Sunday, November 19, 2017


Issue #550: Deep South Star Gaze 2017: You Can’t Win ‘em All…

You can’t expect every star party to be great. Sometimes, often through no fault of the event itself or its organizers, things just don’t quite pan out for you. So it was for me with the 2017 edition of one of amateur astronomy’s longest running events, the Deep South Star Gaze.

I suppose part of the problem was that I just wasn’t as excited about the year’s DSSG (née “Deep South Regional Star Gaze”) as I used to be. Which doesn’t have a thing to do with the DSSG. It has a lot to do with where I live now.

Out here in the suburbs, I have a zenith limiting magnitude of about 5 on a good night, far, far better than I had downtown at old Chaos Manor South. I can observe and even image profitably from the backyard. Sky gonna be clear for two-three-four-five nights? I can leave my telescope set up in my secure yard just like I do at a star party.

Even given the current nasty weather pattern, I can sometimes get 7 – 10 nice nights per month out here in Hickory Ridge, nights with no or minimal Moon. So, there’s just not the level of anticipation there was when I might, if I were very lucky, get one clear night every month or two that coincided with a club dark site observing session. Back then, a week or so at a star party was just heaven. How I longed for those deep sky photons after being deprived of them for months.

Despite the weather forecasts, the field was filling up...
My current mindset also has to do with work—or the lack of it. I am now what they call “semi-retired.” While I continue to teach one day (and night) a week for the Physics Department at the University of South Alabama, and am a Contributing Editor at Sky & Telescope, it’s not like I’m snowed under. When I was still doing my engineering gig, commuting at least a couple of hours a day (and working plenty of hours during that day), a star party wasn’t just an opportunity to observe; it was a much-needed vacation.

At first, it was wonderful to be free of the rat race. I remember Saturday afternoon at the Deep South Spring Scrimmage in 2013, the year I retired at age 59, thinking maybe I’d better go ahead and pack some of the astro-junk in preparation for an early departure Sunday a.m. “Wait a minute. I can leave as late as I want Sunday. I don’t HAVE to go to work Monday!” That was great for the first couple of years, but by 2015, a trip to an astronomy event began to have slightly less appeal than it did in the years when I really needed a break.

That’s where I stood as the October new Moon and DSSG 2017 approached. I wanted to be back on the Feliciana observing field, hanging out with old friends and doing some astronomy from a nice and (amazingly) dark site, sure, but I wasn’t as crazy for it as I used to be.

“The longest journey begins with a single…” yadda-yadda-yadda. My first step was loading the 4Runner, Miss Lucille Van Pelt, with the gear we’d need for four full days at the Feliciana Retreat Center in the wilds of the Louisiana piney woods.

In recent times, we’ve tended to do three full days, but we thought doing Wednesday through Sunday morning instead of Thursday through Sunday morning might give us a better chance of getting in at least one good night if the weather turned bad, as it can down here in mid-October—DSSG would be early this year thanks to the New Moon date. As the month wore on and the star party approached, it looked like poor weather was exactly what might happen.

When the week of the event finally arrived, the prognostications on showed happy little Suns and Moons for Tuesday and Wednesday, but after that it was partly cloudy days and nights, and, by Saturday, lightning studded thunderstorm clouds. In fact, the weather forecast for Saturday night began to sound dire.

Our setup...
Anyhow, I’ve been to so many star parties over the last twenty years that packing for one is second nature. I know where everything should go in the truck, and, most importantly, what should go in. I make sure nothing gets left behind by relying on checklists I’ve refined and revised over the years. Nothing gets checked off till I physically place it in the 4Runner.

It was all pretty standard stuff, but with a couple of changes:  a new mount, a Losmandy, and a new telescope, a 115mm APO. If you’re a faithful reader, you know I recently sold two of my beloved Synta mounts, the Atlas and the CGEM. I still have my AVX, but what would travel to the star party with me would be my new GM811G.

While I’d been able to try the Losmandy out in the backyard, the cloudy early fall weather prevented me from giving it a good shakedown cruise, and I was looking forward to finally doing that. Thanks to its design, the GM811 and its tripod actually took up less room in the truck than the CGEM had, despite the Losmandy’s substantially higher payload capacity.

New telescope? No, I didn’t go out and buy yet another refractor. The star party would be more than just a pleasure trip for me this year. That APO, a loaner from Meade, would be the subject of my next Sky & Telescope Test Report. That was another reason Dorothy and I’d decided on a Wednesday rather than Thursday departure. That would allow me more time to put the scope through its paces.

Once Miss Van P. was loaded, I sat back and relaxed with a little Tuesday night TV. There was really nothing more I needed to do to prepare for Deep South. I hadn’t been asked to give a presentation this year, so I didn’t have to spend time reviewing and agonizing over a PowerPoint. 

The drive to the Feliciana Retreat Center near Norwood, Louisiana was a relaxed and uneventful one when we finally got going. There wasn’t much reason to start the three-and-a-half-hour drive too early. With DSSG taking place with DST still in effect, we’d have plenty of time to set up before sundown. We settled on 11:30 or so as our hit-the-road time. That would allow me to pick up the new books from my Local Comic Shop (Wednesday is New Comic Book day, of course), Port City Comics. and eat Chinese afterwards, as I always do on Wednesdays.

I'd planned on sitting here while taking pictures...
After a little more than three hours on Interstates 10, 12, 55, and multiple Louisiana back-roads, we were rolling onto the Feliciana Retreat Center grounds. We headed for the field straight away to stake out a spot. The weather had been good Tuesday night, and looked to be even better Wednesday, so it wasn’t much of a surprise that there were already plenty of eager amateur astronomers on the field. My usual place along the eastern side was taken, so I picked one on the northeastern field edge. The view to the south was compromised by a tree, but the light dome in that direction meant I wouldn’t be giving up much.

Up went the tent canopy, the tripod, the mount, and the telescope. It was hot work since we were back into another warm spell after having a few almost fall-like days, but not too bad. By the time an hour had elapsed, everything was ready to go for what looked to be an outstanding evening. The skies were slightly hazy, but only slightly, and were that deep cerulean that spells “good things.”

Setup done, Dorothy and I drove to the lodge to unpack in our small motel-like room. I noted with approval that the FRC had done some maintenance and remodeling, and that our room looked cleaner than the one we had the previous year. 

Thence back to the field for the door prize drawing. No, we didn’t win a thing, but we’ve won (or at least Dorothy’s won) plenty over the years. Drawing done, I did the final preparations for the coming evening’s observing run, and we returned to the Lodge for dinner.

When you’re at a star party with not much to do during the day, food often assumes a more than normal importance. Especially when, as at DSSG, there’s no nearby town with decent restaurant alternatives and other diversions. One thing that had always been good, very good, at the FRC was the meals. Oh, there was one year when the portions were a little skimpy, but the food that was served was high in quality. Not this year. The food was, to put it plainly, terrible.

Start with dinner. Tiny pieces of chicken that were as dry as the Sahara. The next morning at breakfast, I finally identified the yellow disk that was plopped onto my plate as eggs. The plastic-like thing did taste faintly of eggs, anyway. One evening there was jambalaya that tasted like it came straight out of a can, and was accompanied by a side of canned corn. Another “memorable” meal? Salisbury steak that was apparently made the same way MacDonald’s makes chicken nuggets:  smash some powdered something together in a mold. I expected better based on past experience, and knew the Feliciana Retreat Center could have done better if they’d wanted to. I survived largely thanks to the salad bar (which also wasn't what it used to be). 

While the food was reasonably priced, they weren’t exactly giving it away, and it was certainly not a good value. I am aware the FRC has had its share of financial problems and needs to economize, but this is not the way to do it. Anyway, I would have gladly paid five dollars more a meal for good food, and I suspect other star partiers would have as well.

Getting dark, finally...
Dinner, such as it was, concluded, what was the plan for Wednesday night? Astrophotography. I don’t generally like to jump into picture taking on the first evening when I’m tired from the drive and set up, but the weatherman was beginning to suggest that if I were to get any pictures, I’d have to get them Wednesday night.

How was aligning the GM811? Polar alignment was exactly the same as what I’d been doing with my Chinese mounts for the last six months or so, polar alignment with the PC program Sharpcap using my guide scope and guide camera. The difference was that the much more precise altitude and azimuth adjusters on the Losmandy made it far easier to get a dead-on alignment.

Goto alignment was similarly easy. Using the mount’s Gemini 2 hand control, I centered three stars in the west, where I’d be doing most of my imaging, and one star in the east. While you can build multi- star models on both sides of the Meridian, my experimenting in the backyard had shown that four stars total was more than enough for the mount to yield excellent pointing accuracy.

OK. Fired up the laptop, connected to the mount over the Ethernet cable, started my camera control program, Nebulosity, and guiding program, PHD2, and was ready for picture-taking. What first? Well, how about good, old M13?

I clicked on M13 in Stellarium and the mount headed to the Great Globular, stopping with it centered in the frame of my DSLR, which was displayed on the laptop thanks to Nebulosity. I focused using my Bahtinov mask and Neb’s fine focus routine, and began a series of 300-second exposures.

Unfortunately, when the first one finished, I could tell I had big problems. For some reason, the images were in black and white. The program appeared to be debayering them, since they looked normal rather than having the pixilated appearance of non-debayered shots, but they were in black and white and nothing I tried changed that.

OK. I’d work on the computer in the morning (images were normal with the DSLR itself, but I didn’t have a cable release/intervalometer, so I couldn’t use it for long exposures without the laptop). For tonight, I’d just give the refractor a visual workout and spend some time getting more comfortable with the new mount.

How did the Meade 115mm APO do? To find out, look for my Test Report in an upcoming issue of S&T. I will say it surprised me. After a while, I forgot I was using a telescope with "only" 115mm of aperture and just enjoyed the beauties of the deep sky it showed me.

As for the GM811, it never faltered. Gotos were dead on in the west; in the east it placed objects in a widefield eyepiece despite me only having aligned on one star on that side of the Meridian. I hung in till about midnight—my usual turn-into-a-pumpkin hour in these latter days, I must admit—before parking the mount and walking back to the Lodge to get some shuteye.

After eating what I could of breakfast the next morning, it was time to troubleshoot the laptop/Nebulosity problem. Sitting in the dining room after breakfast with the PC and camera, I made absolutely no progress. The problem persisted. All the images were monochrome. I was pretty sure uninstalling and reinstalling Nebulosity and the camera drivers would fix things, but that wasn’t possible. The Internet was so slow at FRC this year that my laptop would barely even connect to it.

Really liked my friend Dave's new mount...
So, no pictures Thursday, either. It didn’t look like the evening would be imaging worthy anyway. Stepping outside the Lodge and looking up revealed a sky blighted by high cirrus and even a few “mare’s tails.” If the camera had been working properly, I’d no doubt have tried some shots Thursday night, but it wasn’t, so it would be another visual evening.

In the afternoon, it was prize drawing time. Again, we didn’t win a thing. Well, Dorothy would have won a nice TeleVue eyepiece if she’d been on the field for the drawing, but she wasn’t. The drawing’s time was different from what we thought it would be—I was only present because I happened to be on the field fiddling with my gear.

Unlike in past years, “must be present to win” meant, “not just at the star party, but on the field.” Unfortunately, we rarely knew when a drawing—or anything else—would take place. No schedule was posted anywhere that I could find, so Dorothy and I were in the dark about “when and where” much of the time. 

Other than that, it was a nice afternoon spent getting reacquainted with many old friends. Maybe the best thing about this year’s event was hanging with the people I see too seldom, including Charles Genovese, Walter Serrat, Walt Cooney, Barry Simon, Dave Diaz, Ron Marcella, Greg Thompson, Bryan Shirkey, and many more (I did note a couple of familiar faces were missing, perhaps thanks to the worsening weather forecast).

Also onsite was Scott Roberts, who I’d last seen ten or twelve years before when we’d both been guests at one of Herb York’s old Optics Expo shindigs in Anacortes (Washington). As you probably know, after years at Meade, Scott was chosen to helm the new Explore Scientific. Not only did Scott do a presentation at Deep South this year, he donated many of his eyepieces and an APO refractor as prizes.

Finally, it was sky watching time Thursday night. I unparked the mount and was ready to go immediately, no alignment required. Conditions were not horrible early on, just not good. Those cirrus clouds were making their presence felt, and it was obvious the sky was slowly going south.

I had a lot of fun touring the early winter open clusters, but by midnight even NGC 457, the bright E.T. Cluster, was fading away, and I gave up. The dew had been incredibly heavy, and I was damp from head to foot and uncomfortable after spending a night at the eyepiece out in the open instead of sitting at the computer under a tent canopy as I’d intended.

Friday afternoon, the weather forecasts we were pulling up on our smartphones (when we could do that given the state of the Center’s Internet) indicated “severe” was not too strong a word for what would happen Saturday night. Dorothy and I decided we’d leave on Saturday morning. Why sit and watch it rain in the FRC Lodge when we could do the same thing at home in comfort?

I got a couple of good Losmandy tips from my friend, Tim...
To that end, I packed the tent canopy and most of the other gear Friday afternoon. Even if it didn’t rain Friday night, the dew would again be heavy, I was sure, and nothing is more miserable than packing wet gear. I left the scope up just in case, but that was it.

Friday night, I wandered out to the field a couple of times, mainly just to shoot the breeze with various and sundry fellow observers. There may have been a few sucker holes over the course of the evening, but not many. I’d covered my scope and mount at sundown, and left them that way. I whiled away the night watching movies in the lodge.

Saturday morning, we were up and on the road before breakfast. We might have stayed until ten for the prize drawing if we’d known it was going to be at ten, but we didn’t, so we didn’t. The trip home was, like the trip out, uneventful. While I was rather put out at the way things had unfolded this year, I could be philosophical, having seen more than a few star parties go down in flames for me over the years, “Well, that’s just the way the old cookie crumbles!”

In retrospect, we made a good decision. The weather Saturday night was indeed severe. Apparently, the FRC actually lost  power briefly Sunday morning, something that’s never happened before despite some fierce storms here and there over the years. Absolutely no viewing Saturday night, of course.

Will I be back for DSSG 2018 next year? I plan to be and would like to be. I’ve missed a grand total of one Deep South since 1992, and it’s unlikely I will quit now. And I feel in my gut that 2018 will be a better year for moi. I hope that turns out to be the case, but who am I kidding, anyway? Long ago, Barry Simon told me, “Look, you know we’ll all keep returning to Deep South like swallows to Capistrano as long as we are able.” I hope to do just that.

Reinstalling Nebulosity and the Canon driver once we got home did indeed fix my problem, whatever it was. Murphy banished and the weather finally looking up, I find myself eager to do astrophotography from my backyard. In fact, I'm sanguine enough about observing again that I'm kind of looking forward to next year's Spring Scrimmage. PLEASE, NO MORE OF THAT JAMBALAYA, though!  


2017 was definitely one of the star party's poorer years. I just didn't have as good a time as I usually do--due to weather, the foundering FRC, and some other reasons best left unsaid. However,  I would undoubtedly have enjoyed it more or at least tried to enjoy it more if I'd known 2017 was possibly the DSRSG's swan song for me.

The observing field for DSRSG 1995
What happened? It had been obvious for a couple of years that the Feliciana Retreat Center was suffering serious financial difficulties. Unfortunately,  the owner of the facility, the Presbyterian Church, made a wrong-headed decision as to how to keep the place afloat:  cut expenses to the bone. That is the easy and tempting solution during tough financial times. The site's (competent) employees were let go and replaced with lackadaisical part-timers. 

The result? Same old story you've seen a hundred times. Save a little money by reducing costs, quality suffers badly, customers notice and desert you in droves, and the business doesn't just fail, it crashes.

If I thought things were bad in the fall, I didn't know what "bad" was. Despite me looking forward to the spring version of DSRSG, when time came to register for it, I declined to participate, having at least a suspicion of how things might go. Those suspicions were justified, alas, as I heard from the participants after the event. 

At the 2018 Spring Scrimmage, the food went from bad to laughable, with breakfast one morning consisting of packets of instant oatmeal and pop-tarts left on a table by the kitchen crew (most of whom were not even on-site for breakfast). There was an intrusive streetlight/security light left burning despite the FRC staff having been told it had to be turned off for the star party. The field was a mess of ruts an RV made some weeks previously at another event when it tried to leave the muddy field and got stuck. Despite promises (by the FRC) to the contrary, there was no Internet at all, not even the usual poor Wi-Fi. And so on...

Following the spring debacle, Director Barry Simon, with the concurrence of star party veterans, decided the event would have to move to a new location for the autumn edition. One over in Mississippi, but in the same general area, the White Horse Christian Retreat Center near Sandy Hook, Mississippi. 

As the date  for the star party approached, I was frankly unsure whether I was up for another new Deep South venue (the 4th over the life of the star party), especially one that, while maybe better staffed and maintained, didn't offer anything to compare with the facilities at Feliciana.  I was just not convinced I wanted to sleep in a star party group-bunkhouse at my advancing age. I was a little sad to do so, but gave the 2018 DSSG a miss. 

Then, in January 2019, I suffered a serious accident and was not able to even think about doing backyard observing, much less star partying, in the spring or even, it turned out, in the fall. Barry emailed me that there was a private cabin Dorothy and I would be welcome to use, and it was tempting, but there was just no way I was physically able to accept the invitation. 

2020 Spring Scrimmage? It's only three weeks away as I write, and the COVID 19 pandemic is still in full swing. Even if it is held, I won't be there. I have had my COVID scare (I was exposed, but didn't get the virus) and have determined to be much more careful until there's a reliable vaccine. How about the fall? I want to go, sort of. Now, if the event were back at good, old Percy Quin with its access to motels and restaurants (like the fabled Mr. Whiskers' Catfish Cabin), there's no way I wouldn't be there. I know that will likely never happen, however. So... 

We'll see when fall comes, but I can tell you right here and now that after over two years of "backyard only" observing, I am hungry for dark(er) skies. I just might make it this autumn, that is. On the other had, at my advancing age and in my more frail physical condition in the wake of my accident, I don't know, as above, if I'm up for yet another new DS(R)SG site, virus or no virus. And, frankly, a lingering fear of falling in the dark means I am probably better off in my backyard for now. 

Whatever happens, I have my memories of some great Deep South days and nights. Much as I hate it, things change, but the memories live on. Most of all, I will miss the people I've met in this hobby that I am afraid I'll never see again. That's just life for better or for worse, muchachos... 

Hi Rod, Nice write up. Do you own a solar scope? Will w
I've often thought about an Ha solar scope, Will, but still don't have one. Do have a couple of white light filters around here, though.
"I find myself eager to do astrophotography from my backyard."

While I've been evaluating an EAA setup I came across a setting in my m43 cameras that almost means I can do EAA and later DSS with the same images. I did renew my Rose City Astronomers membership due to their very active imaging group.

Point is EAA and imaging (I have about 5-5.2 skies for 25% of the sky) are really the only reason I plan on getting active again. My Camera allows for stacking 4 images and with NR does a very good job. I can go 30-60 seconds (1600, 800 ISO) from my location, so after the first 30 I can see things like NCG 7331 and after a stack much deeper. Then if I take more of the subject i can stack later in DSS and get better results than stacking single exposures due to better DR and less noise.

Haven't tried planetary from the house yet but Since my camera does 4K stills it should be good for that. Planning on getting a new stills camera that does 6K (18 mpx) at 60 Fps which should be great for planets.

Hi Rod:

Well just a follow up. I stayed in the rose city astronomers and having found an EAA like setting in my Gx8 camera I decided that would finally after two years add a refractor to my collection as it seemed to be something thing that you felt added value to your hobby.

I knew from last year that Explore Scientific put stuff on sale this time of year. Santa was very generous and said I could get the 102 APO triplete which normally is $1030 but it was on sale for $875. I was asking on rose city because I knew a few had the ES127, and yikes one had a coupon for an additional 10% off, so I finally got my first refractor the ES102 APO. I know it is not a Tak or Tvue or AStro Physics, but I think it should be fine first Refractor. Just a thank you for all the times you helped me. Merry Christmas to you and Dorthy.
Need some advice Rod. I am thinking about an AltAZ mount for very limited use with my ES102 APO (waiting for the replacement as FedX crushed the first one).

Would the Twilight I or Orion clone be ok for quick peeks? The folks on Cloudy Nights dont' think so, but clearly the scope at 10 pounds should be ok according to the specs (Its the Triplet at 9 lbs.).

Seriously again I owe you a thanks as I never would have gotten a Refractor without you move into them. C8 stays but I think the ES102 with be my imaging tube except for vary faint stuff.

you can send your reply to as I never check my gmail account.

Thanks in advance.
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