Sunday, February 23, 2014

 

The Case Conundrum


I love my NexStar 11 GPS, Big Bertha, muchachos. She and I have been together for dang near a dozen years and have seen some incredible wonders at dark sites from the lowlands of Florida to the mountains of Tennessee. I’ve never had a major problem with her; she just keeps on truckin’ year after year.

Yet there was no doubt I’d stopped using her as much as I once had. At first, it was just the runs at the local PSAS dark site where she stayed home. When you’ve got an exemplary C8 like my Edge 800, especially one riding on an easy to transport and very accurate goto mount like the VX, it’s hard to convince yourself to lug a 66-pound fork mount scope out to the site for an hour or three, even if the weather looks to be good.

Yes, I can see more with the C11, but not that much more, not with a deep sky video camera, a Mallincam, which is usually the way I roll. What the C11 brings to the table as opposed to the C8 for video is image scale. At the same focal ratio, objects are larger in the C11 meaning I see more detail. That’s not always a good thing, however. If I want to image a bigun like M33, the Edge 800, Mrs. Peel, is a better bet. But for the small Herschel and Arp galaxies I favor? Bigger can be better.

At first it was only the local observing runs where Bertha stayed at home. I continued to take her down to Chiefland just like always. Unfortunately for the NS11, the Edge 800 really strutted her stuff at last spring’s Deep South Regional Star Gaze Spring Scrimmage, and it’s been the Edge/VX at CAV every single time since then. Not only is Mrs. Peel easier to pack, given the weather we've had over the last year there didn't seem much reason to struggle with Bertha. If I am not likely to see anything, I am happy not to see anything with a lighter scope.

And yet…and yet. I recently found myself missing the C11. Yes, the Edge is wonderful. Her views are refractor-like. 8-inch APO refractor refractor-like. But I missed some of Bertha’s elegance and simplicity. I can run her directly from the computer with NexRemote without worrying about a hand control in the mix, something I have not been able to do with Emma Peel.  I have never upgraded her motor control board firmware to the latest and greatest, which means I can still do a GPS alignment: turn on the power, Bertha takes a GPS fix, levels, finds north, and heads for the first of two alignment stars. Center the star, and she goes to number two. Center thatun and I am done.

In alt-azimuth mode—I have a wedge for Miss B. but rarely use it—there is no telescope that’s more comfortable to use visually than Bertha. I don’t have to do a polar alignment, either, which can save some time on nights when I am racing the weather. How is the scope’s alt-azimuth tracking with the Mallincam? It is not perfect, but usually it is more than good enough if I can get her down to f/3 or so (more about that a wee bit later).

I missed Bertha, I just wasn’t sure I missed her enough to start using her again. Every time I thought about dragging her out, what came to mind was banging my knee on her case as I was trying to get it down the front steps one of the last times we took the NS11 to the CAV. I didn't do any real damage, but I could have.

I wasn’t happy about lugging Bertha around but still wanted to use those 11-inch optics. What would I do? What would I do? The natural thing would be to defork Bertha. Remove the poor thing from her fork mount and place her on a German equatorial. Which GEM? I had an Atlas EQ-6 on hand, so that seemed, again, like the natural thing to do. Before I did that, however, I thought I’d better give the Atlas a field trial. I only use her for DSLR imaging, and with our skies, I don’t do much of that. I wanted to see if I’d be happy using the Atlas as a mount for my video imaging.

The denouement was that whatever the Atlas’ other strengths and weaknesses, it had one big down-check against it:  weight. Lugging the big GEM head, which weighs close to 50-pounds, out to the truck was not fun. Not only is it heavy, it is awkward. I could find or make some sort of wheeled case for it, but then, it seemed to me, we’d be back to square one.  I might convince myself to sell the Atlas and use the proceeds to finance a Celestron CGEM, I supposed. I do prefer the NexStar HC, but the CGEM’s head is nearly as heavy as that of the Atlas. I also suspected I’d miss using the NS11 in alt-azimuth mode with the GPS alignment.

So…I decided to…I decided to…procrastinate.  As long as Bertha’s 12-year-old electronics continued to work, she’d stay on the fork. If they quit? I’d cross that bridge when I came to it. As my friend and fellow old coot, Pat Rochford, said, “Rod, you may go out of service before the NS11 mount does.”

That didn't mean I didn't want to improve the transport situation, however. My first thought concerning that was the case I use with Bertha, which I have used since day one, purchasing it from JMI at the same time I bought the scope. It is a very strong case—Jim Burr, Mr. JMI, used to run ads showing a Volkswagen Beetle sitting on one. It is not perfect, though. If there’s a major fault, it’s the handles. Standard luggage-type handles. They are not overly easy to grip, and due to the length of the scope, they are far apart. Your arms are, too, when you are lifting the case into the vehicle, which makes a difficult task even more difficult.

One other thing I’d come to look askance at regarding the JMI case was the wheels. Oh, it has ‘em, four three-inch wheels in pairs. They are what makes moving the case around doable for those of us without (ahem) Charles Atlas physiques. The trouble with these wheels is that they are relatively small and are of hard plastic/rubber. Larger wheels would be better.

Thus, I came to believe the case was at the heart of my NexStar 11 problems. My first inclination was to have a look at JMI’s current offerings. Since the CPC 1100, the current replacement for the NexStar 11 GPS, has the same dimensions as the earlier scope, CPC cases are compatible with a GPS.

I gotta say I liked the cut of the new JMI case’s jib. There are several improvements. It is now in a “vertical” format with the scope still lying on its side but with the fork arms positioned up, vertically, rather than horizontally. That looked to me like it would save on room in the truck. I also noted that the scope’s base is now positioned at the wheels end of the case, which would make it easier to lift the opposite end of the case to roll it along. The huge improvement? The new case uses big 10-inch inflatable tires like those on a hand truck. Only one thing dissuaded me: the price of admission, over 600 bucks.

Unk had got it into his head a new case would make life with Bertha easier. But he didn't want to pay for one. Surely there must be an alternative. I kept my eyes open when I was down at the Chiefland Astronomy Village recently, and noticed what my friends John and Bobbie were using for their NS11. What they had was a big Rubbermaid bin into which they’d inserted one-half of the scope’s original packing foam. This idea, which had been devised by the telescope’s original owner, another CAV buddy, Carl, seemed to work. The height of the foam and the scope (lying on its side with the arms vertical) meant you couldn’t put the cover on the Rubbermaid container, but so what? For trips, I could see it would work. Carl swore by it.

I wondered, however, if there might not be another way. I wasn’t particularly fond of not having a cover on the case. What if you were in a traffic accident? And I’d have to transfer the scope back to its original case in hopes of keeping dust (and mucho cat hair) at bay when the scope wasn’t being used. I also wasn’t sure it would be that much easier to lift the whole shebang than it was the JMI case.

OK…then how about some kind of rolling toolbox? A modicum of research revealed Home Depot was selling two big toolboxes, “job boxes,” a Husky and a Stanley, with large wheels and extendable handles. Either might work, I thought. In fact, a search on the Cloudy Nights forums showed a lot of folks were using these for their CPC 1100s. Yeah, well do I know not to take everything you read on the dadgum CN too seriously, but there seemed to be enough votes for these big toolboxes to indicate one might serve.

Miss D. and I hied ourselves to the Home Depot one recent Friday morning to have a look. I’ll tell y’all, once you are retired it is a different world. One almost solely inhabited by your fellow gray-haired compadres. Not much traffic till lunchtime, and every customer you see in every store and at the cotton picking Mickey D’s for breakfast (especially) looks just like Unk:  O-L-D, that is. Anyhoo, we found the job boxes without much trouble.

There was a lot to like about both toolboxes. Big wheels, large extendable handles for pulling them along that would actually give you some leverage. On the downside? BIG. And the Husky did not have integral handles for lifting. You could lift with the towing handle on one end, but the other? You’d wind up trying to find purchase for your fingers under the edge of the closed lid. The Stanley had molded-in handles, but the way they were molded-in meant an inch or two less space in the interior. Be that as it might be, it was obvious it would be easier for me to lift the Stanley. We took it home.

The first rut-roh came when I loaded the thing into the 4Runner. It took up a substantial portion of the cargo area. No, I hadn’t put the rear seats down, but still. The double rut-roh came back at Chaos Manor South as I experimentally loaded Bertha into the big box. Even though I positioned the arms “up,” and lowered the scope into the box with the handle on the right fork, it was not easy. No, it was not easy at all—the box was deep enough to make it a slightly scary task.

The fatal problem, though? The Stanley was slightly too small. No matter how I positioned Bertha or the packing foam, the rear port of the scope was in contact with the wall of the box. That would probably have been OK, but I didn’t like the idea overmuch. A good sharp whack to that side of the case would be transmitted directly to the rear port and baffle. I just didn’t like it. We decided to return the Stanley and get the Husky.

Back at the Home Depot, we had no trouble getting a refund. These folks sure have improved their customer service over the last few years, and I now much prefer them to Lowe's. On the way to get the tool aisle, though, I suddenly stopped, turned to Miss Dorothy and said, “I have had an epiphany. I am not going to like loading and unloading the scope into either one of these things. Let’s look at the Rubbermaid containers like John and Bobbie are using.”

We hunted the Rubbermaids up and found one similar to the one Carl had bought for the NS11, but I wasn’t convinced. What brought me up short was “no wheels.” I would definitely not want to carry the NS11 and Rubbermaid container far, and most assuredly not down the front steps. Off to Wal-Mart to see if we could find a big storage bin with wheels (I’d seen one online). Nope. They didn't have one. Neither did the nearby Lowe's. OK, what if I got a hand truck, a good one… It was then that I had the wisdom to shut the whole business down. “Honey, I believe the JMI case I have is better than anything we've seen today.”

And in at least one important way it is. Jim kept his case as shallow as possible. The fork is laid flat in horizontal position. That makes getting the scope in and out of the case much easier. It also means there is plenty of room to stack stuff on the case in the truck.

I was beginning to think, then, that what I needed wasn’t a new case. Maybe what I needed was a new loading procedure. Some serious thinking about how I could make it easier. I did the same thing a while back concerning my general approach to packing the 4Runner, and it had made doing that easier than it ever had been.

The subject for this week’s blog was supposed to be an observing run with the Edge 800 from the PSAS dark site on a full Moon (near about) Saturday night. Despite a big Luna, I’d be able to get spectra with the ZWO camera and the Star Analyser grating. I am finding doing that with the aid of RSpec fascinating and wanted to continue. Hell, I might even get some Jupiter images before all was said and done. But Bertha intervened.

I was determined to put the case conundrum to bed now. I had sworn we’d take Miss B. to the Chiefland Spring Picnic, which is coming up next month. So, I’d haul her out to the dark site after analyzing my loading procedure. Once there, I’d mount the Xtreme on her to see if I could solve the other NS11 problem:  getting her focal ratio down.

“Well, that shouldn't be no mystery Unk. Just screw your Meade f/3.3 reducer onto Bertha and have at it.” I wish it were that simple, Skeezix. That’s just what I used to do when I was using my old Stellacam II video cam. Going to a better camera, the Mallincam Xtreme, made that impossible. The body of the Xtreme is about twice as long as that of the Stellacam, and when the camera was plugged directly into the reducer/visual back with its 1.25-inch nosepiece, it would contact the drivebase of the scope when the OTA was higher in altitude than 75 or 80 degrees.

The first thing I tried after I got the Xtreme was putting the camera in a star diagonal. No workie. With the camera that far from the 3.3 reducer, it wouldn’t reach focus. So, I purchased a special adapter from Scopestuff.com, a 2-inch tube that was threaded so I could screw the reducer onto one end. The whole thing was inserted in the eyepiece end of a 2-inch diagonal. That worked, but having the reducer far from the rear port meant I didn't get much focal reduction. Maybe I got f/5.

I’d come back around to an idea I’d had a couple of years before. I’d place an f/6.3 reducer on the scope’s rear port, and a (Baader) .5x reducer on the camera. The Baader was in a standard filter holder and would thread right onto the Xtreme. I’d tried this arrangement once before at the CAV, but the 2-inch diagonal I had used had not provided optimum spacing. Reduction was good, but the stars at the field edge were pretty punk. I thought the fix might be my nice William Optic 1.25-inch star diagonal.

Alright, 4:15, time to get ‘er done. Actually, it was a little early. With the Sun setting ever later now, I don’t have to hit the road till 5 p.m., but I was antsy and wanted to get started. I’d been doing considerable cogitating on Big Bertha the whole day, and the first alteration I made to my procedure was that as I was rolling the case along, I kept it much closer to vertical than horizontal. I also pushed it along in front of me most of the time rather than pulling it behind me. Finally, instead of cutting across the yard on the way to the truck, I stuck to the walk and sidewalk. A little more distance, but a whole lot easier.

The sticking point, of course, would be getting the big case into the back of the 4Runner. In the past, my “method” was one hand on each handle and LIFT, trying to do that with my legs, not my back. Did it have to be that way? I had a hunch. I stood the case up vertically and propped one end on the bumper, grabbed the handle on the end resting on the ground, tilted, and pushed. In she went, smooth as freaking butter. No, I won’t lie, it was not as effortless as loading the C8, but it was at least twice as easy as my dumb old method of madness. Why hadn’t I thought of this before? Probably because it wouldn’t have worked with my previous vehicle, a Toyota Camry. Anyhow? Total packing time for the whole mess, including all my video gear was less than 15-minutes.

Out to the dark site we went. Alas, we are at the time of year when my required departure time coincides with a 5 p.m. rush hour. Why is there a traffic surge at that time on Saturday? Maybe droves of cheapskate oldsters like Unk are taking advantage of happy hour, who knows? Anyway, I probably should have left a little earlier; I didn't hit the field until about fifteen minutes after sunset and immediately felt rushed.

Not just rushed, either, but put out. As soon as I’d left home, I’d begun seeing bands of clouds verging on overcast, especially to the west, which was the direction I was going. That stimulated a cell call from Pat over on the eastern shore of Mobile Bay. He wanted to know if I was seeing clouds here. “Yep, and lots of ‘em.” The cotton picking Weather Channel, Clear Sky Clock, and Scope Nights had all forecast dead clear, so I was fuming by the time I got to the PSAS dark site.

didn't think there was much sense in setting up the Mallincam. Part of me wanted to, just to try my reducer scheme, but the thought of assembling all that gear when I might be socked in at any minute dissuaded me. I thought that if I could just check out Bertha—who had not been used in a over a year—and do another iteration of my loading/unloading scheme, the evening wouldn’t have been wasted.

As you would expect, I was again all by my lonesome on an evening one night past Full Moon. The airstrip’s big yellow tomcat did keep me company for a while, till I made him mad by shooing him out of the back seat where he’d curled up for a nap. I have visions of arriving home one evening and finding Bubba napping in the back.

How did the unloading go? Very well. It wasn’t much—if any—easier than loading since to get the scope out of the 4Runner, I had to lower the heavy (drivebase) end of the case to the ground, but it wasn’t bad. I worked slowly, sliding it out, tilting it down, and lowering it, leaving the opposite end propped on the bumper. Then, with the case near vertical, I rotated and lowered the “corrector” end, the wheeled end, to the ground. Not bad. I felt no complaints from either my back or my nether regions.

How did it go with mounting Bertha on the tripod? Due to the scope’s ergonomic handles, I’ve never minded mounting her in alt-az mode. The problem was not getting her on the tripod, but getting her working when she was on it. Shoot, if I told you it went smooth, you wouldn’t believe me anyway, so I might as well fess up. It wasn’t exactly duck soup. Most of the trouble was because I had not used the scope in so long. I started out pulling my usual trick:  trying to connect with NexRemote before turning on the power on the scope. There is no way to back out of that; you have to reboot the computer. I also forgot to enable the joystick and set NexRemote to “always on top” (so I can use other programs alongside it).

After dang near half an hour, I finally got all my brain cells firing and Bertha squared away. She requested Sirius and Rigel as alignment stars, and despite those being a little close together in the sky in my opinion, she hit everything I requested dead center after  the alignment was finally done (either I centered a wrong star, which is possible, or she glitched, because I got an “alignment failed” initially).

What did I look at? Not a whole lot:  M45, M79, M35, M37, M42. Just enough to make sure she was doing her thing correctly. And she was. I had to say I was impressed. She always seems so powerful, yet quiet. Her Pitman servos barely hum at full slewing speed, which, if you are used to using a CG5 or a VX like me, is striking—the quiet is in fact almost disturbing.

Then, as I gaped at M42 in an Orion 20mm Expanse eyepiece (didn't bring the “good” eyepieces; didn't think I’d need eyepieces) I began to feel eyes on me. Somebody or something was watching. Just then, the neighborhood coyotes let out a chorus of howls—some of which seemed almost human in character. What might be lurking in the tree line across the dark field? The Skunk ape? Maybe…Wolfie? Nope. I looked up to see it was the friendly old Moon. She had been over the horizon for a little while, but had been near extinguished by a cloudbank. Now she was beaming down on me with a passion. Big Switch time.

Loading was a snap now that I knew what to do. Packed away the PC and cleared the cargo area. First step was returning Bertha to the case, which is easy due to the aforementioned shallowness of the thing. I lift the NS11 off the tripod using those excellent handles, stand her upright in the case, position my hands at the balance points on the fork arms, and let her do most of the work, gently tipping her over to the horizontal and lowering her into the box. After that, I used my prop-on-bumper idea again, slid her in, and was on the road in a mite less than 15-minutes. Yes, there is still effort involved, but my observation is that it is actually quicker to load Bertha now than it is the VX/Edge 800.

And so, back to the storied Old Manse for my favorite potation (y’all know what that is) and a ration of cable TV. The gear was stowed and the Yell poured out by 9 p.m., just in time for Svengoolie’s horror host foolishness. This week the feature was She Wolf of London, which seemed highly appropriate after spending the night listening to hair-raising howls under a fat yellow Moon. I’d forgot She Wolf of London has the dubious distinction of being the werewolf movie without a werewolf, but it was fun anyhow.

So, the final score for this Saturday night? Was it Monkey 0, football 1? Not quite, almost, but not quite. I did plenty of fumbling around, but I did get things done. I’d been able to give Miss Bertha an almost clean bill of health prior to the Spring Picnic. There were a couple of little glitches (whose cause might have been either me or her), but I should be able to get her out at least once more before the CAV trip to be sure she’s really OK. Letting her sit idle for a year was not a good thing. Otherwise? I really and truly believe I solved the case conundrum, muchachos. Maybe. Only hauling Bertha out regularly will tell the tale, so I have resolved to try to get her on the observing field once a month from now on. Stay tuned to see if Unk has the gumption to stick to that.

Next Time: How do you Video?.. 

Sunday, February 16, 2014

 

Chasing Supernovae with Uncle Rod, the Atlas, and a TPI Spreader


Your old Unk has finally solved a difficult riddle, muchachos. No, not “How many licks does it take to get to the Tootsie Roll center of a Tootsie Pop?” That’s a puzzle only Mr. Owl could solve (for he is the wisest of us all). But I have discovered how to deal with these consarned modern telescope tripods.

In some ways, today’s tripods are purty good. Particularly the ubiquitous Chinese 2-inch diameter steel legged jobs. Sadly, however, almost all of them have a weak link. Their spreaders are just pitiful. Small plastic or metal dealies that don’t do their job. Oh, they hold the legs apart, but they do little to help stabilize the tripod, which should be a major function of a tripod spreader.

They not only don’t help strengthen the tripod, those that also serve as accessory trays are way too small, and some, like Celestron’s spreaders, don’t incorporate accessory trays into their design at all. I don’t want to put eyepieces on an accessory tray (because of dew), but I do want a place, a shelf, for the mount power supply, the DewBuster power supply, batteries, the DewBuster controller, and stuff like that.

A couple of years back, I thought salvation was at hand. Orion (Telescope and Binocular Center) began advertising a larger accessory tray/spreader for the Synta mounts including the EQ-6 (Atlas). It seemed a little pricey for something that looked on the cheaply made side, 50 bucks, but it resembled the big spreader (no longer available) my buddy Joe bought for his CG5 years ago. That spreader enabled his mount to handle a C11 tube far better than I would have thought possible. I’d been on the lookout for something similar for years, and thought I had found it. I didn't really need to improve my CG5 and VX tripods, since those mounts are light and I only put C8s or lighter scopes on ‘em. The Atlas was another story.

With the Atlas/EQ-6, the tripod is indeed the weak link. The mount is inherently sturdy and capable, but the big, heavy GEM head is too much for the tripod, mainly because the small Synta spreader doesn't do its job. Don’t get me wrong the tripod’s stability is not crazy bad, but it is bad enough that it doesn't allow the mount to live up to its full potential, especially with heavier OTAs. So off to Orion went my credit card number.

Alas, I reckon I didn't read the fine print. When the thing arrived, I found it wasn’t really a spreader. It was just a larger accessory tray you bolted onto the original, small spreader that comes with the Synta tripods. It did provide more room for my stuff, and that was cool, but it did nothing to improve stability. It’s been relegated to the CG5 and VX and is nice enough on those mounts.

After that, I purty much gave up on the idea of strengthening the Atlas’ tripod. Oh, I occasionally thought about fabricating something from plywood, but y'all know how dangerous I am with a hammer and nails. And there things stood till I got an email from Dave Yates, the owner and head honcho of TPI, Telescope Performance Improvements. He told me he had a product that would fix all my tripod woes.

We’ll try out Dave’s spreader/tray shortly, but first let’s talk supernovae. I’ve long been fascinated by those cosmic critters, giant suns or the white dwarf members of binary systems that pop off like firecrackers in titanic explosions, outshining their host galaxies for a time. When I found how easy it was to image distant supernovae with the Mallincam Xtreme, I made a little hobby of collecting pictures of these stellar cataclysms. Or I did till the last year’s weather shut that and almost all my other observing activities down. Thank the weather gods that that may be slowly changing now. At least I was able to get out and snap the portrait of the recent supernova in M82.

Supernovae are not rare; there’s one shining in some galaxy visible with amateur scopes and cameras almost all the time. One in a bright Messier galaxy is not as common, however, since there are far fewer Messier galaxies than NGC galaxies, for example.  Nevertheless, we've had good ones in M65, M101, M51, and M82 in recent times. I enjoyed the fireworks in M82, one of the brightest and most photogenic of the Messier island universes, and figured that would be it for a while. Imagine my surprise, then, to learn one had gone off in magnitude 9.9 M99 in Coma Berenices while M82’s guest star was still blazing away.

One of my main goals when I was down in Chiefland last week was imaging the new supernova, but as you heard last time, I didn't image pea-turkey. I didn’t see a cotton-picking thing down south. It didn’t look like the clouds would break any time soon back home, either. Nevertheless, we got a short interval of clear sky last Saturday evening. Which was cool, since that coincided with the M99 supernova, SN2014L, having brightened to around magnitude 14. Shortly after its discovery, it was somewhat dimmer than magnitude 16, which would still have been duck soup for the Mallincam Xtreme, but the brighter the better, right?

There was another item on my agenda. Not long ago, I had the Atlas out to the dark site to see if its goto might be good enough to encourage me to move the NexStar 11’s OTA to it. It had to be precise enough to allow me to do my crazy “hundred objects a night” video runs when I am on what Miss Dorothy calls one of my “deep sky tears.” I was pretty sure EQMOD could provide that precision. But I was unable to get it to work that night.

Even though I had little doubt I could get EQMOD going, I decided I wasn’t ready to give up the convenience of the Big Bertha’s fork mount in alt-azimuth mode. I’ll leave her on the fork for now and seek a case that makes her easier to tote around. Nevertheless, I wanted to get EQMOD working. I have used the Atlas and EQMOD for all my DSLR imaging, and want to continue doing that.

Saturday afternoon, I cabled up the laptop and the Atlas and set about troubleshooting. What I concluded was that it was mostly a configuration problem. While I had installed EQMOD on my new Toshiba Satellite laptop, I had never used it and had not completely set it up. I believed there may have been a power problem contributing to my lack of success, too, since I mistakenly used a suspect cable instead of the good one I got from Scopestuff some time back. Anyhoo, I was able to get EQMOD going in the dining room without a hitch.

Since I’d be using the Atlas Saturday evening, it seemed the perfect time to get the TPI spreader and equipment shelf out of their box and on the Atlas tripod. The TPI stuff had arrived some time before, but my return from Chiefland had coincided with me coming down with a nasty cold and I hadn’t felt like doing a pea-picking thing for days.

If there’s a criticism I can level against the TPI gear, it’s that you might feel funny attaching an Astro-Physics/Takahashi quality piece of kit to your plebeian Synta tripod. But that’s OK. The Atlas is really a quality mount and deserves quality accessories and the TPI stuff sure is that. The spreader is made of lovely CNC machined aluminum, and the accessory tray is also very beautifully made. There’s a nice sheaf of instructions, but they are almost unnecessary. Installation consists of bolting the tripod clamp rings to the spreader and then clamping each of the three rings to the tripod legs. Everything is precisely made and fastened with stainless steel hardware. I got ‘er done in about 10-minutes.

How much would the spreader help? Only a good long session under the stars with the Atlas would tell the tale, but when I applied torsional stress to the legs, I could already see the tripod was sturdier. With the spreader extended (it folds to allow you to collapse the tripod as per normal), I attached the accessory shelf, which took all of ten seconds thanks to a nice knob-headed bolt that fastens tray to spreader with a small clamp.

As the afternoon grew older, it was time to load up. I could have snapped M99 with my Meade DSI or even the ZWO camera, but the galaxy wouldn’t be high enough to fool with until close to 10 p.m., so I packed a full load of video gear in addition to the Atlas and my Edge 800 OTA, Mrs. Peel. While I was waiting for the supernova, I’d do a Mallincam run, with the intention of getting some pix for a book I am working on.
I’ve returned to a project I started in 2009. That summer, I got plenty of deep sky video images for what I was calling “Uncle Rod’s SCT 100,” but the pix were done with my old black and white Stellacam and were none too pretty. While I plan to have plenty of genu-wine CCD images (and drawings) in the book, I want video images there, too, since they sometimes do a better job of showing what a deep sky object looks like to the eye than a CCD picture does.

I thought I’d get some of those pictures on this night—if I got anything. Wouldn't you know it? As 4 p.m. came, so did clouds. Also, while I was mostly over my Bad Cold, I wasn’t completely over it and didn't feel at the top of my game. Still, the Weather Channel, Clear Sky Clocks, and Scope Nights were all insisting on “clear,” so I pushed on.

As my departure time, 4:45 p.m., approached, the clouds began to disperse: “Well, I’ll be gull-derned. Clear Sky Clock and Scope Nights got it right for once.” The trip west to the Possum Swamp Astronomical Society Dark Site was uneventful. There was heavy traffic on Airport Boulevard on a Saturday afternoon, but it would almost have been a pleasant drive if I hadn’t suddenly realized I’d forgot a critical piece of gear.

Rut-roh. As I’d been tooling along listening to Classic Album Rock on the Sirius XM, it came to me that I’d left my little Orion StarShoot DVR sitting in the dining room. What to do? Without it, I wouldn’t be able to record any of my video and would have nothing to show for it even if I captured the supernova. On the other hand, I was now about halfway to the site and had no desire to turn around and re-navigate the traffic that was filling Airport Boulevard as Possum Swampers began to flock to the restaurants, clubs, and the Mall on Saturday P.M.

What would I do? What would I do? I’d have to forget collecting images for the SCT 100. If I got the supernova in M99 onscreen, I could probably snap a screenshot with my iPhone. It wouldn’t be great, but it might be OK. I’d devote the evening to testing EQMOD and the TPI spreader. Sigh. I have learned my lesson, y’all. Running the gear load-out by a checklist has meant I haven’t forgotten anything major for a star party trip in a long time. I herewith pledge to start using the same checklist for my at-home dark site runs.

At that dark site, I was once again not surprised to be all by my lonesome—I wasn’t even visited by the airstrip’s friendly tomcat. There was a bright Moon flying high and most of my PSAS compadres probably didn't think it would be a very deep sky friendly evening. In a way, it was probably good I was alone. I was P.O.ed (“put out,” y’all; this is a family-friendly blog) about having forgotten the DVR, and it felt like my cold was getting worse, not better. I tried to film a little video of gear set up with my iPhone, but that was scotched by the first of my many coughing fits. To put in succinctly, your old Unk was in a MOOD.

Despite that, set up went smoothly; the TPI spreader didn't cause any heartburn at all. Push down on the spreader to open the tripod, position the shelf, fiddle with its clamp for five seconds, and I was done. On the tripod went the Atlas GEM head, the counterweight, and the Edge 800 and I was done save for mounting the camera and cabling everything up. How was I feeling when I was done? Not so hotsky. I was warm enough in a sweater and a light nylon jacket—maybe too warm. There was little doubt in my formerly military mind I should have stayed home and would have if’n I’d had good sense. “Oh, well, good thing I don’t have good sense.”

With the computer fired up, a serial cable connected between it and the Atlas, and the Mallincam Xtreme ready to go, my next task was polar alignment. The current SynScan HC has a built-in polar alignment routine identical to the AllStar Polar Alignment in the company’s Celestron branded mounts’ NexStar HCs. EQMOD goes about polar alignment differently, however.

First you set a “polar home” position by rotating the mount in RA with the wireless game pad that serves as EQMOD’s hand control until the marker on the polar scope reticle where Polaris goes is on the bottom. Then, you mash a button on EQMOD to tell it you are ready to polar align. Using the date and time in the laptop for reference, EQMOD moves the mount in RA till the reticle is precisely positioned. Use the altitude and azimuth adjusters to place Polaris in the little circle on the reticle and that is it. It’s not as gee-whiz as AllStar, but I find the polar alignments it produces to be very good indeed.

Once I had Polaris properly positioned, I parked the Atlas to Home Position and waited for a few more alignment stars to wink on. When there was a sufficient quantity, I brought up Cartes du Ciel’s all-sky display and sent the mount to three stars, syncing on each one. I picked a star in the northeast, one in the northwest, and one in the southwest to allow EQMOD to build a good pointing model. EQMOD seemed to be going great guns. The final star was on the screen of the portable DVD player I use as a video display when the slew stopped. I positioned it dead in the middle of the crosshairs I’d put on the screen with the Mallincam software and alignment was complete.

Alrighty, then. Target One. I clicked on Lepus’ globular cluster, M79, on Cartes’ screen, mashed the program’s “slew to” button, and away the Atlas and Mrs. Peel went. When the goto was done, the little glob was dang near dead center. I had forgotten how bright having a Moon n the sky will make the background in Mallincam images, but a little playing with gamma and gain settings reduced this annoyance to a bearable level. With a surprisingly good-looking M79 onscreen, I thought it would be a good time to evaluate the TPI spreader’s effectiveness.

As I was focusing up on M79’s teeny-tiny stars, I noted a distinct absence of The Shakes in 2-second exposures. The Atlas and a C8 are quite steady even without a TPI, but I can always generate of star trails by tweaking focus. With the TPI in place? No Shakes. Just round stars as I focused. OK, Mr. Smarty Pants. Let’s see how you like this. I fetched Mrs. Peel a good whack on her rear cell. Hated to do it, but this was SCIENCE. The result? Amazingly, still no star trails. Folks, I don’t want to overdo it, but if you own an Atlas, you want the TPI spreader. It just makes a difference.

You probably want the TPI accessory tray, too. Even if, unlike Unk, you don’t feel the need for a place to stash stuff, I believe loading it down with your jump-start batteries like I did on this night also adds to the steadiness of the set up. Sorta like the old trick we used to do with too light mounts and tripods: hang a water-filled milk jug from the tripod head.

Up to this point, everything had gone sweet. Real sweet. Which got me suspicious. Everything going so smooth just don’t spell “Unk Rod observing run.” I wasn’t suspicious for long, though. After I was done with M79 things began to go south in a hurry. Oh, a trip to NGC 457, the E.T. Cluster, was a success, but when I clicked on and slewed to M110 in the west, the scope landed on an empty star field.

No problemo. I’d only aligned on three stars, and EMOD allows you to align on as many as you like, meaning go-to accuracy is never a problem. Usually, three is enough, but if not, another star in the area of the target always fixes things. Not this time. I still couldn’t get to M32. I also noticed the cursor on the computer screen that indicates the scope’s position wasn’t on M32 either. What the—? As a test, I used the joystick to place the screen cursor on M32. When I did, it immediately showed onscreen. What the heck was going on?

OK…I headed back east to see if the problem was evident there, too. M79 had been centered after a go-to slew. How about M42? Missed it by several fields. “Hmm…guess I’ll sync on Rigel.” I clicked on Rigel and mashed the slew button. The slew started, and then abruptly stopped halfway to the star. Nothing I could do would get the mount moving again. I threw the big switch.

What was the fraking difficulty? Could be the serial cable. Or perhaps the EQDIR module, the little widget plugged between that cable and the computer that translates between RS-232 speak on the computer end and TTL speak on the mount end. It was certainly old enough; I’d got it shortly after I purchased the mount in ought-seven.


The good thing, though, was that I had a nice troubleshooting tool available, the SynScan HC. Using it should tell me whether my problem lay with the mount or with EQMOD. Plugged it in and after a little fumbling—the SynScan is just different enough from the NexStar hand control to give me fits—got the basic data plugged in and began a three-star alignment.

Which didn't start well. Even with a good polar alignment, I don’t expect the first alignment star to be dead in the finder cross-hairs, not unless I take undue pains with a bubble level to precisely place the Atlas in Home Position—which I don’t do. But I don’t expect star one to be much more than a couple of degrees off. Sirius was several times that. I centered it up, however, and continued to star two. Or tried to. The mount came to a halt not far from Sirius.

Shortly thereafter, the HC spontaneously rebooted itself. Well, now, what in tarnation was going on? Didn't know what else to do other than the good old “once more with feeling.” Was something hosed up with the Atlas’ motor control board? I was feeling awful unhappy till I noticed something as the mount was slewing to Sirius again: the Atlas’ power light was blinking.  That is an indication of a low power condition. I knew the battery was good, so that left the power cable or connectors. I was using a known good power cable, since I’d suspected that as a cause of my problems the previous time out with the mount. I killed the power, unplugged the cable and reseated it.

One last time. This time the mount stopped about half a degree from Sirius. Star two was closer, and star three was nearly centered in the reticle of Mrs. Peel’s Rigel Quick Finder. No more light-blinking, either; I observed the pilot light carefully during the slews.

I am thinking a little strain relief for the power cable provided by some Velcro might be all that’s needed. As the mount rotates in RA, the power cable tends to snag on the HC connector that is adjacent to it. If that don’t get it, a little TLC on the mount-side connector should get me going again. I will do something about it shortly, anyhow, and hope to get Atlas back out on the field before it’s time for this year’s M13 picture, at least.

That was for another night, though. On this night, Unk’s powers were rapidly waning. I was coughing my lungs out, and was again feeling too warm in my light jacket. Fever? Prob’ly. Should I wait another hour for M99? “I don’t theenk so.” I had well and truly reached my infamous I Have Had Enough limit. I packed up as quickly as I could and boogied for Chaos Manor South.

Back at the Old Manse, what was left of the evening provided a more pleasant denouement. Starting with Svengoolie. That friendly goober of  a horror host was showing King Kong versus Godzilla, which Unk first thrilled to in the summer of ’62 during a family vacation in New Orleans (Mama loved its nuclear war tropes; Daddy thought a nuclear war might be preferable to watching this poorly dubbed "masterpiece."). Of course, there was also that bottle of Yell I’d brought back from Chiefland. It soothed my poor burning throat, or at least got me to the point where I didn't much care about it.

On the face of it, Saturday night's run had been an almost complete bust, muchachos. Didn't get the Atlas working right, didn't see the supernova. BUT…at least I’d determined the source of the mount’s problems. And I had had the pleasure of seeing what the TPI spreader could do to kick my humble Atlas up a notch or three. Sipping the beloved elixir, watching my fave giant lizard melt all them toy tanks, I decided the evening hadn’t been such a bust after all. Amateur astronomy ain’t always about your successes; it’s also about your failures—the ones that teach you something, anyway.

Nota Bene:  I’d been told famous amateur astrophotographer Evered Kreimer had died at age 93. Luckily, that turned out not to be so. Sadly, however, we definitely lost another astronomy giant recently, Jean Texereau, 95, a master optician who figured and refigured countless observatory telescopes. What makes him famous among amateurs, however, is his 1951 book, How to Make a Telescope. If you've had even the briefest of flirtations with ATMing, you've heard of it. 

Next Time:  The Case Conundrum...

Sunday, February 09, 2014

 

Old Man Winter


“He just keeps rollin’, he just keeps rollin’ along.” Or sumpin like that anyway, muchachos. If’n you live in the northern U.S. of A., I don’t have to tell you it’s been a nasty winter. But those of us way south of the Mason - Dixon Line had missed the bad stuff. Oh, there were a couple of nights where the thermometer went purty low and I had to let the water faucets drip, but nothing too much out of the ordinary—though last winter I don’t believe we had a single hard freeze.

Then came this nasty dude named “Leon.” When did they start naming winter storms like they do dadgum hurricanes? I don’t know exactly, because I normally don’t pay much attention to the icy blasts that rock the midwest and northeast. But I figgered beginning to name ‘em wasn’t a good sign.

Anyhoo, a couple of days before the coming of Leon, I did sit up and take notice, since the weather goobers on TWC and elsewhere were hinting I might want to. That his icy breath would be felt as far south as our Gulf Coast.

While those of us who reside on this normally sunny and placid coast knew Leon was coming, we welcomed him at first, believe it or no. Snow is such an extraordinary thing for us down here that we actually long to see it. Well, “we” not to include your old Uncle Rod, who spent some weeks of the winter of ought-six in Bath, Maine, and saw more than enough snow to last him a cotton-picking lifetime.

didn't long for snow, and I was growing ever more concerned about what the storm would bring to us, since for most of our area what was on the weather map was “wintry mix,” which means lots of sleet and ice in addition to snow. I knew very well that sleet and ice would shut everything down. Get that stuff on the roads, it melts a tiny bit and freezes again, and you get surfaces even the most hardened Yankee snowbird can’t drive on. Without any snow removal equipment to clear the roads, things could get nasty, real nasty, in a hurry.

How much would this impact me and Miss Dorothy? Not much, I hoped. We are both retired and wouldn’t have to go out on Tuesday – Wednesday when conditions would be the worst. I do, of course, teach my astronomy labs at the University of South Alabama, but I’m only doing one day/night a week, Monday. Preparations? We did our usual grocery trip a day early, but didn't buy anything out of the ordinary. Other than that? I knew from bitter experience that if you’ve got a big Victorian home like Chaos Manor South with miles of water pipes running underneath it, you’ve got to let the water drip inside and out when it is real cold.

The beeeeeg question was what Leon would do to our January CAV trip. Making a run down to the Chiefland Astronomy Village in January is a tradition with Unk, something I’ve been doing since at least 2008, and I was hoping we wouldn’t have to cancel it because of lousy weather. Thankfully, it appeared the storm would miss CAV by a large margin, passing to the north. What I was worried about was getting thereDidn't look like the Florida Panhandle would be spared, and we’d have to traverse that to get to Chiefland. Still, if the storm hit as predicted on Tuesday, that gave us two days for things to get back to normal before our Thursday departure. I crossed my fingers and toes.

Tuesday dawned cloudy and cold, but there was absolutely nothing falling out of the skies at noontime, by which time Leon was supposed to have struck. Afternoon came and went and nothing, absolutely nothing happened. Unk began to relax, “We’ll have to drip water tonight, but it will be warming up by Wednesday afternoon. I’ll get the truck packed and we will skedaddle south early Thursday a.m.” Then I started hearing a curious noise coming from outside.

I hied myself to the front porch and saw white beginning to appear on the front lawn. Not the white of snow. The white of ice crystals, of sleet. The funny sound I was hearing was heavy sleet falling. And it kept going and going and going like the pea-picking Energizer Bunny. The lawn got whiter and whiter—with ice. I may have seen a flake or two of honest-to-god snow, but not much. Not much at all. It finally let up about ten p.m. as Unk was watching an episode of his fave “new Sherlock Holmes" series, Elementary. There was plenty of ice in the yard, and, worse, on the road, but I figured it would have plenty of time to melt both in Possum Swamp and on the Florida Panhandle before we left for CAV.

Wednesday? Absolutely miserable. While it did warm up some and some of the ice did melt, not all of it did. Then the power went out and Unk got colder and colder. At his advanced age, your old Unk thinks “75F” is on the chilly side, so you can imagine.

But the power did come back on in a couple of hours—I suspect they’d turned it off in our neighborhood because they needed to do maintenance somewhere else. I saw no downed or ice laden power lines, anyhow. Things was looking up, I thought. I set about loading up the 4Runner, Miss Van Pelt.

As y’all know, I hate, absolutely despise, packing on a star party morning. It is oh-so-much nicer to be able to get up, throw a suitcase or two in the truck and boogie. And packing the Toyota ain't hard these days. I spent quite a lot of time thinking about the packing “problem”  recently, and after all these years finally developed a PLAN, so despite the punk weather, gear load-out was a snap. It was cold and I had to be careful going up and down the ice coated steps of the Old Manse, but I got ‘er done.

I spent remainder the evening watching another Sherlock Holmes show, Sherlock, which is fine even if it doesn't tickle my fancy quite like Elementary does. Honestly, I am not that hip to modern dress Holmes, anyway, but if I have to choose, I’ll choose Elementary.

Up bright and early Thursday, all seemed A.O.K. We did delay our accustomed 8 a.m. departure to let the temperature get high enough that we could shut off the dripping water, but that appeared to be the only hangup. I thought that would be the only hangup, till I wisely heeded Miss Dorothy’s recommendation that I check the status of I-10 in Florida. Surely, though, it wouldn’t be closed. Not in Florida.

But it was. A long stretch east of Panama City was marked in red on the map I got from the Florida D.O.T. website. Should we take the chance it would be open by the time we got there? Risk being shuttled off to side roads that might be worse? Sadly, I didn't think we should. I thought the wisest thing would be to change our motel reservations from Thursday through Sunday to Friday through Sunday and see what things looked like in the morning.

Which is what we did. That would only give us two days at the CAV, but we had cabin fever big time, and were sick of sitting in the cold (you are not going to get a big, old Victorian that warm) and wanted a vacation in warmer climes, even a shortened one.

I was kinda sad not to be out on the Chiefland observing field Thursday afternoon as we’d planned, but we declared ourselves on vacation anyway, and seeing as how the surface streets looked passable, we went out to one of Unk’s fave restaurants, Logan’s Steakhouse. I tell Miss D. it is lucky for our bank account that Unk has plebeian tastes in restaurants:  Logan’s, Applebee’s, Olive Garden, with a BBQ joint or three thrown in. I like Logan's steaks and enjoyed my Onion Brewski Sirloin, which was accompanied by a couple of their monstrous Tall Boy beers.

Back home, a little Call of Duty on the Xbox 360, a little Ghost Adventures on the cable TV, and I was on my way upstairs. I wanted to make it as early an evening as I possible. The drive to CAV is not too long, six hours, but not entirely inconsequential. I wanted to ensure I was rested and raring to go as possible for the trip and for a long night at the scope Friday evening. I had packed a full Mallincam setup. The Xtreme. The Junior Pro, too. The Edge 800 and her VX mount. Computer and video display. Lots of gear boxes. I planned at the very least to image 75 – 80 Herschel 2500 objects that were originally shot with my old black and white video camera, the Stellacam II, and which I needed to retake with the Mallincams.

If I got a chance to do any shooting. Friday morning, the CAV weather forecasts, which had looked good earlier in the week, had degraded, going from “mostly clear” to “partly cloudy” and even “mostly cloudy.” Whatever. Chiefland’s weather is hard to predict, and, honestly, we really didn't care if we saw a dang thing through the scope or not. We just wanted to escape the cold, dreary Swamp.

The trip down south, which began after Unk had his customary fried chicken biscuit at Micky D’s, wouldn’t have been bad if the Sun had been out. We saw some ice, just a little, on a couple bridges between Pensacola and Tallahassee, and even that would have been gone with a little Sun. But there was no Sun. What there was was fog. Heavy fog. Enough to make me slow down and switch on Miss Van P.’s fog lamps once in a while.

Nevertheless, we made it to the spot just east of Tallahassee where we exit I-10 and pick up Highway 19 in goodly time. As always, I refueled the vee-hickle at the Sunoco station there, grabbed a Jack Link Sasquatch Big Stick, and proceeded down the Florida – Georgia Parkway, the Gateway to the Nature Coast, at a good clip. How did the sky look? Not that good and not that bad. At first it appeared we were running out of clouds and into blue, but the closer we got to the Suwannee River, the more the fluffy white devils multiplied, and when we hit C-land, it was completely overcast.

I did not panic. As always, we stuck to The Plan: Check in at the motel, head to CAV, set up if set up is possible, back to town for a Wal-Mart run and supper.

How was the motel? Not bad, even though, almost unbelievably, the same thing has happened to the Best Western that happened to the Holiday Inn Express. It has changed chains and gone one click down, just like the Holiday Inn (now a Days Inn) did. In this case, to Quality Inns.  The sign that once read “Best Western” was slightly pitiful looking, covered with a tarp and some ancient looking plywood. I suspect the same cost-conscious (and short-sighted) bunch who own the Days Inn now own the Best Western—err, “Quality Inn”—too.

Despite that, the place actually seemed in better repair than it had been when we were there in July. I even saw workmen doing painting and other renovations. The main downcheck? No Internet. None. I mentioned that to the little girl at the desk (who seemed somewhat confused about running a motel), and she allowed as they’d “had a lot of problems with it lately.” It never did come on, as a matter of fact. But that was alright, I had the iPhone if I just had to look at the web—like at the Clear Sky Clock—or read email. Having fewer distractions allowed me to get some writing work done. Including on a new/old book project you-all will hear about in due course.

The next part of The Plan was a run out to the CAV. I was slightly worried about that, imagining the place would be utterly deserted due to the clouds. Nope. Plenty of my old buddies were or soon would be onsite: Carl, Paul, John, Bobbie, Margie, Marty, and a couple more. That was the good. As we stood out on the field shooting the breeze about Paul’s new Astro - Physics mount, it began to drizzle. Bobbie, Margie, and Dorothy declared we didn't have the sense to come in out of the rain, and Unk and D. were shortly on our way back to town.

What’s that? Gear set up? Nope. No way. There was simply no chance of it clearing Friday night. And not only would the drizzle have made putting up the tailgating canopy and scope extremely unpleasant, I was beginning to think the only thing that would come of it would be me having to repack wet gear in the truck come Sunday morning. I took a few photos of the field and my friends and that was it.

In a changing world one thing remains a constant, the Chiefland WallyWorld. Same bargain basement stuff, same slightly countrified folks (nothing like the mutants you see on People of Walmart.com, however). What did we get? As always, we stuck to The Plan:  granola bars and Jack Links for field snacking, bottled water for the room and the field, Monster Energy Drinks to keep me going through long nights, Kolorado Kool-Aid for post run celebrating, and a new Star Wars T-shirt for Unk’s wardrobe. And one other thing whose purchase did not bode well, a fraking umbrella.

After that, it was back to the room for a short interlude. In more normal circumstances, with clear skies expected, we would have grabbed a quick supper, usually consisting of, for Unk, the Dorito Taco BIG BOX from the nearby Taco Bell. But this would not be a clear night. The clouds meant we had plenty of time to kill. At the motel, I tried the Internet (nada), and got the beer chilling in the room refrigerator. Shortly thereafter, it was going on five and time to eat.

Supper at Bill’s Bar-b-que has, unfortunately, become a tradition for us over the last year. It’s something to do when we have clouded-out no-way-in-hell nights at the CAV, which seem to have become all too frequent of late. On those evenings, I usually order Bill’s excellent rib-eye with all the fixins, but I’d had a steak the previous night, so I went with the Pork Plate Special. Which consists of a heap of sliced pork, mound of fries, garlic bread, BBQ beans, and the old-fashioned salad bar. How was it? Danged if it wasn't better than ever. It’s as if the food at Bill’s has gotten ever better as the weather pattern has gotten ever worse. Go figger. Washed it down with several beers, and then back to the motel for some Big Bang Theory and hopes that Saturday night would be better.

Our time in Chiefland had been shortened and so had our itinerary. Normally we’d do Manatee Springs State Park or Fanning Springs State Park Friday morning followed by lunch at Bill’s or the superb 19-98 Grill. Saturday would bring a trip to beautiful Cedar Key (a.k.a. “Duma Key”). Unfortunately, losing a day and us waking to the threat of rain Saturday scotched our park and Cedar Key plans. Instead, on Saturday morning Miss Dorothy relaxed in the room and Unk headed to the CAV to see what was up and what the consensus was about the weekend.

I was excited to see Paul’s beautiful new AP1100 mount in action. Well, slewing around under cloudy skies, anyway. What wasn’t so exciting was the glum looks on everybody’s faces engendered by the complete overcast. Too thick to even get a hydrogen alpha scope pointed at Sol. Dorothy and I had been discussing maybe extending through Sunday night, but it ‘peared we’d be alone if we did. Also, while the weather forecast looked better for Sunday night, it was not better enough to make me want get up at oh-dark-thirty Monday to get home in time to teach my 3:30 p.m. astronomy class.

Anyhow, Paul’s massive new rig, which had a beautiful Edge 1100 and a big Explore Scientific refractor riding on it, was extremely impressive. Unk has neither the skies nor the talent to put an A-P GEM to good use, but I suspect Paul will do great things with it in the imaging realm, and seeing the gleaming white mount in all its glory, yes, made me want one. Alas, Meade and Celestron, like Logan’s and Olive Garden, are more your old Unk’s speed.

I told my friends they could bet that if the clouds began to break before dark, I’d be back in a flash. And that if that didn't happen I’d see them again at the Spring Picnic run in March. I suspected as I was leaving the field that I wouldn’t be back till the picnic. The overcast didn't look at bit thinner; if anything it appeared thicker.

At the room, I sat down at MS Word and did some more hunting and pecking. No, there still wasn’t any pea-picking Internet, and, again, that was maybe a good thing. I was able to do some more on the book and also on the missive you are reading right now. I kept sneaking peeks out the door, but nothing had changed and it didn't look like anything would. We’d head home in the morning. There was only one decision left to be made, and it had nothing to do with setting up telescopes:  “What’s for supper?”

We considered Bubbaque’s Barbecue across the street. I used to joke about the place’s name, but we really enjoyed their food the last time we were Down Chiefland Way.  There was also  the excellent ABC Pizza, which I’d often eaten out on the field when somebody made a run into town for a pie. We could walk to ABC right next door to the motel, so it seemed a natural. Alas, ‘twas not to be. In the course of getting an umbrella out of the truck “just in case,” Unk tripped over the curb and went face-first into gravel. Wham! "Miss Dorothy, HALP!"

I hit pretty danged hard, and my first thought was, “Oh, for god’s sake. I’ll have to hunt up a doctor in fraking Chiefland, Florida on a Saturday night.” Luckily, it was not quite that bad. My upper lip bled copious amounts, but eventually stopped, and my teeth seemed intact. My knee had a real good scrape, but no worse than I used to get when I crashed my bike as a youngun. Lest y’all think I am getting too old to be allowed abroad, I did the same freaking thing back in ’03 at the Tennessee Star Party, if not with quite such dire results.

The pain of my split lip, which was admittedly pretty intense, was assuaged by the ice Miss D.  kindly fetched me (she also went and got a large pepperoni at ABC in case I felt like eating later). The “medicine” I “applied” most enthusiastically, however, came out of a great, huge bottle of Rebel Yell, which I’d been prescient enough to purchase at Bubbaque’s liquor store earlier that afternoon. It took all my pain away.

Such was the denouement of a slightly misbegotten CAV odyssey. It was a complete and utter skunking, no use denying it. This was, in fact, the first time I've been at CAV and not had a single minute's observing time since March 2009. But in spite of it all, in spite of being clouded out and falling flat on my face—ironically before I had had drink one—I still had a better, or at least a more “interesting,” time than I would have had sitting home shivering in front of the boob tube. Anyway, as you-all know, muchachos, when it comes to Uncle Rod observing runs anything can happenand usually does. Just ask Miss Dorothy.

Nota Bene:  You can find plenty of pictures of our Chiefland trip on Unk’s Facebook page.

Next Time:  Chasin' Supernovae with Unk...

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