Saturday, January 28, 2023


Issue 588: Uncle Rod and the Rescue Telescope


Back in her natural element...
Sounds like the title of the next Disney Channel animated series, don’t it, muchachos? I bet you thought Unk would be writing about the comet nine-day-wonder, Comet 2022/E2 ZTF, dincha? That will come. Up to now it’s been too cloudy or too cold and the comet has been rising way too late (early, that is) for your lazy Uncle. Today, the subject is Uncle Rod’s latest rescue telescope.

What in pea turkey is a rescue telescope?! A “rescue telescope” is most often a modern iteration of the Department Store Telescope that has fallen on hard times, has fallen about as far as a telescope can fall. Maybe it began as a Christmas or birthday present to a young person or an impulse buy by an adult. It was quickly found to be deficient in that its images didn’t rival those of the Hubble Space Telescope. It was under the stars a few times and brought its owner a pretty Moon but was soon found to be Too Much Trouble. The briefly loved scope, its wonderfully gaudy box long discarded, finds its way into a closet where it sits bereft of starlight for a long, weary time.  

The scope’s descent doesn’t stop there. Sooner or later, it becomes an annoyance, taking up room in that closet, crashing to the floor every time the owner retrieves their galoshes, and making a general nuisance of itself. Sometimes it’s given away and the story thus far repeats itself. Most often, it is put on the curb, to be either plucked by the trash pickers or sent to its final demise. Sometimes it gets lucky, though; the owner donates it to a charity thrift store and sometimes, just sometimes, someone comes along and gives the poor thing a second chance.

Anyhoo, one recent Thursday evening, Unk found himself arriving a little early for a radio club meeting held at a Goodwill Community Center adjacent to a Goodwill Thrift Store. The previous week I’d found a Simpson 260 multimeter in there for the grand sum of nine dollars. With a little time on my hands, I wanted to see if I might get lucky again and headed for the back of the store where the electronics are kept…but didn’t get that far.

At first Unk thought he was going crazy(er). I seemed to be hearing a plaintive little voice. A little female voice: “HELP ME, UNCLE ROD! YOU’RE MY ONLY HOPE!  My puzzlement turned to understanding when I spotted a 4.5-inch Newtonian sitting beside the aisle on her spindly tripod.

“Hello, little one. How long have you been here?”

Oh, Unk, I’ve been here the longest old time!”

“Well, let’s have a look at you.” What was before me was a current Department Store Telescope (DST). You thought they were gone? No, they, the telescopes in-between toys and genuinely serious but inexpensive scopes like the Orion Starblast, are still with us.  They are still sold in actual department stores, but also in hobby shops and, of course, online. Most of them are the ubiquitous 114mm (4.5 inch) Newtonians, 60mm refractors being less numerous than they once were.

How is the current crop compared to those of yore, like the famous Tasco 11-TE? Compared to 60s – 70s DSTs, they are mostly worse. The big and debilitating problem is their mounts are shakier (and they weren’t the Rock of Gibraltar way back when), wooden tripods having given way to extruded aluminum jobs barely adequate for low power. Eyepieces, however, are definitely much better now. Most are fairly good 1.25-inch oculars that blow the doors off the .965-inch horrors of the past. Finders have improved, too, red dot jobs having displaced small-aperture, stopped-down optical finders or the dreadful “reflex” finders Jason-branded scopes once sported.

That glorious box promising wonders...
“But how about the optics?”  They are generally well-made, BUT… Back in the glorious day, 114mm reflectors from Japan, and, later on, 114mm reflectors from China, had spherical primary mirrors, yeah. But they also had focal ratios of f/8. At f/8, a 4-inch spherical mirror is quite close to ¼-wave of wavefront error and can perform very well. Alas, most DSTs now possess f/5 – f/6 spherical mirrors. At that focal ratio they approach a half-wave of error. Not horrid, perhaps, but worse. Why the move away from f/8? I guess f/5 tubes may be cheaper to produce and cause less stress for today’s pitiful DST mounts.

Looking at the waif before me, I noted the label on her (plastic) focuser read, “Celestron 114-AZ SR D=114, F=600, F=5.2, MADE IN CHINA.” I almost walked on, knowing the limitation that would impose given the spherical mirror I knew this little girl would have. But I didn’t. I’ve seen Celestron 130mm scopes with spherical mirrors do OK on the Moon and other subjects at similar focal lengths, so why not?

I’ve also gotta admit the Celestron tugged at my heart strings, looking sad and pitiful with her banged-up steel tube tarted-up with paint to make it look like carbon fiber.  And I am always on the lookout for scopes to pass on to enthusiastic young undergraduate astronomy students. Also, there was the price tag on her, “$19.99.” Finally, paraphrasing Charlie Brown, I said out loud, “Besides, I think this little telescope needs me.”

The Celestron, who told me her name was “Tanya,” begged to be taken home: “Uncle Rod, my red dot finder alone is worth 20 bucks. PLEASE GET ME OUTA THIS PLACE!” I took a look at her primary, which appeared bright and clean, and surveyed the rest of her. She looked complete with a couple of cheap Plössls, one in her focuser and one in her little eyepiece tray. Well, almost complete; her aperture cover was long gone. I scooped the girl up and headed to the checkout, “Oh, thank you, Rod! I know we’ll be great friends!”

A hard-knock life.
Back home after the radio club meeting, Miss Dorothy wasn’t too surprised to see me come in with yet another wayward scope in my arms. She was rather surprised by the 20-buck price, though.  You know, so was I. Sitting in the kitchen, Tanya looked far better than she had under the merciless fluorescents at the Goodwill store. Next step was seeing precisely what was up with the girl.

My initial examination showed one of the two eyepiece locking screws was jammed. It was so tight I had to resort to (carefully) unscrewing it with a pair of vice-grips. To my surprise, it wasn’t cross-threaded and stripped, just screwed down awful tight. When it was loose, I was able to extract the 9.7mm Plössl (both eyepieces being Celestron’s extra-cheap ones with metal barrels but plastic bodies) and examine the secondary mirror. A look in the now empty focuser showed several big blemishes on it. Might just be dirt or might be damage to the coating—there is no telling what a kid who got a telescope instead of the battery-powered scooter they really wanted will do to torture the poor thing.

Otherwise, it was clear Tanya had indeed led that proverbial hard-knock life. There were several small dents and dings on the tube, and something—who knows what?—had been sprayed on it here and there. There was also plenty of the dreaded Chinese glue-grease (apparently made of ground-up weasels), which had migrated from focuser, to tube, to mount, to tripod with the aid of young fingers.

There was a crescent Moon in the sky, so naturally I got little Tanya into the backyard for a look. Before doing that, I gave both her oculars a good cleaning—they were filthy. How was that Moon? Not bad. It was sharp enough given the obvious mis-collimation of the un-cooled-down optics, poor seeing, and the only fair quality of the eyepiece (these plastic-bodied Plössls are used on many of Celestron’s/SkyWatcher’s lower-priced scopes). Anyhow, Tanya did well enough I declared she had possibilities and told her we’d get her cleaned up in the morning.

That morning, if not too early that morning, I set off to obtain something I knew I’d need, paper-reinforcers to make a center dot for her primary mirror so I could collimate her. To my astonishment, Publix had none. Neither did Walgreens. Nor did the Walmart food store. I finally turned some up at CVS drugs. Is there a paper-ass*&^% shortage or something?

Back home, out in the Batcave, my radio shack cum-workshop of the telescopes, I thought my first task would to be to clean the secondary. As you can see in the image below, the secondary’s spider is an integral part of the plastic fore-end of the tube, as is the finder mount.  I spotted a few Philips-head screws and removed those. It was apparent the focuser would also have to be removed to get the plastic section loose.

I did that, which was just as much of a pain as removing the other screws, since all were held in place by tiny nuts and Unk couldn’t get his fingers very far into the tube due to the thick plastic spider vanes. Finally, all screws were removed, but the plastic assembly still refused to budge. It was pretty obviously glued as well as screwed into place. One of the problems with this and similar little scopes is they are not made to be maintained—they are like Chinese puzzle boxes.

Ready for collimation.
Rather than try to defeat the glue, I decided I’d clean the secondary in situ. With the focuser removed, the hole in the tube was large enough to allow that. To my surprise, gentle cleaning took care of the multiple spots of dirt or whatever (it almost looked as if—horrors—someone had spat on the secondary!). It was now clean and pretty, and I was able (with some difficulty) to get the focuser back in place.

Next up was collimation, but to do that, I’d have to center-dot the mirror. I was surprised not to see a dot on the primary. Even Celestron’s lower-priced “amateur astronomy class” scopes like the aforementioned Starblast have ‘em. I suppose they don’t bother with those like the 114AZ bound for hobby/toy/department stores.

How do you center dot a mirror that ain’t got one? Grab a compass, draw a circle the same diameter as the primary on a piece o’ paper, fold it into quarters, snip off the apex of the cone formed, unfold it, place it on the mirror, and carefully make a dot on the primary through the hole. Center the paper reinforcer on the dot. If you’re as OCD as Unk, you’ll then take a Q-tip moistened with alcohol and gently remove the sharpie mark.

I collimated the little thing using the Celestron combo sight-tube/Cheshire I’ve had for years. If you want to know how to do Newtonian collimation, see my blog entry on the subject. Having done a Newtonian fairly recently, I did not have to reference my own article. Denouement? Secondary and primary were both off a considerable amount but were easy enough to get “in” in just a few minutes.

Done for the moment with the OTA, it was time to see what I could do to improve the mount. The azimuth axis had a healthy dollop of that glue-grease. So much of the viscous stuff the tube tended to continue moving in azimuth when I stopped pushing it. A little of my favorite cure, DeOxit, and the application of some Blaster synthetic lube freed up the motion quite a bit. There was only so much I could do, since the azimuth axis was pressed into place and would have been difficult or impossible to remove, but it was better.

Wasn’t a whole lot to be done for the altitude axis. A little lube in the trunnions and that was it. The altitude slow-motion arm (talk about a blast from the distant past) did not need any attention.  Finally, I used some 99% isopropyl alcohol, DeOxit, and WD-40 to banish the many patches of weasel grease on mount and tripod.

The spider is d part of the end assembly of the tube. 
I then returned tube to mount and proceeded to see if I could do sumpin about the stiff, wobbly plastic focuser. Replacing its glue-grease with synthetic lube helped. I was also able to make its motion easier by adjusting the two screws on the rack and pinion focuser’s underside. However, it was clear the focus tube would always be floppy. Like the similar plastic focuser SkyWatcher uses on its “tabletop” Dobsonians, there is no lock screw, and mechanical tolerances are large. I thought if the scope performed halfway decently, I’d think about some Teflon shims or something.

Last thing? I tried to make poor Tanya pretty again and was partially successful. I was, with mucho scrubbing and application of Pledge furniture polish, able to remove most of the nasty-looking spots on the OTA. Oh, she’ll never look like she did the day excited hands pulled her out of her Technicolor box, but, yeah, she looked much better. I picked her up, cradled her in my arms, and took her to the backyard to acclimatize ahead of darkness. You know what? The little scope positively glowed sitting there.

While waiting, I thought I’d learn a little something about Missy. It turns out she is a currently sold scope retailing for about 100 bucks at—fittingly—Kohl’s department store. Seems to me I may even have seen a 114AZ in the Kohl’s up the street last Christmas.  I also solved a mystery:  what the “SR” in the telescope’s model number means. The 114AZ SR is smartphone ready. What does that mean? As she came from the factory, the scope was furnished with a little cell phone mount so you could take pictures through the eyepiece. That mount, which apparently involved rubber bands, was not with Tanya at Goodwill, and had no doubt gone missing along with the aperture cover (and a pack-in DVD of the Starry Night software) long ago.

I sat and waited for it to get dark enough. But you know Unk; I got “go” fever: “Hail, it’s dark enough to look at the Moon.” And it was. The difference between bedraggled Tanya the previous night, and tonight’s prom-queen Tanya was more than palpable. The just before first quarter Moon was simply scrumptious.

At 60x with her so-so (or maybe not so so-so) 10mm eyepiece, Selene was a thing of wonder. With darkness having arrived, I thought I’d push her a small amount. I plucked one of Celestron’s slightly better Plössls, a 6mm, out of its case to see what she could do with 100x, a more practical magnification for observing the Solar System. With a little more power, the trio of craters, Theophillus, Cyrillus, and Catharina, was simply breathtaking.

Was the wee scope perfect? Hardly. Even at “just” 100x, there began to be problems. Not with the optics, but with the mount. At that modest magnification, it began to border on unusable. Oh, I could get the telescope in focus, but it was quite shaky and I had to exercise a light touch. Combine that shakiness with the shallow depth of focus of its fast focal ratio, and a scope like this challenges the very people it is supposedly designed to serve, children and beginners. However, it is definitely at least OK with the two supplied eyepieces, which furnish 23x and 60x.

Looking and feeling much better!
Maybe the biggest surprise of the night was ol’ Jupe. He is not an easy object for small telescopes, really, and is where many cheap ones fall completely apart. “Is that Jupiter or a custard pie?”  With the 6mm in place we headed for the King. I didn’t expect much and was frankly amazed. The four Galileans were sharp, sure, but the big deal was I was seeing banding, plenty of it, on the disk, and maybe the even Great Red Spot, too (I wasn’t sure whether it was visible or not; I checked later and it was).

While the sky was beginning to haze over, as it had been since sundown, I just had to take a look at M42. The Trapezium was easy and there was as much nebulosity on view as I’d expect any 4-inch to show on a less-than-average night. Oh, we made a few other stops as well. The ET Cluster, NGC 457 was pretty if more subdued than on a good evening. But we ended on Luna again. I couldn’t stop marveling what at what this formerly debased little telescope was showing me.

Frankly, I was thrilled I’d been able to bring this sad little refugee back to life. Unfortunately, while the sky wasn’t looking any worse than it had, and the winter stars were glittering bravely in the haze, the one thing that always indicates it is time for Unk to end an observing run occurred. My feet got cold. When that happens, it is end of story, game over, zip up your fly. I picked the little scope up, deposited her in the Batcave (her aperture covered with a shower cap), and was inside watching television with the cats in just a few minutes.

When the time is right, yes, Tanya will undoubtedly go to some deserving young person, but till then, yeah, it’s just as she said; we’re going to be great friends.


Saturday, December 24, 2022


Issue 587: An Uncle Rod Merry Christmas 2022

Well, muchachos, another Christmas Eve is upon us, and as usual I choose to spend it with y’all. Well, part of it, anyhow. In the wake of the covid, this was a more normal Yule's Eve for me and Miss Dorothy. As “normal” as it ever gets with your somewhat odd old Unk in the mix, anyhow. But, yeah, a little more like those grand Christmases of yore at Chaos Manor South. Oh, no little kids running the sainted halls, all excited by the imminent arrival of St. Nicholas, but more normal than it’s been, nevertheless.

In witness of that, I hoped we could take our Christmas Eve luncheon at El Giro's Mexican Restaurant, just as we used to all those long years ago (it seems strange to say that, but, yes, those days are 25 years or more up the timestream, though it doesn’t feel like it). Anywho, that's what Unk planned, El Giros, the new El Giro's out here in far west Possum Swamp. 

Ma Nature had different plans for Unk as she often does, though, plans in the form of a screamer of a winter storm named "Elliot" (when did they start naming winter storms?..musta missed that).  We did make it to Whataburger for the Mobile Amateur Radio Club's weekly breakfast. I am the president of the club, so I figgered it was incumbent upon me to face the elements (to the tune of 24F) bravely. 

After arriving back at the New Manse and thawing out, I decided lunch at home would be just ducky. That was OK. Like many other things post-covid, I suspect El Giro's might not be quite the same, anyway. I still hope to find out sometime soon.

Be that all as it all may be, back home, I ruminated on Christmases Past. Not those at Chaos Manor South, but those of long, long, long ago. Christmases I’ve recounted in this here blog a time or three. Two of those reminiscences, I think, sum up my feelings about this most numinous time of year better than anything I could write on this Eve:

Uncle Rod’s Christmas Carol


Stars Instead of Cars

Unk puttered about the place the rest of the afternoon. While it was comfy up in the main house, out in the radio shack, aka "The Batcave," the little heater struggled to keep the temperature at around 65F.  But you know what? The cold made it seem a bit more like Yuletide than the usual Possum Swamp t-shirt weather does. While we can still have cold at Christmas, it's less frequent than when Rod was a boy. Hell, it's now getting rare for us to even have a hard freeze.  Unk spent the remainder of Christmas Eve day with a wary eye on the sky. Clouds had begun to roll in just after dawn to his dismay.

As A Charlie Brown Christmas wrapped up on TV (thanks to a DVD), I found myself growing drowsy—couldn’t have that!  I wasn’t at all interested in hanging out with any of those dadgum Christmas ghosts this year! I jumped up—badly startling the felines. I wasn’t gonna fall asleep and miss my Christmas Eve tradition.

That's something that’s been a constant over many years:  My Christmas Eve look at that greatest of all ornaments, Messier 42, the Great Orion Nebula. IF IT WAS CLEAR. Was it?  Unk poked his head out the Sunroom doors. Despite being assaulted by an icy blast that near-about blinded him with was obvious it was, yes, clear. Time to get about my business.

How would I look at M42? “Simple” would have been my 80mm f/11 SkyWatcher achromat. Given the insane temps, that would have been understandable. Understandable, but still The Way of the Astro-wimp. No. I would do it right, really right, for the first time in a long while. With my ancient and beloved Edmund Scientific Palomar Junior

I had got my Pal outside in late afternoon before the cold and a few eggnogs sapped my will, as I was pretty sure they would. I am a lot older and weaker than I was in these days, and the Palomar Junior sure didn't feel like she'd lost any weight over the intervening six decades. Getting the heavy old mount and pedestal out the door wasn't a bit easier than way back when (Luckily, I didn't have to worry about bashing Mama's prized mahogany coffee table in the process!). I got the scope to a spot on the turnaround with a clear view to the east, just as I might have in days of yore.

And then it was time, about 2000 local, when the Great and Glorious Cloud had ascended above the neighbors' trees. How was it? Well, IT WAS COLD MUCHACHOS. Otherwise? Sometimes these sorts of things are anti-climactic. Not this time. The way M42 looked in this little scope over half a century ago is locked in my mind, and you know what? Despite my fading eyesight, it looked exactly the same on this night. Maybe the eyepiece I used, an inexpensive Celestron Plossl, was better enough than the Kellner I used on those long-lost nights to make up for my poorer vision. I don't know. And I don't care. 

What I know is the feel of it was so much like those ancient December nights that I could almost feel my old friends, Wayne Lee and Miss Jitter Jones, standing by my side. Was it just my imagination that Jitter exclaimed at the beauty we were witness to, or that Wayne Lee begged for a look? I choose to think not. 

Anyway, what this all means, my friends, is MERRY CHRISTMAS, EVERYBODY!


Tuesday, November 08, 2022


Issue 586: The Moon and You Volume 1


I’ve remarked here a couple of times how fast the days, weeks, months, and years seem to fly by at your Old Uncle’s increasingly advanced age. However, you could have knocked me over with the proverbial feather when I realized Charity Hope Valentine has been at my side for some seventeen years now.

“What in pea-turkey is Unk going on about now?” It’s like this, muchachos. With a waxing Moon in the sky, I thought it was time to seriously revisit her. For me, like for many of you, Luna, Selene, Diana, Hecate, Artemis was my first love in astronomy, a love I’ve never quite got over. So, I thought I’d drag a scope into the backyard for a quick look. But which scope?

“Quick look” is just about synonymous with “3-inch alt-Az refractor,” and I could certainly have used my SkyWatcher 80mm f/11 on her AZ-4 mount. I wanted “easy,” yeah, but I wanted more. I wanted to kick up the power on an evening predicted to deliver good seeing.  The scope that would excel in all those things? Charity Hope Valentine is an f/15 125mm aperture Maksutov-Cassegrain with excellent optics, an OK drive, and at least some claim to portability—if not anything approaching that of the SkyWatcher reflector.

As above, I was gobsmacked to realize how long Charity had been with me. That one of my first blog articles about her, “Two-and-a-Half Years After the Honeymoon,” had been written in <gulp> two thousand and fracking eight! Not only has she been with me for a long while, it has been months since Charity was out of her case, and it was time. So, one morning out here in suburbia, where every day (they say) is like Sunday on the farm, your Unk determined to give the scope a checkout prior to lugging her into the backyard.

Protected by the decent aluminum case Meade used to sell for the ETX scopes, Charity is in good physical condition. Frankly, she looks brand new and has weathered the near two decades since she came to stay with Unk better than he has. My main concern was her LNT battery, a button cell that keeps date and time current among other things. I found a 12-volt power supply with a cigarette lighter style connector, plugged Charity in, and fired her up. I was hoping the battery was OK, since replacing it ain’t no fun, lemme tell you. It had been over two years since I’d swapped it out, so I wasn’t hopeful.

Power up, mash “Mode,” scroll down to time…and…  It was way off. But the fact the Autostar HC displayed the date of the last time I used the scope, January of this year, not something random, led me to believe the battery might have some life left. I entered the correct date and time, cycled power, and, yeah, it stuck. I figgered if time were off by evening, I’d have to bite the bullet and replace the cell—“soon.” I’d manually set in the correct time if necessary and keep on truckin’.

Some months back, I talked about resuming my lunar series, Destination Moon. So how come up top it says “The Moon and You,” not “Destination Moon Night Umptysquat”?  A good reason. That series was largely concerned with me imaging lunar features. I planned to do 300 of them, the prominent ones shown in the old Moon map in the mid-sixties edition of Norton’s Star Atlas. I got a lot of ‘em, but not all of ‘em. The holdouts were those of unimpressive nature visible at inconvenient times. So… I didn’t quite make it. Just like when young Rod resolved to draw those 300 and also got much of the way there…but not quite all the way.

My conclusion was if I failed to finish those particular 300 features twice, it meant I was likely never gonna do ‘em all. Also, I wanted this series to be a little broader in scope. If I wanted to capture Selene’s beauty with my ZWO camera, cool. But if I just wanted snapshot Moon pictures with a cell phone, that would be good too. Heck, if I only wanted to look. Or maybe make a quick little sketch of a feature than interested me like I used to do all those years ago, I’d write about that.

After essaying Destination Moon’s multiple installments, I was left knowing the Moon a lot better than I had during my deep-sky-crazy years. Heck, I now probably know her surface almost as well as I did when I was a kid and it was as familiar as Mama and Daddy’s subdivision, Canterbury Heights. But I’d still need a map.

I’ve got several, including the outstanding Rukl Atlas of the Moon (autographed by its late author at a star party, the Peach State Star Gaze, right after he finished enjoying the Moon in my old Ultima C8, Celeste). But if you use a star diagonal with your scope, as I do with Charity (she has a built-in diagonal), be it refractor or CAT, printed maps will never match what you see. You get an upright but mirror-reversed image.  Also, once you get beyond basic lunar touring, the level of detail in Rukl is a mite low.

What to do? Easy-peasy. Virtual Moon Atlas. Yes, this (Windows) program by the author of the Cartes du Ciel software, Patrick Chevalley, and lunar expert Christian Legrand is still around and better than ever. I talked about it frequently in the Destination Moon days, but suffice to say it’s the program I always dreamed of for lunar observing. In addition to displaying crazy-detailed charts that can be customized to match the view in any scope, it will even send your goto mount to lunar features. It’s free, and if you are interested in the Moon, it should be your number one observing tool.

It seemed an appropriate week to resume my wandering of the Moon, what with her being in the news and all over the Internet. The reason for that, of course, was the upcoming total lunar eclipse. The news goobers waxed enthusiastic despite this being an early-early eclipse, at 4-5am-ish at mid eclipse for the eastern half of the country. Nevertheless, I hope many were impelled to arise for it. As of this writing, the Friday before the eclipse on Tuesday, November 8, your old Uncle wasn’t sure if he was game to get up at that hour or not. If I do, a recap and an image (if any) will appear at the end of this here article.

So, on a gentle Gulf Coast early-November evening, one on which the Moon shone down turning the landscape to silver, I set Charity up in the driveway, a spot with a good view of the eastern horizon. All ready to go, I turned the on-off switch to “on” and checked date and time. The date was still good, but time was already off by over six hours. I set it correctly and returned inside for a box of eyepieces.

What sort of oculars would I use with Charity this evening? Nothing fancy. I didn’t feel the need to drag out any of my heavy-metal TeleVue or Explore Scientific eyepieces. Instead, I grabbed the box of Celestrons I won years ago at one of the last Deep South Regional Stargazes I attended. They are all 1.25-inch (Charity is limited to that format anyway) Chinese Plössls that perform just fine. Frankly, it’s been quite a few years since I’ve seen a truly bad ocular from any half respectable vendor.

In went a 32mm for alignment. I coulda grabbed a crosshair reticle eyepiece out of Charity’s case up in the house, but I didn’t feel like going inside again, and a so-so alignment would be good enough for lunar work anyway.

Anyhoo, Charity is a PE model ETX, which means she can perform an automatic alignment not unlike a GPS scope sans GPS. Set her in home position and she does a little dance, finding north and level. This took a couple of minutes, but eventually she headed for alignment star one, Vega. It wasn’t in the eyepiece, but just outside it. The next star was a problem, though.

Because of my position in the backyard, many of Charity’s choices were in the trees. I rejected one star after another till we got to Enif and could finish up.  How was the resulting alignment? Saturn was in the eyepiece at 60x when Charity stopped, no problem. OK, OK! I’ll fess up. That was the result of my SECOND alignment. In typical Uncle Rod fashion, I kicked the tripod by accident, ruining the first one just as I finished centering Enif. In my defense, the legs on Charity’s tripod are more wide-spread than on most.

Where to begin? With the most striking crater near the terminator of this young 8.5-day old Moon, Eratosthenes. Oh, all the pictures here are from Virtual Moon Atlas. North is up, but I’ve flipped ‘em east-west to match what was in Charity’s eyepiece. My first look at this great crater was a bit of a disappointment. The seeing was nowhere near as good as had been predicted, it was fairly lousy in fact, with 250x being a bit of a stretch. 150x was more like it, and when the seeing would briefly settle, Eratosthenes looked purty danged good.

It shouldn’t be surprising mighty Eratosthenes was my first stop. It was perfectly positioned at 8.5 days, just a bit off the terminator. It would be hard to miss even if this 60Km diameter crater didn’t display such beautifully sharp, terraced walls. It is located at the termination of the lunar Apennines; your eye just naturally follows their arc to this stupendous formation. Despite blah-blah-blah seeing Charity easily revealed the complex central peak and the rough floor of this great crater.

Where next? I moved north, flying over a tremendous amount of territory LM style with a push of an Autostar direction button. I skimmed over many wonderful destinations, but something had caught my eye; that “something” being the amazing 101Km crater (or is it really a walled plain?), Plato. While Plato, lying at the other terminus of the huge arc of mountains that begins as Apennines and winds up near Plato as Alps, looks elongated due to its position, it’s, like almost all craters, actually round.

What does every observer long to see of this giant? Some of the craterlets that pepper the dark lava-floor. At eight and a half days, the crater is a little far from the terminator to make that easy but running up the power to 250x and waiting for good seeing stretches revealed a few spots that mark the (relatively) tiny pits.

What else is of interest in the area? Plenty.  Only beginning with the Alpine Valley, which runs for over 130 Km through this mountainous area of the Moon. It’s beautiful in any telescope, but the prize is the rille down its center. About a mile wide, this sinuous “channel” is a high challenge for a visual observer even when the Alpine Valley is perfectly placed. I’ve seen it at those times, but, frankly, the best way to view it is really in images with a planetary camera like my little ZWO.

At this point, I was frankly feeling a mite overwhelmed. Yeah, I’m more familiar with Luna than I was in the days when I’d deserted the Moon for the outer depths of the Universe, but I’d had a long layoff, from Moon-watching and was feeling confused (so what else is new?) trying to orient myself and remember what was where.

One more, though. That “one more” was mighty Tycho. When the Moon approaches full, Tycho is the most prominent feature on Luna thanks to its draw-dropping system of lunar rays. End of story, game over, zip up your fly. But even at this phase, it stood out like a sore thumb in the rough lunar highlands.

What makes Tycho so prominent even when its rays don’t shine is it is sharp, and it is young (the reason its rays are still so prominent). This 86Km diameter formation’s imposing walls contain a complex and interesting triple-central peak. Anyhow, Tycho just looks young (it’s less than 1 billion years old) and is eye-catching at any phase.

And that was that. I could have kept going, but I decided to savor what I’d seen and visit more old friends “next time.” One of the beauties of Miss Valentine, of course, is she’s easy enough to get back inside and in her case despite bringing quite a bit of horsepower to the observin’ field. Soon, I was in the den watching TV with the cats, sipping a portion of Yell, and strategizing about the upcoming eclipse…

The Great November 2022 Total Lunar Eclipse

Nah, not as good as a Christmas eclipse, but this one was pretty spectacular from the ‘Swamp. Course, there would’ve been no eclipse at all for Unk if he hadn’t been able to drag himself outa bed at freaking 4am. Amazingly enough, he did!  I’d stationed a tripod bearing a Canon DSLR with a medium telephoto lens by the front door so things wouldn’t be too painful at that now unaccustomed early hour (I went about ten years getting up a 4:30 every morning for work, but that seems a long, long time ago). I’d just waltz into the yard with the rig, shoot some pretty pictures, and that would be it. I hoped.

Arising at such a ridiculous time wasn’t as bad as I feared. In fact, the only pained individuals were the cats, who believed it should be breakfast time as soon as I walked into the den despite it being four in the fricking morning. I asked for some temporary forbearance, and got tripod and camera into the front yard, on the driveway, where I had a good look at Luna, who’d soon be entering totality as she sank in the west. Not only would the Moon be at just under 30-degrees altitude as totality began, the sky was dead clear.

There’s not much more to tell. It had been a while since I’d shot a lunar eclipse, but I still remembered how. Lens wide open, ASA 1600, exposures under a second, 250mm of focal length, lots of shots. Despite my bleary eyes, I could tell the images displayed on the Canon’s little screen were pretty good. One nice thing was Luna was in a fairly star-rich area (and Uranus was nearby), making her extra photogenic. It was a pretty dark eclipse, too.

Done just before five, I downloaded the images to a laptop to make sure all was well and uploaded one to Facebook to share with my friends. Yep, looked purty darned good, I told Miss Dorothy, who was bustling about, serving the felines their breakfast at their strong insistence.

To be honest, I’d been sorta dreading the morning…having to get up so early, get a camera outside, and see if I remembered how to take lunar eclipse photos. But it all went amazingly smoothly…the whole thing was, to quote the poet, “simple — neat…no trouble at all — not the least.” I was glad I’d imaged (and experienced) this grand eclipse.

Friday, October 28, 2022


Issue 585: My Yearly M13, the 2022 Edition


Well, muchachos, ’21 turned out to be a stinker of a year; not much better than that cursed annum, 2020. I sure was hoping 2022 would be different. I even dared hope the world, or at least Unk’s world, would get back to something resembling life before covid.  Heck, maybe I’d even get out for my yearly ritual of imaging Messier 13, which I missed in 2021.

Alas, ’22, while it started off promisingly enough, was the year your Old Uncle got the covid. Purty ironic, I thought, after two years of taking precautions, even to include staying out of Heroes Bar and Grill for the longest time(!). And having had four shots. Luckily, no doubt thanks to those shots I had an extremely mild case and was soon feeling almost normal enough to contemplate M13.

As the year wound down and the Great Globular sunk ever lower, though, the less likely that began to seem. You may have heard about that post-covid tiredness some sufferers report. After I’d recovered from the plague, I felt pretty good. For a while.  I went from not just thinking about taking my M13 snapshot to at least considering getting back to our local star party, the Deep South Star Gaze. Then—BOOM!—I was suddenly wondering if I could even get up from my desk and walk out to the truck after I was done teaching my university classes. I began to think I wouldn’t get M13 this year much less travel to the DSSG. 

But… (sometimes that inevitable “but” is a good thing) over the last week I’ve begun feeling a lot more like my old self. No, I wasn’t going to pack up and head for the dark piney woods of Deep South but getting a telescope and camera into the backyard for some quick imaging of M13 didn’t seem downright impossible anymore.

Ah, yes, “imaging,” “astrophotography.” If you have never attempted it in at least semi-serious fashion (“semi-serious” being your Uncle’s beat on a lot of things) you don’t know what a complex set of tasks it is, and how easy it is to forget what to do and how to do it after even a short layoff. Unk hadn’t shot a guided deep sky image in a long time, and figgered there’d be plenty of hiccups, but I bravely began to move gear from the sunroom to the backyard, anyhow.

‘Course, before I could move anything into the backyard, I had to decide what to move. If you’re a regular reader of the Li’l Ol’ Blog from Possum Swamp, you know I began reducing scope headcount rather dramatically seven years ago. But that don’t mean Unk is exactly scope poor. I have a brace of refractors in addition to my old friend, Emma Peel, my Edge 800 SCT. I also have a pair of GEM mounts suitable for imaging, a Celestron Advanced VX and a Losmandy GM811G.

Choosing a scope wasn’t difficult. “Feeling better” does not mean “at the top of my game.” I wanted a telescope that’s easy to take pictures with. One that almost takes pictures by itself. That’s my 80mm William Optic Fluorite Zenithstar. She’s an F/7, meaning the focal length is short enough guiding is not overly necessary with reasonably brief exposures. One night a few years back, I was out clicking off subframes with the scope, “Veronica Lodge” by name, and thought “Man, PhD sure is guiding well tonight!” Till I realized I’d forgot to start the autoguiding program! The images Ronnie produces are absolutely color-free, too. Down checks? 600 millimeters of focal length ain’t a lot for smaller targets like globular clusters.

Ronnie:  Still pretty after all these years.
Choosing Veronica made picking the mount easy, too. The Losmandy is a wonderful GEM, I love it, and it’s amazingly easy to lug around and set up despite its impressive payload capacity. There’s no denying, however, the AVX is easier. I’ve had the Celestron mount for nearly a decade now, and it has never let me down.

Remember what I said about “complex” tasks? Setting up an instrument for imaging is one of those. Getting telescope and GEM into the yard is just the beginning. Gotta mount a guidescope and guide camera for starters. I could probably have eschewed guiding, but since I could auto-guide, I thought I probably should. Perfect for the 80mm is the Orion 50mm finder-guide scope I bought years ago. The guide cam is a QHY5-LII I’ve had for quite a few years as well. The monochrome QHY is sensitive, and the wide field of the 50mm guide scope means there are always plenty of stars in the field.

The main camera, as it often is, would be my Canon Rebel XTi. The chip size and resolution and sensitivity of the old-timer are a good match for the 80mm. Nearly 15 years down the road, the Rebel just keeps on keepin’ on like the dadgum Energizer battery. I mounted the Canon on the scope with the aid of a Canon T-ring that attaches to my Hotech SCA Field Flattener (highly recommended).  In place of a battery, the Canon is powered by an AC power supply. Since I normally operate the camera with a computer program, Nebulosity, she is tethered to the laptop with a nice cable I got from, yep, Tether Tools.  

Yeah, cables. That is one of the prime aggravations of the imaging game. I’ve got a cable from the camera to the PC, a shutter control cable from the Canon to the computer (the older Canons could not be triggered over USB; I use a Shoestring Astronomy DSUSB to do that),  a USB from the guide camera to the PC, an ST-4 cable from guide cam to the AVX’s guide input, the power supply cord for the mount, the HC and its cable, and—well, you get the picture. It is extremely important to be diligent about cable wrap issues.

Computer software? I’d keep that to a minimum. I’d use Sharpcap to get the mount precisely polar aligned, the above-mentioned Nebulosity to acquire and store photos, and PhD (II) Guiding to guide the mount. I decided not to use any mount control software like Stellarium. I’d only be after a single target and I figgered the good, ol’ NexStar hand control would suffice.

Cables? I has a few...
Whew! I got All That Stuff set up only scratching my head a couple of times over how somethin’ went together or what I’d obviously forgotten. Now to wait for darkness, which would thankfully be arriving at a reasonable hour for your old Uncle for whom 2300 local time is a freaking late night.

With the stars beginning to wink on on a frankly chilly—as we judge such things—Possum Swamp evening, came Job One, polar alignment. I used to hate polar alignment, which, when I began astrophotography, involved either the drift method of alignment, or using a polar finder with a polar alignment reticle. The former took as much as a half hour, but was accurate. The latter was quick and easy, but yielded so-so polar alignments. I’d often find myself in a hurry to get exposures underway, and usually opted for a polar-scope alignment, which meant my pictures suffered.

Flash forward to the turn of the last century and relief was in sight. Almost all of us were using CCD cameras by then, so polar alignment was slightly, but only slightly, less important. Yes, exposures were shorter, but our imaging chips were small and the “magnification factor” inherent in that meant field rotation due to polar misalignment showed up easily and would make your pictures ugly. So, I still had to drift align? Nope. Celestron automated the polar alignment process.

As the NexStar hand control matured, Celestron began to offer a polar alignment routine in the firmware. It worked simply, but pretty well with my old CG5. Set the mount up with the RA axis at least roughly pointed at the Celestial Pole and do a good goto alignment. The polar align routine would then slew the scope to where Polaris should have been if I had a perfect polar alignment. All I had to do then was use the GEM’s azimuth and altitude adjusters to center Polaris in the field of a reticle eyepiece, and, voila! Perfect polar alignment.

Well, not quite. The quality of the goto alignment (and the particular alignment stars used) could and did affect the quality of the polar alignment. Celestron improved the routine over the years, though, and about a dozen years ago debuted the version that’s in their hand controls to this very day, “AllStar polar alignment.” AllStar allowed you to use a larger number of stars (though not all stars as implied) for alignment. Improvements in the mount’s goto alignment algorithms made an AllStar alignment good enough for most imaging tasks.

Typical Unk film image from a long, long time ago.
The main problem I had with it was that in order to preserve goto accuracy with the mount, you had to do a new goto alignment following AllStar. Kind of a pain, and while not taking the time a drift alignment would, it was time consuming. Especially if you wanted maximum accuracy, which involved doing a second AllStar polar alignment after doing your second goto alignment. Oh, and you’d better do a third goto alignment after the second AllStar if you moved the mount much. You might be aligning on as many as 18 stars. Sheesh!

Then came Sharpcap. You can read all about it in this blog entry but suffice to say it has made AllStar obsolete for me. The Sharpcap software uses your guide camera (or your main camera if you’ve got a wide enough field) to do the polar alignment. In my opinion, it’s as accurate as a good drift alignment, and much quicker. I can have a Sharpcap polar alignment done in five minutes now. And since it is quick and easy, I will do it. Especially in the beginning the most important thing you can do to improve your pictures is a good polar alignment.

So, yeah, with stars winking on, it was time to get polar aligned. I set up a little aluminum camp table next to the scope, plunked the laptop onto that, plugged the guide camera’s USB output into the laptop, started Sharpcap, and we was rollin’. I was gratified to see the guidescope was still in focus and picking up plenty of stars just past 7pm. Hit “next” a couple of times, Sharpcap had me rotate the mount 90 degrees in azimuth, and it was time to actually adjust the polar alignment.

The AVX is a nice mount for the price, quite an improvement on the old CG5, but it has one problem it shares with most other imported mounts. The bolts used for altitude and azimuth adjustment are a little course and demonstrate a little backlash. That didn’t prevent me from getting a polar alignment Sharpcap pronounced to be within 10” of the NCP; it just took a little longer than it would have with my Losmandy mount and its much better alt-az adjusters. Maybe closer to ten minutes than five.

Then, it was time to shut down and head to the local radio club meeting. I’d wanted to get polar alignment out of the way, at least. That would save time the following evening—I was pretty sure I wouldn’t feel like taking pictures when I arrived home after a couple of hours with all the friendly OMs and YLs.

The next night, as predicted, was again clear and cool, if a little hazier and a lot damper than the previous one. It was time to screw my courage to the sticking place and get some subframes in the can. First order of bidness was getting the scope goto aligned. To that end I replaced the guide scope with a red dot finder temporarily. Next, I fired up Nebulosity in Frame and Focus mode, and it began clicking off exposures with the camera. The mount had stopped with the telescope obviously pointing in the right direction, and I was hoping the first alignment star would be in the frame. Nope.

Went over and peered up through the finder. Vega was near centered. What the—? Back to the deck (the PC is on the deck on a patio table under a dew-reducing umbrella). A look at Neb revealed the problem. It was taking exposures alright, exposures of 0 seconds duration. Doh! Changed that to 1 second and back at the scope used the HC to center Vega while peering up at the laptop.

Rebel XTi
The second alignment star was also in the frame when the AVX stopped, requiring just minor centering. I decided to add a couple of “calibration” stars (which improve the AVX’s goto accuracy). Probably didn’t have to, but I did. Enif required a little slewing, but cal star two, Caph, was dead center when the scope stopped. I figgered alignment was done and punched “M013 into the NexStar HC.

Like the alignment stars, M13 was dern near centered when the slew stopped, and focus, amazingly, was pretty much dead on without adjustment. Guess someone up there was takin’ pity on your benighted Uncle who had been rather worried about getting all this workin’ after not taking astrophoto one for many, many months.

Time to set up PhD Guiding, then. Again, there was little to do. The last time I’d used the software, it had been configured for the AVX and the QHY guide cam, so all I had to do was connect equipment to camera with a single button mash, choose a guide star, and watch while PhD slewed away from and back to the star for its calibration. I let PhD settle down for a minute or two, and it was soon guiding at just a smidge over 1 arc-second RMS without PPEC turned on in the mount. That would be way, way better than I needed with Veronica and the DSLR. 

Finally, I set Nebulosity to take 20 1-minute lights and 20 1-minute darks. I usually try to get 30 minutes on the Great Globular, but it was only at about 30 degrees altitude and by the time 40 minutes had elapsed would be real low and fuzzy. Watcha gonna do? 20 minutes was better than none. I could have gone much longer on the individual subs, but with the target down in the west in the brighter sky near the horizon, I figgered a minute would be best. I watched PhD for a while, but there weren’t nothin’ to watch. It was locked on a guiding without complaint.

Image subframes clicking off, I strolled back into the house, poured out a dollop of Yell, and then walked back out into the yard and stood there next to the scope gazing up at somewhat hazy skies that were not a lot different from those I had in Mama and Daddy’s backyard some 55 years back up the timestream.  

Those familiar-looking skies encouraged my mind to wander back to the long-ago days when M13 was new. New to and quite a pain in the rear for the young Rodster. I wanted to see M13, maybe more even than a spiral galaxy. But when I finally got it in the field of my puny 4-inch Edmund Scientific Palomar Junior, I was badly disappointed. It was just a fuzz-ball…none, not a one, of its hordes of stars were visible. Which might sound strange. Hell, Veronica will resolve some stars in M13 with her 80mm of aperture at high power. So why couldn’t I see a one with my Pal?

First, I didn’t know how to observe. Most of the amateur astronomy books I had read warned against high power. Patrick Moore practically preached against it. That being the case, I mostly just used my 25mm focal length Kellner at about 45x. If I’d tried my 12mm eyepiece, maybe with my Barlow, I probably would have seen some stars, but I just didn’t know.

Perhaps as importantly, I didn’t know what I should be seeing. Sam Brown in his famous All About Telescopes tried to give ideas of what objects would look at in amateur telescopes, but he was a little ambiguous when it came to M13. His wonderful little picture tells us M13 is just a fuzzball in a 3-inch…and goes on to say a 6-inch is needed to resolve stars in the marvel. But what could my 4.25-inch hope to do? Maybe at least a star or two? Sam was silent on that.

Be it all as it may have been, I kept trying with M13 and loved it despite my continuing disappointments—which were not to be alleviated for some years, not till I built a 6-inch and got it to some darker-than-suburban skies.

It seemed I’d been standing out there beside Ronnie for only a few minutes when I heard the laptop emit the little fanfare that is Nebulosity’s way of saying “Exposure sequence is done, Unk!” I covered up the scope, being careful not to move focus. It needed to remain where it was so I could take flat field frames on the morrow. I grabbed the laptop, shut off the desk lamp with the red bulb in it, and strolled inside for a wee bit more yell and a mite of cable TV with the felines.

Next day with the Sun setting, the task was getting those flats done. I am not fancy in that regard. I make them with a couple of layers of t-shirt material rubber-banded over the end of Veronica’s tube. It’s easy enough to make flats, and they really do make a huge difference in processing. Unfortunately, something didn't go quite right with my flats. I'm not sure if the exposure was too short, or I didn't apply them correctly in Nebulosity. Oh, well, tomorrow is another day, I guess. 

Anyhoo…how I do run on. To cut to the chase, I obtained the flats, stacked them into a master flat, subtracted that from my lights (which had already had dark frames applied to them), and we was done. The result? Nothing Earth-shattering, that’s for dadgum sure. About what you’d expect for a DSLR shot from a suburban sky with an 80mm refractor operated by an old coot who can best be described as “astrophotography dabbler.”

But you know what? The shot is mine. I made it with my telescope. In my backyard. Even better, I took it as a sign things are getting back to normal for Unk, and I hope for y'all too.

Wednesday, September 28, 2022


Issue 584: Return to The Trio of Fall Globulars

It’s been hot and stormy down here on the borders of the Great Possum Swamp, muchachos. Real hot all summer long, and real stormy, as in nearly daily thunderstorms. Now, though, September is dying and summer with it; the Autumnal Equinox is upon us.  What better time for stargazing can there be as the nights grow cool, but not cold (at his advanced age, your Uncle dislikes cold even more than heat)?

Yeah, what makes autumn great on the Gulf Coast is the blessed relief it offers from the heat and humidity (and bugs) of summer. We are prone to equinoctial gales, and it can still get hot as September wanes—your Uncle well remembers the sweltering, un-airconditioned Possum Swamp classrooms half a century ago—but it’s often drier, and the nights can be cool and gentle.

Those milder nights are one of the two things that encouraged Unk, who’s spent most evenings the last three months in his cool den, to get into the backyard. The other thing? A new telescope, the SkyWatcher Virtuoso GTi 150P 6-inch Newtonian I’m writing a Sky & Telescope Test Report about. You’ll get to read that in the magazine in due time, but tonight our focus is on where I went, not how I got there.  Our destinations are the three fabulous autumn globulars I wrote about in The Urban Astronomer’s Guide years ago.

As I said then, one of the best things about early fall is you get the best of both worlds:  the autumn objects are on the rise, but the multitudinous wonders of summer are still available under more comfortable conditions. As I also opined in the book, on these nights who isn’t going to make Hercules’ Great Globular, M13, the first stop on a sky tour? I hope to come back to it in the next few weeks and take my yearly portrait of the Great One, but on this night, I would just see what a “little” 6-inch Newtonian could do for it with your aged Uncle’s fading eyes.

The only question was “when?” When would I see much of anything? We were experiencing the same heatwave much of the country was under, as in “feels like” temperatures over 100F. Then, a nasty tropical storm, Ian, which quickly developed into a hurricane, drew a bead on the Gulf, heading for our neighbors in Florida. The strange thing? The downright weird thing? That coincided with cool temperatures (upper 50s) and clear skies in the Swamp. You can bet I wasted no time getting scope to backyard.


Telescope goto-aligned, I mashed in M-1-3 (on my iPhone, not a hand paddle), and we were off. When the slew stopped, there was M13 looking pretty bright and bold. Now, it is fall and this is a “summer” object, but as above, the summertime wonders hold on well into deep autumn. The King was 50 degrees above the horizon and was really perfectly placed for viewing with an alt-azimuth telescope.

M15 in the Palomar Junior
How was he looking? Very good indeed. The ground truth is while a 4-inch telescope—of any design—is a portable, handy instrument, M13 just ain't much in one in the suburban skies many of us labor under. In the 6-inch this evening, on the other hand, the cluster was large at 75x, and I didn’t have to guess at stars…resolution was obvious. A higher power ocular would no doubt have delivered more, but it was a satisfying view.

M13’s lustrous beauty admired for an appropriate length of time, the little scope and I bopped over to neighboring Herc glob M92 for a look-see. And looking good it was with a scattering of resolved stars. Of course, despite what you may hear down to the astronomy club, M92 is not in M13’s class—or in M5’s. If M13 weren’t there, it would still be a second-stringer. Next up? That trio of globs…


M15 ("The Horse's Nose Cluster") in Pegasus is one of those objects that always look good in smaller scopes from city or suburbs, but never approach what they can be from a dark site. As I wrote way back when: “Unfortunately, under the poorest skies with telescopes 6-inches in aperture and smaller, all you may see is M15’s preternaturally bright core.” As I also wrote, an 8-inch in the suburbs can bust this glob into hordes of stars under decent conditions.

How did the 6-inch fare from the noticeably better skies I have in West Possum Swamp? As you might expect, it was between the two extremes.  Even out here under reasonably OK skies, in a 4-inch at low power the cluster can look like not much more than a fuzzy star. But in the 6er, even at just 30x, it was obvious there was a globular in the field when the slew stopped. I’d be lyin’ if I didn’t say I missed that extra two inches of aperture oomph of an 8 inch, though. But, still…not bad.

Increasing magnification even revealed a scattering of tiny, tiny Suns, though not many. However, yeah, the view was better than what I get in any 4-inch in the backyard, game over, end of story, zip up your fly. And resolution or lack thereof notwithstanding, M15 was beautiful, glowing like a dying ember in the subdued autumn heavens.


The Horse's Nose Cluster with camera and refractor...
Aquarius’ monster glob is a spectacle with almost any instrument, though in a 4-inch Newtonian like I used for my Urban Astronomer observation of it, it is as I said in the book, more tantalizing than anything else. In my old Palomar Junior from Chaos Manor South’s backyard downtown, it was nice. Good, even. It obviously wanted to resolve, but nary a star did I see. On this evening from the better skies of suburban Possum Swamp with two more inches of aperture, the graininess resolved into hordes of Suns.

When I was a young observer, I didn’t visit M2 as often as I should have. It was to the south in the star-poor “water” constellations of fall, which were often down in the haze. You young’uns with your gotos and computers don’t have that problem. You can visit M2 anytime you like with the push of a button. Do so; you will be rewarded.


Great googlie-wooglies! Did this one ever give me fits when I was a kid out in Mama and Daddy’s backyard with the Palomar Junior. It was a Messier, and it should have been easy to find in the little constellation, Lyra, but I couldn’t see even a trace, not a dadgum hint of this globular star cluster. The problems with this one are it is loose and it is distant. I never saw it, as a matter of fact, until I’d moved up to a homebrew 6-inch from the Pal Junior.

This lovely evening? Oh, there was no doubt in my formerly military mind it was there. But it was, as I expected, just barely there. It wasn’t even a fuzzball; it was largish smudge on the sky. It was a “been-there,” one of those objects where you tell yourself you have to be happy just having been there. Frankly, to make this one look decent takes a 12-inch telescope far deeper into the suburban-country transition zone than my backyard is.

And that was a wrap, muchachos. The clock was creeping on past ten, which is late-late for your now-aged uncle, and the call of the den and the TV and maybe a sip of the Yell was strong. If you have the Urban book, you know I visited a number of fascinating objects beyond the trio, but I think maybe we’ll save that for a part 2 where I’ll give those even more subdued objects a better chance to shine, maybe with my 8-inch SCT…or maybe I’ll even get the 10-inch, Zelda, into the backyard after a long, long layoff.

And so ended my evening. One thing this 6-inch f/5 certainly has to recommend it is it’s a joy to bring inside: no disassembly required. Picked her it up, hauled her into the sunroom, and in five minutes I was on the couch drinking a cold 807 and watching television with the cats.

What else? As I said last time, I’m getting my tabletop space program back underway. Artemis, it seems, has re-lit a little of the old fire for space in me. One change:  I decided to set the Gemini aside for now and build a Saturn V to make up for the one that was lost in our move (apparently; it seems nowhere to be found unless it’s in the attic, and it’s been too hot for me to check). I also intend to do a Launch Umbilical Tower for it. I’ll let you know how it goes when I make some progress. For now? Back to that aforementioned TV and those frosty 807s…and maybe if I dare…even a little of the old Rebel Yell…ciao!

Monday, August 22, 2022


Issue 583: Covid Ain’t Nuthin' to Mess With


Muchachos, this is going to be a short one without much to say about our shared passion. I didn’t want to let August go by without a blog post, but most assuredly didn’t feel like getting out and doing any observing. The reason wasn’t weather or my aversion to biting bugs and humidity, it was the dang covid 19.

You know, I really thought we'd dodged a bullet when it came to the plague. Miss Dorothy and I made it through the peak years of 20 and 21 unscathed. Hell, I taught in the classroom last fall and spring and didn’t even come down with the sniffles. Did I let my guard down a little? Not in any egregious way I don’t think, even though I was hoping my total of four vaccine shots would be enough to keep the virus at bay.

Nevertheless, a couple of weeks ago I was sitting out in the vaunted Batcave (my radio shack) and began to realize I didn’t feel worth a crap. At first, I attributed that to allergies or just some kinda dadgum general malaise, but I went steadily downhill from there. Mostly it was nausea, though I recalled I’d awakened that morning with a somewhat scratchy throat: “Musta been them leftover tacos…I ain’t coughing…this can’t be the covid 19!”

Uh-huh.  As the evening wore on, I began to feel like, well, pounded puppy poop. Even that magical elixir, Rebel Yell, didn’t help. I sat in the den with our rascally black cat, Thomas Aquinas, watching TV for a while, but had a hard time absorbing what I was seeing. By the time I decided I was better off in bed, around 9pm, I was feverish and had the chills.

Sunday night was truly rotten. I had weird dreams, if they could even be described as “dreams;” they were more like the strange impressions you sometimes get (well, Unk does) in that odd space between waking and sleeping. Long night. At one point, I thought it surely must have been 4am. Nope, the clock said “11:00pm” …sigh.

Next morning, I knew it was time to do a covid test (we’d got quite a few of the free ones the gubmint was sending out some time back). After fumbling with the little test-tube and test strip, I waited the prescribed 15 minutes for a result. And, yep, “positive.” I really wasn’t surprised.

The good thing? Over the ensuing weeks, I never really felt that sick. Oh, Sunday and the Monday that followed I was not feeling great, but after that first night I was able to sleep with the aid of that wonder drug, Nyquil. I never felt bad enough to think about ringing my physician (a fellow amateur astronomer).  I had a cough, but my throat was never even scratchy again after that first day.

In hopes of not infecting Miss D, I spent most of my time out in the Batcave. What did I do all day? I went through boxes of Kleenex and watched all sorts of silly videos on the YouTube to amuse myself. I even saw some pretty interesting ones, like some on the new ZWO strain-wave telescope mount. Unfortunately, Miss D., tested positive several says later despite being boosted three times. Thankfully, like Unk, she was never sick enough to need medical attention, though she was maybe a little more ill than I was.

And, finally, after two long weeks I tested negative. I still have an occasional cough but feel OK. I won't sugar coat it, though:  I am tired, real tired, and fuzzy headed and don't feel up to doing anything productive. 

Where did I pick up my case of the plague? Best we can determine, it probably came from the grocery store. I haven’t been out that much otherwise. As always, I take summer off from my teaching gig with the physics department here, and even my normally minimalist social life is currently at a low ebb. I do do my weekly foray to Heroes, but usually sit at the bar on my lonely barstool watching the game.

Takeaways? If you haven’t had the boosters, get them. If you haven’t been vaccinated, for God’s sake, get vaccinated. I had a mild case, undoubtedly thanks to the vaccine, but it was still no fun. Final word? Same as with Harley Quinn’s crew (while I was sick I watched the whole Kaley Cuoco series again):

“Covid 19 ain’t nuthin' to f*&k with!"

See y’all sometime next month, maybe a couple of times next month, you never know…

Tuesday, July 19, 2022


Issue 582: Space Summer Redux, Redux


The years just seem to fly by of late, muchachos. I simply cannot believe this little epistle on my wonderful space summer is from 10 fricking years ago! You’ve heard oldsters remark how the days speed by for ‘em. Well, according to neuroscientists, that might be real and not just our imaginations or the effects of ennui out in the suburbs (with which I am well acquainted). Maybe, as we age, the brain’s “clock” slows down, causing external time and events to seem to speed up…

That sure sounds reasonable to me. I cannot fathom how that birthday week of Unk’s in July recounted above could possibly be a decade in the rearview mirror. But what a week it was! As you’ll learn if you read thatun, I spent those days in July recreating the Race to the Moon on Chaos Manor South’s dining room table, drinking margaritas and eating Mexican food, and…to cap it all off, driving hundreds of miles to Chiefland, Florida and imaging hundreds of Herschel objects. Today, just thinking about all that makes me tired.

Back then, though, it was a good tired by the time my week was out. I was only on the verge of my 60s, still pretty hardcore as an observer, and able to stay up till the wee hours—under the stars or not. Ten years down the line? Heck, y’all, I am lucky to make it to 2300 on or off the observing field (my backyard, not the CAV’s Billy Dodd Field these nights). 

Still, this week was once again my birthday week, and what’s a birthday without involving astronomy, or at least “space”? It looked like the former was o-u-t. The weather here on the borders of the Great Possum Swamp was and is horrible. Even if it ain’t cloudy (or thundering and raining, more like), it is miserable. It’s not dark enough to do anything till 2100 at least, and it is miserably hot and humid (and hazy) even then. Oh, and the bugs? They just love your old Uncle—as a square meal!

So…that left…SPACE, THE FINAL FRONTIER. Not with the crew of the fictional Enterprise, but with some real space heroes. What in tarnation is Unk goin’ on about now? Has being over the hill and ready to proceed down the opposite slope deprived him of what little sense he had?

Found it!
I was vaguely thinking the other day I might get my plastic space program going again. It would if nothing else be something spacey I could do in comfort indoors. That thought was quickly followed by me recalling I’d lost the kit I really wanted to build, Revell’s 1/24th scale Gemini spacecraft, when we moved from Chaos Manor South to suburbia. That kinda drew a pall over that idea.

No replacing the Revell either. The long out of “print” kit can be had on eBay but expect to pay a hundred bucks for it. Which didn’t seem reasonable to cheap ol’ Unk given current economic conditions. Oh, well…I guessed that meant the closest I could come to recreating that fondly remembered 10-years-ago week was drinking a Margarita or two at El Giro’s…or maybe just an Ultra down at Heroes Sports Bar and Grill.

And then…and then…sometimes the stars  align. I opened the door to the closet in the New Manse’s office to get something—I can’t remember what and it does not matter—and for some unknown reason, looked up. What should I spy? A familiar box on the very top shelf. Could it be? No…no way! Yep, my “lost” Gemini capsule. And the box next to the kit? The Realspace add-on accessories to fix the mistakes Revell made and add the things to the kit they left out. I figgered this must be some kinda sign I really should build the Gemini capsule.

What to do first? Well, I take this rather seriously. If I’m gonna build a spacecraft model, I’m gonna build a spacecraft model. I’d need to do some research. I still had the excellent DVDs mentioned in the above-linked blog entry, DVDs from Spacecraft Films. I wondered, though, if they might have some more Gemini-related films available…

I was actually somewhat surprised to discover their website is still on the air in this mostly post-DVD age. It is, but has an untended, near-ghost town look and feel to it. Trying to order any of their products takes you nowheres. But that was OK, I still had their Gemini disks and, more importantly, found there’s tons of material on Project Gemini—documentaries, old NASA films, you name it—on cotton-picking YouTube. Tons, campers.

Gemini was a hot rod compared to Mercury...
It was reassuring there was plenty of reference material available, since Gemini (pronounced “Jiminy,” like the cricket, not jeh·muh·nai like the constellation, young’uns) is the redheaded stepchild of NASA. Almost everybody knows about Project Mercury. It was there first, sending Alan Shepard and John Glenn and the rest of the legendary Mercury 7 into space just slightly behind the Russkies. Even folks who don’t know as much about NASA as my cat, have likely heard of Apollo. Gemini? Not so much.

Truth is, that One Small Step of Apollo would have been far too large a leap from Mercury. There had to be a program in-between. Something that allowed us to perfect the vital arts of rendezvous and docking.  But not just that. Mercury was a primitive little spacecraft that depended on batteries. The longest duration Mercury mission was Gordo Cooper’s Mercury 9, Faith 7. After less than a day and a half, the Mercury spacecraft was on the ropes with multiple failures. We’d have to do better to get to the Moon.

Gemini was a considerably more advanced spacecraft. Oh, it wasn’t roomy. There was no room for the crew to speak of. The two astronauts (one of the reasons the program was named “Gemini”) had to endure something akin to spending an entire mission in the front seat of a VW bug. But, yes, the Gemini capsule made Mercury look like a Wright Flyer. All but the earliest spacecraft were powered by fuel cells rather than batteries, and the capsule was much more “flyable,” which it would have to be for rendezvous and docking.

Gemini and the Gemini pilots delivered on that. Not only did Gemini VI and VII rendezvous in space, there were highly successful dockings with the Agena Target Vehicle, five of them over the course of the program.  The first, done on Neil Armstrong’s Gemini VIII mission, was a near disaster, not due to Agena, but due to a stuck thruster on the Gemini spacecraft itself. Armstrong dealt with it in his accustomed cool and competent manner and the mission was deemed a success despite an early landing being dictated by Mission Rules after the thruster problem.

It was with Gemini we began to first catch up with and then surpass the Soviets. Gemini set some impressive records. In addition to those docking missions, Pete Conrad and Richard Gordon’s Gemini XI set an altitude record of 739.2 nautical miles (with the help of an Agena’s engine). On the last Gemini, Gemini XII, Buzz Aldrin made a record-breaking 5-hour and 30-minute EVA. Maybe most importantly, Gemini VII, crewed by Frank Borman and Jim Lovell, set an endurance record of nearly 14 days. That proved NASA’s spacecraft and astronauts could hold up for considerably longer than the time required for a lunar mission.

Post-Gemini, it looked as if it were full-speed-ahead to the Moon for NASA and the consarned Russkies would be left in the dust. Alas, then came the disastrous Apollo I fire that claimed the lives of Gus Grissom (who was the odds-on favorite to be the first man on the Moon), Ed White (the first NASA space-walker on Gemini IV), and Roger Chaffee. That set the Apollo program back twenty months and turned the space race into a little bit more of a race (at least we thought so; the Soviet lunar program was in real trouble). Apollo I notwithstanding, Gemini prepared us for the Moon.

That’s a brief summary of NASA’s Gemini. If you want the complete story, there are plenty of resources including the above-mentioned NASA documentaries to be found on YouTube. Want a book? There are many. Some I can recommend? If you’re a space nut like ol’ Unk, you probably know about Apogee Books. They are still in business and offer an outstanding volume on Gemini. They also have individual books on some separate Gemini missions.

What did Unk need to do to get his own Project Gemini off the ground? I needed a few inexpensive supplies…the usual things required for building plastic models. Much of what I was using 8 - 10 years ago—paints, putty, glue, airbrush propellent—was ready for the trash. Luckily, our local hobby shop (we have a real hobby shop, Hobby Town, in addition to the strange and execrable Hobby Lobby) fixed me right up. Those things obtained, I thought I’d go ahead and do something about the decal situation.

The washing of the parts...
The Revell 1/24 Gemini comes with a tiny, maybe 2” x 2”, sheet of decals. Not only are they few, the included decals are mostly wrong. Also, not surprisingly, the sheet was yellowed and looking brittle nearly 10 years down the line. Luckily, another space modeling goto, Steve, the CultTVMan, is still in business, too. He got me three big sheets of authentic Gemini decals in just a few days…

Just before Unk’s birthday. Which arrived as it always has with fun and foolishness. How did your increasingly aged Uncle celebrate this year? It was not that different from the space summer that decade ago. Oh, no Chiefland…I haven’t been Down Chiefland Way these seven years, so I suppose that is finis for me.  But, no, not that different; there was even an expedition of sorts.

On my birthday eve, I did a sorta spacey thing for Apollo 11 anniversary week by watching Sandra Bullock in Gravity on HBO Max. When it first came out, I remarked here that, while I appreciated being able to watch the pretty Ms. Bullock cavort in her skivvies, I was disappointed in the scientific faux pas in the movie. I hadn’t watched it again since it was in the theatres (which I was amazed to realize was nearly 10 years ago).  This time? The film looked beautiful on the 4K TV…and…I must be gettin’ less critical and cynical in my old age, cause I really enjoyed it.

The big day brought that expedition, to Meaher State Park here on the Causeway across Mobile Bay. Why there? It’s a nice place to activate for (amateur radio) Parks on the Air. Miss Dorothy and I drove out to Meaher State Park on Mobile Bay, which is only about half an hour away, and I made contacts all the way from Maine to Texas and everywhere in-between with my battery-powered 20-watt Xiegu G90 transceiver.

And as a suitably appropriate finish to the day? Well, there was Mexican food. El Giro’s, our ancient haunt back when we lived at Chaos Manor South (and often the site of our legendary Christmas Eve dinners), burned down many years ago. Not long after, they built a new El Giro’s out in west Mobile, which, we found after we moved out here, was barely three miles away from our new home. Yes, sometimes the stars, yes, really do align.

But what about that Revell Gemini spacecraft, huh, what about that? I got it underway, beginning the Saturday before my birthday with the ritual Washing of the Parts (to get rid of any lingering mold-release lubricant). But…I decided what I want to do is Gemini VIII, the Armstrong mission. To that end, I ordered the Apogee book on that mission to use as reference and am cooling my heels until it arrives. Rest assured; I will update you as we go along, at least occasionally.

I thought I was done with long, long blogs, but I’ve just kept going and going like the dadgum Energizer Bunny. We are well and truly out of time and space. Almost…

El Giro's!
What’s next? For my personal space program? When I finish Gemini VIII? As I mentioned here, the Launch Umbilical Tower I build for my Airfix Saturn V was destroyed during our move to the suburbs from Chaos Manor South. And at this time, it appears the Saturn V may be gone as well. Oh, there are a few more boxes for me to look it and I have my fingers crossed, but I am not overly hopeful.

So, while it might be covering old ground, I think I might do another Saturn and that LUT too. I have the feeling being able to work on the latter for longer stretches and without any pressure to finish may make it a more fun and less harrowing experience. Be that as it may, Uncle Rod’s Little Space Museum is opening up again.

Astronomy-wise? Amateur astronomy-wise? I have but two words: “Destination Moon.” Unless the weather becomes a lot more comfortable and clear a lot sooner than I think it well, deep space, the deep sky, will wait a few months more.

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