Sunday, April 29, 2012


My Favorite Star Parties: Deep South ‘95

Yeah, I promised y’all a report on The Herschel Project Night 33 for this Sunday, but that ain’t gonna happen, muchachos. Unremitting clouds were the order of the day—and night—last Saturday. So, what you-all do get is yet another trip down memory lane. A companion piece, sorta, for “My Best Girl,” which ran a couple of weeks back.

Like I said a while ago, sometimes you eat the bear and sometimes the bear eats you. In the three years I’d been attending the Deep South Regional Star Gaze, I’d got used to being Mr. Bear’s lunch. By which I mean I’d got used to the weather not fully cooperating for our down-home deep sky shindig. 1994 was especially bad. Heck, a tornado or one’s first cousin at least brushed the observing field Saturday afternoon.

Despite that tarnished record, I was looking forward to the 1995 edition of DSRSG. I’d had a great time in 1993 no matter what the sky did. 1994 had been even better, mainly because it was my new wife’s, Miss Dorothy’s, first star party. Other than her presence, I thought the ’94 event was on the ho-hum side, but that was not the way D. remembered it. She pronounced it “wonderful.”

As was par for the course in those days when Dorothy was still teaching, we got a kinda late start on Thursday on 19 October, the first day of DSRSG. But that was OK. The site of the do back then, Mississippi’s Perch Quin State Park, was only three hours away. After a stop for munchies at a Hardee's hamburger joint not far from McComb, we hit the little town at 3:15 and were rolling onto the observing field in the “group camp” area of the park not long after 3:30 p.m.

Then as now, me and D. were pretty hard core. We always saw to field set up before even thinking about checking out the accommodations. So, first order of bidness was getting the scope ready. Which scope? My Ultima C8, Celeste, which I’d bit the bullet and bought the previous spring.

Today, I laugh at how Me and D. thought field setup was “a lot of work” back then. Campers, it was nothing compared to what we—and most of you—put on the observing field at star parties now. No computers and cables, no multiple batteries, no DVD recorders, no CCD cameras. Just a simple wedge-mounted SCT, a rope-and-tarp picnic canopy, an ice chest, a lawn chair or two, and an observing (card) table  on which we placed a copy of Sky Atlas 2000 and a box of eyepieces.

We were happy to share our shade with everybody.
Set up done, I took time to catch my breath and turn a critical eye on sky and field. The sky was, frankly, looking not-so-hotsky. It was not socked in, mind you, but there were plenty of drifting clouds and more than a little haze.  It felt humid and it felt as if the humidity were spiking-up, never a good sign. I didn't think it would be raining anytime soon, but we'd passed through some showers on our way in, including a pretty good one at the Hardee's. We had hopes for DSRSG ’95 nevertheless. A cold front was due to move through on Friday, and I was hoping that would cleanse the skies. Alas, the remnants of Tropical Storm Roxanne were hanging-on in and around the Gulf and complicating the weather picture.

I didn’t worry: what would be, would be. As I have often said, I have never had a bad time at DSRSG or any star party rain or shine. While we were cooling off from field set up, I trotted around a bit, renewing my acquaintance with folks I didn’t see except once a year at Deep South, mostly members of New Orleans’ Pontchartrain Astronomical Society. There was good representation from the Auburn Astronomical Society, Mississippi’s Jackson club, and Pensacola’s EAAA, too. We even drew a few folks from the big cities of Birmingham and Atlanta. Local bunch? Our friends Ginny and Tony were already on the field and rarin’ to go, and we expected several other PSASers before all was said and done.

The field? 51 weeks a year, the DSRSG observing field was the group camp’s football field. There was a set of goalposts, anyway. The whole area, ringed by ever-growing pines, wasn’t much larger than a football field, but it was big enough to accommodate the <150 observers we usually hosted. It had been a wet summer, and the grass was green and verdant,  There’d also been enough rain of late to make the short dirt road at the entrance to the field soft and rutted.

We negotiated that without incident in the Camry and headed for the cabins. Ah, the PQ cabins! How I miss them. The Percy Quin cabins were as far from chickies as you can get, modern looking on the outside, and, if not quite as appealing on the inside (G.I. bunks), they were a dang sight better than what most of us were used to at star parties. Central air. Central heat. A large tiled bathroom. Yeah, they always stank of years of heavy applications of bug spray, but if we had to rough it, this was the way to rough it.

The Percy Quin Cabins...
Looking at the list of names on the door of the nominal Possum Swamp Astronomical Society cabin (the organizers tried to keep us all in the same place year after year), I found that star party Director extraordinaire Barry Simon had once again given me and Miss Dorothy the tiny but cozy “Counselors’ Room.” Unpacked, it was getting on to five and time to scare up some grub.

In all the years we were at Percy Quin, one thing remained constant: we dined at Mr. Whiskers (the home of all-you-can-eat catfish) on Thursday nights. Mr. Whiskers, which was only about a mile from the front gate of the park, gave us a source of hot food, since meal plans did not kick-in until supper Friday. This rustic but squeaky-clean restaurant served excellent catfish, hushpuppies, coleslaw and a few other sides. Alas, service was so slow I sometimes wondered if they had to go fishing before cooking, but that didn’t matter. Seated at big, long tables, gabbing with our fellow amateur astronomers, it always seemed like the food came out too soon.

When supper finally wrapped up, Sol was well into his descent and it was time to hit the field. I’d been watching the skies all afternoon, and by the time we left Mr. Whiskers I liked what I was seeing. Strangely, given Unk’s usual luck, the clouds that had hung-in all afternoon had packed up and left. There was still considerable haze, but it was not a showstopper. When darkness fell, the Summer Milky Way began glowing its heart out. Was the sky a perfect 10? Nope. The haze prevented that. As did the fairly prominent light-dome from McComb. That little burg was growing, no denying it, and that alone would henceforth prevent “perfect,” even in perfect weather.

Mr. Whiskers...
Like lots of my buddies, the first thing I looked for was the recently discovered Comet Hale-Bopp. We hoped it would eventually be good, real good, but of course had no idea just how good it would get. Comet pessimist Unk wondered whether “Hale-Bopp” would be spelled “K-A-H-O-U-T-E-K” before all was said and done.

I went straight to the place marked on my finder chart (generated with my fave program of the time, Deep Space 3D). And saw—absolutely nothing. Which was what I expected; in October ’95 our visitor was hanging low in the southwest, just above the spout of Sagittarius’ teapot. Not only was the comet low-down, he was glowing faintly at magnitude 11.

I reckon I wasn’t too surprised when our neighbor on the field, Russell Whigham, hollered that he’d “GOT IT!” Russell was and is an expert observer and was equipped with a C11, which I for sure considered a big gun in them days. My C8 didn’t have that kind of horsepower, but it did have fresh new StarBright optics, so I redoubled my squinting through the finder.

In almost no time, it seemed, I had the unmistakable faint fuzzy that was Bopp centered in my beloved 26mm Plössl. What was it like? Just, yeah, a faint fuzz-ball. I thought I detected elongation, and I noticed a slight greenish tint and occasional hints of a stellar-size nucleus, but no tail at all. I didn’t care; I was thrilled to get an early glimpse at the comet that maybe, just maybe, might become a Great Comet, the last of the Twentieth Century, I reckoned.

The Boppster wasn’t the only source of excitement on this fall night in 1995. The first confirmed extra-solar planet around a main sequence star had just been discovered circling the star 51 Pegasi. While we couldn’t dream of seeing the planet with our modest instruments—it is invisible even to the HST and the mighty Keck—everybody wanted a look at 51 Pegasi, an otherwise nondescript  magnitude six star on the western edge of the Great Square. 

The field Thursday afternoon...
What else did me and my buddies look at Thursday night? Lots of stuff. My favorite came right after The Boppster. M17, the Swan/Omega Nebula, was low, too, but something about the conditions early in the evening really made it stand out. The sky background seemed darker than it should have been, and the “neck” area was as prominent as I had ever seen it in an 8-inch scope.

Unk continued on till about midnight, but well before then it was obvious conditions were degrading. No M42—my traditional “last object" of the night at DSRSG.  By midnight, the clouds that were supposedly in advance of the cold front moved in and shut us down. That was OK, or as OK as getting partially skunked ever is. After the day’s bustle and excitement, I was ready for some shut-eye, anyway. Especially since the radio weather reports we were hearing hinted it might be possible to pull an all-nighter Friday. Specifically, the forecasts were predicting COLD AND CLEAR.

Friday morning, reasonably early Friday morning, but not too early Friday morning, we were up and out, and after lunch at, of all places, McComb, Mississippi’s Chinese buffet (not bad), we were back on the field. Doing what? Doing the usual things you do at any star party when you are staying onsite: strolling around the field counting covered-up scopes, chatting with old buddies about the state of amateur astronomy and the price of a good cigar, and speculating on what the evening’s weather would do.

That wasn’t all. Barry had scheduled a couple of talks this year, and they were good talks. Unk particularly enjoyed Arlo Niederer’s presentation. He’d had a temporary job posting to Melbourne, Australia, and filled us in on what it was like to observe and image those exotic far southern skies. 

Hubble Cat's Eye...
Director Barry Simon and company (which included deep sky guru Len Philpot) had added a new wrinkle to the star party. Inspired by John Wagoner’s famous observing programs at the Texas Star Party, they’d put together a “challenge list” of deep sky objects. Actually, two lists. One for scopes of 8-inch aperture and below, and one for big dogs—err, “Dobs.” I spent the remainder of the afternoon under the picnic canopy plotting/checking the locations of the list’s many fuzzies in Sky Atlas 2000.

After a supper in the park cafeteria (adjacent to the cabins and staffed with real cafeteria ladies), which was neither as bad nor as good as it would be some years, and which was edible if slightly challenging for even Unk’s cast iron stomach, it was time to see what Urania’s sky would offer. Which was a lot. The darkening sky had taken on that faintly purple hue that spells “good observing and plenty of it.”

What to do? No leisurely contemplation of comets on this night, I had a list to work. The DSRSG ’95 challenge objects were arranged in order of right ascension starting in Sagittarius and Ophiuchus. Those particular DSOs were already getting low as the Sun finished setting, so there was no time to lose. After a couple of frustrating minutes when I couldn’t seem to find a derned thing, the sky darkened enough to help me out; I got into that blessed groove and started knocking them off. Picking out small magnitude 10 and 11 globulars didn’t seem a challenge at all.

Hour after hour, I continued the list, and in the process ran across some goodies I either hadn’t seen in a while, or had meant to hunt up “some day.” One of the best was The Cat’s Eye Nebula, which had achieved fame recently due to a Hubble Space Telescope image. At 80x with the Celestron 26mm, its non-stellar character was unmistakable, and doubling that brought out the Cat’s strong blue color, elongated shape, and subtle hints of the weird detail that made the HST shot so fascinating.

Headed to the cabins...
And so it went in the fashion of the day. I’d look at my list, squint at the atlas, go to the finder, move the scope where I thought it should go, check the eyepiece, and, if my quarry wasn’t in sight, go back to SA2000 or a DS3D printout for another look. That wasn’t very productive, even by the standards of the time--more and more folks were at least using digital setting circles for finding--but I didn’t mind. I had used former PSAS President Dave’s go-to LX200 a few times and had been impressed, but it would be another six years before I decided to give up star-hopping for computers. I still liked hopping/hunting, even if I was slowly becoming more interested in looking at than looking for.

By 2 a.m., M42 was finally high enough to be above the trees to the east. The PSAS contingent always set up on the eastern side of the field; we had to wait longer for Orion, but we got a good look at the sinking summer wonders. After half an hour gazing at The Great One, I was ready to pull the big switch. No shame in that. It was (very) damp and (very) cold, and I was one of the few folks left standing on the field. Back down the quarter mile or so of road—which included one dark and spooky stretch—to the cabin area. Ahead of me, Orion pointed the way, looking even better rising above dark tree branches than he had in the clear on the field. In the room it was a little Yell and a lot of Zs.

Saturday morning brought a breakfast composed of ersatz eggs (that’s how they tasted, anyhow), cellophane-wrapped pastries, and lots of talk about the wonders we’d seen Friday night. It was the last day of DSRSG ’95, but we still had one more full night of observing to look forward to and plan for. Which is what I spent the afternoon doing. Mostly, my planning consisted of trying to decide “to list or not to list.” I was well past the halfway point, but wasn’t sure I wanted to pursue it to the end. I hadn’t had any trouble finding anything once I got going, but I was thinking I really wanted to spend the last night in more leisurely contemplation of the heavens than a Challenge List allows.

The big event of the afternoon? My frequent observing companion, Pat Rochford, arrived toting his brand new 24-inch Dobsonian. Due to work, Pat couldn’t always do the whole DSRSG, but in those days he was always able to make at least one day and sometimes two. One thing's sure; all of us who got to look through his scope Saturday night were glad for that. There was another talk scheduled for the afternoon, which Miss Dorothy went to but which I skipped in favor of helping Pat unload and assemble his monstrous telescope.

This DSRSG featured the largest number of big Dobsonians we’d ever had onsite. In addition to Pat’s 24, there was a 22-incher and a couple in the “18” range. Right across the field from the PSAS area was a humongous Obsession 25. 

Supper done—it tasted like chicken—only one thing was left before observing began: the raffle.  DSRSG has always featured outstanding prizes, but it’s been rare for Unk to win anything. 1995 was no different. I didn’t feel too bad, though, since none of the PSAS gang made out well. Even Miss Dorothy didn’t win a blessed thing. One of our mates did get something, but that was just a couple of mugs with pictures of deep sky objects on ‘em, not THE NAGLER.

Really big Dob...
Out on the field, darkness was coming on in a hurry, and I had to make a decision as to how to spend the last hours. I decided I’d had enough list-chasing Friday night. Saturday, I’d pursue my own agenda. I’d go wherever my eyes and heart led me. I’d leave-off jumping from object to object and try to spend the time on ‘em the night sky marvels deserved. I was especially looking forward to getting a look through Pat’s 24-inch. After ironing out a few glitches on what was the scope’s first light night, he had it aimed at M13 in the west and was suddenly hollering that I HAD to get up the ladder and LOOK.

After I climbed the short and manageable ladder for this big but fast scope, I was rewarded with a view of M13 in one of Pat’s Nagler eyepieces (the ne plus ultra of eyepieces in them days) the likes of which I’d only seen before in long exposure images. You sometimes hear folks going on and on about a glob being “resolved to the core,” and that’s usually just talk, but on this night M13 really looked that way. I saw stars all the way to the center of the cluster, which looked “3D” at times.

With difficulty, I pulled myself away from Pat’s eyepiece. I knew plenty of other folks wanted a peek, and I wanted to get on with my own doings with Celeste. Which was nothing more involved than making a slow tour of the best of the best of the late summer-fall-early winter sky over the course of a long, clear night.

Best object in the C8? That came in the night’s darkest, quietest reaches on a near-deserted field after almost everybody had toddled off to bed. What now? Turning south, I noticed the little southern constellation Sculptor was well placed. Over there I went, to that star picture’s treasure, galaxy NGC 253.

NGC 253.
On this evening, the galaxy, which is low at best, even for us, was as pretty as I’d ever seen it. A huge thing, its shallowly inclined disk was peppered with countless dark and light patches. It looked so good that Pat and I couldn’t resist pointing the 24 that-a-way. I can’t begin to describe the beauty we saw. All I will say is that the feeling I got was a lot like the one I have when I watch the scene at the end of The Empire Strikes Back, the one where Luke, Leia, and the droids look wistfully back at their galaxy. It was an awesome sight that left me feeling a little melancholy.

My melancholy really didn’t have much to do with NGC 253. It was more because we were in our last hours of DSRSG 1995, and it had been a memorable one. No, I hadn’t won anything. No, I hadn’t got the view of a lifetime, though I saw some awfully cool things. But everything had for once gone just right. Well, almost everything.

Just as I was taking a peep at the night’s last target, M42, natch, with Celeste. Her R.A. drive went crazy, cranked itself up to full slewing speed, and ran away till I killed the power. I knew she’d have to go back to California, and I felt a little blue about that as Pat and I walked to the cabin.

Next morning I felt good again. On the way home to Possum Swamp, I was able to forget about my telescope’s faux pas and just remember the wonders I’d seen and the friends I’d seen them with. We were sad to leave McComb for another 12 months, but me and Miss Dorothy and our buddies would be back next year, sure as the swallows return to Capistrano, muchachos.

Next Time: Unk and Miss Dorothy Visit Space City…

Sunday, April 22, 2012


The Herschel Project Night 32

One of the things I said in the last Herschel Project Report was that your old Uncle Rod’s observing runs don’t often go as planned. Another thing was that if’n they did they wouldn’t be much fun to read about. You sure don’t have to worry about that this time, muchachos. Night 32 wasn’t an absolute disaster. In fact, I actually got a little accomplished. But there is no denying there were some annoyances, and that the evening ended on a weird note.

It didn’t start out weird. My gear was ready to go, assembled in Chaos Manor South’s front parlor, early in the a.m. Saturday. The weather looked pretty good. Clear, almost crisp—if you can have “crisp” this time of year in The Swamp. The Clear Sky Charts (née Clock) didn’t look bad, either. Yes, the lighter blue squares centered on the evening indicated less than perfect transparency, but it didn’t appear clouds would be a problem much before midnight. disagreed, predicting “mostly cloudy.” We’d see.

Miss Dorothy and I went out for our traditional Saturday Chinese buffet lunch, and after that stopped at Academy Sporting Goods for a pistol case for me.  I wanted a case for the Orion StarShoot DVR I’ve got on the way. More on that next Sunday,  maybe. After a run on Winn Dixie for the week’s groceries, we were back home by mid afternoon.

Over the next few hours, I wandered out onto the front porch once in a while for looks at the weather, but I wasn’t torn about whether to stay or go. Yes, there were some white fluffy things drifting through, and the humidity was spiking up atrociously, but that didn’t matter. As my faithful readers know, a while back I decided to adhere strictly to this mantra: “If it ain’t raining, head to the dark site.” There was no decision to be made; there seemed to be little chance of rain.

At 5:30 there’d been no change, and I began loading the gear. At 6—sunset is at 7:20 at the moment—I hopped in the 4Runner, Miss Lucille Van Pelt, and headed for the dark site. The farther west we went, the more clouds we saw, but even so, it was just scattered clouds. We were not socked in and it looked like we wouldn’t be, not for a while, anyhow.

Gear setup took half an hour, even though I went as fast as I could. This would be a Mallincam Xtreme video run, so I had all that copious astro-stuff to get ready. That is the reason, one of ‘em, stingy little ol’ me decided to drop a couple of C notes on Orion’s new mini-DVR/display. If I could eliminate the DVD recorder, the portable DVD player I use as a screen, associated cables, and one battery, that would be a Good Thing.

Not that set up is that bad as it is. I was on the field half an hour before sunset to assemble the gear, and still had close to an hour to wait after I was done before it was dark enough to begin serious observing. What did my mind turn to as I wandered the field? Haints and spooks. As you-all know, I can get a little jittery at a dark site when I’m by myself, and it looked like I would be all by my lonesome this time.

My usual observing pals were supporting a Cub Scout public outreach event over on the Eastern Shore (of Mobile Bay). That’s probably where I should have been, too, but it sounded like they had all the scopes they needed, and I am loathe to let the rare clear evening this time of year go by without trying to snag a few aitches. I am bound and determined to finish the 2500 this year, and to do that I’ll have to grab as many Big Enchilada fuzzies as I can at every single opportunity.

I told myself I’d be just fine on a solo dark site run. I felt good; I didn’t have that odd feeling that usually presages my nervous evenings. I’d be perfectly OK in the friendly, safe surroundings of our observing field, with the nice folks who own the airstrip just steps away. Course, that little voice in my head just couldn’t help disagreeing, “Well, that’s how you feel NOW, Unk. You will feel different ‘round midnight.”

Actually, it looked like I wouldn’t be all by myself after all; couple of cars pulled onto the field just at sunset. I wouldn’t be by myself for a while, anyway. The fellow PSASers who joined me were more of the “let’s look at a couple of pretty things early on” type than of the “hard core” persuasion. I figgered they might hang in till 10 p.m. That little voice then tried to convince me, “10 pm wouldn’t be a bad time for us to head home, either.”

My response? “Hush!” By the time it got dark and I got the CG5 and my C8, Celeste, aligned, it would be nine, easy. I dern sure intended to go longer than one cotton pickin’ hour. Despite hitting Ursa Major fairly hard last time, a look at SkyTools 3s RealTime display revealed I still had dang near half the constellation to go. If I somehow-someway finished the Great Bear, there’d be the mighty Coma-Virgo cluster of galaxies.

Equipment set up went pretty well. Got the laptop computer booted, powered on the Mallincam Xtreme camera, started up its software, enabled the Mallincam's onscreen crosshairs, and got ready to do an alignment NexRemote style.

In addition to wanting to hit Ursa Major again, my prime mission this evening would be to give NexRemote a clean bill of health. I had been utterly unable to use the program on Night 31, receiving nothing but the dreaded “No Response” communications errors when I tried to. I believed the problem was with my Auxiliary Port Module, the widget that gives the CG5 GEM mount the PC Port it needs to allow me to run NexRemote without the hardware hand control. I’d cleaned contacts and crimped a new RJ connector on the module’s cord, and hoped that fixed it.

Turned on the CG5, booted up NexRemote, and got going. The program connected to the mount without complaint, and I was soon doing a Two Star alignment. Centered Sirius and Capella on the video screen (real easy with the Mallincam’s crosshair overlay), and did the same for four Calibration (cone alignment) Stars. I took more than usual care, making sure I used only the up and right keys—or, actually, the up and right joystick directions on the Logitech Wireless Wingman gamepad NexRemote lets me use as my "hand control"—for final star centering.

The whole alignment process from start to finish takes about twenty minutes. Why so long? I follow those four calibration stars with a polar alignment. That is more critical for the Mallincam than it was for the Stellacam. Given the Stellacam II’s max 10-second exposures, I could get away with a less than good polar alignment. With the Xtreme? Not so much. Even in our bright skies, I will push it to at least 28-seconds, and without a decent alignment that’s where stars begin to look wicked-trailed.

As I’ve mentioned before, I still use the old “align on Polaris,” hand control software (you can select any of the mount’s many firmware builds in NexRemote). The new AllStar may be more accurate, but the older Polaris method is easier if’n you ask me. Following that, you need to do a new go-to alignment, since the mount has been moved to polar align. I have been told you can stop with the Calibration Stars as soon as one falls in the eyepiece (or on the screen) after a slew, but since that usually doesn’t happen for me till Star Three, I just do all four. Sure enough, it was near 9 p.m. when I finished.

Alrighty then! NexRemote had behaved well during the alignment and I’d been uber careful with star centering. Go-tos ort to be spot on. Lessee. Mashed “M” and “003” on the virtual NexRemote hand paddle on my computer screen. The CG5 made her customary weasels-with-tuberculosis noise and stopped. What did I see? Nuttin, honey.

Hmm. Even with the camera at a mere 2.1-seconds, I should be seeing the globular as a big fuzzball. But maybe the shutter speed was a little short. I selected a “hyper” exposure, 7-seconds. When that ended, I could indeed see M3, but only the edge of it, some of the stars around its periphery, right at the top of the screen. What was up with that? I didn’t know. Maybe I ought to try M82. It was in the area I’d be working. The galaxy was onscreen when the scope stopped, but just barely.

I know that doesn’t sound bad. Some go-to rigs have a real hard time putting an object anywhere on a small video chip.  But the CG5 will usually do at least a little better with the Xtreme (with the C8 reduced to about f/4).  Maybe I should have insisted the mount use alignment stars on the eastern side of the Meridian? Maybe I should have rejected Spica as a Calibration Star, since it was pretty low? Who knew? One more thing I have said before is that go-to computers can be as moody as cats. As long as the CG5 put whatever I wanted in the field, so what?

And it was “so what” for the first few objects. I started running down the list on SkyTools, ticking ‘em off on the screen, recording video, and making audio notes with my MP3 recorder. As is often the case after a shaky start, I felt like I was getting into that blessed zone. NOT.

By the fifth object, I was lost in space. Judging from the Palomar Observatory Sky Survey (POSS) plate I had SkyTools display, the little galaxy I was after ought to be fairly easy to see. It wasn’t, not at 15-seconds of exposure, anyway. I upped that to 28-seconds, but still didn’t see a thing. I didn’t think I did, anyway. Was that smudge the galaxy or a PGC sprite? I was not sure.

And I wasn’t sure why I wasn’t sure. Did the mount miss it? Or was I just not seeing it? Slewing a little in what I thought would be the proper direction didn’t turn up Herschel. And I had to admit that after feeling good early on, I wasn’t feeling so hot anymore.

Maybe because I'd chugged that dadgum Monster Energy Drink too fast—especially considering that on a whim I’d bought one of the full-strength muthas, not the “unleaded” low-carb version. I was kinda sweaty and icky feeling. I’d felt chilled earlier and had put on my Nylon jacket. But that made me feel too hot, and taking it off made me feel clammy. In my yuckiness, it was hard to find patterns in the stars to help me track down my prey.

I marked the galaxy in question with a “re-observe” symbol on ST3, and moved on. Next one was there. The one after didn’t seem to be. Shoot! Couldn’t have this mess. I bit the bullet, stopped, and did a whole new alignment. Nope. No cigar. Same behavior. What in Sam Hill? I decided I would press on and not worry about it. What was in was in, what wasn’t could be re-observed.

That actually worked pretty well, and I did get into the groove for a while. There were only a couple the mount didn’t find—or I didn’t see. It wasn’t  really the mount or me, I suspected. A big factor was the sky. It was hazier than ever, and patches of clouds were drifting through. Sometimes I wouldn’t be aware of ‘em until the stars on my video display dimmed dramatically. It’s possible my missed targets were actually there but were obscured by clouds.

As predicted, my observing buddies began packing up at ten, and not long after it was “Great night! See you soon!” I wasn’t too sure about the great night stuff. In addition to my travails with Celeste’s CG5, the weather was now just this side of frustrating. I noted a line of something to the south, and the intermittent cloud bands were becoming more frequent. I found myself waiting five – ten minutes between galaxies for the stars to fade back in.

“Coulda been worse.” Sure it coulda. By hook or by crook, I was now at the thirty object mark. I didn’t mind cooling my heels once in a while—it was still early, barely 11 p.m. Except that those sojourns got me to thinking. Thinking about the wrong things.

What kinda things? Great big, hairy, stinky, ape men watching from the tree line 100-meters distant. If something were there, I would never see it. And it would see me easily. The red-screen on the netbook provided plenty of illumination for animal eyes, and the Xtreme’s unfiltered display (I was the only observer left on the field) was like a spotlight. Yep, Mssr. Skunk Ape would see me, I wouldn’t see him, and next thing I’d know a giant form would be towering over me blotting out the stars…

And that hairy monster might not just be a representative of an unknown species of ape that has somehow gone unnoticed by science. Why do they call the big feller the “skunk ape”? He is accompanied by the smell of sulfur. What else is? Ghosts. UFOs. Mothman. Weird little grey aliens. THE PARANORMAL, that is. If there is the slightest bit of objective reality to the ape-men and bigfoot, it is a reality likely far stranger and scarier than the goobers on Finding Bigfoot presume.

“If” there is any truth to all those stories, which, luckily for Unk, there probably ain’t. Nevertheless, as that little voice in my head had prophesied, just like when I was a boy what seemed ludicrous at seven seemed all too possible—even likely—at eleven.

As I waited out another bunch of clouds, the consarned skunk ape’s pals joined the party. I turned a weather eye to the eastern sky and spotted a bright moving object. Satellite? Probably. Aircraft at high altitude? Maybe. Something a touch more outré? Perhaps. Why had the friendly sound of crickets suddenly ceased? Was it because I’d been moving around the area during cloudy stretches? Or was there a more sinister explanation? That the insects sensed the presence of The Little Grey Dudes from Zeta Reticuli II? Whose ship had just passed over, and whose pilots were now bent on giving your poor old Uncle a proctological exam?

Or maybe my potential foes were of a more earthly nature. Perhaps not as bad as The Deliverance Gang or the fun folk who inhabited the hills in The Hills Have Eyes, but kill-crazy hillbilly mutants anyway: “Well, well, well, Paw. LOOK WHAT WE GOT US HERE!

Y’all should be proud of me. Instead of giving in to the menace of my imaginary (maybe) “friends,” I got put out. “GULLDERNIT (remember, this is a family friendly blog), I came out here to do Herschels and I am a-gonna do Herschels. You-all are not gonna spoil my party, not this time! I HAVE HAD ENOUGH!

I actually managed to essay some more Herschels. The clouds were, if anything, thicker than ever, though, and as 11 p.m. came on I found myself drawn to the good, old eye-candy. I’d done M97 last time out as a treat, and was still annoyed with myself because I had not bounced over to M81 and M82, too. So there I went. If the skunk ape and the Greys and Clem Kadiddlehopper wanted my attention, they could darned well wait their turn.

M82 showed incredible dark lane detail at 28-seconds. I probably should have gone up to 56-seconds, but the brighter areas of the disk were—get this—already overexposed. Also, even though M82 was across the Meridian and into the darker western half of the sky, the field background was not that dark, not tonight with all the humidity-spread sky glow. I saw a hint of the galaxy’s “cherry filling” I’d reveled in on our last Chiefland trip—the crimson stellar wind blowing out of M82’s center—but just a hint.

M81 was, in a way, even better. A 28-second exposure didn’t just reveal the big thing’s pair of gossamer spiral arms, on the live video there is detail in those arms and the disk—knots and dark patches. I’ve had one really mind-blowing visual look at M81 over the years, from the uber dark skies of the Texas Star Party, and that was great, but even then M81 didn’t look like this.

A quick jaunt over to M3 to see how the pointing was going (about the same), and it was time to tear down the gear. We were on the way, looked like, to being socked in. Was I a little nervous packing up? A little. The worklights on my jump start battery packs illuminated me very well for anybody or anything who might be watching. Did I throw the gear into the vehicle like I did the last time this happened? No. I was still more mad at than afraid of my time-honored crew of weirdos. Did I at least “expedite” loading? Well, maybe.

Back home at Chaos Manor South, I took a quick peek at the evening’s images. They looked just wonderful; the Xtreme impresses me more and more every time I use it. After that, I sat halfway watching the cable and thinking about the night’s run.

Did I do any ruminating about maleficent humanoid aliens from the stars? Nope. Other than the ironic observation that I’d felt perfectly safe unpacking the truck in our driveway after midnight.  The neighborhood has had the occasional muggings and even shootings over the years, but those mundane threats just don’t faze me like those big, hairy, sulfur-smelling galumphs from who-knows-where that inhabit my imagination do.

Mostly what I thought about was NexRemote. Yes, it very well might have been the mount’s particular choice of alignment stars that caused the evening’s semi-problems with pointing, but I am not sure about that. At one point I noticed that the mount seemed to be slewing very slowly on its own—something that happened to me one other time when I had problems with NR. Could have been the wind causing the star trailing, but the wind had mostly laid down by then. And there had been that malfunction of the Aux Port Module the run before. Maybe the cable is still not right?

What I will have to do is some further troubleshooting. But probably not before the next H-expedition. I will have a new piece of gear to check out, that digital video recorder, which I hope to have by next weekend. So I’ll just go back to the hardware hand control again, I reckon. Maybe that ain’t so bad. Dispensing with NexRemote’s cables and gamepad and receiver should make for a quicker getaway the next time I get a whiff of sulfur, muchachos.

Sunday, April 15, 2012


A Gem of a GEM

I am not talking about the AP900 or AP1200 or Mach 1, though it could be argued any of them deserves that appellation, muchachos. I’m not talking about the G11 or the Atlas/EQ6, either, though they have a much bigger user base than the high priced spread and are the bread-and-butter performers for many amateurs. No, I’m talking about the GEM, the go-to German equatorial mount, that is so cheap that (almost) anybody can own one. And it is very, very good, too. Yes, brothers and sisters, I am talking about the ubiquitous but too-seldom praised Celestron CG5.

Last week, I told y’all why I decided to defork my C8, Celeste, from her beautiful Ultima mount. Making up my mind to do that was only half the battle. Once I was resolved, the question became “Which GEM?”

Seven years ago there were plenty of go-to German equatorials to choose among. Starting at the top with APs and Losmandys (“Losmandies”?) and Takahashis. But Unk’s requirements were “light and cheap,” which purty much eliminated all those and their cousins from Mountain Instruments and Bisque and even Vixen. What was left was, big surprise, Meade and Celestron. I eliminated the Meade right quick. They did not at that time sell their GEM without an OTA, and I had not been impressed by the performance of the LXD 55 I’d seen on the field at the Chiefland Astronomy Village, though it would have been perfect price and weight-wise.

The last GEM standing was the Celestron CG5, which to my eyes looked a lot like Meade’s mount. This Synta (Chinese) clone of the Vixen Great Polaris did have a couple of strengths, however; it used the Celestron NexStar hand control, with which I was intimately familiar from using the one on my NexStar 11 GPS, and which I liked a lot. The CG5 also seemed to be getting better press than the sometimes problematical LXD 55 (or its successor, the LXD 75).

My brass-tacks bottom-line opinion? I liked the size and specs of the CG5, but I was not convinced this (relatively) cheap imported thing would work very well or for very long. It would at least allow me to give the GEM concept a try without spending a lot of money. I could see if I liked using a German mount with an SCT. If that was a “yeah,” onto Astromart the CG5 would go, and I would bite the bullet and look into a Vixen GPDX or a Losmandy GM8, maybe.

In the spring of ought five, I was ready to pull the trigger. Back in them days, Anacortes Telescope and Wild Bird was a Celestron dealer, and I often ordered from them despite their far away location near Seattle. I sent AT&WB my credit card number, and sat back and waited.

And waited…and waited. Strange and conflicting data on the FedEx website when I entered my tracking number impelled me to give Anacortes a call via voice. After a little checking, they said the truck carrying my mount had crashed and burned on the Interstate (!). Oh, well, they said they’d get another on its way to me tout suite.

The wait wasn’t all bad. It allowed me to get Celeste’s OTA squared away. I won’t give you details on how I tearfully removed her tube from her huge and beautiful fork—if you are interested have a look at this—I will just say I did the deed. I ordered the Vixen compatible dovetail the CG5 required from, and it arrived in just a day or two—how does Jim do that? Installing it on the C8 tube was maybe half-an-hour’s work.

Eventually, the glorious day arrived, the knock on the door came and soon my new acquisition was sitting in Chaos Manor South’s front parlor. Two big boxes, one for the GEM head, one for the tripod. A few crossways glances at the manual, and I had the thing together. Wasn’t much to it: the mount attached to the tripod head via a threaded rod that was secured on its other end by a knob snugged-up against the accessory tray. One of the two 11-pound pancake weights shipped with the mount went on the counterweight shaft, and that was it.

Took all of two minutes to get Celeste on the CG5; there was a large knob-headed bolt that secured the scope’s dovetail bracket in the mount’s saddle, and a smaller “safety screw” to hold the telescope in place if the big bolt were accidentally undone—which has saved Unk’s bacon a time or two. Shiny new mount and still-beautiful black Ultima OTA before me, I stepped back and admired Celeste’s new garb for a while.

You know, almost in spite of himself, Unk was getting excited about this “bargain” mount. No, the GEM head was not a machined work of art, but it was sturdy enough and reasonably attractive. The tripod? A winner from the get-go. 2-inch diameter steel legs and nary a bit of plastic anywhere. I immediately pronounced it superior to the (cheapened) Heavy Duty Field Tripod that came with the NexStar 11.

The CG5 looked good, but would it work good? Only a trial under the stars would tell. Amazingly, the New Scope Curse seemed to be in abeyance. There were still several hours left before darkness on this spring afternoon, however, and I decided to occupy them by doing a fake alignment indoors to see if the CG5 at least appeared to operate correctly.

I had downloaded the CG5 manual from Celestron’s website some time before, and had been pouring over the tips on the mount’s Yahoogroup day in and day out, so I figgered I at least had a semi-idea as to how an alignment should go. Nevertheless, I browsed through the manual one last time. Hokay. No time like the present. I fetched a jumpstart battery pack and hooked it to the mount with the included DC cable. Plugged the HC into the proper port on the CG5’s control panel. Connected the declination cable to the appropriate sockets on the declination housing and control panel, and it was at least semi-rubber-meets-road time.

Alrighty then. Flipped the big (actually tiny) switch to o-n. Success! At least the HC display lit up and a teeny-tiny red l.e.d. on the panel glowed. Following the instructions displayed on the hand paddle, I entered date, time, time-zone, DST status, and lat/lon as I would with any go-to rig. Almost ready to begin the alignment, but first the CG5 had to know its starting place. You tell it about that by loosening the mount’s locks and setting the R.A. and declination axes so the marks on labels pasted to the mount line up.

The initial CG5 firmware, like that of today, offered several alignment modes including Three Star Align, Solar System Align, and Quick Align. Back then, the most accurate go-to alignment method was Three Star. The mount would pick three stars, slew to those three stars, and you’d center each in the finder and the main scope.

The first thing I noticed during the alignment procedure? This was one loud mutha. Easily as loud as an LX200 Classic. I just hoped that it wasn’t quite as loud as it sounded, or that I’d get used to it. I eventually did, but this is not a quiet mount when slewing at full speed. Not hardly.

After the third star—I didn’t pretend to center anything; just hit the Enter and Align buttons on the hand control each time the mount stopped—the HC pronounced “Align Success.” And it did appear to be successful when I did fake go-tos to several bright stars. The scope definitely pointed close to the positions the stars would be in at the current time of day. ‘Course, “close” only counts in horseshoes and hand grenades, so I’d have to wait for dark to learn the truth of the matter. Nevertheless, I felt reassured.

My cat Jellyorum and sister Bombalurina  (r) admiring the new rig.
It was a long, long afternoon, but it finally came to an end and I set up the CG5 and Celeste in the backyard. Seven years ago, our outback was at least acceptably tree-free in early spring. You might have to look through a few budding branches, but you could still, unlike today, at least see something. Set up done, I was getting antsier and antsier waiting for Polaris to make his appearance so I could polar align.

Ah, yes, polar alignment. Oh, joy. Unlike an alt-az fork mount, a German equatorial must be polar aligned to track well, and some need a good polar alignment for best go-to accuracy. Not the CG5, apparently. Its go-to, I’d been told on the Yahoogroup, wasn’t much affected by polar misalignment. That was later borne out when a fellow club member “polar aligned” his mount on Kochab, and had lousy tracking but excellent go-tos. Anyway, I wanted to give the mount every chance to succeed, so I thought I’d at least roughly polar align it.

How’d I do that? I did not purchase the optional CG5 polar alignment borescope. The one I got with the non-go-to CG5 (EQ4) that came with Old Yeller was almost completely worthless, and I had read that for visual use sighting Polaris through the empty polar bore of the CG5 was good enough. I removed the plastic end-caps from the RA axis, moved the scope in declination 90 degrees to open up a hole in the declination shaft, and adjusted the push-pull azimuth and altitude bolts on the mount till Polaris, flickering just above the roof of The Old Manse, was centered. Returned the mount to its start marks, and got ready to rumble.

OK, Three Star. The mount stopped a fair ways from all three stars, but not an outrageous ways away from any of them. I centered ‘em in the finder, hit Enter, centered each in Celeste’s eyepiece (a 12mm Meade crosshair job), mashed Align, and went on to the nextun. The final star was obscured by a tree in the yard of the house next-door, so I hit the Undo button on the HC till it offered a star that was in the clear. When I was done, the hand control thought for a minute and pronounced “Align Success”. Well, I reckoned we’d see about that. I didn’t have much hope this noisy rig would find pea turkey.

Removed the reticle eyepiece and inserted my beloved 12mm Nagler. What was in the tree free area to the east? Looked like M63 was. Ort to be able to see that bright one despite the sodium streetlight-orange sky. The mount made the noises I’ve since come to describe as sounding like “weasels with tuberculosis,” and eventually came to a stop. Yeah, Celeste was pointing in roughly the correct direction, but, naw, no way. Couldn’t be. The only question I had was “How far off is it?”

Eye to eyepiece, and I nearly dropped the iced tea glass of Rebel Yell that had, not surprisingly, accompanied me into the backyard. Well, I’ll be DAGNABBED (this is a family-friendly blog, y’all). There she was. Not just in the field, but dang near centered. Had to be luck.

Nope. So was M53. So was M87. So were M84 and M86. Maybe I was being too easy on the thing. Those spring DSOs were in the neighborhood of one of the alignment stars. What about the other side of the sky? Looking west, I spied Andromeda plunging into the horizon in a gap between an oak tree and my neighbor’s house. I punched-in “M110.” I had to squint a little to see it, but, yeah, there it was. To say I was elated, gobsmacked even, would be an understatement. Alas, my feelings of joy lasted all of 24-hours.

The Sunflower. taken with Celeste and the CG5
Next evening was clear, too, so naturally I got my wonderful CG5 out back again. Aligned just like I had the night before. Sent her on her first go-to, and… Disaster struck. The mount moved Celeste in the proper direction, but kept on going past the target. Slowly. Sounding not just like a weasel with tuberculosis, but one on its last legs. I killed the power. Started the alignment over, and this time that went to hell, too. The CG5 chugged slowly past the first star on its way to who-knew-where. “Well, that’s about what I expected, gull-dern fracking thing lasted all of one day!”

The problem seemed to be only in the declination axis, and Unk ain’t a-feared of a little tinkering, so, with the mount back inside, I found a screwdriver and opened the declination housing. Nothing was amiss enough to reveal itself to a visual inspection. Hmm. Cleaned the contacts on the dec cable and receptacles, closed everything up, and sat down to ruminate.

Thinking about what I had read about known problems with the CG5, two things seemed to be most common: poor power and a poor connection to the mount’s power receptacle. Power? I had done a lot of go-tos the previous night and hadn’t recharged the jump-starter, but the battery wasn’t completely dead, and my NS11 would run fine for two similar sessions on the same battery. Nevertheless, I put the jump-starter on charge.

I knew lots of folks had had trouble with the power connector on the mount. Luckily, I’d heard the fix was simple. The center pin of the mount-side jack is in two halves; all you had to do was spread ‘em apart a little to ensure a firmer connection. Which I accomplished with a jeweler’s screwdriver. What now? Have to wait till the next night, when the battery was fully charged again.

Next evening, you can bet old Unk hauled the mount out back with a purty good ration of trepidation. Started the alignment. At least that went OK—but it had the first time the previous night, too. First go-to… Bang on. Second go-to? Same-same. And so it went for the rest of the run. What caused the problem, the battery or the connection? In retrospect, probably both. Over the years I’ve learned that if you want good performance from the mount, you always start with a fully charged battery. The power connection is just as critical. Spreading the pin that one time was enough to do the trick, and I have never had to revisit it.

One other thing I did? I ordered a new 12-volt power cable. The one Celestron included then and now was made of overly thin wire and it was long. At least twenty feet. That is no good at all. The voltage drop that results can’t possibly help the mount. Why is it so long? I reckon Celestron thinks you will power the CG5 from the cigarette lighter receptacle in your vehicle. In truth, everybody I know of uses a battery at the scope. Campers, this is one power-hungry mount, and running it off the battery in your car is a recipe for being stranded at the dark site on a cold winter night. Scopestuff sold me a nice coiled cable of just the right length.

Did my little fixes make the CG5 perfect? No. It’s hardly that, but what is? It is not the Rock of Gibraltar, but neither is its more expensive “inspiration,” the Vixen Great Polaris. With the C8 or a lighter tube on it it is very good under most conditions. Heck, it is quite good for visual work with a C11. Doubt that? Try it. My buddy Joe’s ASGT C11 has been a lot of fun to use over the years. With a set of vibration suppression pads and an improved (larger) accessory tray to help stabilize the tripod a smidge, the 11-inch is quite pleasant to use on the CG5.

The big draw is the go-to. It is crazy good. There is no doubt in my formerly military mind that it is every bit as accurate as my NexStar 11. And there is also no doubt in my mind that I saw more deep sky objects with my C8, Celeste, in the first six months she was on her new mount than I had with her the previous ten years.

Wasn’t all gravy, of course. The first time I had the scope and mount out where it was really dark, at the 2005 Chiefland Spring Picnic, I found the go-to could be a little crankier than that of the NexStar 11. The NS11 scope will usually perform perfectly despite its choice of alignment stars. The CG5? Not so much. When it picked a star a little too close to the horizon one night at the Picnic, I found Celeste was missing a few Virgo galaxies. Next night, I declined the stars the hand control offered, chose three that were better placed, and all was well.

Thanks to Celestron, that go-to problem did not last. Not long after I got my CG5, they came out with a new firmware rev that replaced the old Three Star Alignment with a much better Two Star procedure. How could two stars be better than three? Because, in addition to the two alignment stars, the newer software gives the option of centering up to four calibration stars that eliminate “cone error” problems due to mechanical misalignment. 

Only fly in the soup? The earlier CG5s--like mine, dangit--were furnished with non-programmable hand controls similar to those shipped with the original Celestron NexStar 5 and 8. That mean that if you wanted to try the new firmware, you had to pony-up about a hundred bucks for a new HC. In my estimation, however, it was well worth the price of admission. I don’t believe the mount has missed a single go-to since I bought the programmable model and loaded up the new firmware.

One thing I really, really liked and still like about the mount? Its polar alignment routine. While it would later be replaced with Celestron’s even better AllStar polar alignment procedure, which allows you to polar align on (almost) any star, the old method was simple and worked well. When you finished your go-to alignment, you’d tell the HC you wanted to polar align. It would then slew to where it thought Polaris should be given a perfect polar alignment. Move the mount in altitude and azimuth until the star was centered in the eyepiece, and voila! polar alignment complete. I don’t bother to do the procedure unless I’m imaging, but it is a real time-saver when I am.

Meade DSI snapshot with Celeste and CG5.
And how is the mount for imaging? With an “HC” polar alignment and good balance, it can surprise. Yes, it’s gonna show periodic error in the neighborhood of 30-arc seconds, but not many years ago that was considered outstanding performance. The CG5 proved to be good enough for me to do unguided 30-second subframes, yielding enough untrailed ones to stack into some pretty good looking images as images with the original Meade DSI, the camera I bought when I decided to give CCDing another go after my “unfortunate” experiences with a Starlight Xpress MX5.

Later, I did some guided shots with the SBIG ST2000 and found the mount could easily deliver 5 – 10-minute subs if I kept the C8 at f/6.3 or faster with a focal reducer, or used one of my fast APO refractors. I got some really cool shots with them, like the one of the Rosette below done with my 66mm William Optics SD. No, not every sub-frame would be perfect, but many would. Given the mount’s cost, you cannot beat that with a stick, muchachos.

Naturally, if you want to take pictures with the mount you need good conditions, as in no wind. With a strong wind blowing, you won’t get far even with video astronomy, as I found out one November down Chiefland way. Even the short 10-second exposures of my old Stellacam II were too much. The wind would blow and the stars would trail like crazy. Removing the dew shield helped some, but not enough. I will say the rig would have been useable visually on that night; I’ve done so successfully under similar conditions since.

What has changed with the CG5 over the last few years? Celestron did a fairly extensive update to the firmware in late 2008, adding the previously mentioned AllStar and some other new stuff you can read about here. Recently, they released a somewhat less extensive revision v4.20, which added selectable go-to slewing speed and not much else.

While Celestron hasn’t changed the mount much, there has been a major change in how I use it. The last several years, I’ve operated it with the NexRemote software far more often than with the hardware hand control. That fits in better with The Herschel Project. I can sit at the netbook computer and video display and do everything from there. Being able to use a wireless gamepad to steer the CG5/C8 is awful cool, too. It’s no surprise, then, that the CG5-C8 combo has become my rig of choice for The Project when I am doing video. It combines the excellent optics of Celeste, the light weight and good go-to of the CG5, and the convenience of NexRemote.

My CG5's Rosette.
Seven years down the road, how many problems have I had with the CG5? Other than occasional power problems caused by me running my battery too low, not many. The little power switch went bad a couple of years back. Always meant to repair it or replace it, but never have got around to that. I leave the switch on and power up and down by plugging/unplugging the power cable. Works fine. There’ve been occasional computer hiccups, but they have always been cured by doing a “Factory Settings” on the hand control, which flushes out the pore thing’s memory.

Is the CG5 forever, then? It should be—it is that good—but nothing is. I don’t have any inside knowledge, far from it, but let’s face it: the mount has been around for about ten years and is looking a little long in the tooth. It is also almost being given away these days if that means anything. It was over 800 when I got mine; you can have one for $699 now or even less. With Meade’s much more “modern” looking and “advanced” competition, the LX80, in the offing I can’t help but wonder if Celestron is clearing out inventory.

I hope not. I just don’t see how a bargain mount gets any better than the wonderful CG5. I’ve used mine heavily for seven years, done and lot of good work with it, and just love it. It’s a swell mount that's allowed me to get more out of my C8 than I ever dreamed possible. Best recommendation I can give? If my CG5 crashed and burned tomorrow, I’d go right out and buy another one. I hope that continues to be an option, muchachos.

Next Time: The Herschel Project Night 32

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