Sunday, January 01, 2017

 

Issue #524: Good Riddance 2016


Hello 2017!  Just hope you are better than the monster of a year that’s just departed. Bad as it’s been for numerous reasons, li’l old optimist me at least takes comfort in—what else?—the eternal stars. Oh, they are not really eternal, but they seem so for ephemeral creatures such as ourselves. I’ve learned that when my path is dark and dim, those distant stars can illuminate it. I am comforted to look up and see the stars of Orion look just as they did when I was a boy.

Anyhoo, in lieu of the next Messier column, which will come next week, I give you my yearly summary. Reading back over all these articles, what was the main thread this past annum? If I had to sum up my astronomical year in a few words? I guess it would be “the year of the refractor.”

January 2016


If you were reading the blog in 2015, you probably noticed, maybe even with dismay, my gradual transition to refractors, which was presaged by the beginning of a series of articles called “The Refractor Way.” If those had paved the way, this one cemented things. This entry recounts the arrival of my SkyWatcher Pro ED 120.

It was one heck of a big change. The telescope I sold to finance the new refractor was my time-honored Dobsonian, Old Betsy, who had been with me for over 20 years, the peak years of my amateur astronomy career. Everything turned out OK, though. While I sometimes still miss Betsy, I wasn’t using her, and her replacement, Hermione Granger, is good at so many things, including visual observing, where she competes well with a C8. It was indeed the beginning of a beautiful friendship.


You must have been living under a rock if you haven’t been aware of how big an effect smartphones and tablets have had on amateur astronomy. The astronomy apps we’ve got now, like SkySafari, are incredibly powerful. At the time this article came out, I hadn’t yet tried interfacing scope + phone, but even without that, the utility of smart devices for our avocation was more than obvious. Last nail in the coffin of print star atlases? Maybe.


The next two articles in my refractor manifesto concerned a big dream of mine (regarding amateur astronomy, anyway). I’d wanted that holy grail, the 6-inch refractor, since I was too young to have even been able to lift one. I finally realized that dream last January in a surprisingly inexpensive fashion.


It isn’t just telescopes where I appreciate "simple and easy" these days. Stellarium, the free planetarium program, is both those things, but it is also profoundly, powerful. In these latter days, there are not too many astronomy things I want to do that I cannot do with Stellarium.

February 2016


As above, smart devices (and computers) may have somewhat supplanted the print star atlas, but there are still good ones, and some of us still like to use paper star maps at least part of the time. There are even new print atlases being published, like Sky & Telescope’s Pocket Sky Atlas Jumbo Edition. It won’t really fit in your pocket, but it is a substantial improvement on its already great predecessor. Just get it, even if you have SkySafari.


Namely, the AR102 achromatic refractor from Explore Scientific. Yeah, its dew shield sure is funny looking, but you get so much for your money. Great f/6.5 optics, a decent finder, an excellent star diagonal, and maybe most of all, a kick-butt focuser. Everyone should have one, and given its modest price almost everyone can. The legitimate heir to the much-loved Short Tube 80 of the 1990s.


Coincident with my switch to refractors (mostly), was my return to looking at the pretty stuff. Like the Messiers. This entry is my take on the first five.


Occasionally I feel the need for the SOMETHING DIFFERENT. This time that was Pensacon 2016, Pensacola, Florida’s big comicon. Had a wonderful time, bought some cool stuff, and saw one of my idols, Neal Adams.

March 2016


More Messiers to include Ms 6 – 12. I got enough positive—nay enthusiastic—comments about this one to impel me to soldier through all 110 Messier objects.


“Big Ethel” being my new 6-inch achromat. What did I discover? When collimated, she became a powerful performer. Also, the Celestron VX mount was up to the task of holding this big tube. Or would have been if I’d had a pier extension for the tripod. As it was, I had to be careful not to let the tube bump into the tripod, which would happen when slewing anywhere near the zenith.


Here, I pressed on with Objects M13 – M19


This article, which formed the basis for my recent Sky & Telescope “Focal Point” column, concerns the battle over computerized telescopes in astronomy. I actually think this war is over, since my column didn’t create nearly as much controversy as my last Focal Point on buying stars did (why do a Focal Point if you can’t ruffle some feathers with it?).

April 2016


Still more Messiers, Ms 20 – 27.


A lot of you sure have some weird ideas about the astronomy magazines, and especially Sky & Telescope. What kind of weird ideas? I’ll direct you to the Cloudy Nights “Astro Art, Books, and Websites” forum if you want a taste. Herein, I try to correct some of those occasionally odd misconceptions.


I continue with Messier 28 – 35.


Well, is one? While I primarily use refractors these days, a lens scope wasn’t always the scope for me. While they now are the scope for me, that doesn't mean they are for you. The quiz at the end of this article should help you decide if you are a refractorphile in the making.

May 2016


This far in, with Messier 36 – 41, I was finding out that, surprisingly, writing about these good old DSOs was not boring at all. Not only was it fun, I found I still had a lot to say about them (even after writing a book, The Urban Astronomer’s Guide, which covered many of them in detail).


This (smaller, more informal) springtime edition of our local star party was notable for several reasons. It was my first experience imaging with Hermione Granger under truly dark skies, the spring weather actually cooperated fully for once, and I only stayed two days. Lately, I find two – three days at a star party is quite enough, and was happy to scurry home on Saturday to enjoy Free Comic Book Day.


This one was notable for containing everybody’s fave, M42. Also present were M43 – M49.


Not only was this a tutorial on planetary imaging in general, I gave some tips for using the new stacking app everybody was talking about, Autostakkert.

June 2016


This batch, which featured M50 – 56, found me, almost unbelievably, at the halfway point. Things would slow down a bit for a while after this, however, since I spent much of the summer traveling to distant star parties and astronomy clubs.


Since I knew my roadtrips would intrude, I squeezed in another couple of M-articles, this one containing numbers 57 – 63.


And one more for good measure, with M64 – 70. By this time, the series had picked up some fans, and some folks were actually printing the articles out for use at the scope. ‘Magine that!

July 2016


There are plenty of great deep sky observing planning programs like SkyTools and Deepsky, but I make no bones here that the one I’d used most in recent times was Phyllis Lang’s venerable Deep Sky Planner. “Venerable,” sure, but Ms. Lang had just updated her soft with version 7 and guess what? It was better than ever.


The time had come for me to talk to my fellow Baby Boomers about many things, including what should you do about all that astronomy gear you’ve accumulated over the last 40 or 50 years.


We all—well most of us anyway—love the Messier objects. The question on my mind, however, and perhaps on those of my fellow increasingly lazy baby boomers, was “How small a scope can you use to profitably view the list?” In the process of writing this one, I had a ball observing the Ms in the backyard with 4-inch and 3-inch telescopes.

August 2016


It was, as July ran out, time to get on the road for the late summer and early fall star party season. The first stop was a week at the Maine Astronomy Retreat way up north. To sum up:  great observing, great people, great food, great facility. I’d go back anytime. Only slight bummer? Had nothing to do with the retreat, but with my airline. My flight out of Boston was cancelled. I spent an evening in a hotel in the midst of an industrial park near Logan. Oh, well…the hotel bar and cable TV kept me entertained. And it was nice to enjoy the air conditioning after an uncharacteristically warm week in Maine.


Next stop was the NWSF in a state I’d never visited, Wisconsin. This was another great time. A little shorter, but great food, people, and observing too. Nice facility, and to top it all off, tenderfoot me “camped out” in a brand new Fairfield Inn and Suites. Coming back to that beautiful new room each night helped make a great experience even better.


Back home for a quick breather, it was time to get after Messiers again with objects 71 – 77.

September 2016


I’ve been to this star party, held in West Virginia on the slopes of Spruce Knob Mountain, so many times over the last decade that it was difficult to find something new to write about. Nevertheless, great skies and friendly folks made this a winner. For me, “no surprises” is a good thing.


With objects 78 – 84, we were definitely beginning to see the light at the end of the proverbial tunnel.


I observed the 2500 Herschel objects over the course of about three years. I don’t consider that a huge feat; it was more just having the right equipment, a plan, and a little perseverance. People still ask questions about how I did it, though. While this article did answer some of those questions, its main goal was to encourage you to get out and begin the Herschel 400. Come on in the water is deep but fine. 

October 2016


With Ms 85 – 91, we were entering the final phase, and I was still having a ball with these articles.


Though I was close to the end of my main Messier series, having nearly covered ‘em all, I still thought it would be a good idea to give short “executive summaries” on all the objects in two articles, since the fall observing season was upon us and many folks would be out in the old backyard chasing Ms.


What can you see from a dark site with an humble and easy to transport 4-inch achromat? A lot, it turned out.

November 2016


After those go-go years of the Herschel Project, it’s nice to spend a star party doing leisurely visual observing. Which is exactly what I did at the 2016 DSSG using my 6-inch Achromat. She performed beautifully (people were sure she was an ED scope). As is my wont of late, I was only on-site for three nights of the 5-night event, but those were the best nights of the star party. Sometimes I do get lucky.


‘Twas definitely that with Messiers M92 – M98.


What do the experts say? You can’t do astrophotography with a fast achromatic refractor. I set out to see if that was true. Was it? Read the article to find out, but I will say the humble Explore Scientific AR102 is one heck of a little jack of all trades.


In case a simple achromat just wasn’t good enough for you, I kicked it up a notch in the next one, using a fine APO refractor, but still kept deep sky astrophotography as simple as it can be.

December 2016


This is the coda for the “Refractor Way” series. Why did I switch to refractors? You get the full answer here.


Didn’t want to be a Debbie Downer, but a couple of years of philosophical musings about my life led to some musings about amateur astronomy and its fate as well. The answers I arrived at may, alas, not make you happy. This article garnered the most attention and responses of any in 2015. Don’t wanna toot my own horn overmuch, but this is a must-read, campers.


M91 – M99 and we were indeed almost there. One more to come; next week perhaps.


And, so, with my traditional Christmas Eve message to my readers, we were done for another year. What will 2017 hold? My crystal ball is hazy on that, folks. Let us hope for the best, however, and keep fingers and toes crossed. OH, I think it will be a great year for astronomy no matter how the eclipse goes weather and crowd-wise. The rest, though? I am not so sure about that, I must admit.

Nota Bene:  As I’ve mentioned, Steve Tuma is discontinuing sales and support of his excellent Deepsky program. Steve tells me he’s looking for a server somewhere to upload the program files to so everybody can continue to download and enjoy the program—for free. If you know of a suitable site, please contact Steve at stuma@comcast.net



Comments:
"I’ve learned that when my path is dark and dim, those distant stars can illuminate it. I am comforted to look up and see the stars of Orion look just as they did when I was a boy."

That is a powerful statement, and one I have felt as well.

Thanks for your great blog, Rod, and have a healthy, prosperous New Year--it's gonna be a wild ride...
 
Thank you so much for the round-up Rod, I remebmered there were many things I wanted to read again, but very handy to have a quick summary so I can find the posts again! A Very Happy New Year to you and yours! Phil, Salisbury, UK.

 
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