Sunday, June 08, 2014


The Universe from My Backyard

With apologies to Astronomy Magazine's Dave Eicher, muchachos, whose The Universe from Your Backyard is still one of Unk’s favorite deep sky observing books over twenty-five years down the line.  The subject this Sunday, however, is not the Universe from your backyard, but from my backyard, the backyard of the new Chaos Manor South out in the far western suburbs of Possum Swamp.

How is the sky? I will cut to the chase: it is hardly pristine. We are still inside the city limits after all. That said, even on the uber hazy nights we had at the end of May, I found I could pick up magnitude 4.29 Zeta Ursae Minorus without much trouble when it was a smidge over 30-degrees over the horizon. I believe on a clear, dry night I should be able to see stars well innto the 5th magnitude range without much hassle. Which may not seem like much for those of y’all who live in dark locations, but it danged sure is an improvement for little old me.

We had plenty of good times at the old Chaos Manor South, and despite city lights that brought the limiting magnitude to four or worse on a “good” night, I was able to do a fair amount of productive deep sky observing for ten years. Especially with my big gun, Old Betsy, who I received shortly after I moved into the Old Manse. Over the last decade, however, my backyard observing had been completely shut down.

That was due to the growth of the oaks that surrounded Chaos Manor South. My few windows on the sky were slowly strangled to the point where it was an exercise in frustration to try to see anything from the backyard, even when most of the trees were leafless in winter. Don’t even think about cutting down an oak tree in the Historic District, either. There was the front yard, but it was only good for casual looks at the Moon and planets. That was not just because of more trees; there were streetlights all up and down Selma Street. About the only deep sky work I did from home over the last decade was our yearly Christmas Eve look at the Orion Nebula.

So, on to the new place, which had a couple of things going for it astronomy-wise that I didn’t fail to note the Sunday morning Dorothy and I visited the open house. Most importantly, a fairly open backyard. There’s only one tree that will cause much of a problem. Dorothy and I have already decided the poor thing’s days are numbered.

Another (big) plus was the presence of an air-conditioned shop. It began life as a standalone garage, but had been improved with some sheet-rocking and the installation of a big workbench, a window air-conditioner, fans, plenty of AC outlets, and a connection to the main house’s alarm system. It was obvious that was where most of the telescopes would live (Mrs. Emma Peel, our year old Edge 800, and her VX mount are in the house with us). It was also obvious that would be where I would do most of my observing.

Miss D. and I have already discussed the observatory question and have decided a dome of some sort will eventually go in the backyard. What sort? We don’t know yet. Could be an Exploradome. Could be a Skyshed Pod. At the moment, the Pod is probably ahead in the running, but we decided an observatory is for next year. For now, I would do my Solar System imaging and Mallincamming by setting a scope up outside the shop and running it from inside.

Before I could do anything with the shop, however, it would need no little cleaning. It would have been best to do that before I moved in the scopes, mounts, and copious accessory cases, but they had to have a place to live during the move. Cleaning had to wait till we’d been in residence at Pine Needle Drive for a week.

And what a job it was. Don’t get me wrong, the folks who owned the house before us were scrupulous about maintenance and cleanliness. But the husband, a Coast Guard officer, had been interested in building hotrods, and that’s what he did in the shop, to include, apparently, lots and lots of grinding.

That the floors were covered with a fine film of what appeared to be a mixture of iron oxide and carbon wasn’t apparent at first, but it dern sure became so when I decided to sweep up. The result was me, the scopes, the gear cases, and everything else was soon covered in fine orange dust. The poor old RV-6 looked like she had been sitting on the surface of Mars for a year or three. It took the remainder of day one to clean up the gear and myself.

It was obvious what I’d have to do on day two:  move all the stuff out of the shop, wash down the floors (and walls), give the equipment a second dusting/cleaning outside, and move it back inside. Doing that took the balance of a day. After enjoying my customary two cups of java on the New Manse’s deck just after dawn, I got to work in hopes of beating the heat of the day—we are already in the 90s F. down here, y’all. First step was rinsing floors, workbench, and walls with the garden hose. That done, I squirted plenty of Dawn dish soap on workbench and floor and began scrubbing with a broom.

The scrubbing, rinsing, and scrubbing again went on for a couple of hours till I wasn’t seeing any more black or orange in the water I was sweeping out of the shop. When that finally happened, I turned on the fans to help dry things out, grabbed dust rags and damp rags, and commenced cleaning the gear. I’d grab a case, dust it, and wipe it down till it was good as before. Actually better than before. Some of the gear had admittedly been on the dusty side—after not getting much use this long, cloudy year—before I’d moved it into the shop.

When I was finished, it was 3 o’clock, over eight hours after I began, and Unk was plumb tuckered despite having taken frequent breaks in the heat. A long, hot shower followed by a nap in the den (sans TV, alas; at this point we still didn’t have cable) brought me back to life somewhat. I decided that after all that work, I should give the backyard observing setup at least a preliminary try out. It would be a long time till astronomical twilight, and I didn’t know if I was going to make it that late, but I thought I could at least get some shots of Jupiter in the gloaming with my amazing little ZWO planet cam.

First order of bidness was finding a place for the computer, the Toshiba laptop. The workbench was not only too high for the seated use of a PC, it was on the wrong end of the shop. I set up my camping table, the one I use for the PC and video monitor at star parties, near the door and ran the cables out to the scope.
On this evening, that scope was the time-tested pairing of Celeste, my 1995 Ultima 8 OTA, and her CG5 mount. In addition to a USB cable (plus two extensions) for the ZWO, the cabling consisted of the NexRemote line for mount control, an extension cord for the mount and dew heater power supplies, and the JMI motofocus cord for focusing. Only hiccup was that it looks like I will need a longer motofocus cable. I had enough slack for the focuser, but just barely enough.

How’d it go? Purty good, despite me not having much in the way of results to show for it. Poor seeing and a low Jupiter prevented me from getting any shots that were worth a hoot. Oh, and the skeeters were back in force. I lit off the Thermacell for the first time this year. I’d taken it with me to the Deep South Regional Star Gaze Spring Scrimmage a month ago, but hadn’t had to use it, not even in the wilds of Louisiana. I dern sure did have to use it this night in my backyard.

That was the bad. The good was that while not as convenient as having an observatory, the setup was far less labor intensive than hauling all the stuff to the Possum Swamp Astronomical Society dark site. Throwing the Big Switch at the end of the evening was much easier, that’s for sure.  

Without wheelie bars or a dome, I still had to remove OTA from mount and carry both inside separately, but I didn’t have to pack all the cables, power supplies and other astro-junk back in cases. Nor did I have to drive home; I was home. I laid the stuff out neatly on the table for use next time and quitted the shop, heading inside for a little Yell and a DVD of Season One of the pea-picking X Files.

I pronounced Run One from the new Chaos Manor South a success, but what I was really interested in finding out was what the Mallincam, maybe equipped with a light pollution filter, would bring back from the skies of the New Manse. Had to wait a few days to see about that. The surprisingly long clear, dry spell we’d been having ended the following day with heavier haze that turned to clouds on Memorial Day and dadgummed thunderheads shortly thereafter.

Would you be surprised if I told you everything didn't go smoothly last Wednesday night, the clear (if hazy) evening I chose for my first Mallincam Xtreme run from the new place? Nope, prob’ly not. As I have said before, it wouldn’t be an Uncle Rod observing run if everything went as planned. I certainly had my share of foul-ups, but you might be surprised if I told you that for once the only major malfunction was not Unk’s fault.

I set up as I had the first time, Celeste and the CG5 outside the shop door, maybe a little closer to the door this time so as to give myself more slack on the Motofocus cord. I’ve ordered an extension cable (Unk’s way too lazy to build one himself), but it has not yet arrived. Fired up the scope and went back inside the shop to get the computer going. I thought that if there were any problems they would have to do with that Bad Tree blocking the East – Southeast and my view of alignment stars.

I intended to keep things uber simple and record video on the laptop using my EZ Cap frame grabber cable. I’ve formerly eschewed that for a couple of reasons. One being that it’s so convenient to be able to pop the SD card out of my Orion StarShoot DVR. Insert the SD into the desktop and my videos are ready for viewing and processing on the main PC. No copying nothing off the hard laptop’s drive. No figuring where to tell the Mallincam capture module (I am still using the original Mallincam Xtreme software for now) to put it—or finding it later. The video the StarShoot records is not perfect; there are some compression artifacts, but it still looks mighty good even on our 60-inch LG.

The other reason is that I have not yet figgered out a way to record audio to the computer from a microphone while I am recording video. Maybe one of you smart folks can tell me how the hell to do that. One of the things I like most about the little Orion recorder is that it has freed me from using an outboard audio recorder for observing notes. I went from micro-cassettes to a solid state recorder, which was an improvement, but using the dadblamed thing was still awkward. With the Orion, once I get an object on screen, I just mash the one-button (wired) remote, it begins recording video, and speak my notes into its built-in mic in a more or less normal tone of voice.

While the StarShoot ain’t much more than half the size of a pack of smokes, I thought I’d eliminate it for this one run. I wouldn’t be doing any serious deep sky work, and leaving it in the house would mean one less piece of gear to worry about. Two less, actually. The Mallincams don’t have quite enough drive, enough oomph, to feed video to both a recorder and a monitor at the same time. So, I use a little analog switchbox left over from the VHS days. When I have sumpin onscreen I want to save, I mash the switch to send video to the StarShoot, engage that one-button remote and record to my heart’s content.

Alrighty then. Scope power on. NexRemote lit off. Let’s plug in the frame grabber and get the Mallincam software capturing. I tried to do that, but computer did not seem to be seeing the EZ Cap. What the—?  It had worked perfectly during my tests just before we moved out of the Old Manse. Unplugging and replugging the thing from its USB port didn't help—no bing-bong. Restarting the Toshiba didn't work either. I wondered what I should do next. I could think of a couple of troubleshooting steps, but I was now burning dark as astronomical twilight came and went. That would normally have been OK, but the weather goobers were predicting clouds after 2200.

Dagnabbit! Twarn’t nothing for it but to drag out the DVR and the switchbox, hook ‘em up, and keep on trucking. Which was what I did, but I most assuredly did not keep on trucking. I could see there was no “raster” (or whatever you call the presence of a video signal in these digital days) on the monitor, and checking the “crosshair” box on the Xtreme control program didn’t result in crosshairs being drawn on the portable DVD player I use as my monitor. Well, what in the h-e double L was I gonna do now?

Then, as occasionally happens, one of my few remaining brain cells decided to do its thing and fired. Last month at the Deep South Regional Star Gaze Spring Scrimmage, I’d had video problems when I was doing my initial testing of the Mallincam Micro. I’d thought they’d had something to do with the connector on the little Mallincam. But maybe not. Maybe they were due to a fraking BAD CABLE. The same cable I was using now.

A little of the old jiggle, jiggle proved that to be the case. Moving the cable would result in me briefly getting a picture. Unplugging and reseating it more firmly didn't help, unfortunately. Apparently the cable had deeper problems. Luckily, I recalled I had a semi-spare. “Semi” because I knew the other cable had some kind of a problem, too (that I’d never got around to diagnosing). But I also remembered it worked most of the time and that would have to be good enough.

Plugging up the new cord got me video immediately. It was now time to see whether I’d be able to center enough alignment and calibration stars to get decent goto performance. Star One, Pollux, was visible, barely. Star Two, Arcturus was behind a tree. Vega was rising right over the house, though, so I used it. It was now time to do the four NexStar calibration stars, which greatly improve goto accuracy. By running through all the star choices with the Undo button, I was able to find three that were visible. That proved to be enough. When the scope slewed to the third star, Mizar, it was near the center of the monitor’s crosshairs when the mount stopped.

Sheeesh. Between fumbling with the fricking-fraking video cord and “undoing” bunches of cal stars in the search of visible ones, I’d been outside for over an hour and had absolutely nothing to show for it. Normally, I would have done the NexStar’s polar align procedure next, but that would have probably meant doing yet another 2+4 alignment, which did not appeal (if you have to move the mount much in altitude and azimuth to polar align, you will need to redo the goto alignment). Given the light polluted, hazy skies, I didn't believe I’d be able to go longer than a 14-second exposure, anyhow, and since I’d been careful about eyeballing the North Star through the CG5’s hollow polar bore, I thought we might be in Good Enough territory.

Hokay, rubber meets road time. I mouse clicked the virtual hand control buttons to enter “M82,” mashed the virtual Enter button, and crossed my fingers. Celeste’s CG5 made the weasels-with-tuberculosis sounds common to all CG5 mounts and stopped. On the monitor? I could see M82 was dern near centered, but OH! MY EYES!

Even at 14-seconds, the sky background was bright. Real bright. Then I realized the Xtreme’s gain was still set to the “6” I use at dark sites. It would obviously have to be dialed-down. I went to “4,” and while waiting for the camera’s 3-minute “safety timer” (to prevent a camera crash when you change settings) to run out, I took the additional step of screwing my Orion Imaging Filter onto the Xtreme’s nosepiece. It is a mild light pollution filter much like the old Lumicon Deep Sky, and while I haven’t used it a lot since I bought it a couple of years back, when I have put it on the camera I’ve noticed it does darken the sky background a mite without dimming galaxies much.

“Now that’s better.” I still don’t like consarned Wendy’s hamburgs, but the above and a little tweaking of the gamma resulted in an image that was respectable. Color looked OK, and—dang—I was actually seeing a right fair amount of bright and dark detail along Cigar’s strange disk. Nearby M81 was OK, but I wasn’t seeing any arm detail. That takes more exposure and more gain and that wasn’t going to play well from the backyard. I moved on. Where did I move on to? Bunch of Messiers and some NGCs, too…

M97, the Owl Nebula. I was somewhat to surprised to see old Owley show up. But there he was, and he was even showing the weird dark patches that are his “eyes.” Hell, I could even make out his green hue.

M108 is just a hop, skip, and a jump from M97, so that’s where I went next. Even in dark skies, this isn’t the brightest galaxy around, but it was visible and showing off a little of its nice disk detail.

M101. I couldn’t possibly see the Catherine Wheel Galaxy from my backyard, could I? I went there anyway. It didn’t put my eye out, but it was visible the instant the slew stopped. It was even visible with a freaking 7-second exposure. At 14-seconds, I saw the magnificent face-on Sc’s spiral form easily enough.

M13. How ‘bout some eye candy? It’s hard to make the Great Globular look bad in a Mallincam no matter how compromised the site. It was magnificent, rising over the New Manse. Nuff said.

M92. Hercules other, smaller glob wasn’t half-bad, neither.

I wasn’t completely sure I’d see Hercules’ little Turtle Nebula, NGC 6210, but the oddly shaped planetary nebula was eminently visible.

M57 is another one that looks good under any circumstances, and it surely did.

I’d done forgot M51. How could I do that? There I went. While not as good as it is from a dark site where I can pump up the gain and exposure, I’ve definitely had worse views of the Whirlpool.

Wonder how NGC 4565 will look? Not like it does from the Possum Swamp Astronomical Society Dark Site, but not bad. The dust lane and the Day the Earth Stood Still flying saucer shape were there.

And so it went, campers, me sitting snug in the shop, issuing gotos and viewing marvels on my little monitor. Till about 10 p.m. when I noticed images were becoming lackluster. Even M13 wasn’t so hot when I revisited him. Had the predicted clouds begun to move it? I stuck my head outside for a look. Nope, still clear. Well, damn, what now? Couldn’t be dew could it? Maybe I should turn up the ‘Buster? It was then I noticed both the DewBuster’s lights were blinking in unison. When do they do that? “When the controller is turned on without the temperature probe and heating element being plugged in, Unk. You dummy.”

I reckon I could have hunted up my dew-zapper, my 12-volt winder defroster, and cleared the corrector, but, to tell y’all the truth, after all the alarums and excursions I was a mite weary. Even though there wasn’t a whole lot of packing up to do, there was, as above, still some. I threw that cursed big switch, and when Celeste was tucked in I headed inside for a little Rebel Yell and a little Atlanta Braves baseball courtesy a replay of the evening’s game on the cable TV.

Next morning, after reviewing my SD card full of videos, I located the Two Men with a Truck box that contained my multimeter and checked that dang Mallincam cable. I was hoping it was a connector problem, but my testing revealed the cord had a problem somewhere along its length. In other words, it was ready for the ol’ round file. Reckon I’ll have to rustle up a replacement. Gull dernit.

The EZ Cap? Almost unbelievably, yet another cable problem; in this case, the frame grabber’s little USB extension. Plugged directly into a USB port the EZ Cap worked. Plugged into a USB hub, it worked. With the extension? No-go. Into the rubbish bin went the cord.

Naw, things didn’t go that smooth, but I didn’t expect ‘em to. This is a new situation and the start of a new observing life for me. I knew there’d be plenty of wrinkles to iron out in the beginning and for a while thereafter. I am overjoyed with these early results of mine, but there are changes and decisions aplenty ahead. One thing I discovered is that there is a far better view of the sky from the area of the deck than from closer to the shop.

It may actually be better to set the scope up next to the deck and operate from the deck. Once I get a Pod in, I may sit with the laptop on the deck on pleasant nights (don’t think I want to sit inside a freaking Pod). When it is c-o-l-d, I may run things from inside the sun room. Yeah, there’s a right long road ahead, but the thing is, y’all, after all these years I can finally see the deep sky from home again. That is one hell of a change for the better.

What’s up next? There’s a Moon back in the sky, so, assuming the clear weather hangs in (you know what they say about “assume”), muchachos, I’ll be back to my Destination Moon project with the ZWO and maybe with Big Bertha, our NexStar 11. The next Big Thing on the agenda, however, is—once I have a new video cable—more testing of that cute little Mallincam Micro. I intend to do that in conjunction with checking out a new Mallincam control program, AstroLive, which looks like it could be the kitten’s meow. Stay tuned, you-all.

Next Time:  Destination Moon Night Five…

Congrats, Rod!
Think my mobile killed my first comment... Anyway. Congratulations for your new observing site and the first results. For me it is the same. Without my light-polluted garden site I would basically do no observing. Last night was the first night in 2014 where my schedule and the weather cooperated so that I could do some observing under dark skies (ignoring the Moon).

A small nitpick though. ;-) Probably a typo. Because M94 is not in Hercules. It is a galaxy in CVn. The nice globular in Hercules is M92.


It's not a typo. I've been transposing those two freaking numbers for 50 years. LOL

I hope everything works out for you with observing from home, and thanks for that little bit about the "safety timer". To wait three minutes every time you tweak the gain?? Certainly not something you will find advertised among the "key features".
I don't think Rock makes any kind of a secret of it. At any rate, it's really not a problem in use. You can bypass the timer for certain changes, BTW.
Rod, congratulations on your new home. I moved to my first house almost 3 years ago and I am still sorting things out, including my observing situation. It'll take time. Do you still have cats? How'd they take to the move?
Yep, Growltiger and Thomas Aquinas are still with us. How did they like the move? Not worth a crap. They hid behind the refrigerator in the utility room for three days. Tommy would probably have been OK, but Tiger is old and was very freaked out and freaked Tommy out. Tiger is at least on his way to adjusting now, however. :)
Cats are funny creatures. Maybe the previous owner had cats and your cats were smelling them -- "Oh no, i'm in someone else's territory now!".

Do you ever call Tommy the "Dumb Ox"?

I just started really using my Orion LCD-DVR and really like it so far. Especially the built-in mike and the one-button remote. Can you get much simpler than that? - "Here's a big red button - push it, and that's all there is to do."

My LCD monitor though has an output jack, so i hook the LCD-DVR onto that. Works pretty well.

Thanks for the info about changing Gain for less-dark skies. But is that different than changing integration time?
Thomas Aquinas? Never. He is the smartest cat I have ever known. His antics include arranging his toys in lines and circles, and adjusting a mirror to move the reflection of the Sun around. No fooling. Tommy is almost SCARY. LOL

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