Sunday, January 30, 2011



What’s Unk going on about now? I’m guessing most of you young'uns have never heard the above expression, at least not in the context I place it in. Confused yet? What does that have to do with amateur astronomy, the supposed beat of The Little Old Blog from Chaos Manor South? Every once in a while, as those of y’all who’ve been onboard for a while know, I stray off the beaten path of astronomy. This is one of those times.

About a year ago, I wrote an entry, “Goodnight Moon,” that expressed my disappointment with the Obama Administration’s decision to, as I saw it, shut down NASA’s manned spaceflight program(s). What Obama wanted to do was put the development of new spacecraft, both for low earth orbit, LEO, and for deep space missions (missions other than to the ISS) in the hands of private enterprise.

I wasn’t too happy, despite the fact that NASA has not exactly had an unblemished record over the last thirty years. They’ve often been willing to give in to the demands of politicians for “more for less.” At times, it’s seemed as if NASA’s prime directive has not been to explore the Final Frontier, but to keep NASA’s workforce gainfully employed. Employed in programs so cash-starved they accomplish little. Those of y’all who know me will testify that I’ve been one of the Agency’s harshest critics when they’ve deserved it.

No, the Shuttle did not work out as originally planned. It fell short of our dreams of a space moving-van, an orbital C-130. The ISS hasn’t been even a partial success. It’s a huge white elephant that gobbles money like peanuts while not advancing a program of exploration or engaging the public. It has never had a clearly defined mission of any kind, and apparently wasn’t designed to.

But NASA hasn’t always deserved criticism, even in its latter Shuttle days. The Hubble Space Telescope alone is almost enough to justify thirty years of dithering around in LEO. Leaving aside the disappointments in the human spaceflight program, unmanned mission after unmanned mission, from Viking to New Horizons, has advanced our knowledge of the Great Out There tremendously.

If blame can be placed at the doorstep in Houston, it’s that, as above, for too long NASA has been content to go along to get along. Instead of telling the politicians “We simply cannot do it for the money you are giving us; we’ll have to forget the whole thing,” NASA has always folded, promising to somehow accomplish the mission with too little money in too compromised a fashion.

The ironic thing? In the last few years, it almost appeared as if NASA had shaken off its malaise. There was a new excitement brewing with plans for a new manned spaceflight system, “Constellation,” which would be capable of undertaking missions to both the ISS and beyond. That “beyond” being the Moon. Wonder of wonders, NASA was actually and finally making plans to return to Luna.

I don’t know about y’all, but the continuing mystery to me has always been why NASA has been too timid to advance the idea of a return to the Moon. If you are (supposedly) interested in sending men and women farther than LEO someday, maybe on to Mars, returning to the Moon is a natural. Not only is it close and relatively easy and an excellent training ground for more ambitious deep space missions, it, contrary to what the more ignorant pundits and even some people who should know better will tell you, is an outstanding end in itself.

Science-wise, it’s laughable to say, as some of the ignorant and biased will, “been there, done that.” We’ve barely been there and done very almost nothing. We’ve explored too tiny a fraction of the Moon’s surface to say we’ve really explored it at all. The Moon is a world, a still mysterious one, and the more we learn about it, the more complex and interesting it becomes. It’s now evident that the good old boring Moon is a repository of a wealth of minerals—and even water. Water that could not just support a Lunar colony, but fuel ships departing the Moon’s rocket-friendly gravity well for more distant ports of call.

The plans to go back lasted just barely through Year One of the current Administration’s tenure. Despite some noises during the campaign about supporting manned spaceflight, Obama soon let the axe fall. The Constellation Program would be cancelled. Private contractors would design and field manned spacecraft to ferry crews to the ISS. The deep space part of NASA’s plans? The return to the Moon was cancelled. The heavy lift booster was cancelled. Maybe (at some future time) a heavy lifter would be developed to take us beyond Earth orbit to some place. Not the Moon. Probably not Mars. Maybe to an asteroid or something. It was made clear, however, that that was just a “maybe.”

“But Uncle Rod, private companies built NASA’s Apollo, Gemini, and Mercury spacecraft. Why can’t they do that again?” They have never stopped. Private industry, private contractors, built the Shuttle and every other U.S. space system. To NASA’s designs and missions. What Obama proposes is that NASA be taken out of the loop. That private companies, with government help, build spacecraft to their own specifications. Man-rated spacecraft.

Me? I think I’d want NASA in the same capacity they’ve always been in, overseeing and managing contractors. If NASA hasn’t always managed perfectly, fix that rather than throw out both the dadgummed baby and the bathwater. Which is just what has been done. What Obama decided was that we’d scrap a system, Constellation, already far along, four years along, in its development and start from scratch, wasting billions to switch horses to an as yet un-designed “something.”

NASA’s future role under the Obama plan? To supply astronauts. Probably. Other than that? Difficult for me to say exactly what NASA will be doing. The Agency’s new administrator, Charles Bolden, however, thinks he knows. In a widely-publicized interview, he offered that NASA’s FOREMOST mission is not to explore the Great Out There, but to improve relations with the Muslim world. There’s nothing wrong with Muslims; I’d feel the same if Bolden had said NASA’s foremost mission is to improve relations with Baptists. NASA’s foremost mission should be to get us off this stinking rock.

Of course I have no doubt some of y’all probably wonder why we should worry about venturing off this planet, at least sending humans off this planet, anyway. Even some amateur astronomers of my acquaintance are strongly against human spaceflight. I reckon they just don’t get it that, in the long term (and I know us Americans don’t much like thinking about that pea-picking Long Term), moving humans off planet means the survival of the human race—if you fancy such a thing desirable, which I sometimes doubt of late. But there are other reasons, too. Reasons that have nothing to do with keeping folks in Florida and Texas employed.

One other reason was eloquently stated by Leo Szilard in his recollection of what his fellow physicist, Otto Mandl, said one day,
He thought he knew what it would take to save mankind from a series of recurring wars that could destroy it. He said that man has a heroic streak in himself. Man is not satisfied with a happy idyllic life; he has the need to fight and encounter danger. And he concluded that what mankind must do to save itself is to launch an enterprise aimed at leaving the earth. On this task he thought the energies of mankind could be concentrated and the need for heroism could be satisfied.
I’m not insisting you agree with old Otto, but it is an interesting idea. I can’t help but wonder where we’d have come in four decades if we’d poured the lives and lucre we expended in Vietnam and Iraq into space. Sometimes, when I’m feeling blue, I wonder if the commander of our first Mars mission died in the jungles of ‘Nam.

No matter what the politicians believe or say they believe at any given time, not much can happen unless the public is full engaged and behind the space program. Frankly, they are not. Oh, they are not against it. They are mildly for it. They are just uneducated about it. And fearful of “spending all that money.” I’m not talking about the people who insist we end poverty on Earth before setting foot in space. You will never sway them; I’m talking about middle-of-the-road Mom and Pop America.

Do we spend too much money on space? We spend far more than the entire NASA budget on foolish and ephemeral things that I won’t waste your time enumerating here. The public doesn’t realize that, though. In a recent poll a random sample of adults was asked to estimate the percentage of the budget consumed by NASA. The responses averaged out to 25%. The actual figure is .60%. Yes, that is a decimal in front of the six.

Weren’t Mom and Pop once more educated about and more excited about space? Yes. Yes indeed. Will you indulge me for a minute and let me tell you what it was like growing up in the A-OK days?

I’m hard put to give you youngsters a feel for the excitement in the air when the Space Age was aborning, back in the early 1960s. We’d suddenly gone from stark, staring fear when the Soviets put that beeping Sputnik of theirs in orbit, to elation as Shepard and then Grissom and Glenn lifted off in their Mercury spacecraft. Yes, we were behind the Russkies, but no longer way behind. The sky was now the limit. Heck, our young President said we were going to the Moon and at least implied that would be just the beginning. But still we worried. Major Glenn went up for a few orbits, the Soviets went for dozens.

Much of the concern about the U.S. lagging behind in the SPACE RACE was focused on us kids. We were not, the old folks worried, getting enough math and science in school. That had to be remedied. And soon. Suddenly, even down here in benighted Possum Swamp, the dollars began to flow into the schools. Our teachers made heroic efforts to impress upon us the importance of this New Frontier, and make sure we were up to speed not just on our math and science, but on the doings of America’s Space Agency. Math, science, space. Lots of it. Throw me into that briar patch, Brer Fox.

In elementary school, that resulted not just in us doing lots of “science units” on astronomy/space, but our teachers getting into the swim of the latest educational innovations designed to pull America’s supposedly math-science ignorant kids up by our bootstraps. It was heady stuff for the Rodster to suddenly go from covering and re-covering fractions and long division with Old Miss Alsabrook in the fifth grade to the New Math with pretty Miss Stinson in the sixth. This New Math with its set theory and modular arithmetic was fascinating stuff. I loved it.

Yes, we were being drilled in math and science furiously. The name of our nation’s new agency, NASA (reconstituted from the old NACA), was on our teachers’ lips daily, and one of the new TVs the school had been able to buy with the influx of federal dollars was invariably wheeled into our classroom for every single Mercury launch. But outer space was not something you only heard about in school.

The Great Out There was all over TV. At first in the form of the previous decade’s space movies, like Forbidden Planet, Destination Moon, and The Conquest of Space, which were suddenly more popular than they’d been when they were new. These films were not just more popular, their tales of space spanning journeys had gone from pie-in-the-sky in the fifties to just-around-the-corner in the sixties.

There were even some attempts made—usually with the cooperation of NASA—to go beyond the made-for-TV foolishness like Rocky Jones, Space Ranger to original and serious depictions of the New Frontier on the boob tube. In particular there was Men Into Space, a short-lived but (I thought) wonderful show that looked like Chesley Bonestell paintings come to life.

Of course our hunger for space wasn’t just assuaged by hard-core nuts and bolts programs. The Twilight Zone, Rod Serling’s initially often well done science fiction/fantasy anthology series had some space-centric episodes, with little Unk’s fave being “Where is Everybody?” Serling’s final narration for this outing gave me chills . It had such an enervating effect on li’l Rod that Mama became concerned I was having some sort of fit. In fact, it still has that wonderful effect on me to this day:

Up there, up there in the vastness of space, in the void that is the sky, up there is an enemy known as isolation. It sits there in the stars waiting. Waiting with the patience of eons. Forever the Twilight Zone.

Well I remember me and Mama sitting and shivering as The Twilight Zone’s sometimes frightening little tales unwound. But it wasn’t all scary stuff. Space could be funny, too. If you’ve seen the film The Right Stuff, you know about Alan Shepard’s silly but funny impression of (non Hispanic) Bill Dana as the frightened “Jose the Astronaut.” Dana’s routine, which would hardly be politically correct today, took the country by storm, and Dana soon leapt from comedy record albums to TV, where Jose would, after being asked if he were going into orbit soon, drawl, “Oh, I hope not.”

In the early days, the Mercury Seven, the original seven Astronauts, were almost demigods, and I had no idea that my astronaut, Alan Shepard, loved Jose as much as I did. Yeah, “my astronaut.” Back in those innocent times, most of us kids had a favorite astronaut. I was torn. John Glenn was a Marine, and that made him especially cool. And he’d been the first American to orbit the Earth. But Alan Shepard was the first American man in space. I had been so impressed when my second grade class watched the flight of Freedom Seven, the vision of the mighty Redstone lifting off was so imprinted on my little mind, that I had to throw my allegiance to Shepard.

Thus we come to the catchword of the day, A-OK. That was supposedly what astronauts pronounced when everything on the mission was going good, when that Right Stuff was really ginned up. Apparently, none of the astronauts ever actually said “A-OK,” but no matter. Kids picked up on it big-time, and soon everything was A-OK.

I can remember nearly driving Mama bugs one Saturday morning as we drove downtown to Dauphin Street for one of her epic shopping trips. Li’l Rod’s response to every question she asked me that morning was “A-OK!” Which I kept up till Mama inevitably lost her cool, threatening to “Turn this car around right now, MISTER, and drop you at Granny’s for the day.” That calmed me down as that penalty would mean missing out on buying a SPACE TOY of some kind on the toy aisle of S.H. Kress’ five-and-dime store.

What did I get there? There was plenty to choose from. The toy merchants had picked up on the space craze, and the shelves were groaning with everything from reissues of tired old Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers rayguns, to wonderful new things like the amazing PROJECT X-500 launch center and the Marx Cape Canaveral playsets. Those were very expensive—five or ten dollars—so they were the stuff of birthdays, if not Christmas. Usually what I could hope for would be a bag of the old Multiple Plastics Company’s spacemen, maybe accompanied by a little ship of some kind.

In a few years, the toy companies would be issuing recognizable Mercury and Gemini capsules with abandon, but at first it was enough to sell something-anything that looked vaguely like a rocketship, even if its appearance had more to do with the Nike air defense missiles that would supposedly protect some of us from incoming Soviet Bear bombers than it did with outer space.

But that was A-OK; I didn’t need much to fire my imagination. If Mama was wise enough to run me through Kress before hitting Lerner’s dress shop and our fancy department store, Gayfer’s, she could be assured I’d be compliant and quiet for the rest of the trip, with my astronauts busily exploring these uber-boring establishments, which had magically metamorphosed into the sands of Mars or the frigid wastes of a distant asteroid.

One particularly sweet birthday, Mama and Daddy presented me with a cake topped by a plastic rocket that looked a lot like one of the Von Braun wonders I’d seen in Disney’s Man in Space when it played at the Roxy. I once again nearly drove Mama to distraction “orbiting” from the living room to the kitchen and back, all the while BEEPING like a Sputnik. The little Boxer pup that wandered up and that Mama and Daddy let me keep? I insisted on naming him “Satellite.”

The point of these reminiscences? Just that one of the roadblocks we space enthusiasts face is the public’s seeming disinterest in spaceflight. What powered Apollo was not or not just Von Braun’s massive engines, but the palpable and far reaching public excitement (well, with a little fear of the Russkies and good, old fashioned American competitiveness thrown in). How do we get that back? The public must be led to space. Educated about it. Excited with a vision of the future.

Where do we stand with that in this year 2011, which was supposed to be the wonderful space-borne future when I was a sprout? I was half listening to the President’s State of the Union speech the other night. I am not a big fan of the political malarkey that infuses these events, whichever party is in power, but I was curious whether Obama, like most of his predecessors would mention the space program, at least in passing. I was doubtful, so I almost fell off my chair when the President intoned:
Half a century ago, when the Soviets beat us into space with the launch of a satellite called Sputnik, we had no idea how we would beat them to the moon. The science wasn't even there yet. NASA didn't exist. But after investing in better research and education, we didn't just surpass the Soviets; we unleashed a wave of innovation that created new industries and millions of new jobs.
But, unfortunately, that was all there was. A hearkening back to the glory days in an attempt to inspire us today to improve the economy or do whatever other things Obama thinks worth doing. Apparently that is not flying men and women to the Moon. In fact, this Administration apparently thinks we can’t. NASA Administrator Bolden, in the same interview where he described NASA’s new prime mission, opined that “The United States is not going to travel beyond low-Earth orbit on its own.”

In addition to being a sad and sorry thing for a former astronaut to say, it is rubbish. Given our wealth and technology we can—we could—do far more than what we did in Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo. But we must be allowed to. Manned space flight must be a priority for the Administration, not an inconvenience. I’m not letting NASA off the hook, either. They must lead the Administration and the country with a vision of the New Frontier. No more settling for whatever scraps are thrown their way.

What do I expect? No matter who is in power after the next Presidential election, I don’t expect much. I expect some progress to be made on a private space taxi capable of reaching the ISS. That’s it. If the current Administration continues in office and continues on its present course, I believe there will be vague and occasional talk about a heavy lift booster and missions beyond LEO, but only vague talk.

If a more space friendly President takes office? That could change, but the cancellation of the Constellation Project means so much ground has been lost and so much money wasted that it will be a long, hard slog to return to where we were two years ago—and that assumes an Administration and Congress and a NASA very serious about manned exploration.

The bottom-line? Muchachos, I hate to end on a down note, especially since when this was written it was enough of a down day, the 25th anniversary of the Challenger disaster, for us space nuts. I hope I am wrong, too, but… As things stand now, I do not expect to live to see a U.S. return to the Moon, much less a landing on Mars, and I ain’t that old. Is that the shape of things that must be or only might be? I hope for the “might.” The House and Senate have not come close to fully embracing Obama’s planned American exit from manned space travel. Worse comes to worst? Somebody else will, I believe, have the sense to pick up the torch. Likely China.

But I still want Americans in space in American spacecraft. Is there no hope? I know that “write your Congressman” is one of the most hopeless phrases in American English, but I don’t know what else to tell you to do. Maybe it wouldn’t hurt to let them know that there are still a few starry-eyed boomers out there, and maybe even a few starry-eyed youngsters.

Next Time: Charity Hope Valentine confronts the Herschel 400!

Sunday, January 23, 2011


Wired Astronomy

When we last left microcomputer (you do remember that word?) crazy Uncle Rod, he’d transitioned from his Commodore 64 and Apple II Plus and Creative Computing Magazine, to an IBM 486, PC World, and, at long last, some truly useful astronomy software in the form of David Chandler’s Deep Space 3-D.

The new astro software popping up like daisies on a spring field was great, but it was soon obvious one of the biggest uses for computers in amateur astronomy would have nothing to do with running planetariums on your isolated computer; it would have to do with computer to computer communications.

Actually, by the time I entered the world of serious computing with a genu-wine PC, I was already an online veteran. A local amateur astronomer buddy of mine had gone C64 crazy, acquiring two or three of the blasted things, and had set up a Bulletin Board System, a BBS, for local Commodore users. Heck, he’d had a second phone line installed to facilitate things. While a lot of what he put on the air with his BBS was general-interest and Commodore computer related, he also had some astronomy offerings. A couple of little programs for the 64 for download, some local astro related messaging, and even a space picture or two (shazam!).

“What exactly was a ‘BBS,’” the younguns ask? There’s nothing like one today, not precisely. It was sorta like connecting to a big website, I suppose. A website that offered many and varied things: message boards, file downloads, news, pictures, etc. How did you connect to one back in the dark ages? I plugged my 300 baud (don’t ask) modem cartridge into my C64, used a “terminal” program to dial the number of the desired BBS, and I was rocking and rolling online. While a BBS was sort of like a website, you had to disconnect and dial the phone number of another BBS to connect to a different “website.”

While my friend's BBS was diverting fun, given the primitive nature of the C64 and its software, it really wasn’t of much practical use in astronomy—or anything else. It wasn’t until I got my IBM (which came with a freaking 1200 baud modem), discovered a program called “The Blue Wave,” and found that a couple of the more advanced local BBS systems were connected to something called “Fidonet” that I got a sense of the potential of online astronomy.

What in the H-E Double Hockey Sticks was Fidonet? Fidonet was like a primitive Yahoogroups, I guess (I was gonna say “Usenet,” but fewer and fewer people know what that was/is). For you real old-timers, it was like a grassroots, civilian DARPANET. There were no direct connections between the BBSes scattered across the country, though. They shared message data by dialing each other late at night and shuffling packets down the line.

That was all transparent to users, of course, which was a good thing back in the days when most of us were pretty computer-ignorant. All we knew was that you logged on to your local BBS with your terminal program, entered the Fidonet messaging area, selected your board of choice, read the mail, replied to what you wanted to reply to, and posted new topics when you felt moved to—not at all unlike what we do on the Yahoogroups (or Astromart or Cloudy Nights boards) today.

That was one way you could access Fidonet, but it wasn’t the best way. Usually you wouldn’t want to sit connected to the BBS scanning and reading hundreds of messages. Remember, you were using the home phone line, and if hubby/wife or (most of all) a teenager in the house had a call to make, they would be right put out at you for tying things up. If they picked up an extension while you were online, your connection (often hard-won after many, many busy signals) would be instantly broken.

The solution? The Blue Wave. It was a mail reader program, in some ways the ancestor of the email programs we use today. But with one very important difference: it was an OFFLINE mail reader. The way it worked was simple and elegant. You gave it the telephone number of your BBS and the names of the Fidonet message boards you were interested in. When you hit the go button, it would connect to the system, download all new messages from your chosen boards, and log off, all in just a minute or two, avoiding much whining by telephone-crazy teens in those DARK PRE-CELL PHONE DAYS.

After Blue Wave did its message-gathering thing online, everything else was done in a disconnected state. You browsed the message boards just like being online, reading and replying to the “mail.” How could you reply? You composed your replies (and new posts) with Blue Wave, which stored them in an outbox. The next time you connected to the BBS, BW would upload your replies and posts in addition to downloading new messages. The Blue Wave made internet messaging practical for Mom and Pop America for the first time.

OK, so even computer ignernt Unk could now exchange messages over a network. What kind of messages? Most of all there was Fidonet Astronomy. Yeah, there was only one active amateur astronomy board on Fidonet (there were several jam-packed UFO messaging areas), but that was OK; the number of wired amateur astronomers was still vanishingly small, so our single board was more than enough.

When I first logged onto Fido Astronomy, I was gobsmacked; there was a huge amount of traffic (by the standards of the time) and the board was very capably moderated by an amateur astronomer who was a professional astronomer in his day job. The posts were incredibly useful. New supernova? You no longer found out about it too late to see it at its best, you knew about it right away. There was plenty of information and gossip about astro-stuff for the gearheads. And lots of observing reports.

Most of all, Fido Astronomy gave those of us who participated a real feeling of COMMUNITY. Just went out in the backyard and saw something cool? Come in and post a message about it. Before long there’d be replies from your fellow amateurs all across the country commenting on your post and adding observations of their own. Man, was that cool.

Fidonet was more than just cool for me, actually. It was a godsend. I was newly divorced and my social calendar wasn’t exactly full. I tended to work long hours for want of much else to do. I’d get home, and if it was cloudy I’d fire up The Blue Wave (and maybe open a cold one), and go to an astronomy club meeting on nights when there was no astronomy club meeting.

Fido Astronomy was sweet, yeah. So wonderful I thought it would last forever. Alas, it had the misfortune to come along just as the world was changing and BBSes were going the way of the dodo. I enjoyed the hell out of Fido for a year or two, but by 1994 even those of us out in the hinterlands had begun to hear whispers about this “Internet” thing and what we were told was the SUPER astro board of all time, s.a.a., sci.astro.amatur.

As soon as I could find a way to do so, I connected to the Internet—like a lot of the more Internet-baffled of the time, unwisely choosing America Online. Despite the clunkiness of AOL, I found s.a.a. was everything it was cracked up to be. Almost. Yes, it was a super bulletin board for amateurs, with far more posters and posts than old Fido had ever had. Its only failing, which eventually proved its downfall, was that it was unmoderated. But that was OK at first. We moderated ourselves and had a high old time.

Nothing is forever, of course. While s.a.a. is still available from some ISPs and from Google, it’s well past its prime and is almost completely taken up by spam and craziness. Even if it weren’t for the trolls and morons, s.a.a. would be pretty passé by now. As the number of online amateurs grew, there were eventually enough of us to populate far more specialized amateur astronomy discussion forums. Thus came Yahoogroups (née eGroups). I wouldn’t be surprised to find there’s a Yahoogroup devoted solely to eyepiece caps now.

Below are the places I find and have found valuable. What will be interesting is to come back in a year or two and see how these websites are faring. Nothing stands still on the Internet, not even in the normally staid and conservative (with a small “C”) world of amateur astronomy.

Message Boards

Yahoogroups is still the reigning champ. And I say that not just because I myself own/moderate around twenty amateur astronomy groups. The strength of Yahoo is in its versatility. It is in the traditional email “mailing list” mold, but you have the choice of reading posts online on the Yahoo website where there are features like topic-threading, or receiving messages as plain email (or with a few non-ascii enhancements). You can also choose to receive blocks of email, “digests,” so as not to clog up your inbox. That’s Not All, though.

In addition to messaging, Yahoogroups gives each group a nice-looking web page and server space for storing photos and files. There’s a calendar that can be set up to send reminders for group events—very handy for astronomy clubs—and much other stuff. And it is all free. Is it any wonder there are hundreds of amateur astronomy groups on Yahoogroups?

And yet…and yet… As above, everything on the Internet has its season, and I sense Yahoogroups’ season may be passing. Compared to modern tropes, and especially the oh-so-popular Facebook, Yahoogroups is beginning to look antique and feel stodgy and slow. Yahoo tried to revamp the Groups into a more Facebook-like form, but users howled with outrage and Yahoo backed off. My club and my star party (Deep South Regional Star Gaze) are on Yahoogroups, but I am strongly considering moving them both to Facebook.

More and more, when you say “amateur astronomy message forums,” people think “Cloudy Nights.” Why? This website, a service of telescope dealer Astronomics, looks good, works well, and is easy to use. There’s lots of traffic and there are boards for almost any astronomy subject under the stars. I use it daily and could not get along without my morning CN fix.

Astromart, which used to belong to Anacortes Telescope and Wild Bird, but which now seems to have been at least semi-spun-off, also has message boards, though that’s probably not why you go there. What are they like? They are pretty good. I read them daily, though there is not nearly as much traffic there as there is on CN. Why is that?

Part of it is that Astromart is now at least nominally a pay service (though the “pay” is a small one-time fee currently), and you cannot read forum messages, much less post them, without being a member. There used to be heavier traffic here, but, frankly, another thing that has reduced that is the message boards’ interface. Most folks find it less attractive and useable than the system on Cloudy Nights. Still, there are quite a few good posts and quite a bit of good info on the A-mart forums—if not as much of either as there used to be.

Yahoogroups, Cloudy Nights, and Astromart are hardly the only amateur astronomy bulletin boards on the Internet. Astronomy Magazine offers forums, and there are several boards run by independent operators. In the U.S., though, this pack is way back there in the dust compared to the big three.

Classified Ads

First there was the Starry Messenger, a little swap-n-shop periodical for amateur astronomy gear. When Internet astronomy hit, that begat Astromart, which was bought out by Herb York and Anacortes Telescope and Wild Bird and became the place to buy and sell astro gear. It still is. There are other online classified services for the buying and selling of astrostuff, but none comes even close in quantity or quality to A-mart.

The Astromart classified ad system is elegantly simple and easy to use. It just works. More importantly, perhaps, thanks to the tireless efforts of Mr. York and company, Astromart is about as safe as any classified website ever will be.

Curiously, the classified ads status quo between Astromart and Cloudy Nights is the exact opposite of what it is with messaging. CN has classifieds, but most people don’t like the system/interface as much as they like Astromart's, there is less traffic and fewer ads, and it does not seem as “clean” or safe as Astromart. In fact, as this was being written CN’s classifieds were down for "maintenance" due to increasing concerns about scams there. I hope they get it going again and going good, as there is certainly room for two astro-classified sites.

Not that the above two biggies are the only astronomy classifieds on the net. You can find quite a bit of astronomy gear on the eBay if that is your cup of tea, but there are numerous other astronomy websites offering classifieds, too. Like Astronomy Mall, a long time astro-web-hosting service. One thing all these places have in common, though? Few ads (Astronomy Mall had exactly ONE current ad when I checked just now), not much traffic, and a feeling that if you get scammed you shouldn’t expect too much help or hand-holding.

The Useful Stuff

There are plenty of astronomy sites that fit this mold: lots of good, general use information for you and me and even Joe and Jane Novice. Four I’d like to single out, though, are Heavens Above,, Andy’s Shot Glass, and

When I need to know anything about what’s up in the sky and when it’s up, especially when I am away from my astronomy software, the place I turn is Heavens Above. Heavens Above has quite a bit of good stuff, but the features I use the most are its satellite predictions and its all-sky maps. Need to know when the HST or ISS will make a good pass for your locality? Need to know what that bright satellite you saw last night was? Heavens Above will tell you quickly and elegantly. The site will also draw an excellent all-sky map you can print out and which can be tailored for your particular time, date, and location.

Heavens-Above has been around for years, weathering all the last decade’s changes in the Internet with aplomb. It’s easy to see why: it is not fancy, but it has the overriding characteristics of all good web pages: it works well and simply and does useful things.

When I need an all-sky planisphere-like star chart, Heavens-Above is not always where I go to get one. Not if I want something a little prettier and tailored, like the charts in the monthly magazines, to the coming month rather than a specific date and time. Where I invariably go for that sort of thing is The Skymaps chart, which is rendered with near typeset quality, is accompanied by a listing of the month’s most interesting celestial events. These are great for use with students or to hand-out at public star parties.

Y’all know me: I love telescopes. All telescopes. But I particularly love cheap telescopes. It just tickles me to see how much I can get out of a proletarian Chinese scope or an old 60s retread. If you are interested in astronomy on a budget, and especially astronomy with affordable imported telescopes, you owe it to yourself to check out Andy Raiford’s site.

Andy’s Shot Glass is, as is emblazoned across the top of its page, dedicated to “astronomy for non gazillionaires.” It’s filled with movies, files, useful little applets, and other cool stuff to help you get the most out of your el cheapo gear; especially if your agenda includes imaging. While it focuses mostly on Orion (Synta) gear, this website is a great resource for all bargain basement equipment owners.

At first glance,, which is operated by Dr. Tony Phillips and sponsored by NASA, would seem to be of little interest to anybody but solar observers. And it is the go-to place for daily data on Sol. There is other stuff too, though; especially if the other stuff you are interested in has to do with auroras or atmospheric phenomena. If you, like many of us, are a ham, an amateur radio operator as well as an amateur astronomer, this site is indispensable for its information on propagation. How much do I like Spaceweather? There is a link to it on my desktop. Nuff said?

Magazine Websites

The first web page I went to when I finally got access to the cotton-picking WWW? Sky & Telescope’s web site. That just seemed natural. Sky and ‘Scope had carried me through the previous three decades of amateur astronomy; surely they’d continue to do so in the electronic age. And they did. Some folks may accuse me of bias, since I write for the (print) magazine on occasion. I don’t care. is just flat out good. The site has had its ups and downs, but it is now definitely firing on all cylinders.

What do I like about it? Tons of stuff. There’s a good interactive star chart, blogs, a shopping center, and frequently updated astro-news. What do I like most? That’s easy, “This Week’s Sky at a Glance,” a weekly (natch) rundown on what’s visible. It’s kept me from missing lots of stuff I would have been sorry to miss. Better? You can now receive this feature on a special iPod/iPhone/iPad app, Skyweek, which is the fracking kitty’s meow.

There is a lot of stuff on Astronomy Magazine’s website, too: forums, news, sky maps (including a fairly impressive interactive charting system), and a lot more. But I’ve never found the page as useful as that of their competitor. Why? It’s a little cluttered and too glitzy for Luddite old me, I reckon. One interesting thing at is supplementary content to go with the month’s print magazine. Shame they restrict it to subscribers, though—I believe that is shortsighted and that the carrot of offering it to all comers would actually help subscription sales more than the stick of pay-to-play does.

Sky and ‘Scope and Astronomy are not the only English language astronomy magazines, of course. In addition to non-newsstand and semi-pro-zines, some with fairly impressive websites, the UK’s pros, Sky at Night and Astronomy Now both have extensive online presences. One of these days I will do a blog devoted to nothing by astro-zine sites. For now, I’ll say that S&T and Astronomy are by far the leaders, but that there are a couple of up-and-comers.

Professional Resources

Back in the bad old days, if you needed information, hard core information, on astronomy and didn’t live near a major university and have access to its library, you were pretty much out of luck. What’s the Hubble type of PGC Umptysquat? Sorry Charlie. Of course, in this latter day when a C8 can bring back 15th and 16th magnitude galaxies with a 10-second exposure, we need this sort of data more than we used to. Lucky we amateurs now have access to some wonderful professional sites.

Foremost among these is the Digitized Sky Survey. What that is is the entire Palomar Observatory/National Geographic Sky Survey. Yep, all them wonderful plates the 48-inch Oschin Schmidt took way back when. Oh, how I dreamed of having this on microfiche in the 80s and CDs in the 90s. I could never afford either version, alas. Today, guess what? Free and online.

This site has saved my bacon more than once when I’ve been attempting a difficult observation. Add to that the fact that the folks who administer the page, the Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy, are real nice and have kindly allowed me to use their images in a couple of my books. Just don’t get much better.

A close second for me is good, old N.E.D., the NASA/IPAC Extragalactic Database. What is it? It is a gigant-a-normous data base of nearly 200 MILLION extragalactic objects. Type in your target’s ID, and NED swiftly delivers plenty of data about the most obscure objects: Hubble types, magnitudes, redshifts, even images. Frankly, I’d not be as far along with the Herschel Project as I am, given its preponderance of galaxies, without the help of NED. I love it. If you are a galaxy hound or an astronomy educator you will too.

Want something a little more visually oriented? Try ALADIN. It is a mammoth, free digital sky atlas plugged into numerous databases and catalogs. Unlike NED, it will bring you intra as well as extra galactic wonders with all the depth of information you’d expect from a professional resource. No, you won’t find its charts too useful for star hopping, but they will show you the universe in depth. This is another one, like N.E.D., Sky and Telescope, and Spaceweather that has its own icon on my desktop.

Is that it? Of course not. There is tons of good stuff for amateur astronomer on the ‘Net, but we are just about out of our Internet space for this Sunday. I would be remiss if I didn’t mention just two more; however, both similar and similarly excellent sites. One you probably know about is NASA's Astronomy Picture of the Day, which is just what it says it is and is extremely wonderful. The other, which you may not know about, is the Lunar Photo of the Day, which is just as excellent on its beat. Go look at ‘em muchachos. You’ll thank me.

Spurious Book Review:  I haven't finished it, but I have had my nose buried in it all day. It is that good. I'm talking about my friend Tom Clark's new one, Starry, Starry Nights. In the note he sent with the book, Tom says he doesn't think it's great writing. I beg to differ. "Great writing" is more than just spotless prose. It must come from the heart; that is 99% of what good writing is about. The other 1% here is easily filled-in by tales of Tom's adventures--including a Shaggy Dog Story or two, I expect--and talk about his beloved telescopes. If you want to know what it was like to be an amateur astronomer at the end of the 20th century--like a Starlight Nights for our generation--get this, muchachos.

Next Time: A-OK!

Sunday, January 16, 2011


Having Fun Together

“But Uncle Rod, but Uncle Rod, why should I join the local astronomy club? I can turn on my computer and log onto the Cloudy Nights and go to a virtual astronomy club meeting anytime I want day or night.” Well, you can, Skeezix, but it ain’t the same. It just ain’t the same.

What’s amateur astronomy like? If you are a newbie, the answer to that may seem obvious. You gather up your telescope, tote it into the backyard, and have at it. Company? “Me, myself, and I.” The lone wolf style of amateur astronomy ain’t just practiced by isolated novices, either; it’s the way quite a few old-timers work as well. Not me.

Observing all by your lonesome can occasionally be a relaxing and even spiritual experience. But if that were all I did, I’d prob’ly go stir crazy. Leaving aside my well-known tendency to get spooked at darksites when I’m by myself, I find practicing amateur astronomy with a group of friends is just more fun than doing it alone.

Why? Well, there’s the obvious: a group has an easier time finding a dark site for observing than an individual does; hanging out with a bunch of likeminded folks can help bring your enthusiasm back to a boil when the fires get stoked; and, if public outreach is your bag, it is easiest to bring astronomy to the people in the context of a club. Hell, you may even find you enjoy reading The Reflector.

Those are just the obvious benefits; the ones I preach about often enough that I don’t think I have to do it again—not for a while. What’s less obvious, maybe, is that aside from these tangible things, belonging to an astronomy club offers less tangible benefits that can change your life for the better.

How? Well, there are the non-observing but astronomy-related advantages that come with belonging to a group of friends who share the same passion. Wondering about the new Ethos eyepiece? Is it really worth all them bucks? Not sure to trust what you read on the dadgummed Internet message boards? Joe Spit down to the club has the new eyepiece; he will likely let you look through it, and might even let you borrow it for a spell.

Puzzled newbie? Perhaps puzzled not-so-newbie? Maybe you’ve been around the astro-block a time or three, but all these computers that have invaded our avocation, especially go-to telescope computers, have got you stumped. You might get good advice on the Cloudy Nights or Astromart boards, but nothing beats having a computer savvy friend at the club who can set you right on the observing field with a “No, push this button first”

Contemplating a big project? A massive telescope? An observatory maybe? Something you or you and your significant other can’t handle all by yourselves at one stage or another? Even with the help of Goober next door? You can bet there will be some friends from the club willing to pitch in; especially if a case of beer and some backyard bar-b-que are in the mix.

I could go on about these sorts of things, but the astronomy angle is only half the club equation. Did you notice the word I kept using in the above paragraphs? F-r-i-e-n-d-s. To be honest with y’all, what I remember years down the line is not only—or even mainly—the cool things I’ve seen at the club dark site, but my adventures there with my friends. Often these warm memories don’t have a thing to do with observing. Clubs, you see, can be fun for reasons that have nothing to do with astronomy. If nothing is wrong, they are by nature fun, and there are things you and your mates can do to make them even more funner.

One of the most enjoyable features of the astronomy clubs I’ve belonged to has not been the monthly business meeting, but what I used to call “the Meeting After the Meeting” (MATM). Let’s face it; the bidness meeting can be a bit of a slog. Yeah, you can keep it light, you can keep it short, but there are always those dry-as-dust things you’re gonna have to have: Treasurer’s Report, Meeting Minutes, New Business, yadda, yadda, yadda. If there’s a bit of a reward at the end, though, you and your fellows will have something to look forward to and will keep coming back month after month.

For the clubs I’ve belonged to over the last five decades, that something has been informal gatherings after the official meetings have wrapped up. In my current club, the Possum Swamp Astronomical Society, the MATM is simple: after the motion to adjourn has carried, we stand around chatting for the next quarter to half an hour drinking punch and chomping on cookies. What do we talk about? How’s the wife/husband and the kids? Did you get that new eyepiece? Did I tell you my next door neighbor keeps calling to tell me about the UFOs she keeps seeing? Friendly, informal, personal, fun stuff not suited for the club floor.

The PSAS is small, our meetings are simple, and the fun-to-business ratio is high, so a few minutes of socializing in the classroom where we meet seems to put the cap on it right well, leaving all comers satisfied. If you are in a big club where monthly meetings naturally and necessarily assume a more formal nature, though, you may want to kick it up a notch. In a couple of the outfits I’ve belonged to, the Meeting After the Meeting was somewhat more elaborate.

If you can call adjourning to the corner bar “elaborate.” What we did at a couple of my earlier clubs was hop in our cars after gavel-fall and head to the nearest watering hole for a few brewskies and a few yuks. You would be slap amazed at the far-reaching and mind-blowing cosmic theories some of your fellow amateurs come up with after a few pints of the golden nectar. If you want to really get to know your fellow amateurs, you’ll learn a lot more about ‘em over a can of Dixie Beer in a bar than you ever will over a Nagler eyepiece on an observing field.

There are a few things to beware of if this sort of fun sounds like something you would like to try at your club. Make it a rule that NO CLUB BUSINESS WILL BE DECIDED AT THE MATM. You do not want the members of your club who choose not to dip their beaks thinking you are a SECRET CABAL making club decisions.

Very importantly, choose an appropriate venue for your MATM. You may think the Bonanza Lounge and the Silver Slipper Saloon are the cat’s meow, but some of the more reserved folks may be hesitant to join you at such dives. And younger folks may not be allowed to. An excellent compromise is one of the neighborhood “family” pubs-cum-restaurants like the Ruby Tuesdays (or Applebees, or TGI Fridays, or Shoney's, or any of a similar ilk).

While the PSAS has never resorted to bars and restaurants for our MATMs, we have always had one outing a year, our Annual Holiday Dinner, where everybody has the opportunity to socialize outside the observing field/business meeting milieu. The Holiday Dinner is invariably our first meeting of the year, a Christmas-party – New Year’s Celebration combined, which we hold at a local restaurant.

Sound like a lot of work? It really ain’t. We keep it simple and FUN. We choose a restaurant with wide appeal. For quite a few years, that’s been Ed’s Seafood on the Causeway (across Mobile Bay). We generally try to go a little upscale from the Ruby Tuesdays and Applebees, but still pick a place where everybody will be comfortable. A place where the food is good and where you will feel OK whether you order Scotch and water (Unk, natch) or that elixir of the Southland, Sweet Tea.

But ain’t it a lot of work to set up something like that? Again, we keep it simple. It’s a “Dutch treat” where everybody orders off the menu and settles their own tab. All the club officers have to do is make reservations for a party of however many amateurs we think will show up. We don’t need a backroom or anything fancy or expensive; just a few tables in a corner jammed together.

What do we do there? We eat, we drink, and we have a good time with our friends. Some amateur astronomy does get discussed; this year after one of Ed’s super ribeyes and “several” scotches, Unk undertook to edumacate the diners within earshot about THE BEST STAR PARTIES IN THE COUNTRY. But, no, we don’t do a business meeting. At most, PSAS officers MIGHT make an announcement or two. At most.

Searching back through my memory, what’s left of it, if I had to relate my most treasured memories of the PSAS and the other clubs I’ve belonged to, most of those would relate to star parties. Yeah, star parties are fun to attend as a single or couple, but they are the most fun when you can get together at one as a club. Back in The Day (which is now the 1990s, I reckon), The PSAS travelled to quite a few local and regional star parties as a group. What fun we had.

At the dawn of me and Miss D’s marriage, round about 1995, we heard tell of a new and relatively nearby star party, the Mid South Star Gaze, which was held at a private academy, French Camp Academy, up yonder in north Mississippi, just to the south of the Natchez Trace. We talked this over with our fellow PSASites at the next meeting and soon had a group of eight interested in attending. One bright and blue spring day we set out for the hinterlands of French Camp, Missisippi: Mercy sakes alive, looks like we got us a convoy!

We were impressed by the site—one of the school’s faculty, Jim Hill, had by blood sweat and tears put together an honest-to-god observatory facility on a hill in a pasture—and the lovely dark skies. I was travelling relatively light, just my Ultima C8, Celeste (a youngster then); my 12.5-inch Dob, Old Betsy, was still in her original Meade StarFinder body and resolutely refused to fit in the Toyota. Having “only” a C8 did not prevent me from seeing almost a surfeit of spring wonders, though.

Almost. I was really getting into M101 on the second night of the star party (the first had been mostly cloudy). As y’all may know, this object’s popular name is “The Pinwheel Galaxy.” Me? I call it the Double Phantom Galaxy. It’s like fall’s M74 but even moreso: a big face-on Sc galaxy that challenges all apertures. Not only is it larger and thus harder than M74, it is set in the (usually) less dark spring skies.

Nevertheless, being young(er) and dumb(er), I dared turn Celeste to this big and sometimes downright elusive island universe. Surprise! There it was, laid out before me in the 12mm Nagler, showing detail I’d never seen visually in any telescope, much less an 8-inch. Not only were the graceful arms more than evident, they were peppered with HII regions (“HII regions out the ying-yang!” I said that night). Adding an OIII filter I’d bought from Rex’s Astrostuff that very morning brought out more of M101’s M42s and Tarantulas. Though the filter dimmed the Whirlpool’s starlight, it made the wee clouds in the spiral stand out better, and I could nearly trace-out the arms by their glowing hydrogen alone. The secret of my success? Superior skies.

French Camp, Mississippi barely had a town to go with it; there was nothing or nobody other than farms in all directions. There wasn’t even an Interstate nearby. Add to that, the air was dry. For a while, anyhow. When you are seeking the dimmest of the dim galaxies and nebulas, “dry” is near-about as important as “dark.” French Camp’s air was surprisingly free of humidity, though that was about to change.

Yep, there we were, Unk and Miss D. and our fellow Possum Swampers, enjoying wonderfully dark skies, voyaging ever deeper into the Great Out There. Until Jim Hill strode onto the field and intoned, “Folks, I hate to bring bad news, but we are under a tornado watch. You might want to think about taking care of your telescopes. NOW.” How could that be? Virgo and Ursa Major’s galaxy fields were just brilliant. One look to the northeast told the tale. Yeah, the sky was dark. Very dark. But I could see a darker line on the horizon. And fingers of lightning were beginning to reach out from this line.

If we’d needed any more convincing, the feel in the air, one of “impending DOOM,” did that. The Possum Swamp contingent, SCT users all, luckily, didn’t just cover our telescopes, we loaded them into our vehicles. In a hurry. We then motored back to the small (but nice) bed and breakfast where we were all staying.

Holed up at the B ‘n B, we gathered in the largest of the rooms and looked at each other. It was barely ten o’clock. What do we do now? Well, believe it or no, Unk had a bottle of this bourbon, this “Rebel Yell” stuff, and he didn’t mind passing it around. Some of our friends had bottles of less…er… “potent” potations, too. Beverages not as closely related, one rascal said, to turpentine.

As the bottles began to pour out, the evening became ever merrier. The weather absolutely howled outside. If the town wasn’t visited by a tornado, it at least got hit by one of the most intense thunderstorms I have ever experienced. But we were snug and dry and the roof was staying put for the moment, so we began to reminisce about our good times together.

Hey, y’all! Do you remember when…

That silly Junie Moon went with us to the DSRSG? She asked Miss Ellie for some pepper to put in her shoes to ward off all the haunts and “boogers” in the woods. Ellie chased her to her car swinging a Dob truss pole like Babe Ruth at bat!

How about how (a certain unnamed expert observer) swore every year at the star party that she would stay up late enough to observe the heck out of M42, but was always snoring in a lounge chair at Orion-rise?

Or the time Pat set his shirt on fire trying to show a novice the ins and outs of Newtonian collimation on the field in the daytime.

How Rod and Miss Dorothy got badly spooked by somebody walking around and around their star party chickie cabin in the wee hours? Unk finally got up the gumption to grab a flashlight and check. Turned out Jason Voorhees was really a very large and very annoyed (when Rod shined the flashlight on him) possum.

Then there was that star party up in Tennessee where they had us sleeping on wooden shelves they called “bunks.” Rod didn’t bring an air mattress, only a thin sleeping bag. And he had to heft George into his top bunk every night…

On and on we went as the lightning flashed and thunder boomed, and I could go on and on, but you get the picture. Yeah, I have some great memories of great things I’ve seen at club observing sessions and star parties, but my warmest memories are of my club friends and the times we’ve had.

I’ve known a few folks over the years that’ve used the astronomy club as a “getaway” from the family. And that’s OK. Some folks—not me—need a break from their loved ones every once in a while, and there is nothing wrong with that as long as the non-astronomy husband or wife is permitted a similar “break,” too. But clubs can be a family affair.

Yeah, I know what you are thinking: get the kids out on a club observing field all night and you will soon have a whole brood of amateur astronomers. Maybe. It happens. Sometimes. Didn’t happen with any of my kids. Hasn’t happened yet, anyway. Be that as it may, maybe dragging little Bud and Sis out onto a dark and cold field and making ‘em stay on it to the wee hours ain’t the best way to bring ‘em into the amateur astronomy fold. Kinder and gentler, y’all.

One kinder and gentler way to expose them to amateur astronomy is taking ‘em along on public outreach missions. Most kids—and teenagers—enjoy being in the in-group, and the experience of helping show and tell the public about the night sky may light a little fire in ‘em. Even if it doesn’t and it is clear your progeny will never be Sky and Telescope subscribers, you can still involve them in the club.

If, like the PSAS, y’all provide punch and cookies at meetings, that may be enough inducement for the younguns and the significant other to tag along once in a while. But we go a step further, and so do quite a few clubs. We schedule a specifically family-oriented event once a year, the Club Spring Picnic.

Doing a picnic is not difficult, especially if, like us, your meeting place is set on a nice patch of land. We are very lucky, as not only does the Mobile Public Schools Environmental Studies Center where we meet possess a nice, wooded suburban campus with a lake, there are picnic tables and, thankfully, given our usual spring weather, a covered picnic pavilion. Don’t have such facilities at your club meeting place? Most towns have similarly equipped city parks. A pavilion at one of these can usually be rented for a nominal or nonexistent fee.

What do we do at the picnic, exactly? Everybody brings a side-item; the club buys catered bar-b-que. We eat, make merry, tell stories, and when the sun begins to go down, set up a few scopes for family members to do a little informal viewing. After a while we hardcore observers say goodbye to husbands/wives and kids and settle in for a night of star gazing to top off a wonderful Saturday.

Bottom-line-a-roony-o to all this here Sunday morning chit-chat? Just that there is more to a club than telescopes and observing. Over the last twenty or so years, the people in my club, have, yes, become my friends. Some of them the best friends I have ever had. Way beyond things like, “Bubba, what do you think of the new 18-inch Meade-a-tron KCT?” to all the stuff real and true friends talk about and do together.

Some people do not like astronomy clubs. I used to be gobsmacked when I’d run into local folks who were obviously dedicated observers, but had never shown up at the club. I’m not surprised anymore. I’ve come to the realization that some amateurs are just not “joiners.” For one reason or another they don’t like clubs, or at least astronomy clubs. I guess I can understand. B-U-T… Given my life in astronomy clubs over the last 46 years (I count our little teenage Backyard Astronomy Society as my first club), I cannot help but pity them, muchachos.

2020 Update

Do I have some wonderful memories of my 25 years or so with my club? As you can see from the above, I sure do. Unfortunately, a few years ago my visits to astronomy club meetings became fewer and fewer. I got to the point where the only way I could make myself go was to say, "Well, if you go, you can stop at the (nearby) Applebee's first for a couple of drinks and some fun." Fun I wasn't having at the club anymore. Eventually, I stopped going altogether and I basically disassociated myself from the outfit.

Why? It just wasn't the same. Many of the people who'd made the club for me had moved on--to other pursuits, to other places, or, sadly, to the Great Out There. There was little doubt the organization had been on a downhill slide for at least a decade. I was tired of contributing what I could to keep it going for little in return in either appreciation or respect.

A final reason? The way I enjoy astronomy has changed over the last five years. I now prefer solitary contemplation of the cosmos to group observing. That doesn't mean you won't find me out on the old airfield that serves as a club observing spot once in a while. But I can't imagine sitting through a meeting again.

I still support astronomy clubs, though. If you've got a good one, cherish it.

Sunday, January 09, 2011


Uncle Rod’s Telescope Academy: How Big?

Did you receive your first telescope this Christmas? Or are you planning on buying that first (or second, or third) scope after the holidays, maybe in time for the spring observing season? Whether you have a scope now and are thinking of a new “better” one, or you’re after your first, the big question is, well, “How big; how much aperture do I need?”

Yep, aperture, not aperature as some tenderfeet like to call it, is the defining characteristic of a telescope and a very important consideration. In fact, if you’ve been hanging out with the veteran amateurs at your club, or at least listening to what us curmudgeons say, you may have heard us bandying about an aphorism that goes: “Aperture Always Wins.”

And that is true, all things being equal. A larger aperture telescope, a telescope with a larger objective lens or mirror, will always show more. Of everything. Some people just ain’t convinced of that cold, hard, fact, of course. They hope there’s a way to beat the merciless and immutable laws of physics. That somehow, someway that beautiful 4-inch APO refractor should be able to perform visually at the level its price would indicate.

Over the years, I’ve heard two “theories” as to why smaller is really better: “If your seeing, your atmospheric steadiness, is not good, a smaller telescope will show more than a bigger one,” and “If you live where it’s light polluted, a larger aperture telescope will pick-up more sky glow as well as more light from the target, and you won’t see any more than you would with a smaller instrument.” True? There’s a grain of truth in both these hypotheses, but only a grain.

Let’s take the old saw about seeing first. Yes, it’s true the larger the telescope, the larger the column of atmosphere it must peer up through. Take a look through a bigun and a littleun under adverse seeing conditions, and, yeah, the smaller scope’s image looks “better.” I think it would indeed be fair to say that in poor seeing a smaller scope throws up a more aesthetically pleasing image than a larger instrument. B-U-T…

No matter how bad the seeing in any location, it always settles down for at least a brief spell. Keep looking at Jupiter with large aperture telescope and, by the end of the evening, you will have seen considerably more detail that you would have through a small one. Just don’t like the look of a big dog’s planets under poor seeing? You can always stop down the offending aperture with a cardboard mask, making your big dog into a high focal ratio puppy. But how you gonna aperture up a smaller instrument?

Then there's light pollution’s supposed impact on a big(ger) gun. The simplest way to disprove this one is with a field test. Set up a small telescope next to a larger one in your bright backyard, a significantly larger telescope—I like to pit a 12-inch against a 6-inch—and point both at, say, M13 (globular clusters are effective demonstration tools). Insert eyepieces into the telescopes that yield roughly the same magnifications. Have a look.

What will you see/say? “Unk, M13 looks like a great big ball of stars in the 12-inch; it’s just a smudge in the 6-inch. It’s a bright smudge, but it’s just a smudge.” The supposed too bright sky background in the larger telescope? If you find the background in any scope offensively bright, pump up the magnification; that will spread out and help suppress the background glow of your city’s lights.

Ground truth? In light pollution, always go for as much aperture as you can muster. The aperture advantage of a larger scope is actually more keenly felt in light pollution than it is under a pristine sky. Under a dark sky, the 6-inch will resolve plenty of stars in M13. The Great Glob won’t be as rich a ball of stars as it is in the 12, but will look real sweet nonetheless. The 6-inch will keep up with the 12-inch a lot better under dark skies--on many objects.

So aperture does always win? Yes, all things being equal, but all things are rarely equal. What’s not equal? You. Your observing interests. Your home and domestic situation. Your vehicle. There are some things not directly related to raw performance that must be considered if you and the new telescope are to have a long and productive relationship.

The most important thing I can communicate to newbies is: TELESCOPES ALWAYS LOOK SMALLER IN MAGAZINE ADS. Before deciding you’ll be happier with a 12-inch SCT than an 8 or 10 or 11 because you can afford it, and, afterall, aperture does always win, hie thee to the local club and have a look at one in person. Don’t just look through it or at it as it sits on its tripod, though. Observe its owner remove it from their vehicle, get it on the tripod, and reverse the process after midnight.

The same goes for every other telescope of any design larger than about 10-inches in aperture. Do not buy unless you can see the scope in person. And you almost always can, or at least a similar scope. If not at the club dark site, at a local dealer (if you are lucky enough to have such a thing) or at a regional or national star party.

First concern if you are contemplating a large aperture telescope? Weight. The above mentioned 12-inch SCT’s weight is close to 75-pounds, which you must lift to mount on the tripod. Which means you must heft the scope at least waist high. And lift it off that tripod on a dark, dewy field in the wee hours when you are bone tired. That’s to set the LX200 up in alt-azimuth mode. Put the 12-inch on a wedge for astrophotography all by yourself? I DON’T THEENK SO, LUCY!

My Celestron NexStar 11, which I love, and which is somewhat lighter than Meade’s 12-inch, is, I am sorry to say, year-by-year, becoming too much for me to handle, at least in the role of portable telescope. I can see that before too much longer I will be endangering myself and the NS11 every time I get her out of her case. Yes, if you are (unlike Unk), young and strong, you may laugh at even 100-pounds. But that will not last, muchachos.

After the first exciting months with a big SCT (or RC or refractor or anything), even manly men may stop laughing about “a little weight. When it comes time to set the scope up in the backyard for a quick Monday night run, suddenly it’s “too cold” or “too much light pollution” or “something good on TV” or “not much to see right now, anyway.”

While I’ve used my favorite sort of scope, the SCT, as the example so far, “heavy” is hardly confined to big CATs. Any telescope larger than 12-inches aperture is likely too heavy for most folks to want to fool with more than occasionally. Yeah, I know about the dodges: wheely bars, pneumatic lifts, engine hoists, yadda, yadda, yadda. Most of these things are not convenient to use on a regular basis and are potentially detrimental to you or your scope’s safety.

Raw weight is probably the number one thing that bites uninformed telescope buyers in their nether regions, but the telescope’s overall size, its bulk, is a close second. Even if not overly heavy, scopes that are large and inconvenient to move and/or assemble are just a hassle.

I have a beautiful 12.5-inch truss tube Dobsonian. It was handcrafted by a man I consider one of the nation’s premier ATMs. He built it for me out of an humble Meade StarFinder Dob. You know, one of them Dobs from the decade before last that look a lot like hot-water heaters: great big white Sonotube tube and a minimalist particleboard mount. It is now a wonderful scope. But one I rarely use.

Why? Too much HASSLE. Yes, it breaks into pieces, and I really have to break it into pieces even to get it in the backyard. And therein lies the problem. The scope, Old Betsy by name, was no lightweight when she was in her Meade body, but her Hassle Factor was low. I could have her in the backyard and ready to go in five minutes or less. Tote her rocker-box out and plunk it down. Take a deep breath and manhandle her tube out the door and into the rocker-box and I was ready to observe.

The truss version of Betsy? I have to take the rocker-box, the mirror-box, the upper cage, and the truss tubes out separately and assemble them into a telescope. Yes, it would be possible to put the scope on wheels of some kind, but then she wouldn’t fit through some of Chaos Manor South’s doorways.

Betsy is still a great scope, and I can now fit her in my vehicles and haul her to dark sites where she can really strut her stuff, but if she were my only telescope I wouldn’t be observing often. One thing’s sure: she gets far less (if any) use in the backyard now than she did in her original, simpler form.

Smaller truss tube reflectors? Like the Meade 8-inch and 10-inch Lightbridges? The Hassle Factor for most trusses goes up exponentially with aperture; an 8-inch or 10-inch truss tube scope can be hauled into the backyard with the tube fully assembled just like my old StarFinder. A 12-inch? Not by me. A standard design 16-inch? Fuhgeddabout it for just about anybody.

The Hassle Factor doesn’t just apply to solid tube vice truss tube Dobsonians. And it is not just the result of aperture, though that is the main thing that determines how painful a scope will be to deal with. A 6-inch of almost any configuration can be hauled out in one or two pieces and plunked down. Nevertheless, the Hassle Factor can affect even small scopes if their combination of tube and mount is fussy and complicated enough.

Be careful when evaluating a proposed telescope’s Hassle Factor. Yes, a GEM mount, a German equatorial mount, can make very large SCTs, for example, manageable. Unlike a fork SCT, you can break a GEM mounted telescope into several (more) manageable pieces. Some people will not have a problem separating the telescope into tripod, mount, tube, and weights and carrying those pieces out separately for assembly. You will most assuredly find it easier to set up a 12 or 14-inch GEM SCT than a fork of equivalent aperture. BUT MOST OF US WILL STILL NOT WANT TO DO IT OFTEN. Not over the long run, and your once wonderful telescope will be in danger of becoming a hangar queen.

The questions to ask yourself before you pull the trigger on a larger-than-8-inch? Do I have a place to store this thing without causing undue domestic conflict? Will it fit through the doors? Can I get it outside or to the car without doing major damage to woodwork and furniture and getting yelled at like Li’l Rod’s Mama used to yell at him when he was maneuvering his Palomar Junior into the back forty? Will I really be willing to wrestle with it often? Will it fit in the car?

Unless you’ve a pristine backyard, you’ll want to carry your scope to the club site or star parties frequently, so the telescope must fit in your vehicle. For me that is not a major limitation, since my scope-design of choice, the SCT, is very vehicle friendly. Hell, you can load a C14 and its GEM in a cotton-picking VW Beetle. But if you are a Dobsonian fancier, it will be an entirely different can of worms. I don’t know about you, but I do not want my choice of telescope and telescope aperture to dictate my choice of vehicle.

Today, thankfully, this is not the problem it was when all Dobs came in solid tubes, or when truss tube Dobbies had mirror boxes the size of hot tubs. Today you can get “ultra light” Dobsonians like those pioneered by ATMs and, commercially, by Obsession Telescopes, in apertures up to 18-inches (or even larger) that will fit derned near any vee-hickle. But these big, light scopes demand compromises and are not for everybody.

Shorter, faster Dobs in the f/3 range are now coming into vogue, but they don’t do much for transport and storage problems. Oh, they are easier to handle when setup—no big ladders—but their mirror boxes and upper cages usually take up just as much room in the truck as those of their longer cousins.

Finally, there is expense. If you want to go big, you gotta be prepared to pay for it. Tops in the SCT game, Celestron’s C14 Edge HD Pro and Meade’s 16-inch fork mount ACF CAT, go for 10K and 16K respectively. A bigdob? A basic 20-inch will cost about the same as the Celestron, and a 20 with everything on it including go-to will equal the price of the Meade SCT.

It is RAT CHEER that it would profit some folks to stop, let the emotion drain away, and seriously consider how much aperture they really need and can afford. If you are a dyed-in-the-wool deep sky visual observer with a dark sky at home or access to a dark sky nearby, yes, by all means, turn over 10 or 20K to Dave Kriege or Rick Singmaster or the boys at Celestron or Meade. IF, after reviewing all of the above, you believe you will use the thing enough to make you and your banker feel good about the purchase.

You think not? Just because you don’t have a 14-inch SCT or a 20-inch Newtonian don’t mean you won’t see a lot and have a lot of fun. The old cliché, “The Best Telescope is the One that Gets Used” still applies. The amateurs of the 1960s and 1950s saw a lot and had a lot of fun, even though a 6-inch f/8 Newtonian was all most of ‘em could aspire to. Ever. There are also the technological gimcracks we have available, equalizers like video and CCD cameras and uber-super eyepieces that make big aperture less necessary for some people and some observing programs than it once was.

Beyond silly stuff like engine hoists, is there anything that will let you break the aperture barrier imposed by your living situation? To peacefully coexist with a telescope that should be too big? If you are an SCT owner, one thing I can heartily recommend besides eschewing forks for GEMs is a good case with WHEELS. My wheeled JMI case has allowed me to use my NS11 more frequently with less pain than I initially thought possible. Yes, I still have to maneuver the case into and out of my Toyota sedan, but a wheeled case at least lessens the pain.

A big Dob? If you’ve a place to store one at home with appropriately wide doorways, like a garage, a pair of “wheelbarrow” handles with wheels on ‘em may make getting the 20-inch into the backyard as easy as grabbing a StarBlast. Wheel the scope out fully assembled and, if your storage area is unheated, you are looking at the sky in just a few minutes. With all that aperture.

If you don’t have such a setup at home, don’t have a big pickup or SUV to haul it in, but still want a big Dobsonian? Many big gun owners rely on trailers. With a good, weather-proof trailer the scope can be left assembled, ready to be towed to the dark site at a moment’s notice. Not that I think this is an overly good solution—at least for frequent use. You, like me, may not enjoy pulling a trailer. And it might not make the telescope very happy, either. Even the best trailers will give your baby a comparatively bumpy ride, maybe to the point where hardware—bolts and screws—starts backing out. Still, lots of folks do trailers, and for the biggest of the big a trailer is the only practical solution.

The best dodge? Own a smaller scope, too. A grab ‘n go scope that supplements the bigun. Reconcile yourself to the fact that the 14 or 20 or 30 will only be used on special occasions. No, the grab ‘n go will not (always) show as much as the big dog, but you will nevertheless still see more of the heavens than you would sitting in front of the consarned TV watching music videos—though Unk does hear tell Lady Gaga’s bod is pretty “heavenly.”

Yes, you’ve got a 25-inch Starmaster, but most of the time you’ll use a Celestron C8, or an Orion 10-inch Dobsonian, or, if you are as lazy as your ol’ Unk, a 4.5-inch StarBlast mini-Dob. As I have said before, over the course of our buggy, damp, hotter than hell summers if I didn’t have the StarBlast and my beloved pair of Burgess 15x70 binoculars, I probably wouldn’t see much. But I see a lot with my little scope and so can you. In fact, the best view I have ever had of the Veil Nebula has been with the StarBlast. The man or woman behind the eyepiece is still more important than the pedigree or aperture of the telescope.

What’s for you? I won’t presume to say. That’s for you to decide. But here’re some rough ideas of what might appeal.

If you are apartment dweller who must haul the scope down several floors via stairs or elevator.

If you have an area nearby where you can observe, an 8-inch or even 10-inch solid tube Dobsonian can work. Since you are likely dealing with mucho light pollution, I don’t normally recommend less than 8-inches. What would I choose? Orion’s Intelliscope 8 or 10 or maybe even their new go-to Dob.

If the stairs are brutal or many obstacles have to be negotiated or it’s vital to get everything down in one go, it is probably best to back off my “8-inch” rule to something like the 4.5-inch or 6-inch StarBlast or a nice, small, short refractor.

You are an apartment dweller or other urban resident without an observing area nearby?

You might as well bump it up to an 8 or 10-inch SCT in a nice, wheeled case. You’ll need to disassemble the telescope for transport, but you’ll need to do that to get it in the car, anyway.

If you are an apartment dweller who must observe from a balcony.

The only limitation is the size of the balcony and your ability to move the telescope onto that balcony (I do not advise leaving a scope outside, even with a decent cover, due to bugs and moisture). Push-to and go-to mounts? Will you be able to get at sufficient alignment stars? If you have a 180 degree swath of sky before you, a digital setting circle computer like the Sky Commander will work, and so will a go-to scope that only needs a 2-star alignment to get going—like a fork mount SCT. This can really make your observing more productive, since the typical urban/suburban sky is difficult for starhopping.

You are an apartment dweller who has access to the building’s roof?

Whatever you can get up there. If you have elevator access, anything you can maneuver into the elevator. Stairs/ladder? A nice StarBlast is the top end of the curve; better is a small refractor or binoculars

You are a suburbanite with a backyard.

The limit is what you will be able to get outside, and, most importantly, what you will be willing to get outside. Even if your skies are good and the weather sweet for observing year-round, ask yourself whether you will be willing to mess with a 20-inch telescope, even if all you have to do is wheel it out, on a Monday night after a hard day at the office. Plan on having a grab ‘n go to at least supplement a larger telescope. For use at home, an 8-inch Dob is a very good thing to have.

If you are a suburbanite who plans to do most serious observing from a remote dark site.

Get that big compact Dob, a C14, or a big trailer and as big a Dobsonian as you want. As above, though, plan on getting yourself some kind of a home-use instrument. And understand going in that the big, expensive telescope will only get used a dozen times a year or FEWER.

You are a country dweller with a superior sky.

The sky is the limit. As long as, AGAIN, you have a place to store the scope and are sure you’ll be willing to set it up frequently. Even the best skies are no antidote for a Too Much Trouble telescope. You, like the suburbanite, will still want a handier scope no matter how monstrous your Primary Instrument.

The ultimate solution for everybody? Is simple. If you can build an observatory, your problems are over. Certainly, not everybody can due to zoning rules/covenants, expense, and a lack of a suitable and secure area to build one. But if you can do an observatory, “how big” is no longer a problem or question. The answer is “big as you want/can afford.”

Even amateurs who live in light polluted areas will find an observatory of some kind a big improvement. Maybe even a bigger improvement than for country folk. A domed observatory or a Skyshed Pod will block a lot of the ambient light that devils you. Course, you’ll want to own a “travel telescope” as well if you don’t want to go to the trouble of removing the main instrument from the observatory. And so it goes…so many telescopes to buy…so few dollars.

In the final analysis? Don’t worry, be happy. Yeah, if you live in a fourth floor walkup, you should probably forget about 25-inchers, but even an 80mm refractor, IF YOU USE IT A LOT, will show you a huge amount of wonders, is nothing to be sneezed at, and will, yes, make you a REAL amateur astronomer.

Next Time: Unk had planned to get out to the dark site this past Saturday evening, even though there was a small Moon in the sky, and even if only with his little girlfriend Charity Hope Valentine, the ETX. Alas, I awoke Saturday a.m. with laryngitis and the feel that I was near-about in the grip of a nasty cold. So I wimped out.

What, then? Have you visited your astronomy club lately? Yep, Unk’s semi-regular epistle as to why you should still, even in the days of Cloudy Nights’ and Astromart’s forums, belong to a good, old NON-VIRTUAL astronomy club. See y’all then.

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