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!

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