Sunday, November 28, 2010


Scout’s Honor…

I really do like the Boy Scouts, muchachos. Despite looking askance at some of their recent controversies and pronouncements, I like and respect the institution. In most if not all ways it’s grown and changed as the decades have passed, and if you believe an organization for boys and only boys is a good thing, you can do worse than the Scouts for your boy.

My personal history with the Scouts is another matter. I had my ups and downs with Scouting, mostly downs. The ups? Those all had to do with the BSA’s organization for younger boys, the Cub Scouts. I absolutely loved the Cubs. Our pack, which was based at my elementary school, was well-organized and run by men and women who were committed to the organization.

From my first real book about astronomy to my first look through a real telescope, I have my Cub Scout Den Mother to thank, Miss Emily Baldwin. I’ve told the story of the book, Stars, and I’ve at least brushed on the night Miss B. hauled us out to Springhill College Observatory for a look through the their big Cave reflector (I have that very scope’s mount in storage now). If I owe my life in astronomy to anyone, I owe it to Emily Baldwin and the Cubs (well, and Sir Patrick Moore and a little girl named “Stephanie”).

Despite Miss Emily’s occasional bad humors and propensity for telephoning Mama if she suspected I was up to something, I enjoyed Cub Scouting and stuck with it, progressing from lowly Bobcat (all you got was a stinking little pin), through Wolf, Bear, and, eventually, Lion, which badge I wore with pride. I earned so many arrowheads/points that Mama began to be put-out about having to continually sew them on my uniform. The Cubs had worked so well for me that it seemed a natural that I move on to Webelos (“We’ll Be Loyal Scouts”), the pre-Boy Scout program of the Cubs.

Earning the Webelos badge was mostly concerned with learning about the Boy Scouts, with our Pack’s leadership arranging activities for us aimed to accomplish that. There were visits to Boy Scout Troops and visits by Scouts and their leaders to our Pack meetings. I was impressed. Especially with the Boy Scout Handbook Daddy bought and brought home one evening.

The Handbook back then (I haven’t seen a copy in decades) was a thing of wonder. Packed with information on everything from tying knots, to pitching a tent, to cooking in the wild. I especially loved the illos, simple, descriptive drawings of serious young scouts in squared-away uniforms. The thick little book made membership in the Big Scouts seem irresistible.

My notion of how cool the Boy Scouts would be lasted just barely past the first couple of Troop meetings I attended. Our group was based at Mama’s Methodist church, and I’d assumed we’d meet in the sanctuary, since there was nowhere else to meet but small Sunday school classrooms. Surely one would burst at the seams from a whole Boy Scout Troop. Nope. Turned out “whole Troop” amounted to maybe twenty-five kids.

Which would have been fine…except. Despite the small numbers, there seemed to be a distinct lack of organization. In fact, the Troop meetings might best be described as chaos, with our adult leaders content to let us boys pretty much do whatever we wanted. A few announcements and (often) requests for fees and we were done, breaking into groups, our “patrols,” in other classrooms where we usually listened to our teen leaders talk about everything but Scouting.

I was a little disappointed from the get-go, but if I’d correctly deciphered the mumbled, barely audible words of our Scoutmaster, there’d be a campout coming up shortly, at Camp Pushmataha way up north in the county. Maybe the meetings were on the informal side, but surely there’d be some heavy duty Scouting on display at a campout.

On the way up to Camp, fifty miles from home, clutching my new sleeping bag (how Mama had grumbled about paying for that), a little rucksack/pack, canteen, and mess kit, I felt sorta like a Scout. “Sorta,” because nobody was in uniform…the Scoutmaster had advised us against that. So as not to spoil our nice outfits, I reckon. Didn’t make me feel much like a Boy Scout, though. And the whole thing seemed a mite catch-as-catch-can, with us scrambling for places in whichever parent-volunteer vehicles showed up while our Scoutmaster and company were busy elsewhere.

The trip to camp was long and wearisome over two-lane country roads, but I felt excitement returning when we arrived. Pushmataha was (and is) both beautiful and historic. It was a large wooded tract studded with (believe it or not) working oil wells, the royalties from which helped keep our local Scout Council solvent. Historic? Pushmataha lies on the site of the surrender of the last active Confederate forces east of the Mississippi.

While there were some cabins on the site, me and my fellow novices were told we’d be tent camping, since the cabins were for the adults and senior Scouts only. Most of the afternoon was taken up with me and a buddy trying to figure out how in the heck to erect one of the tents our leaders had dropped in a small clearing. Since neither the adults nor older scouts had much to say and seemed annoyed by our questions, the boy I was paired with—the kid from next-door, my best friend—and I just set out to do the best we could.

And we actually did pretty well. He’d been camping with his parents a time or three, and I at least remembered what I’d had to do to set up the Remco “Genuine Marine Pup Tent” I’d got for Christmas one year. Our only misstep was arranging our sleeping bags. We found out after tossing and turning for a couple of hours that if your bags are on a slope you should definitely have your heads on the high end (!).

Before bedtime was suppertime. And since we received no direction one way or another, we assumed we’d build a campfire. After clearing a spot like it said in the Handbook and gathering wood, we were faced with Problem One: how to light the thing. Rubbing two sticks together didn’t seem like much of an option, and the Handbook implied that might not be as easy as we imagined, anyway. Luckily, one of our little group of five tenderfeet had thought to bring a book of matches. We all examined it closely, since it was from Wintzell’s Oyster House and we all thought the restaurant’s motto: “fried, stewed, and NUDE” was oh-so-funny and risqué.

Fire at least sputtering and smoking, the question became “What’s for supper?” I was actually semi-OK in that regard. Mama had, in addition to an apple and a couple of peanut butter sandwiches, packed a small can of beanie weenies for me. I’d tried to explain to her that I needed an ice chest and some ground beef so I could cook a meal over a campfire, a requirement I had to satisfy in order to progress in rank. She just laughed, “I don’t think so. You’d poison yourself with raw hamburger, and I am not going to let you take our ice chest who-knows-where, anyway, Buster.”

Turned out Mama was, as usual, right. My tent-mate had been able to convince his mama to pack some ground beef in ice for him. His plan was to follow the instructions in the Handbook and make this weird tennis racket-looking cooker out of sticks. You’d weave the sticks together, sandwich the hamburger between two racquet halves, and grill away. He must have missed the part about using green sticks, though, since his flimsy looking utensil proceeded to catch fire immediately, and his instinctive response to shake it out sent his supper flying into the woods. Lucky for him, I had enough beanie weenies to share some. I was even able to heat them to slightly above room temperature on our pitiful little fire.

That was pretty much the extent of our Scouting activities. The next morning, the Scoutmaster had one of the older boys take us younglings on a long and aimless hike. I believe the sole purpose of which was to get us out of the way before we could ask more questions of him and to tire us out so we’d cause no trouble till our folks came to get us.

By early afternoon, parents began to dribble-in to fetch their younguns. Wouldn’t you know it? Daddy had to work at the (TV) studio, and my retrieval was left in the hands of Mama, who was apt to get confused about driving directions and was also apt to spend more time with her fellow neighborhood housewives over coffee than she’d intended.

Before Mama’s pink Rocket 88 finally thundered in, the day was well on its way to good and dark and I was feeling lonely and put-out and a wee bit nervous. I presumed the Scoutmaster was somewhere—surely he wouldn’t leave one of his charges by himself out in the middle of nowhere…would he? I hadn’t seen him in a while, and when he’d happened by at four p.m. and seen me sitting all by my lonesome his only comment had been, “Be sure not to leave anything behind, Sport.”

In addition to feeling nervous and cross, I was hungry. Half a small tin of beanie weenies and one peanut butter sandwich (I’d taken pity on my buddy and given him one of my sandwiches following the ground beef crisis) wasn’t much for a kid used to three squares in the 1960s mold. In retrospect, that was the most valuable lesson, in fact almost the only lesson, I learned that weekend: what it feels like to be really hungry. I still remember the apple I ate while sitting there alone on the steps of an empty cabin. It was the best apple I have ever tasted.

You can bet your bottom dollar li'l Rod was very glad to be back home, out of the tub, fed supper, and enjoying the cool comfort of Mama's living room as he cracked open his brand new copy of Tom Swift and his 3-D Telejector. Naturally, Mama wanted to know what the camping trip had been like, and just as naturally I wanted to avoid her patented "I Told You So," and mumbled that, yeah, it had been real fun.

There was one other lesson Unk learned out in the hinterlands: how the sky can and should look. In the middle of the night, being unable to sleep much on the hard ground (none of us had anything to pad our sleeping bags or had realized we’d need anything), I crawled out of the tent and looked up at a tremendous sea of stars. This was, I believe, the first time I’d been under a truly dark sky, and I was just blown away. There were so many stars that I, who now considered himself pretty expert at finding the constellations, was utterly unable to pick out Hercules and could barely locate the dadgum Dipper.

The Pushmataha debacle was pretty much it for me and the Boy Scouts. I continued on for a few months, but at the first opportunity I stopped attending meetings and let the Scouts fade into the past. Yes, Mama was right annoyed that she’d bought "all that Scout stuff" and I was "already tired of it.” I believe the only thing that convinced her to let me drop out was that I seemed terribly accident-prone any time I was at a Scout-related activity. One such accident involving me, a sliding glass door, and an impressive amount of blood. I reckon Mama was willing to write-off equipment costs in return for fewer medical bills.

The passage of time often tints the past with a rosy glow. That may be true for some things, but not for my Scouting memories. Even today, I shudder at the recollection of cold beans and the hard earth of north Mobile County. But I have come to realize my problem with the Scouts was not the Scouts, but my ill-begotten Troop. I’ve talked to plenty of adults who have wonderful memories of Scouting and whose groups indeed did things the Scout Way, just like in the Handbook. I’m now a real cheerleader for Scouting, and if my son had shown any interest in it, I’d have become involved.

He did not, but still I’ve endeavored to support our local Boy Scouts—with star parties. These have usually been outreach missions to local Troops, but the other day the chance to do a little more presented itself. After a long hiatus, the Mobile area Scouting Council would be having a Jamboree, a mega gathering of the county’s boys.

Despite the Possum Swamp Astronomical Society’s outreach activities with Scouts over the years, I just about hit the delete button when I received the email from a local Scout official concerning the Jamboree. It sounded like an occasion ripe for disaster. Two thousand boys at an event the likes of which hadn’t been held in our town in years. I resisted the urge and passed the word to my PSAS-mates that our help was needed. Despite my skepticism about the local folks’ ability to pull it off, I thought it would be a worthy cause, and was further persuaded by the fact that it would be held at Battleship Park, which is only ten - fifteen minutes from Chaos Manor South.

After a little back-and-forth at the PSAS meeting, three of my fellow club members agreed to join me. I was a little concerned about that, that we’d have at most five scopes to serve all those boys who’d be camping onsite—“five” because my friend George promised to bring his Astroscan in addition to his C8. The saving grace was that we’d have all night or as long as we could hold out, and that there’d be numerous other activities going on all evening. There probably wouldn’t be the huge rush on the scopes there is when we are the only game in town.

Telescope? I wimped out. Not only would I not set up the 12-inch Dob or the C11 or the C8, I decided to leave my usual Outreach Scope, Cindy Lou, my RV-6 Newtonian, at home. Instead, I’d arm myself with my 80mm f/11 Sky-Watcher refractor.

I hadn’t set out to buy this long focus refractor, “Eloise,” as I’ve christened her; what I was after was her Synta AZ-4 mount. I found I could get the mount paired with the refractor for less from Adorama than what Orion wanted for the mount alone. The limited testing I’d done of the Sky-Watcher hinted she’d be a good little scope with decent optics, and she’d at least have the plus of LOOKING LIKE A TELESCOPE to the boys. I wasn’t convinced I’d need more firepower, anyway. The evening of the Jamboree unfortunately coincided with a Moon one day short of Full.

When the Saturday of the Jamboree rolled round, I was hoping for a good night, but still a mite skittish. While the nice man who’d invited us out had been very happy we’d said “yes,” he’d been short on details as in “Exactly where do we set up and when?” Were these cats as laughably disorganized as the leaders of my old troop? I did get a map of the event via email, showing a “Midway” where various science/crafts booths would be set up including one for astronomy, but Battleship Park is a huge place, and it was hard to tell exactly where this Midway was from the little map. Whatev. If I couldn’t find the person who’d invited us, I’d just turn around and go home at the small cost of half an hour of my time.

Arriving at the site, I gotta say I was impressed: scout tents as far as the eye could see, from hard against the old battleship to the edge of the parking lot of the adjacent Best Western motel (which houses one of Unk’s fave restaurants, The Captain’s Table, which features crazy-good steaks and scotch and plenty of jazz). I rolled up to the gate, rolled down my window, and intoned, “Hi! I’m Rod Mollise from the Possum Swamp Astronomical Society.” I was met, as I’d expected, by puzzled looks. Rut-roh. Here we go again.

The adult manning the gate could only offer minimal help. When I mentioned the name of the contact person, he waved his hand vaguely at the sea of tents: “He must be over there. Why don’t you park and see if you can walk over and find him?” Sigh. Just when I was ready to head for home, I spotted two lines of big, white tent canopies. Walking over that-a-way, I spied George setting up his C8. Our contact person was there and was able to guide my vehicle in, helping me negotiate tents and a swamp-like morass that had formed at the foot of the Midway.

One thing was sure: it was nice to forget big and—especially—computerized scopes once in a while. I got Eloise’s mount out, set it up, fastened her to the AZ-4 with her Vixen dovetail, erected a little camp table for my eyepieces, and was ready to go. Or ready to think about some possible targets while we waited the 45 minutes that remained till darkness.

Given that the Moon would limit what we could see to the brightest of the brightest, I had not brought out a set of charts. What I did have was my iPod Touch running SkySafari (nee Sky Voyager), and I was curious to see how far pocket planetariums have come since the days of monochrome Palm Pilots and Planetarium for Palm.

Almost in spite of myself, I found I was eager to begin showing Scouts the night sky when the frikkin-frackin Sun finally gave it up and went to bed. In the meantime, I wandered around. Battleship Park was a beautiful setting for the Jamboree, with the backdrop of BB60, a B52, and the submarine U.S.S. Drum. The two thousand Boy and Cub Scouts onsite certainly seemed to be having a good time. And I had to admit the event seemed pretty danged well-organized and even calm—relatively speaking. Since when have two thousand sub-teens and young teens been calm, and who would expect them to be?

The Scout leaders did a great job of making us feel at home, making sure we knew how much they appreciated our presence, and making sure we were comped for meals and drinks (decent hot dogs and burgers and cokes). All that remained was to get the show on the road. With the arrival of the last of my fellow PSASites, who’d been as confused as I had been when she’d arrived at Battleship Park, we were ready to roll.

As five o’clock came and went, good, ol’ Luna made her presence ever more felt to the east. Time to send Eloise over that-a-way. While I’ve had the refractor for several months, I haven’t had much opportunity to use her—been one o’ them summers—and I was interested to see how she’d do on that most difficult object for achromats, a (near) Full Moon. In went a 20mm Orion Expanse, and over to Diana we went.

I was pleasantly surprised. At f/11 there was some color around the limb, as I’d expected, but in a 3-inch it’s just not that bad. The few shadows visible along the terminator, I noted, were not purple, but black. Before I could do much more than register that fact, though, I heard an excited and insistent little voice: “WATCHA LOOKIN’ AT MISTER?! THE MOON?! CAN I LOOK?! CAN I LOOK?!”

And so it began. While excited and needing a little guidance, the Scouts responded well to our direction: “Don’t run. When it’s your turn, go up to the eyepiece. Look, don’t touch.” We had a large number of customers, but were never swamped. The boys all seemed to have a good time, and some even used this viewing opportunity to satisfy some of the requirements for the Astronomy Merit Badge.

What did we look at and what did they like? Well, everybody loved the Moon best, but second best? After my fascinating green laser, anyhow? We were fortunate to have Jupiter in the sky, and in the steady air at sunset he really allowed Miss Eloise to strut her stuff. I was easily able to make out the transiting Great Red Spot. The Galilean moons were beautifully on display as hard little b-bs, and the Scouts loved them and were impressed that I (with the aid of SkySafari) could tell them which was which.

How about SkySafari? I’ve had the program for a while, but this was the first time I’d used its charts for object locating. All I can say is that after a few minutes I forgot I was using a handheld. The program seemed just as useful and legible as any of the PC astroware I use. It is, in fact, beautiful. If you’ve an Apple handheld—an iPod, iPhone, or iPad—and you like to travel light or do a lot of public outreach, I urge you do get your mitts on this excellent soft. Frankly, it’s so good it deserves its own blog entry one day.

What else did we look at? SkySafari was able to guide me to quite a few objects in the star-poor sky: M57, M31, M37, M36, the Pleiades, the blue and gold Cub Scout Double (Albireo, natch), the Cat’s Eyes Double (Gamma Andromedae), and a few more. Naturally, the boys all wanted to get a look at a bright star—kids always do—and that allowed me to gauge exactly how bad Eloise’s chromatic aberration is. Verdict? Not bad, not bad at all. Yes, there was a bit of purple haze around tough Vega, but you had to use your imagination to see this vague mist as having any color at all. Not bad for a “free” scope.

We kept on going till about nine when our middle-aged bodies began to complain and the Scouts began to filter back to their campsites. They’d had a good time and we’d had a good time. As multitudinous campfires began to flicker on the big field, I became wistful that I’d never been able to have what for these kids is clearly a wonderful experience. But I had, thanks to the Scouts, albeit the Cub Scouts, got my first look through a telescope, something that lit a fire in me and gave my life its direction. Looking across the darkened field, I imagined and hoped I’d done the same for some little kid out there.

Nota Bene: If you'd like to see more pictures from the PSAS' Jamboree outing, hop on over to Unk's Facebook page. Yep, Luddite ol' Rod actually has a Facebook page. What else? Those of you who've been so kindly concerned about Miss Dorothy's health will be relieved to know she is much improved. We were even able to do our normal Thanksgiving at the Hotel Monteleone, to include much time in the vaunted Carousel Bar.

Sunday, November 21, 2010


Star Trek and Me

I am a Trekkie. There, I’ve said it. I’ve held my head up and said it. Not a Trekker, that supposedly more serious devotee of the Star Trek universe, but a TREKKIE. You know what, though, muchachos? It was easy to make that confession to y’all. I am not ashamed of my devotion to Trek. It helped me bumble through the scary days of early adolescence mostly—if not totally—emotionally unscathed. To put it more simply: Star Trek saved me.

It started the year after Jitter and Wayne Lee moved away. What began was a period of alienation, which Mama referred to as my “emotional growing pains.” I just didn’t seem to be able to make new friends as elementary school ended and the psychically tough years of junior high began.

Till seventh grade, I’d always been able depend on the next-door neighbor boy I’d played with for years, since we were both six for god’s sake. Then, suddenly, he had new friends on the other side of town, I wasn’t invited on their outings to slot-car tracks and movies, and I saw less and less of him. I met a few kindred spirits at school, mostly nerds like yours truly, but real friendship never seemed to quite blossom with any of them.

Let’s face it: little Rod was pretty Out There with his telescope, his comics collection, and his love for cheap science fiction movies. But some of the members of my tiny crowd at Azalea Road Junior High made me look like Joe Cool the Fratboy. As when I was discussing the coming Science Fair with one of my fellow outsiders, who had a sudden epiphany: “What if we could build a robot that could turn transparent? He’d be INVULNERABLE TO LASER BEAMS!” This at the top of his lungs, inspiring the kinds of looks and comments from the Popular Kids you’d imagine. Not that I much cared what they thought.

In retrospect, part of the fault was mine. I could have made at least a little effort to fit in and make friends, even if I really wasn’t interested in the cliques and the sock hops. I couldn’t, though. I suppose I just wasn’t ready to give up those simple and sweet days that culminated in the summer of sixth grade with my first telescope and the lazy afternoons and with my best friends. One thing is sure: I wasn’t prepared for the rigors of early adolescent kid society where, then and now, any slightly wounded little bird is in for one hell of a pecking.

Still, I endeavored to persevere despite the fact that I—like ten billion lonely little kids before me—had begun to feel that not only did I not have a friend in the world, but that nobody, not even Mama and Daddy, especially not Mama and Daddy, understood me.

Not that there weren’t good days and bright spots. Like one in the spring of ‘66 when I got my first real telescope, my Palomar Junior. And it wasn’t like I was completely cut-off. Occasionally, the boy next door and I would get together and play army or monsters like we were ten years old again. No, it wasn’t the same as having my “gang,” Jitter and Wayne Lee, at my side, but it was enough to allow me to avoid utter misery—though there were some miserable days. Plenty of them. Just when it looked like li’l Rod’s only option would be running away to Tibet and joining a monastery, salvation presented itself. Most amazingly, in the form of a TV show, a new TV show.

In these latter days new TV shows are a dime a dozen. They come and go mostly unnoticed on the hundreds of channels funneled down the cable. That was not the way it was in the halcyon days of the 60s, especially in the cultural backwater of Possum Swamp. We had three television stations representing the three big networks, NBC, CBS, and ABC. And when something new came on, it was most assuredly a big deal. Every year, in September, a new lineup of shows would debut, a new “season,” which would run almost without repeats (maybe a few at Thanksgiving and Christmas) until the following May. We kept track of what was what with a little magazine—now gone except on the Web, I believe—TV Guide.

I usually didn’t pay much attention to TV Guide. There usually wasn’t one around, anyway. Being on the poor side of the middle class, our household made do with the TV listings in the Mobile Register. One September afternoon, though, after another lousy day at junior high, I was standing in the checkout line of our Kwik Chek grocery store with Mama when the Guide caught my attention.

What initially attracted me was the cover pic of Joey Heatherton, who looked very cute in this shot in a 60s – Twiggy sort of androgynous way. Li’l Rod was quite smitten with her, and immediately plucked the mag off the rack. Miss Heatherton ogled at close range, I began idly thumbing through the issue as I waited for Mama’s turn at the checkout to come. I stopped on Thursday, since it was Thursday and, once my homework was done, it didn’t appear there was much else on my crowded social calendar.

Let’s see… Tammy Grimes. Didn’t much care for her or her show. My Three Sons? I had enjoyed that at one time, but now its tales of happy teenage hijinks did nothing but underline my teenage misery. Star Trek. What was that about? “Science fiction. ‘Mantrap.’” What the—?! Anything having to do with science fiction dang sure rang my chimes. Since Mama, the ruler of our single TV set, didn’t much like Three Sons, and, like me, didn’t care pea-turky about Miss Grimes either, maybe I could give this Star Trek a look-see.

If you’ve seen “The Man Trap,” you know it’s one of Trek’s most memorable episodes, if not necessarily one of its very best outings. It sure as hell started the series with one great, big bang. While it wasn’t the first episode filmed—it was actually the third—it will always be the First Trek to me. The story of the Salt Monster who impersonated Doctor McCoy’s lost love just resonated with me on many levels.

This was science fiction with a capital “SF,” more like what I was used to in books than what had been on TV in the past. It sure was a long way from Fireball XL5. It was, I decided, right up there with the best I’d seen at the movies, including Forbidden Planet. Star Trek’s characters bandied about real science-fictiony terms: warp drive, transporter, impulse engine, phaser, M-class planet, shuttlecraft, and on and on. The ship? What a breathtaking marvel. Gone were the days of stock Atlas booster footage and crews of five or six wise-cracking WWII movie extras. This Enterprise was a Navy Ship…well a Federation (of planets) Navy Ship anyhow, with over 400 men (and women) aboard.

Most of all, what struck me from the get-go was the sense of hope that Star Trek conveyed. There were wonders out there, wonders awaiting Enterprise—and me—in a beautiful future that lay just beyond junior high and the Cold War. These marvels, The Show said, would be enjoyed with friends, real friends, as in the unbreakable triumvirate of Kirk, Spock, and McCoy.

From that first episode my favorite among all Star Trek’s wonderful characters was, not surprisingly, Mr. Spock. He was, like me, an outsider sometimes derided by the “normal” people around him. But he had qualities and powers far beyond their puny ken. And despite the occasional jabs from some crewman who thought Spock looked too much like a Romulan, or the exasperated Doctor McCoy who just couldn’t GROK SPOCK, it was clear Mr. Spock, Lieutenant Commander Spock, was valued and even loved by his crewmates. This was a future where you would be valued for your insides. Spock, we came to see, was prototypal All American Boy Jim Kirk’s best friend.

Naturally, being a barely adolescent male, I also enjoyed identifying with Spock because he was the object of pretty Nurse Chapel’s occasional and restrained affections. This tragic, unrequited love spoke deeply to my own emotional gestalt. And how about the Captain’s quasi-girlfriend, Yeoman Janice Rand? It ain’t politically correct to admit it these days, but the female crewmembers’ duty uniforms had quite an effect on Li’l Rod as those hormones began to erupt ever more.

Yeah, there were some pretty girls on The Show, but that was not what kept me watching. What held me was the sense of incredible adventure, of who-knows-what being right around the next corner. And that who-knows-what would often turn out to be a friend, not a slavering Saturday matinee Bad Monster. As the series went on, we were introduced to the Vulcan (Mr. Spock’s home world) philosophy of “IDIC,” “Infinite Diversity in Infinite Combinations,” a philosophy of acceptance and even friendship for alien lifeforms, no matter how strange and DIFFERENT they might appear. If only Azalea Road Junior High had taught Vulcan philosophy.

They didn’t, of course, but that was OK, because Star Trek, which immediately became a central feature in my life, threatening even to eclipse my beloved Marvel Comics, carried me through. On the darkest days, Kirk, McCoy, and, most of all, Spock kept me going. When things were tough I’d ask “How would Spock handle this?” That sounds ridiculous, and maybe it was, but it got me over the hump of Junior high and the early days of high school in one piece, so so what?

Certainly The Show offered plenty of diversion. It seemed as if by the Second Season, everything was Trek. I had Enterprise models (the story of those beautiful old AMT kits deserves a blog entry of its own), books like The Making of Star Trek, and, especially, the episode adaptations by science fiction master James Blish (Cities in Flight). It being the sixties, what there also was was posters, and it was one of these that finally helped relieve my long loneliness.

Back in that supposedly hallowed Day, our mall featured a Hallmark store, “Paul Brown’s Card and Party Shop.” As the groovy sixties began to make their cultural will felt even down in the Swamp, Paul’s inventory expanded beyond greeting cards and little-old-lady knickknacks to encompass stuff like incense burners, tarot cards, and posters.

While I had not yet tuned into the Dead and the Airplane, I invariably browsed these posters on those occasions when I could get Mama to drop me off at the Mall or, more often, when I could tag along on one of her expeditions to Hammel’s (our local department store) dress department.

I was usually hunting a new picture of the Beatles—I had absolutely doted on them since Meet the Beatles. Nope, nothing new, and Mama would probably not be too happy about me continuing to cover every square inch of my room’s wall surface with posters of the Four Moptops, anyway. I was just about to head for Bookland’s SF paperback racks when I found the poster shown at the top of this entry. Hell, not only was it a great shot of my hero, he was holding the ultimate Enterprise model. The one they used for the series’ special effects I reckoned. Whoo-hoo! I snatched it up and headed for the checkout.

Luckily, there was a line four or five shoppers deep. Why luckily? Because as I stood waiting an attractive looking young woman about my own age, I thought, walked up, took a look at my find, and remarked, “Oh, you like The Show too?”

This pretty girl and I chattered happily about phaser banks and how fast warp 8 really was until it was my turn to pay. And after as we sat on a bench in front of the store. Turned out her name was Janet—not that far from “Janice,” I mused—and that while she did not go to the same high school as me, she lived within walking distance of Mama and Daddy’s house (I now eschewed my bike as being too childish) across Highway 90. Almost unbelievably, Janet, who I automatically assumed was way out of my league girlfriend-wise was inviting me to give her a call Thursday afternoon so we could watch The Episode together.

Ours was not a romance for the books. Maybe there could have been more to it than what little there was, but before much could happen, Janet’s parents moved away. You can imagine how I felt about that: “I MUST BE CURSED!” But, while saying goodbye to my friend and almost girlfriend hurt, it didn’t hurt as badly as it might have. Janet and a silly, wonderful TV show had helped me find my feet and suddenly, as senior year began and college beckoned, I felt as if a whole beautiful universe awaited me just as it always had for Spock and his friends. There would be plenty of bumps still ahead, but WWSD ("What Would Spock Do?") was one of the things that sustained me through them.

What would this blog be without some observing-related material? I was browsing one of the zillions (seems like it) of amateur astronomy websites when I ran across mention of a Star Trek observing list. A fellow Trekkie, a fellow amateur astronomy Trekkie, Clara Scattolin, has gone through the Trek series, all of them, and made a list of all the astronomical destinations visited by or mentioned by our various crews.

Which seemed just the perfect thing for one recent semi-cloudy night at the dark site.We’d be hosting a group of lay-folks, the local Coast Guard Auxiliary, and I wanted to show ‘em some easy and pretty stuff. It would also give me a chance to check-out my 12.5-inch Dobsonian, Old Betsy, in preparation for the coming Deep South Regional Star Gaze. Good thing I did, too, as right off the bat I discovered a problem with Bets’ Sky Commander digital setting circles. That didn’t stop me from running the ST list, though, since most of the objects are bright stars and easy to locate with a Telrad even under poor conditions.

I’d put Clara’s list in SkyTools format, so I had access to plenty of charts should I need ‘em. Oh, and I discarded those objects not in the original series (TOS) or the animated series (TAS). Not only are the original characters closest to my heart, it didn’t look like the weather would cooperate for long.

The sky stayed OK just long enough for me to run through Trek’s most prominent stars. I’d been a little worried that the visitors might not find my list very exciting, but I needn’t have worried. Our guests seemed to love “just” looking at bright stars, and you know what? I did too; after spending most of the last year visiting dim, dim Herschels, gazing long at lovely Vega was a treat.

Altair: “Amok Time”

An incredible sapphire in the eyepiece. Seeing was not that hot, but this big, bright mag .77 A7 dwarf star actually looks even better when its diffraction spikes are dancing around. Altair is the 12th brightest star in the sky and is one of the three members of Sir Patrick Moore’s famous Summer Triangle. Like many of the Star Trek stars, it’s fairly close, 16.8 light-years away.

Spock has been behaving erratically, and goes so far as to divert the Enterprise from its destination, Altair 6, putting it on a course for Vulcan. It seems Spock is in the grip of Pon Farr madness, a madness that can only be alleviated by his participation in this ancient Vulcan mating ritual.

M31: “By Any Other Name”

The Great Andromeda Galaxy, M31, was super in my 35mm Panoptic eyepiece despite being close to the dadgummed Possum Swamp light dome. M31’s little satellite companion galaxies, M32 and M110 , were both in the big field of the Pan, and with a little averted imagination the bright sky gave up hints of one of the dark lanes.

While going about its business, the Enterprise encounters the Kelvans, a group of visitors from the Andromeda Galaxy, which, they say, is threatened by some kind of “radiation.” The Kelvans take over the Enterprise in an effort to use it to penetrate the energy barrier at the galaxy’s edge, to make a pathway for their fellows back home in M31 to evacuate to the Milky Way. And conquer the Federation.

Deneb: “Where No Man Has Gone Before”

The 19th brightest star in the sky, this magnitude 1.25 A2 supergiant is a glinting diamond in the tail of the Swan. The rich star field around it makes it all the more lovely. At a distance of 1500 light-years, it’s considerably farther away than most of the suns visited or referred to in Trek.

The Enterprise encounters the energy barrier at the Milky Way’s edge, which results in damage to the warp engines and the transformation of Commander Gary Mitchell into a malevolent god-like being.

Sigma Draconis: “Spock’s Brain”

Sigma D. is a dwarf, a K0 dwarf. Other than its association with Trek, the most notable thing about this magnitude 4.67 star is its dramatic red color, which really impressed our Coast Guard guests. 18.8 light-years out, it is blessed with the mellifluous name “Alsafi.”

Strange alien women kidnap Spock, transporting him to their underground civilization on a planet orbiting Sigma Draconis. Oh, and they remove his brain (!) to use as a super computer to run this civilization, which is composed entirely of  women (the men have been left to brave the ice-age conditions on the world’s surface).

Vega: “Mirror, Mirror”

Magnitude .03 A0V Vega is another stunner; it is just as bright and blue as can be imagined. A good mercury vapor light that drowns out the bad mercury vapor lights. The fifth brightest star, Alpha Lyrae is only 25 light-years distant.

While Kirk and company are beaming up from a Vegan planet, the Enterprise is struck by an ion storm, and the landing party is transported to an alternate universe in which the Enterprise and her crew are part of a violent and decadent version of the Federation.

Beta Lyrae: “The Slaver Weapon” (TAS)

An especially beautiful B7V/A8V double star. A striking blue and yellow, magnitude 3.52. Dramatic to the point of almost being overwhelming in a medium scope at medium power. This is one of the more distant Trek destinations, being 882 light-years away.

In this excellent animated series episode (written by Larry Niven), an Enterprise landing party encounters a race of violent, technologically advanced, spacefaring cats, the Kzinti.

Delta Trianguli: “The Time Trap” (TAS)

A pretty enough star, a double with a magnitude 4.87 primary that’s a G0 with just a little more mass than our Sun. It’s close, too, a bit over 35 light-years out. It’s a binary, but a spectroscopic one, with the companion (maybe an orange star) close enough that it completes an orbit in just over ten days. No planets have been detected in this system yet, and according to Trek, all that’s there is a graveyard of unfortunate starships.

While exploring the area around Delta, the Enterprise encounters a strange singularity, the Klingon ship Klothos, and a frighteningly advanced alien race.

Capella: “Friday’s Child”

This great star, the Nanny Goat, is actually a spectroscopic binary consisting of as many as four companions. “Capella,” though, is mostly two giant G8III and K0III evolved stars dancing close. Alpha Aurigae is the sixth brightest star in the sky and is also relatively close, 42.2 light-years out.

On beaming down to Capella IV in quest of mining rights for some stuff called “topaline,” the Enterprise landing party finds the Klingons have got there first, and, naturally, want all the topaline for themselves.

Menkab (Alpha Ceti): “The Space Seed”

Associated with two of the original cast’s most famous outings, “The Space Seed” and The Wrath of Khan, this star is an old, tired red giant pretty far along the path to planetary nebula-hood. At magnitude 2.54, it’s quite prominent as the dim stars of the sky’s ocean-area go.

The Enterprise stumbles upon an ancient Earth ship, the U.S.S. Botany Bay, on which they find Khan Noonien Singh and his crew. They unwisely proceed to revive them from their state of suspended animation. “Unwisely” because Khan is (in many respects) a madman, a leader in Earth’s Eugenics Wars. He sought to build a superior race to the detriment of normal humans, and, as you might expect, he and his Homo Superiors soon take over the Enterprise.

Mira (Omicron Ceti): “This Side of Paradise”

Mira, a fairly distant—as Star Trek Stars go—red giant is about 400 light-years out from the UFP…er… “Earth.” This is a pulsating variable star and derives its name “the wonderful,” from the fact that it ranges from magnitude 2.1 down to magnitude 10, making it the brightest variable that actually disappears to the naked eye. When it’s bright in the eyepiece, as it was on this night, it appears as a sparkling yellow beryl.

Kirk, Spock, and crew make for Omicron Ceti III to rescue the colonists there who are being afflicted by something called “Bertold Rays.” Surprisingly, when they arrive they find the colonists are fine, just fine. Seems as they have been infected with alien spores that keep them healthy and happy. Before long, the landing party also gets a taste of this “paradise.”

Gamma Trianguli: “The Apple”

This is a fairly unassuming A1V dwarf star 118 light-years out in Boldly Go territory. White in the eyepiece and fairly bold in the 12-inch at magnitude 4.0.

At Gamma Trianguli, our heroes encounter a planet that would be paradise—if not for the depredations of a “god,” Vaal, who, it turns out, is actually an ancient power generator, not the Big Juju he thinks he is.

I would have kept going to more TOS destinations or maybe even on to the TNG (The Next Generation) ones but for increasing haze and humidity and eventually clouds. I was happy, though; happier than I thought the sight of a handful of “common” stars could have made me. Through the list I’d become reacquainted with my old friends Kirk, Spock, and McCoy who’d offered me a place on their wondrous ship of dreams when I sorely needed it.

There’s much more I can and want to tell you about my years with Star Trek, and maybe I will some time. All else I’ll say today, though, is that it seemed natural and normal when, on our first date, Miss Dorothy admitted she was a Trekkie, having recently attended a Star Trek convention (!). My reply was to pull out my car keys and show her my key ring, a Starfleet Command Insignia.

Next Time: Be Prepared!

Sunday, November 14, 2010


The Herschel Project Nights 15 and 16: 380 Down, 20 to Go

To quote Maxwell Smart: “Missed it by THAT much.” What did your silly old Uncle Miss? My self-imposed deadline for finishing the Herschel II list portion of the Herschel Project. I almost made it, but... The list I’d been using, the original HII from the SkyTools 3 software, was a little inaccurate as compared to the Herschel II list compiled by the Rose City Astronomers. When I switched to the corrected list now available for ST3, I found quite a few objects in Hydra, Canis Major, and Puppis were missing from my “observed” tally.

I believe I will be able to wrap things up next month in Chiefland if I can stay up late enough (always dicey). Whether I do or not is really not a big deal, now, anyway. The Herschel II list, which was originally the be-all and end-all of the Herschel Project, is now only a small part of the show. Not long after I began the HII last year, I decided that wasn’t enough. I wouldn’t stop with the HII, I would work my way through the Big Enchilada, through the Herschels’ whole list of 2500 deep sky objects, maybe with a book on William and Caroline and their deep sky discoveries being the eventual product of my fuzzy hunt.

All along, I’d planned the 2010 Deep South Regional Star Gaze (DSRSG) to be a visual experience, just as it was last year when I began the HII with my 12-inch Dobsonian, Old Betsy. I’ve spent quite a lot of the time since then using video to maximize my Herschel haul, but I don’t want to let the Project stray too far from Just Looking. More than that, I longed for the same sort of experience with my 12.5-inch Dob that William and Caroline had with their “20-foot” (12 and later 18-inch aperture) reflector.

Luckily, I had the good sense to get Old Betsy out to our Tanner - Williams dark site before hauling her off to the DSRSG. I had not used the Dob since last winter, and wanted to make sure she and her Sky Commander computer were still in good order. Alas, they weren’t. The Sky Commander wasn’t, anyway. As the evening wore on, my push-tos became farther and farther off in azimuth.

Slipping azimuth encoder? Probably. My friend Pat Rochford kindly volunteered to come over and help me troubleshoot the DSCs. I demurred. I very much appreciated Pat’s offer, and will take him up on it in the next few weeks, but I would have been paranoid about taking the 12-inch to Deep South even if it appeared we’d well and truly fixed the problem. Which telescope, then?

How about the C11, the NexStar 11 GPS, Big Bertha? She is a great telescope, but she and her case take up mucho room in the car. Dorothy would be with me, and we’d be packing for an additional day this year, as we planned to be onsite beginning Wednesday rather than Thursday this time. Also, I hadn’t used the NS11 since last summer and didn’t want to give Murphy and his cursed Law another opening.

So…yep, you guessed it, Celeste, my beloved C8 and her CG5 German mount were on deck. I’ve used this combo plenty this fall, and had little doubt it would deliver. The Herschel Is and IIs, at least. I was less sure about an 8-inch Schmidt Cassegrain’s ability to bring home many of the Big Enchilada’s dim galaxies.

The C8 wouldn’t be by herself. I thought it would be nice to bring my Pretty Little Patriot, my William Optics 66mm APO refractor, along. She was actually, like the C8, the backup. I had originally intended to pack my StarBlast mini-Dob, who I’ve now got on a nice Synta AZ-4 alt-azimuth mount. I had a yen to do the California Nebula. That legendary and huge Perseus cloud has thwarted me more than once, and I was determined to finally get a good look at it. Since I was taking the C8 instead of a Dob, however, the Patriot seemed a natural. She’d ride piggyback on the C8, giving her tracking and go-to.

After a pleasant 3 and-a-half hour drive into the backwoods of Louisiana, we arrived at the current DSRSG venue, the Feliciana Retreat Center near Norwood. In addition to some impressively dark skies, this site is a real winner far as amenities/infrastructure go: a “Lodge” with motel-like rooms, a new enclosed building perfect for vendors, a real dining hall with decent food, and a spacious observing field.

How did we spend Wednesday afternoon? In addition to setting up the gear, the C8, the EZ-up, and all the ancillary astro-junk I’d been able to cram into the Toyota, I did a lot of watching and learning. I am slated to take the reins of the DSRSG next year as its Managing Director, and I want to have a good handle on what to do. The last thing I want is to be the num-nuts who screws up the south’s oldest still-running star party.

Settled-in, I waited for darkness. Which arrived on schedule, but brought clouds with it. Wednesday night was a complete washout, but thankfully not a literal wash out like the first night of the previous year’s event. There was rain, but not a deluge. I spent quite some time on the field early in the evening, but when the first drops began to fall, I scurried back to the lodge for a restful evening watching movies, and browsing the Internet (thanks to the Lodge’s Wi-Fi).

Thursday morning, D. and I returned to a mostly dry observing field festooned with still-standing EZ-Up canopies. One thing was sure when we stepped outside: a strong cold front had barreled through during the night. We’d gone from 70s to 50s, and the sky was now beautifully clear and blue. There was quite a bit of wind as the front continued to pass, but assured us it would calm after sundown. That was the good. The bad was that it would be cold Thursday evening, maybe in the lower 30s. For once, I wasn’t scared of the dropping mercury. I had a plan.

When you are doing visual observing, nothing helps you keep going into the wee hours more than being able to get out of the cold once in a while. Well, that and Monster Energy Drinks, of course. Feliciana’s just completed new facility, a nice “vendor hall” (that’s what we intend to use it for next year, anyhow) would be open all night and heated, but that was all the way on the other side of the field, and I had a better idea.

What I did was tie-wrap three tarps to our EZ-up canopy, enclosing three of its sides. Yeah, I know you can get tailgating/picnic/EZ-Up canopies with “walls,” but mine did not have them, was still too good to replace after only one year of use, and I am cheap as you well know. The tarps worked and cost five bucks each.

I didn’t stop there, though. I placed one of Coleman’s “Black Cat” catalytic heaters under the canopy and cranked it to “high.” Despite flimsy plastic walls and one side being open, the temperature under the canopy never dropped lower than the mid 50s, even when it was in the upper 20s outside. At 2 a.m. on a cold morning, that is heaven, muchachos.

Which objects did I view Thursday evening? I was rested and raring to go, but not to go real deep. On this first evening there would be a few Herschel IIs for me to clean-up, and I had some non-Herschel objects I wanted to visit with both the C8 and the Patriot. Celeste and I didn’t dare the 13th magnitude hell that is the H2500, just ran through these less forbidding aitches, and then gave my friend Phil Harrington’s new book a field test.

Mr. Harrington’s Cosmic Challenge is just that: a book full of objects, deep sky and Solar System, designed to challenge you and your telescope (or binoculars). And I do mean “challenge;” Uncle Phil rates the Horsehead Nebula as a “small scope challenge” (!). Accompanied by Phil’s excellent and illuminating descriptions, his summer and autumn deep sky wonders made for a great evening of observing. So great and diverting, that before I knew it the display on SkyTools 3 running on my li’l netbook said “3:30 a.m.”

Despite the couple of Monsters I’d chugged (can you believe some of my middle-aged star party companions had never heard of ‘em?!), I was finally weary. There was just one more observation to make before shutting down: I took a good look at this fall’s nice comet, Hartley 2, who appeared as a bright and faintly greenish fuzzball floating through the stars of Canis Minor.

In the C8, I thought I actually glimpsed a hint of the comet’s tail, but I must admit the best, the most aesthetically pleasing, view was with the 66SD refractor. The comet also looked super cool in 40mm Canon roof prism binoculars. This was the first time I’d been able to see our little visitor in binocs of any aperture.

Done admiring Hartley, I pulled the Big Switch and loaded my batteries onto my luggage cart to tote ‘em back to the Lodge for charging (there is now power on the field, but I had not equipped myself with sufficient extension cords). Back in our little room, I was warm and somewhat refreshed and settled in for some more Web browsing and perhaps a small taste of Rebel Yell before drifting off.

Here’re the few Herschel IIs I put to bed Thursday Night, resulting in an HII tally of 380 down and 20 to go. As always, galaxy morphological types are where possible given according to the de Vaucoleurs system, matter in italics was transcribed from my log audio recordings, and images are from the POSS, the National Geographic/Palomar Observatory Sky Survey.

In the 13mm Ethos, Cygnus’ NGC 6997 (H.VIII.58) in the midst of the North America Nebula, is a nice enough 8’ across open cluster. A fairly dim (listed as “magnitude unknown” in SkyTools 3) splash of stars, most of its suns appear to be of magnitude 10 and dimmer. Easily distinguishable from the background and somewhat egg-shaped.

NGC 1700 (H.IV.32), a magnitude 12.20 E4 elliptical galaxy in Eridanus, is immediately obvious near a magnitude 8 star (5’52” to the north-northwest). The seeing is quite poor, so I’m lucky to make out a round fuzzy with a brighter, non-stellar center.

NGC 1750 (H.VIII.43) is a rather boring, large (20’) open cluster in Taurus. A semi-circular patch of dim stars set in a fairly rich field.

I actually looked at one more object before shutting down, Uranus. I never fail to take at least a quick look at the Seventh Planet on any Herschel night it is visible. Thursday evening’s poor seeing didn’t allow me to apply the magnification this distant world cries out for, but at a mere 200x, Geogium Sidus was beautiful and entirely unmistakable.

Friday dawned to more clear skies, and said we could expect both more of that and more cold temperatures. But that would be Friday night. What was there to do in the daytime? Visit with old friends, look at the Internet at the Lodge, and EAT. Another big plus for the Feliciana Retreat Center (this was our second year there) is the food. Far superior to the last site. Heck, there was even a salad bar. At a star party! And I cannot fail to mention my fave desert: pecan pie.

Friday night? Did I attack the Big Enchilada with a will? Nope. Tell the truth, my late/early Thursday had left me without the will to pull another all-nighter. Twenty or even fifteen years ago I would have thought nothing of it, but today? Not So Much. That’s OK; I’ve learned to maximize the hours I can manage.

Though I called it just before 1 a.m., it wasn’t like I didn’t see a lot of cool stuff; it was just that I didn’t see much new or hard cool stuff. What I did was run through the best of the Herschel I list. The First 400 includes fifteen—count ‘em—fifteen Messiers and many NGC showpieces besides, so I had no shortage of spectacular destinations.

Not all those spectacular destinations were with the C8. I hadn’t just brought the Patriot 66 with me on a whim; I wanted to test her (and my) mettle against four legendary, huge objects: the Rosette Nebula, the Helix Nebula, the North America Nebula, and, most of all, the California Nebula, NGC 1499. It’s big and it is legendarily faint and I had doubts as to whether the Patriot would show a trace of eureka-land even under these dark skies.

The Rosette and Helix were hardly a challenge for Little Sister and an OIII equipped 22mm Panoptic eyepiece. Neither was, surprisingly, the North America. That is usually a tough object for me, even in a wide field scope from good skies, but it surprised me on this evening. The nebula was incredibly visible and the “Gulf of Mexico” area was—yes—bright.

NGC 1499 was almost too large for my small APO, but I was able to get enough dark sky around the object to make it faintly visible. Actually, it was fairly easy, if somewhat amorphous as compared to the N.A.N. If I’d had my hbeta filter available, it would likely have been even better, but I couldn’t find the cotton-picking thing. Naturally, it turned up Sunday as I was packing to go home.

Saturday morning, the last morning of DSRSG, I did my very best to sleep as late as possible. If I were to go on a real Herschel tear, it would have to be on this evening, and I wanted to be as rested as I could be. At least fatigue would be the only impediment, it appeared, as the skies continued clear and the weather goobers insisted there’d be no change to that forecast for days. Thankfully, it was to be a little warmer Saturday evening, with temps just barely dipping into the 30s.

After supper was done, a really great supper, I marched out to the field with an air of purpose. I didn’t know how many, if any, of the H2500 I’d be able to see with C8, eye, and eyepieces, but I was determined to find out. I swore I would not call it a night till I’d done my darnedest to see at least 20 new aitches.

Still, I was skeptical about Celeste’s ability to meet the challenge that would be the agenda. With most of the “easy” I and II objects already picked out of the 2500, what I have left is mostly galaxies, lots of galaxies. My battleground would be the deep fields of Pisces, Aquarius, Cetus, Fornax, and Eridanus (yes, despite the river’s proximity to the winter Milky Way, his waters are full of galaxies).

Fortunately, I’d spent the last day formulating some tactics. My battle plan began with my observing software of choice, SkyTools 3. This planner program allows me to sort object lists any way I choose, and what I chose was to arrange them by magnitude. I’d visit the “easier” 11th and 12th magnitude sprites before facing the 13th magnitude and dimmer devils. As the night progressed, SkyTools’ Real Time feature would update the currently available objects, and I’d be able to scroll back to the top of my list for new easy ones on the rise.

I got going, and for the balance of the evening, it went like this: I’d take a look at SkyTools on the netbook, identify the target and punch him into the hand control… “Hey! Wait a minute! Unk, don’t you always use NexRemote instead of a real HC?” Yes, I do, Skeezix, but I’ve found that is not a good thing to do at an e’en marginally crowded star party.

Oh, NR worked great, but early in the evening Thursday casual observers—you know, the folks who set up scopes but never look through them—were constantly traversing the field. My situation was made worse by the fact that I was set up next to a large Dobsonian, which drew these folks like bees to honey. Despite my constant pleas of “Cables, please watch the cables!” an excited gawker eventually snagged my NexRemote wire, unplugging it and causing me to have to realign just as I was getting into my deep sky Zone. After that, it was the non-virtual HC for the balance of the star party.

Anyhoo, I’d punch in the numbers on the hand control, and, while the CG5 was making her weasels-with-tuberculosis sounds, I’d take a look at SkyTools’ “sky simulation.” That’s a field sized chart tailored for your scope and ocular that makes it easy to see what should be where. I’d get the lay of the land and then proceed to Celeste’s eyepiece.

Sometimes the target would be obvious. Often, the dimmer ones would not be. In that case, I’d wander back to ST3 and take a closer look: “Hmm. It’s near that little triangle of stars off to the left.” I’d then return to the eyepiece where I’d almost always be rewarded with a glimpse of my quarry. If I was successful, I’d log the object’s number in my notebook (the one with the picture of Happy Bunny on the cover), and record my impressions with my Sony Pressman tape recorder.

Before I knew it, the 20th Herschel was logged and I was ready for a Monster-fueled break. I’d met my goal for the night, but it was early and I felt as if I were just getting started. How many more could I do? I didn’t know. I was running out of early-evening brighter objects and would now be in 12th – 13th magnitude territory. Rut-roh.

I needn’t have worried. Even the larger objects fell before me and Celeste. It didn’t seem long before we’d passed the 30 mark and were moving southeast into Eridanus as the night grew older. Yeah, I was lucky that most of the evening’s targets were smallish galaxies, making them easier to see despite forbidding magnitude values, but, heck, most of the 2500 is “smaller galaxies.”

What allowed my humble C8 to go so deep? The transparent skies helped (although that was balanced against less than spectacular seeing). No doubt using what I consider the best eyepiece in the world, the 13mm TeleVue Ethos, didn’t hurt neither. My Denkmeier Powerswitch diagonal allowed me to use this outstanding ocular and only this outstanding ocular all night long, giving me the options of raising the power with a 2x Barlow, going barefoot at f/10, or—my usual setting—engaging an f/6.3 reducer with the flick of a switch.

What really made the difference, though? My determination to tackle ‘em with “only” a C8. The honest-to-God truth is that the H2500 is not that tough. Yes, there are some dim ones, but, again, most of those are small galaxies that show up far better than you’d expect. The usual impediment to doing the dimmer Herschels is the FEAR FACTOR: “13th magnitude galaxies? No way!”

Something else that helps is that at least we know what we are looking for and where it should be. William and Caroline had no idea what they were hunting; they spent their observing runs trying to catch whatever drifted into the field. Yes, they had 12 and 18-inch mirrors, but those were speculum mirrors, far less reflective than Celeste’s Starbright primary.

And, so, on I pushed, past 30 to 40. Yes, it was cold, but I had my EZ-up and the catalytic heater. When I got too chilly, I ducked inside and soon felt (relatively) warm. Not that I stayed undercover long. After a few minutes I’d hear a little voice, a little female voice it seemed: “Rod, you know it was so cold one night when Brother and I were observing that the ink in my inkwell froze as I was taking notes. Don’t you think you’d better get back to the telescope?” And I did. You’d better believe I did.

As the night entered into its coldest and darkest reaches, I felt, strangely, more energized and able to face the depths of the Universe than I had earlier. In those wee hours with my eye pasted to the eyepiece I began to feel a closeness to and—dare I say it?—kinship with William and Caroline. Yeah, the Herschels didn’t have a Celestron go-to and SkyTools, but I still fancy my long, chilly night was at least a little like theirs.

By the time I quit, more because of the packing and the drive home we’d face on the morrow than weariness, I’d done well over 60 of the Big Enchilada’s DSOs. Which I think is pretty good for a little old C8 and this aging astronomer. As in the past, I will not bore you with an endless recitation of “small, dim elliptical galaxy, averted vision only,” but also as before, I’d like to share a few of the Goodies with you.

Pisces’ NGC 128 (H.II.854) is impressive. It’s obviously an edge-on in the 13mm Ethos eyepiece. With averted vision, a tiny core becomes visible in this 3.0’ x 0.9’ magnitude 12.77 S0 Peculiar galaxy. A mag 13.3 companion galaxy, NGC 129, lies 6’24” to the east and is occasionally visible.

NGC 210 (H.II.452), over Cetus way, is also attractive in the 13mm ocular. This magnitude 12.53, 5.0’ x 3.3’ intermediate orientation spiral galaxy lies near a kite-shaped (including a tail) asterism. An SABb and clearly elongated, this is a fuzzy, but not a faint one. Surprisingly bright and shows off a small nucleus.

Back in Pisces, NGC 520 (H.III.253) is yet another outstanding Herschel. In images, this is an odd-looking disturbed thing, but all I see is strong elongation. A Peculiar galaxy, it is quite bright at magnitude 12.24 and dimensions of 4.0’ x 1.6’.

NGC 474 (H.III.251) is the brightest of a group of three Pisces galaxies that includes NGCs 470 and 467. Magnitude 12.37 and 7.1’ x 6.7’ NGC 474 gives up a stellar core at times. Lovely field.

NGC 383 (H.II.217), aka “The Pisces Cloud,” is the brightest member in a chain of small galaxies. Actually, the whole little pack is the Pisces Cloud, a group of nine reasonably prominent galaxies that are part of the Perseus – Pisces Supercluster. NGC 383 itself is, at 1.6’ x 1.4’, the largest of the bunch with a fairly impressive outer envelope of nebulosity and a tiny, bright nucleus. A magnitude 13.42 field star is 1’27” to the southwest.

An SABab peculiar galaxy, NGC 835 (H.II.483) is one of four little fuzzies that make up the galaxy group Hickson 13 in Cetus. 835, at magnitude 13.14 and with the slightly elongated dimensions of 1.3’ x 1.0’, is doable with direct vision but its small companions tend to wink in and out of view.

NGC 2129 (H.VIII.26) is an attractive, small open cluster. This wee splash of stars forms an arrowhead-shape set off by two impressive magnitude seven and eight sparklers. Excellent and a nice break from the dim galaxies of the sky’s cosmic ocean realm.

NGC 1535 (H.IV.26), the Cleopatra’s Eye Nebula, is a pretty planetary floating in the currents of Eridanus. This magnitude 9.40, 20” across ball of gas is a striking blue. I seem to make out a dark center/annular shape but do not see the object’s magnitude 12.2 central star. Seeing is poor, discouraging me from upping the magnification in quest of interior detail as I normally would.

Gemini’s NGC 2304 (H.VI.2) is a distant-appearing magnitude 10.0’, 3’ across open cluster, an oval cloud of dim, barely resolved tiny stars. Unlike many Herschel/NGC galactic clusters, this one is a treat, almost looking like a very loose globular at times.

After I’d taken a good, long, and probably last look at Hartley 2 in my buddy Gabe’s 13.1-inch Dobsonian, it was a undeniably A Wrap. I covered Celeste and toddled off to the room. When I got there I was still so pumped by my success with the Herschel 2500 that I didn’t feel a bit sleepy. Out came the netbook, and to CN and Astromart I went for some early morning browsing. Not much going at either website, so I clicked on one of The Sky at Night video files I’d loaded onto my hard drive in case of just such an eventuality.

The episode that appeared on my screen was one from last year that concerned a star party Sir Patrick Moore and his black cat, Ptolemy, held in their garden one night for some of the UK’s most accomplished amateur astronomers. I spent the last few minutes before sleep overtook me enjoying this other star party across the Atlantic in the garden of my hero at Selsey. The cool thing? Sir Patrick’s star party was a lot like the good, old DSRSG. Amateurs are, I guess, the same wherever you go. Some of the nicest and best people in the world, that is.

The last morning of any star party is always sad, but I’d seen a lot, and, most importantly, had had a great time. And I think there are many more great DSRSG times to come. If you’d like to share in these coming great times, why not join us next year for the first DSRSG with your old Uncle at the helm? One thing’s sure, I’ll definitely need the help of my friends, and that is exactly what all of you are.

2018 Update

Yet another entry on the Deep South Regional Star Gaze? There are reasons for that. One being that 2010 was a really good year. Maybe one of the very best. Maybe the best. Everything came together: skies, scope, weather (mostly), and site. This was probably the high water mark for our time at Feliciana Retreat Center.  The food and other amenities were frankly impressive for an out in the backwoods site.

This subject also came to mind because it looks like This is the End My Friend. The DSRSG as it has been for over a decade is no more. It, now even bearing a new name, "Deep South Star Gaze," has been forced to leave FRC for the very reasons I mentioned last time.

This is also a good opportunity to mention the "new" Deep South. My friend (and the Managing Director of DSSG) Barry Simon writes:
As you may have read, we are indeed holding the DSSG at the White Horse Christian Retreat Camp located about 14 miles south of Columbia, MS.  (November 6th thru the 11th.).   What we have now with the new site is a location that can accommodate more telescopes, RVs, campers, etc., giving everyone horizons that are lower all around and under a sky which is Bortle 3, not Bortle 4 as we had at FRC.  The minimal light dome that we have from Columbia which is 14 miles to the north and Hattiesburg which is 35 miles to the northeast is far, far smaller than what we had from the combination of Baton Rouge, Baker, Zachary and Clinton to the south of FRC.  Baton Rouge, also 35 miles away from FRC has a population about 5 times larger than Hattiesburg.  We truly have better skies and those that attended the Trial Run that we did in August are really charged up about that.
While we do not have lodge rooms like we had at FRC we do have bunk houses that are better than we had at Percy Quin State Park, and far better than the accommodations we had at Camp Ruth Lee [the pre-FRC site of the event].  We have complete control of the lights and we have an owner at White Horse who has been very accommodating and willing to work with us.  We have a meal plan in place, and we will also have a snack bar at night between 8 pm and 10 pm.  In addition, the Country Diner which is about 4 miles from the observing field is great (I have eaten there twice already - check out the web site).
So where does it stand with me? Will I be there for the new one? I'm not sure. Several factors may indeed conspire to keep me away--this year at least. But I will certainly be out on that observing field with all my old friends in spirit, if nothing else.

Finally, I never did assume the Directorship of the DSRSG. The main reason was a change in my situation at work:  I moved to a project that required much more travel and commuting than ever before. Also, I think it was in part because I (and many of the rest of us) thought Deep South just wouldn't be Deep South without the talented hand of Barry Simon at the helm.

Sunday, November 07, 2010


A DSRSG Hiatus

DSRSG? Yep, the Deep South Regional Star Gaze, our local/regional star party held in the backwoods of Louisiana far from bad old city lights at the Feliciana Retreat Center. In the coming weeks you can be sure you will get a full rundown of what I did and what I saw including how many Herschels I conquered.

For now? I didn't have time to do a real entry between trying to catch up on my sleep and watching what DSRSG honchos Barry and Len did. I am slated to take over as Managing Director of DSRSG, and I hope I paid enough attention not to screw up too much next year as they pass this wonderful star party (named one of Astronomy Magazine's "Great American Star Parties") from their capable hands into my somewhat shaky ones.

Still, I ain't gonna totally cheat y'all out of your Sunday a.m. read. Here are some pictures I took with my little pocket cam that will give you an idea of what went on (I'll have plenty of better pictures from my "real" digital cameras to show you eventually).

It would be hard to imagine a more beautiful setting for a star party than the backwoods of Louisiana. This is the road from the motel-like Lodge to the observing field.

Not bad numbers wise for early Thursday morning, I reckon.

We didn't get any hours under the stars Wedneday night, but as Thursday dawned, a front pushed through bringing blue skies and we got to work getting our gear ready for a good Thursday night.

Yeah, I guess you could say I wimped out aperture-wise, but I gotta tell y'all, my C8, Celeste, is still my favorite scope of all time.

If you fancy big TEC reflectors, you woulda been in heaven. Poor Miss Celeste felt kinda like Oliver Twist at breakfast time. On the other hand, she brought 3 more inches of aperture to the table than those beauties could muster...

The aftermath: what a night! Beautifully clear skies all night Thursday left a vista of tarp-covered and dew-soaked telescopes and tired observers in their wake. Hell, e'en your lazy old Uncle made it to almost 4 a.m.

Next Time: "TO BOLDLY the DSRSG"

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