Monday, December 24, 2007


Happy Christmas 2007 from Possum Swamp!

Not a whole lot to say on this Christmas Eve, muchachos. I reckon a year of blogging, speaking at all those star parties, and chatting with all y’all on Astromart and the Cloudy Nights has more than allowed your ol’ Uncle Rod to have his say.

Tonight? Looks like this will be a nice, quiet Christmas in Dixie. We’re in for the evening—me, Miss Dorothy, and Miss Beth (home for the holidays from Yankeeland). Did our now traditional Christmas Eve Japanese Steakhouse dinner (it may not be Yell, but once a year I don’t mind a bit o’ Sake). There are no younguns left in the family, so a preternatural quiet has now settled over the storied walls of good, old Chaos Manor South, deep in the heart of the The Great Possum Swamp.

There is one thing left to say: no matter how y’all celebrate Christmas…as a religious holiday…or just as a secular time of good feeling and good cheer…have a good one my brother and sister amateurs. And thanks for being so friendly and understanding over the last year as I blundered onto your star party fields in my bull-in-a-chinashop good ol’ boy fashion. In other words, have a numinous or at least luminous holiday season, and here’s hoping your coming year is one of beautiful telescopes and beautiful views.

Now, since it appears it will be cloudy tonight, preventing us from continuing our other Christmas Eve tradition, toasting M42 with eggnog (second cloudy December 24th in a row), where the heck is that Yell?!

Saturday, December 22, 2007


The Big Blow Up?

Those of y'all who've been in the astro-game for a while well-remember the excitement of the summer of 1994. You don't? Well that was when comet SL9 slammed into Jupiter as we amateurs watched. Your ol' Uncle, being a pessimistic sort when it comes to Sky Spectaculars, like many old time amateurs (some of us are still smarting over Comet Kahoutek), was skeptical, but for once one shore panned out with those weird and wonderful cometary zits spreading across Jupe's face in full view of Unk's C8. Course, events like Shoemaker-Levy don't come around often. Usually it's "one to an astronomer-customer per lifetime." But, believe it or not, there may be a chance--CHANCE, I repeat--of well, a repeat; this time at Mars, if not in such a spectacular fashion.

Seems a little piece of Solar System flotsam, an asteroid bearing the nondescript name of "2007 WD5" appears to be on a collision course with the Angry Red planet. Leastways the odds at this time are about 1 in 75 of a hit on 30 January 2008. The little feller in question, who was discovered by the Catalina Sky Survey as part of the Spaceguard project, is an unimpressive 50 - 100 meters across, it's believed. At an orbital speed of dang near 28,000 miles per hour, though, he will make a right impressive boom if he smacks into the Red One. That is, a multi-megaton boom, maybe something on the order of 3 megatons or more.

Now, that sounds like a lot, but, remember, 3 megatons is small potatoes in the cosmic scheme of things, and is even small compared to some of the H-bombs tested in the atmosphere back in the Cold War glory days. Tsar Bomba, for example, which the Russkies lit off on Novaya Zemlya in 1961 at a yield (at REDUCED power) of 50 megatons.

Bottom line? Hubble might get a look. It's conceivable large earth bound scopes might see something. It's barely possible amateur class instruments might show something to CCD eyes. Be prepared for complete disappointment, however; it's likely the odds will go UP rather than DOWN as more data comes in and this Pebble in Space's orbit is refined. If the thing does hit Mars, however, amateurs will have a job to do, even if we cain't see nuttin'. As a matter of fact, we'll have work to do leading up to January 30 no matter what happens.

Our main job will be dealing with all the questions that will come our way from the public, and the boost in interest in amateur astronomy (and scope sales) that will result. That in mind, I urge you to educate yourself about 2007 WD5 NOW. A good place to start is at JPL. Wanna look at a cool animated orbital plot? Go here. Above all, be braced, as usual, for the Loony "theories" that will circulate to your lay friends via email: "ASTEROID TO KNOCK MARS OUT OF ORBIT AND ONTO A COLLISION PATH FOR EARTH! WE ARE DOOMED! GOVERNMENT HIDING TRUTH!" Be ready in your best amateur fashion to explain the truth of things in a non-threatening, non-patronizing way. We don't want to get caught flat-footed as we have been with several similar events and non-events—like the aforementioned Comet Watergate of Kahoutek!

Tuesday, December 04, 2007


Whither Skywatch?

Or is that wither Skywatch? I know it’s been a few months since my little newsletter, Skywatch, has made an appearance, and some of y’all are wondering what’s happened to it. Answer? Nothing—in every sense of the word.

I’ve kept my Possum Swamp Gazette of an astronomy newsletter-cum-magazine (it’s a bit more than a newsletter and a we bit less than a full-fledged magazine) going since, well, hard as it is to believe, 1995, and heretofore I’d only missed one issue (after Katrina). Now, with Winter coming in, Fall 2007 has yet to make an appearance. Why?

Reason One is been too busy. In addition to the other things I do, including holding down a 40 hour a week (or occasionally more) job as an AEGIS engineer, I’ve been hard at work on a new SCT book to replace the (badly) out of date Choosing and Using a Schmidt Cassegrain Telescope. Oh, and I continue teaching my astronomy labs for two semesters a year.

I’d be lying if I told you that “just too busy” was the main reason, though. Frankly, this blog allows me to say pretty much whatever silliness I have to say with a lot less trouble than putting together a 20 page newsletter, even one that’s only distributed as a .pdf. Funny thing about blogs? In some sense they seem to be making a lot of things less needed and relevant including “regular” websites and pages. Frankly, lately most of the articles appearing under my byline have been retreads from this very blog.

I also note that I haven't received a lot of contributions from y'all lately. The reason for that may be that I haven't had the time nor the inclination to beat the bushes for 'em. That being the case, much of the remaining material in SW—the stuff that didn't come off this here blog—has been reprints of articles from the 1990s (or even the 1980s; Skywatch was around way back when as our Xeroxed club newsletter).

Does all this add up to “buh-bye Skywatch”? Maybe not. If for no other reasons than sentimental ones, I intend to keep it running at least on an irregular basis. Y’all might even see the Winter issue shortly after Christmas. There’s another and bigger reason, though: it gives talented amateur astronomy writers at least an humble place to get their early work seen. As you may be aware, several of the younger group of authors, including Tom Trusock, got their start, yep, right in the pages of good ol’ SW.

I won’t promise an ever-other-month or even quarterly schedule, but when the mood strikes me and when I have enough submissions to make it worthwhile to put out anudder number I will do so. Not good enough? If you miss Skywatch, how can you encourage me to keep it going on a more regular basis? Easy: just let me know by postin’ a comment here AND, most importantly, by SENDING ME YOUR STUFF…articles on any aspect of amateur astronomy, that is (including art, comics, poems, fiction, observing reports, reviews, construction projects, star party sagas, you-name-it).

2020 Update

Poor, old SkyWatch. I really haven't thought much about it in a long, long time. And why should I? The last issue, number 88, was published almost a dozen years ago. I stopped for the reasons noted above:  it was a lot of work, and this blog provided a far less time consuming outlet for my (non-commercial) astronomy writing.

SkyWatch had a good, long run, though, and was what made me into a professional writer. Beginning with my contributions to it in the early 90s when it was "just" a club newsletter edited by David Switzer, the then president of my astronomy club, SkyWatch taught me my craft. I took over SkyWatch in 1995, soon moved it from being a club newsletter to being a proto-ezine, and kept it going--amazingly to me now--for almost 13 years.

Should you have a yen for a stroll down memory lane, almost all the issues are still available here: 

Sunday, December 02, 2007


Hey Y'all, Where are the Christmas Astro Goodies?

Yeah, I know, "'Hey' is what horses eat." What I wanna know, though, is where is all the cool new astro-gear we long to see as ho-ho-ho and mistletoe time approaches?

With the economy—including the amateur astronomy economy—none too healthy, it seems, many bubbas and bubettes are bemoaning a supposed lack of new astro-goodies this holiday season. While it’s true neither Celestron nor Meade has released a new line of scopes' in time for ol' Sandy Claws to pack 'em in his bag, there’s a whole lotta good at least newish stuff out there, as a stroll through the latest issue of Sky & Telescope revealed shortly after its January issue plopped through the mail slot and landed smack dab in Chaos Manor South’s front hall…

On the inside front cover is TeleVue’s amazing (so Unk has been told) Ethos 100 degree apparent field hunk of glass. This 13mm ain’t cheap, and while Your Old Uncle specks he’d like one, he’s not anxious to hand over a fat fistful of farthings without being able to try one first. Despite the fact I did oodles of star parties from sea to shining sea over the last six months, nary an Ethos did I see. They should be getting into the hands of users with a vengeance by the time the Spring Starparty Season starts, though.

Hmmm…Meade’s ad lineup sure has shrunk from the glory days of ten page front-o-the-magazines color extravaganzas, but there is a nice color full-pager of a dude and his rugrat playin with one of them MySKY thingies. IN case you’ve been indisposed over the last six months or so, this is Meade’s tarted-up version of the Celestron SkyScout star-finder/locator. I had the chance to see one in action recently and was fairly impressed. Despite the small size, its color display is both pretty and usable—even for my middle-aged eyes. The thingamybobby seemed purty accurate too. One thing I did think was weird/funny (ha-ha funny)…the owner had to lay the darned MySKY on the ground on its side before it would get a GPS fix. The major CAVEAT, though? What’s this gadget do for you (or for Nancy Novice) for 400 bucks that a 4 buck planisphere don’t other than look cool?

OK, lessee…next page has an ad for the Bisque Paramount, “Call it the Red Giant.” It may not be new, but I shore want one. Me drooling over this 12k mount brings to mind all those afternoons in junior high study hall salivating over the Unitron and Cave brochures.

But what’s new, what’s new? Well, how 'bout iOptron's CUBE? This is an awful cute and awful cheap and awful colorful alt-az go-to mount designed to accommodate small scopes via a Vixen dovetail. You get a lot for your 199 Georgie Washingtons: a go-to mount, a tripod, a purty li’l hand paddle, even (optional) GPS capability. Unfortunately, early reports indicate, as you might expect, less than impressive go-to accuracy and build quality—‘bout what I’d expect for two C notes. If they get the bugs out, though, this thing could be huge—in a small sorta way.

Next page…you ain’t gonna believe this, but MORE goodies. If the iOptron Cube ain’t your style, howsabout a high tech barndoor mount? The Astrotrac, which is being sold by Adirondack Video Astronomy, out barndoors every barnoor/camera tracking mount this ol’ boy has ever seen, maybe e'en the Tak Sky Patrol. Unfortunately, they don’t egg-zactly give this Astrotrac away. Its 700 dinero bottom line means I’ll be sticking with my two-boards-a-piano-hinge-and-a-bolt cam tracker for the forseeable future.

Don't need no barndoor? Get a load of the planetary cams by The Imaging Source. I’ve been looking for something a cut up from my SAC7 and NexImage (more sensitivity, higher frame-rate), unfortunately, the Lumenera cams, nice as they are are a wee bit pricy, and these Imaging Source cams have heretofore been saddled with a Firewire interface, something I haven’t wanted to fool (operative word) around with. That’s all changed now with the release of a pair of planet cams (monochrome and color) in a more standard USB 2 format. With these babies in the 300 buck range, even I might be able to glom onto one before Mars is completely gone, ya never know.

Also on deck? New cameras from Quantum Scientific Instruments. These hummers look interesting, but the words “Laboratory-quality” indicated to stingy ol’ Unk that they must command a price range just a wee bit unpalatable for His Cheapness. HOWSOMEEVER…a check of QSI’s website reveals that, while they do offer some heavy hitters, they also have a 768x512 format cam at just a hair over two grand. Might be a brand to keep a peeper on.

What else, what else?…Celestron has a full page ad for their SkyScout. I’ve had the same “what for” reaction to this as I have had to the MySKY, but Celestron is apparently attempting to widen the thing’s appeal with a small-scope/SkyScout combo. If this works decently, it could have some appeal for beginners. Sure, you can get an introductory go-to scope for less, but novices can detach the SS from this rig and have a lot of fun with it. Well maybe.

Thumbing on, we come to the annual “Hot Products” piece. The most cool thang here this year? Obsession’s 18-inch “suitcase scope.” If you’ve got the 6540 shekels required, Mr. Kriege will sell you a scope that allows you to join the Bigdob Boys, but which fits in a 26x20-inch case and weighs all of 90 pounds.

Also in the “Hot” section is one of everybody’s fave new items. While it’s been out for a while, the Skyshed Pod home observatory dome is causing ripples in amateur astronomy that are just beginning to be felt. This high quality 2-grandish dome allows those who’ve dreamed of a real observatory, something more attractive and functional than the chicken-coop-like affairs Unk Rod and his redneck buddies cobble together and call “backyard observatories” to fulfill those Christmas dreams.

SBIG, not surprisingly, has a coupla Hot Products, too. Most interesting being a surprisingly low-priced new item, the AO-8 adaptive optics guider. Lots of us have wanted something that can really make our fork mounts set-up and behave during imaging, and this thing will do it. Best part? $699.00.

Moving on…‘nudder Meade ad. Not for the MaxMount, I’m sorry to report, but nevertheless interesting. Just when you were gettin’ used to Meade’s innovative and effective DSI II cameras, out they come with a III. This is a little more expensive than the predecessors at $1295.00, but has one very important advantage: a larger chip. Its 2/3rd inch sensor is a nice step up from the webcam-brigade chips Meade's used in the DSIs heretofore. Alas, still no active cooling.

On past the usual ads for big dealers like Orion and Astronomics and sech, we come to the land of the little ads. Couple caught my jaundiced eye. First was one for the Adirondack Stellacam III. Again, this ain’t exactly new, but, again, its presence is just now beginning to be felt on the amateur scene. It’s much like the Stellacam II, Adirondack’s previous integrating deep sky video cam. With two important differences: it can be ordered with a cooler and, most importantly, you can integrate for as long as you want (the II is limited to about 12 seconds).

Finally, for those of us who dream of huge GEM mounts, there’s a small ad from Alpine Astronomy for a big mount, an Italian made big-dog called the “GM4000.” It looks a little like a cross between a Paramount and a Lamborghini and sports a payload capacity of 300 pounds. Unfortunately, while it carries a payload rating twice that of the Red Giant, it also carries a price tag twice that of the Bisque beauty: $24,500!

Nah, I ain’t a-gonna be buyin’ no 25G mounts anytime soon, and I speck neither are most of y’all. Nevertheless, we can dream, can't we? In retrospect, I think I had about as much fun drooling over the scopes in them Unitron catalog on study hall afternoons as I would have had actually observing with one of those impossibly (for me) expensive beauties. And dreaming is what Christmas is all about, ain’t it?

P.S., you-all...don't forget The Urban Astronomer's Guide makes a perfect holiday giftbuy SEVERAL (hey, it's my blog; if I don't plug my books, who will?!)

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