Sunday, January 29, 2012


The Herschel Project Night 28

It was a busy week, muchachos. Before I could get the Herschel Project back on the road at the Chiefland Astronomy Village, I had to get myself back to good, old Chaos Manor South from Portland, Oregon, where I'd given a presentation for that’s city’s justly famous Rose City Astronomers.

The RCA is a truly excellent club, as I am sure you have heard, and little ol’ me was flattered to be called upon to address that august body. The problem was making it home in time to get ready for CAV. Combine the vagaries of the U.S. air transport system, what is left of it, with the weather, and getting home on Tuesday evening was a near thing. That cursed American Airlines did eventually deliver me to Possum Swamp, but man was I tired by the time they did.

The original plan had been to pack all the copious gear I’d marshaled in Chaos Manor South’s front parlor in the truck Tuesday. When I finally walked in at 10 p.m., though, it was FUHGEDDABOUTIT. I strode right past that huge pile of astro-stuff and straight to the liquor cabinet. I’d had well over nine hours in the air and five or six in airports, and, as you can imagine, it was soon night-night time for the Rodster. I’d just have to get up early to pack. Real early. With the sun going down at the CAV before 6 p.m., I would want to be on the road no later than about 8 a.m. allow plenty of time to get settled in the Day’s Inn and set up on the Billy Dodd Observing Field.

You will be proud of me: when the alarm clock started beeping at 4:30 in the fracking a.m., I did not turn it off, roll over, and go back to sleep for a couple of hours. Only for half an hour. I wearily requested Dorothy, who was up and bustling about, wake me at 5 a.m. At 5, I was up, not even requiring Miss D's urging. I was ready to get going no matter how weary I was.

A couple of good things on this early Wednesday morning? It wasn’t raining—though rain was in the forecast—and I found my 4Runner, Miss Lucille Van Pelt, much easier to pack than the Camry had been. Her considerably larger cargo space meant I didn’t have to be as careful and deliberate loading the gear. I was able to expedite packing without getting downright messy.

What did I pack? The usual stuff for a video-centric Herschel run: NexStar 11 GPS, netbook computer, DVD recorder, DVD player (to serve as the display), observing table, tailgating canopy, yadda-yadda-yadda. A couple of changes this time, though. I did bring the Stellacam II, but only as a backup. It had been replaced by a Mallincam Xtreme. And since Miss Van Pelt offered all that space, I couldn’t resist filling it with yet more astro-stuff. I didn't expect serious problems with Big Bertha, the NS11, but she is a decade old now. I packed the C8, "Celeste," and her Celestron CG5 mount “just in case.”

A bummer? I love Big Bertha, but there is no doubt the C11 is getting harder for me to manage year by year. I know she ain’t gaining weight, so I can only assume poor Unk is getting weaker. I wish it weren’t so—I’ve loved the comfortable convenience of her fork—but I am now thinking that in a few years relief will be spelled G-E-M. Getting Bertha’s (thankfully wheeled) case down the front steps, I managed to bang my knee. When the worst of the pain subsided, I was pleased to see I hadn’t really dislocated my kneecap, which was what it felt like had happened.

The trip Down Chiefland Way was no shorter than it ever has been, a good six hours on I-10 and U.S. 19, but with Miss Dorothy at my side it seemed shorter than it did back in the days of my solo CAV expeditions when I had nobody to talk to. A substantially larger vehicle and the excellent Sirius XM Satellite Radio didn’t hurt, either.

After a few hours on I-10, we took the Highway 19 exit just past Tallahassee, stopped at the gas station there, and refueled Miss Van Pelt and ourselves, Unk choosing, as always, a Sasquatch Big Stick (ANGRY flavor, natch). I was pleased to see my usual stop has hung on through economic hard times, if in reduced circumstances, going from Shell to Sunoco and closing down the Wendy’s burger joint formerly attached to the gas station.

Then it was 100-miles of U.S. 19, the Florida-Georgia Parkway, gateway to Florida's Nature Coast and the celestial bliss of the Chiefland Astronomy Village. As we motored along, I couldn’t help sneaking peeks at the sky. Did not look good. Clouds, plenty of them, and the occasional rain shower if not downpour. Often, as you get near Chiefland, the skies will clear as if by magic, but I didn’t expect that this time. The weather forecasters had been unanimous that Wednesday night would be Mostly Cloudy.

Whatever the night might bring, D. and I stuck to THE PLAN: check into the motel, head to the site for set-up, hit Wally-World for whatever additional supplies might be needed, grab a late lunch/early dinner, and head back to the CAV. Well, we tried to stick to The Plan, anyhow. It was well after three by the time we got in our room, and the sky was going from bad to worse. Mist had become rain, and the field at CAV would be disgustingly wet by now.

What to do? Four o’clock had come and gone, five was coming, and still the rain fell. It was obvious there was simply no way I'd be setting up gear. At first we thought we’d at least run out to the CAV and see who was there and what was going on, like we did the first night of our last expedition, the initial evening of which had also been cloudy. But there wasn’t any reason to do that. If anybody were on the field, they’d be buttoned up in a tent or RV or trailer and out of the mess.

What to do, then? Might as well hit Wally-World, I thought. That’s about all the entertainment there is down CAV way on a rainy Wednesday night when you are deprived of the sky. The Chiefland Walmart, despite its way out in the country status, is one of the better stocked stores in the chain, and its patrons look much like people anywhere--nothing like the CREATURES displayed on (Trust me: DO NOT go to that site!)

There was also the question of dinner. We could have cruised over to Bar-B-Q Bill’s; I understand their evening menu is as good as lunch, and that their steaks are killer. But I was undeniably weary, the MacDonald's inside Walmart (yes) was just steps away, and I figured that in my present state a Big Mac would do the trick. Big Macs downed, we picked up Jack Links Flaming Buffalo Nuggets and bottled water for the field, and some Colorado Kool-Aid for after-run libations and headed back to the room.

And how is the motel Unk has stayed at for the last ten years? About the same. They’ve even done a little repairing and remodeling. No, the breakfast ain’t what it was when it was a Holiday Inn Express, but there was big news afoot when we checked in: there would now be WAFFLES, make ‘em yourself waffles, in the lobby. Woo-hoo! That was the morrow, though. How would we spend a rainy evening?

There actually wasn’t much of an evening to spend. Not for Unk. Opened a Coors, turned on the netbook for a quick cruise through the Cloudy Nights bulletin boards, and that was it. I’d had exactly five hours sleep in the last 24, and before Adam Richman could gobble his first mega-sandwich on Man vs. Food, it was dreamland for me. If the sky had been clear, you can bet your bippy I’d have been out on the field, but I don’t know how much I’d have got done—or how long I would have stayed awake.

Morning came and with it blue skies and a huge waffle slathered in Log Cabin Syrup and butter. Then it was out to the good, old field, where several of Unk’s fellow CAVers, including Carl, Mike, John, and Bobbie were hanging out. The sky was clear, the temperatures balmy, and gear setup, if not exactly pleasant when you’ve got as much to set up as I did, was quick and easy. Tailgating canopy up and Bertha on her tripod, I wandered the field for a while and then headed back to town for lunch and nap in that order.

I need to vary my Chiefland menu one of these days, but I never can seem to get past Bill’s and their insane lunch special. For around ten dollars you get barbecue beef (or pork), excellent beans, butter-saturated Texas toast, enormous fries, a drink, and the salad bar. Bill’s salad bar is particularly noteworthy. The stuff is fresh and it is old fashioned—no purple vegetables. Unk drenched everything except his monstrous salad in Bill’s notorious hot and spicy barbecue sauce, and just kept eating and eating.

Back at the motel, I started Michael Hoskin’s book about Will and Lina Herschel, Discoverers of the Universe. Barely. I just made it to the end of the first chapter when my eyes began to close and I knew nothing more for a couple of hours. That is the way you star party, friends: good food and a good bed in a clean and warm/cool motel room.

When I awakened it was time to get going. I still needed to set up the computer, camera, DVD recorder, and DVD player and get everything cabled together. To give myself plenty of time, I headed out to the CAV at 4:15. OK, OK, I’ll be honest: when I am in Chiefland I feel drawn to the Astronomy Village like a freaking swallow to Capistrano, and it’s hard to sit around in the motel room waiting for sunset.

Soon enough, Sol was hitting the hay, and it was time to get to work. I’d like to tell y’all that everything went smoothly, but if that ever happened it really wouldn’t be an Uncle Rod night, and you wouldn’t believe it anyway. Setup did go smoothly at first. Fired up the netbook, lit off the camera, started its software, and brought up the cross-box (crosshairs with a box in the center) overlay on the video screen to help me center the consarned alignment stars. Started NexRemote and selected the proper software build for the NS11. “Hit OK,” Bertha intoned via NR’s Microsoft Mary voice. When I did, disaster struck.

Instead of going to the normal NexRemote hand controller display, a little window popped up that said “INTERNAL ERROR!” That did not sound good, not good at all. Redid the settings. Same-same. Quit NR and started it again. “INTERNAL ERROR!” Now what was I gonna do? I did have the hardware HC with me, but did this indicate an electronic gremlin in the scope itself? Shoot! Sure was glad I’d brought Celeste along.

I sat at the computer for a few minutes wondering what the problem could be. Then it hit me: “Rod, you DUMMY! You forgot to turn on the telescope!” I flipped Bertha’s o-n/o-f-f switch to o-n, and gave NexRemote another try: “INTERNAL ERROR!” I was pretty sure I’d confused the poor netbook badly by this time and needed to reboot, so I didn’t panic. I restarted Windows 7 and gave NR one last try. Selected settings and pressed “OK,” just like Bertha told me to, and she immediately asked if I wanted to do a GPS align. Whew!

After this foolishness, the rest of Bertha’s alignment went smoothly; having crosshairs on the video screen was a big help. What exposure did I use on the Xtreme during go-to alignment? Sense-up at “128x,” about 2-seconds, worked great for both star centering and focusing. I was concerned the two stars Bertha chose, Capella and Aldebaran, were a little close together, but her go-tos were right on all night, with everything I requested somewhere on the Mallincam’s small chip, so go figure. I swung over to the little open cluster NGC 2158, focused up, and got to work. Well, I got to work after I’d stared at the tiny and distant open cluster for a while. In a 15-second exposure it was wonderfully resolved, and the star COLORS looked oh-so-pretty. Yay Xtreme!

How did the new Mallincam affect my normal routine? Not much at all. I’d check the Herschel Project list on SkyTools 3 for the next target and punch its number into NexRemote. When Bertha’s slew finished, I’d adjust the exposure if I felt that necessary and record 30-seconds of video to DVD. The exposure part was the only difference from what I’ve been doing with the Stellacam II since The Project began.

With the old camera, I’d have to go out to the scope to change settings on its (wired) hand control. Which meant I’d have to leave my warm and cozy observing position, which meant lazy ol’ me usually just set the Stellacam for a reasonable exposure and left it alone for the whole run.

Using the Mallincam control software, I could sit at the netbook and change exposure (integration time), gamma, gain, and a lot of other stuff for the best possible images. Not having to go to the telescope encouraged me to do a lot of experimenting with those things. I started out real shaky with the settings--this was my first outing with the Mallincam under truly dark skies--but as the hours passed, it became easier and easier to get what I wanted (though I am hardly a Mallincam expert yet); using the Xtreme’s software was like playing a musical instrument. I was learning the licks and getting in the groove.

Actually, there was one other major change. The Mallincam is somewhat longer than the Stellacam, so I could not use it with my Meade f/3.3 reducer. Plugged straight into a visual back screwed onto the reducer, the camera would contact Bertha’s drive base well before zenith. I couldn’t use the camera in a diagonal, either; it would not come to focus with the Meade 3.3 in that configuration.

What did I do? All I could do. I mounted my Celestron f/6.3 reducer/corrector onto the scope’s rear port, screwed a William Optics 2-inch dielectric SCT diagonal to that, and installed a Baader .5x focal reducer on the camera’s nosepiece. I inserted the camera/reducer into the diagonal via a 1.25-inch adapter, crossed my fingers, and gave it a try. This jury rig worked OK, acceptably at least, delivering somewhat more reduction than the Meade, but I reckon I probably need to put one of Rock’s MFR reducers on my wish list.

As I mentioned to y’all in my initial report on the Xtreme, midway through my first run with it (at the club dark site back in Possum Swamp) NexRemote stopped responding, throwing up the dreaded No Response errors. I was using a no-name USB- serial adapter for the Mallincam serial connection, and I thought it might be conflicting somehow with the Keyspan adapter I was using for NexRemote. I replaced the no-name with another Keyspan and crossed my fingers. Looked like Unk for once hit the solution on the first try. I had no computer problems the whole time we were at CAV, with NexRemote and the Mallincam playing together happily.

All that’s just the mechanics, though. What did I look at? Another H-project milestone was passed on this evening, friends. When I finished the Herschel II list, I decided to tackle the Herschel I, the Herschel 400, since I’d had so much fun leading you-all through the HII. Thursday evening, that came to an end, with me knocking off the last two H400s I needed, a couple of galaxies down Lynx way. Was I sad like I was when I finished the Herschel II? Not really. I’ve been through the H400 a couple of times at this point, so this didn’t feel like the major turning point finishing the HII was.

As always, the details below are from NASA’s N.E.D., and the galaxy types are given according to the de Vaucouleurs system. Try to ignore the banding in these simple screen grabs. They are not the fault of the camera, but Unk’s fault as per usual, and are due to iffy AC power setup and me not yet really knowing how to adjust camera gain, gamma and everything else.

NGC 2683 (H.I.200) is spectacular with only 15 seconds of exposure, displaying much detail including a bright stellar core, a strongly elongated inner region showing some dark lane detail, and a wispy outer envelope. NGC 2683 is a nearly edge-on SA(rs)b spiral that’s bright at magnitude 10.64 and large at 9.3’x2.2’.

NGC 2782 (H.I.167) is a little low, but I can still make out some odd looking details with a 15-second exposure. It looks disturbed. There’s a bright nucleus, some off center disk, and traces of very faint streamers on the live video. This intermediate inclination SAB(rs)a galaxy is apparently intereacting with another island universe. It is very apparent at magnitude 12.3 and a size of 3.5’x2.6’.

After Lynx, what? Then, muchchos, it was BIG ENCHILADA TIME, time to continue my pursuit of The Whole Big Thing, the Herschel 2500, the complete list, of which 866 remained to be logged. When I got started Thursday, I was worried I wouldn’t have many objects to chase till the spring galaxies rose late-late/early-early. That turned out not to be the case. Have you got any idea how many fuzzies there are in Draco? There are a bunch, and by the time I’d worked my way through them the Great Bear had climbed out of his cave and over the eastern horizon. As y’all do know, I’m sure, his dipper bowl is just brimming with galaxies.

NGC 2782
So it went: eyeball the nextun in SkyTools 3, punch it into NexRemote, record it on video, write the DSO’s number in my notebook, record my brief impressions of it on my (MP3) audio recorder, and repeat as needed. Which was a lot of repeating this evening. I was rested and raring to go; I was on what D. calls A DEEP SKY TEAR. I passed 100 new objects, strolled over to the clubhouse, pulled a Monster out of the fridge, poured it down, and kept on trucking. Before I knew it it was after two and on the way to three and I’d logged 150 new ones.

I could have gone longer but for one problem:  it was cold. With my canopy in full cold weather mode with the sides (blue tarps) up and my little Black Cat catalytic heater cranking, I don’t normally get too chilled. Sitting at the computer out of the dew I am comfortable enough on a mid-thirties night like Thursday, even if my old bones ain’t exactly toasty warm. But I screwed up. I forgot to bring along a cigarette lighter to light the Black Cat. I’d borrowed Carl Wright’s lighter at sundown to get the heater going initially, but shortly after two a.m. the first Coleman gas bottle was exhausted.

At dark, the field had been surprisingly full for a January dark of the Moon. At least 10 scopes were up and operating. Now, save for me and one other person, that storied field was deserted; the cold and, especially, the damp induced reasonable folks to call it a night around midnight on this long evening.

I can get spooked on a lonely observing field, but this time, even where I was, in the heart of SKUNK APE country, I didn’t. I was fired up. I wanted more galaxies. But I was also cold and there was nobody to borrow a lighter from so I could restart the heater with a fresh propane bottle. Big Switch time I ruefully and reluctantly admitted.

After throwing that darned switch, securing the scope and gear, and motoring back to the Days Inn, the clock said it was well past three and getting on to four. Do you know what is on cable TV at that time of the a.m.? Yep, you guessed it, Ancient Aliens, the silliest, most outrageous, and most entertaining (when it’s the wee hours and you’ve had a shot of Rebel Yell) show on the air.

As much as I got done Thursday, that was just the beginning of my latest Chiefland adventure. Friday was almost as good, and I even saw some stuff Saturday night, which was, according to the Weather Channel, supposed to be completely clouded out. For variety’s sake, though, let’s leave Chiefland, Florida behind and travel way out west to Portland, Oregon next Sunday. Have no fear; I will finish up with the H-Project Nights 29 and 30 the following week. For now, muchachos, I am going to back to my day job in the shipyard so I can get some cotton picking rest.

Next Time: Everything’s Coming Up Roses...

2018 Update:

Over the course of these blog reruns, I've talked a fair amount about the changes that beset Chiefland. Some had to do with the astronomy village, but just as many had to do with the motel situation in town.

The first time I journeyed to the Chiefland Astronomy Village, I stayed in a tent--on a blazing hot observing field in May. "Never again," as you can imagine. Second time, it was the independent motel in town, the Manatee Springs Motel. It was...bearable, but not really OK. That left a choice between the Holiday Inn Express or the Best Western for my next Chiefland safari.

I chose the Holiday Inn if for no other reason than that it was in close proximity to my two major points of interest in the early days: Walmart and Bar-B-Q-Bill's. It was a small/medium sized motel with clean rooms, a beautiful and clean pool, friendly staff, and, finally, those deadly "little cinnamon rolls," Holiday Inn used to boast of in its old TV commercials. Man were they good.

There things stayed for a quite a few years. After the H-Project began, I was down so frequently the motel's staff became familiar faces. Then, one trip sometime after the Herschel Project had passed its midpoint, I noticed none of the faces at the motel were familiar anymore. Rut-roh.

Next visit, a couple of months later, the Holiday Inn Express sign had been covered with a temporary Days Inn sign. That was truly a bad omen. There's no denying Days Inn is a pretty big step down from Holiday Inn Express, Best Western, Hampton Inn, and the rest of the mid-tier.

Still, I continued to stay in the place--it was just so convenient. Until one trip where the rooms absolutely stank. Literally. The place looked dirty. The breakfast was nasty. And the televisions in the rooms had been replaced with the tiniest TVs I'd seen in years. No more. Next time, Best Western. If the Days Inn has improved over the last couple of years, the Yelp reviews I've read don't indicate that.

I'd actually stayed at the Best Western a time or two, usually when the Holiday Inn Express was full for some reason. Verdict? While it was a mile or two closer to the astronomy village, all in all it wasn't quite as convenient. Also, while the rooms were larger, they didn't tend to be as clean. With the Days Inn Debacle, however, I had no choice, and Best Western was quite OK. If only it had stayed Best Western.

One afternoon I set about to make reservations for my next CAV odyssey. I couldn't find anything on the web about a Best Western in Chiefland. It turned out it had gone the same way as the Holiday Inn Express, devolving to Quality Inn.

While the owners made an initial show of repainting and spiffing up, the end result was cheapening, just like at the Days Inn (I understand the two hostelries are owned by the same penny pinching person). Food not as good as it once was. Not quite as clean, etc., etc.

What to do? I stuck with Quality Inn for my remaining trips to CAV, the last in 2015 for the revived Chiefland Star Party. That time, some event in town resulted in me only being able to get one night in the Quality Inn. I couldn't even get one night in the Days Inn. The first evening, I tent camped. I sure loved that (not). Second night, I was in the Quality Inn, which I must admit, seemed like heaven after that fricking-fracking tent. I spent my last night at the Chiefland Astronomy Village (thus far) sleeping in the back of my 4Runner. Not pleasant, but maybe not any worse than the Days Inn.

The motel debacle is at least 50% of the reason I haven't been back to CAV. I'd like to go back, someday, though. With that on my mind, I just did a web search on "Chiefland Florida motels." The results? Quality Inn and Days Inn. Sigh.

Which I don't understand. Chiefland is something of a crossroads in the area. There are attractions and scads of people still pass through on their way to points south. Surely the town could support a nice motel. Sigh.

You know, part of me really wanted to do the Winter Star Party this year. It was held in CAV this time thanks to the destruction in the Keys wrought by last year's storms. But the thought of those motels dissuaded me--the lousy spring weather also had something to do with it. Maybe I'm also still suffering a bit of a hangover from the many nights of the Herschel Project.

Who knows? This winter or next spring I may be ready for another visit (probably to the adjacent site of the Chiefland Star Party Group this time) Down Chiefland Way. Maybe at 3 am that Quality Inn might even seem like heaven again.

I was sorry to miss you Rod at Rose City. Been a member there for at least 14 of the last 16 years.

Great club, in fact about the only observing I do anymore is at the club star parties.

Hope you have a nice time and they were good hosts to you. You should make it to the Oregon Star Party - its a fine time.
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