New Moon at Plettstone

by Rashad Al-Mansour

I took advantage of the New Moon weekend and drove out to the Sierra foothills to enjoy the dark skies at the Plettstone Observatory. I arrived in the late afternoon to find that Phil Terzian and Albert Highe were already relaxing and enjoying a conversation with our host Michelle Stone.

I had time to grab a cold one before I set up the two telescopes I brought with me for the weekend. Since my 16" Tuss has yet to arrive I was using my 4" APO and 8" SCT, Old School and Tobor the Great respectively. My good friend that I'd not seen in a while, Guillermo, soon joined me.

Dare I say it? Friday night was dedicated to learning the fundamentals of CCD photography. Whaaat? With the help of Phil T. I was off to a whole new world of frustration!

CCD imaging is not for the faint of heart. I managed to get two images. One of M51 the other shot was of M1, and no! There will not be a link to those images! I use the term images in the loosest possibly way.J My mantra throughout the night was, "Oh Sh*t!" But at least now I have some understanding of the process, and with a lot of practice and patience I should have an image I would be proud to show in about two years!

Morning dawned, and after having a fabulous breakfast Phil showed me how to begin the task of processing the pics I had captured the night before with my AstroArt software. And just like the night before my famous mantra could be heard throughout the house.

I started observing Saturday afternoon, I was using Old School with a Solar filter and Bino viewers to view our closest Star. While I was observing Richard, Mark, Rich and Marsha arrived.

Earlier in the week I took a peak at the Sun and was surprised to see not one spot on the solar surface. That was certainly not the case on Saturday. When I looked through the scope I was blown away by the view! I counted over 30 Sun spots! It was the most activity I had ever seen on old Sol. The patterns these spots took on were also every interesting. Albert pointed out that one group looked like an aerial view of the Hawaii Island chain another grouping of spots looked like an enormous shoe print while a third had the appearance of a gigantic three leaf clover. I spent about 4 hours watching these patterns change over time. It was quite a show! And everyone who had a chance to see this solar spectacle was blown away by the shear number and patterns presented.

A little later we were join by a few SAC TAC'os, and we all gladly welcomed Jane, Jim and Brian. Jim and Jane were into their set up routine when Brian pulled in. And when he started to set up his scope I was floored! Out of the back of this giant SUV he pulled out the biggest rocker box I had ever seen! I looked at it in amazement and said, "Brian, Michelle has a hot tub out back, you didn't have to bring your own!" Brian's scope is a 30" Starmaster GOTO and the views through it later that night were well worth the climb up his 12" ladder! A scope that big has got to have tracking capability, for without it, by the time you climb to the top to take a peek the object would no longer be in the field of view!

The views through this monster were some of the best I've ever had. M51 was to die for! We were seeing structure in the companion galaxy! I certainly want to spend some time with that scope while we are at Shingletown later this year.

I spent the rest of the night using the 8" SCT to cruise around in Virgo and Coma. Even in an 8" scope one can get an eyepiece full of galaxies in this part of the sky. I can't wait for my 16"er to get here! That should bring on about 6 more weeks for rain.

Thanks Michelle, we all had a great time.