Sunday, November 14, 2010


The Herschel Project Nights 15 and 16: 380 Down, 20 to Go

To quote Maxwell Smart: “Missed it by THAT much.” What did your silly old Uncle Miss? My self-imposed deadline for finishing the Herschel II list portion of the Herschel Project. I almost made it, but... The list I’d been using, the original HII from the SkyTools 3 software, was a little inaccurate as compared to the Herschel II list compiled by the Rose City Astronomers. When I switched to the corrected list now available for ST3, I found quite a few objects in Hydra, Canis Major, and Puppis were missing from my “observed” tally.

I believe I will be able to wrap things up next month in Chiefland if I can stay up late enough (always dicey). Whether I do or not is really not a big deal, now, anyway. The Herschel II list, which was originally the be-all and end-all of the Herschel Project, is now only a small part of the show. Not long after I began the HII last year, I decided that wasn’t enough. I wouldn’t stop with the HII, I would work my way through the Big Enchilada, through the Herschels’ whole list of 2500 deep sky objects, maybe with a book on William and Caroline and their deep sky discoveries being the eventual product of my fuzzy hunt.

All along, I’d planned the 2010 Deep South Regional Star Gaze (DSRSG) to be a visual experience, just as it was last year when I began the HII with my 12-inch Dobsonian, Old Betsy. I’ve spent quite a lot of the time since then using video to maximize my Herschel haul, but I don’t want to let the Project stray too far from Just Looking. More than that, I longed for the same sort of experience with my 12.5-inch Dob that William and Caroline had with their “20-foot” (12 and later 18-inch aperture) reflector.

Luckily, I had the good sense to get Old Betsy out to our Tanner - Williams dark site before hauling her off to the DSRSG. I had not used the Dob since last winter, and wanted to make sure she and her Sky Commander computer were still in good order. Alas, they weren’t. The Sky Commander wasn’t, anyway. As the evening wore on, my push-tos became farther and farther off in azimuth.

Slipping azimuth encoder? Probably. My friend Pat Rochford kindly volunteered to come over and help me troubleshoot the DSCs. I demurred. I very much appreciated Pat’s offer, and will take him up on it in the next few weeks, but I would have been paranoid about taking the 12-inch to Deep South even if it appeared we’d well and truly fixed the problem. Which telescope, then?

How about the C11, the NexStar 11 GPS, Big Bertha? She is a great telescope, but she and her case take up mucho room in the car. Dorothy would be with me, and we’d be packing for an additional day this year, as we planned to be onsite beginning Wednesday rather than Thursday this time. Also, I hadn’t used the NS11 since last summer and didn’t want to give Murphy and his cursed Law another opening.

So…yep, you guessed it, Celeste, my beloved C8 and her CG5 German mount were on deck. I’ve used this combo plenty this fall, and had little doubt it would deliver. The Herschel Is and IIs, at least. I was less sure about an 8-inch Schmidt Cassegrain’s ability to bring home many of the Big Enchilada’s dim galaxies.

The C8 wouldn’t be by herself. I thought it would be nice to bring my Pretty Little Patriot, my William Optics 66mm APO refractor, along. She was actually, like the C8, the backup. I had originally intended to pack my StarBlast mini-Dob, who I’ve now got on a nice Synta AZ-4 alt-azimuth mount. I had a yen to do the California Nebula. That legendary and huge Perseus cloud has thwarted me more than once, and I was determined to finally get a good look at it. Since I was taking the C8 instead of a Dob, however, the Patriot seemed a natural. She’d ride piggyback on the C8, giving her tracking and go-to.

After a pleasant 3 and-a-half hour drive into the backwoods of Louisiana, we arrived at the current DSRSG venue, the Feliciana Retreat Center near Norwood. In addition to some impressively dark skies, this site is a real winner far as amenities/infrastructure go: a “Lodge” with motel-like rooms, a new enclosed building perfect for vendors, a real dining hall with decent food, and a spacious observing field.

How did we spend Wednesday afternoon? In addition to setting up the gear, the C8, the EZ-up, and all the ancillary astro-junk I’d been able to cram into the Toyota, I did a lot of watching and learning. I am slated to take the reins of the DSRSG next year as its Managing Director, and I want to have a good handle on what to do. The last thing I want is to be the num-nuts who screws up the south’s oldest still-running star party.

Settled-in, I waited for darkness. Which arrived on schedule, but brought clouds with it. Wednesday night was a complete washout, but thankfully not a literal wash out like the first night of the previous year’s event. There was rain, but not a deluge. I spent quite some time on the field early in the evening, but when the first drops began to fall, I scurried back to the lodge for a restful evening watching movies, and browsing the Internet (thanks to the Lodge’s Wi-Fi).

Thursday morning, D. and I returned to a mostly dry observing field festooned with still-standing EZ-Up canopies. One thing was sure when we stepped outside: a strong cold front had barreled through during the night. We’d gone from 70s to 50s, and the sky was now beautifully clear and blue. There was quite a bit of wind as the front continued to pass, but assured us it would calm after sundown. That was the good. The bad was that it would be cold Thursday evening, maybe in the lower 30s. For once, I wasn’t scared of the dropping mercury. I had a plan.

When you are doing visual observing, nothing helps you keep going into the wee hours more than being able to get out of the cold once in a while. Well, that and Monster Energy Drinks, of course. Feliciana’s just completed new facility, a nice “vendor hall” (that’s what we intend to use it for next year, anyhow) would be open all night and heated, but that was all the way on the other side of the field, and I had a better idea.

What I did was tie-wrap three tarps to our EZ-up canopy, enclosing three of its sides. Yeah, I know you can get tailgating/picnic/EZ-Up canopies with “walls,” but mine did not have them, was still too good to replace after only one year of use, and I am cheap as you well know. The tarps worked and cost five bucks each.

I didn’t stop there, though. I placed one of Coleman’s “Black Cat” catalytic heaters under the canopy and cranked it to “high.” Despite flimsy plastic walls and one side being open, the temperature under the canopy never dropped lower than the mid 50s, even when it was in the upper 20s outside. At 2 a.m. on a cold morning, that is heaven, muchachos.

Which objects did I view Thursday evening? I was rested and raring to go, but not to go real deep. On this first evening there would be a few Herschel IIs for me to clean-up, and I had some non-Herschel objects I wanted to visit with both the C8 and the Patriot. Celeste and I didn’t dare the 13th magnitude hell that is the H2500, just ran through these less forbidding aitches, and then gave my friend Phil Harrington’s new book a field test.

Mr. Harrington’s Cosmic Challenge is just that: a book full of objects, deep sky and Solar System, designed to challenge you and your telescope (or binoculars). And I do mean “challenge;” Uncle Phil rates the Horsehead Nebula as a “small scope challenge” (!). Accompanied by Phil’s excellent and illuminating descriptions, his summer and autumn deep sky wonders made for a great evening of observing. So great and diverting, that before I knew it the display on SkyTools 3 running on my li’l netbook said “3:30 a.m.”

Despite the couple of Monsters I’d chugged (can you believe some of my middle-aged star party companions had never heard of ‘em?!), I was finally weary. There was just one more observation to make before shutting down: I took a good look at this fall’s nice comet, Hartley 2, who appeared as a bright and faintly greenish fuzzball floating through the stars of Canis Minor.

In the C8, I thought I actually glimpsed a hint of the comet’s tail, but I must admit the best, the most aesthetically pleasing, view was with the 66SD refractor. The comet also looked super cool in 40mm Canon roof prism binoculars. This was the first time I’d been able to see our little visitor in binocs of any aperture.

Done admiring Hartley, I pulled the Big Switch and loaded my batteries onto my luggage cart to tote ‘em back to the Lodge for charging (there is now power on the field, but I had not equipped myself with sufficient extension cords). Back in our little room, I was warm and somewhat refreshed and settled in for some more Web browsing and perhaps a small taste of Rebel Yell before drifting off.

Here’re the few Herschel IIs I put to bed Thursday Night, resulting in an HII tally of 380 down and 20 to go. As always, galaxy morphological types are where possible given according to the de Vaucoleurs system, matter in italics was transcribed from my log audio recordings, and images are from the POSS, the National Geographic/Palomar Observatory Sky Survey.

In the 13mm Ethos, Cygnus’ NGC 6997 (H.VIII.58) in the midst of the North America Nebula, is a nice enough 8’ across open cluster. A fairly dim (listed as “magnitude unknown” in SkyTools 3) splash of stars, most of its suns appear to be of magnitude 10 and dimmer. Easily distinguishable from the background and somewhat egg-shaped.

NGC 1700 (H.IV.32), a magnitude 12.20 E4 elliptical galaxy in Eridanus, is immediately obvious near a magnitude 8 star (5’52” to the north-northwest). The seeing is quite poor, so I’m lucky to make out a round fuzzy with a brighter, non-stellar center.

NGC 1750 (H.VIII.43) is a rather boring, large (20’) open cluster in Taurus. A semi-circular patch of dim stars set in a fairly rich field.

I actually looked at one more object before shutting down, Uranus. I never fail to take at least a quick look at the Seventh Planet on any Herschel night it is visible. Thursday evening’s poor seeing didn’t allow me to apply the magnification this distant world cries out for, but at a mere 200x, Geogium Sidus was beautiful and entirely unmistakable.

Friday dawned to more clear skies, and said we could expect both more of that and more cold temperatures. But that would be Friday night. What was there to do in the daytime? Visit with old friends, look at the Internet at the Lodge, and EAT. Another big plus for the Feliciana Retreat Center (this was our second year there) is the food. Far superior to the last site. Heck, there was even a salad bar. At a star party! And I cannot fail to mention my fave desert: pecan pie.

Friday night? Did I attack the Big Enchilada with a will? Nope. Tell the truth, my late/early Thursday had left me without the will to pull another all-nighter. Twenty or even fifteen years ago I would have thought nothing of it, but today? Not So Much. That’s OK; I’ve learned to maximize the hours I can manage.

Though I called it just before 1 a.m., it wasn’t like I didn’t see a lot of cool stuff; it was just that I didn’t see much new or hard cool stuff. What I did was run through the best of the Herschel I list. The First 400 includes fifteen—count ‘em—fifteen Messiers and many NGC showpieces besides, so I had no shortage of spectacular destinations.

Not all those spectacular destinations were with the C8. I hadn’t just brought the Patriot 66 with me on a whim; I wanted to test her (and my) mettle against four legendary, huge objects: the Rosette Nebula, the Helix Nebula, the North America Nebula, and, most of all, the California Nebula, NGC 1499. It’s big and it is legendarily faint and I had doubts as to whether the Patriot would show a trace of eureka-land even under these dark skies.

The Rosette and Helix were hardly a challenge for Little Sister and an OIII equipped 22mm Panoptic eyepiece. Neither was, surprisingly, the North America. That is usually a tough object for me, even in a wide field scope from good skies, but it surprised me on this evening. The nebula was incredibly visible and the “Gulf of Mexico” area was—yes—bright.

NGC 1499 was almost too large for my small APO, but I was able to get enough dark sky around the object to make it faintly visible. Actually, it was fairly easy, if somewhat amorphous as compared to the N.A.N. If I’d had my hbeta filter available, it would likely have been even better, but I couldn’t find the cotton-picking thing. Naturally, it turned up Sunday as I was packing to go home.

Saturday morning, the last morning of DSRSG, I did my very best to sleep as late as possible. If I were to go on a real Herschel tear, it would have to be on this evening, and I wanted to be as rested as I could be. At least fatigue would be the only impediment, it appeared, as the skies continued clear and the weather goobers insisted there’d be no change to that forecast for days. Thankfully, it was to be a little warmer Saturday evening, with temps just barely dipping into the 30s.

After supper was done, a really great supper, I marched out to the field with an air of purpose. I didn’t know how many, if any, of the H2500 I’d be able to see with C8, eye, and eyepieces, but I was determined to find out. I swore I would not call it a night till I’d done my darnedest to see at least 20 new aitches.

Still, I was skeptical about Celeste’s ability to meet the challenge that would be the agenda. With most of the “easy” I and II objects already picked out of the 2500, what I have left is mostly galaxies, lots of galaxies. My battleground would be the deep fields of Pisces, Aquarius, Cetus, Fornax, and Eridanus (yes, despite the river’s proximity to the winter Milky Way, his waters are full of galaxies).

Fortunately, I’d spent the last day formulating some tactics. My battle plan began with my observing software of choice, SkyTools 3. This planner program allows me to sort object lists any way I choose, and what I chose was to arrange them by magnitude. I’d visit the “easier” 11th and 12th magnitude sprites before facing the 13th magnitude and dimmer devils. As the night progressed, SkyTools’ Real Time feature would update the currently available objects, and I’d be able to scroll back to the top of my list for new easy ones on the rise.

I got going, and for the balance of the evening, it went like this: I’d take a look at SkyTools on the netbook, identify the target and punch him into the hand control… “Hey! Wait a minute! Unk, don’t you always use NexRemote instead of a real HC?” Yes, I do, Skeezix, but I’ve found that is not a good thing to do at an e’en marginally crowded star party.

Oh, NR worked great, but early in the evening Thursday casual observers—you know, the folks who set up scopes but never look through them—were constantly traversing the field. My situation was made worse by the fact that I was set up next to a large Dobsonian, which drew these folks like bees to honey. Despite my constant pleas of “Cables, please watch the cables!” an excited gawker eventually snagged my NexRemote wire, unplugging it and causing me to have to realign just as I was getting into my deep sky Zone. After that, it was the non-virtual HC for the balance of the star party.

Anyhoo, I’d punch in the numbers on the hand control, and, while the CG5 was making her weasels-with-tuberculosis sounds, I’d take a look at SkyTools’ “sky simulation.” That’s a field sized chart tailored for your scope and ocular that makes it easy to see what should be where. I’d get the lay of the land and then proceed to Celeste’s eyepiece.

Sometimes the target would be obvious. Often, the dimmer ones would not be. In that case, I’d wander back to ST3 and take a closer look: “Hmm. It’s near that little triangle of stars off to the left.” I’d then return to the eyepiece where I’d almost always be rewarded with a glimpse of my quarry. If I was successful, I’d log the object’s number in my notebook (the one with the picture of Happy Bunny on the cover), and record my impressions with my Sony Pressman tape recorder.

Before I knew it, the 20th Herschel was logged and I was ready for a Monster-fueled break. I’d met my goal for the night, but it was early and I felt as if I were just getting started. How many more could I do? I didn’t know. I was running out of early-evening brighter objects and would now be in 12th – 13th magnitude territory. Rut-roh.

I needn’t have worried. Even the larger objects fell before me and Celeste. It didn’t seem long before we’d passed the 30 mark and were moving southeast into Eridanus as the night grew older. Yeah, I was lucky that most of the evening’s targets were smallish galaxies, making them easier to see despite forbidding magnitude values, but, heck, most of the 2500 is “smaller galaxies.”

What allowed my humble C8 to go so deep? The transparent skies helped (although that was balanced against less than spectacular seeing). No doubt using what I consider the best eyepiece in the world, the 13mm TeleVue Ethos, didn’t hurt neither. My Denkmeier Powerswitch diagonal allowed me to use this outstanding ocular and only this outstanding ocular all night long, giving me the options of raising the power with a 2x Barlow, going barefoot at f/10, or—my usual setting—engaging an f/6.3 reducer with the flick of a switch.

What really made the difference, though? My determination to tackle ‘em with “only” a C8. The honest-to-God truth is that the H2500 is not that tough. Yes, there are some dim ones, but, again, most of those are small galaxies that show up far better than you’d expect. The usual impediment to doing the dimmer Herschels is the FEAR FACTOR: “13th magnitude galaxies? No way!”

Something else that helps is that at least we know what we are looking for and where it should be. William and Caroline had no idea what they were hunting; they spent their observing runs trying to catch whatever drifted into the field. Yes, they had 12 and 18-inch mirrors, but those were speculum mirrors, far less reflective than Celeste’s Starbright primary.

And, so, on I pushed, past 30 to 40. Yes, it was cold, but I had my EZ-up and the catalytic heater. When I got too chilly, I ducked inside and soon felt (relatively) warm. Not that I stayed undercover long. After a few minutes I’d hear a little voice, a little female voice it seemed: “Rod, you know it was so cold one night when Brother and I were observing that the ink in my inkwell froze as I was taking notes. Don’t you think you’d better get back to the telescope?” And I did. You’d better believe I did.

As the night entered into its coldest and darkest reaches, I felt, strangely, more energized and able to face the depths of the Universe than I had earlier. In those wee hours with my eye pasted to the eyepiece I began to feel a closeness to and—dare I say it?—kinship with William and Caroline. Yeah, the Herschels didn’t have a Celestron go-to and SkyTools, but I still fancy my long, chilly night was at least a little like theirs.

By the time I quit, more because of the packing and the drive home we’d face on the morrow than weariness, I’d done well over 60 of the Big Enchilada’s DSOs. Which I think is pretty good for a little old C8 and this aging astronomer. As in the past, I will not bore you with an endless recitation of “small, dim elliptical galaxy, averted vision only,” but also as before, I’d like to share a few of the Goodies with you.

Pisces’ NGC 128 (H.II.854) is impressive. It’s obviously an edge-on in the 13mm Ethos eyepiece. With averted vision, a tiny core becomes visible in this 3.0’ x 0.9’ magnitude 12.77 S0 Peculiar galaxy. A mag 13.3 companion galaxy, NGC 129, lies 6’24” to the east and is occasionally visible.

NGC 210 (H.II.452), over Cetus way, is also attractive in the 13mm ocular. This magnitude 12.53, 5.0’ x 3.3’ intermediate orientation spiral galaxy lies near a kite-shaped (including a tail) asterism. An SABb and clearly elongated, this is a fuzzy, but not a faint one. Surprisingly bright and shows off a small nucleus.

Back in Pisces, NGC 520 (H.III.253) is yet another outstanding Herschel. In images, this is an odd-looking disturbed thing, but all I see is strong elongation. A Peculiar galaxy, it is quite bright at magnitude 12.24 and dimensions of 4.0’ x 1.6’.

NGC 474 (H.III.251) is the brightest of a group of three Pisces galaxies that includes NGCs 470 and 467. Magnitude 12.37 and 7.1’ x 6.7’ NGC 474 gives up a stellar core at times. Lovely field.

NGC 383 (H.II.217), aka “The Pisces Cloud,” is the brightest member in a chain of small galaxies. Actually, the whole little pack is the Pisces Cloud, a group of nine reasonably prominent galaxies that are part of the Perseus – Pisces Supercluster. NGC 383 itself is, at 1.6’ x 1.4’, the largest of the bunch with a fairly impressive outer envelope of nebulosity and a tiny, bright nucleus. A magnitude 13.42 field star is 1’27” to the southwest.

An SABab peculiar galaxy, NGC 835 (H.II.483) is one of four little fuzzies that make up the galaxy group Hickson 13 in Cetus. 835, at magnitude 13.14 and with the slightly elongated dimensions of 1.3’ x 1.0’, is doable with direct vision but its small companions tend to wink in and out of view.

NGC 2129 (H.VIII.26) is an attractive, small open cluster. This wee splash of stars forms an arrowhead-shape set off by two impressive magnitude seven and eight sparklers. Excellent and a nice break from the dim galaxies of the sky’s cosmic ocean realm.

NGC 1535 (H.IV.26), the Cleopatra’s Eye Nebula, is a pretty planetary floating in the currents of Eridanus. This magnitude 9.40, 20” across ball of gas is a striking blue. I seem to make out a dark center/annular shape but do not see the object’s magnitude 12.2 central star. Seeing is poor, discouraging me from upping the magnification in quest of interior detail as I normally would.

Gemini’s NGC 2304 (H.VI.2) is a distant-appearing magnitude 10.0’, 3’ across open cluster, an oval cloud of dim, barely resolved tiny stars. Unlike many Herschel/NGC galactic clusters, this one is a treat, almost looking like a very loose globular at times.

After I’d taken a good, long, and probably last look at Hartley 2 in my buddy Gabe’s 13.1-inch Dobsonian, it was a undeniably A Wrap. I covered Celeste and toddled off to the room. When I got there I was still so pumped by my success with the Herschel 2500 that I didn’t feel a bit sleepy. Out came the netbook, and to CN and Astromart I went for some early morning browsing. Not much going at either website, so I clicked on one of The Sky at Night video files I’d loaded onto my hard drive in case of just such an eventuality.

The episode that appeared on my screen was one from last year that concerned a star party Sir Patrick Moore and his black cat, Ptolemy, held in their garden one night for some of the UK’s most accomplished amateur astronomers. I spent the last few minutes before sleep overtook me enjoying this other star party across the Atlantic in the garden of my hero at Selsey. The cool thing? Sir Patrick’s star party was a lot like the good, old DSRSG. Amateurs are, I guess, the same wherever you go. Some of the nicest and best people in the world, that is.

The last morning of any star party is always sad, but I’d seen a lot, and, most importantly, had had a great time. And I think there are many more great DSRSG times to come. If you’d like to share in these coming great times, why not join us next year for the first DSRSG with your old Uncle at the helm? One thing’s sure, I’ll definitely need the help of my friends, and that is exactly what all of you are.

2018 Update

Yet another entry on the Deep South Regional Star Gaze? There are reasons for that. One being that 2010 was a really good year. Maybe one of the very best. Maybe the best. Everything came together: skies, scope, weather (mostly), and site. This was probably the high water mark for our time at Feliciana Retreat Center.  The food and other amenities were frankly impressive for an out in the backwoods site.

This subject also came to mind because it looks like This is the End My Friend. The DSRSG as it has been for over a decade is no more. It, now even bearing a new name, "Deep South Star Gaze," has been forced to leave FRC for the very reasons I mentioned last time.

This is also a good opportunity to mention the "new" Deep South. My friend (and the Managing Director of DSSG) Barry Simon writes:
As you may have read, we are indeed holding the DSSG at the White Horse Christian Retreat Camp located about 14 miles south of Columbia, MS.  (November 6th thru the 11th.).   What we have now with the new site is a location that can accommodate more telescopes, RVs, campers, etc., giving everyone horizons that are lower all around and under a sky which is Bortle 3, not Bortle 4 as we had at FRC.  The minimal light dome that we have from Columbia which is 14 miles to the north and Hattiesburg which is 35 miles to the northeast is far, far smaller than what we had from the combination of Baton Rouge, Baker, Zachary and Clinton to the south of FRC.  Baton Rouge, also 35 miles away from FRC has a population about 5 times larger than Hattiesburg.  We truly have better skies and those that attended the Trial Run that we did in August are really charged up about that.
While we do not have lodge rooms like we had at FRC we do have bunk houses that are better than we had at Percy Quin State Park, and far better than the accommodations we had at Camp Ruth Lee [the pre-FRC site of the event].  We have complete control of the lights and we have an owner at White Horse who has been very accommodating and willing to work with us.  We have a meal plan in place, and we will also have a snack bar at night between 8 pm and 10 pm.  In addition, the Country Diner which is about 4 miles from the observing field is great (I have eaten there twice already - check out the web site).
So where does it stand with me? Will I be there for the new one? I'm not sure. Several factors may indeed conspire to keep me away--this year at least. But I will certainly be out on that observing field with all my old friends in spirit, if nothing else.

Finally, I never did assume the Directorship of the DSRSG. The main reason was a change in my situation at work:  I moved to a project that required much more travel and commuting than ever before. Also, I think it was in part because I (and many of the rest of us) thought Deep South just wouldn't be Deep South without the talented hand of Barry Simon at the helm.

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