Sunday, June 24, 2012


The Herschel Project Night 34

Every amateur astronomer deserves one once in a while. A good night, that is. After a couple of months of not much, your old Uncle was finally rewarded. About time too; I was all antsy to get the Herschel Project back on the road for its home stretch. Muchachos, I am pretty much done with The Project except for picking up a few strays in Coma-Virgo, which I hoped to do this past Saturday if it was clear enough to attack the list—I had my doubts.

Anyhoo, Saturday morning dawned clear, but rapidly devolved into scattered clouds. What did the dadgum Weather Channel say? They didn’t much know, predicting in wishy-washy fashion “clear to partly cloudy.” Good thing was I had plenty of time to make up my mind whether to go or stay, since Mr. Sun does not set for our longitude till 8 p.m. now. Not that there was much mind-making-up to do. I am continuing to abide by my rule:  “If it ain’t raining, head to the dark site.”

Since I wanted to do Herschels, and I wanted to do them seriously from our semi-light-polluted dark site, I would be using video. Specifically my C8, Celeste; the CG5 mount; the Mallincam Xtreme; and SkyTools 3. What if the skies obviously would not cooperate to the extent required to snag magnitude 13 and dimmer galaxies? I had a Plan B.

Synta, Celestron’s parent corporation and the maker of the Atlas/EQ6 GEM recently released a new firmware version for Atlas mount. I’ve often complained its SynScan hand control is less sophisticated than the Celestron NexStar H.C., but this new (beta) SynScan firmware goes a ways to rectifying that. It at least adds an Atlas-Sirius version of the AllStar polar alignment routine so beloved by Celestron GEM users. If I couldn’t do Herschels, I’d go visual with C8 and Atlas and see how the new software performed.

By 6 p.m. I was pretty sure I would not have to exercise that Plan B option. There were still a few clouds drifting around, but it seemed sure we would get “mostly clear” for the balance of the evening. It even felt relatively dry and cool, as if a weak cold front had passed through. I loaded up the 4Runner with the ton of gear I need for an Xtreme run and headed out at 6:45 in order to give myself plenty of time for set up.

Arriving at the site, your old Unk was doubly pleased. Not only had the kind folks who own the land we observe from mowed a nice big patch for us, that patch of grassy heaven had begun to fill up with club members. The Possum Swamp Astronomical Society is not a big or overly active outfit, and has frankly seen a precipitous decline over the last five years or so. There are maybe thirty folks on the rolls, about half of whom at best may show up at meetings. Dark site observing? Maybe three of us on any given New Moon run. This evening? There were five cotton-picking telescopes on the field, a major star party for the PSAS.

Before I did anything else, you can bet your bottom dollar I turned on the Thermacell bug zapper. I figgered the recent torrential rains would have spawned hordes of biting skeeters. Did they? I don’t know. The Thermacell kept me almost completely unbitten all night—the only time I became someone’s supper was when I walked away from my observing position to look through a buddy’s eyepiece. What an improvement over that lousy battery-powered Off gadget I tried a few weeks back.

When you are dealing with as much gear as I need for a video run, set-up is never Real Fun, but it wasn’t bad this evening. It still felt kinda dry and coolish, so I was not sweating. And I was excited, since I would get to try out two new additions to my equipment lineup: a full-sized Toshiba laptop and Orion’s new StarShoot Digital Video Recorder.

I’ve mentioned a time or two in recent weeks that I’ve replaced my Asus netbook for most astronomy use (I still like it for running the DSLR). The reason for that was that, much as I liked the little feller, I was tired of trying to read the small screen, especially when it was red filtered. I glommed onto a Toshiba lappie with a 17.3-inch display.

The digital video recorder was also added because of weariness. I was real tired of lugging around and powering a full-sized home DVD recorder. Not only did it suck down even a deep cycle marine battery in a hurry, it was prone to disk errors, probably due to me using it on always damp and sometimes cold observing fields. The little Orion records (for hours) on an SD memory card and will do that powered only by its rechargeable internal battery. Would the quality of its video be as good as from the DVD recorder? I intended to finally find out. I’d had the DVR for months but the weather gods had prevented even a single field test.

Got Celeste mounted on the CG5, roughly aligned the mount on Polaris when he peeped out, and cabled up mount, telescope, and the Mallincam Xtreme on the rear cell. Got the laptop going, too, but I did not connect it to the CG5. I had some problems with Celestron’s NexRemote software last time out, and while those are likely fixed now, I didn’t want to do anything that would waste time. I wanted to grab as many of the remaining Leo-Coma-Virgo Herschels as possible.

To that end, I hooked up the CG5’s hardware hand control. Which is not the controller that came with the mount; it shipped with the old not-so-hotsky, non-upgradeable H.C. The programmable hand paddle I bought for it a couple of years after that has worked very well. The only problem I’ve ever had with it was the result of me dropping it one night. The LCD display came unglued and assumed a tilted angle. Took the thing apart, straightened out the display, and glued the LCD back down with hot glue.

The single non-stock configuration tonight was an H.C. extension cable. The hand controls Celestron ships now have crazy-short cables, and while one on my programmable NexStar ain’t that short, it is short enough. With the extension in place I can have the hand paddle lying on the observing table right next to the laptop, which is almost as convenient as running NexRemote.

Since I’d be doing video, I had to set up the video monitor and the recorder, natch. While my new DVR has a built-in display, it’s only 2.5-inches across, and I figured it would be impossible to focus with that given my ever-weaker middle-aged eyes. I had a plan, though. I rummaged around The Old Manse and found a video switcher leftover from the analog cable TV days. It has five positions, but I would only need two. Run the video output of the Mallincam to it, and switch that video between the monitor for focusing and framing and the recorder for, well, recording.

My “monitor” has not changed; it’s still my little portable DVD player. Its LCD display is big enough to be legible, its video outputs can be switched to “input” to use that LCD as a monitor, and it runs off either AC or DC. In the interest of making my setup even more portable, I thought I’d power the DVD player from its internal battery and see how long that would go. If it ran low, I’d switch it to the 12-volt jumpstart battery and inverter I would use to power the laptop. The Toshiba is pretty power efficient even given its 17.3-inch display, so I figgered it would go the rest of the evening on the full charge it would have acquired from the jumpstart battery pack.

Hokay, the brighter stars were shining their little hearts out, so it was time for go-to and polar alignment, which things, given your Unk’s forgetful and fumbling ways, are always an adventure. Honestly, though, What Could Happen tonight? I was using the hardware hand control, for god’s sake. Ha!

Started out pretty good. Fired up the Mallincam, booted the Xtreme control software on the laptop. When the camera’s 3-minute “safety timer” ran out, I checked the box that overlays a set of crosshairs on the video screen. Began two star alignment. The CG5 picked Spica over in the south-southeast and started moving that-a-way. Funny…the CG5 didn’t seem as loud as normal. Yeah, she was still making her weasels with tuberculosis sounds, but at a lower level. That was OK. What wasn’t OK was that when the noise stopped Celeste was pointing due north. What the—?

Had disaster struck? Was I done before I got started? First thing I did was power down and start over. No dice. Pointed right toward the freaking Little Dipper again. What now? All the cabling seemed secure. Didn’t get any No Response errors from the mount. Should I do a Reset to Factory Values in the H.C? Then a little voice said, “Unk, SLOW DOWN! Think about what you are doing!

OK. I thought. The problem, it occurred to me, was that the mount was moving in right ascension but not declination. That was why the mount was quieterthe declination motor wasn't running. The OTA was pointing north because that is the dec home (starting) position. When you have declination problems, and only declination problems, the first thing to check on these mounts is the cable that runs from the declination motor housing to the mount control panel. Could it be bad?

It was bad—in a way. A month or two back I’d done my annual preventive maintenance on the CG5, which involves cleaning cable and receptacle contacts. One look at the mount’s control panel showed what had happened. When I was done with the declination cable I’d plugged it back in, yeah. To the autoguide port. Doh!

Powered off, plugged the dec cable into the dec socket, and we were off. Did a two-star alignment, ran the “point at Polaris” polar alignment routine (what came before AllStar), and repeated the 2+4 alignment when that was finished. Looked like I was in for a pretty good night of go-toing, since alignment star number two was in the field of the Xtreme when the slew stopped.

Only a go-to can be the proof of the dadgum pudding, though. Turned off the crosshairs on the video and mashed “M003” into the H.C. When the weasels stopped their whining, there was the cluster smack in the center of the screen. Leaving the Xtreme set at the x128 “sense up” exposure (equivalent to about 2-seconds), I focused up using Celeste’s JMI Moto-focus. That went real easy, testament to the good seeing we were experiencing now and then. When the stars around the cluster’s center were as tiny as I could get them, I bumped the Xtreme up to 15-seconds of exposure for the first (test) shot of the night.

That ol’ granpappy of a spring globular looked great on the monitor. Would I be able to record him, though? One thing I really like about the tiny DVR is that in addition to a standard wireless remote, it has what Orion calls a “one button wired remote.” That’s just what it sounds like, a button that plugs into (non-intuitively) the AV-out jack. Mash the (locking) button and the DVR turns on and begins recording. Release it and the recording stops and the DVR turns off. I could see how that might work for me.

How did that work? Purty dern well from the get-go. With M3 looking just the way I wanted it, I mashed the button on the switcher to send video to the recorder (reckon a splitter might be even better). I pushed the wired remote button, and, pretty as you please, the DVR came on and began saving M3 to its SD card. One surprise? Yes, the screen on the StarShoot is small, but it is also rather sharp and clear. With my highest power pair of reading glasses, I could probably have focused accurately with it. The DVD player’s monitor is nice for showing pretty stuff to my buddies between Herschel faint fuzzies, though.

And so it began, Night 34 of the Herschel Project. I hit the road in western Leo, knocking off any stragglers there before they disappeared over the edge of the world, and worked my way east in the Lion. Standouts? A couple of nice pairs of galaxies, but nothing that really knocked my socks off. I did allow myself a quick peep at M65 when I made my way to the hindquarters area.

How did I work the list with my new equipment? I’d frame the object to my liking if it needed adjustment on the monitor, switch to the DVR, punch the button and record for 30-seconds, write the fuzzie’s number in my notebook, check him off on SkyTools 3, squint at the computer screen for the next one (not much squinting required with the new laptop), enter that into the NexStar hand control, and repeat for just as long as I could go.

One thing that was nice on this night was that I didn’t have to do much adjusting of the mount to center targets. The CG5 was right on the money all evening. Every object I asked for, all night long, from horizon to horizon, was somewhere in the field of the Mallincam, most often closer to the center than the edge.

I continued with Leo as long as possible, knowing that every one of the remaining galaxies I could knock off would be one less I’d need to try for in the gloaming next month. And then the cotton picking clouds shut me down. At dusk there’d been a distant line of something on the western horizon, and that had how grown into a mass extending 20+ degrees up the sky. To top it off, lower clouds were drifting in from the east and heading straight for Leo, naturally.

I cooled my heels for a few minutes, chugging a Monster Energy Drink, but soon gave up on the Lion and moved to Virgo who was riding high and in the clear. When I think “Virgo,” I naturally think “galaxies,” but beyond the bright showpieces, I also tend to think “boring galaxies.” Sometimes it seems The Virgin is nothing but hordes of little elliptical fuzzballs. There are plenty of those, but tonight Willie and Sister Lina led me to some of the best (dimmer) objects in the constellation. Particularly nice was one that flitted through the Herschels’ eyepiece on the evening of March 15, 1784, NGC 4452 (H.1.23). It is the cutest, skinniest, most perfect-looking little edge-on I ever did see. It lies about 50’ southwest of big mutha M87.

NGC 4452
Prime non-Herschel target for the night? The bright supernova that had appeared in Virgo's NGC 4424, SN 2012cg. I sent Celeste that-a-way, though I wasn't sure what I'd see, if anything. I hadn't thought to print a finder chart for the SN, and in fact only remembered it because a buddy mentioned it earlier in the evening. Sometimes supernovae are easy to see, other times it's hard to distinguish them from field stars without a chart. The nice recent one in M95 being an example of that. Turned out cg stood out like a sore thumb near the galaxy's nucleus as you can see in my 15-second image here.

11 p.m. had come and gone and I was still feeling pretty good. The Monster had fired me up, and the gear—camera, mount, scope—was not missing a beat. As I’d thought I would, I had to plug the DVD player into the jumpstart battery when its internal battery pooped out after a couple of hours, but that was the only equipment hiccup. There was one bummer, though. The night started off on the dry side. With the accumulating clouds, though, heavy dew began to fall and Celeste’s tube was soon coated in the wet stuff. So what? The DewBuster kept her corrector bone dry, didn’t it? Well, yeah, but nothing saps your endurance like dew. I felt wet and clammy. The Monster had helped, and chugging a bottle of water helped some more, but not enough.

One of the reasons I am able to keep going all night, or at least till three or a little later, which Unk now considers an “all-nighter,” at Chiefland is that when I am doing video there I stay under cover, under a tent canopy. Staying out of the damp lets me go a lot longer than if I am out in the open as on the PSAS dark site field.

Still, I pressed on till about midnight. By then, I’d covered most of the remaining Virgo galaxies I needed, and thought I’d do some eye-candy before our normal dark-site “turn into a pumpkin time” of 12:30 – 1:00. Beyond seeing some pretty things, I’m still learning the Mallincam, and fiddling around with its settings on bright and colorful objects is helping me improve my technique.

Alright, showpieces then. Where first? How about the Flying Saucer, NGC 4565, over in Coma? I entered them numbers into the hand paddle and the CG5 put the galaxy almost dead center in Celeste’s field. The long, thin Sb spiral with its distinctive dust lane was so nice I couldn’t resist upping the exposure from 15 to 28 seconds. I could see more details with the longer exposure, but the sky background looked a lot better at 15-seconds, no doubt due to the light-pollution-spreading humidity we were now experiencing.

After I finished with The Saucer, I happened to turn southeast and noticed Sagittarius' teapot was well up with the Milky Way’s steam pouring out of its spout. I couldn’t resist heading to summer’s premier nebula, M8, the Lagoon. When the CG5 completed the long slew from the north to the south and stopped, M8 appeared right smack in the center of the display, perfectly framed and so bright that patches seemed overexposed at 15 seconds.

Last one before Big Switch time? I wrote about M17 not long ago and was curious to see what The Swan would look like with the Mallincam Xtreme. Answer? Even at a mere 15-seconds, an almost overwhelming amount of detail was visible, including lots of outlying nebulosity, so much that if I’d upped the exposure to 28-seconds The Swan would have begun to lose his shape. I didn’t, though. M17 was still down in the Possum Swamp light dome garbage and at 15-seconds I was seeing plenty of nebulosity against a reasonably dark background.

M17 recorded, I pulled that fricking-fracking Big Switch. It was after 12:30 and equipment loading would take at least half an hour at my leisurely pace (no UFOnauts, Skunk Apes, or Bigfoots to spur me on on this night). I must have been extra leisurely in my equipment tear-down, since when I looked at Miss Lucille Van Pelt's dashboard clock as I was pulling off the field, it said it was 1:30 in the a.m. And no, I didn’t have an incident of MISSING TIME, wise guys!

The Flying Saucer.
Back at Chaos Manor South I did nothing more than unload the 4Runner and put the batteries on charge. I was anxious to look at the DVR’s recordings, but figgered I’d better wait till morning to do much of that. I did play the Lagoon sequence to at least assure myself the StarShoot had recorded something. From what little my bleary eyes could tell looking at the wee screen, it had done a dang good job. Finished off what was left of my Saturday night (Sunday morning, now) with a couple of brewskies and a few minutes of—guess what?—those uber-silly Ghost Adventures on the cable TV.

Next morning, but not early the next morning, I was up and had the StarShoot hooked to the DVD recorder. After a couple of false starts, I got the Night 34 video preserved on a DVD and trotted downstairs with it to see how it looked on me and D’s new LG TV. It looked stupendous. Almost as good as the video I’ve done direct to DVD. Maybe a little more in the way of compression artifacts in the background, but if I hadn't known what I was looking at I wouldn't have been able to tell the diff. If you want even better quality, you can  hook the StarShoot to a computer via the included USB cable and download/view/process digital files in their original form.

And so the Herschel 2500 is running out, muchachos. Which might bring the question, “What’s poor old Unk a-gonna do with himself after The Project is done?” The answer is that when the last object is in the can, shortly, that will still not bring the immediate end of The Herschel Project.

If The Project evolves into a book someday, which it might, I will need pictures. I’ve got some OK stills taken from my video, but some of the earlier Stellacam 2 shots are kinda yucky. I also want to do some drawings. And some DSLR (and maybe even CCD) pictures of the more photogenic objects. So, look for Unk to do another run through the H400, at least, focused on imaging and sketching following the end of the 2500.

The beautiful Lagoon.
Uncle Rod News of Note:  If you are a fan of The Herschel Project, you’ll be pleased to know it has gone big-time. The August  2012 issue of Sky and Telescope includes my article about my long-running quixotic quest!

Next Time:  Rocket City Redux…

Enjoyed your S&T article. Thanks for the suggestions about some of the better Aighes. I'll try to see some of them at Okie-Tex in Sept.
Go for it; you will love them!
I liked your S&T article. I love lists of objects to observe and now I plan to tackle the Herschel 2500, thanks to your suggestion.
Enjoyed your article in S&T "The Herschel Project". Using a 12" scope was a nice touch. Try going for the Abell Galaxy Clusters, you will be surprised what a 12" can do at a dark site.

Ronald J. Morales
Nice Herschel article. You appear to have deemphasized the role of the cameras in S&T. The blog makes them sound like a key part of the project.

Bill McDonald
Prescott, AZ
Hi Ron:

Sounds like a plan!
Watch for an article in an upcoming Sky and Telescope on the subject of deep sky video cameras.
That was a great and detailed discuss. I always amazed by the work of NASA and this Herschel project really so fascinating. :D
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