Sunday, March 30, 2014


A Year with the VX

Well, almost a year, anyhow, muchachos. I bought Celestron’s successor to the much-loved CG5 German equatorial mount last May. I thought y’all might be interested to hear how we are getting along and some of my observations on the mount after using it as much as I could over the course of a year that was the cloudiest I remember since 1994.

“Wait just one cotton picking minute, Unk. I thought the subject of this week’s blog was supposed to be your latest jaunt down to the dadgummed Chiefland Astronomy Village?” That it was, Skeezix, that it was. There were two flies in that ointment, however. The first was weather. The closer we got to the date of the legendary Chiefland Spring Picnic, the worse the 10-days on Wunderground and became. The forecasts settled into a dreary sameness:  “Overcast Thursday night. 80 – 90% chance of rain and thunderstorms Friday and Saturday.”

Frankly, y’all, I wasn’t much in the mood to spend yet another long weekend sitting in a room in the Chiefland Quality Inn looking at the dadgum cable TV. I’d hate to miss the big spring do and seeing all my old friends, though, so I spoke to good buddy Carl Wright, who is a lot closer to the CAV than I am, to see what he thought. Alas, Carl didn't offer a speck of encouragement weather-wise. Nevertheless, I’d normally, as you know, have said, “Damn the Wunderground; full speed ahead.” But there was another factor to consider this time…

If you’ve been following this here blog long, you know Unk retired from his engineering job last year, in February of 2013, to be exact. One of the things Miss Dorothy and I agreed would happen after that was that we’d pull up stakes and move out of the Old Manse. Much as I love our Victorian home in the Garden District, it has become too much. Too much room. Too much upkeep. I was also longing for a place where I can do at least some observing. The growth of trees in and around Chaos Manor South’s backyard has prevented that for years.

Miss Dorothy and I hopped in the 4Runner last Saturday with no grander intention than of driving around and having a look at a few suburban neighborhoods. We almost immediately found a subdivision we liked, one close to the University and numerous friends. When we got home, Unk fired up and started looking at details of the homes we’d seen for sale in “Hickory Ridge.”

Right off the bat, I found a house I liked. Single story. Brick. Big backyard. Miss Dorothy liked it too, especially after we had a look-see at the Open House Sunday. In fact, she was downright enthusiastic. Still, as we always do, D. and I maintained a “business is business” attitude when we talked to the seller’s agent. Keeping emotion tamped down is the best way, we've found, to assure success in business endeavors—which is what buying a house is, no matter how many emotions are stirred in the process.

Anyhoo, by Tuesday morning, almost unbelievably, we were making an offer, which was promptly accepted, and we've now begun the mountains of paperwork and mucho hoop-jumping required to purchase a home these days. Miss Dorothy and I were uber-busy, tired, and most assuredly not ready for a big observing expedition, y’all. We cancelled our motel reservations down Chiefland Way—is there any sadder phrase in the English language than that? Rest assured, I WILL head back to the CAV this coming May New Moon come hell or high water, I promise (April’s dark of the Moon will bring the 2014 Deep South Regional Star Gaze Spring Scrimmage).

Does this spell the end of fabled Chaos Manor South? Nope. We will be here for some weeks yet. More importantly, “Chaos Manor South” is not just a place. It is a state of mind. It is the state of Unk’s mind, such as it is, and he carries it around with him wherever he goes. Expect to hear a lot more about the new Chaos Manor South in the coming months, but I believe you, our friends, will be pleased for us.

Back to the Celestron VX. Why did Unk want a VX anyhow? He had a perfectly good CG5. That mount performed as well as it ever had at last spring’s Deep South Regional Star Gaze Spring Scrimmage, helping Unk image over a hundred objects despite there only being only one fully clear night during the whole three day event. Since the VX and the CG5 are roughly comparable, why would your stingy Unk offer up dineros for a VX?

The main reason was that the CG5 was getting a mite long in the tooth. It was nearly a decade old; Unk bought it on a semi-whim in the spring of 2005. Yes, it did as well as it ever had at the Spring Scrimmage, but it had a lot of miles on it, and was not an expensive mount to begin with. Seeing as how I rely on a C8 – GEM combo for much of my observing now, having a reliable medium weight mount is important to me. I dang sure don’t want to lug my Atlas all over creation. I decided the coming of the new VX was a signal it was time to relegate the CG5 to backup status.

I also wanted a retirement present. I make no secret of the fact that retirement was a big adjustment for me. The excitement of a new telescope and mount would, I thought, help ease the Rodster into his new life. Coincidentally, Celestron had just announced a package deal consisting of the CG5’s new replacement, the VX, and an Edge 800 SCT OTA for an attractive price.

I’d been admiring the Edge 800 for months and months and months, and we will talk about her and her sisters again sometime soon. Today, though, the subject is the mount. Would the VX be better than the CG5? Looking at the specs and talking to people who’d used the mount, I could tell the newun was more like the old mount than different. Similar payload capacity, and, I suspected, a similar periodic error. Which was good, since I never had any problem guiding the CG5 for any length of exposure I wanted to do. Also good was that the VX’s weight was about the same as that of the CG5—nice and light, a godsend for your broken down old hillbilly Uncle.

There were differences. Quite a few, actually. The VX was not just a gussied up CG5, it seemed. Yes, the tripod was almost the same as that of its predecessor, but that’s where the similarities ended. The GEM head had been completely redesigned. It was more attractive, better finished, and sturdier. In the “real good” category, Celestron completely redid the control panel. It was now part of the polar axis—the old mount’s control panel was on the RA motor’s plastic housing and had a definite tacked-on look.

The new control panel offered the same connections as the CG5, auto-guide (ST-4 input), declination, and hand control, plus a couple of new ones, Aux 1, and Aux 2. The connector for the declination cable had been moved away from the others on the VX and was now vertically oriented on the right side of the panel. That would make it much less likely you’d plug the HC into the dec port, which Unk used to do frequently with the CG5—risking possible electronics damage. Only complaint? How come the hand control receptacle was the second port on the control panel instead of the first, which would seem to make sense? Oh, well.

A constant source of irritation for CG5 owners, including Unk, was the mount’s small power switch, which inevitably failed. Mine lasted about three years. After that, I left it in the “on” position permanently, and turned the mount on and off by plugging and unplugging the power cable. That worked, but was hardly an elegant solution. On the VX, the power switch, I could see, was now a nice big one that looked easier to operate and which I suspected would be longer-lived.

There was a red pilot light on the control panel, and, finally, a 12-volt power connector. The new power connector was furnished with a threaded collar like the one on the CGEM’s power socket. That allows you to thread-on the power cable as well as plug it in, which helps maintain a good connection, I suppose. Might not be a good thing if you tend to snag or trip over your cables, howsomeever.

That was it for the visible electrical/electronic improvements. There were apparently some invisible ones too, including a new motor control board that supposedly helped with guiding, but I never had problems in that regard with the CG5.

The remaining upgrades were of a mechanical nature, and they were significant. The altitude and azimuth adjustment bolts, the flimsy little adjustment bolts of the CG5, had been replaced with hefty bolts with great, big knobs. The VX’s counterweight shaft was of the same diameter as the CG5’s, but longer, allowing a C8 to balance with a single 11-pound “pancake” weight. The single included counterweight (with the C8 package) was redone, too. It was much more attractive and modern looking than the old Synta weights, and its clamp bolt had a nice big T-handle (the old style weights still work on the VX). The CG5’s RA axis end cover, which always wanted to fall off, was ditched for a nice molded plastic thread-on job for the VX.

Finally, Celestron replaced the silly stick-on labels that served as index marks for the CG 5 with engraved lines on the RA and declination axis. These index markers allow you to set the mount in its proper “home” position before beginning alignment—ain’t no position switches on a CG5 or VX. I thought the new ones would be easy to see after dark with the aid of a dim red light.

Actually, I fibbed. There was one other electronic/computer change, Unk was told, and one he wasn’t sure he liked. The old Celestron NexStar hand control was history. What was shipping with the VX mounts was the new “Plus” version. While this thing supposedly had a faster computer and better display, Unk had not been impressed when he’d tried his buddy John’s Plus HC at the CAV the previous winter. Main complaint? There are no longer “M” and “NGC” buttons. To get to either catalog, you have drill down through a deep sky object menu, just like on a cotton picking Meade Autostar. Sheesh.

Your silly old Uncle was quite impressed with the mount’s specs and with the pretty full-page ads he saw for the Edge 800/VX combo in Sky and Telescope. Course, now he had to get one, which is always an adventure in amateur astronomy. It had taken forever for Unk’s CG5 to arrive. It had been on its way to Possum Swamp when the UPS truck carrying it had crashed and burned on the Interstate—that’s what the seller told Unk, anyhow. It was weeks before the CG5 finally arrived.

At first, it looked like things would go smoother with the VX/Edge. I ordered it from my go-to guy, Bob Black, whose Skies Unlimited is my dealer of choice in these latter days. The new scope and mount arrived at the Old Manse promptly, right after I returned from a gig at the renowned Raleigh Astronomy Club, where I gave a talk on the Herschel Project.

Yep, it looked like the newun would spare Unk the travails usually associated with buying new gear. The OTA was perfect, and the mount at first seemed to be the same. I did notice a couple of peculiarities. The “toe-saver” bolt on the end of the declination counterweight shaft would not thread on all the way. Also, the central rod that threads into the GEM head to attach it to the tripod didn't want to screw in as easily as the ones on my CG5 and Atlas. In all other respects, the new mount appeared to be “go,” however.

Till I tried to remove the GEM head from the tripod to take the rig out to my buddy Pat Rochford’s observatory for first light, that is. Seemed kinda hard to unscrew the central bolt/rod. Then, suddenly, it locked down. Hard. Wouldn't unscrew at all. Period. Couldn't tighten it back up, either. Gentle persuasion wouldn’t loosen it. Spraying a little WD-40 didn't help. With a sinking feeling, I realized I was in trouble.

The head would obviously have to come off the tripod somehow for me to ship the mount back, which was purty obviously what was going to have to happen. I began gently with a strap wrench, which wouldn’t turn the rod a millimeter. I wound up with a pipe wrench that bent the central rod in the course of getting the head off the tripod, not surprisingly destroying the hole into which the rod was threaded in the process.

My assumption was (and is) that the hole for the central bolt was improperly threaded, just like the one for the counterweight shaft toe-saver. Anyhoo, having a good dealer made the difference. Bob and Celestron got a new mount on the way and issued a UPS call tag for the old one. Unfortunately, the replacement didn't quite make it in time for the Spring Scrimmage, which is why the CG5 mount got a crack at the star party. The VX was waiting for me when I got back home and this time everything really was perfect.

Did the Edge 800 OTA, Mrs. Emma Peel, do as well on the VX as she had on the CG5 at the Scrimmage? Yes. But it took me quite a while to find that out. The sad fact was that after that single good night at the star party, we’d seen our last clear weather for a long, long time. For months, it seemed like.

I did get out a couple of times under marginal conditions, and was able to verify the new mount’s basic operation in a half-hour of clear skies I got one evening. The goto accuracy seemed every bit as good as that of the CG5, which is saying something—the CG5’s goto prowess was always equal to or superior to that of my much more expensive NexStar 11. The new mount’s motors were also much quieter than those of the CG5; there were no more weasels-with-tuberculosis noises to disturb the sanctity of the Possum Swamp Astronomical Society observing field.

There things remained until October 2013. I did to a considerable amount of lunar imaging and some spectroscopy, but a full-blown Mallincam crusade against the deep sky, a hundred object deep sky tear (as Miss Dorothy calls 'em)? Uh-uh.

I didn't see a fraking thing, really, till October began to approach. When I finally got a semi-good night, I was ready for it. My mission was both to give the VX a completely clean bill of health and to test a new deep sky video camera I was excited about, the Mallincam Junior Pro. That night on the PSAS field wasn’t perfect, but I did have enough sucker holes to allow me to image about a dozen objects with Junior. The mount did brilliantly, and I even made friends with the pea-picking AllStar polar alignment procedure.

The VX, like the CG5, does NOT need a good polar alignment for visual observing. Just sighting the pole star through the mount’s empty polar axis bore is enough. If you are imaging, however, even doing short exposures with a Mallincam, you want to do a better polar alignment to ensure stars are nice and round in your pictures.

Celestron has had an automated polar alignment routine in their hand controls for a long time. The original procedure used Polaris. Center Polaris it the eyepiece (or camera) using altitude and azimuth adjusters after the mount pointed to where its computer thought the North Star should be given a perfect polar alignment, and you were done.

In 2008, though, Celestron gave into the dreaded The Only Enemy of Good Enough is More Better syndrome and released a new firmware load for their GEMs that replaced the Polaris procedure with the AllStar polar alignment system, which would allow you to use any star (sort of) except Polaris for polar alignment. I tried the new firmware with my CG5 down Chiefland Way one January—and immediately went back to the old firmware. I just thought the Polaris method was easier, and it was more than good enough for video imaging.

When I got the VX, I figgered I’d load up the HC with the old GEM firmware and continue to use the Polaris align system. Uh-uh. Nossir buddy. The old firmware couldn’t be loaded into the new Plus HC. Hell, I couldn’t even run the old code with NexRemote connected to the VX. NexRemote would not work with the mount without using the newer firmware builds.

A Man’s Gotta Do What a Man’s Gotta Do, so that night with the VX and Junior I buckled down and learned how to use AllStar. Wasn't bad at all. Worked well and easily (if not as easily as the old method, if’n you ask me) if you used a star near the intersection of the Celestial Equator and the Local Meridian. Due south and not too high, that is. It even seemed like the polar alignment I got was a smidge better than the ones produced by the old Polaris alignment.

The VX finally got its chance to shine last November at the 2013 DSRSG. The main goal was imaging as many Arp galaxies as possible with the Mallincam Xtreme, but on one of the two good nights, I also did visual observing with Miss Dorothy’s new Explore Scientific AR102 refractor on the VX. The mount performed superbly on both evenings, doing over 75 Arps and dozens and dozens of showpiece DSOs besides. I noted the stars stayed pleasingly round even in one-minute Mallincam integrations—with no guiding, natch.

After the DSRG? Mostly, the VX and Unk have sat under cloudy skies. The few times we've got out, the mount has shown itself to be a reliable, solid performer—just like the CG5. How about guided imaging? Cain’t say. Ain’t done none. Ain’t been able to. I hope to rectify that in the near future, however. What do I expect in that regard? I expect the mount to be at least as easy to guide as the CG5, which would be a good thing. I used to have no trouble doing up to ten-minute subs with the C8 and the CG5 and my SBIG ST2000 CCD cam.

Is there anything I do NOT like about the VX? Only one thing: the way I have to connect my computer to the mount to run the NexRemote software. Y’all know I like to operate my Celestron mounts with the program. I sit warm and cozy under a tailgating canopy viewing Mallincam video on a monitor and controlling the scope with an on-computer NexStar HC courtesy of NexRemote. It is a big deal for me.

I connected the computer to the CG5 via a “programming” cable that ran to a “PC Port” on the mount. Unlike some Celestron mounts, the CG5 doesn't have a native PC Port. One was provided by a (no longer made) gadget called the “Aux Port Accessory.” You can also run NexRemote by plugging a standard serial cable into the base of the NexStar hand control, but going to the PC port is a better solution. You don’t have to fool with the hardware HC. Doesn't have to be plugged in. You can leave it at home.

Thought I’d do the same with the VX, which, like the CG5, has no PC Port. Nope. The Aux Port Accessory wouldn’t work with the new mount. OK, Celestron was advertising that their latest widget, the SkyQ Link, would allow you to run NexRemote wirelessly from a laptop. Wouldn't have to have the hand control plugged into the mount, neither. Since they specifically advertised it to work with the VX, I thought my problems was over and ordered one.

But it didn't work with the VX. I should probably have returned the blamed thing, but Celestron made some soothing noises about fixing things in a couple of emails to me. As you might guess, I haven’t heard back from them since. I don’t really expect to, either. While the wireless widget does work with my CG5, it won’t work on the mount I bought it for, so I feel like my pocket has been picked by the danged rascals. I’ve got used to connecting NexRemote through the hardware hand control, but that don’t mean I have to like it, y’all.

Should you opt for a VX instead of a CG5? The CG5 is, after all, a modern classic given its modest price and outstanding performance. Nevertheless, I think the VX is the way to go now. Even if it weren't getting almost impossible to find a new CG5, the VX is a better finished, somewhat more solid mount. How about the competing mounts from iOptron? I haven’t used one of the new ZEQ25s or, indeed, any of that company’s GEMs. I’ve heard they are good performers, but using one would mean giving up NexRemote, and, more importantly, giving up the VX’s incredible NexStar goto accuracy. Not to mention, muchachos, that dagnabbed AllStar alignment, which your mercurial old Unk must now admit he likes.

Nota Bene:  I have in my hands Rock Mallin’s latest creation, the Mallincam Micro EX. I had high hopes of reporting on it here this week. Obviously, with the cancellation of the CAV run, that didn't happen. Rest assured, as soon as I can get the cam out under a dark sky, you will hear all about it. I did fire it up in the house, and your techno-challenged old Uncle was able to figure out how to work it without much trouble, which bodes well.

Nota Bene 2:  While bagging up stuff to throw out as we prepare to move, I ran across a long-lost set of pictures, including a few from the 1994 Deep South Regional Star Gaze, Miss Dorothy's first star party. So, I updated my article about that event with some of the pix and some additional text, even. See it rat cheer.

Next Time: Sketching…

Sunday, March 23, 2014



Unless you are the greenest of greenhorn astronomers, the wettest behind the ears novice imaginable, you know what I mean by “Burnham’s.” Burnham’s Celestial Handbook, muchachos. The three volume book once considered amateur astronomy’s premier guide to the deep sky.

Naturally, as the years have rolled on following the Handbook’s publication in 1978, books that go deeper and have more deep sky objects in their pages, like Kepple and Sanner’s The Night Sky Observer’s Guide and Skiff and Luginbuhl’s Observing Handbook and Catalogue of Deep Sky Objects, have displaced it.  As the 21st century bumbles on, even those guides have been somewhat replaced—by computer programs, naturally.

The situation with The Night Sky Observer’s Guide and the Skiff – Luginbuhl book, is analogous to the one with printed star atlases. The deepest print atlas, The Millennium Star Atlas, shows one million stars and over eight thousand deep sky objects. But… The freeware planetarium program Cartes du Ciel not only prints charts that are legible and usable, if not nearly as pretty as those in Millennium, it blows the doors off the printed atlas in object counts. A basic CdC installation might contain one million deep sky objects and tens of millions of stars. A book of printed charts can only go to deep and remain practical to use.

So it is with observing guides as well. Deep sky “planner” programs like SkyTools 3, Deep Sky Planner, Astroplanner, and Deepsky offer millions of objects, and go beyond the bare facts of names, sizes and magnitudes. SkyTools 3, for example, says this about M13 in addition to the “just the facts ma’m” data:

On this night NGC 6341 is best visible between 03:35 and 06:47, with the optimum view at 06:14. Look for it in Hercules, high in the sky in moonlight. It is detectable visually in the Celestron Nexstar 11. Use the Panoptic 22mm for optimum visual detection.

In the following 30 days this object is easy visually on March 23 through April 13, with the best view coming on March 31. NGC 6341 passes high overhead at Chiefland, Florida. It is best viewed from mid May through late October, with the best evening viewing in early August.

Most planning programs also offer images and charts for every object in their libraries (you may have to download the pictures of all but the brightest objects, but that is easy). Deepsky, even has extracts from the logs of renowned amateur observers like Barbara Wilson. Overall, there is not too much even the best book can give you that a planning program can’t. Well, that is almost true. There is an exception:  Burnham’s Celestial Handbook. It’s different, going beyond facts and appearances and offering a unique, aesthetically - oriented take on the sky that has yet to be duplicated by any computer program or book.

Burnham’s is different because its author was different. There is no doubt Robert Burnham Junior was a genius at observing and telescopes. Unfortunately, as is sometimes the case with people gifted for a particular thing and also obsessed by that thing, that got in the way of a successful life and career.

That isn't always true, of course. Clyde Tombaugh was probably an even more gifted observer, but he was a different kind of cat, a down-to-earth farm boy who, in the fashion of young Americans his time, the 1930s, was dead set on improving himself. His exploits as a teen amateur astronomer got him a job at Lowell Observatory, where he went on to discover Pluto, but that was just the beginning. He soon got himself Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees from the University of Kansas, went to work at White Sands Missile Range, and had a long and distinguished teaching career at New Mexico State University.

Bob Burnham was, yeah, different. Today, we’d probably call him “borderline autistic.” He was extremely shy. Despite being a huge name in amateur astronomy, he was almost completely unknown to us amateurs. His reserve wouldn’t allow him to associate with us, much less speak at clubs or star parties. Other than his writing in the Handbook, all most of us knew of him came from a sad letter he wrote to Sky and Telescope in 1982 bemoaning his treatment by his publisher.

Like Tombaugh, Burnham came to the attention of Lowell Observatory as a young man—after discovering a comet at age 26. He was hired to assist in a particular project, the Proper Motion Survey, beginning in 1958. In addition to his work obtaining and blinking images for this massive study of stellar proper motion, Burnham busied himself with several subsidiary and (natch) esoteric interests, like collecting ancient coins. Shortly after coming to Lowell, he even discovered another comet (with his own 8-inch scope). Lowell was his life, with the observatory even providing him with humble living quarters.

Bob Burnham would probably have remained an unknown save for his Big Idea. He would write a great guide to the constellations, to their stars and deep sky objects, for amateur astronomers. Something like what Admiral Smyth and Reverend Webb did in the 19th Century. It would go beyond anything that had come before, however, covering deep sky objects, especially, in meticulous detail. The idea for what Burnham originally called his “celestial survey” came to him before he moved to Lowell, but as he settled in there, he began to work on it furiously.

Thus began Burnham’s life’s work. His Celestial Handbook eventually went on to comprise three fat volumes totaling over 2,000 pages. It was originally self-published in the form of loose-leaf pages beginning in 1966. You subscribed to the Handbook and got pages as Burnham finished them. This “book” wasn’t typeset; it looked as if it came straight off Burnham's typewriter.

Most people in the astronomy community, amateurs and professionals, immediately recognized Burnham’s Celestial Handbook as a classic. Not everybody was completely thrilled, however, at least not Burnham’s boss, Dr. Henry Giclas, who had hired Burnham and who was in charge of the Proper Motion Survey. Some amateur astronomers want to paint Giclas as the villain of the piece, but he really wasn’t. By all accounts, he had a basically kindly disposition and was well liked by his colleagues and the people of the community. He doesn't seem to have had a very high opinion of amateur astronomers, but that wasn’t an uncommon trait among professionals of the time.

Giclas was irritated Burnham wouldn’t allow the Lowell staff oversight concerning the Handbook. It was Burnham’s baby, certainly, but Giclas knew it would become associated with Lowell Observatory, even if it didn't become an official Lowell Observatory Publication, and he worried that any errors and misconceptions it might contain would reflect poorly on Lowell.

The staff was touchy in that regard, since Lowell Observatory had always had a reputation for being a slightly goofy place.  Actually, while Bob’s book wasn’t perfect, it probably had no more errors than the average undergraduate astronomy textbook of the day.  Anyway, the Handbook was published in book form without support from Lowell in 1979, and Burnham should have lived happily ever after.

He didn't, and the rest of his story borders on the tragic. Who was responsible for Burnham’s downfall? In the end, Burnham. He knew from the beginning that the Proper Motion Survey would eventually be completed. The friends he made  at Lowell urged him to get an education while he still had a job—he had never attended college—but he was so wrapped up in his Handbook, his old coins, and the observatory’s telescopes that he made no plans for the future that was rapidly approaching.

The Proper Motion Survey was done in the spring of 1979, and there was no money to keep Burnham on as an observer or assistant. He was offered what was supposedly the only job available, that of observatory janitor. Not surprisingly, he refused and left. How would he support himself? With royalties from the Handbook, of course.

Should Lowell have found something else for the man who’d worked for them for 20 years? Yes. There is no indication Burnham was anything but a good employee who did what he was told for two decades. Yes, I know Lowell had a history of money problems, and I know the NSF grant that funded Burnham ended with the Proper Motion Survey, but I still refuse to believe something better than fraking janitor couldn't have been found for the man.

On his own and jobless, Burnham was unrealistic about the amount of money the Handbook would bring in. As with any hardcore amateur astronomy book there was a limited audience for it, no matter how good it was, and thus little money to be made from it. Even today, with there being considerably more amateur astronomers than there were in the 1980s, few of us astronomy writers—if any—can support ourselves with just our writing. Also, not only was the Celestial Handbook what the publishers call a “specialist book,” it was huge and not very pretty—Burnham’s publisher did not typeset or redesign it; apparently they just printed it from dupes of Burnham’s original pages.  

There was likely no way the Handbook’s royalties could have supported its author for long, even in modest fashion. Not even if it had been in the hands of a mainstream publisher, which it wasn’t. Unfortunately, apparently the only outfit who would take on the book was Dover Publications, who specialized in reissues of other publishers’ unwanted books and books in the public domain.

Dover actually sold quite a few Handbooks at first, a surprising number, and Bob received some reasonably fat checks for a while. As they inevitably do, however, the royalty checks began to shrink. Despite that, he wouldn’t even consider looking for non-astronomy work. He lived with a sister for several years; always hoping his book would break big—maybe in international editions—and bring him the money and recognition he craved.

The opposite happened. Dover decided the way to move Burnham’s Celestial Handbook was through the old Astronomy Book Club, who offered it for years, usually as part of their membership sign-up come-on:  you could get the three volumes of Burnham’s Celestial Handbook for five bucks if you joined the club.

Not unexpectedly, the book club deal further reduced Burnham’s royalties and he began to sink further into poverty. The Astronomy Book Club did keep the book and Burnham’s name before the amateur astronomy community, however, and that could have been a big help if he had continued writing. In an ideal world, Bob would have followed the Handbook with another astronomy book, piggybacked on the popularity of his original work, and kept on trucking.

Unfortunately, Burnham didn't have another book in him, at least not another astronomy book. As far as I know, he never even contemplated a follow-up to the Handbook. He did begin a Lord of the Rings-style epic fantasy novel, The Chronicles of Deriyabar, but it’s unclear how far he got with it, and Dover certainly wasn’t interested in such a thing.

I believe Bob Burnham could still have been helped at this stage. There is no doubt in my formerly military mind that he could have got work with the astronomy magazines, done the star party circuit, and begun to enjoy the accolades due him from his fellow amateurs. All that could have happened and would have improved his life immeasurably, but Burnham was too shy and isolated to reach out to anybody. He did the best he could, but was just too dysfunctional to help himself.

He did do an interview for Astronomy Magazine in the early 1980s, but it had to be a self-interview; he couldn’t face talking to a stranger from the magazine. The result was odd but nevertheless touching and occasionally perceptive.

In 1986, following disappointing returns from the Japanese edition of the book, which he had counted on to turn his finances around, Burnham, whose physical and mental health seemed to be deteriorating rapidly, left Arizona. Nobody much had any idea where he was, what he was doing, or even who he was. Most of us amateur astronomers just naturally assumed the author of the book we loved so much was the Robert Burnham who followed Richard Berry as Editor of Astronomy Magazine (a different and unrelated person). Not hardly.

Bob wound up in San Diego selling his paintings of cats in Balboa Park to survive—barely. He was still receiving royalties from Dover, but he’d taken enough advances to reduce his checks to truly  minuscule amounts. He was just another troubled semi-homeless drifter hanging out in the park.

Despite his circumstances, Burnham never lost his love for the night sky, and would occasionally visit the lectures and other events held by the San Diego club, the San Diego Astronomy Association. No one there had any idea who he was, of course.

The denouement was that Robert Burnham died on March 20, 1993 at the age of 61, just another charity case in San Diego’s Mercy Hospital, after being found in distress in the park. His death was basically due to years of privation and neglect.

It was years before even his family knew of his passing, and more years before amateur astronomers learned the man who wrote Burnham’s Celestial Handbook was gone. Most of us didn't know a dadgum thing about Bob Burnham till an Arizona New Times (newspaper) article by Tony Ortega, “Sky Writer,” appeared in 1997 and slowly got passed around the community.

How about Unk and the Handbook? What’s my history with it? I’d noticed the little ads for Bob’s loose-leaf version in the magazines, but I didn't get around to buying his book until it had been out in three-volume form for a few years, in the mid-1980s. How did I buy it? I am embarrassed to say it, but I did the “Burnham’s for Five Bucks” thing with the (now long gone) Astronomy Book Club. I plead innocent, since in them days I didn't know pea-turkey about book clubs and publishers and the rights authors ought to have.

What did I think? The minute I opened Volume I, Andromeda to Cetus, I was hooked and knew this was a different sort of astronomy book. The Handbook is inscribed, “The CELESTIAL HANDBOOK is affectionately dedicated to all the young friends who have traveled with me to the far reaches of the Universe.” Then comes a poem, a poem by Robert Burnham, “Midnight,” overlaid on a nice black and white comet photo (no color inside the Handbook anywhere).

I’ve sat in enough graduate English courses in the years since to know “Midnight” really isn't much of a poem. The verse is awkward and the syntax and vocabulary antiquated, but to me it is good—maybe even great—nevertheless: “Look skyward now…/and see above…INFINITY/Vast and dark and deep/and endless…/your heritage/Silent clouds of stars.”

That is what Bob’s Handbook is all about; he strives to go beyond the nuts and bolts of observational astronomy to deeper layers of meaning beyond. That is only half the equation, though.  What makes it useful not just for contemplation in a warm den, but for observing on a cold field, is that it is simply and sensibly laid-out and filled with information about its objects.

After an introduction and a couple of chapters outlining the then-current state of knowledge in the science of astronomy, we are given the night sky constellation by constellation. Each constellation “chapter” begins with a list of notable double and multiple stars and a similar list of variable stars. For the larger constellations, these star lists can obviously run on for quite a few pages. What comes next is the meat of the book, the good stuff, beginning with a list of the constellation’s best star clusters, nebulae and galaxies. Don’t expect tons of objects. What you will find are brighter NGCs with a few ICs and a few representatives from other catalogs thrown in. Andromeda, for example, has a measly twelve fuzzies.

If that were all there were to the book, relatively short DSO lists that include only object designations, types, a description code not unlike that of the NGC, and an RA and declination (1950), there’d be no reason to pick up Burnham’s today. The simplest planning program would smoke it. What makes the Handbook valuable still is the descriptive notes that follow the lists. These “notes” are discussions of the constellation’s most prominent objects.

Each set of notes includes not just a description of a star or deep sky object, but its observational and cultural history, some of the science behind the object as it was known to Burnham, and usually an idea of what it looks like in amateur telescopes (which back then were often of 6 – 8-inch aperture). The notes on the showpiece objects can be extensive, with M31’s going on for 22 pages.

While Burnham usually (but not always) gives a good description of what an object will look through your telescope, that is only part of the draw. In the descriptive notes for Antares, Alpha Scorpii, for example, Burnham pulls together not just the threads of ancient Chaldean and Egyptian astronomy, but of literature, quoting Byron, “The mind that broods o’er guilty woes/Is like the Scorpion girt by fire.”

Even if I don’t always get a clear picture of what Burnham’s favorite objects will look like in my eyepiece, I always learn something from him, and often as much about life down here as about the objects up there. Bob Burnham tended to cut himself off from his fellow humans, but it seems his love for the stars gave him real insight into humanity.

What else? There are pictures. You hear complaints about reproduction quality, but it is actually pretty good. Black and white, yeah, and on paper just this side of pulp, but clear and most often useful. Many of the images were taken with the Lowell 13-inch camera, but there are other sources as well, including numerous shots from Mt. Wilson/Mt. Palomar instruments. In general, the astrophotos, including the amateur pictures, in the Handbook are state of the art for the 1970s. There are numerous other illustrations, too, most of them good. Finally, there is an index at the end of Volume III, but it is clearly an afterthought and not very extensive or useful.

Many was the cloudy night in the 1980s and well into the 1990s your old Unk spent with Burnham’s, a pencil, and a steno pad making my low-tech observing lists and hoping for clear skies. Burnham’s was more than that to me, though, much more. It was a friend who saw me through hard times. Like when Daddy, The Old Man, was in the hospital for the last time battling the cancer than took him way too early. I sat in the waiting room reading Burnham’s, taking solace somehow in that lonely man’s love for the eternal stars.

Today, Burnham’s Celestial Handbook has many fans in a small amateur astronomy sort of way, and some of them keep hoping it will be updated. (Lowell astronomer) Brian Skiff was, I understand, willing to take on that task at one time. Problems concerning the book’s publication rights scotched the idea, however. Burnham’s doesn't need to be updated, anyway. The science section at the front of the book was always its weakest part and is easy to skip. Some of Burnham’s object information in the Descriptive Notes sections is also outdated, but usually doesn't cause much harm for the observer. Finally, while the object positions are for Epoch 1950, it’s easy enough to get right ascensions and declinations elsewhere.

To be honest, I don’t want to see the Handbook updated. This special book has meant the world to me over the years, and I want its look and voice to remain the same. Which doesn't mean I’d been using the Handbook frequently of late. Until recently, I thought I’d outgrown it. Hell, it don’t even have the PGCs. Until I picked it up again the other day and started leafing. I ain’t outgrown it. Not hardly. How could you outgrow Shakespeare? Or Melville? Or Cervantes? And Burnham’s Celestial Handbook is our, amateur astronomy’s, Shakespeare and Melville and Cervantes.

What of Robert Burnham Junior? He is known and admired by far more amateur astronomers today than when he was alive. There’s a memorial, a small plaque, at Lowell Observatory, and an asteroid, 834 Burnhamia, was named in his honor. But his true memorial is his Handbook, muchachos, which I believe will live on just as The Cycle of Celestial Objects and Celestial Objects for Common Telescopes have lived on—and Burnham’s is a far better book than either. Do I have to tell you to go out and buy a copy if you don’t have one?

Next Time:  Down Chiefland Way…with the Mallincam Micro EX...

Sunday, March 16, 2014


ISAN 2014 and How Do You Video II

Boomer on her AZ-4
This is actually a semi-twofer, muchachos, since before I get to the main topic, Part Two of the Getting Started in Deep Sky Video article, I’d like to talk a little about ISAN 2014. International Sidewalk Astronomy Night, that is. The evening when amateur astronomers all over the world set up their telescopes in public areas to show off the night sky. ISAN is different from normal public outreach in that we go to the people on this evening rather than having them come to us. 

ISAN has become more and more popular over the last few years, but this year’s edition, scheduled for Saturday evening, March 8, would be extra special. The San Francisco Sidewalk Astronomers, the originators of ISAN, wanted it to be in part a memorial for one of their departed members, famous telescope maker and astronomy popularizer John Dobson, who died on January 15 at age 98.

The Possum Swamp Astronomical Society has been participating in ISAN for five years now, and sure didn't want to miss this one. Not only was this to be a remembrance for a man we revered, ISAN is fun. Being freed from the logistics of setting up a public outreach event allows us to focus on enjoying showing the sky to the public. We just take our scopes to where the public will be and have a good old-fashioned “happening.”

The place for our 2014 ISAN would be the same as in previous years, the Eastern Shore Centre, an open air shopping mall across Mobile Bay from the Swamp. The Centre has a nice central square/fountain area perfect for setting up scopes. There are lights aplenty, sure, but when you’re doing sidewalk astronomy you don’t let light pollution get in the way; you go after the bright stuff. We got the go-ahead from Centre management for this year’s ISAN edition, and kept our fingers and toes crossed regarding the weather forecasts, which were mostly of the “partly cloudy” variety.

Saturday afternoon, the sky was, surprisingly enough, almost solid blue. Time to get the public outreach rig loaded. If you’ve followed this blog long, you know I’ve struggled with “Which scope for the public?” for many a long year. I’ve finally settled (for now) on two. The RV-6 Newtonian for my students/older kids/adults, and a C8 for younguns/general audiences.

The C8 OTA in question, "Boomer," a 1984 model that began life as a Super Polaris C8,  rides on the simplest mount I could find for her, a Synta AZ-4. That’s a one-armed, non-computerized, uber-manual fork. No batteries, no cables, no alignments. Yeah, no goto either, but I’ve found I don’t need that for public outreach. What Mom and Pop and Bud and Sis, want to see is the Moon, a planet or two, and maybe a bright star. At some public events, I’ll show off a bright deep sky object or three, but at the heavily light polluted Eastern Shore Centre, that is purty much a waste of time.

iPhone Moon...
I was feeling right good about our prospects for doing some sidewalk astronomy till the phone rang Saturday afternoon. It was my old buddy Pat Rochford wondering whether I was still planning to do ISAN.  “Huh?” said I. “Cloudy over here,” said Pat. Since it looked so good in the Swamp, I just couldn’t believe we wouldn’t get a few sucker holes, so, come five, Dorothy and I hopped in the 4Runner and made the half-hour trip east to the mall.

Since we were onsite a little early, we spent a few minutes browsing the Barnes and Noble bookstore. Unk admired a couple of graphic novels, but since the suckers didn't have the one I wanted, Batman: Night of Owls, I left empty-handed. It was now time to get set up, and D. and I got everything from the truck to the fountain (which was shut down and dry; apparently, they don’t turn it on till spring) in just two trips: scope, dew shield, mount, tripod, eyepieces, etc., etc.

Looking up, the sky certainly wasn’t pristine, but it was more than good enough to show off Luna, who was shining bravely through a thin veil of clouds. As we were getting Boomer ready to go, we were joined by fellow PSAS member, Taras, and his 10-inch discovery Dobsonian. Not long after, Pat and his 8-inch Dobbie and PSAS President Martin and his Meade LX90 SCT showed up.

How’d it go? Purty smooth. We didn't get many takers at first, but as early diners began leaving the nearby Wintzell’s (local seafood) and California Dreaming (nice chain eatery) restaurants, we were able to give lots of little families looks at the Moon. Did we do anything different this time? Not really. As usual, I operated the scope (“Hold on a second, Coach; let me make sure the Moon is still in there.”) while Dorothy gave out kid-centric literature and stickers courtesy of NASA/JPL.

Unlike all too many Uncle Rod expeditions, there were neither minor hiccups nor major disasters this time. The closest thing to a bummer was that Martin’s LX90’s electronics had died the previous evening, but he was able to press on manually. All told, we probably showed close to 100 folks the Moon and Jupiter on a night that was occasionally mostly cloudy. Best of all? We had one hell of a lot of fun doing it.

Our set-ups with California Dreaming in the background...
By 8 p.m., three things were evident: more clouds and thicker were on the way, it was getting chilly, and most of our “customers,” the little families, were now beginning to drift on home. Sounded like Big Switch time to Unk. I snapped a couple of afocal shots of Luna with my iPhone and called it a night. Dorothy and I packed up Boomer post haste and made a beeline for California Dreaming, where Unk treated himself to a nice rib eye and multiple pints of Blue Moon.

How Do You Video Redux…

Okay…where was we? Oh, yeah…we’d mounted the Mallincam video camera on the telescope, hooked the camera to the computer, and plugged the video output cable into the monitor and DVR. What’s next? Getting goto aligned. I habitually do that with the Xtreme, since the camera’s field is equivalent to that of a medium power eyepiece, and is just about perfect for alignment accuracy. One super cool thing for alignments? Most of the Mallincams will allow you to superimpose a set of crosshairs on the screen. If you are controlling the camera with a computer, that is as simple as checking a box in the control program.

To get started, light off your monitor if you haven’t done so already and apply power to the camera, plugging it into its battery or AC power source. It should be obvious if the monitor is picking up video from the camera; it will go from dark to a gray screen, maybe with a hot pixel or two in evidence. At any rate, when you turn on the camera you should notice a change on the monitor.

If you are using a PC, boot it now and light off the Mallincam control software before you begin goto alignment. If this is the first time you’ve used the software, you need to set it up, which involves telling it which serial com port you will be using to communicate with the camera. To see the com port number the laptop’s USB – serial cable has established, look in Windows Control Panel and Device Manager. In the device “tree,” you will see an entry for “Com and LPT ports.” Click that and the com port number will be revealed.

Original Mallincam software...
When you’ve got that number, go to the “Config” tab in the Mallincam program. If you are not using the original M-cam software, but one of the newer softs like Miloslick, the screen will be different from the one shown and talked about here, but you should have a similar settings screen. If you are using the original software, please note that when you start it up for the first time you will likely get an error telling you the program hasn't picked up a com port. Just acknowledge that and go to Config.

Com port entered in the Config screen, go to the “advanced” tab on the original Mallincam software or a similar camera control screen on the newer program(s). One that allows you to set exposure, gain, and other parameters. 

When you first go to the Advanced tab, you'll see most items are grayed out and a yellow “light”  in the upper left portion of the window is illuminated. There will also be a “safety” timer counting down from 3-minutes. This is to prevent crashes when some camera settings are changed. You can override this safety timer, but you should only do so if you really know what you are doing. Otherwise, wait 3- minutes.

After the timer has run out, you can change settings. At this time, all you will be interested in is short exposure and crosshairs. On the upper left, you’ll see a “Sense up” section. Set the pull-down menu there to 128x. That will give you exposures of approximately 2-seconds, which is enough to show plenty of stars, but not so long as to make star-centering and focusing a pain.

At the bottom left of the window is “Crosshairs.” Check the box there and, assuming the PC is communicating properly with the camera, crosshairs will be drawn on the monitor. You can also choose “crossbox” if you like—which puts a little box at the junction of the crosshairs.

Once you’ve got the above sussed, the rest of the goto alignment is purty much as per normal. You’ll just be observing stars on the monitor rather than in an eyepiece. If this if the first time you’ve used the camera with the scope or scope/reducer combination, your focus will likely be WAY off, but you should still be able to detect a bright alignment star. When you’ve centered the star in the crosshairs of the telescope’s finder, look for a big out of focus disk on the screen. Increase the monitor’s brightness contrast if necessary till you see it. Then, begin adjusting focus until star one is as small as you can get it. When it is, center it in the crosshairs with the scope hand control.

Center however many other alignment stars your scope/mount requires. When the last one is done, take a critical look at focus. At 128x and the default gain of the camera (which will be on the high side), you should see plenty of dimmer stars onscreen. Are they pinpoints? If not, touch up focus. This will get your focus close, but maybe not quite dead on. There are two ways to get precise focus.

Advanced tab...
One is to use an aid like a Bahtinov mask. These focus masks, which go over the front aperture of the telescope, are inexpensive to buy and simple to make. One will produce a series of spikes around a bright star. Adjust focus until these spikes are arranged as per the instructions that came with the mask. When that’s done, focus should be right on. Just remember to remove the mask when you are finished. Don't be like Unk, who invariably forgets that step and starts cussing M13 for looking so fraking funky.

If you don’t want to use a focus mask, salvation comes in the form of a bright globular cluster. Most of the year a good one will be somewhere in the sky, and a glob’s tiny stars are perfect for focusing. Going to one also provides a quick check of the quality of your alignment. When the scope stops and the camera’s exposures “catch up,” center the glob with the hand control if it’s not in the middle of the screen and have a look. A bright Messier should be visible and showing a few stars at 128x, but if it’s on the dim side, up the exposure to 7-seconds.

How you do that will depend on which Mallincam you own. If it is an Xtreme or one of the other cameras that allow computer control of long integrations, just select 7-seconds on the integration control about halfway down the window on the right side. Other cameras may require you to set longer exposures with a wireless remote or via toggle switches on the camera itself. Once you’ve selected 7-seconds, the Mallincam should begin doing repeating 7-second exposures.

At 7-seconds, a good globular will be bursting with stars. What you’ll do is observe those stars, especially the ones close in toward the center. Twitch the focus control a small amount, and then wait for another exposure to complete. Right direction? Need to go the other way? Adjust focus in this fashion until the tiny stars are as sharp as you can get ‘em. Given the small chip/large pixel nature of deep sky video cams, good focus is important for good-looking pictures.

Focus attained, let’s stay on the glob for a bit while we set the camera up. To start, we’ll mess with three adjustments: gain, gamma, and color balance.  “Gain” is much like the ISO setting on a DSLR or other digital camera. It determines the sensitivity of the chip.  The higher the gain, the more sensitive to light the camera will become. Alas, there ain't no such thing as a free lunch (TANSTAAFL), and images will become noisier as gain goes higher. In addition, any light pollution present will be more noticeable as a bright background in the video with higher gain settings. So what should gain be? I am mostly after lots of detail and dim objects, so I habitually run at “6.” My buddies who are more interested in pretty video are typically at 3 or 4.

The bridge of the starship U.S.S. Possum Swamp...
Let’s set gain. In the AGC section on the Advanced tab screen, click “Manual.” Then, enter the gain setting you want. Type the number in the box next to “Manual;” don’t use the up/down controls. When you change gain, the camera’s safety timer will engage. If you use up/down, each click will require a 3-minute wait. Just type in the gain (I suggest 4, 5, or 6 to begin) and you’ll only have to endure one 3-minute time-out.

Next is “gamma,” which is sorta like a brightness adjustment. The control near the top of the screen has two settings, .45 and 1. 1 will give a darker picture, .45 a brighter one. The way I work, with relatively short exposures (28 seconds or less) on dim objects, .45 is best for me. With a brighter object/longer exposure, “1” can make pictures look better. I recommend beginning with .45 until you have a feel for the camera’s settings and how they interact.

Finally, there’s white balance. It’s not overly important except on brighter objects, and especially nebulae. I leave it on “ATW,” automatic white balance. If white balance is “wrong,” pictures can have a pink or blue cast. If colors do not look right, select “Manual” and adjust the red/blue controls.

Don’t have a computer to control your Mallincam? Don’t want one? You can set all these things (except long exposure integrations) with the buttons on the back of the Mallincam or with a wired remote. Mashing the buttons causes menus to appear on the monitor. I don’t like to work without a computer, so I am not an expert on these “OSD” menus, but they've been easy enough for me to use the couple of times I’ve resorted to them. You can find a good description of these menus in this .pdf document from U.S. Mallincam distributor Jack Huerkamp’s website.

You’ll likely find, as I did, that learning to use the Mallincam is a little like learning a musical instrument. There are many settings and they can affect each other. It will take some practice before you begin getting the images you want—but, believe me, you will.

Next? You get to work on the deep sky, of course. You start having fun. You’ll develop your own procedures, but this is how Unk does it. After I am aligned and the basic camera settings are laid in, I fire up SkyTools or Deep Sky Planner on the laptop and have a look at my observing list. I tend to work one constellation at a time rather than jumping around the sky. Once I’ve identified the first object, I’ll look out of the EZ-up to make sure the telescope is clear—of wandering people or other obstructions—and issue the first goto command.

Focus target...
When the scope stops, I’ll usually up the long integration duration to either 14 or 28-seconds. Given my other settings, 14-seconds yields good images even under less than perfect skies, and I will often leave the gain there all night. If I am after the very faintest details and the sky will permit it, I might go to 28-seconds. I will usually only go longer than that if I am after a pretty a picture and need good color saturation and image smoothness.

“How about filters, Unk?” I used to preach against them, since most light pollution reduction filters make longer exposures necessary and shift color balance. Lately, though, I’ve been using a mild filter an Orion Skyglow Astrophotography Filter. It lets me do good work in bright skies and doesn't change the color balance much. I frequently use it when I have to image an object down in the Possum Swamp light dome. The Orion has worked well for me, but it’s a wee bit expensive, and I suspect any mild filter—like  a Lumicon Deep Sky, for example—would do as well.

What else? As I mentioned in the previous installment, I record my video on a DVR since I like to view my results on the big screen TV, and sometimes process video in the computer. The Orion StarShoot DVR’s screen is way small, so I use both a monitor and the recorder. I soon discovered the Mallincams don’t have enough “drive” feed both a monitor and a recorder at the same time using a splitter, however. Video quality suffers. I could use a video amplifier, I reckon, but I owned a cheap solution already, an old composite video switcher left over from the analog video/cable/TV days.

I center the object on screen with the HC if necessary and evaluate it on the monitor. If it doesn't require any changes to exposure or gain or somesuch, I mash the switcher to send video to the DVR. I then push the button on the Orion DVR’s wired remote, which turns on the recorder and begins recording. The StarShoot will record an audio track from its built-in microphone, so I speak my notes into the DVR as I “tape” the video. The Orion also records a time/date display in the upper right hand corner, which often comes in handy. Pretty dadgum slick, all said.

One question I’m sometimes asked has to do with the Mallincams’ ability to output S-VHS video, Super VHS video, which is somewhat higher in quality than normal composite video. My experience is that if you are focused on broadcasting on Night Skies Network or doing heavy computer processing of images, S-VHS can help a little. For just viewing/recording video? Not so much. I never use it.

And then? On to the nextun. If I am moving to a radically different part of the sky, I shine a red light on the scope and watch for cable wrap. With all them wires going to the mount and camera, that is always a distinct possibility. Anyhoo, I just keep going, as I did back in the days of The Herschel Project, recording 50 or 100 or more objects over the course of an evening. That is not too many objects by any means, not when you have the ability to give each one all the time it needs at home on the TV or computer. 

What else is there to the video game? You may occasionally want to improve your videos by processing them with a computer program. Or you may want to make still pictures from ‘em. All that is another long story for another Sunday, muchachos. Now? The night is old, the video is in the can, and Chaos Manor South’s warm den and omnipresent bottle of Rebel Yell are calling.

Nota Bene:  I’m sure all y'all have been watching the big show, but remember to let your non-astronomer friends know about the new Cosmos series hosted by Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson.  Dorothy and I loved it; it was clear Tyson’s heart was really in it and he did a superb job. Good stuff.

Next Time Unk and the BCH...

Sunday, March 09, 2014


Old Betsy’s Revenge

Betsy in Mardi Gras Regalia
Why would Unk’s time-honored Dobsonian want revenge? Because she’s been starved of photons for too long. I booted up her Sky Commander Digital Setting Circles computer the other day, muchachos, and was gobsmacked to see the date set into it was November 10, 2012. Yep, last time she was on an observing field was at the the 2012 Deep South Regional Star Gaze.

Why? Two reasons. I’d finished The Herschel Project in the summer of 2012, so Betsy’s considerable visual reach was no longer as vital to my observing. Also, a new telescope had came to live at Chaos Manor South in the spring of 2013, Mrs. Emma Peel, shoving Bets even more into the background. But, as I do periodically, I got to feeling that getting out with the reasonably low-tech Betsy once in a while might be fun after too much wrestling with computers and cables and cameras of late.

As with Big Bertha, who’d been laid off for a long while, too, I expected to do a little maintenance on Old Betsy. I just hoped it would be minimal. Having an understanding wife helps there, since the telescope is stored in Chaos Manor South’s front parlor and is not exposed to varying temperatures, bugs, and damp. A little dust and a little cat hair is all she has to contend with.

A quick check revealed her to be in fine shape. The dust on her body was easily dispelled. How about the primary mirror? After Betsy’s last series of upgrades, Dorothy and I decided she needed some sort of dust cover for the mirror in addition to the wooden cover on the mirror box. As is the vogue for Dobbies today, we fashioned a round cover that lies directly on the surface of the mirror. We made it out of one of Unk’s favorite “astronomy materials,” corrugated plastic sign material, the stuff the politicians sue for their dadgummed yard signs.

Modern mirrors are well over-coated, and as long as you don’t drag the cover back and forth across the mirror’s surface, you don’t have to worry about causing “sleeks,” the small scratches that bedevil Newtonian owners. Indeed, removing the cover showed Betsy’s Meade primary looked pristine. One small mod, and I figgered she’d be ready to go for her twentieth observing season.

Before I get to that mod, y’all, I think I’ll give a brief recap of Betsy’s “career.” I reckon I’ve done that here more than once, but not in a while, and I just enjoy revisiting pleasant memories. Anyhow, Old Betsy first came to me in 1994 in the form of a 12.5-inch Meade StarFinder Dobsonian. One of the simple and crude alt-azimuth telescopes of yore like Coulter and Orion as well as Meade sold back in the 1990s. Cardboard tube, plastic focuser, particleboard mount.

The two most memorable things from Betsy’s earliest days? How she arrived the day before Miss D. and I were married in September of 1994, and how surprisingly good her optics turned out to be. I love telling the story of how Miss Dorothy came home on Friday afternoon to find her formerly spic-and-span front parlor covered in telescope parts and packing material. It was her response when I chirped, “Honey, IT CAME!” that clued me in, not that I needed cluing, as to how wonderful she was. The place where we were to be wed the next morning looked like a tornado had hit it, but D. replied, “Oh, Rod, how wonderful; I am so happy for you!”

Let me add that I was assiduous about cleaning up after myself once Betsy was together, and that I stashed her upstairs with herculean effort (toting her OTA around was like manhandling a freaking water heater). Then came the big day, and D. and I were off on our honeymoon. First light would wait till our return. What did I expect? “OK, not great, ‘bout like a Coulter Odyssey 13-inch.” Such a cheap and cheap-looking 12-inch couldn’t possibly have a good mirror, could it?

TSP 1997
It could. When we got back, I immediately hauled Betsy into the backyard, which, in those days had reasonably clear views of the sky here and there—today the growth of trees has foreclosed all observing “out back.” What could I see between the oaks to the west? Good old Jupiter. What would he look like in a 12-inch f/5? Like a custard pie, I reckoned.

Nuh-uh, Bubba. Despite the King being low in the west, he was a thing of wonder, showing more detail—belts, whorls, spots—than I had ever before seen visually. Back east, Saturn was perfectly placed. In addition to disk banding and a stark Cassini’s Division, the Crepe ring, which often eluded me, was, well, “easy.”

Betsy’s near-full-thickness primary was a good mirror indeed. She strutted her stuff over the next four years everywhere from the 1994 Deep South Regional Star Gaze to the (infamous) 1997 Texas Star Party, where she bested my friend Joe’s high-toned Dobsonian with its Parks mirror (Parks’ optics were highly regarded back then).

Not that everything was coming up roses for me and Bets as 1998 came in. The death of my little Hyundai hatchback car in 1995 meant Betsy had been confined to home most of the time—she wouldn’t fit in my Toyota Camry. Though I had a lot of fun with her in the backyard, doing deep sky observing I would formerly have thought impossible from our heavily light polluted neighborhood, I missed having her at dark sites. I went to my friendly, neighborhood ATM, Pat Rochford, for advice.

What Pat said was that it was time we did away with Bets’ Sonotube. We’d put her in one of them new-fangled truss tube rigs and I could keep on trucking. Worked for me. In addition to making the telescope portable again, we could fix Betsy’s other shortcomings: the plastic 1.25-inch focuser (which did work better than I expected), and a primary cell (if you could call it that) that was too hard to collimate.

The biggest improvement in addition to transportability, however, would be improving Betsy’s motions, and especially her altitude motion. As was all too common in the 1990s (and unfortunately still too common), Betsy’s altitude bearings were too small. That would have made her altitude movement too easy with Teflon bearing pads, and she would have been impossible to balance. Meade compensated by using Nylon. That made her altitude movement too sticky. I compromised by replacing one pad on each side with Teflon, and added an Orion lead-shot filled beanbag counterweight to the scope’s rear. That worked, but just barely.

I obtained the required items for the upgrade:  plywood, primary and secondary mirror mounts and a spider from AstroSystems, a JMI NGF focuser, and bearing material—Teflon and Ebony Star Formica—from long gone and much missed ATM merchant Crazy Ed. When I’d accumulated the parts, Pat, with a very small amount of help from yours truly, got Betsy rebuilt in record time.

TSP 1999
“New” Betsy was a revelation. Not only was I able to get her in the Toyota for the trip to the 1999 Texas Star Party, there was room left over for enough camping gear and other stuff for a week’s stay at Prude Ranch. What was truly remarkable, however, was what Betsy did way out west, snagging dim and difficult objects like the Double Quasar I would have thought beyond the powers of a “mere” 12-inch.

Not that it was all gravy. The truss tube mod meant I no longer used Betsy in the backyard. She was too awkward to carry out back without separating the upper cage from the mirror box, and that took too much effort given my home sky’s condition. Not that it made much difference before long, anyway. Every year that passed it got harder to see much out back due to the growth of foliage.

There things remained till 2007.  I did not use Betsy as much as I used my SCTs, but I did use her, including at another rollicking Texas Star Party, the 2001 edition. After that, however, your old Unk got spoiled. By goto. When I bought Big Bertha, the NexStar 11, in 2002 I discovered I was now more interested in looking than hunting. Howsomeever, it would still have been nice to be able to use the uber-simple and optically outstanding Betsy once in a while…

I didn’t do much more thinking about the old girl till I was having one of my periodic astrophotography bug remissions in 2007. What could I do to improve her? How about digital setting circles? I’d been impressed by the Sky Commander DSCs Pat purchased for one of his scopes. No leveling, no consarned “warp factors” like with Tangent based systems. Just align on two stars and everything from one side of the sky to the other was in the eyepiece.

I figgered if I was going to get Bets a set of Sky Commanders, it might be time to do a complete “Baseline Phase II” upgrade. In addition to the circles, I rang up AstroSystems and purchased a new, smaller secondary mirror, a new secondary holder, and a dew heater for the secondary mirror. Betsy had a way too large secondary as she came from Meade, necessitated (they thought) by her somewhat tall stock focuser.
Finally, I decided it was time to get the primary recoated. After a good cleaning, Pat declared the 13-year old mirror’s surface still looked good, but my mind was made up. I shelled out the bucks for Spectrum’s top of the line “MaxR” high reflectivity coatings.

How did it all work out? Amazingly well. The images Betsy now delivered were noticeably superior. Whether that was due to the new secondary or the new primary coatings or a combination of the two, I couldn’t say, but what was in the eyepiece was noticeably brighter and more contrasty. The Sky Commanders? Freaking amazing. They put anything, anywhere I requested in the field of a medium power eyepiece. I felt as if a whole new Universe had opened up for my old scope.

2008 Chiefland Star Party
There was only one upgrade that didn't take. I’d decided to replace the original Meade 50mm finder with a new and fancy Orion RACI (right angle correct image) finder scope. I didn't expect to use it a whole lot, since I already had a Telrad on Bets. I figured if it got used at all, it would just be for centering alignment stars, but I bought the Orion finder anyway. However, it didn't take long for me to recall how much I hate right angle finders. I have never been comfortable using one. I shelved the thing and returned Bet’s original 50mm to it place of honor.

Old Betsy sure did prove herself anew, beginning with the 2008 Chiefland Star Party. The skies were not perfect during the week-long event, but she showed me some amazing things ne'ertheless (with the aid of my new 8mm and 13mm Ethos eyepieces). Including a fairly pedestrian DSO, but one I’d been striving to get a really good look at for dang near 40 years, NGC 206, the huge star cloud in M31’s arms. Oh, I’d seen it plenty of times before, but never as clearly and sharply as Betsy showed it Down Chiefland Way.

I did make one more addition to complete Betsy’s Upgrade following CSP 2008. I’d been using a Desert Storm cover to protect the scope since TSP 2001. It worked, but had a big fault. It was cut to cover the whole telescope, yeah, but only when the tube was pointing nearly straight up. For safety’s sake, a Dobsonian needs to have its OTA positioned near level when unattended in case a wind blows up. With her tube level, though, the cover would not fit over Betsy’s big (ahem) rear end. I made do by protecting the mirror box with a tarp I bungied in place, which was a hassle. At the CAV, I’d noticed a fellow observer's AstroSystems scope cover, which would go over the mirror box with the tube level, and asked Santa Dorothy to bring me one for Christmas ’08.

The cost of Betsy’s upgrades was not inconsiderable, but what she did at the 2009 Deep South Regional Star Gaze made it worth it. We had horrible weather on the first night of the star party, but the other evenings were exemplary, and I ran through my observing list in a right quick hurry and was soon out of objects. ‘Twas then I concluded that Betsy’s optical and finding prowess meant I should tackle the legendary and somewhat daunting Herschel II list. The rest, as they say, is history—in a small amateur astronomy sort of way.

DSRSG 2009
After that triumph, however, things wound down for Bets. She got a few cracks at the Herschels, but after I decided to go for the Whole Big Thing, all 2500 H-objects, I began to use deep sky video camera equipped SCTs most of the time. Especially when I had to do Herschels from our less than pristine club site.

There was another and more serious reason for Betsy falling behind the CATs. Her weight (sorry, old girl). Every year, her mirror box seemed heavier. We had built Bets’ mirror box along the lines of those of the first truss tube scopes, like the old Sky Designs Dobs: big, heavy, solid. The opposite of today’s ultra lights. Betsy was too heavy for me now, and I didn't take her to the Possum Swamp Astronomical Society dark site often.

I finally got up the gumption to ask Pat if he could figure out a way to knock some weight off Bets without completely rebuilding her (Pat had just constructed an innovative ultra light around a 16-inch Meade StarFinder primary). He said he could, and proceeded to do quite a bit of whittling away with a jigsaw.

The results hit the field of the 2012 DSRSG for first light with Baseline Phase III Betsy. Not only had Pat removed quite a bit of weight from her mirror and rocker boxes, the holes he cut looked professionally done and improved the airflow around the primary considerably. Yes, the mirror was somewhat exposed during observing, but that is today’s fashion and doesn't seem to cause problems. Betsy performed well at the star party. The Herschel Project was done, so, admittedly, I didn't push her, but I had mucho fun looking at cool stuff, a lot like I did at the 2008 CSP bash.

Which brings us up to today. What would I need to do to bring Betsy back online? As above, not much. A little dusting, a little cleaning, a little application of Pledge to her wooden body. Actually, there was one last mod I wanted to make. While the holes Pat cut in the mirror box were a practical help, they left the mirror a mite exposed when she was uncovered and unattended on the field. Our expedient solution at DSRSG 2012 was to drape a towel over her mirror box. That didn't seem very elegant, however.

I cut a couple of removable panels of (yes) corrugated plastic to block those holes when she is sitting out without me around, affixing them with Velcro. I used white plastic since that’s what I had on hand and my intention is to remove them during observing. That was all I did (other than changing the battery in the Sky Commander). Next step was to get her to the PSAS field for a check ride.

2012 DSRSG
Which was not what I’d planned for last weekend. I thought I should get out with Bertha again to make sure she was 100% after her long layoff. But given a forecast that predicted clouds well before midnight, I just couldn’t face dragging the C11  and batteries and laptop computer to the dark site. I am purty confident Bertha is good to go for the upcoming Chiefland Spring Picnic, but I should get one more chance to test her in the field before then—if the weather gods cooperate.

While I’ve observed more in the last year than I have in who-knows-how-long thanks to my retirement, the observing projects just keep piling up. I still have a few loose ends to tie up on the Herschel Project. I want to get back to Operation Arp. There’s visual observing for a new book to work on. Also, there is a new “big” observing project I keep trying to get started on (more in a minute, y’all). The backlog is thanks to almost unceasingly punk weather since last summer. The rotten cherry on top of the mess? I hear El Niño will be back with us in 2015, no doubt bringing more clouds. Such is the curse of the astronomer.

When 4 p.m. came on Saturday afternoon, I was kinda surprised. The clear sky seemed to be holding. It was humid and warmish, but still clear, so I set about loading up the 4Runner, Miss Van Pelt. Observation number one? Yes, we’d substantially lightened Betsy’s mirror box, but it still ain’t light. Or maybe it’s just that Unk is two years older than he was the last time he hefted it.

Observation two was that when you don’t have to worry about computers, cables, batteries, and multiple gear boxes loading sure does go quick. The mirror box and rocker box (which I toted out separately) went in the cargo area along with my tackle/accessory box, the little netbook computer, and the case containing Bets’ Sky Commander computer and altitude encoder. In the back seat went the upper cage assembly and the truss poles. For a quick run out to the Possum Swamp Astronomical Society dark site, I leave the truss tubes attached to the upper cage.

Traffic wasn’t bad, at least not going the way I was headed, west. The eastbound lanes of Airport Boulevard were bumper to bumper with folks bound for the night's Mystics of Time (Mardi Gras) parade. The slightly less than one hour journey out to the old observing field went pleasantly, with your old Unk passing the time by listening to one of his favorite radio stations, “Willie’s Roadhouse” on the Sirius XM.

Driving onto the field, I was pleased to see my old friend and observing companion, Max, was already onsite. He’d snagged Unk’s accustomed spot, but that was OK; it sure would be nice to have some company other than Mothman and the dadgum Skunk Ape for a change. Before long, one more PSAS compadre, Taras, rolled in bearing his nice 15-inch Dobbie.  It almost felt like a mini-star party compared to Unk’s lonely solo runs.

Set up with Betsy, like loading her into the truck, reminded me why it is nice to go visual occasionally. Plunk down the rocker box, mirror box goes in that. Attach upper cage and truss poles to mirror box. Cable up Sky Commander…and…that…is it. While I could run Betsy’s computer and secondary heater off a jump-start battery, I don’t. The Sky Commander will go multiple nights on a 9-volt battery, and one will power the dew heater for a (short) evening. I stock up on cheap transistor radio batteries at the Big Lots, and glory in being freed from big batteries and cords.

The bright stars were soon turning on and it was time to get aligned. Inserted the 1.25-inch reticle eyepiece and 1.25-inch adapter into Betsy’s JMI NGF focuser—and she immediately began to sink in altitude. Hmm. Hadn't remembered a balance problem at DSRSG 2012, but maybe I’d just forgotten it. Pat removed quite a bit of weight from Bets’ rear end, so it wasn’t surprising she’d be somewhat nose-heavy afterwards. That was easy enough to cure. Removed the counterweight attached to the upper cage with Velcro and all was well—with a 1.25-inch eyepiece, anyways.

Hadn't aligned the Sky Commanders in over two years, but it is so simple I didn't have to exercise a single brain cell (good thing). Power up, enter the date, and the computer defaults to Polaris as alignment star one. Push the scope to Polaris, center the star in the cross-hairs, press Enter, and pick a second star. I have two pairs of “Sky Commander stars” that get me through most of the year, Polaris and Procyon and Polaris and Fomalhaut. These pairs seem perfectly spaced to yield excellent alignments, but I can’t take credit for discovering ‘em. I was told about them by my Sky Commander wielding buddy and big Dob builder extraordinaire, Tom Clark.

Second star entered, it was time for a test, and what better test than M42, which was now straddling the Meridian. Cursored down to the M objects on the ‘Commander, used the right-left/up-down keys to get to “M42,” mashed Enter, and moved the scope till the altitude and azimuth readings on the display zeroed out. In went my much-loved if hardly perfect 16mm 100-degree AFOV Zhumell eyepiece, “The Happy Hand Grenade” and I had the first look of the evening.

M42 was dead center and looking mighty fine in the gloaming. There was a surprising amount of nebulosity, and, with a little staring, I picked out the E and F stars in the Trapezium. Seeing was not perfect but not bad, either. Downside? It was clearly going to be a wet night; there was plenty of moisture on the Telrad’s dew shield already.

Plastic covers for the holes...
What now? I was close to winter’s only Messier globular star cluster, M79. Boom. Right in the middle of the big field. As I told Taras, who was having a little trouble with his Sky Commanders initially, the only trouble I’ve ever had with the S-Cs has been due to pilot error—usually me being mistaken about the identity of an alignment star. Which turned out to be his problem. A realignment and Taras’ 15-inch Dob was also hitting every blessed target.

Then it was my turn to have trouble. Moving down in altitude to snag M79 revealed I still had balance problems. Betsy wanted to keep going all the way to the horizon. I was stumped as to what to do for a minute. Then it hit me, “Get rid of the Telrad or the finder scope, dummy; you won’t need either one for the rest of the night.” Away went the old 50mm Meade finder, and balance became perfect no matter how low we’d go with the heaviest eyepieces.

But where would we go? I fired up the little Asus netbook and took a gander at my list on SkyTools. I’d brought the Asus out since it will run all night long off its internal battery. That was the good. The bad, as I quickly discovered, was that with the display turned down to low intensity and a red filter over it, my old eyes had a right hard time reading the small text, even with my coke-bottle glasses on. I vowed to always use the Toshiba with its big 17-inch screen from now on. I persevered however, and loaded up the evening’s observing list, “BCH unobserved.”

If you are an old-timer, or even a not-so-old timer, in the astronomy game, you probably know the letters B, C, and H stand for “Burnham’s Celestial Handbook.” This three-volume observing guide is not state of the art anymore. It pales in depth and object number in comparison to books like The Night Sky Observer’s Guide. However, it has never been and may never be surpassed for its thoughtful, aesthetic take on the Universe. Robert Burnham’s story is a sad one, but not without its triumphs, and I will say more about him and his books some Sunday soon. For now, though, let’s just talk about the BCH Project.

With my grand Herschel Hunt a fading memory, I was after a nice big observing project. Something wider in scope and encompassing more objects in more constellations than Operation Arp. That’s what I was ruminating about one afternoon when I happened to spy Burnham’s on the bookshelf in Chaos Manor South’s den. “Well, why not?”

It was easy enough to find a text file on the Internet listing of Burnham’s object numbers. It was also easy to import that into SkyTools 3 and turn it into an observing list. Then the culling began. I eliminated variable and multiple stars, far southern constellations, and objects for which I had recent log entries. That left me with a grand total of just over 700 deep sky objects, 707 to be exact, of all types scattered all across the sky.

20 years down the line...
What are my “rules” for the BCH project? Ain’t got nern. Unlike the Herschel Project, I am not imposing a time limit on myself. I will observe the BCH objects when I observe them, and will let you know how it goes and will talk about the most outstanding objects rat-cheer. I’m looking forward to both observing the DSOs and to reacquainting myself with the Handbook after not having cracked it open in way too long.

So, Unk got on the stick with the BCH project and ever’thing went smooth as silk? Y'all know better than that. The evening's silliness began when I decided to see how M82’s supernova was looking. The first difficulty was that Miss Van Pelt’s raised tailgate was blocking the galaxy. Well, shoot, I’d just lower it temporarily. I did that, barely noticing an audible CRUNCH when I did so. M82 didn't look half bad, though the sky was now a little hazier than I’d have liked. There was detail along the disk in the 13mm Ethos eyepiece, and the supernova was still easily visible with direct vision. The uh-oh came when I was done and lifted the tailgate.

DOH! I FORGOT THE MONSTER! I use Miss Van Pelt’s rear cargo area as my observing table, with the laptop and accessory box stationed there. What I had also stationed there, on the bumper, was a half-drunk Monster Energy Drink. It was now also half crushed. The tailgate had squeezed it good, spraying the sticky stuff all over the netbook. Luckily, Max had brought along paper towels, and even more luckily, the Asus’ semi-chicklet-style keyboard is reasonably resistant to moisture.

Alarums and excursions over, I got started observing. What was the final total? A somewhat paltry 21 objects. I’d hoped to do more than double that, but Urania had other ideas. Her sky was never very transparent, and by 9 p.m. was closing down with haze and ground fog, something not unusual for this site in the late winter-early spring. Even before the fog came, this was not a night for galaxies. It was an evening for open clusters, alas. But, as you know if you have been observing long, there’s always the possibility of surprises, even on semi-punk nights.

Often the greatest observing experiences in amateur astronomy are the unlooked for ones. Auriga was riding high, just past zenith, and I started running the list objects there. M38? Check. M36? Check. M37? Check? NGC 1893? Uhhh… The number was somewhat familiar, but only somewhat. Looking at its vitals in the information window in ST3 revealed NGC 1893 to be a sprawling 16’ across open cluster in the southern area of the Charioteer. Hokay. Punched in “1893,” did the push-to thing, and put my eye to the Happy Hand Grenade.

“Well…cool enough star cluster, I reckon. But what’s that around it? Nebulosity?” I didn't recall a bright nebula in Auriga. There is the Flaming Star Nebula, yeah, but that is hardly bright. Let’s look at the POSS plate. A few clicks in SkyTools and I was viewing at the old Oschin Schmidt picture of the cluster. Which was enrobed in nebulosity to a spectacular degree.

Removed the Happy Hand Grenade, and screwed my 2-inch UHC filter onto it. Back in the focuser, a little focus tweaking, and I sure was rewarded. At first all I saw was a bright arc of nebulosity, somewhat tadpole shaped, but as I kept looking, I began to see there was an annulus of nebulosity superimposed on the hordes of cluster stars. What was this thing?

Betsy's latest incarnation
I pulled up the Interactive Atlas chart in SkyTools, and saw this was IC 410. The isophote on the chart showed an elongated patch, and after a lot of staring, both Unk and Taras, who also homed in on  the nebula, began to see it was a like a smaller version of the Rosette, only strongly elongated rather than round, extending roughly north - south. Images show IC 410 enclosing at least two separate dark areas, but visually we only saw one. Anyway, “Rosette Junior,” as we began calling it, was beautiful. 

What did Mr. Burnham think of IC 410? Hard to say. He has the nebula in his “List of Interesting Objects,” where he describes it as “F neby [faint nebulosity], diam 20’, encloses cluster NGC 1893,” but it does not get a full write up in the descriptive section of the Auriga “chapter.”

I pressed on for a while, but my view of IC 410 was the high point of the evening. Not long after I was done with it, conditions began to degrade badly. It was damper than ever—Betsy’s shroud was dern near sopping wet—and when I pointed my red light out toward the runway and engaged all its LEDs, I could see thick fog. The netbook went in its bag. Disconnected the Sky Commanders, and detached the upper cage and truss tubes from the mirror box. Packing took less than 15-minutes.

Back at the old Manse, unloading was similarly easy. No, I didn't have a memory card full of images, but I did have nice memories of the objects I’d seen, and the BCH Project had finally got off the ground. Time for the Yell and the cable TV and some strategizing. I arrived home too late for Svengoolie, but that was OK, The sucka had showed Batman: The Movie. I’ve never been a big fan of the Adam West 1960s Batman. Oh, it’s campy fun, but it is not THE BATMAN I’ve known and loved since I was a sprout. I tuned in the Military Channel, but didn't pay much attention to The World at War. I was thinking about what was next on my observing calendar and what was next for Betsy.

The old gal probably won’t get back out for a while, but she will get out again before another two years elapse, muchachos. She is a good old telescope, I love her, and I have every intention of turning her loose on the globulars of Ophiuchus and Sagittarius this summer should the weather gods permit it.

Next Time:  How Do You Video II...

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