Astro 9'rs Big Adventure! A trip away from the light-polluted fog-plagued skies of Aptos. Our crew met at Felipe's - an informal Mexican cafe in San Juan Bautisita. Chris Angelos, Kirk, Jim, Carissa, Curtis, Jody, Eric, Travis and I strategized around chips & salsa, and after dinner we distributed walky-talkies, and headed south. Our destination is shown as one of the darkest sites in central California on light pollution contour maps.

It's Mercey Hot Springs - a funky little get-away in the Little Panoche Valley, 3 valley's over from the San Benito valley which is home to Hollister and San Juan Bautista.While there are other possibilities in this general area (see here), I found the best spot is in the hills directly above the hot springs. Take the dirt road on your right, a mile past Mercey Hot Springs and go about 3 miles up, to a flat hilltop. This is along the ridge of the last of the coast range mountains before the Central Valley. It's at 2,000 ft elevation and above the winter "tule fog" and the coastal valley fog as well.

Once out of the San Benito valley, the clock turns back 50 years - this is one of my favorite back roads of California; hundreds of square miles of oak grassland mountains and big sky vistas transitioning to dry grasslands which show a complex geologic history. It's peopled with only a few ranches and the hard-to-describe Panoche Inn - a ranch hand's bar run by a friendly tender and festooned with dozens and dozens of dollar bills autographed by patrons hanging from the ceiling. It has a colorful history which you can get a start on here.

We arrived at our hilltop site shortly after dark. Conditions were excellent. Dry, no wind, only a bit of cirrus here and there, and the smoke from the Fort Ord fire was mostly west and south of us. Within 90 minutes we got the 10" LX200, 8" Meade, Kirk's 12", Chris's new Orion setup, and the student's various tripods into production. Earlier in the day I'd modified our camera piggybacker to allow it to work on the 8" Meade. I did most of the guiding duties on the 8", while Chris did his own and Curtis worked with his refractor for piggybacking. Carrisa, Travis, Jody, and Jim all tried their hand at guiding after some coaching. My plan was to learn the art of stacking color negatives and processing in Photoshop, and bought a roll of Fuji Superia 1600 to complement my Kodak E200 slide film. Students worked admirably - and it wasn't until 2am that they started to slowly conk out and go to sleep. By then, the crew had dozens of tripod star trail and foreground/untrailed pictures, and a few rolls of guided piggyback pictures mostly of the Milky Way. At 1am I got the camcorder going on Saturn. Seeing was excellent, and Saturn was spectacular, with Cassini's Division easy and steady, and two obvious cloud bands on the planet's disk and 3 moon's close to the rings. Later, it boiled down to Chris and I until dawn. We concentrated the morning photography on the Orion region, the Plieades, and the Andromeda Galaxy.

Here is me, Eric, Jim, Chris, Trevor, and Kirk (left to right). Jody and Curtis had left, and Carissa took the picture. The hoped-for highlight of the weekend was the conjunction of Encke's Comet across the Andromeda Galaxy's outer disk. However, Chris, Kirk and I studied the predicted position closely with Kirk's 12" and did not see any obvious comet. It may show up in our photos as a faint "star" with a short trail - predictions show it brightening rapidly as it approaches sun and earth, but it may have still been too faint.

Conditions were outstanding all night. I set up for comfort and was able to guide the whole night through. On the 8" each of our piggyback guided subjects got 5-10 frames each of 5-7 minute duration. - Cygnus with the 24mm lens, the Coal Sack / North America nebula region with the 100mm, the Andromeda Galaxy with the 100mm, Andromeda again with the Orion ShortTube used as a 400mm telephoto lens, Orion Nebula / Horsehead Nebula with the Shorttube, and finally Orion including Barnard's Loop with the 50mm lens, finishing as the morning zodiacal light transitioned to dawn. I will post these and student efforts after they are developed, scanned and tuned up in Photoshop.

Dawn was beautiful! Crystal clear skies and mountain ranges for 50 miles in every direction. Here is me, Eric, Jim, Chris, Trevor, and Kirk (left to right). Jody and Curtis had left, and Carissa took the picture. I forgot the batteries for the Dimage 5 digital camera so I don't have much to post in the way of action shots right away. These cameras suck dry the typical alkaline battery in 1 or 2 frames.

My last shot before battery flame-out shows how my planned crepes breakfast turned into a scrambled egg and fruit breakfast when I realized I'd forgotten my mixing bowl. Bummer!

Mercey Hot Springs is out of the picture, just over the ridge in the near background. The Little Panoche Valley is between the near ridge and the distant mountain in this scene looking southwest.