Sunday, May 08, 2022

 

Issue 580: Urban Astronomer Night 1, Burning Heart of the Hunting Dogs

 

Yeah, you don’t have to tell me the ol’ AstroBlog missed another few months. I was all fired up to get back on a regular schedule in February, but... That obviously didn’t happen, and we missed February, March, and April. None of which was by design, muchachos. 

Alas, in February and March your broken-down old Uncle’s health or lack thereof was once again a factor. A big one. In April, I was feeling better, almost like my old cantankerous self, but I had a big responsibility that month, the 2022 Mobile Hamfest. I am the president of the Mobile Amateur Radio Club, and the hamfest, which we’ve been putting on at least since the end of World War II, was job numero uno for me and my fellow officers.

But now it’s May, and I actually feel even better than I did during hamfest month (knock on wood) and am ready to get the blog on the road again, THIS TIME FOR SURE, with a brand new (in a way) observing project. So, what happened to Unk’s last big observing idea, The New Herschel Project, which was to be my quest to observe the Herschel 400 objects from my backyard with a 6-inch telescope? “Nuttin’ honeyis what.

Those lingering health issues that stretch all the way back to 2019 is why. It is still going to happen, though, and will run concurrently in these pages with the new one.  I’ve found my observing is most productive these days when I’ve got a couple of things to work on. So, expect to see “The New Herschel Project Night 4” here before long. But the new one? Unk’s new quest? It came to me in a flash one cloudy evening.

The thing with your old Unk when it comes to observing projects?  The successful ones are rarely those I struggle with and dig for. They are the ones that come as if by magic. Like the morning a few <ahem> years ago I awoke with the idea of observing every Cassiopeia open cluster my 12-inch Dobsonian, Old Betsy, could reach. An abbreviated version of that project appeared some years later as a chapter in my book The Urban Astronomer’s Guide (2006). The point is I didn’t agonize over anything; “The Cassiopeia Clusters” just bubbled up out of my subconscious.

And speaking of that book, while I will readily admit it’s not perfect, I think it is pretty darned good and is the one book of mine I am 100% happy with (though the Second Edition of Choosing and Using a New CAT comes close). Does it sound like Urban Astronomer had been on Unk’s mind? It really hadn’t. Nevertheless, just as on that long-ago dawn at old Chaos Manor South, an observing project, one involving that book, sprang from Unk’s mind (such as it is) Athena-like.

Like Pallas, this idea was fully formed and didn’t take any ruminating:  I’d revisit all the objects from Urban Astronomer. I’d also try to stay true to the book’s small scope emphasis. While some of the Urban objects were observed with my (now gone) 12.5-inch Dobsonian and C11, most were viewed with 8-inch and smaller telescopes, many with 4-inch and 6-inch Newtonian reflectors.

Unk figgered a 6-inch refractor would be a good compromise. More oomph than Urban Astronomer’s old 6-inch Newtonian, but still true to the small-aperture spirit of the book. Of course, my 8-inch Edge SCT, Mrs. Emma Peel will get her share of starlight. If neither of those two proves sufficient for a target? I still have one larger-aperture instrument, my 10-inch Dobbie, Zelda, to call on if and when needed. But the idea of using the 6-inch refractor, Big Ethel, for at least part of the project was appealing. I was curious to see what she could do with the urban objects from my backyard—and curiosity is a very necessary ingredient in any of my projects.

First step in getting The Urban Astronomer Project off the ground was putting together an observing list of the book’s objects. I had a SkyTools 2 format observing list posted online for years. Unfortunately, its location was the files section of the Yahoogroup devoted to my book, which is, of course, long gone, vanished into the ether with the rest of the vaunted groups. I searched my hard drive, but didn’t find a copy. What I did find was a Word format list of the book’s DSOs.

Being lazy, Unk really didn’t want to sit down and manually key-in every one of those dadgummed 154 objects, though that wouldn’t have been that bad.  So, I said to myself, “Self, the Deep Sky Planner 8 program is supposed to have a pretty good import function. Worth a try, anyhow.” I saved the Word file as a plain text document, opened DS8, went to “import,” and <boom> I had a DSP observing list in just a minute or two. Frankly, I was amazed it had been so easy, but I shouldn’t have been. Deep Sky Planner is one of those few astronomy programs that do everything right.

I’d already decided on a scope for the project, Big Ethel. The only question was the mount. But that wasn’t much of a question either. The big refractor is usable on my Celestron Advanced VX GEM mount. She’s a little shakier on the VX than I’d like, but not bad at all. More problematically, if you send the AVX to an object above about 75 – 80° altitude, you run the risk of crashing the OTA into a tripod leg. So, my Losmandy GM811 GEM it would be.

Or so I thought. My latest assignment for Sky & Telescope wrought an immediate change in gear lineup. I was engaged in doing the S&T Test Report on Celestron’s new dew heater system for SCTs (look for it soon), and I’d obviously need to use an SCT, a Celestron SCT, for that. Checking out their Smart Dew Controller’s Celestron-specific functions would require a Celestron mount and Celestron software (CPWI), too. So…

Since, I’d be out with the Edge 800 and the AVX mount working on the Test Report, I thought I might as well piggyback the first night of The Urban Astronomer Survey on that.  I do need to get the refractor and Losmandy mount into the backyard and check them out after another long period of disuse, but that will be “next time.”

Equipment settled, all that remained was to decide upon my starting place in the sky. I’d originally, back in February, intended that to be Orion. Specifically, Chapter 9, Tour 1, “Return of the Hunter.” But, suddenly, it was May and the big guy was down on the horizon at dark. It was spring…glorious spring…and where better to start than Chapter 6, Tour 1, “Burning Heart of the Hunting Dogs”? Not only does that include some truly archetypal spring deep sky objects, it’s the first of the book’s sky tours and thus seemed a perfect place for us to begin our journey.

If you have the book, follow along with it. If you ain’t got the book, why ain’t you? Just kiddin’…all are welcome to join our little expedition whether they have contributed to your parsimonious old Uncle’s Rebel Yell fund or not.

So came a clear night. One of those currently rare clear nights down here on the borders of the Great Possum Swamp. Oh, it wasn’t perfect…there was a thin crescent Moon riding high and casting shadows on the Earth below, humidity was at 60% and rising, and there was haze aplenty. But it was OK. And it had been obvious enough it was going to be OK to impel me to get Emma and her AVX mount into the backyard late that afternoon. It was hot as the day waned, not punishingly hot, but a foreshadowing of things to come in just a month or two. I got the scope set up without breaking too much of a sweat.

Were we ready to go? I hoped so...
When darkness finally came—damn this DST—I threw the switch on the mount and hoped for the best. I was worried, you see. What was to worry? Well, that afternoon I’d been reviewing the manual for the above-mentioned Celestron dew controller. It mentioned that in order to monitor the heater system with a NexStar+ HC, I had to upgrade to recent firmware. “Oh, here we go…”

I’ll admit I hadn’t updated the AVX MC or HC in years. In at least five years, y’all. There really wasn’t any reason to. Mount worked fine, and none of the minor improvements in the Celestron firmware I’d read about seemed to apply to me. Last time I’d upgraded anything was shortly after I got a Celestron StarSense. I did update that, since I’d been told it was a must for the thing to work right. But that was well before 2017

Hokay, what will be, will be. I downloaded CFM, the Celestron Firmware Manager. I vaguely remembered the last time I updated an HC that Celestron had gone to a Java app that somewhat automated the process, but recalled no details.

“Alright. Got ‘er downloaded. Zip file. I’ll just extract it into a new directory and have a look-see. Wait. What the hail is this? A .jar file?!  What was I supposed to do with that? How did I extract it? With what? I started looking for an app to expand such files, but then a small light went on in Unk’s increasingly confused noggin. Celestron’s instructions were clear: Click on the jar file and CFM will run. No extraction required. So why was I getting “Which app do you want to use to open this?” instead? Wait. Did I even have Java installed on the laptop?

A quick visit to the Java website revealed, no, there was no Java on this here computer. Installation of the latest version got us back on the road again. Sure was glad I'd gone over the manual one last time that afternoon and found I needed that update. If I hadn't, 'twould have made for a disastrous comedy of errors out in the dark.

Anyhow, I connected the AVX HC to the Windows laptop (with a serial cable; it’s an old +HC), powered up the mount, and started CFM. It immediately found a NexStar+ HC and began the upgrade. Only fly in the ointment? During the process, Wilbur, our rascally ginger cat, tried to bite the serial cable in two.  Wilbur corralled and HC done, I instructed CFM to look for another “device,” the mount (the mount's motor control board, that is), and update it. Which it did. Or said it did anyhow. You know your ol’ Unk is all about “trust, but verify.”

I disconnected AVX from the PC and booted the Advanced VX and it came right up, albeit with a sign-on message a little different from the old one. But a sign-on message nevertheless. I checked my location in the HC and sure enough, it was somewhere way to the west. Maybe Torrance, CA. I reentered lat/lon, time, time-zone, etc. and thought we might be ready to go. I did make a note to myself that the update had probably wiped-out my PPEC recording, but I would worry about that some other day—er… “night.” The mount seemed OK with the new firmware, but only its behavior under the stars would tell that tale.

The Celestron dew system, which you’ll learn all about in the aforementioned Test Report before long, had taken little fiddling or head-scratching on the part of your Uncle to get going. But it was Something New, and by the time I was done setting it up, it was dark and I was anxious to begin wandering the spring stars...

Power turned on, the AVX started her alignment, and we were off. I had to reject an alignment star here and a calibration star there thanks to spring foliage, but that was just OK. When I punched “M 003” into the HC, the AVX whirred, took off, and when she stopped the king glob of spring was centered in my 13mm Ethos and looking mighty nice. Plenty of resolution, which increased when I switched in my ol’ 8mm Ethos—under the haze-scattered light pollution, more magnification rather than less was better. That was something I learned on those long-ago nights in the early 1990s when I was beginning the observing that would eventually go into the book.

I spent some time thereafter experimenting the heater system, to include viewing its status—things like its current-draw and the dew-point temperature—on the HC and, later, on Celestron’s CPWI software running on the laptop. Worked jus’ fine, but I’ll say no more about that here, though. If’n you’re interested, read all about it in a forthcoming issue of Sky & Telescope.

That done, it was time to tackle my little list, which I did in almost the same order they are presented in The Urban Astronomer’s Guide (I've reversed M81 and M82 here; everybody looks at M82 first).

The Objects:

The Croc on a long ago night..,
M94:  Back in the Chaos Manor South days, I called this magnitude 8.2 SA galaxy “Old Faithful.” That’s because this 10’ across magnitude 8.2 fuzzy is small enough and bright enough that it pops out of the poorest skies in almost any telescope. In the book, I mention how easy it is to find, positioned almost midway between Canes Venatici’s two bright stars Cor Caroli and Chara. Of course, in these latter days when everybody’s CAT uses a goto telescope, that doesn’t matter. What matters is how easy M94 is to see. If you live under compromised skies and want to see a spring galaxy, this is where you begin.

How does it look? Back in the supposedly glorious day, I commented the galaxy looked distinctly stellar in a 4-inch telescope at low power and that at higher magnifications the small disk brightened smoothly to an almost stellar center, the galaxy’s fiercely bright elongated core, which has given this object its common name, The Croc’s Eye Galaxy.

Another comment I made in the book concerned how much this galaxy looks like a small, unresolved globular star cluster. And that just how it appeared at 175x in the Edge 800. There was that preternaturally bright core (the “burning heart,”) and haze surrounding that, fairly extensive haze. If I stared long enough, I could almost convince myself I was resolving stars in that haze. Just as astronomers of old, like Willie Herschel, convinced themselves they were seeing stars in far distant galaxies.

Wow! What a trip down memory lane. I hadn’t viewed 94 in a long, long time, and it almost felt as if I were reliving one of the nights of “From City Lights to Deep Space,” the columns in my old Skywatch newsletter upon which (some of) Urban Astronomer is based.

M51. Next up, a toughie. Messier 51, the Whirlpool Galaxy, is such a renowned and beloved object and one that presents such detail from dark sites we forget it’s a challenge for urban and suburban astronomers. In the book, I warned my readers the Whirlpool looks nothing like its pictures if you’re observing from compromised skies.  In the city, it and its interacting companion, NGC 5195, were merely two blobs, a bright one and a dim one; nothing more.

Don't expect this from your bright backyard.
On this latter-day night, the story was, alas, the same. Given the haze and my no doubt much less acute eyes 30 years down the line, I didn’t expect much better. Even with an 8-inch and Ethoses in place of a 6-inch and Plössls.  I wasn’t disappointed, then, to only detect two blobs. On a better night here, especially with Zelda, I can see a little more than just the bright cores of the two, but not this night. That was OK; I’d successfully visited M51 and NGC 5195 (which was not easy to see).

M106, a big, 17.4’ x  6.6’, but bright, magnitude 8.3, SAB galaxy, is, as I opined in Urban Astronomer, less frequently visited and probably less well-known than nearby M51. Which is a shame, since it really looks better in small city-bound scopes. With my homemade 6-inch Newtonian back in the day, the galaxy was visible with direct vision. It was mostly just a bright, round fuzzy, but I thought I noticed some elongation. 

The same was true at first with Emma. But then I began to see more. The core wasn’t just elongated, but strongly elongated. And there was a patchiness that hinted at 106’s somewhat odd-looking spiral. If you haven’t visited this one in a while, do yourself a favor and get after it with a scope tonight.

M63, the famous Sunflower Galaxy, can be a real beauty, showing off at least hints of its big spiral and the dust patches that give it the sunflower appearance. On the time-washed Chaos Manor South night I viewed M63, a magnitude 8.6 SA spiral that subtends 13’ x 7’, I did it in style with long-gone Old Betsy, my beloved 12.5-inch Dobsonian. In that telescope in a 12mm Nagler eyepiece on a relatively good city night, I was astonished to see not just a bright core and a strongly elongated disk, but considerable hints of spiral structure.

This night? I stayed with M63 for some time, struggling for detail, but the best I could come up with was a subdued core, an elongated disk, and the barest hints of some sort of dark detail in that disk. I think I’ll revisit this distant giant with the 10 inch, Zelda, before spring is out.

The EXPLODING Cigar Galaxy...
M82 is even more well-known than M63. This is the Cigar Galaxy—the Exploding Cigar Galaxy, my daughter Elizabeth used to call it.  It’s a magnitude 8.4 near-edge-on that’s been badly disturbed by an encounter with another galaxy (likely M81). There are dark dust lanes crisscrossing the disk, and, with the color Mallincam, I’ve seen red-hued matter spilling out of the center and coursing across countless light years.

On that Urban Astronomer night of the Hunting Dogs, the galaxy was much more modest, but still a treasure. Most of the time, M82 was just a featureless cigar, but by sticking with it and doing my best to keep ambient light out of my eyes and off the scope, I was sometimes able to pick up those crazy dust lanes and patches. It was the same this night. Oh, M82 was bigger and brighter with Mrs. Peel than it had been with my 4-inch Palomar Junior reflector, but initially that was all.  It was at first just that gray whisp of a cigar, but the dark patches put in an appearance as the night grew older and a little darker.

Back in the Chaos Manor South days, there were times M82’s companion galaxy, M81, was completely invisible with the Palomar Junior or my 6-inch Newt. I did get an OK look at it with the NexStar 11 GPS one night. Oh, I couldn’t see those far-flung gossamer spiral arms—the only superior visual look I’ve had at those has been from the Texas Star Party—but it was good enough. A big, elongated disk that wanted to reveal some sort of detail

I was frankly surprised what Emma did with M81. I expected to have to fight for the galaxy on this night, but no. The big magnitude 6.9 SA spiral was starkly, and I do mean starkly visible with the 13mm Ethos at 107x. Not just that; I’d say it was easier to pick up a little detail in the galaxy than it had been with the C11 at Chaos Manor South.

M101, the Pinwheel Galaxy, is what I called a “been-there” in the Chaos Manor South days. An object difficult enough you have to be satisfied you’ve seen it at all, that you’ve been there. The problem with the Pinwheel Galaxy? It’s not that it’s dim. It’s a respectable magnitude 7.9. It’s that this SAB is face-on to us and is large—28’ x 26’. “Big” and “face-on” galaxies are the toughest of all. Their light is badly spread out and their surface brightness terribly low.

From an observing site in the Possum Swamp suburbs only a little worse than my current digs here in Hickory Ridge, M101 was nearly impossible with the NexStar 11 GPS. All my tricks—dark hood, jiggle scope, averted vision, etc.—were required to turn up a “[A] vague, nebulous ball 10’ across.” Would Emma do as well? She did, or at least I think she did…I am pretty sure I saw an elusive something in the field of my 16mm “Happy Hand Grenade” 100-degree AFOV ocular. Maybe.

We end this excursion with the famous Owl Nebula, M97, a relatively large 3’ diameter magnitude 9.9 planetary. This was another Urban object I turned my old C11, Big Bertha, on. With an OIII filter it was not a problem. I could see the nebula easily, and the big prize, the two dark patches than form the bird’s eyes, were, while not exactly easy, visible—they tended to swim in and out of view. Guess what? The same maintained this night with 8-inch Emma. In fact, I’d say the eyes were easier than on that evening of yore. Was the seeing steadier? The OIII filter I was using better? The eyepiece (Ethos) superior to my old 12mm Nagler? Maybe all of the above.

And, so, our cosmic tour bus has pulled into the station. Thanks for travelling with us. Be careful getting off the bus; the night is old, and the Moon is down and it is dark. Rebel Yell will be dispensed in the lobby to all comers. And please join us for our next big outing, “Lion’s Den.”


Friday, January 28, 2022

 

Issue 579: Welcome to 2022 aka “What Could Happen?”


2022? I hope things will, barring an alien invasion, the zombie apocalypse, or an asteroid strike (and I don’t discount any possibilities anymore), be getting back to normal. Course, that’s what I thought 2021 would bring. It obviously wasn’t quite that, but it was Year Two of The Return of the Little Old Blog from Possum Swamp. I’d got this-here Astroblog stabilized on a mostly, if not quite, monthly schedule, and that was at least one thing that was getting back to normal, muchachos.

Anyhow, I’ve got what I think will be an exciting series of blog articles lined up for 2022. They will be observing-oriented, and will depend on the weather to some extent, but I hope “at least every month.” IOW, “steady as she goes.” This time, however? January is the annual recap of my blog-centric astronomy year. Hey, y’all, I’m just happy there’s anything to recount.

January 2021

January was just what you are getting’ here today, a recap of your old Uncle Rod's past year. Which was not a bad one. The lockdown definitely encouraged me to start thinkin’ about this blog again, and slowly, ever so slowly, bringing it back online more regularly. I was pretty sure 2021 would not bring a return to normalcy, as in me going to star parties. I foresaw yet more staying at home and observing from the backyard, but I was used to that already.

I’ve been more of a backyard/club-site observer since 2016 than a star party monster. 2016 was what a dear friend (you know who you are) dubbed “Uncle Rod’s Farewell Tour.”  I did star party after star party as a speaker, seemingly spending more time in the air than on the ground. I found as my mid-sixties came over the horizon, I didn’t want to do that anymore.

March 2021

Missed February but was back in March for the return of my old friend, Charity Hope Valentine, an ETX with whom Unk has shared more than a few adventures.  After she had been in her case at the New Manse untouched for several annums, Unk finally had the good sense to get her out in the backyard again. Before doing that, I had replaced Charity’s LNT battery (she’s an ETX PE), never a pleasant task, and figgered she was ready to go. Unfortunately, under the stars the little Mak had fits. Her Autostar display would disappear. Sometimes the HC buttons wouldn’t work. Occasionally, the Autostar would reset itself. Bad juju for sure.

A little troubleshooting right there out back with the yard floodlights on revealed the problem. Fifteen years down the line, the Autostar’s cable was finis. The insulation was dried and cracking and in places entirely gone. One of my long-time goto astro-dealers, Agena Astro Products, supplied a new one. With it plugged in, it became clear Miss C is ready for another 15 years in her inimitable neurotic fashion and might even outlast ol’ Unk.

June 2021

No April or May either, but that was pretty much due to the incredibly punk spring weather here on the borders of the Great Possum Swamp. June was not much better, but Unk was at least back with an update on doings ‘round the New Manse. Chief among those things? How much I was enjoying Phyllis Lang’s new version of her long time hit, Deep Sky Planner (8).

I’ve long been a fan of observing planners, which are essentially huge databases of objects that allow you to produce observing lists easily (and do, as they say on TBS late at night, “Much, much more!”).  In fact, the vaunted Herschel Project could not have been done in just three years without the aid of a planner, which easily showed me what I’d observed, what I still needed to observe, and when I could observe what I needed.

Much of the Project was done with SkyTools 3 (now in version 4). And it is a fantastic program. However, my more casual observing programs of today are really a better match for Deep Sky Planner (not that you can’t essay the most ambitious projects with it). Which is a way of saying the new SkyTools 4 is kinda over your silly old Uncle’s head. Things I really like about DSP? Large fonts that are easy on my aged eyes, and the fact it works with my fave planetarium program, Stellarium.

There was also some not-so-good I reported on. My Edge 800 and Advanced VX had taken a bath in the backyard thanks to a failing Telegizmos cover. Said cover was admittedly five years old, but I didn’t expect it to give up the ghost in such dramatic fashion. Both the C8 and the mount head had considerable moisture inside.

The C8 was easy enough to fix, Unk pulling the corrector plate—something he’s done a few <ahem> times to SCTs over the decades—and drying Mrs. Emma Peel off. The AVX was a bit dicier. Unk disassembled the mount head, dried the PCBs out, and hoped for the best. Indoor tests revealed the AVX was fine, but due to a stormy Gulf, testing under the stars would have to wait a while.

July 2021

Unk was on schedule with an entry that recounted some good times with yet another edition of The Reminiscences of Uncle Rod. This time about the 2000 Deep South Regional Star Gaze. That was notable because it was perhaps the last good DSRSG at its old home at the wonderful Percy Quin State Park in Mississippi. Of other interest? Mention of George Kepple’s Astro Cards—index card finder charts for locating deep sky objects.  Unk purchased a deck of ‘em at the star party and has been using them frequently for two decades since. They, in fact, deserve a blog entry of their own someday.

August 2021

I summed it up right from the get-go: “Another hurricane, Hurricane Ida, has come into the Gulf to trouble your silly old Uncle, muchachos…Nothing has changed since July regarding the endless nights of clouds.”  So, there was no observing to be done. What was on Unk’s mind otherwise?

The Herschel Project, thanks to a couple of nights watching some old DVDs recorded during the go-go days of the Big Enchilada. As you know, I never got around to assembling the Project blog entries into a book ala’ Julie Powell’s Julie and Julia…so this article will have to do, an executive summary of the Herschel Project, Unk’s quest to observe all 2500 objects discovered by Will and Lina.  

November 2021

Despite Unk’s best intentions, the Astroblog was not back till November. Yet another round of health problems ensured that (this Getting Old bidness is hell). November was a rather important entry. Night-to-night, my most used telescope mount is my Celestron Advanced VX. If my old bones are weary and hurting, I can still get myself to set it up in the back 40. As above, however, the mount had been drenched in an unlooked-for storm, and I needed to give it a full checkout outside under the stars. If the mount was a goner, I’d have to replace it with a similar-sized one, and I sure didn’t want to be faced with “decisions-decisions.”

Thank goodness, the AVX was just fine. Heck, even the RTC battery was still good. I plugged in the HC, fired the mount up with my 5-inch APO, Hermione, onboard, and had quite the time eyeballing the late summer to early winter showpieces. What would I have replaced the mount with had she been kaput? That would have been the big question. Another AVX? An iOptron? Something higher-toned? Thinking about that makes my head hurt, so I sure am glad I don’t have to think about it.

December 2021

December is always my Christmas Eve message, which is usually shorter and more sentimental than other articles. Anyhoo…with the thermometer in the mid-70s, December 24th in the ‘Swamp didn’t exactly have a Christmas feel about it. Despite that, Unk was looking forward to one of his yearly astronomy rituals, my Christmas Eve look at M42.

How did I do that this year? For a while, it looked like the answer would be “not at all.” Clouds were everywhere. By mid-evening, however, they cleared somewhat, and Unk took a look with another MCT that hasn’t got much use in many a weary year, my little Orange Tube C90. The denouement was M42 looked wonderful it the small (but high contrast) view of the 90, and that, along with a bottle of a certain potation, put your old Uncle in a rather jolly holiday mood.

So, that was the year that was, muchachos. This year? As above, a fun observing project is in the offing. What’s it about? I will give you a hint:  It concerns one of Unk’s books. See y’all soon where all shall be revealed!



Friday, December 24, 2021

 

Issue 578: A Possum Swamp Christmas Eve 2022 ...

 

All I can say is “Merry Christmas, muchachos.” I know I’ve been remiss about getting new blog issues to you over the last couple of years. That did improve some this year, though, and I will see to it that continues into the new year. I am planning a series, in fact, on the Losmandy GM811 mount, which, despite it having been out for several years now, many are still curious about.   And, no, I haven't forgotten The New Herschel Project, my quest to observe the Herschel 400 from my modest backyard. 

But that’s next year. How about this year? How about now? Even in the sparse years, 2019 – 2020, for the little old blog from Possum Swamp, I have always managed to get the Christmas Eve edition out. And so it is this Christmas Eve in the strange and alien Year of our Lord 2021.

What exactly is going on at the New Manse here on the borders of the Great Possum Swamp this Yuletide? As you can imagine, it is a quiet Christmas Eve. Until the plague well and truly takes its last bow, no festive Christmas Eves like those of yore drinking Margaritas and eating fajitas at El Giro’s Mexican restaurant—though there is still an El Giro’s, which is barely two miles from Unk’s suburban digs. That will wait for next year (I hope).

What’s it like on this numinous day? Well, it don’t feel very Christmassy. Now, I don’t expect a white Christmas in the Swamp, but I do expect something with more of a Christmas feel than this. A glance at the weather station display in Unk’s radio shack shows it’s 73F outside and climbing. Whatev’. Unk will not let the cursed weather gods spoil his Christmas Eve.

You know what? In some ways, I’ve always preferred Christmas Eve to Christmas. There’s that wonderful sense of anticipation of wonders to come that maintains even in these latter days. And one of those wonders is one of your old Uncle’s astronomy traditions. To wit, my Christmas Eve viewing of that greatest of all ornaments, M42, The Great Orion Nebula.

So, what was up with that this Xmas Eve? In the days leading up to the glorious 24th, Unk had been purty derned sanguine, “Hell, why not get the GM811 and C8 out into the back 40 and get started on the articles about the mount?” But in addition to temps in the 70s and rising humidity, the weather had brought clouds. Not in overwhelming numbers at first, mind you, but they were flowing in from the southwest. So, the Losmandy, C8, and laptop might be a bit much. But which scope wouldn’t be a bit much?

My beautiful little C90, "Stella." I’d been thinking I needed to get her out of her case after the long, weary spell she’s spent in there. And she’s about perfect for a humid, hazy night where the light pollution is amplified and I only want to look at bright stuff anyhow. Under those conditions, her 90mm of aperture and f/11 focal length can surprise.

Miss Stella's optics still look good all these long years down the line.
What’s the C90 story? If you want to learn about how Unk’s C90, a classic orange tube model from ancient times, came to him, take a gander here. But the C90 in general? It’s been a perennial with Celestron, whether the original California company, the Swiss-owned mutation, or the current Chinese iteration. In fact, the C90 is still around and popular today, as a stroll through a very long-running thread on the Cloudy Nights website will show. A small and portable but capable MCT like the 90 is always useful. But there are C90s and then there are C90s.

Many have been the permutations of Celestron's little (Gregory) Maksutov Cassegrain. In addition to the orange tube, there’ve been black-tube models, chrome-plated ones, rubber armored scopes, and the current dirt-cheap (f/14) Synta version. It’s been a spotting scope, it’s been on fork mounts, it’s been sold with GEMs. And most have been good little telescopes. The optics, including those of the current bargain-basement model, have always been good—though you often hear the opposite about the original orange-tube models.

There is a reason for that, campers, and it has nothing to do with the telescope’s actual optical quality, but with its focusing method. You see, the earlier C90s don’t focus by moving the mirror forward and back like SCTs or the current Chinese C90. They focus by moving the corrector and secondary forward and back. You twist the front part of the OTA to focus, not unlike a camera lens.

That works well, but you have to learn to exercise a light touch, or you get terrible shakes. Especially since the temptation is usually to under-mount this small but long focal-length scope. Those “bad optics” are usually due to owners not being able to attain sharp focus due to the shakes. Mount the girl on a sufficient mount and you will see how sharp C90s can be. My own orange tube is dead sharp with excellent optics.

Overkill? Not at Chaos Manor South it wasn't!
While most C90s have had similarly impressive optics over the years, my heart still belongs to the orange C90 She’s just so fricking pretty. And there’s that luxurious custom-made case. And the beautiful retro-style aperture cover. And amazing build-quality in general. Not that it's all gravy, alas.

The original telescope used the old Japanese Standard .965” eyepieces. Since you won’t want to mess with those if you, like me, acquire one of the original C90s, you have to rectify that one of two ways:  With an adapter called an “LAR,” a Large Adapter Ring, or with a hybrid .965” – 1.25” diagonal. I have an LAR and can even use 2-inch diagonals with the li’l C90, but most of the time there’s no reason to do that. My (Scopestuff.com) hybrid diagonal is just fine.

So, I grabbed the C90 case out of the sunroom closet where the astrostuff (sorry Rex) lives. And also, my SkyWatcher AZ-4 altazimuth mount, which is perfect for the little gal. However, to mount my spotter-heritage C90, which sports only a ¼-20 tripod block, on the AZ-4 I’d need a Vixen dovetail on the scope. I have one from Orion that has an integral 1.25-inch bolt for easy mounting to the OTA. But nowhere could it be found. I know I have it still—I saw it not long ago—but where?

While, as my loyal readers know, I’ve divested myself of a lot of unused astrostuff over the last six years, I still have a lot. Including a heavy-duty William Optics Vixen dovetail with a captive 1/4 20tpi bolt. Way overkill for a C90, but it would work fine. Slapped that on the girl, mounted her on the AZ-4, and out to the backyard Stella went to wait for darkness and for Orion, who, according to Stellarium, would be high enough for a look by 8:00pm.

There was no denying that by 2pm the scent of skunk was in the air. Clouds weren’t just flowing in; they were pouring in with the sky almost totally overcast. I didn’t stress out. It wouldn’t be the first time I’d been cheated out of my M42 on Christmas Eve. But the Clear Sky Charts was still predicting mostly clear.  Anyhow, if there weren’t even sucker holes by your old Uncle’s (increasingly early) bedtime, I’d just bring Miss Stella back inside, the work of maybe 5-minutes, one of the prime attractions of the little critter.

So, Unk settled in with a bottle of sarsaparilla to watch television with the cats and see what would happen. I peeped out at the sky every once in a while. By 6pm, it was looking a small amount better, and I actually got a look at Jupiter in a sucker hole. Naturally, the seeing was dreadful, but Stella had no trouble showing the equatorial banding on and four Galilean moons nicely spread out on each side of Jove. Then the clouds cam again, and back inside I went. 

Finally, it was 20 hours local. It was time. Best look I have ever had at M42? No, of course not--the drifting gangs of clouds saw to that. But it was there. My little telescope was showing the wonder to me, just as my Palomar Junior had showed it to me many, many long Christmas Eves ago. The clouds came, and the clouds went and it was enough. 

What more is to be said? Have a wonderful Christmas everybody. These are tough times, but steady as she goes. I'll be back here again, soon. I promise!

Nota Bene:  Want some Christmas Eve Cheer in the old Chaos Manor South Tradition? This here is one of my favorites.

Nota Bene 2:  I appreciate all your kind comments. Unfortunately, the university email system pretty much prevents me from replying to them. Feel free to email Unk direct, however.   

 


Saturday, November 27, 2021

 

Issue 577: Unks’s Advanced VX Rides Again

 

Yeah, I know, no blog entries for September and October and we’ve barely squeaked in for November. I hate to disappoint my readers, but there just wasn’t no way, muchachos.  The weather was nasty all through September and into October. On those infrequent occasions when the clouds parted, there was a big, fat Moon in the sky. 

Your broken-down old Uncle had also been experiencing some health issues that made him reluctant to hit the backyard. You know, this “getting old” stuff is for the birds. Finally, just as clear weather came and Unk began to feel more like his old self, a third shot of Moderna had him laid pretty low for a couple of days.

Thankfully, all that is now past, and I am indeed close to being my old self again for good or ill. In fact, this past week I felt Good Enough to tackle my number one astronomy priority, checking out my faithful Celestron Advanced VX GEM mount. If you’re a faithful reader of the Little Old Blog from Possum Swamp, you know my AVX took a bath some months ago. I’d left the mount outside under a Telegizmos cover. Said cover was beginning to show some wear five years down the line, but it had not had a huge amount of use, and I thought it would be OK.

That’s what I get for thinking. I noted some gathering clouds as I covered scope and mount following my backyard observing run, but it didn’t look like seriously bad weather was on the way. Unk was soon snoozing peacefully and was not fully awakened by the sound of heavy rain and thunder. Oh, I came somewhat to my senses, but thought, “The scope will be fine under that cover,” turned over, and went back to sleep. The next morning, I found that dadgummed Telegizmos cover had leaked and mount and scope were truly drenched.

What to do? I first addressed the C8, Emma Peel, my Edge 800 SCT who’d been riding on the mount. There was a little water in the tube. But as you know, your ol’ Unk is nothing if not experienced in pulling SCT correctors. In just a few, the scope was dry and snug again in her case. The mount? That was a different story. It looked wet enough that I thought there was likely some water intrusion. Removing the plastic cover of her electronics enclosure, I did note some dampness. Rut-roh Raggy…it doesn’t take much to cause problems.

What I did was dry the boards off with gentle heat from my heat gun, and leave the mount head open in the air-conditioned sunroom of the New Manse. For several days. I then had another look. Didn’t notice any signs of corrosion, soo….  I applied power and the AVX appeared to function normally for an indoor “fake” alignment. However, nothing would tell the tale like a long evening under the stars. And there things rested for a wearyingly long time.

Finally, just the other day, the Clear Sky Charts and other weather resources indicated I might get some clear—if cold—weather following a front passage. Maybe one night. I was determined to take advantage of that, and despite some high haze I got the mount into the good old backyard.  In the interest of keeping things simple, I left the StarSense camera and hand control in their box and just plugged in the good, old NexStar+ HC. It had been so long since I’d done a non-StarSense alignment, I wondered if I’d still remember how to do one.

Which telescope went on the mount? My SkyWatcher 120mm APO. It had been way too long since I’d used this pretty telescope and was anxious to point her—Hermione Granger is her name—at Jupiter before it was too late. It was pretty clear seeing wouldn’t be too hot, not hardly, but I wanted a look at Jupe anyhow.

As darkness fell at a blessedly early hour—if Unk stays up till 2200 local time these days, that is a late night—a look to the west showed for the first time in some years I was going to miss one of my rituals, “My Yearly M13.” I wasn’t surprised. I’d checked Stellarium the previous morning and it showed M13 would be really low as astronomical twilight came in. That was sorta OK. To tell the truth, though I was feeling better, I still didn’t feel up to messing with cameras and laptops and guide cameras and etc., etc., etc. 

OK, power on…the NexStar display came to life with only a slight delay despite the cold weather (it was in the fricking 40s, y’all). I was gratified to see the mount's real time clock was only off a few minutes despite it having been months and months since I replaced the little internal battery and not having used the AVX frequently. Not at all. Hokay, let’s get aligned.

By “aligned,” I mean the Autostar 2+4 alignment. I planned on nothing more than some casual looking, and, so, my polar alignment consisted of merely eyeballing Polaris through the mount’s hollow polar bore. One of the great things about the Celestron NexStar goto system is that it is quite immune to goto errors caused by polar alignment.

It turned out I did remember how to do an old-fashioned alignment.  Got it started and the HC requested Vega, which was pretty far off center, but still in the finder. Centered it up in the eyepiece, remembering—shazam! —to do final centering with the up and right keys only. Altair next. That sparkler lined up, the NexStar+ axed if I wanted to add calibration stars “Sure, why not?” The first, Fomalhaut, was behind a tree, so I picked another. Calibration star three was near-centered in the eyepiece of the main scope when the mount stopped, but I did one more anyway…well…just because I could.

The resulting alignment? It was a good one. For a while, anyway. Anything I requested was in the center of a 12mm eyepiece. Heck our first target, Jupiter was centered in a 7mm when the slew stopped. And that’s the way it was until I decided to fetch my observing chair, and in the course of placing it at the scope bumped the tripod, but good. Henceforth, objects were toward the edge of the 12mm, but always in view. And…that’s just the way it goes on an Uncle Rod observing run, as you surely know if you’ve been reading here long.

How was Jupiter? The wind had laid down at least, but, no, the seeing was not very good. He was reasonably sharp and showing off multiple belts, but conditions were reducing the contrast of those belts. The Galilean Moons were dancing around most of the time. Not a bad image in the 7mm UWAN (William Optics) wide field, but nothing to get excited about. What was exciting? Just being able to get out and run an eye across the King, no matter how he looked.

Next up? If I couldn’t take a picture of the Great Globular, maybe I could get a parting glimpse of him as he plunged into the west. By this time, M13 was maybe 15-degrees above the horizon. Alas, when the slew stopped and I inserted the 13mm Ethos I saw exactly nuttin-honey.

I wasn’t about to give up. I suspected the problem was the focus difference between the 13 and 7mm eyepieces. I should have focused the 13mm before I left Jupiter. Down here in the horizon muck, no bloated stars were visible in the field to use for focusing. So, off I went to Vega to focus. There I sharpened things up. Did I note the utter lack of false color displayed by the SkyWatcher APO? Nope. After this long, I just take it for granted. Vega was a pure, icy blue sapphire.

Back to M13. I spotted the cluster the moment the slew stopped. Not bad, really. Dim, sure, but grainy and wanting to show a little resolution. Would more magnification have helped resolve more stars? Perhaps, but the cluster was dim as it was. Pouring on more aperture would have helped, but I wasn’t about to lug out the 10-inch Dobsonian, Zelda. The SCT? My observation is there’s not a huge difference in visual images presented by the 8-inch SCT and 5-inch APO, not enough to justify me changing OTAs, anyhow.

What next? How about M57? OK. Off to Lyra we went. The Ring was just that, a perfect little donut displaying plenty of contrast. Since the constellation was riding high, I thought we might essay the somewhat dim globular cluster M56. It was actually pretty good, looking much like the horizon-bound M13. My observation over the years has been it takes about 10-inches of aperture to make this somewhat neglected glob look good. And 12-inches is better. My long-gone old friend, my 12-inch Dobsonian Old Betsy, could make this seemingly nondescript object into a freaking showpiece.

The next target, M76, the Little Dumbbell is thought by some to be “difficult.” Not so. I once viewed this little sprite with my old 60mm ETX from deep in the light polluted suburbs, at my old observing site at the public schools’ Environmental Studies Center. The secret is an OIII filter. But it has to be the right OIII filter. I walked into the sunroom and fished a little box labeled "OIII" out of my accessory box. Onto the 12mm it went--with some difficulty. I was nonplussed that for some reason it didn’t want to thread onto the eyepiece properly. With the filter finally in place, still no M76 did I see. What the—?

My red flashlight revealed the problem. On the edge of the filter-holder was inscribed “Lumicon.” When I bought this one in 1995, I thought it was the bee’s knees. But either it has somehow degraded over the years (possible, I guess), or I just know more about filters 25 plus years down the road. At any rate, this old thing (one of the pink-hued Lumicons) doesn’t work very well, and the filter threads on it were never quite right. In I went and retrieved my Celestron (Baader) 1.25-inch OIII. Ahhh…there it was. Not only was the mini-Dumbbell visible, it even showed off its twin-lobed shape.

After that? Hermione and I hopped around the sky, me occasionally looking at SkySafari on the iPhone for inspiration. In no particular order…

M103. This oft-overlooked small (6’) but brilliant galactic cluster was just beautiful.

M31 and company. M31 looked maybe a bit better than it usually does from the suburbs. M32 was a brilliant little thing, naturally. M110 was something of a surprise. It was easily visible despite sometimes being a trial from compromised skies.

M27, the (big) Dumbbell was attractive, especially with the OIII. Unfortunately, haze was developing in Cygnus area, and I had a hard time seeing nearby M71, the loose little globular star cluster once thought not to be a glob.

NGC 457, The E.T. Cluster. Does this little guy ever look bad? Well I remember showing him off to Miss Dorothy from the urban backyard of old Chaos Manor South. He looked good there, and he looked great here, a little stick figure awash in a sea of stars.

M15, The Horse's Nose Globular. Haze was creeping into the Pegasus area now, so I didn't expect much from this little glob. Surprise! In addition to M15's preternaturally bright core, quite a few teeny-tiny stars were on display at the edges of this wonder.

And on we went. Me and Hermione wandering the late autumn stars, going wherever our fancy took us. You know I strongly endorse having a detailed observing list. Which I didn’t have on this night—I was just going to do a quick check of the mount on an object or two, I thought. I probably would have seen more if I’d made one up or had dragged out a laptop running Deep Sky Planner. But you know what? For once, just tramping aimlessly across the sky was kinda fun…kinda freeing, actually.

Alas, before long, old Unk had reached his infamous “I have had enough” stage. Those of you who know me or who’ve been aboard this blog for long know that happens once my feet get cold. When they do it is time to throw the big switch and cover the scope. Which I did. Said cover being a new one, which I hope proves to be better than the lastun.

As for the mount, the Advanced VX, I was satisfied all is well with it. Not a single hiccup from power up to power down. Which is a very good thing. I need a mount in this weight/payload class, and with anything that comes from China—as the AVX and her cousins do—being nigh impossible to get these days, I certainly wouldn’t want to go mount-shopping right now.

Alrighty then. See y’all next time. Which will surely be by Christmas Eve for our traditional blog post. But I do hope “sooner.”

 


Saturday, August 28, 2021

 

Issue 576: In Memory Yet Green: The Herschel Project

Where it all began...
Another hurricane, Hurricane Ida, has come into the Gulf to trouble your silly old Uncle, muchachos. But it hasn’t just been that. Nothing has changed since July regarding the endless nights of clouds. If there are no/few clouds, you can bet it will be hazy, real hazy. And there’s the bugs. And the humidity.

I did get the Advanced VX mount out one evening long enough to test a new astronomy program—which will be the subject of an upcoming Sky & Telescope Test Report. But only long enough to do that. As you may recall, my AVX took a bath, literally, recently due to a leaky scope cover. During the brief period before a fresh batch of clouds blew in, the AVX seemed OK, but I am not willing to give the mount a clean bill of health until I can spend a few hours under the stars with it.

Anyhoo, like last time, I didn’t want to let a month go by without a blog. So, here are my reminiscences on the vaunted Herschel Project.

Act I:  The Dipping of the Toe…

I was thinking about the ‘Project the other day. Maybe because Son of the Lockdown has me at home again without a whole lot to do. “What in tarnation is Unk talking about this am? Too much Yell Saturday night, maybe?”

What I’m talking about, Skeezix, is The Herschel Project, the observing project of a lifetime, of my lifetime anyhow. Most of us conceive big observing programs at some point in our astronomy careers, but most of those fall by the wayside long before they are finished. Mine didn’t. Maybe because it had such a clear goal and maybe because the equipment I was using at the time was so well suited to accomplishing that goal. Maybe an even larger reason was two books I’d read.

Anyhow, set the WABAC machine for an October Night in 2009. Your Uncle was out on the observing field of the old Deep South Regional Star Gaze in the days when it was held at the Feliciana Retreat Center in the backwoods of Louisiana. What I was doing was wondering what the heck I was gonna look at.

It had been a good night with my 12-inch Dobsonian, Old Betsy. I’d seen more than a few deep sky wonders, some pedestrian, some not so much. One in the latter category was the Crescent Nebula. That night it was a spectacle, with the center of the crescent beginning to fill in with textured haze in my 12mm Nagler 2. But suddenly, just after midnight, my observing list was done. There weren’t enough objects on it to see me through two nights of a star party much less three. I reckon I hadn’t been sanguine enough about what Betsy could accomplish under dark skies on a superior evening.

After a look at M42, I essayed a few easy showpieces, covered Bets, and headed back to my little motel room in the Retreat Center’s Lodge where I ruminated on the What to Look At business. I spent some time wondering what that might be to the accompaniment of a little Rebel Yell and a DVD of 2001:  A Space Odyssey. By the time Moonwatcher had thrown his bone into the air, I thought maybe, just maybe, I had a glimmer of an idea.

That idea solidified at breakfast. It was humble in the beginning:  I’d observe the 400 Herschel II deep sky objects.  I knew I might lollygag like I did with the Herschel I, taking years to finally finish up, so I set myself a deadline:  October 2010. I would do it with the scopes and equipment I deemed appropriate for the sites I’d be observing from. I would do plenty of visual observing, but I wouldn't hesitate to use my Stellacam deep sky video camera if I needed it. I didn’t give a fig about any Astronomical League rules, since I had zero interest in their Herschel certificates. This would be my show and nobody else’s.

I was nervous as sunset Saturday came in; I’ll admit. I considered the Herschel II a difficult, daunting, and even scary list. Maybe that was because I hadn’t taken a really good look at the details of the list's targets. Most of its dimmest DSOs are small and thus not much of a challenge for an 8-inch telescope under good skies. So, I was a little skeered as I punched the first object ID into Betsy’s Sky Commander digital setting circle computer.

The Results of what I was now calling “The Herschel II Project”? Between sunset and 2 am on Saturday evening at Deep South, I logged 26 Herschel IIs. And I wasn’t trying to move particularly fast.  Maybe the H2 wasn’t as hard as I thought?

Act II:  The Big Enchilada with Julie, Julia, Bill, and Lina

That idea was bolstered by my object haul on my next dark sky Herschel observing run. I realized if I were to finish in a year, I’d have to get on the stick given our usual weather in the southland. That in mind, I packed up my Toyota with a ton of astro-gear including my Stellacam-equipped NexStar 11 GPS and headed south for the Chiefland Astronomy Village despite the fact we were dealing with the lingering effects of (yes) Hurricane Ida.

Out on the Billy Dodd Observing Field, I discovered the true power of a C11 and a deep sky video camera. The old Stellacam, which had a maximum exposure of 12-seconds, was purty humble, but man did it pull in Herschel IIs. They fell to the C11 like autumn leaves before the wild hurricane fly. The grand total after my second big expedition?  Over 100 more objects:  159 down, 241 to go.

Back home, Unk began to think (yes, he does that on occasion). It seemed obvious I would likely finish the HII by my self-imposed deadline. After that? The answer came in the form of two seemingly unrelated books, The Scientific Papers of Sir William Herschel, and Julie Powell’s Julie and Julia: 365 Days, 524 Recipes, 1 Tiny Apartment Kitchen. 

The former came to me thanks to the wonderful Miss Dorothy. One day there was a rare book sale at the university where she was a Department Chair. One of the volumes on sale was that big, fat Scientific Papers. She bought it for me, lugged it home, and I was soon immersed in reading the words of The Man himself and learning more about him and his sister and fellow observer, Caroline. That led to me devouring biography after biography of the pair and becoming even more interested in (or maybe obsessed with) both Herschel and his deep sky objects.

The latter was a book that brought its author deserved if brief fame. It was the adaptation of Julie Powell’s The Julie-Julia Project blog articles wherein she cooked all Julia Child’s recipes from Mastering the Art of French Cooking. That’s just the jumping off spot for a little tour de force of a book that showed everybody what one of these new-fangled blogs could be when coupled to a big project and written with humor and heart.

Unk was smart enough to put two and two together, a big project and a blog, and thus was born “The Herschel Project,” aka “The Herschel 2500,” aka “The Whole Big Thing,” aka “The Big Enchilada.” I would observe all the Herschels, not just the H2, all of them. Which, after eliminating the non-existent and duplicate objects left me with 2500 targets, some of which were considerably dimmer and more obscure than those in the Herschel II. The details? As I wrote in the blog one Sunday morning:

The perceptive (or nitpicky) amongst y’all may have noticed something different from the last Herschel blog. The title is no longer “The Herschel II Project,” but just “The Herschel Project.” What does that mean? Well, I’ll tell ya: the more I’ve researched ol’ Willie and the more of his objects I’ve seen, the more I’m inclined to go past the Herschel I and the Herschel II and tackle The Whole Big Thing, the 2500 objects (give or take) that constitute the entire Herschel List, the whole schmeer, that is.

That might seem like the project of [many] years, but with modern technology and with a little luck, I don’t believe it will be. Based on the slew, and I do mean slew, of Herschels I captured down in Chiefland this past weekend and which I’ll tell you about next week, the Big Project seems more and more doable. Not only did I do bunches of Herschel IIs, I did Big Bunches from the parent list, the Big Enchilada, finishing all the multitudinous galaxies in Aquarius and most of ‘em in Cetus. So, I am on the verge of committing myself to going for the gold.

And commit myself I did. I wasn’t about to be pinned down regarding time limits, but I secretly hoped to be done in about two years, by sometime late in 2012, maybe.

And so, it began. While I continued observing from the club site and star parties like Deep South, there’s no denying the heart of The Herschel Project was the Chiefland Astronomy Village. Out on that field it all just came together, seemingly like magic. Heck, even plenty of summer nights were dark and clear during the Project years. While I had been no stranger to CAV before the Project, I now began heading south almost every dark of the Moon (when the exigencies of being a working stiff allowed me to do so).

It wasn’t all rainbows and unicorns, of course. I missed my self-imposed deadline for completing the Herschel II by 6-months, not wrapping it up until April 2011. For months, I was down to a mere handful of HII spring galaxies that always seemed too low or behind a cloud or a tree. I finally completed the Herschel II Project down at Chiefland and heaved a sigh of relief. But not too much relief. I still had an almost overwhelming number of Herschel Big Enchilada Objects to go.

But that number soon wasn’t so daunting. Trip after trip Down Chiefland Way, doing 100 or more objects every time, soon whittled the big list down. So did getting into the blessed zone. I developed a routine that served me well.

The night before a Big Enchilada Trip, I’d load up Miss Van Pelt, the 4Runner, with plenty of gear and a telescope appropriate for the conditions I’d face. That was usually the C11, but if things looked iffy weather-wise, I might drop down to the C8. I’d invariably bring the Stellacam (or, as the project rolled on, the color Mallincam Xtreme), since I soon learned video would be key to allowing me to complete all those objects in just two years.

When we rolled into Chiefland, I’d check into the old Holiday Inn Express. I found being able to get a some rest in comfort following a long night on the field allowed me to be ready to face the stars with a will on the next evening.

Checked in, I’d head to the CAV for setup, which I had down to something of an art. Over the months, I’d been able to eliminate spurious items and that made set up go faster. For example, since there was AC power on the field, I didn’t have to haul batteries with me. The presence of a refrigerator in the Clubhouse meant I could leave the ice chest at home, etc., etc.

Thence, back to town for a stop at the Walmart. Therein, I’d stock up on snacks for the observing field—being able to take a break, drink some water, and have a bite to eat helped me pull some really long runs. In those days, I wasn’t much of a health food fan, invariably choosing Jack Link Sasquatch Big Sticks. Another big help on those late/early runs? Monster Energy Drinks. After WallyWorld, it was supper, usually at the Taco Bell next door to the motel.

Finally, it was time to hit the Herschels. My final and most effective lineup of gear included, in addition to the telescope and Mallincam, a little DVD player I used as a monitor, Orion’s digital DVR, and a Laptop connected to the scope running Greg Crinklaw’s SkyTools 3 (the software of the Herschel Project) and NexRemote.

My procedure was simple. Click on an object in ST3, send the scope there with the program’s Real-Time module. Center it up in the field of the camera if necessary using a Wireless Wingman gamepad. Record 30-seconds of video and an audio commentary on the object. Repeat as often as the sky, available objects, and your old uncle’s stamina held out. When I could no longer hold out, back to the motel for a little Rebel Yell, the whiskey of the Herschel Project, some silly TV like Ghost Adventures or UFO Hunters, and some sleep in an airconditioned/heated room.

Next morning? Lunch at the vaunted Bill’s Bar-B-Q and, if Miss Dorothy was with me, a visit to our favorite area attractions including Cedar Key, Manatee Springs State Park, and Fanning Springs State Park. An hour or two of resting at the Holiday Inn, and I was back on the Billy Dodd Observing Field as sunset came.

Following this simple, rote routine allowed me to observe with maximum efficiency. Still, I was surprised how efficient I was. I completed the Big Enchilada, The Herschel 2500 Project, on a dark run in Chiefland in July of 2012, months sooner than I dared hope when I got the crazy idea to observe over two thousand faint deep sky wonders.

Act III:  August and Everything After (the Herschel Project).

It’s hard to let go. And at first, I didn’t. I just kept observing Herschels. I told myself there were reasons for that. For one thing, I had all along thought the Herschel Project might form the basis of a book. I wanted better images of the Herschels than those I’d captured with the Stellacam, so it only made sense to go back and re-image many of them with the Mallincam Xtreme. I also thought I’d want some sketches of objects to show that while the project was mostly done with video, I’d done a fair amount of visual observing too. I spent a couple of memorable nights on the CAV field observing the old fashioned way—with eye and telescope.

So it went for quite some time, beginning in 2013. That year was notable since it was when I retired—in the spring. My first Herschel run after that was a memorable one. I headed for the Feliciana Retreat Center, the place the Herschel Project was born, and the Deep South Regional Star Gaze Spring Scrimmage (the smaller spring event I’d always had to miss because of work).

I had a new telescope with me, my retirement gift to myself, a Celestron Edge 800 SCT (along with an Advanced VX mount to replace my old CG5). What do I remember most about that expedition in addition to nearly being the Lone Astronomer of Feliciana (see this)? How wonderful it was to get up Sunday morning and realize I didn’t have to be in a hurry.

I could leave anytime I wanted and get home at any time I wanted—no work on Monday morning. That home, by the way, would soon not be the legendary Chaos Manor South. Lots changed following the end of the H-Project including where Dorothy and I lived. We decided downsizing made sense and lit out for the suburbs.

And so, it went for the next couple of years, with Unk grudgingly hanging onto the Herschels. Oh, I tried a couple of other observing projects, but none lit my fire like the Herschel Project had. I was beginning to believe lightning only strikes once.

How about the book? I began assembling it much the way Miss Powell assembled her blog into one. But I only worked on it for a little while. Many things were changing with me in addition to the above, and I found my heart just wasn’t in it. Then, I had the second edition of Choosing and Using a New CAT to get out.  And a new deep sky observing book to write…and The Herschel Project Book just kept receding farther into the background—where it remains to this very day, nine years after the last object was in the can.

Eventually, I stopped looking for another big “Herschel Project.” If one comes to me, so be it. But, as above, I have decided The Big Enchilada really was the observing experience of a lifetime. That's OK. Even if I didn’t have all those old blog articles, and videos, and photographs, The Herschel Project would remain green in my memory where it shall remain to the end of my days.

Nota Bene:  All the blog entries documenting the Project are still right here. An easy way to get to them is with a Google of "Uncle Rod Herschel Project." That and internal links in the entries will get you to all of 'em. 


Sunday, July 25, 2021

 

Issue 575: My Favorite Star Parties, Deep South Regional Star Gaze 2000

 

M15, star of Unk's DSRSG 2000 (Edge 800 on Advanced VX mount)...
Well, muchachos, I tried. Yes, I was anxious to get my Celestron Advanced VX telescope mount under the stars to see if she was really OK, but it was hopeless... 

“What h-a-i-l is Unk goin’ on about now? 

If you read the last installment of the AstroBlog, you know a five-year-old, deteriorated Telegizmos scope cover resulted in my beloved AVX taking a bath thanks to an early morning thunderstorm.  I opened the mount up, dried her out, and tested her indoors. Seemed OK…but. The only true test would be an evening in the backyard. That will come. But obviously wouldn’t come before July ran out. The clouds. The Thunderstorms. The bugs. The heat. Uh-uh. No sir buddy.

And yet, I didn’t want to let another month elapse without a ‘blog entry. Now, last time, I said I was reluctant to take another trip to the nostalgia well. I thought that sucka was dry. But then I recalled I’ve never said a word about the 20th Century's final edition of one of my favorite star parties, the Deep South Regional Star Gaze.

Then as now, star parties can iffy things weather-wise no matter the time of year. Especially in this part of the county, the Southeast. But Miss D. and I had high hopes for 2000’s DSRSG, the 18th edition of the nearby event.  After two years of so-so observing, and 1999’s complete and utter rain-out, surely the weather gods would throw us a bone. Wouldn’t they?

And, indeed, it looked as if conditions might be—I was almost afraid to think it and jinx it—fantastic for the long star party weekend. October 2000 began with unseasonably cool and dry weather. But, wouldn’t you know it? As the date for DSRSG approached (October 25- 29), the cotton-pickin' weather pattern returned to the more familiar clouds and humidity. The result being I definitely broke a sweat on star party Thursday morning as I was loading up the good, ol’ Toyota Camry.

What did I load? I was after photons, visual photons, this time, not astrophotos. So, in the vehicle went my time-honored 12.5-inch truss tube Dobsonian, Old Betsy. I brought along a second scope too, my little Celestron (Synta) Short Tube 80 f/5 refractor ("Woodstock") on his EQ-1 mount. If the sky cooperated, I thought he might give me some of the wide-field deep sky vistas I craved. “If.” 

There were also all the things I took along during my go-go days of star partying: EZ-up tent canopy, camp table, ice chest, eyepiece box, etc., etc. What? No laptop. Nope. At this time Luddite Unk was still using printed atlases, namely Sky Atlas 2000 and Herald-Bobroff.

Yeah, it was a hot and humid and not atypical Gulf Coast morning when I set out for the site of the star party, which in them days was held at McComb, Mississippi’s Percy Quin State Park (in the sparsely populated Pine Belt).  “Wait a minute, Unk! When you set out?! What about Miss Dorothy?” At this time, Dorothy was at the height of her distinguished career at the university, and business there kept her from motoring to the park with me for that first day of DSRSG. Instead, she planned to drive up with my friend and observing companion, Pat Rochford, on day two, Friday.

The old but well-remembered DSRSG field...
Anyhoo, when I hit Highway 98 for Percy Quin it was warmer than I’d have liked, but there were only a few clouds scudding across the sky on a morning that suggested Spring rather than Winter was on the way. After a reasonably pleasant 3-hour journey despite being all by my lonesome, I arrived at the Park’s "group camp,” site of DSRSG 18, unloaded the gear, and set up Old Betsy as quickly as I could. Despite the warm weather, October was dying, and sunset wouldn’t be long in coming.

By the time I finished, I hadn’t just broken a sweat; I was drenched, but the sky was holding. My next stop, the cabins, was a prime attraction of the Percy Quin site. Actually, “cabins,” a word conjuring drafty, decrepit boy scout chickies, is not an apt description. These cabins were modern, usually clean, comparatively comfortable, and featured central air-conditioning and heating. Best of all, perhaps, they were within easy walking distance of the observing field, a football field-sized expanse of grass ringed by pine trees.

Soon, I was settled in our room—star party organizer Barry Simon always assigned me and Miss D. the “counselor’s room” in the Possum Swamp Astronomical Society’s cabin.  Afterward, back to the field where I hung out for a while renewing old acquaintances and talking shop about what passed for the latest technological innovations in amateur astronomy nearly a quarter century ago. The big gossip? There were murmurings Celestron was going to release a new goto telescope, an 11-inch NexStar(!).

With sunset still an hour away, the Auburn Astronomical Society’s Russell Whigham and I joined Barry Simon and the rest of the Ponchartrain Astronomical Society contingent for the traditional Thursday evening meal at Mr. Whiskers' Catfish Cabin, home of all you can eat catfish, just outside the park gate. Was the catfish good? Oh, it was very good. Good enough to eclipse the fact it was awful slow in coming and they were purty stingy with the "all-you-can-eat" thing.

After my repast ("pigout" is more like it), as evening came on, the sky just got better and better, really opening up with that velvety black appearance we crave. Using both the 12.5” Dobsonian, Betsy, and my faithful 80mm f/5 refractor, “Woodstock,”  I toured the autumn deep sky until the wee hours.  I visited many marvels, both old and new, but my favorites on this night were these:

Good catfish and lots of it...
NGC 7000, the North America Nebula. Many newer observers long for a glimpse of this great swath of glowing hydrogen.  Alas, being huge, its faint red light is spread out, making it quite a challenge for larger telescopes. My 12-inch was able to pick out vague patches of nebulosity here and there, but it wasn’t very impressive. What a difference wide-field made. In Woodstock, the 3” f/5 refractor, the whole, huge  thing fitted perfectly into the field of a 26mm Plössl. Since the entire nebula was visible framed with a dark sky background, the North America shape was amazingly well defined.

M27, the Dumbbell Nebula, is always a treat, and from a dark site with a moderate aperture scope it becomes a revelation. I alternated between using an OIII filter and looking at the nebula unfiltered. With the filter, the true extent of M27's nebulosity was obvious, with the cloud beginning to look more like a football than a dumbbell. Without the OIII, this planetary nebula’s central star was easily visible.

M31 and NGC 206. The Great Andromeda Nebula (Galaxy) can be disappointing, but on this evening it was awesome. In Betsy, a pair of dark lanes was easily visible defining the hard to see spiral arms as I scanned across the great disk. The galactic nucleus appeared as a tiny star-like point, and, most wonderful of all, perhaps, the great cloud of stars in one of the arms, NGC 206, was easy (this thing is tough if the sky ain't right). The two companion galaxies, M32 and M110 (NGC 205) were marvelous, with M110 looking as large as I’d ever seen it. I dare say the view was even better in the 80mm, since with Woodstock all these things were in a single eyepiece field. 

But the prize beauty Thursday night? The Horse’s Nose (globular) Star Cluster, M15. This pretty glob, located not far from the bright star Enif, The Horse’s Nose, in Pegasus, was flat-out amazing. You’ve probably heard about M15’s curious, bright core (at one time it was thought to contain a black hole), but if you’ve never seen it from a good, dark site, you really have no idea how striking it is. In the 12-inch, the core simply blazed away, looking like a brightly glowing ember surrounded by countless sparks of light.

And so it went, object after object, until around 3am. I wasn’t ready to turn-in even at that hour, but there was no doubt weariness was beginning to assail me in those primitive days before there were dadgum Monster Energy Drinks. I’d awakened at 6 am that morning to pack, and the long day and night were beginning to take their toll.

I pulled the big switch, tired but happy. I covered the scopes with a tarp, though I probably didn’t need to. This had been one of the few DSRSG evenings in memory when dew hadn’t been heavy. As the day had worn on, the humid, sticky air had seemingly blown away, yielding an amazingly comfortable and bug-free evening.

Friday was a busy day. I was scheduled to give a talk in the meeting hall at 3pm about my forthcoming book, Choosing and Using a Schmidt Cassegrain Telescope. I’m talking about the original, not Choosing and Using a New CAT (now in its second edition). Long time back it feels like, campers.

I sure wanted the presentation go smoothly, so I spent quite some time getting my 35mm slides sorted out (no laptops and PowerPoint projectors just yet). Shortly before noon, Pat Rochford and Dorothy arrived. Dorothy was excited to finally be at “our” star party and was showing off a new red light she’d bought for the trip.  

Percy Quin Group Camp cabins...
We soon repaired to the park cafeteria (located adjacent to the cabins) for the first on-site meal of DSRSG 2000. More than a few folks complained about the food over the years we were at the old site, and it was simple at best, but it was at least edible. I was never sure why the park (which operated the cafeteria) couldn’t do a little better with the food. We were not far from the middle-sized town of McComb, not out in the freaking sticks, and they didn't exactly give the meals away, but, again, edible.

I was happy to have a large and responsive audience for my presentation on the new book, and thought the presentation went well despite some fumbling. I was new to all this, but I would soon be doing star party after star party as a speaker, would discover PowerPoint and laptops, and would figure things out (to the extent old Unk ever figures anything out).

There was no doubt as twilight deepened that Friday night was going to be another goodun. And it was, though conditions were not quite as good as they had been Thursday. Why? That stinking humidity that had departed on Thursday was back with a vengeance. The dew was heavier, and the light dome from McComb was natcherly more evident, but the sky was still OK. Which deep sky object struck my fancy on this evening? One I’d seen before, but did not remember well, NGC 6905, the Blue Flash planetary nebula in Delphinus.

This 12th magnitude nebula was large and well defined in 12-inch Betsy, and, in addition to its amazing blue color, showed some “blinking” like the nearby Blinking Planetary. That is, look straight at it and the nebula would fade away, use averted vision and it would spring back into view.

NGC 7331 and nearby Stephan’s Quintet also looked good on Friday. It didn’t take any imagination to pick out all the little galaxies in Stephan's with Miss Betsy. That galaxy cluster was one of my most-wanted objects back in the days when I observed mostly with 6 and 8-inch telescopes from the suburbs. I was just thrilled with the views Bets delivered of this legendary object.

Was I close to deep sky overdose when I shut down at 4am? Not quite…the spirit was still willing. The body was weak, though.   I called it quits after a good, long tour of M42, the Great Orion Nebula. In the 12-inch, the nebula seemed to tower above me in the 12mm Nagler eyepiece’s field. Cold, starkly beautiful, and almost threatening in aspect. After that, I sat in a lawn chair for a little while, watching the fading stars as dawn came in, and toasted them with a little of the Rebel Yell, natch.  Some things have changed over the long years, and some ain’t.

Saturday was a long day at DSRSG. Everybody was starting to feel like zombies thanks to two beautiful nights, and, even in October, sunset seemed to take forever to arrive. Luckily, Rex’s Astrostuff, an astronomy vendor who was a regular feature of southern star parties all through the 1990s, was on site, so I amused myself—how else?—by buying some of that “astro-stuff.”

Those old, low-tech Astro Cards could guide you to countless wonders...
My purchases this year were fairly modest, but were things I’d wanted for a while:  A Thousand Oaks glass solar filter for Woodstock, a Celestron variable-brightness LED flashlight, and a deck of George Kepple’s Astro Cards—index card finder charts for locating deep sky objects. These Astro Cards were a staple of vendors at star parties in those days, and I’d been meaning to try a set for years. They were perfect for nights when you’d exhausted your observing list and didn’t know what else to look at.

Saturday night started out great, with the heavens again opening up as night descended. But it was not to be. The sky gods had no doubt decided Deep South’s observers had had enough for one year. By 9pm, heavy haze had moved in. It cleared somewhat just after midnight, but only a little, and only for a little while.

It was just as well, I suppose, since the milky sky encouraged me to shut down much earlier than I had on the other nights. There was that Sunday morning packing and the drive home to contend with, after all. Before the haze moved in, though, Pat Rochford and I had a great time playing with a little Meade ETX60 he’d brought with him—I was skeptical a cheap (comparatively speakin') little scope like that could find anything, but it could. Man, oh man, could it. It was one of the things that encouraged Unk to embrace laptops and goto telescopes not long thereafter.

2000 was a great DSRSG.  Maybe one of the last truly outstanding years at the location. The new century would bring changes, including several moves for the event. It’s still in business, but now on its fourth home. Be that as it may, the old Deep South Regional Star Gaze where I voyaged the deep, deep sky with a simple Dobsonian, Herald-Bobroff, and a Telrad is yet green in memory and always shall be.


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