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

Ursa Major

Ursa Major’s NGC 3079 (H.V.47) is a beautiful SBc spiral that shines at magnitude 11.54. Its size is 7.9’x1.4’ and its orientation is nearly edge on. With the C11 and Stellacam, it is a long, skinny thing with a tiny, off-center appearing nucleus and much dark detail along its lengthy disk. It is accompanied by two, small, bright galaxies, magnitude 15.4 MCG 9-17-9, 6’40” to the west-northwest, and magnitude 14.1 NGC 3073 10’4” to the west-southwest.

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.

How long did I go? Long enough to hit all but a score or so of the Herschel 400 objects readily available over the course of this spring evening. “OK, Unk, but exactly how late did you make it?” Not that late. Not the 3 – 4 a.m. that’s my usual goal on night two of a three-night Chiefland stay. I was a little more tired than I usually am, and by 2:30 I had had enough. Maybe it’s the (day) job.

With the end of AEGIS destroyer construction in Pascagoula, for a while if not forever, I’ve moved to the LPD (landing ship) program. These vessels are much larger, I’ve got a lot more to do, my hours are considerably longer, and I’m wearier, even on weekends. Still, “2:30 in the a.m.” allowed me to get most of what I wanted to get on Friday, and there would be plenty of time for tying up Herschel 400 loose ends and hitting the Herschel 2500 list Saturday night.

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.

3 p.m. brought the (still) legendary Chiefland Spring Picnic. The “new” group on the “new” field does their own picnic now, and I’ve even attended one. It was nice. Real nice. Great people, great food. But there is still only one Chiefland Spring Picnic for me, and it’s held under the storied pavilions of the old Club Field, the Billy Dodd Memorial Observing Field.

I wasn’t disappointed. By Saturday afternoon, the field had actually begun to (almost) fill up, with about 40 folks and their telescopes in attendance. “40 people” meant a big selection of deserts and side items to accompany the (good) fried chicken and the brats one of the members was grilling on-site.

I was sure glad about one thing: Miss D. and I had eaten a couple of turkey sandwiches from Wal-Mart’s deli at mid-day. If I hadn’t done that, I would really have made a pig of myself. As it was, I was able to call it quits after only going back for more fried chicken once and for more of Jeannie Clark’s baked beans twice.

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.

Canes Venatici

NGC 4449 (H.I.213) is an absolutely spectacular magnitude 9.99, 6.2’x4.4’ IBm irregular galaxy. A squarish looking thing with a central bar, it is peppered with round globs that represent areas of star formation. It is much like our own Large Magellanic Cloud.

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.

I shut down, headed back to town, drank a drink or three while watching (yet more) of the Travel Channel's Ghost Adventures, and turned in. Morning would bring goodbyes, but as I drifted off I wasn’t thinking about that. I was thinking what a great time me and D. had, how many old friends I’d spent time with, and how deeply my beloved telescope and I had penetrated the still mysterious Universe.

Are you on Facebook? If so, you can find many more pictures from Unk's and Miss Dorothy's Herschel Safari on Rod's Facebook page.

Next Time: Do you Skychart?

We do have Waffle Houses here in Florida too; I always though Huddle Houses were their own thing. Excellent report from CAV, I should get out there someday. It's just that it is as far from me in S. Florida as it is from you in Alabama.
Hey Unk, some friends are thinking about a camping/observing weekend jaunt from Atlanta - some questions about camping 1) Are there dry, fire-antless places where you can walk around barefoot? 2) Any places with facilities, however rude? 3) Anything resembling a beach that is not swampy? Just rocks would be fine, not expecting Destin :) -drl
You mean for observing? There are places; the problem is gaining access to them, as most of it is private land. State parks are a natural, but they almost always have plenty of streetlights. Ask around at the AAC.
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