Sunday, February 13, 2011


The Herschel Project Night 20: Once More Unto the Breach

I had my fingers crossed, muchachos. My toes, too. After losing the month of January due to clouds, I was anxious to get the Herschel Project going again. Having almost a thousand objects left to observe is sobering. To paraphrase Doctor Johnson, it concentrates an amateur astronomer’s mind wonderfully.

This past Saturday it did look like I might squeak by. While Saturday morning was predicted to be cloudy, unrelievedly cloudy, clearing was supposed to begin late in the afternoon. For once it looked like my timing would be right. Sunday was forecast to be dead clear, with storms not moving back into the picture till Monday. I’d be on the good side of the weather-front curve at last. The only fly in the ointment would be the temperature: 32F not long after sunset.

Which telescope? That was pretty easy. Sweet Charity, my ETX125, was out of the picture. As I told y’all last time, I fixed her broken tripod, but now she’s developed another and irritating fault. If you own a Meade scope with an Autostar hand controller, you’ve probably noticed the buttons become less responsive over time. Eventually, you have to mash them suckers with the strength of Hercules to register a key press. Last time out, Charity’s Autostar had got bad enough that it was a pain to use. So, Miss is sidelined for now. I’ve ordered a keyboard repair kit that is supposed to fix the Autostar’s problem. We’ll see, and I will let y’all know how it goes.

Maybe Charity being out of action was for the best. With the weather at least a little dicey and the temperatures low, I’d have been awful tempted to just do a few Herschel Is visually with the ETX125 and let it go at that, when what I really needed to do was get the C8 out and start knocking off aitches with the Stellacam again.

Which is what I planned. As Saturday afternoon wore on, it became obvious the sky would be clear for the evening, if a bit hazy. Blocking the Sun with my palm showed quite a lot of light scatter around Sol. No matter. The Stellacam can cut through just about anything. Into the car went Celeste, my Ultima C8 OTA; her CG5 mount; the Stellacam II; the DVD recorder; the Asus netbook PC; and all the rest of the gear I’d need to tackle the big list in a big way.

The drive out to our dark site in the northwestern part of the county is not an arduous one, and once I got past the traffic and traffic lights near the malls it was smooth sailing. I occupied the last half hour of the drive strategizing to the accompaniment of the Tijuana Brass’ What Now My Love? on the iPod.

At least I wasn’t playing the “what did I leave behind” game. As I mentioned a while ago, I’ve gone back to using a checklist, ticking off each piece of astro-stuff as it goes in the car. Freed from worry I ruminated over which Herschels to do and when.

The Herschel II would be out of the question. As y’all know if you’ve been following Unk’s somewhat Quixotic quest, what’s left there is a handful of targets in Hydra and Virgo. Given the predicted temperatures, it wasn’t likely I’d be able to last until three or four in the a.m. in order to have a shot at those stragglers. I likewise eliminated the dim fuzzies exclusive to the Big Enchilada, the complete list of 2500 H-objects. If it were as cold as I expected it to be, with, I guessed, heavy dew making it all the more unpleasant, I didn’t want to dwell on “faint, small, elliptical.” What seemed perfect was the Herschel Is.

You’ve responded so well to my detailed accounting the Herschel IIs that I’ve decided to run through the H Is as a sequel. While I’ve come across some spectacular sights in the Big Enchilada, spectacles are far more common in the original Herschel I list, and my adventures there will be far less boring for y’all to read about. While I last did the H I just a couple of years ago, the objects in it are so good that I am always ready to essay these first 400 DSOs one more time.

Arriving at the site, I noted the weather-goobers’ temperature predictions had scared off all but the hardest of the hardcore PSAS members. It would be just me and two other hardy souls. With sunset about 45-minutes away, I set to work with a will, since it takes about that long to get set up for a Stellacam run.

In addition to the scope, I had to unload and erect my observing table, a large camp table that folds in the middle and is about the size of two card tables. On that went an enclosure for the netbook computer, video recorder, and the portable (12-volt) DVD player I use as a display. This enclosure is made of plastic sign material—the same stuff politicians use for their consarned yard signs—and keeps the computer and other electronics dry and maybe a little warmer than they would otherwise be. Musn’t forget my observing chair, either. The secret to a productive observing run is being as comfortable as you can be.

Also on the table was my accessory box. I used a couple of ammo-box like “dryboxes” for the longest time, but in the interests of consolidation, I’d been looking around for a single, large replacement. I found that at my favorite “astronomy accessory” dealer, Bass Pro, in the form of a nice large Plano tacklebox with a drop-down front that reveals four drawers.

I gotta power all the electronic gear of course. These days, I don’t have to worry about the computer; the netbook will run on its internal battery for ten or eleven hours. I do need to supply juice to the DVD recorder, the DVD player, and, of course, the CG5 and the dewheaters. I use a 75ah trolling motor (deep cycle marine) battery and an inverter for the recorder and player. Celeste’s mount is fed by a 17ah “jumpstart” battery, and another jumpstarter, a 21ah job, powers the Stellacam and my DewBuster. Which I would definitely need on this night—the trunk of the Toyota was already slick with cold dew.

Next, I finished cabling everything up, including the C8’s motofocus and the NexRemote serial cable that goes from the CG5’s Auxiliary Port Expander to a USB-serial converter plugged into the netbook. There’s also a coax cable for video that runs from the camera to the DVD-corder, and, of course, power cables for scope, Stellacam, and dew heaters. Whew! I was near-about breaking a sweat despite the plummeting thermometer. All that remained was to wait for Polaris to show.

When that luminary finally put in an appearance (I verified his identity in the gloaming with my Celestron SkyScout), I centered him in the hollow polar bore of the CG5, powered-on the mount, booted the computer, and started NexRemote.

For once, go-to alignment and polar alignment (two alignment stars, four calibration stars, polar align with the routine in the HC, power off, two more alignment stars, four more calibration stars) went without a hitch. The last two calibration stars were centered in the monitor screen as soon as the CG5 stopped making its weasels-with-tuberculosis sound without me having to adjust the mount’s aim at all. Now, just a little focus tweaking and I would be on the Herschel road again.

I really like the Bahtinov mask I bought for Celeste, and I will no doubt use it frequently when I finally get back to DSLR or CCD imaging. With video, however, I can set the camera for continuous two or three second exposures and focus easily without the mask on an appropriate object; an “appropriate object” being a globular star cluster. Those teeny-tiny stars are just perfect for tweaking focus. Thanks to the the motofocus extension cord I got from JMI, I can sit at the screen and focus in near real-time till those stars are as tiny as I can get them. Lepus’ M79, the only bright glob available, was my “focus aid” this evening.

Once the cluster was as sharp as I could get it, I upped the Stellacam’s exposure to the max and used M79 as a test shot to make sure camera and DVD recorder were doing their thing as they should be. I’ll tell y’all, it’s downright amazing what a deep sky video camera can do with even a lackluster globular like M79.

The camera cranking, it was time to bring up SkyTools 3 and the Herschel I list and get to work. Before I could begin, one of my buddies wandered by and enquired as to how long I thought we’d be able to hold out with the mercury now in the mid 30s. Thanks to the heavy dew, our gear and maybe us would eventually be covered with a coating of ice, and maybe sooner rather than later. I guessed “maybe ten o’clock.” Which meant there was no time to waste. Andromeda was dropping like a stone into the west, so I headed there as fast as the CG5’s slewing motors would go.

As per usual, the matter in italics was transcribed from my log audio recordings. Galaxy morphological types are given according to the de Vaucoleurs system where possible. One change this time out: the pictures here are screen grabs from my Stellacam videos. No, they ain’t as purty as the Palomar Observatory Sky Survey plates I’ve used in the past, but they still show plenty of detail, and maybe give you a better idea of what I saw on this night.


M110 (H.V.18) This satellite galaxy of M31, NGC 205, is big and bold tonight. This magnitude 8.92, 21.9’x11’ E5 peculiar looks very much like M31 itself as seen through a small scope at low power. Small star-like core, bright inner disk, diffuse oval haze. Outstanding.

The second object of the evening, NGC 891 (H.V.19), a magnitude 8.91, 13.5’x2.5’ SAb ,is even more astounding. Even in my small monitor, I can see this famous edge-on galaxy’s equatorial dust lane is not straight, but curdled and irregular. Set in a rich field.

NGC 7662 (H.IV.18), the Blue Snowball planetary nebula in Andromeda, is not overly impressive when it comes to detail. It’s just a round, bright snowball 32” in diameter shining at mag 8.60. The Hubble images of this show a wonderfully intricate structure, but it’s pretty bland in my C8.

NGC 7686 (H.VIII.69) in Andromeda is a large and pretty magnitude 5.6, 14’ across open cluster in Andromeda with an impressive bright star, magnitude 6.19 HR 8925, near its center. The cluster’s central region forms a figure-8 astermism, but it is really mostly shapeless.

A big but rich open cluster of magnitude 6.60, NGC 752 (H.VII.32) is impressive. The central area of this 75’ diameter group is host to several chains of stars and a small triangle of bright suns.

NGC 404 (H.II.224) is the famous galaxy “Mirach’s Ghost,” an E-S0 elliptical. It is close-on to Mirach, a mere 6’40” to the north-northwest of the star and does look a little like a ghost image of that bright sparkler. At times I fool myself into thinking I see some sort of detail in NGC 404, but tonight it is just an appropriately ghostly oval of light with a bright, small nucleus. Very easy to see at magnitude 11.2 and 3.5’ in size.


Over to Aries now for NGC 772 (H.I.112), a nice bright Sb galaxy. Large, and showing some detail, including, faintly, this off-center looking galaxy’s single, sweeping spiral arm. This SAb shines brightly at magnitude 11.09 even given its fairly large size of 7.2’x4.3’ and is very easy, showing off a bright small core in addition to its dim outer haze and arm.


To Pisces for NGC 524 (H.I.151), a bright magnitude 11.4, 3.3’ diameter face on S0-a galaxy. Naturally, there’s not much detail to be seen in this lenticular type galaxy. The field is made very nice by a couple of small galaxies, including one attractive edge-on, little NGC 516, which roosts 9’48” to the northwest.

NGC 488 (H.III.252) in Pisces is a rather spectacular face on SAb galaxy. Bright core surrounded by extensive, bright, oval haze and some hints of its tightly wrapped spiral arms. This is a magnitude 11.15, 5.2’x3.9’ gem.


NGC 637 (H.VII.49) in Cassiopeia is a small 3.0’ across magnitude 7.3 open cluster, but it is attractive and well detached from its rich field. A little clump of stars in a rich field, with a nice arc of seven bright-to-dim stars near its center.

NGC 559 (H.VII.48) is an outstanding magnitude 7.4 open cluster. Almost looks like a loose globular. Near the center of this 6’ group are two impressive arching chains of stars.

NGC 654 (H.VII.46) is another excellent small open cluster. Its central area is a round collection of brighter stars. This is set off by a scattering of many dim background suns and a brilliant magnitude 7.54 star 2’31” to the southeast of the cluster’s heart.

Magnitude 8.90 NGC 225 (H.VIII.78) is known as the “Sailboat Cluster,” but I can’t really make this nice group of bright stars into one. A medium-large 12.0’ group with two parallel star chains standing out. Maybe that’s the sailboat’s hull.

The beauty of the Herschel I is that even many of the open clusters are treasures. NGC 381 (H.VIII.64) is set in a rich field. Stands out very well as a squarish clump of bright stars. It is very obvious at magnitude 9.3 and a size of 6’.

NGC 1027 (H.VIII.66) is impressive. A little large, 20’, but fairly well detached and bright at magnitude 7.40. This open cluster sports a central region with a scattering of bright stars arranged in arcs and lines.

NGC 136 (H.VI.35) is a small galactic cluster 1.5’ in size and rather dim. I haven’t found a magnitude listed for this object in any reference, but it’s somewhere around magnitude 9 – 9.5 I would guess. It looks very much like a distant globular. A conspicuous magnitude 8.41 double star, SAO 11238, is 5’47” to the southwest.

NGC 663 (H.VI.31) is another standout open cluster at magnitude 6.4. It is large, 14’, but is immediately obvious in the star-littered Cassiopeia field. The center is wrapped with chains of stars. Staring at them, they seem to form a capital letter “A.”

A small but striking cluster 5’ in extent with a magnitude of 7.90, NGC 7790 (H.VII.56) is vaguely arrowhead-shaped. Another cluster is nearby, the similar looking NGC 7788 6’28” to the northwest.

NGC 659 (H.VIII65) is yet another great NGC open cluster. Center is marked by a rectangular pattern of bright stars and there is a very bright field star nearby, magnitude 5.78 44 Cassiopeiae 10’45” to the west. The cluster is brilliant with its small size of 5’ and magnitude 7.2. Well detached from the background.

NGC 129 (H.VIII.79) is a sprawling 19’ open cluster with its center marked by a triangular asterism of brighter stars. One of these, magnitude 8.95 DL Cass, marks the cluster’s center.

A compact open cluster, NGC 436 (H.VII.45) is only 5’ in extent. If I squint, this 9.30 knot of stars looks like a small but well-resolved globular. Central portion marked by a near equilateral triangle of brighter stars. A magnitude 7.18 star lies 14’ to the west.

NGC 457 (H.VII.42) is the wonderful magnitude 5.10 ET or Owl or Dragonfly Cluster. Its bright “left eye” star, mag 4.59 Phi Cassiopeiae, just blazes away. Many dim suns that aren’t readily seen visually show up with the Stellacam, but ET’s little 20’ body is still visible.

Magnitude 6.5, 20’ NGC 7789 (H.VI.30) is another excellent galactic cluster in Cassiopeia. Hordes of tiny stars visible. In an oval shape. Looks a little like Omega Centauri in a small telescope at high power.

NGC 185 (H.II.707), a dwarf elliptical galaxy, a satellite of M31, is very nice. This 10.1 magnitude 11.7’x10’ dSph dwarf has an oval, elongated core surrounded by a bright oval haze set in a dimmer outer haze. A tiny, star-like nucleus is visible. Set in a rich star field.

NGC 278 (H.I.159) is a bright magnitude 11.47 face-on SABb galaxy in, of all places, Cassiopeia. One tight arm is visible in this 2.1’x2.0’ SABb spiral. Impressive.


Over to Cepheus for NGC 40 (H.IV.58), the aptly named Bowtie Nebula. The “tie” is formed by two arcs of material around the magnitude 11.6 central star. The nebula itself is 1.0’ in size and glows strongly at magnitude 10.70.

NGC 7142 (H.VII.66) is a little low, but even so it is interesting. A rich magnitude 10, 12.0’ diameter open cluster, it is composed of bright magnitude 11 – 13 stars against a background of many dimmer sparklers.

Magnitude 6.4, 5’ across NGC 7160 (H.VIII.67) is a nice enough galactic star cluster. Sparse, but small and well detached from the background. The central region is blessed with seven bright stars of magnitudes 7 - 10.

NGC 6939 (H.VI.42) is a really too low on the horizon right now. From what I can see, this magnitude 10.10, 10’ open cluster is fairly rich and is composed mostly of stars of magnitude 12 and dimmer.

NGC 7510 (H.VII.44) is another nice group. This magnitude 9.3, 6’ galactic cluster has a center composed of jumbled chains of magnitude 10 stars.

NGC 7380 (H.VIII.77) is a large and not terribly well-detached cluster. A bright, magnitude 7.6 double star is 10’37” to the west of this magnitude 8.8, 20’ open cluster. The POSS plate shows considerable nebulosity in this area, but I am not picking any of that up.


A nice intermediate inclination SAc galaxy in Eridanus, NGC 1084 (H.I.64) glows softly at magnitude 11.6 and subtends 3.26’x1.23’. Shows some spiral detail easily, particularly one far-flung arm.

NGC 1535 (H.IV.26), the Cleopatra’s Eye, a magnitude 9.4, 20” planetary nebula. Two concentric disks surround the magnitude 12.2 central star. The center is somewhat burned out with the Stellacam, but I can see what appears to be a clump of nebulosity or a “flier” in the outer ring of nebulosity.

NGC 1407 (H.I.107) is a near-round and bright magnitude 10.7, 4.6’x4.3’ E0 elliptical galaxy. It is made interesting by the presence of a slightly smaller elliptical, NGC 1400, which lies 11’40” to the west. Also in the field are two small galaxies, IC343 and NGC 1402.


NGC 2371 (H.II.316), The Gemini Nebula, PK 189-19.1, is a funny little thing. A magnitude 11.2, 1.2’ planetary nebula, it is peanut-shaped, composed of two arching lobes around a magnitude 14.8 central star that is easy to see. If I had to compare it to another object, I’d say it looks like a more subdued NGC 40.

NGC 2158 (H.VI.17), an open cluster, M35’s distant, small 5’, magnitude 12.0 companion is a marvel. Like a loose globular enwrapped in the countless stars of M35’s suburbs.

Magnitude 7, 5.0’ NGC 2129 (H.VIII.26) is a small open cluster that’s made interesting by a central assemblage of bright magnitude 7 – 9 stars that form a triangular or Christmas tree shaped asterism. Well detached from the background star field.

NGC 2420 (H.VI.1) is a beautiful and compact open cluster. A 5.0’ across and magnitude 10 ball of stars. Hordes of medium-bright magnitude 11 and dimmer stars in an oval shape.

NGC 2392 (H.IV.45), the good old Eskimo Nebula is very good tonight. Round, with the eskimo’s “ruff” and “nose” (the central star) very apparent. A magnitude 8.24 star is 1’39” to the north.

A small but rather bold group of suns, NGC 2304 (H.VI.2) is an attractive vaguely triangle-shaped cluster of magnitude 13 – 14 and dimmer stars. A 3.0’ magnitude 10.0 condensation of stars in the rich fields of Gemini.

NGC 2355 (H.VI.61) is a fairly prominent magnitude 9.7, 7.0’ diameter if somewhat pedestrian open cluster. Medium bright stars, medium rich. Oval in shape. One bright mag 7.8 star in the field 7’34” to the northeast of the cluster’s heart. Fairly well detached from the background star field.

NGC 2395 (H.VIII.11) is another average open cluster. Somewhat triangular in shape glowing at magnitude 9.40 and stretching 14.0’ across. Fairly well detached. The famous Medusa Nebula is found 34’34” to the east.


NGC 2022 (H.IV.34) in Orion is a fairly good small 28” planetary nebula shining rather weakly at magnitude 11.70. Gray and round with no obvious detail other than the magnitude 14.9 central star, which is “offset” from the planetary’s disk.

NGC 2024 (H.V.28), the renowned Flame Nebula near Zeta Orionis, is quite wonderful tonight. Its bright and dark lanes form the dramatic shape of a burning bush. Highly detailed, 20’ in size.

NGC 1788 (H.V.32) is a lovely and detailed reflection nebula is out in the hinterlands of Orion, about 7-degrees to the west of the belt/sword. It is a shapeless welter of bright and dark nebulosity and involved stars.

NGC 1999 (H.IV.33) is a peculiar looking little 2.0’ round patch of nebulosity with a dark lane across its face. This T shaped dark area is actually a Bok globule where, it’s likely, stars are forming. NGC 1999 is found 1-degree 19’ south-southeast of M42, and forms the tip of the “sword.”

The reasonably famous “37” open cluster 5’ across, magnitude 7 NGC 2169 (H.VIII.24), is outstanding. The 3 and the 7 are formed by magnitude 7 – 11 stars and are easy to make-out.

NGC 2194 (H.VI.5) is a spectacular magnitude 10, 9.0’ open cluster. The central region is marked by a rectangular pattern of bright magnitude 11 stars.

NGC 2186 (H.VII.25) is a typical NGC open cluster, a small clump of suns not well set off from the field. The center of this magnitude 9.2, 5.0’ cluster is nice, with a magnitude 9.89 luminary and a handful of slightly dimmer stars.

NGC 1980 (H.V.31) is the large and bright open cluster half a degree south of M42. Impressive due to its bright stars, which include magnitude 2.75 Iota Orionis. Otherwise, though, it is quite sparse.


NGC 2655 (H.I.288) is a largish oval of light enwrapped in faint, round outer haze. This magnitude 10.96 SAB galaxy is large and attractive at 4.9’x4.1’. The big attraction tonight for this galaxy in Camelopardalis is the year’s first bright supernova, SN 2011b, which is visible as a bright speck maybe 2’ from the galaxy’s nucleus.


M76, NGC 650 (H.I.193), a magnitude 10.10 2.7’ planetary nebula, is very good this evening. In addition to the two lobes and brightness variations across these lobes, the streamers of nebulosity wrapping around the main body of the nebula are fairly easy to make out.

NGC 884 (H.VI.34) (magnitude 4.40, 18.0’) and 869, (H.VI.33) (magnitude 4.3, 18.0’) have to be viewed separately due to the camera’s small field, but they are of course spectacular, even individually, and I cannot say which “half” is prettier.

NGC 1023 (H.I.156), a large SB0 galaxy in Perseus, is outstanding at magnitude 10.35 and a size of 8.7’x3.0’. It shows off a bright, elongated non-stellar core surrounded by oval nebulosity and set in a somewhat warped-looking disk.

After swinging back to NGC 2655 for a last look at the supernova, whose photons left home not long after the dinosaurs met their demise, I stopped and took stock. Fifty—count ‘em, fifty—Herschel Is were in the bag and I hadn’t had to struggle to do ‘em. The CG5 just kept banging them out; except for a few fuzzies low on the horizon, everything I requested was in the Stellacam’s field, and even those objects that weren’t were just barely “out.” The camera worked like a champ, with the cold weather reducing the thermal noise in the uncooled Stellacam to an amazingly low level, allowing me to kick up the gain a notch or two.

I wasn’t even that uncomfortable. Not at first. As y’all know, I preach the concept of “layering” for cold weather, and had progressed from sweatshirt, to jacket, to the big red coat I took with me to Bath, Maine when I wintered there one year. My fuzzy watch-cap kept my head and ears OK, and a chemical hand-warmer made my paws at least bearably warm. Nevertheless, pretty much as I’d predicted, I was now, at just after 10pm, beginning to feel seriously miserable.

I wasn’t the only one. My two mates had about had it as well and didn’t protest when I opined, “Looks like it might be time to call it.” The air was damp, very damp, and nothing is more miserable than being immersed in wet cold air. My red light revealed a coating of ice on Celeste, her mount, and every other exposed piece of gear. Enough is sometimes too much; I pulled the big switch and started the process of getting the equipment in the car, trying to focus not on my cold hands but on the warm den, big screen TV, and bottle o’ Rebel Yell that awaited me back at good, old Chaos Manor South.

The next morning the real work would begin. Transcribing the notes I’d made with my little Sony Pressman audio recorder into SkyTools 3’s logbook, checking the two DVDs I’d filled with video, and saving at least some of those sequences as stills. At least I can do all that in a warm house with a cat on my lap, muchachos. Of course, soon enough I’ll have forgotten how cold it was on this night, and when the dark of the Moon rolls back around it will be more Herschels.

Next Time: It was chilly this weekend, there was a Moon in the sky, Uncle Rod had a nasty cold, and no observing of any kind got done. So, Sunday next we’ll finish getting you novices set up for some serious amateur astronomy.

Rod there is some really great stuff in this here blog nice job!

Charles Lillo
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