Thursday, June 21, 2001

Bon Ton

Let the good times roll!

I spent three nights at Michelle Stone's Plettstone Dark Sky Preserve beginning Thursday June 21. It was a memorable trip, one that I would recommend to any astronomy or history enthusiast reading this report.

I left home mid afternoon Thursday and soon found myself on the eastern flank of Pacheco Pass. Passing through Los Banos and continuing through the broad expanse of the Central Valley, I drove ahead with no definite plan on how to get to my destination, instead, enjoying a relaxed exploration of the unknown enroute. Approaching Highway 99 southbound, I turned off on Frontage Road, followed irrigation canals, cattle grazing, occasional residences and local farmers in the general direction northeast. Amazing places... I found Chowchilla, a growing city that now has three traffic signals. Soon I was driving north on Plainsburg Road to intersect Highway 140 east to Mariposa.

This is a beautiful drive with the Sierra beyond the rolling foothills that lay ahead. Through the town of Planado, then up to Cathy's Valley where the landscape again changes, granite chards with orange lichen breaking through the ground as the road begins to wind and climb. A few miles ahead the road turns north and offers a view west of the Central Valley across to the Coastal Mountains.

My favorite part of the drive begins soon after. Prior to reaching Mariposa, a side road shortens the drive to Michelle's.. the Mount Bullion Cutoff.

I love the name of the place. Mount Bullion. It forms images of the riches of the California Gold Rush. Mariposa and the surrounding area is steeped in Gold Rush lore.

The Mount Bullion Cutoff is at most 10 miles of scenic backroad driving, past small ranches, a driving school, creeks and rolling hills. It terminates at the small community of Mount Bullion, a small town with several quaint homes, an airport the Apricot Inn restaurant and Highway 49. We head north from there to Bear Valley, walking distance from Michelle's property.

Bear Valley is the location of John C. Fremont's home. Fremont had very large land holdings in and around Bear Valley.. eventually selling the property for $6 million around 1880. Amazing as it sounds, I have heard Fremont died broke.

Fremont ran a large hotel in Bear Valley, as well as the Bon Ton, which today is a fine restaurant. I was at first struck by the oddity of a restaurant with a French name here in Bear Valley. It was Mimi, my daughter, who last month noted the name, as she's studying French in school. I've come to recall though that the gold rush was not an American phenomena, but an international frenzy. And so, we have places with names like French Camp, Bon Ton, etc..

Here is a link to the restaurant with their menu, I intend to eat there next time I visit Plettstone:

Here is another link with some local history:

If this isn't enough... an hour upstream you can enjoy the day in Yosemite.

My arrival at Michelle's was uneventful, I found myself alone. I set up the 18" Obsession and my 8" CPT. A dinner of sushi and beer as sunset took place, then a quick cleanup in the outdoor shower. Perfect!

I spent the first night looking for Herschel catalog objects in Ursa Major. I was chasing right ascension as the constellation dove toward the horizon. I needed objects in hours 13 and 14. Of the many objects I hunted down my favorite of the night had to be NGC 5484. This is just a small smudge, but the field it sits in, and that around it are fun. 5484 has a B magnitude of 15.7 and V of 14.7. It was challenging and required study of the star fields around it to nail down the position accurately. In the same field are NGCs 5485 and 5486, significantly brighter, but due to their angular size, still quite dim visually. A chain of three bright stars to the NW of these galaxies, and a distinctive line of stars begin at the SW end of the bright stars and extend E/W. These stars make certain identification possible.

One of the oddities from Thursday night was my inability to observe a few questionable objects. I could not find NGC 3645 or NGC 3911 in Leo. I wanted these two galaxies as they were part of a small handful I had remaining on the Herschel 2500+ in Leo. Has anyone observed these?

The next day temps were high, about 105 degrees, yet staying in the shade and keeping hydrated helped. Mid day Marsha Robinson pulled in, and later Paul and Michelle joined us. Another cool shower after dinner put me in a great mood for observing.

Friday night was better than Thursday... it seemed steadier, although the prior night was quite transparent and gave good results. My favorite sight on Friday was the field that included NGC 4015 in Coma Berenices. A mag 8.3 star anchors a field that contains 13 galaxies within reach of my telescope under excellent conditions. This night I was able to pick out my target object along with 7 other galaxies without working at it. Had I spent more time in the field, I would probably had seen the other 7 galaxies, but I was after specific objects and did not want to dally working off-list objects. Still, the brighter galaxies here were too easy to ignore. 4015 sits about 12 minutes SE of the bright star. Five more minutes SE is NGC 4023. Just SE of the bright star is NGC 4005. NW of the star is a line of three galaxies in line NNE/SSW within 9 minutes of each other, including NGC 3987, NGC 3993 and NGC 3997. A short hop NE of those are NGC 4018 and NGC 4022.

Saturday Bob Czerwinski joined us in late afternoon. Temperatures were pleasantly 20 degrees cooler than the day before. Bob set up his scope and tent while the rest of us attended to preparing a BBQ. Chicken, potato salad, corn on the cob, polska, mixed garden salad, fine bottle of Chardonnay and cherry pie for desert. Great way to start the evening!

The sky at sunset was covered with high cloud, varying between thin and opaque. I lay down in my truck and slept for an hour or so, waking up to improved conditions. As we talked, the sky opened up from zenith westward. This put Coma and Bootes in prime observing position. The sky varied between half open and mostly open off and on during the night. Bob and I called it quits at about 3:30 a.m.

The best view of the night in my scope was the last... not because of the detail, not because of the size, not because there was anything particularly unique about the objects... but for an odd sensation of isolation and fleeting nature the view evoked. The view was in Bootes of NGC 5730 and NGC 5731. Two galaxies dance alone close together in the field of view... but a few brighter stars surrounding them to provide line of sight company. The galaxies are almost identical in size, shape and brightness. Two spindles at the edge of perception, momentary visions of creation that once glimpsed, disappear, like a moment of illumination when some surprising truth is revealed then hidden away again... remaining only as a memory. These two solitary travellers seem to be in a cosmic dance, slightly off angle from one another, otherwise identical. It reminded me of companionship, friendships in an enormous universe, and how transient it all is.

I hope you all had a great time observing over the weekend. Thank you to Michelle and Paul for their kind and generous nature. Their company and companionship make for the best of times!

Let's do it again.... laissez les bon temps roulez!

Saturday, June 16, 2001

Saturdy Night Observings

At Henry Coe State Park Saturday night, Mars was excellent around transit. I had my 8" f/6.8 Dob stopped down to about 3" and riding on an Equatorial Platform. I borrowed 3, 4 and 6mm Radians which all gave very pleasing views. The 6 was best, but even at 458X (with an effective focal ratio of f/18.3) plenty of detail was visible. The biggest surprise came when I used my 18" f/4.5 Obsession at full aperture. The best view was again with the 6mm Radian at about 343X, but even the 3mm performed well at almost 680X.

Two filters were tried. A red filter produced the most detail on the dark southern regions of the planet. However, I felt other details were lost. A neutral density filter produced what I felt were the most pleasing views, cutting the brightness of the planet down and revealing the nice subtle orange-red color of the brighter areas of the surface, while the darker southern sections had the color of a port-wine birthmark.

The only thing that could have made Mars appear better would have been an aperture mask on the 18". I'll do that next weekend.

Deep sky targets at Coe were good to the north, south, west, excellent to the southeast, east and northeast. Conditions were near ideal with low RH, calm to light breeze and warm temps. We also had an excellent turnout with 20 or more scopes.

The obvious light domes were from San Jose, Hollister and Gilroy, and in the distance Salinas just south of Fremont Peak.

Saturday, June 9, 2001

Fremont Peak Saturday night

A handful of observers went down to Fremont Peak Saturday night. Originally this was going to be Bill Schultz, his family, meeting Pat, Mimi and me, with little of no observing, just a "get out of the house" trip to show his family an observing site. As things tend to go, a few other people heard our plans and wanted to join in. Glad they did, we had a very nice time.

On the way to the Peak, Bill, his wife Sally and their two children joined Pat, Mimi and me, along with Jim and Rachel Everitt at The Longhouse restaurant in Gilroy for dinner. Family style, good portions, reasonable price. I think everyone enjoyed their meals. Afterwards we all proceeded to Fremont Peak. Upon arriving the sky had horsetail clouds and fog hugged the coast from the south but did not cover much of the ocean. The wind was moderate, not bad really, but noticeable. Tourists were in the area, some local men from perhaps SJB were hanging out having a few brews and playing Mexican folk music loudly from their car.

Bill and Sally had brought a couple bottles of Genepi they had made from local yarrow the collected. I could become quite attached to this nice drink. Maybe I'll switch from Fosters! After a few drinks along with some imported chocolate, I decided to put up the 8" scope. It is sure fun to take a small car instead of my Suburban. The scope collapsed and easily fit into the truck of my Mercedes sedan along with all my other observing gear and clothes. The only thing in the backseat with Mimi was the base. I will work on a more portable base in the next few weeks.

The scope drew some attention, which I have become accustomed to. Everyone is curious and interested the first time the see it. I used Bill's laser collimator to align. While I was doing that Nilesh Shah drove up. He pulled out his 12.5" Dob, and Jim yanked his 15" out. Bill had his 7" Mak-Newt, which I don't think he'd used in a year. Another fella was there who used to come to Fremont Peak 20 years ago and now lives in Idaho. A TAC lurker (sorry I forgot your name if you are reading this) was set up with a Tele Vue 85 and a C8.

We had a pleasant and good group.

Once the sky was dark the group looked a mostly pedestrian M objects, although I think Nilesh was still knocking off Hershels on his list. I was enjoying the 8", it is fun to use, and having it set up on my Equatorial Platform just added to the ease and pleasure.

I think I looked mostly at globulars, big and bright. I did note that one globular I hadn't looked at in ages was up. NGC 5897 in Libra was a fun contrast in size, brightness and resolvability with the big bright M's I'd been playing with. It is easy to locate, and certainly has a different appearance in an 8" than the others.

A while later I turned the 8" f/almost7 to Mars. The seeing was coming and going. I ran up to my 7.5mm eyepiece without problem, but could not push it past there with good results. The view were still quite good... easily seeing Syrtis Major (is that right? I'm not a planetary type)... sometimes it looked like four lobes of dark area showing on the surface. It also looked to me as if there were some haze on one of the limbs. The fellow from Idaho was asking about filters, what did I have, how did this view compare to others I'd had. Jim Everitt was having a good chuckle at the idea of my having filters for observing Mars, and told the visitor that this is about as much planetary observing as he'd seen me do ever. True. Still, even though I didn't have the normal Mars filters (red or yellow?), I did try several others.

The OIII was a waste. The UHC and Ultrablock were fun... I yelled out "hey... here's Neptune!!!!"... but really, the detail was too reduced. The Lumicon Deep Sky filter proved its uselessness extended to Mars observing too. However, I did like the Orion Moon filter, as it cut down on that incredible brightness and allowed a more enjoyable, yet more muted, view of the Martian features.

Finally, I took my 10.5mm and looked at the Double Double in Lyra. The splits were clean, relatively steady and the inky blackness provided by this combination of eyepiece and longer focal length scope (with a 1.52" secondary) were just great!

After a few more views of Mars, I noticed the light polluter had risen in the east. This would put an end to deep sky observing and offer a good time to pack it up and head home.

This had been quite a nice evening. The only negative I would mention was a lot of vehicles driving into the SW lot during the night with their headlights on. Many of them left when they found the place occupied. One parked, and its contents emptied out and ascended the Peak... from which a seranade of odd noised ensued.

I'm glad they were up there there, and we were not.

The ride home was uneventful. As happens whenever I observe at the Peak, memories of good times with old friends fill my head.