The Return of the King

Fremont Peak

1997 May 9

Friday, 1997 May 9 was probably the best night at Fremont Peak in my experience (which, alas, goes back only a little more than a year). I left home at about 2:30pm (which was NOT early enough to beat all the traffic on 101 :( but it wasn't too bad and I arrived at about 3:30. Most of my friends had agreed to try the Coulter area to see if it is better on Fridays (not). But it does have a nice view to the west and so we watched the weather roll in as the afternoon wore on. Hopes were high as the sky above was clear and blue with short contrails while the coast looked murky and wet. The little bit of high stuff to the west stayed put (as predicted). By sunset the fog was rolling in very thickly over Moss Landing et al and we knew we were in for a good night.

And it was warm. Thank God winter is over! I was sure getting tired of ski suits, multiple layers of down, hot drinks and mittens. I made it thru the night with just a sweatshirt and a down vest.

We had a pretty good turnout. The parking area with the western overlook (Jim calls it "Sunset Square", the FP map calls it "Madrone") was full (mostly with Gary Heath's giant motorhome :) and Coulter Row was nearly so. There were also a few folks over by Ranger Rick's. It's nice to observe with friends and to be able to take advantage of all the different types and sizes of scopes.

OTOH, there were also a lot of campers at Coulter. The traffic and headlights was pretty bad until after midnight. One group of campers had a Coleman lantern lighting up half of California which was making it impossible to see anything. Hoping that they were just ignorant, I walked up and asked them to shield it. They quickly and politely complied. I guess we shouldn't be too harsh on folks who may simply be unaware of the trouble they're causing. And the place was crawling with raucous children. I was expecting a quiet night. Oh well, the "Ooh"s and "Wow"s of the little kids seeing M13 in my scope was worth it anyway. And they were soon gone and we settled down to a nice night. (Which was unexpectely interrupted at about 3am by yet another car with headlights blazing which managed to sweep his lights over the photographers up by the Observatory. Their shouts were clearly heard all the way over at Coulter. Having thus been warned, he then drove over and did the same thing to us. The jerk got out and asked for "Ben" and then wandered around trying to be friendly. Mercifully, he stayed away from me since I'm not sure I would have been able to be as polite as Jim and his other victims were. Grrr. We need to put up a "Turn off your headlights" sign down by the turnoff to the observatory!) The general agrement was that we should stick with the Ranger Rick's area in the future (or the SW lot if it gets too crowded).

But all that was minor compared to the beautiful sky we had. As hoped for the transparency was good and the light pollution dimmed. The seeing was pretty steady, too. My first target for the night was Mars. The northern polar cap, Vastitas Borealis, Sytris Major and Hellas were all easy. I also noticed some smaller fainter dark markings in the equatorial region which I can't identify. My hopes were rising.

About this time Jay Freeman showed up and the talk quickly turned to IC 4617 (next to M13 in Hercules) which we had been discussed earlier on the TAC email list. I was thinking that we should wait a while since Hercules was just rising above the trees but Jay pointed out that the high magnifications we would be using would darken the sky anyway. So my 12" Meade LX200 was quickly slewed to M13 and offset a little to the nearby galaxy NGC 6207 in the field, too. Our target lies between the two. At first I was not even able to see the faint stars near to IC 4617 that would be necessary guideposts. So I turned my scope over to Jay. Again, to no one's surprise he found it. At least he didn't claim it was easy :) Akkana was also able to see it, too. Not yet ready to give up, I suggested we try Alan's 18" Obsession. And I was not disappointed! After trying for a while, I was finally able to see it maybe 20% of the time with averted vision. Having seen it in Alan's, I tried my scope again but to no avail. Aperture Rules! It was amazing how bright NGC 6207 was after searching for IC 4617. I remember the first time someone showed it to me I could barely see it. Now it was looking like a glaring beacon. And looking at M13 actually felt a little painful :)

I spent the rest of the night just dinking around. I crossed a few Caldwell objects off the list. I found Markarian's Chain (goes from M84 to M88) again. It never ceases to amaze me that we can see so many GALAXIES. They aren't just faint smudges of light, they are hundreds of billions of stars. We all know this intellectually but it's hard to get an intuitive feeling for the astounding scale of it all. Mark found Barnard's Galaxy (NGC 6822) with my scope. It's another of those things that I could barely see last year when I was new at this game but is really pretty easy now.

By about 4am almost everyone had either gone home or to bed. The mountain was quiet and peaceful and dark. But I was not yet ready to quit. Jupiter (now in eastern Capricornus) was just rising above the tree to my east. I had been watching it rise for a couple of hours and was "saving it for last." -- STAR 905; ENTER; GOTO; Whirrr; Beep; Wow. WOW! More power! At 256x Jupiter's disk was big and sharp and full of detail. The Great Red Spot was on the other side of the planet but there was a big brown spot in the southern equatorial belt, lots of little irregularities in the northern edge of that belt, granulations in the polar caps, and lots of color. One of the finest views I've ever had of the King of the Planets. I hope the refractor boys over by Ranger Rick's weren't all asleep.

All four Galilean moons were lined up in typical fashion (with a star nearby to confuse the non-cognoscenti). I tried to determine which moon was which without consulting my computer. Ganymede is the largest and brightest but a little grey, Callisto is second, Io is smaller and reddish, and Europa is the smallest and pure white (and life-bearing?). To my amazement, when I checked with the computer just now, I had them right!

After squinting at Mars all winter, what a joy to see Jupiter again! I stared at it for the better part of an hour as the night turned into dawn. It was still gorgeous even when all the other stars were gone. The longer I watched the more detail that appeared to my eye. In the moments of excellent seeing, it was just fabulous. (Sorry for the hyperbole, but I was really fired up!) The King has returned!

Bill Arnett; last updated: 1997 May 10