Saturday, June 12, 1999

A Big Dwarf and The Monster meets the Master...

Friday, June 11, my daughter Mimi and I left our home in Los Gatos for the Gold Rush towns along California's highway 49, in particular, for a piece of land outside the town of Plymouth, once known as Pokerville. The drive was a familiar one, as I have taken my family to the Gold Country for family weekends many times in the past, and we had travel led the same back-road on those adventures as we would heading out to pan for celestial deep-sky nuggets.

Arriving at our first stop, we found fellow TACos Jim Bartoloni and Rashad Al-Mansour waiting at the Pokerville market, where we had agreed to meet for the final drive along dirt roads, gravel roads, and through gullies to our final destination. Soon we were there.

One of the old timers at the location was already there. Charlie Stipplemeyer was inside the observatory building enjoying the shade. He remembered me from my last visit back in September of 1998. I was surprised at his recall (he even remembered my name).

It was warm, and the sky did not look very good, cut we set up. Charlie with a 20" f/4.2, my 20" f/5, Jim's 16" f/4.8, and Rashad's 12.5" f???. About them, Bill Charrington arrived. He brought out a 16.5" f/5.5 sonotube Dob called Evergreen. My daughter, known on this list as the Messier Monster, set up her 10" f/4.5, and we waited for dark.

The clouds cooperated by departing except for some occasional bands along the western and northern horizon, but it looked like we were in for a good night. Unfortunately, we found soon that the transparency was not up to snuff, so started out on the brightest objects on our respective lists. The Monster was pooped from all the excitement of school ending, an impending birthday (all the plans), the big drive where she read the map and was a very proficient navigator, and whatever else excites almost 11 year olds. She turned in by 10 p.m. I was on my own observing.

I began my observations in Leo, where there seem to be endless galaxies to hunt. I would use my 19mm Tele Vue Panoptic exclusively for the evening, yielding a magnification of 134 times.

NGC3862 was my first object. What a treasure of object there was around this galaxy! You will find this galaxy close to 93 Leonis, a magnitude 4.59 star about the "tail" (triangle) in Leo, its angular separation is 00�53'07" and position angle: +230�07'. Dreyer describes this object as very faint, very small, round. It is 1.5' in size, glowing at mag 13.5. In the same and surrounding field I located NGC3873 (1.5x1.3, mag 14 elliptical) with a close companion NGC3875 (1.3x0.3, mag 14.9 extended lenticular), 3861 (2.3x1.3, mag 13.6 round with bright core), NGC3687 (0.6x0.6, mag 14.6, small and round), NGC3859 (1.2x0.3, mag 15, appears elongated - lenticular?), NGC3868 (0.8x0.3, mag 15.3, almost stellar?) and NGC3859 (1.2x0.3, mag 15, round and dim). There were more objects in the surrounding fields, but I did not want to spend a long time in the area, as Leo was already diving head-first for the horizon.

Next, on to NGC3883. The center of the Telrad circle is just north of the same starting star as above. This galaxy is 2.9x2.4 in size, mag 13.1 and round. It is easy to see. There is a mag 9.4 star just west of south from the galaxy, about 5' away. No other galaxies were in the field, but just outside I did observe UGC6725 (1.6x1.3, mag 13.9, lenticular), 27' ESE of NGC3883.

My last object in Leo for the evening was NGC3884. Moving along the line from NGC3883 to the mag 13.1 star, then along in the same direction, you will pick this next object just before running into a mag 7.8 star. The galaxy is 2.1x1.4, mag 13.5, small and faint.

Looking north, I found Ursa Major high and in good darkness. Lots of objects there too. So to the north I went.

Keep in mind, that while all this is going on, other observers are calling each other to their respective telescopes for views ranging from the esoteric, to the most spectacular beginner Messier object. It is a fun way to observe.

Starting with NGC4020, just north of the tail of Leo. I found it hard to believe this was part of Ursa Major. In fact, it sits near the junction of Leo, Coma Berenices and Ursa Major, but in the big bear. The galaxy is 1.9x0.9, mag 13 and elongated. A mag 11 star sits just west of the galaxy, and further east, at the edge of my field of view (almost 31 arc minutes) sits a nearly straight line of stars from mag 11 to almost mag 12, perpendicular to the galaxy and other star. The star field is distinctive and easy to recognize.

NGC4194 is at the back of the Big Dipper's bowl, and under the handle. Most of the Telrad is outside the bowl. This object eluded me in the past, but tonight I found it to be very small and almost stellar. It took some looking to realize where the galaxy was. It is mag 13.1 and 1.8x1.1. You would think at that size it would be easy to see, but most of the brightness is in a very small core.

NGC4500 is also easy to locate. One edge of the Telrad almost touches the star connecting the handle to the Big Dipper to the bowl, while the line toward Alcor and Mizar nearly touches the middle Telrad circle, with most of the Telrad riding above that line. There is a mag 10.5 star about 45 arc seconds due east of NGC4500. The galaxy has a noticeably bright core, and appears like a lenticular spiral some 1.6x1.0 in size.

NGC5376 was located by drawing a line from Alcor and Mizar to 11-Alpha Draconis. The Telard sits just east of that line, with the western edge of the Telrad laying across the line. The galaxy is 2.2x1.3 and is mag 12.9. There are other dimmer galaxies just north and a mag 8.75 star due east (with a close mag 12). Bright middle, perhaps extended. Travelling south from this galaxy, you will come to two mag 9 stars with mag 10 stars bracketing them, in a line. Just northwest of them is NGC5272, a small mag 14.2 galaxy coming in at 0.6x0.4. Just 36' northwest of NGC5376 is NGC5342 at 1.1x0.4 and mag 14.5, a very faint lenticular galaxy.

NGC5389 was a nice target, very close to NGC5376. The surrounding field included a number of other objects. Just east of this object sits two bright stars, one at mag 9 and the other, close-by at mag 10. Forming a line with the stars are a close pair of stars at mag 11 to the north, and on the other side of the original pair, another mag 10 star. The line of stars runs north to south east and is distinctive. The target galaxy shines at mag 13.1, and is a cigar shaped 3.5x1.0, having a brighter nucleus. To its west, opposite the mag 9 and 10 stars, sits NGC5379, a mag 13.9 galaxy shaped more stubby at 2.2x0.9. Going back to 5389 and moving so that you travel between the mag 10 and mag 9 star, you will come to NGC5302, near or just outside the eastern edge of the field of view. This object is small and dim, appearing elongated, but not much more than about 1' in size. UGC8859 may also be glimpsed, a little over 7' south of NGC5389. This galaxy is indeed dim, and required averted vision, its magnitude being mag 15 and 1.5x1.0.

Very close to the border between Bootes and Ursa Major, just into UM from Bootes northeastern-most point, and close to where M101 it, sits NGC5422. This galaxy is a nice sight, at 3.9x0.7 and mag 12.8. It has nice extension and a bright core. It sits in a right triangle of bright stars that overflow the field of view, two stars in the mid-mag 9 range, and the star at the right angle being in the mid mag 8 range. There is also a distinctive line of about 8 stars between the eastern stars of the triangle. This area is fun to hunt around in, as there are many small galaxies in the general neighborhood of M101. On to NGC5430 is on that line between Alcor and Mizar and 11-Alpha Draconis that was previously described. But, this galaxy is a bit closer to Draco. The northern edge of the Telrad just touches the line between these stars. The galaxy is 2.2x1.1, and seems disturbed or mottled, shining at mag 12.8. A mag 8.7 star appears to be foreground to the galaxy and there are some distinctive star patterns close by. 8' north is a close pair, the brighter one at mag 9.8 being one of the brightest stars in the field. Closer to the galaxy, and slightly west of north, is a mag 11.3 and just under 4' away, and forms an equilateral triangle with a pair of mag 13.8 and mag 14 stars. By travel ling from the bright pair to the dimmer triple, then beyond, you hop to a mag 14, then to a mag 12 star, then just beyond in that direction to MCG10-20-59, a tiny mag 15.2 galaxy that was just dancing in and out of view.

The next target was NGC5443, back near the northeastern-most border of Bootes with Ursa Major. It is fairly easy to locate with a Telard, if you walk the chain of stars coming off Alcor/Mizar that describe a straight line along the handle away from the bowl of the Big Dipper. There are 4 naked-eye stars in a chain, then a gap, then two or (if your eyes are keen) three stars. But placing the bottom of the Telrad just above the forth star in the chain away from Alcor/Mizar, you will be in the area of NGC5443 and several other galaxies. 5443 sits just north of M101, shining at mag 13.12 and 2.6x1.0 in size. It is pretty faint, but shows elongation. To its north in the field of view are two pair of stars, all about equal magnitude, three in the tens, the other in the nines. A fifth star sits in the western portion of the field, about equal brightness with the others. Identifying star patterns is by far the best method of object confirmation I know of. From this object, I also hopped to MCG9-23-23 and MCG9-23-25, mag 15.2 and 0.8x0.6 and mag 14.9 and 0.8x0.4 respectively. These small dim galaxies inhabit the area around M101.

M101 was awesome. The extent of the galaxy, its spiral arms, bright HII regions, all showed well by this time of night. The sky was quite dark now and transparency had dramatically improved. M101, while never a blinding object, showed as much detail as I had ever seen it reveal.

Meanwhile, Bill Charrintgon was amazing all of us with the unusual objects he was literally plucking out of the sky. Why such an unusual verb for what he was doing? Because what was happening is to me, mind boggling. Bill has been observing for 29 years now, and is an accomplished deep-sky aficionado. When he showed me the "fish-hook" galaxy... somewhere around Coma B or Virgo, I leaned over his scope to look through the Telrad. "Where's you Telrad, Bill" I asked. "Don't use one" he replied. I looked around and saw nothing up top as a finder, and he pointed down at the rocker box. A home-made 7x60 (I think) finder sat attached. This fell must know star fields to find these dim things with only a finder!

I would find a few more object that night, then I would find myself involved in a arm-wrestling match with a giant dwarf. I located NGC5473 literally on the northeast tip of the border between Ursa Major and Bootes. Looking at the four stars that describe a straight line extending from the bend in the Big Dipper's handle, the Telrad sits on the last of the four stars, but leans a bit away from them. This galaxy also shares billing with M101, as it is a mere half-degree away from the giant's core. A mag 11 star sits right on this galaxy, and a trail of brighter stars fall away to the southwest in a small, tight string. Other bright stars sit one to the northeast 7' away, and to the northwest about 12.5' distant. These are distinctive landmarks. The galaxy shone at mag 12.5, and was small and round at 2.4x1.7. Moving east of the galaxy, toward and beyond the single bright star, and outside the initial field, you come upon NGC5485 and NGC5486, the first being 22' away. The galaxies are mag 12.4 and 13.8, 2.4x2.0 and 1.8x1.1 respectively. 5486 was the more interesting of these two, being brighter in its core rather than just even in brightness across its area. travel ling south from NGC5485 to a small triangle of stars (two equal brightness, the third significantly dimmer), you can go southeast for about 6' to find MGC9-23-39, a mag 14.73 galaxy that is quite small at 0.7x0.5. All these are in the photon shadow of M101.

NGC5480 and NGC5481 are right on the constellation boundary between Ursa Major and Bootes, just "above" the end star in the handle of the Big Dipper, Alkaid. The boundary found approximately at a right angle from Alkaid, using half the distance between Alkaid and Alcor/Mizar as a distance measure. NGC5480 is mag 13 and round in appearance, despite the 1.5x0.9 size. NGC5481 is 3' east of its close companion, and glows at a similar mag 13.3, and is slightly larger at 1.8x1.5. This is a nice view, and can be confirmed by, not only the two galaxies and their proximity, but a nice little T shaped asterism of dim stars just northeast of a mag 11.5 star, also northeast of the galaxies.

Just them, Jim came over and asked if I'd ever found the Draco Dwarf galaxy. No I hadn't. I'd never looked for it. No idea where it was other than somewhere in Draco. Just on a chance I entered the name "Draco Dwarf" into the "find" utility on The Sky and sure enough, it was in the database. I called Jim over and we looked at the location on the laptop. If you can find the star 14-Eta Draconis, and imagine a line extending to 33-Gamma Draconis (the brightest star in the dragon's head), this close galaxy would be just about in the middle between the two stars. I put my Telrad there, looked in the eyepiece, and....

Nothing. Just some stars. No galaxy.

I began sweeping, but still nothing. I started again. Still nothing.

This went on for about 5 to 10 minutes. Then I decided to look on the computer at the star field and size angular size of the galaxy relative to my eyepiece field of view.

The galaxy is a bright mag 10.5, but that brightness is spread out over a surface area of 38.5x24.8. That's larger than my 30.52' eyepiece field of view. How easy it would be to simply pass right over such a large low surface brightness object, which is just what I did.

I looked for any distinctive star fields in the area, and found that there are some good foreground stars right on top of the galaxy. I memorized a pattern, went back to the eyepiece and looked in...

They were in the center. Bingo. I followed a dim chain of stars out to where the edge of the galaxy showed on the computer, and the field grew darker. Back I went, the contrast changed. I called Jim over, and he was seeing the same thing. The Draco Dwarf make the word "subtle" seem too brash. This is a dim, subtle object. But we bagged a dwarf, one who's angular size made it a giant, albeit a dim one, in our scopes.

It was time for bed. The eastern sky was brightening, and I had to drive to Blue Canyon the next morning for the Sacramento Valley Astronomical Society annual BBQ, where other members of our observing group were scheduled to meet us.

It was a good night. I slept from 4:30 until 8, and woke up. Packed up, down to town for breakfast at a local diner, then I was northward bound.

The drive along the gold highway from Plymouth to Auburn went by quickly. Good road for the most part, beautiful landscapes with oak, grapevines, horses, cows, river valleys and the flavor of the old west throughout. The highlight was the surprise of driving through the town of Coloma, where John Sutter discovered gold and began a frenzy that changed the face of the United states and the world. Many old buildings still line highway 49, and the famous river bed is plainly visible off to the east as we drove through town to the north. It would be a fine place to take the family to absorb a bit more of the history that makes California still such an interesting place to live.

Joining highway 80 at Auburn, it was a quick drive on the multi-lane freeway to the Blue Canyon Airport.

The airport is, I believe, on Bureau of Land Management property. It is an emergency facility. The runway lies to the west of the area where we set up our telescope. The horizons were very good in all directions, and the 5,000 foot elevation help promise of some very good transparency. However, clouds were in the sky, and we would need to wait to see what would happen. The club's BBQ, raffle and other festivities were fun, and other TACos Randy Muller, Gary Manning, Bob Czerwinski and Jay Freeman would join us later in the day. I would estimate about 75 telescopes were set up, ranging from small AP Travelers to small equatorial mounted Newtonians, plenty of Meade LX series SCT, a large D&G refractor, big old Unitron and an older 6" f/12 AP on a new Mountain Instruments (gorgeous!) mount. There were lots of Dobs. My 20" was not the biggest, there was a 25" Obsession on a big Equatorial Platform. A real nose-bleeder on top of the 5,000 ft elevation! In fact, there were several Equatorial Platforms, and so, it was not surprising when I heard from behind "hey Mark".... it was Tom Osypowski, the manufacturer of top quality Equatorial Platforms. We chatted for a while, and later he would use my telescope, while I spent time with my daughter, Mimi, the Messier Monster.

I also had the opportunity to meet Larry Meyers, owner of Mountain Instruments, and found him very congenial and an all around good guy. He has an observatory at Blue Canyon, as does the SVAS and a few other individuals. Talking with Larry was someone else I thought I recognized, and realized it was Don Machholz, comet hunter and originator of the Messier Marathon! I called my little girl over...."Mimi, meet Don Machholz" and I told her who he is. The Monster had met the Master. I could not have been more proud, as beaming, Mimi told Don she had over 50 Messiers in just her first few nights of observing.

What a start to the night. Dark began to set in, the sky was clearing.

As dusk fell, and the light faded, the constellations appeared. Before it was completely dark, I pointed the scope at M65 and M66 in Leo. Even though I could barely make out NGC3828 (the third galaxy in the trio), I could see so much extension in the bright galaxies that I knew, if the skies would be clear, we' have an outstanding night.

Mimi and I struck a deal, to make sure we each got some observing time while out with each other for astronomy. So many times, I get so involved with her, I forget to do my own observing. So, we decided to switch off finding objects. This seemed to work well. Since she'd seen all the Messier's that were up just after dark, she began the Herschel 400. Her first object was NGC4038 in Corvus. She had no trouble finding it, and noted how oddly it was shaped (using her 10.1" Coulter and a 20mm Meade Research Grade eyepiece). She'd begun her Herschel 400 hunt finding the Antennae Galaxy. Nice find Mimi!

I turned my scope on NGC2684 in Ursa Major. The mag 13 galaxy seemed small to me, at 1.0x0.7. It was also dim. The object is located just "above" the paw in the Big Bear's front leg. The location is easy to see naked eye. In the eyepiece, the brightest star is a mag 7.9 one just below and east of the galaxy, about 10.5' away. Almost north of the galaxy is a chain of three stars, mag 9.6, mag 12.3 and mag 10.9. These are also easy landmarks. Finally, there is a very distinctive question mark of stars that begin at the galaxy (the galaxy is the "dot"), going east, with the open part of the question mark facing south. When you see this asterism, there is no doubt you are on the right galaxy. Mimi saw the galaxy and recognized all the star patterns.

One of my goals with Mimi, and taking turns finding objects, is to train her eye to recognize star patterns and to see the dim galaxies, before she attempt to find them in her own Herschel hunt.

Mimi's turn had her find NGC4027. This proved too much in her 10", so she swung the 20 over to the right spot and called me over to have a look. For sure, she'd found this one too. It was really pretty easy, the top stars in Corvus point precisely at the location to the west.

I went after NGC2810, again in Ursa Major. The life saver here, for finding the galaxy is, it is on a line between Polaris and 23 Ursae Majoris, the star "beyond" the end star in the Big Dipper's bowl, as you continue out toward the head of the Great Bear. There is a grouping of fainter stars still visible to the naked eye, all mag 5.5 to 6.0, that fall within the Telrad circles where the object is located. Not the easiest hop, but you can definately get there. The galaxy itself is a mag 13.2 is round at 1.7'. It is not very bright, but does have a bit brighter center. It is flanked to the north by a very easy to recognize grouping of stars, that also lead to UGC4697. The stars begin with a small chain of three, the center on being the brightest at mag 11.8, the bordering two at about mag 13. Just beyond these three are two more, just 4' away, the brightest of the pair being the eastern of the two, shining at mag 10.7, the dimmer western star at mag 12.3. Just northeast is dim UGC4697, softly glowing at mag 14.7 and 1.0x0.9 in size. Mimi saw this one too. In fact, she also saw UGC4951, the opposite direction from the other galaxy and slightly further away. UGC4951 is a mag 14.66 object, sized at 0.9x0.7.

I spent some time showing bright objects to "tourists".... and have to say we had an absolutely killer view of M51.... nearly as good as the best views I've ever had. This view would rank 3rd all time, and yes, I clearly recall the other two better times.

Next stop was Mimi, and M67 in Scorpius. The souther horizon was good enough at Blue Canyon for her to resume the Messier Hunt now. The object was a piece of cake for her. Almost instantly she said "I think I've got it." Nicely resolved medium size globular cluster.

I worked my last Herschel for the night, as clouds were just beginning to show up again in the low west. I wanted to help Mimi get through some more Messier's if we were going to lose the sky. Anyway, on I went to NGC3043 in Ursa Major. This one was very easy to find, by placing the 2 degree Telrad circle so the right edge is on 29-Upsilon Ursae Majoris. This places the galaxy right in the field. Mimi describe the object a cigar-shaped. It is a long lenticular galaxy, mag 13.6 and 1.7x0.6. There are several easy to identify stars in the field, a bright one and several tight pairs.

Mimi then finished the night by locating M6, M7, M8, M20, M16, M17, M18 and M22. By then, the clouds had moved in and turned our observing session into an evening of Jay Reynolds Freeman discussing life as a student at Cal Tech. Really, lots of fun, all the way around. About 2 a.m., we all turned in.

I awoke about 3 to the sound of hail on the roof of my truck. A short storm. About 15 minutes later, the sound of a short rain. That got me out of the truck to wipe down the telescope.

We woke at about 8, to find Bartolini leaving, and Rashad packed up. We did the same, and soon left the magic of the mountains and dark skies, heading back down the ribbon of asphalt and steel that makes highway 80, the gateway to Lake Tahoe. Soon we were home, truck unpacked and empty, but our head full of stars and memories.

Thanks to Randy Muller, Walt Heiges and the SVAS for being such wonderful hosts. We *all* had a great time and will be back.

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