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!