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