Saturday, November 18, 2006

Willow Springs 11/18 - Out In The Wilds

A small group was at Willow Springs on Saturday night. Steve Gottlieb, Ray Cash, Charlie Wicks, Darren Hutchison (not sure of your name, sorry) and me. Of course the property owner Bob Ayers was there too, with his other personal guests.

I'm getting accustomed to the drive. Its really only perhaps fourty five minutes more than going to Coe, daPeak, or Dino, which make up the dark three of the "local" south bay observing sites. And the last fourty five minutes are the best... Passing the turnoff to San Juan Bautista and Fremont Peak, the road crosses through fields of vegetatbles and fruit before turning south. A few quick stretces skirting Hollister and you're on highway 25, the scenic route south between highways 5 and 101. Once you pass the golf course, the city slips away and small communities dot the road. Soon you're at Tres Pinos, then after a few more bends Paicines appears. Paicines is a spot, and not much more. Sure, folks live there, make their livings, etc., but its no city. The most remarkable sight are the vineyards and the big winery sitting across the road from the state historical marker for the New Idria Mine. That's where you turn off highway 25, onto little Ponoche Road, and head into the wild country, where the dim galaxies live.

The last 45 mintes drive indeed gets progressively wilder, eventually passing through a section that has a narrow riverbed full of huge boulders, in a deep ravine - it must be a fantastic sight in a heavy storm. The road becomes one lane in places, rough in others, and the last few miles is all twists and turns, but beautiful. The last section on the Willow Springs property is gravel and dirt. It twists up the last 800 feet of elevation to Bob's property. By the end of the drive has you feeling about as far from civilization as you can imagine, for a short drive in a car. Its a great drive.

This trip we set up on the ridge, the high point on Bob's property. Haze lay in the valleys to the south and west. Gunk was obvious in the air to our north and northeast, but we were clear.

By astronomical dark we were observing. It was clear to us the sites to our north and northwest had poor conditions. We had a steady breeze for most of the night that was bothersome, and about two hours of cloudy conditions between about ten and midnight, but the transparency and steadiness were excellent.

We were surprised to not see any Leonids, or let's say, not notice any, but...

Basically, if you wanted to see it in a telescope, you could do it from Willow Springs last night. We observed, listening first to the Cal vs USC game, then the Sharks against Philly...

Here is what I observed, the number of objects surprised me...

Arp 331 - The highlight of this Arp is a chain of eight galaxies running north/south and ranging in magnitude from 12.8 to 14.3 spanning only 15 arcminutes. Well worth a visit, the five brightest visible in Ray's 13.1". I observed 15 members mostly at 293X - N382, N383, N380, N379, N386, N375, N384, N385, N388, I1618, CGCG501-77, N399, N403, N374, UCG692.

Arp 229 - A beautiful and ghostly arc of five galaxies curve ten arcminutes around a mag 7.1 and 10.7 double star, reminiscent of Hickson 68. But there are many other dim galaxies in the area. The close pair NGC507 and 508 dominate the main group. Again, a very worthwhile group. I observed 16 members - N507, N508, N504, N494, N503, I1689, I1682, I1680, CGCG502-43, N483, N501, N499, N495, N496, N515, N517.

AGC 119 - This Abell Galaxy Cluster covered about one degree of sky and in which I observed 14 galaxies. This can be a difficult group, with only two members in the center brighter than mag 15. Yet, the way they are aligned, like other clusters I'd seen during the night, made me feel these objects were playing follow the leader in some way.... stretched out in a line. Still, I teased out UGC579, UGC583, GCGC384-37, CGCG384-40, CGCG384-42, CGCG384-36, CGCG384-32, CGCG384-35, UGC587, UGC595, CGCG384-28, CGCG384-29, UGC568, UGC570.

AGC 194 - Speaking of galaxy chains, Abell Galaxy Cluster 194 is quite a show, having over fifteen galaxies in a stream north-northwest to south-southeast. Check this chain out in a DSS image. The three brightest members are NGC 541/545/547, within a space of six arcminutes. Here are the seventeen members I found - N543, CGCG385-129, N545, N547, N541, N535, UGC1003, UGC996, UGC984, UGC538,UGC974, N530, I11696, N519, CGCG385-112, CGCG385-102, CGCG385-100

From the Miles Paul Atlas of Galaxy Trios I found N1228, N1229, N1230.

From Adventures in Deep Space Favorites I was surprised at the size and knottiness of the face on spiral galaxy NGC 1232 in Eridanus.

Hickson 34 is such a small tight group, I was surprised. I could pick out two, perhaps 3 components. I'd like to try this grou on a still night with excellent seeing.

Abell 10 - this was a bright planetary (in comparison to others I've hunted).

Abell 12 - Steve told me to use high power and an OIII filter. This planetary is otherwise overwhelmed in the glare of a mag 4.1 star Mu Orionis. The planetary, at 293X, is a large bulge in the glare of the bright star, and quite obvious.

Howell-Crisp 1 - Ray Cash was the first of our group to tackle this object, recently discovered by Richard Crisp and an associate in Texas. It is very dim. Steve said he'd classify it as being as tough as the 20 most difficult Abell planetaries. But, it was there, and showed up best using a DGM Optics NPB filter. I found it most visible with a 12 Nagler (in my 18" f/4.5), while Steve and Ray thought lower power, with a 20 Nagler, was better. The object is a faint haze with occasional sharp edge on its SW perimeter. Mostly round, but perhaps if there is elongation, there is not much.

IC 443 - This supernova remnant in Gemini is close to Howell-Crisp 1. At the eyepiece, its shape closely resembles the isophote in Megastar. Not a difficult object.

IC 444 - this may be an emission nebula, it seems very low surface brightness. I felt there were just hints of nebulosity throughout the area.

I could have gone on, but the breeze was bothersome, and the problems with my computer that I've had over the year continued, and out it went. It runs fine at home - I've been writing this report on it. So I poked around at a few pieces of eye candy - NGC 2903 in Leo. The NGC 3190 group, also in Leo. M42. Everything around there was awesome - if you can imagine teasing out dim galaxies all night, then having a knock-your-eye view of M42. The Running Man - NGC 1977 was so full of nebulosity - without any filter - it looked to me like good photos of the Merope Nebula. I was stunned at the seeing and transparency on the bright targets!

Finally, around 3 a.m. or so, I had it. I thought for a last object I'd try for Leo 1. So I swung the scope toward Regulus, and, looking in the eyepiece was surprised to see the bright star had - a ring? I'd mistaken nearby Saturn for Regulus. Saturn was an even better finish. Willow Springs steady seeing was really showing it off - on a non-breezy night, the planet would have been tranfixing.

Oh... last fun bit of info about the night... we were visited by one of Bob's neighbors, maybe around midnight... he asked what we were looking at. Turns out he's an amateur astronomer too. Lives down the hill a bit. Owns two Dobs. A 17", and a 33" f/5. OMG!

As for Willow Springs - it pays to get out into the wilds. Looking forward to December! Thanks again to Bob Ayers for inviting us.

Gobble gobble!

Thursday, November 9, 2006

Observing at Fremont Peak

As was the case a week prior, the day began favoring a night at home, reading about, rather than doing, astronomy. The cloud cover was nearly solid as I began my drive down highway 85 toward the little town of San Juan Bautista. Today, I packed an extra telescope for a friend, so the Mercedes sedan contained my 14.5" f/5.6 truss tube and 10" f/5.6 Dobsonians. The telescopes were in their disassembled component parts: the 14.5" primary box and rocker box in the back seat, its upper tube assembly and poles in the trunk (boot)... the 10" dob's sono- tube reclined in the front passenger seat and extending to the rear window (this is quite a sight for other drivers on the road, since the sono-tube is colorfully tie-dyed). Sharing the passenger compartment with me and the scopes was a folding chair, large folding cot, sleeping bag, clothing box, eyepiece box, star charts and pillow. The upper tube assembly and poles for the 14.5" and the rocker box for the 10" were in the trunk, along with an observing table coat-bag, ladder, step-stool, and an ice-chest with cold drinks. I was not crowded in the driver's seat, but there was no wasted space in the rest of the vehicle.

The drive south was uneventful, the clouds remaining thick and still. Turning off highway 101 to 156 is where the enjoyable part of the drive begins. Two miles through rolling hills dotted with grazing cattle to the turn onto state route G1. Past a few homes, then the road begins an at first gradual ascent to Fremont Peak State Park alongside a stream, between rising hills covered with granite boulders. Soon, the road begins to twist and turn, climbing more quickly. The trees this time of year are golden and red leafed, strewn with hanging Spanish Moss. The undulations of the road, coupled with good music, speed, and nature's seasonal display combine to make the trip to Fremont Peak worthwhile regardless of the dim prospects for a successful evening of observing.

Eleven miles later, I arrive at the parking lot, passing one member of our party waiting in a lower area of the park for other participants to arrive. My car comes to a stop with the leaves of Autumn swirling behind me. No sooner do I get out of the car, than the owner of a 10" dob pulls in. We look at the sky and remark how one of our group watched the satellite loop of the weather, and felt the "blob" of clouds would pass by 6 or 7 p.m., but it sure didn't look good. Then our "weather forecaster" pulled in, along with his 7" AstroPhysics. He is followed intermittently by other regulars; an 8" Meade SCT, 12" LX-200, the AstroPhysics Traveller and Zeiss/AstroPhysics 100mm f/10 (?) APO, two 10" LX-200, and 18" Obsession, 4.5" f/4 Newtonian, Orion 12.5" dob, and a Meade 90mm refractor.

Everyone was lamenting the clouds. So, in an exercise in positive thinking, a few of us began setting up our equipment. Blue holes began appearing overhead. The clouds began thinning in all directions. Soon, the sun was setting, putting on one of the most dazzling displays of light, clouds and shadow I have ever witnessed. Thin feather-like clouds in one direction. Flat topped ones that looked like funnels could develop off their sagging undersides. Sharply lined structure in ones that looked like cream and chocolate covered stretched taffy. Behind us, billowy pink cotton candy clouds. Below us, to the west, the Pacific Ocean lay glassy still, reflecting the show in the sky. This was a great sight, and the bonus was, they were continuing to dissipate.

We knew that if the night sky cleared, it would not rival the prior week, which had the benefit of a thick fog cover over the coastal cities. Not a speck of fog could be seen over the ocean all the way to the horizon. As was the case the prior week, the observing began with Jupiter and its four brightest moons visible just west of Fremont Peak, looming to our south just yards away. the planet looked very nice, the banding and moons appearing much steadier than the week prior. Next to Saturn, then M57.

The sky continued to improve. Soon I began working the Herschel catalog with my friend who owns the 18" Obsession. We began by picking up up where we'd left off in Pegasus. As usual, the first galaxy was nearly impossible. Why does it always start this way? We worked Peg and Cetus from about 10pm until 2am. This was not an intensive observing session though, since puffs of cloud kept interfering. So, the star party became more "party" than "star." It was lots of fun. A dozen or more people joking, talking about clubs, equipment, observing sites, restaurants, music (right Bill?), cars, you name it. All this interspersed with "hey.... look at this" shouts as someone would get a nice view of an object in a clear part of the sky.

Someone e-mailed me last week, asking about visual limiting magnitude at the "Peak." Well, one member of our group led a "count the stars" contest, using portions of the Great Square of Pegasus as the target area. The only rule was that "liners counted." I did not expect much in the way of good results. Last week had been much darker because of the fog cover. The sky looked bright to me and I had felt some nights in my backyard were not so different from this one at the Peak. Much to my surprise, the results yielded a limiting mag of 6.6, which makes me wonder just how deep we could see the week prior. So, now I am convinced that it makes sense to take ten minutes of the night and do a count. Although conditions do change during the evening, at least a reasonable point of reference can be established with little effort.

For me, the two non-Herschel related highlights of the earlier evening were:

1. Viewing the Horsehead Nebula in the 18" Obsession. People there had varying degrees of success attempting this feat. It does help to know what dark nebulae look like. Later during the night, Jay Freeman stopped by and pulled it in using my 10" f/5.6 dob. I was surprised... he and a few others could see it, I could not.

2. Removing the eyepiece from the 14.5" and using Mark T's Swiss Army Knife magnifying glass in place of a regular eyepiece, holding it over the focuser, and clearly resolving M15. I've got to get one of those!

By 2am, the cloud cover solidified again. I guess our Herschel hunt pulled in a dozen or so galaxies. Everyone began packing up, and soon it was just those willing to spend the night. Well, guess what? By 4am the sky opened enough for what were the best views of the night.

I was completely in my element, since many of the bright galaxies were now up, and the only two telescopes left standing were my two dobs. What fun to operate two telescopes in that sort of sky! First was ngc 4565. The dust lane was easy. M81 and 82, piece of cake. M108, M97 (look at those two black eyes staring back). M53, nicely resolved. M3, forget M53! On to the Black Eye galaxy....what a strange sight.... what's up with that? ;-) Leo.... ngc 2903.... what a beauty. Next, to M65/66 and ngc 3268. I like the latter the best of those three.... the dust lane and angular size are nice contrasts to the finer, smaller detail in the two neighboring Messiers.

Ursa Major was now up high enough. M51.... in the 10".... okay, but in the 14.5" WOW! Structure galore. I have seen it better a few times (high in the Sierra Nevada mountains and once on the 30" in the observatory at Fremont Peak), but this was a very nice view. Now, star hop down to M101.... yep.... faint as ever. Funny how you lose your bearings as the season's change.... I was having trouble remembering which star was Cor Caroli.... my jump off point for M94 and M63. It is sure easier when the constellations ride high in the sky, and you can see them in their entirety.

A quick hop over to Canis Major, a peek at the nice little open cluster 2362, then back to Leo for the belly meat.... M105, M95, M96 and several ngc galaxies in one and a half eyepiece fields. Geesh! Where was it, a knot of galaxies in Leo's mane.... no star chart, no hard disk, no RAM... just biological memory.... right about there.... yes... between Gamma and Xi Leonis. How many in the area.... six, seven, eight? Well a lot. Just imagine what winter late night/early morning observing holds....the realm of the galaxies (Leo, Coma and Virgo) under crisp, clear skies. This stuff is great! And there's soooooo much of it!

To the east, Venus had risen, letting me know that I'd better catch some sleep, or risk uselessness during daylight hours. I stretched out on my cot, the universe serving as my ceiling for the night. I left the two dobs out for the real die hards.... those unafraid of sleep deprivation. Soon, the sun came up and I said good-by to my observing friends for another week or so.

If you are interested in joining us at Fremont Peak State Park at our next star party, send me an e-mail, I'll place you on our mailing list. The only requirement is that you have a desire to observe and learn. It is a great way to spend an evening among great men and women.

Sunday, October 22, 2006

Ayers Rocks! Observing at Willow Springs Oct 21st

Last night a small group of bay area observers trekked down to Bob Ayers' Willow Springs property south of Hollister. The drive was uneventful, other than noticing hazy conditions in Panoche Valley, and from the flat on the property overlooking the valley to the south.

Ayers's property is a special place, one which I sincerely hope it continues to be available, and that he and the SJAA find a path to that end. While the transparency and darkness were noticeably off compared to prior trips there, it was still impressive. A hands down winner compared to the other bay area choices. Imagine... elevation... no street lights, house lights anywhere (well, one maybe five miles away, but it went out by 10 pm)... no car lights... and nothing but the sounds of nature, Servo-Cats, and observers chatter. It has it all.

The first target was Comet Swan. I viewed it in an 18" Plettstone, 16" NightSky, and 80mm William Optics. Nice views. Although not in the class with the big "we're spoiled by them" comets of the 90's, this one is bright, effectively naked eye at about mag 6, and last night well placed next to a naked eye star over the ridge to our northwest. The nucleus is very distinct, and the coma large, appearing like a good size globular cluster in a small scope (unresloved). There were hints of elongation, leading to discussions about tail or no tail.

I started in right away on a list saved in an Excel on my laptop. That and Megastar were my tools, along with an 18" f/4.5 Obsession Dobsonian, 20mm, 12mm and 7mm Naglers, 10x70 optical finder and Rigel Quickfinder. I am acclimating nicely to Megastar after using The Sky until two months ago. I'm also toying with the idea of moving toward hard core ascetic astronomy... unloading unnecessary aspects of the hobby and making it as unencumbered a hobby aspossible...but still maintaining the ability to knock off mag 16 anonymous galaxies.

I began by tracking down the NGC 128 group, star hopping from mag 4.3 Epsilon Psc to mag 4.2 Delta Psc to mag 5.7 51 Psc to mag 5.8 44 Psc. Under good conditions, there are more than half a dozen galaxies in a 171X field, using my 12mm eyepiece.128 and NGC 130 comprise the two brightest members. 128 is extended nne/ssw, is bright, thick and long, with a bright almost stellar core surrounded by an oval brightning terminating in thin extensions. NGC 130 is faint and elongated n/s, very nearby 128, both visible together at 283x in my 7mm. NGC 127 is very faint, to the NW of and perpendicular to 130. NGC 125 is a dim halo around an obvious stellar core, elongated slightly NE/SW with two stars close by to SW. NGC 126 is small, dim elong WWNW/EESE with dim stellar core and possible dim star involved. This is a fun group visually, and well worth the trip.

I joined one of the other observers hunting down Palomar 12 in extreme eastern Capricornus, off of Kappa and Epsilon. This is an easy find at 103x as faint glow off double star. With magnification the Double becomes a triple to the object's south. Pal 12 appears at 293x as faint glow, like dim nebula, overlayed with several brighter stars.

With good early success on the first two targets, I went after Hickson 99. But first, one of the other observers present was so taken by his first view of a Hickson (#16), he went on a Hick-Binge. We were laughing, how easy they were and thinking about a friend in Roseville who ran through nearly the entire Hickson catalog (over a year or two?) ... remarking what a challenge they were. My observing friend nailed 15 or more last night, in a smaller scope than the Roseville observer used. I suppose it is a testament to the skies as Willow Springs.

Hickson 99. In an easy star hop location, this was a nice site. Start by putting Alpha And (Apharatz) at the edge of your finder such that a distinct chain of six stars arcs to the south and west also along the edge of the finder. A bright star will be nearly centered in the finder as the vertex of an equilateral triangle with its base to the east. Use those three stars to hop in your eyepiece. The galaxies in Hickson 99 are UGCs 12897 and 12899, along with dimmer CGCG 498-61. My view of the UGCs showed them at right angles to each other, both elongated. However, I could not locate the CGCG. Turns out UGC 12899 is round, and the CGCG is so close on its west that the two appear as one, elongated E/W. Notice also how UGC 12897 is abutting a mag 11.6 star on its southern edge, which helps differentiate it from the "other" galaxy.

Next was a galaxy cluster, Abell 119 in Cetus. This too is a very easy hop, looking at Diphda (Beta Ceti), and drawing a line exactly between Eta and Iota Ceti almost due north to mag 4.7 20 Ceti. Place that star just off center to the west in the finder you'll first notice NGCs 133 and 144. You can almost lose your mind, in a fun way, hunting galaxies in this cluster. Here, with abbreviated catalog numbers, are the 40 galaxies I logged before deciding to move on. mac 0055-0114A, 0015, CGCG 384-28, mac055-021, 0125, 0130, 0117, 0118D, 0109, cgcg 384-34, ngc 307, mac 056-0137a, 0136, 0135, 0123A, 0115C, 0118, 0113B, 0114B, 0116A, 0116B, 0110, cgcg384-37, cgcg384-32, cgcg384-36, ugc 579, ugc 583, cgcg 384-35, mac 056-106, 0109, ugc 587, cgcg384-40, -42, mac 057-0117, 0122A, 0123, 0120, 0118, 0120A, ugc 595.

One mistake I made with my observing list was to not include object's common names. Otherwise, I would have known IC 5146 is the Coccoon Nebula (I suspected it was), and would have followed the nice dark nebula Barnard 168, which is a treat. The dark nebula is long and thin, easy to find, and terminates on one end in a nub that contains the Coccoon. By not knowing I was after the Caccoon, I went through an extensive contortion of star hops starting in Cepheus. When I arrived at the Caccoon, I was shocked at how bright it looked. I called over a number of other observers, who referred to it as "subtle". Well, I thought it was bright - but upon looking at it again, it was dim. With an H-Beta filter and 12mm I felt the dark lanes in the Coccoon. The original view without filter in 20 Nagler was best.

Again in Capricornus is the great galaxy NGC 7184. Large and elongated EENE/WWSW, its very bright core seems skewed from extensions. The Core itself is very bright. In the same 180X field NGC 7180 is smaller to the south and elongated same directions. NGC 7185 easy too, roundish. I had difficulty finding this group, as it was low in the west.

Next was Abell 539 is a rich cluster in another easy location. Place a finder with its eastern edge on Bellatrix. There are several distinctive patterns in the finder that will allow centering on the AGC field. There must be 30 galaxies in a 20 Nagler field. We logged UGC 3274 and the combined MAC 0516+0626C and 0626B. These three galaxies appeared at two. Close by to their north were four other galaxies. I'll let one of the other observers detail this group, but we must have picked out a dozen galaxies hopping around the UGC at high power.

It was getting late, but we moved on to the NGC 1016 group nearby M77 in Cetus. In this group we observed NGCs 1016, 1008, 1004, 993, 1019, 1020, 1021, 1009, ic241 and cgcg 388-80. This was a fun group to hop around in. It is really amazing what can be seen.

Gemini was now up high, and I could see what appeared to be the zodiacal light in the east, well off the Milky Way which now appeared to run from just east of south, up to the north. In Gemini, it was an easy hop off mag 3.6 Theta Gemini. This group of five galaxies form a nice arc, reminiscent in shape of Corona Borealis. The group is comprised of NGCs 2294, 2291, 2289, 2288 and 2290.

It was an amazing night of observing, but not even the best night I've seen at Willow Springs. We turned in close to four a.m I'm guessing. I awoke to a beautiful blue sky, and three vehicles pulling out. I got up and relaxed having coffee with a new member of the group - learning about the individual's background in artificial intelligence, expert systems, years studying Sanscrit and the time he spent in living in a house boat in Kashmir. The last member of our party awoke, I said a quick good morning, then good bye, and headed out. An hour and forty minutes was I home. Can't beat that!

Clear skies, and thanks Bob!

Sunday, October 15, 2006

Coe last night....

A brief observing report.

As always, a very pleasant drive up. Slow and easy. I arrived just before 5, paid my use tax in the iron ranger. The parking lot had several overnight camper's cars parked mostly along the western edge, but there was still plenty of room for the astronomers. The marine layer was as high as I've ever seen it over the western mountains, and I pretty much knew we'd be lucky to have any real observing. Wisps of horsetail clouds overlay the heavier stuff hanging over the valleys.

The pot luck worked out great. I brought a grill, Bill Cone some great andouille sausauges and red wine, others contributed a diverse range of tasties. I was good and only had one of Santangelli's CD sized chocolate chunk cookies. Matt Marcus's veggie dogs looked like some kind of strange little cigars you'd expect to find in Instanbul, but hey... food's food, knida. There was enough in quantity and variety to take care of everyone's tastes!

As the sky grew dark after sunset, it looked like we'd be lucky, it seemed to be clearing, and the stuff over the coastal range was looking less threatening. Everyone was getting down to business at their scopes. Soon though, we all began noticing dew.

I fought poor transparancy and some significantly bad light reflecting off the clouds, it was an obviously poor night. I toyed with just looking at Messiers in my 18", but went after some galaxy trios instead.

I did manage to get a decent, yet soft view of the trio NGCs 7463, 7464 and 7465 just off Markab in Pegasus. The first galaxy was very obvious, in fact, all three were. On a good night this would be an easy group even in a smaller scope. Cone was showing Neptune and Triton - interesting to see that dot of a moon preceeding the blue planet as the view drifted west. Later he was showing the Helix Nebula - I keep overhearing discussion about it, people wondering if it is the biggest planetary in apparent size, and if its the closest to us. I mentioned Jones 1 was up, and is another large(r) planetary. Santangelli decided to move from imaging the Little Dumbell to shooting Jones 1. But, although his computer confirmed he was on the field, Jones 1 was not there. I went to look for it in my scope and realized I was seeing almost no field stars. That's trouble. Shining a red flashlight onto my secondary and looking at it in the primary - it was soaked. Game over.

The star party reverted back to party. Green lasers came out, crackling their way up into the clouds that now enveloped us. There was talk about travelling overseas with scopes, high pressure moving in later in the upcoming week, and where people were planning to observe. Neuschaefer and Grimly were playing light cannon, shooting a flashlight through the focuser of a 10" Dob.

Everyone decided to pack it in. I was among the first out of the lot, and home by 11. All in all, it was a fun night. I doubt anyone regrets going. And, really, with an offshore flow instead of the whim of the winds pushing the clouds over us, it could have gone the other way and we'd have had a good night.

Let's hope that's what we get next weekend...

Wednesday, September 27, 2006

Calstar Aways Wins...

Everything was lined up to have a great time at CalStar. Most of my friends were going, skies looked promising, and I was well packed for an early departure on Thursday. Leaving town I was getting calls on the cell from Jane Smith, telling me she's tailing Dean Linebarger, about 10 minutes back of me on the 101. We played phone/car tag down to Soledad, when Jane and I stopped for the last prepared meal for three days. Back on the road, we were soon off the 101 and onto Jolon Road. The drive from there to Lake San Antonio is one of the special stretches of California highway. Vineyards and rolling golden hills give way to small country churches and native tribe's meeting halls, and finally steep grades that drop back down to eastern slopes of Big Sur, where William Randolph Hearst would ride with friends from the coast to his bunkhouse, now a restaurant near Mission San Antonio de Padua on the ground of Fort Hunter Liggett. Past the fort is the small town of Lockwood, and its single store at the intersection of the G14 and Interlake Road. 17 miles down down Interlake, past hills of twisted oak, cattle and buzzards, is the turnoff to the south shore of Lake San Antonio, home to the SJAA's California Star Party, aka, CalStar.

The observing field is a couple miles into the park. It is enormous. Trees between sections of the area make its size deceptive. Another reason for the deceptive appearance is, everyone likes to congregate in the "dark enforced" section, and it sure does seem to be where the action is.

Jane and I each brought two 10x10 easy-up canopies. We ended up with a great 20x20 shade/compound that, and any point during the day, you could find a dozen or so of the long time attendees. Other "hot spots" around the field could be found around Uncle Dan's Breakfast Diner, JT's late night scotch bar, or two places that must be CalStar Groupie Central, over by the big Kennedy 28" f/3.66 Dob or Albert Highe, who has attained near legend status. The only things missing this year were bay area observing guru Steve Gottlieb, iconoclast Ray Cash and my SSP observing buddy Jeff Gortatowski. Maybe next year.

Boiling it down to the essence, CalStar is the star party that is the most laid back, easy going, low key event of its kind that I know of. I love going to SSP every June/July, but CalStar trumps SSP in its setting and layout... where SSP wins is the skies, but CalStar has the ambiance. Its hard to choose between them, so I go to both each year.

The first day was spent greeting friends not seem for months, or a year, over beers. Lots of beers. By the time sunset came, it was hard to move. Looking at the sky, it was obviously mucky. As dark settled in, it was clear we had lots of crud in the air. It was at best a 5/10 night. Dean and I were set up by imagers Pete Santangeli, Paul Sterngold and Chris Patel. These were great guys to hang out with... imagers are fun because they are always coming by for chatter once their cameras are chilling. Dean and I observed the following in my 18" f/4.5 and his 22" f/4.3 Dobs.

Abell 70 - 103X no filter. This planetary was dim, round and clearly annular. What makes it especially interesting is galaxy MAC 2031-0705 showing through the north edge of the planetary. In the evening's seeing, the galaxy really looked like a bright edge in the planetary, I've seen these objects more clearly.

Next was Sharpless 2-71 103X - another planetary. It is dim with an obvious central star, elongated north to south. It lies among three stars, between the second and third from west to east with brightest star first in the west. The stars are mag 9.6, 10.6, 11.6. At 294X with an NPB filter - even brightness across surface, possible stars embedded in ne and nw edges.

IC 5370 galaxy group. 103x - Nice arcing chain of four galaxies with 5th very close by. Brightest is just N of a small bright triangle of stars with other trailing e to ne. Nice view. More on this one later. What was notable was my laptop, which has been acting strangely for months, shutting down while observing, did so again. Pete and I discussed possible causes, but I decided it was DOA, and committed myself to mooching off Dean and Richard's computer.

The sky deteriorated to the point that combined with fatigue from an early day, it made sense to save our efforts for the next night. We visited a few friends, who also agreed that the transparency was way off, and along with most other attendees, we turned in.

Daytime temps at LSA in the shade were the best ever. Very comfortable. I know everyone who had been to prior (hot) CalStars was relieved. Day turned to early evening, and my buddy Navarrete arrived with his 18" f/4.5 Dob. Our observing contingent was complete.

Unfortunately, the sky looked even worse than the prior night, and it proved to be that way throughout the night, maybe a 3/10 night. But, we did well.

We began with Abell 55 in Aquila, while it was still in reasonable position. This very dim planetary responded best to the OIII filter, but showed little detail other than the most ghostly of discs. I think I had a better view at Willow Springs the month proir.

It became immediately obvious that the transparency was way down. Just seeing objects was going to be the reward, detail would be a bonus. That's how it is sometimes. We decided to use two lists, Steve Gottlieb's Calstar general and challenge lists, and intersperse occasional galaxy trios. So, we began...

Abell 82 is located in Cassiopeia a short hop from the beautiful open clusters NGC 7789 and M52. The object is a dim planetary which only showed, barely, using an OIII filter. A central star was visible, but no structure. It appeared dim, 1.5' round, with an even surface brightness. Viewed best view at 294x.

Hickson 99 in the northeast corner of Pegasus - We viewed three galaxies, UGC 12897, CGCG 498-61 and UGC 12899. The latter two comprised a tight pair, splitting well at 294x with the 7 Nagler. The CGCG target was visible at mag 15.7 due to its high surface brightness. The orientation of UGC 12897 to the other two, at a right angle, made it a pleasing field.

Palomar 11 in Aquila was a surprising find. It was much larger than anticipated. It appeared only as a faint mottling, but no question it was there. Close to a mag 8.9 star.

Just off of Gamma Cassiopeia, the middle star in the "W", are two bright nebula (they are not bright, they are just classified as bright), IC 59 and IC 63. Of the two, IC 59 appeared larger and more diffuse, barely a contrast difference with the background, whereas IC 63 was clearly there, looking somewhat bar-like in shape. I don't recall if we used filters on them. What made these easy to pin down were the distinct star patterns around Gamma Cass. This is where either a detailed printed chart or a planetarium program shines (but in red light, of course! ;-)

Right off of M52 is NGC 7635 - The Bubble Nebula. Many of the TAC imagers have shot this target. On a good night it is easily recognizable as a bubble. But this was not a good night. There was only a hint of a bright edge.

NGC 40 is a wonderful planetary off the top of Cepheus's hat. We liked this one! It is bright and responds well to magnification. We had an awesome view of it through Steve Kennedy's 28" f/3.66 Dob. It has a slight elongation and very easy central star. It is large and annular, with well defined edges. Filters did not seem to help.

I can't believe we looked at an open cluster, especially with Navarrete picking the targets, but we did check out NGC 7510 in Cassiopeia. Probably because it ws nearby M52 and the Bubble Nebula. Even though it was an open, it was interesting. It is comprised of perhaps a dozen stars aligned such that there is a hard straight edge to the group, diffusing away unevenly on the opposite side. Reminded me of a small version of The Coathanger (CR 399) in Vulpecula.

As it got late, we moved to the NGC 1199 galaxy group in Eridanus. Richard's note says these were all small and dim, but, we succeeded in picking up the obvious NGC 1199 with a surface brightness of 12.3, as well as NGCs 1189, 1190, 1191, 1192, 1188, 1209, all except that last one fitting into the field of my 12 Nagler. This would be a wonderful group to visit again under better conditions.

By this time it was late. We'd been having a great time, even though the skies were washed out compared to what we'd expected. We'd been sharing Mexican Coffees, and their effects were adding to the party atmosphere of the event. It was around 4 a.m. when we looked at our last object of the night.

The DDK Galaxy, NGC 1023 is a large bright galaxy on the Perseus Andromeda border. Even in poor conditions, we were struck by the spread of this object. It just seemed to never end.... it had a bright core and the arms extended out east to west, and little NGC1023A was easily seen as a spur poking out of the eastern end pointing south. Very good view.... we wondered just how it would be under the skies we'd been hoping for.

Saturday night was the best of the three, although transparency was still off. There were times during the star party at night when the sky looked grey instead of black. On two of the nights, you couldn't see Orion rising. But, as long as we could see anything, we were at it.

We began the last night in Draco on NGC 6543 - The Cat's Eye Nebula. I tried pumping up the volume, but the seeing was no good enough to pick out any real structure. Using an NPB filter, I could make out the faint outer halo, surrounding the bright inner shell, but there was no detail beyond that.

We also picked out NGC 6552 - a small mag 14.6 galaxy just east of the Cat's Eye.

Next was NGC 6712 in Scutum, a globular cluster. I don't recall observing it. Maybe Richard did, and I was busy mixing drinks for the group.

IC 1295 is a large planetary nebula in Scutum, sharing a 103x field of view with the globular cluster NGC 6712. Now I remember it! The fact that both were visible in the same field was very striking. If I remember correctly (a lot of this *is* from memory) the globular looked rather unglobular-like.

I found IC 10 a very interesting object. Located in an easy spot on a line between Gamma and Beta Cassiopeia, I at first thought I was looking at another of the faint nebulae in the area, like IC 59 and IC 63. But this is not a nebula, instead, it is a dwarf galaxy that is part of our local group. My confusing it with the dim nebulae tells you how faint it was... but it was also quite large, compared to the small dim galaxies we'd been picking up through the muck.

It was again getting late, and we thought we'd finish up with just a few more objects. We had no idea, the best of the night was yet to come.

Off the eastern line of the Great Square, we ventured into the galaxy fields of NGCs 80, 81, 83, 91, 93, 96, 86, 79, and IC 1542. This was a fun field. All those galaxies were visible in a single 12 Nagler field of view. NGCs 80, 91 and 93 are obvious, the rest take a bit of patience. Sorry for the lack of details, that what no notes does...

In a rather barren section of Andromeda near the Pegasus border, a nice small triangle of 10th magnitude stars with a chain of 14th and 15th magnitude stars extending from them gives away the location of the IC 5370 galaxy group. Extending away from the triangle are IC 5369 mag 15.2, IC 5370 at mag 14.9, just about touching a mag 12.4 star is IC 5371 at mag 15.0, then spreading into a Y are IC 5373 at mag 15.1 on the left and clearly to the right MAC 0000-3250 at mag 16.0. We were looking for KAZ 235 nearby IC 5373, but upon returning home the DSS image showed the two galaxies are virtually one on top of the other, and the seeing would not permit splitting. This group too was a lot of fun.

Now it was late. We'd finished off the remaining Mexican Coffee, and were onto our last target of the night... but certainly not our last activity....

Roughly a third the way from Alpha to Delta Anromedae and a bit north, you can find the NGC 68 galaxy group. When first observing it at low power, you know it will be a treat, it looks like a Stephan's Quintet clone at first blush. A bunch of galaxies in a nice tight group. Bumping up the magnification eventually to 294x, NGC 72 jumps out at mag 13.4. Very nearby are NGCs 72a, 70, 68, 67, 69 and 71. On the periphery was NGC 74, and farther afield NGC 76. These galaxies ranged from mag 14.2 to 15.5.

Dean and I were done. Richard continued one object farther, showing us Abell 4, but I don't know that that's what it was. Abell 4 is a mag 16.7 object, well beyond what we'd seen during the night. However, the elongated dim galaxy CGCG 539-91 is in almost exactly the same position, but a full mag brighter at 15.6.

Dean and I were having a beer, when Richard asked where Santangelli was. Sterngold and Patel chimed in... "yeah.... where's Pete?' My gut immediately told me something was up. I said "I think Turley has a party going on".... So the four of us walked across the dark field, toward the northeast where we knew JT was camped. As we approached it was obvious.... there, at two picnic tables, was the glow of a small cook stove in the process of going out. Around it were about eight guys, talking, and laughing. We four joined them.

It must have been past three a.m., and the party was just starting....

Stergolds wrist action with the Jiffy-Pop is now legendary...

Already, looking forward to next year. Calstar is always a winner.

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Solar Pillar

Don't know if anyone else saw it, but from downtown SJ there was a very tall very intense solar pillar just a few minutes ago (maybe still there) before I walked indoors. Great looking coral red.

Sunday, September 17, 2006

Coe last night... brief report...

The late afternoon at Coe was breezy, but not bad enough to kick up dust. The wind disappeared by sundown.

There was essentially no marine layer, but it seemed there was some particulate in the air, as the light dome from San Jose was very pronounced. On the other hand, the Milky Way was showing nicely just after sunset, so transparency overhead was decent. Temps were never cold, just a little chilly - I did not have to wear a jacket, but I had a few layers of polartec on.

We had an excellent turnout, including a visit from a new ranger at Coe, Ranger John, who had rangered at Fremont Peak previously.

A TAC award goes to Mike Delaney, one of the younger new "TACos" on the scene within the past year. Mike revived a Jay Freeman tradition (presthumously?) and brought four large pizzas up. Awesome Mike (Mountain Mike?)! As a result, we all forgot about Jamie's cookies.

There was a wide range of equipment, in fact, "new Andy" (Mauffet-Smith) made that exact comment to me. Another TACo who's been around for many years commented on how many new members of the group showed up. I was also noticing different languages being spoken at TAC star parties, so we're looking a bit more international in flavor.

I set up between Rashad and Kevin S. Rashad and I were looking at galaxies on the Deep Map 600. Rashad had "Tobor The Great" (an 8" SCT) and I was using my 10" f/5.7 CPT Dobsonian. With this reduced aperture, it often felt like we had our big guns out, and were hunting mag 15 and 16 galaxies. But the ones we were hitting (and really working hard to pick out in most instances) were in the mag 13 range. Maybe Rashad can chime in with a brief list, mine is still packed in the truck.

All in all it was a good night. The sky brightness detracted quite a bit from the viewing, but it also will provide a great contrast for many people, as most of the group that was there last night will be under Lake San Antonio skies later this week.

Friday, September 1, 2006

Houge Park 9/1

It seemed very bright at Houge Park last night with a big 1st Q moon and a hazy sky. We had a good number of amateur astronomers turn out, including Rich Neuschaefer, Mark Bracewell, Rashad Al-Mansour, Dan Wright, Phil Chambers, Howard Riddenaur, Gary Mitchel (sp?)and Jane Smith from Davis, along some others I don't know. What seemed to be missing was much of the public, the turnout seemed low, perhaps a result of it being a Friday night of a big three day weekend. Jupiter was already low by the time dark fell, so the big target of the night was the moon. Seeing was actually pretty good, so la luna was showing nice detail. I had my 10" f/5.7 Dob, and aside from the moon, had good (but not great) views of M13, M15, Alberio and assorted other double stars. We had a nice view of the Coathanger, through my 9x50 finder, and with an old 50mm erfle I hadn't used in years. Later in the evening a police helicopter was flying back and forth, shining a spotlight down looking for something, or someone. Then a patrol car pulled into Houge and the officer turned his spot on us.

Rich and I walked over and were told someone said there were people in the park, and the park was closed at night. We convinced the officer that the SJAA has permission to, and regularly uses the park, about every two weeks. The officer realized this, saying we didn't exactly look like troublemakers, and was about to leave, when Gary ran over telling the officer to turn off his spotlight - which was shining on the telescopes. The officer said he'd be leaving in a minute, which he did, and order was restored. I was home by 11 pm, to surprisingly brighter skies.... I didn't think it was possible, but yes, downtown's skies *were* even brighter than Houge's on a bright night...

Tuesday, August 29, 2006

Guide Dogs Rock!

On Saturday night I was having mishap after mishap. Small stuff at first - realizing I had way too many filters and they would keep ending up in the wrong container - frustrating. Next I lost my ability to mentally spin the computer field to match the eyepiece (resulting in an extended hunt on my part for one of the Abell planetaries). Spilling Baileys Irish Creme on my observing table (and attempting surreptitiously to lick it off! ;-). And then my red flashlight falling and ending up way under my truck. I couldn't tell if I was just cursed, or fighting sleep dep!

Then the serious stuff happened. My laptop screen decided to stop working (it is working fine here, back at home). When the laptop went out, I switched to paper charts. Immediately my reading glasses (cheaters) fell, hit the ground, and scratched so badly I couldn't see out of the right lens. In frustration, I snapped them in half and chucked them into my truck. This left only two options... give up - quit for the night (no way!) or... here's what we did...

Steve would pick the target - we were on the galaxy clusters by now - he'd describe where in the sky it was, by star hopping, then we'd locate the brightest member in each of our scopes. Steve used a photographic chart and we'd hop from one object to another, talking to each other about direction, distance, visibility, shapes, orientation, etc. It was a great way to observe. And, while doing it, I realized that over time I began picking up more ability to detect dimmer and dimmer objects, some which were not on Steve's charts. By not looking at a computer screen, and by not using a red flashlight to look at a chart, by only looking through the eyepiece without exposing my eye to any unnecessary light, my dark adaptation and night vision took a very noticeable step "deeper". I was very impressed with the results. Steve made an excellent guide dog, and I enjoyed the benefits! Thanks Steve!

In fact, it worked so well, I'll try to get Navarrete to be "guide dog" next month at CalStar... Mush!

Monday, August 28, 2006

Comet 177P/Bradford

Just a quick note about obsering this comet from Willow Springs. Steve Gottlieb brought a finder chart and we saw it was an easy hop from Beta and Gamma Draconis toward Hercules. It was a cinch to find.

Using a 20 Nagler in my 18" f/4.5 Dob, which gives a 48 arcminute view at 103X, I was very surprised at the size and brightness of the coma. It was not so bright that it could be seen (at least not easily) in my 70mm finder. But in the eyepiece the coma was quite large and immediately obvious. At 103X it looked like a large unresolved globular cluster. Even with increased magnificatons, up to 294X, there was little additional detail to pull out - the only thing that changed was some brightening toward the center of the core.

The view was quite good, although whenever I put higher power on a bright comet like this one, it takes me back to Hale-Bopp in the 90's, when from my Los Gatos backyard using an 8" f/7 Dob I could watch material jetting and spiralling off its tight coma in real time.

We need another good comet! But in the meantime, if you can get to Montebello or Coyote during the week, 117P/Bradford is worth checking out.

Tuesday, August 22, 2006

Where Stars Go To Die (8/19)

Went to Coe Saturday, already tired from being out at Houge Park the night before. Richard Navarrete had suggested a pot luck for the group and put word out on TAC. I stopped at the Morgan Hill Safeway for chips, wine and a few other goodies to contribute.

I was first in the parking lot at Coe. Navarrete arrived less than five minutes later. Soon other began to show. Tony, Bill, Chuck. We sat at the picnic bench under the giant oak at the south end of the lot, warm afternoon sun keeping the chill of the steady breeze at bay. Comments about the breeze were softened by the fact there was no dirt blowing. That was a good sign.

The pot luck was set for 6:30, and right about then cars began rolling in as if someone was ringing a dinner bell. Oddly, not a lot of people participated. I think Bill Cone won best entry, with his homemade pasta salad and bottle o Zin. Nice going Bill. There was also sushi, chips and dips, all sorts of goodies. We chowed, cleaned up, and it was time to start setting up.

The sunset was good once again. It is really a beautiful spot, San Jose to the northwest under a promising and thickening layer of low moisture. To the south Fremont Peak stood prominantly over a thick wall of fog already pushing its way deep inland toward Pacheco Pass. These were all good signs. Sunset happened, right on time. No green flash. Maybe a green sprite, but I'm still flashless.

There were few hikers, if any. One mountain biker left after dark. We had two visitors that live just down the mountain in Morgan Hill. Nice husband and wife. The wife is involved in education, and coincidentally was looking for astronomy resources for an associate. Didn't know we'd be at Coe, they'd just gone for an afternoon drive and found us. Stayed until well after dark, looking through several telescopes. That was our public outreach at Coe, while our lower elevation counterparts did their outreach down the mountain to the south at Coyote Lake.

The sky began bright, as the fog layer was not thick until later in the evening. Even so, the sky was much better than back in town, either my yard or Hogue Park. By midnight the fog was a thick blanket, fingering into the small valleys and canyons below us. From midnight to three thirty it was about as dark as I've seen it at Coe. The summer pattern held true, and we had a very good night.

Richard and I began observing soon after the guests left. I'd been putting together observing lists for months, and when Richard suggested we just do something easy, like working out of the Night Sky Observers Guide, it sounded great. Back to the days of having no plan, just wandering the sky in search of new quarry. We began in Aquila, which was nicely placed high in the southeast.

I'd spent a lot of time there in the past. It is the graveyard of the stars, where they seem to go to die, with more planetary nebulae than any other constellation. All the dead souls of the stars.

Here is what we observed between about 10 pm and 3:30 am in 18" f/4.5 Dobsonians.

NGC 6749, globular cluster in Aquila. Off the western wing of the Big Bird, this is a very difficult globular to observe. I've picked it up before, but there must have been some glop in the atmosphere early on, as this, our first target, was very elusive. Three dim stars running mostly N/S pointed to a dim haze to their south. An arc of stars to the southwest and a single star to the northeast seem to border the haze. This one is a challenge object. I tried 20mm, 12mm and 7mm Naglers. I have to list this as a DNF that night as the "haze" was too much like, lumpy darkness....

NGC 6751, planetary nebula. In an easy location off the naked eye tail stars of Aquila. This small planetary was visible using 20 Nagler and no filter. With 7 Nagler and NPB filter it appeared annular, and without a central star. Occasionally I felt there were "sprites" popping in and out along the outer edges of the disk.

The planetary nebula PK40-0.1 is also known as Abell 39. There are three stars running generally e/w under the western wing of the Eagle at mags 5.6, 6.5 and 5.2 tht point directly to the target. This is another challenging object. The most convincing view was with a 12 Nagler and OIII filter. The planetary sits just off a mag 11.3 double star 5' to its nw, and mag 13 star 1.3' to its n. The object was very "in and out" at first, settling into occasionally held with averted vision.

ngc6755 was next. This is a nice large open cluster with another small open, ngc6756, next to it. The view is somewhat reminiscent of the pair M35 and ngc2158. It is a short star hop from Abell 39. The cluster appears to be in three main sections, rather unusual, separated by dark lanes. ngc6756 fits in the same field using a 20 Nagler.

ngc6760, globular cluster. Just over three degrees south of the open clusters sits this easy to view globular. Its bright core diffuses out quite noticeably. It is an easy object to find and see. It seems on the verge of resolving, and appears to extend asymmetrically more to its s.

ngc6773, open cluster in Aquila. My notes say "yawn".... this small open is in a very easy to find location, but appears to consist of maybe four stars. I have to agree with Richard, its OC's like this one that makes one lose their taste for opens!

ngc7184, galaxy in Aquarius. We shot over to this galaxy as it was creating a stir among several of the observers. I think it was Albert Highe who suggested it. Jamie Dillon could be heard in near ecstasy ooohing and ahhhhing over it. Before going further, I'll mention that that is part of the fun being out in a large group. Interestingly, some people don't hear the others out there, but I sure do. I knew Greg LaFlamme was having a blast breaking apart Stephen's Quintet. Matthew Marcus' voice was unmistakable at the south end of the lot. Richard and I kept looking over and seeing Jamie's scope standing alone, as he was spending a lot of time by Albert - we considered moving his scope to the other side of his car while he was on extended leave. I think everyone was having fun, and of course, as all this took place the sky continued to darken as the fog layer grew ever thicker.

Back to 7184. It was worth the trip. It is a large no-doubt-about-it lenticular galaxy, extended ne to sw, and quite elongated. To its north extend three other galaxies, ngc7180, ngc7186 and ngc7188. Only the last one required some effort to pull out.

ngc7137 is an interesting galaxy in Pegasus, our next stop using the Night Sky Observer's Guide. It too is in an easy location to hop to, using a series of mag 3 and mag 4 "constellation figure" stars lined up e/w to get there. A star nearly touches the western edge of the galaxy, visually changing its shape from round to somewhat fan shaped. In fact, Richard suggested it looked like Hubble's Variable Nebula (aka, Richard's Comet). I agreed.

On a line south of the preceding stars of the Great Square of Pegasus sits ngc7469, a roundish galaxy with IC5283 dimly sitting very close by. The brighter galaxy was mag 13 and elongated 1.5'x1' ese/wnw. Sitting perpendicular to it to the ne is the IC galaxy, clearly visible at mag 14.8 and elongated .8'x.4' ne/sw. This was the dimmest object seen easily during the night.

Nearby was Pal 13, one of the difficult Palomar globulars. We were so close by, and its in such an easy location, we figured "why not?". The glob is moving toward us, so eventually it should brighten up ;-) But at its current mag 15.6 all I could pick up was a very occasional glow, slightly elongated, with the 7 Nagler. This also would have to go into the DNF file, as I don't know if I was seeing it, or just some lumpy darkness. While in the area, I kept running into the big and bright galaxy ngc7479 to the sw. This galaxy is worth a visit!

ngc7625 is listed as a round galaxy in Pegasus, about 4' northeast of Markab (Alpha Pegasi). It appeared to have an elongated core, wsw/ene with a brighter area to the ene. I thought it might be a face on spiral with a possible bar.

By now it was getting late. Richard and I kept saying "this'll be the last object"... but somehow, kept going. It was about 3 a.m. and we were very surprised to see how many die hards there were still observing. We had some conjecture that places like Coe drew more of the die-hard crowd, whereas other places - Montebello and Coyote appealed more to the out-by-midnight or one observers. Whatever, it was astonishing to see so may people still at it.

On the border of Pegasus and Pisces is ngc7743, a nice large bright galaxy with a brighter inner section and a stellar core. It sits in an attractive field with several bright finder stars. I felt it looked spiral with a hint of arms.

Our last target in Pegasus was ngc7800, an elongated galaxy on the "line" from Gamma to Alpha Pegasi. I found it surprisingly difficult to locate, probably a result of fatigue. Perhaps I should have had more pasta salad at dinner. The galaxy was unusual in appearance. It was rather elongated, but not overly so, about 3x2 nne/ssw. What was odd was a noticeably brighter nne end. After leaving the eyepiece, I looked at the DSS image and sure enough, this galaxy is disturbed and does show variation at its extremes.

Richard and I left Pegasus at that point, and headed to the waters. Down deep, low in Cetus, on its western extreme bordering Sculptor, is ngc45. This is a big galaxy. It reminds me about the big southern galaxies I rarely visit. ngc45 is encouragement. While this is a large object, there is a mag 6.8 star very nearby in the field that makes the galaxy more difficult that you'd expect. The galaxy seemed involved with a star to its north, extending dimly away to its south. I enjoyed the subtle nature of this target's soft and obscured glow. It, like the other's I'd seen during the night, were all enjoyable. I will dis no galaxy, lest others dis mine....

The final target of the night was ngc145, up higher in the western end of Cetus. It turned out to be my favorite observation of the night. It appeared large and elongated 3x2 from the wnw to ese. At lower power it had an even brightness, and no central concentration. When I mag'd up with the 7 Nagler a weak central concentration appeared, oddly, oriented n/s, almost perpendicular to the major axis of the galaxy. Checking the DSS image afterwards, I called Richard over for a look. It is sure fun to pick out detail in these distant objects....

The night was over. People were breaking down, other than few of the most determined of the hard core. We talked briefly with Albert and Jamie, then hit the sack. I woke with the sun coming in the windows of the truck, after 3.5 hours sleep. We packed up the scopes and headed out.

Back down the hill, through the fog, to downtown San Jose and the bright night skies of home, where not only the stars, but whole constellations go to die...

Monday, August 14, 2006

Naked Eye Sunspot

Saw it mentioned on s.a.a. just now. Put on my handy dandy Eclipse Shades looked out the back window and sure enough... big black no-doubt-about-it spot on the sun at about 5:30 halfway to the limb from center.

If you have a good solar filter, have a look....

Saturday, August 5, 2006


Friday afternoon I drove to Lick Observatory to volunteer as a docent at the Music of the Spheres program. I had been looking forward to the evening, as the scheduled performance was by Andean flute master Oscar Reynolds, and a lecture by Geoff Marcy of extra-solar planet fame. The only drawback was a 77 percent moon, which would obliterate all but the brightest of deep sky targets. However, there was also the promise of observing from 4200 feet elevation in what are regularly very steady skies... after the public left, and after moonset.... so all in all, the plan was a winner.

The drive up was beautiful, as usual. About one hour of attentive but relaxing cruising, past great mountain views, past lakes, quail running across the roads, old twisted oaks, grazing cattle, all the while with the domes atop the peak getting progressively larger... then suddenly the turn toward the offices and domes of the 36" Clark refractor and 40" Nickel Ritchey-Chretien. I was the first of the group to arrive. Marek Cichanski, Jeff Crilly and Sandra Macika would arrive to round out the crew of telescope volunteers.

As the concert began, the sound of the flute, really Andean pipes, took me back to the sounds of street performers in La Serena Chile, an astronomy trip from 2005.

As the concert was taking place, the night's speaker came by and spent time looking through Marek's telescope, interested in particular in the spectrographic eyepiece showing emission and absorption lines of various stars. The observatory draws top notch speakers. I've enjoyed listening to Alex Fillipenko at Lick as well.

Bottom line, volunteering as a docent at Lick has lots of benefits!

I was looking through Jeff's 12" Meade Advanced RC, at the moon. While I enjoyed some of the detail in Clavius and Plato, I noted the slow rolling effect the atmosphere was giving. The view looked as if it were through a slow stream of water. Not terrible seeing, but it would make splitting tight doubles more of a challenge.

After the public left I began observing in Cepheus, and spent much of the night there, then in Cygnus and finally Andromeda. The first target was Pi Cepheus, a mag 4.4 1.2 arc second double in an easy location near the pointed top of the constellation. While easy to get, this one would not split with the 7 Nagler and 2X barlow, due to unsteadiness.

Before more on what I observed, there were several double stars on my list, and really few challenging deep sky targets, due to the moon phase and proximity of lights from San Jose, but I did include a few.

Struve 2923 is SAO 20150, an easy double to split at mags 6.3 and 9.5, a nice difference. They sit 9.5" apart with a yellow primary west of its red secondary. This double is found is an easy hop within the "hat" of Cepheus.

I moved to Struve 2883, SAO 19922 is a naked eye target at mag 5.5, just west of the prior target, and slightly wider with an almost opposite position angle It is a yellow primary with nearly yellow companion to its southwest.

Six and a half degrees east southeast, outside the "hat" in Cepheus is Omricon, a double with separation of 3.1" and mags 4.9 and 71. Nice double, good split with 12 Nagler. Both yellow, primary is to northeast of secondary.

Struve 457 is very easy to locate, just off the bright star in the center of the box of Cepheus. Its very tight with 7 Nagler. Yellow/white primary with almost violet secondary to its west. This is SAO 20554, mags 5.0 and 7.6 with a separation of 1.3'.

Next object was Abell 75, or NGC 7076, which I decided to skip, thinking this sky was too bright. I continued on the doubles.

Stuve 2950 is SAO 20281. I had no split with 7 Nagler. Or possible very tight split, equal colors and mags - maybe hint of a north south orientation, ruddy color. Mags 6.1 and 7.4 with a 1.4" separation.

Before continuing, I'll go back to the public part of the night. The music was excellent. I could stand in the patio behind the main building, look through the glass doors to the back of the stage, see the audience to the left, right and in front. Oscar is an excellent performer, on guitar, singing, and playing flute. Once the performance ended, he came out back with his small young son, and both looked through my 18" Dob. The little boy was looking at Epsilon Lyra, and describing it. The entire musical group looked. Had a great time with them.

As the other guests waited to view through the 36", they came out back and looked through our scopes. I mostly showed Epsilon Lyra, the Blinking Planetary (people love it when this object blinks!), M13, M3 and the Veil. Others were showing the moon, M57 and spectra of stars. It was a bright night.

Back to what I observed after the public left...

15 Cepheus is SAO 34016, and is part of a nice chain of four stars in a line. At mag 6.7 and 11.4 its separation is 11.1", it was an easy split with my 12 Nagler. The primary is off white, secondary is blue/green.

Struve 440 is easy in 12mm, primary is gold, secondary is green and to south. Nice double. Mags 6.4 and 10.7, separation of 11.4", SAO 33443. It is an easy hop from Alpha Cephei.

A short hop south southwest is Struve 2790, an excellent double due to the primary's redness. Secondary is blue, dim, and close to north east. SAO 33443, mags 5.7 and 10.0, separation 3.4".

One of my favorite multiple stars in Struve 2816, close to Mu Cephei. It has a yellow primary flanked by two white/blue companions of equal mag. Its SAO number is 33626. What puzzled me was another double, that had the shared Struve 2816's location, Burnham 1143. Perhaps the dim secondary, mag 13.3, is too dim to pick out on a breezy night, with a tighter 1.6" separation.

That turned out to be the last double of the night. It was now past two, the moon was gone, and the next object was Abell 77, a planetary I was not going to attempt. But I changed my mind. Its located in an easy spot, Mu Cephei to Struve 2816 and beyond, just before SAO 33458. I was very surprised to see it. I observed a definite smallish gray round glow using an OIII in 12 nagler. After this, I felt encouraged to return to Abell 75.

Abell 75, or NGC 7076, is at a very easy location, almost exactly a degree east of Alpha Cephei. I could see it without a filter. Putting the OIII filter in on the 12 Nagler made it easy to see, roundish, annular,brighter on N edge. Larger than Abell 77.

I then went an a short open cluster spree. It is amazing the variety open clusters come in. I think they are more diverse than galaxies or planetaries. Some are very easy, others are extremely tough.

The first was NGC 7086 in the far northern reaches of Cygnus. Very easy to identify, bright, large, perhaps 8x8, about 8 bright stars, a dozen dimmer, then many dim stars, somewhat heart shaped. Stands out from field.

Next was an open cluster not on my target list. Turns out, a red star, BD +48 4070, or SAO 53088 is embedded in NGC 7686. Red, bright, yellow/orange actually, offset in eastern portion of the cluster which has many bright stars - it seems sparse, but has many dim members in western portion.

I was off to the one piece of eye candy on my list, M39. Its an easy location. Actually, it showed up well in my 10x70 finder, I could see the individual stars in the cluster. It is a beautiful bright coarse sparse open cluster filling up to 48 arc minutes of the field in my 20 Nagler. I'm sure I've used the term before, but this has a poor man's Beehive feel to it. The number of bright stars is great!

I used stars in M39 to star hop to the dim cluster NGC 7067, which is part of the Herschel 400-II list. My notes describe it as difficult, small, seven or eight brighter stars over oval sprinkle of many dim stars elongated east/west. Showed better in 12 than 20 Nagler. This is frost on a window in winter.

The last object of the night was open cluster NGC 7082, also on the Herschel 400-II. This cluster formed a nice equilateral triangle with M39 and NGC 7067, so it too was easy to find. This entire area is rich in open clusters. NGC 7082 is a large sparse cluster mixed in with into Milky Way fields to its north and south. Large number of dim background stars interspersed with a handful of brighter members helps define it.

By now it was almost 4:30 in the morning. I was licked. This is the latest I'd observed in a long time. Marek and Jeff remained as I crawled into my truck for a short rest. After an hour I was back out, sunrise glowing warmly over the dome of the Shane 120 to our east. Jeff packed up as did I, and we headed down the mountain. It had been a surprisingly good night.

Next observing will be Houge Park in a few weeks, then off to Willow Springs for new moon. Already looking forward to it.

Saturday, July 29, 2006

Reflections from Coe: Looking In The Mirror Again...

We arrived at Coe to find Peter and Tony in the lot. The sky had high clouds to the west, over the coastal range. It was shirtsleeve temps. Toward and through sunset we had a wonderful display - light rays looking like a large crown above a bank of clouds that hid the sun. This continued through sunset, when reds and golds underlit thinner clouds that spread across the bay - a really outstanding light show - finishing with a short deep red solar pillar standing out clearly. Nature is the greatest artist.

There was enough dew early on to wet the seat on my observing chair, but that's always the first thing to dew up. I heard a comment about a scope being wet, but I never noticed it on mine. I had my 18" f/4.5 Obsession, as did Richard set up next to me. As the sky darkened we began doing bright double stars - as a prelude to a varied observing list I put together. Other observers there were Peter Natscher with his 18" Starmaster, Bob Jardine with a 12.5" Portaball, Alan Zaza and a Meade 12.5" Lightbridge (is that right?), Tony Hurtado - I forget Tony - did you have a bigger Dob back there down the parking lot? - and Chris Kelly (who I'm tempted to nickname Houdini after seeing him compress into the back of a small Audi (?) sports coupe to nap) with a TeleVue NP101.

There were very few visitors. A woman who looked familiar appeared in the distance from the path to the park headquarters and watched late sunset by the entry gate, then disappeared again. As dark fell a couple women were looking through Tony's scope for a while.

First split was of Izar, as the constellations were starting to show. Easy split with the 12 and 7 Nagler. Didn't take notes on it, but it was such a sharp and clean split I thought "what's a challenge?"

Once it got dark some yahoos in two vehicles drove into the lot, lights blazing, until they were shouted at to turn them off - they were out joyriding, not knowing where they were, and politely left. Peter closed the gate after them. We had already begun observing.

I pointed the scope south to Antares. In went the 7 Nagler - at 294X there was a no doubt about it clean split. The companion was in the glare of Antares, but watching carefully easily showed "The Green Pea". Antares color was great - a brilliant yellow-orange.

I could hear others mentioning the outstanding seeing.... and this bode well, as my list had several good doubles.

The list ran from highest to lowest declination, and began with the double Beta Cephei (8 Ceph, mag 3.23 at RA: 21h 28m 39.60s Dec: +70 33'38.5"). This was an easy split at low power (20 Nagler = 103X).

We moved to the middle of the box of Cepheus to Xi (17 Ceph, mag 4.26 at RA: 22h 03m 47.45s Dec: +64 37'40.7"). Similar PA as Beta Ceph - closer - brighter is yellow/white, dimmer gold.

Next was the nice same field pair, NGC 6939 (mag 7.8 at RA: 20h 31m 24s Dec: +60 38") and NGC 6946 (mag 8.9 at RA: 20h 31m 24s Dec: +60 38'). While there was more detail in the bigger scopes, the nicest view may have been in Chris' NP101, where both objects were framed nicely in the wide field. I observed them with the 20 Nagler. 6939 is a a nice large open, many stars with 3 chains hanging off the S to SSW, tight knot of stars to the east of center. 6946 is large, as big as open, has a brightened tight core, arms curling counterclockwise - the arms are to E and W. This galaxy is current the record holder for most supernovae.

It was a short hop to Mu Cephei. Known as Herschel's Garnet Star (mag 4.23 at RA: 21h 43m 30.46s Dec: +58 46'48") - Very deep orange - highlight red star compared to others I'd observe during the night. The description "ruddy" orange applies.

W Cygni is a nice red star at nearly mag 6 (RA: 21h 36m 02.50s Dec: +45 22'28.53"), located very close to mag 5 Rho Cygni. W is coppery or dried blood red.

61 Cygni (mags 5.2 and 6.0, RA: 21h 06m 53.9s Dec: +38 44'57.9") is a famous double with nice cream and gold colors. This double has a large proper motion, which drew attention to it early on, and it became the second star after the sun to have its distance measured (via parallax).

We had periods of clouds coming through. At one point, looking toward Sagittarius and along the Milky Way, a cloud band seemed to merge with it, along its length, and it was difficult to tell the earthly clouds from the band of the galaxy.

M29 was the next target. This is to me the least impressive of the Messier catalog, aside from the double star and asterism. Easy to locate (mag 6.6 at RA: 20h 23m 54s Dec: +38 32') near Gamma Cygni, this open cluster is a pair of chains in slight arcs bowing away from each other running generally E/W. There are many dim components in between - Northern arc (each arc is 3 stars) has two more stars off NW end.

Lamda Cygni (54 Cygni at RA: 20h 47m 24.54s Dec: +36 29'26.58") is a tight double, with a 0.9' separation - a very tight split. Used a 2x barlow and 7mm for 588X, giving a clean split. Bright component mag 4.8 to the north, dimmer mag 6.1 is southern star. This double is very easy to find with the unaided eye. Interesting that The Sky does not show it as a double.

We knew the seeing was good, but going after a galaxy trio off Miles Paul's list would test the transparency. NGC 7273, NGC 7274 and NGC 7276 are in Lacerta just east of 1 Lacertae. NGC 7274 (RA: 22h 24m 11s Dec: +36 07'32") was the brightest at mag 13.3. Three galaxies in a line running n/s, southern two closer together but not much - middle is brightest, two others about equal mag. S one is very close to a dim star. Middle has bright core.

V 460 Cygni is on the red star list. I found it unimpressive, but it has color - lightly tinted - more yellow than red. Its a little tougher to find, but helped that it is one of three naked eye stars in a slight arc ranging from mag 6 to 6.5.

Next we viewed the Veil Nebula and its finder/double star 52 Cygni. The Veil was showing very well - the NGC 6960 western section at 171X using a 12 Nagler and OIII filter was outstanding - the thin section looking like a glowing tube - or like a high power microscopic view of cilia on plankton. 52 Cygni is a close double with wide mag difference. Bright yellow and dim green. Dimmer is to EENE of primary. Nice color contrast. The NGC 6979 section of the Veil was very billowy compared to Witch's Broom side, long, outstanding detail in Waterfall area, which is brighter - down toward other end as it gradually dims.

NGC 6934 is a good globular off the tail of Delphinus (mag 8.9, RA: 20h 34m 12s Dec: +07 24'). Very nice at 294X. 3 density zones with a bright core overlayed by many of the brightest stars in the cluster. Seems elongated NS but also seems to have spikes to E and W.

Mu Cygni (78 Cygni, mag 4.5 and 4.8, RA: 21h 44m 08.59s Dec: +28 44'33.48"). Good clean split at 294X, sitting NW/SE with brighter to SE. Brighter is yellow/white and dimmer gold yellow. Easy location on border with Pegasus.

Back toward the Veil, but in Vulpecula, is open cluster NGC 6940 (mag 6.3 at RA: 20h 34m 36.s Dec: +28 18') is a treat. Large filling the field of both 20 Nagler and pretty much in 35 Panoptic. Many bright members throughout - a greatly overlooked cluster - better than many Messier opens - nice red star in denser southern half. Easy location.

It was now past 2 a.m. and the sky was dark. Fog lay in all the valleys and the light dome over San Jose was muting down. A few observers had left, I think one was sleeping in his truck, and four of us remained at our telescopes. This was probably the best observing of the night, aside from the great steadiness we enjoyed earlier. Now the breeze picked up a bit, making us work harder on tight doubles. But the increased dark was what we needed for some of the dim galaxies we'd go after.... I hadn't observed like this at Coe in about two years, energized, engrossed.

Gamma Delphinus is the nose of the dolphin.... a very easy target. Its a clean split at 103X with yellow white primary E of yellow green slightly dimmer companion. Nice double.

South of Gamma is the galaxy trio NGC 6956, UGC 11620 and UGC 11623. The NGC is the brightest (mag 14 at RA: 20h 44m 0s Dec: +12 31'). In almost an equilateral triangle. Brightest is round with two dimmer ones both elongated NE/SW. Dimmer galaxies stood out with 12 Nagler, difficult in the 20 Nagler.

Moving off the tail of the dolphin, back toward the globular, is the galaxy trio of NGC 6927, NGC 6928 and NGC 6930. This is from the Miles Paul Atlas, which mistakenly has NGC 6929 instead of NGC 6930. The brightest is NGC 6928 (mag 13.5, RA: 20h 32m 51.0s Dec: +09 55'49"). All three are elongated - nice view - 6928 brightest and at E/W cant, 6930 also obvious, 6927 difficult but can be held averted - two dimmer at N/S elongation.

We also viewed six galaxies in one tight field in Aquarius. NGC 6962 is the brightest (mag 12, RA: 20h 47m 18s Dec: +00 19'). I used the 7 Nagler at 293X to bring out the dimmer components. NGC 6963 is the challenge in the group at mag 14.7. Peter had a very nice view of this group.

It was now late, after 3 a.m. We looked at Zeta Aquarii - a tight double star with almost identical colors and magnitude (mags 3.3 and 3.4, RA: 22h 28m 49.9s Dec: -00 01'11.9"). It is the center of the "Mercedes Symbol" in Aquarius. White yellow / green yellow NW/SE nice clean split and beautiful with 7 Nagler.

Our last object of the night was Hickson 88 in Aquarius - NGC 6975, NGC 6976, NGC 6977 and NGC 6978. NGC 6978 is the brightest (mag 13.3 at RA: 20h 52m 36.s Dec: -05 43'). NGC 6975, 76 and 77 In a line. 6978 brightest, 77 slightly larger, 76 further away and dimmest. Did not find nearby NGC 6975.

I got into my truck, onto a tri-fold futon for the night. I've ended many great nights at Coe this way.

In the morning, the fog was still low over the valleys. To the east fog was higher, lapping at the ridges dividing us from the Central Valley. I packed up and headed down the mountain. Nearing the freeway I found myself looking in the rear view mirror, reflecting, back to the night, and smiled.

Mirrors can sure show us a lot!

Wednesday, July 26, 2006

Nelms Star Party 2006

Eleven amateur astronomers met for the Nelms Memorial Star Party at Mount Lassen last week. "NELMS" as we call it (Naked Eye Limiting Magnitude Sensational!), is a continuation of fourteen years of observing at Mount Lassen. Elevation and darkness made it successful, and particularly so at the Bumpass Hell parking lot, although the Devastated Area is not far behind.

During this trip I realized the differences between the two observing sites. Devasated seems darker, with no view of the central valley and any possible light encroachment. Bumpass is two thousand feet higher - perhaps a critical two thousand for transparency - any higher for some people results in negative visual effects.

We stayed at Summit Lake South campgrounds, five minutes drive from Devastated, but fifteen or more minutes (slower heading there uphill) to Bumpass. My campsite was fifteen feet from the lake, a beautiful view out of the screened porch of my tent. Great spot.

A quick bit about the star party. It is by invitation. It started with maybe five friends. That night fourteen years ago when we stepped out of our cars at Devastated and looked up, we couldn't believe how dark it was! Of course, thinking back on it now, we just weren't dark adapted. But it was dark enough that finding the Keystone in Hercules was not easy - lost in way more stars than we were accustomed to. In only a few years the group grew to 30, then 60, and we soon we were going twice a summer. It continued to grow until it was too big for the observing sites, and the Shingletown Star Party was born. Late in 1998 our observing buddy Alan passed away, and the Lassen Star Party became NELMS. Since then, the people that contribute to administering and improving TAC and SSP, and Alan's original observing buddies, all get together once a year in the best place we can, and have a great star party.

Our first night was a short one. Everyone had driven up, arriving from 11 a.m. on. I was a late arrival at 5 p.m. After setup and dinner we headed to Devastated. The shorter drive after a day of driving and iffy conditions made the closer site a better choice.

The mosquitoes at Devastated were very happy to see us. They wouldn't leave us alone - until temps dropped. I expected this as Hat Lake and Hat Creek are nearby and the heat wave had them hatching furiously (and hungrily). I've only seen it like that there once before. We've had worse, but that's another story.

After the skeeters we got down to observing. Joe Bob took about a 21.8 on his SQM thingy - which I've come to understand measures dark but not limiting mag. Dean, Richard and I observed with two 18" f/4.5 Dobs. We were using a list I'd generated of Hicksons, Herschel 2500, Steve Gottlieb SSP Challenge List, and Miles Paul Atlas of Galaxy Trios. I'll provide observing notes at the end of this report. The list provided a challenging objects appropriate for high-elevation and dark skies.

Clouds moved in around midnight. Such are the risks booking Lassen trips - thunderstorms and monsoon have certainly become more common over the past five years up there. Once back in camp, the sky cleared.

Friday morning came with the sound of rain on the tent. At first occasional, like pine needles dropping one by one on the rain fly, then steady, then heavy. 6 a.m. It rained off and on all day, but never heavy enough to drive us into our tents. Some people stayed in camp, others went to Manzanita Lake for the store, escape from the mosquitoes, and showers.

The evening had us hopeful, set up under partly clear but mostly cloudy skies, again at Devastated. Lightning was off in the distance to the east. Two hours later all but two or three packed it in. The few remaining were treated to a spectacular lightning display. In camp we had a fire, sat and talked and had a good time. Lassen always turns out to be a good camping trip, in addition to the astronomy.

Through an open slit on the east side of my tent I could see a clear sunrise. Late morning several of us sitting around together saw a 27 day old moon about 23 degrees off the sun between the trees. From a planetarium program determined where Venus should be.... and between the trees, there it was, bright in the daylight. That was fun.

The day stayed clear, other than normal afternoon thunder clouds building up in the east. Normal stuff that dissipates after the heating subsides. We all headed up, on the last night, to Bumpass Hell parking lot.

This is a fantastic place. To our south an enormous chasm in the earth, the weathered caldera of ancient Mount Tehama - now rimmed by Brokeoff Mountain, Diamond Peak and Mount Diller. To our west lay the pointed shards of the volcano rim, a jagged skyline that silhouettes against the sunset like no place on earth. East of us the pass, with camp camp on the other side. The road still ten feet deep between walls of snow stained red by watermelon algae. North, behind us the volcanic vent of Lassen Peak, over 10,000 feet up top, with huge lava extrusions sticking out of its sides - "Frankenstein Neck Bolts" probably big as Pac Bell Park frozen in place for the last ninety years. What a setting! It is something that *never* gets old....

As darkness fell, and the stars popped out, I was talking with a friend, mentioning how very special this site is, its location among the top few observing sites (for amateurs) in North America. It is an "alive" setting, especially given the geology of the place. It has memories of years and of friends. It provided some of the best observing I've experienced. Standing there watching the Milky Way spin overhead... it becomes a magical.

Saturday night we had one of those special nights. It is difficult to really describe the dark, there are so many stars it does not really *seem* dark. The Milky Way is bright horizon to horizon. Sometimes you think it has a blue tint. But, the space between the stars, the voids, that's dark. The dust lanes in the Milky Way finger out wide into places you never see anywhere else. Barnard's E - The Prancing Horse - is easily seen. That's a rare sky. I've seen like that maybe a few dozen times. The place is made for observing. During the night I referred to it, to a friend, as an astronomical "navel of the earth". Like Cuzco to the Incas, Delphi to the Greeks, Rapa Nui, Makkah, or "beneath the Bo Tree", this place is where you connect like nowhere else. Ancients thought symbolically of such connections as being atop a cosmic mountain.

From Devastated on Thursday night (short night due to clouds): Palomar 5. This globular is an easy star hop from amazing M5. What a great way to start toward a challenge - desert first! There is a nice easy asterism that walks you on a star hop to Pal 5. But that's it. >From there the tough part starts. Dean, Richard and I all struggled with this one. I don't recall Richard's observation - but Dean and I saw a very faint glow just off or involved with a dim star (mag 14) between mag 9 and mag 10.5 stars. To say dim is to barely describe it. This is seeing a ghost of a ghost. But it was (barely) there. I consider this a challenge object - but observable. I should have tried it at Bumpass.

From the Galaxy Trio Atlas we hunted down N6927, N6928 and N6929 in Delphinus. With few exceptions, these trios are a challenge. But, not impossible.

We then went for the Corona Borealis Galaxy Cluster. I've heard this cluster of galaxies are 0.5 BLY distant, and amazing number. I asked about this group, and heard they would appear as fuzzy very dim stars, or dim planetaries - at the edge of perception, and that three, or was it five, would be potentially visible. We had some luck at 283X in identifying three. We saw MGC5-36-23, MCG5-36-20 and I saw for a very short period MCG5-36-18. Only the first was obvious.

Saturday night at Bumpass:

We began in Libra on NGC 5916A, NGC 5915 and NGC 5916. Easy position, using Gamma and Beta to get to a mag 5.7 star between them as the jumping off point. But then it became a challenge. NGC 5915 was bright

and easy, but where were the others? Dimmer, by three mags, and one of them, the brighter one, large enough to have a very dim surface brightness. We worked on this trio for a while.

Next object was off the Steve Gottlieb SSP Challenge list. Fun list! But I found this target bright compared to others. It and UGC9821 showed up well, faint, but really no problem picking them up. Attribute it to transparency and elevation! Nearby is a cluster of galaxies, dim little ones... Navarrete got caught up logging them, I think he quit after 9. When I looked in his eyepiece, I counted seven.

There was another Gottlieb challenge - IC 4553, also known as Arp 220. This dim galaxy is not difficult to see. I don't have notes on it, but if I remember correctly, it seemed to have a very bright nucleus.

NGC 5981, NCG 5982 and NGC 5983. A trio in ... Draco. Do you know these galaxies? This is a classic "worth the trip" trio. Look it up, I'm not going to spoil it with a description. Even smaller scopes, its worth it.

NGC 6070, NGC 6070A and NGC 6070B. This was a challenge. The primary NGC is trivial to see. The other two are challenging. There are two dim stars extending out NE of the big galaxy, and the other two tiny galaxies are just off of those two stars. It is an interesting and beautiful image, look it up in the Digital Sky Survey.

MCG+8-31-3, 3A and an anonymous galaxy are misnamed in Miles Paul's Atlas, as MCG+9... this confusion was a huge time sink, as we were all trying to understand how the trio could look anything like the image in the atlas. Then it dawned on me. Ug. Steve Gottlieb has a simple solution, mark the atlas, correct the number. But its a fun trio. You use two brighter galaxies to hop to the brightest member of the trio. The second brightest member is nearby but dim to the NNE. With magnification, the anon galaxy pops out, in and out, just off the west of the brightest member. Cool, challenging trio. Note though, only two of the galaxies are plotted on Software Bisque's "The Sky"...

MCG +14-08-17 from Steve's Challenge List is fun. There is a very good asterism from which to star hop to this dim galaxy. And there is a treat, and a surprise. Aside from this MCG, there are four other galaxies, dim ones, that in a dark sky will show up in the same field. But even when you find those, they are not where they are plotted, and in fact, there are five galaxies, not the four that are plotted. Check it out.

IC 1534, IC 1535 and IC 1536. Navarrete nailed this one, I had trouble with the field. But once there, the three ICs showed at low power, three dim galaxies close together in a line east to west. As a bonus, another Miles Paul trio (sound like a jazz band?) sits very close to the north, also oriented east and west. The other three are bright by comparison, NGCs 49, 50 and 51. Can you tell from the NGC numbers at about what RA these are located? These six galaxies are a fine sight in one field. I think I've also observed them all from Lake San Antonio, during Calstar.

A new trio for me was NGC 127, NGC 128 and NGC 130. This one is one of those views that you remember. NGC 128 is bright, and close by to its west is NGC 125, another bright galaxy. You have to "Mag Up" (Thanks, Marek, for the wonderful new astro term!) on 128 to "split out" its two very close neighbors - the other two members of the trio. They sit one on each side of the north/south elongated NGC 128 - each just off the midpoint. It is a very cool sight - this bright galaxy girdled by two small dim ones.

BTW... all these observations begin with my 20 Nagler, then I Mag Up to the 12 Nagler, and finish with a 7 Nagler. Sometimes I wanted more power, but there's only so much time...

On to NGC 138, NGC 139 and NGC 141.... these three are very faint. I had to identify star asterisms in the field of view to know I was in the right spot. But they were there. I then moved half a degree east to a tight trio of MCG galaxies, a full mag dimmer. And nowhere to be found. Something for next year. There's *always* something for next year...

Skies at Bumpass were, for me, well over mag 7. 50 stars in the Pegasus triangle - that's NELMS.

Thursday, July 13, 2006

M13, IC galaxy & six moons of Saturn viewed

Congratulations to Ray Gralak, who, with his 17" dob, sighted the elusive IC galaxy close by M13. This was at Fremont Peak Sunday morning 07/14. I was at first sceptical, since my previous view in much darker skies was only very fleeting. But, after I observed it, the sighting was confirmed by other observers, then repeated afterward on a 20" Obsession f/5.

Next, while viewing Saturn, six moons were viewed (through the 20" scope). Since I am not familiar with the two "extra" moons magnitudes, can anyone else on s.a.a. attest to a similar experience (with an amateur size scope)?

Lots of other great views at Fremont Peak last night. Far to many to list from memory.

Friday, July 7, 2006

ISS transit across the moon tonight in San Jose

You bet that was fun! I was indoors and realized it was 9:16... went out back looked at the moon and there to the north was the ISS, very bright, heading right toward the moon. As it got "to" the moon it seemed to disappear into Luna's brightness, and almost as fast appeared past the moon, speeding away... kind of a reverse occulatation! Nice to be on a centerline for a change!

Wednesday, June 14, 2006

Lick Observatory June 14

I always marvel at that drive up Mount Hamilton. The narrow road twists almost non-stop beyond Grant Ranch County Park. It is a pretty drive, city and mountain views, lakes, wildlife, its difficult to not enjoy it, but it is as twisty an hour's drive as I know. And, from what I'm told, the backside over to the San Antonio Valley is even twistier. Hard to imagine. I was a passenger in Rich Neuschaefer's vehicle - so I was able to enjoy the luxury of a passenger's perspective... including being on the cliff side of the road (whew!).

We could see the Del Puerto Canyon fire smoke plume on the drive up. It was not threatening the observatory, but from Lick the eastern sky was thick with it, blowing northeast and southwest along the ridgeline 20 miles away. It was an amazing sight - we watched the fire through binoculars and Dan Wright's 10" SCT - what a job those firefighters have - that thing was quickly running south along the ridge - to the north entire mountainsides were grey with ash, destroyed by the flames. Through the binocular you could see fire trucks stacked like Matchbox toys all along the ridge - the fire would explode and the trucks make a run back along the fire roads for what I assume was safety - to me, the only safe place was where I was watching from. Trees would explode into flame sending tremendous billows of black smoke skyward - it looked like someone had dropped a bomb there - white billows would follow where the firefighters had attacked the flames. We were fascinated to see the fire running to the south, and flames jumping up here and there - new hot spots popping up in advance of the main body of the beast. This continued until dark, when we could see the flames in their full frightening splendor - they dwarfed the firetrucks - leaping what appeared to be a hundred feet into the air.

You have to respect the men and women who are out there trying to control that thing. Hard to imagine doing that job in the daytime, and unimaginable at night....

We were at the observatory in support of the Music Of The Spheres concert series. The evening's performers were Golden Bough, a Celtic group I had heard at Lick two years ago. Wonderful quartet, a male percussionist mostly on drums, male guitarist, female harp player and lead singer, and a female violinist and accordion player. They're fun to listen to. Next month I'm back there again, for Oscar Reynolds - South American Guitar and Bolivian Flutes: - book your tickets for a fun night:

We ate our dinners as sunset approached - and the guitarist began warming up, beginning with an old 60's tune - Bob Dylan's My Back Pages... I looked in at the stage set up in the main building, the singer silhouetted against the entry... a marriage for me of a favorite song and place. Wonderful start....

The crowd began appearing and we were astronomically off to the races - or so we thought. Everyone headed indoors - to enjoy the band. We were out back away from the city lights, Rich, Jeff Crilly, Dan, and one other scope and owner who I don't know. Ralph Libby was, as usual, manning the front of the observatory. We looked though our scopes, watched the fire, listened to the music and entertained a few latecomers before the snuck into the concert. Temps were warm - an inversion had us at 72 degrees a 1 a.m., whereas it was 56 down the hill on our ride home.

Early on we could tell the seeing was excellent. And I mean *excellent*. There was a slight breeze that would shake my 10" f/5.7 CPT, but not terribly. Rich has a 6.1" AP on a 900 mount, Jeff a new Meade 12" RC on an AP 1200 mount (like a rock baby!), Dan a 10" Meade LX-200. Jupiter was showing tons of detail. Someone remarked on the steadiness suggesting the site would be a prime sport for an observatory....

Once the concert ended, and it still didn't look dark to me, some of the crowd spilled out back to look through out scopes. But not a lot. My opinion is there needs to be more promotion of the astronomy - the looking through telescopes - out back after the concerts. Perhaps the Summer Visitor Program - which alternates dates at Lick with Music Of The Spheres, gets more of a science crowd. Interestingly though, there are more telescopes scheduled on the music nights than the SVP nights. Hard to figure out!

The crowd out back would look through our scopes while waiting their numbers to come up for entry to the dome with the 36" Alvan Clark refractor. I seemed to me M13, M8, M22, Jupiter and M17 were on the menu at the other scopes. Instead, I showed primarily yM11, M5, M3. M5 was the winner, hands down. Even over the dome of the 36, it was a great sight, breaking up into hundreds of perfect stars. I'd go from M5 to M11, explaining to the visitors the differences in age and distance between these two clusters. I also showed M57, a high school aged young lady taking over in explaining what was going on - easy to tell who has real interest. Oh, reminds me.... females and astronomy.... Nice to see Elinor Gates drive by - she must have 10 years in now at Lick - it was a work night for her so she couldn't stay - I hope some day to see her as the first woman director of the observatory - a post he held in interim due to Rem Stone's retirement. A young woman who seemed to be with Lick astronomer Tony Misch stopped by asking about me scope. She is from Los Angeles, and has a 10" scope there, but is attending school on the east coast. She was asking me about building telescopes - hoping to make a 6" travel scope. I though to myself "here's someone with a little interest in astronomy"... later, I heard her telling Rich that's she's on two projects - one, detecting extra-solar planets, and also in a support role with SETI. Gotta love it... a pro who likes time at an actual eyepiece!

Later in the evening I began having fun showing Alberio, asking people what colors the see - you get lots of different answers along with the one you'd expect. I also played with the Blinking Planetary - people get quite a charge out of seeing the nebulosity vanish and the little star pop out - kind of astronomy's version of a Letterman Stupid Pet Trick. Fun stuff. I finished the night showing stragglers a nice split on the Double Double - everyone was able to see the split (7 Nagler in a 1400mm scope) - and able to see the pairs were at right angles to each other.

It has been a fun night. One of the Lick staff came out and said "last call for the 36".... so in I went. The object was the Cats Eye Nebula - NGC 6543 in Draco. The color was obvious, a nice green, central star blazing away. You felt there was some inner detail in the roundish green ball. I also felt there was a very dim outer halo extending away at a right angle to the green disk. Nice view. I'd also forgotten, these sessions are a munchie fest - cold cuts, cheeses, veggies, dips, you name it, all laid out by the controls of the big scope. Yum! Next object was M13, kind of overkill in the 36. It literally filled the field, and did so with a Tele Vue 35mm Panoptic. I wonder what eyepiece would allow more space for this object to sit in?

I'll finish by saying, it is always, always, a charge to walk into that dome. The beautify inlaid wood floor, moving up and down under the scope, that scope itself - 57 feet long, with its history of discovery... and the ghosts of famous observers, who's names are legend for anyone who reads about the science (get Osterbrock's Eye On The Sky - Lick Observatory's First Century)... the place puts the magic into what we do as amateurs, it connects you in the most visceral way I think possible. The sight and smell of the place are profound to those who enjoy the science, aesthetics, and mystery of the universe.

It had been two years since my last trip to Lick. Now, I feel like rereading Eye On The Sky, and am looking forward to my return next month. Not the darkest place I observe, but in a unique way, the deepest....

Clear Skies...