Sunday, July 29, 2012


The Herschel Project Night 35

I just spent nearly a week at the legendary Chiefland Astronomy Village in Florida, so how come the title up there is just “Night 35”? What happened to all the other nights? The weatherman is what happened to them, muchachos. I was lucky to get in one really good evening; July observing in Florida is always a crap shoot. But, in typical fashion for your scatterbrained correspondent, that is getting ahead of our story. Why don’t we back up to the beginning? 

As you will hear next Sunday (see the Postscript below), I took the whole week of my birthday off, celebrating with wild abandon (for me) on Tuesday night, July 17. Nevertheless, I still managed to roll out at oh-dark-thirty the next morning to get it together for the six hour trip south to the CAV. Wednesday morning was actually fairly relaxed. Yes, my head was still aching a little from maybe one too many margaritas, but I'd had the sense to load up Lucille Van Pelt, my Toyota 4Runner, Tuesday afternoon. All I had to do was slurp down a big cup of java and get on the road by 8:30—which would ensure I hit Chiefland at motel check-in time. 

The trip down I-10 was uneventful—but boring. For the first time in a couple of years I was by myself, Miss Dorothy and I having made the decision this would be a good time for her to visit her daughter in Washington DC. So, I had nobody to talk to all the way down, spending my time playing the “What did I forget?” game and listening to Sirius XM Radio.

The music was good, and my ruminations on what I might have left behind indicated I hadn’t forgot any important astro-gear this time. I had not just relied on my gear checklist or my memory. I went over everything two or three times, checking all the stuff off the list, but also making sure I wasn’t overlooking things not specifically enumerated on that checklist—like the tripod spreader that stayed home for one recent CAV expedition.

The only problem this time, it appeared, would be the summer weather. had not been encouraging for the week prior to my departure. Neither had Clear Sky Charts (Clock). It had been resolutely cloudy when I left home and remained that way as I passed Tallahassee. But when I left I-10 shortly thereafter to get on the Florida – Georgia Parkway, U.S. 19, the gateway to Chiefland and the Nature Coast, the clouds began to magically disperse and I was seeing plentiful blue. I stopped at the Sunoco station at the Highway 19 exit, refueled Miss Van Pelt, snatched up a Sasquatch Big Stick for me, and headed for the Chiefland Astronomy Village with my hopes high. 

Alas, I was only about twenty-five miles down 19 when I began to smell the scent of skunk. Virtual skunk, that is, as in getting SKUNKED by the weather. The sky overhead was still blue, but ahead of me to the south was a mass of clouds that kept climbing. By the time I was within fifty miles of the Chiefland Day’s Inn, the blue was gone and it had begun to rain. Hard. I was disappointed but not surprised. The last couple of times  I haven’t even been able to set up the gear on the field on Wednesday, much less observe. Is Wednesday’s weather in Chiefland cursed these days? Sure seems to be. 

What the--?!
No matter how bad the sky looked, I stuck to THE PLAN. Which is "check into the motel and evaluate the weather." If it is not raining, I head to the site. If, when I get there, it still doesn’t look like rain, I set up the gear whether it appears there will be observing that evening or not. One good thing about July in Chiefland, Florida is there’s plenty of time to make up my mind (such as it is) about what to do. Sunset isn’t until 8:30 p.m., and it doesn’t get completely dark until well after nine.

When I tell folks I observe from the Chiefland Astronomy Village, they imagine me holed up in an RV or a trailer or even a tent. Uh-uh, nosir buddy. I’ve sometimes thought about trailers and RVs, but I really don’t want to drive or tow one. Tents? After doing a tent one Chiefland Spring Picnic in some of the hottest and most humid conditions Florida can produce, I have never tent-camped at a star party again. Any star party. 

Nope, it’s a motel all the way. The Chiefland Days Inn is even less fancy today than it was in its former humble guise as a Holiday Inn Express, but it is still clean and comfortable enough, I suppose,  and the price is sure right: about $250.00 for me to check in Wednesday and check out Sunday. If I were to start going to CAV every month I might consider some kind of a pop-up camper or similar, but for now the good old Days Inn gets the job done.

After I was unpacked and settled in my room, I turned on The Weather Channel to see what it might be able to tell me about Wednesday night. The answer was “not much.” Ambiguous, anyway. “Partly cloudy. Chance of scattered thunderstorms. Rain chance 40%.” OK, well, how about if I had a look for myself? Outside my second floor room I saw dark clouds approaching from the west, and in about five minutes it was raining again. It wasn’t raining hard, though, so I figgered Wednesday night was still an open question.

Stick to The Plan. If I can’t go out to the field immediately, I hit the Wal-Mart just down the road for supplies and grub. At Wally-World, I picked up bottled water and Monster Energy Drinks for the field, granola bars for the room, and a 6-pack of Colorado Kool Aid for after-run libations. I also glommed onto an inexpensive but decent three prong extension cord to replace one of my cords that was only a two-pronger. I don’t like to use a non-grounded extension on a wet field.

There were a couple of unpleasant surprises at the Wal-Mart, alas. I always take Jack Links Flaming Buffalo Chicken Nuggets to the CAV for late night snacking. None could I find. I had to settle for their Teriyaki Jerky. More seriously, the McDonald’s stand inside the store where I get my traditional CAV First Night Big Mac was finis. Out of business. Sigh. I didn’t feel like a major meal, so after Wal-Mart I made tracks for the Taco Bell next to the Day’s Inn. Those new Dorito Tacos are just KILLER. I wound up not missing my Mickey D’s pig-out at all.

Thence back to the room to sit and wait. I passed the time surfing the Cloudy Nights bulletin boards and reading my newest bit of Herschel-abilia, Michael Hoskin’s book, Discoverers of the Universe: William and Caroline Herschel. I’d actually started the Hoskin book during my last CAV foray, but had been too busy after that to finish it. I recommend it highly; “Discoverers” does one of the better jobs of portraying the enigmatic Caroline Herschel and explaining her motivations I have seen.

At about six o’clock I noticed sunlight shining in around the drapes and peeped outside. What I saw was plenty of blue sky and sunshine and almost no clouds. Turned the TWC back on to find they had reduced the chance of precipitation for the High Springs area (a.k.a. the Chiefland neighborhood) to 30%. Time to head to CAV!

Back on the good old Billy Dodd Memorial Observing Field after being gone some five months, I was both surprised and not surprised. As you know if you’ve read my report on my last Chiefland Odyssey, there was change afoot then: owners Tom and Jeannie Clark were pulling up stakes and moving to the New Mexico desert. What was surprising was that everything looked the same as ever. The old Clark homestead is still there. So is Tom’s shop and The Beast’s dome (the monstrous 42-inch went with Tom and Jeannie, natch). I just barely missed meeting the new owner of the Clark land, which includes the Dodd Field, "Jonesy," but I am at least told he is an enthusiastic amateur astronomer with some cool plans for the site.

One thing that did not surprise me was I was all alone. The weather reports simply didn’t warrant folks heading to the CAV. If I lived a lot closer and could make spur-of-the-moment decisions on whether to go or not go, I probably wouldn’t have been there either. But since I was there, I started setting up, taking it slowly in heat that was fierce enough, if not nearly as bad as it was at the above-mentioned May Spring Picnic. The heat indexes were high due to the humidity, but the actual temperature mostly stayed in the upper 80s - low 90s —good for the CAV in July.

Unk's usual gear load-out.
What did I set up this time out? Big Bertha, My NexStar C11, who is always my CAV scope of choice. However, while she is a good telescope, she is over ten years old. I’ve never experienced any trouble with her beyond the occasional hiccup, but I wonder about her electronics sometimes. Since I am now driving a fairly sizable vehicle, I was able to bring a just-in-case backup scope, Celeste, my C8, and her CG5 mount.

There was also the Coleman tent canopy to keep sun and dew off. My new Toshiba 64 bit Win 7 laptop. The Mallincam Xtreme camera. Observing table. Chairs. Digital video recorder. Portable DVD player. Cables for everything. Wireless Wingman game pad to use as Bertha’s hand control with the aid of the NexRemote software. Set up took every bit of an hour. When I was finally done, I took a break and cooled off with bottled water under the storied Chiefland Picnic Pavilion and waited for darkness.

Which arrived right on schedule. Unfortunately, it brought more clouds with it. I had some hopes, though. There were sucker holes, and the bright sapphire of Vega was in the clear. Time to get camera fired up and scope aligned, I reckoned. Which is where I ran into the first snag of the evening. I had not used the new laptop with Bertha or the Mallincam Xtreme yet, and though I had everything properly hooked up and turned on, the Toshiba resolutely refused to talk to either telescope or camera.

All it took to put that right was a little computer configurating, but before I did that I lit-off the Thermacell. Mosquitoes are not usually a problem at the Chiefland Astronomy Village, but the huge amount of rain that had been dumped on the area by a tropical system a couple of weeks previously ensured the little suckers were out in force. Thermacell cranking, I ceased being someone’s supper. The gadget didn’t do quite as well with the flocks of annoying no-see-um gnats, but the Thermacell combined with the fan I had stationed on the observing table kept the canopy reasonably bug free.

All set, I turned on the telescope and Xtreme camera, booted NexRemote, and began the go-to alignment. For once, Bertha didn’t do anything wacky. She often likes to torment your Uncle by imitating a maniac Ferris wheel during the “finding level” part of her alignment. Not tonight. She did her thing without complaint, choosing Vega as her first alignment star. Centered it up on the monitor with ease using the Xtreme’s wonderful crosshair video overlay. Pushed “Align” on the Wingman, and Bertha picked Arcturus as her number two star and headed that-a-way. Unfortunately, by the time she got there Arcturus wasn’t there. More and thicker clouds were moving in from the west.

Darkness came, but with it clouds
What to do? The sky didn’t look at all promising now, with Vega fading and disappearing, but with scope nearly ready, I decided to cool my heels for another hour or so and see what happened. It was only 9:30 p.m. EDT, felt an hour earlier to CDT Unk, and I hated to give up unless it started raining. There was no obviously threatening weather nearby; it was just cloudy. And I wasn’t feeling the least bit nervous despite being alone on the field.

I never seem to get spooked at Chiefland like I can at my home observing site. A couple of times Wednesday evening I vaguely wondered if Florida’s scary Skunk Ape might be watching me from a distant tree-line, but not seriously. Also, while there was no one on the Billy Dodd Field with me, the neighboring New Field, home of the Nova Sedus Star Party, had some people on it, so I was not really alone.

At 10:30 p.m. I reluctantly and disgustedly covered Bertha with her Desert Storm Cover. Conditions were not getting better; they were getting worse. The feel of “thunderstorm” or at least “rain” was in the air. I hopped in the truck, headed down the now admittedly eerie looking lane of mossy oaks, and back to the motel. Where I concluded a long day with a little Yell and a little cable TV. All I could find to watch at 11 p.m. was The Food Channel’s slightly annoying and ill-tempered Chopped. Hope springs eternal, and I didn’t let being well and truly skunked make me ill-tempered. I wasn’t happy about Wednesday night, but at least I had been able to get the new computer up and running without being rushed by a good sky.

When I got up and turned on the TV Thursday morning, I saw the weather predictions hadn’t changed, still indicating an iffy night, but I thought the sky looked more encouraging when I headed down to the motel breakfast at 8:30. While the Day’s Inn breakfast still ain’t as good as the Holiday Inn breakfast was, it has improved, going from overripe fruit and tiny bagels to sausage biscuits and make-your-own waffles. Unk was happy enough.

After breakfast I spent a couple of hours hanging out in the room reading, relaxing, and looking at Cloudy Nights and the Astromart before returning to the CAV at 11 a.m. to see what was up. What was up was plenty of blue sky and Sun. Enough Sun to make my stay fairly short. I was still alone on the field, but I suspected that would change by late afternoon. I’d do lunch and head back when the temperatures began to cool at six or seven in the p.m.

The fabled Lunch Special.
Lunch that day can be summed up with one word:  “Bill’s.” As in Bar-B-Q Bill's, which is still Unk’s fave barbeque place in the whole wide world, coming in ahead of even the legendary Fresh-Air Barbeque in Jackson, Georgia (former site of the Peach State Star Gaze and current site of the Georgia Sky View). I ordered my usual, the Pork Lunch Special. Which consists of plenty of sliced meat, beans (really great beans), mound of fries, coleslaw, and garlic bread. Naturally I smothered everything in Bill’s famous spicy BBQ sauce. “Yum!” is all the heck I can say.

Following that huge lunch, I chilled out in the room for a while, and then chilled down in the cool water of the motel’s nice (and clean) pool. Only bummer? There was plenty of Sun when I got in, but by the time I got out the sky was gray again. After my dip I was off to Wally-World for the one important thing I had forgot to pack this time: SHOES.

I’d driven down in shorts and t-shirt. On my feet were Crocs. Laugh if you must; Unk doesn't worry much about fashion at his advanced age. I just want comfort. I do worry about wet feet, though. Walking through the dew-laden grass Wednesday night left my poor footsies sodden thanks to the Crocs’ trademark (ventilation?) holes. I found a cost effective (12 bucks) pair of tennis shoes—which looked to be Chinese People’s Liberation Army issue but were comfortable enough. I also picked up an inexpensive AA charger. For want of anything better to do, I’d shot a lot more video with my camera than I normally do, and had not brought my battery charger along.

After the Wal-Mart trip there weren’t many hours left till I needed to go back to the CAV. I left the room about six, a little early, because I wanted to shoot some terrestrial pictures for a Sky & Telescope article I am working on. I was pleased to find three of my CAV buddies were now on site and that I wouldn’t be all by my lonesome on the field Thursday. The picture taking went well, but the sky was not looking well at all. Yes, the sundogs were cool, but they foreshadowed only one thing:  bad weather.

I didn’t care what the sundogs portended; I was anxious to get started, and when Vega and Arcturus peeped out I got going. Or tried to. Bertha was remarkably well behaved this trip, but Unk wasn’t. I seemed to go out of my way to give the telescope heartburn this trip instead of vice versa. Started up the laptop. Turned on the Xtreme. Booted the camera control software. Got video and crosshairs on the monitor. Ran NexRemote. Pushed the OK button to begin alignment. And got absolutely nothing except a window that announced “INTERNAL ERROR!”

Sundogs? Pretty. Clouds? Not so much.
I did this same silly thing the last time I was down at Chiefland, so I knew what the problem was. In my excitement I’d forgot to turn on the telescope. What I should have done at that point was shut down the computer and start over. Instead, I thought I’d fake Bertha out, just restarting NexRemote after powering on the SCT. No dice. It almost worked, Bertha going to the two alignment stars, but pushing the “Align” button on Arcturus resulted in my scope intoning (via NexRemote’s voice) “Alignment failed.” Shut down the computer, restarted everything, and completed the alignment without a hitch.

Which doesn’t mean I didn’t have any more problems; the sky was becoming a big one. It had looked passable at sundown, but the giant sucker hole that had stretched from Vega to Arcturus was shrinking. It did look like there’d be time enough for a few pretty ones. I started with M3, and when that big globular star cluster faded, I turned south, where the Milky Way was, amazingly, still blazing away. Before clouds moved in I got M8, the Lagoon; M17, The Swan; and a little of M20, The Trifid.

The system I’d worked out for using my itty bitty Orion DVR worked well. I ran the video from the Mallincam to a video switcher with an RCA plug input and multiple RCA outputs controlled by buttons. I plugged the DVR into position 2 and the DVD player I use as a monitor into position 1. With “1” selected, I have a reasonably big screen for focusing and viewing. When I am happy with the object’s appearance, I push “2” to feed the video to the recorder, which I power on and start recording with a push of its cool one-button remote. A video splitter would be even better, but I had the switcher lying around—a refugee from the days of analog cable TV.

M13, natch.
Faint glimpse of The Trifid recorded, the sky closed down suddenly and completely. Me and my buddies hung-in until midnight, when it became obvious nothing was changing anytime soon. I was ready to cover the scope by then, anyhow. The dew was insanely heavy. I mean, Bertha’s tube was raining. Her corrector was kept dry by her DewBuster heater, and I was kept dry by the tent canopy, but heading to the clubhouse for a Monster or to use the facilities resulted in wet pants legs from sodden grass, which had recently been cut but was growing like crazy in the warm, wet conditions. By midnight 
it was miserably damp feeling even under my canopy.

I gladly pulled the Big Switch and headed back to Chiefland proper. At the motel it sure was a traditional Chiefland sign-off: that sainted bottle of Yell and an hour or two of Unk’s fave trash-TV, Ghost Adventures:  “Welcome to your final destination, HELL!” I was in a fairly good mood. It had been fun hanging out with my mates, the scope had worked fine, so had the camera, and at least I’d seen a few things. Not that I wasn’t getting a little nervous. Only two nights left and not a single H-object in the can.

How did I fill Friday? More motel breakfast, more relaxing in the room, more surfing the amateur astronomy side of the Internet, a little writing, and—I couldn’t resist—one more visit to Taco Bell. I knew the fast-food-fare wasn't doing me much good, but that Dorito Taco Big Box, which includes a Taco Supreme loaded with sour cream and a humongous burrito, was just too much for me to easily resist. Sigh. Unk's taste doesn't exactly run to the healthy, but at least it runs to the inexpensive.

The pool was cool.
Friday evening, I again left for the site a little early, just after seven, so I could shoot more pix for my S&T article. That done, I hung out with my Chiefland pals and had a high old time. We were all in a fine mood since it seemed obvious the sky would reward us on this night.

And what a night it was. As soon as it got dark the summer Milky Way began to blaze, and kept on doing that all freaking night long. The scope did not do anything dumb Friday evening; again it was me who played dumb. I arranged the Mallincam’s power cable so it was sure to get snagged on the tripod, and that is just what happened. I could not for the life of me figure out why the scope was tracking so poorly till I actually walked over to it and saw what had happened. Doh! Luckily I hadn’t done major damage to camera or cord, and with the cable freed, Bertha began delivering round stars, even in 1-minute (unguided, natch) exposures.

What did I get? Only about seventy Herschels, but, hard to believe, that was all I needed to wrap up the Herschel 2500 phase of The Project: a few scamps in Virgo, Ursa Major, and, of all places, Libra. When the last one was in the can, the fact that I was finished with my initial observing of Will and Lina’s objects was slow to sink in. Didn’t really hit me till the next morning that I was D-O-N-E.

After that last Libra object, I toured around, doing bright pretties and continuing to familiarize myself with the Xtreme’s many controls and settings. Yes, I’ve had the camera since last October, but I haven’t had the opportunity to use it much given the crazy weather since then. By the time I’d hit the hundred object mark, give or take, and had had enough of the dew, which was almost as heavy as it had been Thursday, it was 3 a.m., a good and justifiable time for hitting that cursed Big Switch.

Back at the motel I had a (very) quick look at Cloudy Nights and it was time for bed. Frankly, I was still on a high from a great night of observing, and didn’t feel that tired, but the clock insisted it was after four, and I figgered I had better turn in. I planned on going at least till midnight Saturday, which, it appeared, would be even better than Friday had been.

When I awakened just before 11 a.m. Saturday morning, it hit me like a ton of bricks:  “The Herschel 2500 is finished!”  The next thing to hit me was a sinking feeling to the tune of “What do I look at now?” The answer is something I am calling “The Herschel Project Phase II.” What that will involve is me taking DSLR shots of some of the best of the best, and doing a lot of sketches. I plan on sticking mostly to the Herschel 400 for Phase II, but we will see where my observing leads me. If The Project is ever to evolve into a book I will need plenty of (still) astrophotos and sketches. I will probably also go back and re-video quite a few objects with the Xtreme, especially the Virgo-Coma crew, most of which were done with my old black and white Stellacam II.  

One thing is sure: at the height of a hot southern summer the idea of simple visual observing and sketching with my Dobsonian, Old Betsy, under cool fall skies is mighty appealing. I'll never forget one of the earliest Herschel Project runs on a chilly night at the Deep South Regional Star Gaze nearly three years ago. In the coldest and darkest reaches of the night I could have sworn William and Caroline were standing at my side.

Saturday was supposed to be the best day weather-wise of my time Down Chiefland Way, and that’s how it started. It was hot, but not crazy hot, and there were very few clouds. Not at first. I kept a wary eye on the sky all morning, and was pleased at the way it was shaping up. After lunch, which consisted of a comparatively healthy po-boy from the Wally-World deli, I could see some weather moving in, but I reassured myself with “Just a few clouds off the Gulf; they will be gone at sunset.”

Did not like the look of that.
Out at the site, our company had grown to five observers including the Rodster, and we were in an even jollier mood than we were Friday night, eating pizza on the field and joking around. I shot a few more images of scopes and observers for my magazine article and then opined to all and sundry that I might not stick to the midnight-turns-into-a-pumpkin rule I normally exercise on my last night at CAV. The sky was just looking too good. It was looking to be a spectacular night.

Uh-huh. You know what they say about hopes being dashed? And pride going before a fall? So it was. All of a sudden, clouds were ringing the site, clouds writhing with lightning. It didn’t appear these storms were moving toward us quickly, but it looked like the one to the east was coming our way. The Clear Sky Clock (yes, we have wi-fi on the CAV observing field thanks to the kindness of one of the residents) indicated a chance of clearing around 11 p.m.

That settled it for me. With the prospect of packing and the drive home, I didn’t feel like I could wait till eleven to get started observing. I’d got scope and gear ready, hoping the nasty storms would trundle off, but I now covered the SCT, packed computer and video equipment and headed to town.

Back in my cozy room, I couldn’t help feeling let down. I had been counting on Saturday night. On the other hand, it wasn’t like I had Herschel 2500 objects left to observe. Since it was barely 10:30, I stayed up for a while with the mucho ridiculous Chasing UFOs, which is a lot like Ghost Adventures, Finding Bigfoot, and Ghost Hunters, but with UFOs as the quarry. I spent an hour watching this entertaining foolishness (“DID YOU SEE SOMETHING?!”) before turning in in preparation for the drive back to The Swamp in the morning.

Out at the CAV Sunday a.m., I expected to hear my fellow Chiefland Observers expound on the way the sky had magically cleared just after I left, as it always seems to do. After all, I hadn’t heard any thunder or the sound of rain back in town Saturday night. It appeared that for once that was not what happened. My buddy Carl said the lightning had continued after I’d departed, and that when a wind with a threatening feel to it had sprung up, one and all decided it was time to get under cover.

Then came the saddest thing, the “All Good Things” thing. Time to pack the vehicle and get on the road for home. This had not been a perfect outing, one night and a little more of observing out of four. But I’d accomplished what I’d set out to do, putting the principal observing for The Herschel Project to bed. And I know you can only expect so much from a Florida summer sky. I knew that very well, muchachos, but I still wanted more. My thirst for the deep sky didn’t come close to being slaked this time. Translation? “Just want to come back soon.”

Next time: Space Summer Redux…


Despite the weather, this was one classic Uncle Rod Chiefland expedition. If not the best, it's in the top two or three at least. Alas, by 2012 change was coming that would make the place different from what it had been over the previous decade. 

I continued my Chiefland Observing Expeditions for the next three years 
after this entry, but only spoke to the new owner of the Clark property once (briefly) and he definitely did NOT seem overly pleased to make my acquaintance. Just didn't seem very friendly--not to me, anyhow. The feeling sure was different compared to the days when the ever-ebullient Tom Clark could be found strolling the field or chasing around on his golf cart at any hour.

The big news in this article, was that this was it. I'd been all the way through the Herschel Project. I'd seen and usually imaged all 2500 of its deep sky objects. What I didn't realize at the time was that the H-Project would turn out to be the observing project of a lifetime. 

Probably, anyhow. Who's to say I won't come up with some crazy program sometime soon that puts the Herschel Project to shame? But in the five years since I finished the Project, I haven't. Maybe the stars just haven't aligned the way they did that spring when I read Julie and Julia and The Scientific Papers of Sir William Herschel in quick succession and became inspired. Lately, I've contented myself with bright and pretty deep sky objects, and that seems to be OK for now.

What else? Some random observations...

It's foolish to try to make conclusions about the weather from the perspective of five or ten years. certainly seems to me that the Chiefland weather patterns have changed. There used to be clear summer nights aplenty. Since 2012? Not so much.

Reading this article has given me a yen to get my old Mallincam Xtreme out again. Yes, it's an analog camera, but these modern digital video cams have a lot of trouble doing what it could do easily. As in showing scads of PGC galaxies in 20 - 30-second exposures.

The Taco Bell Dorito Tacos are back. Dare I?

I miss my long gone NexStar 11. Mostly. There's one thing I do not miss about her:  the cord-wrap problems inherent in an alt-azimuth mount. Today, with polar alignment so easy and precise thanks to Sharpcap and Polemaster, there's no reason not to use a GEM for video astronomy. Oh, and I don't miss her weight either, which was the reason I sold her.

Can  you believe Ghost Adventures is still on the air?

I used to have a tendency to get nervous on a dark observing field by myself. No more. That's one of the more positive changes I've experienced over the last three years.

If there were still a Holiday Inn Express in Chiefland I might be tempted into a July expedition down Chiefland way even now.

Switching to a digital video recorder from a DVD recorder was one of the things that really sped up the H-Project as I passed the halfway point.

I still haven't eaten better barbecue than what I had at Bill's during the heyday of the Herschel Project. Oh, and their old fashioned salad bar was also crazy good.

Sometimes it's hard to believe I regularly observed 100 or more objects a night during the Project. Today, most of my imaging is with a DSLR where I essay one or two DSOs an evening.

Yes, the Days Inn was déclassé,  but having a cool and dry room, cable TV, a decent breakfast, and a pool to cool down in on those hot summer afternoons is what more than anything else allowed me to easily observe past 3 am every night.

One reason CAV was such a treat in these years was that I was working my you-know-what off at my engineering job. Not only was I assigned to the LPD (landing ship) project in Pascagoula, I was regularly commuting to the Avondale Yards in New Orleans. A weekend of fun at CAV was just heaven.

Finally, as posts occasionally do, Space Summer Redux about that fun birthday those years ago, has inexplicably dropped out of the archive on your left. It is still available just like always, however. Click the link above and you'll see it. One of my favorites, muchachos. 

All else I can add is that talking to one of the former CAV regulars recently--one of the organizers of the last (2015) Chiefland Star Party, who shall remain unnamed--revealed he and several others have, like your old Uncle, finally reached the "I have had enough" stage and have not been back. Shame. But there's only one constant in this world--change, much as I hate it, muchachos.

Sunday, July 22, 2012


Happy Birthday Unk--Chiefland Style!

Actually, your old Uncle Rod celebrated the latest in a long series of birthdays just before he departed for the Chiefland Astronomy Village for his latest Herschel hunt. You will hear all about Unk's Apollo 11 anniversary week birthday celebrations the week after next. And next week you will get the details on the latest Herschel Project runs under Florida skies.

IN OTHER WORDS, as you old timers know, when Unk is on the road you will be cheated out of your accustomed Sunday morning read. Below are a few pictures to tide you over. If you are a newbie here, let me add that there is six years worth of The Little Old Blog from Chaos Manor South here, with each and every article presented in Unk's inimitable (ahem) style. Look on these as "summer reruns" to get you caught up on the goings on 'round the The Old Manse. Anyhoo, see you bright and early next Sunday, muchachos!..

Next Time: More Herschel Project fun...

Sunday, July 15, 2012


The Parade’s Gone By

As my fellow old-timers will agree, amateur astronomy has changed in the last half century—though opinions will differ on whether that’s been for the good or bad. I don’t think much remains the same as it was in the mid-sixties when Unk got started. Well, I’ll qualify that statement to say, “Everything has changed about the gear we use.” Amateur astronomy has not changed in that it is still a special sort of pursuit for a few thoughtful people fascinated by The Great Out There.

One other thing that has not changed is that amateur astronomers are obsessed by telescopes. That being the undeniable case, I thought it would be fun to take a look at what has changed in the equipment market. Dang near fifty years is a long, long time, but I was still amazed to sit down with the June 1966 copy of Sky and Telescope magazine and see just how many of the oh-so-famous telescope makers in that issue’s advertisements are not just gone, but long gone, and usually barely remembered.


I’ve said it before and I will say it again: in the sixties and well into the seventies, Edmund Scientific WAS U.S. amateur astronomy. Their ad in the June 1966 Sky and Telescope is a full page, but is not lavish. It’s mostly made up of little black and white pix, some of which don’t even concern the company’s astronomy products. Didn’t matter. We all knew Edmund was it, where most of us went or wanted to go for what little astro-stuff we could afford.

That continued well into the eighties, though Edmund’s prominence in the astro-market had been waning since the seventies. What changed Edmund Scientific was the retirement of its founder, Norman Edmund, and, more than that, the change in amateur astronomy. By the seventies’ end, the traditional Newtonians sold by Edmund and most other U.S. scope manufacturers were on their way out, displaced by the new Dobsonian Newtonians and by the higher tech and more astrophotography-capable Schmidt Cassegrains sold by those west coast upstarts, Celestron. Unlike some of their competitors, Norman’s son and his staff had the sense to cut back on scopes, and were thus able to keep on trucking.

Edmund Scientific is still around, but it’s not the Edmund it used to be; it’s been split in two. There’s Edmund Optics, which is the direct descendant of the original company, but its focus is different. Mostly it’s devoted to selling optical and other “scientific” supplies to industry and the educational market, mostly the latter, I would guess. Like similar outfits, many of their prices are high and nobody other than a secondary school or college would consider paying them. They do still sell the famous Edmund RKE eyepieces for reasonable prices, but last time I checked the catalog, they were listed as microscope eyepieces. Sigh.

The other half of the cleaved Edmund is “Scientifics,” the consumer part of the business, which is independently owned, having been sold off some years ago. Not that that made much difference. The stuff they are selling is about what Edmund Scientific was offering before the sale. There’s even astro-gear. Amazingly, some of the old stuff is still there, like Sam Brown’s How to Use Your Telescope and The Mag 5 Star Atlas. Telescopes, though? All that’s left in the catalog or on the website other than Celestron and Meade products is the little Astroscan.


If there was a competitor for Edmund in the hearts and minds of li’l Rod and his amateur buddies of fifty years ago, it was Criterion. They won us over by selling a line of Newtonian telescopes that were more reasonably priced than most and also performed better than most. Especially the RV-6 six-inch, which even staunch Edmundite Unk had to admit was a cut above Norman’s Super Space Conqueror. Uncle Rod and many other amateurs still love and use that simple but effective telescope even unto this day.

What happened to Criterion? The same thing that caused Edmund to move to the shallow end of the astronomy pool: SCTs. Unlike Edmund, however, who knew how to read the cotton-picking tea leaves, Criterion decided to take on Celestron on their own turf, producing a line of Schmidt Cassegrains, the Dynamaxes. You can read the whole gory story in my Used CAT Buyer’s Guide, but the bottom line is that Criterion was unable to produce consistently good Schmidt Cassegrains.

That was purty disappointing for us Criterion fans who had expected great things from the company given the (relatively) high quality of their German mount reflectors. Luckily for them, Criterion’s owners, a father and son, knew when to give up the ship and bailed out in 1982 just before the Halley debacle, selling the company to Bausch and Lomb. The then-huge B&L no doubt thought they might do some serious business with SCTs with the big Comet on the way. While B&L did turn out a good CAT in the form of the 8-inch 8001 Pro, by the time they found their feet in the bidness the astronomy gear crash was upon us and they quickly shut the whole thing down.

While some of the old telescope companies survive, at least in shadow existences, and some, like Edmund, are more or less still in the astronomy game, nothing has been heard of Criterion since the 1980s. I’ve halfway expected B&L or somebody else to resurrect the name and plaster it on cheap imported scopes from China, but that has not happened, which is maybe a good thing.


Third place for Unk and his fellow penniless teenage amateur astronomers of the Age of Aquarius was occupied by a little company out of Lynbrook, New York, A. Jaegers. They didn’t sell telescopes other than the occasional Tasco, but they sold dern near everything else. Lotsa WWII surplus, but, most of all, amateur telescope making components. Tubes, focusers, complete GEM mounts, primary and secondary mirror mounts, even mirror making kits.

Jaegers had a big two page ad in Sky and Telescope, but they ran the exact same ad month after month for over a decade, which led to young Unk considering them a little low-rent compared to, say, Edmund. That didn’t stop me from buying from ‘em of course—quite the opposite. Being as bereft of funds as a twelve year old amateur astronomer can be, their stuff was a god-send. Just a year or two after the June ’66 issue of S&T appeared in the folks bright green mailbox, I took the bit between my teeth and used the $11.95 I’d laboriously saved (and begged from Daddy) and bought one of Jaegers’ “Astronomical Kits,” to grind and polish my own 6-inch mirror.

What happened to Jaegers? The same thing that happened to Edmund and Criterion: the wind-change in astronomy. By the 1980s, the ATM market had begun to collapse.  Us teen astronomers from the 1960s now had the money for store-bought telescopes, and didn’t have time for ATMing what with getting careers and marriages started. The period at the end of the Jaegers sentence was a fire that caused severe damage to their shop.

A. Jaegers is remembered fondly, not just for their Newt parts and pieces, but for their achromatic objectives. Their 4, 5, and 6-inch lenses and the refractors amateurs fabricated with ‘em are sought after and can fetch surprising amounts of moola today. And Jaegers may not be completely gone, continuing in a ghostly existence today. A couple of years ago good buddy Phil Harrington reported that Jaegers has a storefront in Millbrook New York, and I see Jaegers stuff for sale on Surplus Shed’s website every now and then.


If there is a company amongst the old guard that is as well thought-of or maybe even better thought of today than they were in 1966, that is Cave Optical, the maker of the famous Astrola GEM Newt telescopes. They were a big presence in S&T in the sixties and on through the seventies, and were much admired by us in the peanut butter and jelly brigade, though there was no way we could afford Mr. Thomas Cave’s creations. Adding to their mystique and reputation were the facts that Cave was not just the owner of the company; he was an observer of legendary repute. And Astrolas were the choice of the day’s top names in amateur astronomy—folks like pioneering astrophotographer Evered Kreimer.

Were Cave’s telescopes as good as their reputation? Has that held up over time? Mostly yes to both. Not all Cave optics are good, some are bow-wows. Most, however, are pretty good, and some, especially those done by Cave’s superstar optician, Alika Herring, are superb. The scopes themselves, the mounts and OTAs, are OK, but not that great by today’s standards. Those long, gleaming white tubes and big GEM mounts look cool even now, but in typical 60s fashion they are shakier than they look.

Cave could probably have carried on through the 1990s and beyond despite the changing market due to the stellar reputation of Astrola Telescopes. Alas, Tom Cave, who was Cave Optical, was forced to retire in 1979 due to failing health and sold the company.

“Astrola” is still alive, off and on at least, with Hardin Optical, who purchased the rights to the name, occasionally marketing eyepieces and other gear under that brand. Certainly Cave is alive today for amateurs who appreciate a good Newtonian. Prices for used Astrolas continue to climb, and the dream of many amateurs is finding a big honking 10-inch or 12-inch at a yard sale for fifty bucks. Unk? After admiring Astrolas in the pages of The Magazine for a decade, he fulfilled his dream by purchasing an 8-inch in the 1970s. Only to find it really wasn’t the scope for him. So it goes.

Starliner and Optical Craftsmen and Pacific Instruments

I lump these three together because I don’t know a whole lot about the businesses that produced them. I have used their scopes, so I do know something about those, however. The bottom line is that the three produced traditional Newts not much different from any of the others on the market. Pacific Instruments did add a few semi-innovations to their mounts, but not enough to really make them stand out. The optics? I’ve used all three brands in numbers that reflect the small numbers produced. Pacific Instruments scopes generally impress. Starliner sometimes does. Optical Craftsmen? Not so much.

What happened to these companies is what happened to all the other small/garage businesses in astronomy in the seventies-eighties. Pacific and Optical Craftsmen, anyway. Starliner continued on until at least the mid 1990s, even running small ads once in a while. I doubt they produced many telescopes—if any—after the 80s, though. A buddy of mine gave ‘em a call out of curiosity in the early 1990s. The person he spoke to—maybe the company’s owner—didn’t seem much interested in telescopes, and was especially not interested in selling telescopes.


Ah Unitron, Unitron, Unitron. By god, they are still some beautiful telescopes. In The Day, their ads in Sky and ‘Scope, one full inside page and the back cover, were almost holy. ‘Course their prices, which began at 125 bucks for a 60mm alt-azimuth refractor, made little Rod want to holler “Holy spit!” (this is a family oriented blog, y’all) when Mama wasn’t around. $125.00 in 1966 greenbacks is equivalent to about $1000.00 now, and Unitron’s prices just went up from there. Neither Unk nor any of his pals in The Backyard Astronomy Society were ever able to order a telescope from that vaunted address in Massachusetts—though one kid in the neighborhood, not one of our members, did score the 2.4-inch Model 114despite the hours we spent fantasizing over the little Unitron catalog.

Unitron telescopes were high in quality and are still fairly impressive today. Their achromatic objectives can’t hold a candle quality-wise to modern refractor glass, of course, but they still do pretty well given their high f/16ish focal ratios. You probably won’t be surprised to learn Unitron telescopes are highly sought after today by aging baby-boom astronomers attempting to relive or rewrite their youth. Over on the Cloudy Nights Classic Telescopes bulletin board, the mere mention of the U-word causes an immediate stampede of fanboys.

What killed Unitron? Like everybody else, they were hit hard by the recession of the seventies, and even moreso by the growing interest in astrophotography. Imaging Stephan’s Quintet with an f/16 scope did not have much appeal, after all. Most fatally, the Japanese company Unitron bought its parts/scopes from, Nihon Seiko, went out of business. Unitron continued selling refractors and mounts through the 80s, and their website showed a couple of telescopes in the product lineup as recently as the late 1990s (though I doubt they could have supplied one by then). Unitron is actually not dead; it is still alive selling microscopes.

If little Unk had read the above paragraph in 1966 he would have been shocked to learn that Unitron did not make its own scopes. He would have been doubly shocked to learn that most of the parts used to make the scopes, and usually the entire scopes and mounts, were made in Japan, just like the dreaded Tascos. Like Tasco, Unitron (“United Trading Company”) never made a thing. They imported Japanese parts and telescopes, just like Tasco. Generally the scopes they sold were of far higher quality than the Tascos, but not always.


Until recently, you didn’t hear many amateurs talk about Tasco, even though they played a huge—if often uncredited—role in the amateur astronomy of the 1960s, at least amateur astronomy as practiced by us younguns. There is no doubt more of us had Tascos than Edmunds or Criterions.

I went into the details here, but the fact is Tasco imported some excellent telescopes, including ones made by or including components by legendary Japanese companies like Goto and Royal. The dirtiest little secret of them all? That Ford Pinto of amateur telescopes, the 4.5-inch Tasco Lunagrosso, was equal to most and superior to some American-made telescopes of similar aperture.

As I wrote in the above-linked article, what ended Tasco was the retirement of their owner coupled with a need, or at least a desire, to compete in the Halley driven telescope market of the mid 1980s by importing cheaper and cheaper scopes. The name “Tasco” is still around and on plenty of the inexpensive Chinese telescopes that inhabit Wal-Mart at Christmastime, but that company has no relation to the original. The most surprising thing, given how me and my mates used to badmouth everything Tasco, is how almost any Tasco telescope is now much desired by, yep, nostalgic Boomer amateurs. Never thought I’d live long enough to see that, y’all.

And so the parade has gone by. Most of the companies who ran those drooled-over ads in the summer of 1966 are no more or have changed beyond all recognition. Do I miss the amateur astronomy of that long gone time? Once in a while. Who ain’t nostalgic for their youth? And my youth was amateur astronomy. That is tempered, of course, by the knowledge that I am having just as much or more fun in the amateur astronomy of today, and am seeing one hell of a lot more. Still, muchachos, when Unk’s eye is at the eyepiece of his RV-6 it is not unusual to hear him emit the occasional sigh.


Sunday, July 08, 2012


My Favorite Star Parties: Texas Star Party 2001

The Texas Star Party, the TSP, is what we Boomers used to call “a happening.” Close to 1000 hardcore amateur astronomers under the dark skies of Fort Davis Texas’ Prude Ranch for a week of pedal-to-the-metal observing. As I have said before in this series, my best star party experiences have not necessarily been at those held under the best skies, but there is no doubt my best observing experiences have been at the TSP. And the everything else ain’t been bad, either, muchachos.

TSP 2001 would be my third pilgrimage to that Mecca of deep sky fanatics. 1999 had been crazy good. Some folks still think it’s the best year ever, as in, “Whole week of incredible black skies; how long can you go?” The only bringdowns in 1999 were that it was so crowded we had to set up on the extra-dusty Lower (Middle) Field, and we couldn’t get a room on the ranch until we’d been there a couple of days. Still, it was crazy fun and me and Miss Dorothy resolved to make it back as soon as we could.

What about my first TSP? TSP '97? The less said about that the better, I reckon. I and my old Possum Swamp Astronomical Society observing companions Pat Rochford and Joe Diefenbach, had hoped for a great one, but it was lousy. The star party was held that year in the Texas Hill Country instead of its normal Prude Ranch home in the Big Bend region of west Texas, and the weather (among other things) was just not good enough. 

D. and I wanted to do TSP 2000, but there were a couple of flies in that ointment. Mainly that for us TSP was a massive vacation involving over a week of leave, a two-day drive from Possum Swamp (if’n you are smart), and a fair amount of $$$. The real killer, though? The date of the event. Naturally, it shifts to accommodate the time of the New Moon, and it was not always in the mid-May time frame perfect for us back when Dorothy was teaching. So, TSP 2000 came and went without us. Sigh.

2001? The stars were properly aligned again. I don’t know if the Moon was in the Seventh House or not, but it was New in that perfect May time-frame. TSP 2001 would be held Sunday 13 May – Sunday 20 May. And it got better. We were able to reserve one of the “motel rooms” (well, sorta), just off the vaunted Upper Field, the place where everybody who’s anybody wants to be.

Packing was not too bad. Since we had that much-coveted Room on the Ranch, we were able to leave the tent and other camping gear (don’t ask how that worked in 1999) at home. Still, packing a fairly sizeable scope, Old Betsy, my 12.5-inch truss tube Dobsonian, eyepieces, the ancillary observing gear, and clothes and everything else we’d need for a week’s stay was a challenge when it all had to go in a Toyota Camry. We managed somehow. At the last minute, I recalled Prude Ranch is in a dry county (there still are such things), and ran out to the green-front store for a bottle of, natch, Rebel Yell.

Why did I choose Old Betsy? Couple of reasons. Mainly because of her aperture. At the time, my next largest scope was my Ultima C8; the NexStar 11 was still a year in my future. Even if I’d had the NS11 I might have looked askance at taking her to Prude. Yeah, I know people haul even bigger and fancier scopes out there—Jason Ware used to bring his 16-inch monster of an LX200—but I couldn’t help thinking that was asking for trouble given the crazy dust.

By the time TSP 2001 rolled around, I’d just barely finished cleaning the last of  1999's fine Prude Ranch dust out of Betsy’s various nooks and crannies (and off her Teflon bearing pads).  I used to say the dust is a blend of the manure of countless generations of horses mixed with plutonium particles blowing in from Nevada. I don’t know if that is true or not, but the stuff is nasty. While I didn’t want to expose the U8 to it, I figured my little 60mm ETX60 go-to scope, “Snoopy,” was expendable and stuffed him in the overflowing trunk somehow.

The journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step, they say. Not that I much liked that step. The first part of the journey, the stretch between Chaos Manor South and Houston, is as boring as boring can be. About like the trip up I-65 to Montgomery, but longer and over more poorly maintained Interstate. In 1999, Miss Dorothy and I stopped in Houston overnight, which made for a punishing drive on day two. Not this time. We got an early start Saturday morning and planned to push on at least to San Antonio.

After a stop for fuel and food at one of the many bar-b-que joints-cum-gas stations scattered along the Texas Interstate, we were approaching San Antone.  We were making good time since, for some bizarre reason, there were none of the frequent slowdowns for road construction we’d encountered on the last trip. We were rested, didn’t spy a good stopping place on the outskirts of or in San Antonio, and decided to press on a while longer, mindful that “more today = less tomorrow.”

Where to stop? I thought we shouldn’t go too much farther, since I recalled the next stretch of I-10, where you leave the Hill Country and enter in upon the real Way Out West, was barren of motels for a while. The solution presented itself in the form of Kerrville, Texas, a neat little retirement community 40-miles west of the big city.

As soon as we exited I-10, we saw a big Best Western. It was obviously a refugee from the seventies, but it looked good on the outside, so we took a chance. We were impressed by the lobby’s condition—the motel had recently been remodeled—the friendliness of the staff, and, especially, our huge room. Settled in, it was soon suppertime. We asked the front desk clerk what was good in the vicinity and he unhesitatingly responded with one word, “Mamacita’s!”

I said a while back that Huntsville, Alabama’s Rosie’s Mexican Cantina is Unk’s second favorite Tex-Mex restaurant. Mamacita’s is his first. Big dining room (good thing, since the restaurant was full of prom-going couples that night), big portions, and big Margaritas. They do say everything is big in Texas, but big ain’t worth a hoot if “good” ain’t also part of the equation. Not only was there plenty of food, it was fresh. No frozen bags of tortillas here. They were cranking them out on a big machine as we watched. I loved the food, and those Margaritas sure helped clear ol' Unk’s throat of road dust.

Sunday morning, it was “on the road again.” We were back on I-10 ASAP for the West Texas portion of the trip, which ought to be boring but ain’t. After you leave Hill Country, you begin to get real western scenery: mesas and mountains. The fun of seeing that is offset a little by anticipation. You know you will soon be hanging out with hordes of like-minded amateur astronomers and can hardly wait to get to the ranch. 

Almost before we knew it, Miss Dorothy and I were taking that well remembered exit and pulling onto Prude Ranch—which is a dude ranch 51 weeks of the year. Driving up to the main building, which houses registration, the dining hall, and the auditorium for presentations and other events, we could see there was a long line of amateurs waiting to sign in. D. suggested I get us a spot on the field while she took care of registration. Has anybody ever had a better wife? I don’t think so.

Depending on how many amateurs are registered, there may be as many as three observing fields in use. Upper, Lower, and one near the front gate. The Lower Field is, as we found out in ‘99, kinda dusty, and the area out by the gate is mostly used by RVers who can’t get one of the limited number of hookups adjacent to the Upper Field. Yeah, everybody wants to be on that Upper Field, and for good reason. It is less dusty, though any place on Prude is dusty in dry weather, it is near the motel rooms and the Vendors’ Hall, and, well, it’s where all your buddies will be.

By midday Sunday, the field was beginning to fill up, but I was able to snag us a spot near the southern end. It wasn’t perfect for the most southern of southerly objects due to a semi-obstructing hill, but it was still good, and I spotted my old observing buddy, Tom Wideman, nearby. Setting up next to Tom would make observing that year even more fun than it otherwise would have been.

I got the scope and other gear unloaded, which was not a huge task, since all there was was Betsy, who took 15-minutes to assemble, tops; a card table; the star atlas and a notebook of charts printed with Megastar; and the eyepieces. I don’t know how the rules read these days, but back then you were not permitted to leave vehicles on the field or erect tent/dining canopies except at the field edges. A good thing, since in those days the Upper Field was one crowded place.

Set up done, I took a few minutes to look around. Dust would not, it appeared, be the problem it had been the last time. The rains had come. When we were at Prude for TSP ‘99, they had not had appreciable rain since the previous November. 2001 was different. It was obvious there’d been wet stuff falling not long ago, and the sometimes numerous afternoon clouds hinted that could happen again at any time. Well, at least I wouldn’t have to worry about shoveling dust off my primary mirror this year.

I drove back and picked up D., who’d completed our registration, and we went to check out our room. No, a motel room at Prude ain’t the equal of even one at the Day’s Inn in Chiefland, Florida, but our room was OK and a dang sight better than a tent. It was clean and spacious, but there was no point in looking for a refrigerator, or a microwave, or a telephone, or even a TV. In typical dude ranch fashion, there was none of that stuff. There was an air conditioner, though. There is no way you can observe all night long, night after night, if you can’t get adequate rest in the daytime. If I don’t have air conditioning in West Texas, this old boy ain’t gonna get no rest.

After we’d got arranged in the room, some nice star party staffers stopped by to give us some red lightbulbs and finish blocking our windows. I was still a little new to this "astronomy writer" business and was gobsmacked when one of 'em asked me to autograph her copy of my SCT book!  Man alive, I was a a small amateur astronomy way, anyhow.

Now it was time for our first meal on the ranch. You have probably heard folks joke about the quality—or lack thereof—of food at Prude. That has not been my experience. The big hazard in that regard is you are likely to put on a few pounds before the star party is over. I know I overdid it on Mexican Food Night in '99, and the meals were even better, we thought, in 2001.

The grub was both good and plentiful and was served cafeteria-style in an attractive old-timey-western dining room. Dorothy and I had a great meal Sunday evening, and afterwards strolled around the ranch house area, reacquainting ourselves with the many amateurs we only saw at TSP. Yeah, by 2001 the Internet was a fact of amateur-astronomy life, and made it easier to stay in touch with friends, but there ain’t nothing like the occasional eyeball QSO, as the hams say.

Talking to buds was cool, but observing under crazy-dark desert skies was the main course on the menu. Unfortunately, at Prude in the late springtime you have to wait for that. Fort Davis is so far west in its time zone that it doesn’t get dark till dern near 10 p.m. It seemed like it took forever for astronomical twilight to arrive on Sunday, but when it finally did, Urania put on quite the sky show.

What did I look at? I was tired and wasn’t in the mood to hunt up stuff like Copeland’s Septet (no Digital Setting Circles on Betsy back then). I pretty much stuck to the easy stuff this first TSP night; you know, the bright fuzzies that look good anywhere, but are mind-blowing from the desert. Best one? Probably M51, which, with the 12mm Nagler 2, showed more detail in my 12-inch than it does in 18-inchers back home. The spiral arms were trivially easy. The “bridge” of material connecting big mutha M51 to little NGC 5195 was easy if not trivial. The face of the galaxy was peppered with glimmering little field stars that gave the image incredible depth. Wish y’all had been there.

What was the experience of observing from the legendary upper field like? I jotted down a few impressions that first night:

Sunday evening, night one of TSP 2001, and the field is crowded with happy observers wielding telescopes of every size and description. At sunset, there’s plenty of conversation, but as the sky darkens to purple and the desert Milky Way begins to burn, a hush falls over the company and the cool night air is punctuated only by the whirring of telescope motors. My scope points to the heart of the Virgo Cluster, whose marvels are without number in my eyepiece. I’m after the bright and easy Messiers tonight, but I soon almost lose my way among hordes of normally dim island Universes that aren’t so dim anymore.

Even at TSP not every moment is quite so cosmic. In the earlier part of the evening a city boy (I presume) noticed a skunk crossing the edge of the field. The skunk was minding his own business and not bothering anybody. Mr. City Slicker thought he should take action; however, “I’ll throw a rock at Mr. Skunk and make him run away.” Some of us wild-eyed southern boys restrained this worthy before he could bring on Mr. Skunk’s terrible retribution.

Be ready for both benevolent and not so benevolent wildlife if you come to TSP. Miss Dorothy saw her first real roadrunner that year, and she loved watching the ranch horses run around and play in the twilight. But one night some folks from the University of Texas who were set up near the motel rooms noticed (luckily) a rattlesnake curled around a telescope's metal pier soaking up the nice warmth, thank you.

I’d felt a little weary during the first hours of Sunday night, but I got a second wind somehow in those dark days before the coming of Monster Energy Drinks. Suddenly, I felt like I should and could observe till dawn. ‘Twas not to be. Those dadgum clouds I’d noticed earlier moved back in and shut us down at about 1 a.m.  Desert storm cover on Bets, I headed back to the room. There, the adrenaline rush engendered by the Texas skies wore off and I was some kinda tired. A little Yell and it was night-night time.

Next morning, but not early the next morning, the first order of bidness was COFFEE. Since there was no demand for breakfast by late-sleeping observers, the chow hall didn’t open till 11:30 a.m. Luckily, the vendors’ building was just a short distance from our room and always had a big urn of coffee brewing. After a swallow or two of the blessed liquid, I began to feel human again and took a look at the cool astro-stuff on display.

Good dealer turnout that year. There was Lumicon, the now-gone Pocono Mountain Optics, TeleVue, Lymax, Sky Publications, Astronomy to Go, and even our old buddy Rex of Rex’s Astrostuff among others. I saw plenty of pretties I wouldn’t have minded having, but I’d resolved to limit my buying this year, since the price of gas was so high (or so we thought), DANG NEAR TWO BUCKS A GALLON!

That didn’t mean Dorothy and I didn’t buy anything. Are you kidding? At TSP? We not only got a copy of Kepple and Sanner’s two-volume Night Sky Observer’s Guide, the deep sky observer’s best friend in the days before we all used SkyTools, we were able to get both authors to autograph the books. That was cool. What was cooler? I was asked for more autographs! A couple of folks noticed me wandering the Vendor Hall and asked me to autograph copies of Choosing and Using a Schmidt Cassegrain Telescope.

Monday night? Not so hotsky. Not good at all. It was purty much a cloud-out, with occasional sucker holes doing little more than teasing the assembled multitude of amateurs. I stuck it out on the field for quite a while, talking with pals old and new and checking out their equipment. Every once in a while, I’d head over to a little kiosk on the field edge where there was a monitor displaying current weather. But I might as well have saved the shoe leather. It didn’t get any better Monday. Oh, well, I got a good night’s sleep. This was to be the last night I’d snooze the dark hours away.

Tuesday dawned hot, dusty, and clear and stayed that way. The afternoon brought the first assault by the notorious West Texas dust devils. Dust devils? More like mini-tornadoes. Unfortunately, there were some folks who hadn’t heeded the warnings and taken the precautions stressed in the TSP literature and on their website: stake down your tripod with landscaping nails, leave a Dob depressed in altitude and free to “weathervane.” There was no major damage, luckily. I saw a beautiful Orange Tube C8 get levitated, and figured it was a goner, but the devil let it down surprisingly gently.

If Sunday night was good, Tuesday night was great. The sky at dark was substantially better than it had been two days before. I could tell because, as it always is when the desert sky is in tip-top shape, the sky was not inky black but more a very dark gray.

I spent the evening working my way through deep sky guru John Wagoner’s yearly observing list. Not only are his lists “challenging,” John inevitably directs you to some wonderful objects you didn’t know existed. The skies were so good I even did some of the (very) faint fuzzies on master observer Larry Mitchell’s Advanced List. It was really intended for scopes bigger than my 12-inch, but I ran down some of his picks, anyway.

Mostly, though, Tom and I worked on John’s “An Astronomical Odyssey” observing program. In the directions that came with it, Mr. Wagoner asserted there was a mystery associated with the list, and that TSP could not be responsible for any observers who might be ABDUCTED BY ALIENS!

Jeff and Tom
We slogged our way through the Odyssey objects, many of which were pretty dadgum tough. John sent us from a rarely observed planetary nebula in Hercules, to a dark nebula in Aquila, and everywhere north, south, east and west of that. We had some theories about the “mystery,” but danged if any of ‘em made much sense. Nevertheless, we kept going, finishing the list’s 25 objects and moving on to many more until the sky began to brighten with dawn and a rising old Moon began to interfere.

All was revealed the next morning (LATE the next morning). When I turned my completed list in to John to receive my reward, a beautiful pin, he spilled the beans: “Connect the ‘dots’ of the objects on a large-scale chart and you’ll form ‘2-0-0-1.’” Doh! The pin, which I still have and treasure, bore a picture of the 2001: a Space Odyssey monolith.

Hard to believe we were at the halfway point of TSP 2001, but we were. Midweek brought excellent talks and other daytime activities. Standouts? My late friend Jeff Medkeff’s presentation on astronomy software, even then an obsession of mine. Also real good were Larry Mitchell’s deep sky presentation and Tom Clark’s talk about the development of the Dobsonian telescope.

Since it doesn’t get dark at Prude till very late, there were early evening talks throughout the week, too. Timothy Ferris shared a chapter of his forthcoming book Seeing in the Dark, and Steve O’Meara gave a surprisingly intriguing talk on vulcanology. The star party Keynote Speaker was supposed to have been (then) new Sky & Telescope Editor Rich Fienberg. Unfortunately, due to a death in the family he had to bow out. His shoes were ably filled by Mr. O’Meara. He didn’t have much time to prepare, but his presentation Saturday night on the green flash was one of the more interesting talks I’ve heard at TSP or any other star party.

Wednesday afternoon we took the tour of nearby McDonald Observatory. We’d done it in 1999, too, but it was fun to go up the mountain again. Dorothy and I really couldn’t get enough of the giant state-of-the-art Hobby-Ebberly Telescope, but the historic 88-inch Otto Struve Telescope was even more interesting.  The almost art-deco looking instrument was in good shape and its beautiful, antique-looking control console was still present even though the scope was now run by computers. The observatory gift shop was a treat, with Unk bringing back a McDonald coffee mug, a couple of beer cozies, and an excellent book on the history of the facility, Big and Bright.

Wednesday night? We were back to haze and sometimes sucker holes. It seemed the perfect time to let Snoopy have a go at the Texas skies. I’d had fun with the little 60mm f/5.8 scope back home, but this fast refractor really came into his own in the desert. In a 40mm eyepiece equipped with an OIII filter, I had the best view of NGC 7000, The North America Nebula, I’d ever had in any scope from anywhere. When the sky was clear, Snoop Doggie Dog had no trouble with even hard ones like M101.

Thursday night at first looked like it was gonna be another heartbreaker. Drifting cloud banks allowed us little or nothing for the first four hours of the evening. But Tom and I stuck it out, as did most of the residents of the upper field. At 2 a.m. the sky finally opened up, and I do mean opened up. Suddenly, the Milky Way was arching overhead like a giant burning rainbow.

How did I take advantage of the superb condx? I started out by doing John’s list from the previous year, 2000, “Glorious Globulars.” Later, I even made a little more progress with Larry Mitchell’s objects. How hard were they? Well, one of Larry’s targets was Einstein’s Cross. Need I say I didn’t catch that one?

Best moment of the night? That came near dawn. Tom had loaded up a new program on his Macintosh (yes he is one of those people), that would supposedly allow his LX200 classic SCT to track satellites. It just so happened the International Space Station was due make a good pass just before sunrise, so he thought we’d give it a try on that. I was skeptical, but it worked, it really, really worked, tracking the ISS not in fits and starts but smoothly and accurately. The sight of the ISS, whose solar panels were visible in the LX200, accompanied by the snuffling of awakening horses, and birds calling to greet the Sun, was unforgettable.

What was there to do at Prude in the daytime? When yet another turn around the vendor hall began to lose its luster, there was Fort Davis. Stop number one there? The Fort Davis Hotel and Drugstore. The attraction there was the old time soda fountain. In addition to ice cream treats, The Drugstore offered breakfast, burgers, and even steaks. It was out of business for a while, I believe, but is now, thankfully, open again I hear.

Across the street is the historic Hotel Limpia. It’s a beautiful and beautifully kept old place, and I’ve often thought that, if I couldn’t get a Ranch Room some year, the Limpia would be just great. You don’t have to stay there to enjoy it, though. Their dining room serves awful good grub including insane chicken fried chicken.

Our favorite day trip destination in 2001 was just down the road from the Ranch, The Davis Mountains State Park. It was particularly beautiful that year because the (dratted) rain had caused wildflowers and cacti to bloom with abandon. The drive up to the top of the mountain along Skyline Drive was beautiful, in part because it was a beauty that was utterly alien to us back-easters. Stopped at the park's historic stone building, the North Lookout Shelter, gazing down the mountain, I thought the valley below us looked like it could have easily been used for atomic tests. Or it might have spawned the giant spiders and ants and lizards that haunted the west in all those 50s B sci-fi movies. Slightly creepy, but pretty.

Friday night we were back on the roller coaster. The sky was not horrible, but it was definitely not as good as Thursday. I went on as long as I could, but by early morning banks of clouds were pouring in. The objects I’d seen earlier had mostly been brighter ones; even when it looked clear transparency was not good enough to encourage me to go galaxy cluster hunting.

Saturday morning, the last full day of TSP, dawned to leaden skies, and worse, light RAIN. As if that weren’t depressing enough, it was time to begin contemplating the prospect of the long drive home. Weather reports we were getting were contradictory, but it did not look like the night would be that hot, so I decided I might as well pack Bertha in the Toyota in the interests of a quick getaway Sunday morning.

Surprise! As sunset approached, the clouds almost magically began to clear. While Tom kindly offered to help me unload Bertha again, I said, no; I was going to put in a night of minimalist astronomy. It would be Snoopy the ETX all the away, assisted by charts generated with Planetarium on my Palm III handheld computer/PDA.

How well did that work? I won’t say I didn’t miss Bertha’s big 12-inch eye at times, but it was amazing how much ground I covered with a 2.4-inch go-to. The wide field nature of the telescope helped, but, still, the way the computer put every single object in the field of this inexpensive scope was just slightly amazing. I spent hours touring along the Cygnus Milky Way, scoping out big open clusters and dark nebulae that don’t look like much in a large telescope, but come to life in a little guy.

Which is not to say I didn’t do some looking through the big guns of my fellow observers. The field had cleared out a little since the peak on Wednesday night, when it had been wall-to-wall telescopes, but there were still plenty of observers going at it. I loved every object I looked at, and even if the sky wasn’t the best Prude could offer, it sure was better than what I would have had back home. The only problem? Departure in the morning. “How late will I go?” I compromised and pulled the big switch at 2:30 a.m.

Come morning, I was glad I’d put Betsy away early. Sunday’s departure was painless. Well, not quite painless. Passing under the “Vaya Con Dios” sign leaving the ranch for the last time did make me a little sad. It had been a good one, though; I’d seen plenty of stuff, spent lots of time with friends, and even bought an astro-goodie or three. ’99 was better for observing, yes, but somehow I still love 2001 best. There was an ineffable something about it that made it as special as a star party can be.

And that, muchachos, is the end of my TSP history. If I love it so much, why haven’t I been back? Well, sprouts, you’ll find as you get older that your career doesn’t become easier; it becomes more demanding with more responsibilities. That was true for both me and D. and put an end to our adventures out west. But I am planning and plotting a return. Maybe in the next three-four-five years. Maybe with a bigger gun than good old Betsy. Well I can dream, anyway, can’t I?

Next Time:  The Parade’s Gone By…

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