Sunday, November 29, 2020
Issue 570: The New Herschel Project Night 3: 29 down and 371 to Go
So, the first half of the month went down the tubes thanks
to the lousy WX. What about the second half? As November neared its
end and hurricane season finally petered out, it was time to play telescopes. It
was time to do a little backyard astronomy before the month was done in hopes of
keeping my head above water Herschel-wise.
That was what was on the agenda: Night Three of the New
Herschel Project, my quest to observe and/or image all 400 deep sky
objects from the first, the best, the brightest list of ‘em, the Herschel 400. And to do it from my humble suburban backyard. I had another mission, though. I had
satisfied myself Celestron’s neo-NexRemote, CPWI,
worked fine with my Advanced VX mount. It worked fine with a serial cable
from the PC to the AVX. How about with a wireless set-up?
Since I expected to do some wrestling with the laptop trying
to get CPWI squared away, I thought I’d keep Night Three relatively simple. I’d
leave the Mallincam alone and go visual. On a good night, my backyard has a
zenith limiting magnitude of about 5, so doing the more prominent aitches with
an eyepiece shouldn’t be a problem.
There would be one other change from Night One. I decided to
put SkyTools 3 on the bench. While I love the program, there were a
couple of issues regarding its use in the New Project. First off, something is
squirrely with the H-400 list I downloaded from Skyhound.com. When I’d load the list and connect SkyTools to CPWI so I could initiate gotos from SkyTools,
the program would crash. Investigation revealed it was fine with any other
list. Apparently, something in the list of 400 objects was driving my Lenovo
laptop computer bats. I tried redownloading the H-400, but no dice. SkyTools 3 would just suddenly go away.
Problemo numero dos? My eyes have been going south
for over three decades. I’d always had outstanding vision and expected that not
to change. Until one evening in the late 80s when I was out cruising the
Messiers with a small scope and Jay Pasachoff’s Field Guide to the Stars and
Planets. The Tirion charts in the book are on the small side, and
they are of the white stars on black sky variety, which is harder to make out
in the dark than the opposite. But I’d never had trouble using them with a dim
red light. Until this particular evening, when I realized they were now totally
unreadable for me. How does that relate to now? The text in SkyTools 3
is on the small side, and can be a pain even though I’m wearing glasses.
|Deep Sky Planner 7
Once the Edge 800, Mrs. Emma Peel, was on her mount in the
backyard in late afternoon, I took a couple of minutes to check her over. As
you know if you read thisun, I had to do some
rather serious maintenance on the telescope not long ago. The problem, if you
haven’t read that entry yet, was the paint on the inside surface of her
tube was failing. I had to remove as much of the old paint as I could,
which wasn’t hard—it was coming off with mild scrubbing—and repaint the
interior. I’m still awfully mad at fricking-fracking (this is a family friendly
blog, y’all) Celestron, but the new paint is adhering well. My brush-on
job will never look as good as spray-paint, but it looks OK.
Emma’s physical done, all that remained was to set up the
laptop. That wasn’t hard since I’d be going visual. All I’d require was the Lenovo
itself, its power supply, mouse, and the Xbox gamepad (a wired model) I use to
slew the scope when it’s under the control of CPWI.
I did round up my Celestron-style serial cable just in case
the wheels fell off the wireless business. But I had some hopes since I’ve recently
had very good success controlling the scope with the SkyQ Wi-Fi dongle and
SkySafari. I also fetched the StarSense hand control just in case. Finally, I plugged
the StarSense alignment camera into the port where the HC would normally go—no
hardware HC is needed when you go wireless.
When darkness arrived—blessedly early these days—I powered
up the Advanced VX, turned on Emma’s DewBuster heaters, and got set to tackle
wireless scope control. Next step, of course, was to fire-up the CPWI program.
It has been updated fairly recently, so you might want to check your version
and head to Celestron’s website (such as it is) and do a download. There are
some bug fixes and also some additional features for the gamepad. Those gamepad
options are still not nearly—not NEARLY—as robust as they were for NexRemote,
so it’s reassuring Celestron seems to be slowly chipping away at that.
|Celestron's latest CPWI.
Alas, your silly old Uncle’s elation was not to last.
Remember what I said up above about wheels falling off? Well they came off my
wireless wagon in just a few minutes. There was no apparent cause; CPWI just
disconnected from the telescope and there was nothing I could do to get it to
reconnect short of rebooting the laptop. It wasn’t just a fluke, either. I
tried a couple of times and the same thing happened: I could connect and align without a hassle,
but that connection only lasted a few minutes.
Why? It wasn’t
the strength of the Wi-Fi signal from the SkyQ dongle. I was less that three
meters from the scope and the laptop’s Wi-Fi signal strength indicator was maxed out.
Also, I was using the SkyQ’s simplest mode, Direct Connect, which does not
involve your home network. I suspect the problem lies deep within the SkyQ.
My SkyQ Link dongle (it's now called "Sky Portal Link") is, as I’ve mentioned before, the seven year-old
first version of the device. Today, it works pretty reliably with SkySafari,
but apparently that is kind of its limit. Even there, if I let my iPhone go to
sleep it takes the App about 15 seconds to reconnect to the scope. I don’t
believe that can be normal, and suspect that’s because of the shaky first
version nature of the dongle. Heck, at least I can do something with it.
When I first got it, it wouldn’t do a derned thing.
Oh, well, that’s just the way the cookie crumbles and not overly surprising. I shut off the mount, shut down CPWI, connected the serial cable between the Lenovo and the StarSense hand control and started over. There were no surprises thereafter.
The night was getting slightly old by the
time I finished messing around with my wireless debacle. I did a StarSense
alignment, brought up Deep Sky Planner 7, connected it to the CPWI program and
essayed a few objects before it was time to shut down so your Uncle could go
inside and watch the latest episode of The Mandalorian, a show he fancies.
Before I address the evening’s rather paltry haul of
objects, I do want to talk a little about Deep Sky Planner. I’ve gone
into detail about this wonderful program both in the AstroBlog and in a Test Report I did for Sky & Telescope some
years ago. But I want to give it a little space here since it is one of the
best planning programs in the business, has been under constant development
by Ms. Phyllis for many years, and is remarkably stable.
This subject is particularly appropriate at the moment since Unk has heard Deep Sky Planner 8 has just been released (I used 7 on this night). If
you haven’t given the program a try—there is a limited trial version available,
I believe—you owe it to yourself to do so, and I’m
hoping a few words on it here might impel those benighted souls who don’t know
the program to at least visit its Knightware website.
What is great about Deep Sky Planner? It’s
not just that it is very legible out on the observing field, even for my tired, old
eyes. It is its simple, elegant design. As you can see in the screenshots here,
DSP sports a fairly standard Windows menu system—you, know File, Window, Help,
etc. Certainly, it has specialized menus because of its specialized nature as
astro-ware: Observing Log, Telescope Control, etc. But here’s the thing,
campers…the menus, even the specialized ones, are in the usual place at the top
of the display.
|The Herschel 400 plan loaded and ready!
What else? These days, the number of objects contained in a
program is not as much of an issue as it used to be. Heck, even smart phone
astro-apps contain millions of deep sky objects. However, those of you who,
like me, started using computers in astronomy back when the Yale Bright Star
Catalog and the Messier list made a planetarium program a heavy hitter,
probably want to know the totals for DSP. They are impressive. Deep Sky Planner
8 holds 1.6 million objects (you can get the breakdown on the Knightware website).
I believe that will satisfy most of us even in these latter days. Let me add that you may not have to spend any time searching that big library to build observing plans. The program's website has many ready-made plans posted (accessed with the "Community Page" selection in the Help menu).
Any downsides to the program? I’m not sure it’s a downside,
but DSP does not offer charts of any kind. That may surprise some, since
sky maps have been a feature of most planning programs since this type of software
appeared way back in the early 90s with DS3D (Deep Sky 3D, an MSDOS program). But
that’s the way Deep Sky Planner has always been
Truthfully, though, it doesn’t bother me regarding DSP. You
can download images of target objects from the Digitized Sky Survey, so you
can easily see details of an object's field. More importantly, the program can
be linked to a number of planetarium programs including TheSky and Cartes
du Ciel. Only wish I had? That Phyllis would figure out how to connect DSP
to my fave planetarium, Stellarium. Guess what? That has happened in Deep
Sky Planner 8.
OK, so I hope I’ve encouraged you to visit the Knightware site
and have a look around at least. Anyhoo, once I had the scope aligned via CPWI,
and Deep Sky Planner runnin’, I had a look at a few of the Herschel 400’s
bright showpieces. Wait. What? You didn’t know the Herschel 400 had
bright showpieces? Hoo-boy, are you in for a treat when you begin the list! These are just a sampling
of ‘em. Oh, if you find the Herschel Numbers puzzling, have a look at this somewhat dusty old AstroBlog entry.
First up was one of my all-time favorite open star clusters,
H45-4 (NGC 457), the ET Cluster (DSP lists the common name for this one as the “Dragonfly,” but it will always be the little Extraterrestrial to me).
It was quite a sight in Mrs. Peel with my 25mm 2-inch Bresser wide-field
eyepiece (that Unk, amazingly, won at one of the last Deep South Regional Star
Gazes he attended). The field of the Bresser was littered with myriad little
gems, and ET’s googly eye, bright Phi Cassiopeiae, just blazed away.
Since I was in the north, I decided to view the Dragon’s H37-4
(NGC 6543), the Cat’s Eye Nebula. It’s bright, at magnitude 8, but if you
expect the Cat to look anything like its amazing Hubble portrait from your
backyard with an 8-inch telescope, you are in for a big disappointment. At high
power with the 4.7mm Explore Scientific 82-degree (another win, from my last Chiefland
Star Party), I could get fleeting hints of some sort of internal detail. But
that’s all it was, “fleeting.” Mostly it was just a somewhat off-round
blue-gray ball of smoke with a prominent central star.
In early evening this time of year, that great old horse, Pegasus,
sprawls across Northern Hemisphere skies. He was my next stop for an easy and
pretty catch, H18-4 (NGC 7662), the Blue Snowball nebula. At the 298x
delivered by the Explore, the magnitude 8.4 Snowball was quite obviously blue,
and, yeah, looked like a ghostly snowball. Pretty, but no hint of any detail.
Another piece of low hanging Herschel fruit is in Andromeda,
H224-2 (NGC 404), Mirach’s Ghost. This is a relatively small (3’) S0
galaxy with a magnitude of 11.7. You’d think this might be hard from the suburbs,
but it is not. The only impediment is that magnitude 2 Mirach is a mere 7’
away. Nevertheless, even in the suburbs the galaxy is easy-peasy looking very
much like the “ghost” of Mirach—or maybe an eyepiece reflection.
|Old Betsy in her original form 26 years ago at Chaos Manor South.
The night was getting older, and, almost unbelievably, the
great swan, Cygnus, was preparing to dive beneath the western horizon. I had
just enough time to visit one of the constellation’s many wonders, H73-4
(NGC6826), the Blinking Planetary. The popular name comes from this object's peculiar feature: look
straight at it in the eyepiece and the round nebula surrounding a bright central
star disappears. Look away, use averted vision, and the nebulosity pops back into
view. Alternate looking at and away from the nebula and it indeed blinks on and
Normally, my skies are good enough and Mrs. Peel is large
enough that the blinking effect is reduced (more aperture allows you to see the
nebulosity with direct vision and the blinking pretty much goes away). Tonight,
however, the effect was pronounced—likely because the object was in the
thick and dirty air at the horizon.
With later evening upon me, the stars of winter were
beginning to glitter in the East. One of my all-time fave planetaries is
located in Gemini, H45-4 (NGC 2392), the Eskimo Nebula (I know it’s now
politically correct to call it the “Clown Nebula,” but after this many
years I can’t get used to that name). How was this bright ball of fluff?
As midnight approached, it was able to put on a pretty good show with the
Explore. The central star is trivial to observe; the goal is detail, like “ruff”
of the Eskimo’s parka (the central star is the Eskimo’s nose). I’ve at least had hints of this with a 4-inch
from the city. With the SCT from the suburbs it really wasn’t a huge challenge—of
course I’ve had many years of experience with this object. Pretty!
Time enough for just one more. Unk’s warm den was really
beckoning by now. H27-5 (NGC 2264), Monoceros’ Christmas Tree Cluster is another
DSO I’ve often visited over my decades of amateur astronomy. Verdict? It looked
good from Chaos Manor South with an ETX, and it looks good from the deep
suburbs with an Edge 800. It sure doesn’t take much looking to see how this
open cluster got its name. Bright (magnitude 7.8) 15 Monocerotis forms the base
of the tree and scads of dimmer—but still brilliant—sparkers form the near
perfect outline of a Yule tree. What about the famous Cone Nebula, LDN 1613, at the top of the tree?
It is a challenge for very large Dobsonians from the darkest sites. On the other
hand, my Xtreme will make pretty quick work of it with the SCT from reasonably good skies.
After sitting there at the foot of that beautiful Christmas
Tree for quite some time, gazing up at its numinous ornaments, your aged Uncle
began to feel chilled. It was time for that den, a little TV, and perhaps some
This night was fun, but thanks to the weather I am badly
behind the New Herschel Project power curve. I need to do objects and lots
of them to keep on my “one year” informal timeline. So, next time, whenever that
is, it will be “Mallincam Xtreme” all the way, muchachos.
Finally, given the pandemic, it was a quiet Thanksgiving at home for Unk and Miss Dorothy. Our many Thanksgivings at the beautiful Hotel Monteleone in New Orleans' French Quarter seem a long, long time ago now. Nevertheless, it was a nice holiday and Unk's turkey--the first one I've ever brined--turned out very well indeed. I hope all of you, my dear readers, had a happy and safe holiday, too.