Friday, December 24, 2010

 

Christmas Moon


It was well after midnight and still my daughter Lizbeth and I braved the cold. Some of the chills, however, came not from our icy 45F weather, but from the spectacle of a Real Good Christmas Eclipse. For once, the weather gods cooperated, with the inevitable bad ol’ clouds holding off till after mid-eclipse. Wherever our chills came from, they were worth enduring. The December 21, 2010 total lunar eclipse was a pretty and dark one, muchachos. Hope you caught it.

For Lizbeth, it was her first Christmastime eclipse. In fact, we were gobsmacked to realize this was the first lunar eclipse of any sort she’s witnessed. Me? My second. Oh, I suppose I’ve seen a few more December eclipses than that. I could check, but there’s no need to; only one has lodged itself in my memory and made much difference beyond the immediate.

Preparing to make this entry, I felt drawn to revisit the scene, for me, of the total lunar eclipse of December 18, 1964, Mama’s Methodist church. As most of y’all know, I am not a believer. Oh, I’d like to be, but I can’t summon up much more than half an iota of religious feeling. Never have been able to. Not that I don’t have the occasional mystical impulse. I suppose if I ever achieve that measly half-iota of metaphysical feeling, it is at this numinous time of year.

“Numinous” is right. As December 25th comes on, memories of Christmases past attain a golden glow—even those Christmases that weren't so rosy when we lived them. So it is for me with Christmas ’64 at the Kingswood Methodist Church.

While I was in church frequently until my teen years, when I finally rebelled one cold and wet Sunday morning, even as a little-bitty feller I couldn’t summon the will to believe more than two words of what was preached at me there. Not that that much mattered. If you were a suburban family in the 60s, especially a southern suburban family, out in the New Frontier beyond the cultural resources of the city, social life for both kids and adults revolved around two things: school and church. Kingswood was a significant part of my life no matter what I could or couldn’t believe. And when I am honest with myself, I admit most of my memories of it are good ones.

On a whim, almost, on the way to the consarned Target store to pick up one last brace of gifts, I turned down a well-remembered street and stopped in front of Mama’s church. What gobsmacked me was how little has changed. The near-bizarre flying saucer-shaped Mid-century Modern sanctuary still stands, though its simple elegance has been ruined by the new roof that now caps it. Some pinhead tried to gussy up the old building, I reckon, and fell prey to the dreaded The Only Enemy of Good Enough is More Better syndrome.

I got out, snapped a cell phone pic or two, and long dormant memories came flooding back as I stood on the winter-brown lawn. Especially of the night of the BIG KINGSWOOD YOUTH CHRISTMAS PARTY, which coincided with a total lunar eclipse. How I’d argued with Mama about missing the eclipse for a dumb old church party. How my teacher and mentor, Miss Emily Baldwin, herded us outside as totality began. And how she worked her legendary wiles to see I wasn’t only awestruck by the eclipse, but empowered by it.

In 1964 something was auspiciously aligned, whether the Moon or the Fates. That year will always be remembered by me as the Astronomy Christmas. Not only did I gape at that grand eclipse, that was the Christmas Stars entered my life at another church party that December, just as I was on the cusp of huge change. There’s never been another Christmas quite like it since, although my most wonderful holiday memories are of the Yuletides I’ve spent with Miss Dorothy. Perhaps there’s exactly one special Christmas to a customer. A Christmas that comes when you really need it. It’s almost enough to make old Unk a believer.

Anyhoo, Lizbeth and I enjoyed the Hell out of this December’s eclipse. We didn’t drag out a lot of gear. Not even the ETX, Charity Hope Valentine, who produced some beautiful eclipse pictures the last time Selene hid her shining face. Even that modest telescope seemed contrary to the Spirit of ’64. We grabbed Miss Dorothy’s Celestron 10x50s and, almost as an afterthought, a little Fuji superzoom digicam. We snapped away, chirping about the eclipse’s dark beauty and having a high old time.

As totality came in, though, Lizbeth and I fell silent. Suddenly, all those long years melted away as in a dream, and I could again feel the scratchy wool of the winter suit Mama insisted I wear on that long ago December night. Again Emily Baldwin prompted me to explain what was happening just one more time, just as our shaky pre-teen voices spontaneously began Silent Night.

Christmas PRESENT? This was a different sort of Christmas Eve at good old Chaos Manor South, an empty nest sort of Christmas. The kids are all grown with lives of their own, and while we’ll see at least some of them before the holiday, or at least the holiday season, is done, on Yuletide Eve it was just me and Miss D., and it was quiet. Too quiet.

And maybe that is what brought on a more melancholy or at least more introspective Christmas Eve blog this year. Quiet is nice however, and Miss Dorothy, now a cancer survivor, still needs large portions of r-e-s-t.

Unk? A little Yell—fie on the eggnog—a cat on the lap, and my annual viewing of A Charlie Brown Christmas. By the time that was over and I’d done a wee bit o’ channel surfing, it was getting on toward 8pm. Which meant old Orion would be high enough to see from the front porch. If the weather was still cooperating.

The pea picking weatherman was predicting plenty of rain for Christmas Day, but at sunset it looked like my traditional Christmas Eve viewing of M42 might be a go, barely, for the first time in several years. I put on a jacket, grabbed my trusty StarBlast, and headed for the front door.

And you know what? Despite the weather goobers' dreary predictions, M42, that greatest of all Christmas ornaments, was there, drilling through the light pollution, bringing with it memories of the 46 Decembers I have spent in this most wonderful of all pursuits with the most wonderful of people: amateur astronomers. You-all, that is. The coming year promises to bring much change with it, but I can't help but think and hope--this is the season of hope, isn't it?--that given this good omen me and mine and you and yours will have a wonderful year.

In simpler words? MERRY CHRISTMAS FROM UNCLE ROD AND MISS DOROTHY!

Sunday, December 19, 2010

 

Stargazing


Hokay, where was we? When we last left astronomy-software-crazy old Uncle Rod (not so old, then) it was 1993. I had finally abandoned my beloved Commodore 64 Home Computer and my very first astro-ware, Sky Travel, for the greener pastures of a genu-wine IBM 486 with a VGA video card running Windows 3.1 and a little program I’d stumbled across at Books-a-Million, Skyglobe.

As I’ve said before, I was gobsmacked by Skyglobe, which impressed me as none of the (few) astronomy programs I’d used before had. It was a long, long way from the blocky graphics (if you could even call them that) of Sky Travel. It was so purty I just had to turn off the lights and admire all them stars (the whole Yale Bright Star catalog for god’s sake!) and the shimmering blue band of the Milky Way.

It was even useful. Running on my 486, this little DOS application (what came before Winders, younguns) was blazingly fast. Need to know what was up? Click on its icon in the Windows 3.1 window where I had it permanently stationed on my desktop, and I had the sky on my screen in the wink of an eye. Literally. Which is why I continued to use the last and greatest Skyglobe, version 3.6, till my old Toshiba laptop died a few weeks back.

Yes, it was useful for quick “what’s up” checks, but how about for locating objects? Not So Much. It would print charts, and it had the whole Messier and a few NGCs, but, while I tried to use its charts to locate stuff at the 1993 Deep South Regional Star Gaze, they really were not up to that task. Not enough stars and no binning. On its printouts, stars bright and dim were all about the same size, which made the maps hard to decipher under a red light.

So, in typical amateur astronomy fashion, I soon wanted More Better Gooder. But what? The early 1990s was when commercial Astro-ware got on its feet, and there were several choices. Foremost of which was probably Software Bisque’s TheSky. It was reasonably mature, having been around since the 80s, had a lot of features, and was available for DOS or in an honest to god Windows version.

So did I get TheSky? Nope. Then as now, your ol’ Unk was a cheapskate, and TheSky’s pricetag of $129.00 seemed a lot to pay for an astronomy program—or indeed for any sort of computer program—in those more innocent days. Plus, I didn’t know anybody who had TheSky and I was loath to pony up a C-note plus without being able to try-before-you-buy.

I asked the only person I knew at the time who was into astronomical computing, the President of my club, the good, old Possum Swamp Astronomical Society, what he was using. Stargaze, said he. He went on to allow that while Stargaze was not perfect, suffering from performance issues, this DOS program did a fairly good job of printing, had all the NGC objects onboard (!), displayed stars down to 10th magnitude for the whole sky and 16th mag via the Hubble Guide Star Catalog for “selected areas,” and did a fair job of printing. He handed me a print-out that showed Mars as it sailed across the Pleiades, and I was sold. Especially when he told me I could get Stargaze for a little more than half what TheSky would have cost me.

In retrospect, Unk was penny wise and pound foolish; I would probably have been better off with TheSky. Stargaze was OK, but after I got over the thrill of loading an INCREDIBLE amount of data, four whole 3.5-inch floppies worth, I found my bud had been right in his criticism of the program’s performance. It had the clunky feel of the DOS programs of the day that chose to masquerade as Windows apps. Oh, you had a mouse cursor and could overlay windows on windows, but it was kinda slow, kinda unstable, and never worked quite right. The field of view window, which showed a magnified portion of the main chart was a cool idea, just before its time computer software and hardware-wise.

Printing was alright, yeah, but still not clear enough or easy enough to do to allow me to produce charts for use at the telescope. Well, they actually might have sufficed, but by the time 1993 had become 1994, I’d found the real More Better Gooder. When the 1994 Deep South Regional Star Gaze came round, I had stopped using the soft, as I now had an astro program designed to be used for actual observing.

That program was Deep Space 3D. I’d known about it and its author for a while. David Chandler was (and still is) the maker of the best planisphere on Earth, The Night Sky Planisphere. As for DS3D, I’d seen an early version running on a buddy’s EGA-equipped PC. Despite the lower resolution of the EGA card, I could see DS3D had possibilities.

Initially, it was focused on displaying comet paths, but its underpinnings were strong and hinted that it could evolve into a Real Good general purpose deep sky program. How about the “3D”? The 3D in the name referred to DS3D’s “gimmick,” its ability to present 3D screen displays or printouts with a 3D viewer. That was cool, but since I wasn’t chasing comets, I temporarily forgot about DS3D.

By 1994, Deep Space 3D was all growed up. It still had the comet features, but it now also had what it needed to make it a full fledged deep sky charting application—it never was a planetarium, eschewing the pretty and the animated. Not only did it include the NGC and IC via the SAC (Saguaro Astronomy Club) database, it had a good number of DSOs beyond that. Otherwise, even for Back in the Day, DS3D was not a fancy program. It was resolutely DOS and eschewed even a mouse. Its strengths made up for that.

Strength One was its ability to build observing lists that contained copious amounts of information about the objects I wanted to observe on any given evening. DS3D even integrated a very useable logging system. I’ve come to trace the lineage of today’s very popular species of astro-program, the planner, back to DS3D.

The big draw for me back then, though? The charts. I had never seen anything the like of DS3D’s maps come out of a computer program. Deep Space 3D was the first software to not only claim to produce “printed atlas quality” star charts, but to actually make good on that promise. The maps this program spat out on my Canon BJ200e inkjet were beautiful and really did look “typeset.” It is not too much to say that DS3D’s charts are still fully competitive with anything computer programs can produce today. I used DS3D heavily, not just at DSRSG 94, but off and on for years thereafter.

The only downcheck for DS3D was that it wasn’t very pretty or much fun to play with on cloudy nights. That niche was soon filled by what I used to call “super Skyglobe,” RedShift. This program will always be a sentimental favorite of mine, since it was the first gift Miss Dorothy gave me for my birthday, back in the summer of ’94 when we were dating.

What’s memorable about the program itself? It was a groundbreaker in a couple of ways. It was the first astronomy software I owned that came on CD. Not only did you load it off that newfangled media, the CD held much multimedia glitz that was impressive then: pretty color pictures and (gasp!) even short, small movies. Admittedly, the program wasn’t much use at the scope; its printed charts’ stars were not well-binned and looked a lot like Skyglobe’s, if a lot deeper with the full NGC/IC and zillions of UGC galaxies.

Nevertheless, this refugee from the former Eastern Bloc (its printed user’s manual is dedicated to “the brave men and women of the Russian space program”) was fun and blazed the path ahead for the planetarium programs. Frankly, I’d say today’s mega-pretty planetariums, Starry Night Pro Plus and TheSky X, owe a lot to RedShift.

I was more than happy with DS3D, and it frankly provided all the horsepower I needed for almost any observing program I wanted to undertake with my C8, Celeste, and my 12.5-inch Newtonian, Old Betsy. But by the winter of 1994 this part of the country’s amateur community was all abuzz about the astro-software to end all astro-software.

The astronomy program being embraced by my Johnny Reb brothers and sisters was Megastar. It wasn’t exactly new in 1994, but it had just recently been issued on CD. The original version, which came on 50+ floppy disks, didn’t seem overly practical to me. I had been a little paranoid about getting Stargaze’s measly four disks to all load properly.

Christmas of ’94, I was just like Ralphie. When Miss D. asked me what I wanted, I blurted “MEGASTAR-ON-A-CD-WITH-THE-WHOLE-HUBBLE-GUIDE-STAR-CATALOG-AND-A-MILLION-MAC-GALAXIES!” It was those last two things that excited me: the whole, not just parts, of the GSC and all them galaxies, the Mitchell Anonymous Catalog, the amazing Larry Mitchell out in Texas had researched.

I remember Rex McDaniel of Rex’s Astrostuff trying to convince me I didn’t need all those stars and galaxies for “just” a 12-inch scope. But the truth was that eyepieces and observing techniques were improving at an exponential rate in the 90s. I found that from a dark site I couldn’t just see many of the dim things Megastar displayed, but that I needed that level of depth to profitably navigate some areas of the sky.

First I had to get Megastar, though. The story I like to tell is that Miss D. called Emil Bonnano, Megastar’s author, and he said “Why don’t we play a trick on old Uncle Rod?” When I unwrapped my big gift on Christmas morning, what was revealed was Expert Astronomer, a “low level” version of TheSky sold by software discounters. I had to pretend to be not-a-bit-disappointed until Miss D. ordered me to open the box. Out came the Megastar CD.

It’s a good story, but not exactly true. Yes, Miss D. and Emil conspired to ship Megastar in an Expert Astronomer box, but Miss Dorothy is way too kind hearted to go through with such tricks, and before I could tear the wrapping paper off she had spilled her guts about her and Emil’s joke. Her innate kindness and goodness is but one of the many reasons I love my wife so much.

And suddenly we were in the modern astro-ware age. Lots of programs have come and gone off my hard drive in the intervening sixteen years, but Deep Space 3D and RedShift and Megastar pretty much laid the groundwork for what was to come. Today’s software has added features and improved its performance and look, but otherwise not much has changed since those three amazing programs pointed the way.

I like top ten lists. Do you like top ten lists? I know you do. Herewith is my top ten from least to most More Better Gooder. Don’t see your fave here? Don’t get your dadgummed knickers in a bunch. This only represents the software I have actually used, most of it for Win PCs, and I ain’t used everything (just near-about). I have used every single one of the following extensively and can attest to their worthiness. Do note this list is restricted to the programs I use for observing the starry sky. There are plenty of other good astro-softs for Solar System workers, imagers, etc., and maybe I'll talk about some of them one o' these Sundays.

Skyglobe 3.6

What more can I say in defense of this little guy than what I said above? If I could figure out a way to run Skyglobe on Windows 7, I’d be using it still. Nothing is quicker or more efficient at showing you the sky’s current condition.

Deepsky

Like DS3D, RedShift, and Megastar, Deepsky is a pioneer. It was the first program to fully crack the planner code. It is a Windows application, of course, but in other ways it is similar to DS3D. With one important difference. Instead of a star chart, Deepsky greets you with a spreadsheet, as all modern planners do. A small change from DS3D, but a very important one. Operating off a spreadsheet/list is a much more efficient way to plan and conduct deep sky observing runs, it turns out.

Deepsky is still around. In some ways it’s been surpassed by more modern planners. The program’s author, Steve Tuma, is working on a new release, however, which may well send this good, old astro-soft back to the head of the pack.

RTGUI

Bob Sheaffer’s RTGUI (“Real Time Graphic User Interface”) is simply named, and it is a rather simple program. A little window that accesses a database containing the whole NGC/IC, and which can be supplemented with add-on databases. Simple, yeah, but so good at what it does. It is blazingly fast, can control go-to scopes, can send you on a tour of the best objects of the evening, and, should you want charts, can bring up Cartes du Ciel, the new v3 Cartes du Ciel, centered on the chosen object.

RTGUI is all I use for informal observing runs with Charity Hope Valentine, my ETX 125, and, truthfully, I could use it for a lot more. The other day, when I heard Mr. Sheaffer was releasing a new version of the program, my reaction was: “OH MY GOD! HAPPY BIRTHDAY TO ME!” And…did I mention? RTGUI is FREE.

Deep Space 3D

Honestly, I wish this old warhorse was still around. DS3D lives on in a shadow existence as a shareware program, but you will probably need a fairly old O/S to run it. What happened? The author never updated it into a Win version, and it inevitably faded into the past. I also think it was unwise to re-title the program “Deep Space,” from “Deep Space 3D.” The older name made it stand out better from the growing astro-ware pack.

I’ve often wondered whether DS3D might still be at the top of the charts if Mr. Chandler had at least built a semi-Windows interface for it as Emil Bonnano did with his program (the early versions of Megastar were that transitional mix of Window and DOS). Whatever. As far as I am concerned, it and its author's place in the history of astronomy software is assured.

RedShift

I’ve probably said all that need be said about RedShift. Except what became of it. The answer being nothing—or a lot, really. “Nothing” as in it did not disappear, though it has gone from the hands of one production company to the next. But RedShift endures. The most recent version, RedShift 7, can control telescopes via ASCOM and print Real Nice charts. RS never developed a huge following in the U.S., but I understand it is quite popular in the UK and Europe. Long may it wave.

AstroPlanner

AstroPlanner is a good planner. But if that were all it is, it wouldn’t be a standout, and it is. What makes it special is that it is, as far as I know, the only world class planning program available in Apple Mac format as well as Windows. Otherwise, it is fully competitive with anything on the market. The current version, 1.6.1, is beginning to show its age, but its author, Paul Rodman, has been working on a new and even better V2. Downside? Several years down the line, work is still underway on the new one. Here’s hoping it eventually appears, since I love “AP,” even on my Windows machines.

Stellarium

I mourn the loss of Skyglobe, but Stellarium makes up for it. In fact, in some ways, this is today’s Skyglobe. Although it will control scopes, and I suppose you could use it in the field at the telescope, it is a little deficient in depth and features for that. What I use it for is what I used Skyglobe for back in the dark ages: “What’s up tonight?” Like Skyglobe, it is one of the most beautiful planetarium programs of the day. Also like Skyglobe, it is free. Freer, actually. Skyglobe was shareware; you were supposed to send in a small sum if you liked the program.

TheSky 6

Yeah, Software Bisque's program is one of the granddaddies of astro-ware, but it has more than kept pace with the times. The "Professional" version has everything anybody will ever need to run an observing session—hell, it’s used by many professional observatories—and it is beautiful to look at to boot. No, I don’t always use TheSky 6, since I like to work from a planner’s spreadsheet/list, but when I need a high power planetarium, this is where I go.

How about the new one, TheSky X? I haven’t had a chance to try it yet, or even see it in person, but I suspect it continues down the path today’s planetariums have chosen to trod, ever more pretty and “realistic” with ever more features. This is hinted at by the fact that I’ve been told one of the developers of the uber pretty Starry Night Pro Plus worked on TheSky X.

Cartes du Ciel

Patrick Chevalley’s Cartes du Ciel, CdC, “Sky Charts,” is my bread and butter. When I use a planetarium, this is usually the one I use. Why? I don’t often need the power and features of TheSky or Starry Night Pro Plus and Cartes is faster. For computer challenged little old me, simpler is usually better, anyhow.

Not that CdC won’t do a lot. It will actually do almost anything you might require of an astro-soft at a telescope or indoors. CdC has plenty of objects, is expandable, controls scopes via ASCOM, and the new Version, 3.2, has a very attractive if not exactly pretty display. Cartes also has some features not seen elsewhere. For example, it can download and overlay a POSS image on its charts. Oh, and did I mention it is still free?

SkyTools 3

I won’t bore you with another paean to my favorite astronomy program. Read my review in the April 2010 issue of Sky and Telescope or have a look at this. No it is not perfect. No software is. I wish its charts offered a bit more interactivity, like the ability to move/center them with a mouse. But there is little to criticize here. If you want to take on huge observing projects, or just want to see plenty of good stuff, this is where you go for computer support, muchachos. Nuff said.

Runners Up

Lessee. I really like Phyllis Lang’s Deep Sky Planner, which is just what the title says it is. I’ve yet to be able to use it except in a crippled preview version, but it’s on my to-do list, and I suspect when I glom on to the real thing it will displace one of the above from the top ten.

No doubt Megastar should really be on the list. It's not mostly because of my disappointment that its talented author has apparently stopped developing it. It is now sold by Willman-Bell, and other than a few bug fixes nothing has been done in a long while to keep this wonderful soft up-to-date. Sigh. If you are a hard core deep sky observer who wants to use a planetarium, you could still do worse than Megastar, though it is now definitely looking long in the tooth.

There’s also Earth Centered Universe. It’s like Megastar, but moreso. Near about as much depth as Emil’s opus, but in a more planetarium-like package. Add to that some of the best printed charts on the scene. Downchecks? Just one: the author has stopped developing it. Shame.

The only reason Virtual Moon Atlas is not in the above top ten is that I’ve confined that list to programs I use for deep sky observing. My enthusiasm for Moon watching comes and goes, but I always look at beautiful Luna at least a few times a month. What I wanted for a long time was “a Megastar for the Moon,” a computerized Lunar chart on the level of the deep sky behemoth. Somebody listened, namely Patrick Chevalley and Christian Legrand. Their VMA is graphically beautiful, displays thousands of features, and will even send your go-to scope from crater to crater. Several similar programs have appeared over the last five years, but none as good or even close to as good as the freeware Virtual Moon Atlas.

It would be ridiculous not to mention Starry Night. It has thousands of fans, and when it comes to detail and attractiveness it doesn’t get much better than Starry Night Pro Plus with its background sky formed from real CCD images. It’s just that it’s very large with zillions of features, and, as I done said, I prefer “simpler.” SNPP has a few liabilities, too. It is heavily dependent on an external program, Quicktime, and can be hard to get installed and running. I never did get it going on my Vista machine.

It’s a long way from Sky Travel to SkyTools 3, but it’s been a fun trip. And not just fun. I have no doubt that ST3 and CdC and Megastar have allowed me to see more and deeper than I ever would have without their assistance. New to the game? Go get Cartes du Ciel and Stellarium right now and get your astro-software mojo working.

Next Time: Lucy insists it’s “HO-HO-HO AND MISTLETOE AND PRESENTS TO PRETTY GIRLS!” As has been the tradition here for the last few Decembers, the blog will appear on Christmas Eve rather than Sunday, and will likely be shorter and even more sentimental than usual. Happy holidays, muchachos! See you then!

Sunday, December 12, 2010

 

The Herschel Project Nights 17, 18, and 19: 395 Down, 5 to Go


I hate and resist change. Why? Because change is (almost) always for the worse. So, when I heard change was in the air at my favorite deep sky observing haunt, the Chiefland Astronomy Village, I figgered I’d better make immediate plans for a Herschel Expedition down Chiefland way.

What sort of change? Core residents of Chiefland, most of whom are a little older than Unk, on the leading edge of the Baby Boom generation, are ready to move on for one reason or another. Some, like Rod’s good buddies Jeanie and Tom Clark, are headed for dark(er) skies. Others have encountered health issues. Whatever the reasons, a lot of CAV land is up for sale or soon will be.

Despite these changes, things may continue on as always after everything settles down, and if not there is a large and active group on the Chiefland “new” field every month at the dark of the Moon. This is the bunch that put on the excellent Nova Sedus Star Party I attended last year. If I have to move to the new field from the beloved Billy Dodd Memorial Observing Field, I will. But it will just not be the same. Whatever happens, it’s been a good long—decade long—run for me at CAV, and my heartfelt thanks go to the residents for always making your silly old Uncle feel at home.

Change, despite what your stick-in-the-mud old Uncle tells you, ain’t always for the bad. One good change this time was that Miss Dorothy would accompany me down to the CAV. Now that she’s retired from the University she has more free time, and I was delighted when she said she’d like to see Chiefland for herself after hearing me go on and on about it for the last ten years. Yeehaw! Off we’d go on a bright and early December Thursday.

For once I got smart and loaded Big Bertha, my beloved NexStar 11 GPS, and all the rest of the junk that goes in the trunk the evening before our departure. And every item I loaded was checked off on a checklist. Not only was the hardest work already done when we got up Thursday morning, I was (more or less) sure I hadn’t forgotten anything important.

The trip down was easy and uneventful. The weather was good, the traffic was light, and it sure is nice to have someone along to talk to over the course of the five-and-a-half hour trip. The last few years I’ve got used to making the journey alone, and, while a book on tape makes it bearable, it was more fun to be in the company of the lovely Miss D.

One thing I didn’t do on the way down to Chiefland? Obsess about the sky or even look at it often. It was obvious from the weather reports and from the appearance of the brilliant blue vault of heaven that there’d be no concern about the wx. Thursday and Friday night were forecast to be dead clear, with a chance of a few scattered clouds creeping in Saturday evening. There was the temperature, though: lows in the lower 30s/upper 20s, danged ICY for us. I hoped I was prepared for that, since I needed to maximize my time under the stars in order to keep the good, old H-Project on the strait and narrow.

After exiting I-10 just past Tallahassee, we began the final 100-mile run into Chiefland. The first half of that is pretty bland, if not as bland as the Interstate. Past this boring stretch of Florida lowland, it is scads of lost 60s motels and Suwannee River vistas. I was pleased to point out this vintage scenery to Miss D; her family made many a vacation trip down this very stretch of U.S. 19 back in the 1960s, just as Li’l Rod and his Mama and Daddy had.

Miss Dorothy encouraged me to adhere to my time-honored Chiefland routine, and that is just what I did. Arriving in town, the first order of business was checking into the motel. As usual, that was the Day’s Inn (née Holiday Inn Express). While the recession has had an obvious effect on the little hostelry, the room we were given was as clean as always and the Motel staff, those left, were as friendly as always.

Motel settling done, it was out to the CAV proper for unloading. While Miss D allowed as the site looked familiar from my photos and videos, she opined that it was even better in person. Neat, clean, and, most of all, flat with excellent horizons. It’s close to town, but not so close that a light dome is a problem, not when the air is reasonably dry. We’d been curious as to how much company we’d have on the field with that cold weather on the way and the holiday season near. Turned out the Chiefland Observers are a dedicated crew, and by Friday night there would be at least a dozen telescopes on the field.

I won’t lie to y’all and say setting up Big Bertha was a joy. She feels like she’s gained weight every year since she joined our family in 2002. Yeah, yeah, I know it’s me, not her. Nevertheless, her 66-pounds feels about double that now. I love this telescope—always have. She is quiet, precise, and blessed with wonderful optics, but I have begun to wonder how much longer I will be able to use her—as a portable telescope anyway.

Bertha on her tripod with only a few moans and groans, it was time to erect the tent canopy and prepare it for chilly weather. Which preparation consisted of tie-wrapping three tarps to three of the canopy’s open sides. I figured that, in combination with a Coleman Black Cat catalytic heater, would keep me bearably warm. It worked at the Deep South Regional Star Gaze, and it would maybe even work better at CAV, since I intended to stay under the canopy the entire time I was observing.

DSRSG was a completely visual run. This time it would be Stellacam deep sky video all the way. That would allow me to go a lot longer, I thought. You’d be amazed how much warmer you stay out on a field if you have a roof over your head, even if there are no sides to your shelter. Also, while I haven’t really fallen behind on the H-Project, this fall has not been overly productive and late summer wasn’t either. I can cover one hell of a lot more ground with the Stellacam than I can with an eyepiece.

Not that I hadn’t brought eyepieces along. I had my Ethoses with me just in case the weather gods decreed the skies would be too punk for video. Or in the event that I had a major electronic malfunction with the vidcam or its support gear. I expected neither. As I opined to one CAV field denizen: “Eyepieces are for SUMMERTIME!”

Setup complete, a glance at my watch showed we’d have to hustle to finish up in town and be back on the field at sunset (1730). Off me and D. went to our next stop, Wal-Mart, of course. Therein, we dined at the store’s MacDonald’s stand—I told Miss Dorothy that she’d really had the Chiefland experience now, a Big Mac at the WallyWorld. Hunger banished, we picked the usual necessities off the shelves: Jack Links (I now favor their Buffalo Chicken Nuggets), bottled water, MONSTER ENERGY DRINKS, 12-pack for after, and a box of granola bars for the early morning munchies. Oh, and an extra extension cord.

I needed that cord since this time I’d be powering the scope’s dew heaters off an AC power supply. I usually run the DewBuster off the same jumpstart battery I use to power the Stellacam, but it looked like the dew would be heavy this weekend, and I wanted to go as long as possible every night. Rummaging around the Old Manse, I turned up a nice 4 amp AC/DC supply that was sold with a 12-volt ice chest (with a Peltier type cooling system) I bought in preparation for a hurricane several summers back.

Made it back out to the site in plenty of time to get everything hooked up, even though “everything” was a lot. To start, the netbook had to be cabled to the scope. I habitually operate Bertha with the wonderful NexRemote running on my Asus netbook, connecting to the “PC” port on the scope so I can dispense with the dadgum hand controller altogether. I align and move the scope with the aid of my wireless “HC,” a Logitech Wingman game pad, and get feedback through NexRemote’s Microsoft Mary voice.

There was also the Stellacam II. Once I had it mounted on the rear port together with a Meade f/3.3 reducer, I ran the coax from the camera to my DVD recorder, which is hooked to a little portable DVD player I’ve had for years and which serves as my monitor. As above, I run the Stellacam II off a jumpstart battery—which will operate the little cam practically forever. The DVD is powered by AC when it’s available, as it is on the CAV field, or a trolling motor (deep cycle marine) battery and inverter when it ain’t.

Y’all will be pleased to hear I’ve finally got my act together when it comes to focusing the C11. I’ve had a JMI Motofocus for my C8, Celeste, for a while, but I just now got around to ordering the adapter to allow me to use the motofocus motor on the 11. As do most things JMI, the Motofocus works great on the C11. I can, with the aid of an extension cable for the Motofocus, now sit at my monitor and focus precisely. Thanks to Bertha’s carbon fiber tube, once I’ve got focus tweaked-in, only rarely do I have to re-tweak it over the course of an evening.

Afore long, the summer triangle was putting in a last bow and it was time to get the NS11 aligned. Powered up the scope, started NexRemote on the netbook, selected “GPS alignment” (the original automated GPS north and level alignment), and off we went. NOT. Suddenly, it appeared, disaster had struck.

It might not always be readily apparent, but Unk ain’t a complete dummy when it comes to astro-gear. I usually try to give my scopes a check ride before a big outing, but I hadn’t had time to try Bertha, who hadn’t been turned on in six pea-picking months. She’s always been so reliable, though… I wasn’t skeered. But it looked like I should have been. NexRemote announced “finding level,” began moving the tube in altitude, and didn’t stop when “level” came and went. I had to hit the Big Switch before the OTA did a consarned back-flip.

Y’all will be proud of me, though, I didn’t panic—though I’d be lying if I didn’t tell you I had the fleeting feeling the entire trip had been wasted. I stopped, thought for a minute, and took action. “Level” on the NS11 is indicated (to the computer) by the tube tripping a little limit switch. The scope hadn’t been used in a goodly while. Could that switch be a little dirty? I moved the OTA up and down manually a few times. Thankfully I heard the click of the switch, which meant it wasn’t badly out of adjustment. What else could I do but try the alignment again with fingers and toes crossed? Bertha went from “finding level,” to “finding north,” to slewing to the first alignment star without a hitch. WHEEEW!

Excitement over and sky now suitably dark, it was time to get on the stick. After adjusting focus carefully on the second alignment star with the aid of my Bahtinov mask, I started up SkyTools 3 and loaded my list, the Herschel 2500, a.k.a. "the Big Enchilada." I intended to revisit the Herschel II list, of course, but none of its objects would rise till much later in the evening. I’d begin the 2500 in Pisces, and if I finished its multitudinous galaxies before HII time, it would be on to the island universes of Eridanus.

After a couple of test objects, M13 and M27 if you must know, I got in the groove and began knocking off aitches. My video observing routine goes like this: I eyeball the target on the SkyTools list, punch its NGC number into NexRemote (I have not tried interfacing ST3 to the NexRemote virtual port since I had trouble with that last summer). Scope slews to object. I use the gamepad to center it up if it’s much off center and record my impressions of the DSO on my Sony Pressman cassette recorder. I then record 30 seconds of video to a DVD and check-off the object on ST3’s list. Herschel in the can, I enter the nextun into NexRemote…and… Repeat as Needed for as long as I can stand it.

And I was standing it pretty well. It was cold, but the tailgating canopy and the heater at least took the edge off. I didn’t have to put on my heavy coat until near 2300. I drank plenty of water, had snacks when I began to feel weary, and, when the evening was entering its real dark and quiet stretch, I trotted over to the clubhouse and grabbed a Monster out of the fridge.

How did Bertha do after her little hiccup? Splendidly. Her faux pas was forgotten and forgiven as she hit every single target I requested. Every one of the over 100 DSOs I visited was somewhere in the field of the Stellacam’s tiny chip. Which is a good thing, muchachos. When you know—know—the object is going to be somewhere in the field, it’s much easier to pick out the hard ones.

The Stellacam? Maybe it was the cold air keeping her chip temperature down, but she drilled right into the deep sky, allowing Unk to see way beyond even the dimmest Herschels, penetrating to the scads of tiny and fiercely dim Leda and PGC and MCG galaxies that form the backdrop of the heavens.

Final tally? I did 111 Herschel Project (2500) objects Thursday night. The Herschel II? None. The spirit was willing but the flesh was way weak. By 0030 I was beginning to feel the pull of a glass o’ Yell and a warm motel room. No shame in that, I told meself. I’d cruised effortlessly through Pisces, and, when he got too high (pointing at the zenith in alt-az mode with camera and cables on her rear port is a problem for Bertha), I hit Cetus, finished up the bad old sea monster, and even dipped a toe in the frigid waters of Eridanus.

Standouts? There were plenty, but, as always, I will not bore you with a recitation of every dim galaxy I visited (it was almost all galaxies save for a handful of excruciatingly boring NGC open clusters). I would like to mention one of the Big Enchilada’s objects that slap blew me away, however...

NGC 7538 (H.II.10) is spectacular. Why is it spectacular? Because it is in the same field as the Bubble Nebula. The cluster itself is OK, an 8’ across sprinkling of medium bright suns. But the Bubble sure kicks it up a notch. This little cloud is pretty dim visually—my pal Pat could not see it in his pretty new 16-inch Dobsonian the following evening—but on video it is spectacular. The “bubble” shape doesn’t exactly jump out in this poor seeing, but it is visible, and the rest of the nebulosity is prominent and detailed.

Big Switch thrown and back at the Days Inn, it was the Yell and a little tele. All I could find to watch at this early hour was the Travel Channel’s Man vs. Food, a hilarious and mouthwatering show that’s about just what the title says it is about. Derned good thing the Burger King across the street was closed at this early hour.

Morning came, and though I resisted for a while it’s hard to break my early rising ways until a few star party nights have come and gone. Miss D. and me tottered down to breakfast before eight. What did we find? As I feared, the recession and the change from Holiday Inn Express to Day’s Inn meant the breakfast took a nosedive. What was there? Puny looking fruit. Cold cereal. Oatmeal. Smallest bagels I have ever seen. Half a slice of bread for toast. Gone were the crazy cinnamon rolls, eggs, bacon, sausage, biscuits, and gravy of yore. I was right put out, let me tell you. But, on the other hand, it was sufficient, and I admitted it would hardly be a bad thing for me to cut back a mite.

I made up for my deprivation at lunch at my fave Chiefland Eatery, Bar-b-Que Bill’s. Before hitting Bill’s, though, Dorothy and I made another run on Wal-Mart for a couple of small items I'd missed, Radio Shack for a few extra cassette tapes for the Sony Pressman, and visited CVS Drugs for some things for Miss D.

Guess what? You can buy a telescope in Chiefland. It ain’t much of a telescope, but it’s a telescope. For the second year in a row, Wal-Mart, in a bow to the recession, I reckon, had no Christmas scopes. CVS, on the other hand, was packed to the gills with 60mm refractors.

Bill’s? If the motel breakfast had let me down, good, old Bill made up for it. Lunch consisted of sliced beef (or pork), fries, slaw, beans, garlic bread, and a real good salad bar. Total with drinks? About twenty bucks for two. Oh, and the portions were big. Reaaalll big. And the food delicious. Miss D. rolled me back to the motel where I recovered via a nap.

I was out at the site at sundown Friday evening, rarin’ to go. As on Thursday, though, things did not go exactly as planned at first. I lit off the scope, turned on the camera, and fired up the display and DVD recorder. I was about to start NexRemote’s alignment procedure when I noticed no video was making it to the screen. With the gain up fairly high, I can always tell I’m getting a good signal, even when the scope is pointed at the horizon and at nothing in particular. I could see I was getting exactly nothing. Oh, boy.

I spent about 15 minutes troubleshooting. Lights on the camera’s hand control meant it was getting power. I tried plugging and unplugging the video coax at both the camera and DVD recorder ends. No dice. Double checked that the cable was plugged into the right jack on the recorder and that the recorder output was plugged into the DVD player correctly. All seemed well. Triple checked that the recorder was set to the right input seeing. Yep. Well, shoot. I was looking bemusedly out toward the scope when something dawned on me.

“The camera hand paddle has a green light on it that’s steadily lit for short exposures. That’s OK. But why is there a red light, too? DOH!”

The Stellacam II hand paddle has a freeze-frame button. Push it in, which locks it in place, and the image will not be updated. I was seeing a frame of blackness taken while the aperture cap was still on Bertha. I suppose I must have accidentally pushed the button in during setup. Anyhoo, once I released it, the Stellacam came to life. I coulda used a drink at this juncture.

All’s well that ends well, I reck, and end well it did. I got in the zone right away, finishing up Cetus and a few outstanding Aquarius scamps. Moved on to Pisces and ran through every last remaining faint fuzzy the fishes hold. By this time it was getting on the late side, and my buddy Pat, who was set up next to me, asked if I weren’t cold. “Not really.” The Black Cat and canopy sides were keeping me reasonably warm, but, more than anything, I was FIRED UP. I was well and truly on what Miss Dorothy calls one of my “deep sky tears” and was not about to quit before getting some of them early morning Herschel IIs, one of the goals of the expedition.

I did take a break after midnight, guzzling a Monster and downing some Jack Links nuggets, but it was back to business right away. “Business” for the night consisted of a total of 100 more Big Enchilada Herschel 2500 DSOs.

How about the Herschel II? I was right proud. Before finally giving in, I corralled fifteen of the holdouts, which means I have a measly five objects to go, all in Hydra and Virgo, and all of which I will catch at the club dark site just as soon as they begin rising at a decent hour and this fricking – fracking cold weather is OVER.

Just as before, galaxy morphological types are where possible given according to the de Vaucoleurs system, matter in italics was transcribed directly from my log audio recordings, and images are from the POSS, the National Geographic/Palomar Observatory Sky Survey—with the exception of the picture of NGC 2467. I think it shows up better on my quick Stellacam frame grab with its comparatively wide field than it does on the POSS.

Canis Major

NGC 2283 (H.III.271), galaxy in Canis Major, is an attractive barred spiral of intermediate inclination. Stuck in a field full of tiny stars, and looks a lot like a (much) smaller M83, with the impression of sweeping spiral arms.

NGC 2367 (H.VIII.27) is an outstanding open cluster. Magnitude 7.9 and 5’ in diameter. It’s a bright group that seems to form the shape of a little rocket ship.

A sprawling open cluster 12’ in size, NGC 2374 (H.VIII.35) is bright and pretty at mag 7.30. Enough bright stars to stand out well from the rich background star field.

Hydra

NGC 2610 (H.IV.35), a planetary nebula, is quite attractive if a little low on the horizon. Close on to a magnitude 7 star that’s 3’25” to the northeast. The little central star is easy, as is the nebula’s annular donut shape.

NGC 2781 (H.I.66), an S0a lenticular, is real low on the horizon, but is bright, magnitude 12.5, so it shows up well. Small, luminous, strongly elongated nucleus wrapped in a prominent oval envelope of nebulosity.

An S0 edge-on lenticular, NGC 2784 (H.I.59) is also down in the horizon junk. But I’m seeing him anyway; he is more than bright enough at magnitude 11.2. What is visible tonight with the Stellacam and C11 is an obivously elongated nucleus and the faint oval of the galaxy’s disk.

Another bright one, magnitude 12.63 NGC 2855 (H.I.132), is an elliptical galaxy that stands-out well despite, like the other Hydras I’m hitting, a low altitude. It’s not much more than a nearly round, 2.5’ x 2.2’ cosmic dust bunny, though.

NGC 2889 (H.II.555) is yet another bright galaxy, magnitude 12.44. This SABc face-on occasionally offers fleeting hints of detail in its disk of tightly wrapped arms.

Magnitude 13.0 NGC 2765 (H.II.520) looks good, too. A 1.94’ x .98’ S0 lenticular, it has the classic spindle shape the more prominent galaxies of this type can display. Just wonderful.

Puppis

NGC 2525 (H.III.877) is an excellent SBc galaxy 2.9’ by 1.9’ and magnitude 12.26. Spectacular and lovely with two classic, tight arms beautifully on display.

NGC 2467 (H.IV.22) in Puppis is a magnitude 7.0, 14’ open cluster associated with nebulosity. Amazing and beautiful, the slightly triangular cloud, which is about 7’ across, shows off a darker center or lane edged on one side by a brighter swath of nebulosity. I’ve heard this little nebula, which has been imaged by the HST, occasionally referred to as the “Hubble Bubble.”

NGC 2432 (H.VI.36), a magnitude 10.2, 6’ across open cluster, is joined in its field by a nice big planetary nebula, 4.2’ diameter PK235-1.1, which onscreen is a round disk with slightly fuzzy edges. The cluster itself is attractive; reasonably compact and vaguely arrowhead-shaped.

Another galactic cluster, NGC 2414 (H.VIII.37) is at magnitude 8.2 and is 5’ across its longest dimension. The cluster displays an inner core of bright, small stars. Chains of stars extending outward suggest a spiral pattern.

NGC 2396 (H.VIII.36) is beautiful despite this open cluster’s fairly large size of 10.0’. The central portion forms a Gemini shaped loop of stars. Very well detached from the rich background.

Camelopardalis

NGC 2253 (H.VII.54), a 1.5’ x 1.1’ Scd galaxy, is smaller and dimmer than I expected. Once I see it, it’s not bad, but despite its “reasonable” magnitude of 13.15, the most I can do is pick out an occasional small smudge.

When I just couldn’t stand no more cold, I shut the electronics down, threw the Desert Storm cover over Bertha, and hopped in the Toyota for the short ride back to town. At the motel? Purty much the same routine as the night before: a little Yell, a brewsky or two, and some weird-ass late night/early morning TV. All that seemed to be on other than infomercials was a UFO Hunters marathon, which, given the early hour and my weariness, left your silly old Uncle a wee bit spooked.

It hardly seemed possible, but the next day that dawned was Saturday, the last full day of our Chiefland adventure. That being the case, Miss Dorothy and I set out to enjoy it. Following a breakfast the exact same as the previous one—I’d held out a little hope it might be better on a weekend morning—we set off for Cedar Key, just twenty miles west of the CAV.

Did you know the west coast of Florida is littered with little islands and keys? I guess I did, but had forgotten all about them until I read Stephen King’s Duma Key, set on an amalgam of these forgotten Florida places. After a little research on the Internet, Miss D. and me put Cedar Key on our short list of Things to Do in the Daytime.

When we arrived, one look around showed we’d been wise to do so. Cedar Key is an attractive and fun mix of old and new Florida. Antiques and gee-gaws and souvenirs aplenty mixed with cool waterside bars and restaurants. After a visit to the Rusty Rim café for multiple beers and a large, fresh, and insanely delicious oyster poboy, I was finally able to let my disappointment with the free motel breakfast go.

Following lunch, Dorothy and I strolled about the shops buying Christmas gifts for all and sundry and enjoying the sunshine and Gulf breezes. Before we knew it, it was time to head back to get ready for the evening’s main course. Leaving, Dorothy and I resolved we’d combine a night or two in Chiefland with a night or two in one of Cedar Key’s uber cool old (or new) motels this coming summer.

Do I have to tell you I needed a three-hour nap after all that? By the time I was up, it was time to scramble. I didn’t intend to push it hard on the last evening; there’d be the packing and drive home in the morning to consider. But I fully intended to add more Big Enchilada Herschels to my score before calling it quits.

At first it appeared I wouldn’t have to worry about making it an early night—or any kind of night. The cotton-picking Wunderground.com was predicting 40% cloud cover by 7pm, and there was indeed a line of clouds, dark clouds, on the western horizon at sundown. I wasted no time lighting off Miss Bertha, intending to get whatever I could get before the sky closed down. Sometimes, not often but sometimes, the gear cooperates. On this night, neither scope nor computer nor camera defied me. Bertha was aligned in record time and was soon hitting Lynx’s multitudinous (yes) galaxies.

On I went till about ten o’clock, when those dratted clouds finally began to move in. I stopped and assessed the situation. After a little while, it became apparent this was just a passing cloud band, nothing dire. I could see clearing on the horizon after about 30-minutes. And yet…and yet, a little voice, the voice of Urania herself, perhaps, began to whisper in my ear, “Now, Rod, you know The Only Enemy of Good Enough is More Better, and you have had enough of my sky.” I pulled the Big Switch and joined boudreaux Pat for the walk down the access road to our vehicles.

What did I get? Despite the quick denouement and my general weariness and lack of will to PUSH IT Saturday night, I did 35 more H2500s, believe it or no. Are there any I’d like to tell you about? You are dern tootin’ there are. One, anyway.

What I want to know is why every deep sky crazy amateur astronomer is not continually shouting the praises of NGC 1097 (H.V.48). This huge (9.3’ x 6.3’), bright (magnitude 10.23) SB spiral is a thing of wonder. A great, classic barred spiral, its huge arms are alive with motion. On screen, it’s not just the shape that’s visible, but details like a dark lane extending northward from the nucleus. A small 14th magnitude companion, NGC 1097A, is 3’24” to the northwest and is starkly visible.

With the Stellacam, NGC 1097 is definitely in the same “spectacular” class as M51 and is almost that good visually in Pat’s 16-inch Dobbie next door. Why don’t you hear it talked about, then? It’s fairly low in Fornax at a declination of -30, and maybe not as good for our more northerly brothers and sisters. That’s the only reason I can think of for “NGC 1097” not being on everybody’s lips, anyhow!

Back at the motel at an early hour, I’m sure I watched some boob tube, but, honestly, I couldn’t tell you what that was. Because my brain was still on fire with the spiral beauty of NGC 1097. When I finally gave in to the sandman, I felt as if I were being enwrapped by those luscious spiral arms.

The last morning of any observing expedition is a sad thing, particularly down Chiefland way, since it means saying goodbye to friends in addition to dark skies. I was a little melancholy as Dorothy and I packed for the drive home, but not too bad. I had moved the H-Project ahead by leaps and bounds, and I’d been able to make the trip in the company of my wonderful wife. Everything is better with Dorothy around. Best ever? Maybe so. Probably so.

How about those changes? Let them come. Talking to my friend Tom Clark, I gather things will remain as they are for a while yet. The future? I intend to worry about today and let the future take care of itself. Whatever happens, Chiefland is more than just a patch of land in Florida, anyway. It is a state of mind. In fact, muchachos, I don’t think it’s going too far to say that it is a philosophy.

Oh, if'n you've a mind, you can see many more pix of Rod and Dorothy's Chiefland adventure on your old Uncle's Facebook page.

Next Time: Stargazing…

Saturday, December 04, 2010

 

A Chiefland Reprise

And a hiatus. Uncle Rod and Miss Dorothy have been burning the midnight oil at the good, old Chiefland Astronomy Village. As always when we've put the pedal to the metal observing-wise, muchachos, you're gonna be cheated out of a blog this time. Mostly, anyhow. Here are a few pictures of our just finished outing for your Sunday morning perusal. You'll get the full story next week, including some better quality pix, an account of the hundreds of Herschels we conquered, our bar-hopping down in Cedar Key, and news of the CAV where big changes are afoot. See y'all then!


Big Bertha, our beloved NexStar 11. She should really be called "The Queen of All Telescopes." Herschel after Herschel, she never missed a beat, purring like the big CAT she is and putting every tiny galaxy on the little chip of my Stellacam II!

The Beast, Tom Clark's 42-inch Dob, still rules the site--for now.

Our field setup. Under our EZ Up with a Black Cat heater running, it was bearable if not pleasant with the temps in the lower 30s!

The Command Bridge of Unk's starship!

Rod's good buddy, Dobmeister Pat, was onsite with his latest creation, this beautiful 16-inch!













Next Time: The Herschel Project Nights 17, 18, and 19...

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