Friday, January 26, 2001

Winter observing at LSA

Friday afternoon my family and my son's friend Judy drove down California's historic highway 101 with a final destination of Lake San Antonio. Our goal was a few nights of dark sky astronomy and a first experience with an organized birding event. Both were wonderful successes.

Rather than go straight to LSA, we drove a bit further south to the town of San Miguel, home to one of California's historic missions. We've been to missions San Luis de Padua, 25 miles north of LSA, and another in Soledad when returning from a prior trip to LSA. San Antonio de Padua is wonderfully preserved and transports one back to the time of the padres and the successes of the controversial system that began the conversion of California from its native peoples to the beginnings of western European settlement, the gold rush, and statehood. San Antonio is a wonderful place to visit. In contrast the mission at Soledad is a story of stuggle, death, and ultimately failure. Soledad was cold, wet and full of sickness. Nearly a padre per year would be assigned during its existance. Our visit to the Soledad mission coincided with a harvest festival, with field workers stomping grapes to make wine, dancing, and all sorts of festivities. It was difficult during this celebration to imagine the struggle and heartbreak the place once endured. We bought dried and pickled olives from stock of the very trees the padres brought over from Spain to the new land. It was a great experience. Still, of all three missions, I have a fond place in my heart for the Mission at San Miguel. 10 miles north of Paso Robles, this mission stands off the beaten path. San Miguel is a sleepy town that owners of homes in the bay area could probably purchase outright. Boarded up businesses, motels that stood empty. Locals eyeballing the strangers driving through. The mission though was friendly and interesting. It contains many original wall paintings inside, and many wonderful historic relics. Nearby, appropriately for my trip that weekend, was the small town of Estrella, which in English translates to "star".... this would be a weekend with surprising results for those who love to observe the stars...

After a short sojourn through further south throuhg Paso Robles, we headed into wild California, crossed the dam over Lake Nacimiento and arrived at LSA. The skies were cloudy and discouraging. On our drive there we had witnessed one of the most massive thunderstorms I've seen. The storm hovered over our destination while driving toward San Miguel. The sky was so darkened under the towering storm that you could not see anything but black. To the north and south of the storm were scenes of distant mountain. But the storm, well, it swallowed all beneath in it in a curtain of black.

I did not expect much observing.

Several of the TAC gang had rented cabins at LSA, and I left mine to visit Rich, Ken and Dean at theirs. We had a few drinks and wondered about the sky. While it had been cloudy when I arrived, walking outside proved miraculous... it was clear and dark. Late arrival Sandra prodded us to get our scopes and set up.

Our regular observing site was muddy... my Suburban was sliding around in the field... the back end spinning uncontrolled. This place would be wet and dewy. So, we set up by the cabins and camp store, even with all the streetlights.

The highlight that night was a spectacular view of the Horshead Nebula and IC434 with my 18" Dob and UHC filter. This was not a "maybe"... the shape of without doubt. We stayed out for several hours, marvelling at how dark the sky was, while dodging the streetlights. M82 had HII regions lighting up aside the dark lanes intruding perpendicular to the major axis of the galaxy. One of the more detailed views I've had. M42 drew comments like "I never knew the nebula extended out forming a complete circle!" What transparency! Even the planets were showing well.. white ovals very prominent in Jupiter's equatorial bands. We had a very nice, casual, observing session, but turned in rather early from dew and fatigue.

The next day was the eagle tour. We all boarded the Eagle One, a flat bottom boat that accomodates almost 60 people, and pulled away from the dock. The lake is 17 miles long and has 65 miles of shore. We proceeded north along the western shore, where most of the bald and golden eagles were perched. We were most fortunate to see both bald and golden eagles in flight. These birds are really spectacular. But, the wind from the north was chilled and reminding us that winter was upon us. Not until we turned south along the eastern shore did the conditions improve... the wind at our backs offset by the speed of the boat... we felt as if it were a warm spring day. It was a nice way to spend a couple hours or so.

The feeling of spring continued into the night. Not a cloud in the sky! Marsha Robinson and I scouted out a location Jim Turley reported... to us... down at the Harris Creek boat launch. This paved lot could hold a hundred telescopes. It had great horizons and bathrooms with flush toilets. What more could we ask for! Returning at dark, I set up along with maybe 8 other observers, and watched the night unfold.

Some equated the skies to Lassen. It was astonishing. The winter Milky Way was glorious. The Zodiacal Light ran up through the moon and Venus.

The view of stars shimmering on the lake with the stellar dome overhead was really breathtaking. We really hit it just right... other than some dewing that cut the session a bit short, we could not ask for more. Even with the dew many of us had 5 or more hours of great observing and imaging.

My targets were almost exclusively in Lynx. This dim constellation is a challenge to just recognize. Too many dim stars! My list of targets for the night included:

NGC 2759 -- this galaxy is dim, round and located easily off star SAO61254, a mag 5 star that forms the top of arc of three naked eye stars at the southern end of Lynx. It is less than 1' in size, and stands out decently due to its small size. It magnitude is 14.2, but surface brightness a rather generous 13.2. Luckily, I landed on this first object, so there was no work star hopping in the eyepiece.

I next moved to NGC 2780. This galaxy was perhaps 1'x 0.7' and easy to identify in the field. It too was in an easy location, just SW of naked eye stars 38-Lynx (mag 3.8) and mag 3.1 Alpha Lynx, the southern-most star in the constellation figure. But, this was not the first galaxy to catch my eye in the field. Most noticeable was NGC 2778, a large and obvious roundish galaxy 5' SSW of a bright pair of stars bracketed on their E and W by even brighter stars equidistant from the double. This setting was almost artistic in design for the bright galaxy. I then bumped up my magnification to find NGC 2779, a mag 14.6 dim smudge just off 2778 toward the double star. It is most fun to pick up multiple galaxies in the same field!

On to NGC 2852. This galaxy is in the same area as the prior ones. I used 38-Lynx and SAO61254 to form a triangle with the position where the object should be, to their NE. The galaxy was bright enough, with a mag of 13.2 and sb at 12.6. No problem picking it out. Just 3' to its N is NGC 2853, larger, nearly equal in mag, but less surface brightness. Still, at sb 13.6, it was not a problem. Also notable in the field was NGC 2844, a mag 13 (sb 13) galaxy with a 2:1 size ratio (1.5' long) running N/S.

I was having fun. Other observers were coming by, someone was talking about Albert's view of the Horsehead with an H-Beta in his 12.5" Dob. LX's were humming, there was chatter all around.

On to NGC 2322, another nice but more difficult find. I was moving away from the brighter stars in Lynx, wandering out into the emptiness of the constellation's northern territory. I felt lost as I struggled to see the dim stars naked eye. But finally, I noted three crooked stars (mag 4.6 21 Lynx being the brightest), and north of those two stars (mag 6.0 SAO26260 and mag 5.6 SAO26223) pointing right at the position I was after. Soon the galaxy was in the eyepiece. A chain of stars ran through the entire width of the eyepiece from SE to NW, and the galaxy sat just ENE, almost a spindle glowing dimly at mag 13.8. NGC 2320 sat just NNW with a mag 9.5 star to its NE. Also, NGC 2321 was there, the dimmest of the three, about 11' N of 2320. This was also a good field.

The next galaxy on my list was at the border of the field I'd just worked. NGC 2326 sat at the eastern edge of the prior field. This galaxy was larger and dimmer than any in the previous field. Its magnitude was deceiving at mag 13.1, since its size of nearly 2'x2' spread the light out to a surface brightness at a rather dim 14.3. But its round shape shimmered in the eyepiece, and I kept walking visually back and forth from it to the three other galaxies nearby. I tried for UGC 3687, just to the SE, and thought I could barely pick up a fleeting glow in the correct location... this galaxy is listed in The Sky at mag 15.25.

I then visited NGC 2426 and NGC 2429. These two were the real challenge object for the night. Not because they were so dim, they really we not difficult to observe, but due to their location. I needed help from Ken, Dean and Rich to locate the correct part of Lynx. Turns out there are two naked eye large scale clusters of stars in Lynx, one that sits just south of the line and midway between 15 and 31 Lynx... and the other at the northwestern extreme of the constellation involving 15, 2 and 5 Lynx. These two patches of stars helped establish the real position of the constellation. I had actually been though this area before, but on the southwestern side of the "constellation line" earlier in the evening. I used four stars in the grouping as a guidepost. 21 and 22 Lynx can be used to point NE. SAO26488 is close by to the ENE and can be used as a distance indicator from 21 and 22. Roughly the same distance past the SAO on line with 21 and 22, and I was in the field.

The two galaxies were obvious, and entrancing. But they were difficult to confirm initially due to the misplot in The Sky software... the galaxies are actually almost 30' S of where the software indicated! It took some work to confirm them, but their position relative to nearby stars in the field made them quite memorable. The two galaxies were quite different in appearance, NGC 2426 an oval glow of about mag 13.. perhaps 1'x1' in size. It sat 3' NNW of a mag 10 star, the closest "bright" star in the field. Perhaps 5' to its ENE was the very elongated galaxy NGC 2429, with a NNW/SSE cant and 4:1 ratio along the major axis. It too sat just NNW of a star, a bit dimmer, and closer than 2426 was to its nearby star. The view reminded me of two candles... with each galaxy being a flame. It was a beautiful view. 2429 was the more difficult of the two to confirm... its closeness to the nearby mag 10.5 star along with a few dim foreground stars sprinkled over it created an illusion of the object at first appearing to be nothing but dim stars. With increased magnification though, it was plain to see. One dim star sat over the heart of this distant flame. I wonder if it was a stellar core to the galaxy, a supernova, or just one of the citizens of our galaxy positioned to make itself seem more important to the casual observer.

By this time, dew was beginning to thin the ranks of observers. My son was happily ensconsed in the back of my truck with girlfriend, sleeping bags together, out under the blanket of the heavens above. They said they were keeping warm, which I do believe... it was chilly at LSA this trip. I packed up and drove the kids back to our cabin where I stood outside looking up at the sky as it should be. Winter observing at LSA was excellent. We were very lucky to have seen such a sky when earlier in the week all were worried about rain. I talked with Paul and Ray about the sky, about LSA, and about life. We talked about coming back to LSA.

Next month.

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