Sunday, June 01, 2014


My Favorite Fuzzies: Messier 1

Well that was fun, muchachos. In the Internet Age, being more or less off the ‘net (if’n you don’t count the fraking smart phone) ain’t no picnic. Today, you want something done; you do it on the I-net. If you ain’t got no Internet you are exiled to a dadblasted digital Coventry. Anyhow, nothing much happened with our original and simple request to AT&T:  move our voice (land-line) and DSL service to a new address.

When we moved in to the New Manse, everything was dead. No voice, no DSL. We made a series of frustrating calls to ATT personnel who, to a man and a woman, seemed confused as to the reason for our difficulties. We finally reached a person who allowed as it might be possible there was some kind of a technical problem, and that it would be necessary to send out a technician. Which could happen in about a week.

It ain't often your old Uncle totally loses his cool, but this was one of those times. “BULLSHIT! YOU PEOPLE HAVE DONE NOTHING BUT GIVE US THE RUNAROUND FOR A SOLID WEEK. YOU KNOW DAMNED GOOD AND WELL YOU CAN SEND SOMEBODY OUT TODAY IF YOU FRAKING WANT TO!” The result was I got connected to an AT&T supervisor who was very nice, determined AT&T did indeed have a problem external to our house, and promised the Area Supervisor would visit us before close of business.

Said Area Supervisor was able to get the voice land-line going in minutes. DSL? Nope. Turned out the problem with that was AT&T didn't offer DSL in our neighborhood. Why they’d told us they could move our DSL account to the new place, he didn't know. The ground truth is AT&T wants to shift everybody to their new “U-verse” all-digital/optical Internet. The friendly and competent dude promised someone would call us about setting up U-verse on the morrow.

They did, but it didn't help a dadgum bit since the caller was yet another clueless drone. I gave the whole thing up as a bad business. The next day, D. and I visited the AT&T store near the university. There, a former student set up our U-verse account. Amazingly, even he, who was very knowledgeable, didn't have an easy time scaling the AT&T wall of confusion when scheduling our installation.

Said installation was set for this past Wednesday. I had my doubts, though. AT&T kept calling and texting me to confirm the appointment. I kept confirming it, but they kept asking. Much to my surprise, however, the U-verse dude showed up on time and got us up and running in about an hour (he spent plenty of time on his iPad dealing with the AT&T craziness or he probably would have been done in 15 minutes).

Shortly after he left, who should roll up? Comcast! I was soon watching the cotton picking Mountain Monsters on a 60-inch LG, fer gosh sakes. So, by the end of the day, almost unbelievably, we had both Internet AND cable. I won’t say things are back to normal here, but they are about as normal as they ever get. So...herewith then, is the blog article you were supposed to read LAST week…

Unk's new office where the Blog happens...
Yes, your old Uncle Rod, amateur astronomy’s consulting detective, has indeed retired to his equivalent of a beekeeper’s cottage on the Sussex Downs. But that doesn't mean the end for the Little Old Blog from Possum Swamp. It will roll on every Sunday just as it has rolled on for the past eight annums (if’n you can believe that).

When I’ve talked about the objects that intrigued me when I was a sprout and a greenest of green wet-behind-the-ears novice, I’ve mostly mentioned spiral galaxies like M101, M74, and M104. Right up there with them, however, was Messier 1, the Crab Nebula. For a couple of reasons. One being that, for a silly young chirper like Little Rod, being numero uno on ol’ Chuck’s list at least implied it must also be the best.

Over and above that, Old Crabby, as I christened the nebula, was fascinating to look at in its POSS (Palomar Observatory Sky Survey) plate. I didn't know the picture (above) in my prized astronomy book, Universe from the old Science Service, was likely taken with the hallowed 48-inch Oschin Schmidt telescope during its great survey of the northern sky in the 1950s. I just knew it looked cool. Not that it looked much like a crab. More like that nasty alien goop from The Blob spreading its tendrils. Whatever it looked like, however, I dang sure wanted to see it.

But what exactly was it I wanted to see? Universe said:

"The Crab Nebula in the constellation of Taurus is a cloud of dust, gas, and meteoric debris. Photographs during the last 30 years show that it is expanding from a central point, a result of the stellar explosion that produced the supernova of 1054."

Not a bad description, I reckon, even today. Well except for “meteoric debris” business. Meteoric debris?

The first entry in Messier’s catalog was not discovered by The Man himself, but by English amateur astronomer and physician John Bevis in 1731. Messier, unaware of Bevis’ find, discovered Crabby independently in 1757. Neither Charles nor several generations of observers who came after him learned much about M1, though. It was just another dim and puzzling nebula floating sedately among the stars. Sir William Herschel thought it might be an unresolved star cluster, but he didn't really know what it was and neither did anybody else.

Crabby ala' William Parsons...
The Earl of Rosse didn't do much to help determine the nature of the Crab when he turned his gigantinormus 72-inch proto Dobsonian on it in 1844, but he did give the nebula the name that has stuck with it for well over a century. In his famous drawing, the nebula does look a little like a crab, a horseshoe crab maybe, though nobody I know sees a critter like that in the eyepiece. Nevertheless, “Crab” it is and shall remain.

It wasn’t until the 20th century that astronomers got a handle on the true nature of Old Crabby. Astrophotos of the nebula were compared with the earliest plates taken of it and revealed M1 was expanding at a rather enormous velocity. And the new breed of giant scopes like the Hooker Reflector on Mount Wilson began to show the nebula’s details in unprecedented fashion.

In pictures, it looks as if the Crab is some kind of an explosion, and that is exactly what it is—or the remnant of one, anyway. By extrapolating backwards, astronomers found the nebula had begun its expansion from a small source around 1054 CE, the year Chinese observers reported a “guest star,” a supernova (which went unseen in a Europe locked in the Dark Ages), roughly in M1’s position.

Crabby’s fame was really cemented post 1967, after Jocelyn Bell picked up that first Little Green Man signal, which turned out to be a pulsar, a rapidly spinning neutron star, the remnant of a Type II supernova explosion. A year later, a pulsar was discovered at the heart of the Crab, and has been responsible for M1 getting mucho attention since 1968.

Before you ask, yes, amateurs have observed the Crab Pulsar with radio telescopes and with sophisticated photometry setups. Visually? Supposedly it is doable with a 20-inch at high power, but I’ve never run into anybody who’s said they've seen it in an eyepiece. The pulsar is buried in the nebula, which reduces contrast to nearabout zero. Oh, and it is at freaking magnitude 16 to begin with.

Which brings us to the vaunted “just the facts ma’m,” the object’s vitals. The Crab Nebula, Messier 1, aka NGC 1952, Sh 2-244, and LBN 833, is a supernova remnant located at a right ascension of 05h34m30.0s and a declination of +22°01'00". It has a size of 8.0’ and a magnitude of 8.4, which gives it a relatively high surface brightness as supernova remnants go.

‘Course, I didn't know any of that when I was an 11-year old wannabe amateur astronomer in the spring of 1965. All I knew was daddy had come home from the late shift at the (TV) studio one spring night bearing a Tasco 3-inch Newtonian—my Tasco 3-inch Newtonian—and I wanted to see everything, including the Crab Nebula.

I suppose plenty of y’all suffered through worse beginner scopes than li’l Unk did. Nevertheless, the Tasco was not much. Oh, it was pretty enough, as you can see from the picture of its Montgomery Ward sister, whose main difference was that the sticker on its tube said “Monkey Ward” instead of “Tasco.” Nice steel tube. Wooden tripod. Cupla .965-inch eyepieces.

That was where the good ended, though. The bad added up in a hurry, starting with the scope’s finder or lack of one. Instead of a real finder telescope, the Tasco had a peep sight. In these latter days, that wouldn’t be considered bad, I reckon. It was a zero power finder just like what many of y’all use now. No red dot or red-illuminated reticle, of course, but that wasn’t the problem. The problem was the peep sight didn't gather any more light than young Rod’s eyes.

That hurt because even in the mid-1960s the Possum Swamp sky was not exactly pristine; our humid conditions saw to that, amplifying any light pollution that was there. It was better out in suburbia than it is today after 50 years of the construction of square mile upon square mile of shopping malls, used car lots, and shopping centers containing all the businesses who fled downtown after 1967. When Unk was a pup, the Milky Way was easily visible on drier nights, but the limiting magnitude at zenith was probably often no better than five.

It wasn’t just light pollution. Today, I could zip around the sky and easily put M1 in the field of that little Tasco, but in 1965 I was still struggling to learn the bright stars and constellations much less the positions of the consarned Messier objects.  Those positions weren't exactly easy to pin down on my sky maps, either. My only star charts were the monthly ones in Sky and Telescope. They were nearly as good then as they are now, but the scale was too small for them to be much help locating even the bright Messiers. The result of all the above was that I had a real hard time finding anything I could not see with my naked eyes.

My successes with the deep sky objects whose pictures I drooled over in Universe were nil at first, but I kept trying night after night. My boneheaded stick-to-it-iveness was probably the only thing that led to my successes in astronomy back then—and maybe it still is. Anyhoo, one night I decided it was time to see Messier One.

Old Crabby is actually one of the easiest Ms to locate, since he is positioned just a hair over a degree northwest of a bright star, magnitude 2.9 Zeta Tauri. Not only is Zeta bright, it is easy to find, since it forms one of the celestial bull’s “horns.” I started at unmistakable Aldebaran, drew an imaginary line from it for 15-degrees, and ran right smack into Zeta. I inserted my lowest powered eyepiece, a 16mm Huygenian (don’t ask), positioned the peep sight as best as I could on the location of M1 shown on the April Sky and ‘Scope chart (single page in the back of the magazine in them days), and saw…

Nuttin’ honey. Probably. Then and now, I am not convinced I saw the Crab Nebula with the Tasco. I was flying by the seat of my pants using a chart that depicted the nebula as a tiny oval only a few millimeters from Zeta. Worse, Taurus and M1 were descending rapidly in the west as April of 1965 died. By the time the sky was good and dark, M1 was awful low. Worse still, just as it was as good as it would get before sinking behind a tree, Mama would inevitably holler me in, “This is a school night, MISTER. Get yourself inside!”

Still, there is the slimmest chance that at least once over the couple of weeks that I pursued Old Crabby I saw something. That something would not have been at all like the picture in my book. It would have been more like the tiniest and dimmest of ovals. A barely perceptible smudge in the 3-inch. In them days, I often thought I missed objects I actually found. I didn't know I’d seen ‘em because I didn't know what they should look like in my telescope. No, I didn't expect M1 to look exactly like it did in the picture. I knew it would be dimmer, probably a lot dimmer, but I still thought I should see something about the size of the nebula in the picture and with at least some of the same features.

1966 was a good year for me astronomy-wise. Not only did I acquire the telescope, my Palomar Junior, that would show me countless marvels over the next several years, till I began the amateur astronomer’s inevitable quest for the More Better Gooder, I found myself in an honest-to-god astronomy club.
I know some of y’all practice amateur astronomy as a solitary pursuit, but I never have and don’t even see how that is possible. Those of us afflicted with this magnificent obsession of ours inevitably run into others infected with the same malady. So it was with me and my buddies in the fabled Backyard Astronomy Society (BAS).

At first, there was no club involved. We starry-eyed nerds just hung out on the playground of Kate Shepard Elementary and talked “space.” As elementary school ended and junior high began, however, we gradually began to think of ourselves as an astronomy club.

If there had been a “real” astronomy club in Possum Swamp, we would most assuredly have joined and there would have been no BAS. Inquiries with People Who Should Know, however, the Librarian at the big Downtown Library and our junior high science teacher, came up negative. There was no astronomy club in town. Well, we figgered nobody would have wanted a bunch of silly 12-year olds in their club, anyhow.

The next most likely scenario would have been to form a school club. The head science teacher, Mr. Odom, put the big kibosh on that. There was already a Science Club (which we were all members of and which did nothing but hold occasional after-school business meetings), and that was enough. There’d never been and never would be enough interest in the stars for him to waste his time on such an endeavor.

So, almost without thinking, we organized our own club, the Backyard Astronomy Society. And almost immediately lost two of our members, my friends Wayne Lee and Jitter, when they moved away after our city’s big air force base, Brookley AFB, closed. That hurt in more ways than one, but we soon filled out our ranks with new recruits. It still amazes me Mr. Odom didn't think there was much interest in astronomy at the height of the Race to the Moon. More likely, he was just lazy when it came to extracurricular duties.

The point is that being in a club meant we were able to help each other.  I could tell Wayne Lee, he should probably stop trying to see the Horsehead Nebula with his 2.4-inch refractor (none of those silly little millimeters in them days), and Kenny informed me Messier 1 looked nothing like it did in the books. It was a dim oval in a small scope and nothing, nothing at all, more.

That hurt a little, but I still wanted to see the Crab. And see it I soon did thanks both to the help of my fellow BAS members and my Pal. The Palomar Junior represented a significant if not earth-shaking jump in aperture, 4.25-inches from 3-inches, and, maybe even better, it had a real, albeit small, finder. Also, I now owned a copy of Norton’s Star Atlas, which made object-finding easier. A fall night found me at one of the star parties we held in our backyards mumbling, “Yeah, there he is.”

Most of my logbook entries and drawings from the early days were lost a long time ago, either due to one of Mama’s cleaning rampages after I left for college and the Air Force or during one of my many moves in the 70s and 80s. I do have one drawing of M1 from the 1970s. It is not from the heyday of the BAS but is, I’d guess, similar to what I’d have sketched the first night I saw Ol’ Crabby.

In the ½-inch Ramsden eyepiece (again, younguns, don’t ask what that is; you don’t want to know), it was indeed just a fuzz-spot. But it was a nice fuzz-spot. While not bright, it was easy enough to detect on any decent evening and unmistakable on a good one.  Not only was its oval reasonably prominent, it was elongated in the 4-inch scope. The filaments of gas, the tendrils, that gave the nebula its name? Not a hint of ‘em, of course.

Howsabout the Crab today? With larger telescopes and a few decades more observing experience? I can see more of the sucker visually than I could in those supposedly good old days, but you know what? Not that much more. Despite M1’s fame, it is actually a rather difficult object when it comes to details. With Old Betsy, my 12-inch Dobsonian, the true shape of the nebula’s core, which is not oval at all, becomes obvious. On a superior night, Crabby’s central region is a Z-shape, or maybe a lightning bolt.

That’s cool, but that’s not the prize, is it? That’s the filaments, the things that made Lord Rosse originally remark on the nebula’s resemblance to a crustacean. I can see traces of at least one, but it is not easy. It requires fairly high power, 150x or more, and, most of all, an OIII filter. The catch is that while one of the brighter filaments shows up (barely), looking like a weird, leafless tree, the OIII dims the rest of the nebula so you don’t get the full crab-effect.

I wish I could say throwing more aperture at Crabby Appleton helps, but it doesn't seem to. My friend Pat’s old 24-inch Dobsonian would show the tree trunk filament with greater ease than Old Betsy, but not that much greater, and seeing it still required an OIII. The view was much like that in the 12-inch, just easier with direct vision.

That dadgum Crab with the Mallincam Xtreme...
The ground truth about Crabby is that he fits that most dreaded of appellations for the visual observer: he is a photographic object. But what a photographic object he is. It doesn’t take hours of LRGB CCD exposures to capture the details I longed to see as a sprout, either. My Mallincam Xtreme will show the basic shape of the nebula and plenty of the filaments. Both at the same time. It will do that in 30-seconds or less, and, unlike that much loved picture in Universe, it will e’en do it in color.

If you stick with amateur astronomy long enough, muchachos, you will eventually be rewarded. Maybe just not in the way you expected. When I was a kid, I expected what would allow me to finally get a good look at Ol' Crabby on some distant day would be a 20-inch f/8 German equatorial Newtonian from Edmund scientific (who, of course, had the good sense never to do a scope larger than 8-inches). A video camera attached to a computerized SCT? That was science fiction. Which just goes to show that where we usually go wrong in amateur astronomy prognostication is by not dreaming wildly enough.

Next Time:  The Universe from My Backyard... 

Great reading as always.
I am glad to hear you plan on blogging as always. I have read them for at least 2-3 years. Sounds like a glass 3 fingers full of Rebel Yell was in order dealing with ATT. later man
Post a Comment

<< Home

This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?

stats counter Website Hit Counters