Saturday, April 28, 2001

Memories of days gone by... (observing report)

I had not planned on going observing Saturday. The way I figured it, I would not observe outside of my own backyard for almost two weeks. With the moon up until after midnight there was not much incentive, except I really wanted to play with the 8" compact scope. So, late afternoon I began to pack up my 1980 Mercedes, to test out putting an 8" f/7 in the trunk and see how much room would be left.

The packing job was a great success as the scope fit into the trunk easily, front to back. Two large plastic boxes, one containing books, atlases, notes, and other observing goodies, the other full of cold weather clothes, accompanied the OTA in the trunk. The base, which I am going to eventually make collapsible in order to put it in the trunk also, sat in the back seat with my eyepiece case. At that point Mimi saw I was packed up and asked what I was doing. Of course, she immediately asked if she could go. Since she had not been to Fremont Peak in over a year, and I knew some TACos were planning on the SW lot, I suggested we go there (I didn't want dirt in the open frame of the scope). Mimi was extremely pleased.

So, with loads of room to spare, we headed south, to the place we both cut our observing teeth.

It was fun to use the little car instead of the Suburban. Heading south of Gilroy the gentle rolling hills were lush green. As we left Santa Clara County into San Benito we climbed through the low pass that leads to highway 156 and the turnoff to San Juan Bautista. I have to admit, this seemed very familiar, evoking feelings of deja vu, although I knew that I had been there previously. Turning off toward SJB the hills laid out to our north and south as we drove through the pasture lands on each side. It was gorgeous. A quick stop at the old familiar Windmill Market to pick up dinner, and we were on our way up San Juan Canyon Road, which terminates at Fremont Peak State Park.

The road was really just too much fun to drive. Granite boulders strewn along the east side, the stream flowing along the western side. Cows, horses, sheep, chicken. Wild turkey, hawks, rabbit, the wildlife was evident everywhere. We climbed up the canyon through overhanging oaks draped in Spanish Moss. I felt the years peel away, remembering the young lady sitting next to me as a child learning the constellations when the sky was much darker than it is today.

Arriving at the SW lot, we were the first amateur astronomers. The only thing missing was Jim Bartolini, who would invariably be the first one there on observing weekends. It was cool and breezy, mist blowing over the Peak and forming a trailing cloud to the east. Looked almost like a volcano with smoke billowing out. Jamie and Liam Dillon pulled in just minutes later.

I have to admit it felt a lot like home. Like driving through the neighborhood you grew up in, remembering all those childhood experiences. The friends, the funny things that happened. Nostalgia.

I popped open my big can of Fosters and shared it with Jamie. At this point, I didn't care if I did any observing, I was thoroughly enjoying the quiet familiarity of the place. As it turned out, there was little observing anyway.

After setting up the scope, Nilesh Shaw arrived. The three of us, along with Mimi and Liam, would comprise the non-Coe contingent of TAC. High cloud came through in waves. One minute we'd be hunting some faint fuzzy, the next minute we'd lose the stars. We did observe a good number of bright Messiers. Jamie was having fun around M109. I pulled in M53 and Nilesh then went to M64 with my scope. M51 didn't look like much. Nilesh and I then had a friendly contest taking turns trying to find NGC 6210 in Hercules (we did find it).

During all this Mimi and I walked to the pay phone to call home, then on to the observatory. On the way I noted one lone amateur astronomer set up on Coulter Row. As I passed below him on the road I saw a family camping on the hill just above him... their campfire and Coleman lantern silhouetting the observer and his telescope. Another campfire blazed at the bottom of Coulter Row, and yet another up at the top of it. Half a dozen or so cars drove in or out of the park while we walked to the road up to the observatory. I don't know how anyone observes there. I don't know how we did it!

What I do recall about the place were the friends and the dark sky. On a good summer dark sky Saturday you'd need to arrive around mid-day to secure a good place to set up. If you were at the lower end of Coulter, you were there for the night due to the large number of set ups between you and the exit. I am not exaggerating when I say there were times when you could find a hundred telescopes set up on Coulter, the overlook lot (not the southwest lot), and along the road to the right of the pay phone. You needed a red flashlight to be certain you didn't run into equipment when walking to the bathrooms, or looking for friends. The place was awesome, especially for a newcomer. And while the Mark Cherringtons and John Gleasons among us will say the Peak was done by 1990 (in fact, some say it was history by 1980), it was the darkest place I knew of. People look at me in disbelief when I say you could not make out your neighbor's face. True.

But, back to today.

As the observatory came into view we noticed the roof rolled back and a white light on in the meeting room. The 30" Challenger was being "guided" by The Sky software and digital setting circles to The Ghost Of Jupiter (NGC 3242). I had a chuckle looking at the crosshairs on the monitor and saying "Ghost Of Jupiter?" to the person operating the program. He replied "no, we're not looking at Jupiter"... :-)

Ron Dammann was at the eyepiece. When he stepped back to let the public have a look I said hi to him. He said this was the third night of public programs at the Peak. I told him I was with a few friends, and said goodbye. In the meeting room someone was giving a talk on Olympus Mons to a group of maybe a dozen. I remembered Rod Norden in his wizard's costume, pointed hat, robed, giving a similar talk. Afterwards, Alan Nelms, Rich Neuschaefer, Dean Linebarger and I would run the 30" for the public. We had some great times up there.

Mimi loves the place. On the way back she fantasized about becoming wildly wealthy and purchasing the park from the state (kids and their imaginations!) and bequeathing it to amateur astronomers in perpetuity.

We arrived back at the SW lot and did a bit more hunting at the scope. Mimi laid down on the ground next to the car, wrapped up in a warm blanket, head on her pillow, and fell asleep while the clouds pulled a cover across the sky.

After a lot of talking, and calling James Turley by cell phone over at Coe to "rub in" what a great time we were having at the Peak, it was time to pack up. I could hardly believe it took less than 5 minutes to have everything put away and be heading down the hill.

The road down was still virtually auto pilot. Under 20 minutes and I was back on the highway. We were home in bed by 1:40 a.m.

For a poor night of observing, we sure had a great time.

Monday, April 23, 2001

Backyard observing 4/23/01

I took out my 8" f/6.8 collapsible Dob ( last night for a short galaxy hunting session. I did not have very high expectations as a haze layer appeared to be in place, possibly brightening things up to the point of uselessness. However, once darkness set in I was out back and things seemed decent. There was some unsteadiness as brighter stars were twinkling. Temps were very pleasant, reminding me that summer is on approach. There was virtually no dew during the observing session.

I used two eyepieces, the 20 and 12 Nagler, both type II. Other tools were a Telrad, old version of SA2000, and Uranometria.

I began with NGC 2681 in Ursa Major. This galaxy is in a very easy location for naked-eye star hopping, sitting just above the toes of the Big Bears front upper paw. I used 25-Theta Ursae Majoris to draw a line to 15 Ursae Majoris, which pointed to the target's position. The galaxy was in the eyepiece immediately... a nice way to start an observing session. This is a bright galaxy at mag 10.3, but the surface brightness is significantly dimmer due to its 3.6' x 3.3' size. I thought there was a possible elongation to the galaxy in the WNW/ESE direction, but mostly round, with a stellar nucleus. A few bright stars sat nearby, one 10' N and another 12' S.

My next target was NGC 2683. This is a great object! Sitting in Lynx. The general position in easy, using the southern end of the dim constellation as a guide. The stars 40 Alpha Lynx (mag 3.1) and 38 Lynx (mag 3.8) allow you to form a right angle to their east. You find yourself in a rich starfield... it is fairly easy to know when you are there. A chain of three bright stars point toward the galaxy, framed on the opposite side by a pair of bright stars. In the 20 Nagler this galaxy, while rather dim, actually jumped out. There was no missing it. It is very elongated at 9.0' x 2.2' in a WSE/ENE orientation. Three dim stars sit to its south. I found it to be better at lower power, as it was very ghostly in the 12mm eyepiece. This one is a "must see" from the backyard... mag 9.8, but its surface brightness is a dim 12.9.

NGC 2742 is an object I've looked for previously in my backyard, but failed. The location is relatively easy, as it is at the intersection of two distinct "lines" described by bright stars in Ursa Major. 23 Ursae Majoris points through 16 Ursae Majoris and intersects the line made by 29 Upsilon Ursae Majoris and 1 Omicron Ursae Majoris. Nothing could be easier! However, with the 12mm Nagler, this galaxy was barely flitting in, just a faint "sometimes" glow about 3' W of the brightest star in the field. Perhaps conditions had deteriorated, making this a tough object. I could not detect much detail, although at times it appears elongated. This was one the toughest object of the night, mag 11.4 with a 13.0 surface brightness.

I finished my observing session on NGC 2768, located close by NGC 2742. In fact, I used the same bright star and double that pointed me to NGC 2742 in locating NGC 2768. This galaxy too was dim, but more visible than the prior one. It was elongated E/W and about 8' x 4' in size. With averted vision I could detect a stellar core. A very dim star sat close to the E side of the object. Two brighter stars sat 4' away, one to the N another to the WNW.

By now it was getting late. My scope was performing wonderfully, but I knew I had an early day the next morning.

I packed up my books and eyepieces, left the scope outside. It is there waiting for another observing session tonight.