Sunday, August 26, 2012


My Favorite Star Parties: Indian Springs’ Last Bow

Last bow? Maybe. Maybe not. You never know, muchachos. I might get back to Georgia’s Indian Springs State Park one of these days. Even if I don’t, I had a good time at most of  the star parties I attended there, a couple of Peach State Star Gazes and a couple of Georgia Sky Views. The Georgia whatsits? Everybody in our part of the country has heard of the Peach State Star Gaze, and quite a few people not in the sunny south also know about the Atlanta Astronomy Club’s big deep sky observing event. But there is another Georgia star party, a much less well-known one, The Georgia Sky View.

In 2002, Peach State decamped for the hills of Tennessee (and, later, to the dark acres of the Deerlick Astronomy Village).  Which left Unk without his yearly visit to the pine forests of central Georgia and lovely Indian Springs near Jackson, smack in the middle of the state. It looked like there would never be another star party there despite the fineness of the site’s facilities. The Peach Staters made it pretty clear they would not be back, no matter how their new venue just over the Georgia-Tennessee border worked out.

Many of us Georgia-Alabama amateur astronomers missed Indian Springs with its cool woods and reasonably good skies, though. No, the location was not perfect and could never be perfect sitting barely 60 miles from metro Atlanta, but the sky was more than sufficient for rewarding deep sky viewing. Like I told y’all in my blog article about the last PSSG at the site, as long as you avoided the Atlanta light dome (to the relatively uninteresting northwest) all was well.

Yeah, quite a few of us missed our yearly star party at Indian Springs. Some missed it so much they decided to do something about it. Those folks were the members of the Flint River Astronomy Club of Griffin, Georgia. I admit I really don’t know much about the organization, but I do know it is made up of some enthusiastic amateur astronomers who’ve accomplished quite a bit despite their status as a relatively small small town outfit. Some of the Flinters decided they would like to put on a spring star party, and that nearby Indian Springs would be the perfect place for it.

Good, old Stuckey's
And that is just what they did in 2004. And again in 2005, when they had Unk up as their keynote speaker. I’d had a lovely time back at my old Jackson stomping grounds and was overjoyed when I was invited up to serve as speaker once again for the 2006 edition, which would be held April 20 - 23.

The Georgia Sky View was not a huge event—maybe there were 50 observers on the field in ought-five when all was said and done. But that was kind of the beauty of the thing: a small, intimate star party that didn’t stress the facilities like the ever-growing Peach State had.  I didn’t have any other engagements on tap for April of 2006, so I was happy not just to say “yes,” but to make a donation to the cause by asking only for the organizers to cover my registration, housing, and meals (if any).

By the time the morning of my departure rolled ‘round, your old Uncle was getting right excited. Not only would I be heading back to the heart of Georgia for a weekend of deep sky observing, I planned to record what I saw with my Meade Color DSI “Deep Sky Imager” camera. I’d had the little CCD cam for a few months and had finally at least partially grokked the CCD stuff and was beginning to turn out some images I thought were kinda decent. I was interested to see what it might be able to do under spring skies that were appreciably better than the ones down in The Swamp.

Bright and early Thursday morning, as close to 6 a.m. as I could stand, I was packed and ready for some hours on I-65 to Montgomery and then east on I-85 to Georgia. What had I packed? My C8, Celeste, my year-old Celestron CG5 mount, my Toshiba Satellite laptop, and the usual odds and ends I take on any star party expedition. In other words, my poor Camry was practically bursting at the seams. Only downer? Miss Dorothy’s increasingly demanding responsibilities at the University meant I would have to do this one solo.

The GSV Field and Unk's EZ-UP.
I maintain that the drive up I-65 is the most boring stretch of road in existence. Worse even than the west Texas segment of I-10 on the trip to The Texas Star Party. It is flat. There is nothing to see. There is nowhere good to stop. Two things kept me going: a book on tape, Stephen King’s The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon, and the allure of the Stuckey’s just before Montgomery.

Miss Dorothy and I still stop at Stuckey’s today, even though it’s kinda past its prime. Back in the 1990s, it was great; packed with interesting gee-gaws. Today? The souvenirs are less interesting, but at least they are still serving Dairy Queen fast food—which Unk really craves since they closed all the DQs along the Gulf Coast. A glass of orange juice in a nod to “healthy,” and a fried chicken biscuit in a nod to “tasty,” and I was on the road again.

One thing about the drive to Jackson, Georgia, once the trip up to Montgomery has been endured the rest seems (almost) like a hop, a skip, and a jump. Past Auburn, home of the renowned Auburn Astronomical Society, past Tuskegee, over the Georgia state line, first exit for Newnan Georgia, onto Georgia 16 for a spell on two-lane roads sometimes bedeviled by log trucks and farm machinery, and to the far side of Jackson and Highway 23 and Indian Springs State Park.

The roads were relatively free of slow traffic and road construction patches and I made good time to Jackson. The town appeared to be struggling economically but persevering in 2006, but lord knows what it must look like today after four years of this depression—excuse me, “recession.” Camp Macintosh, Indian Springs’ “group camp” facility where the star party would be held, is only a few miles from Jackson, but the little town doesn’t add too much to the light pollution burden of the site.

What Jackson does do is add convenience; it brings a goodly number of amenities—restaurants, grocery stores, etc.—to within a short drive of the observing site. Being able to scoot up to even a Bill’s Dollar Store for things you inevitably forget is not something to sneeze at, muchachos. Just a few minutes after I passed through town, I was turning into Camp Macintosh, for once not missing the nondescript turn.

The real beauty of Indian Springs was the observing site itself. Camp Macintosh was a wonder as star party venues go. Not only were there clean open-bay-barracks style cabins with clean bathrooms, there was a humongous central building with an institutional kitchen, a space perfect for speakers and other star party group functions, and more clean restrooms (an important feature for Unk at his increasingly advanced age). There was also a smaller building to the north of this “headquarters” that was perfect for vendors, and which had been used for that purpose during the Peach State years.

Just as before, registration was in the front office of that big main building. I cooled my heels for a while before eventually being seen to by one of the star party staffers. Things seemed a little catch as catch can:  “Where do you want to stay? Oh, you want a T-shirt? What was your name again?” I would have been happy in the group cabin, but ended up being assigned to the lodge instead. That large double cabin was where Miss D. and I had stayed the year before, and I figgered it would be just fine. Frankly, though, my treatment at the front gate set off a few warning bells. 

The "Lodge." Jason Voorhees lives just down the street...
As always, first order of bidness was equipment setup. I picked a spot near the center of the field so as to be able to catch both the setting winter stuff and rising summer stuff. It sure was nice to have my choice of field positions, unlike in the Peach State days. It looked like the crowd at the GSV had grown since I was there the previous year, but only a little. I don’t know that I ever heard an attendance figure, but it looked to me to be up from “about 50,” in 2005 to “maybe 60” this year.

OK, let’s get set up. In addition to the C8, Celeste, and her CG5 GEM  mount, there was the camp table, the Toshiba satellite laptop, the big deep cycle marine battery I used to power the power hungry PC (the big Toshiba would barely go 90-minutes on her internal battery), the Meade DSI camera, cables, the EZ-up tent canopy for blessed shade, an ice chest for more help surviving those sometimes brutal Georgia spring afternoons, an observing chair, a couple of lawn chairs, accessory boxes, jumpstart batteries for the scope and dew heaters, and—you-all get the picture. By the time I was done, I was hot and tuckered and was ready to go check-out my accommodations.

Motored over to the lodge, which was just a couple of hundred yards off the west side of the observing field. This was a rustic building not much different in appearance from the group cabins. Inside it was completely different, however, being divided into a couple of “apartments.” Each half featured a bedroom and sitting room and shared a bathroom with a shower. Since it looked like nobody would be in the lodge with me, I could have my pick of either apartment. I chose the front one and threw my stuff on the reasonably comfortable double bed.

Before I left my quarters, I plugged in my little Peltier-cooled ice chest. I bought it one time when a hurricane was threatening The Swamp, since it can be powered by a 12-volt battery as well as AC. It ain’t much larger than a six-pack, but that was all I needed it to cool, a few Colorado Kool-Aids for post-run consumption. One good thing about having the lodge to myself was that there would be multiple outlets available for recharging my many batteries. With no AC on the field, everybody would be competing for the outlets in the group cabins and main building after a good, long night.

One of the highlights of the trip.
How did I fill the hours till sunset? There weren’t really that many. The sun wouldn’t set till after 8 p.m., but by the time I finished setup and was settled in my cabin it was already past five. I made one last check of my field position, and, everything copacetic, I stopped by the HQ building for a look-see. With far fewer people onsite than during the Peach State years, there wasn’t much going on. Back out on the field I was pleased to see my old Chiefland buddy and fellow radio amateur, Tom Crowley, had arrived with his huge RV and huge Dobsonian, and spent a few minutes chatting with him. OK, suppertime.

Thursday that was at the Fresh Air Barbecue. As those of y’all who’ve been reading The Little Old Blog from Chaos Manor South for a while know, my fave BBQ joint of all time is Chiefland’s Bar-B-Q Bill’s. But Fresh Air, which has been in business since freaking 1928, is certainly in the running, and it is most assuredly the best I’ve had in Georgia. It’s right on Highway 23 on the left heading back into Jackson, and it is some kind of good, campers.

Which is not to say it is fancy: wooden tables and benches. Short menu. But the folks there are always nice and the food is always excellent. I know my pork sandwich (on “loaf bread”) was. I supplemented it with a bag of chips—no fries at Fresh Air—a coke, and a bowl of their wondrous Brunswick stew. Y’all, if you ain't had Brunswick stew like they cook in the backwoods of Georgia you ain’t never had Brunswick stew, and if you ain’t had it at the Fresh Air, you ain’t had some of the best Georgia can offer. Nuff said.

After my solitary supper—the non-RVer GSV folks all seemed to be dining on camp-stove fare on the field—I headed to Jackson for the single item I’d forgot. When I am in a cabin at a star party instead of in a motel, I invariably use a sleeping bag rather than bring along sheets, blankets, etc. That’s cool, but I need to remember to bring my consarned pillows with me. I didn’t this time, so I hit the discount store in town for a couple, which cost me less than ten bucks.

The relatively small turn-out meant it was easy to find a good spot on the field.
Then it was back to the field to see what would happen with the sky Thursday night. Tell the truth, I didn’t think much would happen with it—at least not much good. It had been mostly cloudy all the way up, and by the time I was settled-in, the vault of heaven was a depressingly uniform gray. It didn’t look like there was threatening weather in the offing; we were just well and truly socked in. Which was what the dadgum weatherman had predicted. But, as always, Unk was a glass-half-full kinda guy and stayed out on the field till 'round midnight.

By then the weather hadn’t begun to look better; it had begun to at least feel worse, as if rain might be incoming. I secured Celeste with her Desert Storm Cover, covered anything else I thought might need to be covered, grabbed the laptop, and headed for the HQ building. I wasn't the least bit sleepy, and on cloudy Peach State nights I’d spent many a happy hour there shooting the breeze about amateur astronomy. 

The feel was different at this event. Oh, there were some friends hanging out at each-other's field setups, but the communal spirit of the Peach State Star Gaze, one of the best things about that star party, was sadly missing. Not a soul--staff or attendee--did I find in the HQ. On this night everybody seemed to be buttoned up in a cabin, tent, or RV. In part, maybe because somewhat bad weather was clearly in the offing, weather that arrived with the sound of intermittent raindrops and increased to a steady roar as I was wandering lonely in the building that had been so busy and friendly on PSSG nights.

That was that. When the wet stuff slacked off for a minute I hot-footed it back to the lodge. Dang good thing I had some DVDs with me. I was too tired to think about reading and there was absolutely no Internet available. If there had been, I would have checked the weather, but since there wasn’t I just hoped for the best for Friday and Saturday.

At least I was reasonably comfortable. There was no air conditioning, but there were ceiling fans, which were more than sufficient to make a rainy night in Georgia bearable. Put on the DVD of 2001: A Space Odyssey, poured out a little of that legendary Rebel Yell, made it to the point where Hal refuses to open them gull-dern pod bay doors, and your old Unk was off to dreamland big time.

Lodge sitting room.
I was most assuredly not up early Friday morning. I slept in as late as I could since I reckoned there would not be a heck of a lot to do all day. I was right. I was happy to spend plenty of time on the field with friends old and new, but there is only so much Georgia Sun you can stand. I spent a while under my EZ Up with the venerable SkyTools 2, figuring out what I might want to look at Friday night, which, it appeared, might be good enough for visual work if not for imaging. The heavens dang sure were in better shape Friday afternoon than they had been Thursday afternoon, but it was still mostly sucker-hole city and looked like it would stay that way to sunset and beyond.

I snacked my way through lunch on Fritos, dip, and similar BAD STUFF. As much as I’d have liked to have made another run on Fresh Air, I was saving room for the big GSV pot luck supper Friday night. Modeled on the famous Chiefland Spring Picnic, the GSV would provide burgers, dogs, and similar picnic entrees, and us observers would furnish side-items and deserts. Unk’s contribution was a thick-frosted chocolate cake he scored in the bakery of Jackson’s small supermarket.

Supper was great, but the main course was afterwards: the sky and the observing I'd come to Indian Springs for. What I mostly did Friday evening, which did turn out to be an acceptable visual night, was Virgo-Coma, concentrating on the bright Messier galaxies during the often hazy and occasionally clouded-out hours we were given. I managed to collect and admire every one of the spring Ms and some of their brighter NGC kin before midnight, when the clouds came back and appeared to be settling in for an extended stay.

Despite us being clouded out just as solidly as on Thursday night, I still had some hopes, so I took a break, went back to my cabin, and watched a DVD, forgoing the Rebel Yell since I thought we might get a break in the weather over the next couple of hours. The DVD? That was a mistake.

I'd already watched 2001. What else did I have with me? Well, there was Friday the Thirteenth. My daughter Lizbeth and I had been on a horror movie jag for a while, and had been re-viewing our beloved slasher films from Halloween onwards. That was a mistake. "Hmm. Camp Crystal Lake wasn’t a whole lot different from Camp Macintosh, really. And the Lodge looks a lot like Crystal Lake’s Counselor’s Cabin where all that bloody unpleasantness ensued." To make a long story short, I got a little spooked all alone in my cabin in the woods and decided to go back to the field, clouds or no clouds.

Out there, I trotted around a bit, talking to the few people still hanging in. A couple of times there were some semi-clear patches, but none lasted long enough to allow me to get the scope and her CG5 realigned. I sat out for a while, and, when it looked like there might be some sprinkles, covered Celeste back up and got in the Camry, intending to sit for just a few more minutes—it was barely 2 a.m.—and see if it was really gonna rain before heading back to the Lodge. Rested my eyes for just a second, and when I opened them again it was after four. And it was still cloudy. I went back to my quarters, Jason utterly forgotten.

Saturday found me up at mid-morning. I spent a while working on the presentation I’d give later that day. That done, I wandered Camp Macintosh, walking down to Indian Springs' lovely and expansive lake. After that? Without a vendor on site there wasn’t much to do. You will really learn to appreciate the intrepid astronomy dealers who travel hundreds of miles to star parties when you attend an event without their tables to drool over.

Come time for my presentation, “The Care and Feeding of a CAT (adioptric),” and I was pumped and ready to go on. Whoops. The local person doing the talk before mine droned on and on and ON. Fifteen minutes. Half-an-hour. Finally, the GSV organizers could see old Unk was a mite hot under the collar and prompted this dude to wrap up his presentation. 

I’ll admit I was put out. This person ate into my time, since I was the last speaker and would be running up against sunset. I wasn't overly upset with the GSV organizers, however. They did a fairly good job with the star party. Being able to keep events on schedule is something that requires more than a few years of experience under the belt. 

Anyhoo, when I finally got onstage my admittedly tech-heavy talk went well. There were plenty of SCT users in the audience, and I managed to answer plenty of their burning questions, both with my PowerPoint presentation and during the Q and A after. I was tempted to keep going, but a glance out the big windows showed darkness was arriving.

Just before I was finally able to give my presentation.
If the sky had looked like it had the previous evening, I would have let the questions continue, but it appeared we were finally going get the clearing I’d been hoping for for three days.  I was out on the field quick like a bunny and got my (relatively) new camera, my Meade DSI, ready to go. I had been able to let the CCD stretch its legs under the dark skies of the Deep South Regional Star Gaze the previous October, but I was anxious to let it have a go at the galaxies of spring.

As I was getting ready for my imaging session, a jam session, or at least a concert, was getting underway down at the main building. John Serrie, a prominent keyboard wiz, recording artist, and composer based in Atlanta would be playing for the GSV. While his style of music, New Age, was not exactly Unk’s cup of tea, I was impressed by his talent and professionalism the couple of times I wandered over to have a listen. I even found myself getting into his expansive, “spacey” music.

When it got dark, Unk got down to work. Did a polar alignment with the built-in routine in the CG5’s NexStar hand control, focused my little CCD on a bright star, and began doing the prettiest denizens of the spring sky. Which wasn’t hard with the Meade DSI software, “Envisage,” part of their AutoStar Suite package.

As I’ve remarked before, Envisage ain’t that user friendly, but it will do just about anything except fix the pancakes and bacon. I’d center up a target, focus using the program’s focus-indicator, and tell it to take 30-second exposures (about the limit for the CG5 since I was not guiding) until I told it to stop, stacking the good ones into a final image. Despite having used the software for the last six months, I still found it hard to believe it really could do all that reliably, but it could, and delivered good pictures within the bounds of the DSI Color’s small chip and my meager processing skills.

I captured ‘em one after another: M101, M51, M81, M82, NGC 4565, M63, M64, and a couple more. Who knew when I’d get to use the camera under relatively dark spring skies again? Tell the truth, though, I was somewhat bored. I had nothing at all to do during the exposures. So I began a tour of the field, cadging views from all and sundry, including Tom Crowley, who showed me some mind-blowing sights in his superb big Dob. When I'd finish a circuit and arrive back at my setup, it would be about time to go on to the next target. When the next exposure was underway, I went back to orbiting the field: “Watcha lookin’ at Mister?!”

Beautiful M101
As three in the fraking a.m. came on, my usual “all-nighter” limit then or now, I figured I’d better start wrapping things up. There would be packing and drive back to the Swamp in the morning. But I didn’t want to. Something told me this might be my last visit to lovely Camp Macintosh; if not forever, at least for a long time. I dismounted the camera, mounted a diagonal and a Nagler eyepiece, and backtracked down the path I’d been on all night, visually observing the objects I’d imaged and doing a few more till merciless Aurora began to throw open her gates.

In the morning I still had a hard time leaving. I spent an hour or so sitting in the camp building doing some preliminary processing of my images from the night before to the accompaniment of the approving words of a few of the folks still onsite. I just did not want to leave Indian Springs. Of course I finally went, hitting the road at eleven a.m.

My premonition out on the observing field was correct. I have never been back to Indian Springs either as a speaker or as an attendee. Oh, the Georgia Sky View goes on despite having taken a year or two off here and there over the last six annums, but it can go on without meWhile I was treated fairly well, I was a little surprised to be left mostly on my own and mostly unacknowledged by the staff despite my status as their guest and keynote speaker. I don't expect to be treated like a rock star, but a smile now and then and a "Rod, how you doing?  Is there anything we can do for you? Would you like to have supper with us?" sure would have been nice. All in all, I'd say that even given the small turnout, this star party could and should have been better--for everybody, not just Unk.

I’ve often thought about Indian Springs over the years, and often look at the modest deep sky snapshots I took there, but the allure of CAV with its motels and darker skies is just too strong. Still, Camp Macintosh is lovely and star party friendly if you have a group that really knows how to put on a good event--like the PSSG gang definitely did. Anyhoo, you never know; I may get a yen for Fresh Air barbeque again some spring, muchachos.  

What's going one here in Possum Swamp now? It's fair to say we at Chaos Manor South, Unk and Miss Dorothy, are in mourning. Just as this blog article was getting the finishing touches we received word that Neil Armstrong had died. All I can say is that millennia hence when all our fads and foibles and "great" and "holy" men are long forgotten his name and legend will live on. A fitting way to pay your respects? Do as Neil's family suggested:  the next time you see a fat Moon hanging in the sky, think of Neil and give it a wink.


Frankly, I was a little puzzled by the blasé, frankly unfriendly, treatment I received from the staff/organizers at this event. I am still puzzled by it, actually. I later heard the couple who were the chief organizers of the GSV at the time were divorced not long thereafter, so I'm guessing their domestic problems may have had quite a bit to do with the misbegotten character of 2006.

What is the current status of the event? As far as I know, it hasn't been held in years, not since 2015, and prior to that it had been an on again-off again thing  as above. Sometimes a star party, big or small, is just too much; especially for a smaller club. 

Be all that as it may be, I did have an absolutely great time in 2005. And you know what? Now that Chiefland is in the rearview mirror for me, if somebody organized a spring star party at Indian Springs, I just might pack the truck and head north. Nice facility, decent skies, and the Fresh Air Barbeque would all provide a rather tempting inducement. 

Sunday, August 19, 2012


More Gem-mania

It hasn’t been that long back that I talked about German equatorial mounts, GEMs, but that is a subject that is of such of interest to Joe and Jane Amateur Astronomer that it’s time to say more. Hell, it’s even kinda controversial, if anything is controversial in our sedate little backwater of an avocation.

Most of y’all know what a GEM is, a German equatorial telescope mount, invented, it is said, by Joseph von Fraunhofer way back in the freaking nineteenth century.  What may not be obvious to the novices among you is exactly what one is good for. Isn’t an alt-azimuth rig like a Dobsonian mount easier to use? The fork mounts that come with Meade and Celestron’s SCTs look less complicated. Why doesn’t everybody just use those?

There are a couple of reasons an equatorial mount and, specifically, a German equatorial mount is the choice of many of your brother and sister amateurs. Alt-azimuth mounts are cool. Nothing really beats their point and shoot simplicity, especially in Dobsonian form, for visual work. If all you want to do is look, alt-az is the way to go. If you are an imager who fancies taking exposures longer than about 30-seconds, though, you need an equatorial.

You can slap a camera on an alt-azimuth mount, but no matter how good the drive system is and how carefully it is guided, you will still get star trails due to field rotation. Recall how Orion looked when he was rising in the east late on those blessedly cool fall evenings? He was “lying” on his right side. When he culminated in the south, he was standing up straight. When he set in the west he was on his left side. That is field rotation. An equatorial mount will follow it, rotating the scope naturally. An alt-az can’t do that and so you get dratted star trails.

“But why not a fork mount, Unk? Why not a fork?” I used equatorial fork mounts (a fork tipped over by a wedge to point at the North Celestial Pole) for several decades, and they will always have a place in my heart, but they have their limitations. Most importantly for your aging hillbilly of a raconteur, the common form of fork mount, the SCT-fork combo, is heavy. You have to heft fork, drivebase, and OTA onto a tripod/wedge, which becomes a real pain with telescopes larger than 8-inches. You also cannot use different telescopes on ‘em, since tubes on fork mounts are usually not designed to be easily removable.

All-in-all, if you need “equatorial,” a GEM is a better deal. German mount scopes can be broken into their components, tube, mount, counterweights, and tripod, making even large telescopes comparatively easy to lug around. You can use whatever tube you want on the mount, and, most of all, you get choice. You can pick a mount whose cost and capabilities fit your needs and budget; you are not restricted to the fork the goobers at Meade or Celestron think will work for you.

Once a GEM is on your agenda, the question becomes “Which one?” Even given the small and insular nature of amateur astronomy, there are hordes of GEMs. Armies of GEMs. At least it seems that way when you are trying to figure out which one to get. There are some time-honored choices I can recommend, however, one of which will probably fit just right. These are my superstar GEMs...

Celestron (Synta) CG5

People have taken dang good astrophotos with tiny EQ-1 mounts. People take good astrophotos with barndoor mounts, for god’s sake, but for anything but the widest of widefield shots, where you begin is with the ubiquitous Celestron CG5, the “clone” inspired by Vixen’s famous Great Polaris.

If all the CG5 were was a clone, a not-as-good copy of the original, it would not have the legion of fans it’s garnered over the last decade. Yes, it is a clone, but it is surprisingly sound mechanically, especially given its miniscule price, which hovers around 700 bucks now. The GEM head features ball bearings on the R.A. axis and generally smooth movements. It’s accompanied by a 2-inch leg diameter steel tripod that is very sturdy and which is surprisingly better than what comes with some considerably more expensive mounts.

What really makes the CG5 a winner, though, is its go-to computer system. Celestron bolted on a pair of servo motors, a motor control board, and a NexStar HC identical to what they use on their more elaoborate go-to telescopes. The result? Incredible go-to accuracy. The software allows you to add four “Calibration Stars” to make up for scope and mount misalignment, much improving the CG5’s horizon-to-horizon accuracy.

My CG5 will put anything I request, anywhere in the sky, on the small chip of my Mallincam Xtreme every single time. Top that off with an excellent computerized polar alignment routine, “AllStar,” and it’s not an exaggeration to say the CG5’s NexStar hand control is superior to the computers of mounts costing ten times as much.

Since one of the prime reasons for choosing a GEM mount is imaging, it’s important for the CG5 to pull its weight in that area, and it does. By balancing the scope carefully so that it was slightly east heavy and rebalancing as necessary as I moved around the sky, I was able to auto-guide my SBIG CCD camera to my heart’s content. I still use the CG5 for video, where it will turn in very acceptable unguided 1-minute shots.

Course, at this price point it ain’t all gravy. If you want round stars, you’ll need to keep the focal length down. I did good work at 1300mm, but I had a higher percentage of round star subframes at about 700mm. The weather dude is predicting windy conditions for the night? Forget about imaging. In wind the CG5 will shake like a sinner in the hands of Elmer Gantry, even with just a C8 onboard, an OTA that is otherwise perfect for it.

Despite its few warts, I love the CG5 very much and have made thousands of observations (literally) with it over the seven years I’ve had it. The CG5 is so light and convenient and reliable that I wimp out and use it instead of my larger mounts whenever possible. The greatest praise I can give it? If mine crashed and burned today I’d order a new one tomorrow. The CG5 is a modern classic.

Orion Sirius (Synta HEQ-5)

The Sirius is the logical step up from the CG5 in some ways. Like the CG5, the HEQ5 is made by Chinese optics giant Synta. In the United States, it is sold by dealer Orion, Telescope and Binocular Center, branded as the Sirius. In other parts of the world, it is usually under Synta’s “Sky-Watcher” brand name. It is a heftier mount than the CG5, which is obvious by just looking at it. If there’s a major down-check, it’s that the tripod it’s most often sold with  has 1.75-inch diameter steel legs rather than the better 2-inch ones of the CG5.

Still, the Sirius is an upgrade steadiness-wise. It’s capable of handling heavier loads than the CG5 despite a quoted payload capacity of 30-pounds, which is 5-pounds less than the CG5’s spec. The bottom line on both these mounts? They are best with something in the neighborhood of 15-20 pounds max. Yes, either will support a C11 class scope for visual work (the short SCT tube helps), but are happier with lighter loads.

The Sirius is not better than the CG5 in all ways, though; especially not when it comes to the go-to computer. Despite being made by Celestron’s parent company, the Sirius does not use the NexStar go-to system. Instead, it uses the somewhat less accurate SynScan setup. The CG5 allows four-cone alignment stars to be used; the SynScan paddle only allows one. It is similarly deficient in other features, not even having the seemingly simple “go-to a right ascension and declination” feature of the NexStar HC. I do note Synta is continuing to upgrade the SynScan firmware, having just added Celestron’s AllStar polar alignment routine.

Why don’t you see more Sirius GEMs on star party fields? There’s a simple reason: moola. At its current price of 1200 smackers (for the Orion version) the HEQ-5 is only about 200 dollars less than the Atlas. The Atlas, with its big honking GEM head and 2-inch tripod, is thus the understandable choice of most amateurs looking for a mount in this price range, though some live to regret that choice.

Orion Atlas (Synta EQ-6)

The Synta Atlas (Orion), a.k.a. the EQ-6 (Sky-Watcher) is the defacto GEM for us amateur astronomy hoi polloi in the U.S. of A. In Europe and the UK, where prices for any and all astro-gear, and especially U.S. and Japanese astro gear, are fracking out of sight, it is the defacto mount for just about everybody. It is simple and it is effective. Its periodic error is usually around +/- 20-30 arc-seconds, but is easy to guide out. Payload? The mount at least comes closer to being able to handle its spec of 40-pounds than the Sirius comes to 30-pounds.

At 1400 pieces of eight for the U.S. version, the mount is a perfect mix of affordability and capability for amateurs of almost all skill levels. It is capable of taking more than adequate guided long exposure images (have a look at the gallery sections of the UK astro-mags where most shots are done with EQ-6es). The hand control’s go-to is accurate to a fault if some care is exercised in the choice of alignment stars. If more accuracy or other features are needed it can be operated with EQMOD (which can also be used with little sis Sirius). EQMOD can deliver pointing accuracy on the order of a few arc-minutes or even better.

Which does not mean this GEM is perfect. The altitude – azimuth adjusters are the pits. The mount uses the same simple bolt arrangement for alt-az movement for polar alignment as the Sirius and the CG5, and that does not work overly well with such a heavy (40-pounds) GEM head. But if there is a single major drawback of the Atlas, it is that weight. More than one Joe or Jane Amateur who passed up the Sirius in favor of the Atlas is real sorry they did that after toting the huge head out a few times. I love my Atlas, but unless I am doing guided imaging it’s the CG5 that gets used with my C8s and smaller scopes.

Celestron CGEM

I can sum up the CGEM pretty well with the story of my early days with the Atlas. I got myself an EQ-6 as a Christmas present in ought seven. I was dang happy with it. It guided well and sure was sturdier than my CG5. And yet…and yet… I did miss all the features of the CG5 HC like the polar alignment routine. Why couldn’t Synta release an upgraded EQ-6 that used the NexStar hand paddle?

Just a little while later that’s just what they did. Except it wasn’t called the EQ-6 or EQ-7 and it wasn’t badged “Orion” or “SkyWatcher.” It was a Celestron release and was called the “CGEM” (as in “Celestron German Equatorial Mount;” guess the guys who pick out product names were sick that week). It had everything I had so ardently desired: NexStar HC, NexRemote capability, restyled GEM head, improved altitude and azimuth adjusters. Well, hell, I’d just sell my Atlas and get one.

Unk has messed up a time or two by leaping before he looks, so he did exercise a little caution regarding this new product. I began watching the CGEM Yahoogroup that sprang up, and listening to what mount gurus like Ed Thomas said. Good thing I did. The CGEM was immediately beset by armies of gremlins, who attacked the hand control viciously. The NexStar HC was well-proven technology by this time, but Celestron was unlucky enough to get a bad batch from China coincident with the CGEM release. That wasn’t all; there were mechanical problems affecting the declination axis and declination guiding, mounts that were dead out of the box, and more. Sigh.

Was I disappointed? Yeah. But not heartbroken. By the time the above became clear I had made friends with my Atlas and wouldn’t have parted with it for the world. The CGEM? It’s taken some years for Celestron to put things right, but from what I hear on the blamed Internet and what I see on observing fields, I conclude they have. If I had the choice between Atlas and CGEM today, I think I would choose the CGEM. Priced similarly to the Atlas, it does now seem to constitute that elusive More Better Gooder.

Vixen Sphinx

I was mighty excited when Vixen came out with its Star Book hand controller about six years ago, but that excitement soon turned to dismay. It should have been excellent, an HC with a large color screen and built-in planetarium program, but it did not work out. Too many bugs. Too many poor decisions software and design-wise. Vixen’s most popular mounts, the Sphinx SXD and Sphinx SXW can be nice for visual users, but for imaging? In my opinion they are still unproven.

The extent of Vixen’s missteps is shown by the fact that a kit is being sold that will allow you to replace the Sphinx electronics/drive system with one compatible with Celestron’s NexStar hand paddle. Supposedly you then have a mount with the excellent computer of Celestron and the excellent mechanics of Vixen. If only I was sure Vixen’s mechanics are still excellent. I’ve heard all too many reports of mechanical problems with Vixen’s current mounts, up to and including overly sticky motions in R.A. or declination, something we generally associate with mounts a niche or two down the food chain.

The Vixens are not overly inexpensive, either, going for about as much as the Celestron CGEM Deluxe on the low end and climbing into the stratosphere with the new AXD, which is priced similarly to the Astro-Physics AP900. The AXD’s new Star Book 10 HC looks groovy, but does it work right? I simply do not know. I hope Vixen gets their act together soon, since I still want a Star Book.

Celestron CGEM DX

One thing was clear to those of us who watch the GEM market: Celestron was likely to get rid of its CGE mount as soon as it could. The Losmany G11-like CGE was made in the U.S.A., was expensive to produce (relatively speaking), expensive to buy (relatively speaking), and didn’t seem to fit in the company’s current mount line-up. With the CGE gone, though, it still seemed Celestron would need something just upscale of the CGEM, a mount less expensive than the big CGE Pro that could carry the C14.

Thus was born the CGEM DX. What it is is a CGEM head with some fine tuning (a larger diameter, longer counterweight shaft, and electronics that can deliver more power to the motors) and a massive CGE Pro tripod. How is it? I will have to reserve judgment, since I have not yet been able to try one in the field, but at just under 2K it appears to be a good deal, and doesn’t seem to have shared little sister’s growing pains.

Losmandy GM8

The Losmandy GM8 is a fine mount. Hell, in many ways it’s a beautiful mount. It is definitely a step up from the Synta-Celestron-Meade crew, featuring mostly machined parts rather than cast components. It not only looks great, it’s got good gears and a cutting edge go-to system in the form of the new Gemini II. So what’s not to like? For some folks it’s the combo of payload price.

With a weight-handling spec of 30-pounds, it’s smack in the territory of the EQ-6 and CGEM, and at a price of about 2500 bucks it’s over a grand more than they are. In addition to the Atlas nipping at its heels on the low end, there’s the G11 just one click higher. 1K more will get you Losmandy’s unarguably more capable mount, and most Losmandy bound folks decide to pony up for that. Still, the GM8 is pretty and it is portable. I like it.

Losmandy G11

If there is a second “standard” mount for us prole-type imagers in addition to the EQ-6, it is  Losmandy’s signature mount, the G11. It’s available in several configurations, but what appeals most to most is the G11 GFT with Gemini II go-to and an excellent tripod. What’s it like? It’s like the GM8, only moreso, with a payload of 60-pounds, which puts it in another class from the GM8 and the Syntas.

Any down-checks? Not really. Near 3700 simoleons for the top of the line G11 is a bit much for some of us, but it is an at least an imaginable outlay for most of us. The 60-pounds is really “60-pounds for visual,” but the scope will do a fine job imaging with a C11 and it is just terrific with 8-inch SCTs loaded down with everything but the kitchen sink in the way of accessories, piggyback scopes, and autoguiding junk. Some folks look askance at the Gemini II system, but it’s a full up highly capable computer now and I am impressed with its capabilities. If my Atlas didn’t or ever doesn’t do what I want it to do, I’d probably look at the G11.

Celestron CGE Pro

The CGE Pro is where we leave the realm of “a mount for the rest of us” and enter the land of “a mount for a few of us.” It is big and heavy (154 fracking pounds altogether), it will carry more payload than most of us need (90-pounds), and is expensive (almost 5K). Still, that’s a lot of capability at a price thousands less than the real heavy hitters like the Bisque and AP mounts.

Uh-ohs? Not too many. The mount had a few teething pains when it came out, though certainly not to the extent the CGEM had. Celestron has reportedly done some fine tuning and has reduced the mount’s already decent periodic error figure to 3-arc seconds (they say). For me, the problem is that this is not a portable mount. Yeah, you can break it down into fairly manageable sections, but, like the old CGE, the mount head sits on top of a tall “electronics pier.” The idea of lifting any scope that would require this much mount that high gives broken-down old Unk the dadgum heebie-jeebies.

Losmandy Titan

You don’t see many Losmandy Titans. In fact, some of y’all may be scratching your noggin as to what one is. It’s simple: as the GM8 is to the G11, the G11 is to the Titan (officially the “HGM Titan,” but nobody calls it that). What does it bring to the table for a price that is another click up from the CGE Pro, about 7500 for everything you need? A 100-pound photographic payload and 175-pound visual capacity, all machined components, and Gemini II.

So why don’t you see scads of Titans? The price is inching into Astro-Physics territory, and some of the cognoscenti who pay that much for telescope mounts just prefer AP—even if the Titan is better in some ways (its computer system, for example). Plus, it is one big mutha, 135-pounds sans counterweights, though you can break it into manageable sections—I believe it would be considerably easier to handle than the CGE Pro. The mount has had some motor-gear problems, but I trust they are all gone now, since it’s been out for a considerable length of time. If only I had a spare 7500 dinaros lying around. Sigh.

Meade LX800

Oh, how impressed by the ads was Unk when Meade announced its new big-boy GEM, the LX800. Not only would this thing have a payload capacity of 90-pounds, it would have Starlock, which would handle both go-to and autoguiding. It would be active full time, taking you to objects with precision and immediately locking on. This goodness would come at a price considerably less than you would pay for a Losmandy Titan. I was impressed, yeah, but also worried, though I tried to remain hopeful. As I asked my old buddy, Pat Rochford, surely Meade would not bungle this prestigious product introduction like they did the one for the ill fated RCX400. Would they?

They would. Giving us glass-half-full folks a one-two punch. First, just as the first mounts were being delivered, a price increase was announced: the LX800 would henceforth go for 7300 dollars, putting right up there with the Titan. That wasn’t a killer, I figgered. The Titan can carry more payload, but the LX800’s price would still be bearable if that Starlock computer worked as good as Meade said it was gonna work.

Alas, it didn’t. The first LX800 mounts delivered were utterly non-functional, with some having mechanical problems in addition to non-working Starlock computers. I haven’t given up hope on this one, since Meade responded immediately, recalling the mounts. But I wonder how in Sam Hill this was allowed to happen. The bloom is off this rose at the moment, with plenty of ranting and raving about it going on on the Cloudy Nights bulletin boards. Meade can still pull it out, but the recalled mounts had better work fracking well, and so must every last one of these 7300 buck mounts they ship. Was this Meade’s final play near the end of the game? A Hail Mary? I hope not; we shall see.

Astro-Physics Mach 1

Some of us, even those of us of the Mister Moneybags persuasion, would never dream of expending around 7K (once you pay for “options” like tripods, counterweights, and telescope saddles) for AP’s littlest mount, one with a mere 45-pounds of payload capacity. If that payload figger were the whole story, AP would not sell many Mach 1s.

But it’s not. That 45-pounds is for near perfect imaging performance. The mount itself is incredibly strong while remaining small and light. I have little doubt one could carry a C14 for visual work (though Uncle Roland does not seem to recommend that) while weighing only 32 pounds (for the head sans tripod and counterweights). The quality is there in spades with mount, hand paddle, and electronics capable of standing conditions you won’t want to endure yourself.

Still, this is not the GEM for everybody. If, like me, you use an SCT and tend to image or view dozens or even hundreds of targets a night, usually with a small chip camera like a Mallincam, the Mach 1’s go-to performance may disappoint. It being on target depends on two things: good polar alignment and no cone error.  The mount computer does not include any sky modeling capabilities. You can sync on a star in the area of interest to improve the pointing, but that is it. A telescope with a moving mirror that might flop a wee bit going from one side of the sky to the other is just going to make things worse.

The above can be a problem for some folks, but is not really a show stopper. If you use a laptop with the mount, you can use a modeling program like T-Point to “fix” the go-to problems. In concert with T-Point, the go-to capability of this mount is awesome. But much of the mount’s audience will not even need to bother with that. A large part of the reason for choosing a GEM in this price range is to do long exposure imaging, doing a few targets at most per run. In that case, it’s easy to sync on a star near the target, go-to the DSO, and then just let this mount sing, which it will.

Software Bisque Paramount MX

There are more expensive mounts than the Bisque Paramount MX, including the Paramount ME and some of AP’s high-enders, but for us Joe and Jane amateurs, this is pretty much the max:  over 10,000 George Freaking Washingtons once you buy everything you need to run this puppy. What you get for all that gold is a beauty, no denying. This red-finished thing looks more like a sculpture than a dang telescope mount. The payload capacity is 90-pounds for imaging, and it has a periodic error profile that makes my poor Atlas wanna run and hide his head.

Price aside, this is hardly a mount everybody will embrace. Even if you have the shekels to pay for it, make sure you can handle it. I don’t mean its size and weight, which is fairly modest—50-pounds—I mean the computer angle. This is not just a GEM you can use with a computer, this is a GEM you must use with a computer It is intimately tied to the company’s famous planetarium application, TheSky (which is included in the purchase price). You can use other software with the mount as I understand things, but TheSky must still be running in the background. If you do not like computers, trust me, this is not for you.

Otherwise? Performance of thisun is similar to that of the AP. In more than one way. Surprisingly, given the advanced nature of the electronics, the MX still relies on polar alignment and T-point for dead on go-tos. On the other hand, you will have a computer on hand every time you use the MX, so why not?

I used to dream of an MX as my “retirement mount,” but now I am not so sure. It is way beyond what I need—this mount is easily capable of being operated remotely, for example—and I suspect it’s also a little past what I want to deal with in the dark of night complexity-wise. Still, it is nice to dream about sitting pretty on the Chiefland observing field with all and sundry admiring my candy-apple-red wonder.

So that’s it? For now. If the economy ever shows signs of improving, I do believe we will see some cool new stuff mount-wise, some of which may be standing in the wings waiting to go on at this very moment. An upgraded CG5, for example. While I am not sure how I feel about Old Reliable being replaced, I suspect Celestron will do that before long. Maybe with something like a modernized Sirius HEQ5.

One new Synta made mount is not just a pipe-dream is the EQ-8 (originally referred to as the “EQ-7”). This appears to be a mount in theCGE Pro class, but maybe with some interesting additions. I have no doubt that it will be big, heavy, and somewhat expensive, but it looks cool, anyhow. It’s not the only Synta in the works, though.

There’s also a new EQ-6 variant, the EQ-6 Az. It’s a mount that’s similar to the EQ-6 (sorta) but with an alt-azimuth mode and a dual-telescope capability like the semi-ill-fated Ioptron Tower mounts and the just released Meade LX80 (which, like the LX800, appears to have its share of problems). I know I could really get behind a mount of this type that has the reliability of the good, old Atlas.

Yep, there are some pretty mounts out there. Every time I gaze on pix of the APs and Bisques, and then have a look at my distinctly déclassé CG5 and Atlas, I feel a little, well, inadequate. Then I remember the nice round stars in the pictures I’ve done with Atlas and the scads of excellent video shot with the CG5 and I feel better. Like many of y’all, I do feel the call of the More Better Gooder once in a while, but then reality sets in. Your old Unk is more of a beer and hotdogs schlemiel than a champagne and caviar bon vivant, and is finally comfortable with that. So be it, muchachos, so be it.

Next Time:  Maybe, just maybe, Unk will get out with a telescope and actually see something… If not, and the extended forecast says "not," it will be a trip down Memory Lane to the piney woods of central Georgia...

Sunday, August 12, 2012


Southern Nights

Southern Skies Have You Ever Noticed
Southern Skies Its Precious Beauty
Lies Just Beyond The Eye
It Goes Running Thru Your Soul Like The Stories Of Old…

--Glen Campbell

Ah, these sultry, luscious July and August summer nights. If not so luscious for everybody this summer, muchachos. Some of y’all are suffering under one of the worst droughts in ages. My old buddy and SCT guru extraordinaire, Doc Clay Sherrod, reports the trees on his mountain up yonder in Arkansas, Unk’s old stomping grounds, are turning brown in the heat. Down here? Hot, sure, but no hotter than usual. And we certainly ain’t undergoing a drought. Quite the opposite.

After a relatively dry (and clear) spring, the rains have come again. Hell, we got dang near 20-freaking inches over the course of a single week in June. Now, though, in August, we’ve settled into the normal Gulf Coast doldrums. Rain/thunderstorms/clouds possible but not inevitable every single afternoon and evening. Which I am used to at my now rather advanced age. While you can’t be assured of observing every night, you do get some hours in, just like I did when I was a sprout.

The coming and going of yet another birthday that has got me feeling nostalgic again, y’all. At least this entry is a twofer: my fellow boomers get to spend a 1960s summer day and night with little Unk, and you younguns get to hear about some cool summer deep sky sights, my favorite summer targets way back when, which are as good now as they were then.

June came and us kids were as happy to get out as any parolee. Today, summer vacation is truncated, with school reopening ever earlier. Down here, Jack and Jill go back well before the end of August. Which ain’t necessarily a bad thing, but there was nothing sweeter for the little folk of my time than looking forward to a whole and solid three months of doing…well… NOTHING. That was the beauty of the thing. Other than (maybe) a week or two of family vacation, there was gloriously nothing at all to do, at least compared to what today’s youngsters endure. No play-dates or theme camps or, horror of horrors, educational stuff of any sort.

The coming of June made for substantial change around li’l Unk’s house. Mama, a school librarian, was home every day, which tended to cause a bit of friction. Sometimes, you see, I’d have been more than happy to stay inside all day, holed up in Mama’s spotless living room listening to the enormous console stereo hi-fi and reading Tom Swift or Doc Savage or, as the summers rolled on, Isaac Asimov or Robert Heinlein or Arthur C. Clarke. Mama was sometimes OK with that. But only sometimes and only for a while.

Usually, by mid-morning she “encouraged” me to get outside and enjoy the cotton-picking day. It took me years to understand why she was so insistent. All little Rod did was spend hours playing Beatles '65 and The Tijuana Brass’ What Now My Love? at top volume over and over and over, covering everything with paint and glue as he assembled yet another model kit, spilling and breaking anything within reach in the kitchen as he “helped” Mama by making his own lunch, and incessantly chanting, “Mama I’m bored…nothing to do…I’m bored…nothing to do…” You get the picture.

Thrust into a bright July morn, it was time to get the day rolling. In the summer of ’66 I might still have a fishing expedition down to the creek, Spring Creek, planned, but as me and my buddy next door grew up and grew apart our quests for bream and bluegills became less frequent. Even before those early-teen days, my pal was gone for a week or two of summer camp, the local Catholic kids’ summer camp, at the height of July. In the summer of 1966 that was OK. I had my buddies Jitter and Wayne Lee, and June, July, and August dashed by when I was with them.

There’s never been another summer for me quite like the summer of ’66, the summer of my Palomar Junior. Like Christmases, maybe there’s only one special summer to a customer. I guess I am lucky to have been blessed with one more almost--if not quite--as good.  My summer of '71 was almost as magical. Still, it can't quite compete with '66. It wasn’t just the new telescope, either; it was the everything. Even the slowest and hottest of slow and hot days were deeply sweet. Even if in 1966 the sweetness had a growing tinge of bitter. We knew what was coming.

What was coming was the end of Brookley Air Force Base, decreed by the hapless (how could such a smart man be so dang dumb?) Robert McNamara at the behest of LBJ himself, they say. Brookley was our largest employer. Our only huge employer, really, and our town has never to this day recovered from its loss. Whether it was closed because money was tight with Vietnam approaching full blast, or because ol’ Lyndon wanted political revenge on our state doesn’t matter. It took my friends from me is what mattered then and still matters now.

In July of 1966 that was still just a distant line of thunderheads on the horizon. The wind was about to change, but till it did Jitter and Wayne Lee and me found the most wonderful ways of doing absolutely nothing at all. A big day? Brewing up a quart of lime Kool-Aid in Jitter’s mama’s kitchen for drinking out in the carport, sitting there in the comparative coolness, talking of Green Lantern and Wonder Woman and August and everything after.

Both before and after Wayne Lee and Jitter moved away, when the day approached its melt-down stage I’d ride my bike up to the pool.  A year or three before, Mama had enthusiastically signed us up for the new “swim club,” which was sorta like a country club for the rest of us. Big pool, big pool house, huge concrete deck, big tree-ringed field for softball (and, I am not making this up, greased pig races). There was even the boy-girl fun and games of teen pizza/pool parties.

But the summer of ‘66 involved nothing more for me than a long dip in the coolness and sitting at a picnic table under a shade tree eating a bag lunch Mama packed and, if I’d had a quarter or so to my name, reading the latest issue of Journey into Mystery Comics (snagged at Pak-a-Sak, our convenience store, on the way to the pool) and munching a bag of Bugles, my fave unhealthy snack, from the swim club’s little concession window.

Despite the heat of the day, which in Gulf Coast summer extends to sunset and well beyond, there was only so long I could stand to float around in the near bleach-strong chlorine—the smell of the Chiefland Day’s Inn pool just transported me back half a century. With the Sun going down and the Rodster looking like a mutant prune, I got back on my beat-up bike and pedaled for home.

After supper, if it was cloudy my only hope was something on TV, if not Star Trek or Lost in Space, maybe Mama would let me stay up for Johnny’s (Carson’s) monologue or maybe even the late show, Five Star Final (from the film of that name, I reckon), which sometimes ran the more hard core Universal monster movies the local station wouldn’t show in the afternoon. I was scared silly by the 1931 Dracula. If it was a Saturday night and daddy could be convinced, we’d pile into Mama’s pink Oldsmobile and head to the Auto-Show. It was the fanciest and most family-friendly of The Swamp’s three drive-in movie theatres, but still tended to show the outré and the scary, the stuff me and Mama doted on and which Daddy simply could not stand.

If it wasn’t cloudy? That was simple: me and my Pal hit the backyard. I didn’t need to spend hours “planning” like we do these days, neither. If the new issue of Sky and Telescope had come in, I might go after Scotty’s “Deep Sky Wonders” picks if they didn’t sound too hard. Often they were too hard for me, but that was not a problem. I had The List.

In those innocent days the humble Messier list was serious business. Seeing ‘em all marked you as a member of that set-apart class, The Advanced Amateur. I started working the Messier soon after I got my 4-inch Edmund, and chased Ms whenever I could, using Mallas and Kreimer’s “A Messier Album” column as my guide as it unfolded in the pages of Sky and Telescope. Despite his focus on the Moon and planets, my mentor, Patrick Moore, had a little to say about the Ms in The Amateur Astronomer, so that went on the observing table (really a TV tray) too. I was also able to glean a few tidbits from The New Handbook of the Heavens, Stars, and Norton’s Star Atlas. Despite reading all I could find about the Messiers, though, every single night was an adventure; there was no telling what I’d find sitting in my eyepiece.

I saw lots of cool stuff. Even the smudges were wonderful, but as month of observing followed on month of observing, and the seasons came and went, and 1966 became 1967 and then 1968, and that strange sounding new decade of years, the seventies, came in, I developed some favorites. Not too surprisingly many of those faves inhabit the summer skies, the season when I was able to do most of my gazing—I probably put in more hours under the stars on those summer vacation nights than I ever have been able to since.

Summer is still a magical time for astronomy and everything else. A time when anything can happen and me and my telescope might see anything. So let’s go out and look…

Where do you begin a summer observing run? I’ve always started way down south, y’all. The Sagittarius/Scorpius area is the very essence of the summer sky—and of summer itself—for me. When I was the newest of novices, though, “Sagittarius/Scorpius” mostly meant “Sagittarius,” since I hadn’t had much luck with the scorpion’s two globular star clusters, M4 and M80.  M6 and M7, Scorpius' open star clusters, were great, especially M6, The Butterfly Cluster, which fit into the field of my long focal length reflector better than sprawling M7 did. But I was after more exotic fare, the legendary nebulae of the teapot.

Stop one was often M8. No, it didn’t look as much like M42 as I’d hoped, but The Lagoon was still the best nebula in the summer sky. Do I still feel that way? I reckon so, though the Omega is a close second, and harder non-M quarry like The Crescent, NGC 6888, is more my speed now. Still, I love that big old oval of gas with its dark lane, its hourglass—the widow’s mark of nebulosity at its heart—and the beautiful superimposed star cluster, NGC 6530. Like I said in the above-linked blog entry, I’ve kept coming back to M8. You will too and you will be glad you did.

Next? I’d sometimes swing by M20, The Trifid Nebula, but to be honest, in the hazy Possum Swamp skies this sorta-dim nebula really did not look like much. Sometimes I wasn’t sure I saw anything at all. At best it was the prototypal smudge, I reckon. I sure couldn’t see that it was “trifid,” in three parts. Hell, it could have been a cosmic custard pie for all I could tell. Still, I would look at it. Of course I would, it was a Messier.

M17:  now we are talking!  My first look at M17 was from Mama and Daddy’s backyard that hallowed summer of 1966.   The nebula is remarkably bright, certainly, at magnitude 6.0 or so, but it didn’t impress me quite as much as I hoped it would. It is higher than M20, yeah, and looked a little better, but darned if I could tell why the books called it “Swan” and “Omega.”  Still, it was yet another one me and my Pal could at least claim we’d seen.

M11, The Wild Duck Cluster, was one of the few objects I observed in summer or any other season where I didn’t feel like my puny telescope, my puny eyepieces, and my puny skills were holding me back. There it was in my 1-inch focal length surplus Kellner: a triangular flight of ducks, or maybe fireflies. I loved the wild duck name, and I loved the cluster. I could actually resolve stars in what I called an “almost globular.”

So much for the south. Where next? Good old Hercules. Took me a while to be able pick out the stars of what the dadgum books called “the distinctive keystone.” Novices take heed:  Hercules in subdued. Even now it sometimes takes me a minute to pick out that lopsided square of stars that is that Keystone. When I do, I move the scope (or more likely today a computer and motors move the scope) to The Hero’s Medal, the great globular star cluster M13.

I reckon I pretty much said all that need be said about it here, but I will say again that I loved M13 when I was a kid, when it looked like nothing more than a round fuzzball, and I love it now as a big ball of stars, even though I’ve looked at it thousands of times since 1966.

Some astro-writers have taken up the cause of M92, saying stuff like: “Nearly as good as M13,” “Would be on everybody’s top five list of globs if not for the proximity of M13,” and so on and so forth. In fact, I myself may have been guilty of similar hyperbole. Tell the truth, folks, 92 ain’t that great. It’s a mite spindly, and certainly didn’t rival M13 for me when I was a kid, and certainly don’t rival it for me now. What does? M5. In some ways, that enormous cluster over in Serpens Caput looks better than M13 to me: richer, rounder, composed of more and tinier stars. I didn’t think that when I was a youngun, but I sure do now. Get after it if’n you ain’t seen M5.

If Hercules can be a bit of a pain to pick out, my next destination, Cygnus, The Northern Cross, is trivially easy. Too bad his Ms are a mite pedestrian, a pair of open clusters, M29 and M39. I sure liked ‘em when I was a kid, though; probably because, like M11, I thought they looked about as good in the Palomar Junior as they did in their pix. Today? For me, M39 is a sparse triangle of stars; M29 is an even sparser little dipper shape. Ain’t looked at ‘em that much since I finished writing The Urban Astronomer’s Guidebut when I do stop by for a look at M39, I always admit it looks better then I remember.

It ain’t a Messier, but I loved Albireo, The Cub Scout Double, so called because it is composed of beautiful blue and gold stars that were easy to separate with my Edmund. There’s plenty of other stuff in Cygnus, too, but not that was accessible to me and my deep sky ignorant buddies in our Backyard Astronomy Society. I could probably have seen at least a trace of The Veil Nebula on a good night, but did not dare try. As I told Wayne Lee, one of the founding members of the BAS, when he decided to go after The Veil with his 3-inch Space Conqueror, “THAT’S FOR PROFESSIONAL SCOPES!”

There are cool Messiers in the area, just not within the borders of Cygnus. For that you have to go to The Little Fox, Vulpecula, and The Arrow, Sagitta. M27 in Vulpecula is one of the top planetary nebulae in the sky. It looks wonderful in my StarBlast today and looked wonderful in my Pal yesterday. I did sometimes have a devil of a time finding it, but always persevered for the reward of that little puff of apple core shaped nebulosity in a rich, rich field.

Another goodun not far from M27 is globular cluster M71 in Sagitta. The constellation was fairly easy to find and so was the glob, which I could at least begin to resolve. I thought that didn’t really count glob-wise, though, since the pros of the day were not sure whether M71 was a globular or a rich open cluster. Whatever it was, I thought it was wonderful: a hard little knot of stars in a field full of tiny sparklers.

Lyra wasn’t just an easy constellation for me to find, even easier than Cygnus, it was the first one I learned after the Dippers. The eye of even the greenest of greenhorns is instantly drawn to bright blue Vega, who often shows color even to people who normally have a hard time detecting color in stars. Vega identified, it’s not hard to connect the dots with a parallelogram of nearby and reasonably prominent stars to make the little Lyre (or harp, if’n you prefer) that is Lyra. The trick is finding the prize in the Crackerjack package, M57, The Ring Nebula.

Technically, it should be easy to locate the little smoke ring, since it is positioned almost midway between bright Beta and Gamma Lyrae. For little Unk, it was not that simple. The Ring is small. Smaller than I thought it would be (based on looking long and lovingly at the picture of it taken by the 200-inch at Mount Palomar). Even after I knew what to look for, it was easy to pass over something that was barely BB sized in my widest field eyepiece. When I finally had M57, at least it was another one that looked (a little) like it should in my telescope, a very slightly elongated Cheerio, if one that wouldn’t always show its dark donut hole.

M57 looked pretty good in my Edmund, but, truth be told, it really needs about eight inches of aperture to shine. My 5-inch ETX, Charity Hope Valentine does a good job on it, but in a C8 the Ring takes on form and substance. Oh, and pour on the power. I’d have seen more with my Pal if I’d gone up to about 200x, instead of sticking with the 45x I assumed was best for all deep sky objects. High power is often as useful for the deep sky, particularly for planetary nebulae, as it is for planets. My observation is that most amateur astronomers tend to use too little magnification on everything rather than too much.

While you will see more of M57 with more magnification, including, in an 8-inch telescope, that its hole not black, but gray—this is a filled donut—don’t spend hours looking for the central star unless you have excellent seeing, reasonably dark skies, and at least 12-inches of aperture. Not only is the star dim, about magnitude 15, but the gray haze in the Ring’s hole also makes it even harder to see. I have glimpsed this elusive star with my 12-inch Dob, Old Betsy, but just barely, and only with about 650x of magnification to help spread out that central haze. I had a better view of it with a 31-inch Dobbie at the Mid-South Star Gaze one spring, but that pesky star was not easy even then.

The Ring scoped out for quite a while, I’d move on, maybe back south, wending my way through Ophiuchus and his clutch of six—count ‘em, six—Messier globular clusters. After that, if I made it through those little balls of light, bright and dim, I might come back around to Sagittarius to knock off some of his treasures beyond the three nebulae I’d visited just at dark.

If I was able to stay up late enough on lovely July and August nights and did not get spooked by the saucers or ambushed by Mama with her patented “It is after midnight, young man; you get yourself inside (now she wanted me in the house)!” I might spy the dim autumn constellations pulling themselves up over the eastern edge of the world. Which made me a little sad. The summer stars and summer itself were going and would not be back for a whole year. And so they are now, muchachos, and so they are; get out there and immerse yourself in a summer night. Tonight. I insist.

Next Time:  More Gem-mania if I can’t get out and do some consarned observing

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