Another Report

for Fremont Peak, 1997 Feb 8/9

A break in California's long, soggy winter brought a huge turnout at Fremont Peak on the night of February 8/9. I arrived at about 7:00 PM, before end of twilight, and found almost no parking or setup space. I spotted a ten-foot gap between an NGT-18 and a Questar 7: "I don't mind slumming," I said, carefully repeating myself several times, as I plopped my Intes 6-inch f/10 Maksutov down there.

Lots of folks were watching satellites. The mirror-studded "disco ball" was evidently quite a sight, but I wanted to get my Maksutov out where it could start cooling, so I did not break to watch it. A few minutes later, MIR made a low pass to the north, easily visible to the naked eye. Then the "NOSS triple" wandered by, seen with no trouble by binocular users among us. I looked for it naked-eye, but with no luck. I have seen this formation-flying trio before, when the solar sails are unfurled, or the phasers are set for light pollution, or whatever, and in such circumstances each member is up there with Jupiter and Venus for brightness.

"NOSS" is supposed to stand for "National Ocean Survey Satellite", but there is much speculation that that is a cover story: I refer to it as "Nameless Organization Surveillance System", and my money says it's a three-element phase-detecting array that can locate terrestrial UHF/VHF transmitters within a few meters, from orbit.

My main observing program lately has been double stars, but while waiting for the instrument to come to sufficient equilibrium for high-magnification work, I chased down a few faint fuzzies. Although my years-long check-off of all the deep-sky stuff in Burnham's that gets high enough to observe has incidentally given me observations of everything on several other popular observing lists, I have not looked at a number of Alan Dyer and Alister Ling's "Deep-Sky Challenge Objects", listed in the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada's _Observer's_Handbook_.

On this night, I got two more. NGC 609, an open cluster in Cassiopeia, was rather disappointing as a "challenge": It was trivial in the six-inch at 47x, a compact glow showing stars across its entire width. It was so easy that I wondered for a while if I had the right cluster -- there are lots in that area -- but three separate charts had it at the same location, that given by Dyer and Ling, and there were plenty of finder stars to locate the field within an arc-minute or two, so the identification was not in doubt.

NGC 7822 was more difficult. At 27x, I spotted a faint glow at the position Dyer and Ling tabulate for this broad, faint, nebulosity. (Their position lies near the east end of the rather larger patch plotted in _Uranometria_.) An Orion Ultrablock confirmed the detection. This object lies in Cepheus, which lay west of the pole -- not well placed -- at the time I observed. It would no doubt be easier at upper culmination, or with fog below turning off the lights of cities and towns.

The Dyer and Ling list suggests that 25 to 30 cm of aperture are required to see NGC 609, and 30 cm for NGC 7822. I used 15 cm, so perhaps the recommended apertures should be taken with a grain of salt.

On to double stars. Seeing was in and out, and position dependent, but with a little work I was able to work to well under an arc-second of separation, at least for stars of comparable brightness. (Though the one time I looked at the Trapezium, I could only spot five stars -- A..E -- at 250x. I suspect the Intes would pull in F, too, in good seeing.) Sometimes the most interesting doubles are of differing magnitudes, though. Lambda Gem is one such that I had not looked at before; its components are more than six magnitudes apart, and separated by only about ten arc seconds (or, so they were in 1914).

Some stars are of interest for color. One such is an old favorite, h 3945, at an easy-to-find position in east-central Canis Major. It is easy in much less aperture than six inches, and to my eye is red and blue, as impressive as Albireo though not nearly as bright. It belongs on your list of showpiece stuff to impress mundanes with.

While waiting for Mars to clear the treetops I set up my Meade 165, a 50 mm f/12 refractor. As I said, I don't mind slumming. I have been doing a Messier survey with this instrument, and picked up another dozen or so objects, all at 24x with a nice Kellner eyepiece. The double star that is M40 was easily resolved. I spotted M97, the Owl Nebula, though it was tough because of faintness, and also M108, which was tough because its glow tends to merge with nearby field stars. M109 was easier than the Owl. Messier galaxies M51, M63, M65, M66, M94, M95, M96, M105, and M106, were all much easier than any of M97, M108, or M109.

Mars was a disappointment on grounds of seeing. I could see the polar cap and the dark ring around it, and a good deal of detail elsewhere on the disc, but the view was jiggly and not impressive. I thought hard about staying around for Hale-Bopp, but cold and fatigue won out, so I packed up and left at about midnight.

Jay Reynolds Freeman; last updated: 1997 Jan 13