Saturday, November 18, 2006

Willow Springs 11/18 - Out In The Wilds

A small group was at Willow Springs on Saturday night. Steve Gottlieb, Ray Cash, Charlie Wicks, Darren Hutchison (not sure of your name, sorry) and me. Of course the property owner Bob Ayers was there too, with his other personal guests.

I'm getting accustomed to the drive. Its really only perhaps fourty five minutes more than going to Coe, daPeak, or Dino, which make up the dark three of the "local" south bay observing sites. And the last fourty five minutes are the best... Passing the turnoff to San Juan Bautista and Fremont Peak, the road crosses through fields of vegetatbles and fruit before turning south. A few quick stretces skirting Hollister and you're on highway 25, the scenic route south between highways 5 and 101. Once you pass the golf course, the city slips away and small communities dot the road. Soon you're at Tres Pinos, then after a few more bends Paicines appears. Paicines is a spot, and not much more. Sure, folks live there, make their livings, etc., but its no city. The most remarkable sight are the vineyards and the big winery sitting across the road from the state historical marker for the New Idria Mine. That's where you turn off highway 25, onto little Ponoche Road, and head into the wild country, where the dim galaxies live.

The last 45 mintes drive indeed gets progressively wilder, eventually passing through a section that has a narrow riverbed full of huge boulders, in a deep ravine - it must be a fantastic sight in a heavy storm. The road becomes one lane in places, rough in others, and the last few miles is all twists and turns, but beautiful. The last section on the Willow Springs property is gravel and dirt. It twists up the last 800 feet of elevation to Bob's property. By the end of the drive has you feeling about as far from civilization as you can imagine, for a short drive in a car. Its a great drive.

This trip we set up on the ridge, the high point on Bob's property. Haze lay in the valleys to the south and west. Gunk was obvious in the air to our north and northeast, but we were clear.

By astronomical dark we were observing. It was clear to us the sites to our north and northwest had poor conditions. We had a steady breeze for most of the night that was bothersome, and about two hours of cloudy conditions between about ten and midnight, but the transparency and steadiness were excellent.

We were surprised to not see any Leonids, or let's say, not notice any, but...

Basically, if you wanted to see it in a telescope, you could do it from Willow Springs last night. We observed, listening first to the Cal vs USC game, then the Sharks against Philly...

Here is what I observed, the number of objects surprised me...

Arp 331 - The highlight of this Arp is a chain of eight galaxies running north/south and ranging in magnitude from 12.8 to 14.3 spanning only 15 arcminutes. Well worth a visit, the five brightest visible in Ray's 13.1". I observed 15 members mostly at 293X - N382, N383, N380, N379, N386, N375, N384, N385, N388, I1618, CGCG501-77, N399, N403, N374, UCG692.

Arp 229 - A beautiful and ghostly arc of five galaxies curve ten arcminutes around a mag 7.1 and 10.7 double star, reminiscent of Hickson 68. But there are many other dim galaxies in the area. The close pair NGC507 and 508 dominate the main group. Again, a very worthwhile group. I observed 16 members - N507, N508, N504, N494, N503, I1689, I1682, I1680, CGCG502-43, N483, N501, N499, N495, N496, N515, N517.

AGC 119 - This Abell Galaxy Cluster covered about one degree of sky and in which I observed 14 galaxies. This can be a difficult group, with only two members in the center brighter than mag 15. Yet, the way they are aligned, like other clusters I'd seen during the night, made me feel these objects were playing follow the leader in some way.... stretched out in a line. Still, I teased out UGC579, UGC583, GCGC384-37, CGCG384-40, CGCG384-42, CGCG384-36, CGCG384-32, CGCG384-35, UGC587, UGC595, CGCG384-28, CGCG384-29, UGC568, UGC570.

AGC 194 - Speaking of galaxy chains, Abell Galaxy Cluster 194 is quite a show, having over fifteen galaxies in a stream north-northwest to south-southeast. Check this chain out in a DSS image. The three brightest members are NGC 541/545/547, within a space of six arcminutes. Here are the seventeen members I found - N543, CGCG385-129, N545, N547, N541, N535, UGC1003, UGC996, UGC984, UGC538,UGC974, N530, I11696, N519, CGCG385-112, CGCG385-102, CGCG385-100

From the Miles Paul Atlas of Galaxy Trios I found N1228, N1229, N1230.

From Adventures in Deep Space Favorites I was surprised at the size and knottiness of the face on spiral galaxy NGC 1232 in Eridanus.

Hickson 34 is such a small tight group, I was surprised. I could pick out two, perhaps 3 components. I'd like to try this grou on a still night with excellent seeing.

Abell 10 - this was a bright planetary (in comparison to others I've hunted).

Abell 12 - Steve told me to use high power and an OIII filter. This planetary is otherwise overwhelmed in the glare of a mag 4.1 star Mu Orionis. The planetary, at 293X, is a large bulge in the glare of the bright star, and quite obvious.

Howell-Crisp 1 - Ray Cash was the first of our group to tackle this object, recently discovered by Richard Crisp and an associate in Texas. It is very dim. Steve said he'd classify it as being as tough as the 20 most difficult Abell planetaries. But, it was there, and showed up best using a DGM Optics NPB filter. I found it most visible with a 12 Nagler (in my 18" f/4.5), while Steve and Ray thought lower power, with a 20 Nagler, was better. The object is a faint haze with occasional sharp edge on its SW perimeter. Mostly round, but perhaps if there is elongation, there is not much.

IC 443 - This supernova remnant in Gemini is close to Howell-Crisp 1. At the eyepiece, its shape closely resembles the isophote in Megastar. Not a difficult object.

IC 444 - this may be an emission nebula, it seems very low surface brightness. I felt there were just hints of nebulosity throughout the area.

I could have gone on, but the breeze was bothersome, and the problems with my computer that I've had over the year continued, and out it went. It runs fine at home - I've been writing this report on it. So I poked around at a few pieces of eye candy - NGC 2903 in Leo. The NGC 3190 group, also in Leo. M42. Everything around there was awesome - if you can imagine teasing out dim galaxies all night, then having a knock-your-eye view of M42. The Running Man - NGC 1977 was so full of nebulosity - without any filter - it looked to me like good photos of the Merope Nebula. I was stunned at the seeing and transparency on the bright targets!

Finally, around 3 a.m. or so, I had it. I thought for a last object I'd try for Leo 1. So I swung the scope toward Regulus, and, looking in the eyepiece was surprised to see the bright star had - a ring? I'd mistaken nearby Saturn for Regulus. Saturn was an even better finish. Willow Springs steady seeing was really showing it off - on a non-breezy night, the planet would have been tranfixing.

Oh... last fun bit of info about the night... we were visited by one of Bob's neighbors, maybe around midnight... he asked what we were looking at. Turns out he's an amateur astronomer too. Lives down the hill a bit. Owns two Dobs. A 17", and a 33" f/5. OMG!

As for Willow Springs - it pays to get out into the wilds. Looking forward to December! Thanks again to Bob Ayers for inviting us.

Gobble gobble!

Thursday, November 9, 2006

Observing at Fremont Peak

As was the case a week prior, the day began favoring a night at home, reading about, rather than doing, astronomy. The cloud cover was nearly solid as I began my drive down highway 85 toward the little town of San Juan Bautista. Today, I packed an extra telescope for a friend, so the Mercedes sedan contained my 14.5" f/5.6 truss tube and 10" f/5.6 Dobsonians. The telescopes were in their disassembled component parts: the 14.5" primary box and rocker box in the back seat, its upper tube assembly and poles in the trunk (boot)... the 10" dob's sono- tube reclined in the front passenger seat and extending to the rear window (this is quite a sight for other drivers on the road, since the sono-tube is colorfully tie-dyed). Sharing the passenger compartment with me and the scopes was a folding chair, large folding cot, sleeping bag, clothing box, eyepiece box, star charts and pillow. The upper tube assembly and poles for the 14.5" and the rocker box for the 10" were in the trunk, along with an observing table coat-bag, ladder, step-stool, and an ice-chest with cold drinks. I was not crowded in the driver's seat, but there was no wasted space in the rest of the vehicle.

The drive south was uneventful, the clouds remaining thick and still. Turning off highway 101 to 156 is where the enjoyable part of the drive begins. Two miles through rolling hills dotted with grazing cattle to the turn onto state route G1. Past a few homes, then the road begins an at first gradual ascent to Fremont Peak State Park alongside a stream, between rising hills covered with granite boulders. Soon, the road begins to twist and turn, climbing more quickly. The trees this time of year are golden and red leafed, strewn with hanging Spanish Moss. The undulations of the road, coupled with good music, speed, and nature's seasonal display combine to make the trip to Fremont Peak worthwhile regardless of the dim prospects for a successful evening of observing.

Eleven miles later, I arrive at the parking lot, passing one member of our party waiting in a lower area of the park for other participants to arrive. My car comes to a stop with the leaves of Autumn swirling behind me. No sooner do I get out of the car, than the owner of a 10" dob pulls in. We look at the sky and remark how one of our group watched the satellite loop of the weather, and felt the "blob" of clouds would pass by 6 or 7 p.m., but it sure didn't look good. Then our "weather forecaster" pulled in, along with his 7" AstroPhysics. He is followed intermittently by other regulars; an 8" Meade SCT, 12" LX-200, the AstroPhysics Traveller and Zeiss/AstroPhysics 100mm f/10 (?) APO, two 10" LX-200, and 18" Obsession, 4.5" f/4 Newtonian, Orion 12.5" dob, and a Meade 90mm refractor.

Everyone was lamenting the clouds. So, in an exercise in positive thinking, a few of us began setting up our equipment. Blue holes began appearing overhead. The clouds began thinning in all directions. Soon, the sun was setting, putting on one of the most dazzling displays of light, clouds and shadow I have ever witnessed. Thin feather-like clouds in one direction. Flat topped ones that looked like funnels could develop off their sagging undersides. Sharply lined structure in ones that looked like cream and chocolate covered stretched taffy. Behind us, billowy pink cotton candy clouds. Below us, to the west, the Pacific Ocean lay glassy still, reflecting the show in the sky. This was a great sight, and the bonus was, they were continuing to dissipate.

We knew that if the night sky cleared, it would not rival the prior week, which had the benefit of a thick fog cover over the coastal cities. Not a speck of fog could be seen over the ocean all the way to the horizon. As was the case the prior week, the observing began with Jupiter and its four brightest moons visible just west of Fremont Peak, looming to our south just yards away. the planet looked very nice, the banding and moons appearing much steadier than the week prior. Next to Saturn, then M57.

The sky continued to improve. Soon I began working the Herschel catalog with my friend who owns the 18" Obsession. We began by picking up up where we'd left off in Pegasus. As usual, the first galaxy was nearly impossible. Why does it always start this way? We worked Peg and Cetus from about 10pm until 2am. This was not an intensive observing session though, since puffs of cloud kept interfering. So, the star party became more "party" than "star." It was lots of fun. A dozen or more people joking, talking about clubs, equipment, observing sites, restaurants, music (right Bill?), cars, you name it. All this interspersed with "hey.... look at this" shouts as someone would get a nice view of an object in a clear part of the sky.

Someone e-mailed me last week, asking about visual limiting magnitude at the "Peak." Well, one member of our group led a "count the stars" contest, using portions of the Great Square of Pegasus as the target area. The only rule was that "liners counted." I did not expect much in the way of good results. Last week had been much darker because of the fog cover. The sky looked bright to me and I had felt some nights in my backyard were not so different from this one at the Peak. Much to my surprise, the results yielded a limiting mag of 6.6, which makes me wonder just how deep we could see the week prior. So, now I am convinced that it makes sense to take ten minutes of the night and do a count. Although conditions do change during the evening, at least a reasonable point of reference can be established with little effort.

For me, the two non-Herschel related highlights of the earlier evening were:

1. Viewing the Horsehead Nebula in the 18" Obsession. People there had varying degrees of success attempting this feat. It does help to know what dark nebulae look like. Later during the night, Jay Freeman stopped by and pulled it in using my 10" f/5.6 dob. I was surprised... he and a few others could see it, I could not.

2. Removing the eyepiece from the 14.5" and using Mark T's Swiss Army Knife magnifying glass in place of a regular eyepiece, holding it over the focuser, and clearly resolving M15. I've got to get one of those!

By 2am, the cloud cover solidified again. I guess our Herschel hunt pulled in a dozen or so galaxies. Everyone began packing up, and soon it was just those willing to spend the night. Well, guess what? By 4am the sky opened enough for what were the best views of the night.

I was completely in my element, since many of the bright galaxies were now up, and the only two telescopes left standing were my two dobs. What fun to operate two telescopes in that sort of sky! First was ngc 4565. The dust lane was easy. M81 and 82, piece of cake. M108, M97 (look at those two black eyes staring back). M53, nicely resolved. M3, forget M53! On to the Black Eye galaxy....what a strange sight.... what's up with that? ;-) Leo.... ngc 2903.... what a beauty. Next, to M65/66 and ngc 3268. I like the latter the best of those three.... the dust lane and angular size are nice contrasts to the finer, smaller detail in the two neighboring Messiers.

Ursa Major was now up high enough. M51.... in the 10".... okay, but in the 14.5" WOW! Structure galore. I have seen it better a few times (high in the Sierra Nevada mountains and once on the 30" in the observatory at Fremont Peak), but this was a very nice view. Now, star hop down to M101.... yep.... faint as ever. Funny how you lose your bearings as the season's change.... I was having trouble remembering which star was Cor Caroli.... my jump off point for M94 and M63. It is sure easier when the constellations ride high in the sky, and you can see them in their entirety.

A quick hop over to Canis Major, a peek at the nice little open cluster 2362, then back to Leo for the belly meat.... M105, M95, M96 and several ngc galaxies in one and a half eyepiece fields. Geesh! Where was it, a knot of galaxies in Leo's mane.... no star chart, no hard disk, no RAM... just biological memory.... right about there.... yes... between Gamma and Xi Leonis. How many in the area.... six, seven, eight? Well a lot. Just imagine what winter late night/early morning observing holds....the realm of the galaxies (Leo, Coma and Virgo) under crisp, clear skies. This stuff is great! And there's soooooo much of it!

To the east, Venus had risen, letting me know that I'd better catch some sleep, or risk uselessness during daylight hours. I stretched out on my cot, the universe serving as my ceiling for the night. I left the two dobs out for the real die hards.... those unafraid of sleep deprivation. Soon, the sun came up and I said good-by to my observing friends for another week or so.

If you are interested in joining us at Fremont Peak State Park at our next star party, send me an e-mail, I'll place you on our mailing list. The only requirement is that you have a desire to observe and learn. It is a great way to spend an evening among great men and women.