Sunday, September 27, 2009

 

Cloudy Nights at DSRSG '94


Saturday Morning at DSRSG 1994
It ain't the website I wanna talk about this a.m., but the real thing, y’all. You see, Unk blew it. Bigtime. I’d been whining about our weather for the last several weeks. How humid, cloudy, buggy, and just downright miserable it’s been. How it’s been keeping me from beginning a new series of articles on deep sky observing I hoped to present to y’all. Well, last New Moon-Saturday I should have had the opportunity to get that underway. But I didn’t. At 5 p.m. I took a quick look out the front door at the apparently still punk WX, a quick look at the dadgummed Weather Channel Local on the 8s, and quickly went back to Season Two of Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

Next morning, as you mighta guessed, I heard from one of my PSAS ("Possum Swamp Astronomical Society," natch) buddies: “DANG, Rod, you sure missed a good one! Little haze, but the Milky Way was bright until after midnight.” Ain’t that the way it always is? Turn in early on a cloudy star party evening and what will you hear in the morning? “After 2 am it was SPECTACULAR!” Which is why my cardinal rule for many years was “If it ain’t actually raining, head to the dark site or, if you’re there, stay there.” When I’ve stuck to that, all has been well. Not that I haven’t wavered or almost wavered on occasion. Like when trying to decide if it was worth setting-out on what turned out to be one of my best-ever star party expeditions.

My dear wife, Miss Dorothy, likes to tell the story of how, when we first started dating, I told her I was an amateur astronomer. Dorothy was not (she says) appalled by this admission, which took place over a couple of vodka tonics in Applebees. She was somewhat aware of something called “amateur astronomy,” which she assumed was an informal sort of a pastime. You bought a telescope—ONE telescope—set it up in the backyard once in a while, and that was pretty much it.

Was she in for an awakening. Which began with her first star party, a weekend in the company of the most spaced-out, gear-crazy amateurs in the tri-state area (you know, Mississippi, Alabama, and Louisiana). I was a little hesitant to bring up the Deep South Regional Star Gaze that first autumn after our marriage. Dorothy was getting acclimated to the weird lingo, weird equipment, and (sometimes) weird personalities that made up the local amateur astronomy scene. A star party, though, would be like being tossed right into the deep end of the astronomy pool. How would she react to a long weekend at a Mississippi state park? Eating food just south of elementary school fare? Listening to astro-maniacs talk our strange language and live our weird nocturnal lifestyle to the hilt?

Wayne Hester's Coulter Odyssey
When I did bring up DSRSG, however, Dorothy allowed as how she’d be delighted to accompany me to the metropolis of McComb, Mississippi and the star party’s home base, Percy Quin State Park. I was still a little iffy about the trip for another reason, however. Weather reports for the November weekend in question ranged from dismal to scary. It had been a busy fall; was I up for the bother and expense of a rained-out event? Still, I’d never had a bad time at any star party, rain or shine, and since Dorothy was amenable…what could happen? The question then began to be how to get me, her, a 12.5-inch Meade Dobsonian, ancilliary observing gear, table, picnic canopy, ice chest—you get the picture—from Chaos Manor South to Percy Quin State Park in a fraking Hyundai Excel.

My original inclination had been to take Dorothy’s Toyota Camry instead of my miniature putt-putt. Alas, her four door sedan laughed at the idea of carrying my Meade Starfinder anywhere. No matter how I maneuvered the OTA into the trunk or the backseat, it simply would not fit. Not even close. I gave up and turned to the Hyundai. I’d never tried to load the StarFinder into my little red car, but I thought it might be (barely) doable. It was a hatchback, you see, and as those of y’all who lived through the amateur astronomy of the 1980s well know, the hatchback was the amateur’s best friend. It was amazing what you could cram in one of 'em. Shame that by the 1990s they was deemed UNCOOL by the car makers and public alike and began a disappearing act.

What was truly amazing was that not only was I was able to stuff that big, white Sonotube into my tiny rollerskate of a car, but that I was actually able to close the hatchback after moving the passenger seat forward only a couple of inches. And that all my other astro-junk, our suitcases, and everything else we'd need for four days in the wild fit in there somehow. Hatches securely battened down, we were off on Bloody Highway 98. Why Bloody? The old U.S. Highway used to be notorious for fatal accidents. It was narrow, two-lane, and wound through endless stands of Mississippi piney woods. There was nary a shoulder to escape onto in the event one of the multitudinous 18-wheelers that frequented the stretch between Possum Swamp and Hattiesburg decided to pass at the wrong moment.

Thankfully, by 1994 Bloody 98 was being four-laned all along its Mississippi length, with the old serpentine stretches being abandoned as construction proceeded. Naturally, there were some slowdowns due to the roadwork, but the journey was still a mere three-and-a-half hours, a good thing, since Miss Dorothy was in classroom teaching mode in those days and we were not able to leave town until well after noon. Not that I was sure it would make much difference when we arrived. The initially hopeless weather forecasts had got worse, and now indicated the only things we would be observing at night would be the insides of our eyelids.

Dorothy and Friend...
After a few short hours in the pleasant company of my lovely new wife and one stop for junk food and gas as the road construction finally petered out, we arrived at the then smallish metropolis of McComb, Mississippi at around 4 p.m. We proceeded under the I-55 overpass and hung a left for Percy Quin State Park. In those days, the park was beautifully maintained but rustic. You had camping, canoeing, fishing in the big lake (Lake Tangipahoa), and cabins for rent, but not much else (today there is a golf course, dirt track racing, and god-knows-what else). That was a good thing. After the summer season ended, the park was mostly deserted, and its administration was desperate for paying customers and positively enthusiastic about hosting our star party. That streetlight on the access road might be a problem? The rangers would round up a cherry picker and disable it post-haste.

Our area, the Group Camp, was isolated from the rest of the park, being off behind thick stands of trees and undergrowth. I’d been known to miss the turnoff for it on occasion, but, thankfully, I didn't embarrass myself in front of Miss Dorothy. We were soon driving onto the observing field. That was a slightly larger than football field sized tract (actually it wasn’t just football field sized; that was its purpose for 51 weeks out of the year). Not huge, but it suited our usual turnout of 100 – 125 observers.

First task was unloading the (for me) big scope. The 12-inch was certainly easy enough to assemble: plunk down rocker box, insert Sonotube. First, however, you had to get that big white tube to the rocker box. Unloading it from the car was like wrestling with a small hot water heater, and I was just this side of hot and bothered when I was done. Set up sure had been easier the previous year with my 8-inch Coulter, Mabel.

After getting everything else we needed for the field including our ice chest, observing table, and a couple of lawn chairs unloaded and erecting our tent canopy to the tune of much cussing of tangled ropes and missing tent stakes while fighting hordes of southern Mississippi’s (in)famous biting gnats, we drove the quarter of a mile up the road to the cabin/cafeteria area.

I was a little afraid Dorothy would be disappointed in the astronomers’ quarters, but she was delighted. I suppose she’d expected drafty boyscout chickies; instead, the Percy Quin cabins were ultramodern—if spartan as far as furnishings went, GI bunk-beds—and each was equipped with not just a bathroom, but with central heat and air. Yes, the cabins contained a faint miasma of years of accumulated bug spray, but they were clean, and, to top it all off, the star party management had given us newlyweds the little private “councilor’s room” in our particular cabin.

Hard to believe Unk was ever that young...
Did I say "cafeteria area"? Yep. The Group Camp sported a school-cafeteria-like setup. The dining room was more than large enough to accommodate all the observers who signed up for meals, and was, frankly, beautiful, with large plate glass windows looking out on the lake. There were even real live cafeteria ladies to serve us. The food? More on that later, but, suffice to say, I was always happy the place was situated next to the cabins and their bathroom facilities, since it generally took about 24-hours for Unk’s normally cast-iron stomach to adjust to Percy Quin fare.

Meals wouldn't begin for 24-hours, but that was OK. Not only had we we loaded up on junk food at the convenience store - gas station where we'd re-fueled the Toyota, there was the traditional caravan to Mr. Whiskers' Catfish Cabin late Thursday afternoon. No, what concerned me was not victuals, but the clouds that had followed us from Possum Swamp and which were now loitering in their hordes over DSRSG. Not only was it hot and sticky with a feel that portended “bad weather coming,” the sky was at times completely overcast. All we could do was wait the couple of hours till sundown and see what turned up.

After a supper of  Mr. Whisker's excellent if grudgingly dispensed all-you-can-eat fried catfish and hush-puppies where I had lots of fun visiting with my fellow amateurs and introducing Miss Dorothy around, it was back to the observing field. I'd peeped out a couple of times during the meal and was somewhat encouraged—it seemed to be clearing. The closer sunset approached, the more the bad, old, gray, fluffy things began to scuttle off, and by 6:30 p.m. the Milky Way was burning.

My new 12-inch was equipped with both a 50-mm finder and a Telrad, so, with the aid of Sky Atlas 2000, not much escaped me. I was also using printouts from the first computer program to impress me as a practical tool for charting, David Chandler’s late, great Deep Space 3D. DS3D wasn't just a planetarium program, it was the antecedent of today's planning programs like SkyTools.

DS3D made it so easy to assemble observing lists that I went freaking hog wild. The list I brought with me to DSRSG was composed of a whopping 327 objects. Given three clear nights, I could maybe essay that many with a goto scope today. Maybe. Back then with Telrad and 50mm finder? No way. Which I really knew. I just wanted to be prepared if we got spectacular skies—better too many objects in your list than too few, I reckoned.

The MAS
In the hours we got Thursday night before the clouds came back, I didn't touch that list. The sky was good, but it was not that good. And I wanted to see what the new telescope would do on my old favorite objects. It was all bright showpieces, and I lingered over each one, luxuriating in their appearance in my big Dobsonian. I hopped like a bunny across the sinking late summer constellations to the signs of fall hovering in the east.

One thing was sure; the Meade StarFinder impressed me on its first outing to a dark site. That was partially because it was blessed with a very good mirror, and partially because I’d been using mostly C8s for the better part of two decades and 4 extra inches of aperture was, shall we say, “noticeable.” 

There was also something special about the sky on this particular evening. Despite the humidity, which ran high, and the dew, which ran thick, I was doing amazing things. Yeah, McComb wasn’t so big, yet, but it was growing and its light dome was there. Nevertheless, when I moved to M74, that disgustingly hard Sc spiral in Pisces, the moisture and the light dome didn't seem to matter. There it was, not just bright, but, as I continued to gape at it with a 16mm Konig eyepiece (which I'd bought the previous year from a DSRSG vendor who came all the way from Kansas City), detailed. The more I looked, the more spiral structure began to appear. At first only to averted vision, but after a while direct vision was showing the galaxy's arms.

I saw quite a few of the summer marvels before the clouds had their revenge, but if all I’d seen had been M74, the trip would have been well worth it. The Weather Channel insisted Dorothy and I would be wasting our time, M74 said “No-sir-buddy.” For a while, anyhow. By 1 a.m., we were completely socked in, but I didn't care. I had a photo-like image of that distant giant of a galaxy etched in my memory, where it remains to this day.

Friday morning brought with it clouds and more clouds. What was there to do other than mutter about that danged sap, the weatherman? If you could stand the skeeters and gnats that had now taken possession of the observing field, you could wander around looking at gear and meeting friends old and new. I believe this was the year my buddy Pat Rochford, who'd arrived at midday Friday, set his shirt on fire when the Sun unexpectedly peeped out while he was demonstrating collimation techniques to a newbie. All in all a pleasant enough Friday if’n you didn't mind dousing yourself from head to foot in Deep Woods Off. Cans of the stuff became as sought after as Nagler eyepieces before the star party was done.

What’s a star party without a vendor? In addition to the aforementioned Kansas City folks who were back for another year of DSRSG, we got to spend our bucks with another astro-seller this year thanks to Rex McDaniel  from Arkansas (Rex’s Astro-Stuff), who after his first year became a long-time DSRSG fixture. Miss Dorothy and I kept our spending in check, but did spring for a couple of them new-fangled red LED flashlights. Rex, by the way, is still in business with a brick and mortar store in Arkansas and a website to boot. I understand he will be at next month's 2009 DSRSG, which must be at least his fifteenth or sixteenth appearance.

Relaxing...
As I said here not long ago, we are blessed with numerous good vendors these days, but I always go out of my way to spend money with the folks who support our star parties. They often come a long ways and usually don’t make much money, but do make our star parties much more fun. Sometimes, like when you leave the eyepieces or the dew heaters at home, they make the difference between there being a star party for you and not.

Finally, the day began to wane and it was time for our first meal in the park cafeteria. What can I say about that? Well…mainly that I was glad Pat Rochford and Dorothy and I had done lunch at the Chinese buffet in McComb. Yes, the caf food was edible (an ex-GI such as myself can get just about anything down). But “fancy” was not the word. “Borderline” was more like it.  I wonder if anybody didn’t find a chicken bone in their chicken gumbo? The park's food service people were cheap to the point of being ridiculous. For example, at every meal we were restricted to one glass of diluted Kool-aid.

I’ve never been one to complain about star party food. Not when it’s cooked by my fellow amateurs or catered-in to a remote site. This was different. While not expensive, the chow was not given away, and was being prepared and sold by the state park itself. We were not in Timbuktu, and they should have had the resources to do better. Not that any of us were overly concerned. My generation of amateur astronomers was still young, still willing to rough it, and there was excitement in the air.

Almost magically, given the fact that this was supposed to be a stormy evening, it cleared for a while, and after the curtain went up on the great sky show I spent several pleasant hours voyaging through the fall and early winter constellations with my new Dobbie. Once again, the sky was not perfect, and I didn't touch the big list with its dozens of galaxies; I just continued my tour of the best of the best. What do I remember all these years down the line? How M76 looked like the BIG dumbbell, and how M15 filled my eyepiece with countless tiny glittering gems surrounding a core that glowed like the Hope Diamond. We were happy campers indeed—for a while, anyhow.

Much as we hated to admit it, the weather-goobers had been mostly correct. Well before midnight the curtain rang down with a resounding thud, and there was soon lightning flashing all around the horizon. I secured the scope and Pat and I—Dorothy had decamped for the cabin some time before—left the field satisfied. As always, we'd wanted more, but by all rights shouldn't have seen a thing.

Suppertime...
Let me tell you, Dorothy and I were real, real happy to be in our snug room in the wee hours of Saturday morning. Not long after midnight, fierce equinoctial gales lashed the cabin with torrential rain while thunder boomed and lightning flashed endlessly. I don’t recall if anybody tent-camped that year, but I hope not. Safe and dry, we toasted the raging elements and each other with a bottle of bubbly left over from our wedding in September.

In the morning, when the rain finally let up, we were able to tour the field, which was a vista of downed picnic canopies. If a tornado hadn’t brushed the field, its first cousin had. Our tent was one of the few still standing; a fellow PSASer, Wayne Hester, had shown us a trick for securing the tarp to the center pole with a length or rope when we'd set it up, and that really, really worked. Thankfully, nobody suffered any serious damage—the dire weather reports had impelled everybody to adequately secure their scopes. At least the rain had stopped. And breakfast in the cafeteria, I had to admit, was actually pretty good. Things was looking up.

Except up over our heads. The clouds stayed and thickened. And it began to rain again. The question then became, “stay or go?” Not only did the radio not offer hope for clear skies, it hinted even worse weather was on the way, with a tornado warning being posted by mid-afternoon.

We spent the balance of the day keeping dry in the park pavilion and listening to presentations by our brother and sister amateurs. And, of course, there was that staple of star parties everywhere, THE RAFFLE. As usual, Miss D. won a nice prize. I didn't even get a rock. With suppertime still some hours away and the bad weather staying put, quite a few folks had said “the hell with it,” pulled up stakes, and left. I considered it, but I was having a good time, and Dorothy seemed to be having an even better time at her first star party. We’d stay, get a good night’s sleep, and head home to Chaos Manor South early in the a.m.

That’s what I thought. At about 10 p.m. one of my PSAS bros, probably Wayne Hester, started banging on our door: “Rod, GET UP, IT’S CLEAR!” ‘Deed it was. The front had pushed through in massive fashion, dropping the temperature about 25 degrees and leaving gloriously clear and black and star-spangled skies in its wake. I was out to the field in a hurry, you betcha.

What did I spend these unexpected riches on? Once again, my carefully composed list got the short shrift. The sky was looking real good and I was not about to "waste" it on dim Pegasus galaxies. I wanted spectacle. To start, I toured M33 for at least an hour in the company of my fellow observer, Craig Brendan. The big galaxy was an absolute wonderland peppered with more HII regions than I’d ever seen—or known were there. After that, a few more goodies and it was a time for what was, in them days, The Big Challenge. The Horsehead. Barnard 33. The Fickle Filly.

Last morning of DSRSG...
Despite my lack of an h-beta filter (I hardly knew how to spell “h-beta” in them days), prompted by Wayne, who thought he was seeing something in his 13-inch Coulter Odyssey in the spot where the Horsehead ought to be, I moved to Zeta Orionis for a look. If’n you want to corral the Horse, the first thing you do is check to see how prominent NGC 2024, the Tank Tracks Nebula, is. If it is bright ‘n easy, you’ve got a chance. If not, fuhgeddaboutit. On this night, the nebula was a spectacle even in my relatively primitive—by today’s standards—Plössls and Konigs. So, nudge-nudge and to the Horse's spot went I.

And saw—absolutely nuttin'. Not at first. Just before my eyeball began to bleed, I began to detect an extremely faint stripe down the middle of the field—IC434, I thought. A little re-nudging, and I caught sight of a something flickering in and out. Did I see the Horse without a filter with a 12-inch? I wasn’t completely sure, but there was something there, and it was in the right place. It was late, but that pumped me enough to keep me rocking until I realized that wasn’t light pollution I was seeing on the eastern horizon...

As dawn was breaking, we few, we happy few, left on the field headed back to the blessed warmth of our cabins utterly astounded at what we’d seen—especially considering what we were supposed to have seen was nothing at all. I gotta admit there was a bit of puff-chested superiority and strutting, too, “Can’t wait till the next club meeting to tell them ASTRO-WIMPS who went home what they missed.”

If there are lessons here, they are “astronomy is a game for the patient” and “never assume.” It gives me the willies to think that if I’d listened to the fraking Weather Bureau, I’d have missed one of the greatest sights of my observing life. Hell, it took till last year for me to get another look at M74 as good as the one I got at that long ago Deep South.

Hokay, y’all, I am appropriately chastened, and I am officially REINSTATING my old star party/dark site rule: “Unless it’s Actually Raining, You Pack Up the Car and Go.” Now, let’s see if I stick to it.

Whatever happened to Deep South, the Deep South Regional Star Gaze? Nothing. Well, nothing much. In 2005, we finally moved from our much-loved Percy Quin site. Yeah, despite my carping about the cafeteria's food, it really had wonderful facilities. Unfortunately, McComb continued to grow, and by ought-four the light dome was becoming unbearable. The horizon lines had got bad, too. The pines that were small/medium-sized when DSRSG began in the 1980s were now tall, cutting off chunks of sky for many field positions. Finally, Katrina meant the park was unavailable to us in 2005, anyway. It was being used as a staging area for relief vehicles and supplies.

For 2005 – 08, we were at a small but nice Campfire Association camp in the same general area just over the state line in Louisiana, but far enough from McComb to escape its light dome. Cabin-wise, Camp Ruth Lee was drafty chickies all the way. Still, the skies made it worth roughing it. Unfortunately, the camp was a victim of the recession, and we will be at a third site for this year’s edition. The Feliciana Retreat Center is only a couple of miles distant, and, while more expensive, has the plus of honest-to-god motel (like) rooms. It prob’ly won’t be as nice as my Holiday Inn Express down in Chiefland, but a darn site better than the previous location’s chicken houses.

Come what may for DSRSG, I’ll always have my wonderful memories of that wonderful year. Miss Dorothy? When I occasionally mention how bad the weather was at her first Deep South, she replies: “It rained that year? I thought it was WONDERFUL.”

Sunday, September 20, 2009

 

Accessorizing

I could just as easily have called thisun “Keep on Buying.” If you’re a novice with a new telescope, you’ll soon find how true that is. Oh, you thought once the Brown Truck brought your new scope your bank account was safe? Not. You’ll need a fair amount of additional gear not just to get full enjoyment from your telescope, but to use it at all. Below are some of the more common items you'll want at your side every clear night.

Power

I was originally gonna say that if you are the proud owner of a new Dobbie, you can skip this. Dobs don’t need electricity, right? No, they don’t (unless you’ve got a go-to motorized Dobsonian or one on a tracking platform), but the 12-volt hair drier you use to keep the wet stuff off the eyepieces and finder will need power. So will the secondary heater if you’ve gone high-tech on me. If you’ve got digital setting circles, it may be desirable to operate ‘em off an external 12vdc source. But, yeah, you can get out in the backyard and use your Dobster pretty well without a battery.

Computerized SCTs and go-to GEMs need power, often a lot of power. Don’t automatically assume that because you got an economically priced medium-light mount, it don’t need plenty of electrons, either. My humble Celestron CG5, for example, is considerably more power hungry than my NexStar 11 GPS or my Atlas mount. Do more than a little slewing and she will run down a 7 amp-hour battery in a hurry. So why not operate off AC/mains? You can do that. But, in my experience, many go-tos do not operate well off cheap wall-wart supplies. Last time I used one on my NS11, it told me Alpha Centauri would be a good alignment star. Even if you use a high-capacity regulated power supply, there’s the hassle of long extension cords and the lack of any AC at the dark site. I stick with batteries; they are reliable, convenient, and safe.

Choosing a battery is a balancing act. You want something with enough capacity to run the scope all night long (if you go all night long), but which is still light enough to be convenient. How much battery do you need? Depends on your mount and how you use it. A go-to mount may consume 2 or 3 amps (that’s a lot) when slewing at full speed, but far less when tracking. If you don’t normally jump all over the sky, it’s possible to opt for a battery that’s small and (I like this), cheap. But how do you tell if a given battery has enough oomph?

Batteries are rated in amp-hours. One rated for 7 amp-hours can theoretically put out 1 amp of current for seven hours or 2 amps for 3.5 hours. Theoretically. In the real world, you might get 75% of that at best—less in cold weather, which diminishes any battery’s capacity. Tote up roughly how much current you’ll consume on a given evening, allowing not just for draw when tracking, but when slewing and aligning as well (you can usually get your mount’s power consumption specs off its manufacturer’s website; if not, ask on the Yahoogroup devoted to your outfit). If you intend to plug a dew heater or anything else into the same battery the scope uses, you must, of course, allow for that too.

For most of us, it comes down to two choices: jump starters and trolling motor batteries. The what and the who? “Jump starters” are the battery packs sold in automotive and discount stores. They are intended to allow you to crank vehicles with dead batteries, but often include other features in addition to a pair of permanently attached jumper cables—like lights, air compressors, even radios. What is important to us astro-junkies, though, is that they all have 12vdc cigarette lighter receptacles. The DC power cord for your scope will plug right into one. Also nice is the fact that these battery packs come with self contained chargers. The “Powertanks” sold by astro manufacturers/dealers like Celestron and Orion are, by the way, nothing more than jump starters.

What’s good? I don’t give a hoot ‘n holler about the lights and other gee-gaws; what I want out of a jump starter is amp-hours. 7 or 8 is too little. 17 is about right. More is better. Hokay, where do you get a nice 17ah jump start battery? If you simply must have an “Orion” or “Celestron” badge, go for it. It might be better to investigate the local Wal-Mart, however. Not only will you pay less for a 17 amp-hour model, you will often find higher capacity units in the 20 amp-hour range for about the same as the 17ah Celestron and Orion units.

Trolling motor batteries are a step up. It’s easy to find ‘em in capacities of 50, or 75, or more amp-hours. The catch? These “deep cycle marine batteries” are heavy. Their lead plates are thick, which allows ‘em to survive near total discharge without damage (good), but makes ‘em heavy indeed (not good for broken-down hillbillies). You’ll have to supply a charger, too, and an alligator clip-to cigarette lighter receptacle adapter.

What do I use? I currently have a 17ah unit I bought from Wal-Mart going on 8 years ago. It works fine for all my gear, with the only time I’ve ever run it down being the night I went slewing crazy with the CG5 at a public star party. I used to run both the telescope/mount and the DewBuster heater system off this pack via a splitter, but some years ago I added a second unit, a 20ah model, again from Wally-World, just for the heaters in the interest of guaranteeing plenty of observing time. If I’m running a laptop or a CCD camera, I pull out my 75ah trolling motor battery (and I really need another one or one with more amp-hours).

Eyepieces

Talk about a field wide open for speculation, preaching, and sometimes nearly fisticuffs. Wander over to one of the Internet astro-forums and have a stroll through the eyepiece board and you will see what I am talking about. Back in my day, kiddies, we knew a good eyepiece from a poor one, but we didn’t obsess about ‘em day and night. You bought what you could afford—be that a Ramsden or an Orthoscopic—and moved on. Today? For some boys ‘n girls eyepieces are a religion. Not that that’s a completely bad thing; quality eyepieces are important if you want quality performance from your scope. Which eyepieces do you get, then, when you want More Better Gooder—or even just “more” than the one or two oculars that came with the telescope?

This is a question that deserves its own blog entry, and I have done that in the past. Keepin’ things simple today, let’s just say there are three paths, Grasshopper. You can stick with the sort of eyepieces your scope came with, Plössls, most like. You might even kick it up a notch, buying something better than a Chinese import. Maybe a nice TeleVue Plössl. Plössls are not bad eyepieces; they can be very good eyepieces, and are all some observers will ever need.

OR…you can follow that time honored advice: “Buy the best eyepiece possible. You will never regret it.” And that can be good advice. Yeah, something like a Nagler or Pentax or (shudder) Ethos will not be cheap. You will howl. But once you compare the dead sharpness and spacewalk-style apparent fields of view of one o’ these to your 12mm GTO Plössl, you will find it difficult not to decide to buy one or at least save up for one. Even if, like me, you do a lot of Lunar and planetary work with a driven scope, you may still find you prefer a spaceship porthole to a soda straw.

Howsomeever, I do remember, believe it or no, what it was like to be a poverty stricken youngun. What if you have the yen for spacewalking but not the budget for it? You are a lucky duck. There are many, many wide and ultrawide (Chinese, usually) eyepieces in the astro-market square these days that will let you feed your fancy without breaking your back (or your marriage). Some of these eyepieces, like the William Optics Uwans, will perform very well in almost any telescope, including fast Dobsonians. Other, cheaper ultrawides won’t normally deliver sharp stars at the field edge unless they are used in SCTs or other relatively high focal ratio instruments. Only you can determine what’s acceptable. My advice is to look through some of the Chinese wonders at the next star party. For some specifics as far as individual ocular lines, see my aforementioned blog entry.

Dew Busting

If you live in a spot with heavy dew “falls” like your Uncle does, and don’t take steps to keep moisture off your optical surfaces, you won’t observe for long. A refractor or an SCT or an MCT, in particular, must be provided with a means to keep their big lenses dry. You can spend a few dollars on one of the 12vdc hair driers the astro merchants sell as “dew zappers” (and the truck stops sell as window defoggers), but that won’t keep you happy for long. When conditions are bad, you’ll need to keep zapping the derned corrector every ten or fifteen minutes.

The real solution is a set of dew heater strips. The first ones I saw were being sold by Orion near about twenty-five years ago. A little later, Jim Kendrick kicked it up a notch with his famous Dew Removal System, which included an adjustable controller. The ultimate in this old boy’s opinion, though, is Ron Keating’s DewBuster. Its control box is also adjustable, yeah, but unlike the original Kendrick, what you are adjusting is temperature rather than just the time power is applied to the heating elements. To that end, the ‘Buster comes with a temperature probe that’s affixed to the dew shield end of the scope. Temperature control saves batteries and makes it far easier to find the dew-banishing sweet spot. These days, Kendrick also sells temperature regulated outfits.

Barlows

Many beginners are both (naturally) uninformed about and (naturally) suspicious of the expensive widgets the astro-peddlers push. At first blush, a Barlow lens seems too good to be true. I mean, how ridiculous does this sound: “Yaaaas, my boy, just get yourself one of our Acme Ultra Barlows and it will not only increase the magnification of any or your eyepieces, doublin’ your collection, it will actually make your eyepieces better, yaaas.” Uh-huh.

The surprise for newbies? This is mostly true. Not only will a Barlow magically expand your eyepiece array, doubling it depending on the array of focal lengths you start with, the way one works, by making the light cone coming out of the scope longer and narrower—effectively slowing down a fast instrument—can indeed make many eyepieces perform better, banishing at least some edge-of-field gremlins. That’s assuming, of course, that the Barlow in use is a quality one. The good news here is that almost all the Barlows I’ve used recently, from Chinese no-names to the TeleVue Big Barlow, have performed remarkably similarly. My Orion Shorty is an absolute GEM, as a matter of fact.

Frankly, differences among Barlows are usually mechanical rather than optical. Better units are blessed with barrel threads and blackening to reduce light scatter, and compression rings rather than set-screws to hold eyepieces in place. Yes, more expensive Barlow optics have better coatings, no doubt, but derned if I can tell the difference. As with most things astronomical, you can kick things up with more $$$. TeleVue’s Powermates are equipped with additional corrective optics, and may do a better job in critical applications like high power planetary imaging. For most beginners, a nice Chinese Barlow from Orion or Owl or whomever is more than good enough.

Reducers

“If only,” Jane Novice muses, “there were such a thing as a reverse Barlow. Something to speed up my scope instead of slow it down. That would give me wider fields and lower magnifications without usin’ those doggone uncomfortable long focal length eyepieces.” Guess what? There is. Focal reducers have been around for years in their simplest form as a doublet lens screwed onto an eyepiece. Trouble was, they didn’t work well for visual use. The edge of the field usually went to pot. Astrophotographers did like ‘em, since the truly ugly part of the field was often outside the 35mm frame, and a little cropping in the darkroom could fix what remained. Visual observers? Not so much.

Until telescope guru Jim Riffle addressed the reducer problem, that is. Nearly two decades ago, Celestron enlisted him to help come up with a special reducer for their SCTs to allow the company to compete with Meade’s then-trendy f/6.3 OTAs without having to design and produce new CATs. The result was the Celestron f/6.3 reducer/corrector, which not only fattens up the old light cone, but flattens the SCT’s curved field. Just as with a Barlow, most eyepieces deliver better looking results in a CAT equipped with an r/c than in one without.

If you own an SCT of any make or model, you need an r/c, maybe even more than you need a Barlow. I rarely remove the 6.3 from the rear cell of my C8. If you don’t have an SCT? Folks have used the r/c on other designs, from Maksutovs to refractors, with sometimes good results. Don’t count on that, though. If you are considering this, try before you buy. Other options for y’all non-SCT troops? Baader has made a decent on-the-eyepiece focal reducer for years.

One caveat concerning SCT reducer/correctors: stick with Celestron’s (or Antares’) r/c. After Celestron’s success, Meade began cloning ‘em. Rather successfully—until lately. They changed the design of their unit some time back—by accident or intentionally—and many rear-cell setups, particularly those involving 2-inch diagonals, will not come to focus with one of the newer Meades in place.

Filters

Working our way down the list from “a must” to “a maybe,” we come to filters. Where these go on your shopping list depends on the where and what of your observing. If you have only a passing interest in the Moon and planets, for example, you might never get around to buying color filters. If, on the other hand, you observe the deep sky from places where the sky is not perfect, an LPR, “Light Pollution Reduction,” filter might come right after “eyepieces.”

I used to use color filters frequently when observing Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, and Venus. Threading one onto an eyepiece can, in certain circumstances, increase the contrast between the details you seek and the planet’s disk. A light blue filter can enhance Jupiter’s belts. A peach-colored one can make Mars’ mysterious dark features easier to pick out. A violet one might allow a glimpse of Venus’ incredibly subtle atmospheric features.

If you are a Solar System hound, I will certainly not council against you buying a few filters; they are inexpensive enough, with Orion’s models, for example, going for a mere 50 bucks for a set of four. Before you donate dineros to ‘em, though, I urge you to try a buddy’s filter on your fave planet and see whether you like the results or not. If you do, you might start with an 80A model (filter colors are described using the Wratten System, with “80A” being light blue). This color will do well on both Jupiter and Saturn, the two planets most of us watch the most. Me? I used to be a big filter fan. I find I don’t use ‘em much of late, though. That’s likely because I tend to do most of my Solar System “observing” with a webcam now.

Howsabout Moon filters? Forget ‘em. Whether as neutral density filters or the traditional green things, Moon filters do nothing to enhance your view of the Luna. All they do is attenuate her light. If the Moon is too bright for ya (the Moon at its brightest doesn’t e’en come close to being able to damage your vision), increase the magnification a little. Still want a filter? Use a color filter or a polarizing filter. One o’ these may at least enhance some detail as well as dimming down Selene.

Light Pollution Reduction filters are another story. If your skies ain’t all they oughta be, think seriously about gettin’ one or two. Even if the skies are good, LPRs can improve the appearance of DSOs. Before gettin’ down to cases, though, let’s dispense with a couple of newbie misconceptions. First, LPR filters do not make deep sky objects brighter. All they do is increase the contrast between the object of choice and the background sky. They do that by blocking wavelengths of light that come from bad, man-made sources while letting good deep sky light through. How? These filters have layers of special coatings that work together to reflect the bad light away while letting the good light through and into the eyepiece (most LPR filters screw onto the threads at the end of an ocular’s barrel).

Misconception Two is that LPR filters work on all deep sky objects. Unfortunately, they do not work on galaxies, star clusters, or anything else that glows via starlight (like reflection nebulae). The sad thing, y’all, is that the light of stars falls in the same range of wavelengths—the same “passband”—as the light from streetlights. A filter that is effective at reducing light pollution must also dim the light from stars.

Which filter is for you is easily the topic for a ‘nother whole blog. In the most general terms, though, most of you cats ‘n kittens should start with a UHC-type filter (Orion calls its filter of this type the “Ultrablock”). Like the original Lumicon UHC, these are medium strong filters that work on a wide array of objects—diffuse nebulae, planetary nebulae, supernova remnants. When you are ready for filter number two, think “OIII,” a narrowband filter that mainly admits the light from doubly ionized oxygen, the light of planetary nebulae. Many nebulae of other types also radiate in OIII, so these high-contrast filters can do a great job on much more than just planetaries. Stay away from mild filters. The Lumicon Deep Sky and Orion Sky Glow, for example, are too mild to do much for visual workers. They may be of interest to astrophotographers, however.

Yeah, yeah, I know, Skeezix. At least one company has been advertising a galaxy filter. Take it from me, there are no galaxy filters for the reason given above. Some folks are of the opinion that a sufficiently mild filter may reduce background skyglow enough without dimming star light too much to make island universes look better. Me? I’ve never seen it. Not even a little bit. Save your money.

Flashlights

You wouldn’t think a simple thing like a dadgummed torch would be so important. But in our game it is. If you don’t have a red light, or a red light that’s dim enough, you’ll ruin your night vision, your dark adaptation, and not see much of the deep sky (you don’t need a red light for the Moon or planets). Worse, show a white light or a bright red light at a star party and you may at best find yourself embarrassedly on the receivin’ end of a multitude of screams of “Douse that light!” At worst, you may find yourself escorted off the field.

What’s best? I used the prototypical astronomer’s light for many years. A 90 degree GI style flash that came with a red filter. As soon as LED lights began to proliferate, though, I got one in a real quick hurry. My light wasn’t very red. LEDs, in contrast, emit pure red light. I couldn’t adjust the brightness of my light. Most LEDs have variable brightness controls that allow you to keep ‘em at low brightness for most tasks, but crank ‘em up a bit for things like huntin’ that damned setscrew you dropped in the grass.

Specifically? Mostly, I’ve used a succession of Chinese-made LED flashlights. I especially like the ones that are equipped with both red and white (blue) LEDs. Once you are off the field, you can switch to white to keep from trippin’ over yourself on the way back to the bunkhouse. Just be sure you can easily tell which switch is for red and which for blue, or you may be hearin’ them screams again.

More specifically, I used a Celestron-branded light for years till it was melted when a Cyalume light-stick leaked in my equipment case. Amazin’ what hydrogen peroxide will do to plastic. When I went to replace it, I decided I should buy American this time, and picked up one of Rigel’s Starlite Minis at a star party dealer’s table. I felt good about supporting a U.S. firm—for all of ten minutes. I hung the thing around my neck and walked back across the observing field. When I got back to my scope, I reached for my new light and found out the cotton-pickin’ thing had fallen apart on the walk back. I located the guts by retracing my steps, but I wasn’t very happy; it wasn’t anything I did, it fell apart because it was cheaply made. The Mini was only twenty bucks, sure, but y’all know how I am. I replaced it with a SkyWatcher branded light I got from Jim Henson’s legendary Scopestuff.com.

Observing Table

Naturally, you gotta have someplace to set all the stuff you are accumulatin’. If you are just observing from the backyard, or don’t have much gear yet, a TV tray-table or one o’ them small folding aluminum camp tables (TV tray sized) Wal-Mart sells will do. Once you’ve got as much junk as I do, you will need MORE SPACE. What I’ve been using for quite a few years is one of the full-size camp tables you’ll find in most outdoor stores (and Wally-World, too). They fold in the middle to something card table sized, but when set up give you twice as much space as that.

Eyepiece Cases

Do you need an eypiece case? You need somewhere safe to store your oculars, but in the beginning that can be a two buck Rubbermaid box. Eventually, you will want something nicer, though. In cases, as in most things, I GO CHEAP. Yeah, these days you can buy fancy-dan wooden eyepiece boxes that cost two-hundred George Washingtons or more. Not my cuppa, but if you want one, go ahead, you ain’t gonna hurt my feelins. What may give you as much, or probably more, protection for your beloved oculars at a fraction of the price, though, is one of Orion’s aluminum cases (yeah, I know I keep sayin’ “Orion;” they really are the kings of accessories).

Just as good, and even cheaper, are the aluminum “tool attaches” from Lowes or Home Depot and the aluminum pistol cases from Academy and other sporting goods merchants. If you can locate one that comes with "pluckable" foam (so you can customize it for your oculars), you are good to go. I hear folks occasionally obsess over the smelly foam that these cases come with. Yeah, it smells funky, but there is no evidence of this doing pea-turkey to harm optics. Still worried? Air it out for a week, then.

Atlases

Finally, you’ll need something to help you find interesting things to look at. Even if you have a go-to scope. What else is interesting in the area of M51? Is there much in Aquila? What was that galaxy next to that star cluster in northern Cygnus? Your hand control computer won’t be much help with these questions; a star atlas will. What kind of atlas? The main question is computer or no computer?

If the answer is no-way-Jose, the time honored beginner’s choice is Wil Tirion’s Sky Atlas 2000 Plenty of stars to help you hop if you don’t have go-to, and plenty of objects to keep you interested whether you do or not. SA2000, as us oldsters like to call it, is available in several editions. I use the Deluxe. Its charts are a little bigger, and they are in color. You can go both brighter/shallower and dimmer/deeper than Sky Atlas 2000, but I don’t know that’s a good idea. A “mag 6” atlas like Norton’s don’t have many DSOs, and has too few stars plotted on too small a scale to be very helpful for star hoppin’. The deeper atlases like Uranometria 2000 and Millennium have too much everything. They are thick and annoying (for me) to use in the field. If you want More Better Gooder, it’s best to go to a computer program you can customize easily to fit your needs and tastes.

With the coming of cheap, light, power-sipping netbook computers, there ain’t much reason to eschew laptops in the field anymore. What do you need? In addition to the PC and maybe an external power source for it (you may be able to get an evening’s observing out of a netbook’s internal battery; don’t expect that from a full-sized laptop), you’ll need a red filter to put over the screen, since you can’t dim a PC’s screen enough or make it red enough to serve in the middle of a dark observing field. Yeah, I know most programs have night vision modes, but that ain’t good enough. Get some of the cheap Rubylith red film Mr. Henson sells. Finally, you’ll need a program, of course. I suggest you get your feet wet with a free one, Cartes du Ciel 3.0. It does everything (sometimes more) the expensive spreads do, and you may never need anything else. Yeah, I know it’s still in beta, but it is really ready to go now.

I could keep on, y’all, but we are out of space and time (sorry, Professor Einstein). If you want more/deeper discussion on accessories, may I be so bold as to suggest you glom onto a copy of my last book, Choosing and Using a New CAT? You’ll find, in addition to more words about more stuff, some ideas about homebrewing some of the accessories you need. Hey! The Christmas season is comin’; pick up an extra copy or three for your buddies (I’m joshin’, y’all…sorta).

Today at Chaos Manor South? It’s Saturday morning as I hunt and peck these words. I’m all ready to head out to the dark site with the 8-inch f/5 and get started on the observing features I’ve promised y’all. The weather seems to have other ideas, alas. If it don’t work out, guess I’ll just go back to Quake 4 on the consarned Xbox 360. Sigh.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

 

The 2009 Astros


One thing I bet you peeps, like your ol’ Uncle, enjoy is “WHO’S THE BEST?” That’s why we watch the Oscars, Emmies, Tonys, Grammies, and CMAs, I reckon. It occurred to me quite some time back that we lack an amateur-astronomy-centric awards show. No, I am not suggestin’ we have more than our share of Drama Queens. Just that it would be cool to see the year’s outstanding products and personalities and events given recognition. Yeah, I know the Astronomical League gives out awards at their annual convention, but that ain’t quite the same. They don’t have Uncle Al and Scott Roberts in the audience sweatin’ it out for Best Eyepiece.

Till such time as we do have our own show, I offer you The Astros, Unk’s virtual awards ceremony where virtual statuettes will be passed out for real achievements in the art and science of amateur astronomy over the last 12 months (or thereabouts).

Without further ado, then, let’s bring on the envelopes, certified by Uncle Rod’s esteemed personal accountants, the firm of Dewey, Cheatam, and Howe, and get our gala evenin’ rolling!

Book

Recession or no, there were new amateur astronomy books being published. Hell, my own new one came out early this year. Thankfully, I somehow resisted the urge to pat myself on the back here. The envelope, please...

This was the year we got the third and final volume of Kepple and Sanner’s Magnum Opus, The Night Sky Observer’s Guide, The Southern Skies. Yeah, I know, it’s a little specialized, with even me at South 30 only havin’ access to a small percentage of its wonders, but I’ll buy it anyway as will a lot of Kepple and Sanner fanatics (though, this time out, it’s Mr. Kepple with two new co-authors and no Sanner). Good, yeah, but not enough widespread appeal to take the Golden Dog. Rut-roh.

There was also a new edition of Dickinson and Dyer’s time tested Backyard Astronomer’s Guide, with a lot of new material, enough to make it great for beginners and an attractive buy for old hands. And there was the oft-engaging Steve O’Meara’s Observing the Night Sky with Binoculars. Again, good, both of ‘em, but no cigar, not quite.

So what caught my attention on the shelves of Barnes and Noble this time out? Not much. I don’t know about your local B&N, but mine has steadily reduced their selection of science/math books, going so far as to put ‘em near the bathrooms in a corner where they can’t scare any innocent teens. Most of my buying was from Amazon and the Astronomical League’s book store (of which I hope you are familiar). In fact, the AL store is where the year’s winner came from. The 2009 Astro for the year’s best book goes to…

The Royal Astronomical Society of Canada’s Observer's Handbook 2009 (Edited by Patrick Kelly). Maybe it’s my drive toward simplification, but this was what I found most useful this past trip around Sol. Yeah, I know, I could fire up SkyTools or Cartes du Ciel and get the same info about astronomical events. But what if I don’t want to drag a stinkin’ laptop with me (and I often don’t of late)? There is far more to the Observer’s Handbook than just calendars and tables, too. It is jam-packed with articles, resources, lists, you-name-it on every facet of observing. The tables, of course, make a new copy every year a more than worthwhile stocking stuffer. The only bad thing about it? All too many newbies don’t seem to know of this excellent book’s existence. Nor do they seem aware of the value to observers inherent in our runners up:

The Farmer’s Almanac (Peter Geiger, Editor) and The Old Farmer’s Almanac (Janice Stillman, Editor)

Most amateurs, I suppose, are somewhat aware these (and similar) almanacs are useful in that they contain Sun and Moon data for the year. What might surprise is the amount of other astronomy in these books, like planetary observing information, Full Moon names, meteor shower dates, equinox/solstice data, eclipse dates, and plenty of other goodies. There’s also the (sometimes) surprisingly accurate weather forecasts, and, no surprise seein’ as how both are published in New England, lotsa down-home Yankee wisdom. I must have been a New Englander in a previous life, since, surprising as is might be for y’all to hear, I’ve had a long and intensifying interest in that region’s people, customs, and geography.

Which one to choose? Farmer’s has somewhat less of an astrological perspective on the sky; Old Farmer’s has more astro-related material and regional editions. What-ev; you can’t go wrong with either. These little books don’t need a battery to give you Sunset times, and go for an amazing $5.99 at the moment, so get on down to the corner Walgreens and just get one.

Personality

The amateur “Names” contingent seemed to be keepin’ a low profile this year—maybe because Hard Times meant many astro-writers stuck close to home. I saw David Levy on the TV a few times, and his web-radio show appears to be a hit. But the nod goes to the pros this year:

Neil DeGrasse Tyson seemed to be everywhere on the boob tube, and particularly on the History Channel’s popular series, Universe. Not only is Dr. Tyson incredibly knowledgeable, as befits somebody with a PhD in Astrophysics from Columbia, he’s also a personable and charismatic feller, and, as you’d also expect from someone who’s in the planetarium business (he’s the director of Hayden Planetarium), he’s heavily education/public outreach oriented.

Who else? Michio Kaku, the eminent physicist and string theorist has also been all over the cable channels. I have enjoyed his books (especially Hyperspace) very much, and am pleased to see this engaging personality providing some much needed theoretical grounding to TV shows that would otherwise tend to the THE EARTH IS DOOMED drivel that Discover, History, and even Science gravitate to increasingly of late.

Media

If you get the high cable channels, you run across a lot of astronomy-oriented shows, some good and some stinky like week-old fish, often episodes in series like Modern Marvels or some such. There is no doubt, though, that the History Channel’s Universe, now in its 4th season, is the king of cable science popularization.

The Universe takes the Puppy tonight, but how good is it? Some amateurs (and professionals) take a dim view, citing its sensationalism. In truth, though, it’s usually the episode titles (“Death Star”) that are sensationalistic, with the episodes themselves often being well done and thoughtful. The one on the Theory of Relativity was the best non-technical explanation of ol’ Albert’s chef-d'oeuvre I’ve seen in a long time. Not that Universe is perfect. They frequently have stellar guests/contributors—like the aforementioned Neil Tyson and Michio Kaku—but the scripts read by the series’ narrator are often prone to error. Like confusing “brightest star” and “nearest star.” Not anything that couldn’t be fixed by letting someone in the know have a look at the final shooting script. But that ain’t happening, not consistently.

If you get the three-digit cable stations, you’ve undoubtedly watched The Science Channel. There is some foolishness there (Mantracker), but also some good stuff. They are, for example, rerunning Carl Sagan’s landmark series, Cosmos, which, in this ol’ boy’s opinion, has never been equaled. They also have a new one, Exodus Earth, in which their friendly and funny physicist, Dr. Basil Singer, subjects himself to weird tests and experiments in the course of exploring the possibility of moving the human race off-planet. Fun and sometimes thought provoking.

Movie (fiction)

The only film I saw (at the theatre) that could be described as “space-oriented science fiction” was the Star Trek reboot. And it was good. A few of us DIE HARD TREKKIES may have been miffed about the way they changed the series’ continuity (“retconned” in the lingo of SF/comics/science fiction fans) by means of some warp-space-dimensional hoodoo-silliness, but there is no doubt it was charming in much the same way the old (original) series was. Yes, the special effects were modern and perfect and groovy, but they did not dominate the characters. Good thing; characters, not action, not story, is what good Trek has always been about.

“But Uncle Rod, but Uncle Rod,” you chirp, “what about District 9? That’s sorta space-oriented science fiction. Why not give that second?” I know what I like, and, while I may be wrong in this case, I don’ think so. Judging by the promos and what I’ve been told about it, this looks like a particularly nasty little film. Maybe I’ll see it on DVD and change my mind. Even though the critics (who don’t know much and never have about SF) liked it, I doubt it I will, though. This ground was well-covered not that long back in the Alien Nation movies and TV series, which were good-natured and not nasty.

On a personal note, one of the greatest enhancements to me and Miss D’s movie-going in many a moon was our desertion of the old-timey film theatre down the road for a modern video projection venue across the bay in Fairhope (our affluent neighbors get all the good stuff first). Not only do my feet not stick to the floor of this nice theatre, the audiences at the evening shows don’t look like they were extras on Escape from New York, and the film is not a web of scratches and splices. Oh, an’ there is a Barnes and Noble’s, and a California Dreaming (chain place, but decent steaks and their whiskey is good) close at hand. Very Good Thing.

BLOG

Once again, I had to appeal to the better angel of my nature to help me resist the overwhelmin’ urge to just say UNCLE ROD’S ASTRO BLOG! UNCLE ROD’S ASTRO BLOG! IT’S THE BEST! But I did, and had to go and ruminate for a while on which astro-blogs I like.

This is actually a good time to be huntin’ good blogs—on the subject of astronomy or anything else. The several years since web-logging became all the rage have allowed the cream to float to the top and the rest to sink outa sight. Many folks, amateur astronomer folks and others, started bloggin’, but most of these efforts were short-lived for one or both of two reasons: bloggin’ is work; you have to keep updatin’ the thing with new material alla the time. AND…you have to find a voice, find somethin’ to say. The astronomy blogs that have been around a while are still here because their authors found a way to fulfill these requirements. Anyhoo…the winner?

Nite Sky Girl. This young woman is doing an outstanding job with her blog, and I hope you visit her site, turn all your friends, especially your novice friends, on to it, and she gets zillions of hits. Yeah, her grammar is sometimes a little whacked (who am I to talk?) and she occasionally muses (not too seriously) on UFOs and 2012, but how can you not love a blog that is subtitled “An Astronomer Who Still Has Her Beginner's Stargazer Mind”? And which contains entries like “10 of the Coolest Deep Sky Objects of the Current Night Sky to See Tonight”? Nite Sky Girl is highly knowledgeable and her site is Fresh and Charming. Go look at it. Right now.

Runner up? Howsabout Phil Plait’s Bad Astronomy Blog? It’s not always about amateur astronomy, or even astronomy in general, but it is almost always fun to read. Safe choice, I know; everybody likes Phil’s website and his books, but his stuff is good and deserves lots of recognition.

Observatory Domes

I knew there should be a category for “observatory dome,” but I had trouble with this one. In part because I don’t yet own one, though I have at least looked long and lovingly at ‘em. It’s also because there are essentially two big names in the business right now (well, there’s also Ash-Dome and Observa-Dome, but who can afford those?), and they are similarly good.

What did I do? I wimped out and declared it a Tie between Skyshed’s Pod and the Exploradome. I like the Pod because it is attractive and sturdy. It’s made like them Little Tykes yard toys and vehicles Miss D. and I used to buy for the kids, and which proved near-bout indestructible. Exploradome? It’s bigger, and it’s more like a real dome with a slit and all, which I gotta admit appeals to li’l ol’ me. I’ve read both products’ Yahoogroups extensively and talked to enough users to be assured you cain’t go wrong with either one.

Internet Venue

There are tons of good astronomy, amateur astronomy, oriented websites. Everything from Sky and Telescope to Uncle Rod’s Astro Land. Let’s be honest, though, where do most of us go the most and stay the longest? Two sites: Astromart and Cloudy Nights. Again, I couldn’t assign a number one/number two since they are similarly good and distinctly different. Astromart is best known as THE place to go to buy and sell used gear. It also has a reasonably active array of discussion boards. Cloudy Nights is THE place to talk astronomy. But it also has a reasonably active classified section. Thank whatever gods there be that we’ve got both A-Mart and CN.

Computer Software

Not too much movement on this front, but a couple of notables. Mostly we seemed to be waiting for the new version of TheSky, TheSky X. Yeah, I know “TheSky X: Serious Astronomer” is out, and that’s good, but most of us astro-ware junkies are waitin’ on Professional, and I will reserve judgment till it’s in my hot little hands. Actually, given the presence of this year’s winner, I’m not sure what X can do for me. The program the golden Astro goes to is probably the only one I have not complained about on its Yahoogroup. Hell, I haven’t even annoyed its author with requests for new features. I just don’t know what I’d add. I use the thing all the time, but I am still discovering new capabilities and better ways to do stuff. It’s not perfect, no, but what software is? I just know this year’s choice gets the job done for me. It’s not all I use, but I reckon I could get by pretty well if it were.

If you’ve been readin’ this blog religiously, you know which one I mean; if you ain’t (and why not?!) what I am talking about is our esteemed first place finisher, SkyTools 3. Ask me no questions; just buy it. Preferably the Professional version.

Second? I am looking at a new one, Eye and Telescope, that definitely appears to have possibilities, but given my crazy-ass schedule of late and our crazy-bad skies of late, I have not been able to give it a thorough evaluation in the field. Till then?

It ain’t that new (though a new version is out) and it ain’t a planetarium (though it’s used as often as one by many of us). I am talking about Craig Stark’s remarkable PHD Guiding. Not only is it free, it is, in my not so humble opinion, the best. Unless I’m guiding the SBIG via its onboard guide-chip, it is all I use, and it has never let me down. Biggest recommendation? Ask your fellow astrophotographers what they use with their autoguide cameras, and most will just say “PHD.”

Magazine

There’s no avoiding the fact that between the economic crisis and the continuing decline of magazines in general, our beloved astro-rags have had a hard time. Page count has dipped, paper has cheapened, old and trusted names have disappeared. It’s probably too early to count the print magazine out just yet, however.

Just as ABC, NBC, and CBS will never be as important as they were in the days when there weren’t 300 cable channels, the astronomy magazines will never have as much impact as they did in the days before there were hundreds of amateur astronomy websites and discussion groups. Yet, the (formerly) Big Three press on and so will the magazines—I hope. Talk all you want about “new media” and e-zines, a print magazine is just danged convenient and I believe it will continue to be perceived as such for a long while yet. The secret for the rags’ survival, I think, is finding new ways to deliver content more or less in the print context.

This year’s winner, the UK’s The Sky at Night Magazine, is doing that. One of its concessions to the modern mind is that articles are shorter, snappier, and image heavy. TSAN is also graced with that staple of UK magazines, the “cover CD.” This CD has been used fairly creatively as well, with magazine articles on ATM projects being supported by plans and videos on the CD, for example. Not everybody is gonna like The Sky at Night’s breezy format—especially not the poor souls who moan about Sky and Telescope’s lack of mathematics—but in my opinion it represents a way forward if not the way forward for the astronomy magazine.

Our distinguished runner-up, Sky and Telescope, is here not because it is a sentimental favorite of mine, but because its editor and staff have worked hard to keep it the best U.S. astronomy magazine. Page count is up again, there are some interesting (if not always successful) changes, and, all in all, this iteration of this legendary pub is more than worthy of continuing to grace my mailbox as it has done for more months than I care to recall.

Astronomy Dealer

OK, y’all…you’ve gotta help me out. I couldn’t choose. I couldn’t even whittle it down to two. Over the years, the amateur astronomy business has had its fair share of rascals and snake oil salesmen. The last edition of these awards (1997), in fact, gave the Golden Pup to Pocono Mountain Optics, who proceeded to relieve quite a few amateurs of hard-earned simoleons. This year’s co-winners have all been in business year after year, some for thirty plus years, dealing honestly, knowledgeably, and kindly with amateur astronomers, often their fellow amateurs. The winners are, in alphabetical order:

Anacortes Telescope and Wild Bird
Astronomics
Oceanside Photo and Telescope (OPT)
Orion (Telescope and Binocular Center)

The most wonderful thing? While these four are outstanding, in part for their longevity, we have many more honest and reliable dealers today, with these winners really being just the cream of a creamy crop.

Astronomical Event

There was no great comet or other cosmic spectacular to draw our and the general public’s undivided attention, but there was quite a lot going down on Mother Earth. Namely The International Year of Astronomy. Which obviously takes First Place. What was it? It was a series of events across the globe designed to commemorate the 400th anniversary of Galileo’s first use of the telescope on the heavens. To that end, professional and amateur astronomers and astronomy educators cooperated to bring a host of events to the general public. One of these was, as I see from the envelope, this year’s International Sidewalk Astronomy Night “ISAN”.

ISAN, the Second Place, is a project of The Sidewalk Astronomers, a California non-profit that had its genesis in San Francisco with John Dobson and the San Francisco Sidewalk Astronomers. In 2007, the group took Sidewalk Astronomy to the world with a specific evenin’ on which astronomy groups were urged to bring the sky to the public with an emphasis on informal urban events, the essence of sidewalk astronomy.

From what I can tell, this year’s third edition was a huge success. Why, even the good old Possum Swamp Astronomical Society participated (our second year). ISAN was a great idea and one we seem to enjoy more even than Astronomy Day. It’s focused on observing the sky with the public on a particular evening and impels us to get off our backsides and onto the sidewalks (rather than just setting up a sad little Astronomy Day booth at the Mall).

Star Party

I ain’t been to too many this year. Not as a speaker, anyhow. As a civilian, I made a few and will make a couple more before the year’s is out. This is, once again, a real hard place for me to do pickin’ and choosin’. For a simple reason: I have NEVER had a bad time at any star party I’ve attended. What’s out there that’s Real Good? I could mention many, starting with our local Deep South Regional Star Gaze, and moving on to the Almost Heaven Star Party in the east and the Idaho Star Party in the west, and many more in-between. Two, however, stand out.

This year’s top spot is taken, as it was the last time I brought you these awards 12 years back, by The Texas Star Party. As I said way back when, it’s difficult to beat the combination of great skies, great people, and a great facility (Prude Ranch). Not that the TSP don’t have some competition of late, which is great. As The Chairman said, “Let a Thousand Flowers Bloom.” He was All Messed Up, but he was right about that, at least. The more star parties, the better. One in TSP’s area of the country that I hear more and more good things about is Okie Tex.

Nevertheless, in order to qualify for an award, the hoedown has to be one your ol’ Uncle has attended. What impressed me most of late was the resurrected Chiefland Star Party. After a hiatus of several years, the fall event at Chiefland has returned under new management and having been renamed the (to me) kinda weird “Nova Sedus Chiefland Star Party Group Star Party.”

Whatever. It’s the place and the people that count. Chiefland has got it good there, starting with location. Despite the Chiefland Astronomy Village’s proximity to Chiefland, Florida proper, the skies are (still) amazingly fine. Even at the height of last summer’s humidity, the Milky Way just blazed away. The people? Some of the nicest amateurs you will meet. This November will bring the second year for the “new” CSP. Last year was the inaugural, and I thought it went very well. Some rough edges to be filed down, sure, but I expect that will have happened.

Eyepiece

Judging by the traffic on the Cloudy Nights and Astromart message boards, everybody still don't like the Ethos series, and many of the folks who don’t like the Ethos don’t like it for reasons that have nothing to do with the eyepieces’ performance. Most amateurs who’ve actually used an Ethos acknowledge it is a breakthrough, whether or not they think it is “for them.” It’s amazing, however, how quickly people who’ve decided they don’t need or won’t like “all that field” become captivated by and then accustomed to the monumental 100-degree AFOV. 100-degrees of apparent field is only the tip of the Ethos iceberg. Once you get done gapin’ at all that outer space, you notice how sharp and contrasty everything is and how good the stars look at the edge. Not surprisingly, our lovely virtual statuette goes to…

Ethos, Ethos, Ethos!

First Place: Ethos 17mm. This is one hell of an ocular. I will say no more than that. Good as it is, it was almost eclipsed from the start by rumors of the forthcoming appearance of “the big one,” an Ethos in the 20mm range. That came this summer, and I am gonna go out on a limb and give second spot to…

The 21mm Ethos. Yeah, yeah, I know. It ain’t been seen much less touched by many mortals such as you an’ me (one was auctioned off at Stellafane to benefit that storied star party and fetched around 1600 dineros), but it has already created enough of a stir that it is at least worthy of the award on basis of the earth-shattering effect it’s had on the psyches of confirmed eyepiece junkies.

Telescope

What with the crash and burn of Wall Street, I didn’t expect too much in the way of telescope introductions this year. I was pleasantly surprised. Not only did Celestron introduce a new line, Meade brought forth a fresh ETX permutation that sounded right interesting. And GSO continued to make waves on these shores, not just with 16-inch Dobsonians for rock-bottom prices, but with a line of scopes that surprised e’en little old me.

I so wanted the ETX LS to take the envelope. This was a 6-inch SCT (available with “standard” or ACF optics) with some real innovations including a self-alignment feature that uses a built in webcam-like imager. Given Meade’s troubles of late, I was rootin’ for them, and figgered they deserved a win. Alas…while some LSes have worked great out of the box, a near equal number, it sounds like, didn’t, either being DOA or refusing to align themselves. If this scope gets over the rough spot, I do expect great things from it and its concept.

First prize, then, went straight to long-time rival, Celestron, for their (not yet available) Edge HD series of SCTs. These OTAs, available in the usual 8 – 14-inch apertures, feature, most of all, a corrective lens element in the baffle tube that both flattens the field and reduces coma. Potentially these should be able to best even Meade’s berry, berry good ACFs. The HDs also feature vents to speed cool-down and mirror locks, two things we’ve asked for for a long time. Yeah, that “HD” moniker is a little corny; is everything “HD” this year? But the images I’ve seen taken with these tubes are impressive. Get them on the street in numbers and get a focal reducer out there with them, and I expect these CATs to be all the rage. But why no carbon fiber tube? And when will we be able to buy one? Ah, well.

Yeah, I wasn’t surprised to find China’s GSO peddling nice and nice-priced 16-inch Dobsonians. I was surprised when they began selling (through Orion and Astronomics) Ritchey-Chrétiens, real RCs, 6 and 8-inch RCs, not wannabes like Meade’s aplantic SCTs. These are very inexpensively priced, not much more than a comparable SCT OTA. Astronomics’ “Astronomy Technologies” badged scopes cost a little more than Orion’s, but come with carbon fiber tubes and quartz substrate mirrors. These scopes, the GSO sourced Astronomy Technologies RCs take The Dog. How do they perform? Amazingly well. Some users have had to replace droopy focusers, but, that done, the images are impressive, looking to naïve little me like what you’d expect from any RC. Supposedly, 10 and 12-inchers are on the way Real Soon Now.

Did you agree with all my awards? Not likely. That’s OK, though. What might be Real Fun is for y’all to send in comments (here, not on one of my Yahoogroups) outlining your picks and your “why.” You can even preface your comments with “Uncle Rod You Are a Nitwit” if you feel moved. Anyhow, that, ladies and Gentlemen, concludes this year’s award ceremony. A big hand for our winners!

This weekend was going to be the kickoff, as I hinted a little while back, for my new blog-series on deep sky observing. I was gonna hit it hard at the dark site and bring some material back for y’all for next week. Sigh. Don’ look like it. Wunderground.com has us at 80% cloud cover and 70% chance of precipitation for the weekend. You never know, but it looks like it will be vodka tonics (every dadgummed liquor store I tried was out of the ‘Yell) and Season Two of Buffy the Vampire Slayer on DVD instead of Herschel Objects.

Sunday, September 06, 2009

 

Trying to Take Pictures

Today, there’s no shame in being an amateur astronomer who just looks. The Dobsonian revolution of the 1980s saw to that. Amateurs “just looking” through large Dobs are doin’ some of the most amazing work in amateur astronomy. In the 1960s, it was different. Everybody—all the amateurs Little Rod knew, anyhow—at least aspired to astrophotography, whether they ever got around to taking photo one or not. For those of us who were hard-bitten by the bug, there eventually came a time when we announced to our buddies that we were Trying to Take Pictures. The response was invariably both interest and commiseration, since even getting a decent shot of the Lunar terminator was a pain with the gear and knowledge most of us had in the stone(d) age.

“Astrophotography;” the very word was chilling in the old days, and still is for beginners. There’s really not as much reason for that to be so now, however. Astrophotography, or, if’n you want me to be up-to-date, “imaging,” is not and never will be a breeze. It is, even with all the advances made over the last four decades, a difficult and aggravating pursuit. That given, though, it is now much easier to get pictures that will please (if not qualify for inclusion in the amateur astronomy magazines’ Gallery sections) than ever before. But first you have to get off the ground. I’ve talked around this subject before, but I don’t think we’ve ever discussed the simplest of simple first steps in deep sky imaging: star trails and piggybackin’. How do you get started doing that and put yourself on the long road to LRGBs of Stephan’s Quintet?

You get a book. I’m serious. Yeah, yeah, I know you hate to read manuals and borin’ stuff like that, and I know you are ready to get out and take pictures, but this is one time you will want some help. Even if your initial goals are humble, Michael Covington’s Astrophotography for the Amateur will make your entry into our sport smoother and your results better. This book, originally published in 1985, is still mostly concerned with film astrophotography. It has, however, been updated with mucho material on digital imaging techniques—CCD cameras, DSLRs, etc. I’d also say that for a beginner’s purposes, having a book that covers film imaging is maybe not such a bad thing. I used Michael’s book as my bible when I got serious about imaging for the second time in the late 1980s. I just wish I’d had it the first time around.

What most newbies want to know right off the bat is “What kind of camera do I buy”? But that’s sorta puttin’ the cart before the horse. What you should be axing (yourself) is “What kind of pictures do I want to take?” If the answer is “Moon and planets; high resolution images of the Moon and planets,” the path forks off. Your journey will be in the company of webcams and the new “super webcams” like the ones from Imaging Source and Lumenera. For today, though, I am assumin’ your answer is, “Portraits of deep sky objects, Uncle Rod.”

If that is your goal, I will say rat-cheer that it is a worthy one, if a difficult one to attain. Let’s begin gettin’ you on the strait and narrow. What kind of camera do you need? What kind of camera do you have? If you have a DSLR, a digital single lens reflex, of any kind, the answer is THAT’S IT. Yes, some DSLRs are better for astro-imaging than others, but any will do admirably for the first steps. If you don’t have a DSLR? Well I don’t, as some folks do, advise you to try a digital point ‘n shoot.

If that is all you have, give it a try, sure, but don’t expect too much beyond (noisy) star trail shots. The main problem with these cameras is their lenses, beginning with the fact that most cannot be removed from the camera body. That’s not a problem at first, but will be a huge one when you eventually move on to shooting through a telescope. And there are other deficiencies that make point ‘n shoots less than desirable for even the simple astrophotography we are contemplating. Typically, their lenses are “slow” with large f/ratios, and that means these cameras require much longer exposures to record sky objects than the average DSLR, which is limiting even for star trail pictures. The biggest problem, however, is that many do not have a manual/“B” mode, a setting that allows the shutter to be held open for long exposures.

So, what do you get if you don’t have a DSLR? You could run out and buy one. If you are OK with that, cool. I suggest Canon (my first choice) or Nikon, as these two brands are, in my opinion, best suited for astro-imaging. If you don’t think you want a DSLR, or don’t want to get one just yet? There’s the “real CCDs,” cameras designed solely for astro-use. Anything from an humble and inexpensive Meade DSI to a big honkin’ (and expensive) SBIG (or FLI or Apogee or whatever). But I council against that. Not only can they be expensive, they are not very easy to use for piggybacking/star-trailing, usually. Also, if you decide you don’t like astro-imaging after all, ‘bout all you can do with one is sell it on the dadgummed Astromart—at least with a DSLR you can take snapshots o’ your Aunt Lulu at Christmastime.

There are good reasons most astrophotographers have turned from film to silicon: it’s more sensitive, it’s easier to process, it delivers better results in compromised skies, and, most of all, maybe, there ain’t much film left that’s good for astronomy. The astrophotographer’s best friend, Kodak Tech Pan, is long gone. So are the color print films your Ol’ Uncle loved so much, Fuji’s Super G+ emulsions. But that don’t mean there ain’t no films at all that can be used on the sky. Kodak’s Royal Gold, for example, can do a relatively good job, especially for the beginner. And it also doesn’t mean film is a poor choice for all imagers. One thing’s sure when talking about the pluses and minuses of film astrophotography: the cost of cameras is a much less bitter pill to swallow.

DSLR prices have fallen precipitously of late, but you will still pay around 800 dollars for a decent amateur-grade camera with a “kit” lens, which is also about the price you’ll pay for some top-of-the line pro-grade film cameras. But it gets better. A used Olympus OM-1, once the darling of astro-imagers, can be had for 200 dollars or less (with a lens) now, and the Pentax K-1000, a simple and sturdy astrophotography workhorse, goes for about half that. Actually, almost any single lens reflex will work as long as it can be used in manual mode (you set aperture and shutter speed) without a battery and has a “B” long exposure setting. I’d stick with the common brands—Canon, Nikon, Pentax, Minolta, Olympus, yaddayaddayadda—so’s you won’t have trouble buying a T-adapter to fit the camera body to the scope when you move on to prime focus photography. Lenses? If I had my druthers, a “normal” (50-mm f/l) fixed focal length lens rather than a zoom to start.

Where do you get a used SLR? There’s always the New York City camera stores, most of which have used sections on their websites. I advise staying with Adorama and B&H Photo, since they have proven themselves reputable and prompt. There’s also eBay, but that can be a crapshoot. Possibly best? A local camera store. If you have one that caters to professional photographers, you may find they still sell used film SLRs. They may cost a little more there than on the ‘net, but you will at least be able to handle the camera of choice. Or you may actually pay less. A lot of these venues are closing-out their used film camera business, so you may get a great deal.

What else do you need once you’ve got a camera? You’ve probably heard what a money pit astrophotography is, and it can be, but not when you are gettin’ started in simple and easy fashion. To get off square one, you need a tripod (e’en a cheapo Focal from K-Mart might do), a remote (cable) release for the camera, and some film; that is it. Once you move up from star trails, you’ll also need a “piggyback” camera mount for your particular telescope, or the parts and pieces to build a tracking platform.

Ah, yes, star trails. This type of image has long been the startin’ place for buddin’ deep sky astrophotographers. These simple photos (like the one at the top) that record the passage of the stars over an hour or three, are not only attractive, even “artistic” lookin’, especially if you shoot in front of interesting foreground or background objects, maybe illuminating them with a red light, they get you used to handling a camera in the dark of night and give you some sense of your sky’s potential for astrophotography.

How do you take ‘em? Load your camera up with some medium/fast film (ISO 400 is nice), trot it and the tripod and the cable release outside, mount camera on tripod, set the shutter speed to B, attach the cable release, point the whole rig at Polaris, and focus. To do that, observe the appearance of bright stars (which are about all you will likely see through the viewfinder). Do NOT rely on the infinity mark. Open the lens’ iris (f/stop) to its maximum (lowest f/number). Then all you gotta do is open the shutter via the cable, lock that down, and head back inside to watch the 24-hour Hitler marathon on the cotton-pickin’ Military Channel (do they ever show anything else?) for an hour or two. After the time has elapsed, go back outside close the shutter, and you’re done. Well, almost. I’d take another shot or two with the lens stopped down one or two clicks (higher f/number). Often lenses will deliver best edge sharpness when stopped down a little bit.

Any gotchas? If you live where it is heavily light polluted, wait till you can get to your club dark site or some such to do your star trails. Even inexpensive SLR lenses are “high speed” as we reckon things in astrophotography. You won’t usually find a normal lens much slower than f/2. That means the sky will get bright in your pictures in a hurry. If your conditions are as bad as Chaos Manor South’s, your shots will look like images of the daytime sky once you go much over four or five minutes. Also, you’ll probably need to provide some dew protection for the lens. A lens hood might do. A cardboard dewshield you cobble together certainly will. A Kendrick heater strip for 2-inch eyepieces works real good.

The next step after you get tired of star trails? Assuming you do not fall prey to the siren song of the non-astrophotographer (“What doooo yoooou want to taaaake your own pictures fooooor? Yoooou can get all the pictures yoooou want off the Internets!"), you put the camera on a mount so it can track the stars. There are two ways to do that. First and maybe best is to place the camera on an equatorial mount. If you’ve got a scope on one, get a piggyback mount from your fave astro dealer. This bracket will screw onto your tube (the rear cell of the telescope in the case of SCTs) and allow your camera to ride, yes, “piggyback” and track the stars along with the scope. You will shoot through the camera lens, not through the telescope. You will also want a photo ball-head or similar to come between mount and camera to allow some flexibility in pointin’ the camera independently of the telescope/mount.

If you have any one of the countless permutations of that thriving species, the Chinese-made German Equatorial Mount, GEM, you may not even need a piggyback bracket. Many of ‘em have tube rings equipped with top mounted ¼-20tpi threaded bolts that are designed to allow you to attach a camera. You will still want a ball head, natch. What kind of GEM will work? If you are shooting with a normal lens, magnification is low and guiding tolerances large. You don’t even need a drive. If the mount has slow motion controls, just turn the RA slomo at close to the proper rate while monitoring a “guidestar” through the telescope. I’ve seen good shots done with unmotorized EQ-1 mounts, and it don’t get much cheaper nor simpler than that.

Needless to say, you should be at least roughly polar aligned if you want to keep the stars round. How rough is rough? For a 50 – 80mm lens on a film SLR or a 28 – 50 or so on a DSLR (smaller than 35mm film-sized chips yield more “magnification”), all you really need to do is point the polar axis of the mount at Polaris. How long can you expose with such a lazybones alignment? With a normal lens, the skyfog will get you before star trails do. 15-minutes easy.

But do you even need to polar align at all? How about piggybackin’ the camera on an alt-az driven SCT? That will work, sorta. Unfortunately, you will find that even with a short focal length lens, you may not be able to get 15 minutes of exposure. The gremlin responsible for that is field rotation. Wut’s they-at? Ever notice that when Orion rises he’s a-layin’ on his side, when he’s on the meridian he’s on his feet, and when he’s settin’ he winds up layin’ on t’other side? That’s field rotation. An equatorially aligned mount “follows” that, but an alt-az cannot. Result is trailed stars no matter how carefully the shot was guided.

How long can you expose before field rotation becomes a problem? Depends on the focal length of the lens and the position of the target in the sky (near the Celestial Equator is better). If you want to try this, do some experimentin’…won’t hurt my feelins, but I believe you are better off in the long run with an EQ setup, whether a GEM or a fork mount on a wedge. You will need that for sure when you bump up the focal length of the lens or start shootin’ through a telescope.

What if’n you don’t have anything but a Dob mount on hand and don’t have the money to buy a GEM, but do have a K1000 and some film and the madly impetuous desire to take astrophotos? You can build a camera tracking platform called a “barndoor” for less than 10 bucks (excludin’ the cost of the ball head, which is a must when using a barndoor). Why is it called a barndoor? As you can see in the picture, it’s composed of two pieces of wood joined by a hinge. A bolt pushes the halves apart at a rate that produces sidereal tracking. It’s like you are openin’ a barn door, I reckon. Put this on a camera tripod, align the hinge with Polaris, and you are good to go. Yes, this is a very humble thing (Texas Star Party goers dubbed mine the “LX2” one year), but, as you can see below, it can produce amazing results.

How do you make a barndoor? There were plans all over the web last time I checked, ranging from simple manually driven models like mine to those equipped with stepper motors and blessed with special mechanical features to improve tracking accuracy. If you can’t find plans for one, or don’t like the plans you find, shoot an email to rmollise@hotmail.com and I’ll send you the plans for an LX2.

How about store-bought solutions? Mounts, not for telescopes, but just for cameras? Camera trackers. There are some, and some are danged nice, like the AstroTrac. These kinds of things have been produced on and off over the years by everybody from my Crazy Cousin Clem to Takahashi. One thing they have in common? They cost money. Sometimes a lotta money (the AstroTrac is close to 700 dollars without needed accessories). What else do they have in common? At shorter focal lengths, the images they produce really won’t be much—if any—better than what you get with a barndoor. When you get up in focal length, 300mm and above, mebbe, they can help, but once you start in on that, it’s better to think about a full-size GEM, I reckon. Remember, these days a complete Celestron CG5 with go-to sells for less than 600 dollars, and will be considerably more versatile than any tracking platform/camera mount, if not as portable.

Once you’ve got something to put the scope on, what do you do with it? What do you shoot? That should be obvious, but if not, what you do is go where the sky’s riches are. The star fields of Cygnus, Orion’s belt, Sagittarius’ teapot and all the southern wonderlands (like the area of the dark Prancing Horse Nebula in the photo here). There’s plenty to snap at short focal lengths; you won’t exhaust what you can profitably shoot in a year—or two or even three.

Taking the pictures, especially if you are using a digital camera, is only half the battle. You’ve got to process them into something that pleases. Film? The best you can do unless you are setup to process and print film at home is try to find a place that does “One Hour,” but which is staffed by people who know at least a tiny bit about photography. If you can find such a place, tell the folks runnin’ the big machine what you photographed, and ask them not to print the sky as pitch black. Dark gray is more like it (that goes for you younguns doin’ digital too, dark gray, NOT black, reveals more details and looks much better).

The bad part? It’s hard to find many inexpensive labs like that anymore. Mostly, you’ll have to hand your roll of film over to the folks at Wal-Mart and hope for the best (shoot a couple of terrestrial shots before the astro-images, so the technician will get things lined up right). The good part? If you have a decent scanner, especially one that will do negatives, it don’t matter. You can scan-in your photos and process them digitally jus’ like them high-falutin’ CCD imagers do. That, in fact, is what I did with the Prancing Horse image above.

How about digital processing? How do you do it? What do you need? Obviously, you need an image processing software program. I don’t mean you have to spend a grand on Adobe Photoshop, neither. If you’ve got a digital camera, the image processing software that came with it may be all you need (I particularly like Canon’s Digital Photo Professional). If not, Adobe Photoshop Elements is almost as capable as her big sister and costs a damned sight less. I also like the venerable Paint Shop Pro (now owned by Corel). There’s good freeware, too; some folks swear by a program called Gimp (which I have not tried enough to comment on). DeepSky Stacker, also freeware, will not only allow you to stack multiple short exposures into a less noisy and better looking final product, it also features some basic image processing tools.

“But how do you process the images that come out of a digital camera, Uncle Rod? How? Mine look just like hell!” That’s what you should expect of “raw” digital images, more or less. What is amazing is how much they improve after just a few minutes manipulation in the computer. Manipulate how? That’s far too deep a subject to take up here at the stone cold end of the week’s blog. Suffice to say, most of it involves manipulating an image’s histogram. Adjusting the white and black “points” until you have somethin’ onscreen that will make you run grab your honey and drag him/her over to the PC while hollerin’ “LOOK WHAT I DID!” Actually, what you mostly need to do is some reading. A good place to start is with Michael Covington’s book and also his excellent (and free) webpages like this one.

What’s next? Where do you go after you’ve scanned the sky in wide-angle fashion? You pour on the focal length. Kick it up a notch to 300mm and above. Maybe with a long lens or, better, one of the ubiquitous 66mm or 80mm ED refractors the Chinese factories is spittin’ out with such abandon. Put that on yer GEM or piggyback it on your SCT, and you start gettin’ into the big boy and girl leagues. That’s also where it gets a little hairy. Things like autoguiding become desirable if not required. You begin to wonder whether you need a bigger mount (you’ll likely have put your barndoor out to pasture by now). One more click? You decide to shoot through the big SCT (or refractor or Newt) instead of on top of it.

Which can be crazy-tough, no doubt about that. After 40 plus years of trying, I still have plenty of failures, and so does every other astro-imager. If you have taken it slowly, though, mastering the simple techniques described here, you will at least find “advanced” prime focus imaging easier if never easy. You will understand the basic concepts and problems involved in getting properly exposed images filled with stars that don’t look like star trails unless you want them to. Just as before, set down and do some studyin’ first. A good place to start is with Jerry Lodriguss' webpages and his books. You might also want to begin reading Popular Photography as well as Astronomy.

Now, get out there and shoot. The summer Milky Way is still on display—in spades—and the winter one will be here afore you know it. I’d like to see your results, too. I really enjoy lookin’ at novice astrophotos. I find that much more interesting and stimulating, actually, than what I see in the back of Sky and Telescope and Astronomy, which is usually, “14 hours of exposure with a 16-inch Ritchey-Chrétien on an Astro-Physics 1200 GEM.” Sheesh. I mean, don’t get me wrong, that is cool and all, but I find more encouragement in the images done by people whose talents are a little closer to mine than they are to those of masters of our art like Jerry Lodriguss and Bob Gendler.

What’s been going on here at Chaos Manor South other than me musing about astro-imaging (if not actually getting’ out and doing any)? I’ve been going the other direction a little bit. I suppose it’s the coming of cool(er) weather and the incipient Fall Star Party Season, but lately I’ve been more interested in lookin’ at the deep sky through an eyepiece than on a dadgummed laptop screen. Look for a new series on deep sky observing to go along with my intermittent (very) “My Favorite Fuzzies” blogs. Maybe two series. What will they be like? Soon, all will be revealed, muchachos. Maybe even next week (or maybe the week after, given the current presence of the gosh-darned ol’ Moon).

What else? My wonderful wife, Miss Dorothy, and I are celebrating 15-years of wedded bliss this weekend. That celebration began yesterday with a day at the very first game of our university’s new football team. GO JAGS! The celebration shall continue with much scotch whiskey and jazz music.

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