Sunday, May 04, 2014


The Herschel Project Night 43

What have I seen of the deep sky so far this year? Nuttin’ honey. Well, that ain’t strictly true, muchachos, but almost. I’ve had a few OK evenings at the Possum Swamp Astronomical Society Dark Site, but not many. Me and Miss Dorothy’s January pilgrimage to the Chiefland Astronomy Village was a complete skunk-out. First time in five years I didn't even unload the scope. The weather was so nasty the week of the CAV Spring Picnic in March that we cancelled out. First time ever for that. So, I was hoping, hoping mightily, I’d get some hours at the 2014 Deep South Regional Star Gaze Spring Scrimmage.

The no-frills springtime edition of our local star party is held in the same place as the main event, the Feliciana Retreat Center near Norwood, Louisiana in the eastern part of the state. It’s a nice place run by the Presbyterian Church and features a motel-like lodge with small rooms and a beautiful dining hall. It’s also got an expansive field for observing—when the weather permits.

Let’s face it, deep sky observing is always dicey down south in mid-late spring. You can get nice nights, but they are not plentiful, and even on good evenings it’s going to be damp and sometimes hazy. What did the weatherman prognosticate for this year’s Scrimmage? A mixed bag, with Thursday the 24th and Saturday the 26th looking iffy. Friday? I thought I might get some time that evening.  Which would be a good thing.

For the last year and a half, I’ve been trying to tie the bow on the package that is the Herschel Project. I wanted to go back and image about 200 objects. Re-image them, actually. I had video footage of all of ‘em, but that video was done with my old Stellacam II camera, and looked mighty putrid. I wanted to redo those DSOs, mostly galaxies, with the Mallincam Xtreme. From the official end of the H-Project’s principal observing in 2012 till now I’d only redone about 50 of these aitches (mostly because of poor weather the past two years). That left 150 to go, and while I sure didn't expect to get all of ‘em, I wanted to get a lot of ‘em at Feliciana.

I also had a secondary goal, testing a brand new Mallincam. If you watch the video astronomy scene, you know Mr. Rock has released a flurry of new cameras. I was mightily impressed by the Junior Pro, since it went a long way toward busting the price barrier that has kept some folks out of deep sky video. Then I heard Mr. M. was coming out with an even cheaper—much cheaper—camera, the Micro-EX at a price of 99 bucks ($169.99 with an AC power supply and some other accessories you are gonna want).

The question in my formerly military mind? Quite a few 1/3rd inch chip deep sky video cameras have come to market recently, and I’ve looked askance at their small sensors (the Xtreme and Junior Pro and most of the other M-cams have ½-inch CCDs). Could a cheap camera with a small chip satisfy? I intended to find out.

Miss Lucille Van Pelt Ready to Party...
As y’all know, I HATE packing on star party morning, so, as has been my practice for a while, I loaded Miss Van Pelt, our 4Runner, the night before, Wednesday evening 23 April. In the couple of years I’ve had the Toyota, I’ve managed to get the packing thing down to an art, so it only took about half an hour to get the Edge 800, Mrs. Emma Peel, her Advanced VX mount, and all the tons of other gear I carry to a star gaze squared away.

What then? I took a look at the weather forecasts on the computer and on the cable TV. The results were the same as they had been. Thursday didn't look too good. Friday was better. Saturday looked to be down the tubes in advance of severe weather coming in early the next week. At least the outlook was better than it had been for last year’s Scrimmage, which came at the end of May. Being in April helps. Get deep into May and those Gulf Coast storms start rockin’. Nevertheless, I had one good night last year and couldn’t help but think I’d get at least one at the 2014 Scrimmage.

Weather agonized over, I settled in with a little Kolorado Kool-aid to watch my fave silly reality show of the moment, Mountain Monsters. But only for a while. I had sworn I’d go to bed early so I’d be rested enough to do a full night of observing after the drive and gear set up. I headed upstairs shortly after nine, but wouldn’t you know it? I was awake by two. Star party crazy Unk = little kid on Christmas Eve. I finally got back to sleep about four thirty, just an hour before wakeup time. Oh fracking well.

I’d decided to drive straight through to Feliciana so I’d arrive just as the curtain went up on the star party at ten in the morning. So, no Mickey D’s fried chicken biscuit for moi. I grabbed a leftover slice of pepperoni pizza (from the pizza party I gave my astronomy students on their last night of class), gobbled that, tossed down a cuppa Joe, and was out the door.

Cruising down I-10 toward I-12 and I-55, I was feeling purty good. Would have felt real good if I hadn’t been all by myself. Miss Dorothy was in DC visiting daughter Beth. The spring edition of “Deep South” is a no frills affair—no speakers, prizes, or vendors—so, like last year, it seemed the perfect time for Dorothy to head north. This was my second Spring Scrimmage, last year's being my first. Previously, work had prevented me from doing much spring star partying. This retirement stuff is OK, though it is admittedly taking me more time to adjust to it than I thought it would.

Late Thursday Afternoon...
Something else would've helped my attitude in addition to the presence of my lovely wife. I’d have been in a better mood if it weren't for all the fog. It was thick enough as I crossed the Mississippi line that I switched on Miss Van P’s fog lamps. If nothing else, I figgered fog would shut us down by midnight. To help take my mind off the weather, I was listening to an audio book of one of my favorite Stephen King novels, The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon. Poor Trish was well and truly lost and walking toward the wilds of New Hampshire’s “chimney” by the time I pulled onto the grounds of the FRC.

One thing was apparent as I drove onto the observing field: the Feliciana Retreat Center’s new manager was doing the “steady as she goes” thing. The grounds were immaculate and the huge observing field freshly mown. After saying hello to my fellow early arrivals, DSRSG Manager Barry Simon and long time Deep Southers Ron and Walt, it was time to get Mrs. Peel and all her support gear unpacked.

Unloading the truck was not as painful as it was last year. The temperature was comfortably warm (my old bones like warm), but still mild. Maybe in the mid 70s. I set up the SCT, pitched the tailgating canopy, and unloaded my multitudinous gear cases, all without breaking a sweat. Last step was hooking up to the AC power panel with my 100-foot extension cord, and then it was time to motor up to the Lodge.

How was the Lodge? It was much the same as always, and that is a good thing. The rooms are small and Spartan, even compared to the Chiefland Days Inn, but they are sufficient and mucho bettero than a chickie cabin or a tent. I did note the room I finally got (Walt had mistakenly set up in my room, so I took his), “West Nine,” didn't seem as well maintained as it could have been. It was clean, but the plumbing—each room has a bathroom—seemed a little creaky. I am sure the new manager will take care of such things. She seems to be a take-charge-and-move-out kind of person.

We have Internet!
Turned on the laptop and checked the FRC’s Wi-Fi Internet. While not perfect—satellite Internet never is—it worked, which is more than it did at the 2013 Scrimmage. Being able to check the weather is a help, and being able to look at the Cloudy Nights BBS and Facebook can be a Godsend on nights when the weather turns punk.

I moseyed back out to the field to finish a few other setup tasks, and when that was done, it was lunchtime. How was the food? Not so hotsky. Terrible, just terrible, as a matter of fact, if (marginally) edible. There was a kids’ group spending the day at the FRC, and I reckon the staff decided to do kid-centric meals. The burgers at lunch were passable, but the french-fries, which had the consistency of stale Cheetos, had obviously stayed under the heat lamp way too long. The chicken strips we had for supper on the first day were similarly execrable. Saving grace? The salad bar, which was great as always. While the food was edible, the chicken nuggets, especially, weren't within a country mile of the Center’s usual Thursday supper fare, pot roast and mashed potatoes slathered in gravy.

My lack of sleep Wednesday night was taking a toll after lunch, so I lay down in the room, perusing the latest issue of Sky & Telescope (June 2014; Unk has an article in that issue). After a while, I was able to drift off for a nap that lasted almost until supper and the coming of those shoe-leather chicken planks.

What else is there to say about Thursday? Not much, ya’ll. I spent some hours on the field after supper, hanging with my fellow star partiers (we had at least tripled our number by evening) and, in particular, admiring their scopes and mounts. Most popular rig this spring? The Celestron AVX; there were three of ‘em on the field including Unk’s mount.

At the tail end of afternoon, the sky was, surprisingly, looking good, far better than I expected. Until, shortly before sunset, we began noticing clouds about ten degrees above the western horizon. Over the course of an hour, they multiplied and were soon covering the whole freaking sky. I had at least hoped to get Mrs. Peel roughly polar aligned, but couldn’t even do that. Polaris peeped in and out for a while, just to tease, but by full dark was gone for good. I stuck it out until 10:30, when it became obvious nothing was changing anytime soon.

Dadgum clouds!..
Back at the room, I quaffed a few refreshing sarsaparillas, sat back, and watched Star Wars Clone Wars Season One on the laptop’s DVD player between looks at Wunderground and The weather services were still forecasting Friday evening to be clear, but they’d said the same for Thursday until a few hours before the clouds moved in. No point in fuming. On the Gulf Coast in the spring, you just have to roll with the punches the weather gods throw at you.

When I slowly, ever so slowly, rolled out of bed at 7 a.m. Friday morning, I was almost afraid to look outside. I needn't have been; there’d obviously been no rain. If there had been fog, it was gone now. The Sun was shining, the birds were chirping, and examining the gear out on the field before breakfast revealed the dew had been heavy but not as heavy as it can be down here this time of year.

Only bring-down Friday morning? Unk screwed up. In line for breakfast, I got my grits and I got my huge biscuit and I got my eggs. But…when the little girl doing the serving asked if I’d like to try the turkey “bacon” and sausage, I said “yes.” The turkey patty was right good in a biscuit slathered with grape jelly, but that ersatz bacon? It tasted like something, I reckon, but NOT bacon. Yeah, it’s good to veer to the healthy side once in a while, but don’t drive that into the ground and break it off, not when it comes to BACON.

I had a Sky & Telescope assignment to work on, so I spent a few hours with MS Word, and when I finally came up for air it was, amazingly, getting on toward supper. That was red beans and rice, pork loin, and cornbread, and it was all good, y'all, real good, right back up to the FRC’s usual standards.

On the field as sundown approached, it appeared we were going to break a record. There were upwards of 25 observers present, more than ever for a Spring Scrimmage, which was beginning to look like a real star party. Even better, there was no doubt the clear skies were going to hold. It was not crisp and cool, but it was cool enough and not too humid. Some haze was revealed when I covered the Sun with my palm, but not as much as there might have been. As soon as Polaris showed up, I set about getting roughly polar aligned (sight the North Star in the hollow polar bore of the Advanced VX mount).

Mrs. Peel with Mallincam Micro...
With the bright stars beginning to wink on, I began goto alignment. Connected the mount to the Toshiba Satellite laptop with a serial cable, started NexRemote, loaded up the GEM 4.21 firmware, and had at it. NexRemote chose two alignment stars and four calibration stars and I centered them with the Logitech Wireless Wingman gamepad I use as my “hand control.”

Last star done, I was standing there fat, dumb, and happy till I realized, “Rod, you dummy, you gotta do the AllStar.” Since I’d be using the Mallincam Xtreme on this night, I needed a closer polar alignment than the rough one I’d done with Polaris. Looking south, I spied Alphard, Alpha Hydrae, due south and not too high, which is the perfect prescription for an AllStar polar alignment star.

I sent Mrs. Peel to Alphard and started the AllStar alignment. The VX slewed away from the star, and told me to re-center it with the direction buttons. I did that using my joystick, and the mount moved away from Alphard one last time, cautioning me not to use the direction buttons, but to line up the star with the altitude and azimuth adjusters instead, which I did.

When I was finished, I had a look at the polar alignment accuracy as displayed by the hand control (my virtual hand control in NexRemote). It claimed I was dead-on with no alignment error at all. None. I doubted that, but I was close enough to the pole that no star trailing was noted in unguided 30-second images with the small-chip Xtreme.

Actually, I wasn’t quite done. I’d moved the mount a fair distance to polar align, and that would have thrown my gotos off. So, I essayed a fresh 2 + 4 goto alignment before declaring myself ready to hit the sky. Before I forget to mention it, all alignments were done by looking at the stars on the Mallincam’s monitor (my little portable DVD player). You can have the Xtreme throw up a set of crosshairs, which makes alignment a breeze.

I didn't use NexRemote’s virtual hand control much, but when I did, it reminded me how much better I like Celestron’s old HC layout than the new one on the "Plus" HCs. The old hand controls have dedicated M and NGC buttons, which I love. I didn't use the virtual HC much? How in Hades did I goto my targets, then? I lit off the SkyTools 3 software on the laptop, loaded the Herschel Project list into the program’s RealTime tab, connected ST3 to the mount via NexRemote’s Virtual Port function, and from then on went to list objects by clicking on them and mashing ST3’s “slew to” button.

Comet Panstarrs with Mallincam Xtreme
First target of the evening was Comet Panstarrs, which was on SkyTools’ “Current Comets” list. The new Comet Panstarrs, C/2012 K1, in Ursa Major not far from the “tail” star of the dipper, Alkaid. It was surprisingly prominent in the Xtreme, and I estimated its magnitude somewhere around 9. Looked slightly greenish, and sported both an ion and a dust tail in the live video. Cool, but I couldn’t spend too much time with the little visitor. I had a slew of Herschels to chase.

And so it began. I had roughly 150 objects to image, most of them were in Virgo, and the Maiden was well up over the trees in the east, so that’s where I started. What was particularly fine on this night? I did some “purties” just before shutdown, but other than that, the winner was M100, who photobombed one of the Herschels. This Coma galaxy was not actually a list object; instead, I was after a fairly nondescript little sprite, NGC 4328, a lenticular. M100 was right next to it though, exploding onto my screen with a welter of spiral arms.

And so it went. I’d click on the nextun in the list, slew to it, record 30-seconds of video images and audio notes with my Orion StarShoot DVR recorder, and move on. Before long, it seemed, I was done with Virgo and Coma Berenices. I guzzled a Monster Energy Drink, took a tour around the field, visited the little astronomers’ room, and sat at the PC to figger out where to go next.

Quite a few to do in Crater. Got ‘em. Plenty in Corvus. Done. Coma? Finis. When I stood up and stretched the next time, it was two and there were no more Herschels available. Switching to the non-RealTime list display, which shows all objects whether they are over the horizon or not, I was amazed to see there were only seven fuzzies to go, to re-image. I thought I might be able to snag them in Chiefland next month if’n the weather goobers were correct and I didn't see nothing Saturday night.

Despite 2 a.m. having come and gone, the Monster ensured I was still raring to go. Go where? To the cool stuff rising in the east. Over the next hour, I did a tour of the best and brightest: M13, M57, M10, M12, M16, M17, M8, M20, and more. What did I favor? All looked incredible on my monitor, but the Trifid at 28-seconds (video below) stole my heart. Not only were the “petals” and dark lanes of the main nebula very distinct, the blue reflection nebulosity adjacent was as good as I have ever seen it with the Xtreme.

M100 plus friend...
As three in the cotton-picking a.m. approached, two things became evident:  the Monster was beginning to wear off, and the sky was degrading. Oh, I could have had another energy drink, but that would likely have left me trembling like a dadgum Chihuahua. And even if I’d banished my weariness, it appeared the sky was done with me for the evening. In addition to clouds in the southwest, a general haziness was creeping in. Urania shooed me off to bed, and I hit the Big Switch and walked the ¼ mile back to the Lodge.

There, I browsed Cloudy Nights for a little—a very little—while. Watched one more episode of Clone Wars, wet my whistle, and said goodnight. It was now four in the freaking a.m. I had retrieved some Quaker Oats oatmeal bars from the 4Runner before I left the field, since I was purty sure I wouldn’t be up in time for no breakfast.

Saturday morning, I did indeed miss breakfast. Not that I slept as late as I’d have liked. I was awakened not long after eight by loud voices in the hall and what sounded like some goober rearranging furniture. At first, I was right put out. Then, I realized most of what I was hearing was actually the sounds of breakfast. Due to acoustics of the place, the noise in the dining room was funneled right down the hall of the residence area. Oh, well. I got up, showered, had a cup or three of Java, and was soon feeling OK.

Lunch more than made up for my missed breakfast. The barbeque chicken was good, but what was outstanding was the baked potato salad. What’s that? Make potato salad, but use sour cream in addition to mayo. Oh, and add bacon. I had the best intentions of working on my article a little, and I did, but only a little. It was soon naptime thanks to all that cotton-picking food.

That nap, a trip out to the field at mid-afternoon, and a little puttering around back at the Lodge brought up suppertime, the pièce de résistance, the FRC’s famous brisket. This meal more than made up for the horrible food Thursday. I must have had some sides to go with it, but frankly, y’all, all I can remember is that brisket. When I was finally done, I needed to walk it off, so out to the field I went, and that was where I stayed till darkness.

Last night of the star party. As Joe Castiglione was wont to say, "And it all comes down to this." The big question was “What will the sky do?” The answer in most peoples’ estimation was “not much,” obviously, since telescopes were being packed away and tailgating canopies were being taken down. While a few folks did skedaddle for home, unlike last year, when I was nearly the lone astronomer of Deep South on Saturday evening, most stayed onsite. That was cool. I’d have some company if the skunk ape put in an appearance in the dark of night.

Unlike my mates, I was convinced we’d get a little while Saturday night, and rather than tearing down Mrs. Peel, I merely switched cameras, to the new one, the Micro-EX. I figured just getting M3 in view would tell me a lot about Rock’s latest creation.

Set up was fairly smooth. Hooking the camera up was, in fact, a no-brainer. I just used the same video cable and 12vdc cord I use with the Xtreme. The only thing different was the computer control cable, which has a different style connector than the one used with the Xtreme. On the plus side, the new computer cord plugs right into a USB port, no USB-serial converter needed.

It was now full dark, so I powered up the camera and started its computer control program, which is decidedly different from the software used with other Mallincams. Good thing I’d played with it at home. What it’s like is a computer version of the Mallincam wired remote. What you have onscreen is a set of virtual buttons, just like the ones on the back of the camera. You use the buttons to move a cursor and make changes in menus that appear on the video monitor, not the computer screen. First time I tried it, I was scratching my head for quite a while, so I was, again, glad I’d worked with it indoors.

Got the camera’s settings, which are a little different from those on the other Mallin cameras, configurated and began alignment. The Micro doesn't do crosshairs, but it was easy enough to get the 2 + 4 stars centered on the screen with 2-second exposures. Any problems? Only one. Occasionally the video would go away. Unplugging and replugging the video cable fixed that the several times it happened over the course of the evening. Since it occurred with the telescope pointing nearly straight up, it was probably a connection problem—the cable would flex as the scope headed to the zenith. After the third occurrence, I plugged the video cord back in extra firmly, and it appeared the problem was banished. I will keep my eye on it howsomeever.

Micro Software...
Observations? I had to play around with the settings a bit to get a picture I liked—I had to run the gamma lower (brighter picture) than I would with the Xtreme—but I soon had an impressive view of M3. Well, impressive given the putrid conditions. Plenty, and I do mean plenty, of resolution despite the scope looking through haze. But M3 is bright. How about NGC 2158, the little cluster hard up against M35? It was not only there, but looking well-resolved at the Micro’s longest exposure, 17-seconds. The Eskimo Nebula was purty sweet, too. Nice and greenish blue (sometimes the whole sky background became green due to haze). When clouds covered Gemini, I headed back to the Realm of the Galaxies in the east.

Over there, I had plenty of triumphs despite building haze and more clouds—M51’s arms, for example, were easy and so was the black spot of M64. I even thought I could see M87’s jet, barely. To sum up, I am intrigued by the Micro-EX, but want to withhold final judgment till I can get it under a clear, dark sky. Maybe in Chiefland next month. What can I say about it thus far? It is inexpensive, seems plenty sensitive, and is easy to operate.

Let me restate the obvious:  THIS WAS NOT A NIGHT FOR GALAXIES –or anything else, really. I felt like I should include a screen-grab, but the camera should be able to do far better than this on any decent night.

Did I miss the larger chip of the Xtreme? Not really. After a while, I actually forgot I was using a “small chip camera.” Do understand: this is an inexpensive beginner camera, an uncooled camera with a 1/3rd inch chip. There will be prominent hot/warm pixels. As I have said before, however, that doesn't bother me. What I want to do is go deep and see plenty of details, and I believe the Micro is gonna let me do that. Stay tuned, y’all.

M51 on a poor night with the Micro...
At 10 p.m., the clouds had closed down the last sucker holes, and it was Big Switch time again. I wasn’t at all put out, since I hadn’t expected to see anything Saturday night. Coulda stayed out on the field schmoozing with the bubbas, but the bugs were beginning to bite, so it was DVDs back in the room till round midnight.

One of the greatest things about being retired came with the morning. I didn't have to rush with packing to get home early to prepare for work on fracking Monday. I took my time, had a nice breakfast of French toast and bacon, and was just about whistling a little tune as I finished loading Miss Van Pelt. I even found the second of my two room keys; the one I’d thought I’d lost was lying in Miss Van Pelt’s cargo area.

The drive home from a star party by myself is never particularly pleasant. I just want to get it over with. This time wasn’t bad, though. I finished listening to King’s tale of little lost Patricia, and ruminated on the things I’d seen. The Edge 800 and the Xtreme had placed a slew of objects both strange and wonderful before me, but, actually, what had me more excited was the Micro-EX. One of my favorite things in amateur astronomy, maybe my absolute favorite thing, muchachos, is seeing how much I can do with how little. The Micro is small in size and price, and while, yeah, I’ll have to get it under a good sky for a real test, I believe little sister is going to do one hell of a lot.

Nota Bene:  You can see many more pictures from the Scrimmage on Unk’s Facebook page (in “albums”).

Next Time:  Eight-and-a-half Years After the Honeymoon…

I really enjoyed the "review" of the Micro EX. I recently purchased one and I am encouraged by the your results with it. I am new to video astronomy and devour anything I can find on it. Please keep the info coming!
As soon as I get some clear, dark skies you will hear much more about the Micro. I am pretty excited about it thus far. :-)
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