Sunday, July 28, 2013

 

A Tale of Two Cameras


Unk is a pretty cautious feller, muchachos; I am a big fan of looking before leaping. Maybe because more than a few of the times I’ve jumped in feet first without a good look at what I’ve been jumping into have been disastrous. And that’s exactly how it was in early 2002 when I decided to desert film astrophotography for that new-fangled electronic CCD picture taking.

That I was even thinking about going CCD was ironic, since after about five years of my latest bout of film astrophotography I was finally starting to get somewhere. The Possum Swamp skies, which do not encourage frequent celestial picture taking, and Unk’s fumble-bumble approach to photography meant my astrophotos were not perfect, but danged if they weren't getting closer to it. There was no danger of me becoming a celestial Ansel Adams like Jack Newton, but I was now bringing home a decent shot or two from every single run.

But CCDs were the thing, man. Hell, Sky and Telescope had a whole spinoff magazine devoted to them, CCD Astronomy (for a while). What I thought was the big decision facing the Rodster was which CCD camera to buy. By the turn of the century, there were more than a few choices. The real question actually should have been: “Should I buy a CCD camera before upgrading my old-fashioned manual-pointing SCT?”

didn't realize that was something I should think about, and began shopping for cameras starting with Richard Berry’s homebrew Cookbook Camera. After working on my club’s camera’s circuit boards (you could buy unpopulated PCBs and other camera components through Willman-Bell at the time) for a little while, I knew the Cookbook CCD was not for me. The electronic assembly was easy, but I just didn’t have the time to devote to it. I’d passed the project on to a fellow Possum Swamp Astronomical Society astronomer-ham.

Then there was SBIG, Santa Barbara Instrument Group. In the wake of the tremendous success of their groundbreaking ST-4 they were riding high. I looked long and lovingly at the ST-5, ST-6, and, especially, the ST-7. That camera looked near about perfect for me, but the buzzing fly in the butter was that it was way too expensive. I had 1000 bucks to spend, tops. I coulda got the ST-4, but that seemed more like a guide camera than an imager to me.

In retrospect, the ST-4 would have been great. I could have used it to get my feet wet with digital imaging, and as an autoguider for my film astrophotos. But you know what they say about Monday morning quarterbacking. Truth was, like a lot of imagers, I was ready to move on to the next big thing in 2001.

If I had it to do over I’d get the ST-4. But we don’t get many do-overs in this life, and my desire for the elusive More Better Gooder got the best of me. That came in the form of a camera from a burgeoning UK company, Starlight Xpress. One thing that impressed me was that the images I saw on the web page for the Starlight camera that fit my budget, the MX516, were substantially larger than those of the ST-4 due to the larger chip of the MX516—not that its 500 x 290 pixel chip was large even by the standards of the time. As a guider? That was the most impressive thing of all.

The MX516 could, you see, guide and image at the same time. It did that differently from any other camera I’ve run across. Today’s “self guiding” cameras from SBIG are able to guide and image at the same time because the camera housing incorporates a separate CCD guide chip. It’s kinda like having an off-axis guider with the smaller CCD chip stationed at the edge of the camera frame. Not the MX516. It used an interlaced video-type CCD sensor that devoted alternating “fields” to imaging and guiding. I thought that sounded awful cool.

It was here that I should have stopped and thought things through. The first thing I should have ruminated on was that while the MX516 might be more sensitive than the ISO 800 film I was using, meaning shorter, less painful exposures that might even be done unguided, the resulting pix would be small and in black and white. I was used to color 35mm images that could easily be enlarged to 8x10-inches. Why I thought I’d be happy with postage stamp sized (well, almost) shots I don’t know.

The other thing that should have been a showstopper was something I was aware of and had thought about. Just not enough. With that tiny chip, it would be hard to find objects. Even with the SCT reduced to f/3.3 with the Meade focal reducer I’d ordered, the field would be on the order of 15’ or smaller. I’d planned to order a set of digital setting circles for the C8. I even tried to.

Back in them days, most folks purchased their DSCs from one of two sources, JMI or Lumicon—the old Lumicon, three owners back. I’d heard good things about Lumicon’s Sky Vector system, and since I knew their computers and JMI’s were essentially the same, both based on Tangent guts, I thought the extra objects in the Sky Vector as compared to the library of the comparably priced JMI made the Lumicon DSCs a better value.

The trouble was getting a Sky Vector. The folks at Lumicon were happy to take my credit card number, but weeks passed and I heard nothing from them. I started calling and the results were always along these lines:  “The big cheese, Dr. Acula, ain’t here right now,” “I think it will ship next Thursday,” “Mr. Binky and Mr. Bunny handle those and they are at a star party.” I eventually had enough:  “You-all aren’t ever going to get it together to send me a Sky Vector, are you?” The mousy and halting response amounted to “No, Unk, we are not.”

What I should have done right then and there was pick up the phone and call the reliable and good folk at Jim’s Mobile. In typical Unk fashion, though, my nose was out of joint about the whole DSC idea. Plus I had come up with what I thought was a better and cheaper idea:  “Hell, I’ll use a flip mirror.” I ordered that very thing, an attachment that would allow me to either view the telescope’s images with an eyepiece, or, with the flip of a mirror, send them to the camera, from Meade. In retrospect, failing to get digital setting circles for the Ultima 8 brought my whole big CCD thing down like a house of cards made of wet toilet paper if y’all don’t mind me mixing a couple of metaphors.

I don’t remember who I ordered the MX516 from, but it was probably Astronomics if they carried it, since they were my go-to guys for gear back then. While the camera arrived fairly promptly, it did take a couple of weeks, and its delivery was bumping up against a trip to Florida to visit Miss Dorothy’s relatives. I was in an agony of suspense before our departure, but it worked out that the camera would not arrive until until after our return.

When I finally got to rip into its smallish box, I was both impressed and not impressed by the Starlight. The hardware itself was quite impressive. The camera had the “eyepiece camera” look Starlight maintained in those days; it was not much larger than an oversize 2-inch ocular in those innocent pre-Ethos days. Nicely machined with cooling fins. Sturdy. Solid. Also in the box were a few cables and the Star 2000 box that handled the guide-while-imaging bidness.

What did not impress was “the rest,” the last two items in the box. The instructions amounted to nothing more than a slim sheaf of stapled-together pages. The software? What there was, a simple camera control program, was contained on a single 3.5-inch floppy. Yes, I mean floppy disk. Most PCs sold in 2001 still came with 3.5-inch drives, but disks to put in ‘em were becoming rare, with most software, including CCD camera software, now coming on CDs.

But maybe that was OK, I thought. Simpler might be better when getting started in this CCD folderol and fiddle-dee-dee. The program, minimalist as it was, actually turned out to be purty good. Not only did it allow you to take series of pictures, it even included some processing tools like a utility to stack multiple images. It wasn’t much worse than SBIG’s CCDops, frankly. My first light night disaster had nothing to do with camera and software.

‘Twas a hot summer’s night and I was nervous. Would this thing, on which I’d spent a fair portion of the advance I got for my first book, Choosing and Using a Schmidt Cassegrain Telescope, work? To find out, I lugged the Ultima 8 SCT and my desktop computer (I was still too cheap to glom onto a laptop) into the backyard, got everything cabled up, and did a polar alignment that can best be described as “casual” with the telescope’s polar finder. Screwed the Meade flip mirror onto the C8’s rear port, inserted the camera into the flip mirror along with a 12mm illuminated reticle eyepiece, and got to work.

Everything seemed OK at first; at least the camera and computer appeared to be talking over the cotton-picking parallel printer port (that's right, younguns). Now all I had to do was focus up on an bright star and get the first object of the run, M13, in the camera’s field. Simple, right? Uh-huh.

What to focus on? Eta Hercules was relatively bright and not far from the glob. Hokay, got the star dead in the center of the 9x50 finder crosshairs, flipped the flip mirror down for viewing through the eyepiece, and had a look. Nuttin’ honey. Considerable focusing of the telescope and the flip mirror eyepiece’s helical focuser did begin to reveal a subtle something, a badly out of focus Eta, I presumed. Bottom line? The flip mirror eyepiece would not focus with the Meade f/3.3 reducer on the scope. Period.

What to do? Other than wishing I had some DSCs, all there was to do was soldier bravely on. With heroic effort, I finally got Eta—some bright star, anyhow—in the camera’s frame and focused up. I peeped through the finder and, yes, Eta was dead in the crosshairs. Maybe I’d be OK. Let’s get M13 in the field.

I hunted and I hunted and I hunted and I slewed and I slewed and I slewed. And you know what? I never did get M13 in the camera that night. I settled for an anonymous star field. What did that tell me? Well, that the RS-232 interface was kinda slow, if not pathetically slow, and that the camera did not seem near as sensitive as my buddy Pat’s SBIG. Finally, the pictures the 516 produced were a lot smaller than I thought they would be.

By this time I had reached the dreaded I Have Had Enough stage and started lugging everything back inside, where I proceeded to yell at the kids and snap at the wonderful Miss Dorothy. I am sorry I did, but I was aggravated, disappointed, and dripping with sweat. ‘Twas just one of those nights, campers.

I wasn’t close to ready to give up. As soon as I could, I lugged all the gear out to Pat’s Stargage Observatory, and there things went a hair better. With heroic effort, I got M13 in the field and fired off a few 30-second frames. What I didn’t get working was the autoguiding. I polar aligned as close as I could and followed the instructions in the manual. What happened? Nuttin’ honey. When I got home, I checked all cables and connections, and when that didn’t turn up any problems, I fired off an email to Starlight Xpress. They were very responsive, with head honcho Terry Platt promptly emailing me back. Turned out my Ultima 8 needed a relay box between guider and hand control connector.

I sent the Starlight folks a few more dollars and got the relays, but I was never quite sure the Star 2000 system worked. I was always too occupied with trying to frame and focus my targets to worry about niceties like guiding. I did image a few objects over the next several months: M13, the Cone Nebula, The Ring Nebula, a part of M42, and a couple more. How were they? My CCD pictures got better, slowly, but there was no escaping the facts that they were small, they were black and white, and they were grainy. My film M13s were a million times better.

I could at least have done something about the "grainy" if I’d stacked images. It took me quite a while to wrap my mind around the fact that electronic imagers usually stacked multiple frames into a finished image. I was still approaching CCDing from a film perspective. I also knew I could get color with a filter wheel and tri-color imaging, but I couldn’t imagine adding another layer of complexity when I couldn’t handle what I already had.

I did discover the MX516 could do a right good job on the planets. The images I took of Jupiter—single frames since I didn't know I should stack planetary images either—looked far better than anything I’d done with film. That didn’t make me happy, though. I was in a snit that the deep sky images I was able to obtain were far worse than what I could do with film. I put the MX516 in its case where it stayed for about a year.

If you’ve been in our avocation for a decade and were paying much attention when you first joined our ranks, you know the big story of 2003:  MARS. In 2003, the Angry Red Planet was bigger than it had been in many a long century and bigger than it would be for eons to come. We all wanted to spend the year gazing at the red planet, and many of us, Unk for instance, wanted to take pictures of it. This was a once in a lifetime chance, and I didn't want to screw up.

Film was out. Film exposures of even bright Jupiter take too long. Detail is blurred. Oh, you might get hints of cloud bands, but most of the time Jupe would look like a custard pie. Mars would be worse. It would be bright at the 2003 opposition, but its surface features would be even subtler than Jupiter’s cloud bands. If not film, what? The MX516? Maybe, but I was not overly fond of the camera after that long summer of my discontent. Then I began hearing about a third way, webcams, and, especially, a professionally modified webcam, the SAC 7B.

I was aware of the webcam planetary imaging revolution by this time. Amateurs had found that if they took the little video cameras—that were originally intended for video conferencing and were often used for (ahem) more interesting purposes—and stacked the many frames they produced into a finished image, the level of detail they brought back was amazing. Their small chips with tiny pixels were perfect for producing high-resolution planetary images.

I ordered a cheap Quickcam off’n eBay as a test, and found the combination of it and an easy to use stacking program I’d discovered, Registax, got me the best close-up Moon pictures of my life. Not only was the camera cheap and easy to use, it delivered color images. Only downchecks? It’s 320x240 pictures were even smaller than those produced by the MX5. The Quickcam was also not near sensitive enough to capture deep sky objects. Then I heard about SAC.

When I first heard “SAC” I thought of my old outfit, the Strategic Air Command. “SAC” in this case couldn’t have stood for something more different. The maker of the camera had apparently been a Christian music promoter who’d been involved in a music festival of that genre, the “Sonfest.” He was now, it seemed, dividing his time between managing a motel down in Melbourne, Flordia and producing SAC cameras “Sonfest Astronomical Cameras.”

The model that most interested me was their top of the line, the 7b. It was a converted Phillips or Quickcam webcam that had the ability to do long exposures for the deep sky. It was also equipped with a Peltier cooler and fan to keep the noise down. It was color, and produced images that, while not huge, 640x480, were still bigger than what I got with the pea-picking MX516. All for the comparatively modest price of $499.00.

The problem was that I didn't have a bill with a picture of old Bill McKinley on it in my wallet. The solution? Simple:  the MX516 would have to go on the Astromart. I put it up, asked for a reasonable amount of bucks, just enough to cover the 7b with some left over for a couple of bottles of Rebel Yell, and crossed my fingers. Wasn't long before I got a bite, and the MX5 was off to a new home. Was I sorry to see it go? Not a bit. There were some good things about the camera, but I never made friends with it. Today, I consider the SAC 7b to be my first CCD.

Compared to the MX5, the coming of the SAC7b went smoothly. Took a little while to get it from its garage-style maker, but I’d expected that and the wait was not bad. When it did arrive, just as Mars was beginning to grow, it was an immediate success. The camera was, like the MX5, equipped with a nosepiece that slid into the Meade flip mirror’s camera port. From experimenting with the Quickcam, I knew the flip mirror would be vital for finding planets, and would work just fine without that f/3.3 reducer in the imaging train.

“Once burned” was my middle name when it came to this electronic imaging stuff, so I had the good sense to start out simple with the SAC. I left the long exposure cable and the Peltier cooler for later and aimed the scope at the Moon. While the SAC had come with a CCD full of image acquisition and processing software, I found a program I liked better for camera control, Peter Katreniak’s K3CCD tools. The K3CCD software was designed with astronomy in mind and could control both standard webcams and modified long-exposure ones like the SAC 7b.

Even before I ran my lunar videos through Registax, I knew the SAC was a winner for Solar System imaging. So encouraged was Unk by what he saw on the monitor that he removed the camera from the flip mirror plugged into the NexStar 11, Big Bertha, and added a Barlow lens ahead of it. The picture of Copernicus that resulted after I stacked with Registax and tweaked with Paint Shop Pro was the kind of Moon picture I’d been dreaming of since I was knee high to a grasshopper. One thing that helped one hell of a lot? Having a laptop computer. No more toting a 19-inch CRT into the dagnabbed backyard.

Mars was a revelation. The bigger it got, the better my pictures got. The polar caps were nothing. I began getting the legendary dark areas in astounding detail. Then Olympus Mons and its fellow shield volcanoes swam into view. When Mars attained its max diameter, I was even able to pick out a smudge that might have been a sign of a particularly large crater in the “armpit” of Syrtis Major.

I stared at Mars night after night on my monitor and it stared back at me with its baleful eye, Solis Lacus. Today, imagers using sophisticated planetary cameras, the souped-up descendants of my humble SAC 7, are far exceeding my paltry efforts. Still, as one of my colleagues at Sky and Telescope pointed out recently when I resurrected one of my Mars images for an article in S&T’s Skywatch, my 2003 images showed more detail than had been achieved by the largest professional scopes in the film days.

I didn’t stop at Mars; I headed deeper into the Solar System. What the SAC could do with Jupiter (well, with the aid of the incredible Registax) on a steady night amazed me. Yes, the MX5 had shown some detail, but not this much detail, and it was in color. Saturn was next and not only did the SAC 7 allow me to see disk details that I’d struggled to  see visually, it brought back the Encke Minima, the narrow zone around the Encke Gap at the rings’ edge that I’d only seen visually once or twice in my entire observing career.

“But how about the deep sky, Unk? Ain’t that why you started with the CCD stuff in the first place?” A few users were working wonders with the SAC on the deep sky when it was in its heyday, and while my efforts on bright Messiers were not great, the camera had at least a little potential there, and I was able to accomplish more with it than I had with the MX5. The main strike against it was that that chip was just too tiny to be well-suited for deep space imaging.

That was OK, I learned a lot with the SAC, and that helped me finally get somewhere with electronic imaging with my next camera, the Meade DSI, without much heartburn at all. What I learned with the SAC even stood me in good stead when I moved up to an SBIG ST2000 and a Canon DSLR.

So, whatever happened to SAC? They’ve been gone for years. Ironically, it was not a lack of success, but too much of it that apparently killed them. That, surprisingly, is often what does in small businesses. SAC had a hit with the follow-on to the SAC 7, the SAC 8, which was more a genuine CCD camera than a webcam. So popular was it that Orion, I’m told, contracted to sell the SAC 8 under its brand name. In the course of trying to keep up with demand from Orion and produce the BIG CHIP camera it was promising SAC users, the SAC 10, out the door, the enterprise stalled and crashed.

The SAC7b with its tin can body was in some ways a silly little camera when compared to the beautifully executed MX516. Anybody looking at the two would have had the impression that the Starlight Xpress was better. Maybe it was, but the SAC was the better camera for me. I have no hard feelings about Starlight Xpress; they continue in business and produce excellent CCD cameras. And I guess I learned a considerable amount in the time I owned the MX516—call it the school of hard knocks. Still, the SAC 7b was really my first camera. I loved it, still have it, and even still use it on the planets on occasion. You cannot beat that, muchachos.

Next Time: Uncle Rod's Big Vacation...

Sunday, July 21, 2013

 

The Astronomer Looks at 60…


Mother, mother ocean, I have heard you call,
Wanted to sail upon your waters
since I was three feet tall.
You've seen it all, you've seen it all.

I have been drunk now for over two weeks,
I passed out and I rallied and I sprung a few leaks,
But I've got to stop wishin',
Got to go fishin', I'm down to rock bottom again.
Just a few friends, just a few friends.

—Jimmy Buffet

I did this five years ago muchachos, so why am I doing it again? While our insular little avocation don’t change much year to year, it changes a lot more quickly now than it did when I was a sprout, when amateur astronomy changed about as fast as the Jaeger’s ad in Sky and Telescope. These days, a lot happens in five years in amateur astronomy. That and the fact that the big six-oh seems like some kind of milestone. 60 ain’t considered REAL old these days, but I do feel like I’ve covered a lot of ground and want to talk about that, at least as regards the pursuit you and me love.

Last time we went this way, in 2008, I bent your ears about three things, amateur astronomy’s people, gear, and the pursuit itself. This time, I added a fourth, “Uncle Rod;” we know each other a lot better five years down the line, and I thought you’d like to hear a little bit about Unk’s current state of mind—such as it is.

My state of mind is actually purty good on the day after my big day. I will admit to y’all I was slightly freaked-out by the approach of 6-0, but having a wonderful birthday celebration put Unk in a better frame of mind. It would be hard to top last year, but this one may have done just that.

I spent the day, just like I did last year, working on my tabletop space program, working on one of my space models, that is. Last birthday, it was a big Apollo Command Module; this year it was a humongous Launch Umbilical Tower to go with my latest creation, a 1/144 Airfix Saturn V. As I was agonizing over the countless tiny parts, there came the AH-OOOOGAH! That means “mail's in” at the ol’ Manse.

And not just mail. There was a nice big box on the front porch emblazoned with “B&H,” as in “B&H Photo,” my fave photography supplier. Inside was this year’s main gift, a new gadget (camera) bag. The one I’ve been toting around for the last decade and a half has been looking awful tattered and has been too small for a long time. Thanks, Miss Dorothy! The birthday goodies didn't end there, though. Among other things, I also got a copy of Halo: Combat Evolved Anniversary Edition, Halo I in other words. I had a ball playing the old warhorse, which looks brand new with fantastically spiffed-up Xbox 360 graphics. I had also hoped to receive a Celestron f/7 reducer for the Edge 800, Mrs. Peel, but no dice. Cotton-picking Celestron has delayed it again. Its page on the B&H website now says “July 26.” We’ll see.

My mood was further improved when I saw all the kind birthday wishes y’all had left on my Facebook page, but the pièce de résistance was a visit to a Mexican restaurant, which is what ol’ Unk likes to do every b-day. Last year’s little joint was great, but this time we decided to go a mite upscale, to Fuego, who bill themselves as a “coastal Mexican eatery.” The restaurant, in a funky and interesting old building originally occupied by a 1930s A&P grocery, looks cool and the food was, yes, several clicks upscale. Unk, as per usual, got the fajitas, shrimp fajitas in keeping with Fuego’s theme. They were simply excellent, as was their presentation and the service. Did Unk have a gigantanormous Margarita? What do you think?

By the time Unk and Miss D. made it home, I was in a rather philosophical but mellow mood, perfect for contemplating the things you will find below…

The People

What I talked about people-wise last time was what still seems to concern a lot of y’all:  amateur astronomy’s demographics. What the h-double-L am I going on about? Something you probably hear frequently from the old timers in your club:  “Amateur astronomy is doomed. Nobody in the hobby under 50. Bring kids in? Hell, kids today ain’t worth a hoot.”

I began thinking about this anew the udder day while reading a long, long thread on the Cloudy Nights astronomy bulletin board concerning Meade, who, as you may know, is in the process of imploding and is looking for a buyer. We’ll talk about the fate of Meade Instruments a little later, but what interested me most about the CN discussion was how many seemingly knowledgeable folks there took a fracking ridiculous Los Angeles Times article about Meade’s troubles seriously.

This article was written by somebody who probably knows something about the world of finance, but who doesn't know pea-turkey about amateur astronomy. That’s neither surprising nor distressing. What is is that the writer didn't bother to find out a thing about us before turning in this load of codswallop. The writer’s brilliant conclusion? Meade is in trouble because amateur astronomy is dying: “People no longer hold stargazing parties, and households that once proudly displayed their telescopes no longer think they are trendy, analysts said.”

Who were the analysts doing the postmortem on amateur astronomy’s carcass? In this old boy’s suspicions, probably someone close to the principals, someone who wanted to deflect criticism, “It wasn’t our fault; we ran Meade like a well oiled machine!

Yes, people still hold “stargazing parties.” Yes, people still love their telescopes, if not because they are trendy. No, amateur astronomy is not dying. That shouldn't be news to any of y’all, especially those of you who've been around a while. I know if li’l Rod were transported from 1965 to 2013, he sure wouldn’t think amateur astronomy is on its last legs. All those full color ads in Sky and Telescope and Astronomy. The hordes of people at the big star parties. Hell, young Unk wouldn’t have guessed there were as many amateur astronomers in the world as congregate yearly at Prude Ranch.  Amateur astronomy ain’t dying, it’s plain to see. Why do some of our brothers and sisters think it is?

There was plenty of venting on that pea-picking thread, and not just by the oldest of the old-timers, either. Everybody seemed to want to write the obit: “Kids don’t give a hoot and holler about astronomy. All they want to do is play with them cell phones,” “It ain’t just astronomy, kids today hate all of science,” “In my day every teenager wanted a telescope and a chemistry set; now it’s them consarned Xboxes,” “Amateur astronomy is finished.”

Damn. Enough to depress even glass-half-full Unk. But I know this ain’t true. Starting with the assertion that my generation was so scientifically advanced compared to the current one. The 1960s was an exciting time to be interested in science or math. NASA was riding high and the Moon did not seem to be the limit. Don’t fool yourself, though. For every sprout who dreamed of a 4-inch Unitron or a big A.C. Gilbert chemistry set, there were ten thousand who lusted after slot cars and mini-bikes.

So, what makes otherwise knowledgeable amateurs think today’s younguns are a bunch of nogoodniks? The older generation always just naturally believes the younger ain’t worth pea-turkey, and that the whole country, or at least amateur astronomy, is going to hell in a hand-basket. But that’s always been the case. I remember hearing this from the codgers in the first (adult) club I belonged to back in the 70s ("Them new-fangled digital setting circles have ruined astronomy"). Grownups having been saying this about the younger generation since at least as far back as Socrates’ time.

Another reason? Some of the thread’s despair about the younger generation came from people who have a lot emotionally invested in Meade and prefer to think it’s them dadgum kids (or the Gen Xers, or the yuppies, or whomever) that are responsible for their favorite scope company’s demise rather than Meade itself. Sorry, y’all; Meade is not in trouble because Bud and Cathy stopped asking for scopes for Christmas, but because nobody much wants a Meade telescope right now.

Like Mark Twain’s, amateur astronomy’s demise has often been predicted and announced, but here we still are and here we shall remain. Since I teach a university astronomy class aimed at the general student population, I believe I am uniquely qualified to comment on young people and astronomy, and what I see is heartening. Today’s youngsters are every bit as smart and good as my generation was. And they still come to amateur astronomy. I am constantly amazed at how many students ask me for advice on a first telescope. I was even more amazed when our students, including quite a few non-math, non-science majors, took it upon themselves to organize their own astronomy club.

The Gear

In one sense, we are in a happy place astronomy equipment-wise. An example? The 1970 “Orange Tube” C8’s cost in current dollars would be at least $5,000.00. That’s right, for the price of a simple non-go-to, barebones, uncoated SCT in 1970, you can now buy an Edge C11 on a sophisticated go-to mount—and have a grand left over for eyepieces and bottles of Rebel Yell.

“So telescopes are far more accessible than they were in the 1960s and 1970s. What’s bad about that, Unk?” The reason for them becoming so cheap has some of us nervous. That reason, of course, is that except for a few top-tier brands like Astro-Physics that most us can’t afford and don’t need, telescope production has moved to China. Yes, Chinese telescopes are cheap. Yes, they’ve become surprisingly good. What’s the catch? Some of us wonder who’s going to be left to buy them at any price once the few remaining U.S. manufacturing jobs are gone.

I don’t like to see one American telescope company after another fall by the wayside, but the truth is neither you nor I can do squat about it. If I want a TV set I have to buy Chinese (or Korean), and if I want a telescope that fits my needs, I have to buy Chinese. The only foreseeable change will come when Chinese scope prices go up because Chinese workers demand an increasingly higher standard of living. I reckon we’ll be buying Indonesian or Vietnamese telescopes then.

Which I suppose brings us to the latest victim, Meade. It’s not quite clear how the story ends for Old Blue—at least three (Chinese, natch) buyers are interested—but it is pretty clear its days as an independent U.S. owned telescope company are numbered. How did that happen to what was the largest scope company in the world in the go-go days of the late 1990s? Three strikes, y’all…

Strike One:  Meade made plenty of money for a small-medium sized company in the 90s. But it went to their heads, I reckon. They were going to be HUGE, and not just in telescopes and astronomy. They went public, and, shortly after that, it appeared they set out to cripple their main competitor, Celestron, in part by suing the pants off 'em.

Unfortunately for Blue, the lawsuit battles with Celestron seemed to do more harm than good. I would guess lawyers sucked up lots of Meade cash for not much in the way of results. Yes, they somehow convinced a judge you could patent having a telescope point north for its go-to alignment (!), but that didn't do much to help ‘em. Celestron soon switched to a non-infringing alignment system, and Meade garnered little in the way of royalties. And they began to lose the affection of some of their fans—Meade didn't seem special anymore. What had once been an innovative underdog began to look like any other ruthless corporation run by dadgum pencil-pushers.

Strike Two:  Meade seemed slow to realize it was just too expensive to produce SCTs in California anymore. Their belated move to Mexico and the production problems incurred in that move lost them more good will. I mean, hell, even their most trouble-free telescope of all, the LX90, got screwed up, which made more folks mad at and wary of Meade.

Strike Three:  In 2006, Meade started down an awful bad road: advertising innovative products out the ying-yang that were delivered late and didn’t work right when they were finally delivered. The RCX 400 “Advanced Ritchey – Chretien” (ahem) was the first. Its innovations were many, but so were its problems. At least some of them worked out of the box, though, in contrast to last year’s LX800, which didn’t work at all.

What puzzles me is that Meade must have spent a significant portion of whatever cash remained on the development of the LX800/850, which was too expensive to appeal to their traditional customers. It was, instead, aimed at the crowd that would usually buy at least Losmandy if not Astro-Physics or Takahashi, and who were not likely to deign to purchase anything with a Meade nameplate on it.

The true shame? Meade had one new one, the LX80 alt-azimuth/EQ mount, which, if it had been done right, could have hit a homerun and maybe, just maybe, have turned the company around late in the ninth inning. If Meade had devoted every ounce of its resources to making sure the LX80 didn’t just meet but exceeded customers’ expectations, the story might be different now. But they didn’t. I tried one of the mounts, owned briefly by my buddy Jack Huerkamp, last year: pitiful, just pitiful.

The Pursuit

Whether you’ve got an humble SkyWatcher or a tony Tele-Vue telescope, what the hell do you do with it? If you read the Astromart and Cloudy Nights BBSes a lot, you might conclude from all the fuss over CCD cameras and mount periodic error that we are all doing long duration deep sky imaging. That most of us are auto-guiding six-hour shots of PGC umptysquat.

Not at all. Most of us are doing what we have always done, looking through the eyepieces of medium size (6 – 12-inch) telescopes at the brighter and prettier deep sky objects, the Moon, and planets. What has changed since Unk was a sprout? “Bright, easy, and pretty” has pushed farther and farther out. Back in The Day, Unk and his teenage chums in the Backyard Astronomy Society considered the Veil Nebula, for example, to be a PROFESSIONAL object, well beyond the reach of our puny scopes. Today it, and many, many NGC DSOs, are bread and butter targets, for novices.

The reason for that is twofold. Better equipment—much better eyepieces and filters—is one. More than that, it’s information. Back in that hallowed Day, we didn't know what to look at or how to look at it. Beyond Scotty’s column once a month in Sky and Telescope, there was no one to tell us those whats and hows. Now, there is tons of info, including not just wonderful books like The Night Sky Observers Guide, but websites like Adventures in Deep Space.  And all the software. And the discussion forums. The amateur astronomy information explosion has done more than anything else, including bigger and better telescopes, to push back the amateur astronomy deep sky frontier.

I said most of us are not imaging, but that may be changing when it comes to one formerly specialized type of astrophotography. More and more amateurs are turning to deep sky video cameras to counteract light pollution. While the light pollution in my small city ain’t that much worse than it was in the 1970s, it’s more widespread at least. I have to travel farther to get to a decent site. Video allows you to observe the Messier and NGC in detail from a putrid backyard. From the average club site? You will be ticking off 16th magnitude galaxies with a C8.

If you want the details, the straight poop about video astronomy, see my article in the February 2013 issue of Sky and Telescope. Suffice to say video is catching on because of two things: it allows you to see the deep sky in detail and in color with a modest telescope, and it does not require the investment of gear, time, and talent CCD imaging does. With video, you see your object in near real time, looking good, no processing required. Guiding is usually not needed. You don’t even have to involve a computer if’n you don’t want to.

The one thing holding deep sky video back has been the admission fee. You could have either cheap but limited, like the Orion StarShoot Deep Space Video Camera, or expensive and capable like the Mallincam Xtreme or Stellacam III. The Orion or modified off-the-shelf cameras could give you a taste, but maybe not enough or one to convince you video astronomy was worth the trouble. To really get going, you needed to invest well over a thousand dollars on a top of the line Mallincam or Stellacam.

I can’t give you any details yet, but I believe the above is about to change rather dramatically. There is a camera on the way that will be considerably more advanced than the Orion and similar offerings but won’t cost much more. It is poised to allow Joe and Jane Amateur to go as deep as they want for less than the price of a top-of-the-line eyepiece. More on it as soon as I can spill the beans, y’all...stay tuned.

Uncle Rod

Which brings us to your favorite southern-fried country cousin and raconteur, moi. The words that come to mind as I begin my 60th orbit on the third rock from the sun and approach (next year) my 50th anniversary in amateur astronomy? “What a long, strange trip it’s been.” There’ve been some troublesome spells; most everybody makes mistakes and wrong turns in the course of growing up, but it has all turned out at least as well as I ever dreamed. If you’d told young Rod that one day he’d be writing for his favorite magazine, observing and imaging the sky with computerized SCTs, and going to and speaking at star parties at the drop of a hat, he dang sure would not have dared believe you.

Yeah, when I get up in the morning, there are a few more aches and pains than there used to be, but only a few. I feel good. Yes, I try to get more exercise and watch what I eat—except when I am on a deep sky tear down in Chiefland—but mostly I’m doing exactly what I want to do.

Now that I am retired from the engineering game, I have more time to devote to my astronomy students, to observing, to writing for the best astronomy magazine on the planet, Sky and Telescope, and to the love of my life, Miss Dorothy. Yeah, “60” feels weird for somebody from the generation that didn't trust anybody over thirty, but that is just OK, muchachos. I think the next ten years are going to be gooduns, and I look forward to living them with, you, my friends.

Next Time:  A Tale of Two Cameras... 

Sunday, July 14, 2013

 

A Chiefland 4th



By all rights I should be some kind of P.O.ed, muchachos (“put out;” this is a family-friendly blog, y’all). Miss Dorothy and I spent the long 4th of July weekend Down Chiefland Way, and what did I see of the deep sky? Nuttin’ honey. That’s not quite true, I did get in about 30-minutes of observing one evening, but you get the idea. I am not put out, however. I had a great time and even got to test a new piece of astro gear. “How the hell did you do that if it was cloudy, Unk?” All shall be revealed shortly.

I shouldn’t be bitter about our near skunking, anyway. It was obvious a couple of days before our departure on Thursday the 4th that the weather would not be cooperative. Oh, I kept checking all the weather resources, Wunderground, TWC, Clear Sky Clock, Scope Nights, hoping for encouragement, but there was none to be had and hadn’t been for days.

Our July Chiefland Astronomy Village getaway unfortunately coincided with one of the nastiest storms to hit the southeast in quite a while. This system sat over the Gulf Coast from Mobile to well east of Panama City and dumped rain. Some places along the coast, and even inland, got over a foot of precipitation. I contented myself with the observation that the Chiefland/Nature Coast area appeared to be slightly east of the worst of the weather.

Dorothy and I did talk about delaying our departure till Saturday and staying an extra couple of days, but, honestly, the forecasts were not much better as you got into the following week. Monday might be a slight improvement, but only slight. Chances of precipitation ranged from 30 to 60 percent for the rest of the ten-day forecast. We decided we’d leave on the 4th as planned and hope we got lucky. In the four years I’d been doing the “If it’s July, this must be Chiefland” thing, I’d always had at least one good/semi-good evening. In spite of similarly depressing weather forecasts, summer 2010 in Chiefland was spectacular.

So, come Wednesday afternoon I began loading the 4Runner with the tons of gear I’d marshaled in Chaos Manor South’s front parlor a couple of days before. There was plenty of astro-junk, but the loading went easier than it ever had before. Maybe because, in the course of writing a recent blog article about astro-packing, I’d done a lot of thinking about the process.

What did I pack? The usual for a CAV expedition—almost. Over the last five years, the Chiefland scope of choice has been Big Bertha, our NexStar 11 GPS. I can’t say she’ll never get back down CAV way, but right now we sure are enjoying the new one, Mrs. Emma Peel, the Edge 800 SCT and her VX mount. What else? The usual: Mallincam Xtreme, computer, digital video recorder, gear boxes, tent canopy, observing table, etc., etc., etc.

Come the morning of the 4th, Miss D. and I were ready—more than ready—to get on the road for our holiday, come what may. We were out of the Old Manse not long after 8 a.m., and following a quick stop at the neighborhood Mickey D’s, where Unk got his traditional fried chicken biscuit, we were headed east for the Florida line.

The five and a half hours to C-land was, as always, uneventful. The only difference this time was that we’d had to replace our old Tom-Tom GPS with a new one from Garmin. Some miscreant absconded with the Tom-Tom, but it was really time to upgrade, anyway. The Garmin has a larger screen, free map updates, a more legible display, and the same voice, “Samantha.”

Weather? The first couple of hours or so was OK, but as we passed Destin, the rain began to fall, and by Tallahassee it was fraking pouring. Funny thing, though? When we left I-10 for Highway 19, The Florida Georgia Parkway, stopping for gas at the good, old Sunoco station, the rain quit. As we traveled the last 100 miles, Unk, mind and body refreshed with a Sasquatch Big Stick from the filling station, began to feel hopeful.

Those hopes began to be dashed as we neared town, with the clouds building again. When we got to our motel, the Suwannee Best Western, it began to rain, and shortly after we'd got settled in our room it was pouring. I tried not to let that bother me. We’ve had quite a few trips where the first night has been skunk city—Chiefland Thursday seems cursed—but have gotten plenty of good hours Friday and Saturday. Also, since I don’t teach my astronomy class in the summer and am retired from the day job, we could extend through Monday, at least, if necessary.

“Best Western?! Unk, what happened to the Days Inn you’ve been staying at for as long as this here blog has been on the air?” Oh, it’s still there Skeezix, but as I related in our last CAV report, it’s been going downhill since it switched chains from Holiday Inn Express several years ago. The last time we stayed there, it was close to pitiful:  dirty, poor service, a laughably scanty breakfast, almost non-existent maid service. It was time for a change.

The new one, the Best Western, is about the same age as the Day’s Inn, but is considerably better maintained. The TV was a nice big LG flat-screen, the carpet in our suite-style room was new, and the staff to a person was friendly and helpful. Even better, it was a mile or two closer to the CAV, and there was a liquor store and a Bubbaque’s right across Highway 19 (more on that later). Looks like it will be Best Western for our Chiefland trips from here on out.

I felt bad about not heading to the site and at least trying to set up, but it was purty clear that would be a mistake. The chance of rain was not going down; it was going up. It was at 40% now and would, if you believed the weather goobers, rise to 60% by morning. We stuck to the hallowed plan: “If you can’t set up, head to Wal-Mart for supplies.”

What was to be had at the cotton-picking Wally-World? Same old – same old:  Jack Links and granola bars for the field, bottled water, 12-pack of Kolorado Kool-aid for after run celebrating. I looked for a new Star Wars t-shirt to add to my wardrobe, but no dice. I did find two cool tees, though, a Batman and a Flash.

After we’d deposited our Wal-Mart purchases in the room, it was going on seven and time to think “suppertime.” On nights when we’re sure we’ll be observing, we do fast food, usually Taco Bell. When it’s apparent we won’t see a thing? Our old favorite, Bill’s Bar-B-Q. I never tire of the place and neither does D. Since there would be no astronomy on this night, I had a couple of brews to go with my excellent smoked ribs. Miss Dorothy’s rib-eye looked real good and I was sorry I hadn’t chosen that.

Back at the motel afterwards, I was still annoyed we hadn’t gone out to the site. Hell, it might not even be raining there. Then, the thunder began to boom, the lightning began to flash, and it rained so hard the satellite TV picture pixilated and faded out. My guilt at not attempting gear set up left me; I was happy I’d listened to reason for once, and spent a pleasant evening watching The Big Bang Theory on the tube.

Friday dawned to partly cloudy, but only partly cloudy, skies, and the weather didn't seem anywhere near as dire as the “60% chance of rain” prediction had made it sound. After checking out the Best Western breakfast, which was fine, if not much different from what the Days Inn had on a good morning, it was out to the CAV to get the gear unloaded.

At the site, I was pleased to see several travel-trailers lined up, and one of my buddies puttering around. I don’t normally get spooked at the CAV when I am alone, but it is still nice to have company. More than anything, it indicated I wasn’t completely crazy.  Some of my pals, at least, thought there might be a chance of us seeing something over the long holiday weekend.

The equipment had gone in Ms. Van Pelt, the 4Runner, easily, and it came out just as easily. I love my C11, but there is no denying a C8 on a German equatorial is just a whole lot more pleasant to deal with when, like Unk, you get within spitting distance of your 60th annum on the third stone from the sun. It’s also nice to have to have plentiful AC power on the field. Plugged up the VX mount’s AC power supply, got the DewBuster dew heater ready to go, and, after erecting the tailgating canopy and putting up the observing table, we were done.

Well, sorta. There was still the computer, the Mallincam camera, the video display, the DVR, and plenty of other stuff to arrange before I could observe, but given the look of the sky, which as noon approached was tending to “worse,” I decided to wait till closer to sundown to prepare the rest of the astro-stuff.

Set up done, or at least as much of it done as I thought wise to do, there wasn’t much point in hanging out at the CAV. Naturally, everybody was undercover at the height of a July day. Not that the heat was that bad. If there was one redeeming feature of the weather, it was that the temps never got above the 80s, even during the few sunny periods. Dorothy and I headed back north, past Chiefland to the next little town up the road, Fanning Springs, to tour one of our favorite Nature Coast attractions.

D. and I have been to Fanning Springs State Park several times over the last couple of years, but like Bill’s, it’s something we never tire of. In summer, the Park is beautifully green and shady, and the springs are filled with almost unbelievably clear water. To top it off, a short walk takes you to the banks of the legendary Suwannee River meandering its leisurely way to the Gulf of Mexico. Miss Dorothy and I spent at least an hour strolling in the shady cool. I even went down to the river’s edge and dipped my feet in those storied waters. Dorothy was afraid I’d become a meal for Mr. Gator, but that cold and clear river just calls to me.

Once we’d had enough of the springs and the river, it was time for another of our Chiefland traditions, the 19/98 grill. This little place not far from the Park has become justly famous with visiting CAV observers for its huge menu of fresh food. One of these days, I’m going to explore that menu, but this time I ordered my fave once again, the buffalo chicken sandwich: spicy (but not too spicy) buffalo chicken, a fresh seed roll, lettuce and tomato straight out of a garden, slathered with chunky blue cheese. The fries? Cut from potatoes recently, not poured from a freezer bag. I had sweet tea, but I was mucho tempted by the old-fashioned bottles of Nehi Grape and Nehi Peach.


After a much needed rest period at the Best Western, it was time to go back to the site. First things first, though. The Alabama State Stores still don’t have Rebel Yell. Not a drop. Salvation was at hand at the liquor store across Highway 19 from the motel, where they were practically giving the stuff away. Unk got a huge bottle for a twenty and change. Said bottle of Yell would constitute my backup “observing plan,” which I might need given that the sky was continuing to degrade.

Out at the CAV with darkness slowly coming on, it was decision time. The weather was looking worse still. It wasn’t raining, but that appeared to be a distinct possibility. Would I really want to be faced with packing up the computer and all the video gear in a hurry if the weather turned nasty? Nope. If I got any observing in on this night, it would be visual observing with the mount operated with its hand control instead of with NexRemote on the laptop. I’d brought along the “good” eyepiece case, so at least I’d be able to wow my buddies with Edge and Ethos vistas. Maybe.

With not much else to do, I spent the gloaming hanging with my pals. Amazingly, given the WX forecasts, seven other hearty and hardcore observers joined me before the evening was out. Eventually, somebody broke out the sparklers and we had a good old time playing 4th of July on the 5th. Urania? She just couldn’t make up her pea-picking mind. The sky occasionally looked like it might want to give birth to a sucker hole, but didn’t—not for a while.

If I couldn’t look through the scope, at least I could play with it, or at least play with the new DewBuster controller. If you read my article on dew in the July 2013 issue of Sky and Telescope, you know I am serious about my dew removal tools. Not long after the original Kendrick Dew Removal System became available, I got me one. Nothing works better for keeping your scope, finder, and eyepieces clear of the wet stuff than heater strips.

The Kendrick system worked fine, but then, about a decade back, Ron Keating over in Louisiana came up with a better idea. The controller on the original Kendrick system was time-based. The farther you advanced its knob , the longer the heater strips stayed on. That worked, but was inefficient. Ron’s DewBuster, which uses a temperature probe, and cycles the heaters on and off according to temperature, is much easier on the battery. It is also much easier to find a setting that will keep moisture off your lenses with the ‘Buster. Adjusting the original Kendrick was pretty much guesstimate-hit-and-miss.

So, the DewBuster was the cat’s meow and couldn’t be improved? That’s what I thought, but then I got word from Ron that he had a new and improved controller ready to go. The difference? The old controller had one temperature-sensing probe, and the new one has two. That means you have two independent temperature-regulated outputs. Maybe one for your corrector or objective, and the other for a piggybacked scope or camera.

The controller still has the “medium power" outlets that cycle on and off like those on the old Kendrick, but Ron has added non-cycling accessory outputs for 12-volt devices. According to Mr. K., the new controller is also less likely to generate electrical interference that might bother your scope or camera electronics.

That all sounded cool, but, as y’all know, I am not a big fan of change. When it comes to astro-gear, I prefer “the same, not different.” Still, I thought I’d give the new ‘Buster a try on this trip. With the sky nearing the fully socked-in stage, that was all I could do.  I removed the C8’s aperture cover and cranked the ‘Buster up to 10-degrees-above-ambient, which I thought appropriate for the conditions.

It was damp, campers. Wet, I mean. It was hard to tell where the dew left off and the haze and rain sprinkles took over. How did the new DewBuster act? At first I was disappointed: “Hell, this dadgum thing don’t work at all.” The red LED that indicates power is flowing to the corrector heater only cycled on occasionally. Under similar circumstances, the light on the old controller would have been flashing like mad. And yet…and yet…Mrs. Peel’s corrector remained bone dry for the next several hours, till I finally gave up on the night.

It appears the new DewBuster is more efficient than the old one. Given that and the fact that it is also less “noisy,” I might be able to power the VX mount and the DewBuster off the same battery. It sure will be nice to leave one battery at home when I am without AC power at the club dark site. Anyhow, I love the new DewBuster. It seems even better than the original, if that's possible.

DewBuster tested, all that remained was to wait on sucker holes. Amazingly, not long after 10 p.m. we did get a few breaks. I didn’t bother to try to align Mrs. Peel; it was obvious there wouldn’t be time for that. Instead, I had a look through my friend Paul’s StarStructure Dob. M51 was beautiful, with its “bridge” and companion galaxy, NGC 5195, looking real sweet. The galaxy has the distinction of being the one and only deep sky object I saw through a scope the whole time we were Down Chiefland Way. I also got a look at Omega Centauri, now well past culmination, in a pair of binoculars, and that was freaking it.

Just as I was beginning to wonder whether I oughtn't get the VX aligned after all, another bunch of clouds came pouring in and I called it quits. At least there wasn’t much involved in throwing The Big Switch on this night. Turn off the ‘Buster, tuck the C8 in with her Desert Storm Cover, and that was it.

It had been a disappointing Friday evening at CAV, but back at the Best Western it was a relaxing and jolly Chiefland denouement: Rebel Yell and those silly, silly Ghost Adventures on the TV. Zack, Nick, and Aaron were, once again, locked in a scary old hotel with the haints running rampant. I watched the spooky nonsense and sipped the magic elixir until Morpheus called to me and I knew nothing more till morning.

Saturday dawned to mostly clear skies, but that didn’t reassure me. The weather pattern had become a rather disgusting one for astronomers:  clear up at about 6 a.m. each morning, grow progressively cloudier during the day, rain by late afternoon, clouds till well after midnight. What would be would be, but Saturday was rubber-meets-road time. The forecasts for Sunday and Monday still didn't look good, and Miss Dorothy and I’d decided that even if we didn’t see anything Saturday evening, we’d head back home to the Swamp on Sunday.

On Chiefland Saturday afternoons, Dorothy and I always motor over to Duma Key, which is our pet name for the touristy little fishing village of Cedar Key on the Gulf of Mexico. That is just what we did, or tried to do, anyhow. The drive and the coastal scenery were nice, but when we got to the Key, it was a fracking madhouse. People and cars everywhere. We literally could not find a parking place. Seems as Cedar Key is not the secret it once was. Neither D. nor I wanted to wait for a table at a restaurant or endure uber crowded shops. We headed back to Chiefland where we’d do lunch somewhere.

Miss Dorothy and I had been laughing about Chiefland’s other barbeque joint, Bubbaque’s ever since it opened in a shopping center storefront some years ago. But we’d never considered actually trying the place. Now, however, it was in a convenient new location just across the highway from our motel. We were hungry and decided “why not?”

I sure am glad we did. Bubbaque’s is a little small, and you Yankees will be puzzled by the redneck décor, but the food is danged good. I ordered the pulled pork, fries, and beans and all was excellent. Maybe not quite in Bills’ territory, but close. The pork was juicy, and the crinkle cut fries (the way Unk likes ‘em) tasted fresh. What was really cool was the selection of six barbeque sauces and two hot sauces. Unk had a fine old time trying all of ‘em (beware the Rump Roaster sauce). Large portions, gallons of sweet tea, friendly servers. I liked Bubbaque’s—a lot.

Back at the room, I spent the next couple of hours doing some catch-up astronomy reading, mainly of Astronomy Magazine. While I write for Sky and Telescope and naturally think it is the best, I like Dave Eicher’s Astronomy, and now that I am retired, I hope to have more time to actually read the magazine.

After seeing what the competition was up to, I took a dip in the motel’s wonderful old swimming pool. It was big and filled with cold, strongly chlorinated water that reminded me of boyhood July afternoons at the neighborhood swim club (a.k.a. “The Redneck Country Club”). The Best Western pool was truly in the ancient mode, emblazoned with huge frescoes of frolicking manatees and turtles. I would have stayed in longer, but the thunder began to boom after half an hour and it was soon raining hard again.

Eventually, the rain quit and it was rubber-meets-road time indeed. I motored back to CAV resolved that I wouldn’t leave the field until I saw something with Mrs. Peel.  At least I had some work to distract me early on. I needed to take some pictures of telescopes and computers for a couple of Sky and Telescope articles I was working on. That kept my mind off the sky for the couple of hours remaining till dark. After that? I’d just hang on the field till the sky cleared.

I didn't care if it took till freaking four in the a.m. to get a sucker hole; I was not leaving without using my new scope. That was the plan, anyhow. The reality was that the C8 was never uncovered. By eleven, there was substantial lightning ringing the field, and booms of thunder began to be audible as yet another storm approached. I said goodbye to my fellow observers, grabbed the laptop, and headed for the 4Runner.

Back at the Best Western before midnight, I was a mite disgruntled. Maybe I shouldn't have been so hasty. I guessed my friends would get in a couple of good hours before dawn. I should have been with them. Oh, well. Cable TV (just missed Svengoolie) and Rebel Yell served to lift my spirits a little bit.

The next morning, early the next morning, since I sure hadn’t had a late night, me and D. had another Best Western breakfast, packed up, checked out, and were back at the CAV by 9 a.m. I was flabbergasted when we arrived at Dodd Field. Except for Carl Wright, everybody else had pulled up stakes and left—and Carl was fixing to.  Miss Dorothy and I are usually the first to go. I stopped and inquired with Mr. W. as to whether they’d got anything after I’d left. They hadn’t, and with the forecast looking no better for Sunday night, the consensus was that you have to know when you are licked.

Dorothy and I were packed and on the road in about an hour—we were careful to take it easy. It wasn’t too hot, but it was crazy humid. All that remained, then, was 100-miles of Highway 19, gas up at the Sunoco, and on to I-10. After I scored a basket of insanely good “Highway 19 peaches” at the produce stand next to the filling station, we were on our way back to Possum Swamp.

I tried to be philosophical on the drive home, as I always do in the wake of a GOOD SKUNKING. Actually, I found I didn’t have to put a happy face on our Chiefland July. It already had one. I didn’t see much, but I saw something—certainly more than I would have had we stayed home. I’d got to spend some time with my Chiefland friends. D. and I had an excellent time playing tourist in the Old Florida style of the Nature Coast. As far as I am concerned, you cannot beat any of that with a stick, muchachos.

N.B.:  If you’d like to see more pictures from our trip, they are as close as ol’ Unk’s Facebook page…

Next Time: The Astronomer Looks at 60...

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