Tuesday, 6 September 2011

24.8.2011 - Goat Mountain Astronomical Research Station (GMARS)

Date: 24./25.8.2011
Observing location: GMARS, Landers, California, USA (897 meters / 2942 feet)
NE Lim.mag: 7.5m (zenith)
SQM-L: 21.54 (zenith)
Background sky: 7-8 (excellent)
Seeing: 8 (excellent)
Transparency: 7 (excellent)
Weather: +29.4 - 24.2°C, humidity 25-34%, gusts of NW wind.

The night after Anza-Borrego I had set up a visit to a near by (77 kilometres / 48 miles away) observing site of the Riverside Astronomical Society (RAS). Located in the small town of Landers, the spot combines higher altitude (897 meters / 2942 feet), dark skies and a great place to host secret parties at a bachelor pad should you be in need of one. I was kindly offered to hitch a ride from Palm Springs with site director Stan Broberg to meet up at the site with Gary Nelson and Alex McConahay. So in my trip to the US, I might actually have to speak English.

The site hosts several private observatories, observing pads with electricity and probably in the future observing pads without electricity for visual observers; which is probably good too. You know how those astrophotographers can be with their bright lights and equipment. Visitors not only have the possibility to camp at the site grounds but also sleep indoors at one of the many beds located in two separate main buildings. Add in bathroom, showers, fridge, full kitchen with all goodies, a TV (nearly twice as big as mine), DVDs (for the rare cloudy nights), huge library of astronomy books and magazines and it is safe to say you've come to a Mecca of astronomy. The entire clubhouse has a full night vision-mode (only red lights) to used at night which to me seemed quite clever and now suprising that I haven't seen such set up at any of our observatories. And boy, isn't this place something to envy. Above all else, it is obvious that this place is built with a lot of love and skill and maintained by a core group of great people.

As the sun set between Joshua Trees I set up my gear on a table and started to wait for darkness. Stan offered me to borrow me a Orion observing chair (not that my back was killing me after 4 nights of sitting in the ground in various positions) which came in quite handy especially when sketching. Few minutes after, Alex came and asked if I'd be interested if I wanted use the 22" Capella for the night. Saying yes wasn't difficult and I got to use the scope for the entire night with a suitcase full of Nagler eyepieces!

NGC 7009 sketched with the 22" Capella
With the 22 inch Capella, I decided to sketch an object from at least every object type. After having a quick gaze at M8, I was ready to drop a diffuse nebula from the list. After few minutes of thinking I selected the following objects:

NGC 6281 (open cluster)
NGC 6302 (planetary nebula)
IC 1295 (planetary nebula)
NGC 7479 (galaxy)
NGC 7009 (planetary nebula)

If nothing else, these should at least be interesting to view with such large aperture - detail-wise. It would also be interesting to first view the objects with the XT4.5 then move to a larger aperture to see more. But that wasn't all. To add in a few more challenging objects out of my head to log, I came up with:

IC 1296 (galaxy near Ring Nebula)
2MASX J22290968-2047179 (tiny galaxy inside Helix Nebula)
Tonantzintla 2 (globular cluster)

I used the big boy Capella to sketch 3 objects from Scorpius before the wind forced me down the ladder. For a start, I have to say NGC 6302 yielded some great detail at high power but the sketch came up ugly and confusing as can be expected of me. NGC 6281 looked pretty much the same as it did with the 4.5" scope but with more stars obviously. Tonantzintla 2 appeared resolved from the edges although these are without a doubt just foreground stars. So, with the winds still quite strong, I returned my little scope to continue to uncover the secrets from the Scorpius-Sagittarius-Scutum region.

NGC 7479 with the 22" Capella
This, of course meant observing more "trivial" open clusters as well as some of the good, old friends: NGC 6124, NGC 6603, NGC 6822, IC 1296 (sketched with both the 4.5" and the 22" Capella) and NGC 246. I also did some more Sky Atlas-work by observing and sketching galaxies NGC 6941, NGC 6962, NGC 6814 and NGC 6903 from page 16 and took a break from the small scope by viewing the M57 / Ring Nebula with the 22" Capella and more interestingly the small galaxy IC 1296 just NW of it. After a little break before midnight, I returned to the monster Capella for a breathtaking views of NGC 7009, NGC 7479 and NGC 7293. The tiny galaxy next to the Helix nebula was visible as a small, elongated spot at high magnification. Unfortunately for all parties, I'm not any good or a big fan of sketching with large apertures. There is often simply too much subtle, complex detail to sketch properly. But at least I tried, no matter the results.

A Joshua Tree, observatories and no pizza place
Early in the AM the winds had calmed down and my SQM-L meter showed measurements in the 21.50-category. With the naked eye, I could just squint a few 7.4 magnitude stars close to zenith. Apart from the few stray lights of the local residents and the minor light domes of LA and Twentynine Palms(?) the GMARS site was more than adequate for some serious deep sky observing. Also, after Anza-Borrego, the temperatures were quite a lot more enjoyable and I could stargaze the whole night in shorts and T-shirt.

I encourage people from all walks of life, interested in astronomy and observing in general to give this site a go.  You won't regret it. I'd like to thank Alex, Gary and Stan for the great hospitality and time I had at the GMARS site. And Stan, next time lunch's on me. I hope I'll get the chance to visit Landers again some time in the future.