Fun Night at the Peak

by Peter McKone

The transmitter tower was buried in clouds as I headed up the hill from San Juan Bautista at 4 pm. on Saturday afternoon. What a nice surprise to find nothing but blue sky at the top! Loren Dynneson was doing touch-up work after replacing the shutters on the south side of the Observatory with a garage door-like mechanism, which opens in just seconds. Ron Dammann suggested setting up the Observatory's TeleView solar scope. That image on the TAC webpage of the Earth superimposed on a picture of the Sun, looking like a pea sitting on top of a beach ball, gives a new appreciation for the size of those solar prominences. And what a bonus for the campers, who on that day got to see something besides ground squirrels and alligator lizards!

Some time later Mark Levine, Paul Bradshaw, and Al Quon arrived to help with the public program. At 6 pm. bands of thin clouds covered the southern sky, and then departed just as quickly. This was the pattern all night long. By 7 pm, clouds covered the valley, snuffing out all light from below. Wisps of fog arose from the canyon in the south, flirting with the Ranger's house. At least a dozen campers showed up for the public program. I expected them to be disappointed that the telescope wouldn't be operating due to the fog that had now worked its way up to the Observatory. I certainly was. Pat Donnelly gave a nice slide presentation with correct-scale images of various Solar System objects. I was surprised to SEE that the rings of Saturn span most of the distance between the Earth and the Moon. When he showed a picture of M57 I said, "Whoa, what happened to Saturn?!" I've been saving this line for a star party, but this seemed like a good opportunity.

After the lecture, Ron announced that parts of the sky were clear, and we all stepped into the observatory room to get nice views of Jupiter through the 30" Challenger Telescope and the attached 5" refractor. After each of the campers had climbed the ladder at least once, one of them asked, "Where is the bathroom?", and they departed en masse, leaving the Telescope in that hands of the volunteers. Who knew that this could happen?! I may start serving coffee during the lectures!

Targets were chosen based on cloud patterns, and Leo was in the clear. We started with M65 and 66 and their larger visual companion NGC 3628. How did Messier miss this?! I can't say that these objects were different in the big telescope, especially since our eyes weren't dark adapted yet, but I definitely saw more detail. Clouds moved into Leo, but Leo Minor was clear, and we targeted the galaxy NGC 3432. My notes after viewing this object in my 15" say, "3 stars in FOV". It made a bigger impression this time. I saw detail that isn't evident even in the DSS image that comes with TheSky. From here we dropped down to NGC 3395 and 3396. These two smallish elongated galaxies appear to be joined end-to-end to form an 'L' with a 100 degree angle. Jumping again to stay ahead of the clouds, we moved to M51. Who could argue with that choice?! Again I didn't see anything that wasn't visible in my own telescope, but everything was brighter. Averted vision is not needed to see details in the spiral structure. I was apprehensive about looking at M13, having left my sunglasses in the car. We moved to M57 and I was starting to feel like a kid in a candy store. I wondered if I could see the central star, and at 400x I suspected it a couple times, but that was all. There was a patch of clear sky above Corvus, and I wanted to see what details the big telescope would reveal in M104. It was hard to leave the eyepiece. I hope no one minded!

At midnight, with high clouds now covering most of the sky, we packed up to leave. Despite a whole night of intermittent clouds, I never did see any dew. As you might expect, by 12:30 the sky was clear yet again. A fox trotted across the road on the drive down the hill, and later I caught a glimpse of white animal that may have been nothing more than a house cat. With the aid of a Starbucks dairy product, I stayed awake all the way home to Redwood City. A very pleasant night with good company.