Sunday, November 29, 2015

 

Nights of the Living Star Party…


It had been a while since I’d visited the Chiefland Astronomy Village; I hadn’t been there since February 2015, actually. There were a number of reasons for that. Most prominently, the weather. As I said last week, this has not been much of a year for amateur astronomy east of the Mississippi. One of the cloudiest springs, followed by one of the cloudiest summers, followed by one of the cloudiest autumns in memory. Why drive 350-miles to sit in a motel and watch it rain when I can sit home and watch it rain in comfort?

There were other factors involved, too. Like maybe a hangover from the many, many nights I spent on the CAV field working the Herschel Project. I’d done the Chiefland journey so many times, especially from 2010 – 2012, that I just needed a break. All those reasons and a few others as well conspired to cause my longest absence from Chiefland since I began observing there in 2002.

I didn’t believe my desertion of the Billy Dodd Observing Field would be forever, though; I just needed the right time and circumstance for my return. And perhaps that time and circumstance had finally come into conjunction. I’d been aware for months that the group that observes on the “old” (formerly owned by Tom Clark) field, the “Chiefland Observers,” was planning to resurrect the Chiefland Star Party. Indeed, I got a call from my friend Carl Wright telling me that was exactly what he wanted to do, and in a big way.

Even as fall came in, I still wasn’t quite sure I was ready for another journey “down Chiefland way,” but an honest to God star party like in the old days sounded fun, and I wanted to support the Chiefland Observers. I told Carl I’d attend and, in addition, agreed to give a presentation at the event, gratis.

The Quality Inn was much improved...
Does the course of amateur astronomy always run smooth? Not hardly. First problem came when I tried to make motel reservations. One of the best things about CAV for me is the relative proximity of motels, which I much prefer to tents, but when (after waiting until the last minute) I tried to make reservations for Thursday – Sunday, I was stymied. All I could get was one night, Thursday, at the Chiefland Quality Inn. There was nothing else available in town. Not even Miss Dorothy, a master at finding and booking accommodations, could get me anything.  Not e’en at the somewhat seedy Days Inn. This was surprising but not unprecedented.

Despite its status as a small town off the beaten path, Chiefland has its share of tourist attractions and festivals. I’d been caught out because of that once before, one summer during the Herschel Project, but that was summer. I didn’t expect problems in autumn. Oh, well. Since I’d agreed to give a talk, I thought I should bite the bullet and attend the star party anyway. I booked a room at the Quality Inn for Thursday; I’d check out Friday morning and tent camp for another day or two.

The second fly in my ointment came in the form of a phone call from star party organizer Carl Wright. Seemed as there had been some sort of mix-up. They had me down as speaking on Thursday instead of Friday as I thought we’d agreed on. Alas, for several reasons I wouldn’t be able to make it down until after they had me scheduled to speak.

Was I annoyed? Yes I was. I'd spent considerable time tailoring a presentation for the event, and felt disrespected. I thought I deserved better than the "Oh, well, sorry about that," which was basically what I'd received. Since I'd agreed to cover my fuel and motel expenses on my own, I thought seriously about skipping the event. Frankly, for some of the unrelated reasons hinted at above, I wasn't much in a star party mood anyway.

On the other hand, I couldn’t see myself missing out on the revived CSP. I’d had great times at the old star parties and the old spring picnics, and from what Carl said, with well over one-hundred registrations this would be a lot like the old days. I also thought that getting out and about would be better than moping around the house. So, come Wednesday afternoon, I loaded up Miss Van Pelt, my Toyota 4Runner—or more properly rearranged and switched out a few items.

I’d had the good sense to leave most of the astro-gear in the truck following our return from the Deep South Regional Star Gaze the previous Saturday. All I had to do was remove the old C8 and CG5 (which I'd hoped to sell at the star party but hadn't) and replace them with the Edge 800 OTA, Mrs. Emma Peel, who would ride on the VX mount. The 80mm Megrez II refractor was still in her case and ready to go and so was the VX. Naturally, given the motel situation, I packed my camping gear--tent, cot, sleeping bag.

Early Thursday morning, I was ready to roll, but delayed my departure until 8:30 am. I was trying to wait for the garbage pickup; we’d missed it being at the DSRSG the previous week, and the can was beginning to overflow. While, I'd lose an hour on the journey to CAV, which is on Eastern time, if I left at 8:30 and didn’t waste time, I’d be in Chiefland by three-thirty or so, which would allow me a couple of hours for set up before sundown. Since I did have a motel room for Thursday night, I wouldn’t have to worry about messing with the tent until Friday, which would expedite the process.

Sundown Thursday...
Finally on the road, I passed the time listening to Sirius XM Radio and getting my observing plans settled in my mind. My agenda would be much like at the DSRSG, prime focus imaging with my DSLR in the service of a magazine article I was writing, along with some video astronomy time (on the last night, I thought) with the Revolution Imager.

The 350-miles between Mobile and Chiefland didn’t exactly pass in a flash, but it didn’t seem too terribly long before I was leaving the Interstate and getting on the storied Florida – Georgia Parkway after refueling at the old Sunoco station at Exit 225 (I even allowed myself a little junk food in the form of a SASQUATCH BIG STICK).

When I arrived in C-land a little over two hours later, I stuck to my time-tested Plan: check into the motel, out to the field for gear set-up, back to town for needed supplies from Wally World, return to the CAV to await darkness. This time of year you have to hustle, but the routine is such a familiar one that I usually don’t have any trouble beating twilight.

The big surprise? I hadn’t been overly depressed about the motel situation given the “quality” of the Quality Inn last time I’d stayed there (the Days Inn has been even worse the last couple of years). Now, I was somewhat depressed. The new owners of the Quality Inn have made great strides. It still ain’t exactly the Ritz, but it is now at least as good as the Days Inn was years ago when it was a Holiday Inn Express: comfortable and clean. I enquired about rooms at the desk, but there was still nothing; apparently there was some sort of huge motorcycle rally/meet in progress and every room in town really was booked.

The second surprise was the observing field. I wasn’t quite sure what I’d find, and was gobsmacked, frankly, by what I saw. Maybe there weren’t quite as many scopes on the field as there’d been at the height of the old star party, but almost. And once I’d got the EZ-Up and scope squared away, a walk around the field revealed there were some things the new event had that the old star party lacked.

Meals on wheels CAV style...
First off all, food service. There was a food truck—well, trailer—selling inexpensive meals (think “Micki’s Kitchen”). But the biggest deal was for me was all the vendors. Dealers at star parties have become something of an endangered species the last few years because of the economy, I suppose. But given what I saw at CSP, the welcome presence of gear merchants at star parties is making a comeback.

There was Camera Concepts with a huge, and I do mean huge, layout. There was Explore Scientific with mucho stuff. My old friend Chuck Pisa was there too with a big display of his own—Chuck is now the distributor for Olivon. Howie Glatter was showing off his famous (and famously good) collimation tools and more. Daystar was onsite, too. There was so much cool-looking stuff I knew I would most assuredly wind up buying something if I didn’t win anything at the raffle. All that astro-stuff was just too darned tempting. Since it is unlikely to say the least that I will win anything at a star party, I figured I’d surely be buying.

What the Chiefland Observers had done for their first event was admittedly impressive, as I told Carl. Telescopes everywhere, including on the “new” field to the west. The star party is now a cooperative affair between the two groups, something I am pleased to see.

After my quick survey of the vendors, I returned to town for my customary visit to Wally World. Grabbed ice, granola bars, and a couple of other necessities, and with the Sun now well and truly sinking it was time to scurry back to the observing field. There, it was obvious it was going to be a beautifully clear if dew-heavy night. I am constantly amazed that the skies of the CAV remain so good. When conditions are right they can still just blow me away.

Midnight munchies? They had you covered...
The rest of the story Thursday went about like it usually does on the first night of any star party for me. I was tired, and that led to me struggling with the telescope. I just couldn’t get the VX and Edge 800 decently aligned. Everything was off. Till I realized the mount/scope was woefully out of balance thanks to my fuzzy-headedness. When I finally figured out what my problem was, I got an exposure sequence of M37 underway.

When I’d got the scope guiding with PHD2 and the subframes clicking off with Nebulosity, there wasn’t much else for me to do. Nothing, actually, which was a good thing this time. It gave me the opportunity to try out the new products Russ Lederman (Denkmeier Optical) was showing off. One of those products was Russ’ new 3-D eyepieces. When he first told me about these oculars a few weeks before, I was skeptical. Russ said the 3-D effect was “startling,” but I had my doubts. Actually looking through a pair of the L-O-A (“Lederman Optical Array”) 21mm eyepieces changed my mind.

There was M27, the Dumbbell Nebula, floating before me. It was in the foreground, and the field stars were in the background. I don’t mean the subtle 3-D effect you get with any binoviewer and normal eyepieces, I mean a dramatic effect. The eyepieces worked on any object we turned the telescope, Carl’s 22-inch Dob, to. Bright. Dim. Didn’t matter. The 3-D was obvious and impressive. Frankly, I think the results would have been even better with a little less focal length, but it was nevertheless immersive—if a little artificial feeling. Naturally you aren't seeing real 3-D, it's an artificial special effect, but it is pretty.

That wasn’t all. Russ was also demonstrating a pair of 8x42mm binoculars that incorporated the same technology. In their own way, the binocs were as impressive as the eyepieces. The North America Nebula, which was easy with the glasses on this night, showed the faux 3-D effect strongly. Double Cluster? Maybe even better. Would either the eyepiece or the binoculars be something I'd consider buying? They work exactly as advertised, but I'm not sure how long it would be before the novelty wears off.

Dealers everywhere...
Shortly after I finished admiring the Universe in 3-D, my exposure sequence ended. I then went on to target two, M79, which I believed would be it for the night. It had taken me so long to diagnose and fix my telescope problems that I was late in getting started and it was now almost midnight. I did an hour on Lepus’ little globular (plus an hour of darks) and threw the Big Switch and not at all reluctantly. I was tired to the point where not even a Monster Energy Drink could revive me.

It was oh-so-nice to sip a little warming Burgundy and watch television back at the warm, dry motel—as I’d predicted, the night had been almost as damp as my evenings at the Deep South Regional Star Gaze had been. I’d had a nice evening despite my problems, and I had to admit some of that old Chiefland magic seemed to be back. But I wondered about Friday night. I’d be transferring my residence to a tent, after all. Well, I’d examine my options on the morrow. For tonight I was done.

After a free motel breakfast—scrambled eggs and fruit—it was time to check out of the Quality Inn and head for the observing field. Well, not quite. First stop was Wally-World again.  I had become unsure about the wisdom of setting up my tent. Carl had one pitched, and in the damp conditions it had begun to get moldy in just a few days. I conceived the idea of sleeping in the back of the 4Runner instead.

I was afraid a sleeping bag on cargo bed might be a bit hard on my back, though, so I went looking for something to provide at least a little padding. Cruising the Wal-Mart outdoor department aisles, I was torn between an air mattress and a simple sleeping bag pad. The air mattress would be easier on my back, but I’d have to inflate it and wrestle with it. I decided that for one night one of the thin foam pads would be sufficient.

One night? I wasn’t going to stay through Saturday? I didn’t think so. If I’d had a motel room, it would have been different, but I didn’t. I suspected two nights in Miss Van Pelt would be OK, but that wasn’t the problem. The problem was facilities. It was in the low fifties/upper forties Friday morning, and I suspected it would be the same Saturday and Sunday. That does not lend the site’s open air showers much appeal. And the portapotties were getting a little, well…you know… If tenderfoot me can’t perform my morning ablutions in comfort first thing in the morning, I am not much good for the rest of the day. I had begun to think I might hit the road Saturday shortly after first light.

Scopes old and new...
I was sorry I wouldn’t have time to work further with the Revolution video camera—I needed to do more DSLRing Friday night—but I wasn’t sure conditions would be very good Saturday anyway. The sky had been great Thursday, and was predicted to be the same Friday, but Saturday night would tend to partly cloudy. If I had to turn astro-wimp, Saturday was the night to wimp out on.

Back at the CAV, I did some reconfiguring. I removed the tent and cot from the 4Runner, but not to set them up, just to clear a sleeping space in Miss Van Pelt’s commodious rear. With pad and sleeping bag arranged, I got in to give it a try. I am just short enough to be able to stretch out completely and rest in comfort in the back of the 4Runner. The truck is quite well insulated and has AC and DC outlets in back for phone charging or running my radio or DVD player. I thought I might actually be more comfortable in the truck on a cool night than in my (good) tent.

After getting my bedroom area in order, I also reconfigured the scope, switching out the Edge SCT for the fluorite refractor. My goal was semi-wide-field, and especially the vaunted double cluster, and the Megrez II ought to be perfect for that. This time, I made sure balance was just right:  slightly east heavy, but not too east heavy.

What did I do with all the hours left till sundown? Relaxed. Read (Batman: Earth One). Took pictures for yet another magazine article I am doing. Admired my fellow attendees’ scopes. Cruised dealer tables trying to decide what I wanted. The day was long, very long. One of the reasons I find a motel attractive is that I can surf the Internet and watch TV there, which makes the daylight hours pass much more quickly. Nevertheless, I survived, making it to raffle time at 2 pm.

I...I...I WON SOMETHING!
How were the prizes? As with everything else, they were what you’d expect at a star party that’s been going on for years, not at a new one. Why the table practically groaned under the weight of prizes donated by Camera Concepts, Explore Scientific, Olivon, Howie Glatter, Orion and more. Which wouldn’t help me, I guessed. Doesn’t make a difference how many prizes there are, I never win anything anyway.

So imagine my dumbfounded amazement when MC extraordinaire Mike Harvey called my ticket number. I’d won something, and not just any something. Thanks to the kindness of Explore Scientific (represented by Greg Bragg), I was the proud new owner of a 4.7mm 82-degree eyepiece. This is a focal length I don’t have in a wide field, and which I’d been wanting and trying to convince myself to pony up for. When Greg brought the ocular by my EZ-Up just before dark, I was duly impressed; not just by the fine looking eyepiece, but by its impressive presentation box. I could hardly wait to try it out…but I hadn’t planned on doing any visual observing. Hmmm…

Darkness came, and I got to work, doing a two hour sequence (with darks) of the Double Cluster. Looking at the raw shots coming in, I could tell it would be a good one—given my modest imaging skills. When Nebulosity played the little fanfare that means “sequence is done,” I went on to target two, which finished up at about midnight. What then? I hibernated the telescope and went to bed.

I went to bed at freaking midnight? Yep. But I had a plan. I’d grab a few hours of shuteye and get up at around 3 am. That would help me be rested enough for the journey home in the morning—I’d indeed had enough of portapotties—but also allow me to get in some visual observing of the winter sky including with my brand new eyepiece.

Snug in my sleeping bag in the 4Runner, looking up through her Moon roof at the wheeling stars above, I found it easy to drop off, and it seemed as if only a few minutes had passed before I was being awakened by my iPhone’s alarm (my new 6s…in the course of packing for Peach State, I dropped my old 4s and broke it). Outside, the winter star pictures were riding high, and it wasn’t long before I had the Megrez refractor, Miss Veronica Lodge, pointed at M42.

Double Cluster...
The sky was dark and clear, and the William Optics refractor, while small in aperture, is very finely made. In it, M42 and the Running Man Nebula were a beautiful dream whether in the 15mm Orion Expanse (I’d brought along a box of 1.25-inch eyepieces just in case) or zoomed in with my wonderful new 4.7 ES. The new eyepiece displayed plenty of contrast and was tack sharp across its entire huge field. I really could not have wished for better. I’d been told the Explore Scientific 82-degree field eyepieces are some of the best values in amateur astronomy, and now I believed it.

Every object that appeared in my telescope was sparkling with beauty, and again and again I couldn’t believe this was “just” an 80mm telescope. What were the standouts? The Tau Ceti cluster was wonderful in the 4.7, and, when I equipped it with a UHC filter, so was the nearby Thor’s Helmet Nebula. In the 15mm and 20mm Expanses, the bigger objects strutted their stuff. M35 was a wonder (its little companion cluster, NGC 2158, began to resolve with the 4.7). The piece de resistance, though? M45, the good old Pleiades.

In the 20mm Expanse, what I saw was much like the image I shot of the Seven Sisters at DSRSG:  burning sapphires wreathed in nebulosity. This was one time I didn’t have to guess as to whether I was seeing the Merope Nebula. It was just there, and so were some of the even less prominent nebulous patches. So it went for a little over an hour, until I reluctantly tore myself from the scope and returned to bed for a while.

At six, I was up again to pack. It was damp. It was cold. And the experience of early morning gear tear-down was even less pleasant than it had been at DSRSG the previous Friday,  but I pressed on, finishing by 8 am, and was shortly thereafter on the road for home.

At journey’s end, I sat in the den of the New Manse comfy and cozy taking stock. Funny thing about Chiefland? It’s always been my favorite observing spot, but it has never been my favorite star party. Even in the old days, I didn’t think it was quite as good as most other events for one reason or another. That’s changed. The new one is already well on its way to being competitive, and if Carl and company can keep doing what they are doing and burnish off some of the rough edges, this star party could not only be “competitive” but might even aspire to “world class.”

Nota Bene:  You can see many more CSP pictures on my Facebook page...

Sunday, November 22, 2015

 

DSRSG 2015: Dodging Raindrops...


Miss Veronica Lodge...
What’s been the bane of U.S. amateur astronomers east of the Mississippi this year? The weather. The stinking weather. The horrible, cloudy weather. I hoped things were changing for the better, though, and the nice skies we had at the Peach State Star Gaze encouraged me to believe they were, finally. Given that the prospect for storms tends to lessen as you get out of October and into early November, I definitely felt good about our chances for pretty weather for the 2015 Deep South Regional Star Gaze.

I had hopes, yeah, but let’s cut right to the chase:  those hopes were not exactly dashed, but weather conditions didn’t allow the star party to be all it could have been. That was OK; even a slightly compromised star party is way better than staying home.

It was evident a couple of days before it was time to head for the wilds of northern Louisiana and the Feliciana Retreat Center, home of the DSRSG, that this was one of those times when a front’s passage being delayed would not be a good thing. Instead of moving through early in the week, it would creep in on Friday, spoiling the prime Friday/Saturday night action, and, I feared, keeping attendance numbers down. Way down.

While I can have a wonderful time at a completely clouded out star party, plenty of folks will cancel if the weather looks like it won’t be perfect. And with the bad stuff coming in on Friday, those unfortunates who couldn’t take off from work earlier in the week would have no reason at all for coming if all they wanted to do was observe.

Weather forecasts be damned, Tuesday afternoon Dorothy and I loaded up the 4Runner, Miss Lucile Van Pelt, for our departure for DSRSG early on Wednesday morning. One of the greatest things about this star party for us is that it’s only a little over three hours away, and a fairly short drive makes us more willing to face the prospect of a complete skunking.  Not that I believed we’d be totally skunked anyway. I had hopes of getting some images, some DSLR images, for a magazine article I was doing, and also trying out what I believe will be, as its name implies, a revolutionary new video astronomy setup, the Revolution Imager, over the course of the two nights that it appeared would be passable.

The FRC Lodge's lovely dining room...
Rolling west on I-10, all was well until we neared the Louisiana state line. At that point our GPS, piped up with, “The Interstate is closed ahead; we will now detour.” There was major road construction on I-10, 17-freaking miles of it, 17-miles of one lane traffic, and the GPS had thankfully heard (from the road conditions radio broadcast) that an accident had brought traffic to a complete and utter standstill for most of those miles.

We were only delayed about half an hour by the detour onto state highways, and were soon back zooming along on I-12 and headed for Feliciana. Still, I couldn’t help wondering whether this year’s Deep South was turning out to be cursed.

When we pulled onto the storied observing field (we’ve been at the Feliciana Retreat Center location since 2009), the Sun was already past the Meridian and gear set up needed to proceed on apace. What did I set up? First of all, my Megrez II APO refractor, Miss Veronica Lodge, on the Celestron VX mount. It seemed to me that this night would likely be the best of the four, and I intended to concentrate on DSLR imaging with the refractor.

That wasn’t the only scope I assembled, however. I also set up my 1987 Super Polaris C8 OTA on my old CG5 mount. I usually only bring one scope to a star party, but I had good reason for lugging out the ancient SCT:  I wanted to sell her. I’m at the point where I don’t want gear sitting around unused. Among other reasons because I don’t like the idea of scopes collecting dust in my shop when they could be making a young person on a cash-strapped amateur happy. I’d decided the CG5 mount had to go for the same reason. C8 on the CG5, I taped a “for sale” sign to a tripod leg.

Assuming no one stepped up to the plate with some cash right away, I thought I might even use the C8. As above, I came bearing one of Mike Fowler’s (Orange County Telescope) new Revolution video imager kits and I had some hopes of testing it if the weather cooperated. The SCT, I thought, would be more suitable for that task than the refractor.

Just has to go...
Once Dorothy and I had the ancillary gear—EZ-up tent canopy, observing table, camp chairs, etc., etc.—squared away, I ran my long extension cord to the field’s AC power outlet board and plugged in. Having AC available at a star party is just so nice. No batteries to worry about running down, no need to recharge ‘em the next morning. 

Field work done, our next mission was getting settled in our little room at the lodge. Certainly, the accommodations at FRC are not palatial; the rooms are about 1/4 the size of your average Days Inn crackerbox palace, but they are nevertheless much better than the chickie cabins or tents that are de rigueur at many star parties. Whatever may be lacking in the small rooms is more than made up for by the Center’s beautiful dining room, which overlooks a small lake.

So, unpacked, all that was left to do was wait for darkness and the 3 pm raffle. As usual, I didn’t win a darned thing. That was the bad; the good was that the sky, which had been partly cloudy all afternoon, was beginning to clear off. There was no doubt in my mind whatsoever that we’d have a long night. The next event on our schedule wasn’t observing, however, but supper at 4 pm.

The previous year, I’d thought the normally good FRC food had been down a notch or so in quality and quantity. This year it was thankfully back to its normal excellence and abundance. I concentrated mostly on the salad bar, but the chicken we were served was good enough. I do not hesitate to say the DSRSG meals are among the best I have eaten at any star party in the entire U.S. of A. Maybe the best.

Wednesday evening was indeed the long night I’d wished for. Almost too long. Imaging these days is much different from what it was when I got started in a big way in the 1980s. Then, you spent your whole night staring into a guiding eyepiece. You had to keep that pesky guide star centered on a crosshair reticle or your picture would wind up with trailed stars. Boring, but at least you were occupied. Today, you align the mount, get the autoguider going, focus up, tell the software (Nebulosity 3 in my case) to take, say, 20 4-minute exposures, and your presence is no longer required for over three hours (including the time for dark frames). What do you do? What did I do on this night?

If I’d been smart, I’d have brought my 15x70 Burgess binoculars to the star party and given the sky a good bino survey. Alas, they were the one thing I forgot to pack this time. Instead, I wandered the field cadging looks through the telescopes of the many old friends—I’ve been doing DSRSG for so long that my fellow attendees are really more like family now. Headed back to the lodge a time or two for coffee. Occasionally looked in on Veronica. She was doing just fine grabbing sub-frames of the great galaxy NGC 253, and PHD2 was guiding like a champ. I did another couple of loops of the field before it was time for target two, M45.

NGC 253 Wednesday night...
M45 underway, I gotta say I was getting awful bored. I thought I might crank up the C8, even just for visual, but I’d have had to hook up power, find the eyepieces, etc., and I was now feeling a bit weary, as I usually am on the first night of any star party due to travel and set up, so I demurred.

Somewhat before the Seven Sisters shot wrapped up, the sky began to go south. The problem wasn’t clouds, or at least not high clouds, but ground fog that began to roll in in waves. I figured that spelled Big Switch time, but I was spared for about another hour. My side of the field was slightly elevated, and the ground fog would creep up, but not quite reach me before temporarily dissipating. Not that there wasn’t some haze, naturally, but I was able to push on for a while with a bright target, M42, which was now well above the trees.

Just as my exposure sequence, my first Orion Nebula of the season, finished up, the fog rallied its forces and advanced with a will, finally smothering my scope. That was it, and I won’t say I was sorry to pull that cursed switch. I’d got the images I’d come for, and even without the fog the night had been miserably damp. My DewBuster heater system kept scope and guide scope optics clear, but didn’t keep me dry. The dew was so bad that it was literally raining under my EZ-Up. Nothing will make you tireder than having a wet head and feet, so I was more than happy to desert the field for the cozy lodge. There, I had a glass of Merlot, cruised Cloudy Nights for a few minutes thank's to the Lodge's good wi-fi, and soon drifted off dreaming of the big cosmic wheel that is NGC 253.

Thursday morning brought breakfast and a trip down the field to dry everything out. I removed Veronica’s Desert Storm cover and let her sunbathe for a while, and grabbed a towel and tried to dry off the observing table. There was about a quarter inch of water on it. It hadn’t rained, y’all; that’s how bad the dew was. One thing was sure:  I was glad I had been able to run the DewBuster off AC; I don’t know if a battery would have lasted the entire night under such extreme conditions.

The Dark Knight hoped for a dark, clear night...
I was worried that Thursday afternoon would drag, since there were no speakers or other organized activities until Friday, but that turned out not to be a problem. A little reading, a little tinkering with the gear, Internet surfing with my laptop sitting in the dining hall, another raffle (still didn’t win anything), and it was time to think about supper and, after that, observing.

It was quite obvious Thursday night was not going to be the night Wednesday had been. The weather-goobers were predicting clouds later in the evening, and at sundown I could see there was plenty of haze. I’d gotten the prime focus DSLR shots I’d planned on getting already, so I thought I might mess around with the Revolution video camera a bit.

You are going to get a complete review of the Revolution in a few weeks at the outside, but suffice to say I was impressed. The camera is a known quantity, an LN300, which is very compact and very sensitive and is sold for astronomy by at least two other vendors. It’s a good performer, but what makes the Revolution system special is what you get for its minuscule price.

The Revolution kit, which comes in a nice case, includes the camera and a 1.25-inch nosepiece, a 7-inch LCD color monitor, a battery that can run monitor and camera for up to four hours, a battery charger, a .5x focal reducer, an IR filter, a wired remote for the camera (something most LN300s lack and very, very good to have), a wireless remote for the monitor, and all required cables. Everything you need to capture the deep sky except a telescope and mount is right there in the box. Of course none of that means a thing if the camera doesn’t perform.

I needn’t have worried. I sent the C8/CG5 to the Dumbbell, M27, put the camera in long-exposure color mode, turned on its stacking feature, and sat back and watched. The first exposure to come in looked good. The next one, which was combined with the first one, made M27 look better, and as the image built up I was soon seeing plenty of detail and impressive color. To be honest, the picture looked similar to what I can see of this object with video with considerably more expensive cameras.

Making revolution...
The only fly in the proverbial ointment? For your pictures to look their best, to have round stars in stacked exposures, your mount needs to be at least roughly polar aligned, and I had not done that. All I’d done was put Polaris in the hollow bore of the polar shaft. With the sky looking somewhat dicey even at sundown, I hadn’t wanted to waste time doing an AllStar polar alignment with the CG5. Still, the pictures I was seeing on the monitor did not look bad, not bad at all. And the LN300’s sensitivity did not disappoint.

It easily picked out the Deer at the Deer Lick, the little NGC galaxies that cluster around big NGC 7331. It made short work of the dim Crescent Nebula, showing detail and color. The Veil Nebula was not a challenge for it. So, with Orion on the rise, I thought I might go even dimmer and see what the camera would do on the Horsehead Nebula. That’s what I thought I’d do, but the weather gods had other ideas, and the first wave of clouds rolled in.

It was still relatively early and I was still feeling good—despite almost as much dew as on the previous evening—so I had no problem cooling my heels for a while to see if we might get some clearing or at least some respectable sucker holes. ‘Twas not to be; the sky got worse, not better, and just after midnight I was walking back to the room. I didn't like having such a short run, but it was perhaps a good thing I turned in semi-early, since I'd likely be returning to the field at first light to pack the gear.

Thursday afternoon, Dorothy and I had talked about whether we’d stay till Sunday morning as usual or not. The weather prognosticators were forecasting conditions that, while not dire, were not exactly astronomy friendly. The area of nearby Clinton, Louisiana would, they said, get three inches or more of rain  between Friday afternoon and Saturday night. Yeah, I am all for star party fun, and, again, I can have a good time at a clouded out star party, but sitting through rain and thunderstorms with no hope of clearing and not much to do cooped up in our little room or in the dining hall would be another matter. I can watch it rain at home and in comfort. There was also the matter of having to pack wet gear, which is not fun.

Awfully empty field by Friday afternoon...
When I got up Friday, there were clouds aplenty, so I did indeed head to the field to finish packing the remaining equipment—I’d disassembled Veronica and the VX the previous afternoon. Despite my early bedtime the night before, loading the truck just after dawn wasn't exactly a treat, but I was glad I did it. There was the feel of rain in the air, and if I didn't get the stuff in the 4Runner before it began we'd be stuck.

Packing done, our intention was to leave shortly after my presentation that afternoon. I’d originally been scheduled to speak on Saturday, but I made the case with DSRSG Managing Director Barry Simon that it would be better for me to go on on Friday. I didn’t believe there would be many people left on Saturday to hear me. Barry was amenable, so I gave my talk, “Exploring Your Final Frontier with Deep Sky Video” Friday afternoon. By the time my presentation wrapped up, it was getting on toward raffle time, and D. and I thought we’d at least stay through that.  

Did I win anything? Are you kidding? Miss Dorothy did get a nice Mars map, however, so it was a good thing we stayed, and it just felt right to stay through the raffle, anyway. When the prize distribution was done, we hit the road for home. This was only the second time in all our years of DSRSGing that we've left before the bitter end. I was a little sad about that, but as we ran into wave after wave of rain on the Interstate, it was clear we’d made the correct choice.

Yeah, we’d only had two nights, but the first night, especially, was a very good night. I captured one of the better—maybe the best—images of the Pleiades I’ve ever gotten. The other shots I took Wednesday were similarly good. I’d also had fun playing with the Revolution. And spending a few days talking amateur astronomy and hanging with my DSRSG homies was also fun—perhaps the most fun of all. So much fun that I can hardly wait for my next journey to the FRC for the Deep South Spring Scrimmage, which is sure to be under clear skies.

Nota Bene:  You can see more pictures of the star party on my Facebook page, and more of the astrophotos I shot on the fantastic website astrobin.com.

Sunday, November 15, 2015

 

The NEW CSP...

We are, most of us, now at the end of the fall star party season. It's been an exciting and busy and sometimes stressful couple of months. I know one thing for sure: I am one tired puppy. That didn't stop me from having a wonderful time at the newly resuscitated Chiefland Star Party, however. The organizers did an incredible job considering this was their first outing. Not only was I impressed by the event as a whole; I actually WON SOMETHING AT THE RAFFLE! Will wonders never cease? Anyhow, you'll get the full story week after next (next week we talk about Deep South).








Sunday, November 08, 2015

 

Fall Star Party Season

I am afraid it is going to be a slow couple of weeks for the blog. I am on the road concluding my fall star party season with two last ones, the Deep South Regional Star Gaze and the Chiefland Star Party. Expect a full report on both beginning week. Until then, how about some photos from Deep South? Including a couple of astrophotos, M15 and M27, taken with the brand new and impressive Revolution (video) Imager kit (Orange County Telescope), my review of which will form a large part of the Chiefland story, I believe...











Sunday, November 01, 2015

 

Let’s Get Going with PHD2


If you’ve read some of my recent posts on short-sub imaging, you know it’s not always necessary to guide your mount; it’s not always necessary to continuously monitor a star and make small corrections to the scope’s aim to make up for imperfections in the mount’s drive gears. Short sub imaging is especially appropriate for photographing bright objects like the Messiers in the light polluted back yard. Go over 30-seconds, and the gradients from the bright sky will become tough to deal with anyway. Nevertheless, there comes a time, as I said a while back, when you gotta guide.

Like when you are out under a dark and clear sky. There’s no doubt longer sub-frames are better there. Stacking many images can reduce noise and make your pictures easier to process, but stacking will not deliver details not already present to some degree in the individual sub-frames. When it’s dark and you are photographing dimmer targets or want to bring out as much detail as possible in brighter ones, a stack of five or ten minute subs is just better than a stack of fifteen or twenty thirty-second ones.

If you need the details of the auto-guiding game, how to get started that is, go to the link above. Today’s subject is mostly for those of you who, like me, have been using PHD Guiding for a while and now see the handwriting on the wall, that’s it’s time to upgrade to the new version, PHD2, a.k.a. “Open Source PHD.

“Open source?” What does that mean? PHD Guiding, “Push Here Dummy” Guiding was originally written and developed by astro-software wizard Craig Stark (Nebulosity). He got his program going in a big way and it soon became the most used auto-guiding application in amateur astronomy. Craig continued to enhance his freeware program, but incrementally for the most part, and it was clear the program could be taken a lot farther. Its bones were strong, but it could still use a little fleshing out. To that end, Mr. Stark decided the program should go open-source, that its development should continue mostly in other hands:
In 2013, Bret McKee and I started working on a complete rewrite of the open-source PHD code with the aim of setting things up for significant expansion of PHD and of the development team working on PHD. Bret really dove in and did a massive amount of work. He also built up the team that has now gotten PHD2 going. In all of this, the vision of PHD has remained - to be user-friendly, yet provide powerful guiding. I'm delighted to see that this has reached such a mature stage and that it's done so with very little of my direct effort. This is a fully open, team project and it's a real joy to see that it has taken off so well. I will continue to host PHD1 here until all have happily moved over to PHD2.
What does that mean for you and me, though? For all practical purposes, PHD2 is PHD Guiding now. The old PHD is still available on the Stark Labs website, but it won’t, I’d guess, ever be upgraded again. If you use PHD, it’s time to transition to PHD2. This sort of thing is painful when you’ve used a program for years and come to depend on it, but the new one offers some significant new features, and I’d guess many more are to come in the future. It is still freeware by the way if you are worried about that, though the developers are soliciting donations (as they should).

Before you can use PHD2, naturally you need to download it from the PHD2 website (above) and install it . As before, it’s small and the installation is quick. One thing you may be worried about that you don’t need to be? That PHD2 will overwrite PHD. It won’t. If you’re like me (occasionally confused), you’ll probably want to keep the old one on your machine for a while. That saved my bacon one night as you’ll read later. PHD2 works very well, but if you’re as silly as me, in the course of investigating new features you may foul something up and need to at least temporarily return to the old program.

When you start PHD2 for the first time, it’s likely you are going to be disappointed, “Heck, Rod, it doesn’t look any different from the old one.” It doesn’t, not really, except for the fact that it comes up in a rectangular rather than square window. You don't begin to see the differences until you begin playing with the menus and settings, the first of which is probably going to be the camera icon that allows you to select your guide camera.

This was my first clue PHD2 was going to be better. Rather than just a list of supported cameras to choose among, what you get is the “Profile Manager.” Here, you select your guide camera, your telescope mount, and other things via nice drop-down menus. When you are done, you save the current camera/scope/etc. setup as a profile. This is a godsend if you, like me, use both a guide scope and an off axis guider depending on the telescope you are guiding. This is also where you’ll connect your camera, mount, rotator, etc. when you are ready to roll. But you aren’t ready to roll yet as there is more configuring to do first.

You'll access the detailed configuration menus with the familiar Brain icon, same as before, but that’s really all that is the same in PHD2. Setting up the program is simpler and less scary than it was in PHD. What comes up with a click of the brain is a window with tabs. The first of these is “Global,” which, with one exception, you can leave alone for now. That exception is your guide camera focal length. Enter it in millimeters in the Focal Length field. Oh, there’s one other thing here you should notice, “Reset Configuration.” Ticking that resets the program’s configuration to its original values. If I’d paid attention to that I wouldn’t have had to switch back to the original PHD on the first night of the Peach State Star Gaze.

You can leave the “Guiding” tab completely alone at first; click the next one, “Camera.” Here, you enter the pixel size of your camera’s chip. Where do you get that? From the manual or from the camera manufacturer’s website. Failing that, you can obtain the required numbers from the spec sheet of the CCD or CMOS chip used in your guide camera (you should certainly find the type of chip your camera has on the camera maker’s site). This is important; PHD2 needs to know your image scale in order to be able to tell you the quality of guiding in arc-seconds. What else is here? You may occasionally find a need to mess with camera gain, but usually only if you are for some reason trying to guide on an overly bright star. Leave everything else the way it is.

Finally, there is the Mount tab. Some of this can also be left alone for now—though you will likely eventually come back here and fiddle with aggressiveness and other values to fine tune your mount’s performance. Most mounts will guide quite acceptably with the default settings, however. What you do need to enter here is the size of the “steps” PHD2 uses during calibration. Unlike the old version, PHD2 will figure this out for you. Click the “Calculate” button, enter your guide scope focal length (or main scope focal length if you are using an OAG), pixel size, and mount guide speed, and the program will give you a value in milliseconds to enter in the calibration step field. This is mostly important if you are using a short focal length guide scope—too small a value here will mean calibration takes forever to complete.

And that is pretty much it. Otherwise, the program mostly works the same way as the original. Connect to camera and mount (using either ASCOM or “on camera”—through your mount’s ST4 port), set your exposure via the drop down, begin looping exposures, choose a good looking guide star, one not too dim and not too bright, click on it, and then click the PHD (archery target) icon and calibration will begin. PHD2 will move the mount E/W and N/S, and when that is done will begin guiding. End of story. Actually, there is one change to the procedure; you no longer have to stop looping exposures before you click on the guide star. In fact, you are now encouraged to select the star while the video is running.

There is also an interesting new feature concerning guide star selection, but it’s not apparent until you examine the Tools menu. If you’re not sure which star in the field of your guide camera is the best candidate for a guide star, you can have PHD2 automatically choose one. Just click, "Auto-select star" in the Tools menu  (you can also tell it to do that with an Alt-S hotkey combo) and PHD2 will do just that. I’ve gotten pretty good at recognizing the look of a good guide star for PHD, but I played with this anyway, and can report the program always selected what I’d also have identified as a good one.

And that is all there is to it campers. If your guiding is good, you don’t have to do another thing. There are plenty of other features, like graphs to show you how your guiding is going, a drift procedure to help you tighten up your polar alignment, and more. But if your guiding is giving you round stars, you can leave all that for later or never.

What if your guiding isn’t as good as you would like, though? Which can happen, especially if you’re guiding a long focal length telescope. PHD2 offers several ways of refining your guiding without causing overmuch heartburn.

The first thing you can do to improve things is to clean up the guide camera's video frames, make the guide stars look better and get rid of some of those pesky hot pixels. PHD2 makes it easy to take and apply dark frames. Just select “dark library” from the Darks menu, set the range of exposures you normally use for guiding, cover guidescope (or mainscope if you’re using an OAG), and hit the go button. The program will acquire your range of dark exposures and apply them henceforth to light exposures of the same length. 

Sometimes darks ain’t enough, however. Most guide cameras are uncooled, and today’s popular high-sensitivity CMOS chips' output can look like a snowstorm at the North Pole even after you apply darks, making it hard to choose a good guide star and making you apt to try to guide on a freaking hot pixel. To further improve guide frames, you can use PHD2’s “bad pixel map” feature, but I find it easier to clean up problems darks won’t quite fix with the surprisingly effective noise reduction setting found under the Brain icon’s Global tab. On a hot summer night, selecting “median” from the drop-down gets the job done. It’s perhaps not as efficacious as a bad pixel map, but easier to do, and I like “easy” as you well know.

Your guide camera’s images look better, but the guiding is still not going quite as well as you’d hoped at 1500mm plus. It’s OK, but like most astrophotographers, you can’t resist examining the DSLR’s stars at a 400% enlargement. Unfortunately for you, they are a little eggy. What do you do? What you used to do with the original PHD was start tinkering with settings:  declination/R.A. aggression, minimum move, etc., etc. It may still be necessary to fool around with these values and particularly with the declination setting that determines whether your mount will be allowed to guide in both directions, north and south, or not.  However, PHD2 may be able to help you determine the other values.

What should these esoteric settings be? For the technically challenged astrophotographers among us, like me,  there’s a way to easily figure this out for a particular set up without just blindly trying values like I used to do with the original PHD. There’s this new feature called Guiding Assistant. Access the Assistant from the Tools menu, let it run for a few minutes, and it will, when you stop it, come up with suggestions for your guide settings. If you think they are reasonable, you can have the assistant apply them automatically. Just be careful before you do that. THINK.

The first time I used PHD2 with my EQ6 mount in the backyard, it was a resounding success. Perfectly round stars in the 3 – 5 minute exposures I customarily use. Easy as falling off a log. Uh-huh. Fast forward to the recent PSSG. Same mount, but the stars, while fine, were not quite perfect. What was different? I was using my Edge 800 SCT at f/7 rather than my standard C8 at f/6.3. I thought the increase in focal length, while small, was still maybe enough to cause the degradation. I ran guiding assistant for a few minutes. Applied the changes and gave it another go. Result? Substantially worse guiding than what I’d had before I "fixed it."

If I’d known about the option to restore the program’s default values, I’d have used that, but I didn’t, so I switched to the old PHD, which was, luckily, still on my hard drive. The result was guiding about the same as I’d had initially with PHD2. Good enough, but nothing to write home about.
Next evening, more rested—my troubles had come on the first evening of the star party when I was tired from the trip and set up—I set about to figure out what had gone wrong. First thing I did was have a look at a star field in PHD2 (I’d gotten it back to the defaults by this time) to see how the guide camera’s images looked.

Hmm…well darn. Instead of its normal reasonably sharp stars, my old Orion StarShoot was delivering faint fuzzballs. The guide scope was badly out of focus. How? While this 50mm telescope focuses by screwing the objective in and out and snugging up a knurled ring against it, and normally holds focus well, apparently the trip had been enough to throw it out. I had to change focus quite a bit to get the stars looking as good as they should.

Focus attained, guiding became sterling again. Actually, if I’d listened to the Guiding Assistant, I’d have figured this out on the previous evening. When I ran it, it kept talking about the guide star being too dim. When I tried it on different stars in the field it kept complaining about star brightness. The reason for that was that they were out of focus and I wasn’t seeing that with my tired, bleary eyes.

So, the bottom line on PHD2? It just works. Don’t get the idea that it will necessarily make auto-guiding easy in the beginning, though, Joe and Jane Novice. You’ll inevitably have gremlins to exterminate. Things like flexure, cable drag, backlash, and on and on. That said, PHD2 is the new king of guiding software and makes the process as easy as it can be. Even if you’re new to the game, just get it. I said this article was mainly aimed at people experienced with PHD, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t start out with PHD2 instead of PHD. There is no downside to the new one; it is just better.

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