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

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