Dark moon, good weather, and old friends made the first weekend in August, 1997, memorable for observers at Fremont Peak State Park, near San Juan Bautista, California. I set up both Friday and Saturday nights, using my Intes 6-inch Maksutov to pursue my Herschel-list program. I started this project just as the great cloud of galaxies centered in Virgo was starting to sink into evening twilight, but manic observing allowed me to get all my not-previously-seen targets from 13 through 17 hours of right ascension, and most of those in hour no. 12, before they disappeared for the season. So now I can be more leisurely for the next few months.
There was plenty of interesting hardware around. On both nights, someone had a Meade 16-inch LX-200 set up in Coulter Camp: What a behemoth! It looked like a main battle tank in a supermarket parking lot. I was in a different area both nights, and did not get by to look through it, but the owner had had it for two years and was quite happy with it, though he said he did not get out with it nearly often enough. Considering its weight and bulk, I am not surprised.
Saturday was the "Star-B-Q", an annual pot-luck put on by the Fremont Peak Observatory Association. Lots of people came, including three friends whom I had not seen for years. Frank Dibbell, the person from whom I bought my 90 mm Vixen fluorite refractor, was there, and I was all prepared with my lines: "How are you, and you can't have your telescope back." Frank had moved to Colorado and back during the last few years; it is good to see him back in the Bay Area. Deborah Moore, an old-timer from the San Jose club, was there as well -- she is an experienced observer and telescope maker who has moved on to other interests; for many years her 10.5-inch Newtonian was a fixture at club events. A pity she never got around to mounting the 16-inch mirror she finished. And Connie Fleenor, one of the few people I know who likes to chase after double stars, also came, bringing not only family but also her 80 mm Celestron refractor, of a vintage so old the tube is orange.
The Star-B-Q featured a contest for astronomically decorated food. One quite clever dessert entry was based on Sojourner -- a rectangular cake bore doughnuts for wheels, frosted rectangular wafer cookies for solar panels, and so on. Someone else had made marshmallow / Rice-Crispies bars but left them uncut in the pan, with a very rough top surface, as the Martian landscape, with a Sojourner model sitting there. And there were lots of round things decorated as planets, the sun, galaxies, and so on.
The southwest parking lot was full of telescopes. Walking around late at night brought a curious sense of deja vue, which I finally figured out. The many truss-tube Dobsonian-mounted Newtonians, pointing this way and that, covered by their fabric light baffles, put me in mind of pictures I had seen of Easter Island, with the great stone statues of the long-eared heads all tilted and askew.
Some of us spent a while looking at Stefan's Quintet. A friend had seen it in her six-inch Cave Astrola before, but now could not find it. I chased it down in the Intes. The Quintet was visible at 94x but better at 121x -- at the latter magnification I could distinguish three lumps of fuzz, comprising four of the five galaxies (two so close as to merge). I believe the Cave owner finally got a similar view. A Meade 12-inch LX-200 at 254x showed all five galaxies clearly, as did an 18-inch Obsession at a lower magnification.
The planets were popular. Jupiter showed a wealth of detail in several apertures, including the Meade 12-inch LX-200, an Astro-Physics 180 mm f/9 EDT, and an Obsession 18-inch with an 8-inch off-axis stop. The latter combination produced excellent images, and excited considerable comments comparing it to the big Astro-Physics, which was sitting scarcely 10 meters away. The point in contention was whether the stopped-down reflector could equal the large refractor in performance; to my eye it was too close to call. I also had the impression that the 12-inch Meade SCT was doing rather better than the Astro-Physics on fine, high-contrast detail -- there were a couple of elongated dark spots near the north end of the south polar zone, for test objects -- though rather worse for lower-contrast, broader features. That is about what one would expect from theory. I will be curious whether any of the more experienced planetary observers, who were present, post about these comparisons: The reflector/refractor comparison is subtle and controversial, and I wouldn't want anyone to think that my opinions were the last word on the matter.
Saturn also made an appearance before I struck camp. The Cassini division was evident in instruments as small as 4-inch aperture (a Vixen fluorite refractor), as was the crepe ring. The latter was detectable as a faint haze within the sharp curve of the ansae of the brighter rings.