Sunday, December 28, 2014


An Uncle Rod Happy New Year

Almost, anyhow. This is a few days early, muchachos, but that is OK; the traditional New Year’s edition of the little old blog from Chaos Manor South ain’t got much to do with the coming year, anyway. Mostly, it’s a recap of Unk’s adventures and misadventures over the previous annum.

2014 was undeniably a big one, since it marked the end for Chaos Manor South. After Unk’s twenty years in the Old Manse, and even more for Miss Dorothy, it was, with our dual retirements, time to move on. Out to suburbia with better skies and a smaller, easier to care for home.

Astronomy-wise? I did plenty of observing, took a couple of trips to dark sites and star parties, and had a good old time with my telescopes and cameras. There wasn’t a major new observing project, however. Not one of the magnitude of the Herschel Project. The story of this year’s amateur astronomy is mostly one of me getting used to observing from my new backyard at the new Chaos Manor South.

That’s the executive summary, y’all; here are the details:

Started off just the way this one is, with a look back at 2013. That’s wasn’t the most interesting January blog entry, however. Neither was my recap of Night Four of the Destination Moon Project, though that was nice enough. The big news as the year began was that Unk had set sail on the uncharted (for him) waters of spectroscopy.

I’ve been teaching the basics of spectroscopy and stellar classification to the undergraduates in my astronomy labs for nearly twenty years, but I’d never attached a spectroscope or spectrograph to my own personal telescope and had a go at taking the “fingerprints of the stars” till this past January.

That began with an email from Tom Field, the author of RSpec, a computer program designed to allow amateurs (or anybody else) to obtain stellar spectra with anything from a webcam and an inexpensive grating to a full-blown spectroscope and CCD camera. Tom asked if I might like to try RSpec in conjunction with one of Robin Leadbetter’s Star Analyser diffraction gratings. Your old Uncle was a bit apprehensive about getting it all to work, but it did work; almost from the get-go I was getting respectable and identifiable spectra of bright stars.

The only fly in that-there ointment? Springtime’s move out of the old Manse interrupted the learning process. I need to get back to RSpec stat, and that is one of the things I want to do in 2015. If I can become reasonably proficient with the program, I even have visions of doing a little stellar spectroscopy with my students. Anyhow, as I’ve said before, Tom’s program is amazingly well done and Robyn’s grating is amazingly well made. If you’ve visions of going beyond “just looking” this might be the way for you to do it, pards.

February was one of the coldest in recent memory, and began with an utterly abortive trip down Chiefland Way. As our departure date approached, storm clouds gathered, the clouds of Winter Storm Leon, and two days before our trip’s scheduled start on Thursday, the Old Manse was hit by a dadgum ice storm. Florida wasn’t immune to Leon’s wrath, either—not hardly. The worst was over by Thursday, but our trip had to be postponed till Friday because large stretches of I-10 through the Florida Panhandle were fraking closed.

We finally made it to the CAV on Friday, but to no good purpose. Oh, I always enjoy visiting with our old Chiefland Observers pals and having supper at the legendary Bar-B-Q Bill’s, but the skies were gray when we arrived on Friday and stayed that way through Sunday. We thought about staying an extra day, but the weatherman said that wouldn’t get us nothing. Plus, Unk took a spill late Saturday afternoon (before I had my first drink) and busted his lip, bleeding all over everything . Sometimes you gotta know when to toss in the dadgum towel.

There was some good stuff going on in February, nevertheless. I got the chance to try the incredible TPI spreader and tray system on my Atlas (EQ6) tripod. And…I thought I’d solved the problem I’d been having with my NexStar 11. The older I get, you see, the less willing I am to lug that wonderful but heavy fork-mount telescope around. Despite trying a couple of different case solutions, I didn’t really solve a cotton-picking thing, 

March 2014 was a month of thises and thats with the blog visiting subjects as diverse as how to get started in video astronomy, the Celestron VX mount, and International Sidewalk astronomy night. The winner with y’all, however, was the entry on Robert Burnham and his Handbook.

Unk has been a fan of Burnham’s Celestial Handbook since he first laid hands on a copy in the early 1980s thanks to the old Astronomy Book Club (back then, I had no idea the effect book clubs have on author royalties). Man did I use that sucker. In the pre-computer days, my observing planning consisted of me sitting on the couch in the living room with the BCH, a steno pad, and a pencil and picking out objects for the night from old Bob’s lists.

What I think interested y’all most about this article, howsomeever, was my retelling of the bittersweet story of the life of the Handbook’s creator. Burnham was a shy, self-absorbed man whose life came to a dreary and sad conclusion. But that is balanced against the incredible achievement that is his Handbook. New and “better” observing guides and computer planners will come and go, but Burnham’s Celestial Handbook will live on. Nothing else has the intimate, poetic take on the Universe it offers.

This month was largely memorable for what wasn’t in the blog. In April 2014, Unk had been retired (early) from his day job as an engineer for a whole year. I won’t try to convince y’all that it was an overly easy adjustment; it took a long time for me to stop dreaming about the job nightly. Only now are those dreams are slowly beginning to fade away. A big help is that I am really only semi-retired. I've continued teaching my astronomy labs at the University of South Alabama, including a daytime section or two, and have kept on keeping on as a Contributing Editor at Sky & Telescope.

Blogwise, it was again a mixed bag, with entries concerning telescope/mount troubleshooting, viewing Messier 51, and—the hit for me—sketching deep sky objects. Lately, I notice more and more people are paying less attention to expensive CCD cameras and more to what can be done with an humble pencil and paper. I have always enjoyed drawing what I see in the eyepiece and will never quit doing it even though modern DSLRs and reliable mounts have made it a lot easier for even a bumbler like your silly old Unk to take astrophotos.

May was a beeg, really beeg month. Firstly, due to the 2014 Deep South Regional Star Gaze Spring Scrimmage. I’d never been to the smaller, spring version of our local star party until 2013. Before I retired, spring was always a no-go. But I got to the Scrimmage in 2013 and liked it. A lot. This year was as good, if not better. We upped our attendance to about 25 observers, so it felt more like a real star party—and Rod, unlike in 2013, had plenty of company on the observing field Saturday night.

Springtime is always dicey observing-wise in the southland, and, as in 2013, we only had one really good night, Friday, but it was a corker, with Unk Mallincamming dozens and dozens of objects. Saturday was OK, and let him at least get a taste of what the new Mallincam Micro can do. Best of all? Like in 2013, Sunday was just so relaxed. No rushing around to get on the road as early as possible to get home and rest up for work on Monday morning.

The biggest deal in May, though, was our move to the new Manse. It all happened astoundingly quickly. Dorothy and me had agreed 2014 would be the year we moved on, but I am not sure either one of us really thought that would happen anytime soon. Till the Saturday Dorothy suggested we drive around and look at some suburban neighborhoods west of the city.

After some looking, we found a subdivision we liked and noted there were several homes there up for sale. Back at the Old Manse, Unk hit and immediately spied a place that seemed perfect. I hollered for D. to come look; she did and agreed with me and suggested we do the Open House the next day. To shorten up the story, we talked to the realtor Monday morning, made an offer Tuesday morning, and came to an agreement with the seller on Tuesday afternoon.

Real life ain’t like the consarned Househunters on the cable TV, and there was a lot more work and paperwork than you see on HGTV, but by the week of the 18th we were in our new home—and without Internet. The following week went without a blog for all practical purposes—first time that has happened. After some fussin’ and fighting with Ma Bell, however, we finally got the I-net on—much higher speed Internet than we’d had with the Old Manse’s DSL connection.

But how would the observing be? I found out on one of the first nights we were in residence at the New Manse. I dragged the ETX onto the deck and discovered I could see quite a lot of the deep sky visually. It wasn’t perfect, but the sky was mucho bettero than the backyard of old Chaos Manor South, that’s for dang sure. At zenith on a good night, it’s a bit better than 5th magnitude at the new place.

June was all about the deep sky from my freaking backyard. Not just peeps at brighter marvels through an eyepiece, but deep sky astrophotos with my cameras. It wasn’t all gravy, of course. The light pollution was exacerbated by the humid summer air, and an LPR filter on the cameras was a must. Nevertheless, I was able to have a lot of fun in the New Manse’s backyard, particularly with my Mallincam Xtreme once I got into the swing of things.

The problem was not imaging objects from the backyard of the New Manse, but figuring how to do that. Where to set up. At first, I thought I would station the laptop and video monitor in the shop (outbuilding) and run the scope from there. That worked, but wasn’t optimum. I’d need a way longer run of cable for the serial cable if I put the scope in a good, tree-free spot in the yard. I also prefer to be able to at least see the scope as I observe. In toto, I just didn’t like the experience.

What I wound up doing, and am still doing even with cold weather here, was placing the observing position, the laptop and monitor, on the deck. The scope is in the yard, not far away in a nice, clear area. Dorothy and I soon bought a patio table for the deck, and with its umbrella open, the dew falling on my old noggin is substantially reduced. Being up off the ground also seems to reduce the depredations of the skeeters—they’d flood into the shop through the barely cracked door. On the deck, a citronella candle is enough to keep the biters way.

Several bases were covered in July. I resurrected my old Denkmeier binoviewer and had a ball using it for the first time in years. My aging eyes took a little while to “learn” to use the thing again, but when they did, images were as good as ever. I also continued my lunar imaging for Destination Moon. The top story, however, was that my ancient 12.5-inch Dobbie, Old Betsy, finally went computer.

Well, that ain’t exactly true. I’d bought a Sky Commander digital setting circle computer for the scope years ago. What I had never done, however, was interface the Commanders to a genu-wine laptop, thus expanding the DSCs’ rather small database.

The only thing I needed in order to do that was a serial cable. After four decades of doing electronics both professionally as an engineer and for recreation as a ham, Unk could easily wire up a cable. But, as you know, he is lazy and is more apt to buy than build anything these days. I did find a serial cable for the Sky Commanders on the I-net, but it cost thirty consarned bucks. Since Unk is even more stingy than he is lazy, he decided to build after all.

Turned out I didn’t really have to build nuttin’ honey. My junk box yielded a DB9 – RJ adapter, and a peep at the Sky Commander manual revealed the cable I needed was identical to the RJ terminated cables used to connect landline phones—if’n ya’ll remember what those were—to the wall socket. A trip to the Home Depot turned up a 25-foot phone cable just like I needed for 5 simoleons.

Did it work? Did it ever. Connect to the Sky Commanders via SkyTools 3, click on an object, and ST-3 sent the coordinates to the Commanders. Then, all I had to do was push to the target as usual while observing the indicator on the DSCs’ display. There was also audio feedback. SkyTools’ sexy-sounding Englishwoman announced “Push Telescope to Target!” when I selected one, and “Telescope at target!” when I was there. Best five bucks I’d spent in a while, campers.

It was a helluva August. First up was our first truly successful expedition to the Chiefland Astronomy Village in ages. My main agenda there was getting some DSLR shots of deep sky object with my Celestron VX mount for a review of said mount I was doing for Sky & Telescope. That turned out to be amazingly easy. While the mount looks a lot like the old CG5, it is a lot better behaved for imaging. Having the new version of my favo-right imaging program, Nebulosity 3, to run the Canon camera didn’t hurt neither.

Thursday was work, if fun work; Friday and Saturday were pure fun and were devoted to testing the Mallincam Micro deep sky video camera and the program I used to control it, AstroLive. The Micro is not on the level of the Mallincam Xtreme, but it is inexpensive, crazy inexpensive, and went surprisingly deep, even with me not yet being familiar enough with it to use it to optimum effect. It was a good trip otherwise, too; we did Manatee Springs and made it back to our much loved little coastal resort town, Duma Key (Cedar Key).

That was just the first part of August, The second part found Unk back at the Almost Heaven Star Party. The location of AHSP, Spruce Knob Mountain in West Virginia, is the darkest site I’ve been to east of the Mississip. The AHSP is also second to none for friendly folks, and is perhaps the best managed and run event I have attended in the forty or so years I’ve been star partying. As long as the AHSPers keep having me up, I’ll keep a-going.

This AHSP was somewhat of a milestone, since this was the last time my usual traveling companion and fellow speaker, Bob Naeye, would be attending as Sky & Telescope’s Editor in Chief. Bob has stepped down and is taking a well-deserved rest after seeing the magazine through some tough years for all magazines. In fact, I’d say Mr. Bob was at the helm for some of the best years S&T has ever had.

Amongst other things, Destination Moon continued from Unk’s new backyard in September. Mostly, though, it was lens-scope month. Unk had been using refractors an awful lot at the New Manse, and in particular the C102, “Amelia,” his old friend Pat gave when we moved into the new place in May.

It would be hard to find a more practical grab and go rig than the C102 achromat when mounted on my SkyWatcher AZ-4 alt-azimuth mount. Two minutes to get it on the deck and ready to go. The scope’s 4-inch aperture and f/10 focal ratio deliver bright, contrasty, and relatively color free images of the objects I like to view on grab ‘n go evenings. It is also just killer for double stars, something Unk has had a renewed interest in this past year.

October continued the refractor theme with Unk getting out to the Possum Swamp Astronomical Society dark site for some DSLR imaging.  Not with the C102 achromat, but with Veronica, my high-toned William Optics Megrez II, an 80mm fluorite APO. Your old Uncle was gobsmacked at how well the little refractor, which I hadn’t used in many, many Moons did and how deep she went. Hell, the Crescent Nebula, NGC 6888 was nothing.

I did a big handful of targets on the one astrophotography worthy night we had in October and was just thrilled with the results. ‘Twarn’t just the refractor. The good looks of my images were in no small part due to the Hotech SCA field flattener I used with the Megrez. If you’ve got a lens-scope and don’t have a field flattener, believe me, you want the SCA.

What impressed me most, howsomeever, and what I had forgotten, was how easy imaging is with a reasonably short refractor (the Megrez is an f/7). With a nice, wide field and none of the image shift you get with an SCT, imaging was, yes, like falling off that fabled log. Wasn’t actually much for Unk to do. Align the telescope mount, focus up, tell Nebulosity 3 how many exposures to take with the 60D, and I could wander off and annoy my fellow observers while Neb did all the work.

November was another huge, huge one for the Rodster. The top of the pops was the 2014 Deep South Regional Star Gaze. I always enjoy our local star party, held nearby in northern Louisiana. But this one would be special; it would be the 20th anniversary of Miss Dorothy’s first star party, the 1994 DSRSG. So, I wanted to do something special observing wise to mark the occasion.

In the course of moving out of the old Chaos Manor South, I’d run across my thick, bound observing list (created with that moldy-oldie planning program Deep Space 3D). In 1994, thanks to poor weather, I hadn’t observed more than a handful of those many objects with Old Betsy, who was brand new in ‘94. What if I finished the list this year?

And that is exactly what I did. Using the now computer enabled Old Betsy, it was duck soup to tick ‘em all off. Well, not quite all. I did leave out most of the objects I’d observed in the intervening twenty years. I also deleted the more boring open clusters and other ho-hum targets. I got all the rest over the course of three-and-a-half good nights. I also began a new visual observing project, Project Scotty, my quest to observe all the objects in the book Deep Sky Wonders, Steve O’Meara’s collection of Walter Scott Houston’s Sky & Telescope columns.

2014 wasn’t the best DSRSG ever. That’s probably 1994, that first year there with my wonderful new wife, Dorothy. Second is probably 2005, the post Katrina DSRSG, but 2014 was, surprisingly, a very close third.

Which brings us round to this month. Which has been kinda quiet on the astro-front. I did hit the Moon again a time or two, but the seeing wasn’t good enough to let me really kick out the jams. I got out and did more deep sky imaging with Veronica, too, but, again, conditions weren’t favorable enough for me to go hog-wild. What this month has been about, mostly, is making plans for the new year.

Which are? First and foremost, a run down to Chiefland. What will Unk and Miss D. do there? Maybe some more DSLR imaging for a book project I am working on off and on. I also plan to give the Mallincam Xtreme some time under the stars for the first time in a while with a radical new project I’ve cooked up; one that will take me far deeper into the Universe than even the vaunted Herschel Project ever did.

The other thing I hope to do is, as I mentioned way up top, do something about the NexStar 11 situation. I am firmly convinced there is no way on god’s green Earth I am going to continue to use Big Bertha on her heavy fork mount. I just won’t do it. I initially considered putting her in an observatory in the backyard, but I want the scope to be portable so I can take her to the Chiefland AV and other star parties again. That spells “G-E-M.” The question is which German equatorial, muchachos? There is little doubt you will hear considerably more on that subject in 2015. Till then? Have a happy New Year’s Eve and don’t drink no more than your old Uncle will!

Addendum:  What Unk Got

OK, OK, OK! I know what all you greedy little suckers wanna hear, “What did Santa bring you, Unk? Huh, what did he bring you?” Kept it simple this year. I finally wised up that the tethering cable I use with my DSLRs for both celestial and terrestrial imaging was nowhere. It’s a laugh to even call it a cable. A short cord and two flimsy extensions is more like it. Not good, and it has ruined at least one evening’s astro-imaging. The jolly fat man with the white beard (Santa, not Bubba down to the club) waltzed over to Tether Tools and got me a nice, long, safety orange cable that should make things more better gooder.

Then there was that dadgum frikkin’ – frakkin’ finder bracket on my Edge 800 SCT. It is the one thing about the scope I've never liked. While heftily built, it is non-standard, and the rings that go with it will not accommodate my 50mm mini-guide scope. While I don’t normally use a real finder on the Edge, employing a Rigel Quickfinder most of the time, occasionally the need arises for an optical finder scope. And I quickly found the Edge finder mount would not keep its alignment between finder removals and replacements. Asked Santa to bring me a standard Synta finder shoe from Agena Astro. Dispensed with that nice-looking but basically punk Celestron Edge finder mount on Christmas afternoon.

Finally, my other gift, the biggie, is pending—STOP THE PRESSES! Unk has just ordered a Celestron CGEM to solve that NexStar 11 problem above. I contemplated putting the NS11 OTA on my Atlas, but I decided that wasn't the optimum solution for me. Why? As soon as the new one comes in you will hear all about the whys and wherefores, rest assured. 

Next Time:  Destination Moon Night 9...

Happy New Year to you Rod. Still using the C8 you helped me select on Sci.Am.Astro in 2000. Hope you have a great 2015.
Good deal. I'm still using my good, old 95 C8. She's been joined by an Edge 800, but she still gets used. ;)
I do believe you mean, kick out the jams <12-letter expletive>!
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