Astro 28J: Field Astronomy to Observe Comet Hartley 2

Oct 8-10, 2010

Post-Trip Photo Page

We'll journey to a choice location with dark skies to observe the close approach of Comet Hartley to the Earth in early October. Comet Hartley is a short-period comet, heavily modified by repeated passages by the sun. It's appearance may resemble that of Comet Holmes in 2008, or it may (as comets are likely to do) completely surprise us with its brightness, behavior, and color. The dust content of short-period comets is higher, often making for a distinct double tail of gas and dust forking in different directions.

Comet Hartley will move rapidly across Perseus in mid October, passing near the famous Double Cluster during our weekend. The comet will make the closest approach to Earth that it has ever made, passing only 11 million miles away in early October (that's 1/10 the Earth-Sun distance). Photographing a comet in the Milky Way could make for some very nice pictures. The comet is predicted to be 5th magnitude, a nice binocular object. The comet has a small but active nucleus and is a prime interest for cometary astronomers. Just one day after our weekend trip ends, NASA 's Deep Impact spacecraft, part of the EPOXI mission will pass by the comet to take samples and data to study, and so our obseravations will be a valuable addition to characterizing the comet prior to rendezvous.


Course Location: The first winter storm has temporarily closed the road over 9,100 ft Kaiser Pass to get to Mono Hot Springs. While the snow is not deep, continuing snow showers and the uncertainty of black ice (this road is never plowed) after dark has forced me to change locations, for safety reasons. Also, an informal poll among you has shown most supporting a change to Big Sur. There are other advantages: Ponderosa campground has a better view of the sky with respect to trees, it is only half the driving distance and expense. Our course will now be conducted at Ponderosa Campground deep in the Big Sur Mountains west of Fort Hunter-Liggett, on the Nacimiento River. During the day on Saturday, we'll drive over the ridge and down the steep road, pausing for lectures on the ancient subduction zone which gave rise to these dramatic mountains, and the metamorphic rocks on the beaches below. We'll tie this into nature of plate tectonics and relate to the other planets. In the evening, we'll study the stars and galaxies of the Fall sky, and especially the brightening Comet Hartley. We'll have a visiting professor - Chris Kitting from CSUEB - who is an expert in astrophotography and will demonstrate comet photography for us. I'll also be showing you the comet and other wonders in the telescope, and do astrophotography in the late evening. On Sunday, I'll cook one of my famous breakfasts, and then we'll have a lecture down on the river, examing the rock types and enjoying the cool waters on this, predicted to be a hot day inland. Here's the latest weather forecast.

Studying metamorphics from the ancient abyssal plains below the ocean, at Kirk Creek

Banded metamorphic marble on the beach

The stream through the campground has some nice swimming holes...

...and will be a nice substitute for the hot springs, I expect.

Comet Hartley 2 should be a fine green glow near the Double Cluster in Perseus

Here's the photo pages for Astro 28L and for Astro 28N. This too is a location we have used in past Astro 28's. No hot springs, but two nice cool streams going through camp, good views of the sky, and easier to drive to by far, and warmer night time temperatures, and very different geology to explore.

Other Astronomical Highlights

Early October is the ideal time to study the star fields and nebulae of the summer Milky Way in the early evening sky. This is the region which contains the center of our galaxy and is home to over 100 thousand million stars. The constellations of Sagittarius, Scorpius, Aquila and Cygnus contain some of the finest deep sky objects in the sky, strewn across the Sagittarius spiral arm of our galaxy about 5 kiloparsecs inside the sun's orbit around the Galaxy. We'll study the Eagle Nebula, the Lagoon Nebula, the North America Nebula, the beautiful supernova remnant known as the Veil Nebula, and a large collection of open star clusters and globular star clusters. All of these objects I and my students have captured in digital photographs which you can see here.

Planetary Science

During the day, we'll take short hikes to study the many and varied Mono Hot Springs by a direct first-hand immersive experience! Doris Lake and the thermal springs which feed it, study the granite domes and paint the story of the glaciations which formed them, and have in-the-field lectures along the way. These lectures will cover the structure of the inner planets of our solar system, what conditions are needed in order for a planet to be geologically active, tectonic activity, the geological history of California and the Sierra, and also rock types and morphology.

Course Grading

Your grades will be based on class participation and enthusiasm, and also on your take-home final exam which you'll mail in to me two weeks after our return. Take note - these classes are important to me, and to the Astronomy program. It's important that I do everything I can to encourage participation by good students who will be responsible. See "The Rules of the Game" linked web page for more on what's expected of you and how you will be graded. Also, a helpful attitude around the group work loads, a willingness to listen to the lectures and participate in the discussions, no swearing, and a strict adherence to the Cabrillo policy of no drugs or alcohol, will all count in your favor. These classes are always a lot of fun - we blend learning with enjoyment and this makes for the maximum educational impact... Join us!

Signing up for the class

The Rules of the Game

Camper's Checklist