Despite spells of wet or windy weather, the new Moon of late October, 2000, was a banner period for observing. In five good nights and half a dozen of lesser quality, I logged over 800 observations.
The period started inauspiciously, with an evening at the Montebello Open Space Area on Tuesday, October 17, in which high broken cloud seemed too dense to warrant setting up Harvey, my Celestron 14. Eager to observe, I dug out a 10x50 binocular and chased Messier objects and other easy stuff through sucker holes, just for fun. Weather improved during the next few days, however, and on Wednesday and Thursday I set up Harvey at Montebello with good results. I made substantial inroads on my present main program of observing faint galaxies plotted on Millennium Star Atlas, working mostly the area from zero through four hours right ascension. Montebello is a surprisingly good deep-sky site when the transparency above is good, and when the objects do not have extremely low surface brightnesses. Galaxies are just fine.
Friday was cloudy, but on Saturday the 21st I went to Henry Coe State Park, only to find conditions so windy that most Dobsons were in danger of blowing over. I set up Harvey in the lee of my minivan. Fortunately, most of the objects I wanted to observe were only part way up the sky, downwind. I could observe them at low magnification - 98x - without much difficulty. Many people forget that wind often imposes serious limitations on telescope operation. (Most of them remember it when their telescope blows over.) The combination of C-14 and Losmandy G-11 is very capable in such conditions.
On Sunday, I was at Fremont Peak, and the wind had died. I had another good night with Harvey, though I quit at about midnight, because of work the next day. I drove home by way of Santa Cruz, and stopped at an all-night restaurant there with an astronomical theme for a snack. The restaurant is the Saturn Cafe, on Pacific a few blocks seaward of the heart of the mall, and it is not so much the astronomical Saturn as the psychedelic one - the decor is 1960s and 1970s nostalgia, perhaps as seen via designer drugs of the twenty-first century. The food, however, is very good - I particularly appreciated that there was more than one vegetarian item on the menu. Don't miss the chocolate tofu pie - it's very Santa Cruz.
For most of the next week, it rained. I did get to Fremont Peak on Friday the 27th, and found two other eager beaver astronomers there, chasing objects through sucker holes. I did not think it worth setting up the big telescope, so out came the 10x50 again. I was getting tired of Messier review, so I opened a relatively new small sky atlas that I had been carrying for some time, Eric Karkoschka's Observer's Sky Atlas (Springer Verlag, 1999), and used some of its finder charts for binocular objects to find a variety of easy non-Messier deep-sky targets. Karkoschka's atlas is handy in size and well designed for field use; observers whose experience corresponds to mid Messier survey or perhaps a bit beyond will find it very useful, and so will more advanced users on those evenings when they want bright objects for small equipment.
I thought that was about it for the new Moon period. I was wrong. I did a little front-yard astronomy with my 70 mm refractor on Monday, October 30, and then supported a tour at Lick Observatory on November 2. The tour group was part of an introductory planetary sciences class from U. C. Santa Cruz, and Jupiter and Saturn did not rise till quite late. Some of the students had to leave early - 8:00 classes and the like -and would not have gotten to see any planets if I had not set up the same 70 mm refractor outside, for a view of the two big gas giants not long after they cleared the tree line. We did get to them with the 36-inch late in the evening, when they were far enough up for the big refractor to reach them, but so-so seeing made the views less wonderful than I have previously had with that telescope.
It was windy at Lick, too - staff astronomer and tour guide Ellie Gates rather hastily closed the dome of the 36-inch after we had all seen Jupiter, and the 3-meter reflector, whose dome has a much wider slit, had by that time long since shut down. My 70 mm refractor had been set up east of the main building, in its wind shadow, and did not have any trouble.
On Friday, 3 November, the Moon was almost at first quarter, and I was tired, so I almost didn't go observing. A double espresso at my favorite coffee house (Coffee Society, at The Oaks Shopping Center, in Cupertino) refreshed me, however, so I trundled down to Pacheco State Park. This site has little light pollution and wide horizons, but is often plagued by fog or wind, sometimes even both. When I arrived, the humidity was high, the air felt cold and clammy, and tendrils of visible moisture clung to the grass in several directions. At least it was dead calm, so there was no wind chill, so I set up Harvey, set the Kendrick anti-dew system to "pasteurize" (a low position - the next two are "fricassee" and "engage Klingon grand fleet"), and started observing. To my delight, even though the relative humidity soared above 96 percent, the traces of fog disspated, and lines of sight even a short distance above the horizon remained clear. What a shame only three observers were there! I had plenty of galaxies bright enough to view at 98x or occasionally 244x, even with the Moon up, and after it had set, I continued on to fainter and more demanding stuff.
Millennium shows globular clusters and other internal features of many large nearby galaxies, and the Fornax Dwarf Galaxy was on the area I was working that night. Conditions were good enough that it and its larger companion, the Sculptor Dwarf, were only difficult in the big SCT, and the Fornax system has five globular clusters which were on the chart. One of those is an NGC object - NGC 1049. I had seen it once or twice, long ago. It wasn't particularly difficult in the C-14, obviously non-stellar, though at the great distance involved there was no sign of its individual stars; it looked like an elliptical galaxy seen in round cross-section. The other globulars are Fornax 1, Fornax 2, Fornax 4, and Fornax 5. At 244x, they were each harder than NGC 1049, but much easier than the parent galaxy, which was not detectable at that magnification, though I had could see it at 98x. Fornax 2 was the most difficult of these non-Milky-Way globulars.
The night continued very clear and dark. I had an excellent view of the Horsehead Nebula, at 98x with no nebular filter, showing an unusually large amount of the emission nebula, IC 434, against which it is in silhouette.
I had brought a big binocular with me as well, the Orion 25x100 that I bought in June, 2000. After I had put Harvey to bed, I took it out and did some Messier work, and looked at a few other objects as well. This instrument is wonderful for wide-field deep-sky views. I cannot hold it still enough unsupported for more than a few seconds' worth of wobbly view, but it works satisfactorily when braced on either the top of one of my car doors or on one rail of the roof rack. I had notably pretty views of the Rosette Nebula complex, the Christmas Tree cluster, NGC 1975-7-9, and most of the autumn and winter Messier objects.
Before leaving, I pulled out the 5x10 Zeiss "MiniQuick" binocular that I usually have with me, and logged a handful of Messier objects with it as well. I made 212 observations that night, which is nearly a record for me.
I did some more "yard work" in the moonlight on two evenings of the subsequent week, to wrap up a wonderful observing run. All autumn new Moons should be as good as this one was.
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