Sunday, November 22, 2015
DSRSG 2015: Dodging Raindrops...
|Miss Veronica Lodge...|
What’s been the bane of U.S. amateur astronomers east of the Mississippi this year? The weather. The stinking weather. The horrible, cloudy weather. I hoped things were changing for the better, though, and the nice skies we had at the Peach State Star Gaze encouraged me to believe they were, finally. Given that the prospect for storms tends to lessen as you get out of October and into early November, I definitely felt good about our chances for pretty weather for the 2015 Deep South Regional Star Gaze.
I had hopes, yeah, but let’s cut right to the chase: those hopes were not exactly dashed, but weather conditions didn’t allow the star party to be all it could have been. That was OK; even a slightly compromised star party is way better than staying home.
It was evident a couple of days before it was time to head for the wilds of northern Louisiana and the Feliciana Retreat Center, home of the DSRSG, that this was one of those times when a front’s passage being delayed would not be a good thing. Instead of moving through early in the week, it would creep in on Friday, spoiling the prime Friday/Saturday night action, and, I feared, keeping attendance numbers down. Way down.
While I can have a wonderful time at a completely clouded out star party, plenty of folks will cancel if the weather looks like it won’t be perfect. And with the bad stuff coming in on Friday, those unfortunates who couldn’t take off from work earlier in the week would have no reason at all for coming if all they wanted to do was observe.
Weather forecasts be damned, Tuesday afternoon Dorothy and I loaded up the 4Runner, Miss Lucile Van Pelt, for our departure for DSRSG early on Wednesday morning. One of the greatest things about this star party for us is that it’s only a little over three hours away, and a fairly short drive makes us more willing to face the prospect of a complete skunking. Not that I believed we’d be totally skunked anyway. I had hopes of getting some images, some DSLR images, for a magazine article I was doing, and also trying out what I believe will be, as its name implies, a revolutionary new video astronomy setup, the Revolution Imager, over the course of the two nights that it appeared would be passable.
|The FRC Lodge's lovely dining room...|
Rolling west on I-10, all was well until we neared the Louisiana state line. At that point our GPS, piped up with, “The Interstate is closed ahead; we will now detour.” There was major road construction on I-10, 17-freaking miles of it, 17-miles of one lane traffic, and the GPS had thankfully heard (from the road conditions radio broadcast) that an accident had brought traffic to a complete and utter standstill for most of those miles.
We were only delayed about half an hour by the detour onto state highways, and were soon back zooming along on I-12 and headed for Feliciana. Still, I couldn’t help wondering whether this year’s Deep South was turning out to be cursed.
When we pulled onto the storied observing field (we’ve been at the Feliciana Retreat Center location since 2009), the Sun was already past the Meridian and gear set up needed to proceed on apace. What did I set up? First of all, my Megrez II APO refractor, Miss Veronica Lodge, on the Celestron VX mount. It seemed to me that this night would likely be the best of the four, and I intended to concentrate on DSLR imaging with the refractor.
That wasn’t the only scope I assembled, however. I also set up my 1987 Super Polaris C8 OTA on my old CG5 mount. I usually only bring one scope to a star party, but I had good reason for lugging out the ancient SCT: I wanted to sell her. I’m at the point where I don’t want gear sitting around unused. Among other reasons because I don’t like the idea of scopes collecting dust in my shop when they could be making a young person on a cash-strapped amateur happy. I’d decided the CG5 mount had to go for the same reason. C8 on the CG5, I taped a “for sale” sign to a tripod leg.
Assuming no one stepped up to the plate with some cash right away, I thought I might even use the C8. As above, I came bearing one of Mike Fowler’s (Orange County Telescope) new Revolution video imager kits and I had some hopes of testing it if the weather cooperated. The SCT, I thought, would be more suitable for that task than the refractor.
|Just has to go...|
Once Dorothy and I had the ancillary gear—EZ-up tent canopy, observing table, camp chairs, etc., etc.—squared away, I ran my long extension cord to the field’s AC power outlet board and plugged in. Having AC available at a star party is just so nice. No batteries to worry about running down, no need to recharge ‘em the next morning.
Field work done, our next mission was getting settled in our little room at the lodge. Certainly, the accommodations at FRC are not palatial; the rooms are about 1/4 the size of your average Days Inn crackerbox palace, but they are nevertheless much better than the chickie cabins or tents that are de rigueur at many star parties. Whatever may be lacking in the small rooms is more than made up for by the Center’s beautiful dining room, which overlooks a small lake.
So, unpacked, all that was left to do was wait for darkness and the 3 pm raffle. As usual, I didn’t win a darned thing. That was the bad; the good was that the sky, which had been partly cloudy all afternoon, was beginning to clear off. There was no doubt in my mind whatsoever that we’d have a long night. The next event on our schedule wasn’t observing, however, but supper at 4 pm.
The previous year, I’d thought the normally good FRC food had been down a notch or so in quality and quantity. This year it was thankfully back to its normal excellence and abundance. I concentrated mostly on the salad bar, but the chicken we were served was good enough. I do not hesitate to say the DSRSG meals are among the best I have eaten at any star party in the entire U.S. of A. Maybe the best.
Wednesday evening was indeed the long night I’d wished for. Almost too long. Imaging these days is much different from what it was when I got started in a big way in the 1980s. Then, you spent your whole night staring into a guiding eyepiece. You had to keep that pesky guide star centered on a crosshair reticle or your picture would wind up with trailed stars. Boring, but at least you were occupied. Today, you align the mount, get the autoguider going, focus up, tell the software (Nebulosity 3 in my case) to take, say, 20 4-minute exposures, and your presence is no longer required for over three hours (including the time for dark frames). What do you do? What did I do on this night?
If I’d been smart, I’d have brought my 15x70 Burgess binoculars to the star party and given the sky a good bino survey. Alas, they were the one thing I forgot to pack this time. Instead, I wandered the field cadging looks through the telescopes of the many old friends—I’ve been doing DSRSG for so long that my fellow attendees are really more like family now. Headed back to the lodge a time or two for coffee. Occasionally looked in on Veronica. She was doing just fine grabbing sub-frames of the great galaxy NGC 253, and PHD2 was guiding like a champ. I did another couple of loops of the field before it was time for target two, M45.
|NGC 253 Wednesday night...|
M45 underway, I gotta say I was getting awful bored. I thought I might crank up the C8, even just for visual, but I’d have had to hook up power, find the eyepieces, etc., and I was now feeling a bit weary, as I usually am on the first night of any star party due to travel and set up, so I demurred.
Somewhat before the Seven Sisters shot wrapped up, the sky began to go south. The problem wasn’t clouds, or at least not high clouds, but ground fog that began to roll in in waves. I figured that spelled Big Switch time, but I was spared for about another hour. My side of the field was slightly elevated, and the ground fog would creep up, but not quite reach me before temporarily dissipating. Not that there wasn’t some haze, naturally, but I was able to push on for a while with a bright target, M42, which was now well above the trees.
Just as my exposure sequence, my first Orion Nebula of the season, finished up, the fog rallied its forces and advanced with a will, finally smothering my scope. That was it, and I won’t say I was sorry to pull that cursed switch. I’d got the images I’d come for, and even without the fog the night had been miserably damp. My DewBuster heater system kept scope and guide scope optics clear, but didn’t keep me dry. The dew was so bad that it was literally raining under my EZ-Up. Nothing will make you tireder than having a wet head and feet, so I was more than happy to desert the field for the cozy lodge. There, I had a glass of Merlot, cruised Cloudy Nights for a few minutes thank's to the Lodge's good wi-fi, and soon drifted off dreaming of the big cosmic wheel that is NGC 253.
Thursday morning brought breakfast and a trip down the field to dry everything out. I removed Veronica’s Desert Storm cover and let her sunbathe for a while, and grabbed a towel and tried to dry off the observing table. There was about a quarter inch of water on it. It hadn’t rained, y’all; that’s how bad the dew was. One thing was sure: I was glad I had been able to run the DewBuster off AC; I don’t know if a battery would have lasted the entire night under such extreme conditions.
|The Dark Knight hoped for a dark, clear night...|
I was worried that Thursday afternoon would drag, since there were no speakers or other organized activities until Friday, but that turned out not to be a problem. A little reading, a little tinkering with the gear, Internet surfing with my laptop sitting in the dining hall, another raffle (still didn’t win anything), and it was time to think about supper and, after that, observing.
It was quite obvious Thursday night was not going to be the night Wednesday had been. The weather-goobers were predicting clouds later in the evening, and at sundown I could see there was plenty of haze. I’d gotten the prime focus DSLR shots I’d planned on getting already, so I thought I might mess around with the Revolution video camera a bit.
You are going to get a complete review of the Revolution in a few weeks at the outside, but suffice to say I was impressed. The camera is a known quantity, an LN300, which is very compact and very sensitive and is sold for astronomy by at least two other vendors. It’s a good performer, but what makes the Revolution system special is what you get for its minuscule price.
The Revolution kit, which comes in a nice case, includes the camera and a 1.25-inch nosepiece, a 7-inch LCD color monitor, a battery that can run monitor and camera for up to four hours, a battery charger, a .5x focal reducer, an IR filter, a wired remote for the camera (something most LN300s lack and very, very good to have), a wireless remote for the monitor, and all required cables. Everything you need to capture the deep sky except a telescope and mount is right there in the box. Of course none of that means a thing if the camera doesn’t perform.
I needn’t have worried. I sent the C8/CG5 to the Dumbbell, M27, put the camera in long-exposure color mode, turned on its stacking feature, and sat back and watched. The first exposure to come in looked good. The next one, which was combined with the first one, made M27 look better, and as the image built up I was soon seeing plenty of detail and impressive color. To be honest, the picture looked similar to what I can see of this object with video with considerably more expensive cameras.
The only fly in the proverbial ointment? For your pictures to look their best, to have round stars in stacked exposures, your mount needs to be at least roughly polar aligned, and I had not done that. All I’d done was put Polaris in the hollow bore of the polar shaft. With the sky looking somewhat dicey even at sundown, I hadn’t wanted to waste time doing an AllStar polar alignment with the CG5. Still, the pictures I was seeing on the monitor did not look bad, not bad at all. And the LN300’s sensitivity did not disappoint.
It easily picked out the Deer at the Deer Lick, the little NGC galaxies that cluster around big NGC 7331. It made short work of the dim Crescent Nebula, showing detail and color. The Veil Nebula was not a challenge for it. So, with Orion on the rise, I thought I might go even dimmer and see what the camera would do on the Horsehead Nebula. That’s what I thought I’d do, but the weather gods had other ideas, and the first wave of clouds rolled in.
It was still relatively early and I was still feeling good—despite almost as much dew as on the previous evening—so I had no problem cooling my heels for a while to see if we might get some clearing or at least some respectable sucker holes. ‘Twas not to be; the sky got worse, not better, and just after midnight I was walking back to the room. I didn't like having such a short run, but it was perhaps a good thing I turned in semi-early, since I'd likely be returning to the field at first light to pack the gear.
Thursday afternoon, Dorothy and I had talked about whether we’d stay till Sunday morning as usual or not. The weather prognosticators were forecasting conditions that, while not dire, were not exactly astronomy friendly. The area of nearby Clinton, Louisiana would, they said, get three inches or more of rain between Friday afternoon and Saturday night. Yeah, I am all for star party fun, and, again, I can have a good time at a clouded out star party, but sitting through rain and thunderstorms with no hope of clearing and not much to do cooped up in our little room or in the dining hall would be another matter. I can watch it rain at home and in comfort. There was also the matter of having to pack wet gear, which is not fun.
|Awfully empty field by Friday afternoon...|
When I got up Friday, there were clouds aplenty, so I did indeed head to the field to finish packing the remaining equipment—I’d disassembled Veronica and the VX the previous afternoon. Despite my early bedtime the night before, loading the truck just after dawn wasn't exactly a treat, but I was glad I did it. There was the feel of rain in the air, and if I didn't get the stuff in the 4Runner before it began we'd be stuck.
Packing done, our intention was to leave shortly after my presentation that afternoon. I’d originally been scheduled to speak on Saturday, but I made the case with DSRSG Managing Director Barry Simon that it would be better for me to go on on Friday. I didn’t believe there would be many people left on Saturday to hear me. Barry was amenable, so I gave my talk, “Exploring Your Final Frontier with Deep Sky Video” Friday afternoon. By the time my presentation wrapped up, it was getting on toward raffle time, and D. and I thought we’d at least stay through that.
Did I win anything? Are you kidding? Miss Dorothy did get a nice Mars map, however, so it was a good thing we stayed, and it just felt right to stay through the raffle, anyway. When the prize distribution was done, we hit the road for home. This was only the second time in all our years of DSRSGing that we've left before the bitter end. I was a little sad about that, but as we ran into wave after wave of rain on the Interstate, it was clear we’d made the correct choice.
Yeah, we’d only had two nights, but the first night, especially, was a very good night. I captured one of the better—maybe the best—images of the Pleiades I’ve ever gotten. The other shots I took Wednesday were similarly good. I’d also had fun playing with the Revolution. And spending a few days talking amateur astronomy and hanging with my DSRSG homies was also fun—perhaps the most fun of all. So much fun that I can hardly wait for my next journey to the FRC for the Deep South Spring Scrimmage, which is sure to be under clear skies.
Nota Bene: You can see more pictures of the star party on my Facebook page, and more of the astrophotos I shot on the fantastic website astrobin.com.
Sunday, November 15, 2015
The NEW CSP...
We are, most of us, now at the end of the fall star party season. It's been an exciting and busy and sometimes stressful couple of months. I know one thing for sure: I am one tired puppy. That didn't stop me from having a wonderful time at the newly resuscitated Chiefland Star Party, however. The organizers did an incredible job considering this was their first outing. Not only was I impressed by the event as a whole; I actually WON SOMETHING AT THE RAFFLE! Will wonders never cease? Anyhow, you'll get the full story week after next (next week we talk about Deep South).
Sunday, November 08, 2015
Fall Star Party Season
I am afraid it is going to be a slow couple of weeks for the blog. I am on the road concluding my fall star party season with two last ones, the Deep South Regional Star Gaze and the Chiefland Star Party. Expect a full report on both beginning week. Until then, how about some photos from Deep South? Including a couple of astrophotos, M15 and M27, taken with the brand new and impressive Revolution (video) Imager kit (Orange County Telescope), my review of which will form a large part of the Chiefland story, I believe...
Sunday, November 01, 2015
Let’s Get Going with PHD2
If you’ve read some of my recent posts on short-sub imaging, you know it’s not always necessary to guide your mount; it’s not always necessary to continuously monitor a star and make small corrections to the scope’s aim to make up for imperfections in the mount’s drive gears. Short sub imaging is especially appropriate for photographing bright objects like the Messiers in the light polluted back yard. Go over 30-seconds, and the gradients from the bright sky will become tough to deal with anyway. Nevertheless, there comes a time, as I said a while back, when you gotta guide.
Like when you are out under a dark and clear sky. There’s no doubt longer sub-frames are better there. Stacking many images can reduce noise and make your pictures easier to process, but stacking will not deliver details not already present to some degree in the individual sub-frames. When it’s dark and you are photographing dimmer targets or want to bring out as much detail as possible in brighter ones, a stack of five or ten minute subs is just better than a stack of fifteen or twenty thirty-second ones.
If you need the details of the auto-guiding game, how to get started that is, go to the link above. Today’s subject is mostly for those of you who, like me, have been using PHD Guiding for a while and now see the handwriting on the wall, that’s it’s time to upgrade to the new version, PHD2, a.k.a. “Open Source PHD.”
“Open source?” What does that mean? PHD Guiding, “Push Here Dummy” Guiding was originally written and developed by astro-software wizard Craig Stark (Nebulosity). He got his program going in a big way and it soon became the most used auto-guiding application in amateur astronomy. Craig continued to enhance his freeware program, but incrementally for the most part, and it was clear the program could be taken a lot farther. Its bones were strong, but it could still use a little fleshing out. To that end, Mr. Stark decided the program should go open-source, that its development should continue mostly in other hands:
In 2013, Bret McKee and I started working on a complete rewrite of the open-source PHD code with the aim of setting things up for significant expansion of PHD and of the development team working on PHD. Bret really dove in and did a massive amount of work. He also built up the team that has now gotten PHD2 going. In all of this, the vision of PHD has remained - to be user-friendly, yet provide powerful guiding. I'm delighted to see that this has reached such a mature stage and that it's done so with very little of my direct effort. This is a fully open, team project and it's a real joy to see that it has taken off so well. I will continue to host PHD1 here until all have happily moved over to PHD2.
What does that mean for you and me, though? For all practical purposes, PHD2 is PHD Guiding now. The old PHD is still available on the Stark Labs website, but it won’t, I’d guess, ever be upgraded again. If you use PHD, it’s time to transition to PHD2. This sort of thing is painful when you’ve used a program for years and come to depend on it, but the new one offers some significant new features, and I’d guess many more are to come in the future. It is still freeware by the way if you are worried about that, though the developers are soliciting donations (as they should).
When you start PHD2 for the first time, it’s likely you are going to be disappointed, “Heck, Rod, it doesn’t look any different from the old one.” It doesn’t, not really, except for the fact that it comes up in a rectangular rather than square window. You don't begin to see the differences until you begin playing with the menus and settings, the first of which is probably going to be the camera icon that allows you to select your guide camera.
This was my first clue PHD2 was going to be better. Rather than just a list of supported cameras to choose among, what you get is the “Profile Manager.” Here, you select your guide camera, your telescope mount, and other things via nice drop-down menus. When you are done, you save the current camera/scope/etc. setup as a profile. This is a godsend if you, like me, use both a guide scope and an off axis guider depending on the telescope you are guiding. This is also where you’ll connect your camera, mount, rotator, etc. when you are ready to roll. But you aren’t ready to roll yet as there is more configuring to do first.
You'll access the detailed configuration menus with the familiar Brain icon, same as before, but that’s really all that is the same in PHD2. Setting up the program is simpler and less scary than it was in PHD. What comes up with a click of the brain is a window with tabs. The first of these is “Global,” which, with one exception, you can leave alone for now. That exception is your guide camera focal length. Enter it in millimeters in the Focal Length field. Oh, there’s one other thing here you should notice, “Reset Configuration.” Ticking that resets the program’s configuration to its original values. If I’d paid attention to that I wouldn’t have had to switch back to the original PHD on the first night of the Peach State Star Gaze.
You can leave the “Guiding” tab completely alone at first; click the next one, “Camera.” Here, you enter the pixel size of your camera’s chip. Where do you get that? From the manual or from the camera manufacturer’s website. Failing that, you can obtain the required numbers from the spec sheet of the CCD or CMOS chip used in your guide camera (you should certainly find the type of chip your camera has on the camera maker’s site). This is important; PHD2 needs to know your image scale in order to be able to tell you the quality of guiding in arc-seconds. What else is here? You may occasionally find a need to mess with camera gain, but usually only if you are for some reason trying to guide on an overly bright star. Leave everything else the way it is.
Finally, there is the Mount tab. Some of this can also be left alone for now—though you will likely eventually come back here and fiddle with aggressiveness and other values to fine tune your mount’s performance. Most mounts will guide quite acceptably with the default settings, however. What you do need to enter here is the size of the “steps” PHD2 uses during calibration. Unlike the old version, PHD2 will figure this out for you. Click the “Calculate” button, enter your guide scope focal length (or main scope focal length if you are using an OAG), pixel size, and mount guide speed, and the program will give you a value in milliseconds to enter in the calibration step field. This is mostly important if you are using a short focal length guide scope—too small a value here will mean calibration takes forever to complete.
And that is pretty much it. Otherwise, the program mostly works the same way as the original. Connect to camera and mount (using either ASCOM or “on camera”—through your mount’s ST4 port), set your exposure via the drop down, begin looping exposures, choose a good looking guide star, one not too dim and not too bright, click on it, and then click the PHD (archery target) icon and calibration will begin. PHD2 will move the mount E/W and N/S, and when that is done will begin guiding. End of story. Actually, there is one change to the procedure; you no longer have to stop looping exposures before you click on the guide star. In fact, you are now encouraged to select the star while the video is running.
There is also an interesting new feature concerning guide star selection, but it’s not apparent until you examine the Tools menu. If you’re not sure which star in the field of your guide camera is the best candidate for a guide star, you can have PHD2 automatically choose one. Just click, "Auto-select star" in the Tools menu (you can also tell it to do that with an Alt-S hotkey combo) and PHD2 will do just that. I’ve gotten pretty good at recognizing the look of a good guide star for PHD, but I played with this anyway, and can report the program always selected what I’d also have identified as a good one.
And that is all there is to it campers. If your guiding is good, you don’t have to do another thing. There are plenty of other features, like graphs to show you how your guiding is going, a drift procedure to help you tighten up your polar alignment, and more. But if your guiding is giving you round stars, you can leave all that for later or never.
What if your guiding isn’t as good as you would like, though? Which can happen, especially if you’re guiding a long focal length telescope. PHD2 offers several ways of refining your guiding without causing overmuch heartburn.
The first thing you can do to improve things is to clean up the guide camera's video frames, make the guide stars look better and get rid of some of those pesky hot pixels. PHD2 makes it easy to take and apply dark frames. Just select “dark library” from the Darks menu, set the range of exposures you normally use for guiding, cover guidescope (or mainscope if you’re using an OAG), and hit the go button. The program will acquire your range of dark exposures and apply them henceforth to light exposures of the same length.
Sometimes darks ain’t enough, however. Most guide cameras are uncooled, and today’s popular high-sensitivity CMOS chips' output can look like a snowstorm at the North Pole even after you apply darks, making it hard to choose a good guide star and making you apt to try to guide on a freaking hot pixel. To further improve guide frames, you can use PHD2’s “bad pixel map” feature, but I find it easier to clean up problems darks won’t quite fix with the surprisingly effective noise reduction setting found under the Brain icon’s Global tab. On a hot summer night, selecting “median” from the drop-down gets the job done. It’s perhaps not as efficacious as a bad pixel map, but easier to do, and I like “easy” as you well know.
Your guide camera’s images look better, but the guiding is still not going quite as well as you’d hoped at 1500mm plus. It’s OK, but like most astrophotographers, you can’t resist examining the DSLR’s stars at a 400% enlargement. Unfortunately for you, they are a little eggy. What do you do? What you used to do with the original PHD was start tinkering with settings: declination/R.A. aggression, minimum move, etc., etc. It may still be necessary to fool around with these values and particularly with the declination setting that determines whether your mount will be allowed to guide in both directions, north and south, or not. However, PHD2 may be able to help you determine the other values.
What should these esoteric settings be? For the technically challenged astrophotographers among us, like me, there’s a way to easily figure this out for a particular set up without just blindly trying values like I used to do with the original PHD. There’s this new feature called Guiding Assistant. Access the Assistant from the Tools menu, let it run for a few minutes, and it will, when you stop it, come up with suggestions for your guide settings. If you think they are reasonable, you can have the assistant apply them automatically. Just be careful before you do that. THINK.
The first time I used PHD2 with my EQ6 mount in the backyard, it was a resounding success. Perfectly round stars in the 3 – 5 minute exposures I customarily use. Easy as falling off a log. Uh-huh. Fast forward to the recent PSSG. Same mount, but the stars, while fine, were not quite perfect. What was different? I was using my Edge 800 SCT at f/7 rather than my standard C8 at f/6.3. I thought the increase in focal length, while small, was still maybe enough to cause the degradation. I ran guiding assistant for a few minutes. Applied the changes and gave it another go. Result? Substantially worse guiding than what I’d had before I "fixed it."
If I’d known about the option to restore the program’s default values, I’d have used that, but I didn’t, so I switched to the old PHD, which was, luckily, still on my hard drive. The result was guiding about the same as I’d had initially with PHD2. Good enough, but nothing to write home about.
Next evening, more rested—my troubles had come on the first evening of the star party when I was tired from the trip and set up—I set about to figure out what had gone wrong. First thing I did was have a look at a star field in PHD2 (I’d gotten it back to the defaults by this time) to see how the guide camera’s images looked.
Hmm…well darn. Instead of its normal reasonably sharp stars, my old Orion StarShoot was delivering faint fuzzballs. The guide scope was badly out of focus. How? While this 50mm telescope focuses by screwing the objective in and out and snugging up a knurled ring against it, and normally holds focus well, apparently the trip had been enough to throw it out. I had to change focus quite a bit to get the stars looking as good as they should.
Focus attained, guiding became sterling again. Actually, if I’d listened to the Guiding Assistant, I’d have figured this out on the previous evening. When I ran it, it kept talking about the guide star being too dim. When I tried it on different stars in the field it kept complaining about star brightness. The reason for that was that they were out of focus and I wasn’t seeing that with my tired, bleary eyes.
So, the bottom line on PHD2? It just works. Don’t get the idea that it will necessarily make auto-guiding easy in the beginning, though, Joe and Jane Novice. You’ll inevitably have gremlins to exterminate. Things like flexure, cable drag, backlash, and on and on. That said, PHD2 is the new king of guiding software and makes the process as easy as it can be. Even if you’re new to the game, just get it. I said this article was mainly aimed at people experienced with PHD, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t start out with PHD2 instead of PHD. There is no downside to the new one; it is just better.
Sunday, October 25, 2015
I go to a lot of star parties, but, unfortunately, I don’t get to observe at a lot of star parties. I’m usually flown in to be a speaker and am scopeless, having to content myself with looks through my small binoculars and through the telescopes of kind folks on the observing field. I sometimes feel like a kid with his nose pressed up against the candy store window without a dime in his pocket.
This year’s Peach State Star Gaze would be different. I’d be their speaker, but the event, which is held at the Deerlick Astronomy Village about 100 miles east of Atlanta, was close enough that I could drive and could bring along a truck full of observing gear. No more squinting through binoculars; I’d have my C8 or C11 with me. I’d even, I hoped, be able to get some DSLR images for a magazine article I’m writing.
Peach State would be both an old and a new star party for me. I’d done PSSG several times years and years ago, but those were at its old sites. The first two years, at the original location near Jackson, Georgia, just south of Atlanta and well into the outskirts of that megalopolis’ light dome. Yeah, there was light pollution, but I loved the facilities at Indian Springs State Park, which included decent cabins and dorms and a large meeting/dining hall. The event was also close to amenities like restaurants, including the famous Fresh Air Barbecue.
Alas, only fair skies and a field that was bursting at the seams with observers not only from the big Atlanta Astronomy Club but from points north, south, east, and west meant that by 2002 the organizers decided Jackson outlived its usefulness as the PSSG venue .
So, in ‘02, the event moved to Copperhill, Tennessee. That was a long drive for me, but PSSG had become my spring star party. I had tried the Mid-South Star Gaze in Mississippi a couple of times, but for several reasons that hadn’t worked out. This was before I was introduced to the joys of observing down Chiefland Way at the Chiefland Astronomy Village. If I wanted to observe under dark skies in the spring, PSSG was still my best bet, even in Tennessee.
I gave the “new” Peach State a chance; I really did. Once. Not only was the drive a long one, the skies at the new location, Whitewater Express, a private resort/camp, were not great, with a light dome from Chattanooga obvious. The cabins and other facilities were also rudimentary at best. Some time later, I heard PSSG was moving again, to the private astronomy development of Deerlick Astronomy Village, “DAV” (much like the CAV), which would be considerably closer for me. For one reason or another, however, I never got around to giving the event a try at its new location.
Flash-forward to December 2013 when the good folk of the Atlanta Astronomy Club had me up to give a presentation at their annual Christmas dinner. Dorothy and I had a good time, and when one of the club officers inquired as to whether I might be interested in doing PSSG as their speaker the following year, I replied, “Coitainly.” Unfortunately, a booking conflict prevented me from doing the event in 2014, and it began to seem as if I’d never get back to Peach State.
Until I got an email from the AAC’s Peter Macumber this past summer concerning my availability for the 2015 event. I told him my schedule was still open for the PSSG dates, that I’d be happy to speak at the event, and was, in fact, looking forward to trying out the skies of the DAV.
Once the die was cast that I’d go, it hardly seemed any time at all before summer was dead and it was time to get ready for PSSG, which would be the first event of the year’s fall star party season for me. First question I had was “accommodations.” A check with the organizers and a look at their website and that of the DAV revealed that would potentially be a problem. Normally, I’d have specified that the star party organizers would have to put me in a motel, since there are no cabins on the site, but with no hostelry closer than about 20-miles that I could find, it appeared I’d be camping.
Camping, huh? I was sanguine enough about tent camping to purchase a tent and the other requisite gear last winter. I had the best of intentions of saving the money I’d otherwise spend on the substandard motels of Chiefland, Florida. Tent camping in a good tent wouldn’t be bad, would it? Well, one night was OK last February, but only one. That night coincided with some of the coldest weather in Florida in years. I moved to a motel on the second morning of my stay, and when I couldn’t get a room for the following evening, I packed up and went home. Yes, I was an astro-wimp.
I hoped the story would be a better one this time. While the temperatures in Georgia would be slightly chilly, in the 50s the weathermen believed, I thought that would be bearable with the aid of an electric heater in the tent. At any rate, I didn’t see an alternative if I wanted to do PSSG. There had been some talk about putting me up in the home of a DAV resident, but since I didn’t hear any more about that as the event approached, I assumed it had turned out not to be an option.
Anyhow, on the appointed morning, Thursday, 15 October, I said my goodbyes to Dorothy—this would be a solo mission—and headed up I-65. What was in the back of my 4Runner, Miss Van Pelt? The goal was DSLR imaging , so I’d packed two scopes most appropriate for that, my Edge 800 Schmidt Cassegrain, Mrs. Emma Peel, and my Megrez II fluorite refractor, Veronica Lodge. The mount? My time honored Atlas for a couple of reasons. Looking at the weather forecasts (which were now, drat it, showing lows into the 40s), it appeared there was the possibility of some wind and I thought the Atlas would be better in those conditions than the VX.
I would have chosen my new CGEM over the Atlas, I suppose, but I don’t have Losmandy D dovetails on either the refractor or the SCT yet. One more reason? I will soon put the requisite dovetails (or adapters) on the two shortly, and the eight year old Atlas will probably be going into mothballs. I might even sell it. In the event I decide to sell it, I thought it would be wise to give the mount a completely clean bill of health. It had cooperated well in the backyard, but there’s nothing like a three day star party to expose gremlins.
Three days? Why only three days? I could have been onsite the previous Sunday, but I wasn’t at all sure I wanted to live in a tent that long. I can stand almost anything for three days. A week, though? Not so much. I believed three days would be sufficient to get the one image I really wanted, a good shot of the Triangulum Galaxy, M33.
The trip up I-65, as I’ve commented before, is an excruciatingly boring one. It’s enlivened only by a stop at the good old Stuckey’s just outside Montgomery. Unfortunately and inexplicably, the joint was locked up tighter than a drum at 9:30 on Thursday morning. Out of business? I couldn’t tell. Peering in the window, everything appeared normal (it was in fact open when I stopped on my way home Sunday). I decided this was, perhaps, a good thing anyway, as I’d have been tempted to order a fried chicken biscuit from the Dairy Queen side of the house, and I really have had to give up that sort of thing.
Onward to Montgomery, over to I-85, and into Georgia for the run to Atlanta. Based on past experience, I was a little apprehensive about negotiating the Atlanta Bypass, I-285, and getting on I-20 successfully, but GPS made it easy. Shortly, I was pointed in the direction of Augusta, towards the exit that would lead me to the tiny town of Sharon, Georgia, the nearest settlement to the Deerlick Astronomy Village.
While my GPS receiver didn’t know anything about DAV, the GPS app on my iPhone actually did. I planned to switch to the smart phone once I neared the site, but it turned out I didn’t need to. I had a print out of the excellent driving instructions from the star party’s website, and those were more than sufficient to get me from the Sharon exit to the DAV. In just a few minutes—the venue is nice and close to the Interstate—I was rolling onto the PSSG observing field.
One thing I appreciated was that everything was well-marked with signs. I knew where to park and where to go to register. This is most assuredly a practice I wish more star parties would adopt. Not everybody is an old timer at your event, and there’s no excuse for leaving newbies wondering “Where do I go?”
Thanks to the signage, I was shortly walking into the odd little cabin/chickie/hut used for registration (I believe it is a warm room the other 51 weeks of the year), and meeting the kind and friendly people of PSSG including Peter Macumber, my contact. Registration packet in hand, I set out to find a place to set up that had access to an electrical outlet. Which turned out not to be so easy. The star party had been going on for five days, and most of the plugs were spoken for. I finally found a spot that I thought might work, but just as I was preparing to unload, who should appear but my old friend, fellow astronomy writer, and deep sky observer extraordinaire, Rich Jakiel.
Rich’s opinion was that I could do better than camping. He was staying in the DAV home of a friend and another acquaintance of mine, Dan Llewellyn, and said he thought it likely that Dan would be happy to put me up for a few days. That was indeed the case, and I was soon moving my gear into a real bedroom (my customary travelling companion, The Dark Knight, a suspicious sort, had to admit things had worked out nicely). In addition to Dan and Rich, Alan Coffelt, another familiar face was spending the star party at Dan’s. Apparently the “Three Stooges,” as they call themselves, had been having a rip-roaring time imaging from Dan’s driveway, and I was happy to join them.
While I’d miss being on the star party field a few hundred meters away, I thought it was really for the best. I wouldn’t be bothering visual observers with my laptop and the nature of modern imaging is such that I knew I’d be able to start a sequence and leave the computer and camera to do their work without worrying about them while I toured the star party field.
Settled in a comfortable room of Dan’s comfortable digs, next up was telescope set up. Not having to deal with a tent or even an EZ-Up canopy made things a lot simpler. Which was good, since daylight was fading fast. DAV is far west in its time zone, so it takes a while for astronomical twilight to arrive, but there is no doubt the days are waning now, and I had no time to lose. First up on Thursday evening would be the Edge 800, Mrs. Peel. I’d do my narrow field on this evening and my wide field on Friday and/or Saturday, I thought, depending on how things went. The scope, computer, and camera were shortly ready to go.
Only minor problem? Since I’d planned to tent-camp, I hadn’t segregated the astronomy and camping gear. In order to get at the scope and mount out of the 4Runner, I had to remove the EZ-Up, the tent, and all the other camping stuff from the vehicle. Not a big deal, however, and certainly easier than setting up the big Coleman tent and tent canopy would have been.
After spending some time shooting the breeze about astronomy with the Stooges, I thought I’d check out Mickey’s Kitchen, who was doing food service for the event. I’ve dined with them before, and knew I could expect above average star party fare. And that was indeed the case. Sausage, potatoes au gratin, and a big cup of iced tea and I was happy.
The preliminaries out of the way, it was time for the star party main course, OBSERVING, or, in my case, imaging with my Canon 400D and C8. The first night rarely goes as well as I hope. I’m tired after setup, tend to take shortcuts, and usually don’t get much in the way of results on the first evening. So it was on this night. Oh, my photos were OK, but not great. The guiding was sufficient but not perfect.
At first I thought my problem was the new version of PHD guiding, which I’d only used a time or two previously, but monkeying with its settings didn’t help. In fact, it made my guiding worse. Luckily, I finally had the sense to stop fooling around and be satisfied with “good enough” guiding. That was wise since I’d discover on the following evening that my problems had nothing at all to do with PHD2.
I then just let the scope do its thing. While I’d had every intention of walking down to the star party field, I had to admit I was too tired for that. Instead, I spent the remaining hours of Thursday evening watching Rich, Alan, and Dan image and occasionally checking on my scope/camera/computer. I was especially interested in what Dan was doing with his C14 and Sony A7S camera.
If you haven’t heard much about the A7S as an astrophotography tool, believe me, you soon will. Its amazingly noise free HIGH ISO images are astounding. I watched Dan pull in a perfectly exposed image of dim NGC 6888, the dim Crescent Nebula in Cygnus, in just 30-seconds. No fooling, and no guiding required.
After watching the Sony magic for a while, and completing the last subframes of my M15 sequence, I decided to take a break and retired inside to watch Dan’s big projection TV for a while. As you might guess, sitting on the couch watching an old movie (that is how you star party) led to my eyes closing and me dozing. Fortunately, I eventually roused myself and got back outside to shut down scope and computer and cover the C8 with her Desert Storm cover. That was the extent of my first night.
Daytime at a star party can be a challenge for me. Those hours until darkness just seem to stretch on forever. This Friday at this star party wasn’t bad in that regard, however. It helps a lot when you’ve got wi-fi, a big screen TV, and a comfy couch to sit on and can read yourself into a doze to while away the afternoon. Not that I didn’t spend some time cruising the PSSG field and looking at the many telescopes assembled there.
What was my takeaway from my tour of the field? Imaging is big again. It seemed as if every other set up included either an EQ-6 or CGEM. The telescopes riding on those mounts were a diverse lot, but refractors predominated. Also, it seemed as if a lot of the observers were following my precepts, seeing what they could do with lower tier/mid-level gear. While there were some AP and Bisque mounts and AP and Tak, OTAs in evidence, they were much outnumbered by the aforementioned Synta mounts and Explore Scientific and SkyWatcher OTAs. The cameras? There were genu-wine CCDs, but most people, like me, were using Canon DSLRs. The software being used for image acquisition was more or less evenly split between Backyard EOS and Nebulosity.
Didn’t I see anything new? Not really. Well, there were a couple of mounts that were new to me. Most interesting, I suppose, was the iOptron CEM60. It is much more impressive in person than in pictures, and if my CGEM ever self-immolated, I would certainly consider one. Likewise, the 60’s sister mount, the iEQ45, was more imposing than I thought it would be. On the bargain side, there was the Bresser EXOS-2 goto GEM, the second coming of the Meade LXD75.
I don’t mean that the EXOS just looks like the 75, it basically is the 75. It is made by the owner of Explore Scientific, JOC of Mainland China, who made the LXD75 for Meade. At a price of $579.99 brand new with an upgraded hand controller, I’d advise anyone in need of a goto GEM in the CG5 class to consider it. Its owner seemed pleased with its performance, and while I hear the firmware still needs a little work, it’s a heck of a lot for little money and might be just the thing for a cash strapped beginning imager.
After a visit to Mickey’s for a plate of excellent pot roast and more (unsweetened) tea, it was back to Dan’s to prepare for another night. The main task was to change out the OTA on the Atlas. Back in her case went the Edge 800, Emma, and out of her case came the Megrez II, Veronica. You wouldn’t think that would take long to do, but after rebalancing, remounting the guide scope, attaching the dew heaters, etc., etc., it was beginning to get seriously dark.
The goal on this evening was to finally, after all these years, get a convincingly good image of M33, a.k.a. “The Triangulum Galaxy,” a.k.a. “The Pinwheel Galaxy.” I’ve been trying for this one since the film days, but my attempts had never really coincided with clear, dark skies and a short enough focal length to correctly frame the big thing well. I hoped this night would be different.
I was a little concerned about the guiding problems I’d had the previous evening, but the solution soon became evident. Looking at the PHD2 video display with fresher, less blurry eyes than on the first night revealed my 50mm guide scope was badly out of focus. I tightened that up, calibrated PHD2, and good guiding quality immediately returned.
What did I do for the two hours required to get the sub-frames for the galaxy image (added to the hour I spent getting set up)? Hung out with my mates, talked with the two young women from CNN who were doing a report on amateur astronomy and had paid us a visit. Wandered inside to look at the TV. “Rested my eyes now and then.”
Finally, the laptop emitted the little fanfare that means “I am done, Rod.” How well done? I knew I was on the right track as the subs were being taken—after this many years I can tell if the raw images appearing on my monitor are going to make the grade. Indeed, the next morning, I did a quick processing job on the pictures and was very pleased. Processing was easy, as it always is when you’ve got properly exposed subs from a dark, clear sky, and while I’ll let you judge, I was pretty thrilled with the finished product.
It was hard to believe Saturday was here and it was time for my presentation, but it was. My talk was “Amateur Astronomy the Old Fashioned Way,” my paen to visual observing, and I’m happy to say it was very well received. While this was only the third time I’ve given this one, I’m beginning to hit my stride with it I think. One thing that helped was that it provided a good contrast with other presentations this year, which tended to concern imaging and be tech heavy. More than a few amateurs still like to do their observing the old fashioned way with eye and eyepiece.
Saturday was also decision time. The trip back to Mobile would not be punishing, but at just over seven hours, it wouldn’t be short. I had stacks of papers to grade for my Monday classes, and I really wanted to get away as early as possible Sunday morning. At first light if possible.
I decided I just had to pack up the scopes Saturday afternoon. Hated to do it, but I’d gotten (I thought) outstanding images of M33 and of M15, and that was exactly what I’d had on my agenda. Not observing with my own scopes Saturday night would also allow me to spend an evening on the PSSG field visiting my fellow amateur astronomers. Finally, the weather, which had been a little damp but dead clear the past two evenings, was looking like it would not be as good Saturday with some clouds on the way.
The clouds that drifted through occasionally didn’t help imagers, but really didn’t hinder the visual folks out on the field much at first. Rich, me, and Rich’s wife, Sharon, who’d arrived earlier in the day bearing the makings for a wonderful dinner for our little group, hiked out to the field and spent quite some time with friendly Dob mavens looking at a variety of objects. Eventually, however, the clouds began to intrude, even for visual, and the temperatures to drop (into the mid 40s), and we headed back to Dan’s. I spent the balance of the night watching Svengoolie, who was showing an old favorite, The Cat and the Canary, just making it to the end of the film before it was off to dreamland for me.
Next morning, just after first light, I said my goodbyes and hit the road with mixed emotions. I’d had a great time, sure, but if I’d known it was going to be this good, I’d darned sure have come up earlier. That’s just the way it goes in the amateur astronomy game, though, and I have some hopes of making it back to this great American star party again before another 13 years elapse.
Nota bene: You can see a whole album of PSSG 2015 pictures on my Facebook page...
Sunday, October 18, 2015
Everybody's having a great time at the 2015 Peach State Star Gaze. Wish you were here! Look for a full report next week...
Sunday, October 11, 2015
I’m Going to a Star Party
I’m going to a star party,
Baby do you wanna go?
I’m going to a star party,
Baby do you wanna go?
If you can’t make it, baby,
Your sister Lucille says she wants to go,
And I sure will take her…
It is now fall star party season, and if you are a novice, at least as far as attending big, organized amateur events, you may be puzzled. Maybe a little apprehensive. Perhaps even scared. What do you take with you? How do you set up? This is ground we’ve covered here before, but it’s been a while, and my thoughts on the subject continue to evolve even after my years and years of star party attendance.
What to Bring?
Let’s begin with the most important thing, a CHECKLIST. Do you know The Eyepiece Guy? That legendary amateur astronomer, always the friend of a friend in the club in the next city over, who travels all the way to the Texas Star Party without his eyepieces? You don’t want to be that guy. He might be real, or he might just be the stuff of cautionary tales, but it could happen. Spend some time making up a checklist so you don’t have to be him. As you are packing your vehicle, actually check stuff off your checklist after—and only after—it is in the car.
Which brings us to “Which telescope?” A telescope isn’t all you’ll need, of course, but it is sorta the most important thing if you, unlike a few folks I encounter at star parties, actually intend to observe, not just hobnob with your fellow astronomers. Anyhow, the answer to this one is pretty simple: a telescope that will be effective for the sort of observing you plan to do.
If you think you want to hunt galaxy groups, don’t convince yourself your 4-inch C102 refractor will be adequate for the task because the skies will be so much better than at home. At a star party you can leave a telescope set up on the field for the whole event, no need to worry about hauling it back in the house when you are done, so use the biggest gun you’ve got if that fits in with your observing program.
Just don’t let that telescope be a new telescope unless it’s a simple new telescope like a Dobsonian or a refractor on an unpowered alt-az mount. Most of the amateurs I see having gear trouble at star parties are those with complicated new scopes/mounts: “I didn’t get a chance to use it after it came; I figured I’d check it out when we got here.” Uh-uh. Combine an unfamiliar scope with the excitement and potential stress of a big star party and the result can be frustration and wasted hours under the stars.
Just don’t let that telescope be a new telescope unless it’s a simple new telescope like a Dobsonian or a refractor on an unpowered alt-az mount. Most of the amateurs I see having gear trouble at star parties are those with complicated new scopes/mounts: “I didn’t get a chance to use it after it came; I figured I’d check it out when we got here.” Uh-uh. Combine an unfamiliar scope with the excitement and potential stress of a big star party and the result can be frustration and wasted hours under the stars.
“Telescope”? Just one? Should you do telescopes instead? I’ve occasionally brought more than one instrument to an event. Usually a wide field refractor piggybacked on my SCT or a small standalone wide-field like the StarBlast. I’ve actually even used these instruments, since they provide different capabilities than my CATs or my 12-inch Dobsonian. The times I’ve taken a second telescope that didn’t do as good a job of of that, of supplementing the main rig, the secondary telescope has sat unused for the whole event.
Take what you will need and use, nothing more. If you haven’t used your binoviewer in ten years, I think you can safely leave it at home. If you’re not sure what all you need, I strongly suggest you conduct a backyard observing run viewing the same sorts of objects you plan to observe at the star party. Even if you can’t see them very well from the back forty, this should give you an idea of the specific gear you need…eyepieces…adapters…diagonals…etc., etc.
Before leaving home, double-check your accessory box (I use a big Plano fishing tackle box despite not knowing a spinning reel from a purple worm) to make sure all the items you’ll need are in it. I tend to use things at home in the backyard and then fail to put them back in the Plano. Triple check. Leave your red flashlight behind? A vendor at the star party can help you. Forget the SCT’s visual back? Might not be quite as easy to find one on the dealers’ tables (if there are dealers; they are becoming an endangered species at star parties). The IR filter you use in your camera? Uh-oh.
Certainly you should take along plenty of Ds, Cs, AAs, and AAAs for whatever you have in your inventory that might need them, but I am specifically talking about 12-volt batteries to run telescopes, cameras, computers, and dew heaters. Yes, most star parties have some 120-volt AC available (don’t forget to take your extension cords and power strips), and if it is available I will run all my gear on it, but don’t expect it to be available. Sometimes there aren’t enough outlets for everybody, and if you are not among the first folks on the field you will get caught out. Take batteries (and chargers) sufficient to run everything and plan to run off batteries.
These are things that are not quite astronomy-gear per-se, not telescopes or eyepieces or cameras, but which are still vital to your observing. An observing chair is at the top of the list. At a star party, you’ll hopefully be observing for longer stretches than you do in the backyard or at the club site, and you want to be comfortable so you can put in some hours. You’ll also need an observing table, something for your eyepiece case, laptop, and charts. There are plenty of good, lightweight camping tables. Don’t scrimp on quality or size. You’ll also want something to sit on in the daytime. I favor inexpensive canvas folding camp chairs; you know, the ones that come in the nylon bags. Finally, and a biggie, is an EZ-Up, a tent canopy. That will keep the Sun off your head in the daytime and the dew off your head at night when you are not at the eyepiece. Ease of set up is a must, with the original EZ-Up brand and the Coleman canopies being at the top of my list in that regard.
Most of us use computerized charts even if we don’t run the telescope with a computer. The laptop will also provide you with entertainment during the day or on (horrors) cloudy nights. You can watch DVD movies with it and even check up on Facebook on those blasted punk evenings if the star party site has wi-fi. As with the scope, plan on running the PC on batteries. The built in battery will not be enough, so pack a 12-volt battery and an inverter just for the lappie.
Before enumerating what you’ll need here, let’s discuss the larger question “To tent camp or not to tent camp?” For the longest time, I eschewed tents. If there was even a 3rd class motel nearby, I’d stay in that motel. I'll still opt for a motel room if there’s a reasonably nice hostelry close at hand like a Holiday Inn Express or a Best Western. I have gotten tired of the el cheapos, though—the Days Inns and the Quality Inns and their brethren. I now find I prefer a tent to spending 100 bucks a night and wondering whether the bedbugs will bite.
There is a third path, of course, star party cabins. Whether that is a better option for you than a tent depends on the star party. A tent is better than a bug infested chickie cabin, but there are events with not just bearable but excellent housing. Again, it depends on the star party in question. Ask around at the club and online as to the quality of the event’s accommodations and judge whether they are superior to a tent for the price.
I prefer a tent sometimes, yeah, but it has to be the right tent. The right tent really has one major attribute as far as I’m concerned: you can stand up in it. If you can’t, you’ll get awfully tired of it in a hurry, I’ve found. Whether changing clothes or just arranging the stuff under the canvas, you need to be able to stand up to do those things comfortably. For sure, get a bigger tent than you think you will need. For one or two people, a five or six person tent, at a minimum, is good. Oh, you might be able to make do with a pup tent for a night or two, but you won’t be very happy with it.
Almost as important as size is ease of set up. Remember, the tent will be but one element of your field setup along with the EZ-Up, the telescope, the observing table, etc., etc., etc. You want a tent that’s easy to pitch, even if you haven’t done it in a while. Especially if, like me, you occasionally arrive on an observing field as the Sun is beginning to sink. Luckily, there's no shortage of easy to pitch tent models these days and that doesn’t have to compromise their size or other features.
Which particular tent or at least tent brand? You certainly don’t want to lowball it as low as you can go. BUT…you don’t have to spend for a tent suitable for an Everest expedition either. If you’re like me, you’ll probably use the tent two or three times a year at most, and something in the 150 – 200 dollar range is more than adequate. Which brand specifically? What still does it for me is good, old Coleman, and particularly their “Instant” series. While getting my Coleman up isn’t exactly instant, it’s easy enough, especially considering that it is a large cabin tent. At 150 bucks at Wally-World, one trip's use in lieu of a Days Inn room more than paid for it.
What goes in the tent? Most of all, a sleeping bag. The main consideration here is one that is warm enough, but not too warm. It’s not a bad idea to have a couple of bags, one for spring/summer and one for fall/winter. Check the forecast and use the one that is appropriate for the temperatures you will face. Since, as with tents, it’s not necessary to buy one suitable for wilderness expeditions, you can afford two without skimping too much on quality.
More important than the bag you choose, really, is what you put it on. What do you not put it on? The floor of the tent. Even with a pad, and even if you are young and hearty, the hard and cold ground will soon make you feel lousy. Much better is an air mattress—a real one, not an inflatable pool toy—but that’s still not good enough for me. I find I am more comfortable with the sleeping bag on a camp cot. I simply prefer being elevated off the ground. Cots that fold up and take up little room in your vehicle are plentiful and cheap.
At the far end of star party season as December comes in, it’s possible you’ll find your tent too cold. I encountered that in Florida, believe it or not, last winter. The solution is a heater for the tent. You have to be careful, of course; you don’t want the tent (and you) to go down in flames. There are two alternatives. A catalytic heater or an electric heater. Catalytic heaters, which run on the little Coleman propane bottles, don’t have open flames so they are safe as far as fire goes. They do consume oxygen, however, so you need to have some ventilation. Many of the recent models will shut off or warn you if they detect a low oxygen condition.
I use a catalytic heater under the EZ-Up, a Black Cat (Coleman) heater specifically, but I tend to use an electric heater in the tent. You need to exercise caution, sure, but electric models are available that are safe. What you want is one that automatically shuts off if it is tipped over. Never place it on the floor of the tent; only on a table. Do that and you should be good to go. If you’re in a decent sleeping bag, a little electric heater can keep you reasonably comfortable despite a tent’s lack of insulation.
If you’re going to put the heater on a table, you need a table. I’ve got a couple of the small aluminum folding jobs sold in the outdoor departments of Wal-Mart, Academy, etc., and they work well in and out of the tent for a variety of uses at star parties.
On the Field
OK, you’ve got your gear packed with the help of your checklist and you are soon pulling onto that storied observing field. What next? Where do you set up? How do you set up?
If you arrive early, you may have your pick of field positions. If so, go for one that is, above all, level. A scope, especially a Dobsonian, is happier on reasonably level ground, and your tent will be more comfortable if the floor is flat. Horizon? Depends on you. If I’ve got my choice of spots and one horizon is better from a particular field position than others (often because of the tree line on the edge of the field), I tend to pick a spot with a good view to the east, since it’s fun to do the "new" stuff on the rise.
So, you pick your spot and assemble the telescope, the EZ-Up, and the tent. That’s, by the way, the order in which I do things. If I am running late, especially, the telescope is the number one priority. Get that put together, and I can observe and if necessary sleep in my vehicle on the first night. How exactly do you arrange your gear on the field? However you like as long as you don’t take up more than your share of space.
At some star parties, you can have as much room as you want, but due to crowding at the more popular events, rules often restrict you. How will you know? In these cases you’ll usually find the organizers have marked off field spots in some fashion. Anyway, I like to set my tent up next to the EZ-Up and the telescope if that is permitted. Be aware that at some events a tent on the observing field is a no-no. At a few of the largest and most crowded star parties you cannot even have an EZ-Up on the field. Check the rules before you arrive.
Once set up is done, you are likely going to be feeling a bit peckish. What do you do about food? If there’s a meal plan available, I invariably sign up for it. Star party food varies in quality, naturally, but I’ve never been to an event in all my years as an amateur where the food was completely inedible. It’s also usually cheaper to do the meal plan than eat at area restaurants, if any are available. Finally, it's fun to take your meals with your fellow amateurs. Some of my best star party memories are of fun and food with my compadres. If you want star party food, sign up in advance. Usually you can’t opt for the meal plan after you arrive (“Hmmm….the grub looks pretty good after all!”).
No meals and no restaurants? You can always cook on the field. I’ve done that a time or two, and as long as there is water available for cooking and cleaning—and it would really be a primitive affair if there weren’t—it’s not bad. There are various strategies from MREs to electric hotplates, but my advice is to just invest in a familiar Coleman camp stove.
Or not so familiar. Camp stoves are better than they used to be. Most feature electric start, and the nasty "white gas" they used to burn has been replaced by the same convenient small propane cylinders catalytic heaters use. You can get as fancy as you want, but I am good with a simple two-burner stove to heat soup, chili, and similar. I can exist on that for a few days , no problem. Back in my former life where I allowed myself to eat such things, I always had plenty of chips, cookies, etc. to supplement the canned fare. Today? Can of soup or Dinty Moore or Chef Boyardee spaghetti. Maybe a granola bar or some unsalted peanuts for late night snacking and I am happy enough. Really.
What can make you tireder in the middle of the night than you should be? Dehydration. Bring plenty of bottled water (and maybe ice and an ice chest, too, if the weather is warm) with you and drink it frequently. I also find sports drinks to be efficacious. Tea and coffee have their place, too. And I’ll still drink a (low carb) energy drink when I need a boost. What is one thing I look askance at on the field? Alcohol. It ruins your night vision, and at a few star parties I’ve attended over the years it’s caused no end of trouble thanks to a few folks who didn't know when to say when. Save the booze for after the run is finished and don't annoy your friends if you've had a snoot full.
Scope, tent, and EZ-Up are good to go. Your stomach is no longer rumbling. What’s next? You tour the field and hang out with and schmooze with your fellow amateurs. When evening comes, you observe like crazy for as long as you can go. When you are done, you cover the scope with a Desert Storm (mylar) style cover or similar scope cover, shut off the computer and whatever else you’ve got running, and head to the tent or cabin or motel. I mention this because some newbies are unsure what to do with the telescope at the end of the evening. Take it down each night just like at home and stow it in the car? That is not necessary at any star party I’ve ever attended and is one of the beauties of a multi-day event. Cover scope, go to bed, uncover scope the next night, observe again.
Finally? Your star party won’t always be perfect. You’ll usually forget something no matter how careful you are, and the scope or some other piece of gear will invariably suffer some sort of hiccup. But I think you will find that even a slightly problematic star party is way more fun than sitting home, and will furnish you with some of the best memories you’ll have in your amateur astronomy career. If this season is your first fall star party season, all I can say is, “I envy you.” In a way you don’t know what amateur astronomy is really all about until you attend your first big one. Have fun.