Sunday, January 29, 2012


The Herschel Project Night 28

It was a busy week, muchachos. Before I could get the Herschel Project back on the road at the Chiefland Astronomy Village, I had to get myself back to good, old Chaos Manor South from Portland, Oregon, where I'd given a presentation for that’s city’s justly famous Rose City Astronomers.

The RCA is a truly excellent club, as I am sure you have heard, and little ol’ me was flattered to be called upon to address that august body. The problem was making it home in time to get ready for CAV. Combine the vagaries of the U.S. air transport system, what is left of it, with the weather, and getting home on Tuesday evening was a near thing. That cursed American Airlines did eventually deliver me to Possum Swamp, but man was I tired by the time they did.

The original plan had been to pack all the copious gear I’d marshaled in Chaos Manor South’s front parlor in the truck Tuesday. When I finally walked in at 10 p.m., though, it was FUHGEDDABOUTIT. I strode right past that huge pile of astro-stuff and straight to the liquor cabinet. I’d had well over nine hours in the air and five or six in airports, and, as you can imagine, it was soon night-night time for the Rodster. I’d just have to get up early to pack. Real early. With the sun going down at the CAV before 6 p.m., I would want to be on the road no later than about 8 a.m. allow plenty of time to get settled in the Day’s Inn and set up on the Billy Dodd Observing Field.

You will be proud of me: when the alarm clock started beeping at 4:30 in the fracking a.m., I did not turn it off, roll over, and go back to sleep for a couple of hours. Only for half an hour. I wearily requested Dorothy, who was up and bustling about, wake me at 5 a.m. At 5, I was up, not even requiring Miss D's urging. I was ready to get going no matter how weary I was.

A couple of good things on this early Wednesday morning? It wasn’t raining—though rain was in the forecast—and I found my 4Runner, Miss Lucille Van Pelt, much easier to pack than the Camry had been. Her considerably larger cargo space meant I didn’t have to be as careful and deliberate loading the gear. I was able to expedite packing without getting downright messy.

What did I pack? The usual stuff for a video-centric Herschel run: NexStar 11 GPS, netbook computer, DVD recorder, DVD player (to serve as the display), observing table, tailgating canopy, yadda-yadda-yadda. A couple of changes this time, though. I did bring the Stellacam II, but only as a backup. It had been replaced by a Mallincam Xtreme. And since Miss Van Pelt offered all that space, I couldn’t resist filling it with yet more astro-stuff. I didn't expect serious problems with Big Bertha, the NS11, but she is a decade old now. I packed the C8, "Celeste," and her Celestron CG5 mount “just in case.”

A bummer? I love Big Bertha, but there is no doubt the C11 is getting harder for me to manage year by year. I know she ain’t gaining weight, so I can only assume poor Unk is getting weaker. I wish it weren’t so—I’ve loved the comfortable convenience of her fork—but I am now thinking that in a few years relief will be spelled G-E-M. Getting Bertha’s (thankfully wheeled) case down the front steps, I managed to bang my knee. When the worst of the pain subsided, I was pleased to see I hadn’t really dislocated my kneecap, which was what it felt like had happened.

The trip Down Chiefland Way was no shorter than it ever has been, a good six hours on I-10 and U.S. 19, but with Miss Dorothy at my side it seemed shorter than it did back in the days of my solo CAV expeditions when I had nobody to talk to. A substantially larger vehicle and the excellent Sirius XM Satellite Radio didn’t hurt, either.

After a few hours on I-10, we took the Highway 19 exit just past Tallahassee, stopped at the gas station there, and refueled Miss Van Pelt and ourselves, Unk choosing, as always, a Sasquatch Big Stick (ANGRY flavor, natch). I was pleased to see my usual stop has hung on through economic hard times, if in reduced circumstances, going from Shell to Sunoco and closing down the Wendy’s burger joint formerly attached to the gas station.

Then it was 100-miles of U.S. 19, the Florida-Georgia Parkway, gateway to Florida's Nature Coast and the celestial bliss of the Chiefland Astronomy Village. As we motored along, I couldn’t help sneaking peeks at the sky. Did not look good. Clouds, plenty of them, and the occasional rain shower if not downpour. Often, as you get near Chiefland, the skies will clear as if by magic, but I didn’t expect that this time. The weather forecasters had been unanimous that Wednesday night would be Mostly Cloudy.

Whatever the night might bring, D. and I stuck to THE PLAN: check into the motel, head to the site for set-up, hit Wally-World for whatever additional supplies might be needed, grab a late lunch/early dinner, and head back to the CAV. Well, we tried to stick to The Plan, anyhow. It was well after three by the time we got in our room, and the sky was going from bad to worse. Mist had become rain, and the field at CAV would be disgustingly wet by now.

What to do? Four o’clock had come and gone, five was coming, and still the rain fell. It was obvious there was simply no way I'd be setting up gear. At first we thought we’d at least run out to the CAV and see who was there and what was going on, like we did the first night of our last expedition, the initial evening of which had also been cloudy. But there wasn’t any reason to do that. If anybody were on the field, they’d be buttoned up in a tent or RV or trailer and out of the mess.

What to do, then? Might as well hit Wally-World, I thought. That’s about all the entertainment there is down CAV way on a rainy Wednesday night when you are deprived of the sky. The Chiefland Walmart, despite its way out in the country status, is one of the better stocked stores in the chain, and its patrons look much like people anywhere--nothing like the CREATURES displayed on (Trust me: DO NOT go to that site!)

There was also the question of dinner. We could have cruised over to Bar-B-Q Bill’s; I understand their evening menu is as good as lunch, and that their steaks are killer. But I was undeniably weary, the MacDonald's inside Walmart (yes) was just steps away, and I figured that in my present state a Big Mac would do the trick. Big Macs downed, we picked up Jack Links Flaming Buffalo Nuggets and bottled water for the field, and some Colorado Kool-Aid for after-run libations and headed back to the room.

And how is the motel Unk has stayed at for the last ten years? About the same. They’ve even done a little repairing and remodeling. No, the breakfast ain’t what it was when it was a Holiday Inn Express, but there was big news afoot when we checked in: there would now be WAFFLES, make ‘em yourself waffles, in the lobby. Woo-hoo! That was the morrow, though. How would we spend a rainy evening?

There actually wasn’t much of an evening to spend. Not for Unk. Opened a Coors, turned on the netbook for a quick cruise through the Cloudy Nights bulletin boards, and that was it. I’d had exactly five hours sleep in the last 24, and before Adam Richman could gobble his first mega-sandwich on Man vs. Food, it was dreamland for me. If the sky had been clear, you can bet your bippy I’d have been out on the field, but I don’t know how much I’d have got done—or how long I would have stayed awake.

Morning came and with it blue skies and a huge waffle slathered in Log Cabin Syrup and butter. Then it was out to the good, old field, where several of Unk’s fellow CAVers, including Carl, Mike, John, and Bobbie were hanging out. The sky was clear, the temperatures balmy, and gear setup, if not exactly pleasant when you’ve got as much to set up as I did, was quick and easy. Tailgating canopy up and Bertha on her tripod, I wandered the field for a while and then headed back to town for lunch and nap in that order.

I need to vary my Chiefland menu one of these days, but I never can seem to get past Bill’s and their insane lunch special. For around ten dollars you get barbecue beef (or pork), excellent beans, butter-saturated Texas toast, enormous fries, a drink, and the salad bar. Bill’s salad bar is particularly noteworthy. The stuff is fresh and it is old fashioned—no purple vegetables. Unk drenched everything except his monstrous salad in Bill’s notorious hot and spicy barbecue sauce, and just kept eating and eating.

Back at the motel, I started Michael Hoskin’s book about Will and Lina Herschel, Discoverers of the Universe. Barely. I just made it to the end of the first chapter when my eyes began to close and I knew nothing more for a couple of hours. That is the way you star party, friends: good food and a good bed in a clean and warm/cool motel room.

When I awakened it was time to get going. I still needed to set up the computer, camera, DVD recorder, and DVD player and get everything cabled together. To give myself plenty of time, I headed out to the CAV at 4:15. OK, OK, I’ll be honest: when I am in Chiefland I feel drawn to the Astronomy Village like a freaking swallow to Capistrano, and it’s hard to sit around in the motel room waiting for sunset.

Soon enough, Sol was hitting the hay, and it was time to get to work. I’d like to tell y’all that everything went smoothly, but if that ever happened it really wouldn’t be an Uncle Rod night, and you wouldn’t believe it anyway. Setup did go smoothly at first. Fired up the netbook, lit off the camera, started its software, and brought up the cross-box (crosshairs with a box in the center) overlay on the video screen to help me center the consarned alignment stars. Started NexRemote and selected the proper software build for the NS11. “Hit OK,” Bertha intoned via NR’s Microsoft Mary voice. When I did, disaster struck.

Instead of going to the normal NexRemote hand controller display, a little window popped up that said “INTERNAL ERROR!” That did not sound good, not good at all. Redid the settings. Same-same. Quit NR and started it again. “INTERNAL ERROR!” Now what was I gonna do? I did have the hardware HC with me, but did this indicate an electronic gremlin in the scope itself? Shoot! Sure was glad I’d brought Celeste along.

I sat at the computer for a few minutes wondering what the problem could be. Then it hit me: “Rod, you DUMMY! You forgot to turn on the telescope!” I flipped Bertha’s o-n/o-f-f switch to o-n, and gave NexRemote another try: “INTERNAL ERROR!” I was pretty sure I’d confused the poor netbook badly by this time and needed to reboot, so I didn’t panic. I restarted Windows 7 and gave NR one last try. Selected settings and pressed “OK,” just like Bertha told me to, and she immediately asked if I wanted to do a GPS align. Whew!

After this foolishness, the rest of Bertha’s alignment went smoothly; having crosshairs on the video screen was a big help. What exposure did I use on the Xtreme during go-to alignment? Sense-up at “128x,” about 2-seconds, worked great for both star centering and focusing. I was concerned the two stars Bertha chose, Capella and Aldebaran, were a little close together, but her go-tos were right on all night, with everything I requested somewhere on the Mallincam’s small chip, so go figure. I swung over to the little open cluster NGC 2158, focused up, and got to work. Well, I got to work after I’d stared at the tiny and distant open cluster for a while. In a 15-second exposure it was wonderfully resolved, and the star COLORS looked oh-so-pretty. Yay Xtreme!

How did the new Mallincam affect my normal routine? Not much at all. I’d check the Herschel Project list on SkyTools 3 for the next target and punch its number into NexRemote. When Bertha’s slew finished, I’d adjust the exposure if I felt that necessary and record 30-seconds of video to DVD. The exposure part was the only difference from what I’ve been doing with the Stellacam II since The Project began.

With the old camera, I’d have to go out to the scope to change settings on its (wired) hand control. Which meant I’d have to leave my warm and cozy observing position, which meant lazy ol’ me usually just set the Stellacam for a reasonable exposure and left it alone for the whole run.

Using the Mallincam control software, I could sit at the netbook and change exposure (integration time), gamma, gain, and a lot of other stuff for the best possible images. Not having to go to the telescope encouraged me to do a lot of experimenting with those things. I started out real shaky with the settings--this was my first outing with the Mallincam under truly dark skies--but as the hours passed, it became easier and easier to get what I wanted (though I am hardly a Mallincam expert yet); using the Xtreme’s software was like playing a musical instrument. I was learning the licks and getting in the groove.

Actually, there was one other major change. The Mallincam is somewhat longer than the Stellacam, so I could not use it with my Meade f/3.3 reducer. Plugged straight into a visual back screwed onto the reducer, the camera would contact Bertha’s drive base well before zenith. I couldn’t use the camera in a diagonal, either; it would not come to focus with the Meade 3.3 in that configuration.

What did I do? All I could do. I mounted my Celestron f/6.3 reducer/corrector onto the scope’s rear port, screwed a William Optics 2-inch dielectric SCT diagonal to that, and installed a Baader .5x focal reducer on the camera’s nosepiece. I inserted the camera/reducer into the diagonal via a 1.25-inch adapter, crossed my fingers, and gave it a try. This jury rig worked OK, acceptably at least, delivering somewhat more reduction than the Meade, but I reckon I probably need to put one of Rock’s MFR reducers on my wish list.

As I mentioned to y’all in my initial report on the Xtreme, midway through my first run with it (at the club dark site back in Possum Swamp) NexRemote stopped responding, throwing up the dreaded No Response errors. I was using a no-name USB- serial adapter for the Mallincam serial connection, and I thought it might be conflicting somehow with the Keyspan adapter I was using for NexRemote. I replaced the no-name with another Keyspan and crossed my fingers. Looked like Unk for once hit the solution on the first try. I had no computer problems the whole time we were at CAV, with NexRemote and the Mallincam playing together happily.

All that’s just the mechanics, though. What did I look at? Another H-project milestone was passed on this evening, friends. When I finished the Herschel II list, I decided to tackle the Herschel I, the Herschel 400, since I’d had so much fun leading you-all through the HII. Thursday evening, that came to an end, with me knocking off the last two H400s I needed, a couple of galaxies down Lynx way. Was I sad like I was when I finished the Herschel II? Not really. I’ve been through the H400 a couple of times at this point, so this didn’t feel like the major turning point finishing the HII was.

As always, the details below are from NASA’s N.E.D., and the galaxy types are given according to the de Vaucouleurs system. Try to ignore the banding in these simple screen grabs. They are not the fault of the camera, but Unk’s fault as per usual, and are due to iffy AC power setup and me not yet really knowing how to adjust camera gain, gamma and everything else.

NGC 2683 (H.I.200) is spectacular with only 15 seconds of exposure, displaying much detail including a bright stellar core, a strongly elongated inner region showing some dark lane detail, and a wispy outer envelope. NGC 2683 is a nearly edge-on SA(rs)b spiral that’s bright at magnitude 10.64 and large at 9.3’x2.2’.

NGC 2782 (H.I.167) is a little low, but I can still make out some odd looking details with a 15-second exposure. It looks disturbed. There’s a bright nucleus, some off center disk, and traces of very faint streamers on the live video. This intermediate inclination SAB(rs)a galaxy is apparently intereacting with another island universe. It is very apparent at magnitude 12.3 and a size of 3.5’x2.6’.

After Lynx, what? Then, muchchos, it was BIG ENCHILADA TIME, time to continue my pursuit of The Whole Big Thing, the Herschel 2500, the complete list, of which 866 remained to be logged. When I got started Thursday, I was worried I wouldn’t have many objects to chase till the spring galaxies rose late-late/early-early. That turned out not to be the case. Have you got any idea how many fuzzies there are in Draco? There are a bunch, and by the time I’d worked my way through them the Great Bear had climbed out of his cave and over the eastern horizon. As y’all do know, I’m sure, his dipper bowl is just brimming with galaxies.

NGC 2782
So it went: eyeball the nextun in SkyTools 3, punch it into NexRemote, record it on video, write the DSO’s number in my notebook, record my brief impressions of it on my (MP3) audio recorder, and repeat as needed. Which was a lot of repeating this evening. I was rested and raring to go; I was on what D. calls A DEEP SKY TEAR. I passed 100 new objects, strolled over to the clubhouse, pulled a Monster out of the fridge, poured it down, and kept on trucking. Before I knew it it was after two and on the way to three and I’d logged 150 new ones.

I could have gone longer but for one problem:  it was cold. With my canopy in full cold weather mode with the sides (blue tarps) up and my little Black Cat catalytic heater cranking, I don’t normally get too chilled. Sitting at the computer out of the dew I am comfortable enough on a mid-thirties night like Thursday, even if my old bones ain’t exactly toasty warm. But I screwed up. I forgot to bring along a cigarette lighter to light the Black Cat. I’d borrowed Carl Wright’s lighter at sundown to get the heater going initially, but shortly after two a.m. the first Coleman gas bottle was exhausted.

At dark, the field had been surprisingly full for a January dark of the Moon. At least 10 scopes were up and operating. Now, save for me and one other person, that storied field was deserted; the cold and, especially, the damp induced reasonable folks to call it a night around midnight on this long evening.

I can get spooked on a lonely observing field, but this time, even where I was, in the heart of SKUNK APE country, I didn’t. I was fired up. I wanted more galaxies. But I was also cold and there was nobody to borrow a lighter from so I could restart the heater with a fresh propane bottle. Big Switch time I ruefully and reluctantly admitted.

After throwing that darned switch, securing the scope and gear, and motoring back to the Days Inn, the clock said it was well past three and getting on to four. Do you know what is on cable TV at that time of the a.m.? Yep, you guessed it, Ancient Aliens, the silliest, most outrageous, and most entertaining (when it’s the wee hours and you’ve had a shot of Rebel Yell) show on the air.

As much as I got done Thursday, that was just the beginning of my latest Chiefland adventure. Friday was almost as good, and I even saw some stuff Saturday night, which was, according to the Weather Channel, supposed to be completely clouded out. For variety’s sake, though, let’s leave Chiefland, Florida behind and travel way out west to Portland, Oregon next Sunday. Have no fear; I will finish up with the H-Project Nights 29 and 30 the following week. For now, muchachos, I am going to back to my day job in the shipyard so I can get some cotton picking rest.

Next Time: Everything’s Coming Up Roses...

2018 Update:

Over the course of these blog reruns, I've talked a fair amount about the changes that beset Chiefland. Some had to do with the astronomy village, but just as many had to do with the motel situation in town.

The first time I journeyed to the Chiefland Astronomy Village, I stayed in a tent--on a blazing hot observing field in May. "Never again," as you can imagine. Second time, it was the independent motel in town, the Manatee Springs Motel. It was...bearable, but not really OK. That left a choice between the Holiday Inn Express or the Best Western for my next Chiefland safari.

I chose the Holiday Inn if for no other reason than that it was in close proximity to my two major points of interest in the early days: Walmart and Bar-B-Q-Bill's. It was a small/medium sized motel with clean rooms, a beautiful and clean pool, friendly staff, and, finally, those deadly "little cinnamon rolls," Holiday Inn used to boast of in its old TV commercials. Man were they good.

There things stayed for a quite a few years. After the H-Project began, I was down so frequently the motel's staff became familiar faces. Then, one trip sometime after the Herschel Project had passed its midpoint, I noticed none of the faces at the motel were familiar anymore. Rut-roh.

Next visit, a couple of months later, the Holiday Inn Express sign had been covered with a temporary Days Inn sign. That was truly a bad omen. There's no denying Days Inn is a pretty big step down from Holiday Inn Express, Best Western, Hampton Inn, and the rest of the mid-tier.

Still, I continued to stay in the place--it was just so convenient. Until one trip where the rooms absolutely stank. Literally. The place looked dirty. The breakfast was nasty. And the televisions in the rooms had been replaced with the tiniest TVs I'd seen in years. No more. Next time, Best Western. If the Days Inn has improved over the last couple of years, the Yelp reviews I've read don't indicate that.

I'd actually stayed at the Best Western a time or two, usually when the Holiday Inn Express was full for some reason. Verdict? While it was a mile or two closer to the astronomy village, all in all it wasn't quite as convenient. Also, while the rooms were larger, they didn't tend to be as clean. With the Days Inn Debacle, however, I had no choice, and Best Western was quite OK. If only it had stayed Best Western.

One afternoon I set about to make reservations for my next CAV odyssey. I couldn't find anything on the web about a Best Western in Chiefland. It turned out it had gone the same way as the Holiday Inn Express, devolving to Quality Inn.

While the owners made an initial show of repainting and spiffing up, the end result was cheapening, just like at the Days Inn (I understand the two hostelries are owned by the same penny pinching person). Food not as good as it once was. Not quite as clean, etc., etc.

What to do? I stuck with Quality Inn for my remaining trips to CAV, the last in 2015 for the revived Chiefland Star Party. That time, some event in town resulted in me only being able to get one night in the Quality Inn. I couldn't even get one night in the Days Inn. The first evening, I tent camped. I sure loved that (not). Second night, I was in the Quality Inn, which I must admit, seemed like heaven after that fricking-fracking tent. I spent my last night at the Chiefland Astronomy Village (thus far) sleeping in the back of my 4Runner. Not pleasant, but maybe not any worse than the Days Inn.

The motel debacle is at least 50% of the reason I haven't been back to CAV. I'd like to go back, someday, though. With that on my mind, I just did a web search on "Chiefland Florida motels." The results? Quality Inn and Days Inn. Sigh.

Which I don't understand. Chiefland is something of a crossroads in the area. There are attractions and scads of people still pass through on their way to points south. Surely the town could support a nice motel. Sigh.

You know, part of me really wanted to do the Winter Star Party this year. It was held in CAV this time thanks to the destruction in the Keys wrought by last year's storms. But the thought of those motels dissuaded me--the lousy spring weather also had something to do with it. Maybe I'm also still suffering a bit of a hangover from the many nights of the Herschel Project.

Who knows? This winter or next spring I may be ready for another visit (probably to the adjacent site of the Chiefland Star Party Group this time) Down Chiefland Way. Maybe at 3 am that Quality Inn might even seem like heaven again.

Saturday, January 21, 2012


A Chiefland Intermezzo

In other words, the good, old Herschel Project is back on the move. How did it go? That's a story for next Sunday, muchachos. As always when Unk is on the road, you are being cheated out of your blog for this Sunday. I will say the new Mallincam Xtreme worked exceedingly well, bringing back tons of new aitches. And it was simple enough to work that Unk had no trouble doing so despite being weary after having just flown in from snowy Portland, Oregon. But that, too, is a story for next time. This time? How about a few pix to tide you-all over?

Sunday, January 15, 2012


Now, in Living Color…

I love my Stellacam II, muchachos. When I got it nearly seven years ago it was state of the art: a black and white deep sky video camera capable of integrating frames for not just the normal 1/30th -second but for—gosh—up to ten seconds. Its CCD chip is phenomenally sensitive. With the gain cranked up it has romped through The Herschel Project. Small 15th magnitude and even dimmer galaxies fall before it like dry leaves before the wild hurricane fly. And yet…and yet…

Over the last four years or so I heard less and less about the Stellacam folks (Adirondack Video Astronomy) and more and more about this dude up in Canada, Rock Mallin, who it seemed was pushing the envelope on deep sky video. Adirondack had come out with a Stellacam III that could expose for as long as you wanted and had cooling. B-U-T. Unless you bought a wireless shutter controller, you had to stop and start exposures manually, and the (optional) Peltier cooler had a distinctly cobbled on look—it was developed and installed by a third party.

Mr. Mallin? He seemed to be going from strength to strength, introducing cameras that allowed far longer exposures than my Stellacam II, and, eventually, a vidcam that could expose for as long as you could ever want (100 minutes). His cameras came standard with Peltier coolers that were built-in and optimized for their purpose. The hugest difference? Color. Adirondack was supposedly working on a color camera, but didn’t introduce it before they went belly up a couple of years ago. I haven’t heard anything about a color rig from the outfit that is (supposedly) continuing the Stellacam, Cosmologic Systems, either.

Bottom line was that Rock Mallin had well-engineered, practical color cameras available now and they sure made my Stellacam look old. I will admit I was skeptical about going color for deep sky video at first, but that changed the night I saw my buddy Lyle Mars’ Mallincam VSS in action at the 2010 Almost Heaven Star Party.

Lyle had a beautiful setup on the field, a C14 on a CGE, but that wasn’t what got my attention. What did that was the images the Mallincam was delivering to his monitor. Lyle punched M51 into NexRemote, the big scope went there, and Lyle started a 28-second integration. What slammed onto the screen when it was done near-about blew my mind. There was M51 with uber-detailed spiral arms and dust lanes, but what made it so wonderful was the color, a warm yellow center and bluish spiral arms. I’ve sometimes opined that black and white images reveal more details, but that was not my opinion on this night. There was a wealth of detail visible in this color image.

Nevertheless, being the penny pinching sort I am, I pressed on with the Stellacam. I was deep into The Herschel Project, and had my imaging system DOWN. With so many Herschels still to go, I hated to change horses in mid-stream and learn a new and potentially rather complex camera. As 2010 became 2011, however, I began thinking more and more often about the images from Lyle’s Mallincam and those I’d seen down in Chiefland with CAVers Mike Harvey and Carl Wright’s cameras. With the H-Project well under control this past November, I decided it was time to make that horse-change. I’d get a Mallincam, learn to use it, and be ready for the coming of the galaxies of spring.

The question then became, “Which Mallincam?” Unlike pore old Adirondack, Rock never seems to stop innovating and adding new products, and his Hyper and VSS series cameras have been succeeded by a new one called the “Xtreme.” The older cameras are still available, however, and I considered them—the Hyper especially. The main thing in its favor is fairly simple operation. Most functions are controlled with onscreen menus superimposed on the video display, and are accessed with buttons on the camera or with an optional wired remote. Shutter control for long exposures of up to 56-seconds is via a pair of toggle switches on the camera body.

The Xtreme is a whole ‘nother ballgame. Starting with its exposure capabilities. As mentioned up top, the Xtreme will expose for up to 100-minutes. Not that I thought I’d ever have occasion to go that long, but the camera’s extra long exposure “CCD mode” would be there if’n I ever wanted to use it. Like the Hyper and the VSS, the Xtreme includes Rock’s “mild” Peltier cooling, the same menu buttons on its rear, and the ability to use the wired remote. The Xtreme kicks it up a notch, however.

The Xtreme’s biggest innovation other than exposure time is that it is normally controlled by a PC. The Hyper and VSS cameras are also PC controllable for most functions, but long exposures still have to be set by on-camera controls. Everything on the Xtreme can be manipulated with an included (Windows) software application.

That sounded good to me. I am at my most efficient, as I discovered while working The Herschel Project last winter, if I stay under an EZ-Up tailgating canopy snug and dry (from dew) at the computer. One of the things I did not like about my Stellacam set up was that I had to get up and go out to the scope to change camera settings, any camera settings, via a wired remote tethered to the camera with a short cable. With the Xtreme, I’d be able to sit at the computer and video display, meaning this decrepit old hillbilly might have a prayer of making it to 3 a.m.

Rock and U.S. Mallincam distributor Jack Huerkamp, make several Xtreme packages available; I chose the most basic one, which includes the camera and a (long) serial control cable. There are other packages offered with both wired and wireless remotes that don’t require a computer for camera operation. I expect these will be of most interest to folks who do public outreach or who, for whatever reason, don’t want to take a computer into the field.

The Xtreme is custom built by the man himself in Ottawa, Canada, so when you are ready to take the plunge you go on a waiting list and wait your turn. Luckily, Jack took my resolution to “go Xtreme” seriously when I talked to him this past summer, and decided he’d better go ahead and put silly old Unk on the waiting list then and there. Thus it was that in just a little over a month there was a largish box in the front hall of Chaos Manor South when I returned from the salt mines one afternoon.

Ahhh…opening new astro-stuff! What on God’s green Earth is sweeter than that? Tearing into the box from Mr. Jack revealed, first off, a Mallincam ballcap. Being a southern boy, I can always use a new ballcap, particularly a spiffy looking one. Below that? A…well…case. It was obvious that the cherry red box was not really a case, but a smallish picnic cooler. My first thought was, “Well, I can run down to Academy and get a pistol case like I planned.” But…turned out the cooler was actually better than the plastic case I had in mind. Padded. Numerous compartments. Carry strap. It ain’t exactly a case; it is if anything better than a real case.

Now for the goodies. The Mallincam was packed very well in a little box with Styrofoam inserts. At first blush, it reminded me a little of my time-worn PC23C planetary camera. Till I picked it up. This sucker is DENSE. Heavy. On the rear are the pushbutton controls to access camera functions, a power connector, a serial RS-232 connector, a composite video out socket, a Super VHS video out socket, and a pilot light. What was really cool? Turning the camera over revealed it had been signed by Mr. Rock. He signs each and every one of his cams, which oughta tell you something about his pride in and commitment to his product.

What else comes with an Xtreme? If you order the basic package like Unk did, you get a combined power and video cable. I like that idea. There are two separate cables in one jacket, and anything that cuts down on cable clutter is a Good Thing. There’s a serial RS-232 computer control cable. And there is a 1.25-inch nosepiece for the camera, so you can slip it into a standard focuser or visual back. Finally, you get an AC power supply, a wall wart with a cord sufficiently long to allow you to plug it directly into the camera if you don’t want to hook it to the far end of the video/power cable.

You’ll dig a CD outa the box, too. In addition to the camera control program, it holds a wealth of information about the Xtreme. The instructions on the disk are easily enough to get even the most Luddite among us, like your old Unk, up to speed with the camera and its software.

You will probably also have ordered an option or three. Rock dang sure has a lot of cool stuff you can get to go with your cam. All cheap old me bought was a 12vdc cigarette lighter cord for the camera, which I’d need since we are bereft of power at our dark site. One popular option is a digitizer that converts the analog video coming out of the Mallincam to digital images your computer can use. With that you can broadcast your video on Rock’s Night Skies Network web site (more on that some Sunday). Since I don’t have an Internet connection out in the wilds of Tanner Williams, and can’t really observe from home, I skipped that for now.

Then came the moment of truth, the indoor test. I unwound a little of the generously long video/power cable, hooked the video to my normal rig, a DVD player/DVD recorder, plugged the other end into the camera, rigged up the power, connected the RS-232 cable to the camera and to a USB – Serial adapter on my netbook and let her rip.

Meaning I ran the software on the netbook, connected to the proper com port, selected the “advanced” tab on the Mallincam control program, and ticked the “color bars” box. A set of video-test color bars popped onto my screen. Which meant “success.” No fiddling or fussing; the Xtreme worked from the get-go.

The camera set to take successive 2.2 second exposures (128x).
I reckon before we take the Xtreme into the field, I ought to explain its control and exposure system, which confuses some newbie boys and girls. Let’s start with the control system. You can change camera settings by mashing the buttons on the Xtreme’s backside. That causes menus to appear on the video display. The wired remote does the same job, and allows you to stay at the monitor. Neither the buttons nor the wired remote will allow you to set-up long exposures, however. There are only two ways to do that: with a computer or with Rock’s optional wireless controller, which ONLY controls exposure.

And how about exposure? Mallincam novices find that especially confusing. It’s really not once you glom onto the fact that there are three exposure modes. Unless you want to take pictures of the Moon and planets, you can forget the short (“ALC”) exposure system. The second mode is “Sense Up.” This is accessed by a pull down at the top of the software’s Advanced tab’s screen and offers exposures of from 1/15th-second (“2x”) to 2.2-seconds (128x). If you are a deep sky hound like Unk, all you have to do is set the Sense Up to 128x and leave it there for the remainder of the observing run. 2.2 seconds is just about right for focusing and centering alignment stars.

“But Unk…2.1 seconds ain’t much. How you gonna pull in all them deep sky wonders with that?” You ain’t. That’s why the camera offers a third mode, “hyper.” With Sense Up at 128x, you can choose “Preset” exposures of 7, 14, 28 and 56 seconds. Not enough? Or the wrong durations? Select “Custom,” and specify anything you want up to 100-minutes.

To recap, set Sense Up to 128x, choose a preset exposure or specify one yourself, and click the Start button. The camera will begin taking exposures for the duration you chose, displaying each one on your video monitor when it is done. That is all there is to setting exposure.

The camera offers various "pre-sets."
Which is not to say the software doesn’t provide copious options. But that doesn’t have to be daunting, either. A hint? While you are waiting for your camera to arrive, download the software. You can play with it even though you don’t have a camera connected. When you light it off, you will find you might not even have to worry about the Advanced menu. There are ready-made settings for deep sky, planets, Moon, and Solar. Actually, though, the Advanced menu ain’t that hard. In addition to enabling Sense Up 128x and setting the exposure, all I’ve changed thus far is AGC (gain) and Gamma (more/less contrast more or less).

Course, you can’t tell nuttin’ about a piece of imaging gear until you get it out under the stars, and in that regard, Unk was lucky. When the dark of the Moon rolled around, the forecast was “clear.” One caveat before we hit the PSAS observing field: Unk has been doing video astronomy for a lot of years; if your Mallincam is your first deep sky video camera, do yourself a favor and set up out back the first couple of times. Everything’s easier in your friendly backyard.

What did Unk have to set up at the PSAS’ Tanner Williams, Alabama dark site? My C8, Celeste, and her CG5 mount. Observing table. Computer. Computer Shelter. DVD recorder and a portable DVD player (the display). Lawn tractor battery to power the DVD recorder via a small inverter. Two jumpstart batteries: one for the mount, one for the dew heaters. You get the picture. A ton of…err… “stuff.” But like I done told y’all, I’m used to it after six years with the Stellacam II.

Set up went OK. Mounted the Xtreme on the C8’s rear cell in concert with a Meade f/3.3 focal reducer. That is very important. You want to get the focal length down if you’ve got a long focal length, “slow” telescope. Vidcam chips are incredibly sensitive, but they are also relatively small. In the interest of well-framed, bright images you want a focal length of about 500 – 1000mm.

Just before I fired up the netbook and PC and began scope alignment, I took a critical look at the sky. Dangit! Were those clouds? No, but almost as bad. A woods fire had broken out not far from the site, and the blue sky was rapidly being squeezed out by clouds of billowing white smoke. The local volunteer fire department must have got things under control quickly, though, since the smoke dispersed about sundown. The odor of wood smoke hung on the field for a couple of hours, but that was OK.

Celeste and the CG5 ready for Mallincamming!
Anyhoo, got everything turned on and sent Celeste to her first alignment star. When the slew stopped, the star, Vega, was visible on screen as a ping-pong ball sized blob. A few presses of my JMI Motofocus’ buttons and Vega was a small, blue point, and numerous dimmer field stars popped into view. When I was done with alignment and polar alignment, came the moment of truth, the first light object. I chose M15. Why? The globular star cluster was well placed in the west and out of the Possum Swamp light dome. And there is nothing better than a glob for touching up focus.

Keyed M15 into NexRemote’s virtual HC, Celeste made her normal weasels-with-tuberculosis sound, and, when she stopped, the Horse’s Nose Cluster was centered and looking sweet. I tweaked focus a bit and took a good look. Color looked appropriate, yellowish/orangish. Decent resolution, if not as many stars as I was used to with the Stellacam. Oh, well, got to expect a little loss in sensitivity when you go color, right? Wrong. I had forgotten the exposure was still set to 128x, 2.1 seconds. Selecting a Hyper exposure of 7 seconds revealed easily as many stars as I normally see with the Stellacam, and going higher than that began to overexpose the glob’s core. YEEHAW!

What now? Well, M27, the Dumbell Nebula, was still high enough to be a good candidate, and would allow the Mallincam to show off its color capability. Before going there, though, I ran an eye over the scope and mount to make sure everything looked OK.

This would not be an Uncle Rod run if there were no surprises, I reckon. I noticed the light was out on the DewBuster dew heater controller. Not a good thing on what was shaping up to be a dew-heavy evening. I fiddled with the ‘Buster and its connections and got exactly nowhere. Oh, well. I had an old Kendrick controller as a backup. Plugged it in, turned it on, and its light illuminated—but only briefly. Rut-roh. All I had left in my dew fighting arsenal was a little 12vdc window defroster - cum hairdryer. That would have to do.

Onward to the Dumbbell. It was everything I hoped, with a 28-second exposure showing, as you can see in the simple single-frame screen grab here, plenty of delicious greens and reds in addition to very good detail. When I was finally able to tear myself away from M27, I went to the nearby Crescent Nebula, NGC 6888, which was not only well-defined, but showed a surprising amount of red given its dim nature.

I still wanted to be reassured about the camera’s sensitivity, though, and there is no better way to do that than with a galaxy. The target was NGC 7331 in Pegasus, near Stephan’s Quintet. We down here call this the “Deer Lick Group.” 7331 is the salt-lick, you see, and the three-four little NGC galaxies nearby are deer. In a 28-second exposure, the Xtreme didn’t just pick up the lick and the four deer, but a couple of other teeny galaxies besides. Even cooler, the big galaxy’s dark lane and, on the live video, its sweeping spiral arms were easily visible. I had no further doubts about the Xtreme’s ability to take on the dim galaxies of The Herschel project.

How was the Mallincam control software in the field? I loved it. Being able to easily change gain, gamma, and other stuff encouraged me to experiment more than I normally do with the Stellacam, which I generally “set and forget.” Anything I didn’t like? The software’s “safety timer” took some getting used to. When you change certain things, like gain, you have to wait three minutes before continuing (a “light” on the Advanced menu indicates the safety timer has been activated). That was a pain, but its purpose is to ensure the camera doesn’t get jammed up with commands from the software and crash, so I reckon it is a good thing.

To cut to the chase, I was one happy little camper. But, again, this being an Unk Rod night, there were bound to be more alarums and excursions. Toward the midpoint of the run NexRemote’s virtual hand controller began displaying the dreaded “No Response 16” and “No Response 17” errors. These errors indicate the HC has lost communications with the mount, and can be the result of cable problems, power problems, or internal mount problems. I wondered whether the fact that I was running two USB serial adapters, one for NexRemote and one for the Xtreme, might be causing the No Responses. I hoped that was it; I dang sure didn’t want the problem to be my beloved CG5, which has worked flawlessly for going on seven years.

One sure way to find out: I disconnected NexRemote from the mount, dug the hardware hand control from a case, plugged it in, and did an alignment. No errors did I see. The mount worked a treat for the remainder of the evening. Wheew! I’d have to check the USB – serial adapter and the NexRemote cable and connectors on the morrow.

Before I could get going again, I had to deal with one other minor glitch. The video recorder end of the Xtreme’s video cable turned out to be flaky. Jostle it, and the picture would break up. I thought it might be the BNC to RCA adapter on the end, but fooling with that didn’t seem to help. I positioned the cable so the signal was good and fixed it in place with my favorite tool, a piece of duct tape, natch.

It was smooth sailing for a while after that. Following the Deer Lick, I went to nearby Stephan’s Quintet, that group of five small and dim galaxies, four of which are interacting. Stephan’s was always a problem for the Stellacam with its 10-second-max exposure, but not for the Xtreme at 28-seconds. Not only were all five fuzzies visible, there were hints of detail.

After that it was one showpiece DSO after another: M2, M72, the Saturn Nebula (which was blue and showing off its ansae/ring), M15 again, and as many more as I could think of. One real cool thing? Did you know there are dim little LEDA galaxies scattered among the stars of everybody’s favorite open cluster, NGC 457, the E.T. Cluster? I didn’t, but there are, and the Xtreme picked ‘em up with ease.

Last object of the night was that Horse of Horror, The Nasty Nag, B33, The Horsehead Nebula. I should probably have left this filly alone, since she was still corralled in the Possum Swamp light dome to the east, but I couldn’t resist. Which was a good thing. Not only could I see B33 more easily and in more detail than I ever could with the Stellacam, the very faint nebula that forms the background of the Horsehead, IC434, was glowing a subdued but obvious pink/red.

I hadn’t intended Horsey to be the last object of the night; it was barely 11 p.m. Unfortunately, the dew had got heavier and heavier, and trying to keep it at bay with my pitiful little window defroster gun was a losing battle. I packed it in, packed it up, and headed back Chaos Manor South, where, once the unloading was done, I sat in my blessedly warm den sipping inside-warming Rebel Yell and watching the images I’d captured on DVD on our big screen TV.

What amazed me was how well the videos held up on the large screen. I can often not bear to watch my Stellacam videos on the big TV, but this was a different story. Not only were they colorful, the longer exposures, I reckon, resulted in smoother, less noisy images. The camera’s built-in “mild” Peltier cooler probably had something to do with that, too. I was just as pleased as pleased could be with my new Xtreme. I’d troubleshoot my various problems by morning light.

First patient the next day was the DewBuster. Can’t get much done down here without a dew heater for the corrector. Turned out, as I should have realized Saturday night, the problem was not the controller, but a shorted heater strip. I should have taken the old Kendrick strip, which I knew to be bad, out of the box so I wouldn’t accidentally put it on the telescope instead of the new Dew-Not corrector heater. Luckily, all that was wrong with the DewBuster controller was a blown fuse in its 12vdc cable. Replaced it and all was well.

The fix for the flaky video cable was also trivially easy. Emailed Jack Huerkamp and he got a new one on its way to me tout suite. If only every astro-vendor provided the level of service and support Jack does.

My final problem, the NexRemote errors, wasn’t so easy to diagnose. Not at first. I cleaned all the cables and connectors and examined all the pins with a magnifying glass, but nothing was obviously wrong. OK. How about the Keyspan USB – serial adapter I use for NR? Plugged it into the netbook and took a look at Hardware Manager, which immediately registered an error for the device. A little fiddling with the adapter’s cable did not help. I finally got some canned air and blew out the USB connectors on both the Keyspan and its cable, and suddenly it came back to life. Go figger. Just to be on the safe side, I ordered a replacement from B&H Photo.

The Nasty Nag
Bottom line-a-roony-o? I’ve been doing deep sky video for a long time, muchachos. My Stellacam has continued to amaze me, knocking off one faint Herschel galaxy after another. I didn’t think it could get any better. But it has. Thanks to Rock Mallin, deep sky video has come a long, long way and I’m now reaping the benefits of his hard work. Oh, I’ll hang on to the Stellacam as a backup, but I gotta admit the Stellacam is an Atlas F compared to this Saturn V of a Mallincam Xtreme. Nuff said.

Next time: The Herschels Down Chiefland Way...

Sunday, January 08, 2012


Good Old George

We take each-other for granted, muchachos; that is the human way. So it was with me and my friend George Byron. As I mentioned in the Christmas Eve blog, Miss Dorothy and I were devastated to learn that George, whom I’d known for over twenty years, was gone. It was a shock and led to your old Unk pondering the nature of friendship and mortality over the Christmas holiday. Mostly, though, I thought about what fun we had with old Georgie.

George was a friend, yeah, but that peculiar sort of friend we tend to make in amateur astronomy. I saw him month in and month out on the observing field and at club meetings, but I’d never been to his house, not once in all the years I’d known him, and I had no more than the vaguest idea where he lived. It’s not that way with all my astronomer friends, but that was the way it was with George. He was a feature of life, somebody I saw all the time in the context of astronomy, and with whom friendship had not grown beyond that. Which didn’t seem to make much difference. I was always glad to see him and I think he was always glad to see me.

I’m not completely sure when I first met George, but it was probably at a public star party at the end of the 80s. I’d just moved back to Possum Swamp and was getting acquainted with the personalities on the local club scene. Anyhoo, here was this little, old (looked it, anyhow) guy hunched over a ten-inch Meade Schmidt Cassegrain. I admired his telescope, but more than that I admired the twinkle in his eye as he showed all the Moms and Pops and Buds and Sisses celestial wonders.

What was he like in those days? He was only seven years older than Unk, which would have put him in his mid 40s. But he looked to be in his fifties—if not his sixties. The result, I reckon, of the various and sundry infirmities he suffered and must have suffered for a long time. It didn’t seem to affect his outlook, though. George was a glass-half-full kinda guy with a sunny disposition.

What spelled “George” more than anything else was his dry sense of humor and his tendency to malapropisms and misspeaking. If any of the rest of us had said ‘em, I’d call some of George’s verbal missteps “putting your foot in your mouth.” With him it was never like that; his faux pas were always hilarious, and I always wondered if he’d planned them, even though I knew he really hadn’t. A particularly funny example: one public outreach night George had his big LX5 SCT on the field and was trying to attract “customers.” He turned to one well-turned-out southern matron, looked her straight in the eye, and insisted, “IT’S A TEN-INCH!” Wish y’all could have been there to see her expression.

By the time me and Miss D. got hitched, George was a fact of the astronomical side of life. He for sure approved of my bride; especially when he learned Miss Dorothy was a math professor. While George had never been within a country mile of a college math class, having spent his working life as a blue-collar AT&T phone man, he was fascinated by mathematics and had a real talent for it. I can’t remember too many times when we ran into him that he didn’t have some kind of math problem or puzzle he wanted D’s opinion on: “Say you were able to drill a hole straight through the earth…” I’m sure his mathematical obsession was occasionally trying for Dorothy, but she put up with it both because she is such a nice person and because George was such a sweetheart of a guy.

You can bet D. and I were alarmed to hear, when we returned from our honeymoon in September of 1994, that George had suffered a serious heart attack while we’d been gone. We were maybe reassured, or maybe more alarmed, when we found him in Fletcher’s the following Sunday. Fletcher’s was a barbeque joint/breakfast buffet out on Highway 90, one of Georgie’s faves, and there he was, hale and hearty as he ever looked, plate miles high with bacon and sausage. That was, as we came to say—frequently—“just George.”

In the mid 1990s, our club, the Possum Swamp Astronomical Society, was enjoying a boom: lots of members, lots of activities. One of the things we liked to do in them days was get a bunch of folks together and convoy up to a star party, like the Mid South Star Gaze way up north of Jackson, Mississippi. Miss Dorothy and I had a great time on these expeditions, and George did too, though he must have sometimes felt like a third wheel on these slightly couples-oriented trips. Perennial singleton George bore up with the good cheer that was his hallmark. I never heard of a girlfriend or even an ex-wife, and sometimes felt a little sorry for him, but he never seemed anything but happy with his lot.

In those days, George was a huge star party goer: Texas Star Party, Winter Star Party, eclipses in Mexico, he’d been everywhere, man. The star party I most associate with him and the one he loved best was our own little Deep South Regional Star Gaze. He would drive over to the DSRSG at McComb, Mississippi’s Percy Quin State Park with a truck full of gear and plant himself firmly on the observing field. I can see him as if it were yesterday, grumbling good naturedly about the ASTRO WIMPS who’d walked off the DSRSG field at a mere 1 a.m.

The old DSRSG at Percy Quin.
Sadly, by the middle of the last decade it was clear his star partying days were over. His health problems, which affected not just his heart, but his digestive system, his eyes, his back, his neck, and who-knew-what-else made it downright unwise for him to venture to remote locations, and he’d finally reconciled himself to that. Despite being barely sixty, he seemed old. Last time I was at a big star party with him was the 2002 Peach State Star Gaze in Copperhill, Tennessee. We were in cabins with Spartan bunk beds and, in unaccustomed bad luck, George had got a top one. I offered to swap with him, but in typical George fashion, he’d have none of it. Also typically, I wound up helping him into that cotton pickin’ bunk every dawn.

I just hated it when George had to give up even his beloved Deep South. He hung in there with us through 2005, but that was it. I hope the end of his star partying days was made a little easier by the fact that by ‘05 we’d had to relocate from Percy Quin State Park, which he so loved, to a small and overly rustic camp down way down the road from that beautiful park.

A few years after that, we moved to a much better venue, the Feliciana Retreat Center, which featured accommodations even better than those of Percy Quin, including fully equipped motel rooms. I hoped we’d be able to lure him back for one last bow, but that never happened. Given the state of his health, I'd guess he was afraid to be too far out in the sticks and too far from an emergency room. He was missed, with DSRSGers who barely knew him still enquiring year after year about “Good, Old George.”

For a while there, it looked like he might be finished observing altogether, even from home. Well before the end of his star partying, he’d had to sell off his Meade 10-inch LX5. Not only could he not lift it onto its wedge anymore, even if we helped him get it mounted, or mounted it for him, his back and neck problems prevented him from contorting himself sufficiently to aim an equatorially mounted SCT at much of anything. The LX5 was sold, and George took to using his puny Astroscan.

That was at night. For the daytime, he had a pair of very nice Coronado hydrogen alpha scopes. In the quest for something he could find easily, I suppose, he’d turned to Solar work and developed a real interest in Mr. Sun. George used his PST and a larger Coronado to show a generation or two of Possum Swamp School children (and us) what is really going on all the time on the Sun. We were especially envious when he won a second PST at one of the last DSRSGs he attended.

But at night George had been sidelined. He had got to the point where he had a hard time aiming even the Astroscan. He still wanted to show the kids something at our public outreach star parties, though, and would struggle mightily to get the Moon in view and would beg us to check to see if he had the Pleiades centered in the little Edmund. I wondered if the time might not be coming when he’d drop out of amateur astronomy altogether.

George quit astronomy? No way! He decided he’d just work smarter. At the turn of the century, computerized go-to scopes were still a mystery, a scary mystery, for many of us. Not for George. He had a plan. He bought himself Celestron’s first NexStar, the go-to NexStar 5, equipped it with a Telrad with a 90-degree viewing adapter to help him get it aligned, and was able to keep on trucking. I believe he saw more the first couple of nights with his NS 5 than he’d seen with any of his telescopes over the previous ten years. Soon, he was moving up to a NexStar 8, zapping it to its targets with SkyTools 3, and teaching those of us who tended to look down on his observing skills a thing or two about the deep sky.

It was during this period that I probably spent more time with George than ever I did before or since. He was out to make up for those lost years spent fruitlessly hunting M42 with that cursed Astroscan. We didn’t have a good dark site at the time, but we did have a light-polluted suburban spot. The skies weren’t very good at all, and it was often just him and me, but that was OK. We saw a lot of cool stuff. Not that this was a completely different George. His contemplation of a galaxy would often be punctuated by a running commentary on the “curiosities” that intrigued him, like Olbers’ Paradox. “I still don’t get it, Rod! How COME the whole sky ain’t white with stars! HOW COME WE AIN’T BURNING UP?”

I would most assuredly be remiss if I didn’t mention everything George did for us, his fellow club members. The average astronomy club is one of the few civic organizations where the membership competes to see who can avoid serving as an officer. In the absence of anybody else to do it, he picked up the reins of our club and led us through thick and thin, serving as President for over a decade. Unfortunately for him, he did an outstanding job. Every December he’d bring up the idea of holding an election for President, and we’d reelect him by acclamation before he could say “no.”

Otherwise, George soldiered on. I think he’d finally realized his body was indeed failing him, and occasionally seemed frightened by that. A time or two out at the dark site we thought we’d have to run him to the emergency room, but it never quite went that far. I probably should have worried about him more than I did, but outside those couple of scares he seemed mostly unchanged from twenty years ago. He didn’t look young and healthy, but he didn’t much look different. Usually, he was the first person at the dark site, greeting one and all with his patented “Howdy-howdy!” and was the last one of us to pack up (reluctantly).

We continued as we always had till one night when it was just him and me on the field. I mentioned more or less in passing that I planned to step down as his Vice President, a job I’d held about as long as George had been President. I further said that the club was now in good health with several young (at least younger) members who were enthusiastic and well-suited to take over from us, the old guard. In other words, it was time for us to hand the club off to the next generation. He seemed a little taken aback at first, but nodded in agreement, and opined that we ought to hold real elections in December, which was just a few months away.

While I felt rather strongly about the need for the club to move on from us old-timers (which in the end, unfortunately, only delayed the club's precipitous decline), the last thing I wanted to do was upset my friend. I just wanted him to think about it. I said nothing further on the subject after that night, and was utterly gobsmacked when, after the opening formalities at the December meeting, George announced that it was time to elect new officers. In just a few minutes, it was PSAS: The Next Generation, with a new President, Vice President, and Secretary taking over. George seemed OK, if maybe a little stunned.

I am glad one of the last things I said to him embarrassed him badly. I stood up and thanked him for his years of service, announced he would always be our President Emeritus, and requested a round of applause, which was long and tumultuous. I wonder now if, sub-consciously anyway, he was putting his affairs in order that night.

Life being what it is, I didn’t much think about George for the next several days. Not till I arrived at the dark site Saturday evening and found myself alone. No “Howdy-howdy, Rod! How’s Miss Dorothy? Did she ever get a chance to look at my math problem?” After a couple of my compadres arrived, we discussed George briefly. We were not overly disturbed. It being the Christmas season, we thought it possible he had gone to New York to visit relatives, though it would be strange for him not to mention that to us. I figgered he just wasn’t up to braving the cold, and, since he wasn’t President anymore, no longer felt obligated to be at every single dark site run.

I wasn’t a bit worried about my old friend, not much anyhow, which made it that much more of a shock when Miss D. called me at work Monday afternoon to tell me she’d arrived home to find a message on our machine from Judy, the club Treasurer and a very old friend of George. Judy, Miss Dorothy said in a shaky voice, had called to let us know George had died that past Saturday.

I called Judy for details just as soon as I could; deep down I guess I was hoping it was all a mistake. What she knew was that George had been in the habit of phoning one of his NY relatives every Saturday. Like clockwork. When said relative hadn’t received her customary ring, she got ahold of his stepmother, who lives down here. Her repeated attempts to contact George failed and the police were called. They found my friend dead in his favorite chair.

Dorothy was concerned George, all alone, might have been in pain and scared at the end. Thankfully, from what we could glean, it must have been very quick, probably a massive heart attack, and he might even have gone in his sleep.

Which didn’t make it any easier for us, the living, to bear. We’d scheduled a Christmas Eve observing run, but even if the clouds had not piled on, I wouldn’t have been there. December 24th was way too soon. I couldn’t stand the thought of seeing George’s accustomed spot empty. And I simply dreaded the absence of that old reliable “Howdy-howdy! Guess it’s too cold for them ASTROWIMPS!”

George was a good friend and a good observer. He was also uncommonly nice. I’m only able to vaguely recall one time when he came even close to losing his temper in all the years I knew him. In addition to his natural niceness, George also possessed an innate appreciation for truth and fairness and wasn’t shy about speaking up for the right. You can’t ask for much more in a friend or anybody else than that, now can you, muchachos?

Next time: Going to XTREMEs...

Sunday, January 01, 2012


Happy 2012 from Chaos Manor South!

Another year has come and gone, muchachos. How did it shape up? It was a good one. The best part was that the wonderful Miss Dorothy successfully completed her difficult and long treatment for breast cancer. Unk? I got to keep my day job as Test Engineer for the Navy. I had to transition from the AEGIS Destroyers to the new LPD landing ships, but I kept my job, which is a pretty welcome thing in this day and age.

The astronomy part of life, my NIGHT job? I continued my long-time teaching gig at the University of South Alabama, stuffing the heads of yet another generation of younguns with astronomical knowledge. And I continued to do astronomy writing, professional astronomy writing, appearing in Sky and Telescope and Sky and Telescope’s Skywatch this year.

“What about AMATEUR astronomy, Unk? What did you do under the stars and down to the club, huh?” The Herschel Project rolled on, and was as big a part of my observing life in 2011 as it had been in 2010, but by the end of the year it was beginning to wind down a little as I finished the Herschel II, almost finished another run through the Herschel 400, knocked off more and more Herschel 2500 “Big Enchilada” objects, and suddenly found there were nights without many aitches available. Yeah, the Herschels were a big part of 2011, but that wasn’t all I did…

Sunday, January 16, 2011: Having Fun Together

Why is the Great American Astronomy Club still alive in this day of 24-hour ‘round the clock “club” meetings on Cloudy Nights and Astromart? Because when it’s done right, a non-virtual astronomy club is just so much danged fun.

Rod’s club, the storied Possum Swamp Astronomical Society (PSAS), has persevered through thick and thin, and is still going strong in this high-tech age. A major reason for that is that in addition to public outreach and group observing and interesting meetings, we get together and have some non-astronomy fun once in a while. Like at our annual holiday dinner, which was held at the excellent Ed’s Seafood Shed out on the Causeway in January of 2011.

Not that amateur astronomy wasn’t discussed. After “several” whiskeys, Unk regaled the PSAS with his take on THE BEST STAR PARTIES EVER-EVER. The kindness and friendliness of the membership was demonstrated by the fact that they actually listened to the (semi) foolishness Unk spouted.

Sunday, January 30, 2011: A-OK?

Unk Rod has striven mightily to keep the even vaguely political out of this blog, and has had a pretty good record of doing that. Most of the time. There have been a couple of exceptions, one of which has had to do with the current state of NASA and the U.S. space program and, specifically, the manned space program, which for all intents and purposes has been shut down by the current Administration.

I worked some good, old 60s nostalgia into this article, but mostly it was serious business. My ideas for getting the American Space Age going again? I didn’t have any. The pitiful best I could come up with was the suggestion you write a letter to the goobers in Washington expressing your displeasure. Sigh.

I want Americans in space in American spacecraft. Is there no hope? I know that “write your Congressman” is one of the most hopeless phrases in American English, but I don’t know what else to tell you to do. Maybe it wouldn’t hurt to let them know that there are still a few starry-eyed boomers out there.
Sunday, February 13, 2011: The Herschel Project Night 20

And so it was that, after a layoff of a couple months, the dear, old H-Project was back on the rails. Unk was feeling a bit lazy and had a little trouble convincing himself to drag the C8 and Stellacam and all the support gear out to the Tanner – Williams dark site on a hazy, freezing winter evening, but he did. Though not with the intent of finishing the Herschel II. That would have meant staying out in the 32F temps till four a.m. Nossir buddy!

What got done on this chilly night, then? Given the fun I had leading y’all through the Herschel II list on this here blog, I decided to do the same with the Herschel I, the Herschel 400. Yes, I should probably have attacked the Big Enchilada, the Herschel 2500, with a vengeance, but it was cold and damp (very heavy dew), and I was still adjusting to my new duties on my new job. I consoled myself with the fact that all the Herschel Is are members of the 2500, so it wouldn’t be like I was ignoring The Whole Big Thing, and I would get to see some spectacular objects in the bargain.

And I did. Celeste, my C8, and her CG5 did not miss a beat, putting everything I requested smack in the small field of the Stellacam II. Object of the night? Probably the lovely edge-on spiral in Andromeda, NGC 891. The SC II easily revealed not just the galaxy’s equatorial dust lane, but the fact that the lane’s edges are irregular, “curdled,” all along its length.

Inspired by the beautiful 891 and similarly wonderful H 400s like M110, NGC 2158, and NGC 457, and a look at the supernova in NGC 2655, I kept going without a thought to the cold. Till it was nearing midnight and Unk began to feel seriously miserable in the heavy dew. Big Switch time. Final tally? Fifty Herschel 400 sprites.

Sunday, April 10, 2011: The Herschel Project Night 21

After a pause due to weather and work, the Herschel Project got going again in April, and Miss Dorothy and I were excited about it. We were especially excited because we would continue it down in Chiefland. And not just that: for the first time in quite a few years, there’d be a genuine Chiefland Spring Picnic on the Chiefland Observers’ Billy Dodd Field. Yes, the “new” Chiefland group, which puts on the Nova Sedus Star Party, has a spring picnic on the expansive and well equipped observing field just to the west of our old digs, but I am a creature of habit. I want the “old” Spring Picnic with all my old friends.

What was particularly notable about this Herschel Expedition? One very welcome thing was that Miss Dorothy was in fine form for her second CAV trip; she was, in fact, almost her old self again. Not only did we enjoy an excellent edition of the legendary Picnic, with more Wal-Mart fried chicken than even Unk could eat, we took a day trip to our beloved “Duma Key,” Cedar Key, where we spent several enjoyable hours browsing the shops and trying the lunch menu at The Pickled Pelican.

The most memorable thing about this trip, howsomeever? A milestone was passed. On Thursday night I observed the three galaxies in Hydra and one in Virgo that constituted the last of the Herschel II list. Yep, I was done with the HII, the original project in “Herschel Project.” Finishing was a little bittersweet; it had been a fun slog through the second 400, and I’d had a great time reporting on my progress here. Finishing the HII did not mean the end of The Herschel Project, of course. Shortly after beginning it, I’d resolved to tackle all (near) 2500 aitches, and when Miss D. and I reluctantly packed up and headed home over half of ‘em still remained to be observed.

Sunday, May 15, 2011: Welcome to the Stellarium

What did Unk do when the Moon was big or the clouds numerous? One of the things I did was play with astronomy software. I’m an old hand at that, I reckon; me and astro-softs go all the way back to the Commodore 64 and Sky Travel. Not as old as that, but almost, is Skyglobe, a wonderful, fast DOS (what came before Windows, sprouts) planetarium that Unk continued to use for quick looks at the virtual sky till his XP laptop bit the dust a little while back. This installment of the blog was about the program that replaced Skyglobe for me, finally, Stellarium.

Not only is Stellarium almost as fast to pop onto my screen as Skyglobe was, it is incomparably more beautiful, and, naturally, as befits 21st century astro-ware, has lots more objects. Shortly after installing Stellarium, I found myself admiring its display in a darkened room, just as I’d done with Skyglobe on that long ago night when I ran it for the first time on my old IBM 486.

Sunday, June 05, 2011: Unk’s Messier Album 1

It wasn’t all Herschels, Herschels, Herschels last year. I started a new and much more informal observing project. One centered around one of my favorite Sky and Telescope columns (later assembled into a book) of yore, John Mallas’ and Evered Kreimer’s “A Messier Album.” This wonderful feature took us through the whole Messier list, with Mallas providing drawings and commentary and Kreimer furnishing groundbreaking astrophotos.

What I proposed to do was go through the objects in the same order M&K did, observing them with a similar instrument, my ETX 125 (Mallas used a 4-inch Unitron achromatic refractor), and see how what I saw compared to what John M. saw. To that end, I tackled M49, M61, M68, M13, and M92 on the first evening out—at my club’s dark site—knocking off two Mallas/Kreimer columns in the first go.

My results? On the galaxies, John and I saw about the same things. Globular star clusters were a different story, with me consistently resolving more stars than he did. One thing the first “Album” run did for me was give me a better appreciation of Mallas’ drawings. They are a little funky in daylight, but under a dim red light they look amazingly like what is in the eyepiece of a small telescope.

I had a lot of fun doing those first two columns. Writing and drawing them. I resolved to sketch every Messier Mallas drew (everything but open clusters). What might improve my Messier Album series even more? Getting back to it. I did a second installment some weeks after the first, but haven’t continued since. I hope that will change in 2012.

Sunday, July 10, 2011: The Herschel Project Nights 24 and 25

Despite the Messier side trips, my 2011 observing was mostly all about the Herschels. In the interest of bagging more, Miss Dorothy and I again made the trip “down Chiefland way,” in spite of the blazing temperatures of a Florida summer and clouds that threatened to scuttle our expedition before it began.

This wasn’t the first time I’d been to CAV in July—I’d done the same the previous two years—so I knew how to beat the heat. You don’t hang out on the observing field in the daytime. That’s plain foolish. There is nothing to see, nothing to do, and no one to talk to. You stay in your motel, the Day’s Inn in our case, or in the Chiefland WallyWorld, or in Bill’s Bar-B-Q, or, as we did on Saturday, in the Rusty Rim Bar and Grill in nearby Cedar Key. You don’t head to the CAV field till Sundown, and you have a fan on the observing table to make the high 80s—even as you approach midnight—bearable.

What did Unk and Miss Dorothy achieve in the heat of night? Thursday was a wash (almost literally). Clouds and the threat of severe thunderstorms all day and into the night. We spent the evening in our motel room watching the dadgum SyFy Channel. (And, in Rod’s case, sipping…err… “sarsaparilla.”) Friday and Saturday nights worked out—did they ever. Neither evening was perfect, but that did not stop us from moving 150 Herschel 2500 objects into the “observed” category.

Sunday, August 07, 2011: The Herschel Project Night 26

‘Course I couldn’t do all my Herscheling from the cotton picking Chiefland Astronomy Village. If I were to pick up any aitches during the August dark of the Moon, it would have to be from the good, old Possum Swamp Astronomical Society dark site. The sky damn sure ain’t pristine, but the Milky Way is almost always visible, and if you confine your work to the west side of the Meridian, you can see a lot. Visually or with a camera.

This time out it would be “camera,” specifically my Stellacam II deep sky video camera. Not with Big Bertha, my NexStar C11, though. It looked to be hot, hazy, bug-laden, and dew-crazy. When I want to do Herschels on a night like that, it’s always a Celeste night. “Celeste,” my venerable Ultima C8 OTA, who rides on a Celestron CG5 mount, can, when equipped with the Stellacam, pull in the amazingly dim, and she is a joy to set up and tear down.

Unk spent the night feeling faintly miserable; I was soaked with dew not long after Sundown. The DewBuster heater controller easily kept Celeste’s corrector bone dry, though, so what could I do but press on? Which I did till around midnight, when the deep cycle battery I use to power the DVD recorder and video display gave up the ghost. Despite the hot and sticky wx condx I still wasn’t ready to throw the big switch. I removed the SC II and went visual for a another hour, observing, amongst other things, the year’s best comet, Comet Garradd, which was a real hit with me and my PSAS buddies.

Was it worth braving the giant mosquitoes of Tanner – Williams, Alabama for a brief spell under the stars? Boy howdy was it:

Final tally? Two needed Herschel 400 objects and thirty Big Enchilada aitches. Not bad for an evening when I had to struggle to convince myself to load up a ton of gear and head for the dark site. I can’t promise I’ll always have the gumption to defy heat, humidity, clouds, and bugs, but I’m glad I did this time.
Sunday, September 04, 2011: Down Country Roads

For some unknown reason, the good folk of NOVAC, the Northern Virginia Astronomy Club, one of our nation’s premier astronomical societies, enjoy listening to old Unk’s somewhat silly and somewhat disorganized presentations. To that end, they had me up to their big yearly star party, the Almost Heaven Star Party, again. For the fourth time.

I may question their wisdom regarding this old hillbilly’s PowerPoints, but I don’t question their ability to put on a pip of a star party. AHSP, as the name suggests, is held in West Virginia, up on the highest mountain in West Virginia, Spruce Knob. The facility is great, the people are great, and the skies are great. Well, the skies are usually great. Not this year.

Unfortunately, AHSP 2011 had the misfortune to coincide with bad, ol’ Hurricane Irene, who was hitting nearby DC just as the event got underway. Unk managed to make it to Dulles before the air transport system fell apart, but he didn’t see a blessed thing the whole time—well I did get a brief look at M13 thanks to Donovan Brock and his gigantanormous Dobsonian.

The clouds did not spoil my good time, though. Whether I was hanging out on the field drinking brewskies and eating Little Debbie Star Crunches with old friends, or listening to talks by my fellow presenters, or gobbling the great food, I had a wonderful star party. My only wish? That the AHSP organizers are DUMB enough to have me back for 2012.

Sunday, October 30, 2011: The Herschel Project Night 27

Like I done told y’all, 2011 was my first year on my new job as a navigation systems engineer on the Navy’s LPD program. The fact that the newest ship in the San Antonio Class, LPD 22, would begin her sea trials in October meant Unk and Miss Dorothy did not get to attend the Deep South Regional Star Gaze—first time I’ve missed it since 1992. And we weren’t able to head down to Chiefland to continue the H-Project, either.

Not that we didn’t catch any Herschels between August and December. Despite frustratingly poor weather, I did get out once. As per usual, everything did not go smoothly. When Unk arrived at the site, the neighboring soybean field was being harvested, which was kicking up clouds of dust, and when that finally settled and I decided to get the scope set up, I didn’t secure the C8 properly in the CG5, and she nearly fell to the ground. So it goes.

Those alarums and excursions did not stop me and Celeste. Once we got our act together, we began picking off the few Herschel 2500 objects available to us on this autumn night. The final haul was not overly impressive, we ticked off 27 new ones on the SkyTools 3 list, but we got what we could get without staying up till 3 a.m. I also got a shot of the excellent supernova in M101, just before the Catherine Wheel Galaxy sank out of sight.

Sunday, November 06, 2011: EQMOD Redux

Yes, almost unbelievably, Unk was running out of Herschel 2500 objects—in the Fall sky at least. When the next dark of the Moon came, I changed gears big time. As y’all may know, I’m an aspiring deep sky astrophotographer. Been one for over 45 years. Maybe because I don’t keep after it as often as I should. Come this November run at the PSAS dark site, the astrophotography bug had bitten hard again. Unk lugged the C8, the Atlas mount, the netbook loaded with EQMOD, and the Canon DSLR out to Tanner Williams for some long overdue deep sky picture taking.

In addition to wanting to get back into the astrophotography swim of things, I wanted to try out my new guide system, the Orion Mini Autoguider, the combination of a 50mm finder-cum-guide scope and Orion’s excellent StarShoot autoguider camera. I was a little skeptical that a 50mm guide scope could do the job, but it dang sure did. With the help of Nebulosity and PHD Guiding, Unk got recognizable, if hardly perfect, portraits of M13, M57, and M27. No, not perfect, but them consarned stars dang sure was round.

And that was it for 2011. Well, not quite it. The above things were just the highlights of my astronomical year. They do sum up the way the amateur astronomy wind blew for me, though. 2012? The broad themes will be the same: the Herschel Project, the Messier Album Project, and astrophotography. But at least one of the players will have changed. I have just taken delivery of a Mallincam Xtreme deep sky video camera. I am excited about that, and I am excited about 2012 in general. I think it’s gonna be a good year for Unk, and I hope it will be for y’all too. In other words: Happy new year from Chaos Manor South!

Next time: My Friend George...

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