Sunday, September 18, 2016


Issue #509, The Messier XII: Steady as She Goes

You know what I’d like to do? Actually look at some Messier objects instead of just talk about them. I was hoping I’d get in some time with my 10-inch Dobbie, Zelda, and my 5-inch refractor, Hermione, now that I am off the road for a while, but guess what? As if a big Moon weren’t enough, the weather gods have decreed almost constant clouds for moi. Well, at least I have my memories of this set objects, which includes outstanding ones even by Messier standards. OK, into the backyard we go...


M78 is not one of the more difficult Messiers, but neither is it trivial. Reflection nebulae never are. These clouds of gas are not excited to glow; they don’t emit light on their own. They are mostly composed of dust with a consistency approaching that of cigarette smoke, and shine only by the reflected light of the stars within them or nearby. That’s why, when you think reflection nebulae, you thing hot young O-B stars. It takes a lot of power to light up dark clouds, even dimly, and hot stars like those in the Pleiades are just the ticket. Compared to emission nebulae, reflection nebulae are subdued, with the Merope nebula that enwraps the Pleiads being aptly compared to “baby’s breath on a mirror.”

M78 certainly ain’t as hard as the Merope nebula, but it takes some considerable telescopic hardware and dark skies if you want to see it as more than just an oval glow. While it possesses an integrated magnitude of 8.0 and has a fairly small size, the nebula can still be challenging from light pollution. I used to struggle to pull it out of a bright background sky with my 4.25-inch Newtonian from one of the homes I lived in in the 1980s, which was nearly as far downtown as good old Chaos Manor South.

One good thing is that M78 is easy to find by star hopping, and was, in fact, one of the first objects I located that way back in the 1960s. M78 forms a near 90-degree triangle with the three bright stars of Orion’s belt, and is located 2-degrees 38’ northeast of Alnitak (Zeta Orionis). When you think you are in the correct position, scan around with a medium power eyepiece. What you are looking for is a magnitude 10 range double star with a separation of about 2.0’. Examine this pair carefully, and if your skies are not too icky, you will see it is surrounded by an oval glow.

And that is about all you will see even with larger scopes from light polluted skies. Get to the dark spaces, however, and even a 4-inch will begin to show some details, brighter and darker regions, and the oval will assume a somewhat irregular shape. You should be able to detect at least 3 – 4’ of nebulosity. Up the aperture and/or improve the skies further and you will begin to see that the nebula is fan shaped. 10-inch and larger scopes will also reveal this little knot is just one part of a large complex of nebulosity with other dimmer but similar patches coming into view.

I’ve often read that light pollution reduction filters do not work on M78, since it is a reflection nebulosity. The light of the stars, after all, is in the same band of wavelengths as the artificial lights that LPR filters are designed to attenuate. Actually, however, a UHC filter can improve the view of M78 somewhat, since it has a fairly large emission nebula component. One of the big rules of amateur astronomy? Saying something is “impossible” is a sure way to be proven wrong.


The sky of winter isn’t entirely bereft of globular star clusters, but it might as well be. Once M15 and M30 and M2 sink below the horizon, you are pretty much left with M79, and the ground truth is that it just isn’t much of a glob. At magnitude 8.56 and with a size of 9’36”, it is on the puny side, and its declination, -24-degrees 30’, means it is a trifle low for more than a few Northern Hemisphere observers. Still, it is the only Messier glob game in town for a while, so let’s get after it.

Finding is not terribly involved if your southern horizon is mostly unobstructed. M79’s home constellation, the little hare, Lepus, crouching at the feet of Orion is easy enough to make out in the suburban backyard. Naturally, however, as is usual with constellations, it doesn’t look a thing like what it is supposed to represent. That’s wight, wabbit, this bunny looks more like a capital letter “I” (as in “India”). The glob itself forms a near equilateral triangle with Epsilon Leporus and Beta Leporis, and should show up in 4-inchers without a fuss, albeit just as a small, subdued round glow.

Its Shapley – Sawyer class of V means M79 is almost right in the middle as far as concentration goes. Not too compressed, not too loose. That does not mean it is easy to resolve in the backyard, however. Often an 8-inch SCT won’t quite do the job, even at high power. Oh, you might get a few stars in the periphery winking in and out, but convincing resolution at home requires my 10-inch Dobsonian, Zelda. Naturally, it’s easier at a dark site, and in 12-inch and larger scopes under good skies, M79 almost begins to look worthy of its Messier designation.

M79 is better than some of the puny globulars of Sagittarius, but not as good as Coma’s M53. Still, its solo status in the winter means it will give you some chucks during otherwise glob-free times.


If M79 is not exactly highly concentrated, M80 is very highly concentrated, being rated a II on the 12 step Shapley-Sawyer scale. That brings good and bad. Combined with its bright magnitude, 7.87, and its relatively small size, 10.0’, this glob stands out like a sore thumb even with Scorpius is low in the sky. But its compact nature also makes it something of a bear to resolve.

The cluster is easily located by searching the area 4-degrees, 28’ northwest of bright Alpha Scorpii, Antares. Be careful, however. Since it is small and compact, M80 can most assuredly masquerade as a bloated star at low magnifications in smaller scopes. Use medium power, 100x and up, and examine each field carefully, however, and you will be rewarded.

What exactly will your reward be? That depends on your magnification and the aperture of your telescope. In a 4-inch or smaller instrument, the cluster will be easy, but even at higher magnifications it will not be resolved. What it will look a lot like is a bright elliptical galaxy, with a brighter middle and a diffuse halo.

Alas, an 8-inch or even a 10-inch in a suburban yard won’t deliver much more than the above, with an 8-inch sometimes failing to resolve any stars at all unless the conditions are good—the cluster is near culmination on a dry, transparent night. A 10-inch is better. On an average suburban night, one will show the cluster as a grainy appearing ball, and upping the power will bring home a sparkler or two. Even at a dark site, however, I find a 12-inch is required for a truly outstanding view of this tough-nut globular.


The galaxy pair of M81 and M82 isn’t just good, it’s one of the outstanding destinations in the list, right up there with the likes of M42 and M13. How can it be otherwise? Here, you’ve got two bright galaxies, magnitude 6.94 M81 and magnitude 8.41 M82 separated by just a bit more than half a degree. Not only can you fit them both in the same field using a wide-field eyepiece, even with fairly large aperture scopes, they are both potentially detailed and worthy of much inspection.

M81 and M82
M81 first. How to find? I’ll tell you how I was taught to locate Bode’s Nebula (M81) many a Moon ago when I was the greenest of greenhorn novices. Start at the Big Dipper’s bowl star, Phad. Draw a 10-degree long diagonal line from Phad to Dubhe and on for another 10-degrees. That will put you right in the area of M81/82. If you land on M82 first—it stands out better than M81—just move 36’ south. Really, it’s like shooting fish in the proverbial barrel. How will you know when you are on M81? You’ll see a bright enough oval “nebula.”

Here’s the thing about M81, y’all:  while it is a beautiful sight, in the suburbs its beauty is mostly due to its association with M81. While the central portion of this intermediate inclination galaxy is “bright,” the outer disk and spiral arms are quite subdued. It’s large, almost 27’ across, so the light is badly spread out. The only decent looks I’ve had of this Sab spiral’s arms, which are like wisps of gossamer, have been from dark sites with larger apertures. From a truly superior site, a 12-inch will reveal them easily, as my 12-inch, Old Betsy, did one memorable night in the 1990s at the Texas Star Party. At less good locations, you’ll want at least 16-inches of aperture for a good look.

Under average conditions at average dark sites with a medium-sized telescope, you’ll likely see about what I saw with my C11, Big Bertha, back in May of 2004 from the old Georgia Sky View Star Party at Indian Springs State Park.

Under hazy conditions, M 81 is still bright and attractive. Stellar appearing nucleus in TeleVue Panoptic 22mm at  127x. Considerable oval haze extends out from the central regions n/s. No hint of the very subtle spiral arms tonight. Much the same in the 12mm TeleVue Nagler at 233x, though the nucleus looks smaller at this higher power when the seeing settles.


M82, conversely, gives up detail to 6-inch telescopes in suburban backyards. It’s bright, nearly edge-on, and there are plenty of details to be seen in the Cigar Galaxy, which my daughter, Lizbeth, used to call the Exploding Cigar Galaxy. It is "Exploding" because it’s disturbed, likely from a long-ago interaction with M81, and is criss-crossed by dark lanes and festooned with bright patches. The more aperture you use on this 9.3’ long galaxy, the more you’ll see. Don’t be afraid to pump up the power, either. Under good conditions, 200x is nice for the Cigar with an 8-incher.

On the same night I viewed M81 in Georgia, I also recorded M82:

M82 in the TeleVue Nagler Type 2 12mm at 233x is amazing. Bright star in the field, about 30" from the galaxy. Dust lanes cross the galaxy’s thin disk (about 4’) and divide it into three distinct sections. 

Some of the best views I’ve had of M82 have admittedly not been visual ones. With my Mallincam Xtreme video camera and the C11, the galaxy is just incredible, showing not just intricate dark lane structure, but almost psychedelic red matter being emitted from the galaxy’s center. Amazing.


M83, the Southern Pinwheel, can be a pain. Mostly for Northern Hemisphere observers at higher latitudes given the galaxy’s far southern declination, as things go in the north, of almost 30-degrees south. If it gets even barely out of the muck for you, however, this object is a real winner. It’s a classic barred spiral, and the best description of it I’ve ever read came in Timothy Ferris’ wonderful coffee-table book Galaxies (recommended), where he describes it as being “alive with motion.”

How do you locate this magnitude 7.8, 14.1’ galaxy among the southern stars of Hydra? If M83 is low in the sky for you, DSCs or goto will make your task easier, but it is really not difficult to pin down with star chart and finder scope. It lies about halfway along a line drawn between Menkent (Theta Centauri; I told you this was a southern object) and Gamma Hydrae. M83 is prominent enough that you should pick it up easily in a medium powered wide-field eyepiece without further direction.

In the eyepiece? To me, the Southern Pinwheel always looks somewhat like a smaller M33 at first glance. As you continue to look, however, you’ll notice it looks round rather than oval like the Triangulum galaxy. The next thing you should see is the strong bar. If you continue, especially with an ultra-wide medium power ocular (I used to like my old 12mm Nagler Type II on it), you’ll begin to make out details starting with the prominent central bar and moving on to HII regions and the wheeling spiral arms. How hard is the spiral structure to detect? Not hard at all if the object is decently high in the sky for you at a half-way good site, as at my club dark site one late May evening with my ETX-125, Charity Hope Valentine:

M83, a magnitude 7.8, 14.1'x13.2' spiral, has a dramatically bright stellar core and a large, mostly round outer envelope. Spiral structure pops in and out of view. I do have to be careful not to “see” what I expect to see given the images I’ve seen and looks I have had of the object in larger scopes, but the arms are just not that difficult. The galaxy's bar is easy.

M83 is another wonderful target for a deep sky video camera, and shows amazing detail and color in the Xtreme, and also in my inexpensive Revolution vidcam.


M84 is that most common of Virgo beasties, a bright, round elliptical galaxy. Oh, this object’s field makes for a great view, but not because of M84 itself. It’s brilliant (for a galaxy) at magnitude 10.1 and only 6.3’ across, but, as is usually the case with ellipticals, there’s just not a lot to see—a bright round fuzzball that looks like a small, unresolved globular star cluster.

If goto can make finding M83 more pleasant, it can make finding M84 much more pleasant. There are so many bright galaxies within the arms of Virgo that it’s hard to know which one you are on. Luckily, the field here is pretty distinctive. If you simply must find 84 the old fashioned way, it lies halfway along a line drawn between Epsilon Virginis, Vendemiatrix, and Denebola, Beta Leonis. Positoned there, look for two bright fuzzballs about 17’ apart. Which is M84? It is the southwestern fuzzball. It is also rounder-looking than the other galaxy, M86. M84 is a Hubble Type E1, while M86 is an E3.

What just tickles me about this field? You’ve heard of The Eyes, two bright galaxies just to the east of M84/86? Well, M84 and M86 to me are “The Face.” The two big galaxies are the eyes, a small elliptical, NGC 4387, is the nose, and an edge-on, NGC 4388 is the mouth. The effect is so comical that I can’t help smiling every time I land on this field. Which is also beautiful, of course, because it is part of Markarian’s Chain, the line of bright galaxies stretching off to the east. A look at this area with an 18 – 20-inch telescope from a dark site is a mind-blower, and has almost impelled me to buy a really large Dobsonian a time or two.

And that does it for another M batch. Next up? I’m not sure, but it certainly doesn’t look like I’ll be doing any observing any time soon. The weather this time of year on the Gulf Coast simply doesn’t encourage that. Oh, things will improve as they always do, but not until late October usually. Until then? We may take a break from the Ms for a week or three and talk about another favorite observing list of mine. 

Sunday, September 11, 2016


Issue #508, On the Road III: Almost Heaven Star Party 2016

What is there left to say about a star party I’ve attended so many times over the last decade? That it features beautiful skies? That it’s put on in a professional manner by one of the nation’s premier astronomy clubs? That the attendees to a man and a woman are friendly folks? That the surrounding country is beautiful? Yes, all those things and more.

While I’ve spent many a night up on Spruce Knob Mountain, every year is still a pleasure, and I was unreservedly looking forward to yet another Almost Heaven, which is organized by Washington DC’s NOVAC, the Northern Virginia Astronomy Club. This year’s edition ran from September 2nd to the 5th, and by the time Labor Day began to approach, I was only too ready to hop on a jet and head for the wilds of West Virginia despite a travel-heavy summer.

One good thing about this trip? As with my Wisconsin jaunt, I was spared the 0600 torture flight out of Mobile. Originally, that’s the one the AHSP's Elizabeth Erikson had me on, but after mentioning to her that I was feeling beat-down in a major way after spending all those hours on airplanes this summer, she was able to get me on the more reasonable 0720 plane. Much appreciated!

Getting from Mobile to Atlanta and on to Washington – Dulles on Thursday, September 1 was uneventful in the extreme. Yes, I had a layover in ATL, but I prefer that to worrying about whether I will make my connection in time or not. Soon, I was landing at Dulles, picking up my (big) suitcase, and looking around for my ride, AHSP organizer Alan Goldberg. What was in that suitcase, by the way? Not my little Orange Tube C90  Maksutov. With the weather looking slightly iffy due to Hurricane Hermine, who was heading up the east coast after causing quite a mess in Florida, I chickened out and settled for our Canon 8x30 roof prism binoculars instead.

‘Twas a pleasant ride to West Virginia and Spruce Knob Mountain with Alan. We talked of many things, even to include amateur astronomy. While the journey from Dulles to the AHSP’s location near a spot in the road called “Judy Gap,” West Virginia is not grueling, it’s also not an inconsiderable one. The trip takes somewhat more than 3-hours, with a large part of that on two lane West Virginia highways. The last half hour or so is a climb up a long and winding and often rutted ascending road to the star party site. While the event is not on the summit of Spruce Knob, the highest elevation in the state, it is well above the coastal plain and gets you out of a lot of the atmospheric muck.

I was hoping that would be the case this time, especially. With what was left of Hermine making her way slowly toward us—she’d be over our heads, the weather goobers thought, by Saturday afternoon—we needed some kind of magic to keep the skies clear for the event. A few years back, the same thing had happened, with the clouds from a tropical storm remnant basically preventing any observing at all from being done that year. Had my fingers and toes crossed, you betcha.

Alan and I arrived right at dinner and wasted no time making our way up to the main building of the Mountain Institute facility where the star party is held. This facility has one peculiar aspect: all the buildings, including the cabins, dorms, and that main building, were built in the shape of Mongolian Yurts. They are actual, wooden buildings, not tents, but they do look (a little) like the homes of the tribes of the Asian steppes.

Anyhow, it was good to be back on the mountain after being gone for a whole year. What was even better was seeing all my old friends in the AHSP organizer gang—the star party wouldn’t actually begin until the following day, but for me to catch a ride up the mountain with Alan it was necessary I arrive on Thursday with the set-up crew. That was fine; it was nice to spend the first evening in relatively relaxed circumstances with only a dozen or so people on the mountain.

The food, while plain, baked (I think) fish and salad, was more than adequate for me, who’d been subsisting mostly on airline peanuts and pretzels for the entire day. One cool thing? The Wi-Fi at the Main Yurt (provided by AHSP) was good and strong, and while there were no cellular bars, I was still able to make a phone call to Miss Dorothy to let her know I’d arrived safely using AT&T’s Wi-Fi calling feature.

After supper, I got settled in my accommodations, which were, again this year, in a small yurt-cabin near the bathhouse just up the hill from the Main Yurt. I’ve stayed in this curious little flying saucer shaped place any number of times over the near decade I’ve been doing this star party, and it has always been comfortable enough. Nice big double bed, little writing desk, and, best of all, a skylight that allows you to see the stars as you slip away into dreamland.

While I was as comfortable as always in the cabin, I gotta say, this may be the last year I am able to do this yurt. My current back problems have alleviated for the most part, but at times my cranky back made it a little difficult getting in and out of the yurt’s hatch (I won’t call it a door). It’s slanted outward like the walls, and the steps are basically a couple of rocks. When I was a little stiff, in the mornings, especially, it was a challenge to get back in after a trip to the bathhouse.

The first night on the mountain, the night before AHSP would actually begin, was, wouldn’t you know it, spectacular sky wise. The afternoon clouds hurried off and the Milky Way began to burn. Was I sorry I hadn’t brought the C90? A little, but I was, like my friends, tired from the trip (they had all also been working like dogs to get the event set up), and just sitting under the sky, occasionally looking with the binoculars, enjoying the company, and savoring the wine and snacks laid out on the field (thanks Pat!) was enough. By 11 p.m. I was ready for some Yurt time.

Next morning, but not early the next morning, I was up, showered and at the Main Yurt in time for breakfast—scrambled eggs and sausage. The food was not fancy, but it was adequate and was easy for the young Mountain Institute staffers who prepared our meals to do well. The weather? It was looking a trifle unsettled, but not really bad.

Unfortunately, a glance at the Clear Sky Clock for Spruce Knob showed lots of white squares for the evening. Nevertheless, I didn’t despair, and neither did any of the AHSP attendees who were now beginning to arrive. Again, weather on the mountain can be different from what it is down below and can also be difficult to predict.

One of the highlights of the day was the arrival of my old friend Bob Naeye, Editor Emeritus at Sky & Telescope. As many of you know, one of my interests in addition to astronomy is baseball, and, unfortunately, it seems many amateur astronomers aren’t much interested in sports of any kind and baseball in particular. So, it was nice to have baseball fanatic Bob on hand so I’d have someone to shoot the breeze with about the state of the current season.

Lunch came and went, and soon enough it was time to prepare for my evening talk, The Astronomer Looks at 60. This presentation, which tells the story of amateur astronomy from the 1960s on from the perspective of our changing tastes in telescopes, proved to be a hit at the Maine Astronomy Retreat where I premiered it. It also got a tremendous response at Wisconsin’s North Woods Star Fest, so I was pretty confident my AHSP audience would like the talk. It seems every amateur astronomer, old and new, likes looking at old/classic telescope advertisements.

This is a long presentation, taking up every bit of an hour and a half, and I was gratified that nary a person got up and left before the end. The response was overwhelmingly enthusiastic, and I sure was on a high by the time I wrapped up.

By which time the stars were beginning to peep out. I grabbed the Canon binoculars and wandered out to the expansive AHSP observing field to see what I could see. Unfortunately, the answer was “not much.” Oh, there were sucker holes, but Hermine’s clouds were much in evidence much of the time. Even when a sucker hole was available, the stars therein often sported nasty little halos. I spent a couple of hours just as I had Thursday, sitting on the field enjoying the company of friends and talking of many things.

When the damp began to seep into my bones, I bid adieu to the field, but was not quite ready to return to my yurt. Instead, I spend an hour or two at the Main Yurt watching various stuff on Youtube. The Wi-Fi worked well, and that was a good thing since I’d forgotten to bring the little case of DVD movies I usually take with me to star parties.

Saturday morning came with improved weather, and following a breakfast I was off to check out the vendor situation. There were two canopies set up next to the Main Yurt, one from Hands On Optics and one from Peter Gural. Hands On, a longtime favorite vendor of mine, had plenty of good stuff packed into the space covered by a small canopy. Unfortunately, as you may know, I am intent on reducing the amount of astro-junk in the house rather than increasing it, so, unfortunately, I had to pass.

Pete’s canopy covered an extensive display of meteorites, tektites, and related minerals for sale. He had some incredible bargains, and I was awfully tempted by the Trinitite samples. But I am at least somewhat committed to reducing the amount of stuff of all kinds I buy, and not just astro-stuff, so I declined. Sorry I did so now, though.

Then there was lunch and that long, long stretch to sundown. That was enlivened by dinner and by Bob Naeye’s excellent presentation on the recent discovery of gravity waves by LIGO. The outstanding talk drew quite a crowd, and I was compelled to listen to Bob from the overflow tent set up a short distance from the main yurt. Video and audio from all the talks (and there were plenty of speakers on Friday and Saturday in addition to me and Bob) was piped into the tent, and was of excellent quality.

The above, the techno-stuff, has always been a strong suit for AHSP. In addition to the video/audio relay of talks, and the Wi-Fi at the Main Yurt, several monitors in the area of the main building were continuously displaying (and updating) the Clear Sky Clock for Spruce Knob, a weather map of the region, and a star party events schedule. It’s seemingly small touches like this that can really contribute to an outstanding star party experience.

Dinner and Bob's talk having come and gone, it was back to the field for me to see what was happening telescope-wise. Out on the acres of field—which were now populated by many happy amateur astronomers—was a motley crew of telescopes. There was everything from elegant Takahashi Mewlons to humble Orion Dobsonians. I didn’t do a whole lot of looking though people’s scopes on this evening, but I did have a great peek at Saturn through Elizabeth Erikson’s beautiful 4-inch refractor.  Telescope trends at AHSP? One familiar to me from many recent star parties:  lots of ED/APO refractors, many on German mounts.

I also noted several analog video setups, so maybe that method of taking deep sky images is not quite dead, even though digital video imaging techniques are coming on strong (see my review of the ATIK Infinity in the October 2016 issue of Sky & Telescope). For now, the analog cams, and especially the sensitive and cost effective Revolution Imager kit, are keeping their heads above water. Heck, I’m thinking it’s time for me to get my Revolution back out of its case this fall after way too long a lay-off.

Come darkness, I spent quite a while admiring the skies, which had started off much as they had on Friday—clouds aplenty—but which had, unlike Friday, cleared pretty dramatically by early evening. What did I see? Many fascinating things you wouldn’t think 8x32 binoculars could show. It’s frankly amazing what a modest instrument, a very modest instrument, can do under spectacular skies. Which brings to mind my view of M101, a notoriously dim face on galaxy, at an AHSP some years back. This normally daunting object was starkly visible even in 50mm Celestron binoculars. It was much the same this evening:  objects I’d have deemed impossible with small glasses were freaking easy.

The above made me somewhat sorry I hadn’t brought the C90 with me after all. On the other hand, the addition of even a lightweight camera tripod to my already heavy suitcase would have been a bit much. I’d also, of course, have had to bring the C90 along separately as a piece of carry-on luggage. In its (original) case, it’s small enough that that wouldn’t have been a huge hassle, but it would still have been something else to keep track of, and my lengthy airport layovers would have made that annoying. So, I am still sitting on the fence regarding taking the 90 with me on airplanes. Maybe next season.

What was the weather like as mid-evening Saturday approached? The good was that the sky was growing progressively clearer and prettier. That was also the bad, since the clouds that had been in the sky Friday night had kept Spruce Knob a little warmer than normal. Without them, it was obvious summer was over at this elevation. By 11, the temperature was in the low 50s and falling. I had on a hoodie and a sweatshirt, but I was getting chilled, no doubt about that.

And in the end that was what got my feet headed back toward my yurt. That and the fact that Sunday would be a travel day. While it wouldn’t be an early morning—I would leave the site at 10:30 or so—it would be a long one. I wouldn’t fly out of Dulles until late afternoon, would have a long layover in Charlotte, and would not arrive back in Mobile until after 11 pm. That impelled me to pull the big switch such as it was and say good bye to that wonderful AHSP observing field.

The next day was, yes, a long one. At least the car trip back to DC was a pleasant one in the company of AHSP head honcho Chris Lee’s charming wife, Erin, and outstanding son, Nicholas. I had a great time motoring through the backwoods of West Virginia and Virginia with them, stopping for fast food, and just enjoying a beautiful day in the countryside.

There were no surprises airline-wise, just long hours sitting in airports (I did get an unexpectedly great meal of orange chicken at a Chinese fast-food joint in Dulles) re-reading Stephen King’s It for the nth time. I actually arrived back in Mobile a little before 11, but it then took our Podunk Airport staff half an hour to unload the luggage from the aircraft. Ah, well…it was all good and I was soon comfortable in my den where I sat and watched Braves baseball with my cat Tommy for an hour or so (a replay of the early evening game).

So, what can I say about yet another Almost Heaven Star Party in a long line of Almost Heaven Star Parties? That it was another great one and I loved being there with my friends and fellow AHSPers. Chris, Kathryn, Marty, Pat, Elizabeth, Alan and all those good people I haven’t named, but who I think about all the time and who helped make this and many other AHSPs over the years such fun for me: thank you!

Sunday, September 04, 2016


On the Road III

And so it was that I boarded yet another jet plane to travel to yet another wonderful star party, the famous Almost Heaven Star Party this time, in order to dispense my particular--some would say peculiar--brand of astronomical wisdom. Look for a report next week, and after that it will be onward and upward with the Messiers. Well, unless I have something else on my mind (such as it is). 

Sunday, August 28, 2016


Issue 507: Messier XI

M71: it's a glob!
We are now well past the halfway point and on the downhill slope of the Messier list. Finally. I know it’s been slow going lately, but here’s another batch. Unfortunately, these will have to last you for a while, since after a quick breather I’m back on The Road again. Anyhow, here’s seven more treats beginning with one of my absolute favorites.


What does everybody want to know about Messier 71? Is it a globular star cluster or is it a galactic (open) star cluster? What’s all the hubbub about, bub? One look will show you. Get your scope on its position near the center of the little constellation Sagitta’s arrow asterism, throw in a medium power wide-field eyepiece, and you will soon be scratching your head. At first, it seems you are looking at a rich galactic cluster. Like M11, maybe. But keep staring and it becomes obvious it has a suspiciously strong central condensation.

So what’s the big problem? Let’s just take a look at M71's color magnitude diagram. Unfortunately, that, too, is ambiguous. It could be an older galactic or it could be a younger globular. The professionals wondered about this for many years, going back and forth on M71’s classification. It seems pretty evident today, though, and has since the 1970s, that it is a glob, since the cluster’s HR diagram does show a horizontal branch, which is a feature of globulars. The conclusion, which has gained increasing credence over the last 40 years, is that it’s a young glob of relatively high metallicity.

You don’t have to know pea-turkey about horizontal branches and metallicity and color magnitude diagrams to appreciate M71, however; you just have to like pretty things. M71 is a beaut when it’s riding high in its little constellation, which lies just off the rich Cygnus Milky Way. I know it looked good in my old (and sold) C8, Celeste, one long ago night, even from Chaos Manor South’s bright backyard:

This curious cluster looks very much like an open cluster rather than a glob in the light pollution. I can see quite a few cluster stars, but get only fleeting glimpses of its core. The group seems shapeless. One of the big attractions of this object, the beautiful rich field around it, is missing in the city. Still a lovely sight, though. Best seen at 127x on this humid July evening.


Messier 72 is not a bad little cluster. If it were “only” an NGC object it would actually be considered pretty good. But it is an M, and we tend to thing that should mean something special. This one is not special, but it is OK.

While it is fairly loose with a Shapley – Sawyer concentration class of IX, and is dim for a Messier glob at magnitude 9.2, M72's reasonably small size, 6.6’, means it stands out well when it is well up and as far away from the horizon as it gets—which is fairly high for most northern observers given the object’s -12 degrees declination. The problem is locating the little booger if you don’t have goto or digital setting circles.

Probably the best way to run down this Aquarius globular is to move 3-degrees 22’ southeast of Abali, Epsilon Aquarii. This magnitude 3.75 star should be easy even in a smallish finder even in a suburban sky. When you are on the spot (a magnitude 6.0 SAO star lies about 40.0’ to the northeast and will be in the same field as the cluster in a wide-field ocular) scan around carefully at medium power. Depending on your skies and scope, the globular may be nothing more than a subdued round brightening of the sky background.

“Subdued round brightening?!” Yep, sorry; that’s about all you will see from the typical backyard with a 4-inch or even 6-inch telescope. An 8-inch will make it look “grainy” under those conditions, and may even reveal a few stars around the periphery at high power, but to gain much resolution, you’ll have to move that 8-incher to a dark site. How do you really make the cluster look like much? Use a 10 – 16-inch under a dark sky. Still ain’t gonna be M13, though.


If you thought M72 wasn’t much, you really aren’t going to be impressed by M73. What it is is a group of four stars that may not even be a “real” deep sky object. This may just be an asterism, a pattern of stars created by our line of sight. The collective brightness is not bad, 8.9. What is bad is finding this little 3.0’ across patch of stars in the sun-poor wastes of Aquarius.

The easy way to locate M73 is to go to M72 first. There, move 1-degree 18.0’ almost due east. How hard is this thing to see? Even in a 4-inch, not that hard. What you have is a triangular pattern of four stars with the brightest being just a bit dimmer than magnitude 10 and the dimmest being almost at magnitude 12.

And that is kinda it. Use a medium-high power to get a nice view of the group and move on. If it makes you feel better about spending your time on this second-most-blah Messier of them all, perhaps this will make you feel better:  the group is now suspected to be a (very old) open cluster and not just a “meaningless” asterism. Still feeling put out about being here? The beautiful Saturn Nebula is 1-degree 45.0’ to the northeast, so after you’ve seen all there is to see of puny M73, give yourself a treat.

M74 “The Phantom”

M74, the Phantom Galaxy, a beautiful near face-on Sc spiral galaxy in Pisces, is one of the best Messier galaxies and also one of the true wonders of the northern sky. Assuming you can see it at all.

At least getting on the proper position of this object is not difficult without electronics. While Pisces is not the most striking constellation in the sky, you should have no trouble spotting its magnitude 3.8 Eta star when the constellation is well away from the horizon. From there, move 1-degree 18.0’ northeast. Use a medium power ocular and search carefully for a subtle glow in the field. And good luck.

M74’s size is a manageable 10’ 30”, and it’s “bright” for a galaxy, magnitude 9.39. BUT. It’s a face-on and that almost always spells trouble. Its light is badly spread out, making it quite difficult to see under less than perfect skies. There’s a reason it is called the “Phantom,” alas. Many observers consider it more difficult even than M101, and some folks claim it is invisible from suburban skies.

Well, not quite. When I was writing my book, The Urban Astronomer’s Guide, I hunted up M74 multiple times from a very compromised site. It was often detectable in my 8-inch f/5 Newtonian at higher powers, and was always visible with my C11. It wasn’t something that would put your eye out, and there was no detail, but I could see it as a vague round brightening.

How do you get a good look at it, though? How do you see spiral structure? It depends more on your conditions than your scope. The sky needs to be dark, sure, but also dry. Any humidity just kills this one. The seeing, the atmospheric steadiness, needs to be good as well. When these prerequisites have been met, however, M74 has shown off its spiral arms in stark relief to my rather humble 12-inch Dobsonian, Old Betsy, as you can read here.


This Sagittarius globular star cluster is a fairly bright looking little guy despite shining at only magnitude 8.6. That’s because that magnitude is coupled with a smallish size, 6.8’. While it’s somewhat low in declination for some Northern Hemisphere observers, it’s not bad for most of us at -21-degrees.

Wanna look at it? Use a goto scope. You don’t own a goto? Well, I’ll tell you how to find it, but you aren’t gonna like it. M75 lies in the relatively unvisited part of Sagittarius to the northeast of the Teapot’s “handle.” While it is technically in Sagittarius, it is right on the border of Capricornus, and is easier to locate using the stars of the Seagoat.

The glob is 8-degrees southwest of one of dimmish Capricornus’ more prominent stars, Magnitude 3.0 Dabih, Beta Capricornii. 5-degrees 37’ farther to the northwest from the area of the cluster you’ll find a distinctive pattern of 5th magnitude stars, a triangle of suns that’s easy in a finder. While looking for M75, use a medium magnification eyepiece, and be on the lookout for something that resembles a fuzzy star.

And a fuzzy star, or at least a bloated fuzzy star, is about all you can expect in 8-inch and smaller scopes, even from fairly good locations. To see a few stars you’ll usually need those good conditions and a 10-inch telescope and high power. 12-inches is decidedly better. In addition to its small size, M75 has a couple of other strikes against it. It is a highly compressed group—it is a Class I—and it is distant for a glob, lying some 67,500 light years from our cozy little rock.

M76 “The Little Dumbell”

The skies have rolled on now, and the stars of winter are on the rise, including the suns of Perseus. That constellation’s M76, a planetary nebula, is one of the true beauties of the list. It’s a little small, about 3.0’ x 2.0’, but that makes it look bright even at its magnitude of 10.1.

Finding is not a hassle for the computer deprived. The Little Dumbell lies about 7-degrees south-southwest of the magnificent Double Cluster and 1-degree northwest of a magnitude 4.0 star, Phi Persei. 

And when you get there? M76 is easy to see in small telescopes, being obvious with my 60mm ETX, Snoopy, from suburban light pollution. Doing more than just making out the nebula requires more aperture, however. In 6 – 8-inchers, the nebula looks like a, yes, small dumbbell (it looks more like a dumbbell than its big brother M27) or maybe a peanut. With 10-inch and larger instruments you’ll begin to pick up dark patches and streamers of gas. Whatever the size of your telescope, use higher powers on this small object and employ an OIII or UHC filter if you have one, as I did on one pleasant Chiefland Astronomy Village night with my C11, Big Bertha:

M76 is very good this evening. In addition to the two lobes and brightness variations across these lobes, the streamers of nebulosity wrapping around the main body of the nebula are fairly easy to make out.

M77 “Cetus A”

M77 in 1990 with the Palomar Junior
What’s troubling you, Bunky? You are observing from your light polluted backyard in the fall and want to see galaxies? M74 ain’t making it with you? Well, there’s one island universe you can see under surprisingly poor skies, M77, a face-on Sb spiral in Cetus. Now, I’ve already told you face-ons are difficult. What makes M77 different? An intensely bright center. This is an AGN (“active galactic nucleus”) object, a “Seyfert” galaxy, which pumps its integrated magnitude up to 8.7. With a size of just 7’6”, M77 is hard to miss even for small backyard scopes.

Finding is a trivial affair, since the galaxy lies less than a degree southeast of a fairly prominent star (as the stars of Cetus go), magnitude 4.0 Delta Ceti. Scan from Delta with a medium power wide field eyepiece and you’ll soon run across a suspiciously fat star.

What’s the reward? You get to see a galaxy, if not one that shows much in the way of details. As I discovered 26-years ago when I used my 4-inch Palomar Junior to inspect M77 from my urban backyard:

Nice, bright galaxy. Easily seen with direct vision but handicapped by its southwestern position, which puts it right into the worst of the light pollution. Round with a bright central region. Diffuse, round outer envelope.

And, frankly, that’s all you’ll see even with considerably larger apertures from dark sites. 10-inch and bigger scopes will make the galaxy’s actual (tiny, star-like) nucleus visible, however. 

That is it, y’all. I’d like to keep going, but I’ve got to turn to other tasks. I’ve got a Sky & Telescope Test Report to get underway, and I need to at least think about packing for my next gig, the Almost Heaven Star Party. In my absence, why not get out and see some Ms for yourself? Especially if you, unlike me, are lucky enough to live somewhere where there’s a hint of fall in clear skies.

Sunday, August 21, 2016


Issue 506: On the Road Part II: The Northwoods Starfest

I’ve covered many a mile in the course of my restless travels back and forth across the country to bring you my brand of astronomical wisdom (ahem). However, while I’ve visited state after state in the lower 48, there are still a few I haven’t been able to cross off my “been there” list, mostly in the Midwest. Wisconsin, for example.

Since I was missing Wisconsin, when I was invited to give a presentation for the North Woods Starfest, which takes place not far from Eau Claire, I was intrigued. Not only would I be able to visit a part of the country I’d never been to before, the North Country, but judging from the event’s website the NWSF would be a fun event.

So it was that I found myself back in the air barely a week after returning home from my previous engagement, the Maine Astronomy Retreat (see last week’s article). Was I tired? Maybe a little, but I was nevertheless looking forward, at least, to escaping the dreadful heat, humidity, and rain that had settled in on the Gulf Coast in August.

Since I’d only be gone for three days, Friday – Sunday, I was able to pack minimally in a smaller suitcase.  It was good not to have to wrestle with a large, heavy bag, but that also meant that for the second time I didn’t take my orange tube Celestron C90 with me. I’ve thought it might be fun to take a small telescope on my star party engagements, but I decided to put that off one more time until my next gig, the Almost Heaven Star Party.

I made it from Mobile to Atlanta without a problem and was soon winging my way to Minneapolis - St. Paul, an airport I’d never flown into before. Lindbergh Terminal sure is nice and modern, with every group of three-four gates featuring a modernistic bar/grill where you do your ordering with an iPad. I loved the big sculpture of Snoopy and Woodstock in WWI flying gear (where was the statue of Mary Richards, though?).

My contact and ride, all around nice guy and expert observer Bill Childs, was waiting for me in baggage claim, and it was the task of but a few minutes to grab my small suitcase and get on the road to Eau Claire, Wisconsin and my hotel, which was about an hour and a half away.

While I liked staying in a cabin in the Maine woods well enough, I had to admit the brand new Fairfield Inn and Suites where Bill had booked my room was more to my liking. When I can stay in a beautiful motel for a star party rather than in a chickie-cabin, I will; that’s just how roll these days.

After unpacking  and spending a few relaxing hours in my room watching the LG big screen TV, surfing Facebook and Cloudy Nights,  and enjoying a small amount of shuteye (the flight out of Mobile had been one of my customary early ones), Bill arrived back at the Fairfield. We were shortly on our way out to the site of the star party the Beaver Creek Reserve, which was maybe ten miles from the motel.

There, I gotta say I was mightily impressed. In addition to being the site of a lovely nature-center/museum, Beaver Creek is the site of Hobbs Observatory, an impressive installation that is used jointly by the star party sponsor, the Chippewa Valley Astronomical Society (CVAS), the Beaver Creek Reserve, and by the University of Wisconsin Eau Claire. The observatory consists of two domes and a spacious workshop/laboratory building. What’s in those two classic Ash Domes? One houses a 24-inch Newtonian and the other a Meade 14-inch SCT. To say I was looking forward to looking at and through the two instruments would be an understatement.

Also prominent adjacent to the observatory building was the CVAS’ large radio telescope dish. The group has a prominent and active radio-astronomy contingent (affiliated with SARA). I was very interested to look at the gear in their control room in the observatory building and shoot the breeze with these amateur radio astronomers, most of whom were also radio amateurs.

Time for supper in the dining hall, which was just a short walk from the observatory. Planning a star party? Looking for a venue? Do yourself a favor and seek out one with a place where people can take their meals in comfort, and one which has a sufficient kitchen to prepare said meals. The NWSF had both. What was on the menu? Something called “brats.” I vaguely recalled hearing the word, maybe in a TV commercial, but wasn’t sure what a brat actually was. Turned out to be a hotdog sized sausage (bratwurst?) served on a hotdog bun. I loved it.

Following supper, I walked the observing field visiting with my fellow partiers. Soon enough, however, it was time for a presentation in Beaver Creek’s nature center (which reminded me a lot of our own Environmental Studies Center here, but with more elaborate exhibits).

NWSF’s first big talk was by my fellow Sky & Telescope writer Bob King. His presentation was on the Chelyabinsk Meteor, a subject about which I thought I’d heard everything there was to hear. How wrong I was. Bob’s talk was one of the best I’ve heard at a star party in a long time, and he easily kept me and the rest of the audience interested and excited. I was thankful my recent back problems had alleviated enough to allow me to sit still and listen to his presentation. Heck, I feel so much better that I am hoping I can soon go back to carrying around my beloved 10-inch Dobsonian, Zelda.

With darkness slowly, ever so slowly, beginning to creep in, and the scattered clouds that had been haunting the sky all afternoon beginning to disperse, it was time to check out the Meade SCT. And I do mean “check out.” Bill and other CVAS folks wanted me to give the telescope a once-over, since, they said, it rarely, if ever, produced truly acceptable images. They were not sure whether the problem was the concrete pier the scope was mounted on, the dome’s seeing characteristics, scope cooldown, or scope collimation.

As soon as I walked out onto the observing floor (on the second floor of the facility), I became pretty sure about at least a large part of their problem. It was easily 10-degrees above ambient temperature in the dome. Not surprising. There was no ventilation other than the open slit of the (pretty) Ash Dome. The dome itself didn’t help, either; it was unpainted aluminum, and even in the moderate Wisconsin Sun it was soaking up heat like crazy.

It was clear to me what was happening. The dome sat in the Sun all day long. When night finally came, an observer opened the slit to begin a run. Then, all the hot air in the dome would rush out the slit and all the cold air outside would rush in. That would create terrible “artificial” seeing; especially for a long focal length telescope like a 14-inch SCT. Look, folks, yes, domes are beautiful, but there’s a reason it’s been decades since professional observatories have been built with traditional observatory domes, and that reason is their invariably punk seeing characteristics.

Then there was the telescope itself. A look through it at Antares revealed something that looked like an amoeba. The star was so misshapen that I had a hard time deciding whether the SCT was in collimation or not (I finally decided it was). Not only would the air in the dome heat up during the day, so would the telescope, for hours, and would, I thought, probably not cool-down to the point where it could produce good images till the wee hours of the morning (when I did a star test, I could see a heat-plume emanating from the baffle tube).

Finally, there was the pier. A two story concrete pier, no matter how solid it looks, is not a recipe for stability. One tends to ring like a bell. At least the observing floor appeared to be sufficiently isolated from the pier, and I judged the situation at least acceptable.

So, my prescription? I told the CVAS folks that the first thing to do was deal with the temperature inside the dome. That might be done very simply by taking care to open the slit at least an hour before beginning a run and by running a big fan inside the dome. More elaborate improvements might consist of a forced air ventilation system and applying some light colored paint to the dome exterior.

As for the telescope, that could be helped by an SCT cooler, built or bought. That’s essentially a fan that blows air into the tube through the rear port. Several members expressed reservations about that, worrying about dust entering the OTA, but I pointed out that a filter would help in that regard, and that, anyway, the telescope seemed next to useless as things stood—after an hour I could finally almost make out Cassini’s Division on Saturn.

The pier? I didn’t find the problem too serious. As long as no one was walking around at the base of the pier, the telescope was fairly steady—as steady as a large SCT on a wedge ever can be. I suggested a simple fix would be just to remind observers to make use of this scope’s (an LX200 GPS) built in Crayford focuser. Using motorized focus where possible would banish any wiggles generated by using the main focuser.

The LX200 duly diagnosed, it was time to look at and through some of the wonderful telescopes the NWSF partiers had set up on the field by the time darkness fell. What was most popular scope design-wise? There was a wider variety of telescopes at NWSF than I’ve seen on many observing fields lately. Yes, there were plenty of refractors, plenty, but there was also a goodly number of Newtonians (including a positively enormous solid-tube Discovery Dob). SCTs too. There were even classics like Caves and Starliners pointed at the increasingly pretty sky.

And how was that sky? Good. Very good. There was a bit of a light-dome in the northwest, but it was not bad. The Milky Way was bright and prominent. If the Great Rift wasn’t quite as stark and detailed as it had been for me in the backwoods of Maine, it was at least comparable. In other words, a very superior site and one capable of allowing plenty of serious deep sky work.

I looked through many a beautiful scope at many a beautiful object Friday night, but as mid-evening came and went, I had to admit I was t-i-r-e-d. It hadn’t been a bad trip by any means, but any airline trip these days tend to be exhausting. I hated to tear Bill away from the observing field, but he’d mentioned that he, like me, isn’t an all-nighter kinda guy anyway. Back at the Fairfield, I watched a little TV, but just a little, before my eyes closed and I knew nothing more for some hours.

And so came the dawn, if a little late for me. Finally stirring myself at 9 am, I scurried down to breakfast which was a just-fine free motel one: decent scrambled eggs, good bacon, but sausage that had the consistency of hockey pucks. All in all it left me ready to face a big day and a big night. Beginning with a journey to downtown Eau Claire and a visit to historic Carson (ball) Park.

Bill had mentioned that he thought I’d be interested in visiting the park due to its connection with one of my hometown heroes, Mobile’s Hank Aaron. Turned out he’d played a season long, long ago with the Eau Claire team at their beautiful and seemingly mostly unchanged ballpark. There, I was very pleased to pose with the bust of Hammerin’ Hank, one of the truly good guys in the game. Before returning me to my hotel, we also had a look at the CVAS “Planet Walk.”

You’ve seen these Solar System scale models before. Solar Systems at a scale that allows a nice walking tour from the Sun to Neptune (and sometimes Pluto), but you’ve never seen one in more beautiful surroundings than the CVAS version, nor with more attractive and informative plaques for each planet. After the Planet Walk experience, I requested Bill drop me back at the motel so I could spend a few hours resting and preparing for my after-supper presentation.

Back at Beaver Creek in time for supper, I was pleased to see a well-known item on the menu, jambalaya. How was it? Wisconsin is many a weary mile removed from Cajun country, but the CVAS did a good job with the meal. Almost felt like I was back home. Couple that with a door-prize giveaway that featured many goodies, and the whole group left the hall in good spirits and ready for a long night of observing.

Prior to that observing, however, it was time for my presentation, The Astronomer Looks at 60, which is the story of amateur astronomy from the 1960s to today as told by our changing tastes in telescopes. Specifically, it is a PowerPoint presentation that features over 100 slides of historic (and not so historic) telescope advertisements. I got a tremendous response to this one both in Maine and Wisconsin, and it looks like I’ve got a hit on my hands. Everybody, well, everybody in my generational cohort anyway, sure likes looking at Unitrons and Caves and Criterions.

Thence to the field. I once again looked through many a beautiful telescope that night, including, especially, an absolutely wonderful f/3.3 24-inch Dobsonian. Thanks to the kindness of its owner, I observed numerous objects and was simply blown away by the scope’s mechanical and optical quality. I also had a look through Hobbs’ 24-inch Newtonian in the facility’s western dome.

This is a surplus military tracking telescope on a massive alt-azimuth mount and has a lot of potential. I know the CVAS has done much outstanding public outreach with it, and if its dome’s thermal/seeing characteristics, like those of the Meade’s dome, could be improved, I can scarcely imagine the work that might be accomplished with this instrument.

Then, alas, came midnight, the witching hour for me, since it would be a long day on the ground and in the air on the morrow. I also had to admit I was getting a little chilled, I had a hoodie, but temperatures were beginning to dip into the lower 50s, and for me that is indeed a cold night in August.

The next morning Bill and his charming wife, Beth, arrived to haul me back to Minneapolis. It had been a wonderful trip, and for once was not spoiled by the airlines, though it almost was. I got out of Atlanta just before Delta’s computer network (such as it is) crashed, stranding fliers all over the country.

Summing up, if you can make your way to the North Country for the Wisconsin Starfest, just do it. A nicer bunch of people and a better facility for a star party you will not find. Good skies, too, and even the jambalaya is good. My thanks to Bill Childs, the CVAS, and the Starfest rank and file for making me feel welcome, sharing their telescope with me, and for making my first visit to Wisconsin a great one.

You can see many more photos from the Northwoods Starfest in an album on my Facebook page…

Sunday, August 14, 2016


Issue 505: On the Road Part I: The Maine Astronomy Retreat

I am not a big fan of air travel as experienced in these latter days (“the world has moved on”). The complications and annoyances imposed by the TSA and the deregulated airlines, even if sometimes justified, are not to my liking. But that doesn’t mean I don’t like to get away once in a while, and I still enjoy doing my traveling- speaker thing. This year’s fall star party season would be a big one for that, starting with two new ones for me, the Maine Astronomy Retreat and the Northwoods Starfest (Wisconsin).

Maine was up first. I am no stranger to the Vacationland state, having spent quite some time there one winter doing work for the Navy at Bath Ironworks (shipyard), but I’d never contemplated observing under a Maine sky. Temperatures in the minus-teens the winter I was there didn’t encourage me even to step outside and look up at the sky naked eye. So, it was not until my friend Kelly Beatty (of Sky & Telescope fame) invited me to do a couple of talks at the Maine Astronomy Retreat that I began to think about star gazing way down east.

Yes, Maine is on the east coast, and, as you well know, few sites east of the Mississippi can compete with dry western skies. Nevertheless, the state has something going for it:  not too many people. Once you get away from the coast, it is still possessed of many dark miles of forests. I began to suspect the Maine interior might be an undiscovered deep sky paradise.

So it was that I set out on my adventure on Saturday, August 23. Mr. Beatty had been able to arrange a late Saturday morning flight out of Mobile for me instead of my usual 0600 super-redeye, so I was looking forward to being more rested than I usually am when I reach my destinations. I made my connection in Charlotte without a hitch and was soon on my way to Boston.

Why Boston? Why not Portland, Maine? The plan was for me to meet Kelly in Beantown on Saturday, spend the night with him and his wife, Cheryl, and drive up to the star party with them on Sunday. Charlotte to Boston is not a short hop, but I had a decent book, David Weber’s Field of Dishonor, part of the Honor Harrington space opera series, to entertain me.

Eventually, it was wheels down at Logan, where I found Kelly waiting for me just outside the secure area. In a few minutes we were picking up my checked bag and were on our way to the Beattys’ home, where I was introduced to the charming Cheryl. Shortly thereafter, the three of us were off to have some fun.

A good time was indeed had by all at Kelly’s and Cheryl’s favorite sports bar, the Brickhouse Grill in Chelmsford. This is normally an activity I reserve for Mondays (at Heroes), but it was fun to spend a Saturday night in a crowded and lively place watching baseball—even if it was the Red Sox instead of the Braves. The wings were good, if not quite as good as those at Heroes—nobody has wings as good as Heroes.

When Kelly suggested I fly into Boston  the day before the Retreat was slated to begin, I was dubious. It’s gonna be a long summer on the road and an extra day away from home was not entirely to my liking. Doing Boston turned out to be a blessing, though. I was able to spend that fun evening with the Beattys, rest comfortably in their guest-room Saturday night, and was feeling good when we departed for Rockland, Maine (actually the star party is closer to tiny Washington, Maine) at a reasonable mid-morning hour on Sunday.

The drive up was actually relaxing, and after three hours we pulled into the venue, the Medomak Family Camp and Retreat Center. What was it like? Like a summer camp from the 1950s that has been magically transported to this new century. Pin-neat cabins, historic dining hall/auditorium, beautifully maintained grounds, and an expansive lake all surrounded by cool and dark Maine woods.

First order of business was getting settled in my cabin, one of two brand new ones near the main camp building. One of the things that impressed me was that not only was Medomak well maintained, it was obviously being improved and expanded. How was my cabin? Quite traditional—no phone, no TV, and, most of all, no air-conditioning (or even a ceiling fan). I didn’t care a fig about a landline phone or TV, and normally wouldn’t have cared about the lack of air-conditioning. Even in July, Maine temperatures are normally comfortable compared to the Gulf Coast. But not this summer.
While it was not as blisteringly hot as back home, at mid-day temperatures in the upper 80s and relatively high humidity made my cabin uncomfortable. Like much of the east, Maine was sweltering under a tremendous “heat dome.” The good news was that it would still cool dramatically after Sunset and was quite comfortable then. During the day? The solution was to turn off Facebook (Medomak had good wi-fi) and get out of the cabin. That was fine, since I wanted to tour the camp and surrounding area.

The first thing I did after getting unpacked for my week at Medomak was walk up the ¼ mile or so of wooded road to the observing field in a meadow at the top of a small hill. If I was impressed by the camp in general, I was doubly impressed by what the Maine Astronomy Retreat organizers and the camp folks have accomplished with the observing area.

The field, which was covered in gravel, was not huge, but it did not have to be. The MAR is an intimate event currently limited to 40 observers. That doesn’t mean amenities are lacking; there was a brand new, large warm room adjacent to the field. Need to shake off the Maine chill or use a real bathroom? This beautiful facility is just steps away.

In the evenings, not only was coffee laid on in the warm room, plenty of delicious snacks were provided to keep star gazers going through the night. Oh, and there was wi-fi too. Having wi-fi on the field comes in handy for a variety of reasons. It’s nice, for example, when you’re chasing a really faint fuzzy, to be able to download its picture of it from the Digitized Sky Survey and get an idea of what it should look like.

How about telescopes? There was a good variety of scopes on the field and ready to go: SCTs, Dobs, and, most of all, refractors. As I’ve noted before, ED/APO refractors seem to be pulling ahead again, and so it was on the Retreat field.

In addition to a couple of beautiful A-P 130s and some absolutely amazing Brandon refractors, what really caught my eye was not a scope but a mount, one of the star party organizers’, Bruce Berger’s, iOptron CEM 60. I’d heard a lot about these “center balanced” German mounts, but this was the first time I’d seen one (and, later, seen one in action) in person. My conclusion? If I were more serious about doing astrophotography than I am at the moment—the nasty weather we’ve had this summer isn’t encouraging that—I’d be sorely tempted to sell my CGEM and use the funds to help finance a CEM60.

I wasn’t just impressed by the mount’s good looks or its innovative design, I was blown away by how quiet and just good it sounded while slewing. The hand control is also an upgrade over what we’ve been used to with Meade and Celestron. In other words, quite an impressive package. The icing on the cake was that Bruce had added one of QHY’s new Polemaster polar alignment cameras, which he promised to demonstrate for me after Polaris peeped out. Next on the agenda, however, was supper.

What is there to recommend the Maine Astronomy Retreat beyond great skies, great people, and great facilities? Really great food. The description on the event’s website says it all:

All our meals are chef-prepared, small batch and from scratch. This isn’t institutional food. We grow many of our own organic vegetables; we milk our own cows, and bake our own breads and desserts. There is always plenty to go around of our hearty, healthy, comfort food. Coffee, tea, fruit and snacks are available all day and well into the night, so you can keep your eyes open waiting for that next brilliant shooting star.

This first evening, I recall, was Mexican Food Night, a fairly standard feature of many star parties. But I’d never had Mexican food like this at any star party. What was most amazing was not just the freshness of everything, but the obvious care that had gone into the food’s preparation. Nuff said.

Observing-wise, Sunday night was not perfect. Oh, it was better than the club site back home, and a least showed the potential of the site, but intermittent clouds and haze kept it from really rocking. That was OK, though. If you have to have a semi-punk night, the first night, when everybody’s tired from travel and set up, is a good night to have it. I did get a chance to see Bruce’s Polemaster camera in action, and was impressed by the speed and ease with which this gadget allowed him to achieve a precise polar alignment. If I can get my hands on one sometime I’ll give y’all a complete review of this fairly amazing gadget.

I hadn’t had to do any setup, since I didn’t have a telescope with me (I may begin traveling with an orange tube C90 shortly, but didn’t bring it along on this one), and I hadn’t had to do any driving, but I was still pretty tuckered, and by 11 p.m. was ready to head to the cabin, especially given the so-so state of the sky. There, I watched an episode of Constantine thanks to the Camp wi-fi and was soon off to dreamland.

Monday, I spent the (overly) warm daylight hours out and about, hanging with my fellow campers, and looking around. As above, it didn’t take long for my little (non-insulated) cabin to assume the character of an Easy Bake Oven.

Monday night was, alas, a cloud-out with overcast closing in by afternoon. It was obvious there’d be no observing, so Kelly and I volunteered to do “extra” presentations. In the interest of keeping everybody’s spirits up, I did my “fun” show, Things that go “Bump” in the Night Sky. Between the silliness of the talk and the wine we were drinking, I believe all and sundry had a good time clouds or no.

Tuesday morning, I rode into the little town of Liberty with Kelly and Cheryl for a look at its quaint shops, including a junk shop largely devoted to old and obscure tools. That is not really anything I am overly invested in, but in typical junk shop fashion, there was a little of everything, including, hiding in a corner, a stack of Silver Age comics. I got a 1960’s issue of Sgt. Fury and his Howling Commandos, a 1950s issue of Walt Disney’s Comics and Stories, and a couple of other goodies for practically nothing.

When night began to fall on Tuesday, there was no doubt in my mind it was going to be a good one. It was one of those spectacular evenings that make themselves known early on.  As sunset came on, the sky became a deeper and deeper blue, turning a dark purple just before going black. The Milky Way was soon burning, with the Great Rift, the galaxy’s equatorial dust lane, not just prominent but detailed.

I had some great views that night, including a survey of bright planetary nebulae like the Blue Snowball (can you believe Andromeda is back already?) and the Blinking Planetary with an exquisite Astro Physics 130. Also wonderful were the views I got through the classic C8 belonging to Sandy Mesics (my Sister from Another Mother), which she had mounted on a modern Celestron goto fork. In addition to bumming looks through the telescopes of various kind observers, I got to run a scope myself, a Meade 10-inch Lightbridge Bruce had set up. How would my somewhat atrophied finding skills do in these star crowded skies?

Like riding a bicycle, star hopping is a skill I guess you never lose. I did a tour of the sinking summer constellations, concentrating on globular star clusters. With the aid of SkySafari running on my iPhone, nary a Messier glob did I miss. All looked wonderful in the inexpensive. Lightbridge, which impressed me quite a bit more than I thought it would. I won’t tell y’all I stayed up till three—that’s usually not how I roll these days—but I stuck it out for quite a while before returning to the cabin for relaxing and DVD watching on my laptop.

Wednesday afternoon, I did quite a bit of hiking of the camp’s trails. You can bet I was careful not to step off The Path (I’ve finally learned my lesson about that) lest I wind up like Stephen King’s Patricia McFarland. Looking around, I couldn’t help wondering if poor little Trisha had wandered through these dark and slightly claustrophobic woods. I also hiked over to the lake, which is across the state route that runs past the camp. You had to be careful doing that since the road, right out of King’s Pet Semetary, is frequented by roaring trucks.

Despite some occasional bouts of clouds and even rain, the Maine Astronomy Retreat’s dedicated observers pushed on and were rewarded with some good views on both Wednesday and Thursday nights. These days, I am not one to stick it out to the wee hours, or even the semi-wee hours waiting for clearing, but that’s often my mistake. Stick-to-itiveness is sometimes rewarded by spectacular skies.

Friday evening, which started out partly cloudy, was the next to the last night of the Retreat, but, alas, my final evening on-site. On the morrow, the Beattys and I would head back to Boston, so, while I hoped it would be a good evening of star gazing, I planned to turn in fairly early. This was also the night of my main presentation, and I figured I’d be a little tired from that anyway.

On the subject of presentations, there were plenty of good ones at the retreat, and not just by me and Kelly Beatty. There were various speakers on various interesting subjects at all skill levels. Unfortunately, while my back’s problems have alleviated, I am still babying it, and was reluctant to attend any presentations lest my need to stand up after sitting for a while prove to be a distraction to the speakers.

Before the observing and before my presentation, it was time for one final dinner, and a spectacular one it was, Lobster Night. Not that I didn’t face that with a little trepidation—I’d never eaten a whole lobster in my life. Luckily, my friends Sandy and Sara were able to show me the ropes. Seemed like a lot of work to me, but the lobster was good and the associated fixins, mussels, corn, potatoes, and coleslaw, made for a great repast. Add good wine and good friends and what a great conclusion to the week it was.

My presentation, my current big one, the history of amateur astronomy as told by our telescopes, The Astronomer Looks at 60, went extremely well. As did the night’s gazing. While it began with clouds, they scudded off, and Friday turned out to be the second best evening of the event. I circulated around the field, enjoying the telescopes of my fellow star partiers, and even scoping out an object or two on my own with the Lightbridge. All too soon it was time to get some shuteye, though, and I reluctantly said adieu to the assembled observers.

Saturday began smoothly with Cheryl, Kelly, and me having a pleasant ride back to Boston where they dropped me at Logan. Got to my gate and all was well. Till my phone beeped, informing me my flight time had been changed to 12:30 pm. That didn’t seem right, since it was already 1:30. Then, the flight, which was initially scheduled for 2:30, was rescheduled for 4:30. Then to 6 pm. Finally, there was an announcement. Looked like the aircraft would not be coming at all, American said, due to “maintenance problems” (uh-huh). The upshot was that I spent the night in the Boston Courtyard Marriott rather than at home. I was put out, but it was not too bad. The bar had cold Michelob Ultras and (more or less) hot wings.

Back home, I reflected. Eight days was a lot of time to be on the road, but you know what? I was glad I’d spent those days away. What a wonderful experience and a wonderful star party (only one completely punk night, something of a miracle east of the Mississippi) it had been. My thanks to Kelly and Cheryl for their (overly kind) hospitality, and to Bruce and the other organizers as well as to the star party rank and file for making me feel welcome. Want a comfortable (in some ways luxurious) and intimate star party with great skies and great people? Can’t do better than the Maine Astronomy Retreat. Recommended.

You can see many more photos from my Maine trip in an album on my Facebook page…

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