Sunday, October 25, 2009


Splashing Around the Dolphin at Deep South 2009

Old Unk is mainly known for writing about equipment; my two books on Schmidt Cassegrains see to that. But I’ve also done one devoted to using the pretty toys we obsess about, 2006’s The Urban Astronomer’s Guide.

Of course I love my Astro Stuff, and during the long and unrelievedly cloudy summer just past, a lot of my amateur astronomy enjoyment did come from—had to come from—talking about, writing about, and reading about gear, since I couldn’t actually use it much. With the coming of blessed fall, though, that’s changing. The passing fronts are bringing clear skies in their wake, and I am going to take advantage of ‘em, you betcha.

For me, the heart of every fall star party season is still the Deep South Regional Star Gaze, our local event that has, amazingly, just passed its twenty-seventh year. It's never been big, averaging 100 – 150 observers, but we’ve hung in there, becoming one of the longest-running star parties in the nation, and, as far as I know, the longest lived event south of the Mason-Dixon Line. We are not famous, either, despite being written-up in the big magazines on occasion. Hell, Astronomy once called us “One of the Great Star Parties,” not that anybody much noticed.

What’s kept us plugging along in our modest fashion for so many years? Maybe our penchant for having fun in a friendly and relaxed atmosphere that’s equally attractive to novices and veterans.

As you know if you read thisun, DSRSG was the first star party Miss Dorothy ever attended, and became a yearly tradition for us thereafter. Swallows return to Capistrano and Rod and Dorothy go back to DSRSG. So it was not likely we’d miss this year’s edition, even though there was change in the air. Our most recent site had been Camp Ruth Lee in northern Louisiana, but that small venue fell on economic hard times last year and advised us they were not at all sure they would be around to host DSRSG 2009.

Would there be a Deep South this year? Of course there would. We’d have held it in somebody’s backyard if we’d had to; once you get a taste of down-home southern star party hospitality you simply cannot give it up. The diligent efforts of star party organizers Barry Simon and Len Philpot turned up another and possibly even better location just a mile from Ruth Lee, The Feliciana Retreat Center, a religiously-oriented venue that featured not just upscale bunkhouses, but a motel (lodge)/dining room/conference center complex that would be a big, big improvement over our former location’s drafty “chickie” cabins and other Spartan facilities. Oh, the chickies were OK, but D and I always felt guilty about disturbing their year-round residents, the spiders, with our constant comings and goings.

So it was that Dorothy and I loaded up a Camry full of gear including my time-tested 12.5-inch Dob, Old Betsy, and set out on the three-and-a-half hour drive to Clinton, Louisiana. Why a Dobsonian? Ain’t I still Mr. SCT? Sure I am, but I like a little variety, and Betsy with her wide f/5 fields and her deadeye-accurate Sky Commander Digital Setting Circles is a nice change of pace once in a while. I  recently upgraded her primary with modern high-reflectivity coatings, and that, combined with my Ethos eyepieces, can deliver some downright spectacular views. It is more like watching a big screen TV than peering through an ocular.

Not the Holiday Inn, but not a chickie cabin either.
Following an uneventful trip, we arrived at the new observing field, which was covered with recently mown but still lush grass, and which was mostly flat and more than large enough to accommodate our 100-plus observers. We were fortunate, I suppose, to arrive in sync with the predicted coming of bad weather for Thursday night, so we had our pick of field positions, choosing a nice spot on the northern edge.

Out came scope, EZ-up Canopy, laptop, ice chest, table, observing notebooks, red lights, eyepiece cases, and dry-boxes full of assorted and sundry accessories. After this many star party seasons I can pack my Toyota Camry like a clown car. By the time we were finished with all the stuff, we were feeling hot and sticky and just this side of miserable in the 85-degree plus heat/high humidity conditions. So we deserted the field to check out our accommodations and hopefully cool off.

The room in the Center’s “Lodge” facility sure as heck was a big improvement over a chickie. Yeah, it was small, cruise ship size, but clean, equipped with an air conditioner, and, thankfully, its own bathroom and shower. We passed most of the time between our arrival and supper cooling off and showering off and unpacking.

The first meal in the squeaky-clean dining room was a revelation. The facilities were a considerable improvement over the former site’s rustic ones appearance-wise, and there was plenty of room for all of us who’d signed up for the meal plan when you included a beautiful “overflow” dining area with picture windows overlooking the small lake.

The most important thing? The food? Pot roast and mashed potatoes the first night and it was pretty good. The pecan pie didn’t hurt either. Yes, the meals had been acceptable at Ruth Lee, at least as star party fare goes, but after the first couple of years the RL folks either began to take us for granted or their economic malaise intensified, and the meals began to be what can be charitably described as “plain.”

Beautiful dining hall.
After dinner, I moseyed on out to the field to prepare for the night’s work. The cotton-pickin' weatherman was predicting dire events, but,  I was seeing blue sky, and I guessed we’d get in a couple of hours in advance of the front passage. I mean, how often has your Old Uncle been wrong about star party weather?

Well, a time or two, and this was, alas, one of those times. I kept a hopeful weather eye out, but by 6 pm it was obvious I could have made a better prognostication using The Magic 8-Ball.

The occasional dark patches of clouds that had been sliding north of us began to move south. And the intermittent and muffled thunder rumbles became frequent and all too distinct. As Sol slipped below the horizon, I had begun to admit the evening wouldn’t be so good, but I didn’t yet realize just how bad.

Miss D repaired to our room for the night, and I and some of my buds hung out in the lodge’s chapel/conference center watching one of my favorite flicks, October Sky (The Rocket Boys), on the large screen television set. Just before the boys’ first successful launch from Cape Coalwood, the bottom fell out. Wind. Driving and torrential rain. Frightening bolts of lightning. It had been years since I’d had the misfortune to be at a star party during such a violent storm.

I continued to watch the film, but began to be concerned about our field setup, and as soon as the rain slackened, grabbed an umbrella and headed warily for the field. I wasn’t much concerned about the Dob. Betsy was snug in her AstroSystems scope cover. I was more worried about the EZ-Up canopy and the items beneath it.

At sundown, I’d had the good sense to move the more delicate and expensive gear to the room. My eyepiece case, the laptop, and a few other special things were transported to the Lodge a quarter-of-a-mile from the field with relative ease due to a new acquisition, a luggage cart I bought for the express purpose of getting my heavy deep cycle marine battery to the room for charging (no AC on the field at this time). When my flashlight dimly illuminated the canopy, I was puzzled. It was still standing, but looked weird.

The reason for the weirdness, I discovered, was that it was sagging under the weight of thirty or more gallons of water. This older EZ-Up did not have the sharply-peaked roof of the newer models, and that had allowed water to collect instead of run-off. A lot of water; I was puzzled as to what to do. Try to push up from beneath and force the H2O out? Too heavy. The only alternative seemed to be punching a hole in the underside. I hated to do that, but…

Luckily, before I could get my knife out, a fellow observer walked up to check on cursing (well a few good "darns" anyway), muttering Uncle Rod, and the two of us were able to push the fabric up and the water out. I noted that a couple of fiberglass braces had come loose, and briefly attempted to snap them back into place. “Briefly” because I soon felt the stings of fire ants. We’d poisoned most of the mounds on the field, but the remaining ants were now floating free and quite a few of ‘em were soon clinging to and biting the bejesus out my legs, which were uncovered, since I’d thought shorts would be just the thing on a steamy day (what could happen?).

I gave it up as a bad business, and, after checking the scope, who was fine, headed back. Just in time, it turned out, as another wave of rain and lightning rolled in as I made it to the lodge. I returned to our room, broke out the Yell, fired up the laptop, and spent an hour or two cruising Astromart and Cloudy Nights and watching some Sky at Night videos. I like Sky at Night Magazine’s included CDs, but never seem to get around to watching ‘em until I’m out in the sticks and deprived of my HD TV.

Well, boo-hoo, what a night. The good thing? The front was clearly through, which meant there was little doubt the predicted clear weather would arrive in time for some deep sky enjoyment Friday evening.

That USED to be a picnic canopy.
When I stepped out of the lodge in the morning after a nice big breakfast, I was struck by two things: it was COLD, and the skies were clear. Heck, y’all, it must have been in the upper 40s! On to the field, which was downed picnic canopies as far as the eye could see, some having been reduced to skeletal ruins. No scopes had been damaged, though, and even the tent campers weathered the storm in good order (though most had retreated to their vehicles or the Lodge’s conference room at the height of the storm’s violence). Our EZ-Up? It still stood, but it was clear it would be ready for the trash-man soon. A little skillfully applied duct tape, though, assured it would keep Sun and dew off us for the remainder of Deep South.

The long hours before dark on Friday were spent returning gear to the field from the room and drying the stuff that had been out in the elements. That completed, it was time for some deep sky cruising, and it is now time for part two of this blog entry, the deep sky observing part.

Over the last 40 years or so, I’ve seen a lot of Deep Sky Objects (DSOs). Nowadays, when I come upon an observing article in one of the magazines, I usually just breeze through it. I’ve prob’ly seen most of what’s listed and get a little weary of reading about objects I’ve visited more than a time or three.

That is kind of a shame, though, since some extremely talented observers/writers are doin’ this sort of thing monthly in Sky & Telescope and Astronomy, folks like Steve O’Meara and Sue French. While I will usually only cherry pick an object or two from these pieces, I realize quite a few newer observers will use these articles as ready-made observing lists, just like I used to do when I was a youngun listening and learning at Scotty’s feet (via his legendary "Deep Sky Wonders" column).

So I got to thinkin’ some of you folks might like my take on the magazines’ DSO offerings. Most of us, after all, don’t have the skies, scopes, or talent of deep sky mavens like Sue F, for example. How would her faint fuzzies look in an average scope from an average site by an average observer?

Well, that’s me, Mr. Average, and if I think an object looks good and is worth spending time on, y’all can be assured it is. I’ll run through the DSOs in these features and tell you how my views of ‘em stack up against those of the articles’ authors. I won’t do every one, no, but when I see a collection that strikes my fancy, there will be a blog on it.

Where to begin? Steve O’Meara had a nice piece in Astronomy Magazine recently, his “Ghost Hunt,” a fall deep sky/Messier marathon sort of thing, and I may get to it eventually. But I was more interested in something a little less wide-ranging than his hundreds of objects. There was also Alan Goldstein’s “Watch as Galaxies Collide” in the November 09 Astronomy. It was nice and well written and all, but a good look at it revealed few of his objects would be practical before spring, no matter how late I stayed up (which ain’t that late given my advancing years, muchachos). Why did Astronomy's editors choose to run this one in the issue that landed in my front hall in October? That will likely remain a bigger mystery to me than the mechanics of galaxy collisions and mergers. Which left Ms French’s “Splashing Around the Dolphin” in the October S&T.

Sue's article seemed like a good place to start. Delphinus is a little feller, but he is blessed with a fair amount and variety of DSOs. This Dolphin has jumped out of the stream of the Milky Way, so you won’t find oodles of nebulae and galactic clusters, but, as Ms. French amply demonstrates, there’s plenty of Good Stuff and Sorta Good Stuff there. One caveat? While Flipper is presently well-placed for observing into the dark hours, he will be swimming into the west before long… so get ‘er done, folks, get ‘er done.

As should be clear if you paid attention to the rambling above, my instrument for this deep sky tour was Old Betsy, a 12-inch Dob-Newt. Eyepieces? I mainly used my 13mm and 8mm Ethoses, with both getting a pretty equal share of photons. I also employed my (82-degree) 7mm and 28mm Uwans a couple of times. Mostly, though, I stuck with the Ethos oculars. It wasn’t just The TeleVues' huge 100-degree apparent fields, either. In almost every instance I found they delivered better sharpness and/or contrast than anything else in my bulging eyepiece box.

How did I get to this evening's deep sky wonders? How did I find them? I didn’t star hop, that's for sure. I used the Sky Commander digital setting circles every time, and they landed me smack on Sue’s objects every time. Yep, Unk is spoiled by the new technology. But so what? We are interested in the looking, tonight, not the hunting.

Wait one cotton pickin’ minute! Ethoses and a 12-inch telescope? I thought this was for NOVICES! Yeah, I know, most newcomers will not have Ethoses, and though I thought they improved the views of all these objects, they are hardly mandatory for looking at ‘em. All would be almost as good in a Hyperion, or an Expanse, or in your gran’pappy’s Plössl. I used the Ethoses because I love ‘em and because I could. So there. Scopes? It ain’t at all unusual to see a newbie with a 12-inch Dobsonian these days, now that you can get ‘em from Orion and Zhumell for pocket change. Nevertheless, a 10-inch would do almost as well. And, if your eyes are better than mine, even smaller instruments will serve. Sue French saw most of this stuff with a 4-inch refractor, for cryin’ out loud.

The Dolphin

∑2735. Sue starts with a double, something that’s not surprising, as she’s expressed her love for these fascinating stars on more than one occasion. What I did find surprising was that she did not choose the obvious one, Gamma Delphini. Hey, it’s a beautiful pair, but unless you’re the wettest of wet-behind-the-ears novices, you’ve seen it. Plenty of times. Instead, she gifts us with Struve 2735, Something Different.

How is it? Nice. Everybody knows I’m double star crazy, given my involvement with our publication here (University of South Alabama), The Journal of Double Star Observations, but I have to be in the mood for doubles, and on this night, with the Milky Way’s blazing riches on display, I wasn’t. I did take a quick look, though. While Sue sees ‘em as white and yellow, they looked more blue and yellow to me. Sweet. At 2-arc seconds separation, they were fairly close for the early evening's somewhat punk seeing , but were no problem in the 8mm Ethos.

NGC 6934. OK, on to the good stuff, the stuff I came out to the sticks for, deep sky objects (assuming you don’t consider doubles “deep sky objects”). Another good pick, I’d say. My log, which I transcribed from the little mini-cassette recorder I use for note-taking these days, indicates I was favorably impressed:

Magnitude 8.9 NGC 6934 is an interesting little globular star cluster set in a rich star field. With averted vision, I can pick out a few stars at 115x with the 13mm eyepiece, but mostly the effect is patchiness across the core and graininess around the cluster’s periphery. Going to the 8 Ethos delivers considerable resolution around the fuzz-ball’s edges, though the core is still just a grainy mess. Poor seeing in the wake of the front passage probably doesn’t help. Sue French mentions the cluster’s “oval form,” but I didn’t notice that.

In other words, 6934 is more than worthy of your attention.

Did y’all know there are galaxies in Delphinus? I did, but I’m not sure I’d ever visited NGC 6928 , and I’m way too lazy to go diggin’ through my dusty old observing logs to find out. Will you like this one? Maybe. While it’s not exactly difficult, it ain’t gonna put your eye out neither. As a matter of fact, when I landed on the field I didn’t see a trace of this magnitude 12.2 island universe, not at first. I kept after it, though, and after just a little eyeball bleeding:

It becomes fairly obvious. About the only other things I can say about this sprite are that it is elongated, and that I am either seeing a slightly brighter core/nucleus or the galaxy is superimposed on a dim star. As I continue to stare, I begin to pick up some of the other little galaxies scattered across the field. There’s NGC 6930, which also seems elongated, winking in and out, and I also see little-bitty NGC 6927 once in a while. I think. It’s hard to tell whether I’m seeing a galaxy or a dim star.

Verdict? If you want to say you’ve seen galaxies in Delphinus, or just want a bit of a challenge, by all means go here. Beyond that? Not much, not for 12-inch or smaller telescopes, anyhow. If you’ve got a bigger instrument, these galaxies and the dimmer ones Sue mentions, PGC 214749 and UGC 11590B, may be of more than passing interest. I tried for the PGC and UGC, but am not sure I saw evidence of either.

The next object in the article, “Thompson 1,” is an asterism, and I must admit I skipped it. Unlike some of you, I ain’t very interested in this sort of thing. Heck, even The Coat Hanger and The Stargate leave me cold. If you like patterns of (usually) unrelated stars, though, have at it. It’s in the field of Iota Delphini, and therefore shouldn’t be hard to run down.

NGC 7006
Next up is NGC 6956. Sue says this displays “interesting structure,” but I truly didn’t see much of that. This magnitude 12.3 galaxy looks more like a cosmic dust bunny to me. It’s not so much that it’s dim—it was immediately obvious in the 12-inch—but that it hides next to a “bright” 12th magnitude star that prevented me from making out much about it other than that it looked a little elongated.

Hows about something easier? Our author gives us that with Delphinus’ other globular cluster, magnitude 10.6 NGC 7006. Not that it’s really much of a glob, mind you; it is a very distant one:

NGC 7006 is a good enough little globular, I suppose, but in the 13mm eyepiece it’s just a fuzzball. Upping the power with the 8mm Ethos brings some resolution; with averted vision I can at least see a sprinkling of a few dim and tiny stars around the cluster’s core. That core remains just grainy fuzz, however. I tried to apply more magnification by using my TeleVue Big Barlow with the 8mm. That brought minimal improvement, however; probably because the seeing was so sucky.

I do recommend you pay a visit to NGC 7006; just realize you ain’t gonna see an M13. Of course, most other globulars aren't close to equaling M13, either. Almost all are interesting in their own rights, though—including this little feller.

I done tole you, I don’t like asterisms. I don’t usually see the fanciful pictures some folks make-out in groups of stars. That’s one of the few things I didn’t like about Steve O’Meara’s Messier book. Hell, that guy would see Socrates addressing the Athenians in M37. Me? I just see a big clump of stars. So I was prepared to find French 1 nothing but a crashing bore. Ms French says her self-named asterism looks like a “toadstool;” I expected a random pattern of dim and distant stars.

NGC 7025
Surprise! It does look like a toadstool (or the Allman Brothers’ mushroom). That was nice, but, as Sue describes, there’s a little galaxy, NGC 7025, lurking near the ‘shroom’s stalk that makes French 1 even more intriguing:

NGC 7025 is yet another cosmic lint-ball, but it looks cool sitting at the foot of the mushroom. In my 8mm eyepiece, it is very easy with direct vision, and shows (I think) elongation and a brighter core.

A visit to the online NED resource back at the Lodge revealed the galaxy is indeed elongated, being a cute Sa spiral nicely inclined to our line of sight. This is a sweet little DSO, and I like it. What’s that? Who’s Ned? “NED” is the NASA Extragalactic Database on the WWW, and if you have the slightest interest in galaxies you should make friends with it. Not only will it give you the detailed vitals of your targets, it has plenty of pictures and “Much, Much More.”

So that’s it for the Dolphin. I wasn’t blown away by all Sue French’s choices, but they were all at least somewhat interesting, and, importantly for me, mostly off the beaten path, and, importantly for you novices, mostly easy enough to see with a 10-inch scope, I reckon.

Wussup next? Next week I’ll wrap up the DSRSG report, and bring on the second of my DSO-observing series. What will it be? I oughta make you wait till next time, but I already made you wait an extra week for this one, so I’ll at least give you the title: “The Herschel 400 II Project.”

2018 Update:

Let's see. Not much has really changed in the intervening years. The Deep South Regional Star Gaze (now renamed the Deep South Star Gaze) is still going strong at the Feliciana Retreat Center, and I still go every single year. The food was lousy this past fall, but I have had assurances that that will be seen to for 2018's event. The skies are certainly still good, and so are, most importantly, the people.

As you may know, my 12-inch Dob, Old Betsy, was, almost unbelievably, sold. "Why Uncle Rod, Why?" I sold her for the same reason I sold my EQ6 and CGEM equatorial mounts:  my dicey back (thanks to an injury) just wouldn't let me transport and set Betsy up safely and comfortably anymore. The decision to sell Betsy was a difficult one that was cemented when I booted up the Sky Commander and saw I had not used the telescope in over a year.

My series on the magazines' observing articles? I never did get back to that. A little something called "The Herschel Project" intervened, monopolizing my observing time for the next three years.

And how about those magazines? Even if I weren't a regular contributor to Sky & Telescope, I'd still be reading it. In my not so humble opinion, it is still the best. Astronomy? I let my subscription lapse a while ago. I just wasn't reading it. The month's issue would come in and I'd either pass it to a friend or send it to the round file. And that's all I'll have to say about that.

Anyhow, the 2009 Deep South was a truly memorable star party. Mostly because of subject of the companion article to this one, the story of Saturday night at DSRSG 2009, which was the night The Herschel Project began.


Using my trusty Celestron Pacific C5, I nailed 7006 from my deck here in Portland (but I live near a state park, where the trees shield me from the Portland glow).

I have my C5 on an SLT, so it tracks very nicely up to the limit of the C5 (I only went to 200X). It reminded me a bit of M94...bright core with a dim (C5 remember) glow. No resolution but I was quite please to nail it at home with my C5.
Good on ya. That's a nice catch for a great little scope!
I was home during your time up there, and experienced the same weather (Franklinton, LA). My new observatory is finished enough to use, and I got my first two nights in it.
This coming Feb. I am going to my first star party ever, down in the Florida Keys for the WSP. I don't know if you've ever been to it, or will be going this time, but if you do, I'll be happy to lift a shot of "Yell" with you, and I'm buying!
"Hell, that guy would see Socrates addressing the Athenians in M37.." - now that's funny :) and true.

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