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 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 that 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 our 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, 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...

M13 trough the lens cap was really funny. I was laughing non-stop for 5 minutes and when I think of it still makes me laugh.
I know how it feels though because I'm also lost without my glasses.
Good luck with the Herschel projects and clear skyes.
thanks for the tip on the bahtinov mask,I had made my own for my smaller scopes,but thought better witha sharp knife and thicker cardboard for my 10"sct,bopught one the next morning after reading your blog, wishing you clear skies,and warm nights this year.
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