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I’m busy with a new book (and maybe a revised edition of an old one), writing for Sky & Telescope with some regularity, and don’t have a lot of time for the old blog right now. However, I couldn’t let Christmas pass without at least a short post.

What’s been going on here astronomy-wise? Clouds, that’s what. But in the days leading up to THE BIG DAY, I did get a few nights good enough to warrant dragging my 10-inch Dobbie, Zelda, into the backyard. Admittedly, she hasn’t been used much in the last year, and I was curious to see what I thought about her three-and-a-half years down the line.

Why did Zelda, a basic solid-tube Zhumell (GSO made) Dobsonian, come to stay with me in 2015 (can it really have been that long)? Mostly to replace my hallowed truss tube reflector, Old Betsy, who was destined to go to a new owner in the winter of that year. Betsy had become too much for me to handle thanks to a back injury I’d sustained. One afternoon, out of curiosity, I booted up her computer, a Sky Commander DSC rig, and the last date in it indicated she hadn’t been used in well over a year and a half.

So, Betsy had to go, but I still wanted a little aperture for the visual deep sky, and set about hunting for something more suited to my new realities (which in addition to my reduced ability to lift heavy telescopes included a fairly decent backyard for routine observing). I had an 8-inch Dob, but that just wasn’t enough for some of my backyard observing. Obviously 12-inches (and up) was too much. That left a 10-inch aperture solid tube Dobsonian.

Why a solid tube? In apertures under 12-inches, I find one to be easier to lug around than a truss tube job. It's a pain to have to disassemble a truss tube's tube. Even if you can leave it in one piece, it's still easier (for me) to manage a solid tube in the process of getting it out into the yard.

Anyhow, after I settled on a 10-inch Dob, a solid tube Dob, the questions became: “What sort of solid tube Dobsonian and from whom?”  The first question was easy to answer. I didn’t think I’d be chasing Herschel 2500, PGC, and UGC galaxies from my back 40. I’d be after the relatively bright stuff. Stuff I could locate with fair ease even in my compromised skies with a 50mm RACI (right angle/correct image) finder and a zero power Rigel Quick Finder site.  No goto or even digital setting circles required.

That left the question of where to buy. Which was a little more difficult. Orion, of course, was (and is) a big player in the solid tube Dobsonian game. They had some nice ones back in 2015; especially their goto/tracking models. As above, though, I didn’t want goto and tracking. Their standard (from Synta) Dobs were a little more expensive than the competition, and didn’t offer the features of the other widely available (at the time) brand, GSO. Since I preferred GSO, that also eliminated the Syntas Synta sells themselves under their SkyWatcher brand.

The GSO Dobs, which are still available (sometimes even from Orion) had some features I really liked. While not everybody agrees, I loved the smooth, easy Lazy Susan bearing on the azimuth axis. The knobs that adjust altitude tension were far better, I thought, than the silly spring tension system the Syntas from SkyWatcher and Orion had.

Another huge factor was the GSO accessory lineup:  an excellent 2-inch two-speed Crayford focuser, a 50mm RACI finder, a pair of eyepieces including a decent 2-inch 30mm wide-field, an eyepiece rack, a cooling fan for the OTA, and a laser collimator.

OK, ya’ll…I’ll fess up. Thebiggest selling point for your penny-pinching old Uncle Rod? In mid-2015 you could get a 10-inch shipped to you for less than 500 bucks (yes). That was made possible by a big and now gone scope retailer, telescopes.com (Orion now owns that domain name), a subsidiary of the enormous Hayneedle operation. Not only did the 10-inch Zhumell-branded GSO go for a great price, they had it on my front porch in two days.

From the time Zelda arrived, she was a comfortable scope for me. She remains set up in the sun room. When it’s time to observe, I separate OTA from base—the OTA will stand safely on its own vertically—get the mount into the backyard with the aid of a nice carrying handle, return for the OTA, carry it across the deck and down three steps, and I am done. There’s also the fact that I can leave the telescope set up in my secure backyard for days at a time if I get a good, clear stretch. All I have to do to begin observing is remove her Telegizmos cover.

It doesn’t do much good to be able to get a telescope into the backyard in a hurry if it takes a long time to acclimate to outdoor temperatures so it can deliver its best images. The built-in battery-powered cooling fan turned out to be less of a mere gimmick than I thought it would. It really helps get the telescope acclimatized and ready to observe in as short a time as possible. I generally run the fan the entire time I’m observing, and have never noticed any sort of vibration even at high power.

Such were my thoughts on this year’s Christmas Eve as I waited for dark. Zelda had been set up for three days while I used her to test a product for an upcoming Sky & TelescopeTest Report. That was done. Tonight, it would be strictly fun observing including my traditional Christmas Eve look at M42. Alas, it would be about an hour before the Great Nebula was well placed for observing. What could I look at till then? How about the little comet that’s caught everybody’s attention, C46/P Wirtanen?

The visitor is currently passing through Auriga, and while the constellation wasn’t very high up—it was just above the roof of the house—I couldn’t wait for it to get much higher. A full Moon would shortly be on the rise, and would no doubt extinguish the comet. A quick look at my fave astronomy/planetarium program, Stellarium, showed me where the sprite lay:  just north of and midway along a line drawn between Capella and Menkalian (Beta Aurigae).

I started hunting around with a 27mm ocular, but kept coming up empty. Hmm. The sky was bright to the east where the Charioteer was hovering. That is, in fact the most light-polluted area of my sky. How do you deal with a bright sky background? One way is by increasing magnification, spreading out the sky glow. In went my vaunted Happy Hand Grenade, a 16mm 100-degree eyepiece once sold by TMB, Zhumell, and others.

A little slewing and a little staring soon turned up a something. Which eventually morphed, as I stared and used averted vision, into a little more than that. There didn’t seem to be a star-like nucleus, but there was a subtle central concentration and brightening. The coma wasn’t round; it was distinctly oval. I almost convinced myself I could see a hint of a tail.

After admiring the comet—such as it was—for a fair amount of time, it was time for target two. What’s one of the best objects for urban and suburban observers other than open clusters? Small and medium-sized planetary nebulae. Riding high was one I hadn’t visited in quite some time, NGC 7662, the Blue Snowball.

At magnitude 8.5 and a size of 37”, the Snowball is just about perfect for a suburban sky watcher. Certainly, it was not a challenge for Zelda. Well, not after I found it, anyway. While NGC 7662 was good and high, in my somewhat hazy skies its area was somewhat star-poor. Nevertheless, after consulting Stellarium, the object was in the field of the Happy Hand Grenade in short order.

At 78x, NGC 7662 looks a lot Jupiter shining through clouds. A large, slightly oval, slightly dim, slightly soft-edged disk. And that is about it—well, other than that, as its name suggests, the nebula is slightly (very slightly on this night) blue-tinged.

Is the above all there is to see of the Blue Snowball? Not quite. Inserting my 4.7mm 82-degree Explore Scientific eyepiece and adding an OIII filter to that brought out subtle hints of detail. It was clear the nebula isn’t just the bright and featureless disk it appears to be at low powers. At high power, it shows subtle darker and brighter patches near its center, hints of the inner ring visible in long exposure images.  

What else did I notice on this night? How good Zelda’s primary mirror is. Say what you will; the Chinese telescope factories have their game down. Their optics are almost universally good and consistent, and have allowed many of us to own telescopes better than we ever thought we would.

Blue Snowball essayed, it was M42 time. I was not to be skunked this Christmas Eve as I had been the last couple of years, but it was a pretty near thing. High clouds were beginning to roll across the sky in advance of a front that will trouble us over the next week or so. For now, however, the sky was holding and I was granted my first good look at the nebula this year.

How was it? The haze was undeniable, but there was still so much to see. Not just the huge “wings” of nebulosity, but the fascinating stars of the Trapezium and the many other tiny and brilliant suns scattered across the cloud. Soon, I wasn’t just seeing the nebula with my eyes, but with my mind.  

I began recalling views of Christmases past stretching all the way back to Christmas vacation 1966 and my first look at this incredible wonder. I haven’t seen the nebula everyChristmas Eve. Sometimes clouds have intervened, and sometimes other things have kept my eye from a telescope, but to me it will always be the ornament of ornaments.

Nebula admired, and memories reviewed, it was time to ring down the curtain on this observing run and another Christmas Eve. I covered the scope, and was soon inside, relaxing with the cats and wondering whether I needed to watch It’s a Wonderful Lifeone more time.

Merry Christmas, everybody! I enjoyed bringing a new blog article to you after a long recess. So much so that I plan on doing more as summer comes in (especially if summer somehow, someway brings clear skies with it!). What else is there to say? Dicken’s still says it best: 

“It was always said of him [Scrooge], that he knew how to keep Christmas well, if any man alive possessed the knowledge. May that be truly said of us, and all of us! And so, as Tiny Tim observed, God bless Us, Every One!"
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Well, it wasn’t quitea white Christmas on the Gulf Coast, but, as you can see from the picture at left, taken a couple of weeks previously, we came close. Closer than in years, and years, and years. Maybe since the 1950s.

Anyway, what is Christmas without the Christmas Eve edition of the little old blog from Chaos Manor South? That has taken several forms over the eleven years we’ve been on the air here (hard to believe it’s been eleven freakin’ annums, true believers). Sometimes it’s been an epistle to Christmas Eve and its ghosts. Sometimes it’s been memories from my Christmases Long Past. Once in a while it’s been a short and sweet “Merry Christmas Everybody and Goodnight!” I thought this time might be a little different. Perhaps a recap of my astronomical year, something I’ve normally reserved for New Year’s.

Before we get to that, “MERRY CHRISTMAS CHARLIE BROWN!” And a wonderful night before Christmas, too. This one looks to be calm and uneventful here. Just me and the cats watching Netflix. Naturally, I put a telescope in the backyard, my 3-inch f/11 achromatic refractor, in hopes of getting my traditional Christmas Eve view of that most beautiful and numinous of all ornaments, M42. Shall we step out into the cold and have a look?..

“OK…what did I do with that darned red dot finder? Oh, yeah, I was using it with the Meade APO. Here it is…hope I remembered to turn the sucka off. Lucky Orion is in a sucker hole...looks like fog coming in. OK…smidge to the right and up.” And there it was, shining brightly through the suburban light pollution and lingering haze. Did M42 look as good as it does with a big scope at a dark site? It did to me. This was my first Christamas Eve look at the Great Nebula in a while, and I cannot hope but think it’s a good omen for the coming year (fingers crossed, y’all)…

However, on this deep night the subject is 2017, not 2018.

Winter 2017

The year began with the end of my series on observing the Messier objects as we signed off with Messiers 107, 108, 109, and 110. Most of you seemed to enjoy the voyage through the Ms, which had been going on for most of 2016, but my title for this installment, “This is the End, My Friends” did upset a few of my faithful readers.

Given some of the changes I’d gone through over the previous two years, which I’d occasionally shared with you here, and my slowly decreasing output of blog articles, you were to be forgiven for thinking the title meant we were done, that the blog was finis. Not so—there weren’t to be quite as many updates in 2017 as in the past, but I still kept moving forward in my bumbling fashion. 

As the cold months wore on and the skies grew ever cloudier, I turned to a new series, “The Novice Files.” The entries covered the basics of the sky globe, things like R.A. and declination, star and object names, object catalogs, etc. etc. Things that are familiar and obvious to most of us but puzzling for Joe and Jane Novice. 

That was in part so I’d have something to write about. I sure wasn’t going to be doing many observing articles unless I could glom onto an x-ray telescope. I didn’t just do these articles to have fodder for the blog, though. I thought the subjects covered were pretty darned important for the newbies amongst us.

January also found me blogging about the latest and quite major update to the Stellarium program, which is literally the only planetarium software I use these days (other than the also great Cartes du Ciel occasionally). Yes, Stellarium is free, but it’s also so good, so pretty, so easy to use, and has so many wonderful features that the heavy hitters of commercial software, TheSky, Starry Night, and all the rest, sit unused on my hard drive. Couple Stellarium with the ASCOM scope control add-on, StellariumScope, and I am sitting in high cotton and don’t want for more.

As February came in and the sky began to get a little clearer, I found I needed some images for my magazine work and drug out my trusty Celestron Advanced VX mount. Why the VX? Why not my EQ6 or CGEM? The AVX had one big advantage: light weight. As you know if you’re a faithful reader, I injured my back in 2015 while washing the porch of our old Garden District Victorian home, and have suffered recurrent bouts of pain. Bad enough that the last thing I want to do is aggravate my back.

Light weight is good, but as I recounted in the blog entry, the VX is also surprisingly capable. With the telescopes I normally use for deep sky imaging in these latter days, f/7 5-inch and 80mm APO refractors, it works very well indeed, always delivering round stars. The VX has some cool modern features, too, like auto-alignment with Celestron’s Star Sense accessory.

Since I was doing imaging with the AVX, I thought I’d share some of the issues involving using the Chinese “clones” of the Vixen Great Polaris—like the AVX, the Explore Scientific Exos, the SkyWatcher HEQ5/Sirius, and others--in “Astrophotography with Inexpensive German Equatorial Mounts.”

I’ve always hated polar alignment, so when I found a way to polar align more easily and accurately than ever before using the Sharpcap software, my guide camera, and my guide scope, I just had to share that with you in “A New Way to Polar Align.” There is no doubt in my mind that the better polar alignment possible with Sharpcap is one of the things responsible for me being able to kick my astrophotography results up a notch.

Spring

Spring began to approach, and I found myself out in the backyard ever more frequently thanks to the slowly improving weather. So, I was back to fiddling with everybody’s favorite auto-guide program, PHD2. One of the recurring questions I get from new astrophotographers is, “Rod, what do I do about all those darned PHD brains settings?” I set out to answer that in “Getting Your PhD.”

Despite the time I was spending in that backyard—or maybe because of it—I found I had to bite the bullet and slow the blog down. In “Is This the End?” I broke the news to my faithful cadre of Sunday Morning aficionados that I just couldn’t keep up the weekly publication schedule I’d maintained for years. I hoped, I said, that I could eventually begin to get new articles out the door every week again, but cautioned that “once a month” was more likely—which has turned out to be accurate.

Looking over my output for late spring and summer, I’m actually amazed I published as often as I did. The weather down here was frightful. It was as cloudy as it has been in a long time, and that’s saying something given the nasty weather cycle we’ve been in for the last five years or so.

Summer

Despite Stormy Weather, I pressed on through a tropical summer. I even managed to get my traditional yearly image of M13 in July. From my backyard—I’ve grown weary of lugging a ton of gear out to my dark site. Despite the scudding clouds of a muggy night, one on which I felt like was observing from underwater, I was still able to bring home My Yearly M13 with my SkyWatcher 120mm APO and the reliable and dependable AVX.

Despite raindrops and mosquitoes, July actually turned out to be a good month for the blog, with several entries appearing. It seemed that with the pressure to publish turned off, I was having more fun writing the Astroblog than I’d had in a long while.

One of my favorite articles from this time was “To PEC or not to PEC?” wherein I not just explained the Periodic Error Correction feature of modern telescope mounts, but programmed PPEC into my VX, bringing its RMS error down to a very respectable (for a sub 1000-dollar GEM) 1” RMS or so.

The next July entry, “Good, Old EQ6” was an epistle to my much-loved Atlas GEM mount, which I’d owned for ten years by this time. It was also a goodbye to it. Unfortunately, back problems meant the handwriting was most assuredly on the wall for the EQ6—it was too heavy for me to lift safely anymore, and I’d just have to get rid of it. The article came from my backyard checkout of the mount prior to selling it. The Atlas performed so well that I almost decided not to let it go after all. Until I was removing the mount from the tripod and almost aggravated my back, wouldn’t you know it?

The final July article was in the same vein, and concerned my disposing of some more beloved gear beginning with my Celestron CGEM. The mount had been a great performer for me—don’t believe everything you read on Cloudy Nights—but, like the Atlas, it was just too freaking heavy and I had to sell it too. Which I did.

Perhaps even more sadly, I let go of my C11 for the same reason. If there’s an SCT I’ve loved best over the years, it’s probably Big Bertha, my NexStar 11 GPS. However, I decided leaving the OTA sitting in her case month and month after month wasn’t doing either of us any good. So it was that with a heavy heart I determined that the C11 would follow the CGEM and Atlas.

Don’t feel too sorry for your Uncle Rod, though. Having a small pile of cash before me allowed for the purchase of a new GEM, one a little lighter and easier to manage than the two Syntas had become. A brand spanking new Losmandy GM811G arrived in late August, which was chronicled in “A Losmandy GM811G Comes to Chaos Manor South.” 

Fall

The summer weather was awfully punk, and the fall was most assuredly no better. Thanks mostly to that weather, I didn’t get to put in a lot of hours with the Losmandy. But what little I was able to do with this very pretty mount impressed me. I especially loved the full-color touch screen Gemini 2 hand control and the mount’s Ethernet connectivity.

September and October only featured a single entry apiece. One concerned the experience of using the GM811 for visual observing, and the other my (semi) return to video observing—prompted by the arrival of a wonderful box of video goodies from the legendary Orange County Telescope.

Winter

November? November only got one entry as well, a report on the Deep South Star Gaze for 2017. Alas, that much-looked-forward-to star party was a bust for me this year. Poor food, poor skies, and a couple of rather irritating episodes gave this piece its title, “You Can’t Win ‘em All.”

December looked like it would only be blessed with a single update too, this one—no way am I gonna skip the Christmas Eve blog. But the week before the holiday brought another article. With the pressure to take pictures for magazine articles off for the moment, I thought it would be nice to get out for some relaxing visual observing with my simple, non-electronic GSO 10-inch Dobsonian Zelda. It was and I frankly enjoyed that run more than I have any observing in a while. Sometimes the secret is “Minimize”…

…and so, Christmas approaches, me stirring from my semi-doze on the couch only long enough to click Netflix’s accursed “Are You Still Watching?” button. What more is left to say? Only “Have a great holiday, God bless us everyone, and here’s to a wonderful 2018”—old glass half full me (on my good days) has decided it IS gonna be a good one.
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