Friday, March 29, 2024


Issue 602: SeeStar in the Lion’s Den


NGC 2903
“A whosit in a whatsit?! Unk, did you break out yet another bottle o’ the Rebel Yell?!”  Not at all, muchachos, not at all. Well, maybe I did, but that title up above is no whiskey-soaked mystery wrapped in an enigma. A “SeeStar” is ZWO’s little robotic “smartscope” that’s on everybody’s lips, mind, and Facebook feeds of late. “Lion’s Den” refers to a chapter in a book that’s near and dear to your Old Uncle’s withered little heart. Namely, The Urban Astronomer’s Guide. Of all the books I’ve written over the years, I reckon it is still the one I like best and am most proud of.

In particular, “Lion’s Den” is the chapter in the book (I often call it “the City Lights book” since its genesis was a series of articles by that name in my old SkyWatch newsletter) concerning Leo the lion and his innumerable galaxies. What I thought I’d do this time was turn the SeeStar loose on those Leo galaxies and see how the little telescope would fare under varying conditions from a typically light polluted suburban backyard.

And light polluted the backyard of Chaos Manor South is. Oh, nothing like the back forty of the original Chaos Manor South downtown. Here, we are on the edge of the suburban/country transition zone. It’s not that bad. On a really good night I suspect you can pick out 5th magnitude stars at zenith. The trouble is getting a good night, especially in the spring when humidity in the air scatters light pollution, making it worse. I didn’t give a hoot ‘n holler. I’d take what I could get and find out what the ZWO could pull out of the hazy soup.

In particular, I wanted to see what the SeeStar can do more as an “EAA” (“Electronically Assisted Astronomy”) system than the more serious instrument some are using it for. Talented workers are doing flat-out amazing stuff with the little ZWO. You know, the people who append information to their images like, “Ten hours exposure with the SeeStar, processed in PixInsight.”

I ain’t got no PixInsight software. It costs danged near as much as the SeeStar itself. If I had it, I wouldn’t know how to use it, anyway. Hell, I barely know how to work “levels” in Photoshop. What I am interested in is what comes out of the scope and goes straight to my phone. I don’t want to stack, and I don’t want to process—well other than maybe adjust brightness and contrast and maybe do some cropping.

Leo Trio
What I want, really, is the same sort of thing I got out of my old Mallincam Xtreme. Images that deliver details in deep sky objects—including galaxies—in less than perfect skies. Easily. The Mallincam was amazing in even halfway decent conditions, but I found it somewhat challenged by the bright sky background of suburbia—if I wanted still images in addition to videos, anyhow. Still pictures taken from Mallincam video were difficult to make into much. They were analog NTSC frames converted to digital stills, and while they could look OK, they were almost always just slightly ugly and lacking in resolution.

Now, none of that is meant to talk down Rock Mallin’s wonderful cameras. They really are flat-out amazing. During the vaunted Herschel Project, they brought home bushel baskets of PGC galaxies and quasars in addition every one of Willie and Lina Herschel’s thousands of deep sky objects. But… "right tool for right job,” no?

My brief foray with the SeeStar had already shown me it was capable of better on the more prominent objects. And not by me downloading fits frames from the scope and stacking and processing them with fancy software, but just by letting the telescope do the work. And me at most doing some minor processing of the .jpgs the SeeStar sends to the phone. That is where I am at right now for many things, campers: “No fuss, no muss.”

It ain’t just the difficulty involved in making OK-looking still pictures from Mallincam videos, either. The other drawback to the Mallincam Xtreme, you see, is the setup it requires. In addition to telescope and mount, I need a computer to control the camera, a separate DVR to record the video, an analog display for the camera, power supplies, cables, video switcher, etc., etc. I just don’t have as much patience for that sort of thing in these latter days as I used to. Oh, I’ll still do it, or do similar for conventional DSLR astrophotography, but it’s obvious I won’t do it very often.

My routine with the SeeStar couldn’t be more different:  Plunk down my old Manfrotto tripod in the backyard. Eyeball level with a circular bubble level. Mount SeeStar on tripod. Turn on SeeStar. When the little gal says (she talks), “Power on! Ready to connect!” I can head back in the house, plunk myself down on the couch in front of the TV with the felines, tell the scope to go to the target of my choosing, open some cold 807s and some catnip, and let the SeeStar do the work.

Do I miss fiddling with a telescope and computer in the cold or skeeters to take pictures? Not one bit. Now, visual observing is still something I like. A lot. But that is a whole ‘nother kettle o’ fish. Here, we are talking getting nice pictures of the deep sky from suburban skies in a fashion that encourages me to do so more than once in a blue Moon.

NGC 3190 Group
So it was just a little while ago that Miss Suzie, the SeeStar (all my telescopes tell me their names), and I worked up our courage and tiptoed into the Lion’s Den. We began without much Moon in the sky, but realized we’d have to contend with Luna before we’d covered all the copious Leo galaxies we meant to essay. The weather? Not so bad. We’ve had some early spring storms already, but a decent number of clear and even cool evenings.

Let’s go. If you’ve a mind to glom onto a copy of The Urban Astronomer’s Guide and follow along, that won’t hurt my feelins none, but if not, if you rummage through those old issues of SkyWatch, you can find the Leo article “Lion’s Den” germinated from…

Having, as above, set Suzie up on her tripod and returned inside, I opened the SeeStar app, turned on the little scope’s dew heater (it was a rather humid evening just before the change to DST), and accessed the SeeStar app’s built-in star atlas. Oh, I probably could have found my quarry under “Tonight’s Best” on the main page, but I chose to use the nice atlas. I searched on “M65,” and when the app located the galaxy, I told it to center M65 on the star atlas screen.

M65 was up first since, just as in the Urban book, I thought I’d begin with Leo’s showpiece, the Leo Trio, M65, M66, and NGC 3628. The idea was to try to frame the shot so as to include all three in one image. I did that by moving the image format frame the atlas displays until all three galaxies were within its border. Possible, but just barely. I mashed “goto” on the iPhone’s screen and off Suzie went.

After Suze did some various calibration stuff in addition to gotoing, and finally stopped, I could see despite the short exposures of the preview mode that the little scope’s pointing (via platesolving) was right on. There were two obvious dim smudges on the right side of the frame, and maybe the barest hint of one on the left side. The stars in the field looked purty sharp to me, but I engaged autofocus anyhow. The scope took a minute or so to deal with that, and when done I had to admit them stars did look a mite smaller. OK. Off to the races. I touched the “go” button and Suzie began accumulating and stacking 10-second exposures.

While the telescope was doing her thing, I thought I’d refresh my memory as to what I’d thought of the Leo Trio on that long-ago evening when I did the observing for Urban Astronomer. As for M65 and M66:

These galaxies, and especially M66, are fairly impressive in the C11. No core noted for M65, it’s an oval smudge of light. M66 is brighter but looks much the same. The real attraction under these skies is that both can be seen in the same field of a 22mm Panoptic eyepiece at 127x.

The third member of the Trio, NGC 3628, which I cautioned my readers was best left for an especially dry and dark spring night, if possible, wasn’t much, even with a an 11-inch SCT:

The third member of the Leo Trio is substantially harder to see than either M65 or M66 in the C11. It’s a dim smudge that fades in and out as the seeing changes. Some hint of its strong elongation…

M105 and friends...
Doesn’t sound like much, does it? Keep in mind, though, these views (which would have been pretty much identical in my largest scope, a 12.5-inch Newtonian) were from a site only a few miles from the center of a city of a quarter of a million people. I could have seen more from farther out, in the suburbs, of course, but not that much more. By the time I’d finished reading up on the Trio, Suze had accumulated about half an hour’s combined exposure, and I had a look at the iPhone.

I’ll let you be the judge (picture above), but it’s clear we are in a whole other dimension here. M65 and M66 aren’t just elongated somethings-or-others without cores. They are detailed, both their outer regions and their centers. No, Unk don’t know pea-turkey about processing, and has overexposed the nuclei, but yeah, detail there. Otherwise? Damn…you don’t have to guess at spiral detail. It slaps you in the face. The “hard” member of the Trio, NGC 3628? It could have used a little more exposure but still looks purty awesome with that dark lane and the distinctive flaring ansae of its disk.

Yes, your Uncle is something of a Luddite, has a hard time wrapping his mind around technology—especially involving smartphones—and is easily impressed. But, yeah, just damn. It simply astounds me I was able to see the Leo Trio like that from my suburban yard. In a few minutes. With a 50mm f/5 telescope. Without me having to do much of anything.

After The Good Ones, the Leo Trio, I traveled the constellation stick figure, beginning with the Sickle, the Lion’s mane, and the galaxies I called <ahem> “Mane Lice” in the book. The first of which was with a sprite I didn’t find exactly overwhelming in the eyepiece, NGC 2903:

Visible but not starkly apparent in the C11. Its large disk tends to wink in and out of view as I switch between averted and direct vision. Averted vision seems to show a tiny nucleus at 127x, but I’m not sure on this.

After Suzie had devoted half an hour to this one, I picked up the phone and had a look. Again, the difference between what I could see in the simple picture and my visual description couldn’t have been starker. In fact, that difference was more apparent here than with the Leo Trio, since NGC 2903 was higher in altitude and well out of the light dome to the east (Greater Possum Swamp).

The bright, small nucleus I’d guessed at all those long years ago was there, but it was accompanied by a bar and by spiral arms that practically knocked my eyes out. Which is not to dismiss visual observing from city or suburbs or anywhere else. That is a special experience, but you can only expect to see so much visually in galaxies, even if your skies are perfect and your scope large.

Lest I make all this seem like magic, it was not at all immune from your silly Old Uncle’s fumbling and bumbling. Take the Leo Trio image. The one shown here is actually one I took a week or two later. The original? It looked good enough, but the bottom half was hurt by a strong light-pollution gradient. Why? “Oh, yeah… Shoulda turned the carport light off, I reckon.” My initial attempt on NGC 2903 failed completely. Why? Forgot to turn on the telescope’s dew heater. So, some things never do change in Uncle Rod Land.

Continuing on down the sickle, getting close to Algieba, we land on the NGC 3190 group of galaxies. There is a bit of confustication here. The brightest galaxy in the group is sometimes identified as NGC 3190, and sometimes as NGC 3189 with the whole group of galaxies being referred to as “the NGC 3190 Group.” Be that as it may be in the sometimes-baffling world of deep sky object nomenclature, I was quite taken by prominent little 3190 and its nearby neighbor, NGC 3193, in my old 12.5-inch Newtonian, “Old Betsy” from my downtown backyard:

This little pair is a real surprise. NGC 3190 is bright, definitely elongated, and shows a small, stellar core. It really “looks like a galaxy” and not just another smudge. NGC 3193 in the same field, is a typical round elliptical, a fuzzy ball… A third galaxy, NGC 3185, should also be present…but I’ve never seen it from light-polluted home.

Looking at the final pic Suzie Q kindly sent to my phone (if you like, you can watch each 10-second exposure come in and be added to the stack and see your subject getting better and better), my visual description with the C11 was pretty right-on. While bright 3190 does offer some detail, especially in its inner region, it’s basically that typical small galaxy with a bright elongated core. 3193? I pretty much nailed it:  bright core set in haze. What’s notable is what I couldn’t see but Miss S. could.

This group actually has a name, “The Leo Quartet.” Galaxy three, NGC 3185, is fairly prominent in my image, but isn’t that interesting. Elongated core, oval haze. The fourth member, which I didn’t mention at all—because I didn't see it in the C11—is NGC 3187.  It could have used more exposure, but when I really cranked up “levels” in Photoshop and made the picture look ugly, I could begin to see its weird bent ends. It’s one of those really barred spirals that look like a pair of connected hockey sticks.

Done with those Mane Lice, we move to the Tummy fleas and M105 and company. I’m not sure how many of you look at this little group of three galaxies regularly, but they deserve your time and are especially rewarding if your skies ain’t perfect:

This trio was quite a treat… M105 is bright and round with a stellar nucleus. NGC 3384 looks larger and dimmer than M105 and shows some elongation.  NGC 3385 is smaller and dimmer and a little difficult in the 12.5-inch scope—it was dim enough that I couldn’t be sure exactly what its shape was and whether or not it displayed a core.

NGC 3521
Not bad, no, not bad at all. This group was one of the first things I looked at with my 12-inch, Betsy, when she was new in the autumn of 1994, and I was thrilled she’d turn up all three fuzzies in my icky backyard sky.

How did 50mm Suzie stack up against 300mm Betsy? In a mere 15-minute exposure (the night was getting a little old and I was ‘bout ready to tell Suze to shut down)? M105 and NGC 3384 are just as I saw them in Bets, if, naturally, better defined. “Bright cores set in haze.” NGC 3385 is more interesting. It’s easy to see in the picture, and, YES, shows off one of its spiral arms. This nice galaxy needed more exposure, and twenty lashes with a wet noodle for Unk for not giving it more, but, yeah, looks way better than just another faint-fuzzie.

A mere degree and a quarter to the southwest is the somewhat far-flung (40’ apart) pair of bright galaxies, M95 and M96. “Bright,” of course, is a relative thing when talking galaxies, and both are fairly large and in the magnitude 9 neighborhood, making them a little dicey in the city at times. Anyhoo, my look at ‘em with my 8-inch f/5 Konus (Synta optics, natch) from the public schools’ suburban Environmental Studies Center where I often observed revealed…

Conditions are not good and getting worse as the night wears on… M96 is large and fairly prominent. It is obviously elongated and shows a stellar core. M95 is considerably harder and requires averted vision at times, but I can see it is elongated and also that it doesn’t possess an obvious nuclear region.

So, I really didn’t see much. In the final image that popped onto my iPhone screen “No nuclear region”?! Both show impressive details. M96's bar is prominent and lovely. M95? The SeeStar shows a lot going on there, including a bright nucleus, bars coming off that nucleus, a “ring of stars” feature, and tenuous spiral arms. In addition to the two nice galaxies, I noticed a roundish fuzzy in the frame and checked Stellarium. The little guy turned out to be PGC 32119, a 14th magnitude galaxy. Good show, Suze, my girl!

I ended my visit to the Lion’s Den with what I called “Hindquarter Ticks,” but that was really kind of a stretch, since the destination, NGC 3521, is considerably removed from the Lion’s triangular rear end, being located some 18 degrees southwest of Denebola. NGC 3521 is sometimes known as the “Bubble Galaxy,” but which I christened “Sunflower Junior” because of the clumpy appearance of its disk. It is a nice one to end on:

On this not-so-good night, I was surprised to find NGC 3521 without much of a struggle. At 220x in the C11, it is large, obviously elongated with a stellar core, and its disk seems to occasionally give up fleeting hints of detail, as if a multitude of spiral arms is just on the edge of detection.

In the Suzie Girl? As you can see…the patchy nature of the disk is on display. However, my experience is that in images as opposed to visual, the galaxy looks a little less like M63's twin and more like a normal intermediate inclination spiral. 

I didn’t end here, actually. One of the things I did in The Urban Astronomer’s Guide is end every chapter with a double or multiple star. I love double stars and am glad I did that. The choice for Lion’s Den was obviously Algieba, which I likened to yellow cat’s eyes winking in the darkness in a low power eyepiece as seeing changed.

Alas, I got distracted and let the sequence run on too long. 10 or 20 seconds would have been appropriate. Two minutes? The comes was buried in the glare of the primary star. Oh, well. I had a pretty portrait of golden Algieba, anyway.

Journey to the Seventh Planet

I still wasn’t quite done. Hanging in the west, about to get too low to fool with was one of my lifelong obsessions. Georgium Sidus, The Mysterious Seventh Planet, Uranus. On a whim, I told Suze to go there and let her accumulate 6-minutes of exposure. Imagine my surprise the next morning when a little zooming, sharpening, and comparing with the Stellarium software’s display showed I had imaged this far-away world’s two large moons, Titania and Oberon. That was something I’ve never done before or even tried to do before. And it just increased by appreciation of Suzie as that most elusive of things, the Good Little Telescope.

Algieba in the can. One for the Road imaged. And the night a big success—given my modest goals—it was time to close down. What that involve? Clicking on the picture of the SeeStar in the app and sliding the shutdown thingie to shut-her-down. By the time I got outside, Suze had folded herself up, turned off her dew heater, and killed main power. I grabbed her and her tripod in one go, took her inside, put her on charge, and settled back on the couch where I had spent the evening. Time for a mite more TV-watching with Thomas Aquinas, Chaos Manor South’s resident black cat.

That wasn’t all. I was pretty darned happy about what The Suze and I had accomplished (the above actually recounts three separate nights under the sky) in pretty short order. Suzie was enjoying a nice shot of 5-volt current, so I thought I’d allow myself a touch of the ‘Yell as my reward. Not that I’d felt like I’d done much. The scope did most of the work. And you know what? At this stage of the game I am just OK with that, muchachos.

Up Next:  The Big Eclipse. If it’s clear. Hope it is. Don’t want to jinx myself.


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