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...

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