Tuesday, October 28, 2008

 

The 8-mm Ethos Faces Dark Skies


“Astronomy is a game for the patient.” How well I know the truth of that little maxim. After 43 years in this glorious avocation, I know all too well that it's just when the brass ring finally seems in reach that you get skunked. Bright blue skies and chirping birds tempt and tantalize and then morph into dark clouds and croaking toadfrogs. That was the way it was a few days before I planned to head on down to the Chiefland Astronomy Village.

The weather along our often cloud-shrouded Gulf Coast had been lovely. Crisp. Almost cool. In October, for gosh sakes. Then, just before I was to head south to the storied CAV, the forecast icons on wunderground.com’s page began to change from happy little Suns and Moons to nasty old clouds.

Which was just what I didn’t need. After a punishing summer and fall at work, I was ready for a break, and the (new) Chiefland Star Party seemed the perfect place to get one. If you’ve been hiding under a rock the last decade or so, the Chiefland Star Party is a great big do under dark skies near the little Florida town of Chiefland. It's an event that has in the past attracted upwards of 300 deep sky-crazed amateur astronomers. Unfortunately, this much-loved venue had rapidly outgrown its facilities. There was no longer enough room for talks, vendors, porta-potties, or telescopes. For that reason, the CSP took a couple of years off.

For a while it appeared that “couple of years” might become “forever.” But the CSP was just too good to let it ride off into the Sunset, and it was to be back this fall with plenty of electricity, a more enclosed area for vendors, a better place to hold talks (than the old open-air pavilion) and, most of all, a new and much larger observing field. I was counting the days to 24 October and the beginning of Chiefland 08, especially since I had an agenda.

Agenda? Yep, spelled “E-t-h-o-s.” I sprang for the 13mm uber eyepiece several months ago, and dug way down deep for the 8mm a few weeks back, but had not yet had the opportunity to get either of them out to a dark site or, thanks to Gulf Coast summer clouds, storms, and HURRICANES, even do much at our semi-dark club site. The limited observing I’d been able to do from our compromised skies indicated the Ethoses were indeed amazing. Maybe even astounding. But I couldn’t put the final nail in the coffin of 82 degree apparent field oculars until I could try these 100 degree AFOV puppies out somewhere where the Milky Way doesn't just shine, but blazes.

Suddenly it looked as if that might not happen, at least not in the limited amount of time I’d be Down Chiefland Way. Due to my always koo-koo schedule, I planned to arrive on the Wednesday prior to the star party (I am a Chiefland club member, so that would be permissible) and stay through only the first weekend of this week-long event.

When I went to bed Tuesday night, it wasn’t looking good. “Partly cloudy tonight” forecasts had been modified to “GOOD chance of thunderstorms all evening” for two of the four nights I would be in onsite. Nevertheless, the next morning I packed the Toyota and headed south. I’ve always had a great time at CAV—rain or shine.

What did I take with me in addition to my two pretty babies? The scope would be my time honored 12.5-inch truss tube Dobsonian "Old Betsy," who’s proved her mettle over 15 observing seasons. Why her instead of one of my CATs? I love my SCTs, sure, but nothing makes for a more impressive visual experience than the wide fields of a fast (Betsy's an f/4.8) Newtonian. I will also admit to y’all that after working on my forthcoming book, Choosing and Using a New CAT (November), for nearly two years I was ready for a short break from SCTs, much as I love ‘em.

The drive down was uneventful and was made more pleasant by my iPod, which I’d loaded up with an audio book, Walter Isaacson’s Einstein: His Life and Universe. The way gas prices have fallen didn’t hurt my digestion neither. Best of all, the farther south I went, the better the skies looked. The bad weather that had been moving into Possum Swamp seemed to have been following me into Florida, but almost as soon I passed Tallahassee and left I-10 for U.S. 19, The Florida - Georgia Parkway, the skies had begun to turn blue again.

As the afternoon wore on and I got closer to my destination, I did begin to notice an increasing number of fluffy-white members of the cloud tribe. These were still relatively small and few, though, and I reassured myself they were likely just “a few afternoon clouds off’n the Gulf.” By the time I’d checked into the Chiefland Holiday Inn Express (my usual “campsite”), and headed out to the CAV, though, the sky was degrading rapidly and there was now a feel in the air that hinted bad weather was on the way. The only question was "when."

Otherwise? Quite a few folks were on the old "club" field already, and it was obvious from the number of vehicles on the official star party site just to the west that the revived CSP was going to be a big one this year. I began to set up in my usual location on the club field, opposite the picnic pavillions and just down from the Clubhouse, which was the spot my friend Pat Rochford and I had used for years. As soon as he saw me on the field, however, my old buddy Tom Clark (of Tectron Telescopes and Amateur Astronomy Magazine fame), roared over on his golf cart and convinced me to move to right outside his shop and close to the dome of the 42-inch Beast. We—me, fellow writer Steve Coe and a couple of other friends—would have a mini-star party of our own right in the Clarks' "backyard."

After I’d got Betsy moved with Tom's assistance, had set up the EZ-up canopy, and spent some time chatting with Tom and wife Jeannie, I took a critical look at the sky. One glance and I began to lose hope for Wednesday night. More clouds, now—thick, dark suckers. But then, almost magically, they began to thin and clear. My record was unbroken. As I observed to Tom, in all the years I’ve been observing at Chiefland I have never yet been totally skunked; I have always had at least part of one evening every single trip. As the Milky Way began to glow and then burn, it was obvious this trip would be no different.

Tom and I unlimbered his fantastic 24-inch f/4.5, “Mini-Beast,” inserted the 13E, and got to work. Just as twilight ended, we thought to take a look at M22, which would soon be too low to fool with. Tom centered the big Sagittarius glob, and then squawked. Earlier, I thought I’d detected a little skepticism about the Ethoses from this Dobsonian guru, but it was clear ol’ T.C. was liking what he was seeing.

When I pressed my eye to the 13, I was ready to be impressed, but not nearly knocked off the ladder as I was. What was before me (that seems a more apt way of describing the Ethos experience than “in the eyepiece”) was an enormous globe of tiny, tiny stars. The big old grandpappy glob literally filled that enormous field. Again, as I have said before to all who will listen, it was not just the big field that was so amazing. Oh, that was part of it, but what was CRAZY was how sharp the image was. And how high the contrast was. With M22 not much above 25 degrees, I expected mushiness, but that was most assuredly not what I got. It was crisp, it was beautiful, and the stars were deadly-sharp pinpoints despite their low-altitude.

I was, frankly, also interested to see what the Ethos would be like in a fast(er) scope like this f/4.5. As you may know, not even Nagler and Ethos eyepieces will do anything to counteract coma. To “fix” this problem of faster Newtonians, to get them edge-stars back to being pinpoints instead of comets, you need a TeleVue Paracorr (or other coma corrector). Which we didn’t use. I have heard some comments that coma seems worse with the Ethoses than with the Naglers, since the field is significantly larger. My verdict? That may be the case, but I did not find the effect pronounced or disturbing in this f/4.5. In fact, I didn’t notice much coma at all the whole time we was admiring M22. I just drank it in. When I did think to worry about the field edge, yes, it was there. Is the coma displayed in the 13 Ethos more obvious than that in a 13mm Nagler due to the 100 degrees of AFOV? Perhaps a little bit for some folks, but I didn’t find the overall coma level in the 13E more troubling than it was in Tom’s 13mm Nagler.

What else did I notice? I’m sure I’ll take some flack from the Ethos nay-sayers, but at the risk of being dubbed an “Ethos Elitist,” yes, swapping back and forth between the 13 Ethos and 13 Nagler, I was slapped in the face AFOV-wise. I ain’t a-gonna sugar-coat it for you. Going back to a “mere” Nagler was very similar to my first experience with Naglers: the Nagler ruined my Erfles and Plossls for me, and the Ethos has ruined Naglers for me. Both Tom and I commented that, alas, the wonderful Nagler spacewalk just wasn’t so wonderful no more. Some of you won’t like me saying this, but there it is. You may think different or think you’ll think different, but that’s what I experienced on this night.

Could I still be happy with a 13 Nagler? Sure. I guess. The Nag’s a fine eyepiece, but it would be a long time before I would be able get those mind-blowing Ethos visions outa my mind and be able to truly love a Nagler again. It wasn’t just that way with magnificent M22, either. One showpiece after another was as beautiful as the last in the 13: M13, M92, M17 and on and on.

But that was the 13mm, and I’m sure y’all are tired of hearing me gush about it. What about the 8-mm? I had to wait to find out. My first evening at Chiefland started with a depressing number of clouds in the sky, segued into a truly inspirational sky tour with Mini-Beast and the 13mm, and descended into a depressing morass of cloudy skies as the promised storm front began to push in around midnight. Didn’t I use the 8mm at all? I did, but very poor seeing ahead of the storm did not allow it to shine in the 24-inch, or even in my 12.5-inch. No, I’d wait for good weather before seriously putting it through its paces. Surely I’d have the chance; I’d be at the site until the following Sunday. For Unk it was back to the Holiday Inn for a whiskey nightcap, those wacky UFO Hunters, and hopes for better skies Thursday night.

If I couldn’t look through the 8 Ethos, maybe I could look at it? This eyepiece is very much the little brother of the 13. The 8 is both slightly smaller and slightly lighter than Bubba. In other ways, it is identical. Like the 13mm, the 8mm returns to the days of the TeleVue “skirt;” it is a hybrid 1.25-inch/2-inch eyepiece. Also like the 13, the build quality of the 8 is faultless. It is beautifully put together. Everything that needs to be is more than sufficiently blackened to prevent reflections. That includes, judging by some “strip-down” photos of a disassembled 8mm on the Cloudy Nights website, its 9 lens elements, which have blackened edges. This one is a little less impressive than the 13: it’s shorter, and it doesn’t come in the near valise-sized box of the 13, but it is still very impressive in its quality and solidity.

As we went from clouds late Wednesday night to purty-much torrential rain early Thursday morning, to leaden skies and occasional rain Thursday night, to more of the same all day Friday and Friday night, I admit I did begin to wonder whether I would get to try the 8mm at all this trip. The weekend was here, and other than those few hours Wednesday night I hadn't seen a blessed thing.

What did I do while waiting on a predicted front passage that seemed to keep being delayed? I spent quite a few hours sitting in Tom's shop shooting the breeze with him, Jeannie, and Steve Coe. Friday afternoon, Steve and I enjoyed an hour or two in Chiefland's one and only steak house, Deke's, eating the insanely cheap and good fare and talking about the current state of the amateur astronomy biz. After a nice thick, juicy ribeye with all the fixings, I was definitely in a better mood no matter how the sky looked.

Mostly, though, my routine was the same each day: sleep as late as I could in the morning. Enjoy the Holiday Inn Express' crazy breakfast of cinnamon rolls, biscuits, gravy, bacon and sausage. Tour Walmart for supplies like Monster Energy Drinks. Internet browsing and writing back in the room. Early supper at Chiefland's prime eatery, Bar B-Q Bill's. Out to the CAV to see what the sky would do. Get chased back to the motel by clouds and rain. Sign off for the day after a little Rebel Yell and cable TV.

After spending the first part of Friday night sitting in Tom's shop twiddling my thumbs and sticking my head out the door frequently to look at the sky, I thought I had begun to notice a change in the weather. Ol’ cockeyed optimist me then predicted “some viewing” Friday evening, but I was proven badly wrong and had to endure some good-natured ribbing along the lines of, “You brought two new Ethoses with ya? We know what attracted them clouds, then." The only astronomy gear I tested Friday night was my new Astrogizmos red/white LED flashlight, which helped me find my way back to the Toyota in the dark as the rain began to fall again.

Luckily for my scalp, it appeared the heavens would clear for Saturday night, if not as quickly as we’d hoped. The cold front did not begin to move through in earnest until about 10pm, but when it did, it did, and scopes were quickly uncovered both in our area, the Clarks’ backyard and the club field, and on the star party observing field itself.

And how about the actual, official Chiefland Star Party? I was registered, but did not spend a lot of time over there. I was having too great a time with my buddies at the Clarks’ and the rain and drizzle did not encourage tramping across the big New Field, anyway. I did note on my couple of trips that-a-way that the good folk there seemed happy—well, as happy as amateur astronomers get under cloudy skies.

The event appeared well-organized, and there were some welcome additions this year, including the presence of “Micki’s Kitchen,” the catering outfit that has been selling food at the Winter Star Party for a while. Jeannie and I hoofed it over there one cloudy night in hopes of getting some of their famed chocolate brownies, but wouldn't you know it, they were sold out. The ugly skies appeared to be keeping star party attendance down on Friday, but the large field had begun to fill on Saturday morning as more attendees rolled-in with the promise of clear weather.

By 10pm Saturday the cover was finally off the ol’ Dobbie again, the Sky Commander was aligned, and I was ready to see what my other expensive glass could do. What to look at? With the sky not completely dark and a few clouds still hanging-in to the south and west, I turned to M2, the great globular cluster in Aquarius. What did I think? Beautiful. Just be-yoo-tiful. Oh, maybe not quite as cool as M22 had been in the 13 Ethos the previous evening, but, then, M2 is not the glob M22 is.

As it was, the cluster was impressively resolved, with plenty of stars crisscrossing a core filled with misty light. As a test, I swapped in the 13. Nice too. Nice? Hell, “outstanding.” But I preferred the 8. In the still-bright skies, the higher magnification of the 8mm provided more contrast and more resolution. Coma? That’s minimal at best in my f/5 telescope, so I hotfooted it over to the 24-inch and gave it a try on M2 as well. Verdict? As with the 13E, the larger apparent field does make the condition of field edge stars more noticeable. As mentioned above, the Ethoses, like the Naglers, are not designed to do anything to reduce coma, and don’t.

Is the 8-mm perfect, then? No. No eyepiece is. Each is a compromise and the 8 Ethos (like the 13) is no different. Its faults? I had to look long and hard to find something to downcheck it on. I certainly didn’t notice any astigmatism. Nor could I detect any modicum of barrel distortion or “pincushioning” as I cruised rich Milky Way star fields. The only nasty negativism of note is that it is my impression than both Ethoses are prone to a bit more “blackout” effects than some of the Naglers. Don’t hold your eye in the right spot when viewing, and you do notice dark patches in the field, especially with a bright background.

In part this “problem” may be due in part to the fact that the Ethoses offer more eye relief, about 15-mm, than most ultrawides. That makes it—for me anyway—a little harder to position my eye properly. I did find leaving the eyeguard/cup up helped me get my eye in the right spot. I don’t normally use eye cups on eyepieces, but using one on the Ethos was not a problem. Even with it up, I could easily take-in all of that great, huge porthole. Now, don’t get me wrong about this: blackout is not a major problem with these oculars. Certainly they demonstrate far less than something like, say, the 35mm Panoptic (still a fave of mine, nevertheless). It’s also been my observation that it takes me a while to “learn” to use an eyepiece, and that once I do, things like eye-positioning begin to come easily and naturally.

I said I was through gushing. I lied. I can’t help it given what I saw on this Saturday night. I started off my observing run by working the Herschel 400, which I'd resolved to finally get done, using the excellent book Steve O'Meara's Herschel 400 Observing Guide. What really brought me up short was how much all those little galaxies scattered down through Pegasus looked like their pictures.

Wanting something a little prettier than the run-of-the-mill H400 galaxy, I punched NGC 7331, “Andromeda Junior,” into the Sky Commander. Not only was the main galaxy bright and detailed, the Deer in the Deerlick (Ask me what Steve Coe’s new nickname for this one is some time!), the little companion galaxies nearby, were as evident as I’ve ever seen them in Betsy. Swinging over to M74, I was surprised to see this sometimes difficult spiral’s arms standing out like sore thumbs. I don’t think I’ve had as good a view of this challenging face-on spiral in the 12.5-inch since one special night at the Deep South Regional Star Gaze nearly 15 years ago. Hell, I didn’t think my eyes were still good enough to see something like this. What else?

M31 was riding high, why not? 8mm may sound like a lot of magnification to use on this elephant of a galaxy, but it really is not, not if you want details instead of just the big picture. As with M74, I saw more of M31 than I’d seen in a long time. Heck, I don’t know I’ve ever had as good a view of this monster with any scope. Start with the dark lanes. Two were starkly visible. The satellite galaxies, M32 and M110? M32 nearly ruined my night vision. M110 was large—huge—and I seemed to see some sort of fleeting detail near its core. Speaking of galactic nuclei, M31’s core on this evening in the 8 was not merely “star-like,” it was a tiny blazing pinpoint. I also noticed that something I have had a lot of trouble with over the years, the galaxy’s enormous star cloud, NGC 206, was not merely “suspected” or “visible,” it was bright and easy. My only regret is that I didn’t spend some time hunting down some of M31’s horde of globular clusters when I was in the neighborhood. Next time.

So is the 8mm Ethos magic? Really, really magic? There was definitely magic in my eyepiece on this night. But was it the eyepiece or was it the excellent Chiefland skies? No doubt the good conditions in the wake of a front passage had something to do with the excellent views, but I am convinced this wonder-eyepiece deserves its share of the credit. Certainly its superior sharpness and contrast couldn’t help but aid in bringing this sufeit of marvels into view for my middle-aged eyes. The only bad thing? I had to stop way before I was ready.

As often happens—to hapless me, anyway—the best skies came on the last night (for me) of the star party. Sunday morning I had to drive back home to Chaos Manor South where stacks of ungraded student papers awaited my attention. Reluctantly, I Desert-Stormed Betsy at about 1:30 in the am. Turned out I could have pressed on a while longer. When I got back to the motel, I found I just couldn’t sleep. Even a few fingers of Rebel Yell didn’t help. My mind was too focused on the glories I’d seen, on the great expanses of The Andromeda Nebula I’d wandered across. Me and my Ethos.

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