Sunday, June 28, 2015


My Sci-fi Top of the Pops

What had I planned to write about this week? More visual observing. A new visual observing project I intend to execute from my backyard; one I think you will find interesting. Unfortunately, the weather gods had other ideas. It’s been two weeks of almost unrelentingly cloudy skies and when it hasn’t been cloudy—or raining torrents—it’s been too hazy for me to bother with the back forty. I know you want something to read on Sunday morning other than The New York Times, though, so here, in no particular order, are my favorite Sci-fi flicks.

2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)

Let’s start with the mother load, Stanley Kubrick’s (he of Dr. Strangelove and Paths of Glory fame) masterpiece. Frankly, this shouldn’t even be in a list of Sci-Fi films. It is more like real SF. When I saw this at age 15 at the Roxy theatre with my brother, Danny, I was downright puzzled by its metaphysical (kinda/seemingly) ending, but I still loved it and I still do. There’s a very good Blu-ray print of it out now, and even if you have the DVD you should get that and watch it one more time.

From the sublime to the ridiculous? Perhaps, but I have loved Ib Melchior’s color-riot of a movie since I was a kid. For what it is, it just doesn’t get any better:  wisecracking spacemen…a pretty girl…mile-high Martian skyscrapers, and most of all, that fearsome rat-bat-spider. Many of the Sci-fi films of the 50s and 60s I once loved don’t hold up to viewing today, but, surprisingly, this one does. It’s not great sci-fi or great filmmaking, but it is fun.

This was my other real fave flick as a youngster, a little-known film from the (then) mysterious Eastern Block, the Warsaw Pact, that is. It’s a little creaky and those Soviet hairdos (on men and women both) are a riot. If you want to know more about director Kurt Maetzig’s tale of exploring a nuclear war ravaged Venus, click above. Here, I will just say if you keep an open mind, it may surprise you. It’s based on a story by SF master Stanislaw Lem, and even given its (many) flaws and foibles, it lands, like 2001, in the SF camp rather than in the sci-fi ranks.

Destination Moon (1950)

To get to Irving Pichel’s Destination Moon, we have to go back, way back, to the earliest days of the space program, to the days when N.A.C.A. was just beginning to play around with liberated V2s. Naturally, some of the movie seems a little silly today. The idea of a handful of dudes at an aircraft company designing a Moonship is risible—but excusable. In those days, who knew what shape space exploration would take? Would it be a national effort, something done by lone inventors like the Wright brothers, or, as in this film, by private industry? Anyway, how could you not like a film based loosely (very) on a Robert Heinlein novel (he is seen briefly in the film in the opening blockhouse sequence)? Yes, the movie’s comic-relief character, “Joe Sweeny,” is a hard to take, but overall this film holds up well.

Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979)

Oh, God, I wanted this to be good. Frankly, after ten years of a Trek drought, I’d have been happy with anything, but I wanted it to be good. To prove to the wider world that we Trekkies weren’t (that) crazy. Unfortunately, the result was neither black nor white, but gray. STTMP is not a bad flick; it’s just not a good one. The problem is that the writers misunderstood Trek. It’s not about special effects and grand conceits like this movie’s mechanized villain, V’ger. When it’s at its best, Star Trek is about its characters. When it’s at its very best, those characters are set in a little morality play. Still, I like this one OK and watch it occasionally.

Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982)

It took a little while longer to get a good Star Trek movie, but eventually we did with Khan. It is in my estimation the only really outstanding Trek movie ever made. They didn’t just recycle Khan Noonan Singh (from a very good episode of the original TV show) as the recent and very poor reboot movie did; they expanded on his character and story. A fine film any way you slice it.

Alien (1979)

Is it an old dark house style horror movie, or is it Sci-fi? Maybe it is both. Ridley Scott’s first Alien movie sure was creepy. Make that downright scary. The night I saw it (in Cinerama format) I dreamed that darned old Alien was chasing me around my neighborhood in Jacksonville, Arkansas. Alien also feels like a very good sci-fi, maybe even SF, movie. The dark, dreary, worn ship, Nostromo, just seemed so freaking real. Oh, and Sigourney Weaver was just so pretty.
Aliens (1986)
Sequels are never as good as the originals. Well, almost never. There’s Godfather II and Aliens. Quite a few critics and film fans would say both are better than the initial films. That said, Aliens is a different sort of movie. There is still some of the scariness of Alien, but it’s not in an old dark house context. It’s a military sci-fi tale of hard-bitten space marines. But it is cool and very well done and Sigourney is as pretty as ever.
Star Wars Trilogy
These are three of my favorite films of any genre. I love them all. Do I have a favorite, though? Is it A New Hope? The Empire Strikes Back? The Return of the Jedi? In some ways Empire is the best film as film, but it is also the darkest and least fun of the three. Jedi, on the other hand is fun and exhilarating if not as well made. For me, nothing will ever quite equal sitting in the theatre in 1977 watching A New Hope, seeing that huge imperial star destroyer roar overhead pursing our heroes.
Star Wars I, II, III
There are fans who like Ewoks, and those who don’t. There are fans who like Jar-Jar Binks and those who’d like to nail his silly hide to the wall. I confess I like both. So sue me. I enjoyed the first three films, including the first (sorta silly) one. I cannot see how anybody cannot get caught up by Episode II. Yes, it gets darker and darker, but it gets better and better, too. Episode 3 is a fine and engaging film any way you slice it.

E.T. the Extraterrestrial (1983)

Science fiction? Or maybe more on the fantasy side? Don’t know, but this Spielberg film struck a chord with me. I wasn’t long out of the Air Force and was living through a rather lonely time in my life (“Ouch.”). This movie offered much hope and heart and I couldn’t help feeling a little better by the time the credits rolled.

Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977)

As you regular readers know, I’ve long been interested in the maddeningly ambiguous phenomenon represented by the UFOs. And have even occasionally been spooked on a dark and lonely observing field by something that might have been a saucer of the dreaded Greys. The magic of this Spielberg film, over and above all the other good and spectacular things in it, is that he makes us like the weird little aliens. We want to hold hands with ‘em and go onboard the Craft just as Richard Dreyfus does. Oh, and a Celestron C11 puts in an appearance toward the end of the film, so you really can’t lose.

The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951)

Those of you who, like me, are of the middle aged persuasion will remember that back in the hallowed sixties NBC ran a movie every Saturday night. Saturday Night at the Movies. And they showed The Day The Earth Stood Still every year, once a year, just like CBS showed The Wizard of Oz every year. I loved Day and didn’t miss it for several years. In addition to the very scary robot, Gort (“Gort! Barada Nikto!"), there was Michael Rennie as the good and noble alien. The recent remake? Meh.

Watchmen (2009)

People don’t seem to think of Watchmen, the ground-breaking Alan Moore – Dave Gibbons graphic novel, as sci-fi or SF, but is it ever. The story of a gritty alternate time-line inhabited by tired and desperate heroes like Night Owl and Silk Spectre is just that. While not as good as the graphic novel, the film retains many of the strengths that make Watchmen the first graphic novel to make the New York Times list of the top English language novels. Do get the director’s cut, OK?

Flash Gordon a.k.a. flash Gordon’s Trip to Mars (1938)

I don’t like all serials. Some, like the famous Radar Men from the Moon seemed stupid even when I was a little kid and we were far closer to the days of serials at the movies than we are now. Others, however, like Flash Gordon are still fun, will always be fun, and I recommend them highly. Other much higher budget Flash Gordon films have been made, like the way too campy 1980 attempt, but the serial is still best. Pop some popcorn, suspend your disbelief, and have fun. It is easy to get on DVD.

And that is that; I could keep going, but those are my best of the best. I’d be happy to hear your picks if they are different from mine, so hit the comments section, y’all.

Next week? I hope to get out and do a little observing. The weather, it appears, may be a little better. MAYBE. Unfortunately, and wouldn’t you know it, the darned old moon is back. Such is the life of an itinerant astronomer, brothers and sisters.

Sunday, June 21, 2015


M57 in the Rain

When is a Star Party not a Star Party? When it is more, as in the case of the 45th annual Apollo Rendezvous. I’d known about this event, put on by the Miami Valley (as in Ohio, not Florida) Astronomical Society of Dayton for many years. I knew it was a well-loved amateur astronomy institution, and I thought it would be cool to attend “someday.” However, Ohio is a long way from the Gulf Coast, so there things stood for more than a few years.

Until I was contacted by the MVAS’ Linda Weiss wondering if I would be interested in being the keynote speaker for the 2015 edition of the Apollo Rendezvous, which was to be held on June 13. How could I say “no” given the good things I’d heard about the AR? Doing the gig would also allow me to cross another state off my “not visited” list.

I arrived at Mobile Regional Airport early in the afternoon on the 12th feeling pretty good. I hadn’t had to do the 6 a.m. torture-flight to Atlanta this time, and the gate area wasn’t too crowded. Yeah, I was feeling good…till the Gate Drone picked up his mic and announced he had some “information” for us. That is never a good sign.

It seemed there were fierce thunderstorms in the Chicago area, my first destination, and our plane was to be held on the ground in Mobile for an hour to allow time for the weather to improve. Rut-roh. While my connection in Chi-town was not too tight, an hour delay would be tough. I could only hope connecting flights would also be delayed, as the Gate Agent assured us they would be.

On the ground in Dayton...
After a little while, not close to an hour, we boarded, and, wonder of wonders, we were pushed back and began to taxi. And got maybe 15-meters before the crew put on the brakes. The Captain got on the horn with some more of that dreaded information. We were being held on the ground after all, AND he had been instructed to kill the engines to save fuel. In the heat of a Mobile, Alabama June afternoon.

The stewardess went up and down the aisle handing out bottled water, so it wasn’t too bad. I also had a decent book, David Feintuch’s Fisherman’s Hope, part of a military SF series I’ve been reading during my last several trips, and that kept my mind off the heat and my worries about the delay. Just short of an hour, the engines were fired up again and we finally began our takeoff roll. I text-messaged Linda we were airborne, but added I was doubtful of making my Chicago connection. It appeared we’d land about half an hour after the Dayton flight departed O’Hare.

Occasionally, I do get lucky. My connecting flight (like lots of others) was delayed by awesome thunderstorms. I hot-footed it across the terminal to make it to my gate as quickly as possible but needn’t have. I arrived just as the connecting flight got in, and found I had 40-minutes to kill. I wandered the concourse, looking in the shops and enjoying the sound of those exotic Chicago accents. After I boarded, I texted Miss L. that I should be on the ground in Dayton in just over an hour, though I didn’t see how that would be possible.

The crew told us the flight from Chicago to Dayton would be 40 minutes. Even allowing for everything, though, how would that account for the fact that we’d be leaving Chi-town at 6:15 p.m. and not arriving in Ohio till 8:30? Wasn’t Ohio west of Illinois? Wasn't Dayton on Mountain Daylight Time? I was puzzled until one of my few remaining brain cells fired: “Ohio is east of Illinois. Hard up against (my next star party destination) West Virginia.” Doh!

After I arrived at Dayton International Airport following the short flight, things got better. It is a small airport, not hugely larger than our own (soon to be too small) Mobile Regional. It didn’t take long to get to the baggage claim area, retrieve my suitcase (I never do carryons), and find Linda and husband Rick’s vehicle sitting in front of the terminal.

Rain, just like at home. Darnit.
From there, it was a relatively short trip to my hotel, the local Holiday Inn Express. Which is a good choice of chains for both clubs/star parties and for me. The HEX is a step up from bottom feeders like Days Inn and Quality Inn, but still keeps costs down. For me, Holiday Inn Express’ rooms are cleaner and nicer and the amenities like breakfast, fitness rooms, and pools are much better (if the el cheapos even offer those things). One thing was certain:  I sure was glad the star party portion of the event wasn't scheduled for this evening. By the time we made it to the hotel a heavy rain had begun to fall. Anyhow, I dropped my suitcase in the room, went back down, and we were off to dinner.

Which was at the local equivalent of Buffalo Wild Wings, Ohio’s “Rooster’s.” Inside, we were greeted by MVAS President Bob Connell, and, after a while, by Rick and Linda’s charming daughter. We settled in for conversation, beer, and hot wings in that order. I am not much of a beer drinker in these latter days, so while the rest of our company was enjoying exotic dark ales, I contented myself with Michelob Ultra (Raj:  “SWEET! Only 95 calories!”).

After an enjoyable evening with my new friends, they dropped me back at the hotel and I proceeded to unpack, freeing my traveling companion from the suitcase, and boot up the laptop. After a moment’s confusion—the computer tried to connect to the wi-fi of the Hampton Inn next door—I spent a little while, but only a little while, browsing Cloudy Nights and Facebook. Then there was a brief period of cable TV watching until my eyes closed and I knew nothing more till morning.

Breakfast for your now health-conscious correspondent consisted of black coffee in the room (drinking coffee downstairs in proximity to deadly little cinnamon rolls would have been too much). Thence downstairs to the lobby to await Linda and Rick and the ride out to the venue for the first part of the Apollo Rendezvous at Dayton’s Boonshoft Museum. Part I of the Rendezvous would consist of talks at the museum; Part II would be a Star-be-que and observing at a nearby state park.

Boonshoft was originally a rather generic natural history museum, but has in more recent times re-purposed itself as a children’s museum not unlike my own city’s Exploreum. That’s evident from its current name, "The Boonshoft Museum of Discovery." At any rate, I was impressed by the beautiful and well-maintained building when we pulled into the parking lot after a short drive.

My traveling companion/good luck charm...
Inside, I was, if anything, even more impressed. While the majority of the exhibits are of the kid-friendly, hands-on variety, there were things to interest all ages. Most notably from my perspective, a 20-inch Cassegrain telescope in a lovely dome, the “Apollo Observatory,” which was built by the museum in 1960.

While it is a high focal ratio (f/20) instrument quite different from the fast 20-inchers amateurs use on the deep sky today, it is well suited for Boonshoft. There’s considerable light pollution in the museum’s skies and this design of telescope is good for the available targets—planets, bright DSOs, and double stars. 

After spending some time with the beautiful old telescope, I asked my tour guide, Rick, to take me to the hall where I’d give my talk so I could set up. My first presentation would be in an hour, and I have learned through bitter experience to always leave plenty of time to check projectors and P.A. systems before I go on. Everything was in good order in the medium-sized room, so I wandered about the museum with (yet another) cup of coffee in hand till it was time for the first of my three presentations.

I spent most of that hour cruising the tables of the event’s vendor, Oberwerk. Linda, an Oberwerk staffer, had, in addition all the other things she did to prepare for the event, set up the company’s (which now also owns Garrett Optical) large exhibit. I admired their beautiful 100mm interchangeable eyepiece binoculars, but what interested me most were their reasonably priced wide-field 2-inch eyepieces, which appeared to be of GSO heritage.

I tried to convince myself I really needed the Garrettt Optical 38mm 69-degree AFOV ocular, barely failing. In retrospect, I probably should have given in. I don’t have anything in that focal length in a wide field, and the price, a mere $79.95, was crazy good. I luckily convinced myself I did NOT need any of the obviously yummy donuts that had been laid out in plenty alongside the nearby coffee urn.

Presentation venue...
My first talk, at 9:30, was the tech-heavy equipment-centric one for the day, “Expanding Your Final Frontier with Astro Video,” which is about using high-sensitivity integrating video cameras to capture the deep sky. Despite the rather esoteric nature of the talk, the hall was packed with enthusiastic amateurs who asked many questions. Just one more sign astro video is gaining more popularity all the time and may soon, in my opinion, eclipse more traditional methods of deep sky imaging. If it hasn’t already.

 What appealed to my audience and appeals to amateur astronomers in general is that video is a way an average person with an average telescope and average skies can obtain impressive deep sky images without computers, guide cameras, and the hairline-reducing aggravation that comes with traditional prime focus astrophotography.

I was back on at 11 with my “fun” talk, “Things That Go ‘Bump’ in the Night Sky,” which focuses on the fascinating STRANGE STUFF that's to be seen in the sky. In addition to near sky phenomena like sun-dogs and halos, I visited the Lunar X, the infamous Face on Mars, and weird looking galaxies of all sorts. And of course I touched on the ever-popular UFOs, which fascinate not just kids and spouses, but plenty of us supposedly too-sophisticated amateur astronomers as well.

Then came lunch, box lunches, good sandwiches and bags of chips. I am normally too pumped after my show to eat, but this time I made myself. It would be a long while before I got some food at the Star-b-que. I still had two presentations to do and would be standing on my feet a lot in the hours before we wrapped things up at Boonshoft at 5:15 p.m.

Following  lunch, I had a long break; I wouldn’t give my final presentation till 3:15, about an hour and 45-minutes away. That was alright. As above, there was plenty of stuff in the museum to interest me, including a full-blown planetarium, and when my interest in the museum began to flag, there were friendly and knowledgeable MVAS members to shoot the amateur astronomy breeze with.

Garrett Optical eyepieces...
My last hurrah was my time-honored signature presentation, “The Past, Present, and Future of the Schmidt Cassegrain Telescope,” which I first gave at the 2003 Astronomical League Convention in Nashville, and which I’ve presented for audiences all the way from Pennsylvania to Washington (the state). I’ve continually updated it, and always enjoy spending plenty of time talking about my favorite telescopes. Maybe too much time on this occasion. The talk is a long one, my audience had numerous questions, and I went more than a smidge over my designated end-time of 4:30.

Which brought up the closing ceremonies for the 2015 Apollo Rendezvous, which included the prize giveaway. I didn’t win anything, since I didn’t buy any raffle tickets. Frankly, I have so much astro junk at home that my main goal these days is giving stuff away, not acquiring more. Nevertheless, the quality of the prizes was high, and I was rather sorry I hadn’t bought any tickets when all was said and done.

Part II of the Apollo Rendezvous out at the MVAS observatory facility at John Bryan State Park wouldn’t begin till 6:30, which meant there was just enough time for me to freshen up at the hotel before Linda and Rick picked me up again. I looked long and lovingly at the bed—it had been a long day—but I knew a short nap would inevitably turn into a long one if I laid down, so I stayed on my feet, refueling with yet another cup of java.

The MVAS observatory is one of the nicest amateur facilities I've ever visited. It is, I was told, leased to the group for a token amount by the state, who received it from the U.S. Air Force when the project operating it (the Cold War TEAL AMBER, I think) shut down. In addition to a beautiful dome housing a large Newtonian (soon to be changed out for a large SCT), the building features workshops and meeting areas. The site is securely fenced and that fence encloses several roll-off roof observatories and what I consider the jewel of the site, Leslie Peltier’s Merry Go Round Observatory.

MVAS Observatory....
The little building, which Peltier built in 1933, allowed him to hunt comets and make variable star measurements while seated and in relative comfort in the hellish (to me) Ohio winters. It was originally located near Delphos, Ohio, and was donated to the MVAS and relocated following Peltier’s death.  

The Merry Go Round, which has an upholstered seat that looks like it came from a 1930s auto, is rotated in azimuth with a large wheel by the seated observer. Another (mechanical, natch) control moves the observatory’s telescope in altitude. Originally, the refractor that extends from the observatory was a 6-inch f/8 achromat on long-term loan to Peltier from Princeton University. The optics of the original telescope have unfortunately been lost, but the MVAS has installed a 5.7-inch refractor very much in the spirit of the original. Leslie Peltier is one of my astronomy heroes, and I was moved when I sat in his seat in the well maintained Merry Go Round Observatory.

After that? Fun, fun, fun. Starting with a little observing. While there’d been clouds threatening all afternoon, we got a small respite just after dark. Amazingly, the stars of summer are now on the rise—where did spring go?—and the roll-off adjacent to the main building was opened so we could view, first, M13 with a good, old Meade Research Grade 12-inch Newtonian. Looked pretty sweet. So did M57—till errant drops of rain began to fall. Still we watched, viewing that smoky donut as drops began to plunk on the long Newtonian’s tube.

Thankfully, the sprinkle was just that and soon passed. The clouds didn’t, however, and our looks at M13 and M57 (and Jupiter and Venus, too) turned out to be all the observing we did for the star party portion of the 2015 Apollo Rendezvous. We were hardly done for the night, though.

What came next was a little discrete imbibing, first inside the building, and then, when the shower passed, outside under the (occasionally visible) stars. I was touched when I was presented with a bottle of my old favorite, Rebel Yell, and I told all and sundry, “After I get home, if I hear anybody say anything bad about Yankees, I will FIGHT THEM.” As with beer, I am not much of a whiskey drinker now, but I’d be lying if I told you I didn’t enjoy a couple of drinks. 

The Merry Go Round Observatory...
And so it went for a couple of hours, until close to 11 p.m. We talked of everything from the price of a good eyepiece to the depredations of the Little Grey Dudes from Zeta Reticuli II before the festivities began to break up.

Oh, lest I forget, the MVAS puts on quite a spread for their Star-b-que. I had to limit myself to a bunless veggie dog (sigh) and small portions of a side item or two, but you can bet I was badly tempted by the huge array of luscious looking food at the potluck.

All too soon, it was time to scurry back to the Holiday Inn Express to get a few hours sleep before my 10:20 flight out of Dayton to Atlanta. Which was not too bad. The worst thing that happened was that I was charged 20 bucks in ATL for Kind Bar, a bag of low fat chips, and a magazine. My flights were on time and I reached Mobile Regional on schedule in mid-afternoon.

Thanks especially to Linda for arranging my trip and making sure I had everything I needed—for making my visit to Ohio so easy, that is. Thanks also to the rest of the MVAS membership and the Boonshoft staff for just being so darned nice.

Would I like to go back to the Apollo Rendezvous some day? You’re darned right I would. As I not so subtly hinted to the MVAS folks, I’d love to. We are lucky today that we have many great clubs in this country that are doing exemplary work. I must say, however, that the MVAS ranks with the very best, and that their Apollo Rendezvous is one of the most fun events it’s been my pleasure to attend.

You can see more pictures from my trip on my Facebook page...

Sunday, June 14, 2015


Zelda at the Dark Site

The only true test of a scope's deep sky performance is under stars set in dark skies. I was enthusiastic about what little I’d already been able to accomplish with my bargain Zhumell (GSO) 10-inch Dobsonian from Chaos Manor South's successor in suburban Possum Swamp, but now came time to see what she could really do. To that end, Z and me headed to my customary dark site just 45-minutes to the west in the suburban - rural transition zone.

What did I expect of the telescope? I expected pretty great things. I could tell from what she’d shown me of Jupiter in the backyard that she had a decent primary mirror. And one thing we tend to forget these days of more-better-gooder is that a 10-inch is still a big telescope capable of outstanding deep sky performance. 

A 10-inch Newtonian was, after all, the largest telescope regularly used by that dean of deep sky observers, Walter Scott Houston, and one is also the largest scope his successor, Sue French, usually writes about. If somebody tells you a 10-inch can’t deliver on the deep sky, they simply do not know what they are talking about. A 10 allows you to push well past the Messier but to do it with a comfortable, manageable scope.

Yeah, aperture always wins—in or out of light pollution—and a 12-inch is “better” than a 10-inch, and a 16-inch is better than that, and so on, but there are sweet spots. 10-inches at f/5 is one of those. A 10-inch f/5 delivers plenty of light for the deep sky and with a wide enough field to let the medium sized objects most of us concentrate on shine in common eyepiece focal lengths. A 10-inch f/5 provides a nice balance of object brightness and field size.

I’ve been an ATB (Amateur Telescope Buyer) for long enough now to know when I’ve got my hands on a good one, and, yeah, I expected great things from Miss Z.—if we saw anything at all. Which seemed in doubt at first. It was sprinkling rain when we left home and the streets were wet almost all the way out, but as we neared the site, an airfield that is unused at night, the clouds that had been pouring in from the south began to scuttle off and a giant sucker hole began to encompass the entire sky.

The mosquitoes, as you’d expect after weeks of rain, were exceptionally fierce, but I managed to keep them mostly at bay with Deep Woods Off and a Thermacell bug repeller—for a while anyhow. I had the good sense to get the Thermacell going the instant I arrived—it takes about 15-minutes to begin to work its magic. Despite temperatures in the high 80s, I put on a long sleeve shirt until the T-cell began to clear the little vampires out. Better hot than bitten, I thought.

It’s been a while since I’ve gotten spooked at our friendly and safe dark site; it seems my current mindset ensures the Greys and Mothman are not even on the edge of my radar screen. Still, it was nice have some company, to be joined by two fellow club members, Max, who brought along a 6-inch Newtonian, and Taras, who had the intestinal fortitude assemble his 15-inch home built Dobbie on our observing field beside the runway.

While waiting for darkness I got Zelda settled in her rocker box, and I plugged in her cooling fan to acclimate her primary, which had been sitting in the 4Runner's blessed air-conditioning all the way from home, natch.

The BCH Project

You gotta have a plan. If you don’t have an observing plan, you usually won’t make it through ten objects much less past twenty, “Hmm…seen M13, seen M57…guess I’ll pack it in.” Before departing for the dark site, I finalized the first of a series of new of observing projects, visual observing projects.

What I did was resurrect one I’d formulated when I completed the Herschel Project, my quest to view all 2500 (give or take) Herschel fuzzies. I was into doing big observing lists with deep sky video cameras at the time and thought for my next Feat of Strength I might observe all the objects in Burnham’s Celestial Handbook. After culling out all the double and variable stars and most of the deep sky objects I’d observed many times, I was left with a manageable list of about 800 faint fuzzies.

The list was quite doable. I could have knocked off 800 objects with the C11 and Mallincam Xtreme in a year or less, even given the horrible weather we've had lately. But I never got very far with it. Subtracting the bright and beautiful left me with a list that was much like the ground I’d already covered, the small, faint galaxies of the Herschel Project. I enjoyed doing that when I was doing it, but more nights of “small, round elliptical galaxy” just wasn’t appealing to me.

But what would I observe visually with the new scope? What if I reconstituted Project Burnham as The BCH Project? This time ignoring the object lists at the beginning of each constellation (chapter), and instead observing the wonderful objects,  the bright showpieces (mostly), that Robert Burnham provides “descriptive notes” for in the text of each constellation?

I fired up SkyTools 3, grabbed my “field” copy of Burnham’s from the bookshelf in the den, and began with Canes Venatici, building a list of objects from its Descriptive Notes. I did Hercules, Ursa Major, and Ophicuchus, too, and when I was done had a plan just shy of 40 DSOs, which I thought would be perfect for a relaxing evening with Miss Zelda.

C/2104 Q2, Comet Lovejoy

Yes, last winter’s great comet (I thought so), everybody’s little pet, Lovejoy, C/2014 Q2, is still with us. Of course the visitor, who is now on his way out, and is high above the plane of the ecliptic, ain’t what he was last winter when every amateur who could get their hands on a camera was comet picture crazy. But he’s still observable in 8-inch and larger telescopes with fair ease and even maybe in binoculars from very dark sites.

Lovejoy was the evening’s first target. I thought the comet would provide a good warmup for my no doubt atrophied object-finding muscles. While it wouldn’t be that dim at magnitude 8.5 and about 5’ in size, the comet wouldn’t exactly be obvious anymore. It did indeed take me a couple of tries to correctly position Zelda on Lovejoy’s spot in the midst of a field of anonymous 8th and 9th magnitude Ursa Minor stars about about 5-degrees north of Polaris.

From what I’d read about the comet recently, I expected it to be visible in my 50mm finder, but I couldn’t see a trace of it there. I hadn’t taken the heavy haze into account nor, I suppose, some folks' ideas of what is easily visible  in a 50mm finder. When I was on the correct position, though, Lovejoy wasn’t that hard in the main scope, showing up as a strongly elongated fuzzy that (maybe) even showed a hint of a tail stretching off to the northeast.

How atrophied were my finding muscles. Not as much, gratifyingly, as I thought they might be. In just a few minutes I was getting back into the swing of things. The combination of a zero power sight and a 50mm correct image finder is a powerful object locating tool. Especially when coupled with the tailored finder charts you can produce with modern software like SkyTools 3. With a 3-pane chart on the laptop showing a naked eye view, a 50mm finder view, and an eyepiece field for the scope’s current eyepiece, locating objects wasn’t even that time consuming.

And I did try to keep up a decent pace since an old Moon would rise at 11:30. Twenty or so objects over the course of the two hours before Moonrise seemed about right. I felt like I was seeing a lot, but I didn’t feel pressured and there was never a time when I missed goto or DSCs.

M81 and M82

Comet in the bag, it was time to begin touring Mr. Burnham’s best of the best starting with these two favorites in Ursa Major.  I love both galaxies, but usually it’s M82 with its dark lane crossed near edge-on disk that lights my fire. Tonight, though, it was M81 that was the standout.

Oh, M82 was grand, showing considerable detail despite its decreasing altitude, but what blew me away was M81’s size. This intermediate inclination spiral was huge and wanted to show me at least a hint of its two loosely wrapped arms. They are normally a challenge for the darkest nights and clearest skies, but Zelda was at least giving me a taste of their beauty. Bob Burnham called M81 “magnificent” and he was correct.

The 30mm Zhumell eyepiece that came with the telescope endeared itself to me on these objects, easily fitting both (they are 36’ apart) in its generous field with room to spare and providing surprisingly good contrast. The pair was also great in my 35mm Panoptic, but I thought a little more power, just a little more, made them even better. 

NGC 3077

I’ve often gauged the quality of a given night by the visibility of the third member of the M81 group, little NGC 3077. The verdict on this night was that at astronomical twilight the sky was considerably better than it had been at sundown. While it was damp, a drier wind had begun to blow through, a strangely warm wind, and while the seeing wasn’t anything to brag about (Jupiter was just OK), transparency seemed to be improving.

NGC 3077, a near-face-on irregular galaxy that really looks more like an elliptical, lies 46’ southeast of M81 and glows rather weakly at magnitude 10.6 and 5’ x 4’ in size. On this night, the galaxy quite frankly looked a lot like a dimmer version of Comet Lovejoy. Nevertheless, it was readily visible in the 10-inch and was surprisingly good in my 16mm "Happy Hand Grenade" 100-degree AFOV eyepiece (78x).

While NGC 3077 is just a little oval of light in most scopes and not something most observers linger over, it does get its picture in the Handbook, and Burnham notes that it, in images, appears disturbed. No doubt it’s undergone interactions with the group’s bully, M81, in the past just as the Cigar Galaxy, M82, has.


It was amazing what darker skies, two more inches of aperture, and a 50mm finder did for me when it came time to track down the Whirlpool galaxy and its companion, NGC 5195. Last time out, I’d tried to locate the pair with the 8-inch using only the Rigel Quick Finder and failed. I didn’t try very hard;  the lack of the guide stars in the area—M51 and NGC 5195 were well within the Airport Boulevard light dome—didn’t encourage me to keep hunting.

With the 10-inches of aperture I had on this night and a 50mm finder to lend aid to the Rigel, landing on M51’s spot three and a half degrees west of Eta, the “end” star of the Dipper’s/Plough's handle, was easy enough. There’s a trio of seventh magnitude suns that help you find your way and which are easy to spot in a real finder scope.

Once I was on the interacting pair (NGC 5195 is, contrary to the way it looks, actually receding into the distance), I switched the 30mm Zhumell out for the 16mm HHG and had a good long look. One thing about old fashioned finding:  the time spent on the hunt encourages you to stop and rest a while, taking a good long look instead of immediately pushing the buttons to take you to the next one.

In my eyepiece, the two galaxies were a treat. At first they were just a big blob (M51) and a smaller blob (NGC 5195) nearly in contact, but a little staring soon turned up the bar shaped center of the smaller galaxy and, best of all, the outlines of one of M51’s spiral arms, the westernmost one.

NGC 4631, the Whale Galaxy

One of my fonder visual observing memories is from about seven years ago on a similarly damp spring night when Taras and I braved the bugs to observe as many spring galaxies as we could. The standout was, no doubt about it, NGC 4631, the Whale Galaxy, whose wedge-shaped disk makes it look amazingly like a swimming cetacean. 

Even better, this whale is accompanied by a “calf,” little NGC 4627 (magnitude 13, 2.2’ x 3.7’). The Whale’s child was only intermittently visible in the 10-inch on this night, but it was also only intermittently visible in Taras’ 15-inch, so I guess Zelda did pretty good.

By the way, you may notice there is a dim star just to the southeast of the Calf that is not shown on some charts (including those generated by SkyTools). Sorry, but that is not a supernova (it is visible on the POSS plate of the galaxy).

M94, The Croc’s Eye Galaxy

M94 was one of the first objects I visited for my book, The Urban Astronomer’s Guide, and I will get back to it from the backyard when I move on to my SECOND visual project, revisiting the Urban objects, but I wanted to observe it from a dark site on to have a basis for comparison later. As usual, the main impression was, “Like a medium-sized unresolved globular star cluster.” More staring, though, and the 8mm Ethos brought out hints of the tightly wrapped spiral arms just outside its interior disk. I was impressed enough that I essayed the second sketch of the evening.


It took me a while to get on the Sunflower Galaxy. Somehow I got bum-fuzzled and started looking for it on the wrong “end” of Canes Venatici, on the northeastern instead of the southwestern end. At first I thought I had it, but I soon noticed a second galaxy in contact with "M63." And I’d already noted that the Sunflower seemed to be missing its normal small, bright center. Turned out I was looking at the Cocoon Galaxy, NGC 4490 and its companion, NGC 4480, by mistake. Not that they were not nice and all.

Switching to the opposite end of Canes, I was soon at the Sunflower, which was about twice the size of the Cocoon, 12’ across, but didn't look a bit dimmer despite that larger size. There was also that bright center, and signs, strong hints, of the Sunflower’s multiple dusty, patchy spiral arms.


I normally look for M97, the Owl planetary nebula, with an OIII filter screwed onto the eyepiece, but I began without one this time. Not a problem. Old Owly was holding court bright and bold unfiltered in the 16mm ocular.

Adding a filter was almost like gilding the lily. I will say the UHC (that’s what came to hand first) did make this round nebula a little bigger and the dark spots that are its “eyes” a little easier to see, but the difference was not night and day. It would have been hard to make the Owl much better than he was. Only problem? The seeing, which was getting worse, was making the owl’s eyes swim in and out of view.


A mere 48’ west of M97 is one of Ursa Major’s premier galaxies, M108, a magnitude 10.7, 5.4’ long intermediate inclination beauty. It is a barred spiral with loose, dusty arms and a look that, at low power, reminds you of M82. It is not disturbed, though; just patchy and dusty. I had no problem finding M108  when I looked at a chart instead of relying on memory.


And then there is the Catherine Wheel Galaxy, M101, a massive face-on 22’ across giant. While its magnitude is a bright-sounding 8.4, that is what you’d get if you squished it down to the size of a star. If you want to know how dim it is, defocus a magnitude 8.4 sun until it nearly fills your field. That dim; Taras thought I was wasting my time.

I wasn’t. At times, this one can surprise, and this was one of those times. It was immediately obvious when I landed on it, and, as I stared, began to fill the field of the 30mm eyepiece. Then it began showing off spiral arm detail--I do get lucky sometimes.

NGC 5139, Omega Centauri

The first good look I ever got of Omega was from our old club site in Hurley, Mississippi with my homemade 6-inch f/8 Dobbie. The view was stupendous, so I always hunt up NGC 5139 whenever it is over the horizon at our current dark site. Which it was at mid-evening, if only barely, and well past culmination. It was mostly just a huge milky globe, and it took the magnification delivered by my 13mm Ethos to begin resolution. Still, how can you go wrong with freaking Omega?


Like many of you, I suppose, I don’t view M106 very often. The question is, why don’t I visit it more? It is bright at magnitude 9.1 despite a size of nearly 16’ across. It shows plenty of detail including a strongly elongated disk and an oval nucleus. On this evening, it even gave hints of its two spiky spiral arms. Maybe it is because it is located in a rather star poor area of Canes Venatici? Well, most of you are using goto or digital setting circles so that doesn’t mean much anymore. You all tell me why this beauty isn’t more popular, huh?


With Hercules not just on the rise at 10 p.m., but riding high, it was time to desert the spring skies for the summer heavens. The Great Globular (magnitude 5.8, 20’) certainly lived up to its name with oodles of tiny resolved stars. It was best with a little power in the 13mm Ethos, 96x. I should have looked for nearby galaxy NGC 6207, but I forgot. Oh, well.


As I pointed out in my observing article in the July Issue of Sky & Telescope, “The Backyard Sky:  Summer,” M92 isn’t close to being a rival of nearby M13. At magnitude 6.5 and 14’ across, it is considerably smaller and dimmer. It is still great, sure; it is a Messier object after all, but it needed the 8mm Ethos (156x) to make it really good.

M4 and the Ghost Glob (NGC 6144)

Also in my S&T article was a stop at M4 and its much dimmer (magnitude 9) and even looser companion, globular cluster NGC 6144. This wasn’t on the evening's observing list, but I wanted to see how good NGC 6144 would look from skies slightly better than the average suburban backyard (but only slightly better; the pair was well down in the Mobile light dome). The Ghost was easy enough to see with the 8mm Ethos when I kept nearby Antares out of the field, but it was obvious how it got its name. It looks a lot like a faint reflection of the bright and pretty Cat’s Eye (globular) Cluster M4, one degree to the west.


Last summer we got lucky. Taras and another friend, Ken, and I were able to see M57’s central star with Kenny’s 10-inch Synta Dobsonian. I didn’t think I’d be able to duplicate that feat with my 10-inch on this night—the steady seeing which is required just wasn’t there—but the surest way to not see something is not to look. No central star did I see, but the Ring Nebula was beautiful in the 8mm Ethos, easily showing the dim stars around the periphery of the ring and the milky, filled center of the donut.

Just after I finished admiring the Ring, the humidity spiked back up noticeably. Way up, bringing fresh clouds of skeeters with it. I sprayed myself all over with Off, but still they bit me—through my darned T-shirt. I hadn't yet got to the wonders of Ophiuchus, but the Moon was over the horizon now and the mosquitoes ensured I had reached my infamous I Have Had Enough stage. One last look at M57 and I was done. The biggest benefit of a 10-inch solid tube Dobsonian then made itself evident. I was packed and on the road in 10-minutes—tops.

Back home, I continued with Netflix and Star Wars: Clone Wars into the wee hours, but it was hard to concentrate. My mind was too full of the real wonders I’d viewed on a suprisingly magical night with my wonderful new telescope. “I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.”

2018 Update

There's really not much to update concerning this fairly recent entry. I still have and love Zelda even if I haven't used her that much over the last year--mostly thanks to the weather. I expect to get her out a lot more over the coming months, though. I'm working on a new deep sky observing book, and plan to make some new observations for it rather than just relying on my musty old log entries.

What became of my "BCH Project"? I didn't get far with it--which is not to say I might not pick it up again after the new book is done. Why did I drop it? I just wasn't in the mood, it turned out, for an organized observing project. Other than the observing I've done in support of my writing for Sky & Telescope, this has mostly been a year of VERY casual star gazing for me. 

Sunday, June 07, 2015


Sultry Nights with Zelda...

“Zelda,” is, it turns out, the name of the Zhumell Z10 Dobsonian who has come to stay with me. Sounded about right, muchachos; like F. Scott’s paramour, the telescope seemed saucy and a little scatterbrained. She did, however, soon begin to reveal solutions to some of her apparent quirks and I made a few improvements for Second Light.

Improvement One, as mentioned last week, was providing her with a zero power finder to at least supplement to the included Right Angle Correct Image 50mm optical job. A visit to the Scopestuff website got a Rigel Quick Finder base on the way to me from Texas. Not that the included finder is bad. It is actually nice and sharp; I just prefer to have a zero-power sight in addition to an optical finder.

By the way, if there are any of you out there who still haven’t used the Chinese 50mm finders, when you encounter your first one be aware they focus by screwing the objective cell in and out after loosening the knurled ring behind it. I’ve seen quite a few folks over the years suffering with out of focus finders because they didn’t know that simple trick.

The finder base arrived, amazingly, in just two days and I immediately affixed it to the OTA using the included double-sided foam tape. Where? There was just enough room to squeeze the Quick Finder in between the focuser and the finder scope thanks to the Rigel’s relatively small size and upright orientation. I thought I’d be able to easily shift my eye from finder or main eyepiece to the Quick Finder while seated in my adjustable observing chair.

My other significant problem was that I didn’t have quite enough focuser out-travel to allow the included Zhumell 30mm 2-inch eyepiece and some of my other 2-inch eyepieces to come to focus. I had to pull them out a bit, which I find annoying. An at least partial answer turned up on this highly recommended thread on the Cloudy Nights’ Reflectors Forum: “Mega Mod Thread for Zhumell Dobsonians.

It seemed the second of the focuser’s two lock/tension screws, the one closest to the focuser’s base, was preventing the drawtube from reaching its full extension. Loosening it all the way yielded what looked to be half an inch or a little more of additional travel. I’d already ordered a 2-inch extension tube from Scopestuff before I read about this “trick,” but that was OK. I wasn’t sure my Ethoses, which I’d had to use in the focuser's 1.25-inch adapter, would come to focus in 2-inch mode with just another ½-inch of added back travel.

Otherwise, what was the story with the included Zhumell 2-inch 30mm wide field eyepiece? As I may have mentioned last time, it works OK. The AFOV, when compared to my Panoptics, seemed to be about 65 degrees or so: nice and wide but not ultra wide. Stars were reasonable at the edge of the field even at f/5. No, it ain’t no Ethos apparent-field-wise, much less edge-of-field sharpness-wise, but is a good compromise and is nicer than cheap 82-degree oculars like the 1RPD eyepieces. Nicely coated. Not very heavy, either.

I also tried the laser collimator. It appeared to be in collimation itself, and while it didn’t really produce a red dot—more like a short red bar—it allowed me to collimate the scope at least as well as I could with my Cheshire/Sight Tube in low light. Or really in any light with my eyes. There are several mods that can be done to improve the laser, which are linked to the above CN thread, and I resolved to try some of them. Still, it seemed to work.

Naturally, First Light was followed by days of intermittent rain and almost continuously cloudy skies. It appeared we would get a temporary reprive, however, and though the eyepiece extension tube had not arrived, I wanted to give Zelda her Second Light.  My goals were not complex. No serious visual observing projects. I just wanted to further test the new telescope. See what additional tweaks I might need to make, how what I’d done so far worked, and, most of all, see how she performed.

Was the focus travel problem solved for all eyepieces by loosening the lock knob? How good was the collimation produced by the laser? Was balance affected by the addition of the Rigel Quick Finder? Was the position I placed the Quick Finder in on the tube one that would make it easy to use? How did DSOs, even just bright ones, look in the scope as compared to in the 8-inch f/5? What would I think about this new telescope after using her for several hours?

I didn’t get the chance to find any of that out Wednesday night. While my usual observing weather sources, TWC, the Clear Sky Clock, and Scope Nights, predicted I’d get some time under the stars, and I’d gone ahead and set the Zhumell up in the backyard, by sundown it was raining again. I watched Star Wars: Clone Wars Season Three on Netflix and fumed. I kept poking my head out the door, but nothing had changed by 10 p.m. and I eventually had to admit it looked like nothing would change Wednesday evening.

Thursday morning, for want of anything better to do, I thought I’d fine tune the scope’s balance. It appeared we might finally get that predicted clearing a little behind schedule Thursday night, and I wanted to be ready for it. I’d be conducting my astronomy club’s monthly meeting early in the evening and I wanted to get to work with the new telescope as soon as I got home.

To that end, after a couple of cups of coffee, natch, I joined Zelda in the backyard where I’d left her set up and covered with a Desert Storm cover. As a first step, I checked the scope’s balance with my heaviest frequently used eyepiece, the 13mm Ethos (1.3-pounds). With the tension knobs on both altitude bearings loose, the tube took a nosedive when Zelda was pointed lower than about 30-40-degrees.

The Zhumell's sliding-bearing altitude balance system is downright innovative, but you can’t adjust it with the OTA on the mount, unfortunately. So…I pulled the tube off the rocker box, loosened the four Allen head bolts that hold the alt-bearings in place, and slid them up the scale another half inch toward the forward end of the tube. Tightened everything back down, remounted the OTA, and gave it a try.

With some tension on the knobs, balance was good with any of my normally used oculars. Not perfect, mind you. Unless you have a means of continuously adjusting balance, the altitude axis of an alt-az scope, given the (too) small side bearings Chinese telescope makers use, will never be perfect all the way from 90-degrees to 0-degrees. Still, I ruled it good enough as long as I kept at least one of the tension knobs cranked down a mite. I may look into getting some magnetized welder’s weights to place on the tube, if necessary. That’s the usual solution for today's steel tube Dobs and is the successor of the lead-shot-filled beanbags we stuck on our Sonotube scopes with Velcro in the 1990s.

As soon as the club meeting wrapped up, I made tracks for home, but I needn't have hurried. Darkness still hadn’t arrived —darn this DST—when I made it back just after 8. I spent another half hour or so watching TV until Venus and Jupiter peeped out, and kinda had to pry myself off the couch, I’ll admit, when they did. I’d had a pretty good time running the Mobile Astronomical Society June meeting, but the glasses of Merlot I’d consumed with dinner at Applebee’s beforehand to fortify myself for the task were now having a slightly deleterious effect. Still, I was determined to see where I stood with the new scope’s focuser and Rigel Quick Finder at least.

When semi-darkness arrived, I centered brilliant Cytherea in the finder, inserted the 30mm Zhumell ocular, and looked in it to see a just slightly blurry (more blurry than could be attributed merely to those glasses of vino) planet. Gave it a little more out focus, little more, and bingo, the Sun’s second world became a sharp little half-moon. The laser-produced collimation looked good and I actually had a little out focus distance to spare.

Before going on to try my other problem eyepieces, the Ethoses, I aligned the Rigel Quick Finder to the scope, and tried my dual-threat finding system on Jupiter. Verdict? Sure was nice to be able to see where I was pointing the freaking OTA. I’ve never got the hang of using right angle finders and guess I never will. The position of the Rigel on the tube seemed about perfect to me.

OK, Jupiter now. Obviously the planet would benefit from a lot more magnification than the 30mm was delivering, 41x. Hopped inside and retrieved the 8mm Ethos, plugged it into the focuser, and, as I feared, it still wouldn’t quite come to sharpness in 2-inch mode. Not a biggie. I added the scope’s 1.25-inch adapter and the TeleVue eyepiece then worked fine. Jupiter was showing off plenty of cloud bands when the seeing cooperated in the gloaming.

Final task was to see where the 13mm Ethos’ focus would fall. Like the the 8mm it is a hybrid 1.25-inch – 2-inch ocular, but I recalled it doesn’t focus quite as far out as the 8. Sure enough, I had just enough range to bring it to focus in 2-inch mode, just barely enough. 

As for the 8mm, I’d have to make up my mind whether to continue to use the eyepiece with a 1.25-inch adapter or, when it arrived, leave the 2-inch extension tube in the focuser at all times. Assuming of course that even the extension would put the eyepiece far enough back.

What else did I find out before throwing in the towel? Balance seemed near perfect with all eyepieces. Only when I added my 2-inch TeleVue Big Barlow to the 8mm did the scope display any tendency to plunge to the horizon, and tightening both altitude tension knobs made the Barlow-8mm configuration (312x)—which was perfect for Jupiter—eminently workable.

What else did we do on Second Light night? That was about it. I did mosey over to M82 sinking in the west, which was easy to track down in the haze thanks to my twin finders, but it was just a dim smudge without much detail. It did, reassuringly, look considerably better than it does in the 8-inch on nights such as this one, but was certainly no showpiece in the heavy spring haze.

One more mosquito bite, and that was it for me. Friday night was supposed to be drier, and I hoped to make it a longer one in hopes of seeing what Zelda would do with a slightly better but still no doubt haze-compromised spring sky.

Which I didn’t really get to. Other things intervened Friday night as they sometimes do. I wasn’t too distressed since I planned to take the new telescope out to our club dark site Saturday evening (which I will report on next week). I did stir myself into the backyard at dusk Friday for long enough to check out the extension tube that had arrived in the mail that afternoon.

I’d opted for the shortest one Scopestuff sells in 2-inch format, one 35mm in length. Unfortunately, while it brought the 8mm Ethos to focus, its presence meant my other 2-inch oculars were now placed too far back to focus. Sometimes you just can’t win for losing.

Since the 8mm Ethos is the only troublesome eyepiece and I’ve got the primary mirror as far back as it will go, I suppose what I will do is dedicate the extension tube to the 8mm, leaving it mated to that ocular rather than in the scope’s focuser at all times. I believe I will prefer to do that rather than use the 8mm in 1.25-inch mode, which has never seemed very secure to me. Oh, well. I suppose I am lucky there’s only one problem eyepiece in my case.

So, on to the dark site. While I’d bought Zelda expressly for use in my backyard, I thought she’d be good for club site use, too, since of late I find I have to be really serious about hitting it hard if I am to convince myself to load up the 12-inch and face assembling her at the site and then disassembling her for the trip home.

I have become so lazy about my “big” telescope recently, that I’ve been idly thinking Zelda, if she performs as well under a dark sky as I think she will, MIGHT be perfect for some of my star party expeditions too. Maybe. An event where I can leave Old Betsy set up for several days takes away most of the pain of loading her in the vehicle and putting her together on the observing field. Also, she sure is pleasantly compact in the 4Runner when she is taken apart. We shall see. 

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