Sunday, February 15, 2015


The Return of the King

The King is in the building, ladies and gentlemen...
The king of the Solar System, that is, muchachos. Have you had a look at him this apparition? If not, get after it. Jupiter is now rising shortly after 5 p.m. and is high enough—30+-degrees above the horizon—for you to begin observing seriously by 7:30. In addition to being nice and high throughout a large part of the evening, Jupe is well placed along the zodiac in Cancer this year, not too far south, that is.

I’d be heading down to the Chiefland Astronomy Village for the February dark of the Moon run, sucking up deep sky photons with my cameras, but before that, I planned to stay closer to home, a mere 4.8 AUs away from our cozy little rock, out in the realm of the frighteningly magnificent 5th world.

Not that I expected much for my efforts. I mean, come on boys and girls, it’s freaking February. Even down here on the (sometimes) sunny Gulf Coast where we are usually at least a little out of the path of the Jet Stream, the good seeing, the atmospheric steadiness, you need for high resolution planetary imaging or exacting visual work isn't a regular feature of winter.

Despite the likely prospect of a misshapen Jupiter dancing and shimmering in cold winter air, I figured I’d devote last Sunday evening to a little visual scoping out of Jupe to get me back in the mood for planetary work. Being lazy, the telescope I’d use for that would be my beloved Celestron C102 refractor, Amelia. I lugged her and her AZ-4 mount into the backyard at dark. It would be about an hour and a half till my quarry was up high enough to bother with, so to amuse myself while waiting, I thought I’d have a look at Venus low in the west. In went the 8mm Ethos, to the planet we went, and… “Ulp!”

I expected a fair amount of false color, folks. Even at f/10, it’s asking a lot for an achromat to throw up a decent image of Venus at 150x and above. And, yes, there was plenty of the dread color purple. But, you know, it really wouldn’t have been bad if the cotton-picking planet had stayed still. When the atmosphere steadied down occasionally and briefly, a surprisingly sharp gibbous disk was visible. Unfortunately, that didn't happen much. The seeing was, no denying it, as your Uncle likes to say, “punk.”

Just for spits and giggles (this is a family-friendly blog, y’all) I moved the telescope to Sirius. I habitually check the star whenever I have a scope set up to see if I might spy the Pup, the Dog Star’s white dwarf companion. Not a prayer. The story was the same as with Venus. The color wasn't bad, and the star threw up a nice Airy disk and diffraction rings once in a while, but not often. Mostly Sirius was a boiling mess. It began to look as if I'd be wasting my time with Jupiter.

I was still hoping, though. I'd leave the C102 outside for the hour required for Jupe to hit 30-degrees. If he looked as bad then as his sister world had, I’d go back in again, have some drinks and TV, and try again in another hour after that.

Back in the New Manse's cozy den, in addition to surfing the cable channels, I spent some time mulling over (I seem to do an awful lot of that about an awful lot of things lately) my history with Jupiter, our friendly, neighborhood gas giant.

My Pal...
Let’s dispense with me and Jupiter in the 1960s right off the bat. I never did see much of the planet with my 4-inch Palomar Junior reflector. Oh, I loved the shuttling Galilean Moons, and I could make out the north and south equatorial belts, but that was about it. I wanted to see the Great Red Spot bad, but I am not positive I ever even glimpsed it with my little telescope. The truth is that for an inexperienced observer, especially one like li'l Rod who didn't tend to give the planet (or any other object) much eyepiece time before going on to something else, 4-inches ain't much aperture.

The mid-late 1970s should have been better. I had a C8 and was working on my impatient nature, not just regarding astronomy but everything else. The problem for me and Jupiter in the 70s was now that I had a BIG C8 I was deep sky crazy. Having very dark Arkansas skies at my disposal didn't help; I didn't care pea-turkey about boring old Jupiter or any of his Solar System compadres.

Nothing changed, really, till the late 1980s. I was back in the Swamp and living under light polluted skies (not far, interestingly, from the Garden District and the old Chaos Manor South). You can see many deep sky objects from a light-polluted backyard—hell, I wrote a whole book about that a few years ago—and I was going through a period when, for a variety of reasons, I was doing a lot of observing. Those quiet moments under the stars were like a tonic for me.

If there was a Moon in the sky, or it was hazy, or there wasn’t much I wanted to look at deep sky-wise in my badly compromised back 40, I’d turn back to the Solar system, and, especially, to Jupiter when he was on display. Saturn is cool, and will give up some disk detail. Same with Mars. But neither offer the regular wealth of detail Jupiter is capable of showing.

Under good conditions, a C8 can deliver incredible amount of detail on Jupe. Especially if you’ve learned to be patient and keep looking. I had, and the Great Red Spot was no longer a challenge. Two cloud bands? That was just the beginning. This was the stuff I always longed to see, and the irony was that it wasn’t even that hard with just a little more aperture and a little more patience.  In fact, when I kept the patience but gave up the larger aperture, I was still able to see a lot of Jove.  

As my second marriage foundered, it eventuated that I needed to sell my C8. Which was OK; I just wasn’t that distressed about letting it go. As I’ve written before, the Super C8 Plus that replaced my (excellent) Super C8 wasn’t exactly a barnburner. Anyhow, I suddenly found myself back with the freaking Palomar Junior.

I was hoping that, given my better eyepieces and much better skills compared to what I'd had in the late 1960s, the wee scope would show me more of Jupiter than it had when I was a sprout. It did, but not that much more. The truth is that a 6-inch reflector or a 4-inch refractor is just better on Jove. Shortly, I was able to up my game a mite with a 6-inch home brew Dobsonian, and, as expected, the planet got better again. Not C8 better, but better. That old saw, “aperture always wins,” is every bit as true for seeing planetary detail as for seeing dim galaxies.

Still, I was able to pull some detail out with my 6er, as a page of my logbook from that era shows (all my logs from the 60s and 70s were lost, but I still have some from the 80s and early 90s). I usually couldn't see fine detail, not convincingly, with the 6-inch, but I was seeing enough to keep me looking.

Actually, I didn't get my first really good look at the planet until 1994. As I've recounted a time or three, the Saturday of my first date with the wonderful Dorothy, I’d got on the telephone, called Astronomics, and ordered a 12-inch Meade StarFinder Dobsonian, the now-famous “Old Betsy.” She didn’t arrive until the day before we were wed in September, so First Light was understandably delayed. As soon as we got back from our Virginia honeymoon, however, I manhandled the scope’s enormous white Sonotube into Chaos Manor South’s backyard for a look at Jupiter.

Betsy was just an inexpensive Dobsonian, an f/4.8 Dobsonian, so I didn't expect much planetary performance from her, but there was a bright full Moon in the sky and there was Jupiter, so why not? Not only was I not sure of my scope, the planet was getting awfully low in the west. Nevertheless, in went my vaunted Circle T Ortho and…

Oh. My. Freaking. God. There was all the detail Patrick Moore told me (well, in his books) I might see some day. Belts? There were belts and belts and belts and zones and zones and zones. There were loops and whorls of clouds. There were spots. There were Festoons. There was plenty of not very subtle color—blues and browns and yellows and creams. Oh, and red. Or pink, anyhow. Most of all there was the Great Red Spot. It was stark despite its somewhat faded character at the time. Hell, I could glimpse details within the spot.

The 1990s were mostly a deep sky time for me. Those were the years I got back into astrophotography with a new C8, Celeste, I bought in the spring of 1995. Those were also the big star party years, with Dorothy and I taking Old Betsy all the way to the Texas Star Party to view distant wonders. The next decade, however, would bring me back to the Solar System. That was no doubt spurred by all the excitement concerning the 2003 Mars apparition.

Jupiter 1994, SAC 7B...
Yep, Unk was finally ready for a break from the Great Out There. Suddenly, the planets were fascinating again. Hell, I rejoined ALPO (the Association of Lunar and Planetary Observers, not the dog chow) at the 2003 ALCON in Nashville, and by September I had a hard drive full of mind-blowing Mars pictures thanks to my SAC 7 camera, as I recounted next week. Mars was soon shrinking, but that didn’t mean I was ready to leave the planetary neighborhood. Jupiter would become available as spring 2004 came in. What would the SAC do with him?

It turned out Jupiter was actually easier to image than Mars. Not surprisingly, since the gas giant was larger than Mars had been at its largest. While Jupiter is, maybe surprisingly for a generation raised on those crazy-colorful Voyager images, really a world of low contrast, pastel features, they are still easier to capture than the Martian dark markings. I also found the planet easier to color-balance. It was hard to convince myself Mars should be more a peach color than an angry red, but was always clear what Jupe should look like:  somewhere between the mild cream/brown of the eyepiece and the Technicolor riot of the Voyager shots.

The only diff? Jupiter rotates rapidly enough that too long an .avi sequence will cause blurring when the frames are stacked. But a minute or so coupled with our usually good seeing always got me plenty of frames to play with, even at the pitiful 5 – 15 frames per second the SAC 7 could muster. I was pleased with my Jupiter pix and planned to keep on imaging the planet every time he was in the sky.

That’s what I planned, anyhow. I was even a regular contributor to ALPO for a while, sending in my Jupiter images, good and not so good, like clockwork. That and my love affair with the Solar System continued for three-four years till I heard the call of wild intergalactic space again. 2008 found me finally hitting the Herschel 400 HARD, and the next year saw the birth of the Herschel Project. Moon and planets? Not even on my fraking radar.

Post Herschel Project, I’ve had several observing programs on the drawing board, and a few that even got onto the observing field a time or two, notably The Burnham Project, my quest to observe all the Handbook’s DSOs, and Operation Arp, my tour of Chip Arp’s peculiar galaxies. I’ve also done more deep sky prime focus imaging than I have in a long time. But I’ve also regularly been coming home.

Destination Moon, my tour of the lunar surface has been a lot of fun. And the other night when I was out trying to get some shots of the terminator and happened to look over my shoulder at old Jupe rising in the east, I began to think “It’s planet time again.”

FireCapture 2.4...
And so it seems to be, which brings us back around to last Sunday night. After an hour, I wandered back out and took another look with the C102 and the 8mm Ethos. The seeing wasn’t that good, but it wasn’t that bad, either. The flattened disk of Jove was reasonably sharp and not swimming too much. There wasn’t a wealth of detail, but the equatorial belts were clearer than they ever were in the old Pal Junior, and the moons were usually pinpoints rather than smeared out blobs.

As I watched, I occasionally began to pick up more. The Polar Regions and some narrower belts began to appear at least.  It was almost enough to make me want to run inside and see if I could find my Wratten 80A filter. But man was the dew heavy. You'd a-thought it was spring already, and the amount of detail the refractor was delivering wasn’t quite enough to make me want to get soaked to the skin. Nevertheless, I wanted to see more of Jupiter again. And I knew how to do that. Or, actually, I knew a couple of ways to do that: with more horsepower and with a camera.

“More horsepower,” more aperture, was what I had in mind for Tuesday night. A front had barreled through, one of the last strong cold fronts of this winter, I hoped, and I didn't think it would be a night for imaging. The Clear Sky Clock (I just can't get myself to call it “Clear Sky Charts”) agreed. I thought I might set a visual scope out, however, and take a few looks at the King during the commercials in The Flash and Agent Carter. Didn't expect much, but I was hoping a bigger scope might do some good on a poor night.

The telescope of the evening was the lightweight Dobsonian Pat made out of my old 8-inch Konus (Synta) Newtonian, Old Yeller. In addition to four times the light gathering power of the 4-inch, the scope would bring much more resolving power too. That was offset by the fact that that an 8-inch mirror would be looking up through a larger column of disturbed air than the C102’s 4-inch objective. Still, I’ve usually found that you eventually see more with more aperture, even on nights when the atmosphere is reluctant to behave.

I gave the scope plenty of time to cool down, several hours, and I gave the planet plenty of time to get away from the eastern horizon. I didn't go back outside until Agent Carter went off at 9 p.m. Inserted a 7mm Uwan eyepiece (142x), put my planet hungry eye to the ocular and saw…

Stacked with AutoStakkert...
Nuttin’ honey. Well, not quite nothing. There was something, but that something was just a big, white, flattened Ping-Pong ball with two subdued horizontal stripes, the North and South Equatorial Belts. I shouldn't have been surprised; the seeing was even worse than it had been at its worst on Sunday evening. Often a larger scope will show more than a smaller one on nights like this if you wait for those brief moments when the atmosphere steadies down, but I wasn't getting any of those moments. I gave it up as a bad business after a frustrating hour and went back to the Boob Tube.

Wednesday afternoon, I strolled out onto the deck to see what I thought the chances for bringing back decent images might be. The Clear Sky Clock was predicting so-so seeing at best, but it was warm(er), the air was still, and I thought there was a chance I wouldn't be wasting my time with a camera.  

Even if it turned out conditions were not good enough for decent images, I still wouldn’t be wasting my time. I wanted to try out the latest beta release of my favorite planetary image capture program, FireCapture, anyway. I went ahead and set up old Celeste on the VX mount.

Sunset came, and, after that, a few drinks and Arrow. When the show went off, your Uncle somewhat unsteadily headed for the backyard. Everything was ready to go including the laptop on the table on the deck. All I had to do was get the mount goto aligned and polar aligned. I essayed a 2+4 alignment, went on to the AllStar polar alignment (Rigel), and declared myself ready to shoot. I could have done another 2+4 to tighten up goto after the polar alignment, but since I’d be on Jupiter all night, that really didn’t matter. What did matter? Tracking, since I’d be using FireCapture’s ROI feature.

What’s they-at? Rather than shooting a full frame, FireCapture, can shoot a cropped area just large enough to contain a planet (you select your planet from a drop-down menu), the “Region of Interest.” By downsizing the frame to just what’s needed to fit a planet, FireCapture can get the frame rate up, doubling the ZWO ASI120MC camera’s speed from a hair over 30 fps to 70 fps. “More frames” is always good when shooting planets. Especially on a night like this one when it appeared the seeing would start out average and get worse.

The problem, if there is one, when using the ROI feature? Your mount has to be tracking well enough to keep the planet in a very small field for the duration of the exposure. That was not a problem with the VX. Even at f/20 with the C8, I only had to adjust the mount’s aim occasionally; it was easy as pie to get 1-minute (and longer) .avi sequences. I gotta tell you, folks, the humble Celestron mount continues to amaze me with its inexpensive goodness.

Anyhow, I centered Jupiter in the flip mirror on the back of the C8—a flip mirror is necessary for high resolution/large image scale planetary photography if you want to keep your hairline intact—and cranked up FireCapture 2.4. What’s new in the beta? Most noticeably, a completely redone and modernized user interface with a control window separate from the preview window. Other than the fancy new GUI, I was pleased to see everything worked purty much as it always has—which is “very well.”

Stacked with Registax...
How was the planet looking? When I got Jupiter focused up with the JMI motofocus, I had to admit “not too shabby.” Oh, it wasn’t like it can be on those rock-steady spring nights when it just sits there, maybe wavering/fluttering a little every once in a while. Still, not bad. Watching the preview frames flying by, I could make out more than just the two main cloud belts. 

I sat out there on the deck in the chilly but not cold air for the next hour or so firing off .avi sequences of the Big Boy. I tried to get about 2000 frames every time, which took around 30-seconds - 1-minute depending on my exposure settings. As always, I aimed for a Jupiter that looked just slightly underexposed to my eye. Most of the time, I thought I was getting OK data, but as nine p.m. approached, I could tell, ironically, that the seeing was degrading. Why ironically? Because it was just as the planet was getting nice and high that the atmosphere went totally to hell.

I shut down, gathered up the laptop, and left the scope set up under a Desert Storm cover in case I wanted to give it another go Thursday night. That would depend both on my results when I processed Wednesday evening's sequences and what the weather did. Thursday was predicted to be about the same as Wednesday seeing-wise. Unfortunately, that prediction turned out to be wrong, and another blasted cold front came roaring through Thursday afternoon, scotching the idea of more imaging.  

Processing the Thursday morning was surprisingly easy; the data I got was considerably better than I thought it would be. Stacked the frames of the .avi files with Registax 6 (and AutoStakkert, which I am learning to use), applied the program’s amazing wavelet filters, did a little tweaking in Photoshop, and that was all it took, muchachos. Hell, not bad, not bad at all. Which just goes to show the truth of that old saw, “Nothing ventured, nothing gained.” It would have been easy to plunk myself down in front of the television Wednesday evening and stay there. Sure am glad I didn't.

Next Time:  Down Chiefland Way…

Note:  I’ve been informed that long-time astro-businessman Jeff Goldstein of AstroGizmos has passed away. I’d just seen Jeff at the 2014 Deep South Regional Stargaze, and, once again, having a source of those little things, from batteries to dew heaters, that you unexpectedly need at a star party came in so handy. Jeff was friendly and helpful and will be missed. I have not heard whether the business will continue…

Thanks for the Sunday morning read. Enjoyable as always .
Just two weeks ago the King got me "back into the game". As you may remember I have one of the last models of the C90 usa made (C90R) - same as the one that made you finally re-evaluate the C90.

Well, have not observed in about 16 or 18 months, I took my dog out, and there was the King calling my name. I put the C90 on my CF Manfrotto set of legs with a 501 VHD head. Quickly had the King in view. Walked my dog and let the scope cool. I use a set of ultima EP's with it (LAR setup) and at 51X with an 18mm, I could clear see the bands and the two polar regions. not being on a EQ or goto mount it was not as easy to track when I put the 12.5 in, but the views started to reveal some detail. No it not like my C5 or C8, but I am always amazed at the detail the C90 and Ultimas give.

Your article has given me some thoughts on using my Nikon D7100 plus a TC1.4 at prime focus on my C8 (The 7100 is a 1.5 crop but also had an additional 1.3 crop (takes it down from 24mpx to 16 MPX), so if I calculate right that should be around 5600mm effective FOV. I'll use 720 x 1080 rates at 60 fps which should give me a lot to work with.

I'm so glad that I don't have any uber expensive stuff that would make me sell my scopes when I have long periods of none use.

BTW I still have your urban astronomer book, and thought of it last night when I used my 10 x 50's when walking the dog to see m37 -even OC seems to be of interest now. My area just got the new LED street lights and I think my yard is much darker. So once again you've spurred my desire to view from my home site.

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