2/8/03 - Fremont Peak

by Bob Czerwinski

Despite La Luna nearing its 50% phase, last night I joined Jim Bartolini at Fremont Peak's "Ranger Row." Sky conditions during the day reflected that deep blue associated with wonderful transparency, so despite a very late Moonset, and the prediction of freezing conditions, I didn't want to waste the night. Arriving just before sunset, I noticed that someone had set up at the eastern end of Coulter Row with what appeared to be a Celestron C-8. Looked like a number of folk were camping in the area, too. Pulling into Ranger Row, I found Jim in the process of setting up his gear near the shop building. I set up my 18" Starmaster a bit further to the east, toward the end of the "rock wall" marking the southern edge of the road leading up to the FPOA observatory. Although my planned DSO targets for the night would be primarily toward the zenith and points further east, I also wanted to get as far east as I could - without Jim thinking I was deserting him <grin> - to try and catch sight of an early-evening comet or two to the far west. For those of you not familiar with the area, there's a large tree on the western edge of Ranger Row, near the ranger's residence, that can interfere with low western objects. If you're working the western sky from Fremont Peak, then nothing beats the view from the Peak's SW Lot or the "Great Square" area of western Coulter Row. Ranger Row is primarily known for its eastern and southern views, but you can also get great northern views if you set up along the eastern portion of the "residence/shop" area, just before the road starts heading uphill toward the observatory.

As soon as it became dark enough to do so, I went right after Comet C/2002 V1 (NEAT). Wouldn't you know it; ten-degrees up from the horizon, and right in the middle of that blasted tree! Well, let's just say it's a good thing it's winter. With the leaves off the tree, I could still make out the comet through the tree's branches, with the comet sporting an extremely bright nucleus and a beautiful tail. Jim took a look as well. I'd guesstimate the comet must be a 4th magnitude object. Probably very nice in binos!

Ranger C.L. came out to greet us, and I spent some time showing him a few items, to include the comet, the Trapezium and its E & F stars, the overall M42/43 complex, a split of Castor, M35, and both Saturn and Jupiter. Even though Jupiter was only 20-degrees above the horizon, there was still some detail visible in the equatorial belts, with one large barge clearly visible. The GRS was just rotating into view, but still very difficult to make out, so I didn't bother pointing it out to C.L. Saturn's rings were their usual breathtaking selves.

Once C.L. returned to his residence, I wanted to see if I could catch Comet 154P (Brewington). Too late! The comet, probably about 12th magnitude, was already behind that western tree, so I quickly put it out of my mind.

Around 9:10pm or so, Jim and I wandered up the hill toward the observatory to see if we could spot Canopus grazing the southern horizon. No dice. Maybe we were just a few minutes too late. I'll have to try again sometime.

I spent most of the night in Lynx and Leo. As pointed out by Jim, despite La Luna, 13.x- and 14.x-mag galaxies weren't much of a problem last night. Save for a few items with very low surface brightness, which I'll need to revisit, I was pretty successful chasing down many H2500 items. Using TheSky, I did run into a couple of object-position problems which, under no-Moon conditions, probably wouldn't have bothered me, but the Moon-based degradation in contrast had me chasing my tail a bit. Since contrast was pretty lousy, with one exception, I won't try to describe the galaxies I viewed last night. Many were just at the edge of detection for me, and very nondescript. I'm certain all of these objects would have been much better under darker skies. The one exception is NGC 2537, the Bear-Paw Galaxy, an easy hop from 4th-magnitude 31 Lynx. TheSky's Dreyer description is "Globular cluster, pretty bright, pretty large, round, well resolved, stars of magnitude 20." What? A Glob?! Is this just a mistake in the description-entry, or did our dear Mr. J.L.E. Dreyer have one too many pints at Armagh one night? <grin> To be fair, when I cranked up the magnification a bit, this small round galaxy did have an unusual appearance to it, with a bright spot on one edge (NW?) and an apparent darkening toward the middle. Must get it's name from a large-aperture image. Still, I'm curious about the reported Dreyer description. Anybody know?

Once Moonset occurred, contrast issues immediately vanished. On a scale of one to five, I'd rate the seeing a solid 4.5, which held steady through the night. Nice pinpoint stars all night long. Following Moonset, transparency was a solid five. I'd take breaks from galaxy hunting from time to time, checking up on three comets I'd recently viewed, i.e., C/2001 HT50 (LINEAR-NEAT) in Monoceros, C/2002 Y1 (Juels-Holvorcem) in Bootes and C/2001 RX14 (LINEAR) in Ursa Major, as well as trying to hunt down several more. C/2001 RX14 (LINEAR) is really in a fun position right now. Last night I identified five galaxies in the same eyepiece-field with the comet: NGC 4111, 4109, 4117, UGC 7089 and MCG7-25-19A (if that last designation in TheSky is correct). Once I backed out from the field, many more galaxies were immediately visible, although I didn't officially log any others.

Based upon positions plotted in TheSky, I unsuccessfully tried hunting down five comets: 155P/Shoemaker 3 (in Leo), 30P/Reinmuth 1 (in Leo), 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko (in Leo), C/2002 X1 [LINEAR] (in Cancer) and C/2000 SV74 [LINEAR] (in Bootes). By the way, this was after Moonset. Maybe I was just looking in the wrong place or just didn't concentrate enough. They all should have been visible ... I think. Don't think any were dimmer than about 14th-mag. Has anybody else tried to recently locate these specific comets? I only made a half-hearted attempt to go after C/2002 Q5 (LINEAR), low to the SE in Libra about 3:00am, so it doesn't count. <grin> Come New Moon, maybe I'll try it again.

My last view of the night, about 3:20am, was another attempt at the Double Quasar in Ursa Major. Well, the only reason I didn't rate the seeing a "five" last night was because I just *suspected* the QSO, believing I could see a stellar object pop in from time to time. Still, I can't convince myself I was truly seeing the object, so it's definitely a not-logged item. My batting average on this QSO is dropping fast, just one for four now. (Gonna find myself booted out of the majors pretty quickly! <grin>)

For those interested, the temperature hit 32F about 10:00pm, and hovered between 32F-35F for the rest of the night. Humidity stayed in the range of 41- to 43-percent, having peaked earlier in the evening at 46-percent. Cold and dry, but only my fingertips felt any discomfort.

Anyway, it was a very fun night at the Peak. I still have a ways to go in Leo, but I'm making excellent progress here. Despite the Moon, I finished up with my remaining H2500's in Lynx.