Sunday, April 28, 2013


Watcha Lookin’ at Mister?

Well, muchachos, another International Sidewalk Astronomy Night has come and gone. It was a success down here in the swamp, and I’m happy about that. What I am not so happy about is that it snuck up on me. Me and Miss D. and a group of Possum Swamp Astronomical Society regulars got out on the sidewalk for it, but I neglected to remind y’all about ISAN in advance. Hope you got out there, too, but if you didn’t, that’s OK. You don’t have to wait for ISAN or Astronomy Day (which two events were held concurrently this year) to do public outreach.

Not only can you work with the public any day or night of the year, I don’t mind talking about the subject any Sunday. It is that important. Your club will usually not get a huge influx of new members just because of what you did on Astronomy Day or ISAN night, but it can’t hurt and you may light a spark in more kids (and adults) than you realize. That spark may take a while to burst into flame, but it might just do that.

Today, there are two big national/international astronomy outreach events, Astronomy Day and International Sidewalk Astronomy Night. Astronomy Day is the older one, and is not limited to public viewing through telescopes—though that is certainly an important part of it. Cloudy sky? No good place to observe? Set up a booth in the local shopping mall.

The PSAS tried the mall business for a few years, manning tables near the fountain of The Swamp’s Bel Air Mall. We tried to do it right, with plenty of scopes on display, literature to give out, and even a VCR running astronomy-oriented tapes including actual through-the-scope shots by Unk with his Stellacam II. We tried, but our success was, at best, “mixed.” Most of the questions we got from the public were not about telescopes or outer space, but inquiries as to where the freaking public restrooms were located.

After a couple of years, the mall got to be too much: too much work for too little response, that is. We could have set up scopes on Astronomy Day Night, but figured we’d have to involve the Public Schools’ Environmental Studies Center where we meet and where we do two star gazes for school kids a year. We didn’t have another in-town site from which to observe. But having the ESC in the mix seemed like a lot of work for us and them given the public’s apparent lack of interest in Astronomy Day.

Then, a few annums back, we heard about a new springtime astronomy event, International Sidewalk Astronomy Night, sponsored, you guessed it, by the justly famous San Francisco Sidewalk Astronomers, John Dobson’s outfit, for whom sidewalk astronomy is a way of life. That sounded right up our alley. No publicity, no preparations, just show up with telescopes somewhere where people will be.

‘Course, informal as sidewalk astronomy may be, you still gotta decide on a place to do it. Originally, we thought about LODA, The Swamp’s “Lower Dauphin Street Area,” an entertainment district that’s like a smaller (and mucho tamer) French Quarter. That would work, and the San Fran astronomers set up in similar places, but it had one drawback—no kids. There would be plenty of college-agers, but we really wanted to serve the lollipop brigade, too. So…back to the drawing board.

The PSAS’ President, Martin, came up with an inspired choice, The Eastern Shore Centre. This is a slightly trendy open-air mall in the little bedroom community of Spanish Fort. It had a couple of good things going for it:  plenty of little families early in the evening and plenty of strolling couples later. The obvious place to set up would be in the mall’s “square,” a nice open area and fountain between two popular restaurants, Wintzell’s and California Dreaming.

Mr. Martin got on the horn, and it turned out the Centre’s management would be happy to have us. They seemed enthusiastic about ISAN, in fact. All that remained was getting the novices and other members who’d never done sidewalk astronomy squared away. Their questions were numerous:

What kind of telescope should I bring? Bring what you have, but there’s no denying some telescopes are better suited for sidewalk astronomy than others. There’s nothing wrong with a computerized go-to telescope—but you want it to be one you can get tracking before it’s dark enough to see alignment stars. ISAN is always held on a night when there is a good Moon in the sky, since Luna is what both kids and adults want to see most. And they will be ready to see it well before you can find alignment stars. Quite a few go-to rigs have modes like “Quick Alignment” or “Solar System Alignment” that will get you going as soon as the sun is down.

More important than go-to/no-go-to is the telescope’s design. Don’t bring out a scope that will require young observers to perch on a ladder. You want an instrument that will, at worst, need a one-step stepstool to get the tiniest tots to the eyepiece. I love my Criterion RV-6 Newtonian as a public star party telescope, but I reserve it for my college students and other older groups who won’t be troubled by its sometimes high eyepiece position.

What about eyepieces? This is usually a polite way of asking, “Should I risk my Ethoses and Naglers to kids’ sticky fingers and teenagers’ mascara? And won’t there be a chance of somebody stealing one?” The first question is one only you can answer. Eyepieces are easy to clean, but if you don’t want to have to do that, almost any eyepiece will work. I do like one with a large field lens, as that’s easiest for the youngest customers to use. My inexpensive Paul Rini surplus oculars perform well and are built like tanks. There are many other good but cheap eyepieces out there these days; they may not be perfect, but your guests won’t recognize “less than perfect,” anyway.

How about some miscreant getting a five-finger discount on a 20mm Ethos? Possible, I suppose, if you don’t take precautions, but due precautions are easy to take. Never walk away from your scope, even for an instant, unless a fellow club member is watching it. You probably won’t need more than two eyepieces, one low power and one medium power. Keep the one not being used under cover in a pocket or purse. Yeah, I know them Ethoes and ES100s are a bit much for a pocket. If you don’t mind being unfashionable, a fanny pack left over from the 90s will keep the eyepiece at hand and safe.

How do I get people to look through my telescope? Since sidewalk astronomy is usually at least semi-unpublicized, the public will not know who you are and what you are doing. They probably won’t even know your telescopes are telescopes. Sidewalk astronomers cannot be shy. You must be like good, old John Dobson: “COME LOOK AT THE MOON, WE’RE LOOKING AT THE MOON, YOUR MOON, COME LOOK!” If you’re a Walter Mitty type, chances are somebody in your group is more outgoing and will get the public’s attention and start the flow of observers.

What do we look at? Forget the deep sky. Most sidewalk astronomy locations rule that out, since they are badly light polluted. Look for a darker spot? Nope, that’s not the sidewalk astronomy way. You go where the people are. Mom and Pop and Bud and Sis don’t care pea-turkey about NGC 7331, anyway. What most kids and adults want to see are, in order of popularity, the Moon, a bright planet (especially Saturn and Jupiter, natch), and a simple bright star. If your telescope will do a decent job on M13 or M42 from your location, fine, but don’t expect most kids or adults to be overly impressed.

What if they ask questions? Oh, they will ask questions, I guar-ron-tee. Not just that:  kids and teenagers have an innate talent for asking the questions you don’t know the answers to. Solution? You prepare. This time out, I knew the objects I’d be showing would be the Moon, Jupiter, Sirius, and (possibly) Saturn and armed myself with basic data: how far away, how big, how long their days, etc.

If you’ve got a smart phone, there are plenty of inexpensive apps to help you. Two I find particularly valuable are Planets and Moon Map Lite. Planets has all the basic “how big/how far” info, and Moon Map Lite will easily identify “That big crater there right there in the middle.” You might also want to equip your phone with a basic planetarium app like SkySafari or Distant Suns.

Our first ISAN was a huge hit with the PSAS membership, and we’ve kept on keeping on whenever the event has fallen on an at least semi-clear evening, which it often has. Its date, early-mid April, is a good time for us since that’s usually a brief intermission between the showers of spring and the thunderstorms of summer. This year’s edition, held on Saturday April 20, looked like it would be an especially good one. The Moon would be just two days past first quarter, Jupiter would still be high enough to fool with, Saturn would be up before it got too late, and the weather would be clear and almost on the cold side, in the 50s.

I’ve told y’all which telescope you should bring, but I had quite a time deciding which scope I ought to drag out. There were four possibilities, I thought, the mutant Ultima 8, the 3-inch f/11 refractor, the RV-6, or the 8-inch f/5 Dobsonian. Good as it is, I immediately ruled out the RV-6 . As above, it’s just too much for the littlest astronomers. The Ultima did great last year, but I wasn’t happy lugging its heavy tripod and fork across the fracking mall parking lot. Our SkyWatcher f/11 refractor was a definite possibility, since she acquits herself well on the Moon, but I thought a little more horsepower would be helpful with Jupiter.

That left the 8-inch f/5, “Old Yeller,” who began life as a Synta-made Konus GEM Newtonian. Not only are the optics good, my buddy and ATM extraordinaire, Pat, had crafted an absolutely beautiful Dobsonian around those optics. The eyepiece height is perfect for all but the wee-est of the wee, and, best of all, the scope is so light and easy to set up and tear down that those things are a pleasure, not a pain.

Come Saturday afternoon, Unk was fired up. ‘Round about five-thirty, I loaded scope and the eyepiece case in the 4Runner so we’d be ready to roll at six-fifteen. Naturally, I forgot to load something—your silly Uncle Rod always forgets something—the small kitchen stool. While the 8-inch doesn’t require a stepstool, it’s a help for the youngest astronomers. Oh, well.

At the Eastern Shore Centre, we found a great parking place right between Barnes and Noble Books and the square where we would set up. I thought I’d cruise by B&N after the observing was done and see if they had a copy of the latest The Sky at Night Magazine. It ain’t Sky and Telescope, and I don’t buy it every month, but when I do buy it, I enjoy it.

Anyhoo, Miss D. and I headed to the square, where we found the mall folks had just turned off the fountain. Since that is just a flat concrete area in the middle of the square and doesn’t involve a pool and standing water, it makes a good place for scopes. None of our fellow PSASers were on site yet, and we thought we’d wait till at least one of our friends showed up before getting up the Dob out of the truck. Just a few minutes later, Pat arrived, and we headed back to the 4Runner for Old Yeller.

Telescope assembled in two shakes, we laid-out the eyepieces on a nearby patio table. What did I bring? A Paul Rini 26mm Modified Plössl and a Bird’s Eye (Anacortes Telescope and Wild Bird) 35mm 82-degree, both 2-inchers. I’d also packed a box of 1.25-inch eyepieces in case we wanted higher power for Jupe. With Luna riding high at sunset, I wasted no time getting the scope pointed at her with the aid of its Rigel Quikfinder. The gibbous Moon in the eyepiece was heartbreakingly sharp on this beautiful spring evening. How the hell did Paul Rini, make such good eyepieces for so little money? I can only theorize that the surplus optics he used musta cost the gubmint a lot of money at one time.

It getting darker by the minute and it was time to scare up some business from the little families milling about the area. Miss Dorothy was enthusiastic and her enthusiasm was infectious. Not long after Miss D. asked a mom and daughter if they’d like to look at the Moon, we had folks queuing up at all five scopes: “OH, IT’S SO BEAUTIFUL,” “IT DOESN’T LOOK REAL!”

Initially we all pointed at the Moon, with our pal Jason zooming-in for crater close-ups, and me and Dorothy and Pat doing “The Moon, the whole Moon, and nothing but the Moon,” as Mr. Dobson used to like to say to his sidewalk astronomy customers. After it got a little darker, Martin and his daughter, Emma, got their LX90 on Jupiter, which was putting on a right good show in the still evening air. I thought I’d switch to Jupiter, but that didn’t work out. While Old Yeller can present an amazingly good view of the planet with detail aplenty in the cloud bands, I’d forgot how the scope was set up.

When Mr. Pat and I had put her together, we’d set her focuser position up for 2-inch eyepieces, and especially eyepieces that focus a purt good way out like Naglers and Ethoses. The result was that the 1.25-inch 6mm and 9mm Orion Expanse eyepieces I’d brought wouldn’t quite reach focus. That was OK. Luna was looking some kind of good in the Rini 26mm, and the kids and adults couldn’t get enough. One little feller must have come back at least ten times. When business slacked off a little, I poked my iPhone up to the eyepiece and took a few shots of lovely Diana, which turned out surprisingly well.

Over at Mr. Pat’s scope, things were cooking, too. His 8-inch f/5 is the near twin sister of mine, with the only differences being that it has a home-made mirror of excellent quality Pat did himself, and that it sits on an equatorial tracking platform. While Mr. P. did most of the work of building the tracking platform, I am proud to say I worked out the math he needed for the design, and built the electronic motor control board for the tracker. My undriven 8-inch was fine with a 26mm eyepiece, but there is no denying it’s nice to have tracking when you are working with the public—no need to constantly re-center objects.

Only bringdown of the night for me? My focuser. Pat and I built these telescopes some years back, right before the Chinese Crayford focuser revolution. Neither of us wanted to spend much money, and that was a problem. About all that filled the bill was JMI’s, Jim’s Mobile’s, relatively inexpensive “Reverse Crayford Focuser.”

These work OK, but are difficult to keep correctly adjusted. It’s a pain to tune ‘em so the focus action isn’t way too stiff at one end of travel and way too easy at the other. Once you get one properly adjusted, it doesn’t want to stay that way, either, and will have to be redone periodically. Temperature changes can make readjustment necessary even if the focuser was perfect the night before. Pat keeps a small allen wrench attached to his scope via a magnet for that purpose—that’s how often you have to do it. I have about had enough of the thing. Most of JMI’s products are top notch, but everybody has the occasional lemon, and the RCF focuser dern sure was one. I intend to replace mine with a Chinese job just as soon as I can convince myself to spend a few $$$.

What next if Jupiter wasn’t in the cards for Old Yeller? I knew just what that should be: a bright star. Strange as it might seem to us amateur astronomers, one of the things kids and their parents most want to see is a lone, bright star. On this night, the perfect candidate, Sirius, was well placed for viewing. I had to admit the blazing sapphire, enhanced by diffraction spikes from the Newt’s spider, did look awful good. The little folk just loved hearing that Sirius is also called “The Dog Star,” and I amused them with my corny Sirius-serious jokes.

And so it went for about an hour and a half. I’d hoped for a better turnout from the club, but four members and one guest meant we had enough telescopes to handle the crowd. Another good thing about sidewalk astronomy is that you usually don’t deal with huge crowds.  You set up, and whoever wanders by stops for a look. It’s not like a preannounced public star party where you have long lines for an hour or so and are done. You can keep going for a long time on the sidewalk, showing plenty of people the sky’s wonders, and you are never inundated.

Me and D. had a great time, not just showing off the Moon and Sirius, but enjoying the perfect spring evening and watching the little folk run around and play. When nine o’clock came, though, the enticing smells from the two restaurants we were sandwiched between became too much for ol’ Unk and we decamped for California Dreaming. Yes, muchachos, public outreach, even casual sidewalk astronomy, is hard work but it’s well worth it. It did help to have a carrot dangled in front of me in the form of a juicy ribeye and several (ahem) brewskies at the end an excellent sidewalk astronomy evening.

You can seen plenty more pictures from our ISAN on Unk’s Facebook page. Not a friend of old Unk? You are personally invited to become one.

Next Time:  On the Road Again… 

Sunday, April 21, 2013


My Favorite Fuzzies: M74

I was P.O. ed. “Put out,” that is, muchachos—this is a family-friendly blog, after all. It was the 1994 Deep South Regional Star Gaze, I was about to make the observation of a lifetime, and I was awful mad at my telescope. But I persevered, thank whatever gods there be that watch over silly amateur astronomers.

I’ve told the story of DSRSG 1994 and my 12-inch Dobsonian, Old Betsy, before, but I haven’t gone into detail about the best thing I saw there. The best look at any deep sky wonder I had had up till then, I think. The observation I’d been trying to make for thirty years. I finally really saw M74.

What’s so special about M74? It’s a spiral galaxy. So? There was something about classic spirals that fired my imagination when I was a little kid. That thrilled me the second I laid eyes on the one on the cover of my first astronomy book, Universe from the old subscription science book(let) people, The Science Service.

The painting of the spiral on the book’s cover, possibly M81, simply fascinated—in the true sense of that word—grasshopper Rod. What was even better were the face-on Scs (I certainly didn’t know those terms then) I found in a picture book in Mama’s library at Kate Shepard Elementary:  M101 and her sister M74.  That was how a galaxy should look, with those numinous spiral arms slapping you in the face with their mystery and majesty.

Fifty odd years later, I still don’t know exactly what it was in those giant night birds that so called to me, but there was a something, a certain something, that is as responsible as Patrick Moore and Stephanie's Telescope for me taking up astronomy as an avocation, a vocation, and an obsession.

Let’s step off the artsy-fartsy philosophical path for just a moment, y’all, and do the Just the Facts Ma’m thing with Messier 74, a.k.a. NGC 660, MCG 3-5-11, UGC 1149, and PGC 5974. M74 was discovered not by Charles Messier but by his friend Pierre Méchain in 1780. Mssr. Méchain told Messier all about what he’d seen, and the galaxy was soon occupying position 74 in Chuck’s famous catalog. NED, NASA’s Extragalactic Database (which you should come to know and love if you are observing galaxies or are interested in observing galaxies) says it is an SA(s)c of magnitude 9.95, with a size of 10.5’ x 9.5’.

What does the above mean to me and you and Sister Sue? The “SA(s)c” means that in the De Vaucouleurs system of galaxy morphological classification (which builds on the older Hubble classification scheme) M74 is a non-barred “pure” spiral galaxy with loosely wound arms. It is bright in magnitude as galaxies go, 9.95, but is also quite large, over 10-minutes of arc across its longest dimension (it’s not quite round). Why the “but”? As we’ll see directly, that nice high magnitude figure is negated by the galaxy’s considerable size.

That’s what the bright boys have to say about M74. How about the amateur literature? The first place I turn for that is still Burnham’s Celestial handbook. Ol’ Bob doesn’t always have all the details correct, and he doesn’t always know the best way to observe a particular object, but he always gives me a better feel than anybody else for how a deep sky target will look in the eyepiece. Says Mr. B.:  “M74 is one of the most perfect examples of a face-on sc-type spiral, resembling the large M101 in Ursa Major but somewhat more symmetrical in form.”

I was a little disappointed Burnham didn’t take off on one of his semi-poetic flights of fancy as he does with most famous objects. Maybe this one was not one of his favorties. Perhaps because, even with good skies and considerable telescope horsepower, he found, as many visual observers have before and since, that M74 is one tough nut to crack. In fact, Burnham refers to this galaxy as “One of the faintest and most elusive of the Messier objects.”

Sure got that right. As a matter of fact, I’d call M74 the most difficult Messier, period. Yes, M101 is hard, large and dim, too, but I’ve found M74 to be even worse. I’m not alone. The nickname for this one is not “The Spiral Palooza” or “The Little Pinwheel,” it’s The Phantom Galaxy.

I am usually able to see M101 when it’s at 30-degrees of altitude or more. When I was doing the observing for The Urban Astronomer’s Guide its central area was often visible with my Synta 8-inch f/5 Newtonian from badly light polluted skies. M74 under similar conditions? It was sometimes visible in the 8-inch f/5, but not nearly as often. I could usually see it in the C11, but it was frequently tough even in that telescope. Very tough. Night after night over the last forty-something years this low surface brightness Phantom has skunked me. Often I don’t see a thing, but sometimes I do seem to hear a ghostly, mocking laugh.

My quest for spiral arms didn’t begin with M74, but with M31, ironically in retrospect. M31 is the closest large galaxy, but its shallow inclination to us makes the arms extremely difficult to pick out. The best you can hope to do visually is spot one or two (if you have a dark sky) of the dark lanes that define those arms. After I got my first telescope, a 3-inch Tasco Newtonian, in the spring of 1965, I waited anxiously all through the summer for the return of “Andromeda” as me and my bubbas in The Backyard Astronomy Society called Messier 31. When I finally managed to get the little scope on it, it was not much more than a smudge. Hell, hardly even that. This thing was bright and close. I could see it as a fuzzy star from the backyard in them days. Why couldn’t I see it as a spiral? Was my telescope busted?

Lucky for li’l Unk, my fellow BAS member and buddy Wayne Lee had read somewhere (I was always amazed to hear he’d read anything other than a Sgt Rock comic book) that the arms of M31 are impossible to see because of its tilt with respect to us. I stopped worrying about my telescope and started looking for some other galaxy that could show me what I longed to see. A review of the literature (my copy of Stars and the paltry few astronomy books in Mama’s library) seemed to indicate that would be M101 or M74.

In the spring, you’d find me out in Mama and Daddy’s backyard with my Tasco or, a little later, my 4-inch Edmund Palomar Junior hunting M101. In the fall, I’d be after M74. I saw exactly nothing of either. I never caught a glimpse, even a trace, of The Catherine Wheel or The Phantom. Not realizing how hard they were made my quest even more frustrating. They were wide open, showing off their arms better than any other spirals I had seen pictures of, which gave me the idea these two ought to be the easiest.

I’m not sure my quests were completely in vain. Frustrating, yeah, but in the course of my searches, my sweeps, as I began to call them after I read about William and Caroline Herschel in a kids’ science encyclopedia Mama had, I ran across a lot of cool stuff. I also learned a little about star hopping and deep sky observing in general. But no 74s or 101s did I see. I finally decided they were indeed too hard for my telescopes. I wasn’t sure why they were too hard, but they were. I gave up on both, didn’t get a look at either for almost ten years, and didn’t get good looks at ‘em for dang near twenty years after that.

“So why the heck are they so hard, Unk? You done told us M74 has a mag value of about 10, and M101 is at pea-picking 8.3…” Yep, and that’s what I’d based my opinions on when I was a sprout, but you know what they say about “opinions.” The reason the two galaxies are so hard is that they are large. In addition to being large, they are face-ons, which means their light is more spread-out than it would be if they were edge-on, for example. That is the long and short of it.

Still don’t glom onto what I am talking about, Jane Newbie? OK, consider this. Yes, M74 is about magnitude 10, which is not overly dim—for a star. And that is exactly how bright M74 would be if it were squished down to the size a star. But it is not a star. Next time you are out with the scope, point it at some 10th magnitude sun and rack the star out of focus until it is a blob 10’ in diameter. Till it almost fills the field of a medium power, medium AFOV ocular. Dim, ain’t it? Dang right it is.

So how do you go about seeing such a thing? The two things that will have the most effect are observing from dark skies and increasing contrast between the object and the background sky. If you spend your nights viewing from the typical suburban site and have never observed from a truly dark location, you will be amazed at what you can do with modest instruments from one.

Take Spruce Knob Mountain, site of the annual Almost Heaven Star Party in West Virginia. It is one of the darkest sites I’ve visited east of the Mississippi, and I was able to put M101 into the ground with a freaking pair of Celestron 10x50 binoculars there one night. It was crazy easy. Why? The 10x magnification kept M101 small enough for it to remain bright. And… the sky background was still dark at low power due to the absence of light pollution. If you use binoculars in the typical suburban backyard, you know their large exit pupils make the background sky bright enough to totally extinguish The Phantom. Without that high background sky brightness, M101 was a cheerful and easy little thing in West Virginny.

“So I should run off to Spruce Knob or Prude Ranch to look at 101 and 74?” That wouldn’t be a bad idea, but you don’t have to.  You probably won’t see much of either from your backyard, but both can look incredibly good from middling dark locations like an astronomy club dark site. The secret ain’t so much the scope as it is the correct eyepiece.

What you need is an eyepiece that makes M74 (or M101) small enough that it remains reasonably bright, but also one that keeps the background sky reasonably dark. You don’t want so high a power that M74 fills the field completely. You need some dark sky framing it to provide contrast so the galaxy will pop out atcha, but you’ve got to have enough power, a sufficiently small exit pupil, to damp down the background skyglow.

The best focal length and design of eyepiece will depend on your scope, your site, and your eyes. You will need to experiment. Me? I’ve found the ocular focal lengths that bust these suckers best for me are in the 12 – 16mm range whether used with my f/10 C8 or my f/4.8 12-inch Dobsonian. What did I use most for 101 and 74 hunting over the last decade or two? My much-loved 12mm Nagler Type II (which, alas, had to go on the pea-picking Astromart to finance a 13mm Ethos). The bottom line? Get M74 or M101 in the field and start experimenting with eyepieces.

M74 can still give me fits, but usually only on Messier Marathon nights. It is, in fact, the bane of Marathon runners. Folks talk about how hard M30 is in the morning, but in this old boy’s opinion The Phantom, which is in the evening sky at MM time, is way harder. Wait too late after Sunset, or try for it a day too late in the Marathon window, and you will be cussing up a storm.

Even on an optimum Marathon night, it is low in the west and in the horizon trash, the eyepiece field background is bright no matter what you do, and in Old Betsy it is a phantom of a phantom. I don’t try to star hop to it, nossir buddy. You cannot waste time; you have to get it in that short period after the sky is dark enough but while the galaxy is still high enough. Sky Commander digital setting circles all the fracking way.

I finally got the view of M74 I’d always wanted, but not until eighteen years after I saw it for the first time back in the seventies, not till November of 1994. What made the difference that year? It wasn’t just the location, which was the old Deep South Regional Star Gaze site at McComb, Mississippi where the skies were dark but not real dark. It was also the combo of aperture/focal length that Old Betsy, who’d come to live at Chaos Manor South just a few months previously, brought to the table, I reckon. That and a sky that was better than it should have been one night.

I’d assembled Betsy in the front parlor of Chaos Manor South when she arrived the previous September. I admit I kinda rushed that. Miss Dorothy and I would be married in that front parlor the very next day, and I wanted to get Bets put together and the resulting detritus cleared ASAP. I was probably a little too cavalier about the washers Meade furnished for the rocker box’s central pivot.

If you’ve built or assembled a Dobsonian, particularly an old-timey solid tube Dobbie like Betsy was in the beginning, you know there are usually a few washers that go around the central pivot bolt. Their function is to lift the rocker box slightly off the ground board so azimuth motion is a little easier than if all the weight were riding on the bearing pads.

I tried all the washers Meade shipped and found that made the mount wobbly; the rocker box was not in good enough contact with the bearings. I threw a couple out, put the scope together, and let that be that rather than experimenting. The result was that Betsy’s azimuth motion was more “sticky” than “buttery,” but wasn’t too bad.

The real trouble was her altitude motion. Too hard, but, ironically, there still wasn’t enough friction to make the tube easy to balance. That was the result of the too-small side bearings Meade used—and which Chinese Dobsonian makers insist on using to this day. The scope tended to swing up when you removed a heavy eyepiece and swing down when you put one back in the focuser.

I partially rectified the altitude balance problem before the star party that was to be Betsy’s dark-site-first-light by buying a counterweight system from Orion. That was composed of a long Velcro-covered plate that screwed onto the tail-end of the tube, and a beanbag filled with lead shot and covered with Velcro of the opposite type. You stuck the beanbag onto the plate in a place along the plate's length that made the scope balance.

It worked OK for balancing the telescope most of the time, but did nothing for the hard, sticky altitude motion, which was maybe even more noticeable with the tube close to balance. In hopes of making the tube easier to balance, I guess, Meade had not used Teflon for the altitude bearings. They used small squares of Nylon, which caused “stiction,” the combination of too much friction and too much stickiness. That didn’t help overmuch with balance, but it did make the scope harder to move and, especially, track. It also caused weird sounds to echo across the observing field. Good thing it was dark on that field, ‘cause poor Unk was red with embarrassment every night at DSRSG.

I would move the tube in altitude and the Nylon bearing pads would tend to stick to the metal side bearings. As I moved the heavy scope, that would force both sides of the particleboard rocker box apart. Suddenly, the increasing pressure from the sides would overcome the stiction and the sides of the rocker box would snap back into place with an audible pop. I know it sounded louder to me than it was, but I thought the scope sounded like a cotton-picking Ma Deuce (machine gun) as I star hopped. Yeah, embarrassing.

After I got home, I was determined to fix the altitude problem. I’d heard about Magic Sliders from one of the inmates of the old sci.astro.amateur bulletin board, which was going strong at the time. These were furniture sliders, designed to let you move a couch around without marring the floor. They were Teflon and sounded just right to serve as Dobsonian bearings. I hied myself to K-Mart, got a set, and replaced those Nylon altitude pads with Teflon.

That made the scope’s altitude motion oh-so-smooth. Too smooth, in fact, because of the small side bearings. Betsy was impossible to balance even with the aid of the counterweight. What worked was replacing one Slider on each side with one of the original Nylon jobs. Not quite as easy to move, but it balanced better. I replaced all the azimuth pads, which were also Nylon, with Sliders, too, and moved them a little closer to the central pivot. After I was all done, I never had reason to complain about Betsy’s motions again.

I was so pleased with the results of my simple mods that I wrote a letter to Meade outlining the problems I’d had with their StarFinder 12-inch and how I cured ‘em. Naturally, nobody at Big Blue could be bothered to reply with even a form letter or a postcard.

“But how about M74, Unk? What about M74?” I’m getting to that Skeezix, I’m a-getting to that. The machine-gunning rocker box did not prevent me from seeing as much as the 1994 DSRSG’s semi-punk skies would allow. Including M74.

From years of sometimes-bitter experience, I knew precisely where M74 was to be found alongside the huge “V” of Pisces. As soon as The Fishes were high enough above the eastern tree line for me to see ‘em from my usual spot on the east side of the DSRSG field, I went after M74 with Telrad and 50mm finder. I had Sky Atlas 2000 by my side, but didn’t need to touch it. I knew where The Phantom was, but I sure didn’t expect to see much of him on this night. The final piece of the puzzle for observing M74 and M101 is dry as well as dark skies, and our skies were anything but dry.

I’ve found that observing M74 and M101 in low humidity conditions improves their appearance considerably. Any moisture in the air seems to steal form and substance from them, and is almost as bad as light pollution. Was DSRSG ’94 humid on Thursday evening? Was it ever. We were sweltering under almost summer-like weather in advance of a tremendous cold front that would soon batter us with thunderstorms. It was like observing through soup.

Just when you think you have the sky figured out, it surprises you. Theoretically, all I should have seen of The Phantom that night was the all-too-familiar barely visible round glow of the galaxy’s center. That wasn’t what I saw in the 16mm Konig when I put my eye to the eyepiece. The moisture in the sky and the light dome from little McComb, Misissippi just didn’t matter. Why they didn’t matter I didn’t know and still don’t know—I suspect the steady seeing helped—but there before me was a wheeling spiral galaxy just like in the pictures all those years ago.

At first, the spiral form was only visible with averted vision, but as I continued to look, it began to be obvious when I stared directly at the galaxy. If that weren’t enough, more looking and I began to see details, starting with the galaxy’s tiny star-like nucleus. Eventually, I was spotting clumps, HII regions maybe, along those graceful arms. What was the total effect? Have you ever seen Lord Rosse’s sketch of M51? Erase NGC 5195 and maybe cut back a little on the multiple spiral arms he drew, and my impression was “just like that.”

How about a twofer? I’d had the best of intentions of staying up real one night late to get M101, but the weather on the first nights and the looming drive home on the last night of the star party, when we got our only superior skies, natch, prevented me. Even 19 years ago, Unk wasn’t always up for hanging in until the 3:30 a.m. Ursa Major would have required at that time of year. I did get M101 in every bit as good a fashion as M74, but it was over a year later before I did that, in the spring of ’96 at the Mid South Star Gaze. That was maybe an even more amazing (to me) observation, since I did it with my “little” C8.

God only knows how long I could have ogled M74 that Thursday night at Deep South. For once, it’s not exaggeration to say, “The more I looked the more I saw.” I could have happily observed just 74 and nothing else that night. I was finally seeing what I had been longing for for over thirty years. Actually, that was practically all I saw that night. The front began to creep ever closer and the skies faded away before 1 a.m. I didn’t care. M74, it turned out, was what I’d come for, and if I hadn’t viewed another single object during the whole star party that would have been just OK, muchachos.

Next Time: Watcha Lookin' at Mister?…

Sunday, April 14, 2013


The Herschel Project Nights 39 and 40

Did not look good, muchachos, did not look good at all. On the Wednesday afternoon before the 2013 Chiefland Spring Picnic, the weather was steadily going from bad to worse to horrible. By late afternoon, I still hadn’t been able to load up the 4Runner in advance of our Thursday morning departure for the Chiefland Astronomy Village. Rain. More rain. Still more rain. Then came the winds. Gusts over 60mph. That ill-fated cruise ship, Carnival’s Triumph, broke free of her moorings at the yard here where she’s tied up, resulting in the tragic death of one worker. It was like hurricane season before hurricane season.

I could have waited till Thursday morning to pack—that wasn’t a big deal. It’s nice to have the truck, Miss Lucille Van Pelt, ready to roll on star party morning, but it’s not a requirement. What was bothering me was the question of whether we should go at all, whether we’d be wasting our time. The storm would be moving east, straight toward Florida and the Chiefland Astronomy Village. Nevertheless, Miss Dorothy and I decided we’d go and go Thursday no matter what the weather. We’d at least get the trip, if not the field set up, done that day.

We’d have three days down south in Florida, so I thought chances were good we’d get some hours of observing before it was time to go home. The forecasts I saw indicated there was just about zero chance of us seeing a thing on Thursday, but Chiefland’s position, right where fronts off the Atlantic and the Gulf battle it out, is one where accurate weather prediction is difficult. Could be crystal clear Thursday evening.

In the wake of the big blow, I was able to get the 4Runner loaded late Wednesday, so Thursday morning was effortless. Wasn’t even raining. Oh, it was cloudy, but the worst appeared to be over—for the Northern Gulf Coast, anyhow. Thursday night in Chiefland was still predicted to bring a 90% chance of rain. Friday and Saturday were ambiguous:  “partly cloudy,” “some clouds,” “passing clouds.”

Whatever. We stuck to The Plan:  quick stop at McDonald's for breakfast (which consisted of a fried chicken biscuit for moi, natch) and then I-10 for five-and-a-half hours. Dorothy and I have found if we do Mickey D’s before the Interstate, we’re able to skip lunch and push on to Chiefland with only bathroom breaks and one stop for gasoline. That’s just what we did.

The stretch from Mobile to Tallahassee is boring, but it ain’t as boring as the Mobile – Montgomery run. And, unlike in the old days, I had Miss D. at my side to talk to and Sirius XM satellite radio (“Classic Vinyl” and “Real Jazz” this time) to listen to. It didn’t seem too long before we were leaving the Interstate just past Tallahassee for the Florida – Georgia Parkway, Highway 19, the gateway to The Nature Coast and Chiefland.

I took the last 100 miles easy. Wasn’t any reason to hurry. It was cloudy when we left Mobile, and it was cloudy when we stopped at the Sunoco station at the Highway 19 Exit. The only positive thing was while the sky was completely overcast—I didn’t see a patch of blue all the way from Mobile—there wasn’t much rain. After fueling Miss Van Pelt and ourselves on gas station fare—Unk got the new Jack Link’s Sasquatch Big Stick—we headed south on 19 where we did run through a couple of showers, but that was it. There was no widespread bad weather far as I could tell.

Alas, change was afoot at the Days Inn.
Arriving at the Days Inn, I was surprised not to see a familiar face behind the desk. In fact, I didn’t recognize any of the folks working at the motel. Before we even checked into our room, I sensed change afoot. The grounds looked OK, but not as well-kept as they used to. In our room, I noted that, while passable, it was not as clean as in the past. And that we had a grand total of three fracking bath towels in the bathroom.

None of this was wholly unexpected. Ever since the motel’s change of chains from Holiday Inn Express to Days Inn, there’d been a slow decline. What did surprise us was that that decline had suddenly become precipitous. Given the lack of familiar faces, I had to wonder whether the motel had been sold to a new owner. If it has, the new folks ain’t getting it right. Miss D. and I intend to try Chiefland’s Best Western next time. Whoever’s in charge of the Days Inn apparently doesn’t understand that lack of cleanliness, cold coffee, and a breakfast that looks like it came straight out of a vending machine does not make for repeat business—assuming they care.

We continued to stick to the vaunted PLAN—well, the backup version, anyhow. Normally, we check into the motel and immediately make tracks for the CAV observing field for gear set up. Thursday afternoon at 3:30 it wasn’t raining, but the clouds had the look of “rain’s on the way,” so we eschewed the field in favor of a trip to Wally-World, the Chiefland Wal-Mart, for supplies. There, I got the usual:  Jack Links, Monster Energy Drinks, bottled water, a box of granola bars, and a 12-pack of Kolorado Kool-Aid for post observing relaxing in the motel in the wee hours.

Didn’t see a new Star Wars shirt to add to my wardrobe this time, but I did find an uber-cool Pink Floyd Dark of the Moon tee. Also picked up a hoodie to wear on the field if it got chilly in the wee hours. My usual CAV Wally-World nylon jacket got left at the shipyard on my last day of work before my retirement. Uncle Rod has said goodbye to his engineering career, hung  up his hardhat, and took early retirement just a little while ago.

We wandered around in the store for longer than usual before going back to the motel to stow our purchases. We’d normally do fast food for supper, but the weather meant we had plenty of time on our hands this evening and thus another option. Some time back, I told Miss Dorothy that the next time we were clouded out at CAV we’d hit Bar B Q Bill’s for steaks and beer instead of barbeque. That’s what we did, too, heading off to Bill’s about 5 p.m. and ordering ribeyes and baked potatoes. Yeah, BBQ is the main attraction at Bill’s, but the steaks were some kind of good and the beer was icy cold. Supper was almost good enough to make me forget the weather.

When we’d checked in to the motel, we’d noticed there was a new TV set in our room. Now, I’d a-thought that if they were replacing TVs, they’d be going to widescreen LG jobs. Heck, the La Quinta we stayed in last year in Huntsville had one. Uh-uh. Instead, it was the smallest and cheapest looking television I’ve seen in a motel in years. The reception was the pits, too. There wasn’t much on the limited number of channels, either. There was salvation at hand in the form of a DVD, though.

When I’d been inventorying the shelves at Wally-World, I’d come upon a five-buck DVD, a collection of ten freaking ZOMBIE MOVIES. Including the original, Night of the Living Dead, and the classic White Zombie with Bela Lugosi. What I watched, however, was one called I am Omega, a mash-up of zombies, The Last Man on Earth, and martial arts chop-sockie. When that was done, I took a tour of the Cloudy Nights bulletin boards, and before drifting off read a few more pages of Michael Lemonick’s excellent The Georgian Star, which I was rereading for the second time.

Ironically, despite the decrepit nature of the Days Inn, old Unk had the best night’s rest he’d got in a motel in a long time. Musta been them brewskies at Bill’s. Anyhoo, despite my heavy snooze, I was suddenly awakened just before dawn. What woke the Rodster?  A sound…almost like heavy rain… Then came a great big boom of thunder. Unk poked his head out the door and into a thunderstorm of major proportions. Rut-roh.

Turned on that tiny TV and dialed up The Weather Channel right quick. They were forecasting plenty of wet stuff for Friday morning, but were still insisting on “clearing Friday night.” A look at on the laptop showed they were making the same prediction. I felt better, but we’d still have to change our plans. We’d originally thought we’d get out to the CAV first thing and take care of equipment set up before visiting Fanning Springs State Park, one of our fave local attractions. Uh-uh. The rain was stopping, but we thought we’d give it more time to move on out and a little while after that for the sandy soil of the field to soak up the puddles. Mid morning, we headed back north a few miles to the next little town up the line from Chiefland, Fanning Springs.

Fanning Springs State Park is not as large or elaborate as our other local favorite, Manatee Springs State Park in Chiefland, but it is nice, and it is beautiful in the spring. The water was high, so we didn’t see much wildlife. Other than some squirrels and a few minnows, all we spotted was a pretty Brown Water Snake who played possum as soon as he noticed us. Despite not seeing a mullet, much less a manatee, we spent a pleasant hour walking around the park and down to the storied Suwannee River.

Then it was lunchtime, and when you are in Fanning Springs, you just naturally do the 19/98 grill. This little place has become a legend among amateur astronomers. It’s small, but it has a crazy-extensive menu and everything I’ve had there has also been crazy—crazy good. Like the Buffalo wings I ordered for lunch. Maybe not quite as spicy as Unk likes ‘em, but that was more than made up for by the freshness of the chicken. Miss Dorothy loved her chicken salad sandwich and the 7Up in an old-fashioned bottle. I was tempted by the Nehi Grapes, also in old-timey bottles, but figgered I’d better stick with 19/98’s wondrous sweet tea.

After lunch, we pointed Miss Van Pelt to the CAV. It was obvious the rain was over for now. Onsite, there was a good crowd already, including our old friends Carl, John, Bobbie, Margie, and Paul. After saying “howdy” to everybody, it was set up time. One good thing about the clouds:  they moderated the temperature. I was able to unload the scope, Big Bertha, my NexStar 11 GPS, get her on her tripod, and, with Miss D’s help, get the Coleman tailgating canopy up without breaking a sweat. I left the tarp sides off the canopy. With the temperature not predicted to go below 50F, I thought I’d be happier with better ventilation in the afternoon without the sides. I did have my Black Cat catalytic heater in case I got chilled ‘round midnight.

How exactly did I set up the NS11? Reducer-wise? As y’all know, the Mallincam Xtreme is a fairly long camera, and will hit the base of the NS11 at higher altitudes when the scope is set up in alt-az mode. You have to use a star diagonal for the Xtreme to clear the base. That is a problem. How do you use a reducer with a diagonal and still get a focal ratio of around f/3 – 4, which is perfect for the Mallincam?

You can’t just screw an f/3.3 reducer onto the rear port of the SCT—it won’t reach focus with the camera in a star diagonal. What I’d done last time was use a special adapter from Jim Henson (Scopestuff) that allows you to place the reducer after the diagonal. Unfortunately, that yields a focal ratio that’s a little high, f/5 – f/6 or so. I had what I thought was a better idea this time: I’d use an f/6.3 reducer on the scope’s rear cell, and the camera would have a .5x reducer in its nose. To keep the reduction around f/3, I’d use a 1.25-inch rather than 2-inch diagonal.

The buzzing fly in that butter? I soon realized what it was that I’d forgot this time—I almost always forget something. The .63 reducer, darnit. Oh, well, I’d just have to set up with the 3.3 after the diagonal. I did believe I’d try one variation. What if I used the .5x reducer on the camera’s 1.25-inch nosepiece in combination with the f/3.3 reducer? I screwed the small lens onto the camera; wouldn’t cost nothing to try.

Set up complete, D. and I hung out for a while, with Unk doing quite a bit of shooting the breeze with his buddies about the latest gear and the latest astro-gossip. Mid afternoon, we headed back to town. I’d awakened way too early, and if the Weather Channel were to be believed, clearing might not happen till after 10 p.m., so I’d better get a little shuteye if possible. We also thought we’d do an early supper in someplace. As the Sun began his descent, 19/98 seemed a long time ago.

We wanted “food,” but also “fast,” and wound up as we often do in the Taco Bell. What did Unk get? The tacos had been kicked up yet another notch. Unk raved about the Nacho Cheese Doritos Tacos last summer, and was eager to try the new Cool Ranch Doritos LOCOS Tacos. How were they? If anything, they were better than the original, tasty but a little subtler than that slap yo’ mama nacho cheese. Unk quickly downed one regular taco and one supreme from his Big Box, saving the enormous burrito for the following day.

I had the idea I might only be able to doze at best, but I must have been more tired than I thought, since I almost immediately went from napping to genuine sleeping. It seemed like just a few minutes had passed before Miss Dorothy was awakening me at 5:30 p.m. Time to get on the stick. Well, sort of. A look out the door showed the clouds were as thick as ever. Whatev’. I wanted to do the remaining set up tasks before dark anyway, cabling up computer and scope, mostly. I hate doing that after daylight is gone.

Unk did have one stop to make before the field, Bubbaque’s liquor store next door to their restaurant. For some unknown reason, there had been a Rebel Yell drought in Alabama for a while. Not a single bottle in the Green Front store last time I checked. Not only did Bubbaque’s have Yell, they had the biggest bottle of it this old boy had ever seen. And they almost gave it away. As I told one of my pals on the field, the Yell constituted my backup plan for the evening if the clouds didn’t skedaddle.

But skedaddle they did; they just took their time about it. We cooled our heels till after 10 p.m. before it began to clear. Actually, at ten none of us thought it would clear. With everybody else stowing scopes and heading for RVs and trailers, Unk decided he might as well do the same. I tucked Bertha in in her Desert Storm Cover, disconnected the laptop, and turned Miss Van Pelt for C-land.

Now, most of y’all are gonna ascribe what came next to Unk’s over-active imagination (at best), and I agree that was probably it. Probably. I was almost back to Highway 19 and wasn’t paying a bit of attention to the sky. It was cloudy, I knew that. Then, a voice seemed to come from the backseat, a male voice that was an odd admixture of English and German accents: “Rod, turn your carriage around this instant!” If Unk thought he was half-crazy then, a moment later he began to consider “full crazy” a possibility. A little female voice, one I’d heard before, came next: “Now, Rod, do just as Brother says!

Were those the voices of William and Caroline coming in from the Great Beyond where they’d been watching over this benighted hillbilly astronomer? Was the current high level of solar activity pulling ‘em in along with the 20-meter DX? Or were they just a couple of the voices some folks will tell you live in Unk’s head on a full-time basis? Don’t ask me. All I can say is that when I hit wide Highway 19 and got a good look at the sky, it was obvious it was clearing in a big way.

My initial inclination was to say the heck with the voices’ urging, whether their source was Sir William and Caroline Herschel or just them tacos I’d had for supper. I could turn around and go back to the CAV, but it would surely cloud up again just as soon as I started setting up the gear. Cable TV and Yell was purty tempting. Will and Lina had been insistent, though, and who was I to dispute The Discoverer of Uranus and The First Lady of Astronomy?

Dang good thing I listened. By the time I was back on the field and had everything hooked back up, it was crystal clear. Fellow observer Mike Harvey later opined the sky was better than he’d seen it at Chiefland in the spring in a long, long time, and I had to agree. Yes, it was a pain getting scope, computer, and camera ready again in the dark, but it was well worth it. When I finally gave in to exhaustion, I’d scored well over 50 Herschel Objects.

“Herschel objects? We thought you was done with them, Unk.” I am…but. Most of the spring galaxies were imaged with my old Stellacam 2. I got pictures of every one of them suckers, but the Stellacam was limited to ten second exposures, so most of the images were pretty noisy. Not only does the Mallincam Xtreme allow me to expose for as long as I want, it brings color to the table. You’d be surprised how much color little galaxies show. And how useful that can be. It’s easy to pick tiny ellipticals out of the star field by their striking golden color. I had originally called the “after The Project” work, the imaging and sketching, “The Herschel Project Phase II,” but that seemed kinda awkward and am back to just “The Herschel Project,” of which this was night 39.

For once, Bertha aligned without complaint from her or mistakes from me. I started out with the great spring globular star cluster Messier 3 as a test object; there is nothing better than a glob for fine tuning focus. Well, I fine tuned focus after I removed the .5x reducer from the camera. I couldn’t reach focus in that configuration. Reducer-after-diagonal actually worked pretty well. Yes, my focal ratio was a little high, but that turned out to be a good thing for many of the small Herschel galaxies.

After that, it was M65 and its new supernova, SN2013am. I didn’t have the camera set up quite right at that point, so the image ain’t all it coulda been, but the magnitude 16 SN is easily visible in a negative image. Then it was on to the galaxy fields of Ursa Major. By midnight, I was really in that blessed groove, knocking off Herschel after Herschel, recording 30-seconds of video of each on my Orion Mini DVR, and moving on to the nextun.

So it went till about one, when I took a break and strolled over to the Clubhouse to retrieve a Monster Energy Drink from the refrigerator. Frankly, given the clouds earlier I was amazed at the condition of the sky. It was very clear. The seeing wasn’t great, and the stars were sometimes larger than they normally are in the Mallincam, but overall it was one for the books. Monster downed, it was back to the bridge of my Federation Starship, the U.S.S. Possum Swamp, for as many more Herschels as I could stand.

When I passed the “50” mark, which was my goal for this short evening, I still wasn’t tired and kept on keeping on. It was three in the freaking a.m. before I threw that accursed Big Switch Friday night, and I could have gone later than that. I did want to be at least semi-conscious for the picnic part of the Spring Picnic Saturday afternoon, however, so Big Switch at three, back at motel at 3:30, in bed shortly after four seemed advisable.

If I’d wanted to press on, I certainly could have; the sky was, if anything, better at three than it had been at midnight. Oh, well. At the Days Inn, it was a little Yell, a little Astromart and Cloudy Nights, and a little cable TV. The TV pickings were awful slim on the few channels I had, so I was off to night-night land at oh-4:30.

Saturday morning didn’t just dawn, it exploded with bright blue skies and unseasonably cool temperatures. Unk had intended to be up for breakfast, but I just couldn’t manage that. I told Miss Dorothy to go on without me, that I needed at least another hour. After I finally got up, “breakfasted” on the burrito left over from my Taco Bell Big Box supper the night before, and finished reviewing my ever-copious email, we were off to Wally-World to choose our picnic contribution.

Some of the stuff in Wal-Mart’s deli is actually pretty tasty, including their loaded baked potato potato salad. I mean, the stuff has bacon in it, and as you well know there is just no downside to bacon. Potato salad for a picnic seemed to compute, so we ordered up a few pounds of “regular” and “baked potato.” I grabbed a pack of AAA batteries to replace the dead ones in my Astrogizmos red flashlight, and we were back at the motel in two shakes.

We didn’t stay there long, though. At 12:30, we motored back to the site to get ready for the picnic, which would begin at two. First thing I did was stow the potato salad in the Clubhouse fridge; I didn’t want to be responsible for ending the evening’s observing before it began with food poisoning for all and sundry. We hung out on the field for about an hour, spending some time watching our friend Paul mount his new Lunt Solar scope before heading over to the new field where the picnic would be held shortly before two.

It’s no secret there’s been friction between the two Chiefland groups, the folks who stick to the “old” Billy Dodd field (The Chiefland Observers), and those who observe from the “new” field (The Chiefland Star Party Group). Over the last year, I’ve had the sense that this was thankfully passing, with a new Chiefland era in the offing. If that is true, and I hope it is, this picnic heralded it. Our group was welcomed most graciously, and we had a wonderful time visiting old friends and making new ones in the expansive new field Clubhouse. There was plenty of food, and it was danged good. Unk couldn’t choose between “burger” and “hot dog,” so naturally  he took one of each.

Dorothy and I were particularly pleased to be able to spend some time with two old friends we hadn’t seen in many a Moon, Tom Crowley and Art Russell. I was also (very) briefly introduced to Tom Clark’s successor as owner of the Dodd Field, "Jonesy." If our Chiefland adventures continue, it will be due to his generosity. Unk also met his Facebook friend and observer extraordinaire, Barbara Stanton. I like Facebook fine, and have made some good friends there, but nothing beats what we hams call “an eyeball QSO.”

In short, we had a wonderful time with food and friends thanks to the current Chiefland honchos Jonesy, Tom Crowley, and John Novak. As we strolled back to the old field it was Unk’s hope and belief that we’d seen the start of a new Era of Good Feeling, and that the old Chiefland comradery is back to stay.

Then ‘twas the motel again and pre-run napping before heading back out at 6:15 to get ready for Saturday night’s observing. Actually, I could have waited a while. Unlike Friday, all I had to do was plug a few cables into the computer, the DVD player I use as a display, and the Orion DVR and I was ready to rock. If we were allowed to rock, that was. In the bizarre fashion common for Chiefland’s weather, the blue skies that had hung in all morning had been replaced by banks of thick clouds as Sundown approached.

I did rock Saturday, though, since, again in typical CAV fashion, the clouds began to clear out as the Sun set. In fact, the only thing that hindered me getting started on more Herschels was Big Bertha, who decided to show me who’s boss once again. Fired her up and launched NexRemote. Started the GPS alignment. Once she’d leveled and northed, she was off to the first star, which she said (in her Microsoft Mary voice via the laptop) was Vega.

That was unfortunate, since Vega wouldn’t rise for another hour and a half. Hmmm…stopped Bertha’s slew and scrolled down to another alignment star, Capella. Bertha lit out for the star, or so she said, but it was obvious she was going to land a long way from it. I powered her off and rebooted the computer.

With only a little fumbling around—I forgot to turn on Bertha before I started NexRemote and received an error for that—I got Miss B. back to the Ready to Begin Alignment point. This time she chose two good stars, Sirius and Capella, and stopped close to them. Gotos were great all night long. She didn’t miss a target, and many of the Herschels were near the center of the screen, so what had been the problem? Don't ask me. Who knows? Bertha has a mind of her own sometimes, and a real personality--though it isn't always a cooperative personality.

I am guessing, her errant ways on this evening could have been due to a bad fix. Bad GPS fixes aren’t as uncommon as people seem to think these days. I should have checked her date/time/lat/lon before I shut her down after Vega, but forgot to. Or it could have been a loose power cable; I did reseat the plug after the power down. Honestly, it wouldn’t have been a normal CAV run without me and Bertha doing a little fussin’ and feudin’.

After that it was smooth sailing, campers. Well, more or less. Wind was a problem off and on all night, and especially toward the end, resulting in off-round stars in some images—not too bad, though. I popped open a Monster and went to work with a will. There was no time to lose; those clouds might decide to roll back in at any moment, and I had set myself a turns-into-a-pumpkin time of midnight. I was feeling good, but I knew I wouldn’t be feeling good if I didn’t get enough sleep in preparation for the long drive back to The Swamp.

After touching up focus on M3, it was Herschels and nothing but Herschels till near the end of the run. After I passed the 60 mark, I got up, stretched my legs, walked out onto the field, and had a look out at the sky. I didn’t like what I was seeing: clouds gathering on the western horizon. Just time enough for a few purties to end the evening on, I reckoned. Before going back to the bridge, I walked over to Mike Harvey’s 28-inch mega Dobsonian where I was treated to a mind-blowing view of The Ghost of Jupiter in a binoviewer. Back with Betsy, we essayed M13, M92, M51, and a couple of others before the clouds shut us down at about 11:30.

Was I put out to have my run ended prematurely? You know I was, but it was really OK. At least the decision as to when to pull The Big Switch on the last night of a CAV trip had for once been taken out of my hands. I recorded a short Herschel Project Update video in the Clubhouse, which you can watch below, and headed for Miss Van Pelt, who I’d parked out on the access road. At the Days Inn, it wasn’t yet 1 a.m., so even allowing for a spot of Yell and a little Ghost Adventures watching on the mini-TV, I got sufficient shut-eye Saturday night.

The last morning at Chiefland, the "All Good Things” time, I call it, is always a bummer. After having done the loading/unloading thing with Miss Van Pelt for almost two years now, we were pretty efficient in getting the gear packed and were back on the road before 10 a.m. Eastern. That wasn’t the problem--being retired I don't HAVE to be anywhere anymore. Well mostly not. 

The problem was having to leave my CAV friends and those dark CAV skies behind for another few months. I’d purty much got what I’d come for, over 100 Herschels, but even that wasn’t enough deep sky for me. Unk is, in fact, already plotting another Chiefland expedition, and is even considering adding a 4th night back in. Stay tuned, muchachos.

You can see lots more pictures of our CAV trip on Unk’s Facebook page. If you are not a friend of ol’ Unk, just ask; that is all it takes.

Next Time:  More My Favorite Fuzzies…

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