Lick Observatory, Friday August 8-9, 2003

by Mark Wagner

Last night I was fortunate enough to find myself unexpectedly at Lick Observatory on Mt. Hamilton for the Summer Visitors Program. I saw many familiar faces - among them James Turley, Rich Neuschaefer, Paul Mortfield, Alan Adler and Jeff Crilly..

I have to mention Jay "Count Dracula" Freeman - with his nice brass 80mm refractor. Jay is always entertaining, and had the longest lines of summer visitors waiting to view through his small telescope.

Must have been the blood color of the planet, and Jay's cape, that was the big draw.

Before dark, in fact, before sunset the moon was a washed out but interesting target. Early arrivals were enjoying views through my 10" f/5.7 CPT, which I had tracking on an Equatorial Platform. This combination of telescope and platform performed wonderfully during the evening.

We were set up behind the hallway leading from the central corridor in the main building to the 36" Clark refractor. You could look out over the valley to the east and see the mountain's shadow cast onto the more eastern slopes. Some folks who were looking sooner than I could see the shadows of the domes on the far hillsides.

As sunset approached the sky colors to the east took on tones of amber, turquoise and deepening purple. The edge of night was easy to discern as it climbed higher in the sky. As this was occurring I walked around the building to see the sunset. A low layer of fog butted up and slightly crested the peaks to the west, and the sun sat atop this, orange and flattening, to the northwest. The bay was very evident as were the wetlands at the south end of the bay. Light glistened off the wetlands - shimmering bright. The sky took on a yellow-orange-green neon hue as the sun dropped. Some think they saw a green flash, but if there was one, it was not the "strobe" described to me at Fremont Peak a few weeks back. 10 years of astronomy and I am still waiting for a "real" green flash.

After a quick dinner the sky darkened sufficiently to pick out the Double Double off of Vega. The public was quite fascinated by the view of this pair of binaries. They split quite nicely, when the seeing steadied, even at 207X. I moved next to Alberio, also at 207X, and found again that asking people who looked to describe the colors in the pair resulted in a wide range of answers. I think the most unusual was green and purple.

Once the sky darkened more I moved to M5. The globular broke up very nicely into pinpoints at 95X, although washed out by the brightness of the moon. I stayed on M5 until it was down close to the roof of the building just north of the 36" dome. I then moved to M13, which put on a nice show for much of the rest of the evening, until the "star" of the night was in position to be worth viewing.

Mars continued to improve to the point that I was finally using a Takahashi LE 5mm with the Tele Vue 2X Big Barlow, increasing the magnification to 579X. The planet was holding up nicely, even at that high mag, although seeing was still a bit spotty. But when the image snapped in, it was a great view. I also learned that the seeing we experienced at Fremont Peak on July 26th was shared by observers all over the bay area. Last night's seeing was not nearly as steady, but still, in those moments of "still" the view was marvelous.

During the later part of the evening, once the Summer Visitors were dwindling down to a small handful, a few of us went in to look at M92 in the big refractor. Overmagnified and swimming, I looked briefly and went back out to my telescope. Later, we were offered an opportunity to view another interesting object, so a few of us "hustled" back to the scope.

While waiting in line, standing on the floor to the north of the telescope, I was able to look around and just take in the whole scene. It was more than just a visual experience. The aroma of, well, I almost want to call it "history" permeated the place. It was actually the smell of the wood floors, the metal of the big scope, and probably grease in the gears. But the view of the dimly lit dome interior, the elevating floor of inlaid woods, the slit revealing a starlit sky set off by the sharp edges of the dome opening, the long tube of the 36" rising from just to my right where the eyepiece was --- up, up, up and appearing to breach the dome, which of course it didn't, all this was a view, a visceral experience that oozed into me through all my senses. Just off the tip of the scope, set against that starry background, was the object we'd view - sitting still and bright, and red-orange.

Like smelling the wine before sipping, anticipating a fine dining experience in the finest and perhaps most exotic of locations, Mars waited. What a place to be, with the planet so big and bright, so close that we'd joked with the public that if the "Martians" were to launch an invasion, this would be the month to do so. I climbed the few steps up to the eyepiece and looked in.

Bright light. White/yellow bright light.

It reminded me of a time years ago when I took my first look at Jupiter through the 36". It was overwhelming.

So there I stood, wanting the detail, but literally blinded by the light.

Then my eye began acclimating, and the south polar cap came into view. Shortly the color of the planet changed to a white-orange and dark markings started to reveal themselves. A few more moments and the entire planet was in clear view, good detail, but somewhat soft. Honestly, the views through my 10" CPT, Rich's 180mm AP and Alan's 8" equatorial mounted Newtonian were sharper.

But none carried the feeling I got standing at the eyepiece, in that dome that was saturated with history's smells, and the thoughts of Keeler, Barnard and other famous pioneers of astronomy standing where I was, looking through the same enormous instrument.

Back outside, the pubic was gone. It was just a few of us, Mars, and the seemingly ancient dome rising up just south of our telescopes. To our north a beam of light was piercing the sky. It was one of the new tools, something Barnard and Keeler never dreamed of, slicing through the night from the big slit of the 120" dome - a bright amber yellow laser shining into the upper atmosphere, providing a false star for computers to view, and average out the atmospheric instability that played with the views at the 36, and in our own telescopes. It was a trip from the early days of the observatory, inside that 36" dome, to the latest methods - shining into the heavens with laser precision and utility. It is amazing, looking at the dome and seeing "1888" cut into the facade, then looking at that beam of light helping make today's ground-based astronomy so much better.

I could not have had a better time.

I was back home and in bed by 4:45 a.m.

But, before I walked in my front door, I looked high to the south to the big planet, remembering the wonderful night with the public looking through my telescope, and the feeling I took home with me after viewing Mars while immersed in the history of that big dome and famous instrument.