Of course I’m talking about NEOWISE, C/2020 F3
which has been hovering above the Northern Hemisphere’s northwestern horizon and
shining at a respectable magnitude of 2. That’s down from its height, a somewhat
amazing +.5 when it was in its morning apparition earlier in July and a definite
naked eye object. Magnitude 2 is still darned good as comets go, however. And this week its altitude is increasing, meaning it's now possible for some of those with obstructed horizons to finally get a look at the visitor.
What’s the ground truth about this comet? It’s the best we’ve
had in years—maybe since Hale Bopp departed the inner Solar System. But
don’t fool yourself: Hale-Bopp wasn’t just a naked eye object; it was a
naked eye object for a long, long time. And it wasn’t just bright; it was
BRIGHT. At its height, it was visible in near daylight. This visitor, on the
other hand, now requires binoculars to be seen if, like most of us, you are a
denizen of suburbia. In fact, its position meant that even when it was at its
brightest most observers needed optical aid to see much of it. If anything.
Wish I could have seen NEOWISE in its morning passage. I
love morning comets—maybe because they remind me of my first one, long ago Ikeya-Seki. The stars just didn’t align for your old Uncle this time, though.
As you might not be surprised to hear, it being July and me being down here in
Possum Swamp, the weather, including the dawn weather, has been lousy. But there was more to it than that;
your old uncle was too worried to be much in the mood to wake up at oh-dark-thirty
for comet chasing.
“Worried about what?” I
was potentially exposed to the COVID 19 virus. The details don’t matter. Well,
except for the fact that everybody involved was masked and wearing gloves and
the place where the exposure occurred was disinfected. Those things meant I wouldn’t
get sick. But I wouldn’t know that for at least ten days.
|Where are you little Panstarrs?|
As soon as your aged correspondent and Miss Dorothy learned
what had happened, we resolved to get tested. We managed that on the Wednesday
following my exposure the previous Thursday evening, which was about right time-wise
according to the experts. Luckily, there is a clinic right up the road from
Hickory Ridge, a drive-in style setup:
make an appointment, drive up to the facility, wait in your vehicle till
called on your phone, drive into the large tent where the testing takes place.
All this happened fairly quickly considering the fact that our poor state is
facing a huge spike in cases. About an hour after we arrived, one of the heroic
nurses was at my car window taking my temperature and my blood oxygen level. The
bad? I was running a modest fever. The good? My blood oxygen level was fine, which
I was told is more important than your temperature. Soon, a nurse had a swab up
my nose. Despite what you may have heard, that is uncomfortable but not
painful. I liken it to the feeling you’d get as a kid when you accidentally inhaled
some heavily chlorinated pool water.
Next? Back home at the New Manse, there was nothing to do
but wait and see. The fever had been worrying, but I was pretty sure I had a
mild sinus infection. At any rate, Miss D. had ordered one of those gun-like infrared
thermometers and a pulse-oxy meter from Amazon. Both insisted I was fine. Blood
oxygen in the high 90s and no more fever. Of course, your old Unk being the way
he is, that didn’t help. Every morning I’d awaken with a slightly scratchy
throat (from a night in the air conditioning) and would be sure I had
We continued to be symptom free, and five days after we were tested the results came in: NEGATIVE. In a few more days, the two weeks of
our self-quarantine were up and I was a free man. Well, free enough to at least
journey to Publix at 7 a.m. once a week for groceries and to the comic book store on Wednesdays to clear my box. The whole thing had
spooked me, and other than that I am sticking close to home. Let this be a cautionary
tale: the only reason, I’m convinced, I
wasn’t sickened and maybe worse (at my age I am definitely an “elevated risk”
kinda guy) was the mask, the gloves, social distancing, and the disinfecting we
did. I hope you also do these things, muchachos. If you are like most amateur
astronomers and like me, you are not in the spring chicken demographic and do not
want to play around with this stuff.
Be that as it may; the end of my quarantine also brought a
temporary lifting of the early evening clouds—Neo had now moved into the evening
sky. I was ready to tackle another comet in a long string of “my” comets. But how, exactly, would I do that?
|The finished mount did look funky.|
While I wouldn’t have a prayer of seeing anything close to Neo’s tail’s
full extent of 15-degrees from suburbia, I needed to maximize my field of view
in order to see as much of it as I could. I’ve got several short focal length
refractors…but…one thing I’ve learned from my decades of comet chasing is that when
it comes to to the hairy stars the magic word is “binoculars
Next question? Which binoculars? Over many years
of (occasionally) serious observing, I’ve accumulated numerous pairs of
glasses. I’ve never considered myself a real binocular fan, but, like cats, they’ve
just come to me: everything from a sophisticated
pair of 40mm roof prism binocs, to the everyday bread-and-butter 10x50s, to my big
honkin’ Zhumell Tachyon 25x100s.
Yeah, 100mm binoculars, the “six-inch refractor” of the
binocular game. We all want ‘em—or think we do. To make a long story short, about
nine years ago I found you could buy a pair of Chinese 25x100s for about
250 bucks. Not only that; they were garnering a reputation for excellent
optics. Only 250 for 4-inch binoculars? Yep. Naturally I ordered a pair and
found them to be excellent optically and at least good mechanically (you can
still buy the Tachyons, but the price is about double what it was a decade
The thing about 100mm binoculars…well the things?
They are great on the sky. Not only do they obviously gather a lot of light;
they have enough power to make them more usable in compromised skies than, say,
7x binoculars. I’ve even resolved the rings of Saturn with ‘em with fair ease.
That’s the good thing. The bad thing is that when you pass 70mms, binoculars’
weight increases exponentially. You might conceivably be able to hand-hold 80mm
glasses for short periods. 100mms? Fuhgeddabout it. And a tripod, even a big, heavy
video tripod, ain’t good enough. You need a genuine binocular mount.
And there are some very good binocular mounts out there. Like
those sold by Oberwerk (nee Bigbinoculars.com). But they don’t come cheap, and
you simply cannot compromise when it comes to 100mm binoculars. “Good enough” won’t
do. The problem was that, as you well know, Unk is a stingy soul and was even
before he retired. The solution came fairly quickly, though, in the form of the
EZ Binocular Mount kit.
|Out on the CAV field.|
Now, I’m normally wary of stuff like this, having been
burned a time or two on amateur astronomy and amateur radio garage-style kits.
But this was different; the seller was Pete Peterson (of Buck’s Gears fame),
and I knew he knew his stuff.
The assembly of the kit is a story in itself, which you can
read about here—as you may know, Unk’s
mechanical skills are somewhat lacking. I got it together successfully with the
assistance of Miss Dorothy, but was still a little skeptical. Let’s face it; it
looks funky. You’d never mistake it for anything but a kit. Ah, but when
you mount those big glasses on it out in the dark, it’s a different story. The
Peterson EZ binocular kit works better than any binocular mount I have ever
used, big or small. If my backyard experiences weren’t enough to convince me,
using the EZ on Comet Panstarrs back in 2013 sure did.
So, the Zhumells have gotten a lot of use over the nine
years I’ve owned them? Not really. The problem is that even 25x binoculars need
a dark sky to really strut their stuff. Oh, they can do alright in the typical
compromised backyard…but given the fact that you have to set up the mount to
use them at all, it’s really no more labor intensive to assemble a telescope.
And much as I love binoculars, there’s simply no doubt a scope is a more versatile
and better choice most of the time.
But not all the time. The exception is when a comet
is in the sky. Again, there is nothing, muchachos, and I do mean nothing,
that will give you a better look at a comet than big binos. Not only do you
have a wide field and plenty of light gathering power, you get that 3D effect inherent
in binoculars. There’s also the fact that it’s just more comfortable to use
both eyes than one. So, I grabbed the Zhumells' case and started hunting
for the EZ mount.
However, it was hot, muggy, buggy, and your Unk was feeling
lazy. Of course, I still have the Peterson mount, but I haven’t used it since we
moved out here to the suburbs, and knew it was in parts and pieces in several
boxes that are located somewhere. I decided to cheat. I’ve got a big
enough Manfrotto camera tripod, and since the comet would be close to the
horizon, surely that would be good enough, wouldn’t it?
Luckily, your silly old uncle had the sense to try this idea
out in the daytime. At first, it looked like it might
binoculars went on the tripod without a fuss and didn’t seem that shaky. The
trouble came when I thought I’d try altitude adjustment. There was just no way
I could move the glasses up or down in altitude safely. Even balanced as well
as I could balance them, it was evident if I let off on the altitude tension on
the tripod even a small amount too much, the Tachyons were likely to crash into
the tripod and maybe bring the whole works down.
Well, alrighty then. No 100mm binoculars for NEOWISE. We
have one of Explore Scientific’s 100mm short focal length achromatic refractors
here. On the SkyWatcher AZ-4 alt-azimuth tripod it’s not much of a pain to
set up, and it ought to perform well on the comet. But I found myself fixated
on binoculars. As above, they really are the perfect instrument for comet
viewing (and comet hunting…like many others, the late, great Comet Hyakutake was
discovered with giant binoculars). And then the solution came to me: the good, old Burgess binoculars.
As y’all have probably divined, I am not the world’s biggest
supporter of the Astronomical League. We can talk about that some Sunday perhaps,
but for now I’ll just say that whatever my feelings about the AL, I had a great
time speaking at the organization’s 2003 convention in Nashville. What went on at
the Embassy Suites hotel all those years ago (seems like just yesterday to your
aging correspondent)? Well, in addition to talks, dinners, even a little video
observing in the parking lot, and the usual things found at conventions of all
kinds, there were vendors—folks selling astrostuff.
Now, in those days, Unk was still very definitely an
astronomy gear junkie. There was simply no way I’d go home without something
new. But what? Well, there was Bill
Burgess (who is still in the astronomy business and doing well, I hear) with
his wares. Which included a pair of 15x70 binos he was offering for—get this—50
bucks. Trying them out in the dealer room, it was obvious they were well
built and seemed good optically (the stars are, of course, the only true test
for astronomy binoculars). At any rate, how could I go wrong for fifty bucks?
I couldn’t, as tests in the front yard of good, old Chaos
Manor South (remember those hallowed halls, muchachos?) showed when Dorothy and
I got home. The humble Burgesses soon became my go-to glasses. In addition to
being high in quality and rugged, their strength was and is that they offer
more light gathering power than the usual 10x50s, but in a package that is
reasonably hand-holdable. Unlike 80s, I can use these 70s for extended periods effectively
and without strain.
|The legendary Burgess 15x70s.|
So, the 70mms it would be. When night fell, finally (curse
this DST) I hied myself out on the deck and faced my nice, low northwestern
horizon. The stars of the dipper asterism were glimmering through the inevitable
haze. I had loaded NEOWISE into Stellarium earlier that day and knew approximately
where to look. “Little closer to the horizon…just a smidge west…little more…almost
…” And I saw…NUTTIN’ HONEY. Well, I saw the undersides
There things remained for several days. Which was not all
bad. While I waited for semi-clear conditions, the comet continued to rise
higher above the horizon though it was dimming a bit. Finally, early last week,
I got what I reckoned might be my last crack at NEOWISE what with a storm
churning up in the Gulf of Mexico.
Out to the deck me and the Burgesses went again. Same
routine: scan down from the bowl of the
dipper while moving to the west. And there is it was. My lasting impression of this one?
It was a perfect little comet in the Burgesses with a tiny head, some coma visible,
and a cute little tail that extended farther than I thought it would in the
nasty skies. A friend, a talented observer, managed to see the comet much better than I did from
darker skies, and was able to glimpse the ion tail. Me? No way, but I was satisfied
with what I’d seen. Which was admittedly better than what I saw of Comet
Ikeya-Seki all those decades ago. Frankly, I’ve never seen a bad comet, y’all, and
this was most assuredly a good one. Hope you saw her or get to see her before she is gone.
What next? Obviously, I need to proceed to night three of
the New Herschel Project. But as you can probably tell from the above, the weather
down here in the Swamp is unlikely to allow that anytime soon. So, it’s, as Rod’s
Mama used to tell him frequently when he wanted something, a great, big “We’ll
For the moment, I will not tackle the existential
query, “Why, Rod? Why more
Herschels? Why now?” Instead, I shall stick to explicating the
rules of engagement.”
It was hot, humid, and hazy on the longest day of the year.
Not a recipe for pleasant observing, muchachos, but your old Unk knew he needed
to do something about those Herschels, and it’s rare of late for me to get a
night that’s just
hazy, as it looked like this one would be. So, when it
finally got dark, I got myself outside, uncovered the scope, sat down at the
laptop on the deck and got to work…
But, to backtrack for a minute, y'all, I mentioned “rules of engagement”
up above (paraphrasing the Julie – Julia blog
inspired the original Herschel Project). What are they? The New Herschel
Project will be done from my backyard with 10-inch and smaller telescopes.
Likely, the 8-inch Edge 800 will be the baseline instrument. However, I suspect Charity Hope Valentine, my ETX125, will get a shot when those dark(er) winter skies come 'round, and the 10-inch Dob, Zelda, will be in the backyard when I need a little visual horsepower. Just as with the
big Project, I shall use video when appropriate and visual observing when
appropriate. How long? I'll stick to what I said last time:
365 days. 400 objects. One astronomer and a less than
perfect suburban backyard sky.
The New Herschel Project. Now on a computer terminal
To say I was a bit nervous about Emma following her surgery
would be an understatement.
Did I get her corrector centered properly? Would she still be in collimation? Time
to find out. I lit-off the CPWI
software, the New Project's "NexRemote," selected StarSense Auto as my alignment
type, and hit the go button.
Just as with an alignment done with the StarSense auto-align camera’s
normal hand control, the Advanced VX moved Emma to four different fields and
plate solved on each. As I mentioned in the blog entry on CPWI
not long ago,
the only difference was that instead of having to squint at the tiny text on
the hand control—even smaller than that of the standard NexStar Plus HC—I could
read about what the StarSense and AVX were doing on the laptop screen in characters
large enough not to challenge your old Uncle’s fading eyesight.
Directly—in about the same amount of time it would have
taken to do the StarSense alignment with the HC—CPWI
declared we was
done. Since I’d had an at least brief opportunity to test the CWPI StarSense
goto alignment accuracy some weeks back, I wasn’t overly concerned about that. On that
night the program delivered results that seemed to be every bit as good as what
the hand control would have produced.
curious to see if a star would be placed in the
small field of the Mallincam Xtreme riding on Emma’s rear (ahem) cell. Even
though I’d screwed a Meade f/3.3 reducer on the scope ahead of the camera, the
Xtreme’s tiny CCD chip still produces a limited field. I had already started the
Mallincam Xtreme control program and set the camera for “sense up” and an
exposure of about 2-seconds, which is good for framing and focusing.
“Hmmm…how about that bright one over yonder?” I located
Arcturus on the CPWI
star map displayed before me on the computer’s screen,
clicked on it, and hit the goto button. Emma immediately started making for the
star at her top slewing speed. When the AVX’s weasels-with-tuberculosis motor
sound stopped, there was Arcturus, way out of focus but nevertheless on the screen of the
old portable DVD player I use as a Mallincam display. In the course of focusing
the star, I could see diffraction rings and could tell I had—somewhat amazingly, I
reckon—maintained collimation when I put Emma back together.
Well, alrighty then
. Time to get to work on the New Herschel
Project. No, the sky was not
perfect—some clouds and a lot of haze—but it
was better than it had been for weeks or would probably be for weeks more, so there was no time to waste. The
camera was obviously ready to roll, and a quick test showed my little Orion
StarShoot DVR was also good.
|CPWI alignment choices.|
So…was it an Uncle Rod night
or not (if you’re a
newbie here, that means a night of
bumbling)? It was not, muchachos, mostly
not, anyhow. The closest thing to a serious hiccup was that the Orion imaging filter (a mild Deep Sky type filter) I’d
experimentally screwed onto the Xtreme’s nosepiece didn’t really seem to help that much.
It also gave the images you’ll see below a strong bluish cast. These types of
filters work pretty well for DSLR imaging, but I believe I can achieve better
results with the Mallincam in the backyard just by playing with its exposure,
gain, color, and contrast controls.
I did run into a problem with SkyTools
when I linked
it to CPWI
. Bringing up the Herschel 400 list would cause the program to
crash. That only happened with that list and no others, strangely. I’ll have to do some
troubleshooting soon, but it was easy enough just to enter object IDs from the
list manually into CPWI rather than clicking on objects in SkyTools 3
Finally, I don’t know what
I was thinkin’ (probably “not
much”), but instead of using the 2-inch visual back I normally
employ with the Mallincam, I attached the camera
to the Edge’s stock 1.25-inch back which is overly long and which resulted in some vignetting in
the bright skies and a little more reduction than I like. But, hey, what can I
say? It wouldn’t be an Uncle Rod night if it weren’t, well, an Uncle Rod night, right?
Anyhoo, below are the targets Emma and I checked off the
list on this second evening. There’s no particular rhyme or reason to the order in which
we observed them. It had more to do with what was in the clear at any given
time than any overarching plan for the night.
|M105 and company.|
The ol’ Lion, Leo, was riding high, and Messier 105, a bright
elliptical galaxy and one of the Ms in the Herschel list, was an obvious target.
The question really wasn’t whether I’d get M105, but whether the camera would
see the two dimmer companion galaxies, NGC 3384 and 3389. Verdict? The two
bonus galaxies were there
—if just barely (they are easier to see on the video
than they are on this single frame grab here).
Next up was Virgo’s bright, near face-on spiral, M61. I’d
have gone there anyway—it’s one of the showpieces of spring even from poor
sites/skies—but I was doubly interested in this SAB island universe because of its recent supernova. Would it still be bright enough to detect in these skies (I hadn’t
checked)? Yep, there it was among a few hot pixels, SN 2020jfo. That was cool.
But what was just as cool was seeing M61 show off its spiral arms in the
frankly horrible heavens.
Also in Virgo, is another Messier treat that is an aitch,
M104, the justly famous Sombrero Galaxy. With the Virgin riding high, the
galaxy cut through the nasty haze and light pollution with fair ease. The basic
shape with “crown,” “brim,” and dust lane was more than obvious despite skies
that were becoming ever more punk.
Ophiuchus’ M107 is certainly not its best globular star
cluster, but this Shapley – Sawyer Class 10 (loosely concentrated) star ball is
a Herschel and was out of the trees, so there went me and Mrs. Peel. I was a
little concerned we might not see much…this is a loose cluster (which equals “dimmer”)
and it was low in the sky. But, hey, I was using a MALLINCAM
. Sure enough,
there it was on the screen showing considerable resolution (especially in the
NGC 6369 The Little Ghost Nebula
The Little Ghost (planetary) Nebula is another of Ophiuchus
huge trove of deep sky objects. It is also a Herschel, so it was what was next on the itinerary. It’s
fairly dim and also small at about 28” across, so it’s not something that will put your
dadgum eye out. It was not bad on this night, showing off it’s pink color and small ring shape, both of which things can be hard to make out in an eyepiece.
|Pretty M61 and supernova.|
Also in the realm of the Serpent Bearer and not far from
the Little Ghost is the magnitude 7.4 globular star cluster NGC 6356. I was
pleasantly surprised by this little guy. Lots of stars were resolved by Mrs.
Peel and the Xtreme.
Another, dimmer, glob, NGC 6342, was close at hand, so it was
our next stop. What me and Mrs. Peel saw was obviously a globular—there was
quite a bit of resolution around its periphery—but it’s relatively small size
for a glob (6’) and low altitude prevented us from getting a good look.
This next glob is brighter than 6342, but it is looser and even
smaller. There was obviously a scattering of very dim, very tiny stars onscreen,
but more than that neither I nor Emma could say.
Annnnd…NGC 6287 is another of Ophiuchus many globular
clusters. It’s another dim one at about magnitude 10. It’s also small at 5’
across. Nevertheless, we saw a bunch of teeny weeny stars surrounding an obvious
central condensation in this medium concentration (VII) star ball.
Did you know Ursa Major’s justly famous galaxy M108 is a
Herschel? Well it is. Alas, it's mostly famous for its proximity to M97, the Owl
Nebula. M108, a near edge-on, is badly harmed by light pollution. Under dark
skies, it can almost rival M82. In the suburbs, it is usually nothing more than
a dim streak. On this night, even with the Mallincam, it wasn’t much more than
that. Oh, there were a few spots of condensation, but, yeah, mostly, "dim smudge."
This magnitude 10.1 Ursa Major Galaxy was just a round
fuzzball on the screen. I didn’t expect much else. It’s close to face-on in its
orientation to us (always tough), and it takes some dark skies to allow even a long exposure to pull out the arms of this active galaxy.
|Good, old Sombrero.|
A magnitude 11.1 barred lenticular galaxy, NGC 2987 can show considerable detail under dark skies. On
this night what was visible was a round nucleus and some hints of its bar.
There wasn’t much to see in this mag 10.6 face-on irregular
galaxy. But there never is, even in large telescopes. However, I was pleased to see that
the galaxy appeared distinctly oval instead of being just a round fuzzball.
This Sc spiral was visible—but only just. While it’s a
strongly oval intermediated inclination spiral galaxy and shows plenty of splotchy detail in its disk under good conditions, on this night it was an
easily passed over oval of subtle brightening in the field.
In deep photos, this small (2.6’ across) face on Sc galaxy
shows a welter of delicate arms. To my C8 and Mallincam, alas, it only showed a
bright core and a
very subtle disk of haze
NGC 4036 was at least slightly more interesting than the
previous object. If only relatively so. It’s an edge on lenticular, and lenticular
galaxies don’t have much—if any—detail to show. In my scope on this
(had to admit) yucky night, this 4’ across object was obviously strongly
elongated, but that was all I could say.
|Little but cute ghost.|
Under good conditions, a deep sky video camera can show an
image of this barred lenticular that doesn’t look much different from its
Palomar Observatory Sky Survey plates—a bright round center embedded in a subtle
haze with the same of the iris of a cat’s eye (seen here in a Herschel Project
shot from dark skies). On this evening it was just a small bright spot in some
very subtle and shapeless haze.
This is a magnitude 12, multi-armed intermediate spiral galaxy.
That’s what it is from dark skies, anyhow. On this evening I had to stare at
the screen for quite a while to assure myself I was seeing anything
NGC 5322 is a large (6’ across) elliptical galaxy with a strong
oval shape. Curiously, while I could make out its oval envelope, I could not easily detect the brighter center of this magnitude 11 sprite. Go figger, I always say.
And, with that Ursa Major fuzzie recorded, Urania closed
down her sky, drawing a pall across it with a flood of thick, lightning-festooned
clouds. I was satisfied, though. Well, as satisfied as I ever am when an observing run ends before I am ready to quit. I hadn’t covered a huge amount of territory, but I had
at least scratched the surface of the friendly Herschel 400. And I’d been
assured that my beloved telescope, Emma Peel, came through her recent travails in good shape. I covered Emma, brought the computer and other electronic gear inside, poured out some "sarsaparilla," and relaxed in the blessed cool of the den.
What’s next and when for the good, old AstroBlog? I cannot
say when “next” will be, because that depends on the cooperation of the Possum
Swamp summer sky. The Moon needs to get out of the way, too. And I don’t think I
have anything else to bring to you at the moment other than the next installment of the New
Project. But you never know what will enter my mind (such as it is). So,
muchachos, I guess that means "I will see you when I see you."