Lassen: The Eagle, the Little Dipper, and Vulpecula

Darkness falls slowly at Lassen National Park in July. Friday, my first night at Lassen, the group of TACyons assembled at Devastated Area had plenty of time to stand around socializing and digesting the excellent fare from the picnic that afternoon while waiting the hours dividing sunset and true dark. Nighthawks swooped overhead, and snow-covered Lassen Peak loomed large in the distance.

Nighthawks gave way to bats as the Milky Way emerged out of the darkening sky, and the observing began. I had brought my new-to-me 13.1" f/4.5 dobsonian and my old 4.25" f/4 RFT -- both have early eighties Coulter optics, both have an open-tube truss design, so bringing both might seem redundant, except for the factor of 9.5 difference in light gathering power and the factor of 3.5 in focal length ...

John Kuklewicz had compiled an extensive list of summer deep-sky objects, similar but not identical to the list posted earlier on the TAC list, which I turned into a web page, It made an excellent starting point for an observing list, and start on it I did -- but each time I found an object on the list, I found myself distracted either by nearby objects in my H-B atlas, or by the naked-eye views of the glorious Milky Way, its dark areas clearly defined, its clusters and nebulae gleaming here and there like the sun sparkling off ripples in a stream. I spent a remarkably large part of my time at Lassen simply gawking naked-eyed at the amazing sky rather than searching for faint objects in a telescope. Many other observers I talked to had the same experience.

When at the telescope, I concentrated mostly on faint objects, objects which normally might not show well from locations closer to the light dome of the bay area. The Veil was showing a huge amount of structure in the interior, between the brighter two halves that I'm used to seeing; in my short-focal-length 4.25" I could just barely see the whole Veil, both pieces at once; the view was improved by replacing my 25mm Plossl with a borrowed 35mm Ultrascopic.

When M31 rose, it didn't occur to me to look at it -- been there, done that, got the t-shirt -- until an observer looking through another Coulter 13.1" parked next to mine suggested comparing views. I did -- and spent the next twenty minutes transfixed, exploring this large neighbor of our galaxy, its many bright patches (star clusters or nebulae) and its halo of near-stellar but slightly fuzzy points which I suspected to be globulars.

The seeing, alas, was rather poor; when Jupiter rose, I could see little detail on the planet's surface. Eventually people started to pack up, and I followed suit, wanting to save some energy for the remaining nights.

Saturday, Rod Norden led a bird walk around Manzanita Lake for interested TACyons. The walk was fairly well attended (perhaps ten people? I didn't count) and was very enjoyable. Relatively few birds are active around mid-day (Rod correctly assumed that an 8am bird walk, when more birds are likely to be active, would not be well attended by astronomers :-), but down by the lake there was still quite a bit of activity, including a mother coot swimming with her red-headed young, several red-winged blackbirds performing aerial displays for their partners, some pie-billed grebes, several families of ducks right by the water's edge (and unafraid of people), and an assortment of jays, woodpeckers, warblers and other birds. Rod told us to look for dippers -- interesting birds which fly under water -- but we didn't see any. Eventually Rod had to return to camp to pack for the trip home, and left the rest of us to make our way back slowly, watching the wildlife along the way. It was only a few minutes after Rod had left us that someone noticed the large, black and white raptor soaring over the lake. Perhaps the osprey which was reported to live in the area? No, as it came closer, it was clear that it was larger than an osprey, and held its wings differently. Finally it came close enough to identify -- it was a bald eagle! The white head and tail were obvious. Those of us with cameras pulled them out and began snapping. The eagle wasn't entirely cooperative about posing, but I'm hoping some of my shots come out.

Back to camp for some resting, socializing, and eating, then it was time to go back to Devastated Area to get ready for the big public show. I arrived a little before sunset, and still ended up at the far end of the lot, which was crowded with telescopes. After setting up my 13", I decided to take a short hike while waiting for sunset. Enchanted Meadow sounded promising, and the trailhead looked like it was only a short walk from the observing area, so I took off on foot (after unsuccessfully trying to talk a few other observers into joining me). Ten minutes down the road, I left the roadside and found myself at Hat Lake, a small marsh teeming with birds, and there I finally saw some dippers. They're much smaller than I expected; they dive into the water, then stay under water for a minute or more at a time, surfacing for air every few seconds, before they finally burst explosively out of the water and back into the air. Hat Lake also had a teeming population of tree swallows and Vaux swifts, chasing flying insects and skimming across the surface of the lake to drink. As the sun set behind Chaos Crags, a doe wandered through the meadow, and an eerie mist came out of nowhere to drift a few inches high across the surface of the lake. The mist lingered for a minute or two, then cleared. The temperature dropped, the skies began to darken, and it was time to return to the observing area, taking time along the way to play hide-and-seek with a 4-point buck in velvet -- we would stand watching each other, then he would step behind a tree, I would move a few feet to the left so I could see him again, and we would watch each other for a little longer.

The public show was satisfying. There weren't a huge number of people there -- perhaps five at each telescope at any given time, not too many that the waits in line were long -- and most of them were very polite, asked good questions and seemed very interested in astronomy, somewhat more so than the typical star-party-goer in the bay area. We had been warned that the Lassen population on July 4 weekend tended to be a partying crowd rather than a nature-loving crowd; perhaps those partiers were all back in their campsites, and we got the folks serious enough about nature to brave a national park on a holiday weekend. I found it very enjoyable to be able to show guests fairly faint objects like the Veil nebula, or NGC 4565, and have everyone not only see it, but be able to see the shape and describe details and ask questions about what they were seeing.

Around midnight most of the public left, and the more serious observing began. A lot of astronomers left about then; I couldn't figure out why, since I thought the skies were actually better than the previous night, notwithstanding the occasional small cirrus cloud that would drift across the southern sky. I stayed several more hours, got a little farther on the Lassen challenge list, continued to be distracted by objects not on the list and by naked-eye views of the Milky Way, and enjoyed myself without actually making much progress on the list. (I'm not much of a methodical list-follower, in case that's not obvious by now.)

Since I had arrived at Lassen a day later than many attendees, I had had a chance to print out Craig Cholar's predictions for tethered satellite passes. I've been unsuccessfully trying to see this beast for many months, and I was determined to see it at Lassen. Unfortunately, I missed the Friday pass and the first Saturday pass due to being distracted by one thing or another early in the evening, but at 0:57 I was ready with my 4.25" and 25mm eyepiece (17x) pointed about a degree above Arcturus. I heard someone call "I have it!", and then I saw it, too, a ghostly line of light moving slowly across the sky. It's a very weird view, like nothing I'd ever seen before. The endpoint satellites weren't visible at first, but as I followed the apparition, one satellite began blinking, then stopped, then the other one blinked. I followed the tether for over five minutes; it faded noticably a little after it passed Polaris, to where I was using some averted vision to see it, but didn't fade much more as I tracked it lower in the sky until it finally vanished in the trees.

I hadn't decided for sure whether I was staying through Sunday night; but I awoke on Sunday feeling fairly energetic and decided to stay, since I hadn't seen the Bumpass Hell site yet, reputed to be better than the Devastated Area site. I spent Sunday mid-day hiking from Summit Lake to Little Bear Lake, hoping to find a spot from which to get a good view of the cinder cone far out on the east end of the park (the map says "fantastic lava beds" lie around the foot of the cinder cone, but I have unfortunately not had an opportunity to confirm this), but the view to the east was always blocked by hills or trees. I did get spectacular views of snow-covered Lassen Peak and nearby Brokeoff Mountain. Back at camp, evening grosbeaks and western tanagers flitted through the trees, competing for title of Most Colorful Bird.

The Bumpass Hell site is some 2000' higher than Devastated Area, and still had some snow on the ground at the parking lot level (which is about 1000' higher than Bumpass Hell itself, a volcanic pit full of sulfur pools, steaming fumaroles and boiling mud pits. Smelly but fascinating). The temperature, fortunately, isn't much colder than that at Devastated. As we waited for sunset, a red fox appeared at the other side of the parking lot, nosing around for food. We watched through binoculars as the fox sauntered along the edge of the lot, ever closer toward us, until one of the group made a sudden move and the fox shied away and climbed down the snow-covered bank at the edge of the lot. We moved slowly to the edge of the lot and looked down, and were able to watch him for several more minutes. "Look, he's eating something -- he has blood on his jaws!" someone exclaimed. We looked, and indeed he was carrying something -- he put it down to get a better grip on it, and we saw what it was -- a piece of bread from a sandwich dropped by a tourist.

As the setting sun burnished the snow on the slopes of Brokeoff Mountain to a salmon-colored sheen, someone spotted Venus. I couldn't find it, but while searching with binoculars, I discovered a very thin crescent moon, just barely detectable against the still-bright sky. Lovely! An 8" LX200 said it was at 5.5% illumination, and gave excellent views of the craters near the limb. Venus showed an obvious gibbous phase, not the swimming multicolored mess we were used to seeing. This was clearly going to be a good night.

Soon we saw the Milky Way emerge. The sky wasn't even remotely dark, yet already we could see more of our galaxy than we usually can in full darkness at Fremont Peak. This was going to be a good night -- and indeed, the air was very steady, promising much better seeing than the previous nights at Devastated. We spent a brief moment in sympathy for our fellow observers who had been up late partying the night before and so had declined to come to Bumpass, then got down to some observing.

I spent a little time on faint fuzzies and the challenge list, but I was really looking forward to seeing M31 rise over the slopes of Lassen Peak. Last year on the PAS Yosemite trip, I had discovered that one of my favorite views is watching astronomical objects rise or set against foreground objects. On that trip, the highlight had been Jupiter and M22 in the same field, winking in and out among the trees southwest of Glacier Point. A helpful LX200 owner gave warning of when it was due to rise (say what you will about the noise, it sure is helpful to have at least one robo-scope in your observing group!), and I scanned the horizon with the 13" until I saw a small fuzzy in between some trees. The fuzzy turned out to be M110 -- and in a few minutes, the trees stood out starkly against the bright glow of the huge galaxy M31, with small M110 hanging above them (well, actually below since the Newtonian image was inverted ...) Absolutely lovely. This is one of these views which can only be made visually -- it can't be recorded properly on film, because a time exposure will blur either the galaxy or the trees. (Of course, it could be shown digitally or with a paintbrush -- I may try that one of these days.)

I had scarcely gotten over the lovely view of M31 rising and gotten back to faint-fuzzy-hunting when someone wondered, "What is that strange blinking red object in the south?" Indeed it was strange -- two very red lights of equal height and equal brightness, shimmering (it was difficult to tell whether this was atmospheric shimmering, or actual blinking). It's an airplane! (Then why isn't it moving or getting noticably brighter or dimmer?) No, it's lights at the top of a radio tower! (Why two side by side, and isn't that awfully high, and why can't we see the tower or any other lights lower down?) No, it's a star! (Then why is it blinking, and isn't it awfully bright?) We tried to determine whether it was moving. It seemed to be drifting in the field of the LX200; but it also seemed to be drifting in the field of my Dob. Didn't seem either stationary or sidereal. We watched it, speculating, for quite some time before it finally set. A chart check revealed that gamma-1 and -2 Norma would be right about there; but we were never completely sure what we had seen. (Nobody had a cellular phone handy, so we weren't able to call Art Bell and tell him about our observation. :-)

While we were watching the south, we discussed the light dome visible in that direction, even here in the remote wilds of far-northern CA. There were even some direct city lights visible to the southwest, perhaps from Chico. The main light dome (not high enough to be a problem -- perhaps ten degrees or less) was more directly south, and may actually have been from Sacramento, comparing it with the much larger Sacramento and Reno light domes I've seen from Blue Canyon.

We got back to observing for a few minutes, then someone pointed out the lights near the top of Lassen Peak -- a string of five bright lights, slowly moving, and several of us trained our 'scopes on the lights. (Other observers in the group seemed rather bemused that so many of us were spending so much time looking at non-celestial objects instead of tracking down faint fuzzies.) We pointed our 'scopes at the string of lights, and I was able to see enough detail in my 13" to determine that it was a string of hikers, wearing dual-beam headlamps. Who would have thought that a 13" Dob would make a good spotting 'scope? But as long as you didn't mind the images being upside down ("Why don't they fall off?" I jokingly wondered) it was excellent -- it was easy to follow the progress of the hikers, and the light-gathering meant that when one hiker's headlamp illuminated the hikers ahead, I was able to see them fairly clearly. We may never know what they were doing up there -- a military training exercise, perhaps, or search-and-rescue training.

Finally I ran out of terrestrial distractions and got back to celestial objects. The nebulosity throughout Cygnus -- the Veil, the North American, the Pelican, and the Crescent -- was obvious and well defined (and, mostly, visible to the naked eye); the only trick was finding boundaries to the nebulae to distinguish one from another, since the nebulosity seemed to encompass the whole constellation. I toured a number of planetaries in the Cygnus/Delphinus/Sagitta area, initially using a UHC filter, but eventually determining that 150x with no filter (my 10mm eyepiece isn't threaded for filters) worked better for finding planetaries than 60x with a filter. I spent more time on M31 after it cleared the trees, sketching out a map of suspected globulars which I will eventually compare with a chart. In Stefan's Quintet, for once, all five galaxies were easily distinguishable at 150x -- usually (including the previous night at Devastated Area) they're just a vague blur, but the wonderfully steady seeing meant that I could use higher magnification and really get a look at this group.

About 1 am, Jupiter rose high enough to be clear of the tree at the edge of the parking lot. What a sight! I'd been a bit worried about the quality of the Coulter mirror in my 13.1", because it has never shown more than a couple of bands on Jupiter since I got it two months ago, but Sunday night showed me that poor bay area seeing was the culprit. At Bumpass, an unbelievable wealth of detail was visible on Jupiter -- the red (nay, pinkish-white) spot stood out clearly with swirls in and around it, the bands showed whorls and festoons and dark spots, and I could see continuous changes of color in the banding all the way from the equator to the poles. What a planet! What a sight, and what a site! I wish we got seeing like this here in the bay area more often.

The cold breeze, moderately annoying all evening, picked up while I was watching Jupiter, and nearly all present started packing up. I couldn't bear to leave just yet, though, so I and one other observer stayed a while longer, observing, chatting, and doing naked-eye deep-sky observing (a partial list: M81-2 (as one blob), M13, M101, M97, M108, M31, M6, M7, M8, M20, the North American/Pelican/Crescent). Several of these are listed around 9th magnitude, so it doesn't seem possible that we saw them naked-eye, but both of us thought we saw obvious fuzziness in exactly the right spots for these objects. Hmm. In my 8x42 Ultraview binoc, I could separate M81-2, see the companion of M51, and both sides of the Veil. Alas, the chill breeze continued to pick up, and eventually the two of us also packed up and got ready to leave.

Just about the time we were finished packing, the little red fox (our Vulpecula) returned, and trotted across the parking lot some twenty feet away from us. As we marvelled over that, a mouse ran out from another direction, to hide behind one of the tires of my car. We stood talking for a while, pointing flashlights at the ground, and every now and then the mouse would peer out from behind the tire, see that we were still there, and go back into hiding. Eventually our proximity must have been too much for him, or he gave up on the hope of finding food under my car, and scurried back where he'd come from. We, too, scurried back to our tents, to grab a few hours' sleep before the long drive home.