Saturday, August 28, 2021


Issue 576: In Memory Yet Green: The Herschel Project

Where it all began...
Another hurricane, Hurricane Ida, has come into the Gulf to trouble your silly old Uncle, muchachos. But it hasn’t just been that. Nothing has changed since July regarding the endless nights of clouds. If there are no/few clouds, you can bet it will be hazy, real hazy. And there’s the bugs. And the humidity.

I did get the Advanced VX mount out one evening long enough to test a new astronomy program—which will be the subject of an upcoming Sky & Telescope Test Report. But only long enough to do that. As you may recall, my AVX took a bath, literally, recently due to a leaky scope cover. During the brief period before a fresh batch of clouds blew in, the AVX seemed OK, but I am not willing to give the mount a clean bill of health until I can spend a few hours under the stars with it.

Anyhoo, like last time, I didn’t want to let a month go by without a blog. So, here are my reminiscences on the vaunted Herschel Project.

Act I:  The Dipping of the Toe…

I was thinking about the ‘Project the other day. Maybe because Son of the Lockdown has me at home again without a whole lot to do. “What in tarnation is Unk talking about this am? Too much Yell Saturday night, maybe?”

What I’m talking about, Skeezix, is The Herschel Project, the observing project of a lifetime, of my lifetime anyhow. Most of us conceive big observing programs at some point in our astronomy careers, but most of those fall by the wayside long before they are finished. Mine didn’t. Maybe because it had such a clear goal and maybe because the equipment I was using at the time was so well suited to accomplishing that goal. Maybe an even larger reason was two books I’d read.

Anyhow, set the WABAC machine for an October Night in 2009. Your Uncle was out on the observing field of the old Deep South Regional Star Gaze in the days when it was held at the Feliciana Retreat Center in the backwoods of Louisiana. What I was doing was wondering what the heck I was gonna look at.

It had been a good night with my 12-inch Dobsonian, Old Betsy. I’d seen more than a few deep sky wonders, some pedestrian, some not so much. One in the latter category was the Crescent Nebula. That night it was a spectacle, with the center of the crescent beginning to fill in with textured haze in my 12mm Nagler 2. But suddenly, just after midnight, my observing list was done. There weren’t enough objects on it to see me through two nights of a star party much less three. I reckon I hadn’t been sanguine enough about what Betsy could accomplish under dark skies on a superior evening.

After a look at M42, I essayed a few easy showpieces, covered Bets, and headed back to my little motel room in the Retreat Center’s Lodge where I ruminated on the What to Look At business. I spent some time wondering what that might be to the accompaniment of a little Rebel Yell and a DVD of 2001:  A Space Odyssey. By the time Moonwatcher had thrown his bone into the air, I thought maybe, just maybe, I had a glimmer of an idea.

That idea solidified at breakfast. It was humble in the beginning:  I’d observe the 400 Herschel II deep sky objects.  I knew I might lollygag like I did with the Herschel I, taking years to finally finish up, so I set myself a deadline:  October 2010. I would do it with the scopes and equipment I deemed appropriate for the sites I’d be observing from. I would do plenty of visual observing, but I wouldn't hesitate to use my Stellacam deep sky video camera if I needed it. I didn’t give a fig about any Astronomical League rules, since I had zero interest in their Herschel certificates. This would be my show and nobody else’s.

I was nervous as sunset Saturday came in; I’ll admit. I considered the Herschel II a difficult, daunting, and even scary list. That was because I hadn’t taken a really good look at the details of the list's targets. Most of its dimmest DSOs are small galaxies with reasonably high surface brightness and thus not much of a challenge for an 8-inch telescope under good skies. But not realizing that, I was, yeah, a little skeered as I punched the first object ID into Betsy’s Sky Commander digital setting circle computer.

It soon became clear I shouldn't have been. The Results of what I was now calling “The Herschel II Project”? Between sunset and 2 am on Saturday evening at Deep South, I logged 26 Herschel IIs. And I wasn’t trying to move particularly fast.  Maybe the H2 wasn’t as hard as I thought?

Act II:  The Big Enchilada with Julie, Julia, Bill, and Lina

That idea was bolstered by my object haul on my next dark sky Herschel observing run. I realized if I were to finish in a year, I’d have to get on the stick given our usual weather in the southland. That in mind, I packed up my Toyota with a ton of astro-gear including my Stellacam-equipped NexStar 11 GPS and headed south for the Chiefland Astronomy Village despite the fact we were dealing with the lingering effects of (yes) Hurricane Ida.

Out on the Billy Dodd Observing Field, I discovered the true power of a C11 and a deep sky video camera. The old Stellacam, which had a maximum exposure of 12-seconds, was purty humble, but man did it pull in Herschel IIs. They fell to the C11 like autumn leaves before the wild hurricane fly. The grand total after my second big expedition?  Over 100 more objects in the bag:  159 down, 241 to go.

Back home, Unk began to think (yes, he does that on occasion). It seemed obvious I would likely finish the HII by my self-imposed deadline. After that? The answer came in the form of two seemingly unrelated books, The Scientific Papers of Sir William Herschel, and Julie Powell’s Julie and Julia: 365 Days, 524 Recipes, 1 Tiny Apartment Kitchen. 

The former came to me thanks to the wonderful Miss Dorothy. One day there was a rare book sale at the university where she was a Department Chair. One of the volumes on sale was that big, fat Scientific Papers. She bought it for me, lugged it home, and I was soon immersed in reading the words of The Man himself and learning more about him and his sister and fellow observer, Caroline. That led to me devouring biography after biography of the pair and becoming ever more interested in (or maybe obsessed with) both Herschel and his deep sky objects.

The latter was a book that brought its author deserved if brief fame. It was the adaptation of Julie Powell’s The Julie-Julia Project blog articles wherein she cooked all Julia Child’s recipes from Mastering the Art of French Cooking. That’s just the jumping off spot for a little tour de force of a book that showed everybody what one of these new-fangled blogs could be when coupled to a big project and written with humor and heart.

Unk was smart enough to put two and two together, a big project and a blog, and thus was born “The Herschel Project,” aka “The Herschel 2500,” aka “The Whole Big Thing,” aka “The Big Enchilada.” I would observe all the Herschels, not just the H2, all of them. Which, after eliminating the non-existent and duplicate objects left me with 2500 targets, some of which were considerably dimmer and more obscure than those in the Herschel II. The details? As I wrote in the blog one Sunday morning:

The perceptive (or nitpicky) amongst y’all may have noticed something different from the last Herschel blog. The title is no longer “The Herschel II Project,” but just “The Herschel Project.” What does that mean? Well, I’ll tell ya: the more I’ve researched ol’ Willie and the more of his objects I’ve seen, the more I’m inclined to go past the Herschel I and the Herschel II and tackle The Whole Big Thing, the 2500 objects (give or take) that constitute the entire Herschel List, the whole schmeer, that is.

That might seem like the project of [many] years, but with modern technology and with a little luck, I don’t believe it will be. Based on the slew, and I do mean slew, of Herschels I captured down in Chiefland this past weekend and which I’ll tell you about next week, the Big Project seems more and more doable. Not only did I do bunches of Herschel IIs, I did Big Bunches from the parent list, the Big Enchilada, finishing all the multitudinous galaxies in Aquarius and most of ‘em in Cetus. So, I am on the verge of committing myself to going for the gold.

And commit myself I did. I wasn’t about to be pinned down regarding time limits, but I secretly hoped to be done in about two years, by sometime late in 2012, maybe.

And so, it began. While I continued observing from the club site and star parties like Deep South, there’s no denying the heart of The Herschel Project was the Chiefland Astronomy Village. Out on that field it all just came together, seemingly like magic. Heck, even plenty of summer nights were dark and clear during the Project years. While I had been no stranger to CAV before the Project, I now began heading south almost every dark of the Moon (when the exigencies of being a working stiff allowed me to do so).

It wasn’t all rainbows and unicorns, of course. I missed my self-imposed deadline for completing the Herschel II by 6-months, not wrapping it up until April 2011. For months, I was down to a mere handful of HII spring galaxies that always seemed too low or behind a cloud or a tree. I finally completed the Herschel II Project down at Chiefland and heaved a sigh of relief. But not too much relief. I still had an almost overwhelming number of Herschel Big Enchilada Objects to go.

But that number soon wasn’t so daunting. Trip after trip Down Chiefland Way, doing 100 or more objects every time, soon whittled the big list down. So did getting into the blessed zone. I developed a routine that served me well.

The night before a Big Enchilada Trip, I’d load up Miss Van Pelt, the 4Runner, with plenty of gear and a telescope appropriate for the conditions I’d face. That was usually the C11, but if things looked iffy weather-wise, I might drop down to the C8. I’d invariably bring the Stellacam (or, as the project rolled on, the color Mallincam Xtreme), since I soon learned video would be key to allowing me to complete all those objects in just two years.

When we rolled into Chiefland, I’d check into the old Holiday Inn Express. I found being able to get a some rest in comfort following a long night on the field allowed me to be ready to face the stars with a will on the next evening.

Checked in, I’d head to the CAV for setup, which I had down to something of an art. Over the months, I’d been able to eliminate spurious items and that made set up go faster. For example, since there was AC power on the field, I didn’t have to haul batteries with me. The presence of a refrigerator in the Clubhouse meant I could leave the ice chest at home, etc., etc.

Thence, back to town for a stop at the Walmart. Therein, I’d stock up on snacks for the observing field—being able to take a break, drink some water, and have a bite to eat helped me pull some really long runs. In those days, I wasn’t much of a health food fan, invariably choosing Jack Link Sasquatch Big Sticks. Another big help on those late/early runs? Monster Energy Drinks. After WallyWorld, it was supper, usually at the Taco Bell next door to the motel.

Finally, it was time to hit the Herschels. My final and most effective lineup of gear included, in addition to the telescope and Mallincam, a little DVD player I used as a monitor, Orion’s digital DVR, and a Laptop connected to the scope running Greg Crinklaw’s SkyTools 3 (the software of the Herschel Project), and Celestron's NexRemote telescope control software.

My procedure was simple. Click on an object in ST3, send the scope there with the program’s Real-Time module. Center it up in the field of the camera if necessary using a Wireless Wingman gamepad. Record 30-seconds of video and an audio commentary on the object. Repeat as often as the sky, available objects, and your old uncle’s stamina held out. When I could no longer hold out, back to the motel for a little Rebel Yell, the whiskey of the Herschel Project, some silly TV like Ghost Adventures or UFO Hunters, and some sleep in an airconditioned/heated room.

Next morning? Lunch at the vaunted Bill’s Bar-B-Q and, if Miss Dorothy was with me, a visit to our favorite area attractions including Cedar Key, Manatee Springs State Park, and Fanning Springs State Park. An hour or two of resting at the Holiday Inn, and I was back on the Billy Dodd Observing Field as sunset came.

Following this simple, rote routine allowed me to observe with maximum efficiency. Still, I was surprised how efficient I was. I completed the Big Enchilada, The Herschel 2500 Project, on a dark run in Chiefland in July of 2012, months sooner than I dared hope when I got the crazy idea to observe over two thousand faint deep sky wonders.

Act III:  August and Everything After (the Herschel Project).

It’s hard to let go. And at first, I didn’t. I just kept observing Herschels. I told myself there were reasons for that. For one thing, I had all along thought the Herschel Project might form the basis of a book. I wanted better images of the Herschels than those I’d captured with the Stellacam, so it only made sense to go back and re-image many of them with the Mallincam Xtreme. I also thought I’d want some sketches of objects to show that while the project was mostly done with video, I’d done a fair amount of visual observing too. I spent a couple of memorable nights on the CAV field observing the old fashioned way—with eye and telescope.

So it went for quite some time, beginning in 2013. That year was notable since it was when I retired—in the spring. My first Herschel run after that was a memorable one. I headed for the Feliciana Retreat Center, the place the Herschel Project was born, and the Deep South Regional Star Gaze Spring Scrimmage (the smaller spring event I’d always had to miss because of work).

I had a new telescope with me, my retirement gift to myself, a Celestron Edge 800 SCT (along with an Advanced VX mount to replace my old CG5). What do I remember most about that expedition in addition to nearly being the Lone Astronomer of Feliciana (see this)? How wonderful it was to get up Sunday morning and realize I didn’t have to be in a hurry.

I could leave anytime I wanted and get home at any time I wanted—no work on Monday morning. That home, by the way, would soon not be the legendary Chaos Manor South. Lots changed following the end of the H-Project including where Dorothy and I lived. We decided downsizing made sense and lit out for the suburbs.

And so, it went for the next couple of years, with Unk grudgingly hanging onto the Herschels. Oh, I tried a couple of other observing projects during this period, but none lit my fire like the Herschel Project had. I was beginning to believe lightning only strikes once.

How about the book? I began assembling it much the way Miss Powell assembled her blog into one. But I only worked on it for a little while. Many things were changing with me in addition to the above, and I found my heart just wasn’t in it. Then, I had the second edition of Choosing and Using a New CAT to get out.  And a new deep sky observing book to write…and The Herschel Project Book just kept receding farther into the background—where it remains to this very day, nine years after the last object was in the can.

So, yeah, the question had become "What next?" I thought about some REALLY BIG include observing all the NGCs visible from the Northern Hemisphere. But I'd start observing...and...well...decide...that wasn't it. Eventually, I stopped looking for another “Herschel Project.” If one comes to me, so be it. But, as above, I have decided The Big Enchilada really was the observing experience of a lifetime, end of story, game over, zip up your fly. That's OK. Even if I didn’t have all those old blog articles, and videos, and photographs, The Herschel Project would remain green in memory to the end of my days.

Nota Bene:  All the blog entries documenting the Project are still right here. An easy way to get to them is with a Google of "Uncle Rod Herschel Project." That and internal links in the entries will get you to all of 'em. 

2023 UPDATE:

There isn't much updating needed two years down the line...but I wanted to acknowledge the passing of Julie Powell way before her time in 2022. Her second book wasn't the success her first was, but I believe that bestseller of a first book will live on and be remembered as a quirky, funny little tome that did just what it set out to do and did it well. RIP, Julie.

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