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.

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