Sunday, August 30, 2009


Digital Setting Circles on the Cheap

I’m lazy. Which should come as no surprise to those of y’all who know me personally, or even those who just read this blog regularly. That doesn't mean I won’t pack up a car-full of gear on occasion and head down to the Chiefland Astronomy Village for nights of hitting it hard with one of my CATs. I even used to do that for brief Saturday night forays to the club dark site. But lately? Not So Much. Since I’ve made CAV a more regular getaway, I don’t feel as pushed to do imaging and other “serious” projects from our good (but hardly perfect) Tanner-Williams, Alabama site. There’s also the weather we’ve had over the past year. There’ve been some good nights, but it’s usually not apparent how good or bad one will be till close to sundown—I hate loading tripods and mounts and CATs and computers and all the other junk at the last minute.

I’ve experimented with several nice-‘n-easy observing alternatives since last spring. First I tried Old Betsy, my 12.5-inch truss Dobsonian. She gives good sky, but at 2 a.m. even her relatively portable mirror box is a complete pain to tote back up the front steps of the Old Manse. How about my 37-year-old telescope? Aside from the need to drag out a GEM for her to perch on, I couldn’t help but wish for a little more aperture. Same goes for the recently acquired and restored RV-6. The aperture need also eliminated my refractors, the StarBlast, another couple o’ Newts hanging ‘round here, and my ETX 125, Charity Hope Valentine (though Sweet Charity is a good choice for those iffy sucker-hole-infested nights).

The obvious candidate? Old Yeller. Well, formerly yellow (baby-poop yellow) anyhow; my Konus 8-inch f/5, who was rebuilt into a groovy and portable Dobsonian by my friend Pat R. I had no doubt this telescope would be up to the task. 8-inches is enough aperture to reveal tons of cool stuff. Even in these aperture-jaded times, I’m amazed at how spectacular Messiers look in an 8-inch from darkish sites, and an 8 can, believe it or not, also take you way beyond the Messier list. At f/5, the scope really lets my beloved Ethoses strut their stuff, too. Pat’s design combines extreme portability and ergonomic functionality, and there’s not too much else to wish for. I haven’t had many opportunities to use Old Yeller since Pat finished it (it was brilliant at the last International Sidewalk Astronomy Night), but I knew the telescope could do great from a dark location. There was only one major problem with it: star hopping.

Don’t get me wrong; I’ve done my share of object finding with Telrad and star atlas. Thirty-five years of it, to be exact. And it can still be fun. Once in a while. It’s not so much that go-to has spoiled me as that I have come to the realization that, given my insane schedule and the vagaries of Gulf Coast weather, I prefer to look at stuff rather than hunt for stuff at the moment. Old Yeller? He had a cute Rigel Quikfinder, and that was it, which wasn't enough. I decided I’d need to shell out a C-note and a half or so for a set of encoders and mounting hardware so I could use my Sky Commander computer with the hound, but I never pulled the trigger on that. Somehow it seemed untrue to the minimalist philosophy inherent in the telescope’s design. OK, OK, you got me. The main reason was that I am stingy in the Scrooge McDuck mold.

And so the idea of using Old Yeller on a more regular basis stalled. Until I spent the better part of an hour breaking down my NexStar 11, Big Bertha, and getting her packed in the car at 2 a.m. for the trip home. This on an evening when I’d seen—maybe—a handful of objects due to unrelenting clouds. “Gotta be something better than this.”

Were there alternatives to equipping the scope with the Sky Commander? I had a Palm PDA, and I knew people were successfully using these as DSC systems. But I’d still need encoders. Buy ‘em used? Used encoders are usually accompanied by DSC computers (which I did not need). “Hmm. What did that dude use with his Odyssey 1 out at the old Dark Site in the 80s?”

Thinking back to the dark ages, I recalled a member of our club regularly amazed us by guiding his 13.1-inch Coulter to object after object with the aid of an HP programmable calculator. His “system,” which quite a few folks used back when DSCs were neither common nor cheap, involved analog setting circles. Analog altitude and azimuth setting circles. I am no stranger to setting circles on equatorial mounts; I still teach my students to use them with their fork-mount non-go-to LX10s. And I've used them on more than one occasion to find objects with the Ultima C8.

In fact, theoretically, alt-az circles might work even better than those on an equatorial. In alt-az, I’d be freed from the need to do a close polar alignment, the usual bug-a-boo when it comes to equatorial mount setting circle accuracy. Also, since I’d be making ‘em myself, they could be nice and big, and in the world of analog circles, “bigger” goes a long way toward “better.” The more I thought about it, the more I began to believe analog setting circles would be effective and would encourage me to use my 8-incher a lot more. I rung-up Pat to suggest he do the same for his nearly identical 8-inch, and shortly we were brainstorming.

I know what the  title up top says, but what I was proposing to Pat was not really a DIGITAL setting circle system. Maybe half digital. It would be analog in part, since I would be using an analog circle for azimuth, at least. The other one-third of the system, the computer, would be digital. I eventually wound up with a digital solution for the altitude axis, too; which makes it a 2/3rds digital setting circle system, I guess

Since I’d seen the concept work before, it was just a matter of implementation. One thing was sure, the big stumbling block of yore is gone: the need to have a computer on hand to figure out the altitude and azimuth of objects at any given time. In the old days, you could use a programmable calculator, an expensive and far from user friendly calculator. Or you could use a PC. Almost nobody had a notebook in those days, so people resorted to wacky dodges like a program that would speak the coordinates of an object.

You ran inside, picked the DSO of interest on the PC, and hung a computer speaker out the window. The program would, in a Majel Barrett Roddenberry voice, then continually update the object’s position: “15 DEGREES, 40 MINUTES, 15 DEGREES 41 MINUTES, 15 DEGREES 42 MINUTES.” I don’t know how well that went down with the neighbors, but it did work. Now, of course, not only does everybody have a laptop or netbook, there are even more convenient ways to get alts and azes.

That way is the PDA, a Palm or a Pocket PC. There are plenty of effective and inexpensive applications that will run on one of these calculator-sized gadgets and get the job done. The two I've used most over the near-ten years since I got a Palm, though, have been Astromist and Planetarium for Palm. Both of ‘em do far more, of course, than just report the altitudes and azimuths of objects. Either will tackle about anything a planetarium on a full-size PC will—display thousands of objects and hundreds of thousands of stars, furnish detailed data on those things, even display pretty pictures of DSOs. Astromist can be had for both the Palm and the (Windows Mobile) Pocket PC—and I believe even for a few cell phones—while the slightly less fancy Planetarium for Palm is for, well, the Palm only.

Funny thing, y’all, while the PDA still seems Buck Rogers-futuristic to me, it’s really yesterday’s news. Oh, you can still get mobile phones that run the Palm OS (the heavily advertised new Palm Pre will not run the programs we’re discussing here) and the Microsoft equivalent, but the no-phone-PDA is an endangered species. That’s not all bad, since it means you can get Palms and PPCs more than powerful enough to run astronomy programs for a song on eBay for chump change. But it also means you are saddled with devices that, much as I love my faithful Tungsten E2, ain’t exactly state of the art.

Firstly, while some are better than others, the screens on most PDAs are real small. That, as you might expect, becomes ever more a problem for your Old Uncle with each passing birthday. Also, there’s that stylus, which you need for everything from entering data to making simple menu selections. Oh, it seemed high-tech and all ten years back, but quickly lost its allure after I’d dropped one in the observing field grass (and Prude Ranch dust/horse manure) a time or three.

A little consultation with my tech-savvy daughter, Lizbeth, revealed there were numerous alternatives to the tired old Palms. For starters, in the form of Apple’s iPhone. I considered getting one. I had heard there were already quite a few astro apps available for the thing, and our cell service was already with ATT. B-U-T. Being as cheap as y’all know me to be, the charge for monthly connectivity (Internet and all) was more than I thought I’d feel like paying, since all I really want to do on a cell is yak with my buddies, and my antique Nokia does that just fine, thank you.

Lizbeth stepped unto the breach once more, “Well, how about an iPod Touch, Daddy? It’s got a big screen and more memory than the iPhone and runs the same applications.” Hmm. I recalled a buddy at the club, Joe Kuhn,  mentioning his interest in one of the things, which, he said, would shortly be able to run a go-to scope wirelessly via wi-fi. (Or was that Bluetooth? Anything past SSB is confusing to Rod, who is still locked in the 1970s and considers 8-track players high tech.) Anyhow, I began to seriously consider whether I should open my wallet and let a couple hundred dollar bills fly out.

What pushed me over the edge was that a little reading on the Interwebs informed me the iPod would, in addition to holding my music (I really love my Classic iPod and use it every day; CDs are almost a thing of the past for me), take over the non-astronomical duties of my Palm—calendar, contacts, etc.—and liberate me from the Tungsten’s microscopic screen. Before I lost my nerve, I headed to BestBuy, and, as you might have guessed, left closer to four-hundred than two-hundred dollars lighter. Gotta have a case. The widget I used to play my old iPod over the car radio turned out to be—who woulda guessed?—incompatible with the Touch. Surely it would be best to have the model with MORE MEMORY, too? I was a little bitter, yeah, but from the first I was impressed with this doo-dad.

What tickled me? The screen was easy for me to read. Without my glasses. The display itself is a thing of beauty; the colors are rich, and even video looks just outstanding. Best of all, no stylus; the touch screen is a joy to use. After transferring my contacts and setting up my calendar (it interfaces with Outlook: Yay!), I set about getting the astronomy-end nailed down. That is, I went to the iTunes store and downloaded Carina’s program.

While SkyVoyager v1.2 is still pretty early in its development cycle, it’s impressive even so, and I am sure it will only get better. Not only did it do what I needed for my particular project, give altitudes and azimuths of a goodly number of DSOs, in its capabilities it’s quite competitive with any planetarium for any device. When Carina releases their wireless module to allow the pod/phone to communicate with go-to scopes, I suspect lots and lots of amateurs will be salivating over SkyVoyager. Despite the recent misstep by Carina in offering this and their Voyager (PC/Mac) software for free for one day—for the Apollo 11 anniversary—but then bein’ utterly unable to supply it to everybody who wanted it (they shoulda taken note of KFC’s free grilled chicken debacle; me, I got no chicken nor did I get Voyager), I have some right warm fuzzies about the company.

All that remained was to equip the scope with circles. How would I do that? I planned to use a mechanical level indicator (three bucks from Harbor Freight) for altitude. But I wasn't sure how to go about making an azimuth circle. Luckily, I’m a Cloudy Nights addict and stumbled across a thread, “Degree Circles” in the Equipment Forum. There were plenty of good ideas on the subject of making and using Dob circles from lots of nice CNers, but my salvation was thanks to Rob Willett. This kind gentleman has put up a website that will create a .pdf picture of an azimuth circle in any size you need. How do you print it? Unk has access to a large plotter, but a print shop (Kinkos, etc.) will print you one for just a few dollars. Save the .pdf file Rob’s site generates to a CD, bring that to ‘em, and that is all there is to it. They will also laminate it for another couple of bucks. A good thing if you, like me, live were the dew is more like rain.

I’d covered the computer end, bought a couple of cheap altitude angle indicators, and printed out the az circles for our scopes. Now it was up to Pat to figure out how to mount the azimuth circles on our Dobsonians’ bases. The simple and elegant solution he came up with was to affix the circle to the ground board and cut a small window on the inside of the rocker box for viewing. This preserved the telescopes’ sleek-looking exteriors. Because of the shape of our scopes' mirror boxes (not box shaped), it's easy to see this window no matter what position the scope's in. He added pointers (a couple of tines from a plastic fork), and I sussed-out illuminators (LED booklights from WallyWord red filtered with some of the wrapper I saved from the box of Valentines candy the lovely Miss Dorothy gave me this year). Only other thing the scopes needed was a small strip of ferrous metal on their “top” truss poles. That would allow us to mount the altitude angle indicators, which are equipped with magnetic bases, on the aluminum tubes.

Now to try it. It looked like it ought to work, but lotsa bad ideas look like they oughta work. I didn’t get to try my scope until just the other day, but Mr. Pat had been able to experiment with his not long after the construction was done on a night when a few bright stars briefly peeked out of sucker holes. He reported that he was hitting them, no problem. But how would the circles do on a remote observing field? I was encouraged by Pat’s experience, but he had the comfortable surroundings of his observatory to work with, which included, most of all, a nice, level spot to set the scope. The telescope, you see, must be level for this idea to work well.

When I finally got out to our dark site with Old Yeller, I thought I was well and truly screwed. The grass had not been cut and was about 6 – 8 inches high. I didn't see any way I could get the scope even close to being level. Oh, well. A miss is as good as a mile, and I smooshed the rocker box into the grass as best I could and kept on trucking. When Polaris showed himself, I nudged the scope’s ground board until the star was centered in an eyepiece with the azimuth circle pointer on zero. Then it seemed like it took forever to get dark enough to try for a real target. Eventually it was time, and I inserted the 13-mm Ethos, fired up SkyVoyager, and poked my finger at M3 on the screen. Once I had the numbers, I wheeled the scope ‘round to the indicated azimuth, and, recovering my reading glasses, carefully set-in the correct altitude. Holy spit! There it was, not centered, but in the field.

Gratified, I decided to do a tour of Sagittarius. M22, M28, M8, M20, M69, M70, M54, M75, M17, M16 all appeared in my eyepiece one right after the udder. All were beautiful in the splendiferous 13 and 8mm Ethoses. M75, in particular, was a beautiful surprise. And I’d been able to concentrate on lookin’ instead of huntin’—not once did I turn on the Quikfinder the whole time I was down Sagittarius way.

Was the system perfect? No. The altitude indicator was a bit of a pain. The numbers were small and hard to read, dew tended to obscure them, and the pointer needle took a while to settle down on one after the telescope was moved. How about my fears concerning leveling? That was indeed a problem, but only near the zenith, really. Due to the geometry of the situation, performance with alt-azimuth circles on an off-level scope gets worse and worse the closer you get to zenith. It really wasn't so bad, though. Most of the time I was able to avoid the area around Dobson’s Hole, and when I just had to go there, a little slewing around and an occasional peek through the Quikfinder nailed my quarry. F/5 and 100-degrees of AFOV meant my aim did not have to be too precise, after all. I probably observed 35 objects on this evening, and I really wasn't trying to race along. I gave each wonder plenty of time in Ethosland.

To put it mildly, I was satisfied with the outcome of our project. I had no doubt the 8-inch would now be my telescope of choice when I was overcome by sloth (often). It was such a guilty pleasure to have my Dob back in the car just as my buddies were beginning to disconnect power supplies and unbolt scopes from tripods. Not that I thought I couldn’t improve my setup.

The first thing I've done after First Light is ditch the mechanical clinometer for a digital angle indicator. While stingy ol’ me hated to part with the bucks for one, the fare for a nice unit from Harbor Freight, less than 30 simoleons, didn't hurt too much. I haven’t had a chance to use it yet, but I expect its nice, large numerals and .1 degree accuracy will be a substantial improvement. I also plan to devise a means to level the scope—maybe place it on a little platform with some leveling feet. Other than that? I figured out how to dim the iPod’s display and invoke a night-vision color scheme in SkyVoyager, so I might even be able to see some of the stuff I find—assuming I ever get some clear skies again, that is. I will keep you-all posted.

You and your Dobbie want to follow the same path as Unk and his Dobbie? First thing to do is bounce over to Cloudy Nights and read the long aforementioned thread on the subject (it’s permanently stationed near the top of the list on the Equipment board). There are plenty of good ideas and examples on every facet of the subject. If you have any questions, I’ll be happy to try to answer them, and so will the folk on CN, who are, most of ‘em, as nice as nice can be.

Sunday, August 23, 2009


Down Memory Lane via Bay State Road

OK, OK, just one more bout of nostalgia, and I promise I will be back to amateur astronomy as it is. For a while, anyhow. What prompted this latest Remembrance of Things Past was me pulling out the May 1967 issue of Sky and Telescope in the course of writing up a recent blog entry that was, in part, about Mallas and Kreimer’s long running S&T column, “A Messier Album.” Naturally, I couldn’t resist browsing through the rest of the magazine while I was at it, and I thought y’all would like to join me.

Hokay, let’s see here. When you removed “May” from that famous manila envelope, what did you get? As you may know, the magazine was in a larger format in those days, 8.5 x 11.5. It was purty thin, though, with this particular issue clocking in at about 63 pages—comparable to where it, alas, is today. The logo was that wonderful old script “Sky” and Times New Roman “Telescope,” with the different fonts a reminder that the magazine evolved from two separate entities, The Sky and The Telescope. Emblazoned on this month’s cover (above) was the super cool looking Lindheimer Astronomical Research Center, which Northwestern University plunked down on the shores of Lake Michigan. Cool as it looked, it didn’t even last thirty years, being torn down in 1995. The ostensible reason was that it was full of asbestos insulation, which would be too costly to remove. I would also guess encroaching light-pollution and ever-present humidity had something to do with this nice facility’s abandonment. What-ev, back to that fresh new cover.

Looking down the sidebar each issue featured (it wasn’t always puke orange, though, thank god), revealed the article lineup: “Some Notes on Tektites,” “Giant Prominence Photographed in March,” “A Messier Album” (caught my attention right off the bat). Below that, the Volume/issue number and the price. Which was 60 cents by ’67. That sounds cheap, but, let me tell you, the young Rodster had a hard time getting even two-bits together for the Fantastic Four Annual. It wasn’t like you was gonna buy it on a newsstand, anyway. Oh, maybe in a big city or a planetarium gift shop or some such. Down in Possum Swamp? No way Jose. You somehow came up with 6 bucks for a subscription, which meant you was paying a slightly kinder four-bits an issue. Man was it worth it.

Let’s dig in. First thing to catch my attention, as always, was The Questar Corporation of New Hope, Pennsylvania’s full page inside-front-cover layout. This company, as you should know unless you are absolutely soppin’ wet behind the ears, continues to sell its famous little Maksutov Cassegrains today, just as they have since the 1950s. I don’t know how long Questar had the inside front cover, but it was years and years and years. May’s page was impressive. Light on words, which were just a few column inches of small type, the advert was dominated by a big picture of the Lunar crater Copernicus shot by “Mr. and Mrs. Ralph Davis of Sarasota, Florida” with their Questar 3.5-inch. It’s a fine image that, despite being done with such a small telescope, compares quite favorably to any of the amateur Lunar photography of those benighted pre-webcam days. Looking at it makes me understand why I almost believed the Q3.5 could beat the laws of physics and show more Good Stuff than my humble homemade 6-inch Newtonians.

Next up, on page 271 thanks to S&T’s volume numbering scheme, is the masthead and the actual table of contents. At least one name in the credits should be familiar (I hope) to the Modern Amateur Astronomer, Charles Federer. Not only did he get Sky and Telescope started, he was instrumental in the founding of The Astronomical League. I was privileged to have a sit in his former office (inhabited by Kelly Beatty at the time) when I paid a visit to Skypub's old headquarters in 2006 just before they moved to a steel and glass corporate hive.

You youngsters who’ve never seen an old issue will likely be mightily impressed by the feel of the magazine’s paper as you prepare to turn the page. It was not overly thick, mind you, but it was decidedly more substantial than the tissue stuff the publisher must use today. It is a high quality semi-gloss stock that holds up year after year without much yellowing. It also had a certain odor that always slapped me in the face when I opened the manila envelope, and which, in Marcel Proust fashion, is inextricably associated in my mind with the amateur astronomy of the 1960s.

Yeah, I know y’all are anxious to have a look at all that luscious antique gear, but, believe you me, the articles was just as important to us. We read them, and re-read them, and sometimes re-re-read them, me and my teenage buddies, trying to absorb at least some of what was mostly over our heads. The lead-off in this issue, Darryl Futrell’s “Some Notes on Tektites,” while slightly forbidding in title was thankfully accessible to us little folk. Today, this subject is pretty ho-hum, with most geologists/planetary scientists agreeing that tektites, oddly shaped dark “rocks,” are bits of once-molten earth and are the result of big meteorite strikes. Back then, that wasn’t so clear, with some authorities believing these odd specimens were actually Lunar material that drifted to Earth after one or the other of our sister world’s bombardments. 1967 was near the height of Moon fever, so you can bet people read Futrell’s fine article with interest. Today, it’s surprisingly up-to-date, with him more or less giving the nod to the Earth as the source of tektites.

Onward! Next stop is a piece about the doings of an amateur astronomer, specifically the striking Solar prominence images made by one Gerhard Klaus. Even today, these detailed photos taken with a homemade coronograph equipped with a hydrogen alpha filter impress. Alas, beyond a few bare details, there’s little information about how Klaus did his thing. What kind of film? Where did he get the filter? How long were the exposures? This article, “Giant Prominence Photographed in March,” does refer us back to an piece describing Gerhard’s equipment, but that didn’t do me no good. I didn’t have the 1962 issues of Sky and Telescope and neither did the Possum Swamp Public Library. Purty pictures, though.

When I hear my fellow curmudgeons discussing the “new” Sky and Telescope vice the “old” Sky and Telescope (with what’s “old” depending on the age of the curmudgeon in question), one of the main topics for discussion is mathematics. Specifically, that there was a lot in the old issues and little in the new ones. Sorry. While Sky and Telescope’s contributors did slip in an equation or three when absolutely necessary, the pages of the magazine would never have been mistaken for the APJ. Arthur and John Cox’s “Cepheid Pulsations” is a good example. You’d think this would be a ripe field for numbers, but nary an equation or formula did I squint at. There are a few graphs, but mostly the authors just do a good job summarizing the current state of knowledge on these fascinating and important variable stars for even the most math-phobic laymen.

After “Cepheids” is a regular feature, “News Notes,” short items concerning professional astronomy. The most interesting blurb for me this time was the news that a 144-inch mirror blank for the European Southern Observatory had been cast. This would have, I reckon, have been the primary used in the ESO’s La Silla scope, which is still in operation, having been continuously upgraded over the years. There was also the announcement that Tinsley Laboratories has fabricated a truly huge mirror (for the time), a whopping 276-inches! When I read further, I was disappointed to learn this was not for a telescope, but for a “space simulation chamber” at JPL. It would be a few years hence before the Hale Reflector was outdone. That was by the Soviet 6-meter in 1976. ‘Course it was a BARKIN’ DOG optically, and never outdid the 200-inch in performance.

I won’t bother to jawbone about the next feature, “A Messier Album I,” since I did just that a little ways back. I will say that, if I haven’t been direct enough in my other mentions of that series, you should just get on the dadgummed and order the book version. Don’t ask questions, just do it.

Paging on past a short piece about a new satellite of some kind, we come to something both newsstand astronomy mags have revived in recent years in more elaborate fashion, reader questions. Back then, the questions were short, the column inches few, and the knowledge level of the questioners a wee bit higher (“How many quasars are there with measured redshifts?"), the ones that got printed, anyhow, than what we see today.

All our questions answered, we march forward to Sam Moskowitz’s kinda interesting article, “Visual Aspects of Trans Stellar Flight,” which can be summarized as, “How Would the Sky Look from Other Stars?” From today’s perspective, I was kind of surprised they let Mr. M (a NASA initiate) run on for six whole pages, but then I realized this would have been much more intriguing back when you couldn’t sit down with a computer program you bought from BestBuy and do the same thing in full color on a flat panel display. When Star Trek was new, this was “fascinating,” as Mr. S. would say.

Cool! More amateur stuff! “Amateur Astronomers” was another well-loved and long-running regular feature. Usually, it dealt with news of the day’s amateur organizations, mostly ALPO, and the Astronomical League, and the Western Amateur Astronomers. Its beat was also the few star parties of the day—Stellafane was the biggest do. Well I remember how wistfully I ruminated on what a Great Thing it would be to attend the League’s General Convention and spend days and days in the company of my fellow amateurs. Just attending seemed an unrealizable dream. If somebody had told me that one day I’d not only attend an ALCON, but speak at one, I would probably have had a spell (southern-speak for “some kind of fit”).

Appended to “Amateur Astronomers” was another small regular, “Amateur Briefs,” which summarized activities of astronomy clubs across the good ol’ U.S. of A. My teenage buddies and I always wanted to send-in something about our little neighborhood club’s doins, but we never did. Askeered to, I reckon.

On the same page as “Amateur Briefs” was an ad for prints of the Lunar Orbiter 2 photo of Copernicus. It’s mildly interesting today, but what a revelation it was back then, that shot of the great crater from a close and unfamiliar perspective. I remember the first place I saw the image, too, on the cover of an issue of My Weekly Reader back in the 6th grade. If the mention of that periodical gives you as many warm fuzzies as it does Unk, you will be comforted to hear the Weekly Reader is still being published—I just checked.

One of the features in this issue that continues to this day, though slightly renamed, is “Books and the Sky.” Most of what was reviewed this time was forgettable and forgotten, but one volume by a young astronomer, Cark Sagan’s Intelligent Life in the Universe (with I. S. Shklovskii), is still in print 42 years later.

Whoo-hoo! Astro stuff! Tinsley Laboratories produced some amateur-level equipment (if you were a well-heeled amateur), but most of what they displayed in their big ads was like this groovy 30-inch fork mount Cass destined for a facility called “Leuschner Observatory.” I had no idea where this was in the day, but with Google at my beck and call in this latter age, it is revealed this is (now, anyway) UC Berkeley’s student observatory. Apparently the pretty Tinsley shown on page 300 is still in use by undergraduates. Good on it.

You kids will be surprised to find the centerfold of the old mag lacks a naked eye star chart. In the late 60s, this spot was the home of “In Focus,” a “spotlighted” large-size astrophoto (usually). This print version of today’s APOD continued in the magazine (but not in the middle) for years, until the real APOD made it obsolete, I reckon. This time out, a double-page shot of Luna’s Mare Fecunditatis taken with a 40-inch at Pic du Midi. Knocked my socks off. Today? Almost as good as what you or me can do with a C8 and a webcam on an average night.

Passing the centerfold, the ads become more numerous (well, for The Day). There’s one by Newtonian maker Optical Craftsmen aimed, this time, at pros and schools it looks like. Instead of a telescope, there’s some white-coated goober peering at something that could be a big primary mirror or could be his Mama’s dinette set table. Turn another page and, on the right, there’s a massive pro scope done by the long gone firm of Boller and Chivens (owned at the time by the also long gone firm, Perkin Elmer). That’s interesting enough, I reckon, but what got the Rodster’s attention was what was on the left, on page 306: Unitron’s full page interior placement. Even if you’re just getting your feet wet in our avocation, you’ve likely heard of the legendary (and now inactive) refractor maker. If you’ve stopped by Cloudy Nights’ Classic Scopes Forum even briefly, I know you have.

These beautiful and expensive white tube refractors were what we all wanted, still want, couldn’t have back then because of price, and can’t have now (most of us) because of the scarcity of surviving scopes (well-preserved ones, anyhow). In the mid-late 60s, the company ran what was essentially the same interior ad every month, month after month; it listed the lineup, from a 60-mm alt-az ($125.00) to a 6-inch “Photo Equatorial” ($6075.00). Sigh. If only. Were they really as good as we imagined them to be? I’ve been privileged to use several 4-inch Unitrons, and, yes, they are good—very good. The objectives aren’t as finely crafted as today’s Astro-Physics and Takahashi glass, perhaps, but, then, long focal length (f/15 most of ‘em) achromats didn’t have to be.

How about another amateur-oriented feature? The long-running “Gleanings for ATMs” was stationed here in the back half of the mag, right after all them book reviews. I enjoyed reading this column, sure—I was an apprentice ATM, at least—but rarely did what I found here do me much good. I reckon I was more on the Sam Brown level. The stuff in Gleanings? Subjects like this issue’s “A Cooke Triplet Astrographic Lens for the Amateur” was a smidge much for my “skills.”

One of Gleanings’ pages, 314 to be precise, holds one of this issue’s many small blurbs by outfits selling war surplus. You sprouts never heard of “surplus”? It’s a thing of the past, but in days of yore tons of obsolete or unneeded military gear was sold by civilian brokers. There was so much surplus left over from WWII that it continued to be peddled well into the 1970s. I don’t mean the kind of stuff you see today—boots and fatigues—but the good stuff: radios and optical gear and a lot of other cool things (with which my Old Man populated our suburban home—to Mama’s horror). ‘Nam didn’t produce the expected huge flood of surplus, so the trade dried up by the time the 70s was over, but many well-known amateur gear suppliers like Edmund and Jaegers got their start with war surplus and products (like eyepieces) made from surplus. A few, like John Meshna, whose small ad is on this page, sold only surplus. What was notable? The aerial reconnaissance camera lenses he had which could make passable RFTs or pretty good astro cameras.

Only a few of the firms who ran ads in May of 1967 still survive; University Optics, operated by the son of the original owner, is one of ‘em. In May of 1967 they were peddling, in addition to various ATM parts, Orthoscopic eyepieces. Differences from the Orthos they still sell (and are famous for)? These are flat-tops rather than the familiar “volcano tops.” Oh, and the prices they charged, which were considered as insanely extravagant then as they are thought to be insanely reasonable today. In May of ‘67, you had to pony-up derned near TWENTY BUCKS for a UO Ortho. That would be about $125.00 today, but, as always, that don’t even begin to describe the trouble me and my pals would have had coming up with a Twenty.

A page or two later there’s another still-familiar name, Coulter Optical, who every amateur or wanna-be has heard of even though the always-tiny Idyllwild, California company has been gone for the better part of a decade. This was long before the Odyssey Dobsonians, of course. 42 years ago, Coulter had a reputation for producing some seriously good optics for “reasonable” prices. Featured in the tiny May plug? A 12.5-inch Newtonian primary for the tidy sum of $175.00.

You want surplus? You want ATM parts (which me and my mates referred to as “Telescope Junk” as opposed to the parts we used in our ham projects, “Radio Junk”)? Especially parts to do your own pseudo-Unitron refractor? You came to A. Jaeger’s. This same exact (more-or-less) two-pager must have run for damned near twenty years. What did I get from that famous “Lynbrook, New York” address? I couldn’t dream of having one of their (still highly regarded) 6-inch achromat objectives, but I could and did have several of their 6-inch mirror making kits, which could be had for the painful but not impossible sum of $11.95 if, like me, you was willing to forego a pre-generated f/8 curve and hog-out the glass on your own.

Thumbing-on past Jaegers, you arrive at another monthly, “Observer’s Page.” No, this was not usually about somebody with a Palomar Junior trying to find M101. While the subjects here were sometimes of interest to young-squirt Rod, most often, like this edition’s “Photographing Star Spectra,” it went over my head or my abilities—or both. But that’s fine. Good, actually. It was cool to have something to aspire to.

When I eventually gave up on them spectra, my attention was caught by one of the aforementioned amateur-oriented Tinsley ads. Specifically, one for a delicious-looking 8-inch classical Cassegrain on a German mount. How much? If you had to ask, etc., etc.—which was hinted at in copy that mentioned this was a telescope "for perfectionists." In today’s morning light? I don’t know about “perfection,” but these Casses do have a good reputation still.

One more page over is the spiel of a company whose products 14-year-old me could at least imagine owning. Well, probably not the featured product this time, a humongous 18.5-inch Cassegrain on a monster of a mount, but one of the smaller Newts Tom Cave featured in most of his every-month ads. Maybe.

Facing-off against Cave’s mind-blowin’ 18-inch, was Criterion’s little interior spot, which was a hodgepodge of accessories—focusers, cameras, eyepieces. Most charming is the company’s afocal-style camera mount, which they called the “Dyn-O-Swing.”

The next sizeable advert shows Brandon's line-up of attractive (and, we thought, expensive) eyepieces. I hardly noticed ‘em. Staring right back at me on the facing page was Celestron Pacific’s insanely groovy-cool C16. This big mother of a fork mounted CAT stimulated my imagination from the get-go. Course, that was as far as it went, seeing as how the price of this big SCT was a cool $11,500. Hell, I suspect many of my friends’ folks (and mine) hadn’t paid that much for their houses! Be that as it was, all my pals and I admired the Celestron Blue and Whites (we didn’t actually know they were blue and white, since the interior of the magazine was still strictly black and white). Little did we dream that Celestron’s Tom Johnson would begin to make his wonder-scopes affordable—sorta—just three years hence with the release of the fabled Orange Tube, which eventually spelled doom for the classy B&Ws.

On we go. On the left is Star Liner. Never knew anybody who had one of these Newts, but they looked sweet in their pictures. That was not what I would have paid attention to this time out, howsomeever. That was Scotty’s, Walter Scott Houston’s, small “Deep Sky Wonders” installment on the same page. It’s hard to exaggerate the impact Scotty’s little monthly sky tours (technically part of the “Observer’s Page,” I suppose) had on budding deep sky hounds such as myself. This time, he took us on a tour some of them mysterious NGC galaxies with the aid of that “professional” atlas, Skalnate Pleso. I was not always able to follow in his footsteps—though making a 6-inch had helped—but I always at least enjoyed hearing (yes) Scotty tell me about all the marvels he found.

Also of undeniable interest was Edmund Scientific’s standard full-pager. Yep, they used to be the go-to guys for the poverty-stricken amateur astronomer—in spades. One thing that always puzzled me, though, was why they had such putrid advertisements. Instead of featuring their much-wanted 6-inch Super Space Conqueror, they chose, instead, to run postage stamp sized pictures of fifteen or twenty various products. Which included such non-astro-geegaws as a “space blanket” (!) and a primitive mechanical computer. Maybe they thought they didn’t have to push the 6-inch, and could rely on word of mouth. They were wrong. As I noted last time, Criterion beat the pants of’n them.

Oh, well. After Edmund is the every-issue “Celestial Calendar.” Included were most of the things we were desperate to know in the pre-computer age: minima of Algol, Galilean satellite data, planet positions, yadda, yadda, yadda. What’s surprising is that the magazine accomplished in two pages what it takes some astro-rags of today five or six to do—sometimes not as well.

Yeah, there was no monthly star chart in the centerfold; instead it’s back here at the very end and is on a single page (the Southern Hemisphere is on the reverse). How good? Real good. It’s a mite small, but I still, e’en with my faltering eyes, prefer the sharp white on black graphics. The accompanying text, “Rambling through the Skies,” was at this time being done by Charles Federer. While most of us remember George Lovi most fondly in this slot, “C.A.F.” did a fine job, with “Rambling” accomplishing a lot in a half-page, fine enough that I don’t think the multiple pages in the middle of today’s S&T are much of an improvement.

Almost done. The inside back cover is taken up by Criterion’s “Real Value,” the RV-6 Dynascope. If you want to know more about the VW of reflectors, see last week’s entry. All I’ll say here is that I musta spent lotsa of time staring at this (constantly recurring) ad, since it is as familiar to me now as it was forty-plus years ago.

Close "May," and we depart the Dawning of the Age of Aquarius in the company of Unitron’s 2.4-inch alt-az refractor, which is splashed across the back outside cover. While Little Feller Me had decided he might as well dream big, and was mostly het-up about 4-inch Photo Equatorials, he was still attracted to little sister, and wondered if she, like the 3.5-inch Questar, would really beat his homebrew 6-inch Newt as Unitron’s copy seemed to at least imply.

And that was that. Or not quite. Unlike today, when the astro-rags get a quick scan and maybe an afternoon’s detailed examination, the old Sky and Telescope had to last. And it did. Is that a criticism of today’s magazine (and its competitors)? Not at all. In quite a few ways, the current pub is superior. Back in them moldy-oldie times, S&T, as I've said many times before, was amateur astronomy month to month; it was savored and revisited for want of anything else. Hell, not only did we not have Astromart, even Astronomy Magazine was six years in our future. The old amateur astronomy was fun, yeah, but Fun is Fun and Done is Done. Most of the fun was because we were young and everything was new. I sure wouldn’t want to go back to the "glory" days of once-a-month astronomy magazines and thermonuclear terror. To hell with the rose-colored specs, I’m a-gonna log-on to Cloudy Nights now.

Sunday, August 16, 2009


Fly On, Little Wing

It’s been a quiet summer here at Chaos Manor South. TOO quiet. It’s been hot. It’s been cloudy. With the economy in the toilet, I haven’t had those welcome invitations to speak at distant star parties up where it’s cool and clear (wherever that is). I did get down to Chiefland for a couple of days, but that was just a couple of days. Yeah, it’s been slow going on the astronomy front. Mostly what I’ve done—been able to do—is cruise Astromart and Cloudynights and keep after my Yahoogroups. I was doing that one recent stormy afternoon when out comes the weird “bloop” that means Outlook has received a new message.

A quick scan of the missive revealed it was from a nice feller named “Don,” a brother ham (amateur radio operator…Rod’s days as a ham actor is another story) over in our little bedroom/retirement community of Fairhope, Alabama. Seems as how he had heard of your Old Uncle’s efforts regarding public outreach—we set up up at Fairhope’s Fancy-dan Eastern Shore Shopping Center a couple of times a year—and my work with my students. He went on to say he had an old telescope he’d like to donate to the cause. Further email exchanges and a telephone conversation revealed this was, he thought, a 6-inch Newtonian, probably a Criterion RV-6 Dynascope.

An RV-6! Now that brought back memories. Memories of a young man in search of a good telescope. As I’ve noted in other blog entries concerning amateur astronomy back in the hallowed Day—the 1960s in my case—I was mostly beguiled by Edmund Scientific’s Super Space Conqueror 6-inch Newtonian. That probably had a lot to do with Edmund’s hefty digest-sized catalog and its especially hefty astronomy section, which I basically read to pieces over the summer of ’65. That didn’t mean I was unaware of the doings of Edmund’s main competitor, the Criterion Manufacturing Company of Hartford, Connecticut, howsomeever.

Actually, there was no way I could not be aware of Criterion and its Dynascopes. The summer of my first year in the amateur ranks, Criterion was in its heyday, and every issue of Sky and Telescope bore huge full-page ads for their gleaming white-tube Newtonians. The company had got its start a decade previous with a sub-3-inch reflector (a common item then; remember the A.C. Gilbert?). They found a market and soon progressed to the 4-inch Dynascope, and from there to glory, which included nice (and expensive) GEM Newts in apertures from 6 to 16-inches. Or so they said…I’ve seen and used 12-inch Dynascopes, but never run across a 16 or even seen a picture of one.

These were, mind you, very expensive telescopes for the late 1950s, with the initial 6-inch going for a forbidding $475.00. When this telescope was introduced in 1957, the average American wage was about $70.00 a week, and that oughta give you an idea of what this price meant to the prospective telescope purchaser. To put it another way, in terms of buying power the 475 dollars the Criterion cost is the equivalent of about $3700.00 today. And even that don’t hint at the difficulty the average person would have in coming up with such a sum for a “non-essential” like a scope.

If Criterion’s prices had remained at this level, there was no way I could have even dreamed of owning one of their machines when I began my scope hunt a few years later. For several reasons, the big one of which was no doubt competition from Edmund, who was selling their Super Space Conqueror for about 200 dollars by the end of the 1950s, Criterion sought to get that price tag down. By the end of the 6-inch Dynascope’s first year, the company was offering a stripped-down model--no drive, no “permanent pier” mounting, no setting circles--for $265.00. Better, but still no cigar. They needed a 6-inch telescope to compete directly with the 200 buck one the gang in Barrington, NJ was pushing, and Criterion managed that in June of 1959 with a new model they called the “RV-6.”

I don’t know if Criterion ever explained what “RV” stood for, but it was later said that was “Real Value.” And it was clear in the advertisements, at least, the RV-6 would be just that. Yes, it was cheapened significantly compared to the REAL 6-inch Dynascope, and not just price-wise. The mount was a little lighter-looking, the tube end-rings had disappeared, and so had the permanent pier. The RV-6 was supported by a pedestal not unlike what Edmund sold. Also, and not surprisingly, gone was the 50-mm finder, being replaced by a prole 30-mm job.

One thing the new kid did have going for her was an electric clock drive, the company’s “Dyn-O-matic” (more on that later), which was included for the base price of $194.95. You also got three eyepieces, and were allowed to choose the three from a fairly wide selection which were mostly Ramsdens on the long focal length end, but Orthoscopics on the short end. In the Sky and Telescope advertisements, the RV-6 doesn’t look as nice as the more expensive model 6, which Criterion would shortly begin calling the “Electric Deluxe," but it is undeniably pretty with a lovely Bakelite tube (a resin/fiberglass-like stuff, younguns) and silvery hammer-finish pedestal.

In other words, it was an attractive telescope with some features that, frankly, put it a step or two ahead of its Edmund competitor. Starting with the OTA. The 6-inch Super Space Conqueror had an aluminum tube, and, in my youth, I thought that preferable to Criterion’s Bakelite, which somehow seemed “cheap." In truth, the Criterion has a very important advantage here: weight. Didn’t make much difference in 4-inch scopes, but at 6-inches aluminum was beginning to stress out the typical 60s GEM as well as make it harder to tote the scope into the backyard. Otherwise? The Dynascope finder is hardly generous in aperture, but 30-mm is still better than the 23mm joke Edmund used on its telescope.

Optically, twarn’t no difference primary wise, with both companies (mostly) using an outfit called “Upco” as their supplier. This firm, I've been told, was owned by telescope guru Sam Brown. There is no doubt they turned out some fine mirrors whoever was at the helm. Certainly the Dynascope’s three eyepieces were a sight better than Edmund’s el cheapo ½-inch Ramsden and 1-inch Kellner made from uncoated war surplus optics. Edmund did throw in a Barlow, but, take it from somebody who’s used one, it wasn’t much. It’s in the mount, though, that the RV-6 really pulls ahead.

Not only does Criterion’s GEM look better than Edmund’s analog—better finished and far less crude looking—it is better beneath the skin-deep, too. For one thing, there’s a “toe-saver” on the counterweight shaft. Might not sound like a big deal, but Li’l Rod lost the toenail off’n his big toe thanks to the lack of this feature on the Palomar Junior. The setting circles on the RV-6 are too small to be of much real value, but they are at least more attractive than the Space Conqueror’s; they are nicely engraved aluminum dials rather than the cheap plastic circles Edmund used. The real winner, though, is the clock drive.

Like Edmund, Criterion included an RA drive in the purchase price (rare back then). That’s where the similarity ends, though. The Edmund is a manually engaged/disengaged thing with exposed gears of indifferent quality. The RV-6, on the other hand, used Criterion’s “Dyn-O-Matic” drive. Yeah, I know that sounds like the creation of those 1960s Madison Avenue Madmen, but the drive really was better than Edmund’s or most similar units. The “Dyn-O-Matic” stuff refers to the fact that the drive is equipped with a cork slip clutch. That meant you didn’t have to fool around with manual drive clutches and RA lock knobs. Want to look at something new? Just grab the tube and move it. The drive “automatically” disengages and re-engages. Sweet. The gears themselves are a decent brass worm/wheel set, and are very well made. Quite a few Dyn-O-Matics have continued operating decade after decade with little or no maintenance.

Rank and file amateurs soon got the word about the RV-6 and literally flocked to it (those who could afford the 200 buck fare, that is, which didn’t include young Rodster). Criterion did especially well as the 60s came in and Gemini-Apollo-stoked space fever hit the general populace. The company sold a lot of RV-6es, and I do mean “a lot;” enough so that it became, as my friend Phil Harrington likes to say, “The VW of telescopes.”

As the Decade of Love ran out, though, lots of things were changing, including amateur astronomy. Mom and Pop America soon discovered Moon landings were not very interesting after all. In part, probably because, in typical American fashion, we was mostly interested in the sports-like competition with the Russkies, not that science junk. When the Soviets wrung down the curtain on their Moon program to the finale of exploding N1 rockets, the magic went out of the space race. Hell, it warn’t even a race no more; it was a cake walk. Maybe the post ‘Nam blues contributed as well, but however you slice it, there was less interest in space and science in general as the 70s got underway. That meant sales to the general public and even schools dried up, and Criterion was back to selling to the relatively small (then really small) group that called themselves “amateur astronomers.”

That was Problem One, though. Criterion also faced a Problem Two that was at least as serious: they couldn’t depend on selling as many scopes to amateurs as they used to. For a while, Criterion had the bread and butter amateur market locked up. Sure, there was Cave, Unitron, etc., etc., but while those scopes are much talked about today, back then almost nobody could afford ‘em. The RV-6 brought home the bacon year after year. In 1970, though, the picture changed suddenly and dramatically. There was this smallish telescope company in Southern California, you see, “Celestron Pacific.” They’d been around for the better part of a decade, but were hardly much competition for them little ol’ scope-makers in Connecticut. Celestron had previously focused on fancy and expensive Schmidt Cassegrain telescopes for colleges and wealthy amateurs (Johnny Carson was one). Yep, the RV-6 may have sold like a VW, but Celestron’s C10 (you can, by the way, find many more classic scope ads and much other fascinating stuff on Phil Harrington's excellent website) had the distinction of costing as much as a Volkswagen Beetle.

If things had remained there, Celestron would have been a minor thorn in Criterion’s side, nuttin’ more. They didn’t. Celestron’s founder, Tom Johnson, finally decided he was ready to sell to the average Joe and Jane Amateur Astronomer, and, in 1970, brought forth the Celestron Orange Tube C8, which was Criterion’s death knell. Not that the RV-6 couldn’t compete with the new scope on price. The RV-6’s cost began to rise as the 70s got underway, but even at its max it was still little more than a third what a C8 cost. Once you paid for (ahem) options for the Orange Tube like a tripod (!), you was looking at 1000 dollars. Funny thing, though? The C8 sold like hotcakes. Part of it was that the average Americano was now a little more affluent, but a larger part was that the C8 just made sense, and amateurs were willing to save or borrow for one if necessary.

The beautiful white-tube GEM Newts represented the old amateur astronomy. A time when most folks could observe profitably from their backyards. As Saturday Night Fever replaced Woodstock in our hearts, many amateurs found they had to travel to escape growing light pollution. While GEM Newts could do very well indeed from dark sites, the problem was getting ‘em there. Ever try to cram a Cave 8-inch f/7 into a Chevy Vega? “What” was changing, too, not just where. We began to focus more on the larger deep sky rather than just bright planets and Messiers. And some of us even dared to try to photograph what we saw. The C8 turned out to be perfectly suited to these tasks. Our beloved RV-6es and Space Conquerors and Caves and Optical Craftsmen and Starliners? Not So Much.

Criterion’s owners, John Krewalk and his son, weren’t stupid. Being sharp bidnessmen, they realized exactly what was happening, and it didn’t take them long to decide that if they were to continue the Criterion success story, they’d have to compete directly with Celestron. In 1972, they began to do that, or tried to, anyway, with their Criterion Dynamax SCT, which was a pretty thing with a nice finish and quite a few accessories. At first it sold well. It was priced slightly lower than the C8, and many amateurs liked and trusted Criterion based on their experiences with the company’s Newtonians. Unfortunately, sales began to taper-off dramatically once the word got out that the Dynamax was a bow-wow.

What was wrong with it? The mount was not quite as sturdy as that of the C8. The drive not as accurate. The Bakelite/phenolic tube not as attractive. Mostly, though, it was that the optics were not as good. As far as I know, the company never developed a non-infringing (patent-wise) process that would allow them to produce consistently good correctors. The corrector is crucial for good SCT performance, and for this reason many, though not all, Dynamaxes performed abysmally. Oh, the company kept on with the scope through the 1970s, but didn’t get much traction. In 1981, the Krewalks had had enough and sold everything to Bushnell/Bausch and Lomb. In addition to the (cosmetically refined) Dynamaxes, B&L continued to sell the RV-6 until about 1983. Then it disappeared—except from the hearts of the amateurs who’d owned ‘em.

Now back to Rod’s RV-6 story. Actually I didn’t have an RV-6 story. At the beginning of my amateur astronomy career I couldn’t afford one, and when I could, I was “beyond” a lowly RV-6, being on to Caves and then Celestrons. Oh, I’d had a look through one or two over the years. One of my acquaintances in the Atlanta Astronomy Club had bought a vintage Dynascope, and was a purty big booster. How were the images? I have no idea. Frankly, I didn’t pay much attention. But suddenly there was an RV-6 falling into my hands. Shouldn’t I edumacate myself? Numerous web pages and one Yahoogroup later, I had a greater appreciation for the old warhorses. No, they weren’t Caves or Unitrons, but even in this latter age most Dynascope owners rave about the optical goodness of the telescope.

After reading testimonial after testimonial from RV-6 owners, I was more than assured that the Criterion had possibilities and was certainly worth my time. I figgered that even if the optics weren’t quite worthy of the praise I’d read, a scope of this sort could still be useful. Many’s the time I’ve wished for something a little simpler than the latest computer-laden CAT to use with the kids. Yeah, I’ve got Dobs, but they ain’t got tracking, and most tend to be easily yanked off target by excited little hands. Seemed to me an old-timey GEM Newt might be just about perfect for the peanut brigade.

As soon as I returned from my latest Chiefland expedition, I got a-hold of the Criterion’s owner and arranged for a pickup. The scope was located in the wilds of Fairhope, but, equipped with an address and my hand-dandy Tom-Tom GPS (mucho better than Sue-Sue), I thought I could track the scope down. In due time I arrived at Don’s beautiful home, and was introduced to his lovely wife. Shortly thereafter I was standing in the couple’s garage next to an honest-to-god RV-6. What kind of shape was it in? Good shape. Considering its long life, anyhow. It sure wasn’t a youngun. Based on what I’d read on the Interwebs, the pedestal leg configuration indicated this particular RV-6 was a pre-1970 model. Apparently it had been in the hands of at least a couple of owners over the past 40 (or more) years, and had its share of dings on the tube and rust spots on the pedestal. It was obvious above all, though, that it had been loved, cared for, and, most of all, used heavily.

My other impression? How big the RV-6 was. Yeah, I’d seen a few over the years, but I’d forgot how sizeable a 6-inch f/8 Old School scope can be. In my mind, the RV-6 was just a wee bit bigger than the Palomar Junior. In reality, it dwarfs the little guy (see the picture above). Fitting it in the Toyota was a challenge, but luckily doable. The OTA went in the back seat—literally—without an inch to spare. The GEM rode in the trunk without fuss once one of them confounded pedestal legs was removed (via a wingnut).

Back home in Chaos Manor South’s venerable living room, it was time to decide what needed to be done to the scope, if anything. Naturally, I consulted with Good Buddy Pat right away and naturally I also consulted Miss Dorothy. Our decisions? Miss D was of the opinion we should seek to keep the scope in as close to original condition as possible. Pat and I agreed.

I’ve seen RV-6es with new focusers, new finders, different color schemes, even new mounts. Some of ‘em look right pretty, but they don’t look much like an RV-6. We were tempted to leave the tube’s paint alone, scars and dings and all, and would probably have done so except for an ugly patch where somebody had filled in several ex-post-facto holes. We settled for a light coat of spray, enough to hide the ugly sins without making the scope look different. The finder scope could definitely use paint too. This finder’s optics were in good shape, however, and the crosshairs were intact. The focuser was the main offender on the OTA. It’s a very simple rack and pinion with a brass drawtube. Unfortunately, something was worn enough that there was considerable binding when focus was racked out.

Optics? A glance down the tube showed the primary was in excellent shape. I’m tempted to think it’s been recoated at some point, or has been really well taken care of. ‘Bout all it needed was a quick wash and a new center dot. The secondary mirror was in OK shape, but the spider was pretty messed up. At some point, someone had evidently disassembled the OTA, maybe to patch the tube, and the spider/secondary support was assembled incorrectly. Someone had also apparently been collimating by bending the spider, as the (brass) vanes were ugly looking. Finally, the primary mount had also been reassembled incorrectly, and was impossible to adjust.

The mount also needed a little work; especially the large rust spots the pedestal sported. A little touch-up of the GEM head with some flat black paint was also called for. The pretty setting circles could stand some cleaning, as could the pier legs. That was all for the visible problems on the mount. What we was worried about was the invisible, the drive. I’d been warned by Criterion aficionados that the most common and often the most difficult to fix problem with the old scopes was an inoperative Dyn-O-Matic drive. Taking the bull by the horns, I grabbed up the line cord and plugged it into a wall socket. Nuttin’ honey. Wait…if I pressed my ear up to the drive housing, I could hear some faint ticking. That was a good sign, warn’t it? The verdict would have to wait for disassembly and testing.

In due course, Pat packed the scope up and headed back across The Bay with her. Before he left, I made sure to stress that he take his time and not go to any special trouble, in other words, “no hurry, bro.” Pat, however, is one of those ATMs who loves a project, and he couldn’t resist getting into an RV-6 up to his elbows in a quick hurry. Still, I was danged surprised to hear little more than a week later, “Done!” Part of that is testament to the fact that the old telescope really was in pretty good shape. It’s also, of course, a result of Pat knowing what he’s doing. According to him, there hadn’t been any real stumbling blocks, with the only slight difficulties being figuring out how the primary cell went together and doing something for the poor ol’ focuser. His verdict on the latter was, “pretty much worn out.” He was, however, able to get it going again by shimming one side via some filler compound. Other than those things? As we’d expected, a little paint and a little elbow grease.

You can bet that once the weekend came I hopped in the car and dashed over to Pat’s. The weather didn’t look overly promising, but down here you never know, and I figured if I could just get a peep at Jupiter that would tell me all I needed to know about the RV-6’s optics. How did the ol’ gal look after Pat’s ministrations? Beautiful. As he says, it will never look new, but it does look like a babied 40 year old telescope—and that’s really the effect we wanted, anyhow. While I was admiring this refugee from the 60s (who whispered to me that her name was “Cindy Lou”), Pat removed the cover on the drive assembly to show me what was what. It all looked very good. The gear set looked sharp, and, most of all, the wiring was clean and still flexible. The motor was all nice and shiny, too. In fact, I think it’s possible the motor (not the gears) was replaced at some time over the years. Anyhoo, we searched in vain for a date stamp on the motor housing, something I’ve been told is common for the motors Criterion used.

Moment of truth time. I inserted a 25-mm Plössl and pointed the scope at the single sucker hole. Staring out of that was the bright blue eye of Vega, which was convenient to use as a finder alignment tool. In the course of adjusting the finder, I noted that Vega looked nice and small. Examining its in/out-of-focus diffraction rings with a higher power eyepiece seemed to show the scope to be pretty well corrected. It was hard to quantify the star test in indifferent seeing, but I think it’s pretty clear the mirror in the scope is a decent paraboloid rather than the sphere some RV-6 owners have reported. I also noted, very happily let me tell you, that the drive was doing a good job keeping the star centered at 100x.

By the time I was done fiddling around with Alpha Lyrae, it became obvious that, for once, the weather gods had taken pity on your Old Uncle. That sucker hole had expanded to encompass the entire sky, and the summer Milky Way had begun to shine prominently—something rare in Fairhope in these latter days. I can remember staring at Stephen’s Quintet in awe-struck wonder with Pat’s old 24-inch Dob from this site. The trick was not to see all the galaxies, but to see if you could make out their Hubble Types. But that was about a decade and several subdivisions ago.

Since it was now possible to see stuff, I went after the late summer Messiers like a madman:

M13: It really wasn’t quite dark enough to allow the Great Glob to strut its stuff, but, still, I was impressed at the resolution, and that the stars looked so tiny. In the course of admiring M13, we switched in the RV-6’s single remaining eyepiece, an 18-mm A.S.P. (“Achromatic Symmetrical Plössl,” I reckon). What was it like? I’ll just say eyepiece technology has come a long, long way in 40 years. Back in went the 13 Nagler.

M27 showed off its apple-core shape to beat the band. Even more impressive was the rich field. The stars were tiny, hard pinpoints to the edge of the field. I reckon there is something to be said for this f/8 business.

M22. Over Sagittarius way we went. Naturally, given the good state of the skies and our decently low latitude, M22 was a marvel. But certainly the old RV-6 contributed. Again, nice, small stars and more resolution than you’d think a dadburned 6-inch would be capable of.

M8: Since I was writing a blog article on this wonder, it had been on my mind in a most favorable fashion. Cindy Lou did not disappoint, showing sharp stars, sufficient nebulosity, and a starkly visible dark lane. The Hourglass nebular “condensation” was readily visible.

M20 wouldn’t put your eye out, but all the petals of this cosmic flower were distinguishable, pretty good work for a “small” scope.

M17: when I finished hunting around and finally centered the thing (has go-to ruined your Uncle?), I was impressed. No, it was not as good as in Pat’s nearby fast 8-inch, but it was good, with the Swan neck easy and dark detail visible along the body.

M11 looked more like a glob than a galactic cluster.

Jupiter. Yep, the pièce de résistance, what I’d been waiting for. I really should have waited a little longer, till he got higher in the sky than 25-degrees, but I couldn’t. Even with seeing coming and going, the tale was told. Not only were the moons hard little spheres, the Great Red Spot was sharp and unmistakable. The disk was an absolute welter of detail. If I’d had the fortitude to wait for the wee hours, I have no doubt that the result would have been “more detail than you can draw.”

I was well satisfied that our (mostly Pat’s) trouble had been worth it. How could I help but be? Cindy Lou looked satisfied too, as if it had been a long, long time she’d been able to drink-in sweet starlight in the copious quantities we’d offered her on this night.

And here’s to 40 more years of starlight for the old gal. Not with Unk at her side, of course—that would be quite a trick given how he’s abused the bod—but with some discriminating young person, maybe even one not yet born. That’s the goal. I’ll certainly enjoy using Cindy Lou with kids and students, but I have no doubt I’ll eventually run across a bright-eyed and bushy-tailed young amateur seeking her first scope, some special youngun able to appreciate that e’en humble telescopes can age into fine wine.

Fly on, Little Wing.

Sunday, August 09, 2009


My Favorite Fuzzies: The Lagoon Nebula

And it is a fave of mine. Has been for years. But it didn't start out that way. In fact, the first time I had a look at what had been preached to me as the “other Orion Nebula,” I was slap-disappointed.

That is, however, in typical Uncle Rod fashion, putting the dadgummed cart before the horse. What has brought M8 to my mind (such as it is), anyhow? It began with one of my long-time astronomy friends, Tom Wideman of Texas. He sent me an email the other day reminding me of the fun we’d had at the 2001 Texas Star Party. That got me to thinking about the first time I met Tom, a couple of years previous at the 1999 TSP. That led me to reminisce about all the great things I saw that year, one of which was a scary-good looking M8. Sound convoluted? Yeah, I know it does, and that’s actually just the end of my M8 story, which began more’n thirty years before in Mama and Daddy’s backyard.

Before turning down that path, though, why don’t we start with Just the Facts, M’am as in “What in pea-turkey is the Lagoon Nebula?” If you want "succinct," I suggest you turn to one of my favorite books, John Mallas and Evereid Kreimer’s A Messier Album. My relationship with that little volume is a story in itself, and I hope you’ll indulge me and let me say a few words about it before we get down to brass tacks.

‘Twas a sunny Saturday afternoon (had to be) in the spring of 1967 down in The Swamp. Li’l Rod, who was, oh, mebbe 13 at the time, was getting antsy. It was that time of the month. You know, time for the arrival of Sky and Telescope. Y’all sprouts can scarcely imagine what a big event that was in the average young amateur’s life way back when. Back then, unless you was lucky enough to live somewhere where there was an active astronomy club that welcomed younguns, the coming of the new Sky and 'Scope was about all the exposure you got to amateur astronomy month in and month out besides your public library’s (usually small) collection of astronomy books and your buddies who shared your obsession--but who were likely as ignorant about it as you were.

So it was that when Sky and 'Scope  time drew near, young Rod invariably stationed himself in Mama’s living room (despite her hard looks) to keep a weather eye on the mailbox through the picture window. “Here comes Mr. Postman! He’s stopping…there’s something big going in the mailbox! Yay-ah!” Out the front door at a run. That "something big," if’n I was lucky, would turn out to be a manila envelope.

Back in those hoary times, you see, Sky and Telescope was not only presented in a larger (if skinnier) format, 8.5 x 11.5, it was mailed in an envelope emblazoned with that wonderful postmark, “Cambridge, Massachusetts.” When Rod scored like he did on the afternoon in question, the rest of his day was set. If the sky happened to be clear, so was the night. Even if there wasn't a good article about observing (with Scotty's, Walter Scott Houston’s, column in every issue, there usually was), just getting the magazine impelled me to heights of enthusiasm, and the Palomar Junior was set up in the backyard by sundown.

But that was the evening. The afternoon was spent paging and repaging through the May ‘67 Sky and Telescope. What was in it? In addition to the wonderful (then and now) ads, you had, in the front of the rag, the serious stuff. The professional astronomy stuff: “Cepheid Pulsations,” “Some Notes on Tektites.” Usually, the GOOD STUFF as far as this youngun was concerned, the amateur astronomy stuff, was in the back of the magazine. Not this time, though.

Right on page 285 (the magazine used volume page numbering back then) in the prestigious front was an article in what, it appeared, would be a series. An article aimed right at us amateurs, John Mallas and Everid Kreimer’s “A Messier Album.” Mr. Mallas handled the writing chores, and Mr. Kreimer did the photography. What would this series be about? Paragraph two made that plain, “We will present a photograph, often a drawing, a finder chart, and a description of the visual appearance of each Messier object, from all new observations.”

YEEEHAW! The demigods who resided at Harvard College Observatory must have been reading my mind. I was hot on the trail of the Messiers for the first time and needed help. What was easy? What was hard? How would these things look through the eyepiece of my Pal Junior? How did I find them (I was still struggling with Norton’s Star Atlas and saving my pennies for Skalnate Pleso)?

Starting with this issue, these two guys helped me with all those things, and are no doubt mainly responsible for me being able to, over the next two or three years, finally capture (almost) all of ‘em. Starting with M81 and M82, the subjects of the first installment. From that time forward to the end of the series, “A Messier Album” became, with “Deep Sky Wonders,” my favorite thing in the magazine. Actually, I often found "Album" more helpful than Scotty’s column, since he was sometimes way beyond my puny abilities.

About a decade later, Sky Publishing wisely collected the “A Messier Album” columns into a book. I didn’t rush out and buy a copy, though. I was (I thought) beyond the Messier by then, and I still had my magazines. I never forgot John Mallas and Evereid Kreimer, though, and one recent afternoon while browsing, I was taken by nostalgia, and on the spur of that ordered a copy.

When it arrived, I was genuinely surprised. It is every bit as useful as I remembered it being. Mallas’ prose is clear and concise and though usually unadorned is descriptive when it needs to be. His drawings, done with a 4-inch Unitron refractor, can look a little weird and fanciful in daylight, but out under the stars in dim red light they look remarkably like what I saw through my 4-inch Newtonian, and will resemble what any medium smallish scope will deliver today.

Evereid Kreimer’s images? To say this Arizona amateur was ahead of his time is an understatement. Working with what we’d consider incredibly simple—even primitive—gear today, a 12-inch Cave Newtonian, Tri-X film, and a cold camera (younguns: don’t ask), he pushed back the frontiers and standards of amateur astrophotography. Way back. His images, many of them, still stand up very well beside the latest mega-pixel Ritchey Chretien masterpieces.

Now…ah…where was I? Oh, yeah, M8. If you want short and sweet, Mr. Mallas says:
Commonly known as the Lagoon Nebula due to the great line of obscuring matter that crosses its center, M8 is similar to M20, which lies only 1.4-degrees to the northwest. It is about 60 by 35 minutes of arc in size. The nebula may be 2,500 light-years distant, but that is uncertain.
That’s still a pretty good description today. As you might guess, in the intervening thirty plus years our distance estimates for this DSO have been revised—though they are still somewhat “uncertain.” Most I’ve seen put it significantly farther away than John thought, with the cloud now being assumed to be more than 5,000 light-years out in the dark.

We can amplify a little bit on Mr. M’s barebones summary, too. The Lagoon is an emission nebula, a star-forming region that is being excited to illumination by squalling infants, the massive blue - white stars hidden within its folds. In images, at least, M8 is a little bigger than the 60 x 35-minutes Mallas mentions, with the nebula stretching 90 x 40-arc minutes. In addition to its Messier number, this wonder bears the additional catalog designations NGC 6523, NGC 6526, IC 1271, Sh 2-28, and LBN 25. How bright is it? It’s close to magnitude 5, which compares quite well with the Great Orion Nebula’s integrated magnitude of 4.0.

John Mallas' enthusiastic description of M8 as “one of the showpieces of the heavens,” made me lust for this thing as soon as  I read the Album entry that covered it. I loved Orion, and the fact that there might be an “almost as good” in the summer sky just seemed right to me. As soon as Sagittarius got high enough in the early summer heavens for me to have a look at it before bedtime (the time of which tended to vary depending on Mama’s mood, which depended mostly on how I’d behaved the previous 24-hours), I was out there and after it. I found a spot on the southern side of the yard near the house where I had a purty good view of the southeast horizon and got the Pal Junior cranking.

Although Mallas and Kreimer furnished a semi-useable (by today’s standards) finder chart, I soon realized I wouldn’t need it nor would I need my copy of Norton’s, which  I’d dragged outside, too. I pointed my Pal at the Sagittarius Teapot’s spout and began scanning up along the Milky Way—or at least where I thought the path of the Milky Way was; it was mostly invisible in my hazy and humid skies. Nevertheless, I was quick to sight my target; it stood out starkly as a fuzzy star, even in my puny 22mm finder. Centered it dead in the crosshairs, inserted my “1-inch” Kellner, and had a peep.

Well…not bad. Not bad at all. Kinda-sorta. What I was seeing, mostly, was the star cluster (now thought to be a foreground object), NGC 6530, which is centered on the eastern half of the nebula. Other than that? I saw considerable fuzz/haze around a star. Maybe, just maybe, if I used averted imagination, I could make out some other hazy patches in the area. What I was seeing was actually not too much different from what Mallas showed in his drawing: fuzzy disconnected patches. In the Album’s sketch, these patches tended to define the dark “lagoon” lane considerably better than what I was seeing, though. To my eye, this was not even close to M42. Now, if M8 had looked like the huge globe of nebulosity in Kreimer’s photo, that would have been a pony of a different shade. But it didn’t. I put it all down to over-exuberance on the part of John Mallas and moved on to other objects. Wasn't the Swan Nebula around here somewhere?

Obviously, today I consider The Lagoon Nebula as good or better than Mallas and Kreimer thought it was. It is one of the premier wonders of the southern (or northern) sky. Why did my opinion change? Time and tide, muchachos, time and tide. Or, to put it another way, I learned how to observe, where to observe, and what to observe with.

Learning to observe is the first hurdle for any novice deep sky observer. I don’t just mean tricks like using averted vision or jiggling the telescope to bring out faint objects. The even more mundane has to be mastered before you can see well through a scope. Where do you put your eye? Do you jam it up against the eyepiece or move it back a little bit? Is it better to sit down while observing or stand up? Keep both eyes open or squint one? These things deserve a separate blog entry of their own, so, for now, I’ll just say as my time in the hobby slowly ticked on, I slowly learned how to look.

A related issue I don’t hear discussed often, but one I’ve preached about in the past, is the seemingly simple question, “How long do you look at something?” As a sprout, I rarely gave a DSO more than a glance if it didn’t knock my socks off at first blush. “M82? Looks like a dim little oval. What’s next.” That took, maybe, one or two minutes. As I matured as an observer, I began to find that—big surprise—the more I looked, the more I saw. If I observed M82 for half an hour using a variety of magnifications, it became much more than a dim oval glow. The same went for the Lagoon. The more I looked, e’en under less than optimum Possum Swamp skies, the more the patches of nebulosity began to connect themselves into a big cloud like in the Kreimer pic. I developed a rule I’ve done my best to stick to over the years: If an object is worth observing, it is worth observing for half an hour.

Want to put that on steroids? In addition to staring at a DSO for an extended period, try drawing the thing. Yeah, yeah, I know “But Uncle Rod, I CAN’T DRAW.” Hey, I’m not asking you to duplicate Woman with a Parasol, just to record what you see in some fashion. I’ve given some pointers for that in the past, but you know what? It really don’t matter how you draw. The important thing is not the finished product (though, as your skills improve, and they will, you will come to cherish your artworks) but the process. By observing carefully and trying to draw, to at least create an impression of what you see, you will be amazed at how much more you will pull out than you normally would. The finished sketch is just an added bonus.

Every bit as important as “how” is “where,” where you observe from. Back in the day, my folks’ backyard had some things going for it as well as some strikes against it. The good was that, before 1970, light pollution was minimal. There were mercury lights, but just a few, usually on corners. Also good was my latitude, 30-degrees north. You can’t expect to ever get a really good look at Sagittarius’ wonders if they are always down in the worst horizon garbage.

Against me was Possum Swamp’s usual summer weather pattern: fierce storm-bringing lows tag-teaming with stagnant high pressure domes. The latter meant that even when it was clear, the sky was often more like milk than velvet. Great for planetary observing at high power. Deep sky touring? Not So Much. There wasn’t a danged thing I could do about that situation. About all I could really do was listen to the TV weatherman and hope for a storm front to pass and bring clear, clean, dry skies. That didn’t happen often in the summertime. Seems to happen even less frequently today.

Relief didn’t come till I moved to Arkansas. There was a penalty involved that had to be paid in return for the often relatively pristine skies of Razorback Country, though. That penalty was that I was nearly 5 degrees in latitude farther north, which meant M8 would always be a bit lower on the nasty ol’ horizon. On the other hand, the horizons themselves were very good at my up-in-the-Ozark-foothills observing location. But what made M8 look much better was mostly, I reckon, how much drier the skies were. The reason locations in the desert southwest are so much better than east-o’-the-Mississip is not only that they are darker—there are plenty uber dark sites in the east—but that they are drier. I’ve come to believe that makes more difference than anything else. While Arkansas wasn’t the desert southwest, it was a derned sight better humidity-wise than the Gulf Coast.

What you observe with contributes to the cause, natcherly. Going from 4 and 6-inch Newtonians to an 8-inch Newt and then an 8-inch SCT made a hell of a lot of difference. What probably made almost as much, though, was my progression from the uncoated Ramsdens and Kellners of the 60s to the much better Erfles and Plössls of the 70s and 80s and, finally, to the Panoptics and Naglers of the 90s (and lately, to those amazin’ new Ethoses). I still think aperture means the most, but, as Uncle Al likes to preach (natch), eyepieces are a big deal. What makes modern oculars superior, even more than their coatings, is their wide Apparent Fields of View (AFOV). That allows us to up the magnification, spreading out any background glow, while keeping the true field wide enough to make big M8 look good.

The final piece of the puzzle was the UHC and OIII filters. Lumicon’s light pollution reduction filters, which came to prominence in the 80s, helped near about as much as better oculars.

Put it all together and what did I have as the 1990s came in? In my C8’s eyepiece, the nebula stretched from east to west, from the tendrils (seemingly) enwrapping the star cluster, to a starkly dark lane, to the big ball of nebulosity on the west side. Take a long look at the ball, upping the power, and hordes of “little” stars began to peep out, not unlike in the areas bordering M42's “fish mouth.” Go higher still, have some patience, wait for good seeing, and the heart of the nebula, the Hourglass, a brighter patch shaped like the ensign on a black widow’s back, shimmers into view. I came to rate M8 very highly amongst my favorite objects. It was a marvel, a wonder. I still didn’t think it was in shoutin’ distance of M42, though; that would have to wait just a couple more years.

Yeah, I thought I had seen The Lagoon. But I hadn’t. Not until I paid my first visit to Prude Ranch’s legendary Texas Star Party. One night, about three evenings into the star party, I was feeling a mite weary. TSP had been incredible thus far. One crystal clear black-cat-at-midnight dark night after another. It was mid May, and I don’t believe there had been appreciable rain in the Fort Davis area since the previous November. I was hitting it hard, chasing things like the Twin Quasar night after night. I needed some rest and some spectacle. I decided to spend at least part of Tuesday’s observing run gaping at Messier showpieces. Looking south, the teapot was boiling, the steam pouring out of the spout being represented by the blazing Milky Way. I headed that-a-way.

What did M8 look like in my 12.5-inch Dobsonian with a 12-mm Nagler 2 and an OIII filter? It’s hard to describe even now. The best I can do is to say it was a towering thing that, as I moved my eye around the field, seemed to stretch over my head and on forever. Nebulosity was everywhere, in clouds, patches, and tendrils. The dark lane, the Lagoon, wasn’t that dark anymore. Its interior showed streaks of glowing cloud, like rapids in a great dark river. Switching out the OIII brought countless infant suns to life, and they dazzled me. I finally had to pull away from the Nagler for a moment. I had begun to feel vertigo, as if I were being sucked into the eyepiece, into the depths of the great misty landscape. As good as the Great Orion Nebula? Pardon me if I commit heresy: it was better.

What’s the takeaway? It’s like Granny used to caution me, “Boy, don’t be so hasty. Slow down and settle down and things will work out directly.” “Directly” in southern speak is a wonderful word. It can mean “ten minutes” or “ten years.” But the sainted Pearlie Pierce’s meaning is clear: some things need patience above all. There are objects I’ve seen a hundred times. A thousand times. Most of those times most of ‘em were distinctly ho-hum. Then, on a special night from a special place, they come to life and blow my socks off. You have to have the patience to keep comin’ back night after night in serious fashion. Eventually it will, if you are lucky and are doin’ it right, come together. M8? I have never again seen it like I did that one time. It’s been close once or twice, but never quite, though I keep on trying. Once, however, is enough, it turns out; that spectacle is locked forever in my heart.

Sunday, August 02, 2009


Big Bertha Lives

Normally I’d be on to something else, but I thought all y’all Celestron NexStar 11 fanciers might like a Part II, an update on last week’s subject, on how the ol’ gal is making out these days. Not that I’d planned on taking Bertha, my NexStar 11, down to the Chiefland Astronomy Village. What I intended, muchachos, was a good run with the C8, Atlas mount, and DSLR in hopes of getting some images for a book I am vaguely planning, Uncle Rod's Deep Sky 100.

Chiefland, Florida, as you might guess, is not an overly comfortable place to be in the summertime. It's only about twenty miles from the Gulf of Mexico, but it is still inland, and on July afternoons it is indeed just like an oven. On the other hand, it’s my prime dark sky imaging site. I was ready to brave the conditions, which can make even Possum Swamp Julys feel cool, for one reason: I needed pictures of the summer sky objects, and I had few recent ones of these due to the unpleasantness of Possum Swamp (and Chiefland) summers.

The original plan was to scoot down for the June new Moon in hopes of missing the worst of that heat. ‘Twas was not to be; I outsmarted myself. I thought what I’d do would be make motel reservations the Monday before the new Moon weekend, when the Clear Sky Clock and Wunderground would give me some idea whether it would be go or no-go weather-wise. On Monday afternoon, the weekend predictions were not outstanding, but it looked like I might squeak by with a few hours, so I got on the Web to make motel reservations.

Uh-uh, nosir buddy. Believe it or no (and I still have trouble), every blankety-blank motel room in Chiefland, or even near Chiefland, was booked-up. Orbitz did no good. Calling on the phone did no good. Why this should be, I have no idea. Does Chiefland have a Watermelon Festival or something? Do the manatees come out to play in nearby Manatee Springs in June? Do some Disneyworld-bound tourists still cruise down Highway 19? Dunno, but I had no intention of doing something stupid and tent camping on the observing field. As I noted last time, doing that once in May was enough. I can scarcely imagine how uncomfortable a tent would be in the June heat. Well, I’d do July instead, then.

So as not to outsmart myself again, I immediately made reservations at the Holiday Inn Express for the weekend of 24 July. I kept a close eye on the weather reports, natch, and, sad to tell, the closer it got to the New Moon, the worse they became. I decided that if the predictions weren’t any better than “40% cloud cover at night” on the Thursday night preceding my departure, Atlas and C8 would stay home. That would be a shame, as I was anxious to try out what I thought would be a winning software combo: EQMOD and SkyTools 3. A short test run had assured me that SkyTools was a real good match for the Atlas’ EQMOD driver, but I wanted to get down to some serious work with that combo and also throw PHD Guiding into the mix.

Alas, by Thursday I did indeed decide to switch gears. The DSLR and SBIG would stay behind. I still wanted to get some images for the book, however, and the best way to do that in an environment that would, I reckoned, be Sucker Hole City would be with the Stellacam II deep sky video camera. The Stellacam has the advantage of being quick off the mark. No darks. No flats. No long strings of sub-exposures, no exacting polar alignment. No polar alignment at all, in fact. I’ve often used the Stellacam with the NS11 in alt-az mode and it works very well, and that was what I intended to do this time. No, the pictures you get with a deep sky video camera ain't exactly on the "pretty" side, but I thought they might suffice.

So it was that Friday morning I crawled out of bed to partly cloudy skies but with some hope still in my withered li’l heart, loaded up Bertha and all the tons of ancilliary gear I tote along and hit the road. As has often the case on my recent Chiefland expeditions, I was by myself for the six-and-a-half hours of unrelenting boredom of the drive down. The presence of my iPod Touch loaded up with Stephen King’s Dark Tower 3: The Wasteland made my trip across the unchanging I-10 landscape (not quite wasteland) of the Florida panhandle at least bearable. Weather? I ran through a couple of serious thunderstorms west of Tallahassee, but once I turned off the Interstate to pick up Highway 19, the rain stopped—though the clouds didn’t seem to want to outright disperse as they sometimes do as I near the CAV.

Arriving in Chiefland proper about 3pm, I followed my usual leisurely itinerary. With sunset not until 8:30pm, there was no need to rush. I checked into the motel, which was as clean and comfortable as ever, though, as is sometimes the case with small town motels, now assuming a somewhat tired appearance. More than adequate for this ol’ boy, needless to say. Once I’d unpacked in the room, I headed out to the site to get set up, and, believe me, I was happy to have passing clouds occasionally cover the Sun. H-O-T. The heat wasn’t just pouring down from ol’ Sol, it was being reflected by the grassy field and into my face with a vengeance.

I worked slowly and deliberately to get my 66-pound girlfriend out of the car and on her tripod, my EZ-up canopy erected (with some help from one of my CAV beaudreauxs, Carl Wright), and the computer, DVD recorder, monitor, and various and sundry items positioned. Where did I set up, exactly? Chiefland has a big new field, but I am used to my old haunt, the “club field,” or “old field,” which is now officially known as the “Billy Dodd Memorial Observing Field” in memory of one of Chiefland Astronomy Village’s founders. I am sure the new area is nice, but I am a creature of habit and am most comfortable with “the same” not “different.” By the time I finished my work, I was drenched with sweat. What a joy it was to hop in the car and luxuriate in the a/c as I headed back to the motel for a nap.

After a few hours of dozing in the blessedly cool dark of my room followed by a stroll through the Chiefland WallyWorld for vital provisions (Jack Links, Monster Energy Drinks, bottled water), I headed back to the CAV—at about 7pm—to the accompaniment of Greg Allman's "Midnight Rider" cranked on the radio. I felt good. Once I’d got out of the car and taken a look at the sky, I began to feel even better. In typical Chiefland fashion, a huge blue hole had opened. Any remaining clouds were off to the north and east, and were obviously sliding past the site, not toward it. I was still suspicious, mind you, since this weather pattern seems to have become less common of late, but by sundown the sky had continued to improve. There was some impressive lightning flashing from thunderheads to the east, but they was low on the horizon and moving away.

First order of bidness, with the brighter luminaries now beginning to put in their appearances, was getting the NS11 go-to aligned. I flipped the Big Switch to “on,” booted NexRemote on the laptop, and located my Wireless Wingman Joystick. I’d already affixed the Stellacam and a Meade f/3.3 reducer to the rear cell and had powered up the DVD recorder and the li’l portable DVD player I use as a monitor. I set the Stellacam to expose “live”—30-frames-per-second—and began the GPS alignment, the old style north and level procedure that’s possible with my old scope. Bertha did her dance, got a quick GPS fix (in just a few seconds despite the fact that the last time I’d used her had been from a location hundreds of miles away), and headed for the first of two alignment stars.

All I had to do at the scope was peer through the finder, center the stars in it, and then center them on the monitor. I was close to focus, but if I hadn’t been, lengthening the exposure time with the Stellacam will usually reveal even the most out of focus sparklers. I finished to the accompaniment of a couple of onlookers’ chuckles. They was tickled by Bertha’s “voice” (thanks to NexRemote): “Center Star in Finder and Press Enter! Alignment Successful!” Before anybody gets huffy, let me say that I keep the volume low to avoid disturbing my neighbors on the field. My buddies had wandered over to get a look at a NexStar 11, which, I was surprised to realize, is becoming something of a rarity and an antique curiosity.

Scope aligned, next thing on the agenda was getting focus tweaked-in. I did this by the simple expedient of walking over to the scope, nudging the focus control, walking back to the monitor and observing the results, and repeating as needed. Yeah, I know, HOW PRIMITIVE! I do have a moto-focus for the C8, and I am gonna get a kit to adapt it to Bertha “soon.” I might even buy or make one o’ them new-fangled Bahtinov masks. What did I focus on and how? My procedure is to make the alignment star the telescope is sitting on as small as possible, up the exposure, and do the same for dimmer field stars. Final tweak? Over to glorious M13. No better object to focus on than a globular star cluster.

Once focus was “in,” I was done messing with the scope for the evening. The carbon fiber tube kept images sharp for the rest of the night, keeping focus killing tube expansion and contraction to a minimum. I was able to stay under the EZ up with the computer and the video monitor the whole time, remaining relatively dry during the moderately heavy (though not at all bad by deep south standards) dew "fall." Final pre-flight actions? I fired up my Thermacell bug repeller. Chiefland is not usually troubled by mosquitoes, but there had been considerable rain over the last few weeks, and I was being nipped at by skeeters and the occasional noseeum. The Thermacell quickly ejected these miscreants from the EZ Up. I then turned on a little fan so I'd have some semblance of a breeze blowing in my hot face, and I was good to go.

There was one other thing to do before me and Bertha could get rolling: run SkyTools 3. Even though I wouldn’t be able to try the program with EQMOD, I’d still be able to enjoy its benefits. With NexRemote up, you assign a virtual port to ST3, and it works sweet, sending your telescope on its slews jus’ like you were using the “real” HC. Sure, I could have put together a tour of the evening’s objects using NR’s NexTour module, but it is SO much easier to use lists composed with SkyTools. There really is no comparison. I set NexRemote’s HC display to “always on top,” linked SkyTools 3 to the scope, and was ready for the evening’s deep space adventures.

Before clicking to the first target, M17, I poked my head out from under the canopy and took a look at the sky. For a moment, nonplussed was I. What were those clouds doing all across the East? It only took a moment to realize I wasn’t seeing the undersides of clouds illuminated by light pollution; that was the Milky Way, just blazing its heart out. I won’t hesitate to say the skies on this supposedly “iffy” night were some of the best I have ever experienced at Chiefland. A glance southeast, to the tail of the scorpion, revealed the constellation’s famous “false comet” asterism. The last time I’d seen it as clearly was about a decade previous from, yes, Prude Ranch. Not wanting to waste this loveliness, I set to work with Bertha.

What was way-cool over the course of the evening? I might mention that monstrous glob, M22; it was a giant globe resolved right across the core. Or M8, the Lagoon, which literally filled the screen with nebulosity and fiercely burning young suns. The big hit for me on Friday, though, was NGC 7009, the Saturn Nebula.

Hail yeah, I’ve seen this thing hundreds—if not thousands—of times over the last 44 years. And it has often looked right good. In Carl's beautiful 22-inch Star Structure Dob set up next to me on the Chiefland field, it was nice. Wonderful even. It was a striking blue color, and, with averted vision, the “ring”—the ansae—were visible under the steady seeing we were enjoying.

Nice as it was in the big Dob, it didn’t prepare me for what I saw when I sent Bertha over Aquarius way, and the little planetary popped onto the screen. “So THAT’S why Lord Rosse called it the ‘Saturn Nebula’!” Frankly, I sat openmouthed for a while. The nebula looked almost exactly like what I remembered Saturn looking like in my Palomar Junior in 1966 when the rings were edge on. I had never seen the nebula's ansae this prominent. But, then, I’d never turned the Stellacam loose on NGC 7009 under excellent seeing before. A little squinting, and I could make out an outer envelope, detail in the disk, and the round “fliers” at the tips of the ansae/rings.

And that’s the way it was, muchachos, I’d click on an object in SkyTools 3, Bertha would announce “slewing to target,” I’d push the “record” button on the DVD remote, and another beautiful object would be in the can. That’s the way it was until about 1:30, anyhow. By then, I’d replaced the Stellacam II with a NexImage camera in hopes of capturing the new Jupiter Impact. As I was focusing up, I noticed the level meter on K3CCD Tools, my planetary image capture program, dipping precipitously. What the—? I walked out from under the canopy and looked to the east, “Dadgummit!” Clouds, plenty of clouds, real clouds this time, had begun to move in.

That is a not an unheard of occurrence in the wee hours at Chiefland. It will be clear all night, clouds magically drifting around the site; then, after midnight, they—or ground fog—will suddenly blow in from the east. Was I a little put-out? You betcha. Was it a tragedy? No. I’d had four hours of outstanding conditions, and, truth be told, I was a mite weary, having arisen at 6am and then driven over 6-hours. Warn’t nothing for it nohow. By the time I was back on Highway 19 and headed for town, rain had begun to fall. Back at the motel, a shot or three o’ the Yell, a little cable TV, and I was in dreamland drifting through electric-blue planetary nebulae.

Saturday morning? Looked about the same as Friday afternoon. That is, partly cloudy but no incipient rain. I just managed to catch the motel’s free breakfast just before it shut down (love them deadly li’l cinnamon rolls), and spent the rest of the day relaxing and writing. I had intended to pay a visit to the famous Bar-B-Q Bill’s for lunch, but the cinnamon rolls (and the bisquits and gravy and sausage patties) had filled me up, and I settled for a mid day nap. I should probably have stayed put till 7:30 p.m. or so, but I got antsy and headed out to the CAV at around 6. Big mistake.

At 6pm, ol’ Sol was still doing his thing with a vengeance. I recovered some bottled water from the clubhouse and took refuge under the site's picnic pavilion till the heat began to ease at 7. With the scope ready to go, I killed the remaining time before dark hanging out with Chiefland friends old and new. I also spent some time deciding what to observe. I’d almost unbelievably run through my whole list the previous night. I thought I’d concentrate, then, on picking up a few early fall Hickson groups I had yet to bag and then doing some DSOs, constellation by constellation, from Brian Skiff’s and Christian Luginbuhl’s Observing Handbook and Catalog of Deep Sky Objects.

If I got to see anything. Looking to the northeast in the twilight, we witnessed the approach of a thunderhead that soon assumed the classic and evil-looking anvil shape. Before long, it was writhing with scary-looking lightning bolts. Or almost scary. In typical Chiefland fashion, it stayed off to the east and drifted slowly to the south and out of sight by the time astronomical twilight was done. Too darned bad I hadn’t brought my DSLR with me; the snaking bolts of sky fire were impressive. Second problem? I’d meant to make up a list of Hicksons with SkyTools 3, but in the course of my waffling about which scope to bring and what to do with it, I had plumb forgot. I didn’t have the Skiff/Luginbuhl lists with me either. What to do?

I love SkyTools best, I’ll admit; the way it works fits in perfectly with the way I observe. But I also have a lot of respect for Steve Tuma’s Deepsky planning program. It’s been around for a long time—it was one of the first planners out the gate—works well, and has some nice features. One of the nicest is that it comes with a DVD loaded with hundreds of thousands of images. That was a good thing. In general, the pictures SkyTools 3 downloads from the I-net (and caches for later use) are of higher quality than those on the Deepsky DVD, but there wouldn’t be any downloading tonight: the field’s wi-fi was on the blink. The biggest plus, though? I had a Hickson list for Deepsky on the hard drive. A little hunting around turned up Deepsky format lists for the Skiff book, too. I slammed the image DVD into the drive, aligned Bertha, connected Deepsky to the scope, and was shortly happily hunting fuzzies, Deepsky’s pictures (from the POSS) were a real help in identifying some of the fuzzier and fainter ones.

What was uber-cool Saturday night? Lotsa stuff. Probably the best of the best was M2. This somewhat subdued Messier glob really comes to life with the Stellacam. The core was odd-looking and fascinating, composed of countless tiny stars arranged in interweaving chains that spilled across the monitor. Even better was Pegasus’ famous NGC 7479, the classic barred spiral galaxy. It wasn’t huge on the screen, but its two graceful opposed arms were clear and strikingly beautiful. What else? While not exactly an eye-popper, I was pleased to be able to detect at least a section of one of my fave Scorpius objects, the huge Cat’s Paw Nebula. Even at f/4, this thing is way too big—well over a degree—to fit in a Stellacam field. I was nevertheless able to capture at least one of the footpad prints of the bad kitty who made such a mess of the southern sky.

I pushed on for as long as I dared, touring through Ophiuchus and Cygnus and Aquila and then Pegasus and Aquarius. A couple of times I thought the clouds was about to stage a repeat performance, but by 2am they still hadn’t. Unfortunately, it was at that time that I had to call it quits. I needed to head back to The Swamp in the morning and wanted to get on the road no later than 9am. Reluctantly, I hit the Big Switch and headed back to town.

In the morning, I felt like a George Romero zombie despite having called it a night “early,” but not too bad. The drive home wasn’t real-fun, but it was, again, bearable. And the weariness was for damned sure worth it. I’ve been coming down to Chiefland for more than a few years now, and the sky this time out was at least as good—actually probably considerably better—than I have ever seen it. Everything worked. Nothing bad happened. I was able to visit with some of my CAV buddies. I wasn’t at work. What could be better than that?

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