Sunday, June 06, 2010


The Herschel Project Nights Eight and Nine: 333 Down, 67 to Go

Hokay, where was we? After my rip-roaring first night at the Chiefland Astronomy Village in Florida, I figgered I’d probably sleep till noon—I hadn’t shut my eyes much before 5 a.m. Not to be, muchachos, not to be. When you are used to getting up at 4:30 in the blessed morning four stinking days a week to commute to work, you can only sleep so late. On Friday, day two of my Chiefland expedition, that turned out to be 9 a.m., just in time to catch the tail-end of breakfast at the Day’s Inn.

Y’all know me: “free” is something I am loath to miss. I couldn’t help wondering, though, if the change of chain from Holiday Inn to Day’s Inn would mean I’d have to endure the stale bagels and black bananas I’ve encountered in some budget motel breakfasts. Nope. Joy of joys, while the Holiday Inn Express cinnamon rolls (crazy) were gone, the biscuits and gravy (insane) still remained. Only downer? Soon as I’d stepped outside, I couldn’t help noticing the skies were almost uniformly gray.

After grabbing a bite, I returned to my room, where the first order of business was checking the three DVDs I’d made the previous evening in the course of observing over 100 Herschel II objects with the NexStar 11 and Stellacam II. I was understandably paranoid after my last experience with the DVD recorder, where I’d lost everything due to an error in the “finalize disk” process. I’d assumed that was due to the low battery power I was experiencing at the Possum Swamp Astronomical Society’s Tanner - Williams dark site. Turned out I was correct about that. The three disks I recorded Thursday night/Friday morning all worked perfectly, and I spent some time viewing the wonders I’d captured.

It was derned near 12-hours till astronomical twilight, but the day actually seemed to go quickly. In addition to reviewing my observing notes, written and taped, I spent quite a spell working on the good, ol’ blog. ‘Round noon, I hopped in the vee-hickle and ran out to the site to take my batteries off charge. I’m pretty maniacal about proper charging of “jump-start” batteries: charge for 12-hours after every use, charge for 12-hours each month if I haven’t used the battery over the course of that month (not at all uncommon given our spring/summer weather down here on the Gulf Coast).

Some folks wonder why I bother to run the NexStar 11—and my other go-to rigs—off’n a battery when there is copious AC power available from multitudinous outlets on the CAV field. The reason is the scopes all seem to work better on pure DC. The only times the NS11, for example, has acted squirrelly have been when I’ve run it off the wall-wart AC supply Celestron shipped with it. Once, I recall, it picked Alpha Centauri as an alignment star—from Possum Swamp. Sure, I could buy a good regulated AC/DC supply, but there don’t seem much reason to. My Prestone (WallyWorld) 17ah bat’try will run the scope all night, and, thanks to the care I exercise in charging, it’s lasted for over eight years now.

I poked around at the site for a while after I saw to the jump-starters, taking a few pix of my field setup and those of my mates with the el cheapo digital camera I’d picked up the previous day. Didn’t stay long, though. Shortly after noon, the temperature had climbed past 90F on its way to a high of 94 for the day, which, while not a record by any means, is still a mite high even for Chiefland in the first half of May. As predicted, my fellow observers had better sense than to wander the field in the heat; most were inside their tents, RVs, or trailers. With nobody to annoy, I headed back to town.

I made one stop before the motel, my favorite Chiefland eatery, Bar-B-Q Bill’s. As I have said before, not only does this restaurant feature great barbeque in the deep south tradition, their prices are laughable, with fewer than 15 George Washingtons getting you a huge helping of beef or pork, beans, fries, coleslaw, garlic bread, salad bar (good one), and coke or sweet tea.

By the time I got back to the Day’s Inn, I was, not surprisingly, feeling a little a little logy from my big lunch. I resisted collapsing in a heap somehow, and spent a couple of hours surfing Astromart and Cloudy Nights and reading the book I’d bought for the trip, Michael Lemonick’s The Georgian Star, which I mentioned last week. By the time my head truly began to nod, it was after three p.m., and I thought it might not be a bad idea to give-in to a nap. I was hoping Friday’s night would be at least as long as Thursday’s was. Yeah, it was still cloudy, but I tuned-in the Weather Channel just afore drifting off, and they were still predicting “clear with occasional clouds.”

It was after six before I awoke, but that did not induce me to start rushing around. I wasn’t in much of a hurry, since those dratted clouds were still obscuring the sky. Maybe they weren’t as thick, and maybe I was seeing the occasional blue, but it was sure there wouldn’t be much to do for a while. I didn’t arrive onsite till 7:30 p.m., and, even then, me and my mates spent quite a bit of time cooling our heels waiting for and hoping for clearing.

That time wasn’t completely wasted. By 9 p.m. there were occasional semi-sucker holes (clearer, but not completely clear patches), and we got a chance to try an eyepiece a lot of us had been curious about, the Explore Scientific 100-degree AFOV 20mm. I had expected “pretty good,” but not “real good.” When the owner kindly allowed us to try his eyepiece in Carl Wright’s fast 22-inch Dobsonian, it’s not an overstatement to say we was gobsmacked.

Not only was it real good, it seemed, well, Ethos-like. No, conditions were not very favorable, but we were still able to see stars were sharp to the edge of the field in Carl’s (Paracorr-equipped) telescope. The brighter objects were, in fact, pretty sweet “all things considered,” as we said. From what I could tell given the problematical sky, the ocular’s contrast was outstanding. I resolved to see if the Explore’s daddy would let me try his eyepiece in my NexStar 11 Saturday night, which I intended to, come hell or high water, reserve for visual observing.

And still we twiddled our thumbs—until derned near midnight, when a big sucker hole grew to encompass the entire sky—for a while, anyhow. I got Bertha aligned and focused-up, and went to work on the Herschels. I sensed I wouldn’t have much time. While, like the previous evening, the air wasn’t overly damp—I probably could have done without the DewBuster on Thursday—it was damper, and I figgered more haze and clouds and maybe even ground fog would eventually be on the menu.

First up was the little southern constellation, Crater. Why there instead of galaxy-laden Coma Berenices, which I needed to finish and which was riding high in the sky? Crater was one of the few areas at least somewhat in the clear. The images below are courtesy of the vaunted Digitized Sky Survey, by the way. From my logbook, you-all…


NGC 3672 (H.I.131) is attractive. It’s an SAc that shows one prominent hooked arm in addition to a bright core.

NGC 3730, a decent magnitude 12.9 elliptical, is slightly off-round and just over a minute of arc across. It’s in the field with a dimmer companion, magnitude 15.4 Leda 170162, which shows up well due to its small 45” x 23” size. The overall effect is two small smudges on the night sky.

The most memorable thing about NGC 3637 (H.II.551), a magnitude 13.5 2.2’ x 2.0’ SB0, is the presence of a magnitude 6.5 star just over 3’ to the southwest. The galaxy itself is unmistakable due to its small size of 1.6’ x 1.5’. Also in the field is NGC 3636 (H.II.550), another elliptical. It’s completely round and at magnitude 12.82 it is noticeably brighter than 3637.

NGC 3892 (H.II.553) is an SB0, and, on its POSS image, it has the classical “Tie Fighter” shape some barred galaxies assume. It looks much the same with the Stellacam II. Bright core, prominent bar.

On the monitor, about all I can see of edge-on SAb NGC 3693 (H.III.532) is a bright nuclear region and hints of a skinny disk. Part of the problem is the wind that is currently blowing the scope around.

NGC 3887 (H.I.120) is an intermediate inclination SBbc, and, even under these poor conditions, it’s very pretty showing its multi-arm spiral nature without fuss. Bright, large central region.

The next stop, another intermediate inclination spiral, an SABc, NGC 3511 (H.V.39), is low in the sky. I do note some signs of spiral structure, but mostly just a hazy glow around a bright central area.

Oh, how I love those beautiful barred spirals! Magnitude 11.93 SBc NGC 3513 (H.V.40) is one with that wonderful, classical look. Low in the sky, but I can easily see one of its beauteous arms.

Finally, Coma peeped out of the haze. I didn’t waste any time slewin’ that-a-way. I had last left the constellation about half done, and it looked like this might be my chance to get ‘er done…

Coma Berenices

The first Coma galaxy, NGC 4340 (H.II.85), is an SB0 barred lenticular. Nearby is NGC 4350, only 5’39” to the east. There is obvious haze around NGC 4340’s bright nuclear area, and occasionally, the galaxy’s bar winks into view.

NGC 4359 (H.III.648) is strongly elongated. No sign of a core. This SBc actually looks pretty good on the Stellacam II’s monitor despite a somewhat forbidding magnitude of 13.6.

NGC 4152 (H.II.83) is a face-on SABc of magnitude 12.9 and a size of 1.5’ x 1’. Stands out amazingly well despite poor transparency. I can see some faint traces of spiral arms once in a while.

An S0-pec galaxy, NGC 4379 (H.II.87) is good and bright at magnitude 12.6 and 2’ in diameter. On the monitor it is an immediately noticeable, slightly elongated fuzzball.

NGC 4312 (H.II.628) is a cool magnitude 12.5 edge-on SAab. Large, about 4.5 x 1.1’ in images. Impressive with the Stellacam and NexStar 11. Bright core and a patchy, cigar-shaped body.

NGC 4237 (H.II.11) is a good-looking SABb. I can easily make out its hooked spiral arms. Very bright core.

Ding-ding-ding! We have a winner! NGC 4298 (H.II.111) is paired in the field with NGC 4302 (H.II.112) a mere 2’24” to the east. 4298 is an attractive if not remarkable intermediate inclination SAc of magnitude 12.10. It becomes an awe-inspiring sight with the addition of NGC 4302, an Sc edge-on that boasts a beautiful dust lane, which is less than 3’ to the east.

NGC 4571 (H.III.602), a near-face-on Sad, might also be a winner on a better evening. As is, I do see some arm detail fleetingly.

Coma galaxy, NGC 4212 (H.II.108), is a pretty SAc of magnitude 11.80 3’ across its major axis; it looks far better than I’d expected, with a dramatically visible set of spiral arms and a stellar core.

The final Coma resident, SABcd galaxy NGC 4189 (H.II.106), is similar to NGC 4212 if a little smaller (2’) and more face-on in inclination. Bright nucleus, respectable outer envelope with one prominent spiral arm on offer.

I was right about not having much time; in less than an hour we was done for the night. The sky didn’t so much slam shut as it just faded away. I’d worked as quickly as I could through Crater and the remaining Herschel IIs in Coma, and managed to log twenty objects, closing out Coma Berenices, before it became obvious that not only would conditions not get better; they were on their way to “considerably worse.” I was back in the Day’s Inn with my bottle of that sainted potion, Rebel Yell, by 2:30 in the a.m. Which was a little disappointing, but I was, frankly, lucky to have got anything done at all.

After my relatively early Friday night, I was up, if not bright and early, at least early on Saturday and in plenty of time for another pass at the motel breakfast. Afterwards, there was not much to do other than go back to the room and hang out. I spent quite some time monitoring the Weather Channel, hoping for encouragement. The forecast didn’t seem overly dire, “some clouds,” but I noticed the Clear Sky Clock was beginning to look worse (light blue squares were being replaced by white ones on the netbook screen), and that poor weather, if not really poor weather, would obviously be coming-in Sunday.

What did I do with the long hours till astronomical twilight on Saturday? Same old – same old. Logged onto Astromart and Cloudy Nights. Looked at the Yahoogroups. Surfed over to Orion’s website—where I ordered a Vixen-style bracket to attach my li’l Orange Tube C90 to my new Synta AZ-4 mount (more on that one of these coming Sundays). Had a big sit-down lunch in Bar-B-Q Bill’s again; just couldn’t resist. Finished The Georgian Star. Took a nap. Watched some more of the dadgummed Weather Channel. Looked at the video I’d shot with the Stellacam Friday night. Occasionally peeped out the door at the sky, returning disgusted to do more of the above.

I resisted jumping in the car and heading to the site out of boredom. If anything, Saturday afternoon was hotter than Thursday or Friday had been. Eventually, 7 p.m. came, and I motored on out with some hope alive in my withered little heart. The forecast had not changed, but the sky, I thought, looked considerably better than it had Friday evening, and I’d got in an hour of good observing then. Surely I'd get something Saturday night.

Ha! Yeah, the sky did look better than it had the previous sundown, but only for a while. As sunset came and went, conditions began to get worse rather than better, with clouds moving first one way and then the other. In not atypical fashion, a front off the Gulf seemed to be fighting with one coming in from the east. I don’t know which was worse, but the eastern faction appeared to be winning-out, with cloud layer piling on cloud layer as it got dark.

I wasn’t overly disturbed at first. We’d started out cloudy Thursday, but the sky had cleared well before midnight and stayed that way till nearly dawn. Surely, that would happen again. At first it appeared so. There was still heavy haze and plenty of clouds, but by 11:30 p.m. I judged conditions had improved enough for me to get Bertha aligned, if not good enough for any sort of serious work. I removed the Stellacam from the rear cell, replacing it with the Denkmeier Powerswitch diagonal. Whether a good night or a bad night, I was determined it would be a visual night.

No, the sky was not good enough to do any real work—M13 in the Celestron NexStar 11 looked about like it usually does in my Meade ETX 125—but I was at least able to do some further scope testing regarding the problems with NexRemote’s virtual port I reported on last time. I didn’t learn much of anything new, but I did confirm that the problem hadn’t been a fluke; it was fully reproducible this time out. It had occurred to me that the new version of ASCOM, which I’d naturally loaded on my new netbook computer, might be the culprit, so I’d got rid of it and installed the old one. No dice.

I could at least see the brightest deep sky objects, even if M57 sometimes looked like a 12th magnitude galaxy, so I accepted the offer of the kind person set up next to me that I give his ES 20mm eyepiece a try in my NS11. I had been very impressed with it the night before in Carl’s big Dob, and reckoned it would be just as good in my C11. Indeed it was. At f/10, anyhow, and there was the rub.

I wasn’t overly surprised that, when I switched-in the Denk Powerswitch’s f/6.3 reducer, I noted some vignetting. It wasn’t bad, mind you, but it was noticeable. Otherwise, the ocular’s performance was, well, “stellar.” Still, I wondered whether the ES was for me. Same would go for the 21mm Ethos, which I assumed would display slightly more vignetting that the Explore. Yeah, I’ve often said vignetting doesn’t disturb me much. Hell, I think nothin’ of using a 35 Panoptic with the 6.3 reducer/corrector in the C8. And yet…and yet…the field edge was a little ugly, and they don’t give the ES—much less its TeleVue analog—away.

The 13mm Ethos works spectacularly well with either the Powerswitch reducer or the Celestron f/6.3 reducer/corrector in my SCTs, and with either focal reducer that eyepiece is roughly equivalent in focal length to the ES (or the 21mm Ethos) at f/10. So, if I were to buy the 20 ES (or the 21 Ethos), it would be mainly for use in my truss tube Dobsonian, Old Betsy, I reckon. I’m sure the 20 or the 21 would be blow-you-away good in the Dob, but I’m not sure I use her enough to justify spendin’ $$ for the ES, or, $$$ for the Ethos. I ain’t saying either the ES or the Ethos is necessarily out of the picture for me, just that I’ll have to seriously ponder whether I can live with “less than perfect” with either eyepiece at f/6.3 in the SCTs.

After I’d finished looking at M13, M92, and the rest of the bright summer crew with the big 20mm (and it is one honkin’ big eyepiece, campers), it appeared, in my imagination at least, that the sky had improved a tad – smidge. Canes Venatici was just past culmination, and if I were to get anything, now would be the time. The first couple of Cvn objects, while not spectacular, were easily doable, especially with the 8mm TeleVue. Looked like I was on my way to conquering the little constellation’s crowd of Herschel II DSOs.

Not. As I moved past the first couple of galaxies, my H II campaign quickly ground to a halt. Conditions were degrading again. Frankly, it had never really been clear, even in the sucker hole that would sometimes grow to encompass a significant portion of the sky. There was always a lot of haze. Now this haze was growing ever thicker and honest-to-god clouds were beginning to obscure the Hunting Dogs more and more often. Not that I didn’t log a few H-Project objects; I did:

Canes Venatici

NGC 4220 (H.I.209) is a magnitude 12.2 SA0 about 3.5’ long. I can see it in the 13mm Ethos (f/6.3), but just barely and only as a faint streak.

Magnitude 13.2 NGC 4248 (H.II.742) is at the very limit of detection with the 13 E at f/10 on this poor night. A faint glow in the field is all that’s seen of this SBb spiral.

A large (5.2’ x 1.5’) edge-on SAb, NGC 4217 (H.II.748), impelled me to throw in the towel for evening. In the 8mm Ethos I finally pick up the faintest of fuzzballs after about ten minutes of staring. No sign of the galaxy’s disk or the lovely equatorial dust lane it shows on its POSS plate.

As night wore on toward morning, I considered my options. It was after midnight, and, while I’d only bagged three galaxies so far, the weather now appeared be be tending toward “threatening.” There was that long drive back to Possum Swamp first thing in the morning to consider, too. One more studied look at the near socked-in heavens was enough to convince me. I shut down Bertha, tucked her in with my treasured Desert Storm scope cover (one of the last products the once-loved Pocono Mountain Optics shipped before going belly-up), gathered up the netbook, and hit the road back to Chiefland.

Like Thursday night, I didn’t see a single UFO on the drive back despite keeping an eye peeled for the rascals. Only unusual event was that a fox stopped by the side of the access road and, as I passed, briefly locked eyes with me before going on about his business. I looked upon that as somehow being a good omen, maybe a sign that I’d made the right decision about pulling the Big Switch. Usually, when I call it quits early, what do I hear when I get back to the site in the morning? “Unk! Man did you miss A GOOD ONE! Damned sky went crystal-clear not 10-minutes after you left!

I returned to the Day’s Inn in something of a snit. I’d got one long, excellent first night, an hour or so the second, and not squat, really, on the third. I’d been CHEATED! DAMMIT! I began idly thinking about staying an extra day, and turned on the Weather Channel and booted up the to see how that might play. Not so good. According to both the TV and the computer, Chiefland would escape the worst of the storm that was pounding the Gulf Coast at that very moment. But we wouldn’t escape it completely, and would be under plenty of clouds before all was said and done. The slim chance of seeing anything Sunday night did not appear worth the cost of another day of vacation. Ah, well. I wanted to get back to Miss D., anyways. On the road in the a.m. it would be.

Sunday morning dawned, wouldn’t you know it, to beautifully clear skies. I just dreaded hearing my mates rave about their hours under the stars, but, when I made it back to the CAV, what I heard instead was: “Unk, you sure did right. Never got any better and most of the time it was worse.” That added a bit of spring to my step as I tore down the scope and EZ-up tent canopy and prepared to head for I-10. The trip back to Chaos Manor South was occupied in equal portions by Wolves of the Calla and my ruminations about future Chiefland trips. I’ll for sure be back this fall/winter to finish up those missed winter HIIs. The question is “how?”

The Day’s Inn was alright, but maybe now is the time to make the break from staying in any motel. My frugal nature is beginning to impel me to question the wisdom of laying down two-C notes-plus every time I want to do Chiefland. This penny-pinching mindset means I probably don’t make the trip near as often as I might or could. The answer? I wasn’t sure. I know I am not likely gonna go out and get a humongous RV. While I might think about something along the lines of a nice popup camper, I believe that’s something for retirement, or at least until Dorothy and I have a place to keep such a thing.

What does that leave? Perhaps a reconsideration of the tent-camping concept. Yes, I go on and on about how I suffered in a tent on a hot Chiefland field years ago, but I’ve learned a couple of things in the interim. Beginning with the fact that a simple electric fan can make a huge comfort difference, even on the hottest days. Further, I’ve realized a major key to making a tent livable for me is getting one that’s big enough, and, especially, tall enough, so that I can, for example, stand up straight while changing clothes, etc. Small, el cheapo tents from Academy do not work. Finally, plopping a sleeping bag on a thin foam rubber mat laid on the ground is not a recipe for comfort. I toured the Bass Pro shop last weekend and saw some tents and cots and other stuff I thought might serve.

Will I ever really implement this plan, though? Unless I have to economize dramatically at some time, frankly, probably not. While a tent might be bearable, and even OK, it's simply not as good as a motel. Not only do I like my creature comforts, which includes air-conditioning and cable TV, I am far more rested after a night in a real bed than in a sleeping bag and far more able to pull an all-nighter--or at least what passes for one for me in these days of upper-middle-age. Still if I have to, I will. Hell, if it means visiting Chiefland and NOT visiting Chiefland, I will make due with a dadgummed dome tent from WallyWorld.

The inevitable trip back to the Swamp was uneventful. I ran smack into the oncoming storm front, but, while there was plenty of rain along I-10 from Panama City west, and it was still raining hard when I pulled up at good ol’ Chaos Manor South, I missed the worst of the Big Storm. Back at home, the real work began: unpacking all the stuff, beginning the process of organizing my observing notes and videos, and making log entries in SkyTools 3. One thing I’ve learned is that waiting to transcribe my audiotape log is a huge mistake. By the time a week has passed, I’ve begun to forget my impressions of the objects I saw, and am totally puzzled by pithy, succinct descriptions like: “Why, this here galaxy looks just like…uh…uh…uh…a…FAINT FUZZIE!” But first there would be time for a relaxed evening out that involved a steak and plenty of scotch and me bending Miss D.'s and Lizbeth's ears at length about my latest Chiefland triumph.

While I hated to go back to work Monday, I at least hadn’t missed anything Down Chiefland Way Sunday night, didn’t look like. I have a little Clear Sky Clock (Charts) “gadget” on the desktop of the kitchen computer, and every time I glanced at it Sunday, Chiefland was white squares across the board, same as Possum Swamp.

I didn’t get as much time under clear skies as I’d hoped I would, but I’d brought home o’er 120 Herschels, so there wasn’t anything to complain about. It had been an enjoyable trip and a nice break. It was great to see my old friends again. As always, Bravo Zulus to the good residents of the Chiefland Astronomy Village for providing me the opportunity to use and enjoy their wonderful facilities.

Next time: The subject depends on the weather. If I get some clear skies at the Possum Swamp Astronomical Society Dark Site, I’ll bring you a little Amateur Astronomy the Old Fashioned Way, as I promised. If not? Well, who knows? Something to tickle your fancy and your funnybone, anyhow, I hope.

Uncle Rod News of Note: Can’t get enough of Unk’s cornpone-laced wisdom? Maybe you should seek professional help! Anyhoo, you’ll soon be getting even more of it on a regular basis in the pages of the much-loved Amateur Astronomy Magazine. Afore long, your silly old Uncle will be writing a regular column for that excellent pub. What will it be like? Like this blog, I’ll write on whatever strikes my (somewhat warped) fancy. Otherwise? Maybe a little less OVER THE TOP than what y’all are used to seeing here, but certainly not near as formal as what’s in my books or the pieces I do for Sky and Telescope. Don’t know what the hail I’m talking about? Ain’t seen a copy of AA? Shoot! Go rat-cheer and sign up. You will not be sorry, muchachos.


Two things make my tent camping a great experience:

a shade canopy with micro netting (UV 80 or something like, small enough to keep out No-Seeum's) and my doubble height queen size air matress.

Most of 3 day viewings are at a club site and the Oregon Star Party. Hot and rocky. The canopy (I got a Coleman) and the Matress make the day's comfortable.

I don't mind cooking, nor the setup and take down. When it rains the tent (get one one size bigger than you think you'll need) stays very dry.

It's not bad and when I hit 65 in a few years, I might get a small trailer, but the canopy and the rest of the gear will always be needed.

BTW, those double sized air matresses are really, really comfortable:)

While the tent campers are nice, I want tear drop with the cooking station on the outside.
Hi Jeff:

Thanks very much for the advice. Yes, my Coleman canopy (replaced an EZ-up destroyed in a thunderstorm, has worked very well. One nice thing? Mosquitos are very light at Chiefland. Occasionally I will need to light-off the Thermacell, but just occasionally.

It would be interesting to test the Explore Scientific 20 mm side by side with the Ethos 21 mm for light throughput. For a 22 inch reflector this wouldn't matter much, but for smaller scopes it might be an issue.

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