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…

Thanks for sharing your adventures Rod! They keep me going in spirit even when I don't get out on the field as much as I would like to, which has been very seldom this last year.

I just sold my beloved Nexstar 11 GPS due to financial troubles. I'm a cat fancier myself, but maybe after things get better i'll try a big dob like Betsy, see what all the fuss is about ;-)

Take care,
Robert H.
Great post! I hope you get around to finishing that "best and brightest" book someday, I'd love to see it.

One thing: "See this for my ruminations on collimation technique." Was there supposed to be a link in that sentence?
There was supposed to be a link...there is now...and _thanks_ for being observant!
Robert: Sorry you had to let-go your NS11. But the silver lining is that this is the heyday of inexpensive but very good Dobsonians! :-)
Great read. Thanks!
I've never seen a Sky Commander in person (haven't been to a star party in years). How often do you have re calibrate it during the course of the night?

Richard, I've _never_ had to recalibrate.
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