Saturday, August 28, 2021

 

Issue 576: In Memory Yet Green: The Herschel Project

Where it all began...
Another hurricane, Hurricane Ida, has come into the Gulf to trouble your silly old Uncle, muchachos. But it hasn’t just been that. Nothing has changed since July regarding the endless nights of clouds. If there are no/few clouds, you can bet it will be hazy, real hazy. And there’s the bugs. And the humidity.

I did get the Advanced VX mount out one evening long enough to test a new astronomy program—which will be the subject of an upcoming Sky & Telescope Test Report. But only long enough to do that. As you may recall, my AVX took a bath, literally, recently due to a leaky scope cover. During the brief period before a fresh batch of clouds blew in, the AVX seemed OK, but I am not willing to give the mount a clean bill of health until I can spend a few hours under the stars with it.

Anyhoo, like last time, I didn’t want to let a month go by without a blog. So, here are my reminiscences on the vaunted Herschel Project.

Act I:  The Dipping of the Toe…

I was thinking about the ‘Project the other day. Maybe because Son of the Lockdown has me at home again without a whole lot to do. “What in tarnation is Unk talking about this am? Too much Yell Saturday night, maybe?”

What I’m talking about, Skeezix, is The Herschel Project, the observing project of a lifetime, of my lifetime anyhow. Most of us conceive big observing programs at some point in our astronomy careers, but most of those fall by the wayside long before they are finished. Mine didn’t. Maybe because it had such a clear goal and maybe because the equipment I was using at the time was so well suited to accomplishing that goal. Maybe an even larger reason was two books I’d read.

Anyhow, set the WABAC machine for an October Night in 2009. Your Uncle was out on the observing field of the old Deep South Regional Star Gaze in the days when it was held at the Feliciana Retreat Center in the backwoods of Louisiana. What I was doing was wondering what the heck I was gonna look at.

It had been a good night with my 12-inch Dobsonian, Old Betsy. I’d seen more than a few deep sky wonders, some pedestrian, some not so much. One in the latter category was the Crescent Nebula. That night it was a spectacle, with the center of the crescent beginning to fill in with textured haze in my 12mm Nagler 2. But suddenly, just after midnight, my observing list was done. There weren’t enough objects on it to see me through two nights of a star party much less three. I reckon I hadn’t been sanguine enough about what Betsy could accomplish under dark skies on a superior evening.

After a look at M42, I essayed a few easy showpieces, covered Bets, and headed back to my little motel room in the Retreat Center’s Lodge where I ruminated on the What to Look At business. I spent some time wondering what that might be to the accompaniment of a little Rebel Yell and a DVD of 2001:  A Space Odyssey. By the time Moonwatcher had thrown his bone into the air, I thought maybe, just maybe, I had a glimmer of an idea.

That idea solidified at breakfast. It was humble in the beginning:  I’d observe the 400 Herschel II deep sky objects.  I knew I might lollygag like I did with the Herschel I, taking years to finally finish up, so I set myself a deadline:  October 2010. I would do it with the scopes and equipment I deemed appropriate for the sites I’d be observing from. I would do plenty of visual observing, but I wouldn't hesitate to use my Stellacam deep sky video camera if I needed it. I didn’t give a fig about any Astronomical League rules, since I had zero interest in their Herschel certificates. This would be my show and nobody else’s.

I was nervous as sunset Saturday came in; I’ll admit. I considered the Herschel II a difficult, daunting, and even scary list. Maybe that was because I hadn’t taken a really good look at the details of the list's targets. Most of its dimmest DSOs are small and thus not much of a challenge for an 8-inch telescope under good skies. So, I was a little skeered as I punched the first object ID into Betsy’s Sky Commander digital setting circle computer.

The Results of what I was now calling “The Herschel II Project”? Between sunset and 2 am on Saturday evening at Deep South, I logged 26 Herschel IIs. And I wasn’t trying to move particularly fast.  Maybe the H2 wasn’t as hard as I thought?

Act II:  The Big Enchilada with Julie, Julia, Bill, and Lina

That idea was bolstered by my object haul on my next dark sky Herschel observing run. I realized if I were to finish in a year, I’d have to get on the stick given our usual weather in the southland. That in mind, I packed up my Toyota with a ton of astro-gear including my Stellacam-equipped NexStar 11 GPS and headed south for the Chiefland Astronomy Village despite the fact we were dealing with the lingering effects of (yes) Hurricane Ida.

Out on the Billy Dodd Observing Field, I discovered the true power of a C11 and a deep sky video camera. The old Stellacam, which had a maximum exposure of 12-seconds, was purty humble, but man did it pull in Herschel IIs. They fell to the C11 like autumn leaves before the wild hurricane fly. The grand total after my second big expedition?  Over 100 more objects:  159 down, 241 to go.

Back home, Unk began to think (yes, he does that on occasion). It seemed obvious I would likely finish the HII by my self-imposed deadline. After that? The answer came in the form of two seemingly unrelated books, The Scientific Papers of Sir William Herschel, and Julie Powell’s Julie and Julia: 365 Days, 524 Recipes, 1 Tiny Apartment Kitchen. 

The former came to me thanks to the wonderful Miss Dorothy. One day there was a rare book sale at the university where she was a Department Chair. One of the volumes on sale was that big, fat Scientific Papers. She bought it for me, lugged it home, and I was soon immersed in reading the words of The Man himself and learning more about him and his sister and fellow observer, Caroline. That led to me devouring biography after biography of the pair and becoming even more interested in (or maybe obsessed with) both Herschel and his deep sky objects.

The latter was a book that brought its author deserved if brief fame. It was the adaptation of Julie Powell’s The Julie-Julia Project blog articles wherein she cooked all Julia Child’s recipes from Mastering the Art of French Cooking. That’s just the jumping off spot for a little tour de force of a book that showed everybody what one of these new-fangled blogs could be when coupled to a big project and written with humor and heart.

Unk was smart enough to put two and two together, a big project and a blog, and thus was born “The Herschel Project,” aka “The Herschel 2500,” aka “The Whole Big Thing,” aka “The Big Enchilada.” I would observe all the Herschels, not just the H2, all of them. Which, after eliminating the non-existent and duplicate objects left me with 2500 targets, some of which were considerably dimmer and more obscure than those in the Herschel II. The details? As I wrote in the blog one Sunday morning:

The perceptive (or nitpicky) amongst y’all may have noticed something different from the last Herschel blog. The title is no longer “The Herschel II Project,” but just “The Herschel Project.” What does that mean? Well, I’ll tell ya: the more I’ve researched ol’ Willie and the more of his objects I’ve seen, the more I’m inclined to go past the Herschel I and the Herschel II and tackle The Whole Big Thing, the 2500 objects (give or take) that constitute the entire Herschel List, the whole schmeer, that is.

That might seem like the project of [many] years, but with modern technology and with a little luck, I don’t believe it will be. Based on the slew, and I do mean slew, of Herschels I captured down in Chiefland this past weekend and which I’ll tell you about next week, the Big Project seems more and more doable. Not only did I do bunches of Herschel IIs, I did Big Bunches from the parent list, the Big Enchilada, finishing all the multitudinous galaxies in Aquarius and most of ‘em in Cetus. So, I am on the verge of committing myself to going for the gold.

And commit myself I did. I wasn’t about to be pinned down regarding time limits, but I secretly hoped to be done in about two years, by sometime late in 2012, maybe.

And so, it began. While I continued observing from the club site and star parties like Deep South, there’s no denying the heart of The Herschel Project was the Chiefland Astronomy Village. Out on that field it all just came together, seemingly like magic. Heck, even plenty of summer nights were dark and clear during the Project years. While I had been no stranger to CAV before the Project, I now began heading south almost every dark of the Moon (when the exigencies of being a working stiff allowed me to do so).

It wasn’t all rainbows and unicorns, of course. I missed my self-imposed deadline for completing the Herschel II by 6-months, not wrapping it up until April 2011. For months, I was down to a mere handful of HII spring galaxies that always seemed too low or behind a cloud or a tree. I finally completed the Herschel II Project down at Chiefland and heaved a sigh of relief. But not too much relief. I still had an almost overwhelming number of Herschel Big Enchilada Objects to go.

But that number soon wasn’t so daunting. Trip after trip Down Chiefland Way, doing 100 or more objects every time, soon whittled the big list down. So did getting into the blessed zone. I developed a routine that served me well.

The night before a Big Enchilada Trip, I’d load up Miss Van Pelt, the 4Runner, with plenty of gear and a telescope appropriate for the conditions I’d face. That was usually the C11, but if things looked iffy I might drop down to the C8. I’d invariably bring the Stellacam (or, as the project rolled on, the color Mallincam Xtreme), since I soon learned video would be key to allowing me to complete all those objects in just two years.

When we rolled into Chiefland, I’d check into the old Holiday Inn Express. I found being able to get a some rest in comfort following a long night on the field allowed me to be ready to face the stars with a will on the next evening.

Checked in, I’d head to the CAV for setup, which I had down to something of an art. Over the months, I’d been able to eliminate spurious items and that made set up go faster. For example, since there was AC power on the field, I didn’t have to haul batteries with me. The presence of a refrigerator in the Clubhouse meant I could leave the ice chest at home, etc., etc.

Thence, back to town for a stop at the Walmart. Therein, I’d stock up on snacks for the observing field—being able to take a break, drink some water, and half a bite to eat helped me pull some really long runs. In those days, I wasn’t much of a health food fan, invariably choosing Jack Link Sasquatch Big Sticks. Another big help on those late/early runs? Monster Energy Drinks. After WallyWorld, it was supper, usually at the Taco Bell next door to the motel.

Finally, it was time to hit the Herschels. My final and most effective lineup of gear included, in addition to the telescope and Mallincam, a little DVD player I used as a monitor, Orion’s digital DVR, and a Laptop connected to the scope running Greg Crinklaw’s SkyTools 3 (the software of the Herschel Project) and NexRemote.

My procedure was simple. Click on an object in ST3, send the scope there with the program’s Real-Time module. Center it up in the field of the camera if necessary using a Wireless Wingman gamepad. Record 30-seconds of video and an audio commentary on the object. Repeat as often as the sky, available objects, and your old uncle’s stamina held out. When I could no longer hold out, back to the motel for a little Yell, some silly TV like Ghost Adventures or UFO Hunters, and some sleep in an airconditioned/heated room.

Next morning? Lunch at the vaunted Bill’s Bar-B-Que and, if Miss Dorothy was with me, a visit to our favorite area attractions including Cedar Key, Manatee Springs State Park, and Fanning Springs State Park. An hour or two of resting at the Holiday Inn, and I was back on the Billy Dodd Observing Field as sunset came.

Following this simple, rote routine allowed me to observe with maximum efficiency. Still, I was surprised how efficient I was. I completed the Big Enchilada, The Herschel 2500 Project, on a dark run in Chiefland in July of 2012, months sooner than I dared hope when I got the crazy idea to observe over two thousand faint deep sky wonders.

Act III:  August and Everything After (the Herschel Project).

It’s hard to let go. And at first, I didn’t. I just kept observing Herschels. I told myself there were reasons for that. For one thing, I had all along thought the Herschel Project might form the basis of a book. I wanted better images of the Herschels than those I’d captured with the Stellacam, so it only made sense to go back and re-image many of them with the Mallincam Xtreme. I also thought I’d want some sketches of objects to show that while the project was mostly done with video, I’d done a fair amount of visual observing too. I spent a couple of memorable nights on the CAV field observing the old fashioned way—with eye and telescope.

So it went for quite some time, beginning in 2013. That year was notable since it was when I retired—in the spring. My first Herschel run after that was a memorable one. I headed for the Feliciana Retreat Center, the place the Herschel Project was born, and the Deep South Regional Star Gaze Spring Scrimmage (the smaller spring event I’d always had to miss because of work).

I had a new telescope with me, my retirement gift to myself, a Celestron Edge 800 SCT (along with an Advanced VX mount to replace my old CG5). What do I remember most about that expedition in addition to nearly being the Lone Astronomer of Feliciana (see this)? How wonderful it was to get up Sunday morning and realize I didn’t have to be in a hurry.

I could leave anytime I wanted and get home at any time I wanted—no work on Monday morning. That home, by the way, would soon not be the legendary Chaos Manor South. Lots changed following the end of the H-Project including where Dorothy and I lived. We decided downsizing made sense and lit out for the suburbs.

And so, it went for the next couple of years, with Unk grudgingly hanging onto the Herschels. Oh, I tried a couple of other observing projects, but none lit my fire like the Herschel Project had. I was beginning to believe lightning only strikes once.

How about the book? I began assembling it much the way Miss Powell assembled her blog into one. But I only worked on it for a little while. Many things were changing with me in addition to the above, and I found my heart just wasn’t in it. Then, I had the second edition of Choosing and Using a New CAT to get out.  And a new deep sky observing book to write…and The Herschel Project Book just kept receding farther into the background—where it remains to this very day, nine years after the last object was in the can.

Eventually, I stopped looking for another big “Herschel Project.” If one comes to me, so be it. But, as above, I have decided The Big Enchilada really was the observing experience of a lifetime. That's OK. Even if I didn’t have all those old blog articles, and videos, and photographs, The Herschel Project would remain green in my memory where it shall remain to the end of my days.


Sunday, July 25, 2021

 

Issue 575: My Favorite Star Parties, Deep South Regional Star Gaze 2000

 

M15, star of Unk's DSRSG 2000 (Edge 800 on Advanced VX mount)...
Well, muchachos, I tried. Yes, I was anxious to get my Celestron Advanced VX telescope mount under the stars to see if she was really OK, but it was hopeless... 

“What h-a-i-l is Unk goin’ on about now? 

If you read the last installment of the AstroBlog, you know a five-year-old, deteriorated Telegizmos scope cover resulted in my beloved AVX taking a bath thanks to an early morning thunderstorm.  I opened the mount up, dried her out, and tested her indoors. Seemed OK…but. The only true test would be an evening in the backyard. That will come. But obviously wouldn’t come before July ran out. The clouds. The Thunderstorms. The bugs. The heat. Uh-uh. No sir buddy.

And yet, I didn’t want to let another month elapse without a ‘blog entry. Now, last time, I said I was reluctant to take another trip to the nostalgia well. I thought that sucka was dry. But then I recalled I’ve never said a word about the 20th Century's final edition of one of my favorite star parties, the Deep South Regional Star Gaze.

Then as now, star parties can iffy things weather-wise no matter the time of year. Especially in this part of the county, the Southeast. But Miss D. and I had high hopes for 2000’s DSRSG, the 18th edition of the nearby event.  After two years of so-so observing, and 1999’s complete and utter rain-out, surely the weather gods would throw us a bone. Wouldn’t they?

And, indeed, it looked as if conditions might be—I was almost afraid to think it and jinx it—fantastic for the long star party weekend. October 2000 began with unseasonably cool and dry weather. But, wouldn’t you know it? As the date for DSRSG approached (October 25- 29), the cotton-pickin' weather pattern returned to the more familiar clouds and humidity. The result being I definitely broke a sweat on star party Thursday morning as I was loading up the good, ol’ Toyota Camry.

What did I load? I was after photons, visual photons, this time, not astrophotos. So, in the vehicle went my time-honored 12.5-inch truss tube Dobsonian, Old Betsy. I brought along a second scope too, my little Celestron (Synta) Short Tube 80 f/5 refractor ("Woodstock") on his EQ-1 mount. If the sky cooperated, I thought he might give me some of the wide-field deep sky vistas I craved. “If.” 

There were also all the things I took along during my go-go days of star partying: EZ-up tent canopy, camp table, ice chest, eyepiece box, etc., etc. What? No laptop. Nope. At this time Luddite Unk was still using printed atlases, namely Sky Atlas 2000 and Herald-Bobroff.

Yeah, it was a hot and humid and not atypical Gulf Coast morning when I set out for the site of the star party, which in them days was held at McComb, Mississippi’s Percy Quin State Park (in the sparsely populated Pine Belt).  “Wait a minute, Unk! When you set out?! What about Miss Dorothy?” At this time, Dorothy was at the height of her distinguished career at the university, and business there kept her from motoring to the park with me for that first day of DSRSG. Instead, she planned to drive up with my friend and observing companion, Pat Rochford, on day two, Friday.

The old but well-remembered DSRSG field...
Anyhoo, when I hit Highway 98 for Percy Quin it was warmer than I’d have liked, but there were only a few clouds scudding across the sky on a morning that suggested Spring rather than Winter was on the way. After a reasonably pleasant 3-hour journey despite being all by my lonesome, I arrived at the Park’s "group camp,” site of DSRSG 18, unloaded the gear, and set up Old Betsy as quickly as I could. Despite the warm weather, October was dying, and sunset wouldn’t be long in coming.

By the time I finished, I hadn’t just broken a sweat; I was drenched, but the sky was holding. My next stop, the cabins, was a prime attraction of the Percy Quin site. Actually, “cabins,” a word conjuring drafty, decrepit boy scout chickies, is not an apt description. These cabins were modern, usually clean, comparatively comfortable, and featured central air-conditioning and heating. Best of all, perhaps, they were within easy walking distance of the observing field, a football field-sized expanse of grass ringed by pine trees.

Soon, I was settled in our room—star party organizer Barry Simon always assigned me and Miss D. the “counselor’s room” in the Possum Swamp Astronomical Society’s cabin.  Afterward, back to the field where I hung out for a while renewing old acquaintances and talking shop about what passed for the latest technological innovations in amateur astronomy nearly a quarter century ago. The big gossip? There were murmurings Celestron was going to release a new goto telescope, an 11-inch NexStar(!).

With sunset still an hour away, the Auburn Astronomical Society’s Russell Whigham and I joined Barry Simon and the rest of the Ponchartrain Astronomical Society contingent for the traditional Thursday evening meal at Mr. Whiskers' Catfish Cabin, home of all you can eat catfish, just outside the park gate. Was the catfish good? Oh, it was very good. Good enough to eclipse the fact it was awful slow in coming and they were purty stingy with the "all-you-can-eat" thing.

After my repast ("pigout" is more like it), as evening came on, the sky just got better and better, really opening up with that velvety black appearance we crave. Using both the 12.5” Dobsonian, Betsy, and my faithful 80mm f/5 refractor, “Woodstock,”  I toured the autumn deep sky until the wee hours.  I visited many marvels, both old and new, but my favorites on this night were these:

Good catfish and lots of it...
NGC 7000, the North America Nebula. Many newer observers long for a glimpse of this great swath of glowing hydrogen.  Alas, being huge, its faint red light is spread out, making it quite a challenge for larger telescopes. My 12-inch was able to pick out vague patches of nebulosity here and there, but it wasn’t very impressive. What a difference wide-field made. In Woodstock, the 3” f/5 refractor, the whole, huge  thing fitted perfectly into the field of a 26mm Plössl. Since the entire nebula was visible framed with a dark sky background, the North America shape was amazingly well defined.

M27, the Dumbbell Nebula, is always a treat, and from a dark site with a moderate aperture scope it becomes a revelation. I alternated between using an OIII filter and looking at the nebula unfiltered. With the filter, the true extent of M27's nebulosity was obvious, with the cloud beginning to look more like a football than a dumbbell. Without the OIII, this planetary nebula’s central star was easily visible.

M31 and NGC 206. The Great Andromeda Nebula (Galaxy) can be disappointing, but on this evening it was awesome. In Betsy, a pair of dark lanes was easily visible defining the hard to see spiral arms as I scanned across the great disk. The galactic nucleus appeared as a tiny star-like point, and, most wonderful of all, perhaps, the great cloud of stars in one of the arms, NGC 206, was easy (this thing is tough if the sky ain't right). The two companion galaxies, M32 and M110 (NGC 205) were marvelous, with M110 looking as large as I’d ever seen it. I dare say the view was even better in the 80mm, since with Woodstock all these things were in a single eyepiece field. 

But the prize beauty Thursday night? The Horse’s Nose (globular) Star Cluster, M15. This pretty glob, located not far from the bright star Enif, The Horse’s Nose, in Pegasus, was flat-out amazing. You’ve probably heard about M15’s curious, bright core (at one time it was thought to contain a black hole), but if you’ve never seen it from a good, dark site, you really have no idea how striking it is. In the 12-inch, the core simply blazed away, looking like a brightly glowing ember surrounded by countless sparks of light.

And so it went, object after object, until around 3am. I wasn’t ready to turn-in even at that hour, but there was no doubt weariness was beginning to assail me in those primitive days before there were dadgum Monster Energy Drinks. I’d awakened at 6 am that morning to pack, and the long day and night were beginning to take their toll.

I pulled the big switch, tired but happy. I covered the scopes with a tarp, though I probably didn’t need to. This had been one of the few DSRSG evenings in memory when dew hadn’t been heavy. As the day had worn on, the humid, sticky air had seemingly blown away, yielding an amazingly comfortable and bug-free evening.

Friday was a busy day. I was scheduled to give a talk in the meeting hall at 3pm about my forthcoming book, Choosing and Using a Schmidt Cassegrain Telescope. I’m talking about the original, not Choosing and Using a New CAT (now in its second edition). Long time back it feels like, campers.

I sure wanted the presentation go smoothly, so I spent quite some time getting my 35mm slides sorted out (no laptops and PowerPoint projectors just yet). Shortly before noon, Pat Rochford and Dorothy arrived. Dorothy was excited to finally be at “our” star party and was showing off a new red light she’d bought for the trip.  

Percy Quin Group Camp cabins...
We soon repaired to the park cafeteria (located adjacent to the cabins) for the first on-site meal of DSRSG 2000. More than a few folks complained about the food over the years we were at the old site, and it was simple at best, but it was at least edible. I was never sure why the park (which operated the cafeteria) couldn’t do a little better with the food. We were not far from the middle-sized town of McComb, not out in the freaking sticks, and they didn't exactly give the meals away, but, again, edible.

I was happy to have a large and responsive audience for my presentation on the new book, and thought the presentation went well despite some fumbling. I was new to all this, but I would soon be doing star party after star party as a speaker, would discover PowerPoint and laptops, and would figure things out (to the extent old Unk ever figures anything out).

There was no doubt as twilight deepened that Friday night was going to be another goodun. And it was, though conditions were not quite as good as they had been Thursday. Why? That stinking humidity that had departed on Thursday was back with a vengeance. The dew was heavier, and the light dome from McComb was natcherly more evident, but the sky was still OK. Which deep sky object struck my fancy on this evening? One I’d seen before, but did not remember well, NGC 6905, the Blue Flash planetary nebula in Delphinus.

This 12th magnitude nebula was large and well defined in 12-inch Betsy, and, in addition to its amazing blue color, showed some “blinking” like the nearby Blinking Planetary. That is, look straight at it and the nebula would fade away, use averted vision and it would spring back into view.

NGC 7331 and nearby Stephan’s Quintet also looked good on Friday. It didn’t take any imagination to pick out all the little galaxies in Stephan's with Miss Betsy. That galaxy cluster was one of my most-wanted objects back in the days when I observed mostly with 6 and 8-inch telescopes from the suburbs. I was just thrilled with the views Bets delivered of this legendary object.

Was I close to deep sky overdose when I shut down at 4am? Not quite…the spirit was still willing. The body was weak, though.   I called it quits after a good, long tour of M42, the Great Orion Nebula. In the 12-inch, the nebula seemed to tower above me in the 12mm Nagler eyepiece’s field. Cold, starkly beautiful, and almost threatening in aspect. After that, I sat in a lawn chair for a little while, watching the fading stars as dawn came in, and toasted them with a little of the Rebel Yell, natch.  Some things have changed over the long years, and some ain’t.

Saturday was a long day at DSRSG. Everybody was starting to feel like zombies thanks to two beautiful nights, and, even in October, sunset seemed to take forever to arrive. Luckily, Rex’s Astrostuff, an astronomy vendor who was a regular feature of southern star parties all through the 1990s, was on site, so I amused myself—how else?—by buying some of that “astro-stuff.”

Those old, low-tech Astro Cards could guide you to countless wonders...
My purchases this year were fairly modest, but were things I’d wanted for a while:  A Thousand Oaks glass solar filter for Woodstock, a Celestron variable-brightness LED flashlight, and a deck of George Kepple’s Astro Cards—index card finder charts for locating deep sky objects. These Astro Cards were a staple of vendors at star parties in those days, and I’d been meaning to try a set for years. They were perfect for nights when you’d exhausted your observing list and didn’t know what else to look at.

Saturday night started out great, with the heavens again opening up as night descended. But it was not to be. The sky gods had no doubt decided Deep South’s observers had had enough for one year. By 9pm, heavy haze had moved in. It cleared somewhat just after midnight, but only a little, and only for a little while.

It was just as well, I suppose, since the milky sky encouraged me to shut down much earlier than I had on the other nights. There was that Sunday morning packing and the drive home to contend with, after all. Before the haze moved in, though, Pat Rochford and I had a great time playing with a little Meade ETX60 he’d brought with him—I was skeptical a cheap (comparatively speakin') little scope like that could find anything, but it could. Man, oh man, could it. It was one of the things that encouraged Unk to embrace laptops and goto telescopes not long thereafter.

2000 was a great DSRSG.  Maybe one of the last truly outstanding years at the location. The new century would bring changes, including several moves for the event. It’s still in business, but now on its fourth home. Be that as it may, the old Deep South Regional Star Gaze where I voyaged the deep, deep sky with a simple Dobsonian, Herald-Bobroff, and a Telrad is yet green in memory and always shall be.


Friday, June 11, 2021

 

Issue 574: A Short One…

 

Plenty of clouds down Chiefland way...
I haven’t been able to keep the blog on a monthly basis. Heck, I haven’t been able to keep it on a bimonthly schedule. When I can’t/won’t get out with a scope thanks to clouds, what am I gonna write about? Oh, I could go in for nostalgia, but there’ve been a bunch of posts of that sort over the fifteen years the blog has been around (yes), and that well is almost dry, muchachos.

I know it’s a cliché, but the dadgummed weather is just crazy-cloudy these days. A decade of Unk’s impressions doesn’t amount to a hill of beans in the world of climate science, I know, but my impression is things are worse clear sky-wise. As I’ve said before, I noticed a change in my part of the country, the deep south, beginning nearly a decade ago, around 2012.

In those days, I was still loading up the truck, Miss Van Pelt, with a ton of astro-gear and heading south to the Chiefland Astronomy Village down in Florida at the drop of a metaphorical hat. I maybe didn’t get down there every dark of the Moon, but I got down there plenty, whether to pursue the Herschel Project, or just to take a picture of M13 from a dark sky, or play around with some new gear.

I’d usually do three days, and you know what? Even at the height of those southern summers I’d usually get two clear nights and sometimes three. But, then, about, yeah, 2012, I noticed the summer weather seemed different. I began to spend a couple of nights of a three-night run in the cotton-picking Chiefland Days Inn instead of on the observing field. And then there began to be complete skunkings. To the point where I grew reluctant to drive six freaking hours to sit in a déclassé motel room.

A rainy night in...Florida.
And it has now got to the point where (to me) the weather is more than noticeably worse year-round; not just in the summer. To include increasingly troublesome hurricane seasons  that stretch well into the fall.   And the weather ain’t just worse way down in Florida, but here along the northern Gulf Coast and throughout much of the country from what I hear. I maintain, again without scientific evidence, that something has changed with the weather and not for the good.

I’ll also admit I’m less hardcore than once I was. To be honest, I have trouble convincing myself to brave the clouds and the bugs and the haze and the heat to see a little something from suburban skies. I know I’ve missed some cool views that way, but there it is. Forty lashes with a wet noodle for Unk, and I promise to get out into the backyard more frequently henceforth. If it ever clears up and Gulf storms stay away.

Rather than let another month go by blogless, I thought you, my (overly) loyal and kind readers, might enjoy a little something…just a few bullets, really, about what's been going on around here (I almost said “around Chaos Manor South,” but those days are gone forever).

·       I had the pleasure of reviewing Phyllis Lang’s latest edition of Deep Sky Planner (Version 8, if you can believe that). You can read all about it in my Test Report in the upcoming issue of Sky & Telescope, but I can tell you it’s a goodun. 

·        Don’t forget to check your scope covers before you use them. I had a Telegizmos cover I bought back around 2016. While it wasn’t their “365” model, it was a good one, well made I thought. Six years is six years, though, and it did get a fair amount of use in my backyard. It’s so nice to be able to leave a scope set up under a cover for a few days. Almost as good as an observatory (which I have no interest in building at this juncture in my life). I should have paid more attention to it, though. The cover was looking a little tattered…but so what? The “so what” is we got a right good rainstorm in the early hours one morning and the cover leaked. Badly. 

There was some water intrusion into the tube of my SCT, Mrs. Emma Peel. That was not a huge problem to fix, however, since I’d become rather experienced in disassembling the Celestron (I’m still mad at them). However, what was even more drenched with water was my Advanced VX mount head. Rut-roh, Raggy. 

·       I love the AVX. It has never failed me for anything I’ve wanted to do with it. Heck, I’ve even gotten good guided astrophotos with it and the SCT at f/7. I’d hate to have to think about replacing it. I opened up the mount, dried it out, and let it sit in a low humidity environment disassembled for some days. Back together, I did a fake alignment indoors and the mount seemed fine. The only true test is under the stars, of course, and I have not been able to do that yet.  Fingers and toes crossed. 

·       If I have to replace the mount, what would I replace it with? Maybe not an AVX. You never know the truth of what you read on the consarned Internet, but it seems like not everybody gets a VX as good as mine. I’d probably replace it with… I dunno… An HEQ-5? iOptron’s new lightweight mount, the GEM 28? Search me and hope I don’t have to find out. 

·       What else…what else? Some folks get the impression I’m now telescope poor. Yes, I did sell off a lotta stuff, the larger instruments (good thing I did given my current condition), and also some of the less used astro-junk. But I’ve still got… 

66mm William Optics SD patriot refractor.

80mm WO fluorite APO.

80mm SkyWatcher f/11 achromat.

90mm Orange Tube Celestron C90.          

100mm f/5.6 Explore Scientific achromat.

100mm Celestron f/10 achromat.

120mm SkyWatcher f/7 ED APO.

125mm ETX 125 (the storied Charity Hope Valentine).

150mm Zhumell f/8 achromat.

200mm Edge SCT, Mrs. Peel.

250mm Zhumell f/5 Dobsonian, Zelda, who is now my Big Gun. 

And I still have a couple of boxes of eyepieces, three mounts (the AVX, a SkyWatcher AZ-4, and my Losmandy GM811G). So, don’t weep for me, AstroBloggers. That I got rid of so much and still have so much is a sign  I let my astro-buying get a little out of hand for a “while.” I’m good now and feel good equipment wise. 

·      What gets used the most? That’s easy, the 80mm APO, the SCT, and the 120mm APO. That’s for “serious” astronomy. What do I mostly use for a quick look at something and to keep my proverbial hand in? The 80mm f/11 SkyWatcher on the AZ-4 alt-azimuth mount. 

·      Do I at least think about new stuff? Not much. I don’t need more eyepieces, I’ve clearly got all the scopes I can use, and the three mounts are more than good enough. Assuming the Advanced VX still works. If it doesn’t? I need something in a similar weight class. As above, in the event, I’m thinking about an HEQ-5. I wouldn’t mind going back to EQMOD for scope control. I’ve also, yes, considered the iOptron GEM 28. Its weight and payload are impressive sounding. But I hear a lot of not-so-good experiences with their mounts. But I’m, yeah, hoping not to have to go our and buy any mount anytime soon. 

·       Astronomy software? These days my needs are simple. What I mostly use is three programs, which tend to the simpler compared to what I ran during, say, the go-go days of the Herschel ProjectDeep Sky Planner, Stellarium, and Nebulosity

·       There are many things to like about DSP. It is a mature and capable astronomy program. But sometimes it’s the little things. What has encouraged me to adopt it for my personal use? Nice large fonts. Having to squint at minute text on a dim red screen, even with your glasses on, ain’t no fun. 

·       Stellarium? I still love Cartes du Ciel and use it for some tasks. But Stellarium has come an awful long way in the last five years, and I don’t know what else I require. It’s just so pretty, too. That it now has built-in support for ASCOM makes the deal on this (free) software even sweeter. 

·       Nebulosity? It just works for acquiring images with my old Canon 400D and 60D (which are actually more sophisticated and capable than your silly old uncle needs for his astrophotography). It also has the best stacking routine in the bidness.

And…and…and… Can’t think of nuthin’ else campers. I hope to be back here again soon. Probably with the results of the AVX post deluge check ride. Till then, then...


Sunday, March 28, 2021

 

Issue 573: Charity Hope Valentine Rides Again!


"No blog for February? Why, Unk, why?  I could say, “Well, muchachos, the weather was lousy most of the month, with clouds almost invariably in the sky when the Moon was absent. And it was cold. I mean, sometimes in the freaking 20s Fahrenheit.” And that is part of the reason, sure. Without doing any observing, and without any new astro-gear to talk over, I didn’t feel like cranking out a blog just so y’all could hear me jack my jaws. But let’s have a little ground truth, here, y’all…I’ve always tried to be upfront with my readers. That was hardly the sole reason.

That often sought after but also much-feared Ground Truth? I am a FAR less active observer here in my late 60s (it feels awful strange to say “late 60s”) than I was even five years ago.  In part, that is due to the accident I had in early 2019 that most of y’all know about. I talk about it more than I should, perhaps, but that is because it now seems to have been the watershed between “young” Uncle Rod and "old" Uncle Rod.

How has that affected my observing? Well, most noticeably it left me not as able to deal with gear setup. And I don’t just mean heavy stuff. This afternoon I made the mistake of picking up my ETX 125’s tripod with my “bad” arm and it sure let me know that wasn’t what I should have done. Thankfully, I began selling off my big/heavy astro-stuff—the C11, the truss-tube Dobsonian, the Atlas mount, etc.—about five years ago. I had a strong whiff of “change is in the air” even then.

Certainly, I still have telescopes and mounts. I have a C8, a Celestron Advanced VX mount, some nice refractors ranging from 6-inches to 66mm in aperture, a Losmandy GM811G, and my 10-inch truss tube scope, Zelda. And, when I’m feeling good, I can handle any of ‘em. When I’m not so good but still want to look at something, my 80mm f/10 Celestron achromat, Midge, on an AZ-4 alt-azimuth mount works—like she did for the Saturn – Jupiter conjunction.

But it ain’t just that I sometimes have a hard time physically dealing with telescopes and mounts. That is far from the whole story. Another result of the accident is a lingering fear of falling in the dark. For that reason (and the pandemic, of course), I haven’t been to a star party since January 2019. Heck, I haven’t even been out to the local dark site. I feel much more relaxed in the familiar backyard even if it means giving up magnitude 6 skies for mag 5 ones (at zenith on a good night).

I also feel the cold more acutely than I did. This had actually begun some time before 2019, but seems to have accelerated since then. The result is unless it is a mild night, I’m staying inside. Oh, I can still do astrophotography on cold nights, since I can get the scope/camera/mount going with the aid of PHD Guiding and Nebulosity and duck back into the den while the exposure sequence runs. But that doesn’t much feel like a night out with the telescope to Luddite Unk.

Even my astrophotography has ebbed. Not so much in the number of targets I shoot, but in how I do it. ‘Twas not long ago I was eager to embrace the latest hardware and software to hit the imaging game. Now? I have more time to play with such things, but I just don’t seem to have as much patience for the new and (for moi) complex—at least not when it’s dark and I’m hooking things up by flashlight.

I know the big deals today are things like Sequence Generator Pro, and small computers like Raspberry Pis mounted on the scope to manage everything and shoot images to a phone or tablet. Not for Unk, I guess. If I take pictures, it’s usually with my thirteen-year-old Canon 400D DSLR. And I no longer participate in the Cloudy Nights mounts forum quest for ever tinier PE figures. Nor do I dream of more-better-gooder to the tune of ten thousand-dollar telescope mounts. If my stars look round, and I think my pictures look pretty, that is enough. More than enough.

Still as pretty as the day I met her.
I also find I am enjoying the astronomy I do more as a solitary pursuit than as a group activity. In addition to all the above and other things I haven’t mentioned, I prefer spending a quiet night in the backyard with my scope and my thoughts to being out with a group, or, most assuredly, inside at an astronomy club meeting. However, I did enjoy showing off that conjunction to quite a few passersby, so I ain’t quite a hermit yet.

And that’s the way it is at the beginning of a new decade of this new century. Hey, y’all, I ain’t looking for sympathy. Don’t need it. I was quite active in astronomy from the 80s and into the mid-90s, and extremely active from the mid-90s to about 2015. There weren’t too many things in the sky I didn’t see or image; too many outstanding astronomers I didn’t meet; and too many star parties, museums and observatories I didn’t visit. It was “What a ride, what a ride!” folks. I just wanted y’all to know the reasons you don’t and won’t see the blog as frequently as you once did (I would still like to do at least one new article a month).

Enough of that stuff. Let’s talk telescopes. Not quite a year ago, I resolved to get my beloved 15-year-old ETX125 PE, Miss Charity Hope Valentine, out of mothballs. I replaced her LNT battery, got her into the backyard and had a good time. For a while. The next time I drug Charity out, she was acting a mite peculiar. The Autostar display would come and go. Sometimes she wouldn’t respond to commands. Once in a while the Autostar computer would reset.

Now, I was tempted to say “She’s just gettin’ old—like you, Unk.” But I didn’t want to leave it at that. Charity still looks beautiful—as pretty as the day I met her. I’m proud to say I’ve taken good care of her. Surely, I could do a little troubleshooting?

A 16-year-old Autostar cable.
It didn’t take much. The next morning, I began, as I always do, with “cables and connectors.” One look at the Autostar hand control cable told the tale. The coiled cable had the white, dusty look that spells deterioration. It was obviously dried out, and I found a couple of spots where the insulation had cracked and given way. “Well, reckon I’ll just order another Autostar cable.”

Which I did—some eight months later. What was up with that? Well, at the time I discovered Charity’s problem we were right at the start of the 2020 hurricane season, which was a doozy, and whose storms stretched on to November. Then it got cold and I went “refractors on grab ‘n go mounts” all the way (Charity is less of a hassle to carry and set up than a fork-mount 8-inch SCT, but not by much).

Anyhoo, couple of days ago, I got off my butt and ordered a replacement from one of my long-time go-to vendors, Agena Astro Products. After it arrived, a test with Miss Valentine showed it and her worked just fine. What was left to do other than set the girl up in the backyard on a cool but not bitter spring night?

Now, originally the scope to be set up wasn’t going to be Miss Valentine. I still have every intention of carrying on with the New Herschel Project. However, one look at the afternoon sky showed that was likely a non-starter. While still clear, there was obviously increasing haze. The C8 would stay inside and the ETX would go outside because of the degrading conditions—the situation that is her forte'.

When it finally got dark (blast this DST), out back went your old Uncle. As you know if you’ve read my past installments concerning her, Charity can be a neurotic sort. Some nights, gotos are bang-on all over the sky. Others, she can’t find anything. Which would it be tonight?

While I probably should have done drive training after a year, almost, of the scope not being used, it was chilly, so I just set Miss in PE home position—turned counterclockwise in azimuth till she reaches her hard stop—and turned on the power. That is all you have to do with the ETX PE. The scope reads the time that’s kept current with the battery in her LNT (“Level North Technology”) module, finds tilt, level, and north with the aid of her sensors and compass, and heads for the first of two alignment stars. Charity chose Sirius and went that-a-way.

I can usually tell what kind of a night me and the girl are gonna have from her behavior with alignment stars. If her slew lands more than a degree away from ‘em, she ain’t gonna be great go-to-wise. When Missy stopped, Sirius wasn’t in the eyepiece, but it took just a little squinting through her red dot finder and slewing before it was. Second star? Capella. Charity went there, and when she stopped the Goat Star was in the eyepiece, a 25mm Plössl that yielded almost 80 power. I thought that boded well, but the proof is in the pudding, they say. I decided to test my little girlfriend.

Charity has the most trouble with targets anywhere near zenith. That is compounded by her long focal length and the fact that since she is limited to 1.25-inch oculars, you ain’t gonna be using long focal length ultra-wide 2-inch eyepieces to make finding easier. Nevertheless, my girl put both M35 and M37, both of which were up pretty high, in the field of that 25mm. How did they look? Not so hot. The haze was thickening and really scattering the light pollution.

But, with Charity aligned, I thought we might as well visit some old friends anyhow. Which? Oh, the usual heavenly masterpieces like the above-mentioned open clusters, and, of course, M42. If you’re an “advanced observer” you’d probably scoff at the targets Charity and me essayed (we spent quite a bit of time on the near First Quarter Moon). I know. I once fit that “advanced” appellation and was more interested in chasing quasars than looking at the dumb old Moon. But that was then and this is now and Rod and Charity had a fine time oohing and ahhing at marvels that never age even as we do.

Note Bene:  Miss Dorothy and I have now received both doses of the vaccine and hope the same is true for you.


Sunday, January 10, 2021

 

Issue 572: Happy New Year’s 2021 from the AstroBlog

 

While things don’t exactly look good now (to say the least), I hope we can expect something better than another whole year of “I’VE GOT A BAD FEELING ABOUT THIS!” Anyhow, this is the traditional AstroBlog New Year's update, muchachos.

Before we get to that, however, I know y’all wanna know WHAT SANTA BRUNG Unk. Well, not any new telescopes; that’s fer sure. If you follow this here blog even intermittently, you know Unk has been engaged in thinning the scope herd over the last several years. Oh, I’ve still got telescopes and eyepieces aplenty. But I’m down to one SCT, a few nice refractors, and a 10-inch Dobbie.

That doesn’t mean I didn’t get anything that was kinda-sorta astro-related, however. Something I like to do every week when I can is check into the Amateur Astronomy Digital (radio) Voice Net. A weekly meeting of amateur radio operators who are also amateur astronomers. This very fine net, hosted by NCS Jason Hissong, NX8E, a great ham and a great observer, can accommodate both DMR and D-Star users. The net meets every Wednesday night at 9 pm EST.  It’s a good net, but I wasn’t checking in very often. Why? Because the only D-Star radio I owned was a HT (handie-talkie, that is). Unk has never been a big fan of HTs, you see.

Anyhoo…the little VHF rig in the shack here, a Yaesu FT-1900, was about a dozen years old, so I figured it was time to upgrade. What did I ask Santa for? I thought about the Icom ID 5100—I love its big display—but it really seems more suited to mobile use, so I went with the ID 4100. And, after wrestling with the RT Systems programming software on Christmas afternoon, I got it set up for both analog and digital operations, and hope to become a regular on NX8E’s net henceforth. You can too if you hold at least a Technician license. If you’d like to join the net, see the Amateur Astronomy Digital Voice Net page on Facebook for details.

Anyhow, now for the annual wrap up…

January

The little old blog from Chaos Manor South was idle during most of 2019. If you can believe it, there was but a single post that year, my annual Christmas epistle. The reason there was essentially no blog in 2019 was two-fold. First, I suffered a serious accident that year and was laid up for months. When I was up and around again, I had a book to get out the door, the long awaited second edition of Choosing and Using a New CAT that so many (well, maybe one or two of y’all) had asked for. But with that done and 2020 on the way, it was time to get the blog, which will always be near and dear to my withered old heart, back on the air.

January brought an article on poor, old Meade, which was in the midst of yet another bankruptcy. The long and short of it was the company that bought Meade after their last crash some years ago, Ningbo Sunny, lost an anti-trust suit, declared bankruptcy, and was looking for a buyer. Where are they now? I haven’t heard much news about ‘em lately. They are apparently still getting some product to dealers, however. The website comes and goes and products, even bread and butter ones like the LX90, are frequently shown as “out of stock.” The irony? As that bad news came out, I’d just completed a review of their LX85 and was quite impressed. “Meade is back,” I thought.

In a good sign for the revival of the Blog, January 2020 featured not one but two entries. The second being an account of my yearly ritual of photographing M13. This edition concerned me doing that with the above mentioned LX85 the previous fall. As above, I was quite impressed by the optics of the 8-inch Coma-Free SCT that came with the LX85 GEM package, and also by the quality of the AVX-like mount. Actually, I thought the Meade LX85, which features ball bearings on the declination axis as well as the RA axis, unlike the Advanced VX, tracked better and was easier to guide.

April

April? How about February and March? There wasn’t any February and March. Unk wasn’t quite ready to get the Blog back on the rails till April, but when I did, I swore I would get at least one and sometimes two new articles out the door every stinkin’ month. The first of these was a real blast from the past, since it found me in the backyard with my Mallincam deep sky video camera I hadn’t used in years.

I was curious to see how it would work—or if it would work at all—since I had not applied power to it in at least five annums. But the Mallincam Xtreme fired right up and worked just as well as it ever had. So did everything else. Yes, your silly Unk did fumble around a bit with the Mallincam software, but he finally got back in the groove.

May

The theme of 2020 was resurrecting the AstroBlog and my astronomy gear, too. My beloved Losmandy GM 811G had lain fallow for a long while. This mount was such a breath of fresh air when I received it:  all that beautiful machining was so darned impressive after many years of  using Chinese GEMs. And so was the Gemini II controller. Campers, not only does it have a color touchscreen, tactile buttons if you prefer them, an Ethernet port, and a USB port in addition to a good, old serial port, it is amazingly easy to use and accurate.

As with the Mallincam, I was hoping all would be well after going on two years of disuse. And it was save for one thing:  the mount’s internal battery, a button cell. After getting over the shock of what one little battery can cost on fricking Amazon, Unk installed it in the Gemini II, got the mount into the backyard, and got it going again. “Going” meaning this wonderful mount performed just as well as ever.

Confronted with a downright strange stretch of clear spring weather, your uncle was able to get another Blog entry into virtual print in May. I realized that if I were to get outside with a telescope more regularly again, I needed a project. That project, I decided, would be The New Herschel Project.

Which would be decidedly more modest than the original Herschel (2500) Project documented in this blog. That project, a.k.a. “The Big Enchilada,” involved me observing all 2500 Herschel deep sky objects in less than three years. This time? Fewer objects, but more challenging in its own way:  I would observe the original Herschel 400 objects from my average suburban backyard. I would use the Mallincam when necessary, but the largest aperture telescope would be the largest left in my inventory. My sweet 10-inch Dobbie, Zelda.

June

The month’s first entry was about the first evening of the New Herschel Project. And, more prominently, the telescope I used to essay that:  Charity Hope Valentine, my Meade ETX 125. Like everything else the little scope had lain dormant for years.

Before I could think of getting her into the backyard, I knew I’d want to replace the battery in Charity’s LNT finder (she is a PE style ETX). That battery, like the Gemini II’s cell, keeps the scope’s clock running. I ordered one for Charity, and ordered one for the Celestron AVX as well, since I reckoned it would be good and dead too. Replacing Charity’s battery was a pain as always, but I got ‘er done and got the little scope into the backyard.

Alas, clouds scuttled our mission after we’d seen but one object. I was glad I’d got the little scope outside, though. For one thing, I found that the hand control cable was going bad. The insulation was gone in places. I’ll replace that “soon.” Another reason? She is a good little telescope and I still and always will love her.

There was a third entry in June, believe it or not. But it recounted a rather bitter affair. I’d found my Celestron Edge 800 had a severe problem. After seven years, the paint on the interior of her tube was failing. That necessitated carefully removing as much of the old paint (which had quite obviously been applied to an improperly prepared surface) as possible and repainting the interior.  

July

Following the above debacle, I was anxious to get the Edge, Mrs. Emma Peel, under the stars to make sure everything was well with her. I did, and managed to snag quite a few Herschels as well. That evening was also my introduction to Celestron’s CPWI telescope control program, which I dubbed “the new NexRemote.” I had been so out of touch during 2019 that I hadn't even been aware CPWI had been modified to work with the Advanced VX mount. Overall, I was quite pleased with the Celestron freeware.

July’s second article took Unk from the high-tech to the very lowest tech. Wherein your correspondent went hunting for the amazing Comet Neowise with binoculars. I began with my 100mm giants, but when it became obvious I’d have to hunt up the parts and pieces of their mount, I backed off to my Burgess 15x70s. The comet looked amazing nevertheless.

August

August recounted Unk’s adventures with hand-held astronomy software from the Palm Pilot days onward. This was spurred on in part by a Sky & Telescope assignment I was working on, a Test Report on the new version of SkySafari. Needless to say, I was impressed by the new ‘Safari. I’d skipped a version, and was amazed how far the software had come in a short while. I don’t hesitate to say it is now fully the equal of most PC and Mac astronomy programs.

September

Well, Muchachos…September was not exactly an astronomy-friendly month down here in Possum Swamp. We were hit by a pretty serious hurricane, Sally. This installment was about the passage of the big storm. While it caused a lot of damage to our east, the sum total of her depredations here was a downed 6-meter antenna and a few limbs in the yard. We were on the standby generator for less than an hour.

October

The year began with my M13 tradition and it was ending with the same. I knew I had to get out right away, as soon as the Gulf calmed down, or there would be no yearly M13. To be honest with y’all, it had been about three years since I’d done any astrophotography, and I was a mite nervous about whether I’d remember what to do and how to do it.

To make things easy on myself, I employed my beloved William Optics Megrez II Fluorite, an 80mm f/7, Veronica Lodge. She makes astrophotography as easy as that difficult art ever can be with her excellent wide-field optics. My results were nothing special, but got me back into the groove of polar alignment, guiding, and image processing.

Annnd…there was a second blog in October. With a splendid Mars opposition in progress, I just had to get into the backyard with telescope and camera—my old ZWO ASI120, and the Edge. The shots I got were not the best I’d ever taken; it had been a long time since I’d shot the Solar System. But they were not bad, either.

November

November brought another Herschel evening, and a pretty good haul of objects. The ostensible goal was getting CPWI working in wireless fashion with the AVX mount, but it didn’t take me long to figure out that was a no-go. My first generation Celestron wireless dongle just wouldn’t stay connected for long. I went back to “wired” and had mucho fun doing Herschels visually.

December

The final post of the year was about—what else could it have been about?—The Christmas Star, the grand conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn. The article also comprised my annual Christmas card to you, my dear readers, but the focus was on the opposition. For once the weather cooperated, and I was able to see the spectacle and show it off to Miss Dorothy and a few neighbors with my 80mm f/11 achromat, Midge.

2021? Who knows what this year will hold? It is starting off in genuinely crazy fashion. Unk? I have two hopes:  that me and Miss D. get the vaccine soon and that I get up the gumption to get a scope outside and really start knocking off some Herschels. Which I promise to do just as soon as it gets a little warmer, muchachos.


Thursday, December 24, 2020

 

Issue #571: Merry Christmas 2020 from Uncle Rod and the AstroBlog…

 

Well, I did manage to sneak in another issue before this cursed year was history, muchachos. I wasn’t sure if I was going to be able to do that or not, though. It’s been cloudy more often than it’s been clear this December, and the clear nights we have had have been unseasonably cold for us down here on the borders of the Great Possum Swamp.

That’s a problem for your correspondent of late, since, for some reason, I seem to feel the cold more acutely after my accident last year. Much as I might want to do some observing, the idea of shivering in the dark sometimes keeps me inside. Be that as it may, I did get out one recent chilly evening. How could I not? It was the GRAND CONJUNCTION.

Like everybody else, your old uncle was very much looking forward to the once in a lifetime experience of seeing Jupiter and Saturn in one eyepiece field. Howsomeever, as the 21st of December approached I sensed not all was sweetness and light with my fellow astronomers. What was raising some of you folks’ hackles, oddly enough, seemed to be the public’s excitement about the event.

Yeah, that did seem a mite strange. Most of us want mom and pop to look up and see the stars. Alas, some of us also insist that has to be done our way, with respect and no appropriation of our turf. What I’m referring to is irritation over the conjunction being touted in the media and by the man-on-the-street as “the Christmas star.”

Why did that bother anybody? Well, some of us said it was merely because they wanted the facts clear in the minds of the public. This wasn’t any star. It was merely an effect of perspective. The two planets only appeared to be close to each other in the sky from our vantage point. There was no magic or miracles to it. “Why can’t we just stick to the cold, hard, immutable laws of physics?”

“Now, now. Calm down, y’all” was my advice. I suspected most of the general public actually knew the conjunction wasn’t a star, but the planets Jupiter and Saturn. The reports I saw on CNN and MSNBC certainly emphasized that.

Anyhoo, I believe the problem for some of us wasn’t so much  our fear the public would confuse planets for a star as it was the religion angle. But you know what? For many people, including people in the sciences, even in these latter days,  faith is important. Very important indeed. And if this conjunction reaffirmed that faith and brought a little hope at the end of a dark year, so what? Is that such a bad thing? What’s also worth noting? A conjunction very much like this one did take place in 3 BC.

Another irritant for not a few sky watchers? That darned public was poaching in our private preserve. Trying to filch OUR conjunction. We’ve seen this before with Blue Moons and Super Moons. I admit the latter used to drive me bananas, too. Until the night I was strolling Selma Street back in the heyday of Chaos Manor South on the evening of one such Super Moon... 

I was all primed to tell any of my neighbors who inquired, “Sorry, the difference in the size of the Moon is undiscernible by the human eye. There is nothing ‘super’ about it.” That’s what I was gonna say until I noticed all the little families gathered on their front porches gazing at Luna in wonder. Instead, I bit my tongue and let them marvel at a glorious sight.

Which is what I advised folks in our community to do when the subject of the Christmas Star came up. I took some heat for that. But I didn’t care. I took quite a lot of heat for a Focal Point (editorial) I wrote for Sky & Telescope many years ago wherein I opined the (now bygone, I guess) practice of buying and selling stars was maybe not the bad thing some of us made it out to be. I didn’t care then, either. If “buying” a star or gazing at a Christmas one causes someone to wonder, I am happy.

Anyhow. Enough editorializing. I wanted to see that Christmas Star with my own eyes. The question was how. It didn’t take long for me to decide I’d do it simply. No fancy cameras or tracking mounts. Just my 80mm f/11 SkyWatcher refractor, Midge, on her AZ-4 alt-azimuth mount.

There were several reasons for that. Given our weather of late, it wouldn’t be unlikely we’d be clouded out at the last minute and I’d be setting up a big scope just to tear it down and carry it back inside a few minutes later. Also, the planets would be awfully low by the time darkness came on December 21st. I suspected I’d have to move the scope around to avoid trees. Finally, I just wanted to enjoy the event and maybe show it to a neighbor or two, not worry over cameras and computers.

Pretty Moon.
So…when it started getting dark on the 21st I hied myself to the backyard with the SkyWatcher. Nope. Jupe and Saturn had gotten a lot lower since our last clear spell and were now in the trees. To the front yard I went with the 80mm and a box of inexpensive Celestron Plössls I won at a star party some years ago.

Almost ready, I had a quick look at the fattening Moon so I could precisely align the red-dot bb gun finder on the scope—Selene was beautiful, natch. But I didn't linger, quickly moving over to the pair of planets—who were now, indeed, a single point to my eyes. In went a 13mm Plössl, and to that went my eye.

To say the sight was a beautiful one would be an understatement. It wasn’t just that the planets looked good in the (relatively) long refractor. It was the idea of the thing. Those two enormous gas giants in one rather small eyepiece field. Furthermore, it was the realization that Jupiter was a much closer foreground object than the ringed wonder, who was about twice as distant as Jove. Pondering on that and looking and looking almost made it feel as if I were seeing the depth of a 3D image…and I almost thunk myself into a mild case of vertigo!

While it was the juxtaposition of the two that was so striking, there was no denying my inexpensive refractor was delivering the goods. At 68x, there was plenty of banding detail and color on Jupiter. Saturn was a deep yellow, showing off Cassini’s Division and a little disk detail. Upped the magnification to 150x and they still looked great despite the fact the Christmas Star was getting lower and lower and the seeing was naturally becoming lousier and lousier.

The SkyWatcher, Midge, came to me quite a few years ago and for only one reason:  I fancied her mount. I had originally intended to buy the alt-az rig from Orion, where it was badged “Orion Versago.” Luckily, I announced that intention on a Cloudy Nights forum, and a kind person clued me in to the fact I could get the same mount for less money from B&H Photo, where it was being sold as the SkyWatcher AZ-4. And not only that, the SkyWatcher package included an 80mm f/11 achromatic refractor.

Naturally, I went for the SkyWatcher and immediately recognized Midge was a fine little telescope. Beautifully finished tube, good focuser (though only a 1.25-incher), and surprisingly good optics. I will admit the scope was little used for the longest time. But a decade later she is out in the backyard a lot. She is trivial for your now somewhat feeble old uncle to set up—if I am just going to be giving something a quick look, I leave the eyepiece tray off the tripod, and am able to quickly collapse the legs to maneuver through doorways.

My souvenir of the evening...
Anyhow, Midge and I viewed the Christmas Star for quite a long time, showing her off not just to Miss Dorothy and my neighbors, but to a couple of passersby who stopped their cars and got out to ask, “Can you see it? Oh, that’s it over there? Can I look?” It was a lot like a long-ago morning when little Rod spied an elusive but beautiful visitor from Mama and Daddy's front yard.

Eventually, of course, the Star really got down into the mess at the horizon. Before winding things up, I held my iPhone up to the eyepiece and shot a few pictures. Not because I expected much of an image, but just so I'd have a "souvenir" of the evening. I went back to the pretty Moon and shot a few of her as well. Soon thereafter, your uncle retreated to his den for a warming potation and a second viewing of the season 2 finale of The Mandalorian

I am always a little stressed out over big astro-events that capture the public's attention. There have been a lot of Kahouteks over the years, afterall. But this was one astronomy Special Event that really worked out; not just for me and my fellow astronomers, but for everybody, and for that I am glad.

Christmas Eve

These latter-day Christmas Eves are nothing like those huge Christmas Eves of yore at old Chaos Manor South with a giant tree and little kids, eyes full of wonder, running everywhere. And no trips to old El Giro's for margaritas like we used to do each Yule eve, either. This Christmas in the Year of the Plague was an even more quiet one than those of late. Just me and Miss Dorothy. On the morrow, I’ll fix a nice Christmas repast for two (I’m doing a ham this year) and see what the Jolly Old Elf brought me. 

Whether I get out with a telescope or not between now and New Year’s, I’ll be back before long with an article to, if nothing else, tell you WHAT I GOT! Have a beautiful holiday, muchachos. 

"Wait just one cotton pickin' minute, Unk! Ain't you forgettin' something?!" Almost did:  My traditional Christmas Eve viewing of that greatest and most numinous of ornaments, M42, The Great Orion Nebula. It hadn't looked good when I had arisen at my accustomed 07:30 on Christmas Eve morning. Windy, thunderstorms, generally yucky. Looking at Accuweather on my phone (I got tired of the Weather Channel's pop-over ads), and the Clear Sky Clock (I will never call it "Chart"), however, showed maybe there was some hope.

Following my normal Thursday night routine, checking into the Lockdown Fun Net on 28.420Mhz, I peeped out the radio shack door. And there was Rigel shining on like some crazy diamond. I hurried into the house, fetched Midge, and inserted the 17mm Koenig eyepiece I'd purchased at the 1993 Deep South Regional Star Gaze into her diagonal. Best view of M42 I've ever had? No. This was a 3-inch telescope under suburban skies with a waxing Moon nearby. But beautiful? Yes. I looked upon it as a good omen.



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