Sunday, December 16, 2012


Unk's Messier Album 4

Did Uncle Rod dare? Dare to drag his ETX 125PE, Charity Hope Valentine, out to the Possum Swamp Astronomical Society observing field for the scope’s second dark of the Moon run in a row? My neurotic little Maksutov behaved herself well the last time, but maybe “twice” was asking too much from a scope that’s always been slightly fussy. On the other hand, muchachos, sure did look like a Sweet Charity night. We’d been having a heat wave down here with night time temps no lower than the mid-upper 60s, high humidity, and plenty of clouds to go with that.

OK. What could happen? Charity could throw a gear or have an electronic melt-down, but she’s never gone that far—not yet. Even if she did, it did not look to be an overly promising evening, anyway, though the sky was remarkably clear at sundown. And Unk was still recovering from a near overdose of star partying down at the Deep South Regional Star Gaze a few weeks previous.  All in all, sounded like it would be a good night to continue The Messier Album Project, my quest to observe all the Ms with the ETX and to compare what I see (and sketch) to what the author of the classic book The Messier Album, John Mallas, observed and drew.

What exactly did the dadgum weathermen say? They were hedging their bets:  “Mostly to partly cloudy.” The Clear Sky Clock seemed to indicate I might get some time under the stars, maybe as much as several hours. Picked up my 2-meter/440 HT and dialed in the NOAA radio station, but they were as wishy-washy as the Weather Channel. So I stuck to my mantra, “If it ain’t raining head for the dark site,”  and ‘round about four I loaded up the 4Runner and made tracks west for our observing field on the edge of a private airstrip that is closed at night.

When I arrived after a 45-minute drive exacerbated by the Christmas traffic as I passed Bel Air Mall, I took a good look at the sky. Go-ol-ly! Not bad. Good, even. Some haze, sure, not surprising given the humidity. There were a few bands of passing clouds, but they were mere wisps, not big, dark thunderheads. I began setting up Charity.

Which, as usual, was the work of maybe ten minutes. Plop down tripod, adjust it to a reasonable height (a little higher than normal this time since I hadn’t bothered to bring an observing chair along), mount ETX on tripod via two bolts, hook up jumpstart battery and Autostar hand control, and that was it.

‘Course, I had to get the eyepiece case, the accessory (tackle) box, and my sketchpad and pencils ready to go. I’ve stopped using an observing table at the club site, and now just put the eyepiece box and everything else in the back of Miss Van Pelt, the 4Runner. In 15-minutes my setup was done.

Done? Unk, you forgot something. Where was your laptop? We know you don’t go onto any observing field without a pea-picking computer!” Right you are, Skeezix. I had a computer—clipped to my belt. As in my iPhone. Since I would “just” be doing the Messier, I wimped out on a laptop. Oh, I’ve set up a Messier Album observing list on SkyTools 3 so I can keep track of where I am with The Album Project, but being especially lazy on this eve, I left that at home. If I needed to know what was up and what would be up? Well, I had my MINI-planner, Observer Pro.

This iOS app (I don’t believe it’s been ported to the Android gadgets yet) is just that, a mini-planner. Compared to the humongous SkyTools, anyhow; it certainly has plenty of objects including the NGC, the IC, and the Herschel 400. It is easy to compose observing lists with OP, but what I did was just click open the Messier catalog and sort it by Constellation. Each object is accompanied by graphics that show in an instant whether it is visible, a nice photo, the M’s vital stats, and even a good looking (and detailed) finder chart. I hoped I wouldn’t need that last, and I wouldn’t if Charity behaved. Anyhoo, if you have an iPhone or iPad, please have a look at Observer Pro; it is oh-so-cheap and oh-so-useful.

It wasn’t quite dark—the bright alignment stars were just winking on—but I powered up Charity for a minute to see if her battery-backed real time clock still had the correct time following a recent battery replacement. It did. Cool. Shut her off and waited for real darkness to arrive. My waiting was done all by myself. Not a single one of my fellow PSASers had shown up. None cared to roll the dice weather-wise, I reckoned.

I briefly wondered whether I should re-train Charity’s drives. I did the drive training procedure that informs the Autostar computer about backlash in the telescope’s gears last time, but some people do train their ETXes before every single observing run. I decided “not;” I’ve usually had decent go-to performance for months and months following a single training session.

Soon enough it was dark enough to make out alignment stars. Put Charity in her Home Position, tube level and cranked to the hard stop in azimuth, and fired her up. After a minute or three of her northing-leveling dance, she began slewing to the first of two alignment stars, Vega. Centered the star, which was on if not in the center of the red dot finder’s lens when the scope stopped, hit Enter, and she proceeded to star two, which, just like last time, was Altair. Hokay, acid test time. I keyed-in M13.

After Charity stopped making the somewhat labored noises she always makes when slewing at high speed, I popped in a 20mm Orion Expanse eyepiece and had a look. CHARITY! YOU MINX! NOT TONIGHT!

Yep, when I put peeper to eye lens, not a cotton-picking thing did I see. Rut-roh. At least I didn’t think I saw anything. After a little while I detected a vague brightening in the field. I upped the power and contrast with a 15mm Expanse and had a look. No doubt about it now; there was the Great Glob—barely. On this late fall evening M13 was so low in the still bright west that it was dang-near invisible. WHEEW! I really hadn’t wanted to fight with my ETX.

I didn’t have to. All night long, anything I requested from horizon to horizon and even near the zenith (which can be a tough area for an ETX) was in the field of the 20mm eyepiece (94x), usually in the 15mm (125x), and several times smack in the center of either. If anything, go-to performance was better than it had been last time out, though I’m not sure what I did differently during the alignment, if anything. Go figger. It was a good thing I didn’t have to fool with Charity; I had the feeling there was no time to lose.

The Cygnus area, now west of the Meridian, looked terrif with the Milky Way glowing pretty strongly. But there was a feel in the air of impending bad weather. Humidity was high and the dew already overwhelming. I was at least somewhat prepared for that. I need to rig up a heater strip for Missy, but her big Mak corrector does not dew up as easily as an SCT’s lens does, and a dew zapper gun (a 12-volt hair drier/window defroster) is enough for reasonably short observing runs. I could deal with the dew, but I wouldn’t be able to deal with what was lurking in the west. A look over that-a-way showed thick clouds to the southwest that hadn’t been there a few minutes before.

Which object first? This would be a night of globular star clusters, three bright ones and one somewhat dicey rascal. The south, where three of my targets would be found, was covered in a thin but noticeable haze, so numero uno was M15, The Horse’s Nose Cluster in Pegasus, who was barely into the west and nice and high in the sky.

As per usual, the matter in italics is transcribed from my (audio) log on my MP3 recorder, and the sketches (click on 'em for larger images) are done in my typical fashion:  rough drawing/notes in the field, finished sketch as soon as possible thereafter, tune up in Adobe Photoshop. The dates are for when the objects appeared in the original columns printed in Sky and Telescope (“A Messier Album”).

M15 (October 1969)

Mashed the buttons for M15 and Charity began slewing for the famous glob. When she stopped and beeped (which means “We’re there!”), I looked into the 20mm and found this superb cluster centered in a fairly rich field. I trotted over to the truck for my 9mm Expanse (208x), which would resolve more cluster stars than the 20mm, and grabbed my MP3 recorder for note taking. That was when I encountered my first glitch of the evening. The Sony recorder showed “battery low” and wouldn’t do a cotton picking thing. I finally located a pair of triple-As hiding in one of my tackle box’s trays and was ready to roll.

It's not as dark as it should be, but in the 20mm I can see quite a few miniscule stars popping in and out of view around the cluster's bizarrely bright and near-stellar core.  The 9mm Expanse brings out considerably more stars in the outer halo, which looks basically round to me. As I stare and it gets darker, I begin to see some in the inner area just outside the core. It mostly just looks grainy, but some stars do put in an appearance.

So, how did my M15 stack up to John Mallas’? He agrees with me on general appearance, mentioning, naturally, the cluster’s “very intense” center. However, he goes on to say M15 was not resolved in his scope. Certainly it wasn’t fully resolved in Charity, either, but some of 15’s stars were easy enough. Mallas' drawing is an outstanding one, but it’s a shame he doesn’t mention the magnification he used. By the look of it, I’d say probably similar to mine, around 200x, give or take. Some stars are shown, but given his words I assume these are field stars.  There is no question I saw more in this glob than he did, and I am not quite sure why; his 4-inch Unitron should have at least begun to reveal cluster stars.

M2 (October 1969)

M15 given as much eyepiece time as I dared in the face of obviously degrading conditions, the next globular was in Aquarius, the marvelous M2, which is usually considerably better than M15—though not on this night. Most of the haze had temporarily drifted off, but the southern sky was still compromised, I suspected. M2 was good but not as good as I’ve seen it from this site with Miss Valentine.

M2 was right in the center of the field when Charity stopped, and looks good as always. Not a hint of resolution in the 20mm, though; it's just a large, pretty ball of grainy nebulosity surrounded by a larger, dimmer, slightly oval globe. In the 9mm quite a few stars are revealed in the outer halo, which looks more oval than it did with the 20mm. Still don't see much resolution closer in to the center.

I’d say Mr. John and I pretty much tied on M2. His (nice) sketch is similar to mine with a bright but diffuse core, an extensive outer halo, and tiny stars resolved across M2’s face. Where we differ is that he mentions a “Dark curving lane that crosses the northeast corner of the cluster.” I’ve never noticed such a thing, but I will dang sure look for it next time.

M72 (September 1967)

I probably didn’t spend as much time on M2 as I should have. I was worried about M72. I recalled how hard a time I had with this one from my bright backyard when I was doing the observing for my book, The Urban Astronomer’s Guide, and how it had stymied me a time or three from considerably darker places. Would I see anything in a sky that was getting to be a humid mess? Not to worry. M72 was actually bold—if not resolved—in the 20mm Expanse.

M72 is obvious as soon as I look into the eyepiece. In the 20 it is just a large, round, featureless fuzzball maybe with a hint of graininess. The 9mm doesn't help, serving only to dim the cluster down. The 15mm is better, but I still liked the view best in the 20, where this is a bright ball of mist floating in a fairly rich field.

I would say Mr. Mallas pulled even with Unk here. He describes exactly what I saw, a small, nebulous ball. He does seem more impressed by M72's graininess than I was.  John also tells us that this looks to him to be a loose cluster. M72 is rated a IX on the Shapley-Sawyer scale and is indeed quite loosely concentrated, just as he guessed.

By the time I’d finished inspecting little M72, the clouds weren’t just confining themselves to the west; they were heading straight for Capricornus where my final target of the evening, M30, The Goat Cluster, lives. If I didn’t get M30 this time, I might not get him till next fall, since I figgered the glob would be pretty dadgum low by next month.

M30 (September 1967)

M30 was a semi if not complete disappointment. Normally, it is one of the oddest looking and most interesting of the Messier globular clusters. There was a hint of that on this evening, but as I stared, the Goat was slowly disappearing in haze that was morphing into clouds. Why have I dubbed this one “The Goat”? It’s not because or just because of its location in The Sea Goat, but due to three “spikes” of stars on its periphery that form “horns.” Funny thing, but I don’t believe I ever noticed them till one evening in the late 80s when I was observing M30 from an absolutely horrendous observing site less than a mile from the mall. Must have been a superior night despite all them parking lot lights.

The Goat Cluster, M30, is badly compromised by haze and passing clouds. I do see two of the three "horns" formed by cluster stars. Considerable resolution around an inner core that looks nearly as bright as M15's. 

Despite his odd drawing that makes M30 look more like an edge-on galaxy than a globular star cluster, Mallas and I saw the same basic things here, with him remarking on the glob’s “quite unusual” appearance. Actually, he saw a wee bit more than I could on this night. It’s clear from his text that he was able to make out all three horns, which he calls “zones” (though the third horn looks misplaced in his rendering), which I couldn’t do and therefore left off my drawing.

Sketch complete, I again turned a weather eye to the sky. The south was out of the game and the whole west was going. The north-northeast still looked right nice, though. I’d finished my work for the evening, but I was not close to ready to pull the cursed Big Switch. Hell, it wasn’t even 7 o’clock.  What next just for fun?

Planets ought to be purty good, or at least not as bad as DSOs in the thickening haze. Old Jupe was surprisingly nice despite conditions that included so-so seeing in addition to worsening transparency. Multiple cloud bands were on display and there was plenty of detail in those bands, with their edges easily seen to be irregular at 200x. Yeah, I know the consarned experts will tell you the ETX 125’s large secondary baffle cuts down on contrast, but Jupiter looked lovely, and I will not hesitate to say the image was as good as I’ve seen in any MCT of comparable aperture under comparable seeing. And—forgive the heresy—better looking than in a Questar 3.5.

After Jupe, it was onward and outward to Uranus and Neptune. Neptune was up first, and was a tiny but obviously non-stellar deep blue dot. Uranus, who I customarily observe any time he is in the sky, was a more easily resolved pea-green disk.

The planets scoped out and parts of the sky still hanging in there, I took Charity’s “Tonight’s Best” tour just like I had the last time out with my li’l gal. What was cool? Galactic cluster M52 in Cassiopeia, who was still cloud free, looked marvelous, being perfectly framed in the 20mm. Over in Vulpecula, which was beginning to suffer extreme cloud intrusion, M27 was OK with the dumbbell shape easy if not nearly as mind blowing as last time. M57 was better than I expected. The field was filled with slowly dimming but still sparkling little stars.

Clicking through the many Autostar picks that were now clouded out, I came to the tail end of the tour and, believe it or not, “extra Solar planets.” Maybe that is not as ridiculous as it sounds, since it is kind of a kick to at least see the stars around which planets have been discovered. But I wasn’t in the mood for that and Moded out of the tour.

I took a break then. This would normally have been the time when Unk woulda got spooked:  all by meself without anything in the eyepiece to take my mind off Mothman and the Skunk Ape and their good buddies, The Little Gray Dudes from Zeta Reticuli 2. Especially with the eerie-looking fog that was now rolling in. It had been uber foggy that morning, so I was not at all surprised to see it flowing over the field next to the runway. A bad case of the jitters almost got started then, but relented when I heard the friendly sound of voices from a nearby hangar.

No, I wasn’t driven to throw the stuff in the truck and skedaddle as I have a time or two in the past, but with the last of the stars disappearing, it was time to reset the runway lights and start packing up. The only surprise, I reckon, was that the fog held off a long it did. It was so damp by the time I began disassembling Charity that her tube was literally raining. Amazing thing? Her corrector was still dry. Yes, it is protected by an Astrozap dew shield, but still…

In little more than ten minutes we were on the road for Chaos Manor South. When I arrived and unpacked, I thought I’d better give the ETX’s corrector one last check—you never want to store a scope with a damp corrector. Ever. It was still dry, but Charity had left a surprise for me:  her RA lock lever was rattling around in the case. I soon had it back on and tightened down with the aid of the small allen wrench I keep for that purpose, so it was not a big deal, but it was a reminder not to take Missy’s intermittent good humors for granted.

Charity tucked in, I wandered over to the Rebel Yell locker, natch. Not a bad night, not bad at all. Four objects is not a lot, but as you know if you’ve read the previous installment, I’ve decided to limit myself to just a few objects for each edition, just like Mssrs Mallas and Kreimer did. It did occur to me that in my haste I had screwed up. I forgot to get M73. Yeah, that tiny asterism ain’t much of a Messier, but it is still a Messier. If the weather gods smile on me, I will bag it next week. If I can’t? Next autumn, I reckon. That’s OK; the watch-words of The Album Project are “ain’t no hurry.”

Overall, muchachos, I was satisfied with the evening’s labors and positively thrilled by how well my un-mothballed ETX performed. Do I recommend you-all go out and hunt down a used ETX 125? Not necessarily, but you could do worse. As I have said before, shortly after I bought Charity I had a shootout between her and a NexStar 5. Go-to was comparable and Charity’s optics better even than the C5’s renowned set. The ETX optics impressed on that night seven years ago and they continue to impress.

Next Time:  As has been the case for the past several annums, next week’s blog will not appear on Sunday, but on Christmas Eve. It will also likely be a little shorter and more sentimental than usual. See y’all then!

Have you ever thought about renaming Charity Hope Valentine to Charity Reba Valentine? Because then each letter in her name would be 2 removed from ETX. Just like HAL and IBM in 2001: A Space Odyssey. A little Stanley Kubrick action for ya, Unk.

No, I don't know what that would mean either, but just thought I'd throw that out there.

And by the way, is there some way I could subscribe to the blog? Other than just coming back for a visit every now and then, can it send me an email letting me know that a new post is up?

- Jon
I'm just hoping to find a use for the old girl. Looks like my "new" C102 will be taking over the Messier Album duties...
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