Friday, January 01, 2010

 

And What Have You Done/Another Year Over/And a New One Just Begun…

The Solstice is past, the winds of Old Man Winter are howling outside—it’s been down in the dadgummed thirties ‘round here—and the nights, while long, are often cloudy. That makes it a perfect time for your old Uncle Rod to ruminate on where he’s been in amateur astronomy over the past year and where he might, in his confused and stumbling fashion, be going over the next one.

2009 started off with either a bang or a whimper—I ain’t sure which. I’d completed my new SCT book, Choosing and Using a New CAT, some months previous, and had spent the end of 2008 working with and fussing with the publisher’s production people. It was not till the turn of the New Year that the book hit the streets. Overall I was pleased and happy. Not perfect, no, but a distinct improvement over its “inspiration,” Choosing and Using a Schmidt Cassegrain Telescope. I’ve larned a lot about the book writing game over the intervening decade, and I believe that shows.

So what’s with the “with a whimper”? Having a book published is like sending a youngun off to college, I reckon. You’ve done your best, but the time finally comes when you have to let the little bird fly. The verdict on New CAT was a positive one; it looked to be headed for success in a small amateur astronomy sort of way. Still, I felt let-down. Empty Nest Syndrome, I suppose. It was nice not to have to work on the book every blessed day, leastways it was nice not to have to review yet another set of hosed-up galley proofs every day, but I missed having something to do. Unk needed a project, but what?

There was this here blog, of course. Over the last two years, it’s really taken on form and substance, coming a long way from its days as a collection of brief paragraphs posted on the old AOL blogsite (long since shutdown). It’s such a fixture of life ‘round here now, though, that it doesn’t feel much like A Project. How about good, old Skywatch, my long-running newsletter, then? Well, it ain’t dead, but it might as well be. The blog gives me a convenient enough and frequent enough venue for my ramblings that I don’t see much need for Skywatch no more. Naw, I ain’t gonna say Skywatch is completely dead, no, and I may even get out another issue one of these days, but I just wasn’t and still am not much interested in Skywatch anymore, I am embarrassed to admit.

‘Course, with spring of ’09 coming in, there would be star parties. Well, sorta. With the recession in full swing, I noticed a precipitous drop in my bookings to speak at amateur events. That’s thankfully beginning to turn around now, but last year was awful lean. The only star party I made it to last spring was as a “civilian,” not a speaker, the Chiefland Spring Picnic. And wouldn’t you know it? That sucka was clouded out.

Yep, El Nino was back in full force last year. That weather pattern did keep the cotton picking hurricanes to a minimum, but it also made the spring skies almost unrelievedly cloudy, not just down Chiefland way, but up here in Possum Swamp. I got in some hours at the PSAS dark site, but not many, muchachos, not many.

Just when I thought I was gonna go plumb stir crazy from lack of astro-diversions, a package dropped through the mail slot and into Chaos Manor South’s front hall. A package containing Greg Crinklaw’s SkyTools 3 program. I had been a long time user and supporter of his SkyTools 2, but 3 was a quantum leap forward, and the program provided me several weeks of diversion even before I could get it out to dark skies. Which I thought was gonna be at the above-mentioned Chiefland Picnic, but ST3 wasn’t much use inside a Holiday Inn Express room as I watched endless rain fall.

Eventually, though, I did get out in the dark again; I really got lucky, too. I’d intended to head back to the CAV in June, but was stymied by a lack of motel accommodations. As most of y’all know, your ol’ Uncle has long since sworn off tent camping, and not being possessed of a humongous RV, the alternative is motel rooms. Alas, all of Chiefland’s hostelries were full the New Moon weekend in June. I still don’t know why they were full, and none of the Chieflanders seem to have a clue either. UFO fly-in? Manatee roundup? Skunk ape rodeo?

I rescheduled for July, but without hope of seeing much. Here in the Deep South, July almost always brings hazy if not stormy skies. With the Nino reigning, I figgered the weather would be even worse than it normally is at the height of summer. I made the trip anyway, if on a semi-whim.

What I found there was astounding: dead clear, transparent, dark skies. The False Comet, NGC 6231, near the tail of Scorpius, an open cluster associated with nebulosity that, under good conditions, looks for all the world like a naked eye comet, was as visible as I’ve ever seen it save at Prude Ranch’s Texas Star Party. That’s the way it was all weekend, too, with me knocking off object after object with my Stellacam and Ethos eyepieces. I saw lots of cool stuff; including many of the DSOs I planned to feature in a new (and currently shelved) book project on deep sky observing with Schmidt Cassegrains.

Home again in the ol’ manse, I was back to square one. The skies were still cloudy, and the single project I’d been playing around with, the aforementioned book on DSOs for CATs, suddenly didn’t seem quite as brilliant an idea as I’d originally thought (though it may be back from the dead one day; you never know). What to do? How about an update to my venerable Used CAT Buyer’s Guide? I began work on a new edition, the 10th, which might see the light of day by mid 2010 if I continue working in my fits-and-starts fashion, but while that needed to be done, it wasn’t that absorbing.

‘Bout the only thing I figgered I had to look forward to was my pair of yearly fall star parties, the Deep South Regional Star Gaze and the Chiefland (Nova Sedus) Star Party. That’s what I thought, anyhow, till my wife, the lovely Miss Dorothy, returned home from the university one afternoon lugging a great, big book…

Seems as she’d been to a rare/antiquarian book sale and had snagged a copy of The Scientific Papers of Sir William Herschel for Unk. I have to be honest with y’all: I simply do not believe anyone has ever had a better wife.

As I began paging through the thick and heavy tome, I was at first interested, then intrigued, and finally maybe a little obsessed. The more of Sir Willie’s words I read, the more interested I became in following in his and sis Caroline’s footsteps. I started off easy, deciding to pursue the Herschel 400 Part Two and document my efforts in the blog.

After an inaugural Herschel session at the Deep South Regional Star Gaze, where I snagged a couple-dozen objects, The Herschel Project, as I was calling my quest, began to pick up steam, with me doing close to a couple hundred at the Nova Sedus Star Party, which, amazingly enough, like DSRSG, featured mostly clear skies. Not only did the pace of the H Project pick up, its scope began to broaden. While I’d initially intended just to do the Herschel 2 list, setting a goal for myself of finishing it within a year, my initial success led me to consider going for The Whole Big Thing, The Big Enchilada.

The Astronomical League’s Herschel 1 and 2 observing “clubs” are hardly all there is to the Herschel deep sky objects. All told, The Man, ably assisted by Miss Caroline, observed and documented nearly 2500 faint fuzzies, which went on to form a big chunk of the NGC. What if I were to go after all of ‘em? To really follow in the Herschels’ wake? The ease with which the H2 objects had fallen to my eyepieces and my Stellacam 2 began to make this seem not just a screwy Sunday evening fancy of Unk’s, but something that might actually be doable within a reasonable time-frame.

Howsabout a test then? After I’d covered all the Herschel 2s I could at Chiefland, I started the Big List. I’d located a text file of all 2500 DSOs on the ol’ I-net, imported that into SkyTools 3 with ease, and, with the aid of that wonderful software, was able to easily cull all the “non existents” and other problem children from the 2500, leaving me with 2377 targets. Still a lot, sure, but it no longer seemed a scary lot. In a single night, my NexStar 11, Big Bertha, and I did all the list’s many galaxies in Aquarius and made a significant dent in the countless island universes that inhabit galaxy-rich Cetus.

Uhhh! What is it GOOD FOR? I’ve decided to stick to the original focus of the Herschel Project, the Herschel 2 list, as far as this blog is concerned—for now, anyway. Yes, many of the Herschel 2500’s objects are beautiful, encompassing as it does the “bright” showpieces of the original Herschel 400 list. Howsomeever, many of its members are “faint, small, elliptical galaxy with no details,” and constantly documenting their legions here in would become a pain for you to read, I suspect. So what will I do with my H2500 observations? There’ll be the satisfaction of seeing what Sir William Herschel saw, of course. But, not long after starting on the big part of the Herschel Project, I began to feel the faint stirrings of an idea for a new book.

A book on both the H objects and their discoverers, a book way beyond the Herschel 1 and 2 guides that are or have been available. Will a Herschel book happen for real? Who knows? There’s a lot of observing yet to be done. Then I’ll have to at least do an outline and a sample chapter. Then, and maybe most difficult, I’ll have to interest a publisher in a somewhat arcane subject—even for an amateur astronomy book.

Yes, a lot of observing to do—and sketching, and maybe imaging. What exactly will it take to finish The Whole Big Thing? Will Unk have to join the big Dob ranks? I don’t think so—not that that would necessarily be a bad thing. I have yet to run across anything that is an impossibility for the NexStar 11 or for my humble 12.5-inch Dobsonian, Old Betsy. Yes, there are supposedly some objects in the Big List that make the H1 and H2 run-of-the-mill seem laughably easy. If I encounter anything like that, I reckon I’ll just crank up the Stellacam one more notch.

The thing is, y’all, Sir William did most of his work with his 20-foot (focal length) telescope. This was possessed of an 18.7-inch speculum metal primary mirror that was no doubt at least partially tarnished most of the time. I am convinced my 12.5-inch with her high-falutin’ super-duper coatings and Ethos eyepieces can keep up with that. Slap the Stellacam 2 on the NS 11 and I have little doubt that will blow away even The Man’s 40-foot (48-inch aperture) monster.

You know what? Whether a book ever comes out of The Herschel Project or not, I I have already had one hell of a good time learning more about Herschel and his fuzzies and seeing a few hundred of them for myself thus far.

It hasn’t been all H-project, though. My major Santa-brought-me this year was one of Orion’s StarShoot II autoguide cameras, and I wanted to give that a go at the club dark site during my Christmas break. I’ve been using a Meade DSI as an autoguider on those occasions when I’m imaging with a DSLR rather than my ST2000 CCD. At times, I have even used the DSI to guide the ST2000, despite the presence of a built-in guide chip on the SBIG. It’s not always easy to find a good-looking guide star with the ST2000’s small off-center guide chip; it’s usually easier—if less convenient set-up-wise—to deal with a separate guide scope and camera. Unfortunately, when using the DSI as a guider I obviously cannot image with it too.

Why would I want to image with the small one-shot color DSI anyway? Because I’ve found it can produce relatively nice color images perfect for use in my books and magazine articles. And it can produce these good-looking color images with ease. Being of the one-track-mind persuasion, I decided that could be a real asset in documenting some of my Herschel Project travels.

Given Orion’s always good customer service, it was not surprising the StarShoot autoguider arrived without much delay. Given Miss Dorothy’s constant indulgence of me, it also wasn’t surprising she let me open my gift before December 25th. Doing so revealed what you see to above: an attractive little camera, with the emphasis pleasingly on little. Despite the StarShoot’s minute body, its CMOS chip, a 6.66 x 5.32-mm job, is significantly larger than the DSI’s CCD—a good thing when you are hunting guide stars. Also nice is that the StarShoot has a built in ST-4 autoguide output. That meant I could dispense with the extra computer connection needed for the Shoestring ST-4 guide adapter I had been using with the guide-portless DSI.

To cut to the ol’ chase, how did she work? Very nicely. Oh, there were some problems at the darksite, but they were with me, not the Orion camera. Set-up was easy since the StarShoot is compatible with my favorite autoguiding software, PHD Guiding. I was a little worried that the Orion guider’s use of a CMOS chip rather than a CCD would make it less sensitive than the DSI, especially given that my usual guidescope, a William Optics 66mm Patriot SD refractor, is slightly aperture challenged. And the Starshoot is indeed somewhat less sensitive than the DSI. Despite that, however, I was able to locate a suitable star in any field I turned the guide scope on. When I’d tweaked PHD’s settings a mite (mostly just increasing calibration steps to 750 from 500) the camera and software locked on and guided without hiccups every single time.

Other observations? I’ve heard some StarShoot users complain about “banding” artifacts in the guide camera’s frame. I found that if I adjusted the gamma to yield a gray background on the Starshoot’s video output, I did see this banding. But so what? It didn’t affect guiding whatsoever, and since you won’t be making images with the Starshoot, it really doesn’t matter whether the frame looks pretty or not. The camera guides faultlessly, which is all I care about. Before winter is out, I hope to use the StarShoot and my Canon DSLR and my C8 and my Atlas mount to FINALLY produce my definitive portrait of M42.

What else was waiting under Chaos Manor South’s festively decorated Criterion RV-6? As I mentioned the other week, I was so pleased with the Farpoint Bahtinov focusing mask I bought from Scope City for the C11, that I asked ol’ Santy for one for the C8, too. I got a couple of books as well, including the latest edition of Sky and Telescope’s beautiful Beautiful Universe.

Which astrogift really made it with me in addition to the StarShoot, though? An unlooked for one. As you know if you’ve been reading this dadgummed blog for long, I am an occasional Lunatic. Well, I may be a fulltime Lunatic, but I am a part time Moon watcher. One of the things I always wished for was really powerful Moon-charting software for use at/with the telescope. The last few years have seen several computer programs of that sort come out, but none has been better than the freeware Virtual Moon Atlas by Patrick Chevalley and Christian Legrand.

Imagine my delight, then, to hear from Christian that he and Patrick have just released a new and substantially upgraded version of VMA; not only have they added many new features to Virtual Moon Atlas Pro 5.0, it is now available in Linux and Mac OS versions as well as Windows. It’s a big download, but it is still free, and it is incredibly powerful. Even if you’re just a casual Lunar observer, you owe it to yourself to give VMA a spin.

So, what’s next for your old Uncle? The Herschel Project will roll on, of course, both at the club dark site and at star parties. I hope to make it out to Chiefland at least once over the winter, but if that doesn’t happen, I’ll for sure be back in the spring. Spring will also bring some bookings at star parties across the good ol’ U.S. of A., somethin’ I always look forward to, since I get to have Eyeball QSOs with all y’all and look through/play with your wonderful telescopes. In toto? I’ll go out on a limb rat-cheer and predict it will be yet another wonderful year of amateur astronomy for all of us. See you there.

Comments:
I know you're not fishing for encouragement, but I would luh-huh-huh-OVE to someday read the Herchel book you're contemplating.

Thanks for another year of good blogging, good advice, and good stories!
 
Good thing you don't live in Oregon Rod. Except for OSP and a few other places, it takes a jeep to get "really" dark and their ain't no fancy rooms out in the sticks:)

I found two things made "camping" eaiser - a "no-seeum/skeeter/shade shelter and a double high queen air matress. As you know we have some seriously dark skies in the sticks here, especially in the south eastern part of the state, but the biggest motel or the US gov ranch house is to far to use.

I thought about a trailer, but 20 or 30 miles of gravel/holes/almost roads makes the Jeep my horse of choice.

Nice start to the year on the blog, clear skies.
 
Great blog! I just started one myself (lostpleaidobservatory) and will learn a lot from yours. Looking forward to reading more about the Herschel project!
 
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