Sunday, April 24, 2011
Astronomy software is strange and confusing. It’s way different from other astro gear where “more expensive” usually equals “more better.” Price doesn’t always have much to do with how well an astro-program works or looks, as is amply demonstrated by Cartes du Ciel (CdC) and Stellarium. They work good. They look good. They are free. I intend to give you the straight poop on Stellarium real soon, but for now let’s focus on everybody’s fave freeware, Cartes du Ciel, “Sky Charts.”
Me and Cartes go a long ways back, back to the late 1990s. At the time, I didn’t have Skytools. I was experimenting with an early “planning” type program, Deepsky, but mostly I was using planetariums, programs whose whole raison d’être is to display a simulation of the night sky on your PC screen. My favorite was Emil Bonanno’s famous (still) Megastar.
Megastar was a fantastic program, throwing up the deepest charts I had ever seen, but it was weak on the sky simulation part of the planetarium equation. It was more a computerized atlas than it was a simulacrum of the sky. There wasn’t much in the way of animation, planetary simulations, or even horizons. For those reasons, I was still clinging to that hoary DOS (what came before Windows, younguns) application, SkyGlobe.
I’m not sure who first told me about Cartes du Ciel. Probably it was my late friend Jeff Medkeff. He was the first astronomy software guru I’d run into, and I figured if he thought the program was worth a look, it was worth a look. Wouldn’t cost nothing to try it, anyhow. CdC was not commercial software or even shareware, it was free, given away by its Swiss author, Patrick Chevalley.
The version of Cartes that went on my Compaq Pentium must have been an early one, likely prior to version 2.0. It ran OK on my Windows 98 box, but, truthfully, it wasn’t quite there. It was a little slow at times and lacked a little in usefulness as well as usability. The user interface left me slightly baffled, too. “Missed it by that much.”
I liked what I’d seen, though, and hoped the author would continue to develop his program. Since the producer of Skyglobe had dropped out of the game, there really weren’t any freeware astronomy standouts (actually, Klass-M Software’s Skyglobe was shareware). Freeware programs come and go, but I had the feeling that if Patrick stuck with it, CdC might become a big success—in a small amateur astronomy way.
I kept my eye on Cartes, and my watchfulness was rewarded the following year, 1999, when Patrick released the first full-up Cartes, Version 2.4, which is the grandpappy of what is probably the most widely used non-commercial amateur astronomy program of all time, Cartes du Ciel v2.76.
As soon as I downloaded and booted 2.4, I could see the puzzle pieces were falling into place. And by the time the first of the 2.7 versions appeared two years later, I knew we were there. Not only had Patrick worked the bugs out of his program, he’d radically improved the interface and made plenty of catalog data available.
Back then, everybody was still obsessed with how many stars and deep sky objects a program contained. Maybe because that was something quantifiable, like the aperture of a telescope, and maybe because we were just on the cusp of the amateur astronomy data explosion where we suddenly went from “ALL THE MESSIERS, OVER 200 NGC OBJECTS, AND THE ENTIRE YALE BRIGHT STAR CATALOG!” to millions of stars and DSOs.
CdC had the chops: the famous SAC (Saguaro Astronomy Club) deep sky catalog was included in the basic package, and you could easily download and install not just the NGC, but catalogs that added millions more objects, like the enormous PGC catalog of galaxies. Stars? You could get the Tycho 2 catalog from Patrick’s site. Not enough? If you had a source for the Hubble Guide Star Catalog (GSC), the program would happily use that, too. There’s long been a cooperative symbiosis between CdC and Steve Tuma’s Deepsky. Not only could Deepsky use Cartes as its charting engine, Cartes du Ciel could use the Hubble GSC files that shipped with Deepsky.
But it wasn’t just catalogs. CdC had a lot more going for it than that. With 2.76, the software added realistic planets, nebula isophotes, and more. Cartes sported some features not found elsewhere, as well. Like the ability to download Digitized Sky Survey images and overlay them on charts (hell, you could even do that with your own astrophotos).
One thing that seemed irksome back in the astro-ware dark ages was that Cartes didn’t have native telescope control. If you wanted to send one of the increasingly popular robo-scopes on go-tos with the program, you had to use a “helper” application, ASCOM. It was odd to have to use an add-on program at first, but it wasn’t long before most of us thanked our lucky stars Cartes went the ASCOM route. ASCOM meant the program would always be up-to-date scope-wise, able to control nearly any telescope on the market. We’d never have to play the waiting game while the author wrote his own built-in drivers to work with the latest Meade-o-tron.
And so we lived happily ever after, huh? For a while, muchachos, for a little while. Things were moving fast in the astro-ware game, and by the time the first decade of the new century was well-underway, it was clear our beloved Cartes du Ciel 2.76 was ripe for replacement. It still worked well. B-u-t. The display was very legible, but was looking old—it shouted “1990s.” The program’s user interface could stand some fine-tuning, too. Performance might be better as well. The whole thing was written in an obsolete programming language and was a little slow compared to more modern software. It would also have been nice to be able to run the program on Macintosh and Linux machines—CdC 2.76 was resolutely Windows only.
Patrick realized all these things, probably more than any of us, and began work on the successor to 2.76, v3.0, in 2002. It being a part-time labor of love, starting Cartes all over again from scratch took a while. It was not till five years later that we had a beta that was nearly ready for prime-time, and it was three more years after that before the official release of Cartes du Ciel 3.0 hit the streets.
So Cartes 3.0 is a winner? I answer an unreserved “yes” to that. It is a mature piece of software, though, over a decade old, and it does a lot. That means it can be a steep hill for an astronomy software novice to climb. The first hurdle is getting the program installed and configured, which has scared many an astro-ware tyro badly enough that they’ve given up on the whole thing, which is a shame. Tell you what: why don’t we download and install Cartes and give it a whirl together?
Download and Install
Before you can learn Cartes, you gotta get it, right? In the dial-up days, Mr. Chevalley made CD ROMs available for a nominal fee, but in the age of broadband you just download the program from the CdC 3 site. The basic package, which includes everything you need to get started, including the Bright Star Catalog and the SAC deep sky objects, will run you a mere 22 megabytes. If you are still in dial-up hell, do what I did way back when and get a buddy with a fast connection to download the program (and additional catalogs) and burn ‘em on a CD for you.
You will need several other files in addition to the basic package, but let’s get the main program installed before we worry about that. Go to the 3.0 site, choose the appropriate file for your operating system (most of you will want either the Windows 32 or 64 bit version, depending on your flavor of Windows). After you click on the file, you can save it to a directory on your hard drive, but in the interests of saving time and minimizing confusion, let’s hit “run” on the dialog box Windows throws up, which will download the file and execute the install program automatically.
After a brief or not so brief spell of downloading, the installation program for Cartes will begin. Just respond to the prompts as you would when installing any program, accepting the default values. Your hard drive will grind away for a little while, and, when the program ends, you will find a cute little CdC icon now resides on the desktop. Problems/caveats? Not that I’ve experienced. The program has installed and run normally for me under both Windows Vista and Windows 7.
The Apple Macintosh installation process is derned near as simple. Download the installation file, click to mount it to a “virtual disk,” click open the resulting folder, click “skychart.pkg,” and the installation program will begin. Please note that the program will not run on older Macs with Power PC processors.
How do you load the Linux version? Don’t ask me. I had Red Hat Linux on one of our machines here for a while, but using a Linux/Unix computer at home felt too much like work and I deleted the dadgum partition. There are Linux installation instructions available on the CdC 3.0 website (“Documentation”) which will likely make perfect sense if you are on friendly terms with the Penguin.
Installing CdC, getting it up and running, is barely half the battle. You have to tell the program the usual things astro-programs need to know: location, date, and time. Being a rather deep and capable program, there are some other data entries you need to make too. Let’s get started. Click the CdC icon and fire her up.
The program itself will ask you which language you want to use. I chose “English,” and proceeded to the Setup menu on the Windows menubar. Click that open and you will find a bunch of choices. You could choose just one selection, “All configuration options,” but I find that menu is one of the few things in Cartes that is a little slow and clunky. Instead, I choose individual configuration options beginning with “Observatory,” which means “latitude and longitude.”
There, you can select your State (or province, etc.) and then your city from a variety of choices. Select your time zone with the pull down below and you are done. Or, if you want to use your exact location, the value from a GPS or from Google Earth, you can manually enter your site’s latitude and longitude. Give the location a unique name in the blank under “observatory database” and you are done. Well, almost: don’t forget to click the “Update” button to save your new site. You can also input your altitude, though I have never found doing so has made pea-turkey difference. How about that cool map? It’s cool, yeah; you can move a cursor around to establish your location…but I’ve never found it precise enough to be much use.
Location and time zone established, tell Cartes how to handle time. This is an easy one. Click “Date/time” on the setup menu to open the time window. There, all you need to do right now is click the check-boxes labeled “Use system time” and “Auto refresh every” (if the number in the box next to autorefresh doesn’t have “60” in it, put 60 in there).
If’n you ain’t got no Telrad? Or want an eyepiece field circle? Go to the first blank row, enter the (true) field size for whatever you want to use, and insert a text description for it: “Unk’s 50mm finder” is what I got there. If you know this is the field circle you will want to use all the time, unclick the three Telrad circles, click your new one(s), and click “OK” on the winder.
What else? Nothing else, boys and girls. Not in the beginning. You’ve probably already glommed onto the idea that CdC is MUCHO configurable, and you will no doubt soon come back, especially to “Display,” and do a lot of tweaking of things like object colors, text sizes, deep sky symbols, and a whole lot more, but for now you are good to go. Who said Cartes was hard to set up? Not me, muchachos.
Actually, you aren't quite done. If you, like me, want to install some additional star and object catalogs from the get-go, there’s a little more work to do. Once you have downloaded and installed the extra catalogs you want (see "Additional Catalogs" below), go back to the Setup menu, click “Catalog” and choose the tab of interest, “CdC stars” to begin with. Initially, only “Bright Star Catalog” will be checked. As you download and install additional catalogs, you will come here to turn them on. In addition to checking the box on the left to turn each catalog on, you will have to specify the directory path to the catalog you’ve installed. If the catalog in question was downloaded and installed from the CdC page, the directory will usually be filled in for you. If not, or if you want to enable a user supplied catalog like the Deepsky Guide Star Catalog, just click the little folder on the right and you will be able to pick the correct directory.
“CdC Deep Sky” is the next most often accessed tab. It works just the same as the star catalog menu. Click the check-box to enable the catalog and specify the directory if required (if you turn on a catalog and the directory info turns red, the path is wrong). Note some catalogs may “conflict.” If you’ve installed the NGC and want to use it, you will, for example, probably want to unclick the SAC catalog. Otherwise two object symbols and numbers will be superimposed. CdC will let you do it, but will throw up a warning box. You will be warned about conflicts with other catalog types as well.
Do turn on “Show planets.” Skip another couple and enable “Show Milky Way” if you want to see the outline of the Milky Way. The next couple of buttons allow you to enable either the equatorial grid lines or alt-azimuth grid lines. Actually, you can have both on, but you probably won’t want to. You’ll definitely want “Show constellation lines,” and you may want the next one, too, “Show constellation limits” (boundaries). The button to the right of that is “Show galactic equator,” which I rarely need and which you will rarely need. “Show ecliptic”? Maybe you do, maybe you don’t; you decide. The oddly titled “Show mark” button turns on and off the finder or eyepiece circles you set up and checked on the setup screen. “Show labels,” should usually be on. Skip the next couple, and ensure “Sky background colour” is off unless you want a bright blue background during your artificial sky’s day. And that is it for now.
Gotta have more stars? If you don’t have the Hubble Guide Star Catalog available in the form of the Deepsky DVD and can’t get it from another source, you can still go past 12th magnitude when you need to. There is an alternative, a good one; especially if you are a “power user.”
The UCAC3 Catalog of stars down to the 16th magnitude is available on the CdC download page. This humongous catalog goes slightly deeper than the Hubble GSC and its data is, in general, better and cleaner. The penalty? At least several hundred megabytes to download. Please note that stars brighter than magnitude 10 are not included, so you will need to have already installed and configured the basic Stars catalog. Me? It’s nice to know this big star catalog is there when I need it. One thing’s sure: we have come one hell of a long way astronomy data-wise in just a few years. Seems like just yesterday the GSC was mind-blowing—all those millions of stars—and it is already passé.
Stars taken care of, it’s time to load up on deep sky objects. The SAC catalog included in the basic package has plenty, but I can’t get along with just that. If you can’t either and don’t mind downloading 30+ more megabytes, you can get lotsa DSOs. The add-on DSO catalog has a passel, including the whole NGC and even the PGC. All told, over two million DSOs (most of them PGC galaxies, natch). As before, click on the file to begin the download, hit “run” on the dialog that appears, and accept the defaults the install program offers.
Do you like pictures? I do. They can be a huge help identifying the dimmest of the dim. Cartes du Ciel can download deep sky object images from the Digitized Sky Survey, but it’s handy to have onboard pix for those times you ain’t got no Internet. The Pictures catalog contains images for nearly 10,000 objects, which will be placed on your charts in lieu of symbols when you enable them by clicking the “show pictures” button on the lower icon bar. This is about 30 megabytes of data, but it is well worth your time and drive space.
Getting the pictures going is slightly trickier than enabling catalogs, but not tough. When you’ve installed them, you must first go to the setup menu, click on “pictures,” and select the “objects” tab. When you are there, click the “scan directory” button (the default directory above that should be correct). When it’s done, close the setup window, click the “Show pictures” button, and, counter-intuitively, unclick (turn off) the “show deep sky objects” button two buttons to its left. If you do not do that, the pictures will be hidden by DSO symbols if you have “fill” turned on in the “deep sky colour tab” in the display menu. If you’d like to see both pictures and symbols/outlines of DSOs, go to the display/deep sky colour window and uncheck “fill” after each object type.
ASCOM site and download and install the Version 5 “platform” just as you did the Cartes files. Once you have Version 5 installed, you must run the “platform updater” (there is a link to it on the ASCOM website front page), which will bring you up to the current supported version, 5.5. You’ll need drivers for your specific telescope(s), too. Go to the driver page and download and install the driver(s) appropriate for you.
If this sounds like it’s a lot of (potentially scary) work, it’s not; just do what you did with CdC: click the files to download them, click “run” and allow their install programs to execute if your version of Windows asks for permission, accepting defaults. Remember, you only need ASCOM if you want to interface Cartes to a go-to scope, and if that is what you want to do you must have ASCOM—Cartes du Ciel does not include any telescope drivers.
When you’ve finally got the dadgum thing set up, it’s time to do something useful with it. As with any other astro-ware, exactly what you will do with Cartes depends on exactly what you are observing and how. This is designed just to get you off ground zero, to give you the very basic basics of CdC use. When you have these down, you’ll no doubt quickly learn and start using tricks and techniques of your own.
Panning and zooming is something we do every time we use a planetarium type program, and Cartes works the same as most programs in this regard. Want to look at the southern horizon? What most folks do is click the N/S/E/W buttons on the rightmost vertical toolbar. Click “south” and you are looking south. Don’t see enough of the sky? Click one of the field of view buttons above the direction buttons, “90,” maybe. Don’t like the button clicking? Your mouse scroll wheel will zoom out and in for you too.
What’s that funky looking round button between the direction and field buttons on the right toolbar? Clicking that will give you an all-sky planisphere type display. To return to the normal display, click the 90 degree field button and the direction button of your choice.
Don’t like clicking buttons to pan around? The OTHER way to move around the Cartes du Ciel sky seems to be unknown to some users: hold down the shift button and drag the sky around with the mouse to get to just the spot you want. Works crazy-good and is smoother in operation than similar features are on some mucho-expensive software.
How do you find good stuff? A big part of any planetarium is object locating, and Cartes du Ciel provides two ways of doing that. Easiest way? Cartes’ quick search button on the top icon bar, the little blank field. Type the object of your choice, “M1” for example, in the blank and mash the return key. M1 will be placed at the center of the screen with a circle around it and a label next to it.
Where the going gets a little tough is in searching for comets. The thing is, before you can find a comet, you gotta have comets. To get comets you have to download the current MPC (Minor Planet Center) comet file. Thankfully for the more computer illiterate—like Unk—CdC makes this pretty painless. Go back to the setup menu, choose “Solar System,” hit the “Comet” tab and then the “Load MPC File” tab. Click the download button, and when the file has downloaded, go back to the search window, type the name or indentifier of your comet in the blank field at the bottom left, hit “Find,” and you should have the hairy star of your choice on screen.
Once you’ve found the object of your desire, you’ll want a good look at it. To zoom in tighter than the field size buttons on the right icon bar, you can use your mouse wheel. Or you can click the “+” and "-" magnifying glass icons on the top icon bar. Or you can draw a box around the area/object and click within that box to execute a zoom if that's what floats your boat.
What’s a planetarium program without a little animation? Cartes is not obsessed with these features, but it has tools to allow you to advance the sky easily. On the top icon bar you’ll find forward, back, and stop buttons as well as a pull-down. To move the sky, pull down the pull down menu and select a time increment, maybe “1 hour.” To move the sky forward 1 hour, click the right button. To move it back, click the left button. To return to current system time hit the square “stop” button. Alas, Cartes doesn’t have a mode to automatically advance the sky in increments, though it does have an object animation mode good for building comet and planet paths across the sky.
Running into problems with Cartes du Ciel? There are a couple of ways to get help. There’s the program’s help engine, which is usually good enough to get me out of trouble, though Cartes’ English is a little creaky. Or you can visit the Cartes Yahoogroup, “skychart-discussion,” where you will usually be enlightened by Pat Chevalley himself. Or you can ask your questions on this here blog. I only had time to cover the high points this morning, but I’ve used the program long enough that I should be able to answer most of your enquiries and would be glad to do so.
Last words? You’ll pry Cartes du Ciel, Sky Charts, out of my hands about as easily as you’ll get my Alizée videos from me, and that won’t be easy, muchachos, that won’t be easy. Sky Charts is a classic of astronomy software, and thanks to the selfless and tireless efforts of its author it’s still as up-to-date and as wonderful as ever.
Next Time: Sweet Charity.
Sunday, April 17, 2011
The Herschel Project Nights 22 and 23: 396 Down, 4 to Go (Herschel 400)
What was the first thought that entered old Unk’s head when he awakened on the second day of his and Miss Dorothy’s latest Chiefland Astronomy Village adventure, mucahchos? No, not, “What’s for breakfast?” It was, “Dang. The Herschel II is done.”
I had been within spitting distance of finishing the thing for months, but that’s not quite the same as closing the book on a famous list of objects I once considered difficult—or, to be honest, scary. As the months went by and I’d put object after object to bed, many of them visually with a C8, the H-II had come to seem almost friendly and sometimes even easy. But I guess for me it will never lose its panache as a Real Hard list of dim deep sky objects for the advanced amateur, whatever the hell that is.
So, yeah, I was sad the Herschel II was done. It was what impelled me to begin this crazy Herschel Project, my quest to see all William Herschel’s discoveries with my modest telescopes, in the first place. Oh, well, “all good things,” and I still had not only half the Herschel 2500, the complete list, ahead of me, I had a good portion of the first amateur-compiled Herschel list, the Herschel 400, to go as well.
Course, I knew there was no way the Herschel 400, the H-I, would occupy me for over a year like the H-II did. Over half the objects were already in the can, encountered in the course of my voyage through the 2500, and on the first night of this expedition I scored 55 more of the (often) spectacular suckers. And I still had two more nights to pick off Herschel Is.
Unk’s cracker barrel philosophizing on completing the Herschel II done on this early, but not too early, Friday morning, Miss D. and I moseyed down to the motel’s small lobby to see what we could scare-up for breakfast. As I whined back in December, a Day’s Inn breakfast ain’t a Holiday Inn Express breakfast by a long shot. No more of those notorious little cinnamon rolls. No more biscuits and gravy—no biscuits of any sort. No more bacon. No more sausage. No more of the ersatz but tasty omelet-like-things the Express served. Sigh.
What was set out was teeny-weenie bagels, tired looking pastries, bread, cold cereal, milk, and boiled eggs (cold). But, you know, it really wasn’t bad. It was enough to satisfy my hunger pangs but not enough to spoil lunch, which I was looking forward to. What was unsat? The coffee served in big thermoses. Cold and old and bitter.
The coffee was so undrinkable that D. and I repaired to the room where we made a decent pot with the little coffee maker there and finished getting ready for the day’s adventure. I was looking forward to lunch because we’d have it in Cedar Key.
What’s a “Cedar Key”? It’s one of the many little islands scattered up and down Florida’s west coast. This is very much the old, rarely explored Florida. Think of the setting of Stephen King’s Duma Key (minus all the bad juju). Specifically, Cedar Key is a sleepy little fishing village that has reinvented itself as a tourist haven. It’s still sleepy, but it wakes up at night during The Season when waterside bars like the Black Dog (home of the Flirtini) and The Pickled Pelican start rocking.
Miss Dorothy and I enjoyed our last visit to Cedar Key so much we resolved to come back soon and maybe spend a couple of nights at one of the key’s cool hotels. We wouldn’t be able to do that this time—too much observing to do and a picnic to attend—but we did set aside Friday afternoon for Cedar Key.
Arriving, we parked across from the volunteer firehouse, which is notable for its array of antique but still working and still used fire engines, and strolled across the bridge to the main drag. After browsing the shops, it was time for lunch. Last year, the Rusty Rim had been good, but we wanted to try a different venue this time, and settled on the Pickled Pelican.
At night, the Pelican is about drinking and having a high old time, especially outside on the deck. In the afternoon, it’s about lunch. What to choose? Well, there would be several Coronas in the mix for me, and, food-wise, MULLET. When we were kids, me and my buddies—members of the lower middle class, mostly—ate a lot of fish. The Moms could afford it. One of our staples was Ground Mullet (which doesn’t mean ground-up mullet, yanks). I swore that when I grew up the only thing I’d do with this strong-tasting, bony fish would be to use it as bait.
What was hardship in youth evolves into nostalgia by middle age. The fried fish that was put in front of me was very well prepared, but it wasn’t better prepared than what Mama or the lady next door could do. Guess what? It tasted way better than I remembered, each bite bringing a flood of memories. Funny what five decades can do, muchachos.
We strolled around a little more after lunch, but all too soon it was time to head back to the motel. I felt the need of a few extra Zs after lunch, and while Chiefland is only a half-hour or so from Cedar Key, I wanted to be as rested as possible for the night’s Herschel crusade.
As I was heading back to the CAV observing field at 6:45 p.m., I reflected that one thing I wouldn’t have to worry about this evening would be the sky. It was a good, clear blue. It wasn’t yet the deep blue of superior transparency—there was a large glow around the Sun when I covered it with a palm—but it was a darn sight better than it had been Thursday.
When dark came, I set to work on the Herschel 400. I was rested and intended to go for just as long as I could. I aligned the telescope without incident and got to down to it with my first group of targets, the numerous galaxies of Leo.
How did Bertha do? She did right well. She put every single object in the field of the Stellacam. I guess I really don’t understand the ways of go-to telescopes yet, though. I can align a scope at a star party one night, not touch the tripod, align it again the second night using the same alignment stars, and the resulting go-tos will be either better or worse than they were the night before. Go figure. On this evening, the Herschels tended to land near the top edge of the frame. They were always visible, but sometimes I’d need to center them up before recording a sequence to DVD. Hardly a big deal, I reckon.
How do I work? I open SkyTools 3, my observing program, on my Asus netbook computer, bring up the evening’s list, pick an object, and punch it into the NexRemote virtual hand controller I have set to “always on top” on the PC’s display. Yeah, I know you can use NexRemote’s “virtual port feature” to do go-tos directly from SkyTools, but either my computer, my USB - serial converter cable, or Windows 7 is preventing that from working right. I mouse-click “Enter” on the onscreen hand control, Bertha (via NexRemote) says “ACQUIRING TARGET!” and when she stops, it’s “TARGET ACQUIRED!”
After a short spell of waiting to allow the Stellacam with its 10-second exposures to catch up with Bertha, the DSO will be visible on the screen of the 12vdc portable DVD player I use as a monitor. If it needs centering, I’ll center it up with the joystick on the Logitech Wireless Wingman gamepad NexRemote lets me use as my non-virtual hand paddle.
Object looking good on the display, I hit Record on the DVD player (I give each object about 30-seconds), write its NGC (or other) number in my notebook, and record my impressions of its appearance onscreen with my little Sony Pressman audio recorder. I push stop on the DVD when I’ve got as much video as I want, go back to SkyTools to see what the next object on the agenda is, and “repeat as needed.” Which means for as long as my tired old bones can stand it.
And repeat I did, flying through Leo, Coma, Canes Venatici (there were a few H400 sprites there I didn’t get Thursday), on to Virgo, and finally touching down in Sextans. The grand total was 115 Herschel 400 DSOs. Maybe I was tired and feeling uninspired Thursday, or maybe my luck was just bad, but I didn’t hit any DSOs that really knocked my socks off that night. This night was different. It seemed as if I were marking every other object in my notebook with an asterisk, which denotes “SPECTACULAR.” If’n you don’t mind, I’ll share some of those with you.
As is my custom, the specs of the galaxies (almost all the objects on this night were galaxies) are from the NASA Extragalactic Database, galaxy classifications are given according to the de Vaucouleurs system, and the images are simple single-frame screen-grabs from the DVDs. The matter in italics is transcribed directly from my (audio) log.
The Herschel Is
An SAcd peculiar galaxy of magnitude 11.5 and a size of 2.8’x2.0’, NGC 5474 (H.I.214) is a curious thing. It consists of a bright, round core, off center in a large, ring-like patch of round nebulosity. It has obviously interacted with another galaxy. The question is “which other galaxy?” The only other island universe in the frame is a tiny LEDA galaxy that is much farther away.
NGC 3992 (H.IV.61) is also known as “M109,” so you know it is going to be a good one. This is a magnitude 10.6 SBbc with the generous dimensions of 7.6’x4.7’. Its intermediate inclination of 78-degrees shows off the whole works to excellent advantage. There is a small, oval core, a broad bar, and delicate arms that wrap all the way around the bar.
NGC 3631 (H.I.226) is a face-on SAc spiral with classic good looks. It shines at magnitude 11.1, is 5.0’x4.8’ in size and possesses a set of lovely grand-design spiral arms.
NGC 3729 (H.I.222) is a weirdly beautiful SBa peculiar galaxy. It is at magnitude 12.03 and extends 2.8’x1.9’. Its interaction with another galaxy—nearby NGC 3718 I presume, which is also in the Stellacam frame—has left it looking decidedly odd, almost like a ring galaxy. There’s a small, nearly round core surrounded by the ring shape of a disk.
A beautiful example of an intermediate inclination SABc, NGC 3726 (H.II.730) has a magnitude of 10.91 and a size of 6.2’x4.3’. The small, star-like nucleus is surrounded by a nest of spiral arms that are very easy to see on the video.
NGC 5746 (H.III. 287) is an absolutely scrumtious edge-on SABb spiral with a dramatic dust lane. It looks a lot like a smaller NGC 4565 (The Flying Saucer Galaxy). It shines strongly at magnitude 11.29, and measures 7.4’x1.3’.
NGC 5634 (H.I.70) is Virgo’s sole globular star cluster, and it ain’t much. This magnitude 9.5, 5.5’ ball of stars is reasonably well-resolved on the monitor, but its Shapley Sawyer class of IV means it is fairly compressed, and given its small size, it is not the forest of stars the Messier globs, most of them, are. Still, a nice change of pace after the galaxy fields of Coma-Virgo.
NGC 4536 (H.V.2) is a long, graceful SABbc spiral with a tiny, elongated core and the graceful “s” shape of two spiral arms. It is of magnitude 11.16 and a size of 7.6’x3.2’. The view is further enhanced by the presence of another galaxy in the frame, NGC 4533, a cute little edge-on 8’18” to the north-northwest.
I slept-in till the tail end of breakfast Saturday. I was tempted to sleep through it and go across the street to the Huddle House (Florida’s equivalent of the Waffle House) for more substantial morning fare later. I wound up saying “what the hell,” throwing on some clothes, and going to the lobby with Miss Dorothy for more anemic bagels and a couple of drink boxes (juice machine was out of order the whole dang time we were there).
When breakfast was done and Unk had finished his morning ablutions, it was time to hie ourselves to Wal-Mart to pick out our contributions to the picnic. As you might expect, Miss Dorothy opted for a good-looking and healthy vegetable and dip tray. Yours truly got a couple of boxes of the most disgustingly butter cream frosting-laden cupcakes the Wallyworld bakery had to offer. Killing time, we wandered by the magazine rack, which, I was surprised to note, had the current issue of Astronomy Magazine on display. Too bad they didn’t have Sky and Telescope, but seeing Astronomy in this out-in-the-sticks Wal-Mart was a pleasant surprise.
Before leaving, I picked up one of the last sweatshirts for sale in the men’s department (for an amazing 3 bucks). Friday night had got down into the low 50s, and my thin nylon jacket—that I’d picked up from this selfsame Wal-Mart last trip—didn’t keep me warm enough. The weather might be cold(ish), but that was the only concern. Leaving Wallyworld, we were greeted by vistas of blue skies, a blue that was a noticeably deeper shade than it had been the previous day.
I had a good time. More importantly, Miss Dorothy had a good time, was in good spirits, and wasn’t tired out by the affair. When I told a buddy we were heading back to the motel so D. could rest, she piped-up with, “Rod is the one who needs to rest; I am having a wonderful time!”
When darkness fell, it was back to work. I aligned the scope with NexRemote and got going with the last of the available Herschel 400s. I will swear to y’all, I didn’t do anything different, and Bertha asked for the same alignment stars, but this time every single object, horizon to horizon, sixty-five DSOs in all, was smack in the center of the monitor when Miss Bertha intoned, “Target acquired!” Like I done said, “go figger.”
Not having to take time to center objects with the joystick made things go faster. Which was good, since I’d set a “Rod turns into a pumpkin” time of 11:30 p.m. There would be packing in the morning followed by that six-and-a-half hour return trip to the Swamp, where a big stack of astronomy student papers awaited grading. It would take me about half an hour to minimally secure Bertha and the other gear, and it’s twenty minutes or so back to town, so if I pulled the Big Switch at 11:30, that would put me in the motel by about 12:30 in the cotton picking a.m.
I got started by picking-off twenty or so semi-obscure H-400s down in Puppis and Pyxis. When I came up for air, I was gobsmacked to see that all save four Herschel 400 objects were done. Now it was time for that big Enchilada, the Herschel 2500. How many H2500s are there in Canes Ventatici? “One hell of a lot.” I spent the remainder of the evening with the Hunting Dogs, accumulating 50 new Big Enchiladas before calling it a (too early) night.
One thing that struck me Saturday night? How cool 21st century amateur astronomy is. I ran across an odd-shaped and spectacular interacting galaxy. I was pretty sure it had a name, but I couldn’t think of what it was. Since there was Wi-Fi available on the Dodd field (thanks to the kindness of the residents), all I had to do was type “NGC 4490” and Google came right back with “Cocoon Galaxy.” Now ain’t that something? I did that in the middle of the night on an observing field. Maybe I’m just getting old, but that still seems remarkable, and would have sounded like science fiction to me and my pals in the Backyard Astronomy Society in 1965.
Anyhoo, I got a decent haul out of the 2500. Maybe I should have pushed on longer, but our recent weather trend is giving me renewed hope my C8, Celeste, and I can knock off a bunch of them during the next few dark-of-the-Moons at the Possum Swamp AS’ dark site. One thing is sure: this particular group of 50 had some real winners in it. It’s not unusual to spend an entire evening with the 2500 and only come back with the constant repetition of “small, faint elliptical—no details.” Tonight, several Big Enchiladas were so good I can’t help telling y’all about ‘em.
NGC 5297 (H.I.180) is an extremely attractive magnitude 12.47, 5.6’x1.3’ SABc. What I see is the sliver of a silvery edge-on that shows considerable dark lane detail. Almost like a miniature NGC 253. Nearby, only 1’32” to the west-southwest, is a nice little fuzzball of a galaxy, NGC 5296.
NGC 4490 (H.I.198) is the amazing Cocoon Galaxy. It forms an interacting pair with small 4485, which is 3’30” to the north and nearly in contact with the big galaxy. 4490 is an SBd peculiar galaxy of magnitude 10.22 that measures 6.3’x3.1’. In the C11 with the Stellacam, it is a wonder. A distorted, stretched out S shape with a bright, disturbed-looking nucleus.
NGC 4625 (H.II.660) is an interesting looking small (1.27’x1.20’) intermediate inclination barred spiral. This magnitude 13.2 SAB pec galaxy is obviously interacting (probably with nearby NGC 4618), and is obviously disturbed, with the spiral arm on the side toward NGC 4618 being more prominent than the other arm.
NGC 4625 turned out to be the evening’s last stop. The display on SkyTools insisted it was 11:30 p.m. even though it felt like I’d just walked onto the field. Ah, well. There would be a next time—this summer, maybe.
Next Time: Do you Skychart?
Sunday, April 10, 2011
The Herschel Project Night 21: 400 Down, 0 to Go
In spring, a young amateur astronomer’s fancies turn to thoughts of galaxies and the other deep sky delights the Vernal Equinox brings. Your old Uncle Rod is not immune. Heck, muchachos, I was anxious to see anything. This past winter down in the Swamp was a cold and cloudy and downright dreary affair. I got out a time or two, but mostly the Herschel Project was at all-stop.
I hoped the weather would be different at the April new Moon, and intended to take full advantage if it was; not just with a quick trip to the club dark site, but with a full-blown Herschel Safari to my fave remote location, the Chiefland Astronomy Village.
If you are an even occasional reader of this blog, I don’t have to explain what the CAV is—I’ve told y’all about it and related my adventures down there often enough. Suffice to say, it is a subdivision for amateur astronomers in a still relatively dark area of the Florida interior not far from the west coast. Think Alas Babylon’s Fort Repose. The Astronomy Village is notable for the enduring quality of its skies, the way the weather usually cooperates, and the friendliness and kindness of its residents.
You can find anywhere from four or five to twenty or more Chiefland Observers set up on any given dark of the Moon. Sometimes the old field almost feels crowded again, like in November, which we old-hands still remember as “Chiefland Star Party time.” We are out in force in the spring, too. No, there hasn’t been an “official” Spring Picnic on the Billy Dodd field in a while, but our big Vernal Equinox runs sometimes feel like one, anyhow.
Imagine how pleased I was, then, to hear from Tom that we would be doing a real Spring Picnic again this year. We’d all get together for several days—or a week or more—of deep sky observing, and would cap it all off with a big picnic under the field’s storied pavilions. Our (informal) club treasury would furnish the chicken and we’d all bring sides or drinks or whatever. Dreaming of eating that legendary CAV picnic food and seeing the faces of my old friends helped me make up my mind to stop just dreaming and pack up and head Down Chiefland Way.
The even better news? Miss Dorothy would be with me again. We’d had a great time in December, probably one of my best CAV runs ever, so I was delighted Miss D. wanted to do it again, delighted that her health was good enough to allow it, and delighted she’d get to experience the fabled Chiefland Spring Picnic.
My agenda? I was close, very close, to finishing the first part of the Herschel Project, the Herschel II list. I’d set myself the goal of completing it in November of last year, but the weather gods thought otherwise. Even so, I was down to five measly galaxies out of 400: NGC 4241, NGC 3078, NGC 2986, NGC 3145, and NGC 3585. Except for the first one, which lies in Virgo, all were within the borders of Hydra, which would be up reasonably early. If’n the sky was clear, oughta be like shooting fish in a barrel.
What else would I be after? As I mentioned some time back, I had so much fun leading y’all through the Herschel II I thought a stroll through the Herschel I, the Herschel 400, which is packed with bright marvels, would be in order. Truth be told, though, we don’t have that many H-Is left. Since the H-I is a subset of the Herschel 2500, the entire list, “The Big Enchilada,” we’ve already visited quite a few H-Is. Nevertheless, there would be almost 200 Herschel Is ripe for the picking on the April dark of the Moon. The list’s richest area would be perfectly on display—Coma, Virgo, and Canes Ventatici—so I figgered I might well be able to finish up most of what was left of the Herschel 400 in one go.
If I exhausted all the H-Is available, there would be The Whole Big Thing, the 2500, of course. As you can imagine, there are a lot of H-2500 galaxies on parade in the spring. And I do mean a lot.
Telescope? That was easy. This would be a serious observing run, so I’d use my most serious telescope, my NexStar 11 GPS, “Big Bertha.” Not only does Bertha have a lot of reach, she is very reliable when it comes to go-tos, invariably putting anything I request on the small chip of my deep sky video camera. She is also very comfortable to use. After the initial two-star alignment, I can sit warm and dry under my tent-canopy at the computer and video monitors for the rest of the observing run, sending the scope on go-tos with NexRemote. Buying an adapter so I could use my C8’s JMI Motofocus with Bertha put the last remote control puzzle piece in place.
Yeah, as y’all know, I’ve been dreaming of a Mallincam Extreme, which would give me color and longer exposures, but, as this Chiefland run would show, the Stellacam II is still more than capable of bringing home the deep sky bacon, and I have not exhausted its capabilities even after six years. Not hardly.
I was excited. I was counting down the days. Winter was over, and I wanted to get outside and into the sky. Naturally, as the date of our departure approached, I began keeping a close weather-eye on, well, the weather. Every service I checked—Weather Channel on TV, weather.com, and wunderground.com—was saying the same thing: Thursday evening would be dicey, partly to mostly cloudy, and Friday and Saturday night would be CLEAR.
I was a little concerned when a massive storm front passed through early in the week. This monster swept across the Gulf Coast, bringing 100-mile-an-hour winds to some areas, and moved on in to Florida. By Wednesday evening, I relaxed a little. It was obvious the truly bad weather would be out of the Chiefland picture by Thursday, and I even dared to dream of getting a few hours in on that night.
Miss D. and I got a reasonably early start, about 8:30 a.m., thanks in part to my new custom of loading the telescope and everything else that goes in the trunk the night before. That makes packing on departure morning quick and easy. After a visit to Mickey D’s for some biscuits (Sausage and egg for D., chicken for me—who doesn’t want fried chicken for breakfast?), it was “head east” for five uneventful hours on I-10. We ran into the tail end of the storm system as we approached Tallahassee, but what was left amounted to no more than scattered showers and drizzle. By the time we turned off on U.S. 19 for the final 100-mile run to CAV, even that had been left behind.
When we got off the Interstate we refueled the car with gas that was even more expensive than back home, I refueled myself with a Jack Links Sasquatch Big Stick™, and we pushed on to the uber-scenic Suwannee River area that’s the gateway to Chiefland. The closer we got, the more excited I became. Looking at the sky, I went from “At least it’ll be OK tomorrow,” to “Honey, I think we’ll be able to set up the gear this afternoon,” to “I’m gonna be observing tonight.”
Settled at our hostelry, set-up on the CAV field was next, following much shooting the breeze there with friends old and new. There were no surprises in the course of getting Bertha and all the other astro-stuff—canopy, table, computer shelter, computer, DVD recorder, and monitor—ready to go. Oh, there was one hitch, but it wasn’t exactly a surprise.
I'd run the gear past a checklist when I marshaled it in Chaos Manor South’s front parlor, and I did make sure “battery” was present and ticked off. I even thought “need to grab the other battery,” but that was followed by “don’t need it.” Chiefland has copious AC available on the field, and I have taken to operating my dew heaters off a 12vdc power supply plugged into that AC rather than battery number two. I guess that was what I was thinking when I decided I could leave one of my two jump-start batteries behind.
On the field it hit me: I NEEDED THAT SECOND BATTERY FOR THE STELLACAM! What to do? Several possibilities presented themselves. I could operate the Stellacam off AC via the wall-wart that came with it. But I had a bad experience with that a the 2005 Chiefland Star Party. A power supply malfunction took out the Stellacam, and I was without the camera for most of the event. The good folks at Adirondack repaired the Stellacam and sent me a new power supply, but ever since I’ve been leery of running it on anything but a 12-volt battery.
Hokay. What then? I had a cigarette lighter outlet splitter that provides two plugs. The Stellacam draws very little current, and running both it and Bertha (who is less power hungry than my CG5) off the same 17ah jump-starter wouldn’t be a problem. Dug the splitter out. No workie. I could try to find another one at Walmart or Radio Shack, I supposed. Or I could buy a jump start battery at Wallyworld. Or maybe there was a third possibility that wouldn’t cost stingy Uncle Rod any of his beloved dollars.
What the hail? Chiefland’s power is reliable and steady. I’d give AC a try and run the vidcam off the telescope’s battery. If the scope acted funky, I’d get a new battery at WallyWorld on the morrow. Given the clouds still drifting across the sky, it didn’t look like I’d miss much Thursday night if I couldn’t run the camera.
Problem at least provisionally solved, D. and I headed back to town and Wallyworld for supplies. What did I get? I got Jack Links Buffalo Chicken Nuggets and some granola bars for late night energy snacking. I got bottled water to put in the field refrigerator to rehydrate myself over the course of the evening (very important for stamina). OF COURSE I got that wonderful astronomy accessory, MONSTER ENERGY DRINKS. They allow me to keep going into the wee hours and don’t make me feel too weird as long as I remember to stop drinking ‘em when I start trembling like a Chihuahua.
This time of year, sunset doesn’t come to Chiefland till nearly 8 p.m., meaning there was plenty of time for napping and resting in the motel following our 6-and-a-half-hour drive and the labor involved in field setup. I managed to restrain myself, believe it or not, till nearly 6:45 despite a good case of astronomical buck fever. Back out on the field, there was no need to hurry with connecting the cables and getting the computer fired up. It looked like it would be a while before I could begin observing.
Was I beginning to lose hope for Thursday night? Yeah. But that was not a surprise, given what the weather forecast had been saying all along. The surprise was that, when astronomical twilight came, enough stars were in the clear for me to do a go-to alignment (on Sirius and Capella). After that, it was more cooling my heels. I’d slewed to M53—a nice bright globular star cluster is the perfect focusing “tool”—and there I sat for about half an hour, watching the big ball of stars fade in and out of view on the monitor.
Then, suddenly, in typical Chiefland fashion, a sucker hole grew to encompass nearly the entire sky—hell, even the wind, which had been blowing hard all afternoon, laid down—and I was a-rocking. Bertha performed beautifully as I slewed from H-II to H-II, putting every one of them in the (focal-reduced) field of the Stellacam’s tiny chip.
The AC supply caused absolutely no problems. Actually, I forgot I was using it till late in the evening when I realized I didn’t have to worry about whether I was doing too much go-to slewing for a change. This was one “battery” that would not run down. When I get a chance, I may look into a nice regulated power supply for Bertha—just to be on the safe side. But I believe I will continue to run everything but the Stellacam off AC whenever I am down at C-land. No reason not to
And so it began…the final sprint for the H-II finish line. As always, galaxy types are given I.A.W. the Vaucoleurs system when possible, and N.E.D, NASA’s Extragalactic Database, was my main reference tool. Just like last time, the pictures are single-frame screen-grabs of my videos rather than the POSS plates I used to use. These humble images give you a better idea of what I saw. Frankly, what I see in the full-motion videos, at least, is often very similar to what’s in those wonderful, old POSS images.
THE LAST OF THE HERSCHEL II
NGC 4241 (H.III.480) is an SBcd spiral of magnitude 14.5, and is 1.19’x.95’ in extent. Onscreen with the Stellacam II, it is fairly impressive, with a bright elongated core and a fairly large expanse of outer envelope. This is an intermediate inclination galaxy, and looks it.
An E 2 – 3 elliptical, NGC 3078 (H.II.268) is bright at magnitude 12.14 and fairly large at 2.5’x2.1’, On the monitor, it looks much as it does on the POSS plate, A slightly elongated bright core surrounded by an elongated haze. A surprisingly prominent magnitude 13.6 galaxy, MCG 4-24-11, is easy to see just 15’ to the east.
NGC 2986 (H.II.211) would be a fairly uninteresting, nearly round magnitude 11.72 E 2 elliptical if not for the presence of little magnitude 14.5 MCG 3-25-18 just 2’18” to the south-southwest. An even dimmer sprite of a galaxy, LEDA 830168, dimly glowing at magnitude 16.3, is (barely) visible 1’12” farther west.
On the POSS, NGC 3145 (H.III.518) is revealed as a beautiful SBbc spiral with multiple, patchy arms. These Sunflower galaxy-style arms are easy to see with the Stellacam and C11 when the seeing steadies down, which it does occasionally. Also visible when the seeing allows is the tiny disk of LEDA 952759, a magnitude 17.3 S type (maybe) that’s 2’9” west of the big galaxy. Only bring-down? A blazingly bright star, magnitude 3.61 Lambda Hydrae, less than 8’ to the northeast, spoils the show somewhat.
NGC 3585 (H.II.269), the last Herschel II, is a somewhat boring S0 lenticular. Well, maybe not boring. My buddy Greg Crinklaw says no deep sky object is boring, and I tend to agree with him—most of the time. This almost edge on magnitude 12.4 galaxy has its charms. It is large, 4.7’x2.6’, and has that classic spindle shape many of these types of galaxies exhibit. Add to that a bright, elongated core, some dim outer haze around the disk, and a couple of wisps that represent tiny LEDA galaxies, and this was not a bad view to end the Herschel II.
And, with a click of the “stop” button on the DVD recorder, the Herschel II was done. How did I feel about that? Mixed emotions, muchachos, mixed emotions. Sometimes it’s seemed like a long slog since I started the H-Project back in November of 2009. Usually, though, it’s felt just the opposite. The 12-months I allotted to finish this much-talked-about but seldom tackled list just flew by. I still have plenty of Herschels to go—I’ve only done a little over half the Big Enchilada—but it feels as if a milestone has been passed, and I’m a little sad.
The H-II is just the tip of the massive Herschel iceberg, but it gives you a good feel for the big list. I think “just” doing the II would have given me both an appreciation of William and Caroline Herschel’s incredible achievement and a better sense of the “what’s out there” of the northern sky. If you don’t want to tackle the Whole Big Thing, go for the II. It’s much more “Herschel-like” than the original Herschel 400, which even sports Messiers, for god’s sake.
Herschel II done, I toasted Will and Lina with a Monster and pressed on to the Herschel 400. Coma was high but not too high, Virgo was out of the murk, and Canes was nipping at the Great Bear’s heels. In other words, there was a lot to see even in the sometimes hazy, sometimes cloudy, almost always unsteady skies.
And I saw a lot, 60 H 400 objects before I threw in the towel. Maybe it was just the luck of the draw, though, but while all of ‘em were good, none of the stops I made Thursday night really fired my imagination. That had to wait for Friday. Nevertheless, I pressed on, seeing marvel after marvel if not masterpiece after masterpiece.
And so it went—for a while, anyhow. Several times over the course of the evening, clouds, big masses of clouds, drifted in, shutting me down temporarily. That wasn’t all bad; it gave me a chance to get up, leave my “starship bridge,” stretch my legs, have a snack, and chug another Monster. Enough is eventually too much, however. About half-past-twelve, another stretch of clouds blew in and I decided I was tired of Urania’s strip tease. I was a little weary from the trip down and the setup, anyway. I pulled the Big Switch, secured Bertha, and bid my buddies a good goodnight.
Following a short ride, I was back at the Day’s Inn. I endeavored not to disturb Miss D. too much—she’d opted to spend the evening resting and relaxing at the motel. But I sure wasn’t ready to go to sleep. I guess all them galaxies had had an enervating effect, muchachos. I had a wee taste of the good, old Rebel Yell, broke out the Colorado Kool-aid, and had a look-see at the TV.
Not much on the cable at 2 a.m., campers. For want of anything else, I watched the Travel Channel’s very silly and funny (intentionally or not) Ghost Adventures for a while. When I’d had enough spooky—if enjoyable—nonsense I fired up the netbook, which I’d brought off the field with me, and had a stroll through the Cloudy Nights discussion groups—till sleep began to take me and I found myself walking amongst the Coma galaxies without the aid of a telescope.
Next Time: We’ll wrap up Unk and Miss Dorothy’s latest Chiefland adventure with a Herschel Project Update on nights 22 and 23.
Saturday, April 02, 2011
Postcards from the Edge
Almost live from the CAV, it's UNCLE ROD'S ASTRO BLOG!
There is a place out on the wild frontier of deep space where men and women are confronting the Universe. That place is the Chiefland Astronomy Village...
Miss Dorothy and I made a quick run down to Chiefland, Florida to attend the legendary Chiefland Spring Picnic. I wish it could have been a week instead of just a couple of days, but that's OK. We saw a lot and had a lot of fun and even put part of the vaunted Herschel Project to bed. And...I added over 200 more Aitches to the Whole Big Thing tally!
We're resting up from our Deep Sky Tear, so this morning's blog will be a short one. But I thought you'd like to see some snapshots--postcards--from our latest sky safari. You will, of course, get all the details (and more and better pics) next week.