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.

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