Sunday, August 23, 2015

 

AHSP 2015


I knew there would be a 2015 edition of one of my favorite—maybe my absolute favorite in some ways—star party, the Almost Heaven Star Party held at Spruce Knob Mountain in West Virginia. Yes, I knew there’d be an AHSP 2015; I was to be one of their speakers, and I had my airline tickets. But part of me just didn’t see how there could be one.

The reason was that a guiding light, perhaps the guiding light behind the star party, Phil Wheery, was taken from us some months ago. If you didn’t know Phil, I’m sorry you missed him. In addition to being an outstanding amateur astronomer and a great organizer, he was just a great guy. Over the course of my life, I’ve met few people as kind and generous as Phil. Without him, I wondered if AHSP could ever be the same.

Well, I was going to find out. Early on Friday morning—seriously early—I set out for Mobile Regional Airport to catch the 6 a.m. redeye for DC. In order for me to get to the airport in time to catch a ride with the AHSP person who was going to take me up the mountain, I had to do the early one. Oh, I probably could have made it to Dulles in time to catch my ride in easier fashion by driving to Pensacola for the non-stop to Washington, but that came at a price:  the Bayway.

In order to get to Florida, you have to cross Mobile Bay, and you do that via a stretch of I-10 that runs over a long two-lane (each way) bridge across the Bay. There’s a  tunnel, too. In the summer, and particularly on Fridays and Sundays, traffic can be backed up for miles and miles with tourists going to and coming from the Alabama and Florida beaches. Not fun. Even if the traffic were clear on the return leg, I’d have to drive at least 45-minutes to get home from Pensacola, and when you are tired out from star partying that isn’t much to look forward to.

So, the 6 a.m. flight out of Mobile it was. Outbound wasn’t that bad. I don’t expect U.S. Airways, America’s version of the notorious Soviet airline, Aeroflot, to be anything but terrible. Their gate personnel are among the most confused and unfriendly I have ever encountered. I know that, so I was not disappointed. I’ll admit I am still scratching my head, however, at the fact that a well-before-noon flight wouldn’t have freaking coffee available onboard. Oh, well; it is what it is.

Deck outside the Main Yurt...
I expected the first leg of my journey, Mobile to Charlotte, to run late. It always does with U.S. Air. I was a bit worried about my connection, and I was correct to be, as I arrived at the gate for the Charlotte – Dulles flight just before the doors were supposed to close. For once I was lucky. I went up to the podium and inquired as to whether boarding was over, and learned it hadn’t even begun. This one was running late too. I learned that, by the way, not from the Gate Agent, who just stared at me and said nothing, but from a fellow traveler.

Anyhow, in about another hour and a half I was landing in Washington, retrieving my suitcase, and meeting up with ace observer and AHSP staffer Donna Blosser. Donna is not just a very nice woman; she is a committed and talented deep sky observer, so naturally we had a lot to talk about on the way up. The journey seemed a lot shorter than the three and a half hours or so it consumed, and almost before I knew it, we were turning off for the drive up to the Mountain Institute (TMI) Spruce Knob site. We stopped at the Registration Tent where I got my packet and my T-shirt, and was directed to meet up with AHSP’s Kathryn Scott, who would get me settled in my room.

The last several years, I’ve been in the dorms, but this time I was back in a small yurt. Yep, you heard right, “yurt.” The trope used for all the TMI facilities was buildings in roughly the shape of Mongolian yurts. They are not tents, but they do look like something you’d find on the steppes of Asia. My yurt, the same one I’d stayed in the year a tremendous thunderstorm threatened to sweep the observing fields clean of scopes and tents, had been repaired and rehabilitated and was comfortable enough.

Next step once I was unpacked to the extent I was going to unpack, was to walk down to the Main Yurt to see what was going on. One thing that was going on was that NOVAC, the Northern Virginia Astronomy Club, AHSP’s parent, more or less, organization, had set the facility up with Internet access. I was warned it was kinda slow, but I found it to be quite good. When you don’t have a telescope onsite to tinker with in the daytime, the hours before dark can be long ones, so I was happy to be able to surf the ‘Net.

Another nice surprise was seeing my old friend and former Editor at Sky & Telescope, Bob Naeye. Like me, Bob has been speaking at AHSP since forever, almost since the event began, and he wasn’t going to let a little thing like his retirement from the magazine stop him from continuing to do so. Retirement had obviously agreed with Bob who, like me, retired early and good on him.

My usual travelling companion...
Supper was next. And you know what? This year, more than any year before, I was happy with the food. Maybe because I have turned the page on my diet (amongst other things) and was down with the vegetarian and other health-conscious food choices the TMI people always offer at least as alternatives. Some of the (good) sweet and sour chicken and a salad and I was a happy camper. Literally.

After the meal, it was time for the first major talk of the event, which was Bob holding forth on the Hubble Space Telescope’s achievements over its now surprisingly long lifetime. It’s a story I know well, and because of that and because of my weariness from the trip, I was afraid I was going to nod off during Mr. Naeye’s presentation, but, you know what? That darned Bob did such a good job that he kept me awake. Kudos.

After Bob wrapped up, I strolled onto the deck of the Main Yurt to have a look at the monitor out there, which was displaying satellite imagery and the Clear Sky Clock (err… “Charts”). It didn’t look absolutely horrible, but it didn’t look good either. Lots of light blue squares in the transparency row for Friday evening. So what? I, like everybody else, headed for the spacious observing fields anyway.

There, I spent a little time with AHSP honcho and NOVAC Vice President Chris Lee and his charming wife, Erin. As we chatted, that TMI magic began to happen. The clouds started to disperse with the setting of the Sun and we were soon looking at a burning Milky Way. There may be slightly darker spots east of the Mississippi than TMI, but I haven’t visited them. If deep sky observing and imaging is your goal, I don’t think you can do better than AHSP unless you travel to a western desert.

Not that I did much observing. Oh, I looked through a scope or two, but mostly any views I had were through the extremely modest instrument I’d brought along, a 6x30 Celestron monocular (which did a surprisingly good job on the summer Milky Way and M22) while I was firmly ensconced in a lawn chair setup outside the RV of NOVAC President Terry Cabell and his wife, the incomparable Pat. What I mostly did was sit and talk and drink the wine Pat had laid out (the Northstar Merlot was a big surprise and a treat).

One of the best things about AHSP is the kindness and friendliness of the people I encounter there. If I mentioned everybody who was nice to me this year, I wouldn’t have space for anything else. However, I do want to give a shout-out to just a few of the many people who went out of their way to see I was happy and taken care of. In addition to Terry and Pat and Chris and Erin, there was star party dynamo Elizabeth Erickson, whose good humor and enthusiasm never fail to cheer me up. There was the aforementioned Kathryn Scott who made sure my trips up and back down the mountain were as easy as possible. Finally, Donna Blosser had, I'm sure, rearranged her schedule just to fetch me from the airport. I could keep going, but you get the picture.

The only person missing was Phil. Or was he? If he wasn’t quite there with us on the field, it was as if he were at least looking down on us from the Great Beyond. This year’s star party set a record with three beautiful nights. Coincidence? I think not. I believe ol’ Phil was watching out for us from his spot Out There, which no doubt has far darker and even more star-spangled heavens.

In my hoodie, wearing a ballcap, I was comfortable out on the field for quite a while, but inevitably, the cold—it was in the 50s in August if you can believe that—began to seep into me and it was time to say goodnight and hike back to my yurt. Which I did, falling into a sleep that didn’t end till after 8 a.m. the next morning.

Yep, the days can be long at a star party when you don’t have any astro-gear or much else to mess with. Luckily, there were more good presentations in the afternoon, including Elizabeth Warner’s fantastic talk/demo on capturing asteroid occultations with video cameras. So inspiring was her talk that it made me want to get involved in occultation chasing.

Naturally, I also had my own talk to prepare for, so while the afternoon dragged a little bit, it wasn’t too bad and was punctuated by more good food including excellent burgers (sans buns for me, natch) for supper.

A little scary, if pretty...
You can bet I had a look at the heavily laden tables of the event’s sole vendor, Hands-on Optics. There was plenty of good stuff there, but nothing I just had to have, so I kept my credit card in my wallet. Oh, I could have bought something, but my current mindset is against buying more astro-junk. Much better would be actually using what I already have, which is way too much anyway.

Then it was time to go on. My talk this year was “Observing the Old Fashioned Way,” which concerned my at least temporary desertion of computers and cameras and electronics for time honored visual looking with my simple Dobsonian, Zelda. I wanted this talk to be fun. As I told Terry on the field the previous evening when our discussion turned to star parties and conventions and amateur astronomy in general, the most important thing we can do for ourselves and our fellow amateurs and new recruits is to show and tell how much fun amateur astronomy is in addition to all its other good points.

I think I accomplished that. I had plenty of slides and I believe I conveyed some good information for both newbies and those who’ve been away from eyepieces for a while, but I also believe I did it in a manner that was light, even for me. I flipped through my slides at a good pace, and was done in what was a hurry for me, just under an hour with questions.

Then it was time to worry. At sundown, the sky was looking awfully putrid. Almost scary at times. Clouds were just boiling out of the west-northwest. I suspected the scent of skunk was in the air. So much so that I told Chris I thought I should move my SCT collimation workshop from the field to the Yurt.

Surprise. Almost unbelievably, the clouds began to drift away just as it got dark. Oh, there were lightning flashes to the north and to the south, but they were always way north and way south and never got close. Saturday was another charmed night, and was at least as good as Friday had been.

Me? At 9 p.m. I trotted back down to the Main Yurt. I could have done my workshop on the field, but I didn’t want to confuse things by changing the location again. In the end, I believe that was a good decision. Being able to explain the supposedly black art of SCT collimation in a lighted room with slides and diagrams showing how to adjust a scope was probably more beneficial for most of my audience than trying to show them how to do it on a dark field would have been. Next time, I do hope to do a hands on, but I was satisfied with the workshop, anyway.

Doing my thing (photo courtesy E. Erickson)...
Then it was back to the field for good times with old friends and good times with new friends. I never really got chilled Saturday night. It was damp enough, but maybe not quite as damp as Friday had been. The cold didn’t seem to seep into my bones as quickly as it does on a more humid night. I was also much more rested. I hung in till about twelve before saying night-night.

Since my flight would not be till early evening Sunday, for once I didn’t have to rush around in the morning. A leisurely start to the day with a welcome breakfast, a little email reading, and visiting with my fellow AHSPers made for a more relaxed departure day. I talked to Erin Lee, who'd kindly volunteered to deliver me back a Dulles, and we decided it might be good idea to hit the road at 11:45 a.m., since the air transport system had had big (computer) problems Saturday, and we feared it would be badly snarled Sunday, too.

It was a pleasant drive back to DC with Erin and her son, Patrick, an outstanding young amateur astronomer, and I was in a good mood. Till we got to Dulles, that is. The traffic jam out front looked like what you’d normally see just after/before a big holiday. Good thing we were several hours early. I said my goodbyes and began the process of trying to get through security. I finally made it through the crazy long lines, and plunked myself down at the gate. I had a couple of books, and Dulles has good options for dinner, so all-in-all the wait was not onerous.

The pain didn’t come till Charlotte. The time for the departure of the Mobile flight, 9:40 pm, came and went. I asked about it at the podium, and after the particularly unfriendly and clueless U.S. Airways drone stared at me for a while, marveling at my NERVE at asking, I was told we’d board “in a few minutes.”

Hah. It was to be over an hour before they let us on the aircraft. Why? They finally fessed up. One of the crew, a particularly irritating cabin attendant, had lost her luggage and they were hunting all over the airport for it. I wondered how long they’d have held the flight if I’d lost my bag. In the end, I put it down not so much to arrogance on the part of the U.S. Airways folks as to the fact that most of them, and especially the gate personnel, almost to a man and woman, just don’t seem to know what they are doing.

I made it home just after one a.m., and thanked my lucky stars I don't have to drive all the way downtown anymore. That wasn’t all I thanked my lucky stars for. Those lucky stars had shone over one of the best Almost Heavens I have attended. It shouldn’t have been that way, realistically, but NOVAC stepped up to the plate and hit a homerun. I’ve also got to say, “Thank you for looking out for us this year, Phil.” Other than that? “See everybody up on the mountain next year!” 

Sunday, August 16, 2015

 

Where's the Blog?

A new entry will be waiting for you right here next Sunday morning. Why nothing new this Sunday morning? I've been on the road for the legendary Almost Heaven Star Party this past week, which is what you will hear all about next time out. Same bat time, same bat channel!

Sunday, August 09, 2015

 

Get Ready...


Yeah, I know, sitting under stagnant and hazy or cloudy and stormy skies as August comes in, it’s difficult to believe the fall star party season will soon be here, but it will be. It actually gets under way for me in mid August with the famous Almost Heaven Star Party in West Virginia. From then on for me it’s one after another till November begins to wane, often as a speaker, but sometimes just as an attendee seeking relief from the months of deep sky deprivation we’ve typically been through thanks to a stormy summer.

I won’t be taking a telescope to AHSP, but I will be hauling a load of gear to the other ones I do this fall:  the Deep South Regional Star Gaze, the Peach State Star Gaze, and the Chiefland Star Party. Maybe even one or two more. I don’t just plan to do a bunch of star parties this fall, either; I plan to do ‘em right after a near-all-summer layoff. I’ll be packing Big Bertha, My C11, and her CGEM mount—or at least Mrs. Emma Peel, the Edge 800, and her VX GEM. Mallincams. DSLRs. Computers. Monitors. The whole nine yards.

Seeing as how we’re barely two months out from PSSG, I thought I ought to slowly, ever so slowly, begin checking out the gear that has sat unused for most of the last six months. So, on a particularly rainy Wednesday afternoon last week I began the process of getting the star party stuff sorted. Maybe you should do the same…

Telescopes

You might not have to do anything to the telescope. If you’ve got an SCT or a refractor or another semi-sealed tube scope that’s done nothing but sit, you probably won’t have to do much more than give the corrector or objective a quick eyeball to make sure it doesn’t need attention. Don't mess with it unless it needs it; as you know I am very much against cleaning optics unless they are really dirty.

However, if yours is an open tube scope, a Newtonian for example, it might be time to clean. I don’t clean the mirrors of my Newts every year, though; I don’t have to. “But Rod, but Rod, I shined a 10,000 candlepower flashlight down the tube and saw some dust!” Leave that dust alone, Skeezix. It’s not hurting you. Optics will almost always have a little dust on them, and it will not affect images. Yes, modern mirrors are over-coated and their surfaces are not as prone to damage as they used to be, but you still run the risk of doing more harm than good by cleaning. Pollen, fingerprints, bird poop? Yes, clean. A little dust? No.

If you simply must clean, go the traditional route.  Rinse in the sink. Wash with tap water with a few drops of Dawn dishwashing detergent added. Scrub problem areas with wetted lens tissue or white Kleenex applying little or no pressure. Rinse with distilled water. Correctors and objectives? I use a Lenspen for small areas. For larger areas I employ the time tested combination of original blue Windex, original white (no lotion of course) Kleenex, and canned air.

Otherwise? Check out your OTA (optical tube assembly) fittings. I like to mix and match different finders with my scopes, so I always triple check that the finder in the case with the scope is the correct one for the finder mount shoe currently installed on the tube. If you have an illuminated finder, now is the time to replace those cursed little button cell batteries. Give the focuser a few twitches to make sure it’s in tune. Maybe polish up the scope’s tube with a little Pledge if you want to impress your buddies, and you are done.

Mounts

This used to be easy. “Does it still move when I undo the locks?” “Does it track in R.A. when I plug the plug into a wall socket?” That was it. Today, it is far more complicated since you are likely using a computerized goto mount or at least digital setting circles. At the minimum, I’d set the mount and scope up in the house and do a fake alignment and few fake gotos to make sure the scope points in approximately the correct directions given the time you entered in the hand control. Check all cables and connections and clean with zero residue electronics cleaner as required.

Doing a fake goto alignment in the house or seeing if your digital setting circles seem to “track” OK when you move the scope is a minimum. Personally, I would not think of taking an electronically assisted telescope, especially one that hasn’t been used in a while, to a star party without a complete check-out in the backyard.

If your mount, like most of Celestron’s newer ones, features a real time (battery backed) clock, make sure it is still keeping time. If you have not set the time in months, it will no doubt be a few minutes off, but shouldn’t be more than that. If it is, replace the battery. Go ahead and change the battery in your digital setting circles computer whether it still seems OK or not. 9-volt batteries are cheap and it’s easier to replace one at home in the daytime than in the middle of the night on a dark star party field.

Finally, get your power squared away. If you will be using batteries, make sure they are in good shape. The best way to do that is by keeping them in good shape. Lead-acid batteries (including jump start battery packs) should be charged for 12-hours after each use. If they have not been used over the course of a month, charge them for 12-hours anyway. If you are smart, you will test your batteries with a battery tester before the event. Jump start packs have built in ones, but one for your golf-cart or deep cycle battery is only a few dollars. Checking the voltage of a battery not under load with a multi-meter will tell you little. A battery tester is better and is convenient to use.

Eyepieces

Check ‘em out. Make sure the ones you’ll want to use at the event are in your case. In the course of observing from the backyard, my oculars tend to get distributed around the house. Cleaning? Sure, if they’ve got gunk on ‘em, clean ‘em. Eyepieces are like camera lenses; they are tough compared to first-surface mirrors and will stand up well to repeated wrong-headed cleaning. I use nothing but a Lenspen on eyepieces.

Might be a good time to fill in the gaps in your eyepiece collection. If you, like me, are addicted to 100-degree apparent fields of view, this is a particularly nice time. Several vendors—Explore Scientific, SkyWatcher, Meade, Lunt, and William Optics—have introduced lines of ultra-wide 100s in the 200 dollar range. About what I paid for my Zhumell Happy Hand Grenade 16mm 100-degree a few years ago. And guess what? All are very much better in every way that the good, old HHG.

Computers

Do the usual things…make sure all the software you’ll want to use is installed and operational. That’s particularly important right now, since many of you will have just updated to Windows 10. Now, Win 10 is much more like Win 8 and Win 7 that it is different, so theoretically there shouldn’t be any compatibility problems. What ran on 7 or 8 should run on 10. But, like I always say, “Trust but verify,” which is one of the few things Ronnie R. ever said that I (sort of) agreed with. It might not be a bad idea to test your really critical programs, like auto-guiding software, in the backyard or at the club site.

Make sure you’ve got your computer power sussed, too. If you are going to be at a site without AC, you’ll need batteries. Unless you are running a little netbook, it is unlikely your laptop’s internal battery will last more than a couple of hours. How much battery you need depends, of course, on your computer’s power consumption.

Even if your site has AC power, you might consider taking along a battery for the computer (and scope, too). I’ve been to more than one event where every single power outlet on the field was taken up by the time I arrived, and I had no choice but to run on batteries.

How do you actually run a laptop on a battery? There are DC to DC solutions, but most convenient for me is a simple inverter. DC to AC inverters put out power more than good enough to keep the laptop’s internal battery charged. Choose one with enough current capability to suit your machine (taking into account any devices like cameras that will be powered from the USB port of the computer). Harbor freight is a good source of inverters. A 17ah jump start battery will power my laptop for an entire run, and I found an inverter at HF that plugs right into the jump starter’s cigarette lighter socket.

Cameras

If you will be taking pictures, check the camera thoroughly. Shoot some pictures if possible. Even just terrestrial ones with a DSLR or a quick grab of the Moon with a CCD. Ensure all the cables you need are present and in good shape—please triple check this. Adapters to attach your camera to your telescope should be in the camera case, not on a shelf somewheres. Other imaging items like guide scopes or off axis guiders should be in the camera case or telescope case, too. If you run a DSLR, make sure the camera battery is in good shape, that you have an extra on hand and that all are charged. If you want to be extra safe, you’ll invest in a 12volt or AC adapter for your DSLR.

If you use a cooled CCD camera and your camera features a desiccant pack that keeps the interior of the camera dry and frost free, make sure the desiccant is ready to go, that it is dried out. With most cameras that involves baking the desiccant plug in an oven at low temperature for several hours. A few cameras allow/require you to replace the desiccant. Do whatever you need to do; a frosted-up chip makes a CCD camera utterly useless.

Camping gear

If you camp on the field like I occasionally do—when there is no other alternative, usually—inventory your stuff: tents, sleeping bags, cots, camp tables, and ancillary items like camp stoves, fans, and heaters (ones that are safe for use in tents).

This is the time to replace or add to your camping stuff as required, in late summer while the outdoor stores still have plenty of camp-out stuff on the shelves. Is your tent in good shape? Large enough, and, most importantly, tall enough, to make it bearable for a few days? A small tent you cannot stand up in when you are changing clothes, is a recipe for, yes, an unhappy camper.

Pay attention to your sleeping bag. Is the one you have appropriate for the temperatures you’ll face? What will you put the bag on? Some people can live with air mattresses or even foam pads. Not moi. I like to put my bag on a cot, which is a much more comfortable arrangement for me. Not only is a cot more comfortable, being off the cold, cold ground, even with a good bag, keep you warmer.

Finally, if you are using a Coleman stove or a catalytic heater, make sure these things are in good working order and that you have enough gas bottles to last your entire stay (always buy at least several more than you think you will need; propane is cheap). If you are planning on cooking your meals onsite (not me), begin gathering up the pots and pans and implements you use when doing camp food.

Assorted Stuff

You’ll likely need extension cords. Round up yours and make sure they are longer than you think you will need. If you are in the least doubtful, get to Wal-Mart and buy an inexpensive but reasonably heavy duty outdoor cord. While there, pick up plenty of batteries in sizes appropriate for everything you have that needs batteries.

One other thing you might as well take care of is warm weather clothing. If you’ve been at amateur astronomy for a while, you know that you will never be colder than you are when you are out under a clear sky standing stock still or nearly so for hours looking through a telescope. If you don’t have enough warm clothing (layer yourself), get to the store and get what you need when they start putting out the winter things (won’t be long).

Along the same lines, visit an outdoor merchant—Academy, Bass Pro, etc.—ASAP and get a season’s supply of those little chemical hand warmer packs. They are useful to keep not just you warm, but also things like telescope hand controls. Unfortunately, the stores, down here anyway, tend to sell out quickly since hunters snap them up as hunting season nears. “Early bird catches the worm” and all that rot.

And that does it for now. Squirrel your new purchases away somewhere where you’ll be able to find everything easily in a month or two when it is time to PARTY. When we get a little closer to that time, we will take up the next step: getting all that stuff in your vehicle.

Sunday, August 02, 2015

 

The (Sub) Urban Astronomer Night 1


If you’ve been with me for a while, you know I spent over twenty years under an urban sky in downtown Mobile, Alabama’s Garden (historic) District. Despite light pollution that at its worst could extinguish stars much dimmer than magnitude 3.5, I still wanted to observe from home—occasional trips to the club dark site and star parties weren’t nearly enough. So, shortly after I moved in at Chaos Manor South in 1994, I began  to survey the deep sky from my bright backyard.

At first, seeing much of anything other than open clusters under those conditions seemed a hopeless task. When you can only make out the three brightest stars in Ursa Minor, how can you hope to observe distant galaxies? But I persevered and eventually had surprising success. Not only did I conquer the entire Messier (even M101 and M74) from my backyard and similarly bad urban sites, I saw many objects from the NGC and more obscure catalogs.

What I saw of deep sky objects from the backyard of the legendary Chaos Manor South didn’t usually match what the objects would have looked like from good skies, but I had a ball anyway. I had so much fun I wanted to share my experience and my urban observing techniques. Which I eventually did in a book, The Urban Astronomer’s Guide. The Guide isn’t perfect, but I am still pretty happy with it today. Probably happier than I am with anything I’ve ever done. I still consult my own book at times, and that ought to tell you something.

If you’ve been hanging out here long, you also know that a little over a year ago I moved from downtown to the far western suburbs. Not only did I gain a mostly tree-free backyard, I went from magnitude 3.5 to a zenith limiting magnitude of 5.0 on clear winter’s nights. While a 1.5 magnitude gain doesn’t sound like a huge difference to newbies, old hands know that it increases the number of visible stars tremendously, and that the sky background in the eyepiece is much darker.

I had the occasion to pick up Urban Astronomer the other day after not looking at the book for a while, and after I got the information from it I was seeking, I got to thinking. My skies are better now, but they are still not perfect. Wouldn’t it be fun to go back through the The Urban Astronomer's Guide's list of DSOs and see how much, if any, better they looked from the new manse? I’d been seeking a visual project I could execute from my new backyard. Sounded like this might be it.

Going back through the urban objects would also give me a chance to share the tips and techniques I developed and/or employed for dealing with bright skies when you’re chasing dim objects. Over the years of working on Urban Astronomer—it began as a series of columns in my club newsletter in 1993 and didn’t become a book till over a decade later—I did a lot of thinking about and experimenting with what I called "city lights observing techniques," and developed some pretty strong opinions on everything from light pollution reduction filters to telescopes to star atlases.

Let’s start this first installment of the new project with a few preliminary tips. None of these is earth shattering; most are just common sense, but when you’re battling light pollution, whether from a red,orange, or yellow zone, forewarned is forearmed.

The size of your telescope, its aperture, is important. There’s an old urban legend (that’s appropriate) going around that says large aperture telescopes are useless for urban observing. That a big mirror gathers more sky glow than a smaller one and actually shows less of the deep sky. Nonsense.

Short and sweet? Set up a 12-inch and a 6-inch reflector side by side. You can even make  the 12 an f/5 and the 6 an f/8. Point ‘em both at Hercules' M13. In the 6, the Great Globular is just a bright blob. In the 12, even under poor conditions, it is a ball of tiny, tiny stars. If the sky background is too bright in the 12-inch, just pump up the power a little to spread out the background glow . All things being equal, more aperture always wins, and may be even more valuable in the suburbs than in the country.

Gain as much dark adaptation as you can. Even a little is better than none. There’s nothing you can do about light pollution—other than work to decrease it over the long run—but there is something you can do about ambient light, which is what mostly prevents you from gaining a modicum of dark adaptation, from allowing your eyes to become as sensitive to dim light as they can get. Begin by turning off your porch and other intruding lights, of course. If the people next door have lights on, shield yourself from them—it’s usually impossible to get people to turn off their yard lights, even for a little while, on a regular basis.

What I used to do was build stage flats. Frames of 1x4 lumber covered with muslin and painted black. Made stands for ‘em out of more 1 x 4s, and they could then be positioned as needed to shield me. Keeping ambient light out of my eyes and my telescope made a huge difference. This is so important that it wouldn’t be silly to consider building an actual observatory in your backyard. Really, one is even more helpful under bright sky conditions than under country ones. I would suggest a dome-type solution, since a dome will do more to block ambient light.

Baffle your telescope. I don't mean you should confuse the poor thing. More than a few Newtonians, especially imported Newtonians, are designed so that ambient light can enter the tube through the mirror end. A simple baffle like the one I cut out of paper in 5-minutes for my old Edmund Scientific Palomar Junior will definitely improve contrast.

Look for any places where ambient light can enter your optical system. If the telescope’s tube in front of the secondary mirror isn’t long enough, light is probably hitting that secondary and ruining contrast. Use plastic or paper or anything similar to extend the tube. This has the added benefit of helping keep dew off the secondary mirror.

Don’t be afraid of high power. In general terms, most amateur astronomers use too little rather than too much magnification under all sky conditions. Probably because when we were novices we were warned off “300x” by the veterans. For very good reason:  our imported 60mm refractors wouldn’t handle it. But your 8 or 10-inch telescope of today certainly will.

While it will make extended objects like galaxies and nebulae dimmer, higher magnification also spreads out the background sky glow and darkens the eyepiece field background, often making the target easier to see. Stars will not be spread out, so higher power will definitely increase contrast of star clusters.

Let me reiterate, keep ambient light out of your telescope and out of your eyes. Even if you’ve rigged up a light shield, it’s wise to go a step farther. Drape a black cloth over your head and your eyepiece. This will keep all the ambient light out, and that is particularly important when using light pollution reduction filters. If you allow light to enter the eye-lens of your eyepiece, the performance of any LPR filter, whether UHC, OIII, whatever, will be very adversely affected.

I often hear newbies say they are disappointed with their light pollution filters. That they don’t make as much difference in the backyard as they’d hoped. Part of the reason is the above. Filters, which screw onto the field lens end of an eyepiece, the telescope end, work by reflecting unwanted light away from the eyepiece. If you let ambient light enter the eyepiece from the eye lens end, it will be bounced right back into your eye from the “wrong” surface of the filter, the surface facing your eye, ruining any contrast gain you would otherwise have achieved.

Use light pollution filters, but understand their limitations. OIIIs, UHCs, H-betas, they all have their places in the backyard and can make the difference between seeing and not seeing dim nebulae. They can also reveal more details in the brighter objects, but be aware they are not a panacea. They do not work on everything.

Unfortunately, as many newbs are disappointed to hear, an LPR filter won’t do squat for a galaxy or a star cluster. Those objects are made of stars, and, unfortunately, the light of stars falls in the same range of wavelengths as the earthly light the filters are designed to reject. Some people will tell you a mild filter like the Lumicon Deep Sky will improve a galaxy by darkening the background sky without dimming the target object too much, but I’ve never noticed much improvement visually (mild filters can help with galaxies during imaging).

Wait for it…wait for it. Can’t snag M101? Wait for the best time. Wait for culmination, the time when the object you are chasing is as high as it ever gets, when it crosses the local Meridian, the imaginary line that divides the sky into east and west halves. Won’t do that over the course of the current evening? Come back when it will for a better shot. Even if an object is not very high when it crosses the Meridian, it is still as high then as it will ever get, and you will be looking through less air.

Also wait for those special nights, nights that are especially dry and clean, like evenings after a winter cold front has passed through and cleansed and dried the sky. Dust and humidity amplify light pollution, scattering any sky glow that is present and making things worse.

Finally, wait for an object to be positioned in the best part of your sky. If you’ve got a Wal-Mart to the east, wait till your prey begins to sink into the west. It’s sometimes the case that an area lower down in the sky might actually be better than the area closer to the Local Meridian.

Use a red light. It might seem obvious, but some newbies don’t grok that even in light pollution you want to use a red-filtered flashlight rather than a white one. Remember, you are trying to attain as much dark adaptation as possible.

How about those red-tinted "Astro-goggles" Orion  has sold for years? I tried 'em; sounded like a good idea. Not only would they protect my eyes from ambient light sources, I could put them on and run into the house if I needed to without blowing out my dark adaptation. Alas, not such a hot product. I didn’t mind that wearing them made me look like the king of the nerds, but they fogged up instantly even in the winter, and I was constantly tripping over stuff and bouncing off walls.

Use digital setting circles or a goto scope for object finding. While I am currently going through a non-computer “simplify” phase, there is no denying goto and DSCs are a godsend for the urban or suburban observer. If you can’t see many stars, it may be nearly impossible to find objects in star poor areas using a zero power finder like a Telrad. Even a 50mm finder may leave you lost in space.

You’ll be amazed what you can see of objects in the urban/suburban sky if only you can find them. For example, the first night I had my NexStar 11 GPS, I couldn’t resist giving her first light in the backyard of Chaos Manor South. Unfortunately, it was one of the haziest spring evenings in a while. Couple that with the light pollution of my red zone, and I didn’t expect to see galaxies. I keyed in M64, anyway, and when the goto stopped, I inserted my 12mm Nagler and had a look. At 233x, there it was, the good, old Black Eye galaxy. Not just visible, but showing off the dark spot, the black eye, almost as well as from the club site.

Use the same visual observing tricks you use from a dark site. Look away from a dim object instead of straight at it to bring your eye’s dim light receptors into play. Use averted vision, that is. Still can’t see your quarry? Jiggle the scope. The eye has an easier time seeing dim moving objects. Use all your standard tricks.

Most of all, don’t give up. Keep persevering and you will almost always be rewarded. No, you probably won’t ever see the Horsehead Nebula from your back 40, but it is more than likely you will eventually conquer M74 and the other hard Messiers. And many other besides. It took two seasons of trying before I picked up M101 from Chaos Manor South with my 8-inch f/5 Newt, but pick it up I finally did...

And so it was that on one recent evening that I again found myself out under a light polluted suburban sky with a telescope. Yes, the skies of the new manse are usually better, considerably better, than they were at Chaos Manor South, but not on this night. In addition to heavy haze and intermittent clouds—this has been such a lousy summer—there was a fat gibbous Moon hanging in the sky.

Seeing what the bright sky could offer up wasn’t my motivation for braving the bugs, anyway. My mission was to begin testing a set of eyepieces I am evaluating for a magazine article. That was exactly what I focused on for a couple of hours:  serious business. Once my work, which had been easy enough to accomplish in the horrible conditions—all I needed for ocular testing was the Moon, Saturn, and some bright stars—was done, I thought I’d have some fun. See what I could pick out of the mess.

Well, heck. How about M13? OK, but where was it? The telescope I was using this evening, as it has been on many recent evenings, was my low-tech GSO 10-inch Dobsonian, Zelda. She doesn’t have goto. She doesn’t even have DSCs; just a 50mm finder and a zero power sight. The problem was that the sky was now poor enough that I couldn’t make out a single star in the whole constellation of Hercules. The night had gone from “bad” to the proverbial “worse.”

“OK, then. No M13 or M92. What else?” I looked around. I could see the Dipper, but the idea of trying to find the Owl Nebula or M108, much less M101, on a night such as this seemed patently ridiculous. Out of all the “rules” I listed above, however, the one I’ve taken the most seriously is “Don’t Give Up.” If you want to be an urban or suburban astronomer, you have to banish “surrender” from your vocabulary. You will not go inside without seeing something. Well, I could see Vega shining bravely. If I couldn’t see the ring, I’d at least see the Double-Double.

I used the Rigel Quick Finder to position Zelda on the sapphire of a bright star. Then, looking through the scope’s RACI finder, I slewed across the little constellation, which was nearing zenith, to the two stars opposite Vega, Gamma and Beta, Sulafat and Sheliak. Once there, it was trivial to get on the Ring Nebula’s field. Since I was a boy, I’ve known the planetary nebula’s position well; it’s just about halfway down an imaginary line drawn between the two stars.

Nudged the scope one last smidge while looking through the finder (scope), and then put my eye to the 15mm 100-degree AFOV eyepiece. “OK, where are you, you little sucka?” One thing I remembered from my urban astro salad days was that you can’t always depend on even the brightest objects to jump out at you. Always examine the field carefully. I did that and there was M57, a somewhat ghostly smoke ring. Was it better in my 10-inch than it had been in my 4-inch Palomar Junior (which I often used in the early days of my urban observing)? Yes. Was it that much better? Not really. Frankly, it looked a lot like it does in this rather crude drawing from decades ago.

Conditions were so poor by now that even Zelda’s ten inches of aperture didn’t help much. When I added a UHC filter—I wanted to be sure the eyepieces I was testing were smoothly threaded for filters—the view improved a little. I could see that the center of the ring was filled with haze more easily than I ever could with my Pal, and I could pick up a few of the dimmer stars scattered across the field, but, no, it wasn’t that much better.

Which didn’t matter a bit. As I had been on so many city-bound nights, I was just bowled over to be able to see anything and surprised at how good a deep sky object could look under such atrocious conditions. I looked, and I looked, and I looked. Until a batch of real clouds shut us down. Had I seen as much as I would have on a clear, moon free night? Or from a dark site? No, not hardly. Had I had fun anyway? You betcha, and that is what matters most to me these days.

Sunday, July 26, 2015

 

Summer Software Roundup: My Top Ten


Deep Sky Planner 6
The summer deep sky doldrums are still upon us. The clouds are beginning to thin a bit, however, and despite a waxing Moon I hope to get out into the backyard at least for some eyepiece testing over the next week or so. This past week? I’ll fess up:  the heat and the bugs have kept me inside with our new 4K UHD TV. Any observing I’ve done has been of the virtual nature. Which is OK; astronomy software can be fun to play with indoors on these uber-humid, hazy nights. That is certainly true of most of my favorite programs (can’t do much with PHD indoors, admittedly).

SkyTools 3 and Deep Sky Planner 6 (I couldn’t choose)

Both of these are “planners,” which means they are essentially giant databases of over a million objects apiece designed to allow you to build observing lists and log observations. They are so much more than that, though, with abilities like controlling goto telescopes, downloading images, and, in the case of ST3, producing incredibly detailed star charts.

I didn’t completely understand the value of planning software until I began working The Herschel Project in 2009. When I found myself undertaking a project that eventually required me to observe 2500 objects across the entire sky, I knew it would be vital to keep myself organized and informed. What had I seen? What did I still need to see? Could I see a particular object easily with the scope I was using? What would my target look like if I could see it? SkyTools 3 allowed me to do all that. It’s fair to say I’d never have completed the Herschel list in three years without it.

Well, sorta. I’m quite sure I could have done just as well with my other top pick, Deep Sky Planner 6. I just didn’t glom onto a copy until the Project was winding down. While DSP doesn’t generate its own charts, that’s not necessarily a bad thing. It allows you to use any one of the most popular planetarium programs for charting. Being able to produce sky maps with Starry Night meant I didn’t have to learn a new charting engine, and that was a good thing. Otherwise? Features right up there with SkyTools. And…I find Deep Sky Planner’s display a little easier to read on a red filtered laptop. Good stuff.

Cartes du Ciel

Good old Cartes. Everybody’s fall-back freeware planetarium isn’t fancy. It doesn’t have photorealistic skies. It doesn’t include a million images. It won’t give you the weather report for your observing site. What it will do is create legible charts that, depending on the options and add-ons you choose to download, will go as deep as anything on the market. It controls scopes easily with ASCOM, and it has animation features that work well and smoothly. You could do a lot worse for a hundred bucks, much less for free.

Stellarium

Stellarium
Stellarium is the other top freeware planetarium, and it, unlike Cartes, does feature nearly photorealistic skies. So why is it ranked lower? For use in the field, it is not quite as good. It includes the entire NGC/IC and a few other catalogs, but does not go nearly as deep as Cartes. It lacks a few controls I find helpful, too, like a button, N,S, E, or W, to quickly select the horizon I want to view. Doesn’t even have a hot key to do that. Still, it is pretty, it is often detailed enough, its animation is crazy-smooth, and it is free.

TheSkyX first Light

As I’ve written here before, I need a “quick look” planetarium. One that loads quickly and shows me exactly what is up in the sky without a lot of fuss. That is TheSkyX First Light Edition. It is as beautiful as Stellarium, actually moreso, but also has the easy to access controls for selecting the horizon view that Stellarium lacks. Want the eastern horizon? Just push “Look East” on the toolbar. So why do I rank it below Stellarium? Mainly because Software Bisque doesn’t make it easy to get. This lowest “level” of TheSkyX is apparently only available as a pack-in with Celestron and Bushnell products. It’s so good, however, that if you can’t find a copy I suggest you kick it up a notch to TheSkyX Student (50 bucks).

Starry Night Pro Plus 6

Cartes won’t give you the weather forecast for your site, but Starry Night darned sure will, and that is just one of its countless features. This mega planetarium really has it all, including a background sky stitched together from CCD pictures. Millions of stars and DSOs. You name it, really. So why am I still on “6” instead of the current Starry Night 7? In its final version, 6 is pretty much debugged—I never have trouble with it. The current owners of the program, Curriculum Simulations, are continuing to work on 7, and I understand it is getting there, but I don’t think it’s quite as clean as 6 yet.

Nebulosity 3

I like to take deep sky pictures. But mainly in an informal manner with a DSLR, not a high-faluting CCD camera. Nebulosity 3 (4 is out now but I haven't tried it yet) is really all I need. It not only lets me control my DSLR from the computer (“tether” it), it features excellent processing tools including a deep sky image stacking program that is the best in the business. To be honest, if I ever move on to a “real” CCD camera, I will still use Neb with it. 

PHD Guiding

TheSkyX
You know a piece of software is good when it’s what just about everybody including your old Aunt May uses. That is PHD Guiding, a program designed for only one purpose, guiding your mount during deep sky imaging to keep your stars round. Yeah, that’s pretty much all PHD and its open-source successor, PHD 2, do, but it is enough. Man is it ever. Even with my inexpensive Atlas and VX and CGEM mounts, this program just LOCKS ON and guides. Never a problem, never a worry.

Deepsky

Deepsky is, like ST3 and DSP, a planning program. In fact, it was the first program of that type I ever used back in the mid-1990s. I liked it then and I like it now. So why isn’t it higher up on this list? Time has kinda stood still for it. It needs a few new features and some upgrades like the ability to rearrange column order. The sky charting module is old and tired-looking and only shows the deep sky objects in your current plan—nothing else. The user-interface could stand some tuning, too. Despite those things, I still use Deepsky; it has some features nobody else does, like a library of log entries from observers like Barbara Wilson that I find very useful. I hope Deepsky's author, Steve Tuma, gets back to work on it in a serious fashion someday.

Megastar

This one is another blast from the past. In its heyday, especially down here in the South, Megastar was the near-invariable choice of serious deep sky observers. It was the first program to use the Hubble Guide Star Catalog, which is what attracted many of us to it early in the 1990s. It also has a very useful catalog nobody else does, the MAC, the Mitchell Catalog of Anonymous Galaxies developed by ace observer Larry Mitchell. Alas, the program’s author, Emil Bonano, apparently lost interest in Megastar and sold it to Willmann-Bell, who have continued to keep it running on new versions of Windows, but have not done much other development on it. Shame. But it is still good and I still like it. A program can look like a refugee from MS-DOS and still be useful, you see.

NexRemote

Like PHD, Celestron’s NexRemote is a program that just does one (relatively) simple thing, but does it incredibly well. In this case, the program allows you to run Celestron’s hand control (NexStar) firmware on your laptop PC. Your laptop is then able to take the place of the telescope hand control. Simple, yeah, but a joy.

Megastar
This is another soft that really helped during the Herschel Project. When I was using a deep sky video camera, I could sit under a tent canopy with the monitor and DVR and run the NexStar 11 GPS or the CG5/C8 completely from the PC. That meant I was out of the dew and cold and could go as long as it took to bring home the 100 – 200 objects per run that the H-Project demanded. NexRemote also allowed me to move the scope and do other things with a Logitech Wireless Wingman gamepad, which was really, really cool.

I’d got the idea that Celestron had abandoned NexRemote (it is now free), and that would be a shame. I was pleased to hear the rumor recently, then, that Celestron is testing a new version designed to offer some of the features peculiar to the popular VX mount. I hope that is true, because even though the H-Project is history now, I still use NexRemote almost every time I set up a Celestron mount.

And that, then, is it. Is there an astro-program I should have considered for this best of the best, but ignored? I’d be happy to hear from y’all about that. Otherwise, I hope to actually do something other than armchair astronomy by next Sunday. Excelsior!

Sunday, July 19, 2015

 

A Binocular Summer


What better time for them? Binoculars are the perfect tool for astronomy on cloudy, hazy, humid, bug-infested summer nights when I’m reluctant to drag even the smallest telescope into the backyard. Why bother when all I’ll likely see is the undersides of clouds? I can get up the energy to grab my old faithful Burgess 15x70 binoculars for a quick scan of the summer stars between passing thunderstorms, though. Actually, binoculars are useful for astronomy at any time of year.

Not that I, like some people, recommend binoculars as a beginner’s first instrument. While binocs can be great for helping you learn the constellations, allowing you to pick out the missing stars in the constellation patterns under suburban skies, they are not usually enough to maintain a novice’s interest. Most newbies want to look at the stars, sure, but what they really want is the craters of the Moon, the rings of Saturn, and the Moons of Jupiter. Binoculars don’t do a good job with those things.

Even expensive interchangeable eyepiece binocs usually won’t deliver the Solar System goods as well as a cheap 6-inch Dobsonian can. Yes, steadily held 15x binoculars can show considerable lunar detail and the Galilean Moons of Jupiter, but not in the close-up fashion beginners crave. Heck, most newbies are disappointed in how small Jupiter looks at 100x in a scope, much less 10 or 15x in binoculars. Novices:  get a pair of binoculars to supplement, not replace your scope of choice.

That said, every astronomer old and new should have binoculars. Not only are they the ultimate grab and go solution, they are handy for doing things like spotting Polaris in the gloaming, picking out a horizon hugging comet, or getting your bearings in a seldom-visited constellation. But you probably don’t want to spend for Canons or Nikons or Fujinons just to do those sorts of things. You want the vaunted El Cheapo binoculars. Finding a pair of inexpensive ones that’s useful for astronomy is, thanks to the flood of Chinese optics, easier than ever. There are some incredible buys out there for binoculars in all sizes from the little fellows to the giants.

“Glasses” come in a bewildering array of apertures and magnifications: 8x35s (the first number is the magnification, the second the aperture, the size of the objective lenses), 7x50s, 10x50s, 15x70s, 11x80s, 25x100s and more. Where do you start if you want to add a pair to your arsenal? What is the best general purpose binocular for astronomy?

Do you want the short and sweet? The good, old 10x50 is best for most amateurs. It is the perfect balance of field size and magnification. Even those not specifically advertised as “wide field” binoculars have big fields of view that allow stunning views of the Milky Way, the Pleiades, M31, and other things too big for almost any telescope. 10x50s also offer enough magnification to show some lunar detail and to allow a glimpse of Jupiter’s Moons. Despite their fairly large aperture and a higher magnification than many smaller glasses, 10x50s are still small enough and light enough for most adults to easily hand-hold for considerable times while observing the sky (after a little practice anyway).

How about the lower powered 7x50s? They boast wider true fields of view, but… In binoculars, less power means “won’t go as deep” from most locations. Even from darker sites, you will see dimmer objects with the higher magnification of 10x50s. Higher power darkens the background sky in the binoculars, spreading out any light pollution present.  When you are viewing extended objects like nebulae or the Andromeda galaxy, their light is also spread out and they are dimmed too, but even so the darker sky background makes them appear to stand out better, makes the contrast between object and sky seem higher.

You will definitely see more stars with higher power binoculars; it won’t just be a pseudo contrast effect either. Stars are not dimmed by increased magnification, since they are point sources and cannot be spread out. The higher the magnification, the darker the sky, and with the stars remaining the same brightness, the higher the contrast.  You can see dimmer stars with increased magnification.

A little more power has one other benefit. The main impediment to doing the Messier with binoculars is that some of the objects are small enough to be hard to identify at lower power. I find 10x helps me pull out a few more of the little ones than I can at 7x. I can (barely) make out that M57 is not a star in 10x50s; I can’t do that in 7x50s. Stick to 10x50s.

Can you go smaller than 10x50s and still see anything? Sure you can. Magnification is really more important than aperture when choosing between 35mm and 50mm binoculars. Also, lighter binoculars are easier to hold steady, and you will see deeper if your glasses are held steady. Our 8x32 binoculars regularly show as much—and sometimes more—than our 7x50s. The catch? Cheap 35mm binoculars are often poor optically. Generally, the cheap brands are less good in that regard than 50mm glasses. Yes, our 32mms give our 50mms a run for the money, but our 32s are rather expensive Canon roof prism binoculars.

So, you want a pair of 10x50s. Where do you get them? You could trot down to Wal-Mart and buy a pair for 30 – 50 bucks. That is actually not a bad idea as long as you are willing to stand in the return line and keep exchanging binoculars until you get a good pair. What’s usually wrong with them?  Optically most Chinese binoculars, which are all you will find at WallyWorld, are fine. It’s their mechanical alignment that is off.

Take your new Bushnell (or whatever) glasses out, and point ‘em at a bright star. Adjust the interpupillary spacing (how far apart the binocular halves are) until you see one big round field of view (not a figure 8 shaped field like in the movies). Focus as best you can and hold the binoculars as steady as you can—gripping them at the objective end is best. Do you see a single star or a double star? If you see two bright stars instead of one, check focus and fool with the spacing. If your eyes still have to work hard to merge the two images, take the binoculars back and exchange them for another pair. The ones you have will be a headache—literally.

How can you avoid mis-collimated binoculars? You could try purchasing from an astronomy binocular dealer like Orion. You might get better quality control, but not necessarily if you lowball it. In the 50-75 dollar class their binoculars come from the same Chinese makers as Wal-Mart’s, and if you have to return ‘em, you will have to do that by mail. In my opinion, stick to locals if you want “real cheap.”

Which brand should you choose? Bushnell? Meade? Celestron? Barska? Tasco? It really doesn’t matter. At this end of the price scale, brand names are meaningless. They all come out of the same few Chinese factories and all are more alike than different. Options? Aren’t many offered. See if you can get a pair with a case of some kind. How about a tripod socket, so you can mount the binoculars on a camera tripod (with the help of an L shaped tripod adapter you can get cheaply from most astronomy dealers)? That might make a difference to you; it doesn’t to me.

Frankly, I don’t like binocular mounts for non-giant binoculars. But not because they can’t help steady the binoculars and let me see deeper. They can; even a cheap camera tripod will help. It’s because they don’t fit in with the way I use binoculars, especially in the summertime: grab ‘em up, run out on the deck for 10-minutes of looking, run back inside. I don’t want to fool with tripods under those conditions.

What can you expect to see in inexpensive 10x50s? A lot. Many Messiers (most of those not visible are not visible because, as above, they are too small). I have had a terrific view of the elusive and difficult M101, the Phantom Galaxy, from a very dark site with a pair of Simmons (WallyWorld) 10x50s. Moon craters in proliferation. Beautiful awe-inspiring views of the summer Milky Way from dark locales. A better look at M31, the Andromeda Galaxy, than I’ve ever had in a telescope.

Downsides to the cheapies? Other than the above alignment problems, not many. Mostly just field edge sharpness in wide-field models and fogging up in the summertime when the binoculars are taken out of the air conditioned house. The former isn’t much of a problem; you’ll still have plenty of useable field. Fogging up? Makers of more expensive glasses prevent internal fogging in their binoculars by purging them with nitrogen (external lens surfaces will still fog). Solution? Put the glasses with their lens caps on outside half an hour before you use them on sultry nights.

Are there any 10x50s to stay away from? Basically two types: zoom binoculars (of any maker) and binoculars with ruby-tinted lenses. The problems with zoom binoculars are that they are not as sharp as single power binoculars at any setting and their fields of view at lower powers are constricted. Tinting the lenses of binoculars red was all the craze with the cheap sellers for a while. The only reason for doing that, really, would be to lessen the impact of chromatic aberration in the most poorly made glasses. It provided no other advantage and was a tip-off that the binoculars in question would be yucky. Luckily, I don’t see many of these horrors anymore.

10x50s are a good choice for astronomy, but they are hardly the only choice. There are others that have been perennially popular…

15x70s

These are, if you haven’t picked up on it, my favorite astro-binoculars. No, they are not as easy to hand-hold as 50mm glasses, but it is still possible to use them without a support with a little practice. More aperture and more magnification really are a good thing. Not only does pumping the power up take you a bit deeper from less than perfect skies, you’ve got the reach and resolution of bigger objectives, too. At 15x, the Moon looks good, real good, and the Galilean moons are easier because they are more separated from the planet—which is now obviously a little disk. Most astronomy oriented 70mm binoculars are of the wide field variety, so stuff like M31 and the Double Cluster still looks terrif.

Brand? Since we are talking bargain glasses, the same applies as with the 50s—it really doesn’t matter. All come from the same factory or two, and all are similar in quality. There are a fewer brands to choose from simply because fewer importers choose to market 70s. Some of the usual players are Celestron, Meade, Barska, and Orion. Amazing to me is how cheap they are:  between 60 and 100 bucks gets you a pair. Surprisingly, the low price doesn’t seem to reflect quality. Most I’ve tried have been reasonably well built and optically good. My own Burgess 15x70s set me back all of fifty bucks in 2003 and have been at my side ever since.

20x80s

If 70mms are cheap, 80s are crazy cheap compared to what they used to be, with 100 – 125 bucks getting you a pair of really big binoculars from Celestron, Barska, Orion, and the other usual suspects Sounds great…but. Bigger isn’t always better, boys and girls, at least not in astronomy. Problem one is that none of the low-ballers sell 11x80s in this price range. They are all 20x. Do you think it will be easy to hold 20x binoculars of any size steady?

Adding to that is Problem Two:  cheap binoculars are generally heavier than expensive ones, and 80mms are naturally heavy whether cheap or expensive. To get much use out of 20x80s you will need a tripod or, way, way better, a mount designed specifically for binoculars. If that is your bag, fine. It ain’t mine. Again, I usually don’t want to be tied down with a mount when it comes to binoculars.

Big boys

Big binoculars, 100mm and larger aperture binoculars, are an entirely different kettle of fish. They are more a telescope replacement than a supplement. They are most assuredly not grab ‘n go friendly in any shape or form or fashion. I use them for tasks that a telescope can’t do as well as they can—showing pseudo 3-D views of wide fields—not because I want something lighter or more convenient. That’s the only way to approach large binoculars. If you accept those things, big dogs, like my 25x100 Zhumell Tachyons, can amaze.

I have quite frankly never had as stunning a view of the Sagitarius-Scorpius Milky Way with any instrument as I had with the Tachyons at the Chiefland Astronomy Village. M31? You can’t get a 3-D view of something all those light years away, but that’s not what your brain thinks. You are using both eyes, so you must be seeing in three dimensions. M32 was in the foreground and the whole thing looked just terrific.  In some ways the real giants are also more versatile than smaller binoculars. You still get a very wide field, but you get resolution of the brighter open and even globular star clusters. M57 is a tiny perfect ring. Saturn’s ring can be seen (barely). The Moon looks as good, at least as good as in my StarBlast.

Despite all that goodness, I use my Tachyons once or twice a year at most. Why? The mount. Large binoculars require mountings. While the Pete Peterson EZ Binocular Mount I built for them is lighter than some similar mounts and works better than most, it’s a fair hassle to set up and balance. That means I reserve the Tachyons for times when binoculars will really shine:  a good, large comet, a visit to a dark site when I want to go more casual than setting up a telescope and doing an observing project.

Like other binoculars, the Chinese optical revolution has made 25x100s much more affordable than I’d ever have dreamed. You can buy from sources that include Celestron and Orion at prices that range from 250 – 350 dollars. But think long and hard before you do that. You’ll need to budget at least another 150 – 200 dollars for a mount kit (like the Peterson EZ), and several times that amount for a store-bought rig—which likely won’t work as well as the kit. One other caution:  if, like mine, your eyes have a hard time merging images in even well collimated binoculars, you may not like 25x power binoculars. The higher the power, the harder it is to merge images.

Part of me says that if you want to go big, you should really go all the way, and invest in something like the Oberwerk 100s. These binoculars feature interchangeable eyepieces, an integral fork mount that’s far more convenient than any binocular mount, and eyepieces with a 45-degree viewing angle to make the binoculars more comfortable to use when pointed at higher altitudes. I’ll tell you, if my eyes had an easier time merging images at high power, I would sell several telescopes, get a pair of these pups, and never look back.


Despite the few caveats above, binocular astronomy can be a joy. If you’ve never done the deep sky with glasses, it can give you a whole new perspective. I’d always used binoculars for astronomy, but usually only when it wasn’t convenient or comfortable to use a telescope—like this summer. I have, however, gone beyond that a time or two, and observing with binoculars seriously is like opening a new window. I did the Messier, kept going, and was surprised at how far I could go into the night. It was like seeing everything for the first time again, which is a very good thing.

Sunday, July 12, 2015

 

My Favorite Comics


Still not much astronomy going on around here, folks.  It is hazy and it is humid. It’s a typical Gulf Coast July in other words. The angry thunderstorms have abated—somewhat—however, and the Moon is now getting out of the way, so I hope to see something in the coming weeks. I should have a set of a famous telescope company’s new 100-degree eyepieces to evaluate in the near future, and that will no doubt impel me to get into the backyard and brave the mosquitoes no matter how milky the sky.

It wasn’t like I didn’t see anything over the last week or two, though. After being denied it by constant rain and clouds, I finally got a look at the grand Venus-Jupiter conjunction. It was a little past the best night—the two had begun to pull apart—but, man, did they still look great. So great that on that languid summer evening I somehow got up the energy to drag a Canon DSLR and a long lens onto the deck for a few shots of the famous duo.

Even more surprisingly, I thought I was finally going to get a crack at the deep sky last Saturday night. Conditions were not perfect all day, but initially the Clear Sky Clock predicted improvement at Sundown. My new GSO girlfriend, Zelda, and I had hopes of continuing my current visual project, and at 7 p.m. (Don't you just love this Daylight Savings Time?) we headed to the club darksite. Improvement? The night began with bugs and haze and evolved into bugs and clouds.

It wasn't a total loss. It was a near skunking, yeah, but I was able to try the new scope at high power on Saturn in reasonably steady seeing. Verdict? I was frankly amazed at what 500 buck Zelda did with the ringed wonder. The Crepe Ring was easy, Cassini's Division was sharp and dark, there were color variations across the A ring, I thought I spied the Encke Minima at 300x (8mm Ethos + TeleVue Big Barlow), the disk was loaded with subtle detail, and Titan was a tiny, tiny disk.

Before throwing in the crying towel and heading home for some Netflix, I observed M3, M53, M51 and a few others through haze. Continue my project, observing objects from Burnham's Celestial Handbook, though? Not a prayer of that. Track down Pluto as I'd planned? Don't make me laugh. As on our first Dark Site run, however, packing up my minimalist 10-inch telescope was so easy that I wasn't a bit sorry I'd given the night a try. 

So, what would I write about? My top sci-fi films article got an impressive response from you, and I should do a Part II. And I will do a Part II sometime, but I thought this time I’d do something along the same lines but different. This week, let’s talk about my favorite comic books.

I can remember reading funny books as a little bitty kid—I  clearly remember looking at the pictures in a Woody Woodpecker comic before I could read—but they were just an occasional fancy. I liked ‘em and usually saved the ones I bought when I could convince Mama or Daddy to give me a dime to spend at the neighborhood convenience store, but they did not become a passion until we were well into the Marvel explosion.

My idea of comics changed in 1965. I’d actually known interesting things were happening at Marvel Comics for the past several years. I’d got onboard with Smilin’ Stan Lee and Jolly Jack Kirby with Fantastic Four number five, which I stumbled across in Greers’ one afternoon when Mama took me grocery shopping with her. I read their magazine every month and even saved and reread the (soon tattered) issues, but comics were still not a huge deal with me.

Until I realized a couple of things. First, that what was coming out of Marvel Comics was crazy good. Amazingly good. Especially considering the fact that, pre-FF, the company had been known for—to me, anyhow—second string monster/scary books. Secondly, that I’d better start keeping up. There were new Marvel titles sprouting on that fabled comics rack (“Hey Kids! Comics!) every month and they looked great. Finally, and perhaps most illuminatingly, one day in the late 60s, I came to the realization that comics were something I’d love my whole life, not just kid stuff. It was at about that time that I discovered and began drooling over a very special magazine, the late, lamented Rocket’s Blast Comicollector.  

I am still here reading comics. They aren’t twelve cents anymore, and you can’t buy them at the convenience store, but they are still good. Maybe better than ever. That said, my reading habits have changed. I am mostly a DC guy now. The only Marvel book I pick up regularly is, natch, given my somewhat juvenile sense of humor, the new Howard the Duck. That has nothing to do with nostalgia or anti-nostalgia; it is because of two things. Mainly, DC’s heroes seem to speak more to my current self than the Marvel guys do. It is also because—and it doesn't matter why—I had the misfortune to lose my Silver/Bronze Age Marvel collection in the early 1990s. I started over with DC, spurred on by my love of Swamp Thing and Watchmen, and that is where I still am today.

Batman

No hero means as much to me at this stage of my life as The Batman. In my youth, I identified most strongly with poor put-upon Peter Parker. Today, being a little older, it's Batman striding the dark rooftops of Gotham, dealing with the night’s demons, both internal and external.

I read Batman often before I began collecting comics and, surprisingly maybe, stopped when I did. You see, my coming of age as a fan/collector coincided with the Adam West TV show, the famous Batman series of 1966. It’s fashionable today to look back on Batman fondly. DC even has a book that replicates it, Batman ’66. But you know what? I never could stand it. Its camp take on the Dark Knight was heresy to me then and it’s heresy to me now. I can’t get past that to the fun, I’m afraid. I do think the Barris Batmobile is beautiful and always will be (my other two faves among Bats’ many vehicles are the Batman: the Animated Series Batmobile, and the new one in Arkham Knight).

What saved Batman for me was the Neal Adams issues of the 70s. DC, to their credit, realized the short-lived TV show—it wore out its welcome in a mere two seasons—had put a hurting on the comic. Batman and Detective Comics went back to a darker more serious tone on the way to becoming darker and more serious than they had ever been. At first, I was kinda embarrassed to be reading Batman, but as the ears on the cowl grew longer and everybody in the book began to refer Bruce as THE Batman, I got over that.


The Fantastic Four

Stan Lee and Jack Kirby’s FF was for many years the be-all and end-all of comics for me. In some ways it still is, and I still reread those 100 plus Kirby issues on occasion. While I no longer have my Silver Age FF books, I’ve got them all on a DVD. This comic book was just so good because it was just so different. Oh, we’d seen the Four’s powers before on many other heroes. It wasn’t that; it was how real these characters, Reed, Sue, Ben, and Johnny, seemed at a time when Superman was plain ridiculous, playing with tropes like Super Monkey and Super Horse, and Batman was almost as bad.

The FF were real. They lived in a recognizable New York City, not some mythical metropolis. They bickered. They left the team in a huff. The public didn’t worship them, not always. And that Kirby art? His Golden Age work on Captain America is beloved of many fans, but I never quite got it—I’m not a Golden Age fan of any kind, admittedly. But over those years of doing the 50s monster books and other stuff, he matured. The second I laid eyes on his work on FF, his pencils became the standard by which I judged all other comic book artists.

FF today? There is no FF. Surprisingly, with another Fantastic Four film in the offing, Marvel has cancelled the book. Since the film shows signs of being a stinker (Doctor Doom is not a super-villain, but an alienated computer hacker), that might not be a bad thing. Not that I consider the cancellation much of a loss. When I’ve looked in on the team over the last decade, they didn’t much resemble the FF I loved. Will they ever be back? Sure they will be; in comicdom nothing is forever. When Marvel does bring back their book, I hope it is with some of the power of old as represented by Lee/Kirby.

The Amazing Spiderman

When I first became obsessed by Marvel, I preferred the FF’s sci-fi-ish stories to the more crime-drama-oriented slant that often maintained in Stan’s and Steve Ditko’s The Amazing Spiderman, but I was still powerfully drawn to the character. Why, he was a nerdy little kid who had a tough time in high school, just like me. Stan must have written the book with me in mind (said ten million lonely teen boys).

Spiderman was never my favorite comic, but it was always one of my favorites. These days, when I pick up an issue, I still feel some of that old magic. Today, I relate more to the tortured Bruce Wayne than the picked-on Peter Parker, but, yes, when I can figure out which Marvel spider book is the one about the Peter Parker Spiderman, the character still resonates.

Avengers

I was there for Avengers #1 in 1963, and loved it from the beginning. Back in that hallowed day, I was also a fan of the Justice League, but I had to admit this new team from The House of Ideas was, like the FF, blessed with a measure of reality that the JLA often lacked. Like the FF, the Avengers argued, they quit, they wondered where their next dime was coming from (well, Tony Stark didn’t). It was, again, great.

Actually, there’s not one Avengers. The team’s lineup has changed frequently over the years. My favorite? Surprisingly, not the team that debuted in Number One. My favorite is the late 60s group: Cap, Hawkeye, Scarlet Witch, Quicksilver, Vision, and Hercules. As Stan quickly found out, having Hulk and Thor in the group was a no-go. Who could stand up to the combined might of the Son of Odin and “Hulk Smash Little Men”? I’m sure old Smiley got tired of the constant dodges that had those two off somewhere or compromised.

I haven’t read the Avengers in a long time, but you know what? Seeing the movie made me want to spend a little time with my old pals. I may pick up an ish on my next visit to the comic book store.

Walt Disney’s Comics and Stories

In the early 1970s, I was Marvel superhero crazy and thought honest-to-god funnybooks were a thing of my childhood. Not so. Someone very dear to me introduced me to the Disney duck books and in particular the reprints (which I believe were mainly what appeared in the 70s issues) of Carl Barks' stories. Everything about his work—his stories, his art, his layouts—was top-notch and hardly only for kids.

Outstanding. Memorable. Engaging. Funny. Today the Comics and Stories of Barks is as fresh and (often) witty as ever. Another Gold Key Disney title with his work, Uncle Scrooge, was frequently as good or even better. The amazing thing about Barks' ducks? Their stories aren't just "cute" or funny. My sense of wonder is often stimulated by them. When the ducks go on an adventure, it feels that waylike a real adventure.

Thor/Journey into Mystery

I always liked Thor, and was onto the book not long after Marvel put the Norse god in their former scare title, Journey into Mystery. The Kirby issues are fantastic, and the comic maintained itself with good grace for many years after his departure and with the transition of the hero to his own title. Funny thing, though? What I really loved all those years ago was not the main title, but the little featurette, “Tales of Asgard,” Which brought us Thor’s questing, carousing friends, The Warriors Three: Fandral, Hogun, and, most of all, The Voluminous Volstagg.

One of my fond memories of those days is a summer afternoon spent at the swim club, sitting under an oak tree at a picnic table with my best buddy reading Journey into Mystery, talking comics, and eating the lunch Mama packed me in a paper sack. I haven’t read Thor in a long time, maybe because I am afraid of sullying that memory, but I have enjoyed his films.

Watchmen

There is no graphic novel as respected as Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons' Watchmen. Even the hoity-toity New York Review of Books had to admit it is CRAZY GOOD as literature. And it is. I discussed it in the sci-fi movies article not long ago, so here I will just say this bookwhich, some people forget was initially a series of monthly comicsis everything comic books should and can be. Its tale of alienated (Charlton, more or less) heroes is unforgettable.

Strange Tales/Doctor Strange

Didn’t mention it above under “Spiderman,” but I was a huge fan of Spidey's artist, Steve Ditko. His style was utterly different from that of my main man Kirby, but it was right for his books and especially Doctor Strange (in Strange Tales). He could go hog-wild with his weird psychedelic panels and odd character appearances and expressions and it fit.

Oh, and I liked the character, too. Doctor Stephen Strange—Marvel’s version of Doctor Fate, I guess. Above and beyond his mastery of the mystic arts, it was Doc Strange’s competence that impressed me. He was steady and smart and knowledgeable in the face of baddies that could destroy the world. Reassuring in the days when we were all at least subconsciously afraid of someone doing just that with the push of a button.

While I love Ditko’s work on the book, my favorite issues are actually by Dan Adkins. I remember very clearly Daddy stopping to get gas at Pak-a-Sak when our family was on the way to the Greater Gulf State Fair one fall night. I walked inside, found a luscious Adkins Doc Strange, and, surprise, a dime and a nickel to pay for the 12 cent comic in my pocket. The big deal, though, was that when we got home and I read the issue, I noticed Stan’s mention (in his “Stan’s Soapbox” column) of this book called The Lord of the Rings. Before long I was seeking that out and being swept away by it thanks to old Smiley. Ah, memories.

Strange Tales/Nick Fury Agent of Shield

The other Strange Tales feature in those days was “Nick Fury, Agent of Shield,” Marvel’s attempt to cash-in on the James Bond/Man from UNCLE secret agent craze (I am lucky in that I still have Strange Tales 135, which is Nick’s first appearance). I liked Stan’s and Jack’s S.H.I.E.L.D. well enough, but the series didn’t really take off for me until Jim Steranko took over with Strange Tales 151. If there was a competitor for Jack Kirby in those days for me it was Jim. His art—and his writing—were over the top powerful. I’ve got his run on Nick Fury in graphic novel form, and you know what? Like Kirby’s art, it holds up amazingly well today, looking as fresh as ever and maybe even less dated than that of the Jolly One.

I don’t believe Marvel has a Nick Fury book at the moment, but maybe they will. The S.H.I.E.L.D series on TV is popular, and Nick’s (or is that his son?) appearances in the Avengers films have caused quite a bit of renewed interest in the character.

Tales of Suspense/Captain America

One of Marvel’s other former anthology books was Tales of Suspense. Which after the coming of the heroes began featuring Captain America, the revived spy-smasher and Nazi-buster of the Golden Age. I loved Cap. Not just for the Kirby art and outrageous stories like his battles against Modok and A.I.M., but because, unlike most other Marvel heroes, there was not a tiny trace of anti-hero in Cap. In the heyday of conflicted heroes in movies and even comics, Cap stood out because he was different. He was a Good Guy, good to the core. He knew exactly what was right and you could depend on him to do it.

Like many other comics heroes, Cap has been retconned a few times. He’s not even Steve Rogers anymore. That’s OK. As is the case with the other Marvel heroes, I have my memories and a few old comics. As above, I live mostly in the DC Universe these days, but some of my best comic-reading experiences have to do with Cap and Tales of Suspense.

Space Family Robinson

It wasn’t ever only Marvel, or Marvel and DC, for me. I often bought titles from the sometime looked down upon (back then, anyway) Gold Key, Western Publishing’s comic book outfit. At the top of my list of their books, which included the Disney titles, were “painted cover” comics like writer Del Connell and artist Dan Spiegle’s Space Family Robinson which came out of  an idea by Carl Barks.

Which was a great idea for a book. What you’ve got under a variety of competent artists and writers is the Swiss Family Robinson set in outer space. It was such a good idea that CBS borrowed it (without explicit credit) for Lost in Space. The comic doesn’t hold up quite as well as I’d hoped today—though it holds up much better than the TV show—but what a lot of fun it was.

Tarzan

Even as an older teen—or even today—I never quite lost my love for jungle stories. Bomba. Jungle Jim. Sheena. Most of all, Tarzan. The Tarzan comic I loved and still respect the most was the Gold Key version done by stupendous artist Russ Manning (Magnus Robot Fighter). Not only did the books look great, they were frequently literate, often adapting the real E.R. Burroughs stories. The good Tarzan issues are just as good as they ever were.

Still fresh in my mind is the summer day when Daddy dragged me along to Air Force MARS (Military Affiliate Radio System) Field Day, an emergency preparedness test. I wasn’t much interested in that, but the day was saved by the new Tarzan and a stack of older ones (and Koraks) I brought along. The Spanish Fort, Alabama woods suddenly became the wilds of darkest Africa.


Batgirl

I never much liked Batgirl. Not in the 60s, not in the 70s. She always seemed like a supercilious little twit to me. That changed with the events of The Killing Joke, after she was paralyzed when the Joker shot her in the spine. Her evolution into Oracle, and, then, her rebirth as Batgirl with DC’s New 52, interested and moved me. Today, her book, which has brilliant art and a fresh tone of urban hipness, is a comic I read every single month.

Suicide Squad

I suspect that after next year’s movie a lot of you will become readers of DC’s New Suicide Squad. Me? I’ve been enjoying Task Force X’s often convoluted triple-cross tales since the 1980s. The concept is (almost) always the same. Amanda “The Wall” Waller runs covert missions out of Louisiana's Belle Reve Penitentiary. The members of the so-called Suicide Squad are convicted supervillians looking to work time off their sentences doing impossible missions for Waller’s shadowy arm of the Government.

The team members come and go, but my faves, some of whom will be in the film, have been Deadshot, Harley Quinn, Killer Frost, and silly old Captain Boomerang. If you want to get in on the fun right now, in addition to reading the current DC book you can pick up the outstanding adult oriented DC animated film, Assault on Arkham. It is marketed as being a Batman movie, but, while he appears in it, it’s really about the Squad. “They're getting the Squad back together?! Siiiick!

Batwoman

In the old days, Batwoman was “meh.” A female bat designed to take the heat off Batman. Heat applied by that infamous imbecile, Dr. Frederic Wertham. How could Batman be gay as the silly Wertham told us he was? He had a girlfriend, Kathy Kane, who was also a crimefighter. That was all Batwoman was for years and years. Until 2006, when she was reimagined in dramatically different fashion.

This Batwoman, Kate Kane, is an independent crime fighter, hardly a member of the Bat Family, and often at odds with Batman. Kate is of Jewish descent and is, ironically given her original reason for being, a lesbian. While the book has been, in my opinion, mishandled in recent times, which has led to its cancellation, Batwoman is a terrific character and I hope to see her make a comeback soon.


The X-Men

I wasn’t there for X-Men #1, but I was there early on. I didn’t really begin to love the book until my college days, though. If Spiderman moved me in high school, it was X-Men who did that in college. In the 1980s, X-Men was, along with Swamp Thing, my favorite comic.

In recent times, I’ve lost touch with the merry mutants. Maybe because of the bewildering (to someone who doesn’t do much Marvel anymore) proliferation of X-books, but mostly because of the events of Marvel’s Civil War. Still, if I were to pick a Marvel comic to start reading again, it would probably be an X-Men title.

Swamp Thing

Swamp Thing has always been one of DC’s best titles. He was great in the old days when Bernie Wrightson was doing him, and he was great in his pair of Convergence books just the other day. What made him for me, however, was the incredible 1980s run of Alan Moore and Stephen Bissette (pencils). Their stories about the humongous lump of a plant man weren’t just interesting, as they’d always been, they were suddenly lyrical. Swamp Thing stopped being a somewhat ridiculous monster, which was all Marvel’s equivalent, Man-Thing, ever was and became more human than the humans around him.

What’s truly remarkable about ol’ Swampy is how well he’s always held up despite ever changing artists and writers. Heck, even the el cheapo 1982 movie is surprisingly watchable. Not bad, anyways, and there is Adrienne Barbeau to look at, of course.

Where am I with comics now? I am as into them as ever, and this is a great time to be into funnybooks. DC heroes rule our TV screens, and the Marvel gang dominates multiplexes this summer. If you haven’t picked up a comic in a while, why not trot to your local comics shop and give a couple a try? If you do decide to pick up some comics, which I hope you will, please get ‘em at a comic book store run by people who care about comics rather than at freaking Barnes and Noble or Books-a-Million.

Anyhow, let’s see how many comics collectors/fans there are out there in astronomy land. If I get a good response on this, I’ll plan a Part II of this one as well. There are so many great books I didn’t even mention. JLA…Legion…Teen Titans…Daredevil…Iron Man…Sandman...and on and on and on... Till then? "Excelsior!" of course. 

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