Comet night at Houge Park

Mark Wagner

It was a public night at Houge Park, and the star of the show was Comet 17P / Holmes....

I arrived early and joined some of the SJAA board members in the meeting hall. They were dealing with special club business, which I sat in on until I lost interest. I went out in the dimming light to set up my 10" f/5.7 CPT. I had mistakenly left my Cheshire at home, but that provided another opportunity to see how the CPT held collimation after being collapsed for transportation and set up again. In the western glow Jupiter appeared, allowing alignment of my finders. Although somewhat swimmy at low power and low in the sky, the planet's disk was clear and fairly crisp. Glancing at it without paying much attention, three of its moon were obvious, with one of them out of line with the other two.

I looked around and saw Vega up high. Once it was in the finder I moved to Epsilon Lyrae - also easily visible in the finder. Both components wer just split with my 19 Panoptic. With the 7 Nagler the separation between the nearly perpendicular pairs of stars was great. There was a bit of atmospheric scintillation, but the saying "you could drive a truck between them" applied. The scope passed the collimation test :-)

I began looking to the east and picked out Cassiopeia, allowing a quick hop to Mirfak. Even before dark I could see the comet. I hadn't seen it since early in the week and indeed the size of the coma had grown tremendously. In the Panoptic, it filled a huge portion of the field of view. To my eye, it really hadn't dimmed much, even given the expansion of the coma. What really surprised me was how a once tiny 17th magnitude ball of ice was now an obviously fuzzy star to the unaided eye.

Once it was dark, the public began to arrive. I was a bit surprised that more telescopes were not there, my guess is maybe eight, maybe a few more. But from the TAC list several familiar names were present. Rob Hawley, running the event for the SJAA, Rich Neuschaefer was also officially representing the club. Dan Wright, with his SCT and binoviewers. Great as always to see Phil Chambers - the comet views through his 12X IS binocular was amazing - I actually think the comet is now best as a binocular object. It was also my first opportunity to meet the effervescent Greg "Mr. Margarita" Claytor too. Greg, keep that blender in your car! I also thought I saw JVN's van arrive, but I didn't see him...

During the evening I tried observing several deep sky targets. On another forum I was asked about NGC 404, someone said they were unable to see it in their 12" Dob. I tried over and over, and finally gave in to being skunked. I was surprised, as I've seen it numerous times from in town. But during the night the reason became apparent. M13 and M15 were dim. M31 showed only its bright core and M32, not a hint of the dark lanes. Even M57 was muted down. The Milky Way was visible, but only if you really knew where to look. I think the Clear Sky Clock last night was off, when it came to transparency.

The public was really a lot of fun. One man had come by during twilight, thinking I was setting up some odd sort of tennis ball cannon. When he realized it was a telescope he said he'd be back after dark. He returned with his 5-1/2 year old daughter. She was looking through the telescope at the comet, and when I began describing its parts. She stopped me and said she was learning about astronomy, and comets, in school. She knew about the nucleus and coma! Amazing and precocious! Later, it seemed a horde of teen girls was approaching us, but it turned out to be a Girl Scout troop - 8 and 9 year olds, and this very nice mommies. They were in for a treat, as they had no idea about the comet. Lots of great questions, but mostly from the inquisitive moms.

During the night I had been avoiding listening to the radio, not wanting to know the score of the Sharks / Kings game. I was recording it for when I got home. I left Houge at 10 pm, as my feet had gotten cold (if you're going to Dino tonight, that's a word of warning). Got home, watched the game, and was very glad I'd gone to Houge Park instead.

Tonight off to Dinosaur Point. Looks like a good crowd. And the skies sure look like they're going to be about as good as possible for TAC's return. See you there...


Observing Reports Observing Sites GSSP 2010, July 10 - 14
Frosty Acres Ranch
Adin, CA

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