Sunday, July 25, 2010


Digital Issues

Thought we were done with the pea-picking astronomy magazines dincha? Not quite, not exactly. If you’ve read the latest installments of “The Trouble with the Magazines,” you know one of the things I get on my high horse about is the need for our astro-rags to move into the 21st Century. To begin to move away from the “printed magazine sold on the newsstand and through the mail” paradigm. Last year, I didn’t see much in the way of movement in that direction, at least not with the American monthlies. This year? Things are beginning to be different.

How so? It’s big news that Sky & Telescope is releasing DVDs containing their entire print run. That’s something many of us have wished and hoped for for years. That’s not the big digital news from S&T in this ol’ boy’s opinion. The big news, which has, strangely, not received much publicity and has not been talked about much by my brother and sister amateurs, is that you can now subscribe to a digital, online edition of Sky and ‘Scope.

Yeah, that’s big news, but Sky & Telescope is not the only magazine sticking a toe in the digital waters. The UK’s Sky at Night Magazine has been doing that for over five years, with each issue of their magazine being supplemented by a CD which has come to be an—if not indispensable—at least important part of the publication.

How about the other rags? They all have websites, and Astronomy Magazine has been selling .pdf (Adobe Acrobat) files of several of their pubs online for a while. I wouldn’t be surprised to see the Wisconsin gang offer a digital edition of the magazine Real Soon Now. But they ain’t yet.

Yeah, everybody, from SkyNews to Astronomy Technology Today has a website. Some good, some bad, some icky. That’s not enough to qualify them as digital pioneers for me, though. That takes a wee bit more. What does qualify ‘em is digital magazine editions, even simple ones. The Strolling Astronomer (the ALPO journal), and Astronomy Technology Today offer.pdf versions of their publications, and are worthy of our notice. But not this time, muchachos.

I’ll look at ATT, Strolling Astronomer, and Amateur Astronomy’s digital efforts one of these Sundays, but for now let’s concentrate on the two biggest movers/shakers, Sky & Telescope and Sky at Night.

Sky & Telescope Digital Edition

Yeah, for some reason, the good boys and girls at the little old magazine from Massachusetts seem to be keeping mum about it, but for the last six months there’s been an online edition of Sky & Telescope. I wasn’t overly surprised to get an email from them some months back advertising a subscription to the digital S&T, since they’ve been quietly experimenting with the concept for a while. Last March, they previewed the then-current issue digitally, making it available to all and sundry for free. Having had a look at that and havin’ been impressed by it, I didn’t hesitate to send Sky ‘n Scope some dineros, especially since they demanded so few. A six month online subscription is $14.50, and I got a substantial break off’n that through the email offer they sent me.

Afore long, I was lookin’ at my first electronic copy, April 2010. What did I think? I wasn’t overly surprised at the format, since my first paid issue was done the same way as the one they gave away for free in March. First off, this is not just an Adobe Acrobat file. It’s not an Acrobat file at all. It’s an Adobe Air file. Ain’t never heard of Adobe Air? I hadn’t either. The long and short of it is that it’s "A program for development of standalone web applications that run outside the functionality of your browser." What that means for the computer ignernt like your ol’ Unk, is that when you open an online issue of Sky & Telescope, it opens in a custom reader put together with Adobe Air. What’s that like?

It’s purty fancy as you can see in the screen-shot above. Not only does it yield a clear display of the pages, at least as good as what you’ll get from an Acrobat file, it offers a startlingly cute effect when you turn a page. Grab the upper or lower corner of a virtual page with your mouse, and the page actually turns to the accompaniment of a sound effect. I reckon I’m easily impressed, but I thought that was neat.

How well does this thing work for actual reading? As above, the text and images look very good, perhaps slightly better than the average Acrobat document does when zoomed in tight. In addition to a pre-set zoomed-in view, there is a “close-up,” mode, a magnifying glass tool that, when passed over the page, shows an adjustable-magnification image that can be set for up to 200% zoom via a slider.

Not that I normally had to use 200% magnification to read the words or even to examine images. I found the reader’s zoomed-in single-page mode more than comfortable to read, and never had to resort to the close-up tool. The application ran well on any computer I tried it on, including an iPod Touch. Howsomever…turning the page, whether by grabbing a corner or just mashing a page-turn icon, was not always instantaneous. Occasionally I got a little clock icon and a short wait.

What else will the reader do? The normal things, not that different from Acrobat. You can, using tabs at the bottom, access subscription info, skip to a particular page, bring up a clickable table of contents, and show (some) other issues in the “archive.” There are also two toolbars, a horizontal one at the top and a vertical one beside the page display. The top one allows you to shift between one and two-page viewing mode, save the file to your local hard drive, switch to full screen mode, access help, and search the document. The vertical bar lets you add bookmarks, send a page via email (doesn’t work for me), print, add notes, and “share” pages on Twitter, Facebook, and similar social media. That seems to work well, though I assume the recipients of your tweets will have to be subscribers to look at the S&T pages you tweet about. Other than this Twitter/Facebook functionality, the reader is familiar territory for Acrobat users, including the need to drag the zoomed page around with your mouse to read it on a normal, horizontal-format computer monitor.

The reader worked right well, but one thing disturbed me. What if the online issues go away? If the digital edition goes belly-up? I was only offered a 6-month subscription, not a 12-month one, and I don’t see much about it on the Sky & Telescope web site, so I am not completely sure how serious the magazine is about this new paradigm. Furthermore, the online version of the magazine is being done by a separate outfit, a third party called “NxtBooks;” what if they go away? Bottom line: could I save the digital issues?

Turns out I could, though the process was a little awkward. The normal way to keep a copy is to use the reader’s “save to the desktop,” function, which involves putting quite a few files on your hard drive, not just documents as with Acrobat. The plus with this save method is that you retain the functionality of the NxtBook reader. Frankly, though, for portability and ease of use, I prefer a plain old .pdf. I was happy to see the NxtBook interface does sport a “save to .pdf” function, but until recently that would not work for me. Then, just the other day, outa the blue, it became functional, and that’s how I’ve been saving my issues. You don’t get groovy animated effects and sounds, but you do get a simple format you can read on any computer.

Anyhoo, reader aside, how are the issues? They are just like the print numbers save for a few enhancements. Sure, you can search and zoom, but other than that, computer-type functionality is limited to embedded URLs and links to pages in the magazine. You can click on referenced websites or on manufacturer web pages and go straight there. You can also click on links on the cover and in the table of contents to go directly to the referenced articles. Other than that, just like the non-virtual Sky ‘n Scope.

So what good is it? There are several things I like about the Digital Edition, especially given its modest cost. It gets here at least a week before the print copy, so I get to gloat to my buddies, “Oh, you got THE MAGAZINE today? Yeah, good issue, I READ IT A WEEK BACK.” Also nice is being able to print pages I want to take into the field. It keeps me from sayin’ bad words as I try to page to “Deep Sky Wonders” by red flashlight in the middle of the night. I like being able to search, too.

It’s not all gravy, of course. I won’t give up the print Sky & Telescope. For me, Luddite that I am, it’s much more relaxing to set in my easy chair, glass o’ Rebel Yell in hand, and browse than to sit behind a dagnabbed computer. That feel’s too much like W-O-R-K. Also, I gotta say…the print version is much more useable than the digital one during your Ol’ Unk’s…ah… “mornin’ ablutions.” Anyhow,  I’ve viewed the Digital issues without a problem on my iPod Touch, and I speck the magazine will be nothing short of spectacular on the iPad.

My main gripe is that they need to go further into the digital universe with this than they have. Why shouldn’t there be embedded video and audio? Instead of the cotton-pickin’ news section, why not a vodcast? Yeah, I know, a lotta that takes time and money. But there are things that could be done cheaply. Like more links in the text, not just to websites, but notes on a particular subject, and maybe extra content. Gary Seronik’s got a hot ATM project this month? We should be able to click somewhere and bring up a set of plans. You get the idea, I reckon: I’d like to see something a wee bit more “computery” than just a print magazine that’s been digitized.

There appear to be a few bugs in the NxtBook system, too. I realized I had forgotton to save the first issue of my subscription, April 2010, and decided I'd better bring it up and do that. Alas, I found I could no longer access it: "NOT AUTHORIZED," the web page said. I emailed the NxtBook support folks, and they responded quickly with a link they thought would help. Unfortunately, that brought me the August issue, not the April one. Ah, well.

There is one other minor annoyance. Figuring out when the new issue is available seems harder than it ort-ta-be. The only way I know when the new one is in the “mailbox” is that I set up an RSS feed. That works, but I have to remember to check the RSS folder (“Newtrack/Skytelescope”) in Outlook when it gets near Sky and ‘Scope time, which I usually forget to do. What’s RSS? Don’ ask me. All I know is that you can click “subscribe to RSS feed,” in the “subscribe” tab at the bottom of the reader screen, and you’ll get a notification in Outlook (or, I assume, your email reader program of choice) when each new issue becomes available. Click on a hyperlink in that notice, and you’ll be taken right to the magazine. You can also find out when a new one is ready by clicking the “subscription” tab in any previous issue. But you have to remember to do that.

I am, believe it or not, y’all, occasionally happy to be proven wrong. Just as I finished-up this article, I received a plain, old email announcing my new digital issue was ready for the reading. Now, it was about two weeks after the fact, but it’s still a move in the right direction.

In addition to timely emails announcing new issues, it would be nice if there were a page on the Sky & Telescope website devoted to the digital edition. Where you could go to find out about your subscription status and the delivery date of the next issue. As far as I know, there is not. There is a small ad for the digital magazine on S&T’s Facebook page, and that is it.

Despite my grumpiness ‘bout a couple of things, I’m happy with the Sky & Telescope Digital Edition. It’s a couple of clicks past what the other astro-rags are doing with their electronic issues. Skypub—I mean “Newtrack Media”—honchos: please keep this going in some form. I love the digital issues; don’t snatch ‘em away now that I’ve got used to havin’ ‘em.

Sky at Night Magazine Cover CD

No, there ain’t an electronic version of Sky at Night, but they do have what’s maybe half a digital magazine in the form of the CD that’s glued to the cover of every issue. I was right surprised when I first encountered the magazine and its “Cover Disk,” but I shouldn’t have been. Take a look at any newsstand in the UK and you’ll see a fair proportion—if not a majority—of the rags on the rack are accompanied by CDs or DVDs. What’s surprising is that it took till freakin’ 2005 for an astronomy magazine to pick up on this idea.

Slam the disk into the ol’ optical drive and what do you get? First thing you get is a consarned nag screen instructing you to hit “OK” if you’ve read and assent to the User Agreement, yadda-yadda-yadda. What this is for or supposed to do other than annoy me, I don’t know. Oh, wait, I DO know: it’s just lawyer foolishness. Past that is the menu shown here, emblazoned with a picture of THE MAN. In addition to a listing of “highlights,” there’s a menu bar at the top. Let’s start a-clickin’ there.

“Film Room” is always my first stop, since it’s the main reason I fool with the CD to begin with. What’s it got? There’s a variety of short movies on various subjects; most of ‘em from NASA and the ESO, usually. I was particularly taken by the May 2010 issue’s “zoom in on the Magellanic cloud” short. That’s not the draw; the draw is Patrick Moore’s half-hour (occasionally one hour) The Sky at Night TV show. Click it open and you immediately get blasted with that famous theme music, Sibelius’ "At the Castle Gate," and if you enjoy Sir Patrick’s work as much as the Rodster always has, you are in heaven, muchachos, heaven.

Let’s face it; a Moore fanboy such as myself would be happy if the Cover Disk version of the TV show were shown in a postage stamp sized window with a squeaky monaural soundtrack. Just to be able to watch this wonderful program down here in Possum Swamp, where the dadgummed worthless PBS station won’t even give us Star Hustler (err… Star Gazer, I mean) anymore, is doubleplusgood.

I don’t have anything bad to say about the disk presentation of the program…except I don’t like to watch TV on my computer. Yeah, I know the youngsters out there in blog-land will think I am loco in my ma-go-go about that, but I just don’t. The disk’s TSAN episode used to be in a video format that could be read by a DVD player, and I could watch the show on the big screen. Recently, however, they’ve switched to a “Flash” movie kinda thing my DVD player don’t know nuttin’ about. Sky at Night folks: ain’t it time to move the disk to DVD and the show to MPEG format? PUH-LEEZE?

What’s next on the menu? Audio clips. Which can be anything; this time it’s a 2007 BBC Radio 4 program concerning the end of the British rocket development program back in the 70s. I ain’t much for sitting at the computer listening to radio shows, but this section has come in handy a couple of times when I’ve been speaking somewhere like the LSSP (Lower Slobovia Star Party) and was desperate for entertainment, any kind of entertainment, in the daytime.

The “Astro Images” menu button yields two collections of astrophotos, pro images and amateur pix (“Hot Shots”). It’s nice to see pretty astrophotos beautifully displayed on a computer screen, and the disk allows the magazine to publish many more amateur astrophotos than they otherwise would be able to. The Cover Disk’s image display program allows you to zoom, move the picture around, open it in your default imaging software, and save it to the hard drive if’n you want.

To the right of Astro Images is “Planetarium,” which constitutes my second favorite feature. What you got here is Sir Patrick and his TV show co-presenter, professional astronomer Chris Lintott, taking us on an tour of the month’s sky highlights via an animated onscreen planisphere. This is cool and there is really nothing else like it in the business. You can either sit back and listen to our friends point out the month’s highlights, or you can click on one of the circled areas of the planisphere to go to a specific portion of their commentary.

What do Patrick and Chris point out and talk about? Mostly what you get is basic stuff, but it’s appropriate for what you’d use a non-virtual planisphere for, and their reminders of WHAT’S UP and Patrick’s time-tested wisdom on same are useful no matter what your skill level. Only bringdown? By the time we get the magazine down here in the benighted ‘Swamp, near’bout a month late, Planetarium is a little (but not a lot) dated.

“Software” contains mostly freeware programs (occasionally demos or freebies of commercial ware). In May there were some old friends, Aberrator, AviStack, and Best Pair II. Nothing very new, but for those who ain’t got these excellent programs, this is a convenient way to get ‘em. The publishers are pretty good about keeping Macintosh users in mind, too, with some Apple-ware included on every disk.

There ain’t too much to “Tookit,” planetary observing forms is the main thing. These are useful, with well-executed planetary observing forms, as you’d expect from a magazine that bears the imprimatur of one of the top amateur planetary observers of all time. Only minor complaint? No Jupiter form did I see in May—there was Mars, Venus, and Saturn, but no Jupe. Come on, you-all, it’s time.

Also in the Toolkit section are software updates for go-to scopes. This is a good idea, but the Cover Disk folks need to do a better job of keeping up. They have an update for the Synta SynScan mounts like the EQ-6, yeah, but I note that what they’ve got here is version 3.11 when the software was updated to version 3.27 months back.

“Extras” don’t sound like anything too interesting, but this is the place where you find plans, pictures, and (sometimes) videos to accompany the magazine’s current ATM project. This time it’s a laptop shelter, which I reckon qualifies as an Amateur Telescope Making sorta project in this latter day.

“Glossary,” is, yeppers, a glossary of astronomical words/phrases to supplement the short list in the back of the magazine. The few dozen terms here range from “field stop” to “Abell galaxy cluster,” and I suspect will be of some interest to those of y’all still a mite damp behind your hearing appendages.

Tail End Charlie is “Magazine Links,” which is hot links to the magazine’s website, pod/vodcasts, Youtube videos, online Forums, and suchlike. Nothing too special, but it’s nice to have the links, which are scattered throughout the magazine, in one place and clickable.

So? The CD is good. I like it. I look forward to it, even if the only thing of interest to me some months is the TV program and Planetarium. For that alone, I reckon it’s worth the price of the magazine/disk package, $8.75. Sure, there’s always my o’erweening desire for More Better Gooder, but I think the Cover Disk does a good job of supplementing the magazine. Only P.O. factor for me (that’s "PUT OUT;" this here is a family-oriented blog, you-all) is, as above, I wish they’d change to DVD and let us have the TV show in MPEG format so I can enjoy Patrick’s adventures on the big screen while sipping my daily dose of Kool Aid.

Course there’s also the elephant in the living room: “When are y’all gonna give us a digital version of the magazine itself?” It would easily fit on a DVD with plenty of room left for what’s on the disk now. It could all be linked together and would be supercool. I am WAITING…

Spurious Book Review: Astronomy Magazine’s Atlas of the Stars (New Edition)

Those of y'all who know me, or at least read the blog regularly, probably realize that I am not a huge fan of the current incarnation of Astronomy Magazine. However, when they do good, I am happy to praise them, and they done good this time.

Some years back, four to be exact, I was surveying the newsstand at the Possum Swamp Wal-Mart when I ran across Astronomy Magazine’s Atlas of the Stars. Which was a magazine-format star atlas, as you mighta guessed. It was purty. It went down to magnitude 8.0. It was in color. And struck my fancy.

I had a lot of fun using the atlas, but four years of dew baths have taken their toll, with the pages looking a little curdled, and me having had to paste the cover back on a couple of times with Elmer’s Glue. If I weren’t so lazy, I would cut the thing up and put the pages in plastic protectors. Being lazy, I thought I’d just see if I could buy a fresh copy. Unfortunately, it’s outa print. But I heard Astronomy was fixing to come out with a new edition.

Didn’t spot the new one in Wally-World, but I stopped by the local Books-a-Million yesterday morning, and not only did they have the atlas, they were givin’ 20% off all day for discount card holders. That meant I walked out with my new star atlas for considerably less than the cover price of $12.95. Yeehaw!

What’s the story with the new one? It’s very much like the old one. It’s still a magazine, not a book, if a little larger than Astronomy Magazine at 9 x 10 ¾-inches. The cover and paper are also noticeably heavier than the monthly magazine’s. I do note the cover no longer claims the atlas “will last a lifetime” like the previous edition did. It might last a lifetime, but only if you never, ever take it outside for actual observing. Atlas of the Stars’ magazine heritage is immediately clear; you have to tear-out several frickin’-frackin’ response cards bound into it to make it fully usable.

Anything much different from last time? Yep, quite a lot. This is in no way just a reprint. There are 150 more deep sky objects included for a total of 1200, and the star count has gone up from 42,000 to 87,000 and a magnitude limit of 8.5. It’s not all new, however. The text sections between the charts that highlight the best deep sky objects on each map are exactly the same as last time.

What’s the practical effect of the “improvements?” I appreciate more DSOs. More stars? Not so much. The charts still look good and are reasonably legible under a red light, but the additional stars make ‘em even more cluttered than they already were. Yes, the 24 charts that span the sky pole-to-pole are all two-page spreads, but they are considerably less clear than those in Sky Publishing’s smaller format Pocket Sky Atlas, which, while it “only” goes down to magnitude 7.6, actually contains more deep sky objects than the Astronomy atlas. Pocket is the standard for smaller atlases in my humble opinion.

Which don’t mean the Astronomy atlas ain’t no good. Looking at the picture at left, you can tell I used the heck out of the last edition. No, neither it nor the new one would be my choice for star-hopping, but both are useable for that. Actually, I don’t star-hop much anymore anyhow. What I love this atlas for is as an accompaniment to my go-to scopes. For those evenings when I don’t want to lug a laptop into the field. One glance at the Atlas of the Stars, and I can see “what else” is interesting in the area of the object I’ve just punched into the hand control.

What else do I like? The two-page articles interposed between each chart that highlight the best DSOs. They haven’t been rewritten or changed in any way, but I don’t care. When I go on a spur of the moment deep sky tear with Charity Hope Valentine, my ETX 125, without knowing what I am gonna look at, these lists and descriptions and purty pix keep me a-rockin’ all night long.

What don’t I like about this little set of charts? Sorry to say, there are a few thorns to poke holes in unwary fingers. First off, if you’re after double stars, forget it. If you don’t know Gamma Andromedae is a double, the atlas won’t tell you. No double stars are indicated. If you’re as double star crazy as I have always been, that’s a fairly serious indictment.

What else? The atlas uses standard symbols for DSOs, which is a good thing. But…most nebulae are just little boxes. There are a few isophotes, but only for the bigger/brighter. And, unfortunately, their light-green color makes ‘em a little hard to see under a dim red light. Yes, I checked the atlas to see how it behaves under red illumination by ducking into Chaos Manor South’s laundry room, turning out the light, and examining the magazine with a red L.E.D. torch. Other than the nebulae, I didn’t notice any problems, but don’t take that to heart till I can try it under the stars in the real dark of night.

Unk's well-loved and used original.
My biggest peeve? They hide the frackin’ index on page 17! Let’s see…you want to go to the chart that best shows Hercules. Up front is an index, but it is a very silly index. Instead of just saying “Hercules,” the blurb for Chart 8, which is where Herc resides, is “A Showpiece Globular.” Now, most us could figger-out that that’s Hercules, but what if you want to know which chart cotton-pickin’ Lacerta the Lizard is on? Good luck, Charlie, unless you don’t mind thumbing over 17 pages to the constellation list, which is broken in half by a chart (!). Guys, this belonged on page one and in one piece.

Despite that irritant, I am fond of Astronomy’s Atlas of the Stars. No it ain’t a Tirion masterwork, but cartographer Richard Talcott has done a heck of a good job producing sky maps I can use and that I just like to look at.

Next time: There’s still plenty of Moon in the sky, and Tropical Storm Bonnie was just entering the Gulf as I finished this one up. So, no Herschel Project work this weekend. Next time I’ll inaugurate a new series, “Uncle Rod’s Telescope Academy.” See y’all then.

Sunday, July 18, 2010


Bombs and Binos

Sound like an odd combination? Not when I was the wettest behind the ears novice astronomer (and radio amateur) you can imagine. While I didn’t get a real telescope until 1965, I’d started trying to learn the sky with binoculars several years earlier. What I remember of that time, in addition to how amazing the stars looked in my 77 cent binos, was the omnipresent backdrop of the Cold War. The threat of thermonuclear annihilation is intimately associated in my mind with those first nights scanning the skies.

I’ve often said I can’t remember a time when I wasn’t interested in the Great Out There, outer space. Alas, I also can’t remember a time when I wasn’t aware we faced imminent atomic destruction. Even a four or five year old would have had to be pretty dumb not to get the Big Picture if she or he had a television to watch. You couldn’t get through a Saturday afternoon without seeing Bert, the Duck and Cover Turtle (“HEY, KIDS! WHAT DO YOU DO WHEN YOU SEE THE FLASH?”), or e’en more disturbing public service announcements. Like an oft-shown animation of a nasty, pointy-looking bomb falling on a city, which I naturally figgered was my city, leaving nothing but a mushroom cloud and smoking, radioactive rubble.

What made the situation real clear to li’l Unk wasn’t a Civil Defense PSA, but a TV show. I’m not sure what it was—I couldn’t have been more than four—it may have been a rerun of Atomic Attack, an adaptation of Judith Merril’s famous novel of nuclear war, A Shadow on the Hearth, or it may have been Playhouse 90’s film of Pat Frank’s post-apocalyptic masterpiece, Alas Babylon. What I remember to this day is the family in the picture, realizing they are in the path of approaching fallout, beginning to panic, struggling to rig some kind of shelter, wondering if stuffing rags under doors might help (shades of the latter day duct tape public relations fiasco). What I also recall is my Old Man opining that the show might be “too much for the boy,” but Mama insisting I watch.

As I said a couple of weeks back, Mama was fascinated by tales of atomic war. And not just SF stories, but the real thing. If you wanted to know about REMs and Roentgens and Protection Factors, she was your go-to gal. Given her naturally forthright nature, she couldn’t help, just couldn’t help, speaking what she perceived to be the truth, which frequently didn’t do much for my pore little psyche.

One bright 50s morning, after being subjected to yet another CD masterpiece, maybe Surviving Atomic Attack, right after Captain Kangaroo for gosh sakes, I turned to Mama and said something along the lines of, “We’re far enough from the city that we’d be OK, right?” Instead of what you might expect, a reassuring “Of course, honey,” what I got was, “Oh, no. Remember what’s at the end of Cedar Point Road, just one block over? You can see the runways of Brookley (AFB). The Russians will drop at least one HYDROGEN BOMB on it. Why, we’ll be right in the crater!

Mama was a good and loving mother, no doubt about that, but, yeah, she had her quirks, and seemed blind to the effect her pronouncements had on a somewhat timid little kid. As I mentioned a while back, she waltzed me right in to On the Beach, and took pains to make sure I understood exactly what was going on in that movie. I dunno, maybe it was her progressive streak expressing itself in a belief that children shouldn’t be lied to—though she wholeheartedly maintained the Santa Story with all its trappings. Tell y’all the truth, sometimes I wished she’d just LIE.

I was trapped between two different parenting styles, I reckon. One afternoon, Daddy and Mama and me ran up to the fascinating little convenience store on Dauphin Island Parkway for some cokes (and a comic book or two for me). Getting out of the OM’s Henry J., what should smack me in the face? A huge new billboard right alongside the store. This graphics-heavy Socialist Realism-style masterpiece, which is locked in my memory still, showed an enormous, vividly colored mushroom cloud in all its frightening majesty. In the foreground was a little 50s family: Dad, Mom, Bud, Sis. The artist had managed to paint their faces with convincing looks of horror. The billboard’s simple legend? “Don’t wait until it’s too late.”

Naturally, I turned to the OM and axed, “Daddy, can we get a fallout shelter?” which was just the effect, I’m sure, the construction company who’d erected this terrifying thing hoped for. Daddy clapped a hand on my shoulder and made everything OK with, “Don’t worry about it, sport. Ain’t gonna happen.” Or he would have made everything alright if Mama hadn’t felt the need to chirp-up with “Remember what I told you about THE CRATER? A fallout shelter wouldn’t help us, baby.” Gee, thanks, Mom. I like to think the OM at least gave her a dirty look.

If I needed my anxiety kicked up another notch, my elementary school, Adelia Williams, managed that very handily with the dog tags they issued us when I was in first grade. Yep. Military-style dog tags. When I asked my wonderful teacher, Miss Franklin, whom I adored, “What for?” she smiled her brilliant smile and said us boys and girls shouldn’t worry. It was just so the AUTHORITIES could help us find our parents in the unlikely event SOMETHING HAPPENED. I wanted to believe her…but… I figgered what one of the sixth grade girls of my acquaintance—the Rodster always did have a thing for older women—told me at recess was likely more accurate, “Oh, no, honey, it’s so they can identify our BODIES.”

Right after the dawn of the 1960s, we moved away from Ground Zero, though not because of Mama’s pronouncements about The Crater and the HYPOCENTER. That may have been one of her motivations, but I believe she and the OM had just decided it was time for us to leave our working class 50s neighborhood and strike out for the greener pastures of 60s suburbia.

If Mama had thought she was escaping the big Russian two-stage jobs, she was to be disappointed. Not long after we settled in, the commies blew off a three-stager, a 50 megaton monster, Czar Bomba, way up yonder at Novaya Zemlya. Such an awesomely huge thing made the scant ten miles we’d put between us and the Air Force base laughable. The Big Bomb, which was actually detonated at a reduced yield from its 100 megaton potential (by wisely replacing the U238 in its secondary with lead), was not a practical, deployable weapon, but us little folks—by which I mean Mama and Daddy and everybody we knew—didn’t know that; all we knew was the Russkies had one big enough to get us no matter where we went.

The Czar, which was tested for the one and only time in late ’61, was probably why Duck and Cover made a comeback after dying with the 50s. Well, the Berlin Crisis of earlier that year probably had something to do with it, too. Don’t ask me how running into the hall of your elementary school or diving under your desk or hiding in a basement (if we’d had basements in Possum Swamp) would protect you from 100 or 50 or even 25 or 10 megatons of H-bomb hell. I thought it faintly ridiculous even then, and so did most folks, I reckon, since the fallout shelter’s second vogue was brief.

The tail end of 1961 was probably the height of both the country’s Civil Defense madness and my nuclear fear. After Berlin came to a half-hearted resolution, the Czar had blown his stack, and we and the Soviets at least began to inch toward an end to atmospheric testing, the duck and cover drills and the Civil Defense PSAs began to taper off. Yeah, October 1962 and the Cuban Missile Crisis brought a brief reprise of the whole sorry business, but the excitement (for want of a better word) didn’t last. Most of us had decided to stop worrying even if we couldn’t learn to love The Bomb. We had no choice but to live with the H-bomb, and set about doing that.

Which Unk tried to adopt as his outlook, too. Yeah, when the siren next to Kate Shepard Elementary went off at 12pm every Friday, I still got the willies (“What if the Russians decide to attack at noon on Friday to fool us?!”). Luckily, most of the time I was more interested in normal kid things, and was mostly tired of and bored of the H-bomb like everybody else. While I'll admit I was petrified during President Kennedy’s famous Cuba speech, I was also spitting mad that a rerun of Mr. Lucky, a show the little Rodster mucho admired for its sophisticated milieu, had been preempted.

On the penultimate Saturday of the Cuban Missile Crisis, Mama insisted I go to work with Daddy at the TV station’s transmitter across the bay (“You’ll be outside the worst blast rings,” Mama said). I was more put-out than scared. I had been looking forward to playing in the yard with the kids next door all day and looking at the stars when the day was gone.

No, I can’t remember a time I wasn’t curious about the night sky—and Mama undoubtedly was the reason for that. In addition to her interest in nuclear weaponry, war, and brinksmanship, she was into space, at least in the abstract. She, aided and abetted by the OM, made sure I had a subscription to the Science Service’s little paperback books, many of which were about space travel and astronomy, before I could even read. I had been particularly taken with one volume, Universe, due to the Find-a-Star planisphere bound into its center. For the longest time, all I could do was look at this pretty star wheel in the daytime. Once I was a little older and had moved to suburbia, though, I got a chance to use it.

Do younguns still campout in the backyard? If they don’t, what a shame. We sure had fun doing it, me and the boys next-door. A summer night, a few seven and eight-year-olds, a tent made from patio chairs or a picnic table covered with a plastic sheet, or maybe just some blankets laid-out in the backyard made for a wonderful evening’s entertainment. Or part of one. When we were small, we barely lasted till after sunset, till somebody just had to tell a ghost story, and somebody else suddenly remembered The Flintstones was about to come on, and we’d all better go inside.

When we were a wee bit older, our campouts lasted a little longer, if not usually all night. Long enough to lie back on those blankets (who owned a real sleeping bag?) and stare up at the stars in their multitudes. One night, I had a brainstorm. Why not go get my Find-a-Star? At first it was hard to read the planisphere without blinding myself with one of our big Eveready flashlights (“rabbit lights,” we called ‘em). Then I got another idea: I had a new flashlight, one I’d got that very Saturday morning in the toy aisle of S.H. Kress when I was dragged along on one of Mama’s epic shopping trips. Then as now, I was for some reason fascinated by flashlights, and this one was super-cool. It had red, green, and blue filters you could switch-in. I found that with the red one in place I could, almost magically, read the star finder and still see the stars.

At first I was badly confused by all those stars. Till I glommed onto the fact that the constellation patterns in the sky were much larger than those on my chart. I couldn’t find Hercules to save my life, but I could trace the Big Dipper, the Little Dipper, and, coming up over in the east, just over our house, Little Lyra with beautiful blue Vega. I was absolutely thunderstruck that I was seeing more than just the usual jumble of stars; I was finally seeing the constellations. Heck, I’d even learned the names of two bright stars, Polaris (the North Star!) and Vega.

In true amateur astronomer fashion, I wanted more; I just wasn’t sure how to get it. Until the late summer afternoon Daddy and Mama took me to Atlantic Mills. Atlantic Mills was, despite its name, not a mill of any kind; it was a primordial Walmart. What set it apart in my estimation was the toy department. Not only was its inventory extensive, it had a huge selection of items for the peculiar price of 77 cents. It was rather difficult for me to come up with even 77 cents, but I could usually cadge a few quarters off the OM with the promise that I’d behave and not whine about going home until Mama was well and truly Done Looking.

Wouldn’t you know it? In spite of the six bits rattling around in my pocket, I couldn’t find much of interest this time out. Usually, what I was after would be a bag or box of plastic army men or spacemen (better) from the old Multiple Plastics toy company, but none of that appealed at the moment. Oh, the Marx Atomic Missile Base Playset was finer than split frog hair, but it was five  dollars--which was birthday, if not Christmas range. Then I came upon a shelf full of 77 cent binoculars. Hmmm…might come in handy when playing army or Jungle Jim. Or…didn’t I dimly remember something about looking at the sky with binoculars in one of my astronomy books?

Nobody was more surprised than me that these plastic binocs actually did what I longed for and showed me a little more of the night sky. I don’t remember much about ‘em other than the fact that they Looked Like Real Binoculars and had real glass lenses, but in retrospect I believe they were probably composed of two little Galilean telescopes. For under a dollar, even in those deflated days, I would guess the prism housings were just for show and didn’t really contain prisms.

Which was probably the reason for the only disappointing thing about ‘em, their very narrow field. Nevertheless, not only did they at least hint at craters on the Moon—if not really show ‘em—they did show many more stars than I could see with my eyes alone, especially on summer nights when I scanned to the south, or on winter eves when I pointed toward Orion and his Milky Way—which was still visible in our neighborhood all through the 60s. I believe I even spied the Great Andromeda Nebula (as most of my books referred to it) one fall night, though I did not have a clue what I was a-looking at.

I loved those little binoculars and kept ‘em for years, using them to help me see Comet Ikeya-Seki in 1965. In fact, I treasured them up until they were lost in one of my many moves in the 1970s – 1980s. One thing’s certain; they were my only pair for quite a while. Oh, Daddy had half a pair of binoculars, an expensive monocular, but you can bet your bippie I wasn’t allowed to touch that. Frankly, from the mid 60s on, I was more interested in real telescopes than binoculars, anyhow.

I didn’t get another pair, my first real pair, until 1976, when I was attending the Air Force’s ICBM school at Sheppard AFB in Wichita Falls, Texas (how I got involved in the thermonuclear war business is a story in itself). Naturally, I didn’t have a scope with me. My Pal, my Edmund 4-inch Palomar Junior, was back in Possum Swamp. I thought, however, that a pair of binoculars, at least, might help make the awesome Comet West even more awesome. Strolling the aisles of the BX, my eyes lighted on a reasonably priced pair of Tasco 10x50s. I was wary of Tasco after my bad experience with my first scope, a puke-inducing 3-inch Tasco reflector, but this Tasco product seemed impressive. Solidly built, on the heavy side. The images it showed of the inside of the Base Exchange were, to my binocular-novice eyes, outstanding.

And they did make Comet West look better, as if that spectacle needed improvement. What amazed me, though, was what they did for the deep sky. That summer, I brought them along on a camping trip to the Wichita Mountains State Park, just up over the state line in Oklahoma and extremely dark. Not only could I pick out any globular cluster I turned ‘em on, what was most incredible was what they did for the summer Milky Way. Oh. My. God. The spout of the teapot was spitting stars and star clouds and star clusters wrapped in nebulae.

It was then I realized binoculars ain’t just a telescope substitute; they are a completely different experience, a wide field view of the heavens you can experience comfortably with two eyes, sometimes with the added beauty of pseudo 3-D views. Even without 3-D illusions, using two eyes is more comfortable than using one.

I didn’t go binocular crazy. I didn’t go out and buy a Zeiss or Nikon pair, but I did use those Tascos frequently, including on Halley, till the end of the 80s. Hell, I’d probably be using them still if I hadn’t foolishly lent them to my brother, who promptly dropped them on the concrete floor of the Municipal Auditorium at a fracking Foghat concert. (My fault, I shoulda known better.) I missed the 7x50s, but didn’t get around to replacing them until it was time for another comet, Hyakutake.

With Hyakutake here and that other aitch comet, Hale-Bopp, thundering in, I decided it was time for new binoculars. Again, I didn’t buy the expensive spread. I reckon I’m just not a Zeiss kinda guy. I went down to good, old Wal-Mart and picked up a pair of Simmons 10x50s, which taught me two things: how far Chinese optics had come by the mid-90s, and that a little extra magnification, 10x vice 7x, makes a binocular much more useful for astronomy. That added power equates to “dimmer objects,” and for most astronomical use I eschew 7x50s.

Since then, binos have multiplied like rabbits ‘round Chaos Manor South. In addition to the Simmons 10x50s, there’s the Canon 8x30s I picked-up used, and some ancient Bushnell Sportview 7x35s from lord-knows-where. We’ve also got a couple Dorothy, with her star party raffle prowess, has accumulated: Celestron 10x50s and (finally) some high-toned glasses, Canon 8x32 roof prism binos. How about larger aperture? Every amateur wants, bigger, right? I bought a pair of 15x70s from Bill Burgess at ALCON 2003 for a song.

Which pair gets used the most? The Simmons just keep on truckin’ year after year, delivering comets and the basic wonders of the sky. Miss Dorothy’s roof prism Canons are fantastic, yielding beautiful images as only expensive (to me) binoculars can. And yet…what gets pulled out most is the humble Burgesses. They are not fancy, just Chinese imports, but the optics are excellent, not much worse than Fujinon 16x70s. They are also lighter than the Fujinons, though they are rubber armored. Their 15x and generous aperture allows me to see a lot even in the city. Yes, a 20x80 pair might show a little more, but they’d be too heavy to handhold for long, and a binocular mount would never get used around here.

I’ve often said I wouldn’t see much most summers without the Burgess binoculars and my StarBlast Dob. It’s sometimes so miserable down here for months on end—bugs, heat, humidity—that it would take something mind-blowing to get me out of the house with a C8. I still see plenty every summer, though. With the 15x70s and the wee Dob near the backdoor, I’ve caught lots of little comets and plenty of other cool stuff besides. Usually with the 15x70s, since I often don’t even feel like fooling with the StarBlast after a day in the salt mines—err… “Shipyard.” Grab the binoculars, run out for five minutes of looking, run back in and grab a cold “sarsaparilla.” A binocular mount does not fit that style of observing.

Which is not to say I never use binoculars at dark sites. Yeah, I’m usually all fired-up about serious telescope work like the Herschel Project, but even then I like to take breaks and scan the sky between swigs of Monster Energy Drink. It was a Real Good Thing I brought the 15x70s to Chiefland, Florida in November of 2007, when Comet Holmes was in flower. It had looked real nice in binoculars and telescopes from home, but under the dark skies of the CAV the Burgesses showed that weird comet as it was meant to be seen: an enormous 3-D globe in a huge low-power field bursting with stars.

What’s that? You ain’t got a pair of any kind? Let’s rectify that. You’ll thank me later. First up is the question of size. You can get big these days, as with the Celestron Skymaster line, for a miniscule amount. I mean…I mean...a pair of 20x80s for 140 bucks and 25x100s for 350 (!). These are pretty good quality Chinese binoculars, too, and if you are after biguns, you could do worse. But I don’t advise that to begin with. You want a pair you can hand-hold. That means 10x50s or—tops—15x70s.

Whichuns do I like lately? I used to really admire the Celestron Ultima 9x63 glasses. Little bigger in aperture than 10x50s, but still light and manageable and fantastically good. The Ultima series seems to have been discontinued, but 9x63s are still around as part of the SkyMaster series. I highly recommend Orion’s 10x50 UltraView binoculars, too. Unfortunately the Celestrons will set you back a cupla C-notes, and the Orions are almost as much. What if you, like me, balk at over a hundred bucks for binoculars? You can lowball it, but be careful. Nothing is more useless and aggravating than a pair of bad el cheapos. I’m tempted to tell you to at least not go much under 100 bucks; can fix you right up with a great pair of 10x50s for about that price.

You really do need cheaper? Maybe 50 – 60 bucks? You can get a decent pair at WallyWorld for that, but it’s not as easy as it used to be for a couple of reasons. One being that the uber-cheapos, like the horrors advertised on late-night TV, have, to some extent, pushed the better ones out. Oh, you can find OK 10x50s branded as “Tasco” or “Barska,” but lately they are often sealed in plastic bubble packs, meaning you can’t try ‘em in the store, which is vital with cheap binos (more on that in a minute). For god’s sake, stay away from any binoculars with ruby lenses. The ruby coloring is there for only one reason: to suppress chromatic aberration and other defects in bad optics.

You don’t want 10x50s, you want a big boy’s binocs, 15x70s? Celestron’s SkyMaster 15x70s are insanely good given their miniscule price of less than a hundred dollars. What I really, really like, though, is’s 15x70 Oberwerk glasses at 150. Money burning a hole in your pocket? You cain’t do much better than the Fujinon FMT-SX 16x70s. Their only fault—other than their price tag—is that they are a little heavier than similar Chinese binoculars. They are still quite handholdable, though, as handholdable as 70mm binoculars ever get, anyhow.

What should you check when you have the opportunity to test binoculars at the store or after the Brown Truck drops ‘em off? First and foremost, that they are in collimation. Set the interpupillary distance correctly—adjust the distance between the two halves of the binoculars for your eyes; the field should appear as a single, round circle, not the figure 8 you see on the TV or in the movies. Then, take a look to see if the images are perfectly merged.

How exactly do you do that? The most stringent test is to observe a medium bright star like Polaris. It should be immediately obvious if the binoculars are right. If they are not, you will see two stars rather than one, at least briefly, as soon as you put your eyes to the eyepieces. No stars on the ceiling of the dadgum Wal-Mart? Focus on a distant object in the store. Keep both eyes open and cover one objective with your hand. Pull it away as you look. Do you see two images of everything until your eyes compensate and merge ‘em? If so, put ‘em back. Yes, if the binoculars are not too far out, your eyes can compensate, but that will eventually lead to eye strain or even headaches. If your mail-order binos make everything a double star, send ‘em right back. Binoculars can be collimated, but even simple adjustments are prob’ly not for tyros.

What else? The binoculars should be sturdily built given their price. Eschew any with zoom, as those are just about useless for astronomy due to narrow fields and often poor optical quality. Also pass by any binoculars marked “permanent focus” or some such. They have a fixed focus, which means everything, close and far, will almost be in focus, but not quite. Finally, if you can get a pair with a tripod socket, do so, just in case you, unlike me, want a binocular mount at some point. The socket will usually be covered by a little plastic screw-off cap on the forward end of the shaft that holds the binocular halves together.

There’s a lot more the educated binocular buyer should know than I have space for. Roof or porro prisms? What kind of roof or porro prisms? How about coatings? And so on and so forth. There’s a lotta good information on binoculars for astronomy on the web, but one of the more better gooder binocular faqs I’ve seen is on the website. Better still is what I consider the standard work for binocular astronomy, my buddy Phil Harrington’s Touring the Universe Through Binoculars. Not only does this book have succinct guidelines on what to get, most of it is a wonderful tour of the night sky for binoculars that will edumacate you as to what your new glasses can do.

And they can do a lot. There’ve been quite a few times I’ve been under dark skies without a telescope, but with 10x50s, usually when I’m speaking at a distant star party. You know what? I’ve never really missed a scope on these occasions. One example was a year at the Almost Heaven Star Party on top of a mountain in West Virginia. The dark and pristine skies allowed the Celestron 10x50s to deliver everything from M101 on down. Hell, Andromeda looked more like a galaxy than I’ve seen it look in any scope. Not only could I see a dark lane, the usually somewhat shy M110 stood out like a sore thumb.

I can’t promise you M31 will look like that from your backyard or even from your club site, even in larger binos, but I do guarantee you will find uses for binoculars and will come to love them. No, I will probably never be a binocular connoisseur, but I have come a fur piece since the days of the plastic binoculars that took my mind off megatons and megadeaths. I don’t ever want to return to the outré days when little kids brooded about being immolated at any moment, but I wouldn’t mind at least a brief return to the blanket on the freshly mown backyard, the new binoculars, and those wonderful new stars.

Another Year Older Department… 

What’s goin’ on round the Old Manse? Well, one thing that ain’t going on is observing. I had hopes, maybe not high hopes, but hopes nevertheless, last weekend. But as the day progressed, the frickin-frackin’ Clear Sky Clock started getting worse rather than better. In short order, my plans went from “Herschel Project,” to “a little visual work with the C8,” to “it’s a Charity Hope Valentine night.” Unfortunately, ol’ Unk had the temerity to put Charity, our ETX 125, out in the front parlor early in the afternoon, which so angered the weather gods that it immediately started raining. This weekend the Moon’s back in the sky. Sigh.

Ain’t all doom and gloom ‘round Chaos Manor South, though. It’s, as you might have divined from the above ancient photo of Unk-as-sprout, Rod’s birthday (naw, I ain’t gonna tell you which one). What did I get? Well, for one thing,  I’ve gifted myself with a bottle of Rebel Yell.  After all, they say the best gift is one you will use, right?

Sunday, July 11, 2010


The Herschel Project Night 11: 383 Down, 17 to Go

Sometimes, usually when I least expect it, the Sky Gods throw me a bone,  muchachos. But I sure didn’t look for one this past Saturday night. Man, it’s July in Possum Swamp. What does that mean? Heat. Humidity. Bugs. Clouds. With a low off the Florida Panhandle and the remnants of Tropical Storm Alex still hanging on in the Gulf, we’d be lucky to just have “cloudy.” “Violent thunderstorms” more likely.

The dadgummed Clear Sky Clock gadget I’ve got on the kitchen computer’s desktop seemed to be acquiring more blue squares as Saturday morning came and went, but I still smelled S-K-U-N-K-E-D. Nevertheless, by Saturday afternoon I’d begun to consider my agenda if I did happen to get in some hours. Even if the sky cooperated, I knew I’d have to contend with an Old Moon in the sky after midnight. What could I do in about three or four hours?

Mostly, I could try to do the remaining dozen Herschel II’s in Hydra. I knew good and well I’d be unlikely to get ‘em all, since the sky wouldn’t be dark enough for even the Stellacam to pick up the Water Snake’s 12th – 13th magnitude galaxies until most were gone. If I could gather even a couple, though, I’d be ahead of the game, and wouldn’t have to stay up quite as late/early come Hydra’s eastern reappearance late this fall.

What else? The summer constellations, some of ‘em, still needed to be visited: part of Serpens, Sagittarius, Vulpecula, and Libra all contained Herschel IIs I’d yet to log. If I made my way through that, there’d still be the Big Enchilada to work on, the Herschel 2500.

I haven’t said much about the 2500 part of the Herschel Project here, not yet, but I am continuing to pursue the big list, the complete Herschel, all those objects—not quite 2500, actually—that were recorded by William and Caroline, and which went on to form the spine of the NGC. I am little more than ¼ of the way into the big list, and there is plenty to do at any time of night.

So, I sat and waited for the weather gods to make up their cruel minds. By the time five o’clock rolled around, and were still talking “partly cloudy,” but when I wandered out onto the front porch for a look-see, the sky was blue in all directions. Time to get a move on.

The bridge of my personal starship.
The night’s telescope? Weather still looked a mite unsettled, and covering the Sun’s disk with my fist revealed a significant glow around it that’s indicative of haze. C8 and Stellacam II it would be again. Yeah, there’s a penalty for using the Stellacam in that it multiplies the amount of gear I have to drag to the dark site, but the reward is well worth the pain, even the pain of lugging all that stuff back in the house at three a.m.

With the C8/Stellacam combo, 13th and 14th and even (small) 15th magnitude galaxies are nothing. I may have to crank up the gain on the camera if the skies ain’t what they oughta be, and the resulting video may not be too pretty, but I get to see a lot—including spiral detail in nondescript galaxies that would likely elude a telescope three times the size of Celeste, my C8. Yes, the C11 might show even more, but The C8 and her CG5 mount are a lot less of a handful and an excellent compromise for shorter runs, as this one would no doubt be.

The trip out to the PSAS darksite in Tanner-Williams was uneventful. I left Chaos Manor South at 6:15 to give myself plenty of time to set up all the Astro Stuff, and headed west to the accompaniment of Miles Davis’ Birth of the Cool. I couldn’t help noticing the western half of the sky was completely cloud-free. That is usually a good sign, since most of our weather systems move west to east. With the mess off Florida in the picture, however, I knew it was unlikely to be quite that simple this evening.

Setup was not a pain. The thoughtful folks who own our observing site, a private airfield, had mowed the grass in the area where we set up the scopes, and that made everything more pleasant. It meant that when I (inevitably) dropped a small part, I’d actually be able to find it. It also meant the bugs were a little less troublesome. Nevertheless, the first thing I did was pull the observing table out of the car and plunk my Thermacell down on it.

What’s a Thermacell? If you live where insects make summertime observing miserable, it’s the best “astronomy” accessory you’ll have run across in years. It’s a small gadget, a little larger than a TV remote control. There’s a grill on the front that holds a pad saturated with a natural insecticide, Allethrin, which is derived from chrysanthemum flowers. This pad is heated by a disposable butane cartridge, and disperses a small but sufficient amount of insecticide, enough to keep over 200 square feet bug-free.

How well does it work? Tremendously well for me. It is especially efficacious with mosquitoes. After the Thermacell has been running for about 10-minutes, they are just gone. It doesn’t seem quite as effective with gnats—it takes longer to shoo them away, but eventually they will leave, too. In my experience, and the experience of the many amateur astronomers who’ve been using the Thermacell for the last few seasons, it is harmless to optics, humans, and pets. It don’t even kill the bugs, just runs ‘em off. The odor it emits is noticeable but not unpleasant, and it frees me from having to slather-on the DEET based repellents. DEET may harm optical coatings, and will most assuredly melt plastic. Do you really want that stuff on your skin? Didn’t think so. Get down to Wally-World or the Bass Pro shop and get a Thermacell.

Skeeters warded-off, it was time to ready the telescope and mount. For once, all went smoothly for me, but just as I finished securing Celeste to the CG5, I heard, “Uncle Rod! HALP!” Seemed as how my fellow CG5er and PSAS member, Joe, was having a hard time with his rig. No matter what he did, the mount was dead as a doornail. No red light. Hand control display didn’t illuminate. Nuttin’ honey.

As I’ve said more’n once, most recently in my last Herschel Project Report, the CG5 is, if nothing else, reliable. I’ve never had a major problem with mine over the five years I’ve owned it. That doesn't mean it’s perfect, but the two problems the CG5 is most prone to suffer are easy to rectify. One of these problems is shared by just about every Celestron go-to telescope: the power cord’s connector fits too loosely in the receptacle on the mount. The connection is poor, and a NexStar can lose power or reset its computer right outa the blue. Annoying. Very annoying. Fortunately, the solution is simple. The mount’s plug has a pin that’s in two halves. Spread those pin-halves apart a little with a small knife, and the connection much improved and the problem banished.

The other sin the CG5 is heir to concerns the tiny power switch on its control panel. After a while, usually years but sometimes months, this switch goes bad and the mount will not power-up. Joe’s scope was stone cold, and I figured his switch was the likely culprit. We did check the batteries and power cord, but no dice, which left the fricking-fracking switch. A little (actually a lot) of exercising eventually brought it back to life.

He was good to go for the evening, but what about thereafter? Some folks replace the CG5 power switch. Some jumper across it. Others, who are as lazy as I am, just leave it on after power is restored (maybe after blowing it out good with some canned air), and thereafter turn the mount on and off by plugging and unplugging the power cord. That’s what I’ve done for several years with no problem.

Joe’s night saved, it was time to for me to light-off the C8, since the bright stars were now peeping-out. Booted-up the computer and started NexRemote. Unlike last time, there were no dumb mistakes on Unk’s part, and the go-to and polar alignments went smoothly. The last couple of Calibration Stars were dead center in the C8’s eyepiece when the scope’s slew ended, a good sign. I figgered it would be a real sweet evening. That’s what I figured—till I looked at the sky.

The weather had looked pretty good at sundown. Some lingering haze, but nothing that would be a show-stopper. Until now. As I’d finished working on Joe’s mount, I’d noticed some clouds along the eastern horizon. As I done told y’all, that’s usually not a worry. Tonight, with a tropical low sitting off the Florida Panhandle, it was a different story. The dratted gray things were soon moving toward the west at full speed. What to do? I got the Stellacam mounted and focused-up in record time and headed for Hydra before the wily Snake disappeared over the horizon or clouds caught up with him.

What can I say? I tried. Got a couple of the dozen remaining cosmic dust bunnies, anyway, which was better than nothing, I reckon. The rest were long gone behind the distant tree line…


Despite its position low on the western horizon, magnitude 12 NGC 5078 (H.II.566) is impressive. This 3.2 x 1.0’ edge-on SA(s)a is accompanied by a little fuzzball of a galaxy, IC 879, which is 2’22” to the northwest. The main galaxy sports a bright core and a beautiful dust lane.

NGC 4105 (H.II.865) is one of a pair of galaxies about 1’ apart, the other being NGC 4106. On both the POSS plate and on the monitor, 4105 shows what appears to be a stream of stars perhaps drawn-off by interaction with its buddy. NGC 4105, an E3 elliptical of magnitude 11.6, is a good 2.7’ across.

With clouds now covering most of the sky, it was break time, if not time to start thinking about packing it in and packing it up. I wasn’t quite ready to throw in the towel, though. There was a nice breeze aborning, and the clouds were moving rapidly. Heck, there was even a hint of “cooler and drier” in the air. I suspected it would eventually get better, for a while, at least.

While waiting, I found a star field in the clear and touched-up my focus, which, even given the punk seeing, was a wee bit soft. Yeah, I’d used the Bahtinov mask to focus, but I’d been lazy (my middle name) about it. My last mount-calibration star was Albireo, which I used for focusing. I figgered I had got the diffraction spikes properly aligned despite the interfering patterns of the double’s companion star. Nope. That’ll larn me: focus is very important with the small-chip Stellacam; do not take shortcuts or hurry.

For once, my optimism wasn’t misplaced. The sky cleared up just after 9:30pm, and—y’all ain’t gonna believe this—the light wind felt as if it had a touch of fall in it. In July. In Possum Swamp. I almost wished I’d brought a jacket. Anyhoo, soon as the clouds scudded off I got to work on Libra, the Claws of the Scorpion (no fooling; in days of yore the Balance formed the claws of Scorpius)…


NGC 5812 (H.I.71) is a round fuzzie-wuzzie of an elliptical galaxy 2’ in diameter. It is in the field with several small galaxies, the most prominent of which is magnitude 15.1 IC 1084, 4’52” to the east.

NGC 5861
NGC 5861 (H.II.192) is attractive. It’s elongated with a bright center, and spiral detail is obvious, including one prominent arm. This feature of this SAB is only visible when the seeing, which is not too good, settles down.

An SABc spiral galaxy, NGC 5605 (H.III.120), is near face-on and fairly small, 1.5’ in size. It does display tightly wrapped arms at times.

NGC 5878 (H.III.736) is a pretty SBb with a bright core and a little spiral detail. A magnitude 16 star is 46” south of the nucleus and easily visible.

Magnitude 13 NGC 5757 (H.III.690) is surprisingly good. Intermediate in orientation and set in a field rich with stars. Bright core and extensive oval outer envelope.

The next two objects, NGC 5595 (H.III.121) and NGC 5597 (H.III.122), form a close pair, 4’9” apart. 5595 is the more interesting of the two. It’s a strongly elongated SABc, and shows two stark spiral arms. NGC 5597 is rounder and doesn’t give up its more tightly wound arms as easily, though they are sometimes visible.

In long exposure images, NGC 5728 (H.I.184) shows some dim, outlying, M81-like arms, but on my monitor I’m only seeing the central areas of this SA. While some traces of its spiral nature comes through once in a while, that is fairly fleeting. I can see the magnitude 15 star that lies 57” south of the center of the galaxy.

NGC 5791 (H.III.691), a magnitude 12.6 E6 elliptical, is the brighter of two close galaxies; the other being IC 1081, which is 2’40” to the northeast. The target object is bright and strongly elongated, 2.6 x 1.4’.

I’d tackled some of the Snake Head’s galaxies while I was Down Chiefland Way; now it was time to finish up…


NGC 5970 (H.II.76) is a small SBc barred spiral. Very nice—bright, elongated core. I can barely make out some suggestion of tight arms.

NGC 6070 (H.III.553) is, on its POSS picture, a good looking SAcd multi-arm spiral. With the C8 and Stellacam I can easily see its patchy armed nature. Large, 3.5x1.9’, and bright at magnitude 12.45. Looks a lot like a miniature Sunflower Galaxy.

With Chiron the Centaur finally out of the Possum Swamp light dome, it was time to visit his Herschel IIs, which are not as numerous as you might guess…


At 10’ across, NGC 6596 (H.VIII.55), an open cluster, is just about indistinguishable from the background star field. I can identify the group with the aid of a POSS plate from SkyTools 3, but it is not obvious.

The same goes for NGC 6507 (H.VIII.53). This magnitude 9.6 galactic cluster is even bigger, 14’, and fills the screen. Slewing around a bit does allow me to see the star-count drops off at the edge of this elongated mass of suns.

Palomar 9
NGC 6717 (H.III.143) is the famous globular cluster Palomar 9, a loose magnitude 8.4 dab of stars 5.4’ across its major axis. It would be easier to make-out what’s going on with it if it weren’t for a magnitude 4.98 field star a mere 1’50” to the north. Decent resolution, with numerous stars visible.

Then ‘twas off to the Little Fox to finish the last set of Herschel IIs before fall/winter: two distinctly blah open clusters…


Vulpecula’s NGC 6800 (H.VIII.21) is a small, 5’, open cluster. Not well detached from the rich background.

NGC 6793 (H.VIII.81) is much the same. Maybe a little more identifiable, but not much. The field is not as rich as that of 6800, but this cluster is less rich as well. One notable triangle of brighter stars.

It was still absurdly early, not quite eleven, so I needed something to do until Moonrise. “What” was obvious: that Big Enchilada. The natural place to continue with that on this eveninf was Boötes. By the time I finished my Herschel IIs, the Herdsman and his galaxies were west of the Meridian and well away from the light pollution.

Did I say “galaxies”? Yep. Many folks don’t realize it, but Boötes, who is near Coma and away from the Zone of Avoidance, after all, is just chock-full of ‘em. The Herschel list, the complete list, contains, believe it or no, over 100 Boötes objects. I didn’t get ‘em all, but at least I made a right good dent in them. I ain’t gonna make you read through my haul; many of them were “round, fuzzy, 13th magnitude,” but quite a few of the Herdsman's island universes are surpassingly beautiful, and it’s not too late to catch ‘em.

Eventually, Luna was up high up enough to become a pain, and we called it. The evening had gone smooth, real smooth for me. No major mistakes. No Mothman. No Skunk Ape. I’d used the same telescope/mount combo I’d used the week before, which had made set up and operation much easier. Will it be “three in a row” for the C8/CG5 this coming weekend? Don’t know. From where I sit right now, under the rain and clouds generated by another low, this one off Louisiana, it seems doubtful. But I was skeptical this past Saturday, and it turned out to be one of my better summertime observing runs since last July’s Chiefland expedition. NO, you never can tell.

Next time: I look forward to getting back to visual work this fall with my 12-inch Dobsonian, Old Betsy. I pull-in lots and lots of targets with the SCTs and the Stellacam, but when the weather turns cool and crisp, I yearn for an experience more like those of the Herschels: quiet night, quiet stars, quiet telescope. I do not, I’ll admit, want to reproduce all of William and Caroline’s nights…there was that time the ink they were using for note-taking froze in its bottle. But after sitting under stagnant high pressure domes yielding heat indexes over 100 for months, even that doesn't sound bad.

Spurious Book Review: The Georgian Star

Not too long after I conceived of the Herschel Project, it occurred to me I didn’t know as much about William and his sister as I could or should—especially if my project might turn into a book someday. I set about to rectify that by, at first, going back to the original or near original source material: Collected Scientific Papers by the man himself, and Sis’ Memoirs of Caroline Herschel. While not ponderous by any means (well, parts of Collected Papers are, I reckon), both these are antique in nature and not every general reader’s cuppa. What else is there?

If you’d like to learn more about astronomy’s most famous brother-sister act, have I got the read for you: Michael Lemonick’s The Georgian Star. It is short, it is snappy, and it’s just a lot of fun. I finished the book in two short sessions last May down at Chiefland, and was left more than satisfied. The whole story—well almost—is there, and when you’re done, you’ll have at least a sense of what Wilhelm and Carolina were all about.

If there’s a single down-check for the book, it’s that, while Lemonick does a good job of delineating the basics of his subjects’ characters, we are left in the dark about their motivations. The Caroline of this book is at least partially a mystery. On the other hand, the author resists the temptation to over-psychoanalyze the Herschels, and, in some folks’ opinion, that’s all to the good. Otherwise, Lemonick is a talented science writer and seems well-grounded in telescopes and the sky.

Most noteworthy is the author’s focus on the changes Herschel rung down on astronomy. When he began, the science was mostly descriptive in nature with much of its focus being on astrometry. Herschel was more interested in the “hows” and the “whys” than just the “whats.” As Lemonick concludes, he was, in some sense, the first Astrophysicist.

In short? This book is a goodie. If you are interested in the Herschels’ amazing story, you could do way worse. It’s part of Norton’s Great Discoveries series and is readily available on

Sunday, July 04, 2010


Night of the Green M42

I’m not known as a Dobsonian kinda guy, muchachos. I’ll admit most of my observing life has been spent using, dreaming about, and talking about Catadioptric telescopes, mostly SCTs. But that does not mean I haven’t owned a few Dobs over the years, including one from that first commercial maker of the simple alt-az telescopes, Coulter Optical.

Do you remember them? Coulter was a fixture in amateur astronomy all the way from the 1960s to the 1990s. Over three decades, owner Jim Braginton, a.k.a. “Jim Jacobsen,” took his tiny company, based in Idyllwild, California, from being a well-respected maker of semi-custom optics to being the more well-known, if sometimes derided, maker of big, cheap telescopes. By the 1980s, Braginton had settled into making his Odyssey Dobsonians, simple, loveable telescopes in apertures from 8 to 29 fracking inches.

I’d often admired Coulter’s scopes. Those I’d used, mostly 13.1-inch Odyssey Is and 17.5-inch Odyssey IIs, were undeniably impressive in a proletarian sort of way. I didn’t dream of owning one, though, till the night I encountered the new Coulter ad. Braginton normally ran the same small advertisement in Sky and Telescope and Astronomy every single month, and this one was almost the same as always, but not quite.

Not that Coulter never offered the different. At one point in the 80s, they were selling what had to be the most different, the strangest piece of astro gear this old boy has ever seen. Wanna turn your (Blue Tube/mirror box) Odyssey into an equatorially mounted telescope? Put it on the gadget seen at left. I mean, can y’all imagine trying to manhandle the 13.1-inch Coulter onto such a thing? Keeping it there? Moving it around the sky without braining yourself or somebody else? I sure can’t.

But, yeah, the ads were the same month after month after month, showing the same old lineup of Odysseys, all with f/4.5 focal ratios: 8-inch, 10-inch, 13.1-inch, 17.5-inch, 29-inch. When the 80s faded-out, the original Blue Tube Coulters, including the massive 29-inch—which looked more like an outhouse than a telescope—went with ‘em. All except the discontinued 29 devolving into the cheaper-to-make Red Tubes (no mirror box). From that time on, Coulter’s product-line appeared pretty much set in stone. Till Jim threw us a little curveball.

‘Twas a quiet and cloudy evening back in late winter of 1993. I was browsing the just-arrived copy of Astronomy, idly flipping pages after a long day in the shipyard. I didn’t much feel like reading yet another Astronomy epistle on the wonders of blackholes, so I began exploring the magazine from back to front as was my usual and admittedly strange wont back then. Turned a page or three, and there was Coulter’s usual single column ad for the Odysseys. I started to move on, but stopped. Something diff’rent here...

What was different was the addition of a new telescope, an 8-inch. Yes, Coulter had been selling an  8-inch Odyssey for years, but not this 8-inch Odyssey. The new 8-incher (the old one was still there, too) had a larger focal ratio, f/7. Ever since I’d sold my not so hot Celestron Super C8 Plus to help finance a divorce, I’d been looking at Coulter’s ads with more than casual interest. I wouldn’t have minded having an 8-inch telescope of some kind to supplement my Palomar Junior and ATM 6-inch Newt while I got the pennies together to purchase the latest and greatest from Celestron.

Braginton’s 8-inch f/4.5 didn’t seem quite the scope for me, though. That short tube perched on the small rocker box didn’t look overly practical. Portable, yeah, but unless you were the size of GI Joe, you’d have to rig up something to set it on, which would have to be lugged around with the telescope. And I’d have to do a lot of lugging to avoid the trees in the yard of my current domicile.

Squinting at the tiny picture, actually just a silhouette, I could see the new 8’s naturally longer OTA was supported by a taller rocker box. That was good. What was better was the price. It was almost unbelievable. Jim was selling the thing for $239.50 (plus shipping, of course). This was long before the Chinese telescope price revolution, and even today less than 250 bucks for a working 8-inch telescope is pretty dadgummed impressive. I was convinced. I wrote out a check, including a little extra for a Telrad base. Coulter didn’t include a finder, though the Odysseys did ship with a single eyepiece. I then settled in for what I figgered would be a long, long wait.

You can scarcely imagine my surprise when the 8-inch showed up on my doorstep not more than a month after I mailed the check (this was just before the cotton-pickin’ World Wide Web, younguns). Back in the mid-80s I’d conceived an ATM project that would involve a ten-inch Newtonian OTA, and noticed Coulter was selling 10-inch f/5.6 primary mirrors for an astounding $129.50. A quick call to ‘em, however, elicited the information that the wait time on these mirrors could be up to two YEARS. I didn’t expect to wait that long for the 8-inch f/7, but I suspected it would be “months” at least.

Once I extracted my new telescope (is any phrase in the English language more wonderful than “my new telescope”?) from its big and slightly battered cardboard box, it was rubber-to-the-road time. The Odyssey was fully assembled, and the first thing I noted was that it was one heavy mutha. The red Sonotube was thick, very thick, darned near a quarter of an inch thick. It was mated to a tall rockerbox made of naturally heavy particle board, which was equipped with three 2x4 “legs” on the bottom to keep the scope from toppling over. Not exactly “grab ‘n go.”

The OTA was crude but reasonably attractive. The fire-engine red thing was actually nicely finished and was equipped with a plastic end-ring up front. The mirror cell was a very simple push-pull affair, nothing more than a couple of particle board disks, with the thin plate-glass mirror RTVed and duct-taped in place. This cell was thoughtfully equipped with three plastic feet, so you could safely stand the OTA on end while moving the scope outside in two pieces. The secondary support was the same thing Coulter had been using since 1980, a single, thick strut that was only minimally adjustable. The main bring-down was the focuser.

If you could call it that. In Coulter’s earlier Dobsonian days, the Odysseys were equipped with not overly fancy but perfectly serviceable rack and pinion focusers. If you’ve been in the amateur astronomy game for a while, think of the focusers Old Man Novak used to sell. By the 1990s, Braginton had had to cheapen up the scopes. Not only had the mirror boxes disappeared, so had the focusers. What all the Odysseys had by the time I got mine was “focusers” made of plumbing parts and 1.25-inch aluminum draw tubes. The design was workable, with a threaded ring that could be tightened to adjust the focuser’s “tension” as you pushed it in or pulled it out to focus, but it shore wasn’t “elegant.”

Howsabout the rockerbox, the mount? I’ve often described its particle board as looking like it was cut out with a chain saw. In truth, it was a little better than that. At least some attempt had been made to sand it and round off sharp edges and corners. Even had a couple of handles. If only the altitude and azimuth bearings had been a little better.

As most of y’all know, the combination of bearing materials that yields smooth and “stiction” free movement is Teflon pads riding on Ebony Star Formica. The Odyssey 8 was about as far from that as you can get. The bearing pads appeared to be Nylon, maybe some kind of closet door runners. The particle board altitude bearings, which were too small, about 6-inches in diameter, were covered with vinyl, some kind of trim material, perhaps. The azimuth bearing was a square of vinyl floor tile. The remarkable thing? The movements were OK—after the application of a little Pledge furniture polish, anyhow. Maybe because the long and heavy tube provided plenty of leverage as I nudged it along to track.

And that was almost, but not quite, it. In addition to a couple of pages of instructions written in Jim’s charming style (“You’ll get to see METALLICBURST NEBULAS!”) there was a single eyepiece, a 25mm Kellner. Where it had come from was immediately obvious: there was a diopter scale on the barrel that let slip its binocular eyepiece heritage. Survey of the Odyssey completed, all I had to do to prepare it for First Light was stick-on the TELRAD base and wait for dark.

The sky was somewhat clear that night, which don’t mean I totally escaped the fearsome and very real New Scope Curse. There was substantial clear sky to the south and west, but the cloud gods, obviously having detected the presence of the new Odyssey, were marshalling their forces in the East. Luckily, there was a sweet young Moon to the west who would at least allow me to make sure the scope wasn’t punk—or junk.

Over to Luna, then. How did she look? She looked good, but she didn’t look downright special. Why did I expect “special”? By the early 90s, short, fast Newtonians had become de rigueur. It was now unusual to find an 8-incher with a higher focal ratio than f/6, and I reckon I, like a lot of y’all, had developed misplaced expectations as to THE MAGIC OF LONG FOCAL LENGTH REFLECTORS.

Sure, the long-tubers are easier on the eyepieces than shorter ones, which was a good thing, since in 1993 I was still using Kellners, Orthoscopics, Erfles, and the odd Konig, but otherwise…an 8-inch is an 8-inch. Frankly, contrary to what you may have been told, medium-fast mirrors are actually easier to make well than slow ones. How did the Odyssey’s test out? The star test, given the not-so-hot seeing, looked alright; decently well-corrected, though maybe not quite the 1/8th-wave the ads promised, with maybe a touch of turned-down-edge. I’d seen worse. The Moon looked good, as did Venus and what I could see of M3 when it cruised into a sucker hole. I figgered I’d got my $239.50’s worth however you sliced it.

Certainly, the Odyssey did exceptionally well on the deep sky. It gave me a wonderful view of that spring's bright supernova in M81. Later in the year I had a ball with the scope at the 1993 Deep South Regional Star Gaze—during the few clear hours we got, anyway—effortlessly hopping from one Pegasus galaxy to the next with only the aid of the TELRAD. Course, our old site, Mississippi’s Percy Quin State Park, was still reasonably dark, and my eyes (and my patience) were better than they are now.

The Odyssey also proved her mettle as a public star party telescope. Yeah, her long, long tube was a bit of an impediment for the wee-est of the wee folk, but a little step stool took care of that problem for most of ‘em. One thing was sure: the telescope, with her massive particle board mount and thick, thick Sonotube, was well-suited to endure the eager, sticky hands of the Lollipop Guild. Hell, it would probably have taken at least a 10-megaton H-bomb to faze “Mabel,” as I’d named the Odyssey for some reason. Maybe because the name seemed to fit a telescope that was plain, but sturdy and reliable.

One of my fondest memories of Mabel is the night she met Miss Dorothy for the first time, in 1994. Shortly after we’d begun dating, I’d broken the news to Miss D. that I was an amateur astronomer. Fortunately for me, she wasn’t overly disturbed by that odd confession. I suspect because, in her innocence, Dorothy thought that meant I had a little refractor I’d pull out to look at the Moon once in a while. She did seem a little surprised when, in answer to her question of where I was taking her for our Saturday Night Date, I responded: “To Saint Luke’s Church, where we are gonna show the sky to fifty Boy Scouts.”

Dorothy bore up well. In fact, she was positively taken by the view of Jupiter through Mabel. I’d pronounced it, “not bad, OK,” but she thought Jupe was beautiful. She didn’t just look, either; D., who started her career in education as an elementary school teacher, did yeoman duty managing the crowd of excited Scouts, a good thing, since only one of my fellow PSAS members had made it out that night. Afterwards, on our way to Cucos, my then-favorite Mexican restaurant--till I discovered El Giros, home of the bottomless Margarita--Miss D. turned to me, smiled, and said, “We did good, didn’t we?” Things were definitely looking up for (not so) old Rod.

That’s, in typical Unk fashion, getting ahead of the story, though. About five months before I was introduced to Miss D., I was feeling kinda bored. Things were slow at work, and the divorced life still seemed a mite strange. Well, I could always read, and, thanks to the late, lamented Astronomy Book Club, I had a volume or two coming in every month. This month’s selections had been kinda thin: lotsa gee-whiz beginner-oriented astronomy-fact stuff and not much in the way of amateur astronomy. Almost on a whim, I’d ordered the only amateur book that appealed, the First Edition of Michael Covington’s Astrophotography for the Amateur.

Which is a flat-out wonderful book, and, today, in its Second Edition, it is just as useful for beginning imagers as it was two decades ago. I should probably devote a full blog entry to it someday, but for now I’ll just say, “Get it if you are starting out in celestial picture taking.” The remarkable thing, though, was not that I’d found a good book on astrophotography—by the early 90s there were plenty of them—but that after my frustrating, near disastrous attempts to capture Comet Halley in the eighties (I'll tell y'all that story some Sunday) I was willing to try astrophotography again. So soured on the art had I been that I swore I'd never look through another guiding eyepiece.

But, yeah, the bug had bitten again. I was anxious to get out under the stars with a camera and into a darkroom with an enlarger. Too bad I didn’t have a scope suited for astrophotography. With my Super C8 Plus gone, I had only the Pal Junior, my home-brew 6-inch Dob, and the Odyssey. I had no desire to essay more fuzzy shots with my Pal. But could I take any kind of pictures with Dobsonian mounted Mabel? Maybe. How about some nice Moon pictures? And wouldn’t you know it; Urania provided me the perfect opportunity for that very thing right away: the total Lunar eclipse of November 28 - 29, 1993.

Moon pictures! Yay! But how? Actually, a series of “hows,” the first being how to mount the camera, my heavyweight Petri FTII SLR, on the telescope. There would be no way to lock down either axis, this being a Dobsonian, and since the Petri was near-bout battleship heavy, cobbled together balance weights might not suffice, either. Hokay. What if I shot just like I had with my 3-inch Tasco Newtonian and my Argus Seventy-Five all those long, long years ago back in 1965?

While the Tasco’s little alt-az mount could be locked down in altitude, I didn’t have money for any kind of camera mount and would have been reluctant to drill holes in the telescope’s pretty white tube even if I’d had the money. Instead, I just set the camera up on a tripod next to the scope. With an alt-az mount that works pretty well, since the focuser remains at a constant angle no matter where you are pointed in the sky. If you’re shooting afocally—lens remains on the SLR and points into the eyepiece—there’s not much worry about stray light entering the camera as there would be if you tried to shoot prime focus (no lens). I rounded up the old Arrow tripod I’d inherited from my Old Man and started hunting for the Petri’s cable release.

Without success. A cable release, a “remote release,” is vital for Solar System imaging the old-fashioned way, with film, in order to minimize the vibration that will inevitably result from your finger pushing the shutter release. I’d hop down to the local camera emporium and buy a new one. The good folks at Calagaz Camera stifled waves of laughter at the sight of my old (e’en in 1993) Petri and took a look at its shutter button. “Non-standard” they pronounced, “sorry.” Not to worry; I had another idea. The camera’s self-timer worked fine and using that would allow button-pushing-induced shakes to die out before the shutter opened.

Sunday evening’s eclipse was very nice and even unusual. It was dark overall, but one limb, the southern limb, was oddly bright. Some observers likened this to the “diamond ring” phenomenon of a solar eclipse. Weird! Wish I could say my pictures were unusually good, that they were e'en in spitting distance of the beautiful eclipse photo on the cover of Mike Covington's book. They, like the one below, do show a hint of the Earth’s shadow and the bright limb, but in truth they were really not much better than the shots I’d done with the Tasco as a little kid. I did enjoy setting up the darkroom junk again after a hiatus of some years—I miss the smell of Dektol and hypo now. The eclipse itself was not what generated enduring memories of this observing run, howsomeever. What was was the title of this blog entry.

I can tell you why I bothered to look at M42 on a Full Moon night: I was bored. The umbral phase was not due to begin until well after 11pm, but I’d been champing at the bit since sundown and had dragged Mabel and the associated gear out into the front yard shortly after nine. Without much else to look at in the Moon-washed sky, I figgered I’d give bright Orion, who was riding high, a quick peep before blowing out what little night vision I had acquired.

We’ve all heard tales of “color in M42,” mostly concerning Big Dobs at dark sites. And, actually, it is possible to see some color in the Great Nebula with a large enough scope and pristine enough skies. M42 has a nice, high surface brightness, relatively speaking, and can at least barely stimulate the eye’s color sensors, the cones. Still, color in M42 is usually subdued: pale greenish/bluish tints not unlike the visual appearance of some planetary nebulae. A real bigdob can also show signs of the red in the nebula, which is tough for the human eye to perceive even at the brightness of M42. Usually, these reds look more “brown” than “red.” I’d seen these things in buddies’ large telescopes at star parties, but never had I been sure I had seen any color at all from an 8-inch at any site. That was about to change.

What the Green M42 Affair reminds me of is the time I saw the Ashen Light of Venus (coincidentally, with the very same scope, whatever the heck that means). The second I put my eye to the 25mm (Vixen) Kellner, it was obvious. There was no guessing or head-scratching. M42 was GREEN. I don’t mean faint hints of color like in the Saturn Nebula or the Blue Snowball; I mean g-r-e-e-n, like a consarned stoplight. I looked around in bafflement, wondering what was going on. Was the danged Air Force playing Starfish Prime again? Whatever the cause, the effect remained visible with different eyepieces, even at fairly high magnifications, until it was time for me to get going with my Moon pix.

If you use your imagination you can see this was an eclipse.
I wondered about this odd incident a lot over the years. I was convinced what I’d seen was at least as “real” as the Ashen Light, but the amateurs I told the story to were either skeptical, or thought I was pulling their legs, and after about a decade passed and the mental image of the limeade nebula began to fade, I started to doubt what I’d seen. Till one night I saw it again—if maybe not in quite such pronounced fashion—this time with my 12-inch Dobsonian. What did the second night have in common with the first one? It would seem “not much.” Larger aperture telescope. Different and much superior eyepieces. Ah, but the conditions were similar, a bright near-Full Moon in the sky not far from Orion.

I’ve hunted for similar reports, but without success. Oh, plenty of people see at least hints of green in the nebula with 8-inch and smaller scopes, but I haven’t found anything that mentions a Full Moon being in the mix. Dunno. Maybe I’m the only goober who looks at Orion on a Full Moon night.

Why should a bright sky background and a lack of dark adaptation make it easier to see green in this DSO, anyhow? Does the lessened contrast between nebula and sky have somethin’ to do with it? Or is it the result of the suppression of the eye’s dark adaptation? Does either thing make a lick of sense? Prob’ly not, and y’all can no doubt tell my knowledge of biology and anatomy is like Sherlock Holmes’ knowledge of philosophy and literature—NIL. If you’ve had or heard of similar experiences, or have a better explanation than mine, I’d very much appreciate hearing from you.

So…what happened to Coulter? Coulter, in the form of Jim Braginton’s company, pressed on till the mid-1990s despite increasing competition from the fancier mass-produced Dobsonians of Meade and Orion. When Jim’s health began to fail, Coulter began to falter, closing its doors shortly after his death. The 8-inch f/7 continued to sell right up till the end, and they are still fairly common on star party fields.

What happened to my Coulter? I continued to use Mabel into the late 1990s, at least as my public outreach scope and as a semi-grab-‘n-go rig. But eventually she was gobbling less and less starlight. I’d decided I needed a real grab ‘n go scope, something I wouldn’t mind carrying into the yard at the spur of the moment. That was possible with the Coulter, but only just. I found a little Short Tube 80 refractor on an EQ-1 mount fulfilled that need better, and was capable of showing me purty much anything I cared to see on grab-‘n-go nights. When it came to the public/kids, I eventually concluded the primary requirement for a public outreach scope is a drive. Having to nudge-nudge-nudge between “customers” is a pain.

Mabel was relegated to Chaos Manor South’s massive equipment vault, where she proceeded to gather dust for a few years. Till I had a brainstorm. My brother-in-law had often expressed an interest in amateur astronomy, but had no scope. Mabel deserved some time under the stars. The old scope now lives in Boulder, Colorado, where I hope she is enjoying clear mountain air and many photons. She deserves it.

She deserves it because, despite her plain simplicity, there was something there beyond that humble exterior. She had a personality, a certain ineffable je ne sais quoi, and she saw me through those lonely months before I met the wonderful Miss Dorothy.  One thing's sure:  $239.50 ain’t much to pay for both the Ashen Light and a Green M42.

Next Time: 'Twas a surprisingly nice night last night. Clear most of the time and amazingly cool and dry. That means H-e-r-s-c-h-e-l-s and an update to the good, ol' Project next week.

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