Saturday, April 13, 2002

SJAA Messier Marathon night at Coe!

I have to say, it was a very good evening to be out under the stars. Experienced observers, rank newbies, friends, guests from countries far off to our east and west.

First I want to commend the SJAA, and particularly Mike Koop and Bob Havner for rescheduling the SJAA Messier Marathon after bad weather scrubbed it in March. They prepared observing lists for participants, were there until the sky began turning bad, and were helping beginners. I am sure they had fun, and it was fun to hear it going on in the background. It is what a group star party should be like, with experienced observers helping newcomers. There were also around four SJAA loaners scopes in use, which speaks well for that program. Those of you who don't know it, the SJAA loaner program is a great way to find out if you want to buy a telescope.... it is try before you buy with no pressure, and only cost is an inexpensive club membership.

I looked at some of the bright Messiers as the skies darkened. The Trapezium showed 6 stars pretty easily in my 18" using a 12 Nagler.

I peeked at the big planets, again, before dark when they wouldn't ruin my dark adaptation (at Coe, sure!). Rich Neuschaefer's reported a moon of Jupiter swinging behind the planet. I was getting very good images of this in my 18". It was fun to check in on it now and then to see how it was doing. Saturn showed Cassini's even at low power.... it was pretty darn good.

The sky to the west was the worst part of the sky, and bands of thin stuff would move across west to east making the transparency variable. I was getting down to about mag 14 according to the database in Software Bisque's TheSky.

I found that early on I could use my big Herschel 2500 list for targets, since I had not finished Leo Minor, which was up overhead. So overhead in fact that I was literally in Dobson's Hole (can we come up with a better name please) for quite a while. Must have looked like I was dancing with the Dob going around in circles! I actually got dizzy at one point looking up and twisting the scope around.

In Leo Minor I found:

  • NGC3021
  • NGC3381
  • NGC3510
  • NGC3380
  • NGC3451
  • NGC3104
  • NGC3106
  • NGC3265
  • NGC3327
  • NGC3334

Most were faint little buggers that you would have to know they were there to see. Several newbies attempted to see some of these, but no amount of imagination could help them. No clue. Most nights, with better skies, these would be somewhat bright targets (things being relative).

While I was in the midst of finding these faint smudges, David Finn showed up with some ESL students. An 18 year old Chinese man, Japanese woman 21 years of age, and a guy from Tunisia now had their citizens at my eyepiece. Some others showed up too, a tall guy and female friend. We looked at some highlight objects. I was able to explain what the band we call the Milky Way was by showing M51 and emphasizing the spiral structure visible in the arms. The LOVED M3, so I went next to M13, then M92. The guests were, as are we, awe struck to think of how old these stars were, and how the coalesced into such fantastic structures. They asked if all were the same, and what will happen to them. So, I moved the scope to M53 for comparison to M13, and the difference was subtle to the first timers, so I then moved from M53 to NGC5053 just a degree away. It was interesting to see their reactions when the finally saw the dim sparse globular. I also showed them M44 though my 10x70 finder, so they could see the difference between globular and open clusters. The liked seeing some of the oldest, and some of the youngest stars in these two types of objects.

Then I moved to the big end of Markarian's Chain. The tall guy put it simply and correctly by looking through the eyepiece and talking about eternity. The fact that they were actually seeing such old light was probably the most amazing thing they came away with, I expect.

After a while I got back to my own observing program. By now the two lists I'm working on had objects high enough to pursue. I didn't hit too many, but the views of one in particular was wonderful.

On the Herschel 400 I nabbed NGC5694, a nice little globular cluster at the way eastern end of Hydra. Bright and easy, but it sure in a little one!

ON the Herschel 400 II I was in Virgo and got:

NGC5750 - this is an elongated galaxy with a distinctive set of star chains to it SE.

NGC5775 - a fun sight. A large very elonated galaxy with a dim round galaxy immediately to its NW. Lots of other dimmer small galaxies in the area.

NGC5806 - another elongated galaxy, but not so much at 5775. Another bright galaxy is in the field with several other dimmer ones.

NGC5850 - this was my last object and maybe the best. A chain of 5 galaxies running E/W in a single eyepiece field, two bright and three dim. Other galaxies were found close by to the N and W.

By this time I was hearing others breaking down. I looked up and zenith was cloudy. Everything to the W was gone.

I'd had enough. It was a nice night, never cold. Just had on a lightweight Polartec top and bottom. I was thinking about summer and the remaining Herschels. I have 3 left on the 400 I and 8 on the 400 II. I won't say how many on the big Herschel list, but it is many.

Thanks again to the SJAA for the fun night. It was a good group that helped make it a good night.

Saturday, April 6, 2002

Shingletown Star Party preliminary report....

I took Friday off and drove to Shingletown, site of our July star party. Saturday morning, after a great breakfast at the Shingle Shack, I attended a meeting with the Shingletown Activities Committee to discuss the status of the star party, and to help make arrangements. I am happy to report that we are going to have a GREAT time, no question about it. The community is very interested in the success of our event. I'll report more later, but I will offer that a smaller star party will happen there (at the airport) at the beginning of June. A limited number of attendees are encouraged to join us, I think it would be good to get some imagers to go so we understand any needs they'll have that have not be thought of.

Saturday I went to Lassen Park. It is amazing under snow. Manzanita Lake was 80% ice covered. Cross country skiers were the only traffic on Hwy 89 south of Devastated Area. I'll try to post some digital images later tonight or tomorrow.

After dinner we drove to the airport and set up. I have my 8" Skelescope. We had some dew and cold temps, getting down to 38 degrees. But, the view east of the airport at sunset of Lassen Peak, Mount Brokeoff, The Crags and all the other remnants of Mt. Tehama glistening in the distance as light faded was, well, breathtaking.

This is a beautiful location.

Once it was dark I began working my Herschel 400-II list. It was more challenging than with the 18", for sure, but still, objects were found with little difficulty. The seeing was a bit soft, but still, we had what looked like an excellent night. I guess I got lucky this weekend.

At one point, when Bootes was high enough, we did a star count. I got between 53 and 56. That, according to the chart at gave us a sky at or better than mag 7.0.

Not bad, eh? And, it was not even what we considered a "best" night.

At dark, the Zodiacal Light reached from the horizon to near zenith, into Leo.

For now, what you should know is, this is a primo observing site, with tons of room

I'll try to write more later.

Tuesday, April 2, 2002

When Galaxies Come Out

It was a very productive night. Consider that it was foggy for several of the dark hours.... maybe 2 out of 4 1/2. We were able to observe some objects when the fog was just a haze, with "blooms" around the brightest stars. I logged most objects in at most 3 hours, and I ended up with 76 new galaxies logged. Those were in about 45 different eyepiece fields. A few fields contained 5, 6 or 7 "easy" galaxies. Some solitary galaxies were outstanding due to their position among bright stars, or as parts of star chains.

But I'll start with the beginning. Getting to Coe was a contrast between the city at its worst and the tranquility of a country road. My usual one hour drive from Los Gatos to Coe took nearly an extra half hour. The Friday afternoon traffic was much worse than usual, starting back on highway 85. Dead stop, 5 mph was "speed"... but, this was Tuesday, at 3:30 p.m. What was at play was construction on 101. And not really construction, but a sign to go slow for trucks entering. It was life as a snail. 10,000 snails on southbound 101.

The traffic broke finally at the Coyote golf course, where the construction zone ended. Good news is this is due to be completed in 2003. I have to report also that when I finally entered normal rush hour traffic, there was a big rig driver trying to do 90, weaving and tailgating. Never seen anything so dangerous in traffic (at least not since I was a teenager).

Fortunately I've learned when in those situations, to go with it, rather than earning an ulcer or accident.

Once off the freeway I found my gas foot relaxing. The drive up East Dunne road was a treat. Green grasses, California Poppy, wild mustard, blue lupine, the old oaks overhanging the road as you rise above the lake climbing the eastern hills. I find this a great prelude to the night. Driving to local observing sites, within an hour or so of home, is really a treat.

I was the first at Coe. There was a steady western breeze and definite chill. What was more a concern was the high haze layer. Only a small part of Mt. Madonna's peak across the valley was visible. The valleys south toward Dinosaur Point were high with thick white fog, looking as if it was about spill over. Fremont Peak was invisible.

Sunset gave us a spectacular view of a heavily darkened orange sun that, when dropping into the top of the thick haze layer, developed an oblate brighter orange "hat" that flattened and finally disappeared. As the sky grew dark, the top of the fog stood up high to our west and began to move over us,

Things were very wet. We were trying to observe when the fog was not "too" thick. Richard was being successful, although I kind of hate to look at objects under those conditions, since I know it has to be a lousy view :-( But I did it anyway.... heck, I was set up, and I could see things, sometimes. Richard got off to a ripping start, just landing on target after target. I heard him laughing "hey... I can't believe how easy this is.... I'm going to buy a lottery ticket!"... but not so easy for me. He probably had 10 objects before I landed my first.

We went on like that for a couple hours. A 14.5" primary dewed up. We used a hair dryer to clear secondaries and eyepieces. It seemed every time the sky opened up for five minutes or so my secondary would fog over. One of our party was ready to pack it in and leave. But, it was early, and we all decided to wait.

What happened was amazing.

All at once it was as if the tidal wave washed back to sea. The fog dropped hundreds of feet. It was clear. Then it came back up, and dropped again. It did this three or four times, then the fog stayed down.

There were no city lights. Anywhere. The ranger's house was the only visible light (well, one other downhill to the west, but it was not "in your eye"). It was awesome. The sky was quite black, not gray. I should have done a limiting magnitude count, but I wasted no time and got right to my Herschel lists.

I won't describe all the views I had. But here are a few highlights.

NGC4264 is a small round galaxy in Virgo that has 6 other galaxies under mag 14 within 90 x 40 minute section of sky. I assume this is the heart of Abell 1516. The location is a bit tricky, since there are no bright reference stars, but I used mag 3.9 Zaniah (Eta Virginis) to point to mag 5 16-Virginis 4 degrees to its north, then continue that line another 2.7 minutes. This was a fascinating field.

NGC4438. It is almost cheating to list this one, as it is part of the famous Markarian's Chain in the heart of Virgo. The entire chain was easy tonight. I counted 10 galaxies as part of what I think is the Chain. NGC4438 is easily located using a line from Vendamiatrix and Denobola.

NGC4608 sits in the eyepiece field with NGC4596. Both are bright. I don't want to give away what I find so unusual about this pair of galaxies. Have a look at a DSS image. I will say that I love their setting, with three bright stars framing them just to their east. Note also IC3467 north of NGC4608. This is listed as Abell 1586. I wonder how many members there are to this cluster. I could see three.

NGC4612 is one of those targets that, if in an empty field, would have little appeal. I like it due to its setting in a string of stars. In fact, the star pattern is so distinctive that when I saw it, I would have been able to pick out a galaxy at the limit of visibility. Fortunately, this galaxy is plenty bright, and it shares the field with NGC4623.

NGC4760 again provides views of a pretty galaxy field (3 in one field) mixed in with a interesting star field. At the W end of the field sits NGC4742, a bright galaxy close to a the nice doulbe star WDS 8684 (mags 6.5 and 9.3). NGC4760 is in the middle of the field and is part of a notable curved chain of stas running predominantly N/S. NGC4781 completes the eastern end of this line of galaxies, sitting just SW of a bright star that combined with WDS 8684 brackets the galaxies like bookends. The star is also part of a notable "L" shape of stars that trails away to the E. NGC4790 is also nearby, and combined with the other three galaxies forms a larger "L" mimicking the shape of the stars.

I'll mention NGC4929 only because you will notice NGC4921 WSW in the field, and as you move that direction you'll find Abell 1656 and several bright galaxies. This is an easy location to find in Coma Berenices... I used Arcturus to draw a line through mag 2.6 Murphid and to SAO100439 which is the S end of Coma B's stick figure (this is where M53 and NGC 5053 are located), then turned N almost 10 degrees to the double star (Beta Comae Berenices) at that end of Coma. The galaxies are just W of this double.

The star Gamma Hydrae forms an easy to find right angle with Spica and the southern stars of Corvus. Just about 5 degrees N is mag 4.7 GSC 6116:1517, providing a jumping off point to NGC5037. This is a wonderful field to observe. Several galaxies immediately jump out, but NGCs 5054, 5047 and 5044 dominate the field. My target was 5037, which is WSW of 5047, and NGC5035 to the NNW of 5037 completes a nice rectangle of galaxies. To the W of 5035 is NGC5030, just off one of the brightest field stars. Looking a bit more carefully, you can also pick out NGCs 5049 and 5046 E and NE of 5044.

The next two object that were interesting were NGC5447 and NGC5462, both emission knots in M101. Using field stars as references, it was very easy to pick out these targets. I can understand how they could come to have their own NGC numbers, as both look like they could be small galaxies in front or behind the huge sprial. M101 was magnificent. It appeared to fill a good half of the field of view and showed nice, but subtle, spiral shape extending far from the core. The more I looked, it seemed the more I saw. This was a nice target on which to slow down and enjoy the view of a real showpiece. For detail, I think only M51 surpasses and a small handful of other galaxies surpass this one.

Down low in Virgo toward Libra are the stars 107-Virginis and Syma (Iota or 99-Virginis). These two point west a short distance to NGC5426 and NGC5427, a very close pair of spiral galaxies that, in DSS images, appear to be interacting. It is an easy location to land on.... there are some good bright stars in the field, but hardly necessary, as the galaxies are readily apparent.

I finished off the night with a few more targets, the moon had risen, and the sky was brightening. I was very pleased with how everything had turned out.

I packed up and sat back for a while. The soft glow of moonlight on the tops of the clouds hugging the mountain landscape to the south was almost surreal. Think of the tranquil feeling evoked by the paintings of Maxfield Parish and you can get a flavor for what the scene appeared like. The sky was still dark, the 3rd quarter moon hung low in the east over the mountains of fog.

I looked up at the sky for a while. I thought about the ancients who looked at the same sky, wondering what was out there, attributing to their gods shapes that humanized the great mysteries of night.

Spring was overhead, announced by Arcturus and Spica. I thought about the tale of the poor murdered farmer Icarius, his Virgin daughter Erigone and their Little Dog who took their lives in grief. I had spent a good part of the night hunting jewels among the stars that remembers the girl. I looked west for her Little Dog, but could not see it any more.

I drove down the mountain, through the thick fog, and emerged below and under it where the sky disappeared into a pleasant memory.

Monday, April 1, 2002

When Galaxies Disappear

14.5" f/5.6
La Caja de Los Gatos Observatory
37:13:36N 121:58:25W
04/01/02 21:30 to 23:00 PST

I was outside again tonight, set up with the 14.5" Dob, cozy and so close to home in my own backyard. About 9:30 p.m. the sky seemed unusually bright, especially to the northeast toward San Jose. I decided to try for more targets on the Herschel lists, and pointed the scope toward the position of NGC4258 (M106), a big and bright galaxy in Canes Venatici, from where I would move to my target, NGC4248.

I was able to quickly identify a nearby star field. Less than a degree to M106's WSW is a nice bright group of stars in a curved chain, four of them, two bright then two dimmer, with another dimmer and bright pair "cupped" closely on the acute side of the curve... a very good landmark to start from. But after repeated tries, M106 was at best barely there... just a small smudge of light where a large galaxy should be.

Looking up at Virgo I pointed the scope at Markarian's Chain, since it was in the darker southern sky. This too was disappointing. I could see M84 and M86, but wasn't sure I was actually on the Chain until NGC4438 and NGC4435, aka "The Eyes" winked at me ever so feebly.

It was not a night for faint fuzzies. Tonight, the galaxies had disappeared.

So, what does one do in such situations? Throw in the towel and watch TV? No!

My first good target of the night was 2 Canum Venaticorum. This double is located almost 3 1/2 degrees west of Chara (which was barely visible), the dimmer star that along with Cor Caroli make the main line of the constellation. The golden primary shines at mag 5.9 and the companion, 115" away at PA 260 at mag 8.2, has a silvery tone. Easily split with the 20 Nagler (103x). A nice chain of six stars arc around the northern side of this pair.

The next target was the well known double Alpha Canum Venaticorum (Cor Caroli). This double might be the Alpha of doubles! The primary is searing white, brilliant white at mag 2.9. Its companion is 200" away at PA 228, shining golden at mag 5.4. This double is relatively close, just 110 light years distant, compared to the prior target's 834 light years. The initial view of Cor Caroli made me immediately think of fireworks... or a sparkler, after seeing 2 CVn. This target too was very easily split at 103x.

The list of doubles I was using comes from the Saguaro Astronomy Club's website at

There is also a list of the best colored double stars at the site.

Since Bootes was in decent position I went after 30 (Zeta) Bootis. I've certainly looked at doubles in Bootes before, but I doubt I'd tried this one. Both components are white. The pair is very tight, at or under (?) 1" and virtually equal magnitude at 3.8. I thought the star looked "fuzzy" at 103x but upon increasing the magnification to 172x I realized the seeing had just been a bit unsteady before... there was no hint of a split at this higher power. I nearly doubled the magnification and again, no split. Finally, I put in a 3.8mm and at 542x I saw two bright dots floating in a shimmering haze with a PA of 307. The seeing was not perfect, but good enough to split this tough star. Zeta Bootis is 180 light years distant.

37 Bootis is another favorite, better known at Epsilon Bootis, or Izar. It is an easy naked eye star at magnitude 2.7. I had left in the 12mm Nagler, and at 172x Izar easily split with a PA of 321. The primary was bright white and the companion a very nice coppery gold at mag 5.1. Izar is 209 light years distant.

Gamma (41) Leonis, or Algieba is also a regular stop for those who enjoy doubles. These stars are a pair of brilliant golden suns at mag 2.5 and 3.5. I wonder if this is really a triple, with a third component spectroscopic, and much dimmer at mag 9.3? Does anyone know? When I look at TheSky as a reference it indicated WDS 7724 is a triple. Whatever it is, this is a magnificent pair (or more), easily separated at 172x.

I had viewed Gamma Leonis through tree branches, and while I could still see it as a pair, the obstruction did not help. So I moved next to Leo's hind quarters.

88 Leonis is easy to find in bright skies even though its primary is only mag 6.4. This double is located almost on the line between Denebola and Cheritan, two of the three "triangle" stars making up Leo's back end. At 146" separation it is a very easy split. The primary is a nice gold, but the companion, described as blue, seemed rather indistinct to me. The pair have a PA of 318 and distance of 75 light year, making it a relative neighbor of ours.

My final stop was another sub-naked-eye target (in tonight's sky), 90 Leonis, nearly halfway between Denobola and Zosma (I like that name!), again, in Leo's hind-quarters. This pair are both white and mag 5.9 and mag 8.8. Their PA is 208 and separation only 30". It was a good split at 172x. It was astonishing to think of the difference in distance between 88 Leonis and 90, with the latter coming in at 1988 light years.

Funny, how 2000 light years seems so far, when compared to the other stars I'd seen tonight, and even though I am usually looking at much more distant galaxies. Somehow, tonight, the distance to 90 Leonis seemed lonely. I closed up the scope for the night and went in, leaving 90 Leonis outside, a lonely 2000 light years from home.

It turned out to be an enjoyable evening after all, even though the galaxies had disappeared.