Knowing the importance of dark sites, I contacted Robert Ayers in the spring of 2015 asking if I could use his observing property in central California. Bob asks to meet and observe with the people he allows into the site, but it was not until September that he had the opportunity to invite me. It’s a 2 hour drive from Fremont to the Willow Springs development near Panoche Pass; then up a 2.5 mile unmaintained dusty & rocky dirt road to the property. There are some steep and rocky sections of the road which could be dangerous after wet weather, so this might turn out to be a summer / fall site.
But, the sky is very dark. When we observed together in September I brought my 8” f7.25 reflector, and had an amazing experience exploring dark nebulae, which require good dark sky to observe. The site is very quiet, being away from all roads; only the sound of the wind, insects, and birds. But, because it was remote and a mile away from the nearest house, it would be best if I go there with someone else to reduce the risk. So I asked my friend Balint, whom I met at GSSP in July, to get in touch with Bob.
For the October new moon I watched the forecasts and it looked to be the best Friday night. I arranged with Bob and Balint to go. I borrowed my in-law's Highlander to drive up the dirt road. Since Balint had not been to the site yet he decided to carpool with me to tell whether his car could handle the road. I stayed home from work that day to pack and prepare for the session.
We had a lot of traffic on the way down, and despite leaving at 3:00 from Fremont, I didn’t get to San Jose to pick up Balint until 4:40; then the drive down with more traffic and a fire in Gilroy; a stop in Hollister for food; then the drive to the site. By the time we arrived it was dark. We set-up our tents first, then our scopes. I brought my big binoculars but thought not to set them up – I was already tired from the drive – but Balint wanted them so I set them up – and I was glad I did.
I had made a list of southern objects to observe. I plan to complete the H2 list, whose objects are mostly above 30 degrees, but I wanted to exploit the good southern horizon at the site. I started out at Formahaut, a star in PcA which recently had the first exoplanet ever to be imaged. The planet itself will be named by the IAU in December. I then wandered around. My mirror was not equalized to the temperature and all the stars looked bloated and fuzzy; it was several hours before it settled. This is a good reason to bring a smaller scope or binoculars along, so you have something to do while the telescope cools.
I tried some planetary nebulae in Aries, and intended to try for Sh-1 which Steve Gottlieb had written about in TAC, but didn’t make it there. I went back down and explored Fornax and was really impressed with what we found there: The Propeller (a perfect barred spiral); the Fornax dwarf in which I found four of six globular clusters; and finally the densely populated Fornax cluster with so many bright galaxies to explore—I just panned the scope and let them pop into view. I viewed the Helix Nebula for the first time, in the main scope and in the binos. We tried for the Sculptor Dwarf, which appeared as a brownish stain, reaching out of the field of view. A big surprise was NGC 253, the Silver Dollar galaxy: very large, bright, with dark lanes and mottling and HII regions. I had a finder chart which pointed out a dwarf galaxy to this beauty, and Balint and I tried very hard to find it but could not. I detected some brightening in the area but not in the exact correct location—I think I was seeing some of the halo.
I moved on next to M33 and proceeded to find all of the HII and star clouds marked on the finder chart I brought with me. It was so easy to do. I love my 20” scope! It brings so much of the universe to me.
Orion was rising high up and I showed Balint the Horsehead Nebula and M42 – the first time he had seen them. The sky was so good at that point I was able to see the Flame Nebula through the binoculars.
Toward 4:00am (or so, I didn’t check my watch) I knew I was done, I could no longer observe. So I put my eyepieces away and went into my tent to sleep. I didn’t put the rain fly on the tent and could see Orion high above me. I must have slept soundly for about an hour or two before needing to go pee. I got up and saw Venus, Mars, Jupiter, and a thin waning moon rising in the east. The sky was very clear and still, with only some crickets singing. I should have gone to the scope to study the planets and the moon, which I rarely see at this phase. But I went back into the tent. I only slept a little while longer before waking. I ate some breakfast as more birds sang. The silhouettes of two horses were on the eastern ridge about 500 yards away; I could tell they were watching me, curious. After Balint got up I saw a black wild pig about 100 yards away walking up toward the gate. Thankfully we did not run into any snakes or spiders – I nearly ran over a tarantula crossing J1 during our drive down, they are out seeking mates during mating season.