Sunday, May 15, 2016


Issue #493, Scrimmaging

I make no secret of the fact I don’t do as many star parties as I used to. Oh, I am still happy to fly in to the most distant events to give talks to my fellow amateurs in my capacity as an astronomy writer/raconteur, but when it comes to loading my Toyota 4Runner with a ton of gear and driving long distances to dark skies to observe? Not so much anymore.

There are various reasons for the above, including the fact that I can now do deep sky astrophotography from my backyard.  And who knows? My current aversion to driving to Timbuktu, often to do nothing more than look at the undersides of clouds, may be a temporary thing. Be that as it may, at this time I prefer to stick close to home.

“Close to home” doesn’t just mean I decline to drive two or more days to get to the Texas Star Party or one of the other big events out west. It means I’ve even cut back on my trips to Chiefland, Florida and the Chiefland Astronomy Village, which is a mere six hours away.

Still, I sometimes want darker skies for imaging or visual work than what my backyard or my club’s fairly decent dark site offer. Luckily, one of my favorite star parties, one of the longest running star parties in the USA, the Deep South Star Gaze (formerly the Deep South Regional Star Gaze), is only three hours from home and has skies that are actually slightly better than those of Chiefland.

It gets better still. While the DSSG has always been held in the fall, for some years we’ve also been doing a less formal spring version, the Deep South Star Gaze Spring Scrimmage. No speakers, few door prizes, just observing. There is a meal plan, however, and the small number of attendees compared to in the fall, 20-30 rather than 100-150, means there’s no problem getting one of the small motel rooms in the site’s, the Feliciana Retreat Center’s, Lodge.

Set up Thursday afternoon...
What lights my fire about the Scrimmage is that I get a crack at the summer/late spring objects under dark skies at a location with excellent amenities. That and being able to hang out with my long-time Deep South buddies. I’ve been doing the Spring Scrimmage ever since I retired from my engineering gig, with 2016 being my fourth one.

The only problem with the Scrimmage is the weather in this part of the country in the springtime. Year One, I got one night. Year Two I got one good night and part of another. Year Three,last year, I didn’t get squat. That’s just part of the amateur astronomy game, and I can have a good time under less than good skies, but for once it didn’t seem weather would be a problem. This year, the forecasts were unanimous that we’d have clear skies for all three nights of the event, which would begin on Thursday, May 5th. Yee-hah!

How did I feel about the trip as I loaded up Ms. Van Pelt, the 4Runner, late Wednesday afternoon? I was pumped. It wasn’t just the amazingly beautiful and uncharacteristically cool, crisp, and clear weather either. I was in the mood to do a star party, more in the mood than I’d been in about a year. I worked with a will to get all the astro-stuff in the truck, almost—but not quite—whistling a happy tune.

My current star party rig is my SkyWatcher 120mm Pro ED refractor, Hermione—this would be her first trip to really dark skies—and since I would be imaging, the mount she’d be riding would be my Celestron CGEM. I had the usual ton of other junk to load as well—cables, cameras, gear cases, computer, etc., etc. By the time I was finished, I was more than ready to call it an early night—well, after a glass or two of "sarsaparilla" and Arrow on the TV.

The only slight bring down was that some business I needed to conduct Saturday (including attending Free Comic Book Day, which wasn't a bring down at all, natch), meant I’d decided to scale the trip back from three nights to two. I’d be onsite Thursday and Friday nights and go home Saturday morning. Actually, that wasn’t really much of a bring down, since lately two nights at an event seems just about right for me.

Thursday morning’s trip to the Feliciana Retreat Center, which is nestled in the backwoods of northeastern Louisiana near Norwood, was uneventful in the extreme. Miss Dorothy normally does not attend this event, so I was by myself and passed the time listening to an audiobook of one of my favorite Stephen King Novels, The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon.  I was about halfway through the CDs, to the point where poor little Trisha is wandering the lost pathways of New Hampshire's chimney, when I drove onto the spacious observing field slightly before noon.

FRC Lodge...
How was gear set up? Not too bad. I’ve erected my EZ-Up tent canopy more than a few times by myself, and have gotten pretty good at that, but it was still nice when my old friend Walt stopped by to lend a hand. Two of my other long-time Deep South pals, Barry and Ron, had also arrived and were, like me, getting their telescopes put together, said telescopes being, like mine, refractors.

While this was just a small event, sure, I thought it was telling that lens scopes outnumbered everything else by at least two-to-one. I suppose the current incredibly reasonable prices for high quality imported Chinese ED scopes is what is continuing to tip the table back in favor or refractors.

The CGEM is heavy enough that it is not exactly a pleasure to mount on its tripod, but it isn’t that bad, and when I know I will be able to leave it set up for a couple of days, not having to take it down and cart it home at the end of one evening, it doesn’t seem bad at all. Hermione only weighs 11-pounds and is easy to get on the CGEM and very steady on it. What really made putting the telescope and tent canopy together more pleasant than usual? Temperatures in the lower 70s, something rare for us in May. I got all the other junk arranged under the EZ-Up and proceeded to the Lodge to get settled in my room.

The Lodge features motel-like rooms that are clean but not exactly spacious. Nevertheless, Center management feels the need to cram a bunk bed AND a single bed into almost every one, and there’s not enough space left over for even a desk on which to put your laptop. The air-conditioners work but are old and noisy and on their last legs. So, no, not up to the level of even a Days Inn, but a heck of a lot more comfortable and cleaner than the average star party chickie cabin for sure. I bring along a small folding aluminum camp table for the laptop, and I am good for a couple of days.

What the Lodge lacks as far as rooms, it more than makes up for with its beautiful, modern-looking dining area. This part of the Lodge also features workable (if often torturously slow) wi-fi and is where most folks hang out during the endless days.  What’s the biggest pain with a spring star party? The freaking Daylight Savings Time. It’s a long, weary old stretch from afternoon to eight p.m. when you can at least get your telescope aligned. I spent the hours before supper in the dining area Facebooking, Cloudy Nighting, and

One thing that has made the wait for dark a little easier to take in past years has been lunch. That tends to break up the day a bit. Alas, the last couple of times it’s been two meals a day, breakfast at nine and an early (4 p.m.) supper, so the days do tend to drag.

The dining room.
When supper came, I was reminded of one of the best things about Deep South—the food at Feliciana. Thursday’s meal, brisket, was outstanding. No, I didn’t dare eat the mega-carb loaded baked potato casserole, but the excellent brisket and a large salad from the salad bar were more than enough to fortify me for the night to come.

Out on the field as the Sun slowly, ever so slowly, began to sink, I didn’t have a lot to do. I’d already installed the DewBuster heater strips on Herminone’s objective and the 50mm Orion guide scope. All that remained was to position the computer on the observing table under the EZ up, hook cables to it and to the imaging camera, a Canon 400D, and the guide-cam, a QHY 5-LII, and get the mount aligned.

I had an ace up my sleeve in that regard, the Celestron StarSense alignment camera/system. This does a goto alignment on the CGEM without my intervention, and is as accurate, easily, as the best “manual” goto alignment I can do. Even better, the StarSense encourages me to do two iterations of the AllStar polar alignment routine, since I don’t have to redo the time consuming 2+4 goto alignment after each polar alignment. I just tell StarSense to do another automatic goto alignment and twiddle my thumbs while it does.

What’s the StarSense alignment procedure like? I temporarily remove the guide scope, placing it in my TPI spreader's tray, and mount the StarSense camera in its place. Light off the mount, tell the StarSense HC to do an auto-align, and away she goes. In about three minutes the mount has gone to multiple star fields, has done plate-solves, and I am goto aligned.

After that, if I am imaging, I do an AllStar polar alignment, which works almost the same with the StarSense as with the old hand control. Point at a star, the mount slews off, re-center it with the altitude and azimuth adjusters. The StarSense HC then does another goto alignment and once that’s finished I am done (or if I want the most accurate polar alignment I can get with AllStar, I do another iteration of that followed by another auto-align).

When dark came on Thursday, I remounted the guide scope and focused it by watching the brightness value of a medium bright and non-saturated star increase on the auto-guide program’s, PHD2’s, display on the laptop. By the way, if you have not yet switched from the old PHD to PHD2, you really should. The new version is better. Mucho better.

M3 and little NGC 5263...
To focus the main scope I get a bright star, Arcturus Thursday night, as small as I can get it and then sharpen up dimmer background stars by eye. Nebulosity, my camera control program, allows me to focus on a nice big image on the laptop rather than squinting at a tiny picture on the DSLR’s display, and that makes focusing so much easier, y’all. For final tweaking, I engage Neb’s fine-focus mode, clicking on a star on the laptop display, and twitching focus till the FWHM number Nebulosity displays is as small as I can get it.

The rest of the evening was rather anti-climactic. This would be a night of Messier globs, with the first on the list being that gem of spring, Coma’s M3. When the CGEM stopped slewing, M3 was dead in the center of the frame, but I nudged it off center a bit so as to also include a cute little galaxy, NGC 5263, in the picture. Started PHD2 guiding, and after giving it a little while to settle down, I dialed up 180-seconds of exposure with Nebulosity and told the program to acquire 25 subs with the Canon 400D.

After that, there really wasn’t a heck of a lot for me to do. I would check in with Nebulosity and PHD2 occasionally, but my intervention was never required; the software just kept clicking off sub-frames and taking and subtracting darks. I’d brought along a pair of 10x50 binoculars and spent some time scanning the sky. When I tried of that, I checked out my friend Beth’s new 12-inch SkyWatcher collapsible-tube goto Dobsonian. I am glad I downsized to a 10-inch dobbie, but must admit Beth’s scope was delivering impressive images.

So it went for the balance of the evening. I’d choose a new target from the list on my new observing planner program, Deep-Sky Planner 7, switch to my current fave planetarium app, Stellarium, click on the next target, send the mount there with a CTRL-1 key combo, and get another sequence underway. I would then set off wandering the field again. I did take a couple of breaks and walk back to the Lodge for hot coffee. Can you believe it? I forgot to bring along my usual stimulant of choice, Monster Energy Drinks. Oh, well, probably coffee was better for my system than whatever is in the Monsters.

The AT130...
Coffee or no coffee, by just before three a.m. I had had enough. Three targets were in the bag, M3, M5, and M10, and three is my usual nightly goal for long exposure prime focus imaging. I shut everything down, covered the telescope and walked back to the lodge where I watched a DVD on the laptop (the animated Doctor Strange film) until my eyes began to close and I fell into a deep slumber and knew nothing more till somewhat after eight.

Breakfast was at nine and was the only yucky meal I experienced this spring, or, actually, that I’ve had over the last several years at the FRC. The bacon was good, and the biscuits looked terrific (I admired them from afar). The problem was instead of just doing scrambled eggs, they made a breakfast casserole. The idea was OK, but in addition to eggs, cheese, and sausage, they added in broccoli. Oh, I like broccoli pretty well…but for BREAKFAST?!
After that semi-debacle, I was off to the field to dry everything out. While the dew had not been heavy during the first part of the evening Thursday—in fact it had been amazingly light for Louisiana—the damp had come on as midnight approached, and the observing table was soaked by morning. Six years of exposure to UV at sunny star parties has made the EZ-Up less than waterproof, and it now tends to “rain” under the canopy when dew accumulates on it. I might spray it down with Scotch-Guard, or, more likely, I may just go ahead and replace it with a new EZ-Up. It’s lasted well, but has a few mechanical problems now, too.

With the refractor/mount uncovered to let them dry off in the morning Sun, I set about reconfiguring. My intention for Friday night was to go visual. For one thing, it didn’t look as if the sky would be as transparent as it had been Thursday evening. For another, I wanted to see what Hermione could do visually under dark skies. Finally, stowing the imaging-related cables, the guide scope, the guide camera, etc. would make for a quicker get-away Saturday morning. I definitely wanted to be home by noon to get in line for the free stuff at my LCS (local comic shop).

The first part of the day seemed to last forever. I spent some time surfing the Internet and reading (a graphic novel, Neal Adams’ very strange Batman Odyssey). Shortly after noon, I closed my book and trotted back to the field. As I approached, I could see my longtime observing companion, Pat, who'd just arrived, setting up his HEQ-5 mount and preparing to get a new telescope on that GEM.

My traveling companion...
To say I was impressed by the AT130 (a house brand of the dealer, Astronomics) 5-inch APO that came out of that case would be an understatement. Beautiful, robust white tube. Nice Crayford focuser (rotatable in two places). The whole package shouted “quality.” Frankly, what the Astronomics import (China) reminded me a lot of was the William Optics refractors. The 130 seemed very much the big sister of my Megrez II Fluorite (80mm). The only question in my mind was color correction. The 130 is a triplet and doesn’t use a fluorite or synthetic fluorite element (FPL-53). It opts for FPL-51 glass instead. How would that stack up?

After the 130 was on her mount, we spent a few minutes on the field reminiscing about the good old days of Deep South Regional Star Gazes past. As we were sitting under my canopy shooting the breeze, Barry stopped by and mentioned his club, the Pontchartrain Astronomical Society, had some stuff to sell, including Telegizmos scope covers at great prices. Specifically, covers for refractors.

That pricked my ears up, since my old Desert Storm Cover simply will not fit over Hermione when she is on a German mount. Barry had two different sizes, including one sufficient for a 6-inch f/8 telescope, which was what I chose so I could use the cover on Big Ethel, my 6-inch achromat, as well. The Telegizmos covers seem durable, well thought out, and made it the task of just a few seconds to get the scopes under wraps at the end of the evening. Recommended.

Soon enough, the stars were beginning to wink on. With Hermione being so easy to get aligned thanks to the StarSense, I was able to spend some time helping get Pat squared away with his HEQ-5. He’d had the mount for a while, but for various reasons, including our many months of horrid weather, hadn’t been able to do much with it. In particular, he’d had little chance to play with the mount’s computer and was anxious to give that a clean bill of health.

We got the mount, which is identical to the Orion Sirius, polar aligned using its polar borescope, and, after a couple of false starts, we completed a two-star goto alignment—which seemed to work better than a three-star for some reason. When we were done, I was impressed at the way the mount put anything we requested in the field of the 130, which was quite steady on the mount.

The true question was about the optical quality of the new AT130 EDT. Again, I was impressed by the telescope. Despite fairly poor seeing, Jupiter showed plenty of detail and contrast was excellent. The same was true with Mars despite the fact that the Angry Red One was low when we looked at it. Certainly the scope provided beautiful wide-field views of deep sky objects.

The observing field Friday...
How did it stack up against my SkyWatcher and Barry’s TMB? The views in all three scopes were essentially identical. Were deep sky objects maybe a little brighter in the 130 than in my 120 thanks to those 10 extra millimeters? Maybe, but 10-millimeters isn’t much, and the difference was slight. Color correction on the FPL-51 triplet seemed pretty much the same as on my FPL-53 doublet. One other thing we concluded? The views we were getting were reminiscent of what you’d expect with a garden variety C8, and both refractors delivered satisfying views of deep sky objects.

How did the scopes hold up against Barry’s high-toned TMB? Very well, thank you. Again, the images in all three seemed more or less indistinguishable to me. Would the TMB have pulled ahead on the planets if the seeing had been better? Maybe, maybe not. It’s amazing how far the Chinese have come in the quality of their ED refractor objectives—simply amazing.

So, I spent Friday night in relaxed fashion enjoying the planets and the brighter and more spectacular deep sky wonders. I was having a great time and was sad when midnight began to approach and with it the inevitable need to pull that cursed Big Switch. I covered Hermione, returned to the Lodge, and was soon enjoying a few hours of shuteye. But only a few; I’d need to be up again at five in the stinking a.m. to pack.

Saturday was not exactly a treat but was bearable. I was happy I’d stowed all the astrophoto gear away Friday morning, for sure. Biggest bummer was packing the EZ-Up, which was soaking wet. If Thursday had been slightly damp, Friday was well on its way to being a typical dew-heavy southeastern spring night. I got ‘er done, though, and was on the road by 8:30, just a little later than planned. The end of the Scrimmage for me was not the end of the week’s astronomy fun, however.


FCBD at FOS Comics...
After the drive home and FCBD and the other business I had to conduct, I was understandably tired on Saturday evening. BUT… It was obviously going to be another beautiful night under the stars, and I didn’t want to waste it sitting inside watching TV. How about a trip to the club dark site then? I wasn’t about to repack Hermione and all her support gear, but that didn’t mean I'd lack telescopic horsepower.

A night like this would be perfect for Zelda, my no-frills no-goto GSO 10-inch Dobsonian. I had her, my Asus Android tablet (running SkySafari), and a box of eyepieces in the 4Runner in no more than 10-minutes and was on the road to the little country airstrip we use for our serious deep sky work.

Onsite, less than 10-minutes elapsed before I had Zelda out of the truck, on the field, and ready to rock. It wasn’t dark quite yet but was at least dark enough to have a look at Jupiter, who was riding high in the gloaming. It wasn’t just to be an idle look, either; I had an agenda. What I wanted to know was how the Dob’s views would compare to what I had seen through the refractors.

Verdict? Pretty much a wash. The seeing was no better than it had been the previous two nights, and that no doubt prevented the 10-inch, who has a very good mirror, from pulling ahead. Yes, there were plenty of details when the seeing would settle down a little, and the Great Red Spot was easy to see, but could I see anything I hadn’t seen with the lens-scopes? No. I thought the color of the GRS was a little more saturated than in the refractors, but the difference was not striking.

On the deep sky, on M3 specifically, there was no denying Zelda left the refractors in the dust. Yes, you might say the stars had looked tinier and sharper in the 120 and 130mm scopes, but the 250mm reflector just provided more light and more stars and there was little doubt the view of the globular cluster was “better.” That wasn’t what surprised me, however. What surprised me was how well the refractors’ views of M3 actually held up against those in a much larger telescope.

What else did I look at? Not much. Shortly after astronomical twilight it became crystal clear I needed to get the heck out. Not because of Mothman, the Little Grey Dudes from Zeta Reticuli II, or the Skunk Ape, though. The big baddies who used to haunt me when I was alone at the dark site seem to have lost their power over me. That’s thanks, I suppose, to all the changes I’ve gone through in the past year.

It was the little baddies who chased me home. The mosquitoes. They were fierce, and I’d forgotten the bug spray. In my tired, fuzzy-thinking condition, I’d also forgotten to bring a jump start battery along. I had nothing to power my dew zapper gun, and my finderscope and Rigel Quick Finder would no doubt have dewed up before long.

Sunday passed uneventfully, and I thought Monday would too. Yes, there was to be a spectacular transit of Mercury across the Sun at dawn on that day, but the weathermen were unanimous that we’d have heavy clouds from the event’s start to finish. I went to bed expecting nothing.

Surprise! At dawn a look out the bedroom window revealed the sky was beautifully clear and blue. I dressed in a hurry and grabbed my most portable combo, the SkyWatcher AZ-4 alt-azimuth mount and 80mm SkyWatcher f/11.3 achromatic refractor. Slapped a Thousand Oaks solar filter on the scope and had a look with a 20mm wide-field eyepiece. There was the little bb that was Mercury. Nice, complex sunspot group too. It was quite wonderful to watch the little world’s slow progress across Sol. After Dorothy and I had taken good long looks, I even snapped a few iPhone photos through the eyepiece.

The denouement was that the weather-goobers were eventually proven correct. A couple of hours into the event we were completely clouded out, but I’d seen plenty and was happy and lucky to have seen anything. That made it a twofer for me. We’d caught the inception and the first minutes of the Venus transit in 2012 (but not much more than that thanks to violent thunderstorms) and now Merc. Cool. All in all a very good week astro-wise, and the most active and engaging one I’ve had in a while.

There are many more Scrimmage pictures on my FaceBook page.

Up next? More Messiers, that’s what.  

Somebody has to sponsor you to get you to come visit out west to enjoy or Bortle Scale 1 and 2 skies.
Oh, been to a number of those places over the years...most notably the Idaho Star Party (really dark).
Great review, Rod... The DSSG scrimmage was the first event with consecutive observable nights that I can recall.

And the broccoli omelet was too much even for a Cajun's palate!
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