Sunday, September 01, 2013


Unk’s Bag of Tricks

As I write, it’s still cloudy, muchachos, and there’s a full Moon in the sky. Even so, as I mentioned not long back, I’m finding plenty to say on our Sunday mornings. Not that I don’t long for the fall star party season, or at least a break in the clouds. That will come—I hope—but while we are waiting, we can talk about Unk’s bag o’ tricks.

You can’t do anything for years and years without developing techniques that help you in your pursuit. That is dern sure true in amateur astronomy. The shame is that we don’t talk about these things much with the newbies. Maybe because most of our little tricks seem simple and obvious. Maybe, but in your novice days most of these “hints and kinks” wouldn’t have seemed simple and obvious at all.

What follows are observing tips, tricks, and gadgets distilled from the last seven years of The Little Old Blog from Possum Swamp. This is for sure not all-inclusive, but these are the ones I have found most useful…


Averted vision. Most newbies learn this technique early on, but some don’t. As above, it seems so obvious to us vets that we don’t say much about it beyond the occasional semi-lame joke about “averted imagination.” Averted vision is simple. To see the dimmest objects or the dim features in any object, look away from the target; look slightly off to the side instead of directly at it. That helps because the eye’s dim light sensors are on the periphery of the retina, not in the center. If you have not tried averted vision, you will be astounded at how powerful this technique can be.

Jiggle-Jiggle.  We are primates. We evolved on the predator-heavy African savanna. What was extremely important to our survival? That we be able to spot big cats and other of our fellow creatures with a taste for ape. After thousands of years of that lifestyle, evolution provided our eyes and brains with a peculiar facility:  we can see moving objects with greater alacrity than we can stationary things.

There ain’t much savanna or big cats left in the U.S. of A., I am sorry to say, so what good is this ability now? You’ll find you can pick out dimmer details of an object or maybe even detect a formerly invisible object if it is moving. How do you get a dim galaxy moving? You jiggle the scope a little bit. You will be amazed at the result. The only time I don’t like how steady the NexStar 11, Big Bertha, is in alt-azimuth mode? When I am using this trick.

Use the correct eye. Which eye do you use at the eyepiece? You use your dominant eye, which is usually your right eye if you are right-handed and your left-eye if you are left-handed. This is the case most of the time, but you should probably experiment with both eyes if you are new to the game. Which eye is most comfortable to use and provides the best view?

Do I wear my glasses or not? Eyeglass wearers new to amateur astronomy often ask whether they should keep their glasses on or no. The answer in most cases is that you should remove your glasses and use the scope as “glasses” unless you have astigmatism.  If you do suffer from astigmatism, you can leave your glasses on, but unless the eyepiece has a lot of eye relief, you may not see much of the field.

Eyeglasses keep your eye too far from the eye lens to allow you to take in all the eyepiece’s field unless the ocular has very long eye relief. Solution? There are two:  long eye relief eyepieces and corrective lenses for astigmatism made by TeleVue that screw onto their eyepieces.

Use a comfortable eyepiece. Nothing tires me out more than using an eyepiece with eye relief so tight that I have to jam my eye up against the eye lens, or one with such a small apparent field that I feel like I am peering through a dadgum keyhole. There are eyepieces around today that provide nice, wide AFOVs (80-degrees plus is what I like) and bearable eye relief. They don’t even have to cost a lot of money. Zhumell’s el cheapo 100-degree 16mm, for example, is Real Good in my Edge 800 C8.

You may have to shop around and try quite a few eyepieces before you hit your sweet spot, before you find one suited to you. Which is why it is important to try oculars before you buy. How do you do that? At your club’s group observing runs (You are a member of your local astronomy club, aintcha?) or at a star party. Without making a nuisance of yourself to observers working serious projects, try every ocular you can before dishing out a lot of money.

Star Hopping. It’s no secret I am mostly a go-to kind of dude these days, but I star hopped for nearly 40 years. What was one important thing I learned about it? If I couldn’t find an object after retracing my steps and “resetting” on my hopping stars a time or three, it usually meant I wasn’t just a little off, but way, way off, degrees from the target. Usually because I’d misidentified one or more bright stars.

Weird Stuff. If you’ve been to many star parties, you’ve probably heard some tall tales on those clouded-out nights when deep sky observers sit shooting the breeze on the field waiting for sucker holes. Eventually the subject turns to ways to kick your visual acuity up a notch. Most of these ideas don’t have more than a grain of truth. Breathing pure O2 from a flask will not help, not at normal altitudes, anyway. Nor will hyperventilating (you may see stars after doing that, but not the ones in the sky). Unk did find O2 could cure hangovers one morning after, when he was testing an emergency escape breathing rig at the missile complex, but it won’t help you see fainter.

Some of these Old Wive’s Tales do have a smidge of that always elusive truth, however. You may have heard the one about bilberry berries. Seems as RAF pilots ate bilberry jam to help their night vision during the Battle of Britain. Did it help? They thought it did, if only a little bit. Sometimes a little bit is all you need, though. If you can almost see Einstein’s Cross with your monster dob at Prude ranch, but not quite, it might not be completely crazy to cruise to GNC at the mall for bilberry extract, I reckon. 

Astro Stuff

Flashlights. There ain’t much need be said about this. With the coming of the red LED light, it’s easy to get a flash that will not harm your night vision. The light of LEDs is pure red, and most astro-flashes have dimmers so you can keep the red light low enough so as to not harm your night vision (too much red light can hurt night vision almost as much as too much white light).

There are a few variations on this theme, though. Green light can be just as “safe” for night vision as red if it’s at low levels. Even at levels low enough to preserve your dark adaptation, you may find it easier to see with green light. Human visual acuity peaks in the green range, afterall. The Navy proved this some time back when researching the best lighting for their Combat Information Centers and bridges, where dark adaptation is a must. The only problem may be that some of your fellow observers won’t know this and will have a hissy fit when they see your green light.

There is actually a place for red lights that are too bright. I often observe with a group where everybody is doing video with Mallincams (including me, natch). I still like to keep a degree of dark adaptation, so I don’t want to use white light. A bright red light does the job for me on those nights.
Finally, one of those too bright red LED head-lights is a big help for equipment tear down at the end of the evening. If some of the gang are still pressing on when old Unk hits his turns-into-a-pumpkin-time, I don’t cause much disturbance packing up if I keep the headlamp tilted down (most of these lights can be tilted). I’m able to see well enough with one to get all my junk in the truck, and the hands-free nature of these lights is for sure doubleplusgood for packing.

Chairs. Yeah, observing chairs could have gone under “observing,” since they are a big help with that. If you are comfortable, you will see more, and standing on your feet for hours on end does not equate to “comfortable.” Which one do you get? Depends on the scope, but for SCT and refractor use I like the Stardust observing chair and similar rigs. They fold nearly flat and the seat, which slides up and down on rails, is adjustable for just about any observing situation (unless you’ve got a monster of a bigdob). One does well with my 12-inch f/5 Newtonian, Old Betsy. You may be tempted to go cheaper with a drummer’s throne type solution, but don’t. The $185.00 the Stardust chair commands will be some of the best money you’ve spent in astronomy, I guar-ron-tee.

What to drink. If you are talking about after the observing run, the answer, of course, is “Rebel Yell.” I do not recommend that wonderful potation for use while observing, however. Not only may it make you run amok on the field to the dismay of your fellow observers, alcohol will have a deleterious effect on your night vision.

What then? You want something that either warms you up or keeps you awake or both. A lot of knowledgeable folks recommend stuff like hot apple cider, but that doesn’t have much appeal for this old boy. What works for me? Coffee or hot tea in a thermos. Both will keep you going and warm. While the “experts” will tell you that either might actually make you colder, dilating capillaries or some such, I’ve never noted that I felt colder after a nice shot of java or a cuppa. ‘Course it doesn’t get very cold down here, either.

If you don’t want the “warm up” part of the equation, like during a Possum Swamp summer when it’s likely to be 85F on the field at midnight? What both cools me down and fires me up on those nights is a Monster Energy Drink. There are other brands out there, but Monster is available in a low-carb formula that doesn’t seem to have (too) much bad stuff in it from what I can tell. It is also the brand that was recommended to me by my freshmen astronomy students some years ago, and who should know more about cool stuff like energy drinks than the undergraduates? Caveats? As I have said before, I limit myself to ONE per night. If I drink more, I begin trembling like a dadgum Chihuahua. “One” is enough to keep me going till 3 a.m., and that is usually enough for your tired old Uncle these days.

Snacks. As you might expect, those pea-picking experts recommend stuff about as appealing to me as hot apple cider. Like dried fruit. I want a snack to give me a little a pick-up on a long run, but it has to be something I can force down. Like Jack Links jerky and Nature Valley granola bars. I especially favor Nature Valley’s Sweet and Salty Bars. A little expensive and undoubtedly filled with sugar, but when you need an energy boost in the wee hours, that is not a bad thing.

Water. If you’ve followed this blog for a while, you know one of my rules for a productive observing run is STAY HYDRATED. I have said it before, and I will say it again and again and again: when you feel tired, often what you are really feeling is the effects of dehydration. In the winter, it’s hard to make yourself chug water, but that is just what you have to do. Mid-run, stop, stretch your legs, eat some jerky, and drink as much of a bottle of H20 as you can get down.

Bugs. If’n you live somewhere that’s high and dry, you probably don’t have to worry about mosquitoes, but the rest of us dern sure do. From early spring till late fall, mosquitoes aren’t just a bother for me; unless I take steps, the little devils will end an observing run.

What steps do I take? There are only two things I’ve found that work reliably if the skeeters are fierce: DEET based repellents and a Thermacell. If your bugs ain't quite as bad as mine, you might be able to get by with dodges like Avon Skin-so-soft lotion (actually, the brand of Skin-so-soft Avon sells as an insect repellent does contain DEET) or rubbing your skin with drier sheets, but I need the real deal.

Before I discovered the Thermacell, my main mosquito repellent was Deep Woods Off, and I still use it to supplement the T-cell. Nothing works as well with mosquitoes and almost any other nasty insect you encounter. Once, out at a dark site where the grass hadn’t been cut in a long while, I found a tick had attached itself to me. Tick borne disease is serious business, and you don’t want to leave one on you for long, but you don’t want to wrench it off and leave the head embedded, either. I found a spray of Deep Woods Off will make a tick detach immediately and head for the hills.

Even if you are not concerned about applying a strong chemical like DEET to your skin (I’m not too worried about that, but I don't believe it could possibly be a good thing over the long run), DEET based repellents have one big drawback:  the stuff will melt plastic. I have never heard it can damage optical coatings, but I don’t want to experiment with that. Walk downwind of the scopes before spraying the stuff, and either don’t apply any to your palms, or wipe them off real good after. Or you can dispense with DEET altogether.

Along with Monster Energy Drinks, the Thermacell is the best “astronomy accessory” I’ve discovered in years. What’s a “Thermacell?” It’s a gadget shaped sorta like a TV remote control. It has a grill with slots in its sides where you insert a repellent-soaked pad. A butane cartridge heats the pad and disperses the repellent in the air. A single Thermacell will keep an area ten meters in diameter skeeter-free on a calm night.

“But Unk, you say you don’t want to put DEET on your skin, but you don’t mind breathing in insect repellent?” I don’t because the repellent the Thermacell uses is not DEET based. It is made from Chrysanthemum flower extract; is harmless to humans, animals, and even insects; and does not harm optics either.

Minuses? While the Thermacell chases the mosquitoes off with ease, it doesn’t seem to work as well on gnats, flies, and wasps. Also, the Thermacell company uses the razor/blade business model. The various Thermacell gadgets are inexpensive, but the refills of pads and butane bottles aren’t. Still, you won’t use the Thermacell every night of the year, and ten bucks will cover me for a weekend at a star party. Be aware Off sells a similar and competing system, their “Clip-on,” that uses a battery powered fan to disperse the repellent. Sounded like a good idea, so I got one, which was a waste of money. Our skeeters just laughed at it.

Keeping Dry. It’s obvious you want to keep star charts, laptop PCs, eyepieces, and other stuff out of the dew, but did you know it’s important to keep yourself dry, too? Having your head and clothes wet with dew will make you almost as tired as being dehydrated. Keep a hat on your head, even a backwards ball cap, when you are at the scope. Most importantly, if it’s going to be an all-nighter or you are at a multi-night star party, put up a tent canopy, a.k.a. “tailgating canopy.”

I am a video observer most of the time, and once the go-to scope is aligned, I sit dry and comfy under my EZ-Up for the remainder of the run. I can go until 3 a.m. with ease, even at my advanced age. Even when I am observing visually, a canopy helps almost as much. I am spending probably 50% of my time looking at a PC or chart when I’m doing the eyepiece thing and being out of the damp even 50% of the time is an improvement.

What’s a good tailgating canopy? You want something easy to put up, and an EZ-Up brand name canopy is that. While two people are optimum, I can put one up or take one down by myself without much trouble. I do recommend the EZ-Up models, but they are not perfect, as I found out during a storm in 2009 at the Deep South Regional Star Gaze. Today I am using a Coleman canopy that is as easy to erect as the EZ-Up and is a little more robust. I got mine at Bass Pro, which usually has a good selection. So does Academy Sporting Goods.

Power. I do the majority of my hardcore all night (as I judge such things these days) observing at the Chiefland Astronomy Village where there is plenty of reliable AC power to run scopes and cameras. I have good quality AC supplies for everything and am happy not to have to worry about batteries down Chiefland Way. 

But when I am observing at my local dark site, or at most star parties, I gotta have batteries. What do I use?
The ubiquitous automotive jump-start battery packs. One with 17-amp-hours capacity will run a scope, dew heater, or camera all night. They are relatively inexpensive, easy to carry, and have built in chargers, all things that are important for astronomers. How about computers? I power my laptops with an inverter, and sometimes a jump-starter won’t be enough for a long run or one that involves USB powered devices like cameras. I could lug a great big marine (deep cycle) battery, but I wimp out, using my little netbook which will go for almost an entire run on its internal battery alone.

Accessory Trays. I like to put my power supplies on a tripod accessory tray. Keeps ‘em out of the wet grass and keeps me from stumbling on them or tripping over their cords. Unfortunately, telescope makers today don’t seem to understand the value of a good tripod tray. What do I do? For my SCTs, I roll my own. The plastic lid from a five-gallon paint bucket with a hole in its center will sit on top of my Celestron tripod's spreader and does a good job considering its minuscule price. Remove spreader, slide lid onto the central bolt, replace spreader, and voila! For my Atlas, CG5, and VX GEM mounts’ Synta tripods? I bought an aftermarket tray that bolts onto the original (which is way too small to be of use). Orion charged me a pretty penny for it, maybe too pretty a penny, but it works well and was, I guess, worth it.

Note Taking. Good buddy David Levy had an article in a recent Astronomy Magazine about keeping a log (even though I write for Sky and Telescope, I still like to read the competition). Therein, David makes the point that an unrecorded observation ain’t much of an observation, if it’s really an observation at all.
I agree with Mr. Levy. How could I not agree with the country’s premier amateur astronomer? B-U-T... About ten years ago I started getting lazy about keeping a log. I still wanted to take observing notes at the scope as I had since 1965, though, so I compromised and switched to an audio recorder. I speak my notes at the scope and transcribe them into a logbook (or, more recently, SkyTools’ or Deep Sky Planner’s computer log).

I liked taking notes with my little Sony Pressman mini-cassette recorder. I did, until I found myself down in Chiefland without blank cassettes, paid an exorbitant price for them in the Radio Shack next-door to the C-land Wal-Mart, and was happy to get them. Like audio cassettes of all kinds, mini-cassettes are a vanishing species. I’ve switched to a little Sony solid-state recorder and have been purty happy with it. Not only do I not have to worry about them consarned tapes anymore, I can keep my recordings on the computer’s hard drive instead of in a basket of cassettes with scrawled labels.

And…and—well, I could keep going, muchachos, but we are slap out of space and time for this Sunday. I’ve actually got a lot more in my bag of tricks, and one of these days I will keep going with a Part Two, y’all.

Nota Bene:  I will be off to the famous Almost Heaven Star Party next week, so DO NOT PANIC if the blog does not appear on time on Sunday morning. I will at least have to have cell phone access to post it. Never fear, though, your fave reading material will be up Monday evening at the latest.

Next Time: The Unbowed...

Nice, some good information. Thanks for sharing.
Great tip with the tick and Deep Woods Off! Unfortunately both are a fixture here, although for normal conditions I switched to Thermacell.

Enjoy your trip to West Virginia! To truly appreciate how dark the Spruce Knob area is, try to get out of the valley fog of the Mountain Institute field and observe from the actual summit at least briefly. Although the summit is within sight from the field and vice versa, it is a shockingly long roundabout drive though - the reason I never visited the Institute even though I used to observe the the summit regularly when I lived closer to WV.
Nice post, Uncle Rod. I am in full agreement with everything besides the initial chimps and savannah assumption. That is speculation, everything else is appears to be awesome learning from a Kudzu League School of Hard Knocks!

Cousin B in Memphis
Hello, my feed showed a new post but then it seemed to disappear. Anyway, love reading your stories, thank you for sharing!
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