Sunday, June 26, 2011


Travels with Snoopy

With apologies to my hero, John Steinbeck, whose book about traveling the U.S.A. with his cantankerous poodle, Travels with Charley, ought to be on everybody’s reading list. Well, what the hell is Unk going on about now? “Snoopy” is my 60mm ETX refractor, maybe the first really good travel scope I owned, muchahcos.

Travel scope? Yeah, you know, a small, portable telescope you can throw in the trunk of a car or maybe even take as carry-on luggage on an airplane on non-astronomy vacations (yes, there are such things). If your travels take you somewhere where you might be able to observe, especially somewhere where there are better skies than there are at home, why not take a telescope with you?

I’ve long been in favor of being prepared to observe on vacation. When I was a sprout I carried the finder from my Palomar Junior with me on the family’s big cruise to Nassau in the Bahamas. Little Rod still didn’t know much about astronomy, but he did know two things: Nassau was at a latitude of 25-degrees north, and there was this cool-sounding constellation, Crux, the Southern Cross, that would be visible from there.

I wish I could definitely say I saw the Cross with my teeny scope, but it turned out that every inch of our aged cruise ship, the Bahama Star, was brilliantly illuminated. Not only that; yes, Crux was at culmination in mid June in mid evening, but even at 25-degrees latitude it was right on the horizon in the clouds and mess down there. I convinced myself I’d seen the surprisingly small constellation, but today I am not so sure. One thing is sure: a 23mm telescope was not a whole lot of help. I’d have been better off with my 77 cent toy binoculars.

Which must have sunk in. That was the last time I took a telescope with me on vacation for dang near 30 years. Which doesn’t mean I didn’t do any observing on the non-astronomy trips I made over three decades, it means I used binoculars.

Back in the 70s, when I was an Air Force G.I., I'd acquired both a small “interim” telescope and a pair of 50mm binoculars from the Base Exchange. These 7x50s were Tascos, but back then Tasco was importing some awfully good stuff. These glasses were so good, in fact, that I’d probably be using them still if my consarned brother hadn’t dropped them at a consarned Foghat concert and broken their frame. They provided literally mind blowing views of legendary Comet West.

Binoculars became my optical aid of choice for vacations. They don’t take up much room in the car or in luggage, they are as useful for bird watching as star watching, and can be enjoyed and used by the whole family. The downside? You get somewhere really good, and all the binocs are is a tease.

So it was in 1996. I had finally got around to replacing the Tascos with a pair of Simmons 10x50 “Redlines” in preparation for the coming of Hale Bopp. They did wonderfully well on the Bopp, and when I set out with my new wife Dorothy and daughter Beth for one of their fave vacation destinations, the Pisgah Inn on top of Mount Pisgah on the Blue Ridge Parkway in North Carolina, I naturally took the glasses along.

I loved the Pisgah Inn: it offered a scenic down-the-mountainside view for every room, excellent dining in the old mode, and an attentive staff composed mostly—just like in the old days—of college boys and girls on summer vacation. But I didn’t much like the views. Oh, the sky should have been good, since the Inn is well away from city lights, but they call those mountains the “Smokies” for a reason. Every evening fog would roll in. Well, except for one night when the sky opened up to an astounding degree. The 10x50s did fine, but then I couldn’t help thinking how much more I’d have seen with a real telescope.

It was derned near ten years before we made it back to the Pisgah. In the interim, I’d collected several grab ‘n go scopes, foremost of which was my Celestron Short Tube 80 refractor. I’d taken it on brief beach get-a-ways to Destin and Fort Walton Beach, Florida, but I hadn’t really seen a lot with it, nor was I enthusiastic about it as a vacation scope.

The problem for the 80 and similar refractors, like the once uber-popular 66mm ED jobs, is that they don’t do well on a camera tripod. While their tubes are reasonably short, they are still long enough to make balance a big headache on a camera or video tripod. Sure, you can put ‘em on a small equatorial mount—I used my ST80 with a Synta EQ-1—or one of the new alt-az astronomy mounts, but then you begin to fill up the trunk with astro-gear, something I don’t like to do for my “civilian” vacations.

It was a few years before our next Pisgah vacation that I finally found a vacation scope I really liked. As I outlined rat-cheer, I glommed onto a Meade ETX-60, which was a 60mm f/5 achromatic refractor mounted on a computer controlled (via Meade’s Autostar computer) fork mount.

Frankly, the little thing amazed me. Not only were its go-tos more accurate than I thought they had any right to be, the views through the odd little thing, which focused by moving the objective back and forth, were not bad. Not on the deep sky, anyhow. I was gobsmacked one evening at our in-town observing site to find the scope, which I’d begun calling “Snoopy” because of his long-snouted look, showed the supposedly tough Owl Nebula, M97, easily. Yeah, I had an OIII filter in, but still, for a less-than-200-buck 60mm I bought from Cotton-picking Wal-Mart that was still purty good, I reckoned.

The little scope would also do an OK job on the Moon and produce recognizable images of the planets. Most of the problem wasn’t really its optical quality, but its short focal length. It was hard to produce enough magnification to see much of the Solar System. At the highest power it was easy to produce via Barlow stacking, Mars was a pinhead. But that was OK. I didn’t plan to be doing any serious planetary observing on holiday, anyway.

Then came the odd and disastrous hurricane season of 2005. We didn’t know Katrina was on the way, of course, but by August Miss D. and me had had enough of the storms that preceded her and, most of all, of the terrible, oppressive heat. One August day when the thermometer again reached triple digits, Miss Dorothy and I looked at each-other. We had the same thought: “The Mountains, where it is COOL.” D. immediately made reservations at the Pisgah.

Remembering how good the skies had looked on that one night, I began thinking astronomy. I might bring along the 10x50s, but I was going to bring a real telescope, too, sort of, Snoopy. I figured his wide-fields and his ability to produce at least medium-low magnifications might make him a real winner if the Smoky Mountain weather cooperated.

Snoopy in his cardboard shipping box—I hadn’t got around to getting him a case and still haven’t—was small enough, about the size of an overnight bag, not to be a nuisance. I had solved the ETX tripod problem, too.

Snoopy shipped without a tripod. At first, I adapted him to a wooden one from an EQ-1. That seemed way too bulky and hard to pack, though. One of my favorite Astro-retailers of the last decade, Scopetronix (now long gone) had a solution for me, a metal adapter that screwed onto the ETX’s drive base and allowed it to be used on any camera tripod. My light but sturdy Manfrotto was perfect. Not only was it more than sufficient for Snoopy and his mount, it could be collapsed into a size that took up almost no room in the trunk. Off we went.

The mountain temperatures were danged near perfect; we went from “high today 101, feels like 120,” at home to “chilly tonight with temperatures in the lower fifties” up on Skyline Parkway. Alas, the skies were about the same as before: foggy and misty after Sundown. Me, Dorothy, and Beth had a lovely time hiking, relaxing, eating at the restaurant, wading in Graveyard Falls, and watching the color TV that was now a feature of all Pisgah’s rooms in a bow to modernity (still no phones). But no observing could I do. Till, like the previous time, one evening when the sky magically opened up for a few hours.

While the balcony of our room gave a pretty good view to the south, down the mountainside, and off into the distance, I figured I’d better move to the strip of lawn between the Inn and the mountainside in hopes of seeing enough of the sky to do a good go-to alignment. I hoped without tangling with the local wildlife.

At least the numerous skunks were gone. The skunk is the unofficial mascot of the Pisgah Inn; lured by goodies tossed by guests they promenade up and down on the grassy strip where I wanted to observe. Not seeing any the previous couple of days, I asked the front desk about the skunk exodus: “Well, we think the bears that have moved into the area have chased ‘em off.” Rut-roh!

Snoopy and his Manfrotto tripod were light enough to carry outside in one piece, and I reckoned that if a black bear or bears made an appearance, I could grab him and head for cover in a hurry. Anyhoo, I got Snoopy set up, did a two star alignment, and started in on a sky that was looking more beautiful by the minute. The summer Milky Way hovered over the distant mountains and seemed to illuminate them with unearthly brilliance.

What did the summer deep sky objects look like in my tiny scope? Naturally, the smaller objects looked, well, small, but I could pump the power up enough to tease out a few details in the medium size DSOs, and, given the excellent skies, I was seeing things I didn’t think a 60mm could show me. Like M16, and I don’t just mean the star cluster, but the cotton picking Eagle Nebula. I even convinced myself that I was seeing a few resolved stars in M13 when I pushed Snoop-doggie-dog to his limit. Any way you slice it, I saw more in the few hours before the fog rolled in than I would ever have seen in 10x50s. Was I glad I’d brought a telescope with me? Was I ever.

As amateurs always do, however, I soon began dreaming of the More Better Gooder, and when I latched on to my ETX-125 girlfriend, Charity Hope Valentine, I imagined turning her loose on a good night on Mount Pisgah. Alas, Miss Dorothy and I have yet to make it back to the Pisgah in, and, given my workaholic nature, haven’t taken more than a few days at the beach in quite a long while.

So, do I take Charity on our weekend beach vacations? Nope. I don’t take Snoopy, either. I usually do most—or really all—my observing from a hotel-room balcony; Charity or Snoopy would not have a chance to shine. It would be difficult, if not impossible, to get them decently go-to aligned, and either would be more trouble than they would be worth for our brief getaways. For a while, I was back with binoculars, albeit kicked up a notch with my beloved Burgess 15x70s, but then Travel Scope Number Two fell into my hands.

I told the story of the coming of Stella, a nearly thirty-year-old Celestron Orange Tube C90 90mm Maksutov Cassegrain, over here, but, to summarize, I found myself in possession of one of these classic but sometimes derided CATs when one of Miss Dorothy’s colleagues’ father decided he had to sell his.

Equipped with either an adapter to allow me to use standard SCT accessories or a hybrid .965-inch – 1.25-inch diagonal in the little scope’s “Japanese standard” back, the C90 has amazed me with her optical prowess. What also helped was a sturdy tripod/mount, my Synta AZ-4. The C90’s bad reputation stems not from poor optics, but from the MCT’s focusing method. You focus the original C90s by twisting the barrel. If the scope is on too light a mount, which is what most folks tended to use, focusing causes so much shaking it’s difficult to get the scope in perfect focus, leading the uninitiated to think the C90 has punk optics.

I know that with good eyepieces my Stella does a very nice job. And by “good eyepieces” I don’t mean the 27mm Panoptic I rigged her up with on a lark. Any half-way decent ocular will do a super job at the (original) 90’s slow focal ratio of f/11.

Stella is now far and away my favorite travel scope. It comes down to the what-you-gonna-look-at-factor. We always seem to hit the beach when there is a Moon in the sky, and that is the main target. She does OK on the planets, too, far better than what poor Snoopy could deliver. One thing she has over the ETX-60 or the Short Tube 80 is that, given her relatively long focal length, it is easy to produce higher powers. Beyond the Solar System Stella will do pretty well on brighter DSOs, with the main limitation being that 3.5-inches of aperture.

Stella really is a good little telescope. Hell, not only was she able to show at least hints of Cassini’s the other night at Pensacola Beach, she delivered excellent afocal lunar images for a magazine article I am working on.

I do make one compromise with Stella when we hit the road. I leave the AZ-4, which is really perfect for the little scope steadiness-wise, at home. Too big, too bulky in the trunk. Instead, Stella rides a camera tripod. One is entirely sufficient for her, especially when it is equipped with one of the photo-tripod slow motion thingies camera and astro merchants sell. If I had to use the AZ-4, Stella would likely just stay at home.

Sound good? I think so. A small MCT is portable, very portable, easy to mount, should deliver good images, and can give the nice views of the planets and deep sky objects appropriate for casual vacation astronomy. Which 90? Obviously you won’t be getting one like my Orange Tube girlfriend new. They do turn up with some regularity used, as do Stella’s immediate successors. Celestron made nearly identical black and rubber-armored C90s all the way up to the mid 90s, and they are as good as Stella if not as elegantly dressed. Another nice choice is a used ETX, maybe a nice 90mm Spotter version. But what if you want to buy new?

While 90mm MCTs haven’t exactly taken over the small-scope/grab-and-go market, there are plenty to choose from, starting with the new C90. Celestron/Synta has offered several replacements, imported Chinese replacements, for the 90 over the years since the original was discontinued, but none have impressed till now. The current C90 has good optics, and once you dispose of its atrocious correct image diagonal, the spotting scope version, which is what you’ll probably want, will please you.

It’s strange Synta, Celestron’s parent company, does not sell their own 90mm MCT under the Celestron name, but it’s easy enough to get the Synta 90. In the U.S. it’s sold as the Orion Apex. Orion also offers several telescope/mounting packages for the 90, but if you’re like me, you’ll get the spotter version and solve the mount problem yourself in a way appropriate for you.

Those aren’t the only 90mm Maks; you can lowball it with Bosmas and highball it with Questars, but I think either the C90 or the Apex will suit most of y’all best as a throw-it-in-the-trunk vacation scope. Who wants to worry about a Q3.5 getting pilfered out of the Best Western room when they are down on the beach having fun?

My rules for vacation scopes

Normally, you will want to keep the aperture down to four inches or smaller. There might be the occasional exception—when I go back to Pisgah, I swear I am taking Charity with me. But much larger than “four” means the scope will take up too much space and you will resent lugging it around.

Forget go-to. If all you have is a go-to scope, sure, take it. But typical catch-as-catch-can vacation circumstances may make it difficult to get an alignment, and you ain’t gonna be hunting PGC galaxies anyway. Exceptions? If your vacation getaway is a trip to a dark campground with (this is the hard part) an open space for observing, yeah, bring as big a go-to gun as possible.

Leave the Ethoses at home. You won’t need them. I limit myself to two humble eyepieces, a 26mm Plossl and a 12mm Plossl I put in the case with Stella. You won’t want to haul an enormous case of Naglers and Ethoses around, and you will live in fear of them being stolen from your motel room if’n you do.

Remember why you went there. A family vacation is a family vacation. Don’t let astronomy take it over to the annoyance of family members whose vacation it is, too.

Flying with a Scope

This used to be a no-brainer before 9/11. The only consideration was that the scope fit in an overhead bin. But we are now living in a different time, and don’t even think about flying with a telescope unless you have your ducks in a row. Certainly the scope must still fit. The restrictions on that are tighter, and free carryon luggage is becoming a thing of the past. But that is no longer the main concern. That is the TSA.

The telescope itself is rarely a problem. Be prepared to easily and rapidly remove it from its case and demonstrate to one of the gate-guards that it is what you say. To that end, have an eyepiece packed with the telescope—I leave one in Stella’s diagonal in her case ready to go. The big problem is the mount.

Anything that might be used as a “weapon” is verboten, and what constitutes that is entirely up to the people at the gate. Don’t rely on statements on the TSA website that so-and-so is OK. I put my tripod in checked baggage. Yes, it is possible it will be stolen by baggage handlers—though I’ve never had a thing taken despite many flights to distant star parties—so make it a cheap one, if possible. I have a Velbron I got from K-Mart when their blue light was still shining that is sufficient for Stella, but which I wouldn’t be overly sorry to lose.

Want to chance putting things like Questar tabletop legs in your carryon? Be my guest, but have a plan of action in case the gate agent decides you are a BIG FIBBER and those are really nunchucks. If you are carrying something that might be iffy, have an extra checkable on hand that will accommodate the item, and if it is rejected, put it in that bag and check it. That’s a hassle, but better than having the item confiscated and disposed of or missing your flight.

Again, remember: what the TSA website says doesn’t necessarily mean PEA TURKEY in the real world. The final authority on what can and can’t be taken onboard an aircraft is the TSA employees onsite. The good news? Despite the stories you have read and heard, I have yet to encounter one of these folks who was not professional and helpful.

Some of my most memorable views have been unexpected ones on trips where I threw in the scope as an afterthought, muchachos. So, before you and hubby or wifey and the younguns head for the Redneck Riviera this summer, pick a little guy out of your massive telescope arsenal and bring him along. You will be glad you did.

Next Time: Unk does some actual observing (maybe).

Sunday, June 19, 2011


The Big One

I’m sorta torn on this. The older I get, the more I come to appreciate the fun you can have with a small, good telescope. Given my crazy schedule and my laziness, my StarBlast, my Orange Tube C90, and my ETX 125 probably get used more than any other instrument around The Old Manse. Still, I am not immune to the charms of more-better-gooder by way of larger aperture.

So it was one spring Saturday morning in 1994. After nearly thirty years of using 8-inch and smaller telescopes, I was determined to kick it up a notch. What had caught my eye was Meade’s new ads for their amazingly low cost StarFinder Dobsonians. Yes, I was, then as now, SCT crazy, but I’d decided I did want BIGGER, and I was also, then as now, cheap. I had neither the desire nor the ability to put out the bucks required for a C14, a C11, or even a Meade 10-inch. I was just coming off a divorce and my finances were a complete and utter disaster.

The Meade StarFinders seemed the perfect solution. I’d had my head turned a time or two by the famous Coulter Odyssey Dobsonians, but their pedestrian optics and unfinished appearance turned me off. I was also turned off by their delivery times, which could be long: months and months and months. Surely Meade, the SCT guys, could get me a Dobbie quicker than that? I figgered I could probably buy a StarFinder off-the-shelf.

And maybe I could have if I’d chosen the 10-inch SF. Instead, I was looking at the 12.5. I wanted more aperture than my 8-inch, and four more inches had a lot more charm than “only” two more. Even bigger? There was a 16-inch StarFinder, but I was pretty sure this would approach the dreaded The Only Enemy of Good Enough is More Better limit. I’d seen 17.5-inch Odyssey II owners struggling with their water heater sized telescopes, and while the Meade 16 might be a little smaller than that, it wouldn’t be a lot smaller. The 12-inch it was.

Where would I get one? Even nearly twenty years ago, we were blessed with an excellent assortment of honest, reliable astronomy dealers. Back in the sixties when I got started, there were some good folks too, but there were also plenty of snake oil merchants only too happy to separate you from your hard-earned dollars.

This time around, I chose Astronomics of Norman, Oklahoma. Why? I’d ordered from them before and gotten good service and they had a good reputation. Mostly, though, this time I chose them because they had Saturday hours. I’d been divorced for about a year and, to fill the long, empty hours, I tended to stay late at work, until long after the telephone order lines for the Astro-dealers shut down. No 24-hour World-Wide-Web ordering in them days, sprouts.

I dialed up Astronomics and spoke to a nice man. He offered good and bad news. The good was that for a small sum I could upgrade my 12.5-inch StarFinder Dobsonian to a “Deluxe Package,” which included a 50mm finder (the stock job was a too-small 30mm) and two extra eyepieces, a pair of Meade’s Modified Achromats (Kellners, in other words). I hadn’t heard much good about those oculars, but the upgrade price was well worth it just for the 50mm finder.

The bad news? My scope would be drop-shipped. It wouldn’t come from Astronomics, but directly from Meade, and the order-taker informed me that it might be “weeks” before I got my telescope. I was a little disappointed the Dob was not an off-the-shelf deal as I’d imagined, but “weeks” didn’t sound so bad. I was a little preoccupied at the moment, anyhow. That very Saturday night I had a date with this fascinating woman I’d just met, “Dorothy.”

That first humble date, a trip to the movies to see Shirley MacLaine and Nicholas Cage in Guarding Tess, followed by drinks afterward at a nearby Applebee’s, turned into a genuine and whirlwind romance. By the time summer of 1994 had begun to wind down, the wonderful Miss Dorothy and I had set a date and were getting married. That was what mostly occupied my thoughts, but occasionally I would wonder, “What the hell ever happened to that Meade scope I ordered?”

I’ve told this story more than once, but I hope you’ll indulge your silly old Uncle one more time. I just enjoy reliving those memorable days. The promised weeks turned into months, and nary a telescope did I see. I suppose I could have called Meade or Astronomics, but I was busy, even for busy old me, and I sorta forgot about the 12.5 SF for a while. I had had the presence of mind to tell the lovely Miss D. that I had ordered a new telescope, and that it would arrive “sometime soon,” but I’m not sure that fully registered with her.

At this point, I’m pretty sure Miss Dorothy was still under the mistaken impression that being an amateur astronomer meant you had a telescope, a rather small telescope, one telescope, that you took out into the backyard once in a while to look at the Moon and stars. Her education in the ways of the amateur astronomer began the day before our wedding.

We’d decided to marry in the lovely setting of the Victorian home that would come to be known far and wide as “Chaos Manor South,” and Miss D. had arranged for a big professional outfit to come in and give the house a spic-and-span cleaning from top to bottom. The house simply sparkled, and probably hadn’t looked as lovely since it was built at the turn of the last century. Everything was set: caterer arranged, silverware and glassware laid out and in perfect order. And what should D. return from the university that afternoon to find but total chaos.

I’ve also told the story of the assembly and modification of the StarFinder before, in some detail here. So I won’t go on and on about it. I will just say the front parlor was filled with huge empty cardboard boxes, tools, instruction sheets, and, most of all, telescope parts. When Dorothy walked in the door, I immediately chirped, “HONEY, IT CAME! IT CAME!”

If I hadn’t known what a wonderful person I was marrying, her reaction would have informed me as to that. I’m sure she must have been a little appalled at the chaos in her formerly orderly home, but there was no sign of it. What came out was happiness; how happy she was for me. That is one of the many reasons I love Miss Dorothy so much and have always loved her so much.

I was able to get the telescope assembled, and was pretty pleased with the results. But this is not specifically about my 12-inch Meade; it is about big scopes in general. If you’d like to read more about my adventures with Old Betsy, read the aforementioned entry. Anyhoo, the telescope was together, but Miss D. and I were immediately off on a two week honeymoon to the mountains and Civil War battlefields of North Carolina and Virginia, before I could find out how the biggest telescope of my life would perform.

A big scope is a heavy scope and can be a pain to move around…

When D. and I returned to begin wedded life together, and the skies finally cleared, sometime towards the end of September, the first challenge I faced was getting the big new scope into the backyard. I’d been worried about that since I got “Old Betsy”—as I immediately dubbed the telescope—together. Yeah, the 16-inch would have been like lugging a water heater around, but the 12-inch was like a small water heater, at least.

That was compounded with the fact that I stored the cotton-picking thing upstairs in the beginning. Yeah, I was comparatively young and stupid, but I had my reasons. I’d moved the Old Betsy to the second floor so she’d be out of the way for the wedding, and I figgered I’d better leave her there. I wanted to be very careful about cluttering up our home with my consarned junk. I didn’t know my Miss Dorothy. She was perfectly content for me to store my giant white Dobbie in the dining room; especially after I had a near disaster—for scope and self—one evening on the way down the stairs with the OTA.

Lesson Learned:

The thing is, any Newtonian telescope larger than a 10-inch f/5, and any catadioptric telescope over 8-inches in aperture, and any refractor bigger than about a 5-inch f/6 will be large and bulky and heavy for many of us and needs to be as close to the backyard or other observing area as possible. There are dodges like wheels and handles, and be prepared to use ‘em. If you plan to haul your scope to dark sites, you’ll have to arrange the logistics for that as well.

A big scope will perform like a big scope…

After considerable huffing and puffing, even for a considerably younger Unk, my 12.5-inch f/4.8 was ready to go out back. Would more aperture really get Unk, who at the time did most of his observing from Chaos Manor South’s light-polluted backyard, much more than my convenient 8-inch did? From the first the answer to that was “yes.” The first light object was Jupiter, which was getting low in the west. Despite that, the planet was brighter at the magnifications I liked to use and I could see more. Much more.

How about the deep sky? I’d frequently heard an old wives’ tale concerning using big telescopes in light pollution. An old wives’ tale, yeah, but some of those old wives were pretty sharp: “It’s useless to observe with a larger aperture telescope from light pollution. The sky background will be so bright, the big mirror will take in so much more of that bad light, that you won’t see any more than you would in a small scope.” Well, M13 was well placed for observing; that ought to tell the tale.

One look put the nail in the coffin for those wives of yore. Yes, the field of the 12mm eyepiece was a little bright. But it didn’t look any brighter to me than it would have in my 8-inch at a comparable magnification, and there was one big difference. In my 8-inch, M13 was often a barely resolved blob in my poor sky. In the 12-inch it was a huge and beautiful ball of stars. Case closed.

Lesson Learned:

All things being equal, aperture always wins. Especially in the city. If you must deal with light pollution, always use as much aperture as you can muster—you will see more.

A big scope needs high quality mechanics even more than high quality optics…

It was obvious, given its images of Jupiter, that my new Meade Newtonian had blow-you-away optics. But optics aren’t the whole story. A big scope needs blow-you-away mechanics, too. While Betsy was at least useable as she was, her mount was sticky in altitude and azimuth. The telescope used the same plastic and laminate bearings which worked well on the smaller StarFinders, but Betsy’s weight (sorry Bets) meant she needed better.

Meade’s corner-cutting by not using Ebony Star and Teflon saved them a dollar or two, but made for a worse telescope. As you’ll know if you read the above-linked blog entry about Betsy, I did the simple mods needed to get her in shape, but she was not really fully operational without those mods.

Lesson Learned:

What works for a small scope may not work for a large one. Mechanical shortcuts that are merely annoying for a 6 or 8-inch can be debilitating for a 12 or 16-inch. There is a reason even Dob mounts are often big and comparatively heavy on big scopes: they must be.

A big scope needs great eyepieces…

Remember the extra Modified Achromat eyepieces that came with the Meade? Turned out they were next to useless. Make that “completely useless.” Oh, they might have served on an 8-inch f/10 telescope, but on a 12-inch f/5 they were putrid-stinky-lousy.

Not that the other eyepieces in my collection, my treasured Celestron Silver Top Plössls, my Celestron-Vixen Orthoscopics, and a König or three, were much better. Oh, certainly they were OK, but not much more. The edges of their fields were passable, and I spent and spend most of my time looking at what’s in the center of the field, not the edge, but there was no denying these were not the perfect eyepieces I thought they were.

I was, in fact, not able to really see what the scope could do until that December when Miss Dorothy, now hip to the ways of the equipment-happy amateur astronomer, gave me a 12mm Nagler Type II for our first Christmas together. That showed me what is possible with a fast, big (for me) mirror and an optically excellent eyepiece. I still remember the glorious voyages I took through Virgo that spring, galaxy hopping through her deep, deep fields.

Lesson Learned:

Almost all large Newtonian telescopes have fast, low focal ratio mirrors. To get maximum enjoyment from them, you need very good eyepieces and, faster than f/5, you will probably want a coma corrector. Restricting yourself to 50-degree AFOV eyepieces doesn’t allow these wide-field light buckets strut their stuff.

A big scope needs to be used…

AKA: “The best telescope is one that gets used a lot.” Only you can determine if you will use a large telescope often enough to make it “pay” for itself. If you’d like some detailed thoughts of mine along these lines, see this. Bottom line, though? It is a dicey thing.

Back in the beginning, when Betsy was in her Sonotube hot water heater body, I used her nearly every clear night. When, in the interest of fitting her in my Toyota, her optics were transplanted into a truss tube, it became rare for me to use her at home. To get her out the door I had to disassemble the truss. Previously, I could pick up the Sonotube in one piece, haul Betsy out back, and be ready to go in 10-minutes. On the other hand, my backyard viewing was eventually closed out by growing oaks (it is verboten to cut them down here in the Garden District) anyway, so if Bets weren’t a transportable truss tube scope, she’d never get used at all.

Lesson Learned:

What’s practical for some folks may not be practical for you. B-U-T…it may be that even if you only get to use your bigun three or four times a year, she will still have been “worth it.” One look a year at M13 and one look a year at M42 with your large telescope may more than enough to justify the cash and the trouble.

Final thoughts? The older I get, the lazier I get. But there is no denying the allure of aperture. I sometimes try to convince myself that 6 or 8-inches is really more than enough—but that’s just making excuses. Well I know that you will see more and be able to do more with more mirror or lens. It’s possible to have fun with small aperture, sure, but at heart that is a compromise, no matter what you like to observe, even “just” the Moon. More is better.

Me? I doubt you will ever see me with a big Dob. Even now that some feature computerized tracking and go-to. I am just an SCT – MCT sorta guy, and it seems I become ever more so as the years roll on. I like the versatility and I like the excellent imaging-capable tracking.

At the moment, I have restricted myself to a C11. The realities of living at Chaos Manor South would seem to dictate that is the practical thing. But that doesn’t mean I have given up on the dreams of bigger. When things slow down a little for me, I can foresee a last telescope buy (yeah, I know, the next one is always the last one), maybe a nice C14. There isn’t much if any improvement in a 14 over an 11 for imaging—either with CCD cams or video cams—but one look through the eyepiece a big 14-inch, muchachos, and old Unk can’t avoid thinking, “Yeah, that’s it, THAT’S the name of the game.”

Next Time:  Travels with Snoopy.

Sunday, June 12, 2011


Shutting Down

“Far in the crimsoning east, wakeful Dawn threw wide the shining doors of her rose-filled chambers.”

It’s been a long night—or maybe not such a long night. Either I am weary, perhaps because of a long drive down to the Chiefland Astronomy Village that morning, or the sky has decided it just doesn’t want to cooperate any more. Maybe Unk’s old bones are cold, too. I can go for a long time when I’m doing video astronomy, sitting snug under an EZ-up canopy at the observing position, and on some special nights dawn gets me before the clouds or the sandman. Most often, enough is enough well before Aurora throws open her gates. When, for whatever reason, the last faint fuzzy has been spied, it is time to pull the Big Switch, muchachos.

What do you do with your gear on the star party field when it is time to call it a night? Newbies often ask me if they should pack the telescope up. I might do that if the scope in question were small or light or particularly valuable, like a Questar 3.5 or an AP Traveler. But probably not—not that Unk would ever be found toting such high falutin’ gear in the first place.

I’ve been to a couple of large star parties where somebody’s eyepiece or other small accessory was nicked, but that is unusual in the extreme, and I don’t ever recall hearing of a scope going missing. How about somebody playing around with your telescope in your absence? Not to worry. Almost without exception, your fellow attendees know not to mess with somebody’s gear without permission.

So the telescope can stay on the field. How do you prepare it for your absence? Even if you are only a few feet away in a tent, you want to cover it. Why? Unless you are out in the middle of a western desert, there is always a chance of rain, slim though that chance may be. Do you want your computer-everything Mead-o-Tron doused while you are cutting Zs? ‘Course not. Even if you are in the middle of a desert, you want to protect the telescope from dust (like that special extra-fine blend of horse manure and plutonium blowing in from Nevada you get at the Texas Star Party). It would also be nice to keep the Sun off the scope during the day.

What I use and have used for ten years is a Desert Storm Cover. It is a very strong, large, aluminized Mylar bag that is secured over my CAT with an elastic band and will keep the scope absolutely dry. It will also keep the telescope remarkably cool. Only fly buzzing in the butter? The seller of the original Desert Storm scope covers, Pocono Mountain Optics, went bust years and years ago. Surely somebody must make a Mylar cover that is just as good; I know those sold by Astrogizmos at least look great in their pictures. Maybe y’all can enlighten me.

If you can’t find a Mylar cover you like, and your scope is an SCT or similar size instrument, you can use Unk’s cheapskate solution, which worked for a lot of years. Get a plastic garbage bag and slip it over your scope. That is your cover; it will keep your instrument dry and free of dust and costs almost nothing. It has a drawback, however. Most large garbage bags are black, and will make your scope start running a temperature as soon as the Sun comes up. If you leave the telescope in this condition, it will take a long time to adjust to outdoor temperature when the pea-picking Sun sets.

There is a simple fix. Hie thee to a Wal-Mart or a sporting goods store, hit the camping/fishing/hunting section and get yourself a Space Blanket. These are thin aluminized Mylar sheets designed to be survival tools; supposedly they can keep you warm under adverse conditions. We are after the opposite, though, and they do that well, too. Drape a Space Blanket over the garbage-bagged scope and it will stay cool in the Sun. Secure everything with bungie cords and you are good to go. You will never fold the Space Blanket up well enough to get it back in its typically tiny container again, but so what? These things are so cheap you can throw ‘em away at the end of the star party if’n you’ve a mind.

The above works well for SCTs and refractors and some Newts, but what about BigDobs? The best solution I’ve found for my Dobbie, Old Betsy, is the telescope cover sold by AstroSystems. It is sturdy fabric and will last a long time. It is waterproof, that waterproofing can be easily renewed with 3M spray, it is available in a variety of sizes, and it is shaped to fit a Dob whose tube is lowered in altitude until it is nearly horizontal.

The scope is covered, but is it secure? If you are in an area where there is the possibility of high winds, you will need to take steps to further protect your buddy. Hell, even if you are not in an area prone to wind gusts, better safe than sorry. One spring at the old Peach State Star Gaze, back in the days when it was held at beautiful Indian Springs State Park near Jackson, Georgia, a strong wind blew up and toppled several telescopes one afternoon, including a friend’s lovely C5 Plus set up next to me. Luckily, I was prepared, though I didn’t think I’d need to be.

How had I prepared? I staked down each tripod leg with a hefty tent stake. I tied the three stakes to the tripod legs with short lengths of nylon line. If lots of wind is expected, you may want to make that two stakes per leg, “double staking” each with stakes pounded into the ground at opposite angles. If conditions might be particularly severe, kick it up another notch and use great big landscape timber nails instead of tent stakes. These have saved my scope from Prude Ranch’s notorious dust devils (more like mini tornados) a couple of times.

You’ve got a Dob with no tripod legs to tie down? Bully for you, but you still need to secure it. The way to do that with a Dobsonian is to lower the tube in altitude till it is as horizontal as it will go. Then, make sure (check, do not assume) that the telescope is free to “weathervane,” to move 360-degrees in azimuth, so that if a wind comes up, the scope will move with it. If anything impedes the Dob’s azimuth rotation, it may be knocked right over. Since it is vital that the tube be as horizontal as possible to allow it to weathervane, the AstroSystems cover, which will fit over the horizontal tube and rocker box, is a godsend.

Anything else to you need to do to Miss Telescope? If you have cables running from the scope to a computer or other electronic device, disconnect them. If you are running the telescope off local AC power via extension cords, unplug the scope from them. You don’t want some bleary-eyed astronomer tripping over ‘em and causing damage to telescope or self or both.

If you use an EZ-up or some other sort of picnic canopy I salute you. One will keep the dew off you and your accessories at night, rain off your stuff if that should happen during the course of the star party (never), and the Sun off your punkin if you hang out on the field in the daytime. You need to tie it down, though.

At one recent event I had my picnic canopy take to the air when a cold front passed through. What you do, and what I neglected to do that time, to prevent the tent from lifting off is double-stake each of the EZ-up’s poles as described above. If your canopy features ropes that can be staked into the ground, all the better. If it doesn’t, you may want to rig some. Last thing you want when your walk onto the field in the morning is to hear your shade was last seen winging its way to the next county.

How about all the junk you’ve got set up next to the telescope? Depends. When it comes to eyepieces, I usually take them off the field with me. Again, I have never had a single problem with anybody getting a five-finger discount on my stuff, but even a case full of massive Ethoses is easy enough to haul off the field—so why not?

Other things? Maps, charts, notebooks, etc., etc., etc.? If it’s something that can be blown away by the wind, put it away. If you don’t use a picnic canopy, you will definitely need to protect anything that can be harmed by dew, which, unless you are in the desert, will come on heavy as dawn approaches. Don’t place your faith in books’ and atlases’ claims to be dew-resistant.

If you’ve got any food on the field—I like to have snacks on hand to take care of the midnight munchies—put it away. You are unlikely to have trouble with bears at most star parties, but raccoons are a distinct possibility east of the Mississippi, and ants are a certainty. Into an ice chest or a Tupperware container goes all the food. I have one plastic box designated to hold the Jack Links and granola bars I favor.

What else? If you’ve got an observing chair on the field, put it under your canopy or somewhere else where nobody is likely to trip over it. Same goes for any small camp tables you may have stationed at the telescope. Secure any other gear that may be knocked down/blown away by the wind. Either collapse your observing table and lay it flat on the ground or stake or weight it down.

I always take my computer with me. Not because I am worried about somebody messing with it, but because, even in its case, I figure it’s better off out of the dew indoors. If Internet is available, I might want to check Cloudy Nights or Astromart, anyway, and if I’m not very sleepy I might watch a movie. I can’t imagine being without my favorite star party flicks, The Rocket Boys, Contact, and The Devil’s Rejects. Why is the last one a star party movie? Dunno. Maybe because that’s the way I felt at the end of the 1997 TSP.

Are you running your telescope or other gear off batteries? If so, disconnect them and place them on charge on the field or move them someplace where they can be charged—a cabin, a park pavilion, etc. Don’t put that off till the morning. If a battery is badly discharged and you don’t wake up till noon, you may not have time to fully charge it before sundown.

The jumpstart batteries many of us use to power our scopes are easy to lug to an AC outlet if there is no power on the field. But what if you are using a big old trolling motor bat’try, a deep-cycle marine battery, to power your scope or computer or camera? Those thick lead plates mean it probably weighs in at 75 – 100 pounds. Ain’t something you want to schlep half a mile to your cabin, though I did perform such Feats of Strength when I was young and foolish—till I wised up.

I hit on the perfect solution and you can too—if’n you hurry, anyway. I trotted down to Target and bought the last luggage cart they had in the store. One is perfect for rolling big batteries around; they even come with bungie-like straps. Only problem with this idea is that these days almost all luggage has integral wheels, and the once-common luggage cart is becoming an endangered species.

OK, batteries on charge or ready to be rolled to a place where they can be charged, and all the field gear secure—give it all one last look—how do you secure yourself? Where do you sleep? Where do you spend the hours till the next dark cycle?

Where you do that depends both on you and on the star party you are attending. Our local event down here has been particularly fortunate in that regard. The Deep South Regional Star Gaze’s original venue, Percy Quin State Park in McComb, Mississippi, had an observing field within fairly modest walking distance of excellent cabins. They were large with indoor bathrooms, GI bunk beds, and central air and heat. When we left PQ for darker skies, we had to settle for spider-infested chickie cabins for a few years, but our current site, the Feliciana Retreat Center, has honest-to-god (small) motel rooms with private bathrooms, Internet, and a lovely cafeteria.

Not every star party will have such lavish (relatively) accomodations, but some do, and most have bearable cabins. My druthers? I usually prefer to stay onsite if the housing is even marginally acceptable. I seem to have a more star-party-like experience if I’m bunking with the troops. Yeah, it’s nicer to have a room of your own, but an “open bay” dormitory is more than alright for me for a few days. Sometimes I actually enjoy roughing it in this fashion, though I am unlikely to go much rougher at my advanced age.

By “rougher,” I mean tent camping. Oh, I used to do it at the drop of a hat. Hell, I even tented on the old star party ground at the 1999 Texas Star Party (we put Miss Dorothy up in a motel in Fort Davis that year). But even back then, tents were getting old for Unk. I was overjoyed when Miss D. was able to get us a room at that TSP after just a couple of days.

Last time I slept in a tent? At the Chiefland Spring Star Party in 2002 and that’s what broke me of the practice for all time, I fear. That year, when my old pal Pat and I decided we’d go to the vaunted Chiefland Astronomy Village Spring Picnic, we resolved to lowball it. I can’t remember why, but we resolved we would really save money, spending not much more than what was required for the gasoline to get us down there and back. We’d camp on the field in tents. I still had the dome tent I took to TSP ’99, and which had been alright there, more or less, so I was good to go. Or so I thought.

Hah! That year, the Spring Picnic was held in May. Do you have any idea how hot it gets in Chiefland, Florida in May? I like to died. When we arrived at the CAV it was well into the 90s on the (natch) treeless Club Field. By the time I’d got my tent up and had helped Pat pitch his, I was drenched in sweat. Went into the tent to change clothes, and, by the time I was done, my fresh ones were soaked as well.

And so it went. We had some good nights, but the mornings? No-sir Buddy! You can’t be a productive observer if you don’t get some rest during the day, and by 9 a.m. it was too hot in the tent to sleep; way, way too hot. My dome tent was also too low to allow me to stand up straight, a huge pain in the rear when changing clothes. By Saturday afternoon, temperatures had climbed into the triple digits, and I believe I would have melted away if good buddy Tom Clark had not let us into his air conditioned shop for a spell. If I’d a-had good sense, I would have sprung for a motel room, but I was still young and foolish—foolish, anyhow.

I learned my lesson: never again. The Spring Picnic was wisely moved to April after that horrendous year—for those of us dumb enough to do tents—but I was traumatized and have never tent camped at a star party since. Recently, I thought about trying it again with a much better tent, but I really didn’t want to. I considered it only because I was afraid changes in my day-job employment—maybe the end of that altogether—would mean I’d need to severely economize if I were to continue going to star parties. But that didn’t happen. I’ve sailed through the hard changes at work, come out the other side, and, thankfully, I can continue to “camp” in my way.

By which I mean motel rooms. Yes, I prefer to be onsite with all-y’all, but if there aren’t cabins I will check into a motel. And even when there are cabins I am often sorely tempted. I am just much more rested if I stay at a motel. Even the cheapest of venues—for example the little independently owned hostelry in Chiefland, Florida I call “The Pregnant Guppy Motel”—is noticeably better than a cabin and infinitely better than a tent.

It is a joy to come back to my room after a long night with the Herschel Project or whatever other fool deep sky tear I am on, to a room that is private and quiet and either cool or warm as appropriate. I am usually all spun-up even after a long night (prob’ly has something to do with the dadgum Monster Energy Drinks I drink), so a good bed, a TV with a big array of cable channels, and a refrigerator to keep my Colorado Kool-Aid cold helps me make a soft landing.

In the morning, the room’s coffee maker and either a motel breakfast or one at a nearby Waffle House or Huddle House gets me off to a good start. If there ain’t much going on in the daytime at the star party site, I can stay cool or warm and calm and collected in the room and will be mucho ready to enjoy another big night.

How do I feel about leaving my gear miles away? Even when I’ve stayed a considerable distance from the site, at Chiefland and the Mid South Star Gaze, I’ve never worried about my stuff. Whether close to home or at distant venues, I’ve always been able to depend on my wonderful fellow amateurs to keep an eye on it. It was my buddies that caught my EZ-up before it could set sail for Venezuela.

And so that inevitable time has come. I run an eyeball over the field set-up one last time, sling my netbook case over my shoulder, pick up the jumpstart bat’try, and head for the vee-hickle which I have parked well and truly off the field. After a short trip down CAV’s well-remembered and kinda spooky lane of mossy oaks and over a modest stretch of highway, I am back at the old motel, lapping up some Yell or some brewskies, or sometimes both if I am really celebrating a great night. I can now settle in and contemplate the wonders I have seen. The gear is as snug as a bug in a rug and so am I.

Next Time: The first big one.

Sunday, June 05, 2011


Unk’s Messier Album 1

This should have been a Herschel Project report, muchachos. That was what I intended, but it was a hell of a week in the shipyard. Not only is my group of engineers snowed under with work on three vessels, we had our first really hot weather of the year. Hot down in some un-air-conditioned compartments on LPD 24, that’s for danged sure.

So, yes, your old Uncle wimped out. The idea of dragging all the H-Project gear out to the consarned Tanner-Williams dark site didn’t have much appeal—not when the weatherman was predicting “partly cloudy,” anyhow. But I still wanted to observe, even if I didn’t hit a hundred Herschel galaxies with the Stellacam II and C8.

If you’ve read this, you know one of my touchstones in amateur astronomy is John Mallas and Evered Kreimer’s The Messier Album, the book compilation of the authors’ long running series of Sky and Telescope columns (1967 – 1970), “A Messier Album,” covering all the M-objects. Mallas did the writing and the sketching, and Kreimer, a pioneer astrophotographer, did the imaging, working miracles with a crude cold camera and Tri-X film. The series had a huge impact on me when it appeared in the magazine and is still important to me more than 40 years down the road.

What is the book like? If you don’t want to stop and read the blog article, I can summarize. The late John H. Mallas was a gifted observer who saw things visually with a 4-inch achromatic refractor that are usually reserved for cameras. His sketches are small works of art, and his prose is lucid and descriptive. Evered Kreimer, who I believe is also deceased (he’d be 90 this year), though I have not been able to confirm that, was the first amateur astrophotographer to really break through, taking images with his 12-inch Cave Newtonian that rivaled some of the professional astro-images of the day. Which is not to say The Messier Album is perfect.

The book is a product of its time, and its prose is more formal and unadorned than what we’ve come to expect post-Burnham’s Celestial Handbook. Mostly, Mallas is all business. Which does lend a certain sameness to his entries: “M-umptysquat is an outstanding object” is repeated a lot. His drawings, at first glance, seem a little fanciful, with the cores of globulars, for example, sometimes looking like comets or spiders or even stranger shapes.

Actually, once you become intimate with the book, you’ll find those few down-checks ain’t really down-checks at all. When I am at the telescope in the middle of the night and want a text description of a Messier, I am more likely to find Mallas’ simple words helpful than the high-flying prose of some other authors. The drawings that look weird indoors look realistic by red light, and often give remarkable insight into the objects they depict.

So…I thought it might be fun to go through The Messier Album, grouping the objects as they were presented in the original magazine pieces (they are in numerical order in the book), and see how John Mallas’ observations stand the test of time and compare to mine. If nothing else, this will provide a break from the Herschels for you and for me. I love ‘em, but let’s face it, with the Herschel II done and the Herschel I nearly done, the real juicy fuzzies are behind us. I will get back with the H-2500 the next clear, dark weekend, but for now let’s follow in the footsteps of John H. Mallas.

I could throw all kinds of horsepower, including aperture and cameras, at the Ms and leave Mallas and even Kreimer in the dust. But that is not the idea for this series. I want to see how what I see stacks up to what this excellent observer saw, and how much my sketches resemble Mallas’ impressions. For that reason, I wanted to use a telescope similar in reach to the classic Unitron 4-inch refractor John M. used for Album.

I don’t have a 4-inch long focus refractor, Unitron or otherwise, but I do have a somewhat similar telescope: good, old Charity Hope Valentine, my 5-inch Maksutov Cassegrain. Charity is a 5-inch, not a 4-inch, but given her rather sizeable central obstruction (do not tell her I mentioned that), I thought she ought to be roughly comparable to the Mallas refractor despite her modern UHTC coatings. At least the scopes’ focal ratios are identical, with both Miss Valentine and the Unitron being f/15s.

I’ve little doubt Mallas’ California observing locations were darker and drier than what I usually contend with at the PSAS’ Tanner-Williams, Alabama dark site. In fact, in order to keep up with Mallas, I’ve resolved to limit each run to objects in the west or at least mostly out of the worst of the Mobile, Alabama light dome in the east.

I don’t know what sort of eyepieces John Mallas used; he doesn’t give any details beyond their magnifications. I assume he employed the simple ones—Huygenians and Kellners and Orthoscopics—that came with the Unitron or similar oculars. No doubt even the humble Orion Expanse eyepieces I use with Charity are far superior in most ways, though the Unitron oculars would put less glass between eye and sky.

My procedures and ancillary gear? Since Charity is a go-to scope, and the targets for this series are the (mostly) bright Messiers, I was able to get along without charts of any kind. Just in case, though, I had a netbook loaded up with SkyTools 3 on the field with me. My eyepieces were the 6mm, 9mm, 15mm, and 20mm 66-degree apparent field Orion-Synta Expanses occasionally supplemented by an 82-degree 11mm import ocular I got from Uncle Herb at Anacortes years ago. These inexpensive 1.25-inch wide-fields perform amazingly well in a slow telescope like Charity.

I gave every Messier plenty of eyepiece time, even though I have been observing these objects since 1965.I wanted my impressions of them to be fresh, not just what I remembered. When I had a good feel for my quarry, I proceeded to do a rough sketch, which was refined the next morning (before I forgot how the M looked) and scanned into the computer for further processing with Adobe Photoshop. My field notes were recorded on a digital MP3 recorder and are transcribed more or less exactly.

I’m all set, but you-all need to get set, too, if you are to get the most out of this series. You need a copy of the Mallas-Kreimer book or the Sky and Telescope issues where it appeared. It will be the most fun if you can compare Mallas’ sketches to mine (and both to the Kreimer images), and are able to read John M’s full text entries. For that you need your own copy of The Messier Album. It is easy to get and inexpensive used from Want to do yourself a real favor? Buy the Sky and Telescope DVDs. Beyond “A Messier Album,” you’ll enjoy countless hours of browsing—and learning.

I spent most of Saturday wondering what the sky would do. There were some stretches of thick clouds that turned this humid near-90-degree day dark for a while. The goobers on both and were predicting “partly cloudy” for the evening, but as sundown approached it became obvious they had got it all wrong. It would be clear, though conditions would not be perfect.

When I was pretty sure I’d get at least a few hours under the stars, I loaded up the Toyota with a minimal amount of gear (for Unk): Charity and her tripod, my “accessory case” (a big Plano tackle box from Bass Pro), a camp table, a small box of 1.25-inch Expanse eyepieces, the netbook and its shelter, and a little cooler filled with bottled water and Monster Energy drinks. Sunset would be at about 8 p.m.—I was gobsmacked to realize summer’s coming in—so I set out for the dark site at 6:45, which would put me there half an hour before Sol hit the horizon.

At the grass airfield we use for our serious observing it took only a few minutes to get the ETX on her tripod and ready to go. Since Charity is the (no longer made) PE version of the ETX-125, “getting her ready” consists of bolting her to the tripod in alt-az fashion, undoing the azimuth/R.A. lock, and turning her counterclockwise on that axis till she hits the hard stop. Locked her back down, plugged in the Autostar, attached the power cord to a jumpstart battery, and she was done. Oh, I needed to remove the aperture cover and install Charity’s Astro-zap dew shield. The feel in the air told me I would need that.

It has been a dry, a too dry, spring but we’d had considerable rain, finally, the previous Thursday, and the air felt heavy and humid. There would be plenty of dew and also plenty of haze. Blocking the Sun with my hand revealed a wide glow. Oh, well, can’t have everything, I reckon. At least the predicted clouds were confining themselves to a narrow strip hugging the western horizon.

While I brought along the netbook, I didn’t turn it on once. SkyTools 3 is great for observing anything, but, frankly, it seemed overkill for the seven bright and familiar objects I’d concentrate on tonight. Not looking at a computer display, even through a red filter, might also allow me an extra measure of dark adaptation, which I’d need if I were to keep up with the masterful John Mallas. In case I should need star maps, I plucked my favorite print atlas, Sky and Telescope’s Pocket Sky Atlas, out of the tackle box.

In the interest of seeing all I could see, I kicked things up one more notch dark adaptation-wise with the “Lights Out Observing Canopy” Orion sells. This is just a piece of waterproofed black canvas-like cloth, and it’s a little expensive, but it works. Draped over my head it blocked all extraneous light. After an hour in the dark, it was amazing how intrusive the light dome in the east became. Hell, it almost seemed bright enough to read a newspaper by.

When the stars winked on, I ran Miss Valentine’s alignment procedure, centered Arcturus and Procyon as she requested, and we were off. My insouciant little girlfriend of a telescope behaved herself, and every Messier I requested was somewhere in the field when the slews stopped. I was slightly put out when targets ended up on the hairy edge, but I tended to forget that at 1875mm of focal length even the 20mm Expanse I use as my “finding eyepiece” delivers almost 100x. I must admit Charity done good.

How did I do compared to how Mr. Mallas did over 40 years ago? I am not as good an observer as he was, but I believe I did right well. In general, I saw similar details in galaxies, with what I missed probably at least partially attributable to a brighter sky than what Mallas had at his usual site in Covina, California.

When it came to globular star clusters, Charity and I tended to leave John and his Unitron behind. Compared to what he sketched and described, we saw greater resolution—more stars—in almost every cluster. Why? I am not sure. Part of it may be that a little more aperture shows a more noticeable improvement with globulars than it does with galaxies. Maybe psychology plays a part as well. Like I said not long ago, in the 60s everybody preached “six-inches for a good look at globs.” Maybe Mr. Mallas bought into that just like I did.

OK, then, let’s go. Click on the sketches for larger versions. The matter in italics was transcribed from my log recordings of Saturday evening, 28 May 2011

M49, M61, and M104, “A Messier Album 24,” April 1969

M49, a magnitude 9.3 E2/S0 elliptical galaxy in Virgo that extends 9.3’x7.6’, is bright and obvious in the 15mm Expanse. Its field is rather empty save for a few dim stars, which makes M49 stand out in rather dramatic fashion. The galaxy has a large, bright inner region with a grainy appearance like an almost-resolved globular cluster. This central area appears slightly elongated northwest-southeast to me, and so does the outer region, if less noticeably so.

John Mallas’ opinion of and sketch of M49 pretty much match mine. Like me, he thought the galaxy resembles an unresolved glob. Unlike me, howsomeever, he doesn’t mention any elongation, and his drawing depicts the core and outer halo of nebulosity as round.

M61 in Virgo is cool. Large and diffuse compared to M49. Using averted vision, I occasionally catch a stellar-appearing nucleus in this magnitude 10.2, 6.3’x5.8’ SAB(rs)bc galaxy. Mostly, it is a round glow at 125x, though as I continue to stare it begins to look slightly elongated. More intense looking, and I begin to pick up subtle spiral detail, with an arm on the northwest side of the disk materializing once in a while.

Mr. Mallas saw more of this wonder than I did. The only thing he appears to have missed that I caught is the stellar nucleus. While I was only sure I was seeing one spiral arm, J.M. saw parts of three. It does appear I detected more of the single arm I did see, though.

I can occasionally make out a very small, stellar nucleus in M104, the Sombrero Galaxy, with the 15mm Expanse at 125x. The central bulge of this magnitude 9.1 SA(s)a spiral is easy, and the “hat brim,” the disk, extends a minute or two on each side of that (in reality, this galaxy is about 9’ long). Only occasionally do I get a glimpse of the famous dark lane. A beautiful object, one of the top five M-galaxies, but it is not helped by haze and fairly low altitude, which puts it on the outskirts of the big light dome in the east.

I’d say we pretty much tied on M104. John Mallas thought he saw some “curdling” along the edge of the hat-brim disk I missed. On the other hand, he did not detect the equatorial dark lane. We both called the Sombrero “beautiful.”

M68 and M83, “A Messier Album 25,” May 1969

M68 is a magnitude 7.3., 11’ diameter Shapley-Sawyer class X (10) globular cluster in Hydra. It doesn’t look as loose to me as its X rating would indicate (class XII is least compressed). What I see is a large and slightly elongated grainy core. M68 is low on the horizon and in the haze, but I can see quite a few tiny stars winking on and off around its edges. Best with the 11mm Birdseye eyepiece at 170x.

I pulled ahead of Mr. M. here. He, like me, noted the grainy texture and elongated shape of the cluster’s center, but he apparently only noted a couple of stars in its outer region (I count two in his drawing), while Unk picked out five bright ones and a passel of “winkers-in-and-out.”

M83, the justly renowned magnitude 7.8, 14.1’x13.2’ Southern Pinwheel Galaxy, has a dramatically bright stellar-size core and a large, mostly round outer envelope of nebulosity. Spiral structure pops in and out of view—I think. You have to be careful not to see what you expect to see when you are pushing a small instrument to its limits. I will say the galaxy’s long bar is fairly easy with direct vision.

Our results were roughly the same on the Southern Pinwheel. John shows a little more subtle spiral detail in the disk, while I got the teeny-weeny bright core. We were both bowled over by this marvel.

When I’d finished staring at M83 it was close to eleven. I felt pretty good, having been careful to keep myself hydrated with bottled water and allowing myself one (and only one) Monster Energy Drink. It was on the warm and humid side, but I could have kept going for quite a while. I didn’t want to cover too much ground this first night of the Album Project, but I figgered there was time for a couple more. With Hercules finally out of the sky-glow, my next stop was obvious…

M13 and M92, “A Messier Album 14,” June 1968

M13, now that it is out of the eastern light dome, is as beautiful as ever. This magnitude 5.8, 20’ Class V globular star cluster shows considerable resolution around its periphery, with plenty of minute stars blinking in and out of view across the milky core, too. Tremendous numbers of wee sparklers fill the field when I use averted vision. Rather than looking like a spiral of stars as this cluster often does visually in larger telescopes, in the 5-inch Maksutov at 170x it appears hourglass shaped.

Unlike his view of M68, Mr. Mallas and I saw remarkably similar vistas of the Great Cluster. In fact, I was gobsmacked at how nearly identical our drawings are. He did top me in that—if I am interpreting his description correctly—he got a hint of the famous Propeller dark lanes, while I didn’t seem them at all in the MCT and could barely make them out in the 16-inch Newtonian scope next door.

M92, Hercules “other” globular cluster, is nice too. In its own way, this Class IV, magnitude 6.5, 14’ diameter ball of suns is every bit as good as M13. The grainy, partially resolved core looks square at 170x. The outer region is round and is populated by hordes of stars, some of which hold steady with direct vision, some of which tend to wink in and out, and some of which require averted vision to show themselves at all.

I came roaring back with M92, picking out, judging by our sketches, quite a few more stars than Mallas did. This is one of his globs with a weird core, too. His drawing depicts an odd, strongly elongated center for the cluster, looking a litle like M83’s bar. While he calls the outer regions of M92, “star-studded,” his drawing doesn’t show many there.

After finishing the three groups of Album objects, I still had a few minutes to go before midnight, my usual Rod-turns-into-a-pumpkin time. I took a look at Charity’s corrector plate, and finding it had begun to accumulate dew—I really need to get a heater strip for her—I cleared it with my 12vdc hairdryer-cum-dew-zapper. When I was done, I noticed Centaurus was near culmination. To Omega Centauri (NGC 5139) and Centaurus A (NGC 5128) we went.

The two far southern marvels were low, of course, even at our 30-degree north latitude, and it was hazy. Monstrous Omega didn’t look that great even in my pal Pat’s 16-inch Newtonian. Nevertheless, I was seeing more of it than I thought I would with a cotton-picking five-inch MCT. Centaurus A, which was strangely invisible in the 16-inch Dobsonian, was at least a fuzz-patch in the Mak.

Maybe those hours of straining for details in the seven Messiers had helped. It also helped that seeing was steady all night long, with Charity showing most of the detail in Saturn that the 16-incher revealed. I was particularly taken by the contrasting colors of the disk and the ring and of different parts of the ring. The sixth planet was satisfyingly sharp in Miss Valentine, even when I bumped her power up to over 300x.

One more before throwing the Big Switch? How about an off-the-beaten-path Messier, M40? As you may know, M40 is not a deep sky object per se, but an optical double star, Winnecke 4. While Messier believed these stars might be involved with nebulosity based on an observation by Hevelius, he never saw any there himself, and it is clear today there is no nebulosity to be seen. Good, old Chuck put the two stars in the number 40 spot on his M list anyway. M40 is a pretty pair of yellowish stars, and I enjoyed showing them to the folks who’d never seen this most obscure M.

To put it simply, it was a real fun night. I had a great time looking at—really looking at—some old favorites. My telescope cooperated. Everybody else’s scope cooperated—we had a nice turnout with six observers on the field. When will I tackle more of the Album? When the need for bright and pretty fuzzies is on me and Charity has been complaining she’s hungry for photons, we’ll be out there again with the beloved Messiers.

Next Time: Throwing the Big Switch.

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