Sunday, May 30, 2010


The Herschel Project Night Seven: 310 Down, 90 to Go

Do you ever have nights when nothing goes right? The telescope won’t track or won’t go-to its go-tos. The laptop computer is having some kind of hissy fit. You left one or more vital accessories at home, 300 miles away. I suspect even ol' Willie Herschel had nights like that (sans computers and go-to, of course). I sure just had one—well, a part of one, anyhow—down at the Chiefland Astronomy Village. But, in standard Unk Rod fashion, I am already getting ahead of the story.

I wanted badly to head to the CAV last month, April, for the annual Spring Picnic and to continue The Herschel Project. I ain’t missed one of them spring hoedowns in…well…now that I think about it, prob’ly close to a decade. Lots of good friends, lots of good food, at least the potential for lots of good observing. Given Miss Dorothy’s initial experience with chemotherapy, though, that plan went out the window in a right quick hurry. Miss D. was very sick and I needed to be at her side.

I didn’t think much about Chiefland for a couple of weeks. Until, with D. back at work and at least beginning to tolerate the nasty stuff they were pumping into her veins, I began to idly ruminate about “Down Chiefland Way,” maybe in June or July. The rubber hit the road not long after when D. pronounced, “Rod, you need a break. You need to go to Chiefland.” I needed a break? I didn’t feel like I’d done much. Miss Dorothy was the trouper. Nevertheless, with her much improved and the younger daughter, Lizbeth, staying with us to help out, I thought I might get away for a few days.

If I was gonna do the trip south, step one was making reservations at my usual “campground,” the Holiday Inn Express. I have tent camped on the CAV field—once. It was May, as a matter of fact, and temperatures on the field were in the 90s by mid-morning and over 100 by mid-afternoon. I’m used to hot weather, but man did I suffer. Never again! The secret to enjoying Chiefland in hot weather for those of us who don’t do RVs or travel trailers is STAY IN A COTTON PICKING MOTEL ROOM DURING THE DAY (or Bar-B-Q Bill’s, or Wal-Mart, etc.)! Without a star party going on, there’s nothing to see or do onsite, anyhow. Everybody there will be hunkered down out of the brutal heat.

One big monkey wrench in the works: I got on the Holiday Inn website and tried to book the Chiefland hostelry. No dice. “No accommodations found.” Dagnabit. That had happened to me once before; no rooms were to be had in Chiefland or the surrounding area last June. Why? Don’t ask me. Maybe there is a skunk ape rodeo this time o’ year. I was almost ready to give up, but thought I’d try Orbitz, which responded, “No motel of that chain found.” Not “no rooms,” “no motel.” Hmmm…

A little more Googling revealed the Chiefland Holiday Inn Express had switched brands, to Day’s Inn. There were accommodations available, but I was a little hesitant to hit the “go” button, since Day’s Inn is a step down in quality in this ol’ boy’s experience. There’s also a Best Western in town, but, given my less than stellar experience the last time I stayed with them (“You need towels?!”), and the low Day’s Inn rate, 200 bucks for three nights with tax, I couldn’t resist giving the new guys ONE chance.

I arose bright and early Thursday morning for my trip and immediately began loading the Toyota in hopes of getting away by 8 a.m. That would put me in Chiefland at check-in time, and would leave plenty of leeway for setup, as it don’t get really dark down there this time of year till after 9pm. There was plenty of astro-stuff to pack, but maybe not as much as usual; I was at least trying to travel a little lighter than I have at times. Frankly, my marshalling of the gear in Chaos Manor South’s front parlor the previous evening had been a little half-hearted. Not because I wasn’t excited about my trip, but because I was TIRED. Again, it really ought to be Miss D. who’s complaining (she is not), not moi, but it has been a rough few weeks for both of us.

Once again, as has been the case for the last couple of years, I was travelling alone, and once again my iPod came to the rescue. Also as per usual, the audiobook I’d loaded up was a Stephen King, The Dark Tower V: Wolves of the Calla. My Chiefland trips are the main reason I finally got into that huge series (seven incredibly fat volumes), which I’d tried and dropped at least once before. I was a captive audience on my CAV excursions, and after I’d got past the opening chapters, I found myself well and truly hooked. I spent the 5.5 hours of the drive down this time happily listening to the adventures of Roland the Gunslinger and his erstwhile friends.

Yep, it’s a boring 275 miles of I-10. Only bright spot other than the iPod was the fact Florida has finally—after years and years—finished the road construction at Tallahassee (!). I proceeded through at a good clip, and soon turned off on Highway 19 for the final run into Chiefland, with the last 30 miles or so featuring vistas of lost 1950s – 1960s motels and the beautiful Suwannee River.

Approaching my destination, I cut off the iPod and began playing “what did I forget?” I was reasonably sure I’d brought everything needed to use and run the scope—cords, eyepieces, dew shield, dew heaters. But something was nagging at me. Several things. Dammit! Forgot my camera. I always like to take a few snapshots of my field setup. Maybe I could find a cheap digicam in Wal-Mart. Dammit! Forgot my computer shelter! Well, felt to me like the dew was gonna be light and the netbook would be under the tent canopy, anyway. Dammit! Forgot the box of assorted tools, tent stakes, ropes, and suchlike. I could get whatever I needed at WallyWorld, no doubt. Probably just a roll of duct tape would be all the “tools” I’d need. Nevertheless, this didn't seem a good omen. I usually forget something. But somethings?

Goodbye Holiday Inn Express
I pulled into the motel with a bit of trepidation. Yeah, the storied Holiday Inn Express looked the same save for the plastic sheets emblazoned with “Day’s Inn” temporarily covering the old signs. Still, I wondered. Turned out I needn’t have. Same friendly folks at the desk, same clean (if slightly shopworn in small-town fashion) rooms. According to the owner, they are even in the process of doing some needed remodeling. That’s good, but I was just happy, as I always am, with The Same.

Bags unpacked in the room, it was back to the car for the trip out to the AV of CAV. If you’ve never been down, the Chiefland Astronomy Village is the realization of the dreams of a group of dedicated amateur astronomers. It’s a housing development far out enough from Chiefland proper to be mostly clear of the town’s light dome. On this land, folks have houses and observatories, and there is lots of open space, including the area where I set up, the Billy Dodd Memorial Observing Field. There is a newer field with comparable facilities run by another group of residents, the “CSPG,” the Chiefland Star Party Group, but that is a story for another time. Where I go is the back-forty of my friends Tom and Jeannie Clark, the site of the legendary Chiefland Star Parties they hosted for so many years.

The prime attractions on the field, aside from impressively dark skies when the weather cooperates, are plenty of AC power, a Clubhouse featuring real bathrooms and an icebox, and showers (new ones) for the folks who stay on-site. Heck, there’s even wireless Internet. But more than those nice things, what brings me back several times each year is the good vibes and the good folks I’ve observed with for so long. It truly is like coming home.

Surprisingly large turnout for a hot dark of the Moon.
I went to work with a will setting up my NexStar 11, Big Bertha, though I didn’t rush myself. There was plenty of time, and there was no need to stress-out in the heat. Bertha assembled, I got the EZ Up erected with the kind help of one of the CAV regulars, Carl Wright (nearly a dozen folks were on the field for this Maytime dark of the Moon). It’s possible to erect the tent canopy by myself, but it’s a hell of a lot easier for two. Under it went the observing table, five or six gear boxes, an observing stool I use at the scope, and a camp chair for working the computer. By the time I was done, I was sweating, but I wasn’t drenched. Still, it was nice to get in the Camry and crank up the air conditioner for the trip back to town and a run on Walmart.

First order of bidness was grub. I’d skipped breakfast to get on the road early, and was feeling a mite peckish. Luckily, the Chiefland WallyWorld has a McDonalds inside. Is that hometown America or what? Yeah, I’ll admit I’ve never quite lost my taste for Mickey D’s., even if, fortunately for my aging bod, I don’t give-in to those unspeakable desires often. With no Miss Dorothy around to appeal to the better angel of my nature, I headed right for the counter and, in zombie fashion, droned…. “Uh…Uhhhhhhh… QUARTER POUNDER—WITH CHEESE!” At least I had the presence of mind to decline to be SUPERSIZED.

My little indiscretion devoured, I inventoried the shelves for what I’d need. Of course Monster Energy Drinks went in the buggy. Jack Links, too. I currently favor the Buffalo Chicken Nuggets. Don’t know what in Sam Hill they put in them things, but they shore is tasty at 3 a.m. Better get some Sasquatch Big Sticks™, too. What else? Bottled water and plenty of it. A post-observing 12-pack of brew. Roll of duct tape just in case. Scoured the electronics department and came up with a little digital camera with which to document my adventures for y’all for fifteen measly simoleons. Produced 1600 x 1280 images, the package said, and even had a little flash. Su-weet.

Thence back to the motel. I wasn’t sleepy, but some cool quiet-time would be good, I reckoned. I spent the balance of the next three hours with a book, Michael Lemonick’s The Georgian Star, his lively recounting of the lives and adventures of Willy-boy Herschel and his sis, Lina. I also fired up the netbook and, after checking the Astromart, took a look at my SkyTools 3 observing list with an eye toward strategizing on the night’s plan of attack.

Good and bad was revealed, muchachos. The good was that I’d have plenty of time to pursue my two main targets for the first night, Virgo and Ursa Major, with their countless galaxies. The bad? I’d screwed up BIG TIME over the course of the winter. I should have made sure I covered Canis Major, Puppis, and Vela. I didn’t. SkyTools showed I might barely be able to hit these three just after sundown if it was clear to the west-southwest, but it would be a near, near thing any way you sliced it. The other thing to ponder? How exactly would I go after the night’s objects? How would I need to structure my runs to accomodate the weather forecast?

Wednesday evening, had been forecasting “clear” for all three nights of my stay. By the time I arrived, that had changed. Tonight, Thursday night, would be “mostly clear.” Friday evening degenerated to “some clouds,” and the sky would degrade further on Saturday with “a chance of rain” coming on strong Sunday.

I’d planned to spend my first evening doing relatively relaxing visual observing. The weatherman, however, intimated I’d better get on the stick and catch as many DSOs as much as possible the first night, with the Stellacam II deep sky video camera being the most efficient way of doing so. I do still love looking through eyepieces, especially my Ethoses, but, surprisingly, the images the video camera brings back look way more like what I see in an eyepiece than what a “real” CCD camera delivers. Stellacam it would be, then.

Left the room about 7 p.m. Needn’t have hurried. Not only did astronomical twilight not arrive until after 9pm, when it did there were considerable clouds drifting around. The gear was ready to go, with the netbook cranking, the Stellacam on the rear cell, and the Bahtinov mask close at hand, so all I could do was twiddle my thumbs. I waited. And waited. Goodbye Big Dog, Poop Deck, and Sails. It wasn’t till 9:45 p.m. that I was finally able to get the C11 aligned and focused-up. After that, the problems began.

Big Bertha champing at her bit!
The NexStar 11 has always been deadly accurate with her go-tos. Putting anything in the field of the Stellacam II (ably assisted by a Meade f/3.3 reducer) has never, ever been a problem. Yet she was missing everything on this night. Not by a little, by a lot. Maybe my alignment stars were punk? I’d had to reject those Bertha had initially chosen due to clouds. It was clearing now, so I threw the big switch and essayed a redo. No joy. What the hell? I started eliminating “the different.” I normally run the DewBuster heaters off a battery, but tonight I was using a switching power supply. Could the problem be EMI from that? Shut it off. Nope. OK. What else had changed since last time? The netbook, of course. I was not only using Windows 7, I was running through a USB – serial converter cable instead of the serial PCMCIA card I use with my big laptop. Hmmm…

I had noticed that, when I connected SkyTools 3 to NexRemote’s “virtual port,” the little green “comms” LED on the USB – serial thingie started blinking like mad. I shut ever’thing off. Realigned, but left ST3 out of the mix. Just went on go-tos with the NexRemote virtual HC. All was hunky-dory. Brought up SkyTools. Still A-OK till I tried a go-to with SkyTools. Missed. Tried another. Bertha didn’t stop anywhere; she just kept moving slowly and aimlessly across the sky. I clicked the button to disconnect ST3 from NexRemote. Bertha was fine again.

For the balance of the evening, I read the numbers off SkyTools 3’s observing list, and just punched them into the virtual HC running alongside it on the screen. That was not at all inconvenient, so “no problem,” really. I’ll have to troubleshoot further, but I assume the major malfunction is either with the USB - serial converter or that NR just doesn't  like Windows 7. If any of y’all have experienced the same, or have any ideas, I sure would like to hear ‘em.

Alright. Alarums and excursions done, I was able to get to work. Thus far it had been a night where nothing much, from sky, to computer, to scope had gone right. Now, though, it was clearing, the Milky Way was burning, and I started plugging away at Ursa Major’s copious ration of island universes. Almost immediately, I felt myself get into that blessed ZONE. One object after another was recorded on DVD and its vitals logged via my li’l Sony Pressman audio recorder. Yeehaw!

Below is the stuff, the Herschel II objects both cool and pedestrian, I saw on this evening. The matter in italics comes straight out of my log as transcribed into SkyTools 3. As above, it was an all-Stellacam run—though I still had hopes of doing some visual looking before my stay at CAV was over. One other thing: the references to “POSS” refer to the Palomar Observatory Sky Survey, the 48-inch Oschin Schmidt Telescope plates digitized by the StSci, the Space Telescope Science Institute, and downloaded by me with the wondrous SkyTools 3. When it comes to galaxy classifications, I’ve tried to stick to the de Vaucouleurs system. OK? Let’s get started…


Over to Sextans for one pickup while waiting for drifting clouds to clear off from Ursa Major and Virgo. NGC 3156 (H.III.255) is a nice elongated galaxy with a brighter core, and is less than 2’ long.

Ursa Major

NGC 3516 (H.II.336) is most assuredly nothing to write home about. Hard to even distinguish this S0 Ursa Major sprite from a star. On the Stellcam monitor it is round and slightly fuzzy and that is it.

NGC 3065 (H.II.333), a fairly attractive little SA0 dude in Ursa Major, is a bright magnitude 11.8. Paired with another, smaller galaxy, NGC 3066. A magnitude 12 field star is about a minute and a half to the north-northwest.

NGC 3622 (H.II.879), magnitude 13.7, is about 1’ x .5’ in size. Set in a rich and attractive field of small galaxies.

On its POSS plate, NGC 2805 (H.III.878) shows nice spiral arms, but they are not visible tonight, likely due to so-so seeing. A round dust bunny.

NGC 3668 (H.II.845) is a small, 1.8’ Sbc oval at magnitude 12.8. Almost wants to give up some detail. There is a magnitude 15.4 field star involved with this galaxy.

NGC 3359 (H.V.52), the best Bear galaxy yet, is a cute li’l barred spiral that shows off its arms and a small, bright core very nicely.

With NGC 2880 (H.I.260), I’m back to 13th magnitude fuzzballs. Near a line of several prominent field stars. Otherwise, the only features are that it’s oval—perhaps—with a brighter center.

NGC 4605 (H.I.254) is weird and interesting. Elongated, tadpole shape. Hints of dark lanes are visible on the monitor that are not apparent on the overexposed POSS plate. Large—almost 5’ across in images. Like a miniature Whale Galaxy (NGC 4631).

NGC 5308 (H.I.255) is a bright and attractive spindle-shaped S0 of magnitude 12.2. The Stellacam image Looks exactly like the POSS plate. Bright center, which sometimes looks a little off-center with regard to the disk.

NGC 5430 (H.II.827) a.k.a. Markarian 799, is also attractive. It’s an odd-looking SBb. One distorted-appearing spiral arm ruins the classic barred spiral look.

NGC 3642 (H.I.245) is not overly impressive. Fairly bright core, and some signs of arm-detail in this SAbc. Main attraction here is that it’s in field with several other small galaxies including NGC 3690, NGC 3610, and NGC 3613.

NGC 5204 (H.IV.63) is interesting on the POSS plate, and appears to be a face-on spiral. It’s classified as an Sam, indicating a slightly irregular appearance . Whatever its classification, it’s an attractive large—about 4.6’—magnitude 11.7 galaxy.

NGC 3225 (H.II.822) is a little wisp of an Scd galaxy at mag 13.5 and 1.7’ across its major axis. Intermediate inclination to us. When the seeing calms, I see some spiral structure. Somewhat brighter core, but I don’t seem to see a nucleus.

A small barred spiral, NGC 4290 (H.II.805) looks like its pictures, with a bright core, a prominent bar, and wrapped arms at the ends of the bar giving it what I call a “Tie Fighter” shape. In the field with another galaxy, NGC 4284, a 14th magnitude intermediate inclination spiral. This pair is not far from one of the least observed Messier objects, M40, a nondescript double star.

NGC 3669 (H.II.829), an edge-on, is a weirdo. Looks as if someone took a fat magic marker and drew a line across the sky. NASA’s NED says it’s Hubble type SBcd. When the wind and the seeing let me, I can detect patches of varying brightness along the disk.

NGC 3683 (H.I.246) almost looks like a lenticular on the POSS plate, but on the monitor, it’s clear it is a normal SBc intermediate spiral. Bright nucleus and a spiral arm visible at times.

NGC 5585 (H.I.235) is a large 5’ patchy-armed spiral. Not overly impressive. Obviously elongated with a brighter core. Rarely do I get a hint of its multiple arms.

NGC 4271 (H.II.804) is also not much to look at, a mag 13.6 fuzzball 1.7’x1.4’ in size. It’s an elliptical, an E-S0 with a bright core and outlying haze.

Despite an integrated magnitude of 13.3, NGC 5443 (H.II.799) is bright and interesting. It’s a near edge-on barred spiral that shows considerable detail near its nucleus, including a dark lane that makes it look a little like a miniature Black Eye Galaxy.

Fuzzballs need love, too. NGC 3073 (H.III.853), a lenticular, is a little spot on the sky, but it’s a nice view due to the presence of the spectacular NGC 3079 just 10’ to the east. The famous and challenging Double (or Twin) Quasar is only 15’ to the north – northwest.

NGC 5485 (H.I.232) is a bright magnitude 12.4 lenticular galaxy 2.6’ across its long axis. Also in the field is another, smaller galaxy, magnitude 14 NGC 5486, a little less than 6’ to the north-northwest. 5485 has a bright core, and is obviously slightly elongated.

NGC 5462 (H.III.789) is surprisingly prominent tonight. It is an elongated, patchy HII region in one of glorious M101’s arms. Exceedingly bright.

Next up is an intermediate inclination spiral, NGC 3756 (H.II.784), a nice SABb. Some fairly prominent arm detail apparent. Bright nucleus.

NGC 5447 (H.III.787) is another lovely M101 HII region, a huge elongated nebula in the midst of a spiral arm.

A marginally interesting little (1.5’) Sb spiral, NGC 2756’s (H.II.828) brightness is at around 13th magnitude. Basically an elongated dust mote.

NGC 5480 (H.II.692) is cool. An SAc with intermediate orientation, to me it looks a little like a barred spiral, but that’s not what the NASA Extragalactic Database says. There is a dimmer elliptical galaxy in the field a mere 3’ to the east, NGC 5481.

Beautiful edge-on NGC 4157 (H.I.208) might fairly be called “spectacular.” Magnitude 12.1 and 6.6’ along its major axis, it shows slightly hooked arms at the ends of its disk, and a prominent dust lane near its elongated nucleus.

An SABab with intermediate inclination to us on this lonely rock, NGC 2639 (H.I.204) doesn’t look half bad. Bright nucleus and fairly extensive (1.6’) outer envelope. No signs of other details, though.

NGC 4100 (H.III.717) is a near edge-on SAbc, a 5’ across galaxy that shows a patchy disk and a bright nucleus. Outstanding.

Barred spiral NGC 5448 (H.II.691) shows some details. It is large, about 4’ across in images, and, when the seeing calms, I can make-out its pretty arms.

NGC 4047 (H.II.741) is another intermediate inclination spiral, an SAb, but it doesn’t show much more to me than a fuzz spot. It’s bright at magnitude 13, but that’s all I can say for it.

A little barred spiral, NGC 3583 (H.II.728), is nice. Shows-off its tiny arms starkly. Beautiful and bright at mag 12.1.

NGC 4096 (H.I.207) is quite attractive and large at 6’ in extent. Bright off-center core and patchy, tight spiral arms. Lovely.

NGC 4144 (H.II.747) is a bright and large (magnitude 12, 5.6’) edge-on. Impressive.

This next target, NGC 4013 (H.II.733), is a very good edge-on. The dust lane shown in the POSS plate is not easy to see, but is fleetingly visible.

NGC 3319 (H.III.700) is nice enough, but seems harder than its magnitude value of 11.7 would suggest. It is large, about 5’ across its longest dimension. It’s a barred spiral, and while I can see the bar, I can’t see much evidence of the arms themselves.

Another barred spiral, NGC 3652 (H.II.775), is not much better, though I do get indications of one spiral arm in this small magnitude 12.2 ghost.

The last Ursa Major denizen, NGC 4062 (H.I.174), is very pretty. A large 4’ SABc spiral with patchy-looking arms. A couple of dim field stars are involved with the galaxy.


NGC 5129’s (H.II.653) main claim to fame is that it’s bright and in a field rich with small galaxies. Otherwise, it’s not much more than a slightly elongated elliptical fuzzie.

NGC 4639 (H.II.125) is a nice-looking small barred spiral. It’s another “tie fighter.”

NGC 4168 (H.II.105) is a bright elliptical at magnitude 12.1 and 2.8’ across. Mainly interesting because it’s, like NGC 5129, in a field full of galaxies, including NGC 4164 and NGC 4165.

A lenticular, NGC 4267 (H.II.166), is a surpassingly bright S0. Hard to tell that it’s at all elongated or shows a “lens” shape, however.

When the seeing cooperates, I can make out the barred spiral arms of NGC 5020 (H.II.129) with ease. I can also see a bright center in this 2.8’ size magnitude 13 SABb.

NGC 4880 (H.III.83) sure is large and bright enough, but there isn’t much else of interest in this obviously elongated S0. 2.8’ across. Magnitude 13.1.

NGC 4313 (H.II.63) is an edge-on SAab with a bright core and a large 4’ long disk.

NGC 4647 (H.III.44) is a bright near face-on SABc nearly 3’ in diameter. It would be much more impressive if it were not adjacent to spectacular magnitude 9.8 elliptical galaxy M60, which is less than 3’ to the east. NGC 4647 does at least show its multi-arm spiral nature at times.

A near edge-on SBc, NGC 4294 (H.II.61) is reasonably attractive on my monitor. It is in the same field as a face-on galaxy, NGC 4299, which is 5’ 30” to the east. The main object shows a small core at times, and a faint magnitude 14 star is just off the northern edge of the galaxy.

NGC 4299 (H.II.62) is a small face-on SABdm spiral that gives some hint of odd-looking arms once in a while.

NGC 4119 (H.II.14) is MUCH dimmer than I expected given its quoted value of 12.4, and a size less than 2’ across its major axis. It’s difficult to see much of anything, even with the Stellacam gain cranked up, until the seeing changes; then I make out a small elongated fuzzie. This object has been reported as a “non-existent” by some sources, but there does seem to be something here. NED concurs, though it hedges its bet by sayin’ “identification as NGC 4119 is not certain” for the object found at 12h08m09.6s +10d22m44s.

NGC 4608 (H.II.69) is a barred lenticular. On the monitor, I see a bright core with a bar that’s longer than 2’. On the POSS plate, there are faint vertical extension on the ends of the bar, making the galaxy look like Darth’s tie fighter, but I can’t see those.

A little face-on, NGC 4519 (H.II.158) is intriguing. When the seeing settles occasionally, I can detect spiral arm detail in this magnitude 12.9 SBd, which is 2.6’ x 2.0’ in extent.

NGC 4233 (H.II.496) is a small fuzzball of a lenticular galaxy 2.3’ x 1.0 across. It’s an S0, and surprisingly bright. Highly luminous core accompanied by the easily distinguishable haze of a disk.

Near edge-on Sa NGC 4224 (H.II.136) shows a nice dark-lane on the POSS, and as I stare at the galaxy on the monitor, the lane pops right out.

NGC 4612 (H.II.148) is a bright, small SAB0 like countless other cosmic dandelions in Virgo.

NGC 4235 (H.II.17), an edge-on SAa, is not bad, with a fairly bright core/nuclear region and an easily discernable disk. It’s listed as 4.2’ long, and I’m seeing at least 3 – 3.5’ of it this evening.

Faint fuzzie NGC 4343 (H.III.94) is another small edge-on, an SAb that’s at magnitude 13.7, but, given a size of 2’, is nice and bright.

IC 3102 is not much to look at, a small 13th mag lenticular. 2’ across in images.

NGC 4260 (H.II.138) is an intermediate inclination barred spiral with a magnitude of 12.7. I can’t detect much in the way of detail—bright center embedded in an oval haze is about it.

The next stop is a small but bright elliptical, NGC 4339 (H.II.143). Magnitude 12.3, almost round, about 2.3’ by 2.1’ in diameter.

NGC 4264 (H.II.140) is a small, very small, lenticular less than 1’ in size. It’s not very interesting, but is redeemed by being set in a rich field that includes the more impressive NGC 4261 as well as small NGCs 4266 and 4260.

NGC 4270 (H.II.568) is also a lenticular and doesn’t, of course, show much in the way of detail. Like the previous one, though, it’s redeemed by being set in a field full of fuzzballs.

NGC 5668 (H.II.574) is a face-on SAd. Good enough, about 2’ in size. With the poor seeing, about all I see is a round smudge.

NGC 4586 (H.I.125), an edge-on SAa, shows a fairly prominent nuclear region, but the 3.5’ disk is somewhat subdued.

Attractive NGC 5560 (H.II.579) is a near edge-on next to a larger intermediate inclination spiral, NGC 5566. 5560’s disk shows subtle signs of being warped/distorted. Beautiful.

I thought NGC 5775 (H.III.554), an edge-on SBc, would be better than it is; it’s nothing more than an elongated smudge with a slightly brighter core.

 Magnitude 12.2 NGC 5638 (H.II.581) is a remarkably bright elliptical about 2’ across. Another little galaxy, NGC 5636, is a mere 2’ to the north.

It would be easy to say NGC 5864 (H.II.585) is “just another lenticular,” but it is strikingly attractive. Small, bright, sharply defined with a spindle-like shape. Several small field stars set it off.

NGC 5854 (H.II.544). Looks a lot like 5638, if not quite as pretty. Not as bright or well-defined.

Based on its specs, magnitude 11.8 and 4’ in size, I thought NGC 5838 (H.II.542) might be pretty good. It turns out to be nothing more than a faint fuzzie with a little of its disk in view.

NGC 4045 (H.II.276), an intermediate inclination SABa, looks a lot like it does on the POSS plate—definite details of its tightly wrapped arms are seen.

NGC 5806 (H.II.539) is an SABb spiral, and is more than just OK. Shows arm/dust lane detail. Mag 12.4 and about 3’ across.

Yet another of the countless horde of Virgo ellipticals, NGC 4073 (H.II.277) is outstanding, like many similar ones in the area, because of the field full of island universes in which its set. At a glance, I see at least five other dust bunnies, including 4077, 4139, and 4063.

NGC 5813 (H.I.127) is an amazingly bright elliptical and, like the previous one, it’s in a field studded with tiny galaxies.

It’s nice to come to something other than an elliptical lint ball, and NGC 4999 (H.II.537) is definitely that. When the seeing improves, it shows delicate spiral detail in its near face-on disk, and looks just like its POSS picture. It’s a face-on SBb, and if the seeing were better this would be a showpiece.

NGC 5850 (H.II.543) is a barred spiral that, in its pictures, is another of Vader’s Tie Fighters. With the seeing tonight, I don’t pick up too much of that, however.

Next is a magnitude 12.4 elliptical about 2.3’ in size, the luminous NGC 5831 (H.II.540). Brightness increases steadily to the core, but there’s not much more to be said about it than that.

Most sources give NGC 4904 (H.II.517) as a face-on SBcd. I can’t make out much else other than what looks like a bar/strongly elongated nucleus surrounded by faint haze.

NGC 5750 H.I.183) is an SB0 that displays a curious ring feature in its POSS plate. I see this “ring” easily enough, but it’s hard to tell what it really is—a real ring or just tightly wrapped arms.

NGC 5507 (H.IV.49) is a decent sight. It’s an intermediate inclination galaxy with a bright nucleus accompanied by NGC 5506 (H.II.687) 3’44” to the south, a very attractive edge-on that steals the show.

NGC 4691’s (H.II.182) data asserts it is a “near face-on,” but this 11.7 magnitude S0 sure doesn’t look like that to me. It looks more edge-on.

Yet another elliptical! NGC 4915 (H.IV.47) is a small magnitude 12.9 smudge that shows no other detail than that it’s possessed of a bright center.

NGC 5493 (H.IV.46) is a small lenticular galaxy 2.1’ across its major axis, glowing softly at magnitude 12.3. Large central bulge and spindle shape.

NGC 4941 (H.I.40), an intermediate inclination SABa, looks good in pictures and with the Stellacam, showing a large, bright central region and oval outer envelope.

Sweet! Two interacting galaxies, NGC 5426 (H.II.309) and NGC 5427 pirouette across the monitor. The non-Herschel II, NGC 5427, shows incredible spiral arm detail.

NGC 4981 (H.II.189) is a fairly attractive intermediate inclination SABbc spiral. Shows some traces of arm detail. This magnitude 12.1 2.8’ x 2.0’ galaxy is involved with a bright field star of magnitude 10.8 about 1’ southeast of the galaxy’s center.

NGC 4487 (H.II.776). When the atmosphere allows it, this magnitude 11.9 SABcd shows good spiral detail. One sweeping arm is particularly prominent.

An SAbc spiral, small 1.3’ NGC 4928 (H.II.190) is not much. It’s just an oval fuzzie-wuzzie with a brighter center.

Big mag 11.1, 4.6’ SAbc spiral galaxy NGC 4939 (H.II.561) is just so-so on the monitor: a bright center surrounded by oval haze. Very occasionally the arms do pop out of the disk.

NGC 4742 (H.I.133) is a bright elliptical a little larger than 2’ across that looks a lot like a fuzzy star.

NGC 5077 (H.II.193) is the brightest in a group of three prominent Virgo galaxies that includes NGC 5076 and 5079. 5077 is an elliptical that’s slightly off-round at 2.3’ x 2.0’.

 Face-on barred spiral NGC 4902 (H.I.69) is beautiful, with the graceful arms of this magnitude 11.8 2.6’ x 2.4’ galaxy wonderfully on display.

 NGC 4984 (H.II.301) is a face-on S0. This area of Virgo is getting low in the sky, and all I can make out is the galaxy’s core and maybe a little outlying haze.

 NGC 5044 (H.II.511) is probably partially blocked by the EZ Up tent canopy and very low. Nevertheless, this bright elliptical shows up very well indeed. Definitely elongated and magnitude 11.6.

 In its pictures, NGC 5037 (H.II.510) shows a bright set of arms that, viewed near edge, on resemble a ring feature. All I can see is a bright core and a disk a little over a minute across.

 NGC 5018 (H.II.746) is an elongated elliptical, an E3 according to NED. Bright, if somewhat large at 3.3’ x 2.5’.

 NGC 5087 (H.III.724) is a nicely prominent magnitude 12.2 strongly elongated elliptical.

 NGC 5068’s (H.II.312) a lovely face-on SBd—in pictures. Under these conditions (which are worsening rapidly with haze/clouds moving in), and as low as it is, I can’t see much of it other than a fuzzspot.

 NGC 5134 (H.II.314), an SABb, shows up pretty well despite low altitude. Bright core, substantial outer envelope. No sign of its tightly wrapped arms, however.

 NGC 5084 (H.II.313) is an S0 lenticular, and while not overly impressive, this bright and large (9.3’ across) galaxy, the last Herschel II in Virgo, is not a bad way to end the constellation. Given the poor conditions, I am only seeing the inner portion, the core and a small part of the disk of this big feller.

And so it went till, almost unbelievably, the local time shown on ST3’s display began to creep on toward four o’clock in the dadgum morning. I knew I ort to be tired—I’d arisen at 6 a.m. the previous day. But I wasn’t. I was snug under the tent canopy, I was sitting down most of the night, and the air was relatively dry. In my experience, nothing saps your energy quicker than humid, dew-laden air. OK, OK, I’ll fess up; the couple of Monsters I’d poured down me throat didn’t hurt. I was ready to press on till dawn. The sky had other ideas. Ol’ Urania whispered, “Now, now Unk, you are a-getting the big head; that is enough for you,” and promptly closed-down with clouds, haze, and fog.

What went through my mind as I was driving back to town? Given the late/early hour and the slightly jittery feeling brought on by the pea-picking Monster Energy Drinks, it wasn’t overly surprising I started pondering the fricking - fracking flying saucers I wrote about a couple of weeks back. Traveling down the dark and slightly spooky lane of mossy oaks on my way back to Highway 19, I couldn’t help think that if ever there were a time for the Greys to pounce on the Rodster, this was danged sure it. Alas, that bright light in the trees yonder was just another cell tower beacon.

Back at the Day’s Inn it was finally my day’s end. I drank a beer or two, cycled through the cable channels. (Did y’all know there is some real weird stuff on the TV set at 4:30 in the a.m.?) That didn’t last long. Almost before I knew it, I was off to dreamland, where I resumed cruising the endless void, revisiting the very spirals Bertha and I’d seen on this dark and deep night.

Sunday, May 23, 2010


Clearin’ the Cobwebs of Berenice with Sue French

Peculiar weather we’re having lately, ain’t it? Not that I’m complaining, mind you, not with them poor people in the Midwest and upper south taking such a beating. And for us, it’s been peculiar in a good way.

I suppose I usually get my share of spring galaxy observing. Last year, I sure did, even if I was sometimes gazing at island universes through a layer of ground fog. That’s the way it is ‘round these parts. The return of Coma – Virgo brings with it haze, clouds, and often violent thunderstorms. But, amazingly, there’s been little of that this year. Night-time temperatures for the last week have been in the 50s F., and the clouds have stayed away, more or less.

As time for this month’s dark site run came upon us, there was little doubt I’d get some hours. Saturday dawned partly cloudy, but afore long them clouds began to scud off, just as the weatherman predicted (imagine that). By all rights, I shoulda had at least the C8 and the Stellacam out to Tanner-Williams, Alabama, and had the Herschel Project running at full speed. That didn’t happen. I wimped out.

If you follow this silly little blog on a regular basis, you know it’s been a tough month or two for us denizens of Chaos Manor South, with Miss Dorothy’s health problems front and center. Tell the truth, muchachos, I was just tired. I wanted to observe, but I couldn’t deal with loading, unloading, setting up, reloading, and unloading a ton of gear. If all goes as planned, the Herschel project will have had its hours under the stars Down Chiefland Way by the time you read this, but the Saturday eve in question was, yep, a Sweet Charity night all the way.

When either the sky or the ol’ bod ain’t up to a hardcore observing run, I naturally turn to my ultra-portable little girlfriend, Charity Hope Valentine, an ETX-125PE, whose adventures I last chronicled here. As I’ve said a time or three, it’s amazing what I can see with Charity, even on less than good nights from less than good sites, but I didn’t reckon I’d turn her loose on the Herschel II. What to look at, then?

If you were following my adventures and misadventures last fall, you’ll recall I started a second series of observing articles in addition to the H-Project. I proposed to run through some of the observing columns and features the astro-rags print, with an eye toward informing y’all about what works and doesn’t in ‘em. I started out in right sprightly fashion with one of Sue French’s “Deep Sky Wonders” entries. But that was it. The Herschel Project bumped that idea right offstage. Since I wouldn’t be doing Herschels on this night, I thought I’d get back to this other idea and see what Charity would make of Sue’s spring galaxy tour, “The Gossamers of Coma Berenices,” which appeared in the May 2010 issue. That would not be the only thing I’d be doing out in the dark, though; I’d be giving my new netbook computer its check ride.

Netbook? Yep. One of them miniature PCs ever’body in the Windows world is excited about and glomming on to. Yes, I was goin’ through one of my periodic snits about Winders a few weeks back, telling all and sundry I was THROUGH with the EVIL MIcrosoft O/S, and was going Apple all the way. With a Mac desktop. With a Mac laptop. Maybe even with an iPad. So why buy yet another Bill Gates special? I realized I would still need something to run NexRemote whether I entered the Apple Corps or not. Yeah, Skeezix, I know you can partition the drive on the new Intel Macs and run Windows, yadda-yadda-yadda. Not for me.

I’m way too computer-ignernt to fool with stuff like that. I needed an inexpensive, small computer to run my Win-only astroware. With the emphasis on small. I was roundly sick of toting my humongous P4 Toshiba laptop. Yes, she’s been a great computer, but in addition to her bulk, she is awful power-hungry, easily running down my 75ah trolling motor battery before midnight. So, one of the small, power-sipping Win Netbooks seemed a natural. Which one? I had no idea. I schlepped myself down to BestBuy to find out. Wisely, I took Miss D., who was feeling much better, with me, as her advice concernin’ computers has saved me from utter disaster more’n once.

If I hadn’t known how popular the mini-notebooks have become, one look at the array on display in the big-box store would have apprised me of that fact. There was a whole counterful, at least 15 at least somewhat different machines. Originally, I’d been thinking I might want one of the few models that sport 12-inch screens, but a close look at the netbooks on display, mostly 10-inchers, showed a 10 would probably do. Yeah, I’d have to wear my dadgummed reading glasses, but I now have to wear ‘em even to decipher my 20-inch monitor at work, so so what?

Mostly, the netbooks in BestBuy were more alike than different. They sorted into two major groups based on their hard drives, both surprisingly large: 160gb and 250gb—man alive, my Toshiba’s only got an 80. All featured built-in wi-fi, nice enough chiclet-style keyboards, and no i/o other than two or three USB ports (big surprise, that, huh?). Aside from their hard drives and the color of their cases, the only difference among the various models and brands appeared to be battery life, with the ones on the lower end claiming 5 – 6 hours, and those on top boasting 10 – 11 hours run time (!) on the internal bat’tries.

Looking at the long row of shiny new netbooks left your old Uncle somewhat bemused. Luckily, the wonderful Miss D. started eliminating candidates with ease: “I’m sure you don’t want an HP, not after the trouble with Lizbeth’s HP laptop. This one’s OK, but for 20 dollars more you can have longer battery run-time and a better processor,” and so on and so forth. With her guidance, I settled on an Asus Eee with a 250gig hard drive, an amazing 11 hours of battery life—or so they said—and Intel’s new “Atom” 1.6ghz processor, the Pine-trail, which was reputed to be easy on the power, but still lively in its performance.

Only bummer? My intent had been to get a netbook with Windows XP. Guess what? In the stores, at least, it’s Windows 7 all the way. The day of the XP netbook has ended, and while there were still some display cards that referred to machines with the earlier o/s, none were in stock and none would be. Well, tarnation. I was a little concerned about getting my astroware to run under Microsoft's latest…err… “marvel,” but I had been assured that my two main mojos, SkyTools 3 and NexRemote, would be fine. Anything else would be gravy, I reckoned.

Before leaving the store, I picked up a couple of extras. Well, not really extras, more like necessities. One was an external (USB) DVD drive. As you may know, current netbooks do not come with DVD drives. Lot of the time you won’t need one, given today’s flash drives and Internet connectivity everywheres, but if you need to load software off DVDs, which I knew I would, you will need, well, a DVD. Luckily, external drives are relatively inexpensive, with most hovering at just over 50 bucks. Udder than that? A case, of course. When my friend, Pat, bought his Asus (XP) Netbook some time back, it came with a minimalist case, but that’s no longer part of the deal. I settled on a nice Targus. Total damage? Still under five bills even with our crazy high sales tax, believe it or no.

Once I got the li’l thing back to the Ol’ Manse, it was more or less smooth sailing. Basic setup was easy. Software installation for most stuff was a no-brainer. The key? The version of Windows 7 on the Asus was Windows 7 Starter 32 bit. Seems as most of the compatibility problems I’ve heard tell about come from the 64 bit versions of Windows 7. Oh, a few of my older applications, like Megastar, had to have their setup programs run in XP compatibility mode, a few programs themselves needed to be run that way, and a few drivers (the one for my Orion StarShoot Autoguider, fer example) had to be updated. That was it. Soon, I had all my fave astro-apps in place, includin’ the all important NexRemote. The only question was how well would they run?

Before I move on, let’s talk about the version of Win 7 that ships with most new netbooks, Starter. What it is is a crippled version of the 32 bit Windows 7 Home Premium. You can’t look at DVDs with it (no codecs). A lot of the fancy desktop graphics is missing. Hell, you cain’t even change the cotton-pickin desktop wallpaper. But MS has a fix for you: give ‘em 80 bucks and they will send you an unlock code that will turn Starter into Home Premium instantly. Will I? I doubt it. Starter is perfectly adequate for what I’ll be doing with my little pal. I wouldn’t write a book on the Asus (though I might use it to work on my next one once in a while when I’m at star parties and such), so I won’t be spending too much quality time with the little thing, but it and its o/s are more than good enough for most anything else.

So how did all that software (which barely scratched the surface of 250 gigs) work? The ‘puter’s Pine-trail ain’t no speed demon at 1.6 GHz, but that is sufficient for almost any astro software I know of. Hell, even TheSky 6 did OK, if not as OK as on the 3.2 GHz Toshiba. Only one problem reared its ugly head. As shipped on netbooks, Windows 7 Starter only allows you a max resolution of 1024x600. This didn’t cause any problems with most of my software, but it did do so on two very important titles: Nebulosity and SkyTools 3. On these apps, the bottoms of some windows were cut-off due to the low vertical resolution, making it impossible to mash some important buttons. I found I could rearrange windows on the Nebulosity main screen, but there did not appear to be a quick fix for SkyTools. Oh, it was not a huge problem—only one or two windows was affected—but it was annoying.

A little digging around on the Internet quickly turned up a solution. Apparently, there is a very large user community of netbook fans, and they’d already developed a fix for this “problem.” It turned out that for my Asus a simple change of one value in the Registry allowed me to set the resolution to 1024x768 any time I wanted. Unlike on some earlier netbooks, this increased resolution is not achieved by allowing you to scroll the screen; you really get 1024x768. Oh, the display is just slightly distorted—a circle becomes somewhat egg shaped, for example, but it’s not bad, and it damned sure fixed my “problem” apps.

Course, just 'cause programs run well in Chaos Manor South’s dining room, don’t mean they will do so in the real world, on the observing field. I was particularly worried about NexRemote. Not only do the netbooks lack a serial port, they lack PCMCIA card slots, which meant I couldn’t do as I’d done with the Toshiba and buy a serial PCMCIA card to interface scopes to NR. I’d tried USB – serial adapter cables with the Toshiba, but none I’d tried would work consistently with that demanding program. What would I do? I had been assured a Keyspan USB – serial cable, which I hadn’t tried, would do the trick. I gave B&H Photo my credit card number and hoped for the best.

I don’t mind tellin’ y’all that my hands was a-trembling as I plugged the Keyspan into the netbook. This was critical. Had to work, or I’d, to some extent, have wasted my money on the little computer. Told NR the serial port assignment, pushed “OK,” and the program connected to my CG5 no problem. I spent plenty of time doing fake alignments, lots of go-tos, and just letting the thing track. No problems. Not a single hiccup. The same was the case when I tried EQMOD with my Atlas. The Keyspan adapter JUST ROCKS!

All the slings and arrows avoided, what remained was to try the little feller in the field. As I done tole, y’all, that turned out to be with Sue French and Sweet Charity, not with Willie and Caroline and Urania, my C8. I loaded up the car, wafflin’ for a minute about bringing the big trolling motor battery I normally use to power the PC. “Nope,” I decided. I’d need to see if the claims for the netbook’s internal battery were even close to realistic. Why did I buy the little thing if not to dispense with that back-breaking battery? Unk being Unk, I hedged my bets, bringing along the small inverter I use to run my RV-6. It’s barely the size of a pack of smokes, and plugs straight into a cigarette lighter receptacle. If worse came to worst, I’d power the netbook from my #2 jump start battery, which I usually take along on Charity expeditions in case I need to use my dew-zapper 12v hairdryer on her corrector.

Once I was set up, it was time to get to work, and what joyful work it was. It seemed like forever since I’d cruised the enormous fields where galaxies are strewn like wildflowers. At the risk of sounding like a cheerleader for Sky and Telescope and Sue French, this column, “The Gossamers of Coma Berenices,” was a Real Good One. Ms. French has mixed the pretty with the problematical for an assortment that should appeal to any deep sky observer out of knee-pants.

Natcherly, before I could get started, Charity had to be go-to aligned. Given her shenanigans on our last outing, I was understandably a mite suspicious. Once she was done with her alignment dance and I’d centered the two stars she chose, I punched-in M3. Ms. Valentine made her usual weasels-with-tuberculosis sound. When she stopped, there was M3, a big ball or stars centered in the eyepiece, looking good in the gloaming.

One final thing before lift-off: the eyepieces I used with Charity were, as usual, my set of inexpensive Synta Expanses (66-degree AFOV); ably assisted by the 11mm “Birdseye” (82-degree field Chinese import) I got from my friend, Herb York, some years ago. Given Sweet Charity’s design and long focal length, these simple oculars perform very well out to the field stop. Oh, as usual, the matter in italics has been transcribed straight from my log.

NGC 4565

First up was NGC 4565, which Sue refers to as the “Needle Galaxy.” I don’t know as I’ve ever heard it called that. I know the Silver Needle Galaxy over yonder in Canes Venatici, but the moniker I’ve always heard used with 4565 is “The Flying Saucer Galaxy,” due to its central bulge and skinny, edge-on disk. Whatever. Sue says thisun is a “showpiece,” and she is right about that:

Not totally dark, we’re not yet to astronomical twilight. At least Coma is out of the light dome, and 4565 looks good with averted vision. I can see both the central bulge and maybe a couple of arc-minutes or so of disk on either side in the 15mm Expanse. The 11mm Birdseye, which yields 170x, is a minor improvement.

NGC 4559

From spectacular, we go to what our author calls a “dust bunny galaxy.” That, and her description of it as an “Oval glow with faint stars hugging each side,” in her four-inch refractor is purty much what I saw in five-inch Charity, too:

I wasn’t sure Charity had landed on the right spot at first. Finally spotted this 4’ across galaxy, though. Large with several dim stars involved. Oval in shape, strongly elongated. No other details noted. 15mm Expanse works best; especially accompanied by averted vision. The faint stars in the galaxy are somewhat annoying; without them, I might be able to get a better idea of what is goin’ on with this thing.

NGC 4278 and 4283

Onward! My next Coma destination (no, I’m not following the order of the objects in the magazine article) was the pair formed by NGCs 4278 and 4283. Actually, this area of the constellation is ripe with little galaxies, but these two are the best of a somewhat dim lot. Again, what Sue got out of these two is about what I saw as well: 4278 is large and somewhat dim, 4283 is smaller and (surprisingly) bright:

These make for an attractive field. I Almost get the impression of M51 and NGC 5195, with NGC 4278, a large 3.3’x 3.1’ magnitude 11.0 fuzzie, stationed next to NGC 4283, which is at magnitude 13.0, but is much smaller, 1.3’ x 1.2’, and much brighter-looking. The two look pretty much identical save for their sizes, with both being round, with brightness increasing smoothly to their centers.

Hickson 61

This, as Sue French tells us, is the galaxy group referred to in the vernacular as “The Box.” This was where me and Charity began to fall behind, with us just barely picking out NGC 4174 in addition to the premier galaxy of the group, NGC 4169. Sue was able to see 4175 as well for a total of three.

I can see the main galaxy, NGC 4169, with fair ease in the 11mm Birdseye—using averted vision, anyway. All I can tell is that it is an oval smudge aligned north by northwest. At times, I think I detect one other, probably NGC 4174. When it briefly winks into view I can see it is strongly elongated and perpendicular to NGC 4169’s position angle.

NGC 4274

Back over to the NGC 4278/4283 vicinity for our next prize, NGC 4274, an interesting galaxy with a ring-like feature (in deep images). In the eyepiece of our smallish scopes, both our author and I found it interesting, if devoid, not surprisingly, of the ring-like arm details:

When I finally pick it out, NGC 4274 becomes easy with direct vision. It even seems to give up some sort of fleeting detail including a bright nuclear area. Almost think I see at least a faint hint of the remarkable arm-structure it shows in images. Not too shabby. I get my best look at it with the 9mm Expanse at 208x.

NGC 4286

It wasn’t all gravy, though. While Sue remarks that NGC 4286, another member of this 4288/83 “group,” is “faint,” at least she saw it—though that may have been with her 10-inch reflector, not her 4-inch refractor; it’s not clear what she used for thisun. Not moi:

This is the dimmest member of the bunch of galaxies (gaggle of galaxies?) that includes NGCs 4283 and 4278. Despite a small size, a minute and a half along its longest axis, it eluded me and Charity, and, given its integrated magnitude of 14.1, I am not surprised.

NGC 4314

Dammit! Ms. French calls this one “bright,” and describes a 2 ½-minute spindle shape and other details. I didn’t see a thang. I can’t blame that on Charity Hope Valentine, either; she put anything I asked for somewhere in the field of the 15mm Expanse (well, maybe the 20mm Expanse) all night long:

You wouldn’t think this one would be that hard, with a mag value of 11.1, but I do not seem to see it. Maybe because it’s over 4’ in size.

LoTr 5

Sigh. Sue offers Longmore-Tritton 5 as a challenge, declaring this is one for people with “large scopes, dark skies, and a taste for masochism.” It’s a large, very large, planetary with low surface brightness. Not surprisingly SkyTools 3 had it in its database (I reckon it must nave near-about everything if’n it’s got this one), and I did send Charity that way. What did I see? Nuttin’ honey, OIII or no OIII.

NGC 4725

And, alas we must end on another miss, NGC 4725. This galaxy is bright at magnitude 10.4; how the hell did me and my little girlfriend miss it? We forgot to go there. While I found the small screen of the Netbook surprisingly legible, the type is small, and somehow I overlooked one target that’s a fair showpiece.

So….? Yeah, I had a few noseeums from the PSAS Tanner-Williams Site, but that’s OK; there are plenty of spring evenings left, and looks like I may even get sufficient good weather to enjoy ‘em. That’s the beauty of this list: along with the good stuff, there’s enough that’s challenging to keep me coming back to it.

Not that Charity Hope Valentine and I were done. We pressed on, doing Messiers and other showpieces, more than thirty of ‘em, till the night grew old. The little netbook (and SkyTools 3) worked without a hitch, sending the ETX on go-to after go-to. Charity herself really didn’t miss a beat. This may, in fact, have been one of her best runs ever. As above, everything was in the field of at least my lowest powered Expanse. Except Saturn. That’s what you get when you forget to tell the consarned Autostar computer that it’s Daylight Savings Time time again.

Before I forget to mention it, in addition to talking to Charity just fine, the netbook proved her mettle in one other way, too. I didn’t get 11-hours (admittedly I did not turn the wi-fi off, and was using the USB port/serial cable a lot), but I got a bunch of hours anyhow. At 1:30am, the little thing said she still had three hours of go-juice left. That tells me that, at most, on the very longest evenins, I might need to hook her to a smallish jumpstart cell. I’ll still have to haul that monstrously heavy trolling motor battery out on occasion to power the DVD recorder when I am Stellacamming, but since it won’t be powering a PC, too, I expect it will at least last past midnight, now.

Wussup next? If everything worked out, I should be back from Chiefland by the time you read this, and a report on the next stage(s) of the Herschel Project should be forthcoming. I swear. After that, I have something different planned, maybe even something a little special: amateur astronomy the old fashioned way.

Hokay…we gonna catch y’all on the flip-flop. Gonna back on outa here. This here’s Unk Rod on the side. We gone. Bye-bye.

Saturday, May 15, 2010


Stars in the Palm of my Hand

Before going farther, let me say how much Miss Dorothy and I appreciate the concern expressed by you Dear Readers over her recent medical travails. I am happy to report she is doing much better. The first go at chemotherapy left her sick and weak as a kitten, but it appears the docs have now got that controlled to the extent it can be. Things are so close to normal around the Old Manse now that I’m even contemplating sneaking off to the Chiefland Astronomy Village for a few days! Anyhoo…

If you read one of my fairly recent entries here, “Computin’ in the Country,” you know that, while I don’t claim to be anything more than barely computer literate, I’ve been in on the personal computer revolution almost from the beginning. And I’ve been in on the amateur astronomy computer revolution since the very beginning, moving on from early minimalist programs like Sky Travel for the Commodore 64 and Skyglobe for the PC to modern marvels like SkyTools 3 and Starry Night Pro Plus.

As I intimated in that article, howsomeever, that don’t mean I’ve always used PCs on the observing field. That’s a fairly recent thing for me. I started plunking a laptop down on my observing table maybe six years ago. What took me so long? As most of y’all are aware, I am one cheap, penny-pinching ol’ summabeech. It took until the new century was well underway, and the prices of laptop computers finally began to fall, for me to convince myself that, one, I could afford a laptop, and, two, that I’d be willing to subject one to dewy nights in the sticks. But, you know what? Well before I lugged my good, ol’ Toshiba lappie down to the Chiefland Astronomy Village, I was using a computer at and with my telescopes.

It just wasn’t a full-fledged PC. Yeah, I’m talking one of the mini-puters that came on strong in the mid-1990s, a “PDA,” a personal digital assistant, a Palm Pilot. What drew me to the Palm computer (the “Pilot” name was actually long gone due to a dispute with the Pilot pen folks when I began considering the widgets)? They had kicked things up one huge notch over the original Palm and the similar organizers being sold by Casio and others. The new Palms could run software. There was, it appeared, even astronomy software, some of which looked like it might be pretty darned useful. With Miss D.’s concurrence, I hied myself to the local office supply place to get me a Palm.

And quickly came to a screeching halt. It was immediately obvious the next hurdle would be deciding which Palm. There was a whole rack of the dad-blasted things starin’ me in the face. On the low end was the budget “M” series. These were cute and certainly priced right, with the basic model, the M100, around a hundred twenty-five dineros. Next up was the IIIxe, at 250. Followed by the IIIc which jumped up to 400 big dollars, and the V, for a little more than that.

Some head-scratching and reading of the specs on the little signs that accompanied the gadgets helped me narrow things down. I discarded the M100 right off the bat. Its display was clear enough, but its memory was small, 2 megabytes, too small, I suspected, to allow me to run much astro-ware. I was very much attracted to the Palm IIIc with its big 8 megs of RAM (whoo-hoo!), and its beautiful, bright 160x160 color display. Did not like the price, though. I also looked askance at one aspect of that purty screen. I was fairly sure it would draw considerably more current than a monochrome one, and the Palm IIIc was equipped with a rechargeable, non-removable battery. If it died in the middle of a run, the thing would need charging; I couldn’t just swap batteries on the field.

Which left the Palm V and the Palm IIIxe. The V bit the dust in a right quick hurry. Its main claim to fame was a pretty metal case. I couldn’t tell a single difference between its display and that of the considerably cheaper IIIxe, which my eyes next lit on. The IIIxe had, in addition to an easy-on-the eyes black and white display (actually more green and white) that could be illuminated with a soft blue backlight, and 8mb of memory just like the fancier IIIc and V. It wasn’t easy getting out 200 bucks for a widget I figgered I really had no pressing need for, but I managed somehow and took my new pet home.

My motivation for getting a Palm didn’t have much to do with its utility as a personal organizer, but I soon found it indispensable for keeping disorganized li’l ol’ me organized. The calendar and the to-do list soon were saving my butt on a regular basis. Type your appointments into the Palm Desktop program running on your Win PC, hook Palm to computer with its serial cable, and those events or changes would be squirted into the little guy just like magic. It is true, though, that it was the astro-factor that really excited me.

What did I find in the way of astronomy software? Quite a few useful and free or very inexpensive little programs. A couple I remember well and still occasionally light-off are Jovian, which, as you might expect, shows the current positions of Jupiter’s Gallilean satellites, and Sidereal Time which, yeah, shows Local Sidereal Time. Both of these and several similar small apps proved surprisingly handy, especially when working with my students. But I didn’t get a true whiff of the future till I ran across a plainly titled program, Planetarium for Palm.

Not much has changed with Planetarium in a while, with the last (minor) update having been issued about a year ago. It ain’t dead yet, howsomeever, with plenty of Palm users still favoring it. There’s no doubt there are fewer of those folks than there used to be, I reckon, but at one time Planetarium was the hottest thing since sliced bread. In fact, it’s not too much to say that it was a breakthrough. Until Planetarium came out, there’d been some simple star charting programs for our little “organizers,” but these were more on the order of computerized planispheres than real planetarium programs.

Planetarium changed that, squashing all the stuff programs like Cartes du Ciel and TheSky featured into a Palm. In addition to a couple million stars and about two thousand deep sky objects (you could add more, too), there was Solar System data, a logging module, an observing list maker, and even the facility for sending a computerized scope on go-tos. I know I had a great time with the program. Particularly memorable was trading observing lists with my buddy Tom Wideman at the 2001 Texas Star Party wirelessly. No, the Palm didn’t have wi-fi, but it did have infrared “beaming” that worked well for sending small amounts of data back and forth between Palms. Only bad thing? Tom was sporting a Palm IIIc, and one look at Planetarium running in full color made my IIIxe suddenly look like daddy’s Philco TV set.

Nevertheless, I continued to use my Palm happily for several years. Hell, I liked it so much at the telescope that I started a Yahoogroup, Palmastro, which continues to this day. Eventually, I even tried scope control, hooking my III to my first go-to rig, a Meade ETX 60 I bought in 2001 to use as a travel scope and to test the go-to waters. It took a little tinkering to get the Palm talking to the ETX, since Meade, to save money, had left the RS-232 port off the 494 Autostar that came with the littlest ETX. With the appropriate cable, lots of cussin’, and lots of fiddling around, I finally was able to get the Palm working with my 60, Snoopy, in time for our getaway to Mount Pisgah in the hot August of ‘05.

Having been born and raised down here on our tropical coast, your ol’ Uncle ain’t no stranger to sultry summers. But there comes a point where even he has had enough. August of 2005 was one of those times. Temperatures in the hundreds. High humidity. Don’t even ask about the heat indexes. Miss Beth and Miss Dorothy was suffering even worse than I was, I thought—leastways they offered no objections when I suggested a week’s vacation at the Pisgah Inn.

The Pisgah, in North Carolina up on Skyline drive, in spitting distance of Mount Pisgah, is one of my favorite summer getaways. An old-style sorta resort—no phones, and they’ve only put TVs in the rooms in the last decade—the place is blessed with peace and quiet, an excellent restaurant, and, most of all, cool mountain air. Ain’t no air conditioners in the rooms; you don’t need ‘em. In addition to all that, bein’ smack in the middle of a National Forest, the skies are impressively dark. Now, they don’t call ‘em “The Smoky Mountains” for nothing, and hazes and fogs rollin’ in off them mountains are a near nightly occurrence, but when the skies are clear the summer Milky Way burns with surprising ferocity. That in mind, I tossed the 60 and the Palm in the car. Even if the clouds interfered, it wasn’t like they’d take up much space in the trunk or in the room.

The Pisgah Inn was just as beautiful as I remembered. Unfortunately, the evening skies were every bit as hazy/misty/smoky/cloudy as I remembered, too. I got my chance mid-week, though. Knowing it can get dark up on Skyline Drive is one thing, but experiencing it on a good night is another. Looking south off the balcony of our first-floor room down the mountainside (every single room has a balcony and a mountain view) revealed Sagittarius’ teapot was beginning to boil. I grabbed the ETX and its wooden EQ-1 GEM tripod—the tripod Meade sold for the 60, an extruded aluminum job, was too craptacular for me—and headed for the strip of land between the Inn and the mountainside.

Set Snoopy up on the grass, got him go-to aligned (no finder needed, just pop a 25mm eyepiece into this 60mm f/5 refractor), and fired-up the Palm. The raison d’être of running the little telescope off the littler computer? I have no doubt I’d have wasted plenty of the few dark hours I was given if I’d had to rely on the Autostar’s guided tours mode (which tended to offer up things like quasars to the 60mm) or my fading memories of what looked good in a tiny scope. With Planetarium, I had honest to god observing lists of the best and brightest at the ready and was soon makin’ hay in the dark North Carolina skies.

I won’t make y’all read a long list of the objects I viewed on that evening, but I do wanna mention a few. Beginning with M17, the Swan Nebula. Even without an LPR filter, this ghostly southern bird’s outline was starkly visible in the ETX’s wide, wide field, floating on a sea rich with stars. M13? Sure, I’d look at M13, but I didn’t expect too much. Bright this star-ball may be, but it is tight (Shapley - Sawyer Class V) and hard for small scopes to even begin to resolve. Nevertheless, the Northern Giant looked very good in the wee scope, and when I ran the power up as high as I could, I almost imagined I saw a few cluster stars around its outer periphery. The true gem of the evening? The Eagle/Star Queen Nebula associated with open cluster M16. I’d always considered this an object for large scopes, even with the help of an OIII filter. Amazingly, 60mm of aperture showed this bird very clearly, and I thought I even caught a glimpse of it when I removed the filter.

Takeaway? In addition to the fact that truly dark skies are an aperture multiplier, small as they were, or really because of that, the Palm and the ETX 60 were a perfect combo for on-the-road astronomy, for non-astronomy-centric vacations. Frankly, given the Smoky Mountains’ reputation for, well, smokiness, I’d never have bothered to pack a C8. I wouldn’t have e’en wanted to fool with a Short Tube 80 and its GEM mount. The ETX 60 wasn’t an annoyance, and wouldn’t have been, even if I’d never had the opportunity to use it. What could be better?

A color Palm. I was roundly sick of squinting at the Palm III’s dim monochrome screen. What to do? The price of color Palms had suddenly come way down, and the quality of their displays had improved muchly over Tom’s IIIc, which had impressed me so much. Still I hesitated. I now had a laptop, a big, honkin’ 3.2 gig P4 Toshiba. Did I even need a Palm anymore? I didn’t need one for astronomy, but I was danged sure not gonna give up the calendar/contacts/to-do and go back to my old completely disorganized ways.

Right after we got back from Mount Pisgah, I went hunting at the Office Store again, and snared the right Palm in a hurry, the new Tungsten E2. In addition to a beautiful (if small) color screen, the E2’s display conquered the IIIc’s battery drain problems, making a rechargeable battery really practical. Downchecks? The serial interface was gone, replaced by a USB one, which, I knew, would make interfacing to a scope a more complicated affair. Palm had also changed the shorthand-like characters you used to input data into the Palm with the stylus. Why? When every single Palm user knew the old way by heart? Who the hell knew? Palm, as the years rolled on, appeared to develop a corporate death wish. Nevertheless, I pulled out the credit card and took a new Palm Pilot home.

Which turned out to be a good thing. Mainly because of Katrina. We were without power for quite a long time, and, with the aid of a little folding keyboard I purchased, I was actually able to write a paper for a graduate seminar I was taking (come wind or waves, the groves of academe persevere). Astronomy-wise, Planetarium looked dadgummed beautiful on it. Too bad I didn’t use the program much after I got the E2.

For several years, Planetarium was on the top of the heap, and would probably have remained there if a lot of us hadn’t been seduced away by the More Better Gooder. That More Better Gooder was a Palm (and Windows Pocket PC) program by Cyrille Thieullet, Astromist. Peculiar name, but one hell of a program. At derned near 40 bucks, Astromist was considerably more expensive than I was used to paying for Palm-ware. It was worth it. Not only was the display even more attractive than that of Planetarium, it was extremely smooth in operation. “Hook” and drag with the stylus and the sky moved smooth as silk. Objects? Try the entire NGC and more, for a whopping total of over 18,000 DSOs. That was just the beginning of this amazing soft’s features, which included things like a Lunar chart, DSLR control, scope control, and images of many objects.

I had some good times with Astromist, including a night under the uber dark skies of the Almost Heaven Star Party, where I saw more stuff with a pair of 10x50s and a C5 than I’d have imagined possible. Despite these good times, I must admit I’ve never used the E2 as much (for astronomy) as I did the good old III. Why? Part of it was that I am—horrors!—getting older, and it came to the point where trying to make out objects on the E2’s postage-stamp sized screen was derned near impossible, especially with Astromist’s night-vision mode on. Also, I’d become convinced the Palm has a huge liability for astronomical use: the frickin’ - frackin’ stylus. Too easy to drop or otherwise misplace on a dark field. Oh, sure, you could try to use your finger instead of a stylus, but the Palm wasn’t designed for that, and it didn’t always work very well.

So, howsabout a new and better Palm? Well…remember that corporate death wish I mentioned? Not that the second half of the oughts hadn’t started off promisingly, with the company releasing what I thought ought to be the ultimate Palm for astronomy, the Lifedrive. Not only did it have a considerably larger screen than its sisters, the LD featured 4 gigabytes of memory via a tiny hard drive (five years ago you couldn’t do that with solid state memory for a price folks would be willing to pay). Had built in wi-fi and Bluetooth as well. So why didn’t I get one? A buddy at work showed me a Lifedrive his company had lent him. Pretty, sure. But every time you launched an app, the hard drive had to spin up, and load times seemed a lot like what I got outa my ol’ TRS-80 Model 1 and a cassette tape drive.

The main reason I didn’t try the Lifedrive? And why it failed miserably barely two years after its release? Its price. 500 bucks, which seemed a lot to pay for a Palm Pilot, which, when you really got down to it, was not that different from what we’d seen before. Palm didn’t seem to care much, anyhow, deciding the money was not in PDAs anymore, but in, yes, CELL PHONES running the Palm o/s.

Which ain’t exactly taken the world by storm. Their iPhone killers, the Palm Pre and Pixi seem to be losing steam less than a year after their introdcution, maybe because of the insanely annoying commercials for the Pre that ran incessantly last Christmastime. Even if I had wanted a Palm phone, which I didn’t, that wouldn’t have kept me using Planetarium and Astromist. Palm, in their ever impressive wisdom, made the version of the Palm operating system in these phones totally incompatible with earlier applications. Latest indignity to be suffered by the Palm’s few remaining fans? It was just announced that (rut-ro) Palm has been purchased by HP. Goodnight, Palm.

Which left me where hand-held computing-wise? My E2 still works fine. It’s on charge right now. I even still use it once in a while. That’s likely to be fairly infrequent from now on, though. My personal turn away from the Palm didn’t come because of the company’s missteps, but because of Apple.

To say Unk don’t have much musical talent would be an understatement (I am pretty good at Rockband on the Xbox 360). But I’ve always enjoyed listening to music, all kinds of music, including when I’m observing alone. Knowing that, Miss Dorothy gifted me with an iPod when they came out with the 60gb hard drive model. I enjoyed using it not just when observing, but when working. It became irritating having to keep up with two pocket-size electronic widgets, the Palm and the Pod, though, and I began experimenting with the iPod Classic’s minimalist calendar and contact features, which it turned out, were almost good enough for me.

Only drawbacks were that the iPod’s screen, while clear, was even smaller than the one on my E2, and there was no truly easy way to enter your data. Dern. Then came the new iPod Touch. Not only did it have a large, impressively large, and beautiful screen for a pocket device, it had built-in wi-fi, a built-in internet browser, up to 32gb of solid state memory, it interfaced with Microsoft Outlook, and was blessed with full-featured contacts/calendar apps that made what Palm had look primitive. Oh, and I heard tell there were many, many applications that would run on the Touch, including some impressive ones for astronomy.

Lucky it was near about Christmas, and when Miss D. asked me what she could get me, I piped up like Ralphie in A Christmas Story: “AN-IPOD-TOUCH-WITH-16GB-OF-MEMORY-AND-A-CASE-AND-A-COPY-OF-SKYVOYAGER!” When I finally got to unwrap my toy, I was in hog-heaven. First thing first, of course, was loading up my music and synchronizing with outlook, but then I got on the freakin’ iTunes store and paid for and downloaded the program I’d heard (on the Cloudy Nights) was the premier iPod astro-ware, SkyVoyager.

SkyVoyager is by Carina Software, and while I’d never used their prime product, Voyager, I did know they had always had an excellent reputation among the Macintosh troops, their main audience. Still, when SkyVoyager popped onto my screen I was surprised—more like, “blown away.” It was so beautiful. And so responsive. No stylus, of course, just use your finger to drag the sky around. Pinch and “unpinch” to zoom. In addition to looking good and working good, SkyVoyager does just about anything my previous fave, Astromist, did, and includes more of everything, including near 40,000 deep sky objects.

That’s only part of the story, though. A big part of the goodness of SkyVoyager is that it takes advantage of the peculiar features of the iPod and iPhone. Bring it up for the first time on your phone, and it will get your position from GPS. Got the Pod instead? It can still figure out your location via the Internet. Want to use it like a SkyScout? Hold it up, and it will track the sky on either the iPod or the iPhone. The best thing, though? The clarity of the Apple display. Even my old eyes have little problem making out text and symbols, and the excellent zoom functions mean I can make everything bigger when I need to. Best of all? The company is aggressively supporting the program, havin’ released an “expansion pack” with the Tycho star catalog, and, just the other day, a new version of the main program that supports the iPad!

Y’all might have noticed I didn’t mention telescope control with the iPod/Phone and SkyVoyager. That’s because I ain’t tried it yet. Mostly, I’ve been using it with my 8-inch f/5 Dobbie and its analog setting circles. That don’t mean SkyVoyager ain’t able to interface with go-to rigs. It does that and in Thoroughly Modern Millie Manner (this is alliteration week, ain’t it?). Not through cables, but through wi-fi. Carina offers a little electronics module, the Sky-fi, you hook to your scope’s serial port. Your Apple thingie—Pod, Phone, Pad—then communicates with the scope via wi-fi. No wires at all. Again, I ain’t tried it yet, but there’s little doubt I will. I mean, no wires for your ol’ Unk to trip over, as he always does? YEEHAW!

Yes, SkyVoyager is a great thing, but it ain’t the only thing. There is an ever-growing list of astroware for the little Apples, including a version of one of the oldest planetarium programs around, Distant Suns. Thus far, I’ve only tried the (free) “Lite” version, but I have found that incredibly useful with my students, and I expect the full version will be even moreso. One I ain’t tried yet, but which I hear a lot of very good things about is Starmap Pro, which looks to be every bit the equal of SkyVoyager from what I can tell from the web page and what the folks on CN say. And there are other players waitin’ in the wings. It’s rumored that Software Bisque has given up on its Pocket PC program and is working on a version of TheSky for Pod/Pad/Phone. One thing I know for sure, Cyrille is on the verge of releasing Astromist in an Apple device version. I can hardly wait to try that one.

“Now hold on just a cotton-pickin’ minute, Unk. I want to play pocket astronomy, too, but I ain’t got no iPod or iPhone. I’ve got a smart phone, though. Ain’t there something for me?” I wouldn’t be surprised if there might be eventually, but at this juncture, about all I know of other than old apps that run on the Microsoft PPC o/s (which I believe some phones still use) is Google Sky for the “Android” type phones. As mentioned above, I don’t know of any astro-ware that will work on Palm’s (gag me with a spoon) new operating system.

We’ve come a long way in pocket astronomy in ‘bout a decade, and it looks like things are changing faster lately than ever before, with “pocket” being upsized to something bigger than what you’d normally think would fit in your jeans. The big news in astronomical computing is the iPad, of course, but also the Netbooks. If I can manage to stay gainfully employed, I will seriously think about acquiring a ‘Pad, maybe in the new year. I’ve already got one of them mini-computer Netbooks. iPod or no, iPad or no, I’ve still got to have something to run NexRemote, and I hope the Netbook will allow me to do that without having to tote a 40-pound laptop no more.

What is goin’ on at the old Manse, Chaos Manor South, on this Saturday morn (it’s the 8th of May as I write)? Well, it’s cloudy, but the dadgummed Wunderground is still predictin’ clear for tonight. If so, me and the C8 will head on out to the dark site, and you will get to Read All About It, including not just what I saw, but how my new Netbook computer worked out, nex’ week. Till then, muchachos.

Sunday, May 09, 2010


Night of the Saucermen

Fess-up,muchachos. How many times have you been asked whether you believe in flying saucers? How many times have you wondered whether you do or not? Truth is, flying saucers, UFOs, have little to do with astronomy, amateur or professional. They could just as easily have been “assigned” to meteorology—perhaps with some justification. They really only intersect with our art and science when it comes to identifying the commonplace sky objects the public typically and often confuses for spaceships. You would be absolutely gobsmacked to learn how many Joe and Jane Sixpacks have mistaken the good, ol’ friendly Moon for maleficent visitors from Zeta Reticuli II.

What is the truth behind what Karl Jung called “a modern myth of things seen in the sky”? That tale is a long, twisting, and slippery one. Maybe one that deserves more real study than it gets despite the seeming absurdity of the subject. Which doesn’t mean I necessarily think the saucers are objectively real. I do think a subject that’s had such legs (people have been seeing things that sound a lot like flying saucers since the dawn of recorded history, apparently) deserves some serious attention, whether or not it really is what it appears to be. What you tell Mom and Pop when they ask after the saucers at the Hoot ‘n Holler AS’ yearly public star party is for you to decide, but here’s what I know and think about ‘em starting with a very brief, a way too brief, outline of the history of this tortuously complex phenomenon.

Yeah, it seems pretty clear (as clear as anything ever gets in the saucer business) people have been seeing and reporting odd things in the sky since, well, since forever. There was a substantial “flap” (as a large number of sightings is called) in the 1890s, with Earthlings reporting things they called “airships,” which the objects seemed to resemble, maybe in the same way our saucers seem to resemble spacecraft. But the story stretches far back beyond that, at least to medieval times, if not much earlier, with “dragons” and “demons” in the heavens. Maybe, anyhow. Once you get earlier than the Enlightenment, it’s often hard to tell what is a report of a physical event and what is a depiction of a religious experience.

The figure carved on an Inca temple wall LOOKS to us like a man in a spacesuit, but the makers quite likely meant nothing of the sort. It may not have been designed to represent any sort of external reality at all, but, instead, an internal, mystical reality. That’s not a spacesuit; that is the HOLY SPIRIT. “Well, Unk Rod,” you might say, “what if that GOD WAS REALLY A VISITING SPACEMAN?” 

Anything is possible, I reckon, but without evidence, concluding, as Erich Von Daniken has notoriously done, that any ancient artifact that looks remotely like a spaceship or a spaceman is indeed that, is foolish. I discount any “sightings” from times prior to the industrial revolution. Much earlier and it is just too difficult to tell—often even for trained anthropologists and archaeologists—what our ancestors intended. We’re safe to ascribe most odd-looking ancient artifacts to religious myth and nothing else, I think.

Anyhoo, there is no doubt when the modern Flying Saucer Era begins; it begins in 1947 with Kenneth Arnold’s landmark sighting. Mr. Arnold was a business man, but also a member of the Civil Air Patrol and an enthusiastic and experienced aviator. On June 24, 1947, he was buzzing along near Mount Rainier, assisting in the hunt for a downed aircraft, when he caught sight of a formation of funny-looking craft. What he saw he summed up in a relatively few descriptive words:
It was while I was searching for this crash that I noticed a terrific blue flash pass the nose of my airplane. I noticed that the flash came from a train of very peculiar-looking objects that were rapidly approaching Mt. Rainier at about 107 degrees. This train of objects were 9 in number. I assumed at the time they were a new formation or a new type of jet, though I was baffled by the fact that they did not have any tails. They passed almost directly in front of me, but at a distance of about 23 miles, which is not very great in the air. I judged their wingspan to be at least 100 feet across. Their sighing [sic] did not particularly disturb me at the time, except that I had never seen planes of tha[t] type.
There are a couple of notable things here. Firstly, the character of the witness was such that his veracity wasn’t much questioned. Oh, the Air Force folks said they’d thought he’d seen some kind of reflection or mirage, but nobody seems to have doubted the pilot had seen something.

Secondly and maybe most notably? Arnold described half-moon, crescent shapes that he went on to say moved like saucers skipping across water. He didn’t say they were shaped like saucers, but, again, that they moved like saucers. The press immediately produced the wonderfully evocative “flying saucers” from that. The odd thing? The truly weird thing? People immediately began seeing craft that didn’t just move like saucers, but which also looked like saucers. What does this say about the Phenomenon and/or its witnesses? That I do not know, muchachos, but I suspect it is something important.

And so it began. Through the 1950s and into the 1960s, on to the 1970s, and to this day normal, average folks, and not just the naïve backwoodsmen as the more sophisticated among us find comforting to believe, have looked up and seen the weird, the bizarre, the outré, the ALIEN. And the longer this has gone on, the more confusing and strange the reports have become.

Saucer? Nope. Chicken incubator.
Way too strange and elusive for the USAF, anyhow (or so they’d have us believe). The Air Force, finally tired of chasing its metaphorical tail over the UFOs, attempted to wash its hands of the whole affair in the late 60s, closing down its (public) investigatory organ, Project Bluebook, after the Government paid for a study of the Phenomenon, which came to be known as The Condon Report. Even that did not come easy, as the study was fraught with internal dissent. Some of the participants realized they were not being paid to do a serious study of UFOs, but merely to debunk them, and objected strenuously.

The damned saucers would have none of this, of course, barely pausing their capricious reconnaissance. After The Condon Report was released in 1968, there was a dearth of UFOs for a little while. Maybe because fewer people were looking for or expecting to see them. Or simply because the Phenomenon was following its own schedule as it had been doing all along. 

Even a bare two decades into the mess, it was apparent there were periods of lesser and greater activity. Strangely, these flaps seem to correlate, as I believe the French computer scientist-cum-UFOlogist, Jacques Vallee, first observed, with the oppositions of the planet Mars. What the UFOs and their drivers—if any—have to do with the apparently barren Red Planet is, like most things in saucer-land, not at all clear.

One thing I do know: the flying saucers had a noticeable impact on American culture almost right away. Not only were saucers everywhere by the early 1950s—on the new TV sets, in the movies, and in cheap paperback books—they were in the collective consciousness, or maybe collective unconsciousness to an amazing degree. So much so that some saucer followers began to treat the Whole Big Thing as a quasi-religious experience. They flocked to goobers like George Adamski, who claimed not just to have seen UFOs, but to have ridden in them. It didn’t take much looking to see these “contactees” were either self-deluded or were charlatans, but still the public threw boatloads of cash at ‘em.

Castle Bravo.
Why? To some extent, the saucers were tied up with the Cold War. The constant fear of thermonuclear immolation, which you sprouts thankfully have not had to endure, was bound to manifest in some weird ways. And saucers were likely one of ‘em. When there doesn’t seem anywhere to turn in desperate times, the human mind latches onto any “out” it can find, and the beautiful, human-like Space Brothers the contactees found inside the flying saucers were that. These aliens, sometimes from unknown planets with strange mellifluous names, sometimes from more mundane places like Venus, promised peace if only we would listen to messengers like ol’ Georgie A.

It’d be nice to tie the UFOs up in a neat package with the U.S. – Soviet nuclear standoff, but, as usual, them dadgummed discs just won’t be pinned down. They continued to fly e’en during the few thawings of the Cold War, and continue to patrol our skies now that it is over. The contactee period is an interesting part of saucer history, but it has no revelations to offer, other than ones about human psychology. 

Amusingly enough, and typical for the constantly elusive and morphing Phenomenon, "serious" saucer researchers, who looked down their noses at the contactees and their fans, would soon have their own contactee experiences and experiencers to reckon with, even if they weren’t called that and these "aliens" didn’t (always) preach Cosmic Brotherhood.

Flaps have come and gone over six decades, and the Phenomenon, or at least our take on it, has changed and evolved. In the beginning, in the 50s, it was shiny saucers seen in the sky from afar. The sixties brought tales of landings and encounters with “flying saucer occupants” (as the late Coral Lorenzin called them) like the famous Lonnie Zamora case, and, most of all, the one that set the stage for what was to follow, the Barney and Betty Hill “interrupted journey.”

In this odd story (or event, if you prefer) the Hills were taken aboard a craft for (apparently) a medical exam. It wouldn’t be long after Betty and Barney’s terrifying experience that abductees, as these experiencers would come to be known, would take center stage in the saucer game, becoming the major focus of even the more lucid saucer enthusiasts, who were now callin’ themselves “UFOlogists.”

With The Condon Report’s debunking at least tentatively accepted by a fair portion of the public, some 1970s UFOlogists switched gears for a while, ignoring the saucers in the skies for the ones in the history books. No doubt quite a few were inspired by the surprising success (in making money, at least) of Erich Von Daniken and the ancient astronauts he championed in his bestseller, Chariots of the Gods. There was no sweeping the Phenomenon’s ever present High Strangeness factor under the rug, however. Those Ufologists who now preferred to concentrate on combing archives and archaeological digs for The Truth or battling the Air Force for secret documents that would REVEAL EVERYTHING, soon found themselves eclipsed.

Almost unnoticed at first, some disturbing and strange goings-on were taking place in the less visited corners of the U.S. of A.—if you chose to believe the stories the few remaining and more colorful flying saucer magazines were publishing. Firmly in the strange category was the tale of a young lumberjack, one Travis Walton, who claimed he was snatched from an Arizona forest in 1975. He went on to describe his abductee experiences, which included a horrifying medical exam, in graphic detail. How much credence you put in Walton’s story depended on, as it usually does in the UFOlogy biz, whose “facts” you chose to believe. One thing was obvious: quite a bit of cash was made off the book and movie about Walton’s purported encounter, Fire in the Sky.

Wanna go for a ride in my Saucer, Rod?
More disturbing and certainly more credible, were the scores of sighting reported at Strategic Air Command ICBM missile launch and launch control facilities and at least one nuclear weapons “dump” in 1975. There is little doubt something was seen and something happened in these cases, but, as always, it’s not clear just what that was.

In the 1980s, the abduction dam broke. The focus was off the saucers themselves and on to the folks (?) flying ‘em. Which, it appeared, were little gray-colored dudes with big black eyes and a lust for subjecting unwilling humans to painful medical examinations and seemingly nonsensical “experiments.” Soon, the “New Age” or “Occult” or “Sociology” section of the local book store was bursting with scare stories of this sort, led by one called Communion.

Communion wasn’t a ghost-written repetition of some hillbilly’s encounters with the “Greys” and their dreaded anal probe, but, instead, was the firsthand account of a second-string horror writer (ferociously talented but not making money like Stephen King), Whitley Streiber. I was gobsmacked by the book when I read it. Whitley’s tale of nights of alien terror that eventually culminate in some glimmer of greater understanding, and, yes, communion, with entities he doesn’t necessarily identify as aliens, has the ring of truth. The flip side of that, of course, as it always is, is that Mr. Streiber made a lot of money (and, yep, a movie) off the book, is skilled at making his readers believe, and that there was no hard evidence. All we have is testimonials as to his truthfulness and marginally corroborating eye-witness testimony. Sigh.

That is the hell of the thing. I don’t know about you, but there is within me the will to believe in UFOs. Yes, I WANT TO BELIEVE. Oh, I don’t care pea-turkey about the silly stories of UNDERGROUND ALIEN BASES which are PART OF A MASTER PLAN FOR ALIEN CONQUEST. That is risible. But how fantastic it would be to finally have indisputable proof of the existence of an intelligent, advanced alien civilization, not via some faint hum heard in a radio telescope, but from a nuts-and-bolts spacecraft landing in the backyard! Alas, the final revelation, whether from the skies or from some hidden Air Force file, is always just around the next bend in the river. I’ve heard some good saucer stories over the years, but, in the end, that is all they were.

Good, old Moguera!
My personal experiences with the UFOs? Few. None, really. My saucer story, such as it is, begins with a movie. Not Invasion of the Saucer-Men, which featured the bug-eyed louts seen at the top of the page, but The Mysterians, who I encountered at the normally friendly ol’ Roxy Theater. I met ‘em because Mama, a huge Frank Edwards and Donald Keyhoe fan, was positively hooked on UFOs for a while. 

The Mysterians, which she was all het-up about, was one of Japan’s Toho Company’s epics. Toho? You know, the people who did Godzilla. It was much like the giant lizard film in many ways, except in The Mysterians the hordes of plastic Japanese tanks were facing their inevitable melting not from a radioactive lizard, but from radioactive flying saucers jam-packed with radioactive aliens. Everything in these movies, it seemed, was radioactive. I suppose because what all these films were really about was Hiroshima and Nagasaki being replayed and dissected in the Japanese subconscious.

I was way too unsophisticated to recognize that fact, however. All I knew was evil flying saucers were on the attack, led by a terrifying GIANT ROBOT, the Moguera. I looked at the film the other night for the first time in near fifty years and found the robot far more comical than terrifying. Despite the fact that he stomps plenty of buildings (and people) and shoots radioactive rays, his squinty eyes and pointy snout (“Moguera” is Japanese for “mole”) makes him look benign and friendly. Nevertheless, back in the hallowed Day I and plenty of the other kids in the theatre on that Saturday night were absolutely terrified. That damned Moguera was huge on the big screen, and the droning air-raid sirens and terrified villagers trying to evacuate their town were all too evocative of the frightening duck-and-cover drills at school—even if I couldn’t put that into words. Yeah, I was scared. But also fascinated.

That was the start, and for one summer Mama and me positively doted on the discs, much to my Old Man’s amusement and chagrin. We bought and read every UFO book and cheap saucer magazine we could get our hands on (Brad Steiger’s Flying Saucers are Hostile was one of our faves, along with his Strangers from the Skies). Mama seemed to delight mostly in the weird and frightening aspects, but for me it was a two edged sword. I was just delighted that evidence of an alien civilization was OBVIOUSLY right around the corner. That other edge, though, which began to eat away at me, was the Mysterians were terrifying, and I suspected the real thing, as Mama feared, would be too.

I made the mistake of reading this just before bed!
Which began to affect my observing. I’d be glued to the eyepiece in a vain attempt to discern M74 in my puny Palomar Junior, when I’d begin to get spooked. Yes, I was in my friendly backyard, but those derned Mysterians had kidnapped Earth women right out of their houses. Snatching me from the backyard oughta be like shooting fish in a barrel for real aliens. Even in my slightly demented state the whole thing seemed faintly ridiculous…but only by the light of day. Out in the dark, it was sometimes all I could do to keep from running inside, ducking into my room, and hiding under the covers. I persevered, but there were some nervous nights out there by myself.

Luckily, I eventually emerged from this odd phase. For one thing, I began to wonder why a race who could traverse the dark light years with ease would be at all concerned with dumb little ol’ me. I certainly wasn’t a pretty, young chick. Didn’t have much to offer ‘em as far as Earthly knowledge, either; I’d made a “B” on my last Geography test. I also began to believe any race that could perform such marvels must necessarily be more wise than evil, even if they might seem scary to the primitive likes of us. Even more than either of those things, I began to wonder where the hell they were.

Despite night after night out in the dark, often into the wee hours on the weekends and during the Summer (when I could fly under Mama’s radar, anyhow) I never saw anything that even hinted at saucerness. Closest I came was early one June Saturday morn when a blindingly bright light skimmed toward me over the trees. Was this it? Should I run? Should I greet the visitors? Should I at the very least try to snap a picture with my humble Argus Seventy-Five twin lens reflex with which I’d been making Moon Pictures just a few hours earlier? As I was reaching for the camera, the familiar sound of multiple jet engines broke the silence, and I understood I’d been fooled by an all too Earthly airplane heading almost but not quite straight at me with its landing lights on. This encounter with a USAF KC-135 was almost the end of my expectations of experiencing the Visitors for myself.

That hasn’t changed over the intervening years. I have seen plenty of odd things in the sky, including a group of satellites flying formation. That looked spooky, lemme tell you, but turned out to be nothing more otherworldly than the U.S. Navy’s Ocean Surveillance Satellites.

Occasionally, I have been totally stumped for a while, but only for a while. My friend Pat and I were puzzled for quite some time by an odd-looking thing we saw from his observatory one dark night. Bright light. In binoculars, part of it seemed to be rotating. Suddenly, smaller bright objects were emitted and seemed to fly away. Was this THE MOTHERSHIP? The reality was not nearly so romantic. What we saw was, I eventually decided, a Navy E2-C or similar aircraft with a rotating radome running an exercise, dropping flares to counter “enemy” heat-seeking missiles. Probably. Shucks. Since I hadn’t seen a saucer in damned near 50 years of nights, I finally reluctantly concluded they must be rare—maybe to extinction—darnit.

Me and Mama's favorite reading material that summer of '67.
Don’t get me wrong. I still find the Phenomenon interesting—and certainly entertaining—but it’s been a long time since I put as much credence in it as I did when I was a young sprout ogling the pictures of flung hubcaps that graced the pages of the True Report on Flying Saucers. I found myself increasingly unable to believe the accounts of even the seemingly honest souls who saw the damned things. Years of doing public star parties, watching lay folk look at and talk about the sky, and hearing their questions about it has led me to believe almost all sightings that do not involve the usual culprits—aircraft seen in unusual aspects, balloons, and weather phenomena—are nothing more strange than everyday astronomical objects: the Sun, the Moon, the planets, spacecraft, and meteors.

Heck, you don’t even have to go to bolides or reentering satellites to explain most UFO encounters quite satisfactorily. I used to be skeptical the Moon or Venus could be mistaken for an alien spacecraft and looked at explanations that blamed those easily identifiable (I thought) objects as utterly disingenuous. Till I came to understand people who never much look at the sky can mistake anything for a UFO. The Moon is big and oddly colored when it’s near the horizon and seems to pace you as you walk or drive along. Mix in the power of suggestion and some flying saucer specials on the fricking History Channel, and what do you have? ALIENS! Venus is bright and noticeable. Stare at it for long and small motions of the human eye will make it seems to jog around. SAUCER!

What about the current craze for abductions? It’s leveled off after being the ne plus ultra of UFOlogy through the 1990s, but the idea that small, gray aliens with big heads are creeping into our bedrooms, often to abduct our women just like the Mysterians did, hangs on. What do I think of that? I don’t know. It’s possible these people are experiencing something, perhaps some “alternate reality” like the late John Keel talked about in his many thoughtful and thought-provoking books. Or they may not be experiencing any reality, alternate or otherwise. Frankly, when you read, really read, some of these accounts (usually given under hypnosis), it becomes pretty clear some Abductees are describing nothing more unusual than a bad dream

“But Uncle Rod, but Uncle Rod, how come they all describe the same gray aliens with big heads and big eyes?” Not much mystery there, Skeezix. Every tabloid magazine and tabloid TV show has been using that archetypal figure as the standard alien since abductions became hot-hot-hot. The “Grey” has been in the public eye for damned near two decades. I also note our old pals, The Saucer-Men, looked a lot like the Greys, had a similar yen for Earth girls, and predated them by decades.

There is one other 400-pound gorilla in modern UFOlogy we have not touched upon yet, the Roswell Crash. Something does appear to have happened out in New Mexico in ’47. The members of the Air Force’s 509th Composite Group stationed in Roswell, the Wing that dropped The Bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, seem to have thought they’d found something very unusual—for a while at least. The problem with Roswell is a couple of generations of researchers, both for and agin the saucer crash hypothesis (including the Air Force in the latter category), have so muddied the waters and contaminated the few remaining witnesses and the scene that, unless some previously unknown data is unearthed by some responsible person, we are never likely to know The Truth—whatever the hell that is.

So, in my estimation, there is nothing at all to the UFO phenomenon? Given the lack of evidence—that much wished-for alien ashtray ain’t turned up despite sixty years of ardent UFOlogy—I must reluctantly admit that, no, there probably ain’t, after all, anything to it. And yet...and yet...  There does remain that residue, those cases, like the multiple sighting in the Midwest ICBM fields, that are not easily explicable. If we had a little more data, would even these cases evaporate? Well, maybe. On that other hand, some of our own, some astronomers, Dr. J. Allen Hynek, Dr. Lincoln LaPaz, and Clyde Tombaugh, for example, came to believe there is indeed something to the wily Phenomenon.

Out for some abduction fun!
Ground truth? For me? I believe any definitive answer to the UFO question, yay or nay, is likely to be a long, long time coming—if ever. Generations of true believers, skeptics, and our Government haven’t just muddied the waters of Roswell, they’ve so fouled the nest of UFOlogy with disinformation and confusion (sewn for various and sundry reasons) that even if The Final Answer did come, nobody would ever believe it.

The saucers seem to be in abeyance in this new century. There are still sightings, but it’s been a long while since there’s been a big flap or even a headline-grabbing case like the one down here on the coast in 1973 where a couple of Pascagoula river fishermen claimed they were abducted by “space robots.” Given the discs’ habits, I suspect they will soon be back, though, treading their inexplicable paths across the sky, confounding the skeptical and gullible alike. Me? Let ‘em come, I say. It’s been a long time since I’ve let them pesky flying saucers disturb my quiet contemplation of M74.

2022 Update

Ah, that wily Phenomenon!
Just when I'd convinced myself we'd put it to bed...  Did you see the film Independence Day? Remember the scene where the president tells his friends there's nothing at all to the stories about Area 51? And his advisor turns to him and says, "Weeelllll...that's not quite accurate..."? What we are now hearing from the feds is, yeah, like that. After going on eight decades of debunking and denying, the government now admits.. "Darn! Looks like there is something to it after all!"

Am I surprised? Not really. These sorts of astonishing switchbacks are the backbone of the UFO--excuse me, "UAP" (as the government is now calling the saucers)--story. Otherwise? Good luck to the G-Men investigating the UFOs (if that's really what they are doing). Me? I'll be awful disappointed if the saucers turn out to be nothing more exotic than mundane hardware spaceships from Zeta Reticuli II...

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