Plenty at Plettstone: Spring In My Step

by Mark Wagner

Spring has returned to Plettstone Astronomy Preserve.

Spring grasses and wildflowers form a vivid carpet over the landscape in the Sierra foothils.

Spring has returned to the skies too.

Galaxies carpet the night.

On my drive through the central valley, my thoughts were already getting into the spirit, with astronomical equivalents coming to mind for much of the scenery. Passing over the big irrigation canals around Los Banos, I thought how soon Eridanus would leave. Spring was here. Pulling into Merced, a billboard selling bulls (we not in Kansas any more, Toto!) reminded me of Taurus - another icon of winter, leaving. Spring is here.

Soon, the Hunter and his dogs will head for the hills too. The circle continues.

Replacing these constellations are the fields of galaxies in Leo, Canes Venatici, Coma Berenices, Bootes, Ursa Major, and of course, the personification of spring's renewal and youth - the virgin Virgo, holding the sing of bounty - Spica - the ear of wheat.

I would spend the evening deep in Virgo - enjoying the spring flowers.

The mere thought put Spring in my step.

Arriving at the observing site, I found several friends already there. I quickly found a spot to set up and got right into the spirit. Pop went the Fosters. I relaxed for a few hours, sipping the ice cold brew, and visiting with the gang. Richard, Marsha, Rich, Rashad, Albert, Guillermo, Michelle, and soon followed by Brian, Jim and Jane. The skies were typical of afternoon - some cloud buildup - which seems to always dissipate after sundown. Temps were gorgeous. Michelle's property alive with grasses, birds and wildflowers. What a place!

After getting everything in its place, five of us piled into Rich's truck and booked it down into Miraposa for pizza and drinks. Good old "We Toss 'Em, They're Awesone" lived up to its motto. By the time we finished, clouds had cleared and dusk was well under way. 11 miles later we were all getting into warmer clothes and doing final collimation checks.

I have to admit to not doing much in the way of serious observing for the first couple hours. My real targets were not high enough yet, and there were people I hadn't spent time with in months.

Once the skies darkened Jim, Jane and I did a star count in Finnish Triangle 11 - I had 52 stars, Jim and Jane somewhere in the 40's. That put the limiting mag at between 6.9 and 7.0.

That's all I needed to know - Virgo was now beckoning.

I looked up the first NGC number and pointed the scope. I looked at the chart again, and pointed the scope, again. Once more I looked at the chart and repointed the scope. Nothing there. What was this?

I was having trouble. I made the terrible mistake of persisting on an object that was stumping me. Maybe it was just not a good sky at the time, but when Rashad walked up and asked how I was doing, I decided to let him try. As he was getting to the correct area, he mentioned the 30" StarMaster was sitting idle. I guess Brian was hanging out with Jim, but the thought of all that aperture doing nothing made me say to Rashad "let's go get some views through that thing!"

So, over we went, and sure enough, the scope was lonely.

I found Brian and asked if he'd put the 30 on something. He felt the skies were not very good at the time, and was reluctant. But I was persistent and soon had him getting M51. The skies were indeed poor at the moment, lacking in contrast, but even so, 30" of M51 showed far more detail than I usually see. The arms were much more well defined than what I usually found - what a wrap-around! But, the bridge - and over to NGC 5195 - where the dark lane cuts across it, was so sharp and distinct that it made the view one of the better one's I've ever had.

Brian then slewed over to the Double Quasar ( in Ursa Major. I had heard of this object, but never tried to observe it. Brian and Jim described the field and what to look for. I found three brighter stars in the field in an arc and followed past the arc, until I saw, barely, what could be taken for a very dim planetary nebula. With averted vision, then eventually direct vision, I was able to increasingly then surely hold the object - it was a slightly elongated galaxy. Again Jim and Brian described what to look for and, suddenly, a star popped out in the galaxy - distinctly - and vanished. Almost immediately after the first star vanished another, also in the galaxy, but slightly dimmer, also popped in, then out. I had seen it! Two views of the same quasar - light from billions of years ago - bent - warped - around the mass of a galaxy - into my eye. The more I looked, the steadier it became. Soon we had high magnification on the object and the "two" stars were easy to hold. Based on what it is, I have to list this as one of the real thrills I've had in amateur astronomy.

I thanked Brian and walked away, satisfied with my views through his telescope, and over toward my tiny 18" Obsession.

Over the next several hours I skipped through the galaxy fields. I had about 100 targets in Virgo remaining on my Herschel 2500 survey. I ended up with something just over 50 objects knocked down. I think that puts me somewhere around 350 remaining on the big list. This is such a tough time of year because of the weather.

The evening was over for me about 2 a.m. (I was totally wiped out) and I reflected on the experience. Dinner in town with friends. The great views through the big scope. My early frustration giving way to a heck of a good night, the sounds of friends sharing views and joking with each other.

I woke the next morning to find several of the crew already gone. It wasn't even 8 a.m. How do people do that?

I packed up my scope and started the truck. Rich, Marsha and I went into town for a quick cup of coffee and breakfast. It was really a good way to end the trip... reminding me of the old times in the spring of my observing - when everything was new - when our group of friends would be up all night at Fremont Peak - and finish with chorizo and beers at Dona Ester's for breakfast in San Juan Bautista.

I can't wait until next new moon, to walk though the wildflowers of Virgo again. It feels to me like spring is back, and it lives at Plettstone.