Sunday, September 29, 2013

 

Pore Old Blue


Hard as it is to believe for those of us who are involved in the business of amateur astronomy or who are at least Cloudy Nights addicts, astronomy is still a solitary occupation for some folks. I know for a fact, muchachos, that some of y’all don’t do much Internet astronomy beyond looking at the Sky and Telescope website and, of course, the Little Old Blog from Chaos Manor South.

In other words, you are not into the gossipy side of amateur astronomy. You don’t know or care pea-turkey about the rumors, obsessions, fads, and fancies found in places like the Cloudy Nights BBS, Astromart, the Yahoogroups, and Ice in Space. Your knowledge of what’s going on with the telescope makers is limited to what you see in the ads in Sky and ‘Scope or on a dealer’s webpage. Some of y’all don’t even belong to your local club, which is still a prime source of amateur astronomy information, WWW or no WWW.

Not that unwired astronomy is necessarily a bad thing. For every gram of wisdom dispensed on the above Internet forums, there are kilos and kilos of the stuff you find on the south pasture. That’s just the nature of Internet forums on any subject. However, if what you read on the Cloudy Nights don’t always get the details correct, you do get the broad strokes. Like the fact that Meade Instruments, the beloved “Old Blue” of American telescope companies, has been in serious financial difficulties for a couple of years and has just been sold to a Chinese company that is something of a cipher.

“So what, Unk?” Well, beyond the fact that I hate to see another American telescope maker bite the dust, I worry about those of us who are unconnected and have not got the word on Meade. Like the person seriously thinking of spending multi thousands of dollars on an LX850 rig. Of course, the Meade story might have a happy ending; the new owners might infuse enough cash that the company comes roaring back. But any number of Bad Things could still happen, and this is a time for looking before leaping when it comes to buying Meade telescopes. How did they get into such a jam? That is a kinda long story, but maybe I’ve got just enough time to tell it on this Sunday morning.

I reckon we ought to start at the beginning, back in 1972. Unk was still struggling along with his homebrew 6-inch Newtonian, but he was confident his ship would some in someday soon and that onboard it would be a Cave or a Unitron. So, despite being an essentially penniless undergrad, I still paid plenty of attention to the ads in Sky and Telescope (there was as yet no Astronomy Magazine). As ’72 wound down, and ’73 came in, Young Unk began noticing new, small ads from an outfit called “Meade Instruments.”

They weren't anything special, but since you tended to see the same old ads month after month back in them days —Jaegers ran basically the same ad for years—even small new ones stood out. Meade, it appeared, was just another company importing the cotton-picking Japanese refractors Unk and his buddies (wrongly) assumed were junk. Back then, “made in Japan” was synonymous with “crap,” strange as that may seem  now.

What Meade was was the dream of a young California engineer, a man a lot like Tom Johnson, who founded Celestron. John Diebel’s dream was to start a telescope company. John’s story, which I had the pleasure of hearing from him once, is one of those good, old-fashioned success stories Americans love. He started Meade on his kitchen table. Literally. The company didn’t stay in John’s apartment kitchen for long, though. Thanks to his drive and talent, it grew like Topsy.

What really got Meade rolling was that John Diebel soon began selling good eyepieces at good prices. The “Research Grade Orthoscopics” he imported from Japan were good then and they are good now, and eyepiece connoisseurs and collectors still seek them out. Mr Diebel followed the eyepieces with plenty of ATM stuff like finders, telescope tubes, primary mirror mounts, focusers, and suchlike. These accessories were not much better than what you could get from other sources, like University Optics, but they were competitively priced and Mr. Diebel made customer service a priority. That was rare in the astrobiz of the 1970s and is why most of his competitors stayed small and/or faded away.

By the end of the 1970s, Meade wasn’t just a player; they were out Edmunding Edmund and out Criterioning Criterion. As the 1970s ran out, Diebel and company (they’d incorporated as Meade a few years before), were selling a complete line of telescopes, Newtonians and refractors, including some rather impressive instruments. Their top Newtonians were excellent and not much different from the highly regarded Caves. If anything, they were more modern looking, and their quality was right up there with Tom C’s best. Meade had gone from being back in the pack to ruling the Newtonian roost as famous names like Cave, Criterion, and Edmund began a slow fade.

Diebel didn’t just stick to Newts, though. He’d begun with refractors and continued selling them. He hooked up with the same Japanese supplier who provided the components for Unitron’s scopes. Soon, Meade was marketing refractors that looked just like Unitrons, sometimes performed better than they did, and sold for less money. I was able to have a shoot-out between a 4-inch Unitron and its 4-inch Meade analog one year at TSP; the victor was the Meade by a hair.

Meade’s path to continued success was not assured, though. At the end of the 1970s, amateur astronomy was changing. The switch to smaller cars that began after the gas crunch of 1973 and the fact that amateurs were becoming more interested in taking pictures meant Celestron and its C8 were coming to dominate the market. The old-fashioned GEM mounted long focal length Newtonian was on its way out. They were difficult to use for astrophotography, and who wanted to try to pack an 8-inch f/7 Cave in a Ford Maverick?

Some of the old-line companies, like Star Liner and Optical Craftsmen, ignored the new reality and disappeared. Others, like Edmund and Criterion, recognized the warning signs and either left the scope business or turned it into a sideline. Criterion actually tried to compete in the new arena with an SCT of their own, the Dynamax. It was not a success, however, and the father and son who owned the company were smart enough to sell out just as the excitement over Halley was reaching a fever pitch. Meade? As the 1980s began, Meade was balanced on the edge of a knife.

What saved John Diebel’s company was that he embraced change. SCTs were the way to go, but, unlike Criterion, he didn't just try to copy the Celestron C8. What John did was make a good 8-inch SCT with some features the C8, which had remained static for a decade, lacked. This Meade SCT, the “2080,” with its snazzy blue tube, didn't just look more modern than the Orange Tube Celestron, it featured a major improvement, a worm gear drive in place of the spur gear system the C8 used. Amateurs took notice and began buying Meades.

The 1980s was a time of great promise for the scope business. That’s the way it seemed at first, anyhow. Halley’s Comet, the greatest astronomical event since, well, since the last time it flew by, was upon us and there seemed little doubt both Celestron and Meade would sell plenty of telescopes. Both companies had spent the first half of the decade in a costly features race that involved Super C8s and Super C8 Pluses and LX2s and LX3s and were ready to cash in on Halley mania. The sky was the limit, especially for Meade, who was catching up with and even surpassing Celestron.

With Halley was approaching, both Tom Johnson and John Diebel chose to sell the companies they’d built. Why? Don’t ask me, but maybe after years of hard labor they just wanted to enjoy life. And perhaps, as is the case with many engineers, they didn’t find managing nearly as much fun as creating.

Celestron went to Diethelm, a Swiss investment firm, and Meade to the Harbor Group, a similar U.S. company. What did both concerns have in common? They weren’t much interested in telescopes; they just wanted to make some quick bucks. At least Diethelm’s owner seems to have been somewhat interested in astronomy; there was no one like that at Harbor Group as far as I know.

The result was predictable. The prospect of Halley gold made it impossible for the companies to resist producing as many telescopes as humanly possible during the years of the comet’s approach. They wore out their work-forces, management, and equipment in the process, and came close to ruining both companies’ reputations. They also produced many more scopes than they could sell when Halley turned out to be a disappointment for the public. Would things have been different if Diebel and Johnson had still been on the job? I like to think they would have been.

When the comet had flown away, Meade and Celestron both had a lot of recovering to do. It took years for them to get their optical quality back to where it had been before the comet, till the beginning of the 90s, really. But that didn't stop them from introducing new telescopes. Meade’s big effort in the wake of Halley was the LX6, which the company was betting a lot on. This was the follow-on to the LX5, which came out just after the comet’s apparition in 1986.

The LX6 was that elusive “SCT of a new type,” which was to be the company’s flagship scope. What was so new about it? In addition to just about every feature you could pile onto a non-computerized telescope, it had f/6.3 optics. To this point, Meade’s amateur grade SCTs had all had f/10 optics. The LX6 would offer wider fields eyepiece for eyepiece for visual use and shorter exposure times for astrophotography. But amateurs just didn't buy the LX6 in numbers. Maybe partly because f/6.3 was too wild a departure from the tried and true, and maybe partly because it took Meade some years to get f/6.3 right. F/6.3 LX200s are usually good. LX6es? Not so much.

The end of the 80s and the beginning of the 90s was probably the low point for Meade. They were struggling along, barely keeping their heads above water. The situation wasn’t any better at Celestron. Everybody who wanted a scope had bought one during Halley; the market was oversold. The only solution Diethelm and Harbor could come up with was a merger. The SEC said “no,” however (a couple of times). What saved Meade, then? One thing:  John Diebel didn't like the way things were going and bought his company back.

The second Diebel era at Meade was the company’s golden age. They just went from strength to strength. The SCT that followed the LX6, the LX200, was an immediate and huge hit. It, like Celestron’s Compustar, which came first, was a computerized go-to telescope. The difference was that Meade was able to sell the LX200 at a price within reach of serious amateur astronomers—the Compustar was priced for schools and colleges. Meade also knew how to market the scope; Celestron and Diethelm didn’t seem to have a clue what to do with the Compustar.

One facet of the LX200 story I think is telling? It shows Meade’s true strength. Sure, they are an innovative company, they've always had plenty of good ideas. But they are at their best when they build on and improve someone else’s ideas, not when they are trying to break new ground themselves. They are at their worst when they try something out of left field, like the LX6 or RCX400. That is not a criticism. Meade has been incredibly successful in making complex ideas work.

Anyhoo, the LX200 was followed by a long string of successes:  the ETXes, the LX90, the LX50, and the LX200 GPS, all the way up to the turn of the century. Meade was clearly number one by the mid 1990s, and it looked to me as if Meade were just going to get stronger. As the company came to ever more dominate the telescope business, John and his colleagues took Meade public. I suspected we’d soon be reading Celestron’s obituary.

That’s what would have happened in a Zane Grey pulp. Old Blue would ride off into the sunset with a tip of its cowboy hat, victorious after one last shootout at the Orange Tube Corral. But real life is full of surprises, like the return of Celestron. Despite being mishandled by the company that bought them from Diethhelm, the often reviled Tasco, the company was very much back in the game by 2000. That year, Celestron introduced an SCT, the NexStar GPS, that suddenly made the LX200 seem old and outdated. And Celestron would soon be bought out again, by Chinese optics giant Synta, who had the cash they needed to make a real comeback.

How did Meade respond to that beautiful NexStar GPS? With the LX200 GPS. Which was a good enough scope. It just didn’t offer anything new or even a price break as compared to the NexStar. It was not unlike the original LX200 except that the old controller was replaced by an Autostar HC, and it used a GPS receiver, natch, to get time and position, just like the NexStar. The new LX200 was a good scope, just not a very exciting one.

Meade, like the Cylons, HAD A PLAN, apparently, and part of that plan did make them seem a lot like the dadgum toasters. They brought a lawsuit against Celestron, and to many of us amateurs it began to seem as if they were trying to sue their competitor out of business. Meade sued Celestron over the north and level alignment routine used by the NexStar GPS in alt-azimuth mode. Amazingly, they were able to convince a judge they should be awarded a patent for the idea of pointing a telescope north to align it.

I don’t know how much Meade spent on lawyers, but the return really wasn’t worth it near as I can tell. Yes, Celestron had to pay royalties to Meade, but only for a brief time. Celestron quickly developed a couple of non-infringing alignment methods. Most of all, the lawsuit lost Meade some of the respect of the community. They began to seem more like, yeah, the Cylons than the Rebel Alliance, to mix a metaphor.

I didn’t much like Meade’s sue ‘em tactics, but I was fully onboard for the second part of their plan: a truly revolutionary SCT, the RCX400. When I heard about it for the first time in ’05, I was gobsmacked. It was Meade’s biggest leap since the old LX6. But even moreso. The RCX would be built around an optical design that reduced coma. It would be an f/8 instead of an f/10. The OTA would feature motorized focusing AND collimation. There’d be a built in dew heater. There would be USB ports in addition to serial ports. What Meade was promising us was all the things amateurs had been asking for in an SCT for years.

What did I think of the RCX when I got my hands on one in 2006? Mostly I was impressed. I was a speaker at the 2006 Cherry Springs Star Party, and the Meade rep who was there with a spanking new 10-inch RCX 400 allowed me to use the scope all night long one evening. The images were extremely impressive, as was the go-to accuracy. I was purty happy with the motorized focusing (which moved the corrector forward and back) once I got the hang of which buttons to mash.I did wish  Meade had gone to a higher grade of motors than their usual slot-car jobs for this premium SCT. When you were slewing the RCX at high speed, it sounded like a weasel with tuberculosis. The mount fit and finish could have been a hair better, too. All things considered, though, I wanted one. I predicted Meade would have a big hit on their hands.

Much as Unk hates to admit it, he was wrong. Why? Two reasons. First of all, the telescope got some bad press. Instead of calling the RCX design a “reduced coma SCT,” someone in the company, probably a dadgum pencil pusher in marketing, insisted on calling it an “advanced Ritchey Chretien.” It was clearly not of that design, and Meade was promptly sued by a group of r/c makers. Meade lost the suit, and while they only had to pay token damages, their reputation was taken down another notch.

What really killed the RCX, though, was QA problems. Many telescopes were dead out of the box or failed quickly. This was a bad problem for a scope that was the most expensive SCT the company had ever sold. The usual culprit was the focus/collimation system, which was executed way too cheaply. There were other problems, too. In fact, just about everything except the optics could be problematical with the RCX.

Even the folks who had RCXes that worked well were getting skittish. If something bad happened to the telescope’s complex electronics, you didn't have an option other than getting Meade to repair it. If, years down the road, Meade stopped fixing RCXes, you were the one who would be in a fix. The mount and tube were tightly integrated, with the focuser electronics being in the base. You couldn’t easily remove the OTA from the fork and put it on a German equatorial mount as you could any other SCT.

Why did Meade drop the ball on the RCX? Bit off more than they could chew, I reckon. It was a design that was brilliant in many ways, but also complex. To work well, corners could not be cut. The problem was that Meade’s resources were no doubt being well and truly stretched. It was now really too expensive to make telescopes in California.

Following John Diebel’s second retirement, Meade began to have more and more financial difficulty, which was probably abetted by its a-little-too-late decision to move production to Mexico. Yes, that sprawling and famous Irvine plant featured at the front of every Meade catalog was closed. It took a while for Meade to get it together south of the border, but it appeared they would. I know I was mightily impressed by the LX200 ACF SCT my Chiefland buddy Mike Harvey bought. The ACF incorporated reduced coma optics like the RCX (but at f/10), and I was just blown away by the images.


Despite rumors of a financial melt-down, it seemed like business as usual at Meade. They announced two brilliant sounding new products, the LX800 GEM and the LX80 combo alt-az/equtorial mount. I thought both could be game changers. GEMs are fashionable, and other than the abortive Max Mount project, Meade hadn’t done much in that area for years other than the uber cheap LXD55/75. The LX800 might be just the ticket for imagers, especially with its Starlock system, which integrated go-to and guiding, and would supposedly make both things easier and better than ever. And iOptron had shown amateurs wanted “side by side” alt-az rigs like the LX80. I predicted the LX80 would take astronomy by storm at a price well under 1000 dollars.

Things at Meade were only OK on the surface, however. Both mounts were released before they were ready. The LX800 was quickly recalled because it didn’t work at all. The LX80, which I’d looked forward to? My good buddy Jack Huerkamp got one, and I was able to try it at the 2012 Deep South Regional Star Gaze. I was terribly disappointed. Way too much play in the gears. A tripod head that was too weak (several owners had the thing break and send the mount crashing to the ground). A persnickety Autostar controller. After almost a year, Meade re-released the LX800 as the LX850, which appeared to work fine, and announced plans to fix the LX80. Unfortunately, time had run out for Meade as Meade.

A few months back, word came that Meade was looking for a buyer, seriously looking for a buyer. As in, if they were not bought out operations might have to cease. At first, it looked like Meade was going to the Chinese firm JOC. I thought that would be a great match, since that company's U.S. subsidiary is Explore Scientific, headed by Scott Roberts, one of the talented folks who made the old Meade tick.

Alas, ‘twas not to be.  It appears Meade has been purchased (“merger” is the term the Meadesters are using) by another Chinese company, Ningbo Sunny. No, I hadn’t heard of ‘em either. It seems they have some optical expertise, at least in the microscope realm, producing, judging by their web page, some pretty sophisticated looking instruments. Telescopes? That is a different matter. Near as I can tell, what they make are the sorts of scopes you see for sale on the fraking eBay. You know, “Red Telescope, Green Telescope, Blue Telescope.”

I sure hope Ningbo doesn’t just want the Meade name, something to slap on dimestore telescopes, much the way the current owner of Tasco slaps that name on their pitiful junk. What gives me hope is that Synta and JOC have shown there is an at least somewhat profitable market for amateur telescopes in the U.S. With the economy slowly coming back, who knows? Celestron, afterall, didn’t start to pull out of their nosedive till they were bought by Tasco. Finally, the world of Chinese corporations is a strange one, with it very unclear who really owns whom or runs whom and who intends to do what.

In other words, y’all, we will just have to wait and see. I am hoping it won’t be long before the future course of Meade is clear. But you know what, muchachos? No matter what happens, John Diebel’s and Meade’s mark on amateur astronomy will be a long-lasting one. The LX200 alone sees to that. Me? I’m gonna go upstairs right now and pat my sweet little ETX, Charity Hope Valentine, on her pretty OTA.

Nota Bene:  Got comets on the brain thanks to the brouhaha over ISON? You might want to read Unk's take on the hairy stars if you haven't done so already...

Next Time:  Ode to Junior...

Sunday, September 22, 2013

 

Destination Moon Night Two: 23 Down, 277 to Go


It’s been a while since I spoke to y’all about my Moon project, over three months. But that’s not because I’ve lost interest in Luna. It’s because of the fraking weather. As I have said before, this has been absolutely the worst summer for observing I remember since 1994. I dang sure haven't given up on my project to image the Moon’s top 300 features, which I outlined here, I just haven't been able to do anything about it, muchachos. Not till last Saturday evening, that is.

Compared to what we have had lately, the weather Saturday afternoon was turning out to be real nice. It was clear, if a little hazy, and while temperatures were not that low, in the low nineties, the humidity was more bearable than it has been for months, somewhere in the 60% range. And a beautiful Moon just two days past First Quarter would be hanging in the sky till the wee hours. Time for me to hit the Possum Swamp Astronomical Society observing field.

At our little slice of dark sky heaven at sundown, I wasn’t overly surprised to be alone. I’d put word on the  PSAS Facebook page that I'd be at the dark site for a Lunar run, but I suppose most of the membership can observe the Moon from home. Our many and ancient trees down in the Garden District make that purty much impossible for me.

I left the runway lights of the private airfield we use for observing on as a deterrent to baddies like Mothman and the Little Grey Dudes from Zeta Reticuli 2 and got to work setting up. What exactly did Unk set up? My current Moon picture rig, Mrs. Emma Peel, the Edge 800 SCT, on her VX mount. Yes, I know aperture is as important for Lunar and planetary work as it is for the deep sky, and that Big Bertha, my NexStar 11, might have been a better choice. The problem with that is Unk is lazy and getting lazier.

Camera? That would be the successor to my much-loved SAC 7B, the ZWO ASI120MC. I am testing another new planetary cam, the Mallincam SSI, but until I get some software problems (no doubt caused by your silly old Uncle) ironed out, that one is benched. This would only be my second time using the ZWO, but given my good initial experience with it, I expected great things.

One thing would be different from the first outing with the ZWO: I’d be using a different computer program to control it. One wise thing the ZWO folks have done is spend their time making their camera drivers as good as they can be rather than developing a control program of their own. The result is the ZWO will work with most of the software Solar System imagers are using today, including Sharpcap, the program I used for first light with the ZWO.

Sharpcap is a great program. It is not feature-laden, but it is very easy to use. That made it a natural for first light with the ASI120. As you know, I am not immune to the allure of the More Better Gooder, howsomeever, and had been hearing a lot about the soft used by the crème de la crème of planetary workers, Firecapture. I downloaded a copy and gave it a try indoors not long after I got the camera, but it tended to lock up the computer.

Then, just a few weeks back, I learned Firecapture’s author, Torsten Edelmann, had released a new beta that was purty much guaranteed to work with the ZWO. Lotsa boys and girls were giving it good notices, and a look at the Firecapture website showed the new one would do just about everything except make Unk’s biscuits in the morning. So, I decided to give it a go. I’d keep Sharpcap at the ready, of course, in the event things went south with the new FC version.

After I got Emma on her mount, I spent a few minutes preparing the Thermacell bug repeller. The mosquitoes weren't bad at sundown, but the deeper twilight became, the fiercer the bugs would no doubt become. Thermacell dispersing its funny but not unpleasant smell, I sat and twiddled my thumbs waiting for Polaris and some alignment stars to appear.

I had the best of intentions, y’all. I’d do a 2+4 go-to alignment with the VX followed by an AllStar Polar alignment. That was my intention, but I got antsy. Diana looked so beautiful hovering over the field in her shining silver gown that I just couldn’t wait for stars. I aligned the RA axis of the mount north as well as I could with the aid of my compass, kicked on the mount’s power, and told the VX to do a Solar System Alignment.

I’d used my phone to provide exact time, and I’d been careful with the compass, so I wasn’t too surprised when the mount stopped within a degree or so of Hecate. I centered her up, hit align on the hand control, and we were off to the races. I knew tracking wouldn’t be perfect with such a casual polar alignment, especially given that I’d be shooting at about f/25, but it ort ta be good enough. I’ve even been told a little drift makes it easier for Registax to properly align and stack the frames of .avi movie files.

Hokay. Time to get rid of the diagonal and eyepiece and mount the camera. I don’t insert the ZWO directly into the scope. Instead, I use it with the Meade 1.25-inch flip mirror I bought a dozen years ago to go with my ill-fated Starlight Xpress cam. A garden variety Barlow, an Orion Shorty, is inserted in the flip mirror’s rear port. It might be “garden variety,” but this inexpensive Barlow is one of the best I’ve ever used. The ZWO camera with an IR block filter screwed onto its 1.25-inch nose-piece goes in the Barlow. Finally, the eyepiece tube of the flip mirror is filled with my good, old Meade 12mm reticle eyepiece. When you are dealing with higher focal ratios and tiny imaging chips, a flip mirror ain’t just a help, campers, it’s a freaking requirement.

I plugged the ZWO’s USB cable into the Toshiba laptop, which responded with a reassuring bing-bong, and lit off Firecapture.  The program recognized the camera immediately and ran perfectly all night long. I need to spend more time reading the software's help files, but it is so well-designed and intuitive I had no trouble operating it.

Copernicus

Click the pix for larger versions...
Where to start? Copernicus, natcherly. For me this massive “new” crater is the most beautiful feature on the Moon. I think so now, and I thought so back when I was a little bitty kid just starting to explore Luna. When I was so green I didn't even know how to pronounce its name. I called it “copper-nick-us” till I was corrected by one of the younguns in our Backyard Astronomy Society who'd somehow learned how the crater’s name was supposed to be said.

Copernicus was just about perfectly placed on this evening. Not so close to the terminator that detail would be lost in shadow, but not so far away that its massive ray system would steal the show. I flipped the flip mirror up, centered the crater in the cross-hairs, flipped down, and focused up the onscreen image.

Which was easy to do. Despite the fact that I had selected the ZWO’s maximum resolution mode, a healthy 1280x960, Firecapture was still delivering over 30 frames per second. With images refreshing at such a rate, focusing was a dadgum joy. So much easier than it was with the SAC 7’s pitiful 5-f.p.s. at 640x480. I fiddled with exposure and gain till I got a good looking image, and recorded a 30-second sequence that resulted in dern near 1000 frames being captured.

No, it really don’t get any better on the Moon than this. Copernicus ain’t just large at 93 km across (I always amaze the youngsters at public star parties by telling them Copernicus would extend over halfway between Biloxi and New Orleans), he’s fresh and relatively untouched by the ages, being “only” 800 million years old. The floor is unspoiled and its terraced walls are steep and sharp looking. With camera or eye, there’s plenty here to see here, from the complex central peak that rises 1.2 km high, to the ray system that begins to “shine” not long after sunrise on Copernicus’ walls.

Gay Lussac

There are quite a few interesting small craters in Copernicus’ neighborhood, both those with names, like Fauth, and those that have only been given letters. Unfortunately, there was only one other crater in the field on my hit-list of 300 features from the old Norton’s Star Atlas. If Copernicus looks fresh and new, Gay-Lussac is the opposite. This crater, named for a 19th Century French Physicist, has walls with an “eroded” appearance and a floor that’s a tumbled down mess.

Clavius

After Copernicus the Great? That was easy:  to the Moon’s southern highlands where the huge crater Clavius was sitting in the Sun. Clavius, famous as the site of the Moon base, Clavius Base, in 2001: A Space Odyssey, is a huge thing 225 km across. It is the third largest crater on the Moon’s nearside. What makes it incredibly interesting, though, it not just its size, but the detail on its floor, and especially the arc of good looking craters, Rutherford and the “unnamed” Clavius D, C, N, and J.

In addition to the letter-craters and Rutherford, which intrudes into one of Clavius’ walls, the floor is peppered with many other smaller pits that stand out well. The better your scope, camera, and seeing (which is the most important thing of all), the more fascinating detail you will see here.

Plato and the Alpine Valley

Hokay, back north again to the more uncluttered part of Hecate’s shining visage. The area of Plato and the Alpine Valley is a wonderful one for visual observers and imagers alike. It is, above all, a place of challenges:  the Plato Craterlets and the rille down the center of the Alpine Valley (Valles Alpes).

Plato is a great dark lake of a crater that easily dominates the whole area. It’s very old, about 3.84 billion years, close to the same age as nearby Mare Imbrium, and it is large, 109 km in diameter. Due to its position near the Moon’s limb, it looks oval to us, but is actually round. Except for a few possibly volcanic pits here and there, the Moon’s craters were created by impacts, and that process is unable to produce a strongly elongated crater.

There are plenty of other large and sharply defined craters on the visible face of the Moon; what makes Plato special is its floor, which was obviously flooded with basaltic lava. And what makes that floor especially interesting is the presence of numerous small craterlets scattered across it.  There are four craterlets in the 3 km diameter range that are doable visually with 12-inch telescopes under good seeing and at high power.

Not easy, mind you, but doable.  I’ve actually detected the two largest of these little guys with an 80mm refractor when there is a high Sun angle at Plato. At that time they are easy enough to see as white spots. Seeing them as actual craters, though, does require considerable telescope horsepower, good seeing, and patience.

Imaging the craterlets is way easier. The most prominent ones showed up almost any time I pointed my old SAC 7 at Plato, and in a modern camera like the ZWO they actually look like, yeah, little craters. The better the seeing the better they look, of course, and the more of ‘em you record.

Plato is notorious as the site of reports of Transient Lunar Phenomena, “TLPs.” Moon observers have reported odd lights and hazes on the floor of the crater for ages. I’ve never seen anything like that in all my years of lunar observing, but I still hope to see something strange here or somewhere else on the Moon someday. I tend to doubt the reality of TLP, but I also doubted of the reality of Venus’ Ashen Light—till I saw it for myself.

The Alpine Valley is another of the Moon’s true wonders. It is a wide—10 km at its widest point—lunar valley, “Valles,” that extends for over 160 km. What caused it? Probably crust slumping along a fracture line. One look at its floor and it is easy to see it was also heavily modified by the lava that flooded it.

Valles Alpes is visible in the tiny scopes; that’s not the challenge. The challenge is the narrow rille that extends for almost its entire length. I’ve been after the rille for years, but have never really seen it visually. I’ve “suspected” it at best. It’s not that easy with a camera, either. The rille is visible in the shot I did of the Alpine Valley on this night, but is not prominent unless I ramp up the contrast enough to make the picture ugly. Probably need to come back to it with the C11 and more focal length some night, I reckon.

At the opposite end of the Alpine Valley from Plato, we run across a couple of nice craters, Archytas (30 km) and Protagoras (22 km). Also in the region is an interesting semi-“ghost” crater, Egede (36 km), that was almost erased by lava. That floor is covered with numerous craterlets, making it even more cool looking. Unfortunately, it was not on my “300 list” so I moved on.

Tycho

Where did I move to? I didn’t stay in the Alpine Valley area. There were clouds gathering and I wanted to get as many more important features as I could before they moved in. What’s the most prominent crater on the Moon at First Quarter after Copernicus? Tycho, of course.

Even when Tycho’s enormous ray system is subdued by a low Sun angle, the crater, which nestles in the jumbled terrain of the southern highlands not far from Clavius, stands out. Why? Because it is sharp and bright compared to the terrain it is set in. It is barely 100 million years old and couldn’t be more distinct from the worn-looking craters around it. It is 86 km in size, and features both terraced walls and a complex central peak.

My sweet little ZWO did a nice job on both Tycho and the nearby list craters Pictet (63 km), Saussure (55 km), Orontius (123 km), and Sassides (91 km) as well. The secret to getting a good portrait of Tycho and company is, as always, a low Sun angle, but not too low. At mid-morning, the whole region is just freaking awesome.

Longomontanus

This great crater is only about 90 km from Clavius, but nobody talks about it much. I don’t know why. It is magnificent. Sharply defined, it is 146 km in size and has a fascinating floor that’s pitted with numerous craters and craterlets. Most of the craters around Longomontanus are interesting, but are “anonymous,” having letters instead of names, and were not on my list. Wilhelm was the exception. It is old, pre-Nectarian, around 4 billion years old, but it has stood up fairly well. About half its walls are badly eroded, but mostly it is still well-separated from the surrounding terrain and attractive.

Longomontanus and Wilhelm captured, those dadburned clouds moved in with a vengeance. It looked like they might eventually move off, but I wasn’t in the mood to wait ‘em out. The humidity had spiked up, the bugs had come in a second wave that required me to replace the Thermacell’s repellent pad with a fresh one, and I was on the verge of “hot and tired.”

Back when I was a sprout, I had to wait days or weeks to see my Moon Pictures, till daddy could be persuaded to drag out his developing tank, enlarger, and all those wonderfully stinky chemicals. That wait is one thing I do not miss about film astrophotography. As soon as I got back to the Old Manse, was able to take quick looks at my image files and begin processing the 50 gigabytes of images. OK, I’ll admit it:  I had one eye on the computer and one eye on Svengoolie, who was showing (the color) Phantom of the Opera.

How did the few shots I processed that evening and the rest, which I did Sunday morning, turn out? Purty good. Actually, they would have knocked me slap out even fifteen years ago, but I reckon I have been spoiled by the new way of Lunar imaging and what its top practitioners are accomplishing, and I was already plotting how to do just a wee bit better. I will get that stinking Alpine Valley rille yet, muchachos.

Next Time:  Pore Old Blue 

Sunday, September 15, 2013

 

AHSP 2013: The Prodigal Returns


I like star parties, muchachos. All star parties. Y’all know that. Yet, I must admit I’ve got my favorites. The Deep South Regional Star Gaze takes it for sentimental reasons. That was Miss Dorothy’s first star party less than two months after we married. The Texas Star Party is a winner for dark skies and accomplished observers. Chiefland has good skies and crazy good facilities.

For me, though, the Almost Heaven Star Party (AHSP) hits a home run in all the categories: dark skies, friendly folks, great facilities, and both guests and speakers who will teach you a thing or two about amateur astronomy no matter how much of a veteran you are.

The AHSP is held at a site on Spruce Knob Mountain in West Virginia, which is a fur piece from the good old Swamp. Nevertheless, your old Uncle has been able to attend for years thanks to the kindness of the organizers at NOVAC, the Northern Virginia Astronomy Club, down in DC, who’ve flown me up to be a speaker a bunch of times. I’ve liked the sky, the people, and the place so fraking much I’ve only missed one edition since I started going back in 2007.

Why did I miss out in 2012? It wasn’t my choice. I was still playing the engineering game, and since I was the only available engineer on the coast knowledgeable about ships’ navigation systems, I had to spend the star party out in the Gulf of Mexico onboard a San Antonio Class amphibious assault ship. That wasn’t near as much fun as AHSP woulda been, and now that I’ve retired I’ve sworn to do my best never to miss another long weekend up on Spruce Knob.

As I’d hoped he would, some months ago AHSP organizer Bob Parks contacted me wondering if I’d be available to speak at the 2013 event. After I said, “hail yeah,” the next question was “How long can you stay, Unk?” The star party runs from Friday till Tuesday, but I’ve always had to limit that to Saturday – Sunday or Friday – Sunday at best. Not anymore. I told Bob I’d stay as long as the logistics of getting me to and from the airport in DC made possible and practical.

Since Sky and Telescope Editor in Chief Robert Naeye would also be a speaker at AHSP 2013, it made sense to fly us both into DC at the same time and for us to drive up to the site in a shared rent-a-car. Mr. Bob and I would meet at Reagan National on Friday, 6 September, be at AHSP late that afternoon if there were no airline craziness, and would return to Reagan on following Monday morning.

Everything appeared to be set, and the only question was “What will Unk bring with him?” as in “Scope or binoculars?”  I originally planned to pack my li’l C90, Stella. She has almost as much light gathering power as my not very airline friendly 100mm binoculars, doesn’t require near as much tripod, and her ability to change eyepieces and magnifications means she can go deeper than even the big glasses. I was dissuaded, though, by the thought of having to tote an extra carry-on and weigh down my suitcase further with even a lightweight tripod.

I eventually settled on my old reliable binoculars, my 15x70 Burgesses. I’ve have ‘em since I bought ‘em from Bill Burgess at the 2003 ALCON for a song. As powerful as Stella? No, but they can show a hell of a lot under a dark sky and I figgered that suitably padded they’d be safe enough in my checked bag. If not? I would hate to lose the Bugesses, but they did only cost me 50 bucks.

As the date for the event got close, there were a few travel-related hiccups, but everything resolved itself in quick order, and Unk was up at oh-dark-thirty on Friday September 6 to catch a U.S. Airways flight out of Possum Swamp Regional. The lack of flights from The Swamp to DC meant I had to take the 6 a.m. early-early, but that was OK. While I’ve got used to often sleeping till 7 – 8 ever’ morning now, I have not completely got out of the habit of early get-ups after only six months of retirement.

How was the flight? In the past, I’ve called my carrier, U.S. Airways, “the legitimate heir of Aeroflot.” In truth, however, they are not much, if any, worse than the other U.S. airlines. What was the most irritating thing about them? Their use of the cabin P.A. system to make long, LONG commercial announcements in an attempt to torture you into applying for their dadgum credit card. I was able to ignore that foolishness with the aid of a good SF novel, Jack Campbell’s Lost Fleet: Valiant.

After a plane change in Charlotte, where for once I actually had plenty of time to catch my connecting flight, I was off on the short hop to Reagan (Washington) National. I’d just been there a few weeks back with Miss D., so I purty much knew the lay of the land and wasn’t stressed. I was to meet Bob at the Dollar Rent-a-car counter, and as I was waiting for the shuttle to take me to their off-airport site, I got a call from Mr. B. He’d arrived early, had our car all checked out, and we could be off as soon as I got there.

I am luckier than most writers are in that I get to spend some one-on-one time with the editor of the magazine I do most of my writing for. Even if I didn’t write for Sky and Telescope, I’d enjoy shooting the breeze with Bob Naeye. Despite his status as a Dadgum Yankee, we agree on almost all subjects (albeit with a little disagreement about Pluto). We grabbed lunch at a local burger joint out in Virginia, Fosters, which was some kinda good, and after what seemed like a not overlong journey out of the DC metro area, through northern Virginia, and into West Virginia, were turning off on the road that winds up to the Spruce Knob site of AHSP.

Where exactly is the site? It’s near Circleville, West Virginia at a Mountain Institute facility that’s not quite at the top of Spruce Knob, but which is high enough nevertheless, 4300’, to be out of the muck and haze of the lowlands. When it’s unusually humid at the site, you can see a light-dome to the east, but that is mostly blocked by the mountain. Frankly, the location boasts the best skies I have seen east of the Mississip. On one very dark night one year, dim M101 was incredibly prominent in 50mm binoculars.

After a few winding miles of access road, we were pulling up to the registration tent. We got our badges, info packets, and were delivered into the care of AHSP organizer Kathryn Scott, who rode up to dorm area with us to help get us settled. As I’ve mentioned before, all the buildings at Spruce Knob are done in faux Mongolian Yurt style (yep). The dorm where we’d be staying echoed that a little bit, but was a more modern take on that trope and was nicer than the “real” (wooden) yurts. Bob and I both had rooms of our own, so Unk had plenty of space to spread out all the JUNK he’d packed in his enormous suitcase.

After that? Down to the main yurt, the Big Yurt, which is where everything happens but the observing, to see what was what and wait for supper. While I was hanging out, I got the distressing news that long-time AHSP chief Phil Wherry would not be present this year due to a serious health issue. The good news is that Phil is doing well and we all hope he’ll be back for 2014. In the meantime, NOVACer Chris Lee assumed Phil’s duties and did a bang-up job. As did the entire staff. As always, they are ALL to be commended for putting on the best organized, best run star party—no bull—I have ever seen.

When late afternoon came, it was time for Bob’s talk. Mr. Naeye is an experienced and talented speaker and it shows. His presentation, “Amateur Exoplanet Achievements,” was well-received by a gratifyingly large and interested audience. We could probably have kept him onstage for at least another hour with questions, but it wouldn’t be long before folks would be queuing up for supper, with the line extending through the Yurt and the presentation area.

The talks and the star party itself seemed to be off a damned good start. ‘Course, the true measure of success for any event is the skies. While there had been a few passing clouds in the afternoon, and there was obviously a little haze, it looked to me like all systems were go for a good, long night of deep sky voyaging.

After Mr. Naeye’s presentation, I spent a little time wandering the Big Yurt area reacquainting myself with the facilities. I also spent quite a while browsing the wares of the single vendor onsite this year, Hands On Optics (Astrogizmos was a no-show). Gary Hand’s outfit has always been one of my faves, but, alas, at this stage of the game I have just about everything I need. That doesn’t mean HOO didn’t have plenty of stuff I wanted, however. I managed to restrain myself somehow.

Then came supper. What can I say about the AHSP food? ‘Bout the same as the last time I was up:  it is good. It ain’t the best star party food I have ever had; that’s a tossup between TSP and DSRSG, but it is more than edible and certainly above average. It has also improved substantially over the years. In the beginning, the Mountain Institute folks were heavy on the vegetarian/brown rice stuff. That was OK, if not exactly to this old hillbilly’s taste. Over the six years I’ve been attending, the menu has become a little less radical, and they now actually serve beef (burgers), pork, and chicken. On this particular evening, we had stir-fry chicken and it was right tasty. Sure was plenty of it, and I took advantage of that fact.

After supper, it was time for the main event, the great celestial show, to begin. I retrieved my 15x70s as darkness came on and Bob and I hoofed it for the field. I don’t know if it’s the altitude or the site’s position in its time zone, but darkness came on in an awful hurry. Before we knew it, we were seeing the Milky Way appear and then begin to burn.

What did I look at with the Burgesses? Plenty, starting down in Sagittarius with M22, M28, M8, and M20. Then over to the big ol’ Scorpion for M4 and M7. I then toured the spine of the Milky Way in Cygnus hitting M27, M71, and a bunch of open clusters. Over to the north I spied M51. M81 and M82 popped out pretty as you please and appeared distinctly different even at “just” 15X. These wonders and the many more I essayed all looked great, but maybe not quite as great as they can from this site. That was brought home when I went to M101. Both Bob and I were able to see it, but with difficulty. It was more than just a case of averted imagination, but not much more.

Nevertheless, we saw a lot and so did the many happy observers on the expansive field. There was no denying, though, that Spruce Knob was a click down from what it can deliver on its best nights. Higher than normal humidity and haze made the light dome over the mountain to the east more prominent than normal. A patch of clouds obscured M31, M32, M110, and M33 for a while, though I did eventually bag them and plenty more “new” stuff rising in the east.

The observing was fun, but what was even more funner for your old Uncle was sitting in what we began to call the “hospitality” area with the staff and many guests, shooting the bull about everything from the NFL to SETI and drinking many and various hot and cold libations. Oh, the INFAMOUS Little Debbie – Dolly Madison War was finally brought to a victorious conclusion by my girl Debbie. Cosmic Brownies rule! Sorry y’all, you’d have to have been there.

And so it went till the time began to creep on till midnight and it began to get ever damper and, yes, colder. Down in the Swamp, it is still in the mid-70s at midnight. On Spruce Knob Mountain, summer was dying and the temperature was dipping down into the lower forties and even the upper thirties. I was chilled and tired from the trip, decided enough was too much, said my thanks and goodbyes, and headed for the dorm.

There, I was definitely ready for some shuteye. I had a laptop, a case of DVD movies, and a flask of Yell (I never travel without it), but I didn’t bother with any of that, collapsing into my reasonably comfortable bunk. Wouldn’t you know it, though? Maybe it was because I was so tired, but I tossed and turned for a spell time before drifting off. When I did get to sleep, I slept well, though I did have to get up once to grab an extra blanket off one of the other bunks. It had gone from, being cool, crisp, and good sleeping weather to being downright cold.

Saturday morning brought a right good breakfast of tasty biscuits, gravy, and some real nice sausage. And the morning and afternoon brought good talks. You can’t do everything at a star party, unfortunately, and this year I chose to go on Lyle Mars’ famous Geology Hike rather than listen to the presentations. Unfortunately that meant I missed Katy Nagy of the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum on Sunspots and NASA Goddard’s Andrea Jones on the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter. Both their talks were outstanding, I was told.

Lyle, a PhD geologist with the USGS, led us all over the mountain—that’s the way if felt, anyway—teaching us about the rocks and the geological history of the site and the surrounding area. The Academy lost a man who would have been a great teacher when Lyle went to the government, that’s for sure. After the hike, I was plain tuckered and had to recharge for a while back at the yurt.

After reading a few pages of my book, I drifted off for a couple of hours, but was up in plenty of time to get ready for supper and, most of all, my presentation, which was scheduled to begin at 6:30 p.m. following the evening meal. On the way back down to the Yurt, I realized I was identifying every dang rock I saw. That pea-picking Lyle did a dern good job.

Before supper, there was that feature of every star party large and small, the prize giveaway. The AHSP raffle is probably one of the biggest outside the Texas Star Party. Dozens of prizes mean that even a perennial loser like your old Unk has a chance. One special feature of the AHSP raffle I’ve never seen anyplace else? Instead of just putting your tickets in a big pot, there are bags labeled with the names of the prizes. Really want to win that Plössl? Put your tickets in that bag only. This is an idea I like very much and one I wish more star parties would emulate.

Anyhoo, there were lots of prizes, including a spiffy pair of Canon 10x50 stabilized binoculars. I didn’t win those, natch, but, believe it or not, I did win something: a cable (from Orion) to allow me to control my go-to scopes with my iPhone. Looks like ol’ Unk will be experiencing 21st Century amateur astronomy shortly.

Supper, burgers and dogs, ran a little late. We are without doubt the largest group the Mountain Institute has at Spruce Knob over the course of the year and they got a little behind on the burgers. They finally got them out (they were pretty good, too), but that meant my presentation had to be delayed about half an hour. That was OK. It wouldn’t put me so late that I’d be pushing much past sundown, and since most everybody set up the previous night, nobody really needed to get to the field much before dark, anyway.

Not long after seven, your old Uncle went on with his latest presentation, “Expanding Your Final Frontier with Deep Space Video.” This was a brand new show, and I fumbled now and then, but the audience was enthusiastic. Maybe because deep sky video cameras are now on the verge of breaking big, and plenty of amateurs are anxious to learn more about this “new” way of observing. Anyhoo, the folks seemed to have a good time despite my occasional rambling and usual corny jokes.

Saturday’s observing run was another corker. Few clouds/haze once in a while, but mostly a Milky Way that resembled a great burning rainbow. Unk’s stay in the hospitality area was enlivened by hot cider kicked up a notch with generous alky-hol. Believe you me, the colder it got, the better the cider tasted, and the jollier and more garrulous your silly old Uncle became. In addition to talking foolishness, I was pleased to be able to answer quite a few attendees’ video astronomy related questions.

Breakfast Sunday was just right: eggs, sausage, salsa, and tortillas so you could make yourself a breakfast burrito if’n you wanted.  Again, the day’s presentations were both interesting and professionally done. The standout for me was Dr. David Devorkin’s “History of the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory under Fred Whipple.” The history of astronomy in the U.S. is a long-standing passion of mine, and Dr. Devorkin spent quite some time on the 1950s and the Moonwatch/satellite tracking program, a time I find particularly interesting.

What else did I do Sunday afternoon? Toured the field taking pictures of and admiring any scopes that were out from under their Desert Storm covers. In the course of that, I ran into one of my Cloudy Nights buddies, Charlie Bradshaw, who is the proud owner of Celestron’s new automatic go-to alignment widget, the StarSense. I was curious as to hear how the StarSense had worked with Charlie’s CGEM. He gave it a thumbs-up, and that has got Unk wondering if one might be a big help for him. If I could let the scope align itself while I am going about all the other tasks I need to do to get a video observing run underway, that might be a Good Thing. We shall see.

Sunday night started out considerably cloudier than the previous evenings. The weather forecasts were not encouraging, either. Still, there were plenty of clear stretches. The night began with an absolutely lovely Crescent Moon - Venus pairing. They were barely a degree and a half apart, and I was tempted to run back up to the dorm and fetch my camera. Unfortunately, just as I was fixing to do that, the pair disappeared into a cloudbank. That was OK; a hot, spiced rum took my disappointment away. I was in a particularly good mood because of the news the Saints had won one, and couldn’t resist letting out a WHO DAT after the first rum went down the hatch.

Despite all the fun on the field, which even included some binocular observing, it had to be an early evening for this old hillbilly. Bob and I planned to head back to DC right after breakfast, and it would be an awfully long day. Again, took me a while to get to sleep.  I had a hard time staying asleep, too, awakening once and poking my head outside to see what the sky was up to.  There was a beautiful expanse of winter and fall constellations, and whoever was still hitting it at 2 a.m. out on the field must have been getting their jollies bigtime.

Come morning, neither Bob nor I was that hungry, and on a travel day both of us were a little wary of consuming the good and greasy bacon that the smells coming out of the Yurt indicated was being cooked. We also wanted to allow plenty of time to get to Reagan in case we got stuck in traffic—the last time we rode back together, we were stopped for well over an hour. We lit out slightly before 8 o’clock in the a.m. 

It turned out that for once there were no bad traffic snarls. We ran well ahead of time and were able to do lunch in Tyson, Virginia. I don’t care what you fraking connoisseurs say, the NEVER-ENDING PASTA BOWL at Olive Garden rocks. It was a pleasant ride back to the big city with Bob and Unk having plenty of time to talk over and solve all the world’s problems.

The denouement? The only slight snag was that my flight to Charlotte was delayed for over half hour. Typically, the crew was close-mouthed about the reason, but I assume it had something to do with security, since it was a just few days before 9/11. I managed to catch my connection for the Swamp in Charlotte, but just barely. Nevertheless, I didn’t get all upset. There was nowhere I had to be on Monday.

Back at at good, old Chaos Manor South, it was Taco Bell Tacos, Kolorado Kool Aids, and The Big Bang Theory. It was great to be back home with Miss Dorothy, but what fun I had had, muchachos. I am counting down the days to AHSP 2014, that’s for dagnabbed sure.

Nota Bene:  As always, you can see lots and lots more pictures on Unk's Facebook page, in the photos/albums section.


Next Time:  Destination Moon...

Wednesday, September 04, 2013

 

The Unbowed


It happens to us all: the week before a star party you’ve been looking forward to for months, the happy little Suns and Moons on the weather map are replaced with lightning-festooned thunderheads. Forecasts go from “clear skies” to “partly cloudy” to “severe weather.” Some of us will decide to stay home, but some of us will head for the star party anyhow. We are the optimistic, the glass half-full astronomers, the hard core. We are the unbowed.

Five annums back, I did a blog entry called “A Pursuit for the Patient and the Optimistic.” The point of it was to remind y’all you should not be too quick to decide to stay at home or too quick to leave early if you’re already at a star party no matter how bad the weather forecasts sound. But what do you do at a star party when you can’t observe? This summer has been the cloudiest I remember since 1994, and while I hope the weather breaks soon, this seems like a good time to talk about what you do at a rainy star party.

If you’re going to see much over the years, you have to take advantage of every chance you get to observe, especially under a dark sky. And don't be too quick to give up the ship, even if the weatherman starts talking "severe thunderstorms" or worse. I’ve always been purty good about that; the only time Miss D. and I’ve left a star party before the bitter end was the 1999 Deep South Regional Star Gaze. Which was, alas, supposed to be a big one. It would, for one thing, feature the highest profile speaker we’d ever had, Dave Eicher of Astronomy Magazine. We’d just been named one of Astronomy’s “Great Star Parties,” and we were all on a high about that.

Which the weather gods must have thought smacked of hubris, something they simply cannot abide. The forecasts, never good to begin with, went to hell by Thursday, the first official day of the star party. When Dorothy and I rolled onto the field that afternoon? It was fraking dismal, but I at least hoped to get the gear set up, even if the telescope had to stay under her Desert Storm Cover all night. Just as I opened the trunk to start unloading, I felt the first drop of rain and it began to sprinkle.  I closed the trunk. At least, D. and I were able to get our suitcases and bedding unloaded at the cabin before the bottom fell out half an hour later.

What did we few who’d decided the star party was worth a shot do that night? We convoyed up to our favorite local restaurant back then, Mr. Whiskers, the home of all you can eat catfish, but what I remember most was sitting on the field under a tarp somebody had been able to get up somehow, holding a wild and woolly non-virtual meeting of my then-new SCT User Yahoogroup. We drank a significant amount of Rebel Yell in the process, natch. It was a dark and stormy night (I’ve been wanting to use that for a while), but I hung on the field till midnight. I finally grabbed an umbrella and headed to the cabin, where Miss Dorothy had been wise enough to stay, when the canopy began to sag and water ran down my neck in a torrent.

At least we can play computers...
It rained harder Friday than it had Thursday, stopped for a while Saturday morning, got its second wind, and was worse than ever by midday. Mr. Eicher gave a fine talk, but the open-air pavilion we used for our speakers was damp and drafty at best. Other presentations? Maybe one or two, but DSRSG has mostly been about observing over the years, not speakers, which is a problem when there ain’t no observing.

What did Dorothy and I and everybody else do for three days? Not much. We walked around when that was possible, and read in the cabins or in the pavilion when it wasn’t. I would normally have spent plenty of time talking astronomy with my fellow amateurs, but as the weekend came in there were fewer and fewer people to talk to. It was obvious early Friday the sky wouldn’t get much better, and quite a few folks took to their heels.

I never did get the C8, Celeste, out of the Camry or even erect our tent-canopy. The denouement was that in the face of dire weather forecasts for Saturday night Dorothy and I, like everybody else, packed up (what little packing we had to do) and split early in the afternoon.

The point of this here little story is that since we left early we would not have been onsite to take advantage of clearing if it there had been any. There wasn’t, but there could have been. We didn't care. We were all bored and depressed and ready to go home. That’s what this blog is really about, being happy at a star party when you are forced to sit under clouds hoping for better.

What is the most boring way to spend a rained-out event? Staying on the star party site in a group cabin with few amenities. You will go stir crazy in no time, I guar-ron-tee. I habitually stay in nearby motels whenever and wherever possible, even if the weather looks like it is going to be beautiful the whole time. Much as I love my brothers and sisters, it’s not a difficult choice:  drafty chickie with no air conditioning or heat, no privacy, and no Internet access, or a budget motel in town? A Days Inn, a Red Roof Inn, or even a Super 8 will feel like the freaking Ritz compared to a cabin where you keep company with the spiders.

It’s not just creature comforts like a refrigerator and cable TV that make a motel better for me. Being able to rest in privacy—you will always be in a cabin with noisy early-risers at any star party—means I can sleep as late as I need to during the day. Waking to a clean shower and a motel breakfast makes me better prepared to go a long while the next night. After a long, hard observing run, I can come “home” to Ghost Adventures on the TV set and cold Kolorado Koolaids in the icebox and can really relax. 

Manatee Springs...
In a cloud-out situation, all those things are even more desirable. There have been times I’ve holed up in a Chiefland motel room under cloudy skies watching cable TV and cruising the Internet, and been happy with that for days. Being reasonably comfortable and reasonably occupied makes it possible to wait out punk weather without going squirrel crazy. For me, inexpensive motel rooms just work. If I didn't mind pulling a trailer or driving an RV, it might be different, but I do, so I am happy Tom Bodett has left the light on for me.

Don’t do motels? OK. If you are staying onsite, at least get off that cotton-picking site a time or three. Spending days doing nothing but pacing a damp observing field and complaining about the lousy weather to your fellow stalwarts will have you ready to go home in no time. If there is a town, visit that town. Sometimes even a tour of the dadgum Wal-Mart is a treat. Yeah, you signed up for the meal plan, but that doesn't mean you  have to eat every meal at the star party. An afternoon or cloudy evening at a local restaurant, or e'en just the Mickey D’s, with some of your buddies will make time pass a lot quicker.

One thing I find about any star party I go to? There is almost always something of interest in the area, from Chiefland’s beautiful springs, to DSRSG’s Livingston Laser Interferometer, to the Texas Star Party’s Fort Davis and McDonald Observatory. If it’s clear, touring these attractions is fun, especially for your non-astronomer spouse or kids. When it’s cloudy, these “field trips” can be a lifeline.

What is the godsend for today’s weather-challenged star parties? DVD equipped laptops. Back in the day, the best you could do for electronic entertainment was pack a portable radio or tape player. A day or two of listening to WHIK, Radio Podunk, or your Cowsills and Three Dog Night tapes over and over might make you wish you hadn’t.

Cloudy Nights on a cloudy night...
Today, your laptop becomes your own personal movie theatre or, if there is Internet,  a TV set thanks to Hulu. There’s almost sure to be an LCD projector and a sound system onsite for presentations, so the star party bosses can maybe arrange some group movie showings. What to bring? Some of your favorites, and some that will appeal to all and sundry if you are called upon to contribute the “programming.” Here are some of Unk’s faves:

2001:  A Space Odyssey. The quintessential star party film. Maybe a little heavy for some folks, but a favorite of many amateur astronomers. Next morning at breakfast, the air will be full of “My mind is going, Dave” and “Open the pod bay doors, Hal!” jokes.

October Sky (The Rocket Boys). The story of the backwoods West Virginia boys who started their own space program. I love this one, maybe because the rocket boys seem a lot like young Unk and his buddies in the fabled Backyard Astronomy Society. Ever since we watched this flick as a group one stormy night at the 2009 DSRSG, it has been my top star party film.

The Devil’s Rejects. For some reason, Unk likes to watch horror movies at star parties—at least when he isn't in an isolated cabin all by his lonesome.  This bloody little tale of Captain Spaulding and the murderous Firefly family is one of the silliest, scariest, and smartest bloodfests I’ve run across in a long time.

Any fifties SciFi. Anything from The Blob, to This Island Earth, to The Day the Earth Stood Still, to Forbidden Planet, to Teenagers from Outer Space. With a big group at a star party, these old potboilers really come to life. You will have a great time watching ‘em, even if Bubba persists in giving a Mystery Science Theatre 3000 style running commentary all the way through I Married a Monster from Outer Space. That might even be a good thing.

Star Trek:  For me, gotta be the original series, but all are good bets: STTNG, Deep Space 9, Voyager, even Enterprise. Don’t forget the movies, either. Just try to restrain yourself from continually startling your fellow partiers the next day with your sudden outbursts of “Khan!”

Firefly:  Most amateur astronomers will like this excellent series whether they have heard of it or not.

Farscape. I haven’t run into many fans of this 90s SciFi Channel series, but it’s easily available, you will like it, and so will everybody else, which makes it perfect for a star party showing. It’s by Jim Henson, but is pretty danged serious at times, occasionally morphing from Sci-Fi to genuine SF.

Battlestar Galactica (the “reimagining,” the remake). It’s dark, very dark, but it is also the best SF TV series I have ever seen. Your pals may agree after you expose them to a few episodes.

The Twilight Zone. Always a favorite. I love it, but I admit that for every “The Monsters are Due on Maple Street,” “The Shelter,” and “Time Enough at Last,” there are dozens of episodes nobody remembers that were startlingly poorly written, produced, and acted .

Hangin' with the Homies...
You should, of course, leave the X-rated and even most hard-R stuff at home unless you are going to be viewing privately. There are plenty of good and worthwhile films that bear those ratings, but we live in an age where people are easily offended, don’t comprehend nobody is making them watch, are worried about the children even if there are no children present, and will complain to star party organizers to beat the band. Why buy trouble?

How about games? A deck of cards, a bottle of Kentucky’s finest, and a few of your cronies and you can have a high old time, clouds or no. Not your cuppa? I ain’t gonna pack my Xbox, but it might not be a bad idea to load up a few computer games on the laptop, bring along some extra gamepads, and get a Halo tourney going.

Need I say pack along a few books and magazines (I recommend Sky and Telescope, natch)? Be sensible about your choices. A star party will usually have too many distractions for you to tackle Kafka. What has constituted my star party reading of late? Stephen King has been a constant (despite my disappointment with Under the Dome, which I was barely able to finish). Best new (to me, anyhow) series is Jack Campbell's The Lost Fleet. David Sherman’s and Dan Cragg’s StarFist series is also one of my go-tos.  Another new and excellent series by an astronomically literate writer I've just discovered is Star Carrier by Ian Douglas.  Last winter at Chiefland, I brought along The Complete Hammer’s Slammers, David Drake's stories of an armored division of the future. As you can tell, I am a big fan of military science fiction, but you get the idea, “light” and “fun.”

Walking the field, hanging out with old friends, and getting caught up on everybody’s doings can be fun as long as you don’t spend every waking moment doing it and it’s not pouring down rain. Unless everybody leaves. Monitor the weather, and if there appears to be a chance for improvement, spread the word. How do you monitor it? If your star party has cell phone access, at least, try an iPhone app called Scope Nights. It is very well done and accurate.

MORE brisket? Don't mind if'n I do!
Even if you talk your bubbas into staying, chances are there won’t be many people there with y’all. Some folks just won’t do a star party if the weather don’t look good. They’ll stay home even if they've already paid. Not that that is always bad for you and me. The field might be a little lonely, but there are perks. Like extra-helpings at mealtime. The Deep South Regional Star Gaze Spring Scrimmage is a small event to begin with, and this year the weather kept some observers home and sent others back home early. That meant Unk coulda had thirds on pot roast night. He didn't, but it was a struggle.

You can also have the pleasure of lording it over your missing compadres (in good-natured fashion, of course) if you do get a clear night. At the first club meeting after a star party, my old friend George would make sure the no-shows and early leavers, the ASTROWIMPS as he called them, knew just who they were.

One thing you can do other than watching trashy movies, drinking whiskey with your mates on the field till all hours, eating, and visiting local tourist attractions like The Giant Peach, is listening to speakers. Assuming your star party has plenty lined up, your days will be purty well taken care of. How about the nights, those rotten rainy nights? No doubt some attendees can be convinced to give talks on their special interests in amateur astronomy. It is also possible a “pro” speaker might be willing to give an extra talk. That is something you gently enquire about, not insist on. I never mind doing an extra talk, and always have backup PowerPoints on a flash drive just in case, but that is just me.

Has it stopped raining? If it has and you haven't done so already, especially if it looks like there is a chance for clearing, you can set up your telescope and the rest of your gear. That will occupy an hour or two, raise your spirits, and give you a place to hang out on the field if you haven’t been able to get your tailgating canopy (a must at any star party) up previously. When your mates see you setting up, some of them will do so as well, and it may begin to feel more like a star party than a pea-picking wake.

Finally, you can sleep. The last ten years of my engineering career was spent getting up at 4:30 in the a.m. every fraking morning. You probably don’t have it quite that bad, but if you are a wage slave, you gotta get up in the morning and a few days of just being able to sleep-in can be heaven. Especially if you’re in a quiet motel room, not a crowded cabin where ol’ Skeezix is in the shower at oh-dark-thirty every morning serenading everybody with “Hippity Hop to the the Barbershop.”

You know what? Even when all I’ve done at a skunkified star party is sit under my EZ-Up listening to Porter Wagoner on my a.m. radio, I have still never had a bad time, muchachos. The foregoing suggestions are simply designed to make a worst-case scenario more funner. I can’t wait for the fall star parties to get started and I do not give a fig what the dadgum clouds do.

Next Time:  The Prodigal Returns...

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