Sunday, October 27, 2013

 

Space Race Redux


I usually try to stick purty close to the subject of amateur astronomy in this blog, muchachos, but I do stray once in a while. Mostly to “space” and to the current state of the U.S. manned space program. And also to Unk’s personal space program, which takes place on the dining room table of Chaos Manor South. In other words: the Moon is near about full, it is raining to beat the band, and Unk has not had the opportunity to pursue any of the cool observing programs with the cool new gadgets he hopes to tell you about in the near future.

When we last left N.A.S.A., the Constellation system, which included the Apollo Command Module/Service Module-like Orion spacecraft had been cancelled. It’s back, but in reduced/changed form. The Orion capsule itself never went away; it continued to be developed because, it was said, it fits in with the Administration’s space goals—whatever those are.

What changed, mostly, was that the both the big Ares V booster that was to be used to propel Orion on deep space missions, and the Ares I, which would be used for low Earth orbit missions, were eliminated. A new-concept, the “Space Launch System,” replaced them. In other words, Ares, which was fairly far along in development, was cancelled for SLS, which won't get off the ground for quite a while yet. The Agency suggests a test flight could take place in 2017, but that is a big "maybe" in my book. The SLS does have the advantage of versatility. The basic Block 1 is capable of lifting Orion into low Earth orbit, while the full-up Block II configuration can be used for lunar/interplanetary missions. That's if the Block 2 configuration is ever built. I am skeptical about that, since it's already been cheapened/downgraded.

How about a mission for Orion? That’s where things get even more murky. A lot has been proposed including the obvious, lunar missions, and the far-reaching, Mars missions, at least to Phobos if not the surface. None of this seems to have taken hold with the Congress or the Administration, however.  The Obama troops seem to be locked into a flight to a near Earth asteroid for some unclear reason, and recently came out with an idea that seems “far-fetched,” to say the least.

That is the Asteroid Retrieval Mission, “ARM,” a.k.a. “Asteroid Initiative.” The plan, such as it is, is to retrieve a “small” near earth asteroid and place it in lunar orbit where it can be studied by both unmanned and manned craft. On the face of it, it sounds reasonable enough. When you dig a little deeper, though, it is an utter non-starter for several reasons.

Start with the reaction on the part of the scientifically illiterate public and scientifically illiterate politicians to the idea of NASA monkeying around with an asteroid even as far away as the Moon. It won’t just be U.S. politicians who have a hissy fit about this, either. Every cotton-picking politico the world over will raise the roof to make political hay, because they are actually afraid of what might happen if NASA has an “oops” moment, and just because it is the U.S. doing it.

There is also the question of what this asteroid business would do to NASA and its other programs. The ARM mission from start to finish will consume at least ten years of NASA’s time and money. If history is a guide, it will cost far more than the agency “thinks” it will, and if it survives at least an election cycle or two it is likely to become NASA’s only mission and eat all the agency’s dollars.

If this mission were overwhelmingly important and couldn’t be accomplished any other way, it would be justifiable, but it is not. Anything this grandiose scheme could accomplish could be done as well by unmanned spacecraft, which have already proved their mettle in asteroid/comet rendezvous and flybys.

Actually, I am not worried about ARM gobbling all of NASA’s money. Beyond preliminary studies, this ain’t going nowhere. Not just because of the reasons above, but because no one at NASA seems capable of pushing big projects of any kind anymore. And there doesn't seem to be anybody left in Congress who is a true space advocate beyond Florida and Texas politicians concerned about jobs. This ARM idea will likely last about as long as Bush’s space plans lasted—till the next Presidential election.

What do I expect to happen with Orion? I believe it will get built in some form in some limited numbers. What do I think its mission will wind up being? Maybe ferrying astronauts to the ISS till the station’s end-of-mission (currently scheduled for 2016) if it's flyable on a non-SLS booster in time. There is supposed to be an unmanned suborbital test of the capsule and a Delta IV next year, but I wouldn't be surprised to see that slip. Orion is expensive and overpowered as an ISS shuttle compared to SpaceX's Dragon spacecraft, anyway. After the ISS? Who the hell knows? Someone’s even pushing the idea of “Skylab II,” using a spent upper stage to recreate the 1970s space station, if’n you can believe that.

What do I think should be the mission of the Orion? That’s easy:  get us back to the Moon. Putting boots on the Moon again will be easier than last time (ought to be, anyhow), and will give us the experience to put us on the road to Mars. Will that happen? Some days I wake up thinking it will, other days that it won’t—at least not in my lifetime. I don’t think we’ll have any idea till the next Presidential election cycle is done.

That’s the cotton-picking politicians, though. How about the Joe and Jane Sixpack? The public might not know much about space, space travel, and NASA (the percentage of the national budget allocated to NASA is always way overestimated by the man-in-the-street in polls). And too many Americans are woefully scientifically illiterate. Still, it appears they are hungry for space, and not just the fantasy of Star Wars.

A case in point is the recent movie Gravity. Despite a perhaps overly simple plot and ignored scientific principles almost to the point of silliness, the public and the critics ate it up. I don't think it was just because of the chance to see plenty of (sound accompanied) explosions and astronaut Sandra Bullock cavorting in her skivvies, either. Space as an adventure still has a powerful grip on the national psyche, no matter how NASA and eight Administrations have worked to erase that.  In case you are wondering, yes, Unk just fraking loved Gravity and hopes to see it again at least one more time.

Stage 2 Under Construction
What could make Joe and Jane's hunger for space bubble up enough for politicians to notice and get the whole manned spaceflight works going again? Something beyond trips to low Earth orbit where we have been stuck for 40-years, obviously. Not pie in the sky asteroid missions “someday,” but missions to the Moon as soon as they can be undertaken and serious planning for Mars, now. Do I expect to live to see any of that? Hell no, but Unk can dream, can’t he?

If NASA can’t run a manned spaceflight program, Unk can, at least vicariously. I’ve been building plastic space models for many a year, which I told y’all about here. It’s a kinda-astronomy-related activity I can pursue on cloudy nights. The point for me isn't the model spacecraft I turn out, really, but the research and learning about them and their history that goes into doing their construction right. I’ve gone through periods where I’ve done little or no space modeling, and times when I’ve done a lot. Right now, it’s more on the “lot” side.

When you are retired, you just naturally have more hours to fill. I keep busy in the daytime writing for Sky and Telescope and other astronomy magazines, and I am increasing my course load at the university, but that still leaves plenty of time to build my spaceships. There are, after all, only so many hours of the day you can devote to playing Halo 4 on the dadgum Xbox.

What have I been working on of late? It started with a new Saturn V. I’d done one a while back, but I wasn’t overly satisfied with the kit, a Monogram 1/144 scale job. I modified it heavily, adding detail to the engines and replacing the completely inaccurate Command/Service module with an aftermarket one in the form of a resin kit add-on, but it was still disappointing. I thought the other popular Saturn kit, Airfix’s 1/144, might be easier to get right.

It was. I didn't have to replace the CM/SM, and while the engines of all three stages required considerable additional scratch-built detail before they looked anything more than pitiful, that was easier to do than it had been with the Monogram and everything wound up looking better. The new Saturn went together right nice, and the paint job came out purty sweet. After a lot of trying, I have finally mastered the art of painting the black attitude striping on boosters, something that used to give me fits.

When I was done, I was pleased with my new Saturn. It wasn’t perfect, no, but what is? What mostly struck me, though, was how DUMB a Saturn V looks standing by itself on a cheesy plastic base. Outside the faux Saturn at the U.S. Space and Rocket Center, you would never see one like that. A real Saturn always sat on the platform of the Crawler  Transporter next to the Launch Umbilical Tower, the “gantry.” OK, what would I have to do to provide my Saturn with an L.U.T.?

A little investigation seemed to reveal I was out of luck. Years ago, AMT provided a cardboard L.U.T. diorama with their “Man in Space" kit. Unfortunately, the L.U.T. was deleted after a little while, and I suppose if you could find a kit that included it it would be an expensive collector’s item. The 1/200th scale Man in Space L.U.T. was too small for my Saturn anyway. A garage type company tried to market a genuine plastic launch tower model fairly recently, but the price of it was to be very high, 750 fraking dollars, and it’s not clear to me whether they produced many—if any—L.U.T.s before going under.

No launch tower for Unk’s Saturn, then? That’s the way it looked till I did some extensive Googling one slow day during the last months of my engineering gig. There was, it seemed, an alternative, a paper model of the L.U.T. available in several scales including one for my Airfix rocket. But paper? I didn't sign on to space modeling to play with scissors and Elmer’s glue, for god’s sake. Still, paper spacecraft models are not unusual. It’s a sizable sub-hobby in the space modeling game, with even NASA offering quite a few complex paper models on their website.

It wasn’t the basic idea of a paper model that gave me pause, but building one. I did some more Googling and turned up some depressing facts:  this paper kit, produced by a talented artist, David Maier, who calls his little company “Educraft Diversions,” can look good when completed, but it is difficult to complete. The cutting, pasting, and gluing of hundreds and hundreds of parts, some of them tiny, has stymied more than one space modeler and left a few folks disheveled glue-covered wrecks.

Still, if I wanted an L.U.T. for my Saturn, this was the only way I’d get one. I was told by my Internet space modeling buddies that there were also some good things about the kit:  the instruction manual was as clear and easy to follow as such a thing possibly could be, and the seller was a stand-up guy who shipped kits quickly and responded to questions promptly. I bit the bullet, ponied up thirty bucks, and ordered a 1/144 L.U.T. off Educraft’s eBay store (you can also order directly from their website).

The THICK instruction manual
What did I get for my money? The kit, which was shipped in a large and sturdy mailing tube, was made up of eighteen 11 x 17-inch sheets printed on heavy 60-pound paper. Also included was a mini-CD with the 100-page .pdf instruction manual on it, which was a little work of art in itself. While 18-sheets might not seem like a lot, believe you me, many, many parts can be packed onto a single page, and, again, quite a few of them are very small indeed.

What next? Nothing, not for a spell. I let my L.U.T. sit for a couple of months. Ostensibly, that was to allow the rolled pages to flatten, but that could have been accomplished in a day or two by pressing them between heavy books. Part of the delay was caused by me being occupied with drawing my engineering career to a close and getting all my duckies in a row for retirement. I was also skeered of the kit. A good look at the instructions showed it to be even more complex than I’d feared.

Two things got me to work:  retirement and need for an extra “project,” and the 2013 Battleship Park ModelFest. The big model show, sponsored by the plastic modeling club here in Possum Swamp, wouldn’t take place till October, a good 7-months away, but the looks of the L.U.T. kit indicated I’d better get started on it if'n I wanted to enter it in the show.

So, off I went to the local craft store, Michael's, for the needed “tools,” lots of Elmer's Glue, multiple glue sticks, scotch tape, masking tape, sharp scissors, metal ruler, cutting board, and a new Exacto knife. Once I got started, I found the project was not quite as difficult as I’d feared. After a while, I began to understand the techniques described in the manual better, and was able to proceed fairly quickly after a slow start.

The hardest part of the kit turned out not to be the gantry tower itself, but the first things you build, the Crawler  Transporter deck and the “tower core,” the rectangular support that extends the entire height of the tower. What’s hard is that the kit parts are just the outer skin of these things. You scratch build them of heavy cardboard and lay the kit pieces over them. That is necessary to support the Saturn and the tower itself.

ModelFest 2013
I got through this initial rough spot, but it took a while, and after I was done I put the L.U.T. aside for another couple of months during the spring/summer observing season (such as it was) when I was chasing galaxies in Chiefland and other places. With July becoming August and August soon beginning to run out, however, I knew I had to get on the stick, and formulated a plan that would have me devoting a couple of afternoons a week to the tower.

I more or less stuck to that in the course of assembling the eighteen platforms (yep) that make up the gantry levels. That was followed by folding and gluing 50+ small cubical and rectangular parts that represent the equipment on the tower levels. That done, I took another break for the Almost Heaven Star Party, and, after I got home and got up the gumption, resumed by folding and gluing the tower girders that support the platforms.

None of this was exactly easy, but one thing maintained throughout construction:  unlike some similarly whacked-out kits of all kinds I’ve assembled over the years, from astronomy gear, to ham radio equipment, to plastic models, the L.U.T. actually seemed to want to go together. It was never a matter of it not being possible to assemble the thing, it was just a matter of lots of work and lots of time.

Coming down to the wire with just over a week to go, the tower was finally together, freestanding, and looking right good. Not perfect, but OK. The bottom 12-levels were fine, but the topmost sections (you do the tower in three parts), and especially the last couple of platforms gave me trouble, and came out slightly lopsided. 

Not too shabby, though. That was the good news. The bad news was that there was only a week to go and plenty of work remaining. Most dauntingly, I had to roll, glue, and attach almost two hundred cross/support beams. And I was only able to devote one day to that. For that reason, the little paper tubes had to be taped into rolls instead of glued, which would have looked better.

Those damnable beams installed, I still had the swing arms, the service arms extending from the gantry to the booster, to complete. AND the detailed Colby crane that sits atop the launch tower. With two days remaining before ModelFest 2013, the only way I was able to finish was by simplifying. Following some advice in the instructions, I glued the swing arms directly to their supports rather than trying to fabricate hinges for them. I also left off quite a few of the highly detailed parts that go on the crane and some of the swing-arms. In the end, I only added enough detail to indicate, to suggest, appearances and functions.

Finally, it was done, on the Friday morning before the show. You know what? It didn't look half-bad. Miss Dorothy, who’d been kind enough to donate at least half her dining room table to the project for months, was impressed, and that alone was plenty of reward for my hours and hours of work on this crazy kit. Frankly, I could hardly believe I’d actually finished the dadburned thing.

After that, ModelFest was almost anticlimactic. We had a lot of fun at the big show, which was held at Battleship Memorial Park, which is home to the Battleship Alabama and the submarine U.S.S. Drum. Only downer? Saturday morning was predicted to be rainy and my model was made of paper. Miss D. and I got it inside the show venue, the Aircraft Pavilion, which houses the Park’s amazing collection of airplanes, just in time. Not ten minutes later the rain was freaking pouring.

How did we make out with our entry? As usual, I didn't win a thing. The L.U.T. actually looked good enough that I thought it, together with the Saturn V, might have chance. It might have had one under different circumstances. Unfortunately, contest officials declared the rocket/gantry combo was a “diorama,” and would have to be entered in that category. I would not be up against the OK Gemini capsule, Explorer 1, and Jupiter C entered in the “real space” category, but against near-professional quality World War II armor dioramas (the person who built 'em was selling others on a dealer table).

That was OK. I would liked to have taken a plaque home, but the large amount of interest and the kind comments the L.U.T. garnered were a good consolation prize. Honestly, there was no getting around the fact it was paper, and that I had not been able to execute it quite perfectly.

I didn't win a raffle prize, either, but that was OK, too. Almost all the kits offered as prizes were ships and aircraft, the focus of the show, and something that doesn't interest this real space modeler. I did BUY something cool from one of the many dealers, a huge 1/12th scale Mercury capsule kit from Atomic City Models I’d been yearning for for a couple of years. I probably paid a little too much for it, but the kind Miss Dorothy decided it would make a perfect Christmas gift for old Unk. Hope springs eternal, and I hope this will be a winning entry for me next year. Which will be my third ModelFest—“third time’s the charm,” right?

Despite the L.U.T.’s less than stellar showing, it had been a fun day. We lunched at one of our fave Causeway joints, R&R Seafood, just down the road from the Park. Strangely, neither one of us ordered seafood. Unk got the BBQ chicken sandwich and mound o’ fries and was right happy, and Miss D’s roast beef looked yummy. Back at Battleship Park, I toured the Alabama and the Drum, and had a good time doing that despite rain that kept me off their weather-decks until late afternoon.

The Drum, a Gato Class submarine from WWII, is beautifully restored and maintained inside and is undergoing a fairly extensive restoration of her hull. My ham friends may be aware the Drum was the sub Wayne Green, one of the more famous members of our fraternity/sorority, served on during the war. It was cool to read the “sailing list” posted in the sub and see good, ol’ W2NSD’s name on it.

Yeah, seeing Wayne's name there was cool...but it seems poignant, now. When I finally got around to reading the November QST a few days later, I found out Wayne made silent key (SK) a few weeks ago at age 91. There will never be another W2NSD, an iconoclast and visionary who helped revolutionize ham radio, published 73 Magazine, and became even more famous for his many computer magazines, which included the never-equaled Byte. 73, and good DX, OM...W2NSD de AC4WY.... SK.

The Alabama? She is magnificent inside and out. She is also a little creepy. Despite being a devoted fan of the pea-picking Ghost Adventures, I am not convinced of the reality of haints—not in the daytime, anyhow—but I gotta say, when I go below on BB60, I feel a certain something. A slight air of gloom or tension almost like there’s some kind of emotional residue that charges the old girl like an enormous battery 70 years down the line.

“Alright, Unk. That’s cool and all. But can we please get back to amateur astronomy?” We dang sure can, Skeezix, and I’ve got some Good Stuff lined up, including reviews/tests of the RSPEC spectroscopy program and a spectroscopic grating to go with it. AND a new (fairly new, anyhow) planetary camera, the Mallincam SSC, that I hope to try out Real Soon Now. Oh, and there’s the 2013 Deep South Regional Star Gaze, Unk and Miss Dorothy’s “home” star party, to report on. In other words, STAY TUNED, muchachos.

Nota Bene:  You can see many more images of the Park and ModelFest on Unk's Facebook page, campers (Photos/Albums).

Next Time: A night under the stars with the Celestron Edge f/7 reducer…

Sunday, October 20, 2013

 

Here and There with Uncle Rod: Unplugged Astronomy and Doc Clay at the EAAA


Most of the entries in this here blog concern a single subject, but occasionally y’all get a twofer. And this is one, muchachos. Unk’s club, the Possum Swamp Astronomical Society, does a fall star party for the kids, and I like to report on it in hopes of encouraging y’all to get out and do some outreach of your own. This is also the season when Unk’s old friend and SCT guru extraordinaire, Doc Clay Sherrod, and wife Patsy visit the Gulf Coast. Doc doesn't just visit; he always gives an outstanding talk for the EAAA, the Escambia Amateur Astronomers’ Association in nearby Pensacola, Florida, and I know you-all want to hear about that.

PSAS Fall Sky Watch

First up was the Fall PSAS Public Star Party. As I have mentioned before, our club has an agreement with the local public schools stretching back well over 20 years. We get to use their beautiful Environmental Studies Center classroom building as our monthly meeting place in exchange for doing two star gazes for the school kids a year. Truth be known, Unk and his buddies would do public star gazes anyway, since most of us are committed to outreach, but this is a nice arrangement.

Unk was both excited and confounded in the days leading up to the Thursday night event. I always enjoy showing off the sky to the kids, their parents, and people from the ESC’s neighborhood, but I’ve been struggling with the question of which telescope to use for that for years. What works best with the younguns, but doesn't break my back and fray my nerves in the process?

My favorite star party scope for the last several years has been my Criterion RV-6 Dynascope, donated to the cause by a kind gentleman some time back. I still like to use it with my college students. In most ways it is perfect; it breaks down into two fairly manageable pieces (though its pedestal legs are a pain), needs only an inverter and a jump-start battery for tracking, and delivers superb images, especially of the Moon and planets. The downside? Its long 6-inch f/8 Newtonian tube puts the eyepiece too far off the ground for the littlest folk.

Boomer...
That in mind, I tried a different solution at a recent International Sidewalk Astronomy Night. In this old boy’s opinion, the perfect public star party telescope is an 8-inch SCT. Its short tube and Cassegrain focus eyepiece position make it easy for even the tiniest tots to get a look. What I do not like, however, is spending lots of time setting up a go-to GEM or lugging Big Bertha, our NexStar 11, out to a public gaze. While tracking is a good thing, I do not need go-to. What the kids want to see is the Moon, a bright planet or two, a bright star, and maybe the brightest of the Messiers, and I can still find all that without a computer, believe it or no.

That ISAN happened to coincide with Unk putting his manual fork mount SCT, an Ultima 8, back together in mutated form. I thought the U8 would be perfect:  tracking, but no computers (or their alignments) and big batteries to worry about. That’s what Unk thought; he’d forgotten how heavy the Ultima’s fork, wedge, and tripod are. After manhandling the scope’s components across the parking lot of the Eastern Shore Centre, I swore “never again,” even though my pseudo-Ultima worked superbly otherwise.

There things stood on the Wednesday before the “Sky Watch,” as our public school compadres like to call our public star parties. I thought briefly about the 4.5-inch StarBlast, which is a good little scope for young and old, but decided I really needed 8-inches of aperture to deal with the badly light-polluted sky of the ESC. OK, what then? Well, if a C8 was perfect, I’d use a C8, just dispense with heavy and/or complex mounts.

That was good thinking, but how would I wed the two ideas—an easy to use C8 and an easy to use mount? The solution was my Synta AZ-4 mount, a manual single arm fork that is identical to Orion’s Versago mount (and completely different from the one they call an “AZ-4”). I’d bought this alt-azimuth rig for use with my C90, but found it was capable of considerably more payload than that, up to and including a C8. I’d mounted a Celestron on the AZ-4 when I was reviewing Hotech’s amazing advanced CT collimator.

When you are first learning to use the SCT-centric CT, it’s easier to work with an alt-azimuth mount, and since the AZ-4 has a Vixen style saddle, it was simple to get a C8 on it. In the course of using the collimator, I discovered the AZ-4 was surprisingly steady with an 8-inch SCT. Maybe even steady enough to allow real observing.  I lugged C8 and AZ-4 out into the front yard a couple of times for looks at Saturn and Jupiter, and was pleased with the result. The mount wasn’t overkill, but it worked.

Hokay,  AZ-4 it would be, but which C8 should I put on it? I settled on an old 1984 Super Polaris OTA. She is mounted to a Vixen style dovetail via tube rings, and that would make it possible to rotate the OTA to position the finder for comfortable use with the AZ-4.

The night before the Fall Sky Watch, I mounted the SP C8 on the AZ-4, fiddled around to find proper balance with a 2-inch diagonal, and made sure I could adjust the altitude and azimuth tension knobs on the mount so motion was easy but not too easy. The AZ-4 wouldn’t track the stars, but given the smoothness of the mount’s motions, I figgered that with the right eyepieces that would not be a problem.

And that is Big Question Two when you are preparing to face the lollipop brigade:  eyepieces. Do you sacrifice your Naglers and Ethoses on the altar of candy-sticky kid fingers and mascara-caked teen eyes, or do you use oculars that are not your best? I’ve waffled on this for years and have concluded, “It depends.” I’d be using an SCT at f/10, which would be awful forgiving of inexpensive oculars. Still, I wanted wide fields. If you are using a non-driven mount, as I would be, it helps to have as much apparent field of view as possible. But “wide field” does not have to mean “TeleVue.”

Thursday afternoon, I’d settled on a couple of 2-inch eyepieces that were not only inexpensive and practically indestructible, but which I’d used successfully at public events in the past:  a “Bird’s Eye” 30mm 82-degree job I got from Herb York years ago, and a 25mm Rini with a 70-degree apparent field. In addition to being inexpensive and robust, I didn’t think either eyepiece would cause balance problems with my semi-dobsonian-mounted SCT. Even the big Bird’s Eye is considerably lighter than an Ethos, and the Rini is a featherweight. I also snagged a box of 1.25-inch eyepieces and threw that in the 4Runner along with a single-step step stool for the little ones.

What else would I need? In case I wanted to show the kids some deep sky objects, I’d need a star atlas. These days, my iPhone and SkySafari fulfill that role when I don’t have a laptop in the field. I’d also want a red flashlight, so I borrowed Miss Dorothy’s red/green LED flash. It’s handy to have a non-red light on hand at public events; it’s not like dark adaptation is a big concern, anyhow.  

I lit out for the site at 5:30 in the p.m., and when I got there I was thrilled to see the mostly clear sky we’d had all day wasn’t just holding, but was improving. The weatherman had been issuing partly cloudy forecasts for the evening, but he got it all wrong once again, I am happy to say.

Time to set up. Getting the C8, Boomer (that’s what she told me her name was), ready to go took all of five minutes:  Adjust AZ-4 tripod so it would be at a height reasonable for the wee-est of the wee customers. Secure C8 in dovetail. Screw diagonal onto rear port. Insert eyepiece in diagonal. Mount dew-shield on OTA. And I was done. No batteries, hand controls, or computers to fuss with. This was unplugged astronomy and I was liking it already.

The only thing I wasn’t feeling good about was the stuff I’d forgotten. I’d brought along a box of 1.25-inch eyepieces in case I wanted to up the magnification from the 80x of the Rini, but I forgot to pack a 1.25-inch adapter for the 2-inch diagonal. Doh! And, yes, SkySafari running on the iPhone makes a perfect sky atlas and reference (“How far away is M13, huh, mister? How far?”). But only if you remember to bring your iPhone with you. Mine, I suddenly realized, was sitting at home hooked to its charger. Oh, well, it wouldn’t be an Unk Rod observing run if something wasn’t left behind.

"Look at all them CRATERS!"
By 6:30, half an hour before the Sky Watch was to begin, little folk, teachers, and parents were already beginning to trickle in. With no computers to align, it was the work of 15-seconds to get Luna, who was a pretty crescent, centered in Boomer. How did the old girl do on the AZ-4? Right well. She was not rock solid, but solid enough, with a sharp rap dying out in a three or four seconds. That was not disturbing at 66x and 80x, the only magnifications I’d be using. The stability could no doubt be improved with the simple addition of Celestron vibration suppression pads under the tripod legs, but it was more than good enough as it was. Motions were smooth, balance was easy to attain, and the mount didn’t seem stressed at all.

And so it began, long lines of excited kids and parents at my telescope and the scopes of my four fellow PSAS compadres who’d been able to make it out. Our guests were well behaved and asked intelligent questions. Even the tiny mites. If you go digging at any astronomy club, you’ll come up with public outreach horror stories, like the time we caught a couple of little boys spitting down the tube of an unattended Newtonian. But those incidents are rare. On this night everybody—both the kids and PSAS members—just had a good time.

What did I show ‘em? It took a while to get past the Moon—the sprouts simply cannot get enough of her—but when the line finally began to dwindle, I slewed over to M13, where I stayed for quite some time. With just a little guidance, most of my guests were not just able to see the big glob as a fuzzy spot, but were able to see (barely) that it was a ball of teeny-tiny stars. After that it was another globular, M15, which was smaller but easier for everybody to see. Finally, just before shutdown time at 8:30, I went to M31, which proved surprisingly popular—especially when kids and adults were told Andromeda is on a collision course for the Milky Way.

With headlights flashing on as our guests began to head for the gate, it was time to pull the big switch. And that was one of the best things about this unplugged evening. It took 5-minutes to set up, and it took the same amount of time to tear down, which was even sweeter at the end of the evening. Boomer has made it so painless for me to do public outreach that she may have encouraged me to do more, and that is a good thing, muchachos.

Doc Clay Live

Doc Clay Onstage...
If the name “Doc” Clay Sherrod ain’t familiar to you, you haven’t been an amateur astronomer long, or at the very least you’ve never owned a Schmidt Cassegrain Telescope. In addition to being the co-author of A Complete Manual of Amateur Astronomy, which is still in print after dang near 30 years, Clay has long been known as “Mr. LX200,” and is the acknowledged expert on those (and other) go-to SCTs. He is also the Director of the Arkansas Sky Observatory, which does real research, especially in the field of the Solar System’s leftovers, asteroids and comets.

For me, Clay has been a long-time inspiration and, most assuredly, one of my mentors in this business. So, I always look forward to his and Patsy’s yearly visits to the Gulf Coast as both an opportunity to spend a little time with them and to listen to one of Clay’s outstanding presentations. What is Doc Live like? One recent presentation was entitled, “Doc Clay’s DeLorean Time Machine.” You get the picture, fun. But also packed with plenty of information for the amateur astronomers, students, and members of the public who pack the hall at Pensacola State College every year to hear Doc.

Unfortunately, there was a complication this year. That was spelled K-a-r-e-n. The tropical storm was predicted to hit the coast on Sunday evening, and it seemed likely conditions would be bad on Saturday night, the evening of Doc’s presentation. PSC’s Administration, understandably nervous about staying open during a big storm, ordered the college closed for the weekend.

Then, Karen turned into the proverbial tempest in a teapot. In fact, Miss Dorothy and I motored over to Pensacola despite the fact Doc wouldn’t be able to speak, and spent a couple of hours hanging out with EAAA. The gang that assembled at the Golden Corral restaurant near PSC included legendary Gulf Coast amateur astronomer and astronomy educator, Dr. Wayne Wooten, EAAA President Jon Ellard, and several members of the excellent club and their student auxiliary. The weather was a little breezy, but hardly threatening. Hell, we didn't even run into rain on the way over—or back.

In the course of enjoying our buffet supper, we did a little strategizing. It wasn’t long before Wayne announced he would see if he could reschedule Clay’s presentation for the following Saturday night. Amazingly, Wayne was able to pull it all together in just a week. Doc was fine with doing his talk the next Saturday, but getting a place for him to speak and letting the public know about it wasn’t easy. The EAAA’s usual venue would be in use for a Phi Beta Kappa initiation, but another auditorium, a nice one on the north side of the campus, was available. Another problem was getting the dadgum Pensacola newspaper to get the updated location correct in their announcements.

So it was that last Saturday night Miss D. and I headed east to Pensacola again. After another  nice interlude at the Golden Corral, where Unk and Doc competed to see who could go back to the buffet the most times for the most fried chicken, steak, fries, mashed potatoes, gravy, and fried shrimp, it was time for Clay to cut his birthday cake. That was in honor, as he told all and sundry, of his 29th birthday “just like last year.”

Then it was over to the campus for Doc’s “A Comet is Coming.” Despite obvious confusion over the change of venue, Clay’s paen to the hairy stars played to a near full house. In addition to talking about comets in general, Doc also gave his (guarded) predictions for Comet ISON, which as you may know is scheduled to put on some kind of a show from late November and on into January.

Will ISON be the vaunted Christmas comet everybody hoped for and was cheated out of in 1973? Or will it be just like the notorious Kahoutek, a decent but not outstanding comet for amateur astronomers, but a dog, a flop, a lemon, a bomb for the public?

Unfortunately, I believe ISON will be a lot more like Comet Kahoutek than Comet Hale-Bopp. From the first, all the signs have pointed that-a-way. Like Kahoutek, ISON,  a virgin comet straight out of the Oort Cloud, brightened rapidly at first but then that slowed down. Way down. Fresh comets tend to put on a nice show when they are way out, but that’s because a layer of volatiles boils off at the first touch of the Sun. The ice below is locked in a deep, deep freeze, and even a close encounter with Sol often isn't enough to thaw it out enough to make a virgin into a showpiece.

Finally, if one thing will keep ISON from being a Great Comet, it’s its position. A “Great Comet” is generally acknowledged to be (there is no hard and fast definition) a comet so grand it captures the public’s attention. Unfortunately, ISON will be in the pre-dawn sky when it is at its best, and nowhere near as many people will see it as saw Hale-Bopp no matter how good it is. The public wouldn’t turn out in numbers even for Ikeya-Seki and West, two dawn comets that were far better than (I believe) ISON ever will be.

The EAAA's Dr. Wayne Wooten...
That’s pretty depressing for ain’t it? Well, it depresses me too. I love the visitors and we haven’t had a good one since Comet Holmes, which was, hard as it is for me to believe, six fraking years ago. So, I was pleased to hear Doc Clay disagreed with me about ISON's prospects.

Doc believes ISON might not just be good, but spectacular. I will admit it is looking better in images, but it is still disappointingly dim. Clay, however, had a new bit of information to share with us Saturday evening:  ISON’s nucleus, which has apparently not been rotating, has begun to do so. That is perhaps evidence of increased activity on its surface and may also mean the comet is being rotisserie grilled and may thaw out better than Unk has feared.

To say the least, Clay knows more about comets than I do and has paid more attention to them over the years than I have. I hope he is right, and on the morning after his talk I kept finding more and more reasons to believe he is. Clay, of course, acknowledges this one could still be a flopperoo; he knows comets are like cats:  just when you think they are going to do one thing, they up and do the opposite, seemingly just to aggravate you.

Whether ISON turns out to be another Hale-Bopp, or gives us on planet Earth a big cosmic pie-in-the-face (metaphorically), Dorothy and I had a great time listening to Clay tell the story of ISON and her sisters. Wish y’all could have been there, muchachos; if you are down on the Gulf Coast this time next year, make tracks for the EAAA and Doc Clay Live. You will be glad you did.


Next Time: Space Race Redux...

Sunday, October 13, 2013

 

My Favorite Star Parties: Cherry Springs 2006


When is a repeat not a repeat, muchachos? When the subject wasn’t sufficiently covered back in the days of this blog’s infancy. The Little Old Blog from Chaos Manor South didn't really hit its stride till about two years after its birth, till I learned to stretch out. To give my Sunday morning epistles plenty of room. Yes, I did a couple of entries on the 2006 Cherry Springs Star Party right after the event, but both were brief and one of the nation’s premier star parties deserves more.

Let me preface this by saying rat-cheer that, as always, being one of My Favorite Star Parties doesn't necessarily mean the observing was top-notch. I had a wonderful time at Cherry Springs in ‘06, but remnants of a tropical system that made it all the way up to dadgum Pennsylvania prevented the site from really showing what it could do.

Back in the spring of 2006, I knew something about Cherry Springs, if not about the Cherry Springs Star Party. I had at least heard of the Black Forest Star Party, the other star party held at Pennsylvania’s Cherry Springs State Park, but I didn’t know pea-turkey about the CSSP. Not till one afternoon when the kitchen computer made the bleep-bloop sound that means Outlook has downloaded a new email.

When I opened the missive from Mike Snider of the Astronomical Society of Harrisburg (Pennsylvania), I was intrigued. ASH, who were putting on the 2006 Cherry Springs Star Party, were inviting me up to be a speaker. The 2006 CSSP would be held 22 – 26 June 2006, and it looked like it was gonna be a good one. The star party’s state park home near Coudersport, Pennsylvania, sounded great, there were lots of vendors lined up, there was food onsite, and it appeared I could expect a large and enthusiastic audience for my talk. I fired off a response to ASH giving them a big Unk Rod thumbs-up.

Meals on Wheels ASH style...
Shortly thereafter, we firmed up the details, which would have me flying up on Friday, 23 June. I was still a big-time wage slave in them days, of course, and couldn’t do Thursday. The only thing that gave me pause was the question of getting to Coudersport and the Cherry Springs Star Party. The airlines didn't seem to think somebody from Possum Swamp would ever want to go there.

The only way for me to get to the CSSP was to fly into Elmira – Corning New York and drive south for about 85-miles. Unk didn't much like the sound of that. Still, what could happen? Mike said they’d have a rent-a-car waiting for me, and that the directions to Cherry Springs State Park were easy to follow. I sure hoped so, since the entire state of Pennsylvania was unknown country for your Southron Uncle.

My Friday morning journey started out with, natch, the 6 a.m. zombie flight out of Possum Swamp Regional. From there, I had a layover in Charlotte. And another one in freaking Philly. The “service” from U.S. Airways was about the same as what I hear tell an American could expect from the Soviets’ Aeroflot at the height of the Cold War.

The problem for your old Unk wasn’t the skimpy bag of peanuts thrown at him by the frowning stews, it was that back then U.S. Air was notorious for their efficiency—or lack thereof. They have improved substantially judging by my recent and reasonably pleasant flight with them to DC for the Almost Heaven Star Party, but in 2006 they always seemed to run late. I was beginning to feel antsy when I hit Philadelphia, since the delays were beginning to stack up and the afternoon was sliding away. I hadn’t seen nuttin’ yet:  “Ladies and Gentlemen, there is a maintenance issue with the Elmira flight. We hope to have you out of here in an hour or two. Thanks for flying U.S. Airways!”

By the time I made it to the little Elmira - Corning airport, it was after 5 p.m. and it was getting  dark already due to rain and fog. Unk began to feel more than just a little antsy; he began to feel downright timid about driving off into the wilds of northern Pennsylvania. But what was there to do but head for the rent-a-car place?

RCX400 outside the Dealers' Tent...
For once on the trip, I lucked out. The little girl at the Avis counter said she’d been ready to close up shop for a while, but she knew there was a late flight coming in and had stayed on. The bad part was that she’d already rented just about everything she had with four wheels. All that remained was a Saturn Ion. I don’t know if you remember GM’s short-lived attempt to be “relevant,” but the Ion was small and it was rough riding and it dern sure didn’t have no GPS.

Sat-nav was still rare in rental cars in them days, and Unk didn't own a standalone receiver either. This trip dang sure got him to thinking about one, though.  Luckily, there was still good, old Triple-A with their Trip-tick maps, which by then you could print out on the computer. The difficulty for your old Unk was that his middle-aged eyes had a hell of a time reading the directions without his reading glasses, and the readers made it impossible for him to see how to drive. Whatev’. I started the cotton-picking Ion and headed for I-86.

At first, all was well. I headed south, passing the turnoff for Corning, New York and the Corning Glass Factory Museum. Being a nerd, I was right sorry I didn't have time to stop and take it in. It wasn’t until I crossed the Pennsylvania border and left the Interstates that things got a mite hairy. It might as well have been full dark given the weather, and once I got on PA 49, the highway that would get me where I needed to go, I began to run into road construction and freaking detours.

After about an hour and a half, I thought I was in the general vicinity of Cherry Springs State Park, but was not quite sure. Hell, let’s be honest, I wasn’t sure at all. The four lane roads had degenerated into two lane ones and I’d entered a heavily forested area that looked like it came right out of some dark fairytale set in, yep, The Black Forest.

Unk was just about to go all paranoid when I saw a Pennsylvania Smokey the Bear parked on the side of the road, a Pennsylvania State Trooper, that is. I pulled in ahead of him, got out, walked over, said howdy, and asked, “Where in the h-e double hockey sticks is the Cherry Springs State Park?” The trooper laughed and laughed, and when he got over his fit, pointed over Unk’s shoulder. Behind me was a billboard-sized sign welcoming Unk to Cherry Springs.

The Registration Tent...
From there, it was smooth sailing to the star party; I rolled into the park just a wee bit after 6:30 p.m., not too shabby, I thought, given my late arrival in New York. What impressed me right off the bat? Signs that reminded tourists this was a designated astronomy observing field, and that headlights were to be dimmed when entering. On my left was the registration tent. Man, was your old Uncle relieved.

Despite the slightly late hour, there were a couple of ASH folks waiting for Unk at the registration tent. They seemed slightly put-out when I requested a T-shirt (I love collecting star party t-shirts), but in retrospect I believe that was just my imagination. They may have been put-out, but I believe that had more to do with the weather than with your old Uncle. It was not raining, but rain was threatening and from what they said it sounded like there hadn’t been much—if any—viewing Thursday night, either. Anyhow, it had been a long day for everybody, I reckon.

After checking in, I took a turn around the site, starting with the large tent that housed the vendors. Not much going on there. With evening coming on, the dealers, who included Camera Concepts, Skies Unlimited, and TeleVue, were packing it in. I did get the chance to see Vixen’s brand new Sphinx mount, which I’d been curious about. I had some questions about it, but the person running the booth, David Nagler I believe, seemed purty busy. That was OK; I’d have Saturday to examine the mount and all the other stuff in the tent. And there would be more cool stuff the next day. I knew Meade Instruments would have their big spread laid out, and I was expecting my friends from Denkmeier, the binoviewer folks, too.

The more I tramped around the park, the more impressed I became. The state of Pennsylvania had set out to build a “dark sky park,” and they were obviously putting time and money into the project. It wasn’t just the signs designating the area an astronomical observing field. They were in the process of building a nice, big dome appropriate for large Dobsonians, pouring concrete observing pads, and installing electrical power outlets on the field. Maybe I should take back all those mean things I’d said about Yankees over the years? Nah, didn't want to be too hasty.

I enjoyed touring the expansive observing field, but it was getting cloudier and damper by the minute—it was just on the verge of misting rain. Most everybody on the site was buttoned up in tents and RVs and had their scopes covered. To be honest, y’all, I almost welcomed the nasty weather. It had been a long, long day and the prospect of a warm motel room (it was already on the chilly side) and a few brewskies was irresistible. Yep, time to head for the room the ASH had reserved for me at the Mill Stream Inn in nearby Coudersport. Locating my hosts again, I got directions, received a warning to look out for “all the deer,” and headed to town.

Winding my way back down through the park at dusk, I did indeed pass plenty of deer, at least ten does, before I’d left Cherry Springs. My old friend back home, Bubba, would have had a fine and illegal time. Coudersport, a pretty little town nestled in the rolling hills and small mountains of the Alleghenies, was easy to find and so was my hostelry.

The Mill Stream Inn was modern, well kept, and had something most out-in-the-country motels didn't have seven years ago, free wireless Internet. The lady at the desk was a little more taciturn that what I am used to, and it finally dawned on me that most of the people up here were just a little more reserved than us naturally passionate and ebullient southerners. 

Unpacked, it was almost time to relax with the cable TV, but I wanted a six-pack of pea-picking Kolorado Kool-aid to help with that. I hopped in the Ion and soon found a local grocer. No beer or wine. That was something of a surprise. I’d just wintered not too far away in Maine, and their grocery stores were packed to the gills with wine, beer, and hard liquor. There wasn’t a single sixer to be had at the filling station, either. There were some good old boys in residence, luckily: “Son, you’ll have to find a bar. They’ll sell you a six-pack to-go. Try the Beef and Ale.”

Mill Stream Inn...
Which is exactly what I did. I thought I’d have supper at the Beef and Ale House too, but a glance at the menu in the bar and a look at one of the burgers the waitress brought out indicated the place, which had looked impressive outside, wasn’t so hot inside (they have since closed, I believe). I’d stick to the ale. I’d had a meal, a great big cheese steak, in the Philly airport anyway. I wound up with a six of Yuengling, which was new to me then, at the suggestion of the barmaid, and made tracks back to the motel.

In my room, I found the Yuengling stuff to my liking, and spent a couple of hours browsing Cloudy Nights and channel hopping on the cable TV before calling it a night. I was happy to be in Cherry Springs after a somewhat trying journey, and was looking forward to checking out the star party’s people and scopes and vendors on Saturday.

Saturday morning, but not bright and early Saturday morning, I headed to the lobby to see what was what breakfast-wise. This was just before the average motel continental breakfast ballooned into the full spread of eggs and bacon and sausage and waffles it is today, but Unk was more than happy with an English muffin or two and a donut or three. As soon as I’d washed the last sinker down with Java, I hopped in the car and headed back to the star party.

On the Cherry Springs field, I finally had to admit that, yes,  I’d been wrong about some Yankees. As the day wore on, I met more and more nice folks, many of them familiar names from my SCT User Yahoogroup (which is still on the air, by the way, despite the recent machinations of Yahoo). I admired their scopes and enjoyed the scenery and the weather. It was still partly cloudy, and the humidity was no doubt higher than normal for this location, but it felt like crisp fall air compared to what we’d been having on the cotton-picking Gulf Coast.

The Beef and Ale...
Next up was lunch. While the ASH had their lunch wagon on site doling out burgers and dogs, I thought I might get something in town that was at least once-removed from fast food. Tooling along, enjoying the picture-book Pennsylvania countryside, I eventually came upon a little diner that filled the bill and the hole in my tummy. The diner and everything else in town seemed to have been transplanted straight out of the 1950s. When I looked up at the marquee of Coudersport’s old-timey movie theatre, I halfway expected to see Rebel without a Cause up there.

After resting up back at the motel for a spell, I was back in that consarned Ion—which actually did OK—and headed back to spend the rest of the day and a good part of the night at the Cherry Springs Star Party.

There, I did some more wandering around and picture taking, but I also spent a considerable length of time in the dealer tent. My good buddies from Denkmeier arrived shortly, as did Owl Astronomy Products. The most interesting display for me, though, was Meade’s. Their Field Rep had a big table showing off the latest iteration of the company’s Ultrawide eyepieces, the first change in their design in years and years. But, most of all, he had a 10-inch RCX400 set up.

If you read this here, you know the RCX400 was supposed to be Meade’s 21st Century breakthrough SCT. That didn’t happen, but it was still an impressive piece of hardware, y’all. Never mind its reduced coma optics, motorized focusing and collimation, and built in dew heater, this was one pretty scope. It was a big mutha too, the 10-inch looking to be about the size of an LX200 12-inch to Unk. I spent quite a while playing with it and talking about it with the Meade dude.

With all them goodies laid out before me, what did I buy? I was mindful that whatever I bought needed to fit in my suitcase, so I kept myself in check. I spent most of my time just browsing and shooting the breeze with my pal and telescope dealer extraordinaire, Bob Black, the proprietor of Skies Unlimited. Did I eventually make a purchase? What do you-all think? It was small and modest, however, a 3X apochromatic Barlow from Owl that I am still using to this very day for Solar System imaging .

It seemed like I’d only been on site and hour or two, but ol’ Sol was soon sinking. Wandering over to the pavilion where the talks would be held, I had the pleasure of running into the new Editor-in-Chief of Sky and Telescope (and CSSP Keynote Speaker), Bob Naeye. I’d been a little disturbed by the events that had taken place shortly after my visit to the magazine’s old digs on Bay State Road earlier in ’06. Sky and Telescope had been sold to an outfit called “New Track Media,” and a new Editor, Bob, had taken the reins. A few minutes talking with Mr. Naeye assured me that the best astronomy magazine there has ever been was in good, very good, hands.

After rapping with Bob and scoping out the place where I would be speaking, I had just enough time to grab a bite of supper before my talk. That came from the ASH lunch wagon. My burger and chips were just right…not too much and not too little and quite tasty.

Then it was time for me to go on. My presentation was, “Everything you Always Wanted to Know about Deep Sky Video but were Afraid to Ask.” This talk marked the beginning of my crusade to spread the word about video observing. What’s amazing, when I look at my slides from that day, is how far video has come in the last seven years.

Naturally, Unk didn't just tell the folks about video, he interjected plenty of his down-home humor in the form of corny jokes and countrified shenanigans (“Raise your hand if’n you have EVER owned a Lynyrd Skynyrd Album.”). I’m sure my audience found Unk’s rustic demeanor slightly trying, but they listened politely and asked tons of questions afterwards. It was on this night that I decided video astronomy or something like it really was the wave of the future.

After the raffle, hosted by yours truly, who subjected his long-suffering fellow star partiers to even more cornball nonsense in the process of giving away plenty of good prizes, it was time to observe. It was getting dark, and the sky was actually clearing. It looked like it would be a purty good, if not exceptional, evening. Curse my luck that I was without a telescope.

‘Course, I could wander the field cadging looks through plenty of telescopes. To a man and woman, the CSSPers were incredibly nice to me. But that is not the same as having a scope of your own at your disposal. Since I do so many distant star parties, I am used to being scopeless, but you can bet I was some kind of happy when the Meade Field Rep asked if I’d like to use the RCX400, “You know more about it than I do.”

You can read my evaluation of the RCX in the above linked blog article, but suffice to say she worked as good as she looked. Beautiful images and accurate go-to. I even came to like the moto-focus system once I figured out which buttons to mash. One thing I did not like about the RCX was that all its features were a little much for the Autostar II hand control. Some functions required button combinations, and my gut feeling was the scope needed an Autostar designed just for it. Still, she worked right well despite, the rep told me, having been dropped during unloading at the last star party he’d been to.

What did I look at? The summer Messiers mostly. While it was very dark indeed, with hardly anything in the way a visible light dome anywhere in the sky, it was not completely clear. There was usually a little haze if not drifting clouds.  During the clearer stretches, though, I could tell this was a superior site. At those times, the Milky Way was downright dramatic. The way M13 looked in that sweet 10-inch RCX is still locked in my mind all these years later, campers.

Showtime!
The only bad thing? My turns-into-a-pumpkin-time would have to be midnight. There was that long drive back to New York in the morning and another full day in the air. It was awful hard to pull myself away from that magnificent Meade Ultrawide, but I did so somehow, said my good-nights  and headed back to Coudersport. There, I polished off the last couple of Yuenglings and watched maybe ten minutes of TV before falling into a deep sleep.

If Friday had been stressful, Sunday was relaxing. I had enough time to take the scenic route back to Elmira – Corning, and that’s just what I did, spending several hours oohing and ahhing over the pin-neat farms and small towns of northern Pennsylvania . This was one time when I didn't mind getting stuck behind a farmer’s tractor (and a horse drawn wagon), I was happy to take my time and have a good look at a part of the country I had never visited.

I’ve never returned to Cherry Springs, but I sure would like to go back someday. Safe and sound at home in the friendly confines of Chaos Manor South, I couldn’t help but wonder what the sky would have been like at the CSSP on a really good night. And there were all those great people. And that marvelous mountain country. Someday, muchachos, someday.

Next Time: Here and There with Uncle Rod...

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