Wednesday, September 27, 2006

Calstar Aways Wins...

Everything was lined up to have a great time at CalStar. Most of my friends were going, skies looked promising, and I was well packed for an early departure on Thursday. Leaving town I was getting calls on the cell from Jane Smith, telling me she's tailing Dean Linebarger, about 10 minutes back of me on the 101. We played phone/car tag down to Soledad, when Jane and I stopped for the last prepared meal for three days. Back on the road, we were soon off the 101 and onto Jolon Road. The drive from there to Lake San Antonio is one of the special stretches of California highway. Vineyards and rolling golden hills give way to small country churches and native tribe's meeting halls, and finally steep grades that drop back down to eastern slopes of Big Sur, where William Randolph Hearst would ride with friends from the coast to his bunkhouse, now a restaurant near Mission San Antonio de Padua on the ground of Fort Hunter Liggett. Past the fort is the small town of Lockwood, and its single store at the intersection of the G14 and Interlake Road. 17 miles down down Interlake, past hills of twisted oak, cattle and buzzards, is the turnoff to the south shore of Lake San Antonio, home to the SJAA's California Star Party, aka, CalStar.

The observing field is a couple miles into the park. It is enormous. Trees between sections of the area make its size deceptive. Another reason for the deceptive appearance is, everyone likes to congregate in the "dark enforced" section, and it sure does seem to be where the action is.

Jane and I each brought two 10x10 easy-up canopies. We ended up with a great 20x20 shade/compound that, and any point during the day, you could find a dozen or so of the long time attendees. Other "hot spots" around the field could be found around Uncle Dan's Breakfast Diner, JT's late night scotch bar, or two places that must be CalStar Groupie Central, over by the big Kennedy 28" f/3.66 Dob or Albert Highe, who has attained near legend status. The only things missing this year were bay area observing guru Steve Gottlieb, iconoclast Ray Cash and my SSP observing buddy Jeff Gortatowski. Maybe next year.

Boiling it down to the essence, CalStar is the star party that is the most laid back, easy going, low key event of its kind that I know of. I love going to SSP every June/July, but CalStar trumps SSP in its setting and layout... where SSP wins is the skies, but CalStar has the ambiance. Its hard to choose between them, so I go to both each year.

The first day was spent greeting friends not seem for months, or a year, over beers. Lots of beers. By the time sunset came, it was hard to move. Looking at the sky, it was obviously mucky. As dark settled in, it was clear we had lots of crud in the air. It was at best a 5/10 night. Dean and I were set up by imagers Pete Santangeli, Paul Sterngold and Chris Patel. These were great guys to hang out with... imagers are fun because they are always coming by for chatter once their cameras are chilling. Dean and I observed the following in my 18" f/4.5 and his 22" f/4.3 Dobs.

Abell 70 - 103X no filter. This planetary was dim, round and clearly annular. What makes it especially interesting is galaxy MAC 2031-0705 showing through the north edge of the planetary. In the evening's seeing, the galaxy really looked like a bright edge in the planetary, I've seen these objects more clearly.

Next was Sharpless 2-71 103X - another planetary. It is dim with an obvious central star, elongated north to south. It lies among three stars, between the second and third from west to east with brightest star first in the west. The stars are mag 9.6, 10.6, 11.6. At 294X with an NPB filter - even brightness across surface, possible stars embedded in ne and nw edges.

IC 5370 galaxy group. 103x - Nice arcing chain of four galaxies with 5th very close by. Brightest is just N of a small bright triangle of stars with other trailing e to ne. Nice view. More on this one later. What was notable was my laptop, which has been acting strangely for months, shutting down while observing, did so again. Pete and I discussed possible causes, but I decided it was DOA, and committed myself to mooching off Dean and Richard's computer.

The sky deteriorated to the point that combined with fatigue from an early day, it made sense to save our efforts for the next night. We visited a few friends, who also agreed that the transparency was way off, and along with most other attendees, we turned in.

Daytime temps at LSA in the shade were the best ever. Very comfortable. I know everyone who had been to prior (hot) CalStars was relieved. Day turned to early evening, and my buddy Navarrete arrived with his 18" f/4.5 Dob. Our observing contingent was complete.

Unfortunately, the sky looked even worse than the prior night, and it proved to be that way throughout the night, maybe a 3/10 night. But, we did well.

We began with Abell 55 in Aquila, while it was still in reasonable position. This very dim planetary responded best to the OIII filter, but showed little detail other than the most ghostly of discs. I think I had a better view at Willow Springs the month proir.

It became immediately obvious that the transparency was way down. Just seeing objects was going to be the reward, detail would be a bonus. That's how it is sometimes. We decided to use two lists, Steve Gottlieb's Calstar general and challenge lists, and intersperse occasional galaxy trios. So, we began...

Abell 82 is located in Cassiopeia a short hop from the beautiful open clusters NGC 7789 and M52. The object is a dim planetary which only showed, barely, using an OIII filter. A central star was visible, but no structure. It appeared dim, 1.5' round, with an even surface brightness. Viewed best view at 294x.

Hickson 99 in the northeast corner of Pegasus - We viewed three galaxies, UGC 12897, CGCG 498-61 and UGC 12899. The latter two comprised a tight pair, splitting well at 294x with the 7 Nagler. The CGCG target was visible at mag 15.7 due to its high surface brightness. The orientation of UGC 12897 to the other two, at a right angle, made it a pleasing field.

Palomar 11 in Aquila was a surprising find. It was much larger than anticipated. It appeared only as a faint mottling, but no question it was there. Close to a mag 8.9 star.

Just off of Gamma Cassiopeia, the middle star in the "W", are two bright nebula (they are not bright, they are just classified as bright), IC 59 and IC 63. Of the two, IC 59 appeared larger and more diffuse, barely a contrast difference with the background, whereas IC 63 was clearly there, looking somewhat bar-like in shape. I don't recall if we used filters on them. What made these easy to pin down were the distinct star patterns around Gamma Cass. This is where either a detailed printed chart or a planetarium program shines (but in red light, of course! ;-)

Right off of M52 is NGC 7635 - The Bubble Nebula. Many of the TAC imagers have shot this target. On a good night it is easily recognizable as a bubble. But this was not a good night. There was only a hint of a bright edge.

NGC 40 is a wonderful planetary off the top of Cepheus's hat. We liked this one! It is bright and responds well to magnification. We had an awesome view of it through Steve Kennedy's 28" f/3.66 Dob. It has a slight elongation and very easy central star. It is large and annular, with well defined edges. Filters did not seem to help.

I can't believe we looked at an open cluster, especially with Navarrete picking the targets, but we did check out NGC 7510 in Cassiopeia. Probably because it ws nearby M52 and the Bubble Nebula. Even though it was an open, it was interesting. It is comprised of perhaps a dozen stars aligned such that there is a hard straight edge to the group, diffusing away unevenly on the opposite side. Reminded me of a small version of The Coathanger (CR 399) in Vulpecula.

As it got late, we moved to the NGC 1199 galaxy group in Eridanus. Richard's note says these were all small and dim, but, we succeeded in picking up the obvious NGC 1199 with a surface brightness of 12.3, as well as NGCs 1189, 1190, 1191, 1192, 1188, 1209, all except that last one fitting into the field of my 12 Nagler. This would be a wonderful group to visit again under better conditions.

By this time it was late. We'd been having a great time, even though the skies were washed out compared to what we'd expected. We'd been sharing Mexican Coffees, and their effects were adding to the party atmosphere of the event. It was around 4 a.m. when we looked at our last object of the night.

The DDK Galaxy, NGC 1023 is a large bright galaxy on the Perseus Andromeda border. Even in poor conditions, we were struck by the spread of this object. It just seemed to never end.... it had a bright core and the arms extended out east to west, and little NGC1023A was easily seen as a spur poking out of the eastern end pointing south. Very good view.... we wondered just how it would be under the skies we'd been hoping for.

Saturday night was the best of the three, although transparency was still off. There were times during the star party at night when the sky looked grey instead of black. On two of the nights, you couldn't see Orion rising. But, as long as we could see anything, we were at it.

We began the last night in Draco on NGC 6543 - The Cat's Eye Nebula. I tried pumping up the volume, but the seeing was no good enough to pick out any real structure. Using an NPB filter, I could make out the faint outer halo, surrounding the bright inner shell, but there was no detail beyond that.

We also picked out NGC 6552 - a small mag 14.6 galaxy just east of the Cat's Eye.

Next was NGC 6712 in Scutum, a globular cluster. I don't recall observing it. Maybe Richard did, and I was busy mixing drinks for the group.

IC 1295 is a large planetary nebula in Scutum, sharing a 103x field of view with the globular cluster NGC 6712. Now I remember it! The fact that both were visible in the same field was very striking. If I remember correctly (a lot of this *is* from memory) the globular looked rather unglobular-like.

I found IC 10 a very interesting object. Located in an easy spot on a line between Gamma and Beta Cassiopeia, I at first thought I was looking at another of the faint nebulae in the area, like IC 59 and IC 63. But this is not a nebula, instead, it is a dwarf galaxy that is part of our local group. My confusing it with the dim nebulae tells you how faint it was... but it was also quite large, compared to the small dim galaxies we'd been picking up through the muck.

It was again getting late, and we thought we'd finish up with just a few more objects. We had no idea, the best of the night was yet to come.

Off the eastern line of the Great Square, we ventured into the galaxy fields of NGCs 80, 81, 83, 91, 93, 96, 86, 79, and IC 1542. This was a fun field. All those galaxies were visible in a single 12 Nagler field of view. NGCs 80, 91 and 93 are obvious, the rest take a bit of patience. Sorry for the lack of details, that what no notes does...

In a rather barren section of Andromeda near the Pegasus border, a nice small triangle of 10th magnitude stars with a chain of 14th and 15th magnitude stars extending from them gives away the location of the IC 5370 galaxy group. Extending away from the triangle are IC 5369 mag 15.2, IC 5370 at mag 14.9, just about touching a mag 12.4 star is IC 5371 at mag 15.0, then spreading into a Y are IC 5373 at mag 15.1 on the left and clearly to the right MAC 0000-3250 at mag 16.0. We were looking for KAZ 235 nearby IC 5373, but upon returning home the DSS image showed the two galaxies are virtually one on top of the other, and the seeing would not permit splitting. This group too was a lot of fun.

Now it was late. We'd finished off the remaining Mexican Coffee, and were onto our last target of the night... but certainly not our last activity....

Roughly a third the way from Alpha to Delta Anromedae and a bit north, you can find the NGC 68 galaxy group. When first observing it at low power, you know it will be a treat, it looks like a Stephan's Quintet clone at first blush. A bunch of galaxies in a nice tight group. Bumping up the magnification eventually to 294x, NGC 72 jumps out at mag 13.4. Very nearby are NGCs 72a, 70, 68, 67, 69 and 71. On the periphery was NGC 74, and farther afield NGC 76. These galaxies ranged from mag 14.2 to 15.5.

Dean and I were done. Richard continued one object farther, showing us Abell 4, but I don't know that that's what it was. Abell 4 is a mag 16.7 object, well beyond what we'd seen during the night. However, the elongated dim galaxy CGCG 539-91 is in almost exactly the same position, but a full mag brighter at 15.6.

Dean and I were having a beer, when Richard asked where Santangelli was. Sterngold and Patel chimed in... "yeah.... where's Pete?' My gut immediately told me something was up. I said "I think Turley has a party going on".... So the four of us walked across the dark field, toward the northeast where we knew JT was camped. As we approached it was obvious.... there, at two picnic tables, was the glow of a small cook stove in the process of going out. Around it were about eight guys, talking, and laughing. We four joined them.

It must have been past three a.m., and the party was just starting....

Stergolds wrist action with the Jiffy-Pop is now legendary...

Already, looking forward to next year. Calstar is always a winner.

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Solar Pillar

Don't know if anyone else saw it, but from downtown SJ there was a very tall very intense solar pillar just a few minutes ago (maybe still there) before I walked indoors. Great looking coral red.

Sunday, September 17, 2006

Coe last night... brief report...

The late afternoon at Coe was breezy, but not bad enough to kick up dust. The wind disappeared by sundown.

There was essentially no marine layer, but it seemed there was some particulate in the air, as the light dome from San Jose was very pronounced. On the other hand, the Milky Way was showing nicely just after sunset, so transparency overhead was decent. Temps were never cold, just a little chilly - I did not have to wear a jacket, but I had a few layers of polartec on.

We had an excellent turnout, including a visit from a new ranger at Coe, Ranger John, who had rangered at Fremont Peak previously.

A TAC award goes to Mike Delaney, one of the younger new "TACos" on the scene within the past year. Mike revived a Jay Freeman tradition (presthumously?) and brought four large pizzas up. Awesome Mike (Mountain Mike?)! As a result, we all forgot about Jamie's cookies.

There was a wide range of equipment, in fact, "new Andy" (Mauffet-Smith) made that exact comment to me. Another TACo who's been around for many years commented on how many new members of the group showed up. I was also noticing different languages being spoken at TAC star parties, so we're looking a bit more international in flavor.

I set up between Rashad and Kevin S. Rashad and I were looking at galaxies on the Deep Map 600. Rashad had "Tobor The Great" (an 8" SCT) and I was using my 10" f/5.7 CPT Dobsonian. With this reduced aperture, it often felt like we had our big guns out, and were hunting mag 15 and 16 galaxies. But the ones we were hitting (and really working hard to pick out in most instances) were in the mag 13 range. Maybe Rashad can chime in with a brief list, mine is still packed in the truck.

All in all it was a good night. The sky brightness detracted quite a bit from the viewing, but it also will provide a great contrast for many people, as most of the group that was there last night will be under Lake San Antonio skies later this week.

Friday, September 1, 2006

Houge Park 9/1

It seemed very bright at Houge Park last night with a big 1st Q moon and a hazy sky. We had a good number of amateur astronomers turn out, including Rich Neuschaefer, Mark Bracewell, Rashad Al-Mansour, Dan Wright, Phil Chambers, Howard Riddenaur, Gary Mitchel (sp?)and Jane Smith from Davis, along some others I don't know. What seemed to be missing was much of the public, the turnout seemed low, perhaps a result of it being a Friday night of a big three day weekend. Jupiter was already low by the time dark fell, so the big target of the night was the moon. Seeing was actually pretty good, so la luna was showing nice detail. I had my 10" f/5.7 Dob, and aside from the moon, had good (but not great) views of M13, M15, Alberio and assorted other double stars. We had a nice view of the Coathanger, through my 9x50 finder, and with an old 50mm erfle I hadn't used in years. Later in the evening a police helicopter was flying back and forth, shining a spotlight down looking for something, or someone. Then a patrol car pulled into Houge and the officer turned his spot on us.

Rich and I walked over and were told someone said there were people in the park, and the park was closed at night. We convinced the officer that the SJAA has permission to, and regularly uses the park, about every two weeks. The officer realized this, saying we didn't exactly look like troublemakers, and was about to leave, when Gary ran over telling the officer to turn off his spotlight - which was shining on the telescopes. The officer said he'd be leaving in a minute, which he did, and order was restored. I was home by 11 pm, to surprisingly brighter skies.... I didn't think it was possible, but yes, downtown's skies *were* even brighter than Houge's on a bright night...