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 a wonderful event. It’s my “home” star party, held in the piney woods of Louisiana just three hours to the west. It’s got great facilities, great people—many of whom are real friends—and Dorothy and I have been attending for over twenty years. 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 a 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 that 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 working 16 hour days.

Yeah, I still love the DSSG, 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 happy sitting on my couch with the cat watching the 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. The telescope for this year’s Deep South would be Big Ethel, my 6-inch Chinese achromatic refractor, and she’d ride on my CGEM mount.

Why Ethel? Simple:  I wanted to do relaxing visual observing at DSSG 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 its equatorial head is tall enough that she doesn’t bump into a tripod leg even when pointed at the Zenith.

I actually did get up the gumption to actually 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 watch The Flash. I felt bad for the people on the DSSG observing field and hoped they were having a good time anyway. 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 from that, 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 pretty easy. When you are not planning on doing imaging, the amount of stuff you pack magically decreases.

I really tried to reduce the amount of junk we usually take to Deep South this year. For example, the ice chest is usually 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 stuff and didn’t miss anything we left behind.

Two things I packed that 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!


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, but I must admit that much as I love the skies and the folks down Chiefland way, it sure was nice to be only faced with a three-hour drive rather than a six hour one. I am tending to be a stay-at-home in these latter days, and it now takes a big inducement—like Disney World—to get me on the road for a long car 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 a short detour as we neared the Center due to bridge construction the GPS didn’t know about.

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 if some people stay home one year, they tend to 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 up (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 beautiful 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 DSSG 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 it was quite 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 the Celestron mounts are quite immune to polar misalignment causing problems with goto accuracy.

I did have to do a goto alignment, natch. I don’t have a finder shoe on Ethel that will accommodate my StarSense alignment camera, so I had to do things 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.

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—didn't know 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 night. 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 quite 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” 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 just not a factor. Certainly, not as much as I’d have expected in a 6-inch f/8 achromat. Mostly it appeared as 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.

And so it went. I didn’t make it much past 11 p.m., but still saw many beautiful things. The Double Cluster was heart-stopping in a 35mm Panoptic. I just loved the views Ethel delivered, and cursed the fact that 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 shocking, another friend of mine, 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. 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, I managed to get out of bed and into the shower in time for breakfast at nine. 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 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 on the field all day long. It’s just too tiring. I had a mission this morning: 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 up. 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 DSSG, 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 the big things. She had enough light gathering power coupled with enough field to make 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 old-time rule, “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 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.

What was the takeaway? That 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.

This made me feel as if I was right there, nice write up. One question, I've never been to a star party, how safe is it to leave the expensive equipment in the field and leave for the night. I am a newb, have there been incidences where stuff has been tempered with or stollen?
It's usually perfectly safe to leave your stuff on the field.
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