Sunday, July 29, 2012

 

The Herschel Project Night 35


Unk just spent nearly a whole week at the legendary Chiefland Astronomy Village in Florida, so how come the title up there is just “Night 35”? What happened to all them other nights? The weatherman is what happened to them, muchachos. I was lucky to get in one really good evening; July observing in Florida is always a crap shoot. But, in typical Unk Rod fashion, that is getting ahead of our story. Why don’t we back up to the beginning? 

As you will hear next Sunday, Unk took the week of his birthday off, celebrating with wild abandon (for him) on Tuesday night, July 17. Nevertheless, I still managed to roll out at oh-dark-thirty the next morning to get it together for the six hour trip south to the CAV. Wednesday morning was actually fairly relaxed. Yes, Unk’s head was still aching a mite from one too many margaritas, but he’d had the sense to load up Lucille Van Pelt, his Toyota 4Runner, Tuesday afternoon. All I had to do was slurp down a big cup of java and get on the road by 8:30—which would ensure I hit Chiefland at motel check-in time. 

The trip down I-10 was uneventful—but boring. For the first time in a couple of years I was by myself, Miss Dorothy and I having made the decision this would be a good time for her to Visit daughter Beth in Washington DC. So I had nobody to talk to all the way down, spending my time playing the “What did I forget?” game and listening to the Willie’s Roadhouse and Real Jazz Channels on Sirius XM.

The music was good, and my ruminations on what I might have left behind indicated I hadn’t forgot any important astro-gear this time. I had not just relied on my gear checklist or just on my (failing) memory. I went over everything two or three times, checking all the stuff off the list, but also making sure I wasn’t overlooking things not specifically enumerated on the checklist—like the tripod spreader that stayed home one recent CAV expedition.


Weather.com had not been encouraging for the week prior to my departure. Neither had the Clear Sky Charts (Clock). It had been resolutely cloudy when I left home and remained that way as I passed Tallahassee. But when I left I-10 shortly thereafter to get on the Florida – Georgia Parkway, U.S. 19, the gateway to Chiefland, the clouds began to magically disperse and I was seeing plentiful blue. Stopped at the Sunoco station at the Highway 19 exit, refueled Miss Van Pelt, snatched up a Sasquatch Big Stick for me, and headed for the Chiefland Astronomy Village. 

I was only about twenty-five miles down 19 when I began to smell the scent of skunk. Virtual skunk, that is, as in getting SKUNKED by the weather. The sky overhead was still blue, but ahead of me to the south was a mass of clouds that kept climbing. By the time I was within fifty miles of the Chiefland Day’s Inn, the blue was gone and it had begun to rain. Hard. I was disappointed but not surprised. The last couple of times Dorothy and I have made the trip down we haven’t even been able to set up the gear on the field on Wednesday, much less observe. Is Wednesday’s weather in Chiefland cursed? Sure seems to be. 

No matter how bad the sky looked, I STUCK TO THE PLAN. Which is "check into the motel and evaluate the weather." If it is not raining, I head to the site. If, when I get out there, it still doesn’t look like rain, I set up the gear whether it appears there will be observing that night or not. One good thing about July in Chiefland, Florida is that there’s plenty of time to make up my mind about what to do. Sunset isn’t until 8:30 p.m., and it doesn’t get completely dark until after nine.

When I tell folks I observe from the Chiefland Astronomy Village, they imagine me holed up in an RV or a trailer or even a tent. Uh-uh, nosir buddy. I’ve sometimes thought about trailers and RVs, but I really don’t want to drive or tow one. Tents? After doing a tent one Chiefland Spring Picnic in some of the hottest weather Florida can produce, I have never tent-camped at a star party again. Any star party. 


Nope, it’s a motel all the way. The Chiefland Day’s Inn is even less fancy today than it was in its former humble guise as a Holiday Inn Express, but it is clean and comfortable enough, I reckon,  and the price is dang sure right: about $250.00 for me to check in Wednesday and check out Sunday. If I were to start going to CAV every month I might consider some kind of a pop-up camper or similar, but for now the good ole Day’s Inn gets the job done.

After I was unpacked and settled in my room, I turned on The Weather Channel to see what it might be able to tell me about Wednesday night. The answer was “not much.” Ambiguous, anyway. “Partly cloudy. Chance of scattered thunderstorms. Rain chance 40%.” OK, well, how about if I had a look for myself? Outside my second floor room I saw dark clouds approaching from the west, and in about five minutes it was raining again. It wasn’t raining hard, though, so I figgered Wednesday night was still an open question.

Hokay. Stick to The Plan. If I can’t go out to the field immediately, I hit the Wal-Mart just down the road for supplies and grub. At Wally-World, I picked up bottled water and Monster Energy Drinks for the field, granola bars for the room, and a 12-pack of Colorado Kool Aid for after-run libations. I also glommed onto an inexpensive but decent three prong extension cord to replace one of my cords that was only a two-pronger. I don’t like to use a non-grounded extension on a wet field.

There were a couple of unpleasant surprises at the Wal-Mart, alas. I always take Jack Links Flaming Buffalo Chicken Nuggets to the CAV for late night snacking. None could I find. I had to settle for their Teriyaki Jerky. More seriously, the Macdonald’s stand inside the store where I get my traditional CAV First Night Big Mac was finis. Out of business. Sigh. I didn’t feel like a major meal, so after Wal-Mart I made tracks for the Taco Bell next to the Day’s Inn. Them new Dorito Tacos are just KILLER. I wound up not missing my Mickey D’s pigout at all.

Thence back to the room to sit and wait. I passed the time surfing the Cloudy Nights bulletin boards and reading my newest bit of Herschel-abilia, Michael Hoskin’s book, Discoverers of the Universe: William and Caroline Herschel. I’d actually started the Hoskin book during our last CAV foray, but had been too busy after that to finish it. I recommend this book highly; “Discoverers” does one of the better jobs of portraying the enigmatic Caroline Herschel and explaining her motivations I have seen.

At about six o’clock I noticed sunlight shining in around the drapes and peeped outside. What I saw was plenty of blue sky and sunshine and almost no clouds. Turned the TWC back on to find they had reduced the chance of precipitation for the High Springs area (a.k.a. the Chiefland neighborhood) to 30%. Time to head to CAV.

Back on the good old Billy Dodd Memorial Observing Field after being gone some five months, I was both surprised and not surprised. As you know if you’ve read my report on me and D’s last Chiefland Odyssey, there was change afoot then: owners Tom and Jeannie Clark were pulling up stakes and moving to the New Mexico desert. What was surprising was that everything looked the same as ever. The old Clark homestead is still there. So is Tom’s shop and The Beast’s dome (the monstrous 42-inch went with Tom and Jeannie, natch). I just barely missed meeting the new owner of the Clark land, which includes the Dodd Field, Jonesy, but I hear he is a talented and enthusiastic amateur astronomer with some cool plans for the site.

One thing that did not surprise me was that I was all alone. The weather reports simply didn’t warrant folks heading to the CAV. If I lived a lot closer and could make spur-of-the-moment decisions on whether to go or not go, I probably wouldn’t have been there either. But since I was there, I started setting up, taking it slowly in heat that was fierce enough, if not nearly as bad as it was that notorious May Spring Picnic. The heat indexes were high due to the humidity, but the actual temperature mostly stayed in the upper 80s - low 90s —dang good for the CAV in July.

What did I set up this time out? Big Bertha, My NexStar C11, who is always my CAV scope of choice. She is a good telescope, but she is over ten years old, and while I’ve never experienced any trouble with her beyond the occasional hiccup, I wonder about her electronics sometimes. Since I am now driving a fairly sizeable vehicle, I was able to bring a just-in-case backup scope, Celeste, my C8, and her CG5 mount.

There was also the Coleman tent canopy to keep sun and dew off. My new Toshiba 64 bit Win 7 laptop. The Mallincam Xtreme camera. Observing table. Chairs. Digital video recorder. Portable DVD player. Cables for everything. Wireless Wingman game pad to use as Bertha’s hand control with the aid of the NexRemote software. Set up took every bit of an hour. When I was finally done, I took a break and cooled off with bottled water under the storied Chiefland Picnic Pavilion and waited for darkness.

Which arrived right on schedule. Unfortunately, it brought more clouds with it. I had some hopes, though. There were sucker holes, and the bright sapphire of Vega was in the clear. Time to get camera fired up and scope aligned, I reckoned. Which is where I ran into the first snag of the evening. I had not used the new laptop with Bertha or the Mallincam Xtreme yet, and though I had everything properly hooked up and turned on, the Toshiba resolutely refused to talk to either telescope or camera.

All it took to put that right was a little computer configurating, but before I did that I dang sure lit-off the Thermacell. Mosquitoes are not usually a problem at the CAV, but the huge amount of rain that had been dumped on the area by a tropical system a couple of weeks previous ensured the little suckers were out in force. Thermacell cranking, I ceased being someone’s supper. The gadget didn’t do quite as well with the flocks of annoying no-see-um gnats, but the Thermacell combined with the fan I had stationed on the observing table kept the canopy reasonably bug free.

All set, I turned on the telescope and Xtreme camera, booted NexRemote, and began the go-to alignment. For once, Bertha didn’t do anything wacky. She often likes to torment your Uncle by imitating a maniac Ferris wheel during the “finding level” part of her alignment. Not tonight. She did her thing without complaint, choosing Vega as her first alignment star. Centered it up on the monitor with ease using the Xtreme’s wonderful crosshair video overlay. Mashed “Align” on the Wingman, and Bertha picked Arcturus as her number two star and headed that-a-way. Unfortunately, by the time she got there Arcturus wasn’t there. More and thicker clouds were moving in from the west.

What to do? The sky didn’t look at all promising now, with Vega fading and disappearing, but with scope ready, I decided to cool my heels for another hour or so and see what happened. It was only 9:30 p.m. EDT, felt an hour earlier to CDT Unk, and I hated to give up unless it started raining. There was no obviously threatening weather nearby; it was just cloudy. And I wasn’t feeling the least bit nervous despite being alone on the field.

I never seem to get spooked at Chiefland like I can at my home observing site. A couple of times Wednesday evening I vaguely wondered if Florida’s dadgum Skunk Ape might be watching me from a distant tree-line, but not seriously. Also, while there was no one on the Billy Dodd Field with me, the neighboring New Field, home of the Nova Sedus Star Party, had some people on it, so I was not really alone.

At 10:30 p.m. I reluctantly and disgustedly covered Bertha with her Desert Storm Cover. Conditions were not getting better; they were getting worse. The feel of “thunderstorm” or at least “rain” was in the air. I hopped in the truck, headed down the now admittedly eerie looking lane of mossy oaks, and back to the motel. Where I concluded a long day with a little Yell and a little cable TV. All I could find to watch at 11 p.m. was The Food Channel’s slightly annoying and ill-tempered Chopped. Hope springs eternal, and I didn’t let being well and truly skunked make me ill-tempered. I wasn’t happy about Wednesday night, but at least I had been able to get the new computer up and running without being rushed by a good sky.

When I got up and turned on the TV Thursday morning, I saw the weather predictions hadn’t changed, still indicating an iffy night, but I thought the sky looked more encouraging when I headed down to the motel breakfast at 8:30. While the Day’s Inn breakfast still ain’t as good as the Holiday Inn breakfast was, it has improved, going from overripe fruit and tiny bagels to sausage biscuits and make-your-own waffles. Unk was happy.

After breakfast I spent an hour and a half hanging out in the room reading, relaxing, and looking at Cloudy Nights and the Astromart before returning to the CAV at 11 a.m. to see what was up. What was up was plenty of blue sky and Sun. Enough Sun to make my stay fairly short. I’d do lunch and head back when the temperatures began to cool at six or seven in the p.m.


Lunch that day can be summed up with one word:  “Bill’s.” As in Bar-B-Q Bills, which is still Unk’s fave barbeque place in the whole wide world, coming in ahead of even the legendary Fresh-Air Barbeque in Jackson, Georgia (former site of the Peach State Star Gaze and current site of the Georgia Sky View). Unk ordered one of his usuals, the Pork Lunch Special. Which consists of plenty of sliced meat, beans (really great beans), mound of fries, slaw, and garlic bread. Naturally I smothered everything in Bill’s famous spicy bbq sauce. “Yum!” is all the hell I can say.

Following my huge lunch, I chilled out in the room for a while, and then chilled down in the cool water of the motel’s nice (and clean) pool. Only bummer? There was plenty of Sun when I got in, but by the time I got out the sky was gray again. After my dip I was off to Wally-World for the one important thing I had forgot to pack this time: SHOES.

I’d driven down in shorts and t-shirt. On my feet were Crocs. Laugh if you must; Unk don’t worry much about fashion at his advanced age. I just want comfort. I do worry about wet feet though. Walking through the dew-laden grass Wednesday night left my poor footsies sodden thanks to the Crocs’ trademark (ventilation?) holes. I found a cost effective (12 bucks) pair of tennis shoes—which looked to be Chinese People’s Liberation Army issue but were comfortable enough. I also picked up an inexpensive AA charger. For want of anything better to do, I’d shot a lot more video with my camera than I normally do, and had not brought my battery charger along.

After the Wal-Mart trip there weren’t many hours left till I needed to go back to the CAV. I left the room about six, a mite early, because I wanted to shoot some terrestrial pictures for a Sky and Telescope article I am working on. I was pleased to find three of my CAV buddies were now on site and that I wouldn’t be alone on the field Thursday. The picture taking went well, but the sky was not looking very well at all. Yes, the sundogs were cool, but they portended one thing:  bad weather.

I didn’t care what the sundogs portended; I was anxious to get started, and when Vega and Arcturus peeped out I got going. Or tried to. Bertha was remarkably well behaved this trip, but Unk wasn’t. I seemed to go out of my way to give the telescope heartburn this trip instead of vice versa. Started up the laptop. Turned on the Xtreme. Booted the camera control software. Got video and crosshairs on the monitor. Ran NexRemote. Pushed the OK button to begin alignment. And got absolutely nothing except a cotton picking window that read “INTERNAL ERROR!”

I did this same silly thing last time I was down at Chiefland, so I knew what the problem was. In my excitement I’d forgot to turn on the dern telescope. What I should have done at that point was shut down the computer and start over. Instead, I thought I’d fake Bertha out, just restarting NexRemote after powering on the SCT. No dice. It almost worked, Bertha going to the two alignment stars, but pushing the “Align” button on Arcturus resulted in my scope intoning (via NexRemote’s voice) “Alignment failed.” Shut down the computer, restarted everything, and completed the alignment without a hitch.

Which doesn’t mean I didn’t have any more problems; the sky was becoming a big one. It had looked passable at sundown, but the giant sucker hole that had stretched from Vega to Arcturus was shrinking. Did look like there’d be time enough for a few pretty ones. I started with M3, and when that big globular star cluster faded, turned south, where the Milky Way was, amazingly, still blazing away. Before clouds moved in I got M8, the Lagoon; M17, The Swan; and a little of M20, The Trifid.


The system I’d worked out for using my itty bitty Orion DVR worked well. I ran the video from the Mallincam to a video switcher with an RCA plug input and multiple RCA outputs controlled by buttons. I plugged the DVR into position 2 and the DVD player I use as a monitor into position 1. With “1” selected, I have a reasonably big screen for focusing and viewing. When I am happy with the object’s appearance, I mash “2” to feed the video to the recorder, powering it on and starting it recording with its cool one-button remote. A video splitter would be even better, but I had the switcher lying around—a refugee from the days of analog cable TV.

Faint glimpse of The Trifid recorded, the sky closed down suddenly and completely. Me and my buddies hung-in until midnight, when it became obvious nothing was changing anytime soon. I was ready to cover the scope by then, anyhow. The dew was insanely heavy. I mean, Bertha’s tube was raining. Her corrector was kept dry by her DewBuster heater, and I was kept dry by the tent canopy, but heading to the clubhouse for a Monster or to use the facilities resulted in wet pants legs from sodden grass, which had recently been cut but was growing like crazy in the warm, wet conditions. By midnight it was miserably damp feeling even under my canopy.

I gladly pulled the Big Switch and headed back to Chiefland proper. At the motel it sure was a traditional Chiefland sign-off: that sainted bottle of Yell and an hour or two of Unk’s fave trash-TV, Ghost Adventures:  “Welcome to your final destination, HELL!” I was in a fairly good mood. It had been fun hanging out with my mates, the scope had worked fine, so had the camera, and at least I’d seen a few things. Not that I wasn’t getting a little nervous. Only two nights left and not a single H-object in the can.

I started out a little blue Friday morning. This would have been the day Miss Dorothy and I would have visited Duma Key, what we call nearby Cedar Key. I missed that and I missed her. This “separate vacations” thing sounded like a good idea, but turned out not to be so hot if’n you ask me. At least the weather was finally cooperating. At midday, there was nary a cloud in the sky.

How did I fill Friday? More motel breakfast, more relaxing in the room, more surfing the amateur astronomy side of the Internet, a little writing, and—I couldn’t resist—one more visit to the dadgum Taco Bell. I knew the fast-food-fare wasn't doing me much good, but that Dorito Taco Big Box, which includes a Taco Supreme loaded down with sourcream and a humongous burrito, was just too much for me to easily resist. Sigh. Unk's taste don't run to the healthy, but at least it runs to the inexpensive.

Friday evening, I again left for the site a little early, just after seven, so I could shoot more pix for my S&T article. That done, I hung out with my Chiefland pals and had a high old time. We were all in a fine mood since it seemed obvious the sky would reward us on this night.

And what a night it was. As soon as it got dark the summer Milky Way began to blaze, and kept on doing that all freaking night long. The scope did not do anything dumb Friday evening; again it was me who played dumb. I arranged the Mallincam’s power cable so it was sure to get snagged on the tripod, and that is just what happened. I could not for the life of me figure out why the scope was tracking so poorly till I actually walked over to it and saw what had happened. Doh! Luckily I hadn’t done major damage to camera or cord, and with the cable freed, Bertha began delivering round stars, even in 1-minute (unguided, natch) exposures.

What did I get? Only about seventy Herschels, but, hard to believe, that was all I needed to wrap up the Herschel 2500 phase of The Project: a few scamps in Virgo, Ursa Major, and, of all places, Libra. When the last one was in the can, the fact that I was finished with my initial observing of Will and Lina’s objects was slow to sink in. Didn’t’ really hit me till the next morning that I was D-O-N-E.

After that last Libra object, I toured around, doing bright pretties and continuing to familiarize myself with the Xtreme’s many controls and settings. Yes, I’ve had the camera since last October, but I haven’t had the opportunity to use it much given the crazy weather since then. By the time I’d hit the hundred object mark, give or take, and had had enough of the dew, which was almost as heavy as it had been Thursday, it was 3 a.m., a good and justifiable time for hitting that cursed Big Switch.

Back at the motel I had a (very) quick look at the Cloudy Nights, a brewski, and it was time for bed. Frankly, I was still on a high from a great night of observing, and didn’t feel that tired, but the clock insisted it was after four, and I figgered I had better turn in. I planned on going at least till midnight Saturday, which, it appeared, would be even better than Friday had been.

When I awakened just before 11 a.m. Saturday morning, it hit me like a ton of bricks:  “The 2500 is finished!”  The next thing to hit me was a sinking feeling to the tune of “What do I look at now?” The answer is something I am calling “The Herschel Project Phase II.” What that will involve is me taking DSLR shots of some of the best of the best, and doing a lot of sketches. I plan on sticking mostly to the Herschel 400 for Phase II, but we will see where my observing leads me. If The Project is ever to evolve into a book I will need plenty of (still) astrophotos and sketches. I will probably also go back and re-video quite a few objects with the Xtreme, especially the Virgo-Coma crew, most of which were done with my old black and white Stellacam II. 

One thing is sure: at the height of a hot southern summer the idea of simple visual observing and sketching with my Dobsonian, Old Betsy, under cool fall skies is mighty appealing. I'll never forget one of the earliest Herschel Project runs on a chilly night at the Deep South Regional Star Gaze nearly three years ago. In the coldest and darkest reaches of the night I could have sworn William and Caroline were standing at my side.

Saturday was supposed to be the best day weather-wise of my time Down Chiefland Way, and that’s how it started. It was hot, but not crazy hot, and there were very few clouds. Not at first. I kept a wary eye on the sky all morning, and was pleased at the way it was shaping up. After lunch, which consisted of a comparatively healthy po-boy from the Wally-World deli, I could see some weather moving in, but I reassured myself with “Just a few clouds from afternoon heating; they will be gone at sunset.”

Out at the site, our company had grown to five observers including the Rodster, and we were in an even jollier mood than we were Friday night, eating pizza on the field and joking around. I shot a few more images of scopes and observers for my magazine article and then opined to all and sundry that I might not stick to the midnight-turns-into-a-pumpkin rule I normally exercise on my last night at CAV. The sky was just looking too good. It was looking to be a spectacular night.

Uh-huh. You know what they say about hopes being dashed? And pride going before a fall? So it was. All of a sudden clouds were ringing the site, clouds writhing with lightning. It didn’t appear these storms were moving toward us quickly, but it looked like the one to the east was coming our way. The Clear Sky Clock (yes, we have wi-fi on the CAV observing field thanks to the kindness of one of the residents) indicated a chance of clearing around 11 p.m.

That settled it for me. With the prospect of packing and the drive home, I didn’t feel like I could wait till eleven to get started observing. I’d got scope and gear ready, hoping the nasty storms would trundle off, but I now covered the SCT, packed computer and video equipment and headed to town.

Back in my cozy room, I couldn’t help feeling let down. I had been counting on Saturday night. On the other hand, it wasn’t like I had Herschel 2500 objects left to observe. Since it was barely 10:30, I stayed up for a while with the mucho ridiculous Chasing UFOs, which is a lot like Ghost Adventures, Finding Sasquatch, and Ghost Hunters, but with UFOs as the quarry. I spent an hour watching this entertaining foolishness (“DID YOU SEE SOMETHING?!”) before turning in in preparation for the drive back to The Swamp in the morning.

Out at the CAV Sunday a.m., I expected to hear my fellow Chiefland Observers expound on the way the sky had magically cleared just after I left, as it always seems to do. After all, I hadn’t heard any thunder or the sound of rain back in town Saturday night. It appeared that for once that was not what happened. My buddy Carl said the lightning had continued after I’d departed, and that when a wind with a threatening feel to it had sprung up, one and all decided it was time to get under cover.

Then came the saddest thing, the “All Good Things” thing. Time to pack the vehicle and get on the road for Possum Swamp. This had not been a perfect outing, one night and a little more of observing out of four. But I’d accomplished what I’d set out to do, putting the principal observing for The Herschel Project to bed. And I know you can only expect so much from a Florida summer sky. I knew that very well, muchachos, but I still wanted more. My thirst for the deep sky didn’t come close to being slaked this time. Translation? “Just want to come back soon.”

Next time: Space Summer Redux…

Comments:
Wow Rod ... 2500 Herschels done! Congratulations, that's quite an accomplishment.

Mark
 
You seem to eat "more better" when Miss D. is along.
 
You dang sure got that right! :-)
 
Regarding the maniac Ferris wheel during “Finding Level”. I once replace and added some dew control gear on my 12” LX200GPS and on the very first night after that it proved impossible to initialize the scope. Every time I started it it failed in various ways, all however indicating that the north and level sensors had failed. More than once it would just turn until it was making awful sounds against one hard stop or another. I turned off the dew control and it initialized normally. Now I only initialize it with the dew control off. I run both the scope and the dew control off AC mains on the field.

Regarding snagging cables. The owner of the legendary Star Hill Inn in New Mexico famously insisted that it was impossible for users to break his retired professional 24” Ritchey-Chretien. I was the guy who proved him wrong. I snagged the 1-inch thick cable of the hand control around the monstrous mount. The sound it emitted when turning at around 3 in the morning was awful and for the rest of my stay there was no declination control from the hand control. It was not difficult to fix, but I had no tools on hand and Mr. Mahon had other things to do.
 
So having done them, what's your top 50 Herschels then Rod, (excluding Messiers)?

Keith James
London England
 
Well, Keith, THAT is a subject for a whole blog entry--or maybe several some Sunday(s) soon. I have kept track of my "best of the best," rest assured, even putting them in a separate SkyTools 3 list... ;-)
 
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