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...