Tuesday, May 30, 2006

A Good One At Montebello!

Last night at Montebello was a great example of turning frustration into fun. Arriving around 8, I was there with only two other vehicles in the lot - day hikers. There were clouds overhead and to the west, things did not look promising. But the serenity of the place, views of the green hills, red and brown clouds, made it worth the drive. Andy Pierce had posted his OI for the night, so I decided to hang out either until dark or the ranger arrived, for Andy to show. True to his word, there he was as dusk began to set in. I looked at him, looked at the clouds, and asked if he was setting up. Andy has the right attitude, what the heck, yank 'em out and get 'em ready. You never know.

Early on the clouds were a problem. There was a nice alignment of Castor, Pollux, crescent moon and Mars, with Saturn nearby. I looked at Jupiter, coming in and out - sometimes very sharp, then it would suddenly soften. Over to M104, nice dark lane (clear part of the sky). Peeked up at M3, in a clear space. Dull. There must have been clouds up top too. I shot over to NGC 6910 in Herc, pumped up the power, and had saw a nice dim shell around the very green ball - nice planetary. But, as time passed and dark set in, the clouds gave way to some quite good skies.

I had a very frustrating time at first... I had come out to continue hunting Herschels, but something was wrong with either my battery (please, don't start a battery thread about this), the DC-DC converter (I was cursing Crilly), or with.... with... the laptop. Oh no! To top it off, I had left my charts, a cardinal sin, back on the table in my garage, from observing on Sunday night. I was not happy. Andy suggested we share his SA2000 and Uranometria, but I know that's difficult at best, even though it was a nice offer. I suggested I follow along on whatever Andy was going to observe.

That turned out to be a great. Not only did I learn how another good observer generates interesting lists, we were able to compare views. It was a lot of fun.

While I don't think Montebello last night would have been a really good location for dim Hershels in Virgo, my original plan, I did have some surprises. I did a star count in the Finnish Triangle 11, and came up with 43. That's a good sky. One of the galaxies I picked out last night, NGC 4792, was not on SA2000, and today saw it is not on the older Uranometria either. The Sky lists this object at mag 16.14, and exactly where I saw it. The VMag is actually 15.2, not bad... but I think the surface brightness of 13.4 really helped it show up. I also had a no doubt about it (direct vision) views of NGC 6426 the dim glob in Ophiuchus. And all this was at Montebello!

Andy was working small areas in Virgo and Corvus. He'd put "hops" together of bright or interesting objects. As I said, it was fun. It was also great to get back to paper charts and using the optical finder.

Here are the objects I observed, single galaxies by themselves, others that were one field or close are grouped. I'd recommend all of these targets, Andy did a fine job putting them together in an observing list:

  • NGC 4123
  • NGC 4116 (maybe)

  • NGC 4073

  • NGC 4030

  • NGC 4699
  • NGC 4818
  • NGC 4739

  • NGC 4742
  • NGC 4760
  • NGC 4781
  • NGC 4790

  • NGC 4802
  • NGC 4782
  • NGC 4783
  • NGC 4792
  • NGC 4700

Finished up with fine views of M5, NGC 6426, M51 and finally NGC 4565. Very good night... back home in bed by 1:30....

Now, to figure out the battery problem....

ps - next stop - SSP!

pps - observed with 18" Obsession, 20mm, 12mm and 7mm Naglers.

Saturday, May 27, 2006

Willow Springs brief report

From the observing site back to my house in San Jose this morning it took an hour forty five. That's just under an hour additional compared to going to Coe, only 45 minutes longer than the Peak. Its a good hour shorter than any sites across the Central Valley.

The Squirrel Meter (SQRL) showed somthing like 21.53 or 21.58. To me, the old eyeball method placed the darkness at better than the sites in the Sierra Foothills, better than LSA, and approaching Shingletown. Bumpass Hell Lassen is still the winner, but that's almost 5 hours from here.

The road to Willow Springs is nothing more than the drive to Fremont Peak along the highways, then a short shot down 25 from Hollister (you don't have to drive through Hollister) to the turnoff around Tres Pinos on J1. Its a pretty drive. Once off 25 the road is in a valley, I suppose Panoche Valley, I have to look this up to know for sure. River cut alluvial valley, ranches, parks, creek, trees lining the road, old barns, about halfway to the turnoff for Willow Springs the geology changes as the river valley narrows and climbs. Interesting geological formations, some looking quite volcanic, make the drive enjoyable. Not too many twist and turns, just right, really.

Kudos to the organizers of the trip for the explicit directions, as once you turn into Willow Springs, the number of Y splits in the road could have presented some significant problems. Some parts of the road are a bit steep uphill, but I don't think anyone had a real problem. I put my truck into 4WD and had a blast, especially on the drive back down when you don't worry about turns, you just keep heading downhill till you're back at the J1.

I had for years wondered about the area. If I understood correctly, the J1 continues past Willow Springs to Mercy Hot Springs, on the eastern slope of the mountain range. It was good to finally see what the location had to offer.

If this site becomes an SJAA observing site, I'd encourage those of you who use Fremont Peak and Henry Coe to support the SJAA and use the site, its well worth the drive, and honestly, does not feel like that much longer a trip. The elevation, around 3,000 feet, the darkness, and the southern horizons make this potentially a premier observing location.

As for observing itself, as twilight darkened, many of us enjoyed very steady and detailed views of Jupiter and Saturn. I was using my 10" f/5.7 CPT with a nice Royce Primary. With a 7mm eyepiece, the views were outstanding. The GRS was approaching the leading limb, and strangely seemed bifurcated, I referred to its appearance and Red Spot Mitosis. The banding on the big planet was rich and sharp. The observing site shows it is potentially a very good planetary location. Once it was dark, I switched to my 18" f/4.5 Obsession and hunted down numerous dim galaxies in Virgo. It was chilly, but I had adequate clothing to be comfortable... I used hand and toe warmers to keep the extremities from chilling. Finally, about 1 a.m. some clouds moved in and the RH shot up, dewing everyone out from what I could tell. I chatted with friends for a while, tried the 100mm Miyauchi binos, but those were dewed too. I crawled into the sack around 2 a.m.

Next morning Joe Bob told me the dew dried out shortly after I crashed. But for me, Virgo was heading down by then, and that's my area of interest right now.

I will also say the wind was no factor at all during the night. I should also note the view across the wide valley in the glow of sunset is quite spectacular. The quiet, the openness, being truly away from it all was a great prelude to a very good night.

I'm looking forward to my next trip there. Thanks again to the Bob, the property owner, and Rob and Craig who did such a bang-up job getting all the arrangements made for the night to be a real success.

Wednesday, May 17, 2006

Social Observing at Coyote Lake

It didn't look good.

Sharks lost, season over, a bad start to the night. The pain delayed my departure until what I felt was too late. Turning off 87 south onto 85 east the sky looked terrible. Clouds, solid, over the eastern sky running unbroken along the entire length of the Diablo Range. What was I doing? Knowing Joe Bob was going, I phoned, he reassured me. Soon I was driving the park road at sunset, glimpses through dark trees of the twilight glimmering off the lake. It was a peaceful and magical start to the night. I arrived, under clear skies. What a relief.

Good group. I set up next to Joe Bob. Peter M and N were there, good to see them both... it may have been a year. Charlie W, Coyote Lou (who I still haven't actually met) and Andy P were there. There was a lot of quiet observing interspersed with normal astrochatter. Charlie saw M5 naked eye, I did too after he mentioned it. There was talk about observing lists... making one of significant personal dates (example, NGC 1953 would be on my list), talk about being overdue for a good comet, or supernova, and how far would we have to be to be safe from one. There was a discussion on the rotation of our galaxy, taking anywhere from 250K years to a more realistic 250M years.... and how, if we could hang around for only half that time we'd have many new galaxies to observe. Let's hope reincarnation exists and makes us amateur astronomers again! There was talk too about how quickly the spring sky dives to the west every year, with daylight increasing in spring, seeming to accelerate the disappearance of dear Virgo, the seemingly unending bastion of dim fuzzies, and how in the southern hemisphere, Virgo would be a fall constellation, when night, instead of day, is increasing. Lots of good talk, some pretty good observing too.

I brought out my 18" Obsession to hunt Herschel objects primarily in Virgo. As noted, the season is flying by. Even though M5 was naked eye, I found Coyote easily brighter than Coe, but hey, any observing site is a good one. I'm glad to have access at Coyote too. It was interesting that around 11 pm it seemed to get darker. I assume the Outlet Mall turns off its parking lot lights at that time. Still, with my 18", I was limiting in mostly the 13's, about a mag lower than an average night at Coe.

I think the highlight for of the night for me was a toss up between two experiences. One was the difficulty of star hopping the barrens of Virgo. But using a computer and planetarium program, The Sky in my case, I enjoyed looking for eyepiece asterisms. There is always a sense of success when a looking for a pattern in the noise and coming across it. Pure fun. The other highlight was a 20 Nagler eyepiece field containing NGCs 5374, 5382, 5386, 5384 and 5387. These were typical of most observations for the night, in that at first they were not there, but with a bit of time, not much, they began to reveal themselves, glimmering into view at first ghostly, averted, and then direct, no doubt vision. Funny how it works. Patience... This would be an excellent field in a good dark sky.

I logged 19 new objects, all galaxies, in Virgo. A good short night. A couple notes, I found NGC 5017 to be misplotted on the planetarium program, and I had fun observing NGC 5174, then clicking on the next object on my list, NGC 5175 several times to see where it was located. The cursor never moved. It kept showing the location for NGC 5174. I tried all sorts of things... going to higher power on-screen to break this "pair" apart, a failure.... closing the window, reopening the program, and trying it again, no dice... it was weird. Then I looked at the dialog box on screen for 5175. Non-existent. Oh well. The lesson... read!

The drive back was uneventful. Home and in bed by 2. On the drive back I couldn't help but think, it really doesn't seem to be a shorter drive than going to Coe. The lot is nicer at Coyote, the company good, but the lack of "el" is a bummer. I'll return though. I want to test out the actual mileage and driving time to both sites. For sure, the road is windier to and from Coe. But, I still think its worth it.

A nice night. Get your scopes out and polish those mirrors boys and girls (not really), observing season is back. See you next week, on the hilltops.