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.