Mars and the Heavens, from Hell (Bumpass Hell)

by David Kingsley

Bumpass Hell Observing Report: August 28, 29, 30th.

I drove up Lassen Park for 3 nights of observing near the historic Mars opposition, and the Labor Day new weekend. The high altitude, dark skies, and beautiful setting of Bumpass Hell in Lassen Park has made it my all time favorite observing location since first visiting during a TAC star party in 1999. For this year's visit, I stayed in Mineral Lodge located a few minutes from the South Entrance to the park. The rooms are fairly spartan, but I enjoyed the lack of phones and email connections, and the chance to sleep late in a cool shady room and to shower every day between late night observing sessions.

From Mineral Lodge, Bumpass Hell is a beautiful 20 minute drive through the park. Mark Wagner had warned of possible road construction, gravel stretches, and traffic delays coming through Lassen Park's south entrance based on his drive up earlier this summer. There was no longer any signs of any of this coming into the Park from the south around sunset each day. The road was completely paved throughout, and provides a spectacular drive through the ancient crater of the giant extinct volcano Tehama. Past the active geothermal activity, steam, and smell of sulfur from the sulfur works area. Winding back and forth through millions of years of interesting geology, with the ancient rim of the giant volcano still evident in a semicircular series of peaks that loom above the road in all directions.

In previous years I have enjoyed many hikes, fishing trips, picnics, and swims on trails up and around those peaks. This year I was nursing a sore knee and had to confine my visits to the park to observing sessions each night. However, I have now visited Lassen enough times, and at enough key junctures in my own life, that the whole place hits me like a ton of bricks when I return. Seeing it fresh, and remembering previous visits as I drove along the road at dusk to Bumpass Hell, brought to mind a passage I have always liked at the beginning of Wallace Stegner's "Crossing to Safety":

"Floating upward through a confusion of dreams and memory, curving like a trout through the rings of previous risings. I surface. My eyes are open. I am awake. Cataract sufferers must see like this when the bandages are removed after the operation: every detail as sharp as if seen for the first time, yet familiar too, known from before the time of blindness, the remembered and the seen coalescing as in a stereoscope. ...The light is no more than dusk... But I see, or remember, or both, ...... "

This year, I added three more nights of observing to what I what I will always see and remember when I visit the park. Observing conditions varied, with Thursday having the best transparency, Friday the murkiest skies and the strongest winds, and Saturday the steadiest skies while they lasted. Here is a capsule summary for anyone interested in comparing observing conditions at various sites over the recent long weekend.

Thursday: Arrived to a completely empty parking lot, and did not see another soul all night. Skies were completely clear, with excellent transparency (the best transparency of the three nights) . Temperatures dropping to mid 40s, humidity around 34%, light breeze or calm most of the night.. This was mostly an eye candy session after several very late nights at work preceding the trip. B86 was a fabulous dark ink spot crowding up against the edge of open cluster NGC6520, with the faint globular cluster Djorg2/ ESO 456-SC38 visible as a soft glow nearby. I love this triplet of very different objects in the same field of view, but it requires very good skies to show all three as well as I saw them Thursday night.. I turned to Mars about 11:15 pm, and let out a low whistle at the level of detail that was visible. I sketched for awhile, but it was impossible to capture the beautiful detail that could be seen at the eyepiece. While looking at Mars, I noticed a small point of light on the preceding side of the planet that got me wondering about Mars's moons. I estimated its distance at about 6 Martian diameters, too far away to be either Phobos or Diemos. A later check of SkyTools on my laptop back in the room showed that this was a mag 10.1 field star. It's magnitude was in the range of Mars's two satellites however (10.4 and 11.4), so I decided to pay more attention to hunting down the satellites when I got a chance over the next two nights.

Friday: A couple of other cars in the parking lot as a I arrived around sunset. One belonged to a departing hiker, one belonged to a fairly new observer with a Meade ETX90 EC who had come up with his dad and a couple of others to look at Mars. We traded some views of other objects while waiting for Mars to get high enough. Unfortunately, not everyone had brought enough warm clothes, and they left by 9:30 before Mars was high enough to show much detail. I was alone in the parking lot again for the rest of the evening.

Friday had the worst viewing conditions of the three nights I was there. Temperatures were 10 degrees warmer than Thursday, but skies were obviously less transparent than the night before. B86 showed up like brown hot chocolate instead of black ink, so I went to Mars earlier than I had the night before. The wind was also a problem, with constant breeze and occasional gusts that shook the scope and caused high power images to jump around substantially. At 12:51 am, Phobos was supposed to be at maximum western elongation. I tried to look for the moon with Mars just outside the field of view, but the bright disc of Mars itself kept jumping back and forth into the view as the scope vibrated in the wind. Still, one small star like point was visible constantly with direct vision a couple Mars diameters from the planet. I sketched its position with respect to Mars and another field star, and confirmed later that I had seen Diemos, but no Phobos on this night. When the wind got bad enough that I was worried about it possibly tipping over the scope, I packed up and headed back to Mineral about 1:30 am.

Saturday; I arrived again around sunset to find two large RVs and three cars in the parking lot. They were all hikers and park visitors that left by 10 pm, except for one RV that remained parked in Bumpass Hell lot all night. I was astonished that there were no other astronomers taking advantage of a clear Saturday night near Mars opposition at one of the best observing locations in California.

The night looked very promising but started out on a scary note. I set up my 14.5 inch Starmaster Dob as I had the other two nights, and went off to see if I could split Antares, which appeared steady as a rock to the naked eye against the darkening sky. Instead of a nice pin-prick star, I saw an elongated line through the eyepiece that would not focus to a point, and that jumped in orientation by 90 degrees as I went to either side of focus. Terrible astigmatism, and I couldn't figure out where it was coming from.

I initially thought the mirror may have gotten pressed too hard against the mirror cell retaining clips as I collimated. So I backed off on all three collimation bolts, swung the scope through a complete range of motion to try to settle the mirror, re-collimated from scratch, and tried again. Terrible astigmatism still there. I know the scope normally gives beautiful images, so I figured something must have happened during assembly. I took out the removable mirror cell, tested to make sure the mirror was not jammed against the retaining clips, and reassembled and recollimated one more time. The astigmatism hadn't changed a bit and I was starting to get worried that the night might be a bust through the scope. Finally, I took the primary mirror and cell out one last time, pushed gently along the lower mirror edge to move the mirror slightly away from the cushioned pegs that normally support the lower edge, rotated the mirror slightly on the 18 cell supports, and let it settle one more time in the cell. Bingo. This time when i reassembled the scope, the usual pin point stars were back again in all their glory. This the first time in two years and countless set ups with the 14.5 inch Starmaster that I have ever had a problem with how the mirror sits in its cell. The Starmaster system normally holds collimation very well and also lets me store and transport the scope in a system where it is easy to move and carry all the major parts. However, during this trip, it must have gotten jostled during my walks with the mirror box into and out of my room at Mineral lodge, or on the winding roads. It sure scared the hell out of me Saturday night, sitting there all set up in an observing paradise, and briefly having to contemplate a nigh of blurry astigmatic views of Mars and other objects on the last night of the trip.

Despite the early scare, Saturday turned into the most enjoyable of the three observing nights. I hunted down a variety of objects, including some galaxy triples, some faint globular clusters from my globular observing project , and a grab bag of objects from a crazy cats and dogs observing list that I have been putting together that I call the Palindrome Project. Steve Gottlieb posted a list a couple of summers ago that challenged people to find all the objects listed as object number 1 in various other observing lists (M1, NGC1, etc). When my family recently moved to the first house we have have ever owned, I decided to check out the NGC number that corresponded to our new street address (863). Later, when the Starmaster 14.5 inch scope arrived, (aperture 368 mm), I decided it would be fun to start observing all the objects I could find that were listed as either 863 or 368 in various observing references . Assembling this casual Palindrome Project list has been a great way to learn about a variety of different historical observing lists, star numbering schemes, double star observers through the years, and professional catalogs. The relatively high qualifying numbers of 368 and 863 for entry on the project means that the list draws primarily from fairly large datasets (Messier stopped way too early, but Herschel's efforts make the list in multiple different ways, both from the NGC and from the subcategories of objects that Herschel listed in his original publications). Once I started going, I have been adding all sorts of fun other things too (like all objects plotted on charts 368 or 863 of the Millenium Star Atlas, or listed on pages 368 or 863 of Burnham's Celestial Handbook etc). I will describe the complete list later, and would be happy to receive suggestions of more weird variations on the 368 and 863 theme. That is a long introduction to the fact that PGC 368 in Andromeda was indeed visible from Bumpass Hell on Saturday night, despite a listed magnitude of 15.8 .

NGC 257 in Pisces was originally listed as object 863 in William Herschel's subcategory II of deepsky objects ,("faint nebulae "). Conversely, NGC 7248 in Lacerata was listed as object 863 in a different Herschel subcategory , (III "very faint nebulae "). Categories II vs III seemed like a pretty arbitrary distinction to me through the eyepiece from Bumpass Hell. Both galaxies were visible with direct vision, NGC 257 as a granualr elongated galaxy with little or no central concentration, and NGC 7248 as a roundish puff brightening to the middle.

One of the prettiest views of the night was actually from the separate galaxy triple list of Miles Paul. Check out NGC 5981, 5982, and 5985 in Draco for a beautiful line up of galaxies with different morphologies and orientations, all easily visible with direct vision through the 14.5 inch scope. These galaxies are located about 100 million light years away. 5985 is a Seyfert galaxy that appears as a nearly face on spiral, 5982 is an elliptical, and 5981 is an edge-on galaxy that has a length to width ratio of at least 8 to 1 visually in the eyepiece.

My hunt for Martians moons also continued on Saturday night, which turned out to have both the steadiest seeing of the three nights, and almost no wind. Skytools had said that Phobos would be at maximum western elongation at 11:48 pm, and at maximum eastern longation at 3:38 am. I swung over to Mars at 11:45 pm and found my steadiest, most beautiful Mars view of the trip. No moons were visible at all when Mars was blazing away in all its glory, so I temporarily moved the bright planet just out of the field of the view. And suddenly there they were. First one, and then two steady pin pricks easily became visible, one located about one Mars diameter, and one about two Mars diameters away. Both Diemos and Phobos were easy to hold with direct vision for minutes at a time under the viewing conditions Saturday night. I could also watch the orbital motions of Phobos easily over the time course of just minutes, as the tiny moon rapidly moved in its tight orbit around Mars. Knowing the exact position of the moons, I moved the planet back into the field of view to see if I could hold them with Mars in sight as well. Phobos disappeared completely, but Diemos could still be seen flickering in and out of view with averted vision.

The planet itself also showed more detail than I have ever seen before through a scope. I pushed the power up over 600x with an 8 mm eyepiece and a 3x barlow and see could structure in the polar cap, beautiful scallops outlines and textural mottling of the dark markings on the surface, and lots of detail in and around the Eye of Mars (Solus Lacus) area. Most of the dark markings on Mars that are visible through a telescope have turned out to have relatively little obvious relationship to the topology and elevation of features on the the planet (unlike the white cloud areas that congegrate in basins and around mountain tops). However Mars is home of the largest canyon known in the solar system, the huge Valles Marineras area that is located as a giant gash to the north of the Eye of Mars region. This mother of all valleys was clearly visible as a dark extended albedo feature stretching from Aurorae Sinus to Tithonius Lacus and beyond on Saturday. I consider that the closest I have ever come to seeing something approaching a REAL "canal" on Mars.

Thrilled with the Mars views, I later began hunting down more deep sky objects with a big smile on my face, using the eye I that had kept shielded when looking at the bright planet.. I was planning to stay up all night but the sky began to accumulate clouds: first low on the horizons, then extending 30 degrees up, and gradually spreading a haze around the entire sky even in the regions that weren't completely obscured. I kept hunting objects at zenith until around 3 am. Then, I looked over and saw that Mars itself was not even visible any more through the overcast skies to the south. I reluctantly packed up, drove back to Mineral, and got a few hours sleep before heading back to the Bay Area Sunday afternoon.

Was a four or five hour drive each way worth it to observe alone on a mountain top for three nights? It was for me, especially after an extremely hectic several months of work and travel that obliterated most 3rd quarter and new moon observing this summer. Fourteen hours of observing over the 3 nights at Lassen more than compensated for the time behind the wheel, and the seeing conditions at Bumpass Hell added depth and detail to the historic close approach of Mars. My only regret was that no one else was there to share the views from such a wonderful location.

I'll be back again next year, both seeing and remembering from one of my favorite places on earth.