Saturday, July 25, 2020


Night of the Comet

Of course I’m talking about NEOWISE, C/2020 F3, muchachos, 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 IT.

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 ago).

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 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?

ALCON 2003
Luckily, your silly old uncle had the sense to try this idea out in the daytime. At first, it looked like it might work…the 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 there…almost there…” And I saw…NUTTIN’ HONEY. Well, I saw the undersides of clouds.

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 see.”  

Sunday, July 05, 2020


#562: The New Herschel Project Night 2, 21 Down 379 to Go

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 that 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.

How far will it go?

The New Herschel Project. Now on a computer terminal near you!

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.

Unk's "observatory."
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.

I was 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 fumbling and 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.
M105 (NGC 3379)

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).

M61 (NGC 4303)

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.

M104 (NGC 4594)

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.

M107 (NGC 6171)

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 video).

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.
NGC 6356

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.

NGC 6342

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.

NGC 6235

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.

NGC 6287

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."

NGC 2985

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.
NGC 2987

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.

NGC 3077

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.

NGC 2976

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.

NGC 4041

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 around that.

NGC 4036

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.
NGC 3945

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.

NGC 2742

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

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." 

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