Sunday, February 26, 2012


Old Betsy Rides Again

An alternate title for this one could have been, “NOT the Herschel Project.” That’s not what I’d intended, though, muchachos. The weather-goobers were predicting “clear” for Saturday night, and my intent was indeed to hit Ursa Major’s copious Herschel galaxies hard with the C8 and Mallincam Xtreme. But by Friday night I began to have my doubts. The Weather Underground’s forecast now called for not just cold, 23 fracking F. by early morning, but wind, 15 knots or more of wind.

Midday Saturday, I was for sure backing off my Xtreme plans. The idea of not just toting all the video gear out to the dark site, but having to pack it back in the truck and unload it at home after midnight with the temps in the 20s, did not have a whole lot of appeal. There was also that wind factor.

The German mount I planned to use, the Celestron CG5, is a good mount. Reliable and accurate in its go-tos. Let’s face it, though, it is not the Rock of Gibraltar. I saw what it would do in fierce wind one winter night in Chiefland—which was turn my video images into star trails pictures. I could have kicked it up a notch to the Atlas GEM, but I’d have to pack and unpack that heavyweight while turning into a Rodsicle, and if the wind were as bad as or worse than predicted, I wasn’t sure the Atlas/C8 combo would fare very well either.

Throw in the towel on my dark site Saturday evening, then? No way. No way for a couple reasons. Foremost of which was that I needed to get back into the dark site groove; I hadn’t been out there in nearly two months. Frankly, y’all, I was dreading arriving at the Possum Swamp Astronomical Society site. I knew how much I’d miss the “HOWDY! HOWDY!” of my late friend George. I needed to get over that and try to move on.

Naturally, I was itching to do some deep sky observing, too. Yeah, I’d had my Chiefland Adventure, but I hadn’t had much else this winter. My schedule had settled down a little of late, and I ort to have been able to get some serious time under the stars, but the Weather Gods said “N-O.”

Hokay, I’d head out, but head out with what? The natural choice was Old Betsy, my venerable 12.5-inch truss-tube Dobsonian. Not only had I not used her in over a year, I had not got around to checking her out since my observing companion Pat Rochford fixed her.

Bets at the Dark Site.
What did Pat have to fix? That story began the night of my Star Trek run, the last time I’d had Bets out, nearly a year-and-a-half ago. I’d intended to take the 12-inch to the 2010 Deep South Regional Star Gaze, so I carried her to the PSAS dark site the Saturday before the star party to give her a shakedown by running through a cool list of Star Trek related stars and DSOs. Good thing I did, too, because her Sky Commander DSCs had gone belly-up.

They hadn’t stopped working altogether; they just didn’t work right. I’d align them, go to object one, and the Sky Commanders were dead-on, just like always. Second object? A mile off. Third object? Miles off. I was glad I’d taken Betsy to Tanner-Williams, since I would have been right put out to discover I was without DSCs at the DSRSG. Celeste, my C8, went to the star gaze with us that year, and I put “fix Betsy” on my ever-expanding to-do list.

I took my Sky Commander problems to Pat. Since he built Betsy (with the very tiniest amount of help from Unk), I figured he ought to know how to repair her if anybody did. He said he suspected problems with her azimuth pivot bolt. I asked him if’n I ought to order a new bolt kit (which the azimuth encoder for the digital setting circles attaches to) from Randy Cunningham, whose AstroSystems has supplied most of Bets’ store-bought parts. Pat said I should hold off on that; he thought he could fix the bolt assembly without me having to buy anything. That is just the kind of talk your stingy old Uncle likes!

One Saturday afternoon, Pat stopped by Chaos Manor South to see his patient, Old Betsy. After disassembling the rocker box/ground board, we (more like Pat) determined the pivot bolt was indeed at fault. After a decade-and-a-half of use, the bolt assembly’s nylon insert had gone bad. Pat fixed the problem in two shakes of a lamb’s tail and assured me my Betsy would be as good as new.

Certainly I believed Pat, but being a somewhat suspicious sort of the “trust but verify” persuasion, I wanted to be assured the Sky Commander computer itself or its encoders didn’t have some kind of a glitch, too. I meant to do that right away, but almost before I knew it close to a year had elapsed.

Just a fairy ring, or maybe a SAUCER NEST?
Well, I’d see to the old girl this evening. Bets could have a go at the H-Project from Tanner-Williams, which wouldn’t be the first time I’d used her in my quest for the 2500. I have seen plenty of aitches with the Dob visually from our good but less than perfect field, and I figgered she ought to be able to bring home a few new ones on what both The Weather Channel and Weather Underground promised would be a cold but clear evening.

Sunset would be at about 5:30, and I wouldn’t need near as much time to get Betsy going as I would have to get the C8 and Xtreme set up, so I lollygagged around the old manse till 4:30 before hitting the road. Loading Betsy’s mirror box in the back of the 4Runner wasn’t a treat, but it was a lot easier than hoisting it into the trunk of the Camry or maneuvering it onto that sedan’s front passenger seat had been.

Out in Tanner-Williams, I set about my tasks, trying not to give myself time to think much about poor old Georgie. Once mirror box was in rocker box, the rest was duck soup. I’d left the upper cage assembly attached to the scope’s truss poles, and it was the work of just a few minutes to bolt those to the mirror box. All that was left to do was mount the Telrad and collimate the optics.

Do you hate to collimate? Some folks do—I used to. Don’t get a truss tube scope if’n you do, since you will usually have to at least tweak collimation every time you set up. I dreaded that for a long time, but then two things changed. First, I started doing field-workshops on (Newtonian) collimation at my star party appearances. That meant I had to practice the black art till I was good and fast. And I finally found a collimation tool I liked.

That tool is the humble Chinese-made combo sight-tube/Cheshire. You can get one from Celestron or Orion and probably many other sources. They are easy to use and produce excellent collimation for a price significantly less than that of a laser collimator. Simple as simple can be: you’ve got a 1.25-inch diameter metal tube with a crosshair and a Cheshire eyepiece/sight. To collimate all you do is center the crosshair on the mark on your primary mirror with the secondary mirror’s adjustments. Then, you tweak the primary mirror till its center mark and the Cheshire sight coincide. Sound puzzling? See this for my ruminations on collimation technique.

For some reason, I’d expected to have to do a lot of adjusting of Betsy. Nope. A peep through the collimator showed the secondary was good enough for gubmint work, and the primary required just a minor twitch. All that remained was to set up my observing table, lay out the eyepiece case and accessory case, and get the netbook computer going. As always, I’d use the indispensible SkyTools 3 software for running the Herschel 2500 list.

I unpacked the PC and hooked it to a jumpstart battery via a small inverter in order to give the netbook’s internal battery a helping hand on this cold night. It was when I turned the ASUS on that I realized semi disaster had struck. I’d forgot not just my mouse pad, which was no big deal, but the red acrylic filter than goes over the computer screen, which was a big deal.

I knew just what had happened, too. The previous weekend, I’d had the netbook out of her bag, and had removed the mouse pad and filter and set them aside in the process. Naturally, I’d forgot to return pad and filter to the case when I was done with whatever the hell I was doing. I could crank down screen brightness and run ST3 in night vision mode, but, based on previous experience, that would still wreck my night vision.

Trying to decide what to do, I wandered around the site, and, especially, to the place George always set up. Now that I had time to think, I was feeling a little blue. There was nobody else onsite to talk to to help take my mind off my missing buddy, either. Apparently I was the only PSASer hard core enough—or dumb enough—to brave a freezing January thermometer. I took a few pictures of the site and settled in to wait for darkness in the cold.

How cold was it? It really wasn’t that cold. Somewhere in the low 40s, but the wind, as predicted, had been blowing steadily since I’d arrived, and the wind-chill factor was absolute murder. After setting up the telescope, my hands were freezing. Otherwise, I was OK. I was well-layered, with thermal underwear, insulated socks, t-shirt, and sweat shirt. Fuzzy hat, of course. When it was time to go nuclear, I had the big coat I’d worn in Maine when I’d wintered there in ought-six. I did fire up a couple of little chemical hand-warmer packs, but otherwise I was fairly comfortable when I stayed out of the wind in the lee of my truck.

Sky Commanders
I was alone, but for once I did not feel spooked as I sometimes do out in the boondocks all by myself. I was not visited by thoughts of the Deliverance gang, mothman, the skunk ape, or even The Little Gray Dudes from Zeta Reticuli II. Not even when I spied a peculiar ring-shaped pattern in the grass Mama would have immediately pronounced a saucer nest. I suppose if I’d dwelt on such things, I coulda worked myself up into one of my states, but just as Sol finished his descent, a fellow PSASer, Jonathan, my successor as club Vice President and a former student of mine, pulled up. It’s amazing how the presence of just one other person will chase off the strange creatures of the night that haunt lonely dark sites.

Zeta Reticulans banished, there was still my netbook problem. Even with the screen turned way down and ST3 in night vision mode, it was like a freaking search-light. That would not do for 13th magnitude H2500 fuzzies, nossir buddy. That problem, it seemed, was in the process of taking care of itself, however—if not in a good way.

When I’d arrived, the sky had been a crystal clear cerulean. Now, haze was creeping in. I’d noticed earlier that a jet contrail had begun to bloat, never a good sign, and it felt as if the humidity were spiking up. If the wind had not been blowing constantly, I reckoned me and Betsy would now be covered with dew. The winter Milky Way was shining, but only barely; it should have been burning.

Solution? I’d have to forget The Project for tonight, looked like. But that was OK. That would allow me to give Betsy’s Sky Commanders a thorough work/check-out from one side of the sky to the other, and it would also give me the opportunity to show Jonathan, who is a fairly new observer, how cool the good stuff looks in a souped-up 12-inch.

Yep, I don’t mind saying Old Betsy is now one tricked-out telescope. She is the Dobsonian who’s Led Three Lives. She started life as a Meade StarFinder in 1994, was converted to a minimalist truss-tuber in 1998, and in 2008 I replaced the old Meade secondary with a smaller and better-coated one, added an AstroSystems secondary heater, installed the Sky Commander computer, and had her primary mirror recoated with one of Spectrum Coatings’ “Max R” 98% reflectivity jobs. I used to be of the opinion that enhanced coatings couldn’t possibly make much difference, but I will now say for the record, muchachos, that when I went from Bets’ old Meade aluminum to the Max R I noted a very real and observable difference in image brightness.

Betsy with friend in her initial incarnation circa 1994.
Hokay, darkness. Time to align the Sky Commanders. I always start with Polaris, and, as a second star, often choose Sirius this time of year. Oops. The 4Runner was blocking the North Star. Slid Betsy back a few feet. There we go. Fire up the Sky Commander computer, input date (no time or location required), center Polaris in a crosshair eyepiece, hit Enter, scroll to “Sirius,” center it in the eyepiece, hit Enter, and I was done. One of the beauties of the Sky Commanders compared to other DSC rigs is that there is no telescope leveling and no worrying about “warp factors” or other foolishness. Enter date, center two stars, you are DONE.

How well done was the question. Back in the accessory box went the old Meade 12mm reticle eyepiece, in went my beloved 13mm Ethos, and into the Sky Commander computer went “M42.” Which is easier to do with it than it is with some DSC widgets. Scroll to the Messier catalog with the up/down keys, scroll to the number field with the left/right keys, enter “42” using the up/down keys, hit Enter, and scroll up to see scope movement instructions. Arrows and numbers show you which way to move and by how much in altitude and azimuth.

I moved as instructed and put my eye to the 13mm. M42 was centered and looking pretty good in the gloaming. But that wasn’t the test. The first object after an alignment was always good when Betsy was having her problem. The test would be object number two and following.

Punched-in Jupiter, which would be a good challenge for the Sky Commanders. Not only was it way over in the southwest, planets are a bit of a trial for DSC systems. Boom! There was old Jupe looking good (that such an excellent primary mirror came with an humble StarFinder still amazes me) despite fairly punk seeing. OK. Back to M42. Bang! It was centered and the E and F stars of the Trapezium dang near put my eye out. All that was left to say was, “Problem solved, thanks Pat!”

Time to get to work, whatever that work might be. I’ve found that even if I’m observing casually, I don’t see much if I don’t have an organized list. Squinting at SkyTools in a vain attempt to preserve my night vision, I loaded up my “SCT 100” list. This is a set of 100 “best of the best” deep sky objects I put together some years ago when I was vaguely planning a book on the subject. The book hasn’t gotten very far, but the list is a winner if’n I do say so myself.

I know I was pleased and Jonathan amazed at how good the objects we culled from The SCT 100 looked on what was becoming a distinctly iffy night. We had a great time with Betsy and the 13 and 8 Ethoses (all we used), the Sky Commanders did not miss a beat, and for a while we were able to ignore the plunging temps and drifting haze.

The Objects

M42. What can you say about this monster cloud that hasn’t been said before? Well, when I can make myself look—really look—at it, I always seem to see something new: some interesting detail in its nebulosity I’ve overlooked year after year, or some strange and wonderful pattern formed by the stars wrapped in its folds.

NGC 2158, is the lovely little oval patch of distant suns on the edge of M35. This looked very fine, with its tiny stars wonderfully resolved. 2158 was actually one of Betsy’s first light objects back in the fall of 1994. I lugged her, in her original Sonotube body, out to the backyard, went to M35, and was knocked back on my heels by this far away cluster, which I didn’t expect to be visible in the light pollution—much less resolved.

M37: Jonathan requested this famous galactic cluster in Auriga. The red/orange star in its heart popped out the second I put my eye to the 13E, and, as I stared, the cluster stars seemed to almost form a spiral pattern, something I’ve noticed before.

After having a mind blowing view of my favorite barred spiral, NGC 1097, a couple of weeks ago in Chiefland, I wanted a visual look at it, even though Fornax was getting awful low. All I could make out against the bright sky at first was the galaxy’s round core. A little extended gazing and I began to see the bar and, maybe, just maybe, the smallest hints of the outlying nebulosity representing spiral arms.

M1 was good, even if it suffered from haze that was now spoiling even the dark zenith area where the crab was hanging out. The basic “S” shape of the supernova remnant was clear, and at times I fancied I could see hints of the gas-tendrils that gave it its name. Averted imagination, prob’ly.

From Taurus I went to Andromeda for her Blue Snowball (planetary) Nebula, NGC 7662, largely because Jonathan had yet to see this one. What was it like? For sure lived up to its name: a little off-round bluish puff. Detail poor, yeah, but pretty nevertheless.

I was gobsmacked at how low Cassiopeia’s premier open cluster, M52, was getting. Still looked sweet, however. Hordes of tiny stars that on this evening seemed to outline a mushroom shape.

It had been a long time since I’d looked at Canis Major’s cool nebula, Thor’s Helmet, NGC 2359, so we went there next. This cloud, thrown off by a misbehaving Wolf-Rayet star, looks great under dark skies in Betsy, and I was curious how it would be from Tanner-Williams. The answer? At first I couldn’t see pea-turkey in the 13mm. I wondered if the computer was hiccupping, but then I began to make out the very faintest breath of nebulosity. Hmm… In went my Celestron (Baader) OIII filter, and out popped Thor, showing not just the oval central section but at least parts of his “horns.”

NGC 2024, The Flame Nebula in Orion, was there, but just barely. Maybe slightly better with a UHC filter. This odd patch of nebulosity near Zeta Orionis, which is also known—down here anyway—as The Tank Tracks Nebula, is interesting in its own right and also serves at a good indicator of whether you should go Horse hunting on any given night. If The Flame is not bright and spectacular, fuhgeddabout the nearby Horsehead Nebula. You can bet we forgot about B33 on this night with our rapidly degrading skies.

It was now about nine and was colder than ever. Worse, the wind that had lain down for a while was back with a vengeance. I wasn’t close to ready to surrender, so I chugged the Monster Energy drink I’d strategically positioned on the observing table and pressed on.

Jonathan was all het-up to see how the 13mm Ethos would do in his 4-inch reflector, and I had no objection as long as the scope was balanced, the setscrew in its focuser firm, and we were ready to grab the eyepiece, which weighed near as much as the whole scope, if disaster threatened.

Looking at M42, I was reminded again of how wonderful Unk Al’s Ethoses are. Dare I say the view of M42 in Jonathan’s humble 4-inch f/8 Chinese Newtonian (Celestron by way of Synta) was refractor-like? It was, and suddenly it didn’t seem absurd that the eyepiece cost about six times what the telescope did.

Back to Betsy, we went on to Hubble’s Variable Nebula, NGC 2261, in Monoceros. It was prominent and beautiful. Its little comet shaped body of nebulosity was as big as I’ve ever seen it, and the star that forms the “comet head” was surprisingly bright.

M79, the winter sky’s only Messier globular cluster, is always a little low given its southern declination, but we down here get a pretty good look at it. It was nearing culmination when I entered it into the Sky Commander, and I was rewarded. For some reason, this little blob of stars has always been one of my favorites, and on this evening it was about as good as it gets from anything but pristine skies: resolved/grainy core surrounded by a nice halo of stars in the 8mm. Looked almost rectangular in shape.

M81 and M82 were freaking incredible in the 13, which fits them both in the same field with enough magnification to darken the sky background and bring out detail. I almost convinced myself I could see M81’s incredibly delicate, lacy spiral arms. M82, as always, showed off its crazy-good dark lane detail. It certainly doesn’t come close to the view of it I had with the Mallincam Xtreme in Chiefland, but was amazing nevertheless.

With the Celestron OIII, M76, The Little Dumbbell, was quite a sight. Not only were both lobes bright and detailed, the tendrils of nebulosity that wrap over and around them were easy. Best in the 8mm Ethos.

NGC 1023 in Perseus, a peculiar galaxy, was a wonder. In the 8mm I saw a bizarrely bright and elongated central region as well as an extensive strongly elongated oval of outer nebulosity. What pushes this one over the edge into the “wonder” category is that the field is peppered with tiny, bright stars. A couple of dimmer ones are involved with the galaxy itself.

Had a bit of trouble with Taurus’ Crystal Ball Nebula NGC 1514. Couldn’t see it nowhere. That was not unexpected, since, especially under less than perfect skies, its bright blue central star tends to all but drown out the nebula. My OIII brought it out as a large globe that seemed uneven in texture and just on the verge of giving up weird, splotchy detail.

Over in Eridanus, NGC 1535, The Cleopatra’s Eye Nebula (as my friend Greg Crinklaw calls it) was much easier to spot, appearing as a little oval fuzzball of bright blue-gray nebulosity. At times I could see some vague inner detail with the 8mm. I kept staring and could, I thought, make out the oval “iris” that surrounds the planetary’s central star.

NGC 2348
The prize object of the evening was M46 in Puppis. I’ve seen this open cluster, which hosts a planetary nebula, NGC 2438 (which may be just a line of sight object), zillions of times with telescopes as small as my Short Tube 80 from sites as poor as the backyard of Chaos Manor South. The cluster always looks good, a rich spangle of stars. So does the nebula, even if it usually doesn’t look like much more than a little bead of nebulosity around a double star.

Tonight was different. Why, I’m not sure, but some combination of the seeing (usually bad, occasionally and briefly very good), the eyepiece (the 8E) and the filter (Celestron OIII) made it look as if M57, The Ring Nebula, had been transported to an open cluster. Sitting there surrounded by the many stars of M46, NGC 2438 was purely amazing. The memory of this view is something I will keep with me for a long time.

Which just goes to show “you never can tell.” If I’d decided to sit home warm and cozy, I would have missed a spectacular view. I believe my maxim: “If it ain’t Raining, Head to the Dark Site” has been vindicated once again.

M 46 admired for an extended period, I stepped away from the eyepiece and took stock. It was approaching ten p.m. That is not late, not even for your old Uncle, but a look to the east showed the Moon was fixing to rise. It was also colder than ever; the dial thermometer on the observing table was now registering the lower thirties. The wind had not let up; if anything it was blowing harder. And the haze was now evolving into stretches of clouds that were coming with ever increasing frequency. Yep, you guessed it, Big Switch Time.

Which switch was blessedly small. Separate Betsy’s upper cage/truss tubes from the mirror box. Pack up the computer, eyepiece case, accessory box, and table. Lay the upper cage/truss poles in the back seat. Lift mirror box and rocker into truck. The last wasn’t a joy, but it wasn’t that bad, either. I did not bust a gut or pull nuttin’ nor come close to it. In about fifteen minutes I had Miss Lucille Van Pelt’s heater blasting and was on my way back to the comforting walls of Chaos Manor South.

Course, I had to reverse the loading process when I got there. While it would probably have been OK to leave the scope in the truck overnight, that’s something I am hesitant to chance. Some loser broke into our RAV-4 and stole its stereo some years ago. Again, except for the mirror box, it really wasn’t that bad.

Scope safe and snug and jump start battery on charge, it was time to hit the Yell and relax with a little TV. Is there anything on late-night cable on the weekends other than those very silly Ghost Adventures? But that was OK. My mind was not on the tube; it was on M46 and NGC 2438, and, most of all, on my wonderful Betsy. Y’all know I am an SCT man and always will be, but Bets and I have had a long and beautiful friendship despite that, and it makes me feel good to know that friendship continues nearly two decades down the road, muchachos.

Next Time: MSSG 1995…

Sunday, February 19, 2012


My Favorite Star Parties: ALCON 2003

I liked the 2003 ALCON a lot even if it wasn’t really a star party. A star party was held there one night, though, and I had a lot of fun at it. “What in the H-E double hockey sticks are you going on about now, Unk?” What I am going on about, muchachos, is the fulfillment of an old dream of mine, attending an ALCON. In fact, not only did I get to go, I spoke at one. Don’t get much better than that.

Still in the dark? OK, I’ll spell it out for you starting with what an “ALCON” is. That acronym stands for “Astonomical League CONvention.” If you are the greenest of greenhorns and don’t know what the League is, listen up and Unk will edumacate you. The Astronomical League is the national organization for amateur astronomy in the U.S. of A. If you are an amateur radio operator, a “ham,” the Astronomical League is the equivalent of The American Radio Relay League.

Well, sorta. The AL is somewhat younger than the ARRL, not having got off the ground until just after World War II. I don’t think anybody, including the AL staff, would disagree with me if I say the Astronomical League is not nearly as powerful (or effective) an organization as the ARRL, either. There are a couple of reasons for that. First off, unlike ham radio, we are not government regulated. You don’t need a license from the Feds to be an amateur astronomer. Not having to deal with legislation directly affecting our avocation means we have less need for a strong national organization.

“But Uncle Rod,” you say, “isn’t the struggle against light pollution a cause that affects our hobby? And involves law-making?” Well, yeah, but… The Astronomical League devotes some time and resources to the problem, but the IDA, the International Dark Sky Association got there first, and is the principal amateur astronomy group working in that arena.

That’s half the equation. The other half, I’m convinced, is the nature of amateur astronomers. While there is considerable crossover between amateur radio and amateur astronomy, the average amateur astronomer is probably less gregarious than the average radio amateur. While some of us, like Unk, spend most of our time observing with a club, many of us do our viewing alone and may not even belong to an astronomy club. These folks are happy to be left alone to enjoy the sky on their own and don’t see the need for a local, much less national, organization. I think these people are wrong, but, as I have often said, the most wonderful rule about amateur astronomy is that there are no rules as to how it must be practiced.

What was the first thing I looked at in Sky and Telescope when I was a youngun in the 1960s? The ads for Edmund, Cave, Unitron, Criterion and the rest, of course. After that, it was always “Amateur Astronomers,” S&T’s news column about the activities of, well, amateur astronomers, which frequently talked about the League. This was a pretty big deal in those simpler times. Me and my buddies in our little club, The Backyard Astronomy Society, often thought about sending THE MAGAZINE a news story about our doings, but that smacked of hubris. The BAS in “Amateur Astronomers” along with the League? No way!

What was really Big Time was the yearly story about the Astronomical League Convention, which often had a feature article of its own in the classy front section of the rag. I remember as if ‘twere yesterday, muchachos, gazing at those black and white photos of serious coat/tie clad amateurs (relatively few women in those benighted times). I occasionally imagined myself among them, duded up in the wool sport coat and clip-on tie Mama bought me for special occasions. But that was pie in the sky. If these folks weren’t professional astronomers, they were the next best thing.

And there it remained with me and the AL for quite a few observing seasons. When I joined my first big peoples’ club, which was an affiliate of the AL, I learned a little more about the organization and began to keep up with its doings in its quarterly magazine—really more of a newsletter—The Reflector. I glommed onto the fact that by belonging to an affiliate club I was now actually a member of the Astronomical League.

I’ve been fairly generous with my criticism of the Astronomical League in recent years. Maybe even overgenerous. Mostly my complaint is not about what it does, but that it should do more. A common theme at club meetings all over the country when it’s time to pay the club’s AL dues is “What does the League do for me?” The answers including the Observing Clubs, fighting light pollution, and youth development are all good ones, but the AL needs to do more to make itself an indispensable part of Joe and Jane Amateur Astronomer’s life if it is to remain relevant. Maybe we oughta talk about that some Sunday.

Despite my carping, I am a League supporter. Always have been. I still read The Reflector when it drops through the mail slot. I sometimes even look forward to it. And until 2003 there was always that sweet old dream: someday I was going to an ALCON where I could hang out with hundreds of fellow amateur astronomers and talk astronomy and telescopes all the live long day.

At least the ember of that dream still glowed, but ALCONs came and went and I stayed home. There was always an excuse for not going. I needed a kick; I knew good and well I’d have a great time at the Convention if I could just convince myself to attend. That kick came one evening in the late spring of ought-three when the kitchen workstation computer intoned "YOU'VE GOT MAIL!"

On his way to the liquor cabinet, Unk heard the AOL dude's announcement, stopped, and clicked the email open. What the hell? It was a missive from the good folks at one of the nation’s great astronomy clubs, the Barnard-Seyfert Astronomical Society (BSAS) of Nashville, Tennessee. They wanted to know if I’d be interested in being a speaker at the 2003 Astronomical League Convention to be held in Music City on 9 – 12 July. What the—? Not just attend an ALCON, speak at one? Was I reading this thing right? “DOROTHY!”

That was what they wanted me to do, alright, and I was up for the task after a couple of years on the astronomy-author speaking circuit. This would, howsomeever, be a little different from most of my engagements. The standard there was and is “expenses and honorarium.” The ALCON would be pay as you go—with me doing the paying. Which led to some serious noggin-scratching on my part.

Dorothy and I did do some cogitating about paying our own way, but not too much. Nashville is not a bad drive for us, so no airline tickets would be required. The rates at the Airport Embassy Suites hotel where the CON was to be held were quite reasonable. Most of all, despite my occasional complaining about the League, I considered it a worthy effort. Now was the time to put my money in the place of my mouth. Would I give a little to support this good cause? Yes, I decided, I would. Dorothy seemed excited about the trip, and I was slowly becoming more convinced that it might be a Good Thing.

So it was that on the Tuesday afternoon before the convention began, Miss D. and I hit I-65 for the trip north. We didn’t feel like driving into the night, and our reservations at the Embassy Suites didn’t begin till check-in time Wednesday, anyway, so we would stop somewhere close to the Tennessee line. Which turned out to be the little burg of Enterprise, Alabama. Why there? It was just outside the ring of Huntsville traffic, and we spotted a nice-looking Best Western Motel at the town’s exit.

It was nice enough in a standard Interstate motel kind of way. Like most other Best Westerns, it was clean with decent sized rooms, if somewhat on the Spartan side. We’d need supper, and, also like most other Best Westerns, there was no restaurant in the motel. There was an Applebee’s nearby, and that is where we went. Not four-star dining, mind you, but more than good enough. Afterwards it was back to the room for a little hanging out, a little whiskey, and a relatively early night for us.

Nashville is for sure a big city, and in 2003 most of its Interstates were being worked on and were torn up, but even without GPS we didn’t have a lick of trouble finding the Airport Embassy Suites. It reminded me a lot of the one I’d stayed in in Anaheim, California back in the 1990s: older but nice, with the standard waterfall/fishpond and greenery in the lobby and a nice open space for FREE DRINKS AND HORS D'OEUVRES in the evening. Our suite was similarly nice: obviously older but well maintained, with an expansive view of the lights of Nashville in the distance.

Checked into the hotel, it was time to check into the convention. The convention registration tables in the lobby were staffed by the uber friendly membership of the Barnard – Seyfert Astronomical Society and let me say right here that these men and women were professional and efficient as well as friendly, and it was due to their hard work that ALCON 2003 ran like clockwork.

Where to after registration? ‘Twas too early for the free drinks and nibbles, so Unk naturally gravitated to the Dealers’ Room. There was plenty to see there; everybody from the Starry Night software people to Scott Roberts and Meade had a booth. The best thing was the people, the friends old and new we ran into and made right off the bat. There was editor extraordinaire Kelly Beatty from ‘Sky and Scope, BSAS President Mike Benson, ALPO Director Richard Schmude, and even our fellow Possum Swamper, Judy Anderson. Bill Burgess (Burgess Optical) and wife Tammy had a table and were showing a huge assortment of binoculars and a couple of sweet looking refractors. Finally, there was that other editor extraordinaire (and imaging guru) Richard Berry, who I hadn’t seen since the notorious TSP ’97.

Who else? There were plenty of rank-and-file amateur astronomers. Working, serious amateur astronomers. What was the greatest thing? Unlike the old days, this did not resemble the Sons of the Desert convention in the old Laurel and Hardy movie. There were plenty of women in attendance, women astronomers, that is.

There was also my virtual friend, Shawn Grant, a well-known Tennessee amateur who at the time was (in)famous as sci.astro.amateur’s (the amateur astronomy bulletin board that came before Cloudy Nights, younguns) resident troll-clown. Shawn injected just the right amount of comic relief into what might otherwise have been a too-serious affair. He did his best to keep things jumping with his rascally jests—I understand he managed to FREAK Richard Berry OUT with his men’s room antics—but his other personality, that of knowledgeable, accomplished observer came through despite his best efforts.

There had already been some presentations, but by the time we arrived and checked into the hotel and the convention, got settled in our room, and wandered around a little they were all done and it was time for that ALCON tradition, the star-b-que. This big group meal would be a particular treat this year, as it would be held out at Vanderbilt’s Dyer Observatory. We didn’t even have to figure out how to get there; we were ferried out in big busses. Dyer was a lovely and historic facility that housed a still operational (for teaching purposes) 24-inch reflector with Perkin-Elmer optics.

Following a super-tasty catered barbeque dinner that we consumed in the observatory library, we listened to a couple of speakers tell us all about the AL’s big project, the ISS-AT, the International Space Station Amateur Telescope. In retrospect, it’s a little sad not much has happened with the amateur space telescope over the intervening nine years, but I understand there is still a working 16-inch ground-based prototype-demonstrator in Arizona, and with the forthcoming demise of the HST now that servicing missions have ended there may be life in the ISS-AT yet.

Naturally, we all wanted a look at and through the 24-inch after supper, and when the ISS-AT presenters were done that is just what we did. This was, of course, THE YEAR OF MARS, the opposition to end all oppositions, and we turned the scope there. Alas, due to clouds and poor seeing, the Angry Red Planet looked more like the Soggy Orange Pizza. Kelly Beatty and a few other folks stuck it out for a while, but conditions were never sufficiently good to allow Dyer’s big scope to strut itself. Miss D. and I figured we’d better get back to the hotel, anyway. Long day, and my presentation was scheduled for the morrow.

Come Thursday morning, it was time to get my act together. I was scheduled to go on at 10:30 with my talk, “The Past, Present, and Future of the Schmidt Cassegrain.” I was pretty pleased to be presenting on Thursday; all my worry and preparation would be done early and I’d have all day Friday and Saturday to hang out and have fun.

When my turn came, it was “on with the show,” and I was gratified to have a large and enthusiastic audience. Past Present and Future was so well received that I am still giving it at star parties and club meetings, tweaking it continuously to keep it current. After fielding dozens and dozens of questions, it was noon and I had to leave the stage. I was drained but happy: I had done it. If only I could have sent the good vibes back in time to li’l Rod drooling over Sky and Telescope in 1965.

I was done with my talk, but that didn’t mean I was done with talks. The speaker lineup in 2003 was awesome: Richard Berry on them newfangled CCD cameras, Ron Wodaski on how to process CCD images once you’d got ‘em, Don Parker on imaging Mars. Don’s talk was scheduled so he could immediately hop on a plane and get back to Florida to get more of July’s enormous Mars. All the talks were good, but of particular interest to the Rodster was Lonnie Puterbaugh’s presentation on imaging the deep sky with video cameras. I’d tried Solar System photography with my camcorder and was excited to hear it was now possible to get the dim stuff with user friendly video.

There was so much to listen to and learn that I found myself spending 8-hours a day in convention sessions of one kind or another. The facilities and A/V equipment were top notch, which made it easy for everyone to do their best. The only slight hiccup came Thursday evening, when the big talk had to be crammed into the dealer room. The large space we’d been using for presentations was devoted to a plus-size models’ convention that night. Ah, well.

I keep talking about the Dealer’s Room, so it should come as no surprise that Unk bought something. How could I not, my birthday being right around the corner? I looked longingly at the Starry Night software but demurred. What I was using at the time, SkyTools 2 mostly, was more suited to the kind of deep sky work I was interested in. What could I not resist? The 15x70 binoculars Bill Burgess was selling for an insane 50 bucks. I got a pair, which turned out to be excellent, and which I am still using—dang near every clear night—today.

Late Thursday afternoon, Miss Dorothy and I headed for the snacks and drinks, as many mixed drinks or beers as you wanted and “snacks” that really amounted to a full buffet. My talk was done, my binoculars were safe in the room, and I could now relax, which D. and I did in the company of Kelly B. Rod filled his ear with a stream of whiskey-fueled semi-nonsense about the current state of amateur astronomy. Oh, if only Little Rod could only have listened-in; here was his future self at an ALCON shooting the breeze with a Sky and Telescope Editor!

Dorothy and I did not over-do on the afternoon hors d'oeuvres, since we wanted to get out of the hotel for supper, even if we didn’t go far. Just a mile or two from the Embassy Suites we spotted what looked like and turned out to be a very good Mexican restaurant. We had a great time with the food—and the margaritas. One of my few regrets about this trip was that we did not get out and see more of Nashville. Other than the trip to Dyer and this visit to an eatery, we spent all our time in the hotel. Silly ol’ Unk was just amateur astronomy crazy and could not be pulled away from THE CONVENTION.

Just because I was at the hotel all day and night, don’t mean I was in the hotel all day and night—or night anyway. What’s an amateur gathering without a star party? Yeah, we’d seen a little at Dyer Observatory, but we wanted more, especially those of us who’d bought new toys—like Unk’s binoculars. The ALCON organizers arranged to hold an impromptu observing run in the hotel parking lot Friday night. The light pollution would probably be bad, but at least I’d get to try my binocs, YEEHAW!

After the last session of the day ended at 10 p.m., we adjourned to the parking lot for some informal observing. With Nashville and the Nashville airport close at hand the sky wasn’t anything to write home about, but we had fun anyway. The kind hotel staff had turned off the parking lot lights, and that helped a surprising amount. My new binoculars worked great, and I was amazed by what we could see with the scopes a couple of vendors set up, but what took the cake was Lonnie Puterbaugh’s Stellacam.

Lonnie’s camera, which I believe was the (then) new Stellacam II, was hooked to his LX200 10-inch and literally blew us away with what it pulled out of the nasty skies. Not only was there plenty of light pollution, there was a full Moon in the sky. Nevertheless, the video camera didn’t just show the Omega/Swan Nebula, it pulled in scads of nebulous wisps all over the field. M13, M22, M51, M81, M82, all were astonishingly detailed despite the conditions. Then and there I promised myself, “I am gonna get me one of them things.”

Saturday was good and bad. Good in that there were many more excellent talks; especially, Kelly’s “Where Have All the Young Astronomers Gone?” Wish you’d been there. The only bad was that as late afternoon came on there was no denying the CON was winding down. There was only one big event to go. Following yet more drinks and hors d'oeuvres, there was the annual AL Banquet.

Not only was the food amazingly good for hotel convention fare, the banquet’s keynote speaker, Martin Weisskopf from the Chandra X-ray Observatory program, gave an exciting talk about the newest of NASA’s Great Observatories. There was more, of course, including the AL’s yearly Young Astronomer Award and a door prize give-a-way (as usual Unk didn’t win a blessed thing), but Dr. Weisskopf’s talk put the perfect cap on ALCON 2003.

I couldn’t help being sad as we filed out of the hall. It had been a wonderful and intense week, one for the books. Even now I occasionally find myself recalling with amazement: “I spoke at an ALCON!” Would I go back? Sure, I would, whether as a speaker or a listener. Danged right I would; even though I haven’t. The CONs over the last eight years have all had one of two things, and sometimes both, in common: too far away, interfere with work. Even if I never get to another ALCON, that’s OK. My long-held dream was fulfilled, and I know how lucky I am to have had that happen, muchachos.

Odds and Ends: I have often said amateur astronomers are the nicest people on this planet and that the readers of this here blog are the nicest OF the nice. That was brought home to me the other day. When I arrived home from the salt mines, I noticed a package from Amazon had dropped through the Chaos Manor South mail slot. Inside was a copy of Dean Ing’s Pulling Through, a book I mentioned in the blog entry about the Rose City Astronomers. I’d been searching fruitlessly for this book for a while and had just about given up on finding a reasonably priced copy. Obviously, one of you very nice people (I couldn’t find a name or address on the package) thought of me. All I can say is THANK YOU! You guys are the best.

Next time: Old Betsy Rides Again...

2023 Update

And that was it for me and ALCONs, muchachos. While we enjoyed ourselves in Nashville, there's never been one close enough to us again for us to contemplate attending. It was a good enough time, but not good enough to be a major, costly vacation. 

Oh, I was asked to be a speaker at a fairly recent one in Washington DC. 'Twas quite the no-go. It wasn't just they wanted me to speak but would not pay a dime of my travel expenses, it was that the slot I was offered was, again,  on fricking Thursday morning. I felt rather disrespected. By this time, 2016, I was not the biggest fish in the astro-game, but  I was far from the smallest, either. I told them in a polite way (reasonably) that they could stick their "offer" where the Sun don't shine, and that rung down the curtain for me and Astronomical League Conventions, I believe. So be it. 

Saturday, February 11, 2012


The Herschel Project Nights 29 and 30

The first night of my latest Herschel expedition at the Chiefland Astronomy Village, Night 28, was a rollicking success, muchachos. Despite me still being on the weary side in the wake of my quick trip to Portland, Oregon and back, I managed to corral close to 150 new Herschel 2500 Big Enchilada objects. With the weather the way it had been for the last several months, though, Unk was not about to rest on his laurels. I’d have to hit it hard on the second night, Friday night, as well.

Thursday evening’s skies had been just short of spectacular. Occasionally a little drifting haze, and fairly humid conditions, but far better than “good enough.” Alas, the weather turkeys were promising clouds, maybe as soon as midnight Friday, with Saturday evening supposedly being a wash or close to it.

I tried to sleep as late as I could Friday morning to recharge the old batteries, but there is a limit to how late I can go no matter how sleep deprived I am. Folks, your poor old Unk gets up at 4:30 in the cotton picking a.m. every single weekday morning to get to the shipyard on time, which means that even on weekends and vacations I have an awful hard time sleeping much past about 0730. I tried my best, but was up and heading for the lobby and a Day’s Inn breakfast well before 0900.

What did I find in the lobby? The usual miniature bagels, semi-tired pastries, cold cereal, and small muffins. But that wasn’t all. As I mentioned in the last Herschel Report, WAFFLES had been added to the menu. I filled the iron with waffle mix, rotated it to start it cooking, and hoped for the best; I haven’t had a lot of luck with these deals in the past. Surprise! My waffle came out perfectly cooked and I was able to get it from the iron to my plate without destroying it. Several pats of butter and about a gallon of Log Cabin Syrup, and I was one happy camper. If only there had been bacon to go with it.

Even after taking a leisurely long time to finish our morning ablutions, Miss Dorothy and I had a whole lot of day before us. How would we occupy the hours till sundown? First, with a return trip to Wally-World. Difficult as it might be to believe, I’d forgot the most critical item on my list when we’d hit the Chiefland Wal-Mart Thursday evening: Monster Energy Drinks. As I have often said, Monsters are the best astronomy accessory I’ve discovered in a long, long time. They can keep me going as late as 3 a.m., which old Unk now considers an “all nighter.” I just have to remember to stop drinking ‘em before I start trembling like a freaking Chihuahua. Usually one early on and maybe one more ‘round midnight is enough.

Friday was the day for me and D’s traditional trip to Duma Key, a.k.a. Cedar Key. As you know if you’ve been reading this here blog for a while, Cedar Key is a now-touristy little fishing village on one of the Florida West Coast’s forgotten keys. It’s got plenty of semi-tacky bars and nightlife and gift shops, and it is fun. We always find a new restaurant or bar to try.

This time it was Steamer’s Clam Bar and Grill, just down the wharf from The Black Dog (home of the Flirtini). It was obvious from the look of the place that Steamer’s doesn’t start rocking till the wee hours, but there were a few folks in for an early lunch, nevertheless. And it was soon obvious why. Our food was some of the best we’ve had in Cedar Key. Unk, for some inexplicable reason, chose a barbeque pork sandwich instead of seafood. But I was glad I did. The rum-laced BBQ sauce was insane. Miss Dorothy opted for the crab bisque and pronounced it some of the best she’d ever had anywhere. It being rather early in the day, Unk went for Coors Light drafts instead of his usual Duma Key beverage of choice, Corona, but that was OK, too.

Lunch done, we strolled about the shops. Prime mission was getting a gift for Miss Lizbeth, who was kind enough to drop by Chaos Manor South during our extended absence and feed the cats—a critically important task according to them. Meow Mix in a self-feeder just don’t get it, they say. In addition to a little something for Lizbeth, I picked up a Cedar Key shot glass to add to my substantial collection, and, very importantly, a cigarette lighter so I could light my Black Cat catalytic header.

There were lots of hours left in the day when we set out for The Key, but they’d almost magically disappeared by the time our visit was done. When we got back to the motel, Friday was on the downhill slope of afternoon. I messed around the room for a little while, read my book, Mike Hoskin’s Discoverers of the Universe, which I mentioned last time and hope to review for y'all soon, tried to take a nap, and, when I just couldn’t stand it no more, headed out to the CAV to get ready.

On the second night of our Chiefland run there really wasn’t much to get ready: set up the netbook; hook up the computer, scope, and Mallincam Xtreme cables; and remove Big Bertha’s time-tested Desert Storm Cover. In other words, I really didn’t need to be there at 4:30, but the hour or so of daylight remaining gave me time to visit with my buddies, and especially old friend Tom Clark.

“Tom Clark” is a name that ought to be familiar to all regular readers of the Little Old Blog from Chaos manor South. Mr. Clark and wife Jeannie are two of the nation’s leading amateur astronomers. In addition to their other endeavors, they are among the founding members of the Chiefland Astronomy Village, and ever since I began observing Down Chiefland Way I’ve been setting up on Tom and Jeannie’s spread. In the beginning, at the huge Chiefland Star Parties and Chiefland Spring Picnics, and, in these latter days, for our little group’s, the Chiefland Observers’, monthly dark of the Moon sessions. In other words, without Tom and Jeannie’s hospitality and generosity, there likely wouldn’t have been a Chiefland for me.

As I am sometimes wont to say, though, “all good things (must come to an end).” I knew the Clarks had been considering a move way out west, to a desert analogue of the CAV, the up-and-coming New Mexico Astronomy Village. And I was happy for them. Who wouldn’t want to observe under black desert skies every night? Still, I couldn’t help hoping that would be “some day.” So I was a mite taken aback when Mr. Clark motored up on his golf cart and announced that he and Jeannie and The Beast (their gigantanormous Dobsonian) would be leaving the CAV for good in just a month or three.

There is no doubt I will very much miss hanging out with and observing with the Clarks—something I’ve done far too little of since beginning The Herschel Project, I reckon. But, yeah, all good things. I hope we will be able to continue to observe at the CAV, either with the permission of the new owner of the Clarks’ property, or on the “Nova Sedus” field. The folks who do the “new” Chiefland Star Party host monthly observing on their land as well, and from my experience each and every one of them is as nice as nice can be.

Truth be told, and I hope this don’t shock y’all, me and D’s remaining time at the CAV is likely limited, anyhow. Miss Dorothy retired from the university a while back, and while Unk ain’t ready to give up his day job just yet his remaining tenure will probably be just a few more years. Bottom line? We have decided to retire to the Atlanta area, and will make the switch to the Deerlick Astronomy Village when we do, I reckon. Y’all know me, I do so hate change, but change happens whether I want it to or not, and I’ve had a whole decade of fun at the CAV thanks to the Clarks.

Tom and his ever present golf cart.
That was the future, though; there was still the present. Which was shaping up to be another spectacular evening of deep sky observing. There’d been a few drifting patches of high clouds at sundown, and a line of something to the north and east, but as the stars winked on, all that disappeared and the winter Milky Way began to burn. It was not as good as Thursday night—the humidity was spiking up—but at least it wasn’t as cold.

Time to get the good, old NexStar 11 GPS aligned. Which wasn’t so easy this time. Maybe Bertha was paying me back for the mistakes I made during her alignment Thursday night, but when I fired her up this evening it was clear she wasn’t in the mood to cooperate. She chose radically different alignment stars this time. The first star Friday night, she said, would be Sirius, which I thought might be a wee bit low in the east. But it got worse. Instead heading east for Sirius, Bertha pointed to the south-southwest. What the hey?

Bertha has been known to do some strange stuff on occasion, but this was strange even for her. The why? I dunno. Bad GPS fix? The presence of Tom’s nearby golf cart confused her electronic compass? Glitch in the field AC I was running her on? I suppose it could have been any one of those things. Course, Unk being the superstitious type he is—when telescopes are concerned—he had a pretty good idea of the cause of the problem.

As I told y’all last Herschel Report, when I was getting Bertha (in her case) down the front steps of the old manse, I banged my poor knee in rather painful fashion. After I’d recovered and we were on the road, I fessed up to Miss D. that I’d dang near done myself a serious injury. I further went on to say that I had concluded that sooner or later I would have to defork the C11 and put her on a Losmandy G11. I’m a-guessing Bertha overheard me and began plotting revenge.

I cycled the power, lit Bertha off again, and restarted the alignment with NexRemote. This time, she imitated an insane merry-go-round, trying to flip over backwards in search of level. Sigh. Big Switch again. Third time was the charm. I exercised B’s altitude limit switch, and started over. This time she cooperated, going to Capella and Aldebaran, and behaving for the rest of the evening, not missing a single go-to.

What was on the agenda Friday? More H2500s, of course. After finishing the H400 the previous night, and having been done with the Herschel II for a while, there was nowhere else to go. Well, almost nowhere. After all the alarms and excursions, I decided to treat myself to a pretty one first. It was dark, full dark, by now and M82 was high enough to bother with. We went there. That wonderful galaxy, which Miss Lizbeth used to call “The Exploding Cigar Galaxy” when she was little, was looking mighty fine with 15 seconds of exposure. On a whim, I cranked the Xtreme up to nearly a minute.

I am so glad I did. When the first exposure came in, I was blown away. It wasn’t the dust lanes or the nearly spindle-shaped disk, it was what was coming out of the center of M82 that killed me. I told Dorothy that the thing looked like a fried pie (something we eat down here) that had been stepped on. Cherry filling was squirting out the middle. That filling, of course, was the stellar wind-blown matter from the center of the galaxy. I’ve often seen that in long-exposure CCD images, but I never dreamed of eyeballing it in (near) real time. The single frame screen grab here only hints at what I saw. When I was finally able to tear myself away, nearby M81, Bode’s Nebula, was similarly astounding, with its delicate and difficult arms as easy as I’ve ever seen ‘em. The color, as on M82, was astoundingly good.

After luxuriating in the beauty of the Messiers for quite a while, it was back to work with the H2500 as I soldiered on through Ursa Major. Most of those done, I went to Cancer. Yes, the majority of the Crab’s island universes are small and delicate and dim, but there are some pretty ones too, including a few set among the hard stars of the Beehive Cluster, M44.

On I went, ticking off one galaxy after another—with the exception of a couple of fugitive open clusters, all tonight’s aitches were galaxies—on SkyTools and slewing to the inevitable nextun. Which I kept up till it was getting on toward midnight. I took a break then and moseyed over to the clubhouse for a bathroom pit-stop, my second and last Monster of the night, and a drink of water. As I tell any amateur who will listen, water is almost as instrumental in keeping me awake as a Monster or a cup o’ coffee. When I begin to get tired, often the reason is that I am dehydrated, and chugging a bottle of H20 is all I need to do to put me right again.

Back on my starship bridge (under my Coleman tailgating canopy, that is), I munched that food of the gods, Jack Links Flaming Buffalo Nuggets, and contemplated my next move. Which depended on the sky. I stuck my head out from under the canopy, took a look, and didn’t like what I was seeing. Most of it was good, very good, still, but off to the southwest I could see bad stuff on the way. Not real bad stuff, but stuff that would wreck my run. Jupiter, sinking in the southwest, had suddenly developed a halo. If I was gonna get even one more object, I had better get Bertha pointed at it right away.

What should that deep sky object be? Hmm…seemed as I had not yet ticked IC434/B33, the Horsehead Nebula, off the Big Enchilada list. It was still in the clear, and that’s where I went. I needed it, yeah, but mostly I wanted to see what the Mallincam Xtreme would do with it from a dark sky.

CAV Clubhouse
I upped the camera’s exposure to 56-seconds and let fly. When the image came in, I was even more impressed than I had been with M82. IC434 was blood red, the nearby reflection nebula, NGC 2023, was an icy blue, and the Horse herself was a thing of wonder. It was something about the contrast, the details in that patch of dust, and the color of B33 that made this the best look I have ever had at this legendary nebula. My quick snapshot of the monitor screen with my Fujifilm digicam can’t even begin to capture what I saw or engender the feelings the Horse stirred in me that night. I am not exaggerating, muchachos. That good.

I’m glad I sent Bertha to B33; that meant I ended on a high note. By the time I’d had a good look at Her Horsiness, the clouds/haze in the west had expanded to cover most of the sky. Over the next half hour, the clouds would come and they would go, but even the sucker holes that drifted through weren’t totally clear. Looked to this old boy like it was Big Switch time again.

It wasn’t even one in the fracking a.m. yet, and I still felt raring to go, but there was nothing for it. I began the half-hour job of putting Big Bertha and the rest of the gear to bed. No, I wasn’t ready to quit, but I’d got plenty, if not as much as I hoped, done. On Friday night I logged close to seventy-five new Herschels, putting my two day take at over two-hundred. Normally, if my total is anything over one-hundred objects for an entire CAV trip, I feel I’ve been highly successful, and this time there one still one more evening to go (maybe).

Back at the Day’s Inn, I wasn’t close to sleepy yet. A tour through the Cloudy Nights bulletin boards didn’t help, so out came the Rebel Yell bottle and to the Travel Channel for some Ghost Adventures went Unk. I drifted off watching Zak and his friends, Nick and Aaron, explore a spooky—to put it mildly—insane asylum.

Next morning? The most notable thing was that I resisted the temptation to gobble yet another enormous waffle. I let it be with a bagel and a cup of coffee. Breakfast done, it was time to plan our daytime activities. Having an extra day at Chiefland was cool, since we’d get a chance to do something a little different without sacrificing out usual must-dos like Duma Key. This afternoon we hoped to see some of Chiefland’s famous manatees at play at nearby Manatee Springs State Park.

As many times as I’d been down to CAV, I had never visited the park. The closest I’d come was the time me and my long-time observing companion, Pat, had stayed at the Manatee Springs Motel (a.k.a. “The Pregnant Guppy Motel”), and it is situated right on Highway 19 and has nothing at all to do with manatees or the state park. Miss D. and I decided to correct that omission, and headed off for Manatee Springs.

I had no idea what to expect. If I expected anything, it was “small and simple.” Probably, I figured, nothing more than a few picnic tables positioned along the river. At least I now knew the park is on the Suwannee River; in the past I’d always pictured it as being along the Gulf somewhere, which shows how little I knew about Manatee Springs State Park to say nothing of manatees.

After a journey of just a few miles, Dorothy and I paid our six dollars at the ranger shack and drove into the park. I was amazed. Far from just a spot in the road, Manatee Springs is a pretty and well-developed Florida State Park in the old mold, with, yes, picnic tables under moss-heavy trees, but also with a large concession/bathroom/bathhouse building, numerous well-marked trails, and a cool boardwalk that extends along the park’s inlet from the Suwannee and out to the river itself.

Dorothy and I tried, but no matter how hard we looked along that inlet or in the Suwannee (which is a wider and more impressive river than you may imagine), nary a manatee did we spot despite January being prime manatee watching time. We did see lots of squirrels and birds, and could only imagine how beautiful this off-the-beaten-path park must be in the spring. We will be back, that’s for dang sure.

By the time we’d left the Manatee Springs’ shady quiet behind, it was getting on toward lunch. I wondered if we should try a different restaurant this afternoon. Maybe Deke’s steakhouse, which I’d been to once in the days before Miss Dorothy began accompanying me on my Herschel expeditions. Or a new place down the road a piece that was reputed to be super-good, the 1998 Grill.

I liked the grub at Deke’s, for sure, but my suggestion was half-hearted and Miss D. knew it. I wanted more barbeque at Bill’s, natch. I did vary my diet a wee bit at least, opting for the pork plate instead of the beef plate. I don’t know what it was, but this was absolutely the best food I have ever had at this legendary barbeque joint. Miss Dorothy allowed as how the Brunswick stew she chose was almost as good as what we’d got at Georgia’s famed Fresh Air Barbeque one time when we visited the Georgia Sky View star party.

A little resting at the motel done, and I was standing on the field at the CAV for the final night of my Herschel Adventure, hanging out and schmoozing with my fellow Chiefland Observers one last time. For this trip, if not forever. It was funny: I wanted it to get dark, and yet didn’t. I didn’t want to let go of this moment. Which was not enough to stop old Sol from sinking, of course. I fired up Bertha, who for once aligned without a complaint or hitch.

What did I look at? I’d decided given the hazy conditions, which appeared to be tending to the worse, I’d settle for the 200+ Herschel 2500s I already had in the bag. I would not exactly desert the H-project this evening, but I would forget the faint fuzzies. I’d run the list I’d made of the “best of the 2500,” the more spectacular of the Big Enchilada’s holdings, that I wanted detailed images of, maybe for use in a book.

Manatee Springs State Park
It was a trip seeing the best of the best in detailed color with the Mallincam Xtreme. I liked everything I imaged Saturday, but one object stood out. Big time. A lot of y’all don’t pay much attention to the little constellation Fornax the furnace. He’s small and he’s kinda far to the south, but he is literally packed with wonders—if’n you like galaxies.

In addition to the countless smudges of the Fornax Cluster, there is a galaxy that for me is the archetype of the barred spiral. NGC 1097 is a spectacle; its huge bar and far-flung arms seem alive with motion. I’d been amazed by it with the Stellacam II year before last, but this time, with the Xtreme cranking out long exposures, I felt as if I’d been punched in the gut. Its remote and unearthly beauty literally tugged at my heartstrings.

Enough of that poetic nonsense, y’all. What was the night’s outcome? The final tally? I did twenty of my best-of objects between cloudy stretches, and took a philosophical and not poetical look at the CAV sky at about 11 p.m. Conditions were not that bad, but were not that good, either, and the sky appeared to degrading further. It certainly didn’t look clear enough for me to attack the faintest of Coma’s rising horde. And there would be packing and the drive home to Possum Swamp the next morning. And it had been one hell of a week.

Shortly after 11 p.m. I told my fellow Chiefland Observers I was going to sacrifice myself. I knew good and well that if I pulled that consarned Big Switch, the heavens would magically open back up just as soon as I hit Highway 19. I secured the NS11, packed the computer, put the Xtreme and a few other things in their cases to speed the packing process the next morning, and said some goodbyes. I received assurances from my mates that observing will continue as it always has down CAV Way, and I sure hope they are right.

Good, old Bertha.
Snug in the motel room, I turned on the cable, which was, sure enough, showing yet another marathon of those koo-koo Ghost Adventures. Lingering over my whiskey, I didn’t pay much attention to the boob tube, though. I was a little blue. With the Clarks leaving and the inevitable changes that would bring, I couldn’t help but feel I’d closed the book on ten solid years of wonderful observing. Dwelling on such things, I finally drifted off to sleep.

Next morning we grabbed a quick bite, checked out of the old motel, and headed to the site. Sure enough, Tom said, as I’d expected he would, that just as soon as I left the sky had got mucho beautiful. Well, so it goes, as it always does. One last round of see-yas, and, truck loaded, it was off to The Florida - Georgia Parkway and on to I-10. I still felt a little melancholy, but that was moderated by the knowledge that I’d put another big group of H-2500s away, and that it had been a wonderful Chiefland run in the company of my wonderful wife. I hoped, and hope very much that I will be back on the Old Field this summer for more of my Herschel Adventures.

Next Time: My Favorite Star Parties, ALCON 2003…

Sunday, February 05, 2012


Everything’s Coming Up Roses…

In The Rose City, Portland, Oregon, that is. “What are you talking about, Unk?” I am talking about my recent visit with Portland’s Rose City Astronomers astronomy club. I never did figure out why Portland is called “The Rose City,” but I did find out it is a beautiful and progressive place, and that it has one heck of a good astronomy club filled with the nicest astronomers you can imagine.

It all began late last summer, I reckon, when Chaos Manor South’s kitchen workstation computer blooped the bleep that means Outlook has received a new email message. I halted my progress toward the Rebel Yell locker and had a look. It was from a dude named Mark Martin, and the gist of it was that he and his colleagues in the Rose City Astronomers, the RCA, were inviting me up to give a presentation for ‘em. Well doggies…

I was not unfamiliar with the RCA, having read several issues of their excellent newsletter the last time I was on a classic telescope jag. One of their members had written a series of outstanding articles on 1960s Tasco telescopes, those good Tascos. I still wasn’t sure where Rose City was, though, and before I told Mark “yes,” I figgered I’d at least better determine that.

A quick Google said “Portland, Oregon.” Hmmm... I’d enjoyed my last trip to the Pacific Northwest in 2006 to speak at Anacortes Telescope and Wild Bird’s Astro-expo near Seattle, Washington. I’d had a great time, in fact, but, like Seattle, Portland is long, long ways away, and I was now busier at work than I have been in years and years. So, I’m afraid I strung Mark and company along for a while, till I decided: “Everybody else takes a vacation, why shouldn’t I? I NEVER take off!” The shipyard and my beloved NAVSSI would just have to get along without me for a stinking week.

Once I’d made up my mind the trip was a go, Mark and I set things up. I’d fly into Portland on Sunday, give my talk Monday, and fly out on Tuesday. Why would I take a week off from work, then? I’d already decided the Portland jaunt would be immediately followed by five days at the Chiefland Astronomy Village. I’d fly home, load up the 4Runner, and head south early Wednesday morning. Miss Dorothy was a little skeptical, worrying that I’d be too tired after enduring the monumental trip from The Swamp to Oregon and back, but my mind, such as it is, was indeed made up.

Quite a step up from the Chiefland Days Inn.
Resolved to go, the only thing left to do was get the Chiefland gear down to the front parlor so I could load the truck post haste Tuesday evening when I returned home. I didn’t want any surprises when we got down to CAV, and since I’d be awful weary Tuesday night, I triple checked the equipment, running it by my latest iteration of my gear checklist, but not relying on just that. I went over everything I knew I’d need in my head, and made sure that was there no matter what the checklist said.

One of the headaches associated with traveling by air from Possum Swamp is that your options are limited. There are few flights out of here, and you have to take what you can take in order to make the connections for your eventual destination. There are no direct flights to distant locations, you see. You will stop-off in Atlanta or Dallas-Fort Worth or Houston or Memphis. Bottom line was that I’d have to get up at 3:30 in the fracking a.m. to make my 6 a.m. flight out of the Swamp to DFW so I could catch a plane to Portland. Dang.

I was up at oh-dark-thirty Sunday morning, kissed Miss D. goodbye, and headed off to Possum Swamp Regional for my flight on American. Thankfully, for once my flight was on time and I drowsed my way to DFW aboard an American Airlines mini-jet. American Airlines? They deserve notice for one thing and one thing only: they are in this old boy’s opinion the legitimate heirs of Aeroflot, the notorious Soviet airline. I just heard on CNN that they have declared bankruptcy, and all I can say is, “they deserve it.”

Their personnel on the ground and in the air were abrupt to the point of rudeness, their planes incredibly cramped, and the most basic amenities non-existent. Just as the smell of breakfast wafted out of First Class and into the cabin, the flight attendants announced we galley slaves would be allowed to PURCHASE bags of peanuts. For four dollars a pop. Sheesh! Give me the days of Pan Am’s Champagne Clipper flights to the west coast.

After a fairly brief layover in Dallas, I was shoehorned into a sardine can of an overloaded jet with my fellow sufferers and delivered to the pretty city of Portland, Oregon. Flying in over the mighty Columbia River, my impression, which was to remain with me throughout my stay, was “Nice, real nice. Like Seattle, just a wee bit smaller.”

I gathered up my netbook and camera and eventually managed to get off the consarned plane, which was equipped with five rows of seats in a cabin that should have accommodated four. Free at last, I was impressed by Portland’s uber clean and modern airport. Not too small, not too large. I liked it and prefer it to Seattle’s humongous Sea-Tac, which is actually a nice one, too. Naturally, after I deplaned I headed off in precisely the opposite direction of baggage claim, and missed Mark who was waiting for me at the gate.

I got my bag, which didn’t look too much the worse for wear despite the best efforts of American, and hooked up with Mark via cell phone. Soon I was meeting him, his lovely wife, Dawn, and their cute little daughter. It was a little chilly, so I was thankful the whole walk from the terminal to the parking garage was under cover. Mark and Dawn told me it was indeed colder than normal for Portland, down in the 30s, and that snow flurries were predicted, though the flakes were not falling at the moment. I just hoped the cotton picking weather wouldn’t wreck my presentation or the flight home Tuesday.

A few pleasant minutes on the Interstate, with me scoping out and admiring the lay of the land, and we were in downtown Portland, on the main drag, Broadway, where my hotel, The Heathman, was situated. While the hostelry was relatively small, it was upscale to the max, and I was greeted by a very attentive staff. The nice lady manning the desk said “We will take care of you,” and that summed up this excellent hotel’s attitude and attention to detail. I told Mark and Dawn I’d be fine on my own till supper, when they planned to take me out to an Italian restaurant, they said. I’d just go up to my room and get a little r-e-s-t. Despite the clock claiming it was barely afternoon, I was all in—I’d lost two hours crossing time zones.

My room was danged cool. Elegant even. Unk ain’t exactly an elegant kinda guy; he’s more a Day’s Inn type than a Plaza Suite type, but I do appreciate gracious service and amenities after a punishing trip. I pulled on the Heathman terrycloth robe, slipped on the slippers, turned on the LED TV, opened the bottle of wine that had been sent up, and let the tender ministrations of the dadgum airline melt into the past.

Mindful of what Mark and Dawn had told me about snow, I flipped on The Weather Channel. Rut-roh. Who should I see there but storm crow Jim Cantore, who was broadcasting from nearby Seattle. According to him, the theme for the next several days would be “bad to worse,” with snow predicted for Portland on Sunday, Monday and Tuesday. I peeped out the window, but nary a flake did I see. With several hours still to go before supper, I thought I’d get out and see a little of downtown Portland before the white stuff began to fall, if it did begin to fall. I love The Weather Channel, but at times they seem a mite prone to exaggeration if’n you ask me.

I hit the streets, and I liked what I saw even if I didn’t get far. Lots of panhandlers, but also an abundance of friendly folks. The drivers were scrupulously, almost absurdly, polite to pedestrians and cyclists, and the shopkeepers were as friendly as could be. I got a bite and a cuppa at the nearby Starbucks, and, warmed up a little, trotted back toward the hotel. I was particularly impressed by the old, restored Portland Theatre next door to the Heathman. This venue, now officially known as “The Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall,” was hosting the Oregon Symphony with guest artist Joshua Bell.

I would have liked to have strolled around Portland’s upscale/historic downtown a bit more, but too soon was driven inside by intermittent cold rain and, yes, flurries of big, wet, nasty snowflakes. Snug back in my room, I turned on TWC again, and, with the dire predictions of Local on the Eights in the background, drifted off to sleep for a couple of hours.

By seven o’clock I had revived, and was happy to accompany Mark and Dawn on a road-trip to one of Portland’s restaurant/entertainment districts, to a splendid Italian restaurant, Ciao Vito. The company, some of Mark and Dawn’s fellow RCA members, was great, the pork polenta delicious, and the Oregon wine surprisingly good. Honestly, y’all, I didn’t even know they made wine in Oregon—I woulda thought it would be too damp—but they do, and it is pretty impressive. Your old Uncle ain’t exactly a wine connoisseur, but the bottle I shared with my new friends tasted awful good. We had a lot of laughs, but by the time the festivities broke up a little before ten I was ready for some extended shuteye.

Next morning, but not early the next morning, I was up with the intention of exploring more of downtown Portland. I’d be on my own until seven p.m., when Mark would pick me up for the journey to the RCA meeting. I especially wanted to see that Mecca for bibliophiles, Powell’s books. I had heard of the place before, and knew it is one of the largest brick and mortar bookstores left in the country, but that did not prepare me for the reality of Powell’s.

While I could have called a cab, I reckon, a glance at a Google map on my trusty Asus netbook revealed Powell’s was “only” ten or twelve blocks from the hotel, and I figured that as long as the weather held, that would be doable. I stopped off at Subway for a quick sandwich, picked up another mega-coffee from Starbucks’ (Unk had managed to halfway figure out the French press in the room, but only halfway) and set out.

It’s not too hard to find your way around in downtown Portland. For the most part, it’s laid out in a grid pattern, and I got to Powell’s without too much head scratching and wrong turns. There it was: a freaking city block of books. No fooling; the bookstore’s enormous building does indeed cover a full block. Even that is not enough, with them having had to expand out to a nearby satellite store.

I hit the science fiction stacks, and was in heaven. They had more than I have ever seen in any non-virtual bookstore. Not just the new stuff, either, but the older stuff and even the out of print stuff. They don’t have everything, though; Unk was stymied in his efforts to replace his lost copy of Dean Ing’s post-apocalytic novel, Pulling Through, but, yeah, they have a lot. I settled on one of my favorite SF books from the 1970s, Piers Anthony’s Macroscope, which is inexplicably out of print and has been for a long while. Downchecks for Powell’s? They have many older, used books, which is cool, but they charge nearly new prices for them. Oh, well.

Powell's Books.
‘Course I couldn’t leave Powell’s without a stroll through the astronomy section. The math, science, computer, and engineering books were in the building across the street, so that’s where I headed next. The selection of astronomy tomes was good, but hardly great, not nearly as extensive as their science fiction holdings. Not even close. One thing did catch my eye: the entire set of The Webb Society’s Deep Sky Observing Handbooks. My first thought? “Buy ‘em all, Rod! Who cares much they cost?” I snatched up Clusters of Galaxies. Sadly, a minute or two of browsing and I put the book back on the shelf. The Webb handbooks are still pretty good books, but with SkyTools 3, N.E.D, Simbad, and Aladin at my beck and call these days, I would just never use ‘em.

While Portland ain’t that hard to navigate, poor Unk got turned around coming out of the bookstore and was lost for half an hour. I tried bringing up a GPS enabled map on my phone, but it could not get a cotton-picking fix. Then and there I resolved to turn my dumb-phone in for a smart-phone, like an iPhone 4s with Siri, “Siri, take me back to the hotel.” As it was, I did things the old-fashioned way; I asked a couple of nice young women running a shop for directions.

By the time I got back to the Heathman, I was foot sore and wet. The rain-mixed-with-snow had begun again. Went straight up to my room and collapsed for a couple of hours. Tried to start Macroscope, but my derned eyes kept a-closing. I basically zoned out until it was time to get ready to go to the RCA gig.

Mark was down in the lobby at the appointed time, and off we headed for the Rose City Astronomers’ meeting place, the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry (OMSI) planetarium, the Kendall Planetarium. I gotta tell y’all, I was impressed from the get go. How could I not be? The Kendall is starkly beautiful in an industrial-design sort of way, sitting not far from the banks of the Columbia. It had been a long time since I’d been to a major planetarium, and this was clearly one of those.

Portland’s planetarium has been around for quite a while, since the fifties as a matter of fact, when it started with a venerable Spitz Model A projector. This was a modest start for the first planetarium in the Pacific Northwest, but The Kendall didn’t stay modest long. Shortly, they moved up to a Goto projector in a 32-foot dome. By the 80s, that was replaced with a 52-foot dome. As the 90s dawned, really big changes were afoot as they, like many planetariums, shifted to digital projection; in their case the Evans and Sutherland Digistar system. Today, the beautiful facility is equipped with the Digistar III, the latest and the greatest.

I know a little about current planetarium technology, I suppose, but I was still shocked when Mark and I walked into the lobby and I peered through the open doors of the dome (where the Junior/Novice section of the RCA was having its meeting before the meeting). There was no “dumbbell” in the middle of the floor. All the projectors are out of sight in a cove area around the periphery of the dome. I’m sure it works very well, but… I gotta say, give me a vintage Zeiss any time. I’ve enjoyed looking at those projectors and their wondrous control consoles as much as I have the planetarium shows generated with them.

The Rose City Astronomers is a large club as I judge such things. Down here, it’s a good meeting if the Possum Swamp Astronomical Society has 15 members in attendance. The RCA? They probably had that many folks manning the tables where they sold books and t-shirts and other astro-gear before the meeting (great idea). They were even kind enough to sell my humble works. Thanks guys, I need all the help I can get!

After a bit of chit-chat in the lobby, where I met tons of awful nice folks whose names I wish I could remember—y’all know me—it was meeting time. The RCA usually holds it proceedings in the museum auditorium, but that was in use this evening, so the meeting would be in the planetarium dome. Which was cool by me. It was quite a trip to see my PowerPoint slides projected giant-size.

As for my presentation, “The Past, Present, and Future of the SCT,” I thought it went purty well. It really isn’t much of a challenge to do a good job with it, since I’ve been giving it for the last eight years, since ALCON 2003. I have updated it continuously in the intervening years, of course, but I know it well and can always do a credible job, even if conditions aren’t great. On this night, conditions were great. I was rested and ready and my audience was enthusiastic. Mark opined that their numbers were down a little due to the worsening weather, but you coulda fooled me, looking out over the sea of faces in the big dome. I had a ball.

It seemed like I’d only been talking for a few minutes, but over an hour had passed. I finished taking the last couple of a horde of questions, and adjourned to a table in the lobby where I signed copies of my books for my kind readers. That went on for a while, and, when I’d finished with the last person, the RCAers invited me out for after-meeting drinks. That was awful tempting, but I needed to be up by 6 a.m. for my flight to Dallas. It was back to the room, a couple of glasses of wine and a little TV to wind down, and night-night big time.

Despite not hitting the hay till well after 11, I was up and dressed early. The Weather Channel was making even more dire predictions for the Pacific Northwest Tuesday morning; the weather dude acted like he was about to have a litter of kittens on national TV over the CRITICAL SITUATION. But, looking out my window, I could see traffic was flowing and it was not snowing, so I felt pretty good—till my cell phone rang. I expected it to be Mark, but it was Miss Dorothy. In her (as usual) kind concern, she’d got up early and checked my flight’s status. The bad news was that it was delayed.

What to do? I headed down to the lobby, checked out, and waited for Mr. Mark, who, when he arrived, asked me what I wanted to do. I told him that in these situations I generally prefer just to go to the airport, get set, and wait things out. Which is what I did. Cleared security—where I had to be patted down because I’d forgot and left my wallet in my back pocket when I entered the scanner. Oh, well. Not a big deal, I reckon. After that semi-excitement, I adjourned to the Wendy’s stand where I had an OK sausage biscuit and a few of their barely edible tater-tots-cum-hashbrowns.

It had been snowing off and on during the drive to the airport, and it was snowing even harder by the time I got there, but jets were still coming and going. My flight, it turned out, was not delayed because of weather, but due to CR2 (Crew Rest) restrictions—they had flown in too late the previous evening to meet the FAA’s rest requirements by the time of our early morning flight. The delay was not overly long, but it meant I missed my connection in DFW. By a mere 15-minutes. Which meant I had to cool my heels for over four hours. What did I do? Strolled about the shops. Had some snacks. Sat down with Macroscope, which I’d nearly finished by the time I boarded the plane.

The flight back home was just as cramped as the flight out to DFW had been, and the American cabin personnel just as surly and uninterested in their passengers, but at least I was on my way. It would be well after 9 p.m. before I walked into the Old Manse, but I thought I’d load the truck up for Chiefland, anyway. That idea lasted until we were landing in Possum Swamp. I was tired. Weary. Exhausted, even. There was no way I was doing anything other than drinking some rather large portions of the ‘Yell, watching a little cable TV, and checking the insides of my eyelids for light leaks.

It is a long and arduous trip from The Swamp to the Pacific Northwest under the best of circumstances, and even though those circumstances were not the best this time, it had for sure been worth it. I had a wonderful time doing the gig, and I hope the RCA was as happy with me as I was with them. My thanks to all those wonderful folk up yonder and especially to Mark and his family for going to so much trouble to make me feel welcome.

Next Time: The Herschel Project Nights 29 and 30…

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