Sunday, June 27, 2010

 

The Trouble with the Magazines III: The Rest

Things have changed a lot since your Uncle Rod was a pup. Back then, there was only one astronomy magazine, Sky and Telescope. There is no doubt li’l Rod would be amazed to walk into a Barnes and Noble today and see at least five honest-to-god astro-magazines ready for the buying. But should you buy the Other Guys? Which ones are the cat's meow?

I’ve given Sky and Telescope and Astronomy Magazine their medicine for the year (haw-haw), and now it’s time to attend to “the rest.” By that, I don’t mean the non-newsstand, subscription-only journals. Some of them, like Amateur Astronomy Magazine and Astronomy Technology Today, are good, very good. But they are a story for another Sunday. The subject this Sunday is the “glossies,” the newsstand rags other than Sky and 'Scope and Astronomy.

Which are? That depends on where you live, muchachos. For ol’ Unk down here in the benighted Possum Swamp, that consists of a trio out of the UK and Canada: Astronomy Now, Sky at Night Magazine, and SkyNews. I’ve occasionally been able to pick-up others, including some good ones from OZ and Ireland, but that is not possible here on a regular basis, and I hesitate to say pea-turkey about a pub I’ve only seen an example or two of.

Astronomy Now

This is Granpappy, relatively speaking. It’s been on the stands since 1987, when it began as a little quarterly edited by the esteemed Patrick Moore. The magazine has had a long series of editors since Sir Patrick departed—seven at last count over twenty-three years. Unfortunately, the post-Moore years haven’t all been good years.

I used to joke that the punishment for venial sins ‘round Chaos Manor South was being sentenced to straighten up the stacks of Astronomy Nows. The penalty for mortal sins was being condemned to read some of ‘em. That was then, though, and this is now. Over the last couple of years AN has improved dramatically. Even if it’s still prone to the occasional typos and layout errors it’s always suffered, it is now, no fooling, often a joy to read. Was that true for May 2010? Let’s see…

Hokay. Cover: UK magazines, and especially their covers, tend to the “busy” if not “insanely cluttered.” This issue of Astronomy Now gets brownie points here. It’s clean and modern-looking and attractive. A stark white background sets off a meteorite, the “theme” of this issue. The big title is, “It Came from Outer Space.” I like it. Oh, the masthead slogan is “The UK’s Best Selling Astronomy Magazine!” I don’t doubt that’s true, though I wonder by how much these days. Anyhoo, nice, clean cover. Would have been even better if whoever laid it out had resisted the More Better Gooder impulse and declined to insert a thumbnail picture of an Ioptron Minitower mount at the already crowded bottom. The paper stock, by the way, is the super-glossy stuff you see a lot of rags on the east side of the Pond using.

Inside, we first encounter the Editor’s spiel and the three-page Table of Contents. Current Editor, Keith Cooper’s, column is, well, OK, I guess. In the fashion of more than one astro-mag, it’s not an editorial, it’s a summary/send-up of the issue’s contents. Which is alright, but if I had column inches in a major magazine each month, I sure would be raising some hell about something every time. The TOC is fine, and includes short but succinct summaries for each entry.

I wasn’t surprised to see “News Update,” but that don’t make it right. Not only is this a waste of eight pages of editorial content in the Internet Age, it is excruciatingly cluttered, with every single page offering multiple boxes and sidebar-columns. There are also some design/layout issues, with one page sporting a title with some (not all) its words in dark blue type that disappears against a black background and looks wicked bad. Come on, y’all! Put the news on the Internet. You’ve got a decent, long-running website for just this sorta stuff.

My achin' eyeballs back in my head, I’m able to page past the News to the obligatory Letters page, “Your Views.” Or should I say “half page”? Astronomy Now has printed more than their share of good and interesting letters-to-the-Editor over the years (Hey! Unk even had one printed years ago!), so why take up half the page with “Key Moments in Astronomy”? Oh, I suppose this little historical blurb is interesting enough. But why here? That sums-up one of the magazine’s faults: organization. Stuff, any kind of stuff, is shoe-horned in anywhere it will physically fit. It’s enough to make this ol’ boy’s head swim.

On we go, to a nicely done piece by Keith Cooper about the UK’s VISTA infrared telescope, “The Perfect Vista.” It is well written and I like it. Then, just past a giant two-page ad spread by the U.S. Orion, is the next feature, Neil English’s “The Plough’s Triple Double Act,” which is about the Mizar/Alcor multiple star system. Maybe a little short at two pages when you jam-in four images and one sidebar, but not bad, not bad at all.

Done with the SCIENCE FACT, we come to what I really bought this doggoned issue for, Damian Peach’s “Caribbean Seeing.” Damian is no doubt one of the top two or three amateur Solar System imagers, and I would have enjoyed the article if all it were were some of his outstanding pictures (done with SCTs, natch). But he’s also an accomplished writer, and I thoroughly enjoyed his story of his imaging expedition to Barbados. Only downcheck? I’d like to have seen more and bigger pictures. The article does include a URL for Damian’s website, but I wish there’d been a full-page rendition of one of his superb Jupiters in the magazine.

Past a stunning picture of M81 and a nice—if brief—feature on massive stars by Carole Stott, is “The Night Sky,” AN’s current sky events section. What’s to say? It’s quite competent, and the monthly star chart is good and legible (I checked it under a red light). If you read the articles that accompany it, you’ll be well equipped for a month of observing. But…your brain will be spinning by the time you are done with this here nine pages.

What we have here is a microcosm of AN: busy layout with boxes and sidebars everywhere, disorganization reigning supreme. Deep sky here, planets there, comets to the right, galaxies to the left. Why not group the Solar System stuff together and do the same for the deep sky? Upcheck? At least they—unlike Astronomy Magazine—tend to stick to the same font, even if (shudder) almost every title and heading has to be in multiple colors.

And then there’s “Focus,” the section that contains the issue’s “theme” copy, meteorites this time. Has The Science Channel’s Meteorite Men, a surprise hit in the U.S., made it over to Old Blighty? I dunno, but I suspect so. The TV show has made meteorites and meteorite hunting suddenly big, big, big and hot, hot, hot. What’s sure is this dozen pages of text and graphics by Emily Baldwin and Keith Cooper is very well executed. Worth the purchase price of the magazine (AN’s cover price, three pounds twenty-five, has become eight dollars and seventy-five cents by the time it hits the Swamp, dammit).

Once we’re done with an “answer questions from the readers” page like those all the astro-rags fancy these days, there are a couple of amateur-oriented columns, Jeremy Perez’s “Drawn to the Universe,” and Martin Mobberly’s “TechTalk.” I particularly liked Jeremy’s (regular) column, which focuses on galaxy-sketching this time out. I suspect many folks who’re spending a fortune and tearing their hair out trying to do CCD imaging would be a lot happier and find their hairlines more intact if they tried simple deep sky sketching. In addition to clear and friendly instructions on “drawing what you see,” we get a couple of Mr. Perez’s outstanding artworks (yes). Kudos to AN for providing a regular feature on low-tech “imaging.”

There is also, of course, the high tech. If I’m an astro-gear head, Martin Mobberly is an astro-gear guru. So, it was a shame to see his entry this month, which concerns improving go-to mount accuracy via T-Point and similar software, crammed into less than two pages when you figure in a side-bar on an unrelated topic. Good writer that he is, Martin manages to get the basics across, but if only he’d had more space…

Winding down, now, it’s “In the Shops,” the review section, which is lead off by book reviews, nicely done book reviews, in a readable format. After which is the rag’s monthly gear review, this time by Ian Morison on Ioptron’s Minitower mount. It’s well written, and airs some minuses as well as pluses. I’m still on the fence about the Ioptron. I’ve heard plenty of negatives about it on the Internet, but given the (slight) experience I’ve had with it, Ian seems closer to the truth with this near-rave.

Just before the end is AN’s equivalent of Sky and Telescope’s old “Amateur Astronomers,” “Grassroots Astronomy,” which covers the UK club scene, and this time highlights “Young Astronomers.” Very nice work by Callum Potter; this is what every astro-rag everywhere should be doin’ more of.

And The End? I bet you guessed. Yep, AN’s gallery section, user contributed astrophotos. You know what? I like the UK take on this much better than what I see in the U.S. pubs of late (“114 hour exposure with a 16-inch RC on an AstroPhysics 3600 mount.”). What’s in Astronomy Now is attractive astrophotos by obviously accomplished imagers, sure, but most of ‘em were done with modest gear like the ubiquitous Synta EQ-6 mount. Hell, there’s even a drawing!

And that is it, for a total of 94 pages, very respectable by today’s astronomy magazine page-count standards.

Summing up, I like Astronomy Now. I find myself buying it almost every month despite its relatively high price tag (a subscription would help at a slightly less painful $65.00 a year for North America), not out of habit, but because I want to read it. If only they’d take it to the next level. Impose a little more organization on the contents, think “in-depth,” and simplify the cotton-pickin’ layout for god sakes.

Sky at Night Magazine

I was downright gobsmacked when I saw my first issue of Sky at Night in the W.H. Smith’s in Victoria Station in London in 2005. And I was even more surprised to see it in my local Barnes and Noble shortly thereafter. A magazine companion for my hero, Patrick Moore’s, long running TV show? Yay-ah! And that wasn’t all; in modern UK magazine biz fashion, the issue, and every issue that’s followed, has been accompanied by a CD. Cool! But let’s set that CD aside. It probably deserves a whole article, or at least part of one. For now, we’ll just consider the May issue of the non-virtual magazine.

If you didn’t know this was a 21st Century UK magazine, one glance at the garish cover would tell you so. There’s an astrophoto buried there somewhere, but it’s almost entirely obscured by a giant, screaming title, “What Lies Beyond…the edge of the Universe?” and four, count ‘em, FOUR thumbnail pictures, two text bubbles, smaller titles/headings, a contents column. Oh, and of course a pricetag. If’n you peel off the one that says “$8.75,” you’ll find the UK price hidden beneath, £4.25. Based on the current exchange rate, that should equate to $6.30, but I suppose a two-buck-and-change penalty ain’t too bad. The slogan? Astronomy Now says they are “The UK’s Best Selling Astronomy Magazine!” but TSAN counters with “THE BIGGEST NAME IN ASTRONOMY,” so there. The cover is of the UK-favored ultra-glossy stuff.

First thing first is a busy page (the cover should have prepared you for that), “Welcome.” In addition to pix and bios of contributors, there’s a graphic and a banner and a url trumpeting the magazine’s “vodcast.” If you are even more firmly locked in the last century than your Old Uncle, that’s a video podcast…an…uh…little TV show sort of deal you can download if’n you have an iPhone, iPod, or iPad (if you need to ask what those are, you don’t need to know). Most of the page is actually taken up by Editor Graham Southorn’s editorial. Like the one in Astronomy Now, it ain’t actually an editorial, but a preview of the inside of the magazine, and for that reason didn’t claim much of my time.

The next two pages are the table of contents for both the magazine and the CD. More properly, they are a koo-koo-krazy mélange of dueling fonts and exploding graphics. “Contents” gets the job done, howsomeever, and ANYTHING that actually includes the words “AND MUCH MORE!” has a place in my heart.

If one thing distinguishes The Sky at Night Magazine from its brethren, it is that this is wholeheartedly a magazine for what the publisher perceives as The Modern Age: very heavy on graphics, very light on text. Lots of flash, and lots of references to the Internet. The question is, “Does what works for OK! magazine work for an astronomy rag?”

Immediately following the TOC, we are hit in the face with TSAN’s graphics-heavy nature. The first feature is the regular, “Eye on the Sky,” a two-page astrophoto, this time a Hubble image of the Fornax Galaxy Cluster. It’s accompanied by some short and glib text and a graphic that points you to the CD for yet more purty stuff. The big astrophoto is immediately followed by two more pages of smaller pro pictures. They are very pretty; the captions are short, snappy, and informative; and the editors included a shot of one of my all-time faves, NGC 6334, the Cat’s Paw Nebula. Good on ‘em, then.

You’d think a mag that tries to be as hip as Sky at Night would dispense with the consarned astro-news, maybe just listing some urls (like that of the magazine’s website) where the latest and the greatest can be read. Nope. We get “Bulletin,” eight stinking pages of warmed-over news that’s not news to anybody who browses even a few astronomy websites. I suppose the mindset is, “Better have a news section, Astronomy Now has one.” Sheesh.

Past some ads to page 23, where we encounter the reason I started buying the magazine in the first place, “The Universe According to Patrick Moore.” Now, I’ll admit I am a long-time Sir Patrick fanboy, but even if I weren’t… Hell, this is a real EDITORIAL. In May, Patrick takes on President Obama’s new space policy in the inimitable Moore fashion. I urge you to read this one for yourself, but if you want a hint as to the direction, less jus’ say Sir Patrick AIN’T HAPPY.

“Wait just one pea-picking minute, Unk. How about a letters column? Surely they got one don’t they?” Sure they do. Well, sorta. We don’t get to it till page 26, and it ain’t exactly a letters-to-the-editor column. What it is is something called “Interactive,” and is a hodgepodge of, yes, a few reader letters, but also postings from the magazine’s blog, twitter tweets, prize offers, and even—and I am not making this up, y’all—a crossword puzzle (not that that is bad). Is this the wave of the future? Well, maybe…I dunno…it’s kinda a mixed up mess and all, but, yeah, I can see the rationale for posting tweets and forum posts in the magazine. I suppose I can, anyhow.

Done puzzling over “Interactive,” there’s the magazine’s first feature article, an amateur-oriented one, “Go-to versus Manual.” Instead of a stodgy examination of the pros and cons of compu-scopes, the magazine shows its lighthearted outlook with a “race” between an observer equipped with a manual GEM scope and one with a go-to mount. Nothing much is proven, as the objects are simple and the go-to user is penalized for taking too much time to set up an unfamiliar rig. That’s not the point. It’s supposed to be fun, y’all, and it is. It reeks of old-fashioned UK holiday madness at Brighton. Not that the novice won’t learn a little from the fun and games.

Next is—now don’t act surprised—a couple more pages of pretty pictures, this time by amateur contributors, “Hotshots.” There is some serious talent here, and some seriously impressive results, despite the fact that the magazine’s contributors, like Astronomy Now’s, tend to use more modest equipment than Sky and Telescope’s do: more EQ-6es and fewer AstroPhysics 1200s.

After the pix is an “Advertisement Feature,” whatever the hell that is. Actually, what it is is a profile of a gear-dealer, Astronomia, down in Surrey. This is, I suppose (but am not certain) paid advertising copy. Whatever it is, I like it. I wish the U.S. astro-mags would do something similar on our favorite dealers, who are often just anonymous voices on the phone or web pages on the net despite their prominence in our astro-lives.

Let’s get serious, now, with the issue’s lead article, Marcus Chown’s “What Lies Beyond the Edge of the Universe?” Well, sorta serious anyway. There’s only so much you can do on a subject of this magnitude (!) in six graphics-heavy pages, and Chown, who, according to his blurb in the front of the rag is—or was—a cosmologist, wisely chooses to stick to the more glitzy and mind-blowing aspects of Inflation Theory, which is what this nicely written piece is mostly about.

Just like her sister mags, TSAN’s middle is taken up with the monthly sky-news and a naked eye star chart. What’s in “The Sky Guide” in addition to the sky map (which passed my red light torture-test) is a mix of various articles on planetary and deep sky observing. This part of TSAN is more accessible than its Astronomy Now counterpart, since it’s at least a little better organized. Let me single out Carol Lakomiak’s “Sketching” column here for praise. Well-done and accompanied by her beautiful drawings (as y’all can tell, I love to sketch and love articles on the Art).

Informed as to May’s “what’s up,” next on the menu is a variety of beginner-oriented features, which includes the rib-tickling, “Lost in Space” by Keith Hopcroft, wherein a physician chronicles his misadventures as a sometimes/often befuddled novice amateur astronomer. I just wish they’d give pore ol’ Keith a full page instead of the half-page he currently occupies. Hell, the BBC should make this into a comedy series, sorta like an astronomical Fawlty Towers.

We go light again with Kate Oliver’s “Cosmic Cookery.” Yeah, it’s VERY silly: “recipes” for various astronomical bodies. But it is fun. I keep using that word regarding TSAN, don’t I? “Garcon! One spiral galaxy on the half-shell to go!”

OK hardcore imagers, or wannabes, anyhow. Pete Lawrence takes you to CCD boot camp with “Perfection,” an introduction to the joys (ahem) of digital image calibration. There’s nothing for me to mutter about here other than that there’s no way you can do justice to this complex subject in three pages.

One thing Astronomy Now and Sky at Night Magazine have in common is their in-depth coverage of amateur astronomy (and related) events—star parties, club meetings, planetarium shows, etc. Last time I checked, the U.S. monthlies have been making do with a page or less on this topic. TSAN has three jam-packed pages.

Another cool thing the magazine has been doing of late is (simple) construction projects that are accompanied by extensive material on the CD—plans, pictures, and sometimes video. This month, we give building a field computer shelter a go in “How to Build a Laptop Imaging Centre.” It ain’t nothing that special, but it is a nice project with some clever touches, and I wish to hell I’d had this some years ago when I was trying to figure out how to protect my PC from dew.

Now to the gear review section, one of the highlights of the magazine. It’s always in two parts; first is a standard and usually good review of a single item (if too short, just like those of every other newsstand rag). Part two is a “shoot-out” pitting at least several examples of a scope or mount or other gadget against one-another: six-inch reflectors or go-to mounts, for example, or, this time, 10x50 binoculars. It would be nice to have a little more depth than is obtainable in the relatively short text each “contestant” gets, but this is a wonderful idea. The reviews are up-to-date too, with the May single-product under test being the new Orion (U.S) adaptive optics guider, which neither of the American monthlies has seen fit to cover yet.

Bringing up the rear is that standard for all magazines “new product announcements,” which is called “Gear” in TSAN. Oh, and book reviews, “Books.” No, it’s not very creatively named, but the reviews can be good depending on who’s writing any given one on any given month. They can also, alas, be pretty darned lousy.

No, we ain’t done just yet. The page count this issue was 106, which puts TSAN in the number one spot this time, with Astronomy Now coming in second, Sky and Telescope third, and Astronomy Magazine at the back of the pack. That means time for a cupla more short ones, including “Glossary,” which is, yep, you got it, a glossary of a few astronomical terms (more are on the CD). And, last, TSAN’s “parting shot.” A single page, “Night Life,” gives professional astronomers (I don’t recall ever seeing amateurs here) the opportunity to say a few words about their lives and work. And that is fine. But how about opening it up to amateur astronomers as well? Many of them/us have some interesting things to say, too.

What do I think? When it comes to technical level, Sky at Night Magazine is, I reckon, on a par with Astronomy Magazine. But that’s not necessarily a bad thing. While I’ve been known to crack open a copy of the Astrophysical Journal on occasion, I love TSAN. Because, yeah, IT IS FUN. They do endeavor to cover technical subjects, just in a light, non-technical, and, yeah, that word again, FUN way. Between you and me and the fencepost, if a subscription to TSAN weren’t so doggoned expensive, 79 pounds for Possum Swamp, which equates to 117 cotton-pickin’ dollars, I’d be tempted to replace Astronomy with The Sky at Night. But $9.75 an issue at the subscription rate is a dollar MORE than the newsstand price. DAGNABIT!

SkyNews

Oh, Canada! You’ve got some world class amateurs—David Levy and Terrence Dickinson to name just two—and and an amateur astronomy organization, the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada, that’s the envy of a lot of us down south, but, until fifteen years ago, no astronomy magazine of your own. In 1995, the aforementioned Mr. Dickinson, a well-known author (Nightwatch), and the Canada Science and Technology Museum changed that with SkyNews, which had started life some time before as a small newsletter like those done by many planetariums and museums.

What’s the May/June 2010 SkyNews like? It is, today, a full-fledged astronomy magazine that looks as professional as anything on the newsstand. Many of its writers are big names in North American amateur astronomy. And yet…and yet…it’s undeniably a click down from the Big Four we’ve examined thus far. It’s bimonthly, not monthly, and it is pretty thin, pretty doggoned thin, even given today’s reduced page counts, 46 frackin’ pages. How well does SN capitalize on what little it’s got?

The cover is busy, if not quite as cluttered as its UK counterparts. A picture of IC410 forms the background, and the nebula is indeed peeping out in the bottom quarter of the cover, but just barely. In addition to a banner trumpeting the magazine’s 15th anniversary, there’s plenty of text and a couple of thumbnail pix. Oh, well. I know publishers are convinced this is the way to grab a buyer’s attention, but I wonder if they ever consider that too much is sometimes just too much? The price? $4.95, very reasonable.

Past a couple of pages of advertising, there’s the TOC. Nothing to scold or praise here. Gets ‘er done. Another flip brings up “Editor’s Report,” Terrence Dickinson’s page. Par for the course, this isn’t an editorial; it’s a recap of the magazine’s history. But it’s interesting and to be expected on the special occasion of the rag’s 15th anniversary issue

SkyNews is not immune to the odd desire all the magazines have to print news in each and every issue, even though each astronomy magazine has a website better-suited to that purpose. At least SN limits the silliness to one page. I wonder, though, if they had more pages, would they expand the news section? Prob’ly.

OK, first feature. Ray Villard, the well-known news director of the Space Telescope Science Institute, ponders the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence in “Will We Inherit the Galaxy?” A page or so of text (once you subtract the illo) ain’t much room for deep thoughts, and there ain’t too much to ruminate on here unless S.E.T.I. is new to you.

The inspiring story of Tim Doucette’s struggle to see the deep sky despite a lifetime of vision problems is short, two pages, but maybe worth the price of admission if you find your enthusiasm at a low ebb.

Terence Dickinson is up to bat next with “Binoculars.” It’s, as you might expect, a beginner’s guide to binoculars for astronomy. If you’ve been around a while, there’s nothing here for you; if you are a novice you will read enthusiastically and learn a lot.

You've probably read Ken Hewitt-White’s stuff before. He’s an accomplished writer and observer and a regular in SkyNews. His subject this time, “Challenges by the Dipper,” by which he means M97 and M108, is likely old-hat if you’ve been hitting the deep sky for any length of time. It’s a fun enough read, though.

Seems like we just opened the rag, and we’re already to the middle and the star chart and associated material. Since SkyNews originated as, well, sky news, you’d expect the centerfold sky events section to be prominent—and it is. The star dome/chart is a little simpler and less deep than what you find in the other magazines, but maybe that is a good thing. It’s very legible under a red light, and shows everything you generally want when you’re going naked eye.

The balance of the section is filled by Alan Dyer’s “Exploring the Night Sky.” Not only is Alan an excellent writer, the design of this feature, some text, but mostly short blurbs for each event paired with clear graphics (many done with Canada’s own Starry Night computer program), is wonderful. One of the best things in the magazine and the main reason to buy it month by month.

I’m sure you know Gary Seronik. He’s a Sky and Telescope staffer, does a couple of columns for that magazine each month, and is one of the most knowledgeable and talented amateurs/writers around. You’ll be pleased to know he’s an SN regular with “On the Moon.” His entry this month, about observing the Moon with naked eye and small binoculars, is, I reckon, aimed at novices, but I enjoyed the hell out of it.

OMIGOD, the gallery already? Uh-huh. With less than fifty pages, things go quickly. The not too creatively named “Gallery,” is, not surprisingly, a collection of reader-contributed astrophotos. This month, SkyNews presents a nice mix of subjects and techniques from the advanced to the elementary.

Yep, just about outa SkyNews for two months, but we still have Glen Ledrew’s “The Reddest Stars of Spring,” wherein the author does a fine job—or as fine as you can do in one page—of introducing carbon stars to beginning observers. And there's also the monthly equipment review. This time by the man hisself, Mr. Dickinson, with a look at Explore Scientific’s 5-inch ED refractor. There’s good and bad there.

The bad is that because of the magazine’s staunch focus on novices the author spends a whole lot of his two pages explaining the ropes of refractors. The actual review of the ES 5-inch is little more than a single page in length. The good is that he turns in a respectable review of the scope nevertheless. Terrence won me over from the start with his reminiscences about the salivated-over giant Unitron refractors of his (and my) youth. Moreover, given his experience level, if Dickinson says a scope is good, it’s good, whether he takes one page or ten to say it.

You’ll likely be delighted to find that other famous Canadian amateur, David Levy, is a regular in the pages of SN with his “Nightfall” column. It’s short, but it’s excellent, even at half a page. This time, David spills his guts with regards to his SCT abuse.

Like I done tole y’all, almost every astro-mag today has some kind of “parting shot” feature…a single page at the end, an editorial-cum-human-interest thingie. SkyNews has “Northern Lights,” which, this month, is Ken Hewitt-White’s ponderings on extraterrestrials and the weighty question of whether they ever run up to the dadgummed cosmic 7-11 for a sixpack of brew and a carton o’ milk.

So? SkyNews is, yeah, short. But it does quite a lot with what it’s got. If I had a single criticism? Well, if I had a couple of criticisms? I’d like to see the magazine develop a better balance between novice and advanced material. There is usually fairly little beyond the sky events pages and equipment reviews to appeal to amateurs who are past even their freshman year. The technical level here is noticeably lower than Astronomy Magazine’s. Secondly? I think, given the low page count, it might be good to do some things differently. Just because the big boys have a news page, an editorial, and a letters column every time, don’t mean you have to. If something needs more space, MAKE SPACE FOR IT. 

Still, I like this little rag. Always have. I don’t buy every issue, but I buy plenty of ‘em and am usually happy with it. As a matter of fact, the article SkyNews did some time back on choosing a DSLR for astronomical imaging (by Terrence Dickinson, I recall) is still the best thing I have seen anywhere on that subject.

Next Time: I don’t hold out much hope of getting back to the Herschel Project for a while. There’s a big Moon in the sky this weekend. And we seem to be into our usual summer pattern of evening clouds and thunderstorms. Not to mention the fact that Tropical Storm Alex is knocking on the door of the Gulf (all we need). Do not despair, muchachos; I’ve got plenty of the fun and the crazy in the typical Unk Rod fashion to tide you over till we can get back under the stars.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

 

The Herschel Project Night 10: 365 Down, 35 to Go


Y’all know me; I’m not much of a rules follower. Not even when it comes to self-imposed ones. But it was a good thing I stuck to the rule I recently laid down for myself: “If it ain’t actually raining, head to the dark site.” I pulled in a fair haul of Herschels this past Saturday evening despite poor weather. It wasn’t raining, but, aside from that, conditions were near about as bad as I could imagine. It was hazy, it was hot, it was buggy, and the second I stepped outside I was hit in the face by the smell of the crude oil clogging the Gulf of Mexico.

Hot, yeah. I’ll say. We’ve had heat indexes of 110F+, and it ain’t even July yet. But if you live down here, you’ve learned to deal with the heat, if not like it. At least it would drop into the upper 70s by midnight—maybe. Bugs? The Thermacell keeps the worst of them away and frees me from having to slather on the DEET. As for the oil, there’s not a hell of a lot we can do about that; I suspect it’ll be with us for quite a spell.

While the Clear Sky Clock—err, “Charts”—showed plenty of near-white squares for transparency, the top row, the cloud cover row, was shades of blue. So, I’d give the ol’ Tanner-Williams site a go. But how? I could have done “simple and easy” with Charity Hope Valentine, my ETX 125, or the new long-focus refractor, Eloise, who’s come to live with us at Chaos Manor South (more on her some Sunday). “But.” June’s here, I’m seven months into the twelve months I’ve allotted myself for the Herschel Project, and I missed most of the Canes Ventatici objects due to clouds when I was Down Chiefland Way last month. This outing better be a full-bore Herschel run, then.

What would that require? Given the conditions, I was pretty much assured I’d need the Stellacam II if I were to have a prayer of cutting through the haze to bring back 13th magnitude galaxies. I did wimp-out slightly: I left Big Bertha, our NexStar 11, at home in favor of Celeste, a 1995 Ultima C8 optical tube riding on a Celestron CG5 go-to mount. As you may have heard, a deep sky video camera can (at least) triple your aperture, and I figgered the 24 virtual inches the C8-Stellacam combo would give me would be sufficient to bring back my quarry if we weren’t completely clouded out.

The C8 is less of a chore to haul out for a dark site expedition than the NS11, but, as you can see in the picture of stately Chaos Manor South’s front parlor, it still takes considerable gear to do an astro-video run. In addition to scope and mount, I need the camera, the portable DVD player I use as a monitor, the DVD recorder to capture my images, a PC to run NexRemote and SkyTools 3, two jumpstart batteries to power scope and dew heaters, a big trolling motor bat’try to power the DVD recorder, an inverter to feed the AC-only recorder, three accessory boxes full of Stuff, a camp table to put everything on, the PC shelter I use to keep dew off the electronics and shield my fellow observers from the (red filtered) screens, and various other odds and ends including the couple of cans of Monster Energy Drink I need to get through a summer deep sky crusade.

When I finally made up my mind to pull the trigger after waffling back and forth for a while about whether it was really worth bothering with all the junk on such a night, I loaded the astrostuff into the car with fair efficiency, but without hurrying in the heat. Even so, by the time I was done, I was soaked to the skin with sweat. This wasn’t exactly gonna be what you’d call a “comfortable” night. Oh, well. The die was cast. No pain-no gain, stiff upper lip and all that rot.

After a pleasant drive of about an hour in the company of Garrison Keillor and A Prairie Home Companion, I arrived onsite, stepped out of the vee-hickle, and was descended upon by a cloud of mosquitoes, gnats, and even a wasp or two. First thing I did was get the Thermacell cranking, and after a few minutes it had chased the biting bugs off. Didn’t seem to have much effect on the annoying no-see-ums, though. Setup was uneventful. It was still in the upper 80s, but a light breeze kept me from succumbing to heat stroke. Done, I hooked my el cheapo Cobra GPS receiver to the netbook and let NexGPS get a fix.

Tightwad that I am, I’ve never been able to convince myself to buy Celestron’s near-200-buck GPS receiver for the CG5. I mean, come on, GPS is convenient, but all it does for a German-type mount is save you a few keystrokes—you don’t have to enter latitude and longitude (NexRemote picks up time and date from the PC clock). Then, one day, I was browsing the dealer tables at the local hamfest and ran across a small GPS receiver with serial output for 25 bucks. Boom! I had GPS for the CG5.

The NexGPS program, which comes standard with NexRemote, is simple to use and is maybe even more convenient than the Celestron CN16 receiver. Plug a serial-capable GPS into the PC’s serial port or a serial-USB converter cable, start NexGPS, and hit “connect.” You’ll begin seeing data flowing, and when the GPS has a fix, latitude and longitude will be displayed. You then save the position as one of up to four named “Sites.” When you start NexRemote, you right-click on the virtual hand control, pick “select a site” from the menu, and choose the appropriate location. If you come back to the same spot next time—at least within a mile or three—you don’t even have to connect the GPS again; just keep reusing the saved site. NexGPS is a great idea, really sweet, muchachos.

Done, I waited for darkness. It was hard to tell what the sky would do as sundown came on. There was a line of clouds, but it extended no more than 10 degrees above the western horizon, not coming close to extinguishing beautiful Venus. Still, weather to the west is never a good sign here. Otherwise? Some cloud patches and a lot, and I do mean a lot, of haze. At least I didn’t have to wait out the clouds all by myself. One of our longtime PSAS members had braved the heat and humidity, as had a couple of new recruits.

Sundown came and went, but I still couldn’t see Polaris. Which made it impossible to do a rough polar alignment by sighting through the mount’s empty polar bore (no squinting through a--probably misaligned--polar scope for this boy). So I waited. And waited. And waited. Finally, at about 9:45pm, I was able to line up the mount on the Northstar, boot-up the computer, and get the go-to alignment done. Or so I thought.

I really don’t have a good excuse, except that sweat was dripping in my eyes and gnats buzzing in my ears, but when I selected the telescope model and software build I wanted to use in NexRemote, I picked the wrong thing(s). Whichever combination I chose tried to work with my little GEM; it just didn’t have much success. After I lit-off the mount and told it to begin alignment, it asked me if I wanted to do an “Automatic Align.” What? I didn’t remember nothing like that in the CG5 software. Well, this was the latest CG5 software, and I hadn’t used it much...whatever. I swatted another dozen bugs and clicked “Enter.”

The alignment started promisingly enough. Well, OK, anyhow. I had to bypass several stars with “Undo” to find one, Regulus, that was peeping through the clouds that were occupying most of the sky and slowly drifting north. Celeste made her usual weasels-with-tuberculosis sound (nearly as loud as Charity Hope Valentine) and headed that-a-way. I was a mite surprised she stopped as far from the target as she did—about 15 degrees—but, hey, this was the first time I’d used my new netbook computer with the CG5, and NexRemote didn’t have any stored alignment data from previous outings to work with. OK, star two…WHAT THE HELL?! Seemed as NR wanted me to line-up on Acrux.

Purty obviously something was badly wrong if NexRemote thought that southern sparkler, which never rises from the latitude of Possum Swamp, ort-ta be visible. Hmmm…missed the first star by 15-degrees… That’s usually a sign of time problems. I checked time and date and found nothin’ amiss. Maybe a glitch? I started over. Again, when I said “start alignment,” NR asked about “Automatic Align.” Finally a light bulb, dim though it was, went off. AUTOMATIC ALIGN?! The CG5 ain’t got no automatic align. It ought to be asking about TWO STAR align!

I exited to “settings,” corrected my faux-pas, reset the mount to its index marks and started all over. This time all was well. NR chose appropriate alignment stars, and by the time I got to the third of four possible Calibration stars, the target was in the eyepiece of the main scope when the slew stopped. After that, I ran the hand control's polar alignment routine and redid the go-to align one last time. I’d had to adjust the mount altitude and azimuth a considerable amount to bring the pole in, so my go-tos would have been off if I’d left things as they were.

I reckon some of you are wondering why I bother with a good polar alignment. After all, the CG5 will put objects in the field of an eyepiece with the R.A. axis ten degrees or more away from the pole. The answer is “because I intended to image with the Stellacam II.” Even with the cam’s relatively short 10-second exposures, polar misalignment shows up as elongated, ugly stars.

All that remained was to focus, which I did by mounting the Stellacam II on the rear cell and placing my Bahtinov Mask over the C8’s aperture. One nice thing this time out? I was able to sit at the video monitor and adjust focus. I finally got around to ordering a long extension cable for my JMI Motofocus hand control—I was way too lazy to make one myself. What luxury! When the spikes on the star were positioned as they are ‘sposed to be, I removed the mask, put my Dewstar dewshield back on the C8, and sent Celeste to M53 for a final focus/go-to check.

Not only did M53 look way good, a sparkling handful of tiny rhinestones, it was smack in the center of the small Stellacam II chip. No, the CG5 is not an AP Mach 1 or even a Losmandy G11, but it is a good little GEM. In the five years I’ve had it; it’s never let me down. When I bought the CG5, I was skeptical. How could it be any good for the comparatively paltry sum Celestron demanded (it’s even cheaper five years later)? But it was. Its go-to is amazingly accurate, easily in the same league as the Celestron GPS and Meade LX200 scopes. Despite its light build and inexpensive nature, I’ve even taken guided long-exposure images with it that have pleased me. Lightly loaded with a C8 and the Stellacam II, it delivers very impressive results. One of the best buys I’ve made over my 45 years of amateur astronomy, to be frank with you-all.

One last brain fart before I was able to start ticking the Herschels off on SkyTools 3: it helps to select the correct observing list. I had logged both NGC 4449 and NGC 4111 before it dawned on me I was working my way through the list I’d made from one of my fave books, Celestial Objects for Common Telescopes (more on that Real Soon), rather than the Herschel II. Head finally on straight, I began sending Celeste to the correct Canes Venatici sprites:

Canes Venatici

NGC 5023 (H.II.664) is not overly bright in the Stellacam II, but is attractive. It is an Scd edge-on of magnitude 12.85 and about 7.3’ across in images. Very pretty.

An intermediate inclination magnitude 12.16 galaxy of type SA-r, NGC 4138 (H.I.196) is reputed to show a ring feature. There’s certainly no sign of that on the monitor. Small, bright nucleus. Some hint of a disk, but not much beyond that.

NGC 5103 (H.II.665) is not much. On both its POSS plate and with the C8, it is a small 1.4’ Sab that’s slightly elongated and positioned near a bright field star.

In images, NGC 5383 (H.I.181), a de Vaucouleurs SB(rs)b:pecSbrst, has the “Tie Fighter” look some barred galaxies assume. On the monitor, there are a few hints of the “wings,” but just a few. Given the low transparency, most of the time I see just a bright nucleus and a hazy outer envelope.

NGC 5371 (H.II.716) is attractive. It’s a near face-on 4’ in size SAB(rs)bc, and despite poor conditions I can often see one hooked spiral arm and sometimes two.

Not a whole lot to say about NGC 4369 (H.I.166), which is a magnitude 12.3 SA. An almost round fuzzy spot of a galaxy with a bright center and a dimmer, diffuse envelope.

Poor conditions notwithstanding, NGC 4244 (H.V.41), the famous Silver Needle Galaxy, is bright and majestic. Stretches at least a third of the way across the screen and displays a tiny, bright nucleus.

NED says there is nothing at this position, but SkyTools says “elliptical,” and that is what I see with the Stellacam. I presume this galaxy is indeed NGC 4912. It’s not overly interesting, but is prominent at magnitude 12.5 and has a bright core. Barely visible diffuse outer haze.

NGC 4956 (H.II.413) is a face-on magnitude 13.3 lenticular, and there’s frankly not a lot to describe beyond that. With the C8, it is a fuzzy star less than 1’ in diameter and that is it.

The same goes for NGC 5444 (H.II.417), a magnitude 12.8 E+ galaxy 1.65’ across its major axis. Onscreen it’s a slightly elongated, slightly fuzzy star.

NGC 5445 (H.III.413), an edge-on lenticular, is 6’35” to the south-southeast of 5444. It is small at 1.65’ long (in pictures), but it’s very clear what it is, a razor sharp little sliver of a galaxy. Possessed of a bright core, it is quite lovely.

NGC 5440 (H.II.416) is an Sa spiral, but in the C8 it’s just a bright nucleus with an elongated outer envelope and that is all.

On the POSS and on the monitor, it’s hard to tell what is going on with NGC 4395 (H.I.29). It’s classified as a SA(s)m, and displays a weird, irregular, spotty appearance.

Draco

NGC 4291 (H.I.275) is a small, round magnitude 1.4 fuzzie. It is in the same field as NGC 4319 (H.I.276), which is elongated.

NGC 4133 (H.I.278) is marginally interesting at best tonight. Small SABb about 2’ across its longest axis. Intermediate in inclination, and I occasionally see a suggestion of spiral detail.

A “good enough” face-on SA(s)0 of magnitude 11.87, NGC 6340 (H.II.767) doesn’t show much in the way of detail other than that it brightens gradually toward its middle. There is a magnitude 11 – 13 double star 1’42” to the galaxy’s north-northwest.

NGC 4250 (H.I.264) is nice. In images, it’s another Tie Fighter, and I occasionally catch sight of those details in this SAB (r) 0.

Lovely NGC 4236 (H.V.51) is large at 21.9’ x 6’. What I can see of it looks a little like NGC 253, though in deep images this SBdm seems to show a set of far flung spiral arms more like M81.

NGC 3682 (H.I.262), in contrast, is a whole lot of nothing. A lenticular, an SA (s) 0 of intermediate inclination, it’s obviously elongated with a large central area and a fairly extensive outer envelope, but nothing more than that is visible.

NGC 4256 (H.II.846) is a skinny sliver of an incredibly beautiful edge on SA(s)b spiral. Large, 4.5’ in images. I occasionally think the Stellacam shows hints of an equatorial dust lane.

An SA(s)cd, NGC 6015 (H.III.739) is quite the attractive spiral. Definitely shows arm detail, no doubt about that.

NGC 5985 (H.II.766) is good-looking in images, where it resembles a smaller M81, and it shows some hints of that on my monitor. It is in the field with two other bright galaxies, fuzzball NGC 5982, which is 7’26” to the northwest, and a pretty edge on, NGC 5981, which is 6’18” further northwest.

The last Draco resident, NGC 5879 (H.II.757), is lacking in detail. It’s a skinny thing on the monitor despite its intermediate inclination, and shows a bright core and a substantial haze surrounding that, but I don’t see any indication of other features in this SA(rs)bc.

Hercules

NGC 6155 (H.II.690) is unprepossessing, a bright nucleus surrounded by some haze.

NGC 6239 (H.III.727) is a an oblong-shaped magnitude 12.9 sprite of an SB(s)b pec that’s probably suffered an interaction with another galaxy.

Planetary nebula NGC 6058 (H.III.637) is the first and only non-galaxy Herschel object tonight. Small (25”) but easy to identify. It shows a magnitude 13.9 central star and some suggestions of an annular shape.

NGC 6166 (H.II.875) is a bright elliptical in a field full a little MCG and PGC ghosts. 6166 is elongated, 1.9 x 1.4’, and has a magnitude of 12.78.

NGC 6181 (H.II.753) is an interesting SA(rs)c that shows definite spiral detail with two loose arms.

NGC 6548 (H.III.555), a good looking S0 lenticular, shows a bright core and a spindle-shaped disk.

The last Hercules H II, NGC 6106 (H.II.151), is an SA(s)c of intermediate inclination to us. Bright middle that tapers off to a diffuse, elongated haze. Oval shaped, 2.5’ x 1.4’, and reasonably bright at magnitude 12.8. I don’t see any signs of the multiple arms it shows in long exposure images, however.

Hydra

NGC 5061 (H.I.138) is still above the horizon—barely. This bright (magnitude 11.44) and big (3.5’ x 3.0’) E0 elliptical is reduced to a small fuzz-spot by its low altitude.

Why only one Hydra fuzzy? Due to clouds to the southwest, I’d had to wait way too late in the evening to visit the watersnake. By 11:30 p.m. he was diving beneath the horizon, and, with a flick of his lustrous tail, was gone. This may be a problem. I really need to hit the twelve remaining Hydras next month, and even then it will be a near thing. I didn’t do the constellation last month while I was down in Chiefland because it was invariably cloudy in the Snake’s part of the sky. Worse comes to worst, I should still be able to finish the H-Project by November if’n I stay up real late and catch the dang reptile on the flip-flop before dawn.

Hokay. No Hydra. What then? Not much. The sky conditions, never good, were getting worse as midnight approached. I wasn’t feeling so hot myself. Actually, I was hot. I was wet with perspiration and feeling just a mite jittery, probably due to the two Monsters I’d poured down my gullet in succession. And that is probably why I got a little spooked. My fellow observers had left about an hour before, and I was now feeling jumpy. Not quite jumpy enough that I wished I had my ol’ dark site heat, my Walther PPK, at hand, but nervous enough that every distant coyote howl and every snapped twig that indicated nothing direr than a passing possum caused a little voice to begin whispering to me…

That sound ain’t no possum, Unk. It could be THE MOTHMAN. Oh, and you know THE SKUNK APE LOVES THIS PART OF THE COUNTRY. What’s THAT? Is that an innocent satellite yonder OR IS IT THE SHIP OF THE LITTLE GREY DUDES FROM ZETA RETICULI II? Maybe THE DELIVERANCE GANG is—err—“bringing up the rear?” Hark! Is that a banjo I hear?

Sigh. When I get like this, I know it’s useless to try to do any more work. I can’t concentrate when I’m listening for approaching footsteps and wishing for my shooting iron. The facility we use is safe as milk, with its good and friendly residents just meters away. That knowledge didn’t help: “But Unk, I’ll bet them li’l grey sumsabeeches wouldn’t have no trouble at all ABDUCTING YOU before you could so much as squeak.

I won’t say I hurried packing the gear. Not exactly. Well, maybe a little. With my camp lantern on, I was isolated in a bubble of light on a dark field. SOMETHING on the distant tree line could easily see me without being seen…

Sheesh! Embarrassing? A little. But I suspect more of us get spooked during solo observing runs out in the boonies than care to admit it. Leastways, it was clear my near case of the screaming meemies was mostly brought on by physical factors. I sat in the loaded car for a few minutes with the air conditioner blasting, drank a bottle of water, and was feeling like my old self directly. Good enough that I located my flashlight, got out of the car, and made a quick scan of the area for dropped items before departing. I did leave the door open and the engine running, mind you, but that was purely for convenience’s sake, doncha know.

So how was your Saturday night, muchachos?

Sunday, June 13, 2010

 

First H-Bomb on Venus


Skunked! Skunked! Skunked! Not that I was surprised. Last Saturday dawned to thunderstorms, and while the Clear Sky Clock showed a row of pale blue squares for the coming evening, at Sundown there was drizzle punctuated by passing boomers. Out the window went what I’d planned for y'all this week, “Amateur Astronomy the Old Fashioned Way.” Unk shouldn't bellyache, though; looking back over the blog, it’s been three whole weeks of observing articles, which must be some kind of record given my typical late spring – early summer skies.

So…here I sit. It’s still cloudy. The heat index for today is predicted to go to 105. When the wind is right (or wrong), we can for sure smell the oncoming oil slick out in our formerly beautiful Gulf of Mexico. Where can I take y’all this week, then?

When I began this here blog and settled on a strict schedule of weekly entries, I wondered how long I could keep going before I ran out of things to talk about; needless to say, that ain’t happened and I guess it never will. As soon as I realized observing articles were gonna be at All Stop for a while, several ideas suggested themselves. The one that came out on top concerns the third in my triumvirate of fave 1950s – 1960s science fiction flicks. I’ve already done The Angry Red Planet and Journey to the Seventh Planet; now it’s time for First Spaceship on Venus.

As you know if you’ve read the other two installments, my Old Man (a.k.a. “The Chief Op”) was an engineer at a local TV station. He often worked the night shift on weekends, and wouldn’t make it home from the studio till well after the station signed off at midnight. Mama was not one to cheerfully endure the scary hours of darkness alone in a house with a little kid (me), so when there was something playing at the motion pictures that she thought she would like and I would endure without too much squirming—if bribed with an Orange Crush and an Almond Joy—off we went to the cheapest of Possum Swamp’s theaters, the good, ol’ Roxy.

I don’t believe Mama ever looked through any of my telescopes. Well, maybe once, the time she and Daddy and me watched Comet Ikeya-Seki rise with the Sun, but that was it. Despite not being overly astronomically minded, she just loved science-fiction books and movies. Her favorite books were those that tended to the light and sentimental like John Boyd’s The Last Starship from Earth, her all-time favorite. The SF movies she favored tended to the spectacular and/or frightening, especially ones that touched on that most deliciously scary of topics for her, ATOMIC WAR. ‘Twas, no wonder, then, that she was all excited about the evening’s entertainment, 1962’s First Spaceship on Venus.

I loved SF movies, too, but, being a slightly timid little feller, even when I was seven or eight—at least by the standards of the recent precocious younguns—I was always wary of the scary parts. If the flick were good enough, though, like Angry Red or Journey, I would sit enthralled all the way through the picture, not hiding my eyes once nor worrying about nightmares that might follow.

Unfortunately, all too many of the movies Mama and me saw left my pore little psyche a shambles. Sometimes for weeks. What was she thinking, for example, when she dragged a 6-year-old to On the Beach? Not to mention Horrors of the Black Museum.

At least I was a little older by the time First Spaceship hit the Roxy. Though it had had its U.S. release in '62, it didn't show up at our neighborhood theatre till a a year later, par for the course for a second run Possum Swamp house. Hell, they were still playing Abbot and Costello and The Bowery Boys as the 60s dawned. And at least it wasn’t another a horror movie. That was the other genre Mama adored, despite the fact that her beloved B-bloodfests were probably the main reason she was so nervous about staying home without the O.M. As my Aunt Lulu used to say, “Jackie Boy (her and Granpa’s pet name for me), God broke the mold after he made your Mama.”

I was neither scared nor squirmy this particular Saturday afternoon. First Spaceship was a thing of Wonders. From the very beginning. Most of the SF films I’d seen had their share of boring mumbo-jumbo before they got to the good parts, the launch and the landing. First Spaceship on Venus was different. The premise was actually interesting: scientists dig up a funny looking meteorite in the Gobi Desert that apparently fell at the time of the Tunguska blast in Siberia. Cracking it open, they discover a magnetically encoded “spool” containing a message from the inhabitants of the planet Venus they are able to partially decipher.

Mama...
Despite a lack of response to messages (including Morse code) sent from Earthly transmitters as well as those on the Moonbase—it was the far distant year 1985, surely there would be a Moonbase—a crew, an international crew, is soon assembled to pay a visit on them Venusians. This crew is headed by an American, “Harringway,” ably assisted by scientists Tchen Yu and Sikarna. They are joined by ship’s doctor Sumiko (the film’s glamour girl), an African communications officer, Talua, and a second American astronaut, Brinkman. Tagging along as well is a (we're told he's French but he looks Russian) Cybernetics expert, Dr. Durand, and “Omega,” a little smiling robot head on a tracked-tank body.

Before you can fly to Venus, you gotta have wheels—err…rockets—and that is accomplished in spectacular fashion by what must surely be the most beautiful spacecraft ever to star in a movie, the oddly named Cosmostrator. If not quite as wonderful as the outside, the inside of the ship is impressive, too, then and now (I jus’ made my daughter Lizbeth sit through the DVD with me). One notable thing for the time is that the ship prominently features a computer. The crew (well, mainly Sikarna) even use it like a computer rather than, in usual B-movie fashion, as an electronic Magic 8-Ball: “Computer, tell me ever’thing you know about this here planet.”

Sikarna's hard work at the computer pays off when, just before journey's end, he's able to produce a final translation of the alien“spool.” The Venusians, it seems, were planning to sterilize Earth's surface with hard radiation as a prelude to invasion. Our friends are both horrified and puzzled.  The Venusians have had plenty of time to carry out their nefarious plan; why has the Earth remained unmolested all those years since Tunguska?

After a voyage that is punctuated (naturally) by a swarm of rogue “meteorites,” the crew approaches Venus. What did I expect? Science, real science, had learned enough by 1962 to begin, at least, to suspect Venus was not the water-world or prehistoric swamp planet science fiction writers—and some astronomers—guessed it to be. Still, nobody really knew what lay beneath the planet’s thick clouds; the rotation period of Venus had just been determined the year before, and it would be a few years yet before the Soviets’ Venera probes revealed the world as the true hell it is. Me, I liked the idea of a Venus inhabited by dinosaurs, and that’s what I hoped to see.

Imagine my surprise when the world revealed to Brinkman and Omega when they make a quick reconnaissance with a LM-like lander is oh-so-different from the accustomed romantic fantasies. It’s not as bad as we know Venus to be now, but it is purty bad: deadly poisonous atmosphere, tremendous storms, and a bleak landscape. The surface of the planet is about as far from the comparatively cozy angry red Mars of Sid Pink’s Cinemagic as it’s possible to be. Venus looks real and frighteningly strange e’en fifty years later. It’s a fog and mist enshrouded Salvador Dali nightmare punctuated by all too obvious artifacts of a thermonuclear holocaust.

A weird landscape is not all there is to this Venus. As Brinkman finds out when he falls into a cave filled with odd metallic “insects.” Having lost contact with the astronaut, the Comostrator lands and searches for the missing American among the weird remains of trees in a “vitrified forest.” When Brinkman reappears and shows the crew one of the bugs he’s managed to corral, it don’t take long for the mission’s big brains to determine the metal bugs are actually recording devices. Our friends marvel that they are hearing the voices of the apparently long dead Venusians when they hook Mr. Bug to their computer.

On the Beach...
It’s downhill from there for our heroes, alas. More exploring reveals the burned remains of cities with craters at their centers. This, coupled with high radiation readings the crew picks up, especially when storms blow fallout their way, tells the tale: the Venusians exterminated themselves with H-Bombs. The final proof comes when Japanese crew member Sumiko, to her horror, discovers the weird, spindly shadows of bipedal Venusians burned into the side of a building—just like at Hiroshima. The reason the Venusians have left Earth alone becomes obvious: There are no more Venusians. Their planet was sterilized when  their H-bombs were detonated en masse by some unexplained accident.

Think it can’t get worse? It does. While exploring, Sumiko and Brinkman are chased up the ramp of a tower-like structure by a something that looks a lot like Steve McQueen’s Blob. Just before it Gets Them, Brinkman gives the slime-thing a blast from his deuteron raygun, and it retreats. That’s, it turns out shortly, not necessarily a good thing. In some way that’s never fully explained, the blob is connected with a huge round building/machine that contains a Venusian weapon that can increase or reverse gravity. Brinkman’s ray gun blast has reactivated the machines and local gravity is now increasing, preventing Comostrator from taking off.

Talua and Tchien Yu volunteer to descend into the underground Venusian command center and try to deactivate the badly behaving gadgets. Tchien Yu soon dies, the victim of a punctured spacesuit, but not before he calls for help. Brinkman tries to reach him via Cosmostrator’s small rocket plane, but, just after he launches, Talua manages to reverse the gravity field. Cosmostrator is thrust from the planet, and brave astronaut Brinkman is flung into the void and lost. Poor Talua is left stumbling around on Venus begging the ship not to leave him. Our saddened crew returns home with at least the consolation that their story may help ensure H-bombs never turn Earth into the real sister planet of Venus.

Whoa! To say I was gobsmacked by what I’d seen would be putting it mildly. So impressed was I with First Spaceship on Venus, that I begged Mama to sit through it a second time when they ran the film again, which you were permitted to do back in the dark ages. Mama demurred, reminding me that my Cub Scout Pack was due at Springhill College’s Observatory in just a little while for a promised peep through the school’s big telescope. I grumbled mightily, but it sure turned out it was a good thing I let myself be led out of the theatre. That, muchachos, is a tale for another time, howsomeever.

The Cosmostrator...
As the weeks and months passed, I found I couldn’t forget First Spaceship on Venus; it was so, well, so futuristic. Exotic, even. The Comostrator’s crew was far more international and multiethnic than the Enterprise’s would be four years later on the “daring” (well, for the Deep South) Star Trek. I liked First Spaceship so much that every detail was locked away in my little noggin. I was easily able to provide a detailed synopsis of the film for the little boy next door, whose Mom had not seen fit to dispense the fifty cents he needed for an evening show. I was asked to recite “the parts about the robot” several times by Bubba, who found mechanical men fascinating, if frightening.

Fascinating, yeah, but That was Then and This is Now. What was my unvarnished opinion of the film when Lizbeth and I watched it the udder night? It holds up remarkably well, considerably better than either The Angry Red Planet or Journey to the Seventh Planet, I reckon. Part of that is the effects and sets and costumes. I loved Sid Pink’s “masterpieces,” but you had to, for example, squint so as not to notice the wires holding up the rockets. In contrast, First Spaceship on Venus is pretty much bang-on. The Cosmostrator is, yeah, I’ll say it once more, beautiful and looks as “real” as real can be.

If there’s one thing that drags the movie down, it is the extremely stilted dialogue. That is likely in part due to the dubbing of the actors’ voices from the film’s original language—German. One of the things that no doubt made the film seem exotic to li’l Rod was that it was about as exotic in origin as a flick could be back in The Day—it came from the mysterious and scary Eastern Bloc; specifically East Germany and Poland. It was produced by East Germany’s Deutsche Film (DEFA), and directed by Kurt Maetzig.

I didn’t know nuttin’ about that as a kid, of course, and completely missed a big clue to First Spaceship’s origin: the fact that “American” commander Harringway sports a hairdo straight out of a Moscow barbershop. You would never see a Hollywood actor—or any other western actor—with a do like that. Maybe I just thought that was the way folks would wear their hair in 1985. But I was aware something was a little “off” even if I couldn’t identify exactly what that was. Mainly, I guess, it was the actors’ weird pronunciations of common, simple words. That alone should have made clear First Spaceship didn’t come from beautiful downtown Burbank.

Folks who’ve just seen the film for the first time always comment on the strange name of the lovely spaceship, the Cosmostrator. That’s what it sounds like, anyhow. Given the odd mangling of other words, it could just as easily be “Cosmos Strata,” “Cosmos Trader,” “Cosmos Traitor,” “Kosmo Krator” or, hell, even “Cosmo Kramer.” It’s probably “Cosmostrator,” but I’m not sure that makes a whole lot of sense whether in English or German or Polish.

The weirdest weird thing is that the purportedly American crewmembers have reasonable American accents, but spit-out everyday words like nothing you have ever heard before. The Greek letters “beta” and “omega” (the robot’s name) are “beeeeta” and “ah-mee-gah.” What really sucks, though, is, again, the awkward dialog, which would be perfectly at home on a real bad episode of Leave it to Beaver, “Ward, I’m worried about the Ahmeegah!”

Yeah, there is foolishness, but there are also saving graces that keep the film interesting half a century down the road: an outstanding story by Polish science fiction giant Stanislaus Lem (adapted from his novel Astronauci), the abovementioned fantastic sets (there’s a huge and beautiful Zeiss refractor in the ground tracking station), far-out costumes (well, with the exception of the funny-looking canary yellow flightsuits), and heart. That comes through in spades despite the mangled translation and dubbing and utterly wacked-out Soviet Bloc music (accompanied by stolen tunes from various Hollywood horror and sci-fi films).

My only regret? I haven’t yet been able to find a (subtitled) copy of the slightly longer original release, in which, I’ve been told, it’s clear Brinkman is not an American Astronaut but a Soviet Cosmonaut and was the first man to land on the Moon. Obviously that wouldn’t have played well with U.S. audiences in 1962. I suppose whoever the hell adapted the film thought we wouldn’t notice that Brinkman arrives at the launch site in a Soviet Mig 19! The only other Warsaw Pact relic left in the English version is that the news reporters in the prologue and epilogue work for “Intervision,” the Eastern Bloc film and TV distribution network.

This admittedly slightly silly movie had quite an impact on me beyond just an evening’s distraction. There are two threads running through my post-First Spaceship story. One concerns me and the real Venus, which we shall get to directly. The other has to do with something my generation lived through for the balance of our childhoods, atomic fear. Some people choose to refer to that as “nuclear anxiety,” but, believe me, if you lived through it you knew it as stark, staring, and very real FEAR.

We, the children of the 60s, lived with the knowledge that we might be killed, horribly wounded, or fatally sickened at almost any moment. That, if you were lucky enough to have any warning at all, in 8-hours (in the bomber age) or 30-minutes (after the rise of the ICBM) you and your family and your friends, your entire world, would be turned into a rising column of radioactive smoke and ash. I believe that’s a subject more of us who experienced the worst days of the Cold War as kids should talk about. And I will some Sunday. But not this Sunday. Let us instead move on to my more happy experiences with that deceiving temptress, the planet Venus.

Naturally, I wanted to see the real Venus as soon as I got a telescope. Not only because I remembered First Spaceship on Venus fondly, but because, well, when Venus is in her evening garb she is incredible and inescapable. There she is yonder in the gloaming, a beacon for anyone who looks up at the sky. Is it any wonder the ignorant and gullible often mistake her beaming loveliness for a UFO? Anyhoo, I am not quite sure whether I looked at Venus with my first telescope, my 3-inch Tasco. Surely I must have; she’s so bright and beautiful and promises such wonders for a scope. If I did, though, I don’t remember it. Probably she looked about as good as Jupiter did in the Tasco. Like a malformed custard pie, that is.

I did view the planet many, many times in my second telescope, my 4-inch Edmund Palomar Junior. But no matter how often I looked, the feeling was always one of letdown: this tease of a world promises so much more than she delivers. I usually feel that way now, too, I reckon. In a telescope, any telescope, Venus is just a small Moon-phase or a large Moon-phase, tiny when she’s gibbous, satisfyingly large when she is a slim crescent. Once I got over enjoying the fact that Venus shows phases and must, therefore, be closer to the Sun than Earth, just as ol’ Galileo figgered, I stopped looking at the planet as much. I mean, what’s to see? Aphrodite’s bland and featureless face is about all, muchachos. Still, I came and still come back to Venus at least a time or two every (evening) apparition. I conveniently forget all those times she’s broke my heart and hope for mercy “this time.”

Actually, the phases are not the only features Venus can give up. Not for the skilled or lucky. I have never been able to see even a hint of the cloud features some observers detect with the aid of yellow, blue, or violet filters. It is quite possible, however,  to “see” cloud patterns in the Venusian atmosphere using a webcam coupled to the image stacking and processing program Registax. I’ve even done a little of that myself, and have been gratified to finally make out something other than just milady’s obscuring veil. I’ve been told you can bring back some pretty amazing images if’n you pony-up the bucks for a special UV filter, one that passes UV and blocks everything else, and which works much better than the simple deep-violet color filter cheapskate me uses.

There is at least one more thing it’s possible to see of Venus from Earth. A very controversial thing, the Ashen Light. Wut’s they-at? It’s easy to describe if not explain. Undoubtedly you’ve often gazed up at a partial Lunar phase and noticed the Earthshine effect. The dark part of the disk is really not dark. It’s gray rather than black, and is bright enough that it’s easy to pick out the Mare with the naked eye. It’s caused, of course, by a fat ol’ Earth in the Moon’s sky illuminating the terrain just as a big Moon illuminates the Earthly landscape. Occasionally, observers of Venus note the same thing. The dark portion of Venus’ disk is glowing faintly. But there’s a CATCH: Venus has no natural satellite to illuminate the dark part of her globe…so what causes the Ashen Light?

Nobody knows. Even Patrick Moore, who’s normally pretty definite about Solar System myths and realities, refers (in his venerable The Amateur Astronomer) to this phenomenon as “The vexed question of the Ashen Light.” Numerous explanations have been proffered over the years, from the bizarre “A Venusian festival with torches,” to the mundane “It’s all an optical illusion.” Me? I always favored the optical illusion answer. Till I saw the Ashen Light for myself for the first and only time 15 years ago.

As is usually the case when I see something truly incredible, I wasn’t expecting anything out of the ordinary when, one night about a decade-and-a-half ago, I turned my 8-inch f/7 Coulter Newtonian toward Cytheria. The old Coulter, which long ago went to live with my scopeless brother-in-law, was a surprisingly good telescope. I had it with me this evening at our old PSAS observing site because the hazy, muggy, light-polluted conditions at the public school facility we were using at the time didn’t seem to warrant anything fancier. With air you could almost swim in enhancing the stark glow of Possum Swamp’s streetlights, none of my fellow club members had seen fit to accompany me out for a quick observing run. It was just me and my girl, Aphrodite.

The funniest thing about the whole affair? As soon as I put my eye to the eyepiece I saw the Ashen Light. There was no squinting. No wondering. No doubt. With Sol having gone to bed some time before, Venus was set in a fairly dark sky, and the effect was both startling and unmistakable. A miniature Moon. As Sir Patrick advises, I got the illuminated portion of the crescent out of the picture by means of pumping up the power with a good Orthoscopic ocular and putting the bright part just off the field edge. Still there. In went an 80A filter. Still there. I tried various other filters and eyepieces with varying effects but always with the result that the dark part of the disk was still obviously glowing.

I watched until Venus disappeared behind a tree not long after, all the time cursing the fact that my fellow PSASers had stayed home. NOBODY WAS GONNA BELIEVE THIS ONE: “Oh, hell, just another one of Unk’s FISH STORIES! Like the time M42 was stoplight green—from his front yard with that gull-derned Coulter Odyssey! That mus’ be some MAGIC TELESCOPE!” But…I didn’t plan on writing a scientific paper about the Ashen Light, anyhow. I didn’t need affirmation; I knew very well what I had seen. That would have to be enough.

What do I think now? I am still not sure. I will swear on a stack of Bibles that the Ashen Light is a real effect. If you ever get to see it like I did, you’ll be there swearing with me. HOWSOMEEVER, just because it’s “real” don’t mean it’s a real phenomenon of the planet itself. It could be nothing other than a very real optical illusion brought on by certain contrast effects under certain observing conditions at certain magnifications.

Who am I kidding? I do not believe that is what I saw. I think…believe…know it’s an actual something on the planet, whether caused by weird aurora or some yet to be divined mechanism peculiar to Lady Bug. Whatever the Ashen Light is, I feel awfully privileged to have seen it, even just once. Mysterious Venus finally let her veil slip just a wee bit for an admirer who’d been waiting for that for the 40 long years since the vaunted Comostrator first dared her secrets.

Next Time: yeah, yeah, I know...you've probably had a surfeit of Herchels, but you gotta make hay while the...the...Sun's down...and the Herschel Project waits for no man. I got the chance to complete another cupla constellations at the PSAS dark site last night, that's what I did, and that's what's on the agenda for next time.

Sunday, June 06, 2010

 

The Herschel Project Nights Eight and Nine: 333 Down, 67 to Go


Hokay, where was we? After my rip-roaring first night at the Chiefland Astronomy Village in Florida, I figgered I’d probably sleep till noon—I hadn’t shut my eyes much before 5 a.m. Not to be, muchachos, not to be. When you are used to getting up at 4:30 in the blessed morning four stinking days a week to commute to work, you can only sleep so late. On Friday, day two of my Chiefland expedition, that turned out to be 9 a.m., just in time to catch the tail-end of breakfast at the Day’s Inn.

Y’all know me: “free” is something I am loath to miss. I couldn’t help wondering, though, if the change of chain from Holiday Inn to Day’s Inn would mean I’d have to endure the stale bagels and black bananas I’ve encountered in some budget motel breakfasts. Nope. Joy of joys, while the Holiday Inn Express cinnamon rolls (crazy) were gone, the biscuits and gravy (insane) still remained. Only downer? Soon as I’d stepped outside, I couldn’t help noticing the skies were almost uniformly gray.

After grabbing a bite, I returned to my room, where the first order of business was checking the three DVDs I’d made the previous evening in the course of observing over 100 Herschel II objects with the NexStar 11 and Stellacam II. I was understandably paranoid after my last experience with the DVD recorder, where I’d lost everything due to an error in the “finalize disk” process. I’d assumed that was due to the low battery power I was experiencing at the Possum Swamp Astronomical Society’s Tanner - Williams dark site. Turned out I was correct about that. The three disks I recorded Thursday night/Friday morning all worked perfectly, and I spent some time viewing the wonders I’d captured.

It was derned near 12-hours till astronomical twilight, but the day actually seemed to go quickly. In addition to reviewing my observing notes, written and taped, I spent quite a spell working on the good, ol’ blog. ‘Round noon, I hopped in the vee-hickle and ran out to the site to take my batteries off charge. I’m pretty maniacal about proper charging of “jump-start” batteries: charge for 12-hours after every use, charge for 12-hours each month if I haven’t used the battery over the course of that month (not at all uncommon given our spring/summer weather down here on the Gulf Coast).

Some folks wonder why I bother to run the NexStar 11—and my other go-to rigs—off’n a battery when there is copious AC power available from multitudinous outlets on the CAV field. The reason is the scopes all seem to work better on pure DC. The only times the NS11, for example, has acted squirrelly have been when I’ve run it off the wall-wart AC supply Celestron shipped with it. Once, I recall, it picked Alpha Centauri as an alignment star—from Possum Swamp. Sure, I could buy a good regulated AC/DC supply, but there don’t seem much reason to. My Prestone (WallyWorld) 17ah bat’try will run the scope all night, and, thanks to the care I exercise in charging, it’s lasted for over eight years now.

I poked around at the site for a while after I saw to the jump-starters, taking a few pix of my field setup and those of my mates with the el cheapo digital camera I’d picked up the previous day. Didn’t stay long, though. Shortly after noon, the temperature had climbed past 90F on its way to a high of 94 for the day, which, while not a record by any means, is still a mite high even for Chiefland in the first half of May. As predicted, my fellow observers had better sense than to wander the field in the heat; most were inside their tents, RVs, or trailers. With nobody to annoy, I headed back to town.

I made one stop before the motel, my favorite Chiefland eatery, Bar-B-Q Bill’s. As I have said before, not only does this restaurant feature great barbeque in the deep south tradition, their prices are laughable, with fewer than 15 George Washingtons getting you a huge helping of beef or pork, beans, fries, coleslaw, garlic bread, salad bar (good one), and coke or sweet tea.

By the time I got back to the Day’s Inn, I was, not surprisingly, feeling a little a little logy from my big lunch. I resisted collapsing in a heap somehow, and spent a couple of hours surfing Astromart and Cloudy Nights and reading the book I’d bought for the trip, Michael Lemonick’s The Georgian Star, which I mentioned last week. By the time my head truly began to nod, it was after three p.m., and I thought it might not be a bad idea to give-in to a nap. I was hoping Friday’s night would be at least as long as Thursday’s was. Yeah, it was still cloudy, but I tuned-in the Weather Channel just afore drifting off, and they were still predicting “clear with occasional clouds.”

It was after six before I awoke, but that did not induce me to start rushing around. I wasn’t in much of a hurry, since those dratted clouds were still obscuring the sky. Maybe they weren’t as thick, and maybe I was seeing the occasional blue, but it was sure there wouldn’t be much to do for a while. I didn’t arrive onsite till 7:30 p.m., and, even then, me and my mates spent quite a bit of time cooling our heels waiting for and hoping for clearing.

That time wasn’t completely wasted. By 9 p.m. there were occasional semi-sucker holes (clearer, but not completely clear patches), and we got a chance to try an eyepiece a lot of us had been curious about, the Explore Scientific 100-degree AFOV 20mm. I had expected “pretty good,” but not “real good.” When the owner kindly allowed us to try his eyepiece in Carl Wright’s fast 22-inch Dobsonian, it’s not an overstatement to say we was gobsmacked.

Not only was it real good, it seemed, well, Ethos-like. No, conditions were not very favorable, but we were still able to see stars were sharp to the edge of the field in Carl’s (Paracorr-equipped) telescope. The brighter objects were, in fact, pretty sweet “all things considered,” as we said. From what I could tell given the problematical sky, the ocular’s contrast was outstanding. I resolved to see if the Explore’s daddy would let me try his eyepiece in my NexStar 11 Saturday night, which I intended to, come hell or high water, reserve for visual observing.

And still we twiddled our thumbs—until derned near midnight, when a big sucker hole grew to encompass the entire sky—for a while, anyhow. I got Bertha aligned and focused-up, and went to work on the Herschels. I sensed I wouldn’t have much time. While, like the previous evening, the air wasn’t overly damp—I probably could have done without the DewBuster on Thursday—it was damper, and I figgered more haze and clouds and maybe even ground fog would eventually be on the menu.

First up was the little southern constellation, Crater. Why there instead of galaxy-laden Coma Berenices, which I needed to finish and which was riding high in the sky? Crater was one of the few areas at least somewhat in the clear. The images below are courtesy of the vaunted Digitized Sky Survey, by the way. From my logbook, you-all…

Crater

NGC 3672 (H.I.131) is attractive. It’s an SAc that shows one prominent hooked arm in addition to a bright core.

NGC 3730, a decent magnitude 12.9 elliptical, is slightly off-round and just over a minute of arc across. It’s in the field with a dimmer companion, magnitude 15.4 Leda 170162, which shows up well due to its small 45” x 23” size. The overall effect is two small smudges on the night sky.

The most memorable thing about NGC 3637 (H.II.551), a magnitude 13.5 2.2’ x 2.0’ SB0, is the presence of a magnitude 6.5 star just over 3’ to the southwest. The galaxy itself is unmistakable due to its small size of 1.6’ x 1.5’. Also in the field is NGC 3636 (H.II.550), another elliptical. It’s completely round and at magnitude 12.82 it is noticeably brighter than 3637.

NGC 3892 (H.II.553) is an SB0, and, on its POSS image, it has the classical “Tie Fighter” shape some barred galaxies assume. It looks much the same with the Stellacam II. Bright core, prominent bar.

On the monitor, about all I can see of edge-on SAb NGC 3693 (H.III.532) is a bright nuclear region and hints of a skinny disk. Part of the problem is the wind that is currently blowing the scope around.

NGC 3887 (H.I.120) is an intermediate inclination SBbc, and, even under these poor conditions, it’s very pretty showing its multi-arm spiral nature without fuss. Bright, large central region.

The next stop, another intermediate inclination spiral, an SABc, NGC 3511 (H.V.39), is low in the sky. I do note some signs of spiral structure, but mostly just a hazy glow around a bright central area.

Oh, how I love those beautiful barred spirals! Magnitude 11.93 SBc NGC 3513 (H.V.40) is one with that wonderful, classical look. Low in the sky, but I can easily see one of its beauteous arms.

Finally, Coma peeped out of the haze. I didn’t waste any time slewin’ that-a-way. I had last left the constellation about half done, and it looked like this might be my chance to get ‘er done…

Coma Berenices

The first Coma galaxy, NGC 4340 (H.II.85), is an SB0 barred lenticular. Nearby is NGC 4350, only 5’39” to the east. There is obvious haze around NGC 4340’s bright nuclear area, and occasionally, the galaxy’s bar winks into view.

NGC 4359 (H.III.648) is strongly elongated. No sign of a core. This SBc actually looks pretty good on the Stellacam II’s monitor despite a somewhat forbidding magnitude of 13.6.

NGC 4152 (H.II.83) is a face-on SABc of magnitude 12.9 and a size of 1.5’ x 1’. Stands out amazingly well despite poor transparency. I can see some faint traces of spiral arms once in a while.

An S0-pec galaxy, NGC 4379 (H.II.87) is good and bright at magnitude 12.6 and 2’ in diameter. On the monitor it is an immediately noticeable, slightly elongated fuzzball.

NGC 4312 (H.II.628) is a cool magnitude 12.5 edge-on SAab. Large, about 4.5 x 1.1’ in images. Impressive with the Stellacam and NexStar 11. Bright core and a patchy, cigar-shaped body.

NGC 4237 (H.II.11) is a good-looking SABb. I can easily make out its hooked spiral arms. Very bright core.

Ding-ding-ding! We have a winner! NGC 4298 (H.II.111) is paired in the field with NGC 4302 (H.II.112) a mere 2’24” to the east. 4298 is an attractive if not remarkable intermediate inclination SAc of magnitude 12.10. It becomes an awe-inspiring sight with the addition of NGC 4302, an Sc edge-on that boasts a beautiful dust lane, which is less than 3’ to the east.

NGC 4571 (H.III.602), a near-face-on Sad, might also be a winner on a better evening. As is, I do see some arm detail fleetingly.

Coma galaxy, NGC 4212 (H.II.108), is a pretty SAc of magnitude 11.80 3’ across its major axis; it looks far better than I’d expected, with a dramatically visible set of spiral arms and a stellar core.

The final Coma resident, SABcd galaxy NGC 4189 (H.II.106), is similar to NGC 4212 if a little smaller (2’) and more face-on in inclination. Bright nucleus, respectable outer envelope with one prominent spiral arm on offer.

I was right about not having much time; in less than an hour we was done for the night. The sky didn’t so much slam shut as it just faded away. I’d worked as quickly as I could through Crater and the remaining Herschel IIs in Coma, and managed to log twenty objects, closing out Coma Berenices, before it became obvious that not only would conditions not get better; they were on their way to “considerably worse.” I was back in the Day’s Inn with my bottle of that sainted potion, Rebel Yell, by 2:30 in the a.m. Which was a little disappointing, but I was, frankly, lucky to have got anything done at all.

After my relatively early Friday night, I was up, if not bright and early, at least early on Saturday and in plenty of time for another pass at the motel breakfast. Afterwards, there was not much to do other than go back to the room and hang out. I spent quite some time monitoring the Weather Channel, hoping for encouragement. The forecast didn’t seem overly dire, “some clouds,” but I noticed the Clear Sky Clock was beginning to look worse (light blue squares were being replaced by white ones on the netbook screen), and that poor weather, if not really poor weather, would obviously be coming-in Sunday.

What did I do with the long hours till astronomical twilight on Saturday? Same old – same old. Logged onto Astromart and Cloudy Nights. Looked at the Yahoogroups. Surfed over to Orion’s website—where I ordered a Vixen-style bracket to attach my li’l Orange Tube C90 to my new Synta AZ-4 mount (more on that one of these coming Sundays). Had a big sit-down lunch in Bar-B-Q Bill’s again; just couldn’t resist. Finished The Georgian Star. Took a nap. Watched some more of the dadgummed Weather Channel. Looked at the video I’d shot with the Stellacam Friday night. Occasionally peeped out the door at the sky, returning disgusted to do more of the above.

I resisted jumping in the car and heading to the site out of boredom. If anything, Saturday afternoon was hotter than Thursday or Friday had been. Eventually, 7 p.m. came, and I motored on out with some hope alive in my withered little heart. The forecast had not changed, but the sky, I thought, looked considerably better than it had Friday evening, and I’d got in an hour of good observing then. Surely I'd get something Saturday night.

Ha! Yeah, the sky did look better than it had the previous sundown, but only for a while. As sunset came and went, conditions began to get worse rather than better, with clouds moving first one way and then the other. In not atypical fashion, a front off the Gulf seemed to be fighting with one coming in from the east. I don’t know which was worse, but the eastern faction appeared to be winning-out, with cloud layer piling on cloud layer as it got dark.

I wasn’t overly disturbed at first. We’d started out cloudy Thursday, but the sky had cleared well before midnight and stayed that way till nearly dawn. Surely, that would happen again. At first it appeared so. There was still heavy haze and plenty of clouds, but by 11:30 p.m. I judged conditions had improved enough for me to get Bertha aligned, if not good enough for any sort of serious work. I removed the Stellacam from the rear cell, replacing it with the Denkmeier Powerswitch diagonal. Whether a good night or a bad night, I was determined it would be a visual night.

No, the sky was not good enough to do any real work—M13 in the Celestron NexStar 11 looked about like it usually does in my Meade ETX 125—but I was at least able to do some further scope testing regarding the problems with NexRemote’s virtual port I reported on last time. I didn’t learn much of anything new, but I did confirm that the problem hadn’t been a fluke; it was fully reproducible this time out. It had occurred to me that the new version of ASCOM, which I’d naturally loaded on my new netbook computer, might be the culprit, so I’d got rid of it and installed the old one. No dice.

I could at least see the brightest deep sky objects, even if M57 sometimes looked like a 12th magnitude galaxy, so I accepted the offer of the kind person set up next to me that I give his ES 20mm eyepiece a try in my NS11. I had been very impressed with it the night before in Carl’s big Dob, and reckoned it would be just as good in my C11. Indeed it was. At f/10, anyhow, and there was the rub.

I wasn’t overly surprised that, when I switched-in the Denk Powerswitch’s f/6.3 reducer, I noted some vignetting. It wasn’t bad, mind you, but it was noticeable. Otherwise, the ocular’s performance was, well, “stellar.” Still, I wondered whether the ES was for me. Same would go for the 21mm Ethos, which I assumed would display slightly more vignetting that the Explore. Yeah, I’ve often said vignetting doesn’t disturb me much. Hell, I think nothin’ of using a 35 Panoptic with the 6.3 reducer/corrector in the C8. And yet…and yet…the field edge was a little ugly, and they don’t give the ES—much less its TeleVue analog—away.

The 13mm Ethos works spectacularly well with either the Powerswitch reducer or the Celestron f/6.3 reducer/corrector in my SCTs, and with either focal reducer that eyepiece is roughly equivalent in focal length to the ES (or the 21mm Ethos) at f/10. So, if I were to buy the 20 ES (or the 21 Ethos), it would be mainly for use in my truss tube Dobsonian, Old Betsy, I reckon. I’m sure the 20 or the 21 would be blow-you-away good in the Dob, but I’m not sure I use her enough to justify spendin’ $$ for the ES, or, $$$ for the Ethos. I ain’t saying either the ES or the Ethos is necessarily out of the picture for me, just that I’ll have to seriously ponder whether I can live with “less than perfect” with either eyepiece at f/6.3 in the SCTs.

After I’d finished looking at M13, M92, and the rest of the bright summer crew with the big 20mm (and it is one honkin’ big eyepiece, campers), it appeared, in my imagination at least, that the sky had improved a tad – smidge. Canes Venatici was just past culmination, and if I were to get anything, now would be the time. The first couple of Cvn objects, while not spectacular, were easily doable, especially with the 8mm TeleVue. Looked like I was on my way to conquering the little constellation’s crowd of Herschel II DSOs.

Not. As I moved past the first couple of galaxies, my H II campaign quickly ground to a halt. Conditions were degrading again. Frankly, it had never really been clear, even in the sucker hole that would sometimes grow to encompass a significant portion of the sky. There was always a lot of haze. Now this haze was growing ever thicker and honest-to-god clouds were beginning to obscure the Hunting Dogs more and more often. Not that I didn’t log a few H-Project objects; I did:

Canes Venatici

NGC 4220 (H.I.209) is a magnitude 12.2 SA0 about 3.5’ long. I can see it in the 13mm Ethos (f/6.3), but just barely and only as a faint streak.

Magnitude 13.2 NGC 4248 (H.II.742) is at the very limit of detection with the 13 E at f/10 on this poor night. A faint glow in the field is all that’s seen of this SBb spiral.

A large (5.2’ x 1.5’) edge-on SAb, NGC 4217 (H.II.748), impelled me to throw in the towel for evening. In the 8mm Ethos I finally pick up the faintest of fuzzballs after about ten minutes of staring. No sign of the galaxy’s disk or the lovely equatorial dust lane it shows on its POSS plate.

As night wore on toward morning, I considered my options. It was after midnight, and, while I’d only bagged three galaxies so far, the weather now appeared be be tending toward “threatening.” There was that long drive back to Possum Swamp first thing in the morning to consider, too. One more studied look at the near socked-in heavens was enough to convince me. I shut down Bertha, tucked her in with my treasured Desert Storm scope cover (one of the last products the once-loved Pocono Mountain Optics shipped before going belly-up), gathered up the netbook, and hit the road back to Chiefland.

Like Thursday night, I didn’t see a single UFO on the drive back despite keeping an eye peeled for the rascals. Only unusual event was that a fox stopped by the side of the access road and, as I passed, briefly locked eyes with me before going on about his business. I looked upon that as somehow being a good omen, maybe a sign that I’d made the right decision about pulling the Big Switch. Usually, when I call it quits early, what do I hear when I get back to the site in the morning? “Unk! Man did you miss A GOOD ONE! Damned sky went crystal-clear not 10-minutes after you left!

I returned to the Day’s Inn in something of a snit. I’d got one long, excellent first night, an hour or so the second, and not squat, really, on the third. I’d been CHEATED! DAMMIT! I began idly thinking about staying an extra day, and turned on the Weather Channel and booted up the wunderground.com to see how that might play. Not so good. According to both the TV and the computer, Chiefland would escape the worst of the storm that was pounding the Gulf Coast at that very moment. But we wouldn’t escape it completely, and would be under plenty of clouds before all was said and done. The slim chance of seeing anything Sunday night did not appear worth the cost of another day of vacation. Ah, well. I wanted to get back to Miss D., anyways. On the road in the a.m. it would be.

Sunday morning dawned, wouldn’t you know it, to beautifully clear skies. I just dreaded hearing my mates rave about their hours under the stars, but, when I made it back to the CAV, what I heard instead was: “Unk, you sure did right. Never got any better and most of the time it was worse.” That added a bit of spring to my step as I tore down the scope and EZ-up tent canopy and prepared to head for I-10. The trip back to Chaos Manor South was occupied in equal portions by Wolves of the Calla and my ruminations about future Chiefland trips. I’ll for sure be back this fall/winter to finish up those missed winter HIIs. The question is “how?”

The Day’s Inn was alright, but maybe now is the time to make the break from staying in any motel. My frugal nature is beginning to impel me to question the wisdom of laying down two-C notes-plus every time I want to do Chiefland. This penny-pinching mindset means I probably don’t make the trip near as often as I might or could. The answer? I wasn’t sure. I know I am not likely gonna go out and get a humongous RV. While I might think about something along the lines of a nice popup camper, I believe that’s something for retirement, or at least until Dorothy and I have a place to keep such a thing.

What does that leave? Perhaps a reconsideration of the tent-camping concept. Yes, I go on and on about how I suffered in a tent on a hot Chiefland field years ago, but I’ve learned a couple of things in the interim. Beginning with the fact that a simple electric fan can make a huge comfort difference, even on the hottest days. Further, I’ve realized a major key to making a tent livable for me is getting one that’s big enough, and, especially, tall enough, so that I can, for example, stand up straight while changing clothes, etc. Small, el cheapo tents from Academy do not work. Finally, plopping a sleeping bag on a thin foam rubber mat laid on the ground is not a recipe for comfort. I toured the Bass Pro shop last weekend and saw some tents and cots and other stuff I thought might serve.

Will I ever really implement this plan, though? Unless I have to economize dramatically at some time, frankly, probably not. While a tent might be bearable, and even OK, it's simply not as good as a motel. Not only do I like my creature comforts, which includes air-conditioning and cable TV, I am far more rested after a night in a real bed than in a sleeping bag and far more able to pull an all-nighter--or at least what passes for one for me in these days of upper-middle-age. Still if I have to, I will. Hell, if it means visiting Chiefland and NOT visiting Chiefland, I will make due with a dadgummed dome tent from WallyWorld.

The inevitable trip back to the Swamp was uneventful. I ran smack into the oncoming storm front, but, while there was plenty of rain along I-10 from Panama City west, and it was still raining hard when I pulled up at good ol’ Chaos Manor South, I missed the worst of the Big Storm. Back at home, the real work began: unpacking all the stuff, beginning the process of organizing my observing notes and videos, and making log entries in SkyTools 3. One thing I’ve learned is that waiting to transcribe my audiotape log is a huge mistake. By the time a week has passed, I’ve begun to forget my impressions of the objects I saw, and am totally puzzled by pithy, succinct descriptions like: “Why, this here galaxy looks just like…uh…uh…uh…a…FAINT FUZZIE!” But first there would be time for a relaxed evening out that involved a steak and plenty of scotch and me bending Miss D.'s and Lizbeth's ears at length about my latest Chiefland triumph.

While I hated to go back to work Monday, I at least hadn’t missed anything Down Chiefland Way Sunday night, didn’t look like. I have a little Clear Sky Clock (Charts) “gadget” on the desktop of the kitchen computer, and every time I glanced at it Sunday, Chiefland was white squares across the board, same as Possum Swamp.

I didn’t get as much time under clear skies as I’d hoped I would, but I’d brought home o’er 120 Herschels, so there wasn’t anything to complain about. It had been an enjoyable trip and a nice break. It was great to see my old friends again. As always, Bravo Zulus to the good residents of the Chiefland Astronomy Village for providing me the opportunity to use and enjoy their wonderful facilities.

Next time: The subject depends on the weather. If I get some clear skies at the Possum Swamp Astronomical Society Dark Site, I’ll bring you a little Amateur Astronomy the Old Fashioned Way, as I promised. If not? Well, who knows? Something to tickle your fancy and your funnybone, anyhow, I hope.

Uncle Rod News of Note: Can’t get enough of Unk’s cornpone-laced wisdom? Maybe you should seek professional help! Anyhoo, you’ll soon be getting even more of it on a regular basis in the pages of the much-loved Amateur Astronomy Magazine. Afore long, your silly old Uncle will be writing a regular column for that excellent pub. What will it be like? Like this blog, I’ll write on whatever strikes my (somewhat warped) fancy. Otherwise? Maybe a little less OVER THE TOP than what y’all are used to seeing here, but certainly not near as formal as what’s in my books or the pieces I do for Sky and Telescope. Don’t know what the hail I’m talking about? Ain’t seen a copy of AA? Shoot! Go rat-cheer and sign up. You will not be sorry, muchachos.

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