Saturday, December 27, 2003

End of 2003 Observing at Coe

I didn't have much "get up" yesterday afternoon when Richard Navarette's e-mail arrived asking if I wanted to head to Coe for a short night of observing. I'd spent the day cleaning the pool, working on the computer, thinking about how cold it had been, and looking forward to watching the Sharks game on TV while staying warm at home. After a bit of back and forth by e-mail, we decided on meeting around 8 PM and observing until midnight. The clear sky clocks showed no cloud cover, excellent seeing and good transparency until 11 PM. The moon would be up until 10, but it was in the west, and how much light can a two day moon throw anyway (answer is - a lot).

So, with my 10" CPT, collapsed base, eyepiece case, big box of cold weather clothes and observing chair comfortably stowed in the back seat of my car, I headed out just after 7. I felt the car window driving down 85, it certainly was cold outside. I had already put on several layers - old skinny thermals, new REI expedition weight longies over them, jeans, heavy t-shirt, Polartec top and bottoms. At least I would not be cold stepping out of the car. The traffic was non-existent on this post-Christmas Saturday night. I did have trouble staying out of everyone's way on the drive - I think 85 mph must be the going speed and my old MBZ would need a stiff tailwind to do more than that.

Turned off on E. Dunne and headed up. Different drive in the dark - just the center line of the two lane road, moonlight reflecting off the lake, twists and turns, but before I knew it I was crossing the cattle guard before the overflow lot.

The gate was open and a red flashlight greeted me, guiding me in. Stepped out and said hi to Richard. He had his 10" Hardin Dob set up and had already logged an object or two. The sky looked great, the moon way too bright, and... it did not feel cold at all. It felt great to get out.

There were three other observers at Coe. One, who owns a C11, came over and said hello, just as I was hunting down my first object. The C11 was having a mechanical problem - the focuser was not working properly. His buddy came by too. I think they left early due to the scope problem. Another observer came over a bit later - my guess is it was Tony Hurtado - who posted an OI for Coe and hoped to have some company.

Soon Richard and I were going through his list of Herschel 400-II objects. We stuck mostly to the brighter stuff, some of which was a good challenge as conditions deteriorated around 10 PM limiting the transparency. This was an hour earlier than the clear sky clock predicted... that's not bad.

I was wearing a jacket, Soviet Ushanka hat, and a neck gator, but all night I was in my tennis shoes and cotton socks. Late at night my feet became cold - but that was when we were standing around talking. Part of the fun is getting together with friends and catching up on what's new in our lives. We were lucky too, that the sky cooperated as long as it did. By the time the moon set high thin clouds were well on their way in from the west. By midnight we were looking for clear patches overhead.

The drive home was easy, I was good and did not put my frozen feet on Pat when I got into bed. When I woke at 7 this morning and went outside to get the newspaper, everything was covered in a layer of frost and ice. I wonder how cold it was last night at Coe? Just shows that with proper preparation even cold temps are okay for observing. I've been out observing several times over the past month or so... many cold nights... but they have all been very satisfying. I could do with more like them.

There was essentially no dew at Coe. And no wind. Very, very nice night.

Here are my observations... notes (in quotes) are Richard's:

We began in Eridanus with NGC 1600, mag 10.9 with SB 12.4. "Small, fairly bright, diffuse. Wagner hallucinated 1601 and 1603." I found these just west of Rigel, hopping off Mu and Nu Eridani - both just about mag 4. Easy hop. Funny part of Richard's comments is, I did see the "hallucinated" galaxies (mags 13.8 and 13.8, SB 11.9 and 12.7), and I drew their positions and a few other galaxies I thought I saw at 74x (20 Nagler) and then 121x (12 Nagler). When I look on The Sky today, the other galaxies *are* there... NGC 1606 and NGC 1604 (mags 13.5 and 15.1, SB 13.2 and 13). :-)

We moved next to NGC 1637, a spiral galaxy at mag 10.8 with SB 13.5 - "Medium sized diffuse glow. Appeared a bit elongated." This face on spiral is even easier to locate then 1600, as it is just east of the midpoint between Mu and Nu Eridani.

NGC 1700 was next, an elongated galaxy at mag 11.2 with SB of 13.3. This one was a bit trickier to find. It was between Beta Eridani - the bright star northwest of Rigel - and mag 4.4 Omega Eridani. Richard helped me star hop to it. "Looked like a planetary. Very small stellar core. 1699 also showed in field, but was in and out." Indeed it did look like a planetary - as if it has a bright pinpoint central star and evenly diffuse disk.

Here is Richard's note on NGC 1699 "In the field with NGC 1700. This was at the ragged edge in a 10" scope and could not be held with averted vision." It took a little work, but I was able to detect is off center and slightly off line between two dim stars running NE/SW.

NGC 1779 is "very small and diffuse. Just off a chain of three stars." It shines at mag 12.1 with SB of 13.1. It is a straight-forward star hop of Rigel to mag 4.2 Lambda Eridani, the beginning of a chain of three stars that diminish in magnitude... to a few distinct asterisms, which take you to the little galaxy. It was quite dim, but there.

I think about this time the clouds began moving in from the west, and Richard was combing through his target list for things still in the dark and clear parts of the sky, mostly to the east from zenith.

NGC 2196 in Lepus was another object that tormented me. Richard has developed the ability to hop star to star across large areas with an constellation, whereas I more often point directly at where I think the object should be. Richard's method worked best on this one. He actually talked me through his hop, he at his 10" and me looking in my 10" Dob. It got me there. This galaxy is "Between two mag 10 stars. A round smudge" and is mag 11 but its SB is 12.8.

Sometime around this point in the evening I pointed my Dob at Saturn. The seeing was so good, there were numerous subtle bands on the planet along with its dark polar cap. The polar cap seemed to be incising the inner edge of the ring - a nice black razor thin line creating a demarcation line. The ring itself was gorgeous, Cassini was black and crisp, and the gray outer ring appeared to have a dim line dividing it into two rings. Moons? I think Richard said there were five or six. Guess I should have looked at the Trapezium then too. I ended up watching it at 413x (7 Nagler with 2x Big Barlow)... very steady and sharp view.

Richard tried next for Thor's Helmet (NGC 2359 - Canis Major). The sky was getting cruddy, and I cruised around the area running into a few nice open clusters. I shot up to M46, M47 and the various open clusters that inhabit that area, very pleasing views - the planetary in M46 was easy without a filter. Richard wrote about Thor's Helmet. "Large diffuse glow. Needed Ultrablock filter. Sky was a bit bright." I didn't think it was much of a view.

The open cluster NGC 2369 in Canis Major was one of those easy to overlook opens. But it still had some character. It was necessary to confirm its position with star patterns on Richard's computer. "Triangular shape. Perhaps a dozen stars in a dim haze of nebulosity." I'd call it more or less a knot of stars - we thought there were maybe six bright ones, another six dimmer ones, then the haze.

We were now getting on toward midnight, our planned departure time, but there were a few more objects in good position. We continued in Lepus...

NGC 1832 is a spiral galaxy mag 11.3 and SB 12.8. It is located conveniently just off mag 4.2 Mu Leporis - an easy naked eye star that forms the front top corner of the constellation. It was a fairly obvious galaxy just off one of the brighter stars in the field. Richard says "Just off a chain of three stars. Looks a bit like a comet!"

We continued in Lepus with NGC 2139 (mag 11.6, SB 13.3). Richard again was successful in locating it, and had to help me. Maybe I was getting tired, or just not concentrating on what I was doing. But with Richard's help I was looking at some obvious landmarks (a bright star leading to a parallelogram of stars, then a chain of five stars with a nice double in the center) which helped me see the galaxy. Richard wrote "Between a mag 11.7 and a mag 9.7 star. Dim and diffuse." On a better night it would have been easier to hop to, but the sky was really getting nasty. Richard used multiple bright stars to get to it, my method was not so successful.

The last object was in Lynx. NGC 2493 is a round galaxy at mag 12 and SB 13. This one was probably my favorite - I think it was the most difficult observation - very faint, really barely there. Averted vision and a bracketing by an arc of stars helped bring it out. In a good dark sky with more aperture there'd be three galaxies lined up here, but tonight was only the brightest of the trio. This one is located in a bright star poor area between the front upper leg of Ursa Major and Gemini. I used mag 4.25 31 Lynx and Castor to figure out where to point the scope. A couple notable pair of chains of bright stars running parallel mostly E/W, combined with a bright pair in the "arc" to their north... and the galaxy was there.

Packing up took under five minutes. It is one of the great things about a "small" scope.

Looking at the weather for the coming week, I'm glad Richard's good attitude about going out for a few hours got me to get out too. I had a great time. Got more observing done that I had on several other recent astro trips.

I also have to repeat what I've said for years.... especially in the winter and spring, when there's an opportunity to go, go. They can be few and far between. Based on the weather forecasts, this may have been the last of my observing sessions for 2003. Another year in the books... Here's hoping for a great 2004 for us all.