Spring Comes to Fremont Peak

1997 Mar 29

Third quarter moon, clear sky, warm weather, and a bright comet, brought a zoo of would-be astronomers to Fremont Peak State Park, near San Juan Bautista, California, on the evening of March 29. I arrived well after sunset, yet encountered heavy traffic in both directions on the twisty two-lane road to the summit. Cars were parked at the side of the road as much as a quarter mile from the telescopes areas, and rangers were playing traffic officer, guiding vehicles to the few spaces left. Fortunately, I knew the magic words: "I have a telescope. Can I set up in the south parking lot?" There was a gated-off area for just such folks as I -- not that we were trying to deter people from walking in and joining us, just that we wanted to keep cars with bright headlights from cruising through looking for parking.

It was a fine night. There was no fog on the coastal plain below, but the seeing settled down to excellent, and sky transparency was good. There were plenty of telescopes to take advantage of it -- I counted five big Dobsonians, including two Obsession 18s and an Obsession 20, a 7-inch f/9 AstroPhysics EDT, and a host of smaller stuff. There were perhaps two dozen telescopes set up just in this one parking lot, and several other lots at Fremont Peak were in use as well.

I took the obligatory look at Comet Hale-Bopp with my 10x50 Orion Ultraview. Both the binocular and the naked eye showed eight to ten degrees of dust tail and twelve to fifteen of ion tail, as the comet descended toward the distant lights of Santa Cruz. With so many telescopes to mooch looks through, I was tempted not to set up any other equipment, but eventually I unpacked my 6-inch f/10 Intes Maksutov. I did not have a pre-planned observing list, but I had thought of something interesting to do.

As Leo neared the meridian, I centered Regulus and started playing with various eyepieces. With each one, I would ease the telescope north till the bright star lay just outside the field, then look carefully at what remained. The Intes is well-baffled, so there was no distracting glare from the star itself. Eventually, I found that at 75x, I could detect a faint, diffuse, glowing patch about a third of a degree north of Regulus. I called to a companion, observing nearby with a 10-inch Coulter Odyssey. After jiggling the tube and staring for a while, she confirmed the glow in my telescope, and then, after trying a couple of eyepieces, found it in her own. We both agreed that the apparition was magnification-sensitive, and that the view improved a notch or two above low power.

Then I walked over by the big Dobsons and asked if anyone wanted a look at the dwarf galaxy, Leo I. Not everyone could detect it in the six-inch, but most observers could hold it in the big Obsessions. This nearby galaxy is the brightest and easiest of the local dwarf ellipticals. It would be better-known if it were not so close to a bright star -- you do have to get Regulus out of the field to see it well, and it does help to know exactly where to look, too. I had seen Leo I several times before, but only in my Celestron 14 -- I was pleased but not too surprised that the Intes could pull it in -- that same telescope has shown both the Fornax and Sculptor dwarf galaxies, and they are substantially more difficult targets.

Next I dropped in a 5 mm eyepiece, and took a look at Mars at 300x. Syrtis Major was well placed, and Hellas to the south was so bright it looked like a polar cap. The Intes does well on planets, but a more dazzling view came from the 7-inch AstroPhysics -- at 430x, we could see Sabaeus Sinus, the tiny north polar cap rimmed by a dark ring, and a good deal of lumpy dark detail generally north of Syrtis Major. Later on, the owner put in a binocular viewer, which worked well for a change -- many people seem to have trouble fusing images through most such units, even those of us who are experienced users of conventional binoculars. This particular unit was by Zeiss, and though it seemed to have excellent optics, the manufacturer had inexcusably not provided any differential focus adjustment for persons with differing amounts of near- or far-sightedness in their eyes. Most of the Zeiss equipment I have seen has been second-rate, so I am not surprised that this design was bungled. But this time, everything worked, and the comfortable two-eyed view, seated in a padded observing chair, reminded me of looking through the old "ViewMaster" 3D binocular slide viewers.

The big AstroPhysics is an impressive telescope. Later on, we were looking at the Moon just after it cleared the horizon. It was thought-provoking to walk under the horizontal tube and have to reach up to touch it.

I did not get a look at Mars through any of the large reflectors, and I was disappointed to miss the chance. Other observers said they were showing more detail than the AstroPhysics seven. On such nights it must be frustrating to own a big telescope which is Dobson-mounted. The seeing was good enough that one might reasonably have wanted to use 1000x or more on Mars in the Obsession 20, but I would not have cared to try to track the planet by hand with that much magnification.

I switched back to deep-sky stuff with the Intes, and lined up M104 in my finder. A view through the main eyepiece revealed nothing but blackness, whereupon I realised I had not changed eyepieces. "Why not?", I thought, feeling fey, so I found and centered the galaxy with lower magnification, then put the 5 mm Lanthanum back in place. It's novel to have a diffraction-limited view of a faint fuzzy, but at 300x, M104 clearly showed the dust lane, with hints of structure at its edges, and a nucleus that was starlike at the resolution limit of the telescope. Perhaps it does have a black hole in it, after all.

Thus encouraged, I tried the same trick on M87. I had no idea of the position angle, size , or brightness of its famous "jet", but nothing ventured, nothing gained. Both I and my friend with the 10-inch thought we glimpsed a hint of structure in the slightly diffuse nucleus, perhaps a slight elongation north following, but a look through the 20-inch at 278x did not confirm, so no jet. Oh, well... (But on the other hand, fine detail in the nucleus might have been obscured in the general glare at a magnification that was so low -- for a 20-inch -- and we were unable to use more because of tracking difficulty.)

It was fun to compare views in the Intes with those in larger telescopes. An Obsession 18 showed the "black eye" in M64 at a glance, at 100x, but it took averted vision at 47x and at 75x in the smaller instrument. The owner of a 14.5-inch Dobson asked me to confirm faint globular NGC 5053 for him, at a magnification somewhat over 100x, which I did. Later I was able to show it to him in the Intes at 47x, just barely in the same field as neighbor M53, an interesting contrast in globulars. The Intes had no trouble with NGC 5053; indeed, I have seen it in a 90 mm refractor.

I had a nice view of NGC 3242, the "Ghost of Jupiter" planetary, in an Obsession 18. At 100x, the view resembled that in long-exposure photographs -- a central star, surrounded by a bright ring, embedded in a fainter glow that was somewhat larger. The only time I have previously looked at this planetary was in my Celestron 14; then I used 559x, to show the detail more clearly.

A couple of wonderful views wrapped up my night. M51 showed a turn or more of several spiral arms, plus the bridge to the companion NGC 5195, in the 20-inch at 114x. The star clouds looked much as they do in long-exposure photographs. The 7-inch AstroPhysics showed M13 resolved to the core, with the "propeller" pattern of dark lanes well seen. And just after moonrise, the same instrument showed the Straight Wall brightening in the rays of the late afternoon sun.

All in all, a good night.

Above I mentioned overhearing that large Dobson-mounted Newtonians were giving better views of Mars than a 180 mm f/9 AstroPhysics refractor. I have become concerned that by citing hearsay, I may have appeared to imply more than I intended. I wish to set matters straight.

I meant merely to express ruefulness that I myself had not gotten a look at Mars through an 18- or 20-inch Obsession. I was not intending to imply that we had done a "High Moon" style shoot-out between a big AstroPhysics and a humungeous Dobson, and that here were the results. We didn't do that, though we could have, and it would have been fun. The circumstances were excellent -- good seeing, several large Newtonians well settled in thermally, and a delicate target not far from the zenith. The AstroPhysics 180 was giving exquisite views of Mars -- the best I have ever seen -- at more than 400x, and I had views of deep-sky objects through one of the Obsessions at nearly 300x which showed good seeing, even at such a large aperture. What a shame no one thought to do a careful comparison on the same object.

The relative performance of refractors and reflectors has been controversial for two hundred years, and one shouldn't go into the matter without acknowledging the history of the debate. Most observers seem to agree that for lunar and planetary detail, a good refractor is better than a good reflector of the same aperture, but how much better? Experienced planetary observers have often reported better views of low-contrast fine detail in refractors than in good Newtonian reflectors of several times the aperture, even in good seeing, with the additional caveat that in many places, the seeing is such that the larger apertures are rarely at their best. On the other hand, I have also seen the statement that with a smallish diagonal and thin diagonal support arms, the ratio of equivalent apertures is more like 6:5, again for fine detail.

My own experience has fallen more in the middle ground -- I would put that ratio at about 3:2, for fine detail, though I am not a terribly experienced planetary observer and so might miss subtler advantages of one telescope or another. Furthermore, the side-by-side comparisons that I have done have generally involved 90 to 130 mm refractors versus 150 to 200 mm reflectors, or other obstructed telescopes. All the more reason why a test of larger apertures, with many observers, would have been desirable.

--- Jay Freeman

We had a large number of telescopes along with a number visitors last night at Fremont Peak. In our little area of the Peak there were several large Dobs (14.5 to 20"), several medium sized Dobs and SCTs, and several refractors. There was a Takahashi FS-128, a Traveler and an AP 180mm EDT. There were a number of other interesting scopes there too. At least two other parts of the park had a number of telescopes. One person had a new Orion ShortTube 80mm refractor. With a 35mm Ultrascopic eyepiece the view of the comet was one of the best.

We had very good seeing and just a few thin clouds low in the west. Comet Hale-Bopp showed very interesting detail in the head. There was an "S" shaped structure between the false nucleus and the arcs of light infront of the "nucleus".

A friend took some photos of the comet with his camera attached to my 180 EDT. He didn't have his off axis guider and I didn't bring a guide scope so we just shot and hoped I wasn't too far off in polar alignment. We used an AP 0.74x flat field focal reducer. The camera was a 35mm Nikon F.

Mars was outstanding. I've never seen so much detail. With the 180mm EDT and the Zeiss binoviewer you could see the rough edges in the outline of Syrtis Major. Rather than a soft edged feature the seeing frequently showed it with hard, irregular edges. The polar cap was very distinct with dark features around it. There were a number of small markings between the cap and Syrtis Major. Hellas looked very white. If there hadn't been so many people I would have tried sketching the detail.

With the bino viewer I was using 7.5mm Takahashi LE eyepieces and 7mm Naglers. Without the bino viewer I was using a 5mm Takahashi LE and sometimes the 7.5mm LE with a 2x barlow. The bino viewer increas the power of an eyepiece by about 25%. With the bino viewer I was using about 270x and 290x and without the bino viewer 324x and 432x.

At one point using 432x the seeing poped very clear and the view of Syrtis Major almost unnerving, like I almost got a little too close. ;-)

I looked at M42, the Eskimo nebula, M51, M101, M104, M13, NGC4565, and a number of galaxies in the Coma/Virgo area. I stayed long enough to get a nice look at the Moon but I was really getting tired by about 1:30am and some of the Lunar features I wanted weren't as close to the Terminator as I thought so I didn't stay all night. I hope we get lucky and have as good seeing next week Saturday.

--- Rich Neuschaefer

My wife and I drove to Donner Pass Saturday hoping to get a better look at H-B. What we got was high clouds :-( But on the way home we got a pretty good look from half way between Sacramento and Stockton. It was somewhat better than last weekend at FPK; the dust tail extended about halfway to Cas (6 degrees) naked eye and 3/4 of the way (9 degrees) with binos; the ion tail was about 5 degrees with binos and just visible naked-eye..

--- Bill Arnett

Friday night, The Astronomy Connection (TAC) held a star party at a middle school in Los Gatos, California, for the public to come out and get aquainted with Comet Hale-Bopp. As sunset approached, the number of telescopes we had exceeded 20, brought in by active observers from Monterey, the upper San Francisco peninsula, and out into the east ba. This is a large geographic area, and can testify to the desire and willingness of like-minded observers to travel unusual distances to share views and camaraderie. Before the sun fell behind the Santa Cruz mountains, roughly a hundred interested members of the public had gathered, along with local newspaper photographers, looking at the hardware, which included an 18" Obsession, 18" Sky Design, 17" home-built, 14.5" home-built, several 10" and 8" dobs, a number of Meade LX-200's ranging in size from 12" down to 8", a Celestron Ultima 2000, Astrophyics 180 and Traveler, Takahashi 128, Miyauchi 20x100 binoculars, and many other wonderful optics. The crowd loved it.

Soon, the comet blinked into view below a few wisps of cloud drifting slowly in the west, from north to south. The excitement in the crowd was electric, as all heads turned northwest and voices murmured "right there" and "just under *that* little cloud. Binoculars and telescopes quickly swung into action. The owner of the 12" LX-200, being new to large crowds at events pushed by the press, commented to me twice that there were "too many people!" And in fact, had we fewer than what at that point must have easily been 25 telescopes set up, the crush would have been unbearable. Lines were long at all the equipment, and more people could be seen streaming into the school yard from the parking lot.

All sorts of questions were asked. What are the "rings" around the front of the comet. What will happen to it? Have they ever hit the earth and what would happen? What are they made of? How large are they? Where do they come from? And, of course, the usual gasps of amazement and comments on the beauty of the view in binoculars, where the extent of the visible tail could be appreciated.

We received thanks from so many people, it was an extremely rewarding evening. Of course, when the comet dropped into the muck, scopes turned to the other celestial delights. M42, Mars showed wonderful detail in the 5" Takahashi and in a 17" dob (with off-axis masking), M41, M46, M81 and M82, M65 and M66 with (much to my surprise) the companion NGC3628, and many other objects.

Finally, about 11:30, the crowds had gone home, as had many of the scopes. Although there was some haziness that night, making the sky brighter than it might otherwise be from that location, all who were there agreed that for an in-town site, it was worth coming back to. We will hold another star party there on April 11, and I expect the comet fever will have reached maximum brilliance by then.


The next day many TAC participants drove to Fremont Peak ahead of the expected crowds. I picked up my observing friend and loaded his 20" Obsession into the back of the truck, making the 14.5" already in there look rather small. :-(

It was an unusually warm day in early spring, probably at or above 80 degrees, and not a cloud in the sky. Even the air quality was good, as the hills all around Silicon Valley were visible with surprising clarity. We drove down highway 101 (a.k.a. the "El Camino Real" or King's Highway) toward San Juan Bautista, through the usual bottleneck of gawkers viewing someone getting a traffic citation in the median, past the discount outlet malls, past the appetizing aroma of garlic that permeates Gilroy . Suddenly, looking up, we were amazed to see a cloud above.... OH NO.... above Fremont Peak. Could it be that the only cloud in northern California decided to park itself over our observing site? Or, was the park so packed already that what we are seeing is the smoke from hundreds of afternoon bar-b-ques? After winding our way (painfully slowly, when my buddies' 20" scope is in tow) 11 miles up San Juan Canyon Road, the road opened up into the top of Fremont Peak. Look... thin clouds. No campfires with weenies smoking up the sky. What was this? Around the bend to our setup area, we found several TAC members there already. They told us a controlled burn was taking place to our south toward Salinas, but things were improving rapidly.

So, we decided to stay. The park was relatively empty, except for some hikers, so things seemed to be okay.

Soon, much of the equipment that was at the in-town event the night before, began showing up. Double parking was a first time sight for us. As dark approached, tourists began appearing everywhere. It rapidly occurred to me that the park had become inundated with tourists. After dark set in, one could look down the hillside to the camping areas and literally see lines of cars, some with headlights on, others with them off, in a slow parade around the single lane roads of the park. We heard all parking places were occupied, and rangers were for the first time to my knowledge, directing traffic in the middle of nowhere on a mountaintop 2300 feet above the Monterey bay. What a zoo.

The comet was to blame, of course. I watched the comet until real dark set in, then the 14.5" and 20" began hunting Hershel objects.

This would be fun. For the first time I was entering the confines of Coma Berenices. The objects, unlike other dimmies I'd been viewing lately, were big and bright. And there were so many! Probably the most frustrating experience was looking for M88, because all we had was an NGC number to work with, and our chart (HB Astro-Atlas) only showed it as a Messier number. We kept checking the coordinates, saying "yes.... it should be right about THERE.... but "there" it wasn't". Finally we looked in the Uranometria Field Guide and sure enough, the phantom NGC was indeed M88. It was also fun to work a compact area of the sky. after such large constellations as Cetus, Draco, Ursa Major, Leo, etc. I became much more familiar with the stars in Bernice's Hair. Of the memorable sights, the old favorite NGC4565, with it's width, brightness, and super dark dust lane, certainly ranked high. Also fun was placing the eyepiece (19mm Panoptic) on M84 and walking galaxy by galaxy to and beyond M91, all in all, perhaps up to a dozen galaxies viewed by just drawing the field of view toward myself, with never a field without a galaxy in view. What a rich part of the universe we can see with a modest sized telescope!

But, the night had it's downsides too, at least for serious galaxy hunting. Each time I would abandon the eyepiece to check a chart or peek over toward the comet, I would turn around to find some stranger at my eyepiece, just an interested member of the public amazed to find "big" telescopes to look through. Of course, since we are all ambassadors of the hobby, courtesy stopped me from telling them to get the hell of the ladder and go away ;-) and instead I would usually put the object back in the field of view and explain what they were seeing. It is always fun... although it makes me think of the solitude and long nights we had during the past winter, observing without the comet, the tourists, the fires, the traffic jams and hordes of gawkers that made the past weekend unforgettable.

Soon this comet will pass, remembered fondly for its beauty and how it for a moment stimulated the public's imagination and interest in astronomy, and we will return to the normal craziness of summer time observing at Fremont Peak. Just a few more weekends until then.

I think the next dark sky TAC event will not be until the comet passes. Peace and quite are beginning to sound like a nice companion.

--- Mark Wagner

Bill Arnett; last updated: 1997 Apr 2