Taking advantage of a tiny break in the weather between a winter storm that dumped snow down to 1500 ft in the Sierras on Wednesday and Thursday (January 24 and 25) and hazy cirrus clouds by Sunday, January 28, a group of refugees from the snow-bound fields their regular dark sky site found their way to the pleasant and mostly snow-free foothill site near Fiddletown, California, situated about 2600 ft in the Sierra foothills outside of Plymouth.
I (18" and 10" dobs) met SVAS members Jim Ster (12" Meade LX-200), Shneor Sherman (18" dob) and Gregg Blandin (25" homemade dob) under crytstal clear skies at the Pokerville Market in Plymouth and drove in a caravan to the observing site. We were joined by Francis Lau, a coworker of mine who has heard me expound endlessly about the compelling beauty of the various heavenly bodies. Francis is planning on buying a 10" dob like mine (after I talked him out of picking a cheap refractor at Fry's), so I brought my 10" along so that he could see if it was something he wanted.
On the drive in, I was surprised to see snow, both at the side and even in the road. "This is what we came to avoid!" I thought to myself. When we arrived at the site, there was snow on various parts of the property, but not on the observing field itself. Fortunately, it wasn't very cold. I had warned Francis to make sure he brought lots of warm clothes.
The night started out dewy, then it dried up, then it got dewy again (killing Jim's corrector plate, sans dewshield), then it dried up again, then it dewed again about 1am, this time turning directly to ice. When packing up, my table had quite a bit of ice on it.
In contrast to my last few sessions, there was not a cloud in the sky, but transparency seemed low due to the presence of moisture in the atmosphere. The seeing was bad with bloated stars. I could only see 4 stars in the Trapezium, instead of the 6 which would have indicated reasonably good seeing.
The five of us had a great time. It was great to see and be out with my fellow observers again for the first time in the new year. It had been a full month since I observed last, due to bad weather and the fact that I decided against going anywhere the one night it was clear, although going on a worknight would have been quite inconvenient.
At one point while I was observing some Messiers to kill time before the moon and Venus set, Jim gave out a yelp and dove off of Gregg's toppling ladder, landing with cat-like grace on his feet. I didn't see the curtsy which must have capped this daring move.
Later, we teased Jim about his GOTO coffee and bean grinding noises. At one point, Gregg (I think) thought the gears were actually grinding.
"Just some slow slewing," replied Jim.
We stopped teasing Jim after he knocked off the 2nd page of his Herschel 400 race. He saw a ton o' stuff.
I observed 3 Hickson compact galaxy groups, not including Copeland's Septet (Hickson 57) Shneor saw. I failed on Hickson 17 in Aries, whose brightest member is mag 16.5. I didn't notice that the photographic magnitude of the brightest member is 16.5, which was certainly beyond my scope this night, and probably beyond it any night. After noticing it, I tried to observe the group anyway, and saw nothing there.
I complained about getting interrupted from my observing program by Shneor, who kept calling me over to look at cool stuff like NGC 1999 in his 18". While there, Gregg interrupted us with some cool thing in his enormous glass.
At one point in the evening, I directed Gregg to some faint galaxies in Ursa Major, using my sky charting software on my lap, while Gregg was perched on his ladder across the observing field. When I went up to have a look myself, I recognized the field and the galaxy immediately. Software is cool!
Francis was stunned by how big the 10" dob was. The tube is 61" long, and I think he was expecting something on the order of 24". He was also amazed by the views in all scopes, including Jupiter, Saturn and Venus for the first time. It was also the first time he had seen a dark sky since he was a child in mainland China, and he spent a lot of time just looking at the gossarmer winter Milky Way.
Venus showed a very fat crescent as if it was the moon just before 1st quarter. There seemed to be some shading at the terminator visible in the 18" at 226x.
We compared views of Saturn and Jupiter and the marvelous open cluster M37 between the 10" and the 18". The 18" consistently showed more color. The detail seemed about the same in both scopes, as the bigger scope was more limited by the bad seeing.
I showed Francis how to find M81 and M82, Bode's Galaxies, in the 10", using the Telrad.
He was playing with the 10" by himself from time to time. We like to keep it in the family: Gregg is the former owner of my 10" dob, which was the first scope I ever bought. And it is a great scope, Gregg.
After the moon set, I set upon the Hicksons.
Hickson 42, Hydra, 10 00.2 -19.6
I was able to observe all four components, although the faintest one was very tough.
NGC 3091: At 133x (A) is a very bright 3:2 oval with a stellar center.
NGC 3096: At 226x (B) is very small with a stellar center with a faint halo around it. The galaxy is situated between two stars.
MCG-3-26-6: At 226x component (C) looks like a very, very small slightly diffuse dot with a non-stellar center. Medium faint, and not difficult.
PGC 28926: At 226x (D) is extremely faint. Visible only about 30% of the time. This difficult spot is larger than MCG-3-26-6 and diffuse with a non-stellar center, and has even brightness.
Hickson 51, Leo, 11 22.4 +24.3
3 out of the 7 components eluded me this night. I am certain they would be visible on a darker night, and I will definitely be back to revisit this one.
NGC 3651: At 226x (A) this medium bright galaxy is round with a concentrated, but non-stellar center.
NGC 3653: At 226x (C) this one is somewhat fainter than 3651, but also round with a concentrated center.
MCG+4-27-27: At 226x (E) small, fairly dim, diffuse and round.
IC 2759: At 226x (B) Extremely faint, very small, diffuse.
Hickson 53, Leo, 11 28.8 +20.8
I got 3 out of four on this one. When I observed it, I failed to notice that this group is only about 10 arc minutes from nearby Hickson 54, which as a group, is only 25% as big as this one!
NGC 3697A: At 226x (A) Medium bright, fairly large, a 3:2 oval, brighter in the center.
NGC 3697B: At 226x (C) Very faint, very small and diffuse.
NGC 3697C: At 226x (B) Very faint, very small, and somewhat brighter than "C".
Technical data Date January 27, 2001 5pm-1am (Jan 28, 01:00-9:00 UT) Location Near Fiddletown, CA, elevation 2600 ft; 38N 119.25W Instrument Starmaster 18" f/4.3 dob-newt; Orion 10" f/5.6 dob-newt Oculars 7.5, 10, 17, 26mm Sirius Plossls; 1.15x Tele Vue Seeing 5/10 Stars fuzzy and bloated. Transparency 7/10 Cloud-free, but lots of moisture caused poor clarity
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