Sunday, April 18, 2010


The Herschel Project Night 6: 209 Down, 191 to Go

“Merrily we roll along, roll along, roll along!” Well, maybe not too merrily. It looked for a while as if my plans to get the Herschel Project on the road again might come to naught thanks to them always-fickle Weather Gods. Like I said a couple of weeks back, Haysoos Christmas, what a winter! Seemed like it took forever for spring to return to good ol’ Chaos Manor South here on the border of The Great Possum Swamp. But it had by this past weekend, and well we know that with the coming of spring a young man’s and woman's (and even an old curmudgeon’s) fancy turns to thoughts of GALAXIES!

Sadly, it appeared the bizarre and beautiful forest of island universes that stretches from northernmost Canes Venatici to southernmost Virgo would have to wait. By Saturday morning last, despite—or maybe because of—balmy temperatures, clouds had crept back into the forecast and the sky. I kept an eagle eye on both the Clear Sky Clock (aka, “Clear Sky Charts”) and, and they seemed to be predicting clearing by Sunset. I crossed my fingers and my toes and pre-positioned my usual ton of gear in Chaos Manor South’s front parlor.

The tool for this time would be Old Reliable, my 1995 Celestron Ultima 8 OTA, Celeste, who, you may recall, I removed from her beautiful fork and put on a Celestron CG5 GEM some years ago in the interest of acquiring go-to. Yeah, I coulda chosen a larger scope, but a C8 is so much more pleasant to lug back into the house at 2 or 3am.

If you haven’t glommed onto the fact yet, the truth, the Ground Truth, of the Herschel Project is that, contrary to what you may have been told by Skeezix down to the club, the HII objects really ain’t that tough. Most of ‘em are prominent NGCs. Howsomeever, when you are dealing with less than optimum conditions, as it seemed I would be on this Saturday night, more aperture is better than less, with 10 – 12-inches being a Good Thing. Yet, I still wanted the portability of the C8. The answer? “Stellacam II.”

Yeah, I know the Stellacam II is yesterday’s news. Deep sky-imaging video cameras have come a long ways in the last five years, and there’s now a Stellacam III, not to mention multiple Mallincam models (this is alliteration month, ain’t it?). You can not only integrate for longer than my old-fashioned Stellacam II’s ten seconds, you can even do it in color. Would I mind having a new-fangled rig? No, but I have hardly outgrown the SCII or pushed its capabilities to their limits. I am, in fact, still amazed at what it can do. It will indeed, as you may have heard tell, at least triple your aperture. With 24-inches of virtual telescope at my command, I didn’t reckon even the most timid HII would escape me, even given light pollution, high humidity, and possible clouds/haze.

By five o’clock, the sky didn’t look perfect or even close to it, but it was encouraging enough for me to load Celeste (and the laptop, and the observing table, and four or five gear boxes, and three batteries) into the car. I wasn’t sure it wouldn’t have been smarter just to toss my ETX 125, Charity Hope Valentine, into the vee-hickle instead, but, what the heck, I’d give it a go. Much more delay and the H Project would begin to get seriously in arrears.

45-minutes later, I was at the PSAS dark site staring up at the deepening blue of the sky. Yep, blue. Most of the clouds had scudded off, and those that hadn’t were mainly along the horizon and seemed to be moving away. There was a foggy-hazy feel to the air, and I noted there were several aircraft contrails in the sky, and that these seemed to be getting fatter and fatter, never a good sign. But it looked more than good enough. I began setting up Celeste and all her support gear.

Which took a while. In addition to the scope/CG5, the Stellacam, and the laptop I would run the mount with (via NexRemote), there was the DVD recorder, the portable DVD player I use as a display, and the inverter I use to power the AC dependent parts of the rig (laptop and DVD recorder). Speaking of “battery,” I was a little worried about the battery I’d use to power all this gear.

In typical Unk Rod fashion, I had been procrastinating about replacing that 75 amp hour trolling motor (“deep cycle marine”) battery with something with more capacity. Running the computer, recorder, and DVD player off of it might give me four hours at best. Why hadn’t I gone to a bigger battery? Most of my video tends to get done down at the Chiefland Astronomy Village where there is plenty of AC. Tonight? I figgered my power might barely make it to midnight. Given the conditions, I didn’t expect to push on much past then, anyhow. So, What Could Happen?

When the brighter stars winked on, I set about aligning my mount. Nominally, the CG5 requires a two star alignment, but if you want good accuracy you are wise to add four “calibration” stars. I did that, and, when finished, polar aligned the GEM. That last is not necessary for go-to accuracy, but, even with short 10-second exposures, doing so would yield to better images, I reckoned. It’s easy enough to do, anyways.

The polar alignment routine in the older version of the CG5 firmware I’d be using on this run sends the scope to the spot where it thinks Polaris should be given a perfect polar alignment. You then adjust the mount in altitude and azimuth until the North Star is centered in the eyepiece. Yeah, I know all about the new AllStar alignment in the new firmware, but I prefer the old way—I’m lazy and I find it easier.

Since I’d physically moved the mount to polar align it, I had to redo the go-to alignment on six more stars when I was done. I probably could have got by with less than four calibration stars; by star three, the mount was putting them near center in the eyepiece after a slew. I gave it four, anyhow. Aligning ain’t much of a pain when you can use a wireless game pad/joystick as a hand controller, thanks to NexRemote, which also lets me select whichever version of the CG5 firmware, old or new, I want to use.

Next? Mount the Stellacam II and reducer on the rear cell and get focused up. Which was duck soup due to the JMI Motofocus I got fer Christmas. And, even moreso, thanks to the Bahtinov mask I got from Scope City not long ago. Plop the mask over the C8’s aperture, point at a bright star (my last calibration star did yeoman duty in that regard), and focus until the diffraction spikes the mask forms around that star are centered. If acheiving perfect focus could be easier, I don’t know how. Well, maybe it could be easier if I weren’t so dumb. I wound up focusing twice.

Unk, as y’all well know, tends to be a Luddite when it comes to new technology and new ways of doing things. The telescope, once I’d lined up the diffraction pattern, should have been perfectly focused. But I was skeptical. “Self,” says I, “let’s look it at M3 as a check.” Off to M3 we slewed. The cluster wound up well within the borders of the Stellacam frame when the motors stopped their whining, but I thought the glob looked way too dim. The haze and the Possum Swamp light dome, maybe? I upped the exposure. Brighter but fuzzy. So I start twitching the focus buttons to try to improve the sitchy-ation. Then it hit me like a ton of bricks: "M3 is dim and fuzzy because the Bahtinov mask is still in front of the corrector—YOU IDIOT!" Sheesh! Back to the focus star I went for a redo.

By the time all the preliminaries were sorted, it was well and truly dark and time to get moving. In addition to recording each object’s video on DVD, I’d also be taking notes with my li’l Sony Pressman tape recorder—which turned out to be a very wise thing to do.

Certainly, the CG5 deserves a few words of approbation before we begin. When I bought the mount five years ago, I didn’t have much hope for it. It just seemed too cheap. Surely its go-to accuracy wouldn’t even come close to equaling that of my NexStar 11. Surprise! From the get-go, the mount has been amazingly good in that regard. At least as accurate as the NS11. And it still is today after who knows how many dark site and public outreach sessions. On this run, it didn’t miss a single DSO. Not one. Every target from horizon to horizon wound up somewhere on the small chip of the Stellacam. If you are thinking you want a GEM you could do one hell of a lot worse than the CG5, which is even cheaper today than it was when I bought mine.


What do you think about when you think about deep sky objects in Boötes? If you are like benighted ol’ Unk, prob’ly the only one that comes to mind is that less than impressive globular star cluster, NGC 5466. Galaxies? Mainly The Great Boötes Void, that odd hole in the sky that lacks galaxies. Nevertheless, there are plenty of spiral nebulae in the constellation—it ain’t far from Virgo and Coma—including NGCs and Herschel IIs.

No, most of ‘em ain’t…err… “impressive,” but it’s good to keep things in perspective when doing the Herschel II. Yes, many of the galaxies you’ll encounter are just cosmic dust bunnies. Most of ‘em are, actually. Even if they don’t put your eyes out, though, remember, these far-away night birds are still the most awesome spectacles in Mother Nature’s bestiary. The appreciation of the night sky’s treasures requires more than just eye and brain, it needs heart, too.

Anyhoo, I started out in Boötes. Why? Dunno. Maybe because it was at the top of the SkyTools 3 spreadsheet I used to send Celeste on her go-tos. In retrospect, I guess it would have been better to begin with something a little higher in the sky.

NGC 5687 (H.II.808) is just a smudge on the monitor, even with the gain turned up. It’s about magnitude 12.6, which normally wouldn’t be tough for the Stellacam/C8 combo, but it is down in the eastern light dome and contrast is a scarce commodity. Small, obviously somewhat elongated, adjacent to two dim field stars. Also nearby is the smaller galaxy MCG 9-24-19 at about mag 14.

NGC 5481 (H.II.693): Brighter of two galaxies in this field in Boötes. This magnitude 13.2 fuzzspot has a condensed core, and that is about all I can see of it. The companion, in contrast, a little multi-arm face-on, seems to show some detail when the seeing steadies down, which it doesn’t do very often tonight.

NGC 5520 (H.III.676): Extremely obvious when the C8 stopped. Magnitude 13.1. Under these rather poor conditions—light pollution and haze—it’s pretty much just a cosmic lint ball about 4’ from two fairly bright stars; one at magnitude 9, one at around 11. A dimmer closer star masquerades as a supernova.

Round NGC 5660 (H.II.695) is more than just a faint fuzzy. Large, at least a couple of minutes across, this Hubble Type SABc shows off some arm detail. Magnitude 12.6, and stands head and shoulders above the Boötes crowd I’ve seen thus far.

NGC 5899 (H.II.650): Well down into the light dome, if not in the worst of it. This is a nice looking magnitude 12.6 Sc. Near-edge-on, maybe 2’ – 2.5’ of which is visible. Stellar-appearing nucleus.

Despite the bright background, mag 12.7 NGC 5529 (H.III.414), another edge-on galaxy, is great. Looks like a miniature NGC 4565. In pictures, it shows-off an equatorial dust lane just like the Flying Saucer Galaxy, but if I am seeing that, it is only just barely. Little MCG 6-31-87 at mag 15.6 is visible about 3.5’ to the south-southeast.

NGC 5533 (H.II.418) is not a bad little galaxy. It is a smudge, but this magnitude 12.7 SAab spiral at least shows that it is elongated.

Near-face-on NGC 5580, a magnitude 13.4 lenticular, ain’t much to look at. The prototypal round fuzzie, but it is set in a fairly rich field. I quickly and easily pick up two more galaxies, including prominent NGC 5579.

NGC 5523 (H.III.134): Another not-bad Boötes resident. Clearly elongated and close to edge-on. A magnitude 11 star lies less than 3’ to the northwest.

There’s not much to say about NGC 5548 (H.II.194). Dim in magnitude at 13.3, but also small in size at just over 1’, it’s quite prominent. Mostly, this Hubble S0 is just a wee fuzzball on my monitor.

NGC 5490 (H.III.32) is obvious. It’s near a couple of IC galaxies, one of which, IC 983 is easy, and the other, IC 982, is harder in the poor, wavering seeing. NGC 5490 itself is nothing more than a slightly elongated spot of light.

A magnitude 13 Sc, NGC 5600 (H.II.177), is not worthy of much comment either. It shows one arm clearly on the POSS plate, but tonight with the C8 and Stellacam, it’s just a round—though easy to see—blob.

NGC 5582 (H.II.754): This mag 12.5 elliptical looks pretty good—it’s higher than most of its Boötes sisters have been. Set in a field rich with stars. Strongly elongated. Stellar appearing center.


Now we are talking. After kicking Boötes, it was on to the Lion, who was now straddling the Meridian…which made for some long go-tos at times. When moving to the west side of the sky from the east, the CG5 invariably took the long ways around, doing a Meridian “flip” before proceeding to the target. It was worth the wait for more than a few of these, howsomeever…

NGC 3067 (H.II.492): Very attractive, elongated galaxy showing some detail. Nearly edge-on SABa of magnitude 12.7.

NGC 3274 (H.II.358) looks good, but there isn’t too much to say about this small fuzzy with a brighter center. Strongly elongated magnitude 13.2 Scd. In a pretty field with numerous dim stars.

Magnitude 13 NGC 3689 (H.II.339) is something of a surprise. Fairly extensive outer envelope. Asymmetrical-appearing with a bright, stellar nucleus.

A small barred spiral that gives the impression of a tiny M86, NGC 3162 (H.II.43) shows off easy-to-see arms.

NGC 3301 (H.II.46) is nice enough. Near-edge-on S0. Small, bright nuclear region. It’s at least 3’ long.

NGC 3177 (H.III.25): Not much to it—stellar core and a small outer envelope. Magnitude 13 Sb.

NGC 3646 (H.III.15) is quite incredible. A weird looking spiral with one fairly loose and very prominent arm.

NGC 3507 (H.IV.7) is a lovely classic SBb spiral. A magnitude 11 star is only 22” northeast of the nucleus. The nice edge on galaxy NGC 3501 is also in the field.

The nextun, NGC 3599 (H.II.49), a magnitude 13 S0, is not very interesting, I’m afraid. A round blob with a brighter middle.

NGC 3605 (H.III.27): Set in a galaxy-rich field in Leo’s hindquarters. In addition to elliptical 3605 and its nearby companion, NGC 3808, I immediately spot two more.

NGC 3659 (H.II.53), also located in the Lion’s rear-end area, is OK. An elongated little sprite of an SB. At times, I seem to glimpse a brighter central region, which appears slightly off-center.

NGC 3681 (H.II.159), is all by itself in the field save for some dimmish stars. Magnitude 12.4, bright, round.

An attractive and large SABc, NGC 3596 (H.II.102) shows spiral detail easily. About 3.5’ in diameter, nearly round, face-on appearing.

Yet more spiral detail on display with NGC 3338 (H.II.77). Small, elongated. Magnitude 9 star 2’43” to the west. Classic-looking SC spiral with nice, open arms.

NGC 3107 (H.II.898) is a small smudge, mildly elongated, which is adjacent to a magnitude 8 star 1’50” to the south-southeast.

An edge-on magnitude 13.1 S0, NGC 3524 (H.II.494) is fairly undistinguished; 1.5’ in length and possessing a bright nucleus.

NGC 3666 (H.I.20): A fairly typical Sab of intermediate orientation to our line of sight. Cool. When seeing settles, I can see hints of dark-lane/arm detail. There is a magnitude 11 star just 12” from the galaxy’s center. A magnitude 6 star is 9’27” to the east.

NGC 3547 (H.II.42), a magnitude 13.2 Sb about a minute and a half long, is a nice if not too detailed near-edge-on with a not very prominent nucleus that pops out once in a while.

NGC 3705 (H.II.13): Nicely detailed SABa with intermediate inclination to us. Wow! Plenty of detail, including a dark lane near the nucleus.

NGC 3611 (H.V.39) finishes Leo. Small and unimpressive, an undistinguished Sa at magnitude 12.8 and about 1.5 x .9’ in size. A slightly off-round dust bunny with a brighter center.

Leo Minor

Did you know there are cool galaxies and even cooler galaxy groups lurking within the borders of Leo’s little brother? I didn’t, or had long ago forgotten there are, so what a nice surprise to hit a couple of real goodies.

NGC 3158 (H.II.639): A fairly undistinguished if bright galaxy in a field cluttered with galaxies. In addition to this magnitude 13 oval elliptical, I immediately notice NGCs 3159, 3161, 3163, 3160, and 3152. NGC 3160 is a very pretty little edge-on.

NGC 3430 (H.I.118) is the king of a beautiful field. The near-edge-on NGC 3424, another Herschel II, is about 6’ to the west and is particularly outstanding. The main galaxy, an intermediate orientation spiral, shows considerable detail including one rather prominent hooked arm.

Leo Minor’s NGC 3254 (H.I.72) is another niceun. Thin, intermediate in orientation, about 2.6 x 1.1’.


Why Corvus? By mid evening a glance over to the south showed he was approaching culmination, and I figgered now would be as good a time as any to run down the Crow’s few targets, which include one real showpiece…

NGC 4024 (H.II.295): What I’d call “unprepossessing.” A round fuzzball with a bright core and only hints of an outer envelope. It’s a magnitude 12.7 elliptical that is very slightly elongated.

NGC 4039 (H.2-4.28) is half of the wondrous (interacting) Antennae Galaxies. 4039 is the large and more prominent of these two connected systems, and NGC 4038 (H.1-4.28) is the smaller more diffuse member. Intricately detailed tonight when the seeing improves.

Coma Berenices

What’s so special about Coma? That it’s second only to Virgo when it comes to the evening’s prey—GALAXIES.

NGC 5056 (H.III.306), a near 14th magnitude Sc, is notable because it is in a fairly crowded field. I detect at least a couple of other fuzzies on the Stellacam II chip with it. Not much in the way of detail visible in the main galaxy, though.

On its POSS plate, NGC 4136 (H.II.321), a medium-size (2.8’) SABc, shows prominent arms. These are only glimpsed tonight on the rare occasions when the seein’ behaves.

NGC 4310 (H.II.378) is another Coma singlet galaxy. Pretty kite-shaped asterism of stars nearby. The galaxy is edge-on, showing a bright center and no other details.

NGC 4169 (H.II.105), a bright magnitude 13.15 S0, is a member of an excellent little group. A pair of edge-ons, NGCs 4173 and 4175, and another S0 galaxy, NGC 4174, are packed into an area a mere 5.5’ across, which makes for a mind-blowing view.

On a night of good seeing, NGC 4185 (H.II.373) would likely give up a lot of features to the C8 and Stellacam II. On this evening of poor seeing, haze, and high cirrus, though, it is only an elongated smudge with a somewhat brighter middle.

NGC 5012 (H.I.85) is a nice catch. It’s an intermediate inclination Sc spiral just under 3’ in size and shows some signs of arms.

NGC 4336 (H.II.406), an SB0 barred lenticular, is interesting in photos, showing odd features near the nucleus. Tonight with the C8 it’s OK, maybe giving up small hints of these details. Bright, but small, just over 1’ size, making it hard to see exactly what is going on with it. A magnitude 9.57 field star lies 3’34” to the south-southeast.

It was nice to end the evening on something other than a dim galaxy, although Coma’s incredibly loose globular, NGC 5053 (H.VI.7), isn’t much to look at, even with the Stellacam. Fair number of tiny stars wink in and out, but it’s clear why, even under good conditions, this often isn’t obvious visually in smaller telescopes.

Why’d I call it quits after the glob? It wasn’t quite midnight, but my inverter had started beeping, which meant, “Unk, the battery is on his last legs!” Tell the truth, the sky was grayer and fuzzier than ever by this time, and, dagnabit, even the seeing, which had sucked most of the evening, was getting worse. You’d think humidity and haze would at least bring steady seeing, wouldn’t you?

I packed-up, turned the Toyota back toward Chaos Manor South, and headed home. After I’d unloaded, I decided to give the evening’s DVD a quick look on the big TV despite the late—or early—hour. I was a little suspicious, you see. As you may know, a DVD doesn't work quite like a VHS tape. When you finish recording, you have to “finalize” the disk before shutting the recorder off. Don’t, and you will be left with a piece of plastic useless as anything but a beer coaster. Why was I suspicious? Because when I’d told the recorder to “finalize,” it had done so really quickly. Much quicker than normal. I should have tried the operation again, but with the inverter beeping, I decided I’d best shut down.

I wasn’t overly surprised, then, when my home DVD player, a Blu Ray job, said my disk was UNREADABLE. I fooled around with it a bit, but no dice. In the past, I’ve been able to recover un-finalized disks with some special image-editing software I own. Warn’t really a big deal, anyhow. I had been smart enough to take the notes above, and, given the poor conditions and no doubt fairly lousy images that would have resulted, I figgered that would be enough.

So, here we are just past the HII halfway mark. What and when is next? “What” is, of course, more island universes. There’s still plenty of Coma to go, and all of Canes Venatici and Virgo await. The plan, such as it is, is to run down to Chiefland next month for the dark of the Moon and keep on truckin’.

How come I missed the big shindig this month at Chiefland, the legendary Spring Picnic? As some of you may have heard or gathered, my dear wife, Miss Dorothy, ran into some unexpected health problems and had to have major surgery. She is doing much better, thanks for asking, but naturally I needed to be and wanted to be by her side as much as possible over the last several weeks. Next month, though, if the Weather Gods allow, it will be absolute dark sky heaven. Maybe I should burn a Dob in effigy to propitiate ‘em beforehand?

Next time: We'll soon get back to "The Trouble with the Magazines," with Astronomy as the victim--err... "subject," but next week will be my annual NEAF report (from afar again, dammit)...

Hi Rod,

Just wanted to pass on best wishes to Miss Dorothy. I hope she has a quick recovery and is up and around soon. My wife had surgery a few years ago, and I know how you feel; nothin' much else matters until she feels better.

Thanks..._much_ appreciated!
Leo Minor is a treasure trove of unknown galaxies, admittedly many of them do require a monster Dob but I feel as if it doesn't get enough attention, especially from amateur astrophotographers.
Bootes is another surprise, one of the greatest galaxy groups, the NGC 5416 group resides in this rather large constellation.
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