Tuesday, November 08, 2022


Issue 586: The Moon and You Volume 1


I’ve remarked here a couple of times how fast the days, weeks, months, and years seem to fly by at your Old Uncle’s increasingly advanced age. However, you could have knocked me over with the proverbial feather when I realized Charity Hope Valentine has been at my side for some seventeen years now.

“What in pea-turkey is Unk going on about now?” It’s like this, muchachos. With a waxing Moon in the sky, I thought it was time to seriously revisit her. For me, like for many of you, Luna, Selene, Diana, Hecate, Artemis was my first love in astronomy, a love I’ve never quite got over. So, I thought I’d drag a scope into the backyard for a quick look. But which scope?

“Quick look” is just about synonymous with “3-inch alt-Az refractor,” and I could certainly have used my SkyWatcher 80mm f/11 on her AZ-4 mount. I wanted “easy,” yeah, but I wanted more. I wanted to kick up the power on an evening predicted to deliver good seeing.  The scope that would excel in all those things? Charity Hope Valentine is an f/15 125mm aperture Maksutov-Cassegrain with excellent optics, an OK drive, and at least some claim to portability—if not anything approaching that of the SkyWatcher reflector.

As above, I was gobsmacked to realize how long Charity had been with me. That one of my first blog articles about her, “Two-and-a-Half Years After the Honeymoon,” had been written in <gulp> two thousand and fracking eight! Not only has she been with me for a long while, it has been months since Charity was out of her case, and it was time. So, one morning out here in suburbia, where every day (they say) is like Sunday on the farm, your Unk determined to give the scope a checkout prior to lugging her into the backyard.

Protected by the decent aluminum case Meade used to sell for the ETX scopes, Charity is in good physical condition. Frankly, she looks brand new and has weathered the near two decades since she came to stay with Unk better than he has. My main concern was her LNT battery, a button cell that keeps date and time current among other things. I found a 12-volt power supply with a cigarette lighter style connector, plugged Charity in, and fired her up. I was hoping the battery was OK, since replacing it ain’t no fun, lemme tell you. It had been over two years since I’d swapped it out, so I wasn’t hopeful.

Power up, mash “Mode,” scroll down to time…and…  It was way off. But the fact the Autostar HC displayed the date of the last time I used the scope, January of this year, not something random, led me to believe the battery might have some life left. I entered the correct date and time, cycled power, and, yeah, it stuck. I figgered if time were off by evening, I’d have to bite the bullet and replace the cell—“soon.” I’d manually set in the correct time if necessary and keep on truckin’.

Some months back, I talked about resuming my lunar series, Destination Moon. So how come up top it says “The Moon and You,” not “Destination Moon Night Umptysquat”?  A good reason. That series was largely concerned with me imaging lunar features. I planned to do 300 of them, the prominent ones shown in the old Moon map in the mid-sixties edition of Norton’s Star Atlas. I got a lot of ‘em, but not all of ‘em. The holdouts were those of unimpressive nature visible at inconvenient times. So… I didn’t quite make it. Just like when young Rod resolved to draw those 300 and also got much of the way there…but not quite all the way.

My conclusion was if I failed to finish those particular 300 features twice, it meant I was likely never gonna do ‘em all. Also, I wanted this series to be a little broader in scope. If I wanted to capture Selene’s beauty with my ZWO camera, cool. But if I just wanted snapshot Moon pictures with a cell phone, that would be good too. Heck, if I only wanted to look. Or maybe make a quick little sketch of a feature than interested me like I used to do all those years ago, I’d write about that.

After essaying Destination Moon’s multiple installments, I was left knowing the Moon a lot better than I had during my deep-sky-crazy years. Heck, I now probably know her surface almost as well as I did when I was a kid and it was as familiar as Mama and Daddy’s subdivision, Canterbury Heights. But I’d still need a map.

I’ve got several, including the outstanding Rukl Atlas of the Moon (autographed by its late author at a star party, the Peach State Star Gaze, right after he finished enjoying the Moon in my old Ultima C8, Celeste). But if you use a star diagonal with your scope, as I do with Charity (she has a built-in diagonal), be it refractor or CAT, printed maps will never match what you see. You get an upright but mirror-reversed image.  Also, once you get beyond basic lunar touring, the level of detail in Rukl is a mite low.

What to do? Easy-peasy. Virtual Moon Atlas. Yes, this (Windows) program by the author of the Cartes du Ciel software, Patrick Chevalley, and lunar expert Christian Legrand is still around and better than ever. I talked about it frequently in the Destination Moon days, but suffice to say it’s the program I always dreamed of for lunar observing. In addition to displaying crazy-detailed charts that can be customized to match the view in any scope, it will even send your goto mount to lunar features. It’s free, and if you are interested in the Moon, it should be your number one observing tool.

It seemed an appropriate week to resume my wandering of the Moon, what with her being in the news and all over the Internet. The reason for that, of course, was the upcoming total lunar eclipse. The news goobers waxed enthusiastic despite this being an early-early eclipse, at 4-5am-ish at mid eclipse for the eastern half of the country. Nevertheless, I hope many were impelled to arise for it. As of this writing, the Friday before the eclipse on Tuesday, November 8, your old Uncle wasn’t sure if he was game to get up at that hour or not. If I do, a recap and an image (if any) will appear at the end of this here article.

So, on a gentle Gulf Coast early-November evening, one on which the Moon shone down turning the landscape to silver, I set Charity up in the driveway, a spot with a good view of the eastern horizon. All ready to go, I turned the on-off switch to “on” and checked date and time. The date was still good, but time was already off by over six hours. I set it correctly and returned inside for a box of eyepieces.

What sort of oculars would I use with Charity this evening? Nothing fancy. I didn’t feel the need to drag out any of my heavy-metal TeleVue or Explore Scientific eyepieces. Instead, I grabbed the box of Celestrons I won years ago at one of the last Deep South Regional Stargazes I attended. They are all 1.25-inch (Charity is limited to that format anyway) Chinese Plössls that perform just fine. Frankly, it’s been quite a few years since I’ve seen a truly bad ocular from any half respectable vendor.

In went a 32mm for alignment. I coulda grabbed a crosshair reticle eyepiece out of Charity’s case up in the house, but I didn’t feel like going inside again, and a so-so alignment would be good enough for lunar work anyway.

Anyhoo, Charity is a PE model ETX, which means she can perform an automatic alignment not unlike a GPS scope sans GPS. Set her in home position and she does a little dance, finding north and level. This took a couple of minutes, but eventually she headed for alignment star one, Vega. It wasn’t in the eyepiece, but just outside it. The next star was a problem, though.

Because of my position in the backyard, many of Charity’s choices were in the trees. I rejected one star after another till we got to Enif and could finish up.  How was the resulting alignment? Saturn was in the eyepiece at 60x when Charity stopped, no problem. OK, OK! I’ll fess up. That was the result of my SECOND alignment. In typical Uncle Rod fashion, I kicked the tripod by accident, ruining the first one just as I finished centering Enif. In my defense, the legs on Charity’s tripod are more wide-spread than on most.

Where to begin? With the most striking crater near the terminator of this young 8.5-day old Moon, Eratosthenes. Oh, all the pictures here are from Virtual Moon Atlas. North is up, but I’ve flipped ‘em east-west to match what was in Charity’s eyepiece. My first look at this great crater was a bit of a disappointment. The seeing was nowhere near as good as had been predicted, it was fairly lousy in fact, with 250x being a bit of a stretch. 150x was more like it, and when the seeing would briefly settle, Eratosthenes looked purty danged good.

It shouldn’t be surprising mighty Eratosthenes was my first stop. It was perfectly positioned at 8.5 days, just a bit off the terminator. It would be hard to miss even if this 60Km diameter crater didn’t display such beautifully sharp, terraced walls. It is located at the termination of the lunar Apennines; your eye just naturally follows their arc to this stupendous formation. Despite blah-blah-blah seeing Charity easily revealed the complex central peak and the rough floor of this great crater.

Where next? I moved north, flying over a tremendous amount of territory LM style with a push of an Autostar direction button. I skimmed over many wonderful destinations, but something had caught my eye; that “something” being the amazing 101Km crater (or is it really a walled plain?), Plato. While Plato, lying at the other terminus of the huge arc of mountains that begins as Apennines and winds up near Plato as Alps, looks elongated due to its position, it’s, like almost all craters, actually round.

What does every observer long to see of this giant? Some of the craterlets that pepper the dark lava-floor. At eight and a half days, the crater is a little far from the terminator to make that easy but running up the power to 250x and waiting for good seeing stretches revealed a few spots that mark the (relatively) tiny pits.

What else is of interest in the area? Plenty.  Only beginning with the Alpine Valley, which runs for over 130 Km through this mountainous area of the Moon. It’s beautiful in any telescope, but the prize is the rille down its center. About a mile wide, this sinuous “channel” is a high challenge for a visual observer even when the Alpine Valley is perfectly placed. I’ve seen it at those times, but, frankly, the best way to view it is really in images with a planetary camera like my little ZWO.

At this point, I was frankly feeling a mite overwhelmed. Yeah, I’m more familiar with Luna than I was in the days when I’d deserted the Moon for the outer depths of the Universe, but I’d had a long layoff, from Moon-watching and was feeling confused (so what else is new?) trying to orient myself and remember what was where.

One more, though. That “one more” was mighty Tycho. When the Moon approaches full, Tycho is the most prominent feature on Luna thanks to its draw-dropping system of lunar rays. End of story, game over, zip up your fly. But even at this phase, it stood out like a sore thumb in the rough lunar highlands.

What makes Tycho so prominent even when its rays don’t shine is it is sharp, and it is young (the reason its rays are still so prominent). This 86Km diameter formation’s imposing walls contain a complex and interesting triple-central peak. Anyhow, Tycho just looks young (it’s less than 1 billion years old) and is eye-catching at any phase.

And that was that. I could have kept going, but I decided to savor what I’d seen and visit more old friends “next time.” One of the beauties of Miss Valentine, of course, is she’s easy enough to get back inside and in her case despite bringing quite a bit of horsepower to the observin’ field. Soon, I was in the den watching TV with the cats, sipping a portion of Yell, and strategizing about the upcoming eclipse…

The Great November 2022 Total Lunar Eclipse

Nah, not as good as a Christmas eclipse, but this one was pretty spectacular from the ‘Swamp. Course, there would’ve been no eclipse at all for Unk if he hadn’t been able to drag himself outa bed at freaking 4am. Amazingly enough, he did!  I’d stationed a tripod bearing a Canon DSLR with a medium telephoto lens by the front door so things wouldn’t be too painful at that now unaccustomed early hour (I went about ten years getting up a 4:30 every morning for work, but that seems a long, long time ago). I’d just waltz into the yard with the rig, shoot some pretty pictures, and that would be it. I hoped.

Arising at such a ridiculous time wasn’t as bad as I feared. In fact, the only pained individuals were the cats, who believed it should be breakfast time as soon as I walked into the den despite it being four in the fricking morning. I asked for some temporary forbearance, and got tripod and camera into the front yard, on the driveway, where I had a good look at Luna, who’d soon be entering totality as she sank in the west. Not only would the Moon be at just under 30-degrees altitude as totality began, the sky was dead clear.

There’s not much more to tell. It had been a while since I’d shot a lunar eclipse, but I still remembered how. Lens wide open, ASA 1600, exposures under a second, 250mm of focal length, lots of shots. Despite my bleary eyes, I could tell the images displayed on the Canon’s little screen were pretty good. One nice thing was Luna was in a fairly star-rich area (and Uranus was nearby), making her extra photogenic. It was a pretty dark eclipse, too.

Done just before five, I downloaded the images to a laptop to make sure all was well and uploaded one to Facebook to share with my friends. Yep, looked purty darned good, I told Miss Dorothy, who was bustling about, serving the felines their breakfast at their strong insistence.

To be honest, I’d been sorta dreading the morning…having to get up so early, get a camera outside, and see if I remembered how to take lunar eclipse photos. But it all went amazingly smoothly…the whole thing was, to quote the poet, “simple — neat…no trouble at all — not the least.” I was glad I’d imaged (and experienced) this grand eclipse.

We really are fortunate to have such a big, close and spectacular satellite aren't we? Even with all the light pollution and frequent poor seeing from my yard here on the south coast of British Columbia the Moon is a reliable and faithful friend. I can only rarely push the magnification up over 200X with my 4" refractor here though. 100X - 150X is what I use most of the time. My highest power eyepieces are a 10mm and 7mm giving 150X and 217X and I strongly suspect that getting a new eyepiece that splits the difference could be worthwhile.
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