Stars on Oscar night

by Jane Houston Jones

We arrived at Lake Sonoma at dusk Sunday 3/23 and found both Lone Rock Flat and Grey Pine flat barricaded with a locked cable. So we came down the hill about 500 feet to the next good parking area above the marina. It's called Little Flat. Just past this parking area a curve in the road leads down to the marina, with a bright street light to show the way. This light illuminated the hillside on the other side of the road, creating a annoying light dome towards the SW, but we just aimed elsewhere.

We set up two telescopes, 14.5-inch f/4.8 and 17.5 17.5 f/4.5 reflectors and waited for dark while munching some Trader Joes tortellini with aspragus and sipping some "Two Buck Chuck" Charles Shaw 2000 Merlot. Wine review and urban legends refuted here:

I wanted to see how difficult the first couple Messier objects on Don Machholz's Marathon Observers Guide would be to find. At 7:30, after about 10 minutes of trying and about a half hour past the end of civil twilight at 6:53 p.m. I confirmed mag 9.5 M74 10 degrees above the horizon. I sketched the field of view in my 16 Nagler to make it easier to (hopefully) verify again on marathon night. A pair of mag 10 stars fit in the eyepiece view along with a few others, which will help with the confirmation. If you can spot mag 3.8 Eta Piscium near the horizon, (which I could with averted vision), you should be able to spot M74. North of Eta Pi, alpha (mag 2.01), beta (mag 2.64) and the great double gamma Arietis (mag 3.88) were all easier to see. I use these for my M74 starhop.

At 7:48 p.m. I spotted mag 8.9 M77 - which was alot easier to find. M33, 31, 32 and 110 were all easier still, and by 8:00 p.m. I was done with my mini-marathon, and continued my current ongoing project of observing various galaxy groups and galaxy clusters, and Mojo continued his Herschel 400 project, which included the open clusters in Monoceros.

DateMarch 23, 2003
LocationLittle Flat, Lake Sonoma, California 38 42' 90" N , 123 02' 43.7"
Altitude200 ft.
Instrument17.5-inch f/4.5 Litebox reflector
Oculars9 and 16mm Nagler type 2
Seeingsteady but not excellent
TransparencyLM 6.5 using LM Area 4 Alpha-Epsilon-Beta Gem, 16 stars

Note: I called the Army Corps of Engineers ranger office the next working day and talked to the ranger in charge of special events about the locked gates. The locked gates were on the last night of the "winter ranger hours", when the lock up at 6:00 p.m.. We had arrived about 15 minutes later. As of this week, the rangers work later hours (all night in the case of the special event Ranger Steve) and the gate to Lone Rock Flat, the highest and biggest of the pull-off areas at Lake Sonoma won't be closed until 8:00 p.m.unless astronomers are already there.

The ranger staff has a new moon weekend schedule and they like astronomers to be there. If you plan to arrive before sunset, you shouldn't encounter any locked gates. If you go up on a non-new moon night like we did Sunday night 3/23, it's best to call ahead - a few days ahead is preferred by the rangers, or just be sure to arrive before sunset.