Sunday, March 30, 2008

 

The Return of Amateur Astronomy

NO, not amateur astronomy; from what I can tell, that ain’t gone nowhere. From where I sit, our obsession appears healthier than ever (counted up the ads in 'Sky and Scope lately?) despite what some of Uncle Rod’s fellow curmudgeons might say down to the local club. No, I’m talking Amateur Astronomy as in Amateur Astronomy Magazine. Actually it didn’t go anywhere either. Except away from Chaos Manor South.

I go back a long way with the magazine's founder, Tom Clark, and over the years his Amateur Astronomy has been closely associated in my mind with Tom and wife Jeannie and my favorite observing venue, Chiefland Astronomy Village. Yes, Tom always sought contributions from amateurs across the country and world and solicited articles from everybody from bigdob builders to folks caught up in variable star measurement. Amateur Astronomy more than lived up to its masthead blurb: “News for, by, and about amateur astronomers around the world!” But it also always maintained a special and ineffable Chiefland flavor.

Tom kept on keeping on with AA, turning out one great issue after another after another for close to a decade-and-a-half. Sadly, though, all good things must end (that's what ever'body always says but nobody ever explains why) and Tom’s desire to actually relax (a little) during his retirement eventually led to his decision to pass AA on to other hands. I knew this was coming, and was prepared, but, still, the end of Tom Clark’s Amateur Astronomy was a downer for me. I let my subscription lapse and did not renew it after the transition.

There things remained until recently. The other day, in the course of a vain effort to impose some pre-spring-cleaning organization on Chaos Manor South’s countless stacks of amateur astronomy stuff, I ran across my stash of the complete run of AA. Couldn’t help forgetting the cleaning bidness for a bit, sitting down, and paging through ‘em. Years ago, Tom used to advertise back issues by calling them the equivalent of a foot thick reference book on amateur astronomy. Turns out that was true; maybe even truer than ol’ Tom thought at the time. Going through issue upon issue, I was blown away by density of information therein. Information still as useful as ever today. I also enjoyed seeing pictures of plenty of my amateur astronomy buddies back when we were all 30 pounds lighter and had more hair. Talk about nostalgia.

This waxing nostalgia led me to wonder what had become of that Little Old Magazine from Chiefland, Florida. Good bubba Pat Rochford had continued his subscription, and lent me a new issue so I could find out. To make a long story short, while it’s no longer from Chiefland (AA is now based in Tennessee), it’s purty much as good as ever under the steady and talented hand of new Editor, Charlie Warren. No, it’s not quite the same for me (what fondly remembered thing from the past ever is?), but it’s still jam-packed with great astro-stuff, and it’s enough like the old AA to make me happy.

If he keeps on a-going like he's a-going, I predict great things for Amateur Astronomy under Charlie’s leadership. Think I’m blowing smoke? If I were pulling your leg would I have got online and ordered up a subscription? Y’all know how cheap I am.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

 

Of Time and Stars...

We, the children of the 50s and 60s, are getting older now—yes, even us ageless flower children. That being the case, our heroes and icons are beginning to fade away. That's the way of things on our cozy little world as we all well know. Knowledge of our mortality is the price we pay for being human. Still, when I heard of Sir Arthur C. Clarke’s passing the afternoon before last, part of me went into denial. It simply couldn’t be.

Despite the fact that I never met the man—I did exchange the occasional email with him—Clarke was a big and continuing presence in my life. As an adult, I relished his writing old and new. As a child, however, he was more than just a presence. Frankly, two people inspired me to get into the astronomy biz. They were not teachers, though I had some good ones (and a few lousy ones); they were writers, Patrick Moore and Arthur C. Clarke.

It literally seems like yesterday that the young Rod—maybe I was eight or nine—sat open-mouthed on his granny’s living-room floor, having just finished reading his first adult science fiction story, Arthur Clarke’s “The Star.” I don’t know if that delicious short story with its mind-bending twist would affect me quite as deeply now as it did then, but I suspect it would.

The visible signs of Arthur Clarke’s stay on this little world are many and impressive. Beyond his hundreds of thoughtful, insightful short stories and novels, there were and are his soaring ideas like his—for then—fanciful dream of a network of geosynchronous communications satellites. Not as visible, but just as important, was the way he encouraged the era’s younguns to reach for the stars.

Is anyone doing that today? I don’t know, but I hope so. As for me, I’m going to pour myself a few fingers of whisky, put 2001 on the DVD player, and, I’m not embarrassed to say, probably shed a tear or two over the leaving of a genuinely great man.

Sunday, March 09, 2008

 

Messier Marathon Madness

As I’m sure most of y’all know, e’en the newbies among you, it’s Marathon time. No, Unk ain’t gonna put on a pair of skimpy shorts and run umpteen miles (you can tell that merely by looking at his figure). I’m talking Messier Marathon. Over the next month, it’s possible to view all—or almost all—the Messiers over the course of one evenin’. Running this "Marathon" as an individual (OK) or as a group (more fun) has gone big-time with the amateur rank and file over the last decade or so.

Originally, I was skeptical about the whole gull-derned idée (Unk intones in his best ADVANCED AMATEUR voice): “Jumping from one Messier object to the next is no way to observe, young man. Each of these objects deserves extended, thoughtful observation and study.” Well they do, but you can do that the other 11 months of the year. After I did my first Marathon, I never again spouted such hogwash. Marathoning is FUN, and that is (supposed to be) what amateur astronomy is all about…ain’t it?

As for the mechanics, you must choose, brothers and sisters, you must choose...your night or nights. We are coming up on the time, mid March, when, depending on your latitude, all objects are theoretically possible. If you’ve got a dark site with excellent horizons and the prospects of good weather, go for it. Try for ‘em all. Otherwise? You need to decide whether to sacrifice the front end or the back end. What I mean is, do ya give up M74 or do ya give up M30?

If you start “early,” that is like right now, you have a much better shot at that devil of a face-on galaxy, M74. It is already insanely low in the west by the time the Sun sets, and is a considerable challenge for observers with less than perfect skies and horizons. Unfortunately, if you start now, you’ll likely miss the Capricornus globular, M30, in the morning. If you want to go for ‘em all, wait until mid March or later. M30 is slowly creeping into view in the morning, but will not be doable for those of y’all above 35 degrees north latitude degrees until April comes in. Unfortunately, waitin’ that long will then make M74 impossible or nearly so for many folks.

Does all this sound complicated? How do you know when to start the sprint? What will be available on any given March – April Marathon window evenin’? There are plenty of websites and even a book or two to help you “train” for and run the Marathon, but the best resource I know of, and one I recommend highly, is Larry McNish’s Messier Marathon Planner. This is an online application that takes your location and date and assembles a list showing the doable Ms arranged in the most efficient search order. There are numerous options, plenty of pictures, and hints and helps in addition to the basic list data. I really cannot recommend it too highly. Mr. McNish, you done good. A shot of Rebel Yell is due you.

So when will I do my Marathon? Done done mine. Last night. Oh, I might give her another shot or two between now and early April, but the vagaries of spring weather down here in the ‘Swamp meant I decided to carpe noctum (or sumpin). I knew I wouldn’t get M30, but that M74 should be “easy.” I also knew that, as usual, I’d cheat. Last year I cheated by using a Stellacam II and a Nexstar 11GPS to suck up multitudinous Ms. This year I cheated again, if not in so egregious a fashion. I did the run barefoot—visually, that is—but I did use those wondrous Sky Commander DSCs on my 12.5-inch Dob.

Actually, there’s really no such thing as cheating when it comes to the Messier Marathon. There are no rules to follow or forms to fill out. While some clubs and organizations do offer certificates, this is largely an informal grass roots activity, not some over-organized mess of bullfeathers. Thank god. Do it the way you want to do it and however makes you happy; that is, after all, the essence of amateur astronomy and what makes it the greatest hobby in the world (if you consider it just a hobby, that is). There is one exception: if you are going to use the Marathon to do your Astronomical League Messier Certificate (a worthy goal IMNSHO). In that case, you should leave the go-tos and DSCs at home and follow the AL rules scrupulously.

How did it go? To cut to the chase, I got 66 objects. Why not more? Simple: it was C-O-L-D, and Uncle is an astro-wimp in that regard. How cold WAS IT? It warn’t really that cold temperature-wise, but it was damp. By 11pm, there was ice on the observing table, ice on the eyepiece case, ice on the Dob’s shroud, and ice on your Old Uncle Rod. If there had been objects available, I woulda kept going past midnight, but, as those of y’all who’ve run the course before know, there’s that great, big GAP following the exhilarating sprint through the Virgo galaxy fields. When Virgo – Coma is done, there’s an hour or two to set around waiting for the summer objects to begin arriving. In that hour or two, my mind began to dwell upon the temperature of my feet, how nice and warm the car would be once it was on the road with the heater cranked up, and how the Yell would feel goin’ down back home at Chaos Manor South.

A few notes and observations:

M74: This one oughta be easy this early in the window; especially with a 12.5-inch dob, right? W-R-O-N-G. I started looking as nautical twilight came on. Looking? Struggling is more like it. This object is pretty impressive in the f/5 12.5-inch from a truly dark site. Down low on the horizon, though, it was just barely visible—finally—at 200x. Folks talk about how hard M30 is, but I believe M74 (discovered by Pierre Mechain, and not Charles Messier, incidentally) has been the stumbling block in many more Marathons than pore li’l M30. M74 has the lowest surface brightness of any Messier, and it’s no wonder that it has earned the nickname, “The Phantom Galaxy.”

The Rest of the West: M77 was bright and obvious. M31 was trivially easy. So was M32. Even big and dimmish M110 was laughably simple in the dob (though a couple of 8-inchers on the field had trouble with it). M33 was not hard—in the 12.5 or in my buds’ C8s. Most unpleasant surprise? M52. After dealing with the galaxies, I lollygagged for a while, sipping some java out of my thermos and patting myself on the back with both hands about my success with M74 before I punched up “easy” M52. Sure, this open cluster in Cassiopeia is splashy-bright. But I didn’t realize how low it had got. It was almost at the dob’s altitude limit. Might not be a bad idea to throw a pair of binoculars in the car to use on the biguns (like M45) or to use on the ones you’ve let get away from the big scope.

Sky Commanders: The accuracy of these Digital Setting Circles was simply amazing. I found myself often using a 7mm Uwan (220x) as my finding eyepiece. Now, the fact that my truss tube 12.5 was precisely handcrafted by master ATM Pat Rochford didn’t hurt accuracy wise, but, still, the Sky Commanders continue to impress, especially considering my unpleasant experiences over the years with Brand Ecch DSCs. One nice thing for some folks this time of year is that the Sky Commanders will accept an external 12vdc input in lieu of the internal 9 volt battery. In addition to providing plenty of power, that also activates an internal heater that keeps the SC’s LCD display speedy and readable. Last night? I brought along an external battery and cable, but cold as it was (30F) the Sky Commanders went till midnight no prob. The display was a wee bit sluggish by then, and contrast was not as good as it normally is, but it was still readable. Only problem? Unk got cold enough and his hands shook enough that it was hard to “zero out” the SCs on objects.

The Coma - Virgo forest and trees: The DSCs made it possible for me to thread my way through the masses of Coma – Virgo galaxies without too much confustication. The fact that the area was to the east and well into the Mobile, Alabama light dome actually helped, since it left only the most prominent sprites visible. Seeing as how I’ve been through the area a time or two over the last 40+ years, I was able to navigate without much problem. If you’re relatively new to the area, detailed finder charts can be a big help in deciding “which is what.”

Dew: Don’t do like I did. The Dob is equipped with a secondary heater powered by a 9 volt batt’ry. Naturally, me being me, I decided that the little battery would be good for “one more run,” despite having been used the last umpteen times. As you’d expect it went stone cold dead and the secondary dewed right up (where the heck is M91?!). Fortunately, I had brought along a 12vdc dew zapper gun (aka “window defroster), and one zap was good for at least half an hour.

The GAP: The spring-summer gap is what kills. Even when it’s not cold, the prospect of waiting for the summer sky to rise can be depressing. Be prepared: bring along a lawn chair - lounger to doze on, a pair of binoculars to scan with, or an additional observing list to run with the main scope.

All in all, I was a purty happy camper at the end of the festivities. I was not the first observer to flee the ice-encrusted field, the Dob had worked admirably well (I do need to brush up on my Newtonian collimating skills…I spent some time chasing the dadgum donut). And I did 66 objects, not missing a one between Pisces and Virgo. Before throwing in the towel, I even (barely) spied M13 and M5, so I reckon I can tell my mates (Barney Fife voice), “Yep, saw some summer objects, yep...not everybody’s up that.”

You never know. If the weather holds over the next couple of weeks, I may even stay up long enough to really do the summer sky (despite that consarned DST). If I do, you can bet I’ll crow about it here.

Sunday, March 02, 2008

 

Spring Fever

It’s spring. Well, it really ain’t, not on March 1st, not even down here on the Gulf Coast. But, pards, you’d never know it. Birds a-chirping, fragrant breezes redolent of greenery, temperatures in the 70s. Might as well be. And what happens in the spring? Well, Hell, a young man’s fancy turns to thoughts of love, right? Maybe for the young set. But for a middle-aged astro-hillbilly? My thoughts turn to visual observing.

I don’t make any secret of the fact that I spend most of my observing time imaging these days. What’s usually on the eyepiece end of my scope—which is usually a CAT—is not an eyepiece but an SBIG, a DSLR, or a webcam. Howsomeever… There’s just something about this time of year that urges me to close that laptop screen and actually look at the sky. What kinda something? Well, other than the fact that the rebirth of nature makes me long for a more direct communion with ol’ Ma N., this is just a splendid time to be looking at her chef d'oeuvre.

Look to the west and all the marvels of the winter Milky Way are still on offer. Orion is a-riding high, culminating just as it gets good and dark. And Gemini and Auriga are there too, cruising the zenith, handing out their secrets with a will. If the horizons ain’t too bad you can even can even catch the tail end of fall represented by Andromeda and the butt-end of that big, ol’ flyin’ horse. Most of all, though, there’s the eastern sky. Leo is well up over the edge of the world, heralding the return of the great forest of galaxies that stretches from northernmost Canes Venatici to southernmost Virgo.

One other thing made last night, Saturday night, special. I was accompanied by my daughter Lizbeth. Years ago, when she was a grade schooler, she was my regular observing buddy. But the process of growing up in 21st century America all-too-soon made those wonderful runs a thing of the past as middle school came on, that cheerful little sprite (“Daddy, let’s call that one the Exploding CIGAR galaxy!”) waved goodbye forever, and a brilliant and sophisticated young woman took her place to begin making her way in the larger world. I didn’t mourn for those evenings, though I did miss them. It’s the way of the world, my friends.

Some losses aren’t forever, though. With college-time approaching, Lizbeth has returned to the observing field with her old man for a last-bow reprise of those wonderful deep sky nights. It was literally as if the last five years never intervened. And some things never change. To her embarrassment (no doubt) I found myself telling my fellow club members the story they’ve heard a thousand times before, of Lizbeth and the beautiful 6-inch Parks primary dob Pat Rochford and I built for her. How she used it happily until one night when we set it up next to my C11 and she quickly chirped: “Daddy, I like the C11 BETTER! Let's TRADE!”

I hardly wanted to spend my time fiddling with a CCD with the wonderful Lizbeth at my side, so, as the Sun began to say his adieus yesterday afternoon, we packed up my newly restored 12-inch truss tube (see the May ’07 blog entries) and headed for the club dark site off to the west. The sky was not perfect: damp and hazy—not unexpected for a Gulf “spring” night. Nevertheless, Lizbeth and I persevered. With the aid of my Sky Commander DSCs, object location was effortless. These things still amaze me; whatever I requested was always in the field from horizon to horizon. Knowing that a DSO was “in there” encouraged Miss and me to push the scope’s limits on this somewhat punk night and put up with damp chilliness longer than we otherwise would have. What did we see? LOTSA COOL STUFF. The following is but a sampling.

M35 and Little NGC 2158: The view the 12.5-inch f/5 and a 16 UWAN offered was superb. Couldn’t see the whole of M35 despite the UWAN’s spacewalk field, but NGC 2158 was perfectly presented. Its stars were like the proverbial tiny grains of sand amid M35’s outlying starfields. The depth was incredible; I felt I was literally falling into the more distant cluster.

M37: The impression was of a distant reef of stars with a reddish lighthouse (the cluster’s central red star) shining bravely against the night.

Abell 21: The somewhat notorious Medusa nebula was not a problem once I remembered this was one big mutha (about 10’ in diameter), and switched the 16 UWAN for the 35mm Panoptic (with OIII). This 14th mag planetary not only showed itself readily, but going to the 28 UWAN, which yielded, Lizbeth and I thought, slightly better contrast, gave hints of the “crescent” non-round shape of Medusa.

M81/82: Despite fairly low altitude M82 showed good detail, which Lizbeth picked up readily though she had not been deep sky observin’ in many a moon.

NGC 2371: The wee peanut nebula was easy enough to see in the 16mm, but really strutted his dual-lobed stuff in a 7mm UWAN. The addition of OIII and UHC filters didn’t seem to help him too much.

M42: What can I say? At times, we were picking up color. Not just a vague greenishness, but hints of deep red/browns.

NGC 1977: The Running Man’s reflection nebulosity was visible, but the dark lanes that form his body were exceedingly fleeting.

M78: Was spectacular, showing off its irregular form. Several of the outlying patches of nebulosity were also easily seen.

NGC 2024: We checked this to see what our prospects would be for a Horse Hunt (not good). The Tank Tracks was there, but not to the extent that indicates it’s time to head for the B33 Coral.

M79: Was down in the murkiness extending up from the horizon, but showed many stars anyway.

NGC 2022: This small round planetary stood out marvelously well.

M65/66: Despite being a bit low in the east (in that direction lies the Mobile, Alabama Light Dome), Lizbeth and I thought these two actually looked better than 81/82. Was it a Trio in Leo night? Not quite? NGC 3628 was visible, but hardly prominent.

M105 and company: M105 and NGC 3384 were incredibly prominent, but increasing haze made NGC 3389 a sometimes thing.

We ended the evening on a REAL spring object, that glorious globular M53. Glorious? Maybe not on this night. He was way close to the horizon down in light pollution hell. Nevertheless, he was there and showed off plenty of his minute stars. With that, it was time to play AstroWimps and head on back to good, old Chaos Manor south.

I can’t promise every spring and summer night will be spent with Miss Lizbeth and Miss 12.5…I sure am having fun with that Canon 400D, but I was WAY too hasty in relegating the dob to my past as I did in my May blog entry. This is a powerful tool, an engine of wonder, and it will suck up plenty of starlight this summer, of that I am sure.

How was your Saturday night?

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