Sunday, April 01, 2012


The Herschel Project Night 31

As I have often said, muchachos, “Some nights you eat the bear and some nights the bear eats you.” On Night 31 of The Herschel Project, old Unk just narrowly avoided being Mr. Grizzly’s snack. So what else is new? Not many of my observing runs are exactly problem free, and they wouldn’t be very interesting to read about if they were.

Saturday afternoon was beautiful down here in Possum Swamp. I don’t like the switch to Daylight Savings Time any more’n y’all do—in a couple of months we’ll be waiting forever for Sundown—but in the spring it’s nice to have a little more time to lollygag around the old manse before having to pack up and head west to the Possum Swamp Astronomical Society dark site.

I’d marshaled the gear in Chaos Manor South’s front parlor first thing Saturday morning. A lot of gear, since I planned to do deep sky video. In addition to my old friend Celeste, the Ultima C8 OTA, and my new friend, the Mallincam Xtreme camera, there was the CG5 mount, the netbook, the video recorder, the portable DVD player I use as a display, numerous cables, an observing table, four batteries, and several boxes full of astro-stuff. Took me the better part of 30-minutes to get it all in the back of the 4-Runner.

When it was almost time to roll, I was feeling, I’m sorry to say, a little unenthusiastic. It had been a long week, and I had the feeling I was about to come down with the same danged cold that had been deviling Miss Dorothy for several days. I briefly considered unloading the C8 and video gear and replacing it with Old Betsy, my 12-inch Dobsonian, who I had no doubt could bring back plenty of Herschels. One thing stopped me: a new supernova had flared to life, SN 2012aw.

That ain’t news, of course; at any given time a supernova is almost always visible in some galaxy somewhere, but this one was different. Not only was it bright, relatively speaking anyhow, at magnitude 13, it was relatively close, in the prominent Leo Messier galaxy M95. Over the last couple of years, I’ve developed an interest in capturing supernovae with video, and have slowly accumulated a collection of images of these intriguing beasties. So, the video gear would go with me, even if I didn’t feel quite up to it.

Onsite, I couldn’t have asked for better conditions. Maybe there was a hint of haze in the air, but just a hint. The sky was that deep and almost painful-to-look-at shade of blue it rarely assumes down our way in the springtime. To the west, as the Sun dipped below the horizon a beautiful young Moon’s thin crescent shimmered into view. Luna was made even more lovely by nearby Jupiter and Venus just a week after their close conjunction.

Gear set-up had gone fairly smoothly. Only hiccup was that one of the two 12-volt cigarette lighter style power splitters I use had quit working. Normally, I power the video recorder and video display with the same lawn tractor battery. A small and fairly efficient inverter plugs into one cigarette lighter socket and runs the AC DVD recorder; the 12-volt cable of the DVD player/display plugs into the other one.

Since the splitter did not work, I had to pull out my big inverter, which has two AC outlets—the little inverter only has one. I could use the DVD player’s AC wall-wart instead of its DC cord to power it, but that might be a problem. While the player doesn’t draw much current, the big inverter is murder on a battery, and has been known to run down a high capacity trolling motor (a.k.a. “deep cycle marine) battery before midnight. Nothing for it. I’d go as long as I could, taking care to finalize DVDs frequently. When I’ve failed to finalize a DVD before the battery power has begun to get low, I’ve found myself left with an unreadable DVD.

Time to align the CG5 with NexRemote. If I could align it. As I reported here, the last time I’d tried to run the GEM with Celestron’s virtual hand control program, I’d received numerous “No Response” errors, and had had to switch to the hardware HC. At the time, I suspected the two USB-serial adapters I was using, one Keyspan and one no-name, were conflicting. I purchased a second Keyspan and used it at Chiefland and had no problems with either NexRemote or the Mallincam Xtreme software, which uses the second serial port. The flawless NR operation at CAV with the NexStar 11 GPS also gave the NexRemote cable, a clean bill of health.

Ah, yes, the Mallincam Xtreme. It had worked very well down in Florida with a couple of minor irritants. One was that I’d had to use it with a star diagonal on the NexStar 11, which I run in alt-az mode. When I was pointing anywhere near zenith, the camera would bang into the scope’s base when attached to the f/3.3 reducer in “straight-through” fashion.

Since the f/3.3 doesn’t have enough back-focus to accommodate a star diagonal, I used an f/6.3 reducer on the scope and an f/5 on the camera’s nose to achieve an image scale suitable for the Xtreme’s chip. That worked, but the stars at the field edge looked more than a little ugly. I believe I’ve come up with a fix for that, but with the C8 on a German mount, I wouldn’t have to worry about that tonight. The Camera would couple directly to the 3.3 with a standard visual back.

The other semi-problem I had in Chiefland was power. I’d used the camera’s small AC power supply, which I ran to it with a long length of cable, the Mallincam’s dual conductor video/power cable. That produced noise-bars on the video output. In addition to the fairly long cable, the cold weather probably did not help the small power supply. I should have plugged it directly into the camera, but didn’t. Oh, well. That wouldn’t be a problem at the PSAS dark site—no AC power to fool with. I’d be running the Xtreme off a jumpstart battery.

With the Mallincam and its software ready, it was time to do a go-to alignment. Brought up NexRemote’s virtual HC, and obeyed the program’s Microsoft Mary voice (which I have come to think of as the voice of Celeste) and “Select(ed) settings and press(ed) Enter.” Naturally, silly old me forgot to change them settings from what they were the last time I’d used NexRemote (with the C11). I figured that out when I was asked whether I wanted to do a GPS alignment—with a CG5.

Set the program up for a CG5 and tried it again. “Entered” through the time/date settings, which NexRemote picks up from the netbook, and pushed Enter to begin the Two-Star alignment. Uh-uh. Nosir buddy: “NO RESPONSE.” I wasn’t surprised; I’d had a bad feeling about that from the beginning.

I’d do some serious troubleshooting in the morning. For this run, I’d just use the good, old non-virtual hand control again. I’d re-flashed its firmware, degrading it from the newer 4.15 build to 4.12, which contains the “align on Polaris” polar alignment routine I favor. I had to re-enter location, since I hadn’t used the HC since reprogramming it, but that didn’t cause no heartburn. Well, maybe a little bit. Actually it was downright funny: Unk fumbling around in his notebook, saying bad words, trying to find the site’s lat/lon before he remembered he had a dadgum GPS receiver hanging on his belt in the form of an iPhone 4s. “Siri, is Uncle Rod a dummy?”

What was a problem was how the CG5 was sounding. Every time I’d press a direction button on the hand control, I’d hear a loud CLUNK from the mount. That could not be good, but following a Two-Star, a polar alignment, and another Two-Star to make up for me moving the mount in altitude and azimuth a fair amount to get it on the NCP, I thought I’d try an experimental go-to to see how the CG5 was gonna act.

The answer? Not good. M97, my test object, was not in the field. Not even close. Rut-roh. It suddenly came to me that the clunking sound had happened before, when the telescope was badly out of balance. I had not balanced pea-turkey on this evening, just putting one 11-pound pancake counterweight on the shaft near its end would be enough, I reckoned. Nope, obviously not. I added the second weight, which I’d had enough sense to pack, and balanced the mount/scope in R.A. and dec.

When I was done, it also occurred to me I had forgotten to adhere to the Up and Right Rule. When centering alignment stars with the CG5, you always finish centering using only the up and right buttons on the HC. That improves alignment quality by taking up any backlash, of which the CG5 has a fair if not overwhelming amount. Scope rebalanced, I’d have to do the Two-Star (which includes four Calibration Stars to improve accuracy) one last time. I hate it when I forget how to use my own cotton-picking gear gear; my excuse is that I was definitely feeling not-so-hotsky.

How do I do a go-to alignment with the Mallincam Xtreme on the back of the scope? That is right cool. Turn on the camera and the display, fire up the Mallincam software, and tick a little box on the “Advanced” settings tab, “crosshairs.” That draws a set of crosshairs on the screen that ensures precise centering of alignment stars. I set the camera exposure to “sense up 128x,” 2.1 seconds of exposure, which works well for both centering and focusing.

Alignment FINALLY done, I focused up on the last calibration star, tweaking until the dimmer field stars were good and sharp. Now for the moment of truth: back to old Owley, M97. Even with the exposure at just 2-seconds, the marvelous Xtreme showed a hint of The Owl Nebula in the field when the mount stopped making its usual weasels with tuberculosis noises. Wheew!

Well, since I was on the Owl I might as well take advantage of it. I upped the exposure and let her rip. Man-o-man. Not only was the image clear and free of any kind of noise-bars, the owl was a spectacle, something the quick screen grab here only hints at. The eyes were starkly visible and the color was amazing. The Xtreme didn’t just bring back the famous green of this planetary nebula, but the subtle red that rims it.

Telescope and camera tamed, it was time for the supernova. I wouldn’t dwell on it, since I’d wasted about an hour already and Ursa Major’s copious Herschels were beckoning. But I wanted to see that stinking guest star, a Type IIp shining bravely across 38 million light-years of intergalactic space.

Alas, M95 and Leo were still pretty far down in the Possum Swamp light dome, so I could not apply enough exposure to bring out the faint arm that had the supernova at its end. 30 seconds was enough to show the galaxy’s bar and “theta” shape and more than enough to bring home the supernova, however. Once I knew exactly where it was, it was also easy to see in my buddy Taras’ excellent 15-inch Dobsonian reflector, even with the bright sky background.

After a layoff of over two months, it was time to get The Project back on the road. Due to the depredations of the weather, I felt like I’d lost some ground, and resolved to do “at least fifty” on this evening. To achieve that by midnight or so requires me to move from object to object in right smart fashion, recording sufficient video, but limiting the notes I record on an MP3 audio recorder to the bare minimum: time, general impressions, etc.

“But Uncle Rod, doesn’t that give the short shrift to the objects of your quest?” Not at all, Skeezix. With the video on DVD, I can give each fuzzy more than enough attention by the light of day when I am rested and rational. Which I was most assuredly was not on this evening. I did not feel lousy, but I felt the next thing to it. That was not helped by the fact that I could not find the hand control’s extension cable anywhere. I had to get up from the computer and video monitor and walk over to the scope every time I was ready to move to the nextun.

Still, it wasn’t bad. I’ve got the Herschel routine down: punch object into the HC and compare the field to the POSS plate displayed by SkyTools 3 (which, as you may know, is The Official Software of The Herschel Project) if necessary. When I am sure I am seeing the aitch, I record 30-seconds of video, speak my notes into my MP3 recorder, check it off on Skytools’ list, and mosey on down the Herschel road for as long as I can hold out.

After all my fumbling, I was surprised, frankly, that after the first three or four fuzzies I really got into the groove and started knocking them off. Which “them”? The two constellations that were the obvious targets for tonight were Ursa Major and Leo. Leo was still well into the light dome, and since I had lots of Herschels yet to do in Ursa Major, I figured I would spend the night there. Good call. That grumpy old bear has so many galaxies within her borders that by the time midnight came there were still dang near 100 left to observe.

What was the best Herschel Object on this night? That’s like asking me which of my children I love best. Ursa Major is a good hunting ground, that’s for sure. It has a goodly number of interesting looking galaxies, not just one dagnabbed elliptical after another like in Virgo. What do I like to see? Details, odd features, and groupings. NGC 3958 and 3963 fulfilled those things—and how.

NGC 3958 is a nice enough SBa barred spiral. It possesses a bright round central region and a little oval disk that shows hints of detail at times. It’s a trifle dim at magnitude 13.8, but is small enough, just 1.3’ along its major axis, to keep it reasonably bright. It’s hard to judge with video, which pulls out the frighteningly dim easy as eating goober peas, but I thought this galaxy looked brighter than its given magnitude.

What makes this field a standout is the nearby presence of NGC 3963 8’16” to the north-northeast. It’s fairly bright at mag 12.63, and its size, 2.6’x2.3’, is not large enough to dim it down but still makes it big enough to show details easily. On video, this face-on barred Sbc spiral put on a lovely show, giving up plenty of spiral structure including one big, looping arm.

The unusual? The outré? The Mallincam captured a dim something or the other passing through the field. When I go through the logs, I’ll determine its time of passage and try to pin it down, but given its northerly declination, I suppose it was probably a spy satellite or the debris from one’s carrier rocket. It was proceeding in a generally north-south direction; milsats are usually in polar orbits. Ground truth? It could be anything. The sky is just full of strange whatisits that pass mostly unnoticed. That is one of the things that keeps my Herschel quest, and indeed all my observing, interesting as hell.

I walked away from the scope a time or two during the run to stretch my legs and see a couple of cool things in Taras’ scope, and I chugged a Monster Energy Drink at mid-evening, but mostly it was nose-to-grindstone time. I was feeling better. After the hiccups, the CG5 performed admirably, not missing a single object. The Mallincam Xtreme? It just blew me away, picking up even the smallest and dimmest cosmic dust bunnies with mere 15-second exposures. A little after eleven p.m., I’d passed fifty Herschels, was at a logical stopping place in the list, and thought I’d treat myself to some eye-candy.

Looking to the East, I saw that Virgo, the western part of Virgo, anyway, was far enough out of the light dome to fool with. Over to one of my all time faves, M104, the Sombrero Galaxy. It was super cool. I wished I could have upped the exposure a little more, but, as the screen-grab shows, it was still wonderful. It was even better on a big screen, with hints of the uneven, “scalloped” nature of the equatorial dust lane and traces of detail in the disk.

Next? I was in Virgo, so why not stay there? How about that monstrous old fat spider of a galaxy, M87? I wondered how the Xtreme would do with this galaxy’s famous jet. “Nicely” was the answer. It is more obvious on the video, but is visible in a screen grab. I also noted that the two tiny PGC galaxies close to M87’s disk were better seen with the Xtreme than they ever were in the Stellacam II.

After that? The field of M84 has always been a favorite, with a couple of photogenic galaxies there in addition to the bright yellow blob of elliptical 84. It turns out color is useful in addition to being pretty. In galaxy-rich fields it makes it easy to tell smaller galaxies from stars; small galaxies almost always have a very distinctive golden hue.

Payoff time. Back to the Great Bear for more of her treasures. First was M101. I’ve gotten a couple stupendous visual looks at The Pinwheel Galaxy over the years, and have even taken OK long exposure images of it, but I don’t think I’ve ever gotten a better feeling for the true majesty of this huge galaxy than I did on this night. The tail of the Bear was finally out of the worst light pollution and I was able to increase exposure to 56-seconds. This great night-flower just bloomed onto my screen, showing dust lanes, a tiny nucleus, and numerous HII regions. I was reminded of how I used to stare in wonder at M101’s portrait in my first deep sky book, Universe, from the old Science Service.

Best for last? Maybe so. What can you say about M51, the Whirlpool Galaxy, that hasn’t been said a million times before? All I’ll say is that it proved I had been wise in moving from Stellacam to Mallincam. Oh, it always looked good with the Stellacam II, but there was a certain fill-in-the-blanks aspect of that “good.” With the Mallincam Xtreme, nothing was left to the imagination, with the main galaxy and little NGC 5195 both starkly visible and in beautiful color. I could even see the three faint fingers of nebulosity, the backwards “E,” extending from NGC 5195.

I stared at the Whirlpool for a long, long time, and when I was done, thought about maybe having a look-see at M108, M81, and M82. Nah. It was getting on to midnight, and I’d need about half an hour to pack up. The sky was now a little mushy, and I didn’t feel as well as I had earlier. I hit the big switch, if a little reluctantly. The night’s mission was accomplished. I’d got the M95 supernova, and I had furthered The Project by fifty more fuzzies. The batteries were all holding, and the sky was still OK, but I couldn’t banish the thought that the Yell would feel awful good going down my scratchy throat.

Back at Chaos Manor South, I had a look at the DVDs. I don’t usually do that, since astro-images of any kind usually look much better in the morning. Tonight was different. M101, M51, M97 and all the rest looked beautiful even to my weary eyes. On the big screen TV, M51 was just crazy.

When I had finally had enough I switched to cable, which was showing, not surprisingly for that late/early hour, WEIRD STUFF like Ghost Adventures, UFO Hunters, Man vs. Food, and Finding Bigfoot. It all sorta blended together as I channel-surfed, and I drifted off to a weird vision of Bigfoot and The Little Grey Dudes from Zeta Reticuli II sharing pulled pork sandwiches. When I finally roused myself and looked at my watch, I saw it was well after 3 a.m. Off to bed!

Next morning, I set out to troubleshoot NexRemote. I believed the problem had to be the CG5’s add-on Auxiliary Port module that provides it with the PC Port NexRemote needs. Unlike the NexStar 11 GPS, the CG5 doesn’t have a built-in PC port, and without that you have to run NexRemote through the hardware HC, which I don’t like to do. I hoped the Auxiliary Port gadget was not fried, since Celestron, in their infinite wisdom—not—doesn’t sell it anymore.

Unk grabbed his trusty multimeter and his set of tweaker-screwdrivers and got the thing open. Inside, as I’d suspected, was a single small circuit board. Examining it with my high power lens didn’t reveal any signs of burned components, so I began checking the device’s cable. The cable plugs into the circuit board with a multi-pin connector and has an RJ connector on the other end that goes into the mount’s hand control port. At first I got intermittent connectivity on some pins. None on others. Flexing the cable near the RJ resulted in no continuity at all. Hmm.

In this day when almost all scope cables use those dratted RJs, every amateur needs a crimping tool, a pliers-like device that allows you to attach new RJ connectors to cables. I retrieved mine from the kitchen (don’t ask), clipped off the old connector, crimped on a new one, and checked with the multimeter. Seemed OK. Set up the mount and did a fake alignment with NexRemote. None of those depressing “No Response” messages did I see, no matter how many fake go-tos I did. I will, then, provisionally say the Auxiliary Port widget is fixed. We shall see the next time the H Project is back on the boards, in about a month’s time, muchachos

Next Time: My Best Girl

So what about the bear? It sounded at first that you meant it literally, but then you spoke only of the Great Bear in the sky. Bears are plentiful here. Black ones. At one point, on the actual summit of Spruce Knob, I was observing alone and was calm because I knew exactly where the bear was. It was working loudly on the row of metal trash cans a hundred feet away. So what about your bear, Unk?
Another question... Whose heraldry is it in the first image? I can't believe it would really be the Herschels'. And what does the top symbol represent?
Luckily, the bear was only of the virtual sort. ;-)
That's not the real Herschel coat of arms, but I thought it was interesting anyway. The symbol is that of Uranus, though it seems to be missing the "dot." ;-)
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