Sunday, January 17, 2010


The Herschel Project Night Five: 161 Down, 239 to Go

When it comes to amateur astronomy, you gotta take the good with the bad, muchachos, you gotta take the good with the bad. Like... Why is it I only get inky-black clear skies in the wintertime after the passage of a front when it is so dadgummed cold?

And cold it was last Saturday night, the night of one of our two monthly dark of the Moon observing runs at the Possum Swamp Astronomical Society’s Tanner-Williams site. Yeah, I know y’all laugh at me when I talk about shivering in 30 and 40 degree F temperatures, but I suspect that given our humidity even some of you hardened Yankeefolk woulda been a mite chilly out on the old observing field this past weekend. I wasn’t, believe it or no. I wasn’t toasty warm, but I was comfortable enough to pay attention to the many marvels that appeared in the field of my beloved Ethos eyepieces.

How? You northern folk know the tricks for keeping warm while viewing, but I doubt all of my Rebel brothers and sisters do. We haven’t experienced one hell of a lot of cold weather in the southland over the last decade, but it appears to be back with a vengeance. In fact, the way the winter’s been so far, I’m guessing we could all, Rebs and Yanks alike, stand to review the basics of cold weather survival amateur astronomy style.

First thing? If you have even a suspicion it’s gonna be cold, prepare. Don’t wait, as I’ll admit I’ve done a time or two, till you notice dew freezing into ice on the scope’s tube. The advice I give my astronomy students before their first run outside with telescope is probably best: always assume you’ll be cold, no matter what the time of year, when you are observing. Even in the middle of July, you’ll get chilled in the wee hours. Maybe even before. Not surprising since when you’re using a telescope you are standing nearly stock still for hours on end out under the heat-sucking sky.

Which don’t mean you should bundle up in arctic-wear in the summertime or after you've broke a sweat setting up the gear. Sweating under a too-heavy coat is not a good thing; a wet garment will transfer heat away from your body at a rate 25 times greater than a dry one. Instead of bundling up from the get-go, layer-on extra clothing as needed: a long sleeved shirt, a sweatshirt, a sweater, etc. Actually, dressing in layers is the secret to keeping warm any time of year. Why? You want air between you and Old Man Winter. Air is a remarkably poor conductor of heat, and layers of clothing trap more cold-resisting air than one heavy outer coat will.

In addition to coats and sweaters for your upper body, you have to pay attention to the nether regions as well. For me, what works is good thermal underwear (I like two-piece long johns). Both bottoms and tops, which form a base layer on top of your skin and which are available in various ratings for various conditions. In addition to providing another insulation-barrier, thermal underwear performs an additonal and even more important function: it wicks perspiration away from your body; without that, your whole layering “system” will fail miserably. For that reason, always wear both tops and bottoms.

What else goes on your bottom half? In our relatively mild climate, for me, just jeans and nothing else. For severe conditions, I have a heavy topcoat that extends to my knees, but that is usually all I need. If your temperatures are worse than mine, you’ll want more layers on the legs, layers which can be formed by sweatpants, ski pants, and coveralls.

As you have probably heard, the feet, along with the head, are the avenues for most of the body’s heat loss. Layering up but leaving the feet unguarded is a recipe for getting cold in a right quick hurry. All I need is a pair of reasonably thick-soled shoes or boots (no tennis shoes) and some nice, fluffy socks—I like Timberland’s insulated socks. In more bitter climes, several pairs of socks may be needed, and, if it’s truly frigid, a pair of boots with insulated soles is a downright must. A trick I’ve used is to position an old piece of rug or, maybe better, a rubber-backed bathmat, at the telescope. Standing on that instead of the cold ground keeps me surprisingly warmer no matter what sort of shoes and socks I am wearing.

Naturally, you need a hat of some kind, and not a stinking ballcap. I’ve experimented with various solutions over the years, and have decided the most effective and least annoying alternative is a fuzzy hat of some kind, you know, a watch cap. When it gets really bitter, I’ll pull my heavy coat’s hood up over that. Again, what you need depends on your area. Bad enough, and you may want ski masks and ear muffs and suchlike.

One more thing: plug any leaks. Your goal is to keep warm, insulating air in. If you have any kind of a gap at the neck of your outer layer, cover it. The most efficacious way of doing so is with a scarf, maybe one long enough for you to wrap a couple of layers around your neck.

The last area of consideration is one that has been a big problem for me over the years: hands. Some folks find they can manipulate focusers and hand controllers without much problem while wearing an appropriately thin pair of gloves. I can’t. And if you live in Maine or Michigan, you may find thin gloves are, well, too thin. What I’m famous for is taking off my gloves to manipulate the scope, becoming annoyed at continually taking 'em off and putting 'em on back again, leaving them off, becoming cold, turning astro-wimp, and heading home with my tail between my legs. Believe me: sticking your hands in your pockets is not a substitute for good gloves.

What are good gloves? Best I’ve been able to determine, they are convertible gloves. That is, gloves without fingers, or without fingertips, anyway. That makes it easy to manipulate anything. In milder climes, they’ll keep your hands warm enough despite the lack of fingers. No? That’s where the “convertible” comes in. These are equipped with mitten-like covers to go over your fingers when appropriate. That works very well indeed, with the convenient covers remaining attached to the gloves via Velcro.

The outside of you is now protected, but the inside of the bod could use a little help, too. There is no doubt in my formerly military mind that hot drinks can keep you going over the long haul. What works? For me, hot tea seems to do better than coffee. The outdoor survival experts disagree and say a caffeine free drink like hot cider is better, since the caf tends to dilate blood vessels and cause the body to lose heat faster than normal. That may be a factor in really icy areas, but here a nice cuppa does just fine, thanks. Make sure you put your drink, whatever it is, in a quality thermos. An el-cheapo from Wal-Mart or Asda won’t keep liquids hot long.

What else can help? One thing I like (a lot) is the little disposable chemical hand warmer packs that are a staple at outdoor stores. Remove one of these envelopes from its package, shake it up, and oxidation of the chemicals begins, yielding a surprising amount of heat that lasts for hours. One in each pocket and I am a happy camper. I also find these keep my hand controllers and digital setting circles warm. As you Yanks know, LCD displays begin to get RIGHT sluggish around 32F. Caveats? Chemical warmers lose some potency after they’ve sat on the shelf for a while. They take longer to heat up and don’t stay hot as long. If you don’t use all your warmers, toss ‘em at the end of the season; they are very inexpensive.

Keeping warm for winter observing involves thinking and spending, but it is well worth it to be able to cruise the glorious winter Milky Way instead of staying home watchin’ the pea-picking Boob Tube. For us Southrons it’s a revelation. Get out a few times in the dead of winter adequately clothed, and cold weather astronomy becomes something to be looked forward to rather than feared. I love staring at the Sagittarius milky way, but there is special charm in the diamond-hard stars of winter.

So it was this past Saturday evening. The weather goobers were predicting near record lows, maybe as low as 18F inland, but I didn’t hesitate. I know how to deal with Ol’ Man Winter. And yet…and yet…I admit was a mite skittish about just how cold it might get. “Below 25” seemed a little scary. By the time I was done with the setup of the evening’s telescope, my 12.5-inch Dobsonian, Old Betsy, I was approaching “a mite chilled”—and the Sun wasn’t even down. How would I feel by midnight?

I suppressed a shiver, added a fleece over my long johns, shirt, and sweat shirt and broke out a few handwarmers. I just hoped they’d work, as they’d been sitting in one of my equipment boxes for months. I’d intended to buy more, but with the cold snap, WallyWorld, Academy Sportin’ Goods, and, almost unbelievably, the Bass Pro Shop were sold out of chemical warmers.

In addition to a couple for my pockets, I rubber-banded a warmer to the back of my Sky Commander DSC computer. Even without turning it on, I was pretty sure its display would be dim and tired. The ‘Commander does have an internal heater, but that requires you to connect the computer to an external 12vdc source, and that is much less convenient than running on an internal 9-volt battery. Turned out my warmer packs had just enough oomph left to keep me and the computer a little warmer than we'd otherwise have been.

Before long, the brightest stars were winking on, and it was time to get Betsy aligned. A little reluctantly, I pulled off my gloves (couldn’t locate my fingerless pair) to facilitate button-mashing, and got the Sky Commanders going. Thankfully, that is a quick and simple operation. Unlike some DSCs, the Commanders don’t require leveling the telescope or worrying about things like the dreaded Warp Factors of the Tangent-style boxes. All you gotta do is point at two stars, hit enter, and you are ready for an evening’s enjoyment. Which is exactly what I did: lined up Polaris and Fomalhaut, swapped the 12-mm reticle eyepiece I use for alignments for my 13 Ethos, and keyed-in “M2” as a test. A little push-toing and there was that big old grandpappy of a globular, glowing faintly in the twilight in the big circle of sky defined by the TV Ethos.

One good thing about the dead of winter: it gets dark early and it gets dark quickly. Not long after firing up the Sky Commanders, I turned on the laptop, started SkyTools 3, and was ready to roll. “Roll to what?” was an easy question to answer. Over the two-and-a-half months The Herschel Project had been rocking, I’d pretty much covered the fall – winter Herschel II targets. Reviewing the list in ST3, however, revealed that I’d missed a couple. If nothing else, I’d want to pick these off tonight.

First up was NGC 7245 in Lacerta. The Lizard has a few cool objects in it despite its small size, but this open cluster ain’t one of ‘em. Oh, rare is the DSO that don’t have some fans, but I don’t recall I’ve ever seen this one referred to as anything but “undistinguished,” which was darn tootin’ my opinion of this type II1p cluster (detached, moderate range in brightness, poor richness) on this evening:

NGC 7245 (H VI.29) is a singularly uninteresting little cluster in Lacerta. What I am seeing is a sprinkle of faint stars in a rich field. Somewhat elongated, maybe 5’ across. No background glow of unresolved suns noted. Another larger if even less impressive cluster, IC 1442, is in the same field with the 13mm Ethos.

Hopin’ for that always elusive More Better Gooder, I swung Betsy over to Pisces, now on the west side of the meridian, to aim at NGC 7832. Like more than one of the myriad galaxies swimming through The Fish, this magnitude 13.89 sprite was a mere fuzz-ball. Not surprising given its classification (accordin’ to NED, NASA’s Extragalactic Database) as an elliptical. Its single savin’ grace is that it’s relatively small, about 2’ across, meaning it is not a challenge. It wasn’t for Old Betsy, anyway:

NGC 7832 (H III.190) is best in the 8mm Ethos, which delivers good contrast. No sign of a core. A prototypal faint fuzzy that’s apparently somewhat elongated; it’s hard to be sure of that with tonight’s disturbed seeing, however.

And…that was it for Herschels for the moment. And for the night, I was pretty sure. The next major repository of ‘em would be in Leo, and it would be getting close to midnight before that ol’ Lion would rise high enough to clear the 30 – 40-degree light dome to the east. I felt warm enough at the moment, but my old bones were already whispering that hanging-in past midnight wasn’t in the cards.

I was certainly not going to throw in the towel after two fuzzies, though. Nor was I gonna settle for spendin’ the night on Messier Masterpieces. Not only did I have SkyTools’ myriad ready-made observing lists at hand, I’d thrown a copy of the January issue of Astronomy Magazine in the trunk along with the eyepiece case.

As y’all prob’ly know, I’m a Sky & Telescope man, and would be even if I didn’t write for that fine publication. But that don’t mean I don’t find nuttin’ of interest in the competition. Particularly heartening of late is seeing them run articles by deep sky guru Rich Jakiel. Every time I get puffed-up and start thinking of myself as some kind of deep sky expert, I remember the times I’ve observed with this Atlanta amateur/writer/astronomy educator. I’ve been lucky enough to spend some time with Rich at a couple of Peach State Stargazes, and can tell you I am still in knee-pants compared to him. Not only have the objects Rich has pointed me to been spectacular, they’ve usually been things I didn’t even know was up there.

So I figgered doing Mr. Jakiel’s latest outing, “Tour the Fornax Supercluster” would be a good way to spend a dark January’s eve. Well, semi-dark, anyhow. With a single exception, the objects up for observation lay in Fornax (natch) and in nearby Eridanus, which, before midnight, would be in the Possum Swamp light dome. What the heck. They were at least to the south and out of the worst of the mess. I decided to see what I could see.

The thermometer laid-out on the observing table had long since dipped past 32F, was approaching the dark side of the 20s, and wasn’t showing signs of stopping its descent or even slowing down. Good thing my first stop, NGC 908, was spectacular enough to take my mind off the mercury. Rich notes its “thick and patchy” spiral arms, and while they were not overly obvious in Cetus' less than pitch-black environs, they did fall to me and Betsy with a little eyeball straining:

NGC 908 in Cetus is large and bright and set in a fairly rich field. Looks very nice despite being barely out of the worst of the light dome to the east. This magnitude 10.8 galaxy is elongated east-west about 6’ x 2’. With averted vision, there are hints of patchiness indicating spiral arms. No stellar core observed. In images, this galaxy displays a prominent arm ala’ NGC 7331. Under dark skies, I believe it would verge on the spectacular; it’s detailed tonight in a 10-inch, and is prominent in an 8-inch SCT. Best in the 13mm Ethos.

Eridanus’ NGC 1407 and NGC 1400 were next on the ST3 list I’d made from the Astronomy article. 1407 is bright and good at magnitude 10.7 and, though fairly large at about 5’, it wasn’t difficult and neither was its slightly less prominent sister. Mr. Jakiel pronounces ‘em “worth looking at,” and I agree.

NGC 1407 is paired in the same field with another galaxy, the slightly smaller NGC 1400. Even on the edge of the light dome, both are prominent ellipticals. Occasionally, I almost think I see hints of detail in their envelopes, but since they are “Es” that is no doubt just my imagination. Both show obvious non-stellar cores and extensive outer regions.

Still in Eridanus, I landed on the nextun, NGC 1232, without any trouble. Rich refers to this as an “unusual angular galaxy,” which, he says, accounts for its inclusion in the Arp catalog. I couldn’t make out none o’ that, but I sure liked looking at this distant night bird. When the wintertime seeing behaved, it reminded me of M101 or maybe M74.

NGC 1232 is an attractive large and round galaxy about 6’ in diameter. 7.5’ away from a bright magnitude 9 field star. In spite of the gray background, I get strong hints of this one’s true nature as a near face-on SAB spiral. Very attractive. I occasionally catch a glimpse of a small nuclear region with the 8mm eyepiece. In the punk seeing and sky glow, it’s hard to make-out the galaxy’s small fellow traveler, magnitude 15, 48”diameter NGC 1232A, and I won’t swear I saw it tonight.

Rich Jakiel’s next choice, another Eridanus island universe, NGC 1300, is the jewel of the bunch. It deserves far better skies than it was set in when I looked at it, but it was amazing nonetheless.

NGC 1300, the famous barred spiral, shows up pretty darned well despite relatively poor conditions. Even a glance with the 13 Ethos shows the central bar, which is surrounded by faint haze. I had more trouble than usual picking out traces of the arms, though, something which is normally fairly easy with this telescope.

From the sublime to the ridiculous? NGC 1332 ain’t exactly ridiculous, but it ain’t no NGC 1300, either. It is interesting, though, and I can see why our author put this magnitude 11.2, 4.5’ long lenticular galaxy on his list.

 NGC 1332 is small, bright, and strongly elongated east-west in the 8-mm ocular. Bright, tiny core visible. There is a dim field star less than a minute west of the galaxy’s center that masquerades as a supernova. Other than that, no details are visible and I wouldn’t expect any in this near-edge-on CD S0 galaxy.

In the same vein is NGC 1395, which, as Mssr. Jakiel points out, is blessed with high surface brightness—even if it ain’t overly engaging. Wasn’t for me, anyhow:

NGC 1395 is another bright galaxy. This elliptical shows a small core and a brighter middle coupled with an extensive outer envelope.

Looking at Fornax galaxy NGC 1398’s images, I can see why somebody with better skills and skies than yours truly might put this one on a best-of list. Mr. J. calls it “one of the finest of its class.” With my eyes and skies? Not So Much. Not that it was wholly devoid of interest, either:

In pictures, NGC 1398, an SB spiral, shows weird and interesting skinny arms. In the eyepiece, it is bright with the 13 Ethos, and I can see there’s a bright central bar, but that is about it. Continued staring begins to reveal the arms, but just barely.

And that was it for the night. Not that that was supposed to be it. I’d only covered about half of the magazine article’s galaxies, and when I finished the Fornax tour, I was devoutly hoping to do some of the Cetus objects from The Whole Big Thing part of The Herschel Project, from the Herschel 2500, that is. ‘Twas not to be. Not because I was too cold, though. My preparations had stood me in surprisingly good stead. More like because I was too foolish. As I was starin’ at NGC 1398, my mind began to wander as it will do, and suddenly I realized I’d forgot to turn on the outside water tap to drip before I’d left home.

Living, as Miss Dorothy and I do, in an old Victorian home with a maze of mostly uninsulated pipes underneath, it’s vital to let a little water drip from the taps when you get to 25F and below. Especially outdoor faucets. I’d been so focused on loading the car and daydreaming about what I was gonna look at, though, that I’d plumb forgot to turn the driveway tap on. I rang Miss D. via my cell, but she did not pick up—turned out her phone was upstairs and she was downstairs. With the temp right at 25, there was nothing for it. I packed the car tout suite, trying my best not to disturb the three hardy souls who’d joined me at the club dark site, and made tracks for Chaos Manor South. I got home before the faucet froze, but only just.

Sure, I was ticked at myself. Need you even ask? But, on the other hand, I did see a couple of nice handfuls of DSOs, and that was more than I woulda seen sitting at home watching Kitchen Nightmares on the BBC channel. If nothing else, I hope I’ve encouraged you to run out and get a copy of the January Astronomy and follow Rich Jakiel through the wilds of Fornax. Even though I was only able to cover half his ground, it was quite a trip for me and will be for you, too. You don’t need perfect skies or perfect skills—which I most assuredly lack.

L’homme c’est rien—l’oeuvre c’est tout.

On keeping warm: Buy a set of polyester long johns, tops and bottoms. They'll keep you warmer in cold weather but won't get clammy like cotton underwear. Since you live in the South, you may have to order them from REI or Eastern Mountain Sports.
Gloves: I find that you can keep your hands fairly warm and still have reasonable manual dexterity with either batter's gloves or receiver's gloves. Good deals can be found in the off season in most sporting goods stores. Right now I am very happy with Under Armour batter's gloves. They work well in our Dallas winters. For really cold weather I have used good quality neoprene scuba diver's gloves.
I concure with Richard. I have batters gloves and a "too large" pair of winter gloves when it is really cold. I can put my batter gloved hands into the winter gloves and all is well. Pull them off even for 5-10 min and the hands still stay warm enough.

One thing people don't think about is space in the boots. I bought hiking boots with a large "toe box". That way when I have my thick socks on the toes still can wiggle and it maintains that air barrier.

I do like your mat idea. I think that could be beneficial for the cold AND endurance if it spongy enough.
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