Sunday, August 31, 2008


The Nights Everything Goes Wrong

That greatest of all felines, Growltiger, was inexplicably rousted off his nice cool bed--a telescope mirror!
In any pursuit, from turnip farming to teaching third grade, there are those times when everything goes to pot. Amateur astronomy ain’t no different. I have countless wonderful nights under the stars, those evenings when everything goes right—telescope collimation is perfect, gotos dead on, every image a keeper—but I don’t tend to remember them as much as the nights that are unmitigated disasters. Herewith are a few examples of my blundering offered to you, dear reader, as cautionary tales in hopes you can avoid the murky swamps I seem to find myself frequently stuck in.

It’s easy enough to categorize my mistakes, as they seem to fall into a few distinct families: things I forget to bring with me, things I forget to do (or how to do), and things I cannot control to save myself.

The Things You Forget

I am sure everyone of you has heard this legendary tale: Elmo Amateur Astronomer is all primed for some long nights of solo observing at his little piece of dark sky heaven 300 miles from his domicile. He packs everything in his vehicle he can imagine being of service for a weekend of observing: laptop, Millennium Star Atlas, giant Dobsonian, pork rinds, you-name-it. Arriving onsite he spends several hours erecting tent and scope, finishing just as dark comes on. “Ah, time to get started, I reckon. Maybe the new 31 Nag would be nice to get going with; I’ll just fish her outta the ol’ eyepiece case. The eyepiece case. WHERE IS THE EYEPIECE CASE?!”

Of course the denouement is, yep, you guessed it, that the dratted eyepieces stayed home. Has this ever actually happened to anybody? I’m sure it has, though the tale invariably seems to happen to a friend-of-a-friend-of-a-friend from the club in the neighboring town—just like in any good urban legend. Even if something this dire were to happen to me or you I can’t see it being completely disastrous. Most of us don’t observe alone at remote dark sites (I discourage that for a number of reasons), so it would be possible to cadge an eyepiece or two from a buddy, I suppose. If this tragedy were to befall you at a star party, a vendor would be more than happy to sell you one or more oculars. Still, begging eyepieces ain’t no fun, and paying Dogpatch Astro Devices 75 bucks for a well-used Kellner ain’t cool neither. To preclude this unhappiness, do as ol’ Unk does and squirrel away a couple of OK eyepieces in the scope case or affix ‘em to the Dob's mirror box or rocker box in some fashion. You might be glad you did some night.

No, nobody I know has actually forgotten their eyepieces, but plenty of folks of my acquaintance have forgot other stuff. One of my Bubbas, a well-known astrophotographer whose name would be immediately familiar to y’all, once hauled a massive AP1200 GEM hundreds of miles for a couple of days of serious imaging. Unpacking revealed an immediately obvious lack: counterweights. Luckily, he had packed a roll of duct tape (belongs in everybody’s astro-stuff box), so it was possible to press a couple of large rocks into service and salvage the weekend.

Alas, though, it ain’t always possible to save yourself from critical errors no matter how creative you are or how much duct tape you’ve got. One recent night, I decided I’d like to chase down some of the more beastly Hickson groups using my NexStar 11 GPS and Stellacam II. One of the beauties of the Stellacam video camera is that it doesn't need the services of a laptop computer. Since I was toting enough gear as it was and this was just a one-night-stand, I happily left the Toshiba at home . Arriving at my dark site, I unpacked the gear, setup, and after wandering around the site a bit hunting for deer tracks, I figgered it was dark enough to get aligned. Oh, yeah, need to hook up the hand controller…

What hand controller? Since I usually run the scope with the NexRemote computer program instead of a real HC, I had not thought to make doubly sure I'd grabbed the hand control. No laptop meant no NexRemote, and no HC either meant no NS11. Yes, I suppose I could have used the scope visually manually, but the NexStar’s lack of mechanical slow motions makes that an exercise in frustration. The only thing that saved me from having a major meltdown? Looked like clouds were rolling in, anyway. With just a little disgusted muttering, I packed the gear back into the RAV4 and headed for home. Luckily, that was only 45 minutes, not three hours, away. The balance of the evening was speant with cable TV and Rebel Yell instead of the distant stars.

When I got back to Chaos Manor South the consarned hand control was sitting right where I'd left it on the dining room table grinning. You can bet the HC now lives in the case with the NexStar's power cables and other accessories that I usually remember to pack. More importantly, it got me thinking about ways to ensure I'll never forget anything. Oh, I know that will never happen given my scatterbrained nature, but forgetting fewer things would at last be an improvement.

Moral of these stories? Make yourself up a checklist and scrupulously review it before every run. NO exceptions (“Heck, I’m just using Dobbie; I KNOW I’ve got ever’thang.”). When you start compiling your checklist, you’ll be amazed at how many items go on it, which is why it is so easy to forget something. Below is an example of one of my lists (I’ve got a different one for use with the Dob). Keep in mind that I don’t necessarily take all this stuff every time, but I check each item on the list so I am sure that I take everything I want every time. Pay close attention to the non-astro items, as they are even easier to forget than astro-gear. One November, I found myself six hours from home without a jacket. Yeah, it was Chiefland, Florida, but it can still get nippy there in November, for gosh sakes. Luckily there was a Wally-World at hand.

Equipment Checklist

C8 OTA or C11 OTA
ASGT HC/cords case
NS11 HC/cords case
C11 tripod or C8 tripod
Piggyback refractor OTA(s)
CG5 mount head
CG5 counterweights
Stellacam II
DVD player
DVD recorder
Large eyepiece box
Small eyepiece box
Binoviewer eyepiece case
C8/C11 dew shield
Two jumpstart batteries
Deep cycle battery and charger
Large Tupperware container
Ammo box
Card table
PC enclosure
Laptop red filter
Observing chair
DSLR camera case
Rabbit light or Coleman lantern

For Overnight Trips

Sleeping bags
Ice chest and ice
Soft drinks
Dining canopy (and tent if required)
Garbage bags
Camp chairs
Coleman stove
Food items
Battery powered cooler
Personal hygiene items

The Things You Forget How to Do

This is my other category of misadventure. Much of the fault here lies not with li’l ol’ me, but with summers along the Gulf Coast. Over the last four summertimes, I’ve had a grand total of one year when I’ve been able to do significant observing between June and September. I’ve made a pact with myself that next summer I will try to make it down to Chiefland at least a couple of times. It is fiercely hot down there, but it is usually clear, unlike on the northern Gulf Coast. What am I getting at here? That when you go long periods without being able to observe you forget how to do stuff. How did that wedge go on the tripod? What do you have to do to get that Meade DSI working as an autoguider? Where the heck is Ras Algheti?

My classic example is the night I hated my Sky Commander DSCs. Surprised? If you know me, you are, since I’ll tell anybody who will listen that the Commanders are the best digital setting circles I have ever used, and that they have given my ol’ 12-inch Dobbie a whole new lease on life. Nevertheless, one night I began to hate the dadgummed things with a passion.

Why? I set the scope up, ready for a night of late spring galaxy chasing. Did as I usually do, align on Polaris and one other star, Sirius this time. Easy as pie—the Commanders don’t make you level the scope or worry about “warp factors” or other foolishness. You line up two stars and the computer is deadly accurate. ‘Cept it sure wasn’t this time. I sent the scope to M3 as my first object, and it was not visible even in the 35 Pan. Looking up with bleary eyes, I was surprised to see the Commanders had landed me degrees and degrees away. Mercury (which a brother obsever was looking at)? The same. Shoot! Realigned. Maybe I’d pushed the wrong button—which would be easy enough to do after not havin’ used the computer in ages. Third time the charm? Nope.

I was just about to panic and get my buddy to help me lift the scope out of the rocker box so I could see if something was haywire with the aziumuth encoder. Before I could embarrass myself further, however, I turned to the north, contemplating my situation. Yeah, Polaris and Sirius, maybe I should use something other than Polaris? Wait. That ain’t Polaris; that’s KOCAB! Shortly thereafter, I was happily touring the Virgo – Coma Cluster, but the experience had been a humbling one. The cure? Get out more. Yeah, it’ll probably be cloudy on the New Moon weekend, but get out, just with a pair of binoculars on a hazy moonlight night and look at the stars and constellations. My problem was that I hadn’t kept in touch with the sky, and even after over 40 years of an intimate relationship, she showed she can still give me my comeuppance if I let that relationship lapse.

The Things You Cannot Control

There's one last variety of Goes Wrong; there are those disasters all the planning and practice in the world will not allow you to escape. Like wut? One blessedly clear autumn night a few years ago (actually more like a decade ago, I reckon), I got a call from one of my PSAS (Possum Swamp Astronomical Society) bros, Pat, wondering if I’d like to observe from his semi-dark backyard across Mobile Bay over yonder in the little town of Fairhope, Alabama. “Hail yeah,” said I. It had been a long cloudy dry spell (maybe “dry” ain’t the right word). I was HUNGRY for the deep sky! I said I'd be out before sundown and that I'd bring Old Betsy, my 12.5-inch f/4.8 scope, and the brand-spanking new 35mm Panoptic eyepiece I'd splurged for a couple of weeks previous. While, even then, Fairhope wasn’t what I’d call “dark,” it was a derned sight better than what I had in the cotton-pickin’ Garden District--you could actually make-out the Milky Way on a good night.

I tossed Bets into Camry, headed to Fairhope, and soon had the scope set up in Pat's side-yard. That done, I helped him tote his 12-inch f/6 Dobsonian out, which was a fair job—I'd forgot how big a 12-inch of that focal ratio is. Yeah, I know, a truss tube Dob is supposed to be portable, but lazy us decided to haul it out in its assembled state. It was worth the labor, though. The skies sure did not disappoint. Dew was a mite heavy, but the Milky Way blazed overhead; I have not seen it that good there since. While Pat was getting arranged, I took a quick tour of the southern skies. M22, M11, and M16 all looked purty in the 35mm. No, the Pan don’t have quite the “porthole in space” AFOV of a Nagler, but, nevertheless, the view in that big glass was downright immersive.

Pat soon had the f/6 on Jupiter, and the view was good, if not overwhelming, due to unsteady seeing, which continued to be a little punk as the night wore on. That being the case, we did most of our lookink with my shorter focal length scope, leaving Pat’s 12 unattended. I was cruising Aquarius. The Helix was basically invisible, so I headed over to the other end of the street for a look at M2, M72, and the Saturn Nebula, NGC 7009. I took a peep, bumped-up the power with a 7mm Nagler, and rubbed my eyes in amazement. I was seeing this marvel's ansae—its “rings”—occasionally swim into view when the seeing steadied down. The nebula itself was an incredible electric blue color. Wow! who would a-thunk it from a site that was basically “suburban”? After Aquarius, I pointed Betsy at Pegasus to see what was hopping in the NGC 7331 area. The galaxy was nice enough, but on this night its little attendant galaxies—the deer in the deer lick—and nearby Stephan's Quintet were only “suspected” (deep sky observer lingo for “I should be able to see 'em so I must have.”).

The dew was getting ever heavier, and it was actually a wee bit chilly—in Mobile, Alabama in October of all things—so Pat and I ducked into his house for a spot of hot Java. When we returned to the scopes I suggested we see what the f/6 would do on the Saturn Nebula since it had looked so wicked-cool in my f/4.8. Pat moved the scope in the general direction of ol' 7009 and put his eye to the eyepiece: "Hmm, shroud must be drooping into the light path. WAIT...DAMMIT...THERE'S SOMETHING IN THERE!"

I hurried over and shone a red light into the interior of the OTA. Two eyes glowed in the darkness of the mirror box. One of Pat’s cats (the four legged kind) was blinking up at me. Naturally, I pulled the shroud up and lifted Mr. Kitty off the beautiful primary mirror. The cat was stretching and yawning as I picked him up and no doubt wondering who could be so thoughtless as to disturb his snooze in the nice cozy box with the wonderful cool, smooth floor. Apparently, he'd nosed up the shroud and crawled in while we were using my scope or while we were in the house (the f/6 was not perfectly balanced so we left it near-vertical when not in use).

With shaking hands, Pat pointed a white flashlight at the mirror; I definitely expected the worst. At first it seemed as if I were right. Looked horrible. Covered with dust (the cat had obviously taken a dust-bath just before bed) and kitty prints. Surely it must have numerous deep scratches from sharp cat-claws. By now, things had descended into chaos (or slapstick comedy) with Pat cursing as he tried to get the mirror out of the scope without removing the truss tubes, me chasing kitty-kats away from my scope (Cat Number One had now been joined by Cat Number Two), and Pat's young son on the verge of tears, believing we were sure to do violence to the felines: “Daddy I LOVE them cats!”

We eventually got the mirror into the house and gave it a bath. Distilled water and USP cotton were on hand, since one reason I'd brought the f/4.8 out was so Pat, my on-call Dob guru, could give the primary a good pre-star-party-season wash. We sure didn't imagine we'd be doing this to his f/6, which had just come back from the coater’s, though. Under Pat's loving touch, the kitty dust washed away. We did find two barely perceptible scratches, but whether they were from the cat or not wasn't clear. They were certainly not bad enough to affect performance. Returning outside, I wasn't surprised to see Mr. Kitty back in Pat's mirror box. He did seem a bit put-out that his nice, shiny bed had disappeared, though—stupid humans! Luckily, my scope had proved sufficiently cat-proof. Miss Dorothy had insisted on putting a drawstring on the bottom as well as the top of the shroud when she sewed it. I shooed away a disappointed couple of cats.

We continued to observe for a couple more hours, but before long that cursed old Moon rose, putting an end to our deep sky pleasure. As I was loading Dobbie into the Toyota, I noticed the cats curled-up together on the porch, snoozing heavily, sleeping the sweet sleep of the just after their exciting night. I had to smile at the juxtaposition of the ridiculous and the sublime. My reverent gazing at distant and enigmatic deep sky wonders had been interrupted by a Cat Chase.

And so it goes down here in the Great Possum Swamp. I try not to be bothered when my nights under the stars turn disastrous or ridiculous. I just keep repeating my favorite mantra: “It is what it is, it is what it is, it is what it is…”

Some of y’all have been kind enough to send us emails expressing concern about us being near the path of oncoming Hurricane Gustav (and maybe Hanna, too). We appreciate your concern, but rest assured we will get out if necessary. Good ol’ Chaos Manor South? She’s survived over a century of storms, including a brush with Katrina. I hope and believe she and her old-lady-sisters on the block will continue to do so.

Great stories. I've driven 60 miles to observe and found out I forgot my truss poles! Well, at least I was able to use an OPS - other person's scope. As you said, duct tape and "found" items work well for counterweights for GEMs as well as for dobs. (personal experience here)

For winter observing in Minnesota, the most important thing to NOT forget are rubber eyecups for the eyepieces. Otherwise, one freezes the skin near one's eye to the metal shell of the eyepiece. It is most excellent in this case to have a telescope that moves very easily - a butter-smooth dob. Otherwise it would be more painful. Needless to say, I no longer go out observing at -15F.

Hi Unk,
Reading this one brought some memories to me. The first was the missing jacket. Living in So. Cal. one of the big astro hangouts is Mt. Pinos. A fellow astronomer asked if I wanted to meet him up there (July or Aug) and sure, all I needed was a reason. We get there around the same time and set up. The Sun was just going below the curve of the earth and it was starting to get chilly. I reached for my Ventrua Count Astronomy Society sweatshirt (more layers to come) and my buddy walks up and says - uh do you have an extra jacket? Being summer in California, I can see how that was easily forgotten. But knowing how cold it was going to be on top of a mountain he resigned himself to pack up and go home.

I did forget my dew shield not too long ago, and I did get dew on the corrector (9.25NX). I have since then inacted a list simular to yours.

The other was the cat. At first I was laughing out loud until you started talking about the mirror - the horror of what could be! Although "Blue Eyes" the astro cat has departed it brought to mind the number of times I was looking through the ep and the image starts to shake. Was that a small earthquake? Nope, just a cat wanting some attention. I would stop down, pick up the cat, sit in my observing chair and look at the wonders while getting a little vibration from the purrs.

All good stuff,
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