Sunday, January 05, 2014


Happy 2014 from Chaos Manor South!

Believe it or no, muchachos, and I am having a hard time believing it myself, 2014 marks my 50th year as an amateur astronomer. I haven’t had any huge epiphanies about that, not yet. Maybe I will, and I will let you know if’n I do. For now, though, I’ll stick to one of the Little Old Blog from Chaos Manor South’s  traditions, my Year in Review, a recount of Unk’s triumphs and also his follies and foibles from the year just past.

Before we get into that, I know you-all want to hear me recite my litany of WHAT I GOT, what of an astronomical nature was under Chaos Manor South’s slightly downsized tree (with the kids gone, I am pretty much done with 11-foot Xmas trees) this year. Oh, the haul was good, y'all.

First and foremost, maybe, was Jeff Kanipe Dennis and Webb’s The Arp Atlas of Peculiar Galaxies, which I mentioned last time. The book begins with an account of Arp’s career that is very well written and interesting even if, like your old Unk, you look askance at Halton Arp’s more outré ideas. It was also nice to have the reproduction of Arp's original Atlas. The winner, though, is Kanipe and Webb’s Arp observing guide.

The guide, which forms the bulk of the book, is well illustrated with excellent amateur images, one per object. A small chart is also present for each Arp. Best of all, the notes given for each object tell you what you should be looking for and why the galaxy was a member of Arp’s odd menagerie. This is done briefly in a format well suited for use in the field. That is going to be neat, y’all, since I’ve often been left scratching the old noggin trying to figure out what makes a particular fuzzy “peculiar.” The book’s production values—paper and binding—are excellent, and I suspect it will be at my side constantly this spring.

What else? As y’all know, I am a Canon man. Back in the film days, I used Nikons, but when the world went DSLR, I switched to Canon and haven’t looked back. My main camera over the last five years has been a little 450D DSLR. It’s been a real workhorse and has produced plenty of good celestial and terrestrial images. But I’ve been doing more images for publication to illustrate my magazine articles of late, and figured it was time for a modest upgrade of the photo gear.

What Santa and Miss Dorothy placed under the tree was a Canon 60D, a member of Canon’s “prosumer” line. It is significantly more full-featured than the old 450D, has a higher resolution sensor, and can shoot video, HD video. Why didn't I spring for its new replacement, the 70D? I am a sucker for a bargain and B&H Photo, my go-to photography guys (they have a good selection of astro-stuff, too), had an incredible deal on 60D camera bodies. Only criticism thus far? It’s noticeably heavier than the 450D.

So I got just a body? Nosir buddy. Accompanying the 60 was a 55 – 250mm Canon image stabilized lens. I originally put it on my list because I thought it would be perfect for imaging the GREAT COMET, Comet ISON, who was supposed to still be blazing right now. We know how that turned out (K-A-H-O-U-T-E-K), but I think I’ll be able to find plenty of celestial and terrestrial work for the new glass.

Finally, there was one more piece of astro-gear, a totally unlooked for gift, Hotech’s refractor reducer and field flattener. I haven’t been able to even think about using it yet (it is pouring rain on the new Moon weekend when this is being written), but it is beautifully made and I can hardly wait to try it with Miss Dorothy’s new ES refractor. In other words, stay tuned.

Got a ton of great non-astro stuff too, but one of my coolest gifts was from my brother, Danny, a copy of Strange Tales 135. Even if you ain't into the comic book thing, this one is a classic. It is the first appearance of Nick Fury as an Agent of Shield from way back in 1965. “Like the new Agents of Shield show on the dadgum TV, huh, Unk?” Sorta. Kinda. Nah. I guess you’d have to have been there with little Unk, reading this Jack Kirby/Stan Lee masterpiece up at the swimming pool on a lovely summer's day, sitting at a picnic table under a big shade tree, and eating a lunch composed of a Zero bar and a bag of Bugles. Them was the days, y’all…them was the days...

Now, let us talk about Unk’s more recent days, Uncle Rod’s 2013 in Review...

The highlight of January, as it has been for some years now, was our after-Christmas trip down to the Chiefland Astronomy Village. Despite the cloudy skies that can afflict the southland in the wintertime, we've had good luck with our New Year’s trips, almost always coming home with a passel of new deep sky objects in the bag. And so it was this past January. Two (fairly) good nights out of three.

Arriving at the Days Inn, we kinda got off on the wrong foot, though. Dorothy and I were checked into a room that stank. Literally. We were quickly given a different one that was fine, but it appeared to me the slow decline of the motel, which began when it switched from Holiday Inn Express to Days Inn several years back, had sped up.

What was the best thing that happened this trip? I got to spend time with fellow Chiefland Observers who I hadn’t seen in months. The skies were good, too. Not spectacular, but they were clear enough for me to corral 28 Arp galaxies/groups as part of my new “after the Herschels” observing project, Operation Arp. I also hit a bunch of spring Herschels I needed to reimage.

In order to send the NexStar 11 to the Arps that don’t have NGC or IC numbers, and thus aren't in the NexStar object library, I had to get NexRemote's virtual port feature working again—I’d had a problem with it a while before and had sort of given up on it. Surprisingly, I got the virtual port going without much trouble—I’d expected to do hours of computer tinkering—and was able to effortlessly cruise to PGCs and other off-the-beaten-path sprites with a click of SkyTools 3.

The big news ‘round here in February was that the prospective Great Comet, Comet ISON, had sailed within range of Unk’s C8 and Mallincam Xtreme. While the visitor was nothing more than a tiny smudge on my video image, I still claimed to be optimistic about ISON’s chances. That’s what I said, anyhow. I had my doubts, which were reflected in the title of the blog about my ISON imaging expedition to the Possum Swamp Astronomical Society dark site:  “The Early Return of Comet Kahoutek?”

Otherwise, Unk was struggling with a couple of things this month. First was getting a couple of wisdom teeth pulled, which was a new and scary experience for your old Uncle. The good part was that it wasn’t as bad as I feared and the Mardi Gras king cake ice cream from Old Dutch made me feel a lot better. I was also facing the end of my engineering career and the beginning of early retirement, which was also mighty scary. On a happier note, I was thinking it was time to replace my time-honored combo of CG5 and C8 with a new “retirement” scope and mount, Celestron’s new VX and Edge 800 duo.

Was mostly a month for reminiscing. Unk was very, very busy getting all his retirement ducks in a neat row and didn’t have a whole lotta time left for a whole lot else. I did get out to the dark site with the DSLR and got a few shots of Comet Panstarrs, though. This was supposed to be just the appetizer, just something to get us into a comet frame of mind for ISON. Panstarrs was not a bad little comet. He was a smidge close to the western horizon at dusk, but my observing buddy Max and I got some OK pictures and showed several excited guests the comet out at the dark site.

Like a lot of folks, I used Panstarrs as a shakedown run for ISON. One thing I discovered? I’d want a longer lens for the Canon DSLR for comet time. 55mm (88mm equivalent for APS-C sensors) was not long enough. I put a zoom that would take me out to at least 300mm on my want list. I also thought about investing in a camera tracker like the iOptron Sky Tracker for those ISON nights when I wanted to shoot long exposure but didn't want to drag out a big mount. Good thing I decided to wait on that till it was clearer what ISON would do.

April found D. and me back in Florida for another of our rituals, the yearly Chiefland Spring Picnic. It was a good one, y'all. It didn't start out good, though. I had been right about the motel; the Days Inn was even worse than it had been in January. Dirty room. Grounds beginning to look ill kempt. A breakfast just this side of nasty. A total of three fraking towels in our room. Enough was finally too much and we decided we’d try the Chiefland Best Western “next time.”

Thankfully, it was a happier story out on the CAV field. The first night was completely rained out, but night two was, if not a complete winner, quite passable. Got the NexStar 11, Big Bertha, set up and by the end of the evening had imaged (reimaged) 50 Herschels. Friday night hadn’t begun well, though. It hadn’t looked like we’d get anything at all, and I’d put the scope to bed at 10 p.m. As I was headed back to the motel, howsomeever, I saw the clouds were breaking and, prompted by a couple of “friends” who it seemed were in the 4Runner with me, turned around and made tracks back to the CAV.

Night Three, Saturday night, was at least as good, with me bagging another 60 aitches that needed their portraits taken again. What was wonderful about Saturday, though, was the picnic in “Spring Picnic.” It’s no secret there’s been tension between the observers who frequent the Billy Dodd Field and those who use the “New Field.” That was gone for the picnic, with both groups coming together for food and fun.

Was a landmark month for a couple of reasons. One of which was that a new C8, a C8 of a new type, came to live at Chaos Manor South. Unk had indeed treated himself to a modest Retirement Scope, a Celestron Edge 800 on the CG5’s successor, the Advanced VX German equatorial mount. The month was also notable because I had a great time at a star party that was new to me. Sort of.

If you are a faithful reader of the Little Old Blog from Chaos Manor South, you can’t help but have heard me speak of our “home” star party, The Deep South Regional Star Gaze, which is held every October or November in the wilds of Louisiana at the Feliciana Retreat Center.  For some years there have actually been two star parties held there, the second one being the Deep South Spring Scrimmage. In the past, work prevented me from attending, but that would not be a factor this May.

I had a great time at the 2013 Scrimmage e’en though the weather didn't cooperate until the last evening of the three-night shindig. When it did, I was ready to take advantage of it, and my beautiful new telescope, who I’d dubbed “Mrs. Emma Peel,” rocked, scoring nearly 100 faint fuzzies. The big hero of the Spring Scrimmage, though, was the old CG5 mount. Despite being going on nine years old, this “budget” GEM didn't miss a beat, delivering deep sky object after deep sky object to the Edge 800’s field with the help of NexRemote. I was a little put out I didn't have the new VX mount in time for the star party, but it was nice to give the CG5 one last big night under the stars.

The other major May event was my trip up to Raleigh, North Carolina to do a presentation for the justly famous Raleigh Astronomy Club. Despite an, as usual, punishing flight up, I had a wonderful time. The RAC folks sure treated me right, and I was finally able to meet Phyllis Lang, author of one of my most used astro-softwares, Deep Sky Planner, in person.

Again, there were two notable things about the month. I got a good VX (after having first received a problematical one), and I went back to the Moon. My original VX had a bolt-hole that was not properly threaded. That doesn't sound like a big deal, but, unfortunately, it was the hole for the bolt that holds the mount head to the tripod, which made it a critical error as we used to say in the missile game. The replacement, which I got quickly, was perfect. From the beginning, it was obvious the VX is an improvement over the CG5. I DIDN'T like the new Celestron Plus hand control, but that was the only thing I found to complain about.

Back in the heady days of the webcam revolution, ‘round about 2003, I spent a lot of time on Luna. But purty soon I was getting into deep sky video and forgot about the Solar System for a spell. If I’d wanted to revisit the Moon with a camera, I’d have felt funny about using my lowly SAC7B modified webcam for that, anyway. Everybody knew that in 2013 you were supposed to be using a Flea, an Imaging Source, or some other fancy (and expensive) planetary camera.

But in June I heard about a new planet-cam, the ZWO, which was outdoing the more expensive spreads, was being used by masters like Chris Go and Damian Peach, and which was less than 300 bucks (for the color version I favored). I was blown away by the lunar images I got on the first night out with the ZWO ASI120MC, and have been spending a lot of time re-exploring the Moon since. I even inaugurated a new observing project, “Destination Moon,” a quest to image the 300 most prominent lunar features. Which turned out to be a good idea, since the weather last summer and fall sure didn't encourage deep sky work.

In addition to bringing a real milestone, Unk’s 60th freaking birthday, July also saw our annual summer trip to the CAV. I was hoping for a good one. In July of 2012, I’d had a nice time, but had struggled with clouds and was lonely without Miss Dorothy, who had gone to visit daughter Beth in DC that July. This July would be different. D. would be by my side, and I was retired so I could wait out bad weather for days down at Chiefland if’n I wanted.

Unfortunately, except for having the wonderful Dorothy at my side, none of it quite worked out. I was loaded for bear, or at least Arp galaxies, with my VX, Edge 800, and Mallincam Xtreme, but my total observing time Down Chiefland Way amounted to about 30-minutes. Thursday was cloudy and rainy, Friday was worse, and Saturday wasn’t much better. We thought about doing an extra day or three, but the weather forecasts indicated we’d just be wasting our time.

The high point of the trip was probably our stay at the Chiefland Best Western. It is an older motel and certainly not fancy, but was a definite step up from the pea-picking Days Inn. Most of all, it was a relief. I had been concerned I might have to think “tent,” or “popup camper” or “trailer” if the Best Western didn't pan out, but it is fine and I hope that unlike the Days Inn it will remain fine.

The clouds that arrived in May didn't show any signs of leaving in August, and Unk got very little astronomy accomplished over this long, damp, sultry month. Me and D. did have a nice trip to the Alabama Space and Rocket Center, though, which we did in conjunction with a visit to the famous Huntsville Hamfest. And I stuffed myself full of the amazing Tex-Mex food at Rosie’s Mexican Cantina. Observing? Not much. Got out a couple of times to try to image the Moon with the ZWO, but the weather gods wouldn’t even allow that.

September was a lot more fun than August. I did get some Moon pictures with ZWO and Edge 800 that month, but what was more funner was my trip to the Almost Heaven Star Party to resume my duties as one of their speakers after missing 2012 due to the cotton picking day job.

I met Sky and Telescope Editor Bob Naeye at Washington National Airport (A.K.A. “Reagan”) in DC and we had a great time driving up into the mountains of West Virginia together. And an even better time at one of the nation’s great star parties. I admit I spent more time in the “hospitality area” of the field drinking and eating than I did actually observing –I’d brought my 70mm binoculars along—but that was just OK. Little Debbie still rules (inside joke, y’all).

October turned out to be another semi-off month. Technically, it was the month of the 2013 Deep South Regional Star Gaze, but since that didn't begin till the tail end of the month, the 30th, the blog-report on it didn't come out till November. It wasn’t all dreary, though. We got out to the Escambia Amateur Astronomers’ Association meeting in Pensacola to hear Doc Clay Sherrod’s yearly address to the club. It’s nice to be able to spend some time with our old friends, Doc and wife Patsy, once a year.

November was Deep South time and it was a heck of a good one this year.  Even though the 2013 Deep South Regional Star Gaze didn't start out good.  The clouds and storms that had been assaulting us since May weren't ready to give up quite yet. Wednesday was cloudy, and Thursday brought torrential rains. Friday, though? Friday was fraking spectacular. The Edge 800 and I brought home over 100 deep sky objects, including 77 Arp galaxies.

Friday was also the day Miss Dorothy won her biggest star party prize ever, a beautiful Explore Scientific 4-inch refractor. We did visual observing with it like crazy Saturday night and only stopped when the sky conditions began to degrade and I began to worry about packing and the drive home Sunday morning. Object of the night? There were so many…but maybe the North America Nebula in the huge field of the OIII filter equipped 35mm Panoptic eyepiece.

Observing was only the tip of the dadburned iceberg. The food was great, the accommodations good—we even had reliable Internet this year—and Halloween night was fun despite the rain (we screened the Rocky Horror Picture Show). Best of all, we got to hang out with the friends we've been observing with for twenty years. It’s no exaggeration to say DSRSG was the savior of a mostly clouded-out fall observing season.

After a November that seemed to herald better weather, the clouds were back. Sigh. Oh, I got out a couple of times, but wasn’t able to get much accomplished. About all I did accomplish, in fact, was that after a couple of cloudy December 24ths I was able to get my traditional Christmas Even look at M42.

Which brings us all the way back around, muchachos. What’s the straight poop on 2014? I don't have any resolutions, really. I do hope to get out with the scopes more often than I did last year, but that can only happen if the dadgum weatherman begins to cooperate. Up next is one of our fave annual events, the Possum Swamp Astronomical Society Post Christmas Banquet. But the next real biggie on the calendar is our New Year's Chiefland jaunt. I don’t mind saying I am going stir-crazy under clouds and am really, really looking forward to that.

Next Time:  The Colors of the Stars...

Rod, happy 50 years of amateur astronomy , this year is my 40th seen a lot of change in the hobby the most over the past 10 years or so. It is ironic that I got my start with comet kahoutek and a Tasco 12te-5 that I still own.
ISON ( ISON Gone LOL) is the new Kahoutek history repeats itself.
Did not get out this year that much also seems the weather has been bad since Super Storm Sandy consistently in NJ. Expecting a high temp of 12 on Tuesday. keep up the Blog wanted to let you know some one out there still reads and enjoys it every

These days I have gone full circle from simple visual observing and sketching , to imaging than finally back to visual, deal with enough computers and Hi-tech stuff at the FAA. Observing without is more relaxing for me.

Cloudy Nights Classic Telescope Forum

Happy 2014, Uncle Rod!

2013 ended with a loss; Halton Arp died on the 28th.
I ran across your "Used SCT Buying Guide" thru a link on cloudynights forum and wanted to say thanks for all the work. Your book, with it's information and history of all the old cats, is a facinating read. It's a valuable resource that I'll refer to often. Interesting history lesson and sound advice. Thanks for the path out of the 'Briar Patch', Unk.

LJeter zyzyz@cloudynights
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