Monday, May 25, 2009

A Memorable Weekend.

Sunday night observing over a new moon is a rare treat for most amateur astronomers. This patriotic Memorial Day weekend I took the opportunity to do so over three nights in two dark sites at 5,000 feet elevation in northern California's Sierra Nevada, among friends, old and new.

My last night was a return to Blue Canyon (BC), and would turn out to be the best of the three nights for conditions and achievement. So, this is For You (red, white and) Blue.

Conditions on the drive up highway 80 from Auburn to BC looked highly suspect. Big white cumulus clouds boiled up over the mountains to the east, ahead and in the direction of my destination. The prior two nights, while providing good observing, were both impacted by clouds and humidity. By the time Marsha Robinson, Bill Porte and I were set up, next to Terry and Gary (new acquaintances), dew was evident on the seats of our observing chairs (always the first indicators). However, as darkness rose, the clouds fell... and by the time twilight ended we had a clear sky, and improving conditions.

I again concentrated on the remaining targets of my Herschel 2500 observing project. I began with 69 left, and knocked out another 29. The remainders are mostly in parts of the sky unavailable this time of year, so I'll have to return to this later, when the winter sky begins to rise again in the early morning hours.

I logged some highlight views last night. My sparse notes (still on search-and-destroy observing mode) listed NGC 5490 as being in a great field, in which my target was "5490c" - IC 982. I also had fun splitting apart NGC 5679c from its two brighter and overlapping galaxies. I found a number of misidentifications in The Sky (Software Bisque's planetarium program) - such as NGC 5098 being twice mislabeled - in fact that target is not displayed in the program, and two MAC catalog galaxies are each labeled as with its designation. Weird. Again, I was all over the sky in declination, from targets near Polaris to those at -31 in Hydra where I was on my knees to peek though the eyepiece.

Late in the night, Bill asked me what I was going to do once I was done with the Herschel 2500, and I joking replied "find a new hobby". Reality is, there are endless numbers of ways to alter the recipe, and I don't think I'll ever tire of mixing the ingredients.

I think it was close to 3 a.m. when we pulled out, leaving Bill to close the gate behind us. A half hour later back in Auburn, I headed to my room and was quickly asleep.

Thanks to all my TAC-SAC friends for making this such a memorable Memorial Day weekend. Marsha, Bill, Randy, Alvin, Gary, Shneor, and new friends Gary and Terry, see you at next month at the Golden State Star Party, or back at BC...

Below are the targets logged last night... I have 40 left to complete the list, 8 of which I can get next month if I'm diligent.


NGC 4993
NGC 5093
NGC 5361
NGC 5303b
NGC 5403
NGC 5403
NGC 5305
NGC 5265
NGC 4774
NGC 5401
NGC 4711
NGC 5199
NGC 5228
NGC 5223
NGC 5233
NGC 4737
NGC 5096
NGC 5157
NGC 5025
NGC 5074
NGC 5187
NGC 5592
NGC 5328
NGC 5694
NGC 5490c
NGC 5679c
NGC 5718
NGC 5618
NGC 5866b

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Rare Sighting at IHOP

Continuing my observing journey in the Sierra Gold Country of Northern California, last night Marsha Robinson and I ventured to the Ice House Observing Plateau (IHOP), located on highway 50 on the way up to South Lake Tahoe. I had been there once before and wanted to see if my recollection was accurate regarding the quality of the skies. My first time there I felt it was a slight improvement over the old default observing sight of Fiddletown, outside of Pokerville just east of Highway 49. Fiddletown has over the years fallen into disuse by my circle of observing friends, replaced by Blue Canyon (see yesterday's blog entry) and IHOP.

IHOP's advantage over Fiddletown is lack of neighbors, and elevation. IHOP is the same elevation as Blue Canyon, both approximately 5,000 feet. But while both IHOP and Blue Canyon have a light dome from Sacramento, at IHOP it is due west, compared to southwest at Blue Canyon. I suppose IHOP is the better observing site, but last night one could not tell. The light dome was significant, seemingly equal to that at Blue Canyon. This jived with my earlier recollection that IHOP was a slight improvement over Fiddletown. What I have come away with is the best site purely for observing, from my experience, is Willow Springs, a much closer trip for me than IHOP or Blue Canyon. What draws me to the the latter sights are the friends who I rarely get to spend time with.

My goal last night was to continue on the remaining targets on the Herschel catalog, the 2500. I determined I had 114 remaining after the prior night. I ended up logging an additional 21 before conditions and fatigue stopped me at about 1:30 a.m. Since I had not been out observing in, in some cases, years, with some of the people there last night, this was as much a social event as an astronomical one. Long stretches away from the eyepiece were spent with Randy Muller, Gary Manning, and even some friendly interaction with Shneor Sherman. Other attendees were Marsha (of course) and Alvin Huey. A friend of Alvin's was present as well, Steve.... but we never introduced ourselves. So it goes, sometimes.

The rarest sighting of the night was, without question, Gary. It has been years since I've seen him other than as chatter on the Internet, now and then. Randy, Gary and I picked up where we'd left off as friends years ago, and had a very enjoyable time together. Part observing, part social. I wonder how long it will be before I see Gary again.

I mentioned the conditions. Humidity was very high, starting off around 80%, climbing to nearly 100% by the time we decided to head back (an hour twenty minute drive back to Auburn). The air was unquestionably thick, cutting down on transparency more and more the closer your targets were to the horizon. As an example, I had great difficulty picking out a mag 12.7 galaxy in southern Corvus, and no problem detecting a mag 16.6 one up high in Draco. The Herschel list had me bouncing all over the sky in declination, although most targets were within about four hours or right ascension.

This was a continuation of "speed dating" astronomy - find the target, check it out very quickly, move on. At times I would not even change out my low power eyepiece - detect, confirm, move on. Kind of fun, for a change of pace.

Of the targets I visited I thought the most intriguing was NGC 6088, and the two MCG galaxies that it overlapped visually. I called both Randy and Gary over to look, asking them what they thought they were seeing, before revealing what was there. We all concluded there were two cores in this "galaxy". The NGC galaxy is the brightest, at a mere mag 15.6. The two MCG galaxies overlay each other, one shining at mag 16.6, the dimmer one at 16.8. What we were undoubtedly seeing was the combined light from the cores of both these ultra-dim targets, appearing as one glow, away from the core if the brighter NGC target. Almost appearing like a dim bipolar planetary nebula. I think it was the catch of the night....

As I would observe, I'd hear Randy and Gary bantering, looking occasionally through Randy's 18" scope, more often sitting and taking it all in from their chairs. Marsha was busy, as usual, intent on her observing, rarely deviating from it. Alvin and Shneor would talk in hushed tones, old friends. It was a great backdrop to a nice night out under a dark sky. In the east the star clouds and dark rifts of the Milky Way rose, and put on a great display. Finally, temps in the mid 30's, cold fingers and toes, along with lack of sleep and an unfamiliar drive back to Auburn, put an end to the observing session.

It was a very enjoyable evening. I think we'll try for a third one tonight, back at Blue Canyon.

Here are the targets I observed last night:

NGC 5640
NGC 5295
NGC 3197
NGC 3252
NGC 2963
NGC 2810b
NGC 4857
NGC 5881
NGC 6088
NGC 6088b
NGC 6182
NGC 4965
NGC 4834
NGC 4987
NGC 5040
NGC 4998
NGC 4932
NGC 5009
NGC 4741
NGC 5214
NGC 4985

Saturday, May 23, 2009

Return to Blue Canyon

This new moon, I decided to get away from the usual observing sites I've gone to over the years, mostly in the south bay, and try the Sierra foothills east of Sacramento for a change. Just for something different. So I packed up the truck and headed out mid-day Thursday. A quick drive to Roseville, late lunch with Randy Muller in Roseville, then off to meet Marsha Robinson for a kids event in Rocklin, followed by a quick drive to Auburn. I spent a pleasant Friday working, via the Internet, a nice dinner, and then the airport at Blue Canyon.
The airport sits just east of highway 80 at 5,000 feet, on the way to Lake Tahoe. The Sacramento Valley Astronomical Society (SVAS) uses the site for its monthly star parties, has an observatory there, as do a select few old timers to the place. While it has a significant light dome to the west from Sacramento, the elevation and good horizons make this a fine place to observe, just slightly over half an hour drive from Marsha's home. Turns out last time I'd observed at Blue Canyon was over ten years ago, on an weekend with my daughter split between the Fiddletown site, and the SVAS's annual Star-B-Q. Here is that report:

some familiar and interesting names in there!

Early Friday evening, before heading out to observe, I reviewed my old notes from the Herschel 2500 in order to see what I had left. I did this because Marsha told me she had about 200 targets left to observe on that list, and I thought why not return to my long ago abandoned 2500-quest. After transcribing numbers from my paper logbook to an Excel, I found 114 entries remained, of which I had undoubtedly observed a number but did not note them. So, the 2500, old style, would be my goal. Old style observing for me is "search and destroy" astronomy - no note taking, just find it and move on. What this does is train you to be very proficient at star hopping (rapid fire), and learn to pick out quite dim targets in low power fields (about 100X). It had been perhaps ten years since I've observed that way. Turns out, the change of pace if kind of fun, almost liberating compared to slogging through detailed note taking. Its the "speed-dating" of observing - shallow, but fun.

Joining us at Blue Canyon were Alvin Huey and his home-built 22", and a few possible SVAS members who were observing and camping overnight to attend Saturday's club event. As darkness set in, Alvin and I looked for some dim stars around Ursa Minor to see what our limiting mags were. We both picked out a mag 6.7 star just inside the dipper - not bad, since the sky was not yet at it darkest.

Even before it was its darkest, I was already chasing targets. I hit a mag 14 galaxy as soon as the mag 5.1 star SAO 7522 in Ursa Minor was visible direct vision, to hop from to the target. It portended a very good night. And it was... although the seeing was off, transparency was excellent.

Since I was doing search and destroy observing, I do not have detailed notes to share. I do have the NGC numbers. Of the 114 remaining of the 2500, I logged 29 new ones... and that is over a shortened observing session, as high clouds began encroaching from the west shortly after midnight. By one I was pretty much done - as the high stuff covered the spring time areas where my remaining targets were. I satisfied myself with eye-candy for a while - the Ink Spot, M22, M11, Crescent Nebula, Veil Nebula... etc.

What I can say about the 2500 list, which includes the Herschel 400 and 400-II subsets, is it is a tremendously varied list, as far as challenges. The targets I observed were all galaxies (no surprise, the spring is galaxy season in the rich depths of Leo, Virgo, Coma Berenices and Canes Venatici). Some of the targets were big and bright, some were in large clumps of galaxies - including my favorite Abell Galaxy Cluster; AGC 1367, "lonely" isolated ones, and those that are best described as apparitions - fleeting sometimes views that tease your vision.

Today, after finishing this report, I'm going to query my blog-site's search feature for the remaining H2500 objects on my list, and see where I stand. This has been a long term project, with stretches of years between working on it. Thanks to Marsha for inadvertently getting me back on it.

Off to IHOP tonight, to cast a wider net in darker skies, and observe with more good friends... here are the targets I logged last night...

Clear skies,


NGC 3523
NGC 3848
NGC 3860b
NGC 3917
NGC 3931
NGC 3961
NGC 3976
NGC 4045
NGC 4087
NGC 4128
NGC 4145
NGC 4159
NGC 4277
NGC 4303
NGC 4331
NGC 4326
NGC 4333
NGC 4436
NGC 4363
NGC 4392
NGC 4453
NGC 4519
NGC 4538
NGC 4572
NGC 4583
NGC 4588
NGC 4655
NGC 4707
NGC 4704

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Sons of Dobzilla

A group of observers gathered at Willow Spring, home of the monster-scope Dobzilla, for a shortish night of deep sky observing last Saturday night. We were there over the year's first legit heat wave, with temps probably hitting the low triple digits by mid afternoon. The attendees are becoming somewhat of a regular group there, and someone decided we needed a name, thus, Sons of Dobzilla. The scope, a 33.4" f/5 is an intimidating sight, especially from the top of the ladder when the beast is pointed at zenith. Not for the inexperienced, or faint of heart.

The other scopes were not nearly as daunting, three 18's and a 22"... legit aperture in any other setting. But Dobzilla stomps them all.

Richard Navarrete and I were the first to arrive. We'd had a Mexican food dinner at Dona Esther on the way down, in San Juan Bautista. It used to be my favorite haunt in that town, back when I was frequenting Fremont Peak in the early and mid 90's. I have to say, I think Jardine's has taken the trophy these days, in case anyone is interested. Felipe's is also pretty good. But, while in town, we picked up some assorted items for mirror cleaning, and spent a short time at Willow Springs, after arriving, drinking cervesas and field servicing our primary mirrors. It was so hot out, we hardly needed to dry off the glass.... that's the way to do it!

Even though sunset is coming later and later now, good company made the time fly by. Soon enough Saturn was out, and was looking great. The seeing was excellent. However, there was a grayish tint to the more distant mountains, that looked like a haze that could affect the transparency. And in fact, that's how I felt the evening went. Very good seeing, with good but not outstanding transparency. I was limiting out with my 18" Obsession at about mag 15.5, about half a mag below the best nights I've had at that location.

The night was casual observing. Even though I spent quite a bit of time at the eyepiece, there was no manic panic to log big numbers. I think those days are done. I visited, ate cookies, had some coffee with Bailey's breaks, and looked through the beast. Before I knew it... the eastern horizon was bright from a rising third quarter moon.

I think all who attended would agree, it was a very worthwhile night.

Here are my observing notes. These were generally challenging targets. I think the AGCs I viewed would be worth revisiting on a top notch night, as there were many components that were just beyond reach last Saturday...

Arp 109 Dra GX 0.5'x0.4' 15.2 15 48 07 69 28 11 UGC 10053
18" 7mm IC1146 is obvious elongated 3x2 mostly E/W, MCG 12-15-18 and UGC 10053 are dimmer to the N, with MCG elongated SW/NE and the UGC to its NW elongated maybe slightly E/W, and dimmer than the MCG.

Arp 109 Dra GX 1.2'x0.7' 15.0 15 47 50 69 28 11 UGC 10053
18" 7mm IC1146 is obvious elongated 3x2 mostly E/W, MCG 12-15-18 and UGC 10053 are dimmer to the N, with MCG elongated SW/NE and the UGC to its nw elongated maybe slightly E/W, and dimmer than the MCG.

HGC 078A Dra GX2 1.4'x0.6' 14.9B 15 48 17 68 13 14 UGC 10057
18" 7mm - small but has bright core. Elongated sliver mostly E/W. C component at mag 16.6 is in and out,tiny glow.

HGC 078B Dra GX2 0.7x0.2 14.9B 15 48 08 68 12 24 MCG +11-19-016
18" 7mm - dimmer than UGC 10057 and elongated NW/SE, no detail, small but larger than the UGC.

HGC 080C Dra GX3 0.4'x0.3' 16.1B 15 59 07 65 14 01 PGC 56572
18" 7mm - dimmest fo three seen in this Hickson, just a small roundish glow to the W of the CGCG.

HGC 080A Dra GX3 0.9'x0.2' 15.5B 15 59 19 65 13 58 CGCG 319-038
18" 7mm - most obvious of the group. Reasonably bright, elongated mostly E/W and about 4x1 size ratio.

HGC 080B Dra GX3 0.5'x0.3' 16.4B 15 59 21 65 13 22 PGC 56590
18" 7mm - dimmer and to the S of the CGCG. Amorphous but perhaps showing elongation maybe NW/SE but very difficult to tell, a bit smaller than the CGCG.

N6015 Dra GX 5.4x2.1 11.1 15 51 25 62 18 35
18" 7mm - approx 6'x3' elongated N/W with fairly even brightness throughout - slightly brighter middle, slightly brighter elongated core.

NGC5982 Dra GX 1.2x.8 10.9 15 38 39 59 21 21
18" 7mm - small bright core with swirl detail containing a bright nearly stellar nucleus, set in a much larger envelope about 1.5'x1.0' elongated E/W.

N5985 Dra GX 5.5x3.0 11.1 15 39 37 59 15 55
18" 7mm - large and ecliptical, running N/S. Slightly brighter large core with rest of galaxy having even brightness, approx 4'x2'.

Arp 188 Dra GX 3.6'x0.8' 14.4 16 06 03 55 25 29 UGC 10214
18" 7mm - elongated mostly E/W about 2'x0.6', dim stellar nucleus in a slightly bulging core.

Arp 2 Her GX 2.8'x2.2' 13.2 16 16 18 47 02 47 UGC 10310
18" 7mm - very difficult and only occassionaly glimpsed faint glow elongated NNE/SSW, no detail at all.

Arp 90 Boo GX 1.7'x0.9' 12.2 15 26 07 41 40 39 NGC 5930
18" 7mm - very nice pair of very close interacting galaxies oriented NE/SW; NE of pair is larger and appears to have some spiral structure or some disruption. Both appear to have stellar cores, but SW galaxy's is brighter and more obvious.

Arp 90 Boo GX 1.0'x0.9' 13.6 15 26 06 41 40 39 NGC 5929
18" 7mm - very nice pair of very close interacting galaxies oriented NE/SW; NE of pair is larger and appears to have some spiral structure or some disruption. Both appear to have stellar cores, but SW galaxy's is brighter and more obvious.

N6058 Her PN 24"x21" 12.9 16 04 26 40 40 59
18" 7mm - nice symmetrical round planetary with even brightness across the disk. Easy bright central star. No filter necessary. NPB filter dims central star significantly and seems to show mottling in the disk, elongating N/S as if the E/W were slightly pinched, but only in the brighter inner N/S section.

AGC 2124 CrB GXCL 13.4' 15.6 15 45 00 36 03 00 UGC 10012
18" 7mm - UGC 10012 is dim but unquestionably visible. Picked up nearby galaxies, MAC 1545+3605, MAC 1545+3607B, MAC 1545+3611,

AGC 2162 CrB GXCL 56.0' 13.7 16 12 30 29 32 00 NGC 6086
18" 7mm - NGC 6085, NGC 6086, MCG 5-38-32, CGCG 167-55, CGCG 167-56, MCG 5-38-28, U10258, MCG 5-38-27, U10259, U10262.

AGC 2079 CrB GXCL 17.9' 15.4 15 28 06 28 52 00 UGC 9861
18" 7mm - MGC 5-34-36, U9861, I4547, I4546, CGCG 165-55.

Arp 220 Ser GX 1.5'x1.2' 13.1 15 34 57 23 30 11 IC 4553
18" 7mm - slightly elongated NNE/SSW, even brightness, amorphous, approx round and slightly disrupted.

Saturday, May 16, 2009

Big Turnout At Houge Park

Friday evening, May 14th at Houge Park was another good night for "sidewalk" astronomy. Several familiar faces showed up with telescopes, entertaining curious and interested public visitors with dazzling views under steady skies. I've concluded that one would have to make a real effort to *not* enjoy this sort of event.

I started off the evening well before dark, with views of Saturn. I was able to find it in my 10" Dob by looking at where Phil Chambers' GoTo SCT was pointed. The sky was still bright blue, and Saturn was low contrast, but there was no doubt the seeing was very steady. Detail on the planet was stunning, with knife-edge rings and crisp limbs on the disk. Several moons hung off to its side, bright little disks as well.

As dark fell, other targets began to avail themself to us. While the others continued showing Saturn, I turned to M3. The transparency was clearly down compared to the best nights I've had at Houge, but with some coaching about averted vision, some explanation about why our eyes see better in the dark from the sides, everyone was able to resolve the globular.

Looking around, I realized we had quite a crowd. Lines at my telescope and others. People had their children out, college students doing astronomy class assignments, others interested in buying telescopes or a binocular asking questions, seniors out for a different sort of evening. It was a great mix.

People were asking for different targets, since so many telescopes were trained on Saturn. "Show us a galaxy"... so off I went to the Leo Trio. Even though M66 was there, the view was disappointing.... so much glop in the air that transparency was way down (but the goo helped steady the gorgeous views of Saturn). I could only see one of the trio, and had to coach people in order for them to glimpse a dim sliver of light... following two bright stars to all that shown - - - the slash-like core of the galaxy.

Later on, M13 was showing well, the best of the globs, hands down. Lots of stars resolving. Izar, with a 7mm eyepiece was a nice clean spit for a tight double star.

Once the crowd thinned out, it was time to say hi to friends. I was talking with Kevin and Dan, Rich, Bo, Lee, and Phil. Nice group, all out to share their views our little corner of the universe.

Next up, a trip to Wilow Springs, and some real dark skies...