Saturday, October 31, 2009

 

The Herschel II Project: 26 Down, 374 to Go


OK…where was I? Oh, yeah. I’d just run through Sue French’s “Splashing around the Dolphin” out on the field at the 2009 Deep South Regional Star Gaze. Though, as is usually my wont, I gave each object its rightful share of eyepiece time, going through Sue’s DSOs didn't take all night, not hardly. Even for your Old Uncle, for whom “all nighter” is rapidly evolving into, “Well, I’ll hang in till three a.m., anyhow,” there were still plenty of hours of darkness to be filled. Believe me; I had no problem doing that.

Mostly by looking at objects from Steve O’Meara’s recent article in Astronomy Magazine I mentioned last time, “Ghost Hunt.” This is a good mix of mostly spectacular Messiers and NGCs, and there is further interest added by fanciful names, some his, some not, Mr. O has appended to these DSOs. If you are an Astronomy subscriber, go dig up November before you head to the club dark site next time; you’ll be glad you did. Not? Check out your local library. If you are a subscriber, you can view/print Steve’s list online here.

What did I do besides admire the pretty ghosts? Well, I chugged a couple of Monster Energy Drinks. As I’ve told y’all before, in moderation these are the best observing accessory I’ve discovered in ages. “In moderation” because if I drink even one too many, I begin to feel weird and jittery and commence to trembling like a dadgum chihuahua. That given, they do keep me going through the small hours. Past three a.m.? Not even the Monsters can help. It ain’t just my advancing age, though. In order to get to my engineering job on time, I have to get up at 4:30 in the cotton pickin’ morning. Four days a week. Week after week. I can still get adjusted to the nocturnal star party existence; it just takes me more than a day or three to slip back into the vampire lifestyle.

In addition to providing me and Old Betsy with some terrific sights, these Halloween ghosts also gave us a chance to try out my new 1.25-inch OIII filter. Naturally, I already had a 1.25 OIII, a Lumicon I bought back in the early 90s. But I didn't like it much anymore. It was one of the old ones, one of the pinkish-tinted ones, and while it had done a good job for years, I wasn’t very satisfied with it of late. It seemed denser than it used to, and also seemed to provide less of a contrast boost. Can a line filter like the OIII degrade over the years? I expect one can, but, being honest, I’d guess it’s probably more likely my eyes have gone south than the Lumicon.

I bought a Thousand Oaks 2-inch OIII from Gary Hand a couple of years back, and have been very pleased with it. This green-blue tinted filter does a bang up job on lots of nebulae. Unfortunately, the 8 and 13mm Ethoses only accept 1.25-inch filters. Yes, they can be used in 2-inch focusers thanks to their "skirts," but you cannot use 2-inch filters on 'em. I reckoned it was time to go OIII shopping.

Thank whatever gods there be that watch over equipment crazy amateur astronomers that our old friend Rex rolled-in with his Astro Stuff store. I was soon perusing his wares. Turned out he did not have any Thousand Oaks filters, but he did have a 1.25-inch Celestron OIII. I thought that would be near about as good, since I’ve admired my friend Pat’s 2-inch Celestron OIII for years, and as far as I have been able to tell it is at least as good as my T.O. I ponied-up the reasonable amount Mr. Rex was asking, and soon had my very own Celestron filter. Well, it has the Celestron name on it, anyhow. Like many of their non-Chinese accessories, it was actually made by Baader.

How would she do? In the interest of finding out, I punched NGC 6888 into the Sky Commander Friday night and began pushing Betsy towards Cygnus. The Crescent Nebula is one of my all-time fave objects, and, in the right circumstances, it can be a downright showpiece. Which is not to say this arc of nebulosity, gas thrown off by a misbehaving Wolf-Rayet star, is not a challenge. Under less than optimal conditions it can be just that for a 12-inch. Even under good skies, I find it takes an OIII to give this dim loop much in the way of form and substance.

Despite the DSRSG’s very good, though damp, skies, I didn’t expect too much. Yes, with a decent OIII, the Crescent can show off, well, its crescent. Look like its pictures? Not even close. In images, including the short, unguided one here, taken with my C8 and Meade DSI, the interior begins to fill in with glowing gas. In longer (and better) shots, clumps and dark lanes begin to appear. In the very deepest exposures, the thing begins to look more like an oval than a crescent. All I expected and wanted was just a good look at the arc of dim light.

The Sky Commander indicated we was there, so in went the 13 Ethos—without a filter to begin. What did I see? Not much, muchachos, not much. After a little straining, I began to believe we were on the correct field. There were some very dim wisps there, but not much more than that, even with averted vision. For a minute I’d thought maybe the Sky Commander was hosed-up. That would have been a first, however, as this wonder-computer has literally never missed for me. “Let’s try the filter, then.”

It’s a darned good thing I don’t have a really big Dobsonian, one that requires you to climb a ladder to get at the eyepiece. If I’d a-had one of them monster scopes, I’d shortly have been picking myself up off the ground. To put it mildly, I was amazed at the difference the filter made. From “almost there,” NGC 6888 went to “bright and obvious.” But that was not the brass ring. The brass ring was that I soon began to see the things I thought were reserved for very large scopes or images. Almost immediately, it became obvious the area between the “horns” of the Crescent was not empty, but filled with a faint haze. Then I began to see mottled detail in that haze. I have never had as good a look at this object with Betsy—never. Was it a better OIII filter or the good skies or the fact that NGC 6888 was just past culmination that did the trick? Maybe the combination of the three.

I won’t say it was all down-hill from there, but that was the high point, I suppose. Nevertheless, I looked at mucho cool stuff as the hours slipped away. I found, for example, that the Celestron-Baader filter gave a splendid view of M17 as it plunged into the west. The Swan wasn’t just hanging in space, but floating on a huge sea of nebulosity. I didn’t just do nebulae, though; I looked at galaxies, too (without the OIII, natch), plenty of the little fellers spangled through Cetus and Sculptor and other dusty out-of-the-way corners.

What kept me going till two and after wasn’t the Monster Energy Drinks; it was, good, old M42. Long years ago, back when my buddy Pat was still attending the DSRSG, we made a pact: “No going to bed before M42 is good and high.” In Mr. Pat’s absence, I’ve held to that, even if it ain’t always easy. It wasn’t easy on this night. Despite those caffeine—and who knows what else—laden energy drinks, taking plenty of breaks, and doing the other recommended actions (hydrated myself with water and pigged-out on Jack Link Teriyaki Steak Nuggets), I was dragging butt by one o’clock. I knew what awaited me in the eyepiece once the Great One was good and high, though, so on I pushed. The way the Great Nebula looked in the 28 Uwan when Orion was finally up enough probably deserves a whole blog entry of its own, but for now I’ll just say I looked and looked and looked and looked.

After half an hour of open-mouthed gazing at The Sword, there came the point when there was no denying it: time to pull the Big Switch. My ego was somewhat soothed by the fact that most of my fellow Friday night observers had deserted the field even earlier than me. When I returned to the lodge, I was still pumped, and thought I’d watch a movie on the laptop. I got maybe half an hour or so into 2001: A Space Odyssey, not quite to the point where cave-ape Moonwatcher throws that dadgummed bone in the air, and found myself slipping into dreams. Dreams decorated with glowing M42s and M17s and NGC 6888s.

The next morning, though not early the next morning, after gobbling down a breakfast that was thankfully not served till very late, I spent some time thinking about what I might put on Saturday evening’s observing agenda. For a while, I’d had an idea that it might be time for Unk to tackle the Herschel II, the second list of Herschel objects, which is the Astronomical League’s follow-on to their famous Herschel 400 “Observing Club.”

The Project

What’s that? What’s a “Herschel”? As most of y’all know, Sir William Herschel, the justly famous amateur astronomer who discovered Uranus way back in the 18th century, was also a deep sky powerhouse. Using big self-made telescopes not much different from our Dobsonians, really, he was the first to see many of the objects that eventually found their way into the vaunted NGC catalog.

Despite “his” objects having been assimilated into the NGC, Herschel’s original observations remained easily available, and one of our deep sky pioneers of the last century, Father Lucian Kemble, became fascinated enough with ‘em to go through Herschel’s records and compile a “Herschel List” of the great man’s 2500 DSOs. But not many amateurs undertook to observe this list. Not only was it huge with some pretty difficult objects on parade, especially for the days of 4-inch f/15 refractors and 6-inch f/8 Newtonians, some of the 2500 were not there at all.

Nobody paid much attention to Kemble’s labors till the membership of Saint Augustine, Florida’s Ancient City Astronomy Club began casting about for something to “do” after the Messier, and were pointed at the Herschel List by Sky and Telescope's James Mullaney. When they checked out the massive thing, it became obvious why ticking off Herchels wasn’t popular: nobody would want to run through the list as it was.

The Herschel as compiled by Fr. Kemble was saddled by typos, duplications, non-existent objects, and objects with incorrect coordinates. Some of the problems were Herschel’s, some were Kemble’s, but all needed to be fixed. Once the ACAC folks were done, they found they were left with a list of 400 galaxies, clusters, and nebulae that would be visible in “reasonable” telescopes: 6-inches and up for the most part. The AL built the list into an Observing Club with certificates and pins and rules and yadda-yadda-yadda, The Herschel 400, and the rest, as they say, is amateur astronomy history.

As amateurs always do, though, we wanted more. As the sizes of our telescopes increased, the quality of our eyepieces improved, and the influence of high-tech aids like computer atlases and digital setting circles and go-to began to be felt, the Herschel 400 began to seem pretty dadgummed tame. Into the breach stepped the Rose City Astronomers of Portland, Oregon. This fine astronomy club took it upon themselves to cull another 400 objects from the H list. In due course, the AL was running a “Herschel II” Club.

What is the Herschel II like? There is no denying its objects are tougher than those in the first go-round. The original H has some fairly challenging DSOs, but really nothing that will make a C8 owner sweat. The Part 2? The Rose City folks advise you to think “10-inches” minimum, and given what I’ve seen thus far, that is probably not a bad idea. I would also guess, however, that somebody with some experience and some good skies could probably whip this thing with an 8—or even smaller scope—without much trouble. It’s no secret that, given good skies, the knowledge level of today’s amateurs and the quality of their equipment means conquering objects called “impossible for an 8-inch” ten years ago is easy even for Bubba down to the club.

Nevertheless, 12-inches is probably a good middle-of-the-road aperture choice for the Herschel II. At least if you don’t want to drive yourself completely bugs, or if your skies ain’t all they might be, or if you want the possibility of seeing at least some of these DSOs as more than Cosmic Dust Bunnies. Requisite sky quality? Unless you’ve got a truly big gun, you’ll want to do most from the club dark site if you plan to observe visually. If your lookin’ is to be with a Mallincam or some such, the backyard may be comfortable and productive.

Rules? I ain’t much on rules. Which is maybe the reason I never sent-in to the AL for my Herschel 400 certificate despite having gone through the list at least twice. The Messier was fun, but that was enough. “Following rules carefully” is not the way I like to play the amateur astronomy game. If you do want the AL’s handsome certificate and pin, you can find the do-bees and don’t-bees on their website. Me? I plan to observe the II how and when I feel like it.

To tell the truth, there are not too many rules associated with the Herschel II. In recognition of the difficulty of at least some of the objects, the powers that be have ruled that go-to and digital setting circles are OK for finding, and that CCDs and videocams and other imaging devices are OK for seeing. Me? I plan on a mix. Some I’ll just eyeball with my 12-inch Dob or my NexStar 11. Some I’ll video with my Stellacam II. Some will sit for more formal portraits with one of my CCD cameras.

By Sunset Saturday, the die was cast: Unk would attack the scary Herschel II. To do that, I’d need a list of the objects, of course. Something I did not find on the Astronomical League website. Apparently, they’d rather you buy a book containing the HII, Observe: the Herschel II, from the Rose City Astronomers, who still administer the Club. I’m sure it’s nice, and buying it might be a good thing to do if’n you are after a certificate. I just wanted to look at the objects. If you feel the same, you can find the HII list in a couple of places online. I’m lucky since I have both SkyTools 3 and Deepsky on my astro-laptop’s hard drive. Both programs have readymade HII lists, either included in the basic installation or available for download.

So the plan was…the plan was…? Yeah, I’d need some kind of an at least vague and nebulous plan if I were to finish the list in a reasonable amount of time. How long is “reasonable”? I’m not setting a time limit on myself; all that would do is add stress and gum up the works. I’d like to finish in a year, by October 2010, but with the weather lately, who knows? While the first outing, below, was from the dark DSRSG, and the next will be from the Chiefland Star Party which is, if anything, darker (and blessed with low horizons), I’ll no doubt have to hit a lot of H IIs from the PSAS’s local dark site if I am to finish anytime soon. Objects I've already observed? I'll look at 'em again for The Project.

Equipment-wise, as above, I’ll likely mostly use the 12-inch Dobsonian and the Nexstar C11, but I may try my 8-inch New Wave Dob, too. Support will be provided by the abovementioned Skytools 3 and Deepsky. SkyTools will be my primary aid for charting and organizing and logging, but Deepsky, that other excellent observing planner, with its DVD of images from the Palomar Observatory Sky Survey (POSS) and—very valuable—its database of observations by accomplished observers like Barbara Wilson, will backstop ST3. As usual, I’ll record my notes with my little Sony Pressman microcassette recorder and transcribe ‘em into SkyTools after the fact.

With all decided—nay, writ in stone in my informal way—it was time to hit the sky. Was I a little nervous about tackling these (in)famous objects? A little. But…NO PAIN, NO GAIN. And despite the rumored difficulty of some of the list members, I suspected the Ethos eyepieces I’d have available, and the Sky Commander DSCs, and 12-inches of super-duper coated primary mirror would make the list less tough a nut to crack than the H400 was for me and my analog setting circles/50mm finder-equipped C8 back when I first began the Herschels.

Speaking of the Herschel 400, the original list, I still had a handful of objects in that one to tackle before moving on to Part Two. A look at SkyTools, however, showed that after my last major push on them the previous October at the Chiefland Astronomy Village, I only had a handful left to check off and that all would be in the sky Saturday night. Running them down made for a good warm-up. How did I feel about finally finishing the list? Good, but I was more excited about moving on to the II than celebrating my victory.

So, on to the H II. Again, don’t expect any hard and fast schedule here; I’ll observe the objects when I can. How will I attack the list, exactly? Likely I’ll do some hopping around the sky on any given evening. I’ll try to stay with a constellation until all its DSOs are in the bag, but if that gets to be a pain due to sky placement, as Aquila did by being up in Dobson’s Hole on the first outing, expect me to veer off in another direction.

Night One
Ignore the label on the picture; this is NGC 7640...
OK, then, fasten them seatbelts, HERE WE GO! After giving Miss Dorothy her customary look at M13, I punched-in “NGC 7640” on the Sky Commanders and cruised over to the other side of the sky, to Andromeda. This is not an object you hear a whole lot about, and that’s a shame, since it is something of a prize and surely is a standout in the ranks of the H II:

In the 8mm Ethos, this galaxy looks a lot like its POSS plate. It is large and elongated with the barest hint of patchy detail. At magnitude 11.6, it’s a little dim, but the overall effect is good. It reminds me of a miniature NGC 253. Several faint stars superimposed on its disk.

Next up on the list was NGC 206, the huge star cloud in M31, but before moving on to that, I couldn’t resist taking a quick peep at the Blue Snowball planetary nebula, NGC 7662, which was nearby. Blue and beautiful and bright it was. OK, over to M31…

I had a look at the whole of the galaxy (well, almost) using the 28mm Uwan, but while I was able to pick out the star cloud, it wasn’t prominent. The 8mm delivered the best view, which wasn’t quite as good as what I remember seeing from Chiefland last season. NGC 206 is purty much just an oval smudge of light slightly brighter than the background nebulosity of the galaxy.

I figgered NGC 513 would be the first challenging object of the H II, given its listed magnitude of a cotton-pickin’ 13.4. Turned out that was not so, probably because this galaxy’s small size, .7’ x .3’, keeps the surface brightness up despite the forbidding mag value:

At first glance, this galaxy is just a fuzzball. Continuing to stare at it through the 13mm eyepiece, though, shows it to have a brighter center and to be elongated. Mostly visible with direct vision.

Continuing in Andromeda landed me on NGC 214. Given that images of this galaxy make it look like a smaller twin of M77 or M94 with a blazing Seyfert-like nucleus and medium tight spiral arms, I expected a lot. Unfortunately, the little thing could not quite deliver:

This galaxy looks nothing like M77 in the eyepiece. The bright nucleus of the images is not seen. Still a fairly impressive little oval of light in the 8mm. In addition to its obvious elongation, I think I can occasionally make out some very fleeting hints of patchy spiral arms.

So much for Andromeda. Where to? Looking up from the eyepiece showed Aquarius to be in a good spot. What’s there? There’s the spectacular M2, of course (and, yes, I popped over for a look see). There’s the Saturn Nebula as well, but mostly it is galaxy-galaxy-galaxy, and most of them are kinda dim. The first entry in Aquarius, NGC 7600, wasn’t so bad, though:

Despite a magnitude value of nearly 13, this galaxy is fairly impressive. It’s a bright spot set next to a triangle 11th – 12th magnitude field stars. I think I occasionally catch sight of a brighter center in this dim streak of light.

Pressing on, the next Aquarian, NGC 7171, which I figured would look better than NGC 7600 given its better magnitude of “only” 12.2. Its fairly large size, 2.8’ x 1.7’ minutes, does keep it relatively dim, if not challengingly dim:

This galaxy is large, faint, and diffuse. No hints of a nucleus or any central condensation. It’s at the terminus of a curving line of four dim stars.

Like the previous entry, NGC 7218 doesn’t have a scary magnitude, being about 12, but it’s also comparatively large at 2.5’ x 1.3’, and is on the dim if not overly difficult side. This is for sure not something most people would ever look at if it weren’t on an observing list.

Dim, elongated, close to two faint field stars.

I doubt NGC 7392 would be on anybody’s hit list, either. In its POSS plate, it looks very interesting, showing prominent barred spiral structure. In my 8mm Ethos? Not so much, though not completely devoid of interest.

A little oval of light that shows off a brighter core and tantalizing hints detail in its disk. Located midway along a line of four dim stars.

Next to NGC 7640, NGC 7184 is probably the coolest Herschel II galaxy in Aquarius:

If you’re after something that looks like much of anything at all in the dim procession of Aquarius galaxies, NGC 7184 is probably as close as you will get to it. It's kept decently bright by a magnitude of 11.2, even though it's a substantial 5.8’ x 1.8’ in size. This galaxy shows a strongly elongated disk with a brighter center. Good in the 8mm Ethos despite being down in a minor light dome.

With NGC 7377, we are back to Aquarius’ cosmic lint balls.

At first blush, this near face-on spiral is a round blob in the eyepiece. More looking turns up a brighter center and maybe barest hints of disk detail—which could very easily be a case of averted imagination.

And that was Aquarius, Jeezus Pleezus. It was a little easier than I’d expected, but by the time I finished, 11 p.m., I was ready for a break. Which consisted of the first Monster Energy Drink of the night and a handful of the aforementioned Jack Link Steak Nuggets. A quick visit to the little astronomer’s room, and I turned to Aquila’s NGC 6804 in a quest for More Better Gooder:

Nice planetary, though one that at first looks more like a dim galaxy than anything else. A bit of staring with the 8mm, though, and it takes on a more planetary-like appearance. It’s a large gray ball about a minute across that shows off a prominent central star.

As I mentioned earlier, y’all, I decamped from Aquila due to its near-overhead residence in Dobson’s Hole. Using a Dob at the zenith is almost as bad as cruising with an equatorial at the North Celestial Pole. Craning my neck around, I spied Perseus beginning to ride high in the east, and scrolled down to his objects in SkyTools 3.

The first of which was an open cluster, NGC 1348, which I was sure I’d ne’er visited before. One look told me why:

The words “undistinguished open cluster” were invented for this one. Little NGC 1348 is barely visible in the 8mm Ethos. It’s a vaguely square asterism of faint stars sprinkled with a few even dimmer Suns in an area about 5’ across.


Not all Herschel IIs are disappointing, however; NGC 1491 sure was an exceptional exception:

Now this is that elusive More Better Gooder! This emission nebula in Perseus is obvious in both the 8 and 13 Es, and I can’t decide which gives the better view. This is a rich field, with the nebula forming a substantial cloud around and not precisely centered on a star. The addition of a Lumicon UHC filter almost makes it spectacular, showing substantially more nebula and revealing it as elongated—maybe 5’ x 10’.

Which was followed by the even cooler NGC 1624:

Nice, small open cluster surrounded by obvious nebulosity. If I had a dime for every NGC listed as cluster + nebulosity that turns out to be a boring group of stars devoid of nebulosity, I’d be using a CGE Pro 1400 tonight. This is different. Even without a filter, there is no doubt this is a real cloud surrounding a group of tiny but reasonably prominent stars, not just eyepiece reflections or imagination.

You don’t normally associate the prominent “winter constellations” with galaxies, but Perseus is loaded with ‘em, including NGC 1169:

This is a standout galaxy an area peppered with small, dim, and unimpressive ones. It’s brighter than 12th magnitude, and possessed of a slightly brighter central region and an elongated disk. What appears to be a stellar-size nucleus in the eyepiece is shown to be a dim field star in the POSS plate I pull up with Deepsky.

NGC 1605, my next Perseus DSO was an open cluster, though not much of an open cluster:

A dim and sparse galactic cluster in Perseus that’s maybe 5’ across. Nothing much to say about it, nothing much to see here. Not well detached from its rich field. I’ll swannee, ol’ Willie-boy Herschel musta had damned good eyes and good technique to pick up some of these clusters for the first time.


Back to galaxies in Perseus with NGC 1161:

Another dim sprite. The only thing that distinguishes this mag 12.5 lenticular galaxy is that it is beside two dim field stars. It’s obviously elongated with a bright center, and that is it. It shares the field with another prominent galaxy, NGC 1160, which is dimmer, larger, and more elongated.

I generally like small open clusters. I’ll make an exception in the case of NGC 1193, though.

In the 8mm eyepiece, NGC 1193 is nothing more than a nebulous patch a minute or two of arc across. This patch is made up of mostly unresolved stars, though a few wee sparklers do pop out once in a while.

Can it get worse than that in the Herschel II? It can and it did with NGC 1582:

This is even more boring than NGC 1193. At least that one was compact enough to look like something. Thisun is sparse and almost 40’ in diameter. It is hardly detached from the background star field at all. Even with the wide field of the 28mm Uwan it looks like a whole lot of nuttin’.

Nobody would call NGC 1175, a near 13th magnitude edge-on Sa island universe, “prominent,” but it wasn’t hard or bad, either.

Once you know what you are looking for (which I found out by bringing up its picture with Deepsky), it is not hard to see this galaxy. Strongly elongated with a stellar-appearing core that winks in an out in the 8E.

NGC 1003 is another faintish near-edge-on Perseus Sa:

A fuzzy, elongated glow that’s easy with direct vision. Not a bad sight, but not much detail. No nucleus seen.

Some sources list the magnitude of NGC 1207 as as dim as 13.8, which is enough to scare li’l ol’ me for sure. The reality was not nearly as horrible as that:

I don’t care how dim it is supposed to be; it's a little big, 2.3’ x 1.7’, but it’s easy. Popped right out in the 13 Ethos. It’s even visible with direct vision, but is better with averted vision. Doing that makes it look slightly elongated.

NGC 1058 is both (relatively) large and (relatively) bright, magnitude 11.8 and 3’ x 2.8’:

Saw this puppy as soon as I looked in the 13 Ethos. Despite its status as a near-face-on Sa. Not much detail to talk about, howsomeever.

Oh, for a break from dim galaxies and puny galactic clusters. NGC 1579 delivered that:

Interesting little patch of nebulosity. Not helped a bit by any of my filters, so I assume it is indeed a reflection nebula as most sources classify it. Best in the 8mm eyepiece; in that I see hints of detail/dark lanes just on the edge of perception. Almost looks like the little sister of the Running Man Nebula.

So much for Perseus. With Cepheus riding high, he seemed a natural for my next set of destinations.

Even more than Perseus, I don’t tend to think of King Cepheus as the home of galaxies. They are there, though, of course, including NGC 1184:

Despite a pretty bad magnitude quote of 12.4, this lenticular galaxy is easy with direct vision and is fairly large, about 2’ long. It’s narrow too, less than a minute across its minor axis, since it’s nearly edge on to us. Really looks like a galaxy.

Being where he is in the sky, Cepheus is also possessed of plenty of open clusters, one of which is NGC 7762:

This cluster is a little nicer than the stinking HII opens I’ve seen so far this evening. Maybe 10’ in diameter. Many tiny stars spangled across its face, though I wouldn’t quite describe it as “rich.” There’s a prominent line of stars just off-center that catches my attention.

After giving NGC 7762 enough of a look—at least five minutes—to assure myself I’d seen everything it had to offer, I pulled away from the eyepiece and headed over to the EZ Up, intending to chug another Monster and take a short break. I sat down at the laptop first, to click up my next target. I was downright flabbergasted to see SkyTools showing the local time to be almost 2 in the a.m. I put down the Monster.

The fact that it was now early Sunday morning dissuaded me from pressing on. All too soon, it would be time to pack up and head back to The Swamp. Yeah, I was on a roll, but Cepheus and the rest of the gang would still be around in a month’s time, when they’d be on display in the wonderful skies of the Chiefland Astronomy Village.

My score?

Victories Tonight = 26
Targets to Go = 374

Which I think is danged good. It’s possible I coulda nearly doubled that figger if I’d tried, but I didn’t and don’t want to. I don’t want to just tick these things off; I want to give each one a chance to amaze me—and you.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

 

Splashing Around the Dolphin at Deep South 2009


I’m mainly known for writing about equipment; my two books on Schmidt Cassegrains see to that. But I’ve also written one devoted to using the pretty toys we obsess about, 2006’s The Urban Astronomer’s Guide. Of course I love my Astro Stuff, and during the long and unrelievedly cloudy summer just past, a lot of my amateur astronomy enjoyment did come from—had to come from—talking about, writing about, and reading about gear, since I couldn’t actually use it much. With the coming of blessed fall, though, that’s changing. The passing fronts are bringing clear skies in their wake, and I am going to take advantage of ‘em, you betcha.

For Miss Dorothy and me, the heart of every fall star party season is still the Deep South Regional Star Gaze, our little local event that has, amazingly, just passed its twenty-seventh year. We’ve never been big, averaging 100 – 150 observers, but we’ve hung in there, becoming one of the longest-running star parties in the nation, and, as far as I know, the longest lived event south of the Mason-Dixon Line. We are not famous, either, despite being written-up in the big magazines on occasion. Hell, Astronomy once called us “One of the Great Star Parties,” not that anybody much noticed. What’s kept us plugging along in our modest fashion for so many years? Maybe our penchant for having fun in a friendly and relaxed atmosphere that’s equally attractive to novices and veterans.

As you know if you read thisun, DSRSG was the first star party Dorothy ever attended, and became a yearly tradition for us thereafter. Swallows return to Capistrano and Rod and Dorothy go back to DSRSG. So it was not likely we’d miss this year’s edition, even though there was change in the air. Our most recent site had been Camp Ruth Lee in northern Louisiana, but that small venue fell on economic hard times last year and advised us they were not at all sure they would be around to host DSRSG 2009.

Would there be a Deep South this year? Of course there would. We’d have held it in somebody’s backyard if we’d had to; once you get a taste of down-home southern star party hospitality you simply cannot give it up. The diligent efforts of organizers Barry Simon and Len Philpot turned up another and possibly even better location just a mile from Ruth Lee, The Feliciana Retreat Center, a religiously-oriented venue that featured not just upscale bunkhouses, but a motel-room/dining room/conference center complex that would be a big, big improvement over our former location’s drafty “chickie” cabins and other Spartan facilities. Oh, the chickies were OK, but D and I always felt guilty about disturbing their year-round residents, the spiders, with our constant comings and goings.

So it was that Dorothy and I loaded up a passel of gear including our time-tested 12.5-inch Dob, Old Betsy, and set out on the three-and-a-half hour drive to Clinton, Louisiana. Why a Dobsonian? Ain’t I still Mr. SCT? Sure I am, but we like a little variety, and Betsy with her wide f/5 fields and her deadeye-accurate Sky Commander Digital Setting Circles is a nice change of pace once in a while. We recently upgraded her primary with modern high-reflectivity coatings, and that, combined with our Ethoses, can deliver some downright spectacular views. It is more like watching a big screen TV than peering through an eyepiece.

Following an uneventful trip, we arrived at the new observing field, which was covered with recently mown but still lush grass, and which was mostly flat and more than large enough to accomodate our 100-plus observers. We were fortunate, I suppose, to arrive in sync with the predicted coming of bad weather for Thursday night, so we had our pick of field positions, choosing a nice spot on the northern edge. Out came scope, EZ-up Canopy, laptop, ice chest, table, observing notebooks, red lights, eyepiece cases, and dryboxes full of assorted and sundry accessories. After this many star party seasons I can pack our Camry like a clown car. By the time we were finished with all the stuff, we were feeling hot and sticky and just this side of miserable in the 85-degree plus heat/high humidity conditions. So we deserted the field to check out our accommodations and hopefully cool off.

Our room in the Center’s “Lodge” facility sure as heck was a big improvement over a chickie. Yeah, it was small, near-bout cruise ship size, but clean, equipped with an air conditioner, and, thankfully, its own bathroom and shower. We passed most of the time between our arrival and supper cooling off and showering off and unpacking.

The first meal in the squeaky-clean dining room was a revelation. The facilities were a considerable improvement over the former site’s rustic ones appearance-wise, and there was plenty of room for all of us who’d signed up for the meal plan when you included a beautiful “overflow” dining area with picture windows overlooking the small lake. The most important thing? The food? Pot roast and mashed taters the first night and it was pretty good. The pecan pie didn’t hurt neither. Yes, the meals had been acceptable at Ruth Lee, at least as star party fare goes, but after the first couple of years the RL folks either began to take us for granted or their economic malaise intensified, and the meals began to be what can be charitably described as “plain.”

After supper, I moseyed on out to the field to prepare for the night’s work. The cotton-pickin' weatherman was predicting dire events, but, shoot, I was seeing blue sky, and I guessed we’d get in a couple of hours in advance of the front passage. I mean, how often has your Old Uncle been wrong about star party weather? A time or two, and this was, alas, one of those times. I kept a hopeful weather eye out, but by 6pm it was obvious I could have made a better prognostication using The Magic 8-Ball.

The occasional dark patches of clouds that had been sliding north of us began to move south. And the intermittent and muffled thunder rumbles became frequent and all too distinct. As Sol slipped below the horizon, I had begun to admit the evening wouldn’t be so good, but I didn’t yet realize just how bad. Miss D repaired to our room to relax, and I and some of my buds hung out in the lodge’s conference center watching one of my favorite flicks, October Sky (The Rocket Boys), on the large screen television set. Just before the boys’ first successful launch from Cape Coalwood, the bottom fell out on us. Wind. Driving and torrential rain. Frightening bolts of lightning. It had been years since I’d had the misfortune to be at a star party during such a violent storm.

I continued to watch the film, but began to be concerned about our field setup, and as soon as the rain slackened, grabbed Dorothy’s umbrella and headed warily for the field. I wasn’t much concerned about the Dob. Betsy was snug in her AstroSystems scope cover. I was more worried about our EZ-Up canopy and the items beneath it. At sundown, I’d had the good sense to move the more delicate and expensive gear to the room. My eyepiece case, the laptop, and a few other special things were transported to the Lodge a quarter-of-a-mile from the field with relative ease due to a new acquisition, a luggage cart I bought for the express purpose of getting my heavy deep cycle marine battery to the room for charging (no AC on the field). When my flashlight dimly illuminated the canopy, I was puzzled. It was still standing, but looked weird.

The reason for the weirdness, I discovered, was that it was bulging-in under the weight of thirty or more gallons of water. This older EZ-Up did not have the sharply-peaked roof of the newer models, and that had allowed water to collect instead of run-off. A lot of water; I was puzzled as to what to do. Try to push up from beneath and force the H2O out? Too heavy. The only alternative seemed to be punching a hole in the underside. I hated to do that, but…

Luckily, before I could get my knife out, a fellow observer walked up to check on his cursing, muttering Uncle Rod, and the two of us were able to push the fabric up and the water out. I noted that a couple of fiberglass braces had come loose, and briefly attempted to snap them back into place. “Briefly” because I soon felt the stings of fire ants. We’d poisoned most of the mounds on the field, but the remaining ants were now floating free and quite a few of ‘em were soon clinging to and biting the bejesus out my legs, which were uncovered, since I’d thought shorts would be just the thing on a steamy day (what could happen?).

I gave it up as a bad bidness, and, after checking the scope, who was fine, headed back. Just in time, it turned out, as another wave of rain and lightning rolled in as I made it to the lodge. I returned to our room, broke out the Yell, fired up the laptop, and spent an hour or two cruising Astromart and Cloudy Nights and watching some Sky at Night videos. I like TSAN magazine’s included CDs, but never seem to get around to watching ‘em until I’m out in the sticks and deprived of my HD TV.

Well, boo-hoo, what a night. The good thing? The front was clearly through, which meant there was little doubt the predicted clear weather would arrive in time for some deep sky enjoyment Friday evening.

When I stepped out of the lodge in the morning after a nice big breakfast, I was struck by two things: it was COLD, and the skies were clear. Hell, y’all, it must have been in the upper 40s! On to the field, which was downed picnic canopies as far as the eye could see, some having been reduced to skeletal ruins. No scopes had been damaged, though, and even the tent campers weathered the storm in good order (though most had retreated to their vehicles or the Lodge’s conference room at the height of the storm’s violence). Our EZ-Up? It still stood, but it was clear it would be ready for the trash-man soon. A little skillfully applied duct tape, though, assured it would keep Sun and dew off us for the remainder of Deep South.

The long hours before dark on Friday were spent returning gear to the field from the room and drying the stuff that had been out in the elements. That completed, it was time for some deep sky cruising, and it is now time for part two of this here blog entry, the deep sky observing part.

Over the last 40 years or so, I’ve seen a lot of Deep Sky Objects (DSOs). Nowadays, when I come upon an observing article in one of the magazines, I usually just breeze through it. I’ve prob’ly seen most of what’s listed and get a little weary of readin’ about objects I’ve visited more than a time or three. That is kind of a shame, though, since some extremely talented observers/writers are doin’ this sort of thing monthly in Sky and Telescope and Astronomy, folks like Steve O’Meara and Sue French. While I will usually only cherry pick an object or two from these pieces, I realize quite a few newer observers will use these articles as ready-made observing lists, just like I used to do when I was a youngun listening and learning at Scotty’s feet.

So I got to thinkin’ some of you folks might like my take on the magazines’ DSO offerings. Most of us, after all, don’t have the skies, scopes, or talent of deep sky mavens like Sue F, for example. How would her faint fuzzies look in an average scope from an average site by an average observer? Well, that’s me, Mr. Average, and if I think an object looks good and is worth spending time on, y’all can be assured it is. I’ll run through the DSOs in these features and tell y’all how my views of ‘em stack up against those of the articles’ authors. I won’t do every one, no, but when I see a collection that strikes my fancy, there will be a blog on it.

Where to begin? Steve O’Meara had a nice piece in Astronomy Magazine recently, his “Ghost Hunt,” a fall deep sky/Messier marathon sort of thing, and I may get to it eventually. But I was more interested in something a little less wide-ranging than his hundreds of objects. There was also Alan Goldstein’s “Watch as Galaxies Collide” in the November 09 Astronomy. It was nice and well written and all, but a good look at it revealed few of his objects would be practical before spring, no matter how late I stayed up (which ain’t that late given my advancin’ years, muchachos). Why did the editors choose to run this one in the issue that landed in my front hall in October? That will likely remain a bigger mystery to me than the mechanics of galaxy collisions and mergers. Which left Ms French’s “Splashing Around the Dolphin” in the October S&T.

Which seemed a good place to start. Delphinus is a little feller, but he is blessed with a fair amount and variety of DSOs. This Dolphin has jumped out of the stream of the Milky Way, so you won’t find oodles of nebulae and galactic clusters, but, as Sue amply demonstrates, there’s plenty of Good Stuff and Sorta Good Stuff there. One caveat? While Flipper is presently well-placed for observing into the dark hours, he will be swimming into the west before long… so get ‘er done, folks, get ‘er done.

As should be clear if’n you paid attention to my rambling above, my instrument for this deep sky tour was Old Betsy, my 12-inch Dob-Newt. Eyepieces? I mainly used my 13mm and 8mm Ethoses, with both gettin’ a purty equal share of photons. I also employed my 7mm and 28mm Uwans a couple of times. Mostly, though, I stuck with the Ethos oculars. It wasn’t just that huge apparent field, neither. In almost every instance I found they delivered better sharpness and/or contrast than anything else in my bulging eyepiece box. I didn’t star hop. I used the Sky Commanders every time, and they landed me smack on Sue’s objects every time. Yep, Unk is spoiled by the new technology. But so what? We are interested in the looking, tonight, not the hunting.

Wait one cotton pickin’ minute! Ethoses and a 12-inch telescope? I thought this was for NOVICES! Yeah, I know, most newcomers will not have Ethoses, and though I thought they improved the views of all these DSOs, they are hardly mandatory for looking at ‘em. All would be almost as good in a Hyperion, or an Expanse, or in your gran’pappy’s Plössl. I used the Ethoses because I love ‘em and because I could. So there. Scopes? It ain’t at all unusual to see a newbie toting a 12-inch Dobsonian these days, now that you can get ‘em from Orion and Zhumell for pocket change. Nevertheless, a 10-inch would do almost as well. And, if your eyes are better than mine, even small instruments will serve. Sue French saw most of this stuff with a 4-inch refractor, for cryin’ out loud.

The Dolphin

∑2735. Sue starts us out with a double, something that’s not surprising, as she’s expressed her love for these fascinating stars on more than one occasion. What I did find surprising was that she did not choose the obvious one, Gamma Delphini. Hey, it’s a beautiful pair, but unless you’re the wettest of wet-behind-the-ears novices, you’ve seen it. Plenty of times. Instead, she gifts us with Struve 2735, Something Different.

How is it? Nice. Everybody knows I’m double star crazy, given my involvement with our publication here (University of South Alabama), The Journal of Double Star Observations, but I have to be in the mood for doubles, and on this night, with the Milky Way’s blazing riches on display, I wasn’t. I did take a quick look, though. While Sue sees ‘em as white and yellow, they looked more blue and yellow to me. Sweet. They were fairly close in separation for the somewhat punk seeing at 2-arc seconds, but were no problem in the 8mm Ethos.

NGC 6934. OK, on to the good stuff, the stuff I came out to the sticks for, deep sky objects (assuming you don’t consider doubles “deep sky objects”). Another good pick, I’d say. My log, which I transcribed from the little mini-cassette recorder I use for note-takin’ these days, indicates I was favorably impressed:

Magnitude 8.9 NGC 6934 is an interesting little glob set in a rich star field. With averted vision, I can pick out a few stars at 115x with the 13mm eyepiece, but mostly the effect is patchiness across the core and graininess around the cluster’s periphery. Going to the 8 Ethos delivers considerable resolution around the fuzz-ball’s edges, though the core is still just a grainy mess. Poor seeing in the wake of the front passage probably doesn’t help. Sue French mentions the cluster’s “oval form,” but I didn’t notice that.

In other words, 6934 is more than worthy of your attention.

Did y’all know there are galaxies in Delphinus? I reckon I did, but I’m not sure I’d ever visited NGC 6928 , and I’m way too lazy to go diggin’ through my dusty old observing logs to find out. Will you like this one? Maybe. While it’s not exactly difficult, it ain’t gonna put your eye out neither. As a matter of fact, when I landed on the field I didn’t see a trace of this mag 12.2 island universe, not at first. I kept after it, though, and after just a little eyeball bleeding:

It becomes fairly obvious. About the only other things I can say about this sprite are that it is elongated, and that I am either seeing a slightly brighter core/nucleus or the galaxy is superimposed on a dim star. As I continue to stare, I begin to pick up some of the other little galaxies scattered across the field. There’s NGC 6930, which also seems elongated, winking in and out, and I also see little-bitty NGC 6927 once in a while. I think. It’s hard to tell whether I’m seeing a galaxy or a dim star.

Verdict? If you want to say you’ve seen galaxies in Delphinus, or just want a bit of a challenge, by all means go here. Beyond that? Not much, not for 12-inch or smaller telescopes, anyhow. If you’ve got a bigger scope, these galaxies and the dimmer ones Sue mentions, PGC 214749 and UGC 11590B, may be of more than passing interest. I tried for the PGC and UGC, but am not sure I saw evidence of either.

The next object in the article, “Thompson 1,” is an asterism, and I must admit I skipped it. Unlike some of y’all, I ain’t very interested in this sort of thing. Heck, even The Coat Hanger and The Stargate leave me cold. If you like patterns of (usually) unrelated stars, though, have at it. It’s in the field of Iota Delphini, and therefore shouldn’t be hard to run down.

Next up is NGC 6956. Sue says this displays “interesting structure,” but I truly didn’t see much of that. This magnitude 12.3 galaxy looks more like a cosmic dust bunny to me. It’s not so much that it’s dim—it was immediately obvious in the 12-inch—but that it hides next to a “bright” 12th magnitude star that purty much prevented me from making out much about it other than that it looked a little elongated.

Hows about something easier? Our author gives us that with Delphinus’ other globular cluster, magnitude 10.6 NGC 7006. Not that it’s really much of a glob, mind you; it is a very distant one:

NGC 7006 is a good enough little globular, I suppose, but in the 13mm eyepiece it’s just a fuzzball. Upping the power with the 8 E brings some resolution; with averted vision I can at least see a sprinkling of a few dim and tiny stars around the cluster’s core. That core remains just grainy fuzz, however. I tried to apply more magnification by using my TeleVue Big Barlow with the 8mm. That brought minimal improvement, however; probably because the seeing was so sucky.

I do recommend you pay a visit to NGC 7006; just realize you ain’t gonna see an M13. Of course, most other globulars ain’t close to equaling M13, either. Almost all are interesting in their own rights, though—including this little feller.

I done tole you, I don’t like asterisms. I don’t usually see the fanciful pictures some folks make-out in groups of stars. That’s one of the few things I didn’t like about Steve O’Meara’s Messier book. Hell, that guy would see Socrates addressing the Athenians in M37. Me? I just see a big clump of stars. So I was prepared to find French 1 nothing but a crashing bore. Ms French says her self-named asterism looks like a “toadstool;” I expected a random pattern of dim and distant stars.

Surprise! It does look like a toadstool (or, to hillbilly me, like the Allman Brothers’ mushroom). That was nice, but, as Sue describes, there’s a little galaxy, NGC 7025, lurking near the ‘shroom’s stalk that makes French 1 even more intriguing:

NGC 7025 is yet another cosmic lint-ball, but it looks cool sitting at the foot of the mushroom. In my 8mm eyepiece, it is very easy with direct vision, and shows (I think) elongation and a brighter core.

A visit with NED revealed the galaxy is indeed elongated, being a cute Sa spiral nicely inclined to our line of sight. This is a sweet little DSO, and I like it. What’s that? Who’s Ned? “NED” is the NASA Extragalactic Database on the WWW, and if you have the slightest interest in galaxies you should make friends with it. Not only will it give you the detailed vitals of your targets, it has plenty of pictures and “Much, Much More.”

So that’s it for the Dolphin. I wasn’t blown away by all Sue French’s choices, but they were all at least somewhat interesting, and, importantly for me, mostly off the beaten path, and, importantly for you novices, mostly easy enough to see with a 10-inch scope, I reckon.

Wussup next? Next week I’ll wrap up the DSRSG report, and bring on the second of my DSO-observing series. What will it be? I oughta make you wait till next time, but I already made you wait an extra week for this one, so I’ll at least give you the title: “The Herschel 400 II Project.”

Sunday, October 18, 2009

 

Deep South Nights--and Excuses


Yeah, yeah...I know pards...after waitin' all week, you was wantin' and expectin' a little more than this. But this, I'm sorry to say, is it--for a few days, anyhow. Miss Dorothy and I just walked in the door from the 2009 Deep South Regional Star Gaze where we had a great time with old friends, won some cool prizes, and did some pedal-to-the-metal deep sky observin' until the wee-est of wee hours with our 12-inch Dob, Old Betsy. Said observing will no doubt be fodder for several entries here, including my long-promised new deep sky series. Maybe two series of articles on The Great Out There, who knows? When? I will try to have a real blog entry for y'all up at midweek, but if things at work are as hosed-up as I speck, don't look for it till Sunday, muchachos.

Hokay, I'm gonna grab them stacks of undergraduate papers that are cryin' out to be graded, do that, wash the ol' bod, and then get some well-deserved rest to the tune of a nice steak and a few whiskies. Till later this week, then, y'all...keep the bugs off yer glass and the Bears off yer--tail!

Sunday, October 11, 2009

 

Mars and Me


Over the 45 years I’ve been observing the Solar System, one thing’s been an unwavering constant: my love – hate relationship with the red planet. For some of us, especially those of us who grew up in the amateur astronomy of the 1950s – 1960s, Mars was what drew us to our avocation in the first place. It’s hard to believe, half a century down the line, but back then the Solar System was still a pretty mysterious place. Was Mercury tidally locked with the Sun and blessed with a permanent, temperate TWILIGHT ZONE on the terminator (now you sprouts know where Rod Serling got his title)? Was Venus a lush tropical jungle or maybe a water world? Did dinosaurs lurk under the clouds? Most of all, though, there was Mars. Those markings on the surface…they looked green. And seemed to change. Were they forests, or at least some kind of vegetation? Was there life, intelligent life? Maybe living in awesome cities like those on the cover of Analog magazine?

Frankly, even by the end of the fifties science could answer most of the above in the negative. But perhaps without 100% surety. The only spacecraft to have imaged another world up close was the Soviet Luna 3, which took some fuzzy snaps of Diana’s backside. And that was it till Mariner 2 visited Venus in 1962, and began to clue us in to the hellish nature of Earth’s “twin.” Mars didn’t get revealed until the late 60s. Until Mariner showed us those initially depressing vistas of desolate crater-littered landscapes in 1967. Till then, the Solar System was still as unknown and, in some ways, friendly, as it had been in the pulp pages of Captain Future and in the flickering images of Rocky Jones Space Ranger on the family Philco.

During the long, sweet summer that lasted from the 1950s and through the 1960s (it took a while for Mariner’s “truths” to filter out), Mars remained not much different from the way it had been imagined by Percival Lowell and Edgar Rice Burroughs: a world of POSSIBILITIES. No, most of us probably didn’t completely believe there were beautiful princesses barging down canals on gondolas rowed by six-armed slaves under the baleful light of Phobos and Deimos, but, honestly, who knew? Those flying saucers cruising over the drive-ins might be piloted by the infamous Little Green Men of Mars.

I certainly wasn’t one to naysay. As a kid, I was caught up in ray-guns and alien monsters almost to the exclusion of cowboys and pirates, and most of my “knowledge” about Mars was thanks to what I saw on the silver screen. I don’t mean the flickering screen of our black and white Admiral, either. I mean the big screen of the Roxy theatre. Back in The Day, my Old Man (aka, “The Chief Op”) was a broadcast engineer at the local TV station. Friday and Saturday nights he worked at the studio till sign-off. For you young folks, in the dark ages TV stations in all but the biggest cities went off the air, "signed-off," at midnight. That meant me and Mama headed to the movie house till Daddy came home.

Me ol’ mum was a strong woman in many ways, but she had a weak point. Back in the late-fifties in our little neighborhood adjoining a U.S. Air Force Base, we were doubtless safe as milk. But soon as the Sun went down, Mama began to imagine burglars, haunts, and who-knows-what in every shadow and with the creak of every board. Sure did freak li’l me out. Rather than endure all the dark hours till midnight when Daddy would throw up the Test Pattern and return home, she tended to bundle me off to the movies. Since we’d inevitably do both Friday and Saturday, we had to watch every penny; that meant the cheap, second-run Roxy, not the upscale Saenger or Downtown theatres.

Unfortunately for me, most of the movies being shown at night were not well-suited to the lollipop brigade. I simply cannot believe she dragged a five-year-old to see Bergman’s Virgin Spring. Luckily, most of the time it was not highbrow art films, but Doris Day and Rock Hudson romps or Debbie Reynolds (li'l Unk had a huge crush on Miss Reynolds) in one of her multitudinous Tammy excursions. There were also lots of horror movies too, which Mama doted on and which gave me plenty of nightmares. That always seemed to puzzle Mama: “Honestly, I just do not know what is wrong with that child.” There was ample sci-fi as well, and sometimes I lucked out big-time as I did the night they played The Angry Red Planet.

Fondly as I might remember it, this Technicolor-dripping urpic by Sid Pink, part of his vaunted TRILOGY along with Reptilicus and Journey to the Seventh Planet, is notable only if you either saw it as a kid or have a taste for “good” trash or both—like Unk. Watchin’ a DVD of the film today reveals it as pretty standard “programmer” fare: Valiant Spaceman, B movie vet Gerald Mohr, ably assisted by a wisecracking crewman, tangles with monsters and a pretty girl.

Nevertheless, I was flat awestruck by the film’s images. The insane giant rat-bat-spider monster, the sea of oil, the giant amoeba, the “miles high skyscrapers” (seen only in the brief flash of a matte painting) all set-off in sickly red by Pink’s odd “Cinemagic” process, an attempt to disguise low-budget animation. From then on, for me, Mars was The Angry Red Planet. Why couldn’t there be rat-bat-spiders and mile high Little Green Men apartment complexes? That was the beauty of Mars back then, muchachos, nobody knew.

It’s hard to believe that less than a decade separates The Angry Red Planet from that most “realistic” of SF movies, 2001 a Space Odyssey. And there had actually been some more realistic visions of Mars that preceded ARP's colorful fever dreams. Chief among these was the series Disney made, Man in Space. Originally shown on the old Disneyland TV show and later edited into a featurette, it was followed by Man and the Moon, and Mars and Beyond. I was left particularly open-mouthed by the latter when it was on at the Roxy. Even today, the series (on DVD, natch) is fun and thought-provoking. The contributions of Willy Ley and Wernher Von Braun accompanied by visuals that looked as if they came off the pages of a Chesley Bonestell book hold up amazingly well fifty years, Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo later.

No, not all the sci-fi movies I admired were quite as cheesy as Angry Red Planet. 1955’s Conquest of Space was also a cut above. When I saw it as a third run at the drive-in, it was already at least five years old, but Little Rod was mucho impressed. When you mention “drive-in movie” in these latter days, you either get a blank stare or a wink-wink-nudge-nudge that’s recognition of the drive-in’s reputation as the Passion Pit. It was that, always, but it was also a family thing. Daddy, not wanting to manage a squirmy kid at a nice indoor theatre--or pay for it--would pack me and Mama in the car for a trip to the Auto Show or the Bama Drive-in. Mama, dang her, would bring a box-supper. Naturally, I lusted after the nasty chili dogs in the concession stand.

Following half an hour or so of running wild like a little crazy person among the swings and slides of the playground plopped in front of the big, and I do mean big, screen, I was finally corralled in the back seat, Daddy mounted the speaker on the window, lit the mosquito coil on the dashboard (what in the hell was in those things?), and, following oodles of cartoons, newsreels, and who-knows-what, I settled in for The Big Double Feature, the first half of which was The Conquest of Space.

Conquest was not graced with an all-star cast. The closest it had to a star was Eric Fleming, who played the steely-jawed spaceman who has to deal with his commanding officer, a nutty old General (Walter Brooke), who, at the last and most inopportune moment, decides God doesn't want Man meddling with Mars. “THERE ARE SOME THINGS MAN WAS NOT MEANT TO KNOW!” There was other foolishness abroad, too, like the crew’s destination being changed from the Moon to Mars at the very last minute, and that aboard the Chesley Bonestell/Wernher Von Braun space-wheel they depart from, our heroes are forced to dine exclusively on Space Food Pills to the amusement of the station crew.

There is some pretty good stuff here, though. How could there not be? The movie was directed by George Pal and written by Chesley Bonestell himself. Yeah, there is PLENTY of silly comic byplay by the lesser crew members, but that was familiar to me from a zillion WWII movies. There always had to be a wise-cracking Jewish or Italian or other “ethnic” sergeant along for the ride. If nothing else, the spacecraft and the space station looked as if they’d leapt out of Herr Von Braun’s dreams. Weaknesses? Mars itself seems almost an afterthought, and the crew’s adventures there are, ironically, the weakest part of the film. I didn’t care. It was wonderful, and I hung on till the end, falling asleep, as usual, just as the second picture rolled. Mama always brought a pillow and blanket, and I always insisted I wouldn’t need them, and I always did.

The final member of my “Mars trilogy” is 1964’s Robinson Crusoe on Mars. It was a bit of fluff concerning yet another Valiant Spaceman, Paul Mantee (Adam West is in it too!), who’s stranded on the red planet. This was accompanied by silliness about malevolent slave-taking UFO aliens (thus Friday), but the movie was at least somewhat of an advance in that it, unlike most of what had gone before, at least hinted that you might not be able to run around Syrtis Major in your PJs. Silly as it seems today, it stimulated my sense of wonder six ways to Sunday. I just loved it.

The point of this walk down cinematic memory lane, though, is that by the year before I got my first telescope, my image of Mars was already solidified. It was a mysterious and beautiful world of wonders. It might be criss-crossed by canals. There might be CREATURES OR ALIENS. There might even be a few giant amoebas lurking. What I wanted, nay expected, to see in the eyepiece of my Palomar Junior was, at the very least, a blood-red globe cross-hatched with canals, jus’ like the Mars shown at the beginning of Gene Barry’s 1953 War of the Worlds.

Unfortunately—or maybe actually fortunately—I missed the 1965 opposition of Mars, which came just before I got my hands on my 3-inch Tasco Newtonian. Sure, I could have watched Mars shrink, but it’s a good thing it didn’t dawn on me to do that. The Tasco had a hard time making even Jupiter look like anything other than—yes—a giant amoeba, and in 1965 Mars was a very puny 14-arc seconds across. I would have been crushed.

I didn’t know much about Mars, but I did know you wanted to wait for oppositions to come ‘round to get a good look, and I was on tenterhooks until that happened again, the spring after the spring of my Palomar Junior.

A couple of pluses I had going for me that made my quest for Angry Red a little easier were that around opposition time near Tax Day 1967, Mars was only about 4-degrees from Spica and was shining at an impressive magnitude of -1.6. I had probably idly scouted around for Red earlier in the year, but Mars ain't that easy to track down when he’s far from opposition; especially if all you’ve got for reference is an itty bitty chart in the back of Sky And Telescope and one of Edmund’s “Star and Satellite Pathfinder” planispheres. On a quiet mid-April evening, my long quest came to an end. It was obvious to me that that bright orange star shouldn’t be there among the blue diamonds of Virgo. I lined-up the Pal’s tiny finder on it, slammed-in my ½-inch focal length Ramsden, and had a look.

Yeah, I no doubt would have been crushed by Mars in the Tasco, but that don’t mean I wasn’t badly disappointed by the legendary world’s appearance in my 4-inch Edmund. What I had in the field was obviously a planet; there was a disk showing, and it was bright, but man was it small. At 90x, there was absolutely nothing to see other than a bright b-b. Pumping the power up to 180x via my Barlow did yield the slightest, tiniest hints of some kind of gray-blue-green markings on the disk, but that was largely just an impression, not something I could quantify with shape and form, and certainly nothing like the drawings I saw in Patrick Moore’s books. I tried to convince myself I saw a hint of a polar ice cap, but that required a lot of convincing.

I came back to the planet occasionally during the balance of his 1967 apparition, but didn’t expect much, and, maybe in part because of that, didn’t see much. I decided Mars was just way overrated and just darned hard. Truthfully, I was now informed enough thanks to Sir Patrick to know I wouldn’t see Percy Lowell’s mostly imaginary canals, but, hell, I had sure expected something more than what I’d seen.

There things remained for the better part of two decades. Oh, I took an occasional glance at bad, ol’ Ares, but that was it. Mars was no good, I’d decided, and my hard-headedness meant I pretty much ignored the excellent 1971 apparition (near 25-arc seconds). In my defense, I was somewhat preoccupied at the time with being a silly college freshman, but that hadn’t prevented the occasional peep at M42. After 1971, the cycle wound down again to a minute 13-arc seconds in 1980. Luckily, before Red began getting’ good once more I wised up.

What wised me up wasn’t Mars, but Jupiter. One evening I was scopin’ him out with my beloved C8, and began ruminating on how much more I could see of him now than I could back in the Good Old Days with the Pal Junior. On a whim, I drug the Pal out and had a look at Jove. Hell, I could see almost as much detail as I could with the Celestron. I was using better eyepieces, sure, but I realized practice prob’ly had the most to do with the difference.

Practice, that greatest of all amateur astronomers, Sir William Herschel, used to opine, is as important in astronomy as it is in music. He ort-ta know, as not only did he show his mettle by discovering a major planet and a large chunk of the NGCs, he was a musician in his day job. Soon as I heard this, it made sense why my brother and sister amateurs saw so much more detail on the Angry One than I did: they gave him a chance.

I took the hint, and began giving Mars his share of eyepiece time whenever he was visible, big or small. Thanks to that, by the time the amazing oppositions of 1986 and 1988 rolled around, and the planet was inflated to a huge (relatively speaking) 24-arc seconds, I was seeing a lot. Not only the classical dark areas and polar caps, but things like the bright sandy blobs of dust storms, atmospheric clouds, and polar cap melt lines. Twenty years after my dreams of Mars had died, I was living ‘em. I had become a DEDICATED Mars-head; I would observe him every clear evening, dodging rain showers and clouds with my Super C8 Plus from the front porch of me and an ex-wife’s rickety little house.

As Mars does, he cycled back down after ’88, shrinking into the 13-arc second range. But I kept looking. Part of it was the challenge, but part of it was also the fact that I wanted to keep my hand in in preparation for THE OPPOSITION, by which I meant 2003, of course. Well I knew that in that distant year Mars would assume the giant size of 25-arc seconds; bigger than he’d been in a long, long time, and bigger than he’d be for a long, long time again. While 25-arc seconds is barely more than half the size of Jupiter, I figured we would still see amazing stuff. I just didn’t foresee how amazing or the “how” of how I would observe the planet in the 21st Century.

The year before the Mars became A Whole Big Thing again, I was well aware of the work amateurs were doing with webcams. I’d eagerly devoured the amazing images being posted on the QCUIAG "Quick Cam and Unconventional Imaging Astronomy Group" website. I didn’t start webcamming specifically because of the coming Mars show. I thought it just sounded interesting, and wanted to try getting some nice Moon pictures. To that end, I snagged a cheap Quickcam off’n eBay and gave it a try. Surprise. The smallish images it produced were, when processed with a new-fangled program called “Registax,” as good, or really better than, any of the film pictures of the Moon I’d made over the last thirty years.

I was sold. And I figured I’d get myself ready to go webcam-wise in time for Mars. I imagined most of my Mars time would be spent visually, but the images of Jupiter I’d done with my eBay cam had been cool, and I figgered I’d shoot at least a few Mars pictures during the apparition. I could have gotten a more expensive Quickcam with a bigger chip, but instead decided to invest in a professionally--well, sorta--converted webcam, the SAC 7b. As related in the last edition of this silly little blog, I sold my monochrome Starlight Xpress MX516 CCD camera on the gull-derned AstroMart, and used the proceeds to finance a SAC.

When, despite a couple of long delays, my SAC 7 arrived in plenty of time for the Mars fireworks, it was obvious I’d made a good choice. In addition to a nice screw-in 1.25-inch nosepiece and T-threads, the SAC had a metal body, a Peltier cooler, and a chip that produced 640 x 480 images, twice the size of those that came out of my Quickcam. While the SAC came with software, I chose to use it with K3CCD Tools, a wonderful and powerful camera control program. For finding, I had the Meade flip mirror I’d bought for the MX516 and hadn’t used much. I was all set, I thought, but was still not quite sure how much I’d “see” with my SAC setup.

I had the good sense to know that even 2000 millimeters of focal length would not be enough to show much of even “huge” Mars, so I slapped a 3x Barlow on the flip mirror, and inserted my new camera into that. Cranked up K3CCD and focused long and carefully. Squinted at the screen and…

Haysoos Christmas! There was Syrtis Major lookin’ purty much like it did in all them pretty pictures I’d gaped at over all those long years. No, ‘twarn’t perfect. Mars was a shocking pink rather than red. I hadn’t yet glommed onto the fact that CCD chips are way too sensitive in the IR, and that I’d need an infrared blocking filter if I were to have a hope of getting the color balance right when I processed. But the detail flickering by on the screen was flat-out sensational compared to what I usually saw in the eyepiece.

When I did run my resulting .avi movie sequences through Registax, which stacked all the individual frames, the good ones, anyhow, into a finished still picture, I was even more flabbergasted. The detail was way better than what had been in any of my picture books. Hell, my C8 was bringing back Mars images way better than those long-admired shots the 200-inch Hale telescope did in the 50s. Yeah, the lack of an IR filter (soon rectified) meant the best I could do was make ‘em a real angry red, rather than the peach-ish color I knew was more realistic, but so what? I loved my Mars pictures, and their garish color seemed fitting homage to the celluloid Mars that had entranced me for five decades.

So the darned computer and webcam displaced visual observing for me? Kicked it to the curb? Not completely. In a way, my webcam images complemented my visual work. I’d purchased a “Mars filter,” a peach-colored job, from Gary Hand at Handsonoptics, and when the Red One was at his height, I was seeing some interesting things with the aid of my printed images as “charts.” But, yeah, I gotta be honest with y’all, I spent more time staring at a computer screen than through an eyepiece. Sure, “visual” has its strengths, it’s the traditional way amateurs have monitored the Solar System, yadda-yadda-yadda. Truth was, I was seeing far more with a webcam than I could ever hope to see with my middle-aged eyes. I was way past polar cap irregularities, melt lines, and such. Hell, in one shot there’s a smudge that’s evidence of the crater that lurks in the armpit of Syrtis Major. Mons Olympus and the other big volcanoes? Duck soup. Sometimes, anyhow.

Far from feeling nostalgic for Circle T Orthoscopics and #25 red filters, I felt my decades long, if off and on, obsession with Angry Red had finally been vindicated. I was finally seeing those things that really do make Mars a mysterious and alluring world. So what if I was seeing ‘em on a laptop display instead of through glass? As that angry Martian voice had intoned at the end of ARP, I was now A TECHNOLOGICAL ADULT WHO HAD INVADED THEIR WEIRD RED HOME. I’m purty sure Gerald Mohr and Eric Fleming would approve.

Postscript: We’ve got another one coming. Another opposition, that is. Not that it will be that hot this January with sneaky ol’ Red getting no bigger than 14-arc seconds. If I had half a brain I’d invest in one of them new-fangled Imaging Source or Lumenera high speed cams. But being the cautious sort and cheap sort I am, I’ll press on with my now-orphaned SAC 7 and hope what I’ve learned about CCD/webcam imaging and processing since 2003 will stand me in good stead. Stay tuned.

This weekend: It’s been pretty amateur astronomyish. Miss Dorothy and I had an excellent time Friday night, motoring over to Pensacola to the hear a talk by an old friend, Doctor Clay Sherrod. After a pleasant supper with Doc, his lovely wife, and Doctor Wayne Wooten of Pensacola Junior College, we repaired to PJC where we listened entranced to Doc Clay’s presentation, “Cosmic Roots: Why am I Here?” Mind bending stuff, and one thing I’ve learned over the last 35 years…when Doc says something, I listen. Our thanks to Wayne, Escambia Amateur Astronomy Association President Rick Hogue, and the whole EAAA for having us over.

Last night? After missing a good evening’s observing as recounted here, I swore to go back to my old maxim: “If it ain’t raining head to the dark site.” I did, and naturally it started raining just as soon as I got there. Back home, I grabbed my latest bottle of Rebel Yell and sat in the den with Miss Dorothy watching, yep, The Angry Red Planet. Sure, I’d have liked to have observed this weekend, but I had a lot of astronomy-centric fun anyhow.

Sunday, October 04, 2009

 

You Must Choose…

Brothers and sisters. You must choose…a CCD camera if you intend to get into the imaging game in 21st century style. This is, I reckon, a follow-on to a recent entry, “Trying to Take Pictures.” Therein I talked about first steps in imaging in general terms equipment-wise. Now I am gonna get specific as to camera choices. Well, some camera choices. This time out we’ll be looking at astronomy-specific cameras. Real Soon Now we’ll visit the DSLR showroom.

Hokay, for the sake of argument, we’ll assume you have settled on an astro-camera as your imaging tool of choice. These imagers, also sometimes generically referred to as “cooled cameras”—though not all of them feature active cooling—or “integrating cameras,” are, unlike Digital Single Lens Reflexes, intended almost exclusively for astronomy (some have been used for takin’ pictures through microscopes as well). You will not be shootin’ holiday snaps of Aunt Lulu and her beloved poodle dog with an SBIG ST-2000. It is possible to adapt them for piggyback imaging through standard camera lenses, but when I think “CCD” what I mostly envisage is “prime focus deep sky photography.”

What’s out there? A lot. From two or three big-time manufacturers serving the amateur-astro-community, we’ve gone to at least half a dozen majors and probably at least as many minors over the last fifteen years. You’ll see I’ve mainly stuck with the makers that appeal to the decidedly plebian side of the market. I speck those of y’all dippin’ your toes into the CCD pool for the first time are gonna want to do that to the tune of 2 – 3k dollars MAX. I know I did.

There are more good cameras in all price ranges than those you’ll find below, sure, but I do note there seems to be a general tightening up of the introductory market, especially. Some of the pioneering low-end names have dried up and blown away, maybe owing in part to the recession, but maybe also due to the popularity of DSLRs in the less than 1k category. SAC imaging, for example, who started with webcams and moved on to fairly sophisticated integrating cameras, is gone. ATIK, another early entry on the low end who went on to more sophisticated products, is still around but no longer has dealers in the U.S.

Starlight Xpress

Why do I start with the UK’s Starlight Xpress? One reason is that Terry Platt’s cameras have always been innovative, doing things nobody else does and doin’ that well. It’s also because the first CCD camera I owned when I got started in solid-state imaging a decade ago was an SX. I’d looked longingly at the SBIGs, but was a wee bit skittish about spending the money their introductory camera, the ST-237, cost. Not only was the Starlight MX516 cheaper, it featured self guiding.

No, it didn’t have a separate onboard guide chip like the SBIGs; that is a proprietary feature peculiar to the Santa Barbara cameras. No doubt a guide chip would have priced the 516 out of my one-grand or so range anyhow. But the 516 (and a couple of Terry’s other cameras) had somethin’ that sounded just as good: STAR 2000.

This auto-guiding system, still used in some current SX cameras, allows the CCD chip to guide and image at (almost) the same time. It requires an interlaced-scan type CCD, and essentially guides for half a frame and images for the other half. How well did this work on my little camera and how well might it work today? Purty good. Yes, it had the effect of reducing the sensitivity of these already not overly sensitive cameras a wee bit, but was workable. Given a decent polar alignment, it guided my Ultima 8 with surprising effectiveness.

So why did I wind up cussin’ the camera most of the nights I used it? Mainly due to its tiny 500x290 pixel chip. Given that I didn’t have a go-to rig at the time, getting a DSO on the sensor was challenging at best and damned near impossible most of the time. For that reason, I sold my MX516 in 2003 to raise the funds for a SAC 7B one-shot color (webcam) imager to use on Mars during that year’s amazin’ opposition, turned to Meade and then SBIG for my deep sky imaging needs, and never looked back.

Does that mean the Starlight Xpress cameras of today are no good? Not hardly. Terry’s current line is as sophisticated as anything out there. In fact, some of the finest images I’ve seen over the last several years have been produced with the company’s large-chip cameras. Not ready for large chips? The descendent of my li’l MX516, the SXVF-M7 improves on its ancestor with a somewhat larger 752x580 chip and one-shot color, and comes at a relatively reasonable $1595.00.

Unfortunately, the company’s newer imagers use progressive scan chips, meaning STAR 2000 won’t work with them. Starlight does make a nice compact guide-camera now, though. If you really want to try STAR 2000, the company still sells some interlaced chip cams, including the SXVF-M7. One huge advantage of the SX cameras comes for users of Fastar/Hyperstar. Their small cross-section tubular cases mean you won’t be blocking light or reducing contrast when you hang ‘em on your corrector.

In addition to innovation, Mssr. Platt offers high build quality and, very important for y’all just being initiated into the CCD way of picture taking, superb support after the sale. I said I turned to Meade and SBIG for deep sky cameras, and while that’s true, I still like the Starlight gear and will for sure consider one of their products in the future.

Meade

Meade produced a line of fairly sophisticated CCD cameras in the 1990s, its “Pictors.” Most notable of their advanced features was the more expensive models’ SCSI interfaces. Back then, everybody else was stickin’ with the same old uber slow parallel/serial mess. You’d a thought the Pictors would have been a big hit—both for their features and for the fact that lotsa Meade fans like Meade badges on all their gear—and they would have been if they’d worked right. Unfortunately, the word got out that the cameras in general and that SCSI interface in particular did not work very well at all.

There things remained until a couple of years after the new century came in. To be honest with y’all, I hadn’t associated the word “Meade” with the word “CCD” in quite a while. Not until I got an email from the good folks at Anacortes Telescope and Wild Bird. They was wonderin’ if I’d like them to reserve one of Meade’s new $399.00 DSIs for me.

A little rootin’ around on the dad-blasted Internets informed me that “DSI” was the acronym for Deep Sky Imager, Meade’s new one-shot color deep sky camera. My SAC7b, humble as it was, had shown me how nice it can be to get a color picture in one frame, so I was intrigued. And almost got out my credit card. Till further reading revealed the DSI was uncooled. Uncooled? Hell, even the SAC had a Peltier cooler. Wouldn’t the Meade’s images be a mass of false stars without coolin’ to reduce thermal noise?

Not according to Meade’s ads. They said the camera used a passive cooling system (a heat sink on the back) and software that turned off as much of the camera’s electronics as possible during exposures to reduce heat-inducing noise. Now, Meade’s ad-copy writers have been known to occasionally stretch the truth, or at least gussy it up, but I was intrigued. The sample images they was showing looked fairly impressive, 400 bucks was a lot less than I’d paid for the MX516, and this one had a bigger chip (510x492) than my old camera. I figured it was time I tried deep sky CCDin’ again.

When I received my DSI, I was right impressed. The little thing was solidly built and included a 1.25-inch nosepiece and an IR filter (albeit one not in a filter carrier; it was jus’ a piece of easily broken glass). Yeah, the dadgummed USB cable was way too short. What could Meade have been thinkin’ when they decided we would be OK with a 4-foot cord? Answer: nothing. Still, a genu-wine USB 2.0 camera for this price? Did I tell y’all just how long it took my MX516 to deliver an image to the computer via its parallel interface? Long enough to make me wonder if it was time to sign up for the consarned AARP.

So, “hardware good.” How about the software? That was a different story. A CD jus’ full of stuff was delivered with the camera. Somethin’ called “Autostar Suite.” This was not just a camera control program, but a planetarium app (Meade’s hoary ol’ Epoch 2000), and a barebones image processing program, Autostar IP. Those I could dispense with since I had TheSky and Photoshop at my beck and call. All I needed off the Meade CD was Enivsage, which ran the camera. It was a monster. Not just because it did a lotta stuff: focus assistance, image stacking, image quality evaluation, time lapse photography, histogram display—quite a contrast the barebones software that came with my MX516. It was also a monster when it came to user friendliness. And I don’t mean that in a good way.

The main screen of Envisage was an absolute mess of stuff. More than one new DSI user never got it figgered out. Which is not to say it didn’t work pretty good if/when you did. Once I’d somehow managed to cipher out how to get it goin’, it did an outstanding job. While Meade has tweaked Envisage over the years, it has retained the same character: 10 pounds of spit in a 5 pound bag.

Despite Envisage’s faux pas, I cranked up my CG5 and C8 and shortly got much farther with the DSI than I ever got with the ‘516. One huge help had nothing to do with the camera: even though I was using a very early version of the Celestron CG5 firmware, the mount would almost always put my targets on the DSI’s tiny chip at about 800mm of focal length (attained with Meade’s f/3.3 focal reducer).

After just a little experimenting, I established a routine that brought me some images that pleased and still please li’l ol’ me. I’d polar align using the utility in the hand control, go-to align the scope, focus up on the last alignment star, and send the mount to the evening’s first target. If it wasn’t on the chip or nearby, I’d engage Celestron’s “Precise Go-to” function. With that turned on, the mount would go to a bright star near the target. You’d center this star in the eyepiece and hit Enter. The CG5 would then proceed to the object of choice, which would invariably be visible on the computer screen. Which impressed me quite a bit. The little cam was actually pretty sensitive—considerably moreso than my old monochrome Starlight Xpress—and would show at least a trace of even dimmer objects with just a few seconds of exposure.

I found I could go as long as 30 – 45 seconds unguided with my humble rig and still get nice, round stars in most frames. What I would do was instruct Envisage to take 30 second frames, and stack those that were of good quality (which it was able to determine automatically) into the equivalent of a longer exposure. Half an hour of which would bring back just about anything I wanted. Not only would NGC 7331, the Deerlick, for example, be detailed and showing nice color, the tiny NGC galaxies around it, the Deer, would be there shining their little hearts out. More surprisingly, close examination of the image revealed miniscule sprites of PGC galaxies in the frame.

Yep, I was very pleased with the DSI; I felt like I was finally getting some CCD results. Not that it was perfect. Even with longer, guided exposures, the images it produced were noisier than those taken with a cooled camera. There was that eensy-beensy chip, too. I like to make 8x10s of my shots, and I found the camera’s images just would not stand that much enlargement. Otherwise, though, the original color DSI was a winner, and, as I’d hoped, Meade didn’t stop there.

Shortly after the original camera’s debut, they brought out a more sensitive monochrome version, the DSI pro (which included an integral filter slide for tricolor pictures). Both these cameras are gone now, though, being phased out not long after an even more improved cam, the DSI II, hit the streets. Not only had Meade improved the camera’s noise profile, the chip had got bigger too; it was now a slightly more generous 752x582. Even better, the price for the II has sunk to the same $399.00 I paid for the original. Like the earlier camera, this one is available in one-shot-color or “Pro” monochrome versions.

Meade still wasn’t done. Just as the II was reaching its ascendency, they brought out a DSI III. The III is the most expensive model yet, now clockin’ in at $799.00 (after a couple of price reductions), but that is an incredible price considerin’ what you get, which is mainly a 1.4 megapixel 1360x1024 CCD. No, there’s still no cooling, but Meade’s engineers have continued to refine their passive cooling scheme to the point where that is much less of a concern. These two babies (a color and a Pro as before) put Meade back into the big-boy camera arena they deserted when the Pictors were cancelled, and folks are doing some incredible work with them. I’m surprised there ain’t more interest in the DSI III than there appears to be.

Orion

Maybe I know the reason for that, though. Orion, the U.S. Orion, the Telescope and Binocular Center, decided to poach on Meade’s preserve camera-wise. They began by contracting with SAC, the wee Melbourne, Florida semi-garage-outfit, which had been having some success with its first non-webcam imager, the SAC 8. The resulting camera, a color one-shot, the StarShoot, was similar to the DSI in most ways. But not all. It was cooled, being designed around a Peltier solid state heat pump that was surprisingly miserly current-wise, operating off a pair of D cells. And it came with a simplified version of Maxim DL, Maxim DL Essentials, that most folks found easier to use than the confusing Envisage.

It wasn’t all gravy, though. Despite cooling, the StarShoot’s noise profile was not that hot (or maybe too hot). And like the SAC 8, the unregulated cooler had a tendency to make the chip frost-up on humid nights. The big problem, though, turned out to be getting one. There was simply no way SAC could produce enough cameras to satisfy Orion’s customers. They’d, in fact, had a hard time making enough SAC 8s to serve their own small customer base. It’s not unusual for too much success to bring a small company down just as quickly as too little. That was just what happened with SAC. In fairly short order they were in bankruptcy.

That didn’t stop Orion, though; they just switched suppliers (I don’t know who makes their cameras now, but it may be the UK’s Atik/Artemis). Whoever makes ‘em, they did their homework, as the current models, the StarShoot II, the StarShoot III, and the StarShoot Pro are worlds better than the SAC, and, in some ways, are a considerable advance over the DSI II and III. The one-shot color II is equipped with a 752x582 chip just like the DSI II. But not only does it come with better software, the Maxim DL Essentials program and an improved Peltier cooler, it goes for an amazing $299.00 now.

Want to play in the big leagues? Try the (monochrome) StarShoot III. It sports a 1392x1040 chip and improved cooling with the addition of a fan to help disperse the Peltier’s heat, something the original StarShoot and the StarShoot II both lack. Yes, at $1499.00, it’s more costly than the comparable DSI III, but the cooling system may make that an easy pill to swallow.

Don’t like black and white, and don’t intend to fool with tricolor imaging? $1199.00 gets you a StarShoot Pro, a one-shot-color Orion with a great big chip. This 6 megapixel cam delivers 3032x2016 pictures to your computer. If you want more better gooder than that, an additional 200 Georgie Washingtons will buy you the StarShoot Pro v2.0, which boasts a substantially improved thermoelectric cooling system. It’s still not regulated, but at least features software control of the fan.

These new cameras, along with a couple of autoguiders, including a standalone model (like the old ST4 and STV from SBIG), have given Orion a leg up in the CCD race. Not only are they leavin’ Meade behind in the low-end contest, they are preparing to release a pair of cameras using Kodak’s big KAF8300 chip. Since the heavy hitters in the CCD biz tend to price cameras using this CCD sensor in the 6000 buck and up range, if Orion can do a good job and also bring their pair of cams (a color and a monochrome) in for substantially less, they may be ready to play with SBIG, Apogee, and FLI, and will have come a real long ways since the days (not long back) of their little SAC imager.

SBIG

For those of us for whom the CCD bug is not just a passin’ affliction, it usually comes down to SBIG. Oh, some of y’all who are really good at this difficult art will kick it up another notch with the Apogees and FLIs, but, honestly, no matter how advanced you get, Santa Barbara Instrument Group has a camera for you.

Their product line ranges from the 765x510 ST-402, the descendant of the pioneering ST-4, to the likes of the new 16 megapixel STX camera. The ST-402 goes for a reasonable (given its build quality) $1495. Yes, you’ll pay more for an SBIG than you will for an Orion or a Meade, but from my first use of one, a buddy’s ST-237 (a long-discontinued novice camera) I could see why.

SBIG’s build quality is very high, all the cameras have regulated coolers (set it for -10, and it stays at -10) that deliver low noise images, and the software that comes with the cameras (CCDops) is simple and easy to use and really, really works. When I want a serious picture, I pull out an (1600x1200) ST2000, which, in addition to all the other qualities common to SBIG cameras, features the aforementioned extra chip to handle guiding. With no guide scope to worry about, CCD picture takin’ is, even for me, almost easy.

If I had to choose today? If I were just embarking on the daunting but exhilarating CCD adventure? If I had 3K to spend, it would be hard not to consider a monochrome or color ST2000. But I realize most beginners don’t want to spend that much. If half that is practical, I vote for the StarShoot Pro. Still too much? The DSI III—you could do worse. Because of the inherent additional difficulty imposed by a real small imaging chip, I don’t recommend the DSI II or StarShoot II. Not only does a little chip make target finding harder, even with a good go-to, the “magnification factor” imposed by small sensors makes guiding accuracy way more critical.

None of the above your cup of tea? There are other players in the intro/mid-range CCD game: ATIK, QHY, and more. Still not sure? There is that other road to deep sky imaging satisfaction, the Digital Single Lens Reflex. But that, muchachos, is a story for another Sunday.

What’s hap-nan here? At good ol’ Chaos Manor South? Not only is the Moon full, the clouds are back. Miss Dorothy and I spent most of yesterday evening at the (annual) Bayfest where we saw two of our favorite bands, Hank Becker and the Boogie Chillun, and hometown heroes Wet Willie. A good time was had by all. Even if a stinkin’ Coors Lite did set me back 5 bucks. In other news? Your ol’ Uncle continues his assault on modern technology, and now has a Facebook page up. Check it out, but be forewarned, I am still tryin’ to figure out how it works and what exactly it is good for.

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