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...

Glad to hear the dentist wasn't too traumatic.

Having just got a new to me 1980s orange tube C5 I know what you mean about the ease of set up with Charity, I find my C5 a breeze to set up compared to my 8" SCT, whilst the 8" tube and fork mount is a bit of a handful carrying out the house the C5 is simple one arm stuff. Sometimes ease of set up trumps aperture!

Clear skies

Almost as enjoyable as a I hear anyhow.(I mean the drugs they use...don't know where you are, or care)
I think what they give you is called a dissociative anesthetic. It's not really an anesthetic. It's more like a drug that elicits amnesia. You're still awake but you can't remember a gal-derned thing 'till it wears off. That way the docs and nurses can call you what they think of ya and ya won't remember a thing.

Anywho, glad ya did good. Just don't grit your teeth to much for a few weeks...!

Clear Skies.
You know, Don... I just really don't want to know... LOL...
Hope you are feeling fine, Uncle Rod.

Read this with interest as usual. I actually pull out the S&T DVDs with the old Mallas sketches to compare.

I hope also that the combat crew badge picture is a teaser for an upcoming, long-promised blog entry touching on this page in your career a little less obliquely...
Thanks... You know, one of these days--at the risk of boring all and sundry--I might write about my Cold War adventures. ;-)

Just to drop a note, once again you've gotten me back into the game. Long, Long ago and far, far away (Sci.Am.Astro) you helped me decide on a C8. Your Herschel series has made me get "The complete guide to the Herschel Objects" and on March 8th I start my quest at our clubs dark sky site with that C8.

BTW I love to hear about your "Cold War" stuff - as an ASA/NSA alumni I would find it very interesting. about a blast from the past! Those were the days. I'll figure out how to work some Cold War tales into the warp and weave of the blog...
Hey Rod - Chris Lee up at NOVAC, I was looking for a RSS feed for your blog so I could link up the Sunday postings up automatic like for us up North! Hope you are doing well and that we see you later this summer at AHSP! If you have a feed option somewhere and would send along to I would greatly appreciate it!
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