Alone at Fremont Peak

1997 Dec 19

The day started out with no plans to go observing; work has been demanding for the last few months, and with holiday activities I didn't expect to muster enough energy to attend even the in-town public events such as those scheduled by SJAA and TAC. I was planning to save my energy for Saturday night at Fremont Peak.

Late morning, upon checking my weather links for Saturday's outlook, I saw that the NWS was calling for clear-but-cold (and possibly breezy) for Friday night, and clouds and/or rain for Saturday. The radar showed a large area a moisture moving south from Oregon, but absolutely clear (and BLACK under infrared) from the bay to southern California.

That was enough to get me instantly motivated. Given the forecast, I decided not to spend the precious clear night observing from a city location. So I ran home at lunch, packed up my gear, and said an early "goodnight" to my kids. I had been putting off getting a decently warm jacket and footwear through last winter (in spite of getting a bit chilled on two occasions). So it was off to REI to finally remedy the situation. Then back to work for a few hours before leaving for "The Peak" at 5pm.

I'll spare the prose from here, and just give a "diary account" of my observing session:

Starting up the hill toward the peak; saw 2 raccoons and 5 deer.
Parked at the closed gate to the ranger/observatory area and walked up to see if anyone was there. It was a very clear and crisp night, and I noticed the Milky Way standing out brightly within just a few seconds of shutting off the headlights for the walk. The prime observing area was empty, but I was unsure of the new ranger's policy on astronomers wandering in unannounced. That plus the white light shining brightly from his window made me decide to go to the south-west lot.
Located an empty parking spot (actually, I believe mine was the only vehicle up there, aside from the ranger). The temperature was 42F, and surprisingly there was no wind. The background sky seemed darker that usual, which I attributed to the very dry air that I saw in the radar images. Looking north, I could see clouds and moist air hanging heavily over the SF Bay area, and presumably moving my way. The the west, there was a thick marine layer and some high clouds which gave Venus a nebula-like appearance. I noticed how absolutely quiet it is a the peak when there isn't a star party or campers actively running around.
The 8" f/10 LX-200 was all set up, and I was nearly dark adapted. Whoops! So much for that; a work truck just drove down from the radio towers on the Peak. Ouch.
Looked at Jupiter at 204x. It was a little fuzzy, but it's only about 20 degrees above the horizon. It was a pretty good view considering the elevation and thin clouds. I saw three moons all on the leading side, with no 4th in sight. A black smudge could be seen near the middle of the NEB.
Wow! The fourth moon just popped out from behind the disk. Not a bad catch for an unplanned evening. It was interesting to see the four moons all lined up on one side like that.
Zing! A meteor just dropped starting midway between Dubhe (the "lip star" of the Big Dipper) and Polaris. It trailed about 6 degs toward "7 O'Clock". It was slow and yellowish, and its magnitude was somewhere between Polaris and Capella.
Turned the scope toward Saturn. 204x again. Cassini's division was immediately obvious without trying. I noticed that the image was exceedingly still; better than any night I can remember locally all Summer. Looking a little closer, and ignoring all the brighter moons, the dimmest I can see is just slightly north of the leading/west/left-in-my-reversed-view tip of the rings. I didn't concentrate enough to look for dimmer ones.
Put a barlow in; now at 408x. Amazingly, it was still a razor sharp image. I rarely see this kind of image with this much power (given that 408x is just above the theoretical limit). I noticed a wide, dark SEB. The "gap" in the rings (where they are in shadow) was small but obvious in the still image.
Finally decided to put on the rest of my warm gear (but my upper half has been toasty in the new jacket)
Counted 12 Pleiades. Thin haze seems to be encroaching from the north now, and the sky is brightening. Actually, it now looks like a typical night at the Peak. I also begin to notice some wide, lingering contrails.
Saturn is still rock-steady at 204x.
M42 at 204x is showing more whisky detail and fine "tendrils" around the Trapezium than I can recall ever noticing at this power before.
A car approaches with headlights. Eventually they shut them off and begin opening doors, the trunk, and generally exercising all the white lights built into the car. A couple approaches and is interested in astronomy; they had been hoping the observatory would be open, but otherwise enjoy driving out to the site just to take it all in at 1x. I showed them Saturn at high power, M42 wide-field, the Trapezium, and M37. We talked about their unidentified scope and its broken eyepiece. I eventually determined they have a Celestron 4.5" Newt on an equatorial mount. I recommended two eyepiece sizes that would give a nice range for the scope, and pointed them to Orion's Sirius Plossls which seem pretty decent for the $50 they want for them. We also talked about light pollution, of which they were already aware. They departed around 2140.
Where was I... Oh yes. Counted 6 stars in the Trapezium.
Once again, I unsuccessfully try to claim the Horsehead. Although I know it's visible from this site, and especially on a night like tonight, it still escapes me.
A breeze is kicking up now. Thin haze has been coming and going all night. The moisture and clouds to the north and west are looking even more menacing, but it is still decent for most of my sky.
Quickly scanned M31, which is sinking into the western muck, and of course M32 and M110. There are no stars up to about 45 degrees over in the west.
I suddenly notice the Beehive rising. Where do the months go?
While munching a snack, I notice a bright orange glow appear in my peripheral vision. Car? Plane? Flashlight? Oh! It's the moon rising. Wow, what a sight it is, glowing bright orange through the trees. The illusion of size is highly pronounced through them.
Zip! A meteor drops between the moon and Orion. It is bright green, below-and-left of Sirius, and moving toward "8 O'Clock". Actually a nice image cutting through the naked tree branches.
Back to the moon, it is fairly deep in clouds to the east, and I realize I can see no stars in the east below about 30 degrees. Another horizon socked, but still clear for most of my usable sky!
Since dark-sky observing is coming to an end, let's investigate the seeing a little more with a Sirius acid-test. To the naked eye, the Dog Star was barely flickering; not really twinkling at all. Looking at it with 77x there is no sign of the usual "pulsing rainbow effect"; just an intense blue-white and slightly flickering star. Even at 204x, it really isn't moving. I can actually make out mostly-stable diffraction rings!
Return of the green meteor. Almost the same location, direction, and color. Perhaps two chunks formerly part of the same object?
Decide to "siesta" while waiting for the moon to clear both the trees and the eastern cloud line.
The moon is still doubly-obscured, and atmospheric moisture is quickly becoming apparent; there are huge contrails hanging in the sky, and everything is getting bright. Time to pack and head home. Amazingly, not a hint of dew on anything all night.
Driving down, I encounter a skunk trotting down the center of the road making it difficult to pass without spooking it. I immediately set the air system to "recirculate", and drive 1 MPH for a few moments until I can "safely" pass.

Mark Taylor 1998 Jan 16