Sunday, April 10, 2011


The Herschel Project Night 21: 400 Down, 0 to Go

In spring, a young amateur astronomer’s fancies turn to thoughts of galaxies and the other deep sky delights the Vernal Equinox brings. Your old Uncle Rod is not immune. Heck, muchachos, I was anxious to see anything. This past winter down in the Swamp was a cold and cloudy and downright dreary affair. I got out a time or two, but mostly the Herschel Project was at all-stop.

I hoped the weather would be different at the April new Moon, and intended to take full advantage if it was; not just with a quick trip to the club dark site, but with a full-blown Herschel Safari to my fave remote location, the Chiefland Astronomy Village.

If you are an even occasional reader of this blog, I don’t have to explain what the CAV is—I’ve told y’all about it and related my adventures down there often enough. Suffice to say, it is a subdivision for amateur astronomers in a still relatively dark area of the Florida interior not far from the west coast. Think Alas Babylon’s Fort Repose. The Astronomy Village is notable for the enduring quality of its skies, the way the weather usually cooperates, and the friendliness and kindness of its residents.

Back years ago, major star parties were held on Tom and Jeannie Clark’s (yes, that Tom and Jeannie Clark) CAV spread. Two a year, in fact: a semi-formal star party in November and a “Spring Picnic” in April. Over the years, these massive events became a little too much, and the star parties eventually passed into the hands of a new group. A bunch of long-time friends, the Chiefland Observers, however, have continued to observe month in, month out from the “old” field, Tom and Jeannie’s field, the Billy Dodd Memorial Observing Field.

You can find anywhere from four or five to twenty or more Chiefland Observers set up on any given dark of the Moon. Sometimes the old field almost feels crowded again, like in November, which we old-hands still remember as “Chiefland Star Party time.” We are out in force in the spring, too. No, there hasn’t been an “official” Spring Picnic on the Billy Dodd field in a while, but our big Vernal Equinox runs sometimes feel like one, anyhow.

Imagine how pleased I was, then, to hear from Tom that we would be doing a real Spring Picnic again this year. We’d all get together for several days—or a week or more—of deep sky observing, and would cap it all off with a big picnic under the field’s storied pavilions. Our (informal) club treasury would furnish the chicken and we’d all bring sides or drinks or whatever. Dreaming of eating that legendary CAV picnic food and seeing the faces of my old friends helped me make up my mind to stop just dreaming and pack up and head Down Chiefland Way.

The even better news? Miss Dorothy would be with me again. We’d had a great time in December, probably one of my best CAV runs ever, so I was delighted Miss D. wanted to do it again, delighted that her health was good enough to allow it, and delighted she’d get to experience the fabled Chiefland Spring Picnic.

My agenda? I was close, very close, to finishing the first part of the Herschel Project, the Herschel II list. I’d set myself the goal of completing it in November of last year, but the weather gods thought otherwise. Even so, I was down to five measly galaxies out of 400: NGC 4241, NGC 3078, NGC 2986, NGC 3145, and NGC 3585. Except for the first one, which lies in Virgo, all were within the borders of Hydra, which would be up reasonably early. If’n the sky was clear, oughta be like shooting fish in a barrel.

What else would I be after? As I mentioned some time back, I had so much fun leading y’all through the Herschel II I thought a stroll through the Herschel I, the Herschel 400, which is packed with bright marvels, would be in order. Truth be told, though, we don’t have that many H-Is left. Since the H-I is a subset of the Herschel 2500, the entire list, “The Big Enchilada,” we’ve already visited quite a few H-Is. Nevertheless, there would be almost 200 Herschel Is ripe for the picking on the April dark of the Moon. The list’s richest area would be perfectly on display—Coma, Virgo, and Canes Ventatici—so I figgered I might well be able to finish up most of what was left of the Herschel 400 in one go.

If I exhausted all the H-Is available, there would be The Whole Big Thing, the 2500, of course. As you can imagine, there are a lot of H-2500 galaxies on parade in the spring. And I do mean a lot.

Telescope? That was easy. This would be a serious observing run, so I’d use my most serious telescope, my NexStar 11 GPS, “Big Bertha.” Not only does Bertha have a lot of reach, she is very reliable when it comes to go-tos, invariably putting anything I request on the small chip of my deep sky video camera. She is also very comfortable to use. After the initial two-star alignment, I can sit warm and dry under my tent-canopy at the computer and video monitors for the rest of the observing run, sending the scope on go-tos with NexRemote. Buying an adapter so I could use my C8’s JMI Motofocus with Bertha put the last remote control puzzle piece in place.

How would I observe with Bertha? It would be Stellacam II all the way. I’d have three days to do a lot of objects, an awful lot of objects I hoped, and video is the way to do lots of objects. More than that, my humble Stellacam has allowed me to see more of the details of the Universe than I possibly could with my (fading) eyes, even with a much larger telescope. Not only can I see any distant galaxy that’s a member of the Herschel, I can often see details in even the smallest and most distant ones.

Yeah, as y’all know, I’ve been dreaming of a Mallincam Extreme, which would give me color and longer exposures, but, as this Chiefland run would show, the Stellacam II is still more than capable of bringing home the deep sky bacon, and I have not exhausted its capabilities even after six years. Not hardly.

I was excited. I was counting down the days. Winter was over, and I wanted to get outside and into the sky. Naturally, as the date of our departure approached, I began keeping a close weather-eye on, well, the weather. Every service I checked—Weather Channel on TV,, and—was saying the same thing: Thursday evening would be dicey, partly to mostly cloudy, and Friday and Saturday night would be CLEAR.

I was a little concerned when a massive storm front passed through early in the week. This monster swept across the Gulf Coast, bringing 100-mile-an-hour winds to some areas, and moved on in to Florida. By Wednesday evening, I relaxed a little. It was obvious the truly bad weather would be out of the Chiefland picture by Thursday, and I even dared to dream of getting a few hours in on that night.

Miss D. and I got a reasonably early start, about 8:30 a.m., thanks in part to my new custom of loading the telescope and everything else that goes in the trunk the night before. That makes packing on departure morning quick and easy. After a visit to Mickey D’s for some biscuits (Sausage and egg for D., chicken for me—who doesn’t want fried chicken for breakfast?), it was “head east” for five uneventful hours on I-10. We ran into the tail end of the storm system as we approached Tallahassee, but what was left amounted to no more than scattered showers and drizzle. By the time we turned off on U.S. 19 for the final 100-mile run to CAV, even that had been left behind.

When we got off the Interstate we refueled the car with gas that was even more expensive than back home, I refueled myself with a Jack Links Sasquatch Big Stick™, and we pushed on to the uber-scenic Suwannee River area that’s the gateway to Chiefland. The closer we got, the more excited I became. Looking at the sky, I went from “At least it’ll be OK tomorrow,” to “Honey, I think we’ll be able to set up the gear this afternoon,” to “I’m gonna be observing tonight.”

In C-land proper, we followed my time-honored routine. We checked into the Day’s Inn, which is, you’ll recall, the new guise of my beloved Holiday Inn Express. It’s still OK, if not quite what it once was. Any grumbling about the come-down to a cheaper chain is balanced by the fact that it’s still clean, the staff is still friendly and accommodating, and the room rates are still insanely inexpensive—cheaper than ever, actually.

Settled at our hostelry, set-up on the CAV field was next, following much shooting the breeze there with friends old and new. There were no surprises in the course of getting Bertha and all the other astro-stuff—canopy, table, computer shelter, computer, DVD recorder, and monitor—ready to go. Oh, there was one hitch, but it wasn’t exactly a surprise.

I'd run the gear past a checklist when I marshaled it in Chaos Manor South’s front parlor, and I did make sure “battery” was present and ticked off. I even thought “need to grab the other battery,” but that was followed by “don’t need it.” Chiefland has copious AC available on the field, and I have taken to operating my dew heaters off a 12vdc power supply plugged into that AC rather than battery number two. I guess that was what I was thinking when I decided I could leave one of my two jump-start batteries behind.

On the field it hit me: I NEEDED THAT SECOND BATTERY FOR THE STELLACAM! What to do? Several possibilities presented themselves. I could operate the Stellacam off AC via the wall-wart that came with it. But I had a bad experience with that a the 2005 Chiefland Star Party. A power supply malfunction took out the Stellacam, and I was without the camera for most of the event. The good folks at Adirondack repaired the Stellacam and sent me a new power supply, but ever since I’ve been leery of running it on anything but a 12-volt battery.

Hokay. What then? I had a cigarette lighter outlet splitter that provides two plugs. The Stellacam draws very little current, and running both it and Bertha (who is less power hungry than my CG5) off the same 17ah jump-starter wouldn’t be a problem. Dug the splitter out. No workie. I could try to find another one at Walmart or Radio Shack, I supposed. Or I could buy a jump start battery at Wallyworld. Or maybe there was a third possibility that wouldn’t cost stingy Uncle Rod any of his beloved dollars.

The NexStar 11 came with a nice, hefty AC power supply (as wall-wart supplies go). I’ve even used it once in a while; mainly to recharge the GPS battery when it runs down (leave the scope plugged in and on for 48-hours). But I hadn’t used it for actual observing since the night the scope wanted to use Alpha Centauri as an alignment star. In retrospect, that happened when the scope was new and may have been pilot error, or it may have been caused by the very long run of extension cable out to Chaos Manor South’s backyard.

What the hail? Chiefland’s power is reliable and steady. I’d give AC a try and run the vidcam off the telescope’s battery. If the scope acted funky, I’d get a new battery at WallyWorld on the morrow. Given the clouds still drifting across the sky, it didn’t look like I’d miss much Thursday night if I couldn’t run the camera.

Problem at least provisionally solved, D. and I headed back to town and Wallyworld for supplies. What did I get? I got Jack Links Buffalo Chicken Nuggets and some granola bars for late night energy snacking. I got bottled water to put in the field refrigerator to rehydrate myself over the course of the evening (very important for stamina). OF COURSE I got that wonderful astronomy accessory, MONSTER ENERGY DRINKS. They allow me to keep going into the wee hours and don’t make me feel too weird as long as I remember to stop drinking ‘em when I start trembling like a Chihuahua.

This time of year, sunset doesn’t come to Chiefland till nearly 8 p.m., meaning there was plenty of time for napping and resting in the motel following our 6-and-a-half-hour drive and the labor involved in field setup. I managed to restrain myself, believe it or not, till nearly 6:45 despite a good case of astronomical buck fever. Back out on the field, there was no need to hurry with connecting the cables and getting the computer fired up. It looked like it would be a while before I could begin observing.

Since late afternoon, the Chiefland skies had been teasing me: periods of blue followed by real good stretches of clouds. At sundown, we were in a cloudy stretch. I’d uncovered the scope, but was beginning to wonder. I wandered around the field, stopping to admire my buddy Carl’s “new” refurbished NexStar 11 and to grab a dadgum Monster out of the Clubhouse refrigerator “just in case.”

Was I beginning to lose hope for Thursday night? Yeah. But that was not a surprise, given what the weather forecast had been saying all along. The surprise was that, when astronomical twilight came, enough stars were in the clear for me to do a go-to alignment (on Sirius and Capella). After that, it was more cooling my heels. I’d slewed to M53—a nice bright globular star cluster is the perfect focusing “tool”—and there I sat for about half an hour, watching the big ball of stars fade in and out of view on the monitor.

Then, suddenly, in typical Chiefland fashion, a sucker hole grew to encompass nearly the entire sky—heck, even the wind, which had been blowing hard all afternoon, laid down—and I was a-rocking. Bertha performed beautifully as I slewed from H-II to H-II, putting every one of them in the (focal-reduced) field of the Stellacam’s tiny chip.

The AC supply caused absolutely no problems. Actually, I forgot I was using it till late in the evening when I realized I didn’t have to worry about whether I was doing too much go-to slewing for a change. This was one “battery” that would not run down. When I get a chance, I may look into a nice regulated power supply for Bertha—just to be on the safe side. But I believe I will continue to run everything but the Stellacam off AC whenever I am down at C-land. No reason not to

And so it began…the final sprint for the H-II finish line. As always, galaxy types are given I.A.W. the Vaucoleurs system when possible, and N.E.D, NASA’s Extragalactic Database, was my main reference tool. Just like last time, the pictures are single-frame screen-grabs of my videos rather than the POSS plates I used to use. These humble images give you a better idea of what I saw. Frankly, what I see in the full-motion videos, at least, is often very similar to what’s in those wonderful, old POSS images.



NGC 4241 (H.III.480) is an SBcd spiral of magnitude 14.5, and is 1.19’x.95’ in extent. Onscreen with the Stellacam II, it is fairly impressive, with a bright elongated core and a fairly large expanse of outer envelope. This is an intermediate inclination galaxy, and looks it.


An E 2 – 3 elliptical, NGC 3078 (H.II.268) is bright at magnitude 12.14 and fairly large at 2.5’x2.1’, On the monitor, it looks much as it does on the POSS plate, A slightly elongated bright core surrounded by an elongated haze. A surprisingly prominent magnitude 13.6 galaxy, MCG 4-24-11, is easy to see just 15’ to the east.

NGC 2986 (H.II.211) would be a fairly uninteresting, nearly round magnitude 11.72 E 2 elliptical if not for the presence of little magnitude 14.5 MCG 3-25-18 just 2’18” to the south-southwest. An even dimmer sprite of a galaxy, LEDA 830168, dimly glowing at magnitude 16.3, is (barely) visible 1’12” farther west.

On the POSS, NGC 3145 (H.III.518) is revealed as a beautiful SBbc spiral with multiple, patchy arms. These Sunflower galaxy-style arms are easy to see with the Stellacam and C11 when the seeing steadies down, which it does occasionally. Also visible when the seeing allows is the tiny disk of LEDA 952759, a magnitude 17.3 S type (maybe) that’s 2’9” west of the big galaxy. Only bring-down? A blazingly bright star, magnitude 3.61 Lambda Hydrae, less than 8’ to the northeast, spoils the show somewhat.

NGC 3585 (H.II.269), the last Herschel II, is a somewhat boring S0 lenticular. Well, maybe not boring. My buddy Greg Crinklaw says no deep sky object is boring, and I tend to agree with him—most of the time. This almost edge on magnitude 12.4 galaxy has its charms. It is large, 4.7’x2.6’, and has that classic spindle shape many of these types of galaxies exhibit. Add to that a bright, elongated core, some dim outer haze around the disk, and a couple of wisps that represent tiny LEDA galaxies, and this was not a bad view to end the Herschel II.

And, with a click of the “stop” button on the DVD recorder, the Herschel II was done. How did I feel about that? Mixed emotions, muchachos, mixed emotions. Sometimes it’s seemed like a long slog since I started the H-Project back in November of 2009. Usually, though, it’s felt just the opposite. The 12-months I allotted to finish this much-talked-about but seldom tackled list just flew by. I still have plenty of Herschels to go—I’ve only done a little over half the Big Enchilada—but it feels as if a milestone has been passed, and I’m a little sad.

The H-II is just the tip of the massive Herschel iceberg, but it gives you a good feel for the big list. I think “just” doing the II would have given me both an appreciation of William and Caroline Herschel’s incredible achievement and a better sense of the “what’s out there” of the northern sky. If you don’t want to tackle the Whole Big Thing, go for the II. It’s much more “Herschel-like” than the original Herschel 400, which even sports Messiers, for God’s sake.

Herschel II done, I toasted Will and Lina with a Monster and pressed on to the Herschel 400. Coma was high but not too high, Virgo was out of the murk, and Canes was nipping at the Great Bear’s heels. In other words, there was a lot to see even in the sometimes hazy, sometimes cloudy, almost always unsteady skies.

And I saw a lot, 60 H 400 objects before I threw in the towel. Maybe it was just the luck of the draw, though, but while all of ‘em were good, none of the stops I made Thursday night really fired my imagination. That had to wait for Friday. Nevertheless, I pressed on, seeing marvel after marvel if not masterpiece after masterpiece.

And so it went—for a while, anyhow. Several times over the course of the evening, clouds, big masses of clouds, drifted in, shutting me down temporarily. That wasn’t all bad; it gave me a chance to get up, leave my “starship bridge,” stretch my legs, have a snack, and chug another Monster. Enough is eventually too much, however. About half-past-twelve, another stretch of clouds blew in and I decided I was tired of Urania’s strip tease. I was a little weary from the trip down and the setup, anyway. I pulled the Big Switch, secured Bertha, and bid my buddies a good goodnight.

Following a short ride, I was back at the Day’s Inn. I endeavored not to disturb Miss D. too much—she’d opted to spend the evening resting and relaxing at the motel. But I sure wasn’t ready to go to sleep. I guess all them galaxies had had an enervating effect, muchachos. I had a wee taste of the good, old Rebel Yell, broke out the Colorado Kool-aid, and had a look-see at the TV.

Not much on the cable at 2 a.m., campers. For want of anything else, I watched the Travel Channel’s very silly and funny (intentionally or not) Ghost Adventures for a while. When I’d had enough spooky—if enjoyable—nonsense I fired up the netbook, which I’d brought off the field with me, and had a stroll through the Cloudy Nights discussion groups—till sleep began to take me and I found myself walking amongst the Coma galaxies without the aid of a telescope.

Next Time: We’ll wrap up Unk and Miss Dorothy’s latest Chiefland adventure with a Herschel Project Update on nights 22 and 23.

Hi Unk,
1 statement and 1 question. Statement: I see you have a silver Camry, that car color combo is the top of the land (and yes, I have one too).
Question: what is the plate on top of the spreader?
That is my home-made accesory tray...a 5-gallon paint bucket lid from Home Depot. ;-)
Great read 'Unk [mallincam's ROCK {I was a real sceptic until I found out about the 4 colour sensor}] but it was really nice to read Miss Dorothy is out and about.

all the best

Andy fae Perthshire!
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