Sunday, April 14, 2013


The Herschel Project Nights 39 and 40

Did not look good, muchachos, did not look good at all. On the Wednesday afternoon before the 2013 Chiefland Spring Picnic, the weather was steadily going from bad to worse to horrible. By late afternoon, I still hadn’t been able to load up the 4Runner in advance of our Thursday morning departure for the Chiefland Astronomy Village. Rain. More rain. Still more rain. Then came the winds. Gusts over 60mph. That ill-fated cruise ship, Carnival’s Triumph, broke free of her moorings at the yard here where she’s tied up, resulting in the tragic death of one worker. It was like hurricane season before hurricane season.

I could have waited till Thursday morning to pack—that wasn’t a big deal. It’s nice to have the truck, Miss Lucille Van Pelt, ready to roll on star party morning, but it’s not a requirement. What was bothering me was the question of whether we should go at all, whether we’d be wasting our time. The storm would be moving east, straight toward Florida and the Chiefland Astronomy Village. Nevertheless, Miss Dorothy and I decided we’d go and go Thursday no matter what the weather. We’d at least get the trip, if not the field set up, done that day.

We’d have three days down south in Florida, so I thought chances were good we’d get some hours of observing before it was time to go home. The forecasts I saw indicated there was just about zero chance of us seeing a thing on Thursday, but Chiefland’s position, right where fronts off the Atlantic and the Gulf battle it out, is one where accurate weather prediction is difficult. Could be crystal clear Thursday evening.

In the wake of the big blow, I was able to get the 4Runner loaded late Wednesday, so Thursday morning was effortless. Wasn’t even raining. Oh, it was cloudy, but the worst appeared to be over—for the Northern Gulf Coast, anyhow. Thursday night in Chiefland was still predicted to bring a 90% chance of rain. Friday and Saturday were ambiguous:  “partly cloudy,” “some clouds,” “passing clouds.”

Whatever. We stuck to The Plan:  quick stop at McDonald's for breakfast (which consisted of a fried chicken biscuit for moi, natch) and then I-10 for five-and-a-half hours. Dorothy and I have found if we do Mickey D’s before the Interstate, we’re able to skip lunch and push on to Chiefland with only bathroom breaks and one stop for gasoline. That’s just what we did.

The stretch from Mobile to Tallahassee is boring, but it ain’t as boring as the Mobile – Montgomery run. And, unlike in the old days, I had Miss D. at my side to talk to and Sirius XM satellite radio (“Classic Vinyl” and “Real Jazz” this time) to listen to. It didn’t seem too long before we were leaving the Interstate just past Tallahassee for the Florida – Georgia Parkway, Highway 19, the gateway to The Nature Coast and Chiefland.

I took the last 100 miles easy. Wasn’t any reason to hurry. It was cloudy when we left Mobile, and it was cloudy when we stopped at the Sunoco station at the Highway 19 Exit. The only positive thing was while the sky was completely overcast—I didn’t see a patch of blue all the way from Mobile—there wasn’t much rain. After fueling Miss Van Pelt and ourselves on gas station fare—Unk got the new Jack Link’s Sasquatch Big Stick—we headed south on 19 where we did run through a couple of showers, but that was it. There was no widespread bad weather far as I could tell.

Alas, change was afoot at the Days Inn.
Arriving at the Days Inn, I was surprised not to see a familiar face behind the desk. In fact, I didn’t recognize any of the folks working at the motel. Before we even checked into our room, I sensed change afoot. The grounds looked OK, but not as well-kept as they used to. In our room, I noted that, while passable, it was not as clean as in the past. And that we had a grand total of three fracking bath towels in the bathroom.

None of this was wholly unexpected. Ever since the motel’s change of chains from Holiday Inn Express to Days Inn, there’d been a slow decline. What did surprise us was that that decline had suddenly become precipitous. Given the lack of familiar faces, I had to wonder whether the motel had been sold to a new owner. If it has, the new folks ain’t getting it right. Miss D. and I intend to try Chiefland’s Best Western next time. Whoever’s in charge of the Days Inn apparently doesn’t understand that lack of cleanliness, cold coffee, and a breakfast that looks like it came straight out of a vending machine does not make for repeat business—assuming they care.

We continued to stick to the vaunted PLAN—well, the backup version, anyhow. Normally, we check into the motel and immediately make tracks for the CAV observing field for gear set up. Thursday afternoon at 3:30 it wasn’t raining, but the clouds had the look of “rain’s on the way,” so we eschewed the field in favor of a trip to Wally-World, the Chiefland Wal-Mart, for supplies. There, I got the usual:  Jack Links, Monster Energy Drinks, bottled water, a box of granola bars, and a 12-pack of Kolorado Kool-Aid for post observing relaxing in the motel in the wee hours.

Didn’t see a new Star Wars shirt to add to my wardrobe this time, but I did find an uber-cool Pink Floyd Dark of the Moon tee. Also picked up a hoodie to wear on the field if it got chilly in the wee hours. My usual CAV Wally-World nylon jacket got left at the shipyard on my last day of work before my retirement. Uncle Rod has said goodbye to his engineering career, hung  up his hardhat, and took early retirement just a little while ago.

We wandered around in the store for longer than usual before going back to the motel to stow our purchases. We’d normally do fast food for supper, but the weather meant we had plenty of time on our hands this evening and thus another option. Some time back, I told Miss Dorothy that the next time we were clouded out at CAV we’d hit Bar B Q Bill’s for steaks and beer instead of barbeque. That’s what we did, too, heading off to Bill’s about 5 p.m. and ordering ribeyes and baked potatoes. Yeah, BBQ is the main attraction at Bill’s, but the steaks were some kind of good and the beer was icy cold. Supper was almost good enough to make me forget the weather.

When we’d checked in to the motel, we’d noticed there was a new TV set in our room. Now, I’d a-thought that if they were replacing TVs, they’d be going to widescreen LG jobs. Heck, the La Quinta we stayed in last year in Huntsville had one. Uh-uh. Instead, it was the smallest and cheapest looking television I’ve seen in a motel in years. The reception was the pits, too. There wasn’t much on the limited number of channels, either. There was salvation at hand in the form of a DVD, though.

When I’d been inventorying the shelves at Wally-World, I’d come upon a five-buck DVD, a collection of ten freaking ZOMBIE MOVIES. Including the original, Night of the Living Dead, and the classic White Zombie with Bela Lugosi. What I watched, however, was one called I am Omega, a mash-up of zombies, The Last Man on Earth, and martial arts chop-sockie. When that was done, I took a tour of the Cloudy Nights bulletin boards, and before drifting off read a few more pages of Michael Lemonick’s excellent The Georgian Star, which I was rereading for the second time.

Ironically, despite the decrepit nature of the Days Inn, old Unk had the best night’s rest he’d got in a motel in a long time. Musta been them brewskies at Bill’s. Anyhoo, despite my heavy snooze, I was suddenly awakened just before dawn. What woke the Rodster?  A sound…almost like heavy rain… Then came a great big boom of thunder. Unk poked his head out the door and into a thunderstorm of major proportions. Rut-roh.

Turned on that tiny TV and dialed up The Weather Channel right quick. They were forecasting plenty of wet stuff for Friday morning, but were still insisting on “clearing Friday night.” A look at on the laptop showed they were making the same prediction. I felt better, but we’d still have to change our plans. We’d originally thought we’d get out to the CAV first thing and take care of equipment set up before visiting Fanning Springs State Park, one of our fave local attractions. Uh-uh. The rain was stopping, but we thought we’d give it more time to move on out and a little while after that for the sandy soil of the field to soak up the puddles. Mid morning, we headed back north a few miles to the next little town up the line from Chiefland, Fanning Springs.

Fanning Springs State Park is not as large or elaborate as our other local favorite, Manatee Springs State Park in Chiefland, but it is nice, and it is beautiful in the spring. The water was high, so we didn’t see much wildlife. Other than some squirrels and a few minnows, all we spotted was a pretty Brown Water Snake who played possum as soon as he noticed us. Despite not seeing a mullet, much less a manatee, we spent a pleasant hour walking around the park and down to the storied Suwannee River.

Then it was lunchtime, and when you are in Fanning Springs, you just naturally do the 19/98 grill. This little place has become a legend among amateur astronomers. It’s small, but it has a crazy-extensive menu and everything I’ve had there has also been crazy—crazy good. Like the Buffalo wings I ordered for lunch. Maybe not quite as spicy as Unk likes ‘em, but that was more than made up for by the freshness of the chicken. Miss Dorothy loved her chicken salad sandwich and the 7Up in an old-fashioned bottle. I was tempted by the Nehi Grapes, also in old-timey bottles, but figgered I’d better stick with 19/98’s wondrous sweet tea.

After lunch, we pointed Miss Van Pelt to the CAV. It was obvious the rain was over for now. Onsite, there was a good crowd already, including our old friends Carl, John, Bobbie, Margie, and Paul. After saying “howdy” to everybody, it was set up time. One good thing about the clouds:  they moderated the temperature. I was able to unload the scope, Big Bertha, my NexStar 11 GPS, get her on her tripod, and, with Miss D’s help, get the Coleman tailgating canopy up without breaking a sweat. I left the tarp sides off the canopy. With the temperature not predicted to go below 50F, I thought I’d be happier with better ventilation in the afternoon without the sides. I did have my Black Cat catalytic heater in case I got chilled ‘round midnight.

How exactly did I set up the NS11? Reducer-wise? As y’all know, the Mallincam Xtreme is a fairly long camera, and will hit the base of the NS11 at higher altitudes when the scope is set up in alt-az mode. You have to use a star diagonal for the Xtreme to clear the base. That is a problem. How do you use a reducer with a diagonal and still get a focal ratio of around f/3 – 4, which is perfect for the Mallincam?

You can’t just screw an f/3.3 reducer onto the rear port of the SCT—it won’t reach focus with the camera in a star diagonal. What I’d done last time was use a special adapter from Jim Henson (Scopestuff) that allows you to place the reducer after the diagonal. Unfortunately, that yields a focal ratio that’s a little high, f/5 – f/6 or so. I had what I thought was a better idea this time: I’d use an f/6.3 reducer on the scope’s rear cell, and the camera would have a .5x reducer in its nose. To keep the reduction around f/3, I’d use a 1.25-inch rather than 2-inch diagonal.

The buzzing fly in that butter? I soon realized what it was that I’d forgot this time—I almost always forget something. The .63 reducer, darnit. Oh, well, I’d just have to set up with the 3.3 after the diagonal. I did believe I’d try one variation. What if I used the .5x reducer on the camera’s 1.25-inch nosepiece in combination with the f/3.3 reducer? I screwed the small lens onto the camera; wouldn’t cost nothing to try.

Set up complete, D. and I hung out for a while, with Unk doing quite a bit of shooting the breeze with his buddies about the latest gear and the latest astro-gossip. Mid afternoon, we headed back to town. I’d awakened way too early, and if the Weather Channel were to be believed, clearing might not happen till after 10 p.m., so I’d better get a little shuteye if possible. We also thought we’d do an early supper in someplace. As the Sun began his descent, 19/98 seemed a long time ago.

We wanted “food,” but also “fast,” and wound up as we often do in the Taco Bell. What did Unk get? The tacos had been kicked up yet another notch. Unk raved about the Nacho Cheese Doritos Tacos last summer, and was eager to try the new Cool Ranch Doritos LOCOS Tacos. How were they? If anything, they were better than the original, tasty but a little subtler than that slap yo’ mama nacho cheese. Unk quickly downed one regular taco and one supreme from his Big Box, saving the enormous burrito for the following day.

I had the idea I might only be able to doze at best, but I must have been more tired than I thought, since I almost immediately went from napping to genuine sleeping. It seemed like just a few minutes had passed before Miss Dorothy was awakening me at 5:30 p.m. Time to get on the stick. Well, sort of. A look out the door showed the clouds were as thick as ever. Whatev’. I wanted to do the remaining set up tasks before dark anyway, cabling up computer and scope, mostly. I hate doing that after daylight is gone.

Unk did have one stop to make before the field, Bubbaque’s liquor store next door to their restaurant. For some unknown reason, there had been a Rebel Yell drought in Alabama for a while. Not a single bottle in the Green Front store last time I checked. Not only did Bubbaque’s have Yell, they had the biggest bottle of it this old boy had ever seen. And they almost gave it away. As I told one of my pals on the field, the Yell constituted my backup plan for the evening if the clouds didn’t skedaddle.

But skedaddle they did; they just took their time about it. We cooled our heels till after 10 p.m. before it began to clear. Actually, at ten none of us thought it would clear. With everybody else stowing scopes and heading for RVs and trailers, Unk decided he might as well do the same. I tucked Bertha in in her Desert Storm Cover, disconnected the laptop, and turned Miss Van Pelt for C-land.

Now, most of y’all are gonna ascribe what came next to Unk’s over-active imagination (at best), and I agree that was probably it. Probably. I was almost back to Highway 19 and wasn’t paying a bit of attention to the sky. It was cloudy, I knew that. Then, a voice seemed to come from the backseat, a male voice that was an odd admixture of English and German accents: “Rod, turn your carriage around this instant!” If Unk thought he was half-crazy then, a moment later he began to consider “full crazy” a possibility. A little female voice, one I’d heard before, came next: “Now, Rod, do just as Brother says!

Were those the voices of William and Caroline coming in from the Great Beyond where they’d been watching over this benighted hillbilly astronomer? Was the current high level of solar activity pulling ‘em in along with the 20-meter DX? Or were they just a couple of the voices some folks will tell you live in Unk’s head on a full-time basis? Don’t ask me. All I can say is that when I hit wide Highway 19 and got a good look at the sky, it was obvious it was clearing in a big way.

My initial inclination was to say the heck with the voices’ urging, whether their source was Sir William and Caroline Herschel or just them tacos I’d had for supper. I could turn around and go back to the CAV, but it would surely cloud up again just as soon as I started setting up the gear. Cable TV and Yell was purty tempting. Will and Lina had been insistent, though, and who was I to dispute The Discoverer of Uranus and The First Lady of Astronomy?

Dang good thing I listened. By the time I was back on the field and had everything hooked back up, it was crystal clear. Fellow observer Mike Harvey later opined the sky was better than he’d seen it at Chiefland in the spring in a long, long time, and I had to agree. Yes, it was a pain getting scope, computer, and camera ready again in the dark, but it was well worth it. When I finally gave in to exhaustion, I’d scored well over 50 Herschel Objects.

“Herschel objects? We thought you was done with them, Unk.” I am…but. Most of the spring galaxies were imaged with my old Stellacam 2. I got pictures of every one of them suckers, but the Stellacam was limited to ten second exposures, so most of the images were pretty noisy. Not only does the Mallincam Xtreme allow me to expose for as long as I want, it brings color to the table. You’d be surprised how much color little galaxies show. And how useful that can be. It’s easy to pick tiny ellipticals out of the star field by their striking golden color. I had originally called the “after The Project” work, the imaging and sketching, “The Herschel Project Phase II,” but that seemed kinda awkward and am back to just “The Herschel Project,” of which this was night 39.

For once, Bertha aligned without complaint from her or mistakes from me. I started out with the great spring globular star cluster Messier 3 as a test object; there is nothing better than a glob for fine tuning focus. Well, I fine tuned focus after I removed the .5x reducer from the camera. I couldn’t reach focus in that configuration. Reducer-after-diagonal actually worked pretty well. Yes, my focal ratio was a little high, but that turned out to be a good thing for many of the small Herschel galaxies.

After that, it was M65 and its new supernova, SN2013am. I didn’t have the camera set up quite right at that point, so the image ain’t all it coulda been, but the magnitude 16 SN is easily visible in a negative image. Then it was on to the galaxy fields of Ursa Major. By midnight, I was really in that blessed groove, knocking off Herschel after Herschel, recording 30-seconds of video of each on my Orion Mini DVR, and moving on to the nextun.

So it went till about one, when I took a break and strolled over to the Clubhouse to retrieve a Monster Energy Drink from the refrigerator. Frankly, given the clouds earlier I was amazed at the condition of the sky. It was very clear. The seeing wasn’t great, and the stars were sometimes larger than they normally are in the Mallincam, but overall it was one for the books. Monster downed, it was back to the bridge of my Federation Starship, the U.S.S. Possum Swamp, for as many more Herschels as I could stand.

When I passed the “50” mark, which was my goal for this short evening, I still wasn’t tired and kept on keeping on. It was three in the freaking a.m. before I threw that accursed Big Switch Friday night, and I could have gone later than that. I did want to be at least semi-conscious for the picnic part of the Spring Picnic Saturday afternoon, however, so Big Switch at three, back at motel at 3:30, in bed shortly after four seemed advisable.

If I’d wanted to press on, I certainly could have; the sky was, if anything, better at three than it had been at midnight. Oh, well. At the Days Inn, it was a little Yell, a little Astromart and Cloudy Nights, and a little cable TV. The TV pickings were awful slim on the few channels I had, so I was off to night-night land at oh-4:30.

Saturday morning didn’t just dawn, it exploded with bright blue skies and unseasonably cool temperatures. Unk had intended to be up for breakfast, but I just couldn’t manage that. I told Miss Dorothy to go on without me, that I needed at least another hour. After I finally got up, “breakfasted” on the burrito left over from my Taco Bell Big Box supper the night before, and finished reviewing my ever-copious email, we were off to Wally-World to choose our picnic contribution.

Some of the stuff in Wal-Mart’s deli is actually pretty tasty, including their loaded baked potato potato salad. I mean, the stuff has bacon in it, and as you well know there is just no downside to bacon. Potato salad for a picnic seemed to compute, so we ordered up a few pounds of “regular” and “baked potato.” I grabbed a pack of AAA batteries to replace the dead ones in my Astrogizmos red flashlight, and we were back at the motel in two shakes.

We didn’t stay there long, though. At 12:30, we motored back to the site to get ready for the picnic, which would begin at two. First thing I did was stow the potato salad in the Clubhouse fridge; I didn’t want to be responsible for ending the evening’s observing before it began with food poisoning for all and sundry. We hung out on the field for about an hour, spending some time watching our friend Paul mount his new Lunt Solar scope before heading over to the new field where the picnic would be held shortly before two.

It’s no secret there’s been friction between the two Chiefland groups, the folks who stick to the “old” Billy Dodd field (The Chiefland Observers), and those who observe from the “new” field (The Chiefland Star Party Group). Over the last year, I’ve had the sense that this was thankfully passing, with a new Chiefland era in the offing. If that is true, and I hope it is, this picnic heralded it. Our group was welcomed most graciously, and we had a wonderful time visiting old friends and making new ones in the expansive new field Clubhouse. There was plenty of food, and it was danged good. Unk couldn’t choose between “burger” and “hot dog,” so naturally  he took one of each.

Dorothy and I were particularly pleased to be able to spend some time with two old friends we hadn’t seen in many a Moon, Tom Crowley and Art Russell. I was also (very) briefly introduced to Tom Clark’s successor as owner of the Dodd Field, "Jonesy." If our Chiefland adventures continue, it will be due to his generosity. Unk also met his Facebook friend and observer extraordinaire, Barbara Stanton. I like Facebook fine, and have made some good friends there, but nothing beats what we hams call “an eyeball QSO.”

In short, we had a wonderful time with food and friends thanks to the current Chiefland honchos Jonesy, Tom Crowley, and John Novak. As we strolled back to the old field it was Unk’s hope and belief that we’d seen the start of a new Era of Good Feeling, and that the old Chiefland comradery is back to stay.

Then ‘twas the motel again and pre-run napping before heading back out at 6:15 to get ready for Saturday night’s observing. Actually, I could have waited a while. Unlike Friday, all I had to do was plug a few cables into the computer, the DVD player I use as a display, and the Orion DVR and I was ready to rock. If we were allowed to rock, that was. In the bizarre fashion common for Chiefland’s weather, the blue skies that had hung in all morning had been replaced by banks of thick clouds as Sundown approached.

I did rock Saturday, though, since, again in typical CAV fashion, the clouds began to clear out as the Sun set. In fact, the only thing that hindered me getting started on more Herschels was Big Bertha, who decided to show me who’s boss once again. Fired her up and launched NexRemote. Started the GPS alignment. Once she’d leveled and northed, she was off to the first star, which she said (in her Microsoft Mary voice via the laptop) was Vega.

That was unfortunate, since Vega wouldn’t rise for another hour and a half. Hmmm…stopped Bertha’s slew and scrolled down to another alignment star, Capella. Bertha lit out for the star, or so she said, but it was obvious she was going to land a long way from it. I powered her off and rebooted the computer.

With only a little fumbling around—I forgot to turn on Bertha before I started NexRemote and received an error for that—I got Miss B. back to the Ready to Begin Alignment point. This time she chose two good stars, Sirius and Capella, and stopped close to them. Gotos were great all night long. She didn’t miss a target, and many of the Herschels were near the center of the screen, so what had been the problem? Don't ask me. Who knows? Bertha has a mind of her own sometimes, and a real personality--though it isn't always a cooperative personality.

I am guessing, her errant ways on this evening could have been due to a bad fix. Bad GPS fixes aren’t as uncommon as people seem to think these days. I should have checked her date/time/lat/lon before I shut her down after Vega, but forgot to. Or it could have been a loose power cable; I did reseat the plug after the power down. Honestly, it wouldn’t have been a normal CAV run without me and Bertha doing a little fussin’ and feudin’.

After that it was smooth sailing, campers. Well, more or less. Wind was a problem off and on all night, and especially toward the end, resulting in off-round stars in some images—not too bad, though. I popped open a Monster and went to work with a will. There was no time to lose; those clouds might decide to roll back in at any moment, and I had set myself a turns-into-a-pumpkin time of midnight. I was feeling good, but I knew I wouldn’t be feeling good if I didn’t get enough sleep in preparation for the long drive back to The Swamp.

After touching up focus on M3, it was Herschels and nothing but Herschels till near the end of the run. After I passed the 60 mark, I got up, stretched my legs, walked out onto the field, and had a look out at the sky. I didn’t like what I was seeing: clouds gathering on the western horizon. Just time enough for a few purties to end the evening on, I reckoned. Before going back to the bridge, I walked over to Mike Harvey’s 28-inch mega Dobsonian where I was treated to a mind-blowing view of The Ghost of Jupiter in a binoviewer. Back with Betsy, we essayed M13, M92, M51, and a couple of others before the clouds shut us down at about 11:30.

Was I put out to have my run ended prematurely? You know I was, but it was really OK. At least the decision as to when to pull The Big Switch on the last night of a CAV trip had for once been taken out of my hands. I recorded a short Herschel Project Update video in the Clubhouse, which you can watch below, and headed for Miss Van Pelt, who I’d parked out on the access road. At the Days Inn, it wasn’t yet 1 a.m., so even allowing for a spot of Yell and a little Ghost Adventures watching on the mini-TV, I got sufficient shut-eye Saturday night.

The last morning at Chiefland, the "All Good Things” time, I call it, is always a bummer. After having done the loading/unloading thing with Miss Van Pelt for almost two years now, we were pretty efficient in getting the gear packed and were back on the road before 10 a.m. Eastern. That wasn’t the problem--being retired I don't HAVE to be anywhere anymore. Well mostly not. 

The problem was having to leave my CAV friends and those dark CAV skies behind for another few months. I’d purty much got what I’d come for, over 100 Herschels, but even that wasn’t enough deep sky for me. Unk is, in fact, already plotting another Chiefland expedition, and is even considering adding a 4th night back in. Stay tuned, muchachos.

You can see lots more pictures of our CAV trip on Unk’s Facebook page. If you are not a friend of ol’ Unk, just ask; that is all it takes.

Next Time:  More My Favorite Fuzzies…

Informative and funny report, Uncle Rod.

You are in Chiefland so often, Google Maps has you on their satellite image of the field. I am not joking. I bet that is your red tent.
I know this is not on topic but we all respect your opinions on Cats.

Have you an opinion on Duncan Mask for collimating a wayward Cat?

This can work if the pattern is followed carefully. Me? I've been collimating SCTs for so long, I just point at Polaris, eyeball the diffraction rings, tweak, and I am done.
Holy cow! That is us on the field. Red canopy, 4Runner next to it. I can even see that the scope is the C8 on the Atlas we took one time last year! LOL! Thanks!
Hi Rod:

Fun read. Well its all your fault. I'm going to give being the Observing VP for the Rose City Astronomers a run. I hope by doing so I give back to this hobby as you do.

Don't you just hate when something you like (like your motel) goes bad. One thing you'll find in retirement, is that those things that do change seem to have "much better" before:)
HI Jeff...congrats on your new job with the RCA! I am sure you will do a fantastic job!
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