Sunday, August 17, 2014


The Next One

It ain’t like your old Uncle ain’t had an observing project since 2012 when I finished the Herschel Project, muchachos. I’ve actually had quite a few: Operation Arp, my quest to view Halton Arp’s peculiar galaxies, and the BCH Project, my plan to observe the deep sky objects of Burnham’s legendary Celestial Handbook to name just a couple. The problem? None of ‘em has clicked with me.

As I’ve said before, I believe observing all 2500 Herschel objects will turn out to have been the deep sky observing experience of a lifetime. I had so much fun doing it that it’s odd it took so long for me to get around to it. Or maybe not so odd. A few things had to come into proper conjunction to make the Herschel Project fly.

First of all, I had to have the gear to observe them dim aitches. I wouldn’t have dared to tackle them all with “just” a C8 used visually—though that might have been possible. One cold November night in 2010, I essayed a passel of them with nothing more than my trusty 8-inch SCT, Celeste (albeit from dark skies). That said, there is no doubt in my formerly military mind that my 12-inch Dob, Old Betsy, and my C11, Big Bertha, were a big factor in me finishing the Project in a smidge over two years.

Another reason I was able to plow through the H2500, “the Big Enchilada” as I called it, with good speed was my deep sky video cameras, the Stellacam 2 with which I began The Project, and the Mallincam Xtreme with which I finished it. I probably wouldn’t have been able to do two-hundred objects in a single evening without a video camera (not to mention goto and DSCs).

A huge help was the dark skies of the Chiefland Astronomy Village. I’d been heading Down Chiefland Way twice a year for the Spring Picnic and the Chiefland Star Party for the better part of a decade. When the Project began, however, I kicked it up a couple of notches. Despite the demands of my engineering gig as I approached retirement, I did January, April, July, and November (or December) CAV trips in 2010, 2011, and 2012.

"Clouds? What clouds?"
The final piece of the puzzle was the weather. 2011, and especially the summer of 2011, was, as I noted week before last, outstanding for deep sky work. The skies of Chiefland that summer were near about as dark and transparent as winter skies. The weather didn't begin to change for the worse in Chiefland and up here in Possum Swamp till I was nearing the Herschel finish line in the late spring of 2012.

But finish I did in 2012, and I wasn’t too surprised when my feeling of elation out on the CAV observing field at the end of the last night’s run turned into a big let down in the motel room by morning light. I was finished. What would I do now?

I immediately began thinking about what would come next, but I had the sneaking suspicion that whatever that was, it wouldn’t be as much fun as the Herschel Project. Not hardly. Those nights at the CAV, pressing on through the forests of Coma and Virgo, dragging back to the Days Inn well after 3 a.m. to wind down with Rebel Yell and Ghost Adventures. Getting up the next morning and spending the hours till darkness sitting in the motel reading The Georgian Star, Discoverers of the Universe, Double Stars, or Sir Willie’s own Scientific Papers. Grabbing a bite at Bar-B-Q Bills and heading for the field to do it all over again. It was a magical time for me.

I suspected no new observing program would light my fire like the Herschel Project did, but that didn't mean there wouldn’t be fun projects. My original inspiration for the Project was Julie Powell’s quest to cook all of Julia Child’s recipes in Mastering the Art of French Cooking (and to blog about it) as documented in Julie and Julia. Like her, I would move on to something else, even if it wasn’t an as engaging a something else. I just hoped what came next for me wouldn’t be a disaster like Julie’s misbegotten (book) follow-up, Cleaving: a Story of Marriage, Meat, and Obsession (!)…

I thunk and I thunk and I thunk, and in January of 2013, Operation Arp debuted. I’d long been interested in the Arp peculiar galaxies, so it seemed a natural to observe them. Alas, the new project floundered and foundered. For a couple of reasons. It came at a bad time, just as I was transitioning from working stiff to retired codger. I had to spend most of my time with investment councilors, not the stars.

Good old Bill's...
That wasn’t the only reason. The elephant in the living room was that I just didn't find Halton Arp inspiring. While the man did some outstanding work, his clinging to patently incorrect theories made him seem more a stubborn cuss than a pioneer like the Herschels. Many the time out on a cold, dark field, I felt a genuine closeness to William and Caroline. With Chip Arp? Never.

Finally, I was surprised to find, when I composed an Arp list with SkyTools 3, that I’d already seen bunches of the galaxies. It was still fun to go back through ‘em, looking for their peculiar details. But it didn't have the feel the H-Project had, of breaking new ground, of seeing what was just around the next corner. If the Herschel Project was my Star Trek (the original series), Operation Arp was Deep Space Nine.

Lastly, while there are galaxies all over the sky, even hugging the Zone of Avoidance, most of the Arps are, naturally, clustered in the spring and fall. What would I do the rest of the year? Yes, the spring constellations are on display in late winter and early summer, and the fall ones in late summer and early winter, but I would still have to deal with slim pickings for considerable lengths of time.

So I thunk some more. One afternoon, I picked up Burnham’s Celestial Handbook and started thumbing through it after it had sat lonely on my shelf for many upon many a Moon. Hell, why not observe all the Burnham deep sky objects? For a while that sounded just about perfect.  When I ginned up a list with Deep Sky Planner, I discovered that while the Handbook contains nearly 1900 DSOs, I’d already seen three-quarters of them, leaving around 500, which sounded about right.

Alas, the BCH ain't yet got off the ground. I ain’t gonna say I ain’t never gonna undertake it, but a little preliminary observing showed it not to be much fun. Oh, the objects were fun to observe and all that, but I wanted depth. What I wanted to do was to be able to compare my impressions of what I was seeing to Burnham’s. Unfortunately, only a relative few of his objects get any discussion in the books. Usually three or four per constellation. There really wasn’t much of an emotional hook to hang the Burnham Project on, either. Certainly, Robert Burnham was a sympathetic character, but, as with Arp, I found it nigh impossible to feel much kinship with him.

So, anyhow, I was sitting around the New Manse the udder day, pondering the amateur astronomer’s eternal question, “What do I look at next?” when my eye ran across the bookshelf, lighting on Deep Sky Wonders. I don’t mean Sue French’s (excellent) book, but the original, the Scotty Deep Sky Wonders. The compilation book of his columns done by Steve O’Meara in 1999.

Who is this “Scotty?” I don’t blame you younguns for not knowing. After all, Walter Scott Houston has been gone from us for over twenty years. Still, you’ll hear hardcore deep sky maniacs talk about him even now. He was that big a force in our hobby. You might say he is the man who invented deep sky observing as we know it today. I do not exaggerate when I say his column, which ran in Sky & Telescope from 1946 until his death, is no little responsible for taking amateur astronomy from being a pursuit where you looked at the Moon, planets, double stars, and brightest Messiers, to the far ranging deep space quest it is today. Want to know more? The book has a short profile of the man, but there is not yet a real biography, something I hope will change someday.

And how about the O’Meara-edited book? It is good, very good; you should read it. You should also get undiluted Scotty, however. The original, the real deal. While most of the words in the book are Scotty’s, Mr. O’Meara understandably had to do a lot of cutting and pasting and rearranging to work those nearly fifty years of monthly columns into a coherent whole. It’s a nice summing up of “Deep Sky Wonders” and I recommend it, but today you have an alternative.

Yep, campers, I’m talking about the Sky & Telescope DVD set, which, you won’t be surprised to learn, holds an honored spot on Chaos Manor South’s bookshelf. What was the first thing I did with it once I got the discs? I went straight to September 1946, the issue with Scotty’s first column, and began reading them in sequence.

What made Mr. Houston the Dean of Deep Sky Observers, as he is often called, wasn’t just his encyclopedic knowledge of the Universe beyond the Solar System. One of the most prescient observations by Steve O’Meara in Deep Sky Wonders is that Scotty never let the minutiae of deep sky observing get in the way. One thing you will not find in his columns—ever—is long-winded discussions about which brand or design of telescope or eyepiece is “best.” Scotty knew the most important thing in our pursuit is not the eyepiece, but the man or woman behind it.

My Scotty story? Everybody who was active in the glory days of the 70s - 80s when amateurs were first beginning to really push back the deep sky frontiers seems to have a Scotty story. Mine is simple. I was at a star party way back when, probably the old Riverside Telescope Maker’s Conference. I was standing in line to get a look through somebody’s big gun—hell it may have been a freaking 16-inch—and struck up a conversation with this older gent.

Not only did this dude seem knowledgeable about the deep sky, damned knowledgeable, the force of his personality was undeniable. Even in the dark, I could feel him sizing me up, like a pitcher taking the measure of the next batter. I was impressed. It was only after he’d had his look through the eyepiece, made a couple of incisive comments, and wandered off, that the guy next to me nudged me, “You know who that was, doncha? SCOTTY!”

The fuel of the Herschel Project...
So, no, I didn't really know Walter Scott Houston (“Twinky” to his family and other intimates), but despite only having (sorta) met him that once, I felt like I did from reading “Deep Sky Wonders” for over thirty years. When I was a sprout, the column was the first thing I turned to when Sky and ‘Scope appeared in the mailbox (in a big manila envelope). I wasn’t always successful in following Scotty out into the Final Frontier, but it sure was fun trying.

So, what if I observed the “Scotty Objects” enumerated in the book? Yeah, many of them I would have seen time and again—naturally, in the early days, he gave plenty of space to less esoteric objects—but the fun would be finding out how what I saw compared to what The Man saw.

Well, if’n I was going to do that, I’d need a list of objects. It was a simple matter to compose an observing list of Scotty’s DSOs from the book using SkyTools 3. When I was done, I found I had a total of exactly 441 fuzzies. Let me say rat-cheer that I didn't include every single object. I skipped most of the dark nebulae. Scotty loved them, but they ain’t my bag. I also left out some double stars that would have required lazy ol’ me to do a modicum of work to cross-reference them with SkyTools’ database. What I was left with looked like it was just about the right size, Herschel 400 size, had a good mix of objects, and just had a good feel to it.

How exactly will I do Project Scotty? I have been wanting to get back to doing a little more visual observing with my 12-inch Dob, Old Betsy, and Scotty was a visual observer, so the emphasis will be on looking through the eyepiece. I do love my Mallincams, though, and I will not hesitate to employ them. Scotty used modest scopes—a 10-inch was his largest personal instrument—but he had darker skies than I do, especially when he was observing from Kansas. And he had incredible skills. So, I’ll use the Xtreme when appropriate. A tenet of Project Scotty is that philosophy that what really matters is the observer, not the equipment.

Other ground rules? Will there be a time-limit? I didn't impose a time limit on myself when I was doing the Herschel 2500. However, I did set a goal for finishing the Herschel 2, my first serious foray in the H-list. Like Julie Powell, I gave myself a year to get ‘er done. Unlike her, however, I resolved not to worry about it if I didn’t make it. Same this time. Having a set time for finishing a project does seem to help spur me on, but given the weather down south the last few years, I never know how much sky time I will get.

Old Betsy's latest incarnation...
When will Project Scotty begin? Soon, I hope, y’all. As I wrote a few weeks back, Old Betsy is all cleaned up and wired up to work with a laptop and SkyTools 3, and seems to be champing at the bit sitting out in the Shop. Assuming (you know what they say about that word) the Weather Gods allow it, I hope to get her out to the Possum Swamp Astronomical Society Dark Site and begin Scotty’s objects with July and August.

I don’t believe I mentioned it earlier, but to help preserve the feel of the original columns, Steve O’Meara arranged Deep Sky Wonders into 12 monthly sections. Don’t expect me to stick to the month’s objects on any given month. Which ones I will look at will depend on what’s well placed for observing. You may find me, for example, bypassing July objects for those of September and October.

I guess what I am really looking forward to, though, is getting under the crisp fall and winter skies with Scotty at my side, just like on those long ago nights when I took my first fumbling steps into the cosmos. Orion, Gemini, Andromeda, and all the rest were terra incognita to me then. I was often lost and often despaired of finding my way among the countless stars. Sometimes I wanted to slink back inside without having seen a thing. I didn’t, because, in my mind, anyway, Walter Scott Houston was at my side urging, “Don’t give up, boy; you won’t believe the wonders we are going to see!”

What happens to my other deep sky observing projects? I am shelving the Burnham list for now. I will probably get back to it once Project Scotty is done. Maybe. Operation Arp is engaging enough that I will no doubt continue it down Chiefland Way when the spring constellations roll ‘round again. I have one other short (reasonably) list to tackle as well, my DSRSG 1994 – 2014 Anniversary List, of which you will hear more in a month or three. So, onward to Project Scotty, muchachos. In the words of Ms. Powell, “What could happen?”

Next Time: West Virginia Redux...

I don't have that many astro books, but this book is a great book just to read. I got the Sky & Telescope version and it sits next to your UAG book.

Started the Herschel with just my C8, but then haven't had a chance in over a year to get back, however at the end of this month my first Rose City Astronomers SP in a year - still have lots of H stuff to see with my C8, and then I'll image the rest.
Great article , captures the essence of amateur astronomy especially the part about Scotty, Howard
Any chance you can make your Scotty 441 list available for SkyTools 3? Some of us readers of the ole Unk's blog might want to follow you as you go through the list.
Certainly...just shoot an email to, and I will send you the .stx file. ;)
You can put this list in the file section of your SCT-user Yahoo group ;-)

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