Pleasure at Plettstone

by Jim Ster

After getting skunked at RWBC the night before, Jane, Brian and I made the trek down to Michelle Stone's beautiful Plettestone estate located in the foothills east of Merced last Saturday afternoon. I arrived around 5:00pm and found 9 other serious astronomers in various stages of setup. The skies were not very clear at the time, but those that had been there before said that this was normal for the site and would probably clear up considerably later on.

Due to the surprisingly large group of people who had shown up, it took a few minutes for Brian and me to figure out the logistics of the area so he could set up his 30" and my newly acquired 22" Starmasters. Brian settled for a spot in the middle of the flat gravel driveway and I found a nice spot located just west of the permanent observatory structure in the grass. Jane had arrived a few hours earlier and was well into the final steps of the setup of her new 18" Starmaster, just to the north of my setup.

Jane and Brian were both very generous in providing me with the much needed assistance with setting up the 22" for the first time. After a little difficulty with batteries, Brian and I finally got the goto system running properly and successfully aligned it. From that point, the scope NEVER needed to be realigned. It stayed in perfect alignment the entire evening.

As this was my trial run with the 22", I decided not to make any specific plans for observing and simply based where I looked on what the sky looked like at that particular moment (or whatever lit my candle). As was predicted by the Plettestone Veterans, the thin high clouds started dissipating just before sundown.

My first object was M42 with a 31mm Nagler (74x). While the view of this object was certainly better a few months ago while it was higher in the sky, the transparency was pretty darn good and I was able to make out six stars in the trapezium along with a lot of beautiful colors. The variable seeing conditions at the time just wouldn't allow for any steady views, but when they popped in, they were fantastic. So I was off to a great start. I then used a 17mm Nagler (135 x) and confirmed that I was indeed seeing only six stars, but the thing that amazed me was that I was able to see a lot of the little stars dispersed throughout the nebula that I had first seen only weeks ago through Brian's 30". This 22" has an excellent mirror.:) I decided to push the power a little with a 9mm Nagler (255x), but the seeing just wouldn't support it.

I then took a peek at the Leo Triplet (M64, M65 and PGC34657) which was absolutely awesome. I could actually get all three in the field of view in my 22 Nagler (104x) and while the sky still wouldn't support higher powers, these low power views were really wonderful and gave me quite a bit of satisfaction.

As I was strictly into having fun this evening, I tried Jupiter for a moment while it was near zenith. After seeing a few moons, many colored bands and blowing away my night vision, I abandoned that obnoxiously bright object for much more subtle ones.

Mark and Rashad then stopped by for a moment and we decided to go over and see how Brian was doing with the 30". It was still early and the seeing wasn't up to snuff, but the transparency was definitely allowing for lots of things to be seen, although not with much detail. We figured this would be a chance for the 30" to show its stuff. We weren't disappointed. Brian swung the scope on over to M51 which was almost near zenith. It was rather incredible to watch the huge silent monster slewing quietly but quickly around from the Orion area of the sky to the Ursa Major area. I don't remember what eyepiece Brian was using at the time, but the view of M51 was spectacular. Even with the lousy seeing, you could clearly make out fantastic amounts of detail in the dust lanes, which seemed to wrap around several times. What really blew my socks off was how awesome its companion NGC5195 looked. The core was fairly well resolved and you could clearly see the dust lanes across the front of it. I can't wait to see this again when the conditions are better.

Brian then took a shot at the Double Quasar. With the seeing off a bit we didn't hold a lot of hope for this rare beauty, but low and behold, with a bit of patience at the eyepiece, it would pop in and out of view with remarkable amounts of separation. Chalk another one up for aperture. After staring at it for a few moments, it suddenly dawned on me that I was standing near the top of Brian's 10 ft ladder and when I looked around it was a long way down! I instinctively grabbed a little tighter on the ladder rung I was holding onto. Talk about nose bleed seats!

Back at the 22" I noticed that M57 was slowly climbing in the east and was hoping to get a glimpse of the central star. As it was still a bit too low, I took a swing over to the M97 the Owl Nebula. Wow. This is one of those objects that always seem to catch me by surprise with its detail. Those ghostly eyes were staring right at me. Beautiful.

It was also apparent about this time that the seeing was becoming much better. In the past hour or so, certain areas of the sky had become absolutely pitch black and the moisture seemed to move down towards the southern horizon (which actually caused the light dome from Fresno to be accentuated more than it normally should have been). That turned out to be the biggest disappointment of the evening because I was hoping to get some views of a few Messier's in Scorpius and possibly Sagittarius if I could last long enough.

Then it was off to one of my all time favorites, M81 & M82. NO disappointment here. M81 was incredibly bright and the disturbed area of M82 looked like it had been sideswiped by a semi truck. Incredible amounts of structural detail could be seen in both.

Brian came over and we swung over to NGC4039 & 4038, the Antenna galaxies. These two objects arraigned in a "V" shape looked very feathery in appearance. Quite easily the best view I've had of them to date. Jane came over and noted similar details in the structures. Shortly after that, Brian wasn't feeling too good due to allergies and whatnot, and decided to take a short nap to see if that would help. Unfortunately for him, this period between 11:00pm and 1:00am turned out to be the best time for observing this evening.

Since the seeing had settled down a bit, I decided to revisit M51 again to see how the view compared to what I'd seen in the 30" earlier. Again, no disappointment here. The seeing was now up to 7 out of 10 and I was getting very similar results to what the 30 was getting earlier on. Vast amounts of detail and maybe even a little more than I saw earlier. This is what I'd been dreaming of with my 12" SCT for years. The Whirlpool looking just like the pictures I'd seen of it. The spiral arms seemed to wind endlessly around the core and the details in NGC5195 were riveting.

Energized by the improved seeing (and the Rock Star energy drink I just slammed down), I headed immediately to Hercules for a shot of M13. I wanted my first view of it through the 22" to be a memorable one and I was not disappointed. Thousands of pinpoints of light and resolution like I've never seen before. Rather than a mush of white, the core had a grainy appearance which looked like a pile of sugar in the sky. Sa-weet. This object holds a dear place in my heart as it was the object that I used for first light in my 12" LX-200 a few years back. This is definitely one that I'll have to show Mags the next time we go out. Aperture rules!

M57 was still fairly low in the east, but I figured I should check it out while the conditions seemed good. While it looked good, I unfortunately could not resolve the central star and after 10 minutes of staring at it using averted vision, I gave up on it for the night.

Jane was working hard on nailing down Hickson 50, but the seeing just wouldn't cooperate for her. We even tried to find it in the 22", but to no avail. The good seeing was short lived and was definitely heading downhill again. It was just after 1:00am and I decided to take a break while Jane surfed around in search of her Hickson in the 22". The evening had gone much better than I had imagined it would and I was sitting there mesmerized by all of the fun I was having this evening. There's nothing like a new scope to pump you up.

After Jane gave up on Hickson 50, I headed over to the Scorpius area to see what the conditions were like. I attempted to split Antares, but other than a green flare off to one side once in a while, I could not get close to doing it. I then disengaged the drives on the scope and did some surfing, but the seeing was going away real fast. The south seemed to have the most problem and you could actually see a band of moisture which hung over the Fresno area and caused a lot of light to be scattered around. I then went back to M57 for one last try for a central star, but it was hopeless.

It was now around 2:30am and it was about this same time that Jane and I noticed that everyone else was crashed. As soon as I realized how late it was, this feeling of great satisfaction came over me and I knew I had another great night in the books to look back on.

I'd like to say a big thanks to Michelle Stone for her generous hospitality and I highly recommend a trip to Plettestone to anyone who enjoys good company and skies. Plettestone is definitely a very good winter observing site, probably slightly better skies than Fiddletown on average, IMHO. I'll definitely be back.