Smoke in the afternoon mingles with high cirrus and is a cause for concern. By 8:45pm, much of the sky is clear. The area nearest the horizon is destined to be washed out, and there are scattered clouds high in the sky. At 9:06pm, the International Space Station makes a long pass to the north.
Twilight grudgingly lifts its hold. At 9:30pm, it is still bright, but I am viewing Comet Hoenig...
So begins and ends my formal observing journal for the 2002 Oregon Star Party. For once the event is under way and the skies are clear, time is precious. Six or so hours between evening and morning twilight, to pack in observing schedules and socialize with old friends and their scopes. Hopefully, a few hours of sleep at each end of the darkness. Days full of presentations and planning for the next night's observing. Once again, I leave my journal unfinished and let sketches, notes and memories fill in the blanks. And this is just the observing portion of an experience that also included wild dust devils, baking sunlight, entertaining lectures and a door prize drawing during which I actually won something (unfortunately, not a telescope or eyepiece...).
Thursday night was halfway decent, compared to the smoke in the Klamath Basin, but really not all that impressive. I set up an observing camp near the large Dobs of Mike Powers and Scott Turner. My first order of business was to take a look at one of the recently discovered comets. Comet Hoenig, in Cepheus, was a diffuse fuzzball but slightly brighter in the center. It was visible in binoculars and moved noticeably from hour to hour. In the better conditions on Sunday morning, it showed a hint of a tail.
The other new comet, C/2002 O6, was not visible until morning twilight. A fast mover in Orion, it showed a parabolic coma and was more condensed than Comet Hoenig. Like Hoenig, it was easily visible in binoculars and showed the barest hint of a tail.
In between the comets, I did a bit of binocular observing and stole a few views in the larger scopes. We all agreed that the skies weren't the best, and I didn't feel like taking on any serious observing challenges. I caught half an hour of sleep in the early morning, and then did a meteor watch starting at 3:30am. In 1.5 hours of observing, I saw 23 Perseids and 25 other meteors, about the numbers I was expecting. The limiting magnitude during the watch averaged 6.6. The following nights would be better. I capped off the night by observing a few faint galaxies as well as the aforementioned comet C/2002 O6.
Friday night began with a thin waxing crescent Moon shining below and far to the right of Venus. I was able to get a bit of rest in evening twilight. Scott wanted to take a longer nap, so I got to push around his 12.5" Dob for an hour or so. I didn't do any sketches through his scope, but I caught excellent views of the Bug Nebula (a far-south planetary nebula in Scorpius), the NGC 6726/27 reflection nebula complex in Corona Australis. I looked at a few other objects in that region, and then turned to the faint galaxy group Stephan's Quintet in Pegasus. All five component galaxies were rather easy tonight. In the Great Andromeda Galaxy, I used a chart to identify a couple of the globular clusters and star clouds before returning the scope to Scott. It was clearly an excellent night for observing, with almost no evidence of smoke. And, oddly for the OSP, it stayed comfortably warm all night.
Back at my little scope, I continued my project of observing faint galaxies near the threshold of visibility. I sketched a number of these, and even in such a small aperture, each seemed to have its own character. Here are my notes and sketches on a few of the many...
NGC 4605 (spiral, magnitude 10.3) in Ursa Major: Pretty easy. Somewhat elongated oval core, moderately brighter in center. Very faint extended halo.
NGC 5322 (elliptical, magnitude 10.2) in Ursa Major: Round with a bright stellar nucleus. Outer halo is large and patchy. Surface brightness seems higher than listed.
NGC 247 (spiral, magnitude 9.2) in Cetus: Not that faint; a rather familiar object from previous OSPs. Intriguingly shaped; relatively bright inner halo appears concave towards the east. There is a bright star at the southern tip, and a moderately condensed core. Hints of a faint oval outer halo can be seen.
NGC 157 (spiral, magnitude 10.4) in Cetus: Oval and rather diffuse, with irregular surface brightness.
Saturday morning, I did a meteor count from 2:05-3:07am. Activity was really hopping and really impressive with 59 meteors in one hour. Of these, 32 were Perseids, which left 27 sporadics. Even among the sporadics, only two appeared to come from any of the radiants in Aquarius, and four from the apex area, so there really were a lot of random meteors out there. The average limiting magnitude was 6.9, and the contrast was excellent. I was facing north, and the sky had an incredible texture below the Milky Way into Camelopardalis and Ursa Minor.
When I finished my count, I did a bit more galaxy-watching, and then shared views through Mike's 18" Dob. NGC 253, the big spiral galaxy in Sculptor, showed incredible detail. Saturn was also nice, although it was still fairly low in the sky. As twilight brightened, a Perseid fireball of magnitude -6 flared a couple of times and left a persistent train. I slept for a few hours and then went on my annual nature hike around the site, admiring the numbers of Mountain Bluebirds.
Saturday night was almost as good as Friday night. My first order of business was to do sketches of several showpiece objects. I chose M8 (the Lagoon Nebula) and M16. After last night's view in the 12.5", I turned to NGC 6726/27 in Corona Australis. At 79x in my scope, the nebulae just fit into the same field of view as the globular cluser NGC 6723. The fainter patches of nebulosity weren't visible in the SOD, and the cluster wasn't resolved, but I found it to be a compelling object nonetheless. Someday, I will get a larger scope.
My final morning included two hours of meteor-watching, from 1:40-3:44am. The first hour yielded 35 Perseids, 17 sporadics and 2 Kappa Cygnids. The second hour had 42 Perseids and 16 sporadics. Because the sporadic rates weren't as high as the previous morning, I was actually a bit disappointed in the activity. However, the Perseids continued to get stronger leading up to their predicted maximum on Monday.
Slowly but inevitably, Sunday morning twilight claimed another OSP. I slept until 9am, and then began breaking camp. I took the time to touch base with more friends and to view the Sun's prominences through an H-alpha filter. Finally, it was time to go.