Sunday, November 30, 2014


Unk’s Astroware Top 10

As y’all know, muchachos, I am a confirmed astroware fanatic. I don’t have every single astronomy program ever to come down the pike, but I have more astronomy software on my hard drive(s) than humans should be allowed to have. And while I ain’t got the latest and greatest of every single biggie, I’ve at least got an older version of almost every one.

So what? The end of the year seems like a good time for taking stock and making lists. Herewith, then, are Unk’s top 10 astroware programs. In no particular order. I couldn’t quite cipher that out…

Cartes du Ciel

I didn't try the first release of Patrick Chevalley’s “CdC” as its aficionados fondly call this famous planetarium program. I first heard about it from my late friend and astroware guru, Jeff Medkeff, in the late 1990s, but he said the early Cartes really wasn’t quite ready for prime time. Then, a year or so later, Jeff changed his tune, opining that this freeware program could be big, real big.

And it is. Patrick first got the program off the ground in 1997, and hasn't stopped improving it since. The most significant update since the early days probably being version 3, which came out a few years back and put the program on the level of any commercial soft. Cartes du Ciel was completely rewritten at that time to improve performance and to (somewhat) streamline its User Interface. Two new versions were also released at that time; one for Macintosh and one for Linux.

What can CdC do? Almost anything, if not quite everything. Certainly, anything your old Unk wants to do at the telescope. No, it don’t offer stuff like plate solving, but that sort of thing is way beyond your silly old Uncle. The good news for folks who do want to do things like that? CdC interfaces easily to other programs. It is the favorite “front end,” for example, of the users of the mount control driver, EQMOD.

“But how many objects, Unk? And how does it look?” CdC features tons of catalogs past the NGC to include the huge PGC galaxy catalog. It can use both the Hubble Guide Star Catalog and the larger/better UCAC star catalog. Cartes’ strength when it comes to catalogs isn't what it comes with, but what can be added to it thanks to its open, friendly nature. Don’t see the catalog you want? If you have the data, it’s easy to build one with the included CATGEN utility. Well, unless you are Unk, who depends on more computer literate folks to do such things.

Looks are admittedly the sticking point for some of y’all when it comes to CdC. It looks OK, but as you can see in the screenshot here, it is plain vanilla plain. But is that always a bad thing? Out on a dark field, “pretty” sometimes also means “not very legible.” Cartes is very easy to decipher with your display a dimmed down red.


Unk was a Stellarium skeptic for the longest time. I kept hearing people going on and on about this new freeware program that was supposedly better than Cartes du Ciel. It was the Big Thing on the cotton-picking Cloudy Nights BBS for the longest time. I was skeptical, yeah, as I always am when it comes to the supposed more better gooder, but I finally got around to trying the program, and I liked what I saw. It’s not better than CdC, and in some ways it is not as good, but it is quite an achievement and is a novice's dream come true.

Unlike Unk’s much-loved CdC, Stellarium is very pretty. While I wouldn’t call it photorealistic on the level of TheSkyX or the upper levels of Starry Night, it is attractive and the comparison between it and the plain Cartes in that regard is like night and day. The program is also very responsive on most machines, and it’s like heaven for Joe or Jane Newbie to be able to grab the sky with the mouse to move around in Stellarium. It’s also heaven for them—and maybe for old timers too—to be able to issue commands from a few big toolbar buttons instead of scratching their heads at Cartes' multiple menus, tiny buttons, and icon bars. If that were all there were to the story, Cartes du Ciel would be history.

But that ain’t the whole story. Stellarium is just fine in the house for quick “What’s up?” checks. And while I don’t doubt casual observers will find Stellarium OK for use at the scope, those of y’all who intend to go real deep may be a bit annoyed with the program’s limitations, as will those who want to control a scope with it.

How many deep sky objects does Stellarium have? Nowhere is that stated. I finally got the chance to ask one of the authors "What's in there?" on the Cloudy Nights BBS. His taciturn answer? "NGC, IC, M, and C." The "M" is no doubt "Messier," and I assume the "C" is "Caldwell," Patrick Moore's (short) catalog. In other words, don't look for PGCs or UGCs or even Kings or Bochums; you ain't gonna find 'em. Unfortunately, there is no way to add more catalogs to Stellarium at this time. Stars are no problem. You can download (from within the program, in nine parts) an unnamed star catalog consisting of millions of stars.

More annoying for some of y’all may be the program’s rather rudimentary scope control system. It has built in drivers, but only for a relatively few telescopes—Celestron, Meade, Losmandy, and SkyWatcher and that is about it. That’s OK for many folks, but if you want to use something other than those scopes, it gets a little hairy. 

You’ll need not one but two outboard programs if your scope/mount ain't on the list. ASCOM, natch, and another separate program that allows Stellarium to talk to ASCOM, Stellarium Scope. Wouldn't it have been best to forget built-in drivers and make Stellarium an ASCOM compliant program? Also, you may find the scope control commands—Press CTRL-0 to go to the currently selected object—a wee bit rudimentary.

Still, there is no denying Stellarium is an incredible achievement. Sitting there watching as artificial satellites streak across the program’s lovely sky (right where they should be) is, for example, not something you want to miss. Even if this does not become your most used program and even if you never actually use it in the field with a telescope, you want it on your box. Like Cartes du Ciel, Stellarium is available for Macs as well as PCs, so there’s really no excuse for you not to have it.


Let me preface this by saying I don’t own a copy of TheSkyX. Not the real SkyX, anyhow.  I might someday, however. Perhaps not the rather expensive ($329.00) TheSkyX Professional, but maybe Serious Astronomer, the next click down. How do I know I’ll like it enough to spend just under 150 freaking dollars for it, then? The DVD that came in the box with my new VX mount last year.

On that DVD was a lower than low, lower than the Student Edition, version of TheSkyX, TheSkyX First Light Edition. This was nothing new. Software Bisque has had low-levels of their programs bundled in with Celestron gear for years and years. Sounded purty ho-hum to me, and I almost tossed the DVD in the round file as I was bustlin’ around getting ready for the 2013 Deep South Regional Star Gaze Spring Scrimmage.

Good thing I didn't. Good thing I was a mite bored when my packing was done and decided to insert the disk into the kitchen computer’s DVD drive. As I told y’all here, First Light is now my favorite quick look program. It is better than Stellarium for that purpose—all I have to do is mash a N, S, E, or W. button to immediately view the horizon of my choice. I don't have to waste time dragging the sky around with the consarned mouse unless I want to. First Light is, in fact, the best quick-look soft I’ve used since my beloved and long-lost SkyGlobe 3.6.

It wasn’t just the utility of the program for sky checks that impressed me; it was its totally redesigned User Interface. TheSky6 was in many ways a fantastic program, but it never endeared itself to me because of its overly complicated UI. Yes, I know the higher versions of TheSkyX will have tons more features than First Light, but examining their screen shots and having a quick brush with a buddy’s Professional version shows me Serious Astronomer and Professional share the clean, easy interface of the humble First Light Edition. For you Apple stalwarts, TheSkyX in all its versions is available for Macs as well as PCs.

Starry Night Pro Plus 6

Starry Night Pro Plus
I really do love Starry Night Pro Plus. In some ways that is surprising, y’all. Like TheSky 6, its User Interface is a mess with all the grace of an elephant in ballet shoes. There are tool-bars, and menus, and buttons galore and there is no discernible pattern to anything. There are also a few minor bugs still resident in the final (I presume) update of v6. But I use the program frequently. Maybe even more than dagnabbed Cartes du Ciel.

Why is that? It just does so much, looks so fraking purty, and performs so well. There are not too many astronomy programs, for example, that will pull up the Clear Sky Clock for your current location. Or show you a satellite weather map. I was a little concerned, when I first got the soft, that all those tons of features would make it sluggish. Nope. Drag the sky around with your mouse and you will find smoothness and speed fully the equal of the much smaller and simpler Stellarium.

One huge draw, I gotta admit, is the Real Sky feature of the Pro Plus version. That came from a now dead program, Desktop Universe. Some dudes took many, many medium/low resolution CCD images of the sky and stitched them together to form the sky background of their planetarium. Desktop Universe wasn't much good in most other respects, but its photographic sky background was something to see.

When DTU failed, its remains were sold to the then-owners of Starry Night who folded it into the top version of their program. It is real cool, y’all, to zoom in on the sky and see the heavens in photographic glory. The only minus is the limited resolution. Zoom in too much and everything fuzzes out. But that’s OK; the normal computer graphic stars and objects—which are just as good as those of any other top planetarium—take over then.

The only bummer? SNPP 6, as above, is not quite there. The bugs and an unwieldy UI see to that. How about the new kid on the block, Starry Night Pro Plus 7? I am happy to see the current owners of the program (and SkySafari), Simulation Curriculum, continuing to develop Starry Night. BUT…from what I hear the new one was released before it was quite ready and may not be quite ready yet. Would I spend an amount almost up there with TheSkyX Professional for Starry Night Pro Plus 7? Probably not, but you never know. If they can improve on SNPP 6 Plus even a little, I would be awfully tempted, y’all.

SkyTools 3

SkyTools' Interactive Atlas
And with that, we are out of planetarium programs, leastways the ones your old Uncle has, likes, and uses. What’s left? Well, for one thing, planners, programs that help you compose observing plans. I sometimes hear people complain about the “learning curve” involved in getting to know SkyTools 3. Usually, however, these are folks who haven’t spent much time with the soft. Yes, it will do a hell of a lot, but at first boot-up, it is one of the least intimidating looking programs I know of, and one of the easiest to begin using in simple fashion.

When you start up ST3 for the first time, what greets you is a familiar, friendly-looking spreadsheet not much different from the one you use at work to report travel expenses. That is exactly what SkyTools is, a spreadsheet front end backed by a humongous database of millions of stars and over a million deep sky objects (from many, many cross-referenced catalogs).

Yes, the program does a great number of things; everything from telling you when the next lunar eclipse will occur to figuring out how much exposure you will need for a particular deep sky object with your sky, scope, and camera. But beginning to use it doesn't necessitate learning to use all these things—not at first. The program comes with ready-made observing lists, and more are easily downloadable from within the program. Load up the Messiers, click the “observed” field on an object’s spreadsheet entry when you’ve seen it, click “log” to enter your observation, and you are using ST3 productively from the get-go.

How about star charts? Typically, planners have lagged behind planetariums in that respect, and in some ways, that is still the case. SkyTools 3’s sky is neither as photorealistic as Starry Night’s, nor is it quite as interactive, despite being named the “Interactive Atlas.” In practice, that doesn't hurt a thing. The Interactive Atlas is like a cross between a print atlas, albeit one much, much deeper than even Millennium Star Atlas, and a planetarium program. For actual use in the field, I put it second to no other charting system, including the top levels of TheSkyX and Starry Night. When I’m using it, I’ve never wanted for better.

Don’t get me wrong, either; the Interactive Atlas is not ugly. It’s better looking, for example, than poor old Cartes du Ciel, for sure. No, you can’t grab the sky and move it around with the mouse, but the chart controls are smooth and responsive. Best of all, on a dark observing field, SkyTools Interactive Atlas is easy to read.

The greatest recommendation I can give SkyTools 3 is that it is the program that allowed me to observe/image all 2500 Herschel objects in three years, a right good accomplishment given our weather in the Swamp. The program never crashed or misbehaved and never got in my way. It just worked.

Deep Sky Planner

Deep Sky Planner
I could no doubt have used Deep Sky Planner for the Herschel 2500 instead of ST3 and been just as happy and productive. The reason I didn't was that by the time silly old Unk figured out how good DSP is and had glommed onto a copy, the H-Project was well underway and I didn’t feel like swapping ponies in mid-stream.

In most ways, DSP is much like SkyTools—it is a spreadsheet front end for a gigantanormous database. There are differences, however. The program is a little more “Windows like,” using a more standard menu layout than ST3. It is also more mouse oriented, allowing you to drag and drop items hither and yon. I also like the default font size of DSP:  nice and big and easy for poor old Unk’s peepers to read when the screen is filtered a dim red. The big difference between SkyTools and Deep Sky Planner, though, is the charts. DSP doesn't have any.

Which don’t mean you can’t click on a list object and see it on a sky map. DSP just doesn't have a built-in charting engine. The program interfaces to most popular planetariums:  Cartes du Ciel, Starry Night, TheSky, and more. I am somewhat torn about that. I do so love ST3’s Interactive Atlas, but I can set up DSP so that when I click on an object up comes a Starry Night chart centered on my fuzzie. Those of y’all not wanting to learn a new charting system may really like this aspect of DSP.


While much of the computer software amateurs are using is designed to draw sky charts or compose observing lists, applications for astrophotography are a close runner up. Since I use a DSLR most of the time, I need a program that will allow me to acquire and process images with my Canon, and Nebulosity is that program.

While the soft supports quite a few astronomy-centric CCD cameras, I would guess most of the folks using Nebulosity are shooting the sky with Canon DSLRs. Why do you need a computer to image the sky with a DSLR, anyhow? Why not just hook up a remote release and fire away?

You could do that, but using a program to run your camera is more effective. “Tethering” (as we call it in the terrestrial photography biz) your Canon—Canons are the only DSLRs currently supported by Nebulosity—to a PC or Mac helps in a couple of ways. First, you can focus with the big screen of your laptop, which beats the tar out of focusing with the camera’s small screen or—horrors—through its dim viewfinder. Nebulosity also allows you to store your images on your hard drive rather than on the DSLR’s memory card and saves them in the astronomy-standard FITS format.

It doesn’t end there with Neb; it contains some awesome stacking and processing tools. It's excellence in that regard means you may want the program even if you use a DSLR other than a Canon. Bottom-line-a-roony-o? Unk ain’t much of an astrophotographer, but Nebulosity allows me to be all the astrophotographer I can be. Nuff said.

Registax 6 and AutoStakkert and FireCapture

No, this ain’t Unk’s sneaky way of getting a couple of extras into the top ten. Not entirely. For planetary observers, these three go together like red beans, rice, and sausage. Registax 6 was for years the unchallenged king of planetary image stacking. A little over a decade ago, amateurs discovered the way you make high-resolution lunar and planetary images is to take many frames with a high-speed camera and stack the best together to form a final image. There’s more to Registax than stacking, however. Its image sharpening tools, its “Wavelet” filters are unmatched for working magic on your images, for bringing out more detail than you imagined was there.

Not long ago, I began hearing about another one, another freeware program like Registax. This one, Autostakkert, was reputed to produce even better results. Could that possibly be? Yep. Not only do the image stacks I produce with Autostakkert seem slightly better—better registered with maybe a better frame selection—it is a bit easier to learn to use than the somewhat daunting Registax. Registax ain't left out of the party, however. Once you stack with Autostakkert, you will still want to run the result through Registax's sweet wavelet filters.

In order to process planetary images, you gotta have planetary images. The best program I’ve found for image acquisition is the (free) FireCapture. Despite its name, it works with USB connected planetary cameras and webcams. See this here for a fuller description of the program’s crazy-good features and tools, but let me say rat-cheer that I’ve been doing webcam/planet cam imaging for nigh on a dozen years, and no program has worked as well for me for image capture as FireCapture.

Virtual Moon Atlas

Unk, as you may know is a confirmed lunatic. I am also a frequent Moon observer and have been since I began in astronomy dang near fifty years ago. When computers hit amateur astronomy big-time twenty years ago, I began wishing for a “A Megastar for Moon observers.” That is, I wanted a lunar charting program with the depth of the old deep sky powerhouse, Megastar. Took a while for that to happen, but eventually Patrick Chevalley, CdC’s author, teamed with lunar expert Christian Legrand to do that very thing.

The result was VMA. It’s like somebody stuffed the Rukl Lunar Atlas into a PC, but didn’t stop there, adding more features, more details, and tons of images from professional lunar references like the Lunar Orbiter atlas. There are several other computer lunar atlases, including a commercial one for PCs and several for smart phones and tablets, but nothing has realized Unk’s wish as fully as VMA. Like CdC, Virtual Moon Atlas is free and available in a Mac version—and believe me, y’all, you’ll dang sure want to run this one on your Mac.


Now for something completely different. I’m pretty sure most of us amateur astronomers occasionally dream of contributing to science—or at least getting a taste of what it’s like to go beyond “just looking.” RSpec will dang sure allow you to do the latter, and may even let you do the former. It is designed not just to allow you to obtain and analyze the spectra of stars and other objects, but to do that simply and well.

Virtual Moon Atlas
Do you remember the old commercial “So easy even a caveman can do it!”? This program, amazingly, is so simple even Uncle Rod has been able to use it to take spectra of bright stars. Rspec can take you much farther than that, though. Coupled with a diffraction grating or an honest to god spectrograph, folks with a lot more talent than Unk are using it to do things like measure the redshifts of distant galaxies. If you are wanting to try something different, RSpec just might be it. It is also inexpensive and as professionally done as any software—astronomy oriented or not—I have ever used.

Runners Up

Not every contestant, no matter how beautiful and talented, will be standing up there onstage when the new Miss America is named, and not every program can be in the top ten for Unk’s astroware beauty pageant. These are the ones that I like a whole, whole lot but ain’t quite good enough to be in the top ten.

EQMOD, is the ASCOM driver that allows you to run your Synta SynScan (Atlas, EQ6, etc.) mount without a hand controller, and do it better than with the “real” hand control. It is a runner up only because it is not really a program, but just a driver. But what a driver. It is a staple of 21st Century amateur astronomy. Got an Atlas or a Sirius? You want EQMOD.

NexRemote is like EQMOD, but for Celestron branded mounts. It is a fantastic program I’ve used for over a decade. It simulates the NexStar HC on your PC (only) and does things the NexStar hand paddle cannot do. Why is it down here, then? Because it is apparently no longer supported by Celestron. There’s now a Plus NexStar HC, an improved hand control, but over a year down the road, there’s not been a peep out of Celestron about a Plus NexRemote or even an update to the existing version. Damn shame.

HeavenSat is for folks like Unk who’ve been space crazy since they were younguns. It’s also for people who just want to view and identify artificial satellites. There are plenty of programs, including plenty of other free ones, that will make satellite predictions, but few are as easy to use or feature such beautiful displays as HeavenSat.

Lunar Phase Pro is now in Version 2, but it doesn't look much different to me than my version 1.10 copy. And that is a good thing; the program is perfect just the way it is. This little soft just keeps chugging along year after year informing us lunatics as to the current circumstances of the Moon—phases, eclipses, libration, rise and setting times, and more. It’s attractive and fast and inexpensive and if you are a Moon observer this will be a bread and butter program for you, I guar-ron-tee.

AstroPlanner is, natch, a planning program and a very good one. If there’s a single down-check to it for moi, it’s just that it’s really best on a Macintosh in my opinion, and I ain’t got a Macintosh. Certainly the Windows version ain’t nothing to sneeze at, neither, and has got many fans—as it should.

Deepsky is also a planning program, and it was one of the first programs of that type on the market. By all rights, it should be up there with the other two. Unfortunately, it’s been badly in need of attention—considerable updating—for a while. I hope its talented author, Steve Tuma, does that, since this program still has some features nothing else does.

Eye and Telescope is yet another planner, and it is at the other end of the spectrum from Deepsky; it is on its way up the ladder, not down. It’s a few years old now, and while it still needs just a wee bit of tweaking, I would not be at all surprised to find it in the Big 10 next time. I know I liked it from the first.

PHD Guiding is famous and it is great. So why is it a runner up? Simply because it’s, well, kinda simple. All it does is guide your telescope for long exposure imaging, but it does that like no other soft. Not even the most expensive pay-to-play programs, like Maxim DL. Need I say more?

And that is it for this time. I don’t know that I’ll make this Top Ten Pageant a yearly affair, but maybe. Depends on how many astroware authors let me know about their new stuff and how many of you, muchachos, tell me about your faves that I overlooked. Hell, you can even preface your comments with, “Uncle Rod, YOU BLOCKHEAD!”

Next Time: More My Favorite Fuzzies...

Sunday, November 23, 2014


Amateur Astronomy the Old Fashioned Way with Shelley and Me

“The best telescope is the one that gets used the most.” “The older I get, the lazier I get.”  Ain’t both of those things the freaking truth, and especially the latter, muchachos?  As Gaia has rolled around ol’ Sol yet another time, I’ve found myself increasingly less likely or willing to set up my 12-inch Dobsonian or even my 8-inch SCT for a quick backyard gander at the Moon—or anything else.

Something else that has increased as the years pass is my nostalgia for the things of my youth—or the things I wish I’d had as a youth. Like those luscious Unitron refractors of yore with their long, gleaming white tubes. You can’t go home again; the stream of time flows on carrying the past out of reach. Sometimes, however, you can unexpectedly get a taste, a whiff of that past. Which happened to me via an unexpected gift.

As you learned here a few weeks back, I received a semi-vintage and somewhat spiffed up Celestron C102 from my old friend Pat Rochford some months ago. Not long after we moved into the New Manse in May. A C102 ain’t a Unitron. But it is at least in the spirit of those icons of refractordom, which your old Uncle, like every other space-smitten little kid dreamed of owning in 1965 but could never afford.

“A Celestron refractor, Unk? I thought Celestron was all about SCTs.” Not at all, Skeezix, not at all. Celestron’s C102 goes all the way back to the early 1980s. In them days, Celestron was selling considerable Vixen gear. That Japanese manufacturer was highly regarded by amateur astronomers of the time, and Celestron had begun selling Vixen’s Super Polaris mount with one of its C8 models. Before long, the company expanded their Vixen offerings to include a couple of that company’s Newtonian reflectors and several refractors including a 4-inch achromat, the C102.

Despite the 1980s being the age of Dobsonians and SCTs, the C102 was highly regarded. While it was an achromat and suffered from excess color—purple halos, that is—on brighter objects, its reasonably long (by today’s standards) focal ratio of f/10 kept that to bearable levels. The only fly buzzin’ in the C102 ointment was that the Vixen Super Polaris mount, which was more than sufficient for the C8, was stressed by the long tube of the 4-inch refractor.

It took a while for Celestron to rectify that shortcoming, but rectify it they did in the early 90s when they began selling the C102 on Vixen’s improved medium German equatorial, the Great Polaris, which is the ancestor of all the Chinese “GP clones” with us today including Celestron’s CG5s and VXes.  The mount, while not overkill, was more than sufficient for the C102.

“And the C102 lived happily ever after, continuing to meet the wants and needs of decades of achromatic refractor fans.” Not exactly. By the mid-90s the bloom was off the Vixen rose for Celestron. Prices for the Japanese maker’s gear were climbing at the same time the Mainland Chinese company Synta was coming on strong. In 1998, Celestron replaced the Vixen Great Polaris, both for the C102 and for its GEM-mounted C8, with the ubiquitous Synta EQ-4, which Celestron dubbed the “CG5.” They didn’t stop there. Henceforth, Synta would also make the refractor’s tube assembly.

Was this new C102 an improvement? No. It was a cost saving measure, and there was good and bad in the new model (which looked almost identical to the GP-C102). The good was that, almost unbelievably for those of us who’d thus far looked askance at Chinese refractors, the optics in the Synta-made C102 were virtually indistinguishable from those in the Vixen. The OTA itself? The focuser was no great shakes, but it was an OK rack and pinion. The dirty little secret? The Vixen focusers weren’t so hot, either.

The mount was a different story. The early manual CG5s have little to do with the latter day goto CG5 so beloved of cost-conscious amateur astronomers. The wooden tripod was history, replaced with an extruded aluminum job just this side of flimsy. What little smoothness there was in the declination and right ascension axes was attributable to the infamous Chinese glue-grease, which was applied in large dollops. The mount was workable for the new C102, but just barely.

Nevertheless, thanks to its consistent optical quality, the C102 OTA just kept on trucking year after year, hopping on different mounts as time passed and occasionally undergoing minor styling revisions, but staying good, very good. Whether on one of the NexStar goto mounts, or, as today, on Celestron’s non-goto CG4, “C102” spells “Celestron” every bit as much as “C8” does. One nice change to the Chinese C102 a few years after its introduction was that the original 1.25-inch rack and pinion was replaced by a 2-inch job.

Want a C102 today? Celestron’s CG4 – C102 combo is nicely priced at $499.95—the scope is not over-mounted on the CG4 GEM, but the mount is sufficient for it. What’s truly amazing, however, are the periodic C102 OTA sales you can find, especially from OPT, Oceanside Photo and Telescope in Cally-for-nye-ay. Right now, you can get an OTA for 170 dineros, and last year they were selling the scopes for the astounding price of 50 bucks. At any of the above prices, the C102 is an incredible buy.

Not that your old Uncle necessarily believed that when Pat dropped the C102 off at the New Manse. Oh, I remembered how Mr. Pat had raved about another 102 he’d owned years ago, how it literally tore up the dark night sky at the Chiefland Astronomy Village one cold winter night in 2001 (the year the Winter Star Party was canceled and many WSP refugees wound up at the CAV). Still, I wasn’t quite convinced. An achromat, a 4-inch at f/10?

To get the cursed color purple down low on a 4-inch, you have to go to f/15 or f/16, like those long, long Unitrons. On the other hand, I recalled having had a hell of a lot of fun with my old Short Tube 80, Woodstock (who has since gone to live with Unk’s son, Chris), and that 80mm f/5 certainly wasn’t lacking in chromatic aberration.

The bottom line on excess color? It bothers some people more than others. Me? I am not overly troubled by it, whether it’s around bright stars or turning lunar shadows a deep purple instead of inky black. The question would not be whether it would disturb me, but how much—if any—sharpness it would steal from the C102’s images. That is the real problem with chromatic aberration. At high levels, it blurs the image. Howsomeever, I well remembered one cold night in 1999 when I watched a triple shadow transit on Jupiter with Woodstock. I was amazed at how sharp the planet was. So, I was willing to give the C102 a tryout.

What with all that was involved in getting settled in the New Chaos Manor South, it took some time for me to get around to giving Miss Shelley a tryout. “Shelley?” I don’t name my telescopes, y’all. Oh, they all have names, but I don’t give them names, they tell me their names, eventually. It took a while but my C102 finally whispered that she is to be called “Shelley.”

Anyhoo, what prompted me to give Shelley a go was that I had come to favor refractors for my quick backyard observing. I can waltz one out of the sunroom and onto the deck in 15-seconds flat. Not that Shelley didn’t have competition there. My 80mm APO does a fantastic job on everything in that role, and Miss Dorothy’s Explore Scientific AR102 does too, and with a little more aperture. Unk got to thinking, however, that it might be nice to have a little more aperture to play with than with the APO and a little less color than presented by Miss D’s f/6.5 telescope.

The results? You can read all about it at the link above, but for visual, Shelley takes the laurels. But not by much. While the C102 threw up a dadgum impressive star test, the 80mm APO, Veronica, does too, and despite her smaller aperture doesn’t fall far behind in visual performance. If she does at all. There’s more to a scope than just performance, though; there was something about the C102’s long tube towering above me. It was if at least some of those daydreams I dreamed while mooning over the old Unitron catalog as a sprout were finally coming true. Color? There’s purple, but it is bearable.

I did quite a bit of touring of the bright deep sky objects with the C102 on the moonless nights that followed, but there’s only so many times you can look at M2, M13, M92, and the rest of the showpiece gang before getting a mite bored. Oh, the summer and fall Messiers were as beautiful this autumn, my 50th autumn observing them, as they ever were, but no matter how pretty they looked in my “new” telescope, I wanted some variety in the backyard. What else could I do with Shelley? What would she be good at?

One afternoon I was shelving some books that had come over from the old Chaos Manor South in a box, and ran across a real blast from the past, Herbert Bernhard, Dorothy Bennett, and Hugh Rice’s New Handbook of the Heavens (1954). It was one of my favorites in the hallowed day, not only because of its clear prose and the observing lists at the ends of its chapters, but because it had come in the box with my Palomar Junior. Surely if Edmund Scientific included the book with their scopes, it must be a dang good one.

The New Handbook is actually a follow-on to the original Handbook of the Heavens (1935), but while it is an update, there is no question it is still about the old amateur astronomy. An amateur astronomy where the deep sky took a decided backseat to other pursuits.

Take a look at the Handbook’s table of contents and you’ll find you have to scan down almost to the bottom to come to the “Star Clusters and Nebulae” chapter. The authors do do a good job describing what there is to see of the deep sky with a small telescope, and at the end of the chapter, there’s an outstanding list of 60 of the best of the best DSOs for little scopes.  Most of the Handbook’s space is devoted to the things most amateurs of 1950s - 1960s observed more often than even the bright Messiers, however. The emphasis in the book is on the Moon, the planets, and double and variable stars. 

Why did amateur astronomers tend to restrict themselves to those subjects when a mere 4-inch refractor or a 6-inch reflector will do one heck of a job on the deep sky? Because most amateurs, even in the 1960s, didn’t have a 4-inch refractor or a 6-inch reflector, with the refractor being a particularly tough nut to crack for most of us. Edmund Scientific’s reasonably priced 4-inch refractor, for example, was $247.00 (their 6-inch Newtonian was 50 bucks less).  Depending on how you calculate such things, that is equivalent to at least $1370.00 today. A high-toned refractor like a Unitron? Don’t even ask, Bubba, don’t even ask.

Because of the way-out prices for store-bought scopes, amateurs in the 1960s, and not just kids, often made do with 2.4-inch refractors and 3-inch reflectors. Yeah, you’d think from what the old timers down to the club say that everybody back then was grinding and polishing 6-inch mirrors, but that was most assuredly not the case. Then as now, most of us, and especially us sprouts, were amateur telescope buyers, not amateur telescope makers. Accordingly, astronomy authors tended to restrict themselves to objects within range of our small scopes:  double stars, the planets, the Moon, and the brightest deep sky wonders.

Its focus on the bright stuff made the New Handbook of the Heavens, Unk thought, just about the perfect guide to what I would enjoy with my 4-inch lens-scope from my light polluted backyard (limiting magnitude at the zenith not much better than 5 on a good night).  There was also just something romantic about pursuing the old amateur astronomy, the amateur astronomy of Patrick Moore in his heyday, with a long-tubed refractor on chilly (well, for down here) fall nights. I’d already done a quick survey of bright DSOs; it was now double star time.

I’ve never been the world’s most committed double star observer. I’ve blown hot and cold on binaries and multiple stars over the last half century. Obviously, my contributions to and support of The Journal of Double Star Observations are signs that these stars are an important interest of mine; I’m just a-saying you shouldn’t imagine I go pair-hunting every dadgum night. I still and always will love doubles, however, and was happy to have an excuse to look at the best of the best with Shelley.

Before I could do that, howsomeever, I needed to rectify the finder stichy-ation. As Mr. Pat delivered Miss Shelley, she was equipped with a pretty but too small 30mm finder. I immediately replaced that with a red dot job, which, even in our gray skies, was sufficient for locating the brightest Messiers. To run down medium bright doubles, though, much less dimmer ones? Uh-uh. Luckily I had a 50mm Orion RACI finder sitting unloved in my shop. It was in a Synta mount and would slide right onto Shelley.  I am not a huge fan of right angle finders, correct image or no, but I figgered the RACI would at least be superior to the alternatives.

So it was that I began a survey of Double Star Gooduns on a chilly (40s, y’all) November evening. The sky wasn’t perfect; haze was moving in ahead of a front and one look at Vega showed the seeing was at least semi-punk. But I’d been down in the dumps—for no good reason, really—all afternoon and figgered an hour or two under the stars would help, even if conditions weren’t all they ort-ta be. While I used the New Handbook as a general guide to what would be fun look at, I didn’t try to decipher its small text under a red light. Instead, I loaded up the Astronomical League Double Star List on SkyTools 3 on my Toshiba laptop.

One of the loveliest things about a refractor? Just a few minutes acclimating to outdoor temperatures on this cool night and one is ready to rock. I’d mastered the fine art of moving Shelley from the sunroom where she lives out onto the deck without removing her big tube from her SkyWatcher AZ-4 alt-azimuth mount, and in five minutes I was ready to start looking and she was ready for me to start looking…

Beta Cygni, Albireo

“Two tiny points of light—one rich orange, the other a deep blue—placed close together in the telescopic field—such is the appearance of Albireo…the concealed beauties of many similar stellar objects lie unsuspected until discovered in the telescope.” So says the vaunted New Handbook, and I agree—do I ever. I love Albireo, the blue and gold “Cub Scout Double,” though I don’t look at it often. I mostly just show it off on public outreach nights, taking a quick glance at it to make sure it’s centered and focused.

On this night, I spent a little time with Beta Cygni. At my finding power, 67x, with the 16mm 100-degree AFOV Happy Hand Grenade eyepiece, the view was scrumptious, and not just because of the deep and vibrant colors as described in the Handbook. What made Albireo doubly outstanding was the tiny perfect appearance stars tend to assume in a good refractor. I stared for at least 15-minutes despite being hunched over at the eyepiece—even at full extension, the AZ-4 tripod is not really tall enough for a 4-inch f/10.

Alpha Ursae Minoris, Polaris

As is often the case when I’m chasing double stars, Polaris was one of the first pairs of the evening. It’s a good test of conditions. As usual, it was easy but not that easy. The secondary was visible, but I did have to look for it in the seeing, which was definitely tending to “poor.” It soon showed itself as a little white spark beside the strongly yellowish primary. Since the separation between the two is 18.4”, you’d think resolving Polaris would be like shooting dadgum fish in a barrel, but it is not so. I could see the comes with the 16mm eyepiece, but I needed the 7mm to make it really stand out. Polaris is tough because of the difference in magnitudes between its primary and secondary which are, respectively, at magnitudes 2.0 and 9.1.

Epsilon 1 and 2 Lyrae, the Double Double

Since I was in the area, figgered I might as well check in on the famous Double Double, Epsilon 1 and 2 Lyare. Epsilon 1 is at magnitude 4.7 and Epsilon 2 at magnitude 5.1 and they are separated by a huge 208”, hardly a challenge—the split was trivially easy in the 50mm finder. That ain’t the challenge, though, the challenge is that each of these two stars is itself a close double.

Epsilon 1 Lyrae is composed of a magnitude 4.7 primary and magnitude 6.2 secondary separated by 2.6”. Not usually a problem for medium aperture scopes at medium magnifications on nights of good seeing, but more than close enough when, as on this evening, the air doesn’t want to hold still. Epsilon 2 is a magnitude 5.1 and 5.5 pair, and is a wee bit closer together at 2.3”. Again, not a huge challenge, but enough of a challenge when the seeing sucks. What helps is that both pairs’ stars are fairly close to each other in magnitude.

Anyhow, despite the relatively lousy atmospheric conditions, Epsilon 1 and Epsilon 2 were split at 143x in Shelley with my 7mm William Optics Uwan eyepiece. I could see that the stars were elongated at 67x, but only barely. Only when the seeing would change and they’d briefly stop shimmering and dancing around.

Gamma 1 Andromedae, Almaak

Almaak is another one of the very best doubles. The “end” star in Andromeda’s eastern chain of stars is a nice, easy split at 9.0”, which also puts the primary and the companion close enough together that the pair really looks like a double star at medium powers. The primary is a beautiful deep golden color and shines brightly at magnitude 2.0. It is made even more lovely by the contrast provided by the secondary, which stands out well at magnitude 5.0 and has a light blue-green tint.

Despite Almaak being over the house and in the extra poor seeing caused by heat rising from the roof, Shelley did a fine job. At 67X I coulda drove a truck between primary and secondary. Other observations? Mainly that the secondary star looked bluer to me than it does in my SCTs. Whether that is due to the smaller aperture of the refractor, or to the fact that it is a refractor, I don’t know, but the difference was noticeable.

Eta Persei, Miram

Miram is a famous double star, but not one that’s really a showpiece in this old boy’s opinion. The separation, 28.9”, makes it an easy but relatively wide one, and at magnitude 7.9, the secondary star seems somewhat lackluster. The mag 3.8 primary was easy to spot, even in the eastern horizon light dome from consarned Airport Boulevard, and is an obvious deep gold-orange. The secondary? From the first glance, the secondary seemed a pale blue. Not the “very blue” the Handbook claims, but blue, not white as it’s appeared in my C8.

Since I was in the neighborhood, I bopped over to the west to have a look at the Double Cluster, just a little less than four and a half degrees away. Despite still being in the heavy light pollution and in increasing haze, the two companion open clusters were wondrously beautiful in the Happy Hand Grenade. There is just no way to make ‘em look bad, y’all. But, as I watched, they began to do a fade out. The occasional bands of thick haze were morphing into genuine clouds and it was time to throw the Big Switch.

Throwing that Big Switch took all of maybe two minutes. Objective cap on the scope, pick her up, and back into the house we went in nuttin’ flat. Grabbed the eyepieces off the patio table and we was done. I didn’t have to pack up the Toshiba, since I’d set up the laptop in the sunroom so I could duck inside and warm my old bones when scoping out the next target star with SkyTools.

Yeah, double stars were great in the refractor, muchachos, but that is hardly all she can do. In addition to a surprisingly good job on the deep sky, she has made a believer out of me when it comes to the Moon, and I originally intended to clue y’all in as to how Luna looked in the achromat. Unfortunately, I see it is time for me and Shelley to run along before we wear out our welcome this Sunday morning. You will hear more about our adventures soon, and not just on the Moon, but on the planets—King Jupe is on his way back into the evening sky, and I am curious what my new friend of a telescope will accomplish there.  

Next Time:  Unk's Astroware Top 10… 

Sunday, November 16, 2014


Being a Joiner

What is something your garrulous old Uncle hasn't talked about in quite a spell, muchachos? Astronomy clubs. As those of y’all who've been here a while know, Unk is a big supporter of organized amateur astronomy. What you sprouts raised in the Internet age may not know, however, is there are still mucho reasons for you to belong to a non-virtual club.

“But Unk, but Unk, the Cloudy Nights BBS (or Astromart or the Astronomy Forums or Ice in Space) is just like belonging to a club, a club with thousands of members. One whose meeting is in session 24/7. Why would I want to jine-up with that astro-club that meets in the smelly old backroom of Wally’s Filling Station?” Well, Skeezix, maybe the place to start in cluing you in as to the reasons for holding your nose and heading down to Wally’s is to give a quick rundown of my five decades of experience with clubs.

Looking back, I reckon I’ve been a member of…oh…four-five astronomy clubs in my five decades of observing. That began with my first club, which we members didn’t think was a real astronomy club at all, but was—was it ever. I’m talking about the legendary Backyard Astronomy Society formed by Unk and a few of his nerdy buddies in our junior high years.

We BASers occasionally had delusions of grandeur, like the time we talked about mailing that holy of holies, Sky & Telescope, a detailed report on our activities for use in the old “Amateur Astronomers” column. We also planned to send in a blurb to the newspaper, The Possum Swamp Register and Birdcage Liner, making our presence and meeting schedule known to the community at large. Soon we’d have a hundred members. Then we’d be a real club.

We never quite got up the gumption to do either of those things, or even post a flier at the public library. What we did do was get together, mostly in the summertime, but on weekends throughout the school year, too, to observe from members’ backyards and vacant lots or just hang out and talk astronomy and analyze the latest issue of Sky & Telescope (and maybe the latest issue of the Fantastic Four’s comic magazine, too). Our star parties were somewhat constrained by the need to enlist our mamas and daddies for transport duty. Purty dern hard to tote a Palomar Junior around on a bicycle. Nevertheless, we did a lot of observing over the four years the BAS was active.

Me and my good buddies Wayne Lee and Lamar formed the core group, which occasionally expanded to seven or eight “astronomers.” That was purty much the height, and as tenth grade began, the BAS star parties became fewer and farther between as our ranks shrunk as parents moved away in the wake of Brookley Air Force Base’s closure. There was also considerable natural attrition as girls and cars began to work their way into the consciousnesses of even us nerds. Till that happened, though, what fun we had!

Assembled in somebody’s backyard, we would usually have at least four scopes cranking. My Pal Junior was the aperture king till Lamar and his daddy fabricated their very own 6-inch from a mirror kit they ordered from Jaegers. At first I was miffed at not having the big gun anymore, but I got over that. I could now observe with a six-inch reflector regularly, and toward the end of the BAS’ existence, Lamar and his old man even showed me the ropes of mirror making

It didn’t matter if we were observing with the Pal and the Big Six, or just a couple of 60mm refractors and Unk’s old 3-inch Tasco Newt, which was what I had when the BAS began. What mattered was that we were observing together and that was more fun and more productive than observing alone.

Group observing was more productive for me not just because I didn’t have to fear the depredations of the dadgum Wolfman and the UFOnauts when I was with my friends. It was because we helped each other. Like the night I went after the doggone Blinking Planetary in Cygnus for the first time. The books said it was bright and obvious, but danged if I could find it. If I had been by myself, I’d just have given up and moved on. But Wayne Lee had looked at it before and showed me how to track it down. Our individual skills and knowledge might have been pitiful, but by working together we saw a hell of a lot and learned a hell of a lot.

And so it went till the good ol’ BAS slowly faded out of existence. It was maybe the greatest astronomy club I ever belonged to, just like maybe the Palomar Junior was maybe the greatest telescope I ever owned. I’ve had “better” scopes and been a member of “better” clubs over the intervening five decades, but nothing has ever quite equaled those long ago summer nights in the backyard with my Pal and my pals.

After the BAS dissolved completely, probably late in our junior year of high school, Unk was clubless for a long time. I pushed on observing, of course, but I missed having somebody to talk shop with astronomy-wise. Most of all, I missed observing with my friends. Alas, there was no astronomy club at either of the universities I attended.

I didn’t join my first (adult) club till the mid 1970s when I was in the Air Force and stationed in Little Rock, Arkansas. There was a vibrant club there, and after a while, it was near about as much fun as the BAS. Several moves and a couple more clubs later, I wound up with the vaunted Possum Swamp Astronomical Society, whose ranks I’ve been part of for over twenty years.

Whether the BAS or the PSAS, the joys of and motivations for club membership have always been the same for me: camaraderie and the sharing of knowledge and skills. And, in the average adult club, there are some pluses that go beyond even those things.

One biggie for many boys and girls is that just about every astronomy club worth its salt has a dark site for group observing. In the BAS years, that wasn't important. Even if we’d had a dark site and a way to get to and from it, we didn’t need it. Our suburban skies were almost as good as the average suburban-country transition zone club site today. But with the growth of all them subdivisions and shopping malls from the 60s till now, today most of us need something better than the backyard for our serious work.

If you have a nice little piece of land out in the dark countryside, bully for you. Few of us do. What makes a club important here is that it is way easier to find a dark site as a group. With a sizable membership, it’s likely somebody knows somebody with dark country land. It’s also easier to get permission to use a site as an organized group than as an individual—unless you have a close friend with a country place, which, again, most of us don’t. Observing as a group at a dark site is also good for security's sake. Not because of the Mothman or the Skunk Ape (necessarily), but because of the very real presence of bad guys in the hinterlands due to the meth trade.

Another reason to belong to a club, and an important one these days, is that it gives you an organization and sometimes a venue for doing public outreach. Yeah, I know that isn't everybody’s cup of tea, but most of us realize the importance of bringing new folks into our slightly graying avocation. NO, I don’t think amateur astronomy is doomed to disappear as us Baby Boomers do the big chill, but there is no question it’s a Good Thing to bring new folks into the hobby. Not just kids, but groups that have traditionally been under-served by us—women and minorities.

Just as when searching for a dark site, outreach is easier to do in the context of an organized group. The schools, for example, might be happy enough to have the help of a lone amateur, but a group of ten, twenty, or more amateur astronomers will be better. A single amateur can make a difference, but a group, showing the sky to a hundred or a thousand kids and parents will make a bigger difference.

Finally, there is that comradery factor. Yeah, it is cool to be able to log onto Astromart and participate in the forums, but I believe it is still more fun to interact with your fellow amateurs in person. And if you need help, a non-virtual club is a better way to get it. Folks can have Newtonian collimation, for example, explained to them a million times on the dadgum Cloudy Nights and still not get it, but will learn it easily from one hands-on session down to the club.

There are also the ineffables, the things not strictly related to the astronomy club that nevertheless enhance your amateur astronomy experience. A couple of clubs I’ve belonged to and visited have held a Meeting after the Meeting. Once the formalities wind up, you and your mates adjourn to the nearby bar or—maybe even better—one of the family-oriented grills and bars like Applebee’s or TGI Friday’s to have some drinks and snacks and talk astronomy and who-knows-what-else for a couple of hours. To tell you the truth, some of my best observing ideas have come out of these ale-fueled bull sessions.

Possibly the best thing about belonging to a club, though? Again, you make friends, friends with the same magnificent obsession for the Great Out There you have. Sometimes, lifelong friends. After a couple of meetings, you’ll find yourself giving one of your fellow club members a ring to ask about that new eyepiece. Your conversations will soon range farther afield, beyond amateur astronomy, and you’ll start spending time with your friend outside meetings. I know that this one thing has made astronomy club membership, which has its headaches as well as joys, one of the best parts of my life.

Yes, there are headaches.  Like anything else, life in an astronomy club is not perfect. To start with, every club I’ve belonged to has had a member or three of the “off the beaten path” persuasion. These are the people who attend every single meeting without fail, but never observe and will never own a telescope. Many of them also have an odd take on the science of astronomy, like a former PSAS member, Junie Moon, who went a couple of years before she determined we were not actually an ASTROLOGY club, “Them dadgum people never would tell me my horoscope!”

I used to wonder why people who had no interest in practicing astronomy would go to astronomy club meetings month after month after month. In fact, it used to bother the heck out of me. No more. I finally realized an astronomy club is serving some kind of need for these people, and that they are indeed practicing and enjoying our avocation in their own way. They sometimes make me scratch my head, but they don’t bother me anymore.

In fact, some of these “armchair astronomers,” if we may call them that, can be real assets. Linda Sue will never be found lugging a scope onto a dark observing field, even if she happens to own one. She can’t help you with picking a new eyepiece, either. But she has a talent for organization and can get the club’s Christmas banquet on the rails right away. Cousin Ezra over there believes Immanuel Velikovsky was 100% correct about them colliding worlds, but he is also a skilled machinist who can make a no-longer-produced part for your telescope mount in a right quick hurry. And so it goes. Don’t underestimate someone’s worth to your club just because they haven’t memorized Suiter's book on star testing.

No matter who contributes what, you will eventually find your club entering the doldrums. I am convinced that happens to all clubs. Leastways it’s happened to all those I’ve belonged to and all those I’ve heard tell of. Even big, wealthy clubs in large cities have periods when they are more active and periods when they are less active. Our PSAS has ascended to highs of 15 or even 20 active members (right good for a small city that ain’t exactly scientifically oriented), and descended to lows of four or five lonely souls.

I used to believe a crisis was upon us during these declines, but I’ve come to believe that is just the natural ebb and flow of a club. There is always a core group that keeps a club alive year after year, but other members come and go. Some move away. Others find astronomy ain’t as much fun as they thought it would be (usually, these folks have discovered some work is involved).  In other cases, especially, unfortunately, with that much to be desired twenty – thirty something demographic, family/kid commitments get in the way of amateur astronomy for a while.

While some of these dips are unavoidable, you don’t do yourself any favors when it comes to retaining members by allowing the club to get into a rut. An example? Years ago, the PSAS got into just such a rut. A deep one. Membership was down. Meetings were a real bore. Nobody outside the poor put-upon officers contributed anything to them. The rank and file sat like zombies listening to the Treasurer’s Report and hoping and expecting to be entertained. My friend and fellow member, Marvin Uphaus, had an idea:  we’d have a member do a presentation each month, a talk on one of the constellations currently well placed for observing.

“Marvin’s constellations,” as we came to call the monthly presentations after Marv's untimely death, worked great. Every month a different member would be called upon to present a constellation. At first, we had to use a bit of gentle persuasion, but before long, we all got into the swing of things and pitched in. Every member did something once in a while. Nobody got back into the passive, “entertain me” mode.

All was well for a long spell. Too long a spell. I don't know how long Marvin’s Constellations continued, or how many fraking times we went ‘round the sky pictures visible from 30-degrees north, but it was a bunch. Years and years worth. Till, finally, one evening a presenter, who was as bored as his audience was, droned on and on and on. “This constellation has seventeen prominent double stars; I will now recite their magnitudes and separations.” Unk suddenly began to feel like Popeye the freaking Sailor Man: “I’ve had all I can stand; I can’t stand no more!

When the evening’s constellation finally wrapped up, I allowed as how maybe, just maybe, we should broaden up the presentations. Certainly, it would be OK for someone excited about a constellation and its stars and deep sky objects to do a talk on it. But I thought that should no longer be required. Any subject would be welcome as long as it stuck with amateur astronomy, or at least the science of astronomy (we once had an unpleasant episode with a Creationist who tried to convince us Dinosaurs and men coexisted, just like on the doggone Flintstones).

Everybody seemed relieved that we’d no longer be yoked to the constellations. We may revisit Marvin’s Constellations it in the future, however. It was a good idea; we just fell asleep at the switch with it. Too much of the same-old, same-old is, well, too much. After years of the constellations, we were beginning to drive off members out of sheer boredom rather than involve them.

Other than letting your meetings get into a rut, what is bad? Endless Treasurers’ Reports and microscopically detailed minutes from the previous meeting. Yes, you need to give due attention to those things, but don’t make it into Chinese water torture: “Following the call for new business, Joe Schmoe excused himself to visit the little astronomers’ room, Judy Blue Eyes blew her nose, and Elmer dropped his pencil…then…” Use some common sense, ya’ll.

One thing that will destroy any club in short order? Feudin’ and fussin’. There will always be disagreements about the club and its direction. Disagreements between members, between officers, and between officers and members. It is up to your club’s leadership not to let them get out of hand.

When controversy arises, like the ever popular, “What the hail do we get out of the dadgum Astronomical League; why should we send ‘em all that money?” and threatens to escalate into something more than discussion, the person running the meeting has to keep the lid on. And do that without appearing to dismiss either side. One way of doing so is to form a committee to study and report on the issue, taking pains to see both sides are represented by clear and cool-headed members. I’ve seen all too many clubs, large and small, fail because nobody knew how to keep the peace.

Once you’ve got a good club going, believe you me, muchachos, you will want to keep it going. You’ll discover the club has become much more than a monthly ritual. Your fellow members have begun to seem like, yeah, family. Not a club member? Time’s a wasting:  go rat-cheer and purty soon you’ll find yourself arguing about the League and the price of a good telescope with the rest of us—and having one hell of a time doing it. 

Next Time: Shelley and Me...

Sunday, November 09, 2014


A Deep South Saturday: Project Scotty Night 2

Dawn Sunday...
I am not telling y’all anything you don't already know when I say the weather in the formerly sunny South and much of the rest of the good old U.S. of A. ain’t been very astronomy friendly the last few years. Of late, it’s been unusual for us to get even two clear nights over the four (now five) night run of the Deep South Regional Star Gaze. This year was different, Muchachos.

As you learned last week, ol’ Unk had a great Wednesday night, part of Thursday, and a spectacular Friday. The folks who’d been onsite since Tuesday had had yet another whole evening of deep sky craziness. As you also heard last week, that created a problem for your old Uncle. What the hail would I do with a Saturday night that was also going to be a good one? My observing list was finis.

I could always take one more tour of the summer/fall showpieces, you know, M13, M27, M15, M31, yadda-yadda-yadda. But that didn’t seem too productive a way to spend one of our increasingly rare dark and clear nights. Well, OK. What did I have going on when it came to visual observing projects?  There was my Messier Album series, but that required the services of a 4-inch refractor, and I’d decided—maybe foolishly—against carrying one to DSRSG 2014.

That left only one recent and incomplete visual project, Project Scotty, my quest to observe all the objects in Deep Sky Wonders, the book Steve O’Meara compiled from Walter Scott Houston’s legendary Sky & Telescope column. Seemed like that might do the trick for Saturday. I hadn’t put an aperture limit on the scopes I’d use for Project Scotty, and I’d hardly begun it, being only five objects into a list that contained nearly 500 fraking DSOs.

Breakfast:  the biscuits were good, anyhow...
Before I could get Project Scotty going again, however, I had to get through a long Saturday. We sure lucked out with our choice of dates weather-wise this time, but the days do go a lot quicker when the star party falls after the end of the dadgum Daylight Savings Time. Especially considering I was up right early Saturday, in plenty of time to catch another breakfast where I had to use a magnifying glass to find my scrambled eggs.

One thing that would make the day go a mite faster was that I had a second talk scheduled on Saturday afternoon. The first, “Things that Go ‘Bump’ in the Night Sky: Observing the STRANGE Stuff,” which I’d first given at this year’s Almost Heaven Star Party, had been a hit Friday afternoon. The second would be a gear-switcher, a program heavy on audience participation, a discussion of smart phones and tablets in amateur astronomy. By the way, campers, with my retirement I am almost always available to speak at your club or star party. Just give me a shout.

A wee bit before noon, Miss Dorothy and I walked over to the Feliciana Retreat Center’s auditorium, Barton Hall, not far from the observing field. We were just in time to catch Steve Edmiston, who preceded me with his presentation about making the screens of Android devices astronomy-friendly. That was a good thing. Not just because Steve’s talk was an excellent one, but because I was able to call on him during my presentation when questions arose concerning Android phones and tablets—Unk is most familiar with the iOS (iPhone, iPad) widgets. Anyhow, my Saturday talk went as well as the Friday one—purty good, that is.

After Barry Simon’s “The Fall Night Sky,” outlining the best objects to view and image during this transitional time of the year, D. and I headed back to the field to take down our tailgating canopy. Normally, we leave it up for the final night of a star party, but I thought it would be best to take it down on the last afternoon this time. I had a couple of stacks of astronomy student papers among other things awaiting my attention at home, and I wanted to skedaddle as soon after breakfast as possible.

If we tore down the EZ Up Saturday afternoon, not only would we not have to spend time cramming it back in its case Sunday morning, we wouldn’t have to wait around for the Sun to dry it first (the dew was heavy every night). Or, worse, have to unpack it again once we got home to let it dry out. I originally thought I might pack up the observing table, too, but decided I wanted to use the laptop Saturday night after all. The Toshiba would be fine  on the table under its little corrugated plastic shelter without the protection of a canopy.

Packing up the canopy Saturday afternoon...
When we had the EZ Up in its case and in the truck, it was it was door prize time again. As usual, Unk was coming into the last prize giveaway empty-handed. Dorothy had won a nice, small red light Thursday (which she promptly gave away to a novice who’d arrived without a red flashlight), but I hadn’t got nuttin'. Amazingly, my name was called, but by that time, prize pickings was slim, and I responded “pass,” to allow somebody else to get one of the items that remained. I wouldn’t have minded winning one of the big prizes this year, but I am past the stage where I need yet another small gadget.

Which brought us to supper, a minor bring-down. I’d been craving the FRC’s delicious smoked brisket, a final night tradition for the past five years. Nope. As I mentioned last Sunday, instead we were served frozen (tasted that way, anyhow) hamburger patties on untoasted buns with bags of Lays chips on the side. Oh, it was OK, though the fixins was slim, not even any onions for gosh sakes, and certainly not quite what your hillbilly epicure of an Uncle had in mind.

What comes after supper on long Daylight Savings Time afternoons? Why a nap, of course. I grabbed my Nook and headed to our Lodge room to continue Triplanetary. Just as Doc Smith’s evil Eddorians and benevolent Arisians began slugging it out, Unk dropped off into a slumber which would likely have continued well past the time I needed to be back on the field if Miss D. hadn’t awakened me with “Getting dark, Rod.”

On the observing field, the routine was much the same as it had been. Uncover the scope, connect the Sky Commander DSCs to the laptop, align on Polaris and Fomalhaut, light off SkyTools 3 and begin touring the Universe. The star party was the first time I’d been able to try the combo of ST3 and the Sky Commanders under a dark sky, and I was pleased at how well they worked together. I found I occasionally had to mash the “Push-to” button on SkyTools more than once to ensure the DSCs received the object data, but that didn't cause major heartburn. It sure was nice to have SkyTools 3’s huge object database at the Sky Commanders’ disposal.

Last door prize giveaway...
Not that I’d need ST3’s enormous selection of catalogs Saturday night. The Scottys on this evening's agenda would tend to the bright and spectacular. I always like to revel in Cool Stuff on the last night. I also didn’t intend to cover a huge amount of ground. One of the few rules of Project Scotty is that each object gets plenty of eyepiece time. I figgered that, with occasional breaks, maybe ten DSOs would be enough. That would also allow me to proceed in a fashion suited to the fact that Unk was a mite weary after the preceding nights of his deep sky tear.

In addition to setting up telescope and computer, I hunted up the little am/fm radio I’d bought at freaking Wally World. I hoped to pick up Game 3 of the World Series out on the observing field, and with a little twiddling I found an FM station carrying Royals – Giants duel. The reception was lousy—north Louisiana is a radio wasteland and WWL in New Orleans didn't have the game on—but it was good enough for me to keep occasional tabs on the Giants as the evening progressed.

Hokay, what would be first? M2, the grand globular in Aquarius, was high and in the clear and and one of my all time faves. In Deep Sky Wonders, Scotty’s discussion of M2 begins with its naked eye visibility. Mr. Houston spotted it, he says, from the bayous of Louisiana, but he must have had darker and drier Louisiana skies than I did. On Saturday, the south at Feliciana was a dark gray and not likely to give up globs to Unk’s aged eyes.

In Old Betsy, M2 appeared fully resolved right to its small, bright core. One other thing I noted, and which I’ve noticed before, is that the cluster seems to me to have a strong bluish cast. Maybe coincidentally, Scotty mentions author Glyn Jones reported seeing a greenish-blue glow around the cluster. I didn’t see any such thing, but the faint blue tint of M2 itself was striking.

Next up was another glob, Pegasus’ M15, to which Scotty devotes considerable space. Understandably, since, as he says, “The view of M15 is impressive with anything from binoculars to the largest telescope.” It never fails to blow me away, and certainly did this time. In the 8mm Ethos (187x) the center of M15’s intensely bright core was nearly star-like. But that wasn’t the big draw; that was how far out its halo of tiny, tiny stars extended. It easily filled the field of the 100-degree Ethos 8mm.

To Monster or not to Monster?
Naturally, Scotty mentions M15’s notoriously tiny and dim planetary nebula, Pease 1. He doesn’t report seeing it himself, but does say a couple of observers he knows conquered it by “blinking” it with an OIII filter, repeatedly placing an OIII filter between eye and eyepiece and removing it in hopes of making the planetary alternately appear and disappear, making it more obvious. I’ve tried that and every other trick in the book over the years, including with my friend Pat Rochford’s old 24-inch Dobsonian at insanely high powers, but I’ve never even seen a hint of Pease 1.

Mr. Houston’s discussion of M39 starts out purty much the same as you’ll read anywhere; it’s a rather sparse cluster in Cygnus enclosed in a triangle of bright stars. But he doesn't leave it at the easy and obvious. He mentions a curious dark streak he’s noticed, a dark nebula 5-degrees southwest of the cluster. I’ve never seen a dark nebula in the area, and I am doubtful of ever seeing it. Scotty says following this dark lane leads you to the Cocoon Nebula, which he implies is more prominent. I know the Cocoon routinely gives me fits, so I don’t expect I’ll see Scotty’s Streak.

Not that I didn’t have a nice look at M39, which I always find to be prettier than I remember. At half a degree across, this Cygnus open cluster is a job for the 35mm Panoptic (42X). Its equilateral triangle of bright stars encloses a medium-rich group of similarly bright stars, about 20. These are set against a background of dimmer stars. There is an attractive double star near the center of the triangle.

That his dark nebula “leads” to the Cocoon Nebula is the only mention IC 5146, gets in Deep Sky Wonders. Frankly, in Scotty’s time, much of which was before mega Dobs, uber eyepiece, and super filters, it probably didn’t warrant much more. The Cocoon is not easy. It did not respond to my OIII filter, and while a Lumicon UHC filter improved it a little, it was still just barely visible as an east-west elongated patch of nebulosity around a small group of stars. It was best in the 35 Pan, being nearly invisible at higher power.

The sky stayed beautiful and blue Saturday...
Walter Scott Houston was the dean of deep sky observers. No fooling and no doubt about that, but he was a man of his time, just as Admiral Smyth was a man of his. I say that because the “controversy” Mr. Houston mentions concerning NGC 7000, the North America Nebula, has the flavor of bygone days.

This controversy had to do with the visibility of NGC 7000, especially in smaller telescopes. Scotty rightly observes it can be visible to the naked eye under good conditions, but he goes on to say it is invisible in a 6-inch f/4 while easy in an 11-inch. That seems at odds with what most observers experience today, that it is not hard from a dark site and is easiest with small, fast scopes. Scotty, of course, was writing before nebula filters became widely available and widely used—though he does mention an observation of the NAN with a UHC by Alister Ling. With an OIII, NGC 7000 and the whole complex of nebulosity around it is a wonder in Miss Dorothy’s OIII equipped 4-inch f/6.5 achromat.

Not that the NAN doesn't look good in a larger scope. It dang sure did on this night. It was very bright in the 35 Panoptic with a Thousand Oaks OIII. The Gulf Coast/Mexico/Florida region was, as usual, the most prominent area, but the entire nebula and the Pelican (IC 5070) as well were readily visible with a little scanning around. Several open clusters on the eastern seaboard, NGCs 6996, 6997, and 6989 were obvious and attractive.

Deep Sky Wonders gives considerable space to M31, though much of it is devoted to questions about the galaxy’s visible extent, its naked eye appearance, and its observational history rather than the particulars of observing it. Scotty does get to that, however, noting in particular the galaxy’s tiny, bright nucleus, which is one of my favorite features and which many observers seem to miss.

I certainly didn’t miss much on Saturday night. I’ve had better looks at M31 in the past, but maybe not much better. NGC 206, the huge star cloud in one of the galaxy’s arms was obvious and appeared elongated and grainy, though not as good as it was at the Chiefland Star Party in 2008. The nucleus was, likewise, prominent, but didn’t appear as tiny and bright as it had on that outstanding evening at the CAV.  Otherwise, two of M31’s dark lanes were visible with the 13mm Ethos, a sure sign you’ve hit Andromeda on a pretty good night.

Barton Hall...
In his earlier columns, Scotty was writing in an era when many amateurs didn't observe even bright NGCs. That is particularly obvious concerning NGC 6826, the Blinking Planetary in Cygnus, a bread and butter object for novices these days. Mr. Houston opines that the planetary is “not well known today.” And he doesn't even mention the blinking effect—that the central star pops out when you use direct vision and the disk is more pronounced with averted vision. That may be because he observed the nebula with his 10-inch Newtonian; the blinking is more obvious with smaller apertures.

It didn't blink at all with old Betsy, with the slightly greenish disk being prominent with direct vision. Despite the nebulosity, the central star was also readily visible. In the 8mm Ethos, there were hints of radial striations in the annulus. I tried the TeleVue Big Barlow with the 8mm ocular in an attempt to get a better look at these features, but no dice.

When he comes to the Saturn Nebula, NGC 7009, Scotty, in typical fashion asks rather than tells. His question is, “What is the smallest telescope that will show the planetary’s faint extensions?” These "extensions" on either side of the Saturn Nebula’s oval disk, which made Lord Rosse think it resembled the planet Saturn in his proto-big-Dob, are not easy. I’d answer “12-inch,” but the ring is often very difficult in a 12. That was not the case on this evening, however.

NGC 7009 was good and high, and I was hoping to get a glimpse of its ring, but I had my doubts. The feature has never been overly clear in Betsy—not until this night, anyhow. The nebula was strongly blue, very elongated, and when the seeing changed, the ring would swim into view. I could see it at 187x, but had to take the power up to 374x to make it easy.

At that magnification, the ring still came and went, but when it was visible, it was astoundingly visible. Which brings to mind one of my maxims, “Amateur astronomers tend to use too little magnification rather than too much.” If I hadn’t pumped up the power here, I wouldn’t have gotten nearly as good a view.

M76, the Little Dumbbell (planetary) Nebula in Perseus, was one of The Man’s fave objects, and he often spread the word about it. Back in the hallowed day it was, surprisingly, considered one of the more difficult Messiers. I’ve seen it easily in a 60mm ETX refractor, but fifty years ago a lot of us would read the oft-quoted photographic magnitude for it, 12.2, and get scared off.

iPhone astronomy...
As Scotty says, on a good night with an 8-inch or larger telescope this little thing is a showpiece. In Old Betsy with the 8mm Ethos, the Dumbbell portion, the two lobes of nebulosity in contact, was amazingly bright. Dark lanes criss-crossed the dumbbell, and arcs of nebulosity were easy to see extending from each end of the object. There is little doubt the LPR filters we take for granted help a lot with M76—it was much better with my OIII than without.

M71 seems to be another of Mr. Houston’s pet objects, since he devotes more space to Sagitta’s globular cluster than most deep sky raconteurs do. That space is well deserved in my opinion.  One thing is sure, on my DSRSG Saturday night the glob was bold and bright and resolved, visible as a triangular shape—or, as Scotty calls it, an “arrowhead.” It is very loose and in an incredibly rich star field.

In the past, there's been a question about the object’s classification—is it a globular cluster or is it an open cluster?—and Scotty makes note of that without coming down on either side. I’d say one look at the cluster’s color-magnitude diagram makes its status as a glob clear.

Then it was time to ring down the curtain for the night with a special object, the Phantom Galaxy, M74, which, as I said last time, put on a surprisingly good show—for a dim face-on Sc galaxy—at the 1994 Deep South. Scotty mentions the galaxy’s frustrating and difficult nature, and I agree with him on that. It is frustrating and difficult—if you want to see the spiral arms. It’s visible almost anytime as a smudge in an 8-inch scope under a dark sky. 

Actually, M74’s spiral is only difficult sometimes. Or maybe most of the time. When the sky is just right, with the “just right” usually being a combination of steady seeing and dark skies, the Phantom offers up a heaping helping of spiral structure despite the fact that Scotty seems to believe seeing the spiral arms is impossible even with a 20-inch scope. In Betsy, the arms weren't as easy as they were in 1994 or on the above-mentioned night at the 2008 Chiefland Star Party, but they were obvious and beautiful.

My victory over M74 complete, I took a break, moseyed around the field to see what my pals were up to, and visited Barton Hall's Little Astronomers’ Room. Back at the EZ-Up, I started to grab a Monster Energy Drink outa the ice chest. And stopped myself. It was almost midnight. and there would be packing and the drive home on the morrow. Yes, not having to mess with the tailgating canopy would help, but there would still be plenty of work to do.

Group picture courtesy of Barry Simon...
Gazing across the field, it looked like many of Unk’s buddies had had the same thought. The field was emptying out. If I pulled the big switch right now, it would still be going on one by the time I made it back to our room. Not having the EZ Up to protect the gear from dew meant much of the stuff on the field needed to be gathered up and stowed in the truck. I pulled that accursed Big Switch.

On the way back to the Lodge, I reflected on this year’s DSRSG. It had been a dang good one. I must admit that when I am not imaging, I always feel a mite let down that I don’t have any “souvenirs” to take home at the end of the event, but it wasn’t just any old visual observing I did this time. I felt like a long overdue task was completed; a bow had finally been tied on the DSRSG ’94 package with the completion of my old observing list. The icing on the cake, if I can mix a few metaphors, was that I also advanced Project Scotty at least a little.

After a restful night, it was time to say goodbye to the old FRC for another six months (I dang sure hope to be back in April for the Spring Scrimmage edition of our star party). Dorothy and I agreed we’d had a great time in 2014. Maybe not as great as in 1994— likely no star party will ever equal that one for us—but a great time nevertheless.

Just after dawn, I was out to the chilly field to pack our remaining gear in the truck and, after retrieving D. and our suitcases and other room items from the Lodge, Unk pointed the truck east for the New Manse well before breakfast. Unlike a few times over the years, I was right sad to be leaving and didn’t want to stretch it out with long goodbyes. 2014 was one for the books, muchachos.

Next Time: Are You a Joiner?

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