Sunday, September 25, 2016


Issue #510, Conquering the Herschels

By “conquering,” I don’t necessarily mean you have to do what I did and observe all 2500 Herschel deep sky objects. While it is a worthy quest to Catch ‘em All, that’s not for everyone. On the other hand, what are you gonna do when you finally run out of Messiers? Sure, that list, as I’ve said in my ongoing series of articles about it, can deliver a lifetime of enjoyment, but once you’ve been through it a couple of times, you will likely want other things to see, something new, a different list to work. For more than a few of us that list is a subset of the Herschels, the Herschel 400, a best of the best.

What made me decide to not just finish the Herschel 400, but to go after over two thousand more faint fuzzies? The Herschel Project was born one autumn night in the piney woods of Louisiana when your Uncle Rod was out on the observing field of the 2009 Deep South Regional Star Gaze without a clue as to what to look at next.

I’d begun the evening with a list, Sue French’s “Deep Sky Wonders” column in the then current issue of Sky & Telescope. Alas, even though I gave each object its deserved share of eyepiece time, Sue’s dozen or so DSOs didn’t take all night to hunt up, not hardly—I was using the deadly-accurate Sky Commander digital setting circles computer on my 12-inch Dobsonian, Old Betsy. There were still plenty of hours of darkness to be filled when I finished. After some objects from a magazine article I had at hand, I turned to the showpieces, from the North America Nebula and the Swan Nebula sinking in the west, to M31 and M33 rising in the east. That was OK, but not really what I had in mind. I was becoming at least dimly aware what I wanted was new stuff.
As two a.m. came and went, I wasn’t sleepy but I was bored. I didn’t think it would ever happen, but it seemed I had finally run out of sky objects to view. That wasn’t really possible, of course, since there are thousands and thousands of deep sky objects—galaxies, nebulae, and star clusters—in range of a 12-inch telescope. I just didn’t know which of that multitude I should chase. Sure, I gloried in the Great Orion Nebula when it rose above the pine trees, but I wanted to see that new stuff. To push back my amateur astronomy frontiers. I needed some kind of project to work on.
The next morning, though not early the next morning, after a big country breakfast (those were the days when I wasn’t afraid to fill up on biscuits, gravy, and sausage) that was thankfully not served till nine, I spent quite some time thinking about what would be on Saturday evening’s observing agenda. For a while, I’d had the idea that I should do something about finishing the Herschel 400, which I’d begun years before, had returned to seriously the previous October at the Chiefland Astronomy Village, but which I still hadn’t completed.
Where the Project officially began, DSRSG 2009...
By Sunset Saturday, the die was cast: I would stop lollygagging and finish the supposedly scary Herschel 400. To do that, I’d of course need to know which 400s I still needed to see. Luckily, I still had the list from that October CAV expedition on my laptop in SkyTools 3 (the observing planning program) format, and the program showed me at a glance exactly how many I’d done, how many I still needed to do, and which of those would be available Saturday night at Deep South. Surprisingly, it turned out that I only had a generous handful of H400s left, all would be in the sky that night, and that there was a decent chance I could finish the Herschel 400 on this very evening.
The Herschel Objects
What is a Herschel object, anyhow? As you may know, Sir William Herschel, the justly famous 18th Century amateur astronomer who discovered Uranus, was also a deep sky powerhouse. Using large home-built reflecting telescopes not much different from today’s Dobsonians, he and his sister Caroline discovered the lion’s share of the objects that eventually went on to make up the NGC catalog.
Despite his objects having been subsumed into the NGC in the 19th Century, Herschel’s original observations remained available, and one of amateur astronomy’s deep sky pioneers of the last century, Father Lucian Kemble, became fascinated with them. Back in in the 1960s, Kemble compiled a corrected and re-ordered the list of all 2500 galaxies, nebulae, and clusters using Herschel’s notes. Not many amateurs undertook to observe the aitches, however. Not only was it a very long list that included some dim and difficult objects, especially for the 1960s, quite a few of the 2500 were not there at all.
I'd almost finished the 400 the previous October at CAV...
Nobody paid much attention to Kemble’s labors till the 1970s when members of Saint Augustine, Florida’s Ancient City Astronomy Club began casting about for something to “do” after the Messier and were pointed at Kemble’s Herschels by Sky & Telescope's James Mullaney. When they checked out the Herschels, it became obvious why observing these objects wasn’t more popular: nobody would want to run through the list as it was. Not only were many of the entries beyond the reach of the telescopes of the day, it was saddled with typos, duplications, non-existent objects, and objects with incorrect coordinates.
Some of these mistakes were Herschel’s and some were Kemble’s, but all needed to be corrected. In addition to many fixes, the ACAC left out the dimmer objects, almost 80% of the total. When they were finished, they were left with a list of 400 galaxies, clusters, and nebulae that would be visible in 6-inch telescopes (albeit some with difficulty), still the most popular aperture in the 1970s.
Pretty soon, amateur astronomers across the country were working what came to be called “The Herschel 400.”  The leaders of the national amateur organization, The Astronomical League, noticed and built an observing club around the H400, offering certificates and pins for observers who completed what was then thought of as a Herculean task.
That night at DSRSG, I did indeed finish the Herschel 400, and, almost unbelievably, found myself moving on to the Herschel II, the next “best” 400 objects fairly early that evening. After I’d finished the II some months later? I had so much fun with that that I was soon daring what I came to call “The Big Enchilada,” the entire 2500 object list, and was writing an extensive series of blog entries about it. Those articles, which were, I think, some of the best that have ever appeared here, were at least vaguely patterned after Julie Powell’s wonderful blog wherein she recounted her experiences with her big project, cooking all the recipes in Julia Child’s The Art of French Cooking.

How did I make so much progress so quickly, moving from the 400 to the 2500 in just months? Two ways. First, I cheated. I am interested in seeing, not hunting, and given our weather, I wasn’t sure I’d live long enough to finish the whole 2500 if I located objects with a finder scope and a star chart. A friend of mine, a talented observer, literally took years to finish the first 400 working manually. No, I’d use goto and digital setting circles for every segment of the project: the 400, the II, and, most of all, The Big Enchilada.

Celeste:  you don't need a huge scope for the 400...
My other problem didn’t have to do with finding, but seeing. The Herschel 400 is not at all bad in that regard. Its dimmest objects are small galaxies, and while some have faint magnitudes, they are small and not a huge challenge for an 8-inch from a decent dark site. The II is harder, however, and The Big Enchilada contains some admittedly tough DSOs (though, they, like the faintest of the H400, tend to be small and therefore not as challenging as their magnitude values suggest). Still I’d sometimes need a leg up when I was operating from my not-perfect club dark site. That leg up would be video.

I began with my old black and white Stellacam II deep sky video cam, and as the Herschel Project, as I was calling my quest (cribbed from the Julie-Julia Project, natch), proceeded, I moved on to the color Mallincam Xtreme. While these video cameras didn’t deliver DSLR or CCD quality images as far as prettiness went, they brought home the bacon when it came to the dimmest objects and to details within many of those objects. And they did that with short exposures that didn’t require guiding or precise polar alignment. In fact, I found my alt-azimuth mode NexStar 11 GPS, Big Bertha, was perfect for the Herschel Project.

Not that I didn’t do plenty of visual observing, too. When the skies were good enough for that, or I had a group of less challenging objects to tackle, I went visual. The video observing was fun, but it’s the visual looking that I tend to remember now, four years after the Project was done.

If you want to know what it was like observing all the Herschels, I refer you to my blog articles (just do a Google search on “Uncle Rod Herschel Project”). This Sunday, however, we’re not here to talk about all that, as fun as it might have been (there were some wild nights under the stars); the subject is the beginning of my Quest, the original Herschel 400.

If you’re thinking about taking this challenge yourself, the first thing you probably want to know is exactly what this observing list is like. How hard is it, really? What’s is in it? Well, to begin, it’s 400 objects, which is quite a jump for novices for whom the 110 objects (or so) of the Messier probably seemed like a lot. And, yes, the H400 also has a reputation for being much tougher than the Messier. If you look at object magnitudes in the 400 you might indeed get scared. There is, for example, NGC 6540, whose magnitude is often given as a daunting 14.6.

But at least 12-inches of aperture is fun...
Shouldn’t the prospect of a near magnitude 15 star cluster be enough to discourage somebody who doesn’t have access to dark skies and an 18-inch scope? Nope. This little globular star cluster in Sagittarius—which is often misidentified as an open cluster—is slightly dim, but not that dim.

Yes, NGC 6540 is the faintest object in the 400 that has an even semi-reliable magnitude value assigned to it, and it is listed as 14.6 by many sources including SkyTools 3. This cluster is undoubtedly far brighter than that, however, and is probably not much dimmer than 10, since it is visible in a 6-inch Newtonian under good skies. Heck, plenty of people have seen this one with 4-inchers under decent conditions. One thing I have learned over the years is to be wary of is magnitude values. Often what’s listed for an object is actually its photographic magnitude and that can be off a lot when it comes to the object’s visual brightness, with the object looking far brighter than its supposed magnitude.

Certainly there are DSOs in the list with roughly correct magnitudes that are on the faint side, but, as mentioned above, they are usually small: little galaxies and little planetary nebulae. Even a stellar sized object isn’t always a picnic at magnitude 13 if you’re using a 6-inch, but it is doable, and, once again, most of the H objects listed at magnitude 13 are probably closer to 10 – 11. The Herschel 400 is indeed suitable for 6-inch scopes, with the usual problem with the more obscure H400 objects not being seeing them but finding them using a finder scope and star chart.

Don’t let the above give you the wrong idea about the Herschel 400, either. “Dim and difficult” just isn’t a good description of its nature. Unlike The Big Enchilada, it will not make your eyeballs bleed. In fact, the 400 is chock-full of showpieces, including over a dozen Messiers. Most of the spectacular treats from the NGC are in there, too: The E.T. Cluster, the North America Nebula, the Eskimo Nebula, the Blinking Planetary, the Blue Snowball, the Saturn Nebula, the Whale Galaxy, the Splinter Galaxy, and many more famous ones are awaiting you in the 400. If you check your observing records, you’ll probably discover you are already at least 30 or 40 objects into the Herschel without even trying.

But exactly how do you see all this goodness? What do you see all this goodness with? Yes, the Herschel 400 was composed with the idea that it would be doable with a 6-inch telescope, and it most assuredly can be finished with one. Heck, the 400 has been done with 4-inchers. However, some of the objects are semi-challenging for these smaller telescopes, and you will want a good site to make them easy/easier. NGC 2024, Orion’s Flame Nebula, is an example. You can see it with a six-inch equipped with a UHC filter, but you’ll likely need a superior suburban yard, or, better, a site in the suburban – country transition zone to see much of it with a 6-inch beyond a few wisps around Alnitak.

Breakfast time at DSRSG back in The Day...
There’s also the question of how you want to see Herschels. Do you just want to detect all the objects so you can cross ‘em off the list, or, like me, do you want to see details in these objects? If the latter, I suggest more aperture. How much more aperture? Using my old C8, Celeste, at the 2010 Deep South Regional Star Gaze’s site in the dark green (light pollution) zone, I found I could tick off Herschel 2500 objects without much trouble. I was surprised I could do that with a telescope that us spoiled amateurs of today consider “small,” but I could.

While an 8-inch can be a great telescope for the 400, if you intend to do a lot of the work from a not-perfect backyard or a so-so club site, I suggest you kick things up another notch to 10 -inches. God knows, 10-inch Dobsonians are inexpensive these days, even when equipped with goto or digital setting circles—Orion’s Intelliscope 10-inch is a measly $850. The value of a 10-inch is not just that it allows you to see the dimmer objects with greater ease, but that the brighter ones become showpieces, and that sure makes for a more enjoyable experience with the H400.

Almost as important as your telescope is your software. By that, I don’t mean you must have a laptop connected to your telescope to send it on gotos. That can speed things up, and is what I usually did during the Herschel Project, but what I am actually talking about is software to keep you organized. When you are dealing with 400 targets, that is vital. You need to be able to easily determine which you have seen/need to see, and when you can see the DSOs still on your want list. The way you do that is with an observing planning program.

For the balance of the Herschel Project, I used SkyTools 3, mentioned earlier, and you can’t go wrong with that. During the latter phase of the Project, however, I mostly used Deep Sky Planner, which I found had some important strengths for me. If I were just doing the H400, I would no doubt have found Deepsky quite sufficient as well. Unfortunately, that program is limited in the number of objects you can put in a list. I couldn’t cram 2500 into it and so couldn’t use it on The Big Enchilada. One other planner I used was Eye and Telescope, and it was excellent. Astroplanner is a favorite with the Macintosh troops and is a natural if you do your astronomy computing the Apple way.

SkyTools 3 has a built in star atlas, so I didn’t need other software to fulfill that function when I was using it. Many other planners, like Eye and Telescope, also have charting engines, but they tend to be fairly minimalist in nature and I generally used those planners along side planetarium programs (Deep Sky Planner doesn’t do charts at all, using built-in links to many 3rd party planetariums for its charting instead) When I needed star maps and was not using SkyTools, what I used most was either TheSky or Cartes du Ciel. I love Cartes du Ciel, and it is free, so if you don’t have a planetarium you think is up to the task of doing the H400, that’s what I suggest you glom onto.

A dark star party is the perfect place to chase aitches!
Other resources to help you, like books? There is the booklet offered by the Astronomical League, Observe the Herschel Objects, but what I recommend book-wise are Stephen O’Meara’s Herschel 400 Observing Guide, and Mark Bratton’s The Complete Guide to the Herschel Objects.

The O’Meara book is well written, and I enjoyed it. Unfortunately, it has once big strike against it. Mr. O’Meara chose to do all his observing with a 4-inch refractor. While getting through the list with such a small scope, even given his superior Hawaiian skies, is an impressive feat, it makes the book a little less valuable for those of us using larger aperture.

When I was observing the 400 that October in Chiefland, I was using the O’Meara book to help me, but soon found his descriptions didn’t tally well with what I was in the eyepiece of my 12-inch Dob. Even though my skies were not nearly as good as what he must have had when doing the 400, I was seeing so many more details in many aitches that I would occasionally wonder if I were on the correct object. Still, a good book, and if you’ve got an 8-inch in the backyard, his descriptions may match yours.

The Bratton book has, several big advantages. Firstly, Mark used a variety of telescopes from an 8-inch to a 15-inch (and occasionally larger). Also, the book includes plenty of sketches, something I think is vital for a visual observing book. Photos, like the many in the O’Meara book, can be a help, but nothing is more informative about what you can/should see of an object than a sketch done by a fellow observer. Finally, the book covers all the Herschels, so if you intend to go on to the HII or the Big Enchilada, it will still be there to help you on your way.

“But Uncle Rod, we thought you were going to do a Herschel book?” That was the plan, Stan. I intended to begin it in 2012 right after the Project was done. Alas, beyond some very preliminary work, not much has been accomplished. If Mark hadn’t written his guide, there’d have been a little more impetus and I probably would have gritted my teeth and done the Herschel Project book, but he did and he wrote a fine one. My book could still happen, I suppose, but if it does it will undoubtedly be a lot more like Julie Powell’s Julie and Julia: 365 Days, 524 Recipes, 1 Tiny Apartment Kitchen than it will be like a serious observing handbook.

And there you have it. All that remains is for you to get into the backyard or out to the club dark site and get started. Oh! how I envy you! You get to tour the heavens with this magical observing list and see tons of crazy good objects for the first time. Not that my Herschel observing is completely done. I’ve been wanting something new to do—I seem to be in the observing project doldrums again. What if I went through the H400 again? This time with a small(er) telescope?

I am not (entirely) a masochist, so I wouldn’t go as low as a 4-inch given my skies and my weather, but how about a 6-inch? I might cheat a little and use a 6-inch refractor instead of the 6-inch reflector the H400 was intended for, but that’s still a small scope as such things are judged in these latter days. What will I see of the Herschel 400 with a 6-inch? How will one do on the Herschel II? Stay tuned!

2018 Update

Not too much has changed since this article appeared in 2106. I still think about doing a Herschel  book, but with a new book project (and maybe two) on my plate, an H-Project book, whatever form it might take, is still on that back burner almost seven years down the line.

The software I mentioned (good software is the key to finishing any Herschel quest in short order)? I still love and use all the programs mentioned here, but if Stellarium had been what it is now when I did the Big Enchilada, I'd no doubt have used it for a lot of the star charting duties.

Finally, I can't believe it's been nearly a decade since I started the Project and began an intense three year obsession with its deep sky wonders. Not that I don't still look at some of the objects once in a while. In fact, as mentioned in the post, I just might run through the 400 again. I know I've been procrastinating for going on three years, but I still plan on chasing the Herschel 400 with my 6-inch refractor, maybe beginning that quest this spring (maybe).

Most of all, though? This post was aimed at those of you thinking about taking on the Herschel 400 for the first time. If that is you, you have my envy. A host of marvels awaits!

Sunday, September 18, 2016


Issue #509, The Messier XII: Steady as She Goes

You know what I’d like to do? Actually look at some Messier objects instead of just talk about them. I was hoping I’d get in some time with my 10-inch Dobbie, Zelda, and my 5-inch refractor, Hermione, now that I am off the road for a while, but guess what? As if a big Moon weren’t enough, the weather gods have decreed almost constant clouds for moi. Well, at least I have my memories of this set objects, which includes outstanding ones even by Messier standards. OK, into the backyard we go...


M78 is not one of the more difficult Messiers, but neither is it trivial. Reflection nebulae never are. These clouds of gas are not excited to glow; they don’t emit light on their own. They are mostly composed of dust with a consistency approaching that of cigarette smoke, and shine only by the reflected light of the stars within them or nearby. That’s why, when you think reflection nebulae, you thing hot young O-B stars. It takes a lot of power to light up dark clouds, even dimly, and hot stars like those in the Pleiades are just the ticket. Compared to emission nebulae, reflection nebulae are subdued, with the Merope nebula that enwraps the Pleiads being aptly compared to “baby’s breath on a mirror.”

M78 certainly ain’t as hard as the Merope nebula, but it takes some considerable telescopic hardware and dark skies if you want to see it as more than just an oval glow. While it possesses an integrated magnitude of 8.0 and has a fairly small size, the nebula can still be challenging from light pollution. I used to struggle to pull it out of a bright background sky with my 4.25-inch Newtonian from one of the homes I lived in in the 1980s, which was nearly as far downtown as good old Chaos Manor South.

One good thing is that M78 is easy to find by star hopping, and was, in fact, one of the first objects I located that way back in the 1960s. M78 forms a near 90-degree triangle with the three bright stars of Orion’s belt, and is located 2-degrees 38’ northeast of Alnitak (Zeta Orionis). When you think you are in the correct position, scan around with a medium power eyepiece. What you are looking for is a magnitude 10 range double star with a separation of about 2.0’. Examine this pair carefully, and if your skies are not too icky, you will see it is surrounded by an oval glow.

And that is about all you will see even with larger scopes from light polluted skies. Get to the dark spaces, however, and even a 4-inch will begin to show some details, brighter and darker regions, and the oval will assume a somewhat irregular shape. You should be able to detect at least 3 – 4’ of nebulosity. Up the aperture and/or improve the skies further and you will begin to see that the nebula is fan shaped. 10-inch and larger scopes will also reveal this little knot is just one part of a large complex of nebulosity with other dimmer but similar patches coming into view.

I’ve often read that light pollution reduction filters do not work on M78, since it is a reflection nebulosity. The light of the stars, after all, is in the same band of wavelengths as the artificial lights that LPR filters are designed to attenuate. Actually, however, a UHC filter can improve the view of M78 somewhat, since it has a fairly large emission nebula component. One of the big rules of amateur astronomy? Saying something is “impossible” is a sure way to be proven wrong.


The sky of winter isn’t entirely bereft of globular star clusters, but it might as well be. Once M15 and M30 and M2 sink below the horizon, you are pretty much left with M79, and the ground truth is that it just isn’t much of a glob. At magnitude 8.56 and with a size of 9’36”, it is on the puny side, and its declination, -24-degrees 30’, means it is a trifle low for more than a few Northern Hemisphere observers. Still, it is the only Messier glob game in town for a while, so let’s get after it.

Finding is not terribly involved if your southern horizon is mostly unobstructed. M79’s home constellation, the little hare, Lepus, crouching at the feet of Orion is easy enough to make out in the suburban backyard. Naturally, however, as is usual with constellations, it doesn’t look a thing like what it is supposed to represent. That’s wight, wabbit, this bunny looks more like a capital letter “I” (as in “India”). The glob itself forms a near equilateral triangle with Epsilon Leporus and Beta Leporis, and should show up in 4-inchers without a fuss, albeit just as a small, subdued round glow.

Its Shapley – Sawyer class of V means M79 is almost right in the middle as far as concentration goes. Not too compressed, not too loose. That does not mean it is easy to resolve in the backyard, however. Often an 8-inch SCT won’t quite do the job, even at high power. Oh, you might get a few stars in the periphery winking in and out, but convincing resolution at home requires my 10-inch Dobsonian, Zelda. Naturally, it’s easier at a dark site, and in 12-inch and larger scopes under good skies, M79 almost begins to look worthy of its Messier designation.

M79 is better than some of the puny globulars of Sagittarius, but not as good as Coma’s M53. Still, its solo status in the winter means it will give you some chucks during otherwise glob-free times.


If M79 is not exactly highly concentrated, M80 is very highly concentrated, being rated a II on the 12 step Shapley-Sawyer scale. That brings good and bad. Combined with its bright magnitude, 7.87, and its relatively small size, 10.0’, this glob stands out like a sore thumb even with Scorpius is low in the sky. But its compact nature also makes it something of a bear to resolve.

The cluster is easily located by searching the area 4-degrees, 28’ northwest of bright Alpha Scorpii, Antares. Be careful, however. Since it is small and compact, M80 can most assuredly masquerade as a bloated star at low magnifications in smaller scopes. Use medium power, 100x and up, and examine each field carefully, however, and you will be rewarded.

What exactly will your reward be? That depends on your magnification and the aperture of your telescope. In a 4-inch or smaller instrument, the cluster will be easy, but even at higher magnifications it will not be resolved. What it will look a lot like is a bright elliptical galaxy, with a brighter middle and a diffuse halo.

Alas, an 8-inch or even a 10-inch in a suburban yard won’t deliver much more than the above, with an 8-inch sometimes failing to resolve any stars at all unless the conditions are good—the cluster is near culmination on a dry, transparent night. A 10-inch is better. On an average suburban night, one will show the cluster as a grainy appearing ball, and upping the power will bring home a sparkler or two. Even at a dark site, however, I find a 12-inch is required for a truly outstanding view of this tough-nut globular.


The galaxy pair of M81 and M82 isn’t just good, it’s one of the outstanding destinations in the list, right up there with the likes of M42 and M13. How can it be otherwise? Here, you’ve got two bright galaxies, magnitude 6.94 M81 and magnitude 8.41 M82 separated by just a bit more than half a degree. Not only can you fit them both in the same field using a wide-field eyepiece, even with fairly large aperture scopes, they are both potentially detailed and worthy of much inspection.

M81 and M82
M81 first. How to find? I’ll tell you how I was taught to locate Bode’s Nebula (M81) many a Moon ago when I was the greenest of greenhorn novices. Start at the Big Dipper’s bowl star, Phad. Draw a 10-degree long diagonal line from Phad to Dubhe and on for another 10-degrees. That will put you right in the area of M81/82. If you land on M82 first—it stands out better than M81—just move 36’ south. Really, it’s like shooting fish in the proverbial barrel. How will you know when you are on M81? You’ll see a bright enough oval “nebula.”

Here’s the thing about M81, y’all:  while it is a beautiful sight, in the suburbs its beauty is mostly due to its association with M81. While the central portion of this intermediate inclination galaxy is “bright,” the outer disk and spiral arms are quite subdued. It’s large, almost 27’ across, so the light is badly spread out. The only decent looks I’ve had of this Sab spiral’s arms, which are like wisps of gossamer, have been from dark sites with larger apertures. From a truly superior site, a 12-inch will reveal them easily, as my 12-inch, Old Betsy, did one memorable night in the 1990s at the Texas Star Party. At less good locations, you’ll want at least 16-inches of aperture for a good look.

Under average conditions at average dark sites with a medium-sized telescope, you’ll likely see about what I saw with my C11, Big Bertha, back in May of 2004 from the old Georgia Sky View Star Party at Indian Springs State Park.

Under hazy conditions, M 81 is still bright and attractive. Stellar appearing nucleus in TeleVue Panoptic 22mm at  127x. Considerable oval haze extends out from the central regions n/s. No hint of the very subtle spiral arms tonight. Much the same in the 12mm TeleVue Nagler at 233x, though the nucleus looks smaller at this higher power when the seeing settles.


M82, conversely, gives up detail to 6-inch telescopes in suburban backyards. It’s bright, nearly edge-on, and there are plenty of details to be seen in the Cigar Galaxy, which my daughter, Lizbeth, used to call the Exploding Cigar Galaxy. It is "Exploding" because it’s disturbed, likely from a long-ago interaction with M81, and is criss-crossed by dark lanes and festooned with bright patches. The more aperture you use on this 9.3’ long galaxy, the more you’ll see. Don’t be afraid to pump up the power, either. Under good conditions, 200x is nice for the Cigar with an 8-incher.

On the same night I viewed M81 in Georgia, I also recorded M82:

M82 in the TeleVue Nagler Type 2 12mm at 233x is amazing. Bright star in the field, about 30" from the galaxy. Dust lanes cross the galaxy’s thin disk (about 4’) and divide it into three distinct sections. 

Some of the best views I’ve had of M82 have admittedly not been visual ones. With my Mallincam Xtreme video camera and the C11, the galaxy is just incredible, showing not just intricate dark lane structure, but almost psychedelic red matter being emitted from the galaxy’s center. Amazing.


M83, the Southern Pinwheel, can be a pain. Mostly for Northern Hemisphere observers at higher latitudes given the galaxy’s far southern declination, as things go in the north, of almost 30-degrees south. If it gets even barely out of the muck for you, however, this object is a real winner. It’s a classic barred spiral, and the best description of it I’ve ever read came in Timothy Ferris’ wonderful coffee-table book Galaxies (recommended), where he describes it as being “alive with motion.”

How do you locate this magnitude 7.8, 14.1’ galaxy among the southern stars of Hydra? If M83 is low in the sky for you, DSCs or goto will make your task easier, but it is really not difficult to pin down with star chart and finder scope. It lies about halfway along a line drawn between Menkent (Theta Centauri; I told you this was a southern object) and Gamma Hydrae. M83 is prominent enough that you should pick it up easily in a medium powered wide-field eyepiece without further direction.

In the eyepiece? To me, the Southern Pinwheel always looks somewhat like a smaller M33 at first glance. As you continue to look, however, you’ll notice it looks round rather than oval like the Triangulum galaxy. The next thing you should see is the strong bar. If you continue, especially with an ultra-wide medium power ocular (I used to like my old 12mm Nagler Type II on it), you’ll begin to make out details starting with the prominent central bar and moving on to HII regions and the wheeling spiral arms. How hard is the spiral structure to detect? Not hard at all if the object is decently high in the sky for you at a half-way good site, as at my club dark site one late May evening with my ETX-125, Charity Hope Valentine:

M83, a magnitude 7.8, 14.1'x13.2' spiral, has a dramatically bright stellar core and a large, mostly round outer envelope. Spiral structure pops in and out of view. I do have to be careful not to “see” what I expect to see given the images I’ve seen and looks I have had of the object in larger scopes, but the arms are just not that difficult. The galaxy's bar is easy.

M83 is another wonderful target for a deep sky video camera, and shows amazing detail and color in the Xtreme, and also in my inexpensive Revolution vidcam.


M84 is that most common of Virgo beasties, a bright, round elliptical galaxy. Oh, this object’s field makes for a great view, but not because of M84 itself. It’s brilliant (for a galaxy) at magnitude 10.1 and only 6.3’ across, but, as is usually the case with ellipticals, there’s just not a lot to see—a bright round fuzzball that looks like a small, unresolved globular star cluster.

If goto can make finding M83 more pleasant, it can make finding M84 much more pleasant. There are so many bright galaxies within the arms of Virgo that it’s hard to know which one you are on. Luckily, the field here is pretty distinctive. If you simply must find 84 the old fashioned way, it lies halfway along a line drawn between Epsilon Virginis, Vendemiatrix, and Denebola, Beta Leonis. Positoned there, look for two bright fuzzballs about 17’ apart. Which is M84? It is the southwestern fuzzball. It is also rounder-looking than the other galaxy, M86. M84 is a Hubble Type E1, while M86 is an E3.

What just tickles me about this field? You’ve heard of The Eyes, two bright galaxies just to the east of M84/86? Well, M84 and M86 to me are “The Face.” The two big galaxies are the eyes, a small elliptical, NGC 4387, is the nose, and an edge-on, NGC 4388 is the mouth. The effect is so comical that I can’t help smiling every time I land on this field. Which is also beautiful, of course, because it is part of Markarian’s Chain, the line of bright galaxies stretching off to the east. A look at this area with an 18 – 20-inch telescope from a dark site is a mind-blower, and has almost impelled me to buy a really large Dobsonian a time or two.

And that does it for another M batch. Next up? I’m not sure, but it certainly doesn’t look like I’ll be doing any observing any time soon. The weather this time of year on the Gulf Coast simply doesn’t encourage that. Oh, things will improve as they always do, but not until late October usually. Until then? We may take a break from the Ms for a week or three and talk about another favorite observing list of mine. 

Sunday, September 11, 2016


Issue #508, On the Road III: Almost Heaven Star Party 2016

What is there left to say about a star party I’ve attended so many times over the last decade? That it features beautiful skies? That it’s put on in a professional manner by one of the nation’s premier astronomy clubs? That the attendees to a man and a woman are friendly folks? That the surrounding country is beautiful? Yes, all those things and more.

While I’ve spent many a night up on Spruce Knob Mountain, every year is still a pleasure, and I was unreservedly looking forward to yet another Almost Heaven, which is organized by Washington DC’s NOVAC, the Northern Virginia Astronomy Club. This year’s edition ran from September 2nd to the 5th, and by the time Labor Day began to approach, I was only too ready to hop on a jet and head for the wilds of West Virginia despite a travel-heavy summer.

One good thing about this trip? As with my Wisconsin jaunt, I was spared the 0600 torture flight out of Mobile. Originally, that’s the one the AHSP's Elizabeth Erikson had me on, but after mentioning to her that I was feeling beat-down in a major way after spending all those hours on airplanes this summer, she was able to get me on the more reasonable 0720 plane. Much appreciated!

Getting from Mobile to Atlanta and on to Washington – Dulles on Thursday, September 1 was uneventful in the extreme. Yes, I had a layover in ATL, but I prefer that to worrying about whether I will make my connection in time or not. Soon, I was landing at Dulles, picking up my (big) suitcase, and looking around for my ride, AHSP organizer Alan Goldberg. What was in that suitcase, by the way? Not my little Orange Tube C90  Maksutov. With the weather looking slightly iffy due to Hurricane Hermine, who was heading up the east coast after causing quite a mess in Florida, I chickened out and settled for our Canon 8x30 roof prism binoculars instead.

‘Twas a pleasant ride to West Virginia and Spruce Knob Mountain with Alan. We talked of many things, even to include amateur astronomy. While the journey from Dulles to the AHSP’s location near a spot in the road called “Judy Gap,” West Virginia is not grueling, it’s also not an inconsiderable one. The trip takes somewhat more than 3-hours, with a large part of that on two lane West Virginia highways. The last half hour or so is a climb up a long and winding and often rutted ascending road to the star party site. While the event is not on the summit of Spruce Knob, the highest elevation in the state, it is well above the coastal plain and gets you out of a lot of the atmospheric muck.

I was hoping that would be the case this time, especially. With what was left of Hermine making her way slowly toward us—she’d be over our heads, the weather goobers thought, by Saturday afternoon—we needed some kind of magic to keep the skies clear for the event. A few years back, the same thing had happened, with the clouds from a tropical storm remnant basically preventing any observing at all from being done that year. Had my fingers and toes crossed, you betcha.

Alan and I arrived right at dinner and wasted no time making our way up to the main building of the Mountain Institute facility where the star party is held. This facility has one peculiar aspect: all the buildings, including the cabins, dorms, and that main building, were built in the shape of Mongolian Yurts. They are actual, wooden buildings, not tents, but they do look (a little) like the homes of the tribes of the Asian steppes.

Anyhow, it was good to be back on the mountain after being gone for a whole year. What was even better was seeing all my old friends in the AHSP organizer gang—the star party wouldn’t actually begin until the following day, but for me to catch a ride up the mountain with Alan it was necessary I arrive on Thursday with the set-up crew. That was fine; it was nice to spend the first evening in relatively relaxed circumstances with only a dozen or so people on the mountain.

The food, while plain, baked (I think) fish and salad, was more than adequate for me, who’d been subsisting mostly on airline peanuts and pretzels for the entire day. One cool thing? The Wi-Fi at the Main Yurt (provided by AHSP) was good and strong, and while there were no cellular bars, I was still able to make a phone call to Miss Dorothy to let her know I’d arrived safely using AT&T’s Wi-Fi calling feature.

After supper, I got settled in my accommodations, which were, again this year, in a small yurt-cabin near the bathhouse just up the hill from the Main Yurt. I’ve stayed in this curious little flying saucer shaped place any number of times over the near decade I’ve been doing this star party, and it has always been comfortable enough. Nice big double bed, little writing desk, and, best of all, a skylight that allows you to see the stars as you slip away into dreamland.

While I was as comfortable as always in the cabin, I gotta say, this may be the last year I am able to do this yurt. My current back problems have alleviated for the most part, but at times my cranky back made it a little difficult getting in and out of the yurt’s hatch (I won’t call it a door). It’s slanted outward like the walls, and the steps are basically a couple of rocks. When I was a little stiff, in the mornings, especially, it was a challenge to get back in after a trip to the bathhouse.

The first night on the mountain, the night before AHSP would actually begin, was, wouldn’t you know it, spectacular sky wise. The afternoon clouds hurried off and the Milky Way began to burn. Was I sorry I hadn’t brought the C90? A little, but I was, like my friends, tired from the trip (they had all also been working like dogs to get the event set up), and just sitting under the sky, occasionally looking with the binoculars, enjoying the company, and savoring the wine and snacks laid out on the field (thanks Pat!) was enough. By 11 p.m. I was ready for some Yurt time.

Next morning, but not early the next morning, I was up, showered and at the Main Yurt in time for breakfast—scrambled eggs and sausage. The food was not fancy, but it was adequate and was easy for the young Mountain Institute staffers who prepared our meals to do well. The weather? It was looking a trifle unsettled, but not really bad.

Unfortunately, a glance at the Clear Sky Clock for Spruce Knob showed lots of white squares for the evening. Nevertheless, I didn’t despair, and neither did any of the AHSP attendees who were now beginning to arrive. Again, weather on the mountain can be different from what it is down below and can also be difficult to predict.

One of the highlights of the day was the arrival of my old friend Bob Naeye, Editor Emeritus at Sky & Telescope. As many of you know, one of my interests in addition to astronomy is baseball, and, unfortunately, it seems many amateur astronomers aren’t much interested in sports of any kind and baseball in particular. So, it was nice to have baseball fanatic Bob on hand so I’d have someone to shoot the breeze with about the state of the current season.

Lunch came and went, and soon enough it was time to prepare for my evening talk, The Astronomer Looks at 60. This presentation, which tells the story of amateur astronomy from the 1960s on from the perspective of our changing tastes in telescopes, proved to be a hit at the Maine Astronomy Retreat where I premiered it. It also got a tremendous response at Wisconsin’s North Woods Star Fest, so I was pretty confident my AHSP audience would like the talk. It seems every amateur astronomer, old and new, likes looking at old/classic telescope advertisements.

This is a long presentation, taking up every bit of an hour and a half, and I was gratified that nary a person got up and left before the end. The response was overwhelmingly enthusiastic, and I sure was on a high by the time I wrapped up.

By which time the stars were beginning to peep out. I grabbed the Canon binoculars and wandered out to the expansive AHSP observing field to see what I could see. Unfortunately, the answer was “not much.” Oh, there were sucker holes, but Hermine’s clouds were much in evidence much of the time. Even when a sucker hole was available, the stars therein often sported nasty little halos. I spent a couple of hours just as I had Thursday, sitting on the field enjoying the company of friends and talking of many things.

When the damp began to seep into my bones, I bid adieu to the field, but was not quite ready to return to my yurt. Instead, I spend an hour or two at the Main Yurt watching various stuff on Youtube. The Wi-Fi worked well, and that was a good thing since I’d forgotten to bring the little case of DVD movies I usually take with me to star parties.

Saturday morning came with improved weather, and following a breakfast I was off to check out the vendor situation. There were two canopies set up next to the Main Yurt, one from Hands On Optics and one from Peter Gural. Hands On, a longtime favorite vendor of mine, had plenty of good stuff packed into the space covered by a small canopy. Unfortunately, as you may know, I am intent on reducing the amount of astro-junk in the house rather than increasing it, so, unfortunately, I had to pass.

Pete’s canopy covered an extensive display of meteorites, tektites, and related minerals for sale. He had some incredible bargains, and I was awfully tempted by the Trinitite samples. But I am at least somewhat committed to reducing the amount of stuff of all kinds I buy, and not just astro-stuff, so I declined. Sorry I did so now, though.

Then there was lunch and that long, long stretch to sundown. That was enlivened by dinner and by Bob Naeye’s excellent presentation on the recent discovery of gravity waves by LIGO. The outstanding talk drew quite a crowd, and I was compelled to listen to Bob from the overflow tent set up a short distance from the main yurt. Video and audio from all the talks (and there were plenty of speakers on Friday and Saturday in addition to me and Bob) was piped into the tent, and was of excellent quality.

The above, the techno-stuff, has always been a strong suit for AHSP. In addition to the video/audio relay of talks, and the Wi-Fi at the Main Yurt, several monitors in the area of the main building were continuously displaying (and updating) the Clear Sky Clock for Spruce Knob, a weather map of the region, and a star party events schedule. It’s seemingly small touches like this that can really contribute to an outstanding star party experience.

Dinner and Bob's talk having come and gone, it was back to the field for me to see what was happening telescope-wise. Out on the acres of field—which were now populated by many happy amateur astronomers—was a motley crew of telescopes. There was everything from elegant Takahashi Mewlons to humble Orion Dobsonians. I didn’t do a whole lot of looking though people’s scopes on this evening, but I did have a great peek at Saturn through Elizabeth Erikson’s beautiful 4-inch refractor.  Telescope trends at AHSP? One familiar to me from many recent star parties:  lots of ED/APO refractors, many on German mounts.

I also noted several analog video setups, so maybe that method of taking deep sky images is not quite dead, even though digital video imaging techniques are coming on strong (see my review of the ATIK Infinity in the October 2016 issue of Sky & Telescope). For now, the analog cams, and especially the sensitive and cost effective Revolution Imager kit, are keeping their heads above water. Heck, I’m thinking it’s time for me to get my Revolution back out of its case this fall after way too long a lay-off.

Come darkness, I spent quite a while admiring the skies, which had started off much as they had on Friday—clouds aplenty—but which had, unlike Friday, cleared pretty dramatically by early evening. What did I see? Many fascinating things you wouldn’t think 8x32 binoculars could show. It’s frankly amazing what a modest instrument, a very modest instrument, can do under spectacular skies. Which brings to mind my view of M101, a notoriously dim face on galaxy, at an AHSP some years back. This normally daunting object was starkly visible even in 50mm Celestron binoculars. It was much the same this evening:  objects I’d have deemed impossible with small glasses were freaking easy.

The above made me somewhat sorry I hadn’t brought the C90 with me after all. On the other hand, the addition of even a lightweight camera tripod to my already heavy suitcase would have been a bit much. I’d also, of course, have had to bring the C90 along separately as a piece of carry-on luggage. In its (original) case, it’s small enough that that wouldn’t have been a huge hassle, but it would still have been something else to keep track of, and my lengthy airport layovers would have made that annoying. So, I am still sitting on the fence regarding taking the 90 with me on airplanes. Maybe next season.

What was the weather like as mid-evening Saturday approached? The good was that the sky was growing progressively clearer and prettier. That was also the bad, since the clouds that had been in the sky Friday night had kept Spruce Knob a little warmer than normal. Without them, it was obvious summer was over at this elevation. By 11, the temperature was in the low 50s and falling. I had on a hoodie and a sweatshirt, but I was getting chilled, no doubt about that.

And in the end that was what got my feet headed back toward my yurt. That and the fact that Sunday would be a travel day. While it wouldn’t be an early morning—I would leave the site at 10:30 or so—it would be a long one. I wouldn’t fly out of Dulles until late afternoon, would have a long layover in Charlotte, and would not arrive back in Mobile until after 11 pm. That impelled me to pull the big switch such as it was and say good bye to that wonderful AHSP observing field.

The next day was, yes, a long one. At least the car trip back to DC was a pleasant one in the company of AHSP head honcho Chris Lee’s charming wife, Erin, and outstanding son, Nicholas. I had a great time motoring through the backwoods of West Virginia and Virginia with them, stopping for fast food, and just enjoying a beautiful day in the countryside.

There were no surprises airline-wise, just long hours sitting in airports (I did get an unexpectedly great meal of orange chicken at a Chinese fast-food joint in Dulles) re-reading Stephen King’s It for the nth time. I actually arrived back in Mobile a little before 11, but it then took our Podunk Airport staff half an hour to unload the luggage from the aircraft. Ah, well…it was all good and I was soon comfortable in my den where I sat and watched Braves baseball with my cat Tommy for an hour or so (a replay of the early evening game).

So, what can I say about yet another Almost Heaven Star Party in a long line of Almost Heaven Star Parties? That it was another great one and I loved being there with my friends and fellow AHSPers. Chris, Kathryn, Marty, Pat, Elizabeth, Alan and all those good people I haven’t named, but who I think about all the time and who helped make this and many other AHSPs over the years such fun for me: thank you!


If you're a long-time reader here, you know Almost Heaven is one of my favorite star parties of all time. Alas, I have not been back since 2016. Why? That year I did so many speaking engagements at star parties all across the USA that I must admit I kinda got burned out on that game. In fact, a dear friend of mine and I began calling 2016 "Uncle Rod's Farewell Tour."  

How did I feel about the star party itself in 2016? To be honest, it felt to me that a little of the magic, the soul, had gone away with the loss of the guiding force behind AHSP, Phil Wheery. But that is nobody's fault; it's just the way of this world. There things remained for a couple of years. Now, in 2019 I coulda stood to go up the mountain again, but I still hadn't recovered from my accident by star party time. 2020? Of course there was no 2020...the pandemic saw to that. 2021? Who knows what the new year will bring. I hope no fresh horrors. I know I wouldn't mind seeing the beautiful mountain vistas, friendly people, and brilliant stars again; that's for sure.

Sunday, September 04, 2016


On the Road III

And so it was that I boarded yet another jet plane to travel to yet another wonderful star party, the famous Almost Heaven Star Party this time, in order to dispense my particular--some would say peculiar--brand of astronomical wisdom. Look for a report next week, and after that it will be onward and upward with the Messiers. Well, unless I have something else on my mind (such as it is). 

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