Saturday, September 24, 2005

CalStar Highlights

I had an excellent time at this year's CalStar. Conditions really couldn't have been much better. For those of you who were late arrivals, change your plans next year to be there all three nights - Thursday was the hands-down winner for observing conditions. I know a few "can't get enough" types arrived early, maybe their conditions were better, but about the only way I could imagine that being possible is if there were eyepiece bearers to swap my Naglers and maybe a regular flow of pizza being delivered on site!

Before getting into the specifics, I want to extend a general "great job done" to Rob Hawley, Mike Koop and the San Jose Astronomical Association. I can tell you all firsthand that the job of organizing CalStar is time consuming and carries some modest financial risk for the club - and we owe these people a debt of gratitude for their efforts.

So, the highlights....

Seeing the following people make the journey...

  • James Turley
  • Tom Osypowski and Nan
  • Jeff Gortatowksi
  • Paul Sterngold
  • Michelle Stone
  • John Bunyon

All folks who I don't get to see often enough.

Sampling good single malts with Steve Sergeant was a last night highlight.

Kevin scrounging for an air pump in the middle of the night.

His brother Kevin delivering Sharks tickets to me on site.

Heather trying to find a tough object in my 18, with the Quickfinder half a degree off!

Jane Smith wine tasting under her double canopy surrounded by friends.

Rashad reacting to the dust cloud!

Friday night's potluck at Uncle Dan's Country Kitchen.

The buzz of a hundred voices outside in the dark when I woke from an after dinner nap Friday night.

It was a great experience, shared among many friends.

As for observing, I spent much of my time in Lacerta, just going through a printed list of objects catalogued in the Saguaro Astronomy Club deepsky database. It was fun, starting with (now, try to control your excitement) stellar planetaries. Gortatowski and I worked these.... you'd find the star field and swap in an OIII filter to make the planetary stand out. Yes, it was fun. There were also a good number of galaxy groups we ran into. This, by the way, was all interspersed with visits from friends and sipping Mexican Coffee (which is why I think they were visiting!).

The best views of the trip though had to be between 4 and 5 a.m. Friday morning. Lacerta was setting, I was tired, so I decided to just look at some bright stuff. Orion was riding high, and I'd heard someone mention the Flame Nebula. I pulled out a new filter Dan McShane of DGM Optics sent me. I knew nothing about it, other than last year he'd sent me the VHT (very high transmission) filter he was manufacturing. Dan is a long time acquaintance. The VHT had been my favorite filter for the Veil and the bright summer nebulae. But I didn't even know what the new one (the NPB) was called, or what it did. The filter arrived via UPS as I was pulling out of the driveway to head to LSA. I looked at the Flame without the filter and thought it was obvious enough that we might have a good night for the Horsehead. On went the filter, but the Flame did not show much improvement. I thought "okay.... I'll experiment on different objects to see what this is good on"...

It did nothing for the Horsehead, but I do feel it was effective in showing IC 434. I only saw a dark area where the Horsehead should be, there was not detail - just a void.

I kept the NPB filter on and swung the scope to M42. When I looked in the eyepiece I was off by over a degree, but there, subtly in the field, I saw all sorts of thin veils of nebulosity with dark lanes and blobs. I wondered where I was... and noticed it getting brighter as the field drifted. I was on the extreme outskirts of the western edge of the nebula. I let it drift. What a sweet view.... slowly the entire nebula drifted through. The NPB filter brought out details I've never seen. This was certainly one of the greatest views I've had of M42. The view seemed to take on a three dimensional feel, especially around the eastern wing and behind the Trapezium to M43. I also found the Running Man to be spectacular that night - nebulosity surrounding the bright stars like the photos we love of the Merope Nebula in the Pleiades. What a great night!

Happy with the results on M42, I thought this was an OIII type filter, and immediately hopped over to NGC 2392, The Eskimo Nebula in Gemini.

Wow! What a view! I put in the 7 Nagler with an 1.25" PMB filter and had a truly Hubble-like view. Seriously, there was such wonderful detail and nice natural looking coloration I could hardly believe it. I started looking around to call friends over, and realized it was just me and a few snoozing imagers left standing (or, wobbling). I looked again. The planetary's central star was bright and sharp. A black donut surrounded it. Around the blackness was a searing green disk with sharply defined inner and outer edges. The bright ring seemed uneven in places, as if there were areas of filament and areas of void in it. At the outer edge of the bright ring began an almost spongy looking ring - or maybe I should call it "gausey" looking - it was definitely thinner and dimmer - but what got me was the amount of fine detail and that wonderful greenish glow. The view was close to this, really, but without the red - just a nice bright green inner ring and more muted green outer shell....

As far as I was concerned, the two views, M42 and the Eskimo, made it a great trip.

Oh, I finally did find out a bit about the filter - people at CalStar were having a good laugh when asking what it was called and what it did, and I couldn't answer. Here's some info:

FWIW, some of us began calling it the 3D filter. Not a bad name for it!

Again, thanks to Mike and Rob, and all who attended and made it so much fun....

Sunday, September 4, 2005

The Peak again

There was little in the way of fog along the coast when I got to the ridgeline on the drive up Fremont Peak, so it did not look like a particularly dark night ahead. At the southwest lot I found Rashad et up, and Navarrete's car - Richard must have taken a short hike. There were holiday weekend visitors - people up on the top of the Peak and looking at the telescopes in the parking lot. As much as I enjoy observing at Coe - it is clearly the best south bay site in a number of ways - the views and ambiance at the Peak are great.

The night before I had dinner near Chabot in the Montclair section of the Oakland Hills. I had planned to see Venus and Jupiter close together from up there. The house sits atop Skyline Road and has a beautiful elevated deck out back facing west - but the fog came across the bay and enveloped us before dark killing the opportunity. I wondered about Fremont Peak - was it above the fog, or in it? It was a late night, we were awake until nearly sunrise - so at the Peak the next day I was dragging, but did see the two planets after watching a great sunset. I hope Rashad will post a picture he took of the sun, distorted as it set into the low flat cloud cover at the horizon. Then I laid down in the back of the truck. Fortunately, I woke just as dark was really setting in. I expected I'd have a tired night.

At astronomical twilight my impression was that the Peak is a very bright place. The three of us had such recent memories the skies at Shingletown and Lassen. The Milky Way at Fremont Peak was a pale hint of what should be there. Some of the public came by and looked through the scopes. It was reminiscent of old times at the southwest lot, lots of memories there - but now, we'd become just a few old friends observing together - full circle. There were a couple familiar friendly faces over at the ranger's side, and one unidentified observer at Coulter Row. It was quiet, but that would certainly change during the night. Yes, Fremont Peak still lives up to its reputation - astronomy's Animal House - The Freak Peak. But, that would come, and go, later.

I was at a loss for observing targets. The NSOG was always handy, but I'd done that several times. There was Miles Paul's Atlas of Galaxy Trios. Done that too, at least what is visible in summer and fall skies. In my reference box - which weighs almost as much as the mirror box of my 18" Obsession, I had stowed away two volumes I'd printed out of the Saguaro Astronomy Club's "SAC Database" - enough objects to keep me busy for the next few years. Looking up, Navarrete reminded me that we'd just done the all Delphinus in the NSOG while at Lassen. I looked at it in the SAC Database - quite a few more objects in that small area. Being well placed for most of the night, I spent most of my time there.

The first two objects were planetaries. NGC 6891 is a mag 10.5 15" disc. With a 20 Nagler it as round and bright with an obvious central star. Bumping up the power with a 7 Nagler I could detect perhaps three shells, a bright inner one inside a thin outer shell, both round. I felt there was a very faint outer halo extended N/S. I tried a UHC filter which did not help much. The planetary can be found midway between Alpha Delphini and Altair. Three mag 6 stars in a one degree FOV provide a good marker just over a degree northeast.

NGC 6905 is a planetary known as the Blue Flash Nebula. It is larger than 6891, and a bit dimmer. Still, in the 20 Nagler it was an obvious and easy to find. It appeared pretty evenly bright and potentially annular at low power. The 7mm and UCH helped, giving hints of the central star and showing some inner mottling, but not strikingly so. There were hints of an extended outer envelope NW/SE. Steve Gottlieb is quoted describing this object and derivation of its name at:

The Blue Flash is in the middle of nowhere, but I found it using a line from Zeta Cygni to Gamma Aquilae. A chain of stars leads to it from mag 4.8 "29 Velpuculae".

At this point in the evening I had been hoping for a better night. Fremont Peak seemed extraordinarily bright, washed out gray with a big light dome over the Peak in the direction of Salinas. This is the glow behind the Peak we see all the way from Henry Coe State Park. But, conditions improved dramatically after some of the cities around the Peak went to bed...

I continued in Delphinus through a series of at times difficult galaxies. Most were non-descript and the real value in hunting them down was just that, the hunt.

NGC 6928 was large and elongated WNW/ESE with a bulging core. Mag 13.18, 2.9"x0.6".

NGC 6930 was in same field as NGC 6928. With a 7 Nagler it was very dim, elongated N/S - long and thin. Mag 13.62, 1.3"x0.5".

NGC 6972 was a small hazy round glow with a 12 Nagler, barely visible in the 20mm. Mag 14.15, 1.1"x0.5".

NGC 6954 was very small but noticeable in the 20mm. It showed no discernable shape. A 7mm showed it extended 3x2 WSE/ESE with a round core. Mag 14.1, 1.0"x0.6".

These observations are not all that exciting - but hang in there, there's good stuff to come.

Speaking of hanging in there, the Peak on this holiday weekend had the usual contingent of partiers and crazies. Joining us in the SW lot was a carful of local young women. They were courteous about their lights - no problem there, but their music sounded as if we were entering a rave. I'm quite sure they were partying in their vehicle, you'd hear them singing along with "ahas" and various other noises. A group of young men also showed up and at one point a guitar player who thinks he is Richie Havens began "performing" for us. It was hard to believe. And topping it off were the flashes of their cell phones taking photos! They finally broke up maybe around 1 a.m. - the guys left quietly, but the women tossed a bottle out of their vehicle and wished us luck looking for ET. Holiday weekends can get strange.

It was VERY nice when they were gone, and by the end of the night all there was, was quiet, a very good sky, and few people. It was then I felt at home, back up at the Peak.

NGC 7003 too was small and dim, showing a bit of shape in the 7mm - with a slight E/W elongation. Mag 13.76, 1.1"x0.8".

I had high hopes for NGC 6969. Its number just had a nice ring to it - I call them "sticky" numbers, ones that your brain holds onto. But in the 20mm it too was very dim and small. The 12mm showed a possible E/W elongation which in the 7mm showed a stellar core and WSE/ENE extension. Mag 14.89, 1.1"x 0.3".

While this was going on Rashad was looking at Abell 426, the Perseus Supercluster:

I took a peek and guessed that in one field of view he must have had 25 galaxies. I remember him counting into the 20's. It was an awesome sight, even under modest sky darkness. What we did have was excellent transparency and very good steadiness. Another view he had that was amazing was NGC 1023. His view was a mindblower. Big spread out extension in the spiral arms. I can't recall ever seeing them so well defined. Great mirror Buddy!

NGC 6927 and 6927A were fun, because they were so small and really opened the door to "dim" finds for the night. Perhaps my eyes had fully acclimated at this point. These two mini-puffs are Mag 15.5, 0.9"x0.4" and Mag 17, 0.3"x0.1".

NGC 6951 in the 7mm was ghostly and round, with no detail. Mag 11.69, 3.9"x3.2".

NGC 6944 was a faint haze in the 12mm, and had a very nice parallelogram asterism very close by. The 7mm showed a bright core and small round outer halo. Mag 14.79, 1.5"x0.6".

NGC 6956 was a round glow in the 20mm. There are some very good finder star asterisms near this object. Using the 12mm brought out UGCs 11620 and 11623. The 7mm brought out the stellar core in 6956. Mag 13.14, 1.9"x1.9", 14.60, 0.6"x0.4", 14.85, 1.0"x0.7" respectively.

NGC 7025 is a mag 13.71 galaxy in a nice star field that appeared like an open cluster, with the galaxy a good sized glow on its perimeter. The 7mm showed the galaxy as roundish with a stellar core. Direct vision object. It is 1.9"x1.3".

NGC 6955 was seen in the 12 but not the 20 - and averted vision only. Very faint and round. Mag 14.37, 1.4"x1.3".

NGC 6917 in the 7mm was elongated N/S with a star it its S edge. Mag 14.3, 1.6"x1.1".

NGC 6934 is a bright mag 9.75 globular cluster. It resolved well in the 20mm showing a bright core with may outliers. In the 7mm the cluster appeared extended more N/S and star poor along its eastern side.

I tried PK 63-12.1, and occasionally felt I could see a very faint nearly stellar object popping in and out.

One of the finds of the night for me was Abell 72. Using the 7mm and an OIII filter I detected, and times convincingly, a large roundish mottled glow with three stars in a right angle along its edges. This object was surprisingly large! There also appeared to be some mottling and dimming toward the NW. I was very surprised to see this at all from Fremont Peak. Mag 13.8, 2.1'. This image shows the dark section I saw:

While Rashad's view of the Perseus Supercluster was the view of the night for me, certainly running into the galaxy fields around NGC 543 (another "sticky" number - I love sequential numbers, like NGC 6543) in Cetus was the surprise of the night. Right away I counted 7 galaxies in the initial field. NGC 543 is not the brightest member. Two very bright galaxies anchor the group - these two are right on top of each other, giving one the impression of a dark lane bisecting one large galaxy. A chain extends SW from the pair - two more galaxies, the first a spiral tilted toward us, the second one more edge on. In a 1.25 degree field I could see everything down to about mag 16. I forget the count, but a good 20 galaxies were had just moving the eyepiece around slightly. I was recalling how fun it is to use a planetarium program like The Sky and galaxy hop within rich clusters. Here is a page from Andreas Domenico's web-site giving an idea of some of the fields:

While you're there, look at Andreas' drawings, he is quite talented drawing at the eyepiece.

After the galaxy group, I began looking at eye candy. The Crab at high power - no filter, showing tendrils and remembering the views at LSA through Mark Cherrington's 25". Scooting all around the Veil with the 7mm and UHC filter - following the dimmest of wisp, working my eye to stay on it - amazing how delicate, intricate and tenuous an object that is once you step away from the Witch's Broom and Waterfall. The Fetus Nebula - NGC 7008 - showed TONS of detail at high mag. Nice bright edge and darkening off-center within the envelope. Wonderful object.

And, I should also mention Mars. In the 18" with a 7 Nagler it was showing excellent detail. Two large areas of darkness extending across the face of the planet with a dusty rose tinted gap separating them. But, boy, was it bright!

I'd seen some amazing things. Hard to detect objects, rich galaxy clusters, obscure stuff, showpieces that were *really* showing.

Sometime after 4 a.m. fatigue from the lack sleep the night before was catching up with me. To the east Orion was rising. To the west, Cygnus was diving headfirst for the horizon....

A quick peek at M42 and M43 turned into some serious lingering at the eyepiece - even look in the sky, high power brought a great deal of the sculpted dark and bright nebula visible in these great objects - the dark areas in M43 reminded me of the best photos of the Horsehead - wisps and bits of dark stuff extending everywhere against the glow of the bright nebula.

I got into the truck and slept for about three hours before driving home.