Sunday, April 27, 2008

Sleepy Time Report from Willow Springs.

Saturday night I joined Steve Gottlieb for an observing session hosted by Kevin Ritschel at his property at Willow Springs. The drive down was a snap, very little traffic, just the occasional Sunday Driver going too slow (for me) on the two lane roads. Spring was just starting to pass "peak" as the green grasses carpeting the hills was just beginning to brown. It was still a spectacular ride, well worth the hour and forty minutes from downtown San Jose. I was a bit concerned about wind, as it was blowing hard in Morgan Hill when I stopped to top off the gas tank. But it was quite calm, and in the low 80's when I arrived just before 7 p.m. Conditions looked great.

The first view of the night was Saturn. I used it to align my finders, enjoying the confusion having it next to Regulus causes. Saturn looks just slightly brighter the Regulus, and the color differences between the two is easily seen. I was also confused by Mars being up in Gemini. Having not been out much over the last few months, the planets really throw a monkey-wrench into the sky, as I know it. The view of Saturn was very steady and showed lots of detail. Mars was lower and softer, although I felt at times I could "feel" a whiter area on it.

I had a list of objects that included some Herschel 400 and 400-II, Arp, Abell planetary and Hickson targets. I did not get through most of them, as my (stinking) laptop once again crapped out.... I think the adapter is flaky. I resorted to Uranometria and SA2000, but it is awkward after years of star hopping in the eyepiece, which is a luxury the computer as an atlas provides. So instead, I teamed up with Steve, letting the GoTo on his Starmaster find the targets, and I'd then look through his Telrad. We selected targets off my list that appeared interesting.

Additionally, we enjoyed some very good views through Kevin's behemoth 33.25" f/5 Dob.

Views of the night....

Kevin pulled in the NGC 2686 group in Ursa Major. At first just the brightest "3" galaxies were seen. But given some time for the dimmer ones to start popping, a total of 8 were seen. Of those, 7 are part of the group. How this one is not a Hickson is hard to understand. Look at your planetarium program to see how tight this group is. Observed NGC 2684, 2686A and B, 2687A and B, 2688, 2689 and MAC 0855+4906. Only the MAC was not seen in an 18".

The Ringtail Galaxy, NGCs 4038 and 4039, were also quite interesting in the 33. This is the first time I've seen 4038 as annular, and 4039 clearly trailing away. The "shrimp" shape of 4038 was obvious, and the darkened inner portion looked rough, or scalloped. The best I'd ever seen on this pair before was the typical hazy glow that most galaxies exhibit. Aperture rules!

Views of M99, M51 and M83 through the 33 also revealed outstanding detail. M99's odd shape and the sharp turned back arms off M83's big bar were very cool.

In the 18's, I think the most rewarding views were of:

NGC 5308 - 12mm - bright compact core with nearly stellar nucleus, long extended edge-on arms e/w.

NGC 5322 - 12mm - bright compact core with nearly stellar nucleus, slightly elongated e/w but mostly roundish, star overlaying outer halo on south edge.

NGC 5430 - odd, almost bifurcated on the south side of a north/south elongation. Disrupted galaxy. Perhaps two cores, brighter but not bright, with averted vision.

As the night wore on, I kept noticing an aroma I could not identify. Spearmint? Wintergreen? It was everywhere, and pungent. I was really pleasing, and lent an "aroma therapy" feel to the evening... I eventually asked Kevin what was going on. Well, the Spring carpet underfoot turned out to be Camomile. Like in the tea, good for relaxing, supposedly helps with insomnia. I absolutely felt all mellowed out... kind of a sleepy time observing session...

A few other views....

NGC 5585 - 12mm - bright, large, diffuse. Had a bright middle but no distinct core. Possibly a face on spiral.

NGC 5631 - small, bright, had a non-stellar core centered in a diffuse roundish halo. NGC 5480/5481- 5480 is elongated NW/SE with a large bright core, no nucleus, and surrounded by a small dimmer outer halo. 5481 in contrast has almost no core, but a bright stellar nucleus. It is slightly smaller than 5480, and seems dimmer as its round outer halo makes up much more of the galaxy.

NGC 5485 - bright and round with a bright non-stellar core. There are other galaxies close by to the N, SSE and further to the WSW.

NGC 5474 - what an odd galaxy! Large, but at first I only noticed a brighter and dimmer "half". Turned out the dimmer part was much larger than I initially thought. There is a bright "core" on the north side of this one, with the larger dim "oval" extending away to the south. Worth a look!

The last object I looked at was NGC5395, aka Arp 84. This is another unusual object. I sketched it and Steve showed me a photo in the Night Sky Observers Guide, which was virtually identical to my drawing. The main galaxy, 5395, is largish, but seems to have a central brighter section offset along its major axis. The dimmer part of the galaxy appeared to "splay" away from the brighter section, possibly interacting with the smaller and dimmer NGC 5394. The splay off the bigger brighter galaxy appeared to contact the smaller one. It was a very interesting object.

We looked at other targets as well, but by about 1 a.m. or so the sky was getting pretty well clouded over, and we were all certain that even the "clear" sections were actually covered by thin cloud. So, we called it a night.

It was well worth the trip time down to Willow. Good company, a huge scope, and fun target list. By the time I climbed into my truck to grab some sleep, the Camomile had done its job. I hadn't had such a good night's sleep in ages!