Sunday, November 09, 2014


A Deep South Saturday: Project Scotty Night 2

Dawn Sunday...
I am not telling y’all anything you don't already know when I say the weather in the formerly sunny South and much of the rest of the good old U.S. of A. ain’t been very astronomy friendly the last few years. Of late, it’s been unusual for us to get even two clear nights over the four (now five) night run of the Deep South Regional Star Gaze. This year was different, Muchachos.

As you learned last week, ol’ Unk had a great Wednesday night, part of Thursday, and a spectacular Friday. The folks who’d been onsite since Tuesday had had yet another whole evening of deep sky craziness. As you also heard last week, that created a problem for your old Uncle. What would I do with a Saturday night that was also going to be a good one? My observing list was finis.

I could always take one more tour of the summer/fall showpieces, you know, M13, M27, M15, M31, yadda-yadda-yadda. But that didn’t seem too productive a way to spend one of our increasingly rare dark and clear nights. Well, OK. What did I have going on when it came to visual observing projects?  There was my Messier Album series, but that required the services of a 4-inch refractor, and I’d decided—maybe foolishly—against carrying one to DSRSG 2014.

That left only one recent and incomplete visual project, Project Scotty, my (proposed) quest to (maybe) observe all the objects in Deep Sky Wonders, the book Steve O’Meara compiled from Walter Scott Houston’s legendary Sky & Telescope column. Seemed like that might do the trick for Saturday. I hadn’t put an aperture limit on the scopes I’d use for Project Scotty, and I’d hardly begun it, being only five objects into a list that contained nearly 500 DSOs.

Breakfast:  the biscuits were good, anyhow...
Before I could get Project Scotty going again, however, I had to get through a long Saturday. We sure lucked out with our choice of dates weather-wise this time, but the days do go a lot quicker when the star party falls after the end of the dadgum Daylight Savings Time. Especially considering I was up right early Saturday, in plenty of time to catch another breakfast where I had to use a magnifying glass to find my scrambled eggs. I nearly had one of my infamous meltdowns (wherein I assume the persona of a small, emotionally disturbed child), right in the dining hall!

One thing that would make the day go faster was that I had a second talk scheduled on Saturday afternoon. The first, “Things that Go ‘Bump’ in the Night Sky: Observing the STRANGE Stuff,” which I’d first given at this year’s Almost Heaven Star Party, had been a hit Friday afternoon. The second would be a gear-switcher, a program heavy on audience participation, a discussion of smart phones and tablets in amateur astronomy.

A bit before noon, Miss Dorothy and I walked over to the Feliciana Retreat Center’s auditorium, Barton Hall, not far from the observing field. We were just in time to catch Steve Edmiston, who preceded me with his presentation about making the screens of Android devices astronomy-friendly. That was a good thing. Not just because Steve’s talk was an excellent one, but because I was able to call on him during my presentation when questions arose concerning Android phones and tablets—Unk is most familiar with the iOS (iPhone, iPad) widgets. Anyhow, my Saturday talk went as well as the Friday one—purty good, that is.

After Barry Simon’s “The Fall Night Sky,” outlining the best objects to view and image during this transitional time of the year, D. and I headed back to the field to take down our tailgating canopy. Normally, we leave it up for the final night of a star party, but I thought it would be best to take it down on the last afternoon this time. I had a couple of stacks of astronomy student papers among other things awaiting my attention at home, and I wanted to skedaddle as soon after breakfast as possible.

If we tore down the EZ Up Saturday afternoon, not only would we not have to spend time cramming it back in its case Sunday morning, we wouldn’t have to wait around for the Sun to dry it first (the dew was heavy every night). Or, worse, have to unpack it again once we got home to let it dry out. I originally thought I might pack up the observing table, too, but decided I wanted to use the laptop Saturday night after all. The Toshiba would be fine  on the table under its little corrugated plastic shelter without the protection of a canopy.

Packing up the canopy Saturday afternoon...
When we had the EZ Up in its case (which was not exactly fun under the blistering Louisiana Sun) and in the truck, it was it was door prize time again. As usual, Unk was coming into the last prize giveaway empty-handed. Dorothy had won a nice, small red light Thursday (which she promptly gave away to a novice who’d arrived without a red flashlight), but I hadn’t got nuttin'. Amazingly, my name was called, but by that time, prize pickings was slim, and I responded “pass,” to allow somebody else to get one of the items that remained. I wouldn’t have minded winning one of the big prizes this year, but I am past the stage where I need yet another small gadget--or astro-gear of any kind, really.

That brought us to supper, which was, as mentioned last time, a huge bring-down. I’d been craving the FRC’s delicious smoked brisket, a final night tradition for the past five years. Nope. Instead we were served frozen (tasted that way, anyhow) hamburger patties on untoasted buns with bags of Lays chips on the side. Oh, it was passable, I guess. Even the fixins were slim, not even any onions for gosh sakes, and certainly not quite what your backwoods epicure of an Uncle had in mind.

What comes after supper on long Daylight Savings Time afternoons? Why a nap, of course. I grabbed my Nook and headed to our Lodge room to continue Triplanetary. Just as Doc Smith’s evil Eddorians and benevolent Arisians began slugging it out, Unk dropped off into a slumber which would likely have continued well past the time I needed to be back on the field if Miss D. hadn’t awakened me with “Getting dark, Rod!”

On the observing field, the routine was much the same as it had been. Uncover the scope, connect the Sky Commander DSCs to the laptop, align on Polaris and Fomalhaut, light off SkyTools 3 and begin touring the Universe. The star party was the first time I’d been able to try the combo of ST3 and the Sky Commanders under a dark sky, and I was pleased at how well they worked together. I found I occasionally had to mash the “Push-to” button on SkyTools more than once to ensure the DSCs received the object data, but that didn't cause major heartburn. It sure was nice to have SkyTools 3’s huge object database at the Sky Commanders’ disposal.

Last door prize giveaway...
Not that I’d need ST3’s enormous selection of catalogs Saturday night. The Scottys on this evening's agenda would tend to the bright and spectacular. I always like to revel in Cool Stuff on the last night. I also didn’t intend to cover a huge amount of ground. One of the few rules of Project Scotty is that each object gets plenty of eyepiece time. I figgered that, with occasional breaks, maybe ten DSOs would be enough. That would also allow me to proceed in a fashion suited to the fact that I was weary after the preceding nights of my deep sky tear.

In addition to setting up telescope and computer, I hunted up the little am/fm radio I’d bought at freaking Wally World. I hoped to pick up Game 3 of the World Series out on the observing field, and with a little twiddling I found an FM station carrying the Royals – Giants duel. The reception was lousy—north Louisiana is a radio wasteland and WWL in New Orleans didn't have the game on—but it was good enough for me to keep occasional tabs on the Giants as the evening progressed.

Hokay, what would be first? M2, the grand globular in Aquarius, was high and in the clear and and one of my all time faves. In Deep Sky Wonders, Scotty’s discussion of M2 begins with its naked eye visibility. Mr. Houston spotted it, he says, from the bayous of Louisiana, but he must have had darker and drier Louisiana skies than I did. On Saturday, the southern sky at Feliciana was dark gray and not likely to give up globs to Unk’s aged eyes.

In Old Betsy, M2 appeared fully resolved right to its small, bright core. One other thing I noted, and which I’ve noticed before, is that the cluster seems to me to have a strong bluish cast. Maybe coincidentally, Scotty mentions author Glyn Jones reported seeing a greenish-blue glow around the cluster. I didn’t see any such thing, but the faint blue tint of M2 itself was striking.

Next up was another glob, Pegasus’ M15, to which Scotty devotes considerable space. Understandably, since, as he says, “The view of M15 is impressive with anything from binoculars to the largest telescope.” It never fails to blow me away, and certainly did this time. In the 8mm Ethos (187x) the center of M15’s intensely bright core was nearly star-like. But that wasn’t the big draw; that was how far out its halo of tiny, tiny stars extended. It easily filled the field of the 100-degree Ethos 8mm.

To Monster or not to Monster?
Naturally, Scotty mentions M15’s notoriously tiny and dim planetary nebula, Pease 1. He doesn’t report seeing it himself, but does say a couple of observers he knows conquered it by “blinking” it with an OIII filter, repeatedly placing an OIII filter between eye and eyepiece and removing it in hopes of making the planetary alternately appear and disappear, making it more obvious. I’ve tried that and every other trick in the book over the years, including with my friend Pat Rochford’s old 24-inch Dobsonian at insanely high powers, but I’ve never even seen a hint of Pease 1.

Mr. Houston’s discussion of M39 starts out purty much the same as you’ll read anywhere; it’s a rather sparse cluster in Cygnus enclosed in a triangle of bright stars. But he doesn't leave it at the easy and obvious. He mentions a curious dark streak he’s noticed, a dark nebula 5-degrees southwest of the cluster. I’ve never seen a dark nebula in the area, and I am doubtful of ever seeing it. Scotty says following this dark lane leads you to the Cocoon Nebula, which he implies is more prominent. I know the Cocoon routinely gives me fits, so I don’t expect I’ll ever see Scotty’s Streak.

Not that I didn’t have a nice look at M39, which I always find to be prettier than I remember. At half a degree across, this Cygnus open cluster is a job for the 35mm Panoptic (42X). Its equilateral triangle of bright stars encloses a medium-rich group of similarly bright stars, about 20. These are set against a background of dimmer stars. There is an attractive double star near the center of the triangle.

That his dark nebula “leads” to the Cocoon Nebula is the only mention IC 5146, gets in Deep Sky Wonders. Frankly, in Scotty’s time, much of which was before mega Dobs, uber eyepieces, and super filters, it probably didn’t warrant much more. The Cocoon is not easy. It did not respond to my OIII filter, and while a Lumicon UHC filter improved it a little, it was still just barely visible as an east-west elongated patch of nebulosity around a small group of stars. It was best in the 35 Pan, being nearly invisible at higher power.

The sky stayed beautiful and blue Saturday...
Walter Scott Houston was the dean of deep sky observers. No fooling and no doubt about that, but he was a man of his time, just as Admiral Smyth was a man of his. I say that because the “controversy” Mr. Houston mentions concerning NGC 7000, the North America Nebula, has the flavor of bygone days.

This controversy had to do with the visibility of NGC 7000, especially in smaller telescopes. Scotty rightly observes it can be visible to the naked eye under good conditions, but he goes on to say it is invisible in a 6-inch f/4 while easy in an 11-inch. That seems at odds with what most observers experience today, that it is not hard from a dark site and is easiest with small, fast scopes. Scotty, of course, was writing before nebula filters became widely available and widely used—though he does mention an observation of the NAN with a UHC by Alister Ling. With an OIII, NGC 7000 and the whole complex of nebulosity around it is a wonder in Miss Dorothy’s OIII equipped 4-inch f/6.5 achromat.

Not that the NAN doesn't look good in a larger scope. It dang sure did on this night. It was very bright in the 35 Panoptic with a Thousand Oaks OIII. The Gulf Coast/Mexico/Florida region was, as usual, the most prominent area, but the entire nebula and the Pelican (IC 5070) as well were readily visible with a little scanning around. Several open clusters on the eastern seaboard, NGCs 6996, 6997, and 6989 were obvious and attractive.

Deep Sky Wonders gives considerable space to M31, though much of it is devoted to questions about the galaxy’s visible extent, its naked eye appearance, and its observational history rather than the particulars of observing it. Scotty does get to that, however, noting in particular the galaxy’s tiny, bright nucleus, which is one of my favorite features and which many observers seem to miss.

I certainly didn’t miss much on Saturday night. I’ve had better looks at M31 in the past, but maybe not much better. NGC 206, the huge star cloud in one of the galaxy’s arms was obvious and appeared elongated and grainy, though not as good as it was at the Chiefland Star Party in 2008. The nucleus was, likewise, prominent, but didn’t appear as tiny and bright as it had on that outstanding evening at the CAV.  Otherwise, two of M31’s dark lanes were visible with the 13mm Ethos, a sure sign you’ve hit Andromeda on a pretty good night.

Barton Hall...
In his earlier columns, Scotty was writing in an era when many amateurs didn't observe even bright NGCs. That is particularly obvious concerning NGC 6826, the Blinking Planetary in Cygnus, a bread and butter object for novices these days. Mr. Houston opines that the planetary is “not well known today.” And he doesn't even mention the blinking effect—that the central star pops out when you use direct vision and the disk is more pronounced with averted vision. That may be because he observed the nebula with his 10-inch Newtonian; the blinking is more obvious with smaller apertures.

It didn't blink at all with old Betsy, with the slightly greenish disk being prominent with direct vision. Despite the nebulosity, the central star was also readily visible. In the 8mm Ethos, there were hints of radial striations in the annulus. I tried the TeleVue Big Barlow with the 8mm ocular in an attempt to get a better look at these features, but no dice.

When he comes to the Saturn Nebula, NGC 7009, Scotty, in typical fashion asks rather than tells. His question is, “What is the smallest telescope that will show the planetary’s faint extensions?” These "extensions" on either side of the Saturn Nebula’s oval disk, which made Lord Rosse think it resembled the planet Saturn in his proto-big-Dob, are not easy. I’d answer “12-inch,” but the ring is often very difficult in a 12. That was not the case on this evening, however.

NGC 7009 was good and high, and I was hoping to get a glimpse of its ring, but I had my doubts. The feature has never been overly clear in Betsy—not until this night, anyhow. The nebula was strongly blue, very elongated, and when the seeing changed, the ring would swim into view. I could see it at 187x, but had to take the power up to 374x to make it easy.

At that magnification, the ring still came and went, but when it was visible, it was astoundingly visible. Which brings to mind one of my maxims, “Amateur astronomers tend to use too little magnification rather than too much.” If I hadn’t pumped up the power here, I wouldn’t have gotten nearly as good a view.

M76, the Little Dumbbell (planetary) Nebula in Perseus, was one of The Man’s fave objects, and he often spread the word about it. Back in the hallowed day it was, surprisingly, considered one of the more difficult Messiers. I’ve seen it easily in a 60mm ETX refractor from a heavily light polluted suburban site, but fifty years ago a lot of us would read the oft-quoted photographic magnitude for it, 12.2, and get scared off.

As Scotty says, on a good night with an 8-inch or larger telescope this little thing is a showpiece. In Old Betsy with the 8mm Ethos, the Dumbbell portion, the two lobes of nebulosity in contact, was amazingly bright. Dark lanes criss-crossed the dumbbell, and arcs of nebulosity were easy to see extending from each end of the object. There is little doubt the LPR filters we take for granted help a lot with M76—it was much better with my OIII than without.

M71 seems to be another of Mr. Houston’s pet objects, since he devotes more space to Sagitta’s globular cluster than most deep sky raconteurs do. That space is well deserved in my opinion.  One thing is sure, on my DSRSG Saturday night the glob was bold and bright and resolved, visible as a triangular shape—or, as Scotty calls it, an “arrowhead.” It is very loose and in an incredibly rich star field.

In the past, there's been a question about the object’s classification—is it a globular cluster or is it an open cluster?—and Scotty makes note of that without coming down on either side. I’d say one look at the cluster’s color-magnitude diagram makes its status as a glob clear.

Then it was time to ring down the curtain for the night with a special object, the Phantom Galaxy, M74, which, as I said last time, put on a surprisingly good show—for a dim face-on Sc galaxy—at the 1994 Deep South. Scotty mentions the galaxy’s frustrating and difficult nature, and I agree with him on that. It is frustrating and difficult—if you want to see the spiral arms. It’s visible almost anytime as a smudge in an 8-inch scope under a dark sky. 

Actually, M74’s spiral is only difficult sometimes. Or maybe most of the time. When the sky is just right, with the “just right” usually being a combination of steady seeing, low humidity, and dark skies, the Phantom offers up a heaping helping of spiral structure despite the fact that Scotty seems to believe seeing the spiral arms is impossible even with a 20-inch scope. In Betsy, the arms weren't as easy as they were in 1994 or on the above-mentioned night at the 2008 Chiefland Star Party, but they were obvious and beautiful.

My victory over M74 complete, I took a break, moseyed around the field to see what my pals were up to, and visited Barton Hall's Little Astronomers’ Room. Back at the EZ-Up, I started to grab a Monster Energy Drink outa the ice chest. And stopped myself. It was almost midnight. and there would be packing and the drive home on the morrow. Yes, not having to mess with the tailgating canopy would help, but there would still be plenty of work to do.

Group picture courtesy of Barry Simon...
Gazing across the field, it looked like many of my fellow star partiers had had the same thought. The field was emptying out. Not having the EZ Up to protect the gear from dew meant much of my stuff was soaked and needed to be gathered up and stowed in the truck. It was time I pulled that accursed Big Switch.

On the way back to the Lodge, I reflected on this year’s DSRSG. It had been a very good one. I must admit that when I am not imaging, I always feel a mite let down that I don’t have any “souvenirs” to take home at the end of the event, but it wasn’t just any old visual observing I did this time. I felt like a long overdue task was completed; a bow had finally been tied on the DSRSG ’94 package with the completion of my old observing list. The icing on the cake, if I can mix a few metaphors, was that I also advanced Project Scotty at least a little.

After a restful night, it was time to say goodbye to the old FRC for another six months (I sure hope to be back in April for the Spring Scrimmage edition of our star party). Dorothy and I agreed we’d had a great time in 2014. Maybe not as great as in 1994— likely no star party will ever equal that one for us—but a great time nevertheless.

Just after dawn, I was out to the chilly field to pack our remaining gear in the truck and, after retrieving D. and our suitcases and other room items from the Lodge, Unk pointed the truck east for the New Manse well before breakfast. Unlike a few times over the years, I was sad to be leaving and didn’t want to stretch it out with long goodbyes. 2014 was one for the books, muchachos.

2020 Update

There's not too much to say about DSRSG 2014 from the perspective of six years later. It was a great one. Probably one of the  best all-visual DSRSGs I ever had, if not the best. Almost everything came together for a series of wonderful nights. I do have a few words, however...

The Feliciana Retreat Center

The FRC was an incredibly good site for the star party for years. Your old Uncle, who hates change, just naturally expected that to continue forever. Alas, in 2014 the handwriting was already on the wall. The poor food that year (which was destined to get even worse) was a taste of things to come, the beginning of the decline of the FRC thanks to economic woes, that impelled the star party to move to a new location in 2018.

Old Betsy

Old Betsy in her original form.
She was a wonderful telescope, and I had countless wonderful adventures with her for twenty years. This was her swan song with me, unfortunately. By the time another couple of years had gone by, two things became clear:  she was way too heavy for me to manage anymore, and I was more focused on imaging than visual and that didn't seem likely to change. Betsy was sold, I hoped to someone who'd treat her well and use her frequently. I don't think that happened, alas, but I try not to think about it and just focus on my great memories of that old scope than began in 1994.

Project Scotty

In the wake of the Herschel Project's completion, I tried to get numerous observing projects off the ground, but none really took with me. I finally had to admit that various factors meant I just wasn't interested in taking on a big observing project again. Will that change? It could. I am planning essay the Herschel 400 from my backyard, something I am calling "The New Herschel Project."

The 2015 Spring Scrimmage

Following my success at the 2013 Spring Scrimmage, and the even greater time I had at the 2014 DSRSG, I was pumped and could hardly wait for the spring 2015 Deep South. I was retired and fancy free and ready for more star partying! Alas, weather killed it. But that's just the way it goes down here on the borders of the Great Possum Swamp, muchachos. 

Hi Rod,

Very nice write-up. Your pursuit of the objects in the Deep-Sky Wonders anthology is something I've been considering. I've been hoping to find a list online, but barring that, I suppose I can go from the chapter end tables.

Thanks again!
Northwest Pennsylvania
Hi John:

If you are using SkyTools, just let me know and I can email you the list in that format.

Hi Rod,

I use a pretty old version (4) of Deep Sky Planner. Guess I'm due for an update :-)

I've (naturally) got the list in DSP format too, but it is, alas, the latest and the greatest version. ;)
Thanks, anyway. I can always use the book.
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