Sunday, June 24, 2007


Tales from the Possum Swamp Astronomical Society

Let's turn back the clock, muchachos ….waaay back to the early 1990s. Back in them days, female amateurs were still something of a rarity among astronomy club members. The PSAS was actually better balanced in that regard than a lot of clubs, with the Founding Members roster (1984) being composed of almost 1/3 women. Still, some jaws dropped when purty (well, purty young, anyhow) Junie Moon walked into one of the PSAS’s monthly meetings one quiet summer evening.

Things were just getting underway at the club’s usual meeting place, the backroom of Snuffy Smith’s grocery/filling station/bait shop, when a little blonde flounced in and chirped, “Howdy, y’all! I jus’ LOVE the stars.”

After our club President at the time, Bubba (he of the 300 pound physique, bald head, and bib-overalls), picked himself up off the floor, we greeted Junie effusively. Turned out she didn’t have a 'scope yet, and several of my (male) compadres crawled all over themselves in an effort to answer that always sticky question,“Which is Better, the Meade or the Celestron?” before our new member could even ask it.

This threw the whole meeting agenda into disarray (we was all set to argue about the prospect of an AL dues increase for a couple of hours ), and I noticed Club Queen and doyen-supreme, Miss Ellie, had an expression on her face that began as a slight downturn at the corners of her mouth, evolved into a frown, and came to rest as a downright sneer as Junie's cuteness began to reach critical mass with much giggling and eye-fluttering.

In the year or two that Junie Moon attended PSAS meetings, I watched her carefully (not that way, y’all…I’d long-since learned through bitter experience that perky blondes are poison for me—God love ‘em). She never had any shortage of admirers buzzing around her, trying (endlessly) to help her choose a telescope. Junie, it seemed, never could work herself around to making up her mind. Someone would start expounding on the utility of an 8-inch dob, for example, and before he (natch) could get far, Junie’s puzzled expression would give way to waves of giggles.

Still, Junie attended every meeting and most public star parties faithfully. When invited to look through a scope, she'd do so, if—I thought—somewhat half-heartedly. Her unvarying response? A disinterested, “Oh, my goodness, that looks nice.”

On the social side, I recall a few of my brothers tried to make dates with Junie, but she had a marvelous facility for deflecting these proposals, “Oh, I do love the way you joke around, it just kills me.” Miss Ellie would grit her teeth.

Frankly, I was a bit irritated myself. Well, kind of. Normally, I’d have said something to my bros about their behavior regrading Junie. Back in the bad old days, reasonably attractive young women were so few in number at most astronomy clubs that the appearance of one inspired male members to a bull-moose stampede that soon chased the object of their imagined desires away. It was, I'll admit, amusing to see mousy little Hiram, an accountant by profession, try to play Me Tarzan, You Jane with Miss Moon. Junie seemed to positively be enjoying herself, anyway, so who was I to spoil her fun—or save my comrades from middle-aged-silliness? I stayed out of it.

By the time October rolled around, the PSAS was showing some division in the formerly solid ranks. Junie’s appearance at a club function inspired a collective intake of breath and delighted smiles in male members. Meanwhile, on the other side of the room or observing field, distaff PSAS-ites muttered barely inaudible bad words when The Junie bounced in.

It all finally came to a head at the annual Hoot-Owl Star Party (HOSP), the big yearly event down here; one that draws amateurs from as far away as Jackson, Mississippi, if you can believe that. Shortly after my arrival on-site, I was standing in the parking lot near the PSAS' assigned cabin talking with Ellie, who was in an expansive mood inspired by the prospect of taking first light with her brand-new 15-inch Dobsonian. This mood was spoiled by the appearance on the scene of Junie, who greeted Ellie as if she were a long-lost friend:

“Oh, Mizz Ellie, it is so good to see you. Maybe you can help me. Do you have any pepper?” Miss E. was both mollified by Junie’s turning to her for help and also mystified.


“Yes, ma’m. Some black pepper.”

“What do you need pepper for, girl?”

“I need to put some in my shoes. You know…all these woods…to keep the boogers away.” It was my turn to be puzzled. Boogers? As in…something out of Junie’s cute little snub-nose? Then it dawned on me that what she was talking about was EVIL SPIRITS. It is an old country belief that pepper in the shoe keeps the evil eye, hobgoblins, haints, and all sorts of bad things at bay.

While I was pondering this country wisdom, Ellie had retrieved a truss tube from her vehicle and was advancing menacingly on Junie Moon, “Why you <censored> little snip of a girl, I have had just about enough of your <censored> foolishness."

Unfortunately, it was at this point that Junie unwisely chose to sass the physically imposing Miss E., “Well I’ve had enough of you, you mean old woman!” That did it. The last I saw of Junie, she was running across the observing field toward her car at break neck speed, just inches ahead of Ellie, who was swinging that truss pole like Casey at the bat. Poor Miss Moon was too scared to even do much hollering. Just ahead of certain doom, Junie hopped into her VW bug convertible and roared—well, puttered—away. Ellie? She was in uncharacteristically good humor for the remainder of the star party.

That was the last I saw of the infamous Junie Moon, muchachos, but not the last I heard of her. A mutual acquaintance ran into her one day at the Eastern Shore Centre (mall), Junie’s natural habitat. This person mentioned my name to Miss Moon, who allowed as I was “OK.” She added, though, that she’d had to drop out of the club not only because of the presence of a Mean Old Woman, but (she said), “Because the whole time I was at that silly Astrology club not one of them people would tell me my horoscope.”

The story you have just read is (almost) true. Only the names have been changed to protect the innocent (and the guilty).

Sunday, June 03, 2007


How Do You Mount a CAT?

That is, what kind of a mounting do you want for a catadioptric telescope; especially an SCT? For years I’d have said “fork it.” Since the Orange Tube C8 hit the streets in 1970, I’ve been buying SCTs as packages complete with integral fork-mountings. Until recently. I still use the forkers, but my love affair with ‘em is definitely over.

Why is that? Well, I’ll tell ya, muchachos, it’s largely a consequence of Your Old Uncle Rod getting up there into advanced middle age. Until recently, though, I saw no reason to change my scope buying and using habits. I’ve had a Celestron Ultima C8 for years. No, it ain’t got no go-to computer gee whizzery, but for the longest time I nevertheless considered it the last word in 8-inch SCTs. The U8 integrated a stupendously good OTA with a drive base containing a sweet Byers worm set, a DC drive, and PEC. To ride on this drive base, the U8 nestled in what was probably the heaviest fork ever furnished with an 8-inch SCT.

The end came one cold November star party. I had forgotten what it was like to use a non-go-to fork scope on a wedge (for you younguns, in the old days, a non-go-to scope had to be tilted over on a “wedge” for polar alignment purposes in order to track the stars). It was cold out on that observing field and I was spending a whole lot of time either kneeling on the icy ground or with my body entwined around the wedge like the gull-derned India rubber man at the fair. My contortions became especially painful when I wanted to view far northern targets. The next morning? I was flat stove up.

My solution, as I’ve recounted here before, was to buy a Celestron CG5 German equatorial mount (GEM), snatch the Ultima 8 OTA off her fork (which I’m storing in Chaos Manor South’s Massive Equipment Vault for old time’s sake), and keep on truckin'. What was ground-breaking for me, though, was not that the CG5 worked surprisingly well, but that it opened my eyes to a forkless kind of astronomy. Yes, I still use a fork mount Nexstar 11—it’s very comfortable to work with set up in alt-az mode—but even that’s being considered for an eventual forkectomy.

What makes the GEM alternative “better”?

—Easy to tote around. Even a C14 is approachable when you can break it into OTA, mount head, weights, and tripod. Those big fork-mount Meades (like that enormous RCX 14)? At my age they scare the living daylights out of me.

—Easy to balance. Proper balance is important for good tracking performance. If you’ve used a fork mount scope, you know that’s easier said than done. What do you do? Attach fussy little weights to fork arms? Fuss with a “3D” weight system on the tube that seems to have only one purpose: preventing you from balancing in declination? A GEM? Slide the RA counterweights up and down the shaft, move the tube fore or aft in the cradle, whoops! you’re done.

—Easy to use for imaging. Part of the GEM’s efficacy as an imaging platform is no doubt due to the balance factor above. Be that as it may, I find it’s easier to get good tracking—tracking good enough for imaging—out of fairly inexpensive GEMs than it is with some pretty impressive (otherwise) forks. I’ve spent quite a few evenings with Meade LX200 scopes that really had to be messed with in order to get ‘em autoguiding reliably.

—Easy to use on a variety of scopes. Want a bigger scope? Just buy a larger aperture OTA (within the payload limits of your particular GEM, of course). You can go smaller too. Point is, you don't have to buy another whole consarned scope every time you want more capability.

—Easy to keep untangled. I rarely have to worry about cord wrap with a GEM. It just doesn’t seem to happen. A fork, especially one set up in alt-az? I’m always tangling and pinching the dew heater cables.

—Easy to polar align. Maybe it’s just me, but I have always found futzing around with fork mount polar alignment to be a pain. I much prefer a good polar bore scope on a GEM. And quite a few GEM makers have developed software-driven polar alignment routines that make alignment good enough for casual imaging a snap.
—Easy to repair/replace when broken down/obsolete. When I was a fork fan, I worried a lot about how I was gonna get Celestron (or Meade) to fix my scope when the drive electronics fried. Now, I don’t worry about it. I’ll just get me a more-better-gooder GEM and keep on keeping on. Also, many GEMs can be fitted with replacement drives/electronics, often from third party manufacturers without a hassle. Imagine the reaction if I asked Celestron to fix my 1994 Ultima 8 electronics (to be fair, they never quit working).

Now, don’t get me wrong, True Believers, sure, my heart goes pitty-pat when I see a fine C14 Orange Tube, and pittypats even more in the presence of a Blue and White C10 or C16, but for me, the fork, I’m afraid, is yesterday. Now I spend my nights dreaming of obscenely huge Losmandy Titans, monstrous AP1200s, and humongous Mountain Instruments GEMs. I mean, what more can you ask for? More adaptability (which is what we SCT users are always talkin’ about as a hallmark of our favorite scope design) coupled with the ability to spend more dollars on more toys. Don’t get much better than that, does it?

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