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. 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 this “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 since I finished writing The Urban Astronomer’s Guide.

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, the gray haze in the Ring’s hole 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 balls of stars 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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