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… 

..something about wood that adds it's own qualities....
$2 wells at California Dreamin! It might not be Rebel Yell but it certainly doesn't hurt a budget.
I LOVE California Dreaming! :-)
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