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.