Sunday, May 27, 2012


The Herschel Project Night 33

Uncle Rod is not yet over the hill, but he is approaching the crest. There is no denying some things are harder as late middle age beckons. Like sea trials. Saturday before last I wanted to be out at the dark site snatching Herschel objects with wild abandon with the aid of my Mallincam Xtreme. Not to be, muchachos; instead I was sitting in a motel room in Avondale, Louisiana.

The first sea trial for the Navy’s newest amphibious transport ship, LPD 23, Anchorage, was set to begin the following Tuesday, and I would need to be onsite the preceding weekend to make sure the systems for which Unk is responsible—NAVSSI, Ship’s Control Systems, Radars, etc., etc.—were ready to go. When we hit the Gulf of Mexico I did get out under the stars on a bridge wing with binoculars a time or three, but that was all the observing I did weekend before last. The good news? We were out of the Gulf and back up the Mississippi last Friday morning, so it looked like I’d be able to make it to the dark site Saturday. The bad news? I was one tired puppy.

At-sea stints are nothing new to me. I rode all but one of the Ticonderoga Class cruisers built in Pascagoula and all of the Aleigh Burke Class Aegis destroyers. ‘Course, what was “fun” in the 1980s, “OK” in the 1990s, and “bearable” in the oughts has become “barely survivable” in this new decade. I got through it, and my systems did fine, but, yeah, I was one tired canine by the time I got back to Chaos Manor South just before 10 p.m. Friday night.

I wanted to head out to the club dark site. I insisted on going to the dark site, though my dear wife Miss Dorothy was a little skeptical. Honestly, I was a little skeptical, Part of one nice evening at home is hardly enough to wash away a week at sea. The idea of toting the C8, the Mallincam, the video gear, the computer, the batteries, and everything else I need for an Xtreme run did not have much appeal. I still wanted to go, though. The solution? Old Betsy, of course.

I’ve told the story of Bets’ and my relationship before, most recently here. While I’ve had the Dobsonian since 1994 (in her original Meade body), our friendship has not always been the beautiful one it is now. After I went go-to a decade ago, Betsy sat unused for years. Yes, she was still the Big Gun in our house, with 12.5-inches of aperture, but the NexStar C11, Bertha, really didn’t give up much to her.

That began to change one afternoon when my friend and Dob Guru Tom Clark (Tectron Telescopes) was visiting the Old Manse. He examined Betsy and pronounced, “Looks like a nice telescope. Shame you don’t use her.” That guilt trip got me to thinking, and the denouement was that I gifted the old girl with a Sky Commander digital setting circle computer, a higher quality and downsized secondary mirror, an AstroSystems secondary holder and heater, and a super duper primary mirror recoating job by Spectrum down in Florida.

I won’t say I’ve used Betsy often since her upgrades, but I have used her enough to justify them. She was, in fact, the telescope that began The Herschel Project at the 2009 Deep South Regional Star Gaze, and her success there encouraged me to take on that scary H-2500 Whole Big Thing. While the NexStar 11’s images are comparable to Betsy’s, the Dob is quicker to set up and tear down since she doesn’t require all the support gear the SCT does. Betsy’s Sky Commanders, while not quite as accurate as Bertha’s go-to computer, are fully capable of putting any object from one side of the sky to the other in the field of a medium power eyepiece.

On this particular Saturday I wanted to do Herschels, and I wanted to do them without busting a gut loading and setting up the telescope. That meant Betsy was on deck for Night 33. While not exactly a lightweight, she’s still easier to get in the 4Runner than the NexStar 11 in her huge case. Hell, she’s quicker to get back in the truck at the end of the night than the C8. While my eyes certainly can’t go as deep as the Xtreme, I figured I ought to be able to pull-in enough new H-2500 objects from the rapidly diminishing store of “still needed”—YEP, UNK IS COMING DOWN THE HERSCHEL HOMESTRETCH—to make the trip out to Tanner-Williams worth it. Whatever happened, I figured it would be fun, anyway, and I was due some fun.

Come Saturday afternoon, I was in high spirits. The dadgum Weather Underground forecast had gone from “clear” to “partly cloudy,” but the sky still looked OK. There was some general haze, and there were some clouds, but the clouds were the fluffy afternoon sort that tend to scamper off at sundown.

The only bad? We’re now at the point where sundown is getting noticeably later. Sol is not getting out of the way till dang near 8 o’clock, so I spent the afternoon cooling my heels and champing at the bit to get under a dark sky. At 6 p.m. I loaded the truck. Didn’t feel like using my checklist; just threw the stuff I thought Betsy would need in the 4Runner. What could happen?

Well, not quite “threw.” Betsy has not lost any weight over the years, and it appears I’ve grown progressively weaker. In my reduced post sea trial condition, getting the mirror box down the front steps and into the Toyota was a pain—literally. Almost as bad as the NexStar and her case. I didn’t do damage to myself, but it wasn’t fun.  Hate to say it, but the time may be approaching when my Dobsonian needs are better met by one of them new ultralights like Mr. Kriege sells or one of Synta/Orion’s rigs with a rocker box you can break down (and a go-to computer).

That’s for the future. On this night I was headed for the hinterlands with Old Betsy and feeling pretty good about it. The sky was not perfect, but it was not bad. Arriving at our little spot of (semi) dark sky heaven, I was pleased to see I’d be in the company of three other observers, a pretty good turnout for the Possum Swamp Astronomical Society on a hazy spring evening. At least I wouldn’t have to suffer the jitters that beset me on my last dark site expedition.

The good spirits did not last long, sad to tell. They lasted only till I was preparing to place Betsy’s mirror box in her rocker box. I stopped and set it down on the ground thinking, “Need to connect the cable to the azimuth encoder first,” which was quickly followed by, “What cable?” I didn’t have to go rummaging through the truck to know I’d left the Sky Commander’s encoder cables at home. Was I DOOMED? Was Night 33 over before it began?

I briefly considered jumping in the truck and heading back to the old manse for those cotton picking cables. I briefly considered loading the scope back in the truck and calling it a night before sunset. I did neither. I couldn’t face the drive back home and back out again. But I wasn’t in the mood to give up easily. Maybe I’d run the list the old fashioned way.

As my faithful readers know, I am not a fan of star hopping. Not anymore. I am focused on seeing, not looking. But I dang sure star hopped long enough—four freaking decades—and I like to think I was good at it. No computer? I’d call up those rusty hopping skills and see how many dim H-2500s they might bring me.

I did have a couple of aces up my sleeve. I have replaced my netbook with a full-sized laptop for astro-use. The new machine, a Toshiba Satellite, features a sizeable hard drive, a fast enough processor, good battery life, and, most of all, a 17.3-inch screen. That big display was the drawing card—that and a crazy good price. I figgered my charts ought to big enough on the new astro-puter to make star hopping doable if not exactly a joy.

The other ace was my fave computer program, SkyTools 3, which has become the “official” software of The Herschel Project. While I hadn’t used the feature, I knew ST3 was capable of displaying 3-pane finder charts tailored to a specific telescope that show scope, finder, and naked eye fields of view on one screen.

After only a little fumbling, I got a three-view chart for M3 on the laptop. Like M35 and M17, M3 has for some reason always been one of my star hopping demons. I often have more difficulty getting to this bright Messier globular than I do to The Double Quasar. “Hokay, M3. Position the Telrad till it’s a little more halfway along and just outside the line between Rho Boötis and Beta Comae, tighten up a little using the finder (Bets still sports a good 50mm finder scope). Now, let’s take a look through a wide field eyepiece.”

Which eyepiece? My NEW eyepiece. Unk hasn’t exactly been filling the coffers of eyepiece merchants in recent years. After buying my 13mm and 8mm Ethoses I’ve been at all-stop. Those two, supplemented by Panoptics and Uwans, have been more than sufficient for my visual work. B-U-T… As I’d begun using Betsy more often I’d started thinking it might be nice to have a 100-degree ocular with a wee bit more focal length than the 13. Something in the 16 – 17mm range. But I wasn’t willing to send Uncle Al 800 big ones for his 17 Ethos.

What about the bargain spread? Yes, Virginia, there are relatively low cost 100-degree apparent field eyepieces. They come from China, natch, and are, at last count, sold under three brand names, Zhumell, TMB, and Orion (“Giantview”). These oculars, which are available in 9mm and 16mm focal lengths, are essentially the same eyepieces no matter whose name is on ‘em. Whose do you buy? Whoever’s is cheapest. Orion, my usual go-to guys, wanted $399.00 for their 16mm, which seemed a little high given the reports I’d had on these eyepieces. Specifically, I’d been told by folks whose judgment I trust not to expect edge of field perfection or anything close to it.

So, Orion was out. There was TMB, but while the 100-degree eyepieces were still on their website, dealers didn’t seem to have either the 9mm or 16mm in stock. That left the Zhumell folks, a.k.a. “,” who were selling the 100s for $239.98. While the company and website seem to have a slightly snake-oil redolent reputation, I’ve found their service to be top notch. I really, really like the 100mm binoculars I bought from ‘em last year (I’ll tell you about ‘em some Sunday).

Zhumell it was, then. In fairly short order a smallish package was on Chaos Manor South’s front porch. Opening it revealed the box shown above and not much else. The eyepiece’s container was more or less rattling around in the shipping box. That turned out to be OK. Opening the nice but hardly TeleVue-impressive inner box revealed the eyepiece was well protected by bubble wrap. Under that was a large bolt-style eyepiece case with my prize inside.

Initial impressions? The eyepiece is, if anything, less impressive in person than in its pictures. We’ve got used to 100-degree AFOV eyepieces being big honking muthas. This odd hand-grenade shaped thing is relatively small for a 2-inch eyepiece and is amazingly light. But that’s not necessarily bad. Beer can eyepieces look cool, but big and heavy spells t-r-o-u-b-l-e for Dobsonian owners with balance issues.

Otherwise? Nicely executed, I’d say, with even coatings, good barrel blackening on its interior, a fold-down eyecup, and filter threads. Sticking it up to my eye and pointing it at the table lamp in the parlor seemed to indicate there wouldn’t be much trouble with “blackout” despite what some folks had said. The true test of the 16mm Zhumell could, of course, come only under the stars.

Which idea I contented myself with as I stood waiting for darkness to arrive. If I couldn’t run down a single aitch, I’d at least be able to put the eyepiece through its paces. What were my expectations for it? Fairly minimal. The reports I’d heard and read indicated the field edge would be nothing to write home about. Not a huge problem for me. I tend to look at the center of the field, not obsess about the edge, and if the thing was halfway tolerable it would serve its planned purpose as “finding eyepiece,” I reckoned.

Darkness seemed a long time coming since I didn’t have the DSC alignment to occupy my mind. When it did come, it arrived in the company of gathering clouds to the west. Never a good sign, but not a show stopper yet. I took another look at M3’s position on the SkyTools finder chart, and, peering through the finder scope, fine-tuned a mite, “Wee bit more to the left. Just like that. Let’s see.”

Putting my eye to the eye lens of the Zhumell revealed the big spring glob making its presence felt in the gloaming. The verdict? The inner 75 – 80% of the field was nice and sharp. At 90% there were comets aplenty. At the field edge those comets had substantial tails. Could I stand the view? You’re darn right I could. The edge was far from perfect, but I still got that expansive feeling only a 100 can give. Yes, stars were ugly at the very edge, but I tended to notice that only when bright stars were there.

As I’d expected, blackout was not a factor. One other reported problem, the inability to take in the full field with the rubber eye cup up, was. I didn’t find it disturbing to use the Zhumell with the cup down, however, since I don’t like to use ‘em on any eyepiece. Finally, another faux pas I’d heard about, lack of eye relief, was readily apparent. It seemed even shorter than the specified 15mm, but, like the eye cup, didn’t bother me. I never felt my eye had to be overly close to the eye lens. If I had to wear glasses while observing, though, the 16’s eye relief or lack thereof would have been a deal breaker.

OK, I could live with a field edge that was about as bad as I’d heard it would be in my f/5 telescope (sans coma corrector; I don’t have a 2-inch one). But how sharp was the eyepiece at the center of its field? Saturn would tell that tale in a right quick hurry. Me and Betsy went there and I was simply blown away. The ringed wonder was dead sharp, with the Cassini Division easy at only 90x, plenty of banding visible, and the beautiful pinpricks of five moons arrayed around the planet.
Should you get a 16mm (or 9mm) Zhumell? That depends on you and your requirements. Certainly, going back and forth between the 16mm Z and the TeleVue 13mm Ethos was like the difference between night and day. But at 25% the cost of the real deal, the Zhumell is a bargain, and if you, like me, want a longer focal length 100, but don’t think you’ll use it enough to justify TeleVue prices, the answer just might be “yes.” Especially if you use a longer focal length telescope. I suspect this eyepiece will be substantially better in an SCT, and I will let you know about that when I have a chance to try it in one.

OK, enough eye candy already; it was time to hit the H-2500. Craning my neck around, I decided Leo was the place to start, since he was the westernmost constellation I still needed to finish out. While I’d visited the lion before in the course of doing the HI and the HII as well as the 2500, he still had a few in the “unobserved” column.

I chose a galaxy—Leo’s Herschels are all galaxies—one with a punishing but not too punishing magnitude to start, NGC 3773 (H.III.81) at mag 13.4 down in the area of the lion's rear end about 4.5 degrees west of M65 and M66, and went after it. I didn’t get far. Man, were those star hopping muscles stiff! Afore long, though, I got back in the groove, wending my way down chains of stars to the target. Which wasn’t much to look at; merely an oval fuzzy that required averted vision most of the time.

From there, it was "as dim or dimmer" all the way. I began picking 'em off, but was a little disturbed. Small mag 13 galaxies are not normally a challenge for Betsy, even from the compromised skies of our Tanner-Williams dark site. But they were on this night, with a couple giving me absolute fits. I eventually pulled away from the eyepiece after fruitlessly hunting for a sprite that should have been easy. The sky told me why. The haze was thicker than ever and clouds were now increasing in numbers and drifting through the lion. We were getting to the place where Messiers become iffy.

I decided to stick it out for a while and see which way the wind might blow. In order to do that, I had to cadge some insect repellent from my buddy Max. The skeeters are definitely back after an exceptionally dry early spring. Normally, my Thermacell would have taken care of them, but I outsmarted myself in that regard. The folks who make Off insect repellent have a competing unit, the “Clip On.” It seemed attractive since its refills are cheaper—the gadget runs on batteries instead of butane cartridges. The inexpensive refills would indeed have been a good thing if the Clip On had worked. It didn’t; it seemed to attract bugs rather than repel them. I was being bitten like crazy even with the piece of junk clipped to my belt. Back to the Thermacell for Unk. 

The sky improved slightly around 11 p.m., not enough to allow me to get back to the 13th magnitude crowd, but enough to essay some purties. The Zhumell 16mm paid for itself with its view of the Leo Trio. M65, M66, and NGC 3628 were scrumptious. All three were detailed and all three fit in the same field. Yowza! Same thing with M81 and M82.

How putrid was the sky getting? I went to the M105 galaxy group for a look-see. Normally all three galaxies are easy, with NGC 3389, the only even marginally tough member, being visible from the uber light-polluted backyard of Chaos Manor South with a 12-inch. When I hopped to the little triangle of galaxies, 3389 was only “suspected.” Which meant it was Big Switch time or near-about. A visit to M13, a look in on M51, and one more delicious gaze at Saturn and it was time to throw that accursed switch.

I was soon back within the nurturing walls of Chaos Manor South watching yet another installment of those incredibly silly Ghost Adventures (“STOP RUNNING!”) and meditating on Herschel Night 33. Was I still mad at myself for forgetting the Sky Commander cables? A little, but not as much as I would have been if it had been a clear night perfect for aitch-chasing.  I suppose I was lucky to get any new ones at all given the conditions, even if “new ones” amounted to a measly five galaxies. But I had fun, and for me that is still what amateur astronomy is all about, muchachos. 

Uncle Rod News:  It ain't like Uncle Rod never toots his own horn (ha!), but I do try to keep that sort of thing to a minimum in this here blog. Nevertheless, I can't resist letting y'all know that with the July issue I become a Contributing Editor at Sky and Telescope, a high honor, that's for dang sure. Somewhere way up the time stream ten-year-old Unk is sitting awe-struck devouring his first issue of The Magazine. In my very wildest fantasies I could imagine my name appearing in Sky and 'Scope (as the Old Man called it), maybe in the "Amateur Astronomers" column, but certainly not on that storied masthead! 

Next Time:  Filter Frenzy

Thanks,your observation stories are like reading a best seller on a cold rainy night with a cup of hot coco!
Congrats on Contributing Editor status! You have clearly earned it.
When I use my Ethoses, I roll the eye cup up on one side and down on the other side (where the bridge of my nose is). This way it allows me to see the entire field comfortably and still protects from the stray light.

Congratulations on your new appointment. More reason for me to look forward to the new S&T.
well done rod - well deserved. I hope you will keep up writing your stories on the blog
Yup..took a look...there you are. Nice. Moving.
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