Saturday, March 17, 2007

Return to Fremont Peak (I musta been drunk)...

It was Saint Patty's Day, and driving to Fremont Peak I was thinking about all the partying going on at the Irish pubs. Last Irish pub I was in was Little Shamrock's

(, in San Francisco's Sunset District - the oldest Irish pub in the city and with a cool tie to the Great Earthquake. That was also the day I visited Ray Cash at his home and enticed him to join us on a trip to Chile... but I digress (and immediately get it out of the way!)... all I can say is at the Peak, we had the luck of the Irish with us, and those who didn't go should be green with envy....

I arrived at The Peak about 4:30 and found Natscher and Bartolini already set up. Another fellow named Scott had a 20" Dob. I found a spot between Peter and Scott, and proceeded to slog down the customary Fosters mortar shell (traditional Peak suds from way back), and yak with the gang as everyone arrived. We had a good turnout - finally completed by modest DDK, who told funny stories about my daughter, his son, The Whippersnapper, and other note worthies from past days. We were all having a lot of fun. We stayed in the SW lot, enjoying a gorgeous view of sunset over the fog covered Pacific and coastal plain around Watsonville, until it was time to put the petal to the eyepiece....

First couple objects were Saturn and Sirius. A man with his two young boys looked through my scope at Saturn. The older of the boys, old enough to appreciate what he saw (the other was too young) made an astonishing remark - looking at the inclination of Saturn in my scope, he commented that it was tipped, like Uranus! Amazing! He couldn't have been more then 7 years old...

Peter then called me over to peek at Sirius. His 18" Starmaster had a no-doubt-about-it view of the Pup, split out at about 1 or 2 o'clock and just off a diffraction spike. In all my time observing, I'd never seen this Dogon little guy before! For a visual observer, this was like finding the navel of the universe (there's some appropriate mythology there....). Thanks Peter!

Once it was dark enough, I spent the night hunting down the remnants of the Herschel 2500 list. I was down to maybe 150 objects - the majority springtime objects.... I divided them up by R.A. - into two hour swaths, then sorted them from north to south. This system worked very well, and I ended up bagging 40 objects on my list - just over one two hour section of R.A., and was starting the next sweep when I packed it in at 2:30 a.m. to drive home. Peter and I were the last two standing - and each had a good night, so why push it?

I would list the conditions as very good. The seeing was at times exquisite. The transparency slightly down early on and improving about the same time the light domes appeared to diminish - after 11:30. Temps were cool but not cold, and only the slightest of breeze and moisture.

Most of the targets were dim, threshold views, but a few did stand out. Here they are, for those more interested in nice views, rather than hunting ghosts:

NGC 2830 area - on the Hydra/Leo Minor border, this dim guy on the 2500 list sits in a rich galaxy cluster - if you can go deep, check it out - three galaxies are virtually on top of each other - NGCs 2830, 31 and 32. Look on your planetarium program - way cool view at 183x in the 18". Lots of other true dimmies in the field....

NGC 4363 area - even if you can't pull this dim guy in with modest aperture, its worth the trip to see NGCs 4319, 4291 and 4386 and nicely positioned away from an easy to find mag 5.7 star. Put it on your list.... I think of it as a Poor Man's Hickson 68.

When the evening was done, I thought about Mark Johnston's commenting that I'd posted on the OI calendar I was going to be in All Virgo, All The Time this session. I never got there. There was just too much to see in R.A's to the west remaining on my list. But, by dividing my "observing zones" into two hour sections, that means one section each month - so Virgo will still be well positioned for me next month. And up earlier too...

Next month - All Virgo, All The Time!

Saturday, March 10, 2007

Bon Appetit!

At a minimum it was a nice day for a drive, and after missing out on a decent night at Houge due to some concern over afternoon clouds, I packed the truck and soon was cruising past Anderson Lake, the old oaks and scenic views on the way to Coe. It is a fun road to drive, either in sports car mode (a trick in a 6000 pound Suburban) or more leisurely, while taking in the natural beauty of the area. If there is a reason for the term "spring fever" ... then drives like this one are the fuel.

There was one empty car in the lot when I arrived. I sat and looked at the heavily clouded sky, and thought surely it coud all change over the next four hours. Minutes later Greg LaFlamme pulled in, jacked up with excitement about his 15" scope project and enthusiasm at being out from under Alameda's mag 3.5 skies. I know the feeling.

Lots of familiar and new faces arrived, well into twilight, and by dark the lot was surprisingly full. I'd estimate 20 vehicles, some with multiple observers. Yep, given the discouraging cloudiness, only spring fever could account for such a turnout.

One of the real treats we all had was a spectacular sunset - a long low band of clouds over the coast range underlit just after sunset - neon red-orange with lots of subtle rays spiking up above into the blue (yes, things were starting to clear)... punctuated by a blazing Venus above it all. To a person, we enjoyed the show, chattering about atm-ing, the wind the clouds and the skunking we got trying this last month, and about going to Mount Lassen this summer.

As twilight faded into the early dark, someone yelled "meteor... METEOR... M-E-T-E-O-R NEAR ORION!!!!" - all heads turning south to see a brilliant very long slow streaking fireball from east to west - breaking up as it fell. And with that, Rashad, his familiar joie de vie punctuating the shooter, pronounced to all that *this* was going to be a *great* night.

And, he was right.

The comradarie and enjoyment shared by all there was plain to observe.

And observe we did...

I had come to pursue what seems to be becoming for me something of a life list. Late winter and early spring are the nemesis of many observers, and that's where the bulk of my target list remains. Virgo, in particular. But I'd have to wait a while... Instead, I entertained myself with objects compiled on an Excel from various lists, including the Messier, H400, H400-II, Arp, Hickson, Abell PN and AGC lists. Here is the March list:

I got through about a dozen, skipping the Hicksons and AGC due to quite variable transparency. Of the March objects, two stand out, although they were all fun to hunt down and each offered something in the way of character and at times even levity.

NGC 3359 was very cool! I'll quote Gottlieb's description, similar aperture - "17.5": fairly bright, large, elongated 3:2 SSW-NNE. A brighter bar is visible through the center along the major axis! Has a large, diffuse halo about 5'x3' which fades into the background. The brighter core has an irregular surface brightness." Oh yeah, what he said!

NGC 3079 is the other nice object - an excellent edge on galaxy, about 6x1 ratio, with hint (last night) of mottling and perhaps a dust lane, but what really caught my eye was the twisted nature of the galaxy at its extremities that smacks of tidal disturbances (think of Santanteli's image of NGC 3628). After observing it, I popped up The Sky's thumbnail, and sure enough.... a new twist on an old galaxy!

One thing I am enjoying on my monthly list is star hopping in declining declination within a 2 hour R.A. window - objects tend to be close together as I progress southward. The area around M81 and M82 were great fun. I had a humorous hop going from NGC 3077, back past M81, to NGC 2976 - all bright and fun targets. But NGC 2976 was not bright! At mag 10.8 it should have jumped out, so I repeated the star hop (moving along star patterns in the eyepiece) and kept stopping on a very dim NGC 297.... then I realized, I was stopping on UGC 5302 - in line between the two bright targets! Well, at mag 14.5 on a night with at times really cruddy transparency - it all suddenly made sense. That would be about my mag limit for the night....

Suddenly Mark Johnston alerted me to Virgo's position. The time had arrived!

I have about 100 targets left on the Virgo portion of my "life list"... I logged about 12 last night, varying in mag from the mid 12's to the low 14's. It was not easy, actually. Virgo was being quite demure - hidden behind a thin veil of clouds that cut down the brightness of everything. Yet, with a bit of persistence, and teasing, she would show me her secrets. I was quite pleased with the results. I was also astonished to think about the ancients, looking at the spring association with fertility, the place from where life (in body and spirit) replenishes. Spica, the symbolic grain of wheat - agri - cultivation of rich fields for our sustenance - which led to the man's great city states - the true genesis of "Downtown". Little did the Greeks realize the wealth, the countless island universes that hid, like seeds in the ground, up there in the fields of Virgo. But we know it.

I finished the night listening to Rashad's happy voice, declaring the great time he was having in Downtown Virgo where, wherever you turn, the plate is full with seemingly endless bounty to be enjoyed - nourishment, for the eye, the mind and spirit.

Bon appetit!