Sunday, May 08, 2011


Run, Charity, Run!

At first it didn’t look like last Saturday evening was destined to be a Charity Hope Valentine night after all. When I got up that morning, the skies looked so clear and blue I wondered if I shouldn’t be hitting the Herschel 2500 with C8 and Stellacam instead of messing around the Messier with Charity, my 5-inch ETX Maksutov. It’s a rare Saturday around here when skies get better rather than worse as sundown approaches, though, so I kept my powder dry and my options open.

Sure as shooting, dark fluffy things began to drift across the sky as the afternoon progressed, and began to talk “partly cloudy.” That was OK. I hadn’t been able to test Charity’s repaired Autostar hand controller since I’d done the work a month and a half ago, and I was anxious to see if there was a dance in the old dame yet or whether I need to start thinking “NexStar 5 SE.”

Charity, as you know if you’ve read any of my other articles about her, shares her name with Shirley MacLaine’s hapless heroine for good reason. She always means well, but occasionally comes up way short. She has her quirks, and sometimes I expect her to collapse on the observing field in a neurotic, self-pitying heap. She never has, but the pitiable moans and groans she emits while slewing often make me wonder.

Miss Valentine had actually been fairly well behaved of late. Then, suddenly, she began ignoring my orders. I’d push a button on her Autostar and absolutely nothing would happen. The problem was the A-star’s famously poor membrane keyboard. Luckily, I found and implemented a fix. I’d also recently had to replace her tripod’s leg-extension locks, since one of the knobs had cracked apart in my hand one night. Even if Autostar and tripod worked perfectly, of course, I’d be on my guard. Charity has a talent for doing what I least expect.

Motoring out to the Possum Swamp Astronomical Society’s dark site some 45-minutes west of our small city, I could hardly believe there were clouds in the forecast. Those I’d noticed earlier in the afternoon had scudded off, and the sky looked as good as it had early in the morning. Yeah, there was a line of something hugging the southwest horizon, but it hardly seemed threatening.

Hah! I had finished mounting Charity on her tripod—which seemed fine—and setting up the observing table, computer and computer shelter, and my Plano astronomy accessory case (OK, OK, it’s really a big tackle box from Bass Pro) and was scanning the sky, looking for the first stars to wink on so I could get the go-to alignment done. Looking south, I noticed some haze where there hadn’t been any before. That was just the beginning. In about ten minutes, clouds flooded in from the south and covered the whole sky. I was gobsmacked: clear one minute, socked-in the next, how cruel is that?

Y’all will be proud of me. I didn’t whine, and I didn’t start taking the telescope apart. Instead, I set up a second telescope, my StarBlast 4.5-inch Newtonian, which I would use to observe M13 (more on that below).

Actually we weren’t completely socked in. There were sucker holes enough to make me believe the mess might drift off and Charity might get her chance to run what was left of the Messier Marathon. I was a little late on the Marathon this year, mainly due to weather, and I’d have to let the western group go. No M33, M31, M74, and company. Even if Charity could have picked them up low on the horizon, as sunset came and went that horizon was blocked by clouds.

When what was to be only the first stretch of clouds of the evening moved off, I was able to start Charity’s alignment. All was well at first: she pointed north (Charity is an ETX PE), leveled, found tilt, and headed for her first alignment star, Arcturus. Unfortunately, she pointed west for it instead of east. Ah, Charity, Charity, Charity, my confused and neurotic little girlfriend!

I didn’t panic. After nearly six years of life with Miss Valentine, there are few of her tricks I haven’t experienced. I suspected the problem tonight was her real time clock, which is powered by a button-cell battery. I hadn’t replaced it in about a year, and while Meade says it will last for YEARS, eight-ten months is the most I have ever got out of one. Sure enough, when I powered off and back on and held down “Mode” to display the current date and time, it came up some two weeks and twelve hours shy of the correct value.

What did I do? I had a spare, but I danged sure did not attempt to change the battery. I made that mistake once—never again. To get at this cell, you have to remove tiny screws and tiny springs, and, if you can get everything back together successfully, do several “calibrations” and realign the LNT finder as well. I inputted the date and time manually in the setup menu and left it at that.

When I restarted the alignment, Charity behaved, pointing in the general direction of Arcturus and a second alignment star. I centered both in the finder, pressed Enter as appropriate, and Miss came back with “Alignment Successful.” We’d see about that, but one thing was sure, it was a lot easier to do a go-to alignment when the hand controller actually responded to button presses. I pronounced the keyboard fix a success.

‘Course, the proof is in the pea-picking pudding. With me and Charity, it is always “trust but verify.” I keyed in M3 and mashed the go-to button. Sweet Charity made her usual weasels-with-tuberculosis sound, beeping when she stopped. I crossed my fingers and toes and had a look. Sure enough, the big ball of suns—if not too big in the haze and drifting clouds—was in the 20mm ocular.

Charity did commendably well for the rest of the evening, placing most of the objects I requested in the field of the 20mm eyepiece at 94x. Many of them were actually in the center of the field till, just a few minutes after light-off, I went and kicked the tripod by accident, something I am famous for. Even the objects not in the 20’s field were usually just outside it, and I had no problem at all locating any of the Messiers I wanted.

Hokay, time to get going. The westernmost Ms were gone, but there were plenty of others in that direction, and, over in the east, Virgo was rising with her riches. Help navigating the Messiers would be provided on this evening by the new upgrade of an old favorite astronomy program, a planner program, Deepsky.

How was the new Deepsky? Expect a full review soon, but I will say this: it ain’t Skytools 3 but I like it anyway. It can, for example, throw up a list of the Messiers visible at the moment at your observing site, and provides full data, charts, and images for each object. Alas, unlike SkyTools, it does not automatically update this list as targets rise and set. Still, it is an incredible value; hell, the author almost gives it away, selling the DVD version for an incredible $49.99. Deepsky 2011 can help beginners or anybody else see a lot of cool stuff for almost no bank account damage.

So how did Charity and I do? We didn’t come close to finishing the Marathon, but I think over forty objects in about three hours is pretty good for a little Mak and an old hillbilly. The matter in italics is transcribed from my audio log. The matter not in italics represents my random thoughts on these famous objects. I mostly used two eyepieces, Orion’s 20mm and 15mm Expanses. These inexpensive wide-fields work incredibly well at f/15.

Oh, by the way, I’ve finally given up the old Sony Pressman mini-cassette recorder I’ve used for years for making field notes. Tapes are becoming hard to find, and an incident last month in Chiefland where I accidentally recorded over some of my log entries led me to say, “Enough is too much.” I replaced the Pressman with a brand new Sony MP3 recorder which “tapes” to solid state memory. All I can say is: “Shoulda done that a long time ago.”

M51. Small core and extensive dim haze around this core. Some suggestion of spiral arms. NGC 5195 is bright.

This was one I really wanted to see when I was a little kid. Those luscious spiral arms and that mysterious companion galaxy just fired my imagination. I didn't get a really good look at it, frankly, for 30 years, not till the 1999 Texas Star Party, where my 12.5-inch didn’t just show the entire length of the “bridge” between M51 and NGC 5195, but dark lane detail in the arms and a slew of the dim and distant little galaxies that litter M51’s field.

M97 is visible without an OIII filter. Not bright, but obvious in a 15mm eyepiece. Probably best without a filter. No sign of the eyes.

The good, old Owl is another one of my long-time loves. I considered it a fairly difficult Messier till OIII filters came along and I found this planetary’s disk would show up well and easily with a fast 60mm telescope from a badly light polluted site. The eyes are sometimes a little dicey, yeah, but with a filter and 12-inches of aperture I can always pick them out.

M108. Easy to see, but fairly difficult to make out much about it. Strongly elongated, adjacent to a magnitude 9 star 10’50” to the west. When the seeing allows, I can see hints of dark detail.

If you are on M97, it’s just a hop, skip, and a jump to M108. The most notable thing about this galaxy? As my skills and scopes have improved, it’s gone from looking like a weird and disturbed M82 clone to a normal, if dusty, spiral.

M37 looks very nice. The red star at the center is very apparent. Won’t say it looks like it does from Chiefland, where it sometimes resembles a loose globular cluster at low magnification, but I do occasionally get hints of that. Curving star chains reminiscent of M13.

M38 has never been one of my favorite open clusters; it suffers badly from comparison to M37. It does look good tonight. Basic impression is a squarish patch of stars with a void near the middle inhabited by a “central star.”

M36 has the advantage of being composed of brighter stars. As I stare at it tonight, I have the impression of a miniature Hercules asterism.

My Old Man was much more interested in amateur radio than in amateur astronomy, and when he did observe he was more a planetary than a deep sky man, but he always loved looking at Auriga’s three open clusters. The “Big Three,” he called them on those chilly nights when we’d chase ‘em with my 4-inch Palomar Junior Newtonian.

M35 is looking good. Almost too large for the 20mm Expanse in this f/15 telescope. Just great. Can barely pick out NGC 2158. Given the conditions, I am only seeing the brightest of M35’s stars, but I am seeing enough to make it a showpiece.

I have always loved M35, and it is one of the objects I never fail to show my freshman astronomy students each winter. My best moment here has to do with the nearby smaller and more distant cluster, NGC 2158, however. Nearly two decades ago, I realized how much amateur astronomy had changed when I discovered my el cheapo Meade 12-inch Dobsonian would easily resolve this hard one—from my urban backyard.

M1 is visible low on the horizon. No detail. All I can see is a little, dim fuzzy in the 20mm Expanse eyepiece. Quite a difference from its appearance during my last Chiefland trip, where not just its convoluted body but its writhing “tendrils” were on display.

What comes to mind about this famous supernova remnant? This most famous of supernova remnants? How disappointed I was when I looked at it for the first time. All my 3-inch Tasco Newt showed was a dim, oval fuzzy. My other memory, though, is a good one. How years ago I discovered an OIII filter would show some of those much longed-for filaments.

M50 is about to set, but it still looks good, clearly showing off the shape that gives it its name, "The Heart Cluster." It looks like a, yes, stretched-out heart. Over a dozen bright cluster stars are immediately obvious.

M47 in Puppis is OK. Well-detached but not overly rich. “Bright stars but few” is a good way to describe it.

M46 is much better than M47. It is noticeably richer, a good patch of many, many tiny stars. Only occasionally do I catch sight of the famous planetary nebula NGC 2438, which is supposedly unrelated to the cluster. When I do see it, it is as a very faint and small haze around a pair of close stars. The planetary is a tough target for me with a telescope smaller than 6-inches unless sky conditions are good.

M93 is even lower on the horizon than M46 and M47, but it is still a standout. A triangular shape of tiny stars that’s very well detached from the sky background. Two bright magnitude 8 suns lie on the southwestern edge of this vaguely oval group.

M48 is going into a patch of clouds. Even dimmed, it’s a large and splashy open cluster with many bright member stars. Just looks wonderful.

What’s memorable about these clusters is that viewing them from my terrifically light polluted urban backyard in the 80s was one of the things that eventually led to me writing my book, The Urban Astronomer’s Guide. They looked so good that I had to find out how many other deep sky objects looked good from my streetlight bathed yard.

M44, Cancer’s Beehive (open) Cluster, is obviously not a good object for an f/15 Maksutov; it is over a degree across. I do have a few of its bright stars in the eyepiece—when passing clouds allow—so I can say “been there.”

This has always been a naked eye attraction for me. Beginning when, as a kid, I read that the ancients used M44’s visibility to predict coming weather. If you couldn’t see the Beehive, say goodbye to clear skies. I just thought that was so cool and never failed to look for it anytime I was out in Mama and Daddy’s backyard on a Moonless spring night.

M67, Cancer’s other open cluster, is an unusual thing, an aged open cluster, and it has that look, being devoid of bright O and B stars, shining with many redder suns. Compact, very well detached. Triangular shape.

The older I’ve got, the more M67 has displaced M44 in my affections. It not only looks good, it is the perfect audio-visual aid for use with my students when we are doing our lab on “ages of open clusters.”

M82 is visible between clouds, and looks quite good. I at least get hints of the dust-lanes crossing this disturbed galaxy’s torpedo-shaped disk.

I love M82 because it is one of the few galaxies that has always looked good to me, no matter how crappy the sky or (occasionally) how crappy my telescope has been.

M81 is nice, too. Bright, somewhat elongated nucleus surrounded by considerable oval nebulosity.

I didn’t really start loving M82’s companion till I finally got to see how it looks visually from truly dark skies. At the 1999 Texas Star Party, its delicate and subdued spiral arms just slapped ol’ Unk in the face.

M104 looks pretty darned cool even at fairly low power with the 20mm Expanse. I can see its bulge, and, with averted vision, its disk. Do I detect the dust lane? At times I think I do, but the seeing is poor enough to make that seem doubtful.

This is another galaxy I longed for as a sprout. For once, the actual object in my 4.25-inch telescope looked almost as good as it did in its Hale Telescope portrait in my fave astronomy picture book, the Science Service’s Universe.

M13 was of particular interest tonight; I observed it with the StarBlast as well as the ETX. What I wanted to determine was whether I could have resolved cluster stars from my boyhood home with my 4.25-inch Palomar Junior Newtonian. Verdict? No doubt about it. The glob is in the city’s light dome, which makes the sky background brighter than it usually was from Mama and Daddy’s backyard, and seeing and transparency are poor tonight, but stars wink in and out anyway. The Pal would have resolved M13 even more convincingly, I think. IF I'd known how to observe it and had used a combination of higher magnification and averted vision. But I didn't so I never resolved a single star in it as a kid.

Read last week’s blog if you want to know the story of my long and involved love affair with the Great Globular.

M94, a Seyfert galaxy in Canes Venatici, looks much the way globular M15 does in a three or four inch telescope: a bright core surrounded by round haze. Not a trace of the Croc’s Eye Galaxy’s tightly wound spiral arms do I see.

This was one of the first objects I observed when I began the series of articles that would eventually become The Urban Astronomer’s Guide. It really doesn’t look like much in the eyepiece of a small/medium scope, but I still love it. Why? Read the book, muchachos; I don’t think I will ever be able to answer that better than I did there.

M92 in Hercules, Herc’s other globular, looks good when the clouds leave it alone, even though it is real low yet. Some resolution around the edges in the 15mm Expanse.

People like to obsess about this cluster as “Hercules’ also-ran globular.” I don’t. I just like to look at what is one of the five or six best globs visible from my latitude.

M5 this huge globular star cluster is its usual lovely self despite being in the light dome. I don’t have to look hard to see plenty of stars.

Actually, M13 ain’t the best glob I can see. That honor goes to Omega Centauri, and M22 is right behind that. M5 must surely be number three, though, a nearly egg shaped clump of suns that takes my breath away every time with every telescope I turn on it. Much easier to resolve than M13. In an 8-inch or larger telescope, M13 always gives me the impression of having a yellowish cast. M5 looks blue to me.

M87 is another galaxy that looks much like an unresolved M15. Bright core and a large, diffuse outer envelope.

This galaxy is one that’s more alluring for me because of what it is—a great fat spider of an elliptical galaxy with a mass of a trillion Suns—than how it looks in the eyepiece. With my Stellacam II, it does look damned cool, of course, showing its famous “jet.”

M84 and M86 are very nice. In this little scope under these conditions, though, they are just two round blobs, with M86 being the larger and more elongated blob.

Some people call NGC 4435 and 4438 “The Eyes.” Not me. Big M84 and M86, which are accompanied by two small galaxies that form a nose and mouth, are the real Eyes. These giant island universes make for an unforgettable view in nearly any scope, big or small.

M64, the Blackeye Galaxy is surprisingly good despite still being in the light dome and obscured by drifting haze. Oval outer envelope and elongated core. When the seeing settles occasionally, I convince myself I’m seeing the black eye dust lane.

During my first decade as an amateur, I tried and tried to see this galaxy’s black eye with little success. Till one night when I decided I was trying too hard, relaxed, and it popped right out. This is another one that’s wonderful from light polluted sites.

M63 doesn’t show a trace of the multiple spiral arms that give it its moniker, the Sunflower Galaxy, but is still attractive, showing a strong oval disk that brightens smoothly towards its center.

The patchy arms that make this SAbc spiral galaxy look like a flower are fairly hard to see without a fairly good bit of aperture and fairly good skies, but it always looks nice, if not as nice, maybe, as M64.

M59 is a featureless oval glow near two prominent magnitude 10 stars.

M60 looks a lot like M59. A little smaller and rounder.

M61 is another smudge of a galaxy. Larger and more diffuse than the previous two.

These three are “been there” galaxies for a small scope under questionable conditions—about all you can say about them is you’ve “been there.” But they are all fun to hunt down and all are at least visible from less than perfect sites on less than perfect nights.

M105, a round elliptical in Leo, is easy to see, as is the brighter of its two companion galaxies, NGC 3389.

My fondest memory of this otherwise undistinguished galaxy? The night I turned my new 12.5-inch Dobsonian on it in the sodium-pink skies of Chaos Manor South’s backyard. Not only could I see M105, the two companion galaxies were easy. I had to run back inside and fire up my new computer star atlas, Megastar, to find out what their IDs were.

M65 and M66 are very pretty. This pair of showpiece galaxies is easy. M65 is obviously more elongated, and M66 is adjacent to a patch of magnitude 10 – 11 stars.

These two marvels, the brightest members of the “Leo Trio” of galaxies, can show an experienced observer considerable detail given a medium aperture scope and a dark sky. They are bright enough that I’ve seen ‘em on hazy, muggy spring nights when I thought the only thing worth looking at would be Jupiter. Best of all? With a telescope with an appropriately wide view, like the StarBlast, you can fit ‘em both in one field.

M96 is easy, though this Leo galaxy is hardly what I’d call overwhelmingly bright. Round, clearly brighter core.

M95 is more subdued than M96. I can see it with direct vision, but it does not exactly stand out. Smaller than M96 and without any hint of a nucleus as far as I can see.

They ain’t no M65 and M66 and they are a little too far apart to fit in one field, but they are still amazing and still deserve a few minutes of your time.

M10, one of Ophiuchus’ “twin” globulars, is visible, but in the light dome it is just a round glow in the field.

M12, the other twin, is visible as well, but is even more difficult in the haze and light pollution than its sister. More diffuse and looser appearing and somewhat larger.

I know it sounds like I’m plugging Urban Astronomer way too much, but the last time I really spent a lot of time with the Messiers was when I was writing that book. I will never forget the lonely late-summer evening when I devoted over an hour to these two with an humble 6-inch f/8 Newtonian.

M4, the Cat’s Eye Cluster glob, is on the very edge of perception near the horizon. I can make out the “pupil,” the line of stars that gives it its name, as an ill-defined streak.

M80, the other Messier globular in Scorpius, is a lot smaller and a little higher than M4 and much easier to see. Round and utterly unresolved with a bright core.

These two Scorpius globulars have always been among my fave summer objects, maybe because there is such a startling contrast between the two.

M101 is visible now that Ursa Major is out of the light pollution and temporarily cloud free. Large round glow that seems to take on hints of spiral arm detail and show a small core when the seeing cooperates, which isn’t often. It is near culmination.

M101 was high on young Rod’s “most wanted” list, but it sure took a long time for it to live up to its press and pictures. You can read about that here.

M106 is very attractive indeed. Strongly elongated with a bright nucleus that looks star-like when the seeing improves.

This is not a galaxy I hear my brother and sister amateurs talk about often, but they should. It is among the very best objects the Messier list. It is certainly not a bad one to end an evening on.

Not that I planned on calling it quits with M106, even though the clock was ticking on toward midnight; that was the sky’s doing. It didn’t cloud over this time, more like it just faded away, growing steadily hazier and hazier. The conditions didn’t inspire me to wait up for the summer/fall constellations, that’s for dang sure. The beauty of a Charity Hope Valentine night, of course, is that I had her and the rest of the gear back in the Toyota and was ready to roll in ten minutes.

I’d seen a lot of objects, and it wasn’t like my girl and I had been running a MARATHON; it was more like we spent the evening visiting some old and much loved friends. Charity has her ways, but she always—well, almost always—comes through in a pinch. What more can your deep sky crazy old Uncle ask?

UNCLE ROD: Your blog on Messier objects brought back memories of my exciting moments when I was 11 years old (1951). I love M 35 too-always have. I remember the very first time I saw it, in my 3.5" "Skyscope" Newtonian. I was just amazed by its beauty. Now retired, I live free of much light pollution, and have a C-14 in a dome & an Obsession 25. 'Had to save $$ a long time, but it's worth it. Thanks for your great blogs. I hope to meet you someday.

-Ed Greding
Rod - I love "the urban astronomer"...plug it all you want. I bought it and would buy again. I have my C5 on an SLT mount and I love it for for "take and go" One box except for the tripod. Packup time is like 5 minutes.
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