Sunday, June 30, 2013

 

Space Truckin’


We had a lot of luck on Venus
We always had a ball on Mars
Meeting all the groovy people
We've rocked the Milky Way so far
We danced around with Borealis
We're space truckin' round the the stars
Come on, let's go Space Truckin'!

—Deep Purple

If you’re going to observe profitably at a distant star party, muchachos, or even at a not so distant one, you have to get your astro-stuff there. Given the propensity of today’s amateurs to accumulate ever-greater amounts of gear, that’s not always easy, and I’m often asked, and not just by pea-picking novices, “Unk, how the heck do I get it all in the car?”

It used to be a lot simpler. Back in the blessed (or not so blessed) days of the early 1970s, I didn’t pack much stuff. There wasn’t a lot of stuff to pack. You had a telescope optical tube, a mount, an observing table (I used a TV tray), a box of eyepieces, a star atlas, and a red flashlight. Oh, there might be a few ancillary items like a thermos of coffee and a portable 8-track player for listening to Deep Purple’s Machine Head in the wee hours—which served to keep inimical wildlife at bay—but life was purty simple.

The worst part of packing for a deep sky expedition for your not-so-old Uncle in the 70s was maneuvering my 8-inch f/7 Cave OTA into my Dodge Dart. Getting it back in that lousy Dodge for the return trip in the wee, cold hours wasn’t much fun either. And wrestling with the GEM mount’s sixties-style pedestal was worse—just had to take them cotton-picking legs off. But packing didn’t require planning. Get that big white tube in the car somehow, partially disassemble the mount and throw it in the trunk, toss whatever else you had in after it and you were ready to rock.

There things remained for quite a while. Actually, packing got substantially easier. The Orange Tube C8 that displaced the Cave in my affections was quicker to load. Yes, the footlocker it came in was a bit of a pain, but it was still easier to manage than that long white tube, fitting in either the backseat or trunk without a fuss. You couldn’t collapse the legs of the original Celestron tripod, but at least you could fold ‘em in, and the Celestron “triangle” tripod was a pleasure compared to a pedestal.

My years of easy, casual star party packing ended in the early 1990s due to three changes in my observing life. I went to a larger telescope, a hot water heater style Meade StarFinder Dobsonian, I began attending distant star parties with my new wife, Miss Dorothy, and, by the time the decade was out, even luddite old Unk had embraced wired astronomy:  computers and CCDs.

The biggest deal was the 12-inch Meade Dobbie. I didn’t pack her all the time, mind you, but she was a frequent star party scope for us in the 1990s. Today, even mass-produced and inexpensive Dobsonians like the Orion (Synta) Dobs can be had in truss tube form and can be disassembled for relatively easy transport. Twenty years ago? Not so much, unless you were willing and able to spend for the high priced spread like Obsession. Otherwise, if you wanted a 12-inch or 16-inch or 17.5-inch telescope and couldn’t pay a lot for it, you got a Sonotube Dob.

The big help in those days, as I’ve written before, was that I had a little hatchback car, a Hyundai Excel. If ever there was a perfect automobile for the traveling astronomer, it was the hatchback. While most of ‘em were small, they were able to accommodate a surprising amount of gear and were easy to load. Hell, I got Miss D., Old Betsy (the Meade StarFinder), and all the astro-junk we needed for four days at a star party in the Excel for the 1994 Deep South Regional Star Gaze.

All too soon, the Hyundai was history and the more “adult” Toyota sedans I moved to didn’t want to have a thing to do with Betsy. That was OK, I was back to SCTs in a big way by then, and when I began feeling the need for Bets’ horsepower again, I converted her into a truss tube (or more properly my ATM friend Pat Rochford did). Any packing headaches in the latter part of the 90s and into the new century had more to do with stuff other than the scope. I’d moved from a scope, eyepieces, a small table, and a simple tarp-like picnic canopy to computers, video cameras, enormous ice chests, big tables, video monitors, DVD recorders, humongous tailgating canopies, observing chairs, camp chairs, and—well you get the picture—for every star party.

Anyhoo, my biggest challenge of the 1990s was the 1999 Texas Star Party—an event I ought to tell y’all about some Sunday. The “nuff said” on that TSP is that it turned out to be a great one, with some of the best skies TSP has ever experienced. But I had to get me, Miss Dorothy, Old Betsy, the observing gear, and enough camping equipment for a week way out west all the way to Prude Ranch.

Being able to break Betsy into components helped, but the secret was planning where and how everything would go in the Camry and going slow with the gear loading. I gave the packing problem a lot of thought, and did quite a bit of experimenting. I didn’t just start throwing junk in the trunk on the morning we headed west on I-10. And that is what you need to do, too: plan and prepare. Even if you have a larger vehicle than I did back in ’99, and even if you’re just going a couple of hours from home.

The first thing to decide is “which vehicle?” Many families have more than one car, and if you have a family, you may have some options. “Bigger is better” is the main thing. If you’ve got a Smartcar and a mini-van, you naturally choose the mini-van, all things being equal. All things are not always equal, howsomeever, so wargame it well. Yes, a mini-van  has more space, supposedly, than a sedan, but if you can’t fold down or remove the rear seats, or it’s so difficult to do so you know you won’t fool with it, you may find the sedan with its trunk has more useable space.

How about a new vehicle? If you’re getting ready to change horses prior to the TSP (or your big do of choice)? I’ve never been inclined to let my telescopes choose my automobiles, but I will say that one of the best things I’ve done to make my star party trips more enjoyable is to give up my beloved Camry for a 4Runner. I had more reasons for switching hosses than just wanting to tote telescopes, but that was a consideration. Anyhow, the 4Runner, Miss Van Pelt, has more space, but, even better, it’s astronomy friendly space. Not only does her back seat fold down, it folds down flat, making packing amazingly easy. And she has plenty of other useful features like AC power outlets and tie-downs.

Howsomeever…as I soon found out, just getting a bigger vee-hickle doesn’t mean you can just throw stuff in willy-nilly and boogie. What I’ve found is that as the size of your transport expands, so does the amount of gear you’ll want to put in it. Whether you’ve got a Prius or a 4Runner, you need to do what I did before the TSP: go slow, decide exactly what to take, and cogitate on how the puzzle pieces will fit together.

I don’t care how large your Detroit iron is, the most important thing you can do for yourself is decide what can be left at home. That doesn’t just make fitting everything you need into the available space easier, it makes that always-depressing packing at the end of the star party less onerous. Best way to approach it? When your stuff is laid out prior to packing, cull the items you took last time and didn’t use. Then work on them. Which of the things in that pile have you NEVER used at a star party?

You always bring a CD player and a mess of disks, even though you prefer to chat with your buddies on the field, or, in the wee hours, listen to the sounds of nature? Leave it behind. It’s a small thing, but small things add up. You load three camp chairs, but only one has ever been sat on? The other two stay home. You like to bring your 80mm refractor along “just in case,” even though you have yet to look through it at a star party? Sorry Charlie. Those binoculars that seem like a good idea, but never some out of their case? Same-same.

“But Unk Rod, this is my first star party. I don’t know what to bring.” That’s OK, Skeezix…we’ve all been there and done that. I have got you covered here and here with answers to your questons on what to bring, how to set it up, and what to do with it at the dagnabbed star party.

“OK Unk, so exactly how do I do it?” Let me preface this by saying I don’t haul a 20-inch Dobsonian or a 14-inch SCT around, but, then again, neither do most of y’all. I do go to a lot of star parties, have been going to them for decades, and have learned a thing or two about packing astro-junk over those years. Anyhoo, the first step is marshalling your stuff somewhere a couple of days before the event.

If you have a wonderful spouse like I do, you do that in the living room (“Front Parlor” in Chaos Manor South Speak). There are two reasons for laying the gear out early. First is that you want to get a good idea of exactly how much stuff you are going to take so you can give some thought to exactly how you are a-gonna fit it in the vehicle. The second reason is more important:  assembling all your stuff beforehand lessens the chance of forgetting something.

I’ve been using an equipment checklist for years now. Several checklists as a matter of fact. One for video imaging, one for visual, one for DSLRing, etc. But you have got to be careful. My checklist says “NexStar 11 tripod,” for example, and that is cool. But I neglected to break it down further, to “NexStar 11 tripod and tripod spreader.” The result being that one time I forgot that spreader, which had become separated from the tripod after my return from the previous CAV trip. It was not a fatal lapse, but was annoying. Having all the stuff laid out for a couple of days gives me a chance to check and double check, inspecting each item.

One other thing I do these days is load up the 4Runner on Star Party Eve. That is probably the best change I’ve made to my packing routine in years. Getting the astro stuff in the vehicle the night before departure means I’ve got plenty of time to solve any packing problems that show up, and I’m not tired and sweaty and aggravated on star party morning, which makes for a more pleasant trip. Worried about leaving stuff in the car overnight? I’ve never had a problem despite our downtown address, but you may want to leave obviously valuable things like laptops and cameras in the house till morning.

Alrighty, then. Here’s exactly how I do it. It’s the night before Chiefland and all through the house, yadda, yadda, yadda… The best thing about packing ahead of time is that my stress level is low. I can get ‘er done, but take ‘er easy, and there is the reward of a cold “sarsaparilly” when the work is done. As above, I’ve gone over my checklist a time or three and eyeballed everything. Finally, it’s time to get that mountain of junk in the 4Runner, which I have prepared before beginning.

Back when I had a Camry, said preparation consisted of lowering the back seat so there was an opening between it and the trunk, yielding as much space as the four-door sedan could give. Today, I lower Miss Van Pelt’s back seats, which is real easy with a 4Runner.

Where do I start? With either the 4Runner or the Camry, I’ve always begun with the tailgating canopy in its case. It’s big and heavy and I don’t want it on top of anything else. It goes up against the front seats, as far forward as I can get it. In the Camry days, I’d have moved both front seats as far forward as me and Dorothy could stand.

Up next is the tripod, which I place on top of the canopy’s case. I always remove the tripod spreader so the legs can be folded in as far as they will go. I don’t remove that spreader till just before I load the tripod, though, and I either place it in the middle of the floor in the house or in a temporary place in the 4Runner so I don’t forget it (again).

Tripod secured, I work from there to the rear end of Miss Van Pelt (don’t tell her I mentioned her rear end, y’all). Next item up is the scope case, usually either one of the C8 OTAs or the NexStar 11.  The folded-up observing table is laid flat just aft of the scope. It’s on the bottom and I’ll be stacking stuff on it, but not the scope, which would be too heavy and could damage it (in the Camry days, the table stood on edge up against the front seats).

On the table, up hard against the scope case, is the tackle box I use for my accessories, the big Tupperware container that holds more astro-junk, and an ice chest if I have to carry one. If’n I am toting a GEM, its head in a plastic box I got from the Wal-Mart goes on top of the scope case and accessory cases. When I was loading the Camry, the accessory boxes went in the backseat.

Continuing to work my way back toward the rear of the vehicle, I load eyepiece cases, camera cases, and the other stuff that’s in “tool attaches” right after the accessory boxes. Tail end Charlie is two or three jumpstart batteries. As I am packing, I am scrupulous to leave room on one side of the 4Runner (or in the backseat of the Camry) for suitcases.

And, frankly, that is just about that. The rest of the procedure consists of continuing to fit pieces together, putting the small stuff in “holes” here and there. My goal is always to get everything in the vehicle and arrange it so nothing gets squished and nothing shifts when I am taking corners, running over rough roads, or coming to a stop. I generally wait till departure morning to load the suitcases in the spot I’ve saved for them—we usually don’t pack ‘em till then—and to find a spot for the laptop where it won’t get damaged.

Among the final items, whether in the 4Runner or Camry, are the soft ones: coats and sweaters, pillows, and sleeping bags if I have to take ‘em. Stuff that can be used as padding and can be compressed to close trunk or tailgate. Last of all are a few flat items on top:  folded up computer shelter, flexible dew shield, stuff like that. I make dern sure nothing in the back is restricting my view in the rearview mirror, and if it is, I make changes. And—I’m done.

I’m tired and sweaty even though I’ve taken pains to work slowly, even in what passes for our winters these days. But afterwards I can take a nice long bath, watch some cable TV, have those “refreshments,” and be absolutely chipper when it’s time to hit the road with the dawn.

If you simply CANNOT get everything you need, really need, in your jalopy, you can rent car-top carriers from U-haul. Yeah, it’s a pain to have to return one when you get back, and they play hob with your gas mileage, but that’s better than leaving vital stuff at home I reckon. Trailers? I am not a fan, which is one reason I don’t own a big Dob. For me, they are a pain to tow, keep my speed down, and even the best of ‘em tend to shake, rattle, and roll the telescope. No thanks.

Does packing for a star party sound like an awful big pain, muchachos? It ain’t, really. A little practice and it will seem as natural to you as fleas do to an old hound dog. Is there anything I could improve on after this many years of star partying? Yep. I could be more careful with my packing for the return trip. I’m put out to be leaving a star party—any star party—and waste plenty of time cussing the gear and rearranging after throwing the stuff back in the truck instead of doing it right the first time. I herewith resolve to try to do a little better, though it seems unlikely I will this many years down the line. Just remember to stop up your ears if you encounter Unk on a star party field on tear-down morning.

Next Time: Another Summer in Chiefland...

Sunday, June 23, 2013

 

Destination Moon Night One: 10 down, 290 to Go


Tell y’all the truth, despite Unk’s recent resurrection of his “if it ain’t raining, head to the dark site” rule, I was awful tempted to stay home and watch Svengoolie last Saturday evening. Hell, he was showing King Kong Escapes. It was hot, muchachos, 90F at sundown, it was humid, it was buggy, and there were plenty of clouds coming and going. If I had been after the deep sky I probably would have stayed home. But I wasn’t.

As I’ve said here before, I am a Lunatic. I’ve been an often-fanatical observer of the Moon since I got my 3-inch Tasco reflector five decades ago, and I’ve never grown tired of her. Which is not to say there haven’t been lapses, times when I’ve only viewed Diana’s silv’ry countenance casually and occasionally. The past several years were one of those times. I was all wrapped up in the Herschel Project, and my cotton-picking job meant I was lucky to get to the dark site once a month for a deep sky run with the Mallincam Xtreme.

That has all changed. I’m still tying the bow on the H-project, going back and acquiring better video images of the spring galaxies, but it’s no longer pedal-to-the-metal Herschel observing. An even bigger change is that my engineering day job is history. I am retired now and don’t hesitate to head for the dark site on any clear evening, even an evening that ain’t so dark because Selene is sailing through the sky.

While I haven’t lost my love for the Moon, I am embarrassed to admit I’ve lost my familiarity with her. I am a long way from where I was when I was a sprout with an Edmund Scientific Palomar Junior, the days when I knew the Moon better than I ever have since, when I knew the nearside of Earth’s satellite every bit as well as I knew Mama and Daddy’s subdivision. Oh, I can still point out Copernicus, and Plato, and Mare Tranquilitatus, but don’t ask me where Hyginus, Birt, or dadgum Sulpicus Gallus are anymore. And I’ve been feeling bad about that.

What did I do when I was a little kid wanting to learn the Moon? I took Sir Patrick Moore’s advice to heart and set out to sketch the 100 most prominent lunar features. Actually, I kicked it up a notch from what Patrick recommended and did all 300 of the craters, mare, and other formations on the Moon map in the old Norton’s Star Atlas. I stuck to it and drew every single one, so it’s not a surprise I knew ol’ Hecate purty well. Maybe I should do the same thing today?

Or not. I still like astronomical drawing, as you know if you’ve been following my semi-regular Unk’s Messier Album series, but sketching is not a major interest at the moment. Imaging is. What if I took pictures of every single Norton’s feature? That alone wouldn’t be as good an aid to learning the Moon again as sketching would be, but what if I used Photoshop to label the features in my frames? I thought that would be a big help in finding my lunar legs again.

Alrighty, then. But how would I image the Moon? I was there at the dawn of the webcam revolution and still had my venerable SAC 7 modified webcam, as well as the slightly more modern Celestron NexImage (the original model) and Meade LPI. I’d shot a lot of Moon pictures with ‘em, and had been pleased with the results. But I had been out of the planetary photography game for over five years, and hadn’t taken a Moon shot with anything but a cell phone cam in a long time. I knew the world had Moved On and there were planetary cameras far more sophisticated than my humble modified webcams.

I began reading the Cloudy Nights BBS’ planetary imaging forum—there’s a Solar System Imaging board on Astromart as well, but there is little or no activity on it. Three letters turned up frequently: "Z," "W," and "O." “ZWO," I found out,  was the name of a Chinese company who appeared to be making a name for themselves in astronomical imaging. The company’s cameras were becoming a favorite with amateurs, it seemed, including top planetary imagers like Chris Go and Damian Peach. I headed for the (nice) ZWO website for a look-see.

What I found there were the two cameras that were being talked about the most on CN, the ASI120MC and the AS120MM. Both were similar, with the MC being one shot color and the MM being monochrome. While the planetary hotshots were mostly using the MM, I thought the MC was more lazy old Unk’s style. I like color, and the chances of me ever doing tricolor imaging with a filter wheel are slim to none—at best.

How was the ZWO camera better than my old SAC 7? First off, the MC’s max resolution, 1280x960 pixels, obviously left the SAC and the other webcams in the dust. Even better, the frame rates claimed for the ZWO were amazing:  35 frames per second at max resolution, and a blistering 215 fps and 320x240. My old cameras might do 15 fps with a tail wind, but to get images that looked worth a hoot I had to slow down to 5 fps.  As you-all may know, the way most planetary imaging is done these days is by shooting .avi movies and stacking their frames into a finished picture. More frames faster is always better in our quest to defeat seeing, and the ZWOs offered way more frames per second than I’d been able to achieve with webcams.

What else? The MC’s chip, the spec sheet said, had 1.2 megapixels of the small pixels we crave for getting high resolution Lunar and planetary shots. 12-bit image depth. USB 2.0 connectivity. Exposure times ranging from 64 microseconds up to 1000-seconds (17-minutes). Best of all for me was the price:  under 300 bucks, something even cheapskate Unk was (relatively) comfortable with.

After just a wee bit of hemming and hawing, I ordered the 120MC and sat back to wait for it. From what I could tell, it would be coming directly from China. That didn’t worry me like it would have in the past. I’ve ordered several accessories from Mainland China for my UV5R (ham) radio, and they’ve all come quickly. Nevertheless, I was fracking amazed when the ZWO arrived. I ordered on Tuesday and it was on the front porch on pea-picking Thursday. I don’t know how ZWO head honcho Sam Wen does it, but he does.

I was even more impressed when I opened the box. The camera is a little thing of beauty, a long way from the plastic-bodied NexImage and Meade LPI I used for years. The ZWO sports a lovely red anodized body with cooling fins on the back. Naturally, there was a 1.25-inch nosepiece and a USB cable in the package, just like with the Meade and Celestron cameras. But…there was also a 1.25-inch IR block filter (needed to get a decent color balance with a planetary camera), and, get this, a fisheye lens. Not exactly sure what I will do with that. It was handy for testing the MC indoors, though, and I am thinking I might be able to use it to image meteors or some such.

The camera looked good and worked just like it should near as I could tell from my indoor tests. 'Course, the only real test for astro-gear is on the good old observing field. Which brings us back to last Saturday evening. Scope Nights on my iPhone was giving the night a “fair” rating, so I thought it was worth a try. Hell, if there was any chance of seeing anything, I’d have gone out to the site; I couldn’t wait to try the MC. At 6:45 p.m., I packed up the Edge 800, Mrs. Peel, her VX mount, the laptop, and a couple of accessory boxes and headed for the Possum Swamp Astronomical Society observing field.

There, I took my time setting up. Looked like the clouds had scudded off and that I’d have a good and long night ahead of me. That’s what I thought till halfway through setup I looked to the east. Uncharacteristically, there was a band of clouds on the horizon and it appeared to be heading my way. I was surprised, since weather systems usually approach us from the west. I knew I had dern sure better shake a leg.

Unfortunately, not only was it still too early to see go-to alignment stars at 8 p.m., Polaris hadn’t peeped out, either. Yet, Selene was shining brightly and was just past culmination. I fiddled around for a few more minutes, till I was absolutely sure the clouds were coming my way, and took the bit in my teeth.

I polar aligned the VX by the simple expedient of pointing its R.A. axis roughly north with the aid of my compass. Go-to alignment? That wasn’t much of a concern since I’d be staying on Luna all night long. I selected “Solar System Align,” and “Moon” with the hand controller, and the mount headed for where it thought Luna ort ta be. When the VX stopped, it was a few degrees away from Selene, but only a few. I centered the Moon in Emma with the aid of my new Rigel Quickfinder, hit “Enter” and “Align” and the VX responded with “alignment success.”

Hokay, time to get to work. I removed the diagonal, crosshair eyepiece, and visual back from Mrs. Peel and replaced them with the Meade flip-mirror I’ve had for over a decade.  A flip mirror is a godsend for planetary imagers, though it was originally intended for deep sky CCD users in the days of uber tiny chips. Now that even planetary cams have larger sensors (the 120MC’s is a 1/3-inch CMOS job), there is not much demand for flip mirrors, but they can make the extremely difficult (make that “near impossible”) job of centering a planet or even the Moon at f/20 or f/30 downright easy.

How does a flip mirror help? One is like a special sort of diagonal. Actually, they are diagonals. There’s an eyepiece tube, and, on my Meade, a threaded ring so I can screw it directly onto the SCT’s rear. The difference is that there’s a port on the back of this special diagonal for a camera with a 1.25-inch nosepiece.
When you have the object of your desire in the eyepiece, you turn a knob, which FLIPS the diagonal’s mirror out of the way, and the light from the scope goes straight through to the camera. There’s a helical focuser on the eyepiece tube that can be adjusted so the camera and eyepiece are in focus at the same time. That means you focus the Moon or a planet, flip the mirror up, and it is on the CCD and sharp. There are adjustments for the mirror to ensure that what’s in the eyepiece is also on the chip.

I inserted the ZWO into the flip mirror and had a look through the eyepiece. Miss Selene was well centered, so I flipped the flipper, and headed for the laptop. Next step was plugging in the camera. I got the reassuring bing-bong that indicated the camera driver I’d installed when I got the ZWO (a little CD with the driver and a few simple imaging programs is in the box with the MC). Booted-up the camera control program I’d use on this evening, the outstanding freeware Sharpcap, and saw…absolutely nuttin’, honey. Sharpcap had recognized the camera immediately, and seemed to be working properly, but the consarned preview display was as black as the inside of my black cat, Thomas Aquinas, at midnight. Rut-roh.

I finally got the camera working, but in typical Unk fashion, it took some fumbling and bumbling. What was the problem? A combination of things. There was now a thin layer of clouds dimming the Moon appreciably. The focus point for the ZWO was different from the last cam I’d used with the flip mirror, the SAC7, so eyepiece and MC were not in sync. Finally, I didn’t have a feel for the camera’s exposure settings yet.

As an aid to getting something visible, I removed the Barlow I’d placed ahead of the MC and shot at f/10 initially. Still nothing. Then I noticed an “auto exposure” checkbox on Sharpcap, checked that, and soon had a fuzzy white something on the monitor and, not long after, yep, craters.

From there on out, it was all gravy. There were some stretches of clouds, but I got about a half an hour of clear sky all told. The bugs were fierce, but the Thermacell kept most of them at bay. It was hot and as humid as humid can be, but a Monster Energy Drink kept Unk going. The MC? Once I got a feel for it, I upped the focal ratio back to f/20 with the Barlow, and the camera just zipped along, delivering around 40 - 50 frames per second at a resolution of 800x800, which I thought was a good compromise, delivering plenty of frames but in a reasonably large size. 

After shooting most of my sequences at 800x800, I upped the resolution to the max, 1280x960, to see what would happen, and after I'd processed 'em the next day, I decided the big pictures (below) looked every bit as good as the smaller ones. It sure is nice to have larger images to work with. Color is also nice, but I found I still prefer to process the Moon in black and white. With me coming from the days of shooting Luna with Tri-X, it just seems "right."

What did I image? I got in three areas before full overcast set in: Aristoteles/Eudoxus, Hipparchus, and the area of Bessel on the shores of Mare Serenitatus.  The seeing, unfortunately, wasn’t very good, though it improved somewhat as the evening wore on, and just before the clouds smothered the whole dern sky I rated it “fair – good.”

By 10 p.m., it was completely overcast and I was not at all reluctant to pull the Big Switch. I was hot and sweaty and just this side of miserable. The Monster I’d had earlier left me a little jumpy, y’all, an effect the stuff occasionally has on me on nights when I am approaching overheated. I was OK as long as I had company, a couple of the friendly folks who live near the field, but when they left, my hot and tired and wired state encouraged me to begin thinking idly about big smelly ape-men, little grey aliens, and that dad-blasted Mothman. "That rustle in the cornfield south of the airstrip? Just the wind, right? Uh-huh." That settled it—time to head back to The Old Manse.

At home with the gear inside and semi-stowed, I poured myself a soothing portion of the Rebel Yell, turned on the cable TV (a Ghost Adventures marathon was in progress), and tried to settle in. I couldn’t.  I was just too anxious to see what the ZWO had been able to achieve. I prefer to work on our desktop when possible, so a copied a couple of the image files on the laptop to a DVD. I had a bunch, and 30-seconds at a high frame rate produces large files, close to 2.5 GB, so all of ‘em wouldn’t fit on one disk. I picked two likely-looking ones and loaded them into my stacking program, Registax 6 on Chaos Manor South’s kitchen workstation.

I’d had the good sense to get back up to speed with Registax and learn the current version while waiting for Luna to come back around, so it wasn’t much trouble to align and stack one of my Aristoteles sequences. Did a quick sharpening with Regsitax’s famous “wavelet filters,” and I was done and was impressed. I thought it looked pretty dadgum good for my first real Moon picture in years, given the not-so-hot seeing and a camera and software that were new to me. I headed upstairs tired but happy.

Next morning I was up early even if I wasn’t feeling too bright after less than five hours of shuteye. A few cups of coffee, and I was ready to process the rest of my files, most of which came out considerably better than my hasty effort the night before had. A little messing with the wavelets, a little tweaking with Photoshop, and there was no doubt my results were at least as good as the best I’d ever done with the LPI, SAC 7, and NexImage. Which is not surprising; this camera is in a whole ‘nother league, campers, and I think this is gonna be the beginning of a beautiful friendship.

Only one more step remained before I could close out Night One of what I am calling my “Destination Moon” project:  label the features in my finished pics. Which was easy with the aid of what is in my opinion the best Lunar atlas available, Patrick Chevalley’s and Christian Legrand’s amazing Virtual Moon Atlas. I did a post on it a while back, but it is even more incredible now, with a huge array of features and data. Go get it, y’all, it’s free. VMA, whose highly detailed charts can be flipped and rotated, made it easy for me to label the major features on my images. And even some minor ones. I kinda got carried away, I reckon.

What’s next for the ZWO and me? More of the same. Oh, I might try it on Saturn some night, but for now, the Moon is our focus. I covered 10 features on this first outing, but that still leaves 290 to go. How will I do those 290? Probably about like I did the first batch, with Emma and the VX on the PSAS field. Only change I might make is to try a new camera control program I’m hearing a lot about, Firecapture. Sharpcap is the bee’s knees, but, as you know, muchachos, old Unk is not immune to the allure of More Better Gooder, especially when that more better gooder is in the form of FREEware. Stay tuned.

Next Time:  Space Truckin’…

Sunday, June 16, 2013

 

My Favorite Star Parties: Peach State Star Gaze 2000


While there were some stretches of blue during the day, it was clear I probably wouldn’t see much this past Saturday night, muchachos. Still, I stuck to my resolution, “If it ain’t raining, head to the dark site.” I just did it in a less arduous fashion than if I’d packed even a C8. My ETX 125, Charity Hope Valentine, an eyepiece case, and a few odds and ends went in the 4Runner painlessly and we were off for the Possum Swamp Astronomical Society observing field 15-minutes after I decided bad weather wasn’t imminent.

There, I was pleased to have the company of a couple of my buddies, Mike and Max. I was not so pleased at the condition of the sky. Those blue patches had shrunk, and by the time I got my little ETX girlfriend’s tripod set up, they had disappeared completely. Worse, as us three die-hards stood looking at the sky, the southern horizon began to be illuminated by an awesome lightning display. Even then we weren’t hasty, but after 45-minutes of the sky becoming ever more threatening, we had to admit it was throw in the towel time. Dadgummit.

So, this Sunday morning you-all get yet another star party reminiscence. Specifically one about our neighboring state, Georgia’s, premier amateur astronomy shindig. I’ve featured Peach State in this series once before, and made my way there a total of three times back in the early years of this century. If I liked it so dang much, then why didn’t I go more? I got caught up in my usual quest for the elusive More Better Gooder.

Back when Peach State was held in the spring, I chose the Texas Star Party instead of PSSG a couple of times. When Peach State moved to the fall, it was up against our local event, The Deep South Regional Star Gaze and, later, the Chiefland Star Party, neither of which I was inclined to miss. Still, I liked PSSG, which got started in 1994, and would probably have had as good a time there and seen as much as at those other star parties (with the exceptions of TSP 1999 and 2001, natch).

Anyhoo, I did go to PSSG those three times, 2000, 2001, and 2002. I might even get back there someday. It’s in a new location (its third), the dark Deerlick Astronomy Village. I just haven’t been able to puzzle out accommodations problem. The motels in the area seem a little far from the site from what I can tell, and old Unk ain’t much for the dern tent-camping scene anymore, as y’all know.

To be honest, I was also a little skeptical about Peach State’s original location. The venue for the event, Indian Springs State Park near the tiny town of Jackson, Georgia, was not far from Atlanta. Near enough, less than 50-miles, to be within range of that city’s enormous light dome. Why did I do PSSG the first time, then? Miss Dorothy’s schedule meant there was no way we’d be able to attend The Texas Star Party in 2000, the Mid South Star Gaze had been a bust in ’96 and I wasn’t anxious to go there again, and I was yet to be initiated into the joys of the Chiefland Spring Picnic. That left Peach State.

Despite the nearness of Indian Springs to Atlanta, I expected it would be a pretty good star party anyway. Couldn’t help but be given the presence of keynote speaker Antonin Rükl, author of The Atlas of the Moon, a work still sought after and used by us Lunatics today. It would be worth the trip just to hear him speak, I reckoned. I expected lots of good otherwise, too. The chief cook-and-bottle-washer at the time, Ken Poshedly, Kenpo to his buddies, was someone whose good reputation as an organizer was known to me. In fact, PSSG’s sponsoring club, The Atlanta Astronomy Club, was blessed with a large number of talented boys and girls.

The only slight complication? I had agreed to teach a Thursday night section at the University that spring. Didn’t want to cancel or ask a colleague to cover for me, so I’d only be able to do two days of the star party, Friday and Saturday. I reckoned that was actually OK; if I didn’t like the star party’s skies, accommodations, or programs, I could still stand two days’ worth. I can stand two days’ worth of almost anything.

There was one other bring-down. I was sorry to be making the drive up to Atlanta by myself. I’d never been to Atlanta before I met Miss Dorothy, and I’d never been up there without her since, but Miss D. just couldn’t make PSSG and I was blue about that. Nevertheless, I was up bright and early—at my normal get-up time for those years, 5 a.m.—packed, and on the road by 6:30.

What did I pack? The Ultima C8, Celeste, then still on her massive non-go-to fork mount, and my Celestron Short Tube 80, Woodstock, on his EQ-1 German mount. Otherwise? Pretty light load for the ’96 Camry. I had our picnic canopy, observing table, eyepieces, logbook, ice chest, sleeping bag, suitcase, and what I considered the star atlas of the day, The Herald-Bobroff Astroatlas.

As you-all know if you’ve been reading this blog for even a little while, on those rare occasions when I use a print atlas today it’s the little (but good) Sky and Telescope’s Pocket Sky Atlas. Mostly it’s been computerized sky charts for me for years. Back in 2000, though, I was still a non-go-to, non-laptop kinda guy. I thought Herald-Bobroff was the best atlas in the whole world, and in some ways I guess I still do.

HB, from Australia, was different from the other popular atlases of the time, Sky Atlas 2000 and Uranometria 2000. Herald-Bobroff went deep, as deep as 14th magnitude for stars, so there were lots of charts, but fewer you had to contend with in Uranometria’s 664 pages (in two volumes). HB was in a larger format, 16.5 by 12.5-inches, than Uranometria, so there didn’t need to be as many pages. Uranometria is best used in conjunction with a wider-field atlas like Sky Atlas 2000. Start paging through Uranometria and you’d soon be lost in all those pages—Unk would be, anyhow. No getting lost in Herald-Bobroff, and not just because of its lower page count.

HB, was different, you see; it was divided into six series of charts, with each series going deeper. You could start out with Sky Atlas 2000-like maps, but if you needed more detail you could go up to something like Uranometria’s charts. The wide-field maps had labels showing which larger scale chart covered the same area. To top it all off, HB’s pages were printed on heavy, glossy paper nearly invulnerable to Possum Swamp or Indian Springs dew.

I went computer-crazy in 2002 with go-to scopes and computerized charting in the field and never looked back or regretted doing so, but I still love H-B, even if I rarely use it. I do pull it out ever’ once in a while and look at it, and am happy I have it. I must be, since the (now out of print) atlas, especially the original version I have, commands mucho-dineros on the used market. I just can’t seem to part with it.

Same goes for the other book I took with me to PSSG, Antonin Rükl’s Lunar atlas, Atlas of the Moon. Why in Sam Hill did Unk take a lunar atlas to a star party? Because of Mr. Rükl. In his honor, the AAC scheduled the 2000 PSSG so there would be a small Moon in the sky early in the evenings. I thought it would be fun to do a little Moon gazing with the Atlas and wanted to get Mr. Rükl to sign his work if possible.

Computer applications like Patrick Chevalley and Christian Legrand’s Virtual Moon Atlas and DVD copies of various formerly “professional” reference tools like The Consolidated Lunar Atlas have put Atlas of the Moon in the same place SkyTools 3 and TheSky have put Herald-Bobroff and Uranometria. But, just as with H-B, I still treasure my copy of Rükl’s atlas and have no intention of selling it despite the fact that I could no-doubt get plenty of buckeroos for it.

Before I could take a look at the Moon with Mr. Rükl, I had to get to Indian Springs. The drive up freaking I-65 to I-85, then or now, is a royal pain. Flat, nothing to see, nowhere good to stop. Without Miss D. along all I could do was listen to a book on tape, on an actual cassette tape then, Stephen King’s Grand Guignol-strained-through-post-Vietnam-blues Skeleton Crew. Other than that, the only highlight of the drive to Montgomery was a stop at our favorite Interstate joint of the day, Stuckey’s. You know what, though? Even my fave junk-food treat, the foot-long chili-cheese dog (with onions and mustard, natch), tasted of wormwood without Miss Dorothy along.

The rest of the trip went faster. Seemed to, anyhow. Through Montgomery (at a slow place due to road construction that still goes on to this day), past Auburn and Tuskegee, over the Georgia line, and to Exit 41, Newnan. From there, it was two-lanes most of the rest of the way, with plenty of log trucks and farm tractors for me to get behind.

Despite Old McDonalds and slow trucks in profusion, before long I was past the little town of Jackson, which appeared to have been dropped straight out of the 1930s. With the aid of the excellent directions I got off the Auburn Astronomical Society’s (AAS) website, I made the turn for Indian Springs’ group camp area where the PSSG was held, Camp Macintosh, without incident. Well, almost. Unk being Unk, I missed the last turn, but I realized what I’d done right away.

Soon enough, I was pulling up at Camp Macintosh’ impressive main building, which served as registration headquarters, dining hall, and meeting place for the star party. I got my t-shirt and registration packet and bunkhouse assignment, and it was time to head for the field for telescope set up.

Rut-roh. On Friday afternoon, it was wall-to-wall astronomers, over 200 folks easy, packed in like sardines on an observing field not quite as big as I thought it would be. About football field size, maybe. Not only was the AAC a large club, Peach State was now drawing folks from Alabama and Tennessee as well as the Atlanta/Georgia area. Wasn’t sure I’d be able to set up on the main field.

Being an astro-writer has its ups and downs, but thankfully the ups outnumber the downs. One of the ups is that you get noticed. While I wasn’t speaking at PSSG 2000, a number of AAC folks recognized me as a “personality,” including a group on the south end of the field:  “HEY UNK, HEY UNK! GET YOURSELF OVER HERE! WE DONE SAVED A SPOT FOR YOU!”

I don’t know if they’d really been saving a spot for me, but there was a place on the south end of the field just big enough for me, Celeste, Woodstock, and the observing table. Didn’t look like I’d have room to put up my tent canopy, but that didn’t appear to be a problem. My new friends seemed eager to share their shade with me. I’ve said it before and I will say it again: amateur astronomers are the nicest people it’s ever been my privilege to be associated with.

After I’d set up the scopes, placed the ice chest in the shade of a canopy, and got everything else set out for a night of observing, I took a look at the sky. Spring in Georgia and anywhere else in the South can be touch-and-go weather-wise, but it seemed certain we’d get some hours in on Friday evening. Mite hazy, but not bad. The main question in Unk’s mind wasn’t about the weather; it was “How bad is the Atlanta light dome?” That would have to wait till dark for an answer.

Udder than that? It was going on four, and a look at the PSSG schedule in the nice program in the packet I got at the registration desk said I’d missed all Friday’s presentations. That was alright; there were plenty of talks scheduled for Saturday, including Mr. Rükl’s keynote. Most of the presentations were lunar/planetary in nature this year in keeping with the “theme” of PSSG 2000, but there were some deep sky talks scheduled, too, and I was given a copy of the star party observing list, the famous “Peach Fuzzies” program. In addition, in 2000 there was a “Peach Pits” list of interesting Lunar features (get it, y’all?).

Field setup complete, it was time to check out the housing situation. No, the accommodations were not in the same class as the centrally heated and air-conditioned cabins at DSRSG’s Percy Quin, which I’d come to take for granted, but they were OK. Large open-bay barracks, as we used to call ‘em in the military, big rooms filled with GI bunk beds and an adjoining large bathroom. Not bad at all and nothing outside my range of experience. Plenty of room, too. Since many folks had chosen to tent-camp on the field or had RVs or travel trailers, the PSSG only had to use two bunkhouses, with one being reserved for men and one for women.

What was there to do, then, but trot back to the field, see who was there, and begin to think about suppertime? If there was a drawback to PSSG in them days, it was the meal-plan or lack of much of one. There was lunch, burgers and dogs sold by the AAC, but no supper. What to do? I ran into an old Deep South buddy of mine, Russell Whigham from the Auburn club. Accompanied by a couple of other bubbas, we were soon taking off for Jackson in Russell’s truck in search of grub.

Mr. Whigham recommended this excellent barbeque joint the star partiers had discovered, Fresh Air Barbeque, but we were overruled by one of our number who said he had a weak stomach and insisted on freaking MacDonalds. Don’t ask me why greasy Mickey D’s food would be better than home-style barbeque, but we took pity on him and I wound up with a cotton-picking Quarter Pounder (no cheese, at least).

Back on the field, I did a little wandering around in advance of darkness, both to see who else was there and what they had brought. In addition to Kenpo, who was pretty danged busy, I ran into two fellow club members, the late Marvin Uphaus and his girlfriend, Betsy Hopson. They had a nice vintage Meade 10-inch 2120 SCT at their disposal. Marvin, who’d got the scope for a song, had even managed to adapt one of Meade’s inexpensive Magellan I digital setting circle computers for it and was ready to rock. Betsy was at the controls of a beautiful 1990s white-tube C5+.

There was a large selection of scopes old and new on the field, including some of them futuristic-looking Celestron NexStar 5s, which Unk was right curious about. I was mostly curious to see how well one worked and whether this scope, Celestron’s first go-to rig since the kinda ill-fated Ultima 2000, might be a hit for the Big C, who was struggling at the time.

Then, after a long wait—curse the dadgum Daylight Savings Time—it was finally dark in Indian Springs. The question in Unk’s mind was “How dark will it get?” Was the sky perfect? No. How could it be with that megalopolis barely fifty miles away? Yet, it was OK and more than good enough for purty serious deep sky work. The light dome was visible and prominent, but it was in the relatively uninteresting northwest, and I was never much bothered by it.

Before hitting the deep sky, though, it was time to give my old friend Hecate a look-see. Luna was slim, but not so slim as to be devoid of interesting sights, and the Ultima 8 did a fine job on her in the steady spring skies. As I was Moon-watching intently, I heard a heavily accented voice at my elbow:  “Can I have a look?”

Mr. Antonin Rükl dern sure could. Tony had just retired from his permanent position at the Prague Planetarium, and was obviously having a ball observing and hanging out with amateur astronomers. My fellow Lunar observers are invariably impressed when I tell them the scope they are looking through, Celeste, was once used by Antonin Rükl to gaze at a yellow Georgia Moon.

When the Moon was gone, it was time for Virgo and her multitudinous galaxies. I started out with the mind-blowing Markarian’s Chain and then cruised north and south in search of as many glorious night birds, Messiers and NGCs, as I could bag. Biggest surprise of the night? How well Woodstock the Short Tube 80 did on galaxies. Not only was he able to reveal plenty of objects, and not just Ms, he showed considerable detail in the brighter ones.

Woodstock’s amazing performance was mostly a testament to the good conditions we were experiencing, decent transparency early in the evening and surprisingly good seeing—amateurs tend to forget atmospheric steadiness can have almost as big an effect on deep sky objects as on planets. I’ve often found a supposedly marginal site can outdo a “better” one when the conditions are right.

Not that the sky was perfect all night long. It was obvious a front was creeping up on us, and later in the evening I had to take frequent cloud-breaks. Which was OK. I’d wander over to the main building, guzzle coffee, and gobble the Little Debbie cakes the AAC was selling all night long. I spent a pleasant half-hour with Kenpo discussing the current state of the amateur astronomy biz before the clouds scudded off and it was back to the field for more galaxies.

In addition to my own observing, I watched interestedly as the dude set up next to me did CCD imaging with an Ultima 2000. Looked complicated, but Unk was fascinated and impressed. Seeing somebody actually imaging the sky electronically on a star party field was one of the things that impelled me to get my first CCD the next year, an humble Starlight Xpress MX516 that at least got me started.

I wasn’t sure what the weather gods would decree for Saturday night, so I hit it hard Friday until we were clouded out for good at 3 a.m. I still wasn’t sleepy, though—I was on a high in the wake of an outstanding evening. I broke out the Rebel Yell bottle and hung out on the field for at least another hour before slowly, ever so slowly, moseying back to the bunkhouse.

I awoke about nine or so after a surprisingly restful night on the GI bunk. After my morning ablutions, I poked my head outside. What I saw was not encouraging: plenty of gray clouds and the wind was beginning to stir. Felt like bad weather was on its way for sure. With rain in the offing, I thought, I hustled over to the vendors’ building north of the main complex to, naturally, buy astro junk.

There were two full-line dealers on site in 2000, Chuck Pisa from Wolf Camera and old buddy Rex of Rex’s Astrostuff. I believe the only thing I wound up getting that year was from Chuck, an Intes 2-inch visual back for the C8 to go with the 2-inch Intes star diagonal I already had. Rex had one of them new NexStar 5s on display, so I got a chance to examine one at length in the daylight and was downright impressed both by its evident build quality and its light weight.

After that? Clouds, clouds, and more clouds and, worse, intermittent rain. It was still a fun day though. Instead of lunch, the AAC did a pancake breakfast Saturday, and kept it going till 10:30 a.m. so even slug-a-bed me was able to down numerous pancakes smothered in butter and Log Cabin syrup along with sausage aplenty.

The main item on the menu, however, was speakers. Beginning with the Association of Lunar and Planetary Observers’ Walter Haas with a talk that fired Unk up, “Those Unnumbered Reports of Lunar Changes:  Were They All Blunders?” I’ve never seen anything strange on the Moon—no weird lights or hazes, anyway—but I found the subject of Transient Lunar Phenomena as interesting as I had when I was a Moon-crazy kid.

As Mr. Haas was wrapping up, the bottom fell out: more rain, but mostly high winds. When the talk was done, we all scurried out to the field to check the scopes. My little Woodstock had gone over, but save for a scrape on one of the EQ-1’s slow motion cables he was unhurt. Celeste was on her feet and unfazed. Unfortunately, Marvin and Betsy’s lovely C5+ had tipped over and had suffered some damage, though thankfully not catastrophic damage.

After the break, the talks resumed with Mr. Rükl taking center stage. He was an excellent speaker, as you’d expect from a planetarium professional, but it was the depth of his knowledge about the Moon that held us spellbound. I had been correct:  it was worth attending PSSG 2000 just to hear Antonin Rükl.
After the prize drawing (as usual, Unk didn’t win a pea-picking thing), there was a good panel discussion on the future of Lunar observing. When that concluded, the programs for PSSG 2000 were done.  All that was left was observing after dark—if there were any observing after dark.

Leaving the meeting hall, it was obvious there would indeed be clearing. The front was pushing through in a hurry. The big blow at 1 p.m. that toppled Marv and Betsy’s C5 had obviously been its last gasp. For once, the timing was right; my usual luck would have had the front not passing through till dawn.

It was just 5:30 p.m., so there was still some time to pass before I could go galaxy hunting again. There was also supper to think about. It felt like those pancakes had been a long, long time ago. I’d heard quite a few PSSGers were going to caravan to the local “country” restaurant, Buckner’s, but I had barbeque on my mind. Didn’t look like any of my PSAS or AAS buds were joining the Buckner’s group anyways, so I hit the road for the Fresh Air.

I didn’t know quite what to expect when I pulled up. Fresh Air was, at best, unassuming inside and out. The exterior looked like it had been untouched for at least three-quarters of a century, and inside it was order at the counter and eat at long tables with wooden benches. Appearances can deceive. What I received from the chirpy little countergirl was some of the best, maybe the best, barbeque and Brunswick stew I’ve had in Georgia, ever, and that is saying something.

Back on the field, the sky was completely clear at dark, and by the time the Moon set it was looking even better than it had the previous evening. Only minus? The front had left cold weather in its wake—the low thirties on this early April evening. I persevered, howsomeever, continuing to run galaxies. When Woodstock and Celeste and me finished Virgo, it was on to Coma, Canes Venatici, and Ursa Major—what a night it was.

I kept going long enough to do a quick tour of the rising summer wonders, but pulled the switch a little early on this evening. We were supposed to be gone by 12-noon Sunday, and there was that drive back down I-65 to endure. At 2 a.m., it was a quick shot of the Yell and back to the bunkhouse.

I’d had a good time, muchachos, a real good time. A lot of that was the outstanding facility and the great AAC folks, but the sky had been good, too. Real good. Better than it had any right to be, I thought, as I cruised down 65. I resolved to be back the next year, and I was back for another round in 2001. Tell y’all the truth, I miss the old Peach State. I’m sure the new, darker site is cool, but Indian Springs provided just the right balance of amenities and observing for your tenderfoot Uncle.


Next Time: Destination Moon…

Sunday, June 09, 2013

 

Another Night with Mrs. Peel...


Technically, muchachos, it should have been a Charity Hope Valentine night. The weather forecasts were uniformly dismal, with both TWC and Wunderground predicting at least 60% cloud cover and high humidity.  It sounded like the perfect Saturday night to spend with my very portable ETX girlfriend. The Clear Sky Clock, however, was showing at least a few semi-blue squares for mid evening, so the C8 it would be, and not just any C8, but my new Edge 800 C8, Mrs. Emma Peel, and her VX mount. I had an agenda, you see...

I’d given Mrs. Peel a good shakedown at the Deep South Regional Star Gaze Spring Scrimmage, and I’d at least been able to get the VX aligned at the dark site week before last. But I had not been able to test Emma’s visual capabilities under even semi-dark skies. Most of all, I had not been able to try the VX’s AllStar polar alignment procedure.

The original Celestron hand control polar alignment routine, which has been with us since the debut of the go-to CG5, was simple and fairly effective. Do a normal 2+4 star go-to alignment and choose “Polar Align” in the utility menu. The mount would then point to where it supposed Polaris would be given a perfect polar alignment. Then, all you had to do was adjust the mount in altitude and azimuth (not in R.A. and declination) till Polaris was centered in a crosshair eyepiece.

Celestron’s automated polar alignment was good enough that I could do 30-second unguided prime focus shots, and even 5 – 10-minute guided ones without star trailing due to field rotation caused by poor polar alignment. The original routine was not perfect, of course. Naturally, you had to be able to see the Pole Star to use the utility. More annoyingly, once you’d completed the polar alignment you had to power off the mount and do another go-to alignment. Yep, six more stars for a total of twelve. I put up with that for years because it worked and I was used to it and it produced polar alignments more than good enough for my Stellacam and Mallincam deep sky video cameras.

TIME MARCHES ON… Say what you will about Celestron and their Chinese owners, Synta, they continue to improve their products, including their firmware and software. So, I was not overly surprised to hear in late 2008 that they were upgrading the CG5’s hand control firmware with a version near identical to what was in their new step-up mount, the CGEM. Among other things, the new firmware would include a successor to the old polar align utility, something the company was calling “AllStar.”

As the name made obvious, the new procedure allowed the mount to be polar aligned with the aid of any star, not just Polaris (or Sigma Octantis). Not only that, it was a little more accurate, and you might not have to redo the 2+4 go-to alignment after using it. That sounded right nice to me, so I re-flashed the CG5’s new hand control, which I’d bought to replace its original non-upgradeable model, with the new software, v4.15, downloaded the new version of NexRemote that contained the same code, and made tracks for the Chiefland Astronomy Village in January of 2009.

You can read the whole story of that expedition here, but the upshot was that I had a great time, as always, but it was awful cold for Florida and I was not overly impressed with AllStar. The routine seemed to work once I glommed onto the fact that you couldn’t really use any star. If you didn’t choose a star positioned roughly to the south and not much higher than 30 – 40 degrees, you were going to have one heck of a time centering it with the alt and azimuth adjusters. Technically, yes, you could use any star as a polar alignment helper (except Polaris, apparently, which Celestron advises against), but, practically, you were limited to those not too far from the intersection of the Celestial Equator and Local Meridian—if you didn’t want to start cussing.

I thought having to be choosy about helper stars would be OK if the alignments were better, but the results didn’t appear much different from those I got with the Polaris procedure—I checked by firing off some 30-second shots with my Meade DSI camera. The cautious language in the CGEM manual (the CG5 manual never was updated with AllStar instructions) that you might not need to do a follow-on go-to alignment? From what I could determine, that was a lotta hot air. I had to move the star I chose for AllStar alignment (Betelgeuse) a fair distance in altitude and azimuth, and my go-tos sucked till I did a repeat 2+4.

So, it seemed to Unk that using Polaris was just as effective and was substantially easier than having to figure out what might be a good star choice for AllStar. I knew where Polaris was afterall. I downgraded the firmware in the HC back to v4.12, which I’d used for so long, always selected 4.12 when using NexRemote, and kept on trucking.

For the next three and a half years, I didn’t do more than occasionally, very occasionally, play with AllStar, usually with mixed results, which I believe were mixed because I just monkeyed around with it with the hand control without re-familiarizing myself with the instructions. Nothing changed till I heard the routine was coming to the Atlas EQ-6.

I’ve loved and had good luck with the Atlas mount since I got it back in ought-seven, but one thing it doesn’t have that I’ve always missed is a hand control polar alignment method. Yes, it has a good polar borescope, and the borescope helper routine in EQMOD works well, but I hate peering up through that consarned thing. So I was some kinda happy to hear that Celestron’s parent company, Synta, was porting the AllStar routine to their SynScan hand controls. Last year, I loaded the beta firmware into my Atlas’ HC and me and Miss Dorothy split for Chiefland for an expedition much like the one in 2009.

There, I gave the SynScan version of AllStar a good tryout and was impressed by the results. Yes, as with the NexStar version, you are really limited to stars south of your position (north if you are in the Southern Hemisphere, natch), so it’s not really ALL stars, but this time that didn’t seem like such a big deal. Not when the alternative was squinting through that pea-picking borescope.

Despite the success with the Atlas, I stuck with the old firmware for the CG5. 4.12 still worked just fine for me, thank you. That was, in fact, what I used with the CG5 at the Spring Scrimmage. The outing did get me to thinking.  There were plenty of scudding clouds early on our first decent night, and, wouldn’t you know it, they inevitably drifted right across Polaris, preventing me from doing a polar alignment for quite a spell. “Hell, maybe there is something to that AllStar business.” Also, I had heard AllStar had been improved in accuracy, and that re-doing the 4+2 go-to alignment was no longer necessary. Hmmm…

In the end, the question, “To AllStar or not to AllStar?” was decided for me by the new VX mount. I like to have a spare hardware hand control with me just in case, so one evening, I plugged the CG5’s HC into the VX. What happened? Nuttin’ honey. It would not finish booting up. I knew the old style HCs ought to work as well with the VX mount as the new Plus hand controls, so I figgered it had to be the firmware. I updated the CG5’s HC to the latest and greatest, v4.21, plugged the HC back into the VX, powered up, and it worked like a champ.

It appeared to me that running the VX with the old firmware, whether on a hardware HC or on NexRemote, was gonna be a non-starter. I’d planned to continue using 4.12 and the old polar routine with the new mount, but that was obviously not gonna happen. I’d just have to bite the bullet and get friendly with that dagnabbed AllStar. Which was my number one goal at the Possum Swamp Astronomical Society’s dark site this past Saturday.

Yeah, the weather forecasts were putrid, but the closer I got to oh-dark-thirty, the better the sky looked, with plenty of blue if also with occasional and rather heavy haze. At 6:15 p.m., I judged it “good enough” to load up the 4Runner, Miss Van Pelt, with the gear. Which was minimal:  Mrs. Peel, VX, eyepiece case, laptop, and a couple of accessory boxes. I thought about taking my new planetary camera, a ZWO, out for a test drive, but I didn’t think the seeing was good enough or that the clouds would hold off long enough to make that worthwhile.

When I hit the field, I was a little surprised to be playing Lone Astronomer once again, but some folks will choose to sit in front of the cotton-picking boob tube if the weather forecast ain’t perfect. Hell, I’ve been known to do that myself, but the problem is that we don’t get many “perfects” in the summer down in The Swamp, so you have to take what you can get if you want to see anything. I am back to my old mantra:  “If it ain’t raining, head to the dark site.”

As I mentioned Sunday before last, it sure is nice to have a new telescope and mount that are enough like your old telescope and mount to make setup a no-brainer. I got Mrs. Peel on the VX, affixed the Rigel Quckfinder to her, leaving her 50mm finder in the case, and waited for Polaris to put in an appearance.
When he did, I centered the star in the empty bore of the VX’s R.A. housing where a polar scope would go if I were to install one, which I won’t. Celestron’s polar alignment routines in the hand controls will get you on the pole, but you are well advised to start our reasonably close to it.

When there were enough alignment star candidates twinkling through the not too terrible haze, I began a two-star alignment and immediately ran into trouble. The mount chose Procyon as Star One. That was good; it was bright in the west, but not too low. I centered it up in the Quickfinder when the slew stopped, put my eye to the 12mm reticle eyepiece, and saw—absolutely nothing. Removed 12mm Meade crosshair and replaced it with the 100-degree 16mm Zhumell ocular. Same result. No Procyon and slewing around didn’t help.

There was plenty of old-fashioned Uncle Rod fumbling and bumbling, y’all:  realigned the Quickfinder on Venus (who was close to her little pal Mercury in the west), but was still not being able to find Procyon.  Realized I hadn’t snapped the Quickfinder all the way down into its bracket.  Realigned the finder again, but was still not able to locate Procyon because I’d loosened the Quickfinder’s adjustment screws too much and the reticle was flopping around.  Mounted the optical finder, aligned it, fixed the Quickfinder’s problem, and finally, at full dark, Procyon was in the field of the Meade 12mm.

After that comedy of errors, things went as they should. Second alignment star was on the edge of the Quickfinder’s inner ring and the last three Calibration stars were in the field at 160x (there is still no Celestron reducer for the Edge 800, so I am still at f/10). DANG! What a night this was turning out to be. Not only had the alignment been a pain, the skeeters were so fierce I had to both deploy the Thermacell and douse myself with Deep Woods Off. And everything was already covered by thick dew an hour after sunset. I didn’t like the way the sky was looking, either, with the haze seeming bent on morphing into a cloud layer. If I was gonna do an AllStar, it better be now.

The first task would be choosing a star, and for once I’d had the good sense to scope out the sitchy-ation before leaving home. I identified a couple of candidates with the aid of TheSkyX First Light. Delta Corvi, Algorab, looked to me to be the best of the bunch. It would be almost due south at dark, and while, at 40-degrees, it was a little higher than the “30-degrees or so” I’ve heard some AllStar users recommend, I thought it would be OK.

The other Good Thing I’d done before leaving Chaos Manor South was print out an excellent set of AllStar instructions (if a little dated regarding the need to do a new go-to alignment after the polar alignment). No trying to figure it out from the HC prompts this time. That was wise, since it appeared I might have been screwing up in the past. Step one in an AllStar alignment is sending the mount to the “helper” star of choice. I chose “Algorab” from the named star list, and the VX went there. The natural thing to do, then, would have been to center the star up with the HC buttons. The instructions, however, said that was not necessary. I now have a sneaking suspicion that centering the star as I had before might actually throw off the procedure. I left it alone.

Next up is running the AllStar routine, which is found under the Align button instead of in the Utility menu. Mash that button, scroll up or down to Polar Align, select that, and follow the instructions. When you mash Enter, the mount will slew. You then use the hand control buttons to center the star in the finder and eyepiece, pressing Enter and Align as instructed. Just like in a go-to alignment, always do final star centering with the “up” and “right” keys only.

When the star is centered (I strongly advise using a crosshair eyepiece) with the hand control, mash Enter again, and the mount will slew one last time. The HC will then tell you to re-center the star in the eyepiece, this time using only the altitude and azimuth adjusters on the mount. I did that, and it was easy. The VX’s motions are decidedly smoother than those on the CG5. When the star is in the crosshairs, lock down the tripod bolt and alt-az bolts as required and you are done.

The HC’s align button menu will display resulting polar alignment accuracy. I tried it, and according to the hand control I was about 30” from the Celestial Pole. Was that accurate? Who knows? As you all do know, my motto is “Trust but Verify,” but I had no easy way to do that on this night. I could have watched a star for declination drift, but given conditions that were going from “OK” to “P-U,” that would have been all I’d have seen. Uh-uh. I would be able to see how the go-to accuracy following an AllStar was, though.

Alrighty then. “M13.” I still don’t like having to drill down one menu level with the Plus HC to get to the Ms, but I reckon I am getting used to it. The VX made its noises, which, as I reported week before last, are considerably quieter than the CG5’s, and stopped. Put my eye to the 16mm Zhumell that had replaced the Meade reticle job in the 2-inch William Optics dielectric diagonal, and there was…

The Big Boy. Looking awful good despite being in the light pollution and substantial haze. That was the east. How about the west? Tried to go to M35, but it was too low. M105, then. That galaxy and his two companions were well centered. “High up” can be a problem for go-to, so off to M3 we went. In the eyepiece, no problem. Remember, y’all, this is at f/10. I concluded that it was indeed no longer necessary to redo the go-to alignment following AllStar. That sure will speed things up when I’m doing a Mallincam run, lemme tell you.

The sky was going, but slowly. It was beginning to fade out in the west due to thickening haze, and there were some clouds approaching from the east. I still had time for a few more good ones. With go-to accuracy not a problem, I replaced the 16mm Zhumell with my beloved 13mm Ethos. Man alive, M13 looked good. So sharp across his face, which was a mass of tiny stars. I hate to say it again, but, yes, the view across the whole field was “refractor like.” If that refractor were an 8-inch APO with a very flat field, that is. Folks, if’n you’re going to buy an SCT, you owe it to yourself to at least consider The Edge.

While conditions held, I bopped across the sky from one horizon to the other. One particular treat was M82, which showed off a surprising amount of dark detail in an 8-inch under putrid skies. I for sure gotta mention M5, the huge globular star cluster in Serpens Caput, which by 10 p.m. was high enough to bother with. Is it as good as M13? Yes. Do I think it’s actually better than M13? Yes. Don’t believe me? Get out and see it for yourself this summer.

After M5? I’d intended to visit M10 and M12, but decided it was time to throw the accursed Big Switch. Did I get spooked? Not really, y’all, though it was a little eerie out on the deserted airstrip, especially when the whippoorwills began to call at sunset, bringing to Unk’s mind H.P. Lovecraft’s “The Dunwich Horror.” What got to me to packing was not my paranormal buddies, but the fading sky, the unrelenting bugs, the heat, the high humidity, and the heavy dew. Welcome to summer in Possum Swamp. Soon enough, the gear was back in Miss Van Pelt, I was bidding farewell to Mothman, and the 4Runner’s blasting air conditioner was feeling oh-so-good.

Back at The Old Manse, it was cable TV and Rebel Yell, time. Actually, I’d missed my favorite Saturday night cable program, Svengoolie. And what a shame. He was showing Abbot and Costello Meet Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, a fave of mine because of my fond memories of the time Mama and I saw it at the Roxy. I couldn’t have been much older than four, and still remember how proud I was that I hadn’t had to hide my eyes a single time. No A&C tonight, but I did have a DVD of Invasion of the Body Snatchers (the original 1956 version, natch) I’d been meaning to watch for a while.

As I semi-watched and semi-dozed in my chair in Chaos Manor South’s cozy den, I couldn’t help being as proud of myself as I’d been on that long ago night at the Abbot and Costello picture show. I’d finally mastered AllStar; I’d no longer have to answer novices’ questions about it with a lame “I hear it is pretty good.” I believe it will even make a good if incremental improvement to my observing. Can’t ask more than that from a semi-punk Saturday night, now can you, muchachos?

Next Time:  More My Favorite Star Parties… 

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