Sunday, September 14, 2014

 

Destination Moon Night 7: Obscured by Clouds


No, you can't always get what you want
No, you can't always get what you want
No, you can't always get what you want
But if you try sometime, you just might find
You get what you need…

Jagger - Richards

One thing I swore when Miss Dorothy and I moved out of glorious old Chaos Manor South, the original Chaos Manor South, the Old Manse, was that I would make up for all those long years where my observing had been limited due to work and the skies and trees of downtown Possum Swamp. I won't say I’ve been out with a telescope every cotton-picking clear night since we relocated to Hickory Ridge, but near about (not that there've been that many of them since spring). I’ve even done some fairly ambitious work from my backyard here at the New Manse.

That includes some things I hadn’t done from home in twenty years. Like prime focus deep sky imaging. Yeah, I did a fair amount of lunar and planetary photography from the Garden District till the trees finally hid the sky in the late 90s, but deep sky? No way. I wouldn’t have dreamed of trying. Out here in the suburbs, it’s an entirely different kettle of fish, y'all.

I found out soon after we moved in that I could do plenty of video work. The bright objects were no problemo, as my Mallincam Xtreme /AstroLive snap of M57 shows. On those so far rare occasions when I get a cloud and haze free evening, I can go considerably deeper. Yes, I have to use a filter, the Orion Imaging filter, a mild light pollution filter like Lumicon’s old Deep Sky filter, to tone down the bright background a hair, but I expect the Mallincam may surprise from the backyard with the clearer (maybe) skies of fall and winter.

Ring with Xtreme...
Assured that I could see something with the video camera, I began to wonder about prime focus DSLR imaging.  A Sky & Telescope assignment impelled me to stop wondering and see what I could get with my Canon from home. Verdict? Not too shabby. I probably should have imaged at an ISO a stop faster than I did, but my results were surprisingly good given the presence not just of haze, but a near full Moon.

Let me also say rat-cheer that the new PHD Guiding, PHD Guiding 2, shore didn’t hurt none. If you don’t have a copy of the latest edition of amateur astronomy’s best-loved autoguiding program, get it right now. It’s still free, y’all.  Impossible as it may be to believe, PHD 2 is even better than the original; it just LOCKS ON to that consarned guide star.

Assignment done, I lollygagged through quite a few evenings—most of them cloudy and none of them good enough for pitcher taking—till one night when I began to think about my good, old Atlas mount. Last time I’d used my much-loved heavyweight GEM at the Possum Swamp Astronomical Society dark site, the previous winter, I’d had problems.

On that night, I’d gotten inconsistent results while using the EQMOD program to control the mount. The goto alignment would work OK, but shortly thereafter, the mount would get confused, pointing every which-a-way. Which was disturbing, since I had never had a minute’s problem with EQMOD.

What’s that, Skeezix? You don’t know what an “EQMOD” is? Have a look at this old blog entry from Unk’s vault of moldy oldies, but, in short, it’s like NexRemote. It is a program (technically an ASCOM driver) that takes the place of the hand control and adds many new features to the Atlas EQ-6 (it will also work with the Sirius HEQ-5, the AZ-EQ-6/Atlas Pro, and Synta’s new EQ-8 and the Orion version of that big mount). It even lets you use a wireless gamepad as your “HC,” just like NR.

I have almost always used EQMOD for imaging with the Atlas. It works well and I'd never had to give it a second thought  till that last time out. I believed the troubles I had at the dark site had nothing to do with EQMOD, however. I was convinced a loose power cable connection was the culprit and took pains to add some strain relief to the power cord at the mount.

Shortly after I finished the S&T assignment, I decided I’d try some prime focus imaging with the Atlas and my old C8, Celeste. I hadn’t turned the mount on since we’d moved in, and I wanted to assure myself the power cable fix had done the trick. I set up C8, Atlas, and computer, but wimped out on EQMOD. The sky looked iffy, and I figgered it would be easier to just use the SynScan HC. It worked perfectly—I had no trouble getting 10-minute guided subs of good, ol’ M13.

Still, I thought it would be a Good Thing to make sure EQMOD was again firing on all cylinders. The next semi-clear night that came, I hit the backyard with the Atlas and C8 once more. Since I just wanted to try EQMOD, I left the Canon in the gadget bag and hung my Mallincam Xtreme on the scope’s rear cell. At first ever’thing was ducky. M13 was in the center of the video screen right where he belonged. But, as before, things suddenly went south, with the Atlas not being able to find its rear end with a flashlight.

It was pretty clear now that there was something wacky with EQMOD, and I was purty sure that something was either the EQDIR module (which converts serial data from the computer to levels the mount likes) or the serial cable. Since the EQDIR and cable are both going on seven years old, I don’t have too much heartburn about replacing either one or both of them if further troubleshooting dictates I do so. Stay tuned.

At the end of them there alarums and excursions, I was tired, sweaty (it’s still in the mid 80s at night down here), and put out. I sure didn’t feel like disassembling scope and mount, and just covered Celeste and Atlas with the Desert Storm cover and retired inside to watch the Braves lose another one to the freaking Dodgers.

Late the next afternoon, I decided, given the clouds that had hung around all day, I might as well tear down the Atlas, and proceeded into the backyard. What should I perceive in the gloaming, though? That the sky was trying to clear. It was at  least giving birth to some substantial sucker holes. I further noted that there was a right purty little half Moon in the sky.  Hmm…hadn’t done any imaging for Destination Moon, my crusade to image 300 lunar features, in a while…hmm…

Well, why not? Why shouldn’t I continue my tour of Hecate? Several reasons. I was being eaten alive by the skeeters despite having lit a citronella candle (I hate burning up those rather expensive Thermacell pads and butane cartridges for an informal backyard run) and doused myself with Deep Woods Off. It was also hot, with my iPhone girlfriend, Siri, asserting that the temperature an hour after sundown was 85 and that it “felt like” 90. Most seriously, the sky was crazy-hazy. Nevertheless, on Unk pushed. I already had the scope set up so it was the matter of a few minutes to get the Toshiba laptop plunked down on the table on the deck and hooked up.

Well, hooked up to the ZWO camera anyway. I removed the Mallincam and f/3.3 reducer from Celeste’s rear end (sorry, dearie) and replaced them with my old Meade flip mirror, the 1.25-inch Meade 12mm reticle eyepiece, the ZWO ASI120MC camera, and my time-honored Orion Shorty Barlow.

Where I screwed up was I forgot to hook the serial cable to the SynScan HC so I could send the scope on lunar gotos with Virtual Moon Atlas like I did last time. Just as I was preparing to fire up the cam, I realized I’d forgot all about VMA. Instead of correcting my error, however, I decided to do things the old-fashioned way. Which was a mistake. 

With VMA, I don’t waste time imaging features I already have in the can but have forgotten about—I have notes in the program appended to every feature that’s completed. I can also use the built in ASCOM “hand control” for precise object centering. Oh, well, didn’t look like it would matter much, anyhow…another batch of clouds was suddenly obscuring Diana’s shining visage.

The clouds came, but they also went. Sort of, anyway. It was never really clear, and the seeing was never very good at all, even in the more or less cloud free intervals, but conditions were at least a little better than they had been on Night 6, and the pictures were OK, if not close to what the li’l ZWO can do on those rare good nights.

Werner and Aliacensis

Werner and Aliacensis are two nice, reasonably fresh-looking craters lying just 145km from a large and detailed crater, Walther, which, unfortunately, is not on my 300 list. Werner is a round, 70km, deep formation with steep, terraced walls and a mostly flat floor littered with scattered debris and lacking a real central peak. This young-looking crater dates from the Eratosthenian Period (3.2 – 1.1 billion years ago).

The adjacent crater Aliacensis is a little larger than Werner at 80km in diameter. It is also not quite as deep nor is it as perfectly round. It is older than Werner, having been formed during the Nectarian Epoch (3.92 – 3.85 billion years ago), and looks it, having a distinctly eroded appearance. I picked up a few craterlets scattered across Aliacensis’ floor, as well as the small off-center mountain that serves as the crater’s central peak. What or who is an “Aliacensis”? I didn’t know either. Mssrs. Chevalley and Legrand say, “[He was a] 14th century French Geographer and theologian born in France.”

Faraday, Stofler, Fernelius, Licetus

The next group was just to the south down the terminator, and was quite a spectacle even given the conditions, since going south meant I was approaching the Moon’s feature-rich southern highlands. As I likely don’t have to tell you, craters are everywhere there and figuring out which is which can be quite the challenge. I finally identified my quarry with the aid of VMA, but I sure wished I’d hooked up that dadgum serial cable.

Faraday is a battered 70km diameter crater that just missed being eradicated by two impacts that broke its walls, Faraday A on its northeast rim, and Faraday C on the south.  The main crater has a messy looking floor and no true central peak. Several craterlets are visible. The walls of Faraday are steep and fresh appearing in my picture despite the crater dating from the Pre Nectarian, 4.55 to 3.92 billion years ago.

If Faraday A and C almost wiped out Faraday, Farday’s impactor dang near took out the larger adjacent crater, 126km Stofler. Like Faraday, Stofler also comes from the Pre Nectarian time, and also sports well-defined walls that, unlike Farday’s, appear terraced. Away from the damaged area caused by Faraday, the main features of Stofler’s floor are the many craterlets and Stofler F, a sharp and round crater that has done a number of Stofler’s southwest wall.

On the north slope of Stofler is Fernelius. Due to the low Sun angle in my photos, Fernelius looks fresh and sharp. With a higher Sun, however, it is old and eroded. Coming from the Lower Imbrian time (3.85 – 3.75 billion years), it is a little younger than the previous two craters, but doesn’t look it. Its main features are a mostly flat lava-covered floor and a small crater, Fernelius B, that has broken the northern rim.

Licetus, another Pre Nectarian crater, is a 75km diameter formation 184km south of Stofler’s center. It’s a nice looking crater, and would appear almost perfectly formed save for two small craters on its southern walls that have caused considerable damage there. In addition to a group of central hills, the floor possesses a small crater, Licetus C, near the steep western wall.

Aristillus, Autolycus, and Cassini

I jogged back north and took a dip in magnificent Mare Imbrium to capture these three remarkable craters, of which Cassini is perhaps the most remarkable looking. In fact, there’s not a more identifiable crater on the Moon. This 58km formation isn’t the largest or the deepest or the youngest crater on the near side (it dates from Lower Imbrian days), but you can’t miss it sitting off the shores of Mare Imbrium not far from the great crater Archimedes.

What makes Cassini so readily identifiable is not its round steep slopes, but its floor. The flat lava-covered floor has one large crater, Cassini A that has a pair of rilles extending from it, and one smaller, but still impressive crater, Cassini B. That description doesn’t sound unusual, but as you can see in my sunrise picture of Cassini, it is just weird looking.

Off to the north, some 211km from the center of Cassini, is a crater I referred to as “Copernicus Junior” when I was a youngun and just beginning my exploration of the Moon. While not nearly as magnificent as the near side’s numero uno crater, Aristillus is still impressive and shares some things in common with its larger cousin, the fractured looking landscape around it, steep terraced walls, and a complex central peak (which you can’t see in my pic; the crater was still filled with night when I snapped it). This 58km diameter crater, like Cassini, comes to us from Lower Imbrian times.

Aristillus’ neighbor, Autolycus, is another goodie, if not as pretty as Aristillus. This nearly round 40km diameter feature is much younger than the other craters we’ve toured tonight, having been formed in Copernican times (1.1 billion years ago – present day). Anyhoo, it features steep semi-terraced walls, and a flat floor with a central mountain (invisible when I shot it).

Triesnecker

With clouds building again, back north I went to the “waters” of Sinus Medii, the small sea near the “center” of the Moon, for a look at Triesnecker. While Triesnecker is a good-looking deep crater, you don’t hear it talked about much. The main draw in this area is the Rilles crisscrossing the Mare, including the awesome Rima Hygenus and a network of smaller rilles, Rimae Triesnecker. The crater itself is admittedly fairly pedestrian. It features steep terraced walls, and, when you can see it, a flat floor with a central peak. Being from the Copernican Epoch, it looks fresh and new.

Goodnight, Moon...
Triesnecker’s image safely resident on my hard drive, the weather gods said, “Fun is fun, but done is done.” Haze and passing clouds morphed into thick, dark suckas, and Diana’s silv’ry lamp flickered and went out. Which was pretty much OK with Unk. I was damp with sweat and had been bitten by who knew how many skeeters (they love me…when we are at the dark site, my mates say Unk is the next best thing to a bug zapper light). How sweet it was to just cover the scope with a desert storm cover, and carry the laptop into the blessedly cool den where much cable TV and Yell awaited.

The next day I did my usual thing:  stacked the frames from the ZWO with Regsitax, sharpened ‘em up with the program’s famous Wavelet filters, and did some minor tweaking with Lightroom and/or Photoshop. I knew there was only so much I could expect given the conditions, but I was reasonably pleased with the results anyhow.

I may make one minor change to my processing procedure, however, muchachos. A lot of lunar and planetary workers, including Unk’s talented compadre Robert Reeves (who has an excellent article on lunar imaging in the current issue of Astronomy), are no longer using Registax for stacking. Instead, they are using a program called Autostakkert, which, they say is better. They still use Registax’s Wavelet filters, but they stack with AutoStakkert first. My preliminary tests have convinced me that AutoStakkert does indeed do a better job and that the resulting images are just better. There's a gibbous moon hanging in the sky now, and if I can get up the gumption to brave the skeeters on another muggy night, I may try to obtain more data for AutoStakkert to chew on. I will let y'all know how it goes.

Total:  74 Down, 226 to Go.

Next Time: My Favorite Star Parties: TSP '99...

Sunday, September 07, 2014

 

August and Everything After: Project Scotty Night One


When I was a sprout, August was the do-nothing tail end of summer. We were right on the cusp of Labor Day’s last fling and the dreaded return to school. Actually, Unk was usually ready to go back by August. By then, me and my buddies had pretty much exhausted the potentialities of summer. Playing outside was like sitting in a sauna. Then as now, only the Summer Spiders, the Golden Orb Weavers, seemed to enjoy the hot and heavy, waning days.

Not only was it awful hot and humid, even for us Gulf Coast denizens, nasty thunderstorms had begun to roll through, making the lifeguard’s “Out of the pool!” order so frequent we didn't much bother with the Swim Club anymore. The beach? Nothing but jellyfish and seaweed most days.

Me and Jitter and Wayne Lee would sit inert in the steam bath of somebody’s carport languidly asking each other, “What do you want to do?” and receiving the unvarying reply, “I dunno. What do YOU want to do?” The hot August nights? I probably wouldn’t have seen a thing other the undersides of clouds with my Tasco 3-inch Newtonian since mid-July.

So, it’s sorta ironic this August was such a busy and productive month for your old Uncle astro-wise. Foremost on my agenda was preparing for the start of yet another year at the university teaching my astronomy labs (I never teach in the summer). They’re back—confused looking students wandering the halls of the physics and math building, imploring ol’ Unk to tell them where they are supposed to be. You know what? Curmudgeon though I may be, I missed ‘em.

There was also (star) partying to do. As you read last time, I spent a couple of days enjoying the guilty pleasure of West Virginia nights where the temperatures never got out of the 60s. I didn't see pea-turkey in the sky, as you know, but I had lots of fun with lots of friendly fellow amateurs and that dern sure was good enough.

I did get some August nights under the stars, but in less comfortable conditions. Upon our return from Chiefland, I spent successive full Moon nights doing prime focus deep sky imaging for a Sky & Telescope piece I had to get out. What was surprising about that? I was amazed how much a DSLR at ISO 3200 will bring back from the humid, moonlit, light polluted sky of my backyard. Hell, I could expose for as long as 10-minutes and get OK pictures. The background was noisy as all get out from light pollution and heat, but even fifteen years ago I’d have been gobsmacked to get deep sky images as good from a bright backyard.

The HHG...
While my DSLRing went right well, there was no doubt in Unk’s formerly military mind that I was ready to take a break from guide cameras, GEM mounts, and USB cables. In the last lazy days of summer with fall’s (slightly) cooler temps just ahead, my fancy had turned back to visual observing. Oh, I will also get back to Destination Moon and do some Moon pictures as Luna fattens up again, but I’ve decided it is time to break out the old eyepiece case.

Dusted off the aluminum eyepiece box I got from cotton-picking Orion who knows how many Moons ago, popped her open, and had a look at my motley crew of oculars. I have never been a collector. I buy eyepieces that suit my needs even if they are from various makers and various product lines of those makers. I have no interest in lining up EVERY Nagler so I can gloat over ‘em like Scrooge McDuck in his freaking money bin.

What’s in Unk’s eyepiece case? The numero uno spot, you will not be surprised to hear, is held by my two Ethos 100-degree wonders, the 13mm and the 8mm. I consider the 13 Ethos the best all-round eyepiece in the world. The 8mm ain’t far behind it, either. So how come Unk don’t have more Ethoses? I don’t have the shorter ones because I mainly use my eyepieces in SCTs, and don’t need to go shorter than 8mm very often. If I need more power, I just switch the Barlow into the light path with my Denkmeier Power Switch diagonal. The 12-inch f/5 Dobsonian, Old Betsy? I slide the 8mm Ethos into the (excellent) TeleVue Big Barlow I have had for years and years.

“How about longer than 13mm, Unk?” I haven’t bought a 21mm Ethos because it vignettes in the SCTs with an f/6.3 or f/7 reducer in place. So does the 20mm 100-degree job from Explore Scientific. At f/6.3, the 13mm Ethos will give me a magnification similar to that of the 21mm Ethos at f/10, anyway. I have been tempted to get a 100-degree just for Old Betsy, but if I did, it would be the Explore Scientific 20mm. In tests I did when that eyepiece first came out, I determined it to be nearly the equal of the Ethos with a price tag that makes buying it to use in just one scope far more palatable.

Wut else? Actually, campers, I do have a longer than 13mm 100-degree AFOV hunk o’ glass, but it ain’t a TV or ES. I am talking about my 16mm Zhumell, the Happy Hand Grenade. It does astoundingly well in the SCTs, and while it don’t come close to the performance of the more expensive spread in f/4.8 Betsy, it is more than usable. I love it.

Can I be honest with y’all? Them dadgummed 100-degree eyepieces have spoiled me for narrower AFOV oculars, even though I’ve got some nice ones. Like the 28, 16, and 7mm Uwans. These 82-degree field eyepieces were amazing when they were first released, purty much duplicating Nagler performance for less money. They are still very good eyepieces. I even use them on occasion.

Bets...
What’s not in my case anymore is my much-loved 12mm Nagler. It was my favorite eyepiece from 1995 till I got my hands on the 13 Ethos six years ago (can it possibly have been that long?). I knew I would never use the 12mm Type II again, and sold it to a good buddy in the Philippines, who has given it a good home.

I do still have three TVs; however, three Panoptics, the 35mm, the 27mm, and the 22mm. While their 68-degree fields ain’t spaceship porthole sized, they are all beautiful performers and throw up lovely images. They seem very well suited to my SCTs, especially the 35mm, which was the first “beer can” (sized) eyepiece I ever owned.

All Unk’s glass was in good shape, so I closed the lid of that old eyepiece case (really one of the ubiquitous “tool attaches” you could buy at home improvement stores in the 1990s, just with an Orion sticker and a higher price). Looking at eyepieces was fine. Looking through them would be better. What were the prospects for that and for getting Project Scotty underway?

So-so. Down here, weather can be so variable at the end of summer that you are wasting your time putting much credence in the Clear Sky Clock, Scope Nights, or even The Weather Channel and Wunderground. Saturday night would not be outstanding, that was sure. It might not be anything at all—my old pal Max called Saturday afternoon to let me know it was raining felines and canines in the north part of the county.

It was not raining at Chaos Manor South (the NEW Chaos Manor South, natch) at 6:00 in the p.m., however, and even seemed to be clearing a mite. The sky had never been completely overcast, though there’d been stretches in the afternoon when it almost was. I decided my best bet was to stick to my maxim:  “If it ain’t raining, you head to the dark site,” and began loading the 4Runner, Miss Van Pelt. What could happen?

That load-out began with Old Betsy, of course. Followed by the box ‘o eyepieces. Next was Dorothy’s pretty, wooden eyepiece case, which holds the TV Big Barlow (no room at the inn in the main case) and also the Sky Commander DSC computer, the declination arm and encoder for it, and the computer interface cable Unk put together a few weeks back. Brought the laptop, the Toshiba Satellite, along to run SkyTools, of course. The PC has a 17-inch display and its internal battery don’t last long, so I packed a little inverter from Harbor Freight and a jump start battery as well.

Orion XT10g...
At 6:30 we was ready to roll, and roll we did, west to the quiet airstrip the Possum Swamp Astronomical Society uses for our deep sky observing. Didn't really know if there’d be any of my fellow PSASers on-site or not. The sky didn't look too bad, but it looked bad enough to keep reasonable-minded folks at home. I suspected my only “company” might be the Skunk Ape, the Mothman, and the Little Grey Dudes from Zeta Reticuli II.

So, I was both surprised and pleased to find one of my compadres already on the field and set up. What he’d set up was his nearly new Orion XT10g 10-inch. I was skeptical about Orion’s Synta-made goto dobs when they first came out, but I have become a believer. Those I’ve used have featured good optics and good pointing accuracy. Hell, Max even does impressive deep sky imaging with his. This new tenner was to be no different. When I tried it late in the evening, I was impressed by the images in the eyepiece after its bang-on slews. I believe you could do a lot worse than an XTg, particularly the 10-inch model.

That was later. First order of business was to decide whether I was going to set up or not. At sunset, it was about 60% clouds. I waffled. While I was sitting on that pea-picking fence, a couple of new members arrived, and, shortly thereafter, my old observing companion, Taras, and his 15-inch Dobbie rolled onto the field. Five folks on a semi-punk night was good, I thought.

I finally decided “What the hell” and began putting Bets together. That consists of plunking her rocker box down, dropping the mirror box into that, and bolting the upper cage and truss tubes to the mirror box. Don’t take long. When I am just going out to the local dark site, I leave the poles attached to the upper cage. In maybe ten minutes, I am ready to collimate.

While Betsy holds her collimation well despite disassembly, like most truss scopes she does need a little tweaking every time. When folks see me collimating out on the field, they are sometimes surprised I don’t use a laser. In other words, they wonder why Unk is such a backwoods stick-in-the-mud Luddite of a hillbilly. Truth is, Unk is stingy. Not in the class of our aforementioned feathered friend Scrooge McDuck, but I don’t like to spend money when I don’t have to. A good laser, a laser that will itself be collimated and remain collimated, is right expensive as I gauge such things. So, which collimation tool do I use?

Weird lookin' cloud...hmmm...
One of the ubiquitous combo sight tubes/Cheshires many astro-merchants peddle. Mine came from Celestron, but Orion and others have ‘em too. Collimation with one is simple.  Place in focuser via a 1.25-inch adapter if the focuser is a 2-inch like Betsy’s. If the crosshairs of the sight tube are not over the paper…uh… “donut” (this is a family friendly blog, y’all) on the primary, adjust the secondary mirror till they are. Then, just adjust the primary so the dot created by the Cheshire is inside the donut. The collimations I produce this way are fine and I do not yearn for that elusive More Better Gooder.

Scope collimated, I set up the laptop and hooked the serial cable to the Sky Commander computer, which I’d already mounted on the little “podium” screwed to Betsy’s rocker box. I plugged in the altitude and azimuth encoders and was done. All that remained was to wait for alignment stars and (maybe) clearer skies.

So I waited. And I waited. And I waited. I like to align the DSCs using Polaris and Spica this time of year. Alas, both were invisible, so I began hunting for another pair. It ain’t hard to align the Sky Commanders, but the stars need to be separated by a decent amount of azimuth and star two shouldn't be too high. Polaris finally winked on as conditions began to improve. Other than clouds to the west and one weird little puff hovering in the south, the sky was at least semi-clear—though there was considerable haze.

Spica, far into the west now, never did show, so I went with Arcturus. It was a mite high, I thought, but my push-tos put every object I requested that night in the field of the 13 Ethos—and often the field of the 7mm Uwan, so I guess I did OK.

What did I not do OK? I didn't turn on the PC. I should have, but the skies were looking awful putrid at astronomical twilight, and I followed Taras lead and packed up the laptop. Alas, that came back to bite me in the posterior later, as you will hear.

M13 (July)

Scope aligned, I set to work, beginning with everybody’s fave northern globular cluster (if not necessarily the best northern glob in Unk’s opinion), M13. The Great Globular seemed like a propitious place to start, since Scotty first visits it in July of 1953, the month and year of Unk’s birth.

Rosse's Propeller...
What Walter Scott Houston was mainly interested in on that long ago July was not the cluster itself, but one of its features, the legendary Propeller. As he tells us, observers beginning with Lord Rosse have reported a curious propeller-shaped pattern of three dark lanes. While Rosse’s drawing shows the Propeller seemingly centered on the cluster, it is really outside the bright core, on its southeast side. Mr. Houston doesn't challenge us to look for the Propeller; he never had to do that. Just mentioning something in the column was enough to send his fans after it. In vain this time. It took nearly thirty years for positive sighting reports to come in.

The Propeller was glimpsed by John Bortle and Dennis di Cicco in 1980 and 1981, respectively.  Dennis noted that while the feature was easy enough to see in Stellafane’s 12.5-inch Porter Turret Telescope at 180x, it was invisible in a nearby 12.5 at half that power. That is the secret. The Propeller is only readily visible at magnifications of around 200x. Aperture matters, too. 10-inches is probably the smallest scope that will allow most observers detect the thing, and it is much easier with 12-inches. As you might have guessed, steady seeing damned sure helps, too.

Sounded like everything was coming up roses for Unk on this night. Betsy was a 12.5-inch scope, the 8mm Ethos yielded 188x, and the seeing was good in cloud free areas. Still, I’ve had a hard time finding the Propeller over the years, even when it’s been “easy” for other observers with the same telescope. Not this time. It was obvious in the Ethos, and maybe even a little more obvious with the 7mm Uwan (214x). Hell, I could see it well enough, three dark lanes of seemingly equal length, that I was able to help Taras, who’d never seen it, spot it in his 15-inch.

M92 (July)

In the column extracts in the book, at least, Scotty doesn't have much to say about M92, Hercules’ “also ran” globular. It is only mentioned in the context of being one of the few globular clusters that are visible with the naked eye: “[M92] is not only challengingly faint but also isolated northeast of the Keystone.”

What did I think of it in a telescope? It really is magnificent, especially in an 8mm eyepiece, which gives it a better image scale and makes it look more interesting after you’ve been staring at that crazy diamond, M13. Ground truth, though? It is a GOOD cluster, but it would not, as some people opine, be considered a GREAT one but for nearby M13. There are many other superior globs, far superior globs, this time of year:  M5, M3, M15, M22. No denying M92 is a second stringer, but it is a nice second stringer.

M27 (August)

M27 with Sweet Charity...
Scotty is concerned with both M27’s overall appearance and its details, like the central star. He begins with the nebula’s shape. We’ve all scratched our heads about the “Dumbbell” business, the nickname that was bestowed on M27 by Sir William Herschel’s son, John. The Dumbbell nebula really looks nothing like a dumbbell. As Scotty says, it is more like two cones with their apexes in contact. How about that central star? He warns us “[The] 12th magnitude central star…is difficult for most amateur telescopes.”

I turned Bets to M27 just as it was climbing nice and high and entering a good, clear patch. I found both “Dumbbell” and “Two Cones” inadequate to describe the nebula. At first, “the Apple Core Nebula” was better, but after a little staring with the 13 Ethos, it came to look less and less like a celestial fruit. Under good conditions, the empty area around the apple core begins to fill in in a right quick hurry. What M27 begins to look like is a football, an American football. I can even see this transformation with my ETX 125, Charity Hope Valentine, with a UHC filter in place, anyhow.

I didn't put a filter on the Ethos on this night; I was after M27’s central star, which would have been dimmed by a UHC. I did switch to the 8mm Ethos for a little more magnification. I hadn’t hunted up the Football’s central star in quite a while, and though I knew I’d seen it, I didn't remember how difficult it was (it is easy with a camera). It popped right out in the Ethos. Why did Scotty rate it as difficult? Remember, he pronounced it hard with most amateur telescopes. Even well into the 80s, the most common amateur scope was probably a 6 or 8-inch. 12-inches helps as much with this star as it does with the Propeller. Seeing is also important, and I suspect my seeing is better than Scotty’s was, even in Kansas. Still, it seems strange he almost make’s M27’s central star sound harder than M57’s (below).

M3 (July)

After having imaged M3 a couple of weeks before, I was interested both to hear what Scotty has to say about its visual appearance, and to get a fresh visual look at it myself. Alas, like M92, all that’s in the Deep Sky Wonders book concerning M3 is that it is visible to the naked eye under the proper conditions, if not easily.

So how was Messier 3 in Betsy on a late summer’s eve? One night at the 2004 Georgia Sky View I spent quite a while viewing Canes Venatici’s glob with my NexStar C11, Big Bertha. My log entry from that night reads, “In the 22mm Panoptic  at 127x, M3 is as perfect as it ever gets. Outlying stars extend across the whole field. All the stars are exceedingly tiny, and [the cluster] is resolved to the core, which looks rather strange, almost triangular.” On this average Saturday night at the PSAS dark site, it was not quite that good, mainly because of the haze in the west and the globular’s increasingly low altitude. It was still a wonder, though; there is no way to make this one look bad.

M57 (August)

Not surprisingly, Scotty ranks the Ring Nebula among “The Great Planetaries of Summer,” and it is given considerable space in the book.  What interested me most was Scotty’s take on the Ring’s notoriously elusive central star. While he says it should be visible in a 10 or 12-inch scope on “a top night,” and that he has seen it easily with the Porter telescope, he admits it is often invisible in a much larger telescope. That may be due to the star’s (suspected) variability. What makes it especially tough, however, is the fact that  the Ring’s interior is not empty, but filled with obscuring haze.

M57 with the ETX...
Unk? I have suspected the central star with Betsy at magnifications of 600x and above on nights of especially steady seeing. Just “suspected.” The only time I’ve really been convinced I’ve seen it was at the old Mid South Star Gaze on a dark and steady spring night using a 32-inch Tectron Dobsonian at powers of up to 900x. And it wasn’t easy even then, not hardly. Course, even nearly twenty years ago I didn't have perfect eyes—or Scotty’s skills.

That doesn't mean the ring isn't wonderful. On this night, when the clouds stayed away, its shape was as nicely delineated as I’ve ever seen it. It was sharp edged, obviously elongated, and there was a “hump” of nebulosity on one end. The donut hole was hazy and pretty and I left it at that. With another batch of clouds incipient, I didn't grab my 3x apochromatic Barlow and give the central star ago. Some other night, y’all.

M57 admired, I bagged at least a dozen more DSOs. Unfortunately, they were not Scotty Objects. I didn't fire up the computer, and, so, did not have my list at hand. I just assumed M10 and M12, for example, would be on the list. Well, you know what they say about the word “assume,” doncha? Neither glob was on a Scotty. Nor were any of the other objects I pushed to after the first five. It is kinda ironic your old Uncle, who always preaches “have an observing list,” was semi-skunked for want of one.

Oh, well. By midnight, an old Moon was on the rise, and we decided to pack it in. As always, one of the joys of using Old Betsy is the quick tear-down following my throwing of the accursed Big Switch. I had actually disassembled her somewhat before midnight, when the skies appeared to be headed south again, and had been enjoying the views in my mates’ scopes.

Back at the New Manse, I fumed over a tumbler of Rebel Yell and a replay of the afternoon’s Braves game. Five objects was dang-sure not many.  Howsomeever, I was lucky to have seen a thing on a below par evening, and maybe this is actually a good pace at which to proceed. Certainly not every Scotty will need the time and space of these showpieces, but many will. Let’s just take it easy and see how far we get in a year, muchachos.

Total:  5 down, 436 to go…

Next Time: Destination Moon Night 7...

Sunday, August 31, 2014

 

Unk's 2014 Country Roads Adventure


I love West Virginia, muchachos. Oh, I know, its economy is perennially depressed, it has far too many folks scrabbling to make do in today's tough economy, and it is still in the thrall of Big Coal, but I love it anyway. Its mountains and valleys just speak to your old Uncle and have for as long as I can remember.

I loved the state's soaring landscape and unchanging towns even as a sprout, when all I “knew” about West Virginia was what I saw on TV. On Then Came Bronson, when the show’s beatnik-philosopher-motorcyclist visited the Appalachian fastnesses. That was the romantic West Virginia. There was also the darkly mysterious side of the place, which young Unk read all about in John Keel’s The Mothman Prophecies (the memory of which can still get me spooked on a lonely field).

Later on, there was the West Virginia of the 1950s in one of my favorite movies, October Sky, the filmed version of Homer Hickam's outstanding memoir, The Rocket Boys. I watched that film so many freaking times I came to feel as if I’d actually been to WV. It wasn’t till seven years ago, though, that I finally got the chance to stop enjoying West Virginia vicariously and pay it a real visit.

What finally allowed Unk to see the Mountain State for himself? I was invited to speak at the 2007 Almost Heaven Star Party, which was, then as now, held at the Mountain Institute’s Spruce Knob Facility near Circleville, West Virginia. For some unfathomable reason the organizers and attendees of the event, which was (and is) sponsored by NOVAC, the Northern Virginia Astronomy Club (DC), liked Unk’s silly and rambling presentation enough to invite me back the next year. In fact, I’ve been to nearly every AHSP since ’07 and have always had an outstanding time.

So, I was danged pleased to hear from AHSP honcho Bob Parks, who invited me to bring my traveling show up the mountain for one more bow at the 2014 edition of the star party. Naturally, I said “yes.” I don’t like to play favorites, so I won’t say the Almost Heaven Star Party is the best astronomy event east of the Mississip—in some ways, every star party is “the best”—I will just say I love AHSP like I love its West Virginia setting.

I was even happier to hear Sky & Telescope Editor Bob Naeye—soon to be, as you may have heard, S&T Editor Emeritus—would also be back for another round of AHSPing. Bob and I have been meeting in DC and riding to Almost Heaven together for years. In no small part, the time we've spent on those trips navigating country roads in a rent-a-car is responsible for Bob becoming not just the Editor-in-Chief of a magazine I write for, but a friend.

Anyhoo, come Friday, August 22, Unk was up at oh-dark-thirty to catch the 6 a.m. flight out of Possum Swamp Regional Airport. I can’t say I was looking forward to that part of the AHSP experience overmuch. There would be a lot of time in the air for not much star partying. Both Bob and I needed to fly back Sunday morning for work on Monday (in Unk’s case, teaching his evening astronomy labs). That was fly Number One in the ointment. Number Two? The weather.

For well over a week, the forecasts for Circleville, WV, the town nearest Spruce Knob, had been looking grim. Mostly cloudy. Up to an 80% chance of rain Friday. Nearly as bad Saturday. It appeared the AHSPers might get some observing in on Monday, the last full day of the event, but even that looked dicey. The predicted temperatures, highs in the low 80s and lows in the lower 60s, while cool and comfortable in comparison to a Gulf Coast August, would be considerably warmer and no doubt more humid than normal for the star party site.

Unk certainly did grouse about “that dadgum weatherman,” but there was absolutely no doubt in my formerly military mind that I would have a good time at Spruce Knob no matter what. Hell, I can have a good time at any star party, even one that’s rained out, and the wonderful facilities and folks of Almost Heaven would make it even easier for me to enjoy myself.

The day’s air itinerary consisted of a Possum Swamp to Charlotte leg and a Charlotte to Reagan National Airport flight. As above, I’d meet Mr. Bob at the rent-a-car outfit and we’d head for the hills. While air travel is no picnic these days, I have to say my flights, both on U.S. Air, were bearable. The ground personnel and the flight crews were friendly and helpful, and in this old boy’s opinion were considerably better in that regard than their competitors.

Without much ado, I was plunked down at Reagan—née Washington National—right on schedule. It took a little while for my checked bag to appear on the carousel, but it did in due course.  I caught the bus to the Alamo car rental place and was soon shaking hands with Mr. Naeye and manhandling my overloaded suitcase into the trunk of the Nissan we’d been given.

As usual, I probably packed too much, though I certainly didn't go overboard on the astro gear. I’d wanted to take my li’l C90, Stella, with me, but given the forecasts I settled for a pair of 10x50 Celestron binoculars I won at the 2012 Deep South Regional Star Gaze. Udder than that, all I had with me was a red flashlight.

Our car trip out of Virginia and into the mountains was uneventful. We had a GPS as well as Unk’s GPS equipped iPhone, but we've made the drive so many times now that we didn't need the gadgets. Bob and I occasionally referred to a (good) set of printed instructions off’n the AHSP website, but only occasionally. The journey is a mite less than four hours of small towns right out of October Sky punctuated by stretches of often awesome scenery.

What did we talk about on the (somewhat) long drive? As usual, sports mostly. One year, an AHSP person drove us up and was, I could tell, flabbergasted and maybe a little disappointed that we had more to say about the state of the NFL and the MLB's just-finished All-Star Game than we did about astronomy and far-out cosmic stuff, but that is just the way we roll.

There wasn’t much question of us getting to the star party before dark; we’d set out from the airport around noontime. So, we decided to stop for lunch somewhere—they don’t even give you peanuts in Coach anymore and neither of us had had a bite. After plenty of looking for something other than a Mickey D’s, we spotted a Pizza Hut in a little burg. While the folks in there seemed a mite surprised to have consarned furriners in their joint, the food was not bad at all. Unk’s Personal Pan Pepperoni Pizza was actually purty tasty as well as alliterative.

After lunch, Unk took the wheel for the final run-in to Spruce Knob. I missed one turn along the way, but immediately realized what I’d done and got back on the straight and narrow. Not long after, we were making our ascent to the Mountain Institute on a sometimes rough but always passable dirt road.

First thing me and Bob noticed as we drove in? Attendance was obviously down. Oh, there were plenty of tents on the observing fields, but nothing like last year. That was no surprise; if the weather don't look perfect, some folks will stay home even though they've already paid their money. Which I don’t claim to understand.  A bad night at a star party is mucho bettero than a good night of cable TV if’n you axe me.

We pulled up to the registration tent and were soon greeted by the AHSP's Kathryn Scott who took good care of us, getting us settled in our rooms in the Dorms.  The rooms at in said dormitories are not fancy, but they are scrupulously clean and the beds are comfortable as star party beds go. Unk’s room not only looked freshly cleaned, it appeared to have been recently renovated.

First order of bidness after unpacking was trotting down to the Big Yurt to see what was up on Friday afternoon. Walking out of the dorm, I ran into AHSP Organizer Extraordinaire, Phil Wheery. I was glad to see Phil looked to be in fine fettle. He’d had to miss the 2013 edition due to health issues and it sure was nice to have him back and looking good for 2014.

Down the hill from the Dorms is the Big Yurt. Yes, “yurt.” Don’t ask me why, but whoever designed the Mountain Institute Facility decided to model the buildings after Mongolian Yurts. They are far from tents, but in their shapes they do somewhat resemble something you’d find on the steppes of Asia. The Big Yurt is where everything not related to observing happens at AHSP. There’s a large space for presentations, a kitchen where meals are prepared, limited dining area, and a large deck with plenty of room for tables for meals even when the star party is at full capacity.

Despite skies that looked so-so at best, there were lots of excited amateur astronomers hanging out at the yurt; many of them familiar faces from Unk’s previous AHSP expeditions. Udder than that? ‘Twas coming up on suppertime, and I was interested to see what the Mountain Institute had to offer in that regard.

Back in ’07 and for some years thereafter, the food, prepared by the M.I. folks, was on the healthy side. Maybe too healthy. As in brown rice, heaps o’ veggies, and fraking tofu. As the years have rolled on, however, I reckon the folks preparing the menus have realized they need to be a little less radical for our nerdy group. You can still eat super-healthy, but you no longer have to.

While there are still mucho veggies, to include veggie burgers, there’s now more normal fare for those of us a mite too set in their ways to go vegan. While I admire people who give up meat, I am afraid it is a little late in the game for me to do so. At supper Friday evening, you had a choice between sweet and sour chicken and curried chicken—along with plenty of sides. I was still purty full from that greasy Pizza Hut "pizza" a couple of hours previous, but I did have a small helping of the sweet and sour chicken. Danged good, I thought.

The time remaining till sunset was filled by Bob Naeye's presentation, “The Origin of Everything: How Things Got to Be the Way They Are Right Now” (Part I). What can I say about his talk? Simply that I hope that if I continue doing this long enough I will become as good a speaker as Bob. His presentation, which took us from the Big Bang to the modern Universe, was outstanding.

Naturally, Mr. Naeye was besieged by questions for quite a while after he quit, and by the time he finished answering 'em the Sun was about gone. Not that Unk thought darkness would do much for us. I poked my head out of the Yurt and had a look. The clouds were worse than ever, and I was pretty sure nobody would see a danged thing Friday evening. Nevertheless, I wanted to take a stroll around the observing field in case it poured rain all day and night Saturday, which it seemed a distinct possibility.

Retrieved my red light from the Dorm, the Brinkman “headlight” Kathryn gave me the previous year after I arrived on the mountain without a flashlight to my name, and headed up to the expansive observing area. While there are usually at least two busy observing fields, only one was in use this year for obvious reasons.

While the scope count was understandably lower than on a year with good weather, there was still plenty to see. The NOVAC folks dang sure have some good-looking gear. What was my fave? Probably the beautiful Takahashi Mewlon riding on a Synta EQ-6 (Atlas) mount. While some of y’all might consider the high-toned Tak too good for a “mere” EQ-6, the owner told Unk he absolutely loved the Atlas and had had nothing but good luck with it. No, it ain’t a freaking EM500, but who can tell in the dark?

After that, I headed back down to the Main Yurt for the vaunted “Informal Staff Meeting,” which was to be held in the Main Yurt rather than out on the field as per normal. Which was a good thing, I thought. Appeared to me that sitting out on the field would've been an invitation to disaster given the look of the sky, which now included some (distant) lightning flashes.

The dark skies of Spruce Knob can be amazing, but, still, my fondest memories of the event are the hours I’ve spent with my AHSP friends having some drinks and some laughs. The potations on this night? We were imbibing rather high-class wine instead of our usual beer. Unk is not a wine connoisseur by any means, and asked (in his Artful Dodger voice) whether he needed to extend a pinkie while drinking, but I have to admit it was good. We were all soon in better spirits and having a high old time despite what was going on outside, which was rain.

All too soon, it was time for Unk to say night-night. I’d been up since three that morning, and the idea of a soft bed was sounding better and better. Back at the Dorm, I got in some good  Zs. I did get up once in the night—it had turned surprisingly cold and I needed to find me a blanket stat. I popped outside to visit the bathroom in the bathhouse across from the Dorms, and found the clouds had not just thickened but lowered. The entire site was smothered in fog.

Somehow, I managed to get myself up in time for breakfast Saturday morning, and was glad I did. There was not a speck of tofu in evidence. What there was was biscuits, pretty good biscuits, gravy, and sausage. I dang sure ate my share, which I washed down with about a gallon of coffee.

One thing that’s always fun is browsing dealer tables. The AHSP has always had at least one astronomy vendor onsite, usually Gary Hand’s Hands-on-optics, and the HOO folks were indeed back with us for 2014. I am at a point where there is not much I need in the way of gear, but it was still cool to be able to look at all the astro-stuff. If I had needed something, I dang-sure would have bought it from Hands-on.  I try to make it a point to support the vendors who support us by participating in our star parties.

Mr. Naeye and I were not the only speakers for AHSP 2014. There was also a well-done talk on the future of the U.S. manned space program by Greg Redfern. Greg is an excellent presenter, and had some great slides. I wish I was as optimistic as he is about NASA’s future, but, if nothing else, it was encouraging to hear somebody so enthusiastic about space.

Next up would be Part II of Bob’s talk, and while waiting for that and for lunch, I killed some time reviewing the PowerPoint slides for my 6:30 talk. I also did some Internet surfing. This year, AHSP featured reliable, fast Internet. I was kinda sorry I hadn’t brought my big Toshiba laptop instead of my little Asus netbook, but it is just so freaking easy to tote the netbook around in airports. When it finally gives up the ghost, I will probably replace it with an iPad like many AHSPers were wielding, but the Asus worked well.

Lunch, like breakfast, was good—cold cuts, cheese, bread, and plenty of fixings for make your own sandwiches. It all tasted fresh and Unk didn't even mind that they didn't have good old Americano white bread, like the Sunbeam bread he favors. Out on the deck for lunch, amazingly, the Sun began to peep through the clouds. Before long, folks had Coronado PSTs set up for solar observing. Things was looking up.

Part II of Bob Naeye's presentation was different from what you usually hear at astronomy events in that it was centered on human history and culture rather than astronomy and the Great Out There, but it was every bit as well received as Part I. Maybe because those of us who do lots of star parties appreciate something different once in a while.

While the talks were excellent, that was hardly all there was to do Saturday. There was bird watching, canoeing, and more. The “more” included my geologist friend Lyle Mars’ yearly and very popular geology hike, and a bus tour to the National Radio Astronomy Observatory (NRAO) in nearby Green Bank, West Virginia. Sunday there would be still more talks and activities. You never have to worry about being bored at Almost Heaven, cloudy skies or clear.

Supper Saturday, grilled burgers and dogs, came and I enjoyed it, though I didn’t load up. I’d be going on with my talk at 7 p.m. and I didn't want to feel over-stuffed. I had originally been scheduled for 6:30, but was pushed back half an hour to allow time for the 10th Anniversary AHSP ice cream (and cake) social. Hard to believe the star party has been going on for a decade, and I am proud to have been a part of it for most of that time.

Then it was showtime. Like Bob’s, my talk this year was different. Hearing about hard-core amateur astronomy is good, but I think all of us like an occasional break from “An In-depth Look at Ramsden and Kellner Eyepieces.” The title of my Saturday evening presentation was “What Goes There? Things that go BUMP in the Night Sky.”

In part, my talk concerned the UFO phenomenon. At public outreach events, you are almost sure to be asked whether you “believe” in UFOs, so I think it is a good thing to know a little about that convoluted controversy. Mostly, however, my presentation was about how to have fun viewing the odd, the strange, the outré in the nighttime and daytime skies not to include the pea-picking flying saucers.

Given the weather, I could have talked all night—I sure wouldn’t be keeping folks from observing—that semi-clear spell at supper didn't last long. As usual, however, I held my jibber-jabber to one hour with questions, which I consider the limit for a star party. How did it go? It went well. This was the first time I’d given this new talk, so there were a few rough edges, but my listeners seemed to have a good time, and the hour positively flew by.

When the questions were done, I stepped out into the gloaming to see how the sky looked. “What sky?” It would soon be as black as the inside of a black cat with clouds, fog, and drizzle that verged on rain. It was way too early to go to bed, though, so I was glad to hear there would be an Informal Staff Meeting Part Dos. Once again, I had a great time with all my old friends, Chris, Elizabeth, Phil, and all the rest of the AHSP's dedicated staffers. Alas, all too soon it was turn-into-a-pumpkin time for the Rodster. Bob and I needed to be on the road at 7 a.m. to make it back to DC for our afternoon flights. Reluctantly, I said my goodbyes and moseyed back to my room.

The next day wasn't exactly fun. Our drive back to the airport was uneventful, but my itinerary was the pits. In order to get me home at a reasonable hour, I had three flights to catch: DC to Charleston, Charleston to Charlotte, and Charlotte to Mobile. It almost worked. Unfortunately, there was a delay on the Charleston to Charlotte leg, and I missed my flight to Mobile by 10-minutes. That meant I had to take the 10 p.m. back to the Swamp. Good thing I had a thick book, David Weber’s On Basilisk Station, to occupy me for the four hours I had to sit cooling my heels in Charlotte. When Miss D. picked me up at Possum Swamp Regional at 11:15, I was one tired pup.

If not quite ready to call it a night, muchachos. I had dozed on the last flight and was now kinda wound up, so I sat in front of the cable TV watching my fave uber-silly reality show. I sure hope to be back in West Virginny in 2015, but until then I guess I’m back to experiencing West Virginia vicariously with Mountain Monsters. Anyhow, thanks, especially, to Bob Parks, Kathryn Scott, and Phil Wheery. I hope y’all got some observing in on Sunday or Monday, but whether that happened or not, you put on another great AHSP.

Nota Bene:  You can see lots more pix from Unk's trip on his Facebook page...

Next Time:  Project Scotty Begins…

Saturday, August 23, 2014

 

Unk’s West Virginia Weekend


“Where’s my dadgum blog, Unk? What the hail am I supposed to read while I eat my Sunday mornin’ Wheaties?” Sorry about that, muchacho. Unk has just returned from yet another edition of the justly famous Almost Heaven Star Party in West Virginia and is a wee bit tuckered. Best I can offer is a few pix till next week when the entire story will be told. In other words, “See y’all on the flip-flop.”



















Next Time:  West Virginia Redux, Redux, Redux…

Sunday, August 17, 2014

 

The Next One


It ain’t like your old Uncle ain’t had an observing project since 2012 when I finished the Herschel Project, muchachos. I’ve actually had quite a few: Operation Arp, my quest to view Halton Arp’s peculiar galaxies, and the BCH Project, my plan to observe the deep sky objects of Burnham’s legendary Celestial Handbook to name just a couple. The problem? None of ‘em has clicked with me.

As I’ve said before, I believe observing all 2500 Herschel objects will turn out to have been the deep sky observing experience of a lifetime. I had so much fun doing it that it’s odd it took so long for me to get around to it. Or maybe not so odd. A few things had to come into proper conjunction to make the Herschel Project fly.

First of all, I had to have the gear to observe them dim aitches. I wouldn’t have dared to tackle them all with “just” a C8 used visually—though that might have been possible. One cold November night in 2010, I essayed a passel of them with nothing more than my trusty 8-inch SCT, Celeste (albeit from dark skies). That said, there is no doubt in my formerly military mind that my 12-inch Dob, Old Betsy, and my C11, Big Bertha, were a big factor in me finishing the Project in a smidge over two years.

Another reason I was able to plow through the H2500, “the Big Enchilada” as I called it, with good speed was my deep sky video cameras, the Stellacam 2 with which I began The Project, and the Mallincam Xtreme with which I finished it. I probably wouldn’t have been able to do two-hundred objects in a single evening without a video camera (not to mention goto and DSCs).

A huge help was the dark skies of the Chiefland Astronomy Village. I’d been heading Down Chiefland Way twice a year for the Spring Picnic and the Chiefland Star Party for the better part of a decade. When the Project began, however, I kicked it up a couple of notches. Despite the demands of my engineering gig as I approached retirement, I did January, April, July, and November (or December) CAV trips in 2010, 2011, and 2012.

"Clouds? What clouds?"
The final piece of the puzzle was the weather. 2011, and especially the summer of 2011, was, as I noted week before last, outstanding for deep sky work. The skies of Chiefland that summer were near about as dark and transparent as winter skies. The weather didn't begin to change for the worse in Chiefland and up here in Possum Swamp till I was nearing the Herschel finish line in the late spring of 2012.

But finish I did in 2012, and I wasn’t too surprised when my feeling of elation out on the CAV observing field at the end of the last night’s run turned into a big let down in the motel room by morning light. I was finished. What would I do now?

I immediately began thinking about what would come next, but I had the sneaking suspicion that whatever that was, it wouldn’t be as much fun as the Herschel Project. Not hardly. Those nights at the CAV, pressing on through the forests of Coma and Virgo, dragging back to the Days Inn well after 3 a.m. to wind down with Rebel Yell and Ghost Adventures. Getting up the next morning and spending the hours till darkness sitting in the motel reading The Georgian Star, Discoverers of the Universe, Double Stars, or Sir Willie’s own Scientific Papers. Grabbing a bite at Bar-B-Q Bills and heading for the field to do it all over again. It was a magical time for me.

I suspected no new observing program would light my fire like the Herschel Project did, but that didn't mean there wouldn’t be fun projects. My original inspiration for the Project was Julie Powell’s quest to cook all of Julia Child’s recipes in Mastering the Art of French Cooking (and to blog about it) as documented in Julie and Julia. Like her, I would move on to something else, even if it wasn’t an as engaging a something else. I just hoped what came next for me wouldn’t be a disaster like Julie’s misbegotten (book) follow-up, Cleaving: a Story of Marriage, Meat, and Obsession (!)…

I thunk and I thunk and I thunk, and in January of 2013, Operation Arp debuted. I’d long been interested in the Arp peculiar galaxies, so it seemed a natural to observe them. Alas, the new project floundered and foundered. For a couple of reasons. It came at a bad time, just as I was transitioning from working stiff to retired codger. I had to spend most of my time with investment councilors, not the stars.

Good old Bill's...
That wasn’t the only reason. The elephant in the living room was that I just didn't find Halton Arp inspiring. While the man did some outstanding work, his clinging to patently incorrect theories made him seem more a stubborn cuss than a pioneer like the Herschels. Many the time out on a cold, dark field, I felt a genuine closeness to William and Caroline. With Chip Arp? Never.

Finally, I was surprised to find, when I composed an Arp list with SkyTools 3, that I’d already seen bunches of the galaxies. It was still fun to go back through ‘em, looking for their peculiar details. But it didn't have the feel the H-Project had, of breaking new ground, of seeing what was just around the next corner. If the Herschel Project was my Star Trek (the original series), Operation Arp was Deep Space Nine.

Lastly, while there are galaxies all over the sky, even hugging the Zone of Avoidance, most of the Arps are, naturally, clustered in the spring and fall. What would I do the rest of the year? Yes, the spring constellations are on display in late winter and early summer, and the fall ones in late summer and early winter, but I would still have to deal with slim pickings for considerable lengths of time.

So I thunk some more. One afternoon, I picked up Burnham’s Celestial Handbook and started thumbing through it after it had sat lonely on my shelf for many upon many a Moon. Hell, why not observe all the Burnham deep sky objects? For a while that sounded just about perfect.  When I ginned up a list with Deep Sky Planner, I discovered that while the Handbook contains nearly 1900 DSOs, I’d already seen three-quarters of them, leaving around 500, which sounded about right.

Alas, the BCH ain't yet got off the ground. I ain’t gonna say I ain’t never gonna undertake it, but a little preliminary observing showed it not to be much fun. Oh, the objects were fun to observe and all that, but I wanted depth. What I wanted to do was to be able to compare my impressions of what I was seeing to Burnham’s. Unfortunately, only a relative few of his objects get any discussion in the books. Usually three or four per constellation. There really wasn’t much of an emotional hook to hang the Burnham Project on, either. Certainly, Robert Burnham was a sympathetic character, but, as with Arp, I found it nigh impossible to feel much kinship with him.

So, anyhow, I was sitting around the New Manse the udder day, pondering the amateur astronomer’s eternal question, “What do I look at next?” when my eye ran across the bookshelf, lighting on Deep Sky Wonders. I don’t mean Sue French’s (excellent) book, but the original, the Scotty Deep Sky Wonders. The compilation book of his columns done by Steve O’Meara in 1999.

Who is this “Scotty?” I don’t blame you younguns for not knowing. After all, Walter Scott Houston has been gone from us for over twenty years. Still, you’ll hear hardcore deep sky maniacs talk about him even now. He was that big a force in our hobby. You might say he is the man who invented deep sky observing as we know it today. I do not exaggerate when I say his column, which ran in Sky & Telescope from 1946 until his death, is no little responsible for taking amateur astronomy from being a pursuit where you looked at the Moon, planets, double stars, and brightest Messiers, to the far ranging deep space quest it is today. Want to know more? The book has a short profile of the man, but there is not yet a real biography, something I hope will change someday.

And how about the O’Meara-edited book? It is good, very good; you should read it. You should also get undiluted Scotty, however. The original, the real deal. While most of the words in the book are Scotty’s, Mr. O’Meara understandably had to do a lot of cutting and pasting and rearranging to work those nearly fifty years of monthly columns into a coherent whole. It’s a nice summing up of “Deep Sky Wonders” and I recommend it, but today you have an alternative.

Yep, campers, I’m talking about the Sky & Telescope DVD set, which, you won’t be surprised to learn, holds an honored spot on Chaos Manor South’s bookshelf. What was the first thing I did with it once I got the discs? I went straight to September 1946, the issue with Scotty’s first column, and began reading them in sequence.

What made Mr. Houston the Dean of Deep Sky Observers, as he is often called, wasn’t just his encyclopedic knowledge of the Universe beyond the Solar System. One of the most prescient observations by Steve O’Meara in Deep Sky Wonders is that Scotty never let the minutiae of deep sky observing get in the way. One thing you will not find in his columns—ever—is long-winded discussions about which brand or design of telescope or eyepiece is “best.” Scotty knew the most important thing in our pursuit is not the eyepiece, but the man or woman behind it.

My Scotty story? Everybody who was active in the glory days of the 70s - 80s when amateurs were first beginning to really push back the deep sky frontiers seems to have a Scotty story. Mine is simple. I was at a star party way back when, probably the old Riverside Telescope Maker’s Conference. I was standing in line to get a look through somebody’s big gun—hell it may have been a freaking 16-inch—and struck up a conversation with this older gent.

Not only did this dude seem knowledgeable about the deep sky, damned knowledgeable, the force of his personality was undeniable. Even in the dark, I could feel him sizing me up, like a pitcher taking the measure of the next batter. I was impressed. It was only after he’d had his look through the eyepiece, made a couple of incisive comments, and wandered off, that the guy next to me nudged me, “You know who that was, doncha? SCOTTY!”

The fuel of the Herschel Project...
So, no, I didn't really know Walter Scott Houston (“Twinky” to his family and other intimates), but despite only having (sorta) met him that once, I felt like I did from reading “Deep Sky Wonders” for over thirty years. When I was a sprout, the column was the first thing I turned to when Sky and ‘Scope appeared in the mailbox (in a big manila envelope). I wasn’t always successful in following Scotty out into the Final Frontier, but it sure was fun trying.

So, what if I observed the “Scotty Objects” enumerated in the book? Yeah, many of them I would have seen time and again—naturally, in the early days, he gave plenty of space to less esoteric objects—but the fun would be finding out how what I saw compared to what The Man saw.

Well, if’n I was going to do that, I’d need a list of objects. It was a simple matter to compose an observing list of Scotty’s DSOs from the book using SkyTools 3. When I was done, I found I had a total of exactly 441 fuzzies. Let me say rat-cheer that I didn't include every single object. I skipped most of the dark nebulae. Scotty loved them, but they ain’t my bag. I also left out some double stars that would have required lazy ol’ me to do a modicum of work to cross-reference them with SkyTools’ database. What I was left with looked like it was just about the right size, Herschel 400 size, had a good mix of objects, and just had a good feel to it.

How exactly will I do Project Scotty? I have been wanting to get back to doing a little more visual observing with my 12-inch Dob, Old Betsy, and Scotty was a visual observer, so the emphasis will be on looking through the eyepiece. I do love my Mallincams, though, and I will not hesitate to employ them. Scotty used modest scopes—a 10-inch was his largest personal instrument—but he had darker skies than I do, especially when he was observing from Kansas. And he had incredible skills. So, I’ll use the Xtreme when appropriate. A tenet of Project Scotty is that philosophy that what really matters is the observer, not the equipment.

Other ground rules? Will there be a time-limit? I didn't impose a time limit on myself when I was doing the Herschel 2500. However, I did set a goal for finishing the Herschel 2, my first serious foray in the H-list. Like Julie Powell, I gave myself a year to get ‘er done. Unlike her, however, I resolved not to worry about it if I didn’t make it. Same this time. Having a set time for finishing a project does seem to help spur me on, but given the weather down south the last few years, I never know how much sky time I will get.

Old Betsy's latest incarnation...
When will Project Scotty begin? Soon, I hope, y’all. As I wrote a few weeks back, Old Betsy is all cleaned up and wired up to work with a laptop and SkyTools 3, and seems to be champing at the bit sitting out in the Shop. Assuming (you know what they say about that word) the Weather Gods allow it, I hope to get her out to the Possum Swamp Astronomical Society Dark Site and begin Scotty’s objects with July and August.

I don’t believe I mentioned it earlier, but to help preserve the feel of the original columns, Steve O’Meara arranged Deep Sky Wonders into 12 monthly sections. Don’t expect me to stick to the month’s objects on any given month. Which ones I will look at will depend on what’s well placed for observing. You may find me, for example, bypassing July objects for those of September and October.

I guess what I am really looking forward to, though, is getting under the crisp fall and winter skies with Scotty at my side, just like on those long ago nights when I took my first fumbling steps into the cosmos. Orion, Gemini, Andromeda, and all the rest were terra incognita to me then. I was often lost and often despaired of finding my way among the countless stars. Sometimes I wanted to slink back inside without having seen a thing. I didn’t, because, in my mind, anyway, Walter Scott Houston was at my side urging, “Don’t give up, boy; you won’t believe the wonders we are going to see!”

What happens to my other deep sky observing projects? I am shelving the Burnham list for now. I will probably get back to it once Project Scotty is done. Maybe. Operation Arp is engaging enough that I will no doubt continue it down Chiefland Way when the spring constellations roll ‘round again. I have one other short (reasonably) list to tackle as well, my DSRSG 1994 – 2014 Anniversary List, of which you will hear more in a month or three. So, onward to Project Scotty, muchachos. In the words of Ms. Powell, “What could happen?”

Next Time: West Virginia Redux...

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