Saturday, October 17, 1998

Spotted Beast of the North.

Friday and Saturday, the 16th and 17th of October 1998, Several subscribers to TAC met at Pacheco State Park in western Merced county for two nights of dark sky observing. A mild debate had been taking place over the past year over whether Pacheco or Fremont Peak had darker skies. Although the inability to be two places at once makes real evaluation quite difficult, the observing group in particular on Saturday night seemed to conclude Pacheco's skies were indeed better for darkness than Fremont Peak's. Over the past five years in particular (my own experience), Fremont Peak has seen a dramatic increase in encroachment of light pollution, and other than when a thick blanket of fog assists, the location is what I consider more for the education of the public than for serious amateur astronomers looking for a nearby observing site with reasonably decent skies. That is what Pacheco offers, when the winds are not blowing, reasonably dark skies, more removed from the light domes of Hollister, Morgan Hill, Salinas, Santa Cruz and the lower San Francisco bay peninsula. If the bay area were a car, the south bay would, for this area, be driving with its high-beams on. Much of what we had at Fremont Peak has now been blinded by the light. However, "the Peak" will still be my location of choice, when fog drowns, or wind season is in, at Pacheco.

(to skip to the observing report potion, find the ****)

The first night of observing was not one for the books. The winds were changing direction and blowing steadily, making use of my recently acquired 20" f/5 Obsession futile. I would look in the Telrad, and by the time I got to the eyepiece, the scope had moved, no matter how much I tried to stop it. I did find one object I had not seen previously, planetary nebula PK111-2.1 (Hubble 12) located in Cepheus. This planetary is very small, and required matching the eyepiece field with that of the planetarium program _The_Sky_, which I use in the field as my star atlas. The object was, oddly, the first item in my new observing list, but showed up under Cassiopeia. My new observing list is a printout of the Saguaro Deep-Sky Database (I was running out of Herschel objects). So, there may be a mistake in the SAC database. Anyway, the planetary was noticeable, as it did the "blinking planetary" trick.... becoming stellar when viewed dead-on, and growing fuzz (getting hairy) when not looking directly at it. The effect was subtle, but noticeable.

Soon, the wind picked up, my Dob became more hang-glider than telescope, and I took down for the night. I was the group sacrifice, and the god of wind felt appeased, lowering its force to manageable for the remaining observers for the rest of the night. Having Saturday night left, I did not feel particularly disappointed.

Saturday was a pleasant day. There was a mild breeze and temperatures hovered around 80 degrees fahrenheit, with not a cloud in sight. Ranger Clark Dooley stopped by several times. At one point, a few of us were using binoculars to check out the higher peaks to the north of highway 152, when the ranger pulled up. I asked about access "over there" and after a while he suggested that maybe we'd be interested in seeing what else was available in the rest of Pacheco park. Two of us took him up on the offer.... I rode in the cab of the 4X truck with Dooley, and we had a passenger in the back.

Dooley took the truck up a horse trail along the ridge-line forming the northwest border of the park. Highway 152, Casa de Fruita, Pacheco and Fremont Peaks were all easy to identify from the 2,000 foot vantage point. But, aside from one small flat area that I consider inaccessible by passenger car, there are no good observing sites. The views, of the unspoiled wild land laid out before us, were spectacular. I found myself traveling back in time, knowing what the early settlers saw when first viewing this part of California. To our east lay San Luis Reservoir and a wind farm. Dooley told us there were flatter areas over in that direction. Now, you may think "wind farm"... what a terrible place to observe! But, the wind season at Pacheco ends in October, and conditions stay relatively calm until about April.

We drove back down the horse-trail, exited the park, and headed down toward Dinosaur Point a few hundred yards. There, on our right, was a locked gate. Dooley unlocked it and we proceeded up a well maintained gravel road toward the wind-farm. This area looks quite good for observing, being further away from the highway, I doubt we'd hear any traffic, and we would not have any unexpected light intrusion from the neighbors. This area will need to be looked at in more depth, and perhaps a proposal sent to the Park Service regarding astronomical use.

On the way out, I noticed across a ravine, an old road cut into the hillside (maybe 20 yards from us), leading toward the reservoir. I have lately been enjoying learning a bit of California history in the new places I go observing, and pointed the road out to Dooley. He told me it was from the 1870's, and built by a man named Firebaugh (a town in California's central valley is named after Firebaugh). This was the old county road that lasted until the 1920's when the current Pacheco Pass road was built. The old county road had switch-backs, and began down in the area where now sits the San Luis Reservoir. The reservoir also hides the old Rancho de San Luis Gonzaga, owned by a wealthy family in the 1820's. The daughter of the land owner was named Fatjo (not Fat Joe), but pronounced "facho"... and her photograph is shown in a display at Pacheco Park. Fatjo is a hauntingly beautiful woman, who died recently (1992). I found myself imagining her life on the old Rancho, before civilization made Pacheco Pass a main automobile thoroughfare. Her beauty oddly reminded me of a line in the Monty Python movie about the quest for the Holy Grail, where the prince's father talks of marriage to the wealthy princess who had "great tracts of land" (those who saw the movie will recall the scene, and where the hands were located when the line was said). Fatjo certainly had land. She is also responsible for the park as it is today, and as such, for our enjoyment in using her land. Thank you, Fatjo.

Dooley finished the story of the old road by parking the truck and letting us look into the ravine. There, down in the bottom, were large rocks built into a curve. It was the old stagecoach trail, from the time of the California gold rush. I heard how Joaquin Murrieta, a gold prospector from Mexico, who was mistreated, became the feared leader of a group of desperados, and would commit some of his crimes in this area. One could well imagine all these people, living their lives in the Pacheco pass area, under the same daytime sun, and night sky skies (albeit darker) we enjoy today. What a wonderful place to enjoy this hobby.

We returned to camp, ate dinner, welcomed our friends who were arriving for the night, and prepared our telescopes.


I began the night by returning to my Herschel list. The equipment would be a 20" F/5 Obsession, 19 Panoptic, Telard and laptop computer running version 4 of _The_Sky_ by Software Bisque. I had identified several objects in the list that I had not yet observed.

(The coded info represents: NGC number, Other name, Object type, Category, RA, Dec, Size, PA, Vmag, Bmag, Surface Brightness):

N6500 U11048 = M+03-46-003 GX Sab 
17 55 59.7 +18 20 18 2.2x1.6 50 12.2 13.1 13.4

N6501 U11049 = M+03-46-004 GX S0+
17 56 03.7 +18 22 23 2.0x1.8 12 13 13.3

N6495 U11034 = M+03-45-039 GX E
17 54 50.7 +18 19 37 2.0x1.8 12.2 13.2 13.6

N6490 U11033 = M+03-45-038 GX E-S0
17 54 30.4 +18 22 33 1.0x0.8 115 13.5 14.5 13.1
I began in Hercules, observing NGCs 6500 and 6501. I was able to located them, using a Telrad, by finding 86-Mu Herculis (mag 3.5), along what I take to be the leg of the hero bent back toward Lyra, and then finding the naked eye double stars 71 and 72 Ophiuchi (mags 4.7 and 3.7 respectively). The target lay almost in between, with mag 4.7 93 Herculis sitting at the inside edge of the outer Telrad circle. These galaxies were a gorgeous sight, a mere 2 minutes apart. Both are round, and approximately the same size. These were easy to see. While in the area, I also tracked down NGCs 6495 and 6490. All objects were in the same range of brightness, although as you can see, they varied by as much as 1 magnitude.

I then took an unexpected break, as some guests arrived. They looked at the pair of galaxies and couldn't see them. So, I turned the scope on M74. Even though they could see "something" they were not impressed. I turned the Dob over toward M13, now getting low in the west. Bingo... they liked that! They then all got into a vehicle and apparently stayed there until they left at some point later in the evening. A drive all the way down from San Francisco for that? Oh well, some people are just difficult to understand.

I decided that Hercules was now descending into the light dome of San Jose. Although not bad, the light dome is still there. A few estimates I heard was up to about 25 degrees elevation. The skies at Pacheco are actually very good, with excellent horizons in all directions, and San Jose being the only real impediment. One observer did a limiting visual magnitude check and found for his eyes, it was mag 6.4. That's damn good for any area near a major population center!

I looked through my remaining Herschel objects list and decided on trying Camelopardalus.

The four stars that make up the recognizable constellation Camelopardalus are, in lessening magnitude, 4.2 10-Beta Cam, 4.4 9-Alpha Cam, 4.4 SAO 24054 and 4.7 Gamma Cam. The name Camelopardalus means the "camel-leopard"... quite a combination of animals! However, the picture image was used to depict the spotted "camel" known as a giraffe. The celestial enclosure of Camelopardalus, ranges roughly 48 degrees from the bowl of the Little Dipper to the boundary of Perseus, and almost 36 degrees from Cassiopeia to Ursa Major and Lynx. This is a large area devoid of easily recognizable naked eye stars, making non-DSC assisted locating of faint fuzzies a good challenge. I found the most useful non-related stars for star-hopping to be magnitude 3.8 SAO 14908 (23 UMa), mag 3.5 Muscida (SAO 14573, or 1-OMICRON UMa), mag 1.9 Mirfak (33-Alpha Per), mag 2.9 Algol (26-Beta Per). Additional to the previously mentioned Cam stars, a few dimmer ones located approximately between Muscida and Alpha-Cam were useful. But, a few more bright stars would make Camelopardalus a much easier place to hunt. Perhaps the constellation is therefore appropriately named, more the object of imagination and difficulty in observing...

I began this indistinct area by searching for NGC1502

N1502 Cr 45 = OCL-383 = Lund 124 OC II 3 p
04 07 49 +62 19.9 8 5.7

N1501 PK 144+6.1 PN 3
04 06 59.4 +60 55 15 56"x48" 11.5
I am not a big fan of open clusters, but sometimes they can be quite spectacular. The hunt for 1502 provided an unexepect surprise. In trying to identify the shape of the constellation, I made a mistake. Looking in the eyepiece I began sweeping and noticed an nice dim splattering of stars, which I took for NGC1502. Going back to the computer to look at the field on screen, a friend looked in my eyepiece and said "hey.... did you see the big planetary in here?" Well, no, I didn't. I was so intent on looking for open clusters, that I missed a very large planetary nebula sitting on the very edge of the field. It is NGC1501, and was obvious. Large with a surprisingly high surface brightness, and an easy pinpoint central star. Another observer brought over an OIII filter to look, and suddenly the object took on a slightly more oval shape and the central area darkened noticeably and irregularly. Were this object sitting in the place of M57, it would be the most famous planetary nebula. Check this one out... it is not difficult to find... it is on the line between 10-Beta Cam and the northern pair that describe the constellation (mag 4.4 SAO 24054), and on an intersecting line you can imagine coming from Algol through Mirfak in Perseus, to where it intersects the other line. Worth looking at!

Then, another friend with a great 8" f/7 home built work of art Dob, found NGC1502. He too does not like clusters, but said "Mark.... if other clusters are like this one, I'll like the Herschel opens"....

Moving the scope just a bit further on the Algol-Mirfak line, and slightly up, such that the constellation line is just inside the outer edge of the Telard's 4 degree circle, puts you right in the neighborhood of NGC1502. What a beauty! There is a tight condensation of several brilliant stars, and another lone bright pair outside the main body of the cluster. The cluster also has several dimmer components, but this one is no mistaken open cluster! This is a fine example of the class of object!

Now I was jazzed. Even though the constellation itself was nothing to write home about, it did have some very interesting objects. I moved on to hunting for NGC2403.

N2403 U03918 = M+11-10-007 = Z309-040 = Z310-003 GX Sc
07 36 54.5 +65 35 58 21.9x12.3 127 8.5 8.9 14.4
Huge! I could not believe it! Located in the void of Camelopardalis, where the constellation's territory dips toward the nose of the Great Bear (Ursa Major) and the northern boundary of Lynx, this galaxy is a real treat. Look at the size of it! No wonder it has low surface brightness, but still, with work, many of its features are visible. I was so overwhelmed at the size of this find, I failed to look for nearby MCG11-10-13 or UGC3894. I'll need to visit this one again, perhaps next weekend under darker skies. To find NGC2403, you need good spatial relations and a bit of luck. Taking Muscida (the nose of Ursa Major), go just under one-third the distance toward mag 4.4 9-Alpha Cam, and place your Telard's outer circle such that mag 5.8 star SAO 14211 sits just above it. You are now in the area... have fun!

Next on the list was NGC1961

N1961 U03334 = M+12-06-007 = Z329-008 = Arp 184 = IC 2133 GX Sbp
05 42 04.4 +69 22 46 4.6x3.0 85 11 11.7 13.7
Hey... I love it when I hit one of the "famous" list objects. No, not Messier, not Herschel.... I mean Arp or Abell, those types. This one, NGC1961, an eye full, is also known as Arp 184. It is in a rich field of galaxies, and is quite large. Taking the line from SAO 24054 (the top of Camelo), across to 9-Alpha, you can continue to just about hit mag 4.7 SAO 13788 about eight and a half degrees more toward Ursa Major. Using Alpha and SAO 13788, you should place your Telrad's outer circle just above the line and about one third the way from the SAO back toward Alpha. While there, you can also track down CGCG329-11, UGC3342, UGC3344 and UGC3349. These are all easy to identify fainter galaxies near the Arp galaxy.
N2366 U03851 = M+12-07-040 = Z330-038 = Mrk 71 GX Ir
07 28 55.0 +69 12 57 8.1x3.3 25 11.1 11.4 14.6
NGC2366 is another large galaxy. I was beginning to think I'd been missing the boat, staying away from this empty part of the sky. But, it certainly has its share of big galaxies. This one i 8.1x3.3 minutes, but the surface brightness is nominal, in the mid-14's. With enough aperture, that is not too dim, although it was very difficult to find, and equally so to hold in vision. This galaxy is in the emptiness of Camlo also. To find it, get to SAO 14908, the mag 3.8 star between the top end star in the Big Dipper's bowl, and the end star of the bear's nose. NGC2366 is now just about half way between that star and 9-Alpha Cam. Slightly toward Alpha, you'll see two stars close together at mags 5.0 and 5.1, with a 4.7 closer to Alpha. Take the 4.7 and the 5.1 (the northern of the 5.0 and 5.1 pair), and from the 4.7 extend a line through the 5.1 till you find a mag 5.8 star (SAO 14211). Place the middle Telrad circle so the inside bottom edge almost touches the mag 5.8 star. There you are...
N2655 U04637 = M+13-07-010 = Z349-033 = Z350-007 = Arp 225 GX Sa
08 55 38.5 +78 13 25 4.9x4.1 85 10.1 11 13.2

N2715 U04759 = M+13-07-015 = Z350-012 GX Sc
09 08 06.4 +78 05 07 4.9x1.7 22 11.2 11.8 13.4
Another Arp, and a BIG one! Alright! Far from the recognizable shape of the constellation, between Ursa Major and Polaris, this one lives. I felt like I was lost in the Sahara, with not a single good landmark to help guide me. I believe I used mag 5.0 star SAO 7164 in Draco and mag 4.8 star SAO 6022 in Camelopardalus as my guides. NGC 2655 lies a tad closer to the mag 4.7 star, and just north of the line described by the two. To get to this pair of stars, I used the end stars in the Big Dipper as a measure, and went about twice the distance between them to the mag 5 star in Draco. Locating the other star from there was easy. Along with 2655, NGC 2715 was close by, large and elongated. Also found were UGC4701 and UGC4714, both fainter and smaller than the nearby NGCs.
N1569 U03056 = M+11-06-001 = Z306-001 = Arp 210 = VII Zw 16 GX Irp
04 30 48.6 +64 50 56 3.6x1.8 120 11 11.9 12.9
I moved next to NGC1569, dimmer by at least a magnitude than the prior targets. This one was also an Arp, and as can be noted by the NGC number, a good distance away from any prior target. But, that proved a benefit, as the location was actually inside the body of the constellation lines! I used 9-Alpha and a line to mag 4.4 SAO 25054 to get there. I placed the outside Telard circle about 2 degrees off Alpha, toward the SAO, and just slightly below the line. After a bit of poking around, I found the object. My notes call it a bright galaxy, and indeed the surface brightness is listed higher than the prior objects.
N2347 ? U03759 = M+11-09-039 = Z309-026 = IC 2179? GX Sb
07 16 04.0 +64 42 41 1.8x1.3 175 12.5 13.2 13.2
NGC2347 and the nearby galaxy IC2179 are easy to see. It is odd to me that the this above listing suggests that NGC2347 and IC2179 may be the same object, as other catalogs show them as separate, and I was able to identify them as unique. Both are bright, and where plotted on _The_Sky_. Getting there is a snap... it sits almost half-way between SAO 14908 (between the dipper's upper end bowl star and Muscida the nose star of Ursa Major), and mag 4.2 10-Beta Cam, and to help, you also have a right angle formed by Muscida and mag 4.5 15-Lyn in Lynx (you can see a pair of nearly equal magnitude stars forming this end of Lynx). The right angle is formed on the northern side of the two stars.
N4127 U07122 = M+13-09-012 GX Sc
12 08.5 +76 48 2.5x1.2 140 12.7 13.4 13.7
NGC4127 was the beginning of the end for me, for my night with the giraffe. It was getting late now, and my second night in the cold and dark was beginning to take its toll. My visual acuity was waning, and I was having more difficulty recognizing patterns in the sky, even though the constellation was now significantly higher up. This object, and the next, took so much of my observing time, I would have to classify them as most difficult.... but not so much for their view in the eyepiece, as for the inability to locate them. I used the end stars of the Little Dipper as pointers toward mag 5.1 star SAO 7522, at the very boundary of Draco and Camelopardalis. This is about as far from the recognizable constellation of Camelo as one can get. Once I had the mag 5.1 star in the center of the Telard (it was not easy to do!), I moved it to the northern edge of the 2 degree marker on the Telrad's display. That's all it took. Glowing dimly was NGC4127, alone.
N3901 U06675 = M+13-09-001 GX Sc
11 42.9 +77 23 1.8x0.8 165 13.7 14.4 13.9
This was the last object I would attempt on my list for the night. The giraffe had worn me down. It had won. It used its dimness to defeat me. The spotted beast of the north was a tall order which for me, was too much. Yes, after finding 3901, all I have left (for next weekend) in this part of the sky are three dime galaxies. I will have its spots next weekend! Not far from NGC4127 sits NGC3901. It is even closer to Draco's borderline. I think I used Polaris as a stepping stone on this one, first finding the naked eye pair mag 5.3 SAO 1714 and mag 4.6 SAO 1551, then moving still further from Polaris to the pair mag 5.1 SAO 7522 and mag 5.0 SAO 7164. NGC3901 lies between these two, closer to the mag 5.1 star. Place the 5.1 such that is sits in between the outer and middle lines of the Telrad circle, with the mag 5.0 star in a line directly across the circles. This will put you in the right area. It was a lot of work for this almost-ain't-there, and signaled time to call it a night.

However, several observers were still up, and had some objects they wanted to view in larger aperture. I turned the scope over to them. One fellow observer found the Horsehead.... I've had better views, but it was definitely there using an Orion Ultrablock. M42 with the Ultrablock was beyond words. If there can be an "in the presence of God" experience for an amateur astronomer, it is seeing pinpoint stars in the Trapezium and thick frosting like nebulosity extending away, wing like, from the Trap and M43, but forming a complete circle of nebula easily viewed. It was magnificent.

Another observer called me to her scope to look at an object. I found NGC891 easily recognizable. I put it in the 20" and climbed my 5 foot ladder, bracing myself at the top with my knees, and saw a black dust lane bisecting the edge-on spectacle.

Someone put the 20 on M35, then to the small NGC open cluster next to it. The scope was performing magically.

By now though, it was late on the second night. Other observers were turning in, and the temperature was continuing to drop. My feet were starting to get chilled, and the sleeping bag was inviting.

I awoke to find only two other observers at Pacheco with me in the morning. One commented how, after packing up, it was amazing that there was no sign of our having been there. I agreed, knowing that I was taking everything I'd brought along home with me. But I was really leaving with a lot more. It was a rich and rewarding night.

Can't wait until next weekend....

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