Sunday, October 30, 2011


The Herschel Project Night 27

Well, muchachos, another Herschel Project run has come and gone. No, before you ask, everything did not go smoothly. But that is OK. It would be pretty boring for y’all if all I had to say here was “Yep, took the telescope out to the dark site, saw some cool stuff, packed up and went home.”

Last Saturday dawned to beautiful, crisp weather. The sky was that dark shade of blue that says, “Don’t worry about the weather, Unk; it will be just fine.” For once, I didn’t have to give a moment’s consideration to clouds; the weather-goobers were reporting “No chance of rain for the foreseeable future.” Course, as is usually the case, Unk would pay a price for his clear skies. Temperatures would go down into the consarned mid-40s.

Now, before you condemn all us Gulf Coastians as complete wimps, remember we are usually dealing with a lot more humidity than y’all. I have sometimes felt colder down here on a damp 40s winter day than I’ve felt in Maine on a dry one in the 20s. And there is nothing that will make you feel more miserable than for all your gear—and your clothes—to be sopping wet with dew.

All Unk could do was prepare. Heavy enough but not too heavy coat, layers under that, and plenty of battery power for the DewBuster. On a dew-heavy night, which I expected this one would be, I devote a single 25 amp-hour jump start battery to the ‘Buster, which is only running a single heater strip, one on the C8’s corrector plate. That wouldn’t be overkill, either, since I was purty sure the DewBuster control box would be set at “10-degrees” all night long. Actually, I share the battery between the ‘Buster and my Stellacam, but the uncooled camera hardly draws any current.

So, I’d brave the damp and chilly dark. What would I brave it with? Not much question about that. It was time to get the Herschel Project back on the road after a hiatus of three months due to weather and work. I thought briefly about giving our 12-inch Dob, Old Betsy, a tumble, but the fact is that nothing is more efficient in allowing me to see lots of aitch objects in detail and in numbers over the course of a short Saturday night run than a deep sky video camera-equipped SCT. The C11, Big Bertha, would have no doubt done a sterling job, but, being lazy, I demurred. A four or five hour night is a C8 night. It would be my old girl Celeste, a 1995 Celestron Ultima 8, riding on my CG5 German equatorial.

Unk is still using his Stellacam II black and white 10-second exposure video camera despite the fact that deep sky video has come a long way in the six years since I bought it. The Mallincams have brought cooling, long exposure, COLOR, and computer control to the observing table. On a cold, clear night the Stellacam can still amaze, but there comes the time when even Luddite ol’ Unk Rod must bow to Modern Times. Muchachos, I have pulled the trigger on a Mallincam Xtreme, and am pretty excited about that. I believe it will add a whole ‘nother dimension to the Herschel Project. So, this evening would likely be one of the good old SC’s last hurrahs.

Anyhoo, come four o’clock I had the evening’s gear marshaled in Chaos Manor South’s front parlor: C8, dew shield, CG5, tripod, two jumpstart batteries (one for the mount, one for the camera/dew heater), observing table, eyepiece box (just in case), computer shelter, netbook, camera, portable DVD player ( I use as a monitor), DVD recorder, deep cycle marine battery and inverter to power the recorder, thermos bottle of hot tea (forgot to buy dadgum Monster Energy drinks), MP3 recorder for note-taking, and two large equipment cases. One of my club buddies out at the site asked if it didn’t take an hour to load and unload “all that stuff,” but I told him, truthfully, that I’ve done it so often that it takes maybe fifteen minutes.

A huge boon lately has been my new vehicle, a 2011 4-Runner, Miss Lucille Van Pelt. Packing the gear is one hell of a lot easier when you have room enough to be a little sloppy. To get everything in my former vehicle, a Camry, I had to be very organized. Loading the astro-junk was like putting together a cotton picking jigsaw puzzle. Whatev. I got everything loaded in the truck and sat down and watched a repeat of an episode of The History Channel’s Universe (which I still like) while waiting for the afternoon to pass.

By 4:45, I was on the road for the PSAS dark site. ‘Twas a good thing I’d looked up the Sunset time. The year has plumb got away from me. Earlier in the day, when Miss Dorothy asked me when Sol would go down, I replied, “Oh, about seven, right?” Wrong. The sun is sinking at 6:15 p.m. now, and that meant I’d need to be at the site by 5:45 at the latest.

The trip out was uneventful once I’d avoided all the crazies hell-bent on making it to the Greater Gulf State Fair ahead of the crowds. Miss D. and I had done our fair-going the previous evening, opening night, well before the hordes, and Unk was able to enjoy his traditional fair fare, a jumbo corndog, in relative peace.

At the dark site as Sunset came on, I was a little disappointed that only three other observers had made it out. I’d a-thought the splendid clear skies would have drawn a few of the Mebbe Gang (you know, “Mebbe I’ll take the telescope out tonight.”) as well as the usual hard core. I reckon the combo of cold weather and the State Fair had put the kibosh on that. Oh, well. I set to work with a will getting set up. It looked like it was gonna be a great run. That’s what I thought, anyway, till a loud roar washed over the observing field.

The roar came from the field just to the south, which was having its soybeans harvested by two giant combines, the source of the noise. They didn’t just make a loud noise, either. They had our observing field as well as the bean field they were working illuminated with powerful headlights, and they were kicking up enough dust that it looked like an approaching fogbank. Just my luck. So much for observing, I thought. These days, farmers don’t own huge equipment. They pay travelling companies to do their harvesting for them, and those combines will often work ALL NIGHT LONG.

So the night’s edition of the Herschel Project was doomed? Maybe not. Looked like the field was about finished, and the very light breeze was keeping most of the dust from covering us and our telescopes. In due course, the workers climbed down and drove off and the night was saved.

Mostly. These workers would come back a couple of times over the course of the early evening, painting us with the high beams of their pickup trucks. Likely they wanted to make periodic checks of their gear, and were maybe concerned about what them folks with all that weird stuff were doing right next door. After about seven o’clock, though, they must have decamped for the nearby Silver Slipper Inn, since we saw no more of them.

Unk was set up and ready to go just before the first bright stars winked on, but what would he have a go at? If you’ve been following the two year old saga of The Herschel Project, you’ll recall I have finished the part of it that was to be documented minutely in this here blog, the Herschel II. Since y’all seemed to enjoy my tales of my quest to follow in the footsteps of William and Caroline, though, I decided to continue on and report on my pursuit of The Whole Big Thing, The Big Enchilada, all 2500 objects discovered by Will and Lina.

While I would document my experiences with the 2500 in the blog, I promised not to bore y’all with minute details on every fuzzy. The Herschel I, the Herschel II, and the Herschel III (a new list by Tom Hoffelder you can look at here) cherry pick the most beautiful and spectacular out of the Herschel 2500, and what you are left with is scads of fairly dim galaxies. While there are still marvels in the aitch beyond those three lists, there is no denying that much of the rest is “Small, round elliptical galaxy. NO details.”

Why look at ‘em at all, then? In my case there are a couple of reasons. One is that I’ve been thinking off and on that I might like to do a book about the Herschels and their objects. All of them. A bigger reason, a far more important one for me, is that doing all these objects has opened my eyes to the larger Universe. I thought I had a pretty good idea of what was in the Great Out There after nearly 50 years of deep sky observing. I had no idea. Not till I decided to systematically observe nearly 3,000 DSOs, most of them galaxies.

“Well, that’s cool, Unk, but what did you look at specifically on this Saturday evening?” Before leaving home I fired up the astronomy program of The Herschel Project, SkyTools 3, and had a look at what would be available from the 2500. Surprisingly, given that Unk is “only” about 1600 objects into the list, the pickings were fairly slim. I’ve not only pulled most of the aitches out of the summer sky, I’ve harvested the autumn galaxy fields of Pegasus, Cetus, and Aquarius, too. Most of the remaining 800-some fuzzies live in the spring heavens. But not all of them.

I noticed that there was a good handful of hangers-on (all galaxies) in Hercules, I hadn’t done any of Corona Borealis’ objects (all galaxies), and I needed to revisit Pegasus for a few aitches (all galaxies) that, while they were marked as “observed,” I didn’t have log entries for. All told there’d be 27 potential targets this evening. Which would be just about right, I figgered. I could do that many in an hour, easy, which would leave me time to visit some Real Pretty Stuff, look at the comet (Garradd), see if I could see the supernova in M101, and be back in the warm and comforting halls of Chaos Manor South before I froze into a Rod-sicle.

With Polaris peeping out, I did a rough polar alignment, just centering the star in the hollow polar bore of the CG5. Then it was power-up time and on to the alignment. Lit off NexRemote on the netbook computer, connected the Wireless Wingman gamepad I use as my HC, and got going with the center-the-alignment-star business.

At first, everything went as per normal: centered two stars, added four calibration stars, and Celeste, in her Microsoft Mary voice, intoned, “ALIGNMENT SUCCESSFUL!” Next up was polar alignment. I use the old CG5 firmware (easily selectable in NexRemote) that has you center Polaris with the altitude and azimuth adjusters—it’s quick and easy and yields an alignment more than good enough for video work. Since I’d moved the mount a fair distance in altitude (a rather larger distance than I expected) to polar align, I redid the 2+4 star alignment. That’s when the trouble began.

You didn’t think the only problem I was talking about earlier was the consarned combines, did you? Unk always pulls some kind of hare-brained stunt; especially when he has had a layoff of a few months. During the first alignment, something seemed funny. When slewing in declination, the mount seemed to be laboring. Almost as if it didn’t have sufficient power. Oh, it was moving in dec, but what I was hearing was worse than the mount’s usual weasels-with-tuberculosis sounds. At times, the dang thing was squeaking like a cotton pickin’ mouse. Did the declination gears need lubrication? Since they hadn’t had any in going on seven years, I thought they might. Oh, well.

Then, on the next to last cone-alignment star. Unk almost had a litter of kittens right there on the PSAS observing field. Just as the mount was nearing the sparkler, there was a loud CLUNK, and the telescope OTA began to slide backwards in its dovetail! I grabbed the C8, you betcha, but by the time I did, it had already stopped sliding, hanging up on the safety screw.

Weeeeeell doggies! It was obvious what had happened. The mount had been laboring in declination because the tube was way off balance. Apparently I hadn’t seated the dovetail correctly, and it had slid back in the saddle without me noticing. Only when it had tried to go the rest of the way out had I caught on to what was happening.

When the old ticker finally slowed down and Unk was able to breathe again, I finished up the alignment and confirmed that the funny declination noises were gone. Looked to me like the tube had been canted up as well as moved back in the dovetail, so it would probably have been a good idea to have redone the polar alignment if not the go-to alignment. It was pretty clear now why I’d had to adjust so much in altitude.

Lesson learned? Always double-check the scope’s attachment to the mount. And always make sure the safety screw, if there is one, is tight; that was all that had saved my bacon. In retrospect, I shoulda listened to the little voice in my head (one of the voices in my head, some folks will tell you), which had been whispering that something wasn’t right with the telescope and mount.

Yep, I reckon I shoulda redone the polar and go-to alignments, but the sky was well on the way to good and dark, so I decided to see how the mount performed on a test target without any changes. Over to M13. When I focused up good and sharp with my JMI Motofocus, the Great Glob was a thing of wonder as always. I noted that the cluster was smack in the center of the smallish field of the Stellacam when the slew stopped. Tracking seemed OK, too.

First target for the evening was the now famous supernova, 2011fe in M101. Due to work and weather, I had neither seen nor imaged this Type Ia, and was anxious to add its portrait to my slowly growing supernovae rogues’ gallery. I wasn’t too concerned about it being too dim for the Stellacam; the last I heard it was still hanging in at about magnitude 12. What I was worried about was how low it was getting. At 7 p.m., the Catherine Wheel Galaxy was less than 15 fracking degrees above the northwestern horizon.

When the slew stopped and the Stellacam’s first refresh came, I didn’t have any trouble picking out the supernova. Easy as pie. While the spiral was considerably subdued in the haze and light pollution at the horizon, its pattern was pretty clear, too, and looked considerably more well-defined “live” than it does in the quick screen grab here.

What now? Time to get started. Corona Borealis was getting low in the west, too, so there was no time to waste. None of the Northern Crown’s 10 galaxies gave me any trouble. But none of ‘em was much of a standout, either. Not only were they all pretty small, the same thing afflicted them as M101: low in the sky with a bright background. On a whim, I screwed on the Orion Imaging Filter I’d got a while back.

This filter is a mild light pollution reduction filter, not much different from Orion’s Skyglow or Lumicon’s Deep Sky. It is designed to darken the sky background a bit without dimming galaxies and clusters too much. Verdict? I had a hard time deciding. I thought it brought out the lowest in altitude of Corona’s galaxies a little better, but the effect was subtle. One thing was sure; it did darken the background, making the image look smoother and better. And yet…and yet…

I decided I preferred the way my images looked without the filter and unscrewed it. Only then did I notice that I must have turned down the camera gain by accident when shortening the exposure time to allow me to re-focus (the filter changes the telescope’s focus quite a bit). So, I guess the jury is still out on the Imaging Filter. I didn’t want to waste time experimenting any more. The next set of objects, galaxies in Hercules, would be getting low before I knew it.

What’s that Skeezix? You didn’t know there were galaxies in Hercules? Well, there are. The Hero is far enough away from the backbone of the Milky Way to allow our gaze to extend to the intergalactic reaches beyond him. There are some large and detailed and pretty island universes in the area, not that I’d be visiting any of those tonight. The objects from The Big Enchilada remaining in Hercules were, like those in Corona, on the small-smudge side.

Even so, I got some good views here. Not only were there some surprisingly rich galaxy fields
including several Hickson groups); all are set in nice rich star fields. The combination of multiple galaxies in a frame dusted with many hard little stars was a beautiful one, especially since Hercules was still high enough in the sky to offer dark backgrounds. Standouts? My fave was probably a pretty pair of galaxies in one of these rich star fields, NGC 6500 (H.III.957) and NGC 6501 (H.III.958). In addition to the two bright magnitude 13 galaxies looking like a pair of eyes, there was a lovely triple star less than 10’ to the west.

Even after all the alarms and excursions concerning my near disaster during the scope’s alignment, it was barely 10 p.m. by the time I finished the last of the evening’s objects. The total for Night 27? A fitting if somewhat paltry 27 fuzzies. Twarn’t nothing for it, though. There wouldn’t be any major target areas rising till after 0300, and I certainly wouldn’t be hanging out till then. There were a couple of hours still to go before my usual dark site pumpkin time, midnight, however. What could I fill them with? Comet Garradd, for one thing.

If you’ve seen the comet recently, I don’t reckon there’s much reason to rush out and take another look at it; nothing much has changed. Garradd, C/2009 P1, has been hanging in our sky for months, glowing just brightly enough, around 7th magnitude, to make it an OK binocular object. It still looks about the same as it did when I first visited it a couple of months back. I did notice that with the gain cranked way up on the camera I could see a little more tail and maybe hints of an ion tail—which may well have been Unk’s overenthusiastic imagination. The good news? We’ll have this halfway decent little guy with us pretty much as he is now all the way through February.

Comet captured, I toured globular clusters bright (M15 and M2) and dim (Palomar 10 and Palomar 12) before settling in to look at and record some summer and fall spectacles. I went to M13 again, but there were other standouts, too. That loose little globular, M71, (which Garradd passed by not long ago) was scrumptious. Its squarish shape was barely a condensation of stars in the incredibly rich Sagitta field. The often subdued Crescent Nebula, NGC 6888, was an arc of detailed nebulosity.

I can’t say M27 looked as good in my Stellacam as it does in my buddy Mike Harvey’s color Mallincam shot from last summer, but it was beautiful nonetheless, easily showing the dim lobes on each side of the “apple core.” M57 was bright. Even the donut-hole interior was bright. So bright that at f/3.3 I had a hard time picking out the central star.

Thence to the fall stuff, which was now out of the Possum Swamp light dome. The Blue Snowball (planetary) Nebula in Andromeda was a perfect little ping-pong ball floating among the stars. In my mind’s eye I could imagine it glowing an electric blue. If only I’d had that color camera tonight. Nearby M33 was incredible; its loose spiral was painted across my monitor as clearly as I’ve ever seen it. Scattered across its arms were sharply defined patches that are its nebulae. Again, I wished for color.

When I’d finished admiring the Pinwheel, it was getting on toward midnight. It was also getting c-o-l-d, with my thermometer reading “43F.” I’d layered on the sweatshirts and jackets, put on a fuzzy hat, broke out the chemical hand warmers, and drank hot tea every once in a while, but I had to admit I was chilled. As I’d figgered it would be, it was damp, with all the gear now bathed in cold dew. The DewBuster kept the corrector plate dry, but that was the only thing that wasn’t sopping. One more go-to and it would be Big Switch Time.

Us astro-videographers don’t normally consider M31, the Great Andromeda Nebula (Galaxy), much of a target. It’s just too big for our small chips at normal focal lengths. It can still be mind-blowing, however; you just have to focus on the details. That’s what I did, cruising the huge beast, taking in its star clouds and dark lanes, its burning nucleus, even the brightest of its globular star clusters, G1. After recounting my PSSG observation of Andromeda’s best glob for you last week, I had the yen to take another look at it. Picked it up right away. Yeah, just a fuzzy “star,” but still…

And that was that. I worked slowly and methodically to get all the gear re-packed in the truck, since I was working by red light. A couple of my buddies wanted to stay on despite the cold dew until Orion was a little higher. Not Unk. I had got what I’d come for. An hour later I was ensconced in the warm den of Chaos Manor South, sipping the Yell, watching a late night marathon of The World’s Strangest UFO Stories, and contemplating the truly strange and wonderful things I’d seen on this deep fall night.

Spurious Book Review: Sue French’s Deep-Sky Wonders

When Sue French took over Sky and Telescope’s “Deep Sky Wonders” column, some folks were skeptical. How could anybody fill the shoes of that dean of deep sky observers, Walter Scott Houston? It soon became obvious Sue could. Not only is she a gifted writer, she has a personal vision of the deep sky and the talent to communicate that to her readers.

Sue's new book, Deep-Sky Wonders, is a collection of 100 of her best sky-tours. How is it? They (you know, THEM) say you can’t judge a book by its cover. This is one time they are wrong. The cover of this large format hardback is beautiful. So are the pages inside. It’s the words that count, though, and Sue’s sure have what it takes. If you love the deep sky, you will love Deep-Sky Wonders. Go out and get a copy right now, muchachos. I insist.

Shameless Plug Department:  Do you look forward to Sky and Telescope's Skywatch "annual" every year? I do. Even when I am not in it. Skywatch is an excellent mix of general interest and beginner-oriented articles with a  cherry on top, handy all-sky charts and "what's up" guides for the coming year. But I am in Skywatch again this year with an article on beginning astrophotography, and it would not hurt my feelings nor, I'm sure, the feelings of the good folk at S&T if you ran out and bought a copy or three. I am not kidding when I say Skywatch makes a great Christmas gift for your astro-friends.

Next time: I’ve got some cool stuff lined up for y’all over the next two-three weeks. I hope to get out and do a little DSLR imaging despite a sea trial in the offing. Even cooler? I’ve finally got my hot little hands on an astronomy program I’ve wanted to look at for a long time, Phyllis Lang’s famous Deep Sky Planner.

Sunday, October 23, 2011


The Christmas Telescope

We’re approaching the end of October, muchachos, which now marks the beginning of the Christmas season. Which for you and me is more than just ho-ho-ho and mistletoe and presents to pretty girls. It is also the coming of Christmas telescope season. Some of your friends and family will get one; maybe this Christmas. When they do, they will be full of questions, questions they will direct your way. You are the TELESCOPE GURU, after all.

Need I explain what I mean by “Christmas telescope”? Prob’ly not. I’m guessing every amateur knows what I am talking about. I don’t just mean “a telescope you get for Christmas,” but that most maligned member of the telescope tribe, the department store scope (DSS). One of those shiny 60mm refractors you admired in the big store downtown way back when, one bearing a logo that read “Tasco” or “Jason” or “Sears” or “J.C. Penney.” The DSS is still alive and kicking, if slightly bruised and battered and now mostly found in Wal-Mart (locally).

Whoever makes ‘em, Department Store Scopes share some common characteristics: they are relatively inexpensive, they are imported, and, most of all, they are sold by anyone but astronomy dealers (usually). There have always been Newtonian reflectors in their ranks, often 4.5-inch f/8 jobs, and there have been a few 3-inch and larger refractors, but most DSSes have been 60mm refractors. Many of the early ones, especially the more expensive models, were at focal ratios of f/15 - f/16, while those from the 80s and on tend to be considerably faster, closer to f/10.

DSS Mounts have varied over the years, but until recently the best of the breed were on EQ-2 sized German equatorials. On the lower end of the price scale there were small fork alt-azimuth mounts—often used with sub 60-mm refractors and sub 4-inch reflectors. Over the last five years or so, most of the GEMs have disappeared, and the majority of scopes are now on alt-azimuth mounts, often single-arm forks equipped with electronics like (rudimentary) digital setting circles.

What besides a scope and a mount was in that mind-blowing, psychedelic 60s box? In the hey-day of the DSS, the accessories could be lavish, if quality was sacrificed for quantity. Most scopes shipped with two or three eyepieces, a Barlow, a Sun projection screen (or a dangerous solar filter), sometimes there was an illuminator for the tripod accessory tray, and most had a finder scope of some kind—Unk’s 3-inch Tasco Newt came with a sorry looking peep sight. It’s about the same today. The bad, old Sun filters are gone, but there is lots of other junk in the box to play with.

Most of the stories about dreadful DSS accessories concern how terrible their eyepieces are. That’s true, though usually the longest focal length ones have been at least bearable, and through the early 80s the more expensive DSSes (like the best Sears refractors) had pretty good .965 oculars. The Barlow lenses? Fuhgeddabout it. Those plastic-barreled horrors have never been any good. Their sole purpose? To get your 2.4-inch scope up to the 600x trumpeted on the box.

A close second in badness to eyepieces is the DSS finder. Even forty years ago, finder scopes were way too small. The best you could expect would be a 23 - 25mm job, too small even for a 60-mm scope. As the years went on, finders became ever smaller, eventually devolving into pitiful things with tiny single-element objectives fitted with masks to aperture them down even more (to keep them from turning into a kaleidoscopes). Surprisingly, back in the 60s – 70s the Tascos and Jasons weren’t the only offenders. Their very expensive cousin, the Unitron 60mm, had a way-too-small finder too.

If DSSes old and new have had a single strength, it has been their optics. You may have heard folks say replacing the scopes’ eyepieces improves performance a lot. That is true. Most refractor objectives were and are surprisingly good, showing very little color at their typically slow focal ratios. The mirrors of the reflectors have always been spherical, but they have often been very good spheres and perform well at the accustomed f/8 focal ratio. A couple of new eyepieces, a decent finder (or a zero-power sight), and a 1960s through 1980s DSS may amaze. You-all may have noticed I keep mentioning those three decades as the salad days of the Department Store Scope. What’s up with that?

There had been small telescopes for sale to the public long before the 1960s, but they were usually insanely expensive. They were most assuredly not mass-market items. That changed post World War II for three reasons: the Baby Boom generation of kids was ready to be entertained and educated, the space race was on and Mom and Pop wanted their kids to learn science, and Japan was hell-bent on developing an optical industry.

The first telescopes to be widely marketed to children were not from Japan, but from the U.S. of A., from A.C. Gilbert. Alfred Gilbert’s company made things that could be described as toys, I reckon, but they were toys of a different sort, toys made, like Gilbert’s famous chemistry sets, to educate sprouts about the ways of the scientist. With Sputnik soaring overhead, Mr. Gilbert decided to bring astronomy as well as chemistry to the children of America.

The Gilbert 2-inch Newtonian reflector turned a lot of us Boomers on to astronomy. If there had not been an A.C. Gilbert telescope, Stephanie’s telescope, I suspect it would have taken considerably longer for me to find my way into astronomy. These simple instruments and similar ones from Skilcraft and others showed that kids (and maybe their parents) were ready for astronomy. People noticed that, including businessman George Rosenfield, the owner of the Tanross Supply Company of Miami, Florida.

A lot of folks have wrong ideas about Tasco. I know I did when I was a sprout. Me and my astronomy-crazy buddies knew Tasco telescopes came from Japan, and “Tasco” sounded vaguely Japanese, so we assumed Tasco was a Japanese company not far removed from those stamping out tin toys from cast-off G.I. tin cans. Nope. Japanese industry, and in particular their optical industry, was well beyond the tin can stage by the early 1960s, advancing by leaps and bounds. Even in the early 50s, Nikon was turning out cameras and lenses that were amazingly good. Many famous Japanese optical houses found their feet at this time, but Tasco was not one of them.

Tasco—TAnross Supply COmpany—was George Rosenfield’s resolutely American company. They never, ever made a cotton pickin’ thing, either. Tasco was an importer. What makes them important to the amateur astronomy story in the second half of the twentieth century is that George decided there was a market for telescopes and began bringing in some real good ones.

Real good ones? Ain’t “Tasco” synonymous with “crap”? Read “The Good Tasco” if you like, but the bottom line is that while, yes, Tasco did import some junky telescopes, they also sold some excellent ones, including most of their GEM mounted refractors and the famous “11T/11TR” 4.5-inch Newtonians. Hell, even the cheapest 60s Tascos would likely be considered pretty darned high in quality today. While my 3-inch reflector was kinda punk optically, it included a strong wooden tripod, a decent focuser, and no plastic anywhere.

The secret to this goodness was that George bought the products of renowned (today) Japanese companies like Royal Optical and Goto and Towa. Were any of these scopes as good as what U.S. companies like Cave and Unitron were selling in Sky and Telescope? With the exception of Tasco’s magnificent 4-inch 20TE “Observatory” refractor and the only slightly less magnificent 10TE, neither of which you were likely to find in your town’s Big Store, probably not.

Tasco’s emphasis was on small apertures, 4.5-inch reflectors and smaller and 3-inch (only a few of those) refractors and smaller. But these scopes were not as expensive as the American stuff, either, and you could trot down to the corner Sears or Monkey Wards and get one and be observing that very night. Good luck with that if you chose a Cave.

Tasco telescopes started a lot of young folk on the road to an amateur (or professional) astronomy career. Hell, I was mightily impressed by the 4.5-inch Tasco Newtonian I bought in an Air Force Base Exchange in the mid 1970s. I had to admit it was well made and performed well, even if it was not perfect (never did like them little .965 eyepieces), and was quite a value. Tasco continued to thrive, importing plenty of good telescopes for over twenty years. What happened after twenty years? H-A-L-L-E-Y.

Tasco had always had some competition in the telescope market. Sears and Penney’s were bringing in scopes and putting their brand-names on them, and there was another Tasco-like importer doing the same thing in a big way by the late 60s, Jake Levin’s “Jason/Jason Empire.” These companies coexisted, though, all selling similar telescopes for similar prices. Quality was still a concern, and nobody seemed out to seriously undercut anybody else.

That changed with the coming of Halley’s Comet and the growth of the Taiwanese optical industry. As the 80s began, anyone selling telescopes realized the comet was a potential gold mine. Everybody would want a scope, and the fact that you could now buy telescopes from Taiwan meant you could get a lot of telescopes and you could get them cheaply. That’s what all the importers began doing, including Tasco.

The early to mid 80s were a golden age for the DSS. At first, quality remained reasonably high, and the flourishing of big box jewelry stores like Service Merchandise gave Tasco and Jason the perfect place to peddle their wares. No doubt these two sold a lot of scopes during the comet’s run, but when the unimpressive Halley passed, the spigot quickly shut off.

Faced with ever more need to economize, “Chinese” became the norm for the importers, and quality began to decline precipitously. It got noticeably worse at Tasco after Mr. Rosenfield’s retirement and the sale of his company, and quickly went beyond ever cheaper accessories to the plastification of the telescopes. So it was with all the DSS importers. Everything that could be plastic instead of metal was plastic. If a part was still metal, it was the cheapest casting possible.

Where are we today? Tasco is still around, though they have been bought and sold a couple of times. I haven’t seen a Jason in a long time, but they are also apparently alive. J.C. Penney and Sears? You can still buy telescopes from Sears, though they are usually only available online at Last time I checked, J.C. Penney sold no telescopes of any kind, online or offline. The DSSes Sears sells are no longer branded with their name, and are an assortment of the good, the bad, and the ugly from Bushnell, Tasco, Celestron, and Meade.

Bushnell, by the way, ain’t the Bushnell of old. Like Tasco, their name has been bought and sold several times. They, along with Jason and Tasco, are now all the property of an equity firm, “Mid Ocean Partners.” Which doesn’t really mean pea-turkey, since all the brands are and always have been nothing more than badges pasted on imported telescopes. The key to the goodness or badness of the scopes is what these companies choose to import at any given time.

Celestron and Meade, and especially Meade with its “DS” series (I wonder what those letters stand for?), have been major players in the DSS game for almost two decades. Over the last four or five years I’ve seen fewer of their DSS models sold locally, though. Maybe because of economic conditions, and maybe because the “science stores” like Discovery Channel Store, which were a prime outlet for lower level Ms and Cs, have all gone out of business. Meade and Celestron DSS range scopes are still common at online retailers, though.

There is, I was surprised to notice, one new player in the DSS game. Ioptron, the Minitower/Cube mount folks, are not just peddling Cubes paired with minimalist OTAs on eBay; they are selling genuine Department Store Scopes, 60mm GEM-mounted refractors in your choice of red or blue paintjobs, in various online venues. How do they look? Remarkably like the GEM refractors of twenty-five years ago.

Ioptron’s entering the Department Store Scope bidness is about the only news I have to relate this year. Tasco and Bushnell are sputtering along, but seem to be offering fewer scopes this season. The quality of these scopes, while not at an all time low, is nothing to write home about, either. There is still way too much plastic and too much of the production budget goes into modern gimcracks like digital setting circles and go-to that rarely work—even poorly. Optically, not much has changed. The objectives and mirrors are still mostly OK; it is the everything-else that sucks if anything sucks.

If there’s bad news about DSSes this Christmas, it’s that their makers and importers are continuing their love affair with short tube reflectors, long focal length Newtonians with short tubes. What they do to achieve that is furnish the scopes with fast f/4 mirrors and install “corrective lenses” in the focusers. Problem is that these fast mirrors are still spherical and the corrective lenses are just cheap and crappy Barlows. The combination, not surprisingly, results in absolutely horrible images.

Want a really bad scope? Welcome to the wonderful world of eBay astronomy. If there are heirs to the worst of the 90s crew, you can find them on the ‘Bay. A tip-off as to their badness is that what is often most prominently advertised is not their design or aperture, but their tube color: “red telescope,” “blue telescope,” etc. Not only are they usually worse than the worst of the Wally World bunch, you will pay considerably more for them after ponying-up outrageous shipping fees. Want the straight poop? Read the Cloudy Nights review my friend Jon Isaacs wrote about a “Baytronix” short tube reflector.

With the depression (I ain’t afraid to say it) still on, the market for DSS telescopes has been much reduced the last couple of years. There were no Christmas scopes at our Wal-Mart last year, and I have not seen any there this year—yet. So far, the DSSes I have seen have been in drugstores and sporting goods stores and have been distinctly on the low end of the price/quality scale. I saw minimalist 60mm refractors in the Chiefland, Florida CVS Drugs last Christmas, and discovered a brace of ‘em in the Possum Swamp CVS this past weekend. I also spotted several little 50 - 60mm fellers prominently displayed in the front of the local Academy Sporting Goods. But that has been about it.

Wherever they come from and in whatever numbers, there will be DSSes this year. Like the Whos’ Christmas, they will come ANYWAY. And you will be called upon to help with them. While there’s little that can be done to improve the lowest of the low, the 20 dollar 50mm scopes, most DSSes, e’en today’s somewhat debased breed, can be helped.

What do you say when a novice brings you one? What you do NOT say is, “Well, that’s junk. Here’s an Orion catalog; I’ll help you pick a real telescope.” It may be appropriate to dispense that catalog when (and if) it is time for Jane Novice to upgrade, but, for now, hold your peace. How would you like it if someone pronounced your beloved scope “junk”? Joe Novice will feel exactly the same. Maybe even moreso. That clumsy telescope may have been wished for and dreamed about for weeks and weeks.

What you do say when presented with even the crummiest DSS is “Great! You’ll have a lot of fun with it. I can show you how to use it, and we can tune it up a little to make it easier to use.” And that is the truth. When I was a kid, an humble Gilbert, which could show the craters of the Moon and the rings of Saturn, if only dimly, would have been incredibly wonderful to me. And even the cheapest Wal-Mart refugee of today can do those things better than that 60mm cardboard tube Newtonian could.

To paraphrase one of my heroes, Linus van Pelt, “It's not a bad telescope at all, really. Maybe it just needs a little love.” What do most DSSes need in addition to love? Glad you asked…


Oculars are the place to begin. While the longer focal length eyepieces shipped with a DSS can be workable, they are certainly not optimum, and the shorter f/l ones generally have nearly zero eye relief, tiny eye lenses, and poor optics. The DSS makers are still sticking to the tried and true of their trade: Kellners if you are lucky, Huygenians if you are not. There is one light in the forest, though. Many DSSes now have 1.25-inch focusers. With good .965 oculars a rarity, you can now upgrade to 1.25-inch eyepieces without resort to replacement focusers or hybrid diagonals.

What to replace ‘em with? Ideally, with a couple of the cheap Plossls you’ve got squirreled away in the back of a drawer. How many? Start Jane off with two, maybe a 25mm and a 12mm. If you’re doing your job correctly, Jane and Joe Novice should understand they don’t need high power and why. If they seem doubtful, crank it up with the plastic Barlow and 4mm eyepiece that came with the scope. What if you don’t have any spare eyepieces to give out? Chinese Plossls are cheap and good. My fave loss leaders are Gary Hand’s GTO Plossls, which can be had for less than 30 bucks a pop. You can likely undercut that at a swap table at a star party or on the Astromart.


If the focuser has so much slop and shift it’s impossible to get the image sharp and keep it centered, you need to fix it. That can often be as simple as tweaking adjustment screws. Do be careful, since most DSS focuser bodies are plastic. At worst, you might have to install some shims. If not sure what to do, enquire with an ATM buddy.


Right after poor eyepieces, the number one offense of DSSes is that their mounts are too shaky. Let’s fix that starting with the tripod. Once upon a time, Department Store Scopes came with wooden tripods that were usually OK. Today, extruded aluminum is the norm. When properly done, aluminum tripods can be fine, but they are, natch, rarely done properly in the DSS. What to do? Start out by tightening all the hardware, especially anything associated with the accessory tray. Don’t strip any bolts and be careful to leave anything loose that needs to be loose for proper operation. One way to make a huge improvement is to replace the accessory tray with a triangular piece of plywood firmly attached to the legs. Downside is that the tripod will no longer be collapsible—but the improvement will be worth it.

Often just tightening bolts provides a real steadiness increase, but if not you can try filling the legs of an extruded aluminum tripod with sand or some other material. But that is a pain and usually doesn’t make much difference. What will make a difference is vibration suppression pads—like those Celestron and Orion sell. With one under each tripod foot, the scope will be much steadier. Unfortunately, a set is 50 dollars or more, but you can gain at least some of the same benefits using things like hockey pucks or bathtub drain stoppers under the tripod legs. If the tripod is tall enough for your apprentice astronomer to use comfortably with the legs retracted, you might instruct her to always observe without extending the legs, which will always make the scope steadier.

Mount Head

Whether GEM or alt-az, make sure all hardware is tight and that the head is firmly attached to the tripod. What else? Depending on the size/sturdiness of the mount, fill either a gallon or quart milk jug with some water and suspend it from the bottom of the mount head. That will do a lot to reduce vibration. If slow motions are too tight or too loose, adjust gear mesh so they are easy, but without too much backlash. You won’t get it perfect; “good enough” is good enough.

How about electronics? If you can get DSCs or go-to working reasonably well and can show your novice how to do the same, OK. If not, tell your buddy to forget about that stuff for now. Instead of agonizing over a gadget that will, at best, only get “kinda close” to objects, encourage your Padawan Learner to use the scope manually.

The OTA (tube)

If the telescope is a Newtonian, collimate it and be SURE to show the owner exactly how to do that, too. Unless the telescope is one of the nasty little short tube reflectors (which are often impossible to collimate), collimation is not difficult. Mirror alignment is not too critical at f/8, but every little bit helps.

Is the scope a refractor? Check its collimation by observing the diffraction rings of a slightly out of focus star. A lens scope will often be OK, but not always. If not, collimate it. Unfortunately, the objective cells on most DSS refractors do not include collimation adjustments, but you can still collimate. Loosen the screws that hold the tailpiece/focuser to the tube and move as needed to make the diffraction rings concentric, retightening the screws when done. Usually the screw holes in the tube will be large enough to allow sufficient tweaking.

Finally, put a decent finder on the scope. My choice for beginners is a zero power sight. If the tube is too small to accommodate a Telrad (the best), a Rigel Quickfinder or one of the red-dot sights like those sold by Orion is almost as good. Having a right-side-up, non-magnified view will make aiming so much easier for your “client.”

What else? The usual things. Set your Padawan up with a set of star charts—maybe the computer programs Cartes du Ciel and Stellarium—and a planisphere and show her/him how to find good stuff. Make sure the idea of using a red light at the scope is understood, and give or make your apprentice one. Also give Joe or Jane a good beginner’s book, or at least the title of a good one. Caution about cleaning optics (in other words, DON’T), and then…and then… You might give the novice a check ride under the stars, but mostly it is time to let your little bird fly.

Don’t be discouraged if it turns out your novice’s interest in astronomy was a fleeting thing. When it comes to being an amateur, many are called but few are chosen. It’s a special type of experience, and one that requires real work. If you did your job right, though, it’s possible the owner of that Christmas scope will be coming to you next year for advice about a REAL TELESCOPE.

Even if that does not happen, many of these much-maligned telescopes have long and productive lives. They may not get used every night or even once a month, but they do get used when their owners suddenly have the yen for Moon craters or Saturn’s rings or Jupiter’s Moons again. I am tempted to say there is no such thing as a bad telescope; even the most humble and silliest can open a young person’s eyes for the first time. I don’t grumble about the little scopes in the gaudy boxes at the front of Wal-Mart anymore. I welcome them every Christmas.

Next time: The Herschel Project rolls on.

Sunday, October 16, 2011


My Favorite Star Parties: Peach State Star Gaze 2001

I planned to bring you an observing article this week; one about DSLR imaging with the Atlas/EQMOD, or maybe about a Herschel Project run with the Stellacam. ‘Twas not to be, muchachos. The first Saturday of the month’s dark of the Moon window was resolutely clouded out. On the second Saturday, Unk was onboard LPD22 for her sea trials in the Gulf. We were scheduled to get in Saturday morning, so I had some hope, but, naturally, events fell behind schedule, and it was after dark before we pulled back into port.

Not that there wasn’t anything astro-related going on. Miss Dorothy and I traveled to Pensacola, Florida to the excellent Escambia Amateur Astronomers’ Association for telescope guru Doc Clay Sherrod’s annual talk. Miss Dorothy and I had a great time visiting with my old friend Clay and his wife, Patsy, and listening to yet another of Doc’s amazing presentations, “Doc Clay’s Delorean Time Machine.” The EAAA is a great club, and Miss D. and I always appreciate their generous hospitality. Wish your coulda been there. But, no, we didn’t do any observing. Not e’en a look at Jupiter with the Starblast, muchachos.

So, today will be the beginning of a new series. What I mean by “my favorite star parties,” by the way, is my favorite individual outings, not my favorite events. I love the Texas Star Party and think in some ways it is The Greatest, but I have actually had better nights at Chiefland, and at the Deep South Regional Star Gaze, and at the subject this time, Georgia’s Peach State Star Gaze (PSSG).

It takes more than great skies to make a star party especially memorable. How good a time I have is often affected by what else is going on. When work is super stressful, getting down to Chiefland is super special. The 2001 edition of the (old) Peach State Star Gaze came right after a date that will, like 12/7/1941, live in infamy: 9/11/2001. If ever I and everybody else needed to de-stress, that was the time, and PSSG seemed like the perfect way to do it.

If the star party went on as scheduled. PSSG registrants were quickly informed via email that it would indeed. Since I work in the defense industry, I did wonder if I’d be able to take a few days off. Turned out I could. The shipyard was revamping and enhancing security and they did not want us around. So PSSG 2001 was G-O. The only problem would be for anyone who intended to fly in for the event; the air travel system was still at All Stop.

I bet most of you Johnny Reb amateur astronomers know all about Peach State—hell, I’d guess a lot of you Yanks know about the star party held at Georgia’s equivalent of the Chiefland Astronomy Village, the Deerlick Astronomy Village. Well, that’s not the PSSG I am talking about; I am talking about its twice-removed ancestor, the original Peach State, held at Indian Springs State Park near Jackson, Georgia.

Back in the early 1990s, key members of the Atlanta Astronomy Club, including the current editor of The Strolling Astronomer (ALPO), Ken "Kenpo" Poshedly, began asking themselves why there was no star party in Georgia. I’ve often asked myself the same thing about Alabama, but Georgia’s lack of a star party was even more curious. Seemed strange a state that’s home to an astronomy club as large and active as the AAC didn’t have a big event to call its own. “Kenpo” and company set out to change that starting in 1994.

The original home of the PSSG had pluses and minuses. A big plus was the state park where the event was held. Indian Springs was adjacent to a beautiful lake and was possessed of a slightly-larger-than-football-field sized open area for observing, a large dining hall/auditorium perfect for star party talks and meals, another building that served equally well as a vendors’ hall, and fairly modern, clean cabins. The small town of Jackson, Georgia was only a few miles away—close enough to make its stores and restaurants a good resource, but far enough away to make its light dome a non-factor.

Course, like any site, there were the downers, too. While the field was nice, it was barely large enough to accommodate the Atlanta crowd, and as the reputation of the PSSG began to spread and it began to attract observers from Alabama and Tennessee, astronomers were packed in like consarned sardines.

There was the sky condition, too. Jackson, Georgia is only about 50 miles from Atlanta, not far enough to disperse the huge light dome of that megalopolis. That was not fatal, though, since the worst of the light pollution was confined to the northwestern sky, an area of relatively little interest. And, thankfully, Atlanta’s light dome petered out quickly as it approached 30-degrees of altitude. As I have often said, it’s worth it to me to put up with less than perfect skies for a site with wonderful amenities like Indian Springs.

Back in the early years of the last decade I was teaching my university astronomy lab two-nights a week, one of which was Wednesday. I planned to leave bright and early Thursday morning, but by the time I finished stuffing the sprouts’ heads with astronomical knowledge, I was too tired to do much packing. I did manage to drag some of my astro-stuff into the front parlor. Thursday morning I double-checked the gear checklist, loaded the fairly substantial pile into my 1996 Camry, and hit I-65 a little after seven.

My 1995 Ultima C8, Celeste, would be the primary instrument for this expedition, but on a whim I threw my still relatively new Celestron Short Tube 80 refractor into the backseat. I’d bought a simple and somewhat crude but very economical and very useable piggyback bracket for the little scope from Ken Dauzat, and I wanted to see what the 80 would do under PSSG’s fairly dark skies. The few times I’d had “Woodstock” out of the city, the 80mm f/5 had performed amazingly well; the North America Nebula was a treat in the refractor’s wide, wide field.

This was in the days before I embraced go-to, and Celeste was on her original large fork mount and in her original large case, so she took up a substantial amount of space in the trunk. Add various eyepiece and equipment boxes, a tent canopy, an observing table, an ice chest, and numerous other necessities (no laptop in those days), and the Toyota was on the full side. Since Miss Dorothy was unable to attend, I could be a little sloppy with my packing to save time, letting the overflow flow into the passenger seat.

The trip from the Swamp to Indian Springs is about equal in length to the trip to Chiefland, Florida, six - six-and-a-half hours, and without the lovely Miss D. to talk to, I had to find something to occupy my mind. I listened to 9-11 news on NPR for an hour or so, until I just couldn’t stand it anymore, and then started a book-on-tape (really on tape back then), Michael White’s Newton, the Last Sorcerer. Ten cassettes would be about right for the trip up and back, and if it were good, it would make the trip go much faster. It was good. I still remember the book vividly ten years down the line and recommend it highly.

I wasn’t in a huge hurry, since the field would not (supposedly) open till 1 p.m., so I stopped off at one of me and D’s traditions, the Stuckey’s just south of Montgomery. Hell, y’all know me: if there is the remotest possibility of a fried chicken biscuit for breakfast, I will make time for it. After gorging myself—hey, I had a glass of orange juice to make breakfast "healthy"—it was back in the Camry for the run into Georgia on I-85.

Before long, I was taking the first Newnan exit for the last 100 mile leg of the trip. It took a little longer than I thought it would, since I got behind every dadgum farm pickup truck and tractor in central Georgia, but eventually the narrow two lane highways gave way to improved roads as I approached Jackson, which is just about smack in the middle of the state.

Jackson was a little town that was hanging on somehow. Its old and picturesque main street had obviously suffered some decades of economic hard times, but it looked like new life was stirring, with the town hotel being renovated. I’d heard retirees from Atlanta were moving south, and that, I thought, might help this still clean small town.

Using the driving directions I’d printed off the Auburn (Alabama) Astronomical Society's excellent website, I had no trouble at all finding PSSG. This wasn’t my first visit, which helped, but if you could get to Indian Springs, which wasn’t hard, you could get to the star party site, which was held in a section of the park referred to as “Camp Macintosh.”

I pulled up at the main building, picked up my information/registration packet and T-shirt from the uber organized staff, and took a look at the observing field. Rut-roh. I had wondered if the attendance would be as large as normal due to the events of 9-11. Was it ever. At 1 p.m. the observing field was packed. Which teed off Unk a little bit. The main criticism I had of the old PSSG was that they apparently did not enforce their rule that the observing field would not open till afternoon on the first day. At least they did not enforce it for everyone.

It was catch as catch can field-position-wise, with me securing a spot on the southwest side on a semi-slope. That was OK in that it gave me good access to objects coming up in the east and provided some shade from the still fierce Georgia afternoon Sun. It pretty much denied me the sinking southern wonders of summer, however. With close to 250 folks in attendance, even if I’d got there earlier, I probably wouldn’t have been able to do much better.

Got everything unpacked, C8 assembled, tent canopy up, and paid a visit to my cabin. While this was an open bay arrangement, a large room with about ten beds, it was clean and so was the bathroom. As usual, I didn’t worry about bedclothes, just plopped a sleeping bag down on the bearable G.I. bunk.

How did I spend the remaining hours till darkness? Wandering the field, visiting old AAC friends, hanging out with the Possum Swamp AS and Auburn AS members who’d made the trip up, and having “eyeball QSOs,” meeting in person for the first time with several members of my SCT User Yahoogroup, which, like the other many Yahoo astro-groups, was going strong a decade ago, before the Cloudy Nights discussion groups began to take over.

What was on the field besides nice folks? Not too many new scopes. The usual mix of Meade LX200s, Big Dobs, Celestron SCTs old and young, a few APO refractors, some classics, and an Ultima 2000 C8 or two. This was during a lull in the astro-biz, just as the new generation of go-to SCTs was aborning. The NexStars were around, but not in any numbers, and Meade hadn’t shown anything new in a while. Just before dark my good buddy Pat called with the hot-off-the-presses news that Meade was discontinuing the much-loved LX200 classic in favor of a new SCT they were calling the LX200 GPS. “Well, I’ll be dogged,” Unk thought.

After touring the field setups for a while, it was time to think about F-O-O-D. At this stage of the game, the PSSG did not offer a regular meal plan. Thankfully, the AAC Women’s Auxiliary (who at the time were calling themselves “The Ladies of the Night” (!)) were selling hotdogs and hamburgers. Commendably, they’d decided to donate the proceeds to the Red Cross that year. A burger and a dog and some of the junk food I’d brought along (Fritos; I had yet to discover the joys of Jack Links), and I was set and ready for darkness.

Yeah, the site was not perfect, whatever that is, but as darkness came on you coulda fooled me. The Summer Milky Way was bright and prominent overhead, and as long as I didn’t look north I almost forgot I was in spitting distance of Hot Lanta.

As I stood gazing at the stars winking on, the horrific events of two days before seemed far away. Until I stopped and realized how different the sky was. Oh, it was no darker than usual, but it was a lot less busy. Jackson is in the glide path of Hartsfield International Airport, and astro-imagers really have to keep an eye peeled for descending airliners. Not on this night. With the airlines still shut down the heavens were spookily empty.

What did I look at on this very nice evening? I’d brought a list printed with Deepsky 2000 (this was before I discovered SkyTools), and the AAC’s deep sky guru/astro-writer, Rich Jakiel, had put together an excellent list to hand out, “Peach Fuzzies.” On this first evening I kept it a little simpler. To start off, I toured the best and brightest of the late summer early fall marvels. Nothing hard—M13, M15, M27, M57, M2, the usual suspects. I was a little weary, but I wanted to see some different stuff too. Since I didn’t feel like spending the night squinting at a star atlas or fussing over my C8’s analog setting circles, I decided I’d do a detailed survey of the Great Andromeda Nebula, M31.

It had been a long time since I’d looked—really looked—at this huge marvel. Like most of ya’ll, I take a quick glance at it once every fall and move on. On this night, I gave it plenty of time and saw one hell of a lot, from its tiny and somehow almost frightening star-like nucleus, to subtle details near the nucleus, to the immense star cloud NGC 206, to two dark lanes, to satellite galaxies M32 and NGC 205. I didn’t stop there. I’d had this project in mind for a while, and had a finder chart that pointed the way to M31’s more prominent globular star clusters. I spotted the brightest of those, G1, with fair ease. It didn’t look like much, just a slightly fuzzy star, but I was gobsmacked to think my humble C8 brought me the globular cluster of another galaxy.

Celeste showed off Andromeda’s details beautifully, but you and I both know this huge thing is best at very low power. That’s one of the reasons I’d decided to toss the ST80 in the car. In the short refractor, M31 really looked like a galaxy. The little scope picked up the dark lanes with amazing ease, and the immense disk seemed to stretch on forever. It was even better than in binoculars, since I could use a variety of magnifications with the Short Tube 80.

After that? The clock was, unbelievably, now ticking on toward 3 a.m. One last look at sinking globular cluster M15 with the C8, where it was glorious, and a peep at it with the Short Tube 80, where it was very good, if not showing even a hint of resolution, and I was ready to pull the Big Switch. Not only was I weary, it was getting chilly and damp and the sky was beginning to close down, with haze moving in.

Scope covered and gear secured, I sat in my lawn chair and toasted the heavens with a Dixie Cup of Rebel Yell, ruminating on the strange constellations of autumn. Yeah, the stars of winter were beckoning, but they would wait. I headed for the warm bunkhouse.

I must have been more tired than I thought, since it was well after 9 a.m. before I finally crawled out of my bunk Friday morning. No need to worry about breakfast, since it was nearly time for lunch by the time I left the cabin. I ran a weather eye over the sky and wasn’t pleased at what I was seeing. The haze that had moved in early that morning had been followed by real clouds. No use worrying about what I couldn’t change. I moseyed on over to the meeting hall.

Following hamburgers, hotdogs, and chips, the programs got underway. The excellent talks more than filled the hours till supper. They were all good, but two that stood out were Rich Jakiel’s presentation on the history of deep sky observing and Art Russell’s talk about the hows and whys of star hopping. Only sad thing? The keynote speaker was to have been legendary celestial cartographer Wil Tirion, but the shutdown of the airlines prevented him from flying in from Europe (he made it to the next year’s PSSG, but that is a story for another time).

During a lull in the presentations, Unk naturally wandered next door to the vendor hall. Usually, the PSSG was host to three or four dealers, but this year only Wolf Camera from Sarasota, Florida showed up. I assumed the events of 9-11 had encouraged some of the usual sellers to stay home. No matter. Wolf’s Chuck Pisa had a lot of nice gear on display. Somehow I resisted buying everything in sight, and confined my purchases to a 2-inch Kendrick heater strip.

By the time I finished shopping, the shadows were lengthening and it was near-about time for supper. The AAC wouldn’t be doing a meal, so I’d need to head into town for some grub. My friends from the Auburn club insisted I just had to try the Fresh Air Barbecue, which was just down the road from the park.

I don’t know if the barbeque there was really “the best in the south” as the Fresh Air claimed, but man was it good. The menu was not extensive, but it was more than sufficient: pork sandwiches, chopped (not pulled) pork, chicken, good sides, some of the best Brunswick stew I have had anywhere in Georgia—which is saying something. I was more than satisfied. I also had the amusing experience of seeing one of my fellow observers from a place well north of Georgia attempt to order mayo on his pork sandwich. I was right behind him in line, and the little counter girl turned to me and said, “What is wrong with him? Is he one of them YANKEES?!”

After this outstanding meal, it was back to the site to wait for dark. When the Sun finally got out of the way, I was hopeful. There were still clouds, but it appeared to be tending to “clearing,” and there were some sizeable sucker holes along the Meridian. I got started in the Cygnus area, doing about a dozen DSOs, including a couple of cool planetaries from Rich’s Peach Fuzzies list I’d never seen before. Alas, the clearing trend began to reverse itself well before midnight, with the last of the holes closing by 11 p.m.

What to do? I wasn’t a bit sleepy and had no intention of turning-in at 11 fracking o’clock. I wandered over to the meeting hall and found a lot of my fellow observers felt the same. I spent the next several hours shooting the breeze with buddies including my old friend Kenpo, drinking coffee, eating Little Debbie cakes and other sugar-laden treats the AAC had laid out, and peeping outside at the sky every few minutes.

About 2 o’clock, I stuck my head out to find the weather had not improved; we were totally socked in. Oh, well. I wandered back onto the field to my picnic canopy, broke out the Yell, had a dollop or three, and headed for the bunkhouse. As frequently happens when Unk throws in the towel, it did clear, but not till after 3:30. By which time I was snoozing heavily. If I had to miss some dark sky time, at least I didn’t miss much.

The weather was much improved when I awoke on Saturday, the last day of PSSG 2001. The heavens were that beautiful shade of blue that spells “deep sky heaven.” The clouds of the previous night had been in advance of a cold front, which had moved through bringing, not just clearing, but blessedly cool temperatures. Thank god, no more roasting in the Georgia Sun.

As afternoon came in, it was time for that star party institution, the raffle. I don’t care if I am at the Peach State Star Gaze or the Idaho Star Party, one thing is a constant: Unk Rod rarely wins a blessed thing. So it was this year, with my chances not being enhanced by the fact that the prize count was down compared to 2000. In 2001, the economy was sputtering a little, though not like it is now, and I assume some prize donors had to cut back.

Walking out of the main building, I was suddenly concerned about the sky again. More clouds, including some of the dreaded high cirrus. This had nothing to do with the front that had moved past; instead it was the remnants of a late-in-the-season tropical storm, Gabrielle, whose clouds had been the source of at least some of our weather problems all along. The good part? The weather reports we were able to pick up on radio were unanimous in insisting the sky would clear. The only question was when.

Supper this evening was off-site again, at a much recommended restaurant, Buckner’s up on the Bucksnort Road (I am not making that up). A bunch of us hopped in cars and convoyed to the restaurant, Unk riding with a fellow Alabamian, my old pal Robert Rock. What did we find when we got there? A clean little restaurant combined with a bluegrass/gospel music hall. There was a long line to get in, so us PSSGers figured we were in for a treat.

Buckner’s chief claim to fame (attested to by many glossy photos), was that they had once hosted Donna Douglas, who played the erstwhile Ellie Mae Clampett of Beverly Hillbillies fame. That seemed about right for this very country place. What was a little odd was the way the food was served. You were plunked down at a big round table with up to a dozen fellow diners. The food was placed on a huge lazy Susan mounted to the table. You served yourself, turning the thing to bring the dish of your desire to you.

What kind of dishes? The food was good old southern country cooking and NOTHING else: fried chicken (really good fried chicken), barbeque, pork chops, ham, greens and other down-home vegetables, lots of cornbread, all washed down with gallons of sweet tea. Pork fat was involved in almost everything, which was cool with me. As Emeril Legasse, whose cooking show was everybody’s fave back then, used to say, “pork fat RULES!” All us southern boys and girls were happy. Even if this was not the fare we ate day-in, day-out, it was still familiar from grandma’s table. I will say that a couple of our northern brothers and sisters were badly puzzled by the cuisine, “What is this green leafy stuff with the CHUNKS in it?!”

Back at Indian Springs and the PSSG, the darned clouds lingered on. Man did they linger. It wasn’t till 11 p.m. that the wind sprang up and began to blow them out. But in short order they were gone, revealing black skies spangled by diamond-hard stars. It was the last night of the star party, and I’d want to get up reasonably early to pack and hit the road, so I pushed the C8 hard, trying to cover as much deep sky ground as possible in the few hours left to me.

The cleanliness of the sky allowed me to see objects and details I’d have thought impossible from this supposedly “average” site. The Crescent Nebula, NGC 6888, which is usually kinda hard for a C8, even from a better location, wasn’t just there; it was exquisitely detailed, especially in my Lumicon OIII filter-equipped 12mm Nagler. SWEET!

The night was getting old now, and the lustrous stars of winter were peeping up over the horizon. Naturally, Celeste and I headed that-a-way. We visited quite a few winter favorites in the time remaining to us, doing a tour of as many of Auriga’s multitudinous open clusters as we could find. The hit on this evening wasn’t a star cluster, though, but a galaxy. Yes, there are galaxies among the winter stars away from the Zone of Avoidance, and NGC 1023 in Perseus was a spectacular one on this night.

At 300x in the surprisingly steady seeing, this usually small SB0 galaxy was large and detailed. What was really cool was the way the distant sprite gave a chilling reminder of the true depth and scope of the Universe. Compared to the galaxy, the clusters in Auriga were my friendly next door neighbors, no more distant than Jackson, Georgia. I looked and looked and looked, trying to drink in as many photons as I could before Big Switch Time. I kept on keeping on till nearly 4 a.m. before pulling that accursed switch.

Somehow, someway I was up at 8:30 to pack and was on the road not much more than an hour later, saying my farewells to beautiful Indian Springs, maybe forever. Why forever? For its 2002 edition, the star party would be moving to a new location, White Water Express up in Tennessee. The field at Indian Springs was cramped, the skies not perfect, and the star party management thought it was time for a change.

That particular change did not last. For a variety of reasons, the Tennessee site was not viable over the long run. One of those reasons was that for non-Atlanta based attendees Tennessee was a little far to go. Several competing fall events like the Chiefland Star Party and the Deep South Regional Star Gaze (the PSSG’s original inspiration) were within that nearly perfect 6 hour driving range. I gave the 2002 PSSG a try, but didn’t return after that. Nice place, and I had a real good time, but just a little too far given skies that were hardly perfect. The event stayed on in Tennessee until 2007, when a more convenient and darker site was found, the Deerlick Astronomy Village, which is not only dark, but much closer to Atlanta.

No, I’ve never been back to Peach State, though if, as planned, Miss Dorothy and I retire to Atlanta, you can bet I will be a PSSGer again. I did make it back to Indian Springs. When the AAC departed, another Georgia club, the Flint River Astronomy Club, began holding a new event, the Georgia Sky View, at Indian Springs. These good folks had me up as a speaker several times, and I hope to get back to that lovely park again some day. Even if I don’t, muchachos, I have my wonderful memories of PSSG 2001, the year when we all needed a break and got one with good skies and great people.

Next Time: If all goes as planned, I will have words on the new edition of one of the top astronomy computer programs for y’all. If not, we’ll talk about the telescopes the jolly fat man with the white beard—Santa, NOT Bubba down to the club—brings down the chimney.

Sunday, October 09, 2011


Eye and Telescope 3.0

What? Not another article on dadgum software! Yep. In part at least, muchachos. I want to tell you-all about Eye and Telescope 3, which is now available in the good old U.S. of A. after what seemed like an interminable wait. I said most of what need be said about this excellent soft in my full review in Astronomy Technology Today magazine (Volume 4, Number 1) and a blog article nearly two years ago, but there are a few loose ends to tie up. The other part? It’s fall and time for the Possum Swamp Astronomical Society’s Autumn Public Sky Watch, so, yep, my yearly paen to public outreach.

Let’s talk about E&T first. What is Eye and Telescope, anyhow? It’s a planner. Y’all know how I preach the benefits of planning-type astronomy software, so I was predisposed to like it from the get-go. For those of us who engage in big observing projects, or who just want to see a lot of good stuff instead of the same old things every night (“Seen M13, seen M27, seen M57; reckon I’ll call it a night.”) the planners, which are essentially giant databases with provisions for making log entries, and even drawing charts, are just the ticket. With an organized list, you have a plan, and you see much more than you would by wandering aimlessly across the sky.

But Y’all heard all that last week. What’s new this week is that we now have another very good planner (for Windows) that’s stable and fast and attractive and which you can buy for a song—$75.00 (from Cambridge University Press). In some ways Eye and Telescope is like last week’s subject, AstroPlanner, or any other planning program, but it brings its own features and paradigms to the table. For the straight poop, the minutiae on Eye and Telescope, go back and read the blog article in the link above. The program is still in v3.0, and everything I said there still applies. Just want the short and sweet? Hokay: here ‘tis…

I reckon I was aware Thomas Pfleger had E&T’s publishing/distribution difficulties sorted, finally, but I hadn’t thought much about his program in a couple of years. Not till one recent afternoon when a package dropped through Chaos Manor South’s mail slot with a thump, scaring the cats and getting my attention. Opening the thing revealed Eye and Telescope in its new English-language garb with a (short) English manual. What did I do? I immediately grabbed the netbook and set about installing the program.

Why in tarnation did I have to install the cotton pickin’ thing again? It’s still in v3.0, the same version I received two annums ago. Because the computer where E&T resided, my much-loved Toshiba Satellite, died from a smoky failure of the internal section of its power supply in the interim. Also, I figured that if the program ran good on my modest Asus netbook, it would run good on anything. Finally, I wanted to refresh my memory on the install process.

Which is simple. All you gotta do is slap the E&T DVD (there’s only one) into your optical drive—an outboard USB one in the case of my netbook—and mash “OK” to begin. You then click through the usual installer dialogs: where, how much, etc., and you are done. One thing I didn’t recall? That the install is slow—fifteen minutes or so. The long waits are for the Hubble Guide Star Catalog to load and for 9,000 deep sky images to be transferred. The length of my wait may have had a lot to do with having to use a USB DVD drive instead of the speedier onboard one of the Toshiba, since I don’t remember being kept waiting so long when I loaded the program on the old laptop.

Despite the long install time, E&T ran very well once it was on the hard drive. It was substantially quicker to start than last week’s subject, AstroPlanner, and any function seemed snappier in E&T than it did in AP. On the other hand, Eye and Telescope doesn’t quite have the feature set of AstroPlanner, and certainly not the wealth of catalog data, and I’d expect a somewhat slimmer program to run better. It’s a trade-off, in other words. Nevertheless, I appreciated Eye and Telescope’s impressive speed on my modest astro-puter.

Once the program is installed, you click on the cute little icon it’s put on your desktop and proceed to doing what you do with every astro-ware the first time out, entering user data: location, time, date, etc. Actually, before you do that you have to get rid of the help window the program launches automatically at startup (which you can, thankfully, turn off in the Options menu). You also have to register the program. If you don’t want to do that right away, you can run E&T in unlicensed mode (with only the Messier catalog available), but you might as well get 'er done.

The program serial number is found on the back of the slim instruction manual, but you must also input a license number. There was a sheet of paper in the DVD case that had my data on it, but I suspect most users will have to get their number off the program’s online registration website. As I noted in my original review, the process is a little annoying—it took me several tries to get the LONG serial number, which includes both upper and lower case characters and which is case sensitive—input correctly. But, hey, you only have to do it once.

When you’re done, go to the User Info menu on the toolbar and tell the program about your site’s (or sites’) location and time zone. A couple of cautions here. First, latitude and longitude need to be entered in degrees and decimal minutes—30.5 instead of 30d 30’, for example—and you have to go to the Options window to set your daylight savings status. The former is not much of a problem, but the latter is something of a pain in the butt. Not because you have to leave the site screen to set it, but because, as far as I can tell, you have to turn DST on/off manually when it comes in/goes out of effect. I wish all programs would give you the option to read/use the computer’s time/zone/DST. Oh, well.

I suppose I was more impressed by E&T this time out than I was at first blush in 2009. A major reason for that was that I still remembered how it does things. While I hadn’t used the soft in a while, I knew about its take on observing lists. There are, confusingly at first, two kinds: You have Plans and you have Projects. Plans are for short lists, small collections of objects you want to visit on any given evening or weekend. Projects are for large lists like the vaunted Herschel Project.

How about go-to? The program uses ASCOM, so it should be able to deal with almost any scope. “Should.” AstroPlanner should have been able to work with the EQMOD driver for my Atlas mount, but it couldn’t. While I haven’t tested Eye and Telescope with EQMOD in the field, I was relieved when a quick test with the EQMOD simulator went well. I believe E&T will work splendidly with that special program. Only nit? Eye and Telescope does not have a go-to button on the toolbar. To send the telescope to its target, you right click on an object and choose “go-to” from the menu that appears.

No, Eye and Telescope does not have extensive charting facilities, but the maps it generates look good, and, most importantly, work well. I was never kept waiting for charts to draw. If these charts are not enough, the program will, like AstroPlanner, work in concert with external planetarium programs like Cartes du Ciel, TheSky, Starry Night, and many more.

I often find it useful to look at an image of my target object, especially when I am going after the uber faint stuff, and E&T has that covered. While the program cannot download Digitized Sky Survey Images (why not, Mr. Thomas?), its collection of nearly 9,000 pictures will make that less necessary than it would otherwise have been.

Final verdict on E&T 3.0? I like it just as much now as I liked it the first time I ran it. And my wants for it remain the same. I’d like a dedicated button on the toolbar to send the scope on go-tos, and another one to access the ASCOM connect/setup dialog. While the program features lots of objects, over 100,000 (mostly galaxies, natch), I’d like even more catalogs. Finally, I’d like lots of ready-made observing lists available for download. Mr. Pfleger now has several posted on his website, including the H-400, but there needs to be many more. I would guess that if the program catches on, users will take care of that.

Also available on Thomas’ site is the beta of E&T version 3.2. I loaded this up and it ran great. I haven’t used it much yet, so I’m not sure what is different about it, but it seems ready for prime time given my brief tests.

Getting a program working is one thing; using it is another. I decided I’d generate an observing list with Eye and Telescope for the PSAS’ fall public Sky Watch. Nothing fancy, four or five bright Messiers like the Ring and the Dumbbell. I chose to use the “plan” function rather than the “project” mode for such a short list. I wouldn’t take the computer into the field, either; instead, I’d rely on a print-out.

As I noted in my initial reviews of E&T, that’s where the Plan bidness really shines. You don’t print your list per se. Instead, you export it as an .html file. That sounds weird, I know—that’s what I thought at first, too—but it ain’t weird; it is wonderful if you don’t want to tote a computer. Open the resulting .html file (with your web browser), and you’ll find not just a list of objects, but detailed data on each, numerous pictures, and more. That came in handy at the Sky Watch for help in answering the little folks’ numerous questions.

List in hand, it was time to gird my loins for the dreaded (by some) public outreach. I’m not going to talk your ears off about the whys of public star parties, since I did that just a little while back, but I would like to spend some time on the hows if’n you don’t mind.

Come star party day, allow yourself plenty of set up time. I usually arrive on site about 45-minutes beforehand. Why? At most public events, you’ll find your guests will begin to trickle in well before the published start time. Our Fall Event was scheduled for 7 p.m., but, sure enough, excited little folk and their parents began to show up by 6:30. You’ll find it much easier to set up before they get there; it’s hard to remember what goes where and hooks to what when you are fielding a constant stream of questions like “Is that a telescope,” “Can we look at a star?” “How come I can see the Moon in the daytime?” and the ever popular “WATCHA DOING, MISTER?!”

Plenty of set up time is good, but what do you set up? What sort of telescope and what sort of ancillary gear? I tend to keep it simple telescope-wise. I often use my 80mm f/11 alt-azimuth mounted SkyWatcher refractor, Eloise, because I am lazy. She is painless to haul around and put together, she looks like a telescope to kids and parents, and 80mm of refractor is more than sufficient for the targets I show my customers: the Moon (most of all), a bright planet (if there is one), a bright star (very popular), and maybe a bright DSO or two (save those for the tail end of the evening).

And yet, and yet… Sometimes I kick it up a notch with my venerable 6-inch f/8 Criterion RV-6 Dynascope, Cindy Lou. With her big and relatively heavy 60s style German mount, she is not nearly as easy to lug around as the refractor, but she has several pluses. Most of all, she has a decent clock drive. Not having to re-center your telescope between kids is a godsend. She also has enough aperture to make the best and brightest of the Messier look like something for patrons old enough to appreciate them—little kids have a hard time seeing deep sky objects in any telescope—and show-off the planets in astonishing detail. Best of all? She is still simple. No computers to fuss with, no alignments to do. Plunk her down with her polar axis facing roughly north and I am done.

So you shouldn’t bring out your go-to scope? That’s up to you. A C8 on a go-to mount can be a very good public scope. It’s got an eyepiece position that’s perfect for young and old, and kids are naturally attracted to a high-tech computer hand control. B-U-T…make sure you can get your mount aligned in a hurry. The wee ones will be onsite before it is dark and will want to look at the Moon IMMEDIATELY. They will not understand your need to wait for alignment stars to appear. Luckily, most computerized mounts allow you to do a Solar System Alignment (on the Moon), a “last alignment,” or just a "fake" alignment so you can get the thing tracking in R.A. before you can see alignment stars. Go-to functionality? I suppose you could do a better alignment after the stars wink on, but you’ll probably be too busy showing off Luna, and you won’t need go-to to get to her, Jupiter, Vega, and M57, anyway.

What else should you bring? Eyepieces, of course. I leave it to you whether to haul out the Ethoses or stick to bargain Plossls. Yes, you will likely get a little teenage mascara and sticky kiddie-finger stuff on the eye lenses, but that can be cleaned off. Me? I use my Orion Expanses. They have nice big eye lenses that are easy for the little folk to look into, deliver very good images in f/8 Cindy Lou, and are inexpensive and easily replaceable if the worst happens.

Bring a flashlight, of course. Doesn’t even have to be red, since there’s not much need to worry about dark adaptation. And a step-stool. Even if your telescope is kid-friendly (which a ladder-bound dob ain’t, so leave it at home), the smallest observers will still need to either be lifted to the eyepiece (by their parents), or stand on something. A small one-step stepstool is very handy. Do keep it out of the way when not in use; you don’t want anybody tripping over it in the dark. Allow the little tykes’ parents to assist them on getting on and off and standing on the stool.

Make sure you have notes on the objects you intend to show off. I guar-ron-tee the first thing your clients will ask after getting a look at anything is “HOW FAR AWAY IS IT?” If I hadn’t had the notes on the list I generated with Eye and Telescope, I’d have used my iPod, which has the astro-apps Sky Safari, Distant Suns, and (Celestron’s new) SkyQ running on it. I brought the iPod anyway, just in case I got off the beaten path of the list.

How’d it go? It went well. OK, OK, it went well after the usual Unk Rod floundering and foundering. Set up Miss Cindy Lou, inserted my 20mm Expanse, and pointed her at the just-before-First Quarter Moon, which was exquisite in her excellent optics. Only… Selene kept drifting, with me having to re-center frequently despite the fairly low power. Went to M13. Same “away she goes.” What the heck? During one of the infrequent lulls—we hosted well over 100 kids and parents—I decided to check and see if the Dynascope’s AC powered synchro drive was plugged into the inverter securely.

DOH! The drive wasn’t plugged in at all. Despite my recommendation to y’all that you get the scope ready before the kids arrive, I spent too much time shooting the breeze with my PSAS mates and finished set up in a hurry. I’d plugged the scope in, alright, but not into the AC receptacle on the inverter. I’d inserted the plug into a couple of vents on the sides of the inverter’s plastic housing instead, and naturally it hadn’t supplied a bit of power to the scope. Plugged the drive in for real and Cindy began tracking in her usual reliable fashion.

After M13, I went on to M57, another favorite this time of year. To cap off the evening, I finished up on brilliant sapphire Vega. Surprisingly, the one thing both kids and parents request more than anything after the Moon and Saturn is a simple, bright star. By the time everybody who wanted to had had a look, it was creeping on toward 9 o’clock, Jupiter was still too low to do anything with, and the last remnants of our audience were heading for their cars. Time to ring down the curtain on another successful PSAS Sky Watch. I was particularly gratified by how many attendees, young and old, thanked us profusely for sharing the sky with them. Even if they hadn’t… I know it sounds corny, but I still find public outreach rewarding and even FUN.

Whatev. One of the beauties about the RV-6 is that she’s quick to tear down. Yeah, the GEM mount’s a handful, but it fits easily into my 4-Runner, and the telescope’s (Bakelite) tube is astoundingly light. In about 10 minutes I was on my way back to the Old Manse. It had been a good week. Beautiful weather for the star party (for once), and Eye and Telescope to play with. You? You, muchachos, should do a public outreach session NOW while the weather is still so fine, and have a look at E&T. If you don’t have a planning program, or even if you do, it might make you very happy.

Next time: Unk was at sea on sea trial for San Diego, LPD 22, so he missed the dark observing window this time around. So, what next? My Favorite Star Parties installment one.

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