Sunday, November 29, 2020


Issue 570: The New Herschel Project Night 3: 29 down and 371 to Go


When I resurrected the good, old AstroBlog some months ago, muchachos, I said it was my hope to bring you a new article at least every other week. ‘Twas not to be in November. In this time when everybody with a lick of sense is sticking close to home, it wasn’t like I could travel to a star party or a dark site somewhere. I’d have to report on my backyard adventures. That is just OK, but it takes clear skies to do that and late-season hurricane Zeta saw to it I didn’t have any of those.

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 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
So, what to do? I already knew the answer; in fact, I’d known the answer for over seven years: Phyllis Lang’s Deep Sky Planner. One night I was working the Big Enchilada, the original Herschel (2500) Project at the Deep South Regional Star Gaze Spring Scrimmage. On my agenda that evening was trying Phyllis’ program. What I found was that not only was it an outstanding deep sky planner, the text on the lists it generated was easy for me to read despite the laptop’s dim, red-filtered display (with my glasses, natch). For these reasons, it looks like DSP will be the official software of the New Herschel Project.

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.
OK, might was well see what was what. Selected the SkyQ as the laptop’s Wi-Fi on the Windows taskbar, and told CPWI to search for and connect to that Wi-Fi device. I was skeptical but <BOOM!> CPWI found the dongle and connected to it without complaint. Next would be a StarSense auto-align, which also went without a freaking hitch. Sent the scope to the ET open cluster in Cassiopeia and the little guy was placed dead center if the field of my beloved 13mm TeleVue Ethos. I was so excited to have such an easy success I ran inside and told Miss Dorothy all about it.

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!
So what? Why does that matter? Because keeping the user interface simple and standard and as intuitive as one for a program like this can be helps new users begin using DSP in a hurry, and those, like moi, who haven’t opened the app in a long time pick it up again. Of course, Deep Sky Planner does many, many things, so having some guidance in the form of Help files and documentation helps. DSP has that, but it has something that’s maybe even better: numerous YouTube videos where Phyllis demonstrates how to do stuff with her software.

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.
How about a trip to the far south, to H1-4 (NGC 700), the justly famous Saturn Nebula. How was it in the eyepiece? It was no trouble to see this planetary nebula’s strong elongation and slightly greenish hue, but the “ring,” the “ansae,” the extensions of the nebula that give it its name? Fuhgeddaboutit. It was a difficult task to see the ring with my long-gone 12-inch, Old Betsy. It took a very special night to detect it—barely. Of course, with the Mallincam Xtreme Mrs. Peel will show the ring easily on any night and on a superior one will reveal the “fliers,” the clumps at the tips of the rings.

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 off.

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 warming libations. 

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. 

Onward flies the bird...
Thanks for another great read, Rod.

I just upgraded from DSP 7 to DSP 8. Since all my scopes are non-goto, I don't interface a computer with my scopes, but I do use DSP to print out observing lists and I log my observations with it. One of the things DSP 8 really improved was the ability to format printouts to my liking. For example, it now can print grid lines and highlight every other row on the printout. This is a lifesaver when trying to read the printed tables in dim red light.

John O'Hara
Oil City, PA
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