Sunday, January 02, 2011


Happy 2011 from Chaos Manor South

Like the Christmas Eve Blog, the New Year’s Blog is always the same—yet different. At Christmas, it’s my sentimental ruminations on the holiday; at New Year’s it’s my reflections on where we have been over the last year and where we might be going. Given my focus over the past 12 months, this edition might just as well have been titled “The Herschel Project and Me,” or, maybe even better, “A Herschel Project Report.”

The Herschel Project wasn’t born this past year, but in October of 2009. It didn’t really gel until 2010, though. At first, the idea was a simple one: I’d observe all the Herschel IIs and document my pursuit of them in the blog. Sorta like an astronomical Julie-Julia Project.

Soon enough, however, as frequently happens with my simple little notions, this idée fixe developed a life of its own and had morphed into something considerably grander. I would document my adventures with the Herschel II objects in the blog as initially planned, but that would be just the beginning. The Herschel Project would come to encompass not just the Herschel II objects, but the Herschel Is, and eventually ALL the Herschel objects, all 2500 of them, give or take.

This bigger Herschel quest might be too big for the confines of the little old blog from Possum Swamp, though; it might need the space of an honest-to-god book to stretch its legs. Perhaps a book that would go beyond the objects themselves to tell the story of William and Caroline Herschel. Maybe there’d even be room for words about the Herschels’ telescopes and how they used them.

How did I do with all that? Here’s a much abbreviated Executive Summary of my adventures with the Herschel Project in 2010.

Night Five: January 17, 2010

The initial Herschel outing of 2010 wasn’t overly pleasant. Pore Unk struggled to keep warm at the Possum Swamp Astronomical Society dark site as temperatures PLUMMETED to the lower 30s. He survived by layering his clothes and urged all y’all to do the same, not, as he has been known to do in the past, run around in short-sleeves setting up gear until you finally begin to feel cold, and then put one heavy coat over your sweaty bod. That’s a recipe for hypothermia, or at least short observing runs.

I did endeavor to persevere on this evening, observing visually with Old Betsy, my 12.5-inch Dob. After rubber-banding a chemical hand warmer pack to the cotton-picking Sky Commander DSC computer, I was able to essay a baker’s dozen of fall-winter Herschel IIs before ice formed on Bets’ shroud and I decided enough was too much. Herschel II total? 161 down, 239 to go.

Night Six: April 18, 2010

The three month hiatus in the Project wasn’t because of a lack of will or flagging interest, but, in part, because of punk late winter/early spring weather. More than that, though, it was due to the medical travails of the beloved Miss Dorothy. It seemed impossible, but just as winter began to fade, Miss D. was diagnosed with breast cancer and went under the knife. She was a real trouper, but the surgery and the beginning of a harsh regime of chemotherapy meant the Project naturally got shelved for a while.

This mild Saturday night in April seemed a propitious time to get back with the Herschels. Sky conditions didn’t look too hot, but were good enough to impel me to pack up the C8 and Stellacam II and head for our Tanner-Williams, Alabama dark site.

Thus far, the Project had been pretty evenly balanced between visual and video. It was at this point that video began to pull ahead. The ground truth being that I found I could see more—way more—of my quarry, mostly small galaxies, with the Stellacam II than I could with the 12.5-inch Dob. Or even considerably larger Dobs. Especially in the OK but hardly perfect light pollution conditions of the club site. And there was also the well-known fact that I am a lazybones; a C8 and a CG5 is just awful pleasant to tote around, set up, and tear down.

After getting focused-up via my new combo of a JMI Motofocus and a Farpoint Bahtinov mask, your old Uncle was finally able to get well and truly back into the Herschel Groove, bagging nearly fifty of the suckers. Count? 209 down, 191 to go.

Nights Seven, Eight, and Nine, May 13 – 15, 2010

With Miss D. continuing on the mend and Unk getting a little stir crazy, it was best for all concerned if I hit the road to the Chiefland Astronomy Village. Making reservations, I was disturbed to learn the best motel in town, the Chiefland Holiday Inn Express, in a bow to the exigencies of the recession I guess, had switched chains to the distinctly downscale Day’s Inn. Nevertheless, the accommodations were still bearable, if not much more.

On the field with my NexStar 11 GPS, Big Bertha, all went like clockwork, especially considering that I was using a new computer to drive the scope via NexRemote, one of the trendy new netbooks. It worked well enough, though I did have problems with NexRemote’s virtual port feature. I’d bought the little Asus because I was tired of carrying around my great big Toshiba laptop. That turned out to have been a good decision, since the Satellite's motherboard died a smoky death just a month or two after I got back from the CAV.

Herschel-wise? A good, big haul despite two nights where I couldn’t get started till after ten p.m. due to clouds, and a third night when all I could do was three or four Hs visually through sucker holes. The total, thanks to the Stellacam II? Over one-hundred Herschel IIs and another hundred objects from the Herschel 2500, which I had now taken to calling “The Big Enchilada.”

Night Ten, June 20, 2010

The next dark of the Moon found old Unk once again ensconced at the PSAS dark site with Celeste, the C8, and her CG5 mount. After some alarms and excursions that involved me trying to figure out how to hook a GPS to the netbook, and alignment difficulties that resulted from me trying to convince the CG5 it was really a Celestron SE fork mount, we were again on the Herschel Quest. On the stick we were, doing over thirty HIIs with the aid of the Stellacam II and a couple of Monster Energy Drinks.

Maybe it was the Monsters that got me to seeing monsters, but when I looked up from the monitor to discover my compadres had all left and I was alone in the dark, I began to get spooked, imagining Mothman and his buddies, the Little Grey Dudes from Zeta Reticuli II, were watching from the tree line, ready to have some “fun.” Celeste and the rest of the gear was (literally) thrown in the car, and I roared off embarrassedly without doing any H2500s at all. No matter. Still a good crop of IIs: 365 down, 35 to go.

Night Eleven, July 11, 2010

Let me tell y’all, even if you’re a native, observing down in the Swamp at midsummer with the heat, the humidity, and the skeeters ain’t a picnic. Still, I kept on keeping on. The evening in question was iffy at best weather-wise, but there was the o’erweening need to catch some of the HIIs of the summer constellations immediately. I couldn’t, given the way the weather had been all summer, count on getting a crack at them in August or September. I was also a little behind, having switched Herschel II lists from the initial one shipped with SkyTools 3 to a more accurate (vis-à-vis the Rose City Astronomy Club’s original list) list. That put me a few objects to the worse.

No Mothman or Greys to disturb Uncle Rod’s fragile psyche this time. Plenty of clouds, though. And a dead DVD recorder battery. E’en so, I was able to put another 18 HIIs to bed, leaving 17 to go. Alas, it was clear given the new list that I would not be able to finish in November, which had been my initial goal. If I had got some spectacularly good sunset weather on this night, I might have got the missing Hydra and Virgo fuzzies I needed, but I didn’t. Clouds obscured the west at sunset. Total now? 370 down, 30 to go including those fleeing spring/summer DSOs. Rats.

Night Twelve, September 26, 2010

The September New Moon and Rod and Celeste were back in Tanner-Williams, but all the HIIs were gone, either already set by sundown or not to come up before sunrise. This would be a night for the Big Enchilada.

It was a good thing there were no HIIs that needed to be bagged in the gloaming, since I had brought out the Atlas mount instead of the old familiar CG5. After deciding to go with the SynScan hand control rather than the EQMOD computer program (like NexRemote) to run the mount, I fumbled and bumbled for quite some time trying to figure out how to work the thing. I like the Atlas, but it is H.E.A.V.Y. and its main advantage over the CG5 is for long exposure imaging. Since lazy ol’ Rod doesn't do too much of that, the Atlas does not get used much, and I have not become very familiar with the ways of its go-to system.

Despite my forgetfulness, missteps, and, it turned out later, mistakes regarding SynScan go-to alignment, the mount worked well enough to enable me to add 21 H2500 objects to the kill visually. It wasn’t the fault of the mount or my foolishness that that total wasn’t larger, either. September for us is often even cloudier than August (the first weeks of September are prime Hurricane Season), and clouds closed us down after just two hours.

Night Thirteen, October 17, 2010

Thirteen an unlucky number? Not for Unk and Celeste. This turned out to be our best outing since the CAV in June. Miss Dorothy, though still awfully sick from chemotherapy, was finally seeing the light at the end of the tunnel and growing stronger (relatively speaking) every day. Out to Tanner-Williams Celeste and me went.

For once, the sky was beautifully clear at sundown and I would have hit the aitches just as soon as darkness fell—if not for another episode of Uncle Rod foolishness. First, I discovered I’d forgot Celeste’s visual back. How in the hell would I attach the camera to the scope? With the f/3.3 reducer the camera needs in place, the Stellacam would not reach focus with the standard prime focus camera adapter I had on hand. After some consternation and bad words and much searching through cases of astro-junk, I finally turned up a 2-inch visual back and a 1.25” adapter, which allowed the show to get on the road. I resolved to do some consolidating and organizizing of my gear boxes.

Once we were going, what the H-E Double Hockey Sticks did Celeste and I go for? Since there were no Herschel IIs available, we began running the Herschel I; documenting those sweet objects in the blog, I figured, would be a lot of fun, and it had been—whoa!—maybe two-three years since I’d last been through the original 400. Did a passel of H2500s, too, but my policy had become that I would not bore y’all with all them faint fuzzies in the blog. The outstanding ones? Yes. The “small, dim, round, elliptical” variety? No.

Night Fourteen, October 30, 2010

If there is one mantra Unk Rod chants, it is this one: “The Only Enemy of Good Enough is More Better.” So why didn’t I practice what I preach for the October dark-of-the-Moon run at the Possum Swamp Astronomical Society’s observing site? You got me, muchachos, you got me.

It was a lovely and only slightly chilly eve, and it should have been a highly productive one from the get-go. And it would have been if’n I hadn’t decided to play around with the (sorta) new Celestron AllSky polar alignment routine.

I thought I followed the directions on the hand controller to the letter. I'd read Celestron's printed instructions, too, and thought I'd understood them. Apparently not; I messed up bad. The CG5’s RA axis wound up several degrees away from the pole, which was indicated by the fact stars were badly trailed after 10-second Stellacam exposures.

Even though I wanted to start screaming and crying like a small, emotionally disturbed child, y'all will be reassured to hear I didn't. I pulled the Big Switch and restarted NexRemote with an older version of the Celestron firmware, which included Celestron’s tried and true Polaris polar alignment routine. I still don’t know what I did wrong with AllStar, but I do know the takeaway: Don’t get creative with a scope/mount out in the dark.

There’s another maxim Unk favors, though, one that applies to the H-Project in spades, “It Is What It Is.” In the end my missteps and fiddle-fooling did not stop Celeste and me from covering a lot of ground. By the time we called it quits, another 75 Big Enchilada cosmic dust bunnies were in the can.

Nights Fifteen and Sixteen: October 15th and 16th 2010

A year after the Herschel Project was  born, we were back at its birthplace, the vaunted Deep South Regional Star Gaze. This would be a different sort of year, however. The Herschel Project and, indeed, observing of any kind would take a backseat to my main goal: seeing that Miss Dorothy had a good time at her favorite star party. This would be her first big astronomical outing after the end of the (worst of the) chemotherapy.

I’d originally intended to bring Old Betsy with me, to make this a real William and Caroline experience. Me at the eyepiece of the alt-az Newtonian out there in the cold. Alas, ‘twas not to be. While I’d wanted an old fashion experience, I didn’t want it to be too old fashioned. A check ride of Betsy before the star party revealed she had azimuth pivot bolt/encoder problems, and that her SkyCommander DSC computer was down for the count. I decided I’d still go visual, but with the uber reliable Celeste and her CG5.

I was a mite skeptical about how much I would be able to see of the Herschels, especially the H 2500, with “just” a C8, but my misgivings were misplaced. On the two evenings out of four I devoted to the H Project, Celeste proved a C8 is still no visual slouch, even in this era of giant Dobs. Equipped with a Denkmeier Powerswitch/Filterswitch diagonal and my Ethos eyepieces, she showed me 14th magnitude PLUS galaxies with wild abandon. What was tied to the hood of the Camry when D. and I left for home? Ten more HIIs plus close to 100 Big Enchiladas.

Nights Seventeen, Eighteeen, and Nineteen, December 9 – 11, 2010

I’d missed the HII finish line in November, and wondered how close I’d come to it in December. As Agent 86 used to say: “MISSED IT BY THAT MUCH.” When Dorothy and I headed for home after a long weekend, Thursday – Sunday at the Chiefland Astronomy Village, I was missing exactly five HII objects: that one fricking-fracking, dagnabbed, so-and-so galaxy in Virgo and four of Hydra’s island universes. Not bad, I suppose, given the spring-summer weather, Dorothy’s medical trials, and me switching HII lists in midstream.

I am not reluctant to say this was without doubt the best Herschel expedition of the year, and probably my best trip ever Down Chiefland Way. The reasons? The biggest was that our cancer survivor, Miss Dorothy, finally made it down to the Astronomy Village with me. Everything is more fun with her along, and the Herschel project is no exception.

Gear-wise, it was all gravy. Big Bertha, the NS11, did not miss a beat. In addition to knocking off a few more stubborn HIIs, she, with the aid of the Stellacam, brought down dern near 250 Herschel 2500 fuzzy-wuzzies. Oh, and there was a wonderful day trip to wonderful Cedar Key, and at least a little time to visit with my old friend, Pat Rochford, who was there too and who I hadn’t seen much of this past, strange year.

The final? 395 Herschel IIs down, five to go. The Big Enchilada? We are at the halfway mark.

So, what’s it been like taking-on the biggest organized observing project of my life? It has been a trip. I’ve gone way deeper across the sky than I have in 46 years of deep sky observing, pushed myself way harder, and seen some way crazy stuff. Mostly with the help of the Stellacam II. Of the two major things I’ve gained as the Project has rolled on, one of them is a greater appreciation for deep sky video astronomy.

Yes, I could see as much, maybe in a more aesthetically pleasing way, if I had a thirty or forty inch telescope. Alas, I have neither the bank account nor the back nor the skies for such a thing. That’s OK. I can see everything those monster scopes can, and maybe more, at least on a more regular basis, with my Stellacam-equipped C11 and C8.

I will always use a low-tech eyepiece, but there is no denying video is now and will probably remain my preferred mode of observing. I might see a tiny and distant galaxy with a monster Dob. Might even glimpse a hint of its tiny arms. With video and my SCTs, however, even the tiny nondescript fuzzies take on real form and substance. And I get to see the really cool stuff, like the weird features of interacting galaxies, that’s invisible visually in even the largest scopes.

Somebody was asking me about go-to and video the other day. I told them I’d enjoyed decades of hunting and star hopping and viewing with increasingly sophisticated eyepieces, but that, as I approach my (shudder) sixth decade on the third stone from the sun, my goal is to see as much of the Universe in as much detail as I can in the years remaining to me.

Video and go-to are allowing me to do that, to experience things like seeing that the dim little NGC island universes of the Herschel Project and the even dimmer IC galaxies scattered among them are only the foreground. My gaze now begins to penetrate to the awesome backdrop of MCG and UGC and PGC and LEDA galaxies that form the bulk of our Universe. My only question about video astronomy? “When can I get my hands on Rock Mallin’s latest COLOR vidcam.”

What else has come of the Herschel Project? The closeness I now feel to William and Caroline Herschel. And how fascinating Caroline’s story is. William is a known quantity. The genuine Great Man, he achieved remarkable things, but he is what he is, without a bit of conflict or self-doubt, like an 18th century Thomas Edison or Henry Ford. He is great, but not as interesting as Sis.

Caroline was saddled with the emotional baggage that comes from being denied a mother’s love. Though she was careful to burn what was no doubt the most interesting and revealing of her correspondence and diary entries, there is still much to discover about this wonderful, maddening, strange, often admirable, sometimes not admirable woman.

If not for the H-Project, I’d probably not know much more about this most unusual brother-sister couple than what you read on the pea-picking Wikipedia.

Certainly, I’ve gained more and more respect for William’s observing skills. No, his life wasn’t the “interesting” sort you read about on, but his talent for observing the sky leaves me gobsmacked. It’s not till you actually look at his objects, many of them tiny, tiny dim things, that you can appreciate his triumph. He saw these distant marvels without knowing anything was in the field to be seen, and he saw them with long focal length 12 – 19-inch telescopes with (usually) tarnished speculum mirrors at high power with simple eyepieces with tiny AFOVs.

What’s next? More of the same, sort of. The HII part of the project should wrap up, finally, in the next few months, as soon as the Sun and the weather let me at Hydra and Virgo. After that? My pleasure at writing-up the Herschel IIs and your response impels me to continue on for another 400. When the Herschel II is put to bed, the blog will move to the Herschel I, maybe starting from the very beginning, to give those of y’all who have never tread its deep but often spectacular waters a good idea what lies before you when you take the plunge.

The 2500, the Big Enchilada? I am a little over half-way through, and will continue to work the list steadily. What will I do with my results? As always, you’ll hear about the 2500’s most spectacular offerings, but mostly they will be fodder for my proposed Herschel Book.

How goes it with that? No publisher nor even much of an MS yet. I have a rough draft of the introductory chapter, and have been working on the Herschels’ biography off and on, but the main thing at the moment seems to be finish the observing. Then I will worry about “the rest,” including who, if anybody, will want to publish such a thing.

Otherwise around the Old Manse? Big changes are in store in the coming months; 2011 looks to be an “interesting” year. Mainly concerning Unk’s day job. The AEGIS destroyer project is coming to the end, at least for the Rodster, and the answer to the question, “What next after twenty-five years of AEGIS?” is not yet clear. But that’s OK, muchachos. Often “interesting” actually turns out to be “good.”

No matter what else happens or doesn’t, I am thrilled to be able to report the lovely Miss Dorothy is now, if not quite her old self, almost there. I expect it to be a wonderful spring if for no other reason than that.

Excelsior, you-all!

Next Time: Till the future is clearer (EENIE-MEENIE-CHILI-BEENIE, THE SPIRITS ARE ABOUT TO SPEAK!), Unk’s telescope buying habit is in abeyance. That doesn’t mean yours has to be, though. The question on the table next time? HOW BIG? See you next Sunday, my friends.

Thank you for yet another year of blog posts from the Chaos Manor South. We are very happy to hear that Dorothy is doing well, and wish all of you a marvelous 2011
Interesting tidbit about Caroline Herschel. It has piqued my interest. I have been writing newsletter articles about historical astronomy people and she may be my next topic.
Go for it! Lina is, yes, a facinating study.
Gawd, maybe there's a stellacam in my future!

Write the book when you will be great! If no one will publish it, my wife Joanne will help you. She couldn't find a publisher for her books, so she started her own publishing company :o)

May we all do well and be happy in this coming year!

clear skies,

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