Sunday, May 01, 2011


My Favorite Fuzzies: M13

This one should have been about how my Meade ETX 125, Charity Hope Valentine, took on and conquered the Messier marathon. ‘Twas not to be muchachos, 'twas not to be. I had high hopes for last Saturday; and were both predicting “clear” for the evening. That would have been just about perfect, since Saturday afternoon would bring the Possum Swamp Astronomical Society’s big annual Spring Picnic. Great grub, great observing afterwards.

Why only “just about” perfect? Because we hold our picnics at our in-town site, the Mobile Public Schools’ Environmental Studies Center. This is a lovely facility with a pavilion beside a lake, perfect for picnicking, but the skies are badly light polluted. We are talking Messiers, though, and I figured even a little 5-incher oughta do pretty well against those bright muthas, pink skies or no.

When four o’clock came ‘round, Charity in her case was duly packed in the trunk of the Toyota, but I was beginning to lose hope. As picnic time approached, so did masses of black clouds, the forerunner, I reckon, of the violent storms that were to batter our Southland the following week.

We had a great time eating catered bar-b-que and multitudinous side items and shooting the breeze with PSAS members old and new, but as sunset neared, the weather just got worse. By the time I left the site at 7:30 p.m. it was beginning to sprinkle rain. Of course—the punch line—when we got back to Chaos Manor South the sky was clearing... though only slightly and only for a little while before more clouds rolled in.

Rest assured; Charity will get her shot at the marathon. Maybe this weekend if conditions aren’t good enough to let me have another go at the Herschels. Yeah, I know it will be a Messier Marathon FAIL:  I’ll have let the western covey get away. There'll be no M74 for sure, but I am not maniacal about doing every single M; I am only maniacal about having fun. And, of course, I want to check out the repairs I’ve done to Sweet Charity recently.

This week’s blog is the latest in a series of paeans to my personal favorite deep sky objects. The subject this time is almost every (Northern Hemisphere) observer’s favorite globular star cluster, M13. The time? 1967. The Place? Mama and Daddy’s backyard.

This installment could have been titled “Night of the Saucermen Redux,” since in some ways it is a follow-up to my article on UFOs. It would be impossible for me to talk about watching the sky in 1967 without mentioning the flying saucers that, in that hallmark year for the Phenomenon, were on every astronomer’s mind whether they admitted it or not or believed or not.

The summer of 1967 was the Summer of Love out in San Francisco, but it was the Summer of Saucers down in the Swamp. For me and Mama, anyhow. Mama was a little country girl, but not your typical little country girl. She was, for example, a member of the Science Fiction Book Club way back in the 50s. When it came to films and books, her tastes tended to run to the outre' and scary. Nuclear war as portrayed in On the Beach fascinated and frightened her. So did the dadgum flying saucers. And one afternoon she went on a real saucer tear, driving me and her from drugstore to convenience store to discount store hunting data on the UFOs. We came home with not just True Magazine’s latest Report on Flying Saucers, and the Fawcett 1967 UFO Annual, but with Brad Steiger’s deliciously scary Flying Saucers are Hostile.

My poor Old Man could only shake his head ruefully at our obsession when we returned. We didn’t care. It was to be a flying saucer weekend; especially when Mama found out The Joe Pyne Show would have saucer guru Frank Edwards on that coming Friday night. Joe Pyne was the 1960s' forerunner of today’s confrontational talk show hosts like Morton Downey Jr., but he was also the forerunner of spooky Art Bell, being very willing to have both serious UFOlogists and not-so-serious “contactees” and assorted Saucer Nuts on his couch. Mama hung on Joe’s every word and was right excited about the show, but I demurred. Friday night, you see, was to be M13 night for Li’l Rod.

Friday finally came and with it Mama’s permission to stay up Real Late. Before I could take on M13, I had to set up all my gear. “All my gear” in those simpler and supposedly more innocent times consisting of my beloved Palomar Junior 4.25-inch Newtonian on its GEM mount, my war surplus eyepiece box (not its original purpose, of course), Norton’s Star Atlas, my sketchbook (a Steno pad), a TV tray-table on which to place my accessories, the weird crank-driven contraption I’d built that allowed me to log my deep sky objects on a scroll of paper, and my astronomer’s flashlight, which was a D-cell flash with its lens covered with red Valentine’s Day candy wrapper.

The trick was getting the Pal Junior outside without Mama having a hissy fit. You wouldn’t think a 4-inch Newtonian would be a problem, but even 4-inchers were big and heavy in the 1960s. In addition to the long aluminum tube this f/10 required, there was a surprisingly heavy if smallish GEM equatorial head with a 10-pound counterweight mounted on a big metal pedestal that sported three wide-spread legs. In other words, the prototypal 60s Newtonian: heavy but also shakier than it looked.

I knew I’d better take the tube off the mount before transport. The only time I’d tried to move the scope outside in one piece, I’d dug a right good gouge in the door between the family room and the hall. No matter how careful I was thereafter, removing scope from mount and even taking the 10-pound counterweight off (which weight was later to remove the nail from my big toe), Mama still had a conniption every time I maneuvered my Pal into the backyard. I usually made it out the door without damaging anything, but the few nicks I did make with those ungainly pedestal legs, which were then as now a pain to remove and replace, were due to Mama’s hovering and constant protestations: “Boy, you bump into my mahogany coffee table and I will HAVE your hide.”

Safely out the door, I had to decide where to set up the scope. On this clear but initially muggy and hazy summer evening, I hoped to tackle the globular star clusters way down south in Sagittarius, so I needed to be clear of the pine trees near the house. The perfect spot was at the bottom of the yard where there was a large, grass-free oval. Mama had tried to start a garden on this spot, but, strangely, she and I thought, nothing at all would grow on this saucer-shaped patch.

Telescope ready, I headed back to the house for supper and maybe a few minutes, but just a few, watching whatever was on the three TV channels we got down in Possum Swamp. I knew good and well not to wait for full dark to head back out. If I did, the short trip to the scope became decidedly spooky. Mostly because I inevitably began to wonder about that spot where I plunked down the Pal Junior. Was it just a bare patch caused by our sandy soil and a dry spring, or was it a SAUCER NEST like I’d read about in Mama’s magazines? Why wouldn’t anything grow there? 

If I was at the scope at sundown and occupied myself arranging my eyepieces and atlas and planning the night’s observing run, all would be well—for a while, at least. If I waited till after dark to get going, even the nearby and friendly lighted windows of our neighbors' houses couldn’t dispel my jitters. Most of the time I could continue the observing run, but it was tough concentrating on what was in my Ramsden or Kellner’s field while expecting to at any minute be illuminated by the “too bright” lights of a flying saucer. No, the knowledge that I had never seen anything even remotely strange and that by the light of day my skittishness would seem ridiculous didn’t help at all.

In retrospect I’m sure some of my weird feelings and anxieties had nothing at all to do with aliens. They were the products of the chemicals puberty was dumping into the bloodstream of a kid who was on the overly imaginative side and was, like most young teens, beginning to feel a little lonely and misunderstood. Looking over at the neighbor’s house didn’t help because, subconsciously at least, it reminded me of how my friend who lived there and I had drifted apart. I was alone.

Oh, those SAUCERS!
The weird saucer books Mama and I poured over didn’t help my nerves. The aforementioned Flying Saucers are Hostile weighed heavily on my mind this particular evening. Brad Steiger’s breathlessly written tome not only related in gruesome detail early instances of what was to become known as the abduction phenomenon in the eighties and nineties, it reported even more scary things. Like saucer abductions where THE VICTIM WAS NEVER SEEN AGAIN and cases of SPONTANEOUS HUMAN COMBUSTION that might not have been spontaneous at all.

I had a list of objects I needed to observe on this night, and that helped keep up my courage. It was when I stopped using the telescope and started wondering what to look at next and began staring up at the sky and contemplating the Universe that I got into trouble. Luckily, I had plenty of work to do. I was now seriously pursuing the Messier and had finished about a third of its objects easy as rolling off a log. Now it was time for the harder stuff, including the subdued little globular star clusters within the Archer’s borders. M28, M54, M70, and M69.

It was a good run. The sky turned out to be better than I’d thought it would be at sunset, with a breeze blowing up and chasing the haze off. Our backyard was still good and dark, and with the aid of Norton’s I cruised fairly effortlessly from glob to glob as the crickets sang. The only one that gave me much trouble was M69. It was small in my Kellner at 40x, but I convinced myself I’d seen it, checking it off on my log. Four new ones in one night! YEEHAW!

All the Sagittarius globs except M22 in the bag, it was time for a treat. Why didn’t I do M22? Forty plus years after the fact, I can’t tell you why. Was it blocked by a tree or something? Did I take too seriously the blurbs written in books and magazines by more northerly situated observers who said M22 was “difficult”? I'm not sure I ever looked at M22 from Mama and Daddy’s, and if I didn't, what a shame that was. That easily resolved glob would have given me what I longed for, a big ball of stars, way easier than M13 could.

I like to end my observing runs on a high note. After fifty or sixty dim galaxies, there’s nothing like an M42 or an M31 or an M13 to get the old heart pumping again. It was the same back in the day; the last object of the evening was always something good. Tonight, my treat would be M13. I’d observed it often, but I was still obsessed with it, even though my results with it had not been what I’d hoped they would be.

Time to slew the scope north to the Great Glob’s well-remembered location—manually of course. No computers in those days; I didn’t even have a simple clock drive. I got ready to squint through my scope’s tiny finder. It was well and truly dark now; almost unbelievably the hands on the Timex watch I’d got a few Easters ago were approaching 12. If I were lucky, there might be an hour or so left to me before Mama awakened, checked my room, and turned on the cursed patio (that was what we called the 4-foot-wide strip of cement outside the back door) light, my signal to scurry inside if I wanted to avoid her wrath.

Just as I was fixing to put my eye to the Palomar Junior’s finder, I made the mistake of looking up at the sky for a minute. Just in time to catch a lonely satellite cruising the constellations, a sight that at first brought the pleasant memory of how me and Mama and the neighbors had stood on the front lawn of our old house off Dauphin Island Parkway as Daddy had pointed out Sputnik 1 (we probably actually saw Sputnik’s carrier rocket, which was much brighter than the satellite itself). But then, as young Rod’s thoughts always did and old Rod’s thought still sometimes do, they began to turn down strange alleyways: 

“Rod, that ain’t no satellite! That might be an incoming Russian ICBM. Is that an ambulance siren off in the distance, or is it maybe an air raid siren? Better run in the house right now. It might be time to duck and cover! Which was scary enough in those Cold War days, but it got worse: “No, that ain’t a Russian missile. It is probably THE VISITORS. You know what Mr. Steiger said they are apt to do to people they catch out by themselves. And you are standing on their landing pad.”

On other nights, this was when I’d unceremoniously pick up the scope and head for the carport like a bat out of hell—the adrenaline rush made the Palomar Junior feel light as a feather. There were evenings when the heebie-jeebies got me so bad I’d turn tail before I saw a dagnabbed thing. Tonight was different. I wanted to see M13 and I was danged if I’d let the UFOs steal that from me. The sky was now about as dark as it ever got from our backyard, and I was determined to see stars in M13.

So I compromised. I gathered the telescope up in one piece and walked reasonably and intentionally slowly with it to the paved area next to our carport that the OM called the “turnaround.” I even had the intestinal fortitude to go back for the eyepieces and observing table. There’d been a time or three when I’d had to leave my accessories out all night, resulting in my sketchpad and the issue of Sky and Telescope that was invariably by my side being a dew-soaked mess by morning.

Tonight, while I wasn’t quite ready to discard the extraterrestrial hypothesis, M13, or at least my mental image of M13, trumped a sky full of saucers. Not that I was that fond of the way M13 looked in my telescope. In fact, I had a love-hate relationship with it not unlike the one I had with M8.

The problem was that in my Palomar Junior M13 was a bright but unresolved smudge. Despite the raves I’d read in Sky and Telescope, it was just a round, boring blob. And a blob was not what I wanted. What I wanted was what was described in every book and magazine that mentioned it as a mind-blowing ball of stars: “glorious,” “magnificent,” “spectacular,” “showpiece,” but not for me. Why?

The reason, I suspected, was that my scope just wasn’t good enough. Too small. Maybe the mirror wasn’t so hot. I was certainly wrong about the latter. I tested the Pal recently and determined it has a very good (spherical) primary. As the years went by, I found I was at least partially wrong about the former, too. A 4-inch will show stars in M13.

Latter Day M13
There is no denying M13 can be a bit of a tough nut to crack for a smaller telescope. It is a fairly tight globular, much tighter than M22. On the Shapley-Sawyer classification scheme that runs from I (most concentrated) to XII (least concentrated), M13 is a V. Resolving the Great Glob is a fairly difficult task for a 3-inch telescope; even under good skies (my high falutin' WO Fluorite Zenithstar APO will do it with fair ease), but resolution around its edges does begin to be easier for even humble scopes at 4-inches. If you know how to observe The Great One. I didn’t. I did not know much about things like averted vision, and I had some wrong ideas about magnification.

Not only had I read bunches of amateur astronomy books—well, the few the Mobile Public Library owned—that warned against the perils of high power, my Old Man had read them too. Every time he was out on an observing run with me, he counseled me strongly to stick to my 1-inch (no silly little millimeters in them days) Kellner. I thought some things looked great in my ½-inch Ramsden, not just the Moon and planets, but if Patrick Moore and Daddy said not to use “high power,” I wouldn’t use high power. I’m sure Sir Patrick would have told me I could use more than the 40x my Kellner generated, but I didn’t have my hero around to ask.

High(er) power would probably have resolved some stars in M13. More magnification would have darkened the field and also made it easier for me to see what was going on with my target. Just to be sure, I recently took a look at M13 with my 4.5-inch f/4 StarBlast mini-Dobsonian. At 150x, the cluster wasn’t resolved to the core, no, and the stars tended to wink in and out of view rather than shine steadily, but they were there. Hell, holding my mouth in the right position and using averted vision until my eyeball hurt, I fancied I could see the Propeller with the little gal. 

The view in the Palomar Junior back in the Day would have been significantly better given its higher focal ratio and the better skies of Mama and Daddy's (I observed the cluster from the PSAS dark site, but with M13 smack in the Possum Swamp light dome). As far as I can recall I never tried high power on the cluster till I’d moved away and moved up telescope-wise. Even if I had, I don’t know that I would have seen stars, since I didn’t think I would.

As you probably know, when you expect something to be in the eyepiece it is easier to see. When you KNOW M101 should show its spiral arms to your 8-inch telescope, for example, it’s easier to pick them out. I didn’t expect M13 stars in my Pal, so I didn’t see ‘em. Sam Brown told me I wouldn’t.

If you were an amateur in the 1960s, you knew Sam Brown. His epic book All About Telescopes, published by Edmund Scientific, saw to that. Even today, if you want a clear, concise book about making and using telescopes, All About is as good as it gets. I couldn’t afford that wonderful book in the early days; Norton’s Star Atlas had cost me a months’ worth of disposable income. But I did own an excerpt from Sam’s masterwork Edmund published separately as How to Use Your Telescope. This booklet sported many of Brown’s lovely illustrations from the big book and was a joy. Edmund included it with every telescope they sold.

Good as Sam’s book was, it was somewhat misguided or at least vague regarding the appearance and visibility of deep sky objects in smaller telescopes. I didn’t know that of course, and it dashed my hopes for seeing big balls of stars. Mr. Sam said: “A globular cluster is a ball of stars. Individual stars are faint and need 6” or more aperture for resolution.” And that was that, I figgered.

Somehow, though, on this evening it didn’t matter that M13 was its usual featureless self. When I slewed the Palomar Junior to the spot next to the Keystone, I was transported. There it was, floating alone on the great dark sea of space. The more I looked, the more I wondered if somebody were looking back at me, and, suddenly, I knew somebody was. As an adult, I know M13’s stars, like the Milky Way’s Population II and III suns, are metal poor and unlikely to have planets and life. Supposedly. Thank goodness I didn’t have that knowledge on that long ago night; if I had it would have robbed me of a most transcendent moment.

So on and on I gazed at the Great Globular. I thought about looking for Herc’s other cluster, M92, which I hadn’t yet seen, but just as I turned to Norton’s, the fricking-fracking patio light blazed on, erasing M13 and everything else. It seemed as if I’d only been staring at the glob for a few minutes, but Mama’s peeved tone and, “Young Man, it is 1:30 a.m. You get yourself inside,” told me I’d been gazing in wonder for over an hour.

As I packed it in, removing my beloved telescope from its little GEM, I reflected that not only had I observed M13 into the wee hours, I had stopped worrying about the dadgum aliens and their UFOs (well, kinda). It was at this moment that I at least began to move from under the too-hypnotic spell of the saucers.

Not that I didn’t continue to think about and wonder about UFOs. Even now, I like to play the “what if” game with them. What if at the bottom of all the humbug and nonsense is some Ground Truth? It seems ridiculous to assume the saucers are coming here in the numbers being reported (though assuming anything about what must be an unimaginably technically advanced civilization is foolish), but what if there really were a few visitations? Maybe just for a little while in the 1960s? What if the government does have crashed alien spacecraft they have finally figured out? What if the spooks at long last decide to give us the secrets of the saucers?

It’s fun to play this game, though there is absolutely no immutable evidence that alien visitations are happening or ever have happened. Even so, the elephant in the living room is that the UFO phenomenon is not going away. It’s been around for a long time, maybe for as long as we’ve been on this planet, and it continues even unto this day. I note that after an absence, or at least a decline, over the last decade, the saucers are back, treading their same old inexplicable courses across the sky. Whether a product of our collective unconscious, human mythmaking in action, or something more “real” (as if anything could be more real than myth), there is something there.

If they are real in some if not all ways, either as living beings or as our equivalents of Athena and Zeus, what do they want? If you’re interested, maybe we can take that up some Sunday in a Part Three on the subject. The most interesting quote on that subject I’ve heard attributed to the Saucer Drivers? “We want you to believe in us, but not too much.” Ponder that, muchachos.

Next Time: Charity Hope Valentine Rides Again…

M13 Was my favorite glob as I spent over three years trying to image it on a 35MM film camera with an antiquated LX50. Then I got some great images using professional equipment at Mt Wilson Observatory, which needless to say made imaging MUCH easier...
As in regards to the UFOs, it's probably better if they
weren't here. However, President Reagan did once
ask Mikhail Gorbachev if the Soviet Union would
come to our aid in the event that the United States was attacked by UFOs (source: Charlie Rose program).
Rod, Your descriptions of hauling the scope out to the yard, banging it into everything and setting up to observe is one of the coolest things I've read in awhile. Reminded me so much of my first forays into the backyard with my department store scope and visions of scenes from Star Wars playing in my head while I hunted down M57. Thanks for a great read this week.


Your description of trouble with your mom (relative to taking the scope out in the yard) brought back some memories.

My problem was a little different. I had a little Tasco 3" reflect on a cheesy mount, so it was no problem to get it out there. But Mom was *convinced* that it wasn't safe for her little one to be stumbling around in the dark back yard, so once I'd get everything out there and start to get dark adapted...WHAM, she'd turn on the kitchen lights "to help", which lit up the whole back yard. So I'd come back in the house, turn off the lights, tell her to LEAVE THEM OFF, go back out, and wait to re-dark-adapt. :-)

HI Cathy:

I had that same, cheesy little 3-inch Tasco. ;-)
I absolutely love the Sam Brown books. Made me feel like I might actually be able to polish my own mirror down to the .00019th of an inch, which I did. It certainly explained all the jargon that one might hear at a major star party, and the illustrations may look funny now, but they are outstanding. Even today, 30 some years later, if I come across All About Telescopes I'll open it up to take a quick look and end up reading a large section.

I also had one of those cheesy 3-inch scopes.
Post a Comment

<< Home

This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?

stats counter Website Hit Counters