Sunday, August 31, 2014

 

Unk's 2014 Country Roads Adventure


I love West Virginia, muchachos. Oh, I know, its economy is perennially depressed, it has far too many folks scrabbling to make do in today's tough economy, and it is still in the thrall of Big Coal, but I love it anyway. Its mountains and valleys just speak to your old Uncle and have for as long as I can remember.

I loved the state's soaring landscape and unchanging towns even as a sprout, when all I “knew” about West Virginia was what I saw on TV. On Then Came Bronson, when the show’s beatnik-philosopher-motorcyclist visited the Appalachian fastnesses. That was the romantic West Virginia. There was also the darkly mysterious side of the place, which young Unk read all about in John Keel’s The Mothman Prophecies (the memory of which can still get me spooked on a lonely field).

Later on, there was the West Virginia of the 1950s in one of my favorite movies, October Sky, the filmed version of Homer Hickam's outstanding memoir, The Rocket Boys. I watched that film so many freaking times I came to feel as if I’d actually been to WV. It wasn’t till seven years ago, though, that I finally got the chance to stop enjoying West Virginia vicariously and pay it a real visit.

What finally allowed Unk to see the Mountain State for himself? I was invited to speak at the 2007 Almost Heaven Star Party, which was, then as now, held at the Mountain Institute’s Spruce Knob Facility near Circleville, West Virginia. For some unfathomable reason the organizers and attendees of the event, which was (and is) sponsored by NOVAC, the Northern Virginia Astronomy Club (DC), liked Unk’s silly and rambling presentation enough to invite me back the next year. In fact, I’ve been to nearly every AHSP since ’07 and have always had an outstanding time.

So, I was danged pleased to hear from AHSP honcho Bob Parks, who invited me to bring my traveling show up the mountain for one more bow at the 2014 edition of the star party. Naturally, I said “yes.” I don’t like to play favorites, so I won’t say the Almost Heaven Star Party is the best astronomy event east of the Mississip—in some ways, every star party is “the best”—I will just say I love AHSP like I love its West Virginia setting.

I was even happier to hear Sky & Telescope Editor Bob Naeye—soon to be, as you may have heard, S&T Editor Emeritus—would also be back for another round of AHSPing. Bob and I have been meeting in DC and riding to Almost Heaven together for years. In no small part, the time we've spent on those trips navigating country roads in a rent-a-car is responsible for Bob becoming not just the Editor-in-Chief of a magazine I write for, but a friend.

Anyhoo, come Friday, August 22, Unk was up at oh-dark-thirty to catch the 6 a.m. flight out of Possum Swamp Regional Airport. I can’t say I was looking forward to that part of the AHSP experience overmuch. There would be a lot of time in the air for not much star partying. Both Bob and I needed to fly back Sunday morning for work on Monday (in Unk’s case, teaching his evening astronomy labs). That was fly Number One in the ointment. Number Two? The weather.

For well over a week, the forecasts for Circleville, WV, the town nearest Spruce Knob, had been looking grim. Mostly cloudy. Up to an 80% chance of rain Friday. Nearly as bad Saturday. It appeared the AHSPers might get some observing in on Monday, the last full day of the event, but even that looked dicey. The predicted temperatures, highs in the low 80s and lows in the lower 60s, while cool and comfortable in comparison to a Gulf Coast August, would be considerably warmer and no doubt more humid than normal for the star party site.

Unk certainly did grouse about “that dadgum weatherman,” but there was absolutely no doubt in my formerly military mind that I would have a good time at Spruce Knob no matter what. Hell, I can have a good time at any star party, even one that’s rained out, and the wonderful facilities and folks of Almost Heaven would make it even easier for me to enjoy myself.

The day’s air itinerary consisted of a Possum Swamp to Charlotte leg and a Charlotte to Reagan National Airport flight. As above, I’d meet Mr. Bob at the rent-a-car outfit and we’d head for the hills. While air travel is no picnic these days, I have to say my flights, both on U.S. Air, were bearable. The ground personnel and the flight crews were friendly and helpful, and in this old boy’s opinion were considerably better in that regard than their competitors.

Without much ado, I was plunked down at Reagan—née Washington National—right on schedule. It took a little while for my checked bag to appear on the carousel, but it did in due course.  I caught the bus to the Alamo car rental place and was soon shaking hands with Mr. Naeye and manhandling my overloaded suitcase into the trunk of the Nissan we’d been given.

As usual, I probably packed too much, though I certainly didn't go overboard on the astro gear. I’d wanted to take my li’l C90, Stella, with me, but given the forecasts I settled for a pair of 10x50 Celestron binoculars I won at the 2012 Deep South Regional Star Gaze. Udder than that, all I had with me was a red flashlight.

Our car trip out of Virginia and into the mountains was uneventful. We had a GPS as well as Unk’s GPS equipped iPhone, but we've made the drive so many times now that we didn't need the gadgets. Bob and I occasionally referred to a (good) set of printed instructions off’n the AHSP website, but only occasionally. The journey is a mite less than four hours of small towns right out of October Sky punctuated by stretches of often awesome scenery.

What did we talk about on the (somewhat) long drive? As usual, sports mostly. One year, an AHSP person drove us up and was, I could tell, flabbergasted and maybe a little disappointed that we had more to say about the state of the NFL and the MLB's just-finished All-Star Game than we did about astronomy and far-out cosmic stuff, but that is just the way we roll.

There wasn’t much question of us getting to the star party before dark; we’d set out from the airport around noontime. So, we decided to stop for lunch somewhere—they don’t even give you peanuts in Coach anymore and neither of us had had a bite. After plenty of looking for something other than a Mickey D’s, we spotted a Pizza Hut in a little burg. While the folks in there seemed a mite surprised to have consarned furriners in their joint, the food was not bad at all. Unk’s Personal Pan Pepperoni Pizza was actually purty tasty as well as alliterative.

After lunch, Unk took the wheel for the final run-in to Spruce Knob. I missed one turn along the way, but immediately realized what I’d done and got back on the straight and narrow. Not long after, we were making our ascent to the Mountain Institute on a sometimes rough but always passable dirt road.

First thing me and Bob noticed as we drove in? Attendance was obviously down. Oh, there were plenty of tents on the observing fields, but nothing like last year. That was no surprise; if the weather don't look perfect, some folks will stay home even though they've already paid their money. Which I don’t claim to understand.  A bad night at a star party is mucho bettero than a good night of cable TV if’n you axe me.

We pulled up to the registration tent and were soon greeted by the AHSP's Kathryn Scott who took good care of us, getting us settled in our rooms in the Dorms.  The rooms at in said dormitories are not fancy, but they are scrupulously clean and the beds are comfortable as star party beds go. Unk’s room not only looked freshly cleaned, it appeared to have been recently renovated.

First order of bidness after unpacking was trotting down to the Big Yurt to see what was up on Friday afternoon. Walking out of the dorm, I ran into AHSP Organizer Extraordinaire, Phil Wheery. I was glad to see Phil looked to be in fine fettle. He’d had to miss the 2013 edition due to health issues and it sure was nice to have him back and looking good for 2014.

Down the hill from the Dorms is the Big Yurt. Yes, “yurt.” Don’t ask me why, but whoever designed the Mountain Institute Facility decided to model the buildings after Mongolian Yurts. They are far from tents, but in their shapes they do somewhat resemble something you’d find on the steppes of Asia. The Big Yurt is where everything not related to observing happens at AHSP. There’s a large space for presentations, a kitchen where meals are prepared, limited dining area, and a large deck with plenty of room for tables for meals even when the star party is at full capacity.

Despite skies that looked so-so at best, there were lots of excited amateur astronomers hanging out at the yurt; many of them familiar faces from Unk’s previous AHSP expeditions. Udder than that? ‘Twas coming up on suppertime, and I was interested to see what the Mountain Institute had to offer in that regard.

Back in ’07 and for some years thereafter, the food, prepared by the M.I. folks, was on the healthy side. Maybe too healthy. As in brown rice, heaps o’ veggies, and fraking tofu. As the years have rolled on, however, I reckon the folks preparing the menus have realized they need to be a little less radical for our nerdy group. You can still eat super-healthy, but you no longer have to.

While there are still mucho veggies, to include veggie burgers, there’s now more normal fare for those of us a mite too set in their ways to go vegan. While I admire people who give up meat, I am afraid it is a little late in the game for me to do so. At supper Friday evening, you had a choice between sweet and sour chicken and curried chicken—along with plenty of sides. I was still purty full from that greasy Pizza Hut "pizza" a couple of hours previous, but I did have a small helping of the sweet and sour chicken. Danged good, I thought.

The time remaining till sunset was filled by Bob Naeye's presentation, “The Origin of Everything: How Things Got to Be the Way They Are Right Now” (Part I). What can I say about his talk? Simply that I hope that if I continue doing this long enough I will become as good a speaker as Bob. His presentation, which took us from the Big Bang to the modern Universe, was outstanding.

Naturally, Mr. Naeye was besieged by questions for quite a while after he quit, and by the time he finished answering 'em the Sun was about gone. Not that Unk thought darkness would do much for us. I poked my head out of the Yurt and had a look. The clouds were worse than ever, and I was pretty sure nobody would see a danged thing Friday evening. Nevertheless, I wanted to take a stroll around the observing field in case it poured rain all day and night Saturday, which it seemed a distinct possibility.

Retrieved my red light from the Dorm, the Brinkman “headlight” Kathryn gave me the previous year after I arrived on the mountain without a flashlight to my name, and headed up to the expansive observing area. While there are usually at least two busy observing fields, only one was in use this year for obvious reasons.

While the scope count was understandably lower than on a year with good weather, there was still plenty to see. The NOVAC folks dang sure have some good-looking gear. What was my fave? Probably the beautiful Takahashi Mewlon riding on a Synta EQ-6 (Atlas) mount. While some of y’all might consider the high-toned Tak too good for a “mere” EQ-6, the owner told Unk he absolutely loved the Atlas and had had nothing but good luck with it. No, it ain’t a freaking EM500, but who can tell in the dark?

After that, I headed back down to the Main Yurt for the vaunted “Informal Staff Meeting,” which was to be held in the Main Yurt rather than out on the field as per normal. Which was a good thing, I thought. Appeared to me that sitting out on the field would've been an invitation to disaster given the look of the sky, which now included some (distant) lightning flashes.

The dark skies of Spruce Knob can be amazing, but, still, my fondest memories of the event are the hours I’ve spent with my AHSP friends having some drinks and some laughs. The potations on this night? We were imbibing rather high-class wine instead of our usual beer. Unk is not a wine connoisseur by any means, and asked (in his Artful Dodger voice) whether he needed to extend a pinkie while drinking, but I have to admit it was good. We were all soon in better spirits and having a high old time despite what was going on outside, which was rain.

All too soon, it was time for Unk to say night-night. I’d been up since three that morning, and the idea of a soft bed was sounding better and better. Back at the Dorm, I got in some good  Zs. I did get up once in the night—it had turned surprisingly cold and I needed to find me a blanket stat. I popped outside to visit the bathroom in the bathhouse across from the Dorms, and found the clouds had not just thickened but lowered. The entire site was smothered in fog.

Somehow, I managed to get myself up in time for breakfast Saturday morning, and was glad I did. There was not a speck of tofu in evidence. What there was was biscuits, pretty good biscuits, gravy, and sausage. I dang sure ate my share, which I washed down with about a gallon of coffee.

One thing that’s always fun is browsing dealer tables. The AHSP has always had at least one astronomy vendor onsite, usually Gary Hand’s Hands-on-optics, and the HOO folks were indeed back with us for 2014. I am at a point where there is not much I need in the way of gear, but it was still cool to be able to look at all the astro-stuff. If I had needed something, I dang-sure would have bought it from Hands-on.  I try to make it a point to support the vendors who support us by participating in our star parties.

Mr. Naeye and I were not the only speakers for AHSP 2014. There was also a well-done talk on the future of the U.S. manned space program by Greg Redfern. Greg is an excellent presenter, and had some great slides. I wish I was as optimistic as he is about NASA’s future, but, if nothing else, it was encouraging to hear somebody so enthusiastic about space.

Next up would be Part II of Bob’s talk, and while waiting for that and for lunch, I killed some time reviewing the PowerPoint slides for my 6:30 talk. I also did some Internet surfing. This year, AHSP featured reliable, fast Internet. I was kinda sorry I hadn’t brought my big Toshiba laptop instead of my little Asus netbook, but it is just so freaking easy to tote the netbook around in airports. When it finally gives up the ghost, I will probably replace it with an iPad like many AHSPers were wielding, but the Asus worked well.

Lunch, like breakfast, was good—cold cuts, cheese, bread, and plenty of fixings for make your own sandwiches. It all tasted fresh and Unk didn't even mind that they didn't have good old Americano white bread, like the Sunbeam bread he favors. Out on the deck for lunch, amazingly, the Sun began to peep through the clouds. Before long, folks had Coronado PSTs set up for solar observing. Things was looking up.

Part II of Bob Naeye's presentation was different from what you usually hear at astronomy events in that it was centered on human history and culture rather than astronomy and the Great Out There, but it was every bit as well received as Part I. Maybe because those of us who do lots of star parties appreciate something different once in a while.

While the talks were excellent, that was hardly all there was to do Saturday. There was bird watching, canoeing, and more. The “more” included my geologist friend Lyle Mars’ yearly and very popular geology hike, and a bus tour to the National Radio Astronomy Observatory (NRAO) in nearby Green Bank, West Virginia. Sunday there would be still more talks and activities. You never have to worry about being bored at Almost Heaven, cloudy skies or clear.

Supper Saturday, grilled burgers and dogs, came and I enjoyed it, though I didn’t load up. I’d be going on with my talk at 7 p.m. and I didn't want to feel over-stuffed. I had originally been scheduled for 6:30, but was pushed back half an hour to allow time for the 10th Anniversary AHSP ice cream (and cake) social. Hard to believe the star party has been going on for a decade, and I am proud to have been a part of it for most of that time.

Then it was showtime. Like Bob’s, my talk this year was different. Hearing about hard-core amateur astronomy is good, but I think all of us like an occasional break from “An In-depth Look at Ramsden and Kellner Eyepieces.” The title of my Saturday evening presentation was “What Goes There? Things that go BUMP in the Night Sky.”

In part, my talk concerned the UFO phenomenon. At public outreach events, you are almost sure to be asked whether you “believe” in UFOs, so I think it is a good thing to know a little about that convoluted controversy. Mostly, however, my presentation was about how to have fun viewing the odd, the strange, the outré in the nighttime and daytime skies not to include the pea-picking flying saucers.

Given the weather, I could have talked all night—I sure wouldn’t be keeping folks from observing—that semi-clear spell at supper didn't last long. As usual, however, I held my jibber-jabber to one hour with questions, which I consider the limit for a star party. How did it go? It went well. This was the first time I’d given this new talk, so there were a few rough edges, but my listeners seemed to have a good time, and the hour positively flew by.

When the questions were done, I stepped out into the gloaming to see how the sky looked. “What sky?” It would soon be as black as the inside of a black cat with clouds, fog, and drizzle that verged on rain. It was way too early to go to bed, though, so I was glad to hear there would be an Informal Staff Meeting Part Dos. Once again, I had a great time with all my old friends, Chris, Elizabeth, Phil, and all the rest of the AHSP's dedicated staffers. Alas, all too soon it was turn-into-a-pumpkin time for the Rodster. Bob and I needed to be on the road at 7 a.m. to make it back to DC for our afternoon flights. Reluctantly, I said my goodbyes and moseyed back to my room.

The next day wasn't exactly fun. Our drive back to the airport was uneventful, but my itinerary was the pits. In order to get me home at a reasonable hour, I had three flights to catch: DC to Charleston, Charleston to Charlotte, and Charlotte to Mobile. It almost worked. Unfortunately, there was a delay on the Charleston to Charlotte leg, and I missed my flight to Mobile by 10-minutes. That meant I had to take the 10 p.m. back to the Swamp. Good thing I had a thick book, David Weber’s On Basilisk Station, to occupy me for the four hours I had to sit cooling my heels in Charlotte. When Miss D. picked me up at Possum Swamp Regional at 11:15, I was one tired pup.

If not quite ready to call it a night, muchachos. I had dozed on the last flight and was now kinda wound up, so I sat in front of the cable TV watching my fave uber-silly reality show. I sure hope to be back in West Virginny in 2015, but until then I guess I’m back to experiencing West Virginia vicariously with Mountain Monsters. Anyhow, thanks, especially, to Bob Parks, Kathryn Scott, and Phil Wheery. I hope y’all got some observing in on Sunday or Monday, but whether that happened or not, you put on another great AHSP.

Nota Bene:  You can see lots more pix from Unk's trip on his Facebook page...

Next Time:  Project Scotty Begins…

Saturday, August 23, 2014

 

Unk’s West Virginia Weekend


“Where’s my dadgum blog, Unk? What the hail am I supposed to read while I eat my Sunday mornin’ Wheaties?” Sorry about that, muchacho. Unk has just returned from yet another edition of the justly famous Almost Heaven Star Party in West Virginia and is a wee bit tuckered. Best I can offer is a few pix till next week when the entire story will be told. In other words, “See y’all on the flip-flop.”



















Next Time:  West Virginia Redux, Redux, Redux…

Sunday, August 17, 2014

 

The Next One


It ain’t like your old Uncle ain’t had an observing project since 2012 when I finished the Herschel Project, muchachos. I’ve actually had quite a few: Operation Arp, my quest to view Halton Arp’s peculiar galaxies, and the BCH Project, my plan to observe the deep sky objects of Burnham’s legendary Celestial Handbook to name just a couple. The problem? None of ‘em has clicked with me.

As I’ve said before, I believe observing all 2500 Herschel objects will turn out to have been the deep sky observing experience of a lifetime. I had so much fun doing it that it’s odd it took so long for me to get around to it. Or maybe not so odd. A few things had to come into proper conjunction to make the Herschel Project fly.

First of all, I had to have the gear to observe them dim aitches. I wouldn’t have dared to tackle them all with “just” a C8 used visually—though that might have been possible. One cold November night in 2010, I essayed a passel of them with nothing more than my trusty 8-inch SCT, Celeste (albeit from dark skies). That said, there is no doubt in my formerly military mind that my 12-inch Dob, Old Betsy, and my C11, Big Bertha, were a big factor in me finishing the Project in a smidge over two years.

Another reason I was able to plow through the H2500, “the Big Enchilada” as I called it, with good speed was my deep sky video cameras, the Stellacam 2 with which I began The Project, and the Mallincam Xtreme with which I finished it. I probably wouldn’t have been able to do two-hundred objects in a single evening without a video camera (not to mention goto and DSCs).

A huge help was the dark skies of the Chiefland Astronomy Village. I’d been heading Down Chiefland Way twice a year for the Spring Picnic and the Chiefland Star Party for the better part of a decade. When the Project began, however, I kicked it up a couple of notches. Despite the demands of my engineering gig as I approached retirement, I did January, April, July, and November (or December) CAV trips in 2010, 2011, and 2012.

"Clouds? What clouds?"
The final piece of the puzzle was the weather. 2011, and especially the summer of 2011, was, as I noted week before last, outstanding for deep sky work. The skies of Chiefland that summer were near about as dark and transparent as winter skies. The weather didn't begin to change for the worse in Chiefland and up here in Possum Swamp till I was nearing the Herschel finish line in the late spring of 2012.

But finish I did in 2012, and I wasn’t too surprised when my feeling of elation out on the CAV observing field at the end of the last night’s run turned into a big let down in the motel room by morning light. I was finished. What would I do now?

I immediately began thinking about what would come next, but I had the sneaking suspicion that whatever that was, it wouldn’t be as much fun as the Herschel Project. Not hardly. Those nights at the CAV, pressing on through the forests of Coma and Virgo, dragging back to the Days Inn well after 3 a.m. to wind down with Rebel Yell and Ghost Adventures. Getting up the next morning and spending the hours till darkness sitting in the motel reading The Georgian Star, Discoverers of the Universe, Double Stars, or Sir Willie’s own Scientific Papers. Grabbing a bite at Bar-B-Q Bills and heading for the field to do it all over again. It was a magical time for me.

I suspected no new observing program would light my fire like the Herschel Project did, but that didn't mean there wouldn’t be fun projects. My original inspiration for the Project was Julie Powell’s quest to cook all of Julia Child’s recipes in Mastering the Art of French Cooking (and to blog about it) as documented in Julie and Julia. Like her, I would move on to something else, even if it wasn’t an as engaging a something else. I just hoped what came next for me wouldn’t be a disaster like Julie’s misbegotten (book) follow-up, Cleaving: a Story of Marriage, Meat, and Obsession (!)…

I thunk and I thunk and I thunk, and in January of 2013, Operation Arp debuted. I’d long been interested in the Arp peculiar galaxies, so it seemed a natural to observe them. Alas, the new project floundered and foundered. For a couple of reasons. It came at a bad time, just as I was transitioning from working stiff to retired codger. I had to spend most of my time with investment councilors, not the stars.

Good old Bill's...
That wasn’t the only reason. The elephant in the living room was that I just didn't find Halton Arp inspiring. While the man did some outstanding work, his clinging to patently incorrect theories made him seem more a stubborn cuss than a pioneer like the Herschels. Many the time out on a cold, dark field, I felt a genuine closeness to William and Caroline. With Chip Arp? Never.

Finally, I was surprised to find, when I composed an Arp list with SkyTools 3, that I’d already seen bunches of the galaxies. It was still fun to go back through ‘em, looking for their peculiar details. But it didn't have the feel the H-Project had, of breaking new ground, of seeing what was just around the next corner. If the Herschel Project was my Star Trek (the original series), Operation Arp was Deep Space Nine.

Lastly, while there are galaxies all over the sky, even hugging the Zone of Avoidance, most of the Arps are, naturally, clustered in the spring and fall. What would I do the rest of the year? Yes, the spring constellations are on display in late winter and early summer, and the fall ones in late summer and early winter, but I would still have to deal with slim pickings for considerable lengths of time.

So I thunk some more. One afternoon, I picked up Burnham’s Celestial Handbook and started thumbing through it after it had sat lonely on my shelf for many upon many a Moon. Hell, why not observe all the Burnham deep sky objects? For a while that sounded just about perfect.  When I ginned up a list with Deep Sky Planner, I discovered that while the Handbook contains nearly 1900 DSOs, I’d already seen three-quarters of them, leaving around 500, which sounded about right.

Alas, the BCH ain't yet got off the ground. I ain’t gonna say I ain’t never gonna undertake it, but a little preliminary observing showed it not to be much fun. Oh, the objects were fun to observe and all that, but I wanted depth. What I wanted to do was to be able to compare my impressions of what I was seeing to Burnham’s. Unfortunately, only a relative few of his objects get any discussion in the books. Usually three or four per constellation. There really wasn’t much of an emotional hook to hang the Burnham Project on, either. Certainly, Robert Burnham was a sympathetic character, but, as with Arp, I found it nigh impossible to feel much kinship with him.

So, anyhow, I was sitting around the New Manse the udder day, pondering the amateur astronomer’s eternal question, “What do I look at next?” when my eye ran across the bookshelf, lighting on Deep Sky Wonders. I don’t mean Sue French’s (excellent) book, but the original, the Scotty Deep Sky Wonders. The compilation book of his columns done by Steve O’Meara in 1999.

Who is this “Scotty?” I don’t blame you younguns for not knowing. After all, Walter Scott Houston has been gone from us for over twenty years. Still, you’ll hear hardcore deep sky maniacs talk about him even now. He was that big a force in our hobby. You might say he is the man who invented deep sky observing as we know it today. I do not exaggerate when I say his column, which ran in Sky & Telescope from 1946 until his death, is no little responsible for taking amateur astronomy from being a pursuit where you looked at the Moon, planets, double stars, and brightest Messiers, to the far ranging deep space quest it is today. Want to know more? The book has a short profile of the man, but there is not yet a real biography, something I hope will change someday.

And how about the O’Meara-edited book? It is good, very good; you should read it. You should also get undiluted Scotty, however. The original, the real deal. While most of the words in the book are Scotty’s, Mr. O’Meara understandably had to do a lot of cutting and pasting and rearranging to work those nearly fifty years of monthly columns into a coherent whole. It’s a nice summing up of “Deep Sky Wonders” and I recommend it, but today you have an alternative.

Yep, campers, I’m talking about the Sky & Telescope DVD set, which, you won’t be surprised to learn, holds an honored spot on Chaos Manor South’s bookshelf. What was the first thing I did with it once I got the discs? I went straight to September 1946, the issue with Scotty’s first column, and began reading them in sequence.

What made Mr. Houston the Dean of Deep Sky Observers, as he is often called, wasn’t just his encyclopedic knowledge of the Universe beyond the Solar System. One of the most prescient observations by Steve O’Meara in Deep Sky Wonders is that Scotty never let the minutiae of deep sky observing get in the way. One thing you will not find in his columns—ever—is long-winded discussions about which brand or design of telescope or eyepiece is “best.” Scotty knew the most important thing in our pursuit is not the eyepiece, but the man or woman behind it.

My Scotty story? Everybody who was active in the glory days of the 70s - 80s when amateurs were first beginning to really push back the deep sky frontiers seems to have a Scotty story. Mine is simple. I was at a star party way back when, probably the old Riverside Telescope Maker’s Conference. I was standing in line to get a look through somebody’s big gun—hell it may have been a freaking 16-inch—and struck up a conversation with this older gent.

Not only did this dude seem knowledgeable about the deep sky, damned knowledgeable, the force of his personality was undeniable. Even in the dark, I could feel him sizing me up, like a pitcher taking the measure of the next batter. I was impressed. It was only after he’d had his look through the eyepiece, made a couple of incisive comments, and wandered off, that the guy next to me nudged me, “You know who that was, doncha? SCOTTY!”

The fuel of the Herschel Project...
So, no, I didn't really know Walter Scott Houston (“Twinky” to his family and other intimates), but despite only having (sorta) met him that once, I felt like I did from reading “Deep Sky Wonders” for over thirty years. When I was a sprout, the column was the first thing I turned to when Sky and ‘Scope appeared in the mailbox (in a big manila envelope). I wasn’t always successful in following Scotty out into the Final Frontier, but it sure was fun trying.

So, what if I observed the “Scotty Objects” enumerated in the book? Yeah, many of them I would have seen time and again—naturally, in the early days, he gave plenty of space to less esoteric objects—but the fun would be finding out how what I saw compared to what The Man saw.

Well, if’n I was going to do that, I’d need a list of objects. It was a simple matter to compose an observing list of Scotty’s DSOs from the book using SkyTools 3. When I was done, I found I had a total of exactly 441 fuzzies. Let me say rat-cheer that I didn't include every single object. I skipped most of the dark nebulae. Scotty loved them, but they ain’t my bag. I also left out some double stars that would have required lazy ol’ me to do a modicum of work to cross-reference them with SkyTools’ database. What I was left with looked like it was just about the right size, Herschel 400 size, had a good mix of objects, and just had a good feel to it.

How exactly will I do Project Scotty? I have been wanting to get back to doing a little more visual observing with my 12-inch Dob, Old Betsy, and Scotty was a visual observer, so the emphasis will be on looking through the eyepiece. I do love my Mallincams, though, and I will not hesitate to employ them. Scotty used modest scopes—a 10-inch was his largest personal instrument—but he had darker skies than I do, especially when he was observing from Kansas. And he had incredible skills. So, I’ll use the Xtreme when appropriate. A tenet of Project Scotty is that philosophy that what really matters is the observer, not the equipment.

Other ground rules? Will there be a time-limit? I didn't impose a time limit on myself when I was doing the Herschel 2500. However, I did set a goal for finishing the Herschel 2, my first serious foray in the H-list. Like Julie Powell, I gave myself a year to get ‘er done. Unlike her, however, I resolved not to worry about it if I didn’t make it. Same this time. Having a set time for finishing a project does seem to help spur me on, but given the weather down south the last few years, I never know how much sky time I will get.

Old Betsy's latest incarnation...
When will Project Scotty begin? Soon, I hope, y’all. As I wrote a few weeks back, Old Betsy is all cleaned up and wired up to work with a laptop and SkyTools 3, and seems to be champing at the bit sitting out in the Shop. Assuming (you know what they say about that word) the Weather Gods allow it, I hope to get her out to the Possum Swamp Astronomical Society Dark Site and begin Scotty’s objects with July and August.

I don’t believe I mentioned it earlier, but to help preserve the feel of the original columns, Steve O’Meara arranged Deep Sky Wonders into 12 monthly sections. Don’t expect me to stick to the month’s objects on any given month. Which ones I will look at will depend on what’s well placed for observing. You may find me, for example, bypassing July objects for those of September and October.

I guess what I am really looking forward to, though, is getting under the crisp fall and winter skies with Scotty at my side, just like on those long ago nights when I took my first fumbling steps into the cosmos. Orion, Gemini, Andromeda, and all the rest were terra incognita to me then. I was often lost and often despaired of finding my way among the countless stars. Sometimes I wanted to slink back inside without having seen a thing. I didn’t, because, in my mind, anyway, Walter Scott Houston was at my side urging, “Don’t give up, boy; you won’t believe the wonders we are going to see!”

What happens to my other deep sky observing projects? I am shelving the Burnham list for now. I will probably get back to it once Project Scotty is done. Maybe. Operation Arp is engaging enough that I will no doubt continue it down Chiefland Way when the spring constellations roll ‘round again. I have one other short (reasonably) list to tackle as well, my DSRSG 1994 – 2014 Anniversary List, of which you will hear more in a month or three. So, onward to Project Scotty, muchachos. In the words of Ms. Powell, “What could happen?”

Next Time: West Virginia Redux...

Sunday, August 10, 2014

 

Getting Nebulized


By which I mean getting friendly with the astrophoto acquisition and processing software, Nebulosity 3, muchachos. But that is only part of the agenda this Sunday a.m. I could just as easily have titled thisun “Getting your DSLR On.” A lot of amateurs old and new would like to start taking pictures through their telescopes with a digital single lens reflex but don’t know where to start. For that reason, “the DSLR Article” has become an almost mandatory yearly tradition ‘round here.

Howsomeever, before we put the dadgummed cart before the horse, we ought to decide if you even want a DSLR. Or, if you already have one, whether  you want to use it for astronomy...

What’s a DSLR good for astronomy-wise? One can take nice wide-field images of the Moon. Cameras with video can make reasonable close-ups of Luna—and the planets—via frame stacking with Registax. The ground truth, however, is that for the planets a 300 dollar Solar System cam with a small imaging ship, many tiny pixels, and a high frame rate—like the ZWOs—will walk all over the most expensive Canon or Nikon. What a DSLR is mostly good for is deep sky prime focus astrophotography, just like its ancestor, the (film) SLR.

Who is a DSLR not for? Folks who are determined to do science with a capital “S” with their telescopes and cameras. A traditional monochrome CCD camera is more effective for that. One is much easier to calibrate. If’n you don’t know what that means, don’t worry about it. A DSLR is likely just the thing for you.

Another astrophotography faction the DSLR is not for is those folks going after the dimmest of the dim. You know, the characters whose 16-hour exposures show up in my buddy Sean’s “Gallery” feature in Sky and Telescope. DSLRs use color CMOS imaging chips, which will never be as sensitive as monochrome CCD chips (nor deliver as much resolution).

Me? I have neither the patience nor the skies nor the talent to go to town with a CCD. My astrophotos are really just celestial snapshots, the astronomical equivalents of the pictures 1960s tourists snapped with their Instamatics. The DSLR allows me to do that with a minimum of fuss. It is my bag, man.

Once you decide you want to proceed with prime focus deep sky imaging with a DSLR, that is just the start of the questions. The next one, of course, is which DSLR? Take a stroll through the website of Unk’s favorite camera store, B&H Photo, and you will find 322 different DSLRs—or at least different configurations of DSLRs. Canons…Nikons…Pentaxes…Olympuses… and on and on and on. What’s an astrophotography crazy boy or girl to do?

Do you want the safe choice? I’ll give it to you:  C-a-n-o-n. There are several reasons for that. First off, while other manufacturers have narrowed the gap considerably, the Canon cameras are still the most noise-free for long exposure imaging, if only by a hair. Secondly, if, like Unk, you want to run your camera with software on a laptop—operate your DSLR as if it were a “real” CCD camera, that is—there’s more software support for Canon than any other brand. Finally, Canon is the only maker, as far as I know, who acknowledges their cameras are used for astro-imaging and—get this—actually offers a camera designed for astrophotography, the Canon 60Da.

Yep, Canon is the safe bet, but not the only good bet these days. Plenty, and I do mean plenty, of good shots are being taken with other brands, especially Nikon. If you are already invested in lenses from another system, if you have plenty of Nikkor (or whatever) lenses left over from the film days,  you’d be silly not to get a Nikon DSLR body when transitioning to digital.

Most folks serious about photography went digital years ago, however. What if you went digital with Nikon or Olympus or Pentax? Should you consider buying a Canon just for astronomical use? Probably not. Try what you have; you may be happy with it. While, as above, there’s more software for Canon than any other brand, that’s changing, if slowly. The folks who do the much-loved Backyard EOS program, for example, are working on a version for Nikons, BackyardNikon.

Sony's mirrorless A7...
Actually, the biggest question these days is not whether you need a Canon DSLR to do astrophotography, but whether you need a DSLR at all. The new breed, the “mirrorless compact” cameras, and particularly those from Sony, are coming on strong. My imaging buddy, Max, uses one and gets impressive results. Sony’s A(lpha)7 full frame job, which boasts a native ISO of up to 25,600, is already being used by astrophotographers to produce amazing results.

Mirrorless cameras have the advantages of lighter weight and no vibration-causing mirror slap when the shutter is fired—there’s no mirror that needs to get out of the way. Frankly, these cameras may be the wave of the future for astro-imaging. Most of us aren't using our cameras’ optical viewfinders for astrophotography, anyway. For terrestrial work? I ain’t convinced I’d want to give up a DSLR’s non electronic viewfinder for that. Not yet, anyhow.

Oh, in case you’re wondering, no, your point and shoot camera won’t work well for deep sky astrophotography. Its lens is not removable, so you will be restricted to afocal shooting (point lens into eyepiece). That yields small, vignetted fields and is just too limiting. With a perfectly serviceable Canon T3 available brand new for an amazing 299 freaking bucks (with a kit lens!), there’s just no reason to fool around with point and shoot cams anymore.

What’s the next thing astrophotography greenhorns axe me, sometimes even before they've purchased a camera? “Unk, does my DSLR need to be MODIFIED?” With the exception of the Canon 60Da, all DSLRs come with strong IR filters over their imaging chips. Imaging chips are very sensitive in the red/IR part of the spectrum. Too sensitive for terrestrial picture taking. Without the built-in filter, your Aunt Lulu and all the guests at her birthday bash will look as pink as cherubs. The built in filters fix that, making it easy for the camera to deliver the proper colors.

Unfortunately, for the astro-imager, the dim diffuse nebulae many folks want to photograph radiate strongly in the red and the built in filters make it hard to get good exposures of ‘em. So  they have their cameras modified. Which means they have the built in filters removed, or removed and replaced with a more nebula-friendly filter.

30-second stack of M57...
If you are mostly interested in shooting nebulae, that can be a good thing. Me? None of my cameras are modified. I do lots of terrestrial shooting. To do that with a modified camera, I'd have to place an IR filter over the lens and/or fool with a custom white balance setting to get a decent shot of Aunt Lulu with a lampshade on her head. I’m not interested in messing with that. Nor am I interested in just shooting nebulae. I like to do a little of everything.

Star clusters, galaxies, and planetary nebulae are helped much less by filter removal (if they are helped at all) than emission nebulae. Keep in mind, too, that an unmodified DSLR will still be able to image the Horsehead, for example. You may have to expose longer and process more carefully but you can still get the shot.

Even if you want to photograph nothing but emission nebulae, the answer may not be getting your camera modified, but buying Canon’s 60Da. It is not quite as red sensitive as some modified cameras, but it is much easier to use on non-astro subjects. See Alan Dyer’s excellent review in the September 2012 issue of Sky and Telescope. That article contains a rather eye-opening series of comparison shots of the North America Nebula done with the Canon 60Da, a standard Canon 7D, and a modified Canon 5D MKIII. You may be shocked at how little difference there really is, especially given what you’ve prob’ly read about the subject on the pea-picking Internet.

Alrighty then. Let’s say you’ve got a camera. That, of course, is only the start of what you will need to get going in whole hog fashion. If you choose to guide your telescope, to make small corrections to its aim so stars will be nice and round in long exposures, you’ll need a guide camera, a guide scope, cables, and more. You can read all about that stuff here, but I suggest you NOT guide. Not at first.

Eliminating autoguiding from the astrophotography equation in the beginning will go a long way toward preserving your interest in imaging—and your hairline. Many mounts, even the plebeian Celestron CG5 and Meade LXD75 can track more than adequately enough to deliver good stars in 30-second exposures. And current DSLRs, most of which will allow you to use ISOs of 3200 and 6400, can bring home a lot in brief exposures. Stack 20 or 30 thirty-seconders, and you will be amazed at how good your resulting picture looks.

30-second stack (cropped) of M13...
What do you need in addition to your camera to take unguided deep sky shots? Not much. You need a way to attach the DSLR to the telescope, naturally. That’s a prime focus adapter tailored for your design of scope. You will also need a T-ring for your camera, which takes the place of its lens and which will thread right onto the prime focus adapter. Finally, you need a means of firing off exposures.

In order to expose for longer than 30-seconds, you need a remote shutter release, but you can do 30-second exposures by just pushing the shutter button.  You probably won’t want to do that, though. Pushing the button will shake scope and camera, ruining your shot before you begin.

The solution is a remote shutter release/intervalometer, which won’t just allow you to release the shutter; it will also allow you to program in a series of exposures. Set it up to take 20 shots, mash the button, and walk around the field annoying your friends while the camera does the work.

After you FOCUS. That’s where the intervalometer becomes less appealing. Yes, most current DSLRs feature Live View. You can focus on an image on the camera’s little electronic screen rather than having to squint through the optical viewfinder. That’s doable, but you still need good eyes, much better than my poor old peepers. Even if you’ve got 20-20, you may not find it simple to achieve sharp focus on the small display. That, my friends, is one of the things that make Nebulosity better.

Nebulosity 3 by Stark Labs, available for Windows and Macintosh, is a program with two personalities. First, it’s a program that controls your camera. You can set exposures, exposure sequences, and other things from the computer. If you’ve a modern DSLR, all you have to do is connect the camera to your PC with a USB cable, just like when you are downloading pictures. Once your Canon is hooked to the laptop (the Canons are the only DSLRs the program supports) you get to use the big screen of the computer for focusing. This is a very cool way to work, as terrestrial photographers have also discovered (they call using a PC with the DSLR “tethering”).

You can focus in Nebulosity by either using your camera’s Live View mode or by having the camera take continuous short exposures. Why would you not want to use Live View?  Some Canons don’t have Live View, and even if your camera does, you may find that mode not sensitive enough to allow focusing on dimmer stars.  In my experience, it’s more than good enough for rough focusing in Nebulosity’s “frame and focus” mode, however.

Even more amazing is the program’s fine focus mode. Once you’ve got good rough focus on a bright star, stop the exposures with the “Abort” button, engage fine focus mode with a click, and select a dimmer, unsaturated star in the field. The program will automatically zoom in on the star, and you can focus precisely by observing the size of the star, a graph of its intensity, a max intensity figure, and a “half flux radius” number. I used to use a Bahtinov mask for focusing, but find I don’t need it anymore given the program’s wonderful fine focus mode.

OK, you’re focused and framed and ready to shoot a purty pitcher. How do you do it? How do you get going with unguided prime focus imaging? Here’s what I do, y’all…

Neb's Control Center...
First step is getting your scope set up and aligned. As in both polar aligned and goto aligned. No, you don’t have to use a goto telescope, but it sure speeds up the imaging process. My mounts will put any object I request on the DSLRs (APS-C) chip every time. All I might have to do is a little centering. Polar alignment? It’s not as critical at 30-seconds as it would be with longer exposures, especially if you keep your focal length at 1500mm or less (recommended). It will need to be better than “point RA axis roughly at Polaris,” however. The way you do that is up to you. I like the AllStar polar alignment procedure in the Celestron hand controls. It is more than sufficient for 30-second subframes.

Do you need an equatorial mount? No. At 30-seconds, the “field rotation” that will cause stars to trail with a driven alt-az mount no matter how well it tracks is not much of a factor. Since an alt-azimuth mount has to track precisely in two axes rather than one, however, don’t expect results as good as with an equatorial.
Scope aligned, I remove the diagonal and eyepiece, and replace ‘em with the camera. This is actually the second time the camera has been on the scope. Before alignment, always mount the camera and balance the scope. With smaller, cheaper mounts balance is purty critical (slightly east heavy is what you want), and balancing with the camera onboard is mandatory.

I then connect the Canon to the laptop, turn on the camera, and start Nebulosity 3. Once it’s running, I select my camera type, set an ISO value (if the sky is reasonably dark, I like to shoot at 3200) and begin framing and rough focus. The scope should still be pointed at my last alignment star, and that is what I use. When the bright star is as small as I can get it, I will begin seeing dimmer field stars. As above, I click on one and begin the fine focus process. If the star is too dim to show up well in Live View mode during fine focusing, I’ll go to the multiple shutter firing mode and increase exposure till a good focus star is easy to see.

After that? Ain't a whole lot to it, y’all. I set the exposure (duration) to 30-seconds and usually try a “Preview.” Mash that button and Neb will take one frame. Don’t freak out too much when the shot appears. You will be zoomed in purty tight and the stars may look blobby. Reduce the zoom factor (upper right porting of the screen) to get a better idea of what you’ve got. Also, don’t be too concerned if the sky background is a funky shade of brown because you are shooting in light polluted environs. You’ll be able to fix that easily when you process your final images with Neb. If you’re satisfied with the Preview frame, select the number of exposures (20 or 30 usually), and hit the Capture Series button.

When the exposure sequence is complete, the program will play a little fanfare and you can repeat as needed on the rest of the evening’s targets. Keep going till you don’t want to go no more, disconnect the camera (in Nebulosity), turn it off, throw the Big Switch on your scope, and head home for some Rebel Yell or whichever libation suits your fancy.

Next morning, it’s time to process your pix. That's the other side of Neb. It's pretty powerful when it comes to image processing. You can do that simply, like Unk, or get purty complicated—Nebulosity places plenty of tools at your disposal. Mr. Craig Stark, the program’s author, has an excellent tutorial posted, but I can give you the basics rat cheer.

Frame and Focus Mode...
Start Neb, and load the entire series of subframes of your first target (Nebulosity will have given each series of shots a number if you didn’t specify a particular name). I see you scratching your head, Skeezix. I forgot to mention another of the great things about Nebulosity. Instead of saving your images on the camera’s memory card, they are saved (as .fits files) on your hard drive. Mucho more convenient.

When the subframes, the individual 30-seond exposures of my target, are loaded into Nebulosity, I stack ‘em. The stacking feature is another of Neb’s strengths. It has never failed me, and is easier to use and has yielded better results than Deep Sky Stacker, for example. To stack, click a non-saturated star and Nebulosity will show the next sub with that star circled. You can click it again and proceed to the following frame if everything is Jake, or you can just tell Neb to stack ‘em all automatically.

When it’s done, you’ll have a single image composed of all those subframes, which you can save as a common file type (.bmp, .jpg, etc.). You will probably want to do some processing first, however. Since I almost always have to shoot from light pollution, the first tool I go to is Adjust Color Background, which easily dispenses with that murky brown sky. From there, it’s up to you. In addition to noise reduction functions, Neb includes a “digital development” routine that almost automates processing. Yes, I’ll probably run my finished pictures through Photoshop (or Adobe Light Room), but Nebulosity 3 is, frankly, feature-laden enough that I could really get away without doing that.

Nebulosity is a powerful and stable program. That’s good, but what does your old celestial snapshooter of an Uncle really like about it, muchachos? It is simple to use. So simple that even after laying off the DSLRing for months due to weather, I still remember how to work the thing. Oh, and the price is crazy reasonable:  $80.00. Typo? Nix, that ain’t no typo, Skeezix: “eighty bucks…eighty simoleons…eighty dineros.” Can’t beat that with a stick, now can you?

Next Time:  The Next Observing Project…

Sunday, August 03, 2014

 

Down Chiefland Way with the Micro EX and AstroLive


Oh, those 1960s Florida vacations, muchachos! Mama would organize us all, pack our suitcases, fill a cardboard box with victuals (it was hard to convince the Old Man to stop at a freaking Howard Johnson’s for road food), shoo us—including Daddy, who was likely on the air for a 10-meter opening—out to the car, and we’d be off.

The three of us, or the four of us after my brother came along, would hop in the OM’s prized 1955 Chevy Bel Air and head for the Sunshine State. We’d have some vague destination in mind, usually Daytona Beach or Saint Augustine, but that was just the icing. Who knew what wonders we’d discover along the roadside? Alligator wrestlers. Live mermaids. A jungle where humans were caged and the monkeys ran free. The old U.S. Highways—90, 98, 19, A1A—were pregnant with possibilities on those long ago summer days.

Those old-fashioned vacations are yet green in Unk’s memory, and it is fun to try to recreate them when me and Miss Dorothy set out on our traditional July expedition to the Chiefland Astronomy Village. Most of the attractions I seek on those trips are far more strange and distant than Weeki Wachee Springs and its lovely mermaids, but the idea is the same: what wondrous things will I find in Florida?

Course, you can run into some not so good things down in FL, too. Back in the vaunted Day, it was Daddy’s inevitable flat tire on a blisteringly hot afternoon. Now, it is the freaking weather. We had a couple of recent Julys, 2011 and 2012, that were spectacular: nights as clear and dang near as dark as in winter. So, as you can imagine, we were awful put out when July—actually the whole summer—of 2013 was relentlessly cloudy. What the hail was going on?

The answer? Nothing. As Unk’s CAV buddy, Mike Harvey, pointed out, in 2013 we had a normal Chiefland July. Hot, hazy, and humid—and often cloudy and stormy. 2011 and 2012 were the aberrations. The ground truth is that in July in Florida you can’t expect good observing weather. Oh, you can hope and wish for it, but you can’t expect it.

Funny thing, though? This year, after a horrible spring and early summer in the southland, the weather improved as the 4th and the All Star Break came and went. Dorothy had made us motel reservations quite a while before, since we were determined to do our Florida Vacation no matter what the weather gods had in store. When she made those reservations in June, I wasn’t convinced the vacation would involve astronomy. Now I was. It seemed purty sure I would get something. How much, I didn't know, but something.

What was most astounding? As the afternoon before our Thursday morning departure burned down into a sultry Gulf Coast night, the weather forecasts for Chiefland were holding—maybe even getting slightly better. Thursday night was supposed to be dead clear, with the worst for the following two days being “some passing clouds.” Unk was definitely eager if only cautiously optimistic—the Admiral Ackbar side of his personality figgered “IT’S A TRAP!”—as he loaded the 4Runner, Miss Lucille Van Pelt.

What did I load and what was my agenda? The first and probably the best night would be devoted to taking prime focus DSLR shots with the Edge C8, Mrs. Peel, and her VX mount. I am writing a review of the Edge/VX combo, and needed some “insurance” pictures in case the weather gods chose to laugh in my face all August long.  Once that was done, I hoped to be able to finally give the Mallincam Micro EX a test.

I’d been able to try the newest and littlest Mallincam at the Deep South Regional Star Gaze Spring Scrimmage in April, but looking through the occasional sucker hole is no way to check out a camera. I also wanted to try a new computer program, AstroLive, which would control the Micro (and many other cameras).

4Runner packed and out suitcases ready, all that remained was to while away a summer’s eve. I was feeling right good about my prospects down Chiefland way, and I had Braves baseball and Rebel Yell at hand, so the night was pleasant and restful and I was actually out of bed early on Thursday morning.

Dorothy and I weren't sure about the best route to I-10 from the New Manse, so we altered our normal routine a mite on departure morning. We skipped Mickey D’s—and Unk’s traditional pre-star party fried chicken biscuit—in the interests of saving time. We didn't stop for food until we were well over the Florida line and hit the Milton/Bagdad Exit, which features a Stuckey’s in the old mode—clean, well-stocked, and full of friendly folks. Unk’s “breakfast” repast? Why, a chili-cheese dog, natcherly. You will be proud that I at least resisted the urge to order the foot-long version.

The remainder of our journey was as uneventful as ever. We did pass through a fair amount of rain, but as we approached the exit for the Florida - Georgia Parkway for the run into Chiefland, the clouds—as they are sometimes wont to do—began to disperse. We refueled Miss Van Pelt at the good old Sunoco station, and Unk, to maintain tradition, grabbed a Jack Links Sasquatch Big Stick to serve as his lunch.

When we arrived in Chiefland, we didn't have to decide what to do. As always, we stuck to the pea-picking PLAN. Check into the motel. If it’s not raining, head to the CAV to set up. Back to town for a supply run on Wally World. Supper (when it’s obvious there will be observing) is usually Taco Bell. Quick stop at the room. Out to the site to finish preparations.

How was the motel? If you are a dedicated reader of the Little Old Blog from Chaos Manor South, you know we switched from Days Inn to Best Western some time ago. The Days Inn was just nasty the last time we stayed there (though I’ve had somewhat encouraging reports on it since). You also know Best Western changed chains and is now a Quality Inn, just like the old Holiday Inn Express de-evolved into a Days Inn. The Quality Inn is now the only game in town if you don’t want to brave the Days Inn or stay at what Unk calls “the Pregnant Guppy Motel,” a little independent hostelry, the Manatee Springs Inn. Seems to me Chiefland is big enough to support a new motel. Sure hope that happens someday.

Bottom line? The Quality Inn is neither much better nor any worse than when it was a Best Western. It is sufficient. The rooms are reasonably clean. The breakfast is edible. The staff is friendly—if a little clueless. Only major downcheck this time? The “hot” water was tepid at best. The motel is still preferable to tent camping, however, especially in the summer, and is quite acceptable for three or four nights.

After we were finally settled in our room a blamed hour after we arrived—the desk clerk couldn’t find our reservation and initially put us in a standard room rather than the suite-like “family room” we’d requested—it was out to the CAV to see what was what and, most of all, to set up. There was plenty of blue sky, and it was obvious there’d be plenty of observing Thursday night.

When we arrived at the Billy Dodd Memorial Observing Field, I was pleased to see two of my old CAV compadres, Carl Wright and Paul LaVoie, were onsite and ready to go. I won’t say it was pleasant setting up Mrs. Peel and the EZ-Up in 90-degree temps, but it was doable. We took it slowly and there was a constant breeze. Unk was only a tetch overheated and out of sorts when we were done. Still, it was dang nice to blast the air conditioner on the way back to town.

What’d we get at the dadgum Wal-Mart? The usual:  Kolorado Kool Aid (for after run celebrating), Jack Links and granola bars to serve as Unk’s midrats, plenty of bottled water, and—of course—MONSTER ENERGY DRINKS.

Thence to supper. On those Thursday nights when it’s obvious the clouds will hold sway, we repair to Bar-B-Q Bill’s for steaks and beer. It was apparent there’d be ample sky watching on this night, however, so we settled for Taco Bell, where Unk indulged himself with the Dorito Taco Big Box.

Supper done, it was, surprisingly, time to skedaddle. Despite the fact that sundown wouldn’t arrive till nearly 8:30 p.m., time was tight. Losing an hour in the process of getting checked into the Quality Inn hurt. I didn't feel rushed, but I felt some pressure to get my final preparations done. The camera had to be mounted on the scope. So did the guide camera. Computer had to be cabled to the VX. Etc., etc., etc. I got everything done with some time to spare but not much time to spare.

What is there to say about Thursday night? Surprisingly, not much. Despite Unk not having done any prime focus DSLR imaging in over two years, it went without a hitch. The reason for that was two-fold:  the new (well, new to Unk) Nebulosity 3 is even easier to use than its predecessor, and the Canon 60D I am now using for deep sky astrophotography is likewise easier to use than my previous astro-DSLR, a Canon 400D. The 60D has Live View, which makes focusing uber quick, and you don’t have to worry about a pea-picking shutter interface cable for long exposure work. Shutter control is handled by the same USB cable that downloads images to the laptop (when you are using Nebulosity).

I managed to image four targets during the course of an evening that slowly evolved into a stunner. Looking up at the Milky Way as it began to burn, I opined that this July new Moon was turning out to be nearly as good as 2011’s and maybe better than 2012’s. While seeing was not terrific, it was OK, and away from the horizons where clouds were shuttling past off and on, it was good and dark.

What did Unk do while his exposures were in progress? I wandered the field admiring the video images Carl was getting with his C8/CGE combo, and the prime focus images Paul was grabbing with his Edge C11 and Astro-Physics mount. Wasn't much else to do. You tell Nebulosity how many subframes of a subject you want, how long the exposures should be, and it does all the work—which is a good thing, since Neb probably knows a lot more about prime focus deep sky imaging than your benighted old Uncle does. I wandered over to the computer to check on progress occasionally or to send Mrs. Peel to a new target, and that was all the “work” I did.

Chugged a Monster about midnight, which kept me going till 2 a.m., no prob. Actually, I could have made it well past two, but at that time the sky, while still purty danged good, had hazed up a mite. It was still fine, mind you, but maybe not good enough for more prime focus deep sky. I threw the big switch, packed the computer, and stowed some of the other gear. It would turn out Unk should have been more assiduous about protecting the astro-stuff, but I was feeling on top of the world. It had been a splendid run under splendid skies. What could happen?

Anyhoo, Unk was down the spooky lane of mossy old oaks, onto highway 19, and back at the motel by 2:30 a.m. Just in time catch a Finding Bigfoot marathon on the (analog) cable TV.  Unk, still pumped and not a bit sleepy, broke out the great big bottle of Rebel Yell I’d picked up at BubbaQue’s Liquors (right across the street from the Quality Inn) before heading to the site.

Believe it or no, Friday morning Unk was up in time to make it to the motel’s breakfast with Miss Dorothy. How was it? They had outstanding biscuits and gravy. That was all I needed—well, that and a cup or three of Joe—to see me through till lunch, so I gave it a thumbs-up.

Breakfast washed down with a gallon of coffee, D. and I quitted the motel for a day at Duma Key. That’s our pet name for Cedar Key, a formerly sleepy fishing village on Florida’s “undiscovered” west coast that is now a major tourist attraction. Maybe too major. July 4 last year, Dorothy and I tried to visit the Key, but could not find a place to freaking park.

Since we’d be passing the turnoff for the CAV on our way to Duma Key, I asked Dorothy if she’d mind if we stopped for a few minutes to check on the gear. It has been sprinkling rain off and on in town at breakfast time, and I was aware I’d left a lot of stuff sitting out. Dorothy was amenable, so we visited the field. And it was a good thing we did.

The sprinkles in Chiefland had been a major downpour at the CAV a dozen miles away. Everything was soaked. Mrs. Peel was fine under her Desert Storm Cover, but the table had about half an inch of water standing on it. My observing notebook was waterlogged. So were several cardboard boxes. The camp chairs looked like birdbaths. Dorothy and I spent the next half hour drying everything out. Paul lent us a tarp to cover the table and chairs in case an afternoon shower rolled through, and I resolved to always pack tarps and use them in the future. In amateur astronomy, it’s always when you get complacent, when you get the big head, that you get bit on the rear.

How was Cedar Key? It was as fun and picturesque as always. We didn't spend a lot of time strolling around—it was just too darned hot—but we had a good time. We began at Steamer’s Clam Bar, where Unk ordered the crab cake sandwich (crazy) and the onion rings (insane). Got to have something to wash it down with, right? Several draft brewskies saw to that. As we sat in Steamer’s, another thunderstorm rumbled through and dropped rain, but it missed the CAV. Thankfully, we’d got the only rain we’d get there the whole time.

Back to the motel for...? Yep, you guessed it: n-a-p-t-i-m-e. Unk semi-dozed and semi-slept in the cool room for about three hours, and was rarin’ to go as sundown came on. Thursday night had been work. Friday would be fun, if fun with a purpose.

That purpose, as above was to check the Micro. What’s a Micro and how is it different from the other Mallincams? Heretofore, most deep sky video cameras have used ½-inch CCD chips. Recently, though, perhaps stirred by folks experimenting with inexpensive off-the-shelf surveillance cams, there’s been considerable interest in 1/3-inch sensor vidcams for astronomy.

The Little Feller...
And that is what the Mallincam Micro EX is. It is a 1/3-inch color camera, but it is definitely not an off-the-shelf one. It has been optimized for astronomy by Mr. Rock, and is better suited for our pursuit than the Samsung “closed circuit” cameras the folks over on the Cloudy Nights BBS like to play with. Nevertheless, it is at heart a simple device:  no cooling, only a few adjustments, small form factor, and the aforementioned smaller imaging chip.

Sometimes small and simple is beautiful, however. The EX’s little, nearly cubical body means you can insert it straight into the visual back on a fork mount SCT, even with a focal reducer screwed onto the rear port, without having to worry about the camera running into the drivebase at higher altitudes. No star diagonal required. That is a big deal for SCT owners.

Despite an extensive menu system, there are really only four adjustments on the Micro most users will have to fool with more than once, and that is a damned good thing if you are a beginner. The many adjustments of my beloved Xtreme sometimes still leave Unk scratching his head.

Another benefit of small and simple, of course, is that Mr. Mallin can sell the camera for less than the “big” Mallincams. A barefoot Micro is an amazing 99 bucks. With cables, power, supply, and a 1.25-inch nosepiece, it is a still astounding 169 dineros.

I was eager to see what the little feller would do, but I’d need something for it to image, which was not happening. Drifting clouds at sunset had morphed into something that was not quite overcast, but was at least very thick haze. Mr. Harvey was of the opinion that we could expect clearing by 1 a.m. I hoped he was correct.

Turned out he was. We actually began to get some improvement sooner than that and I was able to get Mrs. Peel goto aligned well before midnight. One of the first things folks ask about 1/3-inch chips is whether they make goto alignment and goto a challenge. Yes, they cover less sky than a ½-inch chip at the same focal ratio (for me, f/3.3 using my old Meade reducer). But not that much less sky, and I certainly had no trouble with goto. Anything I requested was on the chip of the Micro from one horizon to the other.

M13
Well, it’s not quite right to say Unk had no trouble with alignment. I almost always have trouble of some kind. In the course of drying everything out that morning, I’d checked the scope, discovered I’d left the Rigel Quickfinder turned on, and managed to mess up its aim in the course of replacing the battery. It took a little doing to get scope and finder to agree again, but after that, it was purty smooth sailing.

I sure was happy I’d got to try the camera back in April. In some ways, it is that horse of a different color when compared to the Xtreme. At least the way I use the Xtreme, controlling exposure and other settings with the laptop. You do get a computer cable and a software program with the Micro, but computer control with it is a different proposition than with other Mallincams.

All the Micro’s program does is throw up a window on your screen that duplicates the five buttons on the rear of the camera. You use the onscreen buttons to navigate menus and make changes to settings that appear on the video screen not the computer screen (unless you are piping video to a computer—more on that shortly). If you have used the wired remote available for other Malincams, it is a lot like that.

How about them settings? Although there are plenty of little icons and submenus to navigate, as above, once you have the camera initially set up (the instructions are clear as to how to do that) you only have a few to worry about.

The first is found in the Exposure menu and is, yep, camera exposure (shutter speed). Somewhat counter intuitively, it ain’t called “exposure,” but “lens.” Whatever it’s called, it allows you to vary the Micro from a maximum exposure of “1024x” (about 17 seconds) down to very short exposures suitable for the Moon and planets.

The ol' Dumbbell...
The second adjustment you will use frequently is “brightness,” which is also found under the Exposure icon. It can be varied from 0 – 99. Just set it at a level that provides a pleasing image of your current target.

Under the SYS (enhance) menu, you will find “gamma,” which is like contrast. It can be set at .3, .45, .6, or 1.0. I usually run it at .45 or .6 to get a picture that is neither too dark nor too washed out.

There’s one other menu you will visit, at least once in a while, the Color settings. These four are Automatic White Compensation (balance), Automatic Trace Whitebalance, Manual (white balance), and “Push,” which measures the image’s color balance. I usually just left this one on “auto,” though I did go manual and adjust red a couple of times when imaging nebulae.

In use, there ain’t much to running the Micro. I’d go to a target, set the exposure to 128x or 256x for focusing, set exposure to 1024x for imaging when I was done, and let fly. How effective is a “mere” 17 seconds for deep sky work? Well, hell, y’all, I was limited to 10-seconds with my old Stellacam 2, and successfully imaged thousands of objects with it. With this color camera, 17-seconds is enough to give you decent images of any Messier object.

You are not limited to bright Messiers, however. I got a nice pic of Pegasus’ “Andromeda Junior” galaxy, NGC 7331, with the Micro, and, since I was in the neighborhood, moved over to the somewhat notoriously dim galaxy group, Stephan’s Quintet. It didn't put my eye out, but it was visible. Later in the evening, the Bubble Nebula wasn’t just there; it was showing plenty of red color.

The Ring, natch...
Frankly, y'all, I was impressed. Despite a thin haze layer (which gave my pictures a green-brown cast), objects looked right good, with the live video looking substantially better than the quick grabs shown here. The Dumbbell really wasn’t much worse than it would have been with the Xtreme under similar conditions. Same with the Ring. The Lagoon Nebula? It was good enough that it made ol’ Unk’s jaw drop a substantial distance. And one of the hits of the night was considerably dimmer than any of those. NGC 1023, the peculiar galaxy in Perseus, didn't just show its preternaturally bright central area, but plenty of its lens shaped disk, which was golden in color.

Is the Micro for you? You could do worse. You should, however, understand its limitations. Compared to the Xtreme, this is beginner’s camera. It is uncooled, and its small chip has both warm and hot pixels. While I got good results with 17-seconds of exposure, if you are going after the really dim junk, or just want smoother, more detailed images, you will miss the longer exposures of the more advanced cameras. You may also find the lack of a gain adjustment limiting. While there is a gain setting, it is only useful in the camera’s special stacking mode, and not for normal observing.

Like the Mallincam Xtreme and  other deep sky video cameras, you will notice some amplifier glow in one of the corners of the frame at longer exposures. I don't find this disturbing with the Xtreme and it didn't bother me with the Micro either. I am after details and deep images, not pretty pictures. If you want pretty pictures, get a freaking DSLR.

The funny thing? What I thought would be most limiting, the 1/3-inch size of the chip, didn't turn out to be a handicap after all. I actually forgot it was “just” a 1/3-inch sensor after a while. With my 8-inch SCT and the f/3.3 reducer, the chip provided enough field to image most objects. No, I couldn’t fit consarned Andromeda in there, but it won’t fit on a ½-inch chip, neither.

In the end, we got about two OK hours and two good hours Friday night. That wasn’t a lot, but the little Micro was so trouble-free I was easily able to image several dozen subjects in that amount of time—which included quite a while spent messing with the settings to see how everything worked. With the exception of  the Micro's built in 5-frame stacking mode, that is, but I hope to try that soon (absent minded old Unk forgot all about it till we was back home).  Anyhoo, at 3 a.m., the conditions were degrading again and Unk’s old bod was reaching its “I have had enough” limit. Big Switch Time.

Back at the dadgum Quality Inn, all I could find on the tube at 3:30 in the a.m. was the ten-millionth airing of a Man vs. Food episode. After a couple of hits of the Yell, however, it began to seem interesting, and Unk didn't get to sleep till going on four effing thirty.

Saturday morning, I let Miss D. do breakfast without me. That was OK. I dang sure wanted to leave room for lunch at Bill’s. The tourist action for the day would be a visit to Chiefland’s famous Manatee Springs State Park. You won’t see any Manatees in the summer, but you can stroll in cool quiet beside the springs and see plenty of other wildlife. There was a nice addition to the park this time:  a new snack bar selling not just racks of ribs done on site in a big smoker, but COLD BEER. If I hadn’t been set on Bill’s, I coulda spent the entire day at the Springs.

Ah, yes, Bar-B-Q Bills. I’ve raved about it plenty here, so there’s little need to say anything more this time. I will just opine that it was as good as ever. The old-fashioned salad bar is still fresh and there still ain’t no purple vegetables in there. And the vaunted Lunch Special is still enormous, consisting of mucho sliced beef or pork, mound o’ fries, slaw, beans, and a huge hunk of garlic bread. Even Unk could not finish the entire meal, though he wanted to.

Then, finally, our last night at the CAV was upon us. What was I gonna do? I wanted to do more Micro EX-ing, but I wanted to do it in as simple a manner as possible. It would be nice if I could at least organize if not pack some of the copious astro-stuff in preparation for departure morning. I had a plan:  Why not use AstroLive and forget about the DVR recorder and the video monitor? Just run the video straight into the laptop?

AstroLive and Dumbbell...
What the heck is AstroLive? I wondered the same thing when its author, Kyle Goodwin, contacted me some months back, asking if I’d be interested in trying his new program in conjunction with the Micro. What AstroLive was, Kyle said, was a program he intended to be the Swiss army knife of video astronomy. Not only would it allow you to display video on your computer screen, it would let you to process images and stack images. Hell, it would even send your scope on gotos and compose observing lists.

Naturally, given the spring and early summer skies, I was able to do just as much with AstroLive as with the Micro—not squat, I mean. I was at least able to read the documentation and have a look at the software indoors, though. Once I glommed onto what it was supposed to do, I was impressed. The software looked professional and clean. Everything was laid out in logical fashion. It was not burdened with dozens of nested menus. There were just enough to get done what needed to be done, not tons of menus and buttons to confusticate me.

“But, Unk, how do you get Mallincam video into a computer? Mallincams is analog and computers is digital…” You use a device called a “frame grabber.” These days, one looks about like a USB-serial cable. Slightly oversize USB plug that goes into the computer. Cables coming out of that terminate in female phono (RCA) plugs for video and audio input. Plug the USB end into your computer and the Mallincam video cable into the video phono plug and your are good to go (after downloading and installing drivers the first time out, natch).

I haven’t done a lot of this computer-video business, and didn't have a frame grabber. But I found an “EZ Cap” on Amazon for five bucks. This is no doubt actually a Chinese knock-off of an EZ Cap video capture cable, but it works. The drivers probably ain’t exactly right for Win 7 64 bit, since it throws up a weird looking noise bar at the bottom of the capture screen (which does not impinge on the video), but, yeah, it works and delivers sharp video images.

Micro settings menu...
How easy would it be to get AstroLive working the first time? Not easy at all, I feared. “Surprise, surprise, surprise!” as ol’ Gomer used to say on the TV. It was duck soup. Turned on the camera, plugged the EZ Cap in, lit off AstroLive, selected “Micro EX” and my capture device (in the “Setup” tab on AstroLive’s main screen), and we was rolling. The video was sharp and clear on the Toshiba Satellite’s screen, and I was able to complete the VX’s goto alignment just like always. Unk was no little impressed.

OK, it was showing the video onscreen (the camera was using its saved settings at this point)., but what else would AstroLive do for me? One of the other things it can do is control a wide range of cameras including not just the Mallincams, but the Astro Systems video cameras, and many still imaging cams as well. AstroLive will work with the Atik Cameras, Starlight Xpress cams, and, in general terms, any still camera for which there is an ASCOM driver.

Because of the limitations inherent in the Micro EX, you are confined to using the same “menus-on-the-video-screen” system as when using the Mallincam Micro control program. The controls are at least built into AstroLive, however—you don’t have to use the Mallincam control program at all, which is convenient. Also, since the menus and video appear on the computer display in front of you, you don’t have to look at or fool with a separate monitor. If you are using a more sophisticated camera like the Xtreme, AstroLive provides built-in controls for exposure, gain, and other settings.

I started to mash the buttons on NexRemote to send Mrs. Peel to the Ring Nebula. Then I thought better of it. AstroLive was touted as being able to send a scope on gotos. I’d let the program tell Mrs. Peel to find M57.

In order to goto-enable AstroLive, you have to connect it to your scope. That is easy. Once you’ve hooked computer to mount via a serial cable, click the “Choose Mount” button in the setup tab. That will bring up the familiar ASCOM chooser, and you can then proceed to link the program to your scope as per normal. Since AstroLive uses ASCOM, it will control just about any scope (and any focuser, too) under the Sun. AstroLive requires the ASCOM platform version 6.1, and will, interestingly, not even install if ASCOM 6.1 is not present.

Goto screen...
“Hokay, got scope setup squared away. Let’s see what she will do.” Clicked the goto tab, and typed M57 (M 57 would also have worked, it turned out) into the search field. AstroLive responded with the Ring’s vitals. I selected those vitals with a mouse click, mashed “Go to Selected,” and we was off. Not surprisingly, since the program uses ASCOM, goto operation was flawless. AstroLive also features a proto-planner—you can send your search results to an observing list.

Alrighty, then. Had a dern good-looking Ring on the computer display. What could I do with it? Going to the “Post Processing” tab, I saw the program offered numerous tools to enhance pictures. You can adjust the video’s histogram, subtract dark frames, and even stack frames into a finished still image. I wanted to try all those things, but I froze up. I needed to shut down early and I had a good thing going at the moment. I didn't want to mess it up by mashing the wrong button.

Instead, I confined myself to saving still images. AstroLive makes it easy to do that. Like what you see in the video display? Click “Save snapshot.” A still image will be saved to a specified location on your hard drive. The date and time of the capture will be appended to the file name. If you’ve arrived at the object by using AstroLive’s goto system, the image will also have the object's catalog number in the name. Purty dang slick if’n you axe me.

The many things AstroLive will do doesn't end with the above. There’s also a frame and focus module that helps you attain perfect focus if you are using a computerized motofocus system. I didn't try that, but I will in the future—along with the post processing stuff.

Of course, as your old Unk always says, “No software is perfect.” I’ve been fairly raving about AstroLive, but there are some things it doesn't do that I’d like it to do. At the top of the list is “capture live video.” I do like to save my video for viewing on my big screen TV. I have my fingers crossed on that once—Kyle says he is working on it right now. I would also like to see a night-vision setting for the program. And the goto system’s database/search needs to be slightly more robust in my opinion—I’d like more search options and more data.

M15...
Finally, while the documentation is good enough to get you started, it is definitely a work in progress. Several sections, including the one on Goto, are missing in action:  “This section is coming soon.” On the other hand, the program is well-designed and intuitive enough that you, like me, will no doubt be able to wing it.

In the end, how good is AstroLive? What ought to tell you something is that I have not complained about what the program does and how it does it. Sure, I’d like to see it do a couple more things, but what it does seemed danged near perfect to me and I wouldn’t change a fraking thing. I can hardly wait to try it with my more capable Mallincam Xtreme. The days of my beloved StarShoot DVR recorder and my old portable DVD player/monitor may be over thanks to AstroLive.

At midnight approached, the sky was actually holding. But not for me. As always on the last night, 12 o’clock was my designated turns-into-a-pumpkin time. I pulled that accursed Big Switch, secured the gear (it sure was nice not to have to disconnect and pack the DVR and the DVD player), and was offsite by 12.

At the motel, with a little help from the Ghost Adventures and the Yell, I ruminated, Muchachos. Not that it took much thinking (or what passes for that in Unk’s case) to conclude this trip would rank among the great ones. As we packed Miss Van Pelt Sunday morning, everybody on the field once again heard Unk’s old CAV mantra:  “Had a great time; just want to come back soon.”

Nota Bene:  You can see many more pictures from our Chiefland Odyssey on Unk's Facebook page...

Next Time:  Getting Nebulized…

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