Sunday, May 19, 2013


The Herschel Project Nights 41 and 42

Is your Uncle Rod crazy or just a little unrealistic? Either might be the case—or probably both, muchachos.  You have to be kinda crazy to attempt deep sky observing in Louisiana in the spring. Humid? Yes. Stormy? You betcha. Bugs? Plenty of ‘em. Nevertheless, that’s just what I contemplated doing at the Deep South Regional Star Gaze Spring Scrimmage.

There were a couple of reasons Unk decided to do the smaller, informal spring edition of one of his favorite star parties. There were still plenty of Herschels, mostly faint galaxies in Coma-Virgo-Hydra, that needed re-imaging with the Mallincam Xtreme. The pictures I got with the old short-exposure black and white Stellacam were OK, but I can do better with the Xtreme. An even bigger inducement? I had a new telescope who needed a dark site first light.

As you know if you’ve been paying attention to The Little Old Blog from Chaos Manor South, Unk had ordered a new Celestron C8. A C8 because he loves C8s and is still not too lazy or feeble to get one out under the stars at the drop of a hat. Yes, I already had three C8s, but my youngest, Celeste, was going on 20 years old, and I figured a telescope with the modern StarBright XLT coatings might be A Good Thing. If I was gonna order yet another C8, I also thought I oughta go whole hog, pedal-to-the-metal, and update all the way with a Celestron Edge 800 “optimized” SCT.

There was the mount question, too. I have two mounts suitable for an 8-inch Schmidt Cassegrain:  an Atlas EQ-6 and a Celestron CG5. The Atlas is a wonderful mount, but it is also a heavy mount. For that reason, it tends to only get used for DSLR imaging a few times a year (at best). The CG5 is also wonderful. Amazing go-to accuracy, light, and perfect for use with a Mallincam. The CG5 does have a lot of miles on it after almost a decade of heavy use, though, so I thought it was about time to relegate it to backup status.

If I needed a new mount, this was most assuredly the time to get one. Celestron had just introduced the replacement for the venerable CG5, the Celestron Advanced VX. What does the newun bring to the table? It’s like the CG5 in many ways, but has been redesigned from the ground up with a better-looking, better-finished head. On the inside, the electronics, motors, and gears have been upgraded. There’s even an adult-sized power switch. Suffice to say, Celestron has rounded off those CG5 rough edges we complained about for so long.

Best part? The price. Celestron has always given a break on mount/OTA combos, and that’s still the case. For just under 2K you get a VX with all the fixings and a beautiful Edge OTA. Compare that to the price of a CG5 - standard SCT OTA combo a few years back, about 1650 simoleons. Hell, y’all, with a bargain like the Edge/VX, I’d actually be saving money (uh-huh). I pulled the trigger with my fave astronomy dealer, Bob Black at Skies Unlimited.

Mrs. Peel is set up!
Buying a new telescope and putting it in service is rarely a simple or easy thing, and this was no exception. Oh, the OTA I received was perfect. The mount was a slightly different matter. There was a small problem:  one of the holes on the GEM head was poorly threaded. A small problem, but in a critical place: the hole that the tripod central bolt threads into.

If you are sure a new scope/mount will not have problems, it really doesn’t matter where you buy it. Give Joe Spit the Ragman a call at Telescopes ‘R Us if’n you like. Unfortunately, it’s never guaranteed you won’t receive a problem child, not even if you’ve bought super-premium like AP or Bisque.  If you do run into trouble, your choice of dealer is of critical importance. In my case, Mr. Black got a new mount out the door and on its way to me ASAP. Unfortunately, while Bob is an astro-dealer extraordinaire, he is not quite a miracle worker. The replacement VX would not make it to Chaos Manor South till day two of the star party.

So what would I do? What would I do? Coulda lugged the Atlas to Louisiana, but I settled on the CG5 instead. Its goto accuracy is frankly substantially better than that of the Atlas, which is very important when you are hunting the faint, small, and far away. Also, the CG5 can use the NexRemote telescope control software, so I wouldn’t have to change my standard video observing routine. And I thought it would be a good thing to give the mount a last workout before sending her into semi-retirement.

The new C8 would be the star of my show at the star party, but I wanted to give her an informal first light before we left. At the Spring Scrimmage, it would pretty much be video all the way, which wouldn’t do anything to show off the scope’s main strength:  less field curvature and coma due to an advanced corrector lens system built into the baffle tube. I packed Edge and CG5 into the 4Runner and headed for my frequent observing companion Pat’s StarGate Observatory across the Bay.

What did I discover? Two things. The Edge is all it’s cracked up to be. You’ve heard “refractor-like,” and I think that’s a fair description. The stars were tiny and tight all the way across the field. Heck, she made my el-cheapo Zhumell 16mm 100-degree AFOV eyepiece act like a cotton-picking Ethos. While the seeing was not perfect, from what I could tell the star test was as good as any I’ve seen with a C8, and noticeably better than Celeste’s (sorry, old girl).

The second thing? How amazingly good the CG5 still is. Yeah, when I was slewing, her motors, and especially her declination motor, sounded like weasels with tuberculosis. However, they’ve always sounded that-a-way. The important thing was that she still put anything I asked for from horizon to horizon in the field of a medium power eyepiece. That’s especially impressive since I had to reject the first alignment star choices she offered due to trees at Pat’s now somewhat overgrown observatory. It was as if the CG5 were trying to tell me, “Unk, you don’t need no new mount. I’m as spry as I ever was.”

Not a bad case for 20 bucks.
Actually, I also learned two more things about the Edge:  I needed a dew shield and I needed a case for the OTA. I had thought I’d use my 20-year-old Celestron DewStar shield, but it would not fit. It appeared the diameter of the corrector assembly on the new scope was just a wee bit larger than on Celeste. Luckily, I had time to get a new dew shield before the star party. I tried to order one from Orion, but was shocked to find they don’t sell their nice Flexishield dewshields anymore. Products seem to come and go with increasing rapidity there of late. I found one that would do, a flexible Celestron-branded model, at another merchant and paid a hefty but not outrageous sum to have it over-nighted to The Old Manse.

I also needed a carrying case for the OTA, and I needed it now. Shoulda thought about that when I had time to order one from JMI, where I got an excellent case for my NexStar 11, but I didn’t. That necessitated a trip to Walmart for something that would serve. I’d originally thought I’d get a footlocker like the early C8s came in and which undergraduates still carry off to college. Alas, it was the wrong time of year for that at Wally-World. I actually found something better, anyway, a big plastic box with handles and wheels made by Sterilite. It only cost 20 bucks, and the foam from the Edge’s shipping box fit perfectly. If it holds up, I may not need to send Mr. Jim my money after all.

I felt like I was as ready to go for the star party as I could be. Not that there wasn’t one living room elephant sized question in my mind:  Would the Edge work with the Meade f/3.3 reducer I use for video imaging? What I’d read on the Internet seemed to suggest the 3.3 would work fine with a small chip camera like the Xtreme, but I wasn’t able to find a definitive black and white answer to my question. Nevertheless, I resisted packing Celeste in the truck as a backup. Instead, I tossed in the eyepiece case. If the Edge wouldn’t focus with the reducer, I’d go visual.

Miss Van Pelt is packed!
Departure morning Thursday was easy. I’d packed Miss Van Pelt, the 4Runner, the night before. All I had to do was grab a cuppa Joe and my suitcase and say goodbye to Miss Dorothy.  The Spring Scrimmage is simple and informal. There are no talks, vendors, or prizes. Dorothy thought it was one best suited to the hardcore observers and that she’d sit out this Deep South.

The trip west and north to The Feliciana Retreat Center near Clinton, Louisiana was as uneventful as uneventful could be. A total of three hours on I-10, I-12, and I-55 and I was pulling into the nice little facility, which is operated by the Presbyterian Church. The first stop was the good, old observing field for gear setup. Even with our full fall complement of observers, nearly 150 folks, the field feels expansive. So, you can imagine how big it seemed with only five scopes and three tailgating canopies on it. Kinda lonely.

The good thing was that with so few of us on the field there was no competition for power outlets. With my new 100-foot Walmart extension cord plugged into one, I’d be able to run everything except the camera—mount, computer, dew heaters—on AC. I prefer to run the Xtreme on a battery in the interest of getting the cleanest video possible.

After I’d got the telescope and mount assembled, the canopy up, and all the rest of the junk I carry to a star party arranged, I began to hear rumbling. It was not from the sky. Oh, there were plenty of clouds, but no thunder yet. It was Unk’s tummy. I’d eschewed my normal breakfast stop at MacDonald’s, you see, since it wouldn’t have been much fun without Miss D. Instead, I’d settled for a couple of pieces of toast before I left home.

The field Thursday afternoon.
Since the meal plan would not kick in until supper, I was facing the prospect of a lunch of Jack Links Beef Sticks and granola bars. It’s miles to the tiny town of Clinton, which doesn’t have many restaurants, anyway. I was saved from that fate by my fellow amateur radio operator, Walt, who was grilling hot dogs in his travel trailer. A juicy dog slathered with plenty of yellow French’s and I was good for a while.

Rumbly tumbly banished, I took a critical look at the sky. I didn’t like what I was seeing: clouds, lots of clouds, including some distinctly dark ones. Yes, the weather forecasts I’d seen over the last several days had not been overly encouraging, but I hadn’t expected Thursday to be quite this bad. Looked to me that if something didn’t change we would not see a cotton-picking thing other than the insides of our eyelids Thursday night.

Oh, well, such is the life of an amateur astronomer. I tried to forget about the clouds and motored up to the Lodge to unpack in my room. One of the best features of the Feliciana Retreat Center is its lodge, which, in addition to a beautiful dining area, has a bunch of small motel-like rooms. As you may know, your uncle is way past staying in cabins, even the FRC’s relatively nice “cottages,” unless he absolutely has to. If I am to have any hope of observing into the wee hours, I must get some rest during the day, and that is simply impossible for me to do in a group cabin, much less a freaking tent.

My little room, “West 6,” was identical to those I’d stayed in on previous trips to the DSRSG at the FRC and contained both a bunkbed and a twin bed (we did get one with a double bed one year), small desk/dresser, bathroom with a shower, sink in the room, and a couple of electrical outlets. There was also an air-conditioner, which was only somewhat necessary in the uncharacteristically cool May weather we were having. While the Center technically has wireless Internet, their (satellite) connection can best be described as “intermittent.” I unpacked my suitcase, changed into the new Pink Floyd T-shirt I’d picked up at the Chiefland Wally-World last month, and headed back to the field.

The Lodge
What did I do there? Hung out with old friends shooting the breeze about many things. While I didn’t care for the hard-right politics that was an obsession for some of these folks, I joined in the discussion when the topic switched to old TV shows and movies. Heck, there was even a little astronomy talk. In other words, I had a nice time with friends I see too seldom, and when the discussion turned to “right versus left,” I recited a little mantra my old Granny taught me many a decade ago:  “Just like water off a duck’s back,” and wandered back to my EZ-Up to continue arranging my gear.

I had a good time practicing my sitting out on the field, but there were a lot of hours to fill without talks and vendors and raffles; especially since astronomical twilight would not arrive till after nine pm.  When I got tired of sitting, I’d walk over, uncover my pretty new telescope, who’d told me her name was “Mrs. Emma Peel,” organize and reorganize my astro-junk, and sneak another peek at my watch.

Finally, it was six and time for the first meal of the star party. While I’ve occasionally been served something not to my taste, I can say I have never seen poor quality food at FRC. It is, in fact, right up there with the best food I’ve eaten at any star party. Thursday evening was no exception: uber-tender pot roast, gravy-drenched mashed potatoes, green beans, and a salad bar (yes, a salad bar at a star party). The only problem? So few of us and so much food made it tempting to go back for seconds—or thirds.

The food was good, but what I want on my star party menu is observing. Back out on the field after supper, it did not appear we were going to get a single helping of that. The clouds were not scudding off at sundown as they sometimes do; they were getting thicker. There was also an undeniable feel of “rain” in the air. My pals and I stuck it out till just after ten, at which time we began to feel the occasional raindrop. I tucked Mrs. Peel in in her Desert Storm Cover and walked the ¼ mile back to the Lodge.

There, I tried to settle in—without success. I was worried about Emma. There wasn’t any sign of impending severe weather, not yet, but the NOAA weather radio forecast I was hearing on my little 2-meter HT radio sounded dire. Remembering the deluge-plus-gale of the 2009 DSRSG, I got dressed, went back to the field, removed Mrs. Peel from the CG5, put her in her case, and stowed that in the truck. Back at the Lodge, I was finally able to relax, making it through one of my fave star party films, October Sky, on the laptop and even doing a little Cloudy Nights surfing on the Internet before falling into a deep sleep that lasted till I was awakened sometime after three by thunder and the sound of rain. Could it be as bad as it sounded? I walked down the hall and peered out the door. Yes, it was:  heavy rain and constant lightning. I began to despair about seeing anything this trip.

Hope is often born anew with the dawn, but I didn’t have any reason to feel hopeful when I strolled into the dining room a little before nine for breakfast. The sky was not dark, but it was cloudy, and the rain wasn’t torrential, but it was falling. After a simple but good breakfast of eggs, sausage, pancakes, bacon, and biscuits, I grabbed my umbrella and headed to the field to see how the gear had fared.

Walking up to the observing field, it was clear that while there’d been plenty of rain there hadn’t been a downpour like in 2009 when the access road became a raging river. On the field, my tailgating canopy along with everybody else’s was standing unharmed. Yes, the observing table and camp chairs and everything else were damp indeed, but I’d had the foresight to put anything that might be harmed by moisture back in Miss Van Pelt before I’d left the field for the first time Thursday night.

Cloudy Nights surfing.
What else did I do during the day on Friday? Not much. Surfed the web for weather forecasts—I tried to, anyhow. The FRC Internet was down for the count, it seemed. The inexpensive little Baofeng 2-meter HT, which I could tune to a NOAA frequency, was sure earning its keep. One other help? A new (to me) iPhone app, Scope Nights, an astronomy weather program that, along with the Clear Sky Clock program on the phone, gave me reason for some hope for Friday—when I could get anything off the obviously distant cell towers.

Other than obsessing about the weather, Unk and everybody else spent the balance of Friday much as we had Thursday:  hanging out on the field or in the Lodge, trying to get an Internet connection, and eating. Lunch Friday was burgers that made Burger King’s Whopper look like a Krystal (small, that is). That and a salad bar trip meant I wasn’t overly interested in a supper that featured fried catfish, despite that being one of Unk’s faves. Not that I didn't have a little bite or two of catfish. What else? Reading back in the room with Stephen King’s 11/22/63.

When sundown came, there were still plenty of clouds, but they slowly, ever so slowly, began to wander off. Before long, Polaris popped out and I did a rough polar alignment, sighting the star in the hollow bore of the CG5’s RA axis. A little more waiting and there were enough stars to do a go-to alignment. That was where I ran into a slight snag. I’d aligned the Edge's finder at Pat’s, but I had no doubt bumped it when I removed it to put the scope in the case. The mount is nice, and is the first easily removable finder-mount I’ve seen from Celestron, but its two-screws-and-a spring-loaded-peg adjusters design means you can knock it out of alignment if you are not careful. I intend to supplement the finder, at least, with a Rigel Quick Finder shortly.

I sent the scope to Procyon, which was bright and in the clear, and with a little slewing around with the Logitech Wireless Wingman gamepad I use as an HC thanks to NexRemote, I eventually got the way out of focus disk of the star on the screen of the little DVD player that serves as the Mallincam's display. Would I be able to get it into focus? Yep. The scope focused with the Meade f/3.3 with travel to spare. I noted that focus shift was minimal to the point of being almost non-existent. Procyon nice and small, I adjusted the finder, did the second alignment star and four Calibration stars, ran the Polaris polar alignment routine, redid the go-to alignment, and was finally ready to rock and roll.

The Southern Pinwheel
Next step was firing up a new program, Deep Sky Planner 6, which I’d received from its author, Phyllis Lang, in Raleigh during my recent trip to address Phyllis' outstanding astronomy club. The software deserves a complete blog entry and maybe a magazine article or two from moi, but for now I’ll just say it was easy and intuitive to use, and even though I’d never tried version 6 before, it didn’t crimp my style. In just a minute or three, Emma and I were knocking out fuzzy after fuzzy with the aid of DSP 6.

I did over thirty objects before ground fog and clouds shut us down completely around twelve  After the first couple of targets, I really got into that blessed zone: peer at Deep Sky Planner’s display, enter the next object in NexRemote’s virtual hand control, center it if necessary, record thirty seconds of video on my little Orion mini-DVR, and on to the next target. Thanks to the Monster Energy Drink I'd guzzled at astronomical twilight, I still wasn’t a bit tired at midnight, and could have gone on for several more hours if the sky had let me. It didn't, with clouds and ground fog spelling out that it was time to pull the Big Switch.

As I headed for the Lodge, I ruminated on Mrs. Peel’s performance. The Edge business shouldn’t have made any difference with the video camera's small sensor chip, but, nevertheless, I thought my Xtreme images looked better than normal. Could just have been my imagination, but I thought the stars were tighter and the colors more vivid. While the Edge corrector wouldn’t help with that sort of thing, the excellent star test and the superior XLT coatings just might.

Back in my room, the Internet was still down hard, so I watched an episode of Star Trek (the original series), “Where No Man Has Gone Before,” on  DVD, sipping a little of the good, old Rebel Yell as I did so. I was going to go on to “Charlie X” after that, but my peepers began to close and I was soon off to night-night land.

Saturday morning dawned and you could actually see the Sun. Oh, there were still white fluffy things in the sky, but fewer of ‘em. After breakfast, I went down to the field to see what was what. Table and chairs needed drying in the sun despite the fact that no rain had fallen. The thick ground fog of the late evening was just about as bad as rain. As I had the night before, I’d put anything that could be harmed by moisture back in the vehicle when I'd shut down.

Mrs. Peel in the middle of a productive night.
Saturday morning and afternoon dragged on and on and on, enlivened only by mealtimes. Tacos for lunch was a treat since they had all the fixings to go with ‘em, including (yay!) sour cream. About 3:30 p.m. I hoofed it back down to the observing field for the want of anything better to do. When I rounded the bend and had it in view, I was shocked. There was only one canopy other than mine still on the field and it was in the process of being taken down.

I admitted the sky did not look great, but both the Clear Sky Clock and Scope Nights were promising OK conditions for Saturday evening. Me? When I get to a star party I stay. Only one time over the years have I left early, Saturday at DSRSG 1999 when it became obvious there was not the slightest chance of the heavy rain stopping. I do understand people have commitments and have to go to work on Monday. Still, leaving early is a sure recipe for hearing those dreaded words from your pals:  “Well, heck, you know what? Clear as a bell right after you left. Great night. One for the books.”

Believe it or not, that’s just what happened. By late afternoon, there was no doubt in my mind that conditions would be better, at least, than they had been Friday evening. After dinner, which consisted of the Center’s signature dish, brisket, the sky began to clear big-time. About half our number had left, but four more folks had arrived by late afternoon. There were eight other people on the field with me Saturday night, so I wasn't a bit nervous despite the fact that, as we all know, the skunk ape just loves Louisiana's backwoods.

Scope aligned, I began hitting Herschels. I had promised myself that if at all possible I’d do 50 objects before throwing the Big Switch. When the 50 mark came, howsomeever, it was still early, not quite midnight, the sky was holding, and, with the aid of a Monster Energy Drink, so was the old bod. I passed 50, topped 75, and only reluctantly decided to wrap things up when I passed 100 faint fuzzies. Even then, I drug my feet, imaging M13, M97, M17, and M57, which were all surpassingly beautiful, before pulling that accursed switch at 2:15 in the a.m. The only reason I quit then was the prospect of packing and the drive home in the morning.

I won’t say packing was fun Sunday. How could it be when the gear was nearly as wet as it had been on the other mornings? While the ground fog was not thick enough to shut down my observing Saturday, there was still enough of it to coat everything with a thick layer of moisture. I moved what I could into the sun and took a break for a minimalist breakfast of bacon, sausage, and biscuits. By 9:15, the gear was back in Miss Van Pelt and I was on the road for home. Was I sorry to leave? I was, if not quite as sorry as I sometimes am. But I had had a good time and I will be back for another scrimmage someday--maybe even next year.

The Lone Astronomer of Feliciana...
One reason I wasn’t overly depressed to be headed home to The Swamp was that a brand new mount awaited me there. Dorothy had called Friday with big news: “IT’S HERE!” I planned to tear into the big box as soon as I got home, but when I made it home, I reluctantly admitted I was just too tired. I was, in fact, plumb tuckered out. In bed at 3:30 and up at 7:30 is a bit much for even me. I put the mount off till the next day. A little relaxing in front of the TV and I headed upstairs.

I was up bright and early Monday morning, like a kid on Christmas, got the mount together, and was relieved to find it beautiful and flawless and indeed quite an improvement over the ol’ CG5, it appeared. The details? That will be the subject for next Sunday, muchachos.

You can see a lot more pictures from the Spring Scrimmage on Unk’s Facebook page.


What can I say about this one? In retrospect, this was one of the last great observing experiences I had at Feliciana. And maybe one of the best I had in the 12 years Deep South was at the site. What made it so great? Firstly, the feeling of freedom that came from realizing I didn't have to worry about getting up and going to work on Monday. And, maybe moreso, that it was a small gathering of committed astronomers. I am well past, I am somewhat sorry to say, the days when I enjoy big groups with plenty of people (God bless 'em) who are in the "Watcha lookin' at, mister? Can I see?" category. 

Unk Rod,
Great blog post, as usual. I go to your blog every Sunday for the great stories, and I usually end up learning something new.
Question on your new C8... how was the collimation as received?
Dead on. ;-)
Hi Unk, Was reading about The Avengers, and the writers wanted someone with "Man Appeal" when replacing Gale. They shortened it to "M. Appeal" then to "Emma Peel." Pretty cool!
Super blog, thanks! Al
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