Sunday, January 31, 2010



I’ve long been a believer in public outreach, and so have most of my buddies in the Possum Swamp Astronomical Society. Not that it’s always been easy. Did I ever tell y’all about the time a local kids’ science museum begged us to come out and set up scopes for their customers and then tried to charge us admission? But it’s mostly been ups rather than downs, and I think we’ve lit a few candles in the dark over the years, mainly by means of the two annual public star parties, one in the spring and one in the fall, we do in cooperation with the local schools.

Being conscientious sorts, we sometimes wondered whether we shouldn't be doing more, though. Actually, we had done more, but not on a regular basis. A few times over the course of a year, some group—often the Boy or Girl Scouts—would call on us and out we would go. But that still wasn’t a whole lot, and some years back we decided it might be a nice idea to add a third outreach event of some kind to our annual schedule. What suggested itself immediately was Astronomy Day.

If you’ve been in the amateur ranks for even a little while, you’ll recognize “Astronomy Day” as the annual happening designed to introduce the public to astronomy. It was started by a California amateur astronomer, Doug Berger, but was soon picked up on by the professional community and even NASA. While Doug originally envisaged Astronomy Day as a time when amateurs would set up scopes in public places for public viewing, some groups, me and my pals included, eventually drifted away from that simple and sensible concept.

We did hold a number of Astronomy Day public viewing sessions in the 1980s, which we ran just as we did our other two. We’d set up at our little observatory at a school facility, invite the public out at a specific time, show off the sky for a set period, and send everybody home. That worked OK for a while. Sometimes considerably better than just “OK.” When there was some kind of a sky spectacular coincident with Astronomy Day—a Lunar eclipse, a comet, whatever—our “audience” could number in the thousands. Which required considerable effort in planning and execution by both us and our public school employee friends.

After a few years of moderate-to-good success, we began to scale back Astronomy Day. We’d be exhausted as a group after already putting on our spring public school sky show, and it became all too easy to let Astronomy Day pass without our involvement. That is, we quit. Which eventually sent us on a guilt trip. Shouldn't we do something? Every other club would be doin’ something for Astronomy Day; why not us? Maybe something simpler and easier than one of our mega-star parties.

Our first inclination was to do as numerous astronomy clubs were doing at the time and organize a viewing session in cooperation with the brand-new Saturn auto dealership. You know: “Look at Saturn at Saturn on Astronomy Day!” We tried, but not only was the local Saturn dealership not interested, they seemed positively suspicious of us. I’m not sure if the management just didn't know the difference between astrology and astronomy and were confused as to what we were proposing, or whether they thought this was part of some nefarious plot to steal one of their—ahem—“wonderful” cars. We talked over some options, but finally settled on forgetting public observing altogether and setting up a booth at the Mall.

A booth in the mall is not necessarily a bad thing. If nothing else, you at least get the word out that there is an astronomy club in town. When we’d set up at the Greater Gulf State Fair one year, we’d had some modest response in the form of inquiries and a new member or two. We worked purty hard to make our Astronomy Day exhibit a success, too. Nice big tables in Bel Air Mall’s entrance foyer next to the fountain—back in the 90s, malls hadn’t yet sacrificed their fountains for more kiosk space. Made up some professional looking signs. Laid out hundreds of nice brochures. Hell, I even set up a monitor and a VCR to show a tape of PC23C video footage of the Moon and planets I’d shot.

Our reception? The folks who ran the place seemed happy enough to have us. Their customers were a different story. At the Fair, we’d had a decent number of prospects stop by and ask questions. At the Mall, just about the only inquiries we got were ones asking us if we knew where the restrooms were. We did get one memorable question concerning the sky, I recall. A fairly normal looking dude approached the table and said he was glad to see us, since he’d had a question about outer space that had bothered him for a long time: “Look, I know the Earth is a ball, but what I want to know is, do we live on the outside OR THE INSIDE of the ball?” When I picked my jaw up off the ground, I did do my best to explain the facts of the Copernican Theory.

The Astronomy Days that followed weren't much different. Minimal interest in the exhibit and little or no results in the form of new members or even inquiries about public star parties. I believe part of the problem was that we chose to hold our exhibit on Astronomy Day proper, on Saturday. We’d stay with it from nine to five, but, in retrospect, I can’t think of a worse day and time. On a spring Saturday morn’/afternoon, most folks around here want to be OUTSIDE and are at the beach or engaged in other outdoor activities. Later in the day, the Mall becomes the habitat of Teenager Americanus, who, even if they harbor a secret curiosity about astronomy, do not go to a mall to satisfy that curiosity.

After three or four years of no results for lots of effort, we called a halt to our Astronomy Day programs, and decided our spring public star party, even if it didn't always—or ever—occur precisely on Astronomy Day was enough. And it was enough for a while, but, as before, after a few years of limiting ourselves to two scheduled nights of public outreach a year, some of us again decided we should do more. Specifically, we were a-thinking “sidewalk astronomy;” this time sans the moribund Saturn Motor Company.

“Uncle Rod, what exactly is ‘sidewalk astronomy’?” Glad ya asked, Skeezix. You’ve heard of Mr. John Dobson, aincha? You’re a newbie and you ain’t heard of him? Hokay, edumacation time. John Dobson of San Francisco, California claims to not be much interested in telescopes; instead, he focuses on some rather mind-blowing cosmological theories of his own devising. Despite that, there’ve been few folks post-Herschel who’ve had as much impact on observational amateur astronomy and telescopes as Dobson. Yep, my little sprouts, that Dobson, Dobson as in “Dobsonian telescope.”

Dobson, a chemist by training, the grandson of one of the Founders of Peking University, was as a young man deeply interested in both the “what” and “why” of the universe, and in the 1950s became a Vedantan monk. The Vedantans are adherents of a Hindu religious/mystical system greatly concerned with the nature of the Universe and, even moreso, Man’s relation to it. John’s struggle to reconcile astronomy with mysticism eventually led him to build a telescope so he could actually see the Universe he was struggling to understand.

The penniless monk obviously couldn’t afford the latest Unitron or Cave finery. He couldn’t even aspire to mirror making kits and ATM parts from Jaegers. Instead, he had to make his telescope out of the simplest and most inexpensive—or free for the scrounging—parts: wood and cardboard concrete-form tubing for the telescope’s OTA, cast-off ship’s porthole glass for the mirror blank. The mount? Dobson didn’t have the resources or skill (he jokes that he was “too retarded” to build a “real” scope) to do a proper equatorial mount, which was all most of us were willing to consider back then. Instead, he put his tubes in simple “cannon” mounts, alt-azimuth mountings made of wood.

You may not be surprised to learn that quite a few Advanced Amateur astronomers of the day turned up their noses at Dobson’s telescopes. They just seemed too radically simple to work. Where was the machining? The clock drive motors? The painstakingly worked and worked-over objectives and mirrors? By the late 1960s, howsomeever, the word was getting out that Dobson’s big, cheap, simple telescopes were revolutionary. It turned out that his workarounds, mostly designed to make it possible to build a telescope for no money, resulted in a powerhouse of an instrument that could blow the doors off the most expensive Caves and Unitrons on the deep sky, which was what Dobson was mostly interested in anyway.

What made Dobson’s telescopes so superior for their purpose (incidentally, he doesn’t seem to much like them being called “Dobsonians”)? Since he used castoff porthole glass, his mirrors tended to be big by the standards of the time, 12-inches and larger. The cardboard tube turned out to be more than strong enough for the job, and had cool-down characteristics better than the aluminum or fiberglass most 1960s telescopes used. The mount was the key, though. Simple, yes, but oh-so-steady. For many of us, our first look through a “Dob” was a revelation; not just because of the increase in light gathering power, but because the mount was so dadgummed steady and easy to use. Nudging the scope along to keep objects in view was no problem; you didn’t need a drive. Plastic and Formica bearings made for movements that were buttery but precise, and vibration was almost non-existent.

Why isn’t John Dobson the chief of the Dobson Telescope Company, then? I reckon he never wanted that. What he wanted was to show people, lots of people, the sky, and to promote his (non Big Bang) model of the formation of the Universe. He’s been happy enough to see folks adopt his design and improve on it (especially if they adhere to his Simple and Cheap philosophy), but his passion has been and still is the sky, not telescopes.

How do you show the sky to all and sundry? Not by keeping your telescopes confined to distant dark sites. Or even public star parties. Dobson’s idea was to bring telescopes to the people instead of vice-versa. He’d cart a telescope out to a street corner in San Fran and, in his own inimitable fashion, invite passersby to look at “their” Universe. John has sometimes been called “the Pied Piper of astronomy,” so it shouldn’t be surprising that local amateur astronomers sat up and took notice of what he was doing, and some decided to join him on the sidewalks of their city as “The San Francisco Sidewalk Astronomers (SFSA).”

Yeah, they are based in San Francisco, but like their mentor, the Sidewalk Astronomers have never been content to confine their crusade to their home town. They’ve worked for over forty years to bring their “guerilla astronomy” to everybody everywhere. Four years ago, they hit upon the idea of doing this in slightly more organized fashion. Sure, John D. had attracted a considerable number of folks to the sidewalk astronomy cause through his talks at star parties from coast to coast. But what would happen if there were an annual sidewalk observing event kinda like, well, kinda like Astronomy Day?

Thus was International Sidewalk Astronomy Night (ISAN) born, a night when, as the SFSA say on their cool website:
We invite all amateur astronomers to join us! We'll have telescopes out on the street corners, in front of movie theaters, in state and national parks, in city centre parks ... anywhere there are crowds of people, from San Francisco to Sao Paulo to Kharkov.
In typical Sidewalk Astronomer fashion, there are no rules. There aren’t any fees to pay or applications to sign. Just get out there and confront the public with their Universe. As a club, as a couple of friends, even as an individual.

One of the benefits of the good, ol’ Internet is that even us way down here in Hicksville get the amateur astronomy news at the same time as y’all more sophisticated folk. We heard about ISAN, and figgered that it might be just the thing for us. No heavy logistics and planning, no expenses, just us out with our scopes. Only buzzin’ fly in the butter? There was still the “where” question.

We do have a downtown with real sidewalks, still, and the ebb-and-flow dynamic of city versus suburbs has begun to move back in the direction of “city” from the sprawling and now somewhat dilapidated Bel Air Mall and its strip mall compadres. Our downtown lives again. Still, we weren’t sure setting up scopes there would be that hot an idea. While our entertainment district down on Lower Dauphin Street, LODA, is thriving, it really doesn’t start rockin’ (literally) until after 10pm as the younguns hit the streets. Seemed to us that wasn’t an overly efficient way of getting telescopes to the people; in LODA we’d be reaching only a narrow segment of the populace. So where-oh-where could we set up?

Almost unbelievably, after near 50 years of shopping dominance, malls everywhere, not just our own Bel Air, are on the decline. Few are being built, and plenty are dying. The trend is to open air “malls” or more traditional shopping centers. Possum Swamp’s affluent bedroom community, Fairhope, is graced with one of these fancy and upscale centers. Sure, there are plenty of lights, but that is not a huge consideration for sidewalk astronomy. I, frankly, would have preferred a place that would draw a more diverse audience—one of my worries is that we are not doing nearly enough to bring astronomy to urban minorities, and, especially, urban minority youngsters—but the lack of a roof and wide open spaces and proximity to the Interstate made The Eastern Shore Centre a good bet, I had to admit.

First thing first was to get permission from The Centre’s management to set up on their property on ISAN night. Delegated one of our club officers with some familiarity with Fairhope and the shopping center to approach ‘em. Remembering our reception from the Saturn dealer, I was a little anxious about the outcome, but I needn't have been. The nice people there welcomed us with open arms. They suggested we set up at the fountain, and even promised to do some publicity for us.

The fountain? Yep. Like many similar shopping complexes, The Eastern Shore Centre has a courtyard area that houses restrooms, a small stage used for various events, and a far more modern fountain than the one we set up in front of on that long ago Astronomy Day. Their fountain is essentially a flat concrete area with water jets shooting up. Turn ‘em off, and we had the perfect spot for a brace of telescopes. Flat, firm, and in the middle of pedestrian traffic between Barnes and Noble books and the California Dreaming chain eatery.

While the skies weren’t perfect that first year, we drew a lot of excited families and individuals of all ages, and contributed in our own small way to the tremendous success of the first ISAN. We were one of over 300 clubs who participated in over thirty countries. The SFSA estimate that at least 30,000 “civilians” got their first look through a telescope on that night. Oh, one admission I gotta make: I don’t mean “we” to include “me.” I wasn’t there. The weather forecast for ISAN Saturday was just lousy. And when the weather dudes down here say it’s gonna rain, it’s gonna rain. Usually.

The night of the first ISAN found me and Miss Dorothy weekending on the Redneck Riviera in Destin, Florida; specifically, drinking at the bar of my fave beach restaurant, The Back Porch. It was raining. Hard. Water was dripping down the back of my neck as I sat at the bar due to a leak in the place’s tin roof--not that I noticed. I supposed my mates must have cancelled the ISAN expedition. When we got home, though, my buds told me that a huge sucker hole had magically opened over the shopping center, and that they’d showed the sky to hundreds. I resolved to be there next time, no excuses.

I was there for the second iteration, and last year as well. The 3rd ISAN, which was held in conjunction with the International Year of Astronomy’s 100 Hours of Astronomy event, went particularly well, I thought. Not only did we get a lot of traffic, we got most of it not because of prior publicity, but, in the very essence of Sidewalk Astronomy, because people were walking by, got curious as to what we were doing, and stopped for a look at the Moon and Saturn.

After the ISAN, I moseyed over to Barnes and Noble, and the manager, who’d been watching our activities with interest, asked if we might like to do a joint promotion with ‘em next year: astronomy books on display in the front of the store accompanied by our posters/signs for ISAN. “Sure,” said I, but the beautiful thing is it won’t make much difference if that doesn’t happen. Same goes for the ISAN announcements The Eastern Shore Center got out. Nice, but not necessary. Set up in a decent spot for sidewalk astronomy and you’ll get plenty of attention, no prior preparation or fussin’ needed.

After three successful outings, ISAN looks to be here to stay, and I say “right on!” to that. This is an excellent event, and I believe we down here have reached more people more effectively on ISAN than we ever have with our public star parties (though we continue to hold ‘em). The atmosphere is also more relaxed, with me and my fellow PSAS members bein’ noticeably less stressed by the end of the evening. Sound good? This year, ISAN will be held a little earlier than previously, March 20th. As the SFSA notes, that means it’s still gonna be a little cold for you Yanks, but the earlier date will be a big help for everybody in that it’ll get dark a lot earlier in March than it will in April or May.

What do you bring to a sidewalk astronomy outing? The type and aperture of scope ain’t important; you just want one that’s easily accessible by everybody, including the wee folk. That means you can probably leave the humongous Dob and its accompanying orchard ladder at home. You won’t need it, anyhow. In my experience, what your visitors will want to look at will be the Moon, a bright planet (Mars will be up for ISAN 4), and a bright star or two. Neither kids nor adults will care pea-turkey about the deep sky, even if you can see much of it from your light polluted sidewalk.

In addition to one that’s easy for everybody to use, you want is a telescope that’s quick to set up and tear down, and one that doesn’t require a lot of fussing. A simple Dobsonian is, not surprisingly, a good choice. I used my 8-inch f/5, “Old Yeller,” to good effect last time, and was mostly happy with it. Despite the appropriateness of a Dob for sidewalk astronomy, though, I gotta commit heresy and say a driven scope might be even better. Re-centering your target between observers becomes an annoying pain after a while.

If you intend to use a go-to scope, you’ll be happiest with one you can align on the Moon or a planet or just tell “Use last alignment.” Celestron NexStars will do both those things, and that allows you to get goin’ before there are alignment stars visible. The last thing you want is to turn folks away because it’s not dark enough to align a computer-heavy telescope. If a go-to is all you have, bring it, but computer stuff really ain’t needed in the sidewalk environment. You ain’t gonna be chasin’ PGC galaxies.

If I can find a suitable and safe step stool of some kind, I may use my Criterion RV-6, Cindy Lou, for ISAN 4. She has the advantage of superb optics that just blow you away on the Moon and planets, and she is a very simple thing indeed. A jumpstart battery and a small inverter are all she requires to track the stars. She’s also sturdy and steady and excited little hands won’t easily move her off-target.

Can I tell y’all a secret? I find I am looking forward to International Sidewalk Astronomy Night far more than I’m looking forward to our big, organized spring public star gaze. Maybe more than I’ve ever looked forward to any organized public event. I guess I just ain’t an organized kinda guy.

Sunday, January 24, 2010


Journey to the Seventh Planet

We all love M13 and M42 and Jupiter and Mars; that’s a given. There’s probably not a thing in the sky, however, no matter how lackluster, that doesn't have its fans, though, as I observed last week when talking about a particularly bland open cluster. I’m a case in point; a primary object of my affections has long been Uranus, the seventh stone from the Sun. An impressively large, distant, and mysterious gas giant of a world.

"Large, distant, and mysterious,” doesn’t necessarily translate into “visually interesting,” unfortunately. While Uranus has its charms for theorists, it ain’t much to look at, muchachos. No not much at all; even close-ups via Voyager 2 show an awfully bland world. It’s a faintly blue-green disk devoid of cloud features or other details due to an obscuring haze high in its atmosphere and very cold temperatures that inhibit atmospheric activity. In other words, like Saturn only moreso.

So why have I slavishly observed the planet’s every apparition for 40 solid years? Part of the reason was and still is the mystery factor. In the 1960s, the Solar System out beyond Saturn was unknown territory. We didn’t know a heck of a lot more about Uranus then than we had in its discoverer’s, Sir William Herschel’s, day. Mostly we knew it had five Moons, it was apparently a large gas giant, and it was possessed of an atmosphere heavy on the ammonia. Even in these latter days, to say we know all there is to know about the planet, its (relatively) recently discovered ring system, and its ever-growing retinue of moons is downright laughable.

Back in the vaunted Day, my fascination with this distant world—not to mention at least some of my “knowledge” about it—wasn’t all a result of Patrick Moore’s books. Most, I’ll admit, came from what was my favorite sci-fi movie for years, and years. A film that impressed me even more than The Angry Red Planet, if that was possible: 1962’s Journey to the Seventh Planet.

Which, on the surface, wasn’t that much different from ARP. It was directed by the same man, B movie king Sid Pink, and was written by his usual collaborator, Ib Melchior. Like the third member of Pink’s “Trilogy,” Reptilicus, it was filmed in Denmark to save on the moola, coming in at the miniscule price, even for the early 60s, of $75,000. In order to achieve that, Journey made use of mostly local talent. The only Hollywood actor on the bill was John Agar, who had, by the 1960s, gone from starring opposite John Wayne and being married to Shirley Temple to being a denizen of B films like The Mole People and Brain from the Planet Arous.

Was I looking forward to Journey to the Seventh Planet as the lights began to go down at the Roxy? Honestly, I can’t remember. Mama had no doubt allowed me my customary Almond Joy, dime box of popcorn, and Orange Crush, so I was happy enough, I suppose. By this time, the two of us had sat through nearly every first and second run sci-fi flick the 50s and 60s had given birth to, but only a relative few had really stimulated my imagination. So, I may not have been expecting too much. Not that my tastes were overly sophisticated, mind you, despite Mama making me squirm through multiple Bergman films; I had been absolutely awestruck, for example, by that recycled ersatz Godzilla, Gorgo, when he’d lumbered across the screen to stomp London into the ground.

Journey starts off in unpromising fashion with a solemn narration ironic enough to be risible now:
There are no limits to the imagination, and man's ability to make reality out of his visions is his greatest strength. Through this skill, he has been able to conquer time and space. The story you are about to see takes place after man has solved the complex mysteries of space travel. The year is 2001. Life has changed now. The planet Earth is no longer racked by wars and threats of annihilation. Man has learned to live with himself.
Today, these words sound more like the GREAT CRIWELL'S narration at the beginning of Plan Nine from Outer Space than a paean to a bright future (which Criswell had helpfully informed us was where we would all live). Still, I reckon I must have been suitably impressed as a sprout.

Cut to a shot of an Atlas gantry, a 1950s blockhouse, serious looking rocket goobers, and the liftoff—of a Jupiter C—which morphs back into an Atlas in the very next shot, and stays in that form as a miniature streaking across space belching the mandatory flames from its nether regions.

Onboard, we’re introduced to the crew of the good ship Explorer 12. As budget casting dictated, we’ve got a mostly Scandinavian (“United Nations,” uh-huh) crew composed of the rock-jawed Captain Eric, second in-command Don, newbie Carl, and a pair of pretty much undeveloped characters, Svend and Barry (he’s a sorta faux-Irish Dane). 

Surprisingly, John Agar, the only actor close to being A Name, is not Captain Eric, but Second Officer Don. Undoubtedly, all the better for him to play the wisecracking, devil-may-care womanizer (like Gerald Mohr in Angry Red) who’s the only memorable character in the bunch. Reviewers in this latter age refer to the crew’s “G.I. hijinks,” but, unlike the fellers in ARP, the Explorer’s crew is a remarkably dour group except for Don (“I knew this UN biologist, and boy, was she biological!”).

By the way, I am not relying on my memories of the film; Miss Dorothy and I screened it just yesterday evening. One thing that amused us right off the bat? Even in 1962, media types worried about “Uranus.” The question, of course, being how to pronounce it so as not to make yourself the BUTT of jokes? Do you settle for the potentially embarrassing your-ANUS, or opt for URINE-us? I’ve never quite understood why urine is less troubling than anus, and have mostly used what a Classical scholar of my acquaintance says is probably closest to the ancient Greek, you-ray-nus. The Explorer’s crew? They choose an odd third path, “you-RAHN-us.” Go figger.

After our visit with the crew, where they open a letter instructing them to fly to the seventh planet, we, in rapid succession, pass Mars, which is red if not very Mars-looking, and a Jupiter that resembles the 1950s Hale telescope images of the planet—but in colors that outdo even the Voyager images for garishness. Saturn is next, displaying a weirdly hazy-looking ring. As a kid, I assumed that was to meant to show it was composed of small ice particles. Now I suspect they just had a hard time doing a realistic ring—heck, Douglas Trumbull and company moved 2001: A Space Odyssey from Saturn to Jupiter because they couldn’t produce a set of rings that looked like anything other than a paper cutout.

One laudable thing about the voyage? This must be one of the few 50s - 60s sci-fi spaceflights that wasn’t imperiled by GIANT METEOR STORMS. Anyhoo, finally, after less than one reel, we are there, at mysterious Uranus, which, unfortunately, ain’t so mysterious looking. Not at first. At first it looks like just what it is, a blue-green ball of papier-mâché coated with moldy cottage cheese.

Has this sounded cornball and silly? It was and is, but no more so than any other sci-fi of the time. The amazing thing? The film picks up immediately and only falters toward the end, and even then only slightly. Out of all the sci-fi movies that rolled their garish dreams across the screen of the Roxy, this was the only pre-Kubrick one that strayed much from Hollywood and into the realm of true SF. Well, maybe First Spaceship on Venus did, too, but not as well as Journey.

I won’t spoil the movie for you, and insist you get a copy of your own, but the long and short of it is that in very Star Trek-like fashion four years before Star Trek’s “Shore Leave,” the crew discovers Uranus to be a lush world that’s populated by scenes—and gorgeous young women—from their pasts. Yeppers, you guessed it: All IS NOT AS IT SEEMS. Journey, once it gets going, is quite a ride, and has some memorable moments. The scenes of a crew member exposing his arm to the (true) atmosphere of Uranus, and another who tears his pressure suit on a razor-sharp blade of ice haunt me still.

My fond memories of the film itself are admittedly enhanced by what I saw in the lobby. On display was a cardboard, kid-sized Mercury space capsule, its interior festooned with buttons and lights that really lit up. What’s more, you could win it. Fill-out an entry form and little Rod would shortly be piloting his own Freedom 7 to splashdown. A-OK! Naturally, I didn’t win, but I spent a pleasant couple of weeks daydreaming about the fun I’d have if I did. It was really the movie that was most memorable part of the evening, anyway. Yes, I latched onto a DVD of the film a little while ago, but I didn’t need that to recall its high points. They were still locked in my mind in gaudy, delicious Technicolor.

Perhaps I wax too nostalgic. Don’t think this film is another 2001 or Star Trek. It’s not. It’s a B. But it is a B of a different color. The outer space exploring is only part of what’s on the menu. There’s at least a bow toward the exploration of the inner, psychological space that’s the beat of real Science Fiction. Journey actually precedes the oft-lauded film Solaris, which explores many of the same themes—if in more mature fashion.

It’s pretty common knowledge that Gene Roddenberry was strongly influenced by another film of the era, 1956’s Forbidden Planet, but I wonder if he didn’t have a look at Journey, too. Certainly, a lot of Trek’s more “psychological” episodes bear more than passing resemblance to it. I doubt Sid and Ib thought too much about auteurship when the cameras were rolling in Denmark, but their humble little movie pushed the borders of sci-fi films out in a way that really hadn’t been done before and sadly ain’t been done much since.

If you’d like to follow in my footsteps to Uranus—dammit, in my head I just said, YOU-RAHN-US—there’s a remarkably good print of the film available on DVD as part of MGM’s “Midnight Movies Double Feature” series (paired with the execrable Invisible Invaders). The print is mostly pristine, with the color rich and true—it looks as if it were RIPPED OFF THE SCREEN OF THE ROXY yesterday. As an added fillip, the original song for the closing credits, Otto Brandenberg crooning about journeying to my favorite planet, has been restored (it was cut for the original U.S. release). Best part? Less than five stinking bucks for a good used copy from Amazon!

This wouldn’t be much of a blog entry if it didn’t cover some amateur astronomy ground, though, would it? Where’s the tie-in? What does the hook of this old movie hook into? Me trying to find the object of my affections, the real planet Uranus. My own Journey took a lot longer than that of the Explorer 12.

Some of us, from our lofty perches as Advanced Amateurs, have forgotten how difficult it is for a kid to get started in astronomy. Then or now. Lots of excitement, sure, but a small scope and a lack of knowledge make it a dicey thing to keep that excitement going. After the Moon, Jupiter, and Saturn and maybe the brightest Messiers, it gets harder. A lot harder. How do you stay enthusiastic if there’s nothing exciting to see? When you’ve looked at Saturn, beautiful as it is, for the umpteenth time?

I don’t believe I seriously tried to run down Herschel’s Georgium Sidus with my first scope, my Tasco 3-inch Newtonian. As I recounted in the ARP blog, I didn’t even dare to go after bright Mars with that rig. Or much of anything else. The Moon (good) Jupiter (pretty bad), Saturn (looked like a custard pie, not a planet), Venus (at least it was easy to find), and a bright star or two was my repertoire.

Then came the Palomar Junior, and amateur astronomy began slowly, ever so slowly, to get better. Jupiter and Saturn were spectacular. The Moon was a wonderland. Mars? Well... Terrible. A bright but featureless orange bb. I was prepared for that disappointment, though, by my fellow members in our nascent astro-club, The Backyard Astronomy Society. Said Wayne Lee, "Boy, Mars is for professional scopes. At least you can say you been there!"

After those few triumphs, “What next?” naturally reared its ugly head. How did you find the dim stuff? The deep sky stuff? Galaxies fer instance? The Pal at least had a small (23-mm) finder—the Tasco made do with a peep sight—but there was no one to teach me about star-hopping or even tell me what that was. My fellow and equally benighted astronomy buddies were mostly content to stay on the Moon and bright planets. Using the monthly star chart in Sky & Telescope, I'd point the scope in the general direction of M101 or some other distant wonder and see...absolutely nothing.

My 4.25-inch Edmund wonder-machine did have setting circles, which, I’d heard, could find stuff for you. The question was “How?” I understood—if dimly—you looked up two sets of coordinates, declination and right ascension, for the object of your desire, moved the scope till the pointers were on those numbers, and the target would, simple as that, be in the eyepiece. Filled with naïve, youthful hope, I experimented with the circles one evening, but they didn’t seem to work too well. In fact they didn’t work at all, with my Pal winding up pointing at the ground.

Part of the problem was I had a hard time wrapping my mind around the concept of right ascension, celestial longitude, east-west in the sky. Even silly little me could see the stars and planets rose in the east, moved across the sky, and set in the west. How could you use numbers in a book to point at a moving target? I’m not sure why, but it didn’t occur to me that you could point at a target with a known RA, a bright star maybe, adjust the RA circle until it read the correct value, and update is occasionally as the night wore on.

I had trouble with declination, too, just as my students do today when I teach them to use analog setting circles. Dec circles, you see, are not labeled with north and south values. You gotta be aware than when you cross the Celestial Equator, you are in the southern hemisphere and must read “40,” for example, as “-/south 40.” Sure seems simple in the light of near half a century of experience, but it was not simple for li’l Rod.

Unfortunately, none of my astronomy books or the few the Possum Swamp Public Library possessed had decent directions regarding the use of setting circles. Usually, authors advised you to forget ‘em, or, if you just had to use ‘em, you were instructed to ignore the dreaded RA circle and just set-in declination and locate your object by “sweeping” in right ascension. That seemed like a silly way to use setting circles, though, and I remained stumped.

One cloudy evening as I was paging through the latest Edmund Scientific catalog as was my frequent wont, I ran across the little device pictured here. The "Edmund Star Finder” was a pair of nice, large setting circles (large compared to the small ones on the Palomar Junior) mated to a sight tube. You set-in RA and dec, and the tube (optic-less) would be pointing at the proper spot in the sky. I figgered I’d dial-in the values, take note of the position of the tube’s aim among the stars and move my scope to the same spot. In retrospect, this could have worked. I’ve seen folks use a latter-day star finder, a Celestron SkyScout or Meade MySky, in similar fashion with good results. The ad didn’t explicitly say so, but I assumed there would be instructions, including instructions on how to work the dadgummed RA circle.

In order to put my plan into effect, I’d first have to get the Star Finder, which looked to be a problem. In the fall 1966 Edmund catalog, the price of the gadget was $9.00. That don’t seem like anything at all now, I know, but then? Nine 1966 bucks is, depending on how you calculate it, at least sixty tiny 2010 dollars. Lawn mowing season was pretty much done, and I was still paying for the Pal…so how? Christmas was coming, and I could put the Star Finder at the top of my list. Santa (I still believed a little bit or told myself I did) likely wouldn’t bring me much else in addition to such a big gift, but if the thing allowed me to see at least some of the wonders in my astronomy books, it would be well worth it, wouldn’t it? I hoped so and decided to take a chance.

Wouldn’t you know it? The Edmund Star Finder turned out to be a complete and utter bust. One of the few astro-buys I’ve made over near 50 years that I got no use out of at all. It didn’t take long to realize I’d fouled up, either. Yeah, it looked OK; I was pretty impressed when I unwrapped my prize on Christmas morning. The Finder was well made, with metal circles, though the sight tube was cardboard. There was even a little swinging pointer to indicate latitude so you could get polar aligned. The whole shebang mounted on a castoff camera tripod of the Old Man’s and looked purty danged sweet next to the Christmas tree.

That was where the good stopped, unfortunately. The RA circle had numbers on it even more cryptic than those on the Pal’s RA circle. It operated, it turned out, on the even more indecipherable (for me) hour angle system. The instructions, a slim sheath of mimeographed pages, provided zero help. They seemed to assume you’d already know all about not just right ascension, but local sidereal time, could figger out what the LST was, and knew how to calculate the hour angle from those two numbers. Since I didn’t? Almost unbelievably, the directions told me to use only the declination circle and sweep for objects in right ascension! Sheesh.

Despite a feeling of impending doom, I took the Star Finder outside on Christmas night. And got exactly nowhere with it, of course. I did have the intestinal fortitude not to throw the thing against the side of the house—it was my main present for the year, after all. Somewhat sadly, I packed it back in its cardboard shipping box, and resolved to figure it out “sometime.” In the end, it served as a decoration in my room through my teen years and nothing more. I tossed it out in the late 80s not feeling a bit of nostalgic regret. Naturally, when Mama and Daddy asked how I liked my Big Gift, I had to smile and say, “Works great! I’m seeing a lot!” The biggest irony? I did eventually figure out how to work the thing, but when I did, I didn’t need it anymore.

It was on this Christmas evening that amateur astronomy very nearly lost me, as unimaginable as that seems today. It probably would have lost me if’n I hadn’t had a star hopping epiphany on that very night. The Star Finder had been a major failure, but it was a brilliantly clear and velvety dark night, and I did have the scope outside. Looking over to the east at Orion, I suddenly realized I could see what I presumed was the Orion Nebula with my naked eyes. I’d read about the Great Nebula a zillion times already, and kinda-sorta knew where it was, but I hadn’t understood how easy it would be to see without optical aid. I whipped my Pal over to the fuzzy star, inserted my 1-inch focal length (no silly little millimeters then) Kellner eyepiece, and was near blown off my feet by my first-ever look at M42.

I was excited enough by this success to run in the house and retrieve my “field guide,” The New Handbook of the Heavens, and an almost new copy of Norton’s Star Atlas, which I hadn’t used a whole lot yet. According to both, not only was I looking at M42, there was another nebula in the vicinity, something called “M78.” I couldn’t see it naked eye, or in the finder, neither. But then came the epiphany. M78 formed a near right angle with the Belt Stars. What if I positioned my scope on that spot? I did so, and with just a little careful slewing around I noted a pair of stars surrounded by a puffball of nebulosity. Soon, I was drawing imaginary lines and triangles all over the sky and hopping my way to M37, M1, M35 and a couple more before the night was out.

It was a near thing, though. And that is why you will never, ever hear me whine about go-to making life too easy for the novices. They need all the help they can get to keep ‘em on the amateur astronomy strait and narrow. Showing them a DSO or two in your scope ain’t enough. They have to be able to find the Good Stuff with their own telescopes if we are to keep them. “But Uncle Rod, but Uncle Rod,” you say, “them sprouts won’t learn the sky!” So freakin’ what, as long as they are having fun? They will, anyway. Learn the sky, that is. Most go-to scopes require you to at least know the bright stars in order to get aligned, and my experience is that learning 'em gets beginners over the hump, and they are soon picking out Piscis Austrinus with the best of us.

What about the purported subject of this blog, Uranus? 'Twasn’t long after I learned to star-hop that I tracked him down. I was now familiar enough with Norton’s to make real use of it, had at least somewhat figured out the celestial coordinate system, and plotted the planet’s position on the appropriate page of the atlas (oh, how I wish, 44 years later, that I hadn’t erased Uranus path across the stars). Eventually, the green god was in my eyepiece—which even with my newfound competence was not as easy as my books had implied. I upped the power with my ½-inch Ramsden, laid on my Edmund Barlow, and had a look.

I know what you think I’m gonna say, "And poor little Rod was devastatingly disappointed when he finally saw the Seventh Planet, teary eyed even, just as he was after his first look at Mars." Nope. Not at all. Maybe my expectations were even lower. Uranus was a truly distant world, and even the images from professional scopes looked pretty much like Jupiter had in my 3-inch Tasco. And maybe I had grown enough in our avocation to understand that you sometimes have to be satisfied with Wayne Lee's Been Theres.

No matter how good your skills or your scope, you’ve encountered plenty of those. Objects where the satisfaction comes from just saying “been there.” No, you can’t see M87’s Jet with your C5, nor all Uranus’ Shakespearean Moons, but you have been there. I was thrilled, staring at the tiny blue-green b-b, to realize that I was seeing something with my own eyes that comparatively few of my fellow humans had seen or ever would see for themselves. Besides, not being able to see detail preserved the mystery a little longer. Maybe Uranus really did look at least a little like that weird, pock-marked ball of papier-mâché that capped my wondrous Journey to the Seventh Planet.

Down memory lane again, eh? Yep. As you might guess, that’s because the skies have been cloudy for over a week and the consarned Moon’s back, anyway. The Herschel Project is at All Stop. Ain’t got no new gear to play with. Ain’t even heard any good astro-related gossip, fer crying out loud. I am getting cabin fever bad, y’all. This weekend I’ll be lucky to see somethin’ in a sucker hole with the Burgess 15x70s. At least the Chiefland Spring Picnic is coming (April), and I’m hopin’ to get out to the Tanner-Williams dark site soon as Luna shrinks a little and see what C8 and Stellacam will do with some of the Herschel 2500. I may even bring a new (to me) piece of software that looks promising, Deep Sky Imaging, to bear on that.

Whatever happens, see y'all next Sunday!

Sunday, January 17, 2010


The Herschel Project Night Five: 161 Down, 239 to Go

When it comes to amateur astronomy, you gotta take the good with the bad, muchachos, you gotta take the good with the bad. Like... Why is it I only get inky-black clear skies in the wintertime after the passage of a front when it is so dadgummed cold?

And cold it was last Saturday night, the night of one of our two monthly dark of the Moon observing runs at the Possum Swamp Astronomical Society’s Tanner-Williams site. Yeah, I know y’all laugh at me when I talk about shivering in 30 and 40 degree F temperatures, but I suspect that given our humidity even some of you hardened Yankeefolk woulda been a mite chilly out on the old observing field this past weekend. I wasn’t, believe it or no. I wasn’t toasty warm, but I was comfortable enough to pay attention to the many marvels that appeared in the field of my beloved Ethos eyepieces.

How? You northern folk know the tricks for keeping warm while viewing, but I doubt all of my Rebel brothers and sisters do. We haven’t experienced one hell of a lot of cold weather in the southland over the last decade, but it appears to be back with a vengeance. In fact, the way the winter’s been so far, I’m guessing we could all, Rebs and Yanks alike, stand to review the basics of cold weather survival amateur astronomy style.

First thing? If you have even a suspicion it’s gonna be cold, prepare. Don’t wait, as I’ll admit I’ve done a time or two, till you notice dew freezing into ice on the scope’s tube. The advice I give my astronomy students before their first run outside with telescope is probably best: always assume you’ll be cold, no matter what the time of year, when you are observing. Even in the middle of July, you’ll get chilled in the wee hours. Maybe even before. Not surprising since when you’re using a telescope you are standing nearly stock still for hours on end out under the heat-sucking sky.

Which don’t mean you should bundle up in arctic-wear in the summertime or after you've broke a sweat setting up the gear. Sweating under a too-heavy coat is not a good thing; a wet garment will transfer heat away from your body at a rate 25 times greater than a dry one. Instead of bundling up from the get-go, layer-on extra clothing as needed: a long sleeved shirt, a sweatshirt, a sweater, etc. Actually, dressing in layers is the secret to keeping warm any time of year. Why? You want air between you and Old Man Winter. Air is a remarkably poor conductor of heat, and layers of clothing trap more cold-resisting air than one heavy outer coat will.

In addition to coats and sweaters for your upper body, you have to pay attention to the nether regions as well. For me, what works is good thermal underwear (I like two-piece long johns). Both bottoms and tops, which form a base layer on top of your skin and which are available in various ratings for various conditions. In addition to providing another insulation-barrier, thermal underwear performs an additonal and even more important function: it wicks perspiration away from your body; without that, your whole layering “system” will fail miserably. For that reason, always wear both tops and bottoms.

What else goes on your bottom half? In our relatively mild climate, for me, just jeans and nothing else. For severe conditions, I have a heavy topcoat that extends to my knees, but that is usually all I need. If your temperatures are worse than mine, you’ll want more layers on the legs, layers which can be formed by sweatpants, ski pants, and coveralls.

As you have probably heard, the feet, along with the head, are the avenues for most of the body’s heat loss. Layering up but leaving the feet unguarded is a recipe for getting cold in a right quick hurry. All I need is a pair of reasonably thick-soled shoes or boots (no tennis shoes) and some nice, fluffy socks—I like Timberland’s insulated socks. In more bitter climes, several pairs of socks may be needed, and, if it’s truly frigid, a pair of boots with insulated soles is a downright must. A trick I’ve used is to position an old piece of rug or, maybe better, a rubber-backed bathmat, at the telescope. Standing on that instead of the cold ground keeps me surprisingly warmer no matter what sort of shoes and socks I am wearing.

Naturally, you need a hat of some kind, and not a stinking ballcap. I’ve experimented with various solutions over the years, and have decided the most effective and least annoying alternative is a fuzzy hat of some kind, you know, a watch cap. When it gets really bitter, I’ll pull my heavy coat’s hood up over that. Again, what you need depends on your area. Bad enough, and you may want ski masks and ear muffs and suchlike.

One more thing: plug any leaks. Your goal is to keep warm, insulating air in. If you have any kind of a gap at the neck of your outer layer, cover it. The most efficacious way of doing so is with a scarf, maybe one long enough for you to wrap a couple of layers around your neck.

The last area of consideration is one that has been a big problem for me over the years: hands. Some folks find they can manipulate focusers and hand controllers without much problem while wearing an appropriately thin pair of gloves. I can’t. And if you live in Maine or Michigan, you may find thin gloves are, well, too thin. What I’m famous for is taking off my gloves to manipulate the scope, becoming annoyed at continually taking 'em off and putting 'em on back again, leaving them off, becoming cold, turning astro-wimp, and heading home with my tail between my legs. Believe me: sticking your hands in your pockets is not a substitute for good gloves.

What are good gloves? Best I’ve been able to determine, they are convertible gloves. That is, gloves without fingers, or without fingertips, anyway. That makes it easy to manipulate anything. In milder climes, they’ll keep your hands warm enough despite the lack of fingers. No? That’s where the “convertible” comes in. These are equipped with mitten-like covers to go over your fingers when appropriate. That works very well indeed, with the convenient covers remaining attached to the gloves via Velcro.

The outside of you is now protected, but the inside of the bod could use a little help, too. There is no doubt in my formerly military mind that hot drinks can keep you going over the long haul. What works? For me, hot tea seems to do better than coffee. The outdoor survival experts disagree and say a caffeine free drink like hot cider is better, since the caf tends to dilate blood vessels and cause the body to lose heat faster than normal. That may be a factor in really icy areas, but here a nice cuppa does just fine, thanks. Make sure you put your drink, whatever it is, in a quality thermos. An el-cheapo from Wal-Mart or Asda won’t keep liquids hot long.

What else can help? One thing I like (a lot) is the little disposable chemical hand warmer packs that are a staple at outdoor stores. Remove one of these envelopes from its package, shake it up, and oxidation of the chemicals begins, yielding a surprising amount of heat that lasts for hours. One in each pocket and I am a happy camper. I also find these keep my hand controllers and digital setting circles warm. As you Yanks know, LCD displays begin to get RIGHT sluggish around 32F. Caveats? Chemical warmers lose some potency after they’ve sat on the shelf for a while. They take longer to heat up and don’t stay hot as long. If you don’t use all your warmers, toss ‘em at the end of the season; they are very inexpensive.

Keeping warm for winter observing involves thinking and spending, but it is well worth it to be able to cruise the glorious winter Milky Way instead of staying home watchin’ the pea-picking Boob Tube. For us Southrons it’s a revelation. Get out a few times in the dead of winter adequately clothed, and cold weather astronomy becomes something to be looked forward to rather than feared. I love staring at the Sagittarius milky way, but there is special charm in the diamond-hard stars of winter.

So it was this past Saturday evening. The weather goobers were predicting near record lows, maybe as low as 18F inland, but I didn’t hesitate. I know how to deal with Ol’ Man Winter. And yet…and yet…I admit was a mite skittish about just how cold it might get. “Below 25” seemed a little scary. By the time I was done with the setup of the evening’s telescope, my 12.5-inch Dobsonian, Old Betsy, I was approaching “a mite chilled”—and the Sun wasn’t even down. How would I feel by midnight?

I suppressed a shiver, added a fleece over my long johns, shirt, and sweat shirt and broke out a few handwarmers. I just hoped they’d work, as they’d been sitting in one of my equipment boxes for months. I’d intended to buy more, but with the cold snap, WallyWorld, Academy Sportin’ Goods, and, almost unbelievably, the Bass Pro Shop were sold out of chemical warmers.

In addition to a couple for my pockets, I rubber-banded a warmer to the back of my Sky Commander DSC computer. Even without turning it on, I was pretty sure its display would be dim and tired. The ‘Commander does have an internal heater, but that requires you to connect the computer to an external 12vdc source, and that is much less convenient than running on an internal 9-volt battery. Turned out my warmer packs had just enough oomph left to keep me and the computer a little warmer than we'd otherwise have been.

Before long, the brightest stars were winking on, and it was time to get Betsy aligned. A little reluctantly, I pulled off my gloves (couldn’t locate my fingerless pair) to facilitate button-mashing, and got the Sky Commanders going. Thankfully, that is a quick and simple operation. Unlike some DSCs, the Commanders don’t require leveling the telescope or worrying about things like the dreaded Warp Factors of the Tangent-style boxes. All you gotta do is point at two stars, hit enter, and you are ready for an evening’s enjoyment. Which is exactly what I did: lined up Polaris and Fomalhaut, swapped the 12-mm reticle eyepiece I use for alignments for my 13 Ethos, and keyed-in “M2” as a test. A little push-toing and there was that big old grandpappy of a globular, glowing faintly in the twilight in the big circle of sky defined by the TV Ethos.

One good thing about the dead of winter: it gets dark early and it gets dark quickly. Not long after firing up the Sky Commanders, I turned on the laptop, started SkyTools 3, and was ready to roll. “Roll to what?” was an easy question to answer. Over the two-and-a-half months The Herschel Project had been rocking, I’d pretty much covered the fall – winter Herschel II targets. Reviewing the list in ST3, however, revealed that I’d missed a couple. If nothing else, I’d want to pick these off tonight.

First up was NGC 7245 in Lacerta. The Lizard has a few cool objects in it despite its small size, but this open cluster ain’t one of ‘em. Oh, rare is the DSO that don’t have some fans, but I don’t recall I’ve ever seen this one referred to as anything but “undistinguished,” which was darn tootin’ my opinion of this type II1p cluster (detached, moderate range in brightness, poor richness) on this evening:

NGC 7245 (H VI.29) is a singularly uninteresting little cluster in Lacerta. What I am seeing is a sprinkle of faint stars in a rich field. Somewhat elongated, maybe 5’ across. No background glow of unresolved suns noted. Another larger if even less impressive cluster, IC 1442, is in the same field with the 13mm Ethos.

Hopin’ for that always elusive More Better Gooder, I swung Betsy over to Pisces, now on the west side of the meridian, to aim at NGC 7832. Like more than one of the myriad galaxies swimming through The Fish, this magnitude 13.89 sprite was a mere fuzz-ball. Not surprising given its classification (accordin’ to NED, NASA’s Extragalactic Database) as an elliptical. Its single savin’ grace is that it’s relatively small, about 2’ across, meaning it is not a challenge. It wasn’t for Old Betsy, anyway:

NGC 7832 (H III.190) is best in the 8mm Ethos, which delivers good contrast. No sign of a core. A prototypal faint fuzzy that’s apparently somewhat elongated; it’s hard to be sure of that with tonight’s disturbed seeing, however.

And…that was it for Herschels for the moment. And for the night, I was pretty sure. The next major repository of ‘em would be in Leo, and it would be getting close to midnight before that ol’ Lion would rise high enough to clear the 30 – 40-degree light dome to the east. I felt warm enough at the moment, but my old bones were already whispering that hanging-in past midnight wasn’t in the cards.

I was certainly not going to throw in the towel after two fuzzies, though. Nor was I gonna settle for spendin’ the night on Messier Masterpieces. Not only did I have SkyTools’ myriad ready-made observing lists at hand, I’d thrown a copy of the January issue of Astronomy Magazine in the trunk along with the eyepiece case.

As y’all prob’ly know, I’m a Sky & Telescope man, and would be even if I didn’t write for that fine publication. But that don’t mean I don’t find nuttin’ of interest in the competition. Particularly heartening of late is seeing them run articles by deep sky guru Rich Jakiel. Every time I get puffed-up and start thinking of myself as some kind of deep sky expert, I remember the times I’ve observed with this Atlanta amateur/writer/astronomy educator. I’ve been lucky enough to spend some time with Rich at a couple of Peach State Stargazes, and can tell you I am still in knee-pants compared to him. Not only have the objects Rich has pointed me to been spectacular, they’ve usually been things I didn’t even know was up there.

So I figgered doing Mr. Jakiel’s latest outing, “Tour the Fornax Supercluster” would be a good way to spend a dark January’s eve. Well, semi-dark, anyhow. With a single exception, the objects up for observation lay in Fornax (natch) and in nearby Eridanus, which, before midnight, would be in the Possum Swamp light dome. What the heck. They were at least to the south and out of the worst of the mess. I decided to see what I could see.

The thermometer laid-out on the observing table had long since dipped past 32F, was approaching the dark side of the 20s, and wasn’t showing signs of stopping its descent or even slowing down. Good thing my first stop, NGC 908, was spectacular enough to take my mind off the mercury. Rich notes its “thick and patchy” spiral arms, and while they were not overly obvious in Cetus' less than pitch-black environs, they did fall to me and Betsy with a little eyeball straining:

NGC 908 in Cetus is large and bright and set in a fairly rich field. Looks very nice despite being barely out of the worst of the light dome to the east. This magnitude 10.8 galaxy is elongated east-west about 6’ x 2’. With averted vision, there are hints of patchiness indicating spiral arms. No stellar core observed. In images, this galaxy displays a prominent arm ala’ NGC 7331. Under dark skies, I believe it would verge on the spectacular; it’s detailed tonight in a 10-inch, and is prominent in an 8-inch SCT. Best in the 13mm Ethos.

Eridanus’ NGC 1407 and NGC 1400 were next on the ST3 list I’d made from the Astronomy article. 1407 is bright and good at magnitude 10.7 and, though fairly large at about 5’, it wasn’t difficult and neither was its slightly less prominent sister. Mr. Jakiel pronounces ‘em “worth looking at,” and I agree.

NGC 1407 is paired in the same field with another galaxy, the slightly smaller NGC 1400. Even on the edge of the light dome, both are prominent ellipticals. Occasionally, I almost think I see hints of detail in their envelopes, but since they are “Es” that is no doubt just my imagination. Both show obvious non-stellar cores and extensive outer regions.

Still in Eridanus, I landed on the nextun, NGC 1232, without any trouble. Rich refers to this as an “unusual angular galaxy,” which, he says, accounts for its inclusion in the Arp catalog. I couldn’t make out none o’ that, but I sure liked looking at this distant night bird. When the wintertime seeing behaved, it reminded me of M101 or maybe M74.

NGC 1232 is an attractive large and round galaxy about 6’ in diameter. 7.5’ away from a bright magnitude 9 field star. In spite of the gray background, I get strong hints of this one’s true nature as a near face-on SAB spiral. Very attractive. I occasionally catch a glimpse of a small nuclear region with the 8mm eyepiece. In the punk seeing and sky glow, it’s hard to make-out the galaxy’s small fellow traveler, magnitude 15, 48”diameter NGC 1232A, and I won’t swear I saw it tonight.

Rich Jakiel’s next choice, another Eridanus island universe, NGC 1300, is the jewel of the bunch. It deserves far better skies than it was set in when I looked at it, but it was amazing nonetheless.

NGC 1300, the famous barred spiral, shows up pretty darned well despite relatively poor conditions. Even a glance with the 13 Ethos shows the central bar, which is surrounded by faint haze. I had more trouble than usual picking out traces of the arms, though, something which is normally fairly easy with this telescope.

From the sublime to the ridiculous? NGC 1332 ain’t exactly ridiculous, but it ain’t no NGC 1300, either. It is interesting, though, and I can see why our author put this magnitude 11.2, 4.5’ long lenticular galaxy on his list.

 NGC 1332 is small, bright, and strongly elongated east-west in the 8-mm ocular. Bright, tiny core visible. There is a dim field star less than a minute west of the galaxy’s center that masquerades as a supernova. Other than that, no details are visible and I wouldn’t expect any in this near-edge-on CD S0 galaxy.

In the same vein is NGC 1395, which, as Mssr. Jakiel points out, is blessed with high surface brightness—even if it ain’t overly engaging. Wasn’t for me, anyhow:

NGC 1395 is another bright galaxy. This elliptical shows a small core and a brighter middle coupled with an extensive outer envelope.

Looking at Fornax galaxy NGC 1398’s images, I can see why somebody with better skills and skies than yours truly might put this one on a best-of list. Mr. J. calls it “one of the finest of its class.” With my eyes and skies? Not So Much. Not that it was wholly devoid of interest, either:

In pictures, NGC 1398, an SB spiral, shows weird and interesting skinny arms. In the eyepiece, it is bright with the 13 Ethos, and I can see there’s a bright central bar, but that is about it. Continued staring begins to reveal the arms, but just barely.

And that was it for the night. Not that that was supposed to be it. I’d only covered about half of the magazine article’s galaxies, and when I finished the Fornax tour, I was devoutly hoping to do some of the Cetus objects from The Whole Big Thing part of The Herschel Project, from the Herschel 2500, that is. ‘Twas not to be. Not because I was too cold, though. My preparations had stood me in surprisingly good stead. More like because I was too foolish. As I was starin’ at NGC 1398, my mind began to wander as it will do, and suddenly I realized I’d forgot to turn on the outside water tap to drip before I’d left home.

Living, as Miss Dorothy and I do, in an old Victorian home with a maze of mostly uninsulated pipes underneath, it’s vital to let a little water drip from the taps when you get to 25F and below. Especially outdoor faucets. I’d been so focused on loading the car and daydreaming about what I was gonna look at, though, that I’d plumb forgot to turn the driveway tap on. I rang Miss D. via my cell, but she did not pick up—turned out her phone was upstairs and she was downstairs. With the temp right at 25, there was nothing for it. I packed the car tout suite, trying my best not to disturb the three hardy souls who’d joined me at the club dark site, and made tracks for Chaos Manor South. I got home before the faucet froze, but only just.

Sure, I was ticked at myself. Need you even ask? But, on the other hand, I did see a couple of nice handfuls of DSOs, and that was more than I woulda seen sitting at home watching Kitchen Nightmares on the BBC channel. If nothing else, I hope I’ve encouraged you to run out and get a copy of the January Astronomy and follow Rich Jakiel through the wilds of Fornax. Even though I was only able to cover half his ground, it was quite a trip for me and will be for you, too. You don’t need perfect skies or perfect skills—which I most assuredly lack.

L’homme c’est rien—l’oeuvre c’est tout.

Sunday, January 10, 2010


Finding One, Keeping One

One what? A dark site, a club dark observing site, muchachos. If I ain’t said it before now, I should have: having a dark location where you and your astronomy club buddies can observe as a group is crucial for the long term health of your club. Yeah, I’m sure some clubs do survive only as forums for demonstrating officers’ knowledge of Robert’s Rules of Order, and I’m sure some (worthy) clubs only do public outreach “sidewalk astronomy” from light polluted areas. But for most of us, having access to a secure dark area where we can do deep sky observing is one of the major reasons for belonging to an astronomy club in the first place.

Example? My club, the PSAS, the Possum Swamp Astronomical Society (the name has been changed to protect the innocent AND the guilty), went for several years without an observing site to call our own. Our previous location had been arranged by our club President who one day out of the clear blue sky up and quit both the PSAS and amateur astronomy. We were going through a cloudy period at the time without many opportunities to do observin’ of any sort, so we let things slide. By winter, we’d lost track of the owner of the land we’d been using, and being hesitant to continue at the site without approval, let it go.

Didn’t seem like such a big deal to me. I had a couple of locations where I could do my faint-fuzzy hunting, including, at least occasionally, my observing companion's, Pat’s, observatory. We could do public outreach sufficiently from the light polluted public school facility where we held our meetings. So what? Why did we need a dark site, anyhow?

I soon found out. Wasn’t long before I noticed the club beginning to lose focus and, shortly, members. Oh, new people would come to us, but one of the first things they would want to know would be “When do we get together to use our telescopes?” Since that never happened, they’d tend to drift away after a few months. We’ve done a fairly good job over the years of keeping our meetings interesting, with the emphasis on astronomy and having fun, not BUSINESS, but it shortly became obvious that was not enough. To top it all off, some of the longtime regulars began to fade away as well.

Back in the stone-age, before the Internet, going to an astronomy club meeting just to shoot the breeze with your like-minded colleagues was maybe enough to justify membership. For many of us, that was the only contact we had with the larger world of amateur astronomy over the course of a month. Today, as I’ve said before, there’s a virtual astronomy club meeting going on 24 hours a day—on Cloudy Nights, Astromart, and the Yahoogroups. Sure, there’s more fun to be had at a club than just observing, but a dark site is probably now a more important reason for membership than it ever has been.

It all came to a head for me one meeting night when I looked around the room and realized this was the second month in a row where our attendance was a grand total of four folks—one of whom (not Unk) was asleep. My first action was a finger-in-the-dike maneuver. I knew it would take time to find a good site, but we needed to get out together for group observing somewhere, good or not, right away.

Unk's Ultima 8, Celeste (right).
The aforementioned school land was our salvation. No, it wasn’t what you’d call “good,” being deep in the “red zone” of suburban light pollution, but on a clear, dry(ish) night it was surprising what we could see. There was even a small roll-off roof observatory, our “Pine Lake Observatory” in place that we’d built in the 80s before the streetlights had well and truly closed-in. For some members who had nowhere else to view from, not even a backyard, it was a godsend. Hell, I even took some OK CCD shots from there. AC power was available, and the secure and friendly nature of the location helped me to at least begin learning the delicate and difficult art of CCDing with a Meade DSI.

Slowly, ever so slowly, old members began to trickle back, and new ones began to hang around for more than a few months. I knew better than to believe we should rest on our laurels, though. We still needed a good and dark observing field. There was plenty of agreement on that, and shortly we began the search for a piece of deep sky heaven to call our own.

Where do you look? What are the options? In some areas there may be a science museum or school or similar outfit that’s willing to let you use a parking lot. The drawback is that most of these facilities are either located in light polluted areas or have every square inch covered by sodium vapor streetlights and/or humongous floodlights. One may, however, as in our case, serve as a decent stopgap. A sodium pink parking lot is not a long-term solution, however. Where else, then? It purty much boils down to public parks and private land.

When I say “public park,” I’m mostly talking about state and national parks in the club’s immediate area. You can usually forget city parks and the like. Even if they are fairly clear of the light dome—and they rarely are—almost invariably you’ll find they close at sundown. Our city, fer example, has a nice suburban municipal park, and, while the skies are not that hot, it would be great for public outreach/sidewalk astronomy and occasional informal group observing. That has been impossible since the 1970s, though, since the Possum Swamp city fathers became alarmed at “What them dadgummed HIPPIES are doing in our BEAUTIFUL PARK after dark.” Maybe it’s just as well, though. Parks in proximity to urban areas are often frequented by the homeless, most of whom will not be a problem, but some of whom will, and the lawless, who will definitely be a problem.

That leaves state and national parks. There are a couple of considerations there. First and foremost is location. In this old boy’s experience, you want your primary club observing site to be no more than about one hour’s drive for the majority of your members. I guarantee that if you exceed that, you will have dismal turnouts. Even if you have to sacrifice some sky quality for proximity, I urge you to do so. Which don’t mean you can’t use a darker location at times. At least one club in the Tri-State Area down here (you know, Alabama, Mississippi, and Florida) has a darker and more remote site they use on an occasional basis.

If you do have a state/national park that’s close enough to be practical, the first step is a scouting mission during the daytime. Drive out with some of your bubbas and bubbettes and see what's what. Primary consideration is an open area, and that’s where many parks fail. Often, there just ain’t a spot with a decent view of the sky in which to set up even a few telescopes. If you luck out and find there’s a football/soccer field or sumpin’ similar, you’ll usually also find that—even way out in the boondocks—it’s ringed by, if not festooned with, yep, cotton pickin’ streetlights. For that reason,  you need to follow-up with a night time visit, to see both what the streetlight sitchy-ation is and how the sky itself stacks up.

Speaking of which, you can get a damned good idea of any location's darkness (sky darkness, not ambient light in the immediate area) without even visiting it. Google Earth can be easily configured to show light pollution contours (yellow, green, etc.). Even better and easier is a wonderful page called "Dark Sky Finder." Just don't let that sea of yellow scare you too much. You'd think the yellow areas would be bad, but you can see one heck of a lot from 'em. Be that as it may be, it's purty much assured that any locale within one hour of a metropolitan area will be "at least" yellow.

Let’s say the park in question don’t just have a field of sufficient size for your purposes, but said field is also streetlight free or at least shielded from the worst offenders. That’s when the real fun starts: dealing with the Park Rangers/administration. The problem is figuring-out a way to be allowed to stay onsite and observe at night. In many cases, that will require the purchase of an overnight camping pass. Sometimes that's not so bad. Three or four dollars is a bargain for an evening's observing enjoyment. 

Most of the time, though, you’ll be paying as much as twenty bucks (or more) to observe for a few hours, meaning the site prob'ly won’t garner much long-term popularity with the membership. Especially if its skies ain’t “perfect,” whatever the hell that means. And sometimes park management may actually balk at selling you camping passes if you aren’t “real campers”—if you aren’t sleeping overnight onsite with tents and stuff. Annnd in some areas the gates will be closed and locked at night and you won't be able to leave until morning.

It may be possible to strike a deal of some kind with park management, however. If you sit down with them, explaining who you are and what you do, you may be able to convince them to allow y’all to observe for free or for a radically reduced price a time or two a month. But you may be able to do even better by bartering.

A surprising number of parks give “constellation talks” as part of their nature lecture programs. Quite a few more would like to. If you offer your services either in support of a program of this type, or agree to give the programs yourselves, you might score the right to observe from the park any time you like gratis. One caution: it’s been my experience that these arrangements often don’t last over the long run. You and your membership may get tired of holdin’ up your end of the bargain or, more commonly, park administration may change and the new broom may decide to sweep all that “astrology foolishness” out.

If no public option seems workable, that leaves private land, the land of a club member or the ubiquitous “friend of a friend.” In some ways, this is the best choice. Private land usually has the benefits of being reasonably secure and reasonably streetlight free. Oh, the owner may have a yard light up at the house, but the north 40 is usually not sodium infested. The former benefit is especially important. I don’t know about your club, but our dark site sessions usually have an attendance of <10 folks, often just one or two. If you’ve got a large group, that’s one thing, but a mere person or three may feel skittish out in the boonies. That used to be more nerves than anything else, but in these days when the meth trade has infested the countryside, security at dark country sites is a real concern.

One other factor to ruminate upon before deciding you’ve found dark site nirvana is to ask yourselves whether you’ll feel comfortable using the place. I‘m not talking about security, but about issues having to do with the land owner. We, the PSAS, tried a seemingly perfect site we’d found right off the bat, one with more than acceptable skies that was close to home. After a time or two we scratched it off our list. Accessing it required us to turn up the owner’s driveway, open a locked gate, and drive alongside his home on our way to the field. He said he was perfectly OK with us doing so, but given a couple of his comments over the couple of months we visited the site (“Weren’t y’all just out here?”) we became convinced our comings and goings in the middle of the night would become a nuisance for him in a real quick hurry. We kept looking.

A private airfield that is shut down at night is pretty perfect.
Our salvation came when one of our members hooked us up with some truly nice folks who own a small private airfield. There is a light dome from the ‘Swamp to the east, but if you wisely keep within the 1-hour-no-more driving limit, you will have to expect that. The location’s benefits in addition to its relative closeness are many, and tend to outweigh us givin’ up 40 degrees of the east side of the sky. There’s plenty of flat open space, the horizons are excellent, and we feel secure observing there any time of the night. To top it all off, we can arrive and depart as we wish without disturbing the people who own the land and live adjacent to it.

The good old PSAS lucked out bigtime, but what if you-all don’t know and can’t find somebody with a similarly good country venue willing to let you use it as an observing site? If your club is large enough and well-fixed enough, you might consider buying or leasing a sweet little piece of land of your own. The problem usually is not finding or even buying a chunk of real-estate; it’s the upkeep that’s the killer. In addition to the cost of the property, taxes will have to be paid. You’ll no doubt have to do some improvements, too; things like installing security gates, filling potholes in the access road (repeatedly) and similar, arranging for portapotties, etc., etc., etc. You may find that even apparently small things, like keeping the observing field mowed in the summer, become real back-breakers over the course of a few years.

Before you even contemplate buying land as a club, make derned sure ground-rules are in place and understood. The members who use the site will have to pitch in and maintain it—no letting all the work fall on one or two club officers. The general membership will also have to understand and agree to a portion of their dues being used for site purchase and upkeep, even if they have no interest in actually observing from the land.

Hokay. You’ve got a dark site of some kind, how do you keep it? Firstly, you keep those of your members who use the field regularly happy. One important thing to do toward that is develop a set of rules regarding group “star parties” and stick to them. These need not be elaborate and involved. A good place to begin (and maybe end) is with Light Rules. You know: “Please arrive before Sundown, red lights only on the field, if you want to leave before dawn/end of the run, your vehicle must be positioned so your lights don’t bother folks still observing.” Strive to accommodate your club’s serious observers. They will be the ones using the site most.

Whether your location is a public one, private land of member or a friend of the club, or club-purchased land, you’ll also want to enforce reasonable housekeeping rules. No trash left on the field; leave your spot in the same (or better) condition than it was in when you arrived. This is super-critical if you are using someone’s private land. In addition to keeping the site clean, strive to avoid anything that might annoy the owner if she/he lives on site. No loud music (no one wants that on an observing field anyhow), no screaming and hollering in the middle of the night (even if you did finally see the Twin Quasar). No green laser Jedi sword fights (even if it is cloudy)—you get the picture.

In the case of borrowed land, it’s often a good idea to go an extra mile. The owner has lots of land to mow? Get a crew out and mow your “area” for him. The access road has always had some potholes? Get them filled. Keep in touch with the owner, too, inviting her/him out for a look through the telescopes regularly.

One last caveat? Be very wary of what Uncle Rod calls the “The Only Enemy of Good Enough is More Better” syndrome. I’ve seen this happen more than a time or two, especially with larger clubs. There’s a nice dark site. Everybody is doing good work and is happy with the location. Then, some member, new or old, but often new, takes it into his/her head that the sky just “ain’t dark enough,” gets all het up about a new location, and the old one is abandoned by all and sundry.

Only to find the new spot has big problems. Too far. Too insecure. Too damp. Too many tall trees. Sometimes it’s easy enough to move back to the old field. Sometimes not, though. Be exceedingly sure the new site is suitable before decamping. Go through all the steps outlined above when vetting the new one, and consider doing what, as was mentioned, some clubs do: maintain two sites, a regular site and a more distant one for use on special occasions or by the most serious deep sky observers.

Sounds like a lot of work, don’t it? It is, but most good things require some blood, sweat, and tears. Again, in this old boy’s opinion, a working dark site is the one sure way to keep your club healthy these days. Interesting speakers and punch and cookies after meetings only go so far. Most of us are in clubs for the meat: observing under good skies with our friends. Provide that experience on a regular basis, and I guar-ron-tee you will never, ever have to worry about your group fading away.

What’s going down at good, old Chaos Manor South? As I hunt-and-peck these words, we are bein’ hit with one intense cold front after another. I often joke about how we suffer when the mercury gets down to the 30s, but that ain’t really a joke. With the high humidity down here, I’ve sometimes felt colder in Possum Swamp than I have in Maine. Imagine, then, how we are doin’ with the temperatures currently dipping to the teens. Nevertheless, I have every intention of heading out to the PSAS dark site this Saturday night. The Herschel Project calls—there are a couple of stray objects I’ve gotta catch before they are gone.

Otherwise? I’ve got a truckload of good stuff lined up for y’all over the coming weeks, including a review of a program that’s becoming a lot of folks freeware fave, Stellarium. More observing articles too. And maybe e’en a few surprises, you never know. All in all, I think this new year is gonna be “WHAT A RIDE! WHAT A RIDE!” when it comes to this here blog and amateur astronomy in general at the old manse.

Friday, January 01, 2010


And What Have You Done/Another Year Over/And a New One Just Begun…

The Solstice is past, the winds of Old Man Winter are howling outside—it’s been down in the dadgummed thirties ‘round here—and the nights, while long, are often cloudy. That makes it a perfect time for your old Uncle Rod to ruminate on where he’s been in amateur astronomy over the past year and where he might, in his confused and stumbling fashion, be going over the next one, muchachos.

2009 started off with either a bang or a whimper—I ain’t sure which. I’d completed my new SCT book, Choosing and Using a New CAT, some months previous, and had spent the end of 2008 working with and fussing with the publisher’s production people. It was not till the turn of the New Year that the book hit the streets. Overall I was pleased and happy. Not perfect, no, but a distinct improvement over its “inspiration,” Choosing and Using a Schmidt Cassegrain Telescope. I’ve larned a lot about the book writing game over the intervening decade, and I believe that shows.

So what’s with the “with a whimper”? Having a book published is like sending a youngun off to college, I reckon. You’ve done your best, but the time finally comes when you have to let the little bird fly. The verdict on New CAT was a positive one; it looked to be headed for success in a small amateur astronomy sort of way. Still, I felt let-down. Empty Nest Syndrome, I suppose. It was nice not to have to work on the book every blessed day, leastways it was nice not to have to review yet another set of hosed-up galley proofs every day, but I missed having something to do. Unk needed a project, but what?

There was this here blog, of course. Over the last two years, it’s really taken on form and substance, coming a long way from its days as a collection of brief paragraphs posted on the old AOL blogsite (long since shutdown). It’s such a fixture of life ‘round here now, though, that it doesn’t feel much like A Project. How about good, old Skywatch, my long-running newsletter, then? Well, it ain’t dead, but it might as well be. The blog gives me a convenient enough and frequent enough venue for my ramblings that I don’t see much need for Skywatch no more. Naw, I ain’t gonna say Skywatch is completely dead, no, and I may even get out another issue one of these days, but I just wasn’t and still am not much interested in Skywatch anymore, I am embarrassed to admit.

‘Course, with spring of ’09 coming in, there would be star parties. Well, sorta. With the recession in full swing, I noticed a precipitous drop in my bookings to speak at amateur events. That’s thankfully beginning to turn around now, but last year was awful lean. The only star party I made it to last spring was as a “civilian,” not a speaker, the Chiefland Spring Picnic. And wouldn’t you know it? That sucka was clouded out.

Yep, El Nino was back in full force last year. That weather pattern did keep the cotton picking hurricanes to a minimum, but it also made the spring skies almost unrelievedly cloudy, not just down Chiefland way, but up here in Possum Swamp. I got in some hours at the PSAS dark site, but not many, muchachos, not many.

Just when I thought I was gonna go plumb stir crazy from lack of astro-diversions, a package dropped through the mail slot and into Chaos Manor South’s front hall. A package containing Greg Crinklaw’s SkyTools 3 program. I had been a long time user and supporter of his SkyTools 2, but 3 was a quantum leap forward, and the program provided me several weeks of diversion even before I could get it out to dark skies. Which I thought was gonna be at the above-mentioned Chiefland Picnic, but ST3 wasn’t much use inside a Holiday Inn Express room as I watched endless rain fall.

Eventually, though, I did get out in the dark again; I really got lucky, too. I’d intended to head back to the CAV in June, but was stymied by a lack of motel accommodations. As most of y’all know, your ol’ Uncle has long since sworn off tent camping, and not being possessed of a humongous RV, the alternative is motel rooms. Alas, all of Chiefland’s hostelries were full the New Moon weekend in June. I still don’t know why they were full, and none of the Chieflanders seem to have a clue either. UFO fly-in? Manatee roundup? Skunk ape rodeo?

I rescheduled for July, but without hope of seeing much. Here in the Deep South, July almost always brings hazy if not stormy skies. With the Nino reigning, I figgered the weather would be even worse than it normally is at the height of summer. I made the trip anyway, if on a semi-whim.

What I found there was astounding: dead clear, transparent, dark skies. The False Comet, NGC 6231, near the tail of Scorpius, an open cluster associated with nebulosity that, under good conditions, looks for all the world like a naked eye comet, was as visible as I’ve ever seen it save at Prude Ranch’s Texas Star Party. That’s the way it was all weekend, too, with me knocking off object after object with my Stellacam and Ethos eyepieces. I saw lots of cool stuff; including many of the DSOs I planned to feature in a new (and currently shelved) book project on deep sky observing with Schmidt Cassegrains.

Home again in the ol’ manse, I was back to square one. The skies were still cloudy, and the single project I’d been playing around with, the aforementioned book on DSOs for CATs, suddenly didn’t seem quite as brilliant an idea as I’d originally thought (though it may be back from the dead one day; you never know). What to do? How about an update to my venerable Used CAT Buyer’s Guide? I began work on a new edition, the 10th, which might see the light of day by mid 2010 if I continue working in my fits-and-starts fashion, but while that needed to be done, it wasn’t that absorbing.

‘Bout the only thing I had to look forward to was my pair of yearly fall star parties, the Deep South Regional Star Gaze and the Chiefland (Nova Sedus) Star Party. That’s what I thought, anyhow, till my wife, the lovely Miss Dorothy, returned home from the university one afternoon lugging a great, big book…

Seems as she’d been to a rare/antiquarian book sale and had snagged a copy of The Scientific Papers of Sir William Herschel for Unk. I have to be honest with y’all: I simply do not believe anyone has ever had a better wife.

As I began paging through the thick and heavy tome, I was at first interested, then intrigued, and finally maybe a little obsessed. The more of Sir Willie’s words I read, the more interested I became in following in his and sis Caroline’s footsteps. I started off easy, deciding to pursue the Herschel 400 Part Two and document my efforts in the blog.

After an inaugural Herschel session at the Deep South Regional Star Gaze, where I snagged a couple-dozen objects, The Herschel Project, as I was calling my quest, began to pick up steam, with me doing close to a couple hundred at the Nova Sedus Star Party, which, amazingly enough, like DSRSG, featured mostly clear skies. Not only did the pace of the H Project pick up, its scope began to broaden. While I’d initially intended just to do the Herschel 2 list, setting a goal for myself of finishing it within a year, my initial success led me to consider going for The Whole Big Thing, The Big Enchilada.

The Astronomical League’s Herschel 1 and 2 observing “clubs” are hardly all there is to the Herschel deep sky objects. All told, The Man, ably assisted by Miss Caroline, observed and documented nearly 2500 faint fuzzies, which went on to form a big chunk of the NGC. What if I were to go after all of ‘em? To really follow in the Herschels’ wake? The ease with which the H2 objects had fallen to my eyepieces and my Stellacam 2 began to make this seem not just a screwy Sunday evening fancy of Unk’s, but something that might actually be doable within a reasonable time-frame.

Howsabout a test then? After I’d covered all the Herschel 2s I could at Chiefland, I started the Big List. I’d located a text file of all 2500 DSOs on the ol’ I-net, imported that into SkyTools 3 with ease, and, with the aid of that wonderful software, was able to easily cull all the “non existents” and other problem children from the 2500, leaving me with 2377 targets. Still a lot, sure, but it no longer seemed a scary lot. In a single night, my NexStar 11, Big Bertha, and I did all the list’s many galaxies in Aquarius and made a significant dent in the countless island universes that inhabit galaxy-rich Cetus.

I’ve decided to stick to the original focus of the Herschel Project, the Herschel 2 list, as far as this blog is concerned—for now, anyways. Yes, many of the Herschel 2500’s objects are beautiful, encompassing as it does the “bright” showpieces of the original Herschel 400 list. Howsomeever, many of its members are “faint, small, elliptical galaxy with no details,” and constantly documenting their legions here in would become a pain for you to read, I suspect. So what will I do with my H2500 observations? There’ll be the satisfaction of seeing what Sir William Herschel saw, of course. But, not long after starting on the big part of the Herschel Project, I began to feel the faint stirrings of an idea for a new book.

A book on both the H objects and their discoverers, a book way beyond the Herschel 1 and 2 guides that are or have been available. Will a Herschel book happen for real? Who knows? There’s a lot of observing yet to be done. Then I’ll have to at least do an outline and a sample chapter. Then, and maybe most difficult, I’ll have to interest a publisher in a somewhat arcane subject—even for an amateur astronomy book.

Yes, a lot of observing to do—and sketching, and maybe imaging. What exactly will it take to finish The Whole Big Thing? Will Unk have to join the big Dob ranks? I don’t think so—not that that would necessarily be a bad thing. I have yet to run across anything that is an impossibility for the NexStar 11 or for my humble 12.5-inch Dobsonian, Old Betsy. Yes, there are supposedly some objects in the Big List that make the H1 and H2 run-of-the-mill seem laughably easy. If I encounter anything like that, I reckon I’ll just crank up the Stellacam one more notch.

The thing is, y’all, Sir William did most of his work with his 20-foot (focal length) telescope. This was possessed of an 18.7-inch speculum metal primary mirror that was no doubt at least partially tarnished most of the time. I am convinced my 12.5-inch with her high-falutin’ super-duper coatings and Ethos eyepieces can keep up with that. Slap the Stellacam 2 on the NS 11 and I have little doubt that will blow away even The Man’s 40-foot (48-inch aperture) monster.

You know what? Whether a book ever comes out of The Herschel Project or not, I I have already had one heck of a good time learning more about Herschel and his fuzzies and seeing a few hundred of them for myself thus far.

It hasn’t been all H-project, though. My major Santa-brought-me this year was one of Orion’s StarShoot II autoguide cameras, and I wanted to give that a go at the club dark site during my Christmas break. I’ve been using a Meade DSI as an autoguider on those occasions when I’m imaging with a DSLR rather than my ST2000 CCD. At times, I have even used the DSI to guide the ST2000, despite the presence of a built-in guide chip on the SBIG. It’s not always easy to find a good-looking guide star with the ST2000’s small off-center guide chip; it’s usually easier—if less convenient set-up-wise—to deal with a separate guide scope and camera. Unfortunately, when using the DSI as a guider I obviously cannot image with it too.

Why would I want to image with the small one-shot color DSI anyway? Because I’ve found it can produce relatively nice color images perfect for use in my books and magazine articles. And it can produce these good-looking color images with ease. Being of the one-track-mind persuasion, I decided that could be a real asset in documenting some of my Herschel Project travels.

Given Orion’s always good customer service, it was not surprising the StarShoot autoguider arrived without much delay. Given Miss Dorothy’s constant indulgence of me, it also wasn’t surprising she let me open my gift before December 25th. Doing so revealed what you see to above: an attractive little camera, with the emphasis pleasingly on little. Despite the StarShoot’s minute body, its CMOS chip, a 6.66 x 5.32-mm job, is significantly larger than the DSI’s CCD—a good thing when you are hunting guide stars. Also nice is that the StarShoot has a built in ST-4 autoguide output. That meant I could dispense with the extra computer connection needed for the Shoestring ST-4 guide adapter I had been using with the guide-portless DSI.

To cut to the ol’ chase, how did she work? Very nicely. Oh, there were some problems at the darksite, but they were with me, not the Orion camera. Set-up was easy since the StarShoot is compatible with my favorite autoguiding software, PHD Guiding. I was a little worried that the Orion guider’s use of a CMOS chip rather than a CCD would make it less sensitive than the DSI, especially given that my usual guidescope, a William Optics 66mm Patriot SD refractor, is slightly aperture challenged. And the Starshoot is indeed somewhat less sensitive than the DSI. Despite that, however, I was able to locate a suitable star in any field I turned the guide scope on. When I’d tweaked PHD’s settings a mite (mostly just increasing calibration steps to 750 from 500) the camera and software locked on and guided without hiccups every single time.

Other observations? I’ve heard some StarShoot users complain about “banding” artifacts in the guide camera’s frame. I found that if I adjusted the gamma to yield a gray background on the Starshoot’s video output, I did see this banding. But so what? It didn’t affect guiding whatsoever, and since you won’t be making images with the Starshoot, it really doesn’t matter whether the frame looks pretty or not. The camera guides faultlessly, which is all I care about. Before winter is out, I hope to use the StarShoot and my Canon DSLR and my C8 and my Atlas mount to FINALLY produce my definitive portrait of M42.

What else was waiting under Chaos Manor South’s festively decorated Criterion RV-6? As I mentioned the other week, I was so pleased with the Farpoint Bahtinov focusing mask I bought from Scope City for the C11, that I asked ol’ Santy for one for the C8, too. I got a couple of books as well, including the latest edition of Sky and Telescope’s beautiful Beautiful Universe.

Which astrogift really made it with me in addition to the StarShoot, though? An unlooked for one. As you know if you’ve been reading this dadgummed blog for long, I am an occasional Lunatic. Well, I may be a fulltime Lunatic, but I am a part time Moon watcher. One of the things I always wished for was really powerful Moon-charting software for use at/with the telescope. The last few years have seen several computer programs of that sort come out, but none has been better than the freeware Virtual Moon Atlas by Patrick Chevalley and Christian Legrand.

Imagine my delight, then, to hear from Christian that he and Patrick have just released a new and substantially upgraded version of VMA; not only have they added many new features to Virtual Moon Atlas Pro 5.0, it is now available in Linux and Mac OS versions as well as Windows. It’s a big download, but it is still free, and it is incredibly powerful. Even if you’re just a casual Lunar observer, you owe it to yourself to give VMA a spin.

So, what’s next for your old Uncle? The Herschel Project will roll on, of course, both at the club dark site and at star parties. I hope to make it out to Chiefland at least once over the winter, but if that doesn’t happen, I’ll for sure be back in the spring. Spring will also bring some bookings at star parties across the good ol’ U.S. of A., somethin’ I always look forward to, since I get to have Eyeball QSOs with all y’all and look through/play with your wonderful telescopes. In toto? I’ll go out on a limb rat-cheer and predict it will be yet another wonderful year of amateur astronomy for all of us. See you there.

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