Friday, November 29, 2002

Friday after Thanksgiving

I began the day driving east, over the Altamont thinking of Hooterville, but looking at the soupy skies had me wondering if this trip to Hwy 49 was going to be worth it. I'd planned on two nights, but reports by like Two-Dob Bob's suggested skies south of Eureka would prove futile. So at Hwy 5 I decided to turn away from the southern goldfields and head north, where skies might be friendlier. I stopped in on friends in Sacramento, an ex-banker friend that I had not seen in several years. He greeted me as I pulled into his rural driveway in Rio Linda. A 2 acre spread, I had once set up my old 10" Dob out past the sheep paddock, only to discover how bright the skies of Sacramento, in the bottom of the Central Valley's soup bowl could be. This day I was going to visit, watch the skies, and check plans of TAC-SAC observers via the Internet.

While skies were not overly encouraging I finally decided it was only an hour to Blue Canyon, and there had been some discussion on TAC-SAC by a few observers of BC or Fiddletown - so I posted from my Yahoo account that I was on my way, hoping to see some of the gang.

I always enjoy the drive. Names from the gold era abound along Hwy 80 - Gold Run, Dutch Flat, Auburn, Nevada City - combining with the beauty of the pine covered foothills as I climbed to the little airport at 5000 feet elevation. I found the gate dummy locked upon arrival, and just as I was putting the chain back in position Marsha Robinson pulled up. We parked on the eastern fringe of the tarmac, noting an older black truck parked outside the SVAS observatory. Bud Bafia soon emerged. Bud is one of the SVAS board of directors - approaching us asking if we were observatory members. Well - - no - - but we were there as guests of SVAS members who we expected to be arriving later. In particular, Randy Muller. This seemed to appease Bud, who returned to working on the robotic Meade 12" LX-200 in the observatory.

Marsha and I set up, with watching for other arrivals. Tony Franco, a TAC transplant to Rocklin arrived on foot. He had parked his car outside the gate, thinking it was locked. Tony had been to CalStar and we talked a bit about Fremont Peak, Coe, and SJAA. He was contemplating joining SVAS to have access to BC, but learned that use of the site is limited to once per month for SVAS members. Ironically, being there as an SVAS member places observers under the rules of the SVAS permit - once a month access only - as part of the club's dark sky observing night. But, being there *not* as an SVAS member keeps one from falling under the restrictive permit. Tony did not bring a scope, and soon left.

Another observer showed up shortly. Brian and a 22" StarMaster. As Brian and I talked, I found he too was at CalStar, camping one night near the TAC-SAC gang. I suppose one night was enough near Ster, Muller and Smith! Turns out Brian was a wonderkind - an SJAA board member at age 15 back in the 80's. I was astonished. Brian received his StarMaster only four months ago - and had been out of astronomy almost 15 years - typical reasons - babes and brew - but now was reacquainting himself with the hobby. As a teen, he had a 17.5" home-built Dob - if I heard him correctly, he'd ground the mirror with Earl Watt - I'd sure like to see that mirror!

Well, nobody else showed up. Brian, Marsha and I were the only observers, with occasional visits when Bud would make a foray from the observatory. But we were rewarded with some fine observing for almost six hours. While far from perfect - we had bands of cloud coming through and at times either the north half or south half of the sky was poor - and the seeing ranged from reasonable to ugly - the transparency was quite good - allowing decent deep sky observing. Just as a note - Saturn and the Trapezium were pretty bad even at 100x.

I didn't really have an observing plan for the night. I thought at first of yoinking out the Night Sky Observers Guide and working my way through a couple constellations. But then, reaching into my book box, I found my file with S&T deep sky articles I'd culled from the past 10 years. I grabbed a handful of November and December - and was off and running.

FWIW - the temps were not bad. I had on my thermals and several layers - but never actually got cold. I doubt the temps were below 40 degrees - but I think I chose the right night - as snow was forecast for Sunday morning.

My first object was globular cluster G1 in Andromeda. My guide was a rather poor rendition in the 1995 S&T - Celestial Calendar section by Alan MacRobert - very few stars on the wide-field (2.5 degree) chart - but a reasonable blow up of the area snowing the star field. I ended up using The Sky on my computer to determine the position. I recently received a 7mm Nagler and had not used it. This new eyepiece saw first light in my 18" Dob on an extra-galactic globular! The object was obviously non-stellar, and seemed to have brighter portions to the SSW and NNE - quite a find - a first for me. Makes me realize just what a great bunch of observers we have on TAC, when David Kingsley (and Gottlieb) talk about observing gobs of these objects in M31, and Albert Highe scours the Perseus Supercluster logging hundreds of galaxies. What a crew!

The next S&T article I pulled out is the November 1999 James Mullaney article "Celestial Spectacular in Cepheus"... a revisit for me to three objects. I began with Struve 2816 - a beautiful triple star system - a yellow-gold primary set between two steely blue components - like a yellow diamond set between two blue saphires. Well worth a look. The system is also embedded in IC 1396 - for me a tough object - it has always given me trouble. This night was no different. While I felt I could detect nebulosity using a 20 Nagler and UHC filter, it was far from obvious. The best I can describe it is as a granular feel all around Stuve 2816 - but with some brighter knots that looks more nebulous about 40' south and ... shoot... my notes say north, but I know that's not correct. Hints of nebulosity. I wonder if I need a widefield scope at low power to better see this object? And, I wonder if the granularity is really just dim stars throughout the area - that make up the open cluster Trumpler 37? Finally, the view of Herscehl's Garnet Star, Mu Cephei was quite nice, no doubt with the near-bloody color - deeply copper-red.

I spent most of the rest of the night hunting down galaxies from Richard Jakiel's December 99 S&T article "The NGC 1023 Group." Twelve objects are included, covering an area 10 by 5 degrees in Andromeda, Triangulum and Perseus. Here are my brief notes:

UGC 1807very dim and more between 2 stars than close to the bright one, as shown in The Sky.
NGC 891spectacular - easy dust lane bifurcating the entire length of the galaxy, but more pronounced at the center where the brighter core brackets it. In a 12 Nagler I guess the size at 18' x3' N/S.
NGC 925large irregular galaxy about 8' x 4' E/W with big bright core that diffuses out at the E&W ends. Possible bar with dim arms to the N&S.
NGC 949bright and elongated with a brighter core, small stellar central point. 4'x2' E/W with a bright star approx 3' to SW.
NGC 959looks at low power like a largish planetary nebula. Elongated 3'x2' NNW/SSE in 7mm. Perhaps more diffuse to N/S.
UGC 2023found 6 stars in a N/S line - but no galaxy. Question if this one is there.
UGC 2034No way! DNF.
IC 239faint glow reminded me of a reflection nebula. Situated in "elbow" of 2 pairs of stars offset, both running N/S. Approx 6' in size - spiral with slightly brighter core. Nice but dim.
NGC 1003a bright spindle galaxy 6'x2' E/W with brighter core that appears slightly offset to the main axis of the galaxy - EENE/WWSW.
NGC 1023another spectacular find. Very bright core with long tenuous arms to the E&W. This one is a must see. NGC 1023A - which the article describes as a small irregular galaxy possibly being tidally distrupted by 1023 - was visible using the 7 Nagler - a drawing by Jakiel accompanies the article and provides a very good idea of what the small galaxy looks like.
NGC 1058this was my last object for the night. It was roundish - but I noted it looked a bit like Pac-Man - with a darker area (opening?) to the SW.

I also enjoyed several views through Brian's 22" StarMaster. Of note was what he called the "Fetus Nebula" - the same object Jamie Dillon noted at the beginning of this writing. This is NGC 7008 - a truly wonderful planetary nebula with a pronounced brightening on one edge, and a bright star opposite it just about touching the nebula. This is a very good target - visible from locations such as Houge Park. Here's a teaser image:

About midnight the wind came up a bit, and the stars were quite bloated, so the three of us called it a night. Brian and Marsha headed down Hwy 80, with me being the last one heading down the hill. I quickly realized I would not make the three to four hour drive home - just too tired, and turned around going back to the airport where I spent the night.

Next morning the clouds we in. I drove to Sacramento - called Richard Navarrete to see what plans were - if others were heading out my way - but it was obvious to us both conditions had deteriorated to the point where a trip home was the best choice.

I slogged through the Fairfield - Vacaville backup and arrived home to a nice fire in the fireplace.

All in all, I am very glad I went.

Monday, November 18, 2002

Leonids from San Jose

I don't think this year's Leonids were forecast to be like last year, at least for us here on the west coast. With the bright moon, and our position relative to the peak of the shower, the best we were to hope for was some long bright streakers with little of the dimmer ones that comprised so much of last year's storm.

I went outside about 11:30 p.m., looked up at the scud around the moon, the streakiness in other parts of the sky, the lack of any but the brightest stars (Gemini was made up of about 4 stars) .... watched the sky while Jones was doing his doggie biz... saw nothing to get excited about and, went to bed.

Last year was awesome.