Sunday, November 27, 2016


Issue #519: How Simple Can It Get II: Kicking it Up a Notch

You’ve accumulated some hours in the backyard imaging with a simple achromat and an Atlas/Sirius/CG5/LXD75/AVX/Bresser Exos-2 class mount. You’re pretty pleased with the results you’ve gotten, and as your processing skills have advanced, you’ve been known to mutter, “Hmm, not bad, not bad at all” when looking at your latest batch of astro-snaps. You’re beginning to think you might be ready to take astrophotography to that vaunted next level, and your questions now are “Should I?” and “How?”

As for the first question, “Should I?” the answer, as it so often is in astrophotography and amateur astronomy in general, is “It depends.” If you are planning on continuing a program of imaging relatively bright objects from the backyard, a higher quality scope and guided imaging can make some difference. However, as you can see in the shots below, it is not like night and day.

Look at M27. The top picture is our original unguided stack of 20 30-second exposures taken with the AR-102 achromat. On the bottom is a stack of 20 3-minute subs done with my William Optics 80mm Megrez II APO. The APO shot is better, but it sure ain’t like night and day. The colors are somewhat more saturated, there is less noise, there is a little (but not a lot) more detail in the nebulosity, and, the main thing, the bright stars are smaller and have no halos. There is even less difference when comparing the APO/Achro M15 pix. These pictures were taken under marginal conditions, but still represent, in my experience, what you can expect from the backyard when you kick things up that notch.

Could I have made the difference larger by exposing for longer with the APO? Yeah, if I could have done that. In my backyard, especially in the presence of the not uncommon haze and humidity which amplify my light pollution, I can't go any longer than 3-minutes, really. As you can see in the unprocessed frame, the sky background was already extremely bright at a modest 120-seconds. I could have used a mild light pollution reduction filter to tone it down, but that brings its own problems.

Verdict? If you plan on continuing to do almost all your work from your less than perfect backyard, focusing on the more prominent objects, and the look of brighter stars in the achromat shots doesn’t annoy you, stick with that achromatic refractor and short, unguided exposures. If nothing else, completing a major project with a simple setup, maybe like imaging the entire Messier catalog from your back forty, will prepare you to take full advantage of more complex rigs if/when you decide to move up to that next level. Your wallet will certainly thank you for sticking with that humble AR102.

Still, there are reasons to think about upgrading to an apochromatic refractor. There’s no denying an ED APO scope is a more versatile scope. One is, for example, more suitable for viewing the Moon and planets—not that the Moon and planets can’t look good in a 4-inch achromat. The main reason for you to switch to an ED scope, however, is if you want to go deeper and intend to do at least some of your imaging from dark sites.

The longer exposures possible from a better observing location buy a lot. Some time back, I did M33, the Triangulum Galaxy. First night out I was tired and didn't want to stay on the observing field long and, so, stuck to short (2-minute) subframes. Looking at the raw images the next a.m., I determined I needed considerably more data, more exposure, to the tune of 3 – 5 minute subframes to make the galaxy really pop. When you are out in the dark you can do that, expose long enough to bring out faint details without the crazy bright background of backyard shots making that a losing battle.

OK, so if you want to take it to the next step, either because you’re going to start imaging at a dark site or because you just want a telescope that will do more things well than an achromat can, step one is getting an ED refractor. My choices, being cheap as I am, are the Explore Scientific triplets or the SkyWatcher Pro ED doublets. While the three element objectives of the ES scopes should theoretically put them ahead of the game in color correction, it’s really a wash when comparing them to the SkyWatchers. Unlike the ESes, SkyWatcher's two element objectives contain one lens made of FPL-53 synthetic fluorite, which makes up for the lack of a third lens element. Either a SkyWatcher or an ES is a great and economical choice whether you choose 3, 4, or 5-inches of aperture. I own the SkyWatcher Pro ED 120, which is a great scope, but I could be just as happy with the Explore (Triplet Essential) 127.

Achro top, APO bottom...
Get that new scope, have fun seeing what an essentially color free refractor can do, and and when you're ready try some longer exposure imaging with it. What you’ll quickly find is that once you get much the 30-second - 1-minute level, you likely won’t have perfectly round stars with the class of mounts we are using. If you want to go longer, you will need to guide. You’ll need a second camera that monitors the position of a “guide” star and issues corrections to the mount to keep that star centered. To do auto-guiding, you will need three things:  a guide telescope, a guide camera, and software to make it all work.

Guide Camera

Any camera, still or video, capable of sending images to a computer over a USB connection is capable of working as a guide camera. However, for best results you’ll want one that is sensitive and delivers monochrome images. The reason you need sensitivity is clear:  you want to always be able to find a guide star in the field of your target. A star that is good enough in the signal to noise ratio department to allow your guide software to stay locked onto it. The reason to pick a monochrome rather than color camera is that monochrome cams tend to be more sensitive and also less noisy.

So, which one? One of the best guide cameras in the business is Starlight Xpress’ Lodestar. Unfortunately, it’s not just a great guide cam; it’s a fairly expensive one at 650 dollars. At the other end of the price scale is Orion’s StarShoot Autoguider at about 250 bucks. The Orion works—I used one for years—but there is no denying it could be more sensitive. Also, while most guide cams can be used as imaging cameras as well as guiding cameras—many can do a good job on the planets or even the deep sky within reason—Orion’s StarShoot is really for guiding only. It can be made to deliver images with special software, but they are not very good.

So which one? After agonizing over the guide cam question for a long time after I decided to replace my Orion, I settled on a QHY 5L-IIM. It is the same price as the StarShoot (actually, the StarShoot is a rebadged, earlier model QHY camera), but is far more sensitive and is an impressive planetary imager, too. It’s small, it’s cute, and it is oh-so-sensitive. In my years of using the StarShoot, I never landed on a field where there wasn’t a single star I could use for guiding.  Frequently, however, there were only two or three even marginally usable stars in the frame, and seeing them took 3-second or even longer guide camera exposures. The typical QHY 5L-II field is filled with dozens of good guide stars in short exposures.

How long your guide cam needs to expose to deliver a suitable star is important because of the inexpensive mounts we are using. If you are forced to use three second or longer exposures, the mount’s periodic error over those three or more seconds may cause your stars to trail slightly. With the QHY I can always get by with one to 1.5-second guide exposures.

Achro top, APO bottom...
Guide Scope

The guide camera needs a telescope to look through. That can be the imaging telescope if you use a device called an “off-axis-guider,” which diverts a small amount of the light from the main scope to the guide camera. An “OAG” is difficult to use, however, and unless you are attempting to image at focal lengths above about 1300mm, especially with an SCT, it is a tool you’ll want to leave for later. Instead, use a guide scope, a small telescope piggybacked on the main instrument.

That guide scope can be any sort of telescope (excluding a CAT with moving mirror focusing). 80mm achromatic refractors like the Synta Short Tube 80s are often used. The 80 f/5 can indeed work well if it is securely mounted. If it is not securely mounted, if its mounting flexes as the telescope changes attitude, etc., stars will trail no matter how good the auto-guiding. Mount that sucker as sturdily as possible using high quality solutions from Losmandy or ADM. Or, if your imaging scope is less than 1000mm in focal length or so, think about a 50mm finder-guider.

A finder-guider is basically a 50mm finder scope that has been modified to accept a guide camera with a 1.5-inch nose-piece instead of an eyepiece. The advantage to the finder-guiders is that they are light and are securely mounted in the average 50mm finder mount and not likely to flex. With a QHY or similarly sensitive camera, one will pick up plenty of guide stars across a wide field. I have even used one semi-successfully with my 8-inch SCT reduced to f/7.


There are numerous guiding packages available, but what is most everybody using? PHD Guiding. Talking the ins and outs of setting it up and using it is the subject for an entire article, which I did a couple of years ago. I will say, though, that the latest iteration of the program, PHD2, is almost plug and play. You will likely get good, if not necessarily perfect, results just using the defaults. Anyhow, start with PHD2 if for no other reason than that so many people are using it that there are oodles of tutorials on how best to adjust its somewhat bewildering array of settings. 

Hooking Up

Like working with PHD, setting all the gear up for auto-guiding is a subject for an entire article (here). Basically, though, what you will do is mount guide scope and guide camera on the main scope and plug in two cables. Assuming your mount has an auto-guide input, you’ll run the (included with the QHY) RJ type ST-4 guide cable from the RJ plug on the camera to the RJ plug (the auto-guide port) on your mount. Then, connect a suitable USB cable from the camera to the computer. What if your mount (like the LXD75) does not have a guide input? You can still guide using the mount’s serial port. See the above article for details.

Finally, start PHD and begin taking frames with the guide camera. Follow the instructions that came with the guide scope to achieve initial focus. Getting the guide scope in decent focus is critical for good guiding performance. Some gurus will tell you that being just ever so slightly out of focus yields better guiding, but you still need to be close to focus for good results. One tip? Clicking on a star on the PHD video display will give the current signal to noise ratio. Adjust focus on the guide scope until that number is as high as you can get it. When you are done, click on a bright (but not saturated) star, and click the bullseye reticle icon. PHD will then “calibrate,” move your mount in the cardinal directions to get a feel of how it responds, and will begin guiding.

Before processing...
From there? Take pictures just like you did in the 30-second days, only with longer durations, maybe beginning with 1 – 2 minutes. Another tip? As I hinted at last time, use Nebulosity to control your Canon camera. It makes everything so much easier. Be aware that to use longer exposures with Nebulosity and the early Canons like the Rebel Xti, you’ll need to connect a shutter interface box between the camera and the laptop. Those are readily available from Shoestring Astronomy.


It’s morning. The birds are chirping, the sun is shining, and you are ready to see what those hard won long exposure images look like. Process them the same basic way you did your 30-second shots. Stack them using Nebulosity’s built in stacker or the freeware Deep Sky Stacker. Is there anything you will have to do differently when processing longer exposures? In the backyard, the sky background will be considerably brighter, so you’ll have to deal with that using your processing program’s histogram adjustments. You may also have some light pollution gradients. These are the effects of the bright backyard sky and will cause some areas of the image background to be brighter than others. One typical effect of this is vignetting.

Vignetting is what I call “the porthole effect.” The center of the image is brighter than the edges. It’s like you are looking through a round porthole at your object, and will limit how much you can brighten the target. There are two ways to deal with that, the hard way and the easy way. If you want to go hard, take flat-field frames: illuminated, evenly illuminated, shots of the twilight sky or a white card or through a translucent mask. Apply those flats to your images (with Nebulosity or your astrophoto processing program of choice). Or, if you are lazy like me, you can take the easy way out and use a software tool called Gradient Xterminator.

Gradient Xterminator is a simple plug-in for Adobe Photoshop that will virtually eliminate any light pollution gradients. It is extremely simple to use, and the only real “problem” is that you’ll need Adobe Photoshop to use it (it will also work with some versions of Photoshop Elements). Adobe Photoshop is something you probably want anyway as you grow as an imager, and there are options today for getting it that aren’t quite as painful on the pocketbook as in the past.

In addition to light pollution gradients, the sky background in light polluted areas, especially if there was haze present during the exposure, may be badly discolored, brownish or even red as in the example here. It will be even worse if you, like me on the night I shot these pix, allow a little dew to accumulate on the objective without noticing it (I was inside watching TV while Nebulosity took my pictures). The easiest way to fix this yuckiness is with the background color offset tool in Nebulosity. That turns a pain into a pleasure when it comes to getting the sky the correct hue.

And, well, you know what? That is about it. Going from unguided imaging to auto-guiding is quite a leap, but it is the biggest leap you will encounter in astrophotography. Everything else is incremental improvements:  better mounts, cooled CCD cameras, imaging through filters with a monochrome camera, etc., etc. Once you have mastered setting up for and doing guided photography with your simple rig, you have conquered 90% of the astrophotography learning curve, and can now, I hope, actually start having fun.

Sunday, November 20, 2016


Issue #518: How Simple Can It Get?

AR102 and Atlas...
More than a few new amateurs want to take pictures of the night sky. Specifically, they long to take images of deep sky objects, galaxies, nebulae, and star clusters, through the telescope. The time-honored advice given these people is “Start simply. Take star trails photos with your camera on a tripod and move on up to piggyback imaging. Through the telescope? It’s expensive and there is just so much to go wrong. Your backyard isn’t good enough to let you get much of anything anyway. You don’t want to spend all that money and time and have nothing to show for it, do you?”  But is that the correct advice?

I think the first part of the above is valid. Beginning with star trails and then piggybacking the camera, mounting it on the tube of a telescope so it can take advantage of the mount’s tracking while shooting through its own lens, is still the way to go. If nothing else, it gets the novice acquainted with focusing on the sky, operating the camera for long exposure work, and the realities of setting up to do any kind of astrophotography. The rest however? Those cautions about how hard and expensive it is to shoot through the scope and that you can’t do any deep sky work from the average suburban backyard? I set out to prove that wrong just the other night.

Not that I was completely sure I would prove that hoary advice wrong. Especially since my other goal was keeping the cost of gear down just as low as it could possibly be, radically low, and making set up and image acquisition as simple as possible.

First thing any deep sky imager needs is a decent tracking (equatorial) mount. Most of us, however, whether beginning or way advanced, don’t need a 10-thousand-dollar rig. That’s because most of us don’t have the dark and constantly clear skies that justify such an expense. Most of us don’t envisage doing 8-hour LRGB exposures anyway. We just want nice snapshots of the prettier objects to share with our friends and families. If that describes you, you can get a perfectly adequate (used) German equatorial mount (GEM) for 300 – 600 dollars.

What I chose to use for this test was my nine-year-old Synta-made Atlas mount. It is not fancy, but offers decent goto, excellent stability, and (unguided) tracking quality good enough for the relatively short exposures and focal lengths most will want to mess with in the beginning.  A used Atlas (a.k.a. “EQ-6”) can be had for as little as 500 – 800 dollars (for the goto version; avoid the old non-goto variant).

Unfortunately, EQ-6 owners tend to hold onto their mounts, so these GEMs are not as common on the used market as you’d expect given their numbers and the many years they’ve been in production. 500 – 800 might also be a bit much for a novice.

80mm APO on a VX mount...
Another good alternative is a Celestron CG5 goto mount or a Meade LXD-75. These are plentiful used and can be had for 400 dollars or even less. They won’t track quite as well as the Atlas, but they will be good enough for beginners using short, fast (low focal ratio) telescopes, and have the advantage of being much lighter than the Atlas. How about similar non-goto CG5 class mounts? Only resort to one of them if you have no choice. Computerized pointing is a huge help in imaging. Do you really want to spend half your time just getting a target in the frame of your camera?

Now for the telescope. To speak plainly, get a refractor. Yes, I’ve had a long running love affair with Schmidt Cassegrains, but I can think of no more difficult scope with which to begin astrophotography. Even when equipped with focal reducers, their focal lengths are long—meaning tracking is critical and it’s difficult to produce images with round stars—and their moving mirror focusing arrangement is a pain for imaging. That alone can cause trailed stars.

I will admit it is possible to get started using an SCT. I went from fooling around with Newtonians to taking my first successful deep sky photos with an SCT and a film SLR. Course, you really had to want those pictures. You had to focus with a dim SLR viewfinder, guide by hand, and it was never certain whether you got anything until you developed the negatives. It seemed worth the pain to me those long years ago, but even when I was younger and more patient, it wasn't exactly "fun."  

Today, lazy and ornery as I am (my friends have taken to referring to me as The Honey Badger), my least favorite thing in the world is taking long exposure pictures with an SCT. Get a refractor. Specifically, an 80mm to 100mm refractor with a focal ratio of f/5 to f/7 or a bit more. Of late, my 80mm refractor has become my most oft used telescope for imaging.

But exactly what sort of refractor? In order to keep the price of the telescope down, naturally you’ll be buying a Chinese scope. Possibly a used one. What would be ideal? An 80mm ED model. The “ED” business means the false color, the purple fringing around bright objects, that is a characteristic of non-ED (achromatic) refracting telescopes will be low.

An 80 ED can be an incredibly powerful tool for astrophotography, allowing you to take wide-field shots of even very dim objects. What matters for extended objects like nebulae and galaxies when imaging is not aperture, but f-ratio. The lower it is, the less exposure time you will need, the deeper you can go, and the wider your field of view will be. How much money are we talking? Explore Scientific will sell you a nice 80mm triplet ED/APO telescope for just a little over 500 dollars.

You’ve just bought a mount, though, and 500 new or used sounds like a lot. Can you go cheaper? You can:  with an achromat. Yeah, I hear the veteran astrophotographers howling: “Rod, how can you recommend an achro? Especially a medium-fast achromat? You can’t take pictures with one. There’ll be horrible purple halos around even dimmer stars.”

Yes, I know there will be the dread color purple. But I also know 100mm achros are dirt cheap right now. The above mentioned Explore Scientific offers the very fine 4-inch f/6.5 AR102 for as little as 300 dollars on sale. Almost everything you need is in the box, including a decent finder and an excellent star diagonal. Despite the conventional wisdom, I decided to see whether one of these scopes—which is superior to an 80mm ED for visual use—could deliver pictures that would please a newbie, at least.

Of course, you’ll need a camera. If you’ve got a DSLR of any brand, use that. If you don’t, there is but one choice for the dollar-conscious newbie:  a Canon Digital Rebel. They aren’t expensive new (see the website of my fave dealer, B&H), and are dirt cheap used. Only caveat? Don’t go too old. Try to at least get the Rebel Xti. One of these classic Rebels still has more than enough features and capabilities for any beginner. My Xti is nearly a decade old, and I still use it for astro-imaging—frequently. While its top ISO (sensitivity) is 1600, its relatively large pixels mean it is quite sensitive.

To mount the camera in the scope’s focuser you’ll need a (2-inch if possible) prime focus adapter, available for a few bucks from most astro-dealers or from B&H. The DSLR is attached to that prime focus adapter using a T-ring, available for your camera brand from the same sources.

Do you need a computer? You will for image processing, and one can make focusing and image acquisition easier in the field (I use the wonderful program Nebulosity to control my DSLRs during picture taking), but you don’t need one. A simple and inexpensive remote shutter release for your camera, an “intervalometer” will do.

So, into the backyard. While the Atlas’ GEM head is heavy, it’s actually somewhat less awkward for me to lift onto the tripod than my CGEM for some reason. Once I had it on the tripod with the counterweight on the counterweight shaft, it was pretty simple to finish the setup:  mount the scope, in this case the AR102, and balance it so it was slightly east-heavy (to keep the RA gears meshed). That only required one 11-pound Synta pancake weight halfway up the declination shaft. Plug in power (an AC adapter I got from Orion) and the hand control and I was done with the preliminaries. And, naturally, right after that, the clouds came.

Before the evening was over, I was able to get a few cloud free minutes, however. Enough to allow me to polar align the mount and check it out (I hadn’t used the Atlas since the 2015 Peach State Star Gaze).  To polar align, I follow a two-part procedure. The first part uses the mount’s built in polar alignment borescope.

M15 before processing for chromatic aberration...
First, I rotate the mount in RA until the little circle on the polar borescope reticle where Polaris goes is on the bottom, and set the RA setting circle to “0”. I then turn on the mount and after I enter time/date/location it gives me Polaris’ current hour angle. I rotate the mount in RA until that “time” is under the RA circle’s pointer. With the little circle where it should be, I move Polaris into it using the mount’s altitude and azimuth adjusters (only).

The above will generally give a good enough polar alignment to allow reasonable length—two or three minute—sub exposures on the camera. It’s easy enough to tighten the alignment up a bit if desired, though, with part two of the process, using the built in polar alignment in the hand control. To do that, I complete a three-star goto alignment with the mount and then select Polar Alignment from the setup menu. From there, the process is nearly the same as the AllStar polar alignment used in Synta’s Celestron branded mounts.

To do a polar alignment with the hand control, I choose a bright star (one due south is best), slew to it, and begin the polar alignment routine. The hand control instructs me to center the star in the eyepiece, and then slews away from it. I use the altitude adjuster on the mount to get the star as close to the center of the field as I can get it. After I press Enter, the mount slews again, and I re-center the star using the azimuth adjusters on the mount. When that’s done the process is complete. The manual warns you may want to redo the goto alignment after a polar alignment, but I usually find that unnecessary.

All done, I did a few gotos to see how the mount was performing. It’s no secret the pointing accuracy of the Atlas is not nearly as good as that of the CGEM, with its famous 2 + 4 star alignment, but the Atlas’ three-star alignment is usually quite good enough with a widefield refractor onboard.

Anyhow, anything I requested from one side of the sky to the other was always somewhere in the field of my 8mm Ethos ocular (83x). The Atlas would not be my choice for video astronomy, where I might want to go to 20 or 30 targets over the course of an evening, and where I’d need the mount to put those targets on the small chip of a video camera, but the Atlas with its SynScan goto system is more than sufficient for visual use or for going to a couple of astrophoto targets a night.

Just after the mount centered the Dumbbell Nebula dead center in the field of my 25mm Bresser eyepiece (we’ll address the current crop of wide field bargain basement eyepieces like the Bresser some Sunday soon), the clouds poured in again and M27 faded out. I threw the big switch, covered the scope, and repaired to the den for some Agents of Shield action.

While we had plenty of clouds for several days, we didn’t have a drop of rain—this has been one of the driest falls I can remember—so I was able to leave the Atlas and the AR102 set up in our secure backyard covered by one of the excellent Telegizmos scope covers. Finally, last Friday evening, the clouds departed and I was able to get started.

While I purposefully kept things as simple as possible, not even controlling the mount with the laptop, I did use Nebulosity for image acquisition. With the way my eyes are in these latter days, I simply find it too difficult to focus on a DSLR’s small display, even with zoom enabled.

Using Nebulosity, I can focus with the 17.3-inch screen of my Toshiba, and, using the program’s fine-focus mode, get images as sharp as possible. I thought that would be critical when using the AR102, as any misfocus would make chromatic aberration all the worse. I focused on Vega and the dimmer stars in its field, and when done sent the scope to my first target, M27, using the SynScan HC, which put the nebula almost in the center of the frame.

Let me pay Explore Scientific a big complement right here. The Crayford style focuser on the AR102 proved to be just about perfect. Not only did it have plenty of range, more than enough to focus the the Canon and the (excellent) Hotech field-flattener I used in lieu of a prime focus adapter (couldn’t find my plain prime focus adapter anywhere), its fine focus control made dialing in exact focus a joy. The draw-tube never slipped or threatened to with the Xti onboard, even when I pointed at M15, which was riding high.

In order to eliminate the necessity of guiding, I set the camera’s sensitivity to the maximum, ASA 1600, and limited my exposures to 30-seconds. That resulted in perfectly round stars in almost all my frames and had the benefit of keeping the background reasonably dark given my somewhat bright skies. Despite the typically bright suburban skies, it was apparent sky darkness was good enough to allow even a novice without a lot of image processing experience to get plenty of good stuff.

Alrighty, then. I told Nebulosity to give me 30 30-second sub-frames, and it began clicking them off. How was the chromatic aberration? Oh, the brighter stars definitely had purple haloes. I didn’t worry about that, and didn’t add any kind of filter to the imaging train. I’d decided that in the interests of simplicity I’d do any "filtering" after the fact, during post processing. I am also of the opinion that deep sky results are usually better if you don’t use filters of any kind during exposures. I wandered back inside to watch TV. The mount was tracking well, and Nebulosity was doing its thing without a hitch, so there was no need for me to stay outside kibitzing.

When the M27 sequence was done, I used the HC to go to M15, the great globular cluster in Pegasus. There is a magnitude 6 star in the field with M15, and I figured that would provide a good test of my ability to suppress chromatic aberration during image processing. Indeed, I could see the star had a pretty extensive bright purple halo even in the short subs. Again, I didn’t worry, just let the mount, scope, and camera do their thing.

I was smart enough not to examine the M27 and M15 sub-frames after the last target, M15, was done. Pictures always look much better in the morning. I just shut down, covered the scope, and hauled the laptop inside. Despite not examining the subs, I was pretty sure  what I had gotten, and gotten so easily and simply, would have more than thrilled me when I was a novice.

Next morning, I set about to process my pictures, beginning by stacking the sub-frames into single images of M15 and M27 using Nebulosity’s built in image stacking routine (best in the business in my opinion). When I was done, I was not surprised to see that the brighter stars were really purple, but, again, I did not panic.

There are various ways to remove the purple halos of chromatic aberration in post processing. In the interests of simplicity, I decided to do as little as possible. There are ways to reduce not only the color purple, but the sizes of the haloes around the stars using Photoshop. I’ve experimented with that in the past with a friend’s achromatic images. Photoshop is expensive, however, and the procedure not overly simple for a novice. Instead, I used the built-in routine in another Adobe program, Lightroom.

The advantages of using Lightroom is that it is relatively inexpensive and does a lot, even including a built-in routine to remove that nasty purple. All that is required is to move a couple of sliders and you are done. True, the haloes remain, but they are no longer purple and are much less intrusive. Again, there are ways to reduce the size of the halos and the star disks themselves, and if you out there in blog-land have a good (and simple) method of doing that, I’d love to hear about it.

And that was that. Well, except for a little level-adjusting and some minor sharpening on M15. My resulting images are not masterpieces, but they certainly blow away many of the astrophotos I took in the film era. As above, I know, know, I’d have been thrilled to get these results when I was wet-behind-the-ears. I’d have been thrilled to get deep sky pictures so easily.

What’s next? While these pictures look pretty good, they could have used a little more exposure, so why don’t we talk about the art of autoguiding, autoguiding simply some Sunday soon?  For now? Why don’t y’all get outside and see what you can get of the deep sky without a lot of effort?

Sunday, November 13, 2016


Issue #517: Beginning the Messier Homestretch

The 2016 Deep South Star Gaze is now done, and with it my star partying for the year. And after weeks of unbelievably dry conditions and mostly clear skies, the clouds and rain are back. That means it’s time to continue my detailed observing guide to the Messier objects, starting with a good one.


We begin with Hercules’ other globular cluster, M92. I didn’t spend much time with this star cluster as a youth, not because it wasn’t good, but because, as everybody points out, it is much overshadowed by nearby M13, which I tended to obsess over. I spent my summer evenings in Hercules trying to somehow, some way coax a little resolution out of the Great Globular with my puny Palomar Junior Newtonian.

While Messier 92 is a nice object, it is in no way a first rank globular as some pundits claim. Even if M13 were not in the same constellation stealing its thunder, it still would still be considered an also ran. It is not an M13, but it is also not an M5, an M3 an M2 an M15 or an M22. It’s better than M30 and M53, but is definitely a second-string Messier glob.

Which doesn’t mean M92 doesn’t look stupendous under the proper conditions. At a dark site, this Shapley-Sawyer Class IV globular is busted into hordes of pinpoints by a 6 or 8-inch telescope, and in a 10-inch it begins to make you think it really is competition for the top globs—well until you slew over to M22, that is. Still, at magnitude 6.4 and 14.0’ across M92 is, yes, a showpiece.

Alrighty, then, let’s have a look. If you, like me, use non-goto, non-DSC equipped telescopes at least some of the time, rest assured this one will not cause any object-locating heartburn. To find it with my Rigel Quick Finder equipped 10-inch dobbie, Zelda, I insert a medium-low power eyepiece and position the bullseye on a spot in space that forms a near 90-degree triangle with Eta and Pi Hercules. Our target lies 6-degrees north of Pi and is bright enough that just a little slewing around always turns it up after I position the telescope in its approximate location.

What’s it like in the eyepiece? In my backyard, my 3 – 4-inch refractors can make it look grainy, even on somewhat poor evenings. I was out just the other night with my 3-inch f/11 SkyWatcher refractor, and marveled that not only was M92 easy to find on a hazy evening, but that it looked like a globular. While not resolved, it wasn’t just a smudge, either.

As with most globs, every increase in aperture makes the cluster better, but this one, second-string though it may be, doesn’t require a large scope to look terrific, as I found out one night at the club dark site with my ETX125, a 5-inch MCT: “The core looks almost square at 170x. The outer region is round and populated by many, many stars, some of which hold steady with direct vision, and some of which tend to wink in and out.”


M93 sketched with my Pal Jr...
Winter is open cluster time, and one of the better winter galactics is magnificent M93 lurking in oft-ignored constellation, Puppis. What we have here is a group of about 15 – 20 bright stars and maybe 50 dimmer ones spread over an area of about 20-minutes of arc, In other words:  perfect for small scopes. Well, depending on your site, anyway. M93 has a rather southerly declination, -23-degrees 51’, and for many observers that puts it a little close to the horizon some of the time, especially considering its somewhat subdued magnitude, 10.93. It is still worth plenty of eyepiece time, though.

Finding M93 manually is not difficult if you can see the magnitude 3.3 star Xi Puppis. The problem for most of you will be that while you can see this star, “Asmidiske,” which lies some 16-degrees southeast of Sirius, you may not be familiar enough with the stars of Puppis to know which one of the constellation’s scattered suns it is. As I’ve often said, if you want to star-hop efficiently, you have got to familiarize yourself with the less well-known and visited constellations. Once you’ve got Xi in the finder, the cluster can be easily swept up a degree-and-a-half to the west-southwest. Despite its somewhat dim nature, M93 should be visible in a low power eyepiece in the backyard.

I often looked at M93 when I lived in my pre-Chaos Manor South downtown home in the 1980s. For a (short) while, the largest telescopes I owned were 4.25-inch and 6-inch reflectors, and given the rather severe light pollution, open clusters were often about all I could see well. While M93 was sometimes in the trees, it never failed to thrill me. Occasionally, as in the accompanying sketch from those days, all I could see with my 4-inch was the central group of brighter stars, but it still looked great. From a dark site in my modern 4 and 5-inch refractors, this field just comes alive with hordes of small stars.

M94, the Croc’s Eye Galaxy

What’s troubling you, bunky? Your spring backyard sky is hazy and the light pollution is heavy, but you still long to see a galaxy? I’ve got one your small scope can pull out every single time, M94 in Canes Venatici. It’s an Sb spiral with a preternaturally bright center as befits its status as a Seyfert galaxy and which allows it to be visible in 3 – 4-inch telescopes with ease in nasty skies.

M94 imaged with the old DSI...
There is absolutely no difficulty involved in finding M94. It is a degree-and-a-half northeast of a line drawn between Canes’ two prominent stars, Cor Caroli (Alpha), and Chara (Beta). Position your scope almost midway between the two hunting dogs—maybe a smidge closer to the Alpha dog—and then slew that 1.5-degrees northeast. The only possible diff is that at low power M94 can resemble a slightly bloated star.

And a slightly bloated star surrounded by some thin haze is all you will see in a small scope from the backyard. Without larger aperture (or a camera) and a dark site, you’ll fail to understand why this object is “the Croc’s Eye.” The reason for that moniker is that in large aperture scopes at high power (or in my in my C8 equipped with Meade’s old DSI camera as here) you begin to see spiral structure surrounding the bright core, which is in turn surrounded by a faint ring (a starburst region). The combination of these things does make this object somewhat resemble a reptile’s eye.


When it comes to spring galaxies from the backyard, we go from the trivially easy to the considerably harder. M95, a magnitude 10.6, 7.1’ x 4.3’ Sb spiral is not impossible, but at times it is unavailable to a 4-inch or even a 6-inch under compromised skies. It’s still a nice catch, however, and if you’ve got a 10-inch available you’ll like the field, which includes its sister galaxy, M96, just 42’ to the east.

Finding M95 without electronic assistance is not always easy. The only ready signpost is magnitude 5.45 Kappa Leonis in Leo the Lion’s “belly” area. The galaxy lies 2-degrees 33’ to the south. A better way to go might be to find the much more prominent galaxy M105 first. From there it’s a trip of only 1-degree 17’ to the southwest to get on the M95 field.

Once there, don’t expect too much if you don’t have dark skies. Even in my 11-inch SCT, M95 was subdued in suburbia: “Like M96, M95 is basically a round fuzzball in light pollution. Stellar core. It is slightly easier than M96.TeleVue Panoptic 22mm, 127x.” Frankly, even under dark skies with larger scopes, don’t expect much else.


M96 is M95’s companion galaxy, and is similar visually to M95. While it’s somewhat brighter at magnitude 10.1, it is also a little larger 7.6’ x 5.0’, and actually slightly less prominent to my eye. Like M95, it cries out for 10-inches of aperture in the average backyard if you want to make things easy. Which doesn’t mean you can’t spot it with a smaller instrument on a good evening. I’ve seen both it and its neighbor with my C102 refractor on haze-free spring nights.

If you’ve found M95, you’ve found M96. Just remember:  M96 is on the east, and M95 is on the west.

ATIK Infinity M97...
What can you see once you are there? In 8-inch – 10-inch instruments, you’ll see a somewhat elongated fuzzy, maybe 2’ worth, with a brighter center. In larger scopes at better sites, the galaxy increases in size but still doesn’t give up much more in the way of detail.


M97, the famous Owl (planetary) Nebula in Ursa Major has, as I’ve said before, a reputation for toughness. That’s an undeserved reputation in this day of OIII filters, which can make old Owley pop out of some pretty bright skies. But you know what? I’ve spotted it with a suburban 3-inch without a filter. Oh, it was much better with the filter than without it, but it was nevertheless detectible sans LPR filter. With an OIII? My 60mm ETX has pulled it out of remarkably putrid skies.

It’s no hassle to find the Owl the old-fashioned way, as it lies only 2-degrees 20’ east-southeast of a prominent star, magnitude 2.3 Merak in the bowl of the dipper. Put a filter on a 25mm eyepiece, scan in that direction, and the large (3’24” x 3’18”) round glow (magnitude 9.9) of the Owl will enter your eyepiece.

There, in a small scope, that’s about it: a round smudge. A larger telescope, a 10 - 12-inch may, may reveal the holy grail of owl-watcher,  the two dark spots that are its eyes and which are the reason this nebula is the “Owl.” In suburban skies, they are most often only suspected in these medium-sized scopes. At a dark site, they are considerably easier, if not always easy. Large aperture telescopes under excellent conditions may also reveal the several 16th magnitude range stars involved in the nebula.


We end on another spring object, a galaxy, M98 in Coma Berenices, which lies on the edge of the great mass Virgo of galaxies. How much you will like this magnitude 10.14, 9’48” x 2’48” edge-on Sab island universe depends, as it usually does with galaxies, upon your aperture and your skies. 
From the suburbs, it can be visible as an elongated something in an 8-inch. A 10-inch begins to bring out its edge-on galaxy nature, but you need to get out where it is dark to really appreciate this one.

The main problem here is not the seeing but the finding. Take it from me:  use goto or DSCs on this critter. The galaxy lies in the fairly star poor area east of Denebola, about 6.0’ from that bright star. If you don’t have access to an electronically enabled scope, detailed computer finder charts can get you there, but it will probably not be fun.

When you are on the galaxy, I hope you are on it at your club dark site. There, in a 10 – 12-inch, or, better, a 16-inch, M98 can be spectacular, a long, luminous spindle with a bright and tiny nucleus floating in the black void.

And so, we end it for this time with only two more installments to go. Given the way the skies look at the moment—the November storms are on their way—it appears you may actually get one of those installments next week. I have the EQ-6 mount and a refractor set up in the backyard right now in hopes of bringing you something different, but the weather gods clearly say “no.”

Sunday, November 06, 2016


Issue #516: Big Ethel Gathers Photons at the 2016 Deep South Regional Star Gaze

The Deep South Regional Star Gaze is wonderful. It’s held in the piney woods of northern Louisiana just three hours to my west and has been my “home” star party for almost 25 years. In addition to its convenient location for me, the DSRSG also features great facilities and great people—many of whom have become real friends. So why were we only onsite for somewhat more than half this year’s edition? 

I never get tired of the sky, but now that I can do deep sky imaging from my backyard, my desire to rough it, even in not so rough fashion, is less than in the years when I lived at Chaos Manor South and could see little and photograph less. There’s also no denying now that Dorothy and I are retired, a visit to a star party isn’t quite the stress-relieving vacation it was when we were both working 16-hour days.

Yeah, I still love the DSRSG, but I like my creature comforts too, and three nights, Thursday, Friday, and Saturday, is now quite enough.  I hoped the folks who signed up for Tuesday and Wednesday had a great time, but I was more than happy to be sitting on the couch with the cat watching the World Series on those evenings.

Actually, I planned to do more than just sit with Tommy Tuesday night. I thought it would be wise to set up both telescope and mount in the backyard and make sure they were ready to go after a long layoff due to a cloudy summer. Which telescope? This time it would be Big Ethel, my 6-inch Chinese achromatic refractor, and the Celestron CGEM mount I'd bought the previous year.

Why Ethel? Simple:  I wanted to do relaxing visual observing at DSRSG this year, much like what I did with my now sold Dobsonian, Old Betsy, year before last. I am on a refractor jag these days, and Ethel had yet to show what she could do under dark skies thanks to the yucky weather, so she seemed a natural. She’d be riding on the CGEM, since, unlike the Advanced VX, its equatorial head is tall enough that she doesn’t bump into a tripod leg even when pointed at the Zenith.

I did get up the gumption to set up the big and heavy scope and mount in the backyard, but that came to naught. Just at sundown, the clouds poured in. I did a fake goto alignment to make sure things were in good order to the extent possible and returned inside to finish watching The Flash. I felt bad for the people on the Deep South observing field and hoped they were having a good time despite the clouds. Unfortunately, Wednesday didn’t look much better. The weatherman, however, was saying Thursday thru Saturday would be dead clear. I kept my fingers and toes crossed.

Wednesday afternoon, I forewent my usual activity—Wednesday is normally my movie day—to run various errands and, when I returned home, to get the 4Runner, Miss Van Pelt, loaded. Yes, it was something of a pain wrestling with the 40 plus pound CGEM and the nearly 30-pound refractor, but when I got them into the truck, the rest was purty easy. When you are not planning on doing imaging, the amount of stuff you pack magically decreases.

I really tried to reduce the stuff we usually take to Deep South this year. For example, the ice chest is most often only used to chill my Monster Energy Drinks for consumption on the field, and I only allow myself one per night—lest I start trembling like a Chihuahua—so there’s no need for the big Coleman. A little playmate cooler would do just fine. We packed considerably less gear this time and didn’t miss anything we left behind.

Two things I packed I didn't bring last year were jump-start batteries. One for the mount and one for the DewBuster heaters. I wasn't imaging and didn't plan on having the laptop on the field, so I didn't want to fool with running long extension cords and trying to secure a power outlet. Charts? I'd use SkySafari (on my phone) and a print atlas. Yes, I was really going simple(r) this year!


Attendance was a little sparse.
Thursday morning and time to hit the road. I was a little sorry to be missing the Chiefland Star Party, which was going on at the same time as Deep South this year.  I must admit, though, much as I love the skies and the folks down Chiefland way, the three-hour drive to DSRSG sure sounded a lot better than the six-hour one to Chiefland. I am tending to be a stay-at-home in these latter days, and it now takes a big inducement like Disney World—or the Huntsville Hamfest—to get me on the road for a long car trip.

There is also no denying the Chiefland Astronomy Village has changed since the Clark years. I've never met the observing field's new owner, not really, and the atmosphere is just not as friendly as it once was. Case in point? A self-appointed member of the Chiefland Observers club (of which I am a paid-up member) challenged me on the field. This woman marched up to me and asked me whether I "was supposed to be there." Luckily, I'd brought along the field pass I'd recently got from the club (which thing is a sign of the way the wind is blowing). Later this idiot woman called me at 6am one morning to tell me she didn't think I'd left a large enough "donation" in the clubhouse on my last trip (!).

The journey to the Feliciana Retreat Center where the star gaze is held was almost uneventful and would have been completely uneventful if not for me. I forgot to update the GPS’s maps, you see, and we were faced with figuring out a short detour as we neared the Center due to bridge construction the GPS didn’t know about. The dern GPS kept sending us back to that bridge. We eventually maneuvered our way around it, however.

Rolling onto the field, I was gratified to see there was a decent, if not outstanding, turnout for a Thursday afternoon. Attendance was down this year, but there were still plenty of people on the field. Last year was a near total rainout, and it’s just a fact of life in the star party biz that when some people stay home one year, they can get out of the star party habit and skip the next iteration as well. Which was a shame, since it appeared the weather would be beautifully clear from Thursday to the end of the event Sunday morning.

Clear, yeah, but not cool. It was easily in the mid-80s and humid as well. I took my time getting the big refractor on her mount with the help of my friend, Len, but despite that, I was overheated and feeling half sick by the time I got the EZ Up tent canopy erected (with Dorothy’s help, natch). It sure was nice to get back in the truck and blast the air conditioner as we drove to the lodge to get settled in our room.

As you know if you’ve read about my previous trips to the Feliciana Retreat Center, The FRC’s Lodge building contains a modern dining hall and two wings of motel-like rooms. These rooms are small and somewhat Spartan—they are not close to the level of even the Chiefland Quality Inn as far as amenities—but they are oh-so-much better than the bunkhouses and chickie cabins of Deep South’s two previous venues, and better than what you’ll have at 99% of star parties. Unpacked in the room, and me cooled off and feeling somewhat better, we headed back to the field for the afternoon’s prize drawing.

Something you may have noticed if you attend many star parties is that prize donations by vendors are down. There were still plenty of good prizes at DSRSG this year, but with the exception of the kind donations by Explore Scientific, Orion, and a couple of others, the star party had to purchase the goodies that were given away. Naturally, I didn’t win a thing, and figured I wouldn’t win a thing, I rarely do—how wrong I turned out to be about that for once. Dinner in the dining hall was at four, so we walked back down to the Lodge as soon as the day’s single prize was dispensed. As usual we left the truck out on the field for the balance of the star party.

Ready to go!
If there’s one great thing about the Feliciana Retreat Center, it is the food. It’s varied a little over the years, but only a little and was excellent this time. The evening’s entre, Salisbury steak, is a nostalgic comfort food for me, and while I don't indulge in mounds of mashed potatoes slathered in gravy anymore, there was plenty of other stuff I could eat, like the excellent salad bar.

Finally, finally it began to get dark. Unfortunately, the dark of the Moon fell on the DST side of the divide this time, so it was just after six before the Sun set, and close to seven before I could think about doing my alignments. Actually, “alignment.” I did center the hollow polar axis of the CGEM in the approximate area of the NCP, but I didn’t take much care and did not do an AllStar polar alignment with the hand control. I was going visual only, and Celestron mounts are quite immune to goto problems caused by polar misalignment.

I did have to do a goto alignment, natch. I didn't have a finder shoe on Ethel that would accommodate my Celestron StarSense automatic-alignment camera, so I did it the old-fashioned way. I am spoiled by the StarSense now, but I went many years doing the Celestron 2+4 alignment, so it didn’t bother me much.

Next up? I thought I'd see if I could operate the scope remotely with my iPhone via wi-fi with my old Celestron Sky-Fi dongle. It had worked great with the Advanced VX the last time I'd tried it, and given my limited testing appeared to work with the CGEM too. Alas SkySafari refused to connect to the mount. I suspect the newer firmware of the AVX makes the difference. No big loss. I've never minded punching object numbers into the NexStar HC.

Then the curtain rose on the night’s sky show, and what a show it was. Perhaps there was a little haze in the humid air—how could it be so humid when we had not had appreciable rain in weeks?—but the transparency was still good, though seeing was not terrific. That also seemed strange. Normally on a damp night far removed from a front passage, the air is steady. Not on this evening. Not too terrible, though.

What did I look at? Just the pretty stuff. I was tired from the drive and from set-up and wasn’t ready to tackle a Herschel 400 redo with the 6-inch, one of my goals for the star party. What I mainly wanted to do on this evening was entertain myself with the showpieces and try to get some idea of how good Ethel is and what she might be capable of.

Naturally, the first stop on a night at the end of October in the Northern Hemisphere is always the Great Glob, M13. I went there—the mount placed anything I requested from one side of the sky to the other near the field center all night long—and had a look through my famous Happy Hand Genade, a Chinese 16mm 100-degree eyepiece once sold by TMB, Orion, Zhumell, and probably others. Whoa!

Night falls--finally!
A 6-inch refractor is capable of impressive resolution of brighter globulars, and Ethel was certainly proving that on this night. Hordes of stars everywhere. Tiny stars. Yes, to some extent tiny stars are the result of refractors often being used at lower powers than larger reflectors, but that is not the whole story. There really is that refractor “something” thanks to the unobstructed optics. Even brighter stars were minute pinpoints. There were more pinpoints, and they were even smaller pinpoints when I swapped out the HHG for my 13mm TeleVue Ethos eyepiece. The scope didn’t just pull in the bright stuff, either. The little galaxy near M13, NGC 6207, was surprisingly bright and large. Hard to believe this was “just” a 6-inch.

What was the story when it came to chromatic aberration? It was there, but, especially given my eyes, which, as I said last week, are not as blue sensitive as they used to be, it was not a factor. Certainly, not as much as I’d have expected in a 6-inch f/8 achromat. Mostly it appeared as a rather colorless haze around brighter stars. Viewing the typical deep sky field, you wouldn’t have known this telescope was only an achromat. In fact, most of the people who looked through Ethel during the event just assumed she was an ED. Ethel and I did not correct them.

So it went. I didn’t make it much past 11 p.m., but saw many beautiful things nevertheless. The Double Cluster was heart-stopping in a 35mm Panoptic. I just loved the views Ethel delivered and cursed the fact I’d gone so many years before finally getting a 6-inch f/8 achromat of my own. I would be remiss, however, if I didn’t mention another 6-inch that impressed me on this night. My friend Charles was set up next to me and had brought out his 150mm Lunt-badged ED refractor. I know these telescopes have a bad reputation on Cloudy Nights, but he obviously got a good one. It did spectacularly well.

But you know what? On the deep sky, the views the Lunt provided were pretty much identical to those in Ethel. More shockingly, another fellow observer, Ron, was sporting a beautiful 130mm Takahashi APO. I was thrilled to get a look through that expensive and sophisticated instrument during the star party, but…but…no denying, M13 simply didn’t look much different in his scope than it did in mine (except that it was noticeably brighter in Ethel). I know that is heresy, and that my eyes certainly aren’t what they used to be, but I saw what I saw is all I can say.

I actually won prizes!
What finally induced me to throw that dreaded big switch well before midnight was the dew. Man alive was it heavy. I was prepared to keep it off the telescope’s objective, having wrapped an 8-inch SCT heater strip around the objective cell and turned the (excellent) DewBuster controller up to 10-degrees. The ‘Buster kept the objective dry, but couldn’t keep me dry. Nothing is more miserable than being wet from head to toe with dew, and on this night, there was no way to avoid that if you were doing visual observing.

So, I made my way back to the Lodge where I spent some time trying to look at Facebook without much success. The FRC had changed their Internet setup, and it just didn’t work very well this year. Not well at all. I finally gave that up as a bad business, chatted for a while with a couple of fellow partiers who’d also got tired of the dew, and finally headed to the room where I watched about 10-minutes of a DVD on the laptop before my eyes closed.


Somehow, someway, though I didn't feel like doing it, I managed to get out of bed and into the shower in time for breakfast at nine. I had to admit to myself in addition to the dew, what had gotten me down Thursday night, and had been getting me down for days, was an incipient cold. It had been trying to come on, ironically, ever since I got a flu shot the previous Monday. I spent more than a little of the star party feeling half sick and more than half tired, I’m afraid. Breakfast perked me right up, however. As at dinner, while I didn't indulge in all the food I used to enjoy a few years ago, like the massive biscuits, there was still plenty of good stuff to enjoy.

After breakfast, I walked up to the observing field. These days, I prefer not to hang-out on the field all day long. It’s just too tiring. I had a mission this morning, though: drying out my big refractor. As I suspected, despite the dew heater being run till the objective’s lenscap was in place, and despite me covering the scope with an excellent Telegizmos cover, Ethel was sopping wet, and her objective lens was completely fogged. A half hour or so in the sun and all was well.

By early afternoon, it was just this side of stifling hot outdoors. No, it wasn’t like a July day, but it was bad enough. I spent the hours before the prize giveaway inside in the cool Lodge, in the dining room, working on a Sky & Telescope assignment.

At three, Dorothy and I returned to the field, which was now really broiling under an October sun. It was worth it. I actually won something: a nice box of Celestron Plössl eyepieces. Not only did they come in a pretty aluminum case, they were accompanied by a set of filters and a shorty Barlow. Better yet, I actually have a need for ‘em, since I have been using my 3-inch f/11 achromat for a lot of my backyard viewing lately, it only accommodates 1.25-inch oculars, and many of those have gone out the door with the six telescopes I’ve sold over the last year.

Yes, there WERE Pokemon!
Supper, done, it was time to hit the field for my “serious” night. After having written an article about the Herschel 400 recently, I thought I’d revisit some of the season’s objects with a 6-inch. Yes, the 400 is supposedly doable with a 6-inch Newtonian under good conditions, and I had both a 6-inch refractor and those good conditions, but would a six really do it? Even a 6-inch refractor, which has more oomph than a 6-inch reflector? I wanted to find out.

Over the course of the hours that came before midnight—which was to be the witching hour for me this DSRSG, it appeared—I did over 25 H-400s. Not a one of the fuzzies I went after escaped Ethel, including dim little galaxies down in Aquarius, which was well into the Baton Rouge light-dome. There was little doubt, though, that where Ethel really shone was on big things. She had enough light gathering power coupled with enough field to make the big ones like the Veil and North America nebulae come alive.

I passed 25 Herschel Objects, did a couple more for good measure, and called it a night well before 12. Yes, I was in violation of my rule from the long-lost days of the 1990s, “No going to bed at Deep South until M42 is out of the trees.” I wanted to stick it out, but just couldn’t. As on the previous night, it was damp, very damp, and I was tired and feeling sick again. A few minutes shooting the breeze with friends in the Lodge, and I was off to bed. I was darned sure playing Astro Wimp this time out but given my cold (which was clearly no longer "incipient"), there just wasn’t anything for it.


Saturday morning dawned to scattered clouds, but it was apparent we would have yet another good night. I considered what to do. The last time I’d done visual at Deep South, Dorothy and I had taken down the tent canopy Saturday afternoon, both so we could pack it while it was dry and to speed our get-a-way Sunday morning. I thought about doing that this time but decided against it. It was going to be damp again and it would be nice to have a canopy on the field to keep the dew off when I took breaks or wanted to look at a print star atlas (my current fave, Sky & Telescope’s Pocket Sky Atlas Jumbo Edition).

One more prize drawing, and guess what? “I never win” Rod was a winner again. This time I picked up a Bresser 25mm 70-degree eyepiece. It produced beautiful images in the refractor, and was much lighter than the similar focal length, similar apparent field width eyepiece I own, so I was a happy camper. I used the Bresser happily for much of my Saturday night observing.

What did I look at? I again confined myself to the eye candy. What were the most amazing things I saw? The two halves of the Veil Loop in Cygnus, the Veil Nebula itself and the nearby Witch’s Broom Nebula. In the 35mm Panoptic equipped with an OIII filter, the Veil was a marvel, showing off its filigreed nature with direct vision. I have rarely seen the Witch’s Broom, which lies just west of the Veil, look as good as it did. The combo of the wide field of the Pan and the light gathering power of the big objective showed up more detail in it than I’ve seen easily with a C8.

Heretofore, my most memorable look at the Veil complex had been on a long ago near perfect night at the star party’s original home, Percy Quin State Park near McComb, Mississippi, with my old (and now sold) Ultima 8, Celeste. The Veil looked stupendous that evening, but I have to say it looked better on this night with Ethel.

After admiring the Veil for a long while, I looked at many more objects, sharing views with my friends and having a grand time. However, as they say in Maine, “fun is fun, but done is done.” As the evening grew older, I began to feel icky again, and, besides that, had resolved to do the packing for the trip home as soon as the sun was up so we could get on the road as early as possible.

Amazingly, I was back on the uber-damp field right at the crack of dawn. Drying off that wet gear and loading it into the truck was not fun, but I got it done, and Dorothy and I were on the road shortly before breakfast.

The "when all was said and dones"? I still love Deep South. I still love star parties. I may not be quite the die-hard observer I once was, but I enjoyed the DSSG as much as I ever had, if in a slightly different way. I can tell that is true because as we were driving away from the Lodge, I was already looking forward to the next Deep South, in the spring, and was thinking about the telescope I would bring with me and all the fun I would surely have.

Postscript 2022

What are my takeaways from DSRSG 2016? 

This wasn't the greatest Deep South in memory. My cold alone saw to that. It was a very good one, though, and the last good one I was to attend.

After doing so much video/prime focus imaging for the past ten years, it was weird to go to a star party and "just look." It was kinda relaxing. On the other hand, other than fading memories of what I saw, I had nothing to take home with me and process and refer to later.

I was beginning to admit to myself the CGEM (like the EQ6) was more mount than I wanted to handle. Or could safely handle. I was about to begin looking for a mount that offered better a better weight to payload ratio--which I found with Losmandy a couple of years hence.

I hate change.  In witness thereof, note the star party had changed its name to "Deep South Star Gaze" a while before 2016, but I stubbornly insisted on still referring to it as the "Deep South Regional Star Gaze." 

Little did I know, more change was on the way. Changes at Feliciana that would impel the star party to move. I attended one more (still at the Feliciana Retreat Center), but 2017 was a bust in numerous respects just beginning with the observing--or lack thereof save for one evening (when technical gremlins assailed me, natch).

Reading this old article does make me want to attend DSSG (see, I'm trying) in its new home, and I might do that if the covid ever lets up.

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