Sunday, March 25, 2012

 

Me and Norman


I didn’t know Norman Edmund. Never met the man. Never talked to him on the phone. Hell, I was never even in the same city with him as far as I know. Nevertheless, he was a huge influence on me; couldn’t help but be. The amateur astronomy of the 1960s was basically two things: Sky and Telescope magazine and Norman Edmund’s company.

The who and the what? For you greenhorns who don’t know much about Edmund Scientific, and for you old timers who may be on your way to forgetting, Edmund’s company was born of World War II. He wasn’t a combatant in The War; health problems kept him out, but after the war he found a way to capitalize on its leavings.

War surplus is something else you younguns don’t know nuttin about. Iraq didn’t produce much if any surplus. Neither did Vietnam. But WWII, and, to a lesser extent, Korea, damned sure did. “Huh?” The services bought far more stuff—stuff of every kind—than they would ever need or could ever use before it became obsolete. This “surplus” was sold to civilian dealers for a song, who then turned around and sold it to Mom and Pop America for slightly more. For twenty-plus years after VJ-Day, you could buy anything from a pair of socks to an Army Jeep (or so the ads in the comic books said) surplus.

While you could buy almost anything surplus, the market had its greatest impact on the two scientific hobbies, amateur radio and amateur astronomy. Many was the ham—including Unk—who got started with an “ARC” Command Receiver. Tons of surplus electronic gear was sold to hams by local or national businesses (like New York City’s famous Radio Row) or given to us directly or indirectly by the Military Affiliate Radio System, MARS.

Surplus was almost as big a deal in amateur astronomy. Page back through the 50s and 60s issues of Sky and Scope with the aid of the wonderful Seven Decades Collection, and you will see tons of ads for aerial cameras and aerial camera lenses and elbow telescopes and eyepieces and other stuff that helped ATMs aspire to a slightly higher level than they could produce on their own. Plenty of amateurs had their first taste of those mysterious wide-field eyepieces thanks to a surplus tank periscope ocular (the yellow-tinted ones were slightly radioactive, not that we knew or would have cared).

Surplus didn’t really take off for amateur astronomers till the coming of Norman Edmund, who really kicked it up a notch. He started out just selling surplus, yeah, but before long he was making stuff out of it. Optical stuff. Astronomy stuff like telescopes and eyepieces. In the beginning, Norman’s products were “kits.” Often containing not much more than instructions and a few lenses (often with chipped edges). But it didn’t take long for the Edmund offerings to get more complex and exciting, starting with a kit for a 3-inch Newtonian reflector and progressing on to a complete line of ready-to-use telescopes and accessories.

What were the Edmund scopes like? They were not on the level of Cave and Unitron. They were on the level of Criterion (Dynascope): surprisingly good, but not top-drawer. Actually, Edmund’s scopes were maybe slightly lower in quality than those of Criterion, their main (astronomy) competitor. Mechanically, anyhow. Optically the two brands were identical.

Both firms used primary mirrors made by a contractor called “Upco.” I’ve never been able to find out much about this company, but they made excellent optics. The Upco mirrors in my Edmund 4-inch and Criterion 6-inch stand up to anything I’ve used over the years including Cave, and compare well to what’s produced today. I have been told the man behind Upco was Ohio author Sam Brown, the guru who wrote and illustrated All About Telescopes. Given the quality of Upco optics, I can believe it.

In just a few years, by 1948, Norman’s business, “Edmund Salvage Company,” had grown to the point where it was out of his garage and at that famous address, “Barrington, New Jersey,” with a slightly changed and more evocative name, “Edmund Scientific Company.” I imagined it must be a wonderful place. The art-deco look of the big Edmund building in the little pictures in the catalog only hinted, I thought, at the wonders that must lie within. Oh, how I dreamed of convincing Mama we needed to take a vacation to New Jersey, stopping at Edmund, and somehow, someway walking out with my very own Super Space Conqueror.

That never happened, of course. Even if I could have convinced Mama to travel to New Jersey (“NEW JERSEY? All them YANKEES?! I don’t think so, BUSTER!”), the old man’s car wouldn’t have got us halfway there before giving up the ghost. Even if it had, we wouldn’t have been able to afford the gas to get home. But I had the next best thing, I had The Catalog.

I could take a virtual trip to Edmund’s whenever I wanted. In study hall on delicious spring afternoons, or under the covers with a flashlight on crisp fall nights when I’d just come in from watching the stars. I’d open the little digest-sized book and be transported all the way to that magic cavern in Barrington. There was so much and it was all wonderful.

I don’t have single 1960s Edmund catalog left. Not surprising. I read ‘em to tatters. All I have left is memories and the pieces of the cover of the 1968 edition I used to make a Mother’s Day card for Mama. I cut out the groovy moiré patterns that graced that year, and did my best to make my crude lettering psychedelic so Mama could have a cool card. Today, almost anything can be found on the cotton picking Internet, and you and me can have another look at the Edmund catalog, the astronomy part of it, anyhow, right here. So why don’t we?

Telescopes

The first Edmund scope I ever saw, well before I laid eyes on the catalog, was the 3-inch Newtonian, the Space Conqueror. One of the members of our little teen/pre-teen club, The Backyard Astronomy Society, had one. I was both impressed and not impressed. In build quality, it took a decided back seat to my Tasco 3-inch. It had a cardboard tube instead of the steel tube of the Tasco. Its mount was formed of thin sheet metal like Daddy used for his radio chassis instead of my scope’s cast aluminum. The SC’s tripod was a super-spindly thing compared to the T’s sturdy wood one. Finally, the Edmund eyepieces, .917” microscope-sized dealies, were even smaller than the .965” Japanese standards of my Tasco.

And yet…and yet. Despite the cardboard, the shaky tripod, and the tiny eyepieces, the Edmund performed better than my Tasco. The planets were sharp and clear compared to what they were in my poor scope, which, as I’ve said before, made Jupiter look like something my Aunt Lulu’s poodle-dog threw up. The Space Conqueror even came with a good finder. Yeah it was in a cardboard tube, but it was a big (as me and my buddies reckoned such things) 31mm. The Space Conqueror’s mount was a little cheap looking, yeah, but it was an equatorial. Its latitude was fixed at 40-degrees, but even at our southerly location, you didn’t have to nudge in both axes as much as you did with my Tasco’s straight alt-az.

Daddy later admitted he almost ordered the Space Conqueror for me, but that its price, while pretty low, $29.95, was still more than that of the Tasco he found in a buddy’s pawnshop. Mostly, however, the Tasco looked better with its metal tube. Looks don’t always count for much when it comes to scopes, we found out. After using my buddy’s Space Conqueror, I immediately focused on Edmund (along with Criterion) as the possible source of More Better Gooder when I could figure out how to make that come my way.

The Edmund 4.25-inch Deluxe Space Conqueror, a.k.a. “Palomar Junior,” was that gooder for me. I won’t say too much about it, since I’ve written about it at length in the past; I will just say it was a revelation. Today (I still have my Pal, natch) its pedestal-mounted GEM seems overly shaky and its finder overly small, but even though it was not the 6-inch the person we bought it from used said it was, it was a dang sight better than anything I’d looked through before with the exception of Spring Hill’s 12-inch monster. It literally blew the doors off the smaller telescopes of my fellow BAS members.

Along with Criterion’s famous RV-6, the Edmund Super Space Conqueror was the subject of my dreams for years. That baby had everything: 6-inches of aperture, a considerably heavier duty GEM than what was on the Pal, and a REAL CLOCK DRIVE. I was torn by indecision: RV-6 or Super Space Conqueror? Luckily, I guess, I was too poor to have to make that painful decision. Today, I will say the RV-6 is somewhat better mechanically, but the Edmund is still a great old warhorse.

I’ve used plenty of 8-inch GEM-Newts from the 1960s, everything from Caves and Optical Craftsmen and Criterions, to rarer beasties like the Coast Instruments Treckerscope. But I have never run across an Edmund 8-inch (which was all Norman ever called it) in the flesh. Maybe there just ain’t many of ‘em out there. I reckon anybody who could afford the enormous price of one, 464 huge dollars (with the clock drive), would usually decide to save a wee bit more so they could have a Cave Model B Deluxe instead. Since I’ve never used one, I can only assume. My assumption is that, like the other Edmunds, the 8-inch was optically fine, but, also like the other scopes, a little shaky, even on Mr. Norman’s top-of-the line mount.

The Big Four Newtonians were not the only amateur-grade telescopes Edmund sold. There were refractors, too, a lovely 3-inch and 4-inch. Strangely, I never paid much attention to ‘em. “Strangely” because I read my drool-soaked Unitron catalog to pieces over the course of The Summer of Love. Maybe because, while attractive, the Edmunds didn’t seem special like the beautiful Unitrons. Their mounts were much the same as those on the Newtonians and so were their fittings. Edmund did not go out of their way to make them attractive in the catalog, either. While the Newts got a page—sometimes two—apiece, the refractors got no more than half-a-page each.

ATM Stuff

After the scopes, we come to the ATM parts, including mirror grinding kits. Once it finally dawned on me that I would not be able to easily accumulate the $200 required to purchase an RV-6 or Super Space Conqueror (I wasn’t afraid of mowing lawns, but I was lucky to have one or two customers a month in a subdivision full of pre-teen baby-boom boys), I turned to the art of ATMing. Oddly, I never bought a single part from Edmund, though they sold everything from eyepiece optics to complete clock-drive-equipped GEMs.

The problem, as it usually was, was M-O-N-E-Y. Edmund’s basic 6-inch mirror kit was $13.95. A. Jaegers, who ran huge two-page ads in every issue of Sky and ‘Scope, sold the same thing for $11.95. That might not seem like much to you, muchachos, but to me it was an entire month of Marvel Comics or, later, enough gas for a trip or two to my girlfriend’s house.

Accessories and Eyepieces

What do you do these days when you want to know when Orion’s gonna be high enough in the sky for you to get a good look at him? You fire up Stellarium or Cartes du Ciel on the computer, or, increasingly, SkySafari or SkyQ on the cotton-picking smart-phone. In the heyday of Edmund Scientific? We pulled out a planisphere.

In the absence of PCs, every working amateur astronomer needed a planisphere, and most of us young and poor amateurs had Norman Edmund’s Star and Satellite Path Finder. It was never clear to li’l Rod how it would help you find a satellite, and I suspected “satellite” was in the name merely to make the planisphere seem SPACE AGE, but it sure worked well, helping me plan innumerable observing runs. Lots of changes have come to Norman’s company over the ensuing 46-years, but the Star and Satellite Pathfinder (now renamed the Star and Planet Finder) is still being produced; I hand ‘em out to my students every semester.

Like the best of Norman’s products, the planisphere didn’t just work, it educated. On its reverse there was a wealth of information, including up-to-date positions for the planets. That’s not all. For your measly 50 cents, you also got a little booklet that’s one of the best explanations of how the sky works I have ever seen. It is filled with wonderful Sam Brown illustrations, and my students love it—mostly because of its cool, retro look, I reckon.

Then there are the Edmund eyepieces. I suppose I ain’t fully qualified to say how good or bad they were, since I—like all my buddies—was only ever able to save up enough to buy the company’s simplest models, the Kellners and Ramsdens (younguns: don’t ask). What can I say about those? They worked, but had all the liabilities of their simple designs, including short eye-relief, small apparent fields, and poor edge-of-field performance. Couple that with uncoated surplus lens elements, and you do not have a recipe for spectacular views, even in the slow focal ratio scopes of the day.

But we didn’t know that. Most of us were used to the even worse eyepieces that came with our cheap Japanese telescopes—horrors like Huygenians—and were amazed at how good Norman’s eyepieces were. Nevertheless, even back then I recognized the .965” ¼-inch (6mm to you younguns) Ramsden I bought for my Tasco as being the worst eyepiece I’d ever used. Today, it still is. Edmund did sell “better” oculars including Orthoscopics and an Erfle, but the company was not known for quality eyepieces till the coming of the much-admired RKEs in the 1970s.

What else did Edmund sell to 1960s amateurs? Just about anything you can think of. Including camera holders. These were not like today’s camera mounts; they were Rube Goldberg things designed to hold a camera in place over an eyepiece. The reason for that was that Edmund’s focusers did not have focus locks or eyepiece setscrews, and inserting a camera into the focuser via a 1.25-inch prime focus adapter would have resulted in either the focuser immediately racking out of focus or the camera falling to the ground or both.

You attached the holder’s base plate to the tube via four screws in four pre-drilled holes in the 4-inch and larger telescopes. A long metal tube was inserted into the base, and at its other end, a bracket with a ¼-20 t.p.i. bolt held the camera. There was enough freedom of movement to allow just about any camera to be centered over the eyepiece. And it actually worked. My initial afocal efforts with my Argus Twin Lens Reflex worked so well (I thought) that I convinced Daddy to try his fancy Single Lens Reflex with its removable lens. That camera, a great big Exacta, brought back nice prime focus and eyepiece projection Moon pictures.

Off-the-wall Stuff

Telescopes. Eyepieces. Mirror kits. All pretty much what you’d expect from any astronomy seller then or now. But Edmund went beyond that. The catalog was packed with outré, if not downright strange, stuff including a complete observatory dome. You had to supply the building to mount it on, but this was, the short blurb told us, a complete 6-foot diameter “no carry” solution for telescope owners. The catalog is short on detail—we were advised to write Edmund for more info—but I assume it was made of fiberglass. Who knows? I’ve never seen one or heard of anyone who bought one. The $595 price, at least $3000 if not as much as $10,000 in 2012 dollars, kept us Edmund Scientific-loving peons from finding out. Didn’t stop me from daydreaming about having one in my backyard with an 8-inch Edmund reflector inside, of course.

The Nova home planetarium ain’t really that off-the-wall; it was actually a wonderful little pinhole planetarium projector. It was the lineal descendent of the original Spitz Junior home planetariums you can read about here. I loved the Spitz one of my teachers lent me so much that I dreamed of ordering one of my own. That old devil money got me again. 30 dollars plus shipping meant this was past “birthday” and into “Christmas” territory, and at that price would have to be my main/only gift. Sigh.

The Spilhaus Space Clock was a trifle strange. In addition to a normal clock, this thing had a complex (analog/mechanical of course) display that would show the positions of the Sun, Moon, and planets; sidereal time; Moonrise times; Moon phases; tides; and one hell of a lot more. It was beautiful, but given its price, $250 (equivalent to about $1500), I suspected it was more a thing some wealthy dilettante would have in his den to show off during cocktail parties than what a working amateur, even an advanced one, would have in an observatory. It is apparently rare and prized by collectors today.

Couldn’t afford the Spilhaus? You could keep up with the doings of the Solar System, or at least the Earth and Moon, in a simpler way for about 30 smackers with the Universal Planetarium Teaching Aid. This was actually not a planetarium but an orrery, a model of the Sun around which the Earth and Moon (on mechanical arms) revolved. I liked the look of it, but found one for the much more attractive price of 4 bucks in kit form from the old toy company, Remco. The Remco Solar System Planetarium, which we talked about last week, was actually better than the expensive Edmund in some ways, I suspect.

Books

Edmund offered a whole line of astronomy books, including seven titles by Sam Brown. When I dared to undertake making a mirror 40+ years ago, Sam was there, leading me through the trials with his All About Telescopes. When my friend Pat decided it was time for him to finally make a mirror just a few years back, my copy of All About was there for him, too, and was just as helpful as ever. You can still order All About Telescopes and one of Sam’s other goodies, How to Use Your Telescope from the latter day Edmunds (“Scientifics”), and I think you should, muchachos.

Fun Stuff

‘Course, there was one hell of a lot more to the Edmund catalog than “just” astronomy. There was everything from their famous chipped lens kits, which would allow you to build things like (single lens objective) telescopes and microscopes for almost nothing, to black lights, to little envelopes of Trinitite (the green glass formed by the fireball of the first atomic test), to my fave, The Science Treasure Chest.

This had a bit of everything: polarizing lenses, diffraction gratings, one way mirrors, prisms, you-name-it. Mama thought I was absolutely bonkers when I spent my five bucks of birthday money on one instead of on a slot car, but for once I proved her wrong. The elements of the Treasure Chest (that was exactly what it was) were the makings of a couple of science fair entries, including one that did right well, a diffraction grating spectroscope I built.

Unk remained an Edmund fan for over a decade, but began to lose track of the company as the 70s wound down. What happened between me and Mr. Norman? I changed some, setting my sights on the higher priced spread, like Cave and Celestron, but the main reason I lost touch with the company was that Edmund changed. After a short interlude where they continued selling their original telescopes in slightly modified form—the tubes went from beautiful white to garish red and the focal lengths of some were shortened—Edmund Scientific relinquished their leadership in amateur astronomy. By the time Robert Edmund, Norman’s son and successor at the helm, spun off the consumer part of the company, the Astroscan was all that was left.

I don’t want be too hard on Edmund. The astronomy marketplace was changing, and they, unlike Criterion and Cave and almost all the other old-line companies, at least managed to survive and keep a toe in the amateur astronomy water. The day of big, goofy German mount Newtonians had passed, and it was SCTs and bigdobs and fancy APO refractors for most of us from the 80s on.

Today, Edmund Scientific survives as a pair of companies: the independently owned Scientifics, which sells stuff not much different from what the old Edmund did, and Edmund Optics, the legitimate heir of Edmund Scientific, whose thick catalog appears in my box at the University ever’ once in a while. It’s all industrial optics and stuff for school laboratories, selling for prices nobody else would pay, but it is fascinating nevertheless. Every time I see that catalog with “Edmund” on the cover, I get a warm fuzzy. It’s 46 years ago and young Rod is peering into Mama and Daddy’s mailbox and seeing that little digest of wonder for the first time.

Mr. Edmund? I hadn’t thought about him in a long while, till the other day when I heard he’d passed away. Frankly, I guess I’d assumed he’d been gone for years. Nope, he lived to a ripe old age, a pleasant one I hope. He deserved it. R.I.P Norman Edmund, 1917 – 2012. Even those of us like Unk who didn’t really know you felt like we did. You helped some of us through difficult teen years and set us on the path to a lifetime of wonders.

Y’all can read a very nice article on Mr. Edmund and his company by Roger Sinnott rat cheer:   http://www.skyandtelescope.com/news/home/137951448.html

Next Time: The Herschel Project Night 31

Sunday, March 18, 2012

 

Closer to Home

If you have been following my Herschel Quest, you know I am a galaxy fan. A galaxy hound. A galaxy nut. The Herschel list is, like the NGC, mostly galaxies. Can’t help but be—there are more of ‘em out there than anything else except stars. But just because I spend most of my time with distant island universes, that don’t mean I’ve always been fixated on ‘em. I went through a period when it was globular star clusters all the way. Same thing with planetary nebulae. Hell, I even had a short infatuation with open clusters. But back when I was a sprout my focus was Sol’s backyard.

When Unk was a little feller interested in space back in the 1960s, “space” meant the Moon and planets. There were those fascinating pictures of galaxies and nebulae in the pages of the book Mama got for me from the old Science Service, Universe, but that was just a footnote. Like almost everybody else, li’l Rod was obsessed with the idea of exploring the Solar System. The Moon first, then Mars. Maybe Venus, too.

As I’ve mentioned before, Atlantic Mills wasn’t any kind of mill. It was our neighborhood Wal-Mart before there was a Wal-Mart. A discount department store that undercut the other discount stores. Yeah, the stuff in there was cheap because it was cheaply made, but for us poor mice that was a good thing. Mama was able to adequately clothe me and my brother in times when she couldn’t afford Penny’s or W.T. Grant’s.

What I liked about “Atlantic,” as we called it, was that it had an awesome toy department. Not only was it large, its wonders were priced low enough that even penniless Unk could come away with something every once in a while. Seventy-seven cents would get you a box full of spacemen or army men from the old Multiple Toy Company. Usually, Multiple’s stuff was generic, but occasionally they’d license something cool. Oh, how pleased was li’l Rod to get a Fireball XL-5 set from ‘em complete with a figure of his uber-crush, Doctor Venus

One blistering Gulf Coast summer afternoon in July of 1963 I was inventorying the shelves at Atlantic Mills. I was flush, folks, flush. A birthday card from my Aunt Lulu had included—get this—a crisp five-dollar bill. That was wonderful, but also horrible. How would I allocate all that dough? Thankfully, there were not as many Marvel Comics to buy each month as there would be by the end of the decade: FF, X-Men, Avengers, Tales to Astonish, a couple of others. A single dollar would cover the titles I read and leave room for a candy bar, albeit one of the 5-cent jobs like a Zero, a Milkshake, or a Butternut. Might even squeeze-in an Icee. That still left four big dollars to spend on something (I was not big on saving).

Had to be careful. A moment’s indiscretion could lead to months of regret. Like the time I spent substantial cash on a dadgum Magic 8-ball, which held my interest for all of two minutes. “Ask again later,” SHEESH! There were some big Multiple playsets—mostly western and army—but nothing that caught my eye. No outerspace this time. How about a science kit?

This was the time when our parents and our leaders were in a tizzy over the Soviet space triumphs, which were still coming thick and fast in the wake of Sputnik. We kids, the adults concluded, were woefully ignorant of science, and that had to change. The toy makers noticed this latest manifestation of Cold War nerves, especially a long-gone outfit called Remco.

Little Unk doted on the science kits they and other makers began to sell. Little boxes, or, in the case of Remco, cardboard cans, full of stuff that would allow you to conduct some rather sophisticated experiments. You could make everything from rocket engines (well, balloon-powered rocket engines) to batteries and voltmeters (which worked amazingly well). I’d long had my eye on one of the more expensive kits, a cloud chamber from one of Remco’s competitors that came with real radioactive material. Luckily, perhaps, Santa never got around to bringing the often careless little Unk that one. I loved the batteries and electromagnets and motors, but I was always put out there was never anything about space. Till that Saturday afternoon in Atlantic Mills.


I was about to give up with a sad “Cain’t find nothing, Mama,” when I decided to check the science kits to see if there was anything new. Deed there was: a larger than normal can from Remco marked “Solar System Planetarium.” What the—Solar System? Planetarium?

I took a close look. I must have seen something similar in the past, I reckon, because what it was was immediately clear to ten-year-old me. It was a model of the Sun and Earth and Moon, an orrery. Maybe I’d seen one at school, where there was now a little extra money for such luxuries, or maybe on Captain Kangaroo or Mr. Wizard. I snatched it up: FOUR DOLLARS? I had EXACTLY four dollars! Couldn’t be just coincidence. This must be IT.

At home, parts laid-out, I determined what was what. There was a big yellow plastic Sun that actually lit up by means of a little flashlight bulb protruding from its equator. There was a globe of the Earth—a tiny metal globe imprinted in full color with the countries of the world like the globe pencil sharpeners I got in Woolworths and Kress—and a correctly sized Moon on a little wire that would allow it to orbit around the Earth. Earth itself was mounted on large plastic arm.

The idea was that you’d move the arm and the earth would orbit the Sun, rotate, and the Moon would go around the earth at the appropriate speed. Turn on the Sun, and you would see a day and night terminator on the Earth and phases on the Moon!

I was nearing completion of the kit—which thankfully was snap and screw together, none of that dratted model airplane glue—when I ran aground. The Earth-Moon system was powered by a little ball (beaded) chain like on a pair of dogtags. That went around a gear in the base, through the arm, to a gear beneath the Earth. The chain was not in the package. I looked high and low on the table, in the cardboard can, and on the floor. What should I do? Just use it like it was, turning the Moon/Earth by hand? I’d see what Daddy thought.

For some reason, I found the idea of returning something to a store weird and scary. Not the O.M. He was of the opinion that all merchants were potentially out to “clip” him/us, and wasn’t shy about demanding justice. Off we went to Atlantic. Seeing the line at Customer Service was a mile long, Daddy motioned for me to follow and headed to the toy department in the back of the store. To my shock, he went straight to the shelf of Remco Planetariums, opened one up, and fished a chain out. I expected we’d be arrested at any moment. Daddy said he’d mention his “exchange” at the Customer Service counter on the way out. Me, I just wanted to take it on the lam.

Back home, I got the chain installed and filled the base as instructed with sand (red clay, actually, from the ditch across the street in front of the house). Installed the battery for the Sun. Gave the arm an experimental push. By god, it actually worked. From bitter experience, I knew mechanical toys like this one rarely operated the way they were supposed to, and if they did they rarely worked for long. The Remco Solar System was different; it worked flawlessly from day one.

It just tickled me. All summer long I’d take my planetarium (which was all I ever called it) into the bathroom, the only room in our house with no windows, cut off the light, and enjoy the terminator crawling across my little earth as it rotated on its metal axis and the pretty Moon sailed around it waxing and waning. Heck, I could even see Luna’s shadow creating Solar eclipses on my little Earth. Till Mama’s angry pounding on the door finally ran me out with “You have exactly two seconds to get yourself out of there, mister!” I kept that wonderful toy for years and years, well into high school, at least as a decoration on my dresser.

There are a couple of mysteries surrounding my beautiful planetarium. One is that in the pictures I’ve found on the Internet there appears to be a little star chart/planisphere mounted on Earth’s axis. I don’t remember that. Was it missing from my kit like the chain? Maybe, but I don’t remember it in the instructions, either. Course, it has been, hard as it is for me to believe, dang near half a century since the first time I moved the earth just so, till the Moon’s phase was just like it was RIGHT NOW.

The bigger mystery? What happened to my beloved planetarium? It was a toy, but I doubt I’d have thrown it away in my teen years—it didn’t look like a toy, it looked freaking cool. Alas, it’s an inhabitant of the phantom zone a lot of my favorite boyhood things disappeared into between my senior year of high school and my senior year of college.

I’d love to buy another Remco Solar System Planetarium, but its relatively high price for the time and unusual nature have, I reckon, conspired to make it rare. I’ve seen exactly two (one of which was incomplete) examples on the cotton-picking eBay. The planetarium did its work while I had it, though. By the time I got my first telescope I’d learned a little about how the Solar System works, and was eager to visit the planets. Both those things are in large part due to me discovering Patrick Moore’s books, but the little orrery did its part, too. Did it ever.

With me it’s always been the Moon first when it comes to the Solar System. Maybe because my first major astronomical influence was Sir Patrick Moore, Mr. Moon himself. It was just such a trip to look at Luna with my Tasco, glance down at the Moon map in one of Sir Patrick’s books, and realize I could not only see but identify the craters and seas. They weren’t just pictures in a book anymore, but—omigosh—real places.

Not only did I look at the Moon’s countless features; I resolved to draw them. At least 100 of 'em as my hero, Mr. Moore, suggested you should do if you really wanted to learn the Moon. I got off to a slightly shaky start, as you can see from the (recently rediscovered) single surviving page from my first logbook. But I got better and soon kicked it up a notch to a goal of 300 drawings: every crater, sea, and mountain shown on the beautiful old lunar map in Norton’s Star Atlas. Not only did my artistic skills improve, Patrick, as you’d expect, was right. By the time I was done, I knew Selene like the back o’ me hand.

Sir Patrick always did his best to scare us out of observing the Sun. He had reason to do that back when every Japanese telescope, including my 3-inch Tasco, came with an unsafe eyepiece solar filter. Given the small apertures of our scopes, a quick peek was not too dangerous—I got one in before Daddy relieved me of my Sun filter for good. But even when used with a small scope an eyepiece filter would have cracked eventually, maybe disastrously. No matter what Sir Patrick and Daddy said, however, I still wanted to see the Sun close up. I’d read somewhere that the Solar System is “the Sun and leftovers,” and that fascinated me.

Solar projection was clearly not dangerous, as Daddy and even Patrick (grudgingly) agreed. My Edmund Camera Holder came with a Sun projection screen, and I just enjoyed the heck out of watching complex clusters of spots cross the Sun in the years around the Solar maximum of 1969. I was careful, using the shadow of the scope to aim at the Sun, and the only disaster I ever had was the time I left Mr. Sun in the field a little too long as I was projecting him on the carport ceiling in 3-foot glory.

The Canada balsam (glue) that held two elements of my 1-inch (25mm) Edmund eyepiece together was baked into something about as transparent as ground glass by the heat of the Sun. I easily separated the elements, cleaned them off, put them back together without any glue, and kept on trucking. I didn’t notice any difference in the eyepiece afterwards, and even if I had, I thought it would have been worth it to keep up with sunspots in such spectacular fashion. I still remember how awesome that huge Sun was.

The first time I saw Mercury was during its great conjunction with Venus in July of 1965, not long after I got my first scope. I was amazed I was able to see the littlest planet, since many of my books had said “Mercury is small and hard to see in the twilight.” Rubbish. When Mercury is at his best he stands out like a sore thumb, a brilliant yellow topaz in the sunrise or sunset. Not that there was or is much of anything to see other than miniature Moon phases, but I knew that going in and wasn’t disappointed.

What I should see of Venus was more ambiguous. The true nature of the planet was still unclear in the early 1960s, at least to us benighted laymen. Prehistoric swamp? Water world? Bright as Venus was, it was no wonder it was the first planet I visited. That brilliant thing shining in the west just had to be good.

What did I see? Phases. That was all. Where were those “vague cloud features” the books prattled on about? Ironically, the only detail I’ve ever seen visually on Venus has been what my books said was much harder, the Ashen Light, but that didn’t come till over twenty-five years after my first look at mysterious but disappointing Aphrodite. Even now, when she’s at her height, casting shadows on the landscape, I can’t help but think she ought to be better than she is.

I was always excited about Mars as a place, but it took a long time for me to get excited about Mars in the eyepiece. Couple my small instruments with too-low magnifications (I’d been convinced high power was somehow evil), and I was lucky to see a vague surface smudge and a polar cap at opposition. The planet eventually gave up his mysteries to me, but it was years before that happened. The only thing I really liked about Mars in those days was the way it impressed my non-amateur friends and even their parents: “You’ve really seen MARS with your telescope?!

I always saw detail on Jupiter, but maybe not as much as I thought I should see. Yeah, the equatorial bands were there, and I could occasionally catch something I thought might be the Great Red Spot, but the ecstatic descriptions of Jove’s "welter of detail" in Sky and Telescope hinted I was missing out. Nothing much changed till I got a six-inch scope, learned to use higher magnication—200x is where you start with Jupe—and learned that the more you look, the more you see. When I was a youngun, I thought it was enough to take a two minute glimpse at The King. Uh-uh, no-sir buddy. If you want to see them loops and whorls and festoons, you devote at least half an hour to him. And you do that a lot.

In 1966, the year I got my Palomar Junior, Saturn’s rings were edge-on and didn’t look like much. Didn’t matter. The Ringed One was so sharp and clear in new baby that I came back to him night after night. That said, I wasn’t blown off my feet by the planet till first light night with my home made six-inch Newt a couple of years hence. The rings were on their way to good and open by then, and the sight of them with the aid of a mirror I’d made myself (well, with a little help) just killed me.

I longed to see Uranus, mostly because it was the subject of one of my favo-right sci-fi movies, Journey to the Seventh Planet, but I was reluctant to try and track it down. Not because it was that hard to find, even for a mucho wet-behind-the-ears novice, but because I was pretty sure I’d be disappointed by the appearance of the far away gas-giant in my small scope. I was right. There wasn’t much to be seen of Uranus when Voyager zoomed by at close range years later, so you can imagine what the green giant was like in a 4.25-inch Edmund. The titan was a tiny dot not much bigger than the period at the end of this sentence.

I tracked down Neptune a few years after I deigned to hunt-up Uranus. If Uranus was not much bigger than that period, Neptune didn’t look any bigger at all. I wasn’t troubled, though. I knew how far away this sister world of Uranus was, and was as pleased as punch to be able to resolve him at all. I had just read Piers Anthony’s Macroscope, where our heroes turn Neptune into an interstellar starship (yep), and all I could think was “THIS IS SO COOL!”

I am not sure I ever saw Pluto back in The Day, though I looked for him once in a while. Miss Dorothy and I visited the little frozen Popsicle of a dwarf planet (or whatever you call it) one year at the Texas Star Party. In the past, clouds had intervened or my interest had waned before I could determine that the suspect dim dot had moved against the background of stars a day or two later. By the 90s, I had Megastar; you could crank that up to show scads of dim “reference” stars in an eyepiece field-sized area. With the aid of that super software it took only a few hours to be sure the pin-prick really was mysterious Pluto.

There was more to the Solar System for the young Rodster than just The Nine, the Moon, and Big Daddy Sun. Starting in 1965 with Ikeya-Seki I began to tick off comets. One night I spotted the bright asteroid Vesta and tracked her progress for a while. I found (artificial) satellite watching an extremely interesting sideline. Fact is, the Sun’s neighborhood has enough wonders to make it the study of a lifetime for a professional or an amateur.

I knew and know that, but Unk felt the call of The Great Out There from day one, and as soon as I had the tools I needed, I set sail for the starry depths. Not that I haven’t turned back to the Sun’s kingdom once in a while. Like a lot of y’all, I was nuts for Mars in 2003 and got caught up in the whole big planetary webcamming thing for a couple of years. I still keep my hand in a little bit, even in this day when I’m usually using a Mallincam Xtreme to bring back ferociously dim LEDA galaxies and their kin.


Some weeknights, despite being wrung out from work, I want to see something. And that something is almost always “just” the Moon or Jupe or Saturn or Mars. On slow afternoons when ol’ Sol is feeling frisky, I’ll slap a full aperture Solar filter on Eloise, my 80mm f/11 achromat, and have a look-see. I always have serious fun even if I’m not very serious about the Sun and his family anymore.

Yeah, my Solar System observing is even more casual even than it was when I was a tenderfoot. I don’t sketch the Moon and planets. I’ve given up on color filters. I let my subscription to The Strolling Astronomer lapse (I really oughta do something about that). I just look and enjoy and remember—mostly the planetary glory days of the sixties.

I don’t think I’ll ever be serious about the planets again, but you never do know. Last time I was out at the dark site with my bigdob (for me), Old Betsy, I had the hots for galaxies. But my scope was drawn to Jupiter as if by a magnet. He kept the Herschels waiting for at least a half hour, and it was a good half-hour, muchachos.

The Passing of a Giant:  Tom Johnson, the founder of Celestron and the father of the modern, mass-produced SCT left us the other day, on March 13th. Tom had a long and productive life, but I am still shocked. Some people should be around forever, and Tom was one of 'em. I won't say more right now--honestly, it is not hyperbole to say I am "choked up." I'll have more on Mr. Tom some Sunday soon, but till then, please read this.

Next Time: Me and Mr. Edmund…

Sunday, March 11, 2012

 

Nebulosity


I’m a stick in the mud when it comes to astronomy software, muchachos. When I find something I like, I stick with it. Most of the time. Sometimes I can’t. I had to stop using the programs I’d cut my CCD teeth on, SBIG’s CCDops and Software Bisque’s CCDsoft. Both are still good, if looking a little long in the tooth and rarely updated, and you could do way worse for imaging and guiding. My problem was they would not work with my new camera.

Some years ago, Unk decided it was time to get on the Digital Single Lens Reflex (DSLR) bandwagon. I loved my CCD camera, a black and white ST2000 from SBIG. It produced and still produces amazing astrophotos. However, it’s a fair amount of work to get images out of it. To get color images from this monochrome camera, for example, I’d have to resort to the dread tri-color imaging. That means exposing three shots through three filters to create a final color image. That is not the sort of thing astrophotography bumbler Unk is likely to have much success with. I like black and white, but I was hungry for color.

What to do? I thought about one of SBIG’s or somebody else’s one-shot color cameras, but the fates presented me another possibility. At the time, I was finishing my book, Choosing and Using a New CAT. Specifically, I was doing the (terrestrial) photography for it. In the interest of quality, I decided it was time to join the DSLR ranks and purchased a Canon 400D, a.k.a. “Rebel XTi.” Why a Canon? I figgered if I were gonna get a DSLR, I might as well get one I could use for celestial as well as terrestrial picture taking. Every DSLR astrophotographer I spoke to and everything I read on the subject pointed me toward Canon.

The Rebel turned out to be an excellent terrestrial camera; the images I shot for the book came out great. Yeah, the printer managed to make the photos I turned-in look slightly ugly, but that is a story for another time and I was proud of what I submitted. Finishing up Choosing and Using, I realized I was short a couple of deep sky astrophotos. Why not shoot them in color with the new Canon? What would I need to do that?

Quite a lot of new astro-stuff, it seemed. Well, throw me in the briar patch, B’rer Fox. First thing I’d need was a better mount. I wanted to shoot with my C8, Celeste, and the CG5 she normally rode on wasn’t quite up to the task. After quite a lot of hemming and hawing, which you can read about here, I settled on Synta’s EQ-6 in the form of the Orion-badged Atlas EQ-G.

What else? I had the f/6.3 focal reducer I’d used for years. While the Rebel’s chip was larger than that of the ST2000, I didn’t foresee a problem there. The Celestron f/6.3 reducer – corrector worked well for my 35mm astrophotography back in the day, and the APS sensor in the Rebel was a little smaller than a frame of 35 film. I also had the prime focus adapter I needed to hook camera to scope; all I had to buy was a Canon EOS style T-adapter. And I had a 66mm refractor and a Meade DSI to use for autoguiding. All I was missing was camera control software for the Rebel.

Actually, I could have done without that. All I’d require to enable the XTi to take long exposures would be a simple and relatively inexpensive remote shutter release, a little wired remote. I wouldn’t necessarily need a PC in the field for autoguiding, either. I could use a “standalone” guider that didn’t require a computer. But I didn’t have one, and that option would have meant yet mo’ money. All things considered, I decided I would run the DSLR from a computer, just like a “real” CCD camera.

There was a good reason for choosing that path above and beyond your stingy Unk not wanting to buy a new guide camera: focusing. I spent a lot of years guessing at focus through the dim viewfinders of film SLRs, and did not have a yen to go back to that with a DSLR, whose viewfinders are, if anything, dimmer than the one on my old Pentax K1000, or even my Nikon FM2. Since I purchased my DSLR before “live view” came to Canon DSLRs, I would need a computer program running on a laptop to allow me to focus without squinting through that dadgum peephole. The question then became “which program?”

Even at the dawn of DSLR astrophotography, there were programs available to operate a Canon camera with a computer. This penny-pinching old boy eliminated MaxDSLR (from the Maxim DL folks) in a right quick hurry. It was and is a fine program but had capabilities I didn’t need for a price I didn’t want to pay. Likewise, I struck Astroart of the list. It was good, but was aimed more at “real” CCD cameras, I thought. There were a couple of brand new ones I considered, Images Plus and Starry Night Astrophoto Suite, but I didn’t know pea turkey about either one. I was stumped.

Until one of my few remaining brain cells fired: “Hey! Don’t the guy who makes PHD Guiding, Craig Stark, have a program to run a DSLR?” Mr. Stark sure did. His Nebulosity ‘peared to be just what the doctor ordered, featuring camera control for Canon DSLRs and a focus routine that was reputed to take the agony out of getting pictures sharp. Best of all, Craig sold the program for just a wee bit more than 50 bucks, which is dang sure Unk’s speed
I downloaded a copy and paid the license fee right off the bat. I’d been using PHD to guide the SBIG for a while. I’d got tired of the off-axis-guider-like self guiding system on the 2000. It was a pain in the rear to find a good guide star. PHD worked incredibly well from the get-go and I couldn’t imagine Nebulosity would be anything but top drawer, too.

I still needed one more accessory, a remote shutter cable. The DSLRs of a couple of generations back like my XTi required a “shutter interface cable” to allow Nebulosity (or any other program) to control the camera. I got mine from Shoestring Astronomy, but you won’t need one today. Current Canons allow shutter control through the same USB cable that sends images to the computer.

While waiting for my cable to arrive, I played with Neb a bit, and, naturally, studied up on its features. It had a lot back then, but has come a long ways in the years since I first tried it. The feature-set below is for the current release, Nebulosity 2.5:

• Canon owners have flocked to Nebulosity, but it accommodates a wide variety of other cameras, including those from SBIG and FLI, Meade’s DSI series, and the Orion StarShoots. The full range of Canon bodies is supported: Canon DIGIC II/III/4 (1000D/Rebel XS, 500D/T1i, 550D/T2i, 450D/Rebel XSi, 400D/Digital Rebel XTi, 350D/Digital Rebel XT, 60D, 50D, 40D, 30D, 20D/20Da, 7D, 5D Mark II, 5D, 1D Mark IV, 1D Mark III, 1D Mark II N, 1D Mark II, 1Ds Mark III and 1Ds Mark II) .

• Comes in a Macintosh (OSX) flavor.

• Full suite of image processing tools including Digital Development Processing, alignment/stacking, Bad Pixel Mapping, star tightening via edge detection, Canon CR2/CRW RAW Bayer matrix loading, and 32/96-bit accuracy. That is just the beginning. Craig says one of his goals was to keep Nebulosity small and manageable and not duplicate the tools found in Photoshop, but those of us who, like Unk, don’t aspire to being the next Bob Gendler, can get along just fine with just Nebulosity.

• An interface designed to be easy to use in the field. Including by your Uncle Rod at 3 a.m.

• Frame and focus system with a Fine Focus mode. This alone is worth the price of Neb, if’n you axe me.

• If your camera supports Live View mode, Nebulosity will allow you to use that for framing and focusing, displaying the Live View image on the computer.

• Interfaces with PHD Guiding. That allows you to do things like dithering the location of images—in other words, stuff Unk would never do but which you might.

• Full control of image capture. Tell Nebulosity how long an exposure should be and how many exposures (subframes) to take, and it captures the sequence and saves it to your hard drive (as FITs files) without further user intervention.

That’s just the tip of the iceberg. The program’s complete list of features can be found in the program’s documentation, which is available as an Adobe .pdf file rat cheer.

Soon, it was time to get out in the field and find out what Nebulosity could do. My very first run with the program down at the Chiefland Astronomy Village is documented here. And you can read about my guiding system here. What we are interested this time out, howsomeever, is getting Nebulosity and your camera, which I will assume is a Canon DSLR, cranking.

First step is hooking it all up. Whether you are using a new camera or an older one, you’ll have to provide a path for images to reach the computer. What I use and have used is the camera’s USB download cable and a USB extension cord. You can get cable extenders in most computer stores, or even at the cotton pickin’ Wally-World, but remember: you don’t want to go over about 15-feet. If you simply must go longer, you’ll need a USB “booster” cable. Anyhoo, plug one end into the camera and the other into the computer.

“Which computer, Unk? How much horsepower do I need?” Not that much. If’n you are gonna use Nebulosity for processing you don’t want to skimp on RAM (2 gig is enough most of the time), but this program is not overly demanding of the processor. It runs just fine on my netbook with its somewhat speed-challenged CPU.

If you are using an older Canon, you will, as above, need a shutter interface cable. That goes from the remote (mini-plug) socket on the Canon to a USB port on the computer. Oh, if you run the camera off’n an external power cable, don’t forget to plug that in—Unk uses the more convenient battery, which is usually sufficient. I keep a spare on hand and am not known for doing four hour exposure sequences.

Ok, here we go... Set the exposure dial on the camera to “M,” turn it on, and wait for the Canon software window to appear, the one that asks if you want to download pictures, yadda-yadda-yadda, and dismiss it. In my experience, lighting off Neb before that is done can cause problems. If the consarned window doesn’t appear on your screen, don’t worry about it. Then, start Nebulosity by double-clicking its icon. When it comes up, you’ll see the display shown at left. If this is the first time you’ve used the program, you will, natch, need to set up a few preferences, which you do by pulling down the Edit menu and clicking, yep, “Preferences.”

The most important Preference is setting up the DSLR’s long exposure interface. Don’t do it and you’ll be like Unk the first time out with Neb: stumped and put out that he couldn’t make his Rebel go for longer than 30-seconds. If you are using an older camera and the Shoestring cable, select Shoestring DSUSB (or the newer DSUSB 2), for a current Canon, you’ll pick DIGIC III onboard.

The remaining options can be left as is for now. One exception might be “show crosshairs in Frame and Focus mode.” Having crosshairs on the image screen make it easy to get the target properly positioned and can be a big help in aligning a go-to rig if you have the camera on the scope during alignment.

It’s now time to select and set up the camera. Choose the model of your rig in the Camera Control section on the main display via the pull-down menu. You’ll also want to set its ISO (sensitivity) with the Gain control. Since I generally like to go for shorter integrations, I set my Rebel to ISO 1600, which is still relatively low in noise.

What then? Honest to god, y’all, ain’t a whole lot more. Set an exposure of 1 or 2-seconds, enable Frame and Focus by mashing that button, reduce the zoom on the image window till you can see all—or at least most—of the frame, and get your target lined up and roughly focused. How do I focus? I’ve used a Bahtinov mask in the past, but I find that is not necessary with Nebulosity. I rough-focus on the last go-to alignment star, nudging with my JMI Motofocus (a must) till it is as small as I can get it and dimmer field stars have not only begun to appear, but look small, too.

There are actually two rough focus modes. On older cameras like mine without Live View, Neb fires your shutter continuously to update the image. Some folks worry this might wear out a DSLR’s shutter, but they will go so many tens of thousands of firing cycles that that just ain’t a concern. If your camera supports Live View, you can use “video” instead of the normal focus mode, but from what I have heard it is not sensitive enough to make focusing easy on dimmer subjects.

Once you are roughly focused, comes the magic. Press the abort button to stop Frame and Focus, push “Fine Focus,” and Nebulosity will ask you to click on a star. Do that on one on the last frame of the Frame and Focus display, which will still be onscreen. Best is a medium dim/small sparkler. Nebulosity will zoom in on it, and you can begin fine focus.

Tweak-in focus by watching the star’s image, watching a number increase that indicates star brightness, and watching a number decrease on the “half-flux-radius” focus indicator. I generally pay most attention to star size and brightness number. However you do it, you will be amazed. With Craig’s system, it is trivial to obtain exact focus. SCT user, are you? I have never been troubled by focus shift during focusing. I reckon Neb must track the star during the process.

All that remains now is to expose the target. If you’ve focused on an alignment star, you may want/need to adjust framing after you slew to the first fuzzy. If you are on an object that is an excellent focus subject, like a globular star cluster, touch-up Fine Focus if you like.

When you are satisfied with composition and sharpness, set exposure duration. How long that will be depends on the sky, the target, the scope, and the mount. I generally like to go about 2 – 3-minutes, which delivers plenty of data on most objects, but reduces problems from field rotation (I don’t like to drift align) and “fog” due to background sky brightness.

Is your exposure good? Not too underexposed or overexposed? Let’s find out. With autoguiding on and exposure duration set, mash “Preview.” That will take one frame and will show if changes are needed. Before you can get a good idea of what the image looks like, you may need to adjust image zoom and the histogram for the image display.

When Unk saw his first frame of M42 that night down at the CAV, he was appalled: way too dark with bloated stars. The solution was backing off the zoom and adjusting the histogram by moving the W slider to brighten the image. If it had been too light, I could have moved the B slider to the right. That was with an older version of Nebulosity, though. These days, you should get a good image by just leaving the “auto” box for the histogram checked.

How do you know your exposure is about right? It may be obvious by looking at it, or you may need to take a gander at the histogram. If the “spike” of the data on the graph is narrow and far to the left, you are underexposed. If it is abruptly cut off on the right, you are overexposed. How do you fix it? The sliders only control the display, not the data. To change that, you will need to shorten or lengthen your exposure. Keep in mind, too, that overexposure is always a worse thing than underexposure.

The final step before mashing the “go” button is setting up the exposure series via the “# Exposures” control right beneath “Duration.” How many individual exposures (which you will stack into a final image) should Nebulosity take? That depends on the position of the target in the sky, mostly. You want as many “subframes” as possible, but there will be a limit. You don’t want to waste time with the DSO too low in the sky to yield a good image. If you are using a German equatorial mount, you probably won’t be able to continue imaging for long after the target crosses the Local Meridian. I generally aim for at least twenty 2 – 3-minute subframes if possible.

Finally, type-in a name for your series, something like “M27 S1,” for example. Then all you gotta do is ENGAGE, hit the “Capture Series” button, that is. After you do that you can leave everything alone till Neb is done. I like to wander around the cadging looks through my buddies’ scopes. Before doing that, wait for the first exposure to come in so you can be assured guiding and everything else is OK. How long will the series take? It will often take longer than the total of the exposures. If your camera is taking and applying internal dark frames, it will be about twice as long. Anyhoo, it will seem like a long, long time, I guar-ron-tee.

When you are done? Go on to the next target. I generally try to do around three series, whether of three different objects or the same object. Believe you me, the combination of set up and exposing three 20 – 30 subframe sequences will burn up most of an average night.

The subframes are in the can, you’ve packed up and headed home and are warm (or cool) and cozy in your den. What now? I’ll tell you what not to do: do NOT look at the exposures. Save that for the next morning. Until you process ‘em, your subframes will look like something that came out of the wrong end of my Aunt Lulu’s poodle dog. They will look better in the morning, though. Get a good night’s—what’s left of it—sleep and start processing by the light of day.

OK, the sun is shining, the birds are chirping, and you are ready to get ‘er done. Where do you start? Start by stacking the subframes of a series into a single image. You may not want to stack every subframe. In fact, you probably won’t. Use the Image Preview Files button in the File Menu to check the frames of the series. Some may have trailed stars. Some may have an airplane cruising through ‘em. Some may have been shot when the target was a little low. And on and on. Note the frames to leave out.

To begin the stacking process, click Align and Combine Images on the Batch menu. Usually, all defaults can be left as they are. Then, select the images for stacking by clicking, Shift clicking, or Ctrl clicking on them in the file menu that appears. When you mash the “go” button, selected images will be loaded with the first one displayed onscreen. Pick a star that’s not too bright (overexposed and bloated) or dim, and click on it. Nebulosity will put a little circle around it and advance to the next frame. If all was well with scope tracking, the same star will be circled on the next image. If it is (it doesn’t have to be centered in the circle), hold down the ctrl key and click on the star. If it’s not in the circle, click on it to put it there. If you decide you don’t want to use the frame after all, hold down shift and click.

Continue in this fashion until every image has been registered (Neb will keep a running total for you at the bottom: “2 aligned, 15 to go”). When you have clicked through all the subframes, Nebulosity will stack them automatically prompt you for a file name to save the stacked image under. That is it, all stacked, no fuss, no muss. How well does it work? It works very well indeed. It is superior, in my opinion, to both Deep Sky Stacker and Registax (for deep sky images). A stacked image from Nebulosity seems better exposed and smoother.

The first thing Unk does is stack his images, but if you are an advanced worker who does things like add flat field frames and bias frames to each subframe, you will do those things before stacking. If you need more guidance on these pre-processing steps, you can find it in the many documents and tutorials linked from the Stark Labs website or in Nebulosity’s docs.

OK, you’ve stacked the subframes, but the image still doesn’t look like much. Too dark. Too light. If you, like Unk, image from areas where the sky ain’t perfect, the background probably has an ugly brownish cast. In other words, you’ve got plenty more work to do, pardner.

Like I done said, despite Craig’s desire to keep Nebulosity simple and streamlined, it includes many processing tools, some of which may be unfamiliar to you. Wadda you do? The best thing for a Neb newbie to do is to use Mr. Stark’s processing tutorials the first few times out. Doing that will ensure you get decent images and get used to the Nebulosity way of doing things. Read the original document, not just my paraphrase here.

1. Load the stacked image. If you’ve just finished stacking, it will already be onscreen. If not, retrieve it using the filename you gave it (all Neb images will be saved in My Documents/Nebulosity). If you're using the Windows version, that is. If I ain't mentioned it, Neb is available for Macintosh too, and will put your files in a similar place on your rig, I reckon. When the file is onscreen, zoom out until you can see the whole thing.

2. At this time, the picture is probably way too dark. Use the B/W histogram sliders to change it if you wish, but remember they only change the display, not the underlying image data.

3. The stacking process usually leaves an unsightly border around the shot. Use the Crop tool from the Image menu to fix that. When done, save the picture. Actually, “SAVE AS.” Give the image a new name so that if you paint yourself into a corner during processing you can always start back at the original stacked image.

4. If, like Unk’s light polluted images, your pic has a background color that is obviously wrong, now’s the time to fix it. Adjust Color Background (Image menu) will do that. Usually, you can just accept the defaults for the sliders on the window that pops up, but if your background still looks weird, adjust the sliders till it’s right. Save again.

5. Now is the time to get the brightness/contrast of the image, not just its display, correct. Do that by using the B and W sliders on the tool that appears when you click “Levels/Power Stretch.” Observe the histogram display as you manipulate the sliders to ensure the graph is not bunched up on the left or cut off on the right. Mostly, however, just watch the image. When it looks correctly exposed, you are done. Adjusting histogram/levels can be tough for newbies, but Craig’s excellent tutorial will help you get through it. When done, save again.

6. The rest, frankly, is just minor touchups. One of the best of Neb’s touchup tools is the Tighten Star Edges routine. If, when you zoom in, the stars look blurry, call this tool from the Image menu (under Sharpen). Where should you put the slider on the winder that appears? Usually a setting between .5 and 1 works well.

7. After stretching (adjusting levels) the image background may look noisy. Nebulosity can fix that. Pull the Adaptive Median Noise Reduction tool from the good, old Image menu. This will smooth out/soften the background without harming the stars. Use the slider to apply the desired amount of noise reduction without making the stars look soft or blurring the faint details in a nebula or galaxy. As always, save when done.

8. Step 8? Sorry pards, there AIN’T no step 8. Assuming your image data was reasonably good, Nebulosity will hand you a picture that will likely delight you after seven measly steps.

Not that there ain’t more you can do with the “finished” astrophoto. Nebulosity offers some additional tools like Digital Development that you will want to investigate once you’ve got the hang of basic processing operations. You may also want to tweak the image with an external processing program like Adobe Photoshop or Photoshop Essentials or Paintshop Pro. Which I sometimes do.

I especially favor Adobe Photoshop, since many astrophotography “plug in” tools are available for it. A particular help for me, I’ve just discovered, is a plug-in called “Gradient Xterminator.” Do you notice there are parts of your image where the background is brighter than it is in other places? That, if you use a focal reducer, the effect is like looking through a porthole? The center is brighter than the edges? If so, you can take and apply flat field frames or, like lazy old Unk, you can use Xterminator. It is reasonably priced, and really, really works.

“But Unk, I cain’t afford no Photoshop.” Yeah, the full up version of the latest CS is a big pill to swallow, but there are alternatives other than the latest and greatest Photoshop CS when it comes to image processing. Why don’t we talk about that some Sunday soon?

There you have it, Kats and Kittens: the path to image Nirvana with Nebulosity. Yes, there are other DSLR-centric image processing/camera control programs. Some folks favor the relatively new Backyard EOS, for example, and the Nikon troops gravitate to Images Plus. I have no doubt those are fine programs, but Unk has not used them. I have used Nebulosity, and I am here to tell you that it, like PHD Guiding, just WORKS. Not only that: it works without the need to expend lots of dollars and lots of fussing and figuring, which is just fine by me, muchachos.

Stop the Presses!  Unk has just learned the brand-new Nebulosity 3 has just been released. It's a little more expensive than the earlier ones, but 80 bucks is still quite a bargain when it comes to imaging software. Hell, even stingy old me might upgrade given the long list of new features.

Next time: Closer to Home…

Sunday, March 04, 2012

 

My Favorite Star Parties: Mid South Star Gaze 1995


Dang these fricking-fracking clouds, muchachos. I’d hoped to bring you something about observing or imaging this morning, but ‘twas not to be. Clouds. Rain. Tornados. Dang near spoiled the annual chili cookoff in Bienville Square. So…yet another trip down that dadgummed memory lane...

In a recent article, I mentioned that the members of The Possum Swamp Astronomical Society used to get together and attend star parties en masse. We had a lot of fun doing that, starting with the nearby Deep South Regional Star Gaze, and decided we wanted “more.” But where to go?

The Texas Star Party was killer, but, man, what a drive. The Winter Star Party was great, too, but wasn’t exactly a hop, skip and a jump, either. The Mid Atlantic Star Party was one of the more talked about gazes in our part of the country in the 1990s, but it wouldn’t hold its first event till the fall of 1995, and when me and D. and our buddies got itchy for more star party fun, it was not quite the spring of that year.

Then somebody at a PSAS meeting mentioned a new one they’d heard of, the Mid South Star Gaze. How they’d heard about it, I don’t know. In ’95, amateur astronomy was still in the electronic dark ages. The time of Fidonet was passing, and the time of the Internet and sci.astro.amateur was at hand, but just barely. If you heard about a star party, you heard about it from one of your fellow amateurs in non-virtual fashion or you read about it in Sky and Telescope’s or Astronomy’s events section.

Anyhoo, this worthy told the assembled PSASers that this “MSSG” was relatively new—it would be in its third edition in 1995—but seemed to be going strong. It was not as close as the DSRSG, being held about 90 miles north of Jackson, Mississippi in the little town of French Camp, but there were pluses that made up for that. Including a beautiful astronomy facility, Rainwater Observatory, cabins, and a lodge - dining hall. Both observatory and lodge were part of a private religious school, French Camp Academy, and the driving force behind the MSSG and Rainwater was an enthusiastic teacher who’d had a lifelong passion for astronomy, Jim Hill.

We got hold of an address, and me and D. and five others wrote to Mr. Hill for information, which we received in an amazingly short time (no star party registration on the Web in them days, squirts). Looking over the brochure, Dorothy and I saw Mid South 1995 would begin on Wednesday 26 April, and were impressed by the reasonable amount of money that would be involved, especially if we chose “cabins” as our accommodations. We figured the MSSG cabins just couldn’t be much worse than the clean, centrally heated and air-conditioned ones of DSRSG, and exercised that option. We were younger and dumber in them days, I reckon.

Star party crazy then as now, we would have liked to have set out Wednesday, but Miss Dorothy was doing her professor thing back then, teaching in the classroom, and couldn’t get away till Thursday afternoon, fairly late Thursday afternoon. With a six-hour drive ahead of us, it would be dark before we got to French Camp. In 1995 there was no GPS in cars, and when we got off the Interstate, which you had to do to get to French Camp, we’d be faced with navigating Mississippi’s poorly marked state and county roads after dark. Instead, we stopped at a nice, big motel, a multi-story Holiday Inn in Meridian, Mississippi, got supper and drinks at a nearby chain eatery, and had a lovely evening.

We headed out early Friday morning and found French Camp Academy without undue difficulty. We did get turned around once on a narrow and twisting two-laner, but we recovered with aplomb. When we arrived in the tiny town of French Camp, we headed to the lodge building on campus to register, and were impressed both by the beauty of the dining room-cum-small motel facility and the friendliness of the ebullient Jim Hill. The lodge was part of a school complex called “The Camp of the Rising Son.” While French Camp Academy was very much a church-affiliated school, the religion angle wasn’t overbearing in those days. Next stop was our quarters, which were about a mile from FCA’s main campus.

Our cabin was clean enough, I reckon, but drafty did not even begin to describe it. It had screen windows. Large screen windows. No plastic over ‘em. No shutters. The thing was about as weather-proof as that poor little pig’s house of sticks. Didn’t seem too bad with the Sun riding high, but the temps were predicted to fall into the low 30s or below come morning. Rut-roh. At least it was peaceful and isolated—including being isolated from the bathrooms. Not another soul did we see. Our buddies and the other star partiers had obviously decided the town’s bed and breakfast, the Rising Son Lodge, or a tent on the observing field was a better bet. Double rut-roh.

After surveying our cabin, it was time to get down to business at the observing site, Rainwater Observatory, which was about four miles from the campus along the main drag, if you could call it a main drag, Highway 413. Dorothy and I were astounded at what we found there. This wasn’t just an observatory; Mr. Hill had built an observatory complex, including a large warm-room/planetarium building, a dome for an LX-200 12-inch SCT, a roll-off roof observatory for a good old Meade DS-16 Newtonian, and observing pads for a 20-inch Dobsonian and a towering Tectron 32-inch Dobbie hand-crafted by Tom Clark.

The observatory was super, but how about the star party field? Not so much. Oh, it was OK, but had a couple of problems. One being that it was on a semi-slope. Yeah, it’s easy to level a scope or tripod, but it is not overly comfortable to have to observe on non-flat land. Problem two? This area was nominally a cow pasture. It had been temporarily fenced to keep the bovines at bay, but the star party organizers had not been overly scrupulous about removing the herd’s leavings, if’n you know what I mean.

Neither drafty cabin nor messy field could dampen Unk’s enthusiasm. The greatest thing was being able to hang out with a crowd of my fellow amateur astronomers, close to 150 of them by the time the star party was done. The Internet side of amateur astronomy was aborning, but just aborning, and it was a treat for us to talk astronomy outside our little PSAS group’s monthly meetings.

Got my new telescope, my brand new Celestron Ultima C8, set up as quickly as I could mount her and her outsized fork on the wedge, and stood back and admired her for a while. This was first light for the SCT who would eventually become known far and wide as “Celeste.” Well, not exactly first light; I’d tried her out in the backyard, but this was her REAL first light under dark skies.

I loved Celeste so much I was reluctant to leave her on the field by herself when we headed back to the Lodge for supper. I covered her with a plastic garbage bag to keep her dry if the scudding clouds we’d been seeing all afternoon did their worst, and bungee-corded an aluminized space blanket over the garbage bag to keep her cool. This combination can make an almost zero-cost scope cover if you find yourself at a star party without one, and the makings are as close as the nearest Wal-Mart.

How was the food at French Camp? I’ll put it this way: Jim Hill announced at check-in that his goal was that nobody go away mad or hungry. I didn’t see anybody get mad, and I can testify nobody went hungry. The food served in the dining hall Friday evening wasn’t five-star by any means, but it was pretty good, and there dang sure was plenty of spaghetti, garlic bread, and salad.

Toward the end of supper, I noticed lots of head-turning and neck-craning by my fellow diners. I turned around to see what the fuss was about and saw The Star Hustler walk into the dining hall. Yep, the late, great master of midnight astronomy TV programming, Jack Horkheimer, the MSSG’s keynote speaker.

I’m sure it was all every one of us could do to stop ourselves from jumping up from the table and running over to shake Jack’s hand and thank him for the years of enjoyment his PBS program, Star Hustler (later Star Gazer) had given us. Commendably, everybody settled back down and allowed Jack to rest up from his trip from Miami and enjoy his meal.

Supper had been held fairly early so the first speaker of the star party could be squeezed in before observing began. Talks were held in the school’s Tabernacle (chapel), which was equipped with an excellent A/V system, and the first presentation, by Dr. Geritt Verschuur, a rather famous radio astronomer, was a goodie. At the time, he was actually most famous for his research into Near Earth Objects and the possibility of one of ‘em making a too-big bang on our poor planet.

In the years since, most astronomers have come to believe the dangers aren’t quite as dire as we thought at the time, but Dr. Verschuur deserves credit for being one of the folks who helped spread the word about what are very real dangers. His talk was both fascinating and a little scary: “If a one-kilometer object hits, I’m dead, you’re dead, we’re all dead.”

After letting Dr. Verschuur escape our enthusiastic and relentless questioning, it was time for us Mid-Southers to head for the observing field and get ready for the main show, the night sky. By this time, the field was beginning to fill up with amateurs, including five of our fellow PSASers.

Before it was even completely dark, I had Celeste pointed at the Hunter’s M42. As real darkness fell, my reaction went from “Cool!” to “Oh. My. God.” The skies of French Camp, Mississippi were not perfect. It tended to be hazy and humid if not stormy in the spring, but when it was not any of those things, the views were incredible. It was a long way to any real streetlight concentrations, and the sky, at least in the mid-1990s, was dark, muchachos, real dark.

It was so wonderful to be back to cruising the skies with my very own C8. I’ve used a lot of scopes over the years, including many larger ones, but when it comes right down to it I still love and use the Celestron C8 the most.

It’s easy to think of spring as an intermission in the great sky show. The marvels of winter are taking a final bow and the curtain has yet to rise on the summer Milky Way, but spring has its own charms, and not just the hordes of galaxies of Coma-Virgo. Yeah, I sure as hell turned Celeste to M104 and M84 and M86 and M87 and all the other extragalactic treats. Over in Ursa Major, M108 was as good as I have ever seen it in a C8, looking for all the world like a miniature M82. But it wasn’t just galaxies; I also marveled at globulars M3 and M53 and, as the evening was growing old, summer’s herald, M13.

What was the best thing I saw on that dark night? It was a tie, Omega Centauri was in the clear, and looked marvelous both in the C8 and in her finder. In fact, I told Miss Dorothy it looked about as good in the 9x50 as M53 did in the main scope. I will say that despite the darkness of the skies Omega had lost a little snap due to French Camp’s more northerly latitude. Still wonderful, though—of course.

I was having an absolute ball with Celeste, who was certainly proving herself on her first serious run, but I looked through a couple of other telescopes over the course of the evening, too. Including Rainwater’s 20-inch f/6 Dob. In mid-late evening I saw that scope was sitting on its pad deserted. The observers who’d pulled it out and had been using it had drifted away. It wasn’t that late, but it was getting progressively colder and damper. I was still rarin’ to go, and I hated to see a large aperture scope idle on a good night, so naturally I moseyed over that-a-way.

First target was Omega. It really wasn’t any better than it had been in the C8. At f/6, the 20-inch’s field was way too constricted for the Mother of All Globs, and The Big O was lower now. What else could I look at with this big eye? I went to Centaurus A, NGC 5128, which, with Omega near out of sight now, was sinking but still doable if I depressed the Dobbie’s tube in altitude near-about as far as it would go.

Even down on the horizon, the sky background in the 20-inch was pretty dark due both to its longer than average focal length and the dark skies of northern Mississippi. Centaurus A stood out well. Both lobes were visible, and there was considerable detail in the galaxy’s odd dark lane, detail just barely on the verge of perception, swimming in and out of view as the seeing changed.

I was done with the 20-inch, but not quite ready to return to Celeste. I noticed a group of observers around the big 32-inch Tectron, observers with the expression on their faces that spells “What do we look at now?” I suggested we try for the Ring Nebula’s central star. Shortly, we had the big puppy pointed that way, a short focal length eyepiece in the focuser, and I was negotiating the ladder.

It was a trip, as it always is, to see the Ring so big and so bright. How about its infamously difficult central star? I saw it but it was not easy. Far from it. Despite reasonably high magnification, the interior of the donut was still filled with bright haze. The tiny pinprick of a central star would wink into view occasionally, but quickly wink out. I could catch it, but could not hold it. Otherwise, the ring looked as close to a photograph as I have ever seen.

The Ring’s star captured, it was back to the C8 for some early summer marvels on the rise. The darkness of the sky all the way down to the horizon allowed me to get decent looks at objects I’d normally have considered too low to bother with. There was no denying, however, that conditions were not quite what they had been. A veil of haze seemed to be dropping over the formerly crystal heavens, and the seeing was getting noticeably worse.

Time to pull the Big Switch. Which wasn’t so big in them days. Turn off the C8’s clock drive, remove her dew shield, put the aperture cap in place, cover her up, grab the eyepiece box and Sky Atlas 2000, and head for the vee-hickle.

When Miss D. and I made it back to our cabin, several things were immediately evident: over the last hour or so the temperature had fallen rather precipitously, the interior of the cabin was like an icebox, the army surplus blankets we brought with us seemed laughably thin, and the bathrooms that were mere yards away in the daytime now seemed miles from the cabin. It was also a little spooky. Nobody else around. And suddenly I heard footsteps walking ‘round and ‘round the cabin.

Playing Sir Galahad for my new wife, I grabbed a big flashlight and headed outside, “WHO’S THERE?!” My light did not reveal Jason Voorhees, but an albino possum the size of a bushel basket. He looked awful put out that his tour of the area had been interrupted by my foolishness.

After that, things settled down until the wee-est hours of the a.m. I was awake and I was real cold, “Honey, are you awake?”

“Sure am,” said Miss Dorothy, “I’m afraid if I fall asleep I’ll freeze to death.”

“What say we jump in the car and find a motel RIGHT NOW?”

Which is just what we did. We gathered our suitcases, tossed ‘em in the Toyota, and headed down the Natchez Trace to the nearest large(r) town, Kosciusko. That was about twenty miles away, but we didn’t mind a bit. With the heater blasting in the Camry, it was heaven.

I was so cold and tired that I didn’t even notice the chain of the motel we pulled into. Probably a Best Western. The clerk seemed surprised but happy to get some business at 4:45 in the freaking morning. Me and D. fell into bed and slept until the sun was well up. We’ve stayed in chickie-style cabins at star parties since, but it was a long time after MSSG ’95 before we did so again.

Somehow we managed to make it back to French Camp by noon Saturday, and were glad we did. Lunch was enormous sandwiches on home-made bread served at the facility’s “Council House Café,” which was an ancient and historic log cabin situated on a corner of a pretty field. While waiting in line for our sandwiches, we struck up a conversation with Jack Horkheimer, who was a nice guy, if not quite as outgoing as his Star Hustler character suggested. Seating at the tables outside the Café was limited, so our little PSAS group gathered up our food and turned lunch into a picnic at a shady and cool spot down by the Academy’s lake.

After a couple of interesting talks, including one by NASA’s Jim McMurtray on the (recently and finally) fully operational Hubble Space Telescope, it was time for MORE eats. Supper that evening had a thrown together, catch-as-catch-can feel; instead of food prepared onsite, Saturday’s big meal consisted of catfish served by and in support of the local volunteer fire department. Was it the tastiest catfish I’ve ever eaten? Nope, but it was pretty good compared to some of the star party fare I’ve consumed over the last thirty-five years.

The big happening this evening was Jack Horkheimer, and we were eager to be entertained by the famous Star Hustler. You know, “GREETINGS, GREETINGS FELLOW STAR GAZERS!” But that was not the person onstage; that was Jack Horkheimer, who spoke to us on “The Comet that Killed Cleopatra,” which presentation touched on comets, ancient Egypt, and the coinage of ancient Egypt.

How was it? Oh, it was good enough. As good as most of the presentations you hear at star parties year in and year out. Alas, we had expected the electrifying Star Hustler of the PBS show. Jack also went on a little long, continuing to talk till after nine o’clock. That was OK at first. There’d been a few scudding clouds in the morning, more at noon, and near full overcast at sunset. But as Mr. Horkheimer continued on his merry way, Jim Hill quietly announced, “I’m serious; I can see Sirius.”

I liked Jack’s presentation fine, but I’d come to Rainwater to learn about and view the sky and not to hear about Egyptian coins. Me, Miss D., and a few others tried to discretely move toward the lobby as Jack finally turned to the task of winding down his epic lecture. Outside, I could see stars. We jumped in the Camry and headed for the field.

We got in an hour or so of observing Saturday night, but it was mostly sucker-hole city. When it became clear we wouldn’t be seeing much more, we packed Celeste in her case and loaded her in the car. We had a substantial drive ahead of us the next morning and wanted to leave straight from the motel. In other words, it was barely 11 p.m. when we threw in the towel on our first Mid South adventure.

Despite, or maybe because of travails like that refrigerator of a cabin—that dang sure made it a memorable expedition—we’d had a great time. Jim Hill did a fantastic job with his star party, and we were to return to Mid South the following year. The story of which I may tell y’all some Sunday. After that, we never did make it back to Rainwater Observatory. Work schedules, the tendency for the French Camp weather to be stormy in the spring, and the coming of the Chiefland Spring Picnic deterred us from going back post 1996.

Sure is nice country up around Rainwater Observatory, though. Haven’t I ever wanted to give MSSG another try? The idea has crossed my mind a time or three, but given what I’ve heard about the star party lately, the answer is a flat-out N-O.

Things, I’ve been told, had not been rosy up at Rainwater for the last several years. French Camp Academy’s penchant for fundamentalist religion apparently came into conflict with the school’s science curriculum, and especially with the astronomy program and its creator, Jim Hill. The result, I was sad to read in an email from him, was that Jim was abruptly terminated last year after twenty-six years of service to his school and community.

It seems there will be a Mid South Star Gaze in 2012; there’s a website for it (which doesn’t even mention its Founder), anyhow. The current direction is pretty clear to me. In addition to Rainwater Observatory being prominently referred to as a “ministry,” on its web page, the MSSG registration form states in big letters that “Rainwater Observatory and the Camp of the Rising Son do not allow drugs, alcohol, or smoking on campus or in its buildings.”

Which is fine. They should run their event exactly the way they want to. Some folks will like it, some won’t. The rules are not what bothers me, anyway. It’s the dismissal of the man who was the heart and soul of the place that has stuck in my craw. MSSG can go on, and good luck to it, but it can dern sure go on without me, muchachos.

Next Time: Nebulosity

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