Sunday, May 08, 2022


Issue 580: Urban Astronomer Night 1, Burning Heart of the Hunting Dogs


Yeah, you don’t have to tell me the ol’ AstroBlog missed another few months. I was all fired up to get back on a regular schedule in February, but... That obviously didn’t happen, and we missed February, March, and April. None of which was by design, muchachos. 

Alas, in February and March your broken-down old Uncle’s health or lack thereof was once again a factor. A big one. In April, I was feeling better, almost like my old cantankerous self, but I had a big responsibility that month, the 2022 Mobile Hamfest. I am the president of the Mobile Amateur Radio Club, and the hamfest, which we’ve been putting on at least since the end of World War II, was job numero uno for me and my fellow officers.

But now it’s May, and I actually feel even better than I did during hamfest month (knock on wood) and am ready to get the blog on the road again, THIS TIME FOR SURE, with a brand new (in a way) observing project. So, what happened to Unk’s last big observing idea, The New Herschel Project, which was to be my quest to observe the Herschel 400 objects from my backyard with a 6-inch telescope? “Nuttin’ honeyis what.

Those lingering health issues that stretch all the way back to 2019 is why. It is still going to happen, though, and will run concurrently in these pages with the new one.  I’ve found my observing is most productive these days when I’ve got a couple of things to work on. So, expect to see “The New Herschel Project Night 4” here before long. But the new one? Unk’s new quest? It came to me in a flash one cloudy evening.

The thing with your old Unk when it comes to observing projects?  The successful ones are rarely those I struggle with and dig for. They are the ones that come as if by magic. Like the morning a few <ahem> years ago I awoke with the idea of observing every Cassiopeia open cluster my 12-inch Dobsonian, Old Betsy, could reach. An abbreviated version of that project appeared some years later as a chapter in my book The Urban Astronomer’s Guide (2006). The point is I didn’t agonize over anything; “The Cassiopeia Clusters” just bubbled up out of my subconscious.

And speaking of that book, while I will readily admit it’s not perfect, I think it is pretty darned good and is the one book of mine I am 100% happy with (though the Second Edition of Choosing and Using a New CAT comes close). Does it sound like Urban Astronomer had been on Unk’s mind? It really hadn’t. Nevertheless, just as on that long-ago dawn at old Chaos Manor South, an observing project, one involving that book, sprang from Unk’s mind (such as it is) Athena-like.

Like Pallas, this idea was fully formed and didn’t take any ruminating:  I’d revisit all the objects from Urban Astronomer. I’d also try to stay true to the book’s small scope emphasis. While some of the Urban objects were observed with my (now gone) 12.5-inch Dobsonian and C11, most were viewed with 8-inch and smaller telescopes, many with 4-inch and 6-inch Newtonian reflectors.

Unk figgered a 6-inch refractor would be a good compromise. More oomph than Urban Astronomer’s old 6-inch Newtonian, but still true to the small-aperture spirit of the book. Of course, my 8-inch Edge SCT, Mrs. Emma Peel will get her share of starlight. If neither of those two proves sufficient for a target? I still have one larger-aperture instrument, my 10-inch Dobbie, Zelda, to call on if and when needed. But the idea of using the 6-inch refractor, Big Ethel, for at least part of the project was appealing. I was curious to see what she could do with the urban objects from my backyard—and curiosity is a very necessary ingredient in any of my projects.

First step in getting The Urban Astronomer Project off the ground was putting together an observing list of the book’s objects. I had a SkyTools 2 format observing list posted online for years. Unfortunately, its location was the files section of the Yahoogroup devoted to my book, which is, of course, long gone, vanished into the ether with the rest of the vaunted groups. I searched my hard drive, but didn’t find a copy. What I did find was a Word format list of the book’s DSOs.

Being lazy, Unk really didn’t want to sit down and manually key-in every one of those dadgummed 154 objects, though that wouldn’t have been that bad.  So, I said to myself, “Self, the Deep Sky Planner 8 program is supposed to have a pretty good import function. Worth a try, anyhow.” I saved the Word file as a plain text document, opened DS8, went to “import,” and <boom> I had a DSP observing list in just a minute or two. Frankly, I was amazed it had been so easy, but I shouldn’t have been. Deep Sky Planner is one of those few astronomy programs that do everything right.

I’d already decided on a scope for the project, Big Ethel. The only question was the mount. But that wasn’t much of a question either. The big refractor is usable on my Celestron Advanced VX GEM mount. She’s a little shakier on the VX than I’d like, but not bad at all. More problematically, if you send the AVX to an object above about 75 – 80° altitude, you run the risk of crashing the OTA into a tripod leg. So, my Losmandy GM811 GEM it would be.

Or so I thought. My latest assignment for Sky & Telescope wrought an immediate change in gear lineup. I was engaged in doing the S&T Test Report on Celestron’s new dew heater system for SCTs (look for it soon), and I’d obviously need to use an SCT, a Celestron SCT, for that. Checking out their Smart Dew Controller’s Celestron-specific functions would require a Celestron mount and Celestron software (CPWI), too. So…

Since, I’d be out with the Edge 800 and the AVX mount working on the Test Report, I thought I might as well piggyback the first night of The Urban Astronomer Survey on that.  I do need to get the refractor and Losmandy mount into the backyard and check them out after another long period of disuse, but that will be “next time.”

Equipment settled, all that remained was to decide upon my starting place in the sky. I’d originally, back in February, intended that to be Orion. Specifically, Chapter 9, Tour 1, “Return of the Hunter.” But, suddenly, it was May and the big guy was down on the horizon at dark. It was spring…glorious spring…and where better to start than Chapter 6, Tour 1, “Burning Heart of the Hunting Dogs”? Not only does that include some truly archetypal spring deep sky objects, it’s the first of the book’s sky tours and thus seemed a perfect place for us to begin our journey.

If you have the book, follow along with it. If you ain’t got the book, why ain’t you? Just kiddin’…all are welcome to join our little expedition whether they have contributed to your parsimonious old Uncle’s Rebel Yell fund or not.

So came a clear night. One of those currently rare clear nights down here on the borders of the Great Possum Swamp. Oh, it wasn’t perfect…there was a thin crescent Moon riding high and casting shadows on the Earth below, humidity was at 60% and rising, and there was haze aplenty. But it was OK. And it had been obvious enough it was going to be OK to impel me to get Emma and her AVX mount into the backyard late that afternoon. It was hot as the day waned, not punishingly hot, but a foreshadowing of things to come in just a month or two. I got the scope set up without breaking too much of a sweat.

Were we ready to go? I hoped so...
When darkness finally came—damn this DST—I threw the switch on the mount and hoped for the best. I was worried, you see. What was to worry? Well, that afternoon I’d been reviewing the manual for the above-mentioned Celestron dew controller. It mentioned that in order to monitor the heater system with a NexStar+ HC, I had to upgrade to recent firmware. “Oh, here we go…”

I’ll admit I hadn’t updated the AVX MC or HC in years. In at least five years, y’all. There really wasn’t any reason to. Mount worked fine, and none of the minor improvements in the Celestron firmware I’d read about seemed to apply to me. Last time I’d upgraded anything was shortly after I got a Celestron StarSense. I did update that, since I’d been told it was a must for the thing to work right. But that was well before 2017

Hokay, what will be, will be. I downloaded CFM, the Celestron Firmware Manager. I vaguely remembered the last time I updated an HC that Celestron had gone to a Java app that somewhat automated the process, but recalled no details.

“Alright. Got ‘er downloaded. Zip file. I’ll just extract it into a new directory and have a look-see. Wait. What the hail is this? A .jar file?!  What was I supposed to do with that? How did I extract it? With what? I started looking for an app to expand such files, but then a small light went on in Unk’s increasingly confused noggin. Celestron’s instructions were clear: Click on the jar file and CFM will run. No extraction required. So why was I getting “Which app do you want to use to open this?” instead? Wait. Did I even have Java installed on the laptop?

A quick visit to the Java website revealed, no, there was no Java on this here computer. Installation of the latest version got us back on the road again. Sure was glad I'd gone over the manual one last time that afternoon and found I needed that update. If I hadn't, 'twould have made for a disastrous comedy of errors out in the dark.

Anyhow, I connected the AVX HC to the Windows laptop (with a serial cable; it’s an old +HC), powered up the mount, and started CFM. It immediately found a NexStar+ HC and began the upgrade. Only fly in the ointment? During the process, Wilbur, our rascally ginger cat, tried to bite the serial cable in two.  Wilbur corralled and HC done, I instructed CFM to look for another “device,” the mount (the mount's motor control board, that is), and update it. Which it did. Or said it did anyhow. You know your ol’ Unk is all about “trust, but verify.”

I disconnected AVX from the PC and booted the Advanced VX and it came right up, albeit with a sign-on message a little different from the old one. But a sign-on message nevertheless. I checked my location in the HC and sure enough, it was somewhere way to the west. Maybe Torrance, CA. I reentered lat/lon, time, time-zone, etc. and thought we might be ready to go. I did make a note to myself that the update had probably wiped-out my PPEC recording, but I would worry about that some other day—er… “night.” The mount seemed OK with the new firmware, but only its behavior under the stars would tell that tale.

The Celestron dew system, which you’ll learn all about in the aforementioned Test Report before long, had taken little fiddling or head-scratching on the part of your Uncle to get going. But it was Something New, and by the time I was done setting it up, it was dark and I was anxious to begin wandering the spring stars...

Power turned on, the AVX started her alignment, and we were off. I had to reject an alignment star here and a calibration star there thanks to spring foliage, but that was just OK. When I punched “M 003” into the HC, the AVX whirred, took off, and when she stopped the king glob of spring was centered in my 13mm Ethos and looking mighty nice. Plenty of resolution, which increased when I switched in my ol’ 8mm Ethos—under the haze-scattered light pollution, more magnification rather than less was better. That was something I learned on those long-ago nights in the early 1990s when I was beginning the observing that would eventually go into the book.

I spent some time thereafter experimenting the heater system, to include viewing its status—things like its current-draw and the dew-point temperature—on the HC and, later, on Celestron’s CPWI software running on the laptop. Worked jus’ fine, but I’ll say no more about that here, though. If’n you’re interested, read all about it in a forthcoming issue of Sky & Telescope.

That done, it was time to tackle my little list, which I did in almost the same order they are presented in The Urban Astronomer’s Guide (I've reversed M81 and M82 here; everybody looks at M82 first).

The Objects:

The Croc on a long ago night..,
M94:  Back in the Chaos Manor South days, I called this magnitude 8.2 SA galaxy “Old Faithful.” That’s because this 10’ across magnitude 8.2 fuzzy is small enough and bright enough that it pops out of the poorest skies in almost any telescope. In the book, I mention how easy it is to find, positioned almost midway between Canes Venatici’s two bright stars Cor Caroli and Chara. Of course, in these latter days when everybody’s CAT uses a goto telescope, that doesn’t matter. What matters is how easy M94 is to see. If you live under compromised skies and want to see a spring galaxy, this is where you begin.

How does it look? Back in the supposedly glorious day, I commented the galaxy looked distinctly stellar in a 4-inch telescope at low power and that at higher magnifications the small disk brightened smoothly to an almost stellar center, the galaxy’s fiercely bright elongated core, which has given this object its common name, The Croc’s Eye Galaxy.

Another comment I made in the book concerned how much this galaxy looks like a small, unresolved globular star cluster. And that just how it appeared at 175x in the Edge 800. There was that preternaturally bright core (the “burning heart,”) and haze surrounding that, fairly extensive haze. If I stared long enough, I could almost convince myself I was resolving stars in that haze. Just as astronomers of old, like Willie Herschel, convinced themselves they were seeing stars in far distant galaxies.

Wow! What a trip down memory lane. I hadn’t viewed 94 in a long, long time, and it almost felt as if I were reliving one of the nights of “From City Lights to Deep Space,” the columns in my old Skywatch newsletter upon which (some of) Urban Astronomer is based.

M51. Next up, a toughie. Messier 51, the Whirlpool Galaxy, is such a renowned and beloved object and one that presents such detail from dark sites we forget it’s a challenge for urban and suburban astronomers. In the book, I warned my readers the Whirlpool looks nothing like its pictures if you’re observing from compromised skies.  In the city, it and its interacting companion, NGC 5195, were merely two blobs, a bright one and a dim one; nothing more.

Don't expect this from your bright backyard.
On this latter-day night, the story was, alas, the same. Given the haze and my no doubt much less acute eyes 30 years down the line, I didn’t expect much better. Even with an 8-inch and Ethoses in place of a 6-inch and Plössls.  I wasn’t disappointed, then, to only detect two blobs. On a better night here, especially with Zelda, I can see a little more than just the bright cores of the two, but not this night. That was OK; I’d successfully visited M51 and NGC 5195 (which was not easy to see).

M106, a big, 17.4’ x  6.6’, but bright, magnitude 8.3, SAB galaxy, is, as I opined in Urban Astronomer, less frequently visited and probably less well-known than nearby M51. Which is a shame, since it really looks better in small city-bound scopes. With my homemade 6-inch Newtonian back in the day, the galaxy was visible with direct vision. It was mostly just a bright, round fuzzy, but I thought I noticed some elongation. 

The same was true at first with Emma. But then I began to see more. The core wasn’t just elongated, but strongly elongated. And there was a patchiness that hinted at 106’s somewhat odd-looking spiral. If you haven’t visited this one in a while, do yourself a favor and get after it with a scope tonight.

M63, the famous Sunflower Galaxy, can be a real beauty, showing off at least hints of its big spiral and the dust patches that give it the sunflower appearance. On the time-washed Chaos Manor South night I viewed M63, a magnitude 8.6 SA spiral that subtends 13’ x 7’, I did it in style with long-gone Old Betsy, my beloved 12.5-inch Dobsonian. In that telescope in a 12mm Nagler eyepiece on a relatively good city night, I was astonished to see not just a bright core and a strongly elongated disk, but considerable hints of spiral structure.

This night? I stayed with M63 for some time, struggling for detail, but the best I could come up with was a subdued core, an elongated disk, and the barest hints of some sort of dark detail in that disk. I think I’ll revisit this distant giant with the 10 inch, Zelda, before spring is out.

The EXPLODING Cigar Galaxy...
M82 is even more well-known than M63. This is the Cigar Galaxy—the Exploding Cigar Galaxy, my daughter Elizabeth used to call it.  It’s a magnitude 8.4 near-edge-on that’s been badly disturbed by an encounter with another galaxy (likely M81). There are dark dust lanes crisscrossing the disk, and, with the color Mallincam, I’ve seen red-hued matter spilling out of the center and coursing across countless light years.

On that Urban Astronomer night of the Hunting Dogs, the galaxy was much more modest, but still a treasure. Most of the time, M82 was just a featureless cigar, but by sticking with it and doing my best to keep ambient light out of my eyes and off the scope, I was sometimes able to pick up those crazy dust lanes and patches. It was the same this night. Oh, M82 was bigger and brighter with Mrs. Peel than it had been with my 4-inch Palomar Junior reflector, but initially that was all.  It was at first just that gray whisp of a cigar, but the dark patches put in an appearance as the night grew older and a little darker.

Back in the Chaos Manor South days, there were times M82’s companion galaxy, M81, was completely invisible with the Palomar Junior or my 6-inch Newt. I did get an OK look at it with the NexStar 11 GPS one night. Oh, I couldn’t see those far-flung gossamer spiral arms—the only superior visual look I’ve had at those has been from the Texas Star Party—but it was good enough. A big, elongated disk that wanted to reveal some sort of detail

I was frankly surprised what Emma did with M81. I expected to have to fight for the galaxy on this night, but no. The big magnitude 6.9 SA spiral was starkly, and I do mean starkly visible with the 13mm Ethos at 107x. Not just that; I’d say it was easier to pick up a little detail in the galaxy than it had been with the C11 at (the original) Chaos Manor South.

M101, the Pinwheel Galaxy, is what I called a “been-there” in the Chaos Manor South days. An object difficult enough you have to be satisfied you’ve seen it at all, that you’ve been there. The problem with the Pinwheel Galaxy? It’s not that it’s dim. It’s a respectable magnitude 7.9. It’s that this SAB is face-on to us and is large—28’ x 26’. “Big” and “face-on” galaxies are the toughest of all. Their light is badly spread out and their surface brightness terribly low.

From an observing site in the Possum Swamp suburbs only a little worse than my current digs here in Hickory Ridge, M101 was nearly impossible with the NexStar 11 GPS. All my tricks—dark hood, jiggle scope, averted vision, etc.—were required to turn up a “[A] vague, nebulous ball 10’ across.” Would Emma do as well? She did, or at least I think she did…I am pretty sure I saw an elusive something in the field of my 16mm “Happy Hand Grenade” 100-degree AFOV ocular. Maybe.

We end this excursion with the famous Owl Nebula, M97, a relatively large 3’ diameter magnitude 9.9 planetary. This was another Urban object I turned my old C11, Big Bertha, on. With an OIII filter it was not a problem. I could see the nebula easily, and the big prize, the two dark patches than form the bird’s eyes, were, while not exactly easy, visible—they tended to swim in and out of view. Guess what? The same maintained this night with 8-inch Emma. In fact, I’d say the eyes were easier than on that evening of yore. Was the seeing steadier? The OIII filter I was using better? The eyepiece (Ethos) superior to my old 12mm Nagler? Maybe all of the above.

And, so, our cosmic tour bus has pulled into the station. Thanks for travelling with us. Be careful getting off the bus; the night is old, and the Moon is down and it is dark. Rebel Yell will be dispensed in the lobby to all comers. And please join us for our next big outing, “Lion’s Den.”

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