Sunday, July 05, 2020


#564: The New Herschel Project Night 2, 21 Down 379 to Go

For the moment, I will not tackle the existential query, “Why, Rod?  Why more Herschels?  Why now?”  Instead, I shall stick to explicating the rules of engagement.”

It was hot, humid, and hazy on the longest day of the year. Not a recipe for pleasant observing, muchachos, but your old Unk knew he needed to do something about those Herschels, and it’s rare of late for me to get a night that’s just hazy, as it looked like this one would be. So, when it finally got dark, I got myself outside, uncovered the scope, sat down at the laptop on the deck and got to work…

But, to backtrack for a minute, y'all, I mentioned “rules of engagement” up above (paraphrasing the Julie – Julia blog that inspired the original Herschel Project). What are they? The New Herschel Project will be done from my backyard with 10-inch and smaller telescopes. Likely, the 8-inch Edge 800 will be the baseline instrument. However, I suspect Charity Hope Valentine, my ETX125, will get a shot when those dark(er) winter skies come 'round, and the 10-inch Dob, Zelda, will be in the backyard when I need a little visual horsepower. Just as with the big Project, I shall use video when appropriate and visual observing when appropriate. How long? I'll stick to what I said last time:

365 days. 400 objects. One astronomer and a less than perfect suburban backyard sky.

How far will it go?

The New Herschel Project. Now on a computer terminal near you!

To say I was a bit nervous about Emma following her surgery would be an understatement. Did I get her corrector centered properly? Would she still be in collimation? Time to find out. I lit-off the CPWI software, the New Project's "NexRemote," selected StarSense Auto as my alignment type, and hit the go button.

Just as with an alignment done with the StarSense auto-align camera’s normal hand control, the Advanced VX moved Emma to four different fields and plate solved on each. As I mentioned in the blog entry on CPWI not long ago, the only difference was that instead of having to squint at the tiny text on the hand control—even smaller than that of the standard NexStar Plus HC—I could read about what the StarSense and AVX were doing on the laptop screen in characters large enough not to challenge your old Uncle’s fading eyesight.

Unk's "observatory."
Directly—in about the same amount of time it would have taken to do the StarSense alignment with the HC—CPWI declared we was done. Since I’d had an at least brief opportunity to test the CWPI StarSense goto alignment accuracy some weeks back, I wasn’t overly concerned about that. On that night the program delivered results that seemed to be every bit as good as what the hand control would have produced.

I was curious to see if a star would be placed in the small field of the Mallincam Xtreme riding on Emma’s rear (ahem) cell. Even though I’d screwed a Meade f/3.3 reducer on the scope ahead of the camera, the Xtreme’s tiny CCD chip still produces a limited field. I had already started the Mallincam Xtreme control program and set the camera for “sense up” and an exposure of about 2-seconds, which is good for framing and focusing.

“Hmmm…how about that bright one over yonder?” I located Arcturus on the CPWI star map displayed before me on the computer’s screen, clicked on it, and hit the goto button. Emma immediately started making for the star at her top slewing speed. When the AVX’s weasels-with-tuberculosis motor sound stopped, there was Arcturus, way out of focus but nevertheless on the screen of the old portable DVD player I use as a Mallincam display. In the course of focusing the star, I could see diffraction rings and could tell I had—somewhat amazingly, I reckon—maintained collimation when I put Emma back together.

Well, alrighty then. Time to get to work on the New Herschel Project. No, the sky was not perfect—some clouds and a lot of haze—but it was better than it had been for weeks or would probably be for weeks more, so there was no time to waste. The camera was obviously ready to roll, and a quick test showed my little Orion StarShoot DVR was also good. 

CPWI alignment choices.
So…was it an Uncle Rod night or not (if you’re a newbie here, that means a night of fumbling and bumbling)? It was not, muchachos, mostly not, anyhow. The closest thing to a serious hiccup was that the Orion imaging filter (a mild Deep Sky type filter) I’d experimentally screwed onto the Xtreme’s nosepiece didn’t really seem to help that much. It also gave the images you’ll see below a strong bluish cast. These types of filters work pretty well for DSLR imaging, but I believe I can achieve better results with the Mallincam in the backyard just by playing with its exposure, gain, color, and contrast controls.

I did run into a problem with SkyTools when I linked it to CPWI. Bringing up the Herschel 400 list would cause the program to crash. That only happened with that list and no others, strangely. I’ll have to do some troubleshooting soon, but it was easy enough just to enter object IDs from the list manually into CPWI rather than clicking on objects in SkyTools 3.

Finally, I don’t know what I was thinkin’ (probably “not much”), but instead of using the 2-inch visual back I normally  employ with the Mallincam, I attached the camera to the Edge’s stock 1.25-inch back which is overly long and which resulted in some vignetting in the bright skies and a little more reduction than I like. But, hey, what can I say? It wouldn’t be an Uncle Rod night if it weren’t, well, an Uncle Rod night, right?

Anyhoo, below are the targets Emma and I checked off the list on this second evening. There’s no particular rhyme or reason to the order in which we observed them. It had more to do with what was in the clear at any given time than any overarching plan for the night.

M105 and company.
M105 (NGC 3379)

The ol’ Lion, Leo, was riding high, and Messier 105, a bright elliptical galaxy and one of the Ms in the Herschel list, was an obvious target. The question really wasn’t whether I’d get M105, but whether the camera would see the two dimmer companion galaxies, NGC 3384 and 3389. Verdict? The two bonus galaxies were there—if just barely (they are easier to see on the video than they are on this single frame grab here).

M61 (NGC 4303)

Next up was Virgo’s bright, near face-on spiral, M61. I’d have gone there anyway—it’s one of the showpieces of spring even from poor sites/skies—but I was doubly interested in this SAB island universe because of its recent supernova. Would it still be bright enough to detect in these skies (I hadn’t checked)? Yep, there it was among a few hot pixels, SN 2020jfo. That was cool. But what was just as cool was seeing M61 show off its spiral arms in the frankly horrible heavens.

M104 (NGC 4594)

Also in Virgo, is another Messier treat that is an aitch, M104, the justly famous Sombrero Galaxy. With the Virgin riding high, the galaxy cut through the nasty haze and light pollution with fair ease. The basic shape with “crown,” “brim,” and dust lane was more than obvious despite skies that were becoming ever more punk.

M107 (NGC 6171)

Ophiuchus’ M107 is certainly not its best globular star cluster, but this Shapley – Sawyer Class 10 (loosely concentrated) star ball is a Herschel and was out of the trees, so there went me and Mrs. Peel. I was a little concerned we might not see much…this is a loose cluster (which equals “dimmer”) and it was low in the sky. But, hey, I was using a MALLINCAM. Sure enough, there it was on the screen showing considerable resolution (especially in the video).

NGC 6369 The Little Ghost Nebula

The Little Ghost (planetary) Nebula is another of Ophiuchus huge trove of deep sky objects. It is also a Herschel, so it was what was next on the itinerary. It’s fairly dim and also small at about 28” across, so it’s not something that will put your dadgum eye out.  It was not bad on this night, showing off it’s pink color and small ring shape, both of which things can be hard to make out in an eyepiece.

Pretty M61 and supernova.
NGC 6356

Also in the realm of the Serpent Bearer and not far from the Little Ghost is the magnitude 7.4 globular star cluster NGC 6356. I was pleasantly surprised by this little guy. Lots of stars were resolved by Mrs. Peel and the Xtreme.

NGC 6342

Another, dimmer, glob, NGC 6342, was close at hand, so it was our next stop. What me and Mrs. Peel saw was obviously a globular—there was quite a bit of resolution around its periphery—but it’s relatively small size for a glob (6’) and low altitude prevented us from getting a good look.

NGC 6235

This next glob is brighter than 6342, but it is looser and even smaller. There was obviously a scattering of very dim, very tiny stars onscreen, but more than that neither I nor Emma could say.

NGC 6287

Annnnd…NGC 6287 is another of Ophiuchus many globular clusters. It’s another dim one at about magnitude 10. It’s also small at 5’ across. Nevertheless, we saw a bunch of teeny weeny stars surrounding an obvious central condensation in this medium concentration (VII) star ball.


Did you know Ursa Major’s justly famous galaxy M108 is a Herschel? Well it is. Alas, it's mostly famous for its proximity to M97, the Owl Nebula. M108, a near edge-on, is badly harmed by light pollution. Under dark skies, it can almost rival M82. In the suburbs, it is usually nothing more than a dim streak. On this night, even with the Mallincam, it wasn’t much more than that. Oh, there were a few spots of condensation, but, yeah, mostly, "dim smudge."

NGC 2985

This magnitude 10.1 Ursa Major Galaxy was just a round fuzzball on the screen. I didn’t expect much else. It’s close to face-on in its orientation to us (always tough), and it takes some dark skies to allow even a long exposure to pull out the arms of this active galaxy.

Good, old Sombrero.
NGC 2987

A magnitude 11.1 barred lenticular galaxy, NGC 2987 can show considerable detail under dark skies. On this night what was visible was a round nucleus and some hints of its bar.

NGC 3077

There wasn’t much to see in this mag 10.6 face-on irregular galaxy. But there never is, even in large telescopes. However, I was pleased to see that the galaxy appeared distinctly oval instead of being just a round fuzzball.

NGC 2976

This Sc spiral was visible—but only just. While it’s a strongly oval intermediated inclination spiral galaxy and shows plenty of splotchy detail in its disk under good conditions, on this night it was an easily passed over oval of subtle brightening in the field.

NGC 4041

In deep photos, this small (2.6’ across) face on Sc galaxy shows a welter of delicate arms. To my C8 and Mallincam, alas, it only showed a bright core and a  very subtle disk of haze around that.

NGC 4036

NGC 4036 was at least slightly more interesting than the previous object. If only relatively so. It’s an edge on lenticular, and lenticular galaxies don’t have much—if any—detail to show. In my scope on this (had to admit) yucky night, this 4’ across object was obviously strongly elongated, but that was all I could say.

Little but cute ghost.
NGC 3945

Under good conditions, a deep sky video camera can show an image of this barred lenticular that doesn’t look much different from its Palomar Observatory Sky Survey plates—a bright round center embedded in a subtle haze with the same of the iris of a cat’s eye (seen here in a Herschel Project shot from dark skies). On this evening it was just a small bright spot in some very subtle and shapeless haze.

NGC 2742

This is a magnitude 12, multi-armed intermediate spiral galaxy. That’s what it is from dark skies, anyhow. On this evening I had to stare at the screen for quite a while to assure myself I was seeing anything.

NGC 5322

NGC 5322 is a large (6’ across) elliptical galaxy with a strong oval shape. Curiously, while I could make out its oval envelope, I could not easily detect the brighter center of this magnitude 11 sprite. Go figger, I always say.

And, with that Ursa Major fuzzie recorded, Urania closed down her sky, drawing a pall across it with a flood of thick, lightning-festooned clouds. I was satisfied, though. Well, as satisfied as I ever am when an observing run ends before I am ready to quit.  I hadn’t covered a huge amount of territory, but I had at least scratched the surface of the friendly Herschel 400. And I’d been assured that my beloved telescope, Emma Peel, came through her recent travails in good shape. I covered Emma, brought the computer and other electronic gear inside, poured out some "sarsaparilla," and relaxed in the blessed cool of the den.

What’s next and when for the good, old AstroBlog? I cannot say when “next” will be, because that depends on the cooperation of the Possum Swamp summer sky. The Moon needs to get out of the way, too. And I don’t think I have anything else to bring to you at the moment other than the next installment of the New Project. But you never know what will enter my mind (such as it is). So, muchachos, I guess that means "I will see you when I see you." 

I'm stunned your scope maintained optical alignment, but glad it did. Thanks for sharing your night under the sky. As always, a very nice read.
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