Friday, January 13, 2006

Observing at Fremont Peak Jan 13

Saturday morning found the skies in the San Francisco south bay area to be above a thick layer of fog. The ceiling was 600 feet, but by noon was thinning to the point where I could tell there were no clouds above the fog. My local newspaper forecast showed contradicting reports. The graphic showed starry night skies, the state forecast said cloudy for our area, and the local "micro-climate" report said fog. So, I decide to trust the National Weather Service home page accessible from my club's web-page, which forecast clear skies over low fog, with clouds increasing Sunday.

The drive to Fremont Peak was easy. I had Rich Neuschaefer along in the truck, and by 4:30 PM we pulled in to the observing area. Doug Ferrell was already there setting up a 10" f/4.5, and John Kuklewicz an 18" f/4.5 dob. Noticing a 6" f/7 Astro-Physics refractor on a Parsec mount, we knew that bay area astrophotographer John Gleason was also around somewhere. I set up the 14.5" f5.6 Crazy Ed built dob, and Rich brought out a nice 4" Takahashi on a Gibraltar mount.

Although I am not a "newbie" to observing, compared to some of the celestial Methuselahs on the net and in my club, I am. Having completed the Messier list last in 1994, I began working the Herschel 400, using an unofficial list generated on Dean William's great freeware program NGP. I still don't know what possessed me, but halfway through last summer, I combined all eight Herschel lists included in NGP, sorted them first by constellation, and then in order of descending magnitude, and printed them out. That was it... I decided to do the whole Herschel list (if the 2300-2400 objects actually do comprise of the *complete* list). This project will certainly take a couple years....

Several of our regular group did not come, as the observing conditions had been poor for over a month (significant dewing problems or just to many clouds). This night was truely a case of "if you don't go, you don't know.. as this particular night would make up for all recentdisappointments.

Once dark enough to see, I found that Pisces and Cetus were dropping quickly into the western twilight. I was so disoriented by the changed position of the constellations since my last night out, and the very dark sky, that I could not find (blush) M31. My Hershel hunt was to begin by star hopping to the galaxies clusters between Mirach and M31. I had to sit back in a chair and *study* the sky to realize the great square of Pegasus had turned over since my last good night out. But... once I saw that, it was easy pickings!

The conditions could not have been better. At astronomical dark, the temperature had dropped to only 53 degrees. In November, we were in the 30's (brrrrrr) at sunset. I doubt we dropped below 45 degrees all night. There was only an occasional mild breeze, otherwise the atmosphere was completely motionless. There was no dew... it was BONE DRY! Stars such as Sirius showed virtually no twinkle. The cities of Hollister, Salinas, Watsonville, Santa Cruz all muted out below a fog layer that increased as the night wore on. Even the light dome of San Jose, some 50 or so miles north, was gone by 9 p.m.

Pisces and Cetus soon began dropping out of sight, so it was time to move to the Winter Herschels. On to Orion, Taurus and Lepus, and if time permitted, Gemini and Camelopardalis. In the 14.5" inch, galaxies down to mag 14 were no problem. NGC 1678 in Orion is shown on the NGP as mag 14.5, which was just at my visual limit in those conditions.

All in all, I bagged 28 Hershels, and did not really work hard to do so. The excellent seeing conditions made it fairly routine. But, by midnight, my back was getting a bit tired of bending over my table to look at charts, so it was time to view the "I know where it is" big spectacularobjects.

If you ever do a Hershel hunt, make sure to finish the evening on the Messiers. What a treat! They were so much easier to find and view that the "is it really there" stuff that the Hershey's. My favorites on Saturday were M51 (of course) and M64/M65. I think 64 and 65 are two of the most beautiful pairs in the sky. Their size and PA are nearly identical, and on any kind of reasonable evening, a third, slightly larger galaxy (NGC3268) becomes obvious at a PA perpendicular to the Messiers. M51 ha d fine detail in the spiral arms, and the "bridge" was visible.

For me, the real highlight of the evening came when John Gleason called me over... "Mark... look at this..."... as I approached his scope, I saw that his Zeiss bino-viewers were installed. I knew there was going to be quite a sight in there, but was not prepared for what I saw.

Across the field lay the bright cup of M42, with six pinpoint stars in the Trapezium. In the field around the Trap were other tiny pinpoints. The Nebula itself had a distinct green tint to it. Viewing it with both eyes added an apparent depth of field I could not rival in the 14.5" dob. There is certainly something to be said for quality equipment! SJAA member Terry Kahl who arrived after dark commented to Gleason that it looked like what she saw in her 8" Orion dob (sure, Terry), but then noted that she felt that with the bino-viewers it looked like she could reach around the backside of the nebula. This was easily the sight of thenight.

Before packing up, I called Rich over to look through the 14.5 at the Burning Bush off of Zeta (no relation to Nancy) Orionis. The Bush was gorgeous, glowing like a bright leaf off the star. Rich nudged the scope and said "wait a minute." Back he came with a Lumicon UHC filter. On it went and, looking through the eyepiece, there was the Horsehead... not the most distinct I've seen it, but sure not bad for a UHC with Orion getting low in the west.

I finished off the night with M42 (ever see the little galaxy NGC1924 just west of it?), M35, NGC4565, M3, M53, The Black Eye Galaxy (is that M63?), and other assorted goodies.

The moon rose at 1 a.m. We packed up and drove down the hill toward the fog covered valleys. Till next weekend...

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