Sunday, February 22, 2009

 

My Great Comets


Hale - Bopp in the dawn...
What’s a Great Comet? What you or me say one is, muchachos. “Great Comet” is not some well-defined category established by the IAU (they ain’t had much luck with that kind of thing lately anyhow), it is a casual term in use by the professional and amateur astronomy communities to refer to a comet so striking that it is “noticed” by the general public. Given the ambiguity inherent in that, the “What’s a great comet?” game inspires endless debate amongst those of us who follow the hairy stars. Was Hale Bopp Great? How about Hyakutake? Don’t ask me. But I do know my great comets, those that have had a major impact on me across five decades of observing.

C/1965 S1 Ikeya-Seki

I can’t remember if I had heard there was to be a grand comet in the sky before the newspapers and the local TV weathercasters began to buzz about Ikeya-Seki in the late summer of 1965. Maybe I saw something in Sky and Telescope or one of the mimeographed amateur astronomy newsletters I gobbled when I could get my hands on one. One thing is sure: little Rod didn’t know much about comets. I’d marveled at pictures of Halley in the few astronomy books I owned or found in Kate Shepard Elementary’s library (I particularly favored a drawing that showed Bronze Age tribesmen fleeing in terror from a Halley that filled the sky), but that was it. I just assumed Great Comets were something that happened every few centuries or so.

In other words, I was a wet behind the ears novice, having just acquired my first telescope the previous spring. I soon got edumacated, though, as even in those disconnected times a Great One on the way meant nobody with access to a TV set or a newspaper could miss hearing a lot about comets. The word coming out of the three TV channels we had in those dark ages was that in late October, Sun grazing Ikeya-Seki, being touted as “ten times brighter than the Sun," would round our star and put on a tremendous show in the morning skies.

Man alive! Was astronomy always like this? I hardly turned around and there was yet another cosmic spectacle aborning: Solar and Lunar eclipses, grand conjunctions, and now a Great Comet. It seemed that way, anyhow. Maybe because in those supposedly simpler times we (astronomers and non-astronomers) were more easily impressed. Maybe because we were less distracted. Especially us kids. What did we do for entertainment? Get up a game of softball in the backyard, play army (or spacemen), drag out some toys, read a book, or watch the family’s single black and white TV if there was something good on.

We could also see the skies a little bit, if not a whole lot, better in Possum Swamp back then. Even in the mid-1960s, the Milky Way was not starkly visible, but it was visible nevertheless—and we noticed it. Without much else to do, we were content to spend the waning hours of a midsummer day, when a sweet dusk had come and gone, just before the Moms hollered us for the night, lying out on a freshly mown lawn and looking up at the stars in their countless and mysterious hordes.

If you look back at the weather reports for the third week in October of 1965, one sad thing you will notice is that most of the eastern part of the country was blanketed in clouds. As you might expect, Possum Swamp down on the Gulf Coast was not immune. Hell, then as now late October is still close to the peak of Hurricane Season. I had my hopes, though, and one morning, probably a day or two past “the best,” I got my chance.

As a sprout, I was anything but an early riser, refusing to get out of bed and get ready for school until the very last minute, so it would be quite a trick to rouse myself at 4 o’clock in the a.m. to catch Ikeya-Seki as it rose barely ahead of ol’ Sol. Or maybe I was excited enough that it wouldn’t be. I had jumped up for one of NASA's early morning Gemini launches without being prodded out of bed by my Big Ben alarm clock or Mama. I surprised myself on Comet Morning by waking early for once. I was also surprised to find Mama and Daddy up ahead of me, wanting to see the spectacle for themselves they said. Mama allowed as how we could have breakfast “after the comet,” so out we trotted into the still warm late October pre-dawn.

With me came—of course—my trusty Tasco 3-inch reflector. Why? I was aware Ikeya-Seki was more an object for the naked eye or binoculars (all I had was an ubercheap 77 cent plastic pair from the discount store toy department, but I brought ‘em out nevertheless). Maybe I wanted a close up of the comet’s head. Or more likely I just wanted the scope out there with me because I didn’t see how you could do astronomy without a telescope. Anyhoo, we stood in the middle of the front yard and looked to the East, as countless other people were doing in Montgomery, Birmingham, even cosmopolitan Atlanta, and all across these United States every morning of the comet’s passage—most fruitlessly because of the weather. Me and the folks were amazingly lucky as, despite some scattered clouds, the sky was reasonably clear as we squinted at the eastern horizon, which was clear of trees and houses and clouds after about 10 degrees.

What a disappointment. At first, anyhow, since we saw absolutely nuttin’—zero, zip, zilch. Then as we stared, a phantom something appeared before our wondering eyes. Vague, milky, Milky Way-like, a thin inverted broom shape of celestial cobwebs. Even in my ignorance, I was aware (I think so, anyhow) that comets do not zip across the skies like meteors, no matter what I saw in the sci-fi pictures they showed down to the Roxy, but I still expected a little more than this. And yet, and yet…the more we looked, the more we saw and the brighter the comet seemed to become despite the rapid approach of dawn and Ikeya-Seki’s frustratingly low altitude.

The most amazing thing for me other than the fact that I had just bagged my first comet? The impact it had on adults. Not only were Mama and Daddy outside with me and my scope, they were as excited about seeing Ikeya-Seki as I was. You see, I didn’t imagine any grownups—beyond professional astronomers (for me, anybody in Sky and Telescope was a “professional astronomer”)—would be much interested in things that went on in the sky. For some weird reason, I had the idea amateur astronomy and backyard telescopes was mostly a kid thing. I changed my mind when a crowd began to develop in our front yard. Folks driving by in the dawn on their way to early jobs spotted us with the telescope and, in those friendlier times, thought nothing of turning into our street, hopping out and saying “Howdy, y’all lookin’ at the comet?”

C/1973 E1 Kahoutek

Following my initiation with Ikeya Seki, I caught a few comets over the next decade or so. Nothing very dramatic, though. No, the next big comet event in my amateur astronomy career was The Cosmic Watergate. The what? Comet Kahoutek was different from the usual visitor in that he was discovered when pretty far out, 74 million miles, some seven months before perihelion. That meant astronomers, amateur and professional, had a long, long time to plan their observations, chatter about The Newun, and interact with the public. The result was that some of us became a mite overenthusiastic. Was that bad? No, not necessarily, not always, not when you can deliver the goods, but in this case it was a big mistake.

With over half-a-year before perihelion, the astronomical community’s chatter about Kahoutek had plenty of time to percolate out into the larger culture, and these rumblings began describing something the network anchors were soon dubbing a spectacular holiday show. Kahoutek was amazingly bright considering how far out as it was, and that meant “big.” The path of the hairy star would send it within the orbit of Mercury, placing it at it’s best for Earthly viewing in early January 1974. Based on the comet’s predicted orbit, it was initially thought Kahoutek was a first time visitor from the Oort Cloud (probably not the case, it was later determined) and, as a virgin, would stage an especially impressive performance, putting Ikeya-Seki to shame. Probably even outdoing the legendary 1910 apparition of Halley.

Shortly after its discovery, though, Kahoutek started doing a “Pluto” on us. Every time more observational data came in, the calculated size of the comet was reduced. It was also not brightening anywhere near as much as expected as it neared perihelion. As December came in, most astronomers began to expect something in the “OK,” not spectacular, not Great category. There was some disappointment in the astronomical community ranks, but not much. It still looked as if it would be a superior comet by our standards, and anybody who’s been in the comet game for long knows the beasties are as unpredictable as cats. The surest path to real disappointment is expecting them to do what you want them to. Pity, yeah, but not a big deal. Or it wouldn’t have been if the public had got the word as to our reduced expectations.

Thing was, though, they didn’t. The fact that Kahotek’s passage coincided with the holiday season probably had something to do with that. People were busy with Christmas preparations and not paying much/any attention to the few cautionary reports that made it to Huntley-Brinkley (actually, "Chancellor-Brinkley" by then, I think) or The Possum Swamp Register. Most of the media kept pushing Kahoutek. Maybe they didn’t get the word on the comet’s demise as a spectacle, or, if they did, maybe the story about New Year’s Comet Fireworks was just too good to let die. This was compounded by the fact that many news outfits were (quite naturally) relying on NASA rather than the astronomical community for information about the comet.

With only Skylab on which to pin its dreams, the space agency, which had recently been gutted by a President who was not only distracted by his personal problems (ahem), but who also didn’t much like the space stuff to begin with, mounted an insanely over the top PR campaign for Kahoutek. This would return the public’s attention to space from the Watergate mess and the fallout from the debacle in the jungles of Southeast Asia where it had been firmly fixed for a while. When it became evident Kahoutek would be a bust (for the public), some of the NASA flacks did try to dampen expectations, but, like the Titanic, it’s almost impossible to change the course of a massive federal agency in a hurry, looming iceberg or no.

Comet mania continued unabated and began to turn a mite ugly. This shouldn’t have surprised us in the astro-world. The chronicles of the 1910 apparition of Halley make clear it was accompanied by scare stories of cosmic proportions. Like the threat of worldwide asphyxiation due to “cyanide” in Halley’s tail (apocryphal—I hope—reports tell of fear-maddened folks committing suicide to escape Halley’s Agonizing Death Gas). This kinda junk is not at all unusual—we’d see more with Hale Bopp twenty years later. In fact, near as I can tell, “comet panic” has almost always been part of the passage of any Great Comet. In Kahoutek’s case, the scare was perpetrated by one David Berg, the big cheese of a religious cult known as the Children of God, who was much given to whacked-out fundamentalist-style prophecies. For this comet, he predicted widespread devastation, and, as Kahoutek came closer, he began squealing about DOOMSDAY and even THE ENDTIMES.

When early January and our best shot at Kahoutek had come and gone, the spit predictably hit the fan. Despite an amazing performance as far as amateur and professional astronomers were concerned, a magnitude briefly as bright as 0 (-3 as it rounded the Sun), a tail 25 degrees long, and a visible anti-tail, the public was not impressed. The fainter than touted magnitude and fairly rapid dimming combined with the public’s ignorance about comets to ensure howls of dismay. Despite all the hoopla, most folks didn’t have a very good idea what a comet should look like, with many of ‘em actually expecting something blinding to flash across the heavens as they stared up at any random time. Even those who had a little more sense than that were right put out that this thing was “no brighter than a dadgummed star!”

Most outraged were the print and TV media. The late night hosts of the time, Johnny Carson and Dick Cavett, had a field day with The Cosmic Watergate (in Johnny’s case, it was all in fun as he was a rather accomplished amateur astronomer). It’s not at all out of line to say the failure of Kahoutek to live up to misplaced expectations dealt NASA a serious blow (though Skylab got some great pictures of the comet). To this day, the media has not forgotten nor forgiven the way they were made to look foolish by the astronomers. Played for saps, they thought. During the Hale-Bopp apparition, The New York Times was still whining about Kahoutek and how they had been cheated.

Me? I didn’t give a hoot ‘n holler what the NYT thought about Kahoutek. I was transported. This was quite an upgrade from the small visitors I’d looked at in my Newts over the previous decade. It wasn’t blindingly bright by the time I saw it—maybe magnitude 3 or so—and the tail did not stretch on forever, but was respectable at maybe three or four degrees in length at least. In a telescope, the head was fascinating. I learned a lot about comets as I marveled at Kahoutek with eyes, binoculars, and scopes from my backyard in the university student housing ghetto. That wasn’t all I learned—in retrospect, anyhow.

To this day, I still wonder if things might have worked out differently for me if I’d grabbed a bottle of Chianti and led my pretty young wife, Linda, out into the dark for a look at the Great Comet on one of those nights rather than leaving her inside watching The Partridge Family while I hunted the little visitor. All these years hence, I bitterly regret that, and it makes my heart hurt. The past, however, is what it is, apparently immutable, and, all things considered, everything worked out well for me over the ensuing decades—one, long, lonely stretch notwithstanding. Kahoutek? It is and will remain known as the flop of the century no matter what I or anybody else who actually saw it says.

C/1975 V1 West

I thought Kahoutek was good? Hoo-boy, I hadn’t seen nothin’ yet. For reasons I’m not quite sure about, Comet West did not register with the public, barely registered with a lot of amateur astronomers, and, so, ain't a Great One in that sense, but it sure as hell did register with me and with at least some o’ my astro-buddies. Many of us who saw it will, in fact, tell you West put even Hale-Bopp to shame. Not only was it brighter than the Boppster at mag -3, it was blessed, due to the geometry of its passage, with a much more impressive tail (Bopp’s was stubby and foreshortened, West’s was an impressive and long fan).

My West story? For once I lucked out. When West hit the predawn skies with a fury in 1976, I was in a good position to appreciate it, North Texas, where there’s nothing but tumbleweeds, jackrabbits, and the occasional cow as far as the eye can see. Well, and Air Force bases, of course. I was attending the U.S. Air Force’s ICBM School at Sheppard AFB near the smallish town of Wichita Falls, Texas. Initially I was concerned about the typically bright lights of the AFB spoiling my view, and made preparations to drive offbase past the strip bars and cheap motels and tattoo parlors that crowded around Sheppard, and into the dramatically dark prairie (desert?). I needn’t have bothered; given the excellent horizons on base and the natural brilliance of West, I could just stand in the Missile School’s parking lot and drink the thing in. Bright, with a broad and long dust and ion tail, West was something to behold. My fellow amateurs who missed West for one reason or another probably get tired of me saying it, but my verdict is “Yeah, significantly better than Hale-Bopp.”

Why didn’t more people, amateur astronomers and the general public alike, notice West? You got me, pards. It for sure vindicated the comet watching game, or should have, even for Joe and Jane Sixpack. I mean, this puppy was—so some folks said—bright enough to see in broad daylight (I didn’t see it in the daytime). Maybe the reason it was mostly ignored was, again, poor ol’ Kahoutek. It had soured newsmen on astronomy to the extent that there was hardly any reporting in the mass media on this real spectacle. Even when West was at its peak and obviously “good,” mentions were brief. I guess the comet just wasn’t RELEVANT. All I heard was a local Texas weatherman searching for offhand patter say his viewers might want to poke their heads out for a look at “another Kahoutek” (his actual words). I sure enjoyed West. Wish you had been there.

1P/Halley

Then along came that most famous of Comets, Halley. What should have been the comet to end all comets got off to a famous start. Beginning two or e’en three years before perihelion, the local malls began to fill up with every sort of comet gimcrack imaginable. There were oodles of comet books. Comet posters. Comet T-shirts. Even comet wine (you can imagine). The excitement was palpable, and by the time Steve O’Meara recovered the thing visually (at magnitude 19.6 for Christ’s sake) a year before its 1986 arrival, there was a genuine comet craze in full swing. Hell, I even saw an SCT on sale in the Service Merchandise (jewelry/discount/what-have-you) store in cotton-pickin' Gautier, Mississippi. Too bad the CAT in question was Bausch and Lomb’s nasty little 4-incher. And too bad my (ex) wife gave me a real hard look when it appeared I was gonna plop it in our shopping cart, anyway.

Many of my fellow amateurs were definitely going comet crazy, glomming onto the “comet scopes” the telescope makers began grinding out. Some, like Celestron’s aptly named Comet Catcher were surprisingly good, but many, like the Focal Comet-o-Scopes in K-Mart, were surprisingly dreadful. Me? I stuck with the Super C8 Plus I had at the time and the BX-issue Tasco 10x50s I’d bought for West. Something told me this might not be a very good time to buy a new scope.

I was also skeptical about how much good the comet would do for amateur astronomy in the long run. Sure, the public was engaged and excited. They were buyin’ scopes and joining astronomy clubs in record numbers. B-U-T. What if the comet turned out to be a bust? More like, what would happen when the comet turned out to be a bust. As I figgered it would be, I’m afraid.

The geometry of the comet's 1986 return wouldn’t just be sub-par; it would be the worst for all the Halley's recorded apparitions. I believed it would be a good/average comet as us amateurs judged ‘em, nothing more. Certainly not a West or even an Ikeya-Seki. Add-in the light pollution, which hadn’t been a problem in 1910, and what the public would see would not come close to the glorious turn-of-the-century images plastered over the boob tube and the newsstands. One night trying to find (and see) the thing with their new f/10 SCTs and long focal length Tasco refractors would, I was afeared, turn off our new recruits to astronomy forever. My brother and sister astronomers all knew this, of course, but many, amateurs and professionals, chose to ignore the facts of the matter: “But this is COMET HALLEY.”

Y’all know me (too well, many o’ you, I suspect). I usually enjoy being right. Not this time. And right I was. Not only was Halley not that bright, it was at its brightest when it was next to impossible to see from the Northern Hemisphere (especially for the poor souls up yonder in Yankeeland). The result was many new skywatchers weren’t just unimpressed as Halley floated through the dim stars of Aquarius and Capricornus glowing at a puny magnitude 3, they didn’t see anything at all. Lotsa brand new scopes hit the closet or the flea market and garage sale tables. A lot went back to the stores and manufacturers. ("Y’all sold me this dadgummed thing so I could see the comet, and she don’t show me nothin’!”)

That was probably the only good thing to come out of the whole sad affair—plenty of telescopes on sale at bargain prices. Or maybe not so good. Even those scopes made by reputable manufacturers were sometimes downright punk—if not junk. These “Halley Scopes,” which linger on in the astronomy marketplace even today like the ghost of Banquo, were made in a hurry by burned-out or newly hired workers, and even the Celestrons and Meades—much less the Tascos and Jasons—are suspect.

By Summertime, most astronomy clubs saw meeting attendance numbers plummet as the new recruits’ need for help with those telescopes and interest in astronomy evaporated like the morning dew. Thus did our collective dreams of amateur astronomy world domination collapse like a house o’ cards made from wet toilet paper. One thing I do wonder…what happened to all the comet souvenirs the stores simply could not sell no matter how they marked them down? Is there a Halley Landfill? Or some Halley Warehouse (like the one in Raiders of the Lost Ark)?

My “Halley story” is a simple one. Twenty-three years ago this month I spent several mornings at the beach, which offered the best south-southeast view in this neck of the woods, admiring Halley’s Comet. No, it wasn’t West, but with this one the historic angle was what impressed, and that turned out to be enough for me. Not being as emotionally wedded to Halley’s prospects for expanding amateur astronomy as many of my friends were, I just enjoyed it. Actually, I probably enjoyed it most in the months before perihelion, watching a little fuzzball drift sedately through Taurus just before Thanksgiving 1985 from the (then) dark skies of southern Mississippi.

C/1998 B2 Hyakutake and the Bopp, C/1995 O1 Hale-Bopp

I won’t spend a lot of time regaling you with these two. Unless you are the greenest of novices, you well-remember how they delivered a one-two punch to our skies, even though it’s been (gulp) twelve years since HB sailed by.

I loved Hale-Bopp, but I loved Hyakutake even more. It was bright enough to study from Chaos Manor South’s (then relatively tree-free) backyard with an 8-inch. The detail in the nucleus was always interesting, sometimes weird-looking, and always flat-out amazing. What really took the cake was the pea-picking tail. A thin mother that extended 30-40-50-degrees or more. I vividly recall Miss Dorothy and I dropping the young Miss Beth off at a rehearsal for the community theatre play she was appearing in and driving into the Gulf Coast darkness. We wound up at a relatively light-pollution-free highway rest stop and just stared open mouthed…a night that was the inspiration for a poem I wrote when I was studying with Dr. Sue Walker (Alabama’s poet Laureate).

The public? Didn’t hear too much about Hyakutake from ‘em. We showed oodles of kids and parents the visitor at public star parties, but I don’t remember any Hyakutake snack cakes, or much note by the news media. Hale-Bopp? Now that was another story. What piqued the public’s interest initially, I don’t know. Maybe it was the cute/funky sounding name. That it would be BIG was hinted at early on by the fact that the public soon inverted this name, referring to the visitor as The Hale-Bopp Comet, making it their own, I reckon.

Why did they take to this one with such fervor? Maybe because it was discovered by two people who could almost have come from their ranks, an amateur astronomer (Bopp) and a semi-amateur astronomer (Hale), and that fact was widely publicized. What kept up their interest as the apparition progressed was the length of time Hale Bopp remained dramatically visible to the naked eye—an astounding 18 months. That and the weirdness that came to surround this Great Comet.

It began farcically enough, with a quasi-amateur astronomer announcing he had discovered a “star like object” following Hale-Bopp. It didn’t matter that what this person had “discovered” was several anonymous field stars and a hot pixel or two on a crude CCD image. Unfortunately, someone was listening. That someone was Marshall Applewhite, formerly the Bo of “Bo and Peep,” a marginally notorious early 1970s UFO-contactee-group/ministry (Space Brothers). “Peep,” Applewhite’s soulmate and former nurse (in guess what sort of hospital), Bonnie Nettles, had gone on to her reward (or whatever) a few years previously. Applewhite became convinced Hale-Bopp was a spaceship that would save him and his followers from the “wiping clean” of the evil ol’ Earthlings that HB, he thought, heralded.

I have been told that Applewhite purchased a Meade LX-200 in order to view the comet closeup, but returned it when he couldn’t figure out how to work it. He did figure one thing out, he thought: the way to “board” said spaceship—where Bo would undoubtedly be reunited with Peep—was by committing suicide. Which he proceeded to do via Phenobarbital, vodka, and a plastic bag. Not much note would have been made of this pathetic—or bathetic—end if this SOB hadn’t been able to convince thirty-eight members of the cult he was now calling “Heaven’s Gate” to do the same on that March of the comet’s flowering. But he did—spoiling the whole glorious spectacle a little bit.

The public and the media, I am sorry to say, just ate it up. You can imagine the tabloid scene at the Win-Dixie checkout lane. But mom and pop, in their defense, loved the comet too. We served him up to thousands of kids and adults, and their simple, pure excitement was a heady brew for us amateurs. For once, the comet merchants made out alright too. Telescope makers, still remembering how they had been burned a decade previously, played it fairly safe, but still sold plenty of scopes. There were not as many comet souvenirs for sale as for Halley, but there were still plenty, and for a while they were flying off the shelves. If it weren’t for the Heaven’s Gate downer (which us astronomers were, of course, not responsible for) it would have been a 100% happy comet experience for both astronomers and the public for once.

What do I remember most about this redeeming comet? I had plenty of wonderful evenings with Hale-Bopp, but what I probably remember best is the morning I snapped the picture at the top of this entry (with my trusty Pentax K1000—I was still suspicious of them newfangled CCDs). As that pitiless dame, Aurora, threw open the gates of dawn, the comet did not disappear. Still he hung like an overripe fruit in bright skies. More light. Still there. By the time I had to call it quits and head to work, I could still see HB as Sol was lifting himself over the rim of the world.

Lately

We waited twenty years between West and Hyakutake. Will we wait that long again for something that will impress the public and MSNBC? Hard to say, muchachos. Impossible to say. The sky is like Forrest’s fabled box o’ chocolates. You simply cannot second guess ol’ Urania. Just when you think we have a winner, she sends a Kahoutek. Just when you think we are in for a long dry spell she sends a Holmes.

Holmes? I don’t know if y’all think that one was Great but I shore did, and it even caught the public’s interest for a while in modest fashion. If you were stuck under the cloudy skies of lower Slobovia, and are wondering what “Holmes” was, I’ll tell ya: a great big surprise. 17P/Holmes is a normally sedate little wisp of a comet orbiting out between Mars and Jupiter. “Good” for him is normally about magnitude 17. Once upon a time, the comet brightened dramatically to about mag 5, which prompted its discovery back in 1892 by Edwin (not Sherlock) Holmes. Since then? Nada.

Fast forward to October 2007. Holmes was cruising sedately through the Perseus area at its accustomed magnitude of 17. These days, that’s easy to “see” with a CCD or see with a bigdob, but I don’t know that many amateurs—or professionals—much cared. Then something happened way out yonder. I began hearing on the blamed Internet that the comet was brightening. Dramatically. On a whim, I hauled my StarBlast out onto the streetlight-blasted front porch of Chaos Manor South and took a look. Surely not… But there it was. A weird little yellowish orb at mag 6 – 7.

That was just the beginning of the show. Not only did Holmes brighten to magnitude 3 or better, it inflated like a weird balloon loosed by some malevolent clown and sailed through our Northern skies. This went on for weeks and weeks with the comet being obviously non-stellar to the naked eye.

Before it was done, Holmes was nearabout the size of the Full Moon in our skies, making the coma-cloud in reality as large as the Sun. I watched the show every clear night and imaged it with a C8 and a Celestron NexImage webcam (from the front porch of Chaos Manor South, believe it or no; results at left). I had an outright spectacular view with 15x70 binocs from the dark skies of Chiefland that November. Great? “Once in a lifetime.”

There’ve been other Great Comets for me in the years since Hyakutake and The Bopp as well—if none that had a prayer of catching the public’s attention. Comet 73/P Schwassman-Wachmann broke up and scattered his brightly (well sorta) glowing pieces all over the sky. Comet Swan, C/2006 M4, put on a lovely show a couple of years back drifting though Hercules on Summer eves. Right now, we’ve got a wee one, C/2007 N3 Lulin, who, while he will never impress them dadgummed hillbillies at The New York Times, threatens to go “naked eye” from dark sites as he passes through Virgo. More Better Gooder? I can’t tell you when the next Real Good One will come along, muchachos. In a way that is part of the fun. The TV networks or even the astronomy mags cain’t neither. All you or me can do is, yes, KEEP WATCHING THE SKIES!

Sunday, February 15, 2009

 

Finding My Way

“You can’t find the homes of the stars without a map.” The “stars” that Hollywood and Vine street-hawker is talking about are, of course, those humans who dare compare themselves to heavenly fire, not those we are concerned with (well, Unk did like Miss Renée Zellweger in New in Town recently. A lot. Hubba-hubba. But that’s another story). It is nevertheless true, however, that you can’t find the stars—or galaxies or star clusters or nebulae—without a map of their “homes.” I’ve made passing references to my experiences with star atlases over a few recent blogs, but here is where we get serious about picking a set of charts to show you the way to the places all your faves live.

These days, of course, there’s also the question, “Why would you want a print star atlas when computer planetarium programs go a dozen times deeper than any book?” There are a cupla reasons. It is true no printed atlas can compete with something like TheSky or Megastar in object (star and DSO) counts or in capabilities like the ability to change the appearance of a chart by zooming, flipping/inverting the field, adding or subtracting stars; or in groovy-cool modern stuff like controlling a go-to telescope. All things being equal, a laptop computer running a planetarium program blows any book outa the water. As I am wont to say, howsomeever, all things are not always equal.

Who still wants a star atlas? Some folks just don’t want a computer on the observing field. Even people who get along well with the little beasts may want a break from ‘em if they spend all day slaving over a hot keyboard at work. Also, a laptop is one more thing to pack in the vehicle, and it multiplies the things you’ll haveta to throw in the back of the pickemup truck beyond just itself and its case. To use a laptop at the scope for long, you can forget its built-in battery. One might go a couple of hours. No, you’ll need at least a jumpstart battery just for the PC, and, if like Unk’s, your computer has a power-hungry processor, you’ll probably want a big and heavy deep cycle marine battery. If possible, you’ll need to buy a DC power brick for your laptop so you can plug the thing directly into a cigarette lighter receptacle. If you don’t have/can’t find a DC – DC converter for your machine, you’ll need an AC/DC “inverter” to plug it into. And a computer table of some kind. You’ll probably also want some sort of enclosure to put the laptop in to protect it from dew and protect other observers’ night vision from the PC’s always-too-bright display. Don’t forget a piece of red Rubylith or a Sightsaver for added night vision protection. You get the picture.

But why do you need an atlas of any kind, print or electronic if you use a go-to telescope? If you are just going to visit objects on a pre-planned list, or are prepared to let the go-to scope’s HC show you what it thinks is “tonight’s best,” you probably don’t. Me? I like to orient myself in the sky rather than just stare at numbers on a hand control. Where exactly am I? Which objects are in the neighborhood that I might find interesting? Go-to or not, for me a graphic representation of the sky, whether paper or silicon, is a must.

Even if you don’t want to lug a consarned laptop computer onto the field, why go Luddite with print atlases? Why not just make hardcopy charts with a printer and take them outside? That can work...B-U-T…what if you don’t print a chart for everything it turns out you want to look at? Even if you’ve got a brace of PC prints (if you’ve got an inkjet printer, you’d better protect ‘em from dew somehow, or Canes Venatici will soon look like something that came out of the wrong end of Aunt Lulu’s poodle-dog) you will probably want to supplement them with a, yeah, printed star atlas for the times when you want to stray from your pre-planned itinerary.

Oh, and last, but far from least, some of us just like books. Yeah, I often (but not always) lug my Toshiba out, but chances are I pulled an atlas off the shelf that afternoon, and gave the area of the sky I thought I might visit a good scan with it. And once in a while I want to forget about TheSky or Skytools 3, good as they may be, and carry my book with me because I want to. I like the feel of books, even the smell of books. And, like Miss Dorothy, I love maps. I will never, ever get over that no matter what they do with the computers.

If I’ve convinced you there’s still a place for an old-fashioned star atlas in your gear-box, the question becomes “which one?” Despite competition from computers, it appears there are actually more print atlases on offer now than ever. The following is not an all inclusive list. These are the atlases I’ve used and loved over the years, both to plan my deep sky sojourns and to actually find objects the old folks’ way.

First rule. Avoid Norton’s. Am I bein’ too hard on both the classic work and Ian Ridpath’s current reworking of the moldy oldie? I know it sounds like I’m all the time singling Norton’s out for a spanking, but I’m really not. Norton’s has its uses; it’s a lovely work perfect for scanning the sky with binoculars. But. Magnitude 6 atlases, atlases that only go as deep as the stars you can see with the naked eye from a good site, just don’t get it for use with a scope. Too few stars, and that makes it very difficult to star-hop to deep sky objects. The average 50mm finderscope will show far more sparklers than poor ol’ Arthur Norton has on hand. But it’s not just Norton’s, old or new. This lack of utility is shared by all the other works in this magnitude category, including the beautiful (charts by master celestial cartographer Wil Tirion) Cambridge Star Atlas, The Phillips Color Star Atlas, Edmund’s Mag 6 Star Atlas, and certainly those that don’t go even that deep—like the Edmund Mag 5 Star Atlas. Newbies: forget all these. They will only frustrate you and make you hate star hopping.

Skalnate Pleso

I recognized Norton’s “not enough stars” was a problem after just a few outings with him. What did I do? Gassed up the lawnmower, started saving my paltry allowance, and began regularly checking mama’s living room couch for spare change. The goal? The purchase of the first really useful atlas aimed at amateur astronomers, Antonin Bečvář’s Skalnate Pleso Atlas of the Heavens (1958). Bečvář, a Czech astronomer who was instrumental in founding the Skalnate Pleso Observatory, released a set of sky maps that finally showed us how the thing ort to be done. In addition to their generous size (12-inches by 18-inches), they went way deeper than what we were accustomed to: down to magnitude 7.75 with plenty of deep sky objects. If the Bečvář atlas had/has a major defect, it was mainly that it was plotted for Epoch 1950.0, which was getting a mite outa date by the end of the 60s. Want a Skalnate Pleso? It’s long out of print, but fairly easily available used, usually for 50 bucks or less. Don’t know why you would, though, since there’s something similar that’s clearly More Better Gooder.

Sky Atlas 2000

One other thing Skalnate Pleso did was pave the way for Wil Tirion’s Sky Atlas 2000. I reckon everybody knows about this one; it’s the working amateur’s (at least the star-hopping amateur’s) bread and butter. Tirion’s masterwork is very similar to the Bečvář atlas, and is more of an improvement than a revolution. What sort of improvement? First off, as the name implies, it is plotted for Epoch 2000, something that was way cool when it came out in 1981 (a second edition was published in 2000). And if Skalnate Pleso was, we thought at the time, real deep, this one was deeper: The current edition goes down to mag 8.5 (from the new(er) Hipparcos star catalog rather than the old SAO). The DSO count stands at 2700, which may not sound like many when compared to somethin’ like Megastar, but which is, in truth, plenty enough to keep the average amateur busy for a lifetime.

Like Skalnate Pleso, SA2000 is available both as unbound charts and as a larger bound (Deluxe) edition. Not only that, though; the (spiral bound to lay flat) Deluxe Edition is in color, and the loose charts are available either in “Desk” (white sky, black stars) or “Field” (vicey-versa) variants. While Skalnate Pleso was accompanied by a Catalogue volume listing containing DSO data for plotted objects, Sky Atlas 2000 took this to the next level with Roger Sinnott and Robert Strong’s Sky Atlas 2000 Companion, which includes basic data and chart numbers for Sky Atlas 2000’s DSOs, but also incorporates expanded descriptions for the more “popular” objects. Is Sky Atlas 2000 beginning to show its age? Not for me it ain’t. When I want a large scale print atlas, Sky Atlas 2000 Deluxe is often what I grab.

Uranometria 2000

When Uranometria 2000 was published in 1987, I near ‘bout freaked out. I had heard of its coming but really didn’t think Mr. Tirion (assisted by Barry Rappaport and George Lovi) could do better than SA2000. But he did—in a way, anyhow. Certainly this one is much deeper. Its two volumes, one for the Northern Hemisphere and one for the Southern, boast 473 large scale charts that cover the sky down to magnitude 9.5 (300,000 stars) and feature 10,000 deep sky objects. Whoa! I was pumped.

Reality, as it often does, turned out not to quite match my expectations. Yes, Uranometria was a fantastic resource. No denying that. But it also turned out to be substantially harder to use than good old SA2000. Through no fault of its own. When you go this deep with a print atlas it is inevitable there is gonna be a lot of page flippin’ involved as you navigate the sky across 473 charts. That is helped somewhat by the atlas’ “catalog” volume, Uranometria 2000 Deep Sky Field Guide, which includes chart numbers, data, and descriptions for the book’s DSOs…but…e’en so. Like many Uranometria fans, I find myself using the atlas in conjunction with Sky Atlas 2000 to give “zoomed-in” views of areas of interest, rather than letting the book stand on its own. But that is OK; this atlas (revised in 2001) is still, good, useful, and a landmark work.

Herald-Bobroff

Back in 1994 or thereabouts, your old Uncle, who was still a confirmed star hopper at the time, began hearing about a star atlas of a new type. Seemed a couple of bubbas down Australia way, David Herald and Peter Bobroff, were preparing to publish an atlas that went deep, way deep. As deep as mag 14, the buzz said. And in a different way. Rather than being a multi-volume opus, HB would contain all the sky, north and south in one large 16.5 x 12-inch volume. I got in line to buy, and could hardly wait.

When Herald-Bobroff arrived, it was both more and less than I had hoped/expected. First thing you should know about this book, which has earned a somewhat legendary reputation among younger amateurs, is that it is deeper than Sky Atlas 2000, but really a only little bit deeper over the whole sky. HB’s new paradigm is that it is composed of a series of charts, 214 of ‘em, A – F. The A – C charts do indeed cover the whole sky, but “only” down to magnitude 9. The “deeper”? You’ve got 42 “D” series charts that include the Polar Regions, the Magellanic clouds (natch), rich regions of the Milky Way, the Pleiades area, Orion, and areas crowded with galaxies. How deep? To magnitude 10 (deeper for some areas). “E” is 14 pages covering Virgo, the Magellanic clouds, and Carina and takes you to magnitude 11 or deeper depending on the particular chart. Finally, “F” goes to magnitude 14 and covers the central region of the Large Magellanic cloud.

No, the HB does not go quite as deep across the entire sky as Uranometria 2000, but nearly so, and deeper in the areas you care about. Which is not to say there are not some downchecks. The charts, even the A – C charts, are a little small and busy-looking even given the large page size. This is not helped by one of the atlas’ innovations. Stars have their spectral types indicated by small symbols. If a star is a double, it’s marked as such, and there is an indicator for position angle. Variables are also identified by symbols. In other words, lots of information, but it’s hard to read under red light, and tends to clutter the charts even more than the “high magnitude” values alone would. Finally and surprisingly, nebulae are not indicated by isophotes (“outlines”) but by squares and diamonds. I don’t believe that does much to damage the atlas’ functionality, but it does make it less attractive than the Tirion atlases.

Nevertheless, if you take a look at Unk’s atlas collection, you’ll find Herald-Bobroff is the most worn, dew soaked, and dog eared (the desk edition SA2000 is second). This is just an effective tool for finding stuff. It goes quite deep but, due to its “series” charts, you don’t have to fool with companion volumes or other books. Looking for the Crescent Nebula in “closeup”? The “C” chart indicates the area’s coverage in a “D” chart and the number of that chart. The large page dimensions of Herald-Bobroff means that when you have to flip pages, you have fewer pages to flip. Equipped with an 80mm finder, a Telrad, and the Herald-Bobroff there warn’t nuttin’ I couldn’t hop to.

Production values on HB are outstanding. The pages are reasonably heavy-duty, and are slick and dew resistant. The cover is a gloss-coated heavy stock. Suffice to say mine has survived fifteen years of constant Gulf Coast dew baths. The only Read Bad Thing? This atlas tends to go in and out of print. The original is, of course, long sold out. Lymax, the “CAT Cooler” folks, brought it back for a last bow in a slightly downsized version (11x16-inches), but that is now gone too. Used? Don’t bet on it. If a Herald-Bobroff owner lets one go, which is not common, expect to pay way more than the 80 dineros Lymax was asking for the Second Edition. The good news? I have heard Lymax might do anudder print run. Couldn’t hurt to email ‘em and express yore interest, kats ‘n kittens.

Millennium Star Atlas

Roger Sinnott’s and Michael Perryman’s magnum opus is just about the last stop on the road to “more stars/more DSOs”. At least for a book you can buy in a store. How’s that? Its 1548 charts go as deep as magnitude 11 for a total of one million stars from the ESA’s Hipparcos mission/catalog. DSOs included number a whoppin’ (for a book) 10,000. Surely everybody will want this one? That’s what I thought. Till I got my hands on a copy.

Don’t get me wrong. This is a wonderful work; one fully up there with the classic Tirion atlases. And yet…and yet… This is where a book begins to overreach. At least a book that’s intended to be used at the telescope. Even with the companion volume to help you find stuff, maneuvering through three fat volumes filled with thinnish paper (that don’t much like dew) in search of NGC Umptysquat ain’t always a pleasure. It is my opinion that it as at this point that you are better off with a laptop if you need “this deep” and “this many.” On the other hand, I find the Millennium a joy to use indoors at a desk under white light. Bottom line? My Physics Department at the university has a copy I can use. I rarely do. Which doesn’t mean it might not be for you. Alas, at this time the hardback version is unavailable. You can get a paperback, which is not cheap at about 190 pieces of eight (almost the fare for TheSky 6 Professional). My guess? If you want one, you’d better bite the bullet. Might not be in print forever.

Pocket Sky Atlas

Is Herald-Bobroff my most used atlas today? Nope. ‘Tain’t SA2000 neither. These days, I tend to use print atlases under two circumstances: First, as a supplement to my go-to scope’s HC. As I said earlier, it’s nice to know what’s in the neighborhood of the object you just went to, to have a graphical representation of the sky available for those nights when you leave the laptop home. The other time a book is my preference is when I feel like getting back to my star-hoppin’ roots, usually with my StarBlast. Seems ludicrous to set up a computer or drag out three volumes of Millennium when I’m “just” hopping with 4-inch Little Sister. The atlas that goes along with me at both these times and which works best for me under these particular circumstances is a new one (relatively speakin’) from Skypub…err… “New Track Media,” Sky and Telescope’s Pocket Sky Atlas.

Why is it “pocket”? Because this is a little book, 6 x 9-inches. What? A pocket Norton’s or sumpin’ like that? Not hardly, Skeezix. It’s small, but it packs a punch: 80 charts with 30, 000 stars down to magnitude 7.6. 1500 deep sky marvels. Somehow, don’t ask me how, Roger Sinnott managed to keep these charts remarkably legible despite their small size, even for us in the middle-aged-blind-as-a-bat crowd. They are also beautiful. Each of the 80 (spiral bound, huzzah!) is in the dark-stars-on-white-sky format most of us find easiest to read under a red light. Even cooler? They are in color. With the constellation stick-figure lines drawn-in (I took a pencil and laboriously drew ‘em for SA2000 and Herald-Bobroff).

The Bummers are only a few. Yes, the charts are remarkably clear for their size, but, also, yes, they are tiny compared to the other popular atlases, and will never be quite as easy to read as, say, Sky Atlas 2000 Deluxe. What else? It’s hard to find much to criticize. I wish the “Guide to Constellations,” which gives the chart numbers for each star-pattern, had been printed on the inside front cover instead of buried on page 12, but other than that, not much. No, Pocket won’t replace a full-sized atlas for folks constantly star hopping with medium-large scopes, but for many of us this is truthfully all we need these days. Best 20 bucks I ever spent on a freakin’ print atlas.

The Tri Atlas Project

Want an atlas? Singing that ol’ tune, “Brother Can You Spare a Dime?” (too common of late)? Have I got a deal for you. Or rather José R. Torres does. This prolific amateur (he’s the author of the CNebulaX program) is giving away a purty awesome atlas for free. His TriAtlas is not only one hell of a lot cheaper than Millennium, it’s also deeper. It is composed, like Herald-Bobroff, of series of charts, but, unlike HB, each series covers the entire sky. “A” is 25 charts to magnitude 9. “B” takes you to 11 in 107 maps, and “C” is all the way to an amazing magnitude 12.6 over 521 charts (!). The look of the thing? Similar to Herald-Bobroff in many ways. Maybe better. Less cluttered in places, and the author uses isophotes for the more prominent nebulae. All in all, a tremendous accomplishment.

So why in the hail ain’t everybody squeaking about TriAtlas? First, to get it, you gotta download it. The files (and there are many) range up in size to 50 megabytes and beyond. That’s not the problem it used to be, but even in this day and age quite a few boys ‘n grrls are still making do with the dial-up AOL. The biggest stumbling block, however, is that you gotta print the thing out. Oh, you could display these .pdfs on a laptop, but then why not just use TheSky? Currently, the atlas is available in A4 format with 8.5x11 in development. That might work. Laser ‘em off and get ‘em bound together. I printed one of the A4 C charts on my inkjet and it did not look bad at all. But my thanking is that if you could somehow blow ‘em up to something the size of HB’s pages, man would you have something special (and big and heavy)…mebbe print ‘em on a flat-bed plotter. Hey, there’s a great big plotter where Unk works. Hmmm…
So, them’s my favorites. And they will probably remain my faves at this late stage of the game (print-atlas-wise…Unk appears to have a few years left in him). I’d be interested to know which ones y’all like though, muchachos. Why am I wrong, and which Real Good Ones did I leave out?

Sunday, February 08, 2009

 

The Joys of Simple Things

I didn’t set out to buy a StarBlast. More like one of the little scopes landed in my lap one Summer’s day almost five years ago. Miss Dorothy says it’s a lot like what happened with our cat, Growltiger. Miss D. had just been preaching to me and Miss Beth about our distinct lack of need for another feline around the house when in she came bearing a tiny stray kitten. This little striped gray guy had run up to her when she arrived home from the university one afternoon, demanding, “Where the hell have you been, I’m your cat. Take me inside. Now.”

A StarBlast ain’t a cat, four-legged or three legged, but the story is similar. For one reason or ‘tother (can’t really remember now) a gift certificate from famous astro-vendor Anacortes Telescope and Wild Bird had come my way, and I simply couldn’t think of what to do with it. For once, I was stumped when it came to new gear—well, maybe not stumped, but the gift certificate in question warn’t quite enough to cover an AP900. Naturally, I turned to my fellow gear-head Pat Rochford. We determined the one thing I was lacking that the gift certificate and a little more might cover was a grab-n’-go telescope.

“Grab -‘n-go,” you know what that is, doncha? It’s one of the most beloved clichés of modern amateur astronomy; a telescope you can grab with one hand—maybe two—and go with out into the backyard at a moment’s notice. Cliché or not, we certainly felt the need for such a scope here at the Old Manse. As y’all may know, yes, Uncle Rod and Miss Dorothy are workaholics. At the end of our 12-hour-plus days it’s not likely we’re gonna wanna drag the C11—or even a C8—out for an hour or two of light-polluted backyard observing before the day’s accumulated weariness sends us upstairs. I still wanna observe, though. Long ago, I made a pact with myself to try to get out every single clear night, Moon or no, light pollution or no, and look at something with a telescope. Do I always live up to that? Hail no. But I figgered I’d do a little better if I had a decent g-n-g rig.

Actually, I did have a sorta decent grab-n’-go scope at the time of these events. Let’s turn the clock back a decade. In those simpler times, what was on every amateur’s lips? “Short Tube 80.” As the 1990s waned, that JC Penney’s of telescope merchants, Orion (Telescope and Binocular Center), was searching for a new direction and a new way to sell scopes cheap and sell ‘em for a decent profit to a decent number of amateurs old and new. What they came up with was a company called “Synta.” Sorta based on Taiwan and sorta Based in the PRC, Synta was making a refractor with an aperture of 80-mm and a focal ratio of f/5. This small scope’s “point and shoot” nature must have sounded promising to Orion’s Tim Giesler. It was a telescope that could be sold to newbies searching for something wide-field enough to make finding stuff easy, but also something new that might appeal to old hands.

In no time, the Short Tube 80 showed up in those multitudinous Orion catalogs. We amateurs were suspicious at first. Chinese telescopes? We’d seen the 4.5-inch reflectors and 60-mm refractors of Chinese origin the newest of astro-club newbies were clutching when they showed up for their first meeting. Horrors all. And an f/5 achromat? Come on! How could such a thing compete with TeleVue’s Prontos and Rangers, the current darlings of the amateur astronomy chattering classes?

The Short Tube really couldn’t, but that didn’t mean the ST80 was a bad telescope. Luckily, some brave individuals among us ADVANCED AMATEURS (whatever the hell that is), including the erstwhile Ed Ting, took a chance on the Short Tube and pronounced it good: decent optics for a fast achromat, and decent mechanics considering its (for then) rock-bottom price of $250.00 for an OTA.

Yowza! Sounded jus’ right for those quick looks at the Moon and Jupe and a Messier or three from Chaos Manor South’s tree-enshrouded and sodium-light-bathed back forty. Not only would the ST80 be light and easy to tote out, it would be easy to waltz around the backyard to avoid trees and streetlights. I was a little afeared of the Color Purple, the scope’s inevitable ration of chromatic aberration, but decided I’d take a chance anyway.

By the time I worked up the gumption to buy, Celestron had a Short Tube 80 of its own, the same Synta scope, but dubbed the “First Scope 80 WA.” For just a little more than the price of the Orion tube, I got an 80-mm in pretty Celestron-black and a little EQ1 German equatorial mount. You can read the whole story of my ST80 on Cloudy Nights (the date on this review is wrong; I posted it not long after I received the Short Tube in ‘99), but the long and short of it was that I was amazed. Yeah, there was some of that moldy oldie, Purple Haze, but far less than I’d expected. Jupiter showed off fairly impressive detail. For example, not only could I see Io’s shadow as it crossed the disk, I could sometimes pick out the moon itself as it sailed across a darker cloud band. All was well. For a while.

Like any gear-happy amateur, I soon wanted More Better Gooder. The ST80 was fine. I even purchased a Thousand Oaks Solar filter for it and used that to film a couple of partial eclipses with my video camera. But (famous last words)…a little more aperture wouldn’t hurt. Neither would a little more sharpness. Yeah, the terminator of the Moon was outstanding at magnifications up to about 80x with the ST80, but after that the scope began to stumble righteously, and at all magnifications the Moon’s disk away from the terminator was a wee bit more featureless and fuzzy than I’d a-liked.

What to do? I considered Orion’s Short Tube 90 (long since discontinued), but 10-mm more aperture didn’t sound like much, and the word on the street was that this non-Synta’s optics tended to be poorer than those of the ST80. Synta was at the time also beginning to sell 102-mm f/5 achromats and one of these at first seemed a natural. One look through a 102 at Jupiter at a star party, though, disabused me of that notion. The chromatic aberration wasn’t just there, it was THERE. So I procrastinated grab-n’-go wise for dang near four years.

Don’t feel bad for me, y'all. I might not have been in grab-n’-go high-cotton, but the Short Tube was a Good Little Scope. Surprisingly good, and I got a lot of use out of her. I once did a shootout between the ST80 and a buddy’s Edmund Astroscan, one of the better examples of Edmund’s proto-bowling ball 4-inch rich field Newtonian I had seen, and, to my surprise, the little refractor blew its doors off. Also, one of the beauties of an ST80, then or now (they are still readily available), is that you can do more with one than just look through it. Despite its short-focus achromat nature, it’s possible to take surprisingly good wide field astrophotos with one, and many imagers use the 80 as a guide scope these days. In fact, it’s a current favorite in that role and is what I use.

Which is where I stood when Pat mentioned Orion’s 4.5-inch aperture StarBlast: OK with the ST80, but still wanting a little better. StarBlast? I’d be awful surprised if y’all don’t know what that is. Orion has sent out enough catalogs in the five years since they brought that new Synta to market, and the scope still gets discussed frequently in Internet astro-forums, but in case you don’t, what it is is a little-bitty Dobsonian, a GI Joe sized Dob. A 4.5-inch f/4 equipped with a miniscule single arm Dob mount built to scale.

I’d been admiring the scope in Orion’s slick catalog pictures for a while, but didn’t seriously think about bringing one home till I began to hear Phil Harrington and other folks whose opinions I respect raving about it. I was still skeptical about the quality of a Chinese f/4 Newtonian that sold for about 150 buckeroos, for god’s sake, but muchacho Phil and his compadre Geoff Gaherty, another observer whose opinion I listen to, insisted this was one hot little scope. And there was that Anacortes gift certificate, and Anacortes just happened to be an Orion dealer…

I was favorably impressed by the StarBlast from the moment I found its box sitting on Chaos Manor South’s front porch one afternoon. The first thing that impressed (and surprised me) was the size of the box the tiny scope shipped in. It seemed danged near big enough for a refrigerator as I lugged it into the front hall. Well, maybe that’s a bit of exaggeration, but, nevertheless, the scope does come in a sizeable container, which is necessitated by the fact it comes fully assembled. Yep, that’s right, pards, NO cotton-picking assembly at all. Or not much anyhow. All I had to do was open the box, pull the scope out, remove the OTA from its simple tube ring via a single bolt (which is, alas, not a captive one), peel-off the tube’s protective paper wrap, replace the scope in the tube ring, attach the finder, and—ROCK AND ROLL.

With my new ward sitting before me in all her brand-spankin’ glory, what did I think? GREEN. Synta used and still uses a shade of paint that at first blush looks to be somewhere between puke and apple green. Luckily, after you get used to it, it’s kinda purty. Once I’d focused my old peepers and turned on some lights, it took on more of a blue-green than pukified aspect. In daylight, the paint reveals its rather elegant metal flake character. Why do I go on about this? ‘Cause some dudes and dudettes are sure there are only two appropriate colors for a scope tube: black or white. They even scoff at the hallowed Celestron Orange. If you are one of these folks, yes, the slightly gaudy appearance of the SB will throw you for a loop at first. Just remember, friends, like cats, all telescopes are black in the dark.

The rest of the scope, namely the SB’s little mount, was as simple as simple could be. The single-arm Dob mutation is obviously made of particle board, but it is covered with plastic laminate and plastic trim that furnish both attractiveness and protection. There’s a small metal eyepiece rack screwed to the side that will accommodate three 1.25-inch oculars, and the whole shebang rides on a triangular baseboard. One of the best things about the StarBlast’s mount is the "handle" cutout seen in the image, which makes it easy to grab-n’-go with this grab-‘n-go, which, at 13-pounds, is a mite heavier than it looks. Finally, there is a multi-color, slightly psychedelic sticker pasted to the mount that is, depending on your perspective, “yucky” or “cute.”

What did I reckon the bottom line was quality-wise on this less than 200 dollar scope (currently $179.95)? Yeah, there was plastic. How could there not be at this price-point? The StarBlast has got its share, including the focuser and tube end rings, but Little Sister is sturdy where it counts, and has got a decent primary cell and a real, adjustable spider/secondary support (which requires an Allen wrench for collimation as is the case with most Chinese OTAs). The 1.25-inch rack and pinion focuser, despite its plastic body (the rack and drawtube are metal), works better than Synta’s earlier units, even those found on considerably more expensive telescopes. This rack and pinion job is most assuredly far better than the cheesy rubber-roller focuser of the Edmund Astroscan. Yeah, mine did have a liberal dollop of that infamous Chinese “glue grease” on the rack and the pinion gear (is this stuff really made from ground-up weasels?), but, despite that, the action was smooth without much wobble or shift. The focuser easily supports a TeleVue 22mm Panoptic or even my 13mm Ethos.

The most important thing when we are talkin’ “Dobsonian”? Maybe even more important than optics? How well the scope moves. Without the signature “buttery” altitude and azimuth motions, you really do not have a Dob. In fact, you do not have much of anything. The StarBlast’s altitude motion was elegantly smooth thanks to a bearing-race. In addition to ball bearings, the altitude axis sports a tension-adjustment knob that virtually eliminates balance problems, and is far more effective than the spring arrangements found on some import Dobbies. Dyed-in-the-wool Dobsonianites may scoff at adding a ball-bearing setup for the altitude axis, but it works and eliminates the need for large altitude bearings to help achieve balance. It also makes it possible to use a single-arm mount. How about the scope’s azimuth axis? Not so hotsky. Smooth, but way too stiff. Something would have to be done if the scope were to be used for serious observing.

What else was in that big box besides the telescope? An OK instruction book. To be frank, I have never, ever seen a really good telescope manual. I reckon nobody producing scopes wants to hire a real tech-writer to do the job, so somebody/anybody puts the book together at the last minute. The result, especially with imports, is a heapin’ helpin’ of nonsense. I will say the SB’s manual is better than most, and that is a Good Thing, since it is gonna be read by a lot of novices and young folks.

The only major downcheck I gave the manual was for its collimation section, and, specifically, the part about primary mirror adjustment. Mirror adjustment is via three screws just like normal. But in addition to those three screws, there are three locking bolts that must be loosened for adjustment and retightened when you are done. The anonymous writer forgot to explain that tightening the locks will change collimation slightly. The three bolts must be tightened carefully and sequentially to maintain that hard-won collimation. Those of us who have used push-pull type mirror cells won’t be bothered, but a novice/child will be.

Obviously, an f/4 telescope needs to be close to perfect collimation if it is to really strut its stuff. In fact, poor collimation is the main reason Edmund’s Astroscan, formerly the premier occupant of the cheapie rich-field-grab-n’-go reflector category, doesn’t often do well much over 20x. If the Astroscan comes from the factory collimated, it don’t stay that way forever. The kicker? The Astroscan is, unfortunately, not user collimatable. The StarBlast, on the other hand, is easily aligned by anyone marginally familiar with the procedure.

Some folks will tell you the need for collimation makes the scope--or any Newtonian--a poor choice for a youngun’. Au contraire, mon frere. At age 10 I was able to easily collimate my 3-inch Tasco, despite having learned the task out of a book. It might not be a bad idea for an adult to do the StarBlast’s collimation the first time, but this is not a major stumbling block for youth/novice SB owners. Course, to do a precise collimation you are gonna need a tool of some kind. Also found in that enormous StarBlast box is one of them little collimation “caps,” an inexpensive plastic Cheshire substitute. Worked fine for tweaking-in the scope’s optical alignment, which was only a little off outa the box.

The Chinese astro-factories are spitting out eyepieces by the containership-load, decent eyepieces. It’s no longer surprising that the average imported 8-inch reflector comes equipped with not one, but two, or even three oculars. I was still surprised, howsomeever, to fish two eyepieces out of the StarBlast’s packaging. How can they afford to do that for this price? Volume, volume, volume, I reckon. What I found in a plastic baggie (no boxes nor pill-bottles) was two of Orion’s “Explorer II” series oculars. Back in the 1980s, Explorers were Kellners and Orthoscopics, and that is what they appear to still be, a 17-mm and a 6-mm, respectively. They work as well as these relatively simple designs can in such a fast optical system. Which means novices will be fine with ‘em and you and me will want something better. Mine wound up in the hands of a deserving but resource-challenged fellow amateur.

Yeah, this is a 4.5-inch f/4 telescope, which means the 17-mm ocular delivers about 24x and a generous swath of sky even with its 40 degree-or-so apparent field. Nevertheless, sighting along the tube to find stuff is neither elegant nor enjoyable. You gotta have a finder of some kind, even if it’s just a minimalist red dot job, which is what Orion gives you. The SB is equipped with the zero-power red dot “EZ Finder II,” an LED BB gun style sight, which is affixed to the OTA via a plastic single-stalk mount. It’s easy to adjust and holds that adjustment well. Only problem with it is that, like many inexpensive “unity finders” of this type, the little window on which the red dot is projected is rather darkly tinted, making it hard to see dimmer stars through it. Do you need to replace the finder? You can, but I haven’t despite four years of heavy use.

Since there ain’t no go-to here, Jane Novice is gonna need star charts to find the purty stuff for her StarBlast. What if she don’t got no star atlas? Orion, god bless ‘em, thought of that too. There’s one last thing in the box, a CD ROM containing a basic edition of the Starry Night planetarium software. When I bought my SB in 2004, I got the bottom-of-the-line version of TheSky with it, but Starry Night is good too, and has enough stars in its database to make star-hopping easy and enough deep sky objects to keep tyros more than satisfied for quite a while. Don’t wanna mess with a laptop outside? The program prints good, legible hard copy. The CD’s inclusion in the package ain’t no gimmick nor frill, neither, as even this basic version of the program gives newbies access to charts that go considerably deeper than the 6th magnitude print atlases many of ‘em mistakenly buy the first time out. It’s like this: under a deep sky, as I quickly found out, this 4.5-inch f/4 is surprisingly powerful and capable of going way deep if it’s got the charts to allow you to navigate to the many wonders it can show.

But before your Dear Old Uncle could find out exactly what a powerhouse the StarBlast might be, there was one overriding need: a way to mount the scope at a convenient height. Even when pointed at the zenith, the StarBlast’s eyepiece is all of 22-inches off the ground. Tables and barstools are workable—or at least bearable—solutions, but you will want something that’s better than that if the scope is to really show what it can do. Orion’s take on this? They have asserted that the scope can be used “on the ground,” just like a full-grown Dobsonian. One look at the little feller shows that is an insanely silly idea. The tiny mount places the eyepiece far too low for even a three-year-old child. Might be nice for GI Joe and his gal pal Barbie, but that’s it. That made two problems I needed to address before I could use the scope profitably. In addition to working up some kind of a “StarBlast stand,” I needed to troubleshoot the sticky azimuth motion.

What did I do about my SB issues? I don’t mind tinkering with telescopes on occasion, but I know it is almost always a better idea to take my Action Items scope-wise to Pat. He’s an expert ATM, and actually enjoys—don’t ask me why—helping Unk overcome his occasional scope hiccups. An added inducement for toting the scope to Pat’s across Mobile Bay in the wilds of Fairhope, Alabama was that I’d be able to take first light with this wide field baby under decently dark (if not perfect) skies rather than in my light pollution hell of a backyard.

When the clouds that covered the sky for a week following with the arrival of the new scope (natch) finally dispersed, and I got over to Pat’s, he was rather impressed by the StarBlast, but, like me, thought the azimuth motion “wasn’t right.” Disassembling the mount by the simple expedient of removing the pivot bolt’s locknut, revealed the ground-board needed some shims at the pivot. Pat added a washer he cut from heavy paper and, voila! What an improvement. Houston, we have BUTTERY. Why didn't Synta/Orion add some shims to make the azimuth motion nice? Don’ ask me. ‘Tain’t rocket science.

I’d been ruminating on the StarBlast Stand problem and had a few ideas, most of which centered around adapting a wooden EQ1 tripod to the SB somehow, someway, but I’m all thumbs and liable to lose those thumbs to the hammer any time I look cross-eyed at a piece of lumber, so I was more than happy to put things in my friend’s capable hands.

Pat didn’t think too much of the EQ1 tripod idea, and proposed, instead, that we do a stand like one he had done for his own small rich field reflector. A few pieces of inexpensive lumber from Lowes, a lot of sawing and hammering accompanied by only a few cuss words (most of them mine), and, in three hours, we had a platform for the scope that was not just effective, but attractive. The finished product resembled a speaker's podium, but with a flat triangular top of the same dimensions as the StarBlast’s ground board and furnished with three shallow, partially drilled holes to accept the SB’s ground-board’s three rubber composition feet. The resulting StarBlast Stand is light, rides nicely in the backseat of my Toyota, and is sufficiently steady on most surfaces.

Azimuth problem cured and StarBlast Stand done, we hauled Little Sister down to Pat's StarGate Observatory and waited for dark. At twilight, I noticed Jupiter just about to sink below an obstacle and aimed the StarBlast thataway. I was mucho pleased with my First Light Object. Though the collimation was not dead-on and seeing was not great, at the 135x provided by a 6mm eyepiece and a 2x Barlow I could see considerably more detail with greater ease than what I usually saw in the Short Tube 80. Old Jove was for sure much better than I’ve seen him in any Edmund Astroscan. Based on Jupiter’s appearance and what I could make out from a star test on a night of mostly punk seein’, the StarBlast’s parabolic f/4 primary was, I thought, pretty well-figured.

And what did I do for eyepieces, since I’d dispensed with the Explorers? I’ve used everything from Naglers to Ethoses to good effect with the StarBlast, but what I used at First Light, and what I use often with the scope is my set of Synta Expanse eyepieces (sold by Orion, Adorama, and others over the years). Their 66-degree AFOV complements the scope’s expansive true field and the their inexpensive nature seems more in keeping with the StarBlast “concept” than an Ethos, which costs about four times what the pea-picking scope does. How’s the field edge in the Expanses? Let’s face it; at f/4 you will need a coma corrector if you want Real Good. If you’ve got one on-hand, feel free to use it. If you don’t? Eyepiece fields looked nice with the 15-mm, 9-mm, and 6-mm Expanses running barefoot. The 20-mm? Bearable, but getting ugly much away from the field center. That’s OK, as, given the short focal length of the scope, I don’t often need longer than 15-mm (27x), especially from my light polluted digs in The Swamp.

After I’d stared at King Jupe for a while, I looked up from the Expanse and noted Vega was winking on in the east, so I put it in the field of the SB, upped the mag with my Shorty Barlow, and gave the red dot finder a good alignment. I also fine-tuned the primary mirror’s collimation by looking at Vega’s just out of focus diffraction pattern, tweaking till we was right on. Didn’t take much tweaking, but I wanted the scope’s optical alignment to be as close to perfect as I could get it. Again, precise collimation is critical for good image quality in this f/4 Newtonian if you expect to use magnifications much over 100x. By the time I’d finished fiddle-fooling with collimation, astronomical twilight had arrived and there was no time to waste. There’d be little more than an hour before a fat near-full Moon rose. Why in the HELL does clear weather always coincide with the Full Moon? Is there some kinda of mechanism the bright boys don’t know about? Or is your Uncle just natcherly unlucky?

One of the reasons I wanted a something better than the Short Tube, was that I longed for a grab-n’-go that would be capable of at least partially resolving brighter globular star clusters. With the exceptions of M22 and Omega Centauri, the 80 f/5 had a real a hard time with that. At high power, M13 looked grainy in the 80, as if it wanted to resolve, but even with averted vision I’ll be danged if I was ever sure I was seeing cluster stars. Despite its fame, M13 is not an easy nut to crack for a small scope—it’s too compressed. So I was awful curious to see what the StarBlast would do with the Northern King of the Clusters. At 68x with the 6mm Expanse, M13 displayed that same grainy almost-resolved look as in the ST80. Shucks. B-U-T…upping the power to 136x with the Barlow put this ol’ boy in heaven. No, M13 was not resolved “to the core,” but there were plenty of stars visible around the edges.

Howsabout my udder fave, M5? Slewed Little Sister thataway, and there it was in the 15-mm. I'm not a huge fan of red-dot finders like the EZ Finder II; unlike the Telrad, they don’t seem very precise to me. But the EZ Finder does, I’ll admit, become highly effective when coupled with the SB’s ultra wide fields. This is one of the things that makes the StarBlast such a nice scope for the newbies: all you gotta do is get that dot somewhere in the neighborhood of your target, and, given dark skies, there it will be. Like shootin’ proverbial fish in the barrel.

Anyhoo, yes, M5 was spectacular, showing considerably more resolution than M13. From there, I visited as many old friends as I could think of. Given the limitations inherent in 4-inches of aperture, Little Sister did a laudable job on ‘em all. After which, Bubba Pat and me decided to take a quick break to cool off (the temperature was still in the mid 80s a couple of hours after dark), get something to drink, and escape the mosquito flocks for a few minutes. After a little while, though, the enervated Unk crowed, "Let's go get the Veil!"

‘Twas not to be. We stepped into the backyard to a Moon already lightin’ up the eastern horizon. I did come back to that luminous supernova remnant on another summer night at Pat’s observatory, and it was worth the wait, pardners—and how. You know, despite my many years of deep sky observing, I don’t think I had ever really seen the whole Veil Loop, both the Eastern and Western portions in one eyepiece field. One look at the area with the StarBlast with the 15-mm eyepiece and a Lumicon OIII filter and I decided I had in fact never really seen the Veil at all before. There it was, spread before me amongst a welter of stars. Filmy uneven arcs surrounding ghostly stuff filling the middle like a dadgummed Krispy Kreme donut. I thought and still think the StarBlast was well worth its price for just that one view that one time.

Sometimes you get a scope, use it a lot for a while, and then move on. That is something that has most assuredly not happened with my StarBlast. Not only do I still use it four years down the road, I use it a lot; if it weren’t for it, I would do relatively little observing in the summertime. The SB is stationed by Chaos Manor South’s backdoor along with a copy of Skypub’s Pocket Sky Atlas and a box of Expanse eyepieces. These simple and humble things don’t just encourage me to get out when it’s hot, hazy, and partly cloudy, they make me want to. I know for certain that I’d have missed seeing scads of the little minor comets that fly through our skies every year without the SB. I will not drag a big CAT out a 3am to see a 7th magnitude fuzzball. But I will get up and run outside for a quick look with Little Sister.

“But Uncle Rod, but Uncle Rod,” you say, “Orion is now offering a 6-inch StarBlast. Wouldn’t that be better?” Not for me it wouldn’t. I had the chance to see one in action Down Chiefland Way last year. It is nothing more than an upsized 4-inch; otherwise it is identical to Little Sister in every way. Unfortunately, what is great with the 4-inch is not so great with the 6. It’s noticeably heavier at 23-pounds (big downcheck for me), has a decidedly narrower field (f/5, 750-mm), and will require a considerably sturdier stand than what Pat and I cobbled together in an afternoon. Like my colleague, Senior Chief (ret.) James L. Turner, frequently reminded me during my formative years as a young engineer: “Son, never forget: The Only Enemy of Good Enough is More Better.”

And so it is. The StarBlast is not perfect, but it is perfect for what I do with it and want to do with it and why would I want anything more than that?

Sunday, February 01, 2009

 

Giving Back

Public outreach. There, I’ve said the dreaded words. Not that all amateurs don’t like star partying with the public. For a few of our brothers and sisters, that is the raison d’être for amateur astronomy. Most of us? Not so much. Sure, we enjoy doing the occasional program for kids and/or parents, but putting on a travelling astro-show is hardly our sole interest.

Then there are the amateurs who pale when they hear “public star party” mentioned at the club meeting. The very idea of hordes of lollipop-sticky fingers desecrating their holy scopes gives ‘em the willies. Not unexpectedly, when the club undertakes a public program these outreach-a-phobics suddenly remember they have to work, attend a family wedding, or recall that that is the night they wash their hair.

There is nothing to fear from the public. I guarantee you can survive The Hordes with both gear and sanity intact. The tips that follow are designed to help you do just that; to ease your entry into the world of Public Astronomy, or, if you’ve had your share of disasters in the past as an individual or a group member, to prevent their recurrence. Why would I bother to try to convince you (and your club) to embrace the fine art of outreach? We need you. I know you’ve heard thisun before, many times, and are tired of hearing it, but kids (and uninitiated adults) are the future of our avocation, and exposing them to amateur astronomy via public outreach programs is how we bring ‘em in to our fraternity/sorority.

My attitude toward public programs? I fall in the middle group. Public outreach is not all amateur astronomy is to me, but exposing younguns to astronomy, amateur or otherwise, is clearly important to me or I wouldn’t have been teaching the art and science to undergraduates semester in and semester out for over a decade. Yeah, I enjoy the look of wonder on a young (or old) person’s face when they see Saturn for the first time, or behold the craters of the Moon for real, or just see a bright star in a telescope.

I’ve liked working with the lay-public from the beginning, if my reasons for that have changed a bit over the years. These days, well, I just enjoy turning people on to something cool. But when I was young what I savored was the feeling of competence I got from displaying my store of Special Knowledge. That feeling of—YES, I’ll admit it—POWER was what made my first public star party, for want of something better to call it, memorable.

My first time out with non-amateurs I didn’t even own a telescope, and would probably have been reluctant to say I was an amateur astronomer if anybody had known enough to ask if I were. The occasion when your old Uncle first stepped into the spotlight was the total Lunar eclipse of December 18, 1964. Alas, this mid evening eclipse coincided the Kingswood Methodist Church Youth Christmas Party Mama convinced me (coerced, more like) to attend.

As the festivities began, Little Unk surprisingly found himself not as bored as he’d figgered he’d be. Mainly because the group of giggling girls on once side of the sancuary, and especially one certain girl, was not, as he’d heretofore thought, silly, but, suddenly, fascinating. As 7 p.m. approached, the time when totality would begin to get underway, Li’l Rod did get a mite fidgety, howsomeever.

Somewhat reluctantly, I detached myself from the charming Miss Jitter Jones and approached one of the youth leaders, the spinsterish Emily Baldwin. I figgered she’d be a good candidate, seeing as how as she was at least a part time science teacher, having, I'd heard, substituted for the local junior high's 7th grade science teacher on the not infrequent occasions when that excitable soul came down with a bad case of The Vapors.

“Ma’m, you know there’s a total Lunar eclipse starting right now!” I’d expected to be shushed in her customary manner or given an all too dismissive “that’s nice,” but instead, a look of surprise and realization crossed her face, and she was, unbelievably, soon shooing all us youngfolk out the door for a look at what she called “nature’s wonders.”

Me? I just wanted to see the cotton-picking thing, I didn’t want to answer questions about it. But when my fellow partygoers began asking the “what” and “how” questions, Miss Emily quickly referred them to me. Either because she genuinely didn’t know the answers, or, as I suspect these days, she was an awfully wise woman who knew when to nudge one of her charges in the proper direction.

At first, I embarrassedly rattled off what little I knew: a Lunar eclipse occurred when the Moon passed behind the Sun and the Earth, that things had to line up just right for one to happen, and that, no, as far as I knew it did not portend the coming of the Endtimes Pastor Locke occasionally (in his defense, only very occasionally) talked about. Before I knew it, my embarrassment had turned to exultation. Was that a look of admiration a certain Miss Jones threw my way? I found myself in my element. I was The Authority. That felt good, and that feeling was maybe not a bad place to be for a kid who frequently wondered whether his obsession with the Great Out There wasn’t just a little weird.

Yeah, I had fun that night, and have had a lot of fun doing public astronomy over the years, but how do you and your club get to the place where you can have fun and not stress about what you’re gonna say when some kid asks you how much Jupiter weighs, or worry about what a frenetic five year old is gonna do to your ten thousand dollar AP refractor? You prepare. Before we begin, let me mention that we are talking organized public star parties here. Sidewalk Astronomy—setting up telescopes in a public place for random passerby—is a subject for a future blog.

Venue

First things first: where and when. Normally, I find it best to do a requested star party on the home turf of my “customers”—a school, a science museum, a church, whatever--and suggest you and your club do the same. Your audience will be familiar with the venue and so won’t have any trouble finding it and arriving on time. Occasionally, it may be impossible to do this—no open space, too many lights, other activities taking place. In those cases, I recommend neutral ground like a public park if after-dark use is permissible or can be secured.

Above all, I discourage inviting hordes of not-e’en-novices out to a distant dark site. That will strictly limit your audience in this day of two-career-scheduled-out-the-ying-yang families. And, remember, if something happens to a tot or a parent out there in the dark you and your club may be liable. If you have an in-town club site and insurance, that’s an option. I still tend to favor the use of your “client’s” place, however, and usually a spot that is open and shielded from lights can be found on almost any premises.

When? That depends on the sponsoring organization and your area and you. If you are working with schools, you’ll need to navigate around things like test days, teacher work days, and school breaks. Various regions have their own peculiarities, too. Down here in the Southland, many, many people subscribe to religious denominations that expect their unfailing attendance at Wednesday evening church services. Schedule your public do for a Wednesday night, and your attendance figures will be abysmally low. Don’t forget to take the needs of your club members into account as well. Like your customers, they have jobs and families. The last thing you want is ten gazillion excited kids and two telescopes.

All in all, I’ve had good luck with Thursday nights. Nobody likes to do much of anything on Mondays or Tuesdays. Even if you don’t live where Baptists abound, Wednesdays may be off-limits, as, for example, that’s a popular evening for night-classes at universities and a choice night for civic organizations to meet. Friday? Many parents ain’t gonna sign off on that, and your own members will likely rebel at sacrificing more than the occasional weekend. Finally, take a look at the good, ol’ Moon phase calendar. As we’ll discuss below, you want a nice Moon. But not too much Moon. Some groups will want to schedule you for a night when there is a full Moon in the sky, imagining that is the best time to look at Luna. Politely demur and explain the facts of the matter.

Organizing

Now the work begins. Assuming you are doing this with your club and not as an individual, the first thing to do is get a rough idea of how many scopes will be set up for the event. That done (and don’t count on having every person who’s promised to show up actually show up), you can begin assembling, if you like, a list of objects. The most important thing here is that each member have some idea what she/he is gonna show the “audience.” Some groups leave this to individual telescope operators; some are more formal, assigning each operator a list. I tend to like the latter approach more and more as the years roll on. Having each scope on a different target, or at least some of the scopes on different targets tends to keep things moving along smartly if you’ve got a large crowd.

Most importantly, each scope operator should be equipped with the basic information about the things they will be viewing: how big, how far away, etc. I often write down the answers to questions I think I might be asked by guests large and small. After participating in public outreach and teaching astronomy for many years, I guar-ron-tee the little folk have a sixth sense when it comes to asking questions for which you don’t know/have forgotten the answers. It will make a much better impression on kids, parents, and the sponsoring organization if you and your fellow club members respond to Bobbie Sue’s earnest, “But how big is it, huh, Mister? How big is it, huh?” with a snappy, “Jupiter is 88,846 miles in diameter.” These being kids, having some cool facts on hand like “You can fit Earth in Jupiter’s Red Spot” is highly recommended.

Equipment

As far as what to bring, just about any scope will do. Reassure your club's novices that they should not be ashamed to haul out their 60-mm refractor or 4-inch reflector. The audience will get just as big a kick out of these telescopes and be just as impressed by them as they will be by Bubba’s 25-inch Obsession giant. In fact, they may like the beginner scopes better. And some telescopes are better than others for public star parties. 

If at all possible, make sure the field will be well populated by telescopes that not only don’t require ladders (not recommended), but don’t even require footstools in order for the wee-est of the wee to reach the eyepiece. That means a bias toward SCTs and refractors rather than large – medium size Newtonians. If a tot has to sway on a stool or be held up to the eyepiece by a parent, she/he will usually not see a blessed thing. I also much prefer driven scopes. If you have to nudge to recenter objects for each customer, you will waste time, and most Dobs are easily moved off target by eager little hands, even if you’ve admonished their owner, “Don’t touch!”

The other half of the equipment equation is, as I mentioned at the get-go, that some amateurs are wary of letting their beloved telescopes be exposed to the depredations of the bubblegum brigade. There is some wisdom there, I reckon. If you’re serving a teenage audience, expect some mascara-caking on the eyepieces. If your scope is an open tube type, don’t ever leave it unattended: the little folk find it ineffably tempting, for some reason, to drop things—like a rock picked up off the ground—down the open tube. Once upon a time one of our club members caught a couple of brats spittin’—yes, spittin’—down his Newt-tube.

Never, ever leave your scope (of any kind) unattended while the public is onsite. Even if they can’t chuck something down the open end, those hand controller buttons may prove irresistible. Worse, a helpful parent may try to point your scope at something—with both declination and R.A. locks firmly locked. You wouldn’t think a grownup would dare do such a thing, but it happens. Telescopes seem to whisper “play with me” to young and old alike.

The above considered, some amateurs won’t bring their primary instrument and best eyepieces to a public star party. They have an “Outreach Scope,” one that’s either built like a tank or somewhat disposable for use with the younguns. Eyepieces? A brace of NON Naglers. Me? I used to do that very thing. I had a Coulter Odyssey f/7 Newtonian that I used along with some Paul Rini eyepieces at public events. It would have taken a nuclear weapon in the multi-megaton range to do much damage to the old thing. Then I began to feel a mite guilty. Oh, the images in the Coulter were purty good, but its long tube and lack of drive made it less than optimal for the kids. The Rinis? Again, good enough, but not really good.

I eventually decided the kids, the Future of our Hobby as I frequently preach to my fellow public star-partiers, deserved the best images I could give ‘em from a scope that was easy for them to use. The Coulter and Rinis went to live with my scopeless brother-in-law, and I now most often use a “good” C8 or C11 and TeleVues with the rugrats. As long as you keep your wits about you and an eye on your scope, the worst that is gonna happen is that you’ll maybe need to do a little eyepiece cleaning when you are done.

What Do You Look At

That will vary a little with the age of your audience, but it generally boils down to: the Moon, the planets, and bright stars. Frankly, you could hold a public star party and show your customers nothing but the Moon, and they would be perfectly content. Young and old like nothing better—and I mean nothing—than Moon Craters. That means, as hinted earlier, you shouldn’t even dream of scheduling an event on a night when there is not a good Moon in the sky. First Quarter is perfect.

The planets and, naturally and especially, Saturn are a close second to Diana. By planets, of course, I mean Jupiter and Saturn. They will impress way more than Venus, Mercury, or even Mars. Uranus and Neptune? Fuhgeddaboutit.

What else will they want? A bright star. Why? Don’t axe me, but after nearly five decades working with the public, I find the kids just want to see a simple bright star in the scope. Point at Sirus or Vega and you will get plenty of wows. How about the deep sky? If you’re working with older groups, sure, a bright Messier or three is appropriate, but don’t expect the little people to be impressed. They have a genuinely difficult time seeing deep sky objects in the eyepiece (you did too your first time), and will not care pea-turkey about looking at NGC Umptyquat no matter how much you like it.

Managing a Public Star Party

If you do as I recommend and hold your events at the facility of your client organization, most of the hard stuff—seeing cars get parked in the proper spots, pointing-out restrooms, arranging for security if that is required in your area—will be their responsibility. Do make sure your scope operators can answer a few questions along these lines, though: “Where are the bathrooms? Where are the water fountains (drinking fountains for you Yanks)? What time does the Armadillo Ridge Science Center close?” Mainly, you’ll just want to see things remain orderly at the scopes if there’s a big crowd. It’s not a bad idea to have a couple of members act as “traffic cops” instead of as scope operators: “This line is really long. Why don’t you folks step right over here; this telescope is looking at Saturn too.”

One thing I’m often asked is whether it’s a good idea to give some sort of introductory lecture/instructions/program before the observing begins. That’s up to you. I know some clubs go so far as to put on a whole formal slide-show/PowerPoint about the sky and observing it before firing up the telescopes. That is not a bad idea, I reckon, but if your audience is a young one, you may find it mostly a waste of time. In my experience, the small sprouts will be way too excited to want to look at your astrophotos of NGC 253 or sit still to listen to you explain what the “Local Meridian” is. They want to look at the Moon and Saturn. Now. If you are dealing with a large group, it might be wise to gather them up beforehand and lay down some ground rules: no running, no touching the scopes, don’t break in line, etc., etc., etc.

Have a Sense of Humor

If you have never done a public event, or have not done one in a long while, I think you will be in for a pleasant and memorable experience. Some of my best memories in amateur astronomy are of the huge public star parties my fellow amateurs and I conducted over the years during “special events” like Lunar eclipses and cometary visitations. Hell, we had a great time and turned quite a few folks onto the sky even during the lackluster passage of the notorious Comet Kahoutek. Nevertheless, you sometimes have to keep your perspective and your tongue in cheek to keep your sanity and hairline intact. Remember, your audience doesn’t know much about astronomy or the sky. Astronomy is not normally taught in U.S. secondary schools so their only exposure to the science will have been in brief “space units” in elementary/middle school general science curricula. Be prepared for innocent questions that will on occasion be so outlandish as to make your jaw drop:

“That isn’t Saturn, you’ve pasted a picture of Saturn to the lens.” This comes from parents as much as from kids. Look on it as a complement. They genuinely cannot believe your scope can produce such a wonderful image.

“I know Earth is a ball, but do we live on the inside or the outside of the ball?” This one was actually asked of me one Astronomy Day by a fairly normal looking individual. You would think that in the 21st century there would not be anyone who lacks the basic facts about the universe, but this sort of question (from grownups) is not at all uncommon. I’ve heard the Flat-Earth and Earth-Centered-Solar System are enjoying a renaissance in certain quarters. I believe it.

“Do we have to go outside to look at the stars?” I heard this from a harried Mom one stormy afternoon at a children’s science center after I’d told her we wouldn’t be able to observe unless the weather cleared. Sounds ridiculous, but it is really not. Many people are unclear, not just about the difference between astronomy and astrology, but between planetariums and telescopes. In other words, don’t laugh.

Then there are the things you hear (invariably from adults), that make you want to swear off public star partying forever. One common one I get from the adults and which I get real tired of is, “How much did your telescope cost.” I’m not sure why this annoys me; maybe it’s because the people who ask it would probably think it supremely bad taste if I were to ask them how much their automobile or wristwatch cost. I generally just smile and say, “Not that much in the larger scheme of things.” But I know they are really just asking, “I’m interested; can I afford to get involved?” and that is Good, so I am quick to follow with the information (often accompanied by a spare Orion Catalog) that they can start out with a perfectly wonderful telescope that costs less than two-hundred dollars.

Only once, I recall, have I come close to just Calling the Whole Thing Off. That was the time the club showed up (on a weekend night, I recall) to support the local “Exploreum” science museum’s astronomy program. All went well at first. We had a good turnout and plenty of scopes that were promptly and efficiently set up. Looked like it was gonna be a good night. After Club President Bubba informed the Museum staffperson in charge that we were ready to go, however, I changed my mind about that. Her response was, “Great. Now, if all your members will just walk around to the front and buy their tickets, we can get started.” She did change her tune rather quickly when it became clear that we were not buying tickets for our own show, but were preparing to break down the gear and leave. The hundred or so of her eager young customers already standing in line for a look through our telescopes musta changed her mind. There was palpable tension between us and the museum staff for the rest of the evening though, unfortunately.

Yeah, You gotta take the good with the bad in the public astronomy game. But I urge you to do just that. It is mostly all good. Sometimes oh-so-very-good. Like the time the young mother struggling to shepherd her flock of younguns took a long look at Saturn through my scope, and, when she obviously reluctantly pulled her eye from the eyepiece, turned to me and said, “Oh, it’s so beautiful, THANK YOU!” The capper was that even in dim light I could see the tears on her cheeks.

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