Sunday, April 22, 2012


The Herschel Project Night 32

One of the things I said in the last Herschel Project Report was that your old Uncle Rod’s observing runs don’t often go as planned. Another thing was that if’n they did they wouldn’t be much fun to read about. You sure don’t have to worry about that this time, muchachos. Night 32 wasn’t an absolute disaster. In fact, I actually got a little accomplished. But there is no denying there were some annoyances, and that the evening ended on a weird note.

It didn’t start out weird. My gear was ready to go, assembled in Chaos Manor South’s front parlor, early in the a.m. Saturday. The weather looked pretty good. Clear, almost crisp—if you can have “crisp” this time of year in The Swamp. The Clear Sky Charts (née Clock) didn’t look bad, either. Yes, the lighter blue squares centered on the evening indicated less than perfect transparency, but it didn’t appear clouds would be a problem much before midnight. disagreed, predicting “mostly cloudy.” We’d see.

Miss Dorothy and I went out for our traditional Saturday Chinese buffet lunch, and after that stopped at Academy Sporting Goods for a pistol case for me.  I wanted a case for the Orion StarShoot DVR I’ve got on the way. More on that next Sunday,  maybe. After a run on Winn Dixie for the week’s groceries, we were back home by mid afternoon.

Over the next few hours, I wandered out onto the front porch once in a while for looks at the weather, but I wasn’t torn about whether to stay or go. Yes, there were some white fluffy things drifting through, and the humidity was spiking up atrociously, but that didn’t matter. As my faithful readers know, a while back I decided to adhere strictly to this mantra: “If it ain’t raining, head to the dark site.” There was no decision to be made; there seemed to be little chance of rain.

At 5:30 there’d been no change, and I began loading the gear. At 6—sunset is at 7:20 at the moment—I hopped in the 4Runner, Miss Lucille Van Pelt, and headed for the dark site. The farther west we went, the more clouds we saw, but even so, it was just scattered clouds. We were not socked in and it looked like we wouldn’t be, not for a while, anyhow.

Gear setup took half an hour, even though I went as fast as I could. This would be a Mallincam Xtreme video run, so I had all that copious astro-stuff to get ready. That is the reason, one of ‘em, stingy little ol’ me decided to drop a couple of C notes on Orion’s new mini-DVR/display. If I could eliminate the DVD recorder, the portable DVD player I use as a screen, associated cables, and one battery, that would be a Good Thing.

Not that set up is that bad as it is. I was on the field half an hour before sunset to assemble the gear, and still had close to an hour to wait after I was done before it was dark enough to begin serious observing. What did my mind turn to as I wandered the field? Haints and spooks. As you-all know, I can get a little jittery at a dark site when I’m by myself, and it looked like I would be all by my lonesome this time.

My usual observing pals were supporting a Cub Scout public outreach event over on the Eastern Shore (of Mobile Bay). That’s probably where I should have been, too, but it sounded like they had all the scopes they needed, and I am loathe to let the rare clear evening this time of year go by without trying to snag a few aitches. I am bound and determined to finish the 2500 this year, and to do that I’ll have to grab as many Big Enchilada fuzzies as I can at every single opportunity.

I told myself I’d be just fine on a solo dark site run. I felt good; I didn’t have that odd feeling that usually presages my nervous evenings. I’d be perfectly OK in the friendly, safe surroundings of our observing field, with the nice folks who own the airstrip just steps away. Course, that little voice in my head just couldn’t help disagreeing, “Well, that’s how you feel NOW, Unk. You will feel different ‘round midnight.”

Actually, it looked like I wouldn’t be all by myself after all; couple of cars pulled onto the field just at sunset. I wouldn’t be by myself for a while, anyway. The fellow PSASers who joined me were more of the “let’s look at a couple of pretty things early on” type than of the “hard core” persuasion. I figgered they might hang in till 10 p.m. That little voice then tried to convince me, “10 pm wouldn’t be a bad time for us to head home, either.”

My response? “Hush!” By the time it got dark and I got the CG5 and my C8, Celeste, aligned, it would be nine, easy. I dern sure intended to go longer than one cotton pickin’ hour. Despite hitting Ursa Major fairly hard last time, a look at SkyTools 3s RealTime display revealed I still had dang near half the constellation to go. If I somehow-someway finished the Great Bear, there’d be the mighty Coma-Virgo cluster of galaxies.

Equipment set up went pretty well. Got the laptop computer booted, powered on the Mallincam Xtreme camera, started up its software, enabled the Mallincam's onscreen crosshairs, and got ready to do an alignment NexRemote style.

In addition to wanting to hit Ursa Major again, my prime mission this evening would be to give NexRemote a clean bill of health. I had been utterly unable to use the program on Night 31, receiving nothing but the dreaded “No Response” communications errors when I tried to. I believed the problem was with my Auxiliary Port Module, the widget that gives the CG5 GEM mount the PC Port it needs to allow me to run NexRemote without the hardware hand control. I’d cleaned contacts and crimped a new RJ connector on the module’s cord, and hoped that fixed it.

Turned on the CG5, booted up NexRemote, and got going. The program connected to the mount without complaint, and I was soon doing a Two Star alignment. Centered Sirius and Capella on the video screen (real easy with the Mallincam’s crosshair overlay), and did the same for four Calibration (cone alignment) Stars. I took more than usual care, making sure I used only the up and right keys—or, actually, the up and right joystick directions on the Logitech Wireless Wingman gamepad NexRemote lets me use as my "hand control"—for final star centering.

The whole alignment process from start to finish takes about twenty minutes. Why so long? I follow those four calibration stars with a polar alignment. That is more critical for the Mallincam than it was for the Stellacam. Given the Stellacam II’s max 10-second exposures, I could get away with a less than good polar alignment. With the Xtreme? Not so much. Even in our bright skies, I will push it to at least 28-seconds, and without a decent alignment that’s where stars begin to look wicked-trailed.

As I’ve mentioned before, I still use the old “align on Polaris,” hand control software (you can select any of the mount’s many firmware builds in NexRemote). The new AllStar may be more accurate, but the older Polaris method is easier if’n you ask me. Following that, you need to do a new go-to alignment, since the mount has been moved to polar align. I have been told you can stop with the Calibration Stars as soon as one falls in the eyepiece (or on the screen) after a slew, but since that usually doesn’t happen for me till Star Three, I just do all four. Sure enough, it was near 9 p.m. when I finished.

Alrighty then! NexRemote had behaved well during the alignment and I’d been uber careful with star centering. Go-tos ort to be spot on. Lessee. Mashed “M” and “003” on the virtual NexRemote hand paddle on my computer screen. The CG5 made her customary weasels-with-tuberculosis noise and stopped. What did I see? Nuttin, honey.

Hmm. Even with the camera at a mere 2.1-seconds, I should be seeing the globular as a big fuzzball. But maybe the shutter speed was a little short. I selected a “hyper” exposure, 7-seconds. When that ended, I could indeed see M3, but only the edge of it, some of the stars around its periphery, right at the top of the screen. What was up with that? I didn’t know. Maybe I ought to try M82. It was in the area I’d be working. The galaxy was onscreen when the scope stopped, but just barely.

I know that doesn’t sound bad. Some go-to rigs have a real hard time putting an object anywhere on a small video chip.  But the CG5 will usually do at least a little better with the Xtreme (with the C8 reduced to about f/4).  Maybe I should have insisted the mount use alignment stars on the eastern side of the Meridian? Maybe I should have rejected Spica as a Calibration Star, since it was pretty low? Who knew? One more thing I have said before is that go-to computers can be as moody as cats. As long as the CG5 put whatever I wanted in the field, so what?

And it was “so what” for the first few objects. I started running down the list on SkyTools, ticking ‘em off on the screen, recording video, and making audio notes with my MP3 recorder. As is often the case after a shaky start, I felt like I was getting into that blessed zone. NOT.

By the fifth object, I was lost in space. Judging from the Palomar Observatory Sky Survey (POSS) plate I had SkyTools display, the little galaxy I was after ought to be fairly easy to see. It wasn’t, not at 15-seconds of exposure, anyway. I upped that to 28-seconds, but still didn’t see a thing. I didn’t think I did, anyway. Was that smudge the galaxy or a PGC sprite? I was not sure.

And I wasn’t sure why I wasn’t sure. Did the mount miss it? Or was I just not seeing it? Slewing a little in what I thought would be the proper direction didn’t turn up Herschel. And I had to admit that after feeling good early on, I wasn’t feeling so hot anymore.

Maybe because I'd chugged that dadgum Monster Energy Drink too fast—especially considering that on a whim I’d bought one of the full-strength muthas, not the “unleaded” low-carb version. I was kinda sweaty and icky feeling. I’d felt chilled earlier and had put on my Nylon jacket. But that made me feel too hot, and taking it off made me feel clammy. In my yuckiness, it was hard to find patterns in the stars to help me track down my prey.

I marked the galaxy in question with a “re-observe” symbol on ST3, and moved on. Next one was there. The one after didn’t seem to be. Shoot! Couldn’t have this mess. I bit the bullet, stopped, and did a whole new alignment. Nope. No cigar. Same behavior. What in Sam Hill? I decided I would press on and not worry about it. What was in was in, what wasn’t could be re-observed.

That actually worked pretty well, and I did get into the groove for a while. There were only a couple the mount didn’t find—or I didn’t see. It wasn’t  really the mount or me, I suspected. A big factor was the sky. It was hazier than ever, and patches of clouds were drifting through. Sometimes I wouldn’t be aware of ‘em until the stars on my video display dimmed dramatically. It’s possible my missed targets were actually there but were obscured by clouds.

As predicted, my observing buddies began packing up at ten, and not long after it was “Great night! See you soon!” I wasn’t too sure about the great night stuff. In addition to my travails with Celeste’s CG5, the weather was now just this side of frustrating. I noted a line of something to the south, and the intermittent cloud bands were becoming more frequent. I found myself waiting five – ten minutes between galaxies for the stars to fade back in.

“Coulda been worse.” Sure it coulda. By hook or by crook, I was now at the thirty object mark. I didn’t mind cooling my heels once in a while—it was still early, barely 11 p.m. Except that those sojourns got me to thinking. Thinking about the wrong things.

What kinda things? Great big, hairy, stinky, ape men watching from the tree line 100-meters distant. If something were there, I would never see it. And it would see me easily. The red-screen on the netbook provided plenty of illumination for animal eyes, and the Xtreme’s unfiltered display (I was the only observer left on the field) was like a spotlight. Yep, Mssr. Skunk Ape would see me, I wouldn’t see him, and next thing I’d know a giant form would be towering over me blotting out the stars…

And that hairy monster might not just be a representative of an unknown species of ape that has somehow gone unnoticed by science. Why do they call the big feller the “skunk ape”? He is accompanied by the smell of sulfur. What else is? Ghosts. UFOs. Mothman. Weird little grey aliens. THE PARANORMAL, that is. If there is the slightest bit of objective reality to the ape-men and bigfoot, it is a reality likely far stranger and scarier than the goobers on Finding Bigfoot presume.

“If” there is any truth to all those stories, which, luckily for Unk, there probably ain’t. Nevertheless, as that little voice in my head had prophesied, just like when I was a boy what seemed ludicrous at seven seemed all too possible—even likely—at eleven.

As I waited out another bunch of clouds, the consarned skunk ape’s pals joined the party. I turned a weather eye to the eastern sky and spotted a bright moving object. Satellite? Probably. Aircraft at high altitude? Maybe. Something a touch more outré? Perhaps. Why had the friendly sound of crickets suddenly ceased? Was it because I’d been moving around the area during cloudy stretches? Or was there a more sinister explanation? That the insects sensed the presence of The Little Grey Dudes from Zeta Reticuli II? Whose ship had just passed over, and whose pilots were now bent on giving your poor old Uncle a proctological exam?

Or maybe my potential foes were of a more earthly nature. Perhaps not as bad as The Deliverance Gang or the fun folk who inhabited the hills in The Hills Have Eyes, but kill-crazy hillbilly mutants anyway: “Well, well, well, Paw. LOOK WHAT WE GOT US HERE!

Y’all should be proud of me. Instead of giving in to the menace of my imaginary (maybe) “friends,” I got put out. “GULLDERNIT (remember, this is a family friendly blog), I came out here to do Herschels and I am a-gonna do Herschels. You-all are not gonna spoil my party, not this time! I HAVE HAD ENOUGH!

I actually managed to essay some more Herschels. The clouds were, if anything, thicker than ever, though, and as 11 p.m. came on I found myself drawn to the good, old eye-candy. I’d done M97 last time out as a treat, and was still annoyed with myself because I had not bounced over to M81 and M82, too. So there I went. If the skunk ape and the Greys and Clem Kadiddlehopper wanted my attention, they could darned well wait their turn.

M82 showed incredible dark lane detail at 28-seconds. I probably should have gone up to 56-seconds, but the brighter areas of the disk were—get this—already overexposed. Also, even though M82 was across the Meridian and into the darker western half of the sky, the field background was not that dark, not tonight with all the humidity-spread sky glow. I saw a hint of the galaxy’s “cherry filling” I’d reveled in on our last Chiefland trip—the crimson stellar wind blowing out of M82’s center—but just a hint.

M81 was, in a way, even better. A 28-second exposure didn’t just reveal the big thing’s pair of gossamer spiral arms, on the live video there is detail in those arms and the disk—knots and dark patches. I’ve had one really mind-blowing visual look at M81 over the years, from the uber dark skies of the Texas Star Party, and that was great, but even then M81 didn’t look like this.

A quick jaunt over to M3 to see how the pointing was going (about the same), and it was time to tear down the gear. We were on the way, looked like, to being socked in. Was I a little nervous packing up? A little. The worklights on my jump start battery packs illuminated me very well for anybody or anything who might be watching. Did I throw the gear into the vehicle like I did the last time this happened? No. I was still more mad at than afraid of my time-honored crew of weirdos. Did I at least “expedite” loading? Well, maybe.

Back home at Chaos Manor South, I took a quick peek at the evening’s images. They looked just wonderful; the Xtreme impresses me more and more every time I use it. After that, I sat halfway watching the cable and thinking about the night’s run.

Did I do any ruminating about maleficent humanoid aliens from the stars? Nope. Other than the ironic observation that I’d felt perfectly safe unpacking the truck in our driveway after midnight.  The neighborhood has had the occasional muggings and even shootings over the years, but those mundane threats just don’t faze me like those big, hairy, sulfur-smelling galumphs from who-knows-where that inhabit my imagination do.

Mostly what I thought about was NexRemote. Yes, it very well might have been the mount’s particular choice of alignment stars that caused the evening’s semi-problems with pointing, but I am not sure about that. At one point I noticed that the mount seemed to be slewing very slowly on its own—something that happened to me one other time when I had problems with NR. Could have been the wind causing the star trailing, but the wind had mostly laid down by then. And there had been that malfunction of the Aux Port Module the run before. Maybe the cable is still not right?

What I will have to do is some further troubleshooting. But probably not before the next H-expedition. I will have a new piece of gear to check out, that digital video recorder, which I hope to have by next weekend. So I’ll just go back to the hardware hand control again, I reckon. Maybe that ain’t so bad. Dispensing with NexRemote’s cables and gamepad and receiver should make for a quicker getaway the next time I get a whiff of sulfur, muchachos.

Hi Rod! A timely post....I had a similar night last night. It is amazing how just a little erraticness in one's equipment can suck nearly all the fun out of a night. (In my case it was my guider that would fine for ten minutes then quit, forcing a new PhD calibration. This got really old, really fast.)

As a consequence of having had to get up really early on Saturday, I found myself drinking too much coffee during the day. By the time night fell, I felt "off." I was somewhere between tired a slightly irritable...but it was a clear night and I wanted to make some progress on the observing-project-of-the moment.

The problem is, as you know, when you feel that way, you're just plowing through your list and not really enjoying it. And then the secondary problem crops realize you're not having fun about not having fun about something you do for fun.

But then, you don't want to quit as you've put so much effort into driving out there and setting everything up.

At this point, the sky usually clouds over to mock you further.
I know exactly what you mean by "plowing through the list." I've had more'n one night like that. I think one of the greatest advantages of astrovideo is that I record the evening's observations, and can do my real "observing" later in comfort. I am always gobsmacked at how much I see in the video compared to what I saw when I was hot-cold-skeeter bitten. LOL
I know what you mean when you say you got "put out" instead of "giving in"... On at least one occasion I "gave in" and "expedited loading", too. At times when I'd get put out I'd start blasting music from my car (Herschel, natch) to keep the invisible and at least partly imaginary wildlife at bay. We do have bears, and occasionally they do roam after dark, that is a fact.
Last night a group of club members (maybe 20) setup and got clouded in about 30 mintutes, We all waited a while but it just got worse.

Worse yet, this is the site where we are all warned about "Cougars and Bears - stand and protect yourselves. Its a state park and Mr. Smith and Wesson or Mr. Ruger or Colt are not allowed. No one wants to be the "last" lunch/man standing.

While Big Foot maybe in those trees a large bear may only see your car as a "candy wrapper" and large male cougars can cover 40' in a single bound and break an Elk's back with a single blow (Don't like Elk much either but that's another story).

So yep, I do know what it feels like. When the Coyotes go silent, that's when the hair stands up...and if I don't have one of my other perviously mentioned friends I head for the car.
Hey Rod,

I have occasionally had the same problem on the C14-CGE Mallincam rig.

Is it there and I can't see it???
Is the goto not working???

The answer is to use the precise goto funtion on the missing object. Every time I have had this problem, the precise goto has put the object in the field of view. It does take longer to do this but not as long as doing a realignment.

Lyle Mars
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