History of the
Ursa Major Project
Origins of the Ursa Major Project
by Dave Kratz
And so it begins…
By the summer of 1974 I had nearly completed observing all of the entries in Charles Messier's list of non-stellar, i.e. deep-sky, objects. This accomplishment, however, would not be the summit of my deep space exploration, but rather the start of a life-long journey. Earlier that year I had been inspired by a photograph of the M 81 region, printed on page 246 of the 1962 edition of T.W. Webb's "Celestial Objects for Common Telescopes" Volume 2, to observe not only M 81 and M 82 but also the fainter galaxies NGC 2976 and NGC 3077. The M 81 galaxy group would become a favorite of mine for years to come. In 1974, however, this fine galaxy group helped me decide where I next wanted to turn my attention. I thought that an interesting project might be to observe all the non-stellar objects, within the reach of my 6" reflector, that were located in the constellation of Ursa Major. At the time, I thought such a list would probably contain about 30 to 50 additional non-stellar objects in addition to the Messier objects in Ursa Major. Unfortunately, I didn't have any good reference books containing extensive lists of non-stellar objects. So, I called my friend Bob Calhoon.
Luckily, Bob did have a number of good reference books, and during the course of our conversation, he went through them all. To my surprise the list of non-stellar objects wasn't about 50, but rather over 100. After nearly four hours, we had assembled a list of 109 objects: 108 galaxies and 1 planetary nebula (M 97). Shortly thereafter, I took my notes and copied them onto some leftover accounting sheets, thus creating the first list of deep-sky objects known as the Ursa Major Project. This hand written list appeared in the Baltimore Astronomical Society's monthly newsletter about a year later. In June 1976, the Active Amateur Astronomers of Maryland (AAAM) reproduced the hand written listing in their newsletter. A typed version of the Ursa Major Project finally appeared in the June 1977 AAAM newsletter. Along with the listings in the AAAM newsletters, there was also an invitation to others to observe these galaxies and to send their observations to either Bob or myself.
About this time another amateur astronomer, Bill Goble, became interested in observing the Ursa Major galaxies, and so the three of us began a coordinated effort to find, observe, describe, and possibly sketch these non-stellar objects. As the editor of the AAAM newsletter, Bob began to disseminate the listing, not just to other astronomy clubs in the U.S., but also internationally. Several paragraphs concerning the Ursa Major Project then appeared in an article entitled "A Dimmer View of Things" on pages 33 through 35 in the July 1977 issue of Sky and Telescope (Vol. 54, No. 1). It was just about this time, however, that I went out-of-state to graduate school, and Bill and Bob got married. Suddenly, none of us had time for the Ursa Major Project, and it was temporarily shelved.
For me, at least, the story started anew in the spring of 1984 when I once again had access to a relatively dark observing site, and the time to take advantage of it. Over the next two years I enjoyed a renaissance in deep-sky observing, finding the last of the 109 deep-sky objects in the Ursa Major list on the palindromic date of 5/8/85. I didn't stop there, of course, but continued to find ever-fainter galaxies in Ursa Major and throughout the rest of the sky.
Beginning in the fall of 1999, I started a new project to re-observe some 200 or so deep-sky objects that I hadn't seen since the 1970's. It's really shocking to discover that you've overlooked such glorious objects as NGC 253 for so many years. An offshoot of this observing project was a rekindled interest in the Ursa Major Project. So, here we are in 2003, and Bob, Bill and I are once again taking aim at the galaxies in Ursa Major. Bob and I have recompiled the list, along the way discovering that one of our "Ursa Major" galaxies, NGC 4111, actually lies across the border in Canes Venatici. Oh well, Messier's list contains a number of questionable objects, and the NGC contains a "few" non-existent objects, so why should the Ursa Major Galaxy list be any different. So, NGC 4111 has been retained. In addition we have added a supplemental list of 65 galaxies using a photographic magnitude of 13.5 as the criterion for inclusion. Hopefully, we'll now find the time to fulfill the goals we set forth in the 1970's.
The Ursa Major project first appeared in the Baltimore Astronomical Newsletter and then in the Active Amateur Astronomers of Maryland Newsletter (Vol. 1 No.1). An article featuring information about the Ursa Major project appeared in the July 1977 issue of Sky & Telescope magazine (Vol. 54, No. 1). Historical documents, such as the History of the Ursa Major Project Circa 1977, and photographs of the original Active Amateur Astronomers of Maryland members were recently found. For additional historical information on the Active Amateur Astronomers of Maryland and the Ursa Major project check out Vol. 2 No. 1 of the newsletter.
The Start of the Ursa Major Project
By Robert J Calhoon
On a warm spring day in April or possibly May of 1974, I received a call from my friend, David P. Kratz. David told me he had finished up the Messier list of objects, and was wondering if we could put together a list of objects to observe. He felt that to make it easier to view the objects, they should be in a constellation that remained observable most of the year. We settled on the galaxies in Ursa Major.
Dave thought there were probably about 50-60 galaxies in Ursa Major that were bright enough for an amateur astronomer to observe. We talked about what depth of magnitude we should go down too and settled on 13.0-13.5 magnitudes. We would have liked to have all visual magnitudes, but alas most of the viable magnitudes from my books were listed as photographic.
David called me, because I had a good set of reference books on astronomy. Some of which were used during our first 4-hour phone call. These were: The Handbook of the Constellations by Vehrenberg & Blank, Norton's star Atlas, Atlas of the Heavens II Catalogue by Antonin Bevcvar1950 cords, Reference Catalogue of Bright Galaxies1st & second editions, and others. After our four-hour research conversation we had a list of 108 galaxies plus M97 Owl nebula as a visual reference for a total of 109 objects in Ursa Major. Afterwards, David took our notes and transcribed to an accounting tablet. We had our fist copy of the Ursa Major Project list.
The Ursa Major project information was printed in the Baltimore Astronomical Societies newsletter. A year later it was printed in the first issue of The Active Amateur Astronomers of Maryland, still in its original hand written form. After the AAAM news letter was distributed to the other Astronomical societies around the world that we exchanged newsletters with, I got a letter from a gentleman in Canada regarding the Ursa Major Project, which I responded to with a phone call. The gentleman wanted to present the Ursa Major project in Grenoble, France, to the International Union of Amateur Astronomers that met that summer or fall. After his presentation, the gentleman from Canada wrote me and exclaimed that the Ursa Major project was received with great interest and excitement, and with pledges of wanting to work on the project. This was the last communication with the gentleman from Canada, who had helped us bring the Ursa Major project to the world of Amateur Astronomers. I heard from his family that the gentleman from Canada had died about 6 months later.
One other interesting inquiry happened after publishing of the Ursa Major Project in the first AAAM newsletter. I got a phone call from a PHD graduate student, about the 1-5 density scale developed for the Ursa Major project. Seems the grad student had been working for 3 years on developing a density scale, and had also come up with a 1-5 density scale, but since we had published it first he was asking for permission to use it in his research paper. I gave him full permission as long as we were given credit as the originators of the 1-5 density scale, which he agreed to. A year later, a typed version of the Ursa Major project appeared in the AAAM newsletter in June 1977, Vol 2 #1.
The newest reprinting of the Ursa Major Project is to be found at https://denebsystems.com. We reprinted the original list of 108 galaxies plus M97 Owl nebula a Planetary Nebula. With better reference books, we also added a supplemental list of 65 objects that go down to a visual magnitude of 13.5. These magnitudes were gleaned from The Deep Sky Field Guide to Uranometria 2000.0 by Gragin, Lucyk, Rappaport 1st edition.
So now David P. Kratz, William Goble, and myself along with David Hoffman are reobserving the entire original 109 object and all 65 supplemental objects. We will be providing drawings made by amateurs, along with finder charts for each object. When an amateur astronomer does the original list and sends us a copy of their observing notes and drawings, we will issue a certificate showing the completion for the original list plus a separate certificate if they also do the supplemental list.
It should be noted that when this project was conceived the largest amateur owned scopes were in general limited to a 12-inch scope. Most scopes were 6 and 8 inches with a few 10-inch scopes thrown in. The Dobsonian scope would give amateur astronomer their first real chance at a large telescope of 20-36 inches and larger. Both David Kratz and I owned 6-inch scopes, and Bill Goble had an 8-inch scope, which we used to first observe the Ursa Major project. Now David Kratz owns 12-inch with enhanced coating, Bill Goble has a 14-inch scope, and I have two 10-inch scopes as well as a 17.5 in progress.
One last note, observers may note that object NGC 4111 is not really in the constellation of Ursa Major, but it is in Canes Venatici. We copied the error from one of the early books we used for the original list. We have decided to keep it as part of the project for consistency sake. I hope the rest of the Amateur Astronomical community can have as much fun with the Ursa Major Project as I have had putting it together with my friends.