Monday, August 13, 2007

My "Joe Friday" Observing Report

This report contains "just the facts".... I'm attempting to avoid anything overly figurative....

This past Friday and Saturday nights I joined a small group of TAC (htttp:// observers at two different observing sites in far northeast California. This section of the state is known for its wide empty spaces. We observed in sight of Mount Shasta, from private properties in the towns of Fall River Mills, and Adin. Friday at Fall River Mills was at the property of bay area amateur astronomy icons Denni and Kevin Medlock, builders owners of the 30" Challenger telescope at Fremont Peak Observatory (, and long time "movers and shakers" in most notably at Chabot Space And Science Center and the Amateur Telescope Maker's Workshop ( Group 70 (

At the Medlock's property we set up on the western edge of a five acre field, and joined other guests who were attending a weekend long Perseid party. The BBQ fired up, and we all enjoyed a delicious dinner and each other's company as twilight set in. Later that evening I and another attendee did a star count in the Finnish Triangle number 6 (

We both reached the same magnitude we had the month prior at Bumpass Hell parking lot at 8200 feet on Mount Lassen, 7.1 and 6.5. My target list ws the the one I had compiled for the August issue of the SJAA's newsletter Ephemeris. It provided a nice variety of objects pres with varying degrees of challenge. I'll post my observations after the descriptive narrative.

Of particular note during that evening was a spectacular Perseid bolide. It dropped quickly from about 40 degrees elevation to the southern horizon, intensely bright, illuminating everything as if someone briefly switched on a klieg light, then turned brilliant yellow green, changing to a florescent orange just as it broke into pieces as it disappeared behind a mountain to our south.

Welcome to Perseid weekend!

The next day was spent relaxing after a nice breakfast, until it was time to head east, to Adin.

Adin is 100 miles east of Redding, and about 60 miles west of Alturas. It is a town of 500, living at the east end of what is known as The Big Valley, which runs for many tens of miles north and south up to Tule Lake and the Oregon border. The region is dominated by the stratovolcano Mount Shasta to the west. Our hosts offered us use of a huge empty plateau on their property, with outstanding horizons for 360 degree.

We joined the owners in their home for a wonderful dinner that included filet mignon from their own grass fed beef cattle, as well as local vegetables, delicious homemade deserts, and assorted wines. Our hosts were extremely wonderful and gracious people who I owe my gratitude for their hospitality, and giving me an excellent night of observing.

That night, I did a careful count of the Finnish Triangle 6, twice, and got 48 and 49 stars, easily giving me the best limiting magnitude I've ever obtained by counting. The "dome of the night" extended unabated to the horizons in every direction. The Milky Way was not just sugary, but as one other observer noted, it took on a distinct three dimensional quality. About the only place I've seen such a deep and dimensional sky was two years ago at 6000 feet in the Andes of Chile. This was the darkest site I've been to in California, and I plan to return.

Both nights, we ended our observing sessions at about 3:30 a.m. Saturday night was special too, as our host family joined us at the observing site, where we enjoyed stories about astronomy and life in the wild and unknown country of far north eastern California, while watching the Perseids.

Next morning, I crawled out of the tent at dawn, the sky still dark enough for stars to cover the sky, but bright enough for land features to again be visible. I stood there, barefoot, no shirt, in my jeans. In the brisk morning air, facing west, the enormous Big Valley spread out at my feet, I enjoyed the stunning emptiness as Perseids flashed over my head and disappeared over the Big Mountain to the west. Mount Shasta was memorably described by the poet Joaquin Miller: "Lonely as God, and white as a winter moon, Mount Shasta starts up sudden and solitary from the heart of the great black forests of Northern California." The mountain continues to be a place of spiritual importance to several Native American tribes.. The view that morning was truly magical.

It was a very memorable view with which to finish the observing trip.

Again, my thanks to our hosts at both locations for making this such a wonderful weekend. We'll see you again!

Here are my astronomical observations with my 18" f/4.5 Obsession Telescope...

- Just the facts (mam) -

N7023 Cep. BN 14.0' 21 01 36 68 10 00
Star offset to W of brighter circular glow. Dinner glow, almost detached extends to west of star, and brightens with averted vision. No filter. 190X.

NGC 7142 Cep. OC 4.3' 9.3 21 45 12 66 46 23
Rich dim cluster even mags with very dim haze interspersed. LBN 497 very obvios glow without filter, around 4 stars, 4th one comes in averted. Filter degrades view. Area is repleat with dim nebulosity.

N7129 Cep. OC/BN 8.0' 11.5 21 42 00 66 05 00
Rich dim cluster even mags with very dim haze interspersed. LBN 497 very obvios glow without filter, around 4 stars, 4th one comes in averted. Filter degrades view. Area is repleat with dim nebulosity.

N7139 Cep. PN 77.0" 13.3 21 46 08 63 47 31
UHC enhances this round PN, which appears annular without filter, and mottled with filter at 190x. At 290x dim stars at sw and e edges of pn, which appears uneven with somewhat jagged edges.

Abell 75 Cep. PN 56" 17 21 26 23 62 53 33
Moderately small, dim, diffuse, bifurcated dark lane running sw/ne, elongated same direction, star embedded just E of center. East edge is brighter.

NGC 6939 Cep. OC 7.0' 7.8 20 31 31 60 39 14
Large highly resolved open cluster with many bright members.

NGC 6946 Cep. GX 11.6'x9.8' 9.6 20 34 52 60 09 15
Large arm sweeping south, knot In arm NW of the core. Nice in FOV with OC to N.

Abell 73 Cep. PN 73.0" 17.4 20 56 26 57 26 00
Wow! Large, elongated N/S with only the brigher E/W edges showing, no visibility of N/S portions, center is darker. Take up 20% of FOV in 12 Nagler.

Abell 77 Cep. PN 76"x49" 16.4 21 32 10 55 52 42
Large, with stars embedded all around the glowing edges, slightly elongated e/w with bright knot on star on SSE edge. Best view is 12 Nagler with UHC - bright knot is the planetary - elongated e/w.

NGC 7008 Cyg PN 86" 13.3 21 00 33 54 32 32
Bright, coma shaped pn with bright knot to N, open to E, two bright stars at S end of curve. What may be a central star is obvious embedded in dark central part of the open section. Dim star at w edge just ahead of the pn, darker lane from center through w section almost break pn in half, creating brighter wwnw knot. Kind of a Flame Neb feeling.

NGC 7128 Cyg OC 3.1' 9.7 21 44 00 53 43 00
Small, condensed, many stars, pentagon of brighter stars in larger dimmer triangle. Nice view due to this being a tight group.

NGC 7086 Cyg OC 9.0' 8.4 21 30 30 51 35 00
Fairly large with wide range of magnitudes, in rich area of MW.

N7031 Cyg OC 15.0' 9.1 21 06 52 50 51 00
Small handful of stars that constitute no more than an asterism.

M39 Cyg OC 31.0' 4.6 21 32 12 48 27 00
Beautiful eyepiece full of bight stars. Coarse, no more than a dozen or so stars, all bight, with rich MW field of dim stars as background.

N7067 Cyg OC 3.0' 9.7 21 24 12 48 01 00
Small, dim haze, few bright stars overlay lots of tiny hazy stars

N6991 Cyg OC 25.0' 20 54 54 47 25 00
Very sparse and large haze of stars barely distinguishable from MW.

Abell 71 Cyg PN 2.6' 15.2 20 32 23 47 20 56
Very difficult to distinguish from background, especially due to stars overlaying target. Dim haze in correct position.

N7082 Cyg OC 24.0' 7.2 21 29 24 47 05 00
This rich OC is in a thick MW field, which hides it well. There are several bright components aligned linearly mostly N/S.

NGC 7062 Cyg OC 6.0' 8.3 21 23 28 46 23 03
Small, about 6' with a few brighter members around the perimeter, many dimmer members (dozens) in center,

N6997 Cyg OC 8.0' 10 20 56 30 44 39 00
Large, coarse, relatively sparse cluster with few bright members.

NGC 7000 Cyg BN 120.0' 20 58 00 44 20 00
Very large, dark lanes extremely prominent and well defined. Extremely extensive - covering areas I've never previously seen.

NGC 6866 Cyg OC 10.0' 7.6 20 03 55 44 09 36
In rich MW field, elong n/s with lots of dark lanes around cluster. Really stretched out.

NGC 7044 Cyg OC 5.0' 12 21 13 09 42 29 44
Very nice about 5'x4' sw/ne, all stars about even mag. Appealing dimmer cluster.

NGC 6910 Cyg OC 7.0' 7.4 20 23 06 40 47 00
About a dozen stars stretched out in a slightly curved line E/W with brt star on E end and brt star to S outside line, curving to N. Nice fun view.

M29 Cyg OC 6.0' 6.6 20 24 00 38 30 06
Two small arcs of stars facing away from each other running E to W with one solitary star centered between.

N6888 Cyg BN 18'x8' 20 12 01 38 23 00
Very well defined elongated N/S with only E edge ill defined. Bright knot inside N edge. Very fine object

N6857 Cyg BN 38.0" 11.4 20 00 46 33 31 32
PN is obvious but uneven glow, fan shaped to SW from central star.

Saturday, August 4, 2007

How To Feel Letdown on a Good Night

I had not planned on observing at Houge Park last night. An early moon rise combined with a two night observing trip to the darkest corner of California next weekend had me planning an evening at home, reading, writing, or in front of the tube (possibly subjected to a parade of HGTV fix it or design shows). An evening or two spent together is always a good thing. But as soon as the question "Isn't there a Houge Park tonight" was asked, I was out packing astro gear into the car.

I haven't been much of a regular at Houge the past few years. There was a time I went twice monthly, for years. Now it feels more like twice yearly. But it does give me the opportunity to take out my 10" f./5.7 CPT, and it is great fun to pack the scope, mount, eyepiece case and step stool in the passenger seat of the Miata. It is one of those rare opportunities to witness an actual blivet. But it works...

It was a very pleasant evening, warm temps and a clear sky. Jupiter was first, high to the south. I viewed it progressively with my 20mm Nagler (72x), 12 Nagler (121x) and 7 Nagler (207x). I showed surprisingly nice color, distinct ochre bands standing out well, and some hints of a large festoon would occasionally snap in, in the somewhat soft seeing. Best views were through the 12mm, but it is way too fun pump up the mag and wait for the seeing. A number of visitors were around, several waiting outside as spouses sat in on the SJAA lecture (learning about different types of telescopes) - mostly women and younger children. They too enjoyed peeking at Jupiter. I always enjoy watching children twisting their heads around, trying to figure out how to look in the eyepiece. It is also funny to ask them if the see the object - Jupiter, The Ring Nebula, etc,. and usually they answer "yes" even if you can see, clearly, there is no way they can with their head twisted so off-axis! But it is fun, and that's what we're there for. Serious fun.

There was a good turnout - must have been a dozen or more telescopes, and earlier on plenty of public. As the sky darkened, the show began. The curious public had a great time, and some beginning observers, trying out their telescopes, also were clearly enjoying themselves. Made me think of my first experiences at Houge Park, maybe 17 years ago, and how amazed I was and excited at what I could see.

But I also could not get over how bright the sky seemed! Even with the Milky Way showing, which it clearly was last night, the sky lacked so much detail, I was having difficulty star hopping and kept wondering what the problem was. Then I realized, it *is* a good night at Houge, but I also felt let down! The problem was my frame of reference, as my prior night out doing astronomy was at Bumpass Hell parking lot at 8,000 feet on Mount Lassen! What a huge difference... the same shock hits me every year.

I had brought my Edmonds Mag 6 Star Atlas, but found it unnecessary. I spent the evening showing off highlight objects that I've viewed hundreds of times. They included The Ring Nebula, Alberio, M13, The Double Double, M15, M22, M8, Izar, M11, M17, and The Blinking Planetary. The best views were of M8 with a UHC filter - the nebula was very apparent and nicely contrasted with the open cluster, M13 was at zenith and put on a good show, and the double stars were pretty cool. M15 was disappointing, kind of low in the muck, it looked dull and small.

I spent a good deal of time describing to the visitors what each object was - what stage of the stellar life-cycle was represented in the particular view, distances, ages, the concept of light years, etc. There were lots of good questions, about the views, and about my telescope!

The end of the evening was punctuated by an intensely bright meteor, screaming from north to south - perhaps an early Perseid. Oh, speaking of streaking objects, we also had a nice pass of the ISS earlier in the evening. Comparing the two celestial streakers, I'll take the meteor, any day...

It was a very enjoyable evening. At moon-up I packed the scope and other gear into the car, and took a final look at the sky. I realized how much I liked Houge Park, but also that I now spend my time at darker sites. Plettstone, Lassen, Willow Springs, all good dark places. I don't even frequent Coe or Montebello much any more... the hobby has over the years added a new element - the road trip - to dark skies.

Next weekend, it will be checking out a new observing site, six hours away in the darkest far reaches of California... where the only light will be from the Milky Way, and Perseids.

Thursday, August 2, 2007

Warm nights at the Peak

It was one of those observing sessions that keep you going through the slow times when your enthusiasm is low. The combination of shirt-sleeve night temperature, fog, friends, transparency and dark kept me up until almost sunrise.

The day began with a rush to get down to Fremont Peak. It was clear outside and the air in my part of the San Francisco bay area was still. It looked like a perfect Saturday morning. All the talk on our mailing list (TAC at - urce/TAC) had convinced everyone to head to the Peak early to claim an observing spot. This was the weekend of the annual AANC (Astronomy Association of Northern California) Star-B-Q, which historically brings out everyone and anyone, be they armchair ob servers, club officials, devoted deep-sky, lunar observers and more. It is the annual mob scene where the regulars know the other regulars and everyone else eats, visits and otherwise parties, all the while looking around wondering who everyone else is.

So, fighting the mid-day traffic on highway 101, I headed down to the Peak at 11:45 a.m.

It was one of those drives. Motorcyclists weaving between cars, changing lanes to gain five feet advantage on their destination, slow drivers trying to figure out how to get to the outlet mall shopping center in Gilroy, people gawking at a car pulled ove r for a flat tire change. On the way up San Juan Canyon Road, where it crests the ridgeline before the sharpest turns demand your attention, I was looking at a thin fog layer, thinking how it would be great if the light-blanket would cover the cities.

Turkey vultures and hawks were riding thermals just off the ridge line to my right, when a large bird tapped on my peripheral vision to my left. A quick glance, to be sure I saw the next turn, and I caught a glimpse of, hey... what is that? The Salinas air show was in progress. I'd forgotten. Perhaps that contributed to the number of lame drivers. But, back to the big bird. It was no bird. It initially looked like one of the old "flying wings" that I remember being shown on early television during my childhood. Look at the road. Another glance for the wing. Listen to that SOUND! It passed over me. Where was it. I suddenly realized I was not seeing a flying wing... the right angles of the triangular silhouette gave away the fact that I was seeing a Stealth B2 bomber in flight over Fremont Peak. I could barely keep my eyes on the road.

The drive seemed to take forever, but strangely I made great time. I guess I was in a hurry to sit in the hot sun and secure a good location for the night.

Pulling into the observing area, all the preferred spots were already gone, and I thought I was early. What time did these crazies get up there?

I parked in the middle of the lot and saved spots for two friends.

Soon, the lot is near capacity. I can only guess that we had perhaps 25 telescopes, many being large aperture Dobs. Others included LX-200's from 8 to 12 inches, an AstroPhysics 180, a Traveler, a JMI NGT18, Celestron CG11, Meade 8" SCT, 6" equatorially mounted Newtonian, and many other interesting pieces of equipment.

A few of us walked over to where the Star-B-Q was to take place. It was 4:15 p.m. now, and we expected crowds. The place was nearly empty. Where was everyone?

As soon as the food hit the grills, people began showing up. What a delicious meal. I ate far too much, and with a couple cold beers to wash everything down, I wondered if I'd be sleeping instead of observing that night. The raffle was lots of fun. I've won my share in the past, and it was fun to see some of my friends get some goodies. The grand prize was a Herald-Bobroff AstroAtlas donated by Crazy Ed Optical.

After waddling back to the observing site, we found it jammed with cars. It was far and away the most crowded observing location in the park, since it is a rarity to have car headlights ruin your night vision. The biggest drawback at the southwest lot is the peak of Fremont Peak coming up into the bottom of Sagitarrius' Teapot, but the rest of the sky can be wonderful from there. A few weeks ago, some of us tried the old Coulter Row area in the park, but the main park road passes in front of the observing area, and traffic can be heavy until quite late. So, everyone was crammed in tightly, which actually made for an intimate atmosphere among the large number of people at our location.

Just after sunset, we had the great experience of seeing Venus brightly shining above the layered low-level cloud/fog over the Pacific Ocean. Below to the right of the bright planet was the dimmer pinpoint called Mercury. In the east, Jupiter was rising. To the southwest Mars and Spica made a striking pair just a few degrees apart. Antares, Arcturus, Vega, Deneb, Altair, all shown, marking the height of the summer season we all look so forward to each year.

The best night of the year, for temperature and seeing was about to play out like a grand and well rehearsed symphony.

As twilight dimmed, my friend Alan and I took up our quest of Sir William's objects, the Herschels. We've worked much of the current early evening sky, with the notable exception of Ursa Major. Heck, the Big Bear is always up, right? Wrong. Pointed nose down to the west, much of the beast's forepaws were descending into the underworld, and would soon be available only as weary-eyed object for all-niter observing sessions in pre-dawn. Alan's laptop computer was running Bisque's top end Sky program, and showed our first object to be a monster galaxy in comparison to many of the little dim puffballs we've become adept at hopping to.

If galaxy hunting were equated to fishing, the first views of non-Messiers in Ursa Major would be keepers. Before deciding it was just to deep in the dust to continue, we hooked seven very nice, large, bright galaxies. My favorite was NGC3983, a face-on spiral with a dimmer close companion, somewhat of a small version of the Whirlpool. But, it soon occurred to us we'd again waited too late into the season, and our bear hunting would need to wait until we could put more targets in our crosshairs.

Off to the west, the fog played hide and seek with the lights of the coastal towns. The chimneys of the Moss Landing power plant popped in and out of view, along with the twinkling of residential lighting while their owners sat transfixed by 120 channels of nearly identical programming on their televisions. I felt happy to be where I was, among friends in the southwest lot at Fremont Peak, under the grandest show one could find, the sky.

Looking east, Delphinus was riding high, heading for the zenith. We had one object left. That usually signals a really tough target. Why else would anyone leave just a single target in a constellation unfound? Soon, the galaxy NGC6956 shown easily. How could I have missed this one before? Now, Delphinus joined a growing list of completed constellations. What would Alan and I do once Sir William's quest was satisfied?

Well, no time for that. The seeing seemed quite good, their was food, beer, wine, good conversation, banter, needling all punctuated by squeals of delight (no poetic license taken here, some people literally were squealing!) by a high number of early Perseid meteors. What a show!

Now, Pegasus was poking its nose and front legs over the trees. Peg is another treasure-chest of galaxies. We'd worked the area for two years, at Fremont Peak and Mt. Lassen, but still more booty lay unclaimed.

All objects remaining in the constellation were listed at mag 14 or dimmer, according the freeware program NGP (New General Program) which I'd used to construct our observing list. True to their billing, many of these were challenges in both the 14.5" f /5.6 I was using, and Alan's 18" f/4.5 Obsession. The toughest nut to crack was NGC7468, which took quite some time to locate and confirm. NGC7691 eluded us. Others were not where I was sure they should be, which is incredibly frustrating. But, in the end, all but one galaxy was in the "confirmed" column.

Much fun in working lists, like the Hershels, is in the other objects that show up in the same field or just a short hop away. Along with star patterns, these other objects are used to confirm the main target. It is amazing how acute one's skills can become when working in this manner. A few of the targets were as dim as mag 14.7 (2) and 14.9 (1).

The night prior, I had taken my wife and daughter to see the movie "Contact." I found it very enjoyable, with just an occasional oversight, but in the big picture, it was an excellent experience. I found myself looking at the night sky, peering at the galaxies, and wondering....

In this vein, one object, not of note for its own beauty, or surrounding star fields, or anything unique, struck me as special. I don't know why. It was the mag 14.9 galaxy UGC12860. This little smudge just would not leave me alone, yet, it was sooooo difficult to see . It was just near the edge of the field when viewing NGC7385. In fact, there were a total of four galaxies in the field. But this UGC, it was a ghost. At first, it was not there. The stars were right, so I was quite sure I should see it if conditions were near optimal, but it was not there! Then, Alan said "come here and look". A few inches extra aperture and, no, well, yes! No. It was there and gone. Then, yes, averted I was holding it. Look at it, a thin slash of light, not white, not gray. It looked almost golden to me. Or maybe, red. It was a transitory experience, blinking in and out. I thought about radio signals from space, and how difficult they might be to find. I thought about how on other nights, the small galactic gem of our universe I was now viewing would certainly not reveal itself. But, it *was* there.

Now, at 3:30 a.m., the coastal cities were muted under a nice blanket of fog. The city lights, illuminating the underside of the fog, and my vantage point high above, produced a view similar to the soft glow of distant galaxies, separated by areas of empty darkness. But I knew that although hidden, they were connected, and teeming with life. The fog and a nice temperature inversion had given a handful of people in the bay area a great night.

As weariness and other contributors to the night's enjoyment bore in on me, I decided to try the Veil Nebula. I do not own a filter, so did not expect much. So, over to 52 Cygni I went. What a sight, the ribbon of nebulae was bright and thick! I could hardly believe the ease with which I viewed it. Over to the rest of this complex of nebula, there was structure as I have only seen on good nights with an OIII or UHC filter.

Weary, I joined ten or so other observers, now sitting in their chairs in a large circle, under the dark and open night sky, watching for Perseids. We talked until 4:30 a.m. and decided that Orion's belt, now above the horizon, would soon be followed by the sun. The night was ending.

It was a great night. It was one of those nights you think back on and savor in the dead of winter, or when wind or clouds drive you home. It was the sort of night that sticks in your memory and keeps us coming back for more.