Freezing in Coma

Observing at Henry Coe, 1997 April 4

A few brave souls fought Friday (4/4) afternoon San Francisco bay area traffic to Henry Coe State Park in order to beat the crowds of comet-crazies that were sure to decent like flame-driven moths to local observing sites on Saturday. Richard Navarrete and I found each other at a red light on the freeway turnoff heading up to the park, 15 miles from our destination.

The road soon narrowed into two twisting lanes, leading us to and around Anderson Reservoir. People were fishing along the banks, some setting up for the night. The road narrowed in places to a single lane, where gravity and weather conspired to cover man's intrusion, but our path was still passable. Up by a local farm Richard slowed almost to a stop on a hairpin turn to the right, and as I followed, there stood several peacocks, one in full display turning toward me, colors shimmering in the late afternoon light. Continuing uphill, we passed several hillside pastures with both milk cows and longhorn steer, the Coyote Valley, Morgan Hill, Gilroy and the greater bay area receding behind us as we climbed the narrow roadway toward a night away from the present, under the stars, looking toward the east away from the light dome of civilization.

Soon we arrived at our destination. The only company there were three trucks with empty horse trailers attached. The owners were on a multi-day ride in the park, as evidenced by the tags stating they must be out in two days. The only sign that a living being had been there was a large "don't step in it" spot by one of the trucks.

The wind was cold. You Arctic types from the mid-west of or eastern seaboard of the US or those heartiest of observers north of the border, you in Scotland or Alaska, forgive me if I tell you that the wind cut through us like a gale-blown icicle. Before sundown, I was in most of my heavy winter clothing. But for a few layers of low cloud to our west, the sky was clear.

Soon, Hale-Bopp and Sirius appeared. Betelgeuse, Rigel, and Capella soon followed. Regulus, then the whole sky began shining white points and the Milky Way glowed crossing above Canis Major, Orion and into Auriga. Hale-Bopp was skirting San Jose's light dome to the northwest. The tail measured between ten and fifteen degrees naked eye, depending on where you felt it disappeared in Cassiopeia. The dust tail was easily the more noticeable of the two.

The wind began to die, but the chill would not go. More clothing went on. I turned my back to on the city glow to face the south and east, where nothing seemed to intervene between me and the stars.

I had worked a bit of Coma Berenices the prior week, enjoying the rich galaxy fields. Reading about this part of the sky a few days afterward, I found most galaxies to be in the neighborhood of 40 million light years distant, but some, and I will hunt them down, are part of the actual Coma cluster, and 400 million light years distant. There is something magical about seeing that ancient light.

The viewing really started about 8 o'clock. I quickly landed on the first galaxy I was looking for, and though I am not a superstitious person, I always like and "easy" first object to put me in a "successful" frame of mind. Believe me, there is nothing worse than hunting for 40 minutes for an object that turns out to be a dud "almost-ain't-there" smudge. Coma was fun, because the nice triangle of dim stars flanked on the sides by brighter landmarks make navigation easy. The challenge is, being sure you are looking at the correct object, there are so many.

My favorite are had to be east of Denebola (Leo's tail). A short hop and you are looking at galaxies galore around M98 and M100. 98 is a nice spiral tilted slightly from edge-on toward us. It is huge in comparison to other Herschel objects. Crossing the naked eye "locator" star almost diagonally, M100 comes into view. It is face on and awesome. These are the two galaxies I used to "galaxy hop" through the crowded fields of smaller island universes. Starting at M100, and moving away from M98, once finds a pair of bright stars, one closer to the big galaxy. Following the line described by the galaxy and star, one will come to a pair of galaxies: NGC4302 and NGC4298. They are easily in the same field. I had mistakenly located another pair at first, looking at them and thinking "wow -- these are dim and almost inseparable to me" ... but something did not seem right. Backtracking, I tried again, and success! Two gorgeous galaxies, one nearly edge on, the other almost face on, came into view. They are not bright as the brightest Messier's, but these are big and (I will need to read up on them) may be interacting. They are a great sight.

I was not cold now. Up and down the ladder. A few of my "flavored" coffees also helped keep me warm. By now, Rich Neuschaefer and Jay Freeman had arrived. Navarrete had been busy shooting photos of Hale-Bopp. The place was still empty. What a treat! Concentrated, uninterrupted observing! Almost no headlights. Darkness to my face! I was beating up Coma until it was a zenith, then I tried Bootes. After a few confirmed finds, and pegging a mag 14 (not bad for the unsteadiness of the night), I sat down.

Richard told me I had logged a lot of galaxies. I did not think so. It was so relaxing, so refreshing. What did I have... 15 total, maybe? We sat back, and talked of the cold, the summer, the Milky Way, families, health insurance, dark skies, the comet. Two hours later it was 2 a.m. and we decided to pack up and find the comfort of our own beds. Family awaited us in the morning.

I drove down the mountain, narrowly missing an opossum crossing the road. The night fishermen had lamps glowing off the side of the road around Anderson Resevior. Soon, it I was heading back to the land of fast food and pavement. Back to the land of modern light.

Richard read a temperature sign off the side of the freeway on the way home at 2:30. 38 degrees down *off* the mountain.

I logged 37 Herschels in a relaxed and very enjoyable short night. But it was a cold night, freezing in Coma.

Mark Wagner; last updated: 1997 April 8