouetted mountaintops set against a golden sky, stars began popping out. First Arcturus and Vega, then a handful, followed shortly by dozens. All this time, cars were arriving. At one point in the evening, people were being turned away from the lot, as it was full. I've never seen the overflow lot at Coe full with astronomers to the point where there was actually no parking. It was kind of like the old situation on Coulter Row at Fremont Peak, taking me back a decade to when I first began attending star parties.

I had left my 10" f/5.6 scope "Pliskin" in the truck from Houge, and decided that since moonrise was so early on Saturday, I'd leave the 18 home and for the first time in years use one of my smaller scopes at a "dark" site. What a blast! Richard Navarrete and I teamed up with Marsha Robinson to observe objects from the Herschel II list. Marsha was just beginning the project, and team observing sounded fun. Richard had his new 8" f/7, Marsha matched my size and focal length with her own 10" f/5.6.

But before getting to the dim stuff, we all took turns viewing comet Linear S4. Cute comet, and certainly this was the star of the show for most of the crowd. It must be the reason the observing site was so crowded. All those comet crazies... I was wondering how many of them remember the "big" comets from the '90's... Although S4 is fun to peek at, to trace out some tail, it is difficult to get really excited after seeing Hale-Bopp spewing ejecta sunward off its core, watching it twirl in backwards spirals, back into the tail. And the comet's obvious twin tails, the nice whitish "bright" tail and the turquoise thinner, dimmer, ion tail. What a show! Nor did S4 match the sheer awe of seeing Hyukatake stretch out over half the sky, even in less than perfect skies up at Grant Ranch! The comet brought back memories of the crowds at Fremont Peak, ages ago.

And so to, did observing with Richard and Marsha. Memories of early days were strong. Smaller scopes, comparing views, hunting together for objects that were all surprises. It was a return to old times, and even though the night was short, it was warm, friendly, wonderful.

Soon, the moon rose, and the lot emptied out. A short great night in preparation for a trip to Lassen next week.

As a side note, I had been tyring to observe several objects in Ophiuchus and Aquila from my backyard during the week, and Houge on Friday. I had no success. Within the first 10 minutes at Coe, I had logged every one with my 10" Dob. Easy pickins. Then, before moonrise, our small team of observers finished off all the Herschell II objects in Bootes. Some were bright(ish), others however were at the threshold of imagination. A longer night would have meant the 18", in which all objects observed would have been bright. Aperture wins.

Sky conditions
Seeing 6/10
Transparancy 7/10
Temperatures 60's all night.
Humidity 25%
Wind slight breeze.
Limiting mag 6.0 to the east (guestimate)
Objects observed
AlberioDS Cygnus
NGC 6517 GC Ophiuchus
NGC 6539 GCOphiuchus
NGC 6426 GCOphiuchus
NGC 6384 GXOphiuchus
NGC 6804 PNAquila
NGC 6803 PNAquila
M13 GCHercules
NGC 6207 GXHercules
Comet Linear S4Comet
NGC 5481 GXBootes
NGC 5490 GXBootes
NGC 5520 GXBootes
NGC 5523 GXBootes
NGC 5529 GXBootes
NGC 5533 GXBootes
NGC 5548 GXBootes
NGC 5582 GXBootes
NGC 5600 GXBootes
NGC 5602 GXBootes
NGC 5660 GXBootes
NGC 5687 GXBootes
NGC 5899 GXBootes
M8 CNSagittarius

Wednesday, July 19, 2000

Skunked in Los Gatos

Last night, I pulled my 10" f/5.6 Dob out to my Los Gatos backyard, anticipating an hour or so of clear skies and relaxation. As the twilight faded, I was looking at star images and enjoying just stumbling across colorful doubles and tiny asterisms. It was not completely dark yet, so in I went, to look on the computer for anything of interest (other than work). Half an hour later, I was back outside.

The sky appeared bright, but then, I'd not been out in my backyard for a few months, so it was really difficult to determine what sort of night it was. I would think about Lassen, but that is just too unfair a comparison. I did note that I could not see any hints of the Milky Way in Cygnus though.

Averting my vision from the neighbor's kitchen window, and noticing how I could do hand shadows on the back of my house from the light pouring out (I was too lazy to put up my astro-blind for a short night), I began watching Ophiuchus for the stars to show and allow me to star hop.

I was using an old Tirion Sky Atlas 2000 and the descriptive companion book in order to select objects. Usually, I use a laptop computer, but it is fun to dabble around with a printed chart now and then. I decided first to hunt down a couple globular cluster on page 15, NGC 6517 and NGC 6539. Both are near 64 Ophiuchi, at the eastern boundary of Ophiuchus where it meets the southwestern portion of Serpens Cauda.

Using my 20 Nagler and an 11x70 finderscope, the star field was no problem to locate. The double star 69 Ophiuchi bracketed NGC 6517 between 64 Ophiuchi. The double star is part of a very nice elongated parallelogram of stars I came to know well. Well, I looked and looked, but could only sometimes imagine I was getting hints of the cluster. It is described at mag 10.3, and rather small at 4.3', so its surface brightness should not be too poor, but it just wasn't there.

Nudging the scope up just north of 69 Ophiuchi, I tried for NGC 6539, another globular cluster. This one is technically in Serpens Cauda, and is described as having a low central concentration of stars, faint, and small. You can probably guess... no dice.

Well, this was frustrating. Much time back and forth at the charts, looking at the sky, wondering if it was just a bad night, back at the eyepiece, more wondering.

How about NGC 6426, almost on a line between the easy naked eye stars 60 and 62 Ophiuchi? Nothing. Well, it is also described as dim, so, heck, I was kidding myself with this one. I saw that a short distance away was NGC 6384, a galaxy described ad pretty bright, small, etc. at mag 10.6. Well, I've been down to almost mag 12 in my backyard so I searched for a while. The star fields in were very easy to identify, but again, skunked.

Maybe higher in the sky would work. Up into Aquila, nearby Altair is NGC 6804, a planetary nebula described as quite bright, small, irregular/round with a well resolved ring. Sitting right next to a mag 7 double star, this one should be easy. Nope. Not there.

About now, frustration was setting in. The sky was looking washed out. No Milky Way... I had thought I was just not dark adapted (is that possible in a suburban backyard). I shot up to the Ring Nebula. Yes, it was still there, along with the pretty little Alberio-like blue and gold double close by. But the ring looked dull, not a bright object like usual.

Next, I went to M4 in Scorpius. Yes, it was there too, but it was a poor view.

Finally, I headed up high, into Hercules. M13 showed "ok" but not great. And that was in the best part of the sky.

How disappointing! The evening stunk! I'd been skunked. The moon was due up, and all I had for my efforts was a few poor views.

I packed up everything but the scope and went it. Played on the Internet for a while, then took the dog out back.

Looked up, and guess what? No stars. Only a gray blanket. No wonder I was having trouble... low clouds were probably hazing out the sky from early on, finally filling in and putting backyard astronomers out of business.

I am glad to hear Montebello was nice. At least somebody got some observing in! I hope Coe turns out well on Saturday...