Sunday, November 19, 2023


Issue 598: When is a Star Party Not a Star Party? Redux…


The answer is still the same as it was many a year ago, muchachos: “Never!” I almost always have a great time at an astronomy event, even when I don’t see much—or anything at all. It’s nice to hang out with friends, look at other folks’ astro-gear, yadda-yadda-yadda. But for all that, there is, as I have also said before, one big reason I go to a star party that trumps all:  To see the deep sky. Alas, that is the one thing that was in short supply at the just completed 41st annual Deep South Star Gaze (née, Deep South Regional Star Gaze).

The extended forecasts for the event’s location near Sandy Hook, Mississippi hadn’t been looking good for weeks. They indicated the time Miss Dorothy and I would be on site, Thursday – Sunday, would be resolutely cloudy, and most likely rainy—game over, end of story zip up your fly. The “safe” thing to have done would have been not to even register. Or, to have saved some gas and not hit the road for the Mississippi backwoods when November 9th came around.

Nope. No way. I was finally back in the mood for a star party, and, in particular, for this star party after a lay-off of six years. After not the best star party experience in 2017, mostly thanks to deteriorating conditions at the event’s previous location, the Feliciana Retreat Center in Louisiana, and the change of venue in ’18 to the current White Horse Christian Retreat Center, we took a couple of years off. Then came covid. And we hadn’t been back since the end of the plague. Once you get out of the habit of going to a star party, it’s sometimes hard to get with it again, but this year, I’d decided, would be different.  

In dipping-toe-into-shallow-end-of-pool fashion, Miss D. and I began slowly, ever so slowly, planning for the 2023 Deep South Star Gaze. At first it seemed strange to be rounding up the sleeping bags and the tent canopy again (I sprayed plenty of waterproofing on the latter in view of the forecast). But mostly, it just seemed right and natural. After all, Deep South was something we’d been doing together since we were married in 1994. What was feeling strange now was those six autumns without a Deep South.

In addition to gathering up the ancillary gear, I naturally had to decide “Which telescope?” The weather forecasts didn’t quite look horrible, not yet, but they did not look good. It was not a year for fancy mounts and SCTs and computers. Also, something simpler would be more in line with the “dipping-a-toe-back-in” theme for the year. So, what I decided on (at first) was my 10-inch GSO Dobsonian, Zelda. Object finding assistance? Her 50mm finder, her Rigel Quickfinder, and Sky & Telescope’s Pocket Sky Atlas Jumbo Edition backed by my treasured deck of George Kepple’s legendary Astro Cards.

Wednesday evening before our departure, I loaded up the 4Runner, Miss Van Pelt. What I did not load up, after all, was Zelda. Why lug a 10-inch when there was little—if any—doubt it would be clouds and rain for our entire stay at White Horse? The forecasts had just got worse, not better. I wouldn’t be without a scope, though. I packed a smallish one just in case we saw something. Frankly, for reasonable people (obviously that does not include your strange, old Uncle) this would have been the time to say, “Let’s stay home and watch it rain in comfort.”

Nope, nosir-buddy. Not only were we interested in giving the new star party site a look-see, we wanted to show we still support the event, and, maybe more than anything else, we wanted to see friends we hadn’t seen in years and whom I’d begun to wonder if we we’d ever seen again. I finished loading the truck, just like the good, old days and called it a night reasonably early…after indulging our resident black cat, Thomas Aquinas, by watching WWII videos on YouTube (he favors “Midway” and “The Great Marianas Turkey Shoot”).

Interior of the rustic lodge...
Thursday morning dawned to heavy clouds—which have been the rule rather than the exception down here for weeks and weeks.  There was no need to get on the road early. The drive is a reasonably short one, about two-and-a-half hours, and the event’s only meal, supper, would not be served until 4pm daily. With that situation in mind, I’d loaded up on snacks and Hormel’s “Compleats” stabilized microwave dinners (like I used to keep in my desk at work long ago).

The drive was, yeah, a short one, and there wouldn’t have been much to say about it if not for the nostalgia factor. Like our long-ago visits to Percy Quin State Park, original home of the star party, the journey to White Horse is up Highway 98 to Hattiesburg (and then on to Sandy Hook). Miss D. and I sure did a lot of reminiscin’ about our trip on this very road through the Mississippi piney woods in 1994 when we were newlyweds.

A big difference this time? No AAA trip-ticks or Rand McNally Road Atlas. It was GPS all the way, and she did get us to White Horse, albeit not without one bit of minor unpleasantness. As we neared our destination, the GPS, Samantha, told us to turn onto THE ROAD. Yep, no name, just “the road.” A dirt road that quickly devolved into a rutted two-lane track, and then into mudholes just short of a swamp. Miss Van Pelt loved it, since she rarely gets to be a real off-road 4Runner. Dorothy and I sure were bemused…to put it mildly…wondering what would have happened if we’d turned down THE ROAD in her Camry!  I am still washing the mud off Miss Van P.

Soon, we were on another nondescript (but at least paved) road.  The excellent directions Barry provided for the area near the site reassured us we were indeed in the right place. Soon, there was, as mentioned in said directions, a column with, yep, a white horse sculpture atop it. And…in just a moment we were at the facility.

White Horse Observing Field...
What was it like? See the pictures…but what it reminded me of was the hunting camps the daddies of my pals used to belong to back in the sixties (my own Daddy was not exactly an outdoors type), and which I’d visited occasionally. That is, a complex of structures that involved tin sheeting and which the owners appeared to have expanded as they’d gone along.

Driving toward the building we noticed a paddock-like area on the right festooned with a few tent canopies and even a few telescopes. We figgered that must be the place, parked there, grabbed our suitcases, and headed back to the main building. Inside, we were informed by the friendly star-partiers there that DSSG Director Barry Simon had left the site for lunch and would be back shortly. We spent half an hour or so looking around and getting a feel for the place. The interior of the lodge continued the hunting camp theme but was really purty darned nice. Oh, and there was Wi-Fi. At poor, old Feliciana that had often been missing.

Upon Barry’s return, he pointed us at our room—the facility has several small motel-like rooms in addition to bunkhouses. It was even tinier than what we had become accustomed to at Feliciana, but was clean and really just perfect for us. The window air conditioner was noisy but cooled remarkably well.

The storied pumpkin...
Thence to the field for a prize drawing. Despite Dorothy drawing the tickets from the legendary orange DSRSG plastic pumpkin (the same one from back in the vaunted Percy Quin days), I didn’t win a dadgum thing—and they were giving away a real nice widefield eyepiece and some other cool stuff besides. That ain’t exactly a surprise. I rarely win anything in a raffle—other than a raffle for ham radio gear. That, I win again and again—strange.

Afterwards, there not being much to do before supper, it was back to the main building, “the lodge,” for web surfing and getting reacquainted with old friends. If I don’t list your name here, I’m not slighting you. It’s just that I’d have to list 40 or more. All of you, old friends and new ones alike, are important to us.

That hour or two in the lodge was the high point of the star party. What else did I do other then get caught up with buddies?  I took frequent trips outside for looks at the sky—all in vain. And I kept my eye on an app recommended to me by Sky & Telescope’s Sean Walker some time back, Astropheric. It took a while for me to get used to it, but, yeah, it really is better than Clear Sky Charts. In fact, it’s like CSC on steroids. If you don’t have it on your phone already, you should (it's free).

Then came supper. Miss Dorothy and I were signed up for the meal plan, but were informed that had been cancelled (because the weather kept attendance down so much, I guess). Instead, there were hamburger and hotdog plates available for a reasonable price. Dorothy and I ordered hamburgers…and were a little surprised at their definitely different taste. The ebullient lady who owns White Horse informed us that was because they were made from not just beef, but pork, and deer meat, too! Well, when in Rome do as the Romans do, I reckon.

My usual mascot promoting "Dark Nights."
And so, we hung out in the lodge till the Sun was long gone. Outside, Len Philpot pointed out the only light dome visible around the horizon was miniscule. Far smaller than what we’d had at Feliciana and certainly minor compared to what Percy Quin’s sky must be like today (it’s near what is now verging on a small city, McComb, Mississippi). I suspected the sky would have been great if it had been clear. Which it wasn’t. Since it was obvious there wouldn’t even be sucker holes, I said my goodnights and headed back to the room where Dorothy was already relaxing.

The good thing? While the Wi-Fi was not exactly strong outside the lodge, it was strong enough in our room for my Macintosh Airbook M2 to pull in YouTube with ease. I spent the evening looking at whatever whack-a-doodle videos my heart desired until it was nigh-on ten o’clock.

In the morning, another cloudy morning, Dorothy and I showered, dressed, and said our farewells. There were to be talks Friday, but we’d decided it would be best to get back down Highway 98 before the weather worsened. Barry was already planning on finishing up with all the talks and the prize drawings as well that afternoon. Which was wise—the field was already practically empty, and it was clear few folks would hang on till Saturday, much less the official end of DSSG Sunday morning.

As we pulled away from White Horse, was I sad to be leaving? Well, sort of. I was happy to have seen my old buddies again. But…leaving a clouded-out star party just doesn’t have the same feel—that wistful regret—you get when departing one that’s had nights and nights of deep space voyaging. Well, maybe next fall.  Maybe even this coming spring (Deep South still does its smaller Spring Scrimmage edition).

Thursday, October 19, 2023


Issue 597: The Big Eclipse


Well, in a small way, muchachos. Not that it wasn’t a fairly big deal, but it hadn’t assumed much prominence in my reckonings in the days before the event. Saturday morning’s annular eclipse had been somewhat on your ol’ Uncle’s mind, of course. How could it not be? Every weatherman, local and national, had been talking about little else for the last week. And yet, and yet…  I felt unmoved. Yes, it would be a fairly deep eclipse, around 75% of Sol’s face would be covered by Miss Hecate in the environs of Possum Swamp…but…yeah, just another partial eclipse.

Anyhoo, Eclipse morning, I wasn’t thinking much about the Sun; I was thinking more about my current addiction: breakfast biscuits, fried chicken breakfast biscuits slathered in honey sauce. “Guess I’ll head up to Whataburger for breakfast with the hams like I do every Saturday.” In addition to my guilty pleasure, those dadgum biscuits, I am the president of the Mobile Amateur Radio Club and feel like it’s part of my job to attend every edition of the Saturday morning assemblage of OMs and YLs—the fried chicken is just a perk (uh-huh)

It was a jolly gathering at Whataburger that morning. Everybody was awful excited about the Swains Island DXpedition, which had been causing quite the stimulation of the HF ether. But, also, the solar eclipse, which would begin about 90 minutes from the time the nice li’l girl brought Unk his breakfast tray.

Hams and astronomy? There are lots of amateur radio operators who are also amateur astronomers. Radio propagation depends on the Sun, so most hams have a natural interest in it. More than that, amateur radio is a scientific hobby, and hams tend to be curious about things like, yeah, The Great Out There. Question a ham and you’ll often find she/he has a telescope. A dealer at our last tailgater, Bud’s Tailgator, had a couple of scopes for sale, smallish Meades, and they generated a heck of a lot of interest. “Rod! What do you think of this one?”

Our efforts and success or lack thereof in working Swains Island in the South Pacific (I got him without much trouble on CW) talked over at fair length, the ragchewing turned to ECLIPSE, ECLIPSE, ECLIPSE. I grumbled it was just an annular eclipse, and a partial one at that from the Gulf Coast. Nothing to get excited about. My friends looked at me as if I were crazy, “But W4NNF, it’s a solar eclipse!”

Well, I had to admit, I’ve been moved by even a partial eclipse. Unfortunately, I reckon I got off on a bad foot when it comes to solar eclipses just over 50 years ago. I am talking about the great total eclipse of March 1970.  Not only would it be a deep partial one for Possum Swamp, over 90%, the path of totality wouldn’t be far away. It would pass relatively near here in fact, the path going right through this little town on the Florida – Georgia Parkway, Chiefland, Florida (!).

The "pinhole effect."
Now, I didn’t know a thing about Chiefland; it was just a spot on the map. I certainly had no inkling one day there’d be such a thing as the Chiefland Astronomy Village there or that I’d spend many a night under the stars on a Chiefland observing field. All I knew was it was on Highway 19/98, Highway 98 could be picked up right across the Bay, and the map I got at the Gulf Station indicated there were motels there. What if…what if…  What if I got in my 1962 Ford Galaxie and headed for Chiefland to observe the eclipse? Hell, maybe even to take pictures of it. It would be a real eclipse expedition just like the pros did!

While I had enough money saved up from my various endeavors—mostly lawn mowing—to pay for gas and maybe even enough for a cheap motel room, one impediment remained—the old man. OK, no use holding back; nothing to it but to do it. I apprised W4SLJ of my plans for the eclipse expedition.

His reaction? About the same as the previous month when I’d asked if I could borrow $24.95 for a Gotham Vertical antenna for WN4NNF: “Daddy," I'd said, waving a copy of 73 Magazine under his nose, "It says right here in the ad it will let me work plenty of DX!”  When I paused for breath after pouring out my eclipse plans, alas, he gave a me a look that indicated he was momentarily speechless and/or concerned his peculiar young son had finally taken complete leave of his senses. He grabbed me by the shoulder and led me outside to the driveway where my prized Galaxie was parked.

“For crying out loud, you are going to drive six or eight hours on Highway 98 with this? Look at those tires!  I’m surprised when you go into the gas station and ask for a dollar’s worth that the attendant doesn’t ask ‘Gas or oil?’ No. I’m guessing you wouldn’t get halfway there. And I’d have to take a day off work to come and retrieve you and figure out what to do with this—junker.” Said he, looking over at my poor Ford and shaking his head.

To soften the blow, he patted me on the shoulder. “Sorry coach. That’s the way it is. Say, you want to put up an HF vertical? Let’s build you one. I’ve got some aluminum tubing here somewhere, and we’ll put together a loading coil.” And that was that.  I was frankly embarrassed I’d troubled the OM, who usually maintained a serious demeanor indicative of his European heritage. I imagined daddy was a lot like Enrico Fermi must have been. Yes, I was embarrassed and had no intention of bringing the subject up again.

The coda on the big spring eclipse of 1970? The OM was mostly right. Oh, I still wonder if the Galaxie might not have made it there and back in one piece…but it wouldn’t have made any difference. It was cloudy in Chiefland. And it was cloudy up here on the Northern Gulf Coast. The way I remember it, I didn’t get a glimpse of the eclipsed Sun that day.

The above memory did pass through my mind at breakfast, but, on the other hand, no eclipse I’ve ever actually been able to see has, yes, failed to move me. Anyway, I was brought back to the present by the excited chirping of my fellow ops about the cardboard box solar viewers they had ready to go—I’d printed instructions on safe solar viewing and plans for a pinhole viewer in the radio club’s weekly newsletter.

I looked at my watch. 9:30 had come and gone and the eclipse would begin at 10:37. I announced we’d all better get a move on, and we headed for the doors nearly en masse—no doubt to the astonishment of the Whataburger crew.

Back home, I couldn’t deny it; a bit of the ol’ eclipse fever was setting in. If you want heresy, lunar eclipses have always meant more to me than solar ones. Maybe because of the events surrounding a memorable one early in my astronomy career. But, like the ops had said, “’NNF, it’s an eclipse!”  Having not prepared in advance for this one, there wouldn’t be any fancy telescopes or cameras. I grabbed my humble 80mm SkyWatcher refractor, Eloise, and headed for the backyard. I plunked her down on the driveway in a spot with a good view to the east, slapped the Thousand Oaks solar filter over her objective end, and was ready.

iPhone 14 Sun.
And soon it began, Luna creeping across the solar disk. As partial eclipses go, this would be a good-looking one. We are at a time of high solar activity here in Cycle 25. It’s been wild for months, and we are not at max yet—some fellers are saying this solar cycle might rival the legendary Cycle 19 for activity. That meant the solar disk was peppered by sunspots including one impressively large group. I reckoned it would be especially purty in a hydrogen alpha scope. Alas, your stingy Unk doesn’t have one of those. The Thousand Oaks filter did produce a beautiful yellow-orange Sun, however.

What was it like? Yes, any solar eclipse is an experience, one that isn’t duplicated by looking at photos of one. For one thing, looking at the Moon blotting out the Sun always gives me a real feeling for the depth of the sky. The Moon, our nearby pal, passing in front of far more distant Sol…I almost get a feeling of vertigo and the view in the eyepiece seems to assume almost the look of 3D.

Feeling that semi-vertigo, I pulled away from the eyepiece for a moment and thought, “Hell, this is a GOOD ONE. Oughta take a picture.” How? Just with my cell phone. I recalled I’d purchased a smartphone mount, a plastic widget that clamps your phone onto an eyepiece, to use when I was writing a Sky &Telescope Test Report on a SkyWatcher reflector and ran inside to fetch it.

With a little fiddling, I got the iPhone 14 set up and starting taking little snapshots. I didn’t expect much, just a souvenir of the day, but the iPhone 14 Pro Max does have a surprisingly good and versatile camera as phone cameras go, and I was able to get a couple of OK snapshots despite my excited fumbling.

With eclipse maximum upon us, I ran inside to get Miss Dorothy so she could have a look (and also document Unk’s uber-simple setup). Soon that eerie semi-twilight that comes with a deep partial eclipse set in, and the world was silent and still for a while. And we looked and we looked and we looked until the Moon passed on in her timeless path. It was a good one y’all and I was happy to have seen it.

Next time:  Shortly, I should have finished my yearly M13 image quest (I would have done that this evening but for dratted clouds moving in in advance of a mild front). So that will—knock on wood—be my subject next edition.  


Saturday, September 30, 2023


Issue 596: My Favorite Star Parties


Miss Dorothy and Friend, 1994...
This one was intended to recount my efforts taking my traditional yearly astrophoto of the Great Globular, M13 in Hercules, y’all. That didn’t happen. It wasn’t weather that prevented it, but equipment snafus.  You’ll learn more about that in the near future, muchachos. But as you know, sometime back I swore I would not let a month pass without a fresh article for the Little Old Blog from Possum Swamp.

What did I start thinking about as I was pondering what to write about here? Star parties. Why? Well it is definitely and obviously the fall star party season in the Northern Hemisphere. There was more to it than that, however. Mostly, how much I miss the star party experience. I haven’t been to one in, oh, about four years.

“Whyzat, Unk, whyzat, huh?”  A couple of reasons, Scooter. The biggest one being covid. 2020 wasn’t any year to gather with a bunch of people even if you tried to keep your distance. 2021 wasn’t either. 2022, the supposed last year of the plague? I had a relatively mild case late that year and I am not anxious to get it again. But… 

I sure got sick of the fracking lockdown and am glad to be back teaching undergraduates in person. Dorothy and I made it through this year’s big Huntsville Hamfest no problem…so, what's to worry? I can still get skittish about crowds. Psychological more than anything else, I reckon (though folks down here are getting sick in numbers again).

That ain’t all that’s kept me off the star party trail, though. A combination of health issues and me getting older is maybe more the reason I haven’t been back to an observing field than fear of the covid cooties. Miss Dorothy and I made a short trip the other day, to Biloxi, Mississippi, and I realized I was just…I dunno…hesitant about driving I-10. I felt shaky behind the wheel. Of course, that is probably just that I haven’t driven long distances much thanks to the combination of retirement and the virus. I’m thinking I could get more comfortable with it again—though it will never be like the days of two-hour daily Interstate commutes.

Anyhow, thinking about these things just naturally led me to thinking about the wonderful star parties I’ve attended. I became a regular at the game about 30 years ago. Oh, I’d been to a couple before that, but wasn’t a regular goer. By the 2000s, though, I was star party crazy and you could find me on observing fields from sea to shining sea. In fact, I did so many star parties in 2016 a friend said in retrospect that that long spring and summer was Uncle Rod’s Farewell Tour.

Maybe, maybe not. I am thinking about the Deep South Star Gaze in November as a way of dipping my toe back in—we shall see. And who knows what the new year will bring? I know I’m interested in going again. But I will only go if I want to. If I know it will be fun.

Be that as it may, over the years I have naturally accumulated some favorites when it comes to star parties, and I thought I would share them with you this morning. As in the old series of articles, My Favorite Star Parties I ran for a long time, “favorite” doesn’t necessarily mean “best.” Sometimes it does…but mostly these are the ones where your ol’ Unk just had him a Real Good Time.

Deep South Regional Star Gaze

This event is still ongoing, now being called the “Deep South Star Gaze.” So why do I refer to it by its older name? I’ve had good times at this Mississippi/Louisiana event for three solid decades, but I believe I loved it best when it was in its original home at beautiful Percy Quin State Park near McComb, Mississippi.

Why is this one of my great ones? I’ll fess up that is mostly because it was the first star party I went to with my beautiful new bride, Miss Dorothy, way back in 1994. But that’s not the only reason. Another is this one is focused like a laser on observing. Oh, there’ve been talks and occasional contests over the years, but what everybody is out for at this star party is observing. It’s also that I’ve been so many times over the years my fellow attendees have become my genuine friends. I will have to admit it’s also been wonderful to have a good—no, great—star party just around the corner, about three hours from home.

How is it now? I’ll just have to go to find out, now won’t I? While the star party is in its fourth home, and while I still miss Percy Quin, I admit I have had terrific times at all of the DSRSG’s locations.  Stay tuned…

Chiefland Star Party

This one is long gone. Oh, various people have tried to revive it a time or two. And a semi-Chiefland was held fairly recently when a hurricane caused the Winter’s Star Party’s usual home to be unavailable one year. I will make no bones about it:  I loved the Chiefland Star Party. Expansive observing field. Motels and (good) restaurants close at hand. Often outstanding skies. Hell, they had wireless internet on the field years ago.

The straight poop on Chiefland? It was held year after year in the first decade of this new century at the Chiefland Astronomy Village near, natch, Chiefland, Florida. Other folks loved it, too, for the above reasons, and also for the incredible friendliness and welcoming attitude of the CAV residents. Maybe we loved it too much. The attendance became so large it overwhelmed the facilities (like porta-potties) and caused various headaches for the residents.

In addition to the WSP year, there’ve been several revivals of the CSP. In fact, I was at one of the last organized ones. But…while it was a good star party…it just wasn’t the same. How could it be? The movers and shakers at Chiefland have like all of us grown older. Billy and Alice Dodd are gone, have passed away. My old friend Carl Wright has left us as well. Others, like the heart and soul of Chiefland, Tom and Jeannie Clark, moved away years ago. I’m thinking I’ll have to be content with my memories. I won’t lie, though:  If somebody decided to put on a CSP in the old mode, your uncle would be SOUTHBOUND.

Texas Star Party

There’s got to be a number one in everything, ain’t there? There are other events that might lay claim to the title of “The Greatest” when it comes to star parties, like Stellafane or the (now gone) Riverside. Most active observers will admit, however, that when it comes to deep sky pedal-to-the-metal, The Texas Star Party is it.

How could it not be? Where is it? Near Fort Davis Texas. Where is that? Go west till you almost run out of Texas. There’s little there other than the picturesque town of Fort Davis, McDonald Observatory, and, yeah, the Prude Ranch. Sometimes it doesn’t rain for months and months. The dude ranch where the event his held is dark, oh, it’s real dark, folks. It’s so dark the sky is that dark gray color it assumes when there is no light pollution. The Prude Ranch is also very nice, the food great, and if you want to meet the big names in amateur astronomy, you will meet them there.

I am proud to say I was at Prude Ranch twice (as an unassuming attendee, not a speaker or anything). It was wonderful. I’ll never forget it. I haven’t been back, though. It’s such a long way. When Dorothy and I were at the height of our careers, there wasn’t time. Now that I’m retired? As above, the idea of that long of a trip on crazy I-10 is a non-starter with moi.

Almost Heaven Star Party

If you haven’t heard of this one, you should have. It’s another Real Dark One with outstanding facilities. It is held on Spruce Knob Mountain in West Virginia, at the Mountain Institute facility there. Do you long for dark, DARK skies (only compromised, of course, by our weather east of the Mississip)? Do you want to sleep in a wooden yurt? Hear great speakers? Go. Just go. You’ll thank me later.

I have been at Spruce Knob many times thanks to the kindness of a couple of sets of organizers (associated with Washington DC’s outstanding NOVAC) who had me up as a speaker. God knows why they’d want to hear your silly Uncle more than once, but I’m glad they did. I would dearly love to go back. As with TSP, what has prevented me post-pandemic is my physical ailments brought on by the accident I had in 2019. An airplane ride from the ‘Swamp to DC (and a car ride from there to West Virginny) just doesn’t seem doable. Well, it hasn’t seemed so. Maybe next year will be different. Sure hope so…

Five Star Final

Those are my big four, y’all.  But there are other greats, some of which I only got to experience once. The Idaho Star Party is sure one. Dark, I mean CRAZY dark—topped off by folks who instantly became friends. One of the nicest times I’ve ever had and another of the friendliest groups I’ve encountered is the Miami Valley Astronomical Society (in Ohio, not Florida), who put on the Apollo Rendezvous. You want to get out of the heat, meet some great observers, and experience truly dark skies? Try the North Woods Starfest (Chippewa Valley Astronomy Society) in Wisconsin. Their star party at Hobbs Observatory is just….well, it’s fab, y’all, fab, I tell you.

Next time? Keep your fingers crossed for Unk to get some hours with M13…

Tuesday, August 29, 2023


Issue 595: A New Way to Autostar Part II


Well, muchachos, don’t ever say your old Uncle doesn’t love you. It was hot—90F well after sunset—it was humid. There was a bad something brewing out in the Gulf. Nevertheless, I did not shy from the accomplishment of my goals. I wanted to get out and finish testing Digital Optica’s new Bluetooth module for the Meade Autostar. Secondly, I have resolved not to let a single month go by without an update to this here old blog, so I had to do something so I could write about something.

So it was on one recent passable, though far from good, evening I got my ETX125PE, Miss Charity Hope Valentine, out into the backyard. No, the sky wasn’t good at all. A gibbous Moon was shining bravely in the east, but one look at her and I knew there was a layer of haze encompassing at least that part of the sky. And despite Sweet Charity not being much of a handful to set up, I was sweatin’ by the time I was done getting her on her tripod. I quickly retired to the den to cool off and await darkness.

As those of y’all who’ve observed with me know, however, when there is observing on the menu your old Unk tends to get Go Fever. I fidgeted on the couch for a while, tried to watch the boob tube (Ahsoka), then went back outside to Charity to see how things was a-goin’.

They were going just a mite slow. Yes, here at the tail-end of August it is getting dark a little—a little—earlier, but we won’t see much improvement on that score till dadgum Daylight Savings Time ends. So, I fiddled around, repositioning the eyepiece case, opening it up and looking inside to make sure my fave 1.25-inch ocular was still in there (a Konig I’ve had for almost 30 years), and taking an occasional gander at the sky.  I didn’t like the way it looked, but reckoned it was better than nuthin’. I did precious little observing last month, and August has been even worse in that regard. One good thing:  It has been strangely dry the last few weeks and there were no skeeters buzzing.

Maybe it was thinking about that Konig that somehow led me to ruminating on my long-ago Chaos Manor South nights. Those who haven’t been with this here blog for long might not know what “Chaos Manor South” is (or was). Well, it was the old Victorian Manse where Unk lived with Miss Dorothy from the time of our marriage till about a decade ago, when Unk retired and he and D. decided they no longer needed the space the stately manor offered, nor wanted to do the upkeep it required.

Oh, those long-ago nights under the stars in an urban backyard! Yes, the light pollution was heavy. The Milky Way was utterly invisible—well you might catch the merest glimpse of it on a cold and clear December’s eve. I could make out M31 naked eye on any reasonable night, but that was as good as it got. I didn’t care. I was in astro-heaven. As recounted here, not only had the lovely Miss Dorothy recently come into my life, so had Old Betsy, a 12-inch Meade StarFinder Dobsonian. She was the largest telescope I’d ever owned, and I was amazed at what and how much I could see with her from downtown Possum Swamp.

An evening of observing would begin with me dodging cats. Chaos Manor South’s resident Siamese cat (and queen, she thought), Miss Sue Lynn would watch as I began to gather the things I needed for an observing run and would resolutely insist I needed her help. I had a horror of her wandering off in the dark. And being downtown, there was enough traffic to make that a real hazard for her. So, I’d bribe her with a can of Fancy Feast and somehow try to get that enormous old OTA outside before she wised up (in those days, Betsy was still in her original Sonotube body, and it was like wrestling with a water heater).

With Old Betsy in our small urban backyard, what else did I need? The observing table (a TV tray) held the very same old black plastic Orion eyepiece box full of 1.25-inchers I had outside with Charity on this evening. Inside it? Some treasured Plössls from Orion and Vixen, the utterly horrible “Modified Achromats” that shipped from Meade with Bets (why I didn’t just toss them in the trash I don’t know—that bad), and of course, that lovely 17mm Konig I bought at the 1993 Deep South Regional Star Gaze.

This was long before I began using a laptop computer in the field with a telescope. At the time, a laptop was still an expensive thing. It gave me the heebie-jeebies to think about subjecting one to Possum Swamp’s dew-laden night air. I was using a computer (a genu-wine IBM 486) for amateur astronomy though. I’d print out charts from two of the greatest astro-programs there ever were: David Chandler’s Deep Space 3D, and Emil Bonanno’s Megastar. Both are more or less forgotten relics of the amateur astronomy past (DS3D never even made the transition from DOS to Windows), but both could produce very beautiful, very detailed, very deep printed charts.

You might think it funny I’d need detailed charts for a light-polluted urban sky. But in those days, they were actually more valuable to me there than they were under dark skies. As you know, higher magnification tends to spread out light pollution, revealing objects that might be invisible at lower powers. Often, I’d star-hop in an area like the Virgo Cluster with the main scope. I would, as I called it, eyepiece hop with my treasured 12mm Nagler Type II and those DS3D or Megastar printouts.

Of course, I needed wider field guidance—charts—as well. What I used then was the old Desk Edition (black stars on a white sky) of the esteemed Wil Tirion’s Sky Atlas 2000. I’ve tried ‘em all, campers, e’en the vaunted Millennium Star Atlas, but I still do not think there is a better tool for getting you in the general vicinity of your target than SA2000 Desk (though the much more recent Sky & Telescope Pocket Sky Atlas Jumbo Edition is a close second).

What else was out there with me as a slight chill descended on a mid-autumn urban evening? If I was being serious, I had some blank observing forms and a sketchpad, pencils, and pens to record what I saw of the urban sky. Not so serious? Just my Orion astronomer’s flashlight (the yellow one with—gasp—an incandescent flashlight bulb powered by two D-cells). Those were the simple days, weren’t they? Of late, at least when it comes to backyard astronomy, I seem to be pining for them.

And then…  I’d just pick a constellation in the clear from the huge old oaks that blocked much of it and see how deep I could drill down. A typical project (I’ve always liked observing projects)? Observe every single open cluster Betsy and me could see in Cassiopeia (there are a few). Whatever I looked at, it was wonderful.

Said ruminations came to a halt when I realized it was finally getting good and dark, and no matter how much I missed The Old Way, it was time to concentrate on new-fangled stuff like Bluetooth

Well, alrighty then. As I mentioned in Part I, the Digital Optica Bluetooth Module is impressive. It snaps onto the bottom of the Autostar hand paddle and honestly looks like it came out of the same factory that produced Charity. Module plugged into the Autostar, and hand control cable plugged into it and into Charity, it was time to get aligned.

The ETX PE provides a semi-automatic goto alignment routine that makes it a joy to use. Put the tube in home position (level and rotated counterclockwise to the hard azimuth stop), turn the girl on, and she does a little dance, finding north and level. That done, she heads for two alignment stars, bright stars. You center them with the red-dot finder and in the main eyepiece (I use an ancient Kellner equipped with crosshairs) and you are done. Charity’s gotos were good all night, as I expected them to be, since she’d stopped close to both alignment stars.

Next up, I went inside to fetch the laptop I’ve used for astronomy the last several years. A nice Lenovo with a solid-state hard drive. On said drive being more astro-ware than humans should be allowed to have. What I intended to use on this summer night would be my favorite in my current “simpler” days, Stellarium. It is really a capable program now, containing many thousands of deep sky objects. It certainly does everything this old boy can even dream of needing to do.

As I said last time, use the instructions that came with the Digital Optica module only as a rough guide when it comes to Stellarium. You don’t have to select the module or Bluetooth from within the program. All you need do is pair the widget to your computer just like you would a Bluetooth speaker or any other Bluetooth device (you will find the Autostar module is called “ScopeAccess”).

With it successfully paired, the rest is duck soup if you’ve ever used Stellarium with a telescope. In Stellarium’s scope-set up menu, establish an Autostar connection; you will see there is a com port (like “com 3”) now associated with ScopeAccess. Choose that, click “connect,” and you should be, well, connected. The Stellarium software is savvy enough to establish a serial connection over Bluetooth for you; you don’t have to know anything about any of that—thankfully. Once you are connected, the scope is controlled exactly the same as if you had a serial cable between scope and computer—no difference.

What is the bottom line on Digital Optica Bluetooth device? It works. It just works. It never dropped out on me or did anything funny. There were no delays when I’d choose an object in Stellarium and issue a goto command. If you didn’t know the scope and computer were connected by radio, you’d think you had a serial cable plugged in. I think that is the most praise I can give any observing tool—it worked well, and it worked simply and transparently. Note that the module does not require you to use Stellarium. Any program you can connect to a telescope over a serial port should work just fine. I just like Stellarium. It’s pretty and it is cheap.

“But what did you look at, Unk? What did you look at, huh?”  I looked at quite a few things. Beginning with M3 and M13 and M53. Which almost ended my evening. One gaze at the Great Globular in Hercules and I near about threw the Big Switch, “Hell, it don’t look worth a flip tonight.” But then I thought back to those ancient nights at Chaos Manor South. What would I have done then?

I knew the answer very well. I’d tell myself, “Wait. Concentrate. Look some more. Spend plenty of time with the object. Increase the magnification. Try a different eyepiece. You will only see if you look.” Indeed, following those old strictures I began to see. "Dang! There are some stars in M3! Wonder if I can pick up some in M13 with a 5-inch on a punk night? Yep, takes 200x, but I’m seeing ‘em. M92? Stars, yay!” And so it went till the night grew old (it did not grow cold, alas), and I had finally had enough of the deep sky. Well, enough for one late August’s eve.

As for the Digital Optica Bluetooth widget (well, “module,” or “transceiver” if you prefer). It works. End of story. Game over. Zip up your fly. If you think you’d prefer connecting wirelessly to the scope rather than having a cord you will inevitably trip over for your Autostar equipped Meade, just to get you one. The price sure is right.

Sunday, July 30, 2023


Issue #594: Telescopes I Have Known


Well, Doggonit, Muchachos. I very much wanted to finish up my review of the Digital Optica Bluetooth Adapter for Autostar. I intended to, as a matter of fact. I even set Charity Hope Valentine’s (for newcomers, Charity is a Meade ETX125PE) tripod up in the backyard. Not only was I gonna check-out the Bluetooth widget with Stellarium and other programs, I was gonna do a mini tour of the late spring sky.

Yeah, I know it’s not spring anymore. Of late, Unk sometimes don’t know what day it is, but he still (usually) knows what season it is. Although spring 2023 is but a memory, and even summer is slowly fading, the marvels of spring are still on display. Hell, Coma Berenices and Canes Venatici are very well placed for early evening viewing (early evening being a must for your aged Uncle).

Alas, ‘twas not to be. Yeah, I’d set that tripod up about 5pm every day, just as it was slowly, ever so slowly, beginning to cool off this hellish summer. And, sure enough, in would come the clouds. Usually great big dark ones festooned with lightning. And the Moon, a fat post-First Quarter one, was back. And it was humid. And it was hazy. Sigh.

I will get to the Digital Optica adapter as soon as possible. Given what little use I’ve been able to give it, it has impressed me. It will not be used to revisit “The Tresses of Berenice” objects from Unk’s The Urban Astronomer’s Guide, of course. More likely, we’ll be doing late summer DSOs instead (if I’m lucky). Oh, well. So it goes here on the borders of the Great Possum Swamp.

I have resolved not to let a month go by without an AstroBlog for y’all. What would I write about, though? I wasn’t sure. Then it came to me: “Telescopes I Have Known,” a rundown of the instruments I’ve used the past 30 (or so) years…something I thought y’all might find to be of at least passing interest. Nota Bene:  These aren’t every telescope I had in my hot little hands over the last three decades—for a while there, I was quite the gear addict—these are the ones that meant the most to me.

Coulter f/7 8-inch Odyssey

At the time I bought the Odyssey, Unk was recovering from a divorce and trying to save his pennies for a new C8. So how/why did I wind up with a telescope from the old Coulter Optical? I was paging through an issue of Sky & Telescope one evening after work when I came upon a new Coulter ad (surprising, since they had been running the exact same one for years). For a new scope, an 8-inch f/7 Dobsonian. I simply couldn’t believe it; they said would sell you a working telescope (with an eyepiece) for just over $200! Impossible! I was skeptical but couldn’t restrain myself from writing a check.

They could and did sell me a complete 8-inch Dob, and it didn’t even take that long to arrive (back in the glorious day, now-gone Coulter was notorious for horrendously long delivery times). The telescope wasn’t exactly pretty. She was awfully plain, in fact. Sonotube tube painted fire engine red, a focuser made from plumbing parts, and a rocker box made of particle board that appeared to have been cut with a chainsaw. That was about what I expected. Coulter kept costs down by cheapening their scopes year by year. Plain, she was. Would she be serviceable?

Indeed, she was, giving nice views of the Moon and planets. Maybe not quite as exquisite as I hoped for from an f/7 reflector, but certainly better than those of the other Coulter 8-inch, an f/4.5, I’d had the opportunity to try one night.  A star test revealed some turned-down edge, but not too bad, and wattaya want for 200 bucks?  The Odyssey did well on the deep sky from my club’s old dark site on the Mississippi line. 30 years down the road, I still recall how beautiful the Swan Nebula looked in the Odyssey one summer’s eve.

What became of Mabel (given that name in recognition of her plain yet solid nature)? My brother-in-law in Colorado was without a telescope, and all Mabel had done for years was gather dust in old Chaos Manor South’s Massive Equipment Vault. So, way out west she went, where, I understand, she prospers and thrives to this very day.

Meade StarFinder 12.5-inch Dobsonian

Just when I had accumulated a few more dineros toward a C8, yet another Dobsonian turned my head. Meade’s new 12.5-inch StarFinder Dob was making a big splash in ads in the holiday issues of Sky & Telescope and Astronomy that yule of ’93. She certainly wasn’t 200 bucks, but she was still cheaper than any telescope in this aperture range I knew of other than Coulter’s 13.1-inch Odyssey.

One thing was sure, in the pictures at least, the Meade was a lot purtier than the Coulter 13.1. Lovely gleaming white tube and rocker box. A real rack and pinion focuser. A finder (the Coulter did not come with a finder). A real secondary mount and spider (don’t ask what the Coulter had). Once again, out the door went money meant for a new SCT.

After ordering the StarFinder from Astronomics (an upgrade package that included a couple of eyepieces and a 50mm finder), a long, long wait ensued. How long? When I ordered the scope, I was single and expected to stay that way. I wasn't e'en dating anybody. By the time the 12.5-inch arrived as August was running out in ’94, Miss Dorothy and I were planning our wedding at Chaos Manor South!

In fact, the StarFinder arrived shortly before we were wed, and I wasn’t able to get it under the stars until we returned from our honeymoon. When I did, I was absolutely gobsmacked. I’d expected optical quality in the neighborhood of what Coulter offered. One look at the Moon and Jupiter (followed by a star test) showed she instead had an excellent, outstanding primary mirror.

“Old Betsy,” as the scope became known far and wide, was with me many a long year and went to many a star party. She progressed from her original Meade body to a lovely truss tube configuration (thanks to ATM, Pat Rochford), and to a couple of upgrades—weight saving, better secondary, Sky Commander digital setting circles, super-duper primary coatings. She was always wonderful and I used her till I couldn’t, till she was too much for me and I passed her on. I shall say no more about Betsy lest I get choked up…

Celestron Ultima 8

I loved Betsy…but…she would not fit in my car when I finally upgraded to a grownup’s auto, a Toyota Camry. Oh, she would eventually, as above, be converted to a truss configuration, but that was for the future. I needed a scope to take to the 1995 Mid-South Star Gaze. One better than Mabel. It was time for another SCT.

The price for Celestron's top-of-the-line C8, the Ultima 8, seemed way high (hell, over two-THOUSAND dollars), but Miss Dorothy counseled me to buy quality. I did, and that paid off over the long run. She did need her drive repaired by Celestron shortly after she was delivered, but that was the only problem I had with her over more than 20 years of use. Quality was the word. Massive forks, Starbright coatings, super heavy-duty rubber-coated tripod, same wedge Celestron used for the 11 inch Ultima, PEC (whatever that was). Celeste had it all.

Perhaps the most notable thing about Celeste? She was the telescope that brought me home to astrophotography after a multi-year layoff. And man was she good at it, beginning with closeups and piggyback shots of Comet Hale Bopp. She went with me to the Texas Star Party in ’97 to take pictures, and she was the SCT who taught me electronic imaging with the Meade DSI and the SAC 7b.

What friends we were! I did eventually dispense with that huge fork and drivebase. As above, the Ultima had everything…EXCEPT GOTO. I wanted that, and I was sick of wedges. So, I deforked Celeste and we kept on trucking for many years with A Celestron ASGT CG5. Why did she leave? After I got the Edge 800 (below), Celeste was not being used. Heck, if I still had her, she still wouldn’t be used. I sold her and believe she want to a good home.

Celestron Short Tube 80

How the heck did Unk wind up with a short focal length Chinese achromat? Well, those telescopes, which were introduced to American observers by Orion Telescope and Binocular Center as the Short Tube 80, were all the rage in the late 90s. Pretty cheap as decent refractors went back then. Good optics for the price. Enormously wide fields.  The reason I wanted one, though, was mostly I needed a grab ‘n go.

"Grab ‘n go" is a cliché in these latter days, I reckon. But a scope I could easily get into the backyard and easily move around when I got there was a must for me at Chaos Manor South.  I had to have a telescope I could move around to peer up through clear spaces between the limbs of the Garden District's many ancient oaks.

I didn’t get the Orion, though. By this time, the Chinese maker, a little outfit called “Synta,” was selling 80 f/5s to all comers, and it turned out Celestron had one with a pretty black tube emblazoned with the Celestron logo. I figgered it would look right fine piggybacked on Celeste. But…it also came with a little GEM, an EQ-1 perfect for waltzing around Chaos Manor South’s backyard. Oh, and a couple of decent eyepieces. All the better? A Celestron dealer, Eagle Optics, was offering a special edition (their logo added to the tube) for an amazing—at the time—price of just under 300 bucks. You got scope, mount, eyepieces, and some other accessories for what Orion charged for just the tube alone.    

I had a tremendous amount of fun with Woodstock everywhere from the backyard of Chaos Manor South to the Great Smoky Mountains, as you can read here. I eventually passed the scope on (I acquired a 66mm ED refractor that was frankly mucho better). But I have no complaints about the little scope some have looked down upon then and now. I still remember watching a double satellite transit on Jupiter, and then me and Woodstock being back in the house and enjoying a glass o’ the Rebel Yell in five freaking minutes.

William Optics 80mm Fluorite Zenithstar

Gosh, by the time I finally got my paws on a genu-wine APO refractor, they had been the rage for a long time. Unk was not any sort of a refractor guy back in the first years of this new millennium, having been Schmidt Cassegrain CRAZY for a long time. Suddenly everything changed; a beautiful little refractor made a believer outa me. Oh, I didn’t give up SCTs for visual use and planetary imaging…but as the years rolled on, I got to where I didn’t want to use anything but APO refractors for deep sky picture taking. 

It wasn’t just the William Optics scope’s exquisite optics. I named the scope Veronica Lodge in recognition of her high-toned build quality. This 80mm f/7 was the heaviest 3-inch scope I’d ever lifted. Tube, cell, dew shield, focuser (especially), just everything, reeked of high quality and convinced me it does make a difference. Great optics, not so great everything else…and you cannot have a great scope.

But, yeah, while the little 80 has amazed me with what she can do visually from my suburban backyard, it’s imaging where she excels. At f/7, the image scale is good, but the focal length is still short enough that guiding is easy. Assuming you even need to guide. Ronnie is the only telescope I have ever known where imaging isn’t just “easy”…she almost seems to take pictures by herself. I still have and love this telescope.

Celestron NexStar 11 GPS

By 2003, I was more than convinced goto was the way to go. The way I wanted to go, anyway. I had been following the revival of Celestron heralded by its release of the new goto NexStars, and, finally, the NexStar 11 GPS. I came into some unlooked-for money from an inheritance, Dorothy said “do it!” and I did. Soon enough, an enormous box was on the front porch.

At first, I was afraid of Big Bertha. She was so humongous I despaired of getting her safely on her tripod, even in alt-AZ fashion. It took a little practice for me to become confident mounting the scope, but I did get confident, and could finally admire her:  huge fork, beautiful CARBON FIBER tube, futuristic NexStar hand controller, and a giant 2-inch diagonal on her rear port.

I loved Bertha from the beginning. She was perfection itself. The first few days after she came to live with us at Chaos Manor South, I went around mumbling “I have a C11…I have a C11…I have a C11.” Miss Dorothy sure did look at me funny. Bertha's GPS-fueled goto was amazing—she would put any target I requested from horizon to horizon on the tiny chip of my Mallincam Xtreme. Visually, she was just terrific. I can still see in my mind’s eye all the wonders she presented to me at her first dark sky outing at the Chiefland Astronomy Village one long-ago spring.

It was the beginning of a beautiful friendship. Maybe the most notable thing about her? She was the telescope that allowed me to conquer 2500+ Herschel objects, to view all the wonders discovered by William and Caroline Herschel. And to do that in just a few years. Stationed under a dark Chiefland sky, Xtreme on her rear port, she’d easily bring home a hundred (or more) faint fuzzies in an evening. She wasn’t the only telescope I used for the Herschel Project, but she was the one I enjoyed using the most for it (including visually).

As my 60s wound down, alas, Bertha became a problem. She was just too much. Getting her to the club dark site became not just laborious but dangerous. She nearly messed up one of my knees when I was lugging her down the front steps of Chaos Manor South in her humongous case one afternoon. I deforked her and put her on a nice Celestron CGEM…but eventually that was too much, too. Her beautiful OTA now lives with my friend Charles, a talented observer over in New Orleans. I sometimes miss her, but realize, she would just be gathering dust here.

Celestron Edge 800

I was having a ball with Celeste on her CG5. If Bertha delivered the lion’s share of Herschel Objects, that doesn’t mean Celeste didn’t make her contribution to the Project, including visually. However, in 2013 I retired, and thought I deserved a retirement gift from myself, a treat. What could be more of a treat than updating the CG5 with Celestron’s new Advanced VX, and the Ultima 8 OTA with Celestron’s new Edge 800 (reduced coma/flat field) C8?

What a lovely scope she has been (mostly). And what fun we had on her first deep sky outing to the Deep South Spring Scrimmage 2013 (sans her defective AVX which had to be replaced by Celestron). I had come to laugh at the idea an SCT’s images could be described as “refractor like,” but Mrs. Emma Peel, my new Edge, changed my mind.

Ten years down the road, the replacement AVX mount Celestron quickly got to me has been great, guiding amazingly well and delivering many astrophotos that have pleased me. Mrs. Peel? Mostly good, but one big problem. Several years ago, I found the paint on the interior of her tube was failing. I had to repaint her myself (I had no intention of shipping her to Celestron at the height of the covid pandemic). A pain in the butt, but I believe we are good to go with her excellent optics for many years to come.

SkyWatcher 120 APO

When I let Bertha go, I was really quite sad. My sadness was assuaged by this big SkyWatcher 120. This is the sought-after one these days. I believe it is still available but is certainly not the bargain it was when I got mine pre-covid. This is the one with the beautiful and color-free FPL-53 doublet. I named here “Hermione” because she is magic.

She was and is beautiful. Her build quality is not up there with what you’d get from William Optics but her price at the time was much more doable than what a 5-inch class WO would have cost. No, her focuser isn’t a monster, but it doesn't slip with my DSLR on it, even when I am pointed at zenith. From her first big astrophotography outing at the Deep South Regional Star Gaze, she has delivered the goods easily. Nota Bene:  While she was initially on my CGEM, I quickly replaced that with a far more manageable (for me) Losmandy GM811!

Zhumell 10-inch Dobsonian

And so, we come ‘round to "simple" again. Zelda is not really much different from the StarFinder and Odyssey of yore. Why did she come here? I missed the aperture of Bertha and Betsy and thought I might be able to handle this 10-inch GSO-made Zhumell Dobsonian. Certainly, when I bought her in 2015 her low price—about 500 bucks delivered with 50mm finder, two speed focuser, two eyepieces, laser collimator, and cooling fan—was attractive. I soon had a new telescope in the house.

Zelda is a cut above the old StarFinder in several ways. While her mirror is comparable in quality to that of the Meade, she has a beautifully finished steel tube, an excellent 2-inch Crayford focuser, butter-smooth lazy Susan azimuth bearings, adjustable altitude balance, and a REAL mirror cell (don’t even ask about the old Meade’s primary cell or what passed for one).

I can still handle Zelda without much trouble, and 10-inches of aperture really helps in suburban light pollution. She has been to the club dark site a few times, but I am thinking she deserves some real dark-sky time. I have been ruminating about doing the Deep South Regional Star Gaze this autumn, and if I do, I think I want to do it simply…no computers, no motors, just a manual Dob and a star atlas…and that is just how Zelda rolls.

And we are out of space and time this Sunday. I really should have mentioned the StarBlast. Certainly, Miss Valentine should be in there. How about my beloved 80mm f/11 SkyWatcher? Well, nothing says there cannot be a "Part II." Anyhow, thanks for indulging me in this trip down memory lane, and I swear I will get out and do some actual observing soon. I hope….  

Thursday, June 29, 2023


Issue 593: The Astronomer Looks at 70


Mother, mother ocean, I have heard you call,
Wanted to sail upon your waters

since I was three feet tall.

You've seen it all, you've seen it all.


I have been drunk now for over two weeks,

I passed out and I rallied and I sprung a few leaks,

But I've got to stop wishin',

Got to go fishin', I'm down to rock bottom again.

Just a few friends, just a few friends.

—Jimmy Buffet

I did this ten years ago on my birthday, muchachos, took stock of me and that avocation, amateur astronomy, I’ve loved so well over the years. Why am I doing it again? 60 just didn’t feel that momentous, not in the way 50 had. And not much had really changed with me between 50 and 60. 70? That’s different. Way different.

That summer I was 60, summer 2013, Unk carried on merrily as I normally do. I was still chasin’ the countless faint fuzzies of the Herschel Project, jaunting down to the Chiefland Astronomy Village at the drop of a hat. And, having retired just three months before my birthday, I was really livin’ the life. Well, or so your old Uncle thought…

You are not reading this exactly on my birthday. I may provide an update on the activities of my Big Day—such as it may be—three weeks hence, but I am writing on this dadgummed subject today for two reasons. First, I kinda want to get it out of the way

These days, we tend to laugh at 60: “Man, it’s the new 50, donchaknow!”  But 70? Comes that, and you have to finally admit you are, yes, OLD.  The toughest thing in the world for a baby-boomer? The acknowledgement that no matter how you slice it, your time onstage is running out. Best, face-front on that and get it off Unk’s mind (such as it is).

Secondly, I hope—hopes I tells you!—July will be a month of observing. June was anything but. When it has not been cloudy or stormy (most often the latter), it’s been boiling hot. Looking over at the weather station readout here in the Batcave, I see the “real-feel” temperature is 114F right now. And, worse, it hasn’t been cooling off much at night. Oh, and while it hasn’t been overwhelming, we here in Possum Swamp are getting some of the smoke that has plagued our Yankee brothers and sisters. Not the sorta weather that makes you anxious to haul a scope into the back 40, that’s for sure.

I’m hoping this weather will pass, and I’ll be able to give you Part II of the article on the Digital Optica Bluetooth interface for Autostar. And maybe even do some deep sky touring with the ETX125, Miss Charity Hope Valentine. After that? Gotta be Unk’s yearly M13. Need I say more?


Hokay…nuthin' to it but to do it... What has the last decade wrought concerning that rascal, your old Uncle Rod?  As above, following a great 60th birthday, which consisted of mucho Rebel Yell, Mexican food, and gifts aplenty, Unk settled in to face another decade of trips around our friendly G2V star. And that is just what he did at first. Yep, nothing changed, just Unk continuing on his merry way. Until he wasn’t.

Funny thing…the changes Unk experienced over the next years came in with a comet and finally went out with one. What I experienced was rather sudden. One night in early 2015 I was out in the backyard imaging Comet Lovejoy, who was no Great Comet, but looked very good in the eyepiece and especially in images. I was mindin’ me own bidness as the light frames rolled in when, suddenly, it came to me: “Hey, wait a minute! Where am I? Is this where I’m supposed to be? How the hell did I get here?!”

In retrospect, I don’t believe my epiphany, if that is what it was, had anything to do with the comet. I believe it was more a rather unlooked-for early retirement and a move out to the suburbs where Unk was plunked down amidst a lot of other retirees. A change of scene and a sudden feeling of “What comes now? Nothing?” threw me for a loop. I had a rather rough year thereafter, but I had help, and to everybody who helped me out of my midlife crisis (you know who you are), THANK you!

During this time, it wasn’t like Unk gave up observing or anything. In fact, a friend of mine began calling 2016, “Uncle Rod’s farewell tour.” I was everywhere speaking at star parties…Maine in the northeast, West Viriginia in the east, Wisconsin in the far north, Oregon in the west, and all points in-between. And I didn’t just do star parties as an astronomy writer and educator; I went as a “civilian.”

Or did until two whammies hit. The first was silly old Unk falling off the house. I was up there adjusting an HF antenna and got to feeling a little shaky. It was 2019 and I was “only” 65 going on 66, but I suddenly felt like I was not up to scampering around on top of a house (much less a tower). I climbed down, saying to myself, "Get one of your ham buddies to come help." If I’d just left it there, all would have been well. Alas, Unk got to thinking (disaster is always in the offing when he does that) “All the younger OMs have to work. What if I can’t get anybody out here till the weekend? I left some tools up there. Best get them down!”

Stupidly, instead of placing the ladder on the ground, it was on the deck. I’d got away with that a bunch of times. Why should today be any different? I got the tools and headed down. I put one foot on the ladder and then the other. Down went the ladder and on top of it went Unk to the tune of about 15 feet. To cut to the chase, I spent a week in the hospital and was convalescing for months.

And that was, to this point, the end of Unk’s star partying. Turned out my “Farewell Tour” really was that. Or…you know what? Maybe not. My old-time favorite local star party, the Deep South Regional Star Gaze is coming up this fall, and suddenly I want to go again. Maybe.

There are a couple of impediments to that, or even—sometimes—to me observing in the ol’ backyard. I seem to have developed a rather strong and unreasoning fear of falling in the dark. Maybe this isn’t logical, but it’s the way I feel. Sometimes. I also notice I am very much less willing to bear the cold. At 60F I feel uncomfortable indeed. And yet…and yet…the idea of observing under the dark skies of Mississippi’s piney woods again has grabbed me in a big way. We shall see. Till then I shall make do with the backyard.

“But what was the SECOND WHAMMIE, UNK? WHAT WAS THAT?”  The pandemic, of course, and that was hell. As 2019 ended, I was feeling more like myself than I had in a long while. I told more than one person, “You know, I FEEL YOUNG AGAIN!” I was at Heroes Sports Bar and Grill Regularly, hoo-hawing till all hours—well 10 or 11pm anyhow. Then <BOOM> we were all trapped at home for over a year. I was afraid all those hours with little to do would bring on that more intense version of the blues, the MEAN REDS, but it didn’t.

I was indeed over all that mess.  But I didn’t fully realize it till the lockdown was well and truly in the rearview mirror. Earlier this year, a night almost exactly 8 years down the line from that strange evening with Lovejoy. I was out having a look at the briefly loved “Green Comet,” C/2022 E3 ZTF, when it came to me, “Hey! What the—?! This feels like old times! I feel just like MESELF AGAIN!

The People

When I say there were plenty of people who helped me through the doldrums those years ago, I include astronomy people in their number. Some of those I’ve known in our wonderful avocation were instrumental in me righting my keel. But “people” as in "astronomy club," my old astronomy club?

Even before my minor existential crisis, I’d pretty much given up on the Possum Swamp Astronomical Society. Oh, as the decade of my 60s began, Miss Dorothy and I were still attending the monthly meetings. Howsomeever, we eventually found we had to include a stop at the nearby Applebees for drinks before the meeting to induce ourselves to attend. Eventually, Miss D. was like, “The astronomy club meeting is tonight; are we going to that?” Unk is very much a creature of habit, and I’d been at PSAS meetings every month since 1993, but I finally had to say, “Nope.” I put in a lot of years with the club. And by the past decade, the fact was I wasn’t getting anything out of it. I shall just leave it at that.

I don’t know I am alone in that experience. I hear the same from folks who were very much into the club scene for most of their astronomy careers. The fact is, even more than amateur radio, our hobby is aging. I don’t even want to think about the way the demographic skews now. Clubs are mostly smaller and less active and less enthusiastic. Might a new generation come in and revitalize astronomy clubs? Perhaps.

That oft-feared ground truth? The babyboom generation came along at a special time, during the age of Apollo. A time when everybody was space crazy, many wanted a telescope to see those wonders with their own eyes, and wanted to hang out with those who shared their passion. I don’t see another generation of people like that coming. Not in the numbers we had.

The Gear

Uncle Rod is the wrong person to ask about this. I have pretty much eschewed new-fangled scopes and accessories. Hell, I wouldn’t know an ASAIR (that everybody and their cat is mad for lately) from the window air-conditioner in the Batcave. Oh, I exaggerate a bit. I do keep up mainly through reviewing products for my Sky & Telescope Test Reports. If it weren’t that, I’d be a real Luddite.

If you are a regular reader, you know I thinned the scope herd some years ago. Some of it I could no longer handle post-2019. And some of it just wasn’t used anymore. What I am left with is two GEMs, an Advanced VX and a Losmandy GM811; a small altazimuth mount; an Edge 800 C8, 5-inch, 80mm and 66mm APOs; some nice achromats; Zelda, my 10-inch Chinese dob; and Charity Hope Valentine; my ETX. Now that might sound like a lotta telescopes to you, but trust me, it is NOTHING like the long-lost days of Chaos Manor South.

The only new telescope that has come here in a very long time is a very modest one indeed, Tanya, a Celestron 4.5-inch Newtonian I stumbled upon in a Goodwill store. But I am content. Even after the cull, I have more telescopes than I use. What gets used most? Often, it’s not a scope at all, but my time-honored Burgess Optical 15x70 binoculars.

Should I talk about telescope companies? Things have not changed much. Except that post-pandemic the crazy-low prices for scopes are, like anything else, a thing of the past. I still can’t believe I got Zelda (a 10-inch GSO dob), two eyepieces (one a decent 2-incher), a laser collimator, a cooling fan, a two-speed focuser, and a RACI 50mm finder delivered for 500 bucks. I don’t expect those days will come again, but telescopes are still quite inexpensive.

To be specific about telescope companies? Celestron is what it is. They are a Chinese company with the strengths and weaknesses inherent in that. Meade? They are in some sense an American company again, now being owned by Telescope and Binocular Center (Orion) after a legal victory against Meade’s Chinese masters (or really “master,” which was really, as I long thought, Celestron owner Synta). They only make telescopes in Mexico, still, and most of their gear is imported from China. But, yeah, a heartening sign.

Certainly, other American telescope companies survived the pandemic. Maybe the lockdown even gave a boost to ‘em. But Losmandy, TeleVue, and Astro-Physics along with the other small caviar scope companies are still chugging along. As I suspect they will as along as the demographic is large enough to keep ‘em in bidness.

And back to your Unk’s journey down the timestream

I’m 70, or soon will be, Lord willin’. When I get up in the morning, I feel every bit of that. The whistling past the graveyard of the couple of years before the pandemic, the "I FEEL YOUNG!" stuff, is history. But you know what? Yes, the pandemic changed everything and much not for the good. But I feel OK. I am pressing on. I’ve got two more books under my belt. I continue with Sky & Telescope, and next semester I am going to increase my teaching load.

Hell, I may be over the hill, muchachos, but I am not quite ready to give up, collapse, and roll down the opposite slope and into oblivion.



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