Sunday, January 19, 2014


Destination Moon Night 4: 48 Down, 252 to Go

A more appropriate title for this one might have been “You Can’t Win ‘Em All,” and ain’t that the truth when it comes to amateur astronomy? Especially right now when it seems we've had months of more clouds than clear. One thing I do know, however; you have to persevere. Sometimes punk nights can turn around. Anyhow, if you see anything, even just barely on a poor night, you’ll have seen more than you would have sitting at home watching Finding Bigfoot on the dadgum cable TV.

What hurt most last Saturday night was that the evening didn't live up to its initial promise. Saturday morning and afternoon were beautiful. The next cloud-bearing front wasn’t due till Monday, and there was no doubt the clearing would hold all night long. I felt good, and had big plans.

I’d start out doing lunar imaging. Too many weeks had passed since I’d had an evening on the Moon, and my Destination Moon project, my quest to image the 300 most prominent lunar features, was getting seriously in arrears. By the time I was done with Diana, Jupiter would be high enough to fool with, and I was eager to shoot pictures of ol’ Jove, something I haven’t done in a long time. Finally, I wanted to take more spectra with the ZWO camera and RSpec. I’d got a few the week before, but the seeing hadn’t been good, my exposure times weren't quite perfect, and I thought I could do better.

The telescope? Instead of my Edge 800, I thought I’d drag out my old Ultima 8 OTA, Celeste. I planned to image Jupiter, and I thought the old scope would be easier to focus on a planet. She has a JMI Motofocus adapter, and I absolutely love that cotton picking Motofocus for planetary work. She’s never been a slouch as far as image quality, either.

The trip west to the Possum Swamp Astronomical Society dark site was dang sure quicker and more relaxing than it had been the previous week, 45-minutes instead of over an hour. I am trying to get out to the site more often now that I am retired, and not just on Saturdays, so I’d tried out a Friday night for the previous run. Unfortunately, sundown coincides with rush hour this time of year, so, for now, Saturday is better.

When I rolled onto the field, I wasn’t surprised not to see any of my PSAS buddies onsite. I didn't expect to have company. There was a Moon, a nice, fat gibbous Moon in the sky after all, and, unlike me, I reckon most of my fellow PSASers can do lunar and planetary imaging from home. Also, there was no denying it was on the chilly side. Even the site’s friendly tomcat didn't hang out with me for long. I chatted with him and his human, one of the owners of the airstrip, for a while, but they soon decamped for warmer environs, leaving Unk all by his lonesome to get the scope assembled and Destination Moon Night Four on road.

Set up wasn’t hard: tripod on field, VX head on tripod, counterweight on declination shaft, C8 on mount. I screwed my Meade flip mirror onto the rear port—it would be a necessity for getting my targets onto the ZWO camera’s 1/3-inch chip since I’d be using it with a 2x and maybe even a 3x Barlow. Believe the voice of experience, y’all, with 4,000 mm of focal length and a small chip, it is a pain to get even the Moon in the frame, even with a good finder.

While it didn't seem too damp, I installed the DewBuster heater strip on Celeste’s corrector end, anyway. Way down here in the ‘Swamp, there really ain’t any such thing as a dew free night any time of the year. And if you even think there will be dew, you need to get your heater cranking at sundown. It is much harder to remove dew that’s formed than it is to keep it from forming in the first place.

Scope and mount ready to go, I plugged the Toshiba Satellite’s power brick into a little inverter (Harbor Freight) connected to a jumpstart battery. I only expected to go a couple of hours, but the laptop has a sizable 17.3-inch screen, and I’d be powering the camera from the USB bus, so its internal battery wouldn’t last long. I hooked the ZWO ASI120MC camera to the laptop via a USB cable and was ready to roll. All that was left was waiting for Polaris and some alignment stars to show.

Lansberg and Reinhold
While I was waiting, I got a little cold. Nothing like the previous week—it wasn’t supposed to get much colder than the mid 40s this time—but it was cold enough. And, unfortunately, Rod forgot to bring his big cold weather coat. As y’all know, I always forget something, and sometimes that something is more important than at other times. I was about to call this a “critical error,” actually. A north wind had blown up, and it was not just buffeting the scope, it was making me feel badly chilled.

Luckily, a little rummaging around in the back of the 4Runner turned up my emergency jacket. It is a thin nylon job from the freaking Wally-World, but it was quite a bit better than nothing. I also had some chemical hand warmer packs I’d snagged at Academy Sporting Goods that afternoon (I stock up every winter, since last year’s unused packs will have lost a lot of their oomph). Though I was now a little warmer, I began to wonder if I shouldn't just pack up the scope and head back to Chaos Manor South. The wind was worse than ever, and would obviously blow the scope around, which would be a big problem at f/20 and f/30.

Hope springs eternal in Unk, as ya’ll know. Maybe the wind would lie down at full dark? I was already set up so I figgered I might as well give it a go. I pressed on, doing a 2-star goto alignment, four calibration stars, and an AllStar polar alignment. Only bummers? I used Formalhaut for the AllStar star despite it having been one of the goto alignment stars. I wasn’t sure whether that would cause some kind of problem or not, but there really wasn’t a prominent star in the south to use for AllStar other than Fomalhaut. That was not the real problem, though; the real problem was the stars were twinkling like mad. The seeing was even worse than it had been last time.

One look at Rigel shimmering and waving like a little flag in my eyepiece disabused me of the notion of doing any spectroscopy. I reckoned Jupiter would be a wash, too.  And I was pretty sure my 3x Barlow would stay in the accessory (tackle) box, even for the Moon. One good thing, though? The mount had no problem executing a goto to Rigel. Apparently it is OK, or at least not fatal, to use one of the goto alignment stars for an AllStar polar alignment. Not only were gotos fine all evening, the quality of the tracking indicated polar alignment was purty dern close. I didn’t notice any declination drift to speak of, not even with a Barlow and a small-chip camera.

No spectroscopy. No Jupiter. Good ol’ Luna was the only game in town, so and Celeste went there and got started. Fired up my favorite image acquisition program, the wonderful (and, amazingly, free) Firecapture, and got to work. With the Moon on the laptop screen, it was obvious the seeing was even worse than I feared it would be. I also decided, much as I love it, that having Motofocus wasn’t that big a deal. I suppose I’ve got used to focusing the Edge 800 by hand in the eight months I’ve had her. Even so, it was nice to give good, old Celeste a little time under the stars again.

The Craters

First up was a pretty crater pair, Lansberg and Reinhold, two nice, fresh-looking formations that lie southwest of spectacular Copernicus. Reinhold is about 210 kilometers from Copernicus and lies within the main body of the big crater’s rays. Despite its rather fresh appearance, Reinhold dates from the Eratosthenian period, 1.1 – 3.3 billion years ago in contrast to Copernicus’ age of 1 billion years or younger.
While not as large as its famous neighbor, Reinhold is big enough, 48 kilometers, to catch an observer’s eye. The crater’s most prominent feature is its steep terraced walls. The floor is not quite smooth, and even on this night of poor seeing, I could make out a small peak near but not at the center of the crater, and other rough details. Also interesting is the near ghost crater, Reinhold B, 45 km to the northeast.

Lansberg, 160 km from the center of Reinhold, looks fresher to me than Reinhold, but it is actually older, dating from the Upper Imbrian period 3.3 – 3.1 billion years ago. It is slightly smaller than Reinhold, 40 km across, and also features steep and terraced walls. One big difference is Lansberg’s complex double central peak. There are several small craterlets within the walls, but I couldn’t resolve any of them on this night.

Next up was Bullialdus, a beautiful sight near the shores of Mare Nubium. Even in the punk seeing, I could tell its walls are sharp and terraced and that the central peak is prominent and complicated looking. That was about all I could see of this formation as it fuzzed in and out, however. Like Reinhold, it is from the Eratosthenian period. To the south, Bullialdus A and B are nice looking, if flatter and less well defined than the main crater, with A being almost a ghost crater.

Hainzel is one weird looking thing at first glance. We know the mechanics of asteroid impacts dictate craters must be round, not oval, but Hainzel definitely looks strongly elongated. In part, that is due to perspective, as we are nearing the Moon’s limb here. Mostly, though, it is because Hainzel is not one crater but two, A and C, with C (on the right in my picture) being better defined. It was a little early in the lunar morning to be imaging Hainzel, since its floor was still in darkness, but at least the seeing steadied down enough to allow me to get a halfway decent shot. I could even see terracing on the walls of C that were lit by the rising Sun.

Blancanus and Scheiner are two big craters lying near magnificent Clavius, so it seems strange they aren’t talked about more and observed more. Blancanus, 106 km in diameter, is an older formation from the Nectarian period of nearly 4 billion years ago, but it doesn’t look overly aged. It has high terraced walls surrounding a smooth floor—at least the western part of its floor is fairly smooth. The eastern area has a tumble-down appearance due to an off center mountain and numerous craterlets.

Immediately west of Blancanus is Scheiner. This big, 111km formation is even older than Blancanus, having been created in the Moon’s pre-Nectarian age as much as 4.55 billion years ago. What does it look like? To me it’s much like a slightly smaller Clavius, complete with large craterlets on its floor, the most prominent being Scheiner A, which is 12 km in size. Under flatter lighting, the western half of Scheiner has a worn appearance, but on this evening, the western rim looked as well defined as the eastern.

Bianchini, perched right on the shore/rim of beautiful Sinus Iridium, is one I will definitely revisit soon. It was dramatic looking on this night, a pot of shadows balanced on the edge of the Bay of Rainbows, but because of the low Sun angle I couldn’t see any of the this 38 km diameter crater’s floor detail, which includes a prominent craterlet, “W.” Bianchini is from the Upper Imbrian period like Lansberg.

Blancanus and Scheiner
Given the blurry images I was seeing on the screen, I began to think I was wasting my time trying to image even the Moon. So, when I finished Bianchini I called a halt to Night 4 of the Destination Moon Project. Still, it was way, way early, just past 7 p.m., and despite the wind, I was warm enough for the moment. A look over to the east showed Jupe blazing his heart out. Well why not? I didn’t expect much, but I’ve gotten some acceptable shots on nights I thought were a total loss thanks to the magic of Registax.

How did Jupiter look on the Firecapture display at f/20? Not so hotsky, y’all. Sure, I could make out cloud bands, but that was it. With the ZWO’s high frame rate, well over 30 frames per second at its maximum resolution of 1280 x 960, I’d expected to see a little more detail than just some straight-looking bands despite the poor conditions. Whatever. I fired off several sequences.

And that was it. It was still early, but I was now genuinely chilled and the wind had not let up a bit. I slewed back to the Moon one last time just in case, but the images on the computer looked no better. Big Switch time, then. Which sure is easy when all you’ve got on the field is a C8 and a computer. I am also happy with my current observing table setup:  I don’t have an observing table. I set up the PC and the tackle box in Miss Van Pelt’s rear (ahem). She is well equipped for such things, featuring both AC and DC outlets and various lights in her cargo area. Her open tailgate acts like a roof and keeps me a little drier from dew than I’d be if I were standing out in the open.

Back at the Old Manse, I was unloaded and ensconced in the cozy den with the omnipresent Yell bottle at my side just in time for Svengoolie’s show. On this night, he was rolling one of the silliest, strangest, and most loveable 1950s Sci-Fi epics (Or is that “URPics”?) of all time, The Monolith Monsters. The film features what must be the strangest space “monsters” of all time. I won’t even try to describe this picture for you; it much be seen to be believed. Sure, it’s a “B,” but it is an intelligent B. and is different if nothing else. Have a look.

By the time the monolith monsters were defeated by the Valiant Scientist, it was getting on to midnight, and a little too late to do any playing with the sequences I’d shot. Not only have I learned it’s best not to fiddle with your astro images the night you shoot them, I didn’t have much in the way of hopes for these, anyway.

The next morning, though, I broke out the laptop to see what I could make of the .avi files. The program I’d be using to stack and process their frames would be the latest edition of Registax, Registax 6. These days, there are alternative stacking programs like Autostakkert, but in my opinion, Registax is still the best, and nothing anywhere beats its amazing wavelet filters for sharpening and bringing out details in your images. Of course, there is a limit to what even Registax can do with poor source material, and the .avi sequences I’d captured were anything but good, as I could see viewing their fuzzy frames. The Jupiter sequences were absolutely horrible, and immediately went into the recycle bin.

So, what were the results with the Moon? You can see them above. Not horrible, but certainly not good. I was, in fact, in something of a snit. Till Miss Dorothy took a look at the pictures and said, “You know, Rod, your Daddy would think these were the most wonderful Moon pictures he’d ever seen.”

And that is true. Compared to the fuzzy full-disk images I took as a sprout even these misbegotten frames are a revelation. That said, muchachos, I’ll probably be back at the same point in the lunar cycle next month for a redo if the weather gods deem that allowable. I reckon the crystal-clear wavelet-processed Moon pictures Registax can turn out on a decent night have spoiled me and it’s hard to settle for less anymore.

As I was finishing this entry, I got word that one of our giants, John Dobson, had died on the morning of 15 January. Wherever you are, raise a toast to the man, a visionary and iconoclast, who changed our avocation so much. You can bet I did. I am not a huge fan of Dobsonian scopes, but I am a huge fan of the man.

I was pleased to hear the San Francisco Sidewalk Astronomers are dedicating this year’s ISAN (International Sidewalk Astronomy Night) to John’s memory, and rightly so. He practically invented sidewalk astronomy, which in his mind was probably a greater achievement than the popularizing of the friendly alt-azimuth scopes that bear his name.

Next Time: More Stellar Fingerprints...

Have you ever posted a list of the 300 most prominent targets on the Moon? I know you cited the source, but for those of us who don't have that, a list would be great. Sorry if I missed your having already done this.
HI Steve:

I don't know that I've ever posted a list. What I am working from, both for sentimental reasons and because it is a good list is the map of 300 features from the old 15th edition (1964) of Norton's Star Atlas. If you'd like a scan of those pages, just shoot me an email at
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