Astro 9ABC - Optional Dark-Sky Trip to the Hills above Mercey Hot Springs Fall 13

Nov 9/10 or Nov 23/24

Post-Trip Picture Page - We ended up at Fremont Peak Instead!

Mercey Hot Springs
We won't be actually at the hot springs, which is a commercial resort and about the only public establishment within 10 miles of us in any direction. We're in the hills above the hot springs, on BLM public land so no camping permits needed. We need to bring our own food and water and bushes are what you get for your private moments! Here are links to our trips there in '03, '04, '05, and '08.

Our site is 89 miles from Cabrillo College. Here are directions to our site, on top of the hills beyond the hot springs, up a dirt road with an entrance sign from the BLM. map1, map2, map3, map4, map5, map6


Here's the turnoff, a half mile or so past Mercey Hot Springs, on the right. The sign says "Panoche Hills" and the gate to the right is unlocked.

Our site, at the top of this ridge. There's a wide flat area with a horizon flat for 360 degrees. The access road is well-graded dirt


This is Saturday night to Sunday morning. We have the college's station wagon; I'll try again to get a van and update this page if I get it. We're scheduling this for Satuday night instead of Friday night because (a) Friday night is the best asteroid occultation of the Fall, as the asteroid Iduna will occult a 12th mag star on a path passing right over the SF Bay and Monterey Bay (but not Mercey Hot Springs). There are other astronomers planning on gathering occultation timings for this event to help us map out the size and outline of Iduna, and I want to be part of this (you're welcome to join me at Cabrillo Observatory; the event is at 10:20pm). (b) If we wait till Satuday night, we get to do astrophotography of the bright star lunar occultation of Nu Aquarii, using our cameras. It'll make for a beautiful and unique set of images as the star approachs and disappears on the dark side of the moon, at 7:40pm. (c) There are 3 bright comets in the morning sky, and Comet Ison will be a little brighter on Saturday vs Friday, as will Comet Lovejoy.

The Weather
...a predicted cold front comes through on Thursday, with mostly cloudy conditions. Possible rain I'm hearing for Friday, although it's still iffy. Then, it may clear by our trip on Saturday, although they're really not sure at the moment what it'll be like. Likely in the upper 40's at night.

The Moon and Planets
The moon will be in the evening sky, at 49% sunlit: a first quarter moon. Now, this is bigger and brighter than is ideal. However, the good opportunity is to photograph the occultation of 4.5 magnitude nu Aquarii at 7:40pm on the dark side of the moon, which is also just a few minutes after Venus sets. Given lack of city lights, the moonlight should not hurt us much, and the moon will set before 11:30pm. Venus is in the heart of the Milky Way in Sagittarius; suitable for long exposure with our Nikon with fisheye, which will include the moon, Venus, and much of the Milky Way nicely. Jupiter rises in Gemini at 10pm.

We get 3 bright comets in the morning sky!

Comet Lovejoy
... is brightening more rapidly than predicted, and will be closest to the Earth and sun now, at peak brightness at magnitude 5. It is in the constellation of Cancer, rising at 10:40pm and high enough to photograph nicely at 20 degrees altitude by 12:30am just after midnight. With the Nikon and 18-200mm zoom lens, we should be able to get the comet and the Beehive Star Cluster together.

Comet Ison
... rises at 3:00am, in Virgo, and is bright enough to decently photograph by 4:30am at 17 degrees altitude. It should be 7th magnitude and has a long sharp tail these days, with a green coma. It will require the 8" f/4 scope to photograph well.

This comet had a massive spike in brightness much like Comet Holmes did in 2007 (C/Holmes brightened by a factor of 1 million (!!) in one night(!). C/LINEAR brightened by a factor of 200 a couple of weeks ago and shows the same expanding halo of dust as C/Holmes did. The dust cloud is growing and will make a great photo opportunity, perhaps even with the Nikon, but certainly with the 8" and SBIG camera. The comet is expected to be magnitude 7-8 and will be best to photograph after 5am. At 5:10am the comet will be 18 degrees up in the northeast, just a few degrees above Arcturus, and the sun will be -18 degrees. By 5:30am it will be getting too late as dawn will begin.

The sun rises at 6:39am, over the Central Valley, and the distant Sierra. Might make a great shot with the Nikon if there's ground haze down at lower elevations to lower the brightness. We'll later fix breakfast on the Astro department's 2-burner coleman stove, probably hot oatmeal and sunflower seeds with sliced fruit. Then head back to Santa Cruz. Optionally we can stop briefly at Mercey Hot Springs resort and walk around a bit to see what it's about. We can also stop in the famous Panoche Inn saloon and see all the dollar bills stapled to the ceiling!

If we Get Roached Out of on the Weekend of Nov 9...

If this adventure gets clouded out, I've got commitments on Thanksgiving weekend, and also the next two weekends after that (Dec 7 weekend I'm running the Northface Challenge Championship Half Marathon in Marin Headlands, and Dec 13-15 I'm doing a kayaking adventure at Pt. Reyes after the American Geophysical Union annual conference in San Francisco).

The Other good time to get up and photograph Ison, and reconsider our trip...(there's really just one):

Nov 23/24 Saturday night/Sunday morning at 5:55am, C/Ison rises, and is before perihelion and predicted at 2nd magnitude or so, with big tail. This is the last time we can see it before it gets too close to the sun to see and perhaps vaporizes before coming around the other side (according to one scientific study). This Sunday Nov 24 it is just a few degrees away from a pretty triangle conjunction of Mercury, Saturn, and the beautiful wide double star Alpha Librae The moon is a waning gibbous of 61% which will brighten the morning sky some, but leave our evening sky dark and clean. We could photo evening stuff, get some sleep, get up early early in the morning for comet photography, sunrise, breakfast, etc. Just a thought. I'd certainly like to make a trip for this comet this morning and it's hard to see a low eastern horizon in a dark sky from ANYwhere near Santa Cruz. On Fremont Peak (significantly closer than Mercey, but not as dark due to Salinas, Watsonville lights) has a good eastern horizon, is the closest place I can think of.

Comet Lovejoy will be under the handle of the Big Dipper, 55 degrees up as dawn begins, and Comet X1 LINEAR will be 28 degrees up, still near Arcturus, as dawn begins to brighten the sky.

So, the advantage of this weekend is that Ison will be much brighter, perhaps spectacular and makes a great conjunction, and we have until 10:25pm to photograph in a dark moonless sky. The disadvantage is that it is a little later, more likely into the wet season, colder, and the 61% moon will be in the sky for all comets.