Observe or Play with Technotoys?
Plettstone Preserve June 13, 1999

by Michelle Stone


Thursday, July 10, 1999...

I had the van packed and ready to go straight from work. At work everything went wrong. I flipped on my auto office message on my phone and my email... oh... forget it the machine is down, let's get outta here!

I got on the road by 1 PM. The weather was warm and pleasant for the drive up to Plettstone. I arrived 2 hours and 45 minutes later to a gorgeous deep blue sunny sky. My solar panels were delighted.

I had observed M88 with the supernova 1999cl in my big scope at the Peak the weekend previous. Armed with lists of others recently found, I decided that my task the first night would be to get at least a shot of it. As the sun set, I set about configuring the observatory to do CCD imaging. The weather cooled down just enough to make wearing a sweatshirt very comfortable. I alligned my arsenal on Mars and as it darkened, I recollimated the big SCT with the ST4 and a triple hole aperature mask. I took some quick peeks at bright stuff like those "M" objects. After what seemed eternity, it was finally dark enough to start my "test sequences".

I shoot garbage shots and subtract dark frames to make sure that my stars are good, tracking is as good as I can get, and that my dark frames are good.

About 10:30 I was ready for M88. I spent the next 90 minutes working to get some reasonable data. Since John Hales left the area, it seems that his equipment woes have decended on me to take up the slack. But I did manage to get a series of very short exposures of M88. I summed them up and determined the magnitude of the supernova to be around 14 or so... I would be careful about it during daylight hours. But, I at least combined the images to make sure that I had enough data to make a reasonable image.

I spent a half an hour or so knocking around galaxies in Virgo and then up in Canes Venatici. Observing isn't terribly easy with a 17mm eyepiece stuck in the scope (it can't be moved or refocused). But it was kind of fun to look at the object visually and then shoot a quick 2 minute unguided exposure of the thing. I suppose that this is the coolest part about CCD imaging. It can be a good part of the observing experience should you decide to let it in.

The rest of the night I worked on NGC5907 and just having an enjoyable time viewing the sky. It was truly an exceptional night and I was hoping that the weather would stay nice for visitors on Saturday.

Friday, June 11, 1999

Great weather at Plettstone. Warm during the day but not hot and pleasantly cool at night. No contrails on the jets. Limiting Magnitude 6.9

My objective was to shoot some planetaries for my website. M57 and the Owl were on the list. After futzing with equipment problems for several minutes, I had to settle for a black and white image of the ring. I soon decided that this kind of night was not to be wasted fiddling with equipment so I removed all the CCD gear and set up for visual observation. I spent some time in the Virgo Cluster and in Canes Venatici. I love Canes... there is some really great observational stuff up there.

I blew the rest of the night looking and the early summer favorites... revisiting the bright funs stuff. I had a nice disc of Debussy chamber music on the observatory's stereo and it was just plain outright relaxing.

Saturday, June 12, 1999

I've never had my Obsession set up in the observatory before. And, since I've been having these arguments with my technotoys lately, I decided that to remove them from service for a month or two could be settling for my soul.

I set to work to build a mounting plate for the large reflector. The pier for the C11 has bolts that stick up and I needed something to cover those bolts. What I ended up with was something that looks just like a dob swivel plate. I took down the SCT, the G11 mount, and pier. As I took them down, I set them up in front of the observatory. I thought that I would take them on the Lassen trip next month and I wanted to make sure that all of the right pieces made it out of the observatory and into my car. The best way to do that I surmised was to put the thing together on its tripod and get it all working. Then, I could move it to the car from there. I'm happy I went through the time consuming exercise. There are probably half a dozon things that would have been left behind.

I set up the big scope in the building and worked on getting the DSC to work. I've had the scope for a couple of years now and never really had them working. It took a couple of hours to get things together. The scope went together and filled the 10x12 building with a real sense of "serious astronomy goes on here".

Gillermo arrived early in the afternoon to set observe with me. He was kind enough to bring the cutest chain saw I have ever seen to help cut down a tree that was sort of in the way. He asked me if I knew how to cut a tree so it would fall in the right direction and I said "Sure! I've shown lots of folks how to cut trees. But I've never cut one myself." Frankly, the tree trunk looked pretty big compared to the little chain saw. I had some serious doubts as to the outcome. But he took care and time... a little honing the blade here and there, a little more cutting. Once the cutting was done, a gentle push was all it took to coax the beast over. It went down right where we wanted it to go.

Gillermo set up on the new pad that I built a couple of weeks ago. He showed me all of his great little doo dads that he has made for his scope and eyepieces. I have to say that I am very impressed! I especially like his eyepiece heating system.

One of my work buddies, Mark J. arrived a bit later and went about setting up his campsite.

The night started off good and then became excellent. We spent time scanning the bright galaxies in Virgo, Coma Bernices, and Canes Venatici. Mark J. was to be my observing partner this night and we had a delightful time. We ventured east and south and back to the galaxies. We looked at every Messier exposed. I showed Mark some of my NGC favorites. And I let him poke around for himself. I was truly excited to share this experience with someone.

A few clouds rolled in around midnight and so we decided to take a look at the Real Sky CD's that Gillermo had borrowed from PAS. It took me about 10 minutes to realize that this collection was of no interest to me. The software is cumbersome to use and not at all intuitive. The thumbnail images on my "The Sky" software gives me as much information as I need very simply.

During the 10 or 20 minutes we were playing with the computer, the clouds moved on and Mark (unbeknown to us) started looking at my charts and finding things with the big scope. (He's a natural... we've got to get him a scope!) When we looked up and discovered a clear sky, it didn't take 2 seconds to make the decision to shut down the computer and get back to the program!

I opened up my Life List and asked Mark if he might be interested in chasing down some real faint fuzzies. He said "sure" and we were on a roll. We found 6 or 7 mag 13+ up in Ursa Major. They were pretty obvious even to someone who hadn't looked at them before. Gillermo was hunting down the blinking planetary and we all had to rush over for a quick look. This thing blows me away. I have seen it several times but I have never been successful at finding it. With a high power eyepiece, it shows itself nicely. But you need a low power eyepiece to find things in the field. When you look right at it, it disappears! It is a pretty fun object.

By now it was getting late. We pointed Annie at Pegasus and chased down some more dim fuzzy galaxies. The last stop for the evening was Andromeda. A fitting end to one of the best nights of my observing histroy. It was large and beautiful as it always is.

Mark went to bed, Gillermo started to take down, and in the predawn light, I finally figured out what was wrong with my decoder setup and I got it working. I'll check it out next time I am up there.

I drove home tired and spent. You'd think that I'd have enough sense to get into bed for some sleep... nah! I had to process those images!