Astro 28J: Field Astronomy in the Southern Sierra: Comet Q4 NEAT

May 14-16, 2004

Another Great Trip! Check the Highlights Here.

The goal for this course is to focus on the study of comets as we have a very rare opportunity to see not one but three bright comets passing close to Earth and sun between late April and early June '04. Comet Q4 NEAT is expected to provide the best show for northern hemisphere observers as it races in from the Oort Cloud and passes closest to earth in early May and then reaches perihelion during our weekend trip May 15. The comet was discovered in 2001 by the Near Earth Asteroid Tracking program's automated telescopes at Maui and Mt. Palomar. A special treat will occur Friday night May 14 as the comet passes over the outskirts of the Beehive star cluster in Cancer. The comet is expected to be magnitude 2 and be quite large since it passes so close to earth. A naked eye comet in one of the brightest star clusters in the sky - a very nice photo op. Comet T7 LINEAR will be too far south to see this weekend, and Comet F4 Bradfield will be a telescopic object - both objects being best in the northern hemisphere in late April.

Rare Asteroid Occultation

An additional opportunity occurs at 4:23am Saturday morning as the 9th magnitude asteroid Massalia occults a 10th magnitude star in Libra. Our campground turns out to be centrally located within the well-defined path, so the odds of success are very high. Gung-ho students are welcome to sacrifice some sleep and join me for this event. Santa Cruz is on the northern limit. These events are very scientifically valuable as they are the best way short of a space mission to get accurate sizes and shapes of asteroids. We will attempt to digitally record the occultation for precision measurements, all the more important since the drop in brightness will be only 1/3 magnitude.


I'm leaving some flexibility in the location, since weather can be just about anything in May - I decided after our Astro 28F trip that spring trips are best done in a dry environment - the desert or southern Sierra is ideal and most pleasant in the spring. More coastal areas have too much damp ground and the cool nights make for a problem with dew'ed optics. I've pretty much settled on the following plan - Sequoia National Monument will be our prime site. Check out the pictures from a trip to Sequoia National Monument in May '03.

Sequoia National Monument.

A beautiful area in dry spring weather - I was there for a photo trip last May. But not good if it's raining, as it's in the front range of the southern Sierra and catches a lot moisture when frontal systems come through. Along this ridge runs the Western Divide Highway, at about 6,000 feet elevation, and a number of campgrounds and forest service roads into secluded spots.

This area is not far from Johnsondale, a tiny community on the upper Kern River as it comes down out of the John Muir Wilderness. The drive up is best reached via the foothills passing through California Hot Springs, an interesting (developed) and historic hot springs which still looks and feels much as it was in the 40's when it was a popular resort for valley folk.


We need good horizons for astronomy. Tough to find in this forested area and considering that campgrounds like to be in shady spots. It is legal to camp anywhere in this area and we'll be near but not in a campground in order to get the horizons we need. I scouted locations in May of '03. The short list is down to two locations, both at beautiful meadows similar to the picture at left. The Astro department lab assistant Dave McKulle will arrive on Thursday and phone me, at which time I'll post here. If I don't have the info for you before you leave, check the proposed site at Parker Meadow first. If we're not there, try Long Meadow, another 4 miles or so farther on, to the northeast. Comet Q4 NEAT will be 37 degrees high in the west after twilight ends, at 9pm and should be visible for a good hour or two if we place our telescopes properly. I took this picture at the south end of Parker Meadow. We'll want to be near the north end, shown with the "x" on this map. It's a great place for open sky observing. The other possibility is at Long Meadow. Not the group camp itself, which has no viewing possibilities, but on the dirt road just past the camp loop which goes out to the north end of the meadow, shown with the "x" on this map. Long Meadow is just a mile from the "Trail of 100 Giants" - a trail through a grove of giant sequoias - largest living things on earth. Make no mistake, the trees here are humongous. The grove is shown as "Long Meadow Grove" on the topo map, if you click on the 1:100,000 scale option.

For day activities, we can explore the giant sequoias, study planetary geology while enjoying the panoramic view of the Kern River Canyon from Dome Rock a few miles north of camp, and take a day trip down to the Kern and study the hot springs right on the river near the site of spring '03's Astro 28G class. My tentative idea is Saturday after breakfast to go see the giant sequoia's, followed by a drive down to the Kern River and perhaps as far as the hot springs below Lake Isabella - that would be an 80 mile round trip. Then Sunday after breakfast wrap things up with a lecture at Dome Rock a short couple of miles north of camp, after breakfast. Or, we could do the hot springs on the drive home Sunday and spend Saturday with less driving - whatever the groups decides.