Sunday, November 30, 2008

Munching Cosmic Brownies At Coe

I can't remember the last time I was at Coe. I suppose I was there some time earlier this year, but it has been a while. When I arrived at the overlfow lot the gate was locked, so I drove to park headquarters and soon had Ranger Bonnie unlocking it, and letting me in. Richard Navarrete joined me there, and eventually maybe a dozen other observers were parked around the perimeter of the lot. It was a treat to see Richard Ozer there. I also hadn't seen Kevin Roberts or Mark Brada for a while, as well as Greg Claytor, his (TAC lurker buddy) with a Highe-type scope, and Matthew Marcus. "Dan" (didn't catch the last name), Mike Delaney, Chris Kelly and his food raiding dogs (hey... great dogs, but they raided the KFC remnants from inside my truck - think Bumpass' Hounds in Christmas Story!), Peter K, Jeff Weiss, and others were there too. We really had a good group, and quite a social observing evening. Folks from down the hill and in the campgrounds joined us after dark to look through our scopes and learn about the sky and our see some of our neighborhood in it. There are certainly a few new observing converts among them - good questions, wide ranging discussions (water table, fishing, GSSP, astro-clubs, literature, philosophy and joking) on a warm and clear late November night. What a treat.

The skies began very mushy. I didn't look, but heard comments about Jupiter being plain ugly. Stars were fat. The sky glow from San Jose was up high, and you could see the moisture content out there. Transparency was noticeably down, and my 18" f/4.5 scope was barely breaking into the mid mag-14's. As such, a lot of the targets on my observing list were just silly to try for. I thought about the skies at Willow Springs the prior weekend, and, while last night was an okay (average) night at Coe, I found myself missing the darker location. The trade-off was proximity, I could easily drive home afterward and enjoy waking in my own bed.

Even though the transparency and steadiness began as a double-whammy, the seeing improved dramatically as the night wore on. But, the lower transparency put me off my list for sure, and I spent much of the night doing public outreach and looking at brighter, familiar targets I hadn't seen in a while, and just hanging out with the buds.

Of the "tougher stuff" I chased down:

A component of Hickson 1 - UGC 248 in 12mm and 7mm. Elongated, averted.

Arp 65 - which is part of the NGC 83 group I observed the prior week (had at least 25 galaxies) - Nice field in 7mm - NGCs 80, 83, 91, 93, 96, 86 and 79.

Arp 249 - UGC 12891 - 7mm - small, dim, averted, elong N/S with dim star involved or stellar core.

I also observed:

NGC 23 - 7mm - small galaxy elong N/S with star involved on SE. Other galaxy to W is dimmer and elong E/W.

NGC 129 - Nice triangular open cluster in field dominated by 6th mag star to S. Triangle opens to the N.

NGC 136 - 12mm - small, dim, rich, round.

That was it for my list.

There was actually something of a "party" atmosphere going on by about 10 p.m. The group had gathered around the two 18" scopes (mine and Richard's) and we were sharing eyepieces, views, Mexican Coffee (a few of us, limited supply) and the Cosmic Brownies I brought along. Here... put your mind at ease...

Mmmm... mmmmm!

It turned into something of an eye candy ... or, actually, let's stick with the "Cosmic Brownie" kind of night at Coe...

I was showing M31 and its satellites to the visitors using Ozer's 35 Panoptic. People were easily able to see all three galaxies in a single field, in relation to each other - distinct differences in size and shape. Cool. We showed the Double Cluster, which sparkled. M45 still overflowed the field, but was spectacular. From there I showed M15, to contrast young open clusters with ancient ones and to talk about distances. M37 in Auriga with the cool red star at its center. On to M42 - which our guests not surprisingly fell in love with. We even showed M1 to give an example of a supernova remnant, along with synchrotron radiation scientist Marcus discussing for our company what was actually taking place *in* the object. Fascinating. And fun. Who'd ever guess that amateur astronomy could be such a group participation activity!

Later, after the company took off, I began poking around at a few other interesting objects. I began on M82, which was very sharp in the 12mm Nagler, looking like it had two big chop marks in it with chunks missing from the galaxy. One comment was that it looked like it was almost cut in half.

I peeked at M81, and convinced myself I was seeing some outer sweep of the spiral arms.

Decided to try something I hadn't looked at in a long time, since the seeing was now excellent. Off to NGC 2371/72 in Gemini. Nice bi-lobed protoplanetary. At 294x with the 7mm Nagler and NPB filter, the SSW lobe was clearly circular and brighter than the "trailing" ENE lobe, which also appeared circular, but larger. Between the two was a dim stretch of filament that seemed brighter on its N edge, although with averted vision filled in to something of a bar.

Oh, reminds me, I tried that target after having an excellent view of M76 with the 7mm and NPB filter.

I kept the NPB in an moved on to a showpiece planetary - NGC 2392 - aka the Clown or Eskimo. This object stole the show as far as planetaries for the evening. With the 7mm in,the central star stood out well, alone in a torus of black, surrounded by a sharply defined neon-glowing ring. The contrast and clarity of this view was as good as I've ever seen. Surrounding the neon ring was the soft slightly elongated "puff" of outer envelope. Several of us kept taking in this view. When its working, get it while you can!

Moved back to Orion and (NPB and 7mm in) went through M78 and the associated NGC emission nebulae that form the larger complex. Richard Ozer and I were picking them out. Then (for the heck of it) I decided to cross the line (inside Orion's torso above his belt) to try for UGC 3331 (negative observation) and on to another emission nebula, IC 426. We didn't really buy into seeing it while we were there, but looking at its shape today (using The Sky) and the DSS image, I am certain we were picking out the brighter/denser portion trailing off a bright field star. Woo hoo - redemption!

After that, I began looking for something more off the beaten path, and noticed that Sirius was now reasonably high. That meant NGC 2359 was up. This target is a large area of nebulosity illuminated by a Wolf Rayet star - in a shape that reminded someone of a Norse Helmet. And so it was named Thor's Helmet. Again, with the NPB in and a 12mm Nagler, this object showed great extent and variety in density. If you get a good night, you should spend a little time there. Under the right conditions, this one is a hidden gem.

I think we finished up on the Rosette Nebula, which showed thick, almost pasty patches, and put me in the season's spirit. The 18 was doing great, but by then it was past 1 a.m., and that was the Witching Hour for me. My bed sounded good. It had been actually a very rewarding night, unexpectedly, given what the sky looked like early on. Instead of a "butt-busting" observing session, it was more kicked back at Coe. A relaxed, social, and as it turned out, very good night, even with a brighter than normal sky. And, surprisingly, I didn't even put on a jacket or hat (although I had layers of thermals on). Amazing, for the last weekend in November.

Let's hope for a repeat in December. If it sounds to you like this was fun, it was. Come out next time... I'll bring the brownies...

Monday, November 24, 2008


Those folks who ventured out to Willow Springs had an excellent night of observing this last Saturday. Our group was split over two locations, Bob Ayers' property atop the hill at 3,000 feet, and Kevin Ritschel's in the valley at 2,200 feet. I was with Steve Gottlieb, Bob Jardine, Bill Cone, David Cooper and Elisabeth Oppenheimer at Kevin's.

As dark set in, I bundled up in multiple layers expecting a very cold night. That never really materialized, temps were reasonable all night, chilling a bit after midnight. The sky stayed quite clear throughout the observing session, although seeing was at times mediocre. Still, it was dark and transparent, and a treat for this time of year. A good gauge of the night was seeing the gegenshein between the Hyades and the Pleiades. Hopefully conditions will improve from the current forecast for late this week and warrant another trip out on Saturday.

At dark I decided to throw out my plans and have a relaxed night observing. It began in a very social manner, no "hard core" list-busting - just relaxed, visiting with friends. It was like the old argument about whether it "tastes great" or is "less filling". How can you lose? I just wanted to take it easy, and "sip a cold one" on a late November night with friends. I hadn't seen Bill in a long time, and I can't recall the last time David and I were set up next to each other. I did observe a handful of targets on my November list... and, later at night teamed up with Steve to break up a few big galaxy clusters...

Observing-LITE... with an 18" Dob...

I began with NGC 40, a great planetary nebula near the Cepheus-Cassiopeia border. With my 7mm Nagler (294x) it showed two bright edges - at the east and west, appeared almost circular and slightly annular, with a bright central star. After Bill mentioned it, I noticed a warmish tone to envelope. When looking carefully, the annular appearance was most pronounced toward the outer edge of the envelope, and near the brighter edges.

I moved on to NGC 7762, a surprisingly interesting open cluster on the Herschel 400-II list, easily located next to a mag 5 star in eastern Cepheus. With a 20mm Nagler (103x) it showed as a very pretty open cluster with several dozen bright stars strewn across a long stretch of dimmer cluster members. The cluster is distinct, and almost rectangular in a mostly nw/se direction. I compared it to a small version of "naked-eye" Milky Way but in a single cluster and eyepiece. Worth a visit. Note a few linear strings of stars in the cluster.

I skipped a few items on my list, deciding instead to focus on targets I thought would either be interesting, or easy. Goodbye to most of the Sharpless stuff. Adios insane Abell Planetary that was seen once 10% of the time in a 24" scope! If I want pain, there's always the upcoming SJAA board meeting! ;-)

I next tried convincing Bill we could see Sh2-171 in my 10x80 finder. He said no, I said yes. BTW... for Navarrete (since he asked me to check it out), I liked Steve's Stellarvue finder a lot more than the archaeological relic I'm using! Here's what I came up with on the target: Visible just north of quadrangle of bright stars, as a large asymmetric glow. The northern edge has a noticeable right triangle of stars in a tight grouping. In a 20mm eyepiece there is a very distinct contrast difference from one side to the other, running N/S next to the triangle. Looking at the DSS image ( ) the triangle of stars is just to the right of center.

Abell 2 is a dim planetary nebula in such an easy to hop to location, anyone with interest in trying it should. Check it out - right on a constellation "figure" line in Cassiopeia and just west of the notable double star Eta Cass... its position is made to order. In my 12mm Nagler, I picked it up without a filter as a dim roundish glow, using averted vision. With the 7mm and OIII - round without much differentiation, potentially some annularity.

This next one is contestable. Go ahead, nay-sayers, sling your arrows. Sh2-176 is a very dim and large planetary. See these images ( ). Here are my notes: 20mm OIII suspected, with 12mm and OIII filaments appear and disappear with averted, - arc along the NW edge, knot in the SW edge. OK... so I did a toughie.

Another dim planetary? Well, its not all *that* dim.... Abell 82 is located in Cassiopeia very near the beautiful open cluster NGC 7789. What a great contrast in objects between the two! Visit both when in the area. With my 12mm and OIII the Abell was visible dimly as fairly large uneven glow with, with an easy to pick out central star. My sense is that the western half of the planetary was the most visible.

With that, I was through with planetaries for the night. What a relief, on to easy targets - Arp 112 in Pegasus! With a 7mm I resolved two galaxies of almost equal magnitude, the eastern-most (NGC 7806) with a NE/SW elongation, other (NGC 7805) is mostly N/S. 7805 has mag 12 star overlaying and appearing to be a stellar nucleus. What a nice pair!

Arp 113 is awesome looking, on paper (or in a planetarium program). Check it out. With the 7mm eyepiece I could pick out 7 galaxies in tight group dim group. Clumpy. The group is dominated (can you say that for dim galaxies?) by NGCs 70, 71 and 72. Seeing was marginal at the time, so that's all there is to this one.

Arp 46? OMG, another Arp. Where is the easy stuff? 7mm - UGC 12665 obvious as large amorphous glow, UGC 12667 is significantly dimmer and amorphous. Alvin Huey had observed these in a larger aperture, and higher power, and noted there is an "A" companion (which he did not detect)... but I don't see it in Megastar or The Sky... anyway, 12667 was in and out with averted vision.

Argh.... another Arp! Arp 86 is in Pegasus and is not too tough. With a 7mm 7753 shows spiral structure with possible bar e/w (heh.... just looked at the DSS image, yeah!), NGC 7752 is small elongated glow. 7753 is big and bright.... go for it!

In order to flog myself even more thoroughly, I moved away from the Arps, and moved on to Hickson 99. UGC 12899 is the brightest member of five in this group, at mag 14.7. In my 7mm only the A and B (UGC 12897 and UGC 12899) were visible. With enough "watching" I felt a B had notch possibly showing, which would be the C component at mag 15.7.

I also observed two rich galaxy clusters with Steve, Abell 400 in Cetus and the NGC 80 group Andromeda. We would locate the brightest member of the cluster, and work in distinct directions off it, pulling in IC, CGCG and MAC galaxies down to the mid mag 16 range. 16's were well within reach, once we went dimmer, things got tough quickly. I estimate we pulled in close to 30 members of Abell 400, and 25 targets in the NGC 80 group. I'll let Steve chronicle exactly what we saw, I decided to just enjoy the trip and leave the note-taking to the most experienced hands. Observing like this with such a capable observer is always a treat.

Lastly, I'll note a few other targets that were fun in my scope and others.

I had a rockin view of The Horsehead Nebula in my 18" with the 12 Nagler and an H-Beta filter. Black notches don't get any darker or more distinct. The contrast difference on along the edge of IC 434 was very dramatic.

We had a very interesting view of the Sculptor Dwarf Galaxy in Steve's 18", I think pretty much everyone looked at it - this target was large and shown itself as an elongated brightening that was not much more than a change in contrast - but it was there.

Bill Cone called me over to look at Burbidge's Chain off of the big galaxy NGC 247. We pulled in 3 members. Second time I've seen this group. Bill also had nice views of Neptune and its big moon Triton - nice color - similar to the color we saw viewing the Saturn Nebula in Capricornus (coincidentally, the constellation in which Neptune was discovered!).

David Smith was set up with his 6" f/7 Astrophysics refractor pulling in great views of large objects like the entire sweep of M42 (and M43, and The Running Man, and NGC 1981.... awesome!) and the hands-down best view I've had of the California Nebula in a 2.7 degree field!

It was also a lot of fun to have the enthusiastic Elisabeth sharing views, and wowing herself over the great skies and how well targets were popping out in the 8" Dob she was using.

The one thing that was as it always is, was Jardine. The man is an observing monster, a photon munching machine. Other than when he was looking through Steve's scope at The Sculptor Dwarf (and were you guys looking at the WLM too?)... you wouldn't ever know he was there... glued to his eyepiece throughout the evening.

It was a great night. And if I had to choose, tastes great won. It was not a less filling evening, I was very full by the end! So much for Observing-LITE.

Thanks to all my friends who made it so much fun... and Kevin... thanks again for being such a generous host. I hope Dobzilla feels better soon. Feed the beast!

Saturday, November 8, 2008

Wide Gaps

I was at the SJAA's Houge Park star party Friday night. I arrived early, and by dark was joined by perhaps a dozen others with their telescopes. What was immediately obvious was excellent seeing. I can't recall a night of steadier skies at Houge.

I was using my 10" f/5.7 CPT Dob. The Royce full thickness mirror was giving highly detailed views of, in particular, la luna - in a very crisp waxing gibbous phase. Rilles were sharp edged knife cuts etched into the surface. Some were black, short, deep slices, others running "with the grain" appeared as lite lines running long distance into and out the back sides of mountain ranges. Big craters like Clavius with small ones inside, and even smaller craterlets in bunches around those. It was spectacular seeing. It looked like there wasn't a breath of air on the moon, or between it and my us.

Some people were looking at Jupiter, bit it was low, and the best that could be said of it was given its altitude, it didn't look bad, and was even showing some nice atmospheric refraction!

The public turned out in good numbers. Kids with parents, college students, return visitors, all sorts. One young guy, Johnny, 7-1/2 years old did not want to leave. I had let him move my telescope and track things down using the optical and unit finders. No better way to get a kid interested than to let them do it. Mom and dad stood by rather nervously, as Johnny pushed the scope around. I was reassuring, but you could see, especially dad, hoping the boy wouldn't tip it over. Johnny left saying he wanted a telescope, and I told them about the SJAA's loaner program. Mom and dad also told me about a great few nights they'd had in Modoc county, what the sky looked like. I told them about GSSP...

One of the other telltale signs of what the night was like was a contrail. It crossed the sky mostly west to east, almost grazing the moon. Not only did the trail hold together from one end to the other, but you could easily see the individual trails within it, one end to the other. Can you say "steady"?

In addition to the rock solid skies, was excellent transparency. I was a Houge a few weeks ago, when there was no moon present. But last night, even with a fairly big moon up, deep sky targets were outperforming what I'd seen two weeks ago. M31 and M32 were easy. The Blinking Planetary proved popular with those who could get it to do its trick. M15 broke up wonderfully. The ET Cluster was a good test of people imagination (some people got'em, others.... well...). It was also fun to show off some double stars....

Eta Cass's companion was ruddy copper. What a color! I heard a friend talking about Gamma Andromedae - great color contrast too - yellow and blue. I started popping some really tight doubles - you just could not throw enough power at these - every one I tried gave back wide gaps. Mack truck like wide. A few people started talking cosmology - the Big Bang - "before" the Big Bang, oscillating universes, speaking authoritatively too - like God planted the answers in their heads! I was enjoying it. They got onto the color of stars and the amateur astronomers began to quiz the curious visitors on which stars were hotter, would live longer, etc. They were showing colored doubles during this lesson.

So, I got my scope back from Johnny, and pointed it to Gamma Arietis, and let them guess which was hotter, and what was there before the stars.

There were wide gaps in their answers. It was a wide gap kind of night....

It might be a while before there's another like it...