Sunday, December 12, 2010
The Herschel Project Nights 17, 18, and 19: 395 Down, 5 to Go
What sort of change? Core residents of Chiefland, most of whom are older than Unk, on the leading edge of the Baby Boom generation, are ready to move on for one reason or another. Some, like Jeanie and Tom Clark, are headed for dark(er) skies. Others have encountered health issues. Some, unfortunately, have passed on. Whatever the reasons, a lot of CAV land is up for sale or soon will be.
Despite these changes, things may continue on as always after everything settles down, and if not there is a large and active group on the Chiefland “new” field every month at the dark of the Moon. This is the bunch that put on the Nova Sedus Star Party I attended last year. If I have to move to the new field from the beloved Billy Dodd Memorial Observing Field, I will. But it will just not be the same. Whatever happens, it’s been a good long—decade long—run for me at CAV, and my heartfelt thanks go to the residents for always making your silly old Uncle feel at home.
Change, despite what your stick-in-the-mud old Uncle tells you, ain’t always bad, though. One good change this time was that Miss Dorothy would accompany me to the CAV. Now that she’s retired from the University she has more free time, and I was delighted when she said she’d like to see Chiefland for herself after hearing me go talk about it for the last ten years. Off we’d go on a bright and early December Thursday.
For once I got smart and loaded Big Bertha, my beloved NexStar 11 GPS, and all the rest of the junk that goes in the trunk the evening before our departure. And every item I loaded was checked off on a checklist. Not only was the hardest work already done when we got up Thursday morning, for once I was (more or less) sure I hadn’t forgotten anything important.
The trip down was easy and uneventful. The weather was good, the traffic was light, and it sure is nice to have someone along to talk to over the course of the five-and-a-half hour trip. The last few years I’ve got used to making the journey alone, and, while a book on tape makes it bearable, it was more fun to be in the company of the lovely Miss D.
|Remembered the tripod spreader this time!|
After exiting I-10 just past Tallahassee, we began the final 100-mile run into Chiefland on U.S. 19, the Florida Georgia Parkway. The first half of that is pretty bland, if not as bland as the Interstate. Past this boring stretch of Florida lowland, it is scads of lost 60s motels and Suwannee River vistas. I was pleased to point out this vintage scenery to Miss D; her family made many a vacation trip down this very stretch of U.S. 19 back in the 1960s, just as Li’l Rod and his Mama and Daddy had.
Dorothy encouraged me to adhere to my time-honored Chiefland routine, and that is just what I did. Arriving in town, the first order of business was checking into the motel. As usual, that was the Day’s Inn (née Holiday Inn Express). While the recession has had an obvious effect on the little hostelry, the room we were given was as clean as always and the Motel staff, those left, were friendly as always.
Motel settling done, it was out to the CAV proper for unloading. While Miss D allowed as the site looked familiar from my photos and videos, she opined that it was even better in person. Neat, clean, and, most of all, flat with excellent horizons. It’s close to town, but not so close that a light dome is a problem, not when the air is reasonably dry. We’d been curious as to how much company we’d have on the field with that cold weather on the way and the holiday season near. Turned out the Chiefland Observers are a dedicated crew, and by Friday night there would be at least a dozen telescopes on the field.
I won’t lie to y’all and say setting up Big Bertha was a joy. She feels like she’s gained weight every year since she joined our family in 2002. Yeah, yeah, I know it’s me, not her. Nevertheless, her 66-pounds feels about double that now. I love this telescope—always have. She is quiet, precise, and blessed with wonderful optics, but I have begun to wonder how much longer I will be able to use her—as a portable telescope anyway.
|The bridge of the starship USS Possum Swamp...|
DSRSG was a completely visual run. This time it would be Stellacam deep sky video all the way. That would allow me to go a lot longer, I thought. You’d be amazed how much warmer you stay out on a field if you have a roof over your head, even if there are no sides to your shelter. While I haven’t really fallen behind on the H-Project, this fall has not been overly productive and late summer wasn’t either. I can cover one heck of a lot more ground observing with the Stellacam than I can with an eyepiece. Anyhow, As I opined to one CAV field denizen: “Eyepieces are for summertime when the nights are warm!”
Not that I hadn’t brought eyepieces along. I had my ocular case with me in the event the weather gods decreed the skies would be too punk for video. Or if I had a major electronic malfunction with the Stellacam or its support gear. I expected neither, but the Stellacam did quit on me for the duration of a Chiefland Star Party some years before, so I knew it was best to BE PREPARED.
Setup complete, a glance at my watch showed we’d have to hustle to finish up in town and be back on the field at sunset (5:30). Off me and D. went to our next stop, Walmart, of course. Therein, we dined at the store’s MacDonald’s stand—I told Dorothy that she’d really had the Chiefland experience now: a Big Mac at the WallyWorld. Hunger banished, we picked the usual necessities off the shelves: Jack Links (I now favor their Buffalo Chicken Nuggets), bottled water, MONSTER ENERGY DRINKS, 6-pack for after run relaxing, and a box of granola bars for the early morning munchies. Oh, and an extra extension cord.
I needed that cord since this time I’d be powering the scope’s dew heaters off an AC power supply. I usually run the DewBuster off the same jumpstart battery I use to power the Stellacam, but it looked like the dew would be heavy this weekend, and I wanted to go as long as possible every night. Rummaging around the Old Manse, I turned up a nice 4 amp AC/DC supply that was sold with a 12-volt ice chest (with a Peltier type cooling system) I bought in preparation for a hurricane several summers back.
Made it back out to the site in plenty of time to get everything hooked up, even though “everything” was a lot. To start, the netbook had to be cabled to the scope. I habitually operate Bertha with the wonderful NexRemote running on my Asus netbook, connecting to the “PC” port on the scope so I can dispense with the hand controller altogether. I align and move the scope with the aid of my wireless “HC,” a Logitech Wingman game pad, and get feedback through NexRemote’s Microsoft Mary voice.
There was also the Stellacam II. Once I had it mounted on the rear port together with a Meade f/3.3 reducer, I ran the coax from the camera to my DVD recorder, which is hooked to a little portable DVD player I’ve had for years and which serves as my monitor. As above, I run the Stellacam II off a jumpstart battery—which will operate the little cam practically forever. The DVD is powered by AC when it’s available, as it is on the CAV field, or a trolling motor (deep cycle marine) battery and inverter when it ain’t.
You will be pleased to hear I’ve finally got my act together when it comes to focusing the C11. I’ve had a JMI Motofocus for my C8, Celeste, for a while, but I just now got around to ordering the adapter to allow me to use the motofocus motor on the 11. As do most things JMI, the Motofocus works great on the C11. I can, with the aid of an extension cable for the Motofocus, now sit at my monitor and focus precisely. Thanks to Bertha’s carbon fiber tube, once I’ve got focus tweaked-in, only rarely do I have to re-tweak it over the course of an evening.
Before long, the summer triangle was putting in a last bow and it was time to get the NS11 aligned. Powered up the scope, started NexRemote on the netbook, selected “GPS alignment” (the original automated GPS north and level alignment), and off we went. NOT. Suddenly, it appeared, disaster had struck.
It might not always be readily apparent, but Unk ain’t a complete dummy when it comes to astro-gear. I usually try to give my scopes a check-out before a big outing, but I hadn’t had time to try Bertha, who hadn’t been turned on in six freaking months. She’s always been so reliable, though… I wasn’t skeered. But it looked like I should have been. NexRemote announced “finding level,” began moving the tube in altitude, and didn’t stop when “level” came and went. I had to hit the Big Switch before the OTA did a back-flip.
I didn’t panic—though I’d be lying if I didn’t tell you I had the fleeting feeling the entire trip had been wasted. I stopped, thought for a minute, and took action. “Level” on the NS11 is indicated (to the computer) by the tube tripping a little limit switch. The scope hadn’t been used in a goodly while. Could that switch be a little dirty? I moved the OTA up and down manually a few times. Thankfully I heard the click of the switch, which meant it wasn’t badly out of adjustment. What else could I do but try the alignment again with fingers and toes crossed? Bertha went from “finding level,” to “finding north,” to slewing to the first alignment star without a hitch. WHEEEW!
|Good, old Bill's!|
After a couple of test objects, M13 and M27 if you must know, I got in the groove and began knocking off aitches. My video observing routine goes like this: I eyeball the target on the SkyTools list, punch its NGC number into NexRemote (I have not tried interfacing ST3 to the NexRemote virtual port since I had trouble with that last summer). Scope slews to object. I use the gamepad to center it up if it’s much off center, and record my impressions of the DSO on my Sony Pressman cassette recorder. I then record 30 seconds of video to a DVD and check-off the object on ST3’s list. Herschel in the can, I enter the nextun into NexRemote…and… Repeat as Needed for as long as I can stand it.
And I was standing it pretty well. It was cold, but the tailgating canopy and the catalytic heater at least took the edge off. I didn’t have to put on my heavy coat until near 11:00. I drank plenty of water, had snacks when I began to feel weary, and, when the evening was entering its real dark and quiet stretch, I trotted over to the clubhouse and grabbed a Monster out of the fridge.
How did Bertha do after her little hiccup? Splendidly. Her faux pas was forgotten and forgiven as she hit every single target I requested. Every one of the over 100 DSOs I visited was somewhere in the field of the Stellacam’s tiny chip. Which is a good thing, muchachos. When you know—know—the object is going to be somewhere in the field, it’s much easier to pick out the hard ones.
The Stellacam? Maybe it was the cold air keeping her chip temperature down, but she drilled right into the deep sky, allowing Unk to see way beyond even the dimmest Herschels, penetrating to the scads of tiny and fiercely dim Leda and PGC and MCG galaxies that form the backdrop of the heavens.
Final tally? I did 111 Herschel Project (2500) objects Thursday night. The Herschel II? None. The spirit was willing but the flesh was way weak. By 12:30 I was beginning to feel the pull of a glass o’ Yell and a warm motel room. No shame in that, I told meself. I’d cruised effortlessly through Pisces, and, when he got too high (pointing at the zenith in alt-az mode with camera and cables on her rear port is a problem for Bertha), I hit Cetus, finished up the bad old sea monster, and even dipped a toe in the frigid waters of Eridanus.
Standouts? There were plenty, but, as always, I will not bore you with a recitation of every dim galaxy I visited (it was almost all galaxies save for a handful of excruciatingly boring NGC open clusters). I would like to mention one of the Big Enchilada’s objects that slap blew me away, however...
NGC 7538 (H.II.10) is spectacular. Why is it spectacular? Because it is in the same field as the Bubble Nebula. The cluster itself is OK, an 8’ across sprinkling of medium bright suns. But the Bubble sure kicks it up a notch. This little cloud is pretty dim visually—my observing companion Pat could not see it in his 16-inch Dobsonian the following evening—but on video it is spectacular. The “bubble” shape doesn’t exactly jump out in this poor seeing, but it is visible, and the rest of the nebulosity is prominent and detailed.
Big Switch thrown and back at the Days Inn, it was the Yell and a little television. All I could find to watch at this early hour was the Travel Channel’s Man vs. Food, a hilarious and mouthwatering show that’s about just what the title says it is about. Darned good thing the Burger King across the street was closed at this early hour.
Morning came, and though I resisted for a while, it’s hard to break my early rising ways until a few star party nights have come and gone. Miss D. and me tottered down to breakfast before eight. What did we find? As I feared, the recession and the change from Holiday Inn Express to Day’s Inn meant the breakfast took a nosedive. What was there? Puny looking fruit. Cold cereal. Oatmeal. Smallest bagels I have ever seen. Half a slice of bread for toast. Gone were the crazy cinnamon rolls, eggs, bacon, sausage, biscuits, and gravy of yore. I was put out, let me tell you. But, on the other hand, it was sufficient, and I admitted it would hardly be a bad thing for me to cut back a bit.
I made up for my deprivation at lunch at my fave Chiefland Eatery, Bar-b-Que Bill’s. Before hitting Bill’s, though, Dorothy and I made another run on Wal-Mart for a couple of small items I'd missed, Radio Shack for a few extra cassette tapes for the Sony Pressman, and visited CVS Drugs for some things for Miss D.
Guess what? You can buy a telescope in Chiefland. It ain’t much of a telescope, but it’s a telescope. For the second year in a row, Wal-Mart, in a bow to the recession, I suppose, had no Christmas scopes. CVS, on the other hand, was packed to the gills with 60mm refractors.
I was out at the site at sundown Friday evening, rarin’ to go. As on Thursday, though, things did not go exactly as planned at first. I lit off the scope, turned on the camera, and fired up the display and DVD recorder. I was about to start NexRemote’s alignment procedure when I noticed no video was making it to the screen. With the gain up fairly high, I can always tell I’m getting a good signal, even when the scope is pointed at the horizon and at nothing in particular. I could see I was getting exactly nothing. Oh, boy.
I spent about 15 minutes troubleshooting. Lights on the camera’s hand control meant it was getting power. I tried plugging and unplugging the video coax at both the camera and DVD recorder ends. No dice. Double checked that the cable was plugged into the right jack on the recorder and that the recorder output was plugged into the DVD player correctly. All seemed well. Triple checked that the recorder was set to the right input seeing. Yep. Well, shoot. I was looking bemusedly out toward the scope when something dawned on me.
“The camera hand paddle has a green light on it that’s steadily lit for short exposures. That’s OK. But why is there a red light, too? DOH!”
The Stellacam II hand paddle has a freeze-frame button. Push it in, which locks it in place, and the image will not be updated. I was seeing a frame of blackness taken while the aperture cap was still on Bertha. I suppose I must have accidentally pushed the button in during setup. Anyhoo, once I released it, the Stellacam came to life. I coulda used a drink at this juncture.
All’s well that ends well, I reck, and end well it did. I got in the zone right away, finishing up Cetus and a few outstanding Aquarius scamps. Moved on to Pisces and ran through every last remaining faint fuzzy the fishes hold. By this time it was getting on the late side, and my long-time observing companion from Possum Swamp, Pat Rochford, who was set up next to me, asked if I weren’t cold. “Not really.” The Black Cat and canopy sides were keeping me reasonably warm, but, more than anything, I was FIRED UP. I was well and truly on what Miss Dorothy calls one of my “deep sky tears” and was not about to quit before getting some of the early morning Herschel IIs, one of the goals of the expedition.
I did take a break after midnight, guzzling a Monster and downing some Jack Links nuggets, but it was back to business right away. “Business” for the night consisted of a total of 100 more Big Enchilada Herschel 2500 DSOs.
How about the Herschel II? I was pleased with myself. Before finally giving in, I corralled fifteen of the holdouts, which means I have a measly five objects to go, all in Hydra and Virgo, and all of which I will catch at the club dark site just as soon as they begin rising at a decent hour and this fricking – fracking cold weather is OVER.
Just as before, galaxy morphological types are where possible given according to the de Vaucoleurs system, matter in italics was transcribed directly from my log audio recordings, and images are from the POSS, the National Geographic/Palomar Observatory Sky Survey—with the exception of the picture of NGC 2467. I think it shows up better on my quick Stellacam frame grab with its comparatively wide field than it does on the POSS.
NGC 2283 (H.III.271), galaxy in Canis Major, is an attractive barred spiral of intermediate inclination. Stuck in a field full of tiny stars, and looks a lot like a (much) smaller M83, with the impression of sweeping spiral arms.
NGC 2367 (H.VIII.27) is an outstanding open cluster. Magnitude 7.9 and 5’ in diameter. It’s a bright group that seems to form the shape of a little rocket ship.
A sprawling open cluster 12’ in size, NGC 2374 (H.VIII.35) is bright and pretty at mag 7.30. Enough bright stars to stand out well from the rich background star field.
NGC 2610 (H.IV.35), a planetary nebula, is quite attractive if a little low on the horizon. Close on to a magnitude 7 star that’s 3’25” to the northeast. The little central star is easy, as is the nebula’s annular donut shape.
An S0 edge-on lenticular, NGC 2784 (H.I.59) is also down in the horizon junk. But I’m seeing him anyway; he is more than bright enough at magnitude 11.2. What is visible tonight with the Stellacam and C11 is an obivously elongated nucleus and the faint oval of the galaxy’s disk.
Another bright one, magnitude 12.63 NGC 2855 (H.I.132), is an elliptical galaxy that stands-out well despite, like the other Hydras I’m hitting, a low altitude. It’s not much more than a nearly round, 2.5’ x 2.2’ cosmic dust bunny, though.
NGC 2889 (H.II.555) is yet another bright galaxy, magnitude 12.44. This SABc face-on occasionally offers fleeting hints of detail in its disk of tightly wrapped arms.
Magnitude 13.0 NGC 2765 (H.II.520) looks good, too. A 1.94’ x .98’ S0 lenticular, it has the classic spindle shape the more prominent galaxies of this type can display. Just wonderful.
NGC 2525 (H.III.877) is an excellent SBc galaxy 2.9’ by 1.9’ and magnitude 12.26. Spectacular and lovely with two classic, tight arms beautifully on display.
NGC 2467 (H.IV.22) in Puppis is a magnitude 7.0, 14’ open cluster associated with nebulosity. Amazing and beautiful, the slightly triangular cloud, which is about 7’ across, shows off a darker center or lane edged on one side by a brighter swath of nebulosity. I’ve heard this little nebula, which has been imaged by the HST, occasionally referred to as the “Hubble Bubble.”
|Lovely Cedar Key|
Another galactic cluster, NGC 2414 (H.VIII.37) is at magnitude 8.2 and is 5’ across its longest dimension. The cluster displays an inner core of bright, small stars. Chains of stars extending outward suggest a spiral pattern.
NGC 2396 (H.VIII.36) is beautiful despite this open cluster’s fairly large size of 10.0’. The central portion forms a Gemini shaped loop of stars. Very well detached from the rich background.
NGC 2253 (H.VII.54), a 1.5’ x 1.1’ Scd galaxy, is smaller and dimmer than I expected. Once I see it, it’s not bad, but despite its “reasonable” magnitude of 13.15, the most I can do is pick out an occasional small smudge.
When I just couldn’t stand any more cold, I shut the electronics down, threw the Desert Storm cover over Bertha, and hopped in the Toyota for the short ride back to town. At the motel? Purty much the same routine as the night before: a little Yell, a brewsky or two, and some weird late night/early morning TV. All that seemed to be on other than infomercials was a UFO Hunters marathon, which, given the early hour and my weariness, left your silly old Uncle a wee bit spooked.
|The forerunners of the clouds that shut me down...|
Did you know the west coast of Florida is littered with little keys? I guess I did, but had forgotten all about them until I read Stephen King’s Duma Key, set on an amalgam of these forgotten Florida places. After a little research on the Internet, Miss D. and me put Cedar Key on our short list of Things to Do in the Daytime.
When we arrived, one look around showed we’d been wise to do so. Cedar Key is an attractive and fun mix of old and new Florida. Antiques and gee-gaws and souvenirs aplenty mixed with cool waterside bars and restaurants. After a visit to the Rusty Rim café for a large, fresh, and insanely delicious oyster poboy, I was finally able to let my disappointment with the free motel breakfast go.
Following lunch, Dorothy and I strolled about the shops buying Christmas gifts for all and sundry and enjoying the sunshine and Gulf breezes. Before we knew it, it was time to head back to get ready for the evening’s main course. Leaving, Dorothy and I resolved we’d combine a night or two in Chiefland with a night or two in one of Cedar Key’s uber cool old (or new) motels some summer.
Do I have to tell you I needed a three-hour nap after all that? By the time I was up, it was time to scramble. I didn’t intend to push it hard on the last evening; there’d be the packing and drive home in the morning to consider. But I fully intended to add more Big Enchilada Herschels to my score before calling it quits.
|NGC 1097 10-second exposure--single video frame.|
On I went till about ten o’clock, when those dratted clouds finally began to move in. I stopped and assessed the situation. After a little while, it became apparent this was just a passing cloud band, nothing dire. I could see clearing on the horizon after about 30-minutes. And yet…and yet, a little voice, the voice of Urania herself, perhaps, began to whisper in my ear, “Now, Rod, you know The Only Enemy of Good Enough is More Better, and you have had enough of my sky.” I pulled the Big Switch and joined Pat for the walk down the access road to our vehicles.
What did I get? Despite the quick denouement and my general weariness and lack of will to PUSH IT Saturday night, I did 35 more H2500s, believe it or not. Are there any I’d like to tell you about? You are dern tootin’ there are. One, anyway.
What I want to know is why every deep sky crazy amateur astronomer is not continually shouting the praises of NGC 1097 (H.V.48). This huge (9.3’ x 6.3’), bright (magnitude 10.23) SB spiral is a thing of wonder. A great, classic barred spiral, its huge arms are alive with motion. On screen, it’s not just the shape that’s visible, but details like a dark lane extending northward from the nucleus. A small 14th magnitude companion, NGC 1097A, is 3’24” to the northwest and is starkly visible.
With the Stellacam, NGC 1097 is definitely in the same “spectacular” class as M51 and is almost that good visually in Pat’s 16-inch. Why don’t you hear it talked about, then? It’s fairly low in Fornax at a declination of -30, and maybe not as good for our more northerly brothers and sisters. That’s the only reason I can think of for “NGC 1097” not being on everybody’s lips, anyhow!
Back at the motel at an early hour, I’m sure I watched some boob tube, but, honestly, I couldn’t tell you what that was. Because my brain was still on fire with the spiral beauty of NGC 1097. When I finally gave in to the sandman, I felt as if I were being enwrapped by those luscious spiral arms.
The last morning of any observing expedition is a sad thing, particularly down Chiefland way, since it means saying goodbye to friends in addition to dark skies. I was a little melancholy as Dorothy and I packed for the drive home, but not too bad. I had moved the H-Project ahead by leaps and bounds, and I’d been able to make the trip in the company of my wonderful wife. Everything is better with Dorothy around. Best ever? Maybe so. Probably so.
|One of the inhabitants of Cedar Key.|
Oh, you can see many more pix of Rod and Dorothy's Chiefland adventure on your old Uncle's Facebook page (in the "albums" section).
It's been nearly 8 years since this blog article was published, and for once it really feels like it. Chiefland, the Chiefland of the vaunted Herschel Project days, is now just a memory. While the changes I worried about in this entry were slow in coming, come they did, with the result being that it's been almost three years--seems like longer--since I've been Down Chiefland Way. Luckily, I was able to finish the Herschel Project well before those changes, which didn't just involve the CAV but also the (increasingly dire) motel situation in town, took a lot of the magic away.
I still miss Chiefland the observing site, but mostly I miss my observing buddies--some of whom became real friends--that, at this juncture, it looks like I will never see again. As I mention here, I just don't like change, but...well...watcha gonna do but press on toward that distant horizon?
If you've been reading the blog over the last two years, you know Big Bertha went from fork to GEM to sold. I was interested to read here that I was beginning to be bothered by the NexStar 11's weight almost eight years ago.
The Stellacam? It always worked, but at about the mid-point of the H Project, I decided I wanted color and longer exposures, and got that with the purchase of a Mallincam Xtreme. That was the workhorse (along with my Ethos eyepieces) for the second half of the Project.
The problem I was having interfacing SkyTools to NexRemote turned out to be the little netbook I was using. It just didn't have the horsepower, I guess. The netbook was nice in that it would go for hours and hours on its battery, but since most of my observing for the Herschel Project was done at sites with AC power, that didn't much matter. The second half of the Project was essayed with a 17-inch Toshiba laptop.
Otherwise? Was this my best, very best, Chiefland expedition ever? In retrospect, yes. This was one time when everything came together. Sky, equipment, everything. I'd even venture to say these few nights under the stars are so far perhaps the best of my life.
Good blog as usual Rod makes me want to go out and observe total rain now! Keep up the posting this is first on my Sunday morning astro read !
Glad you remembered the level switch trick. I ran into that once myself. Now when I do the initial "start here" clutch disenguaged movements, I move the OTA up/down until I hear those clicks. Funny, since I put it into the routine, I always hear them on the first try.
Sadly, we only make it to Chiefland twice a year. But your blog helps fill the voids. Excellent entry this week. Looking forward to our next sit down chat in the swamp...Post a Comment