Sunday, October 20, 2013


Here and There with Uncle Rod: Unplugged Astronomy and Doc Clay at the EAAA

Most of the entries in this here blog concern a single subject, but occasionally y’all get a twofer. And this is one, muchachos. Unk’s club, the Possum Swamp Astronomical Society, does a fall star party for the kids, and I like to report on it in hopes of encouraging y’all to get out and do some outreach of your own. This is also the season when Unk’s old friend and SCT guru extraordinaire, Doc Clay Sherrod, and wife Patsy visit the Gulf Coast. Doc doesn't just visit; he always gives an outstanding talk for the EAAA, the Escambia Amateur Astronomers’ Association in nearby Pensacola, Florida, and I know you-all want to hear about that.

PSAS Fall Sky Watch

First up was the Fall PSAS Public Star Party. As I have mentioned before, our club has an agreement with the local public schools stretching back well over 20 years. We get to use their beautiful Environmental Studies Center classroom building as our monthly meeting place in exchange for doing two star gazes for the school kids a year. Truth be known, Unk and his buddies would do public star gazes anyway, since most of us are committed to outreach, but this is a nice arrangement.

Unk was both excited and confounded in the days leading up to the Thursday night event. I always enjoy showing off the sky to the kids, their parents, and people from the ESC’s neighborhood, but I’ve been struggling with the question of which telescope to use for that for years. What works best with the younguns, but doesn't break my back and fray my nerves in the process?

My favorite star party scope for the last several years has been my Criterion RV-6 Dynascope, donated to the cause by a kind gentleman some time back. I still like to use it with my college students. In most ways it is perfect; it breaks down into two fairly manageable pieces (though its pedestal legs are a pain), needs only an inverter and a jump-start battery for tracking, and delivers superb images, especially of the Moon and planets. The downside? Its long 6-inch f/8 Newtonian tube puts the eyepiece too far off the ground for the littlest folk.

That in mind, I tried a different solution at a recent International Sidewalk Astronomy Night. In this old boy’s opinion, the perfect public star party telescope is an 8-inch SCT. Its short tube and Cassegrain focus eyepiece position make it easy for even the tiniest tots to get a look. What I do not like, however, is spending lots of time setting up a go-to GEM or lugging Big Bertha, our NexStar 11, out to a public gaze. While tracking is a good thing, I do not need go-to. What the kids want to see is the Moon, a bright planet or two, a bright star, and maybe the brightest of the Messiers, and I can still find all that without a computer, believe it or no.

That ISAN happened to coincide with Unk putting his manual fork mount SCT, an Ultima 8, back together in mutated form. I thought the U8 would be perfect:  tracking, but no computers (or their alignments) and big batteries to worry about. That’s what Unk thought; he’d forgotten how heavy the Ultima’s fork, wedge, and tripod are. After manhandling the scope’s components across the parking lot of the Eastern Shore Centre, I swore “never again,” even though my pseudo-Ultima worked superbly otherwise.

There things stood on the Wednesday before the “Sky Watch,” as our public school compadres like to call our public star parties. I thought briefly about the 4.5-inch StarBlast, which is a good little scope for young and old, but decided I really needed 8-inches of aperture to deal with the badly light-polluted sky of the ESC. OK, what then? Well, if a C8 was perfect, I’d use a C8, just dispense with heavy and/or complex mounts.

That was good thinking, but how would I wed the two ideas—an easy to use C8 and an easy to use mount? The solution was my Synta AZ-4 mount, a manual single arm fork that is identical to Orion’s Versago mount (and completely different from the one they call an “AZ-4”). I’d bought this alt-azimuth rig for use with my C90, but found it was capable of considerably more payload than that, up to and including a C8. I’d mounted a Celestron on the AZ-4 when I was reviewing Hotech’s amazing advanced CT collimator.

When you are first learning to use the SCT-centric CT, it’s easier to work with an alt-azimuth mount, and since the AZ-4 has a Vixen style saddle, it was simple to get a C8 on it. In the course of using the collimator, I discovered the AZ-4 was surprisingly steady with an 8-inch SCT. Maybe even steady enough to allow real observing.  I lugged C8 and AZ-4 out into the front yard a couple of times for looks at Saturn and Jupiter, and was pleased with the result. The mount wasn’t overkill, but it worked.

Hokay,  AZ-4 it would be, but which C8 should I put on it? I settled on an old 1984 Super Polaris OTA. She is mounted to a Vixen style dovetail via tube rings, and that would make it possible to rotate the OTA to position the finder for comfortable use with the AZ-4.

The night before the Fall Sky Watch, I mounted the SP C8 on the AZ-4, fiddled around to find proper balance with a 2-inch diagonal, and made sure I could adjust the altitude and azimuth tension knobs on the mount so motion was easy but not too easy. The AZ-4 wouldn’t track the stars, but given the smoothness of the mount’s motions, I figgered that with the right eyepieces that would not be a problem.

And that is Big Question Two when you are preparing to face the lollipop brigade:  eyepieces. Do you sacrifice your Naglers and Ethoses on the altar of candy-sticky kid fingers and mascara-caked teen eyes, or do you use oculars that are not your best? I’ve waffled on this for years and have concluded, “It depends.” I’d be using an SCT at f/10, which would be awful forgiving of inexpensive oculars. Still, I wanted wide fields. If you are using a non-driven mount, as I would be, it helps to have as much apparent field of view as possible. But “wide field” does not have to mean “TeleVue.”

Thursday afternoon, I’d settled on a couple of 2-inch eyepieces that were not only inexpensive and practically indestructible, but which I’d used successfully at public events in the past:  a “Bird’s Eye” 30mm 82-degree job I got from Herb York years ago, and a 25mm Rini with a 70-degree apparent field. In addition to being inexpensive and robust, I didn’t think either eyepiece would cause balance problems with my semi-dobsonian-mounted SCT. Even the big Bird’s Eye is considerably lighter than an Ethos, and the Rini is a featherweight. I also snagged a box of 1.25-inch eyepieces and threw that in the 4Runner along with a single-step step stool for the little ones.

What else would I need? In case I wanted to show the kids some deep sky objects, I’d need a star atlas. These days, my iPhone and SkySafari fulfill that role when I don’t have a laptop in the field. I’d also want a red flashlight, so I borrowed Miss Dorothy’s red/green LED flash. It’s handy to have a non-red light on hand at public events; it’s not like dark adaptation is a big concern, anyhow.  

I lit out for the site at 5:30 in the p.m., and when I got there I was thrilled to see the mostly clear sky we’d had all day wasn’t just holding, but was improving. The weatherman had been issuing partly cloudy forecasts for the evening, but he got it all wrong once again, I am happy to say.

Time to set up. Getting the C8, Boomer (that’s what she told me her name was), ready to go took all of five minutes:  Adjust AZ-4 tripod so it would be at a height reasonable for the wee-est of the wee customers. Secure C8 in dovetail. Screw diagonal onto rear port. Insert eyepiece in diagonal. Mount dew-shield on OTA. And I was done. No batteries, hand controls, or computers to fuss with. This was unplugged astronomy and I was liking it already.

The only thing I wasn’t feeling good about was the stuff I’d forgotten. I’d brought along a box of 1.25-inch eyepieces in case I wanted to up the magnification from the 80x of the Rini, but I forgot to pack a 1.25-inch adapter for the 2-inch diagonal. Doh! And, yes, SkySafari running on the iPhone makes a perfect sky atlas and reference (“How far away is M13, huh, mister? How far?”). But only if you remember to bring your iPhone with you. Mine, I suddenly realized, was sitting at home hooked to its charger. Oh, well, it wouldn’t be an Unk Rod observing run if something wasn’t left behind.

"Look at all them CRATERS!"
By 6:30, half an hour before the Sky Watch was to begin, little folk, teachers, and parents were already beginning to trickle in. With no computers to align, it was the work of 15-seconds to get Luna, who was a pretty crescent, centered in Boomer. How did the old girl do on the AZ-4? Right well. She was not rock solid, but solid enough, with a sharp rap dying out in a three or four seconds. That was not disturbing at 66x and 80x, the only magnifications I’d be using. The stability could no doubt be improved with the simple addition of Celestron vibration suppression pads under the tripod legs, but it was more than good enough as it was. Motions were smooth, balance was easy to attain, and the mount didn’t seem stressed at all.

And so it began, long lines of excited kids and parents at my telescope and the scopes of my four fellow PSAS compadres who’d been able to make it out. Our guests were well behaved and asked intelligent questions. Even the tiny mites. If you go digging at any astronomy club, you’ll come up with public outreach horror stories, like the time we caught a couple of little boys spitting down the tube of an unattended Newtonian. But those incidents are rare. On this night everybody—both the kids and PSAS members—just had a good time.

What did I show ‘em? It took a while to get past the Moon—the sprouts simply cannot get enough of her—but when the line finally began to dwindle, I slewed over to M13, where I stayed for quite some time. With just a little guidance, most of my guests were not just able to see the big glob as a fuzzy spot, but were able to see (barely) that it was a ball of teeny-tiny stars. After that it was another globular, M15, which was smaller but easier for everybody to see. Finally, just before shutdown time at 8:30, I went to M31, which proved surprisingly popular—especially when kids and adults were told Andromeda is on a collision course for the Milky Way.

With headlights flashing on as our guests began to head for the gate, it was time to pull the big switch. And that was one of the best things about this unplugged evening. It took 5-minutes to set up, and it took the same amount of time to tear down, which was even sweeter at the end of the evening. Boomer has made it so painless for me to do public outreach that she may have encouraged me to do more, and that is a good thing, muchachos.

Doc Clay Live

Doc Clay Onstage...
If the name “Doc” Clay Sherrod ain’t familiar to you, you haven’t been an amateur astronomer long, or at the very least you’ve never owned a Schmidt Cassegrain Telescope. In addition to being the co-author of A Complete Manual of Amateur Astronomy, which is still in print after dang near 30 years, Clay has long been known as “Mr. LX200,” and is the acknowledged expert on those (and other) go-to SCTs. He is also the Director of the Arkansas Sky Observatory, which does real research, especially in the field of the Solar System’s leftovers, asteroids and comets.

For me, Clay has been a long-time inspiration and, most assuredly, one of my mentors in this business. So, I always look forward to his and Patsy’s yearly visits to the Gulf Coast as both an opportunity to spend a little time with them and to listen to one of Clay’s outstanding presentations. What is Doc Live like? One recent presentation was entitled, “Doc Clay’s DeLorean Time Machine.” You get the picture, fun. But also packed with plenty of information for the amateur astronomers, students, and members of the public who pack the hall at Pensacola State College every year to hear Doc.

Unfortunately, there was a complication this year. That was spelled K-a-r-e-n. The tropical storm was predicted to hit the coast on Sunday evening, and it seemed likely conditions would be bad on Saturday night, the evening of Doc’s presentation. PSC’s Administration, understandably nervous about staying open during a big storm, ordered the college closed for the weekend.

Then, Karen turned into the proverbial tempest in a teapot. In fact, Miss Dorothy and I motored over to Pensacola despite the fact Doc wouldn’t be able to speak, and spent a couple of hours hanging out with EAAA. The gang that assembled at the Golden Corral restaurant near PSC included legendary Gulf Coast amateur astronomer and astronomy educator, Dr. Wayne Wooten, EAAA President Jon Ellard, and several members of the excellent club and their student auxiliary. The weather was a little breezy, but hardly threatening. Hell, we didn't even run into rain on the way over—or back.

In the course of enjoying our buffet supper, we did a little strategizing. It wasn’t long before Wayne announced he would see if he could reschedule Clay’s presentation for the following Saturday night. Amazingly, Wayne was able to pull it all together in just a week. Doc was fine with doing his talk the next Saturday, but getting a place for him to speak and letting the public know about it wasn’t easy. The EAAA’s usual venue would be in use for a Phi Beta Kappa initiation, but another auditorium, a nice one on the north side of the campus, was available. Another problem was getting the dadgum Pensacola newspaper to get the updated location correct in their announcements.

So it was that last Saturday night Miss D. and I headed east to Pensacola again. After another  nice interlude at the Golden Corral, where Unk and Doc competed to see who could go back to the buffet the most times for the most fried chicken, steak, fries, mashed potatoes, gravy, and fried shrimp, it was time for Clay to cut his birthday cake. That was in honor, as he told all and sundry, of his 29th birthday “just like last year.”

Then it was over to the campus for Doc’s “A Comet is Coming.” Despite obvious confusion over the change of venue, Clay’s paen to the hairy stars played to a near full house. In addition to talking about comets in general, Doc also gave his (guarded) predictions for Comet ISON, which as you may know is scheduled to put on some kind of a show from late November and on into January.

Will ISON be the vaunted Christmas comet everybody hoped for and was cheated out of in 1973? Or will it be just like the notorious Kahoutek, a decent but not outstanding comet for amateur astronomers, but a dog, a flop, a lemon, a bomb for the public?

Unfortunately, I believe ISON will be a lot more like Comet Kahoutek than Comet Hale-Bopp. From the first, all the signs have pointed that-a-way. Like Kahoutek, ISON,  a virgin comet straight out of the Oort Cloud, brightened rapidly at first but then that slowed down. Way down. Fresh comets tend to put on a nice show when they are way out, but that’s because a layer of volatiles boils off at the first touch of the Sun. The ice below is locked in a deep, deep freeze, and even a close encounter with Sol often isn't enough to thaw it out enough to make a virgin into a showpiece.

Finally, if one thing will keep ISON from being a Great Comet, it’s its position. A “Great Comet” is generally acknowledged to be (there is no hard and fast definition) a comet so grand it captures the public’s attention. Unfortunately, ISON will be in the pre-dawn sky when it is at its best, and nowhere near as many people will see it as saw Hale-Bopp no matter how good it is. The public wouldn’t turn out in numbers even for Ikeya-Seki and West, two dawn comets that were far better than (I believe) ISON ever will be.

The EAAA's Dr. Wayne Wooten...
That’s pretty depressing for ain’t it? Well, it depresses me too. I love the visitors and we haven’t had a good one since Comet Holmes, which was, hard as it is for me to believe, six fraking years ago. So, I was pleased to hear Doc Clay disagreed with me about ISON's prospects.

Doc believes ISON might not just be good, but spectacular. I will admit it is looking better in images, but it is still disappointingly dim. Clay, however, had a new bit of information to share with us Saturday evening:  ISON’s nucleus, which has apparently not been rotating, has begun to do so. That is perhaps evidence of increased activity on its surface and may also mean the comet is being rotisserie grilled and may thaw out better than Unk has feared.

To say the least, Clay knows more about comets than I do and has paid more attention to them over the years than I have. I hope he is right, and on the morning after his talk I kept finding more and more reasons to believe he is. Clay, of course, acknowledges this one could still be a flopperoo; he knows comets are like cats:  just when you think they are going to do one thing, they up and do the opposite, seemingly just to aggravate you.

Whether ISON turns out to be another Hale-Bopp, or gives us on planet Earth a big cosmic pie-in-the-face (metaphorically), Dorothy and I had a great time listening to Clay tell the story of ISON and her sisters. Wish y’all could have been there, muchachos; if you are down on the Gulf Coast this time next year, make tracks for the EAAA and Doc Clay Live. You will be glad you did.

Next Time: Space Race Redux...

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