Sunday, April 12, 2015

 

More Trekkin’


About five years ago, muchachos, a young amateur astronomer and ardent Trekkie, Clara Scattolin, had a great idea; she’d go through the Star Trek canon as it stood at the time (with the exception of Enterprise)—STTOS, TAS, TNG, VOY, DS9, and the original movies (not the reboots)—and  make an observing list of the real astronomical objects that were mentioned.

Clara’s list was a big hit with Trekkie amateur astronomers including moi. I downloaded the .pdf, converted the list to SkyTools format, and spent an evening looking at and showing off some of the Trek objects. Six altogether. That’s only a fraction of Clara’s observing plan, which consists of 37 objects, so the other evening, I decided to knock off a few more of ‘em.

Should you do the same? Darned right. If you are a Trekkie, you will thoroughly enjoy the experience, even though most of the Enterprise’s destinations and the other astronomical objects at least talked about in the shows are “just” stars. But, what’s wrong with looking at a pretty star? Some are doubles, and almost all are bright and look good in small telescopes. As Clara says: 
"You might wonder why anyone might want to look at stars that are probably irrelevant. I don’t know about you, but I would love the opportunity to look at a star that someone believed was a solar system with habitable planets in orbit."
So it was that one recent evening I hit the backyard at 8 p.m. (curse this DST) to do more voyaging. How would I do that? I originally intended to set up a C8 on my Atlas mount. I’d just downloaded the new SynScan firmware build, v3.37, and needed to give it a test run. Unfortunately, clouds were predicted to be on their way in, and I don’t like to lug the Atlas out unless I can keep it set up in the back forty for at least two nights. Severe weather was said to be in the offing, so I decided C8 and Atlas would stay snug and dry.

So, my Celestron C102, a 4-inch achromat, would be my starship of choice for the night. This refractor, “Amelia” by name, is easy to waltz out into the backyard or onto my deck despite her longish tube. I can have her set up in 5-minutes, and she requires almost no thermal equilibration whatsoever. My backyard skies are hardly perfect, with a limiting zenith magnitude of about 5 on a really outstanding night, but the only challenging object on the list this evening would likely be M1, the Crab Nebula, which isn’t that hard for a 4-inch, even under bright skies.

Or it wouldn’t be with clear skies. Unfortunately, there was significant haze building in advance of the front, and I wasn’t at all sure old Crabby would appear in my eyepiece. At least there were no drifting clouds, not yet, so there’d be nothing to prevent me from scoring my other targets, mostly bright double and single stars.

So, out on the deck went the C102, into the diagonal went my Zhumell 100-degree AFOV ocular, The Happy Hand Grenade, and…

Rigel

When the U.S.S. Amelia emerged from warp space, we were at Orion’s beautiful sapphire, magnitude .13 Rigel, the 6th brightest star in the sky, which looked lovely in the big eyepiece field. The seeing was not perfect, but it was good enough that the sparkler was not dancing around much. How was the chromatic aberration? At the reasonable focal ratio of the C102, f/10, and the reasonable magnification with the HHG, 63X, I didn’t note much. Something besides the color purple was missing, however.

Rigel is not a single star, but a double, boasting a little magnitude 10.4 companion a hair less than 10” away. Actually, Rigel is really a triple star; Rigel B is itself a binary, but a spectroscopic one that cannot be resolved by any scope. Even given the huge magnitude difference between the primary and the B star(s), the relatively large separation makes the pair easy to resolve with a C8.

I expected Rigel B to be nearly as easy with the C102 as with the SCT, but nada did I see of the little comes when I put my eye to the ocular. Well, 63X was a little low in the magnification department, I thought, so I upped it to 142X with my 7mm Uwan 82-degree job. There was the spark of Rigel B. Maybe not as prominent as in a C8, but not bad, not bad at all.

The Shows

Wolf in the Fold” (STTOS). Takes place on a planet orbiting Rigel, Rigel IV, and involves grisly killings done in Jack the Ripper style. The crew is enjoying shore leave in a gloomy fog-enshrouded city, with Scotty doing some good, old-fashioned whiskey drinking, when a grisly murder takes place. Scotty is initially suspected, but it’s soon obvious to his companions that a sinister force is at work.

One of the best original show episodes in my opinion, “Journey to Babel” (STTOS), has Rigel as its destination. Specifically, the planet Rigel V. The story concerns the Enterprise’s journey to a diplomatic conference on the planet, and features Spock’s father, Sarek, and mother, Amanda. I won’t give anything else away if you somehow haven’t seen it. If you haven’t seen it, you will love it.

The Cage” (STTOS). This is another great (2-part) episode, and was the original pilot for the series. Its relation to Rigel is only peripheral in that yet another inhabited Rigellian planet, Rigel VII, is mentioned. See this episode not just for a great SF-like (as opposed to Sci Fi) story, but for a look at the proto-crew of the enterprise, with Jeffrey Hunter as Captain, Majel Barrett as his Exec (Number One), and John Hoyt as the ship’s doctor (Dr. Phillip Boyce).

Mudd’s Women” (STTOS). Can you believe that there’s yet another (semi) habitable planet in the Rigel system, Rigel XII? There is, and we visit it in this one for replacement dilithium crystals thanks to the (probably) unintentional actions of conman Harry Mudd. The balance of the episode is played out in the harsh environment of Rigel XII’s a mining colony.

In “All Good Things” (STTNG), a movie-length episode, the finale of the show, we are told Enterprise Engineer Geordi LaForge lived on Rigel III following his retirement from Starfleet.
Rigel IV is mentioned in “Prodigal Daughter” (STDS9) as a “pergium” ore processing facility.

Mintaka

Since we were in the Orion neighborhood, Mintaka, Delta Orionis, was our obvious next destination. This westernmost belt star is another bright beauty, a blue-white B0 monster shining at magnitude 2.14. It’s a triple star with a very noticeable 7th magnitude companion 52” away. The other component is closer and way dim, magnitude 14, and was, of course, invisible in my refractor.

The Show

Mintaka’s sole appearance is in an STTNG episode, “Who Watches the Watchers?” The Enterprise is studying a race of Bronze Age level people who appear to be related to the Vulcans. The Away Team is discovered, violating the Prime Directive and putting the normal development of the people of Mintaka III in jeopardy. Not a great episode, but a good one.

Messier 45, the Pleiades

Taurus’ Seven Sisters is a beautiful open cluster, but really too big for an f/10 4-inch. I enlisted my 35mm Panoptic to allow me to take in the whole of the cluster’s main “little dipper” shape, but to be honest the group’s many blue sparklers really looked best in the Orion 7x50mm RACI finderscope I use on Amelia when we are observing in light polluted environs.

The Show

The Pleiads are mentioned in just one episode, STTNG’s “Home Soil,” as the destination of the Enterprise, which has been tasked with surveying and cataloging planets in the star cluster. Before it can get to M45, however, the ship is diverted to a planet along the way, Velara III, to check on the faltering progress of a terraforming colony there. What the Enterprise finds is a crystalline lifeform that appears similar to one discovered in the (nearby, we assume) Pleiades.

Messier 1, the Crab Nebula

The next logical destination for my starship of the mind was one of the other relatively few deep sky objects in the Trek canon, Messier 1, the famous Crab Nebula. I turned the scope on it, or at least thought I did. The Crab is undeniably subdued in a 4-inch in light pollution. Not surprising given its relatively dim magnitude of 8.4 and relatively large size of 8.0’. I think I saw I as a dim little oval. I was convinced enough that it was there that I didn’t go looking for a light pollution reduction filter, anyway.

The Show

The Crab is mentioned in one of STTNG’s light-hearted episodes, “Manhunt,” wherein Picard must deal with a menopausal Lwaxana Troi (mother to Deanna, natch).

Regulus

Regulus, Leo’s alpha star, is now nice and high above the trees to the east at mid evening, so it was our next port of call. While this star, another blue one, a B7 this time, doesn’t look overly impressive in the eyepiece, it is a pretty remarkable one. It’s a quadruple star with the primary being a very young star that has assumed a strongly oblate shape due to its fast rotation.

Of these wonders, the only thing visible to my little scope other than the bright primary, was the star’s b-c companion. The (unresolved in my little scope) pair is 175” from the planetary and shines at a combined magnitude of 7.6, which made it easy and pretty in the C102. The 4th system member hugs the primary closely and is only detectable spectroscopically.

Regulus is referred to in one of the most famous and beloved of the STTOS episodes, “Amok Time.” While the story doesn’t visit Regulus V, it is discussed as the home of a giant bird that returns to its nest once every eleven years to mate. Not unlike poor Mr. Spock, who s suffering from something called pon farr, the Vulcan equivalent of the Regulan bird’s need to return to home to fulfill its biological imperative or the terran salmon’s need to swim upstream to do the same.

Regulus is also talked about in a rather minor first season episode of STTNG, “The Vengeance Factor.”

Our current target also comes up in a STDS9 show, “Fascination,” as the location of the Regulus III Science Academy.

Aldebaran

Aldebaran, a huge, red K5III star couldn’t be more different from the blue stars we’ve visited so far. They are young and it is old, having moved off the Main Sequence and swollen to a huge diameter, almost 45 times that of the Sun. In the eyepiece, it is glorious, a shimmering orange vision.

The Show

You’d think we’d hear more about such a prominent star, but no. It does come up in “The Deadly Years” (STTOS), but only in passing.  Aldebaran III is the home of the Aldebaran Music Academy.

It also makes a brief appearance in an in the STDS9 episode “Past Tense, Part I.” It seems one of Quark’s relations has been picked up by the federation cops on Aldebaran III and he wants Sisko to do something about it.

After watching Aldebaran, who began to not just shimmer, but to dance, as the seeing degraded and the haze thickened, I figured it was about time to wrap it up. I didn’t want to do any more of the list on an evening that was becoming putrid, but I wasn’t quite ready to haul Amelia back inside, either.

Venus is the bane of achromatic refractors. Not only is she usually intensely bright, she’s usually small. That makes her the A-number-one victim of chromatic aberration. But the love goddess suckered me in as she always does. She just looked so bright and pretty. In truth, she was not that bad. Yes, there was a substantial purple halo, but the little gibbous disk was sharp and clear in the midst of it when the seeing occasionally cooperated. 

Back in the Sol system, I studied the second planet on my ship’s “viewscreen” for quite a while. Longer than I thought I would. I am glad I did. I don’t want any of the sky’s wonders to ever become mundane, muchachos. And none of them ever have. Not even too bright Venus, who seemed to still radiate some of the mystery she had in excess back in my youth, when she was a Strange New World, a water rich swamp world trod by dinosaurs, and I couldn’t stop looking at her.

Would you like a copy of the list in SkyTools 3 format? Just send me a request at rmollise@bellsouth.net...

Sunday, April 05, 2015

 

Shooting the Planets Part II: Imaging and Image Processing


I am not Don Parker. Or Chris Go. Or Damian Peach. I can, however, even given my average equipment, skills, and the varying intensity with which I pursue planetary imaging, produce pictures that would have caused anybody’s draw to drop twenty years ago. Even on an average night, my shots will reveal the basic configurations of Mars, Saturn, the Moon, and, especially Jupiter. That is, even on less than optimum evenings, I can record more detail than you will likely see visually, no matter how good your skills.

Now the caveat. As I underlined our last time out on this subject, what will limit you is the seeing. Below, you see the difference. My average seeing is probably equivalent to a lot of people’s “good,” and it will deliver the goods, if not as impressively as I’d sometimes like. What does my average/below average seeing look like? The air is not steady. The image of the planet onscreen is usually “boiling.”

Then we come to poor. This is something that I experience in the winter months and even into early spring some years. What’s poor? One look at a planet on the monitor will tell the tale. It won’t be boiling, or just boiling, it will be wavering. Flapping like a flag. Believe me, you will recognize it when you see it. Unfortunately, a lot of my northern brothers and sisters can experience this during much of the year.

The good part? As putrid as the resulting image is, it will still probably still reveal considerably more than an experienced observer will easily detect through the eyepiece on such a night.  How poor did Jupe look onscreen when I shot the image on the right? He wasn't always even round (or oval if you prefer); he was a blob more often than not.

Takeaway? Keep your eye out for the conditions that will bring good seeing. Temperature inversions. Sticky, humid nights. But don’t necessarily sit inside on evenings that you and the Clear Sky Clock agree will be poor. If you are interested in monitoring the planet of your desire, not merely taking a few pretty pictures, get outside with the scope and camera. Sometimes seeing can improve suddenly just when you thought that was impossible. Finally, if nothing else, shooting on nights that don’t look good will at least keep you in practice with your scope and camera and more able to take advantage of good nights when they do come.

First things first, you've got to get your camera on your telescope. If you followed my advice in Part I, you have the camera plugged into a Barlow and a flip mirror. The tiny chips of planet-cams and webcams make it harder to center your target than you’d think, even with the services of a flip mirror. Without one? You ain't got a prayer. Trying to line up a planet in a high powered eyepiece, remove the eyepiece, and insert a camera is a losing game. You’ll almost inevitably more the scope the tiny amount required to put Jupiter out of the frame in the course of doing that. Or your focuser will flex. Or, if you’re like me, you’ll kick a fraking tripod leg.

Before beginning, you need to have polar aligned your mount carefully (you can use an alt-az mount for planetary work, but tracking will almost always be better with an EQ). Especially if your camera supports and you plan to use FireCapture’s ROI (region of interest) feature, which crops the frame to a size that barely fits the planet. That allows the camera to achieve high frame rates, but a frame not much more than a minute of across when you are on Jupiter means tracking needs to be spot on. You need a good polar alignment and a well balanced scope. Even if your camera has a large frame and you plan to use full frame, a planet will drift out quickly at high focal ratios if polar alignment is not good.

FireCapture
Once you have the scope properly aligned and the planet on the cross hairs of the eyepiece in the flip mirror, it’s time to get it onscreen and focus up. Connect the camera’s USB cable to the PC, light off FireCapture, and have a look. For this discussion, we’ll assume you are using the new beta of FireCapture, version 2.4.05. There is really no reason not to, and I find its menus easier to navigate than those of the earlier release. It also does some things the old one doesn't, like automatically detecting your camera. I also achieved a somewhat higher frame rate (in ROI mode) with it with my ZWO ASI120MC than I did with the old version.

After FireCapture finds your camera you should see an image on the preview screen immediately. If not? If you don’t even see a bright blob? First off, check the frame size. You don’t want ROI mode when focusing and framing. Select Max (resolution) at the top of the control pane. You’ll see a bubble for 16-bit in the same area. Make sure it is unchecked. You don’t need it and it just slows things down.

Still no Jupiter? Make sure you haven't, as I almost always do, forgotten to flip the flip mirror up to send images to the camera. Chances are, however, that you’ll find that even with a flipper, aiming ain't a piece of cake. On my last evening out, I had a hard time getting Jupe on the display. This was one of the first times I used the new FireCapture. Had I set it up wrong?

Nope. The reason was simpler. I needed to adjust my flip mirror. Over the years, it’s gotten to the point where what’s in the center of the crosshairs is no longer in the cam. It does NOT take much misalignment of the mirror to do that. I found I had to offset Jupe between the center and the field edge for it to be onscreen. Like most flippers, my mirror is adjustable and I need to tune it up (someday). If you’re still having trouble despite testing the aim of the flipper (the Moon is good for doing that if it's out), check your exposure. Set the gain slider to about 75%, and increase the exposure time of the camera and see if anything appears.

Next up is focus. Remember how I told you you really want motorized focusing for planetary work? The reason will be obvious now. If you have moto-focus, focusing will be quick and you won’t mind refocusing as the evening proceeds. If you ain't got it, focusing will be a pain, even if your scope is close enough to the monitor that you can focus while watching the image. Touching the telescope's focus knob will make the planet move unless you've got a big honking A-P mount or something like that.

How about exposure? You need that right to be able to focus successfully. Set the gain to 60 – 70% (too low gain can produce odd artifacts in planetary images), and adjust the exposure until the histogram meter on the bottom of the preview display peaks at about 60%. Another way of saying that is to say you should adjust exposure time till the image looks just right and then shorten it until the planet looks slightly too dim (never overexpose).

If you have an SCT, you’ll be happy you've set your camera’s resolution to Max for focusing/framing. Even with an SCT with minimal focus shift, focusing will still likely cause Jupiter—that’s what I imaged on this night, and I’ll assume that’s what you’re after right now, too—to move all the way across the frame. My old Ultima 8, Celeste, has an average amount of focus shift, so while Jupiter moved from one side of the field to the other, it never quite went off screen, luckily.

When focus is as good as you can get it—under even poor seeing you should see cloud bands—center the planet up. Use your hand control to put the planet as close to the middle of the frame as possible. Then, if you are going to use ROI, switch to that and do final centering. It’s now time to fire off a sequence.

How long should these movie (.avi) sequences be? Even a 30-second ROI of Jupiter at 50fps plus will produce well over 100  megabytes of data, so be mindful of your hard drive size. I usually find 30-45 seconds of .avi will result in enough good frames for me to work with. When you are ready, click the  “record” (blue arrow) button on the capture section of the control pane. Your .avi recording will begin. You can either set it for a max limit (typically 30-seconds for me) in the Capture section, or just watch the time displayed and hit the stop button when you've got as much as you want.

How many .avi captures should you do? As many as it takes. I generally try to do more rather than less, spacing them out across the duration of the evening in hopes of catching good seeing. You should be able to tell when the seeing improves dramatically by looking at the preview image and hitting “Record” immediately, but it’s not always obvious when it improves slightly, so take plenty of .avis.

When you've got what you think you need, throw the big switch, head inside, pour yourself a glass of whatever tickles you, and turn on the tube or spend some time with your loved one (mucho better). The one thing you don’t want to do with your pictures the night you take ‘em is process ‘em. Or even look at them. Trust me, they won’t look good no matter how good they really are, and no matter how bad they really are, they will still look much better in the morning.

Debayer
OK, it’s morning. Birds are chirping, the Sun is shining, and you are ready to begin processing your images. The first step, assuming you use a one-shot color camera like I usually do, is what I nostalgically call, “developing the pictures.” It is really nothing like putting negatives in soup, but, like developing film, it is the preliminary step you must take before you do anything else. The real name for this first step is “debayering.”

Color cameras work by exposing pixels through a matrix of red, green, and blue filters on the chip. Look at the raw images from your color camera and you won’t see any color at all. Just a black and white picture that looks strangely pixilated; it will have what appears to be a grid pattern—and that is exactly what is going on. To get color, software combines a matrix, a grid, of color filtered pixels. Three filtered pixels, red, green, and blue, make a final color pixel. The result is normal looking color images. All one shot color cameras of all kinds work basically the same way. Naturally, if you are using a monochrome camera, you don't have to debayer.

Actually, you could skip this step even with a color camera. FireCapture and some other image acquisition programs will debayer on the fly. They will convert raw images to color before they are saved on the hard drive. That's not usually a good idea, however. What we want more than anything else when we are recording planetary .avi movies is lots of frames, a high frame rate. Debayering in real time will inevitably slow the camera down.

So, exactly how do you "develop" pictures? With FireCapture, you use a little utility that comes with the program, Debayer. You’ll use it frequently, so find this application in the directory where FireCapture resides and put a shortcut to it on your desktop. The rest is simple: start it, click “Open AVIs,” and select your image files. Normally, you’ll select multiple image files (shift-click in the file window) and let the utility debayer all your sequences at once. You can choose the type of debayering process, but I find the default, “bilinear,” works fine. Click “Start” and the program will begin its work.

When all your files have been processed, you’ll  find debayered copies of them in the same directory as the undebayered ones. The new .avis will have the original file names, but “bilinear” will have been appended to them (assuming that was the process you used). If hard drive space is an issue, you can now delete the non-debayered files.

AutoStakkert
Time to stack. What exactly does that mean? What you have on your hard drive are movies, .avi movies, videos, but what you want are high resolution stills. The way to get those is with a program that will select the best frames of your video and stack them. It’s easy to understand why it is good to select the best frames, those taken in the best seeing, but why stack them?

Stacking does one thing for you:  it reduces noise. Not only does that mean the finished still image looks smoother, it means it is easier and more practical to apply sharpening tools. Try to sharpen a noisy frame and you sharpen the noise too, making it more prominent and making the image look worse rather than better.

If you, as most planetary imagers are, running Windows on a PC or on a Mac by means of emulator software like Bootcamp, you have two major choices of stacking program today, the venerable Registax and a newcomer, AutoStakkert. As I said in Part 1, Registax still does a good job, but I must admit AutoStakkert is at least somewhat better. It is, like Registax, freeware and is no more difficult to use, so there is no reason not to use AutoStakkert.

Also like Registax,  AutoStakkert has many settings and adjustments that can be used to improve your results once you've gained some experience with the program. The nice thing, though, is that both programs can produce impressive results with a few simple settings and/or just leaving (most) controls at their defaults. Which is what we are going to do this time out—keep it simple.

Execute AutoStakkert (download the latest Beta, 2.3.0.21; it is more than ready for primetime). When it comes up, you’ll find two windows on your desktop as shown above. Step one is, natch, to press the Open button in the left window and open your .avi file. Make sure you choose the debayered version, of course.

When your file is loaded, you’ll find one of its frames displayed in the preview window (right). It won’t look like much; it will be both fuzzy and noisy. Don’t worry; we are going to cure that now. Immediately below the Open button is the Stabilization control area. Here, select either Planet or Surface. The latter is used if you are processing an .avi of the lunar or Solar surface. Since I presume you've, like me, been shooting Jupe, select Planet.

Registax
Now, click the Analyse button. AutoStakkert will think for a while, but only for about 15-seconds unless you have a very large video file. When it is done, direct your attention to the right pane, the image pane. You need to do two things here. The first is to specify how many alignment points (to keep frames properly aligned during stacking) you want on your image. I find that for a high resolution planetary image, “50” is good. So, tick “50” in the “Auto AP” area of the frame.

Next, push the “Place APs in Grid” button just below. Alignment points (red points inside boxes) will be automatically positioned. You can place APs manually or delete or add points after placing them automatically. Some folks tell you to delete alignment points near the edge of the disk, but I haven't found this to make a difference.

Almost done. Go back to the left window, to the Stack Options area on the upper right, and tick “TIF.” That will cause your stacked image to be saved as a .tif file, which is normally the best option. And that is it. Just push the “Stack” button at the bottom of the window and let the program do its thing. In about one minute, depending on the horsepower of your PC and the size of the .avi file, AutoStakkert will finish and will have written a .tif file of Jupiter to a new subfolder labeled “AS” in the folder in which your original .avis were located.

If you were to open your stacked .tif file with Photoshop (or your image processing program of choice) now, you’d be somewhat impressed, but not blown away. The picture would look a lot smoother, and noticeably less noisy, but it would still be awfully soft. The way to fix that is with Registax 6. While AutoStakkert does a fine job of stacking, it lacks Registax's famous “Wavelet” sharpening tools.

Run Registax 6, and, when it comes up, click Select (upper left) to select and load the .tif file that AutoStakkert produced. When your picture loads, Registax may ask if it should stretch intensity levels. Say “yes.” Now, choose the Wavelet tab. What will appear on the left is a series of sliders and some selection bubbles. First choice is Wavelets Scheme, Dyadic or Linear. The former seems to give each Wavelet slider more power and range, and is what I choose most of the time.

Below “Scheme” is Wavelet Filter. You can choose Default or Gaussian. In most instances, I find “Default” works best with the planets while Gaussian is a little better on the Moon. If you choose the latter, you’ll find you can specify Denoise and Sharpen percentages for each slider. I generally set Denoise to about 10 and sharpen to 100 for each slider, but you may want to experiment with that.

Final tweaks in Photoshop...
Now you can began tweaking the sliders till your image looks good. In Dyadic mode, you will usually only have to adjust the top three. Remember, exercise a light touch; you want detail and sharpness, but you also want Jupiter to look normal. Think of the pictures you've seen by masters Damian Peach and Chris Go. You want your pix to look as much like that as possible. Oh, the top slider works on the smallest detail and each succeeding one affects larger and larger features.

When you are satisfied, click the Do All button and then Save Image. While Registax has plenty of other good processing tools to adjust the histogram of your image and do other things, I find I am more comfortable using an outboard program like Adobe Photoshop or LightRoom. Just about any image processing program will work, since all you’ll likely need to do with the Registax output is tweak brightness and contrast and do some cropping.

So, what do you think? Yes, I know that while you have striven to make your shot look like something done by Mr. Peach, it’s unlikely it will—mine sure don't. Still, I think you’ll have to admit that what you wound up with ain't bad. And your images will just get better, muchachos. Better seeing, better focus, most of all, more experience doing this will all help. The only secret to planetary imaging these days, other than good seeing, is PRACTICE, and I am betting your first pix have you excited enough to ensure you do plenty of that.

Sunday, March 29, 2015

 

The View from a Con


You know what, muchachos? It’s been cloudy much of the time over the last couple of weeks, but I did get out and snag Jupiter again despite seeing that was about as bad as it gets. I wanted to get some time in with the planet and with a couple of new planetary imaging softs before I brought you part two of my Solar System imaging article. So why isn't this one about that?

Unfortunately, I didn't get that imaging run in until it was almost time to post the week’s entry. So, you get Something Different again this Sunday.  Since I had such a great response to last week’s distinctly non-amateur astronomy oriented post, I am not afraid to do it again.

Out here in the hinterlands, Cons—SF/SciFi/comics conventions for you newbs—are usually pretty consolidated. We don’t get SF Cons and Trek Cons and Whovian Cons and Comic Cons; we get all-in-one Cons (the last Trek convention here was in the freaking early 1990s. I suppose that makes sense due to fan overlap. If you like Trek, you probably like Star Wars and Doctor Who, too, and it’s not unreasonable to assume you occasionally visit the comic book store.  While I prefer Cons that stick to one subject or at least media type, these all-in-one jobs do give me a chance to assess the state of fandom in general.

So it was with the latest edition of one of our local events here on the Gulf Coast, CoastCon 38, held in Biloxi, Mississippi at the Coast Coliseum’s Convention Center. This is a long-running event; it’s been ongoing since 1978, and I don’t believe it’s missed a single year in all those decades. Dorothy and I have been attending for years now, and have always had a great time. We are always planning to spend at least one night in the Convention Hotel and really do things right, but something always intervenes, it seems. This year it would be Saturday only for us. Next year I hope will be at least a two-dayer.

‘Twas a beautiful spring morning with the temperature in the mid-70s and rising when Miss D. and I turned the 4Runner west, got on I-10, and headed for Biloxi. What better to do on the second day of spring than spend it indoors cruising dealer tables, listening to panels, and eating junk food from the concession stands?

When we arrived at the venue about an hour later, I was frankly gobsmacked. The parking lot was nearly full. Would we be able to swing a cat-girl in the Dealer Room? I needn't have worried. Turned out the Convention Center was also hosting an exhibition of the latest in tractor trailer rigs, something that will garner considerable interest in southern Mississippi, you bet. Still, there were plenty of folks queuing up at the CoastCon registration tables when we finally found an unlocked door and made our way inside.

Money paid and name-tags received, next stop, as always, was the Con’s large Dealer Room. There were plenty of vendors in attendance, but after a quick scouting mission, I had to admit to being slightly disappointed. For the first time in memory, there was not a major comics dealer. There was one bunch with a total of four short boxes of overpriced (in my opinion) and not-very-good condition Silver Age books, and one of the gaming dealers had a few current DCs on his table (four for three), and that was freaking it. About six-hundred comics for sale at the whole darned Con. Oh, how I longed for the days of standing over the dollar comics boxes, making like Sheldon Cooper and Leonard Hofstadter, “Got it. Need it. Got it…”

I was surprised. Big changes are afoot this summer in both the DC and Marvel Universes, and I thought that and the explosion of comic/superhero TV shows, good ones like Arrow and Agents of Shield and Flash, would have generated a lot of fan interest and the presence of dealers. Nope. Not even the summer’s upcoming Avengers: Age of Ultron film was enough to generate panels on comics or dealer tables full of ‘em.

I did see one young woman dressed as Wonder Woman (and looking good). Also spotted a big guy dressed at Bane, with a bang-on costume. There was a dealer selling custom posters/paintings of heroes that seemed somewhat popular. A couple of action figures. A few DVDs of Marvel and DC films. And that was all for us comics fanatics. Well, Dorothy got an incredible looking Guardians of the Galaxy bag, so I that wasn't quite it.

I took four of the current DCs off the dealer’s hands, some of the recent 3D-cover Future’s End books, had one last look at the pricey silver age comics, and moved on to other interests, Trek, Star Wars, Sci-fi, and SF in general. There was plenty of most of those things in the Dealer Room, if not as much as past years. What was there a lot of? Gaming. Steampunk. Anime. Doctor Who.

There’s always been a big emphasis on gaming at CoastCon. And by gaming, I mean strategy games (like updates of the old SSI hex games) as well as role playing games. Actually, the biggest dealers in the room served gaming needs. In a way, that is understandable. Gaming, especially strategy gaming, has long been a big part of most science fiction conventions, and CoastCon began life in 1978 as an SF convention. It has always also catered to Trek and other fan interests, but it’s remained fairly true to its SF roots.

Number two in popularity with the dealers? It was close, but probably Steampunk. You know what that is unless you've been living under a non-fandom rock for the last decade. Steampunk is an SF/SciFi/comics genre that's like a mashup of anime and Jules Verne style Victoriana and science fiction. You know, leather-corseted girls with top hats wearing goggles and carrying steam-powered rayguns.

Somehow, I’d got the mistaken impression that Steampunk isn't as popular now as it was a few years ago. Judging by what I saw at CoastCon, it is just as popular as ever. At least with cosplayers. There are plenty of Steampunk movies (animated ones, especially) and books, but the costuming, the cosplaying aspect of Steampunk, is the most popular thing about it, I think. It not only appeals to older cosplayers, women of all ages seem to love it. After all, almost any woman looks darned good cinched into a corset.

When was the last time you went to a Con of any kind where the place wasn't clogged with anime girls? CoastCon is no different. Frilly-tutued cat-girls were everywhere, and I do mean everywhere. While the anime cosplayers are invariably members of the younger set, there are plenty of them and they obviously spend money. In addition to costume components and DVDs of anime films—Hell, I almost picked up a DVD of Space Battleship Yamato myself—there was plenty of that printed anime, manga, to buy.

Doctor Who items didn't exactly crowd the dealers’ tables as they have at some recent Cons I've been to, but there was still plenty of Doctor stuff for sale. DVDs, books, mugs, t-shirts, etc., etc., etc. Since Dorothy and I are big Whovians, I was happy to see that—Dorothy was absolutely thrilled.

I’d been curious as to whether the current Doctor, Peter Capaldi, was popular enough with fans to sustain the series’ momentum. He is not that popular with me, that’s for sure, being tied with my other least favorite Doctor, the fifth Doctor, Peter Davison, for last place at this point. Apparently my opinion isn't in the majority, as Doctor Who was big at CoastCon (Dorothy tells me the last episodes of the 8th series, which I haven’t yet watched, have been an improvement).

When it came to dealer offerings, Star Trek definitely brought up the rear. Oh, it was there; there were coffee cups and lanyards and plenty of T-shirts, but it was behind Doctor Who, I thought. Which was about what I expected. There hasn't been any new Trek on TV since the ill-begotten Enterprise went off. The last Trek reboot-movie was putrid and not as popular by far as the first. Trek will endure, but in the past when there hasn't been any good new Trek available, we've always seen a bit of a turndown in fandom. That’s what I thought I saw indicated in the dealer room, anyhow.

Bits and pieces? Some Star Wars merchandise. Not as much as I expected, but that will no doubt change for next year’s Con in the wake of Episode 7. Is Firefly dying? There wasn't much on display from the Browncoat world. Couple of t-shirts, just a couple, and that was all I saw.  Hope fan interest isn't fading, but without a new Firefly something, I am afraid we will see fan numbers shrink.  

And that was purty much it for our shopping. In addition to the aforementioned comics, I picked up a cheap copy of The Dark Knight Rises (did not have it in Blu Ray), a t-shirt from last year’s CoastCon since I somehow missed getting one then (“Revenge of the Red Shirts”), and I was, unfortunately, done.

‘Sup next? Before hitting the main room, where gaming and everything else except the panels goes on, we needed a spot of lunch. A good thing about the Biloxi venue is that the fast-food vendor, ARA, is a known quantity. Not gourmet fare, that’s for sure, but good enough if a little overpriced. 12 bucks got me and the D. two large slices of pepperoni pizza and a single bottle of diet Coke. Could have been worse, I suppose. And since I've been on a health kick for the last couple of months and pizza has not passed my lips in that time, I gotta say that greasy, crunchy, cheesy slice was just heaven.  The ARA was also selling beer and wine, but it was too early in the day for me to be tempted.

After lunch, I cruised the dealer tables again just to be sure, till Dorothy came and dragged me into the next room. I was glad she did. The impressions I got from the dealer room were mostly turned on their heads there. The center of the big space was devoted to gaming tables (and another ARA concession stand; I had a hard time keeping myself from ordering another slice of pepperoni), but around the periphery, all around the outside of this large area, were tables for fan organizations.

Yeah, to look at the dealers you’d a-thought Steampunk and anime is where all the fans are. Next door with the fans, not the dealers? Uh-uh. Biggest representation there was from Trek and Doctor Who. The latter being what had D. fired up. She hurried me over to the display of Louisiana’s Krewe du Who, who had a full sized TARDIS, a Dalek (damn them), and a fully operational K9 on display. The costumed crew members were friendly, and I was much impressed. I noticed at least two more Whovian groups on the floor, and there may have been more than that. Rest assured, Who is still hot.

At least as popular, obviously, was Trek. Whovians had Crew du Who, but Trekkies (OK, Trekkers if you insist) had the Crew of the U.S.S. Neptune, who had a rather elaborate and large presence to include several PCs set up running a Trek game. What particularly reassured me? There was a young woman in Starfleet uniform and wearing Spock ears hanging out at these tables. I know that those of us who came into Trek in the 60s – 90s will stay true to the show, but I was beginning to be concerned younger fans may not be coming into Trekdom. Apparently they are. Most probably thanks to the TNG and STTOS reruns on cable TV seven days a week.

You know what bugs me, though? None of the multitudinous cable networks ever runs anything but TNG and STTOS. I wouldn't mind seeing Deep Space Nine again. Hell, I don’t think I ever watched every single Enterprise episode, and feel somewhat willing to do so now. Amazingly, I am even in a place where I’d like to see Voyager again.

If a Trek show ever left a bad taste in my mount, it was Voyager. Then, a year or two ago, I was at a con. Could even have been CoastCon, but it was probably our home con, MobiCon. At a con, I am no different than I am at a star party. I am going to buy something. Unfortunately, this was one of those times when I was having a hard time finding anything. It could have been one of those periods when my interests had turned esoteric, like to Perry Rhodan or the Lensman. Anyway, there was nothing much that caught my eye. I wasn't leaving a con empty handed, though. What was on the DVD dealer’s table? Season one of Voyager. For ten dollars. I hesitated, but, what the hell?

It took me a while, and I mean weeks, to open that pretty box of DVDs. One boring Sunday afternoon I did, though. Guess what? Voyager was better than I remembered. Oh, sure, sometimes freaking Neelix became a bit much to take, but the other characters, especially Janeway and the doctor, had a lot more appeal than I remembered. It was then that I realized that I do like Voyager. What ruined it for me was the series finale, which was probably the worst series finale of any show, Trek or otherwise, I have ever seen.

We went through the whole series hoping for U.S.S. Voyager to make it home safely, for the crew to be reunited with their families in an uplifting homecoming. The numb-nuts writers on the show at the end robbed us of the satisfaction of seeing that with “Endgame.” It’s a hurried mishmash involving the Borg, and we are deprived of a satisfying conclusion, of actually seeing Voyager make it home. Crap. Craptacular. I will watch the entire series again, but I will skip that one and not risk my blood pressure and hairline.

I digress. What else did I see in the room? Lots of cosplayers in some rather impressive costumes. There was an excellent Princess Leia in Hoth dress, some impressively armored Transformers, and a couple of nicely done but rather tall Jawas. I was most impressed, however, by a young woman’s simple but elegant Maleficent costume. Unfortunately, we needed to head home before the Costume Parade (5:00) and the contest (6:00), so I'm not sure who won. I was impressed by the hard work of all the cosplayers; the care that went into every costume I saw was evident.

There was a display of fan and professional art in one of the adjoining rooms, but, as in the past, in our neck of the woods you go to MobiCon (June) to see lots of great art. What did impress me in the room, which also displayed the items for CoastCon’s charity auction? A fully stocked cash bar. Next year I will no doubt avail myself of that.

Finally, there was a large NASA display set up at one end of the hall that was garnering considerable interest. I couldn't determine who it belonged to, but I assume the nearby Stennis Space Center. I've never acted on it, but I've always thought a con would be a fruitful ground for astronomy club recruiting. Ought to set up a table for our club at one the area cons some day if—if ever get that ambitious again.

After one last loop around the main area, it was time for the final event on our agenda, the late afternoon Doctor Who panel presented by the good folk of Louisiana’s BayouCon, “Attack of the Eyebrows: A Look at the 12th Doctor.” This panel, in one of the three side rooms devoted to that, was a goodun with good audience participation. A surprise? Many of the fans seemed to strongly support Capaldi's Doctor and to dislike his companion, Clara. Which is the opposite of where I am at. Well, there’s room for plenty of opinions in the wild, woolly, and wonderful world of fandom.

That, as they say, was that. Fun is fun, but done is done. One last tour of the dealers where Dorothy and I convinced ourselves she really could not live without that Guardians of the Galaxy bag, and it was, sadly, time to head for the New Manse. I’d had a great, great time at CoastCon 38 as I always do at Biloxi’s con, and very much appreciate the tremendously hard work of the organizers and volunteers. Naturally, nothing is perfect, but there is little I would improve, with only two things coming to mind:  a film room, and COMICS.

A room playing genre films round the clock is just a necessity at any con in my opinion, and CoastCon needs one, muchachos. Comics? Yes, maybe I’m being a little selfish concerning one of my major interests, but I can’t help but think appealing to comics fans would bring in new faces, dealers, and dollars, something every con needs. Still, this is a good one and if you ont he coast this time of year, don’t ask questions, just go to CoastCon.

Nota Bene:  You can see more pictures from CoastCon on my Facebook page, under "Albums."

Next Time:  Planetary Imaging Part II…

Sunday, March 22, 2015

 

Rod's SF Best of the Best


Muchachos, this list is my best. My top of the SF pops. Not yours. Not everybody’s. And most assuredly it is not (necessarily) the most critically acclaimed novels, novellas, and short stories of print science fiction. These are the works that moved me or enlightened me or educated me, yes, but also the ones that were fun to read. Few works of SF are more critically acclaimed than Samuel R. Delaney’s Dhalgren, and few are less fun—you did finish it, didn't you? I did, though I admit to doing a fair amount of skimming toward the end.

I didn't start reading science fiction with Dhalgren in 1975; I began at least a dozen years before with the Heinlein juveniles. I was dimly aware of the genre even before then, since Mama was a member of the Science Fiction Book Club and could often be found holding a novel with a picture of a rocket ship on the cover (but, alas, no pictures inside).

The first thing I remember reading on my own that could even vaguely be described as SF was a comic book, the August 1960 issue of DC’s Strange Adventures. This one, #119, sported a Technicolor riot of a cover by Murphy Anderson that depicted a trio of giant, bug-eyed aliens using butterfly nets to capture Earthling jet fighters. I clearly remember sitting on granny’s front porch reading that 4-color masterpiece open-mouthed. It made a tremendous impression on me.

Above all, I wanted to know where I could get more stuff like that. More aliens and rocket ships and spacemen. In just a couple of years, I found out, when my 4th grade teacher, Mrs. Dixon, turned me on to the Heinlein juveniles starting with Rocket Ship Galileo. After that, there was no turning back.

This started out as a top ten list, but there were a couple more I just couldn't leave out—couldn't, I tells you! You’ll also notice this is all pure SF, no fantasy. We’ll tackle that some Sunday soon. Finally, all are older works. That is because I am an older work.

So, without further ado, in no particular order…

Rocket Ship Galileo

This is where it begins for me, with the simple and seemingly ludicrous tale of three teenage chums who, in the service of their uncle, wind up on the first Moon flight aboard a surplus mail rocket. Improbable? Sure, but in 1947 no one know what form the space program would take. Would the government launch the Moon rocket? Would it be private industry? Or would it be clever inventors like the Wright bros.?

What is abundantly clear is that here, as in many of the other juveniles, Bob Heinlein does some of his best writing: clear, direct, good dialogue, believable characters. Some of his “adult” work can’t hold a candle to this. Just ask my wife, Dorothy, who is a huge fan of the juveniles, re-reading them frequently (she has a nice collection of the wonderful old Signet paperback releases). After this one, I devoured any of Heinlein’s “kids’” books I could get my paws on.

Note Rocket Ship Galileo was loosely (very loosely) adapted for my favorite 50s sci-fi film, Destination Moon (1950).

“The Star”

Rocket Ship Galileo and the other juveniles were the first SF books of any kind I read, but Arthur Clarke’s “The Star” was the first adult work I attempted. Not too long after I discovered Heinlein, I noticed a fat Arthur C. Clarke novel/short story collection on Mama’s bookshelf, From the Ocean, From the Stars. The title was what caught my eye. It sounded like, yes, science fiction, and Mama verified that, though she opined I might have a hard time with it. Indeed, it looked kinda difficult, so I thought I’d start with a short story, “The Star,” which sounded pretty spacey.

The writing in this story is up to Clarke’s usual standard, which is good, very good indeed. In my opinion, his skill with prose puts him at the head of the Asimov-Heinlein-Clarke triumvirate in that regard. It was not the writing, however, that caught me up. It was the story, the plot, the idea.

“The Star,” which was initially in a collection called The Other Side of the Sky, and which also appears in the popular The Nine Billion Names of God, tells the story of an expedition to a distant planet whose advanced civilization has been destroyed by a supernova. I won’t spoil it for you if you haven’t read it, but I guarantee the last paragraph will leave you in chills if not tears.

Yes, Rocket Ship Galileo brought me to science fiction, but it was “The Star” that showed me the potential of the genre. After reading that one story sitting in Granny’s living room (I always equipped myself with plenty of reading material for those long Saturday visits), I realized there was far more to SF than Tom Swift or even Bob Heinlein’s Space Cadet.

Note:  Not surprisingly, “The Star” won a Hugo (1956). I feel privileged to have exchanged a few emails with Mr. Clarke. He was a keen amateur astronomer and a big fan of Sky & Telescope.

2001: A Space Odyssey

The year 1968 found me not just an SF head, but a member of the Science Fiction Book Club. Down here in the Swamp in those days without any sort of science fiction club or con, I suppose being a member of the SFBC was the main badge of fandom. The big news (SF wise) that year wasn't print books, though; it was a movie, 2001: A Space Odyssey. Even if I hadn't read about it in Time, where it was being heralded as movie science fiction of a New Type, RESPECTABLE filmed science fiction, I aware it was going to be mucho different from Angry Red Planet. It was being directed by the man who did Dr. Strangelove, Spartacus, and Paths of Glory, Stanley Kubrick. Even better, the screenplay was being co-written by Kubrick and Arthur C. Clarke.

One afternoon in 1968, a couple of months before the film’s release in April, the SFBC’s little newsletter/catalog arrived in the mail. I always read it immediately, since most of the time I needed to “decline” the monthly selections by returning the enclosed card lest I suffer Mama’s wrath (if you didn't return the card, they shipped one or two books to you automatically). This time what was on the cover of the little pamphlet was Clarke’s novel adaptation of his and Kubrick’s screenplay. I didn't decline. Without even asking Mama, I wadded up the reply card and tossed it in the trash.

What is the 2001 novel like? It’s a little different from the film. In the book, for example, the Discovery’s mission is to Saturn. In the movie it was changed to Jupiter since special effects director Douglas Trumbull gave up on producing a realistic looking Saturn with the technology of the day. One strength of the novel is that some of the film's puzzling constructs are made more understandable. That’s a weakness, too, though, since it takes some of the magic away.

In truth, book and film are complementary. Young Rod, after considerable agonizing, decided not to read the book before he saw the movie. That was a mistake. While I, unlike some of the folks in the theatre that day with me and my brother, Danny, got the film, it would have probably meant more to me with the background provided by Clarke in the book. So, if you've never seen the movie (horrors) find the book and read it first. It is still in print and easily available.

Note:  If, after reading 2001, you want to essay Clarke’s three follow-on 2001 books, I won’t fault you, but be aware they have not aged nearly as well as the original.

Childhood’s End

This Clarke novel was published in 1953, the year of my birth, so don’t ask me how I missed reading it until the summer before my senior year of high school. Probably because the title, which I’d no doubt seen before in the backs of paperbacks in lists of available Clarke books, didn't sound too interesting. However, while trolling the shelves of Bookland in Bel-Air Mall, the SF section, natch, one evening, I ran across a new edition of Childhood’s End, and the cover, which borrowed heavily from 2001, made it look darned interesting indeed.

That summer of 1970 was for me the summer of Lord of the Rings and Childhood’s End. Which I loved best, I can’t say. Certainly, the Clarke book touched me. Not just because of its fascinating story of an alien invasion whose purpose is to do the human race transcendental good, but because of its echoes of Mr. Spock’s IDIC philosophy, which struck me to the core. The aliens were nasty looking, but they were friends.

This was my favorite SF book for years. Hell, it may still be. I hoped and hoped that somebody would make a movie out it, but that hasn't happened (quite) yet. When Stanley the K. was first contemplating an SF movie, Childhood’s End was one of the works he considered filming. While he and Clarke borrowed the book’s concept of the furthering human evolution (in a less explicit fashion than in the book), that was all of Childhood’s End that made it to the movie.

I've always thought the lack of a Childhood movie was because there was no way of doing the devilish-looking aliens convincingly. That has obviously changed, and the SyFy channel has said they are planning a mini-series based on the book for release this year. I have not heard anything about it of late, however, and given the channel’s recent history (like what they did with Stargate Universe) I am not hopeful this will end well.

Note:  I still remember one afternoon in class in my senior year, when a friend of mine passed me a note (that was our primitive form of texting, kids). It was a little quiz—favorite movie, favorite book, etc. Same kinda thing that gets passed around in texts these days, I suppose. It was a warm and pretty spring day and we were bored. Naturally, I wrote “2001,” and “Childhood’s End.” The note’s sender was surprised at my outré responses, especially since, she said, that was exactly how a girlfriend of hers had answered. I've always wondered what would have happened if I’d asked for that girl’s name.

The City and the Stars

We’re still on Clarke here, folks. I guess you can tell which one of the big three authors has always been my favorite. This book, the expansion of the Clarke novella Against the Fall of Night, was included in Mama’s The City and the Star’s, and after I’d plowed through all the short stories, was what I read next. And, man, what a read it was.

The book is melancholy, no doubt about it, concerning the last human city, Diaspar, on a dying earth eons in the future. The main character is a rebellious teen whose elders simply do not understand him. “HEY! He’s JUST LIKE ME!” Needless to say, I just ate it up and implore you to find a copy and read it immediately. Especially if you are a teenager in years or heart.

While I like the original, Against the Fall of Night, which I eventually tracked down and read, I find the novel a distinct improvement except for its title. “Against the Fall of Night” is from an A.E. Housman poem and really can’t be improved upon. Like 2001, there’s a sequel, Beyond the Fall of Night, co-written by Clarke and Greg Benford. It is more interesting than the 2001 follow-ons, but, like them, tends to take some of the magic away from the original. The City and the Stars is at times obscure and mystical and feels like an epistle from the future.

Note:  This is another one I've always dreamed of seeing on-screen. I don’t know that anybody’s ever even considered that, however, and I guess I know why. It’s really not very cinematic and to make it so would be to change it irreparably.

Starship Troopers

Sure, I, like almost every sixties, child read Stranger in a Strange Land, but I must admit this is the (adult) Heinlein that really kept me turning pages when I finally got around to reading it when I was a freshman in college. As was often the case, what initially attracted my attention to it on the mall bookstore shelves was a cool looking green toned cover with an awesome alien starship on it.

What makes Starship Troopers so good? The immediacy and fervor of the first-person narrative with which this seminal space marine tale is told. You feel like you are right there in the ranks alongside Lieutenant Rico as you face hordes of the dreaded bugs. What makes it not so good? For me, its politics go a step beyond Heinlein’s usual libertarianism to the borders of the far, far right. For example, in the world of Starship Troopers only military veterans can vote. Mostly, though, I can overlook the excesses. I am still baffled, however, that the man who wrote Stranger in a Strange Land also formed a group, the Patrick Henry League, to encourage U.S. atmospheric nuclear testing.

Note:  I believe this is Dorothy’s favorite Heinlein novel and it probably is mine too despite the reservations above.

Cities in Flight

Cities in Flight is actually four relatively short novels, They Shall Have Stars, A Life for the Stars, Earthman Come Home, and The Triumph of Time. All are wonderful, though the first is mostly a prologue and is the slowest. It’s quite a transition from Starship Troopers to Cities in Flight. James Blish is light-years from Heinlein in politics most of the time, and that is especially evident in these novels. Cities in some ways is science fiction’s The Grapes of Wrath. Which is explicitly referred to within the series, with the inhabitants of the cities and the cities themselves being called “Okies.”

What’s it about? A tired and depleted Earth is deserted by her cites who take flight, literally, by means of a space drive called the “spindizzy.” What you get in the four books is adventure, both adult and juvenile, philosophy, politics, and action. The standout character is Amalfi, Mayor of the City of New York In Flight. You will like him. You will like everything in these novels. Go get ‘em.

Note:  Until he read Cities in Flight, silly Rod thought James Blish was just about Star Trek. Blish will always be remembered for his Star Trek adaptations, sure, but he is so much more. The man was a master.

All the Traps of Earth

Looking for a rather different sort of SF? Thanks to another of Mama’s SFBC books, I discovered it in Clifford D. Simak.  What’s my vision of the typical Cliff Simak story? It’s a warm spring night in Kentucky or Tennessee. A hillbilly and an alien are sitting on the front porch of a shack, passing a jug back and forth. A robot comes walking up the road. They offer him a drink but he naturally has to decline. Instead, he asks for their help…

Simak's prose is decidedly gentle and warm, but that gentle warmth sometimes conceals a knife. His characters, human and alien, tend to be humorous and likable. Almost all are on some kind of quest, usually one with mystical overtones; they are searching for God or for gods or at least for a greater something. This is set in a world that at first seems familiar, but in the end turns out to be a little less so than you thought. Another way of saying that is that Simak's short stories, especially, have a very Twilight Zone feel. If you liked the original show, you will like Simak.

I had a hard time deciding which of Simak's works was my favorite, and which would be the best introduction to his writing for those of you who haven’t tried him. City? Way Station? Both great books, but I stuck with my first Simak, Mama’s All the Traps of Earth (which has an honored spot on our bookshelves to this day). It is full of wonderful short stories—not a clinker in the bunch.

Note: I don’t believe this one is in print, and what a shame, but it is easy to get used on Amazon.

Farnham’s Freehold

One more Heinlein? Sure, why not? I don't remember Mama reading this one, but I’m sure she would have if she'd run across it, as Atomic War was one of her favorite themes in SF. That is partially what Farnham's Freehold is about. The first part of the book is the story of a middle-aged-libertarian-iconoclast that could be Heinlein himself. How the fallout shelter that his family laughs at allows them to (more or less) survive a thermonuclear attack. I like it very much, and you probably will too, even if you look askance at the hero’s questionable sexual morality (having sex in the shelter with a young woman while he’s got his wife knocked out with pills). It’s the second section of the book that gives me pause.

To put it plainly, the second part of Farnham's Freehold is racist. Somehow, the shelter is transported through time to the future by a really big bomb. That future is ruled by technically advanced black Africans who are nevertheless slave-holding savages. What hurts most is that this is unexpected. In the first half of the book, Heinlein spends some time preaching racial equality, if in condescending terms. My suggestion? Enjoy the first part and skim the second. If you even skim it.

Note:  Heinlein was actually very worried about nuclear war and decided to move away from Los Angeles, an undoubted target area, to Colorado Springs, Colorado. Imagine his dismay, then, at receiving a private communique from the Air Force (he did quite a bit of military consulting) not long after he and his wife had settled in. Colorado Springs was, it said, to be the site of NORAD's new Cheyenne Mountain Complex, which would make the little town the target of every 25-megaton city buster the Russkies could throw at it.

The Foundation Trilogy

How about that other SF Grandmaster, Isaac Asimov? I like his books very much and always have. But I usually don’t love them and keep coming back to them time after time after time. The Foundation Trilogy—Foundation, Foundation and Empire, Second Foundation—is the exception.

The Foundation books are space opera done right. This tale of a galactic empire on its last legs and the efforts of one man to save what is good in the star-spanning civilization is beyond memorable. Since it was published (serially in Astounding) in the 1940s, the novels have influenced every similar tale up to and including Star Wars. What makes then better than, say, Doc Smith? They've aged well. Asimov was smart in offering only the most occasional and generalized descriptions of the technology of the far future. You won’t find rocket tubes here.

Note:  Asimov did four additional Foundation books in the 80s. Unlike Clarke’s 2001 sequels, these are mostly good and interesting, and some have almost as much power as the original.

Dangerous Visions

In the early 1970s, I was rebellious, you were rebellious (well, most of you), and even SF writers were rebellious, with few being moreso than Harlan Ellison. Rebellion can be a good thing, for a while, anyway. And rebellion is at the heart of science fiction’s New Wave movement. New, revolutionary, counter-culture-oriented storytelling for our genre and generation. In the U.S., the New Wave began with Dangerous Visions (in the UK, which was way ahead of us, the keystone was Michael Moorcock's New Worlds magazine).

While Dangerous Visions came out in 1967, I wasn't ready for it then. I knew a little bit about New Wave as the 60s ended, but what little of it I had read seemed unsettling at best. Then I tuned in, turned on (just a little bit), and not quite dropped out and was ready, in 1971. 

Dangerous Visions is a huge anthology edited by Mr. Ellison. Edited and created by Mr. Ellison. Inside were not just writers who’d always been “new wavey,” like Robert Silverberg and Phillip K. Dick, but mainline writers testing the new waters, Fred Pohl and Larry Niven for example. If the stories can be said to have anything in common, it’s, yes, a spirit of rebellion and a penchant for a non-linear narrative structure.

How does Dangerous Visions hold up today? There’s good and bad, with much of the fat volume being a product of its time. Some of the titles belie that:  “The Prowler in the City at the Edge of the World,” “The Day After the Day the Martians Came,” "If All Men Were Brothers, Would You Let One Marry Your Sister?" Still, there’s much good here—though quite a bit is tiresomely polemical for modern readers—and you owe it to yourself to read DV if you consider yourself a serious fan of science fiction. While the New Wave petered out in the mid-late 1970s, it still continues to influence today’s science fiction. Not just in that writers feel free to use alternative styles of narrative, but in the area of what was perhaps the book’s (and the New Wave’s) biggest contribution. S-E-X.

In the John Campbell era, any depiction—or even reference to or mention of—human sexuality was absolutely verboten. The New Wave changed that. John Varley’s Titan would never have been published in its original form before the New Wave (Analog still censored it when they serialized it in 1978). Instead of being hacked up or banished, Titan was a Hugo and Nebula nominee (and a Locus winner) thanks to Dangerous Visions.

Note: So enthusiastically was Dangerous Visions received that a second volume, Again Dangerous Visions was published in 1972. There were even plans for a third DV, The Last Dangerous Visions, but for a variety of reasons, including, in no little part, the decline of the New Wave, that never happened.

Ringworld

Though Larry Niven’s Ringworld was published in 1970, there surprisingly little of the New Wave in it. Oh, there’s some, with a slightly freer narrative than John Campbell would have liked and certainly more allusions to sex than he would have permitted. What it is is a book of wonders in the old mold. So huge was its affect on me when I read it in 1973 that for a while I didn't want to read anything but Larry Niven's Known Space stories.

The book is very well done, with its depiction of its alien characters, with the Kzin, Speaker to Animals, and the Puppeteer, Nessus, being amazingly convincing. The plot is interesting and exciting. But it is the setting that makes it remarkable, the Ringworld. The Ringword is an artificial world, like a slice of a Dyson Sphere, and is huge and beautiful and rich with the strange and wonderful. The best thing I can say about this book is that, like most of Niven’s SF work, it doesn't age. It isn't a bit dated and is as fresh as when I opened it on a summer day in 1973. That is saying one hell of a lot.

Note: For some crazy reason Ringworld hasn't been made into a movie thus far, but you can get a taste of the setting in Microsoft’s remarkable Halo videogame series. As is the case with Childhood’s End, SyFy has announced a miniseries based on the book, but I've heard even less about its status than that of the Clarke series.

Dune

I finally got to Frank Herbert’s Dune in the early 70s, and that was the perfect time for me to do it. Its combination of hard science fiction, fantasy, and mysticism was like a kick upside the head for little old me at the time. It’s also a cracking good space opera in the old mold. Even today, I find myself drawn back to the book’s world, the clash of great houses over the spice trade played out against the stars.

Is there anything bad about Dune? Not the characters. Most are excellently drawn. Settings? Great. The planet Arrakis is complex and believable. The plot is tight for such a big book. If there’s a problem, it’s that there is just too much of it. Dune is the first book of a long series and, much as I liked it, it seemed a hair long to moi. And it was followed by five big sequels and many more by other writers after Herbert’s death. Better too much of the crazy-good Dune Universe than too little, though, I suppose.

Note:  In 1978, I was thrilled to see the remains of one of Herbert’s sand worms on Tatooine in Star Wars. A so-so Dune film was made in 1984, and that was followed by a really good TV mini-series in 2000 (by SyFy, so maybe there is hope for Ringworld).

And that is that, muchachos. Oh, I could keep going, of course. I didn't mention Macroscope. Or Orphans of the Sky. Or The Mote in God’s Eye. Or The Illustrated Man. Or Falkenberg’s Legion.  Maybe there’ll be a Part II of this sometime. As for next time…

Next Time:  That depends. If I am able to have a go at Jupiter, you’ll get the Part II of my planetary imaging piece. Right now, it looks like it could go either way weather-wise. But come back next Sunday anyhow; there’ll be something.

Sunday, March 15, 2015

 

Shooting the Planets Part I: Assembling Your Gear


Even if, unlike me, you are not a confirmed Solar System freak, you may find yourself drawn back to the local neighborhood this time of year. If you are afflicted with light pollution at home but still want to observe, the Moon and planets are more fruitful subjects by far than the dim galaxies of spring. Especially given the season’s inevitable haze and humidity. After a while, some of you may even begin to dream of capturing images of Luna and her sister worlds.

So what do you need to get good images of the Moon and planets? Well, you need a camera, and you need a computer and software. But those are not the main requirements. What you really need and what is hardest for some folks to obtain is  good seeing. Good atmospheric steadiness. The more I observe and photograph the Solar System, the more I’ve come to believe that that is not just an important thing, it’s almost the only thing and is much more important than the pedigree of the scope and camera.

Which doesn’t mean you can't produce pleasing images if you live someplace that's always under the Jet-stream, just that there is a limit to what you can expect. Keep in mind, though, that almost all places have periods of good seeing. Watch the weather and the Clear Sky Clock and be prepared to take advantage of the steady nights you do get.

Another tip? The conventional wisdom is that you should wait till your target is high above the horizon before shooting it. Sometimes that's true, but sometimes not. There've been times that my steadiest conditions have come not when the Moon or Jupe is high, but shortly after sunset. There is a brief window just after dark when the seeing settles magically even on poor nights. The trick is waiting for it to get dark enough to provide good contrast, but not so dark that the evening’s punk seeing sets in.

Finally, think "thermal equalization." Set your scope out at least an hour before beginning work (but don't expose it to the Sun). If your telescope is of a design that can benefit from circulating air in the tube, think about setting up a fan system (like the commercial CAT Cooler). If you live in an area where temperature differentials are high, even putting the scope out an hour before the run may not help. A fan can help. Also, if your temperatures are dropping steadily throughout the evening, a fan system can allow your optics keep up.

But, yes, you need gear. Starting with a camera. What do you want? Modern webcam-like “planetary” cameras such as the CMOS ZWO cams are best. They are sensitive and they have small pixels and a high frame rate that will provide you with plenty of stills for stacking after even short exposure sequences. The ZWOs are also surprisingly inexpensive, with the cam I use, the ZWO ASI120MC costing less than 300 dollars. You can go more expensive, both with ZWO and with other bands, like the Imaging Source cameras, but you can go cheaper, too.

The truth is, some of my best shots over the years have been with humble webcams: Quickcams, Toucams, and the SAC 7B modified webcam. The main drawbacks of ‘em? More noise than modern cameras, and a frame rate that maxed out at about 10fps (the ZWO can clock off 70fps on Jupiter). However, since you can use the most hoary old Quickcam with modern software like FireCapture, it's likely you will be able to do better with a simple webcam today than I was able to do a dozen years ago, and I am still proud of some of the shots I got back then.

Hows about DSLRs? They can work for full disk shots of the Moon without doubt. For high resolution close-ups? Maybe. If your camera features a video mode (most all do now), and especially if it allows you to “crop” the field, to image a small section of the frame, one can serve. You will need a software application to convert the camera’s (typically) mpeg video to the .avi format that stacking programs can use. I've seen very credible shots with DSLRs, but admittedly not as good as those done with planet-cams under similar conditions.

Finally, I hear folks who, like me, are Mallincam users and who wonder whether those sensitive deep sky video cameras can be used for the planets. The answer is a qualified “yes.” You will need a frame grabber, a widget that converts incoming composite or Super VHS video from the Mallincam into a digital .avi  file (I use an inexpensive Dazzle frame grabber to do that), and your results will not equal the planet-cams, but if you’ve got a Mallincam, try it. Likely you will be thrilled with your initial results.

Is a digital camera always best for the Solar System? Heretofore, that’s what I've believed, but I understand that Mallincam is coming out with a new Solar System (video) camera that will knock your socks off. I've heard a little about it from testers, and what I've heard is impressive. You can see a shot with the prototype here.

Registax 6...
If you are using a color camera, you will need an accessory for your cam, an IR block filter. Electronic cameras are very sensitive to the red end of the spectrum, and unless you block some of it, your pictures will be strongly pink in color and hard to color balance. The ZWO cams come with IR filters, but if your camera doesn't, these filters are cheap and easily available.

“But Uncle Rod, my webcam already has an IR block filter. When I look down at the chip I can see there’s a color filter over it.” Yes, Skeezix, most webcams come with built-in IR filters, but they are just cheap and optically poor pieces of acetate. Do yourself a favor and remove the built-in filter (instructions for doing so can be found on the web) and use a nice 1.25-inch glass filter instead.

If you are using a webcam, you need to remove its lens (useless for our purposes) and provide it with a 1.25-inch nosepiece so you can insert the camera into a Barlow or focuser. Somewhat amazingly, you can still buy nosepieces that thread onto Quickcams and Toucams. These nosepieces are threaded for filters and make using an IR blocker easy. Doing a Google on “webcam telescope adapter,” will turn one up, but I can tell you that I have found them for sale on eBay recently. Back in the day, we used to hot glue 35mm film canisters onto our webcams to make a nosepiece, but I suspect 35mm film canisters are harder to come by these days than webcam adapters.

What’s right behind a camera in necessity? It’s, as you’ve heard me say before when I’ve discussed high resolution Solar System work, a flip mirror. Wut’s they-at? It’s a special sort of star diagonal with a movable mirror and a port on the rear for your camera. You put an eyepiece in the eyepiece holder, flip the mirror up to send the images to that eyepiece, center your target in the ocular, focus, flip the mirror down to send the light to the camera, and the target should be in the frame and at least roughly focused. Flip mirrors are easy to use with most refractors and with all moving mirror focusing scopes like SCTs and MCTs. They can also be used with Newtonians, though backfocus issues may arise with those telescopes.

Do you really need such a thing? You’re darned tootin' you do. I found that out 20 years ago, the first time I mounted a small-chip video camera—well, not really “small chip,” more like “small vidicon tube”—on my C8 and aimed at the Moon. Or tried to. At f/20, a reasonable focal ratio for lunar imaging, I had a heck of a time getting the Moon in the frame. Planets were even harder. When I’d had enough frustration, I glommed onto a Meade 1.25-inch flip mirror (you don’t need a 2-inch for the Moon and planets). Even if your mount is equipped with an accurate goto system, you can’t always depend on it landing Jupiter on a tiny sensor at long focal lengths. Get a flip mirror.

Where do you get one? For years, the best choice for flip mirrors was Meade. They were importing a very nicely made but inexpensive Japanese job, which is what I’ve got. Not surprisingly if you’ve followed the fortunes of Big Blue, the flip mirror, along with all the company’s other imaging gear, is long gone. And, unfortunately, there are not many flip mirrors for sale by anybody else these days.

Meade Flip Mirror...
The reason for the scarcity of flippers is that a large part of the audience for 'em used to be deep sky imagers with CCD cameras with small sensors. Today, even the least expensive CCDs have relatively large sensors, and it’s hard not to get your target on the big chip of an APS-C or full frame DSLR. There’s just not much demand for flip mirrors anymore.

You can still get these devices, however. A Vixen unit is widely available, and so is one from Agena Astro. Unfortunately for you SCT fans, however, both of these are 1.25-inch format units. You’ll have to insert them into a visual back. The wonderful old Meade flip mirrors were equipped with threaded rings and would screw right onto an SCT’s rear port, no additional adapters needed. You might see if you can find a used one (the 2-inch Meade flip mirror will work well, too).

You could just plug your camera into the flip-mirror, but even with an f/10 SCT you wouldn’t get much image scale. A Barlow normally goes before the camera. I find that a 2x Barlow, which yields a final focal ratio of a smidge over f/20 with a C8, is perfect for my SCT on the Moon, Jupiter, and Saturn much of the time.

Which Barlow? We are living in something of a golden age when it comes to Barlow lenses. It’s been a long time since I’ve seen a bad one. Some folks swear by the TeleVue Powermate “corrected Barlows,” but I’ve gotten incredibly good results with an old Orion Shorty 2x and a 3x ED Barlow I got from Owl Astronomy at the Cherry Springs Star Party years ago. Didn't pay much for either, and they deliver sharp pictures, so what more can I say?

You’ve got your subject framed, but now you need focus. Naturally, when you are shooting a detail-laden planet at f/20 or f/30, you need focus as good as you can get it. You don't get it by walking out to the scope, twitching the focuser, and walking back to look at the screen. You don't even do it by positioning the monitor so you can see it as you focus. Even with a sturdy mounting, touching the focuser is likely to cause vibration at high magnifications. Hands off.

You do that with motorized focusing. The choice of motor and controller is up to you, but I’ve found that a simple focus hand controller with buttons works fine; I haven’t felt moved to use any kind of a computer app to control focus. Anyhow, it is just so nice to sit at the computer and focus without touching the scope or taking my eyes from the screen.

SCT users face a challenge beyond vibration when focusing. Because SCTs move the telescope’s primary mirror to focus, images move across the field during focusing due to play between the primary and the baffle tube it slides on. Visually, the movement usually isn't enough to be annoying. At f/30 on a small sensor, however, focusing may move your target completely out of the frame, which is not cool.

The cure for this “focus shift” is to mount a Crayford focuser on the scope's rear cell and focus by moving the camera instead of the primary. Add a motor to the Crayford, and SCT focusing is as good as it gets. The main drawback to this system is that it's fairly costly depending on the quality of the Crayford you choose, and may not be useful for deep sky imaging or visual use due to back focus issues with some cameras and eyepieces.

Me? I don’t use a Crayford. My three most-used SCTs have focus shift that’s small enough not to be too problematical. I still want motofocus, however, so I use a JMI Motofocus. This accessory, one of the first developed by Jim’s Mobile in the earliest go-go days of the SCT, is a motor that snaps over the SCT’s normal focus knob (actually over a furnished replacement knob). It’s equipped with a hand control, and extension cables are easily available to let you focus seated at the computer. If your scope’s focus shift is not too bad, I can swear by the efficacy of the simple and relatively inexpensive Motofocus.

Now for a computer. How much computer? PC? Mac? Luckily, just about any reasonably current machine will work for shooting planetary .avis. Plenty of hard drive capacity is nice, but a superfast Alienware machine just isn’t a necessity. My garden-variety Toshiba laptop, which is about four years old now, works just ducky.

As is usually the case, the main determinant as to which type of computer you choose, Apple or PC, is your choice of software. At this time, I’m still leaning toward PC, solely because of a breakthrough program, FireCapture. That does not mean that there are not capable Apple programs for image acquisition, however.

FireCapture (latest Beta)...
Finally, you’ll need a cable to connect your camera to your PC. Which cable? What you need depends on the connector on your camera, but check out the offerings of Tether Tools. Their cables are mainly for DSLRs, but they have USB cords designed to fit the Point Grey cameras, too, and may be able to furnish one with the USB connector your cam requires. They have just what you want: hefty yet flexible cables that are colored a bright orange to help keep you from tripping over 'em.

That’s the hardware side. Just as important is the software. When we are talking PCs, mostly what you see everybody using today for camera control is the above mentioned freeware program, FireCapture, written by Torsten Edelmann. It’s not the only PC program aimed at imaging with webcams and planetary cameras, but many imagers will opine it is the best.

What if for some reason you don’t want, to use FireCapture? There are alternatives. If you are a Keep It Simple Stupid person, and there is something to be said for the KISS principle, you might like Sharpcap. Robin Glover’s freeware is small, fast, not demanding of computer horsepower, and will operate just about any webcam/planet-cam. My experience is that when nothing else works, when your off-the-beaten-path camera crashes every program you’ve tried, Sharpcap will get ‘er done.

A sentimental favorite of mine is K3CCD Tools. This is the program I used to capture Mars in 2003 after tearing my hair out trying to figure out the program that came with my SAC 7B, Astrovideo. K3CCD has a lot going for it, including compatibility with many webcam and webcam like cameras (any VFW or WDM camera and a few others beside, like the Lumineras). K3 also can do long exposure imaging with modified webcams, and can even be used to measure double star separation and position angles.

Downsides to good, old K3CCD? Well, it’s not freeware; it’s 50 bucks for version 3. That’s not bad, but the elephant in the living room is that the free FireCapture is more capable and supports modern cameras. More fatally, the author of K3, Peter Katreniak, appears to have stopped developing his program and doesn't appear much interested in it anymore. It’s to the point that people needing a new registration number (you have to have a new one when you install the program on a new computer) have a hard time getting one. It’s been seven years since the program was updated.

FireCapture...
Apple weenie? I don’t blame you for being one. I am going through one of those spells when I am seriously considering switching myself. What is out there for image acquisition? I am hardly an expert about that, but the name I keep hearing is Keith’s AstroImager. I am sure y’all Apple Mavens can rattle off a bunch more, however, and I hope y’all will do so in the comments section.

Once you have your movie files, your .avi sequences of the Moon or a planet, on the hard drive, the fun (and work) has just begun. You will then need to select the best frames from your .avi and stack them into a final, finished image. The beauty of the thing is that that is now automated. Trying to sort through hundreds of images manually and stack them by hand with Photoshop is a thing of the distant past.

PC-wise, one name still trumps ‘em all, Registax by Cor Berrevoets, now in its 6th edition. This was, as much as the webcam, what powered the planetary imaging revolution in amateur astronomy. There’d been a similar application before Registax, Astrostack, but it was not quite all there. Registax was, and made it possible to produce planetary images better than those done with the largest ground based telescopes just a few years before.

Registax is a great thing, but it is not the only thing. What you hear talked about a lot on the planetary imaging boards today is a similar application, Emil Kraaikamp’s AutoStakkert. Is it a huge improvement over Registax? In my opinion, no. But its stacked images are somewhat better. And “somewhat” can be important when you are trying to wring every last bit of detail out of a planet. Only caveat? Even if you switch to AutoStakkert for stacking, you’ll still need Registax on your hard drive. Nothing is better for bringing out detail than Registax’s wavelet filters, and AutoStakkert lacks a similar tool.

For Apple? Again, I am depending on y’all to help me out here. What I hear mentioned most for Apple image stacking, however, is another application from Keith Wiley, Keith’s Image Stacker. Is it the best? What else is there? Dunno. That’s why I need the help of you Apple troops in the comments section.

AutoStakkert...
Camera? Check! PC? Check! Software? Check! Anything else? Oh. Yeah, a telescope. Actually, that is the easy part. Does your scope produce a pleasing visual image of Jupiter? One with a fair amount of detail? If so, you can be assured it will produce a decent image of the planet too.

Not that all scopes are created equal for planetary imaging. You want one with a decent drive. It must be able to keep the highly magnified image of a planet on the small chip of a planet-cam. What should the focal length be? About 4000mm of focal length is where you start. You can Barlow any scope to get a large enough image, but it’s easier to start with a longer focal length and not have to worry about high power Barlows, stacking Barlows, and stuff like that.

What most serious planetary imagers, people like Chris Go and Damian Peach, are using is the good, old SCT. Lotsa focal length. Even the inexpensive models have drives up to the task. It’s easy to mount a camera on one, and easy to set one up for motofocus. The short tube keeps the shakes down at high power. All things being equal, if I had access to an SCT, especially one of at least 8-inches of aperture, that’s what I’d use. Which is not to say other scopes can’t do well. I produced some fine Mars images in ’03 with my humble Synta 8-inch f/5 Newtonian.

So,  are we gonna gather up all our planetary imaging stuff and produce some pretty pictures now? Soon, muchachos, soon. Alas, as should be obvious, we are out of time and space for this week no matter what Professor Einstein says. How soon? Maybe week after next. Next week will be devoted to the slightly different I promised/threatened not long ago...

It would be an understatement to say I was shocked and saddened when I was informed of the death of one of our most prominent amateur astronomers, Phil Wheery of NOVAC, a chief organizers of one of my favorite astro-events of all time, The Almost Heaven Star Party. I really don’t feel able to say much more at this time; I’m just too shaken. All I can do is offer my condolences to Phil’s family and friends (there were many). He will indeed be missed.

Next Time: My SF Best of the Best...

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