First Light at Plettstone

by Rashad Al-Mansour

After waiting for what seamed a lifetime, my new 16" Night Sky Truss Tube Dobsonian arrived late Friday afternoon. I got it home, set it up and was pleased to find how easy it was to assemble and how good it looked. The Night Sky scopes are designed very much like the Starmaster Telescopes and go together in much the same way.

In preparation for the receipt of this scope and to keep for going crazy from the long wait, I had purchased a number of new items that I hope would add to the joy of using the 16"er. Among them, a Johnsoian Equatorial Platform, Telvue Parracor, 35mm Panoptic and Meade 24mm Super Wide eyepieces.

With much anticipation I packed up the van and hit the road. I was on my way to spend what I hoped would be a great night at Michelle's Stones Astronomy Preserve near Mariposa. The drive was easy and relaxed and the sky above me was clear. As I headed east out of Merced toward Michelle's place I could see the snow covered peaks of the Sierra Nevada Mountains in the distance.

I arrived at Plettstone and was greeted warmly by our hosts, Paul and Michelle. Guillermo Ortiz was already there and Richard Naverette and Mark Wagner soon joined us.

I got busy setting up my equipment and then began the long wait for nightfall.

As darkness fell the first thing I wanted to do was to check the optics of the new scope. I centered Arcturus in the Telrad and looked through the eyepiece. Instead of seeing a pinpoint star I saw a fat bright planetary nebula. The seeing conditions were not nearly as good as I had hoped. I mentioned this to Guillermo and he looked through his 18" Obsession and said he was seeing pinpoint stars! Panicked, I ran to his scope, look through the eyepiece and saw the same fat stars I was seeing through my scope! I turn to Guillermo and saw a broad joking smile on his face. I was certainly relieved to find that my optics were not a load of you know what! The seeing did not improve that much throughout the night but the transparency was fantastic.

First light

In planning my observing session for this night my first target was to be Copeland's Septet. When I viewed this object through my pervious 12.5" Truss scope, it appeared as one irregular shaped object, just barely visible. In the 16"er the view was very nice. I was seeing three distinct smudges. NGC 3748, 3745 and 3746 formed one smudge, a brighter smudge was made up of NGC 3754, 3753 and 3750. NGC 3751 was a very dim smudge that I almost missed but pop out as I slightly bumped the scope.

With the Parracor in place, using the 35mm Pano, 24mm Super Wide and my favorite eyepiece, the Meade 14mm Ultra Wide, I moved to the galaxy rich region in the constellation Virgo. Here there was no plan. I just spent about a half hour or more cursing the area around Markarian's Chain. In an area bounded by M85, NGC 3968, M49, and NGC 4762 you will find a wealth of galaxies. I would think that this area of sky really frustrated the Comet hunter, Messier, but it is certainly a joy for the modern astronomer. Everywhere I swung the scope the view was filled to the edge with what the 18th century astronomers call "trivial nondescript nebulae."

A word about the Parracor. For a long time I wondered if I really need to spend the money on this devise. They are expensive and they add weight to the upper end of the scope, which can create balance issues. But Three Dob Bob swears by it, saying he would never use a fast Dob without one in place!

For me, what I thought was an esthetic issue turns out to be much more than that. When I had my 12.5" f/4.8 scope I would away notice that the stars at the edge of the FOV were shaped like seagulls or brightly flared comets, and the flare of dim stars would fool me in to thinking they were that faint galaxy I was hunting, that is until I centered the object only to find out it was just another star! Since my new scope was to be even faster that than Blondie I decided to take the plunge. I found a very good deal on Astromart for the Parracor form a local observer in the east bay who was getting rid of his large Dob and some the stuff he used with it. The Tunable Top Parracor was one of these items.

While observing last night in Virgo Cluster with the Parracor in place and using the 24mm EP I centered M59 in my FOV with two galaxies, NGC 4607 & 4606 clearly visible on the edge of the field. I removed the Parracor replaced the EP in the Feathertouch Focuser and the stars turned to seagulls and the galaxies almost disappeared! It finally dawned on me that if the light from the stars are flared and distorted the same would be true for the light given off by galaxies and their faintness would make them even harder to detect. There is no question now, my Parracor has a permanent home!

The difference in the brightness on DSO's between my 12.5" and the new scope is significant and just what I was hoping for. I moved the scope to M51 and the view was almost photographic! Four bright spiral arms with dark lanes between were immediately visible and as I continued to gaze some of the fainter arms became visible. The bridge to NGC 5195 looked solid enough to walk on.

I looked east and could see the Summer Triangle was up and M57 was well placed. It to, showed more structure than I was used to, and I think I may be able to pull out the central star under very good seeing conditions. I'll be trying that at SSP. As I have mentioned before, I love having tracking ability in my scopes, which was the reason I purchased the Johnsonian EQ Platform. This thing worked great right out of the box. I was worried about it because there had been reports of people seeing vibrations at the eyepiece at high power. I was glad to see that my example was free of any vibration, at least not with the 6.7mm Meade UWA,

The tracking really came in handy while trying to spot the little 14.8 mag. IC galaxy 1296 just 4 min. away from M57. I could just make it out, resting just above a shallow arch of dim stars. The galaxy itself looked stellar but with averted vision I could just see a very dim halo. Richard had M57 in his 18" scope as well, I took a look and 1296 was brighter by a hair than in my scope and you could hold it with direct vision a little longer.

Time was flying by it was about 2:45am and I felt like I was just getting started! I had a nice time revisiting some old friends like M4, M8, M11, M22, M20 and especially M13. Using my 14mm Meade UWA eyepiece M13 filled the FOV with wealth of stars! I just wished that the seeing had been better.

I also had "Old School" my 4" Televue APO with me. I used the 35mm Pano to sweep through the Milky Way. The Sagittarius Star Cloud was stunning. This combination gives me a field of view that is about 4.9 degrees wide! I had a gorgeous view of M21, M20, NGC 6526, M8, NGC 6544 and NGC 6553 all in the same field! I will enjoy using this combo while up at SSP.

It was getting close to 4:00am, I finally gave in to fatigue and broke down most of my equipment even though Mars, now riding fairly high in the southern sky, was beckoning. I went to turn in for a few hours sleep before heading back home. I dozed off with the 16"er on my mind, thinking how nice it was going to be to finally have a "Big Dog" of my own to play with.