Sunday, November 10, 2013


Operation Arp Night 3: 105 Down, 234 to Go

Well, muchachos, another Halloween has come and gone. Believe it or no, your old Uncle didn't get a bag full of rocks this year. I got a telescope full of Arp galaxies. Y’all probably thought I’d forgot all about those little sprites. It’s been dang near ten months since you heard anything about my “next” observing project, the one that came after The Herschel Project, Operation Arp. Which is my quest to observe (mostly with a Mallincam video camera) Halton Arp’s disturbed, weird looking, and otherwise strange galaxies.

The reason you haven’t heard anything more about Operation Arp isn't that I’ve lost interest in bagging those distant and sometimes dim galaxies. It is admittedly a less absorbing project than hitting the Herschels was, but that’s not why O.A. has been on hiatus. The reason, as I don’t have to tell those of y’all who observe from below the Mason Dixon Line, has been the weather.

The rest of the country has had its share of cloudy nights over the past spring and summer, but the Southland got hit particularly hard. I had two semi-good nights at the Chiefland Astronomy Village last January, knocking off 28 Arps and a passel of Herschels I needed re-image, but that was near about it. The single halfway decent evening I got at the Deep South Regional Star Gaze Spring Scrimmage in May was not good enough for Arp galaxies. There were clear nights here and there after that, but mostly when there was a fat Moon in the sky.

The weather situation has finally turned around—sorta. Possum Swamp is still getting plenty of rain—we always do in the autumn—but at least it is interspersed with passing cold fronts that clean and clear the sky temporarily. And it even looked like that might happen during one of our favorite star parties, the Deep South Regional Star Gaze, now held near Norwood, Louisiana. We’ve been doing DSRSG almost every year for two decades, and it’s tops with us for good facilities, good skies, and good folks.

Who doesn't want fried chicken for breakfast?
Couple of weeks back, it seemed like the weatherman was gonna cooperate with us for the whole DSRSG run. Wednesday night, October 30, the first night of the event, would coincide with cooling and clearing, and “cool and clear” would be the rule for the whole four nights of the star party. Naturally, that didn't hold as we got closer to DSRSG, but it still looked like we’d get at least two and probably three outstanding nights.

Maybe. By the Monday preceding the star party, the weather outlook for Louisiana was getting worse by the minute. There’d be zilch Wednesday, Thursday, Halloween night, would be worse with (possibly) violent storms, and Friday, which had looked so good, was now tending to “partly cloudy.” Should we wait till Friday morning to leave? Maybe still go as scheduled on Wednesday but not try to set up on the field that day?

After some consideration, we decided to depart Wednesday as planned. Our meals and lodging were paid for, and, as I’ve often said, we always have fun at a star party clouds or not. Should we delay setting up the gear for a couple of days? That was a possibility depending on how bad the forecasts became. I at least wanted to claim one of the limited number of field power outlets on Wednesday.

Tuesday, following a run on Target for supplies that included propane bottles for my Black Cat heater, Jack Links and granola bars for on-field snacking, bottled water, and—natch—Monster Energy Drinks, I got to work loading Miss Van Pelt, our 4Runner. Some time back, I did a blog on star party packing, and in the course of that did some serious cogitating on how best to load the truck. Following my own suggestions from that blog, it was amazing how easily the astro-junk went in Miss Van Pelt this time. Easy or hard, it is fracking wonderful to get the packing done the night before a star party. Not having to face that makes departure morning an absolute joy.

Wednesday afternoon on the observing field...
The remainder of Tuesday night was spent NOT watching The Weather Channel on cable or looking at Wunderground on the pea-picking computer. What would be would be. Instead, I spent an early evening watching the DVD of World War Z, which I’d missed when it was on at the picture show (I’d call it 75% spectacular and 25% craptacular). That, a few Kolorado Kool-aids, and Unk headed upstairs to get plenty of rest for the big day that would follow.

After a fairly restful evening—I really went to bed too early—I was up at 6 a.m. and rarin’ to go. Miss D. was already bustling about. I checked my always copious email, laid out the cats’ provisions, made one last gear check to ensure I hadn’t forgot anything important—I know I am always going to forget something—and me and D. hit the road for the wilds of Louisiana. Well, we hit the road after a stop at the neighborhood (downtown) Mickey D’s where Unk feasted on a fried chicken biscuit as per normal.

The just over three-hour journey to DSRSG seemed to go faster than ever before. In fact, it was faster. Our new GPS, a Garmin, which replaced the Tom-Tom some light-fingered miscreant helped himself to, had a new and quicker route planned for us. After you leave I-10, I-55, and I-12 behind, there are miles and miles of two lane country roads to face. The GPS had discovered a new route that cut nearly half an hour off our usual time and was considerably more direct.

Afore long, we were turning off at the Feliciana Retreat Center (FRC) sign and driving onto the well-remembered grounds. This was our fourth year at this Presbyterian church retreat (D. and I missed 2011), and it had now assumed the familiar and friendly feel of our previous venues, Percy Quin State Park and Camp Ruth Lee.

The Lodge rooms are small but cozy...
I loved both those places, and especially Percy Quin, where the star party was held from its inception in the 1980s until 2005, when we had to find a new spot post Hurricane Katrina. Much as I loved that Mississippi state park, the skies at FRC are better and so are the facilities. In addition to a larger observing field than at Percy Quin with better horizon lines, there are spotless modern cabins (“cottages”) and a Lodge that features small motel-like rooms and a modern dining area that serves amazingly good food. That, campers, is how your old Uncle likes to star party.

Gear set up on the observing field was not exactly a joy, but it was bearable. In advance of the storm front, temperatures were kicking up into the dadgum 80s, and it was a little sticky. I was tired and sweaty by the time Mrs. Peel was on her mount and the tailgating canopy was up, and was dang sure glad I’d worn shorts.

Miss Van Pelt unloaded, I connected to the field’s power board with the el cheapo 100-foot extension cord I got at the Wal-Mart. What a relief it would be not to have to worry about batteries to run scope, computer, and dew heaters. I power the Mallincam Xtreme off a battery in the interest of obtaining the cleanest video possible, but even though the camera has a Peltier cooler, it is a current sipper. I could probably run it for a couple of nights on its jump-start battery.

Over to the Lodge to unpack. Yes, the rooms are tiny, but they are clean, air-conditioned/heated, and have individual bathrooms. No, it’s not like spending a night in the Ritz—or even in the Chiefland Days Inn—but it is one hell of a lot better than the dirty, buggy chickie cabins we suffered through at our previous location, nearby Camp Ruth Lee, for four years.

What next? We hung out on the field talking to old friends, many of whom we only see once or twice a year, fiddling with the gear, walking about, and just relaxing—which is almost as big a reason to go to a star party as observing is. After the first raffle giveaway, where Unk, as usual, didn’t win a thing, it was time for supper.

To say the food at Feliciana is a cut above normal star party fare is to way understate it. Not only are the victuals considerably better than the “edible” you get most places, you eat ‘em in attractive surroundings. The traditional first night entree, grilled chicken, is not my fave, but either it had improved this year or Unk was hungrier than normal. I gobbled it up along with a large salad from the (yes) salad bar and a huge hunk of frosting-slathered carrot cake.

After the meal, I had two goals:  walk off all that food, and take a critical look at the sky. The field is about a quarter mile from the Lodge and the last thing I want is to have to hike out there in the middle of the night in a storm to secure the gear like I had to do in ought-nine. I’d already staked down the tripod of Emma’s VX mount just in case, but if it was evident bad stuff was on the way, I wanted to move anything that might be damaged by rain or wind into the truck. Including Mrs. Peel. I didn’t fancy spending the evening fretting about my beautiful C8, and wind up getting dressed and going out to the field in the middle of the night to pull her off the mount like I did last spring.

It didn't take much looking in the sky to see nasty weather was in the offing. Heck, you didn’t even have to look. There was a still, quiet, uber-sticky feel to the air that said, “storm’s a-comin’.” I moved what needed to be moved into the 4Runner, including the C8, and pounded in my tent stakes a wee bit more. Particularly those securing the tarps we attach to the Coleman tailgating canopy to form its sides in cold weather. Following the front passage, temperatures were supposed to fall into the lower 40s, if not lower.

After I’d done all I could to prepare for the weather, I spent an hour or three visiting with my fellow Deep Southers on the field. Till the humidity and skeeters got to me. This location normally does not have much of a mosquito problem, even in the spring, but the current conditions were bringing in waves of ‘em. I headed back to the Lodge, where I spent an hour or two looking at DVDs on my laptop, episodes of Star Trek’s first season, including one of my favorites, “What are Little Girls Made Of?” before packing my bags for dreamland.

A big southern breakfast took our minds off the weather...
Thursday dawned. Well, sort of. The thick clouds of Wednesday were thicker than ever. I hadn’t been awakened in the middle of the night by thunder-boomers as I had been in the spring, but when I poked my head outside after I’d snagged a cuppa java from the dining hall, it was already sprinkling rain. To top it all off, a look at on the laptop (FRC's Internet access was much more reliable than in the spring) showed we were under a freaking tornado watch.

After a traditional southern breakfast (biscuits, sausage, grits) I headed to the field while I still could.  Actually, the rain mostly held off through early afternoon, and I was able to spend some time out there with my friend, former student, and Escambia Amateur Astronomers’ Association President Jon Ellard. That young man is one of my astronomy success stories, and anybody who thinks amateur astronomy doesn't have a future only needs to look at him and younguns like him—and there are many more of them than you might think.

I was also pleased to see long-time Astronomical League figure Mike Benson had arrived. Dorothy and I hadn’t seen Mike since 2003 when he and the Barnard Seyfert Astronomical Society had Unk up as a speaker at that year's Tennessee Star party. Mike was onsite to chair a meeting of SERAL (Southeast Region of the Astronomical League) Friday afternoon, and Dorothy and I were looking forward to that.

Udder than that? Thursday was purty much like Wednesday till mid afternoon. Until about two o’clock, when the rain sprinkles came back and this time did not diminish. By supper (FRC's legendary pot roast and mashed taters), it was pouring. How did I spend a rainy Halloween night? Jon and I had planned to dress as Obi Wan and Luke and give light saber demos on the field (no, I am NOT kidding), but the wet conditions and lack of kids on Thursday dissuaded us. Next year, y’all.

And the rains came Thursday...
Instead, I watched one of my favorite Halloween flicks, maybe my favorite Halloween movie of all time, The Rocky Horror Picture Show, thanks to a DVD DSRSG Managing Director Barry Simon brought along. Sitting with my buddies watching it on a big-screen TV in the lodge, I wished I had rice to throw. Back in the room, I viewed the DVD of It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown like I do every October 31, and was soon dozing off to the sound of rain on the roof.

Come Friday morning, I was almost afraid to look outside. Fronts have been known to stall out, after all. Fueled by plenty of coffee, I worked up the nerve and had a peep. The sky was not cloudless yet, but that was obviously the way it was headed. There was a good breeze, and the temperature was in the low 60s or maybe even the upper 50s. That sure perked me up and helped me enjoy a breakfast that was even more southern than before, adding sawmill gravy to the down-home mix.

The question Friday wasn’t “What do I do all day?” but “How do I do everything today?” In addition to getting the repacked gear unpacked, the scope back on her mount, and the things that had got wet dried out, there was a presentation to hear, that SERAL meeting to attend, and the first big raffle giveaway’s prizes to drool over.

First up was one of the best presentations I’ve heard at a star party in a while, Walt Cooney’s talk on amateur contributions to the science of astronomy, and in particular CCD photometry of asteroids. I don’t normally think of DSRSG as a star party that’s big on presentations; I think of it as being more focused on observing and having fun, but there have been some real good talks over the years. Walt was followed by the SERAL meeting where old and new business was addressed and Unk and Jon were installed as SERAL officers. I have been known to complain about the AL, so it’s high time I put my money where my mouth is and pitch in and help out, I reckon.

D. and her beautiful new scope...
Only downer? During the meeting, Miss Dorothy began feeling ill and I had to walk her back to the Lodge. I was awfully concerned, since she looked like she might fall out. She was soon feeling better and we attributed her “spell” (as we Southrons call such things) to heat and the sudden change of weather. The meeting hall’s air conditioner was out of whack, and despite the cool outdoor temperatures it was hot in there and awful stuffy. That and the dramatic change in air pressure after the front passage, which played hob with everybody’s sinuses, had conspired to nearly lay D. low, we decided.

Miss Dorothy feeling better, the next thing on the agenda was the raffle at 3 o’clock. I often say I never win anything at a star party, but that ain’t strictly true. I’ve had a right good record of picking up little stuff in recent times. I got a cable to allow me to control the telescope with my iPhone at the AHSP this year, and I won a camera mount for the iPhone at the Friday afternoon raffle. That was cool; I’ve had a lot of fun just hand-holding my phone camera up to the eyepiece, like I did Friday afternoon to capture a cool Solar flare through Jon’s H-alpha scope. But that was small potatoes compared to what Dorothy won.

Miss D. has been a consistent winner, but I was still amazed when her name was pulled for a beautiful Explore Scientific AR-102 refractor. Yes, Dorothy had won a big, beautiful telescope. This wasn’t the only big prize donated by Explore Scientific to our little star party, either. In addition to yet another 102, there were several of the company’s fantastic eyepieces. Scott Roberts and his colleagues sure have my gratitude for their kindness and generosity to their fellow amateurs. As I always say, when you need astro-gear, buy it from somebody, support somebody, who supports us.

You’ll get a full report on Dorothy’s new telescope and the last day of the star party, Saturday, next week. For now, all I’ll say is her scope looked luscious when I pulled it out of the box to check the ring/dovetail situation and see if it would be likely to balance on the VX with the single counterweight I’d brought along. I was tempted to mount her on the VX right then and there, but Mrs. Peel and the Mallincam Xtreme were ready to go, and I wanted to hit the deep, deep sky hard on this first good night.

Supper, which was a somewhat odd but good concoction, fried catfish with a side of shrimp scampi, came and went, the skies held, and soon enough it was time to get the scope cranking. I’d considered several observing projects for this year’s DSRSG, but the only one that had much appeal was the aforementioned Operation Arp.  If there’s anything negative to be said about it, it’s just that it is all galaxies, and, since I did so many, many galaxies in the course of The Herschel Project, it would be nice to look at something else for a change. At least the Arps are usually interesting galaxies, so that’s what I’d do Friday night.

iPhone Sun...
Before I could see a single cotton-picking Arp, though, I had to get Mrs. Peel aligned. I sure was glad I’d practiced doing the AllStar polar alignment last weekend. For some reason, I’ve shied away from AllStar over the four years it’s been out, and have only embraced it now because I have to use it with the VX; the old firmware with its align-on-Polaris polar alignment will not work. I am happy to report I’ve finally got friendly with AllStar. Did a normal 2 + 4 go-to alignment, chose Deneb Al Giedi as my AllStar star, and it was duck soup, you-all. The resulting polar alignment yielded round stars in 1-minute plus (unguided) exposures.

Since it was not dark enough to get started with galaxies right after AllStar was done, I essayed a second go-to alignment. I had moved the mount a fair distance in the course of the polar alignment, after all. Even so, my go-to accuracy would probably have been fine, but since I had the time for a redo, why not?

Did a quick series of go-tos to M13, M57, and a couple of other pretties to make sure mount and Mallincam Xtreme were doing their things as they should be, fired up SkyTools 3, and hit the Arp list. Since I’d knocked out less than thirty of the suckers on that winter night down in Chiefland, I had plenty of fuzzies in plenty of constellations to choose from under galaxy-laden fall skies.  One difference from that night in Chiefland? I upped my exposure from my customary 14 seconds to 28 in hopes of catching more detail. Ain’t much point in doing Arps if’n you ain’t going after details, is there?

I was pleased at what I brought home, 77 Arps, most of which looked purty good given a night that started out humid and ended up with ground fog aplenty. Now, don’t get skeered, y’all. I ain’t gonna rattle off the vitals of all 77 galaxies. I would like to share a few of my favo-rights from Friday night with you, howsomeever…

The Arps

“Arp 295” consists two interacting galaxies, PGC 72139, an edge on, and an intermediate inclination companion, PGC 72155, 4’36” to the northeast. PGCs have a reputation for being tough, but these two are in the magnitude 14.5 range and not hard. I couldn’t see the tidal tails that link the galaxies in their POSS plate, but it was obvious the edge-on is disturbed.

Arp 15 (NGC 7393) in Aquarius looks very much the same on my monitor as it does on its POSS image, a bright golden center with arms that seem bent back upon themselves. This galaxy was noted for its “detached” segments by Arp. That’s not obvious, but its peculiar semi-ring shape is.

Aquarius' NGC 7727 is also Arp 222, a large face-on spiral that is pretty obviously interacting with a smaller galaxy, NGC 7724, which is 12’ to the northwest. Despite a bright background sky to the southeast, I could see a large and distorted spiral arm just like in the POSS plate.

Arp 325, which has a quoted magnitude figure of 17.9, is easy to see because the galaxies that make it up are tiny and star-like. They are small enough that it’s hard to tell exactly how many of them there are, but I thought I counted five. These little fellers form an Arp because they constitute a galaxy “chain,” one of Chip Arp’s categories.

Not all Arps are 17th magnitude ghosts. There are even a few Messiers among them including good, old M32, Andromeda’s little companion, which is in the catalog as Arp 168. Why it is an Arp is not clear to me. M32 is listed among the Arps with “diffuse counter tails,” but what or where that is, I don’t know.

Arp 273 in Andromeda is a strange sight. It’s a confusing welter of spiral arms that seems indecipherable until you realize you are seeing two colliding galaxies, PGC 8961 and PGC 8970, whose skinny arms are nearly intertwined. At magnitude 13.8, this is easy and gives up considerable detail.

I liked all the Arps I hit on this night, and I saw some interesting details in almost every one, but for now, I’ll end with one of the most spectacular members of the catalog, Arp 37, another Messier, Cetus’ M77. This bright Seyfert galaxy is not numbered among the Arps for that reason, but because there is a “low surface brightness companion” in the field. What that is, I dunno. The obvious candidate is LEDA 1154903, which is dimmer than magnitude 17, but it is over 10’ away. I couldn’t find the answer to this and some other Arp questions I had on the Internet, so it’s probably time for me to buy Jeff Kanipe and Dennis Webb’s The Arp Atlas of Peculiar Galaxies, I reckon.

What will I remember most about this night? Mainly that it seemed so simple. Once the VX was aligned, she didn't miss a fracking go-to. The Mallincam just worked; the only adjustment I made all night was changing the exposure time occasionally. It was all so easy I was amazed at the end of the evening when I toted up my targets and found I’d done about a hundred DSOs including the nearly 80 Arp galaxies. The O.A. score thus far? Including this haul, 105 down 234 to go.

“All good things,” they say, and for me that began as the local time display on SkyTools 3 ticked on toward 1:30 a.m. The lower part of the field was beginning to be covered with ground fog, and I figured it would be my turn soon. I was also beginning to feel a little weary. The dampness was sapping my energy even though I was comparatively warm and dry under the canopy with the Black Cat catalytic heater running. Even my second Monster Energy drink of the night failed to fully restore me. I called a halt to the Arps—I’d got most of those high enough in the sky to fool with by now anyway—and had some fun.

The funnest of my fun objects? Probably M33. It was riding high and was just tremendous in 1-minute exposures. I’ve rarely seen it look more like the wild-armed spiral it is than on this night. Not only that, it was peppered with red HII regions on my monitor. Its appearance was just magnificent, and is only hinted at in the single-frame grab here. Just before shutting down, I had a look at little Comet Brewington, who at least looked like a comet, if not much of a comet. It had been my plan to stay up for ISON, who would be well up for me by 4:30 a.m. or shortly thereafter, but that was not to be. There was no doubt we’d be socked in-by then.

I've loved M33, the Pinwheel, since I was a sprout...
At 2:30, low clouds had indeed closed us down and it was Big Switch Time. I shut everything off, tucked Mrs. Peel in with her Desert Storm cover, grabbed the laptop, and headed to the Lodge. There, I spent equal amounts of time watching a dadgum DVD of UFO Hunters and ruminating on observing projects. I am for sure continuing Operation Arp, but I would like a second and maybe larger project to work on, something with a little more variety. I think I have that project, and will tell you-all about it in due course.

As for DSRSG? We are out of space and time for this edition of the Little Old Blog from Chaos Manor South, Unk having far exceeded his usual self-imposed verbiage limit. So, we’ll be back at the Feliciana Retreat Center again next week for some time under the stars with Dorothy’s new refractor. Since Unk is not known for his knowledge about or expertise with lens-scopes, it should be “interesting,” to say the least, muchachos.

Nota bene:  If’n you’ve a mind, you can see lots more pictures from DSRSG 2013 on Unk’s Facebook page.

Next Time:  Through a glass but not darkly…

Great post Rod!! It sounds like the DSRSG is a great star party. I was supposed to go to the CSPG down CAV way but my doctor said no siree!!! Dag gone doctors. So I spent the dark of the moon here at the home observatory, BHO, Black Hole Observatory. Started working on the H200 a while back and was able to get about 46 more bringing me up to 127. Almost there.

I've been going back into your archives of your blog and have been having a grand time reading the old posts. I really look forward to the new stuff but I still have a ways to go in the archives. I'm up to Jan 2010. Lots of interesting stuff in there.

Keep up the good work.
HI Kevin: Thanks for the kind words, and shore hope to see you Down Chiefland Way one of these days. :-)
Hey. with DLSR attached to Explore Scientific AR102 on the mount Advanced VX, for how long can you expose maximum without star trails? I am planning to buy this mount, but not sure about the length of the long-exposures this mount can allow me.
You should easily be able to get at least a minute or two.
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