Saturday, September 18, 2004

Hey Diddle Diddle, A Short Night at Fiddle(town...)

I had a great weekend.

As anyone that watches the sky knows, Saturday looked fairly dismal for amateur astronomy purposes. So, after seeing the Clear Sky Clocks predicted a short window of "Yes" between blocks of solid white, a friend and I decided to combine a few other activities with an attempt to do some astronomy. We had actually looked at places like Point Reyes - all the campgrounds were full inside the park and nearby - or up to Calavares Big Trees State Park up highway 4 outside of Angels Camp - but it was full too. So, it was decided that the best option would be to hit the road for Fiddletown, just outside Plymouth (Pokerville), on highway 49 just north of better know Sutter Creek and Jackson.

The drive was easy, a real surprise - almost no traffic - and soon we were heading up into the wild country rising east of the central valley. It is a beautiful area - and made even more spectacular by the reading out loud of "Rush To Riches" - an excellent read of California's history from the mythical times of native Queen Califia up through the end of the "Free For All" of California's incredible Gold Rush. If you are unfamiliar with this history, it is fascinating, surprising, and a great way to feel more connected with the various places we all go throughout the state as amateur astronomers.

After a short visit to the Pokerville Market to fill my thermos with coffee, we drove toward Fiddletown, but turned toward the valley just north - the Shenandoah Valley - home to dozens of Amador County's great wineries. I prefer the friendly and casual nature, beautiful setting, friendly and free tastings offered there, compared to the commercial feeling I get visiting the Napa Valley. Our stops included Spinetta and Vino Noceto. Spinetta had a great Black Muscat and Frost Wine - but we purchased a Heritage Red and a Barbera. Noceto was fun for the Doggie Diner "head" outside - those of you have been in the San Francisco area for a long time remember these fun canines.

After the tasting, we headed over a backroad toward Fiddletown, just a few miles away as the crow flies. This day happened to be the Fiddletown "Fiddle Jam" - just a lucky quirk that we were there on the right day. We caught the last hour of the event - with what I take to be mostly local talent on a stage set up in the middle of Fiddletown Road - causing a detour around the "downtown" area of this little hamlet. There were all sorts of crafts, food, colorful locals to people-watch at, and of course music. It was a fun diversion.

Following that was a 10 minute ride toward Volcano, and our observing site.

As expected, we were alone there. The sky was clouded over, and nobody was within earshot other than neighbor Paula's Great Dane and Rottweiler. The Dane always greets us - barking and growling - but too afraid of anyone to come near. The only other signs of life were the ants, which seemed to be totally unaware of the "ant stakes" sitting atop their ant-holes.

I set up the 18" Obsession and 10" CPT - crawled into the truck to stay warm, and read more Gold Rush while waiting for sunset. A quick taco dinner cooked on a camp stove and bottle of wine took out the day, and under still cloudy skies it was back into the truck to stay warm and read.

Around 9 o'clock or so, I stuck my head out a door and saw a clear sky. Out we went, to the telescopes. Seeing was okay, but did not hold up well at high power - this was a night for low and medium power eyepieces. A lot of eye candy was devoured - tasty stuff - then I opened up the Night Sky Observers Guide to Delphinus. I had left my computer packed and decided to play with Sky Atlas 2000 and the Uranometria - a paper night. I tore through several objects in Del, the one that eluded me (or so I think) was Abell 72 (PK59-18.1) - I thought I saw a glow around the brighter of two stars - but no - the image shows it off the star. Negative sighting. :-( I did have fun though tracking down several small dim galaxies well off the main body of the Dolphin.

After a few hours bands of clouds began drifting through - and driving us back into the truck for more local wine and Gold Rush history.

By midnight we were beat, and it wasn't until about 2:30 a.m. that I awoke to find the sky perfectly clear again. When I woke next, the sky was laden with heavy clouds that forced me quickly out of the truck to start packing the telescopes.

We soon hit the road, with no destination in mind, which is a fun way to be. At the intersection of 49 and Fiddletown Road, I decided on south, through Amador City, Drytown, then Sutter Creek and into Jackson. The clouds had cut loose and we were in the midst of the first good rain squall of the season. It was nice, and my truck certainly looked better after the free wash. We ducked into a local coffee shop - the double latte and hot chocolate were great as we read more from the book and chatted with a large bald guy in a Harley Davidson shirt and his woman friend. Nice town, relaxed. We sat on the couch for some time, sipping, enjoying. Off then to a local bookstore - hundreds of thousands of used books (or so they'd have you believe). Then headed out again... for points further south on 49.

In San Andreas I saw a sign I knew to expect - California Cavern at Cave City - a geologically fascinating place discovered by 49ers during the gold rush. Nine miles later we were passing the "Corndog Turnpike" (there's a sign for it, really), and down the road to the attraction. It was 50 degrees F outside, as we entered the cavern's warmer constant temperature of 53 degrees. Hard hats on, we witnessed other people crawling into and out of small holes in the formations leading to hidden rooms. The flowstone, soda-straws, stalagmites, stalagtites, curtains and cave bacon were great. If you want to find real dark, go into one of these places sometime and turn out the lights - but don't lose your candle of flashlight. This is where "black" is black!

An hour later, we emerged into the clouded skies again, drizzle falling on us as we headed to the truck for the ride back home. Gold Country is a true beauty spot in this amazing state. The history, the golden yellow late season grasses with the first rains upon them, the rusty colored earth in the hills and old buildings along the curving highway. I couldn't think of a better place to spend a day or so - away from the crowds and noise of the bay area.

Observing is fun, and this was a good trip. Observing combined with other memorable activities is even better. I look forward to more such adventures...

Saturday, September 11, 2004

Fremont Peak on 9/11

A few of us were talking about the anniversary of 9/11 up at the Peak. Hard to believe how time flies. Time does. It had been over a year since I'd been to Fremont Peak - and this I guess was good as for my annual pilgrimage. It is the first "dark sky" location I had observed from, and where I made the great majority of my long term astronomy friends. It did feel good to be back, as it always does. The SW lot was picturesque as always - fog covering the coastal plain - the Moss Landing power plant smokestack heat causing the fog to billow up into a tower. Rolling hills at my feet disappearing into the mist below - and the sun setting over the cloud-covered horizon. Golden and reddish tones. Beautiful sight. Those of us present stopped to watch for a green flash - the conditions were prime for it. There was no "flash" but we did see a green point! Hey... better than nothing.

Conditions were quite good all night. There was no need for a jacket - calm breeze but nothing bothersome, and the fog came and went, and came again. Seeing was very good - and in some 18" scopes we were playing around with mid mag 15 galaxies. A 20" tracking scope had the Blue Snowball at over 1000X - very steady - and in moments the seeing would settle to dead still at that magnification - the detail in the bright outer shell was spectacular - reminded me of a brighter version of the tendrils possible to see looking at The Crab on a great night in a big scope.

I was looking at some "Eye Candy" and working on the Miles Paul Atlas of Galaxy Trios.

The first object was NGC 6712 - a large globular in Scutum. It was bright - but not like M13 or M22 bright - no problem seeing it though. It was not as dense as the famous globs, but it was a rich globular. I was really surprised by the size.

Next object was a small planetary in Aquila - NGC 6751. I've looked at this one many times - it is in an easy to locate position - at the tail of Aquila - off the two brightest stars. It is small, rather dim (although it shows without a filter) and annular.

NGC 7463 is the brightest and largest member of a nice galaxy trio off Markab in Pegasus. An 8th magnitude star sits close by WSW of elongated galaxy - which is oriented E-W. NGC 7465 is smaller and dimmer to the ESE of 7463. At higher power, little NGC 7464 pops out perpendicular to 7463 on its south side toward the eastern end. All the galaxies have stellar cores. This is a fun trio.

Another nice trio is NGC 4799, NGC 7501 and NGC 7503. All are dim but easy enough. There are a pair of MCG galaxies along with the three brighter NGC's - which are small and difficult to pull out.

We looked at NGC 7635 - The Bubble Nebula. Part of it surrounds a bright star - it is large and sweeps around in an arc - like a big spiral galaxy. The nebula is brighter to the W of the star, sweeps N then quickly dives E and S in a big "arm". Very nice object.

NGC 7532, NGC 7534 and NGC 7530 is an easy trio. All have similar surface brightness - and are in a line. Two are close together with the third one separated out in a way that they'd be evenly spaced if there were four galaxies in a line. Instead, where the "other" galaxy would go there is a star outside the line to the S. The brightest galaxy (to the S) has a NE/SW sweep, the furthest one to the N has a dim star close by to the S. The next closest one has a bright core.

The last ones I put in my notes were NGC 7562, NGC 7557 and NGC 7562A. Only 7562A was difficult - a small slash of light that was a sometimes averted vision object.

If you are using a 15" or larger Newtonian, I would recommend the Atlas of Galaxy Trios. It is fun to go from an "Eye Candy" type object - where there's something fun and brighter to observe, to a challenging target that takes some patience and effort, and back.

When I woke this morning at the Peak - a good number of us remained. Three of us went to San Juan Bautista and enjoyed a very filling buffet breakfast at Dona Esther's, then toured the nearby Mission San Juan Bautista before driving home.

Next month - CalStar...

Sunday, September 5, 2004

Short Night at IHOP II

I was at loose ends for things to do on Sunday, and saw some traffic come across the TAC-SAC mailing list.... mention of terrific Clear Sky Clocks and people heading to Ice House Observing Plateau II. I had gone to Henry Coe the night before but had to leave very early, and left the truck packed up. So, it was an easy get away.

I arrived at Jane Smith's and we piled my equipment in her truck, headed out to In And Out, and then on the road toward Placerville.

It is a nice drive. Once through El Dorado Hills and Cameron Park, the mountains start up. Pine trees, gently curving roads and blue skies make it enjoyable. The road up to Ice House is well maintained and offers sweeping views. This was my first trip there, and I found the observing site to be large, offer good horizons, but rocky (and full of shotgun shells).

We were joined by Shneor Sherman, Alvin Huey and, around dark, a couple named Terry and Manny pulled in.

The seeing was very steady except low to the horizons. Transparency was also quite good. I had left much of my setup in my truck back at Jane's, since I planned to observe the same objects she did. I had my 18" Obsession and used the 20, 12 and 7 Naglers throughout the night. I had brought my Atlas of Galaxy Trios - the one Miles Paul compiled. Jane had her Eye Candy list. We alternated between the two. But first, Jane talked about the globular cluster NGC 6380 in Scorpius. Apparently, Steve Gottlieb had mentioned it as a real toughie. So, in the darkening sky we began our night's observing on this SGNB*. With my laptop running The Sky I soon found myself on the right star field. A small inverted "L" of stars provided a pointed, along its short leg, toward the location. A chain of four stars provided a boundary - kind of a visual backstop that told me "don't go past this" - and the middle two stars should somewhat bracket the globular. The Sky makes it look like a big glob, but I think it is not. For quite some time, as I waited for the sky to really darken, and hoping the target would not get too low, I could not see it. I was using my 7 Nagler which gave 294X. Then, after a while, I began detecting a small slightly oblate glow - not exactly where The Sky had the center of the object plotted, close, but slightly to the north. I had trouble at times determining if there was a star involved or not, and the glow came and went - all with averted vision.

We next went for some Eye Candy.

NGC 129 in Cassiopeia is a huge open cluster. It was astonishing to trace out the extent - filled most of the field of the 20 Nagler. What a great cluster and in such an easy position.

NGC 185 and nearby NGC 147 sit between M31 and the bottom star of the right hand "V" (trailing) legs of Cassiopeia. NGC 185 is large and round, diffusing out evenly. It is easy to find, too, as there are three naked eye stars it sits near. NGC 147 at fist glance looks a lot like NGC 185, but it is smaller, dimmer and elongated. This nice bright pair are two satellite galaxies of M31. I always like them, since they seem far off from their host galaxy - gives me a feeling of the distances. We also jumped over the border, past the three bright guide stars, to NGC 278, a smaller bright spiral galaxy which, at high power, showed some good spiral structure. Nice group.

NGC 1501 was a nice view too. Large planetary with dark mottling in Camelopardalis. I used the Lumicon UHC.

Observed the Crescent Nebula - NGC 6888. It too was very good, but this time I used the OIII filter. Lots of good detail in the fat end of the Crescent.

There were some "tourists" that stopped by too. Man, wife, couple of teenagers. They were all interested, but did not have enough warm clothing. I showed the daughter M15, NGC 7789 and NGC 7331. She seemed very interested and asked questions.

Jane and I also snagged a couple galaxy trios from the MiIes Paul atlas.

NGCs 6927, 6928 and 6930 were fun. There is a nice double star that sits SE of the dim and elongated galaxy NGC 6930, with brighter and larger NGC 6928 to its NNW. NGC 6927 seemed more difficult to me than NGC 6927A... but both had to "appear" from the background after some waiting and searching around.

All the above galaxies were in Delphinus, as were NGC 6956 and UGCs 11620 and 11623. I know I saw these, but by then I was tired, the moon was about to come up, and I didn't write anything down other than the numbers as "seen"...

The ride back was easy - good highway is nice.

* Dillonism - Steve Gottlieb Nut Buster