Sunday, November 29, 2009


The Herschel Project Night Three: 104 Down, 296 to Go

Ida came, and  Ida went--Hurricane Ida, that is, muchachos. The arrival of the out-of-season storm that had us Gulf Coast denizens so stirred up for a few days was actually pretty anticlimactic. She did indeed pass right over good old Chaos Manor South, her eye making a beeline up Mobile Bay. Or would have had there been a real eye left. Ida sat offshore for several hours and ground herself down into a disorganized Tropical Storm before finally making landfall. There were some gale force wind gusts and a lot of rain, but mostly she was the proverbial tempest in a teapot. We didn't even cancel classes at the university that Monday night, so I taught as usual.

All of which was a Good Thing, I reckon. There was one Bad Thing, though. After finishing with us, the storm hung a right and began moving east along the Florida panhandle, clouding out viewing down at the Chiefland Astronomy Village for the folks who’d come early for the Nova Sedus Star Party, or just to get in a couple of extra days on the Old Field.

Looked as if I might luck out, though. I’d be heading for the CAV on Thursday morning, the 12th of November, and it appeared that by then Ida would be fading like one of the chili relleno induced bad dreams I have every once in a while. It didn't look like Thursday night would be assured, but Friday and Saturday, the Weather Channel said, would be “go.”

I had good intentions for Thursday morning. I’d get up at my regular 4:30 in the a.m.; pack the car in two shakes of a lamb's tail, and head east. If‘n I could arrive by noon, that would leave me plenty of time for setup and maybe even for a nap before sunset, which would be arriving at 5:30 p.m. in that part of the world.

"Best laid plans," they say...  I don’t know what it was—maybe the leftover slices of anchovy pizza I had for supper Wednesday night—but I did a fair amount of tossing and turning, and when the alarm beeped at 4:30, I promptly shut it off and went back to sleep.

When I finally turned-to at 6, I had to scurry. By the time the Camry was packed with Big Bertha, my NexStar 11 GPS, and all the tons of support gear I’d staged downstairs in the front parlor, and I’d had a couple of cups of coffee to make me feel somewhat human, it was 7:30. Whatev. I knew I’d be bumping up against Chiefland’s sunset time and would be unlikely to get a nap in, but that would be alright. If I had to call it quits early on Thursday (which it didn't look like would be much good anyhow), so be it. I’d have two more clear evenings to play with. Probably.

As usual lately, I was travelling alone. I hope that after her retirement next year Miss Dorothy can be persuaded make the trip Down Chiefland Way once in a while; that sure would make it more fun. But the trip south wasn't too bad. I’d loaded the iPod up with my preferred road “reading” material, Stephen King; this time, an audio book of his enormous Dark Tower Four: Wizard and Glass. I’d put off reading his gargantuan multi-volume fantasy cycle for years, but now that I’ve got ‘round to it, I am enjoying the story of Roland the Gunslinger. No, it ain’t Tolkien, but it’s still good, and kept me amused for the near six hours the drive consumed.

The skies were beautiful when I left Possum Swamp, and stayed like that for the entire trip, more or less. When I arrived at the motel, there were a few clouds scudding, but they did not look serious to me. I checked into my usual hostelry, the Chiefland Holiday Inn Express, and headed for the Astronomy Village.

Bertha ready to rumble.
There, I proceeded to unload and set up Bertha, the new EZ-Up canopy, the observing table, the computer, the computer shelter, the eyepiece case, three dry-boxes, the Stellacam II, the DVD recorder, the DVD player/monitor, and my observing chair. How do I cram all that into a four-door Japanese sedan? Practice helps, but one thing that’s even more helpful is that staying in a motel frees me from packing a tent, sleeping bags and other space consuming bedding, and assorted camping gear. The fact that I have access to a refrigerator in the Club House means the ice chest can stay home, too, another space saver.

After about an hour, my field setup was complete and I took a look around. As usual, I chose a spot on the “old field,” now called The Billy Dodd Memorial Observing Field in honor of one of Chiefland AV’s founders. I wasn’t the only person who liked the friendly familiarity of the old digs; there were at least thirty other folks there with me, the biggest crowd I’ve seen on this field in years. Course, those numbers paled in comparison to the huge assemblage of people and telescopes on the new field just to the west. Peering over thataway revealed what looked to be close to two-hundred amateurs on Thursday afternoon, and with the incipient good weather, I expected there would be more coming.

I’ll have more about the “official” star party on the New Field, the Nova Sedus Star Party, next week; here I will just say that everybody who attended had a great time far as I could tell, and that I was made more than welcome when I strolled over to visit the vendors and listen to talks. Yes, I chose to set up in my old spot, but I think the star party is a worthy endeavor, and I supported it by registering even though I wouldn’t observe from the Nova Sedus field. Even if I hadn’t wanted to take advantage of vendors and talks, I’d have registered. Like I said, “worthy endeavor.”

Good turnout on the Old Field.
Anyhoo, with my gear ready to go, the next step, as it always is, was a visit to the Chiefland WallyWorld for supplies. Besides my staples, bottled water, Monster Energy Drinks, and Jack Links, I wanted to get a fuzzy hat of some kind, a watch cap sort of thing to keep my punkin head warm, as it was predicted to get way down in the 40s on Thursday evening, which is blamed cold for me.

After I’d obtained the necessities and stopped by the motel room to change into warmer attire, it was 5 p.m. and time to get on the stick. My plan of operations for the first night was a simple one: I’d leave the Stellacam alone and do visual only. I’d go until I couldn’t go, however early or late that might be.

Back on the field, I began to wonder whether I’d have to worry about how late I could keep my peepers open. In peculiar fashion for this site, a bunch of thick, low clouds had pushed in from the north. I spent the next couple of hours wandering the field, shooting the breeze with old friends and annoying all and sundry in my inimitable fashion. Just as I began to think the balance of the night would consist of cable TV and Rebel Yell at the Holiday Inn, I spied a line of clearing on the horizon, and in about half an hour I was getting Bertha go-to aligned.

Bertha’s optical setup for the run was the same as I reported on last week. She was in alt-az mode, natch, and I mounted my Denkmeier Powerswitch diagonal on her rear cell. The primary oculars would be the 8mm and 13mm Ethoses, but they’d be ably assisted by my other TeleVues and my William Optics Uwans. The Denk’s filter switch was loaded up with a Thousand Oaks OIII and a Lumicon (the old Lumicon) UHC. On standby for use later in the evening was an Orion hbeta.

One thing would be different from last week’s club site run: I left the NS11’s hand control in its box and ran the scope with NexRemote on the laptop. Don’t know what NexRemote is? Take a gander at this. I much prefer NR to the real thing, because, amongst other reasons, it allows me to use a wireless Logitech joystick as my HC. That is much more responsive and comfortable than the “real” hand control, and I don’t wind up hog tying myself and the scope with a dad-blasted cable at some point in the evening as I always do with the hardwired HC.

The bridge of Unk's Starship.
NexRemote really is just like a hardware hand control, including the ability to operate in conjunction with an astronomy program. The software of choice this evening was SkyTools 3 Professional. I know I rave about it all the time, but that is deserved. This combination of planner/logger/star atlas is incredibly powerful, and I believe will be the key to your ol’ Unk successfully negotiating deep Herschel Project waters. If I do manage to finish the Whole Big Thing, the Herschel 2500, a principal reason for my success will have been SkyTools; of that I have no doubt.

There has never been a computer program of any kind that does everything or does everything perfectly, however, and I’d be using another similar application, Deepsky, alongside SkyTools 3. Yes, I coulda managed with just SkyTools, but Deepsky does have a couple of very helpful features. One I’ve mentioned in the past is its database of log entries by prominent observers. Sometimes it helps you understand what you are seeing if you can read what another person thought about it. Also useful would be Deepsky’s DVD of Palomar Observatory Sky Survey images. Yes, ST3 can download and cache POSS plates, but the field Internet connection was slow and shaky this time out and lazy me had not got around to downloading pictures for all the HIIs with ST3 before I left the Old Manse.

Go-to alignment successfully completed, it was time to get my getalong gettin’ along. I brought up ST3, connected it to NexRemote’s “virtual port,” and clicked up the first of the evening’s deep sky wonders.

Oh, before we get started, let me ‘splain something: I’ve included each object’s Herschel Number as well as its NGC. Yeah, Willy-boy’s object cataloging system seems a little cryptic, but this is The Herschel Project, and I think I should identify the targets just as my Main Man did. Actually, once you grok his system, it’s not complicated at all, just a little unwieldy, maybe. The key to his catalog designations is a number based on an object’s visual appearance:

Class I - Bright Nebulae;
Class II - Faint Nebulae;
Class III - Very Faint Nebulae;
Class IV - Planetary Nebulae;
Class V - Very Large Nebulae;
Class VI - Very Compressed and Rich Clusters of Stars;
Class VII - Compressed Clusters of Small and Large Stars;
Class VIII - Coarsely Scattered Clusters of Stars.

Tom Clarke checking out a big Dob.
Each class was separately numbered, with, for example, there being both an H.I.10 and an H.II.10. Putting it all together? H.V.18, for example, would be the 18th object in Sir William’s list of “very large nebulae.” Yes, it’s a little awkward, but his system has an advantage: “H.V.37” tells you one heck of a lot more about what an object is like than “NGC 7000” does (which tells you nuttin’ if you don’t recognize the number).

One last thing: you’ll see the entries for most objects are a wee bit briefer this time. With so many to talk about, there wasn’t no way I could expound on each fuzzy like I’ve been doing and keep the blog short enough for you to feel like reading it. If an object was of exceptional interest, I did give it its due. And now, without further ado, transcribed from my cassette tapes made on the evening of 12 – 13 November 2009…


Just one Serpens object tonight, and it’s only here because The Snake’s Tail was temporarily in a sucker hole early in the evening and I figgered I’d best bop over that way.

It’s hard to see small (5’) NGC 6604 (H VIII.15), an open cluster, in this rich field. I can make out a little “U” shaped asterism and a sparse sprinkling of stars near the specified position.


The sky having almost magically cleared, it was over to the east to grab the small constellation, Aries. Most folks know it only for its luscious double star, Gamma Arietis, Mesarthim, but being where it is, hard up against Pegasus and Pisces and Triangulum, it has its fair share of galaxies. None of ‘em is a spectacle, but all were interesting.

NGC 1012 (H III.152): This SO galaxy is reputed to be as dim as magnitude 13, but was easy in the NS11. Little elongated sliver with a brighter and fairly large core.

NGC 1156 (H II.619) is a round oval of an irregular galaxy. Not hard, but looks considerably dimmer than its supposed magnitude of 12, probably because of its relatively large 3’ size.

This elliptical in Aries, NGC 821 (H I.152), is strongly elongated, about 3’ x 2’, with a bright nucleus. Overall effect is “dim.” Bright nearby field star does not help.


Onward to the Big Horse who, I shouldn’t have to tell y’all, is galaxy country. While there are a few objects of other types lurking, not one is in the HII; it is all galaxies.

NGC 7457 (H II.212), a large lenticular, about 4’ in size, is relatively dim but not hard to see. Somewhat brighter towards the middle. Maybe magnitude 12.

NGC 23 (H III.147) is a barred spiral, and shows itself as a dim oval in the 13mm Ethos eyepiece. A bright field star is involved with one end. At times I detect a tiny stellar-appearing nucleus.

An old buddy of mine in Pegasus, NGC 7332 (H II.233), is an edge-on lenticular with a brighter core and looks brighter and prettier than its magnitude of 12 would suggest. There is a second edge-on in the field, NGC 7339.

NGC 7177 (H II.247): This spiral is an oval smudge a couple of minutes across. I can tell it’s not round, but that’s about the only detail of this SABb galaxy that I can make out.

NGC 7814 (H II.240) is a large and dim edge on galaxy.

NGC 7463 (H III.210) is a small, slightly elongated spot of light in the same field with NGC 7465.

NGC 7465 (H III.211) is small, too, an elongated, almost edge-on appearing wisp.

Also small and somewhat dim and perhaps slightly elongated is NGC 7042 (H III.209).

NGC 7742 (H II.255) is fairly prominent; it is round with a brighter middle. Basically a cosmic lint-ball close-on to an 11th magnitude field star.

Although NGC 7623 (H III.345) is dim (most sources say magnitude 14), it’s also small, so it’s not hard. A perhaps slightly elongated deep sky dust bunny.

NGC 7626 (H II.440) is in the same field with NGC 7619. Round, fairly bright. Brightens very gradually toward the middle.

The above-mentioned NGC 7619 (H II.439) looks pretty much identical to her sister, 7626. A round elliptical with a slightly brighter center a couple of minutes across.

NGC 7156 (H III.452) is a somewhat dim face-on spiral with a small, brightish core.


The Horse’s large, fishy neighbor is, like him, loaded down with galaxies of every description, from the spectacular (well, on the right night) M74 and down. As is the case with Pegasus, the Pisces HII lineup is nothing but galaxies:

NGC 499 (H III.158) is a reasonably bright fuzzie in the 13mm Ethos; better than its 13.3 magnitude value would suggest. Little over a minute across and in a field with several other small galaxies.

NGC 410’s (H II.220) a small, round-looking lenticular in the field with an edge-on and at least one other little galaxy.

Medium-sized but bright at 3’ long and 12th magnitude, NGC 315 (H II.210) is an obviously elongated fuzzball in the 13 Ethos.

There are some real standouts in Pisces amongst the Hs, including NGC 660 (H II.253), a beautiful barred spiral. It is an elongated smudge a couple of minutes across in the 13mm ocular. At higher powers, I occasionally think I catch glimpses of its arms, but nothing sure. I’d like to come back here with the Stellacam.

NGC 514 (H II.252) is a large 3’ plus elongated oval of light. It’s a face-on SABc.

NGC 665 (H II.588) is a 13th magnitude spot maybe a bit elongated in the 8mm E.

NGC 7562 (H II.467), another slightly elongated fuzzball, is small, round, and has large bright core.

A small face-on Sc with a luminous core, NGC 706 (H II.596) doesn’t give up much detail, with the most notable thing in the field being a 12th magnitude star near the galaxy.

NGC 7785 (H II.468): This elliptical is an oval spot of dim light. Next to a triangle of prominent field stars.

Medium-sized elliptical NGC 741 (H II.271) is in the field with several small galaxies including one, NGC 742, that’s positioned just 50” east of its center.

NGC 7541’s (H II.430) an OK edge-on spiral mainly notable because it’s in the same field as a prominent smaller galaxy, NGC 7537.

This barred spiral, NGC 718 (H II.270), is just a small, elongated patch with the very faintest hint of an outer envelope.

NGC 125 (H III.869) is in a Pisces field with several other small and mostly dim galaxies. 125 is round with diffuse edges, but that is about all I can tell about it.

An Sc spiral, NGC 198 (H II.857), is round and faint in the 8mm Ethos. Brighter towards the middle.


I needed one little guy over Triangulum way, and thank god he wasn’t another galaxy; I was ready for a short break from the cosmic fireflies I’d been netting.

The prominent if small nebula (2’) that’s involved in M33, NGC 604 (H III.150), is always a treat; he’s the Pinwheel’s “M42 on steroids.”


There are only two Herschel IIs over in Cassiopeia and—surprise—neither one is an open cluster.

NGC 896 (H III.695): This large >20’ nebula is visible with the help of averted vision and a UHC filter in the 13 Ethos at f/6.3. No obvious shape I can see.

The Bubble Nebula, NGC 7635 (H IV.52). I’m not sure I can see the bubble shape itself, but plenty of nebulosity is on display in the 13mm ocular with a UHC. I can make out one arc of nebulosity that may be part of the bubble form, but mostly the impression is “haze around an 8th magnitude star.”


I only needed one Cetacean this evening; nice that it turned out to be a fairly outstanding galaxy:

This barred spiral in Cetus, NGC 171 (H III.223), is tantalizing. It’s obviously elongated, that being its prominent bar, I’m sure, and there are hints of patchy detail in the haze surrounding this bar, perhaps indicating the presence of the spiral arms. As usual, my impression is “considerably brighter” than the “13” most sources indicate.


Quick break for a walk around the field, a Monster drink, a bit of Jack Link jerky, and I was refreshed, pressing on to the winter star figures…

NGC 1883 (H VII.34): This small, round open cluster, 5’ across, is dim at 12th magnitude, with maybe half a dozen stars winking in and out.

NGC 2192 (H VII.57) is another small Aurigan open—maybe 5’ in diameter, too. With the 8mm Ethos, it resolves into an elongated patch of dim stars.

Less than 5’ in size, open cluster NGC 1778 (H VIII.61) is nevertheless reasonably bright. 15 or 20 stars in no discernable pattern.


I could hardly believe midnight had come and gone and Gemini was ready for the picking:

This 13th magnitude elliptical galaxy in Gemini, NGC 2274 (H II.615), is a round fuzzball with a slightly brighter center and is a couple of minutes across. Fairly dim.

NGC 2331 (H VIII.40) is a large, 20’, and bright, mag 8, open cluster. A loose group not well detached from the background. One clump of brighter stars off center, but the general impression is “blah.”

Another galaxy, NGC 2339 (H II.769), is a small and dim spiral that’s a fuzzie about 2’ in size. Maybe a bit elongated. Slightly brighter nuclear area.


Looked over to the east and found ol’ Orion had snuck up on me, and was now high enough for me and Miss Bertha to traipse across his starry reaches.

Orion’s NGC 1663 (H VIII.7) is a medium-sized galactic cluster, about 10’ across. 10 or 15 stars visible, with several forming an arc along one side. Sparse and not well detached. Hard to tell at first that I’m on the target.

NGC 1662 (H VII.1), another open cluster, is a large 15 – 20’ elongated group of about 20 stars. The brighter ones form a line down the middle of the cluster.

Galaxies in Orion? Yep. NGC 1762 (H III.453) is a small elongated one…slightly brighter core. One field star, mag 12 or so, is involved in the galaxy’s outer envelope.

NGC 2112 (H VII.24): Large near-half-degree open cluster. Sparse. Some 9th – 10th magnitude stars near the middle form a heart-shaped asterism.

NGC 2071 (H IV.36) is found in the M78 field in Orion; this small patch of nebulosity a couple of minutes across around a star forms a dimmer, smaller version of M78. Best in the 8mm Ethos without a filter.

NGC 1990 (H V.34): The Epsilon Orionis Nebula is a huge thing over a degree across. I was able to see some parts of it, but only by using the 35mm Panoptic with the reducer in place. Ugly vignetting, but at least I was able to detect the nebula. Maybe the UHC helped a little.

NGC 2023 (H IV.24) is the “nebulous star” near the Horsehead Nebula. Quite prominent in the 8mm eyepiece. Didn’t seem much helped by a filter. I took a quick look for B33, but didn’t see it. Conditions are degrading, with the nearby Tank Tracks Nebula, NGC 2024, not its usual ebullient self.

The famous Running Man reflection nebulosity, NGC 1977 (H V.30), was next. Despite conditions that are not as good as they were earlier, this nebula is criss-crossed with dark lanes and quite prominent.


SkyTools 3 listed NGC 7023 (H IV.74) as an open cluster in Pisces, but it was clear something was not quite right. Turns out this object is in Cepheus, not Pisces. Collinder 427 in Cepheus is a loose group of stars involved in a cool reflection nebulosity, the Iris Nebula. To further confuse matters, the Collinder 429 referred to by the program is apparently nonexistent. I located an updated HII list on the SkyTools website that corrected this small problem. The Herschel number, by the way, refers to both the cluster and the nebulosity.


If Orion is up, his friend the unicorn, Monoceros, can’t be far behind.

NGC 2259 (H VI.28) in Monoceros is an undistinguished little cluster less than 5’ across. A group of 10th magnitude field stars nearby resembles a miniature Andromeda (the constellation stick figure). The cluster itself is a small group of dim stars that looks like this “Andromeda’s” M31.

NGC 2245 (H IV.3) is a fairly obvious clump of nebulosity surrounding a bright star. It is oblong and is not centered on the star. Most of the time it requires averted vision. Filters have no effect, so it is likely a reflection nebula.

Hubble’s Variable Nebula, NGC 2261 (H IV.2), is nice tonight in the 8 Ethos. Best with no filter. The nebula’s triangular shape is very obvious with direct vision.

NGC 2254 (H VII.22) is a not bad little open cluster. About 4’ across in the 8mm. I see a half-circle of medium-bright cluster stars surrounding a 10th magnitude sun. This circlet is backed by quite a few dimmer stars.

Another good open cluster, NGC 2236 (H VII.5), is comma shaped, maybe 10’ in size. Bright star involved in the “comma.”

NGC 2252 (H VIII.50) is a somewhat shapeless collection of magnitude 8 and dimmer stars about 10’ in diameter. Almost forms a coat-hanger shape for me as I stare at it through the 8mm Ethos eyepiece.

NGC 2269 (H VI.3), a fairly identifiable patch of stars 5’ in size. Set in a rich field. It is shapeless at first, but a little lookin’ at this open cluster turns up a little stick figure—like a mini-owl cluster.

The Hourglass Planetary, NGC 2346 (H IV.65), is not difficult with the 13 Ethos at f/10. UHC filter helps with this big 1’ nebula. Oblong with a prominent central star and a faint outer shell.

NGC 2182 (H IV.38) is a fairly obvious puff of nebulosity around a 10th magnitude star. Round with a dimmer star about 30” away.

An extensive and obvious patch of nebulosity, NGC 2170 (H IV.19) is at least a couple of minutes across in the 8mm eyepiece.

NGC 2302 (H VIII.39): A nice little cluster. Maybe 5’ in diameter with a “C” shaped group of brighter cluster stars at its center.

NGC 2309 (H VI.18) is an attractive small (about 3-4’) galactic cluster. Spash of stars in roughly an oval shape.

This little nebula in Monoceros, NGC 2316 (H II.304), is not difficult at all. Several stars involved. UHC doesn’t help. It’s listed as 4’ across. Maybe I saw 2’ of nebulosity.


The night was old and the old bones was cold. But before pulling The Big Switch, I jumped over to Taurus, who was makin’ a spectacle of himself in the east:

NGC 1514 (H IV.69): After all tonight’s many dim galaxies, a nice planetary is a treat, and that’s what the Crystal Ball is. Bright central star surrounded by considerable diffuse haze. Maybe 2’ in size.

And there are galaxies even in Taurus. NGC 1587 (H II.8) is a round elliptical with a slightly brighter center. It’s next to and maybe in contact with the smaller NGC 1588. There is also a third smidge-smudge of a galaxy 12’ minutes away, NGC 1589.

Time for a little after-run Yell and cable TV.
Could I have pushed on a little longer? Maybe. Should I have? Maybe. But after the drive down and sweating over the equipment setup, yeah, the old bod was weary. And sixty-five cotton-pickin’ Herschels was, I thought, pretty derned good. So, I was not too disappointed when conditions began to worsen fairly dramatically at about 2:30 a.m. Shut down, packed up, took a quick look at some purties in a bro’s Mallincam, and it was back to my warm motel room, cable TV, and vaunted bottle of Rebel Yell.

What’s gonna go on here next week? What’s the plan, Stan? How about a break from The Herschel Project? Just to keep things interesting, we’ll go off in a different direction this coming Sunday with my review of a new computer program, Eye and Telescope

How was me and Miss D’s Thanksgiving? By the time you read this blog, we will be back at Chaos Manor South with the cats and the CATs, but, as is our wont, we passed the holiday at the Hotel Monteleone in New Orleans’ French Quarter. Where I spent considerable time drinking in their famous Carousel Bar. If it is good enough for Capote, Faulkner, Hemmingway, and Williams, it is sure as heck good enough for the likes of me!

Sunday, November 22, 2009


The Herschel Project Night Two: 39 Down, 361 to Go

Or, as an alternate title, “Some Days You Eat the Bear; Some Days the Bear Eats You.” Mr. Bear didn’t get me Saturday night before last, but I did come home with a few claw marks on my posterior, muchachos. I’d had high hopes for the weather, since we’d enjoyed a week of blue skies. Wouldn’t you know it? The more the Moon shrank, the angrier the weather gods became. The Weather Channel’s predictions went from “clear,” to “mostly clear,” to “partly cloudy,” to “mostly cloudy” over the course of just a few days. Mainly because there was a storm system slowly drifting in from Texas. But that wasn’t the only reason.

Almost unbelievably, something bad spawned in the Atlantic and moved into the Caribbean and was soon knocking on the Gulf of Mexico’s door. “Unbelievably” because Hurricane Season is over. It had been an uncharacteristically quiet one, too, very quiet thanks to El Nino (or so the supposed experts on the Weather Channel say), so the idea of a November storm seemed a mite outré. It’s not that November storms are unknown, but for one to charge into the Gulf as an honest-to-God—albeit weak—hurricane is rare.

As y’all can imagine, just four years post-Katrina we along this coast sit up and take notice of any storm no matter how minimal. The good news, if there was any, was we wouldn’t feel the effects of Ida before Monday, and that it appeared the storm, predicted to swing into Florida after landfall, would get out of the way for the Chiefland Star Party, which was due to begin on the 12th. I resolved not to worry my head about the CSP, and just focus on Saturday evening at our club site to the west in little Tanner-Williams, Alabama.

I wouldn’t worry about Chiefland, but I would prepare for it. My goal on this Saturday night was to give the NexStar 11, Big Bertha, a thorough checkout in preparation for the journey south. I reckoned that if all I got to do was align Bertha and go-to a go-to or two, my time would be well spent. Plus, since I swore some time back that I would head to the dark site every Moonless Saturday without fail as long as there wasn’t actually rain falling, I was kinda locked-in no matter what the gull-derned had to say.

Loaded up the Toyota Saturday p.m. following a visit to our new Bass Pro shop across the bay for a replacement for the EZ-Up canopy that got smashed during me and Miss Dorothy’s recent trip to the Deep South Regional Star Gaze. By the time we got back to good ol’ Chaos Manor South, I had to scurry around. It’s hard to believe it is now getting dark by 5 o’clock, but that is the way the sky works.

I didn't have too much loading to do since I didn't intend to haul a lotta stuff out to the site. It appeared we’d probably be at least partially skunked, so I left the laptop PC and its big trolling motor battery behind. All that went was Bertha, my observing table, eyepieces, notebook, PC shelter to protect the notebooks and charts from dew, a couple of cans of Monster Energy Drinks, bottled water, and an equipment box or three. That is light for me, boys and girls.

The trip out was, pretty discouraging. The clouds were building, no ignoring that. At the end of my 45-minute journey, I stood on our observing field and tried to decide whether to bother setting up. Just before Sundown, though, the few tiny sucker holes began to evolve into “sucker bands” that revealed some nice expanses of sky. My three compadres from the Possum Swamp Astronomical Society who’d joined me at the dark site had set up their scopes, so what the heck. What could happen other than me getting a refresher course in NS11 setup swiftly followed by NS11 tear down?

I was frankly surprised that once Bertha was ready to go and Sunset had come and gone, it actually looked like there might enough stars visible for a go-to alignment. I only need two for Bertha when I use the scope’s “North and Level GPS Align” routine. Celestron replaced that software with SkyAlign a long time ago so they would not have to continue to pay royalties to Meade, who successfully convinced a judge that the process of pointing a telescope north to do a computer alignment was patentable (!). I’ve still got Bertha’s original and non-programmable hand controller, however, or I can load the old software into NexRemote.

SkyAlign is nice, and the few times I’ve used it it’s seemed purty cotton-pickin’ accurate, but I still prefer the old way. Maybe because I am lazy. The GPS Align software doesn’t make you do much of anything. Flip the on-off to “o-n,” the scope levels itself, points north, takes a GPS fix, and heads for the first of two alignment stars. All li’l ol’ me has to do is center the stars the scope chooses in the finder and in the main eyepiece. Heck, when you are ready to go from finder to eyepiece, the software even switches the HC buttons around and slows down the slewing. Slick.

Or it is when you do it right. When correctly completed, the alignment will put anything I request in Bertha’s field at 150X plus. Anything. Anywhere in the sky from horizon to horizon. If I do it right, which I had a hard time with on this particular evening. First problem was that I forgot my stinking reading glasses. No matter how far away I held the HC, I still had a hard time making out the display. Looked like ants crawling across the LCD; my arms just weren't long enough. I don’t know which wrong-buttons I pushed, but I pushed some. When I was done centering the second star, Bertha thought for a minute and said “Alignment Failed.”

Pretty depressing, but it likely wouldn’t have been a very good alignment anyhow. I forgot the old Up and Right Rule. In order to take backlash into account and ensure go-tos are accurate, Celestron has you do final centering of alignment stars using only the up and right keys on the HC. Do that and go-to is deadly accurate. Forget that, and accuracy is more like what I get out of Sweet Charity, my ETX-125: OK, most objects in the field, but not necessarily every single one. What saved me on Saturday was that one of my brothers recalled he had a big magnifying glass in one of his gear boxes and dug it out for me. I’d already been on a fruitless search for that extra pair of readers I swore I’d put in one of the dryboxes a while back.

With the aid of the magnifying glass, I repeated the go-to alignment, being careful to mash the correct buttons and center using up and right. When I was done, Bertha responded with a big “Alignment Successful” as usual, and I punched in M13. It was more or less clear of the clouds at the time and looked pretty good in the center of the 12mm reticle eyepiece when the slew stopped. So good that I fished out the 13 Ethos. “Sho looks good but might be better with the 8.” Into the Powerswitch Diagonal went the 8mm Ethos.

Focused up, or tried to, but instead of a big ball of stars, all I was seeing was a faint smudge. What the—? After cogitating a while, I realized I’d forgotten how to use my Denkmeier Powerswitch. ‘Stead of engaging the built-in .63 reducer, I’d slid the OIII filter into place, which did not do a hell of a lot to improve the appearance of the globular cluster. Rectified that. M13, howsomeever, was only slightly brighter and still wouldn’t focus. Had I done something to my beautiful Ethos? It was really damp at DSRSG, the last time I’d used it. Had moisture condensed on one of the internal lens elements? Horrors!

I got the eyepiece out of the diagonal and turned my red light on it. And felt like a fool. The 8mm Ethos is one of TeleVue’s 2 – 1.25-inch style oculars. It has a 1.25-inch barrel that holds the field lens assembly, and a “skirt” that allows the eyepiece to be used in a 2-inch diagonal without an adapter. Naturally, there’s a 1.25-inch lens cap to protect the field lens. When I examined the 8mm it was obvious what the problem was: I’d inserted the eyepiece into the Powerswitch Diagonal without removing said lens cap. Even more amazing than my idiocy? That I was able to see M13 through the cap. Sure, it’s kinda translucent, but, still. Just proof of the power of a C11, I reckon.

After wasting near-about 15-minutes on my eyepiece snipe hunt, I was finally ready to do some good with the telescope. What was available? The Cygnus – Aquila region was. There were plenty of drifting clouds, but near the zenith the Cygnus Milky Way was burning strong. While I’d have been satisfied just to give the NS11 a clean bill of health for Chiefland, if it were possible to knock off a few Herschel II objects, more’s the better. One thing’s sure: I will have to tick ‘em off at every opportunity if I am to be sure of finishing in a year, of which just a little more than 11 months remained on this Saturday evening.

Before getting down to brass tacks, let’s talk for a moment about the Denk Powerswitch Diagonal I was using with Bertha on this run. If you’ve an SCT, you need one. What is it? It’s a high quality 2-inch diagonal (sourced from William Optics, I believe) that incorporates a focal reducer and a Barlow, either of which can be introduced into the light path with the push of a lever. There’s also the (optional) Filter Switch drawer you can load up with two filters; these can, like the reducer and Barlow, be introduced with a flick of the wrist.

With this thing riding on Bertha, I feel like I’m in the Captain’s chair of the Enterprise. More warp power? Make it so! Slow to sublight? Aye-aye! I’ve often gone a whole observing run using a single eyepiece and without getting up except to occasionally re-position the observing chair or grab some Jack Links.

Hokay, with the Powerswitch loaded up with the 13 Ethos and the 8mm on standby, I set the helm for “Out There,” that being the star fields straight over my head. This would be a purely visual night. No Stellacam, no CCD, no nuttin’. I had hoped to at least do a sketch or two, but the conditions did not encourage that idea. Not only were the clouds threatening to move back in at any second, the dew was heavy and getting heavier, and I don’t doubt my poor sketch diary woulda been soaked in short order if I’d pulled it out—ever’thing else was, including me.

First stop was not, as you might have guessed, one of the Swan’s multitudinous open clusters, but a galaxy in, of all places, Aquila. The more I work the sky, the more I realize galaxies are almost everywhere, clinging tight to the Zone of Avoidance, the dusty backbone of the Milky Way, like ticks to an old hound-dog. Given the clouds and haze, I wasn’t sure what to expect when Bertha stopped on what she claimed was NGC 6814.

Under degrading conditions, this magnitude 12.06 face-on spiral is a round smudge a minute or less across with a slightly brighter center. Occasionally seen with direct vision, but mostly needs averted vision. Not overly difficult, though.

Thus reassured by ol’ Bertha’s ability to bring back a relatively dim face-on from these punk skies, I pushed on, mashing the buttons to bring up NGC 6772, another of the Eagle’s treasures:

This planetary is large, and seems best with the UHC, though it is visible without any filter. Fairly obvious with direct vision, but is mostly a large, amorphous smudge with no central star or other details obvious. Its visual magnitude is often given as dim as 14, but it is clearly much brighter than that, looking no dimmer than 12 or so in this old boy’s opinion.

And that, Kats ‘n Kittens, finished Aquila’s HIIs. Next constellation? Cygnus obviously; not only was he riding high, he was also about the only area even partially free of those dadgummed clouds.

Almost bizarrely, the first object on SkyTools’ Cygnus lineup was another galaxy, li’l NGC 6824. To me, the idea of island universes in Cygnus don’t sound as strange as galaxies in Aquila. This spiral is well away from the Northern Cross stick figure, being plunked down near the Draco border, and the Dragon is chock full of fuzzballs.

Listed magnitudes for this Cygnus galaxy are all over the map, from 11 and some change on down to 13 and dimmer. Since NGC 6824 was laughably easy with the 13 Ethos on this poor night, I suspect 11 is closer to the truth. Adjacent to a brighter field star, but is immediately obvious with direct vision as a somewhat oval fuzz. Bright center. Smallest hints of possible detail in this Sab galaxy’s outer envelope.

Onward to what you’d expect to find in this constellation: boring open clusters. Except most of ‘em ain’t so boring. The more of these clusters I look at, the more I am inclined to agree with SkyTools’ author, Skyhound Greg Crinklaw, that there are no boring deep sky objects, and that each and every one deserves our appreciation. Nevertheless, on such a lousy night NGC 7031 was not what I’d call a “showpiece.”

This 11th magnitude galactic cluster is not impressive tonight. A little collection of subdued stars maybe 10’ across. Stands out fairly well from the Cygnus star field in the 13 Ethos. Sports a “U” shaped asterism near its center.

Next was mag 8.3 NGC 7067, another in a long line of open clusters.

This is a small but bright cluster in the 8mm eyepiece, maybe 5’ across. Sparse, not well detached. A few bright stars, some of which form a tiny “W” shaped asterism.

I’m trying to be charitable folks, and I was happy to get a look at it, but NGC 6991 really didn't offer a whole lot neither:

Large, maybe 30’ in diameter. Doesn’t stand out at all well from the rich starfield. Best with 27mm Panoptic with .6 reducer switched-in. Identifiable as a cluster, but only barely. One area contains a patch of dimmer stars that looks more cluster like than the object as a whole.

It had to get better, and it did with NGC 7082:

Not bad, not bad at all. Large, so best in the 27 Pan/focal reducer. A half-degree splash of medium bright stars—10th magnitude or so. Some dimmer ones visible in background. As I stare, I see MacDonald’s Golden arches outlined near the center in 11 – 12th magnitude Suns.

Whichun was followed by another goodie, NGC 6996, which lies right off the Maine coast of The North America Nebula.

Another attractive open. Quite a few small and dimmer stars near the center of this 15’ cluster. Plenty of brighter 10th magnitude ones, too. 13mm Ethos did a fine job.

Was I ready for a break from NGC open clusters, y’all? You're darn tootin'. And I got that with NGC 6888, the famous Crescent Nebula. Not that I expected much of this notoriously dim cloud on such a night as this. And I was right:

Visible, but faintly, faintly. All I see is the brightest section of the outer loop of nebulosity. It is doable with direct vision in the 13mm but needs either the UHC or OIII filter to make that happen. Without that, it just ain’t happenin’.

I thought I knew all the planetary nebulae scattered along Cygnus/Aquila, y’all, but I am not sure I’d ever seen this one before. NGC 6857 is bright at around magnitude 11, but is big, too, so I have may taken a look at its stats in the past and moved on. Big mistake; it’s a fine one.

This 38” planetary, adjacent to a 10 -11 magnitude field star, is easy, and seems to reveal a ring shape in the 8mm eyepiece. Back home at Chaos Manor South, though, the POSS plate does not support that, showing it to be a boxy looking thing like the Little Dumbbell. I do think I occasionally see a central star.

The more I work into the Herschel II, you know what slays me? That folks think it’s full of the dim and deadly. Hell, there are showpieces scattered all through the thing. Like the much-loved Veil:

The Lacework Nebula section of the Bridal Veil Nebula, NGC 6992, is just past culmination and is fairly prominent even under poor conditions. Best in the 13mm Ethos with the OIII, though good views with the UHC, too, and that filter does give a more attractive field full of stars.

“I’LL GET YOU AND YOUR LITTLE DOG TOO!” said the Wicked Witch of the West as she hopped off NGC 6960, the western Veil loop (hey, I oughta know, I was married to her once).

The Witch’s Broom section of the Veil that runs through 52 Cygni is very prominent when this part of Cygnus is in a sucker hole. Excellent with Thousand Oaks OIII and the 13mm Ethos.

And here’s yet another planetary nebula I don’t remember observing (though y’all well know how “good” my memory is). NGC 6894, located down yonder near the Vulpecula border, is Real Big, 44”, and Real Dim, magnitude 14, so maybe I have avoided it in the past. But, just as with NGC 6857, I was surprised at “how good”—potentially, anyhow.

This planetary is marginally visible tonight in the 8mm eyepiece at f/10 with the C11 and with either the UHC or OIII in place. Seems slightly better in the UHC. Usually a smudge, but sometimes I do detect a ring shape. Fairly large at 44”, and under better conditions might be impressive. I doubt the “magnitude 14” most sources give for this one.

And with that, Cygnus was done. And a good thing, too. Just as I pulled away from the eyepiece, the sky closed down with a big thud, and nasty stuff from Hurricane Ida began to boil off the Gulf in earnest.

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 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, 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.

How will that affect this series of blog entries? Not at all. We will keep running through the Herschel II rat cheer, until it is done. I will report on what’s going on with the larger Herschel Project from time to time, but I ain’t necessarily planning on documenting every cotton-pickin’ observing run here. What will I do with these observations? One of my fellow Chieflanders on hearing that I was contemplating the brave (and maybe foolhardy) task of conquering of the whole list, wondered aloud if that might not mean I was planning a book on the subject: “You never know, pardner, you never know,” I evaded.

So what's up next on my agenda, such as it is? Next week we'll travel Down Chiefland Way for, yep, ANOTHER night of Herschels. After that, hows about a break and we look at Eye and Telescope? But then it will be back to Chiefland for the wrap up of my November Herschel campaign down there. What follows that? Whatever the sky allows and wherever my scatterbrained take on amateur astronomy leads me, muchachos...

Sunday, November 15, 2009


Another Brief Intermission

Yep, you called it; you are being skunked out of yet another blog entry, muchachos. Your old Uncle Rod’s spirit is willing, but his flesh is all too weak after three nights of hitting The Herschel Project hard in my late-middle-aged fashion down Chiefland way (I stayed up till AFTER TWO one night!). I need time to collect my notes and my senses. Heck, I still need to finish the Project report from last week's club dark site run. And I’ve had the opportunity to try out a new planning program, Eye and Telescope, which deserves some attention in this here blog. In other words, a lot of work for your lazy old Uncle, but he will GET ‘ER DONE. I can’t help but laugh in retrospect that I used to worry about running out of things to write about here (!).

Now? I am back at the Old Manse, and once all the student papers are graded (CONSARNED UNDERGRADUATES!) maybe it will be steak and whiskey time? Till next Sunday, then, but hows about some star party pictures to tide you over?

Unk's cozy field setup on Billy Dodd Memorial Observing Field, his time honored hangout. That's a new EZ-Up to replace the one destroyed by the Weather Gods at last Month's Deep South Regional Star Gaze...

Old Reliable...

All I can say is, "INCREDIBLE"...

Over on the "new" field, at the Nova Sedus Star Party, there were plenty of vendors with plenty of cool stuff to look at (and buy). Here are two of Unk's favorite folks in the bidness, Bill and Tammy Burgess.

Sunday, November 08, 2009


The Moon and You

Apologies to Leroy Shield, whose wonderful little song by that name you should know if’n you don’t. This, muchachos, constitutes a short intermission in the current observing program, The Herschel II Project. I got out to the PSAS darksite this past Saturday evening, mostly for a pre-Chiefland shake down of the scope, my dear old NexStar 11, Big Bertha, who, due to weather and other factors ain’t been out of her case since last July. I had high hopes, but the weather didn't exactly cooperate. After hauling Bertha out to Tanner-Williams, I had about two hours before the EVIL CLOUDS pushed in, but I did get a dozen Herschels, including everything in Cygnus. I still have to transcribe my notes on the objects I saw Saturday night, though, so that will be next week. What’s on my mind this Sunday morning? Hecate. Diana. Selene. Artemis. Luna. You know, the good old MOON.

I’m going from dim Herschel galaxies to the dadgummed Moon in one fell swoop? Yep. They don’t call me the original astro-dilettante for nothing, and the Moon has a lot to recommend her. I suppose this one might be better titled “The Moon and Me,” but that don’t have as nice a ring. Anyhoo, I hope the story of my ongoing love affair with my silv’ry lady may inspire you to discover her charms as well.

I suspect you, like most of us, spent some time touring the Lunar landscape when you were a novice, but I also suspect you probably haven’t done much Moon watching for a while. If not, you should. Our friendly neighborhood natural satellite has a lot to recommend her: she’s available for most of every month in some shape or fashion, she’s immune to light pollution, and she don’t require a big scope to show you a lot. You may even, like me, eventually decide that deep, deep, down it’s not really PGC lint balls you crave. That you are, like your Old Uncle Rod, a lunatic, and haven’t outgrown the Moon afterall.

I’ve always loved Luna. She never had quite the allure for me Mars did when I was a youngun, but almost. Certainly I was spellbound by Destination Moon when it played down to the Roxy in its third or fourth run. It’s a lot like Conquest of Space. (You did round up a copy of that and Angry Red Planet and watch ‘em didn’t ya?) Mostly unknown actors, but with a real name behind ‘em, Robert Heinlein, on whose novel the film is based and who served as technical advisor and who may even have done a short cameo in the film. I’ll have to run down a DVD of the movie, but I’ve been told it’s The Man Himself doing the countdown in the early minutes of the film. Oh, the Ames Brothers didn’t really go to the Moon with our valiant crew.

As Apollo came on apace, the Moon was ever more in the consciousness of those of us who lived through the 60s. Other than Destination, what caught my attention was Men into Space, a short-lived series CBS ran, believe it or not, in primetime beginning in 1959. I probably saw it for the first time when they reran it on Saturday mornings in the early 1960s. Mama was not apt to let this little feller stay up much past 8, even to watch something I pleaded was EDUCATIONAL. I’ve never seen the show again (I'll have to look for it on Youtube), but I recall its episodes, which took us from a Moon landing to building a Lunar base, seemed awfully realistic. And maybe they were. The USAF Ballistic Missile Office helped out with the show, and many of the ship designs and much of the artwork were by Chesley Bonestell.

There were plenty of Moon books too. Starting with Heinlein, whose The Moon is a Harsh Mistress (1966) became a big favorite of mine in the Palomar Junior days. Before Heinlein—and after—though, there was Patrick Moore. The world’s most famous living amateur astronomer, as those of you who, like me, hang on his every word know has always been a huge Lunatic. As he’ll tell you, the Moon is his passion, and she’s been prominent in most of his many books. I know I eagerly devoured 1953’s A Guide to the Moon when I ran across it in Kate Shepard Elementary’s library. How it got there, I haven’t a clue. I am pretty sure Mama, who was the school’s librarian, didn’t order it, as she was more interested in getting the word out about Little House on the Prairie at the time.

So, yeah, I did a lot of Moon watching till the end of the sixties. She was the one thing that lived up to my expectations in my puny Pal Junior and my even punier Tasco 3-inch Newtonian. As a matter of fact, until I was finally diverted by the deep sky, I looked at the Moon more than anything else. Beginning with my first telescope. I don’t mean my Tasco 3-inch, but the first scope I ever looked at anything in the sky with, the cobbled together 6-inch below.

Unk's brother liked posing for the camera, but not telescopes
This Thing was ATMed by a pal of The Old Man’s. I can’t quite remember if it was a ham buddy or a fellow engineer at the TV station where he worked, but I suspect the latter, since the telescope sported a “mount” made out of a cast off piece of a microphone boom. The mirror was a long focal length sphere (I’d guess in retrospect), an f/10 at least, maybe as much as f/12. It had not only been ground and polished by the OM’s bud, but had been silvered at home, and by the time my brother posed with it, shortly after it came to our house to stay, the primary was badly tarnished. By the way, the bro, who in the picture seems kinda engaged by the scope, never deigned to look through it as far as I remember. Go figger.

Despite the tarnish, the old scope with its single home-brew 30-mm (or so) eyepiece was quite capable of delivering a good image of the Moon. It looked just plain wonderful to naïve little me—when I finally got Luna in the field. Even back in the dark ages, we suffered the New Telescope Curse, even if that scope was a crude thing with a riveted together stovepipe for a tube, a plumbing parts focuser, and a screen door spring for a “slow motion control.” ‘Course, to me it wasn’t humble at all; it was on the almost-scary side of wonderful, and as soon as the skies cleared I was out to have a look at a near-full Moon hanging in the east. Thank god the mic boom stand still had its wheels; otherwise I’d never have been able to move the hulking scope from carport to driveway.

The first hurdle was getting at the eyepiece. I’m older than my brother, but still I needed that chair you see him perched on to position myself comfortably. Next difficulty was putting the Moon in the eyepiece. I’d never even touched a Real Telescope before, and I hadn’t imagined that would be a problem—you pointed the thing at the Moon and there it was, right? Ha! Since there was no finder, it took much repeated sighting along the tube accompanied by continual hopping on and off Mama’s castoff dinette set chair before I succeeded in getting the Moon in view.

When I finally did, though, MAN OH MAN. Once I figured out you could push the eyepiece in or pull it out to get a sharp image, anyway. At the scope’s long focal length, I couldn’t see all the Moon at once, but what I could see was flat out crazy. Yeah, I know, we tell the novices, “Don’t look at the Full Moon, there’s hardly any detail to see at a high Sun angle,” but I was seeing tons of detail. Seas, rays, rings that I suspected might even be the legendary CRATERS. I was just about speechless at the sight. And so were the nextdoor neighbor kids when they wandered by. Almost speechless. I remember the youngest of ‘em took one look and started bawling. We determined that it was his firm belief that Santa Claus lived on the Moon, and that our scoping out his digs might impel the fat man to pass us by come December the 25th. Then as now, I’ve been known to observe with some strange folks.

I don’t remember using the 6-inch much after that magical first light; it was too much of a pain to point at anything, and shortly after that first look at the Moon I took possession of my Tasco, which, if not as good optically, was one hell of a lot easier to aim. Once I had a scope that was really mine, I undertook a Survey of the Moon. Following Sir Patrick’s advice, I began to draw craters with abandon. How good were the sketches I did with the Tasco and with the Palomar Junior that followed her? I wish I knew. Sometime over the last 45 years, the earliest of my observing logs (mostly on steno pads) were lost—it’s tempting to blame the ex, but I really don’t know what went with them. I do remember how hard I tried to GET IT RIGHT when I was sketching, and you can only imagine how much I’d give to have one of those little notebooks again.

That was not the Whole Big Thing for me when it came to the Moon, though; that was MOON PICTURES. As I’ve recounted before, likely ad nauseum, almost as soon as I got my hands on the Tasco, I began trying to take astrophotos of the Moon with it. First with my silly little Argus box camera, and then, with the OM's help, with his marvelous Exacta. As I’ve said before, these pictures (that's one at the top), though not very good as we judge such things today, amazed my friends—and frankly anyone else who saw ‘em—in those simpler times. Even four decades later, I can’t help feeling a little pride in what I accomplished when I look at the few surviving prints. I believe I even took a top spot in a Junior High Science Fair with a project built around my Moon Pictures.

That was the high point for my Lunar imaging career for a while, though. By the beginning of the 1970s I had a good homebrew six inch (I thought so, anyhow) and the wheels to get me to darker observing locations. Naturally, my focus shifted to the Messier and the NGC beyond. Much as I hate to admit it, I also gotta say that by the end of Apollo I was, like most of the U.S. population, at least a little ODed on the Moon. The result was I didn’t do much more than take casual glances at Luna for 15 years.

I didn’t get back to Diana till I was forced to. When I moved back to Possum Swamp, I found myself suddenly bathed in light pollution. Real bad light pollution. I eventually learned to deal with that and continue to observe the deep sky, but while I was finding my way vis-à-vis urban observing, I just looked at the Moon. A lot. Not just when it was in its all-too-familiar before-first-quarter phases, either, but the less observed time after Full Moon. I could hardly believe the cool stuff I was seeing under differing lighting conditions as the terminator marched back across Hecate’s face. Even when I turned back to the Great Out There, I continued to look at the Moon, as I still do even now. Those months of intensive Moon watching showed me why I’d been so fascinated as a youngun—in spades.

I didn’t leave it at looking, either. My reintroduction to the joys of Lunar observing coincided with my renewed interest in astrophotography. I got me a copy of Michael Covington’s Astrophotography for the Amateur, and set out to learn that frustrating art all over again, maybe the right way this time, beginning with the Moon. My new Moon Pictures weren’t done much differently from the old ones. I set up my 8-inch f/7 Coulter Dobsonian in the front yard of Mama’s house and snapped away in afocal fashion at the total Lunar eclipse of November 1993. I don’t know if it was the bigger scope that helped, but my images and the ones that followed were at least a little better than those from the old days. My technique was the same simple one: I placed my camera, an elderly Petri SLR, on a tripod next to the scope, pointed the lens into a long focal length eyepiece and snapped away.

Over the next few years, I refined my technique, shooting prime focus and eyepiece projection with cameras mounted on the rear cell of my C8. I was particularly pleased with my nice orange-red pics from the eclipse of September of ’96. I still longed for the one thing that had always eluded me, though: close up, detailed shots of craters. When I was a sprout, I thought I could do that by shooting a wide-angle picture of the terminator and blowing up the craters with the enlarger in the darkroom. That yielded a Moon that resembled slightly lumpy mashed potatoes, as did my attempts at eyepiece projection imaging. Those I got with the C8 in the 1990s were better, but not that much better. Taking high magnification images of the Moon was not easy. Even fast films required relatively long exposures; the inevitable gust of wind or the bang of the SLR’s mirror-return ruined most of my shots.

I found the answer one afternoon when I was reviewing some vacation video tapes Dorothy and I took on our visit to the Pisgah Inn and began idly wondering if I could videotape the Moon with the 8mm camcorder. Shortly, I was in the backyard with my 12.5-inch Meade StarFinder Dob doing just that. The results were crazy good compared to the best closeups I’d been able to get with 35mm film. After a little experimenting, I got a video sequence of Copernicus that filled the screen and revealed a huge amount of detail—relatively speaking.

Which was cool to look at on TV, but how could I get stills? I happened to meet a guy at a local star party, Charles Genovese, who had the answer. He was doing some amazing video work on the Solar System in the mid 1990s. It doesn’t look like any of his web pages are still on the air, but he was a true video astronomy pioneer whose results were just killer. Hell, he had a video that actually showed the rille down the Alpine Valley, plain as day.

For stills, he advised me to look into a little gadget called a “Snappy.” This was, he said, a frame grabber that plugged into your PC’s parallel port (bet you sprouts don’t know what that is) and which, he said, could produce amazingly good still images from video. Before long I was making Moon Pictures that, if not as good as Charles’ were, were still derned good. My video image of a Moon-Saturn occultation actually won an imaging contest. I won an astrophoto competition. Me.

From there it was video all the way for the Solar System for a while. Under the guidance of another video astronomy wizard, Jim Ferreira, me and and bunch of like-minded folks who were calling ourselves “astrovideographers” started a mailing list and began pushing back the frontiers of what amateur astronomers could image of the solar system. The Video-Astro story is one for another time, but one of the things we discovered as a group was the PC23C surveillance video camera. One of these sensitive little black and white imagers mounted on a C8 could deliver Lunar images way better than even what the camcorder could do. Especially when you processed and stacked many frames with a new program called Astrostack.

We were justly proud of our video efforts, and the Videoastro list continues to this day, but there is no denyin’ our efforts were eclipsed by those of a group pushing a different sort of imager, the webcams people had begun using for video conferencing with computers (and, less, uh, “business-oriented” online activities). I used a modified webcam, a SAC 7B, to finally capture that stinking rille down the Alpine Valley. It was clear as day, just like Dr. Genovese’s had been—well, if’n you held your mouth just right.

Being able to get this level of detail sure did kick my Luna Love up another notch. I was finally able to wander the Moon’s surface and take-in all the amazing sights I’d previously seen only in my mind’s eye with the aid or Mssrs. Heinlein and Clarke. Us webcamming Lunatics were so overjoyed with our results that in the early 2000s a bunch of us grouped together on Yahoo (natch) with the intention of producing a “Webcam Lunar Atlas.” That never quite got off the ground, but we had a lot of fun with it for a while. Unfortunately, my writing career was finally going somewhere, and I reluctantly dropped out of that worthy project.

I didn’t drop out of Moon watching, though. Not hardly. My re-infatuation with Selene impelled me to rejoin the ALPO and begin paying the rest of the Sun’s family the attention they so richly deserve. Mostly, though, I stuck with Luna. There was a lot of excitin’ stuff a-goin’ on. The webcam revolution was accompanied by a general renaissance in amateur interest in the Moon, and with that, new Moon books. Sir Patrick came out with Patrick Moore on the Moon, which, even more than his others, communicated the man’s enduring love of Luna. There were plenty more good books too, but it wasn’t just books where the Silvery Goddess was making her influence felt again. Sky and Telescope, for example, started a new Moon column done by Lunar guru Chuck Wood. If my understanding of the Moon has improved lately, it is largely thanks to him.

One thing I did wonder, though, “When will there be a Megastar for Moon watchers?” If you don’t know, Megastar was the first really deep deep sky charting program for PCs. Me and my fellow Lunatics dreamed of something that would do the same for us. We had to wait a while, but eventually someone listened, that someone being Patrick Chevalley of Cartes du Ciel fame. What he and Christian Legrand did was give us a program to take us very, very “deep” on the Moon.

In addition to a highly detailed high resolution zoomable map of Luna, the Pro edition of their Virtual Moon Atlas includes access to things I’d only dreamed of in the 1960s, like images from the renowned and apparently rare (I never saw a print copy) Consolidated Lunar Atlas. Hell, VMA will even send your go-to scope to craters and other Lunar features. If that ain’t finer than split frog hair, I don’t know what is. Wait, I do know what is: IT’S FREE. Yep, just like Cartes du Ciel, Virtual Moon Atlas is a labor of love and a gift to the amateur astronomy community. Do yourself a favor: go to the website and download it. While you are at it, send the boys an email THANK YOU.

With the maturing of the gosh-darned Internet, things have just got better and better for Lunatics. VMA is great, but there is lots more. Things that, like the Consolidated Lunar Atlas, I’d only fantasized about using. A quick Google will turn up not just the whole Consolidated Lunar Atlas, but The Lunar Orbiter Photographic Atlas of the Moon, and The Lunar Aeronautical Charts (a fave of mine). And that’s still only the barest tip of the central peak. Do you like the Astronomy Picture of the Day? Well, hell, you oughta love The Lunar Photo of the Day by the aforementioned Mr. Chuck Wood. I could keep goin’; it’s just a wonderful time to be a Moon watcher, and I’m constantly amazed more of my fellow amateurs ain’t. Yep, in my opinion Lunar observing is undergoing a huge resurgence, but there are still plenty of our brothers and sisters who don’t realize it’s more fun to look at the Moon than at the boob tube on those nights off from galaxy chasin’.

My current Lunar program? Oh, it’s modest folks, very modest. I’m embarrassed to admit I can’t recall the last time I took a Moon Picture. And it’s been a lot longer since I’ve done a drawing of her wonders. I can’t even remember the last time I pointed a C8 at her, much less the C11 or a larger scope. But that don’t mean I’ve deserted my first love. She still is that, inconstant as I’ve sometimes been. Yeah, Lunar observing right now consists of hopping outside with the StarBlast and giving the current phase a half hour once over once in a while. But still I admire—nay, worship—her serene and inscrutable countenance, and, like her timeless tides, my full attention to her beauty will come again.

What’s going down at the ol’ Manse this week? In support of my Herschel Crusade, I’ve put together a list in SkyTools 3 format of all the Herschels. Over two thousand DSOs, that is. You can download that at the SkyTools Yahoogroup and it will likely be up on the SkyTools website for download from inside the program afore long. Who do we have to thank for Unk’s current HERSCHEL MADNESS? It wasn't just obsereving those Herschel IIs at the DSRSG.

The wonderful Miss Dorothy came home one afternoon bearing a GREAT BIG (and old) book, The Scientific Papers of Sir William Herschel she bought for me at a rare/antiquarian book sale. Ever since I began to read Sir Willie’s story in detail, I’ve had a growing yen to follow in his and Caroline’s footsteps.

As intimated up top, next week Unk pulls up stakes and heads for the storied Chiefland Star Party. It will be HERSCHELS, HERSCHELS, HERSCHELS when I get there. If the skies are good we’ll see how many aitches the NexStar 11 and Stellacam 2 can bring back. As for this evening, Friday as I hunt and peck this out, it’s Greekfest time. Much food and desert will be involved and undoubtedly many adult beverages as well. Good thing it’s in walking distance, only a couple of blocks away. If’n I ignore the condition of my skies, I start thinking there really is something to this Urban Lifestyle.

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