Using NSC's at Fremont Peak

by Mark Wagner

Late Saturday afternoon I asked my 15 year old daughter Mimi if she'd like to accompany me to Fremont Peak for the evening. A few astronomy friends had indicated their interest in getting "away" from the crowds to one of the local observing sites. I had originally planned to visit Michelle Stone near Mariposa, but work commitments would not allow that far of a drive. So, after consulting the clear sky clocks, it looked like the Peak was the best choice.

Mimi had grown up observing at Fremont Peak. As a five year old she'd sit on my lap where I could easily show her the constellations, while our friends were busy looking through their telescopes all around us in the southwest lot. Going twice a month for years manifested in Mimi becoming a proficient star-hopper, and by age 10 was "burning up the sky" with her own 10" Dob, and became known as the Messier Monster.

Over the years friends in TAC moved from Fremont Peak to discover other observing sites, and the old days of 30+ telescopes and owners "partying" in the southwest lot faded to occasional visits and fond memories. I have been to the southwest lot perhaps twice now this year, up by the ranger's house once. A far cry from the twice or more visits each month for many years. As you might imagine, for a child growing up learning to love observing, the place holds special memories for Mimi and me. On the drive up yesterday at sunset she wistfully speculated that should the park ever close, she'd like to have enough money to buy the land and turn it into a privately run astronomy park for everyone to enjoy. It is her love for the place that makes me take her back every now and then.

We arrived to find the parking lot full of cars. Turns out they were there for the observatory program. It is nice to see so many visitors in the park, and such attendance for the FPOA programs. But it did result in a small parking crises. All the cars were around the perimeter of the lot, so I parked in the middle, as was customary all those years ago when amateur astronomers would pack the place.

Mimi wanted to hike the Peak. It was already dark, perhaps 8:30 p.m. or so. But we took off anyway. The road was easy to follow, but the path at the top was more difficult to discern, illuminated only by the glow of the Milky Way and hundreds of stars overhead. At the top, Mimi and I scrambled up the rocks and sat next to the flagpole. Down below us the cities glowed like galaxies, some big, some small, some round, others with ragged edges. Lots of dark between them. I could look out to the south of Salinas to the back side of Laurentes Grade Road, where it goes over the ridge to drop down into Carmel Valley, where I almost bought a home three years ago. Down the valley from Salinas the glow of King City, or Soledad, or Gonzales... leading down to Lake San Antonio where we'll be later this week. It is amazing to sit up top of the Peak on at night, warm breezes coming upslope - and look at the views overhead and at our feet.

The walk down was quicker, and before long we had the 10" f/5.7 CPT set up. We looked over Mimi's Herschel 400 list, and again found that all she had left were the winter and early spring objects. That sure sounds familiar!

I had printed out a list of targets, Herschel 400, red stars and doubles that would be up. I had them sorted by R.A. from north to south. I asked Mimi if she'd like to try the list, and I could just peek in the scope to see what she'd find. This suited her, so off she went, using the 10", Tirion Sky Atlas 2000, Uranometria 2000 and the Telrad. I don't think Mimi has observed much using paper charts, having grown up using The Sky on a laptop instead. So, this would be a different experience, more of a challenge.

She began with UX Draconis, which was a very red star. It did not show on the SA2000, and the RA and Dec must have been a different epoch than the U2000, but she found it anyway. She was pleased, it had been a long time since she'd done this.

On next to NGC 40, which is a fine planetary nebula with a bright central star in Cepheus. She worked for this one. I ended up Barlowing it up to over 400X, and noting that the disk seemed to be irregular, with some darkening inside that made me think it was annular.

The weather was t-shirt temps until late, when I put on a light sweater. Could not have been nicer.

During the evening Mimi ran through about 24 objects. Since the list was in descending RA, she spent the night looking north into Cepheus and Cassiopeia. That means open clusters. Several of them were dim groups of stars overlaying a frosty appearance - even dimmer stars in the clusters. I thoroughly enjoyed coming over to verify her finds. The hazy background in the clusters gave them away.

My favorite views were of multiple open clusters in the same field or close by. NGC 7142 shared the field with 7133 and 7129. NGC 637 seemed to have some nebulosity. NGC 654 formed a gentle arc with NGC's 663, 659 and 581. Little visited jewels encrusted in the Queen's chair.

Later during the night Mimi moved on to NGC 6934, an obvious large open cluster that has a sharp edge to it. I knew this one, and suggested to her she can around for a big face-on galaxy, NGC 6946. Several other observers came by for this view. The galaxy was obvious to me, but several people were unfamiliar with it and I needed to center the galaxy so they could see it, then move the open cluster back into view so they could enjoy the two objects in the same field.

Mimi's last open cluster was NGC 457, the "ET Cluster"... this was easily the showpiece of the evening. After looking at the dim open's, ET was brilliant.

Mimi finished on Mu Cephei, the Garnet Star. I was very red, but more blood colored than the star she'd begun the evening on, UX Draconis.

I knew there was another pretty view just off Mu, and nudged the scope over to Struve 2816, in the heart of IC1396. The star is a triple, with the brightest component a yellow-gold star flanked by two dimmer blue stars. We finished with that wonderful view.

Mimi had gone back to the Peak, and again was observing in her old form.

I had great fun just seeing her enjoying observing again. I didn't have to find a thing.... Mimi was my neural setting circle, my NSCs. I just looked.

We'll both be at CalStar in a few days. See you then.

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