Sunday, April 04, 2010

 

Cindy Lou Rides Again

Well, campers, spring is finally here—what a winter, even in The Swamp—and with it the return of the public star party. Yeah, you guessed it; this is Unk’s obligatory yearly public outreach spiel. Why “obligatory”? Because I think outreach is important. No, I ain't one o’ them characters who run around like Chicken Little, hollering that amateur astronomy is DEAD, DEAD, DEAD because of a supposed absence of younguns interested in our avocation. Amateur astronomy will never die, because, even in the light pollution, some people, some special people, will always look up and wonder. But we do need to continue to expose all and sundry to our obsession and to the beauty of the sky.

I will acknowledge that public outreach is not everybody’s cup of tea. There are folks who just don’t like kids, our main target, at least not in the context of hundreds of ‘em putting their lollipop-sticky hands all over an expensive and beloved telescope. And some of us get tired of all the silly questions—usually from adults. Like you, I certainly don’t mind “How far away is Jupiter?” but it seems like what I hear more these days is “How much did that there telescope COST?” And you’ve got to trot all your gear out, often on a work night. And trot it all home at the end, without you havin’ seen much of anything of the sky for all your labors.

Why?

Yep, I can see how the above and all the other little annoyances inherent in showing off the heavens to Mom-Pop-Bud-Sis might tend to grate on somebody who does a lot of public star parties. Most of us don’t do a lot, though. Most of us get out with the public once or twice a year, and in this old boy's opinion putting up with the irritants every six months or so is more than worth it given the potential returns.

Which are? With the adults, it ain’t what you think it’s gonna be, that you are gonna harvest a BIG CROP of new club members. We’ve gained a member or two in this fashion, but that is rare. Lately, novices seem to find us, yay-ah, by means of the dadgummed Internet. No, the value of working with the public is not in converting them to our passion, but in simply exposing ‘em to the beauty of the night and of science.

Which is a big deal in this time when the layman is increasingly suspicious of science (for reasons that have little to do with the scientific and everything to do with the political). No, Elmer Fudd will probably not decide to buy a scope and attack the Messier list, but at the next city council meeting he might remember your li’l star party, and speak up for sensible lighting.

The main reason for public outreach, as I know you expect I am gonna tell you, and which you are right about, has nothing to do with adults. It’s The Kids. For a couple of reasons. Firstly, while you won’t make many amateur astronomy converts among the adults at a public session, it is quite possible you have planted a seed with a little kid, a seed that will blossom a decade or so down the road. And, God knows, we need young people in our clubs (if only we could learn how to keep ‘em once we’ve got ‘em). Amateur astronomy is not dying, but we can always use fresh blood. I dunno about you, but I get tired of coverin’ the same ol’ ground with my fellow geezers (star geezers?). Fresh blood, and fresh enthusiasm, and fresh ideas are a good thing for any astronomy club.

Perhaps even more importantly—no, no “perhaps” about it—you and your fellow club members are providing a valuable part of your community’s children’s scientific education. In the U.S.A., it was long ago decided to deemphasize astronomy in secondary schools in favor of biology and chemistry. After middle school, most sprouts get little or no exposure to the facts of the Universe they live it. If they are to learn much about practical astronomy—or, really, much about The Great Out There at all—they will learn it from YOU. In earlier and simpler times, it was expected the whole community would contribute to the education of its children, and not just with tax dollars. That is still a good thing, and you and I should be part of it.

There’s another aspect to the “little seed” deal. Exposing a child to the truth and beauty of astronomy may make her or him more sympathetic to the cause of science years down the road and less apt to sign-on to crazy-ass tin-foil-hat foolishness. You know: “Apollo was a hoax; we never landed on no Moon!” “The Universe is only 6,000 years old!” “EVOLUTION IS A SATANIC LIE!” Nuff said?

Hokay, have I convinced y’all to put up with the Lollipop Guild and their sometimes scientifically clueless parents a time or three a year? There still remains the question of how you proceed to do a public star party. I’m a-gonna both tell you and show you; first with some of the basics to plannin’ one, and, then, with a narrative about the one we-uns in the Possum Swamp Astronomical Society (PSAS) just did on a Tuesday night a cupla weeks back.

Where?

Once you and your Bubbas and Bubbettes have made up your minds to conduct a public outreach event, you are over the biggest hurdle, but some still remain, starting with the “where?” The place to begin is actually with the where not: not at your dark site. If you insist on trying that, you will cut your audience down to a sliver of what it would otherwise have been. Not many people are gonna want to pack up the kids and motor an hour (or more) into the dark and forbidding countryside for an “educational” peep at the Moon for the rugrats. Your goal is to make the astronomy experience as appealing and friendly and welcoming as possible for your customers, and that means a place in-town or in the suburbs. Don’t worry about light pollution; it don’t mean squat for reasons I’ll outline below.

Where, then? The most obvious candidate is a school. A school is friendly and familiar, and often you will not even have to approach the teachers; they will approach you. Or you may have members who are teachers or administrators in the local school system—few astro-clubs are teacherless. If a school is not an option, another candidate is a natural science museum, especially a child-centered science museum. Libraries are another very good possibility. Use your imagination. For example, some clubs held public star parties in conjunction with the local Saturn automobile dealership (“See Saturn at Saturn!”) back before GM fell on hard times and Saturn (the car) went to hell.

You have a location, but what about an exact location? As in, where do you put the telescopes, exactly, at Shady Grove Elementary? You want a spot at least somewhat shielded from ambient light. If you have to set up in a forest of mercury vapor light poles, your audience won’t be able to see much of even the Moon. If the parkin’ lot lights cannot be turned off, pick another place: a corner of the playground well away from the glare, or maybe a spot in the lee of a building that shields scopes from the worst offenders, whatever. I have never seen a venue where I couldn’t find some place that was at least sufficient to the purpose.

One last thing location-wise: if your star party will coincide with a “sky spectacular” like a comet or an eclipse, make sure your facility is capable of handling large crowds. Durin’ Hale-Bopp we had as many as two thousand attendees at our comet watches. You may get almost as many for a total lunar eclipse. Plenty of parking and adequate bathrooms are mandatory.

When?

Big, important question. Real big. You will be appealing mainly to families with kids; you need to serve their needs. Mom and Pop are probably gonna be too tired from the work week on Friday night. And they probably won’t want to sacrifice their Saturday evening for some nutty deal about telescopes. Sunday? Quite a few young families will be in church on Sunday night depending on your area of the country. Monday? Who wants to drag the kids out some place Monday night (and who wants to set up scopes for ‘em?)? Wednesday is out for places where there is a high percentage of church-going Baptists—they are otherwise occupied on Wedneday nights.

Which leaves Tuesday and Thursday. Either of which is fine. But you need to take the specific as well as the general into consideration. Be aware of what is goin’ on in your community. If Miley Cyrus is appearing on Tuesday, for example, you can forget the tweenagers, many of ‘em, on that Tuesday night. Barney the Purple Dinosaur is havin’ a big show down to the Grange Hall? Few families with little ones will you attract that evening. Fortunately, most of these happenins occur on the weekends, which we have already ruled out.

What’s at least as important as the preceding? Maybe, more important than any of the “when” considerations we’ve discussed thus far? The phase of the Moon. Remember what I said about light pollution not being a factor? That’s because of what your customers will want to see: the Moon, a bright star, and the bright planets (Jupiter and Saturn). Even the adults will not care PEA TURKEY about looking at NGC 7331, even if it is visible in town skies. Schedule your go-date for some time slightly before First Quarter when Selene will be up early and lookin’ her numinous best. If some community organization is soliciting your services and setting the date, make sure they do not, as many lay people will, assume the best time for a star party will be the night of the Full Moon.

How?

The “how” of outreach is pretty simple. You set your scopes up and let kids and adults look through ‘em. But how many scopes? How do you set up? You really can’t have too many telescopes on the field, so encourage as many of your members as possible to come out and pitch-in. As for how you set up, leave sufficient space between scopes, depending on the projected size of the crowd. Each instrument should ideally be on a different target, and telescope operators will be wise to have notes on hand for the objects they are gonna show. Nothin’ is more embarrassing than bein’ baffled by a seven-year-old’s astronomical question, “Mister, how many times bigger than Earth is Jupiter?” Kids—up to and including undergraduates—have a sixth sense when it comes to asking questions that will stump you.

Howsabout keeping order? Jawohl! With a little help from non-observing members (or maybe a few teachers if you are working with a school), a hundred or even two hundred attendees isn’t a problem. If you believe you are gonna draw over two or three-hundred, though, you are well-advised to tell your school or other sponsoring organization they’d better lay-on a few off-duty cops. Don’t worry. Usually, you won’t approach such numbers, even in a big burg, unless some astronomical spectacle has gotten the public’s attention.

Even if your crowd is not large, remind members to NEVER walk away from their scopes while the public is onsite. Do so, and it’s inevitable eager little hands will yank your pride and joy off target, RA and declination locks be damned. Surprisingly, adults are bigger offenders here. They, some of ‘em, are all too prone to walk over to an unattended scope and start playing—possibly in damaging fashion. Don’t ask me how somebody would have the nerve to do that, but they will. Worst thing I’ve ever seen? I found a couple of little boys SPITTING down the tube of a Newtonian while its owner was answering nature’s call! If you have to leave your scope for any reason, get a non-telescope-operator club member or other person to watch it.

There is one last but critical "how," the how of “How do we get the word out?” Nobody will show up for your event if they don’t know about it. Fortunately, letting ‘em know is not hard or even time consuming. Some things we have found effective are handbills/posters in libraries, announcements on the cable TV system public affairs “scroll,” mentions on the public radio station’s events “calendar” feature, and the good, ol’ newspaper. The Internet can be useful, too, but mostly for people who already know about you and/or are already interested in astronomy and who visit your website or are on your e-mailing list.

What?

This is a question a lot of amateurs new to the public stargaze bidness wonder and obsess about, “What’s the best telescope for outreach?” Almost anything will do. Even a 60mm department store refractor’s views of the Moon will delight kids and adults. Even a 40-plus-year-old Newtonian reflector, as we shall see, can do a good job. But, at the risk of soundin’ prejudiced, an SCT is probably the best choice. The eyepiece is at a kid friendly altitude, there’s enough aperture that everything looks cool, and—very much a plus—almost all SCTs have drives, so there’s no need to re-center targets between looks, which will slow things down.

Eyepieces? I’ll understand if’n you don’t want to subject your Ethoses to the depredations of little fingers. Just about any ocular will be fine, but a nice big eye lens, plenty of eye relief, and a low power (your customers will want to see the whole Moon) are desirable. This can be supplemented by a higher power “planetary” eyepiece if Jupe or Saturn is out. What has worked for me on the long end is a 2-inch format 30-mm range import Chinese wide field like those sold by Owl and others. On the short end, I like Orion’s (Synta) 9mm Expanse. The longer focal length Expanses are good if you are confined to using 1.25-inch eyepieces. Were any of these to be incurably defiled by teenage mascara or the leavings of Double Bubble Bubblegum, it would not be a heartbreaking loss.

PSAS Spring 2010 ESC Skywatch

And, so, on with the show. This is how it went for us this year, and I think this is pretty typical for us on any year, and will probably also be the norm for any modest-sized group in a modest-sized city. We try to hold three public events a year: two formal stargazes, one in the spring, one in the fall, and one night of sidewalk astronomy. “Try to,” but it’s often “one” or “none” instead, since our spring skies are notoriously cloudy. The last decade or so, it’s even been a mistake to count on good conditions in the fall. It seemed as if we’d catch half a break this spring, though. International Sidewalk Astronomy Night had been well and truly clouded out the Saturday before, but the consarned weatherman was predicting clear/mostly clear for our Spring ESC Skywatch.

The whosit in a whatsit? We are quite lucky in the Where department. We’ve operated in conjunction with a local public school facility, the Environmental Studies Center, for nearly 25 years. The Environmental Studies Center, the "ESC," is a largish tract of land out in the suburbs, and, as shown in the image below, incorporates a lake, an open field good for observing, and a beautiful classroom/laboratory building where we hold our monthly meetings. In return for the use of this fine facility, we conduct two public star parties on the grounds with the assistance of the ESC staff (who handle publicity).

I said the ESC has a good field for observing, and it does. Or would if not for the light pollution. Over the past two decades, the city has grown up around the Center, and though we actually did use the site for club deep sky observing sessions until a few years ago, it’s been pretty badly compromised for quite a while. That doesn’t harm it as a public outreach site, though; it actually enhances it. It is close and convenient for anyone in the city. It’s a comfortable venue, too. The Center is well known by our county’s residents, with practically every single adult who went through the public schools havin’ been out there at least a time or two. There are bathrooms, water fountains, soft-drink and snack machines, and sufficient staff to help us manage even large crowds.

The weather looked good. Maybe a few periods of thin and scattered clouds, but nothing that would skunk us. I’d just pack up a C8 and—nope! I’d decided to let my RV-6, Cindy Lou, be the star of my show this time. Yes, her eyepiece position is a little difficult for the tiniest tots to reach, but there would be SCTs on the field for them to use. In addition to Cindy’s literally scrumptious optics, her drive works fine, a big advantage when working with kids, and she has another surprisingly important plus: she looks as much like a telescope to the public as any non-refractor can.

I was hoping for a good turn-out by the PSAS membership, but I was also aware the advantage of a weeknight for the public brings with it disadvantages for club members. Some just can’t help out on a work night, or are at work, or are taking or teaching evening classes. Nevertheless, we wound up with four telescopes, which was sufficient, if only barely. We are a small club, and there is only so much you can expect numbers-wise, I reckon. My experience with any club has been that maybe 10% of the rank-and-file will turn-out for any given activity, whether public star parties, or darksite observin’, or what-have-you, so “four” was “OK” if not “great” for us.

As usual, we set up well in advance of dark. Invariably, kids and parents will begin to arrive considerably before the scheduled start time, and if we are there and ready to go, we can keep ‘em occupied with looks at the Moon in the twilight. Some of us can, anyhow. One of the other beauties of Cindy Lou is that she don’t need no alignment stars, because she don’t need a go-to alignment, because she ain’t got no computer. A computer in the year of Cindy’s birth, about 1967, probably wouldn’t have fit in the ESC building.

If all you have is a go-to scope, bring it out, but it sure is helpful if your computer will let you skip alignment and just start sidereal trackin’, or allow you to align on the Moon or other Solar System object. My Celestron C8-SGT (CG5) will, so will some other Celestrons and Meades. Thing is, little folk will be wanting to look at the Moon, clamoring to look at her, well before alignment stars are visible. If you have a manual scope as well as a go-to, leave the cotton-pickin’ go-to home. You won’t need that technology to find the Moon, Saturn, and Sirius.

With cars beginning to fill the ESC’s modest lot, we was just about ready to roll. One thing we did differently this time was the way we managed the “extra credit” business. Yeah, ain’t no secret we and the ESC staff have traditionally greased the skids a bit, arranging with sponsoring teachers to give a few points extra credit to students who attend the Skywatch. In the past, this was done by having scope operators hand out little slips to each “looker” veryifying their attendance. This tended to create somethin’ of a bottleneck, though, so this year we had the kids visit a table over at the buildin’ to sign-in and get their slips. That made the telescope lines move a little quicker.

And believe you me, there were lines. Like Forest Gump said, “Public observing is like a box of chocolates; you never know how many folks will come out to look through the telescopes,” or sumpin’ like that, anyhow. When all was said and done, we showed the sky to maybe 200-250 sprouts and adults (mostly sprouts). That was actually a nice number. There were occasionally long lines, but not distressingly long lines, and I believe that lines at scopes help kick the excitement up a notch with a little of that old “anticipation.”

How did Cindy Lou, do? Right good. This time out, the majority of the youngsters were big enough to reach her eyepiece, even with the Moon near zenith. The little ones? Unfortunately, I’d left home without a stepstool and had to divert the tots over to the SCTs. Till one little bitty girl trotted over with a stool she’d “liberated” from one of my friends’ scopes, “Let’s use this!” Luna was lovely in Cindy in the way she can only be lovely—I’ll admit—in a longer focal length (f/8 6-inch) Newtonian from days of yore. I mostly stayed on the Moon and Mars, though I did waltz over to M42 once at the request a couple of older younguns. The kids just loved the elderly telescope, and were mucho impressed when I told ‘em she was older than most of their Mamas and Daddies. Yay, Cindy Lou!

Two and a half hours later we declared victory over the darkness of scientific ignorance, and rang down the curtain on the Spring 2010 ESC Skywatch. One of the other benefits of medium-small crowds is that after a couple of hours they tend to clear themselves out. During Hale-Bopp, we were sometimes still shooing people away at 11pm. But you know what? Even in those hectic times, I had fun with the kids. I had plenty of fun on this night with our modest crowd, too. I always do. Yeah, it might get old if I did it more than a few times a year. But maybe not. Seein’ the look of wonder on a kid’s—or a parent’s—face when they see Saturn for real for the first time is a heady brew, muchachos. Give it a taste.

C90 Redux

Does the picture at left need a caption? Howsabout, “Is the Only Enemy of Good Enough REALLY More Better?” What was the denouement of the C90 saga that was the subject of last week’s blog? As I recounted then, I’d ordered a hybrid diagonal to allow me to use 1.25-inch eyepieces and accessories in Little Sister’s .965-inch format back. Unfortunately, I wound up in backorder hell. No way to use decent eyepieces in the Small Orange One, and a Moon growing fatter every night.

I did a little poking around on the Internet, searching for an L.A.R., a “Large Accessory Ring,” a widget, an adapter ring, that allows the C90 to use standard SCT format accessories. Once upon a time, in the C90’s heyday, this was a common item. Unfortunately, with the 90 gone, L.A.R.s for the The Wee One have become as rare as the proverbial hen’s teeth. Luckily, the Meade ETX 90 has the same size rear port, and Large Accessory Rings have been made for those Maks, too, though ETX L.A.R.s don’t seem to be as common as they once was, either. I Googled around extensively without success, and had just about given up when I ran across just what—it appeared—I needed at Telescopeadapters.com.

This small Florida company is apparently part of an outfit called “CNC Parts Supply,” which is apparently related in some way to the long-gone and much-liked Florida astro-vendor and dealer of yore, Scopetronix. CNC’s L.A.R., which the page said would work with both the C90 and the ETX 90, was not exactly cheap at thirty dollars, but I decided to order one anyway, since, in addition to lettin’ antsy old Unk try his C90 NOW, it would, unlike the hybrid diagonal, allow the use of any number of SCT accessories on Little Sister up to and including the 2-inch diagonal seen above.

I don’t know much about CNC, but I do know they are prompt. I ordered on Saturday, and my L.A.R. was on the porch Monday night when I returned home from the hospital (the wonderful Miss D. had to have a little surgery). Granted, they are just one state over, but that is still remarkable service. Tired as I was, I couldn’t resist threading the ring on to the back of the C90 to see if it would indeed work—I’d been a little doubtful as to whether this Meade accessory would really fit my pint-sized Celestron.

Perfect. Threaded onto and over the 90’s rear port as smooth as a baby’s backside. A plain, ol’ Celestron visual back went onto the L.A.R. just as smooth, and I was ready to ROCK. Which I did despite the late hour. I grabbed up a 1.25-inch star diagonal and a 26mm Celestron Plössl, mounted the C90 on a camera tripod, and headed for the front yard where Luna was jus’ peeping above the house next door. Centered her up…and… Nice. Real nice. Good contrast across the Lunar disk. All-in-all, I thought the (near) Full Moon looked considerably better than she does in the Short Tube 80. We was just barely past Full, so one limb was edged with craters that stood out sharply against surprisingly black sky.

The next day, I couldn’t help pullin’ a wild hare out of my hat. Why not, yeah, actually try the 90 with a 2-inch diagonal? My William Optics (SCT style) dielectric threaded onto the L.A.R. no problem. Inserted a 27-mm Panoptic into that, and, while the result looked kinda funny (just north of ridiculous, I reckon), balance was manageable on the Manfrotto tripod. A quick terrestrial look down Selma Street showed that, as I’d expected, there was a small amount of vignetting due to the C90’s tiny baffle tube.

Vignetting, the cutting off of the light cone entering the eyepiece, something which can be caused by various obstructions in the light path, can be annoying. Unlike some amateurs, however, it’s not something that’s ever bothered me too much—hell, I’ve been known to use a 35mm Panoptic in an f/6.3 reducer-equipped C8. Even given my tolerance for vignetting, though, I can testify that the amount I was seeing in the 27mm TeleVue was minimal. Mainly just that the Pan’s field-stop was a little fuzzy rather than razor sharp.

When the waning Moon finally struggled over the horizon, I was glad I’d waited up. The view in the 27mm wide-field eyepiece was FINER THAN SPLIT FROG HAIR. Sharp, contrasty, with plenty of wide-open space around Selene. Frankly, I didn’t notice the vignetting I’d detected terrestrially. Other eyepieces? While waiting for the Moon, I’d tried a 7mm UWAN on Saturn just before the ringed wonder moved into tree limbs. The planet was low, and the seeing poor, but Saturn was nevertheless sharp, and even showed-off a little bit of disk detail.

What’s up next for the 90? Not much for a while, I suppose. Given its excellent performance, I believe it may provide strong competition for my StarBlast in the grab ‘n go arena. But only if I can figure out the mount equation. A camera tripod is absolutely useless for observing the sky with even a small telescope. I plan to check the alternatives as far as small-medium size alt-az mounts go, and will let y’all know whichun I decide on when and if I can convince myself to part with some $$$.

Comments:
Hi Unk. Best wishes for Miss D.'s speedy recovery. As for a good alt-az mount for a grab & go scope, I've been extremely happy with the Vixen PortaMount for the last 3 years. My William Optics ZenithStar 80 and my StarBlast are great on it. The slow mo controls are very nice, many mounts in this class don't have 'em. The only thing I wish it had are real locks.

--Robert Harris
 
Hi Robert:

Thanks very much. Miss D. continues to recover, and it looks like she is gonna be just fine.

As for the mount...I've got several I'm considering. Now, I just have to convince myself to get out a credit card. Not always easy. :-)
 
Hey, Unk, glad to hear that the C90 is working out for you. I have mine on a UA DwarfStar on a light tripod, and it is plenty sturdy and smooth as a well-tuned Dob. I think the C90 may be the most compact reasonably capable telescope ever made; it's a couple of inches shorter even than an ETX 90 or an Orion MC90, but shows more detail and takes magnification better than the f/4-f/5 90mm Maks or 50mm refractors. Taking a page from your big CAT playbook, I keep mine in a 6-pack cooler. Have fun with that little thing!
 
Your last three entries did it for me. I'm awaiting delivery of a C90 that I just purchased last week. I plan on mounting it on a Universal Astronomics' Microstar--it's a fantastic and affordable mount and I'll let you know how it goes.
 
Thank you, Unk, for your comments on public outreach do's and don'ts. Good wisdom there, and very timely for me...

Bob
 
Hi Unk, I have two questions. I have a C11 ASGT that I keep at my home near the NC Blue Ridge Mts. However I have another home on the NC coast. It seems to be darker on the coast and I would like to bring my scope down, however I'm concerned about humidity and ocean wind. You are on the coast too. Other than dew heaters what helps?
Also I want to purchase a heaver payload mount. The CGE PRO is to $$$, is the CGEM DX a good choice or what do you recomend?
Thanks, David Heflin
 
HI David:

As to the former, I've never had a problem on the coast, other than dew, of course. The scope/mount is stored inside in the a/c, of course.

As for the latter...I think the CGEM would be very nice with the 11...I am thinking about that myself. Just be sure you won't mind lugging that bit (CGE Pro) tripod around... ;-)
 
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