Tuesday, January 27, 2009


Chiefland Redux Redux

I could just as easily have called this one “Night of the C8.” Or “C8s Forever!” That wasn’t what I’d planned, though. When I go down to Chiefland, which I seem to do more and more frequently of late, I like to take a fairly Big Gun as I judge such things: the NexStar 11. My 12-inch Dob. Something that will really take advantage of the still-dark skies of the Chiefland Astronomy Village.

What’s a "Chiefland Astronomy Village," you ask? If you’ve been reading this here blog long, you know all about CAV, as you’ve seen enough enthusiastic articles about it here. If not, well, I’ll tell ya: it’s a housing development for amateur astronomers under the relatively unspoiled skies of Chiefland, Florida (if you’ve read Pat Frank’s classic novel of thermonuclear Armageddon, Alas Babylon, just think “Fort Repose”) in the central part of the state, not far from the west coast.

What I like to do is take a Thursday off from work, pack up the car with the biggest telescope and as much gear as I can cram into a Toyota Camry, make the six-and-a-half hour drive south to CAV, and spend the next several days in deep sky heaven. On any given New Moon weekend, you’ll find a dozen to a couple dozen of us Chiefland Astronomy Club members on the field enjoying the skies and each-other’s company in very relaxed fashion. Except on the twice-yearly occasions when large organized star parties are held at the site, there is plenty of elbow room, and there are also plenty of amenities: a warm-room (the “clubhouse”) with real bathrooms, microwave, and fridge; showers; electricity for the field; and wi-fi Internet. Don’t tell Tom Clark, Tom Crowley, and the rest of the CAV honchos I said so, but I’d gladly pay two or three times the annual CAC dues for the privilege of using such a wonderful site.

OK, so the Chiefland Astronomy Village is nice. What the hail has that got to do with cotton-picking C8s? It all started with my visit to the doc’s. I know a lot of you bubbas out there don’t like to go to the sawbones; I don’t either, but after I hit 40 I came to realize that had to change if I wanted to spend a few retirement years observing rather than sitting on the couch (or six feet under). As you might expect, I didn’t come up with this resolution entirely on my own. One of my fellow local amateurs is a physician, and he helped your silly Uncle see the light in this regard. Thus began a regular regimen of office visits to various MDs and plenty of lab work to go with that. All continued well year after year until the day a few weeks back when one of Unk’s physicians mentioned the dreaded “C” word. Yep, “cancer,” but luckily with a small “c.” Not unlike a lot of folks on our sunny coast, it seemed I’d developed skin cancer. No doubt attributable to all those long afternoons spent fishing on sunny creek-sides as a sprout.

The good news was that, while something had to be done about the situation, this particular cancer was not life threatening—though damaging if allowed to progress. The “something” was an out-patient procedure that involved slicing and dicing your ol’ Uncle six ways to Sunday and, finally, stitching him back together. I felt a bit like Doc Frankenstein’s creation once Miss Dorothy and I got back to the comforting halls of Chaos Manor South, but I nevertheless had no intention of canceling my Chiefland expedition that was set to begin the following day. Naturally, Miss D. was a little concerned about that, imagining me pulling stitches out and falling apart like a ten-cent ragdoll as I loaded or unloaded a big scope. Out in the middle of (semi) nowhere.

Tell the truth, after a day at the doctor’s, I wasn’t too hip to doing much along those lines meself. What then? Well, there was always my C8 rig—a 1995 Ultima 8 OTA riding on a CG5 mount (“Celestron ASGT”). While I was a bit miffed about falling back to a C8 for a serious deep sky observing endeavor, I figured that, if nothing else, it would at least give me the opportunity try out some new software I had for the CG5. I was also curious to see how my beloved 8 and 13-mm Ethos eyepieces would work with the 8; especially with my omnipresent f/6.3 reducer/corrector on the rear cell. Still, I was skeptical as to how much hardcore deep sky stuff I’d wind up seeing with Just a C8.

The 375 miles between Possum Swamp and Chiefland went by in uneventful fashion. My slicings and dicings weren’t bothering me, and the audio book I’d loaded onto the iPod, Stephen King’s new one, Duma Key, made the trip as enjoyable as any long solo journey can be. In fact, didn’t seem like much time at all had passed before I was checking into the Chiefland Holiday Inn Express and heading out to the site for gear-setup. I’ll admit the drive and the long previous day of playing dissection specimen had left me a little wearier than I usually am at journey’s end, but the obvious prospect of dead clear skies kept me going.

When I got to work, it became abundantly clear the C8 had indeed been a wise choice as my companion for this trip. One just ain’t that labor intensive to set up. Plop tripod down. Place mount head on tripod and add counterweights. Perch the C8 on that, and you are done—none of which will come even close to causing most folks to bust a gut. I didn’t strain anything or say any cuss words. Up went the EZ-up tent-canopy; under that went the camp table and laptop enclosure.

One extra thing I had put in the car, mostly on a whim, was my little 66mm William Optics “Patriot SD” ED refractor. I hadn’t used her in a while, so I figgered I’d give the little one her due share of photons riding piggyback on the Ultima C8. I pulled a few more errant equipment cases and the eyepiece box out of the car, placed ‘em on or under the table, and I was done. I did set up near the CAV clubhouse in case I started feeling icky and needed to sit down in a (relatively) warm place for a while.

Astro Stuff ready to go, I made my customary quick run into town for a few supplies, mainly Monster Energy Drinks (the best “astronomy accessory” I’ve discovered in a long time), and a couple of bags o’ Jack Links for field snacking. In the depth of winter, sunset comes on before you know it, so I had to hustle. Dropped off the six-pack of Colorado kool-aid I'd picked up for post observing relaxing back at the room, grabbed my warmest coat (the one that allowed me to survive Bath, Maine one February), and headed back to the field.

The first item on Thursday night's agenda was checking out my “new” NexStar hand control. New? In what way? In the way of new firmware. Celestron released an updated version of its GEM hand controller code simultaneously with its new CGEM German mount. It wasn’t long after that that the good folks in Califor-nye-a made the software available for Celestron CG5 and CGE users too, both as a downloadable file for updating the HC, and as a new version of the NexRemote software. While I usually use NexRemote, I wanted to make sure my upgraded non-virtual HC worked, too, so I decided to give that a go on Night One.

I was also curious about the new features the GEM 4.15 build boasts. The most interesting of which is “All Star.” Previously, the Celestron software included a simple but effective polar alignment facility: do a go-to alignment, select “polar align” in the Utility menu, and the mount would slew to where it thought Polaris should be given a perfect polar alignment. Center the star in the eyepiece using the mount’s altitude and azimuth adjusters, and the result was a polar alignment more than good enough for high-power visual observing and all but the most hardcore imaging. How could that be improved upon? All Star brings the capability to use any (well, almost any) star in the sky as the alignment “tool,” not just Polaris. Another plus? Following the completion of the original polar alignment procedure users were instructed to do a new go-to alignment—the mount had been physically moved. All Star reputedly made doing a new star alignment unnecessary.

How well did this newfangled alignment routine work? Purty good. Is it better than the old one? I’m still not sure. Once you find the All Star instructions in one of Celestron’s new manuals (I used the CGEM instructions; I don’t believe the CG5 manual has been updated yet), doing an All Star is mostly easy. Finish your normal go-to setup—I did a two-star plus four calibration stars—and decide which star to use for polar alignment. The hand control will caution you not to use a star near the eastern or western horizons, but provides no more guidance than that. I’ve heard it’s best to choose a sparkler near where the Local Meridian and the Celestial Equator intersect, so I tried to do just that. Unfortunately, early in the evening at this time of year there are no prominent stars in that area that are included in the NexStar HC’s “named star” list. So I just picked good, ol’ Beetle Juice.

Step one is to slew to the star you want to use. You can use any star in the hand control, but it’s much easier to, as above, choose a member of the “named” list. Once there, you push the align button on the HC, and scroll down to “polar align.” The rest is easy. The scope will re-slew to the same star and onscreen prompts will have you center it with the hand control buttons and press Align. Finally, the mount will initiate one last slew to where it thinks the star should be given a perfect polar alignment. When that’s done, you’ll be instructed to center up using the alt-az screws/controls (not hand control buttons). That’s all there is to it.

How did it work for me? I had no problem performing the basic procedure; it worked just as outlined in the manual. But how good were the results? I didn’t intend to do any long exposure imaging on this expedition, but I did do some unguided 30-second snapshots using my (original) Meade LPI. The results were at least as good as what I customarily obtained with the older alignment method. Oh, yeah, there’s a utility in the hand control to tell you how good your polar alignment is. It said I was only arc-seconds away from the Celestial Pole. But I don’t know if’n I believe that or not. I hope to do some further testing as the skies permit.

Anything I didn’t like or was put out about? That claim about not having to do a new go-to alignment. Oh, it’s sorta true. But you will swiftly find that if you had to move the alt-az adjusters an appreciable amount, your go-tos will be considerably off. You cain’t just do nuttin’ honey. The manual offers a procedure that involves un-syncing the polar alignment star and “replacing” the two go-to alignment stars with themselves. This may work very well, and I will try it soon, but I was tired and the wording in the instructions left me baffled given my somewhat muddled condition. Instead, I just hit the big (or, actually, little) switch to power down, and redid my go-to alignment, which worked fine.

What about the HC’s other features? The other major addition is a “tandem” setting. Many imagers don’t like to piggyback scope and guidescope, and instead put the two side-by-side on a “tandem” dovetail bar. I sometimes do that myself. However, the CG5 expects you to start out with the declination (and RA) axes set on marks so it has an idea where it is starting from. Unfortunately, turning the declination axis so the marks line up puts tandem-mounted scopes facing east or west instead of north as they must be.

The Tandem routine allows you to tell the mount the scopes are pointing 90 degrees east or west from the “normal” position and it will take that into account during the alignment. I didn’t try this procedure, but it sounds somewhat—if not overly—helpful. All the mount really cares about is that you start from the same place every time, not where the marks are physically placed. You can start the mount in any position as long as you always start it from there and the scope is pointing north. This procedure’s sole benefit is that it will allow you to use the factory installed declination marks rather than new ones you make yourself for a tandem set up.

Anything else? Other than some bug fixes, the only other major change is that the mount now uses the current Epoch instead of Epoch 2000 (Jnow vice J2000). What does this mean to you? The mount now takes precession into account when calculating object positions. What does that mean without sending you to a freaking freshman astronomy textbook? Not much. Mainly that where the scope is pointed and where a planetarium program running on a laptop you’ve got connected to the mount says it is pointed will agree more closely. Did any of the bug fixes make any difference to moi? Not that I could tell. The mount put anything I requested in the field of the C8 from horizon to horizon, but it has always done that.

I’ve been gushing about my 13-mm and 8-mm Ethos eyepieces for months now. They have just kicked butt in my 12-inch f/5 Dob. But how would they work in my C8? Especially with the f/6.3 reducer/corrector I customarily use? I had not had a chance to find out; we’ve had one of the cloudiest winters in memory. Following my trip to the Deep South Regional Star Gaze last October, I had literally seen nothin’—well, maybe a glimpse or two of the Moon with the StarBlast.

So how did the Ethoses do under the dark skies of CAV with a reduced C8? They did spectacularly well. All the strengths they display in my Dob are there with the C8 too: wide fields (really wide fields at f/6.3 with an 8-inch), pinpoint stars way out toward the field stop, dead sharp images—I’ve looked at M42 a million times, natch, but I do not believe I have ever seen more of it in an 8-inch scope than I did on this evening. Particularly notable was the well-defined shape of M43; it was a stark little comma criss-crossed with dark lanes. Were there any reducer/corrector problems? Not really. Actually, not any peculiar to using it with the Ethoses. Put a bright star in certain places in the field and you are apt to get reflections, but that can happen with any eyepiece.

Suffice to say that I used nothing but the 13 and 8 the entire time I was Down Chiefland Way, and the 6.3 r/c never came off the rear cell. My only regret? I left my Denkmeier PowerSwitch at home. The William Optics Dielectric diagonal I used was great, but I want to see how the Es do with the PowerSwitch’s reducer and Barlow. Next Time.

All-in-all Thursday night was one for the books. The Chiefland skies were every bit as good as I’ve ever seen ‘em. The Orion/Monceros/Canis Major part of the sky just blazed away. Only bringdown? It was cold. Some of the coldest weather to hit this part of the state in quite a spell. I missed the worst of it, but Thursday night the dial thermometer under my EZ-up was nevertheless quickly sinking below the “32” mark as the night grew older.

The cold and my weariness—the result of my medical trials and the drive down—had by midnight conspired to make me admit I was ready for motel room/heater/cable TV/Rebel Yell. Finding nothing on but infomercials by the time I got back to the Holiday Inn Express, I hooked up the DVD and watched one of my fave star party films, The Devil's Rejects. Why is that a star party film? Because that's just the way Unk felt at the end of the notorious '97 Texas Star Party, which was held in Leakey, Texas instead of wonderful Prude Ranch. But that, muchachos, is a story for another Sunday.

The weather reports had been “mixed” for Friday, but when I finally crawled outa bed and peeped out the door, it was clear we would have another good, if not quite perfect, night--little haze, a few scudding clouds. I still had all day to kill, but that was OK; I needed to take it easy, and that is just what I did. Some browsing of Cloudy Nights in the room, some breakfast consisting of the motel's deadly little cinnamon rolls, biscuits and gravy, and tiny but tasty omelets, and I felt good. A little more surfing of the net, a run on WallyWorld for a couple of items I'd forgot, and the sun was getting low again. I was well and rested and raring to go.

Night Two turned out to be everything I'd hoped for. There were some lingering cloud banks at Sundown Friday, but they drifted off—for a while at least—and I set to work with a will. My goal in addition to checking out the new version of NexRemote (v1.6.24) was to continue running the Herschel 400.

NexRemote’s GEM 4.15 worked just as well as that of the “real” hand controller. No reason it shouldn’t have—it is the real hand controller; just executing on a laptop PC. If you're a fan of this blog, you know how much I like NR. If you haven’t tried NexRemote yet, all I can say is the things it brings to Celestron mounts and scopes make it well worth dragging a laptop into the field. Its ability to make use of a wireless gamepad/joystick as your hand control is probably my favorite perk. I’ve long wanted a wireless HC, and I much prefer a joystick to HC buttons.

That ain’t all the good stuff of NR, though. It will, for example, allow you to use any NMEA capable GPS receiver (like the 20 dollar one I scored at a local hamfest) as your mount’s GPS receiver. It also provides a tour-building program that will allow you to generate lists of objects and slew to them with a couple of gamepad button mashes. There’s a lot more to NexRemote than just these things, and if you are interested, as you should be, take a stroll through the archives of this here blog for an entry that’s all-about-NexRemote.

Yeah, NR was kickin’. But what was really kickin’, and what I had forgotten could be kickin’ was the C8. In these latter days an 8-inch SCT is often looked upon as a small and rather plebian scope (oh, how attitudes have changed over the last 30 years). Everybody has a C11 or a C14 or a big Meade or an even bigger Dob. Why? Because we can. Yeah, aperture is good. Aperture Always Wins. All things being equal. But all things ain’t always equal, as in my case here, where a C8 was all I could handle. The question, then, is, “Can you see much with an 8-inch SCT?” Yeah, we would have laughed at this one 30 years ago, when a C8 was, we thought, a DEEP SKY POWERHOUSE, but today it is a question I hear asked frequently by novices.

Friday night at Chiefland reacquainted me with what a “lowly” C8 can do with good skies (and, of course, good eyepieces). I was amazed. Truth be known, the Herschel 400 is not that hard. Most if not all its objects are supposedly in range of a 6-inch--or smaller--telescope under good skies and operated by an experienced observer. And yet…we do tend to think of these small galaxies, obscure open clusters, and dim planetary nebulae as somewhat tough, and I guess many of them really are. The C8 laughed. With the help of SkyTools (2) running on the laptop alongside NexRemote, I clicked my way from one H400 deep sky sprite to the next. Wee dim galaxies in Cancer? No problem. Open clusters best described as “not well detached”? Easy. Mag 13 planetaries in weird places like Camelopardalis? BAM! Many showed considerable detail, for god’s sake.

My favorite object Friday night, though, was one of the few showpieces I allowed myself after my Herschel work was done, M37. This gorgeous open cluster in Auriga was just indescribable. At times it looked almost like the south’s great globular cluster, Omega Centauri, in the 13 Ethos. At other times, it assumed weird shape and substance. One time I found myself seeing the central triangular area of the cluster as the head of a raging bull. M37’s red “central star” forming its baleful eye; the whole thing a miniature Taurus. I used to laugh at Steve O’Meara’s fanciful and poetic descriptions of open clusters. No more.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention how well my even smaller scope, the WO 66SD, did. As ED refractor prices have come down to levels even the cheapskates among us—like Unk—can embrace, I’ve finally made friends with refractors. But mostly for imaging, not visual work, and rarely from dark sites. I’d piggybacked the 66 on the C8 mainly as an aid to spotting some of the H400’s large and undistinguished clusters, and it did yeoman duty there. But it did more. When I had M37 in the C8, and had gawked at it for quite a while, I finally thought to see how it looked in the little feller. In a 16mm Uwan, the huge field was amazing. The multitudinous stars were a glittering hailstorm, and the cluster really did look like a loose globular. M42? Not only was I seeing all the good stuff up and down the sword, the Great Nebula wasn’t just the fuzzy spot I’d expected, but had all the form and substance you expect in a larger scope. Frankly, y’all, I found myself looking through the refractor almost as often as the C8.

Whatever I looked through, I just kept on looking and looking, sucking down another energy drink and firing up another handwarmer pack when the flesh became weak. In the end, it was Ma Nature, not my middle aged bod, that called it quits. Around 1am ground fog began to roll-in and the dew just got heavier and heavier. This is not uncommon for the area this time of year, and I dealt with the dew by cranking my Dewbuster to “10” (degrees above ambient) early in the evening. Not much you can do about fog though, leastways unless you have an X-ray telescope. I took a break and moseyed around the field annoying my fellow club members for a while till it became evident things would not get appreciably better. Thence to the Camry out on the access road for a quick trip back to town after a truly illuminating night.

The dénouement? The weather dudes had been promising clouds for a couple of days, and they finally got their way on Saturday. By mid-afternoon them suckers were rolling in. I passed some hours working on the blog and answering my always copious email while waiting to see what the weather would do. Didn’t want to be too hasty. I headed out to the CAV about 5pm, just as it began to drizzle in town. Onsite, I was still unsure. Pack up or not? Yeah, mostly gray, but not even sprinkles, and there was some blue to the west. “Wait. Was that a drop of rain?” I finally conceded there was little chance of doing any observing Saturday night. And there didn’t seem much point in waiting till morning to load up. That just meant I’d be wrestling wet gear. Y-u-c-k.

To the amazement of my friend Tom Clark and another onlooker, I had scope and astro-junk back in the Camry and was ready to roll in less than 30-minutes. One of the joys of a C8 is that not only does it save your back, it takes up little room in the vehicle (my OTA and CG5 head travel in one large Rubbermaid-style container), and is quick to get on or off the field when the weather gods change their minds. All done, I considered pointing the Toyota toward I-10 and home, but it was past 6pm already, and after consulting with Miss Dorothy via cell I decided it would be best to spend one last night in the motel and get a good night’s sleep (preceded by ample portions of Cable TV and the dadgum Rebel Yell, natch) and an early start.

I was a little P.O.ed I didn’t get my trifecta, but two nights had at least partially satisfied this old boy’s deep sky hunger. A final stroll around the field, a little shooting of the breeze with my buddies, and it was time to go. Another Chiefland Tear (as Miss D. calls my deep sky safaris) was over. I ruled it a success. 40 more Herschels in the bag, a good check-ride with the new Celestron software, and, most of all, renewed respect for the telescope I’ve loved more than any other over the last three and a half decades. The wonderful—and powerful—C8.

Good one! You mentioned fishing, Jack's Links, and "Alas Babylon" all in one article. All things I like very well. I still fish a bunch, buy the Links at the truckstops, and still have my original copy of the book.
You ever read "Farnham's Freehold"?
I probably read Farnham's the first time when I was about 10 or 11. When I've reread it in recent years, though, I must admit some of it seems a mite weird. But don't tell Miss Dorothy I said that. SHE IS A -HUGE- HEINLEIN FAN. LOL
I had a question about the 6.3 reducer. I have one for my C8 that I got with the intention of using for AP work but never got around to it. I didn't think about using it for visual. What is the net result? It reduces the focal length of the telescope, so the magnification would be less but the field of view would be wider, right? Would it work well with a DSLR for some AP as well?
Yes, I used a 6.3 for 35mm imaging for years and now use one with my DSLR.
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