Friday, August 21, 1998

Terror at 7200 ft.

Friday at 11:30 a.m., a small number of TAC subscribers met at The Coffee Tree restaurant in Vacaville to begin a scouting trip to Sierra Buttes north of Truckee, in California's Sierra Nevada mountain range. This location was suggested by Marsha Robinson after reading an observing report posted by Steve Gottlieb. Steve and Jim Shields teach an astronomy class at San Francisco State's field campus near a turn in the road known as Basset's Station, along highway 49. Along with Steve, Jim and Marsha were Richard Navarrete, Ray Gralak and myslef. This group was kept small on purpose, as the site we were heading for is quite primitive, having no amenities whatsoever, and other than Jim and Steve, the rest of us had no idea what to expect in useable set up or camping space. To get to the good news first, the site is quite useable, but only under very specific conditions. I will get to that later in this report.

With a fresh cup of coffee and muffin, Marsha and I followed Richard out of the restaurant parking lot. We were the last to depart, with Ray, Steve and Jim leading the way, knowing how to get to our destination. Our next stop was the town of Truckee, which I have only seen in winter on my way to various Lake Tahoe north shore ski resorts. The town is quite active in summer, so much so that in town and along interstate 80 we ran into heavy traffic. After a short lunch in Truckee, Ray, Richard, Marsha and I headed north along highway 89 toward Basset's Station. On the way we passed several nice campgrounds along the Little Truckee River, and eventually found ourselves driving along the south west perimeter of a wide high valley between the burgs of Sierraville and Stattley. Richard, Marsha and I talked by CB about this very large (literally miles), very flat, and very high valley (at least 6,000 ft elevation) as a potential observing location for a large group. I naturally wondered about it as a site for a large star party, as the total area could hold tens of thousands of amateur astronomers. We, of course, would only need a small portion of the land. It will be worth checking into.

So, we followed highway 49, climbing the thickly forest lined mountain roads higher toward Basset's Station. We arrived, relaxed for a while, and eventually Jim and Steve pulled in. Unbelievably, Steve met some friends from Los Angeles at the small store/restaurant, out here in the middle of Sierra County. Small world. After a short stay, we headed up to the target observing site, to set up and have dinner, since it was now getting late in the afternoon.

The site has an unbelievable view of the Buttes, jagged mountain peaks rising up over 8500 feet to our southeast. To our left, down a relatively severe fall line, sat beautiful Packer Lake, and other smaller lakes among the pine tree forest. The sky was blue, but some cloud, or perhaps haze, lay low along the horizon to the east and west. The site was dirt, with fallen trees, dead standing trees and some pines to the south east. The ground was covered mostly with Mule's Ear, which gave off a noticeable "spicey" smell, reminding me somewhat of a bay leaf or some other pungent herb. The yellow flowers of the Mule's Ear mixed with some other windflowers to paint the otherwise drab brown surface atop this portion of the high range of mountain that defines California's eastern extremity.

We prepared dinner, individually, as Jim and Steve drove back to Basset's Station to eat. When they arrived back, the sky was beginning to darken, after an absolutely glorious red sunset over multiple pine covered mountains to our west.

We stood alone, six humans atop the Sierra's, ready to meet a dark sky. Ancient photons from a location mostly unchanged, or at least mostly unimproved, over the course of human history. Then it got dark. Night revealed the beauty of our place in the Milky Way. Stars were everywhere.

I looked to the west, seeing how low Arcturus was getting. Arcturus setting with the sun mean an end to summer for me, and a portend of winter. In fact, my nights on this trip would end with views of Orion, the archetypical symbol of winter throughout human history, laying on his side, rising from his summer's sleep.

So there was Arcturus, begin its slow goodby. I knew then that I had only a short time to continue observing the constellation Bootes, before another observing season drew to a close. I had planned to observe with Ray Gralak, but i got so caught up in my own experience that first hour, that I found I was observing on my own. Even when observing with friends, this is an experience so personal, the quest, the successes and failures, that it is almost always a very personal experience, with only a few exceptions I can recall.

I will skip the objects I showed the public, as they were not on my observing list, and I've written much about the big and bright before. But, I will mention the public, as you are probably wondering *how* did the public find you? Well, I don't know. We were literally about as far from any publicity or main roads as I can imagine. Yet, as sunset drew near, people camping in the area, or day hiking came by and were astonished to find what they perceived as "awesome" telescopes out in the middle of nowhere. As if nowhere had a middle. So, these people must have said something back at their campsites, or at the general store miles away in the little crook in the road thing that passes for a town, and people showed up. I was amazed.

The first object I viewed for myself was NGC5600 (U09220 = M+03-37-013) in Bootes, this is a type Scp galaxy at RA 14 23.8 Dec +14 38 and 1.4x1.4 size, at mag 12.7 surface brightness (all mags in this report are surface brightness). It is found easily, drawing a line from Arcturus to 20 BOO, visible at mag 5.0, then continuing that line beyond and about half again the distance then slightly toward 30 Zeta-BOO. The nearest galaxies to the eyepiece field were NGC5587 (mag 13.2) and NGC5591 (mag 13.3). But I did not seek them out.

Next was NGC5665, also in Bootes. This galaxy is also known as U09352 = M+01-37-024 = Arp 49. I will need to start keeping track of Arp numbers now. I wonder how many I've actually observed without knowing it? NGC5665 is a class Scp round galaxy, at RA 14 32.4 Dec +08 05, size 1.9x1.3, and mag 12.8. It too sits alone in the star field. This find proved rather difficult, and took some time. Not until I could find a chain of stars extending down from Arcturus, did I know how to approach locating it. The stars I "walked" there are Arcturus to 20 Boo, to 18 Boo, to the wide double star 15 Boo, where I turned almost 90 degrees toward the galaxy finding Wide Double Star 9427 (SAO 120426, mag 5.1), then 31 Boo. Sitting between SAO 120426 and 31 Boo is NGC 5665.

On to NGC5687. It is so good to be able to recognize the constellations, as it make star hopping a cinch. This object is a short hop off what I perceive as the raised arm of the shepherd.... or 27 Gamma Boo to 19 Lambda Boo, to mag 4.1 23 Theta Boo. Looking at the distance between Lambda and Theta, go about 1/3rd that distance beyond Theta and you should be right around the target, an elongated galaxy class E-SO, 2.4x1.7 in size, located at 14 RA 34 52.3 and Dec +54 28 33. This object shines at mag 13.1. sitting just 2 minutes away from 5687 is MCG 9-24-19, a small .4x.4 galaxy about mag 14.1, glimmering in the field.

NGC5820 is a bit more of an obscure hop, but easy if you study the sky a bit first. We were at 23 Theta Boo on the last hop. Just off that star is a naked eye double... 21 Iota (itself a double with a mag 8.8 companion) and mag 6.1 SAO 29086 on the Theta side of Iota. Think of 21 Iota pointing to Theta, then continue that line about 5 times the distance, toward but not to mag 5.2 SAO 29407. If you measure correctly, you should find the double star SAO 29372 (mag 6.8) and SAO 29370 (mag 7.4) with a separation of about 1 minute, in the field of view... in the field should be NGC5820, aka U09642 = M+09-25-001 = Z273-038 = Z274-004 = Arp 136 (look at that! Another Arp!), a mag 12.9 elliptical galaxy (1.7x1.1) with two close companions. Can you see the others? NGC5821 at mag 13.9? How about UGC09632?

The next object was NGC5859. Above the line described by 30 Zeta Boo and Arcturus, closer to Zeta, are two stars almost equal mag: the wide double 29-Pi Boo and 35-Omricon Boo. Using these two stars to point away from the previously mentioned line, and going about 4 times the distance between Pi and Omricon, you will land in the vicinity of a mag 13.3 glow 2.9x0.9 in size. This is NGC5859, and right there with it is NGC5857, virtually part of the other one, visually, but a bit brighter at mag 12.6 and smaller in size. For those of you with setting circles, these are located at RA15 07 34.8 Dec +19 34 58. Worth looking at, since they are so close together.

Still in Bootes, NGC5930 was next. It is also called U09852 = M+07-32-007 = Z222-007 = Arp 90 = I Zw 112 = VV 823. Another Arp! I wonder if I'll have any Arp's to do once I finish the Hershels? 5930 is a class Sbp galaxy at RA 15 26 07.9 Dec +41 40 34, measuring 1.8x0.7 minutes. It is fairly easy to see at mag 12.3. This is a bit of a relief for me, since I have grown accustomed to working sub mag 14 and into the 15's. I need more half done constellations! Anyway, it is fun when bright stars point right at an object. This is the case for Arp 90. Seginus, the common name for 27-Gamma Boo, points to Nekkar, or 42-Beta Boo. Continue past Beta a bit more than half the distance you just covered, and you will find NGC5930 and at 1 mag dimmer, NGC5929, virtually touching 5930. NGC5929 will appear as a smaller glow right there with 5930.

As much fun as it is to find these distant galaxies, to think of the age, the distance, oh, heck, to hunt them, I do take breaks while observing.

I might have a beer, or in colder climes such as at 7200 feet in the Sierra, a warm Mexican Coffee (2/3 strong coffee or espresso, 1/3 tequila, full teaspoon of sugar topped with whipped cream). I don't care all that much about some demunition of my night vision, after all, this is for enjoyment, and I seem to see okay regardless of a slight reduction of my night vision. I am always careful that I share my thermos as well, so as to not become blitzed and useless. Everyone seems to enjoy the libation, and it helps with socialization and general comraderie, things I find are important to a star party!

While relaxing, I will look in other scopes, or just gawk at the sky naked eye. Those were to outstanding passtimes at this location. Over the two night period, I was able to observe through Steve and Jim's telescopes many astonishing objects. Among these were Palomar Globulars, Sharpless 2-71 (neat nebula), several Abel Planetary nebulae, Jones 1, the bright HI regions of Barnard's Galaxy, and much much more. I can't wait to see an observing report from them. I also enjoyed views of Jupiter and Saturn through Ray's 4" Takahashi, Marsha's and Richard's 10" Dobs, and the great views of Jupiter with a blue filter in Richard's 8" SCT. Lots of bright meteors too, from the very fast to bright and slow with obvious trails.

It was outstanding!

I was not done with Friday night. While Bootes was still up, I was going to work in it. I moved on to NGC5481, located between 23 Theta Boo (top of Bootes' raised arm) and Alkaid ( 85-Eta UMa) in the Big Dipper. With such easy stars to work with, 5481 was a snap! NGC5480 is also U09026 = M+09-23-035, GX type Sc RA 14 06.4 Dec+50 44, size 1.7x1.1 and mag 12.7. Right next to it, in the same field of view is NGC5481 (U09029 = M+09-23-036), GX class E+ at RA 14 06.7 Dec +50 4, size 1.8x1.5, mag 13.3. They make a very nice pair to observe.

By now Bootes was slipping down to the horizon, and I had to start looking for those objects in the constellation that were still high up. I moved to NGC5515 (or U09096 = M+07-29-052 = Z219-057) GX type Sab at RA 14 12.6 Dec +39 19 at 1.3x0.7 minutes and mag 12.6. This object was tricky to find, until I realized I could use 49-Delta Boo to draw a line to Seginus, then half again beyond, and land almost on the target. 5515 is a round galaxy with a bright core, with UGC9081 visible close by glowing at mag 13.9. I also moved over to NGC5536, about a field away... showing nicely at mag 13.1. It is fun when you find a bonus galaxies, and can verify it on a planetarium program in the field. What a blast!

NGCs 5520 and 5541. 5520 is near 23 Theta Boo and the wide double 21 Iota Boo, so it seem not difficult to find. But it was. Richard found it in his 10" Dob, but I just could not land on it. Eventually, Richard told me I was too high up toward the double. It was a piece of cake from there. 5541 was easy to find, since it is one field of view away from NGC5515, which I described above. 5541 is a spiral galaxy, under 1 minute in size, but bright at mag 11.8. In the field was NGC5536, at .9x.9 and mag 13.1. After a while, it becomes very easy to hop around a constellation, as many of the objects are in areas previously visited!

My last object in Bootes for the night was NGC5602, easy to find 3/4 up the upper arm of Bootes between 19 Lambda Boo and 23 Theta Boo. At mag 12.6 this one is easy to see. It's class is Sa, RA 14 22.3 and Dec +50 30, size 1.4x0.8. In the field was MCG+8-26-22. My notes are incomplete on this object, other than I saw it along with NGC5602.

That was it for Bootes, 20 objects before it got too low to be worthwhile. I'd hit it again the next night. Now I'd move to Andromeda, and the dim end of the Herschels, since I'd logged most objects in the late summer sky. I began with NGC845, mag 13.1 and 1.8x 1.0 in size. In the field were NGCs 841 and 832. I love it when there are multiple galaxies, as long as there are not too many to identify. This was found by coming off Beta Triangulum and looking up to mag 4.8 58 Andromeda. A short left turn right there and the galaxies were in view. Star hopping can be easy! I can also be terribly frustrating.

I moved on to NGC982, and had difficulty star hopping. It should have been easy, as the stars 2 Alpha Triangulum and 4 Beta Triangulum pointed right at the position of the galaxy, at about the same angular distance as was between the two stars. But it eluded me for quite some time. I kept finding the bright galaxy NGC1003 just below my target. However, after much sweeping, I saw the glow of a mag 12.2 glow, revealing an elliptical galaxy 3.6x1.9 in size. Target acquired. In the same field of view was NGC980 at mag 13.4.

I was getting on toward the end of the evening. Two of the other observers had turned in, and two more were making noises like they were about done. But I still had a few objects left in Andromeda and Aries, and I wanted to finish those constellation's Herschel objects.

The last object on my list in Andromeda was NGC7707, listed on the NGP database at mag 15+. Magnitudes are seem so subjective, and very by program or database. The one I use for this report is put together by Steve Gottlieb, and NGC7707's surface brightness is listed at 13.6. I prefer surface brightness to visual magnitude, as it gives a truer idea of how bright the object will appear visually.

So, off I went, after NGC7707. Those of you who have viewed the Blue Snowball planetary nebula are probably familiar with three stars in a distinct pattern, where if you imagine a position for the forth star, you'd find the planetary nebula. Two of those stars are mag 4.3 19-Kappa And, and at the same magnitude, 17-Iota And. NGC7707 forms a nice triangle with these stars, on the side of them away from M31. It was not an easy find, regardless of its easy position.

That ended the Herschel's in Andromeda. My final three targets for the night were the remaining objects in Aries. I had begun Aries in September of 1995, slow going for a small constellation. NGC781 is a mag 12.2 spiral galaxy 1.5x.4 in size. It is dim, yet noticeably a very elongated galaxy. It sat alone in the field of view. It was difficult to find, as I was tired and there were no direct bright pointer stars to help me get to the correct location. I settled on making a parallelogram out of three stars, 111-Xi Psc at Mag 4.8, 106-Nu Psc at Mag 4.7, and below the corner where the galaxy should be, 65-Xi Cet at Mag 4.5. After some sweeping, this method worked. Perhaps an easier method is taking 5-Gamma Ari and 65-Xi Cet as a line.... in retrospect, it seems more direct.

Three objects left. I moved on to NGC774, an S0 class galaxy, 1.5x1.2 in size, at mag 13.5. As this object is only 1.2 arc minutes toward mag 4.6 Gamma Aries, it was not difficult to track down, sitting by itself in the star field.

On to NGC1030, this one was found using the mag 3.8 star 41 Ari and mag 4.4 87-Mu Cet to make a line. The target is just under halfway from Mu Cet to 41 Ari, and just a touch toward zenith from there. 1030 was a 1.6x.7 mag 13.1 glow. Close by, I found MCG+3-7-40, which I do not have any data on.

I tried to finish Aries, having only NGC1088 left, but by then, around 4 a.m., with Orion laying on his side reminding me of sleep, I could go no further.

Sleep. Into my truck I climbed. It had been a great night of observing, and I had another yet to go. As I lay in the truck, high in the primitive Sierra Buttes, I could hear the eerie sound of the gentle breeze playing against the shape of my truck. Perhaps it was just the right angle to blow into the grill, or exhaust pipe, but it was as if some spirits were playing unknown wind instruments... it was very unsettling. Then I heard it. Something ran around my truck. I had left a window down so I would not bake in the morning, and now I regretted it, as my ice chest was in there with me. Suddenly, I heard a sound IN the truck with me. It scratched around up near the driver seat. It sounded as if it was at one of the paper grocery bags on the floor. My breathing quickened. I could hear my heart pound and each inhale and exhale. I finally bolted upright with my red flashlight shining around. It was quiet. I lay back down, the wind instruments began playing again, and the scratching returned. Again, I looked around. Nothing.

I lay there listening to the ghostly music, having decided the creature in my truck must be more afraid of me than I was if it. Yet, I could not sleep. It was terror at 7200 feet.

Sunrise came, my observing companions arose, I got up and removed everything from my truck. No wind instruments, no sign of company.

I would sleep that afternoon, preparing for the next night's observing session, which I will report on in another posting. However, one of our party reported a small bear was across the road when he awoke earlier that morning.

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