Sunday, February 24, 2013


How Uncle Rod Almost Became a Dob Guy

Well, I am a Dobsonian guy, sort of. I’ve got enough of the suckers, muchachos: a 12.5-inch, an 8-inch, a 6-inch, and even a little 4.5-inch, Yoda, my StarBlast. I own and use the big, friendly alt-azimuth telescopes, but I’ve always been more identified with Schmidt Cassegrains and other Schmidt designs like the Maksutov. It hasn’t always been that way though; I almost gave up CATs for Dobs one time.

When did I first hear about Dobsonian mounted telescopes? I just can’t remember, but it must have been in the early 1980s, about the time small mentions of this different sort of Newtonian reflector began to appear in Sky and Telescope and Astronomy. Yeah, I know the old Telescope Making magazine was running articles on Dobsonians by 1979 and even calling the telescopes that,  but Unk has always been more of an amateur telescope buyer than maker, and confined his reading outside S&T and Astronomy to Deep Sky (when it went big time in ’82).

But, yeah, by the early 80s, I knew some amateurs were doing what sounded preposterous:  making telescopes not from aluminum and fiberglass and steel and brass, but from wood and cardboard. The ultra thin mirrors in the scopes they were building also flew in the face of convention. A mirror, this bunch of wild-eyed revolutionaries claimed, didn’t have to have a diameter to thickness ratio of 6:1. It could be way thinner if it were properly supported, maybe by a fabric sling. Hell, you could even make yourself a nice big mirror out of surplus porthole glass. Not only were folks apparently making these things in droves out on the west coast, a company of some repute at the time, Coulter Optical, was selling ‘em, running ads in the magazines every cotton-picking month.

All of which sounded like heresy to young Rod. No lathes and machining? Cardboard for a tube—like the dadgum Criterion Dynamax SCT we were still laughing about? Wooden alt-azimuth mount? How the hell would you TRACK THE STARS? And wouldn’t it be super shaky? Enormous mirrors sitting in some kind of little hammock instead of a real mirror cell? Sounded like you’d have yourself a right fine shaving mirror, not a telescope mirror. That’s what Unk and most of his bubbas thought, anyway.

It took me till the early 1990s to get beyond just reading about Dobsonians and get up close and personal with them. The impetus was the need to finance a divorce, which impelled me to sell my Celestron Super C8 Plus (it was not a world-beater optically, anyway). What to do? Well, I’d start saving for an SCT. Maybe one of them new fangled LX200s or a nice Powerstar C8, but I needed something better than my single remaining scope, the good, old Pal Junior, right away.

In the interest of saving as much moola as possible, I’d do what I’d done back in the late 60s and early 70s, homebrew a 6-inch Newtonian. Only this time I’d buy a primary mirror from somebody. Given the demands of my job, I didn’t feel like spending weeks with a pitch lap. How about a tube? The more I thought about it, the more I began to think the Dobbie gang had a pretty good idea with their Sonotube concrete form telescope tubes. I was willing to give that a try, anyhow. As for the mount, I’d hop on down to Home Depot, pick up some pipes and valve grinding compound, and do yet another pipe mount. Maybe. The things worked, as I knew from my days as a boy ATM, but they sure were heavy.

What pushed me over the edge into Dobdom was an excellent book, Richard Berry’s classic Build Your Own Telescope, which I’d bought from the old Astronomy Book Club not long before. I wasn’t much interested in building scopes at the time, but the ABC didn’t always have much in the way of amateur astronomy books, and when they had one, like Berry’s, I jumped on it.

While Richard’s book included plans for a very nice pipe/wooden equatorial, it appeared beyond my modest wood-working capabilities. Also in his book, however, was a simple but attractive 6-inch Dobsonian that, the more I thought about it, seemed just the thing. Light. Easy to build with no thread lapping with that nasty valve grinding compound. All I’d need was plywood, some Teflon pieces, and a few odds and ends.

According to Mr. B., I wouldn’t be giving up anything other than equatorial movements if I went Dob. The mount’s motions would be smoother and stability better than those of my old Pipe rigs, which I’d thought purty good. And I could enter the Dobbie club for the price of a sheet of particle board. In the interest of saving even more money I eschewed plywood; I didn’t expect this to work to my satisfaction, and wanted to spend as little as possible on it.

Turned out there were only two difficult things about the project:  getting the parts and (as usual for Rod) following the instructions. The primary mirror, an f/8 from Parks, arrived without too much delay, but the everything else, the focuser, secondary, spider, and primary mount, which I ordered from the prime ATM parts merchant of the day, Kenneth Novak, took forever.

When my shipment from the dude we referred to as “Old Man Novak” finally came, it was missing a couple of items. I finally got the vital one, the secondary holder, but I never did receive the copy of his (highly regarded at the time) book, Newtonian Notes, I paid for. With the addition of a few pieces of Teflon I found locally and a length of Sonotube from a building supply house (you should have seen the expressions on those good old boys’ faces  when I told 'em I was going to make a telescope out of it) I was ready to go.

I painted the Sonotube a nice glossy white outside and flat black inside, and drilled the requisite holes for focuser and primary mirror mount. I did forego the plywood end rings Richard’s pretty six-inch featured. I tried making one, but hand tools and a piece of cast off and somewhat water-logged ¼-inch plywood did not spell “success.” The Sonotube was more than strong enough to support itself and the rings would be entirely cosmetic, anyway.

The mount was no problem. The rocker box and ground board went together in a hurry. Building them with particle board made them heavier than they would otherwise have been, but the result was manageable in a size appropriate for a six, and was still lighter than my old pipe mounts had been. Made a box for the tube to slide into, put toilet floor flanges on its sides for bearings, mounted the Teflon squares on the rocker box and ground board and I was done.

Result? Disappointing as hell. Why, this thing was way shakier than my pipe mounts. So, all that talk about vibration absorbing wood and cardboard had been nothing but malarkey? Not really. As usual, I had failed to read the instructions carefully: I shoulda used three Teflon pads on the ground-board, not four. Three resulted in tripod-like steadiness; four a see-saw effect. I redid the azimuth bearings and was good to go. The mount was now amazingly smooth and steady. No, there was no motorized tracking, but I soon found I didn’t miss it a bit for visual use, and that the Dobbie Shuffle, nudge-nudge-nudge, was soon second nature even at high power.

Yes, it was just a 6-inch, and was frankly a little ugly, but I used that humble first Dob to great effect for about a year. The mirror was fairly good, if not as excellent as I’d hoped it would be given the hype and hyperbole about Parks’ optics on that pre-Internet online venue, Fidonet Astronomy. It was noticeably poorer than the last homebrew 6-inch mirror I’d done (and which I had foolishly sold), but it was Good Enough and initiated me into the joys of Dobbies. Equatorial-Schmeckquatorial; it was nice to point and shoot with the aid of a Telrad and not have to worry about dadgum RA and declination locks. I guess I was a convert.

I can’t eat just one Lays’ potato chip, and I couldn’t stop with just one Dobsonian. One evening after work I was browsing the pages of the then-current Sky and Telescope when my eyes lit on Coulter Optical’s latest ad. Something had changed, and what had changed was the addition of a second 8-incher, an f/7, as an alternative to their 8-inch f/4.5 telescope. The price? Fracking unbelieveable: $239.50 for the Dob complete with an eyepiece (but no finder). As I have said before, I simply could not resist, and ordered one.

Given Coulter’s reputation for slow delivery—they quoted me two YEARS for a 10-inch f/6 primary one time—I didn’t expect to see the f/7 for a long while. I ordered it more on a lark, because I could, than anything else. I was gobsmacked when it showed up at the front door a mere two weeks after I sent off my check. And, even more amazing, it was semi-clear for first-light night.

How did she do? “Mabel,” as I came to call her, did alright. The Moon looked good, if not blow you away good, despite her supposedly forgiving slow focal ratio. The mirror was not perfect, the star test revealing some turned down edge. Not a crazy amount, though. Jupiter looked cool and the Moon was wonderful. I even shot a prize-winning image of a Moon - Saturn occultation a few years later by holding a video camcorder up to her eyepiece.

Nevertheless, I didn’t start thinking about a serious Dob till April of 1993. Everybody knows what the brightest supernova of the last century was, of course, SN1987a in the Large Magellanic Cloud. But that was way down south and invisible to us losers in the Northern Hemisphere. The best we’d seen in a long time was SN 1993J, which burst into life in Bode’s Galaxy, Messier 81, and was discovered on March 28 of ’93. The maximum brightness of what later turned out to be a Type Ib was 10.5, not close to the brilliance of the Southern Hemisphere’s relatively nearby 1987a, but still visible with modest optical aid from fairly poor sites.

Like the frontyard of Mama’s house, Unk’s boyhood home, where Miss Mabel and I set up to get a good look at the Northern sky. One thing ol’ Unk had to admit was that a Dob is considerably more maneuverable than an equatorial as you move farther north (the zenith is another matter). Anyhoo, even in the light pollution with a fracking mercury vapor light five meters away, it was the work of just a few minutes with the Telrad to get M81 in the field of my 25mm Ortho.

Given the condition of the skies, which seemed at least twice as bad they’d been in the late 1960s—and they weren’t that great back then—I didn’t expect to see much/anything. And yet…and yet…there is was, standing out like a sore thumb. Wow! An extragalactic supernova with my 239 buck special. And it had taken all of five minutes to set the scope up and not even that long to get M81 in her field. Did I really want an SCT, after all?

Those doubts were only enhanced by my second look at the supernova. Pat Rochford, a fellow PSAS club member who I’d met  after my return to The Swamp not long before, was possessed of a big mother of a Dobsonian. An 18-inch Sky Designs by Bob Combs.

For those of you who don’t remember them, Bob’s telescopes were in the first generation of commercial/custom truss tube Dobsonians. They were heavy compared to today’s truss tube scopes, but since they could be broken down they were much more pleasant to lug around than the big Sonotube monsters. The Sky Designs scopes were also a little crude by today’s standards, with the secondary assembly, for example, being made of wood. But they were good telescopes, revolutionary for the time, really, and I could only imagine what 18-inches of horsepower would do for M81.

I got my chance to find out a few days after my initial look at the supernova, when Pat hauled his big Dob—which would be replaced by an even bigger one in just a couple of years—out to the public schools’ Environmental Studies Center where the good old Possum Swamp Astronomical Society held and still holds its meetings. Not only was the supernova even more obvious in Pat’s big gun, if I held my mouth just right I thought I could see a hint of one of M81’s gossamer arms in the light pollution.

I also couldn’t help but notice the relative ease with which Pat unloaded an 18-inch from his Isuzu Trooper. And how quickly it was ready to go. This was an 18-inch telescope, for god’s sake, and it was obviously much easier to manage than a C14, which I’d previously thought was the most portable big mutha. I couldn’t deny the smoothness of the scope’s motions, either, or the fact that Pat didn’t need batteries or AC power. Was a Big Dob in my future? Maybe. Maybe at least a medium-big one over the the short run.

The view I had of M81 in Pat’s 18-inch wasn’t all that was pushing me ever more into the Dobsonian camp; I had the chance to try another bigun in the few hours of clear sky we were granted at the 1993 Deep South Regional Star Gaze. I was treated to a view of M13 that is still locked in my memory. What was amazing was the plebian pedigree of the scope I saw it with. It was Coulter’s 17.5-inch Odyssey II. The name was kinda cool, but the scope itself was just as plain and simple as can be imagined:  A water heater sized Sonotube and a roughly figured mirror.

But it was a big mirror, almost 18-inches, and the dude who gave me a look through his much-loved telescope was using a brace of TeleVue Nagler 82-degree apparent field eyepieces. Admiring the Great Cluster in that expansive field led to an epiphany of sorts. A Dobsonian didn’t have to be expensive to show you incredible deep sky wonders. Maybe even the still financially depressed Unk—divorce lawyers like to be paid, and I had paid a couple of ‘em—could manage a sorta-big one.

I was tempted to get on the horn and tell Coulter to get an Odyssey II, or at least the Odyssey I 13.1-inch, on its way to me ASAP, and not worry about how long that might take. That’s just what I would have done if an issue of Sky and Telescope hadn’t hit the mailbox just before Christmas

Thumbing the magazine in my usual slow fashion, it took me a while to get to the big Meade ad spectacular splashed across a couple of pages toward the back, but when I did I was surprised. In them days, Meade was riding high with the LX200 and I was not surprised they were introducing some new products around Christmas. I was surprised at what they were introducing: Dobsonians. Pretty Dobsonians.

Actually, they didn’t look that different from the Coulters: big Sonotube tubes with smallish side-bearings sitting in rocker boxes. But they did have a more professional look. The Sonotubes were nicely finished in white with fancy Meade stickers, the focusers were real rack and pinion jobs instead of the Odysseys’ assemblage of plumbing parts, a genuine 25mm eyepiece was standard (the Coulters came with a surplus binocular eyepiece), and a finder—always optional with Odysseys—was also included in the package.

I was impressed, and brought the magazine to our annual club holiday dinner in January of 1994 to get Pat’s opinion. Back then, these holiday outings were distinctly déclassé affairs. The PSAS inevitably wound up at America’s Family Restaurant, the now (nearly) gone Shoney’s, where we mobbed their extensive salad/hot-bar. Not much like our upscale Christmas parties at the famous Ed’s Seafood these days. I didn’t care pea turkey. Munching Shoney’s fried chicken wings was OK, but what I was really after was my friend’s blessing for what I was about to do: order a big Dobsonian.

Pat was almost as impressed as I was by the Meade ad and kinda blown away that a major manufacturer was getting into the Dobbie business. The only question, which he posed to me, was “How big?” I had been ruminating on that and thought I had the answer. The StarFinders, as Meade called their Dobs, were available all the way from 6 to 16-inches. I had a 6 and I had an 8. A 10-inch would be wonderfully portable, but Pat concurred with my assessment that it wouldn’t be a huge increase in horsepower over my 8-inch. The 16-inch? The very idea of carrying a hot-water-heater Dob around in my Hyundai Excel was ludicrous. As Miss Goldilocks might say, “The 12-inch was just right.”

I’ve told y’all the story of the 12-inch StarFinder’s arrival at Chaos Manor South more than once. So here I will just say the telescope who’d eventually come to be known to all and sundry as “Old Betsy” mostly lived up to my expectations. Her optics were outstanding. The 50mm finder was good, the extra eyepieces that came in the upgrade package I ordered were horrible, and the smoothness of the mount’s motions was acceptable but needed fine tuning. Oh, and the 1.25-inch focuser that had looked so nice in the ads turned out to have a base made of plastic. Nevertheless, it worked well.

The 1994 Deep South Regional Star Gaze, Miss Dorothy’s first star party, was a triumph for Betsy. When there was the occasional clearing, she showed us the deep sky in detail. I was mucho impressed; her images were better than I dreamed—and I’d done considerable dreaming about my 12-inch during the long wait for her arrival—and I’d been able to stuff the pea-picking thing in my Hyundai. Today, numerous fork and GEM mount SCTs down the line, Miss Dorothy still laughs about how Unk RAVED about Dobsonians in them days, casting heaps of scorn on equatorials and even Schmidt Cassegrains. So, the die was cast. After Betsy I’d be on to Sky Designs or maybe those new guys, Obsession?

Nope. In truth, by the time Betsy arrived, six months after I ordered her, my Dobsonian fever had already begun to cool. That cooling actually began with the total Lunar eclipse of November 1993. Lunar eclipses can be fun to view, especially with binoculars, but I wanted more. I wanted to document the event in photos. Using the same primitive “system” I’d used nearly thirty years before with my 3-inch Tasco, I put my SLR on a tripod, set that beside the scope and shot into the eyepiece afocally. And had a ball. Way more fun than I’d a-had just running outside with binoculars during the commercial breaks in Married with Children.

Course, to get prints of the pictures I’d shot on Tri-X black and white film, I’d have to set up a darkroom again. Soon, I was once more immersed in the arcana of Dektol and D76 and big honking Bessler enlargers. I’d been doing strictly visual observing ever since Comet Halley (who I tried to photograph a time or two) had departed, and I was ready for a change. That change, it appeared, would be astrophotography. This would be my third or fourth flirtation with the Difficult Art, and I was determined to get it right this time.

Getting it right would require the proper equipment, and that equipment was not an undriven Dob, even a fancy one. I needed, yep, a good old C8. Before long I was pouring over catalogs and back issues of Sky and Telescope searching for the perfect SCT, which turned out to be the one me and my buddies considered an astrophotography powerhouse back then, the Ultima 8. My timing was, for once, good. By the time I’d learned the ropes of astro-imaging the modern way with off-axis guiders and PEC and Tech Pan 2415 and the new Fuji color films, the one - two - punch comets, Hale-Bopp and Hyakutake, were on their way in.

Photography aside, I was reeducated about what a wonderful visual scope a C8 is. No standing, no nudging along. Sit in perfect comfort and stare at your quarry at high power. The Ultima had excellent optics, and made planetary observing, which I was heavy into in them days, a joy.

I’ve continued to love and use Old Betsy, even upgrading her a time or three. But I’ve never advanced to a bigger or fancier Dobsonian. I’ve done far more imaging than visual looking these last eight – ten years, especially, and there always seems to be some new camera or imaging accessory or software that sucks up the time and money that might otherwise be earmarked for an Obsession Ultra Compact.

And that is OK, muchachos. I do sometimes think wistfully about my two or three years with big, gawky telescopes, sketchbook in hand. If I hadn’t spent that time with my Dobsonians, The Urban Astronomer’s Guide might never been written. But even astro-dilettante Unk eventually found his particular place in this greatest and broadest of all hobbies. It took me a while to realize it, but my fated spot is in the field with an SCT and a computer, viewing the output of my ST2000 CCD, my DSLR, or my Mallincam Xtreme, not at the top of a ladder next to a 25-inch Dobbie. No matter how exciting or romantic that sometimes sounds on the darkest of nights.

Next Time:  My Favorite Star Parties:  Deep South Regional Star Gaze 1993...

Sunday, February 17, 2013


The Early Return of Comet Kahoutek?

Those of you old enough to remember Comet Kahoutek’s much heralded but poor showing back in ’73 probably know where I am going with this. I am not, repeat, NOT  talking about Comet PanSTARRS (C/2011 L4), which will emerge from the Sun’s glare next month. That is probably a done deal already, I am sorry to say. If you ain’t heard, PanSTARRS is indeed pulling a dadgum Kahoutek at this very moment—not living up to its billing or even coming close.

Brightness estimates for PanSTARRS have been revised downward, with it now expected to peak at about magnitude 3.0. For you greenhorns, Polaris, the North Star, is brighter at 2.0, and the comet, being an extended object, not a pinpoint, will look considerably dimmer than a one-magnitude difference would suggest. In other words:  nice binocular object from dark site, but nothing that is gonna get my old Aunt Lulu or the public stirred up. Don’t fret, though; there is a potential goodie on the way in, C/2012 S1 ISON, if it doesn’t go down the Kahoutek path too.

David Levy has often compared comets to cats. Not only do they have tails, they tend to do exactly the opposite of what we expect or want them to do. And PanSTARRS was enough like Kahoutek to make my alarm bells go off:  a virgin comet (given the hyperbolic shape of its orbit) that brightened early and could turn spectacular when it hit the inner Solar System if its brightness continued to increase. Problem is, comets don’t tend to put on spectacular shows on their initial visits. They usually tease, with a thin layer of volatiles boiling off early and making them look “Great” when they are on their way in, but the hard frozen stuff below barely fizzling when they get closer.

Unlike PanSTARRS, ISON has at least the potential for being a Great Comet.  It MAY not be a virgin. It may, in fact, be a piece that broke off The Great Comet of 1860. It’s already surprisingly bright—a little dimmer than magnitude 14—given that it’s farther out than Jupiter’s orbit. The geometry is also right for it to put on one hell of a show for the Northern Hemisphere in December and January. That’s, of course, just the time back in 1973 that Kahoutek was supposed to strut her stuff, so be cautious; especially when dealing with the public. Kahoutek was a bigger disaster (in the public’s reckoning) for astronomy than even the pitiful Halley.

Still, Unk doesn’t mind saying he is hopeful about this one. Considerably more hopeful and less cautious than he usually is about comets at this stage of the game. It may even turn out to be Ikeya-Seki II, not Kahoutek II. When did Unk stop being a comet curmudgeon? Saturday night a week ago.

That Saturday was the evening for one of Unk’s dark of the Moon runs from the Possum Swamp Astronomical Society’s vaunted Dark Site. What I was supposed to be after was mostly Herschels; in fact, it was to be Night Thirty-Seven of the Herschel Project. “Night thirty-seven, Unk? We thought you was done with The Project and on to something called ‘The Herschel Project Phase II.’” I decided that sounded silly. While I’ve observed all the Herschel objects and am now just going back and re-imaging/sketching a limited number of them, they are still Herschels and I am observing them, so it is just The Herschel Project from here on out.

Anyhoo, before loading up the 4Runner, Miss Van Pelt, I sat down to SkyTools 3 and had a look-see about what was what—what would be up and well placed. I intended to go after the spring crew, Ursa Major, Virgo, and Leo, who would begin to climb out of the Possum Swamp light dome at mid-evening. What would I do till then?

When I’m preparing for a run, I always check ST3’s “Current” lists, Current Novae and Supernovae and Current Comets. These observing lists are one of my favorite SkyTools features because they are dynamic. “Huh?” What I mean is that you click “Update ‘Current’ Lists from Web” on the Observing Lists pull-down menu, and SkyTools automatically retrieves new objects, clears old ones from the lists, and updates coordinates as required. The lists of comets and supernovae (there’s “Current Minor Planets,” too, but I ain’t interested in asteroids at the moment) are always, well, “current” and I don’t have to struggle to make them so.

Looked at supernovae first—I am continuing my informal project of imaging the good ones—but nothing caught my eye. Oh, there was one in Leo, but it wouldn’t be up any earlier than the Leo galaxies I was after, and at magnitude 14.7 it would be a little dim down in The Swamp’s light dome.

OK, comets then. While that rascal PanSTARRS was still in the Sun’s glow, our supposed Great Comet, ISON, would be in a good spot. What did SkyTools say about it? Couldn’t get much better placed; it would be in Gemini and nearly at the zenith not long after astronomical twilight. It is still far-far-away, as you can see in the TheSky 6 screen at left, and I knew it would be dim, but SkyTools prediction of “magnitude 14.5” didn’t scare me like it would have in the pre-video days. The Mallincam Xtreme gobbles small objects of this magnitude like salted peanuts.

That took care of the objects then—Herschels and ISON. What about the sky conditions? Did not look good, campers. The weather goobs were divided between “partly cloudy” and “mostly cloudy,” with most of them tending to the latter. I didn’t care. I was going to the dark site if it wasn’t raining, and that was that. It would not be a wasted trip, even if I couldn’t see a dadgum thing. I needed a few terrestrial type pictures for a magazine article I am writing, and I prefer the photogenic PSAS field to my constricted backyard as a background.

Equipment? I was sorely tempted to haul out Big Bertha, the NexStar 11, but in addition to me being just naturally lazy, especially about lugging overweight scopes (sorry Bertha) back into the house in the wee hours, I still have the stitches in from my travails of last week, and I dang sure didn’t want a setback. The C8, Celeste, it would be. I had an agenda concerning her, too. She needed a thorough checkout before the spring observing season.

Actually, her nibs didn’t need a checkout. As I mentioned not long ago, Celeste’s motofocus woes were fixed with the assistance of JMI and she was ready to rock. What did need testing was the CG5 mount she rides on, and, specifically, the mount’s interface with the NexRemote computer program.

Last time I’d used NR with the mount, I’d had “No Response” messages on the hand control all night long, communications errors out the ying-yang, that is. I believed the problem was a bad RJ connector on the Celestron Auxiliary Port Accessory that adds a PC port (different from the serial port on the hand control) to the CG5 so I can run NexRemote without the real, physical HC being present. I’d crimped a new connector onto the Aux Port Accessory’s cable, and while I was pretty sure that fixed the problem, my schedule and the weather of the last six months had seen to it that I had not been able to test the mount with NexRemote.

It’s Mardi Gras, y’all…which is cool. Ol’ Unk has been known to do a little Fat Tuesday partying himself, but the traffic is hell. Because of that, and because of the aforementioned terrestrial pictures I needed to take, I pointed the 4Runner west at 3:45 p.m. That would give me a good hour before sundown for set up and picture taking. The sky? It didn’t look good at home and it didn’t look good when I arrived at the PSAS site. Not horrible, but plenty of high clouds, high humidity, and the blooming jet contrails that spell “bad weather a-coming.” That was OK. If I just got the photos for my article it wouldn’t be a wasted trip.

I had my choice of observing positions, that was for dadgum sure, since there was nobody else on the field and I didn’t expect there to be. There was still some blue, but the clear patches were shrinking, and I figgered my observing buddies would be at the parades—one of the biggies, The Mystics of Time with their famous Vernadean (pronounced "Verna Dean," you-all) the fire-breathing dragon, would be rolling. The PSAS site is our little patch of dark sky heaven on new Moon weekends, but the rest of the time it is an airfield. I set up just down from the big hangar in hopes of not getting spookified as I sometimes do when I am alone and on the far end of the observing field.

Not that I was much worried about that. I didn’t have the slightly jittery feeling that presages “visits” from The Skunk Ape, Mothman, and The Little Grey Dudes from Zeta Reticuli II.  I might feel entirely different later, of course, but it looked like I’d have plenty of company this evening. The Coast Guard Auxiliary was having a big cookout at the hangar, and the presence of even one other person always wards off my strange friends.

First order of bidness was getting the CG5 tripod set up, the mount head on that tripod, and Celeste on the mount so I could take my pictures with the Canon DSLR. I had hit what photographers call “the golden hour,” and got some photos I liked. Terrestrial shots in the can, I proceeded to get the copious support gear hooked up and running. I admit I did briefly consider just loading scope back in the truck and turning Miss Van Pelt for Chaos Manor South, but, man alive, it was barely 5:30.

What all do I gotta do to get ready to image the sky with a video camera? First thing is put the reducer on the telescope. Deep sky video camera chips work their magic by being small and having large pixels. That makes them quick to refresh and sensitive. The downside is you ain’t gonna see much if you don’t have a wide-field telescope. Luckily, an SCT can be a wide field with the addition of a reducer. What I’ve used for years is a Meade f/3.3, which screws onto the rear cell just like a Celestron f/6.3 reducer/corrector. A William Optics 2-inch visual back with a 1.25-inch adapter goes on that, and the Xtreme with its 1.25-inch nosepiece is inserted into the adapter.

That’s just the start, friends. A Video cable runs from the camera to the switchbox that distributes video to either my Orion mini DVR or to the portable DVD player I use as a monitor. There’s a serial cable for camera control, and that goes into a USB - serial adapter on the netbook. Gotta have power for the camera, natch. I always run my Xtreme from a jumpstart battery pack; I’ve found DC from a battery results in the cleanest video.

Then there’s the scope/mount stuff. There’s no hand control; instead, the NexRemote cable goes from a second USB – serial adapter on the netbook to the PC port on the Celestron Auxiliary Port Accessory, which is connected to the hand control port on the mount. A JMI motofocus goes on Celeste’s focuser, and a long extension cable runs from it to the motofocus control stationed by the monitor. The mount’s power cable (a short, coiled one from is plugged into a multi-outlet adapter connected to a second jumpstart battery, which also powers the DewBuster heaters.

Whew! Not quite done yet.  I need a 12-volt battery to power the DVD player, so I use a jump starter with two cigarette lighter receptacles. One is for the DVD player’s DC cord, and the other one, via an inverter, electrifies the netbook’s AC power supply. The netbook would probably last all night on its internal battery, but the 12-volt battery ensures I’ve always got more than enough amps to keep the PC going. Same goes for the DVD player: I could run it off its internal battery, but I don’t want no power failures just when I’m about to capture the long-sought UGC Umptysquat. Once I was done with all the astro-junk, the sun was well down, and it was time to see something—maybe.

The sky looked worse than ever, but I could nevertheless see plenty of alignment star candidates in the gloaming, and I’d be able to give the mount a good test just by running through its alignments. Turned on the camera, overlaid a set of Xtreme-generated crosshairs on the screen, set the exposure to a couple of seconds, and launched NexRemote. “Celeste” (actually the netbook’s Microsoft Mary voice) instructed me to “Select settings and press enter,” loaded the site’s location, which I’d stored on this computer via NexGPS a long time ago, got time and date from the netbook, and we were off on a two-star alignment.

First star? “Mirfak,” Celeste said. “Where in the H-E double L is ‘Mirfak’,” Unk replied. Oh, yeah, in Perseus. I’ve never been much good at star names once you get off the beaten path of Sirius and Betelgeuse. Centered Mirfak, did the same for Celeste’s second pick, Hamal, and it was time to—yes—do four more stars.

The go-to accuracy of the CG5 is amazing. It is as good as, or usually better than, my NexStar 11. The main reason for that accuracy is that it uses four “calibration” stars in addition to the two stars used for the pointing model. The calibration stars allow NexRemote (or the hardware HC) to take various mount misalignments into account. The next to the last cal star was in the field when the mount stopped, and number four, Capella, was centered without me having to do anything.

Aligning on four stars took all of 10 minutes, but the mount’s alignments were still not done, not even half done. If you want to expose for more than a few seconds, you need a decent—though not perfect—polar alignment. I do that with the hand control, but not with Celestron’s new(er) AllStar routine. I select one of the earlier CG5 firmware builds, v4.12, in NexRemote, one that has the older Polaris polar alignment, which I prefer. The mount points to where Polaris should be given a good polar alignment and you tweak the GEM’s altitude and azimuth adjusters till the star is centered. I got Polaris smack in the middle of the Mallincam crosshairs.

Alas, to do that, I had to move the mount a fair distance in altitude and azimuth, which would have thrown the go-tos off. So…another alignment with six stars. Some folks say you can stop adding calibration stars once one is in the field at the end of a slew, but that’s usually star three, so I just go ahead and re-do all four.  Once I get into the alignment groove, it ain’t that big a deal to do a dozen stars. Using a Logitech Wireless Wingman gamepad as my hand control, as NexRemote lets me to do, makes it duck fracking soup. How else you gonna occupy yourself before it gets good and dark, anyway?

Going to twelve stars allowed me to thoroughly check the CG5 if nothing else. I didn’t get a single No Response error, and there were no crazy or inaccurate slews to alignment or calibration stars. All was as it should be. ‘Course, Unk is of the “trust but verify” school of thought, so I did a couple of test objects, punching “M79” and “M35” into the virtual HC. Both DSOs wound up well-centered. Cool!

Only one more thing to try. Last time I’d used NexRemote’s Virtual Port with the netbook, it had made the NexStar 11 act crazy. The virtual port feature, which allows you to use an external computer program like SkyTools or Cartes du Ciel in conjunction with NexRemote, had been all messed up. Bad go-tos, bad tracking. I suspected the problem was either a faulty USB - serial adapter or an outdated version of NexRemote. I bought a new Keyspan USB - serial adapter and I updated NexRemote both on the netbook and on my Toshiba laptop. The virtual port worked perfectly on the laptop down Chiefland way last month; we’d see how it would do with the cotton-picking netbook on this night.

I launched SkyTools 3 and connected it—with ASCOM—to the virtual port, com 6, I’d chosen during NexRemote’s setup. The netbook let out a reassuring bing-bong, and it was time for another test object. How about M42? Hard to miss that sucker, even in the constantly building haze. Highlighted it on SkyTools Messier list, mashed ST3’s “slew to” button, and the Great Nebula landed dead center on the video screen. OK, how ‘bout the other side of the sky, to NGC 457 in Cassiopeia, the E.T. cluster? Smack in the middle. Tracking was excellent too. Unk was overjoyed, since the virtual port would make hunting comet ISON a lot easier. No need to manually input the visitor’s R.A. and declination, just click (in ST3) and go.

OK, comet time I reckoned. ISON was hanging out in the western part of Gemini, which was good and high and relatively free of clouds. Loaded Current Comets, highlighted ISON, pushed the slew button on SkyTools, and the CG5 made her usual weasels with tuberculosis sounds. Not quite loud enough to make the coyotes howl, but almost. That’s just the way it is with a CG5, but it is worth it for the mount’s outstanding performance, and to be honest it’s not that loud. It just seems that way on a quiet field. After the mount stopped, I waited for the Xtreme’s 15-second exposures to catch up, for the stars to become pinpoints again, and had a good look at the screen.

What did I see in the frame? Plenty of stars in this medium rich area, but not a one of them appeared fuzzy enough to be a distant comet. OK, then. More exposure, 28-seconds. Still no cigar. Looking up at the constellation, I could see Gemini was just about due for a good sucker hole. I tweaked focus and cooled my heels.

While waiting for the band of clouds to clear Gemini, I wandered around the site. I was by myself, yeah, but over at the big hangar the Coastie cookout was in full swing, so I wasn’t lonely; I just enjoyed the cool but not cold evening. It was damp, but not crazy damp as it sometimes is this time of year down in The Swamp. The DewBuster was set to “5-degrees” and kept up easily.

When the comet’s area of Gemini was finally in the clear, or what passed for clear on this night, I cranked the camera back up to 28-seconds and had another look-see. “Weeellllll…not really…but…wait... What’s that?” There was a fuzzy and seemingly slightly elongated “star” visible. I brought up SkyTools’ Interactive Atlas and compared my screen to the comet’s plotted position. Once I had the camera-vice-atlas orientation differences figured out, it became clear I was indeed looking at tiny little ISON. In other words, victory!

I recorded several video sequences of the comet at 15 and 28-seconds. I tried 1-minute, but the haze-scattered light pollution made the image’s background an ugly brownish green and 1-minute didn’t reveal any more of the comet than shorter exposures.

What now? I was pumped, let me tell you. Bagging the comet just whetted my appetite. I wanted more of the deep sky, even though conditions were continuing to worsen. A look at the Eskimo Nebula, which was bold and green even in the mess, another visit to the Messier bunch, M79, M35, and M79, and I was done whether I was ready to be or not. The sky closed down completely with a nearly audible thud.

Before shutting down, I strolled over to the hangar to visit with my hosts for a while. They were very kind, urging Unk to try some of the Conecuh sausage—one of my faves—they were grilling. Smelled oh-so-good, but, as above, Unk is still cautious about his poor mouth, and crispy grilled sausage might be a recipe for disaster. I walked back over to the gear before I could give in to my sausage desires and began shutting the rig down.

When you’ve got this much gear on the field it is admittedly a pain to pack at the end of the evening. The secret? Take it easy, work slowly and methodically. Don’t rush and don’t worry about the clock and you will be much happier. I got the computer and the video equipment stowed and stopped to shoot a few more DSLR pix for the article before finishing packing. Driving off the field, the clock in the truck said it was barely past 8:30. That was OK; I’d done the best I could with the sky I’d had and had got some things accomplished.

Back at Chaos Manor South, I had to unload all that gear—with Mardi Gras in full cry, there’s no way I’d have left anything in a vehicle. Anyway, unpacking doesn’t seem like a huge task when I am not faced with getting the 12-inch Dob or the C11 back up the front steps and into the house. By ten I was sampling the Rebel Yell and cable TV.

Sitting there watching as Svengoolie rolled Frankenstein vs. the Wolfman, letting the Yell warm my old bones, I gotta say I was pretty satisfied. To be honest, I’d been worried about my nearly nine-year-old CG5. Oh, I knew it would work OK with the hardware hand control, but I had been concerned about NexRemote. I simply don’t want to give that up and was beginning to think I might have to consider a CG5 replacement, Celestron’s CG5 successor, the VX.

Cheap as Unk is, it was nice to know I wouldn’t have to worry about that for a while, muchachos—though that may turn out to be a short while. The VX/Edge 800 combo shore looks sweet. What was really sweet, though, was getting a look at ISON. If it does become a Great Comet, I’ll have the satisfaction of knowing I saw it as early as I could. Just like I did Hale Bopp, who I captured as a wee fuzzy—if brighter and closer than ISON was on this night—with my Rolleiflex piggybacked on Celeste (on her original non-go-to fork). If ISON works out, this will be Celeste’s second set of Great Comet baby pictures.

Next Time:  How Unk Almost Became a Dob Guy…

Sunday, February 10, 2013


Unk's Messier Album 5...or..."The Awful Tooth"

Last Saturday evening wasn't supposed to be a Charity Hope Valentine night, muchachos.  No, I planned to lug out my C8, the CG5, the Mallincam Xtreme, and all the support gear and hit copious Herschels and Arps from the Possum Swamp Astronomical Society Dark Site. As it sometimes does, though, cold, hard reality intervened, and if not for my (sometimes) sweet little ETX 125 I wouldn't have seen a cotton-picking thing.

The fly in Saturday's ointment came in the form of a toothache. Or at least the possibility of one. As I hinted recently, there's a better than even chance your old Uncle Rod will be retiring from his daytime engineering gig shortly. That being the case, I want to have all my medical and dental ducks in a row. At the head of that row were my wisdom teeth, which I still have at my advanced age, and one in particular that was all too obviously going to be a major problem if I didn't have it out.

I should have got the sucker removed over thirty years ago. The Air Force dentists thought I should, but the Strategic Air Command had other ideas. In the midst of the post 'Nam military depression, SAC needed every single Missile Combat Crew Member. They made it clear that the time I would be off-alert would be unacceptable. That was OK with me; my teeth weren't hurting, and I was a mite queasy about getting them pulled, that's for dadgum sure. Unk went back to stemming the red tide and thought no more about wisdom teeth for a long time.

Flash forward to two weeks ago. I was still queasy, but I knew something had to be done, and made an appointment with an oral surgeon. His opinion? I needed two pulled, not just one, and it should be done right away. "Right away," alas, turned out to be last Friday, which to my dismay was the Friday afore the new Moon weekend. Oh fracking well.

If I told y'all Unk wasn't a bit concerned sitting in that waiting room Friday morning, I'd be a-lying.  Soon, I’d be in THE CHAIR with a mouth full or weird, sharp, metal instruments of dental torture, just like poor Alfalfa in The Awful Tooth. When I finally was in that chair, my fears were not alleviated. Quite the opposite. I knew there would be an I.V., but those heart and respiration monitors, the oxygen tube, the blood pressure cuff, all that surgical-like stuff, gave your skittish old Uncle the willies big-time. It was new and scary for an old boy who's never been under anesthesia nor spent a single night in hospital.

What followed was actually not scary at all, but it was extremely weird. When he came in, the surgeon (he was both a dentist and an M.D. and obviously smart and talented, which made me feel slightly better) asked how I was doing; I replied, “Doc, I’d rather be in Philadelphia.” He raised a syringe, said, "Well I am going to send you someplace different, Rod," injected it into the I.V. line, and left to fetch a pair of pliers, I presumed.

Sitting there, I began to feel slightly strange. Kinda tingly like. Not sleepy, though, or even numb. Certainly didn’t feel on the way to being knocked out. What I actually expected from having a molar pulled a while back was to be fully conscious but not caring much and not in any (well, much) pain. Since nothing seemed to be happening at the moment, I just watched the clock on the wall in front of me, hoping my surgeon would be back soon to get it over.

Seemed as if maybe five or ten minutes had passed when I heard Miss Dorothy asking me if I was OK and saying, “Honey, IT’S OVER, you’re done.” What the—? Had the doctor been called away on another case? Decided I couldn't have my teeth yanked for some reason? There had been no discontinuity. He’d given me that stuff and I hadn’t seen him again; I’d just sat for a few minutes. Nothing else had happened.

All I could do was squeak, "It’s over?" Miss Dorothy replied that I was fine, the bad ol’ teeth were out, and that we could go home. I have never been so relieved in my life. It was weird, but at least I didn’t have to experience the double tooth-pulling in any shape form or fashion. So that's what the dadgum MISSING TIME of the Little Grey Dudes from Zeta Reticuli II is all about.

The rest of Friday afternoon was spent half dozing in front of the cable TV back at the Old Manse. Most remarkable thing? I didn't need the pain pills I’d got, and by the time evening came in I was drinking a little, uh, "sarsaparilla," and watching one of my beloved classic monster movies, White Zombie with Bela Lugosi. Saturday morning, I was breakfasting on king cake (Mardi Gras) ice cream from Old Dutch and beginning to believe I was feeling good enough for a trip to the dark site.

But not maybe in full up mode. My recovery seemed swift, but—not to gross ya'll out—I bled for quite a while Friday and was not anxious to get that started again. My C8, Celeste, and the CG5 mount are remarkably easy to tote and set up, but I feared that for once even that would be too much. OH CHARITY!

So, I'd take Charity out to the dark site and work on my Messier Album. Wasn't what I planned, but better than not seeing anything. And the weather predictions, passing clouds by mid-evening, didn't sound optimum for deep voyaging with a Mallincam Xtreme, anyway. So, I'd just throw Miss C. in the truck and head for the PSAS field. Or would I?

While I was on the phone with long time observing companion Pat Rochford, he mentioned he was going to be doing a photometry run out at his StarGate Observatory if the weather permitted. Hmmm…

While I mostly practice astronomy as recreation, not science, these days, I’d been wanting to see Pat's Meade 14-inch SCT and Optec photometer in action. I also had to admit a half hour trip to Pat's home instead of an hour to the backwoods was a safer bet given my condition. "Hey, would you mind some company tonight?" Pat said he'd be happy to have me back at StarGate, which I hadn’t visited in way too long.

After hanging out with Pat and wife Stephanie for a while,  I said, just like old times, "Well, let's get to work." Which is exactly what we did. I thought I'd set Charity up on the observatory's deck, the former home of Pat's long-gone mega Dobsonian, and do a little visual touring while he did his variable star work from the roll off roof annex that houses the big Meade CAT.

Sweet Charity on her tripod with everything connected, it was time to see how she would behave. Well, almost. I took a few minutes to shoot some (terrestrial) images for a Sky and Telescope article I am working on, and by the time I flipped Miss C’s o-n/o-f-f to o-n, it was good and dark. But not too clear, even though there were no clouds yet.

Pat’s next-door neighbors to the south were having, I guess, a pre-Superbowl party. And not just any sort of pre-Superbowl party, but one that involved loud music, including much countrified music, and a cotton-picking bonfire. Naturally, the smoke was drifting right across the Orion area of the sky. Oh, well, I’d get Charity up and cranking and maybe the cold (it was in the 40s F., y’all) would eventually drive the partiers inside.

After finishing her little North and Level ballet, Charity chose Sirius (which I thought was a little low) and Capella as her alignment stars. She stopped a reasonable distance from both suns, I centered them up, and after she decided “Alignment Successful,” I mashed in “M42.” There it was in the 20mm Orion Expanse eyepiece which is my usual finding ocular for Miss Valentine. Kinda on the edge of the field though. How about something on the other side of the sky as a test? Little ol’ E.T., star cluster NGC 457, was well up, so I sent Charity that-a-way. She stopped, beeped, I put my eye to the eyepiece and saw—absolutely nuttin’.

When Charity gives me guff like this, it usually means she’s ready for drive training. That doesn’t take long, and I went ahead and did it, using Polaris as my target, since there was no way to use a terrestrial object (which is preferred) on Pat’s fenced-in deck. Did it help? Maybe a little. E.T. was on the field edge now instead of half a degree away. M42 was still on the eyepiece’s outer periphery though. In retrospect, I think it was mostly Charity’s choice of Sirius that caused the problem, not any o’erweening need for drive training.

Or maybe she was listening when Pat, who hadn’t seen the little scope in years, asked me how she was doing. Unk foolishly replied: “Purty good, but she can be a witch with a capital 'B' when she wants to.” Missy was undoubtedly offended and decided to teach silly Unk a lesson (yet again). Whatev’. While not bang-on, Charity still put anything I asked for in the field, if usually on the hairy edge. It was time to go get some Ms.

“Unk’s Messier Album 4” was a couple of months back, so a quick review of the rules is maybe in order before we have a look at the Great Nebula. The plan is to observe and sketch each of the 110 Messiers, just like legendary observer John Mallas did in his 1960s Sky and Telescope columns, which later went on to form his justly famous book (with astrophotographer Evered Kreimer) The Messier Album.

How does what Unk sees with the 5-inch ETX compare to what Mr. M. saw with his 4-inch Unitron? That is what we are here to find out, campers, to the tune of 3 – 4 objects each installment, something close to the rate at which Mr. Mallas tackled them in his S&T columns. The matter in italics has been transcribed directly from my (audio) log.

M42/43 (January 1970)

What can you say? What I can say about the Great Nebula and have said before is that it looks good in anything from a pair of teeny-weenie binoculars to the biggest Dob you can muster. It’s great at low power and it’s great at high power. It’s just fracking great, period. Seeing it just about perfectly framed in Charity on this crisp 40-ish January evening took me back to similar nights in the sixties when I first began to wander this astounding cloud with my Palomar Junior. When the wind changed and the smoke drifted off, anyhow.

With the smoke from the bonfire nextdoor pouring across Orion, I didn’t expect much, even from M42. But I was wrong. It’s hard to make this thing look bad, no matter how poor the conditions. While I didn’t spy the e and f stars in the Trapezium, I really didn’t try for ‘em very hard. Besides the smoke, the seeing tonight ain’t all it could be. When the wind changes direction, I am amazed to see M43’s comma shape clearly. That is good for a 5-inch telescope in not-so-hot skies.

John Mallas and I purty much tied as far as what we saw of 42 and 43. He used lower power—he mentions 25x and 60x—and saw a little more of the nebulosity west of the Trapezium where it loops back in on itself. His drawing is a splendid one, but his M43 does look a little strange; more like a triangular patch than the comma most of us see.

M35 (November 1968)

Wanting to get away from that dadgum smoke, I moved eastward to Gemini and to one of the best open clusters in the sky. As a matter of fact, I believe M35 is Unk’s favorite galactic cluster. Looking at its numberless tiny stars made me think not of boyhood expeditions to this Messier, but of seeing it with Old Betsy, my 12-inch Dobsonian, from the backyard of Chaos Manor South a mere twenty years ago. That view of the cluster in all its spangled glory with its smaller companion, more distant cluster NGC 2158, well resolved, really brought home to me what pouring on a little aperture can do, even under poor skies. With Charity on this night? NGC 2158 wasn’t resolved, but it was visible and even looked a little grainy…

I’m using the Pro Optic (Adorama) 40mm Plossl on M35. I don’t normally care for long focal length eyepieces, but it gave me just a little more field than the Orion 20mm Expanse, and I needed that to try to squeeze NGC 2158 into the field. The main cluster is beautiful. Did my best to draw it, but the number of stars visible is overwhelming. NGC 2158 is an elongated haze in the 40mm, and is fairly bold in the 15mm Expanse, assuming a grainy, “wants to resolve” appearance.

Mr. Mallas opinion of the cluster? It’s impossible to compare my drawing with his since he didn’t do one. As always, he declines to draw an open cluster. I’ll admit this one was tough to sketch—so many tiny stars. Anyhow, Mallas mostly talks about the “shapelessness” of M35, describing a round, rich patch of stars. Was he using too little magnification? Too much? I don’t know, but I do know I can see lines of brighter stars and a strong triangular patch he did not notice. John doesn’t mention NGC 2158, which is beautiful in the Kreimer image. I’d say Miss Charity delivered considerably more of this field than his Unitron.

M79 (December 1969)

Globular cluster M79 in Lepus is another of my favorites, maybe because it is Winter’s only Messier glob, and is the herald of the return of their hordes beginning in the spring. Anyhoo, with the fire having died down a little and Hank Williams Junior having been replaced by Queen—I thought hearing guitar licks from fellow amateur astronomer Brian May was a good omen—Charity and I headed for the home of the frightened little hare to have a look at 79.

M79 isn’t much more than a small, round smudge of a fuzzball tonight—mostly due to the smoke still drifting through Lepus, I guess. Continued staring does show one prominent star just outside the nucleus and, as I continue to look and use averted vision, several tiny little guys closer in to the center. The core is grainy, but not close to resolved.

Mister M. makes a strong comeback on M79 with his excellent drawing that depicts considerably more stars than I saw. He calls the glob “impressive” and I agree, even though it was badly compromised for me and Charity on this night.

M78 (January 1970)

Globular essayed, I knocked off the last Album object for the night, reflection nebula (with a bit of emission nebulosity thrown in) M78. I remember how I sometimes struggled with this one with the Pal from Mama and Daddy’s semi-dark 60s backyard, so I was interested to see how bad or good it would be from Pat’s now somewhat light-polluted locale.

M78 is starkly visible as a large elongated cloud around a prominent double star, PPM 149436, despite lousy conditions. In fact, not only can I make out the patch that is M78 and see it is elongated, I can tell that it is offset from the stars; they are not in the exact center of the nebula. At times, it is obvious the edge of the nebula is irregular.

How did John Mallas do on this one? Not so hot, I’m afraid. What he draws and describes couldn’t be more different from what I saw or what is in Kreimer’s excellent astrophoto. John describes “a faint comet” shape with a “head” (a star) and a broad tail, and that’s what his drawing shows. It’s almost as if he were looking at Hubble’s Variable Nebula in nearby Monoceros, not M78. What happened? Unfortunately, we will never know. John Mallas, an outstanding observer and writer, was taken from us way too soon in 1975
That was four Ms, the fire next door had been well stoked again, and Hank Junior was once more hollering some kind of foolishness about something or other, so I thought it was high time for a break. Looked in on Pat and Big Mama Meade, watching fascinated as they did their thing, checking check stars, measuring sky brightness, and doing integrations of variables. To be honest with you-all, I’ve never been much interested in variable stars, but watching Pat’s Optec photometer clock off photons cruising in from distant suns gave me some idea, finally, of how you can get all wrapped up in the AAVSO stuff.

What next for moi? Thought I’d look at a few cool things before the clouds, which were predicted to start drifting back in in mid-late evening, made their disgusting appearance. Where first? A comparatively recent favorite of mine, Tau Canis Majoris, The Jumping Spider Star. It’s a favorite, yeah, but I can never, ever remember the NGC number of the cluster it is associated with.

Dadgum good thing I had my iPhone on my belt. Brought up SkySafari, searched for “Tau Canis Majoris,” was rewarded with a detailed chart, and had all its specs, including the cluster’s NGC number, at my fingertips. If you have an iPhone, iPod, iPad, or an Android, don’t ask questions, just get SkySafari. I am only sorry I can’t use it on my Windows PCs. It’s good enough that it sometimes makes me want to go Macintosh (there is a SkySafari for OSX), and that is saying something, brothers and sisters.

I discovered Tau when I was writing The Urban Astronomer’s Guide, when I was constantly on the lookout for interesting, easy objects. What you have got here is a bright magnitude 4.37 star, Tau Canis Majoris, superimposed on—or maybe even a member of—a small (8’) open star cluster, NGC 2362. This bright star is sitting in the middle of a lovely little triangular cluster, looking like a spider sitting in a dew-drop spangled web, when, suddenly, that spider JUMPS, moves independently of the cluster stars. There is no doubt this is just due to the contrast difference between Tau and the compact cluster’s wee stars, but it sure is cool to see.

What else, what else? How about good old M50 over in Monoceros? This is an outstanding galactic cluster, a reasonably dense group about 15’ in size and somewhat triangular in shape. Looks a little like a less rich M37, I reckon. I learned to love this one back in the mid 1980s. M50 was just so dependable, hanging reasonably high in my light polluted sky and always looking good. Like it did on this evening.

I am always amazed at how small stars look in Charity, even at fairly high magnification. And especially at medium powers like the 100x I was applying with the 20mm. M50 looked so nice I probably should have sketched it for The Album, but that would have been one too many for one night, I thought.

Next up? Since I was in Monceros, had to be the Christmas Tree Cluster, NGC 2264. This is another one I used to agonize over when I was knee high to a grasshopper. The cluster itself, which forms the unmistakable shape of a Yule tree complete with a star at the top and its trunk at the bottom, was cool and easy, yeah, but I was always after a trace of the vaunted nebulosity near the tree’s “star.” This nebulosity forms the background of the Cone Nebula. You won’t be surprised to hear I never saw a pea-picking bit of it, much less the Cone itself.

I suppose I’d forgot how big the Christmas Tree is—it had been an awful long time since I’d been here. It’s 20’ across and just barely fit in the ETX’s field. Nice, but it really needs about twice that much space to strut its stuff. The big tree admired, I briefly considered slewing over to the Rosette Nebula to see if I could bring it out with an OIII filter if I could fit it into the 40mm Plossl. But the smoke was back and, even more seriously, those forecast clouds were arriving.

One to grow on? M82 was up, so why not. At first I was right put out at Charity. After she stopped, not a trace of the peculiar looking edge-on galaxy did I see. Then I noticed it lurking on the field edge. Centered up, it was obvious but not much good. Just a little gray wisp of a cigar shape, not a hint of the dark-lane detail the ETX usually picks up. A look at the sky gave the “why.” More and more clouds were speeding across the heavens; it looked like Big Switch time for the Rodster.

Powered off my small girlfriend and went over to see what Pat was up to. He was on to the next star of the evening but wasn’t having much luck; the clouds were ruining his data. He had been able to complete one star during the brief interludes when our friends next door forgot to stir their fire, so the evening had not been wasted for him. He was in agreement: we were obviously done for this Saturday Night.

The real joy of a Charity Hope Valentine night, especially when you are not feeling quite up to par, is that she can be back in the vehicle in five or ten minutes. And she was, which was welcome, even though I wasn’t feeling a bit bad. I’d taken my antibiotic horse pill at 8:15, and other than that hadn’t given a thought to my dental situation. Still, it was good I didn’t have to tote no barges nor lift any bales.

Back at the Old Manse, still feeling just fine, a little Yell and Svengoolie put a coda on my evening. I was just in time to see the old fashioned HORROR HOST run Lon Chaney Junior in The Wolfman. Did you know it has an astronomy connection? Yep, early in the film, poor, doomed Larry Talbot looks through a gigantic and beautiful refractor, though he uses it to ogle village girls, not the stars.

To sum up my slightly “off” Saturday run? Struggled a little with Charity, but that was OK. It seems my most memorable evenings with her are, strangely, the ones where everything doesn’t go right. Got another installment of Unk’s Messier Album in the bag. Got to spend some time with my old friend Pat and watch him work his variable star wizardry. In other words, smoke or no smoke, clouds or no clouds. Awful Tooth or no Awful Tooth, there just wasn’t no downside to my Saturday night, muchachos.

Next Time:  More Video Fun...

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