Wednesday, July 14, 1999

35 Stars in a Magical Sky

As I drove to the rendezvous point for our small core group of Mount Lassen Star Party regulars, I felt like I had not been home for some time. I had just finished two nights of nearly all night observing at Sierra Buttes with Steve Gottlieb, Ray Cash, Jim Shields, Marsha Robinson, Mimi (the Messier Monster) Wagner and Rashad Al-Mansour. I was wondering how I would last four nights more. Upon arrival at the appointed location, seeing the group ready to go, my energy level recharged, and off we were to the 6th year of Mount Lassen star parties.

Driving north away from the greater San Francisco bay area, the city falls away and turns into the rolling farmland that makes California's Central Valley a breadbasket to the rest of the states and the world. It is a wonderful drive, between the coastal range mountains to the west and the towering Sierra Nevada to our east. Somewhere out there, to my east, were several of the gang I spent the past weekend with, still up at the 7200 foot observing location. I thought it would be interesting to compare skies, although it is subjective and difficult to do without same real-time data. But, I would come to some definite conclusions by the end of my four nights at Mt. Lassen.

Finally reaching our turnoff from northbound highway 5, we were heading east and uphill, with the peaks of Mt. Lassen to our face, and hints of Mt. Shasta to our left. These peaks are interesting geological features, Lassen being a plug-dome volcano, and Shasta being a composite example of the earth's eruptive forces. Those of you who recall Mount St. Helen's 1980 blast, Shasta is the same type of volcano. Also notable is the fact that although others will say we were observing in the high Sierra, Mt. Lassen is the southern most mountain in the chain of the Cascades, which run perhaps from north of the Washington - Canadian border south, to our observing site. Mt. Lassen is also notable in that it has examples of every form of volcano, plug-dome, shield and composite. It is geologically unique in the world of volcanism. Mix in boiling mud-pots, steam vents, The Devastated Area, Boiling Springs Lake and Devil's Kitchen portions of the park with abundant lakes (ranging from glacial to nearly desert), the Pacific Crest Trail (made famous by John Muir), waterfalls, meadows full of wild flowers and wildlife, and observing sites at 6,000 and 8250 feet, and there can be no better location to hold a star party for the solitary observer or one with family in tow.

This year, after hearing glowing reports of steadier, darker skies at the Bumpass Hell parking lot, our group decided to give the location a try. Some of you may wonder at the name of this area. Briefly, in 1864, a hunter and mountain man named Kendall Vanhook Bumpass, discovered the largest geo-thermal area of the region. He was also the first person to accidentally step through the thin crust and suffer a severe burn (his leg had to be amputated for lack of treatment as he packed out by horse). The name "Bumpass Hell" serves as a warning to other people entering the area. Our observing site, at 8245 feet was at the trail head to Bumpass Hell.

I can't help but tell you of the view. You can keep Glacier Point in Yosemite, with the crowds, the long drive, the sometimes cranky rangers, the concession stands, moving your vehicles away from your equipment... Bumpass Hell is a paradise. Facing south, the only obstruction on the horizon is a solitary tree. Behind you, and just outside the parking lot, are Lake Helen and Emerald Lake. Ice was still on Lake Helen, which was turquoise blue at its shores. Snow banks rimmed the lake, and lay heavy along the sides of the road and along the less sun-exposed areas in the region. Emerald Lake, a bit lower on the south-west slope, lived up to its name. The colors of the waters were simply magnificent. Nature's paintbrush was never more creative, nor beautiful. Still facing south, Lassen Peak was behind us to the north-east. Huge areas of lava plugs jutted out from the Peak, as enormous rock formations jutting out of an otherwise nice cylindrical cone. Pilot Pinnacle and Mt. Diller rose over 8,000 feet to the north-west, Brokeoff Mountain just south-south-west and Mount Conrad to the south-east. At our feet, over the edge, was 8200 feet of descending forest land. But curiously, the area between us, Pilot's Pinacle, Brokeoff and Mt. Conrad, history holds a secret, called Mount Tehama. The huge open area we were looking down upon, between the aforementioned peaks, is 11 miles in diameter, and constituted the base of ancient Mt. Tehama. The Mt. Tehama "strato-volcano" had built up over eons of eruptions, finally collapsing about 600,000 years ago. If not for its caldera being breached, it could have developed into an area reminiscent of Crater Lake. If you visit, stand at the steaming vent of Sulphur Works, thought to be the giant volcano's main vent, and imagine the mountain that once there stood. It is stunning.

So, our view was over this ancient caldera, and the jagged colored peaks surrounding the area. As sunset's light played against the colored rocks, snow and forests, the area took on a magical feel. When darkness faded the caldera into hues of gray and black, it was easy to feel as if I were standing on the edge of forever... civilization faded away, the Milky Way rose in front of me, and I felt all my 46 years of life in the soup of current American culture fade away, and I was transported back to a time when only the earth and stars existed. Before me lay an ocean of geologic history, and celestial delights, all at over 8,000 feet of dark, transparent, steady skies.

My 18" F/4.5 Obsession was at the ready, Telrad serving as my finder and a 20mm Nagler in the focuser. I was planning on continuing the Herschel (2400+) list. My atlas was the current high end version of Software Bisque's The Sky on a laptop computer hooked to a deep-cycle marine cell batter and inverter. These observing tools are pretty standard for me now, and offer endless possibilities of discovery and confirmation.

As the sky darkened, the Milky Way became a living entity, glowing, divided by the Cygnus Rift, fingers of darkness snaking their way into the thick star fields. Behind Deneb was black. The Pipe Nebula in Ophiuchus was just a part of the dark horse. Things hard to see in lesser skies were jumping out. Messiers naked eye. The eye was overwhelmed, and it would be easy to sit and watch the earth turn all night.

But, the eyepiece beckoned. Rather than list all the objects observed, I will give a smattering of the more interesting and/or challenging objects.

NGC 2908 and UGC 5203 in Draco. I had a very difficult time locating this NGC in between Dubhe (Ursa Major) and Polaris. In fact, I gave up and star-hopped back from NGC 3057, which was the next object on my list. I mention this pair of galaxies since the UGC immediately broke the mag 15 barrier early in the evening, and low toward the northern horizon where the thicker atmosphere tends to extinguish such dim light. UGC 5203 was a nice elongated smudge of light about 12' south of the NGC. A pair of 10th magnitude stars sits NE-SW between these objects. These two stars make an excellent guidepost. The UGC is about 2.5"x0.5" running NW to SE.

NGC 3215 and NGC 3212. I began looking for NGC 3215, and was pleasantly surprised to see it has a close companion, NGC 3212. Both are round galaxies in the mag 14 range. There is very little separation between them, perhaps an arc second. There is supposedly a third galaxy in the field, and The Sky shows a 7ZW327 at a dim mag 17.6 nearby, but it was not visible in my view. The field for the two visible NGCs included a number of mag 10 - 11 stars in easy to identify shapes. It was fun to see the two NGCs show close together.

Sitting on the borderline between Sagittarius and Ophiuchus (Ophiuchus is a great constellation, it has everything!), sits Palomar 6, a dim globular cluster. It is not difficult to find the correct location, as it sits on a line between the tip of the Teapot asterism in Sagittarius (star is 22-Lambda Sagittarii, mag 4.2 aka Kaus Borealis) and mag 4.3 Theta Ophiuchi (the easternmost star in the bottom of that constellation). This globular was dim, but not difficult to make out. It appeared to be about 12' in diameter and its core about 6' from a mag 8.5 star to its south (the brightest star in the field).

Since that globular was fun, I went on to Palomar 7. East of Ophiuchus in Serpens Cauda, this object is not difficult to find either. I used an asterism that was once its own constellation, Pinotubo's Bull (60, 62, 67, 68 and 70 Ophiuchi), in Ophiuchus, to help locate the correct field. Pal 7 is a bit larger than Palomar 6, and is not difficult to observe (but maybe it was just the great skies we were under). Helping to identify the field, the globular sits between two mag 7.5 stars widely spread.

I moved to Palomar 8, and found this one a challenge. I am sure I saw it, but as I recall, it required averted vision to detect what appeared to me a haze, reminiscent of observing a faint large planetary nebula (which I would spend time doing later this trip). Palomar 8 is north of the "teaspoon" asterism east of the Teapot in Sagittarius. A Telrad finder makes locating the position a relative snap. But, observing the object was a challenge. Fortunately, it sits between two mag 6.5 stars, one about 26' west and the other about 36' northwest of the object. A chain of about 7 mag 9+ stars run between the two brighter ones, helping mark the correct location for Pal 8.

My favorite Palomar Globular of the night was to follow. Just between the end of the teaspoon (37-Xi2 Sagittarii) and the top outside star of the handle of the Teapot (34-Sigma Sagittarii) sits a small round ball of light with stars embedded. Palomar 9 is interesting... I can't tell if I see stars in the globular, or some foreground stars that are fortuitously positioned to appear a part of the cluster. Still, it is small and easy to see, just off the very bright mag 5 star 35-Nu2 Sagittarii. This one is a winner!

I finished the my Palomar observing with Pal 11. This was a bit larger than Pal 9, but not nearly as noticeable. It was not a difficult object, but was obviously diffuse compared to the smaller one just observed. A mag 8.6 star sits almost in the cluster (perhaps 4' from the center), just east of due north.

I also tried for Palomar 5 and 12, without success. These were fun objects to hunt down, and I will go after others.

I thought it would be interesting to check out objects in my newest acquisition, The Night Sky Observer's Guide (NSOG). A number of use made a list of objects in Aquila and Bootes with volume two, during the day. The list consisted of mostly dim planetaries and galaxy groupings. Here is some of what we observed using that source (all planetaries used a 2" OIII filter):

NGC 6772 - bright and smallish planetary in Aquila. This was at an easy location and presented little difficulty. Using the Telrad and the "tail" star in the Eagle, the object in on the line from there (16-Lambda-Aquilae) to Altair. The disk appears annular. I did not note a central star, but do not recall looking for one. If I remember correctly, this one looked like an "Owl" nebula to me.

NGC 6760 - this is a rather dim globular cluster, perhaps the only one in constellation. It was granular, but not well resolved. I would estimate its size at about 6 arc-minutes. A mag 7.5 star 36' northeast and a mag 8.8 star 25' northeast point at the globular, with a close pair (mag 8.5 and mag 10) southwest about by about 14'. This is a nice find.

PK47-4.1 is also known as Abell 62. It is a challenge. It sits on the line between Altair and 17-Zeta Aquilae, the tip of the western wing of the Eagle. Without the OIII, this object would have been hopeless... IMO. It was very faint even with it. It was as if we (several of us found it) were seeing a slight background "glow" that was barely a change in the contrast. However, with averted vision, the object would show some definition. We were able to confirm by matching the star field with our computer displays.

Next was PK33-5.1, or Abell 55, a very small mag 15.4 object, according to The Sky software. It is positioned favorably just west of the line from 17-Zeta Aquilae to 30-Delta Aquilae, which is the center of the "wings" of the Eagle. Although the NSOG description says this is a difficult object, it was not so at Lassen. The mag 10.5 star was the brightest of the close stars, but there were other brighter ones at the periphery of my field.

The last object in Aquila was PK38-25.1, Abell 70. At mag 14.3, this object too was not exceedingly difficult. A small grouping of stars seems to be almost interacting with this planetary. I wonder if the planetary is part of the group?

I will finish this report with a few objects out of Bootes, then an impression of our last night in the park, when we held our public observing session. We began going after NGC 5490 (page 31 in NSOG), to see the group. It was so low on the northwestern horizon by this time that only the brightest members shown. So, we went after higher targets in the constellation.

NGC 5673 (pg 35) and IC1029 were excellent. Both primary galaxies shown easily, and should present no problem in a good dark sky with transparancy. In the area, I also picked up NGC 5676 and NGC 5660, without trouble. I was unable to find MCG8-26-38 nearly at mag 15, but it may have been a moment of softness.

NGC 5869 (pg 36), NGC 5683 and NGC 5682 were also no problem. 5689 was big and easy to detect, with a definite extended streak of a core. A bright group of seven stars sits near the edge of the field, some of which can be used to point at the galaxies. NGC 5682 was also easy, but breaking NGC 5683 out was not. While in the area, I also picked up NGC 5700 and UGC 9426. I mention the UGC, as it is listed at mag 16.5.

NGC 5795 and companions (pg 38) had me puzzled. It was easy to pick out the main object, and three of the other four. Three of the galaxies lie in a line away from NGC 5795, separated by a mag 6 star. NGC 5797, 5805 and 5794 are no problem to see. 5795, the one listed as the primary object in NSOG, is in fact the most difficult of the four, a dim streak almost touching a dim star. As for NGC 5804, I tried and tried again and again, but could not find it. Interestingly, Steve Coe's drawing shows a position where The Sky will point to (enter NGC5804, click, it shows the correct location), but even with the program set to mag 18, nothing appears on screen. Is it a real object? I sometimes think I see things that are nothing more than.... Lumpy Darkness.

The last night, Saturday, the seeing was tremendous. Before sunset, we could look out over the great expanse of Mt. Tehama's ancient collapsed caldera, across the Central Valley of California, and clearly see the outlines of Sutter Buttes, a series of volcanic peaks jutting up out of the valley floor some 90 miles to our southwest. We could actually see well beyond that, but there is nothing but flat-land until one reached the coastal mountain around Lake County, and Clear Lake, probably one hundred fifty miles away. The sky would remain essentially perfect for our last night, and the public would turn out, there at 8240 feet elevation, standing on the edge of the smaller eternity of geologic time, and the vast eternity of our universe.

I showed the big and bright. M13, M4, M3, M31, M51, M11, M22, M15, M57, M8, M20, M17. All were exquisite jewels, resolution to the max. Dark lanes where none had been seen before by my eyes. The public was so appreciative, many coming from nearby towns, knowing that we put on this show every year. Old friends.

I finally turned the scope toward 52-Cygni, put the OIII back on the eyepiece, moved the scope a nudge toward the beginning of the section of Veil Nebula some call the Waterfall. One by one, I allowed people to move the 18" scope and follow the sinuous threads of the creation's hand across the sky. People would literally gasp in amazement at the beauty and wonder of this object, creation out of destruction. Question after question.... people making the transition from observational astronomy to cosmology, to philosophy, religion, back to creation. It is an inspiring sight. It opens the wonder and curiosity of the human mind.

It was a great night.

Back at camp that night, equipment packed away for the drive home after some sleep, the core group sat around, sipping cold beers, and reflected on times gone by, new people, people we'll never see again, friends, and so on. It is an after-observing tradition.

I mostly listened that last night. I looked up, and quietly counted 35 stars in the Great Square of Pegasus, with no effort. No averted vision, no work. Mag 6.5 with no effort.

Lassen's skies are Magical. When I think of Kendall Bumpass, I can't help but think...

One man's hell is another's paradise.

I can't wait to return.