Sunday, May 23, 2010


Clearin’ the Cobwebs of Berenice with Sue French

Peculiar weather we’re having lately, ain’t it? Not that I’m complaining, mind you, not with them poor people in the Midwest and upper south taking such a beating. And for us, it’s been peculiar in a good way.

I suppose I usually get my share of spring galaxy observing. Last year, I sure did, even if I was sometimes gazing at island universes through a layer of ground fog. That’s the way it is ‘round these parts. The return of Coma – Virgo brings with it haze, clouds, and often violent thunderstorms. But, amazingly, there’s been little of that this year. Night-time temperatures for the last week have been in the 50s F., and the clouds have stayed away, more or less.

As time for this month’s dark site run came upon us, there was little doubt I’d get some hours. Saturday dawned partly cloudy, but afore long them clouds began to scud off, just as the weatherman predicted (imagine that). By all rights, I shoulda had at least the C8 and the Stellacam out to Tanner-Williams, Alabama, and had the Herschel Project running at full speed. That didn’t happen. I wimped out.

If you follow this silly little blog on a regular basis, you know it’s been a tough month or two for us denizens of Chaos Manor South, with Miss Dorothy’s health problems front and center. Tell the truth, muchachos, I was just tired. I wanted to observe, but I couldn’t deal with loading, unloading, setting up, reloading, and unloading a ton of gear. If all goes as planned, the Herschel project will have had its hours under the stars Down Chiefland Way by the time you read this, but the Saturday eve in question was, yep, a Sweet Charity night all the way.

When either the sky or the ol’ bod ain’t up to a hardcore observing run, I naturally turn to my ultra-portable little girlfriend, Charity Hope Valentine, an ETX-125PE, whose adventures I last chronicled here. As I’ve said a time or three, it’s amazing what I can see with Charity, even on less than good nights from less than good sites, but I didn’t reckon I’d turn her loose on the Herschel II. What to look at, then?

If you were following my adventures and misadventures last fall, you’ll recall I started a second series of observing articles in addition to the H-Project. I proposed to run through some of the observing columns and features the astro-rags print, with an eye toward informing y’all about what works and doesn’t in ‘em. I started out in right sprightly fashion with one of Sue French’s “Deep Sky Wonders” entries. But that was it. The Herschel Project bumped that idea right offstage. Since I wouldn’t be doing Herschels on this night, I thought I’d get back to this other idea and see what Charity would make of Sue’s spring galaxy tour, “The Gossamers of Coma Berenices,” which appeared in the May 2010 issue. That would not be the only thing I’d be doing out in the dark, though; I’d be giving my new netbook computer its check ride.

Netbook? Yep. One of them miniature PCs ever’body in the Windows world is excited about and glomming on to. Yes, I was goin’ through one of my periodic snits about Winders a few weeks back, telling all and sundry I was THROUGH with the EVIL MIcrosoft O/S, and was going Apple all the way. With a Mac desktop. With a Mac laptop. Maybe even with an iPad. So why buy yet another Bill Gates special? I realized I would still need something to run NexRemote whether I entered the Apple Corps or not. Yeah, Skeezix, I know you can partition the drive on the new Intel Macs and run Windows, yadda-yadda-yadda. Not for me.

I’m way too computer-ignernt to fool with stuff like that. I needed an inexpensive, small computer to run my Win-only astroware. With the emphasis on small. I was roundly sick of toting my humongous P4 Toshiba laptop. Yes, she’s been a great computer, but in addition to her bulk, she is awful power-hungry, easily running down my 75ah trolling motor battery before midnight. So, one of the small, power-sipping Win Netbooks seemed a natural. Which one? I had no idea. I schlepped myself down to BestBuy to find out. Wisely, I took Miss D., who was feeling much better, with me, as her advice concernin’ computers has saved me from utter disaster more’n once.

If I hadn’t known how popular the mini-notebooks have become, one look at the array on display in the big-box store would have apprised me of that fact. There was a whole counterful, at least 15 at least somewhat different machines. Originally, I’d been thinking I might want one of the few models that sport 12-inch screens, but a close look at the netbooks on display, mostly 10-inchers, showed a 10 would probably do. Yeah, I’d have to wear my dadgummed reading glasses, but I now have to wear ‘em even to decipher my 20-inch monitor at work, so so what?

Mostly, the netbooks in BestBuy were more alike than different. They sorted into two major groups based on their hard drives, both surprisingly large: 160gb and 250gb—man alive, my Toshiba’s only got an 80. All featured built-in wi-fi, nice enough chiclet-style keyboards, and no i/o other than two or three USB ports (big surprise, that, huh?). Aside from their hard drives and the color of their cases, the only difference among the various models and brands appeared to be battery life, with the ones on the lower end claiming 5 – 6 hours, and those on top boasting 10 – 11 hours run time (!) on the internal bat’tries.

Looking at the long row of shiny new netbooks left your old Uncle somewhat bemused. Luckily, the wonderful Miss D. started eliminating candidates with ease: “I’m sure you don’t want an HP, not after the trouble with Lizbeth’s HP laptop. This one’s OK, but for 20 dollars more you can have longer battery run-time and a better processor,” and so on and so forth. With her guidance, I settled on an Asus Eee with a 250gig hard drive, an amazing 11 hours of battery life—or so they said—and Intel’s new “Atom” 1.6ghz processor, the Pine-trail, which was reputed to be easy on the power, but still lively in its performance.

Only bummer? My intent had been to get a netbook with Windows XP. Guess what? In the stores, at least, it’s Windows 7 all the way. The day of the XP netbook has ended, and while there were still some display cards that referred to machines with the earlier o/s, none were in stock and none would be. Well, tarnation. I was a little concerned about getting my astroware to run under Microsoft's latest…err… “marvel,” but I had been assured that my two main mojos, SkyTools 3 and NexRemote, would be fine. Anything else would be gravy, I reckoned.

Before leaving the store, I picked up a couple of extras. Well, not really extras, more like necessities. One was an external (USB) DVD drive. As you may know, current netbooks do not come with DVD drives. Lot of the time you won’t need one, given today’s flash drives and Internet connectivity everywheres, but if you need to load software off DVDs, which I knew I would, you will need, well, a DVD. Luckily, external drives are relatively inexpensive, with most hovering at just over 50 bucks. Udder than that? A case, of course. When my friend, Pat, bought his Asus (XP) Netbook some time back, it came with a minimalist case, but that’s no longer part of the deal. I settled on a nice Targus. Total damage? Still under five bills even with our crazy high sales tax, believe it or no.

Once I got the li’l thing back to the Ol’ Manse, it was more or less smooth sailing. Basic setup was easy. Software installation for most stuff was a no-brainer. The key? The version of Windows 7 on the Asus was Windows 7 Starter 32 bit. Seems as most of the compatibility problems I’ve heard tell about come from the 64 bit versions of Windows 7. Oh, a few of my older applications, like Megastar, had to have their setup programs run in XP compatibility mode, a few programs themselves needed to be run that way, and a few drivers (the one for my Orion StarShoot Autoguider, fer example) had to be updated. That was it. Soon, I had all my fave astro-apps in place, includin’ the all important NexRemote. The only question was how well would they run?

Before I move on, let’s talk about the version of Win 7 that ships with most new netbooks, Starter. What it is is a crippled version of the 32 bit Windows 7 Home Premium. You can’t look at DVDs with it (no codecs). A lot of the fancy desktop graphics is missing. Hell, you cain’t even change the cotton-pickin desktop wallpaper. But MS has a fix for you: give ‘em 80 bucks and they will send you an unlock code that will turn Starter into Home Premium instantly. Will I? I doubt it. Starter is perfectly adequate for what I’ll be doing with my little pal. I wouldn’t write a book on the Asus (though I might use it to work on my next one once in a while when I’m at star parties and such), so I won’t be spending too much quality time with the little thing, but it and its o/s are more than good enough for most anything else.

So how did all that software (which barely scratched the surface of 250 gigs) work? The ‘puter’s Pine-trail ain’t no speed demon at 1.6 GHz, but that is sufficient for almost any astro software I know of. Hell, even TheSky 6 did OK, if not as OK as on the 3.2 GHz Toshiba. Only one problem reared its ugly head. As shipped on netbooks, Windows 7 Starter only allows you a max resolution of 1024x600. This didn’t cause any problems with most of my software, but it did do so on two very important titles: Nebulosity and SkyTools 3. On these apps, the bottoms of some windows were cut-off due to the low vertical resolution, making it impossible to mash some important buttons. I found I could rearrange windows on the Nebulosity main screen, but there did not appear to be a quick fix for SkyTools. Oh, it was not a huge problem—only one or two windows was affected—but it was annoying.

A little digging around on the Internet quickly turned up a solution. Apparently, there is a very large user community of netbook fans, and they’d already developed a fix for this “problem.” It turned out that for my Asus a simple change of one value in the Registry allowed me to set the resolution to 1024x768 any time I wanted. Unlike on some earlier netbooks, this increased resolution is not achieved by allowing you to scroll the screen; you really get 1024x768. Oh, the display is just slightly distorted—a circle becomes somewhat egg shaped, for example, but it’s not bad, and it damned sure fixed my “problem” apps.

Course, just 'cause programs run well in Chaos Manor South’s dining room, don’t mean they will do so in the real world, on the observing field. I was particularly worried about NexRemote. Not only do the netbooks lack a serial port, they lack PCMCIA card slots, which meant I couldn’t do as I’d done with the Toshiba and buy a serial PCMCIA card to interface scopes to NR. I’d tried USB – serial adapter cables with the Toshiba, but none I’d tried would work consistently with that demanding program. What would I do? I had been assured a Keyspan USB – serial cable, which I hadn’t tried, would do the trick. I gave B&H Photo my credit card number and hoped for the best.

I don’t mind tellin’ y’all that my hands was a-trembling as I plugged the Keyspan into the netbook. This was critical. Had to work, or I’d, to some extent, have wasted my money on the little computer. Told NR the serial port assignment, pushed “OK,” and the program connected to my CG5 no problem. I spent plenty of time doing fake alignments, lots of go-tos, and just letting the thing track. No problems. Not a single hiccup. The same was the case when I tried EQMOD with my Atlas. The Keyspan adapter JUST ROCKS!

All the slings and arrows avoided, what remained was to try the little feller in the field. As I done tole, y’all, that turned out to be with Sue French and Sweet Charity, not with Willie and Caroline and Urania, my C8. I loaded up the car, wafflin’ for a minute about bringing the big trolling motor battery I normally use to power the PC. “Nope,” I decided. I’d need to see if the claims for the netbook’s internal battery were even close to realistic. Why did I buy the little thing if not to dispense with that back-breaking battery? Unk being Unk, I hedged my bets, bringing along the small inverter I use to run my RV-6. It’s barely the size of a pack of smokes, and plugs straight into a cigarette lighter receptacle. If worse came to worst, I’d power the netbook from my #2 jump start battery, which I usually take along on Charity expeditions in case I need to use my dew-zapper 12v hairdryer on her corrector.

Once I was set up, it was time to get to work, and what joyful work it was. It seemed like forever since I’d cruised the enormous fields where galaxies are strewn like wildflowers. At the risk of sounding like a cheerleader for Sky and Telescope and Sue French, this column, “The Gossamers of Coma Berenices,” was a Real Good One. Ms. French has mixed the pretty with the problematical for an assortment that should appeal to any deep sky observer out of knee-pants.

Natcherly, before I could get started, Charity had to be go-to aligned. Given her shenanigans on our last outing, I was understandably a mite suspicious. Once she was done with her alignment dance and I’d centered the two stars she chose, I punched-in M3. Ms. Valentine made her usual weasels-with-tuberculosis sound. When she stopped, there was M3, a big ball or stars centered in the eyepiece, looking good in the gloaming.

One final thing before lift-off: the eyepieces I used with Charity were, as usual, my set of inexpensive Synta Expanses (66-degree AFOV); ably assisted by the 11mm “Birdseye” (82-degree field Chinese import) I got from my friend, Herb York, some years ago. Given Sweet Charity’s design and long focal length, these simple oculars perform very well out to the field stop. Oh, as usual, the matter in italics has been transcribed straight from my log.

NGC 4565

First up was NGC 4565, which Sue refers to as the “Needle Galaxy.” I don’t know as I’ve ever heard it called that. I know the Silver Needle Galaxy over yonder in Canes Venatici, but the moniker I’ve always heard used with 4565 is “The Flying Saucer Galaxy,” due to its central bulge and skinny, edge-on disk. Whatever. Sue says thisun is a “showpiece,” and she is right about that:

Not totally dark, we’re not yet to astronomical twilight. At least Coma is out of the light dome, and 4565 looks good with averted vision. I can see both the central bulge and maybe a couple of arc-minutes or so of disk on either side in the 15mm Expanse. The 11mm Birdseye, which yields 170x, is a minor improvement.

NGC 4559

From spectacular, we go to what our author calls a “dust bunny galaxy.” That, and her description of it as an “Oval glow with faint stars hugging each side,” in her four-inch refractor is purty much what I saw in five-inch Charity, too:

I wasn’t sure Charity had landed on the right spot at first. Finally spotted this 4’ across galaxy, though. Large with several dim stars involved. Oval in shape, strongly elongated. No other details noted. 15mm Expanse works best; especially accompanied by averted vision. The faint stars in the galaxy are somewhat annoying; without them, I might be able to get a better idea of what is goin’ on with this thing.

NGC 4278 and 4283

Onward! My next Coma destination (no, I’m not following the order of the objects in the magazine article) was the pair formed by NGCs 4278 and 4283. Actually, this area of the constellation is ripe with little galaxies, but these two are the best of a somewhat dim lot. Again, what Sue got out of these two is about what I saw as well: 4278 is large and somewhat dim, 4283 is smaller and (surprisingly) bright:

These make for an attractive field. I Almost get the impression of M51 and NGC 5195, with NGC 4278, a large 3.3’x 3.1’ magnitude 11.0 fuzzie, stationed next to NGC 4283, which is at magnitude 13.0, but is much smaller, 1.3’ x 1.2’, and much brighter-looking. The two look pretty much identical save for their sizes, with both being round, with brightness increasing smoothly to their centers.

Hickson 61

This, as Sue French tells us, is the galaxy group referred to in the vernacular as “The Box.” This was where me and Charity began to fall behind, with us just barely picking out NGC 4174 in addition to the premier galaxy of the group, NGC 4169. Sue was able to see 4175 as well for a total of three.

I can see the main galaxy, NGC 4169, with fair ease in the 11mm Birdseye—using averted vision, anyway. All I can tell is that it is an oval smudge aligned north by northwest. At times, I think I detect one other, probably NGC 4174. When it briefly winks into view I can see it is strongly elongated and perpendicular to NGC 4169’s position angle.

NGC 4274

Back over to the NGC 4278/4283 vicinity for our next prize, NGC 4274, an interesting galaxy with a ring-like feature (in deep images). In the eyepiece of our smallish scopes, both our author and I found it interesting, if devoid, not surprisingly, of the ring-like arm details:

When I finally pick it out, NGC 4274 becomes easy with direct vision. It even seems to give up some sort of fleeting detail including a bright nuclear area. Almost think I see at least a faint hint of the remarkable arm-structure it shows in images. Not too shabby. I get my best look at it with the 9mm Expanse at 208x.

NGC 4286

It wasn’t all gravy, though. While Sue remarks that NGC 4286, another member of this 4288/83 “group,” is “faint,” at least she saw it—though that may have been with her 10-inch reflector, not her 4-inch refractor; it’s not clear what she used for thisun. Not moi:

This is the dimmest member of the bunch of galaxies (gaggle of galaxies?) that includes NGCs 4283 and 4278. Despite a small size, a minute and a half along its longest axis, it eluded me and Charity, and, given its integrated magnitude of 14.1, I am not surprised.

NGC 4314

Dammit! Ms. French calls this one “bright,” and describes a 2 ½-minute spindle shape and other details. I didn’t see a thang. I can’t blame that on Charity Hope Valentine, either; she put anything I asked for somewhere in the field of the 15mm Expanse (well, maybe the 20mm Expanse) all night long:

You wouldn’t think this one would be that hard, with a mag value of 11.1, but I do not seem to see it. Maybe because it’s over 4’ in size.

LoTr 5

Sigh. Sue offers Longmore-Tritton 5 as a challenge, declaring this is one for people with “large scopes, dark skies, and a taste for masochism.” It’s a large, very large, planetary with low surface brightness. Not surprisingly SkyTools 3 had it in its database (I reckon it must nave near-about everything if’n it’s got this one), and I did send Charity that way. What did I see? Nuttin’ honey, OIII or no OIII.

NGC 4725

And, alas we must end on another miss, NGC 4725. This galaxy is bright at magnitude 10.4; how the hell did me and my little girlfriend miss it? We forgot to go there. While I found the small screen of the Netbook surprisingly legible, the type is small, and somehow I overlooked one target that’s a fair showpiece.

So….? Yeah, I had a few noseeums from the PSAS Tanner-Williams Site, but that’s OK; there are plenty of spring evenings left, and looks like I may even get sufficient good weather to enjoy ‘em. That’s the beauty of this list: along with the good stuff, there’s enough that’s challenging to keep me coming back to it.

Not that Charity Hope Valentine and I were done. We pressed on, doing Messiers and other showpieces, more than thirty of ‘em, till the night grew old. The little netbook (and SkyTools 3) worked without a hitch, sending the ETX on go-to after go-to. Charity herself really didn’t miss a beat. This may, in fact, have been one of her best runs ever. As above, everything was in the field of at least my lowest powered Expanse. Except Saturn. That’s what you get when you forget to tell the consarned Autostar computer that it’s Daylight Savings Time time again.

Before I forget to mention it, in addition to talking to Charity just fine, the netbook proved her mettle in one other way, too. I didn’t get 11-hours (admittedly I did not turn the wi-fi off, and was using the USB port/serial cable a lot), but I got a bunch of hours anyhow. At 1:30am, the little thing said she still had three hours of go-juice left. That tells me that, at most, on the very longest evenins, I might need to hook her to a smallish jumpstart cell. I’ll still have to haul that monstrously heavy trolling motor battery out on occasion to power the DVD recorder when I am Stellacamming, but since it won’t be powering a PC, too, I expect it will at least last past midnight, now.

Wussup next? If everything worked out, I should be back from Chiefland by the time you read this, and a report on the next stage(s) of the Herschel Project should be forthcoming. I swear. After that, I have something different planned, maybe even something a little special: amateur astronomy the old fashioned way.

Hokay…we gonna catch y’all on the flip-flop. Gonna back on outa here. This here’s Unk Rod on the side. We gone. Bye-bye.

Turn the wifi off and you will get 9 hours easily, even using the usb. Its the wifi that eats up most of your power, without that you should have no problems using the little thing the entire night
Hi Unk,

The serial adapter issue has been the one reason I haven't upgraded my laptop to Windows 7. I have an ExpressCard port on my laptop and the card-to-serial adapter that I have refuses to work with Windows 7. I really want to install Win7, since we got a great deal on the upgrade disk when MS was promoting it heavily last summer.

I'll be placing an order for that Keyspan Adapter with Amazon this afternoon.

Thanks again for the great advice Unk!

HI Mike:

Do be advised that it may not all be gravy with the Keyspan, either. You'll get the details in next weeks blog, but I got some inconsistent results. OH, Nexremote worked fine, but something is slightly bonkers with the virtual port. It wants to work, but it didn't quite work right for me. :-(

Whether that's the Keyspan, Win 7, NR or all three, I do not know yet.
Thanks for that Unk. I'll try it out with Vista first and let you know how it goes.

Either way, I think it will be a better solution than my ExpressCard, as it has a tendency to become loose.

Welcome to the netbook 'community'. Lovely little things that work very well. Win7 starter gets some flack, but it mainly 'just works'. I'll look out for the Keyspan for scope connection.

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