Nelms Star Party 2006

by Mark Wagner

Eleven amateur astronomers met for the Nelms Memorial Star Party at Mount Lassen last week. "NELMS" as we call it (Naked Eye Limiting Magnitude Sensational!), is a continuation of fourteen years of observing at Mount Lassen. Elevation and darkness made it successful, and particularly so at the Bumpass Hell parking lot, although the Devastated Area is not far behind.

During this trip I realized the differences between the two observing sites. Devasated seems darker, with no view of the central valley and any possible light encroachment. Bumpass is two thousand feet higher - perhaps a critical two thousand for transparency - any higher for some people results in negative visual effects.

We stayed at Summit Lake South campgrounds, five minutes drive from Devastated, but fifteen or more minutes (slower heading there uphill) to Bumpass. My campsite was fifteen feet from the lake, a beautiful view out of the screened porch of my tent. Great spot.

A quick bit about the star party. It is by invitation. It started with maybe five friends. That night fourteen years ago when we stepped out of our cars at Devastated and looked up, we couldn't believe how dark it was! Of course, thinking back on it now, we just weren't dark adapted. But it was dark enough that finding the Keystone in Hercules was not easy - lost in way more stars than we were accustomed to. In only a few years the group grew to 30, then 60, and we soon we were going twice a summer. It continued to grow until it was too big for the observing sites, and the Shingletown Star Party was born. Late in 1998 our observing buddy Alan passed away, and the Lassen Star Party became NELMS. Since then, the people that contribute to administering and improving TAC and SSP, and Alan's original observing buddies, all get together once a year in the best place we can, and have a great star party.

Our first night was a short one. Everyone had driven up, arriving from 11 a.m. on. I was a late arrival at 5 p.m. After setup and dinner we headed to Devastated. The shorter drive after a day of driving and iffy conditions made the closer site a better choice.

The mosquitoes at Devastated were very happy to see us. They wouldn't leave us alone - until temps dropped. I expected this as Hat Lake and Hat Creek are nearby and the heat wave had them hatching furiously (and hungrily). I've only seen it like that there once before. We've had worse, but that's another story.

After the skeeters we got down to observing. Joe Bob took about a 21.8 on his SQM thingy - which I've come to understand measures dark but not limiting mag. Dean, Richard and I observed with two 18" f/4.5 Dobs. We were using a list I'd generated of Hicksons, Herschel 2500, Steve Gottlieb SSP Challenge List, and Miles Paul Atlas of Galaxy Trios. I'll provide observing notes at the end of this report. The list provided a challenging objects appropriate for high-elevation and dark skies.

Clouds moved in around midnight. Such are the risks booking Lassen trips - thunderstorms and monsoon have certainly become more common over the past five years up there. Once back in camp, the sky cleared.

Friday morning came with the sound of rain on the tent. At first occasional, like pine needles dropping one by one on the rain fly, then steady, then heavy. 6 a.m. It rained off and on all day, but never heavy enough to drive us into our tents. Some people stayed in camp, others went to Manzanita Lake for the store, escape from the mosquitoes, and showers.

The evening had us hopeful, set up under partly clear but mostly cloudy skies, again at Devastated. Lightning was off in the distance to the east. Two hours later all but two or three packed it in. The few remaining were treated to a spectacular lightning display. In camp we had a fire, sat and talked and had a good time. Lassen always turns out to be a good camping trip, in addition to the astronomy.

Through an open slit on the east side of my tent I could see a clear sunrise. Late morning several of us sitting around together saw a 27 day old moon about 23 degrees off the sun between the trees. From a planetarium program determined where Venus should be.... and between the trees, there it was, bright in the daylight. That was fun.

The day stayed clear, other than normal afternoon thunder clouds building up in the east. Normal stuff that dissipates after the heating subsides. We all headed up, on the last night, to Bumpass Hell parking lot.

This is a fantastic place. To our south an enormous chasm in the earth, the weathered caldera of ancient Mount Tehama - now rimmed by Brokeoff Mountain, Diamond Peak and Mount Diller. To our west lay the pointed shards of the volcano rim, a jagged skyline that silhouettes against the sunset like no place on earth. East of us the pass, with camp camp on the other side. The road still ten feet deep between walls of snow stained red by watermelon algae. North, behind us the volcanic vent of Lassen Peak, over 10,000 feet up top, with huge lava extrusions sticking out of its sides - "Frankenstein Neck Bolts" probably big as Pac Bell Park frozen in place for the last ninety years. What a setting! It is something that *never* gets old....

As darkness fell, and the stars popped out, I was talking with a friend, mentioning how very special this site is, its location among the top few observing sites (for amateurs) in North America. It is an "alive" setting, especially given the geology of the place. It has memories of years and of friends. It provided some of the best observing I've experienced. Standing there watching the Milky Way spin overhead... it becomes a magical.

Saturday night we had one of those special nights. It is difficult to really describe the dark, there are so many stars it does not really *seem* dark. The Milky Way is bright horizon to horizon. Sometimes you think it has a blue tint. But, the space between the stars, the voids, that's dark. The dust lanes in the Milky Way finger out wide into places you never see anywhere else. Barnard's E - The Prancing Horse - is easily seen. That's a rare sky. I've seen like that maybe a few dozen times. The place is made for observing. During the night I referred to it, to a friend, as an astronomical "navel of the earth". Like Cuzco to the Incas, Delphi to the Greeks, Rapa Nui, Makkah, or "beneath the Bo Tree", this place is where you connect like nowhere else. Ancients thought symbolically of such connections as being atop a cosmic mountain.

From Devastated on Thursday night (short night due to clouds): Palomar 5. This globular is an easy star hop from amazing M5. What a great way to start toward a challenge - desert first! There is a nice easy asterism that walks you on a star hop to Pal 5. But that's it. >From there the tough part starts. Dean, Richard and I all struggled with this one. I don't recall Richard's observation - but Dean and I saw a very faint glow just off or involved with a dim star (mag 14) between mag 9 and mag 10.5 stars. To say dim is to barely describe it. This is seeing a ghost of a ghost. But it was (barely) there. I consider this a challenge object - but observable. I should have tried it at Bumpass.

From the Galaxy Trio Atlas we hunted down N6927, N6928 and N6929 in Delphinus. With few exceptions, these trios are a challenge. But, not impossible.

We then went for the Corona Borealis Galaxy Cluster. I've heard this cluster of galaxies are 0.5 BLY distant, and amazing number. I asked about this group, and heard they would appear as fuzzy very dim stars, or dim planetaries - at the edge of perception, and that three, or was it five, would be potentially visible. We had some luck at 283X in identifying three. We saw MGC5-36-23, MCG5-36-20 and I saw for a very short period MCG5-36-18. Only the first was obvious.

Saturday night at Bumpass:

We began in Libra on NGC 5916A, NGC 5915 and NGC 5916. Easy position, using Gamma and Beta to get to a mag 5.7 star between them as the jumping off point. But then it became a challenge. NGC 5915 was bright

and easy, but where were the others? Dimmer, by three mags, and one of them, the brighter one, large enough to have a very dim surface brightness. We worked on this trio for a while.

Next object was off the Steve Gottlieb SSP Challenge list. Fun list! But I found this target bright compared to others. It and UGC9821 showed up well, faint, but really no problem picking them up. Attribute it to transparency and elevation! Nearby is a cluster of galaxies, dim little ones... Navarrete got caught up logging them, I think he quit after 9. When I looked in his eyepiece, I counted seven.

There was another Gottlieb challenge - IC 4553, also known as Arp 220. This dim galaxy is not difficult to see. I don't have notes on it, but if I remember correctly, it seemed to have a very bright nucleus.

NGC 5981, NCG 5982 and NGC 5983. A trio in ... Draco. Do you know these galaxies? This is a classic "worth the trip" trio. Look it up, I'm not going to spoil it with a description. Even smaller scopes, its worth it.

NGC 6070, NGC 6070A and NGC 6070B. This was a challenge. The primary NGC is trivial to see. The other two are challenging. There are two dim stars extending out NE of the big galaxy, and the other two tiny galaxies are just off of those two stars. It is an interesting and beautiful image, look it up in the Digital Sky Survey.

MCG+8-31-3, 3A and an anonymous galaxy are misnamed in Miles Paul's Atlas, as MCG+9... this confusion was a huge time sink, as we were all trying to understand how the trio could look anything like the image in the atlas. Then it dawned on me. Ug. Steve Gottlieb has a simple solution, mark the atlas, correct the number. But its a fun trio. You use two brighter galaxies to hop to the brightest member of the trio. The second brightest member is nearby but dim to the NNE. With magnification, the anon galaxy pops out, in and out, just off the west of the brightest member. Cool, challenging trio. Note though, only two of the galaxies are plotted on Software Bisque's "The Sky"...

MCG +14-08-17 from Steve's Challenge List is fun. There is a very good asterism from which to star hop to this dim galaxy. And there is a treat, and a surprise. Aside from this MCG, there are four other galaxies, dim ones, that in a dark sky will show up in the same field. But even when you find those, they are not where they are plotted, and in fact, there are five galaxies, not the four that are plotted. Check it out.

IC 1534, IC 1535 and IC 1536. Navarrete nailed this one, I had trouble with the field. But once there, the three ICs showed at low power, three dim galaxies close together in a line east to west. As a bonus, another Miles Paul trio (sound like a jazz band?) sits very close to the north, also oriented east and west. The other three are bright by comparison, NGCs 49, 50 and 51. Can you tell from the NGC numbers at about what RA these are located? These six galaxies are a fine sight in one field. I think I've also observed them all from Lake San Antonio, during Calstar.

A new trio for me was NGC 127, NGC 128 and NGC 130. This one is one of those views that you remember. NGC 128 is bright, and close by to its west is NGC 125, another bright galaxy. You have to "Mag Up" (Thanks, Marek, for the wonderful new astro term!) on 128 to "split out" its two very close neighbors - the other two members of the trio. They sit one on each side of the north/south elongated NGC 128 - each just off the midpoint. It is a very cool sight - this bright galaxy girdled by two small dim ones.

BTW... all these observations begin with my 20 Nagler, then I Mag Up to the 12 Nagler, and finish with a 7 Nagler. Sometimes I wanted more power, but there's only so much time...

On to NGC 138, NGC 139 and NGC 141.... these three are very faint. I had to identify star asterisms in the field of view to know I was in the right spot. But they were there. I then moved half a degree east to a tight trio of MCG galaxies, a full mag dimmer. And nowhere to be found. Something for next year. There's *always* something for next year...

Skies at Bumpass were, for me, well over mag 7. 50 stars in the Pegasus triangle - that's NELMS.

Mark Wagner

Observing Reports Observing Sites GSSP 2010, July 10 - 14
Frosty Acres Ranch
Adin, CA

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