Sunday, June 05, 2011


Unk’s Messier Album 1

This should have been a Herschel Project report, muchachos. That was what I intended, but it was a hell of a week in the shipyard. Not only is my group of engineers snowed under with work on three vessels, we had our first really hot weather of the year. Hot down in some un-air-conditioned compartments on LPD 24, that’s for danged sure.

So, yes, your old Uncle wimped out. The idea of dragging all the H-Project gear out to the consarned Tanner-Williams dark site didn’t have much appeal—not when the weatherman was predicting “partly cloudy,” anyhow. But I still wanted to observe, even if I didn’t hit a hundred Herschel galaxies with the Stellacam II and C8.

If you’ve read this, you know one of my touchstones in amateur astronomy is John Mallas and Evered Kreimer’s The Messier Album, the book compilation of the authors’ long running series of Sky and Telescope columns (1967 – 1970), “A Messier Album,” covering all the M-objects. Mallas did the writing and the sketching, and Kreimer, a pioneer astrophotographer, did the imaging, working miracles with a crude cold camera and Tri-X film. The series had a huge impact on me when it appeared in the magazine and is still important to me more than 40 years down the road.

What is the book like? If you don’t want to stop and read the blog article, I can summarize. The late John H. Mallas was a gifted observer who saw things visually with a 4-inch achromatic refractor that are usually reserved for cameras. His sketches are small works of art, and his prose is lucid and descriptive. Evered Kreimer, who I believe is also deceased (he’d be 90 this year), though I have not been able to confirm that, was the first amateur astrophotographer to really break through, taking images with his 12-inch Cave Newtonian that rivaled some of the professional astro-images of the day. Which is not to say The Messier Album is perfect.

The book is a product of its time, and its prose is more formal and unadorned than what we’ve come to expect post-Burnham’s Celestial Handbook. Mostly, Mallas is all business. Which does lend a certain sameness to his entries: “M-umptysquat is an outstanding object” is repeated a lot. His drawings, at first glance, seem a little fanciful, with the cores of globulars, for example, sometimes looking like comets or spiders or even stranger shapes.

Actually, once you become intimate with the book, you’ll find those few down-checks ain’t really down-checks at all. When I am at the telescope in the middle of the night and want a text description of a Messier, I am more likely to find Mallas’ simple words helpful than the high-flying prose of some other authors. The drawings that look weird indoors look realistic by red light, and often give remarkable insight into the objects they depict.

So…I thought it might be fun to go through The Messier Album, grouping the objects as they were presented in the original magazine pieces (they are in numerical order in the book), and see how John Mallas’ observations stand the test of time and compare to mine. If nothing else, this will provide a break from the Herschels for you and for me. I love ‘em, but let’s face it, with the Herschel II done and the Herschel I nearly done, the real juicy fuzzies are behind us. I will get back with the H-2500 the next clear, dark weekend, but for now let’s follow in the footsteps of John H. Mallas.

I could throw all kinds of horsepower, including aperture and cameras, at the Ms and leave Mallas and even Kreimer in the dust. But that is not the idea for this series. I want to see how what I see stacks up to what this excellent observer saw, and how much my sketches resemble Mallas’ impressions. For that reason, I wanted to use a telescope similar in reach to the classic Unitron 4-inch refractor John M. used for Album.

I don’t have a 4-inch long focus refractor, Unitron or otherwise, but I do have a somewhat similar telescope: good, old Charity Hope Valentine, my 5-inch Maksutov Cassegrain. Charity is a 5-inch, not a 4-inch, but given her rather sizeable central obstruction (do not tell her I mentioned that), I thought she ought to be roughly comparable to the Mallas refractor despite her modern UHTC coatings. At least the scopes’ focal ratios are identical, with both Miss Valentine and the Unitron being f/15s.

I’ve little doubt Mallas’ California observing locations were darker and drier than what I usually contend with at the PSAS’ Tanner-Williams, Alabama dark site. In fact, in order to keep up with Mallas, I’ve resolved to limit each run to objects in the west or at least mostly out of the worst of the Mobile, Alabama light dome in the east.

I don’t know what sort of eyepieces John Mallas used; he doesn’t give any details beyond their magnifications. I assume he employed the simple ones—Huygenians and Kellners and Orthoscopics—that came with the Unitron or similar oculars. No doubt even the humble Orion Expanse eyepieces I use with Charity are far superior in most ways, though the Unitron oculars would put less glass between eye and sky.

My procedures and ancillary gear? Since Charity is a go-to scope, and the targets for this series are the (mostly) bright Messiers, I was able to get along without charts of any kind. Just in case, though, I had a netbook loaded up with SkyTools 3 on the field with me. My eyepieces were the 6mm, 9mm, 15mm, and 20mm 66-degree apparent field Orion-Synta Expanses occasionally supplemented by an 82-degree 11mm import ocular I got from Uncle Herb at Anacortes years ago. These inexpensive 1.25-inch wide-fields perform amazingly well in a slow telescope like Charity.

I gave every Messier plenty of eyepiece time, even though I have been observing these objects since 1965.I wanted my impressions of them to be fresh, not just what I remembered. When I had a good feel for my quarry, I proceeded to do a rough sketch, which was refined the next morning (before I forgot how the M looked) and scanned into the computer for further processing with Adobe Photoshop. My field notes were recorded on a digital MP3 recorder and are transcribed more or less exactly.

I’m all set, but you-all need to get set, too, if you are to get the most out of this series. You need a copy of the Mallas-Kreimer book or the Sky and Telescope issues where it appeared. It will be the most fun if you can compare Mallas’ sketches to mine (and both to the Kreimer images), and are able to read John M’s full text entries. For that you need your own copy of The Messier Album. It is easy to get and inexpensive used from Want to do yourself a real favor? Buy the Sky and Telescope DVDs. Beyond “A Messier Album,” you’ll enjoy countless hours of browsing—and learning.

I spent most of Saturday wondering what the sky would do. There were some stretches of thick clouds that turned this humid near-90-degree day dark for a while. The goobers on both and were predicting “partly cloudy” for the evening, but as sundown approached it became obvious they had got it all wrong. It would be clear, though conditions would not be perfect.

When I was pretty sure I’d get at least a few hours under the stars, I loaded up the Toyota with a minimal amount of gear (for Unk): Charity and her tripod, my “accessory case” (a big Plano tackle box from Bass Pro), a camp table, a small box of 1.25-inch Expanse eyepieces, the netbook and its shelter, and a little cooler filled with bottled water and Monster Energy drinks. Sunset would be at about 8 p.m.—I was gobsmacked to realize summer’s coming in—so I set out for the dark site at 6:45, which would put me there half an hour before Sol hit the horizon.

At the grass airfield we use for our serious observing it took only a few minutes to get the ETX on her tripod and ready to go. Since Charity is the (no longer made) PE version of the ETX-125, “getting her ready” consists of bolting her to the tripod in alt-az fashion, undoing the azimuth/R.A. lock, and turning her counterclockwise on that axis till she hits the hard stop. Locked her back down, plugged in the Autostar, attached the power cord to a jumpstart battery, and she was done. Oh, I needed to remove the aperture cover and install Charity’s Astro-zap dew shield. The feel in the air told me I would need that.

It has been a dry, a too dry, spring but we’d had considerable rain, finally, the previous Thursday, and the air felt heavy and humid. There would be plenty of dew and also plenty of haze. Blocking the Sun with my hand revealed a wide glow. Oh, well, can’t have everything, I reckon. At least the predicted clouds were confining themselves to a narrow strip hugging the western horizon.

While I brought along the netbook, I didn’t turn it on once. SkyTools 3 is great for observing anything, but, frankly, it seemed overkill for the seven bright and familiar objects I’d concentrate on tonight. Not looking at a computer display, even through a red filter, might also allow me an extra measure of dark adaptation, which I’d need if I were to keep up with the masterful John Mallas. In case I should need star maps, I plucked my favorite print atlas, Sky and Telescope’s Pocket Sky Atlas, out of the tackle box.

In the interest of seeing all I could see, I kicked things up one more notch dark adaptation-wise with the “Lights Out Observing Canopy” Orion sells. This is just a piece of waterproofed black canvas-like cloth, and it’s a little expensive, but it works. Draped over my head it blocked all extraneous light. After an hour in the dark, it was amazing how intrusive the light dome in the east became. Hell, it almost seemed bright enough to read a newspaper by.

When the stars winked on, I ran Miss Valentine’s alignment procedure, centered Arcturus and Procyon as she requested, and we were off. My insouciant little girlfriend of a telescope behaved herself, and every Messier I requested was somewhere in the field when the slews stopped. I was slightly put out when targets ended up on the hairy edge, but I tended to forget that at 1875mm of focal length even the 20mm Expanse I use as my “finding eyepiece” delivers almost 100x. I must admit Charity done good.

How did I do compared to how Mr. Mallas did over 40 years ago? I am not as good an observer as he was, but I believe I did right well. In general, I saw similar details in galaxies, with what I missed probably at least partially attributable to a brighter sky than what Mallas had at his usual site in Covina, California.

When it came to globular star clusters, Charity and I tended to leave John and his Unitron behind. Compared to what he sketched and described, we saw greater resolution—more stars—in almost every cluster. Why? I am not sure. Part of it may be that a little more aperture shows a more noticeable improvement with globulars than it does with galaxies. Maybe psychology plays a part as well. Like I said not long ago, in the 60s everybody preached “six-inches for a good look at globs.” Maybe Mr. Mallas bought into that just like I did.

OK, then, let’s go. Click on the sketches for larger versions. The matter in italics was transcribed from my log recordings of Saturday evening, 28 May 2011

M49, M61, and M104, “A Messier Album 24,” April 1969

M49, a magnitude 9.3 E2/S0 elliptical galaxy in Virgo that extends 9.3’x7.6’, is bright and obvious in the 15mm Expanse. Its field is rather empty save for a few dim stars, which makes M49 stand out in rather dramatic fashion. The galaxy has a large, bright inner region with a grainy appearance like an almost-resolved globular cluster. This central area appears slightly elongated northwest-southeast to me, and so does the outer region, if less noticeably so.

John Mallas’ opinion of and sketch of M49 pretty much match mine. Like me, he thought the galaxy resembles an unresolved glob. Unlike me, howsomeever, he doesn’t mention any elongation, and his drawing depicts the core and outer halo of nebulosity as round.

M61 in Virgo is cool. Large and diffuse compared to M49. Using averted vision, I occasionally catch a stellar-appearing nucleus in this magnitude 10.2, 6.3’x5.8’ SAB(rs)bc galaxy. Mostly, it is a round glow at 125x, though as I continue to stare it begins to look slightly elongated. More intense looking, and I begin to pick up subtle spiral detail, with an arm on the northwest side of the disk materializing once in a while.

Mr. Mallas saw more of this wonder than I did. The only thing he appears to have missed that I caught is the stellar nucleus. While I was only sure I was seeing one spiral arm, J.M. saw parts of three. It does appear I detected more of the single arm I did see, though.

I can occasionally make out a very small, stellar nucleus in M104, the Sombrero Galaxy, with the 15mm Expanse at 125x. The central bulge of this magnitude 9.1 SA(s)a spiral is easy, and the “hat brim,” the disk, extends a minute or two on each side of that (in reality, this galaxy is about 9’ long). Only occasionally do I get a glimpse of the famous dark lane. A beautiful object, one of the top five M-galaxies, but it is not helped by haze and fairly low altitude, which puts it on the outskirts of the big light dome in the east.

I’d say we pretty much tied on M104. John Mallas thought he saw some “curdling” along the edge of the hat-brim disk I missed. On the other hand, he did not detect the equatorial dark lane. We both called the Sombrero “beautiful.”

M68 and M83, “A Messier Album 25,” May 1969

M68 is a magnitude 7.3., 11’ diameter Shapley-Sawyer class X (10) globular cluster in Hydra. It doesn’t look as loose to me as its X rating would indicate (class XII is least compressed). What I see is a large and slightly elongated grainy core. M68 is low on the horizon and in the haze, but I can see quite a few tiny stars winking on and off around its edges. Best with the 11mm Birdseye eyepiece at 170x.

I pulled ahead of Mr. M. here. He, like me, noted the grainy texture and elongated shape of the cluster’s center, but he apparently only noted a couple of stars in its outer region (I count two in his drawing), while Unk picked out five bright ones and a passel of “winkers-in-and-out.”

M83, the justly renowned magnitude 7.8, 14.1’x13.2’ Southern Pinwheel Galaxy, has a dramatically bright stellar-size core and a large, mostly round outer envelope of nebulosity. Spiral structure pops in and out of view—I think. You have to be careful not to see what you expect to see when you are pushing a small instrument to its limits. I will say the galaxy’s long bar is fairly easy with direct vision.

Our results were roughly the same on the Southern Pinwheel. John shows a little more subtle spiral detail in the disk, while I got the teeny-weeny bright core. We were both bowled over by this marvel.

When I’d finished staring at M83 it was close to eleven. I felt pretty good, having been careful to keep myself hydrated with bottled water and allowing myself one (and only one) Monster Energy Drink. It was on the warm and humid side, but I could have kept going for quite a while. I didn’t want to cover too much ground this first night of the Album Project, but I figgered there was time for a couple more. With Hercules finally out of the sky-glow, my next stop was obvious…

M13 and M92, “A Messier Album 14,” June 1968

M13, now that it is out of the eastern light dome, is as beautiful as ever. This magnitude 5.8, 20’ Class V globular star cluster shows considerable resolution around its periphery, with plenty of minute stars blinking in and out of view across the milky core, too. Tremendous numbers of wee sparklers fill the field when I use averted vision. Rather than looking like a spiral of stars as this cluster often does visually in larger telescopes, in the 5-inch Maksutov at 170x it appears hourglass shaped.

Unlike his view of M68, Mr. Mallas and I saw remarkably similar vistas of the Great Cluster. In fact, I was gobsmacked at how nearly identical our drawings are. He did top me in that—if I am interpreting his description correctly—he got a hint of the famous Propeller dark lanes, while I didn’t seem them at all in the MCT and could barely make them out in the 16-inch Newtonian scope next door.

M92, Hercules “other” globular cluster, is nice too. In its own way, this Class IV, magnitude 6.5, 14’ diameter ball of suns is every bit as good as M13. The grainy, partially resolved core looks square at 170x. The outer region is round and is populated by hordes of stars, some of which hold steady with direct vision, some of which tend to wink in and out, and some of which require averted vision to show themselves at all.

I came roaring back with M92, picking out, judging by our sketches, quite a few more stars than Mallas did. This is one of his globs with a weird core, too. His drawing depicts an odd, strongly elongated center for the cluster, looking a litle like M83’s bar. While he calls the outer regions of M92, “star-studded,” his drawing doesn’t show many there.

After finishing the three groups of Album objects, I still had a few minutes to go before midnight, my usual Rod-turns-into-a-pumpkin time. I took a look at Charity’s corrector plate, and finding it had begun to accumulate dew—I really need to get a heater strip for her—I cleared it with my 12vdc hairdryer-cum-dew-zapper. When I was done, I noticed Centaurus was near culmination. To Omega Centauri (NGC 5139) and Centaurus A (NGC 5128) we went.

The two far southern marvels were low, of course, even at our 30-degree north latitude, and it was hazy. Monstrous Omega didn’t look that great even in my pal Pat’s 16-inch Newtonian. Nevertheless, I was seeing more of it than I thought I would with a cotton-picking five-inch MCT. Centaurus A, which was strangely invisible in the 16-inch Dobsonian, was at least a fuzz-patch in the Mak.

Maybe those hours of straining for details in the seven Messiers had helped. It also helped that seeing was steady all night long, with Charity showing most of the detail in Saturn that the 16-incher revealed. I was particularly taken by the contrasting colors of the disk and the ring and of different parts of the ring. The sixth planet was satisfyingly sharp in Miss Valentine, even when I bumped her power up to over 300x.

One more before throwing the Big Switch? How about an off-the-beaten-path Messier, M40? As you may know, M40 is not a deep sky object per se, but an optical double star, Winnecke 4. While Messier believed these stars might be involved with nebulosity based on an observation by Hevelius, he never saw any there himself, and it is clear today there is no nebulosity to be seen. Good, old Chuck put the two stars in the number 40 spot on his M list anyway. M40 is a pretty pair of yellowish stars, and I enjoyed showing them to the folks who’d never seen this most obscure M.

To put it simply, it was a real fun night. I had a great time looking at—really looking at—some old favorites. My telescope cooperated. Everybody else’s scope cooperated—we had a nice turnout with six observers on the field. When will I tackle more of the Album? When the need for bright and pretty fuzzies is on me and Charity has been complaining she’s hungry for photons, we’ll be out there again with the beloved Messiers.

Next Time: Throwing the Big Switch.

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