Sunday, July 31, 2011


Star Hustling

I was gobsmacked to realize I haven’t said a word about the passing of Jack Horkheimer, The Star Hustler, in this blog. Whether you watched his little 5-minute PBS show faithfully or just knew of it, you were probably aware the Star Hustler (toward the end, Star porn filters at schools didn't like "hustler" in a website name) turned lots of folks into amateur astronomers, if only in the most casual fashion. Like the dude who wrote to Jack that every time he took the garbage out he now identified a “new” star. That, muchachos, is the very essence of amateur astronomy.

I didn’t know Jack Horkheimer, not really, though I met him at a Mid-South Star Gaze one year. Jack’s Hustler/Gazer character was fun, and he obviously had a great time using that character to show how much fun astronomy can be, but the real Jack Horkheimer was a much more thoughtful and scholarly sort than his onscreen persona would suggest.

He was apparently a man of many interests, including those of an antiquarian nature. Which ain’t my cup of tea at a star party. While I enjoyed his presentation, “The Comet that Killed Cleopatra,” at Mid-South, I ducked out well before the end, just as Jack was getting wound up about Egyptian coinage. The stars were winking on and I wasn’t in the mood for that sort of stuff. But maybe I should have been. Jack Horkheimer was obviously a person who could and would teach you something, maybe something important, every time you listened to him.

Yeah, the Star Hustler shtick was faintly ridiculous with his zany patter and costume and props like the toilet paper rolls Jack called his “OPTO ISOLATORS,” but by the end of every installment of the TV show I’d learned something. Even if you didn’t need his simple advice about naked eye star gazing, Jack kept you up to date on the “what’s up” of the sky, very helpful in the days before instant Internet astro-news. Was Horkheimer’s show as good as the similar The Sky at Night in the UK? Maybe not; there’s only one Patrick Moore. But there was only one Jack Horkheimer, too, and Star Hustler was good, and I loved it.

Mama and li'l Rod...
I have another at least tenuous connection to Star Hustler; one that goes back to before there was a Star Hustler, in fact. I visited the Miami Space Transit Planetarium in 1967 and may even have seen a show done by the man himself. Jack Horkheimer was the Director of the Miami planetarium from its opening and remained in that position till he died. But how the heck did a barefoot hillbilly like little Rod wind up in Miami?

Mama and Daddy and me and, after he came along, my brother, took a vacation almost every June, vacations that were kind of extravagant in a lower middle-class sort of way. We’d jump in the car and head for Florida. Usually for the East Coast and Daytona and Saint Augustine, but sometimes for the west coast and Tampa and all points in-between.

What would we do? We’d hit every tourist attraction we passed: the glass bottom boats of Silver Springs, the Monkey Jungle (where humans are caged and monkeys run wild), and the state’s nascent amusement parks like Six Gun Territory and Pirate’s World, which flourished briefly in those just-before-Disney days.

We always had fun, though Daddy’s mantra, up until our penultimate vacation at least, was “I AIN’T GOT NO MONEY!” We took most of our meals at rest stops, which were clean and nice then and featured plenty of picnic tables and barbeque grills, out of a big cardboard box of victuals Mama brought along. To Daddy, every restaurant we passed was potentially what he called a “clip joint,” a place whose only purpose was to separate him from his dollars. But if I whined enough I might, just might, be able to convince the Old Man to stop at Howard Johnson’s, which I fancied. Once per trip.

Spring 1967 came in, and in that weird time on the cusp of great change, Mama hatched a vacation plan that was a doozie. We’d head for Florida again, yeah, but would keep going till we hit Miami, where we’d board a cruise ship, the S.S. Bahama Star, for Nassau. Looking at the brochures Mama showered us with, it was clear the ship was a little old and a little second string, but still, for our class, this looked like HIGH LIVING. There was only one fly in the ointment.

I was just fixin’ to turn 14 and was feeling more than my share of teenage angst and loneliness. You can get the gory details here and here, but in a very normal teenage way—which I didn’t know was normal, of course—I was convinced NOBODY UNDERSTOOD ME AND I DIDN’T HAVE A FRIEND IN THE WHOLE WORLD. The last thing I felt like doing was going on a long vacation with Mama and Daddy and my little brother. It was much more rewarding to sulk in my room listening to Beatles 65 and reading comic books.

Maybe that was the very reason Mama planned her big vacation. She knew or at least sensed our little nuclear family was soon to fission. Oh, not this year or the next, but soon her little birds would fly. She absolutely loved our family vacations (Daddy did too, though he’d sometimes pretend to be grumpy about them), and I believe she’d decided she wanted to go out with a BANG.

The trouble was getting her elder son, li’l Rod, to cooperate. She must have decided the easiest way to ensure my acquiescence was to BRIBE ME. When I appeared only marginally interested in the cruise ship and Nassau literature she rained on me, she took another tack. Being a surprisingly scientifically literate woman, she let slip that the famous Southern Cross was visible from Nassau. She also had one more brochure to send my way. This one wasn’t about Nassau, but Miami, and, specifically, Miami’s Space Transit Planetarium.

The Southern Cross? Really? Oh, I’d read all about it, but I hardly expected to see this rare and unobtainable wonder. Even at our southerly latitude of 30-degrees north, it was invisible. I imagined seeing it as an adult, maybe in the far distant 21st century, on some kind of a Jungle Jim-like tropical expedition, but right now? Groovy!

As for the planetarium, I had an idea what one was because I liked to watch Rebel without a Cause whenever it was on the late show. I’d even had a toy Spitz Junior planetarium projector to play with for a little while. I knew a big projector flashed stars on a dome’s interior, but that was all I knew. Was that the same as an observatory dome? Was there a telescope inside, too? I hadn’t a clue.

The idea of visiting this or any planetarium didn’t spin me up quite like the thought of seeing Acrux and Mimosa, but it did look interesting. Maybe real interesting. The brochure mentioned the planetarium had a well-stocked gift shop, and, then as now, buying astro-stuff was a powerful inducement. I allowed to Mama that, yeah, her vacation idea sounded like fun, and immediately went back to moping.

Soon enough, school was out, and our trip was at hand. I still thought I’d probably be happier staying home, reading comics, watching Star Trek repeats, and riding my bicycle up to the pool on hot afternoons, but what could I do? Even if I could convince Mama to let me spend a week home alone, I could get right jumpy after just a few hours by myself in the evening.  The idea of spending over a week of nights alone wasn’t very realistic and I knew it. Well, at least there was Crux to look forward to.

Our trip was as uneventful as any trip could be back in the day when daddies eschewed any type of preventive maintenance on their vehicles as a waste of money and contrary to their money-saving Depression ethic. You’d think they’d at least have made sure their tires were good, but no. We and everybody I knew were always having flat tires on vacation. Thankfully, our car trouble happened early, and Daddy’s 1962 Ford Galaxie (which I would eventually inherit) even had an air conditioner. We thought we were travelling in style.

The trip was not quite as punishing as those I remember taking as a little kid, motoring through the Everglades with the windows down, fighting heat and mosquitoes, but it was bad enough. Like all 50s – 60s fathers, Daddy was utterly averse to stopping unless we needed gas. I was prepared, having squirreled away several cans of Chek Cola (all we ever got) and plenty of books and Marvel comics for the journey.

After an overnight sojourn that involved a motel with AIR-CONDITIONING, COLOR TV, and a POOL, we were there, Miami, and I was antsy to get to the Miami Space Transit Planetarium, whatever the heck that was. Mama and Daddy insisted, however, that we get a little rest at another motel before boarding the Bahama Star the next morning. We’d do the planetarium on our return. I was awful put out, but the evening was redeemed after our supper at an Eckerd’s drugstore lunch counter in the Miami suburb of Hollywood. This Eckerd’s didn’t just have a huge selection of comic books; they had the yearly Marvel ANNUALS, which I waited breathlessly for each summer. I was all set, I figured, no matter what came.

Strangely, what came was the opposite of what I expected, that the ship would be the big deal and the planetarium a mere flourish at the end. For me, the Bahama Star and Nassau and Crux were almost a total bust. The cruise was OK, but the only two things I really liked about it were the creampuff (first one I’d ever had) I got after supper one night, and the evening they showed the funny – scary Peter Lorre – Vincent Price film, A Comedy of Terrors, in the ship’s lounge.

All in all, it felt to me like cruising might be fun if you were an adult with a wife or girlfriend at your side. An introverted 14 year old stuck in a tiny cabin with the rest of your family? Not so much. Nassau was the same: could be cool if I were a big person on his own, but for a young teen, uh-uh.

How about the Southern Cross? As I said not long back, I wish I knew for sure I saw it, but I am not sure. Even near the latitude of Nassau, Crux is down on the horizon at culmination, and I was always looking through haze and clouds that ringed the blue summer Caribbean. Worse, almost all the ship was brilliantly lit all the time; the only semi-dark area was staked out by necking couples, as I quickly found out to my semi-embarrassment.

I didn’t have the tools I needed to help me see the small constellation the first time, either. I should have brought along my (toy) binoculars, which would have worked a lot better than the Palomar Junior’s 23-mm finder I did bring. My planisphere didn’t show Crux, so I’d traced a star map out of a book I’d found at the library. In daylight, my pencil scrawls seemed perfectly legible as I stood under the sky on the pitching and rolling deck they were as clear as mud. Nevertheless, I saw a star that might have been Acrux a time or two. And one that might have been Alpha Centauri (which they talked about all the time on Lost in Space). Oh, I almost got seasick but didn’t. Neither did Mama or my brother. Daddy got badly seasick, as he always did if he even looked at the ocean.

I had an OK time, I suppose, but wasn’t the least bit sorry when our ship docked in Miami. I was ready to get home and be back to bike riding, swimming, and reading the book I’d bought just before we left, Tom Swift and the Asteroid Pirates, which was sitting on my nightstand waiting for me. But there was still the planetarium. While Mama and Daddy sounded as if they would be happy to head straight home, too, I was danged if I’d let them off the hook about the Space Transit business, not after they made me ride around in a Bahamian horse drawn surrey with a fringe on top—for hours (it felt like that, anyhow).

I sensed some reluctance, especially on the part of Mama, but the afternoon after we docked, we did locate Miami’s science museum and the promised planetarium. My immediate reaction? The museum was way, way cooler than I expected. The sign outside the planetarium’s big double doors informed us we had 45-minutes before the next show, so I took one more turn through the wonderful exhibits and headed for the gift shop.

They had some cool stuff in that shop including a rack full of astronomy books, one of which was The New Handbook of the Heavens. It was supposed to have come with my Palomar Junior, but was missing; I guessed the original owner had hung onto it or lost it.

Paging through the book in the shop, I saw it had a small chart of the southern sky in the back. If only I’d had that on the ship, dang it. Oh, well. Digging deep in the pockets of my Bermuda shorts, I was relieved to find I still had enough cash in the wake of my Marvel comics orgy to buy the Handbook. Today, Hubert Bernhard, Dorothy Bennett, and Hugh Rice’s book (I bought a second copy a decade ago after the one from Miami went missing) seems antique and written in an overly ornamented style. Back then it was nothing less than a font of wisdom.

Even if the planetarium were a waste of time, The New Handbook of the Heavens made my visit worthwhile. But the planetarium wasn’t a waste. The lights dimmed, the stars came up, and I finally understood what a planetarium is all about. It wasn’t a movie show, it was much deeper; it transported you outside to the stars, even in the daytime, and it could transport you to the stars of anywhere and any when.

Who was the gifted Lecturer who put on this wonderful show, who guided us through the stars? Was it Jack Horkheimer? I have no idea, but I like to think it was. Certainly, the man running the projector had a command of the medium that was masterful. My verdict is, yes, those talented hands at the Spitz Space Transit Projector’s control console were Jack Horkheimer’s. Had to be.

Walking out of the dome, what should I spy clustered in an alcove but TELESCOPES. One of the planetarium staff—it may even have been Mr. Horkheimer for all I know—noticed us admiring the gaggle of Newtonians and stopped to talk. This kindly person suggested we might want to come back after sunset for the BIG PUBLIC VIEWING SESSION that evening. I threw a pleading look at Daddy, but I knew it was “no dice.”

Despite her interest in science fiction and space, Mama hadn’t liked the planetarium from the get-go. Maybe she was just tired, or maybe she was concerned my just turned 9-years-old brother wasn’t exactly having a good time--science never having interested him in the slightest. Whatever the cause, she was clearly READY TO GO, and had been ready to go even before the show started. She and my brother had sat it out in the lobby, and I could see Mama now had that infamous look that spelled “I have had enough.” I knew as well as the Old Man did there was little chance of convincing Mama to stay fifteen more minutes much less three more hours, and that once we left we would most assuredly not be coming back.

So ended what went down in family history as the most wonderful of our wonderful vacations, the vacation of the Bahama Star. When Mama referred to it in the future, I always agreed that, yes, it was our best vacation ever, ever, and I guess it really was.

Mama always wanted more, though, to go on another ocean cruise, maybe after she and Daddy retired. But she got sick, a chronic illness that dragged her down year after year. Then Daddy got sick and was taken from us way too early at the end of the 1980s. Still, Mama dreamed of going cruising again, and I am happy to report she got her wish before she left us.

One summer in the mid-1990s, Mama made up her still stubborn mind that despite her infirmity she was dang sure going on a cruise sponsored by her church, way down to Mexico on a big new ship. Dorothy and I were doubtful about such a thing, but noticed how she perked up when she got out her new set of cruise brochures. Thanks largely to Miss Dorothy’s efforts in getting the documentation Mama needed for a visit to Mexico (she was born way, way out in the country at home, and didn’t even have a birth certificate) she was off. And had a wonderful time.

Jack Horkheimer? He just kept going in his inimitable fashion, never faltering, doing 1,708 five-minute episodes of his TV show, with the last one, “Say Goodbye to the Summer Triangle,” airing shortly after his death in August 2010.

Oh, how I’ll miss Jack’s corny hello, “GREETINGS, GREETINGS FELLOW STAR GAZERS!” and his famous sign-off, “KEEP LOOKING UP!” Star Gazer is still running with guest hosts (a permanent replacement is to be chosen soon), but it just ain’t the same. Above all, Jack Horkheimer brought his wonderful sense of humor to the show, and that was a major reason for its enduring success. Despite the health problems that dogged him his whole life, he never lost that sense of fun, which is amply demonstrated by his self-written epitaph:

“Keep looking up" was my life's admonition;
I can do little else in my present position.

Sunday, July 24, 2011


Another Year Older Redux

With every trip around the Sun we gain a little more wisdom. Some of us do, if not necessarily your old Uncle Rod. Yep, Unk just celebrated yet another birthday this past Sunday, muchachos. Miss Dorothy made it a lovely day, taking me out to see the new Harry Potter movie and to supper at my restaurant of choice. Naturally, I chose Bass Pro. Birthday present? One of Orion’s new 50mm guide scopes. Which is cool, since I have been itching to get out with the DSLR and take my yearly snapshot (I will not glorify my work with the hoity-toity term “image”) of M13.

When you get to my age, which, while I will not enumerate it for you, is roughly “almost over the hill, but not quite,” you become a little reflective on your birthday. Me being who I am, my reflections turn to amateur astronomy. As of 2011, I’ve been an amateur for 46 of my years if you count that as only the years I’ve owned a telescope, or closer to 50 if you count my first fumbling steps with toy binoculars. Yeah, I’ve been thinking about the last five decades of amateur astronomy and thought you might enjoy hearing how it has changed and not changed.

The 1960s


It all boiled down to Newtonians. Oh, if your name was Mr. Moneybags you could have something prettier or a bit more exotic, like a beautiful Unitron refractor, but most of us could barely dream of coming up with 200 bucks for a six-inch Criterion RV-6 Dynascope. If you did accumulate that 200 somehow, by bagging groceries all through high school or mowing uncounted lawns, what did you get? Good optics, usually, on a heavy but shaky mount and an AC synchro-motor clock drive. Plug it in and it tracked (sort of); unplug it and it stopped.


If you were like me and my buddies in our little club, the BAS, the Backyard Astronomy Society, you had to settle for Ramsdens and Kellners and were happy to have ‘em instead of the truly dreadful Huygenians. What did all these eyepieces have in common? Narrow apparent fields and simple, uncoated optics. Given that almost to a man (not many women in amateur astronomy in those benighted times) we were using long focal length scopes, the images they produced were actually pretty good.


Naturally, some of us wanted to take pictures of what we saw. Which wasn’t easy. Never mind the films we had, which were either slow or grainy or both, our telescope mountings and drives weren’t up to the task of long exposure deep sky photography. Evered Kreimer did amazing work, sure, but to do that work he had to heavily modify his 12-inch (huge) Cave and build his own chilled emulsion camera (don’t ask, sprouts). Most of us were lucky to get a few blurry afocal Moon pictures using Rube Goldberg camera mounts.

The Magazines

Make that “magazine” if you were a U.S. amateur. Oh, there were some small press publications like The Strolling Astronomer, but only one big commercial mag, Sky and Telescope, natch. What was it like? Considerably more formal than today and less accessible for novices, I reckon. I loved it anyway. Would I, like some curmudgeons, want to go back to the old Sky and Scope? Not on your life. While some old-timers complain there’s less theory and math in the new magazine, it was never the APJ nor was it intended to be. Today’s magazine looks better and reads better—by far.

Star Parties

There were a few in the 60s. There was Stellafane, of course, and a couple of gatherings out on the west coast, but big, organized star parties hadn’t caught on yet, maybe because the mercury vapor streetlights were just beginning to multiply and most of us could still observe profitably from our backyards. Which doesn’t mean we observed alone all the time. Some of my best memories of the early days were the “star parties” (we didn’t call them that) the Backyard Astronomy Society would hold in a vacant lot or in a member’s backyard. Yeah, our scopes were tiny, and we tended to devote at least part of our evenings to tentative discussions of GIRLS or even more esoteric subjects (who would win a battle between Superman and Spiderman?), but those were some of the best observing runs of my life.


As I have said before, I had the odd idea that amateur astronomy was mostly a kid thing. And in a way it was. A lot of the people practicing amateur astronomy the way me and my buddies did—just for fun, for KICKS—were members of the young set. The folks you saw in The Magazine, decked out in coats and ties in the “Amateur Astronomers” column, were focused on the serious: variable star observing, monitoring planets, measuring double stars. I admired those “professional amateurs” (more professional than amateur me and my pals thought) then and salute them now, but, truth is, today most of you enjoy our avocation more like how me and my BAS buddies did.

The Culture and Astronomy

The fact that a surprising number of younguns were interested in astronomy back then is testament to several things. In toto, our culture was more forward-looking and less self-centered than it is today, with grand adventures seeming more doable. The space-race was on and in the headlines and in our consciousness all the time, and there were fewer distractions. No Nintendo and only three TV stations in the ‘Swamp meant you had to find something to do when the month’s comics were read and you’d had enough of Tom Swift and The Hardy Boys for a while.

Uncle Rod

I got started (with a telescope) in 1965 with a fairly horrible 3-inch Tasco Newtonian, moved on to my beloved 4.25-inch Edmund Scientific Palomar Junior shortly thereafter, and stayed with that for a few years. Which was probably a good thing. I’d get aggravated by my books’ warnings that “so and so an object requires a 6-inch,” but I didn’t let that stop me, and having to stretch with 4-inches probably made me a better observer. By the time the decade was running out, I had a 6-inch, but not the Super Space Conqueror or the RV-6 of my dreams. Instead, I built a homebrew pipe-mount sixer that was as crude as crude could be. I loved it, of course.

The 1970s


If there were ever a clear cut demarcation between one decade of amateur astronomy and another, it is between the 60s and 70s. That was when Celestron, who had been producing uber beautiful and uber expensive SCTs for schools and amateurs like Johnny Carson and Hugh Downs, decided they wanted to sell to the masses and came out with the vaunted Celestron “Orange Tube” C8 at a price we could at least dream of affording.

Amateur astronomy was changing, and the new scope was just better suited for the new realities. Many of us now had to travel to get to dark skies, the gas crunch had radically downsized cars, and a lot of Joe and Jane (there were more Janes now) amateurs wanted to do astrophotography. The 60s Newtonian wasn’t very good at any of these things. The Orange Tube C8, conversely, was good at these very things. Thus was a legend born.


Things were getting better here—if slowly. Yeah, the bread and butter was still Kellners and Ramsdens, but more and more of us were glomming onto the idea that eyepieces were as important as telescope mirrors and were beginning to embrace Orthoscopics and even more exotic eyepieces. The first ocular that really blew me away was an Erfle I got from Jaegers. No it wasn’t perfect at the edge, even in my f/10 SCT, but, man, all that field! Over 60-degrees!


As with eyepieces, we were beginning to make a little progress. The top workers were moving from chilled film to hypered (“hypersensitized” with hydrogen gas) film, but the rank and file were just beginning to find our feet with SLRs. Better cameras helped, but we were still struggling to get decent pictures will emulsions like Tri-X.

The Magazines

Sky and Telescope was still more than recognizable, if beginning to add color and becoming a wee bit less starchy-stiff. Astronomy Magazine came along in 1973 with the coming of notorious Comet Kahoutek and brought lots of color pictures (for the day), pretty ones, and showed there was indeed room for two big astro-rags. I’ve liked Astronomy since the night I bought my first issue at Bookland in the Possum Swamp Mall, but I've never loved it like I've loved S&T.

Star Parties

They didn’t really break big till the next decade, but quite a few amateur of the 70s discovered that not only was it fun to observe with lots of friends, a star party was a convenient way to get the dark sky experience they were denied at home.


Clubs were beginning to pop up in some odd places—I’ve decided our silly little BAS was indeed a real astronomy club—which was good. One thing was becoming obvious, though: the Astronomical League, which in the sixties some of us imagined would become the American equivalent of the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada, turned out not to be that. Oh, plenty of clubs in the 70s were AL affiliates, but the League, it became clear, would never attain the importance to us the RASC had for our brothers and sisters to the north. Why? I’m still not sure. Maybe it’s that streak of American individualism, which seems to be especially virulent in amateur astronomers. Or that too many years of playing it safe by the AL meant it became more and more superfluous to the average amateur with every passing year.

The Culture and Astronomy

One word sums up the 70s: “hangover.” Apollo was done and, in the wake of ‘Nam, nobody much cared. Neither government nor people were interested in pushing on to Mars. We wanted to forget the sixties and disco our little hearts out.

Uncle Rod

After ten years of the Pal Junior and my ATM 6-inch, I was finally able to buy what I thought was the telescope of my dreams, an 8-inch Cave Newtonian. As Mr. Spock said: “After a time, you may find that having is not so pleasing a thing, after all, as wanting.” Unk switched horses to an Orange Tube C8 after having had the Cave for only a little while, after experiencing a single winter of loading it back into his Dodge Dart at 3 a.m. on Ozark Mountain winter mornings. Astrophotography-wise, Unk had switched from a plastic Argus twin lens (box) camera to a Pentax K1000 SLR on his new SCT, a pretty massive improvement

The 1980s


The Schmidt Cassegrain ruled the roost for this decade, no doubt about it; not only Celestron with its Super C8s and Powerstars, but upstart Meade with luscious looking LX3s, 5s, and 6es. And yet, and yet…another sort of amateur astronomy was being born, one fostered by folks who didn’t want to take pictures, but who, instead, wanted to see the deep sky in detail with their own eyes.

There was this dude, John Dobson, in San Francisco. While we’d occasionally seen mention of him in Sky and Scope, it took his idea, which concerned very large and very simply mounted Newtonians, a goodly while to catch on with the Stellafane and (even) Riverside crowds. But plenty of other amateurs sat up and took notice and soon Dobs were all the rage. That was helped along by a well-known 60s optics maker, Jim Jacobsen’s Coulter, who were soon offering the Odysseys, insanely huge telescopes at insanely low prices.


This is easy to sum up: the decade began with Erfles and Orthos and ended with Naglers and Wide Fields (the precursor to the TeleVue Panoptics, younguns). Combine the genius of Al Nagler with the needs of owners of fast, un-driven telescopes, and we were soon enjoying Unk Al’s vaunted “spacewalk” experience.


Not much movement here. We were still using single lens reflexes and guiding them manually by staring at guidestars for hours on end, mashing hand-paddle buttons when they wandered. Film emulsions were getting better for astrophotography, though, and Fuji began offering some color print films that pointed the way for those of us who wanted to see the universe in living color. We also began to get a lot of nifty imaging accessories from Dr. Jack Marling’s Lumicon (he also turned us on to light pollution reduction filters in a big way).

The Magazines

Sky and Telescope was just as good as ever, maybe even better. It certainly looked better. In this decade, it came under the stewardship of yet another legendary S&T Editor, Leif Robinson. Astronomy Magazine? It was flourishing under Richard Berry.

Star Parties

In the 1980s, the star party as we knew it was born. Not something focused on telescope making like Stellafane or Riverside, but something focused on observing and having a good time with your buddies.


Astronomy club membership grew by leaps and bounds with the coming of Halley’s Comet. When the comet of the century turned out to be a near bust (for the general public), alas, membership plummeted. We regrouped, and things slowly began to get back to normal. This was also the decade where we got a glimmering of what them new-fangled microcomputers, especially when equipped with modems, would mean for our pursuit.

The Culture and Astronomy

Halley would change everything. Everybody would want a telescope. The Possum Swamp AS would soon have hundreds of members, not ten (if you counted pore old Elmer who slept through every meeting). With the poor showing of Halley, it all came to naught. The end of the decade was a time for retrenching.

Uncle Rod

I soldiered on with my beloved Orange Tube for years before having my head turned by the More Better Gooder, Celestron’s new Super C8. Which I shortly thereafter proceeded to sell to get the scope’s not-as-good replacement—mine wasn’t—the Super C8 Plus So it goes…

The 1990s


There are several telescope threads running through the 1990s. Dobsonians continued their march, morphing from hot-water-heater-like Sonotube things into the modern truss tube configuration. Apochromatic, color free, refractors were hitting the big time for those with the $$$ to sample their charms. But THE telescope story? The introduction of the Meade LX200 SCT in 1992, the first practical and affordable go-to scope. We are still feeling the reverberations from that.


Uncle Al continued to improve his spacewalk wonders. The Wide Fields became the Panoptics and the Nagler IIs were born. Amateurs were suddenly apparent field crazy, and people noticed, including Meade, who introduced their own lines of Nagler-like and Panoptic-like oculars. The mid years of the decade also bought the Radians, which are on their way out now. Shame. My late friend Jeff Medkeff said they were the best planetary eyepieces ever, and if anybody should have known, it was the talented Jeff.


Slowly, ever so slowly, film was dying and CCDs were becoming not just a curiosity, but something the average amateur astrophotographer could consider trying. One big impetus for that was Richard Berry’s Cookbook CCD camera. Yeah, I know it seems antique now with its tiny chip and windshield washer pump cooling system, but, man, was it a revelation back then. Even old Rod built the circuit boards for one (though he and the PSAS didn’t get much farther than that).

The Magazines

Sky & Telescope continued on its merry way in the capable hands of Mr. Robinson. Astronomy Magazine? The early 1990s saw the Editorship of the magazine, which was now owned by Kalmbach Publishing, an outfit known for model railroading and similar “hobby magazines,” pass from Richard Berry to Robert Burnham (a.k.a. “the other Burnham”). Mr. Burnham was talented and capable, but somehow it just wasn’t the same.

Star Parties

If they were coming into their own in the 80s, in the 90s they established themselves as a permanent fixture of the amateur astronomer’s life. After my first visit to the Texas Star Party, all I could say was “Why didn’t we think of this earlier?” The skies at home were never, ever like those of Prude Ranch.


This was the decade when many of us began to wonder if the local astronomy club was doomed. After all, you could long onto s.a.a. on the dern computer and attend a “meeting” anytime you wanted. That turned out not to be the case. Oh, you could get on s.a.a. anytime, but it wasn’t the same as seeing your fellow observers in non-virtual space. Today, s.a.a. is long gone (for all practical purposes), but the astro-club lives on. Otherwise? This was a huge decade for us. Many of the features of today’s amateur astronomy—computers, CCDs, APOs, go-to—became popular in the 1990s.

The Culture of Astronomy

In the wake of the Voyagers and the repair of the Hubble Space Telescope, public interest in the Great Out There began to reawaken a little bit, at least. And if Halley was something of a bust, the one-two punch of Hyakutake and Hale-Bopp convinced the public and the media that, yes, comets could be cool.

Uncle Rod

This was a great time for me. I got divorced, met the beautiful and wonderful Miss Dorothy, and got married again. I didn’t spend too much time mourning my lost Super C8 Plus, which I sold to help finance said divorce; I replaced her with a much better telescope, an Ultima 8, my Celeste, whose OTA I am still using 16 years down the line.

The 2000s


We are a little close to the decade to decide on the major telescope trends, but I'll try. Small and fine APO refractors lost steam and the humble SCT made a strong comeback. Celestron, especially, introduced some classic scopes—like the NexStar GPS line. Above all, it was the decade of China. Synta was an ever greater force as the years rolled by, not just filling the catalog of Orion with cheap but good telescopes, but even buying Celestron, ensuring their continuing presence.

The Magazines

Following Leif Robinson’s retirement, Rick Fienberg and current Editor Bob Naeye and their colleagues continued the grand tradition and began moving The Magazine into the 21st century, putting all the back numbers on DVD and offering “digital” subscriptions. This decade saw the rise of some wonderful small press amateur astronomy magazines, including Amateur Astronomy Magazine and Astronomy Technology Today.


Things were quiet for a while on the eyepiece front, with not much going on other than some fine-tuning of the TeleVue line and the arrival of excellent and (relatively) inexpensive 80-degree AFOV eyepieces from China. Then Unk Al did it again, with his Ethos eyepieces, which featured 100-degree apparent fields and crazy-good images. These were followed not long after by similarly wonderful “100s” from Scott Roberts’ new company, Explore Scientific. I expect Explore to become the next big name/force in amateur astronomy, by the way. You read it here first, muchachos.

Star Parties

The big news along these lines was not star parties per se, but amateur astronomy “communities” like the Chiefland Astronomy Village and Deerlick Astronomy Village. With the huge cadre (in a small amateur astronomy way) of Baby Boom amateurs nearing retirement and quite a few folks picking up amateur astronomy in retirement, I expect “astronomy subdivisions” to become ever more popular.


Unk is now a high-tech redneck, and he is not the only one. It’s unusual to see any amateur on an observing field without a laptop, at least. Some of us worry about that. And some worry that amateur astronomy is now mostly composed of star GEEZERS. “Pshaw,” your Uncle says. High tech or not, the amateurs I meet are still as enthusiastic about the sky as ever. We need more young people (and women and minorities) but young folks are still coming into the hobby as they always have. Let’s face it, amateur astronomy is and always will be one of those things that only a select few will ever “get.”

Uncle Rod

Almost as soon as the decade came in, Unk, like most of y’all, embraced go-to. He also became a steadfast proponent of deep sky video cameras, and it looks like ever more of you are agreeing with him on that, too. CCDing? Uncle Rod eased into it with a Starlight Xpress MX516, moved up to a Meade DSI, and topped out, thus far, with an SBIG ST2000. Tell the truth, simple minded and fumble fingered as he is, Unk prefers a DSLR. Scopes? Big Bertha, our NexStar 11 GPS, came to Chaos Manor South in 2002, and is still rockin’. Celeste, the C8, is still with us, but in 2005 she was DEFORKED, and is now riding on a Celestron CG5 or an Atlas EQ-6.

So? All I can say is what a long, (sometimes) strange trip the last 46 years have been. Would I like to go back to the 60s? Well, there is always the desire to recapture that sweet bird of youth and see all those cool sky objects for the first time again…but…nah. I wouldn’t go back on a bet. I am having as much fun or more today than I ever have had and am happier with Miss Dorothy at my side than I ever was or ever could have dreamed of being.

Next Time: Star Hustling.

Sunday, July 17, 2011


Unk’s Messier Album 2

As you can probably tell from my latest Herschel Project report, Unk likes serious observing. But not all the time. Sometimes I want to look at the sky in a slightly more relaxed fashion. Still, I’m not normally an informal observer. It’s been my experience over the years that unless you have a project going or at least a list of objects to look at, you wind up seeing very little: “Well, done seen M13 and M57…guess I’ll look at The Lagoon and call it a night. Cain’t think of much else.”

Unk’s informal, but not too informal, observing project is his Messier Album. What I am doing is going through those famous deep sky objects as laid out in the wonderful series of late-sixties – early-seventies columns in Sky and Telescope, John Mallas and Evered Kreimer’s “A Messier Album” (which later became a book, The Messier Album), and seeing how what I see in my telescope compares to what legendary observer Mallas saw in his. If you want more details on the Album Project, go here, but that’s really all there is to it.

John Mallas’ telescope, as I mentioned in the first installment of this series, was a 4-inch f/15 Unitron Photo Equatorial achromatic refractor. Alas, Unk does not have such a beast, though he sure wishes he did sometimes. I do have something roughly similar as far as the images it delivers, though, my 5-inch ETX-125PE, Charity Hope Valentine. So, when Unk wants to observe at the old dark site, but bugs and clouds and laziness vote against taking on The Herschel Project, Unk and Charity hit old Chuck’s wonders with the aid of Mallas and Kreimer.

And that’s the way it was the Saturday before Miss Dorothy and I were to set out on our latest Chiefland adventure. Part of me wanted to manhandle the C11, Big Bertha, out to the Possum Swamp A.S. dark site and give her a shakedown before the Florida trip, but a look at the thermometer, which was still stuck in the mid 90s a couple of hours before sunset, and a look at the skies, which were resolutely hazy, changed my mind. Oh, CHARITY!

I figured at least attempting another Messier Album installment would be relaxing fun if nothing else. So I loaded up the car with the bare minimum of gear I would need to do that: Charity and her tripod, a 12-volt jumpstart battery, our observing/camp table, a notebook with a printed list of the Mallas/Kreimer Album objects arranged as they originally appeared in Sky and Telescope, my tackle-cum-accessory box, and my little case of humble 1.25-inch eyepieces—mostly Orion’s (Synta’s) 66-degreee AFOV Expanses. If I needed a chart, there was SkySafari on my iPod or the print Sky and Telescope’s Pocket Sky Atlas. Oh, and the Thermacell to keep the bugs away, natch.

Arriving on-site, the first thing I did was get the Thermacell cranking. Even though it’s been relatively dry, there are still plenty of skeeters, and the Thermacell, which works by heating a pad imbued with allethrin repellent from chrysanthemum flowers with a small butane cartridge, will keep ‘em off, no ifs ands or buts. The beauty of it is that you don’t have to slather yourself with icky plastic-eating DEET repellents that might do who-know-what to your bod. The only bug-bites I got on this evening were when I stepped out of the 4 - 5-meter protective bubble of the Thermacell to help out a buddy.

It was hot, muchachos, if not too humid-sticky, and I was sure glad I didn’t have a ton of astro-junk to set up. With the table erected and the eyepiece case and accessory box on it, all that was left to do was put Charity on her tripod and we would be ready to roll. I didn’t even bring dew heater strips and the DewBuster. It looked like the night would be reasonably dry, and Charity’s corrector plate doesn’t dew up easily, anyway. If I did get the damp corrector blues after a while, I had one of the little 12-volt hairdryers/window defrosters we all used to use for dew-zapping.

The sky? Hard to tell. It looked OK, if hazy, at sundown and the few clouds to the west appeared to be moving off. I was suspicious, however, because the horizon was ringed with clouds. It looked as if the only clear spot anywhere was a giant sucker-hole right over our heads. Would it last? I hoped so, but if not, the ETX and everything else could be back in the car in less than ten minutes and I’d be headed to the cool and dry comfort of Chaos Manor South.

With the bright stars winking on, it was time to get Miss C. go-to aligned, which is always an adventure. Since she is the PE model ETX, all I had to do to put her in her initial “home” starting position was undo the azimuth lock and rotate her counterclockwise until she stopped at her “hard stop.” That done, you lock her back down, power up, and begin alignment.

Despite me not having leveled Charity, she came satisfyingly close (for her) to her two alignment stars. By the way, don’t waste a lot of time leveling your go-to rig; it won’t help accuracy a bit. All it will do is ensure the initial alignment stars are a wee bit closer to the center of the finder than they’d otherwise have been. Anyhoo, I centered up Charity’s choices—Vega and Spica, I recall—and she responded with “Align Success.” Uh-huh. Unk knows your ways, Missy. Let’s see you center M3.

Rut-roh. The big Messier glob was not in the center of the field of the 20mm Expanse. It wasn’t anywhere in the field. It wasn’t even close. With Charity, that signals one thing: time to train the altitude and azimuth drives. I’d noted this behavior coming on last time I’d had my Maksutov girlfriend out, and I should just have done Drive Training, which allows the scopes’ computer to take backlash into account, as soon as I’d set the ETX up tonight. It was now too dark to use a terrestrial target, which is the best way to do the procedure, so I did the training on Polaris, me centering the star, Charity slewing away, and me re-centering it to complete the training.

Did both axes, hit the big switch, and re-did the go-to alignment. I’m not sure if that is necessary, but I did it anyway. When I issued the go-to command to M3 again, the cluster wound up in the field, if not precisely centered after Charity Hope Valentine stopped her huffing and puffing. Takeaway? As I’ve learned, you simply have to do Drive Training every once in a while.

Don’t want to fool with the Drive Training? You can enable the ETX’s Precise Go-to feature. In that mode, the telescope first points at a bright star near the target, you center it, and the scope then proceeds on to the final destination, which will almost invariably be in the eyepiece field. Problem is, it is time consuming if you want to cover a lot of ground, and while the Autostar chooses “bright” stars, most of ‘em are kind of off the beaten path, and you may need a chart to identify them. All in all, occasional Drive Training is easier.

Charity settled down, it was time to get to work. I initially thought we’d go through the galaxies in Leo, but a look at M105 disabused me of that notion. There was heavy haze to the west, and while M105 was visible, it was surprisingly dim. Since the goal of The Album Project is to see how close I come to what master observer John Mallas saw, there wouldn’t be much point to hunting galaxies in compromised skies.

What then? This would be a night for globs, globular star clusters. Scorpius was out of the light dome (barely), Serpens was in the clear, Ophiuchus was getting there, and the sky was now looking pretty good to the southeast. That would give me and my gal a more than sufficient selection of objects to work. As I said in the first installment, I want to take this slow. Mallas and Kreimer usually only did two or three Messiers each column, and I don’t want to exceed that by much. I want to see how much I can wring out of each object with my (relatively) small scope.

As before, the plan was simple: I’d spend plenty of time with each Messier and then complete a preliminary (rough) drawing. My exact sketching procedure? I take my drawing pad, an 11 by 9-inch spiral-bound sketch “diary” to the eyepiece with me and draw-in field stars with a Sharpie marker (I’ll have prepared generous-sized eyepiece field “circles” beforehand). Mallas tended to leave out most/all stars not associated with the objects. Not me. I find they help me more accurately place the details of the target DSO. Why didn’t Mallas draw field stars? Since he tended not to sketch open clusters at all, I assume he just didn’t like drawing stars.

What about the DSO itself? It depends somewhat on the individual Messier and its type, but generally I leave the sketch diary on the nearby observing table, walking back and forth. I’ll look till I’m sure about some facet of the thing, walk over and put that in the drawing and repeat as needed. I don’t smudge nebulae or try to draw any but the most prominent stars in a globular. I make notes and outlines. I will sketch peculiar details carefully—like M13’s Propeller or M8’s Hourglass. I generally use an hb hardness drawing pencil for all this.

That is just the beginning. The next morning—no later, I don’t want to forget how the object looked—I do a finished drawing using a variety of hard and soft drawing pencils, blending stumps, gum erasers, and the other tools you will find at your local art supply store—one of the best “astronomy accessory” dealers around.

The final stage is scanning the finished drawing into the computer, where I will complete it with Paint Shop Pro or Adobe Photoshop. Depending on what the sketch needs, I may use many of the programs’ various tools. One thing I always do is replace my drawn stars with good looking ones I produce with the imaging program’s airbrush tool, taking care to keep them the sizes I originally sketched. Finally, I’ll invert the color to “negative” so I have nice white stars on a black background.

If you are serious about sketching, the above is just the beginning. There’s a lot you can do to refine your pictures in the computer—you might even use a little color in stars. My sketches are certainly not world-class (for some of those, see the Cloudy Nights sketching forum), but they look good to me and record what I saw, which is my goal.

So, here we go. The matter in italics is transcribed from my log, and, as before, if this is to be the most fun for you, you need to go and get a copy of the Mallas Kreimer book or load up the Sky & Telescope DVDs. Whether you have the Mallas book or columns or not, I commend to you a wonderful online reference to the Messier, the SEDS Messier Database. In addition to descriptions and pictures, it includes the vital stats for each wonder.

M4 and M80 (June 1969)

Mr. Mallas and I saw and recorded about the same things in M4, the Cat’s Eye Cluster. John says that in his Unitron “The cluster is a well defined circular glow with a brighter center.” Further, he notes that at 214x this class IX (loose) globular star cluster begins to break up around the edges. Yeah, I saw about the same thing, though I was able to see all those little stars at lower power, and my drawing shows quite a few more stars outside the cluster’s curious central “bar” than Mallas saw.

M4 is very beautiful and nicely resolved with the 20mm Expanse (94x). I also see four brighter stars in a kite-shaped asterism 5’30” to the south-southwest of the glob’s center. The “iris” of the Cat’s Eye is composed of many dimmer stars in a very prominent line. Surrounding it are more of these tiny sparklers—a horde of them.

M80 is a tight little Shapley – Sawyer Class II (highly compressed) glob, and it was a little difficult for me to pick out many cluster stars. John beat me on this one; his drawing, which I presume was done at high magnification, though he doesn’t say, shows many stars all across the cluster’s face that I didn’t detect.

M80. The other Scorpius M globular cluster is surprisingly large tonight. There is a bright magnitude 8.47 field star 4’15” to the northeast of the cluster’s center. It is not easy to resolve this tight glob, but I do see occasional little stars wink in and out in its halo. Bright and very tight core. Dims smoothly to its edge.

M5 and M9 (June 1970)

John Mallas was every bit as impressed with M5, a Class V globular, as I was, calling it “One of the finest globular clusters in the heavens…” But that’s about all we have in common on this one. He notes chains of stars like “spider legs” that I didn’t see, and for him the core is triangular, while I saw it as distinctly square. Furthermore, I saw quite a few more stars at 125x than he did at what, judging from his drawing, was a higher magnification (again, he doesn’t tell us how high).

Despite the barely passable transparency, M5, the great globular in Serpens, is a marvel. The bright, grainy center is surrounded by a large number of tiny, tiny stars. Absolutely breathtaking with the 15mm Expanse (125x). The core seems almost off-center, and at times seems to have a square shape. A bright star, magnitude 5.06 5 Serpentis, is only 22’ to the southeast.

As with M5, John Mallas and I saw distinctly different versions of Ophiuchus’ Class VIII M9. His drawing of this globular looks a lot like a lenticular galaxy surrounded by a little haze. My sketch, in contrast, shows a normal looking cluster just beginning to resolve.

M9 is still a little low on the horizon and just barely out of the worst of the light dome. Nevertheless, as I look it transforms from a round smudge to a partially resolved cluster, with lots of little stars popping on and off around its periphery like fireworks. Set in a rich field. Best-looking in the 15mm Expanse, though the higher power of the 9mm (208x) does bring out more stars.

M6 (July 1969)

I meant to look at M7, not M6, since M7, not M6, is a part of the June 1970 group, but I got befuddled as the night grew old (so what else is new?) and did 6 instead. But M6 is nicer than M7, anyway, and who says I can’t jump around? While Mallas comments that M6 is “One of the finest sights in the heavens,” he doesn’t really say much about it other than that it looks nice and “(It) shows very little bunching of stars in the middle.” While I didn’t get the Butterfly shape, I was taken by that very bunching Mallas missed.

Mallas didn’t draw the Butterfly (open) Cluster, M6, so neither will I. This is a beautiful collection of bright stars, but is really too large for a telescope of this focal length. It’s hopeless to try to see a butterfly here, even with the 40mm ProOptic Plössl (47x), but the cluster is still striking and rich with lovely a cross-shaped asterism of stars at its heart. One of these nights I will turn my 25x100 binoculars on it.

Supernova in M51. Since M51’s new supernova, SN2011dh, was at its height, I thought I’d see if Charity would show it up. While conditions had improved markedly over the course of the evening—as midnight approached, the Milky Way was pretty bright as its arch reached for the zenith—they were still not perfect. Given the way it looked in a nearby 15-inch Dobsonian, I wasn’t sure I would see the Type II (the precursor was a single, giant star) at all. A little staring, and eyepiece switching, though, and there it was. It wasn’t easy, but it wasn’t that hard, either, standing out fairly prominently in one of the galaxy’s outer arms. I estimated it to be a little dimmer than magnitude 12, and I suspect it would have been a lot easier if not for the fracking haze.

I didn’t stop there. I’d completed the “official” Messiers of the evening, but it will still not quite midnight, so I toured around a bit, paying most of my attention to the Sagittarius – Scorpius area. Big old fat-daddy-spider M22 near filled my field with tiny stars stretching out from his oval body, and, over in Scorpius, the little Bug Nebula tried to scamper away, but was not able to escape Charity’s gaze.

As the clock struck 12, I noted the sky had begun to degrade again. The humidity had also spiked up, with me having to dew-zap the corrector every 10-minutes or so now. All in all, it seemed a pretty good time to throw the Big Switch. Once again I was reminded of the best part of a Charity Hope Valentine night. Man-oh-man, how nice it was to have the junk back in the vee-hickle in a few minutes and be enjoying the Toyota’s AC (it was still in the 80s at midnight) and headed for the Rebel Yell bottle.

Next Time: Another Year Older…

Sunday, July 10, 2011


The Herschel Project Nights 24 and 25

You don’t have to be crazy to observe from the Chiefland Astronomy Village in July, muchachos, but it sure helps. Badda-bing. Yeah, it is awful hot down in Florida this time of year. Even if you are close to the Gulf, it is hot. On the Wednesday before Miss Dorothy and I set out on our latest Herschel quest, the stats for Chiefland were, “Current temperature is 97F; feels like 123F.”

On the other hand, much of the time it’s actually been hotter up here in Possum Swamp than it’s been at the CAV. It has been a weird spring, muchachos. Hot, sure, but dry with a constant danger of fires. Now that summer has come in, we’re finally getting a little rain, which is good for the fire situation (Orange Beach, Alabama darned near burned up), but otherwise makes unbearable heat more unbearable as the mugginess quotient rises.

We were ready for a break in the form of a 4th of July getaway, so, heat or no, we were determined to go. Keeping the Herschel Project on the strait and narrow was also a consideration. It was a pretty good winter/early spring with Unk finishing both the Herschel 400 and the Herschel II, but I still have nearly half the big list (I've begun calling it the "Big Enchilada") of almost two-thousand five-hundred objects, mostly galaxies, left to go, and I had been resting on my laurels. Which means Unk has been too lazy to tote a serious telescope out to the Possum Swamp Astronomical Society’s dark site in the buggy, muggy heat.

As soon as we made up our minds to go southbound a few weeks back, I got on the Internet and made reservations at the good, old Chiefland Day’s Inn. Normally I would have waited a little longer and kept a weather eye on the extended forecasts before committing, but not this time. We’d decided we’d go rain or shine; if the H-Project couldn’t be pursued, we’d spend our time at Cedar Key.

As has been my custom of late, I packed all the gear that goes in the trunk of the Toyota the night before, meaning I only had to stuff a few items in the back seat on departure morning, Thursday morning. I thought I was being real smart when I marshaled the gear in Chaos Manor South’s front parlor Wednesday evening. I got out my checklist and ticked off each item. I went strictly by that checklist, and felt good about myself for abandoning my head-scratching, “Well, what else do I need to bring?” ways. Alas, as you’ll hear shortly, that didn't help. Not completely, anyhow.

What did I bring? The usual Chiefland rig: Big Bertha (my NexStar 11 GPS SCT), the Stellacam II video camera, and all the required the support gear. Which includes a Coleman tailgating canopy, a big camp table, a netbook computer, a DVD recorder, a DVD player (for its display), chairs, cables, eyepiece box (just in case), bottles of Rebel Yell (natch), and--well, you name it. How do I get all that in a Toyota Camry? Experience, my friends, sometimes slightly bitter experience. Unk is thinking about a larger vehicle, an SUV, when it’s trade-in time.

We were up bright and early on Thursday, though we didn’t need to be. The trip to Chiefland takes just under six hours, motel check-in time is two, and it does not get completely dark at CAV this time of year till about 9:30 p.m. I loaded up the few remaining items and we headed out. Not to CAV, but to the neighborhood (Downtown) Mickey D’s, where Unk had his usual fried chicken biscuit. I don’t know if they sell them in Yankee-land, but if not, you-all are deprived. As I have said before, who doesn’t want fried chicken for breakfast?

Next up was four hours plus of I-10. It was made bearable by the company of the lovely Miss D. It is so nice to have her on my deep sky pilgrimages, now. We amused ourselves by listening to my iPod, which was, fittingly, loaded up with Sir Willie’s Greatest Hits album. OK, OK, that’s not really the title; it’s Sir William Herschel: Music by the Father of Modern Astronomy, which I got off'n iTunes. Miss D. had never heard any of The Master’s music before and was suitably impressed. No, he wasn’t Mozart, but he was good, and if he’d been just a little better astronomy might have lost him to music.

Are you surprised to hear Unk listens to classical music? Well, he does, but, so as not to wreck my image, the next record (I still call them that) I cued up on the iPod Touch was The Allman Brothers Band Live at the Fillmore East. Is that more like it, y’all?

Just after Tallahassee, I-10 runs into Highway 19, the Georgia-Florida Parkway, where you exit. There’s a good filling station there where I gas-up and pick-up some snacks for the final hundred-mile run to CAV (they have the weird but awesomely tasty Jack Links Sasquatch Big Sticks, including the ANGRY flavor). It’s at this point I usually start getting excited, planning the night’s observing run in my head. This time? Not so much.

Quite a few observers for a summer dark of the Moon run.
Before we departed the Swamp, I'd checked and and was dismayed to see Thursday evening’s forecast had changed overnight from “partly cloudy” to “mostly cloudy.” Often, it’ll be cloudy all the way down I-10, begin to clear as you hit U.S. 19, and be beautiful by the time you arrive at CAV. Not this time. We ran into honest-to-God rain, and by the time we got to Chiefland it was obvious there’d be no observing on this night. Heck, it appeared we wouldn’t even be able to set up the rig.

Nevertheless, we stuck to the vaunted Plan, beginning with checking into the Chiefland Day's Inn. Our poolside room was not quite ready when we arrived, so we headed to the Astronomy Village. If you don’t know what the CAV is, read some of the earlier Herschel Project blog articles, but in short it is a housing development for amateur astronomers. It's close to the conveniences of Chiefland, but far enough away from the light dome of the small town to allow superior deep sky observing—when the weather cooperates.

What did we find when we got there? A whole lot of soggy nothing. My fellow Chiefland Observers club members were either not yet on site or holed up somewhere cool and dry. Dorothy and I sat under the storied CAV picnic pavilion for a while chatting on about this and that and trying to decide whether we ought to start unloading or not.

Our decision was “not.” The sky wasn’t looking better; it was looking decidedly worse. For a while, I became concerned the weird cloud hovering over the Clarks’ house was a tornado aborning (it wasn’t, but the sky looked threatening enough to make me think that could happen). There was absolutely nobody on the field to keep an eye on my gear if the weather turned truly rancid in the middle of the night, either. It was still early, however, so we decided we’d make a run on Wally-World, get settled in the room, and motor back out around six-thirty. If things were substantially better, I’d have plenty of time to get Bertha unpacked and be ready to go by astronomical twilight.

Tornado aborning?
What was at the Walmart? Those deadly, deadly Big Macs at the store’s built-in Macdonald’s, and bottled water, Monster Energy Drinks, and Jack Links Flaming Buffalo Chicken Nuggets for the field. Don’t worry too much about Unk’s diet; we also snatched up some granola bars for healthy snacking in the room. Lastly, I glommed onto a 50-foot extension cord. The cord I’d used to power Bertha last time, in April, was a little too short.

Thence to the room. Not much need be said about our regular Chiefland hostelry. The room was clean and convenient, if looking a little shop-worn. Above all, it was cool, there were plenty of cable channels, and the bed was inviting. Unk had considered bringing along some heavy duty astronomy reading material, but, in light of the hot and lazy summer environment, opted instead for Star Wars Republic Commando: HARD CONTACT. Not exactly literature, friends, but it entertained me till I dropped off into an hour or two’s nap.

At six I did indeed head back out to the site (I told Miss D. she might as well stay at the motel). The skies looked worse than ever. The weather gods hadn’t yet let go in a big way, but it looked like they might at any minute. Out at CAV, I was still alone, so Unk wandered around the site for a while, reliving ten years of wonderful observing runs. Wait...what was that?! Was it a drop of rain? Yep. I grabbed the Monsters, ran to the Clubhouse, stowed ‘em in the fridge, and made a dash for the car.

Back in Chiefland proper, it was an uneventful but restful evening that included that sainted potation, Rebel Yell, plenty of browsing of the Cloudy Nights discussion groups with the netbook, and the SyFy Channel’s silly but fun Hollywood Treasures marathon as the rain fell. Just before night-night time, we tuned in the Weather Channel, which was promising “partly cloudy” for Friday night, keeping our slightly dampened hopes alive.

Friday morning dawned to scudding clouds. Not perfect, no, but better than the full overcast of Thursday. Miss D. and I decided it was good enough and headed to the CAV immediately after our breakfast of miniature bagels at the Days Inn. It was a good thing we got out to the field not long after 9 a.m. The thermometer was beginning a steady climb that would top out in the mid 90s, which, with the humidity brought on by the previous day’s rain, meant a heat index over 100. I’ve felt hotter at the CAV, but it was bad enough, y’all.

Set up without too much sweat.
My strategy was to go easy and not rush, taking plenty of breaks and drinking plenty of water. It wasn’t comfortable, but it wasn’t bad, and set up was going smoothly—too smoothly, it turned out. With our canopy up, I manhandled Bertha’s tripod from the trunk. I normally pack the tripod with its spreader removed in order to maximize space in the trunk, and I didn’t even have to look in the car to realize it: I’d left the darned thing at home.

The last time I’d used the NS11 had been on our last CAV expedition in April. Naturally, I’d removed the spreader when I’d packed for the drive home. When I unpacked, I’d forgotten to replace it on the tripod. I knew good and well where it was: right where it had been sitting for months, on the seat of a chair in the dining room. The only question was whether this was a fatal error.

A little cogitating and I decided the answer was “no.” The spreader may add stability to the tripod but it is not actually required. The scope mounts to the tripod head via three bolts that are in no way connected with the spreader or the threaded rod it rides on. The legs have stops and don’t need the spreader to prevent them from collapsing. If the lack of a spreader made the scope a touch shakier than normal, that would be offset by the fact that I wouldn’t have to touch Bertha over the course of the run. Her Moto-focus means it’s strictly hands off. Whew! I finished set-up feeling just a wee bit shaky after my scare.

I was a mite tired and hot, and there wasn’t much reason to hang around the field after set-up, since there still wasn’t a soul around. Back at the motel, I had received an email from regular Chiefland observer Carl Wright that said he’d be on-site by afternoon. I figured the rest of the gang would trickle in over the course of the day. Naturally, while driving back to town and enjoying the Camry’s air conditioner, I began playing the “what ELSE did I forget” game.

DOH! I didn’t remember seeing the DC power supply I use to run the DewBuster heaters. I didn’t need to turn around and head back to the CAV to check, either. As with the spreader, I immediately knew I’d forgot the fricking-fracking thing. I knew how to fix this, at least—I’d run the heaters off my battery.

Stellacam and Motofocus ready.
At CAV, almost everything, including Bertha, runs on AC current. I do like to power the Stellacam with a battery, though, since the last time I operated it with a wall-wart was the time the dang thing blew up (not quite, but it did stop working and need repair). Today, the camera is “obsolete” and I’m not sure who I’d get to fix it if I let the smoke out again. What I could do, then, would be to share the single jump-start battery I’d brought for the Stellacam between the camera and the dew heater.

The uncooled black and white Stellacam draws very little current, and given the fact that it wouldn’t be dark enough to start the run till after 9:30, I figured that even with the ‘Buster cranked to “10-degrees,” my usual setting when it’s humid and I expect lotsa dew, the 17ah battery would probably go longer than I could. I would need a cigarette-lighter-style splitter so I could plug both devices into one outlet, but I knew Wal-Mart had those. They might even have something of some kind I could use as a tripod spreader. Some sort of round thing with a hole in the middle that would serve.

After Wally-World, where I did find a 12 volt splitter but didn’t find anything that could be pressed into service as a tripod spreader, it was back to the motel to wait out the hot day. After all the alarms and excursions, your Old Uncle was for sure hot and bothered, and proceeded to cool off in the pool. Where I ruminated on my forgetfulness.

Actually, I knew just what my problem had been. Checklists are good things, but you have to use an accurate checklist. I’d formulated mine before I began running off mains current at CAV. And I expected the spreader to be on the tripod till just before it went in the trunk. I trusted that list, and with everything checked off and verified, I didn’t give the gear a second thought. Probably would have been a good idea to gather it all up in the parlor a couple of days ahead of time, not the night before. If I’d done that I might have started playing “what else” despite my checklist discipline and realized what was left out.

The pool was as cool and inviting as it looks.
After chilling in the pool for quite a while and hitting the best little barbeque place on the planet, Bar-B-Q Bill’s, for lunch, I was feeling better. After all, I could have left way more critical stuff—like the camera or computer—behind. I figured I’d be OK. Even the sky looked OK. The clouds had not cleared off completely, but by late afternoon, it was obvious we’d get some hours in.

I was able to restrain myself till about 6:45 before jumping in the car and making haste for the field. That was still a little early, but I’d need some time to finish my preparations. I still had to hook up the computer, camera, DVD recorder and monitor, and retrieve various small items like the flashlight and MP3 recorder (for observing notes) from our multitudinous gear boxes.

What a change there’d been on the old Club field. Telescopes were not everywhere, but at least six were ready to go, including Mike Harvey’s massive and beautiful 28-inch Dobsonian. Carl had arrived with his big gun too. And so had several other friends old and new. It looked like it would be a good night, if one without perfect skies. Clouds were still moving in and out, covering much of the sky at times.

I love Big Bertha, but she is definitely a telescope with a personality. Unfortunately, as I've said on occasion, her personality is not always a cooperative one. Maybe she resents not getting used more often, I dunno, but she always has a trick or two in store for me on the first night. Last time, her level switch stopped working temporarily; this time it was her choice of alignment stars.

I had just been telling Carl, a new NS GPS owner, that the NexStar 11 GPS firmware almost always chooses good alignment stars, and that the best idea is to just accept whatever the scope offers. Ha! I fired up NexRemote on the netbook, started the alignment, and Bertha made a good and obvious pick for the first of her two alignment stars, Vega. For the second one, though, she chose Antares. Antares? Seemed a bit low, and I couldn’t remember Big B. ever using Antares as an alignment star before. Oh, well, I’d do just what I’d advised Carl to do.

Good, old Bill's!
Via NexRemote, Bertha intoned, “Alignment success!” Y’all know me, though; it’s always “trust but verify.” I sent her to M57 as a test. When she stopped, no Ring Nebula appeared on the Stellacam monitor. I jogged Bertha this way and that with the wireless gamepad I use as my hand paddle before the Ring finally came onscreen. She’d missed the target by almost half a degree. Not good, and not normal for Bertha. I threw the big switch, started over, accepted the same two stars, and got the same result. What the h-e-double hockey sticks?

After the wheels turned in Unk’s head for a minute or three, he decided it just had to be Antares. That luminary wasn’t much higher than 30-degrees, if it was that high. And “low” is a no-no for go-to alignment stars. Started over again, accepted Vega, rejected Antares, and accepted Bertha’s next choice, Spica. Punched up M57, and there it was sitting pretty in the middle of the monitor. Oh, you, Bertha!

After our little disagreement, Bertha and I made up and quickly got into the blessed zone. The prime goal for this trip was to finish Canes Venatici. Do you have any idea how many H2500 galaxies there are in Cvn? There is a bunch of little sprites. Miss Bertha and I captured a lot of the remaining ones, recording each to DVD, though we didn’t quite finish before Canes got down into the mess on the western horizon. When the hunting dogs slinked off, we switched to Bootes, who is also, despite what you might think, chock-full of DSOs—almost all dim galaxies, natch.

How were the sky conditions? Not that good, but not that bad, either. At times thick haze moved through, and the seeing was nothing to write home about, but none of the clouds that periodically wandered across the sky blocked the area where Bertha and I were working. No, the galaxies on the monitor were not quite as detailed as they’d have been under better conditions, but it was amazing how well the Stellacam worked despite poor transparency.

As I have said before, I do not intend to bore y’all with long lists of H2500 objects, which tend to the “small, dim, slightly elongated galaxy,” but I would like to share a few of the gooduns with you, as well as a couple of the non-Herschels I happened to look at over the course of our stay at CAV. As always, I used NASA’s N.E.D, the NASA Extragalactic Database as my prime reference along with SkyTools. The pictures are simple screen-grabs of single Stellacam frames, and, while not pretty, give a pretty good idea of what I saw as I squinted at the red-filtered monitor in the middle of the night.

Night 24 Objects

NGC 4267, the Calf
NGC 4627 (H.II.659) is a magnitude 13.06 E4 peculiar elliptical. Except for its fairly large size, it shouldn’t stand out from the hordes of Herschel galaxies in Canes. Except… This isn’t just a near-anonymous elliptical, this is The Calf. Next to it, you see, a mere 2’29” to the southeast, is the magnificent Whale Galaxy.

Tonight, when the seeing cooperated, it was easy to see hints of The Calf’s distortion, brought on by its closeness to mama. The Whale, NGC 4631, was a thing of wonder, whose marvelous appearance is only hinted at by the frame grab. It’s a huge thing, striped with dark lanes, calmly swimming the inky seas of Canes Venatici with its child. If you haven’t looked at this pair, or haven’t looked at them in a while, visit them with your telescope tonight; it’s not too late in the season, but soon will be.

M51 (NGC 5194), the magnitude 8.4 Whirlpool Galaxy ain’t a Herschel, but is something I have looked at countless times since I was a kid. This night, with its haze and humidity, wasn’t a good time to view this showpiece's classic spiral arms, but it was still worth a quick look before I departed Canes Venatici. A supernova, a Type II supernova (the death of a massive star), had happened just a few weeks before.

SN2011dh was still shining brightly, having dimmed only to magnitude 13, so it was duck soup for the Stellacam. I had already gotten a look at the supernova the week before at the PSAS dark site with Charity Hope Valentine, my ETX125, when it was a little brighter, but I seem to have started an informal collection of supernova images and I wanted to add this one to it.

As is my custom, I took semi-frequent breaks over the course of the run, grabbing snacks and rehydrating myself as necessary. About eleven, just as I was beginning to feel slightly weary, I chugged a Monster and immediately felt raring to go again. By midnight, the temperature had finally dropped into the mid-70s, and while it was still muggy, the fan on the observing table kept me comfortable enough. Frankly, it seemed as if only an hour or two had passed when I hit the 100-object mark.

A glance at Skytools’ clock, though, informed me it was three. So what? There was still plenty to see and I didn’t feel a bit tired and the Hercules galaxies beckoned. Urania had other ideas. She suddenly covered her sky with something just this side of ground fog and sent us, her disciples, off to bed.

Pulled the big switch, secured the gear and headed for motel room comfort. It was past three-thirty getting on to four when I walked in (Dorothy had elected to relax the evening away in comfort in the room). Wasn’t a cotton-picking thing on the TV other than infomercials, so I contented myself with a quick browse of Cloudy Nights and a Colorado Kool-Aid or three until I finally began to spin down. What a great night it had been. I’d made my object goal, had a wonderful time, and that dagnabbed errant tripod spreader had not hurt a thing.

Even if I observe most of the night away, I can’t sleep very late. Because the old bod is too used to getting up at 4:30 every a.m. to head to the shipyard, I reckon. Whatev. I was up by eight on Saturday morning, in time for more small bagels at the motel breakfast bar. Then on to the day’s expedition, our trip to Cedar Key.

Taken from inside the Rusty Rim where it was nice and cool.
This little island is less than an hour from Chiefland, and provides everything a touring hillbilly could want: cold beer and hot seafood. I’ve recounted our visits to the place Miss Dorothy and I have taken to calling “Duma Key” (after Stephen King’s island of big juju) a couple of times, so here I’ll just say that when you are down at the CAV hitting it real hard, the Key provides exactly the sort of break and daytime distraction you will appreciate, muchachos. Lunch at the Rusty Rim Café was super.

With still a few hours to go before sunset, I caught up on sleep back at the Day’s Inn and awoke refreshed and ready to face another night. Not a long night, unfortunately. One thing I’ve learned is that it’s murder for me to go till three or four and then face packing and the drive home the next morning. Yeah, we’d have the 4th of July holiday on Monday, which meant I would have an extra day to recuperate before going back to work, but I just didn’t feel like enduring that long stretch of I-10 back to the Swamp feeling like a wrung-out dishrag. I planned on 11:30 p.m.

Out on the field as Sol finally dipped past the horizon, it looked like it would, again, be an OK if not perfect night. Not many clouds, but still a lot of haze, haze I was told was in part composed of smoke from Georgia forest fires drifting across the border.

Fired up Miss Bertha, and when the minx again suggested Antares as an alignment choice, I again rejected it in favor of Spica. That done, all our go-tos, all night long, all across the sky placed whatever I requested in the field of the small Stellacam chip. One nice thing Saturday was the air was substantially drier. Usually Bertha’s tube is sopping wet in an hour or so, with only an inch of tube near the Kendrick heater strap being dry. Not tonight; I could almost have got by without the DewBuster.

Anyhoo, Bertha and I set to work, following same procedure as always: see what the next target is on the Herschel 2500 list on SkyTools 3, punch it into the Nexremote virtual hand control, record 30-seconds of video of the DSO, record my impressions on my Sony MP3 recorder, write the object number in my observing log notebook, set it to “observed” on the ST3 list, and on to the next prize. For as long as I can stand it.

Note the fan; it was hot well after sundown.
Which, tonight, turned out to be a little longer than I had planned—if not as long as I could have stood it. Originally, I was firm that when the clock said “11:30,” I was shutting ‘er down. But when that time came I was almost done with Canes Venatici and near the “50 objects” mark. Just a little longer. By the time I closed out Cvn, and had hung out with the Herdsman’s multitudinous galaxies for a little while, my total was 50 and the clock said 12:30.

Night 25 Objects

NGC 5350 (H.II.713) is an interesting galaxy, but what makes it remarkable is its field. It is a member of Hickson 68, a collection of five bright and interesting galaxies. NGC 5350 itself is a lovely SB(r)b that showed off its arms without fuss when the seeing cooperated, which wasn’t often. This magnitude 12.15 3.2’x1.3’ object would look very good if it were the only thing in the frame, but it is accompanied by NGCs 5355, 5354, 5353, and 5358 in an area less than 10’ across which makes for an unforgettable view. Even better? Hickson 68 is located a mere 8-degrees from showpiece M51. Next time you’re looking at the Whirlpool stop in at H68; you’ll be glad you did.

M3 (NGC 5272). What was the last object I looked at on the last night of our Herschel Project expedition? M3, a class VI globular cluster in Canes Venatici. M3 has a PR problem: it’s a wee bit too close to the leading edge of the horde of summer globulars. If it weren’t, everybody would be singing the praises of this massive ball of stars. Instead, it’s usually, “Oh, yeah, and don’t forget to look at M3, I guess.” On this night, its suns covered the screen of my monitor, and I sat gaping in wonder as the DVD recorder cranked, grabbing 15-minutes of this treasure before I could tear myself away.

Back at the good old motel not long after 1 a.m., I was not even close to sleepy. Yeah, I turned on the TV, but mostly I let the episode of UFO Hunters run in the background unnoticed. It was time to boot up the netbook, take a look at ST3, and see what had been accomplished. Just shy of 150 new H2500s. Cvn done. Bootes almost done. Coma? Well… Looks to me like I will have to get out to the dark site this coming new Moon and see what I can get with my C8, Celeste. It’s just about too late for Coma, but I can still finish Bootes if I say, “Damn the mosquitos, full speed ahead!”

Postscripts? I’ve told y’all that as much as I like my little Stellacam I’ve been considering a Mallincam. That would buy me color and much longer exposures than the SC II’s 10-seconds max. And yet I was sitting on the fence. I am cheap, as y’all know, and just couldn’t make up my mind. My mind was made up for me, finally, by seeing what my friend Mike Harvey’s Mallincam could do.

Naturally, what should I read on the Chiefland Observers Yahoogroup when I got home, but “SUNDAY WAS SPECTACULAR! IF YOU LEFT SUNDAY MORNING, YOU MISSED A GREAT NIGHT!” Sigh. Never fails; I am used to it. The point is that Mike took full advantage of the conditions, capturing an image of M27, the Dumbbell Nebula, that is right up there with the best pictures of this wonder I have seen. Naturally, even when you have the skills Mike obviously does, every picture won’t turn out like this one. Astrophotography is a dicey thing and always will be. Anyhow… Yes, I am convinced. I intend to have a Mallincam in time for the fall observing season, muchachos.

Postscript II: If y’all would like to see my video “A Herschel Project Update: Night 24,” live from the CAV Clubhouse, you can watch it on video on Youtube at

Next Time: “Yo, Chuck!”

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