Saturday, February 11, 2012


The Herschel Project Nights 29 and 30

The first night of my latest Herschel expedition at the Chiefland Astronomy Village, Night 28, was a rollicking success, muchachos. Despite me still being on the weary side in the wake of my quick trip to Portland, Oregon and back, I managed to corral close to 150 new Herschel 2500 Big Enchilada objects. With the weather the way it had been for the last several months, though, Unk was not about to rest on his laurels. I’d have to hit it hard on the second night, Friday night, as well.

Thursday evening’s skies had been just short of spectacular. Occasionally a little drifting haze, and fairly humid conditions, but far better than “good enough.” Alas, the weather turkeys were promising clouds, maybe as soon as midnight Friday, with Saturday evening supposedly being a wash or close to it.

I tried to sleep as late as I could Friday morning to recharge the old batteries, but there is a limit to how late I can go no matter how sleep deprived I am. Folks, your poor old Unk gets up at 4:30 in the cotton picking a.m. every single weekday morning to get to the shipyard on time, which means that even on weekends and vacations I have an awful hard time sleeping much past about 0730. I tried my best, but was up and heading for the lobby and a Day’s Inn breakfast well before 0900.

What did I find in the lobby? The usual miniature bagels, semi-tired pastries, cold cereal, and small muffins. But that wasn’t all. As I mentioned in the last Herschel Report, WAFFLES had been added to the menu. I filled the iron with waffle mix, rotated it to start it cooking, and hoped for the best; I haven’t had a lot of luck with these deals in the past. Surprise! My waffle came out perfectly cooked and I was able to get it from the iron to my plate without destroying it. Several pats of butter and about a gallon of Log Cabin Syrup, and I was one happy camper. If only there had been bacon to go with it.

Even after taking a leisurely long time to finish our morning ablutions, Miss Dorothy and I had a whole lot of day before us. How would we occupy the hours till sundown? First, with a return trip to Wally-World. Difficult as it might be to believe, I’d forgot the most critical item on my list when we’d hit the Chiefland Wal-Mart Thursday evening: Monster Energy Drinks. As I have often said, Monsters are the best astronomy accessory I’ve discovered in a long, long time. They can keep me going as late as 3 a.m., which old Unk now considers an “all nighter.” I just have to remember to stop drinking ‘em before I start trembling like a freaking Chihuahua. Usually one early on and maybe one more ‘round midnight is enough.

Friday was the day for me and D’s traditional trip to Duma Key, a.k.a. Cedar Key. As you know if you’ve been reading this here blog for a while, Cedar Key is a now-touristy little fishing village on one of the Florida West Coast’s forgotten keys. It’s got plenty of semi-tacky bars and nightlife and gift shops, and it is fun. We always find a new restaurant or bar to try.

This time it was Steamer’s Clam Bar and Grill, just down the wharf from The Black Dog (home of the Flirtini). It was obvious from the look of the place that Steamer’s doesn’t start rocking till the wee hours, but there were a few folks in for an early lunch, nevertheless. And it was soon obvious why. Our food was some of the best we’ve had in Cedar Key. Unk, for some inexplicable reason, chose a barbeque pork sandwich instead of seafood. But I was glad I did. The rum-laced BBQ sauce was insane. Miss Dorothy opted for the crab bisque and pronounced it some of the best she’d ever had anywhere. It being rather early in the day, Unk went for Coors Light drafts instead of his usual Duma Key beverage of choice, Corona, but that was OK, too.

Lunch done, we strolled about the shops. Prime mission was getting a gift for Miss Lizbeth, who was kind enough to drop by Chaos Manor South during our extended absence and feed the cats—a critically important task according to them. Meow Mix in a self-feeder just don’t get it, they say. In addition to a little something for Lizbeth, I picked up a Cedar Key shot glass to add to my substantial collection, and, very importantly, a cigarette lighter so I could light my Black Cat catalytic header.

There were lots of hours left in the day when we set out for The Key, but they’d almost magically disappeared by the time our visit was done. When we got back to the motel, Friday was on the downhill slope of afternoon. I messed around the room for a little while, read my book, Mike Hoskin’s Discoverers of the Universe, which I mentioned last time and hope to review for y'all soon, tried to take a nap, and, when I just couldn’t stand it no more, headed out to the CAV to get ready.

On the second night of our Chiefland run there really wasn’t much to get ready: set up the netbook; hook up the computer, scope, and Mallincam Xtreme cables; and remove Big Bertha’s time-tested Desert Storm Cover. In other words, I really didn’t need to be there at 4:30, but the hour or so of daylight remaining gave me time to visit with my buddies, and especially old friend Tom Clark.

“Tom Clark” is a name that ought to be familiar to all regular readers of the Little Old Blog from Chaos manor South. Mr. Clark and wife Jeannie are two of the nation’s leading amateur astronomers. In addition to their other endeavors, they are among the founding members of the Chiefland Astronomy Village, and ever since I began observing Down Chiefland Way I’ve been setting up on Tom and Jeannie’s spread. In the beginning, at the huge Chiefland Star Parties and Chiefland Spring Picnics, and, in these latter days, for our little group’s, the Chiefland Observers’, monthly dark of the Moon sessions. In other words, without Tom and Jeannie’s hospitality and generosity, there likely wouldn’t have been a Chiefland for me.

As I am sometimes wont to say, though, “all good things (must come to an end).” I knew the Clarks had been considering a move way out west, to a desert analogue of the CAV, the up-and-coming New Mexico Astronomy Village. And I was happy for them. Who wouldn’t want to observe under black desert skies every night? Still, I couldn’t help hoping that would be “some day.” So I was a mite taken aback when Mr. Clark motored up on his golf cart and announced that he and Jeannie and The Beast (their gigantanormous Dobsonian) would be leaving the CAV for good in just a month or three.

There is no doubt I will very much miss hanging out with and observing with the Clarks—something I’ve done far too little of since beginning The Herschel Project, I reckon. But, yeah, all good things. I hope we will be able to continue to observe at the CAV, either with the permission of the new owner of the Clarks’ property, or on the “Nova Sedus” field. The folks who do the “new” Chiefland Star Party host monthly observing on their land as well, and from my experience each and every one of them is as nice as nice can be.

Truth be told, and I hope this don’t shock y’all, me and D’s remaining time at the CAV is likely limited, anyhow. Miss Dorothy retired from the university a while back, and while Unk ain’t ready to give up his day job just yet his remaining tenure will probably be just a few more years. Bottom line? We have decided to retire to the Atlanta area, and will make the switch to the Deerlick Astronomy Village when we do, I reckon. Y’all know me, I do so hate change, but change happens whether I want it to or not, and I’ve had a whole decade of fun at the CAV thanks to the Clarks.

Tom and his ever present golf cart.
That was the future, though; there was still the present. Which was shaping up to be another spectacular evening of deep sky observing. There’d been a few drifting patches of high clouds at sundown, and a line of something to the north and east, but as the stars winked on, all that disappeared and the winter Milky Way began to burn. It was not as good as Thursday night—the humidity was spiking up—but at least it wasn’t as cold.

Time to get the good, old NexStar 11 GPS aligned. Which wasn’t so easy this time. Maybe Bertha was paying me back for the mistakes I made during her alignment Thursday night, but when I fired her up this evening it was clear she wasn’t in the mood to cooperate. She chose radically different alignment stars this time. The first star Friday night, she said, would be Sirius, which I thought might be a wee bit low in the east. But it got worse. Instead heading east for Sirius, Bertha pointed to the south-southwest. What the hey?

Bertha has been known to do some strange stuff on occasion, but this was strange even for her. The why? I dunno. Bad GPS fix? The presence of Tom’s nearby golf cart confused her electronic compass? Glitch in the field AC I was running her on? I suppose it could have been any one of those things. Course, Unk being the superstitious type he is—when telescopes are concerned—he had a pretty good idea of the cause of the problem.

As I told y’all last Herschel Report, when I was getting Bertha (in her case) down the front steps of the old manse, I banged my poor knee in rather painful fashion. After I’d recovered and we were on the road, I fessed up to Miss D. that I’d dang near done myself a serious injury. I further went on to say that I had concluded that sooner or later I would have to defork the C11 and put her on a Losmandy G11. I’m a-guessing Bertha overheard me and began plotting revenge.

I cycled the power, lit Bertha off again, and restarted the alignment with NexRemote. This time, she imitated an insane merry-go-round, trying to flip over backwards in search of level. Sigh. Big Switch again. Third time was the charm. I exercised B’s altitude limit switch, and started over. This time she cooperated, going to Capella and Aldebaran, and behaving for the rest of the evening, not missing a single go-to.

What was on the agenda Friday? More H2500s, of course. After finishing the H400 the previous night, and having been done with the Herschel II for a while, there was nowhere else to go. Well, almost nowhere. After all the alarms and excursions, I decided to treat myself to a pretty one first. It was dark, full dark, by now and M82 was high enough to bother with. We went there. That wonderful galaxy, which Miss Lizbeth used to call “The Exploding Cigar Galaxy” when she was little, was looking mighty fine with 15 seconds of exposure. On a whim, I cranked the Xtreme up to nearly a minute.

I am so glad I did. When the first exposure came in, I was blown away. It wasn’t the dust lanes or the nearly spindle-shaped disk, it was what was coming out of the center of M82 that killed me. I told Dorothy that the thing looked like a fried pie (something we eat down here) that had been stepped on. Cherry filling was squirting out the middle. That filling, of course, was the stellar wind-blown matter from the center of the galaxy. I’ve often seen that in long-exposure CCD images, but I never dreamed of eyeballing it in (near) real time. The single frame screen grab here only hints at what I saw. When I was finally able to tear myself away, nearby M81, Bode’s Nebula, was similarly astounding, with its delicate and difficult arms as easy as I’ve ever seen ‘em. The color, as on M82, was astoundingly good.

After luxuriating in the beauty of the Messiers for quite a while, it was back to work with the H2500 as I soldiered on through Ursa Major. Most of those done, I went to Cancer. Yes, the majority of the Crab’s island universes are small and delicate and dim, but there are some pretty ones too, including a few set among the hard stars of the Beehive Cluster, M44.

On I went, ticking off one galaxy after another—with the exception of a couple of fugitive open clusters, all tonight’s aitches were galaxies—on SkyTools and slewing to the inevitable nextun. Which I kept up till it was getting on toward midnight. I took a break then and moseyed over to the clubhouse for a bathroom pit-stop, my second and last Monster of the night, and a drink of water. As I tell any amateur who will listen, water is almost as instrumental in keeping me awake as a Monster or a cup o’ coffee. When I begin to get tired, often the reason is that I am dehydrated, and chugging a bottle of H20 is all I need to do to put me right again.

Back on my starship bridge (under my Coleman tailgating canopy, that is), I munched that food of the gods, Jack Links Flaming Buffalo Nuggets, and contemplated my next move. Which depended on the sky. I stuck my head out from under the canopy, took a look, and didn’t like what I was seeing. Most of it was good, very good, still, but off to the southwest I could see bad stuff on the way. Not real bad stuff, but stuff that would wreck my run. Jupiter, sinking in the southwest, had suddenly developed a halo. If I was gonna get even one more object, I had better get Bertha pointed at it right away.

What should that deep sky object be? Hmm…seemed as I had not yet ticked IC434/B33, the Horsehead Nebula, off the Big Enchilada list. It was still in the clear, and that’s where I went. I needed it, yeah, but mostly I wanted to see what the Mallincam Xtreme would do with it from a dark sky.

CAV Clubhouse
I upped the camera’s exposure to 56-seconds and let fly. When the image came in, I was even more impressed than I had been with M82. IC434 was blood red, the nearby reflection nebula, NGC 2023, was an icy blue, and the Horse herself was a thing of wonder. It was something about the contrast, the details in that patch of dust, and the color of B33 that made this the best look I have ever had at this legendary nebula. My quick snapshot of the monitor screen with my Fujifilm digicam can’t even begin to capture what I saw or engender the feelings the Horse stirred in me that night. I am not exaggerating, muchachos. That good.

I’m glad I sent Bertha to B33; that meant I ended on a high note. By the time I’d had a good look at Her Horsiness, the clouds/haze in the west had expanded to cover most of the sky. Over the next half hour, the clouds would come and they would go, but even the sucker holes that drifted through weren’t totally clear. Looked to this old boy like it was Big Switch time again.

It wasn’t even one in the fracking a.m. yet, and I still felt raring to go, but there was nothing for it. I began the half-hour job of putting Big Bertha and the rest of the gear to bed. No, I wasn’t ready to quit, but I’d got plenty, if not as much as I hoped, done. On Friday night I logged close to seventy-five new Herschels, putting my two day take at over two-hundred. Normally, if my total is anything over one-hundred objects for an entire CAV trip, I feel I’ve been highly successful, and this time there one still one more evening to go (maybe).

Back at the Day’s Inn, I wasn’t close to sleepy yet. A tour through the Cloudy Nights bulletin boards didn’t help, so out came the Rebel Yell bottle and to the Travel Channel for some Ghost Adventures went Unk. I drifted off watching Zak and his friends, Nick and Aaron, explore a spooky—to put it mildly—insane asylum.

Next morning? The most notable thing was that I resisted the temptation to gobble yet another enormous waffle. I let it be with a bagel and a cup of coffee. Breakfast done, it was time to plan our daytime activities. Having an extra day at Chiefland was cool, since we’d get a chance to do something a little different without sacrificing out usual must-dos like Duma Key. This afternoon we hoped to see some of Chiefland’s famous manatees at play at nearby Manatee Springs State Park.

As many times as I’d been down to CAV, I had never visited the park. The closest I’d come was the time me and my long-time observing companion, Pat, had stayed at the Manatee Springs Motel (a.k.a. “The Pregnant Guppy Motel”), and it is situated right on Highway 19 and has nothing at all to do with manatees or the state park. Miss D. and I decided to correct that omission, and headed off for Manatee Springs.

I had no idea what to expect. If I expected anything, it was “small and simple.” Probably, I figured, nothing more than a few picnic tables positioned along the river. At least I now knew the park is on the Suwannee River; in the past I’d always pictured it as being along the Gulf somewhere, which shows how little I knew about Manatee Springs State Park to say nothing of manatees.

After a journey of just a few miles, Dorothy and I paid our six dollars at the ranger shack and drove into the park. I was amazed. Far from just a spot in the road, Manatee Springs is a pretty and well-developed Florida State Park in the old mold, with, yes, picnic tables under moss-heavy trees, but also with a large concession/bathroom/bathhouse building, numerous well-marked trails, and a cool boardwalk that extends along the park’s inlet from the Suwannee and out to the river itself.

Dorothy and I tried, but no matter how hard we looked along that inlet or in the Suwannee (which is a wider and more impressive river than you may imagine), nary a manatee did we spot despite January being prime manatee watching time. We did see lots of squirrels and birds, and could only imagine how beautiful this off-the-beaten-path park must be in the spring. We will be back, that’s for dang sure.

By the time we’d left the Manatee Springs’ shady quiet behind, it was getting on toward lunch. I wondered if we should try a different restaurant this afternoon. Maybe Deke’s steakhouse, which I’d been to once in the days before Miss Dorothy began accompanying me on my Herschel expeditions. Or a new place down the road a piece that was reputed to be super-good, the 1998 Grill.

I liked the grub at Deke’s, for sure, but my suggestion was half-hearted and Miss D. knew it. I wanted more barbeque at Bill’s, natch. I did vary my diet a wee bit at least, opting for the pork plate instead of the beef plate. I don’t know what it was, but this was absolutely the best food I have ever had at this legendary barbeque joint. Miss Dorothy allowed as how the Brunswick stew she chose was almost as good as what we’d got at Georgia’s famed Fresh Air Barbeque one time when we visited the Georgia Sky View star party.

A little resting at the motel done, and I was standing on the field at the CAV for the final night of my Herschel Adventure, hanging out and schmoozing with my fellow Chiefland Observers one last time. For this trip, if not forever. It was funny: I wanted it to get dark, and yet didn’t. I didn’t want to let go of this moment. Which was not enough to stop old Sol from sinking, of course. I fired up Bertha, who for once aligned without a complaint or hitch.

What did I look at? I’d decided given the hazy conditions, which appeared to be tending to the worse, I’d settle for the 200+ Herschel 2500s I already had in the bag. I would not exactly desert the H-project this evening, but I would forget the faint fuzzies. I’d run the list I’d made of the “best of the 2500,” the more spectacular of the Big Enchilada’s holdings, that I wanted detailed images of, maybe for use in a book.

Manatee Springs State Park
It was a trip seeing the best of the best in detailed color with the Mallincam Xtreme. I liked everything I imaged Saturday, but one object stood out. Big time. A lot of y’all don’t pay much attention to the little constellation Fornax the furnace. He’s small and he’s kinda far to the south, but he is literally packed with wonders—if’n you like galaxies.

In addition to the countless smudges of the Fornax Cluster, there is a galaxy that for me is the archetype of the barred spiral. NGC 1097 is a spectacle; its huge bar and far-flung arms seem alive with motion. I’d been amazed by it with the Stellacam II year before last, but this time, with the Xtreme cranking out long exposures, I felt as if I’d been punched in the gut. Its remote and unearthly beauty literally tugged at my heartstrings.

Enough of that poetic nonsense, y’all. What was the night’s outcome? The final tally? I did twenty of my best-of objects between cloudy stretches, and took a philosophical and not poetical look at the CAV sky at about 11 p.m. Conditions were not that bad, but were not that good, either, and the sky appeared to degrading further. It certainly didn’t look clear enough for me to attack the faintest of Coma’s rising horde. And there would be packing and the drive home to Possum Swamp the next morning. And it had been one hell of a week.

Shortly after 11 p.m. I told my fellow Chiefland Observers I was going to sacrifice myself. I knew good and well that if I pulled that consarned Big Switch, the heavens would magically open back up just as soon as I hit Highway 19. I secured the NS11, packed the computer, put the Xtreme and a few other things in their cases to speed the packing process the next morning, and said some goodbyes. I received assurances from my mates that observing will continue as it always has down CAV Way, and I sure hope they are right.

Good, old Bertha.
Snug in the motel room, I turned on the cable, which was, sure enough, showing yet another marathon of those koo-koo Ghost Adventures. Lingering over my whiskey, I didn’t pay much attention to the boob tube, though. I was a little blue. With the Clarks leaving and the inevitable changes that would bring, I couldn’t help but feel I’d closed the book on ten solid years of wonderful observing. Dwelling on such things, I finally drifted off to sleep.

Next morning we grabbed a quick bite, checked out of the old motel, and headed to the site. Sure enough, Tom said, as I’d expected he would, that just as soon as I left the sky had got mucho beautiful. Well, so it goes, as it always does. One last round of see-yas, and, truck loaded, it was off to The Florida - Georgia Parkway and on to I-10. I still felt a little melancholy, but that was moderated by the knowledge that I’d put another big group of H-2500s away, and that it had been a wonderful Chiefland run in the company of my wonderful wife. I hoped, and hope very much that I will be back on the Old Field this summer for more of my Herschel Adventures.

Next Time: My Favorite Star Parties, ALCON 2003…

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