Blue Canyon

1998 May 23

A friend of mine and I attended the Sacramento Valley Astronomical Society tar party at Blue Canyon on May 23. Being relative beginners, this was our first public star party. It was also our first time at a relatively dark site.

The evening started inauspiciously with a dense layer of dark clouds covering the whole sky. These kinds of clouds are typical in the winter, and are extremely unusual at the end of May. Had I been going alone, I would have stayed home, never believing that there was the faintest chance it would clear up.

We arrived at the site at about 6:30, which left me more than adequate time to collimate my scope after the ride in the truck. It definitely needed it.

We socialized a bit, waiting for the sun to set and the clouds to clear. It didn't look like the clouds were going to clear, but everyone was optimistic. Many were waiting to set up their scopes, but a number were already set up.

My teflon altitude bearings were getting some comments. They look funny, they stick out, and they're not attached very securely. I kept explaining that they work much better than the nylon bearings which came with the scope, which were both misplaced and sticky. The general response was, "Whatever works".

The Glorious Stars

A hole in the cloud cover was slowly enlarging in the west, giving everyone hope. Rather suddenly around 9:30 or so, bright stars were beginning to appear all over the sky. I rushed to look at stuff with the scope. The next time I "came up for air", the sky was completely clear.

When all the stars came out, I was completely overwhelmed. Whole regions of the sky which are basically empty from my backyard were filled with stars. And these weren't just dim stars. I think I was seeing stars between 1.5 to 2 magnitudes dimmer than what I am used to (4.5 - 5.0).

For example, Coma Berenices was obvious as a large, bright, loose cluster. I can barely see it on a good night from my backyard. On an average night, it's invisible.

I neglected to make a visual limiting magnitude estimate, other than a slack-jawed "I CAN'T BELIEVE HOW MANY STARS THERE ARE" feeling.

I took a look at M51 and was flabbergasted when I could see it in my finder. The view in the scope was stupendous. I could barely see some spiral detail. I could see zones of varying brightness and texture in the spiral arms. The cores of both galaxies were exceedingly bright. At home, it just looks like two slightly brighter spots in the sky. Here, it was a glorious showpiece.

Periodically, clouds covered it while I was looking at it. As they would cover it, I would suddenly say, "Oh yes! This is what it looks like from my backyard!"

The Grand Plan for the Evening

The naked-eye beauty of the sky was incredibly distracting. There was so much stuff in the sky, I couldn't decide what to look at. Should I look at the Coma-Virgo galaxies? The Ursa Major galaxies?

Other possibilities:

* Should I follow my regular observing program (which was undoubtedly completely uninteresting to others around me),

* Should I show stuff to others?

* Should I look at wonderful looking stuff?

* Should I look at stuff I know I can't see from my backyard?

* Should I look through others' scopes?

In the end, I did a little of each, but not enough of anything to be really satisfying. But this lack of satisfaction with planned activities was more than made up for by the unplanned gorgeous views of the sky and the Milky Way.

Sometimes I sensed others near me, as if waiting to look through my scope, but I was either concentrating on finding something, or trying to hold onto something faint.

Maybe someday I will learn that "What are you looking at?" means "Can I look at what you're looking at through your scope?" I would look up later, and they would be gone.

The Great Observing

After M51, the next object I looked at was the Great Cluster in Hercules, M13, which looked slightly more constrasty than from my backyard, but not a whole lot different. I decided to try for M101, which looked like a larger, round, but still featureless glow. So, of the first three objects, one showed a tremendously more detail, one was just somewhat bigger, and one didn't look that much different.

This pattern was to be repeated throughout the evening.

M44 was easily visible to the naked eye, and it overflowed the low power field of view in the main scope.

After looking at these big bright ones, I decided to check out some of my favorite galaxies in Leo, since it was already on its way down. NGC 3377 looked remarkably similar to the view from my backyard: A compact galaxy with a fairly bright core. Nearby 3367 stood out as quite a bit dimmer, but still easily visible. This one is at my backyard limit.

M105 and 3384 were so bright they looked like a pair of headlights, with the somewhat dimmer, but very easy 3389 nearby. 3389 is very ghostly indeed from my backyard, and not visible most of the time. Here it was easy.

At this point, I got the idea to finish off my 2nd Messier survey with this scope, so I quickly observed M68, a big bright globular cluster just below Corvus the Crow and M83, about midway between Gamma Hydrae and Theta Centauri. Normally, these objects are blocked by my house and are deep in Sacramento light pollution.

I wanted to show some stuff, so I put in the 190x eyepiece and went to Epsilon Lyrae, the Double Double. It was easily split. This multiple star reminds me of two pairs of silvery, touching marbles. Tube currents were causing an extra, large diffraction spike on each star.

While in the neighborhood, I stopped in at the Ring Nebula, M57. The ring looked fuller and there was some texture to the ring. The central star was not visible.

I went back to Leo to continue with some objects I had tried for, and failed to see in my backyard. 3338 in the neighborhood of M105 was so easy that I was flabbergasted that I had not seen it before. It was a small oval, somewhat dimmer than most of the other galaxies I had seen tonight. Over near Leo's hindquarters, 3596 was also easy -- a small round fuzzy spot, again dimmer than usual.

I moved south to look at a gorgeous group of 3 galaxies: The very bright pair M65, M66 and the mammoth oval 3628.

After looking through an 18" at the Sombrero Galaxy, I returned to my dinky little scope to look at the Owl Nebula, M97. It was very bright, and had well defined edges, which surprised me. I could not see the 'eyes', but the nebula had a distinctly uneven looking texture. Nearby M108 showed its long, lithe linear shape. It also seemed to have some texture and mottling, but I didn't spend much time on it.

I wanted to see how some of my favorite objects looked, so I turned to M81 and M82, which were amazingly bright. Both were far larger than they appear from my backyard. M81 was a lovely, perfect oval with subtly different gradations of light. M82 looked like a tortured, wrinkled galaxy.

As I kept going from M81 to M82 and back again, and getting them both in the same field, I noticed 3077 'by accident'. I was completely surprised by this, and was again reminded that it was a lot darker than what I am used to.

I decided to hunt down other ones in this area I hadn't seen before, so I searched for and found 2976 immediately. It's a somewhat further away from M81 than 3077. I searched for 2959, but could not find it. This was just like being in my backyard, except the stuff I could see was two or three or four magnitudes dimmer than usual.

I then hopped over to 24 Ursae Majoris, then to 27 Ursae to find 2985. I did not see the others nearby. I moved on to 3147 in Draco.

By this time, my finder was dewing up, and I could hear the complaints of others around me. Some people were leaving.

I decided to check out supernovae, so I went to 3877 to hunt for SN 1998S, but it was no longer visible. Back down to M96, SN 1998BU was shining brightly. While in the neighborhood, I stopped in to visit M95.

The other supernova that I was aware of was SN 1998AQ, in 3982. I started with Gamma Ursae Majoris (aka Phecda or Phad), and popped down to M109, which is always difficult from my backyard. I was dumbfounded by the additional subtle beauty and detail I could see in it. It had a bright core (which is all I usually see) and a delicate, gauzy oval disk around it.

Next, I returned to Gamma, and hopped up to 3982, and was immediately presented with a dilemma. I could see the star I had thought was the supernova before, but it was well away from the galaxy, which caused me to doubt that I was seeing the actual supernova. Time will tell -- as I continue to observe this, if the supernova never goes away, it ain't the supernova!

I continued in the direction toward Delta Ursae, and observed 3998. Between them, I could barely see 3972, but it was quite faint.

At this point my finder was completely dewed up, and my eyepieces were coming and going, and there was a drop of water on my secondary.

The Groovy People

On one side of us was a fellow from Chico with his 11-year old daughter and their Celestron 8" dob. They were beginners (like we are) and were interested in comparing their views to those in my Orion 10" dob, which I was glad to do.

He seemed to be having a little trouble finding stuff, and I wanted to go over and help out, but he wasn't asking, so I continued doing what I was doing.

They reminded me of the father-daughter characters in "Contact". That part of the movie made me cry (as it is now), because it reminded me both of the role my own father had in stimulating my interest in astronomy, and of me trying to instill an interest in math, science and astronomy in my own daughter. I was a little jealous, because my own daughter is now away at college, probably never to return home, except to visit.

I was able to observe Hale-Bopp last year with her at 4am during spring break.

On the other side was a fellow with his Celestron CG-11. The mount (Losmandy G-11) is the same as I use for my 'Little Feller' (9" Intes Mak) ("Little" because 9" < 10"), so it was interesting to watch him set it up.

He was fighting a losing battle with dew all night.

Two spots away was a guy with his amazing homemade 8" newt on an EQ mount that looked like a flimsy wire music stand. It was fun to hear Joe giving lectures about the stories in the contellations to a small group of beginners.

I think he was attempting to do piggy-back photography with it, but he was also having dew problems.

His mount also made amusing squeaking noises when he slewed it.

On the far side of him was a fellow with a 10" LX200, and I heard for the first time the 'coffee grinder' noises when he slewed. It was not nearly as bad in real life as the numerous and ofttimes joking reports I've read about it.

Down the observing row, one fellow had a home-built 18" truss tube scope with Galaxy optics. It took him slightly over 200 hours to build it, and he kept a log of his work.

This scope was a beautiful piece of utilitarian artwork which I examined during the wait for the sun to set. The tracking was very smooth and stable, and when I stopped pulling, the scope stopped immediately with no backlash.

Later in the evening, he was looking at the Sombrero Galaxy at probably 200x - 300x when I happened by. I asked him what he was looking at. (See above) The eyepiece had an 82 degree apparent FOV. The view was unbelievable -- like looking at a photograph. The dust lane was easily visible. It had a very bright stellar center. Nearby stars were very tiny pinpoints. Just that single view made the whole evening worthwile.

I was surprised that there were only 2 closed-tube dobs, and only 3 dobs total. There were a couple Prontos. Most people seemed to have SCTs of one sort or another.

It was amusing to hear newt-owners pronouncing 'collimation' in various ways. I think there are as many ways to pronounce it as there are to spell it. I also heard interesting pronounciations of various star and constellation names. I didn't hear anyone attempt 'Ophiuchus', though.

The Gross Light Pollution

A significant lightdome from Sacramento was visible in the SW, up to maybe 20 degrees. It was so bright, I had no trouble finding my way around without a flashlight, and it cast a pearly light on my white-tubed scope.

It was depressing to think I live in and have done most of my observing from the bottom of that light dome.

There also seemed to be a large light dome in the NE. After it detached itself and rose higher, I realized it was the Milky Way and the dome in the NE was signficantly reduced, although it was still there. It was probably some streetlights near the freeway offramp.

My scope never fully came to equilibrium. It was stored at 70F, and the temperature at Blue Canyon was 52F when we arrived at 6:30pm. When we left at midnight, there were still tube currents, and the temperature was 39F.

Date:         May 23, 1998 9:30pm-12am (0430-0700 May 24 UTC)
Location:     Blue Canyon (near Sacramento), CA 120W 50', 39N 11'
Instrument:   Orion DSE 10" f/5.6 dob-newt
Oculars:      26, 17, 10mm Sirius Ploessls
Seeing:       9/10 very steady
Transparency: 9/10 very clear
Visual limiting mag: 6+ (?)

Randy Muller; 1998 May 28