Sunday, October 25, 2015


Peachy State

I go to a lot of star parties, but, unfortunately, I don’t get to observe at a lot of star parties. I’m usually flown in to be a speaker and am scopeless, having to content myself with looks through my small binoculars and through the telescopes of kind folks on the observing field. I sometimes feel like a kid with his nose pressed up against the candy store window without a dime in his pocket.

This year’s Peach State Star Gaze would be different. I’d be their speaker, but the event, which is held at the Deerlick Astronomy Village about 100 miles east of Atlanta, was close enough that I could drive and could bring along a truck full of observing gear.  No more squinting through binoculars; I’d have my C8 or C11 with me. I’d even, I hoped, be able to get some DSLR images for a magazine article I’m writing.

Peach State would be both an old and a new star party for me. I’d done PSSG several times years and years ago, but those were at its old sites. The first two years, at the original location near Jackson, Georgia, just south of Atlanta and well into the outskirts of that megalopolis’ light dome. Yeah, there was light pollution, but I loved the facilities at Indian Springs State Park, which included decent cabins and dorms and a large meeting/dining hall. The event was also close to amenities like restaurants, including the famous Fresh Air Barbecue.

Alas, only fair skies and a field that was bursting at the seams with observers not only from the big Atlanta Astronomy Club but from points north, south, east, and west meant that by 2002 the organizers decided Jackson outlived its usefulness as the PSSG venue .

So, in ‘02, the event moved to Copperhill, Tennessee. That was a long drive for me, but PSSG had become my spring star party. I had tried the Mid-South Star Gaze in Mississippi a couple of times, but for several reasons that hadn’t worked out. This was before I was introduced to the joys of observing down Chiefland Way at the Chiefland Astronomy Village. If I wanted to observe under dark skies in the spring, PSSG was still my best bet, even in Tennessee.

I gave the “new” Peach State a chance; I really did. Once. Not only was the drive a long one, the skies at the new location, Whitewater Express, a private resort/camp, were not great, with a light dome from Chattanooga obvious. The cabins and other facilities were also rudimentary at best. Some time later, I heard PSSG was moving again, to the private astronomy development of Deerlick Astronomy Village, “DAV” (much like the CAV), which would be considerably closer for me. For one reason or another, however, I never got around to giving the event a try at its new location.

Flash-forward to December 2013 when the good folk of the Atlanta Astronomy Club had me up to give a presentation at their annual Christmas dinner. Dorothy and I had a good time, and when one of the club officers inquired as to whether I might be interested in doing PSSG as their speaker the following year, I replied, “Coitainly.” Unfortunately, a booking conflict prevented me from doing the event in 2014, and it began to seem as if I’d never get back to Peach State.

Until I got an email from the AAC’s Peter Macumber this past summer concerning  my availability for the 2015 event. I told him my schedule was still open for the PSSG dates, that I’d be happy to speak at the event, and was, in fact, looking forward to trying out the skies of the DAV.

Once the die was cast that I’d go, it hardly seemed any time at all before summer was dead and it was time to get ready for PSSG, which would be the first event of the year’s fall star party season for me. First question I had was “accommodations.” A check with the organizers and a look at their website and that of the DAV revealed that would potentially be a problem. Normally, I’d have specified that the star party organizers would have to put me in a motel, since there are no cabins on the site, but with no hostelry closer than about 20-miles that I could find, it appeared I’d be camping.

Camping, huh? I was sanguine enough about tent camping to purchase a tent and the other requisite gear last winter. I had the best of intentions of saving the money I’d otherwise spend on the substandard motels of Chiefland, Florida. Tent camping in a good tent wouldn’t be bad, would it? Well, one night was OK last February, but only one. That night coincided with some of the coldest weather in Florida in years. I moved to a motel on the second morning of my stay, and when I couldn’t get a room for the following evening, I packed up and went home. Yes, I was an astro-wimp.

I hoped the story would be a better one this time. While the temperatures in Georgia would be slightly chilly, in the 50s the weathermen believed, I thought that would be bearable with the aid of an electric heater in the tent. At any rate, I didn’t see an alternative if I wanted to do PSSG. There had been some talk about putting me up in the home of a DAV resident, but since I didn’t hear any more about that as the event approached, I assumed it had turned out not to be an option.

Anyhow, on the appointed morning, Thursday, 15 October, I said my goodbyes to Dorothy—this would be a solo mission—and headed up I-65. What was in the back of my 4Runner, Miss Van Pelt? The goal was DSLR imaging , so I’d packed two scopes most appropriate for that, my Edge 800 Schmidt Cassegrain, Mrs. Emma Peel, and my Megrez II fluorite refractor, Veronica Lodge. The mount? My time honored Atlas for a couple of reasons. Looking at the weather forecasts (which were now, drat it, showing lows into the 40s), it appeared there was the possibility of some wind and I thought the Atlas would be better in those conditions than the VX.

I would have chosen my new CGEM over the Atlas, I suppose, but I don’t have Losmandy D dovetails on either the refractor or the SCT yet. One more reason? I will soon put the requisite dovetails (or adapters) on the two shortly, and the eight year old Atlas will probably be going into mothballs. I might even sell it. In the event I decide to sell it, I thought it would be wise to give the mount a completely clean bill of health. It had cooperated well in the backyard, but there’s nothing like a three day star party to expose gremlins.

Three days? Why only three days? I could have been onsite the previous Sunday, but I wasn’t at all sure I wanted to live in a tent that long. I can stand almost anything for three days. A week, though? Not so much. I believed three days would be sufficient to get the one image I really wanted, a good shot of the Triangulum Galaxy, M33.

The trip up I-65, as I’ve commented before, is an excruciatingly boring one. It’s enlivened only by a stop at the good old Stuckey’s just outside Montgomery. Unfortunately and inexplicably, the joint was locked up tighter than a drum at 9:30 on Thursday morning. Out of business? I couldn’t tell. Peering in the window, everything appeared normal (it was in fact open when I stopped on my way home Sunday). I decided this was, perhaps, a good thing anyway, as I’d have been tempted to order a fried chicken biscuit from the Dairy Queen side of the house, and I really have had to give up that sort of thing.

Onward to Montgomery, over to I-85, and into Georgia for the run to Atlanta. Based on past experience, I was a little apprehensive about negotiating the Atlanta Bypass, I-285, and getting on I-20 successfully, but GPS made it easy. Shortly, I was pointed in the direction of Augusta, towards the exit that would lead me to the tiny town of Sharon, Georgia, the nearest settlement to the Deerlick Astronomy Village.

While my GPS receiver didn’t know anything about DAV, the GPS app on my iPhone actually did. I planned to switch to the smart phone once I neared the site, but it turned out I didn’t need to. I had a print out of the excellent driving instructions from the star party’s website, and those were more than sufficient to get me from the Sharon exit to the DAV. In just a few minutes—the venue is nice and close to the Interstate—I was rolling onto the PSSG observing field.

One thing I appreciated was that everything was well-marked with signs. I knew where to park and where to go to register. This is most assuredly a practice I wish more star parties would adopt. Not everybody is an old timer at your event, and there’s no excuse for leaving newbies wondering “Where do I go?”

Thanks to the signage, I was shortly walking into the odd little cabin/chickie/hut used for registration (I believe it is a warm room the other 51 weeks of the year), and meeting the kind and friendly people of PSSG including Peter Macumber, my contact. Registration packet in hand, I set out to find a place to set up that had access to an electrical outlet. Which turned out not to be so easy. The star party had been going on for five days, and most of the plugs were spoken for. I finally found a spot that I thought might work, but just as I was preparing to unload, who should appear but my old friend, fellow astronomy writer, and deep sky observer extraordinaire, Rich Jakiel.

Rich’s opinion was that I could do better than camping. He was staying in the DAV home of a friend and another acquaintance of mine, Dan Llewellyn, and said he thought it likely that Dan would be happy to put me up for a few days. That was indeed the case, and I was soon moving my gear into a real bedroom (my customary travelling companion, The Dark Knight, a suspicious sort, had to admit things had worked out nicely). In addition to Dan and Rich, Alan Coffelt, another familiar face was spending the star party at Dan’s. Apparently the “Three Stooges,” as they call themselves, had been having a rip-roaring time imaging from Dan’s driveway, and I was happy to join them.

While I’d miss being on the star party field a few hundred meters away, I thought it was really for the best. I wouldn’t be bothering visual observers with my laptop and the nature of modern imaging is such that I knew I’d be able to start a sequence and leave the computer and camera to do their work without worrying about them while I toured the star party field.

Settled in a comfortable room of Dan’s comfortable digs, next up was telescope set up. Not having to deal with a tent or even an EZ-Up canopy made things a lot simpler. Which was good, since daylight was fading fast. DAV is far west in its time zone, so it takes a while for astronomical twilight to arrive, but there is no doubt the days are waning now, and I had no time to lose. First up on Thursday evening would be the Edge 800, Mrs. Peel. I’d do my narrow field on this evening and my wide field on Friday and/or Saturday, I thought, depending on how things went. The scope, computer, and camera were shortly ready to go.

Only minor problem? Since I’d planned to tent-camp, I hadn’t segregated the astronomy and camping gear. In order to get at the scope and mount out of the 4Runner, I had to remove the EZ-Up, the tent, and all the other camping stuff from the vehicle. Not a big deal, however, and certainly easier than setting up the big Coleman tent and tent canopy would have been.

After spending some time shooting the breeze about astronomy with the Stooges, I thought I’d check out Mickey’s Kitchen, who was doing food service for the event. I’ve dined with them before, and knew I could expect above average star party fare. And that was indeed the case. Sausage, potatoes au gratin, and a big cup of iced tea and I was happy.

The preliminaries out of the way, it was time for the star party main course, OBSERVING, or, in my case, imaging with my Canon 400D and C8. The first night rarely goes as well as I hope. I’m tired after setup, tend to take shortcuts, and usually don’t get much in the way of results on the first evening. So it was on this night. Oh, my photos were OK, but not great. The guiding was sufficient but not perfect.

At first I thought my problem was the new version of PHD guiding, which I’d only used a time or two previously, but monkeying with its settings didn’t help. In fact, it made my guiding worse. Luckily, I finally had the sense to stop fooling around and be satisfied with “good enough” guiding. That was wise since I’d discover on the following evening that my problems had nothing at all to do with PHD2.

I then just let the scope do its thing. While I’d had every intention of walking down to the star party field, I had to admit I was too tired for that. Instead, I spent the remaining hours of Thursday evening watching Rich, Alan, and Dan image and occasionally checking on my scope/camera/computer. I was especially interested in what Dan was doing with his C14 and Sony A7S camera.

If you haven’t heard much about the A7S as an astrophotography tool, believe me, you soon will. Its amazingly noise free HIGH ISO images are astounding. I watched Dan pull in a perfectly exposed image of dim NGC 6888, the dim Crescent Nebula in Cygnus, in just 30-seconds. No fooling, and no guiding required.

After watching the Sony magic for a while, and completing the last subframes of my M15 sequence, I decided to take a break and retired inside to watch Dan’s big projection TV for a while. As you might guess, sitting on the couch watching an old movie (that is how you star party) led to my eyes closing and me dozing. Fortunately, I eventually roused myself and got back outside to shut down scope and computer and cover the C8 with her Desert Storm cover. That was the extent of my first night.

Daytime at a star party can be a challenge for me. Those hours until darkness just seem to stretch on forever. This Friday at this star party wasn’t bad in that regard, however. It helps a lot when you’ve got wi-fi, a big screen TV, and a comfy couch to sit on and can read yourself into a doze to while away the afternoon. Not that I didn’t spend some time cruising the PSSG field and looking at the many telescopes assembled there.

What was my takeaway from my tour of the field? Imaging is big again. It seemed as if every other set up included either an EQ-6 or CGEM. The telescopes riding on those mounts were a diverse lot, but refractors predominated. Also, it seemed as if a lot of the observers were following my precepts, seeing what they could do with lower tier/mid-level gear. While there were some AP and Bisque mounts and AP and Tak, OTAs in evidence, they were much outnumbered by the aforementioned Synta mounts and Explore Scientific and SkyWatcher OTAs. The cameras? There were genu-wine CCDs, but most people, like me, were using Canon DSLRs. The software being used for image acquisition was more or less evenly split between Backyard EOS and Nebulosity.

Didn’t I see anything new? Not really. Well, there were a couple of mounts that were new to me. Most interesting, I suppose, was the iOptron CEM60. It is much more impressive in person than in pictures, and if my CGEM ever self-immolated, I would certainly consider one. Likewise, the 60’s sister mount, the iEQ45, was more imposing than I thought it would be. On the bargain side, there was the Bresser EXOS-2 goto GEM, the second coming of the Meade LXD75.

I don’t mean that the EXOS just looks like the 75, it basically is the 75. It is made by the owner of Explore Scientific, JOC of Mainland China, who made the LXD75 for Meade. At a price of $579.99 brand new with an upgraded hand controller, I’d advise anyone in need of a goto GEM in the CG5 class to consider it. Its owner seemed pleased with its performance, and while I hear the firmware still needs a little work, it’s a heck of a lot for little money and might be just the thing for a cash strapped beginning imager.

After a visit to Mickey’s for a plate of excellent pot roast and more (unsweetened) tea, it was back to Dan’s to prepare for another night. The main task was to change out the OTA on the Atlas. Back in her case went the Edge 800, Emma, and out of her case came the Megrez II, Veronica. You wouldn’t think that would take long to do, but after rebalancing, remounting the guide scope, attaching the dew heaters, etc., etc., it was beginning to get seriously dark.

The goal on this evening was to finally, after all these years, get a convincingly good image of M33, a.k.a. “The Triangulum Galaxy,” a.k.a. “The Pinwheel Galaxy.” I’ve been trying for this one since the film days, but my attempts had never really coincided with clear, dark skies and a short enough focal length to correctly frame the big thing well. I hoped this night would be different.

I was a little concerned about the guiding problems I’d had the previous evening, but the solution soon became evident. Looking at the PHD2 video display with fresher, less blurry eyes than on the first night revealed my 50mm guide scope was badly out of focus. I tightened that up, calibrated PHD2, and good guiding quality immediately returned.

What did I do for the two hours required to get the sub-frames for the galaxy image (added to the hour I spent getting set up)? Hung out with my mates, talked with the two young women from CNN who were doing a report on amateur astronomy and had paid us a visit. Wandered inside to look at the TV. “Rested my eyes now and then.”

Finally, the laptop emitted the little fanfare that means “I am done, Rod.” How well done? I knew I was on the right track as the subs were being taken—after this many years I can tell if the raw images appearing on my monitor are going to make the grade. Indeed, the next morning, I did a quick processing job on the pictures and was very pleased. Processing was easy, as it always is when you’ve got properly exposed subs from a dark, clear sky, and while I’ll let you judge, I was pretty thrilled with the finished product.

It was hard to believe Saturday was here and it was time for my presentation, but it was. My talk was “Amateur Astronomy the Old Fashioned Way,” my paen to visual observing, and I’m happy to say it was very well received. While this was only the third time I’ve given this one, I’m beginning to hit my stride with it I think. One thing that helped was that it provided a good contrast with other presentations this year, which tended to concern imaging and be tech heavy. More than a few amateurs still like to do their observing the old fashioned way with eye and eyepiece.

Saturday was also decision time. The trip back to Mobile would not be punishing, but at just over seven hours, it wouldn’t be short. I had stacks of papers to grade for my Monday classes, and I really wanted to get away as early as possible Sunday morning. At first light if possible.

I decided I just had to pack up the scopes Saturday afternoon. Hated to do it, but I’d gotten (I thought) outstanding images of M33 and of M15, and that was exactly what I’d had on my agenda. Not observing with my own scopes Saturday night would also allow me to spend an evening on the PSSG field visiting my fellow amateur astronomers. Finally, the weather, which had been a little damp but dead clear the past two evenings, was looking like it would not be as good Saturday with some clouds on the way.

The clouds that drifted through occasionally didn’t help imagers, but really didn’t hinder the visual folks out on the field much at first. Rich, me, and Rich’s wife, Sharon, who’d arrived earlier in the day bearing the makings for a wonderful dinner for our little group, hiked out to the field and spent quite some time with friendly Dob mavens looking at a variety of objects. Eventually, however, the clouds began to intrude, even for visual, and the temperatures to drop (into the mid 40s), and we headed back to Dan’s. I spent the balance of the night watching Svengoolie, who was showing an old favorite, The Cat and the Canary, just making it to the end of the film before it was off to dreamland for me.

Next morning, just after first light, I said my goodbyes and hit the road with mixed emotions. I’d had a great time, sure, but if I’d known it was going to be this good, I’d darned sure have come up earlier. That’s just the way it goes in the amateur astronomy game, though, and I have some hopes of making it back to this great American star party again before another 13 years elapse.

Nota bene:  You can see a whole album of PSSG 2015 pictures on my Facebook page...

Sunday, October 18, 2015


PSSG 2015

Everybody's having a great time at the 2015 Peach State Star Gaze. Wish you were here! Look for a full report next week...

Sunday, October 11, 2015


I’m Going to a Star Party

I’m going to a star party,
Baby do you wanna go?
I’m going to a star party,
Baby do you wanna go?
If you can’t make it, baby,
Your sister Lucille says she wants to go,
And I sure will take her…

It is now fall star party season, and if you are a novice, at least as far as attending big, organized amateur events, you may be puzzled. Maybe a little apprehensive. Perhaps even scared. What do you take with you? How do you set up? This is ground we’ve covered here before, but it’s been a while, and my thoughts on the subject continue to evolve even after my years and years of star party attendance.

What to Bring?

Let’s begin with the most important thing, a CHECKLIST. Do you know The Eyepiece Guy? That legendary amateur astronomer, always the friend of a friend in the club in the next city over, who travels all the way to the Texas Star Party without his eyepieces? You don’t want to be that guy. He might be real, or he might just be the stuff of cautionary tales, but it could happen. Spend some time making up a checklist so you don’t have to be him. As you are packing your vehicle, actually check stuff off your checklist afterand only afterit is in the car.


Which brings us to “Which telescope?” A telescope isn’t all you’ll need, of course, but it is sorta the most important thing if you, unlike a few folks I encounter at star parties, actually intend to observe, not just hobnob with your fellow astronomers. Anyhow, the answer to this one is pretty simple: a telescope that will be effective for the sort of observing you plan to do.

If you think you want to hunt galaxy groups, don’t convince yourself your 4-inch C102 refractor will be adequate for the task because the skies will be so much better than at home. At a star party you can leave a telescope set up on the field for the whole event, no need to worry about hauling it back in the house when you are done, so use the biggest gun you’ve got if that fits in with your observing program.

Just don’t let that telescope be a new telescope unless it’s a simple new telescope like a Dobsonian or a refractor on an unpowered alt-az mount. Most of the amateurs I see having gear trouble at star parties are those with complicated new scopes/mounts: “I didn’t get a chance to use it after it came; I figured I’d check it out when we got here.” Uh-uh. Combine an unfamiliar scope with the excitement and potential stress of a big star party and the result can be frustration and wasted hours under the stars.

“Telescope”? Just one? Should you do telescopes instead? I’ve occasionally brought more than one instrument to an event. Usually a wide field refractor piggybacked on my SCT or a small standalone wide-field like the StarBlast. I’ve actually even used these instruments, since they provide different capabilities than my CATs or my 12-inch Dobsonian. The times I’ve taken a second telescope that didn’t do as good a job of of that, of supplementing the main rig, the secondary telescope has sat unused for the whole event.


Take what you will need and use, nothing more. If you haven’t used your binoviewer in ten years, I think you can safely leave it at home. If you’re not sure what all you need, I strongly suggest you conduct a backyard observing run viewing the same sorts of objects you plan to observe at the star party. Even if you can’t see them very well from the back forty, this should give you an idea of the specific gear you need…eyepieces…adapters…diagonals…etc., etc.

Before leaving home, double-check your accessory box (I use a big Plano fishing tackle box despite not knowing a spinning reel from a purple worm) to make sure all the items you’ll need are in it. I tend to use things at home in the backyard and then fail to put them back in the Plano. Triple check. Leave your red flashlight behind? A vendor at the star party can help you. Forget the SCT’s visual back? Might not be quite as easy to find one on the dealers’ tables (if there are dealers; they are becoming an endangered species at star parties). The IR filter you use in your camera? Uh-oh.


Certainly you should take along plenty of Ds, Cs, AAs, and AAAs for whatever you have in your inventory that might need them, but I am specifically talking about 12-volt batteries to run telescopes, cameras, computers, and dew heaters. Yes, most star parties have some 120-volt AC available (don’t forget to take your extension cords and power strips), and if it is available I will run all my gear on it, but don’t expect it to be available. Sometimes there aren’t enough outlets for everybody, and if you are not among the first folks on the field you will get caught out. Take batteries (and chargers) sufficient to run everything and plan to run off batteries.

Ancillary Items

These are things that are not quite astronomy-gear per-se, not telescopes or eyepieces or cameras, but which are still vital to your observing. An observing chair is at the top of the list. At a star party, you’ll hopefully be observing for longer stretches than you do in the backyard or at the club site, and you want to be comfortable so you can put in some hours. You’ll also need an observing table, something for your eyepiece case, laptop, and charts. There are plenty of good, lightweight camping tables. Don’t scrimp on quality or size. You’ll also want something to sit on in the daytime. I favor inexpensive canvas folding camp chairs; you know, the ones that come in the nylon bags. Finally, and a biggie, is an EZ-Up, a tent canopy. That will keep the Sun off your head in the daytime and the dew off your head at night when you are not at the eyepiece. Ease of set up is a must, with the original EZ-Up brand and the Coleman canopies being at the top of my list in that regard.


Most of us use computerized charts even if we don’t run the telescope with a computer. The laptop will also provide you with entertainment during the day or on (horrors) cloudy nights. You can watch DVD movies with it and even check up on Facebook on those blasted punk evenings if the star party site has wi-fi. As with the scope, plan on running the PC on batteries. The built in battery will not be enough, so pack a 12-volt battery and an inverter just for the lappie.

Camping Gear

Before enumerating what you’ll need here, let’s discuss the larger question “To tent camp or not to tent camp?” For the longest time, I eschewed tents. If there was even a 3rd class motel nearby, I’d stay in that motel. I'll still opt for a motel room if there’s a reasonably nice hostelry close at hand like a Holiday Inn Express or a Best Western. I have gotten tired of the el cheapos, though—the Days Inns and the Quality Inns and their brethren. I now find I prefer a tent to spending 100 bucks a night and wondering whether the bedbugs will bite.

There is a third path, of course, star party cabins. Whether that is a better option for you than a tent depends on the star party. A tent is better than a bug infested chickie cabin, but there are events with not just bearable but excellent housing. Again, it depends on the star party in question. Ask around at the club and online as to the quality of the event’s accommodations and judge whether they are superior to a tent for the price.

I prefer a tent sometimes, yeah, but it has to be the right tent. The right tent really has one major attribute as far as I’m concerned:  you can stand up in it. If you can’t, you’ll get awfully tired of it in a hurry, I’ve found. Whether changing clothes or just arranging the stuff under the canvas, you need to be able to stand up to do those things comfortably. For sure, get a bigger tent than you think you will need. For one or two people, a five or six person tent, at a minimum, is good. Oh, you might be able to make do with a pup tent for a night or two, but you won’t be very happy with it.

Almost as important as size is ease of set up. Remember, the tent will be but one element of your field setup along with the EZ-Up, the telescope, the observing table, etc., etc., etc. You want a tent that’s easy to pitch, even if you haven’t done it in a while. Especially if, like me, you occasionally arrive on an observing field as the Sun is beginning to sink. Luckily, there's no shortage of easy to pitch tent models these days and that doesn’t have to compromise their size or other features.

Which particular tent or at least tent brand? You certainly don’t want to lowball it as low as you can go. BUT…you don’t have to spend for a tent suitable for an Everest expedition either. If you’re like me, you’ll probably use the tent two or three times a year at most, and something in the 150 – 200 dollar range is more than adequate. Which brand specifically? What still does it for me is good, old Coleman, and particularly their “Instant” series. While getting my Coleman up isn’t exactly instant, it’s easy enough, especially considering that it is a large cabin tent. At 150 bucks at Wally-World, one trip's use in lieu of a Days Inn room more than paid for it.

What goes in the tent? Most of all, a sleeping bag. The main consideration here is one that is warm enough, but not too warm. It’s not a bad idea to have a couple of bags, one for spring/summer and one for fall/winter. Check the forecast and use the one that is appropriate for the temperatures you will face. Since, as with tents, it’s not necessary to buy one suitable for wilderness expeditions, you can afford two without skimping too much on quality.

More important than the bag you choose, really, is what you put it on. What do you not put it on? The floor of the tent. Even with a pad, and even if you are young and hearty, the hard and cold ground will soon make you feel lousy. Much better is an air mattress—a real one, not an inflatable pool toy—but that’s still not good enough for me. I find I am more comfortable with the sleeping bag on a camp cot. I simply prefer being elevated off the ground. Cots that fold up and take up little room in your vehicle are plentiful and cheap.

At the far end of star party season as December comes in, it’s possible you’ll find your tent too cold. I encountered that in Florida, believe it or not, last winter. The solution is a heater for the tent. You have to be careful, of course; you don’t want the tent (and you) to go down in flames. There are two alternatives. A catalytic heater or an electric heater. Catalytic heaters, which run on the little Coleman propane bottles, don’t have open flames so they are safe as far as fire goes. They do consume oxygen, however, so you need to have some ventilation. Many of the recent models will shut off or warn you if they detect a low oxygen condition.

I use a catalytic heater under the EZ-Up, a Black Cat (Coleman) heater specifically, but I tend to use an electric heater in the tent. You need to exercise caution, sure, but electric models are available that are safe. What you want is one that automatically shuts off if it is tipped over. Never place it on the floor of the tent; only on a table.  Do that and you should be good to go. If you’re in a decent sleeping bag, a little electric heater can keep you reasonably comfortable despite a tent’s lack of insulation.

If you’re going to put the heater on a table, you need a table. I’ve got a couple of the small aluminum folding jobs sold in the outdoor departments of Wal-Mart, Academy, etc., and they work well in and out of the tent for a variety of uses at star parties. 

On the Field

OK, you’ve got your gear packed with the help of your checklist and you are soon pulling onto that storied observing field. What next? Where do you set up? How do you set up?

If you arrive early, you may have your pick of field positions. If so, go for one that is, above all, level.  A scope, especially a Dobsonian, is happier on reasonably level ground, and your tent will be more comfortable if the floor is flat. Horizon? Depends on you. If I’ve got my choice of spots and one horizon is better from a particular field position than others (often because of the tree line on the edge of the field), I tend to pick a spot with a good view to the east, since it’s fun to do the "new" stuff on the rise.

So, you pick your spot and assemble the telescope, the EZ-Up, and the tent. That’s, by the way, the order in which I do things. If I am running late, especially, the telescope is the number one priority. Get that put together, and I can observe and if necessary sleep in my vehicle on the first night. How exactly do you arrange your gear on the field? However you like as long as you don’t take up more than your share of space.

At some star parties, you can have as much room as you want, but due to crowding at the more popular events, rules often restrict you. How will you know? In these cases you’ll usually find the organizers have marked off field spots in some fashion. Anyway, I like to set my tent up next to the EZ-Up and the telescope if that is permitted. Be aware that at some events a tent on the observing field is a no-no. At a few of the largest and most crowded star parties you cannot even have an EZ-Up on the field. Check the rules before you arrive.

Once set up is done, you are likely going to be feeling a bit peckish. What do you do about food? If there’s a meal plan available, I invariably sign up for it. Star party food varies in quality, naturally, but I’ve never been to an event in all my years as an amateur where the food was completely inedible. It’s also usually cheaper to do the meal plan than eat at area restaurants, if any are available. Finally, it's  fun to take your meals with your fellow amateurs. Some of my best star party memories are of fun and food with my compadres. If you want star party food, sign up in advance. Usually you can’t opt for the meal plan after you arrive (“Hmmm….the grub looks pretty good after all!”).

No meals and no restaurants? You can always cook on the field. I’ve done that a time or two, and as long as there is water available for cooking and cleaning—and it would really be a primitive affair if there weren’t—it’s not bad. There are various strategies from MREs to electric hotplates, but my advice is to just invest in a familiar Coleman camp stove.

Or not so familiar. Camp stoves are better than they used to be. Most feature electric start, and the nasty "white gas" they used to burn has been replaced by the same convenient small propane cylinders catalytic heaters use. You can get as fancy as you want, but I am good with a simple two-burner stove to heat soup, chili, and similar. I can exist on that for a few days , no problem. Back in my former life where I allowed myself to eat such things, I always had plenty of chips, cookies, etc. to supplement the canned fare. Today? Can of soup or Dinty Moore or Chef Boyardee spaghetti. Maybe a granola bar or some unsalted peanuts for late night snacking and I am happy enough. Really.

What can make you tireder in the middle of the night than you should be? Dehydration. Bring plenty of bottled water (and maybe ice and an ice chest, too, if the weather is warm) with you and drink it frequently. I also find sports drinks to be efficacious. Tea and coffee have their place, too. And I’ll still drink a (low carb) energy drink when I need a boost. What is one thing I look askance at on the field? Alcohol. It ruins your night vision, and at a few star parties I’ve attended over the years it’s caused no end of trouble thanks to a few folks who didn't know when to say when. Save the booze for after the run is finished and don't annoy your friends if you've had a snoot full.

Scope, tent, and EZ-Up are good to go. Your stomach is no longer rumbling. What’s next? You tour the field and hang out with and schmooze with your fellow amateurs. When evening comes, you observe like crazy for as long as you can go. When you are done, you cover the scope with a Desert Storm (mylar) style cover or similar scope cover, shut off the computer and whatever else you’ve got running, and head to the tent or cabin or motel. I mention this because some newbies are unsure what to do with the telescope at the end of the evening. Take it down each night just like at home and stow it in the car? That is not necessary at any star party I’ve ever attended and is one of the beauties of a multi-day event. Cover scope, go to bed, uncover scope the next night, observe again.

Finally? Your star party won’t always be perfect. You’ll usually forget something no matter how careful you are, and the scope or some other piece of gear will invariably suffer some sort of hiccup. But I think you will find that even a slightly problematic star party is way more fun than sitting home, and will furnish you with some of the best memories you’ll have in your amateur astronomy career. If this season is your first fall star party season, all I can say is, “I envy you.” In a way you don’t know what amateur astronomy is really all about until you attend your first big one. Have fun.

Sunday, October 04, 2015


Of Thises and Thats…

Rod at the PAS
It’s a mixed bag this week, friends. This is the calm before the storm, I suppose, here on the cusp of yet another fall star party season. That begins for me in a couple of weeks with the legendary Peach State Star Gaze. I’m sure looking forward to observing and speaking at that one, since I haven’t been to a PSSG in over a dozen years, not since the event was at its former home in Copperhill, Tennessee. I have high hopes for the current venue, the Deerlick Astronomy Village, which is not only much closer to me, but is, I suspect, darker than the old site was.

Next on the calendar after Peach State is our “home" star party, the Deep South Regional Stargaze, now, almost unbelievably, in its 33rd edition. Rain or shine, we return to this one every single year like swallows to Capistrano. I’ve missed exactly one Deep South since 1993, that was due to work, and I am still mad about it.

I’ll wrap things up for fall the week after DSRSG with the brand new Chiefland Star Party.  Those of you who have visited the Chiefland Astronomy Village will not be surprised to learn that the star party—which, in its renewed form is, I believe, gonna be big—is somewhat video-centric, but “video,” or maybe more properly “electronically enhanced observing,” covers a lot of territory and a lot of methods these days. Anyhow, no matter how you observe, you will be more than welcome at this new event.

But what’s going on now? This past week it was a visit to New Orleans to address the Pontchartrain Astronomical Society. I was pleased to be invited to give a talk for this fine old club, and since the drive to NOLA is an easy 2.5 hours and we’d be staying in a motel I'd passed a hundred times on my way to the Avondale Shipyards during my pre-retirement life as an engineer, I thought the trip would be “all fun, no stress.”

SP C8...
And so it was. We were picked up at the motel by PAS President (and DSRSG Managing Director) Barry Simon, taken to the venue at the University of New Orleans, and, after the meeting wound up, conveyed to the excellent Bobby Hebert’s Cajun Cannon for fun and food after. The talk? While it was a new one, “Amateur Astronomy the Old Fashioned Way,” which I’d only given once before at this year’s AHSP, it went smoothly and my audience seemed to enjoy it. All in all a great experience and one I’d be happy to repeat.

Next on my agenda, on this past Wednesday, was getting a C8 ready to sell. Why am I selling one of my beloved 8-inch SCTs? There are several reasons, personal and practical, but one important one is that I have come to hate the idea of equipment sitting around unused. This particular C8 and the CG5 mount I have it on, which I am also selling, could be making a young amateur or a cash-strapped amateur happy instead of just collecting dust sitting on the floor of my shop. I’d tested my CG5 week before last and given it a clean bill of health; now it was time to look at that old OTA.

The C8 in question came to me for basically nothing since it was a problem case. As is not  unusual for older scopes, the primary cell was loose in the corrector. So loose that it was difficult to collimate; when you tried to adjust a screw, the whole secondary rotated. If this were a Meade, it would have been easy to fix. Just remove corrector and tighten the secondary baffle, which screws onto the secondary housing and holds it in place against the corrector plate. Unfortunately, Celestron has usually glued rather than screwed the baffle in place, and that was certainly the case with this 1987 vintage OTA (originally a Super Polaris C8).

 I removed the corrector and gave the baffle an experimental twist while holding onto the secondary housing. Didn’t even begin to budge. You can read the full story here, but the gist is that I put corrector/secondary in the freezer and after several freezing/warming cycles was able to break the baffle free and re-glue it. After the repair, I used the scope to shoot some pictures of C8 disassembly for my book Choosing and Using a New CAT, and that was it for the poor old thing. I did take it to a couple of public outreach events, but I eventually put it in a case and forgot about it.

So, I resolved the C8 like the CG5 needed to go. I didn’t and don’t intend to give the pair away, but I settled on a reasonable price, if not quite as reasonable as I’d hoped. The OTA lacked the Vixen dovetail it needed for mounting on the CG5 (the original SP dovetail rig had disappeared long before the scope came to me). Unfortunately, it appeared my sources of inexpensive dovetail brackets had dried up. Best price I could get was on one from ADM for around 80 bucks shipped. But that was a good thing. Their gear is top notch and when I received the beautifully machined thing, it was the job of a mere five minutes to install it. I’ve had cheaply made dovetails that required not just furnishing my own mounting screws (everything is included with the ADM), but elongating screw holes with a drill, etc., etc.

ADM make some sweet stuff...
My backyard outing had one more purpose: I wanted to check out Synta’s latest firmware for the Atlas EQ6, v3.37. I’d loaded it up some weeks before but hadn’t had a chance to test it under the stars. I was curious to see if it would work correctly, since some users had reported serious problems when using it with early mounts (my Atlas is eight years old).

When darkness fell, I was ready to go. I’d mounted the old C8 on the Atlas earlier, and I had to admit the result looked very nice. Flipped on the mount’s power, and immediately received the double beep that spells trouble along with a warning message, “Caution, alt/dec, no response.”  Annoying, sure, but the message had no effect on operation. Either continuing past it to the setup menu with Enter, or just cycling the power got me going. I assume this minor incompatibility comes from the firmware needing to work with the newer alt/az-EQ Synscan mounts.

Anyhow, the accuracy of gotos and the built-in “AllStar” polar alignment routine was very good. It’s still wise to reject alignment stars the HC suggests that  are lower than 30-degrees, but usually just accepting those offered by the HC is now good enough. The mount reliably placed anything from one side of the sky to the other in the field of my 13mm Ethos at f/10 (156X). That is more than adequate for a mount I use only for the prime focus imaging of a few targets a night—no 100 object Mallincam runs.

The telescope? I pointed at Polaris and checked the collimation. A little out. I spent more time than I should have tweaking it in, but I haven’t done much collimating recently; my scopes just haven’t needed it. Otherwise? Despite its Halley’s Comet era vintage, the telescope presented good images. The focus is nice and easy as is the norm with Celestrons of that era, and I prefer it to the stiffer focus feel of modern OTAs. It has some other nice features, too. Its built in piggyback camera mount is cool, and the wacky flexible plastic handle actually makes it easier to mount the telescope a GEM. 

Looking good!
The excellent appearance of the large handful of DSOs I observed before mosquitoes drove me inside to view Fear the Walking Dead on on-demand almost made me reluctant to sell the old warhorse.

The next night, since the C8 and Atlas EQ6 were still set up in the backyard, I decided I might do some more short-sub imaging, but maybe kick things up a notch. Yes, you can get nice subs of brighter objects at 15 - 30-seconds, but they will never result in final pictures that look as smooth and dense as what you can get with longer sub-frames. A stack of 20 90-second shots will always beat a stack of 50 20-second ones.

The only problem there? The Atlas is a fine mount given its modest price. Its goto with the latest iteration of the SynScan firmware is, as above, quite good and its tracking is sweet for such an inexpensive GEM. Still, at a minute of exposure you will begin throwing out frames at 1300 – 1400mm of focal length. Especially if, like me, you don’t like doing drift polar alignments. Bottom line? This is the point where you gotta guide. But as I said some time back, if you keep exposure and focal length at reasonable values, guiding doesn’t have to be tough; it can actually be easy to do.

For me, "easy" is spelled “mini-guide-scope.” You know, one of Orion’s (or KW Telescope's) 50mm guide scopes, which are essentially modified finders. I intended to couple that with my good old Orion StarShoot auto-guider camera. This monochrome CMOS cam is not exactly sensitive, and it is hopeless in an off-axis-guider, but in the 50mm guidescope it does get the job done. The wide field of the 50mm guide scope means you always have several good guide star candidates in the field.

I mounted the mini-guider on the C8, my old 1995 Ultima OTA, Celeste on this evening. I changed out OTAs simply because Celeste is set up for a JMI Motofocus, which makes getting bang-on focus simple. She’s also got the requisite mounting base for the Orion mini-guider, which the SPC8 OTA does not. So, I was all set. Oughta be simple. Hah! It never is with me.

The first problem was the old (and cheap) prime focus adapter I was using. The threads were rough and coarse, and it was tough to get the camera screwed onto the 6.3 reducer corrector. In the course of trying to get the Canon tight enough so it would not rotate on its own, I managed to unthread the adapter ring that is screwed onto the end of the baffle tube on a C8. This threaded ring forms the telescope’s rear port to which you attach diagonals, visual backs, camera adapters, and everything else and is normally never, ever removed from the scope. Well, it sure was removed now, threaded up inside the reducer/corrector and absolutely impossible to unscrew from it.

What to do? Nothing for it. I shut down the mount, removed the scope from the saddle, and carried it into the Sun Room. There, by screwing the now combined reducer and the rear-port ring back onto the C8 and tightening them down like the Incredible Hulk, I was finally able to undo the reducer/corrector while leaving the adapter ring in place. To prevent a recurrence, I added a little lube to the r/c’s threads. If I have further problems with the adapter ring, I’ll apply Loctite, but I believe it is OK now. One smart thing I did the first thing the next morning was order a new SCT prime focus adapter. I do try to learn from my foul-ups.

I was now hot and bothered even in the cool October air, but I managed to get the C8 back on the Atlas and realign the mount. My problems were not quite over yet, though. In the process of getting the laptop working, I obviously did a Bad Thing. What, I don’t know exactly, but it required a reboot of the computer, which then, NATURALLY, decided it wanted to spend ten minutes updating—and I thought that was not supposed to happen with Windows 10. Sigh.

Once everything was finally squared away, I was frankly weary about ready to throw in the old towel, but I wanted to at least see how well the latest rev of the fantastic PHD2 would guide the Atlas. Where to start? The sky, which had begun the evening cloudy, cleared, clouded over again, and then cleared once more, somewhat anyway, didn’t look promising. Have to be something bright. M13 was getting low as 10 p.m. approached, but it would be good enough, I thought.

Two things that gave me no trouble on this night? PHD2 and the Atlas. I got the guide program running, clicked on one of the stars the StarShoot picked up, and PHD calibrated and just guided. As always, it simply locked on and I had no occasion to worry about trailed stars in my 90-second exposures. I settled on 90-seconds as a means of checking the guide quality of PHD, but that was actually on the long side given the light scatter from increasing haze and the presence of a rising gibbous Moon in the east.

"UFOs:  The Phenomenon"...
I could tell the subs appearing on my screen were at least OK, if not as good as the shorter ones I’d done with the C11 the week before last. The sky was just too nasty on this evening and M13 just too low. After the sequence (which I did with Nebulosity 3, natch) finished, I went on to M27, which was still good and high, and fired off twenty more 90-second subs. While they looked better than those of M13, they still weren’t much. The sky was getting worse and worse and the Moon higher and higher.

I still intended to do one more after the Dumbbell, maybe M15, but there really wasn’t much point to it. The sky had now gone south in a big way and I’d already done what I’d intended to do, further check the Atlas’ firmware and also test the new PHD release. It was, honestly, time to pull that Big Switch. I was still reluctant to do so since the sky was still semi-clear, but in the end the decision was made for me when the Canon’s battery died. I parked the Atlas and headed inside.

The next morning, I set to work on the subs. While the longer exposures made them easier to process in some ways, the gradients caused by the light pollution/haze and the Moon added to the difficulty of processing and were made worse by longer subs. As always, “TANSTAAFL.” When I finished, though, I had to admit that the results I’d got on such a punk evening were probably better I could have gotten with unguided 15 – 30-second subs under the same conditions.

Last but not least? An unvarying fixture of our autumn each year is visiting Pensacola, Florida and the Escambia Amateur Astronomers’ Association for my old friend “Doc” Clay  (Mr. Meade, Mr. LX200, Mr. Arkansas Sky Observatory) Sherrod’s annual lecture. Not only was this year's talk, "UFOs:  The Phenomenon," very interesting, it was great to spend a little time with Clay and wife Patsy. The venue at Pensacola State College was excellent, the audience enthusiastic, and the EAAA members out-of-their-way friendly to us visiting amateurs. Doesn't get much better.

And that was it...that was the week that was. How was yours?

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