Lick and Beyond

1997 Aug 8

On August 8, I again had the opportunity to act as a docent at one of Lick Observatory's recently reactivated Friday-night public observing programs. This time I was assigned to outdoor duty, and requested to bring a telescope. Those with this responsibility had gotten the word about the wind on top of Mount Hamilton -- we all brought instruments likely to be relatively steady. I had a light photographer's tripod which supported either my 63 mm f/5.6 "Baby Brandon" refractor, or my Orion 10x70 binocular. Other folks brought an older Astro-Physics refractor -- a six-inch f/8 -- a Celestron 80 mm refractor, and a Meade ETX. We were set up on the east side of the old main building.

The breezes stayed warm and the sky remained clear. I started the evening with the 10x70 pointed at the crescent Moon. The great craters Theophilus, Cyrillus, and Catherina, were well placed near the terminator. I kept pointing out that essentially any binocular would give just as good a view of the Moon as the 10x70, which in turn prompted several guests to bring out their own and confirm my comment.

After the Moon settled below the observatory roof, I switched to the Baby Brandon and viewed the Lagoon Nebula at 21x. Even with enough incandescent light from the building door to be bothersome, there was plenty of nebulosity visible surrounding the stars of the cluster. "Baby stars in swaddling clothes," was my line for the evening, as I explained that this was a region where stars had recently formed out of dust and gas and were now illuminating the left-over construction material. "Big, strapping babies," I continued, for the stars responsible for most of the illumination are indeed very large and very bright.

After a while, I thought to ask what objects the 36- and 40-inch telescopes were pointed to. On learning that one was M17, I switched my own telescope to it, and was pleased to be able to show guests that even a tiny beginner's telescope could provide enough detail and structure in this object to be interesting. Several people said that they preferred the view through the little Brandon to that through the larger instrument. I told them not to repeat that, for my head was large enough already that I have trouble getting hats to fit, but I can see the point -- at the 300x in use on the 40-inch, you can't even see the entire nebula, just a portion of it.

I recognized many familiar faces from TAC and the SJAA among the other docents. Someone I had not met before stopped by to check out my Brandon; that person had a five-inch Clark refractor in good working order, which unfortunately was not at Lick that night. We got to talking about optics. I speculated that Roland Christen's Astro-Physics refractors had lately gotten good enough to be beyond the quality of even the best of the Clark units. My remarks were met with skepticism, whereupon I observed that lots of APs regularly showed up at Fremont Peak, and what a shame the Clark was never there for a side-by-side comparison. Let's keep our fingers crossed...

Presently all the guests had left, and we docents had a little time on the 36-inch refractor for ourselves. The object in view was planetary nebula NGC 6210, which appeared at 496x as a mottled blueish disc with a central star occasionally visible. Another observer said that seeing had deteriorated -- earlier they had had the central star regularly in view. I had looked at NGC 6210 once before, in my Celestron 14, and logged a very similar appearance.

Driving down the twisty road, I could not help but think that Lick Observatory was the first of the great mountain-top observatories, the first attempt by astronomers to deal with the vexations of the Earth's atmosphere by getting above it. In that sense, for all its century and more of age, and great refractor, Lick is the first step on the road that leads to the Hubble Space Telescope, and beyond. It is a privilege to work there, even for just an evening or two.

Jay Reynolds Freeman 1997 Aug 10