Sunday, January 01, 2012


Happy 2012 from Chaos Manor South!

Another year has come and gone, muchachos. How did it shape up? It was a good one. The best part was that the wonderful Miss Dorothy successfully completed her difficult and long treatment for breast cancer. Unk? I got to keep my day job as Test Engineer for the Navy. I had to transition from the AEGIS Destroyers to the new LPD landing ships, but I kept my job, which is a pretty welcome thing in this day and age.

The astronomy part of life, my NIGHT job? I continued my long-time teaching gig at the University of South Alabama, stuffing the heads of yet another generation of younguns with astronomical knowledge. And I continued to do astronomy writing, professional astronomy writing, appearing in Sky and Telescope and Sky and Telescope’s Skywatch this year.

“What about AMATEUR astronomy, Unk? What did you do under the stars and down to the club, huh?” The Herschel Project rolled on, and was as big a part of my observing life in 2011 as it had been in 2010, but by the end of the year it was beginning to wind down a little as I finished the Herschel II, almost finished another run through the Herschel 400, knocked off more and more Herschel 2500 “Big Enchilada” objects, and suddenly found there were nights without many aitches available. Yeah, the Herschels were a big part of 2011, but that wasn’t all I did…

Sunday, January 16, 2011: Having Fun Together

Why is the Great American Astronomy Club still alive in this day of 24-hour ‘round the clock “club” meetings on Cloudy Nights and Astromart? Because when it’s done right, a non-virtual astronomy club is just so much danged fun.

Rod’s club, the storied Possum Swamp Astronomical Society (PSAS), has persevered through thick and thin, and is still going strong in this high-tech age. A major reason for that is that in addition to public outreach and group observing and interesting meetings, we get together and have some non-astronomy fun once in a while. Like at our annual holiday dinner, which was held at the excellent Ed’s Seafood Shed out on the Causeway in January of 2011.

Not that amateur astronomy wasn’t discussed. After “several” whiskeys, Unk regaled the PSAS with his take on THE BEST STAR PARTIES EVER-EVER. The kindness and friendliness of the membership was demonstrated by the fact that they actually listened to the (semi) foolishness Unk spouted.

Sunday, January 30, 2011: A-OK?

Unk Rod has striven mightily to keep the even vaguely political out of this blog, and has had a pretty good record of doing that. Most of the time. There have been a couple of exceptions, one of which has had to do with the current state of NASA and the U.S. space program and, specifically, the manned space program, which for all intents and purposes has been shut down by the current Administration.

I worked some good, old 60s nostalgia into this article, but mostly it was serious business. My ideas for getting the American Space Age going again? I didn’t have any. The pitiful best I could come up with was the suggestion you write a letter to the goobers in Washington expressing your displeasure. Sigh.

I want Americans in space in American spacecraft. Is there no hope? I know that “write your Congressman” is one of the most hopeless phrases in American English, but I don’t know what else to tell you to do. Maybe it wouldn’t hurt to let them know that there are still a few starry-eyed boomers out there.
Sunday, February 13, 2011: The Herschel Project Night 20

And so it was that, after a layoff of a couple months, the dear, old H-Project was back on the rails. Unk was feeling a bit lazy and had a little trouble convincing himself to drag the C8 and Stellacam and all the support gear out to the Tanner – Williams dark site on a hazy, freezing winter evening, but he did. Though not with the intent of finishing the Herschel II. That would have meant staying out in the 32F temps till four a.m. Nossir buddy!

What got done on this chilly night, then? Given the fun I had leading y’all through the Herschel II list on this here blog, I decided to do the same with the Herschel I, the Herschel 400. Yes, I should probably have attacked the Big Enchilada, the Herschel 2500, with a vengeance, but it was cold and damp (very heavy dew), and I was still adjusting to my new duties on my new job. I consoled myself with the fact that all the Herschel Is are members of the 2500, so it wouldn’t be like I was ignoring The Whole Big Thing, and I would get to see some spectacular objects in the bargain.

And I did. Celeste, my C8, and her CG5 did not miss a beat, putting everything I requested smack in the small field of the Stellacam II. Object of the night? Probably the lovely edge-on spiral in Andromeda, NGC 891. The SC II easily revealed not just the galaxy’s equatorial dust lane, but the fact that the lane’s edges are irregular, “curdled,” all along its length.

Inspired by the beautiful 891 and similarly wonderful H 400s like M110, NGC 2158, and NGC 457, and a look at the supernova in NGC 2655, I kept going without a thought to the cold. Till it was nearing midnight and Unk began to feel seriously miserable in the heavy dew. Big Switch time. Final tally? Fifty Herschel 400 sprites.

Sunday, April 10, 2011: The Herschel Project Night 21

After a pause due to weather and work, the Herschel Project got going again in April, and Miss Dorothy and I were excited about it. We were especially excited because we would continue it down in Chiefland. And not just that: for the first time in quite a few years, there’d be a genuine Chiefland Spring Picnic on the Chiefland Observers’ Billy Dodd Field. Yes, the “new” Chiefland group, which puts on the Nova Sedus Star Party, has a spring picnic on the expansive and well equipped observing field just to the west of our old digs, but I am a creature of habit. I want the “old” Spring Picnic with all my old friends.

What was particularly notable about this Herschel Expedition? One very welcome thing was that Miss Dorothy was in fine form for her second CAV trip; she was, in fact, almost her old self again. Not only did we enjoy an excellent edition of the legendary Picnic, with more Wal-Mart fried chicken than even Unk could eat, we took a day trip to our beloved “Duma Key,” Cedar Key, where we spent several enjoyable hours browsing the shops and trying the lunch menu at The Pickled Pelican.

The most memorable thing about this trip, howsomeever? A milestone was passed. On Thursday night I observed the three galaxies in Hydra and one in Virgo that constituted the last of the Herschel II list. Yep, I was done with the HII, the original project in “Herschel Project.” Finishing was a little bittersweet; it had been a fun slog through the second 400, and I’d had a great time reporting on my progress here. Finishing the HII did not mean the end of The Herschel Project, of course. Shortly after beginning it, I’d resolved to tackle all (near) 2500 aitches, and when Miss D. and I reluctantly packed up and headed home over half of ‘em still remained to be observed.

Sunday, May 15, 2011: Welcome to the Stellarium

What did Unk do when the Moon was big or the clouds numerous? One of the things I did was play with astronomy software. I’m an old hand at that, I reckon; me and astro-softs go all the way back to the Commodore 64 and Sky Travel. Not as old as that, but almost, is Skyglobe, a wonderful, fast DOS (what came before Windows, sprouts) planetarium that Unk continued to use for quick looks at the virtual sky till his XP laptop bit the dust a little while back. This installment of the blog was about the program that replaced Skyglobe for me, finally, Stellarium.

Not only is Stellarium almost as fast to pop onto my screen as Skyglobe was, it is incomparably more beautiful, and, naturally, as befits 21st century astro-ware, has lots more objects. Shortly after installing Stellarium, I found myself admiring its display in a darkened room, just as I’d done with Skyglobe on that long ago night when I ran it for the first time on my old IBM 486.

Sunday, June 05, 2011: Unk’s Messier Album 1

It wasn’t all Herschels, Herschels, Herschels last year. I started a new and much more informal observing project. One centered around one of my favorite Sky and Telescope columns (later assembled into a book) of yore, John Mallas’ and Evered Kreimer’s “A Messier Album.” This wonderful feature took us through the whole Messier list, with Mallas providing drawings and commentary and Kreimer furnishing groundbreaking astrophotos.

What I proposed to do was go through the objects in the same order M&K did, observing them with a similar instrument, my ETX 125 (Mallas used a 4-inch Unitron achromatic refractor), and see how what I saw compared to what John M. saw. To that end, I tackled M49, M61, M68, M13, and M92 on the first evening out—at my club’s dark site—knocking off two Mallas/Kreimer columns in the first go.

My results? On the galaxies, John and I saw about the same things. Globular star clusters were a different story, with me consistently resolving more stars than he did. One thing the first “Album” run did for me was give me a better appreciation of Mallas’ drawings. They are a little funky in daylight, but under a dim red light they look amazingly like what is in the eyepiece of a small telescope.

I had a lot of fun doing those first two columns. Writing and drawing them. I resolved to sketch every Messier Mallas drew (everything but open clusters). What might improve my Messier Album series even more? Getting back to it. I did a second installment some weeks after the first, but haven’t continued since. I hope that will change in 2012.

Sunday, July 10, 2011: The Herschel Project Nights 24 and 25

Despite the Messier side trips, my 2011 observing was mostly all about the Herschels. In the interest of bagging more, Miss Dorothy and I again made the trip “down Chiefland way,” in spite of the blazing temperatures of a Florida summer and clouds that threatened to scuttle our expedition before it began.

This wasn’t the first time I’d been to CAV in July—I’d done the same the previous two years—so I knew how to beat the heat. You don’t hang out on the observing field in the daytime. That’s plain foolish. There is nothing to see, nothing to do, and no one to talk to. You stay in your motel, the Day’s Inn in our case, or in the Chiefland WallyWorld, or in Bill’s Bar-B-Q, or, as we did on Saturday, in the Rusty Rim Bar and Grill in nearby Cedar Key. You don’t head to the CAV field till Sundown, and you have a fan on the observing table to make the high 80s—even as you approach midnight—bearable.

What did Unk and Miss Dorothy achieve in the heat of night? Thursday was a wash (almost literally). Clouds and the threat of severe thunderstorms all day and into the night. We spent the evening in our motel room watching the dadgum SyFy Channel. (And, in Rod’s case, sipping…err… “sarsaparilla.”) Friday and Saturday nights worked out—did they ever. Neither evening was perfect, but that did not stop us from moving 150 Herschel 2500 objects into the “observed” category.

Sunday, August 07, 2011: The Herschel Project Night 26

‘Course I couldn’t do all my Herscheling from the cotton picking Chiefland Astronomy Village. If I were to pick up any aitches during the August dark of the Moon, it would have to be from the good, old Possum Swamp Astronomical Society dark site. The sky damn sure ain’t pristine, but the Milky Way is almost always visible, and if you confine your work to the west side of the Meridian, you can see a lot. Visually or with a camera.

This time out it would be “camera,” specifically my Stellacam II deep sky video camera. Not with Big Bertha, my NexStar C11, though. It looked to be hot, hazy, bug-laden, and dew-crazy. When I want to do Herschels on a night like that, it’s always a Celeste night. “Celeste,” my venerable Ultima C8 OTA, who rides on a Celestron CG5 mount, can, when equipped with the Stellacam, pull in the amazingly dim, and she is a joy to set up and tear down.

Unk spent the night feeling faintly miserable; I was soaked with dew not long after Sundown. The DewBuster heater controller easily kept Celeste’s corrector bone dry, though, so what could I do but press on? Which I did till around midnight, when the deep cycle battery I use to power the DVD recorder and video display gave up the ghost. Despite the hot and sticky wx condx I still wasn’t ready to throw the big switch. I removed the SC II and went visual for a another hour, observing, amongst other things, the year’s best comet, Comet Garradd, which was a real hit with me and my PSAS buddies.

Was it worth braving the giant mosquitoes of Tanner – Williams, Alabama for a brief spell under the stars? Boy howdy was it:

Final tally? Two needed Herschel 400 objects and thirty Big Enchilada aitches. Not bad for an evening when I had to struggle to convince myself to load up a ton of gear and head for the dark site. I can’t promise I’ll always have the gumption to defy heat, humidity, clouds, and bugs, but I’m glad I did this time.
Sunday, September 04, 2011: Down Country Roads

For some unknown reason, the good folk of NOVAC, the Northern Virginia Astronomy Club, one of our nation’s premier astronomical societies, enjoy listening to old Unk’s somewhat silly and somewhat disorganized presentations. To that end, they had me up to their big yearly star party, the Almost Heaven Star Party, again. For the fourth time.

I may question their wisdom regarding this old hillbilly’s PowerPoints, but I don’t question their ability to put on a pip of a star party. AHSP, as the name suggests, is held in West Virginia, up on the highest mountain in West Virginia, Spruce Knob. The facility is great, the people are great, and the skies are great. Well, the skies are usually great. Not this year.

Unfortunately, AHSP 2011 had the misfortune to coincide with bad, ol’ Hurricane Irene, who was hitting nearby DC just as the event got underway. Unk managed to make it to Dulles before the air transport system fell apart, but he didn’t see a blessed thing the whole time—well I did get a brief look at M13 thanks to Donovan Brock and his gigantanormous Dobsonian.

The clouds did not spoil my good time, though. Whether I was hanging out on the field drinking brewskies and eating Little Debbie Star Crunches with old friends, or listening to talks by my fellow presenters, or gobbling the great food, I had a wonderful star party. My only wish? That the AHSP organizers are DUMB enough to have me back for 2012.

Sunday, October 30, 2011: The Herschel Project Night 27

Like I done told y’all, 2011 was my first year on my new job as a navigation systems engineer on the Navy’s LPD program. The fact that the newest ship in the San Antonio Class, LPD 22, would begin her sea trials in October meant Unk and Miss Dorothy did not get to attend the Deep South Regional Star Gaze—first time I’ve missed it since 1992. And we weren’t able to head down to Chiefland to continue the H-Project, either.

Not that we didn’t catch any Herschels between August and December. Despite frustratingly poor weather, I did get out once. As per usual, everything did not go smoothly. When Unk arrived at the site, the neighboring soybean field was being harvested, which was kicking up clouds of dust, and when that finally settled and I decided to get the scope set up, I didn’t secure the C8 properly in the CG5, and she nearly fell to the ground. So it goes.

Those alarums and excursions did not stop me and Celeste. Once we got our act together, we began picking off the few Herschel 2500 objects available to us on this autumn night. The final haul was not overly impressive, we ticked off 27 new ones on the SkyTools 3 list, but we got what we could get without staying up till 3 a.m. I also got a shot of the excellent supernova in M101, just before the Catherine Wheel Galaxy sank out of sight.

Sunday, November 06, 2011: EQMOD Redux

Yes, almost unbelievably, Unk was running out of Herschel 2500 objects—in the Fall sky at least. When the next dark of the Moon came, I changed gears big time. As y’all may know, I’m an aspiring deep sky astrophotographer. Been one for over 45 years. Maybe because I don’t keep after it as often as I should. Come this November run at the PSAS dark site, the astrophotography bug had bitten hard again. Unk lugged the C8, the Atlas mount, the netbook loaded with EQMOD, and the Canon DSLR out to Tanner Williams for some long overdue deep sky picture taking.

In addition to wanting to get back into the astrophotography swim of things, I wanted to try out my new guide system, the Orion Mini Autoguider, the combination of a 50mm finder-cum-guide scope and Orion’s excellent StarShoot autoguider camera. I was a little skeptical that a 50mm guide scope could do the job, but it dang sure did. With the help of Nebulosity and PHD Guiding, Unk got recognizable, if hardly perfect, portraits of M13, M57, and M27. No, not perfect, but them consarned stars dang sure was round.

And that was it for 2011. Well, not quite it. The above things were just the highlights of my astronomical year. They do sum up the way the amateur astronomy wind blew for me, though. 2012? The broad themes will be the same: the Herschel Project, the Messier Album Project, and astrophotography. But at least one of the players will have changed. I have just taken delivery of a Mallincam Xtreme deep sky video camera. I am excited about that, and I am excited about 2012 in general. I think it’s gonna be a good year for Unk, and I hope it will be for y’all too. In other words: Happy new year from Chaos Manor South!

Next time: My Friend George...

I look forward to next week's installment. I had a growing fondness for George. My best to you and Miss Dorothy for 2012 and thanks for doing what you do on this blog and with the PSAS.
Hey Rod,
Glad to hear about Miss Dorothy. Although I don't go to church etc. I'm sure the prayers said by all of us for her recovery were heard. Just knowing people are pulling for you help make it over the hurdle.
Wondering what the best aperture is for viewing the Herschel list? I may want a goto to help with the number of items involved. Have no goto system at present. Don't like to lug around big scopes. Any advice would help!
Well, Brad, that is the 64 dollar question. If you want to do the whole big thing visually, I recommend at least 12-inches of aperture, supplemented by access to a dark site. There are some fairly portable 12-inch Dobs now, and an 11 is almost as good in the form of a Celestron CPC 1100. If, however, you want to go after at least some of them like I do with a Mallincam, an 8-inch will suffice, even for the hardest ones. ;-)
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