Sunday, October 30, 2011


The Herschel Project Night 27

Well, muchachos, another Herschel Project run has come and gone. No, before you ask, everything did not go smoothly. But that is OK. It would be pretty boring for y’all if all I had to say here was “Yep, took the telescope out to the dark site, saw some cool stuff, packed up and went home.”

Last Saturday dawned to beautiful, crisp weather. The sky was that dark shade of blue that says, “Don’t worry about the weather, Unk; it will be just fine.” For once, I didn’t have to give a moment’s consideration to clouds; the weather-goobers were reporting “No chance of rain for the foreseeable future.” Course, as is usually the case, Unk would pay a price for his clear skies. Temperatures would go down into the consarned mid-40s.

Now, before you condemn all us Gulf Coastians as complete wimps, remember we are usually dealing with a lot more humidity than y’all. I have sometimes felt colder down here on a damp 40s winter day than I’ve felt in Maine on a dry one in the 20s. And there is nothing that will make you feel more miserable than for all your gear—and your clothes—to be sopping wet with dew.

All Unk could do was prepare. Heavy enough but not too heavy coat, layers under that, and plenty of battery power for the DewBuster. On a dew-heavy night, which I expected this one would be, I devote a single 25 amp-hour jump start battery to the ‘Buster, which is only running a single heater strip, one on the C8’s corrector plate. That wouldn’t be overkill, either, since I was purty sure the DewBuster control box would be set at “10-degrees” all night long. Actually, I share the battery between the ‘Buster and my Stellacam, but the uncooled camera hardly draws any current.

So, I’d brave the damp and chilly dark. What would I brave it with? Not much question about that. It was time to get the Herschel Project back on the road after a hiatus of three months due to weather and work. I thought briefly about giving our 12-inch Dob, Old Betsy, a tumble, but the fact is that nothing is more efficient in allowing me to see lots of aitch objects in detail and in numbers over the course of a short Saturday night run than a deep sky video camera-equipped SCT. The C11, Big Bertha, would have no doubt done a sterling job, but, being lazy, I demurred. A four or five hour night is a C8 night. It would be my old girl Celeste, a 1995 Celestron Ultima 8, riding on my CG5 German equatorial.

The vaunted Greater Gulf State Fair
Unk is still using his Stellacam II black and white 10-second exposure video camera despite the fact that deep sky video has come a long way in the six years since I bought it. The Mallincams have brought cooling, long exposure, COLOR, and computer control to the observing table. On a cold, clear night the Stellacam can still amaze, but there comes the time when even Luddite ol’ Unk Rod must bow to Modern Times. Muchachos, I have pulled the trigger on a Mallincam Xtreme, and am pretty excited about that. I believe it will add a whole ‘nother dimension to the Herschel Project. So, this evening would likely be one of the good old SC’s last hurrahs.

Anyhoo, come four o’clock I had the evening’s gear marshaled in Chaos Manor South’s front parlor: C8, dew shield, CG5, tripod, two jumpstart batteries (one for the mount, one for the camera/dew heater), observing table, eyepiece box (just in case), computer shelter, netbook, camera, portable DVD player ( I use as a monitor), DVD recorder, deep cycle marine battery and inverter to power the recorder, thermos bottle of hot tea (forgot to buy dadgum Monster Energy drinks), MP3 recorder for note-taking, and two large equipment cases. One of my club buddies out at the site asked if it didn’t take an hour to load and unload “all that stuff,” but I told him, truthfully, that I’ve done it so often that it takes maybe fifteen minutes.

A huge boon lately has been my new vehicle, a 2011 4-Runner, Miss Lucille Van Pelt. Packing the gear is one heck of a lot easier when you have room enough to be a little sloppy. To get everything in my former vehicle, a Camry, I had to be very organized. Loading the astro-junk was like putting together a cotton picking jigsaw puzzle. Whatev. I got everything loaded in the truck and sat down and watched a repeat of an episode of The History Channel’s Universe (which I still like) while waiting for the afternoon to pass.

By 4:45, I was on the road for the PSAS dark site. ‘Twas a good thing I’d looked up the Sunset time. The year has plumb got away from me. Earlier in the day, when Miss Dorothy asked me when Sol would go down, I replied, “Oh, about seven, right?” Wrong. The sun is sinking at 6:15 p.m. now, and that meant I’d need to be at the site by 5:45 at the latest.

The trip out was uneventful once I’d avoided all the crazies hell-bent on making it to the Greater Gulf State Fair ahead of the crowds. Miss D. and I had done our fair-going the previous evening, opening night, well before the hordes, and Unk was able to enjoy his traditional fair fare, a jumbo corndog, in relative peace.

At the dark site as Sunset came on, I was a little disappointed that only three other observers had made it out. I’d a-thought the splendid clear skies would have drawn a few of the Mebbe Gang (you know, “Mebbe I’ll take the telescope out tonight.”) as well as the usual hard core. I reckon the combo of cold weather and the State Fair had put the kibosh on that. Oh, well. I set to work with a will getting set up. It looked like it was gonna be a great run. That’s what I thought, anyway, till a loud roar washed over the observing field.

The roar came from the field just to the south, which was having its soybeans harvested by two giant combines, the source of the noise. They didn’t just make a loud noise, either. They had our observing field as well as the bean field they were working illuminated with powerful headlights, and they were kicking up enough dust that it looked like an approaching fogbank. Just my luck. So much for observing, I thought. These days, farmers don’t own huge equipment. They pay travelling companies to do their harvesting for them, and those combines will often work ALL NIGHT LONG.

So the night’s edition of the Herschel Project was doomed? Maybe not. Looked like the field was about finished, and the very light breeze was keeping most of the dust from covering us and our telescopes. In due course, the workers climbed down and drove off and the night was saved.

Mostly. These workers would come back a couple of times over the course of the early evening, painting us with the high beams of their pickup trucks. Likely they wanted to make periodic checks of their gear, and were maybe concerned about what them folks with all that weird stuff were doing right next door. After about seven o’clock, though, they must have decamped for the nearby Boondocks (a bar with an atmosphere you can probably guess at from its name), since we saw no more of them.

Unk was set up and ready to go just before the first bright stars winked on, but what would he have a go at? If you’ve been following the two year old saga of The Herschel Project, you’ll recall I have finished the part of it that was to be documented minutely in this here blog, the Herschel II. Since y’all seemed to enjoy my tales of my quest to follow in the footsteps of William and Caroline, though, I decided to continue on and report on my pursuit of The Whole Big Thing, The Big Enchilada, all 2500 objects discovered by Will and Lina.

While I would document my experiences with the 2500 in the blog, I promised not to bore y’all with minute details on every fuzzy. The Herschel I, the Herschel II, and the Herschel III (a new list by Tom Hoffelder you can look at here) cherry pick the most beautiful and spectacular out of the Herschel 2500, and what you are left with is scads of fairly dim galaxies. While there are still marvels in the aitch beyond those three lists, there is no denying that much of the rest is “Small, round elliptical galaxy. NO details.”

Why look at ‘em at all, then? In my case there are a couple of reasons. One is that I’ve been thinking off and on that I might like to do a book about the Herschels and their objects. All of them. A bigger reason, a far more important one for me, is that doing all these objects has opened my eyes to the larger Universe. I thought I had a pretty good idea of what was in the Great Out There after nearly 50 years of deep sky observing. I had no idea. Not till I decided to systematically observe nearly 3,000 DSOs, most of them galaxies.

“Well, that’s cool, Unk, but what did you look at specifically on this Saturday evening?” Before leaving home I fired up the astronomy program of The Herschel Project, SkyTools 3, and had a look at what would be available from the 2500. Surprisingly, given that Unk is “only” about 1600 objects into the list, the pickings were fairly slim. I’ve not only pulled most of the aitches out of the summer sky, I’ve harvested the autumn galaxy fields of Pegasus, Cetus, and Aquarius, too. Most of the remaining 800-some fuzzies live in the spring heavens. But not all of them.

I noticed that there was a good handful of hangers-on (all galaxies) in Hercules, I hadn’t done any of Corona Borealis’ objects (all galaxies), and I needed to revisit Pegasus for a few aitches (all galaxies) that, while they were marked as “observed,” I didn’t have log entries for. All told there’d be 27 potential targets this evening. Which would be just about right, I figgered. I could do that many in an hour, easy, which would leave me time to visit some Real Pretty Stuff, look at the comet (Garradd), see if I could see the supernova in M101, and be back in the warm and comforting halls of Chaos Manor South before I froze into a Rod-sicle.

With Polaris peeping out, I did a rough polar alignment, just centering the star in the hollow polar bore of the CG5. Then it was power-up time and on to the alignment. Lit off NexRemote on the netbook computer, connected the Wireless Wingman gamepad I use as my HC, and got going with the center-the-alignment-star business.

At first, everything went as per normal: centered two stars, added four calibration stars, and Celeste, in her Microsoft Mary voice, intoned, “ALIGNMENT SUCCESSFUL!” Next up was polar alignment. I use the old CG5 firmware (easily selectable in NexRemote) that has you center Polaris with the altitude and azimuth adjusters—it’s quick and easy and yields an alignment more than good enough for video work. Since I’d moved the mount a fair distance in altitude (a rather larger distance than I expected) to polar align, I redid the 2+4 star alignment. That’s when the trouble began.

You didn’t think the only problem I was talking about earlier was the consarned combines, did you? Unk always pulls some kind of hare-brained stunt; especially when he has had a layoff of a few months. During the first alignment, something seemed funny. When slewing in declination, the mount seemed to be laboring. Almost as if it didn’t have sufficient power. Oh, it was moving in dec, but what I was hearing was worse than the mount’s usual weasels-with-tuberculosis sounds. At times, the dang thing was squeaking like a cotton pickin’ mouse. Did the declination gears need lubrication? Since they hadn’t had any in going on seven years, I thought they might. Oh, well.

Then, on the next to last cone-alignment star. Unk almost had a litter of kittens right there on the PSAS observing field. Just as the mount was nearing the sparkler, there was a loud CLUNK, and the telescope OTA began to slide backwards in its dovetail! I grabbed the C8, you betcha, but by the time I did, it had already stopped sliding, hanging up on the safety screw.

Weeeeeell doggies! It was obvious what had happened. The mount had been laboring in declination because the tube was way off balance. Apparently I hadn’t seated the dovetail correctly, and it had slid back in the saddle without me noticing. Only when it had tried to go the rest of the way out had I caught on to what was happening.

When the old ticker finally slowed down and Unk was able to breathe again, I seated the scope firmly, balanced it, and finished up the alignment and confirmed  the funny declination noises were gone. Looked to me like the tube had been canted up as well as moved back in the dovetail, so it would probably have been a good idea to have redone the polar alignment if not the go-to alignment. It was pretty clear now why I’d had to adjust so much in altitude.

Lesson learned? Always double-check the scope’s attachment to the mount. And always make sure the safety screw, if there is one, is tight; that was all that had saved my bacon. In retrospect, I shoulda listened to the little voice in my head (one of the voices in my head, some folks will tell you), which had been whispering that something wasn’t right with the telescope and mount.

Yep, I reckon I shoulda redone the polar and go-to alignments, but the sky was well on the way to good and dark, so I decided to see how the mount performed on a test target without any changes. Over to M13. When I focused up good and sharp with my JMI Motofocus, the Great Glob was a thing of wonder as always. I noted that the cluster was smack in the center of the smallish field of the Stellacam when the slew stopped. Tracking seemed OK, too.

Supernova 2011fe
First target for the evening was the now famous supernova, 2011fe in M101. Due to work and weather, I had neither seen nor imaged this Type Ia, and was anxious to add its portrait to my slowly growing supernovae rogues’ gallery. I wasn’t too concerned about it being too dim for the Stellacam; the last I heard it was still hanging in at about magnitude 12. What I was worried about was how low it was getting. At 7 p.m., the Catherine Wheel Galaxy was less than 15 fracking degrees above the northwestern horizon.

When the slew stopped and the Stellacam’s first refresh came, I didn’t have any trouble picking out the supernova. Easy as pie. While the spiral was considerably subdued in the haze and light pollution at the horizon, its pattern was pretty clear, too, and looked considerably more well-defined “live” than it does in the quick screen grab here.

What now? Time to get started. Corona Borealis was getting low in the west, too, so there was no time to waste. None of the Northern Crown’s 10 galaxies gave me any trouble. But none of ‘em was much of a standout, either. Not only were they all pretty small, the same thing afflicted them as M101: low in the sky with a bright background. On a whim, I screwed on the Orion Imaging Filter I’d got a while back.

This filter is a mild light pollution reduction filter, not much different from Orion’s Skyglow or Lumicon’s Deep Sky. It is designed to darken the sky background a bit without dimming galaxies and clusters too much. Verdict? I had a hard time deciding. I thought it brought out the lowest in altitude of Corona’s galaxies a little better, but the effect was subtle. One thing was sure; it did darken the background, making the image look smoother and better. And yet…and yet…

I decided I preferred the way my images looked without the filter and unscrewed it. Only then did I notice that I must have turned down the camera gain by accident when shortening the exposure time to allow me to re-focus (the filter changes the telescope’s focus quite a bit). So, I guess the jury is still out on the Imaging Filter. I didn’t want to waste time experimenting any more. The next set of objects, galaxies in Hercules, would be getting low before I knew it.

What’s that Skeezix? You didn’t know there were galaxies in Hercules? Well, there are. The Hero is far enough away from the backbone of the Milky Way to allow our gaze to extend to the intergalactic reaches beyond him. There are some large and detailed and pretty island universes in the area, not that I’d be visiting any of those tonight. The objects from The Big Enchilada remaining in Hercules were, like those in Corona, on the small-smudge side.

Even so, I got some good views here. Not only were there some surprisingly rich galaxy fields including several Hickson groups; all are set in nice rich star fields. The combination of multiple galaxies in a frame dusted with many hard little stars was a beautiful one, especially since Hercules was still high enough in the sky to offer dark backgrounds. Standouts? My fave was probably a pretty pair of galaxies in one of these rich star fields, NGC 6500 (H.III.957) and NGC 6501 (H.III.958). In addition to the two bright magnitude 13 galaxies looking like a pair of eyes, there was a lovely triple star less than 10’ to the west.

Even after all the alarms and excursions concerning my near disaster during the scope’s alignment, it was barely 10 p.m. by the time I finished the last of the evening’s objects. The total for Night 27? A fitting if somewhat paltry 27 fuzzies. Twarn’t nothing for it, though. There wouldn’t be any major target areas rising till after 0300, and I certainly wouldn’t be hanging out till then. There were a couple of hours still to go before my usual dark site pumpkin time, midnight, however. What could I fill them with? Comet Garradd, for one thing.

If you’ve seen the comet recently, I don’t reckon there’s much reason to rush out and take another look at it; nothing much has changed. Garradd, C/2009 P1, has been hanging in our sky for months, glowing just brightly enough, around 7th magnitude, to make it an OK binocular object. It still looks about the same as it did when I first visited it a couple of months back. I did notice that with the gain cranked way up on the camera I could see a little more tail and maybe hints of an ion tail—which may well have been Unk’s overenthusiastic imagination. The good news? We’ll have this halfway decent little guy with us pretty much as he is now all the way through February.

Comet captured, I toured globular clusters bright (M15 and M2) and dim (Palomar 10 and Palomar 12) before settling in to look at and record some summer and fall spectacles. I went to M13 again, but there were other standouts, too. That loose little globular, M71, (which Garradd passed by not long ago) was scrumptious. Its squarish shape was barely a condensation of stars in the incredibly rich Sagitta field. The often subdued Crescent Nebula, NGC 6888, was an arc of detailed nebulosity.

I can’t say M27 looked as good in my Stellacam as it does in my buddy Mike Harvey’s color Mallincam shot from last summer, but it was beautiful nonetheless, easily showing the dim lobes on each side of the “apple core.” M57 was bright. Even the donut-hole interior was bright. So bright that at f/3.3 I had a hard time picking out the central star.

Thence to the fall stuff, which was now out of the Possum Swamp light dome. The Blue Snowball (planetary) Nebula in Andromeda was a perfect little ping-pong ball floating among the stars. In my mind’s eye I could imagine it glowing an electric blue. If only I’d had that color camera tonight. Nearby M33 was incredible; its loose spiral was painted across my monitor as clearly as I’ve ever seen it. Scattered across its arms were sharply defined patches that are its nebulae. Again, I wished for color.

The Great Andromeda Nebula (galaxy).
When I’d finished admiring the Pinwheel, it was getting on toward midnight. It was also getting c-o-l-d, with my thermometer reading “43F.” I’d layered on the sweatshirts and jackets, put on a fuzzy hat, broke out the chemical hand warmers, and drank hot tea every once in a while, but I had to admit I was chilled. As I’d figgered it would be, it was damp, with all the gear now bathed in cold dew. The DewBuster kept the corrector plate dry, but that was the only thing that wasn’t sopping. One more go-to and it would be Big Switch Time.

Us astro-videographers don’t normally consider M31, the Great Andromeda Nebula (Galaxy), much of a target. It’s just too big for our small chips at normal focal lengths. It can still be mind-blowing, however; you just have to focus on the details. That’s what I did, cruising the huge beast, taking in its star clouds and dark lanes, its burning nucleus, even the brightest of its globular star clusters, G1. After recounting my PSSG observation of Andromeda’s best glob for you last week, I had the yen to take another look at it. Picked it up right away. Yeah, just a fuzzy “star,” but still…

And that was that. I worked slowly and methodically to get all the gear re-packed in the truck, since I was working by red light. A couple of my buddies wanted to stay on despite the cold dew until Orion was a little higher. Not Unk. I had got what I’d come for. An hour later I was ensconced in the warm den of Chaos Manor South, sipping the Yell, watching a late night marathon of The World’s Strangest UFO Stories, and contemplating the truly strange and wonderful things I’d seen on this deep fall night.

Spurious Book Review: Sue French’s Deep-Sky Wonders

When Sue French took over Sky and Telescope’s “Deep Sky Wonders” column, some folks were skeptical. How could anybody fill the shoes of that dean of deep sky observers, Walter Scott Houston? It soon became obvious Sue could. Not only is she a gifted writer, she has a personal vision of the deep sky and the talent to communicate that to her readers.

Sue's new book, Deep-Sky Wonders, is a collection of 100 of her best sky-tours. How is it? They (you know, THEM) say you can’t judge a book by its cover. This is one time they are wrong. The cover of this large format hardback is beautiful. So are the pages inside. It’s the words that count, though, and Sue’s sure have what it takes. If you love the deep sky, you will love Deep-Sky Wonders. Go out and get a copy right now, muchachos. I insist.

Shameless Plug Department:  Do you look forward to Sky and Telescope's Skywatch "annual" every year? I do. Even when I am not in it. Skywatch is an excellent mix of general interest and beginner-oriented articles with a  cherry on top, handy all-sky charts and "what's up" guides for the coming year. But I am in Skywatch again this year with an article on beginning astrophotography, and it would not hurt my feelings nor, I'm sure, the feelings of the good folk at S&T if you ran out and bought a copy or three. I am not kidding when I say Skywatch makes a great Christmas gift for your astro-friends.

Next time: I’ve got some cool stuff lined up for y’all over the next two-three weeks. I hope to get out and do a little DSLR imaging despite a sea trial in the offing. Even cooler? I’ve finally got my hot little hands on an astronomy program I’ve wanted to look at for a long time, Phyllis Lang’s famous Deep Sky Planner.

2011fe is type Ia, according to
Right you are, of course. Thanks! It is wonderful to have such attentive readers to keep me in line! R.
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