Sunday, April 26, 2015
When is a Star Party Not a Star Party?
The answer is “never.” As I’ve said before, I can have a good time at a star party even if I don’t see a darned thing. What are the elements that make that “good time” possible rain or shine? Good friends and good facilities. Sure, even after decades of star partying, I still long for good skies at my favorite events, but the more I think about it, the more I've come to believe that is secondary to my first two requirements.
Or so I tried to tell myself last Wednesday, the day before the start of the 2015 Deep South Regional Star Gaze Spring Scrimmage, the springtime edition of my fave local event. 2013 was my first Scrimmage. Previously, my engineering job kept me away from the smaller, springtime DSRSG. I had such a wonderful time in ‘13 despite getting only one and a half clear nights that I did it again in 2014 and was looking forward to 2015. Unfortunately, as the date for this year’s Scrimmage, April 16th, approached, I began to think the event was cursed this year.
That began with my visit to the mailbox one afternoon a few weeks ago. I was hoping to find the latest issue of Sky & Telescope or at least a care package from MyComicShop, but what turned up amidst the usual ration of junk mail was a little white envelope. Rut-roh. I was pretty sure what it was without even looking at it: Jury Summons.
I was expecting that. The last time I was called was in 1985, just after I moved to Mississippi (temporarily) when I began my engineering career with the Navy. All it took then was a call to the court to tell ‘em I was no longer an Alabama resident and that was that. After moving back to Mobile, I thought I’d be called, but I never heard another peep out of the judicial system.
I was expecting a Jury Summons now both because it had been so long since I’d got one and because things had changed with me. My situation had been remarkably stable since 1994. Same address. Same phone number. Same voting place, etc., etc., etc. Then we moved out to the suburbs last spring and everything changed—address, driver’s license, voting place. I had the suspicion one of those things would flip a switch somewhere sending a summons my way.
Not that I have a problem with doing jury duty. I believe serving on a jury is a civic duty at least as important as voting, which I try to do every single election. Maybe jury duty is even more important. But why, for God’s sake, did it have to be for the week of the Scrimmage? I had to report on Monday the 13th, and while the star party wouldn’t begin till Thursday (it’s two days shorter than the autumn event), that didn't give me much time to serve on a jury trying a case. I did ring the number on the summons to see if I could possibly reschedule, but the person on the other end gave a big “uh-uh.” I’d have to report on the appointed Monday and talk about rescheduling in person.
Monday morning 13 April, I headed downtown, parking in the Civic Center lot and walking to the big Civic Plaza. In the lobby, I got my first indication there’d be a lot of hurry up and wait involved in the proceedings. The summons was for 7:45, but what that actually meant was that you’d mill around in the lobby, which had no place to sit or any other amenities, not even restrooms, until the metal detectors guarding the elevators that would take you to the assembly room on the 8th floor began operation at 7:45.
Up there, I sat myself down in the big room, on one of the most uncomfortable folding chairs it’s ever been my misfortune to encounter, and pulled out the book I’d been smart enough to bring along, a fat one, David Feintuch's Midshipman’s Hope (recommended). Quite a lot of time passed before anything happened. Finally the Judge came in, a nice chap, and we got underway.
First order of business was the Judge hearing the whining of the people who wanted to be excused or at least rescheduled. A long line formed immediately, but I was not in it. His Honor made clear that if you were excused you would be called again. Soon. I had a busy summer coming, so I decided it would be best to just get this over with.
While I believe serving on a jury is a civic duty, it wouldn't hurt my feelings not to get selected for an actual jury. Especially for Grand Jury duty, which would consume two full weeks. I dodged that bullet and was put on Panel Seven of the fourteen Panels of the Petit Jury pool. I figured that could go either way. I might get selected, but if there weren't many trials at the moment, it was likely I would skate. At 11 a.m., we were dismissed for the day.
Next morning things were much the same except I didn't have to be in the assembly room (a different one, one lacking snack and drink machines nearby) till nine. There, absolutely nothing happened in our area, which was reserved for Panels 6 and higher. At 11 a.m. we were once again set free. Back at the New Manse, I discussed plans with Dorothy. I decided that if I got let off on Thursday by 11, I’d head for the star party. If things went into Friday or even late Thursday, I’d declare the 2015 Scrimmage a scrub. Frankly, given the weather, it didn't look like it would much matter anyhow.
The weather was the big problem. Sure, there’s always a chance of a rain-out for a spring event down here, but until the previous week it had actually been looking as good as it ever does for observing in April. I didn't think we’d get three full nights, but was convinced we’d get two. The rain that had been deviling us would begin to move out Thursday, and I thought Friday would be assured. That’s what I thought, until the front came to a screeching halt. The clouds just sat overhead and dumped rain on us day after day with barely a pause.
Wednesday found me back in my assigned place, Panel Seven, Chair One. I had just about finished Midshipman’s Hope when the young woman in charge of us announced, “I have your checks and certificates; when I call your name, come up and get them and you can go.” I should have been pleased, I guess, but frankly it all seemed a little anti-climactic. And the rain was falling harder than ever, anyway.
On the way home, I stopped at Wal-Mart. Despite the weather, I had decided I would indeed make the three hour journey to the Feliciana Retreat Center as planned. I’d already paid, and, as is normal and necessary for star parties, there could be no refunds. I’d hang out with old friends, eat the Center’s good food, grouse about the weatherman, and watch movies. To that end, I thought I’d better pick up one more DVD. My tastes in films don't always coincide with those of my fellow partiers, and I kinda like sitting up late on a rainy night in my room watching a flick on my laptop anyway.
I was in luck. Wally-world had just the flick I was looking for, the new animated Batman vs. Robin. They even had the deluxe edition that included a Blu Ray disk, a regular DVD, the digital edition, AND a nice figure of the Batman himself. I thought I’d take The Dark Knight to the star party with me as my mascot. Maybe he’d be good luck and would bring us a dark (and clear) night. Back home, I added the disk to my stack, which included Season Two of Star Wars: Clone Wars and a recent acquisition, the 1990s Flash TV series. Time to start packing the 4Runner, then.
I’d marshaled the gear in the Sun Room on Monday, so there wasn't much work to do, really. Oh, there was one thing: swapping out telescopes. Given the conditions, I dropped back from the C11 and CGEM to my VX and Edge 800. Might as well travel a little lighter, and if by some strange circumstance we got some time under the stars, I knew the Edge, Mrs. Peel, would do a heck of a job. I left the Mallincam in the queue, but added the box of good eyepieces to it. I believed if we got anything, it would be through sucker holes, and visual would best for that. Plus, I seem to find myself moving back to visual astronomy lately and in the mood to take a break from the imaging jag I've been on for a record five years.
Before loading up, I went through the pile of astro-stuff eliminating a few other items I thought would be unnecessary. It was unlikely I’d spend much time of the field, for example, so the ice chest I normally keep under the EZ Up wouldn't be required. In half an hour, the Toyota, Miss Van Pelt, was packed, a record of late. Me? I felt good. I’d have felt even better if I thought I might actually get to see something with the C8, but all-in-all I was happier about the expedition than I had been about February’s somewhat misbegotten Chiefland trip. Yes, I was still going through the changes I touched on then, but I did feel up for, and even enthusiastic about, the Spring Scrimmage.
Wednesday evening was spent watching Disk One of Clone Wars. I hadn't seen the episodes since they were first broadcast, and was just blown away by how good this animated series was. If the new Star Wars animated series, Star Wars Rebels, which has just finished its first season, can maintain its similar level of quality, it is going to be another great ride, but it’s difficult to believe it can hit the heights attained by Clone Wars. I made it a reasonably early night, but not too early. What I was hearing via email was that nobody would be on-site till about 1 pm. I thought a departure time of 9:30 a.m. would be good.
So, Thursday morning, but not early Thursday morning, I headed west and into the wilds of northern Louisiana, just over the Mississippi state line, to the Feliciana Retreat Center, which is located near the small towns of Clinton and Norwood, Louisiana. How dark is that part of the state? Quite dark. At least as dark as Chiefland, Florida. As it should be. There isn't much there. To includes motels, convenience stores, and restaurants. When you do Deep South, you are pretty much limited to what is at the Feliciana Retreat Center. But that is A-OK.
The trip over I-10, I-12, and I-55 was utterly uneventful. I made a couple of rest stops (too much coffee; I’d been able to hang out at home later than usual and sucked plenty down). Amazingly –and depressingly—while it was completely overcast the whole way, I didn't run into heavy rain till I got off I-55 and neared the Center. Then it began to rain. A lot.
Rolling onto the grounds of the FRC, I passed the observing field by without even slowing down. There was simply no reason to. One hopeful soul had parked his popup camper on the east side, but hadn't set it up. I continued on to the Lodge.
Other than the expansive observing field, the Lodge is what makes the Feliciana Retreat Center such a gem. It’s like a miniature motel with a beautiful dining hall overlooking a lake and plenty of small but reasonably nice (recently remodeled) motel rooms. There’s heat and air conditioning throughout, and even wi-fi Internet.
I grabbed my suitcase and umbrella, dashed inside getting half wet in the process, and found my old friends Barry (Deep South’s Managing Director), Ron, and Frank kibitzing in the west corridor. They were of the same mind I was: if we saw anything on any of the nights it would a miracle. Likely all we’d observe would be the undersides of clouds, but, like me, everybody was in a good mood and determined to have a good time.
I dropped off my suitcase and laptop in my assigned room, West Nine, and returned to the Toyota for a small camp table I sometimes set up under the EZ Up canopy. Like last fall, there was no desk and chair in my room, just a TV tray-table with a lamp on it. I was prepared for that with the camp table for the PC and speakers. A visit to one of the unoccupied rooms on the West side turned up a chair, too.
I got the Toshiba laptop set up and gave the Internet a try. Nope. There was a little bit of a signal, but not enough to connect. I moved the laptop to the dining room, however, and found a strong and reasonably fast Internet connection. I’d do my web surfing and Facebooking in the dining area and my movie watching back in the room.
It was a couple of hours before supper, which, I’d been informed by one of the center’s nice staff members (bunch of new faces this time), was fish, catfish, which sounded OK. Till then? How about a little reading? I had a couple of books with me, but thought I’d go lighter with the somewhat zany but always interesting BBC Doctor Who Magazine I’d snagged at Books-a-Million as part of my star party preparations.
Which allowed me to spend a pleasant hour before it was time to eat. The food was back to its usual impressive level after being on the not-so-hot side last fall. The fried catfish really was good and the portions large. I confined myself to a couple of fillets and a salad from the salad bar, but there was potato salad and other sides for those who wanted such things. With only 8 of us present, there was plenty of fish left over, and the staff boxed it up and put it in the refrigerator for midnight snacking in case somebody got hungry after a long observing run (yeah, right).
After the meal, I finished my magazine while occasionally poking my head out the front door to see what Ma Nature was up to. I was pelted by raindrops every time. The lower the Sun got, the harder the rain fell, darnit. Still, this is Rod we are talking about, and, as you know, his hopes always spring eternal. I am a glass half full kinda guy, even if I sometimes have to make myself see the glass that way by force of will.
I decided I’d grab my umbrella and take a walk out to the field. I wanted to ascertain whether it would be practical to set up gear in the unlikely event we had some clearing, or whether the field was under inches of water. My reconnaissance revealed that if the rain did somehow, some way stop, we’d be good to go. The field wasn't that wet; the water was draining off down the gentle slope to the west. The grass, which was decently short, had obviously been cut not long ago and wouldn't be a problem. The only problem was the clouds.
Reluctant to go back to the Lodge where the handwriting would probably be on the wall as far as weather reports, I hiked down to the Center’s auditorium building, Barton Hall. Nice and well maintained as always, though the wooden sides were turning green with mold in the unrelenting damp weather. I felt a little sad standing there in the building. We use Barton for dealers as well as presentations in the fall, and the last dealer we had onsite was the late Jeff Goldstein of Astro-Gizmos.
The good news? I understand from Barry that the family intends to carry on his business. That will make a lot of people happy, as some of Astro-Gizmos items, like their telescope covers, are the gold standard. And it was always great to be able to buy the little but necessary items from ‘Gizmos when you were at one of the many events Jeff attended—batteries, flashlights, red filters for computers. I am much more likely to buy that sort of thing at a star party than a freaking Ethos eyepiece.
At the Lodge, I hung with my homies for a while, but, come sundown, it was movietime. The gang assembled in front of the center’s big screen TV to watch Catch 22. I thought that might be a bit much for me at present, however, and repaired to my room to continue the adventures of Obi Wan, Anakin, and Ahsoka, which I carried on with until somewhat after eleven, when my eyelids became heavy. One last check of the sky (worse than ever) and it was nighty-night.
Friday dawned, not unexpectedly, to more clouds and more rain. I was up early, very early, since I’d certainly not pulled the all-nighter I’d hoped and planned to pull Thursday night. In the dining hall with my laptop, I spent the hours before breakfast getting caught up on the doings on Facebook, such as they were, and seeing who was complaining about what on the Cloudy Nights Astro BBS. Breakfast was eggs and bacon, and was, again, up to the FRC’s old standards.
After the meal, I spent a while chatting about scopes with Barry, Ron, Gabe, Frank and the rest of the gang. Naturally, after “scopes” our musings turned to “weather.” There really wasn't much to say about it, though. While some periods of no rain and fewer clouds were forecast for the daytime Friday, it was obvious the sky would close down completely again during the night. Which got me to thinking…
Barry indicated he was considering pulling up stakes at four, right after supper. I allowed that I might do the same thing. A little more thought and I announced I’d probably leave at noon. What? I was gonna leave and miss the prize drawing, for a 5-inch Explore Scientific achromat? “Yes,” I said. We’d won the scope’s 4-inch sister at the 2013 Deep South (the fall edition), and I really didn't need the five. I’d probably pass on the scope if I won. Which led to another interesting gear conversation centering on achromats, their focal ratios, and the dreaded color purple.
Since it was not currently raining, I walked out to the field and moped around a bit. My formerly sunny mood had evaporated. It would have been different if there’d been a Sun in the sky, perhaps, but there wasn't one. I began wondering why I should wait till noon. There wasn't another meal until four, so there wasn't much reason to hang out until twelve. If I departed as soon as I packed the room, I’d be home in early afternoon and could watch it rain in the comfort of the New Manse. Hmmm…
At the Lodge, I went to my room, packed my suitcase and computer, and tossed ‘em in the 4Runner. Made one last check to make sure I’d got everything, hung my key on the board in the lobby, and announced to my fellow star partiers, “Gentlemen, adieu.”
Leaving turned out to have been a wise decision. The rains soon came again, torrential ones, and it was good that I was able to negotiate the waterlogged Interstates in full daylight. I didn't hurry, but still made it home by 12:30. I didn't just sit and watch the rain fall at home when I got there, either. Dorothy and I instead did that at Buffalo Wild Wings, where I enjoyed some HOT wings (Wild sauce) and a couple of draft Michelob Ultras.
Was I glad I went to the 2015 Deep South Regional Star Gaze Spring Scrimmage? Actually, I was. It was good to get out of the house. The drive was kinda fun. And seeing my old mates was nice. Would I do it over again even if I knew I wouldn't get in a lick of observing? I think I would. Yes, I believe I would. I also think I left at just the right time, while my (short) star party was still fun. You know what they say, muchachos: “Fun is Fun, but Done is Done.”
Sunday, April 19, 2015
Star Partying in the Southland...
In the spring. Which is always dicey down here as far as weather, to put it mildly. Nevertheless, I had high hopes for the 2015 Deep South Regional Star Gaze Spring Scrimmage. It's an event I've been doing since 2013, a small informal one, and I really, really like it. Surely, we'd get one night despite the spring storms?
How did that work out for Rod? As is always the case here when I've traveled to a star party, I am going to make you wait till next Sunday to find out. I do have some pictures to tide you over, however...
Sunday, April 12, 2015
About five years ago, muchachos, a young amateur astronomer and ardent Trekkie, Clara Scattolin, had a great idea; she’d go through the Star Trek canon as it stood at the time (with the exception of Enterprise)—STTOS, TAS, TNG, VOY, DS9, and the original movies (not the reboots)—and make an observing list of the real astronomical objects that were mentioned.
Clara’s list was a big hit with Trekkie amateur astronomers including moi. I downloaded the .pdf, converted the list to SkyTools format, and spent an evening looking at and showing off some of the Trek objects. Six altogether. That’s only a fraction of Clara’s observing plan, which consists of 37 objects, so the other evening, I decided to knock off a few more of ‘em.
Should you do the same? Darned right. If you are a Trekkie, you will thoroughly enjoy the experience, even though most of the Enterprise’s destinations and the other astronomical objects at least talked about in the shows are “just” stars. But, what’s wrong with looking at a pretty star? Some are doubles, and almost all are bright and look good in small telescopes. As Clara says:
"You might wonder why anyone might want to look at stars that are probably irrelevant. I don’t know about you, but I would love the opportunity to look at a star that someone believed was a solar system with habitable planets in orbit."
So it was that one recent evening I hit the backyard at 8 p.m. (curse this DST) to do more voyaging. How would I do that? I originally intended to set up a C8 on my Atlas mount. I’d just downloaded the new SynScan firmware build, v3.37, and needed to give it a test run. Unfortunately, clouds were predicted to be on their way in, and I don’t like to lug the Atlas out unless I can keep it set up in the back forty for at least two nights. Severe weather was said to be in the offing, so I decided C8 and Atlas would stay snug and dry.
So, my Celestron C102, a 4-inch achromat, would be my starship of choice for the night. This refractor, “Amelia” by name, is easy to waltz out into the backyard or onto my deck despite her longish tube. I can have her set up in 5-minutes, and she requires almost no thermal equilibration whatsoever. My backyard skies are hardly perfect, with a limiting zenith magnitude of about 5 on a really outstanding night, but the only challenging object on the list this evening would likely be M1, the Crab Nebula, which isn’t that hard for a 4-inch, even under bright skies.
Or it wouldn’t be with clear skies. Unfortunately, there was significant haze building in advance of the front, and I wasn’t at all sure old Crabby would appear in my eyepiece. At least there were no drifting clouds, not yet, so there’d be nothing to prevent me from scoring my other targets, mostly bright double and single stars.
So, out on the deck went the C102, into the diagonal went my Zhumell 100-degree AFOV ocular, The Happy Hand Grenade, and…
When the U.S.S. Amelia emerged from warp space, we were at Orion’s beautiful sapphire, magnitude .13 Rigel, the 6th brightest star in the sky, which looked lovely in the big eyepiece field. The seeing was not perfect, but it was good enough that the sparkler was not dancing around much. How was the chromatic aberration? At the reasonable focal ratio of the C102, f/10, and the reasonable magnification with the HHG, 63X, I didn’t note much. Something besides the color purple was missing, however.
Rigel is not a single star, but a double, boasting a little magnitude 10.4 companion a hair less than 10” away. Actually, Rigel is really a triple star; Rigel B is itself a binary, but a spectroscopic one that cannot be resolved by any scope. Even given the huge magnitude difference between the primary and the B star(s), the relatively large separation makes the pair easy to resolve with a C8.
I expected Rigel B to be nearly as easy with the C102 as with the SCT, but nada did I see of the little comes when I put my eye to the ocular. Well, 63X was a little low in the magnification department, I thought, so I upped it to 142X with my 7mm Uwan 82-degree job. There was the spark of Rigel B. Maybe not as prominent as in a C8, but not bad, not bad at all.
“Wolf in the Fold” (STTOS). Takes place on a planet orbiting Rigel, Rigel IV, and involves grisly killings done in Jack the Ripper style. The crew is enjoying shore leave in a gloomy fog-enshrouded city, with Scotty doing some good, old-fashioned whiskey drinking, when a grisly murder takes place. Scotty is initially suspected, but it’s soon obvious to his companions that a sinister force is at work.
One of the best original show episodes in my opinion, “Journey to Babel” (STTOS), has Rigel as its destination. Specifically, the planet Rigel V. The story concerns the Enterprise’s journey to a diplomatic conference on the planet, and features Spock’s father, Sarek, and mother, Amanda. I won’t give anything else away if you somehow haven’t seen it. If you haven’t seen it, you will love it.
“The Cage” (STTOS). This is another great (2-part) episode, and was the original pilot for the series. Its relation to Rigel is only peripheral in that yet another inhabited Rigellian planet, Rigel VII, is mentioned. See this episode not just for a great SF-like (as opposed to Sci Fi) story, but for a look at the proto-crew of the enterprise, with Jeffrey Hunter as Captain, Majel Barrett as his Exec (Number One), and John Hoyt as the ship’s doctor (Dr. Phillip Boyce).
“Mudd’s Women” (STTOS). Can you believe that there’s yet another (semi) habitable planet in the Rigel system, Rigel XII? There is, and we visit it in this one for replacement dilithium crystals thanks to the (probably) unintentional actions of conman Harry Mudd. The balance of the episode is played out in the harsh environment of Rigel XII’s a mining colony.
In “All Good Things” (STTNG), a movie-length episode, the finale of the show, we are told Enterprise Engineer Geordi LaForge lived on Rigel III following his retirement from Starfleet.
Rigel IV is mentioned in “Prodigal Daughter” (STDS9) as a “pergium” ore processing facility.
Since we were in the Orion neighborhood, Mintaka, Delta Orionis, was our obvious next destination. This westernmost belt star is another bright beauty, a blue-white B0 monster shining at magnitude 2.14. It’s a triple star with a very noticeable 7th magnitude companion 52” away. The other component is closer and way dim, magnitude 14, and was, of course, invisible in my refractor.
Mintaka’s sole appearance is in an STTNG episode, “Who Watches the Watchers?” The Enterprise is studying a race of Bronze Age level people who appear to be related to the Vulcans. The Away Team is discovered, violating the Prime Directive and putting the normal development of the people of Mintaka III in jeopardy. Not a great episode, but a good one.
Messier 45, the Pleiades
Taurus’ Seven Sisters is a beautiful open cluster, but really too big for an f/10 4-inch. I enlisted my 35mm Panoptic to allow me to take in the whole of the cluster’s main “little dipper” shape, but to be honest the group’s many blue sparklers really looked best in the Orion 7x50mm RACI finderscope I use on Amelia when we are observing in light polluted environs.
The Pleiads are mentioned in just one episode, STTNG’s “Home Soil,” as the destination of the Enterprise, which has been tasked with surveying and cataloging planets in the star cluster. Before it can get to M45, however, the ship is diverted to a planet along the way, Velara III, to check on the faltering progress of a terraforming colony there. What the Enterprise finds is a crystalline lifeform that appears similar to one discovered in the (nearby, we assume) Pleiades.
Messier 1, the Crab Nebula
The next logical destination for my starship of the mind was one of the other relatively few deep sky objects in the Trek canon, Messier 1, the famous Crab Nebula. I turned the scope on it, or at least thought I did. The Crab is undeniably subdued in a 4-inch in light pollution. Not surprising given its relatively dim magnitude of 8.4 and relatively large size of 8.0’. I think I saw I as a dim little oval. I was convinced enough that it was there that I didn’t go looking for a light pollution reduction filter, anyway.
The Crab is mentioned in one of STTNG’s light-hearted episodes, “Manhunt,” wherein Picard must deal with a menopausal Lwaxana Troi (mother to Deanna, natch).
Regulus, Leo’s alpha star, is now nice and high above the trees to the east at mid evening, so it was our next port of call. While this star, another blue one, a B7 this time, doesn’t look overly impressive in the eyepiece, it is a pretty remarkable one. It’s a quadruple star with the primary being a very young star that has assumed a strongly oblate shape due to its fast rotation.
Of these wonders, the only thing visible to my little scope other than the bright primary, was the star’s b-c companion. The (unresolved in my little scope) pair is 175” from the planetary and shines at a combined magnitude of 7.6, which made it easy and pretty in the C102. The 4th system member hugs the primary closely and is only detectable spectroscopically.
Regulus is referred to in one of the most famous and beloved of the STTOS episodes, “Amok Time.” While the story doesn’t visit Regulus V, it is discussed as the home of a giant bird that returns to its nest once every eleven years to mate. Not unlike poor Mr. Spock, who s suffering from something called pon farr, the Vulcan equivalent of the Regulan bird’s need to return to home to fulfill its biological imperative or the terran salmon’s need to swim upstream to do the same.
Regulus is also talked about in a rather minor first season episode of STTNG, “The Vengeance Factor.”
Our current target also comes up in a STDS9 show, “Fascination,” as the location of the Regulus III Science Academy.
Aldebaran, a huge, red K5III star couldn’t be more different from the blue stars we’ve visited so far. They are young and it is old, having moved off the Main Sequence and swollen to a huge diameter, almost 45 times that of the Sun. In the eyepiece, it is glorious, a shimmering orange vision.
You’d think we’d hear more about such a prominent star, but no. It does come up in “The Deadly Years” (STTOS), but only in passing. Aldebaran III is the home of the Aldebaran Music Academy.
It also makes a brief appearance in an in the STDS9 episode “Past Tense, Part I.” It seems one of Quark’s relations has been picked up by the federation cops on Aldebaran III and he wants Sisko to do something about it.
After watching Aldebaran, who began to not just shimmer, but to dance, as the seeing degraded and the haze thickened, I figured it was about time to wrap it up. I didn’t want to do any more of the list on an evening that was becoming putrid, but I wasn’t quite ready to haul Amelia back inside, either.
Venus is the bane of achromatic refractors. Not only is she usually intensely bright, she’s usually small. That makes her the A-number-one victim of chromatic aberration. But the love goddess suckered me in as she always does. She just looked so bright and pretty. In truth, she was not that bad. Yes, there was a substantial purple halo, but the little gibbous disk was sharp and clear in the midst of it when the seeing occasionally cooperated.
Back in the Sol system, I studied the second planet on my ship’s “viewscreen” for quite a while. Longer than I thought I would. I am glad I did. I don’t want any of the sky’s wonders to ever become mundane, muchachos. And none of them ever have. Not even too bright Venus, who seemed to still radiate some of the mystery she had in excess back in my youth, when she was a Strange New World, a water rich swamp world trod by dinosaurs, and I couldn’t stop looking at her.
Would you like a copy of the list in SkyTools 3 format? Just send me a request at firstname.lastname@example.org...
Would you like a copy of the list in SkyTools 3 format? Just send me a request at email@example.com...
Sunday, April 05, 2015
Shooting the Planets Part II: Imaging and Image Processing
I am not Don Parker. Or Chris Go. Or Damian Peach. I can, however, even given my average equipment, skills, and the varying intensity with which I pursue planetary imaging, produce pictures that would have caused anybody’s draw to drop twenty years ago. Even on an average night, my shots will reveal the basic configurations of Mars, Saturn, the Moon, and, especially Jupiter. That is, even on less than optimum evenings, I can record more detail than you will likely see visually, no matter how good your skills.
Now the caveat. As I underlined our last time out on this subject, what will limit you is the seeing. Below, you see the difference. My average seeing is probably equivalent to a lot of people’s “good,” and it will deliver the goods, if not as impressively as I’d sometimes like. What does my average/below average seeing look like? The air is not steady. The image of the planet onscreen is usually “boiling.”
Then we come to poor. This is something that I experience in the winter months and even into early spring some years. What’s poor? One look at a planet on the monitor will tell the tale. It won’t be boiling, or just boiling, it will be wavering. Flapping like a flag. Believe me, you will recognize it when you see it. Unfortunately, a lot of my northern brothers and sisters can experience this during much of the year.
The good part? As putrid as the resulting image is, it will still probably still reveal considerably more than an experienced observer will easily detect through the eyepiece on such a night. How poor did Jupe look onscreen when I shot the image on the right? He wasn't always even round (or oval if you prefer); he was a blob more often than not.
Takeaway? Keep your eye out for the conditions that will bring good seeing. Temperature inversions. Sticky, humid nights. But don’t necessarily sit inside on evenings that you and the Clear Sky Clock agree will be poor. If you are interested in monitoring the planet of your desire, not merely taking a few pretty pictures, get outside with the scope and camera. Sometimes seeing can improve suddenly just when you thought that was impossible. Finally, if nothing else, shooting on nights that don’t look good will at least keep you in practice with your scope and camera and more able to take advantage of good nights when they do come.
First things first, you've got to get your camera on your telescope. If you followed my advice in Part I, you have the camera plugged into a Barlow and a flip mirror. The tiny chips of planet-cams and webcams make it harder to center your target than you’d think, even with the services of a flip mirror. Without one? You ain't got a prayer. Trying to line up a planet in a high powered eyepiece, remove the eyepiece, and insert a camera is a losing game. You’ll almost inevitably more the scope the tiny amount required to put Jupiter out of the frame in the course of doing that. Or your focuser will flex. Or, if you’re like me, you’ll kick a fraking tripod leg.
Before beginning, you need to have polar aligned your mount carefully (you can use an alt-az mount for planetary work, but tracking will almost always be better with an EQ). Especially if your camera supports and you plan to use FireCapture’s ROI (region of interest) feature, which crops the frame to a size that barely fits the planet. That allows the camera to achieve high frame rates, but a frame not much more than a minute of across when you are on Jupiter means tracking needs to be spot on. You need a good polar alignment and a well balanced scope. Even if your camera has a large frame and you plan to use full frame, a planet will drift out quickly at high focal ratios if polar alignment is not good.
Once you have the scope properly aligned and the planet on the cross hairs of the eyepiece in the flip mirror, it’s time to get it onscreen and focus up. Connect the camera’s USB cable to the PC, light off FireCapture, and have a look. For this discussion, we’ll assume you are using the new beta of FireCapture, version 2.4.05. There is really no reason not to, and I find its menus easier to navigate than those of the earlier release. It also does some things the old one doesn't, like automatically detecting your camera. I also achieved a somewhat higher frame rate (in ROI mode) with it with my ZWO ASI120MC than I did with the old version.
After FireCapture finds your camera you should see an image on the preview screen immediately. If not? If you don’t even see a bright blob? First off, check the frame size. You don’t want ROI mode when focusing and framing. Select Max (resolution) at the top of the control pane. You’ll see a bubble for 16-bit in the same area. Make sure it is unchecked. You don’t need it and it just slows things down.
Still no Jupiter? Make sure you haven't, as I almost always do, forgotten to flip the flip mirror up to send images to the camera. Chances are, however, that you’ll find that even with a flipper, aiming ain't a piece of cake. On my last evening out, I had a hard time getting Jupe on the display. This was one of the first times I used the new FireCapture. Had I set it up wrong?
Nope. The reason was simpler. I needed to adjust my flip mirror. Over the years, it’s gotten to the point where what’s in the center of the crosshairs is no longer in the cam. It does NOT take much misalignment of the mirror to do that. I found I had to offset Jupe between the center and the field edge for it to be onscreen. Like most flippers, my mirror is adjustable and I need to tune it up (someday). If you’re still having trouble despite testing the aim of the flipper (the Moon is good for doing that if it's out), check your exposure. Set the gain slider to about 75%, and increase the exposure time of the camera and see if anything appears.
Next up is focus. Remember how I told you you really want motorized focusing for planetary work? The reason will be obvious now. If you have moto-focus, focusing will be quick and you won’t mind refocusing as the evening proceeds. If you ain't got it, focusing will be a pain, even if your scope is close enough to the monitor that you can focus while watching the image. Touching the telescope's focus knob will make the planet move unless you've got a big honking A-P mount or something like that.
How about exposure? You need that right to be able to focus successfully. Set the gain to 60 – 70% (too low gain can produce odd artifacts in planetary images), and adjust the exposure until the histogram meter on the bottom of the preview display peaks at about 60%. Another way of saying that is to say you should adjust exposure time till the image looks just right and then shorten it until the planet looks slightly too dim (never overexpose).
If you have an SCT, you’ll be happy you've set your camera’s resolution to Max for focusing/framing. Even with an SCT with minimal focus shift, focusing will still likely cause Jupiter—that’s what I imaged on this night, and I’ll assume that’s what you’re after right now, too—to move all the way across the frame. My old Ultima 8, Celeste, has an average amount of focus shift, so while Jupiter moved from one side of the field to the other, it never quite went off screen, luckily.
When focus is as good as you can get it—under even poor seeing you should see cloud bands—center the planet up. Use your hand control to put the planet as close to the middle of the frame as possible. Then, if you are going to use ROI, switch to that and do final centering. It’s now time to fire off a sequence.
How long should these movie (.avi) sequences be? Even a 30-second ROI of Jupiter at 50fps plus will produce well over 100 megabytes of data, so be mindful of your hard drive size. I usually find 30-45 seconds of .avi will result in enough good frames for me to work with. When you are ready, click the “record” (blue arrow) button on the capture section of the control pane. Your .avi recording will begin. You can either set it for a max limit (typically 30-seconds for me) in the Capture section, or just watch the time displayed and hit the stop button when you've got as much as you want.
How many .avi captures should you do? As many as it takes. I generally try to do more rather than less, spacing them out across the duration of the evening in hopes of catching good seeing. You should be able to tell when the seeing improves dramatically by looking at the preview image and hitting “Record” immediately, but it’s not always obvious when it improves slightly, so take plenty of .avis.
When you've got what you think you need, throw the big switch, head inside, pour yourself a glass of whatever tickles you, and turn on the tube or spend some time with your loved one (mucho better). The one thing you don’t want to do with your pictures the night you take ‘em is process ‘em. Or even look at them. Trust me, they won’t look good no matter how good they really are, and no matter how bad they really are, they will still look much better in the morning.
OK, it’s morning. Birds are chirping, the Sun is shining, and you are ready to begin processing your images. The first step, assuming you use a one-shot color camera like I usually do, is what I nostalgically call, “developing the pictures.” It is really nothing like putting negatives in soup, but, like developing film, it is the preliminary step you must take before you do anything else. The real name for this first step is “debayering.”
Color cameras work by exposing pixels through a matrix of red, green, and blue filters on the chip. Look at the raw images from your color camera and you won’t see any color at all. Just a black and white picture that looks strangely pixilated; it will have what appears to be a grid pattern—and that is exactly what is going on. To get color, software combines a matrix, a grid, of color filtered pixels. Three filtered pixels, red, green, and blue, make a final color pixel. The result is normal looking color images. All one shot color cameras of all kinds work basically the same way. Naturally, if you are using a monochrome camera, you don't have to debayer.
Actually, you could skip this step even with a color camera. FireCapture and some other image acquisition programs will debayer on the fly. They will convert raw images to color before they are saved on the hard drive. That's not usually a good idea, however. What we want more than anything else when we are recording planetary .avi movies is lots of frames, a high frame rate. Debayering in real time will inevitably slow the camera down.
So, exactly how do you "develop" pictures? With FireCapture, you use a little utility that comes with the program, Debayer. You’ll use it frequently, so find this application in the directory where FireCapture resides and put a shortcut to it on your desktop. The rest is simple: start it, click “Open AVIs,” and select your image files. Normally, you’ll select multiple image files (shift-click in the file window) and let the utility debayer all your sequences at once. You can choose the type of debayering process, but I find the default, “bilinear,” works fine. Click “Start” and the program will begin its work.
When all your files have been processed, you’ll find debayered copies of them in the same directory as the undebayered ones. The new .avis will have the original file names, but “bilinear” will have been appended to them (assuming that was the process you used). If hard drive space is an issue, you can now delete the non-debayered files.
Time to stack. What exactly does that mean? What you have on your hard drive are movies, .avi movies, videos, but what you want are high resolution stills. The way to get those is with a program that will select the best frames of your video and stack them. It’s easy to understand why it is good to select the best frames, those taken in the best seeing, but why stack them?
Stacking does one thing for you: it reduces noise. Not only does that mean the finished still image looks smoother, it means it is easier and more practical to apply sharpening tools. Try to sharpen a noisy frame and you sharpen the noise too, making it more prominent and making the image look worse rather than better.
If you, as most planetary imagers are, running Windows on a PC or on a Mac by means of emulator software like Bootcamp, you have two major choices of stacking program today, the venerable Registax and a newcomer, AutoStakkert. As I said in Part 1, Registax still does a good job, but I must admit AutoStakkert is at least somewhat better. It is, like Registax, freeware and is no more difficult to use, so there is no reason not to use AutoStakkert.
Also like Registax, AutoStakkert has many settings and adjustments that can be used to improve your results once you've gained some experience with the program. The nice thing, though, is that both programs can produce impressive results with a few simple settings and/or just leaving (most) controls at their defaults. Which is what we are going to do this time out—keep it simple.
Execute AutoStakkert (download the latest Beta, 220.127.116.11; it is more than ready for primetime). When it comes up, you’ll find two windows on your desktop as shown above. Step one is, natch, to press the Open button in the left window and open your .avi file. Make sure you choose the debayered version, of course.
When your file is loaded, you’ll find one of its frames displayed in the preview window (right). It won’t look like much; it will be both fuzzy and noisy. Don’t worry; we are going to cure that now. Immediately below the Open button is the Stabilization control area. Here, select either Planet or Surface. The latter is used if you are processing an .avi of the lunar or Solar surface. Since I presume you've, like me, been shooting Jupe, select Planet.
Now, click the Analyse button. AutoStakkert will think for a while, but only for about 15-seconds unless you have a very large video file. When it is done, direct your attention to the right pane, the image pane. You need to do two things here. The first is to specify how many alignment points (to keep frames properly aligned during stacking) you want on your image. I find that for a high resolution planetary image, “50” is good. So, tick “50” in the “Auto AP” area of the frame.
Next, push the “Place APs in Grid” button just below. Alignment points (red points inside boxes) will be automatically positioned. You can place APs manually or delete or add points after placing them automatically. Some folks tell you to delete alignment points near the edge of the disk, but I haven't found this to make a difference.
Almost done. Go back to the left window, to the Stack Options area on the upper right, and tick “TIF.” That will cause your stacked image to be saved as a .tif file, which is normally the best option. And that is it. Just push the “Stack” button at the bottom of the window and let the program do its thing. In about one minute, depending on the horsepower of your PC and the size of the .avi file, AutoStakkert will finish and will have written a .tif file of Jupiter to a new subfolder labeled “AS” in the folder in which your original .avis were located.
If you were to open your stacked .tif file with Photoshop (or your image processing program of choice) now, you’d be somewhat impressed, but not blown away. The picture would look a lot smoother, and noticeably less noisy, but it would still be awfully soft. The way to fix that is with Registax 6. While AutoStakkert does a fine job of stacking, it lacks Registax's famous “Wavelet” sharpening tools.
Run Registax 6, and, when it comes up, click Select (upper left) to select and load the .tif file that AutoStakkert produced. When your picture loads, Registax may ask if it should stretch intensity levels. Say “yes.” Now, choose the Wavelet tab. What will appear on the left is a series of sliders and some selection bubbles. First choice is Wavelets Scheme, Dyadic or Linear. The former seems to give each Wavelet slider more power and range, and is what I choose most of the time.
Below “Scheme” is Wavelet Filter. You can choose Default or Gaussian. In most instances, I find “Default” works best with the planets while Gaussian is a little better on the Moon. If you choose the latter, you’ll find you can specify Denoise and Sharpen percentages for each slider. I generally set Denoise to about 10 and sharpen to 100 for each slider, but you may want to experiment with that.
|Final tweaks in Photoshop...|
Now you can began tweaking the sliders till your image looks good. In Dyadic mode, you will usually only have to adjust the top three. Remember, exercise a light touch; you want detail and sharpness, but you also want Jupiter to look normal. Think of the pictures you've seen by masters Damian Peach and Chris Go. You want your pix to look as much like that as possible. Oh, the top slider works on the smallest detail and each succeeding one affects larger and larger features.
When you are satisfied, click the Do All button and then Save Image. While Registax has plenty of other good processing tools to adjust the histogram of your image and do other things, I find I am more comfortable using an outboard program like Adobe Photoshop or LightRoom. Just about any image processing program will work, since all you’ll likely need to do with the Registax output is tweak brightness and contrast and do some cropping.
So, what do you think? Yes, I know that while you have striven to make your shot look like something done by Mr. Peach, it’s unlikely it will—mine sure don't. Still, I think you’ll have to admit that what you wound up with ain't bad. And your images will just get better, muchachos. Better seeing, better focus, most of all, more experience doing this will all help. The only secret to planetary imaging these days, other than good seeing, is PRACTICE, and I am betting your first pix have you excited enough to ensure you do plenty of that.