Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Wet Behind The Ears - Dewy night at Willow Springs

A small group of observers took the opportunity to go to Willow Springs last Saturday night, There had been plenty of indecision leading, as a large bank of clouds lay to the west, on the heels of the rain we had Friday. The jet stream forecast pointed the problem to the southeast directly at Willow, but the visual and IR weather loops an east-west trajectory with the southern edge skirting the south bay. I met Olga at the usual Morgan Hill Chevron rendezvous and caravaned south. The sun had already set and twilight silhouetted the black hills to the west against florescent golds, oranges and a deepening electric blue. The Belt of Venus was already well up in the east. An hour later we arrived Willow, followed closely by Greg and Marko. The air was a chilled 38 degrees, sunset a dying ember. The only light was from the stars, Jupiter and crescent moon.

Soon our host Kevin emerged, dragging out Dobzilla, his 33" Dob. I had my 18" f/4.5 Obsession, Greg a 22" f/3.6 and Marko an 18" f/3.7 . I shared my telescope with Olga, who has proven to be a good observer and very proficient star-hopper, in spite of still being wet behind the ears. Even well before the moon set there were some great views. Greg showed The Veil in the 22, and we had fun poking around with his 77mm binoculars, looking at wide field targets.

After dark Kevin shared a mind boggling view of the Dumbbell Nebula in the 33".

At low power and with a filter, its distinct apple-core shape was very apparent, containing what appeared to be strings of filamentary material. The outer edges were clearly defined, in a large oval, but with extra "puffs" of ejecta outward of the main shell, at right angles to the major axis of the apple-core. Easily one of the best views I've had of the target. We'd run back and forth, scope to scope, grabbing views, but most of the night was spent in pursuit of dry optics. The only master of the seas that night was Marko, who's dew setup kept him out of the drink. We talked about dew prevention a bit, and I related that I've only been really dewed out a handful of times in all the years I've been going out. But this high on the the "bad" scale of those nights. All night long, the views would bloat, then fade to empty fields. My secondary and eyepieces were hit bad. The combination of dew and masacara are a deadly combination.

But the night was still a lot of fun. In the background, there was plenty of chatter, and Kevin's selection of music, eclectic, ranging from beautiful flamenco guitar to lullabies in foreign languages, to old cowboy tunes from the American West. I think my favorites were The Streets of Laredo, Red River Valley, and Happy Trails, which I would have loved hearing as the last song of the night. It occurred to me how ingrained in me those songs of the old west were - back to my earliest childhood memories. But to my observing partner they were as foreign and new as most of the objects we were observing. I enjoyed the old songs, and new songs, along with the old views, and new views.

By the end of the night, we were picking out bright targets just for fun. M42, M37, M38, M36, M35, M46/47, The Eskimo (bloated and dulled by dew), a teasing taste of Thor's Helmet, then off to the Mexican Jumping Star in NGC 2362. The star would not jump much though... I think the telescope was frozen. W pointed low toward Canis Major, it just kept dropping down... unbalanced from the weight of the frozen ice sheet of dew on the shroud.

In the morning, I looked over at Marko's scope, and chuckled at the ring of obliterated footprints surrounding it, too many to count, marking his mostly circular travels during the night. A small distance walked, but such a great distance traveled.

Packing up my gear, I lazily daydreamed of a bigger scope, wondering just what I could might see. Its a fun dream. I dream it a lot.

It had been a very wet night. Yet even with the cold and dew, it was a fun. It was good to be out again, with friends, under the dark sky. Thanks Kevin, for the hospitality.

Here are our other observations from the night. Happy trails...

NGC514 Psc GX 4.2'x2.7' 12.2B 01 24 03 +12 55 03
12mm - amorphous, some central condensation, no detail. Large, dim.

N524 Psc GX 2.7' 11.3B 01 24 48 +09 32 00
Viewed NGC 524, along with NGC 518, NGC 516, NGC 509, NGC 532 and NGC 525 all in the same field. Most had to be teased out, due to conditions.

HCG5 Psc Hickson 0.9'x0.7' 14.9B 00 38 54 +07 03 46 NGC 190
Observed A, B and C components. Very surprising, conditions are apparently varying.

AGC 0076 Psc GX 28.0' 15.0 00 39 48 +06 46 00 IC 1565
Located very close to Hickson 5. Only picked up IC 1565 and IC 1566.

N486/90/92 Psc GX Trio 0.4' 15.5 01 22 06 +05 24 00
This trio was a very dim smudgy grouping that would not break into individual galaxies.

N48 Psc GX 1.4'x0.9' 14.4P 01 21 48 +05 15 00
Fighting very dewy conditions, picked up round glows of NGC 49, NGC 51, NGC 48 and IC 1534.

Arp157 Psc GX 4.5'x1.8' 12.2B 01 24 35 +03 47 00 NGC 0520
OK view. With 7mm a bright knot on the NNW end, with a spread appearance, almost fan-like, at the SSE end. Long and thin.

Arp227 Psc GX 7.0'x6.2' 12.4B 01 20 06 +03 25 00 NGC 0474
3 nice galaxies in a group. NGC 470 and NGC 474 very close together, with 470 appearing noticeably fainter. NGC 467 is the smallest of the three and about 10' E of 470.

NGC428 Cet GX 4.1'x3.1' 11.9B 01 12 55 +00 58 54
Entire galaxy appears chaotic. Large, with a N/S oval shape and fairly even brightness across surface.

HGC7 Cet GX 2.2'x0.8' 13.4B 00 39 13 +00 51 49 NGC 0192
Perhaps the most pleasing view of the night was teasing out this wonderful foursome of galaxies. This is a bright Hickson. NGC 201 is the largest of the group and stands alone, with the other three smaller galaxies grouped into a small tight arc.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Winter's Return to Willow Springs

Saturday conditions were not very promising, early in the day. Dark bottomed clouds filled the sky, with only occasional patches of blue showing through, and a chill was in the air. The forecast was for clear skies in the evening, and indeed, shortly after arriving at Willow Springs, blue sky began spreading and the clouds were dissipating as they moved southward.

The group this trip comprised of Steve Gottlieb, Greg LaFlamme, both whom preceded me in arriving, followed by Tony Hurtado, Richard Navarrete and Mark Johnston. Along with my 18" f/4.5 Dob, the others, in order were, 18", 22", 18", 18" and 18". Our host, Kevin Reitschel, hauled out Dobzilla, his 33.4" titan. As we all worked on collimating our scopes, the sun was setting through cloud banks in the west, spraying the sky with orange and gold rays. By the time it was dark, we had an almost entirely clear sky, and would enjoy a fine night of deep sky observing under almost ideal conditions, save for some diminished transparency, and temps that dropped into the mid 20's. We were all prepared for cold, and my fingertips were the only part of me to feel winter's return to Willow Springs.

I observed from about 6:30 p.m. until after 1 a.m., and woke in the morning to fresh crisp air, and sounds of horses in the field and birds warming themselves in the branches of nearby trees. The hillsides were were tinged red with thin cover... and I packed to leave, enjoying the stillness, sights and sounds, as the others awoke.

Soon, I was on my way, leaving Willow Springs to follow the winding two-lane J1, back toward a very different world.

This month I changed what is included in my observing list to add some interest for an observing friend - limiting it to 60 targets, varying from "eye candy" to my usual more challenging ones.

Here are the objects I observed from that list, with my unedited notes:

N559 Cas OC 4.4' 9.5 01 29 30 +63 18 00
20mm - rich but many dim stars. Brighter pair in cluster close together E/W with a nice dim chain arcing to the north. Pretty. Actually fairly large. Arc of stars trail off E end of cluster, which has a few dozen brighter stars overlaying numerous dim hazy stars.

N381 Cas OC 6.0' 9.3 01 08 18 +61 35 00
20mm - poor large cluster near two bright stars, brightest star is appox 18' E of cluster. Approximately 20 brighter stars overlaying many dimmer haze stars. Coarse.

N129 Cas OC 21' 6.5 00 29 54 +60 14 00
20mm - beautiful field - brightest star to S and pretty colored arc of stars to E leading to outlying bright star. Cluster comprised of about half dozen brighter stars overlying a V shaped wedge of dimmer stars opening from the south and expanding to the N. Entire cluster appears to have haze involved, which may be nebulosity.

N436 Cas OC 5.0' 8.8 01 15 30 +58 49 00
20mm - pretty and condensed. Brightest members form chains to W and N from center. Dimmer members of cluster extend widely N and S. Nice arced chain of stars 23' W.

N457 Cas OC 13.0' 6.4 01 19 06 +58 20 00
20mm - large rich cluster with 2 bright stars dominating SE edge. Chain of stars crosses cluster from SE to NW. Custer appears coarse initially, but is rich in dim stars. Extends 10' SE/NW and 24' SW/NE.

Abell 2 Cas PN 33"x29" 14.5 00 45 36 +57 57 24 PK 122-4.1 = PN G122.1-04.9
12mm NPB filter - small but obvious, nearly direct vision. Slightly elongated NE/SW, possible slightly annularity. 5mm hints at annularity, and stars embedded in N, W and S edges.

Sh 2-184 Cas BN 28.0'x21.0' 00 52 50 +56 36 37 N0281
20mm - no filter, nebula is visible easily, extending E and W of an easy double star… more obvious to the E and SE. Very large area of nebulosity. With Ulutrablock, nebulosity is very distinct and wide, extending most noticeably SE/NW, with extension also S to W along the southern edge. Other dim nebulosity throughout the region. Very rich nebula.

N185 Cas GX 11.9'x10.1' 10.1B 00 39 00 +48 20 00
12mm - large mostly elliptical, slight extension mostly E/W (slightly SW), dim extensions and gradually brightening, evenly, to a fairly bright non-stellar core. Approximately 11'x3.4'
N278 Cas GX 2.2'x2.2' 11.5B 00 52 06 +47 33 00
7mm - small and bright. Very bright small core with a dim stellar center. Possible arms curled tightly around core form a dimmer halo.

M32 And GX 8.8'x6.5' 9.0B 00 42 41 +41 51 00
7mm - large and bright, slightly extended E/W with a stellar core and tight torus also elongated E/W around the nucleus.

M110 And GX 21.9'x10.9' 8.9B 00 40 24 +41 41 00

12mm - spectacular, elongated NNW/SSE, lens shaped core mostly N/S, Fill half field or about 14'. Very underrated.
NGC206 And C+N 4.2x1.5 00 40 31 +40 44 22
12mm - could easily be mistaken for a dim galaxy overlaying the edge of M31. Elongated WSW/ENE and separated from M31 by a dark lane to the S. Very nice target.

N404 And GX 3.4'x3.4' 11.2B 01 09 24 +35 43 00
7mm - use high power get orange/gold Beta Andromodae out of field. Small tight core with dim stellar nucleus. Core diminishes rapidly in brightness to an even brightness out to edge. May have tight spirals.

HGC10 And Hickson 3.6'x1.3' 12.3V 01 26 21 +34 42 14 NGC 0536
7mm - all 4 visible. Three are easily there - NGC 536, NGC 529 and NGC 531. Eventually NGC 542 comes in and can be held. All appear elongated.

N407/10/14 Psc GX Trio 2.3'x0.6' 14.3P 01 11 00 +33 12 00

12mm - NCG 407 - small slash elongated N/S, NGC 410 - elliptical elongated SW/NE with bright core and even brightness in halo., largest and brightest of trio. Stellar core. NGC 414 - small round and very little halo around a stellar nucleus.

N392/94/97 Psc GX Trio 1.2'x1.0' 13.7B 01 08 24 +33 06 00
7mm - NGC 394 slight elongate mostly N/S with stellar core, NGC 392 - brightest of trio mostly round with tight core and bright stellar nucleus, NGC 397 - small and slightly elongated N/S with even brightness and no nucleus - dimmest of the trio.

N447/49/51 Psc GX Trio 2.8'x2.1' 14.0V 01 16 12 +33 06 00
7mm - NGC 447, NGC 449, NGC 451 - all three small, no detail, and dim. NGC 449 and NGC 451 are a challenge due to proximity of bright star nearby. NGC 447 is marked in error in The Sky (planetarium software) as having a very bright star nearby.

Arp331 Psc GX 1.4'x0.9' 12.8V 01 07 24 +32 24 00 NGC 0383
12mm - NGC 383 anchors a beautiful long string of 9 NGC galaxies in a chain. Arp 331 included (NGC 379).

M33 Tri GX 65.6'x38.0' 6.3B 01 33 54 +30 39 00
20mm - huge and bright, showing lots of detail. Bright core with a dim fuzzy nucleus, star overlaying core - core elongated mostly WSW/ENE. Core shows sweep of arms starting - nice! 2 giant arms sweep S and W, N and E. Large HII to the NE glaring. 2 other HII to the w of the core, another to the SW.

NGC315 Psc GX 3.2'x2.2' 12.2B 00 57 48 +30 21 09
12mm - 315 is very bright, elongated WSW/ESE with an elongated elliptical core and stellar nucleus, with dim extensions. NGC 311 is somewhat ESE/WNW, small and no definition. NGC 318 is dim, small, off star to its NW, Very small, nearly stellar, tiny dim stellar nucleus.

N311/15/18 Psc GX Trio 1.8'x0.8' 14.0B 00 57 48 +30 18 00
See above.

N252/58/60 And GX Trio 1.5'x1.0' 13.4P 00 48 00 +27 36 00
12mm - NGC 252 is pretty round with a dim stellar nucleus in a small round core surrounded by a dim halo. Brightest in group of 3. NGC 260 is quite dim, an indistinct haze slightly elongated N/S and about same size as NGC 252. NGC 258 required 7mm to confirm no find. Just beyond limit for night.

Arp282 And GX 2.6'x0.8' 13.2 00 36 52 +23 59 00 NGC 0169
7mm - interesting field due to two bright stars each with a pair of bright and dim galaxies off them. NGC 169 is obvious as a slash e/w with a tiny puff of IC1559 off its S edge. NGC 160 is larger, fatter, dimmer and SW/NE, with very occasional hint of UGC 354 to it NW. Fun field due to symmetry.

HCG8 And Hickson 0.5'x0.3' 15.2B 00 49 34 +23 34 42 MCG +04-03-008
7mm - amazingly, all 4 components came in! Several of us observed this group in our own telescopes.
NGC514 Psc GX 4.2'x2.7' 12.2B 01 24 03 +12 55 03
12mm - amorphous, some central condensation, no detail. Large, dim.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Late Season Highlights from Willow Springs

I originally planned a leisurely Saturday afternoon, driving to Willow Springs, about an hour forty minutes from where I live south of San Francisco. But when the forecast changed and showed good for Friday, and deteriorating skies for Saturday, the decision was made. Traffic commute was an issue, but with the longer nights, it really didn't matter if arrival was after dark, so on toward sunset I met Richard Navarrete at the rendezvous in Morgan Hill, and waited for another observer, Olga Stackovsky, to arrive. She had not been to this remote observing site before, and would follow us. Just as she arrived, another familiar face appeared... Rogelio Bernal Andreo.

The group drove south an hour, weaving trough traffic on 101, then onto 25, and eventually the J1 where civilization ends and the sky begins. I'd only been on the J1 once at night, driving home after a fog-out, but this night time trip in had an entirely different feel. As the road twisted and turned in my headlights, there was nothing to see in the dark other than a ribbon of blacktop and dark shapes off the sides... the drive actually became, to me, a bit manic. The last section, at Willow Springs, is washboarded dirt, rutted with pock-marks full of water from the week's rains. Behind me, only three sets of headlights in a dust cloud, looking like a night shot of the Dakar rally outside Ouarzazate.

As we pulled in to Deep Sky Ranch, our host Kevin Ritschel greeted us, opening the gate. Steve Gottlieb and Julien Lecomte were already there and set up. Minutes behind our group was Mark (Polo) Johnston... and upon his arrival about 20 minutes of musical chairs, car-style, ensued, until everyone was settled in. During the night it became confusing which Mark was being spoken to, so Johnston volunteered he's been called "Polo" before. I referred to him as Pollo, which unleashed Mark's surprisingly thorough understanding of Spanish colloquialisms and likely expletives... we were off to a fun night!

Overhead, the sky was clear and dark, the Milky Way bright. The air was electric. Scopes set up... eyes adapted... and... off we went, everyone into their own adventure.

Olga, Richard and I pretty much observed as a group. Richard and I both were using 18" Obsessions, his was on an Equatorial Platform. Nearby, Kevin had 33" Dobzilla set up.
Probably the most aesthetically dazzling view of the night was early on, in his 33, of the Veil Nebula high overhead. With an 82 degree AFOV eyepiece, the Waterfall side - NGC 6992, was a spectacular glowing lacework ribbon of intertwined knots and "silk" threads. This was in incredible detail - twists bunched into sheer fabric, other sections pulled apart to where you could see the finest of strands. Those who saw it I'm sure would agree, this is not "gushing" over the view, it is an accurate yet insufficient description.

I observed some Abell planetaries and Hickson Clusters of Galaxies. Several of the Hicksons were also cataloged as Arps. Many were challenging. Olga was helping me star hop and identify the correct fields. I found myself wondering how much better her vision might be then mine, and made the mistake of asking a woman her age. Advice - don't do it! The only answer I got was a terse "younger than you" (which was not help). Olga was hopping between Richard's scope, enjoying some of the Hicksons he was observing, mine, and the 33". She helped me locate and observe looked Hicksons 93 and 94, seeing components A-E in 93, and A-D in 94. We also had fun breaking up the galaxy trio of NGC 7769/70/71 at high power.

Later in the evening (most of us observed from around 8:30 pm to 4:00 am), we used Richard's scope to track some planetary nebulae. First was the Eskimo, NGC 2392. With a 3mm Radian putting the view at 686x, the view showed a pinpoint central star, a tight black ring circling the star, electric neon torus outside the inner black ring, and a large extended nearly circular dimmer grey envelope with obvious mottling. This was an outstanding view - very easy to just sit and stare at it. I moved my scope over to the Blue Snowball - NGC 7662, and while it was bright, I was disappointed that it gave up little if any detail (there is none). I suggested NGC 1535 in Eridanus, and it turned out to be even more stunning than the Eskimo, which was a surprise since it is not nearly as well known. This planetary had all the attributes of the Eskimo, but its outer shell was elongated and more subtle... another great view at high magnification.

I asked Richard to see the Peanut, NGC 2371/2372, in Gemini. This proto-planetary showed two distinct lobes with glaringly different brightnesses, at 686x. The progenitor star sat alone, and obvious, between the two puffs of star-stuff.

After that, I was off on a brief highlight tour myself. M35 and NGC 2158, M81/82, M33 - which provided one of the best views I've had in years, M31 and its satellites, M78. I borrowed an H-Beta filter and at 100x had an excellent view of the Horsehead Nebula - very distinctly black against the glow of IC 434. Richard called it the best view he's had, and Olga, with sharp eyes but no prior experience, found it easily as well.

Although I had looked at it earlier in the evening while lower in the east, I returned to M42 as a treat at the end of the night.
At 194x, all six stars in the Trapezium were easy, sharp points. Thinking about it today, I didn't even bother with a filter on this target - it was so rich in detail and contrast. It is, to me, the premier view in the sky. I almost have to put the Veil up there with it, but the Orion Nebula exceeds it in dynamic range, and equals the Veil in its sheer aesthetic beauty. The black nebula behind the tight group of bright stars.... the sculpted arcs of dust, looking like molded clay, the knots in the bright turbulence around the Trap. It is impossible to tire of this view... slide a bit to the north, behind M42, and M43, and subtle sheets of nebulosity surround the bright stars in NGC 1977 - The Running Man...

Only fatigue and knowing the sun would come up too early caused me to stop there...

Before I knew it, there was a tap-tap-tap on the truck window, and it was time to pack and head out. The drive out through the back roads was a relaxed treat. The fun time I had with friends is something I look forward to again, next time.

Thank you to Kevin and Phetsy, and Deep Sky Ranch

Image credits:
  1. Veil Nebula: Diego Meozzi
  2. NGC7769/70/71: Dimitrios Kolovos
  3. NGC 1535: Adam Block
  4. M42 Region: Rogelio Bernal Andreo

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Spoiling An "A" Student

September new moon this year saw amateur astronomers from all over California converging on Lake San Antonio, for the annual CalStar observing event. It was in many respects typical of prior years... hot weather with temps around 100 degrees Fahrenheit, clear night skies, some newcomers, and familiar faces returning for the sheer enjoyment of seeing each other again. This year's event was lightly advertised, more word of mouth like the original events had been a decade ago, and in fact it had the casual feel of the old early get-togethers - the only rules were no white lights, and that any other rule making was simply an exercise in rule-mockery. And guess how it turned out? Even when the event encountered a little "bump in the road" (a car's alarm system flashed lights for some time), it was handled without incident, complaint, or really even any notice. All the astro-animals were a peaceable kingdom! How nice to see such a pleasant event...

I arrived the first official day, Thursday, in the mid-afternoon. A good number of attendees were already on site.... and I picked out a space along the western edge of the field. Up went my two canopies, I made my bed in the back of the truck, and kicked back to have a few cold beers, snacks, and catch up with friends at the Wicks' under their canopies and aluminet. Bantering went on until around sunset at which time I moved to my scope and began observing targets on the very lengthy list I'd put together - virtually all challenge objects for this trip. I went on until around 3 a.m., in temps that required no more than a light sweater.

The next day, more friends arrived. Paul Sterngold set up next to me, so I had an old buddy close by - it really is great to see friends who are usually hundreds of miles away. As we prepared to start our night's activities, a woman I'd met at Houge Park, and had told about CalStar, appeared. It was Olga S., whom I assured, if she came to CalStar, she would be able to observe through my scope, or pretty much any one on the field, stressing what a friendly group it was. Her 11 year old son Kirrill was along too, an active and bright boy who was clearly enjoying being outdoors - and away from home. I had known Olga only a short time, but knew she was quite bright - and in fact is a research scientist at a prestigious bay area school. She had never, to my knowledge, been to a real dark sky event before, and this would be her introduction to deep sky observing.

I'd had a good night on Thursday, logging some Abell Planetaries and various Sharpless nebulae, the most interesting being Sh2-158, also known as NGC 7538. I could see in my 18" Dob it was an unusual object, looking at times like a planetary nebula, other times like a face on spiral galaxy. I went over to Paul Alsing and a group of us observed it in his 25" scope, where it appeared even more like a big spiral at first, then a planetary with a huge extended envelope. It is an emission nebula, but unusual enough in appearance to warrant a visit if you're in the area.

Friday night I decided that with Olga, I'd coach her as long as she was interested. I would ask her at times if she liked what she was doing, as I soon had her hunting mostly targets off my list. It was a good arrangement, I'd coach, and watch, and ask if she was doing ok. She'd reply that if she got bored, she'd wander off.

It was not easy for her at first. Getting the hang of using a unit-finder, in this case a Rigel Quickfinder, proved challenging, but only briefly. She was a very quick learner. Her first target was the easy to find M31 and its satellites M32 and M110. She easily described the dust lanes without any prodding. Next, a bit more challenge, to M15, and the star hop off Enif from the crook in the neck of Pegasus. Pretty good. Then I suggested we get into some of the challenge objects.

The first was the Miles Paul galaxy trio UGC 12064 A, B and C. With a lot of effort, we picked up all three down to mag 15.5. Honestly, I was astonished to have a rank newbie see these targets, but I had also been coaching her about averted vision and relaxing while observing. I moved over to NGC 7331, to show an example of a large spiral galaxy with detail, after the dim trio.

The big galaxy was looking very good - a broad spread, and three companions clearly visible to its east. Olga was able to describe 7331, but at first did not notice the dimmer ones nearby. I showed her the computer screen, and back to the eyepiece where she easily picked out the other members. I asked if she was enjoying this and she said yes, let's keep going.

I asked what she wanted to see, and she replied some interacting galaxies. Well, Stephan's Quintet was a few eyepiece fields away.

At low power we picked out four galaxies. With the 7mm and 294X, all five were easily visible. It was a very good view.

We finished Friday night observing a number of other dim Abell Planetaries, until Olga turned in. I continued for a while, observing, and visiting friends.

During the day on Saturday, Paul and I decided to beat the heat, jumped in his car and headed to the coast, to the quaint artist community of Cambria, near Hearst Castle. Neither of us had ever been there, and thought it a great place for a weekend getaway with wife or girlfriend. The town is fun and interesting, and Moonstone Beach was a very pleasant place to walk and play in the cool coastal fog. Chasing Sterngold down the beach, whipping at him with a long "kelp rope" was just so much fun!

That night I decided to let Olga have the reigns of the scope again, and pointed it at some eye candy. The Veil Nebula at 212X with an OIII filter, in a dark sky, is spectacular. First part she found was Pickering's Wisp. Soon she had navigated the Witch's Broom and the Waterfall. Other excellent views that and the next were the Crescent Nebula, NGC 253, NGC 246 (which had outstanding brightness and detail - right after a very dim Abell Planetary - what a contrast!), B86 and M33.

But those objects were thrown in only to add some fun and eye appeal to what was an otherwise very daunting list of targets that she was, pretty much apprenticing, helping hunt down. I think the singular most challenging target we looked at was Abell 1, observed by Richard Ozer and me, with Olga and Paul Sterngold doubting our claims. Another difficult one was Abell 85, a supernova remnant in Cassiopeia, which was marginal at best.

We shot over to another galaxy trio, NGC 48, 49 and 51, ranging from mag 14.1 to 14.5, all in an E/W chain. Just south of those, in the same high power eyepiece field was another trio, IC 534, 535 and 536, from the high 14's to about mag 15. While the NGCs were challenging, they were obviously there. We needed to refer to the computer for the position of the dimmer trio, but we both were able to confirm each of the components. I find this pair of trio chains so close together, very enjoyable to observe.

Other outstanding targets, without naming everything we looked at, were NGC 7635 (The Bubble Nebula) IC 5146 (The Cocoon Nebula), and NGC 6543 (The Cats Eye). I found the Bubble, Olga found the Cocoon. The bubble was just full of rich detail, especially around the embedded stars. There was an obvious arc toward the north. Wonderful view. The Cocoon was, well, a major surprise. With the 20mm Nagler at 103X, it stood out as a grey mottled circular area without any filters - like I said, a major surprise, I've had some good views in the past, but never like this, unfiltered. The Cats Eye was simply amazing, at around 600X, in a 20" driven Dob. The mottling in the ring outside the bright neon green torus was way more detailed than anything I'd ever seen....

We finished up with two very different targets. I had been swinging the scope around at anything bright I could think of, when I noticed M42 was up high enough for a peek. The contrast between dark and bright nebulae in this object is always spectacular. I showed M33 again, pointing out NGC 604, commenting that it was a similar object to M42 in the external galaxy. We were both wearing down, so I decided to head to the Pegasus 1 Cluster, where we tracked down nine galaxies in a single field, without really pushing it.

Olga said good night, and headed to her tent, where her son was sleeping. I thought for a bit how much fun it had been to have such a good student. Amazing she did so well on such difficult targets!

Looking around, I noted a definite sign that the star party was at full tilt. The smell of burning popcorn and laughter were coming from the direction of Chez Dan's. I headed over to find a crew of partiers with a table covered with ripped-open Jiffy-Pops, and various libations. I sat down and began partaking in the revelry, with a few shots of good scotch, and popcorn covered in Tabasco Sauce.

The last thing I remember...

before heading off to sleep was...

Dionysus, in red light...

while I sat with friends...

with the skies of ancient Greece whirling overhead....

A few days later, I received an e-mail from Olga, thanking me for the time at the telescope, and saying she's afraid she might be spoiled, by starting out on an 18"... but what the hell. It reminded me that those were my exact thoughts, sitting there that last night with my buddies, the scotch, popcorn, and sky.... and spoiling an A student.... what the hell.

Can't wait until next year...

Friday, August 28, 2009

Date Night at Houge Park

Friday August 28th was an public star party night for the San Jose Astronomical Association. I had arrived late, after dark, having run from an Aikido training in order to support the event. As I was setting up my telescope, people were coming by asking to look through it, asking questions about it, and generally being inquisitive. I hurriedly finished the set up and began showing views of the moon and Jupiter...

Both targets were nice, lots of detail, steady enough seeing to allow decent higher power magnification. It is always fun seeing children, sometimes not even tall enough to see into the eyepiece (I bring a ladder for the shortest attendees) get their first real views of a world beyond the earth. The moon is especially good for them, as craters, rilles, mare, and mountains are very easy to see in great detail. Even Jupiter provided detail the youngest could discern... cloud bands and moons... It is a great experience for them, for me, and their parents.

I had been expecting a guest, a woman I had a few e-mail contacts with on Match.com. She seemed quite nice by e-mail and had expressed interest in the sky, so I invited her to come out. I thought it a decent relaxed place in a public setting for a first meeting. So there I was, showing whatever to whoever, and I see appearing out of the dark, a face I'd seen before. It was Cat (Catherine), from Match. It was only then, that the realization hit me, I was on a "date" (sort of) at Houge Park, with a bunch of my friends around. In my comfort zone, but not feeling all that comfortable!

Cat turned out to be great... fun, intelligent, inquisitive, playful, and was certainly getting plenty of attention from the nearly exclusive male make-up of the SJAA. If women want to meet science guys, with something of a nerdy cant (in some cases, major), I realized this is the place!

So, I found myself relaxing into the experience, and began to show Cat a few things. She wanted to learn some constellations and see a nebula, but this was not the night for dim extended objects - the next Houge Park event on a 3rd quarter moon would be much better for that.

I began by showing (after the moon and Jupiter - the dogs and ponies of the night), I put the scope (10" Dob) on Alberio. This is where I soon learned that my "date" was quite bright. I asked about the color of the stars, and what they meant in terms of their longevity. This gal nailed it. Really, a first. I was astonished (been doing this for about 15 years). I smiled. She wanted to know where the star was, so I borrowed a green laser pointer and outlined Cygnus, and the location of the pretty double.

I showed a few more constellations - Pegasus, Lyra, Corona Borealis, the Teapot in Sagittarius. I thought maybe we had a new observer, as her vision was quite good. So, I turned back to the scope and hit M15. The view was very good, considering the ambient light pollution and first quarter moon was still up. I showed it to a young couple who had joined us....

If fact, and undoubtedly due to Cat's presence, a number of amateur astronomers had gathered around... The couple looked at M15, and then Cat did. I talked about how ancient the stars in it are, how they are first generation stars comprised essentially of only hydrogen, their age, about stellar evolution...

It led to others joining in, a PhD physicist who teaches locally going into details about supernovae, and where new elements are created, and eventually about our "real" connection to the stars.

While the talking was going on, I would move the scope to new targets. Eta Cassiopeia, the pretty yellow and copper double star, M31, which despite the moonlight was showing its core along with its satellite galaxy M32.

During all this, Cat was sitting on the tailgate of my truck, clearly enjoying herself around the other attendees... and participating in the discussions.

As things wound down, she said it was time to call it a night. For me too. She took off, I packed up and I left as well. I thought about what a fun time I'd had. Date night at Houge turned out very well....

Sunday, August 23, 2009

No Need For Speed

Friday night at Plettstone was a great get together of friends that rarely get the chance to spend time with each other. I had not seen Michelle Stone in a year. Hard to believe. I think the same goes for Rashad Al-Mansour. Albert Highe reminded me that we'd seen each other at CalStar and Dinosaur Point, and I thanked him for correctly pointing out the deficiencies in my memory! I probably had not seen Carter Scholz in that long, and know I'd only met Dan Foy a handful of times previously, at most. It was a great group. Fortunately for us, the skies help up all night, and I think we all got in our fill 'o photons. I spent quite a bit of time just visiting, so my observing "count" was well down, but a big count is no longer part of my observing routine, if it happens it happens, but odds are I'm going to be taking my time now, teasing out any detail I can in some of the deeper stuff out there, and sharing views with my friends. It is very relaxing, and fun. Below, I am posting my unchecked raw observing notes. I have no idea of how accurate they are in terms of what to have expected. I am just posting my impressions.

Saturday morning I woke early, and saw scattered clouds increasing from the south. By the time Richard, Rashad and I took off together for Glacier Point in Yosemite, the sky was gone. Where the temps

in and around Mariposa had been in the high 90's the day before, temps were as low as the mid-60's up high in Yosemite. The views were gorgeous. It is as magical an experience to be there as it is to look at the wonders through an eyepiece. Upon returning, we found some of the gang gone, along with the sky. Richard Ozer had shown up, surprisingly. We had a nice pot luck BBQ with Michelle and Paul. After dinner I packed up the truck, only to find the last of the observing crew pulling up the driveway.... first timer Olga S. We took her in, introduced her to Michelle, and hit the road for home. I hear Olga was heading to Yosemite too, so I'm sure she was in for a grand treat, in addition to meeting Michelle.

The drive home was uneventful. On the other hand, the trip to Plettstone found me getting pulled over by the CHP on highway 156 just west of Casa de Fruita (before the 152 junction)... doing 69 in a 55. Amazingly, I talked my way out of the speeding ticket. It is even more amazing, since I didn't have proof of insurance (which is what he ended up writing the "fix it" ticket for - no fine if I fix it). I thanked the officer, and asked him to adjust my side-view mirror before I pulled out. He did, and wished me well. What a pleasant fellow!

Yes, it was a really good weekend....

For some fun, have a look at Richard Navarrete's video observing report from the trip. Its very well done!

Here are the targets I went after, and the raw notes...

Sh 2-113 Cyg BN 15 21 20 48 38 05 29

18" 20mm - small almost triangular area of nebulosity involving approximately 6 dim stars, points are W, NE and SE.

Abell 78 Cyg PN 113"x88" 13.4 21 35 29 31 41 45 PK 81-14.1 = PN G081.2-14.9

12mm NPB, very dim, mostly round, stars embedded, possibly annular, small with central star?

Abell 74 Vul PN 871"x791" 15.8 21 16 52 24 08 51 PK 72-17.1 = PN G072.7-17.1

12mm UHC very dim , galaxy MCG 4-50-4 misplotted in The Sky, should be closer to flat triangle of stars. Galaxy with 7mm, Planetary w/35 Panoptic responds differently to OIII and UHC. Star in middle with UHC is bright, dims out almost totally with OIII compared to other stars in field. UHC shows dim arc with dark lane, with OIII just a large mottled area.

Abell 72 Del PN 134"x121" 12.7 20 50 02 13 33 28 PK 59-18.1 = PN G059.7-18.7

7mm OIII does not respond with UHC. Large, dim rounds, western edge shows best, possible brighter spots in W and S.

Abell 76 Aqr PN 0.4x0.2 21 30 03 -02 48 32 PK 5-036.1 = PGC 85185
No image available: 7mm OIII round, even brightness across the disk, central star. Dim.
*Note, this is listed as a ring galaxy, which I learned after returning from the trip.

Hickson 89 Aqr GX4 0.9'x0.6' 14.4 21 20 01 -03 55 20 MCG -01-54-012 66570

5mm Navarrete scope on platform. 89D occasional split off C, others not that difficult.

Hickson 78 Dra GX4 1.4'x0.6' 14.9 15 47 16 68 13 14 UGC 10057

7mm - definite sighting 2 galaxies dim but certain direct vision, preceding is NW/SE elongation with a tiny stellar nucleus and is smaller than the trailing galaxy, which is larger, almost even in surface brightness, E/W, averted gives very occasional glimpse of stellar nucleus.

Photos and drawings are culled from sources publicly available on the Internet - usually linked to the original. Star party photo
Copyright (C) 2008 by Randy Muller.