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...

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I thought your readers might also like my new video documentary on Lick Oberservatory's Summer Visitor program - it focuses on the Friday night technical talks.
Here is the link:

Best regards,

Ron Fredericks
Co-founder, LectureMaker LLC