Sunday, December 28, 2014

 

An Uncle Rod Happy New Year


Almost, anyhow. This is a few days early, muchachos, but that is OK; the traditional New Year’s edition of the little old blog from Chaos Manor South ain’t got much to do with the coming year, anyway. Mostly, it’s a recap of Unk’s adventures and misadventures over the previous annum.

2014 was undeniably a big one, since it marked the end for Chaos Manor South. After Unk’s twenty years in the Old Manse, and even more for Miss Dorothy, it was, with our dual retirements, time to move on. Out to suburbia with better skies and a smaller, easier to care for home.

Astronomy-wise? I did plenty of observing, took a couple of trips to dark sites and star parties, and had a good old time with my telescopes and cameras. There wasn’t a major new observing project, however. Not one of the magnitude of the Herschel Project. The story of this year’s amateur astronomy is mostly one of me getting used to observing from my new backyard at the new Chaos Manor South.

That’s the executive summary, y’all; here are the details:


Started off just the way this one is, with a look back at 2013. That’s wasn’t the most interesting January blog entry, however. Neither was my recap of Night Four of the Destination Moon Project, though that was nice enough. The big news as the year began was that Unk had set sail on the uncharted (for him) waters of spectroscopy.

I’ve been teaching the basics of spectroscopy and stellar classification to the undergraduates in my astronomy labs for nearly twenty years, but I’d never attached a spectroscope or spectrograph to my own personal telescope and had a go at taking the “fingerprints of the stars” till this past January.

That began with an email from Tom Field, the author of RSpec, a computer program designed to allow amateurs (or anybody else) to obtain stellar spectra with anything from a webcam and an inexpensive grating to a full-blown spectroscope and CCD camera. Tom asked if I might like to try RSpec in conjunction with one of Robin Leadbetter’s Star Analyser diffraction gratings. Your old Uncle was a bit apprehensive about getting it all to work, but it did work; almost from the get-go I was getting respectable and identifiable spectra of bright stars.

The only fly in that-there ointment? Springtime’s move out of the old Manse interrupted the learning process. I need to get back to RSpec stat, and that is one of the things I want to do in 2015. If I can become reasonably proficient with the program, I even have visions of doing a little stellar spectroscopy with my students. Anyhow, as I’ve said before, Tom’s program is amazingly well done and Robyn’s grating is amazingly well made. If you’ve visions of going beyond “just looking” this might be the way for you to do it, pards.


February was one of the coldest in recent memory, and began with an utterly abortive trip down Chiefland Way. As our departure date approached, storm clouds gathered, the clouds of Winter Storm Leon, and two days before our trip’s scheduled start on Thursday, the Old Manse was hit by a dadgum ice storm. Florida wasn’t immune to Leon’s wrath, either—not hardly. The worst was over by Thursday, but our trip had to be postponed till Friday because large stretches of I-10 through the Florida Panhandle were fraking closed.

We finally made it to the CAV on Friday, but to no good purpose. Oh, I always enjoy visiting with our old Chiefland Observers pals and having supper at the legendary Bar-B-Q Bill’s, but the skies were gray when we arrived on Friday and stayed that way through Sunday. We thought about staying an extra day, but the weatherman said that wouldn’t get us nothing. Plus, Unk took a spill late Saturday afternoon (before I had my first drink) and busted his lip, bleeding all over everything . Sometimes you gotta know when to toss in the dadgum towel.

There was some good stuff going on in February, nevertheless. I got the chance to try the incredible TPI spreader and tray system on my Atlas (EQ6) tripod. And…I thought I’d solved the problem I’d been having with my NexStar 11. The older I get, you see, the less willing I am to lug that wonderful but heavy fork-mount telescope around. Despite trying a couple of different case solutions, I didn’t really solve a cotton-picking thing, 


March 2014 was a month of thises and thats with the blog visiting subjects as diverse as how to get started in video astronomy, the Celestron VX mount, and International Sidewalk astronomy night. The winner with y’all, however, was the entry on Robert Burnham and his Handbook.

Unk has been a fan of Burnham’s Celestial Handbook since he first laid hands on a copy in the early 1980s thanks to the old Astronomy Book Club (back then, I had no idea the effect book clubs have on author royalties). Man did I use that sucker. In the pre-computer days, my observing planning consisted of me sitting on the couch in the living room with the BCH, a steno pad, and a pencil and picking out objects for the night from old Bob’s lists.

What I think interested y’all most about this article, howsomeever, was my retelling of the bittersweet story of the life of the Handbook’s creator. Burnham was a shy, self-absorbed man whose life came to a dreary and sad conclusion. But that is balanced against the incredible achievement that is his Handbook. New and “better” observing guides and computer planners will come and go, but Burnham’s Celestial Handbook will live on. Nothing else has the intimate, poetic take on the Universe it offers.


This month was largely memorable for what wasn’t in the blog. In April 2014, Unk had been retired (early) from his day job as an engineer for a whole year. I won’t try to convince y’all that it was an overly easy adjustment; it took a long time for me to stop dreaming about the job nightly. Only now are those dreams are slowly beginning to fade away. A big help is that I am really only semi-retired. I've continued teaching my astronomy labs at the University of South Alabama, including a daytime section or two, and have kept on keeping on as a Contributing Editor at Sky & Telescope.

Blogwise, it was again a mixed bag, with entries concerning telescope/mount troubleshooting, viewing Messier 51, and—the hit for me—sketching deep sky objects. Lately, I notice more and more people are paying less attention to expensive CCD cameras and more to what can be done with an humble pencil and paper. I have always enjoyed drawing what I see in the eyepiece and will never quit doing it even though modern DSLRs and reliable mounts have made it a lot easier for even a bumbler like your silly old Unk to take astrophotos.


May was a beeg, really beeg month. Firstly, due to the 2014 Deep South Regional Star Gaze Spring Scrimmage. I’d never been to the smaller, spring version of our local star party until 2013. Before I retired, spring was always a no-go. But I got to the Scrimmage in 2013 and liked it. A lot. This year was as good, if not better. We upped our attendance to about 25 observers, so it felt more like a real star party—and Rod, unlike in 2013, had plenty of company on the observing field Saturday night.

Springtime is always dicey observing-wise in the southland, and, as in 2013, we only had one really good night, Friday, but it was a corker, with Unk Mallincamming dozens and dozens of objects. Saturday was OK, and let him at least get a taste of what the new Mallincam Micro can do. Best of all? Like in 2013, Sunday was just so relaxed. No rushing around to get on the road as early as possible to get home and rest up for work on Monday morning.

The biggest deal in May, though, was our move to the new Manse. It all happened astoundingly quickly. Dorothy and me had agreed 2014 would be the year we moved on, but I am not sure either one of us really thought that would happen anytime soon. Till the Saturday Dorothy suggested we drive around and look at some suburban neighborhoods west of the city.

After some looking, we found a subdivision we liked and noted there were several homes there up for sale. Back at the Old Manse, Unk hit Realtor.com and immediately spied a place that seemed perfect. I hollered for D. to come look; she did and agreed with me and suggested we do the Open House the next day. To shorten up the story, we talked to the realtor Monday morning, made an offer Tuesday morning, and came to an agreement with the seller on Tuesday afternoon.

Real life ain’t like the consarned Househunters on the cable TV, and there was a lot more work and paperwork than you see on HGTV, but by the week of the 18th we were in our new home—and without Internet. The following week went without a blog for all practical purposes—first time that has happened. After some fussin’ and fighting with Ma Bell, however, we finally got the I-net on—much higher speed Internet than we’d had with the Old Manse’s DSL connection.

But how would the observing be? I found out on one of the first nights we were in residence at the New Manse. I dragged the ETX onto the deck and discovered I could see quite a lot of the deep sky visually. It wasn’t perfect, but the sky was mucho bettero than the backyard of old Chaos Manor South, that’s for dang sure. At zenith on a good night, it’s a bit better than 5th magnitude at the new place.


June was all about the deep sky from my freaking backyard. Not just peeps at brighter marvels through an eyepiece, but deep sky astrophotos with my cameras. It wasn’t all gravy, of course. The light pollution was exacerbated by the humid summer air, and an LPR filter on the cameras was a must. Nevertheless, I was able to have a lot of fun in the New Manse’s backyard, particularly with my Mallincam Xtreme once I got into the swing of things.

The problem was not imaging objects from the backyard of the New Manse, but figuring how to do that. Where to set up. At first, I thought I would station the laptop and video monitor in the shop (outbuilding) and run the scope from there. That worked, but wasn’t optimum. I’d need a way longer run of cable for the serial cable if I put the scope in a good, tree-free spot in the yard. I also prefer to be able to at least see the scope as I observe. In toto, I just didn’t like the experience.

What I wound up doing, and am still doing even with cold weather here, was placing the observing position, the laptop and monitor, on the deck. The scope is in the yard, not far away in a nice, clear area. Dorothy and I soon bought a patio table for the deck, and with its umbrella open, the dew falling on my old noggin is substantially reduced. Being up off the ground also seems to reduce the depredations of the skeeters—they’d flood into the shop through the barely cracked door. On the deck, a citronella candle is enough to keep the biters way.


Several bases were covered in July. I resurrected my old Denkmeier binoviewer and had a ball using it for the first time in years. My aging eyes took a little while to “learn” to use the thing again, but when they did, images were as good as ever. I also continued my lunar imaging for Destination Moon. The top story, however, was that my ancient 12.5-inch Dobbie, Old Betsy, finally went computer.

Well, that ain’t exactly true. I’d bought a Sky Commander digital setting circle computer for the scope years ago. What I had never done, however, was interface the Commanders to a genu-wine laptop, thus expanding the DSCs’ rather small database.

The only thing I needed in order to do that was a serial cable. After four decades of doing electronics both professionally as an engineer and for recreation as a ham, Unk could easily wire up a cable. But, as you know, he is lazy and is more apt to buy than build anything these days. I did find a serial cable for the Sky Commanders on the I-net, but it cost thirty consarned bucks. Since Unk is even more stingy than he is lazy, he decided to build after all.

Turned out I didn’t really have to build nuttin’ honey. My junk box yielded a DB9 – RJ adapter, and a peep at the Sky Commander manual revealed the cable I needed was identical to the RJ terminated cables used to connect landline phones—if’n ya’ll remember what those were—to the wall socket. A trip to the Home Depot turned up a 25-foot phone cable just like I needed for 5 simoleons.

Did it work? Did it ever. Connect to the Sky Commanders via SkyTools 3, click on an object, and ST-3 sent the coordinates to the Commanders. Then, all I had to do was push to the target as usual while observing the indicator on the DSCs’ display. There was also audio feedback. SkyTools’ sexy-sounding Englishwoman announced “Push Telescope to Target!” when I selected one, and “Telescope at target!” when I was there. Best five bucks I’d spent in a while, campers.


It was a helluva August. First up was our first truly successful expedition to the Chiefland Astronomy Village in ages. My main agenda there was getting some DSLR shots of deep sky object with my Celestron VX mount for a review of said mount I was doing for Sky & Telescope. That turned out to be amazingly easy. While the mount looks a lot like the old CG5, it is a lot better behaved for imaging. Having the new version of my favo-right imaging program, Nebulosity 3, to run the Canon camera didn’t hurt neither.

Thursday was work, if fun work; Friday and Saturday were pure fun and were devoted to testing the Mallincam Micro deep sky video camera and the program I used to control it, AstroLive. The Micro is not on the level of the Mallincam Xtreme, but it is inexpensive, crazy inexpensive, and went surprisingly deep, even with me not yet being familiar enough with it to use it to optimum effect. It was a good trip otherwise, too; we did Manatee Springs and made it back to our much loved little coastal resort town, Duma Key (Cedar Key).

That was just the first part of August, The second part found Unk back at the Almost Heaven Star Party. The location of AHSP, Spruce Knob Mountain in West Virginia, is the darkest site I’ve been to east of the Mississip. The AHSP is also second to none for friendly folks, and is perhaps the best managed and run event I have attended in the forty or so years I’ve been star partying. As long as the AHSPers keep having me up, I’ll keep a-going.

This AHSP was somewhat of a milestone, since this was the last time my usual traveling companion and fellow speaker, Bob Naeye, would be attending as Sky & Telescope’s Editor in Chief. Bob has stepped down and is taking a well-deserved rest after seeing the magazine through some tough years for all magazines. In fact, I’d say Mr. Bob was at the helm for some of the best years S&T has ever had.


Amongst other things, Destination Moon continued from Unk’s new backyard in September. Mostly, though, it was lens-scope month. Unk had been using refractors an awful lot at the New Manse, and in particular the C102, “Amelia,” his old friend Pat gave when we moved into the new place in May.

It would be hard to find a more practical grab and go rig than the C102 achromat when mounted on my SkyWatcher AZ-4 alt-azimuth mount. Two minutes to get it on the deck and ready to go. The scope’s 4-inch aperture and f/10 focal ratio deliver bright, contrasty, and relatively color free images of the objects I like to view on grab ‘n go evenings. It is also just killer for double stars, something Unk has had a renewed interest in this past year.


October continued the refractor theme with Unk getting out to the Possum Swamp Astronomical Society dark site for some DSLR imaging.  Not with the C102 achromat, but with Veronica, my high-toned William Optics Megrez II, an 80mm fluorite APO. Your old Uncle was gobsmacked at how well the little refractor, which I hadn’t used in many, many Moons did and how deep she went. Hell, the Crescent Nebula, NGC 6888 was nothing.

I did a big handful of targets on the one astrophotography worthy night we had in October and was just thrilled with the results. ‘Twarn’t just the refractor. The good looks of my images were in no small part due to the Hotech SCA field flattener I used with the Megrez. If you’ve got a lens-scope and don’t have a field flattener, believe me, you want the SCA.

What impressed me most, howsomeever, and what I had forgotten, was how easy imaging is with a reasonably short refractor (the Megrez is an f/7). With a nice, wide field and none of the image shift you get with an SCT, imaging was, yes, like falling off that fabled log. Wasn’t actually much for Unk to do. Align the telescope mount, focus up, tell Nebulosity 3 how many exposures to take with the 60D, and I could wander off and annoy my fellow observers while Neb did all the work.


November was another huge, huge one for the Rodster. The top of the pops was the 2014 Deep South Regional Star Gaze. I always enjoy our local star party, held nearby in northern Louisiana. But this one would be special; it would be the 20th anniversary of Miss Dorothy’s first star party, the 1994 DSRSG. So, I wanted to do something special observing wise to mark the occasion.

In the course of moving out of the old Chaos Manor South, I’d run across my thick, bound observing list (created with that moldy-oldie planning program Deep Space 3D). In 1994, thanks to poor weather, I hadn’t observed more than a handful of those many objects with Old Betsy, who was brand new in ‘94. What if I finished the list this year?

And that is exactly what I did. Using the now computer enabled Old Betsy, it was duck soup to tick ‘em all off. Well, not quite all. I did leave out most of the objects I’d observed in the intervening twenty years. I also deleted the more boring open clusters and other ho-hum targets. I got all the rest over the course of three-and-a-half good nights. I also began a new visual observing project, Project Scotty, my quest to observe all the objects in the book Deep Sky Wonders, Steve O’Meara’s collection of Walter Scott Houston’s Sky & Telescope columns.

2014 wasn’t the best DSRSG ever. That’s probably 1994, that first year there with my wonderful new wife, Dorothy. Second is probably 2005, the post Katrina DSRSG, but 2014 was, surprisingly, a very close third.


Which brings us round to this month. Which has been kinda quiet on the astro-front. I did hit the Moon again a time or two, but the seeing wasn’t good enough to let me really kick out the jams. I got out and did more deep sky imaging with Veronica, too, but, again, conditions weren’t favorable enough for me to go hog-wild. What this month has been about, mostly, is making plans for the new year.

Which are? First and foremost, a run down to Chiefland. What will Unk and Miss D. do there? Maybe some more DSLR imaging for a book project I am working on off and on. I also plan to give the Mallincam Xtreme some time under the stars for the first time in a while with a radical new project I’ve cooked up; one that will take me far deeper into the Universe than even the vaunted Herschel Project ever did.

The other thing I hope to do is, as I mentioned way up top, do something about the NexStar 11 situation. I am firmly convinced there is no way on god’s green Earth I am going to continue to use Big Bertha on her heavy fork mount. I just won’t do it. I initially considered putting her in an observatory in the backyard, but I want the scope to be portable so I can take her to the Chiefland AV and other star parties again. That spells “G-E-M.” The question is which German equatorial, muchachos? There is little doubt you will hear considerably more on that subject in 2015. Till then? Have a happy New Year’s Eve and don’t drink no more than your old Uncle will!

Addendum:  What Unk Got

OK, OK, OK! I know what all you greedy little suckers wanna hear, “What did Santa bring you, Unk? Huh, what did he bring you?” Kept it simple this year. I finally wised up that the tethering cable I use with my DSLRs for both celestial and terrestrial imaging was nowhere. It’s a laugh to even call it a cable. A short cord and two flimsy extensions is more like it. Not good, and it has ruined at least one evening’s astro-imaging. The jolly fat man with the white beard (Santa, not Bubba down to the club) waltzed over to Tether Tools and got me a nice, long, safety orange cable that should make things more better gooder.

Then there was that dadgum frikkin’ – frakkin’ finder bracket on my Edge 800 SCT. It is the one thing about the scope I've never liked. While heftily built, it is non-standard, and the rings that go with it will not accommodate my 50mm mini-guide scope. While I don’t normally use a real finder on the Edge, employing a Rigel Quickfinder most of the time, occasionally the need arises for an optical finder scope. And I quickly found the Edge finder mount would not keep its alignment between finder removals and replacements. Asked Santa to bring me a standard Synta finder shoe from Agena Astro. Dispensed with that nice-looking but basically punk Celestron Edge finder mount on Christmas afternoon.

Finally, my other gift, the biggie, is pending—STOP THE PRESSES! Unk has just ordered a Celestron CGEM to solve that NexStar 11 problem above. I contemplated putting the NS11 OTA on my Atlas, but I decided that wasn't the optimum solution for me. Why? As soon as the new one comes in you will hear all about the whys and wherefores, rest assured. 

Next Time:  Destination Moon Night 9...

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

 

A Tale of Two Eclipses and a Merry Christmas from the New Chaos Manor South


The New Manse...
Yeah, muchachos, I know the solar eclipse chasers among us look down their noses at mere lunar eclipses. But Unk is a Moon eclipse maniac. Why? We’ll get to that, but, first, it’s “HO-HO-HO AND MISTLETOE AND PRESENTS TO PRETTY GIRLS!” In other words, a very merry Christmas from the new Chaos Manor South! I’ll tell you about our Christmas Eve directly, but now we are gonna talk lunar eclipses.

First off, what do y’all think about the currently popular—with the public—term for “lunar eclipse,” “BLOOD MOON”?  You sure won’t find me using it, campers. It’s kinda romantic sounding, I reckon, and does indeed do a fair job of describing the appearance of a totally eclipsed Luna. HOWEVER…the term is wrapped-up in superstitious mumbo-jumbo involving patently ridiculous “prophecies” about the end of the world (as in, “IT’S THE END OF THE WOILD, I TELLS YA!”). So, I choose to eschew “blood moon,” no matter how attractive it might seem public outreach-wise.

Anyhoo, my history with Moon darkenings is a long one, stretching back fifty years, to my birth as an amateur astronomer in 1964. There’d been a couple of notable eclipses in the early 1960s that would have been visible to me before my first Big One in December of 1964; one in March of ‘60, and one in June of ‘64. And I do indeed have the barest memories of staring up at a fading Moon once before the ’64 Christmas (season) Eclipse. That would have to have been in 1964, since we didn’t move from our old house on Dauphin Island Parkway to Mama’s dream home in Canterbury Heights until June of 1960, and I don’t seem to have any memory of an eclipse from the old place.

I would have been almost eleven years old at the time of the June 1964 total total eclipse, and should be able to remember it well, but, frankly, I have only the vaguest recall of it. A fragmentary memory that at first didn’t make sense.  I seemed to remember walking out into the parking lot of a bowling alley to look at it. That sounded ridiculous, but now that I think about it, my Cub Scout Pack did have  a couple of all-night bowling parties (well, till 10 or 11 p.m.) for us kids at Skyline Lanes, just up the road from our subdivision. So maybe it ain’t so ridiculous after all. Anyhoo, that eclipse doesn't seem to have made a huge impression on li’l Unk. That was to change in six months’ time, to put it mildly.

December 1964

Those of y’all who've been here a spell will not be surprised to hear me say I’m not much of a (religious) believer. Actually, I’m not a believer at all. I’ve just never had the feel for it. Even as a four-year-old dragged to Sunday school at Mama’s Methodist church, I just didn't get it. If I am able to summon up a single iota of religious feeling, it is at this time of year, and it is only the tiniest particle of wanting to believe.

However, as a pre-teen, I assented to going to church and Sunday School with Mama to keep the peace. I could even be cajoled into spending a week at Vacation Bible School in the summer. Actually, the truth was that while, no, I didn't put much credence in the things I was taught at church, I liked Kingswood United Methodist Church. Not only was it the center of our southern suburban social life in them days, a young woman of my acquaintance, Miss Jitter Jones, also went to Kingswood. As 6th grade came in, I suddenly and strangely found I wanted to spend mucho time in her company.

The BLOOD MOON of January 2000...
Which was probably the main reason I didn't put up a fuss about having to go to a church Christmas party, the second of two, for gosh sakes, in December of ‘64. Also, going was undeniably preferable to listening to Mama’s opinion as to what would happen to me if I strayed too far from the faith. In her judgment, missing any church function was the first step on a road to ruin that would likely wind up with li’l Rod joining the dadgum Soviet Red Army.

Despite wanting to avoid Mama's fuming and her patented lectures, and very much wanting to see Miss Jones, there was a major malfunction. The MYF (“Methodist Young Folk” me and my buddies thought that was) Christmas bash on the 19th of December would, unfortunately, coincide, with a total lunar eclipse.

I contented myself that the party would probably wrap up before the height of the eclipse, which, I read in our paper, The Possum Swamp Register and Birdcage Liner, would not come till 8 p.m. Since the MYF would get underway at 6, I assumed I was purty safe. That was important. That year, 1964, was also the year of Stephanie’s telescope, the year I became an amateur astronomer—albeit one without a scope—and anything special I heard about going on in the sky was suddenly a big deal.

You know what they say about the word “assume,” doncha? I’d forgot the strange ways of adults. Before we could get to eating party food and socializing, we had to sit and listen to endless rambling talks, amateur sermons, about the Christmas Miracle. I wouldn't have minded listening to Mama’s Pastor, Sid Locke, who was a gifted speaker, a cool dude, and could almost convince me about the religion stuff on a good Sunday, but these adults were neither as convincing nor as talented as Reverend Sid.

They were a bunch of lay church leaders who weren't just boring, but who did their best to turn a wondrous season of joy into a dreary and bleak responsibility. Not that these people knew they were boring the daylights out of us kids. They probably thought they had us in the palms of their hands and every freaking one of ‘em got cranked up and talked and talked and talked.

There was a saving grace on this night, but it didn't come from above; it came from my Sunday School teacher, Cub Scout Den Mother, and, later, science teacher, Miss Emily Baldwin. As li’l Rod's Timex ticked on toward 8, with the party part of the proceedings still well underway, I found I couldn’t restrain myself any longer. I approached the sometimes forbidding and spinsterish Emily Baldwin: “Miz Emily, I read in the paper that there is a total lunar eclipse tonight, and it is going on right now…”

Partial eclipse of June '65. 3-inch Tasco + Argoflex...
That was all it took for the science-minded Miss Baldwin to marshal her chicks into the parking lot to view what she referred to as “One of God’s wondrous spectacles.” I’ve written before how us 6th graders, still innocent and open to wonder, stared up at the darkening and reddening Moon and spontaneously, as with one voice, broke into “Silent Night.” What I haven’t talked about is how the Moon, the eclipse, looked on that long ago night.

It’s easy to find the circumstances and details of an eclipse with Google, and I did indeed look up the December 1964 event to make sure I wasn’t misremembering it. I wasn't. It was a good one. High in the sky and dark, but not too dark. The Moon was a medium red at totality and very attractive. Which red color elicited plenty of questions from the kids—and the adults who’d also wandered out—until I, at Miss Baldwin’s prompting, explained the reddening. Even covered by the shadow of the Earth, the Moon was being illuminated by light passing through our planet’s atmosphere. “Just like seeing the Sun turn red at sunset,” li’l Rod chirped.

The amazing thing? In those more enlightened times, no one, neither kid nor adult, chimed in that the Bible pointed to a BLOOD MOON as being a sign of the END TIMES. In those days, us middle class suburban kids and adults would have attributed such strange ideas to out-in-the-country cult churches. Today, such weird beliefs are almost mainstream, I’m afraid.

Anyhow, not only did my “eclipse talk,” if you want to call my mumbling and bumbling that, get me in good with Emily Baldwin for quite a spell, it obviously impressed Miss Jones. As I was waving my hands around, outlining the mechanics of lunar eclipses for the crowd, I couldn’t help noticing she was throwing me an admiring glance or three.

That was good, but what was best was that that night helped start me on the road I was to take for a lifetime. At least as much as Stephanie’s telescope, that eclipse is responsible for me becoming an amateur astronomer, astronomy writer, and astronomy educator. That's the reason, I guess, the supposedly mundane lunar eclipses are still stirring for your old Uncle.

There were more good, if not quite as memorable, lunar eclipses after 1964, including a nice partial one in June of 1965, which came not long after I got my first telescope, a Tasco 3-inch Newtonian. I didn’t think the eclipse looked that much better in a telescope, really, than it did with my naked eyes, but I was excited by the picture I took by holding a camera up to the eyepiece of my little reflector. After that? Moon eclipses kind of faded into the background as I started on the road to becoming a (sometimes) fanatical deep sky observer.

October 2014

Just beginning...
And, so, all the long years have ticked by from 1964 to 2014. It sure would have been cool to have another Christmas eclipse exactly 50 years down the road. And we almost did—missed it by that much, y’all. One thing is sure concerning the recent one, anyway:  if I didn’t know how much a lunar eclipse could still move me, I dang sure found out. I don’t know how many of y’all dragged out of bed way-early on that 8th of October Thursday morning for it, but it was worth it, was it ever.

Not that I spent over much time just gawking at the show; I wanted to take pictures. It had been years since I imaged a lunar eclipse, not since the January 2000, event, the last total lunar eclipse of the Millennium. How long ago that was is witnessed by the fact that the camera I used then was my ol’ Pentax loaded up with Fuji’s legendary Super G800+. Film. That eclipse was a mid-evening one, and I shot through my Ultima C8 (at about f/10) to good effect. Since thisun wouldn't be underway good till after 3 in the cotton-picking a.m., however, I had no intention of dragging out a C8—or any other telescope.

No, I plunked down my trusty Manfrotto tripod and Canon DSLR and imaged with a zoom lens that took me out to 400mm. I achieved a nice, large image scale, but could also frame the Moon with trees, houses, etc. when I wanted to. Only fly in that-there ointment? It had been so long since I’d shot the sky with an undriven camera that I got a little carried away. At much over 3-seconds at 400mm, you will get obviously trailed stars—and I pumped up the exposure a little too much at times. The good? The live-view of new-fangled DSLRs sure makes sharp focus a snap.

I started out in comfort on the deck, firing away at the partial phases. I’ve got plenty of big memory cards, so I shot lots and lots of frames between ducking inside for yet another cup of Joe. What did I think of the eclipse as totality slowly approached? Sweet. Cool. Impressive. Like the 1964 event, it was dark but not too dark. But affecting? Not so much.  Not at first, anyhow.

Just before totality came in at 5:30 a.m., I had to move the camera to the front yard, since the Moon was beginning to sink in the west, and a tree a couple of houses down was blocking me and the Canon’s view from the deck. After taking plenty of frames at mid-totality, I stopped and just looked for a spell.

I don’t know what it was, maybe just the sight of the eclipsed Moon with my unaided eyes, or perhaps the vista of that big red balloon floating over suburban houses like in the 60s, but suddenly all those long years, nearly half of a century of them, faded away. I almost heard the voice of long-gone Miss Emily again and felt young Jitter Jones standing at my elbow in the early morning darkness.

These feelings were intense enough that when I came out of my reverie—or whatever it was—and began shooting the Moon again, my heart hurt a little bit. For lost friends, and years, and youth. But that is the nature of life on this little rock, y’all, and I shortly carried on imaging and enjoying the show in more cheerful fashion.

Christmas Eve 2014

The key word was “quiet,” y’all, which is just the way like D. and I like it. Oh, in the a.m., we’ll have a houseful of family, but today it was just the two of us. We did get out this morning to run a few errands, preceded by one of our traditions, a Christmas Eve lunch at a Chinese place.

In the past that has usually been one of the Japanese steakhouses, who, natch, really serve Americanized Chinese food, but today it was China Doll. It’s a buffet, yeah, but it’s the best Chinese buffet I have ever seen. I did not stint on the General’s Chicken, that’s for dadgum sure. I don’t know who General Tso was, but I hope he got promoted to the PLA General Staff; he deserved it.

Back home the big question was the weather:  would it clear enough to allow Unk his other tradition, a Christmas Eve look at M42, that greatest of all ornaments? The weather-goobers insisted there’d be clearing, but at 3 p.m. the clouds from the nasty front that yielded killer tornadoes just to our west in Mississippi the day before were still hanging on.

My original intent had been to make it a special night, to get my Edmund Scientific Palomar Junior out for a look at the Great Nebula, but as time went on and the sky remained a socked-in gray, I began to scale back.  I love my old Pal, but that scope is a handful on her pedestal mount and is packed away in a corner of Unk’s shop behind more than a few boxes I’ve “temporarily” stored there. I decided that should I get a sucker hole or three, I’d just waltz Amelia, the C102 refractor, out to the deck for a quick peep between draughts of Rebel Yell and watching whatever good Christmas movie appeared on the cotton-picking cable. 

The Clear Sky Clock and Scope Nights, my two goto astronomy weather apps insisted “clearing by 7 p.m.”  Alas, 7 and then 8 came and went without a hint of that. Poor old Unk laid a finger aside of his nose, opened up the bottle of Yell, and turned on the umpteenth showing of A Christmas Story. In a bit of a snit, I settled in for the prelude to a long winter’s nap where visions of gleaming APO refractors on massive German equatorial mounts would undoubtedly dance in my head.

And so another Christmas Eve has come and gone muchachos. This was my first skunking in a couple of years and I tried to bear it with good grace, declaring that should it clear by midnight, I’d hie myself out to the backyard with a pair of binoculars at least. But I almost didn’t need to. The memory of M42 as seen in my 3-inch Tasco reflector on Christmas Eve of 1965 was clearer than ever this year. And there is always next year. To sum up? “Happy Christmas to all, and to all a good night!”

Postscript:  As midnight came in, there was indeed some clearing, and Unk wobbled onto the deck with his trusty Burgess 15x70 binocs and got his Christmas Eve view of the Great Nebula. If a somewhat shaky one caused by the cold wind, the heavy binoculars, and maybe by the just a bit more than a dram of Yell he'd consumed while watching freaking Anthony Bourdain's show, his Christmas Eve viewing of choice this year.

Next Time:  Uncle Rod's New Year...

Sunday, December 14, 2014

 

Destination Moon Night 8: 85 Down, 215 to Go


The good news, muchachos? I’ve been getting clear skies, and with a fat Moon hanging over (the new) Chaos Manor South this past week, it was time to get back to my Destination Moon project. That’s my quest to observe the 300+ lunar features shown on the Moon map in my old Norton’s Star Atlas 15th edition, the hallowed book that helped Unk navigate the sky as a sprout.

‘Course things are never as simple as they seem when it comes to amateur astronomy, are they? While passing cold fronts had brought surprisingly transparent air, they also brought unsteady air, lousy seeing. And that is a bad thing, y’all. What matters most for lunar and planetary imaging and observing? It ain’t your scope. It ain’t your camera. It ain’t light pollution or a lack thereof. It is good seeing, a steady atmosphere for your telescope to peer up through. As the years have passed, I have ever more come to realize that is really the be-all and end-all for the Solar System.

I will say, however, that the Moon is a little more forgiving in that regard that, say, Mars. If the seeing is bad enough, you won’t see much of Diana, but on semi-punk nights, you can shoot a lot of frames and hope to get some good ones in-between atmospheric disturbances. Which is just what I did. Project DM had been idle for over two months, and it was high time to get into the backyard and start kicking the crater count UP.

Before we go there, howsomeever, a couple of things. First off, I promised y’all I’d let you know how  Shelley, the C102 who recently cane to live at the New Manse, did on the Moon. If you read that linked blog article, or are familiar with Celestron’s refractors, you know Miss is an achromat, a 4-inch f/10 achromat. To be nearly color free, she’d have to have a focal ratio of f/15, if not f/20. At f/10, I knew there’d be some color.

My awareness that there would be shades of deep purple on the Moon didn’t just come from theory. I’ve used more than a few 4-inch achromats over the last 50 years, including another C102 that Pat Rochford, who gave me this one, owned years ago. The night I looked at Luna through Pat’s previous C102, almost 14 years back, still seemed fresh in my memory. And what was in that memory seemed to be lots of purple. Not just on the lunar limb, but on the terminator, with the shadows of craters and other features being a fraking Technicolor riot. 

Memory can be deceiving, however. Often, we remember what we want to remember, or our mind simplifies our memories into sharper gradations of black and white (or purple). I knew that, and tried keep an open mind. I’d just see what she could do, and if my memories of that long-ago C102 in Pat’s yard turned out to be accurate, so what? The refractor would continue to do a great job on the deep sky and double stars.

I waited until Luna was high in a dark sky before lugging Shelley and her AZ-4 mount out onto the deck. She only takes a little while to acclimate to our mild (for the Yankees among y’all) outdoor temperatures, and in just a few minutes she would begin delivering her best images. Anyhoo, I wanted the Moon to be as bright as possible to provide a stringent test.

Hokay, then. Inserted my beloved Zhumell (aka “TMB”) 100-degree AFOV 16mm eyepiece, the vaunted Happy Hand Grenade, in Shelley’s Intes 2-inch star diagonal, lined up the Moon with the 50mm RACI finder and had a look…

Verdict? Dang, just dang. The terminator was just so sharp-looking in typical refractor fashion. The welter of craters in the southern highlands was bewildering. Away from the terminator? That is where a fast achromat has trouble; the terminator may look sharp, but get out on the disk and contrast goes to pot. Not with Shelley. Features well away from the day-night line remained satisfyingly sharp.

“Alright Unk, that’s fine, but you know what we want to know.” Oh, I know, alright. How was the color? It depended. On the eyepiece, on the magnification, on the position of my eye on or off axis. On the limb, there was sometimes no purple at all, just a yellow-amber rim. At its worst? There was a prominent but not overwhelming blue-purple outline to the Moon’s edge. The terminator? There was a purple tint to the shadows, but it was hardly as strong as I remembered, and after a few minutes of concentrating on observing, I purty much forgot about it.

Curiously, the amount of purple in the image, whether on the limb or the terminator, didn’t seem to depend just on magnification. It also seemed dependent on eyepiece type, with there being considerably more color visible with a 20mm Plössl than with my 22mm Panoptic. The picture at left, taken by the simple expedient of pointing my cell phone down into a 35mm (Panoptic) eyepiece, suggests how Luna looked much of the time. One caveat? Unk’s eyes; his eye doctor tells him they are well on their way to needing cataracts removed. In other words, I have built in mild yellow filters, I reckon.

Other than chromatic aberration, how was the scope’s performance? Amazingly good. The sharpness held in at nearly 300x despite seeing that was nothing to crow about. There was nothing in Rukl’s Atlas of the Moon, which I had beside me, that wasn’t at least hinted at in the eyepiece. One thing that is different for someone coming from reflectors? The Moon looked warmer, more yellowish, at all powers than in a Newtonian or an SCT. That is not necessarily bad; in fact it’s kind of attractive. But it will be different from what you are used to if you’ve never seriously viewed Luna with a lens scope.

Given Shelley’s superb account of herself on the Moon, only one question remains:  “How will she do on the planets?” Mars, unfortunately, while still hanging on in the west—where he will remain for quite a spell—is tiny and in the trees. Old King Jupe, however, is beginning to come into his own. Right now, he’s rising at just after 10 p.m. and will soon be high in the mid-evening sky. When he’s up good at 10 or 11 in the p.m., your tired old Unk will visit him with the refractor and you will hear how she does.

Despite me having outlined my lunar imaging set-up a couple of times in this series, I am still getting questions about it, so bear with me while I again summarize my rig for those of y’all getting interested in exploring the Moon with a camera yourselves.

While I said the telescope is not the most important thing in lunar imaging, not compared to seeing, it is still important. For high-resolution closeups, you want something that’s got a lot of focal length, whose focal length can be easily increased, and which will easily come to focus not just with a camera, but with Barlows and other stuff in the light path. For high-resolution photography of lunar details, the place you start is at 4000mm. How do I get there? I start out at 2000mm with my 8-inch Schmidt Cassegrain and double that by adding a 2X Barlow in front of the camera (“Barlow projection”).

I do not, however, insert the Barlow and camera directly into the scope’s visual back. Instead, they go in a widget called a “flip-mirror” that is screwed onto the C8’s rear port. When I began doing high focal ratio imaging of the Moon, I quickly discovered it’s almost impossible to get even the big Moon in the field of a small-chip camera with just a finder scope. Even a carefully aligned finder scope. It was difficult enough to make me want to give up and carry the scope back inside before I’d taken a single shot.

A flip-mirror will preserve your blood pressure and hairline.  It is much like a star diagonal, but with some important differences. In addition to an opening for an eyepiece, there’s another port, on the rear of this “diagonal” for a camera. And the diagonal’s mirror is moveable. You flip it down to send images to the eyepiece, and up to send them to the camera. Find the Moon with the eyepiece, flip the mirror up, and it will be in the field of your camera. This is a huge aggravation preventer, and if you plan to do much lunar and planetary picture taking, even with a goto mount, you want one. A goto will put you on the Moon, but the flip mirror will help you find individual features.

Then there is the camera. Like many of today’s Solar System workers, I am using a ZWO camera. This little wonder is somewhat like a webcam and somewhat like a CCD camera. It can take many frames per second—up to 30 at its max resolution of 1280 x 960 and many more at lower resolutions. Years ago, amateurs found the way to attain high-resolution Solar System images is to take many frames and use special software to stack the best ones, those captured during the moments of best seeing.

That’s not all this little cam can do, however. It can expose for as long as 16-minutes, more than enough to capture galaxies and clusters. While it is uncooled and has a small (1/3-inch) CMOS chip, folks have taken amazingly good deep sky images with it. I even use mine for capturing stellar spectra with RSpec. The current versions of the camera also feature ST-4 guide ports, so you can use ‘em as guide cameras. Unk owns the color version, the ZWO ASI120MC, but a monochrome version, the MM, is available for just a little more money and is even sharper and more sensitive.

The ZWO has no way of storing images; it simply sends an .avi video stream to your computer via a USB connection. You must have a computer and software to control the camera and save video on the hard drive. While the ZWO will work with many programs, the best I’ve found, the best software I’ve used for this purpose after a dozen years of working with similar cameras, is the free FireCapture.

When you’ve got those .avi videos on your drive, you stack their individual frames into finished still images. What I am using to do that is an old favorite of a program, Registax. While a new soft, Autostakkert, has a lot of fans, I have had varied success with it. Sometimes it works better than Registax; sometimes I can’t get it to work at all. That’s likely pilot error, and I am continuing to play with the software.

I told y’all I use an SCT for my Moon pictures, but I didn’t mention which one. While I’ve used my Celestron Edge 800, Mrs. Emma Peel, with great success, I’ve mostly worked with my 1995 Ultima OTA, Celeste. Why? Simply because she is set up to use a JMI Motofocus motor, which makes getting sharply focused images easier.

The night after I took Shelly into the silv’ry moonlight, I was out again with Celeste and my ZWO cam. I’d set up in the late afternoon with the scope positioned on the ground next to the deck. I’d sit at the table on the deck with the PC and run the show from there. Before I could get going, though, a couple of things intervened. First, Pat called needing advice on getting his new SynScan mount going to its gotos properly. When I rung off with him, I noticed the consarned Moon had still not cleared the gum tree. That tree’s days are numbered, y’all, I swear.

When the Moon was out of the limbs half-an-hour later, I headed back outside and set the laptop up on the deck. First thing I noted? At 7:30 p.m., the glass tabletop was already wet with heavy dew. Rut-roh. I hadn’t installed the DewBuster heater and heater strips on the scope. Usually, I can get by with just a dew shield in the backyard, but not on this evening.

A check of the corrector showed it was, yep, fogged. I got my little dewzapper (12-volt window defroster) gun out of the shop and zapped the dew off. I knew it wouldn’t stay off, so I headed inside and returned with the ‘Buster and a corrector heater strip. Got those things on Celeste, turned the controller up to 10-degrees above ambient, and there was no more trouble with dew for the remainder of the evening.

Next, I did a 2 + 4 goto alignment with the VX mount, and then essayed an AllStar polar alignment (at high focal ratios, good tracking is important). With the VX purring, I cabled the camera to the Toshiba Satellite laptop with a USB cord, and ran the motofocus motor’s cable to the deck (using extensions) so I could sit at the computer and focus.

When all that was “go,” I booted up FireCapture, got the lunar terminator focused, and started the other software I use during lunar imaging, Virtual Moon Atlas. Not only does VMA help me navigate the maze of lunar craters, its Notes function informs me as to whether I’ve already imaged a particular feature or not. When I am finished with a crater or mountain, I select it and enter “imaged” and the date in VMA’s “notes” tab. It’s a little like using a deep sky planner/logger for the Moon. Oh, as I have mentioned here before, VMA also provides lunar goto.

Why would you need goto for the freaking Moon? It is a tremendous time-saver. Even if you are reasonably familiar with the lunar surface, like Unk is once again becoming, it’s easy to get lost when you are looking at a very small portion of the surface at f/20 with a small chip camera. VMA uses ASCOM, so I can use the on-screen ASCOM “hand control” to center a crater without worrying about fooling with the mount’s HC. When I’ve got a known feature in view, I “sync” on it with VMA and am good to go. I accidentally synced the program on the wrong feature in the beginning this time, and it took me a while to get that sorted, but before long me and Celeste was rolling.

So, what did we roll with?

Klein

I thought I’d start with Albategnius, a large and impressive formation adjacent to the crazy-good triple threat of Ptolemaeus, Alphonsus, and Arzachel. Unfortunately, my Notes entry said I’d already gotten it. The seeing was briefly steady, though, and as I had not officially shot the smaller crater that intrudes on the east wall of Albategnius. I centered up Klein and fired off a thousand frames.
Klein, which is medium-sized, 45.0 x 45.0Km, is interesting, with a mostly flat floor, but one that is festooned with numerous small craters and a central peak. This crater is old, apparently dating from  the Nectarian Age (3.92 billion to 3.85 billion years ago), and looks it, with its rim having been badly pummeled and covered with smaller craters.  

Archimedes

After Klein, I temporarily headed back north where I noticed the fantastic dark-floored crater Archimedes was emerging from lunar night. Frankly, I was surprised I hadn’t photographed this one before, but I hadn’t. At First Quarter, Archimedes is particularly prominent. It is also set in an intriguing area on the shores of Mare Imbrium not far from the lovely crater pair of Autolycus and Aristillus.

What is Archimedes like? This  83.0Km. round crater is a lot like Plato, with a dark lava-covered floor scattered with craterlets. With it just coming into the dawn, the shadows from Archimedes’ mountainous rim obscured much of the floor in my shot, but were very photogenic. Looking at those shadows, you can sure see why pre-Apollo space artists like Chesley Bonestell portrayed the Moon’s mountains as needle-tipped spires. Archimedes is a middle-aged crater dating from Upper Imbrian (3.8 billion to 3.2 billion years ago) times.

Theaetetus

Just to the north of Archimedes’ area, you’ll find nice smaller crater, Theaetetus. While it’s only 25Km. across, it looks prominent thanks to steep, sharply defined walls. The crater, which likely dates from the Copernican Age (1.1 billion years ago to present day), is far younger and more fresh looking than most of the formations in the region.

Mons Piton

Also to the north of the Archimedes area and out in the “waters” of Imbrium is one of the non-crater formations on my list, Mons Piton, a 2250 meter peak peeping above the lava sea. Dating from Imbrian times, Mons Piton looks steep and sharp, though Apollo images show it as rounded and “weathered” like other lunar mountains. This area is littered with solitary peaks, the remnants of lava-drowned mountain ranges.

Herschel

If it were located anywhere else, the medium-sized (42km.) and young crater Herschel (named for Sir Willie himself, natch) would be a real standout. Unfortunately, lying just to the north of the trio of Ptolemaeus, Alphonsus, and Arzachel means it gets overlooked. It is attractive, however, with terraced walls and a complex floor, which was unfortunately still in shadow when I made its portrait.

Ptolemaeus

Now here’s a crater for you—though it should really be called a “walled plain.” Ptolemaeus, with Alphonsus and Arzachel, is the most distinctive feature of the First Quarter Moon. Ptolemaeus is the largest of the three big craters at 154.0 x 154.0Km. While distinctive, it is old and softened, having been formed in the Pre-Nectarian Age (4.55 billion years to 3.92 billion years ago.
The floor of this great walled plain is surfaced with lava and cluttered with numerous craterlets. One of those craterlets, Ammonius, is large and prominent enough to bear a name rather than just a letter. The south side of Ptolemaeus has been intruded upon by neighboring and younger Alphonsus.

Alphonsus

My favorite crater? Like most other folks, it’s Copernicus. But Alphonsus is in the running, y’all; it is magnificent. Despite its age—it dates from the Nectarian—it is still well defined and offers a ton of detail for visual observers:  a craterlet-riddled floor, a compact central peak, and an extensive network of rilles. Due to its large size of 118Km in diameter, it, together with the two neighboring craters, Alphonsus and Arzachel, puts almost everything else on the terminator at First Quarter to shame.

There is also romance wrapped up with Alphonsus. Do you know about Transient Lunar Phenomena? Also known as Lunar Transient Phenomena (LTP)? Over the centuries since humans began scrutinizing Luna with telescopes, odd things have been seen on her surface—glowing clouds, obscuring mists, and strange lights. Alphonsus has been the site of numerous LTP reports, including a famous one by the Russian observer Kozyrev in November 1958.

Kozyrev didn’t just see a glow on the crater floor, either; apparently he obtained a spectrum of it (which seemed to be the emission spectrum of carbon). Do I “believe” in LTPs? Maybe not as strongly as I believe in another legendary Solar System mystery, Venus’ Ashen Light (which I’ve seen for myself), but I do think some of these weird lunar phenomena are real, whatever they are.

Arzachel

If Alphonsus is in the favorite-crater running, Arzachel, the third of the First Quarter Big Three, is right behind Copernicus. While it is smaller than Alphonsus and Ptolemaeus at 98.0Km. across, it is slightly younger than its mates, dating from the Lower Imbrian. It looks fresher, and more like a crater than a walled plain. Its terraced walls and a central peak accompanied by a large craterlet and a rille are a sight to see at lunar dawn.

Walther

We have to journey south of Arzachel across 460Km. of increasingly rugged lunar terrain to come to our next stop. Walther is another flat-floored walled-plain with a lot to offer observers. At 141.0Km. in size, it stands out well even in small scopes. Alas, nobody much seems to look at Walther—I don’t hear it much talked about anyway. Appearance-wise, this is an old formation dating from the Nectarian, and looks it with heavily damaged walls and a “tormented” floor. The northeastern area of the crater’s floor has been heavily pounded and is a welter of ridges and large craterlets.

Aliacensis

Aliacensis lies northeast of Walther, and is adjacent to a similar-sized crater, Werner.  Like Walther, Aliacensis is from the Nectarian, and has a soft look in contrast to younger Werner. At 80.0Km in diameter, Aliacensis is nevertheless impressive and sports many craterlets and wrinkle-ridges on its flat floor along with a small, heavily weathered, off-center peak.

Pallas

With haze and fog creeping in, I hopped back north to the area of the Central Sea, Sinus Medii, for one last pickup.  This location, between the rough southern highlands and the northern plains is detailed and interesting and includes the Triesnecker Rille, the oddly shaped crater Ukert, and more. Pallas itself is a heavily damaged walled plain 50.0Km across that comes from Nectarian times. There’s a large and rounded central peak, and a gap in the walls to the east that gives passage into an even more heavily damaged crater, Murchison.

And just as I clicked off the last few frames of Pallas, the fog began to move in in earnest. Shortly, I was drenched and so was the laptop. If I’d a-had good sense, I would have put up the patio table’s big umbrella, which would have kept me drier, but, alas, I didn't have good sense. I hoped I had a pretty good haul of lunar images, anyhow. Big Switch Time.

Next morning, as I began processing my sequences and ticking them off the old Norton’s list, I was pleasantly surprised, mucahchos. The seeing hadn’t been great, but Registax was able to pull out plenty of pleasing detail. It is unexpected triumphs like that that keep me coming back to my lunar imaging project. Actually, I’d keep coming back to the Moon, project or no. Diana’s silv’ry countenance has kept me enthralled for half a century, and there’s no sign our love affair, at least, is going to wane.

Next Time: As is our custom here, the next edition of the Little Old Blog from Chaos Manor South will not appear next Sunday, but on Christmas Eve and will likely be a tetch shorter and more sentimental than usual...

Sunday, December 07, 2014

 

My Favorite Fuzzies: M31, The Andromeda Nebula


I reckon I am not the only amateur who loves M31, “Andromeda,” as me and my buddies in the legendary Backyard Astronomy Society called it when we were kids. And I am probably not the only amateur who’s had a decades long love-hate relationship with the big galaxy. For Unk it was most assuredly more hate than love in the beginning.

What was it that li’l Unk longed to see more than anything else in the months between his first look at a telescope that seemed attainable, Stephanie’s Telescope, and receiving his 3-inch Tasco reflector? Which pictures did he spend hours mooning over in Stars and in Universe (from the old Science Service), his only two astronomy books? Why galaxies, of course. Gorgeous spirals like M101 and amazing edge-ons like M104.

When Daddy came into li’l Unk’s bedroom early one spring morning in 1965 bearing that Tasco in his arms, I felt like the whole Universe was about to open before me. I was realistic, however. I’d learned enough from the only advanced astronomy book Mama had on her shelves at Kate Shepard Elementary, Patrick Moore and Percy Wilkins’ How to Make and Use a Telescope, that 3-inches might be a little small for looking at most galaxies. That was OK. I’d also learned M31, The Andromeda Nebula (as it was still often called in them days), was close, big, and bright and would be coming round with the autumn stars in just a few months.

Not that I didn’t hunt a few of the spring galaxies before then. To no avail. I didn’t know what a galaxy should look like in my telescope, and especially not how dim even the ones the books called “bright” would be—I thought M51, for example, should look about as bright in my eyepiece as it did in the pictures, just smaller.  It also didn’t help that my scope didn’t have a finder—it had a pair of peep-sights instead—and that I had no idea how to star hop. Even if I'd had an inkling of how to locate objects I couldn't see with my naked eye, I didn't have star charts good enough to help me do so.

I had plenty of fun with the few deep sky objects I could find, mostly bright open clusters. The Tasco’s optics were on the putrid side, and stars and star clusters looked considerably better in her than the Moon and planets. Still, that was just a prelude. As soon as September, I knew, knew, I’d be glorying in the sight of the huge spiral M31.

When school let back in and Andromeda and Pegasus began lifting over the horizon, you can bet I was out there with my telescope. On the weekends, at least. Much as I wanted to get out every clear night, Mama would not hear of it on school nights, even if I’d already done my homework. Observing was not allowed till Friday evening. Not until months and months after I got the scope, when I got the bright idea of getting Daddy interested in looking through the Tasco. That was sheer genius. All Mama would usually do was fume when Daddy announced, “The boy and I are just going to have a quick look at the Moon.” 

Anyhow, on the first clear Friday or Saturday night in late September, I was in the front yard with the Tasco (the house blocked objects low in the east from out back). I suppose it's amazing I managed to find M31 at all—after about half an hour of hunting. Or maybe not so amazing. By this time, I at least had enough sense to use my longest focal length eyepiece (about 30X) for finding.  M31 is huge enough to be hard to miss, anyway, and I now had a subscription to Sky & Telescope and could use its monthly star chart to get me in the general vicinity of the galaxy.

I put my eye to my little .965” eyepiece expecting, as usual, not to see nuthin’ at all, but there was indeed something there. Not much of anything, but something. What there was was a big, round fuzzy ball. I kept staring and I eventually saw the ball was set in a streak of nebulosity that extended well beyond the puny field of my eyepiece—likely a Huygenian with a 30-degree AFOV. At first I wasn’t convinced this was Andromeda, but a moment’s reflection assured me it must be. All the books talked about how bright the galaxy was, and what else even this bright would be here?

Did li’l Rod jump for joy and run into the house hollering that the Old Man just had to come out and look right now? Nope. I was badly disappointed and a little embarrassed for my poor little scope. The pictures of Andromeda in my books, including the shot done by the Mount Wilson folks, didn't make the galaxy look like M51 or M101.  M31, it was clear, didn’t have the out-flung arms of those galaxies, but it still looked better than this mess, this fuzzball set in a saucer of dimmer fuzz.

But…but…everything I read insisted M31 was bright. To li’l old me, that implied my telescope should show detail like in the pictures, just a lot smaller and maybe a little dimmer. Well, then, could my problem be that Andromeda was still too low in the east and in the light dome from nearby Highway 90 with its hordes of neon-adorned motels?

So, I waited a while, till Thanksgiving Vacation—when Mama couldn't complain about me using the telescope on a dadgum weeknight. In late November, the sky was taking on that beautiful, dark appearance fall’s passing cold fronts bring. Orion was peeping over the trees in the east just before Mama hollered me in each night, but the target for this evening was M31.

The result was yet more disappointment. Yes, Andromeda looked a little better. The ball looked brighter and so did the saucer it was sitting in. But that was it. I didn’t see dark lanes or star clouds or nothing else. The problem, I reckoned, was that my Tasco was just too puny, and, like generations of amateur astronomers before and since, I began dreaming of MORE APERTURE and scheming as to how to get it.

Six months later, I did have a bigger scope. It wasn’t much bigger at 4.25-inches, and it sure wasn’t easy to get, but I did get it. Would it help with that cursed M31? I hoped it would, but I had my doubts. Still, I was heartened by what the book, The New Handbook of the Heavens, included in the box with my new (used) Palomar Junior, had to say about the galaxy:
The Great Nebula in Andromeda. This grand spiral is visible to the naked eye as a hazy star, and is the brightest spiral in the sky. A most interesting object:  with low telescopic power, a large, bright elliptical mass; more detail and spiral structure are seen with larger instruments.
Most interesting, huh? Well, that meant it had to be more than just a fuzzball floating on a sea of thin milk, didn’t it?

Just as the Tasco had, the Palomar Junior came to me in the spring of the year, the late spring of 1966, so I had to wait months to see what, if anything, it would do to improve M31. At least I would be able to find it more easily now. The combo of more aperture, a (small) finder scope, Norton's Star Atlas, and me learning to star hop thanks to the help of my buddies in the vaunted BAS, meant I was beginning to knock off the brighter Messiers. I was heartened that every one of ‘em looked better than in the Tasco (those few I’d even seen in the Tasco).

Well hell!” Li’l Unk exclaimed at his first sight of M31 with the 4.25-inch. It sure was a good thing Mama wasn’t in earshot, because the words that came next wouldn’t just have caused her Profanity Meter to twitch, but to redline. The galaxy didn’t look better than it had in the Tasco; if anything, it was worse.

If the central area was brighter, it wasn’t much brighter, and it filled more of the field, with the disk of M31 being less visible with my new 1-inch Kellner (no silly little millimeters in them days) at 48x than it had been with the Tasco’s lowest power, 30x. Was the Pal somehow BROKEN? Nope. A side trip to the (bright) fuzzball of M15, which I’d conquered not long before—with some difficulty—showed the scope seemed to be working well.

The obvious was finally staring me in the face. M31 was big. Real big. What the books said regarding its size, two-and-a-half degrees, was finally sinking in regarding just how huge this thing was in the sky.  Almost five times bigger than the field of my Kellner. While I wasn’t sure, I suspected this large size might be the reason it didn’t look anywhere near as bright as the magnitude I’d seen listed for it in the New Handbook, 4.3, implied it would. That was just a suspicion, and it took a while longer for me to learn “bigger” always equals “dimmer” when it comes to extended objects.

So, that meant a big scope wasn’t appropriate for the thing. But who wanted to fool with small telescopes? And how did big observatories like Mount Wilson get pictures of the whole thing? I didn’t know pea turkey about wide-field cameras or mosaics. I just figgered they slapped a camera on the 100-inch in place of its eyepiece and snapped away, just like I did with my Argus 75. I put it down to THE MYSTERIES OF  PROFESSIONAL ASTRONOMY, and decided I might as well just move on.

Wasn't nothing for it; I had to admit Sam Brown, in the other book that came with the Pal, his How to Use Your Telescope, had nailed it. In contrast to the New Handbook’s “most interesting,” Sam opined that all I would probably see of Messier 31 would be the round glow of the galaxy’s center.

I suppose before we take another step, campers, I really ort-ta stop and do the just-the-facts-ma’m thing. Messier 31, a.k.a. NGC 224, a.k.a. PGC 2557 is a type Sb spiral galaxy. It is nearly edge-on to us, which is what prevents it from making a show with its spiral arms, which are somewhat tightly wrapped, anyway. It is bright, as you’d expect, since it is close, a mere 2.6-million light years away. Even in these light polluted days, it is still visible from half-way decent suburban locations as a fuzzy star about 4-degrees west of magnitude 3.9 Mu Andromedae, the second star from the end of Andromeda’s western chain of suns. If you could smoosh M31 down to a pinpoint, it would look about as bright as Mu.

Down Chiefland Way...
A small, short focal length telescope is a good telescope for M31, but wider field eyepieces can make it better in any telescope. My first dream scope, a Cave f/7 Newtonian I got in the 1970s, was of moderate focal length, but my eyepieces were still of the soda straw apparent field variety. Orthoscopics. Kellners. Even a fugitive Ramsden or two. 

Oh, I had my eye on the More Better Gooder eyepiece-wise, a lovely Edmund Scientific Erfle I’d wanted for a long dang time, but buying the Cave had temporarily exhausted my treasury.  Before I could get a-hold of a wider field eyepiece, I’d grown tired of hauling the long-tubed Cave into the foothills of the Ozarks in my Dodge Dart in the dead of Arkansas winter and sold it, replacing the Newtonian with a C8 Schmidt Cassegrain with 2000 dadgum millimeters of focal length. Unsurprisingly, the C8 wasn’t very good for looking at M31, at least not the galaxy as a whole, not with my eyepiece lineup.

In the years that followed, I would wander over Andromeda way occasionally, for old time’s sake, but didn't pay serious attention to the galaxy again for a long time. Not till the mid 1990s, when the Celestron f/6.3 reducer and ultra-wide-field eyepieces like the Naglers made my C8 into a lean, mean Andromeda machine.

Wider is better for this object. Sometimes. What was brought home to me one night at the Peach State Star Gaze, however, was not so much that, properly equipped, the C8 could take in a lot—though hardly all—of the enormous galaxy, but how much there was to see of Andromeda at all magnifications and field widths.

I didn’t really set out to tour M31 at the 2001 PSSG; it just happened. I was tired after the drive up to Jackson, Georgia and didn't want to spend hours hunting hard stuff. M31 was bright and well-placed for observing. Also, I’d piggybacked my new Celestron Short Tube 80 on the C8, and I figgered that little bird ought to be a natural for the big galaxy.

I gave M31 plenty of time that night and saw one hell of a lot, from its tiny star-like nucleus, to subtle, barely visible details near the nucleus—hints of odd, branching dust lanes—to the immense star cloud NGC 206, to two dark lanes in the disk. This was the best view I’d ever had of the satellite galaxies, which were big and bold. I didn’t stop with them, though.

I hadn’t intended to spend much, if any, time looking at M31, but before I’d left home, I’d had the idea that if I did get around to it, I might try for the ultimate concerning that object. I’d brought along a finder chart that pointed the way to M31’s most prominent globular star clusters. I spotted the brightest of them, G1, with fair ease. It didn’t look like much, just a slightly fuzzy star, but I was gobsmacked to think my humble C8 could show me a globular cluster of another galaxy. The most amazing thing? When I pumped up the power, G1 actually began to look a little like an unresolved glob. It wasn’t much different, really, from the smudge of M15 in my 3-inch Tasco on that long ago night.

While the C8, my Ultima C8, Celeste, showed Andromeda’s details beautifully, the Short Tube refractor delivered the big picture—in spades. In the 80mm f/5, M31 really looked like a galaxy for once. The little scope picked up both dark dust lanes with fair ease, and the big disk just seemed to stretch on forever. If all I’d seen at that star party had been that vision of the great spiral in the little ST-80, the trip would have been worth it.

What is the best view, overall, of the galaxy I’ve ever had? That came one special night at the 2008 Chiefland Star Party with my 12-inch Dobsonian, Old Betsy. How was it? You can read the blog entry, “The 8mm Ethos Faces Dark Skies,” but here’s the relevant quote:

M31 was riding high, so why not? 8mm may sound like a lot of magnification to use on this elephant of a galaxy, but it really is not, not if you want details instead of just the big picture…I saw more of M31 than I’d seen in a long time. Heck, I don’t know I’ve ever had as good a view of this monster with any scope.

Start with the dark lanes. Two were starkly visible. The satellite galaxies, M32 and M110? M32 nearly ruined my night vision. M110 was large—huge—and I seemed to see some sort of fleeting detail near its core. Speaking of galactic nuclei, M31’s core...was not merely “star-like,” it was a tiny blazing pinpoint. I also noticed that something I have had a lot of trouble with over the years, the galaxy’s enormous star cloud, NGC 206, was not merely “suspected” or “visible,” it was bright and easy. 

In the years since, I’ve never quite equaled that observation, though I came close one fairly recent night at the Deep South Regional Star Gaze. While the galaxy was similar in majesty, NGC 206, which I use as a yardstick to how “good” the galaxy is on any given evening, wasn’t as prominent.

DSI M31
How about picture taking? Curiously, I’ve never really gotten a decent shot of Andromeda. Probably because I haven’t done much trying. Oh, I snapped a few frames with my Yashica SLR and my Cave back in the hallowed Day, but the question regarding my results was always, “Is that M31 or a custard pie?” I have had several wide-field refractors in addition to the ST-80 over the years, but only once have I slapped a camera on one and turned it to M31, and that was kinda as an afterthought.

In January of 2009, I had a big expedition to the Chiefland Astronomy Village planned. I was out to kill the deep sky with my NexStar 11 and my Stellacam 2 deep sky video camera. One of Unk’s doctors put the kibosh on that. It seemed I had developed a small and non-threatening skin cancer on my forehead that nevertheless had to be removed, which took place the fraking day before my trip.

Unk was not about to be robbed of his CAV fun, though Miss Dorothy was skeptical. She was reassured when I promised I’d leave the big, heavy 11-inch at home. I’d back off to the C8 and my CG5 German equatorial mount. Almost as an afterthought, I threw my 66mm William Optics SD refractor and my old Meade DSI camera into the Camry and was off.

At the site, I found the surgery had affected my stamina more than I’d expected. It was also some of the coldest weather I have experienced down south in Florida.  So, I spent my nights at the CAV “just” looking at pretty things, both with the C8 and with the refractor, which I’d piggybacked on the SCT, and with testing new hand control firmware.

One element of that updated firmware was Celestron’s spanking new AllStar polar alignment procedure. How would I test its effectiveness? Why not slap the DSI on the refractor and do some unguided 30-second shots of…well…how about M31? The resulting frames were certainly not masterpieces, but they did show that the polar alignment system worked, and they did allow me to claim I’d finally taken a recognizable picture of the galaxy.

I hope to do better soon. In the past, I’ve never been much interested in wide field photography, but that seems to be changing. As soon as M31 is in the west and out of the Possum Swamp light dome again, I may get that old 66mm scope out of mothballs and see how she'll do on M31 with a modern DSLR.

Messier 31, the Andromeda Nebula (I guess I will never stop calling it that), has been a challenge for your old Uncle for near 50 freaking years. I probably won't surpass that look at Andromeda down in Chiefland in '08, but I’ve got a long way to go with it astrophotography wise. Maybe that is a good thing, muchachos; it feels good and right that the book isn't quite closed on Andromeda for me yet.

Next Time: Destination Moon Night 8...

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