Sunday, March 31, 2013


My Favorite Star Parties: TSP 1997

When I began this series of reminiscences, muchachos, I warned y’all “favorite” would not always equate to “best” where the sky and what I saw is concerned. Some of my best times have been at star parties that were clouded-out or near about. What made them fun was spending time with brother and sister amateur astronomers, learning new stuff, and buying new stuff.  Oh, and drinking, of course! Conversely, those events with the best skies haven't always been the most fun. But it's also true clear skies help. You can put up with a lot of minuses when you've got good observing to look forward to and some clouded-out star parties just ain't much fun at all. 

So it was with the 1997 edition of the vaunted Texas Star Party.  Looking over my notes from sixteen years ago, I’m surprised to see we had three-and-a-half nights out of seven that were good enough for some deep sky voyaging. I tend to remember ’97 as the year when the weather was so bad we didn’t see a cotton-picking thing. That's probably because the "everything else" didn't live up to my expectations. Not hardly.

In fact, my experience at TSP 1997 was in general pretty danged lousy.  I have some fond memories of the event, but not many, not many. It is in the "favorites" column only because it was my first visit to a legendary, storied event, and I remember it semi-fondly for that reason and not much else.

The story begins in the fall of 1996, when my long-time observing companion, Pat Rochford, and I began talking about something we’d skylarked on for a couple of years:  attending the famous Texas Star Party held in the spring under the dark skies of Fort Davis not far from McDonald Observatory. Yeah, we’d talked about it before, but this time was different, this year we were serious. We were going. We even sent off for registration materials. And got ahold of a former Possum Swamp Astronomical Society (the name of which club has been changed to protect innocent and guilty alike) member, Joe Diefenbach, an enthusiastic ATM and observer whose job had required him to move back to Germany. Joe had been to TSP before and we suspected he might want to go again.

He did, which was good. What was not so good was that we began to drift off the beam. The first misstep we made was deciding we would camp instead of pony-up for beds in a bunkhouse. I guess Pat and I just didn’t understand how brutal the Sun and weather can be on an open field in Texas, and apparently Joe had forgotten. This was a mistake we didn't learn from, as we did the same cotton-picking thing a few years later. Sigh. We were just young(er) and foolish, I reckon. If we were going to camp for a cotton-picking week, Unk should at least have trotted to the sporting goods store and bought a decent-sized tent. Instead, I borrowed a small pup tent from Pat.

Our next misstep? It’s hard to say our desire to take so much dadgum gear to the Texas Star Party was a mistake. It’s more the way we chose to do so. We rented the biggest Ryder truck this side of a tractor-trailer. Between the three of us that was easy to afford. The problem would turn out to be one of practicality, not expense.

The truck was way more than we needed. Hard to park. Hard riding enough to rattle our bones good given the decrepit state of much of I-10 in Texas. We could have got Pat’s telescope, a big 24-inch Dobsonian, in the next size of truck down, maybe even in a large van, and could have crammed Joe’s 12-inch Dob and my 8-inch SCT in there with it. Chances are we couldn’t have got the additional scopes we were dead-set on packing, Pat’s 8-inch f/7 Newtonian and Old Betsy, my 12-inch f/4.8 Dobbie, in even a large van. But a nice van sure would have been easier to handle and a lot more comfortable. In the end it turned out we wouldn't have much missed those extra scopes anyway. We didn't get to use our main scopes that much. 

What was our most profound mistake, though? Deciding to go to TSP 1997 at all. As Christmas season 1996 approached, we began hearing disturbing rumors on the nascent amateur astronomy Internet and in particular on the sci.astro.amateur Usenet bulletin board. Seemed as there’d been a big falling out between the TSP organizers and the owners of the Prude (dude) Ranch where the event had been held almost from the beginning.

Well before December was out, the rumors had turned to cold, hard facts. There would be no Texas Star Party in Fort Davis in 1997. The organizers were now looking for a new location. Pat and I did some ruminating over the situation. Even if TSP was no-go, we really, really wanted to experience a big star party that spring. Not a semi-local event like The Peach State Star Gaze (held in May that year), but one under genuinely dark skies way out west.

What could that be? There was another and similar star party out there, a new one, The Nebraska Star Party, which would be in its third year. Unfortunately, a look at the NSP website revealed it was still in its developmental stages, without much in the way of amenities—like food and shelter, for God’s sake. It would also be an even longer drive for us than Fort Davis.

Just as I began to think I’d be headed to Jackson, Georgia and the PSSG after all, we got an email from the TSP folks. The star party would be held, but in a new location, one they thought would be purty good: The Alto Frio Baptist Encampment (church camp) near Leakey, Texas in the Hill Country. Supposedly, the site had good facilities and was eager to have us. That sounded OK, but I still wasn’t happy, “The ONE gull-dern year I get to do TSP, I don’t get to do it at Prude Ranch?!”

There was a bright side, though. Leakey, Texas was over four hours closer to us than Fort Davis, and that was a Good Thing given a joint decision to drive the entire 14-hour trip in one day. Above all, we was het-up for a big star party and were not about to change our plans.

I did look at a map of Texas, and what I saw was disturbing. Appeared to me Leakey was close enough to San Antonio to be in range of the light dome of that big city when the air was humid, and I knew from having been stationed in San Antone when I was in the Air Force in the 70s that the air is almost always humid in the Hill Country in spring. Still, the site had been checked and blessed by TSP honchos, who, I assumed, knew what they were doin' (ha!), and the skies of Jackson, Georgia would have been even more light dome and humidity challenged than those of Leakey, I supposed. What Could Happen?

At 2:30 a.m. on Sunday morning May 4, a truck even larger than I’d imagined pulled up in front of Chaos Manor South and shortly we were on I-10 headed west. We could do 65 mph, and that was about it, so it was a long and wearying journey across the Gulf Coast and Louisiana and into Texas. Not exactly an unmemorable one, however.

I took over driving from Pat at the Louisiana line. Miss Dorothy had warned me about a bridge she said I wouldn’t like one bit, and I presumed that was the I-10 Mississippi River bridge. It wasn’t fun shepherding the huge truck over the long bridge over the Mississip, but it wasn’t that bad, either. Smooth sailing after that, I thought. Ha!

Rolling through Lake Charles, Louisiana, I became aware of an odd-looking structure up ahead. In a few minutes, we were close enough to see what it was: an enormous, towering bridge, the Calcasieu River Bridge. It was high, with a grade that seemed to approach 45-degrees—to slightly gephyrophobic Unk, anyway. Good thing I didn’t know the bridge had been rated structurally deficient for years.

By the time I realized what was up ahead, I had no choice but to keep going. We were on the bridge approach and there was no place to stop and let Pat or Joe take over. I gripped the wheel with cold and sweaty hands, put the truck squarely on the white line despite the honking of the cars behind me, slowed to 45, and finally got to the other side.

As we approached Alto Frio after 14 freaking hours on the road (we had decided to make the trip in one day to save money, another mistake, I soon decided), Joe, who was driving, commented on the beauty of the Hill Country hills, which were more like small mountains, and all the pretty wildflowers. Rut-roh. Says Unk, “You know what causes wildflowers, doncha, Joe? RAIN.” A look out the window showed there was every chance of the flowers getting more. The sky wasn’t socked in, but there were plenty of drifting clouds to go with the spring sunshine.

What would be would be. At 4:30 p.m., we were pulling in the front gate of Alto Frio Baptist Encampment, getting registered, and heading for the observing field we planned to use, the smaller of the two, the South Field. Parked the hulking engine of destruction along the fence and started looking for a place to pitch our tents. Unk was of the opinion we should stay next to the truck, but I was overruled by my compadres, who voted for someplace under trees and out of the Sun. Which turned out to be both good and bad in the end. The good was we found a nice, cool(ish) patch of shade for the tents on the opposite side of the field. The bad? That would come later.

After setting up our five telescopes on the field not far from the truck, we were ready for some grub—big-time. What were the three best things about Alto Frio? That’s easy: food, food, and food. That first night we dined on huge grilled Texas ribeyes with all the fixings, and the rest of the meals were every bit as good. The dining hall was huge and lovely, and this was the best food I have had at a star party anywhere over the last thirty-something years.

After supper, I turned a critical eye on the sky as we strolled back to the field. “Not good, but not bad” was my verdict. There were still plenty of the clouds I’d noticed on the way in, but there was little doubt we’d get some observing in on Sunday night.

And we did, we did. In addition to cloudy patches, there was some haze to devil us off and on, but overall the night wound up in the “plus” column. As I feared, humidity and haze made for a prominent light dome in the direction of San Antonio, but the sky was reasonably dark elsewhere. It was indeed better than what I’d have had at Peach State. But you know what? It wasn't worlds better. 

The loudly buzzing fly in the butter was we were some kind of tired. Up at 1:30 a.m. that morning and only catnaps on a looong road trip did not make for an all-nighter. My original goal had been to set up the C8, Celeste, for prime focus astrophotography and get some shots on the first night in case the weather turned punk—which, alas, the weather reports we’d heard since our arrival indicated it might. As I struggled to remember how to do a polar alignment, howsomeever, I gave in and admitted I wasn’t up to guided imaging. It would be visual all the way with Old Betsy.

Turned out it had been a good idea to bring Bets along. Her 12-inch mirror delivered plenty of dim marvels, and even though she was still in her original Meade Sonotube body, she was less affected by the wind that began to blow at mid evening than the huge truss tube dobs that littered the field.

Best things I saw Sunday night? M51 was spectacular, with the “bridge” between it and its little companion, NGC 5195, easier than I ever remembered it being. Oh, it wasn’t nearly as good as it would be two years hence when Miss Dorothy and I finally made it out to Prude Ranch, but it was spectacular nevertheless, with its spiral structure blatantly obvious.

Of course I looked at Omega Centauri, which was a mind-blowing swarm of fireflies, but the best object that night was M83, The Southern Pinwheel. In light pollution it is usually a blob; here its spiral arms and central bar were more than evident. It looked, as Timothy Ferris describes it in his old book Galaxies, “alive with motion.” If it was wonderful in Old Betsy, it was dern near indescribable in the 30-inch Dobsonian set up next to me.

There were times we had to wait for sucker holes, but we pressed on till 2:30 a.m. anyway, when the three of us threw in the towel. Not because we were exhausted, which we were, but because the clouds had been getting increasingly more numerous since midnight and the wind kept building and building. We headed back to the area of our tents, where I plopped down in a lawn chair, opened a bottle of Yell, and assessed the evening. Not perfect, not close to it, and not comparable to what I’d been told to expect of the desert skies at Prude. But good, very good, and if we could get a week of nights at least as good, Unk would be a happy camper.

Dawn brought skies no clearer than Sunday’s, but they didn’t look much worse, either. I’d had a restful enough night in my sleeping bag and had begun to think this camping thing would be just alright. My rude awakening in that regard came when I headed to the bathrooms/bathhouse for my morning ablutions.

The bathhouse Alto Frio provided for our camping area proved to be substandard to be kind. Concrete floors that had not been washed in quite a while—months it looked to me like. No shower curtains. Poorly lighted. Worst of all, even though we complained, the Alto Frio staff did not clean the place the whole time we were there. Not once. By the following Saturday it would be referred to as “The Black Hole of Alto Frio.”

We had elected not to participate in the breakfast part of the meal plan, since we thought we’d never be up early enough to make that pay. What we hadn’t considered was all three of us were used to getting up early and would have a hard time sleeping in, even after late nights, and especially after early nights. We had had the good sense to bring along a Mr. Coffee, which made us awfully popular on the field early in the morning, since our fellow attendees had mostly eschewed the breakfasts, too.

How did we fill the long hours between dawn and the late DST sunset? Enjoying lunch in the cafeteria. Getting acquainted with a few of the nearly 550 fellow amateurs present—we soon ran into a contingent of Deep South Regional Star Gaze attendees from the Ponchartrain Astronomical Society. And natcherly by buying stuff in Vendors’ Hall.

And what a vendors’ hall it was! If anything at Alto Frio was memorable other than the food, it was the spacious building assigned to dealers. Almost everybody who was anybody back in them days was there. Our old friend Rex from Rex’s AstroStuff, Lumicon, Mag 1 (the famous Portaball telescope people), AstroSystems, Astronomy to Go, Pocono Mountain Optics (who were huge in those days), and more. I was sorry Celestron didn’t show, but there was plenty of stuff to drool over.

I immediately turned over 150 Georgie Washingtons to the much-loved and now gone Pocono for a Celestron f/6.3 reducer-corrector, which I’d decided weeks ago would be my major purchase. I was back into imaging with the SCT, was tired of doing that at f/10, and hoped the 6.3 would be better than the putrid f/5 reducer lenses I’d heard about over the years. It would also prove to be a boon for visual work, turning my Ultima 8 into a much more versatile scope.

After another good supper, it was time for observing. Monday evening wasn’t as good as Sunday, with still more haze and longer waits between cloudy stretches, but it was bearable. I was able to complete my astrophotography agenda for the star party by getting a couple of shots of Omega Centauri though my new reducer-corrector. After Omega, I imaged some Messiers including M13, M3, and M53 and did some visual observing with both Celeste and Old Betsy before the weather gods decided it would be an early evening for us, with the sky closing down around one in the morning.

It wasn’t all flat-out pedal-to-the-metal observing Monday night. We’d had to take a few breaks due to cloudy stretches and strolled over to the big North Observing Field during one. It was there Pat and I discovered a major down-check for the site. Both fields were bordered by the main road we’d come in on and there was a surprising amount of traffic on it. This didn’t seem to be much of a problem for our field, which was set slightly farther back and shielded by some trees; it was a big problem for the North Field. TSP organizers had tried to protect the telescopes from the headlights of passing cars by hanging dozens and dozens of tarps (donated by local folks) along the site’s fence.

This 8’ tall “light fence” worked somewhat for some observers—until the wind began to blow the tarps. It didn’t work at all for the users of the biggest Dobs, who were above the fence/tarps on their tall ladders and constantly bathed in headlights. The only saving grace was the traffic died out late in the evening. But by then the clouds had shut down observing, anyway. This headlight problem, if nothing else, would make Alto Frio’s viability as a permanent home for the TSP doubtful, very doubtful, Unk thought.

Tuesday morning brought worse weather still. At dawn, the sky was completely overcast and stayed that way all day long. What did we poor pilgrims do? Wandered around, running into old friends and making new ones like Tom and Jeannie Clark and legendary observer Barbara Wilson and her husband, Buster. There was also the Birmingham Astronomical Society’s ever-ebullient Ed Boutwell, who was as good-humored as ever despite the clouds.

What else did we do? We ate and took yet another tour of Vendors’ Hall. That was all we could do, since lectures and programs would not begin until Wednesday. Well, not quite all. We kept wandering by the TSP Office near the main gate where weather reports were posted. That did nothing for our spirits, since the forecasts were uniformly dismal, showing a cold front stalled just north of Alto Frio. We would get no clear skies till it moved through, and it didn’t appear to be in any hurry to do that.  

That had a pretty deleterious effect on our moods, and before long the three of us were getting awful irritated by each-other and tired of each-other's company. Add to that Joe's disappointment with his beautifully executed ATM 12-inch. It didn't perform anywhere near like he'd hoped. Including optically. Its Parks Optical (once a respected firm) mirror was considerably poorer than the "bargain" primary in my lowly Meade.

Tuesday night was unbroken cloud cover without a sucker hole big enough to reveal a single star. Pat and I sat around a table on the field with a few other folks drinking “sarsaparilla” and talking telescopes. I am usually up for that big time, but this particular conversation did not exactly light my fire; in fact, after a few (I thought) nasty comments directed my way, I had had quite enough. I excused myself and headed to the tent, hoping for a better night and a better mood Wednesday.

Wouldn’t you know it? More and thicker clouds at dawn and the bathhouse was dirtier and smellier than ever. At least there was lunch, and, even better, the beginning of the TSP’s renowned programs. I thought astrophotographer Robert Reeves’ presentation on wide-field imaging was pretty good. It went on for quite a while, but that was a good thing since there wasn't much else to do. I only hoped I’d get a chance to try some of the tips I picked up from him at his talk before the dadgum star party was over.

Other highlights Wednesday? Pat and I were introduced to former Astronomy Magazine Editor Richard Berry, a hero of mine. Richard was at the top of his game, riding the crest of the incredible popularity (in a small amateur astronomy way) of his CCD Camera Cookbook. Even silly old Unk eventually tried to build one of Mr. Berry’s Cookbook Cameras, one begun by a fellow Possum Swamp club member. Unfortunately, this feller had made a bit of a mess of it, and I gave it up as a bad business before I got much farther with it.

The evening’s talks were all good, with (then) Sky & Telescope Contributing Editor Steve O’Meara’s being the standout, I reckon. It was cloudy when we went in and it was cloudy every time I peeped outside the big meeting hall/auditorium during the programs, so at least everybody was relaxed and not worried speakers were going to cut into observing time. After the talks were done, I retrieved a brewski and hung out outside the auditorium, shooting the breeze with folks including Steve O'Meara who, like me, weren’t even close to ready to turn in.

If we had been hoping the weather would be better Thursday, those hopes were dashed at dawn when that cold front finally began to roar through. At 5 a.m., raindrops on my tent awakened me. A pleasant enough sound that, combined with the hush of the breeze blowing through the trees, soon had me drifting back to sleep. Till, just a few minutes later, my tent began to shudder in a gale force wind that was threatening to blow it down.

I freaked OUT. I jumped up, pulled on shorts and a t-shirt, wrapped my sleeping bag and pillow in a tarp to keep them dry if the tent did collapse, and ran for the truck. I was soaked by the time I got to the Ryder, but at least I was ahead of the worst of the storm, which included awesome thunder and lightning. I was now sorry I had listened to reason concerning the shade trees and hadn’t pitched my tent alongside our vehicle anyway. Pat, also soaked, was there ahead of me.

We were concerned Joe was MIA but needn’t have been. His tent stood up to the storm and he, unlike us, was dry. When the rain slacked up, we found Joe and discovered our tents had remained standing, too. The Dobsonians were fine under tarps staked to the ground, and the C8 was in her case in the back of the truck—Wednesday night we’d had a good idea severe weather was coming and soon.

We spent Thursday afternoon hanging out on the field, which was getting even older than it already had been, but doing sightseeing in a deuce-and-a-half truck didn’t seem practical. Joe had made friends with a couple of guys he met on the field, who gave him a ride into town to the local donut shop. They were kind enough to bring me and Pat some of the fat-pills, though it wasn’t like we were starving given Alto Frio’s plentiful food.

The highlight of Thursday was again the evening talks, and especially Richard Berry’s “What CCDs Bring to Amateur Astronomy.” In 1997, CCD cameras were still mysteries to us Joe and Jane amateurs, and we were eager for information about the supposed revolution in astrophotography. The inimitable Mr. Berry gave us that information in spades. His presentation almost made up for the fact there was absolutely no observing Thursday night and was the single truly outstanding program of the entire star party. 

What did I think about the continually dismal weather reports? I thought this was getting ridiculous, and also thought that if the weather didn’t improve it might not be a bad idea for us to head home Friday. I had just about reached my infamous I Have Had Enough stage.

Friday morning came in with still cloudy but slightly improved skies, so I held my peace about hitting the road. I was well aware when you pull up stakes early you usually miss some good observing. A lot of folks apparently didn’t share my opinion; both observing fields were emptying out by early afternoon.

What went on during the remainder of Friday after lunch? I did a little more buying, but not for me, for Miss Dorothy. I purchased a piece of jewelry made from a meteorite from AstroSystems. Randy Cunningham’s wife, Judy, who handled the jewelry part of their business, was showing off some nice pieces indeed. I was pleased with what I got for D., who’d been such a good sport about our decidedly hare-brained expedition. She was far more supportive and understanding than I had any right to expect.

Most of the rest of Friday was pleasant enough, but not all. After supper, the TSP held a general meeting to discuss plans for next year’s event, and it was a contentious one. It’s hard for amateurs to be upbeat when the skies are cloudy, and that was made worse by the fact that most of us had traveled so far and had been looking forward to TSP ’97 for so long. It was understandable many blamed the TSP organizers for the choice of a poor site, and one outraged woman stood up and nearly screamed at the stage that they had RUINED THE TSP AND HER WHOLE VACATION.

She sure wasn’t the only one who felt that-a-way. Even normally easygoing Unk was right put out. Yes, Prude Ranch had had some cloudy nights too (some diehards held a competing star party there, the West Texas Star Party, because they believed Alto Frio was a poor site). But anybody with a lick of sense should have known the Texas Hill Country is no place for a spring star party and that the "brilliant" idea of a light fence was ridiculous. The meeting ended with the organizing committee assuring the audience that they would go back to negotiating with the Prudes in hopes of returning The Texas Star Party to Prude Ranch in 1998.

Thankfully, Friday night also brought a moving talk by David Levy, TSP ‘97’s keynote speaker, “A Time for Comets,” which got most everybody in a slightly better mood. What got us in a better humor still was, almost unbelievably, semi-clear skies. We were absolutely floored when we left the hall after the evening presentations and saw there were a few stars winking on. By 11:30, I could almost describe the Texas skies as “clear,” and it was time to untarp the scopes.

My initial plan was to take some insurance shots of Omega Centauri, but it was soon obvious the sky would be not good enough for that. It was a lot like Monday night:  fairly good stretches followed by lengthy intermissions. What did Betsy and I essay? Quite a few objects bright and dim. The highlight was probably peculiar galaxy NGC 5128, Centaurus A, which looked much better than it ever did from home. Both lobes were easy, as was the incredible dark lane. Yeah, we had to take some breaks, but were able to keep going till 2 a.m. when thick haze rolled in.

Saturday morning brought the last day of the star party. Was I sorry about that? Not that much.  I’d had an OK time more or less, but I was weary of sleeping in a tent and trying to get clean in that dadgum Black Hole of a bathhouse. Did I mention the bugs? There were some, including fracking ticks. And there was the clouds. And the humidity. I had reached that I have had enough stage for well and good.

Dawn didn’t just bring the last full day of TSP ’97, though; it brought clear blue skies. Finally. The anticipation of good viewing actually made it harder to get through that long, long Saturday. The only highlight of which was the prize drawing, the fabled Great Texas Giveaway. Naturally, I didn’t win a consarned thing.

Eventually, the Sun sank, and we were able to begin observing on what was the best night, the only really good night, of the star party. The Milky Way burned fiercely, but my appreciation of it was tempered by the knowledge we’d be driving home in the morning, Sunday morning, and would, again, do the whole thing in one stinking day.

Nevertheless, Saturday night was one for the books. The Milky Way was a great edge-on spiral galaxy stretching from horizon to horizon. I spent the first part of the evening doing piggyback imaging all up and down its spine, everything from the North America Nebula to the star fields of Centaurus. That done, I reimaged Omega just in case. I ended the evening doing visual observing with Betsy, with the last object of the night and the star party being The Eagle Nebula. With my OIII filter, the “fingers of god” dark nebulae at the Eagle’s heart were as good as I’d ever seen ‘em visually. We were tempted to go till dawn, but there was that drive. My turns-into-a-pumpkin time came at two in the a.m.

The drive back home was something I’d as soon forget. It was long and dreary with the three of us being as tired as we were. We stopped for burgers and cokes as we neared Louisiana, but that only helped marginally. When I took my turn for one of the last legs, darkness coming on, it was all I could do to keep my peepers open. I will tell y’all the truth:  even though I was substantially younger than I am today, it took me a pea-picking week to recover from “the TSP experience.”

When all was said and done, was I glad I went to the 1997 Texas Star Party? There is no use sugar coating it. The site was a poor one. Oh, the facilities were good—with the exception of that slimy bathroom—but it was just not a good place to practice astronomy. We never should have traveled in that damned truck, and we never should have tent camped. Oh, hindsight is 20-20, but when the news came TSP would be near San Antonio, I should have said, "Boys, I lived there. It's not a spot for a star party, but y'all have fun, now."

That was hardly the end of my Texas Star Party story, though. All that bad stuff would be forgiven in 1999 when Dorothy and I got the real TSP experience in Fort Davis. And as I got older, I came to realize that in life, and amateur astronomy too, you can't expect rainbows and unicorns every time. 


Sunday, March 24, 2013


Astrophotography the Old Fashioned Way

If you entered the wonderful world of astrophotography over the last decade or so, hoo-boy are you lucky. With your auto-guider and your DSLR and your CCD, getting pretty pix of the deep sky is just as easy as falling off a log, ain’t it, muchachos? No, you say?

Imaging is and probably always will be the most demanding and frustrating pursuit in the broad range of pursuits we lump together under the heading “amateur astronomy.” It’s tough no matter how good your telescope, your mount, your computer program, and your camera. When it all gets to be too much, it might make you feel a smidge better to ruminate on what your forebears had to go through. Yeah, in addition to having to walk ten miles uphill (both ways) through the snow to the observing field, we had to deal with FILM and MANUAL GUIDING.

But there’s more to the old fashioned way than that. There’s nothing to say you can’t employ the same techniques today. Why would you do such a thing? To save money, mainly. I don’t consider DSLRs expensive, but a film SLR is much less expensive than any of ‘em. Camera stores are letting their old SLRs go for a song, and I don’t just mean K1000s. I mean all the way up to the Nikon thoroughbreds. A perfectly functional Nikon F3, which was once the top of the top of the line, can be had for 200 bucks or less.

The drawbacks? Film choices are few and processing chemicals and enlarging paper are hard(er) to get. But it’s still possible to shoot on film. Some astrophotographers and a sizeable number of terrestrial imagers are doing just that. You also need patience to take astro-pix the old fashioned way, but patience is the hallmark of every successful astrophotographer. So, what is The Old Fashioned Way like, and what the heck does Unk know about it anyhow?

I was there almost at the beginning, in the 1960s, right before the amateur astrophotography explosion of the 1970s. As I have often said, I am far from being the world’s best astrophotographer. Hell, I struggle to be lousy, but I’ve been at it off and on for a long, long time and have pretty much suffered every sling and arrow an astro-imager can suffer.

Why did I decide to take up deep sky astrophotography in the first place? Two reasons, I reckon. It was mainly an outgrowth of my fascination with Moon pictures. I’d had a high old time taking snapshots of Luna. Once I moved beyond the simplest of the simple, afocal images with my Argus twin-lens box camera and began to make some headway, the idea of capturing galaxies, nebulae, and star clusters began to seem not quite far-fetched.

The other motivator? I had wrapped my mind around the idea that no matter how large a telescope I was able to buy or use, M33 and the other distant wonders that fascinated me would never look like they did in photos. Even if I could get a peep through the guiding “microscope” in the prime focus cage of the mighty Hale 200-inch, it still wouldn’t be as good, not even close, to what was on the “plate.” Well, then, I’d shoot deep sky wonders myself.

I did a little experimenting with my Palomar Junior and my home-brew six inch Newtonians, but the Pal’s store-bought GEM and the pipe mount I built to hold my sixes were not even close to being up to the task. They were shaky and were bereft of clock drives or even slow motion controls. The best I was able to do was some trailed images of some of the stars of the Pleiades. I went back to the Moon; the deep sky would have to wait till I had a sturdy mount with a drive.

It took a few years for that to happen, but it finally did in the mid-seventies with a Cave Model “B” on what I thought was a Rock of Gibraltar mount. After giving my big 8-inch a sufficient visual try-out on the deep sky under the black skies of northern Arkansas, my mind turned to astrophotography. Did I have what I needed? I wasn’t sure exactly what I needed, but I did have a telescope, a mount and a camera. One evening I slapped my Base Exchange-bought Yashica FX SLR onto the scope via a prime focus adapter and let fly.

The result? I did get a picture of M42. Sorta. I could see a bright spot near the center of the frame that might be the nebula. But the stars? Hell, they were just as trailed as those in my non-driven snapshots of M45. What good was a clock drive? I didn’t know; I didn’t know much of anything when it came to celestial picture taking, it turned out. I’d assumed the clock drive was the key. Turn it on, the scope tracked, and you opened the camera’s shutter and wandered back inside to watch Three’s Company until the exposure was done.

I took my problems to a couple of the Jedi Masters in my club, “You did what, Padawan? You weren’t guiding? For 15-minutes? And how did you polar align?” I shamefacedly admitted that I didn’t have much idea of what “guiding” was, and that I’d polar aligned by nudging the mount in altitude and azimuth till Polaris was in the eyepiece with the telescope pointed north in declination.

Thus began my education in astrophotography. First thing I learned was you gotta guide. Few drives then were good enough to track unsupervised for 1-minute much less 15-minutes at 1400mm of focal length. Hell, you’ve got to put out major bucks these days to get a mount/drive combo that will do that.

How did we guide back then? In the days before DC powered drives, you plugged the mount’s AC cord into a drive corrector, one of them electronic widgets whose pictures in Sky and Telescope had so puzzled me when I first began getting The Magazine in 1965. You then watched a guide star in a crosshair eyepiece. The “hand paddle” of the drive corrector would have buttons you pushed to vary the scope’s speed in R.A. (and sometimes declination). It would adjust the frequency of the current enough to slow down or speed up the R.A. AC motor a bit, allowing you to keep that star centered in the eyepiece for the entire length of the exposure. But how did you watch a guide star with the camera mounted on the telescope’s focuser?

I next learned what the “guide scopes” they went on about in S&T were for. You mounted a smaller telescope, most often a long focal length refractor, to the main scope, usually via adjustable rings. You centered your target in the main telescope, adjusted the guide scope until a suitable (nearby) star was in the crosshairs, and began the exposure, trying as hard as you could to keep that pesky star centered.

So, I’d have to have a drive corrector, a guide scope, and guide scope rings before I could get off the ground, huh? I emptied my bank account and bought a Vogel drive corrector, scarfed up a mount-less Jason refractor at the Little Rock flea market one Saturday, purchased guide scope rings and a crosshair eyepiece from one of the ads in Sky and ‘Scope, and let ‘er rip.

How were the resulting pictures? They were much better, much better. Were they perfect? No, the stars were still elongated, but at least they were not trails. The prints weren’t overly attractive, either; some where too light and some were too dark, but I didn’t think that was my fault. I figgered it was asking a lot to expect Fotomat, those once crazy-popular little photo processing kiosks, to print astrophotos. But it was them or the drugstore unless I wanted to go back to black and white with Tri-X. I wanted color, so the solution would be to process color at home. Sigh. Someday.

The next quantum leaps in my imaging results came when I abandoned the Cave for an Orange Tube C8 and replaced the guide scope with an off axis guider. The SCT turned out to be better for imaging for a couple of reasons. Most significantly, its short tube was easier to balance and was less prone to vibration when winter winds began to blow. The moving mirror focuser of the SCT was also a Good Thing. The camera was securely mounted since it did not have to move to focus.

The off-axis-guider (OAG) also helped. Y’all know I like those things about as much as a case of the measles, but for long focal length, long exposure deep sky film astrophotography they were a godsend. When you had to expose each frame for at least 30 minutes, the chances of flexure—the guide scope moving independently of the telescope due to the rings not being sturdy enough—was a fact of life. Flexure caused trailed stars no matter how well you guided.

An OAG, which intercepts light from the main telescope via a small prism at the field edge, cured that. Sure, it was hard to find a decent candidate star when you were limited to scanning the edge of the field—the prism could only extend a little ways into the light cone or its shadow would show up in the pictures—but it was still easier to get round stars with one.

Further improvement in my photos was slower in coming. By the early 80s, I was finally able to develop and print color film thanks to Beseler’s (kinda) easy to use chemicals and “2-step” procedure. But I had to learn what a deep sky astrophoto should look like in the first place. I didn’t get far till an old hand explained to me that the backgrounds of my images should be dark gray, NOT BLACK. A rule that will serve you well even today. That seemingly simple thing allowed me to begin to understand how to print color astrophotos.

What came next? The Halley debacle. I got a few OK images of the comet with my Super C8 Plus when it was on its way in, but when Halley arrived and the big show began (or was supposed to have), I failed fairly miserably. The problems? There were many. The comet was even dimmer than I feared, it was low down in the sky, the Possum Swamp weather was its usual pitiful self, and I still didn’t like to polar align using the drift method. I snapped away at f/10, but conditions, my reluctance to piggyback a camera (real men shoot through the main scope), and my poor polar alignment meant I came out with smudges not much better than my first M42.

When Halley had fled back into the darkness, I was well and truly disgusted with celestial picture taking and gave up astrophotography for nearly five years. But the bite of the imaging bug is a lifetime infection they say, and by 1993 I was missing the smell of hypo and those odd Bessler soups, and was outside taking more Moon pictures. In 1995 I began accumulating the gear I’d need get back to the deep sky, including a modern SCT, a Celestron Ultima 8, and was soon ready for Comets Hyakutake and Hale Bopp. What helped me take some nice pix of the two comets, and especially the Boppster? Not just the more modern U8, but a book, and me (finally) embracing piggybacking.

Heretofore, the knowledge I’d gained of astrophotography had come from two sources: buddies and my own experience. Neither of which is a bad way to learn, but I lacked systematic knowledge. That was provided by Michael Covington’s Astrophotography for the Amateur. It had everything from tables that told you how long to expose the Moon during afocal imaging, to plans and a schematic diagram for a drive corrector. It was (and is) the best introductory book ever written for film astrophotography.

One of the most important things Mike Covington’s book did was convince me to piggyback, to mount my Pentax K1000 SLR on the tube of the C8 and shoot the sky in wide angle fashion through the camera’s lens. Piggybacking made sense for a comet. A comet was BIG. You needed the comparatively wide field of a telephoto lens to get the whole thing in. The biggest plus was that at 80 - 100mm of focal length or thereabout guiding and polar alignment were non-issues.

When my first Hale-Bopp pictures came out of the print tank I was some kinda happy. They were not perfect—I had not captured the delicate blue ion tail due to the short exposures necessary in the light polluted Swamp. But they looked damned good if I did say so myself. Astrophotography bumbler Rod didn’t get his pictures published in Sky and Telescope’s “Gallery,” but they did appear in The Possum Swamp Register.

In addition to piggybacking, one other thing improved my pix: better film. I had always used Kodak and nothing but Kodak. But then I heard there was More Better Gooder in the form of an emulsion from Fuji called “Super G 800.” It was fast and it worked well for astrophotography. The owner of the local pro camera store told me he thought it was the best color print film he had ever used—for its speed—and, while he didn’t know pea turkey about taking pictures of the sky, it was so good he betted it would do a bang up job on that, too.

It did. I still like the piggyback shots I did with Super G. Its reciprocity characteristics—its sensitivity decline over the course of a long exposure—were excellent, it was easy to color balance, and if there was grain in this ISO 800 film, I had a hard time seeing it. It worked so well that for a while I was flat out piggyback crazy. But in the back of my mind a little voice still whispered, “Unk, you will not be a REAL astrophotographer till you master through-the-scope picture taking.”

I resolved to get back on the prime focus wagon, but this time I would make things easier on myself. Y’all know I don’t like to spend money, but I ponied up 150 bucks to the folks behind the table at the (late, lamented) Pocono Mountain Optics booth at the 1997 Texas Star Party. For a Celestron f/6.3 reducer/corrector.

Celestron had introduced this widget some years before. What the thing did was speed up your telescope. At f/6.3, exposures could be 2-½ times shorter than at f/10. The field would be wider, too. But that was not all. Optics guru Jim Riffle, who designed the reducer/corrector for Celestron, added in the “corrector” part. The “r/c” would flatten the scope’s naturally curved field, making stars look better at the edge of the 35mm frame. Sounded too good to be true, but folks I trusted told me it worked like a champ.

It worked just great, both for imaging and visual use. Hell, I got some acceptable pictures of Omega Centauri that very night at the TSP despite haze, clouds, and high winds. The reducer wasn’t magic, of course. Making the SCT faster resulted in more “sky fog” from light pollution. I’d just have to do my picture taking from darker sites once I got back home.

So, when a new club member stood up at a meeting and said he’d arranged for us to use an astrophotography quality site only an hour from The Swamp, I was a happy little camper. Why don’t y’all join me in reliving that expedition? Not only will you see how it went, you will see how an astrophotography run worked in those days near the end of the film era.

Once upon a time the paper companies were the lifeblood of Possum Swamp. All the big ones, including Scott and International Paper, had huge plants here. They were stinky, yeah, but that was, we said, the smell of money. The paper plants with their jobs were our saviors when Brookley Air Force Base shut down for good in 1969. Even after the plants began to leave for Asia a decade later, their lingering memory remained in tracts of company-owned pine forest. When the newbie said he had connections that would allow us to observe from one of those forests, I was excited.

I figured the spot just might be good enough for serious astrophotography. Looking at the map, the area in question was almost equidistant between the Possum Swamp and Pensacola light domes. I didn’t expect “perfect,” just “good enough” for half-hour exposures of a Messier or three.

So it was that one Saturday night me, my buddy Pat, and several other Possum Swamp Astronomical Society members convoyed across the bay to a gas station where we met Joe Newmember who would lead us to the site. We drove. And we drove. And we drove. One thing was sure: we would need the dude to lead us out when we were done; there were countless twists and turns over miles of rutted dirt roads before we got to the spot. My reaction when we did? “Oh for god’s sake!

I suppose what I had envisaged when Bubba told us there was a tree-free area on the land was a spot that had been clear cut. Uh-uh. The open area he’d found was tree-free because it was a clay pit. It hadn’t rained in a while, so at least our vehicles didn’t get stuck in the red dirt, but, almost as bad, the arrival of the cars stirred up a thick cloud of fine red dust that lingered.

I had my doubts, but we’d come all that way, me toting my full astrophotography kit, so why not give the place a chance? Also, I also gotta admit “full astrophotography kit” wasn’t anything like a CCD setup today. No computer. No cables. No five or six batteries. Just the telescope and tripod, the dew shield, the camera bag, the Star atlas, and the small battery for the Kendrick dew heater. I was set up in two-shakes. Shoulda brought a tarp to put the scope on and prevent me from having to kneel in the clay dust, but otherwise all was well.

Until I went to polar align. The fine latitude adjuster for the wedge tilt plate consisted of a threaded rod, a bracket, and four nuts, two threaded onto the rod on either side of the bracket. Somehow two of those nuts had come loose, were way down the shaft. And the bracket had worked itself loose from the wedge tilt plate. Basically, the whole cotton picking thing fell apart in my hands. With the coming of darkness pressuring me, I got fumble fingered and had a hard time figuring out how to put it back together. I said bunches of bad words, which were echoed from the other side of the field by Pat, who’d dropped something or other onto his 24-inch primary mirror.

By the time I had got the latitude adjuster back together, it was full dark. I could finally polar align, but I wasn’t in the mood to do a drift alignment. I’d just use the Ultima’s “polar” finder. The 7x50 had a reticle that, with the aid of a little round paper slide-rule like calculator, allowed you to do a decent polar alignment. You set the date and time on the slide rule, and placed Polaris on the spot on the reticle it indicated.
Worked pretty well, but only if the finder and the scope’s polar axis were parallel. You ensured they were by rotating the tube in right ascension, adjusting the finder, and re-centering Polaris till it stayed dead in the center when you moved in R.A. I was too antsy to get going to do that, and just put Polaris on the reticle where the slide rule said to put it.

I liked to start out on an easy one, and M42 was still visible on this early spring night. Screwed the f/6.3 r/c onto the rear cell, mounted the Meade (yes) off axis guider onto that, and attached the Ricoh KR-5 Super II (like an improved Pentax K1000) to the guider by means of a T-ring. That was the easy part. The hard part was finding a guide star.

I put a reticle eyepiece, a 12mm Meade, into the OAG’s focuser. Focused the camera on a bright star, and focused the same star in the OAG’s guiding eyepiece. Which was not easy. Even the brightest stars were dim in an SLR viewfinder. They were derned near as faint in the OAG eyepiece.

Focus achieved, it was on to M42. Centered it in the camera viewfinder and went back to the guiding eyepiece. I was lucky a useable star was in view. Often I had to loosen the ring attaching the guider to the scope and rotate the OAG around the back, “scanning” for a guide star on the field periphery. If I couldn’t locate a decent star, I’d have to move the scope till I could find one, which would result in the imaging target being off-center. It was a constant battle to keep the deep sky object in the camera frame while seeking a guide star.

Hokay, almost ready to roll. Next step was to attach the remote (cable) release to the camera and double check that the camera’s exposure was set to “B,” which would hold the shutter open when I depressed and locked the cable release. I am guessing I am not the only film astrophotographer who ever shot an entire roll of “long exposure” images with the shutter speed at 1/100-second.

Then the real work began. Using the hand-paddle, I centered the guide star on the reticle and opened the shutter. The work was keeping that rascal centered. If it drifted the slightest amount, I had to press the hand paddle button that would move it back where it belonged. Immediately. The slightest deviation would result in an off-round star. I had to be sure I pushed the correct button, too; the image would be ruined if fuzzy-headed me mashed the wrong direction button at 3 a.m.

The biggest challenge was doing that for the duration of a long exposure. No 2-minute “subs” in them days, younglings. For the brighter objects, you wanted 30-minutes at f/6.3. Dimmer stuff? You’d be sweating over that guide star for an hour. I was lucky in that my scope had PEC, “Periodic error correction,” the ancestor of today’s PERMANENT PEC. The difference was that I had to redo PEC every night—once the drive was turned off, the recording disappeared. I’d guide for one full rotation of the worm to record my corrections and then playback the PEC file for the rest of the night.

It was well worth it to spend a few minutes doing PEC “training,” since it meant that momentary distractions would not usually result in a ruined picture. I still had to guide, but I could take my eye from the guiding eyepiece for a few moments—to swat a mosquito, to scratch my nose, to see what Bubba next to me was hollering about—and still get a good shot.

I kept going until the kitchen timer that was one of my most important astrophotography accessories dinged at the end of 30-minutes. What then? Rested for a few minutes, had a swaller of coffee—no Monster Energy drinks in the Dark Ages—and did another shot of M42. I still like to take “insurance” shots of my subjects, but it was especially vital in The Day. Now, I can usually tell whether I’ve got an object “in the can” by looking at the finished CCD or DSLR exposure on my monitor. It will look rough, but I will be able to tell. In the film age, you wouldn’t have any idea whether you’d got a good one or not till the negatives came out of the soup the next day.

And so it went. I essayed three subjects that night before the combination of blowing red dust and weariness got to me. I did a little visual after that, had some looks through Pat’s big-dob, and then our new pal decided it was about time to call it a night. I can’t say I was sorry. If there is a worse observing location than a clay pit, I don’t know what it is. Best thing? Back then gear tear-down was quick and easy. In about an hour and a half I was once more within the comforting halls of Chaos Manor South. “Never again,” said I, and we never did go back to that fracking pit. Our friend moved away in a few months anyhow. His heart had been in the right place, but, gee whiz, A CLAY PIT?

My results when I developed and printed The Clay Pit Astrophotos a while later? As usual, then and now, “OK, pretty good. Some problems.” My impatient refusal to do a good polar alignment resulted in some trailing due to field rotation, and there were spurious reflections generated by the reducer/corrector I should have fixed in the darkroom. I could bear to look at the pix, though, and can still bear to look at ‘em.

Does film astrophotography sound like torture? It really wasn’t, muchachos. It sounds at least a little worse than it actually was, and once you got into the groove it could even be—dare I say it?—fun. It’s certainly possible to still practice the art today, with a few dodges and workarounds regarding film, paper, and chemicals, and I might have a little more to say on that some Sunday if’n y’all don’t mind.

Next Time:  My Favorite Star Parties: TSP '97...

Sunday, March 17, 2013


Déjà vu all Over Again...

That was the way it was last Tuesday, and that was both good and bad, muchachos. The good was that I was able to get a look at and some pictures of our little visitor, Comet Panstarrs, C/2011 L4. More good was that I was able to do that from the Possum Swamp Astronomical Society’s dark site on a freaking Tuesday evening. This retirement thing really is cool. Oh, I’ve stayed out late for various astronomical events on work nights over the years, but when you are facing a 4:30 a.m. wakeup, some of the fun just drains out of whatever it is you’re up for. NO more of that.

But, yes, there was bad, too. If you’ve been in the astro-game for four decades or more, you must remember the notorious Comet Kahoutek and her COSMIC WATERGATE. I went into some detail about the whole stinking affair here, but if you don’t want to bop over and read that right now, I can sum it up pretty quickly.

C/1973 E1 was not a terrible comet. She was better than most of those I’d seen in the wake of Comet Ikeya Seki in 1965, but Kahoutek wasn’t much, no avoiding that. Maybe magnitude 2 or a little better when I saw her. That wasn’t a problem for me, but it was a problem for a lot of non-astronomers, and is what the “Cosmic Watergate” business is about.

At first, Kahoutek, who was discovered when she was way out in the distant reaches of the Solar System, looked good. The media, aided and abetted by professional and amateur astronomers, were soon touting the comet with as much hyperbole as they could muster. We were, in fact, being told by ABC/NBC/CBS and more local weather goobers than you could shake a stick at that Kahoutek, which would be at its best in December of 1973 and January of 1974, would provide an incredible holiday fireworks show.

Was the public excited? Were they ever! Everybody from the Peanuts gang to Sun Ra got in on the act. As is not uncommon when a great comet is on its way in, there was also a dark side; some folks, mostly a brace of crazy preachermen, decided this comet must in fact mark the End Times. The end of the world, that is.

The denouement was instructive but not nearly as exciting as The End. Astronomers, amateur and pro, had assumed too much, and you know what they say about that word. First of all, it had been assumed Kahoutek was a virgin comet on its first trip into the inner Solar System. Secondly, it was assumed that would make for a superior show. Thirdly, it was assumed the comet would stay in one piece.

Not one of those things turned out to be as expected. This was probably not Kahoutek’s first trip around the Sun. But even if it had been, we are now aware that a comet’s initial pass usually makes for a worse display. After surface volatiles boil off early on, the stuff below, hard frozen as it is, just sputters. Worst of all, as Kahoutek neared the Sun she began to break to pieces.  When it was showtime, most of the public didn’t see a trace of her. The comet was fairly bright, but low to the horizon in all the mess down there.

I was happy enough with the comet, but the same thing couldn’t be said for Joe and Jane Sixpack and, especially, for the network news goobs. The public, who didn’t have much idea what a comet should look like anyway, didn’t see what they had been led expect: a blazing orb plowing through the winter skies. They were understandably right put out.

The newsmen and newswomen? They were freaking outraged. The scientists and NASA had LIED to them. Made them look like fools. The end result was that till we got close to Halley-time nary a peep about comets did you hear from the media. Even spectacular—and it really was—Comet West was ignored by them a couple of years later, and for that reason few people outside the astronomy community saw what I believe was the comet of the century.

“The more things change, the more they remain the same” and I am convinced that if there’d been a little more lead time on Panstarrs it would have been Cosmic Watergate II.  Lucklily, though, there wasn’t enough time for the TV networks and the websites to get people all stirred up. Still, that didn’t stop some folks, including those at a prominent astronomy magazine who should have known better, from overstating the “spectacle” inherent in this little comet. I am proud to report that Sky and Telescope, on the other hand, had been sounding a cautionary note for weeks.

Anyhoo, good, bad, or indifferent Unk is always up for viewing a hairy star, especially one that might reach naked eye visibility, if only barely. So, on Tuesday evening 12 March I loaded up the 4Runner, Miss Van Pelt, in minimalist fashion and headed to the club dark site.

What did I lug out? Not much not compared to what I have with me for a Mallincam run. There was my time-honored Canon 400D DSLR and its 18-55mm zoom for imaging, our Manfrotto tripod to mount it on, and my netbook computer to run the Canon with Nebulosity. Yes, I could just have exposed for 30-seconds per frame using the camera by itself, but not having the netbook screen for focusing is a sure path to blurry images for me. It’s also a lot easier to tell Neb to take ten 30-second images than it is to fool with the shutter release and self-timer.

Looked as if it would be a fairly nice night at first:  cool but not cold, cloud-free, and dry for a change. Since it did appear to be a superior evening, I couldn’t resist also loading the C8 and CG5 for a little piggyback imaging or maybe some visual gazing once the comet was done.

‘Course I needed to have at least a rough idea where the comet would be. To do that, I fired up TheSky 6. I don’t use that planetarium program for everything, but when I’m looking for comets I almost always do. It is easy to download new orbital elements and get your quarry onscreen in a hurry. Yep, there was Panstarrs in the west not far from a young Moon and low in the sky, a mere 10-degrees above the horizon just after Sunset. What I should have done then was print out the chart. I didn’t:  “Shoot, I can remember where the little sucker is.” Ha!

The hour-long trip to the PSAS dark site was not too bad. I should have taken rush-hour into account and allowed myself more time, but I was used to Saturday afternoon traffic and didn’t. Still, not so bad. What appeared might be bad, howsomeever, was the band of clouds to the south I began seeing as I neared Tanner-Williams. “Consarned weather goobers. Do they ever get it right?” Reckon not. They had been predicting dead clear, and there was most assuredly some mess coming in off the Gulf. Oh, well, what would be would be.

It was after 6:30 before me and Miss Van P. rolled onto the field, so I did have to scurry a little. Sunset would be at 7 p.m. or thereabouts, and the comet, who was reported to have a magnitude between 1 and 2 (positive), would be available shortly thereafter. Got the tripod set up, camera on that, USB cable to laptop, shutter control cable rigged (older Canons require a shutter interface for long exposures). When I was done, I grabbed my 15x70 binoculars and started scanning the western horizon for the comet.

Also scanning was an old buddy, Max, who, in addition to his camera, had brought out a sweet 80mm ED refractor on a GEM and a 5-inch Celestron NexStar Newtonian. We weren’t alone; we had a few non-astronomer visitors eager to see the comet. I hoped we’d be able to show it to them, but it got darker and darker and no matter how much I looked with my beloved Burgess 15x70 binocs, no Panstarrs did I see.

I was beginning to lose hope when Max spoke up, “Rod the comet is supposed to be above the Moon.” I fired back:  “NO, MAX! It’s below it!” Till I had thought for a minute and a few of my remaining brain cells fired. Max was exactly right. TheSky had shown Panstarrs slightly above and south of Luna.

My head on straight, finally, and the sky a little darker, it wasn’t long before I bagged the comet. What I saw in the Burgesses was a tiny triangle of golden light not far from beautiful, slim Luna. I could easily make out a brilliant star-like head. Panstarrs looked a lot like Hubble’s Variable Nebula looks in an 8-inch scope at medium power. Without binocs, the comet was completely invisible. It would get darker yet, so I thought we might get a glimpse of it without optical aid eventually, though. I tossed the binoculars to our guests and headed for the camera.

Normally, getting Nebulosity going is easy. I was a little concerned about that on this night since this would be my first time under the stars with the latest version of the program, Nebulosity 3. Just in case, Neb 2 was still on the hard drive. Turned on the camera, launched Nebulosity 3, pulled down the camera selector and picked “Canon Digic II/III/4.” And immediately got a warning message:  “It doesn’t appear you have a Canon camera connected.” Rut-roh.

I shut down the camera, closed Nebulosity, and fired back up with Nebulosity 2, which worked fine. For the heck of it, I shut down 2, ran 3 again, and dismissed the error message. Guess what? Nebulosity 3 worked fine. I’m thinking I may need to upgrade to a more recent version of 3. I’ve posted about my problem on the Stark Labs Yahoogroup and hope to get an answer from one of the gurus there soon.

Alarums and excursions over, I began shooting the comet. First thing I had to decide on was exposure. 30-seconds sounded about right. I could have put the camera on the piggyback mount on the C8 instead of the camera tripod and gone longer, but there wasn’t any reason to do that. It was bright enough in the west that more than 30-seconds would be overexposed, and would probably still be overexposed until the comet was almost gone. At 30-seconds of exposure and 55mm of focal length (equivalent to 80mm or so with 35mm film), any trailing would be completely unnoticeable.

I focused up with Nebulosity’s Frame and Focus function: mashed the “go” button, and the program started the camera taking short (1 second) exposures. It was easy to focus on the distant tree line at infinity—I’ve learned through bitter experience never to trust the infinity marks on a camera lens.

When the picture displayed on the Netbook screen was as sharp as I could get it, I proceeded to set up the first sequence. At about 15-minutes after sundown, it was still a little bright, so I went for five exposures of 30-seconds each. Pushed the “Capture Series” button on Nebulosity to get things underway, and wandered over to Max’s little Celestron Newtonian while the computer and camera did their thing.

Before looking through the Celestron I did some staring at the horizon. Every once in a while, as the seeing changed or haze/smoke passed, I reckoned, I could see Panstarrs naked eye. Only occasionally  was it visible as anything more than the merest smudge, and from our location it was a marginal naked eye object at best.

In the telescope, the comet was surprisingly good, if not great. At 50X, it was still small, but showed off the intense golden “star” of its head and its small triangle of a tail well. What came to mind as a description? “Mini Hale-Bopp.” To my eye, the comet’s broad triangular tail had the same foreshortened look to it the Boppster displayed. Comet scoped out, I got out of the way so Max could shoot some pictures through his reflector.

Just as I gave up the eyepiece of the Celestron, Nebulosity emitted the fanfare sound that means “exposure’s done.” A look at the last frame showed it was now dark enough to get serious. I modified the settings from “5 frames” to “10 frames” per sequence, keeping the exposure at 30-seconds. I changed the focal length of the zoom from 18 to 55mm and back on each succeeding set of subframes. Even at 55mm, it was easy to include the photogenic earth-lit Moon in the pictures.

And so it went for the next half hour or so, till little Panstarrs sank to the point where she was a big zero with both binoculars and cameras. Max and I did a little fiddling around with our telescopes for a while after that, but not for a long while. I think both of us were eager to get home and see how our comet pictures had turned out. In this modern digital age, unlike in the film days, you pretty much know if you got something, but, still, you don’t know exactly what you got until the pictures are stacked and processed.

I had the best intentions of going right home and processing my pictures digital-darkroom style. Alas, by the time I’d packed up my modest amount of astro-junk, motored home to The Old Manse, and unpacked, it was getting on toward 10 p.m., time to open the Rebel Yell locker, not crank up pea-picking Adobe Photoshop.

After sufficient coffee the next morning, I set to work. Not that there was much work to do with my simple wide field shots. Stack with Nebulosity—whose stacking routine works better than anything else I have ever used—tweak curves and background color with Neb’s processing tools, do a final touch-up with Photoshop, and I was done.

Verdict? I was pleased with the images you see here. In retrospect, I could have used a little more focal length to bring out Panstarrs better…but…Max was shooting with more millimeters and so were other PSAS folks from other sites, so I was happy to be the wide-field guy.

Posted some of the pix on Facebook Wednesday, did a little movie about the comet with Microsoft Moviemaker (I’d shot some video and terrestrial stills with my Fujifilm camera while Nebulosity was doing its thing), and sat back. So much for Panstarrs, I thought. Till late that afternoon when Miss Dorothy asked if I were going out to the site again. I hemmed and hawed till Miss D. indicated she was a little surprised I’d let a beautifully clear sky with a comet in it pass me by.

Naturally, that got me to thinking. Why not head to the PSAS field again? No worrying about the shipyard the next morning, after all. But what would I do out there and how would I do it? I could piggyback the 66mm William Optics ED refractor on the C8 and get those longer focal length images, I reckoned. But that just didn’t appeal. What did appeal was allowing the little visitor to strut whatever stuff she had, to show exactly what she could do visually. The 4.5-inch StarBlast, Yoda, with his wide field would be excellent for that. But my 100mm binoculars would be a tad better.

The inexpensive Zhumell 25x100s, which I reported on in this entry, are a handful, no doubt about that, and the Pete Peterson EZ Binocular Mount Miss Dorothy and I built for them is an even bigger handful, but no pain, no gain. I also felt a little guilty that I hadn’t used the Zhumells, which have excellent optics, a little more often. They had not been out of their case in six months.

Alrighty then. Wasn’t much trouble to snatch up the Zhumells in their nice case and toss ‘em in the back of the truck. The mount was different. Getting it downstairs and into Miss Van Pelt was akin to wrestling with that vaunted octopus. I removed the four counterweights and the three pipe pedestal legs and it still wasn’t a treat, but I got ‘er done.

What else did I take with me? That was about it. I did grab my leather flight jacket and a ballcap since it would be both clearer and colder this evening. I thought about brewing up a thermos of coffee, but didn’t believe I’d be onsite long enough to drink much. I planned to be out of there and out of the cold not long after Panstarrs set. I did print out a TheSky chart showing the comet’s position: fool me once, yadda, yadda, yadda.

Back on the field, job one was getting the binoc-mount set up. More octopus wrestling to get it out of the vehicle and plenty of head-scratching as I pondered the subject “Which pipe goes where?” Lucky for your silly old Uncle, I still had pictures of the assembled mount on my iPhone. I’d shot those before the Chiefland expedition linked above, and they allowed me to get the mount figured-out and the binoculars on it in ten minutes or so.

The only trouble I had with the Zhumells was the same trouble I have with any binoculars, especially high power binoculars and binoviewers. My eyes invariably have trouble merging images. For a while, anyway. After I get focus set and interpupillary spacing correct, and my brain, such as it is, gets accustomed to binoculars again, the images merge easily. By the time it was dark that was just what happened with Panstarrs—who’d I’d run down as soon as possible with the aid of the chart and the Zhumells’ red dot finder (a 25X anything must have a finder of some kind, y’all).

How was she? Sure did make the struggle with the binocular mount worthwhile. I had little doubt the big glasses were getting everything out of the little comet that she was capable of giving. In addition to the striking, bright yellow head, the small fan of a tail began to give up detail: hints of streamers and even a “shadow” effect along the tail’s northern edge. I was as pleased with Panstarrs as I had been with Kahoutek on that chilly long ago night when I hunted her up from my backyard in the university student housing ghetto.

After the comet sank? How about Jupiter? He was nice in the Zhumells. 25X is enough to show a little cloud-banding. What was truly remarkable? That the humble pipe mount allowed me to view The King at all, since he was nearly at the zenith. After that it was, natch, the sword of Orion. What was uber cool was how the big binocs showed many of the same details in the nebula you’ll get in a telescope, but also showed all the star-laden fields up and down the sword in the same view.

I could have gone on for quite a while with the Zhumells, but it was getting cold and windy. OK, OK, fess-up time: it was also getting spooky. The owners of the airstrip where we do our observing had thoughtfully turned off the runway lights (the field is closed at night) and the hangar lights, and it was dark indeed. My PSAS buddy James, who was the only other person to make it out Wednesday night, had had to leave a while before to get to his job, and it was getting lonelier and darker by the minute.

Shortly thereafter, I heard a twig break, which sounded like a rifle shot in the silence. It was, I knew, nothing more than a possum or a raccoon. B-U-T. As my mind will do in these circumstances, it soon transmuted Mr. Possum into The Skunk Ape. Or maybe it was Mothman who was skulking around. That was all I needed. The Zhumells and mount went into the truck just as fast as I could get them broken down.

Back in the warm and comforting confines of Chaos Manor South I sat watching a DVD of Horror of Dracula with my black cat buddy, Thomas Aquinas, and ruminating on the latest in my long string of comets. I sure hope Ison comes through, because I feel a little bad about what I have heard from the non-astronomers friends who’d been so excited about Panstarrs, “They said we could see it right after dark, but we didn’t see a thing.”

As always, I urge restraint concerning the potential of the next comet. With so long till its passage, there is more than enough time for a Cosmic Watergate II to develop. Hell, even if we urge caution, a poor showing will still give astronomy a black eye. Fair? Nope. But sometimes life just ain’t fair, and it is almost always not fair in the comet game, muchachos. Occasionally we do get lucky, of course. Think “Hale-Bopp” and “Hyakatuke.” As always, cockeyed optimist Unk will be wishing and hoping, déjà vu or no déjà vu.

If you’d like to see more pictures from my Panstarrs expeditions, I have an album of them posted over on Facebook. Not a Facebook friend of Unk? All you gots to do is ask…

Next Time:  Astrophotography the Old Fashioned Way…

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