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Regulations and upgrades

Amateurs ramblings No.8

It has been a rather long while since I posted something astronomical or otherwise in nature. Thank goodness I do not work for a newspaper or a journal  since I would certainly be fired for lack of output!

Over the past several months I have been busy working and trying to stay somewhat sane in this crazy world. The sanity part happens to be the most difficult. This past May I was offered the change to fulfill a long standing dream of mine: to own my own observatory. Just think! Head outside without the hassle of setting up and with the flip of a couple of switches-bingo the observations begin! Thanks to city and county regulations this dream was not to come true this time around. Where I live there is a permit for just about everything, except if you want to place a beer cooler in your backyard. First there is the $85 permit to allow construction. Next is the $200 inspection for every little project that one does. With a total budget of $500, this project was already in trouble! To top things off were the letters to and from the surrounding neighbors granting permission for construction.  Since this was not a NASA project, I hung the dream up to dry for a time. Yes, the observatory idea/dream still remains but we will allow that to come true some years down the road when we build a country home.

So what about that budget? Moving along from depression to something better: my good old Losmandy G-11 will be getting some upgrades and repairs. So far one of the repairs has been canceled. The main drive board has some corrosion on a microswitch terminal and I removed that allowing for the PEC (periodic error correction) circuit to be used. The other section may involve a trip to Radio Shack for a coiled cord and an order to Hollywood General Machining for a new stepper motor. I thought about a new main worm gear, but that can wait until later since the difference between the current and new worm gear is one arc second in periodic error. One arc second is 1/3600 of a degree, or about the diameter of a golfball approximately 5.5 miles away. My scope camera combination averages about three seconds of arc per pixel at 670mm focal length. The periodic error without corrections to guiding can be a good as 5 seconds of arc or 1.8 pixels if the mount is well adjusted. Not bad! Of course this is atmosphere limited, but I am happy with round stars in the exposures.

One of the other upgrades is a water cooled heat exchanger for the CCD camera. The cost is pretty low for telescope items, but worth the extra 20 degrees below ambient cooling. The cooler the ccd chip, the lower the dark noise present in the exposures. This dark noise must be subtracted from the image and that is done with a dark frame. A dark frame is just an image of the electronic noise present and when subtracted from the ccd’s light exposure removed that noise. At a later time I will get into the the details of ccd image processing.

Back in the Saddle

Working is taking up most of my time these days. I have been out imaging from time to time with the scope. Part of these observing runs I have been adjusting the scope and mount to produce better images. I am still working on those and trying to tune the system to produce its best. Until I post again–hopefully not in four months, here is a little blast from the past. A picture taken from Lake Kissimmee State Park, Florida back in October 1995. This was the era when film was king and the ccd revolution was beginning to heat up. Enjoy Orion!



Orion as imaged in October 1995


Weather, weather…

Well folks, I have not been able to head out and observe due to the wonderful Florida summer weather. That is the only bad part of living here, that and the Florida State Bird-the Skeeter. But anywho, if you have some clear sky–download this map and head out:



Look overhead for the three bright stars: Vega, Deneb, and Altair. These three stars for the Summer Triangle. Vega is in Lyra that Lyre, Deneb in Cygnus the Swan. Cygnus appears to be flying down the Milky Way toward our campground that we mentioned a few weeks back. South of there is Altair, the brightest star in Aquila the Eagle. On a dark clear night the Milky Way divided into two parts starting up in Cygnus and run through Aquila. This division is just some of the dark nebulae that exist in our galaxy, hiding more distant stars in this area.

A little aside….

Below is a photograph taken in October 1995 of northern Cygnus. The glow to the right in the photo is the lights of Lake Wales, Florida some 10 miles to the west. Some four or five months later a new mall opened and the lights from the parking lot significantly brightened the western sky as seen from this location. I have not been to the site since 2009 for good reason: the northern sky is now brightened by a new motel complex outside the gate of the park. When the weather and time permits, I have another location that I want to return to: Kissimmee Prairie Preserve State Park. I will tell you about my observing experiences there next time…..

Northern Cygnus


Brief hiatus

Due to my return to work after summer vacation and issues with the wonderful Florida weather, I am taking a short hiatus. I will post again this weekend after settling in to the normal work routine.

The Celestial Campground, part 2

Thanks to the wonderful tropical moisture of Florida, our little celestial camping trip has been delayed for a short bit. First, let is print off the map for August before heading outside:



If you recall where we left off, we were down in the tail end of the Fishhook, AKA Scorpius. We swung around this constellation and ended at the two large open clusters called M-7 and M-6. We stopped at that location for a rest. Since we are tired from our trip, I think it maybe time for some coffee…

Coffee anyone?? Anyone that enjoys stargazing and camping has grabbed a cup or two while under the stars to keep going. The sky pay homage to this astronomical tradition with a coffee pot composed of stars. From where we left off, extend your arm and make a fist. About mid way to three quarters of the way up your fist and to the left will be a group of eight medium bright stars. Use the map that you printed out to trace the design formed by those stars. The small triangle on the western (right) side of the formation is the spout of our coffee pot. To the northeast and connected to the northern most star of this triangle is another triangle with a vertex pointed north. This is the lid of our celestial coffee pot. Connected to the eastern most (left) star will be an arc of three stars the turns back to the west. This is the handle of the coffee pot. A line drawn from the southernmost star of the handle back to the southernmost star of the spout completes our coffee pot. Now if you are in a dark location around the time of New Moon, you will see the Milky Way streaming by the spout of the pot. I like to imagine this to be steam coming out of the pot, but one more little detail. Look just north of the handle of the pot. There will be a faint group of four stars forming an inverted triangle with the vertex pointed south. Off to the northeast will be a fainter star. This little group to me appears to be a celestial spoon. One must have sugar with their coffee, correct?

The technical name of the constellation we drew is Sagittarius the Archer. It so happens to be one of my favorite constellations along with Orion, who is located on the opposite part of the sky. If you decided to bring out a pair of binoculars, take a moment to start at the top of the spout and slowly sweep northward until you reach a fuzzy spot in the Milky Way. At this point you should be nearly directly west of the top of the lid of the pot and directly north of the westernmost star in the spout. This fuzzy patch is the famous Lagoon Nebula also called M-8. Located some 5 000 light years ( from the Sun, when observed through a telescope it appears to have complex patterns of dust and gas. Intermixed with this is an open star cluster called NGC-6530. The NGC comes from Dreyer’s New General Catalog published in the late 1800s and early 1900s.   This cluster appears to be involved with M-8, but sources give varying distances, most are within 500 light years of that of M-8.

Just north in the same binocular view will be a smaller and fainter fuzzy spot. This spot is called M-20, the Trifid Nebula. The shape is not visible in binoculars, but it is readily apparent in telescopes eight inches and up in aperture. The distance to this nebula is also 5 000 light years. From these distances, I might infer that they maybe part of the same molecular cloud, but I could be incorrect. This past July on one of the rare summer nights that it is clear in Florida, I had the chance to observe the Trifid with a fourteen inch Meade Schmidt Cassegrain reflector. At a magnification of 240x, the nature of the nebula was very apparent. The nebula was trisected by dust lanes that were barely visible above the light pollution put out by the phosphate mines south of my location. To reduce the effects of light pollution, I added an Oxygen III (OIII) filter to the eyepiece. This filter allowed the light emitted by doubly ionized oxygen. The filter darkened the sky and the Trifid stood out in her full glory. WOW!!

Our last stop will be just off the lid of the teapot. Take you binoculars and point then at the northern vertex of the lid. Keeping the star in the field, move the star to the right of the field, keeping it on the right side of the field. Entering the field should be a faint fuzzy spot. This is a globular cluster called M-22. This cluster is the most distant object on our tour. This cluster is located some 10 000 light years distant, located on the Earthward side of the central bulge of the Milky Way. With a telescope this cluster appears as a majestic ball of fireflies hovering around a light.

Attached below are is a view of this area of the sky photographed in April of 1996 from Lake Kissemmee State Park. Jupiter is on the left, sorry for the scratches-dust in the camera! I hope you enjoyed this tour of my favorite area of the the sky!


Back in the film days….

This is just a little aside before I continue the Celestial Campground series.

Here is a little photograph of the same galaxy using two different types of technology. One was taken back in May of 2001 with film, the other in April of this year with a CCD. I posted them large so you will be able to see the details of the photos. Yes I said photograph. This was taken in the day when most of us took some film and an SLR camera with a stash of lenses out to a dark site. Back then we had a large selection of films to choose from. Most of the amateurs I ran across did not have a CCD camera, if they did it was used to guide the telescope while a film camera recorded the heavens above. Those days are coming to a rapid end.

Now it is the other way around. Few of the amateurs use film and now opt for DSLRs and CCDs for grab a pic of the heavens. Some of the best moments in my time as an astrophotographer was learning patience at the guiding eyepiece of my telescope. Also I built up a tolerance for neck pain and eye strain. Yes you read it correctly! We spend hours hunched over an eyepiece that contained fine crosshairs and a red LED to illuminate them. Most of the time the guide star was pretty faint and one must contain that star at the intersection of those crosshairs. One wrong tap of a button and your precisely guided photo is ruined. I had that happen more times than I care to remember, but still the rewards were great after a night of guiding at the scope. From time to time when the scope was performing great, I would look up and take in the stars on that wonderful velvet black backdrop before returning to my game of chase the star.

Now I have made the transition to digital and use a CCD camera with the scope. Today I can reach stars much fainter than the faintest stars I recorded with film. Also back in the film days you had to either develop it yourself or take it to the local camera shop now the image appears on a screen.  I hit the local Ritz Camera about once a month with a roll or two of pics. Now I just hit the enter key to say the pics to my hard drive.  No drive to the mall and waiting an hour for there processing to be done. No worry about the film getting messed up in the developer or finding out that an entire night passed and the film did not go through the camera. With CCD, you just delete and retake the exposure. The down side of CCD–your night vision is wrecked from the computer screen, but that is the price we pay for great images these days.

Do I miss the film days? Yes I do, and from time to time I catch myself daydreaming of the nights that I spent huddled over an eyepiece under a velvet black sky……

The top picture is a 10 minute exposure with the CCD, the bottom is film and a 55 minute manually guided exposure.


Tall buildings: low cloud

July 28, 1945

Few shoppers were on the streets of New York at 9am on the morning of July 28, 1945.

Those who were, braved a light rain and could see the tops of buildings were obscured by low cloud. It was a Saturday, and that contributed to light traffic as well.

The war in Europe was over, and unknown to those citizens, an atomic bomb had been tested in New Mexico and another would incinerate Hiroshima two weeks hence.

Far to the northeast, Navy Aviation Machinist Mate Albert Perna was climbing aboard an Army B-25 near Boston. He was on Emergency Leave to visit his parents, after receiving word that his brother had been killed in the Pacific, and was grateful to take the free ride home to New York.

The Aircraft Commander, Lt Col. William Franklin Smith Jr., had also been on leave. A veteran of over a thousand hours of combat time in B-17s, his whole outfit had been reassigned to Sioux Falls, to train on the B-29. His CO was waiting to be picked up for the trip west.

The airplane was a B-25D, tail number 41-30577. It bore the whimsical nose art of , “Old John Feather Merchant.” With their days as a bomber limited, a lot of ‘Mitchells’ found excellent use as squadron hacks, and VIP transports: the Lear Jets of 1945!

The third man aboard was Ssgt Christopher Domitrovich. They launched from Laurence G. Hanscom Field, in Bedford, Massachusetts for the one hour flight. The next, and only, contact was a weather request for New York Municipal Airport, (later LaGuardia.)

The weather was stinko. Significantly, the reply mentioned that the tower, “Couldn’t see the top of the Empire State Building. Smith was cleared to Newark.

There was a 2,000 foot MDA over Manhattan at the time. For some reason, the B-25 busted that. It is possible that the crew saw the East River, and thought it was the Hudson?

In any event, they dropped right into the buildings of Midtown New York. There were several near misses with famous buildings, …then their luck ran out. The southbound Old John Feather Merchant plowed into the 79-80th floor of the Empire State Building.

One engine went completely through the building and burned out an artist’s loft, across a street, and 68 stories below!

The light traffic saved lives on the streets, but the impact was a direct hit on a Catholic War relief office. The crash and fire killed 11 in the building, in addition to the three on the plane. Most were young girl office workers.

One who had a good day was elevator operator Betty Lou Oliver. She had been injured, and was put in an elevator for transport to care workers below. Unknown to all, the cables had been damaged. When it started down, it went down, …in a near free fall of about 75 stories!

The operator was killed, but the cables that collapsed into the elevator pit cushioned the crash enough that Oliver survived, …and returned to the building a couple months later.

The celestial campground–part One

An amateur’s ramblings

No. 1    22 July 2011

This part of the sky that I am about to describe is my favorite part of the night sky. I call it the Celestial Campground, for the reasons I will give in just a few moments. First, you will need to grab a pair of binoculars and head out to a location that has a nice southern horizon. Here in Florida, the Campground rises pretty high above the southern horizon but if you live at 40 degrees North or above, this area may be a bit low in the sky for you. For the sake of space and reading, I will break the articles up into several parts. For now, let us focus on the section of the sky I love to call “The Fishhook”.

Before heading out, print out this little map:


It will help you get situated.

After you get situated and are facing south, look for a large fishhook shaped group of stars located almost due south (at 10:00pm local time). This is Scorpius.  This group of stars has a bright red star called Antares (meaning rival of Mars) along with a nice pattern of blue white stars. Antares is a red giant star about 600 light years away with a radius 800 times greater than our Sun. Use this star as your staring point. On the right is an arc of  stars that form the “top” of the fishhook. In astronomy books (notably Rey’s “The Stars…”) this is the location of the claws of the scorpion. We are interested in the other direct-toward the sting.

Follow the bright stars that arc south and to your left. The formation will follow a slight curve and turn back upward to a pair of stars we call the “Cat’s Eyes”. The stars mark the location of the tail/sting of the scorpion. The brightest star is called Shaula or “The Sting” (Burnham 1978). If you are located in a darker location, you will notice that Shaula is located in a bright fuzz of stars. You are looking toward the center of our galaxy-the located if the exact center is a few degrees north of the stars we are observing. If you have binoculars, look at the Cat’s Eyes and move the binos upward until you see a two tight groups of stars. One-the uppermost–should appear fuzzy, the southernmost one should be larger and have stars resolved. What you are observing are a pair of open star clusters.

The northernmost cluster is called M-6 for Messier 6, the sixth object cataloged by French astronomy Charles Messier. This cluster was discovered by de Cheseaux in 1746 and cataloged by Messier in 1764. This little star cluster is some 1 600 light years distant, though I have seen data that lists the distance as far as 2 000 light years. This little group is called the Butterfly Cluster by amateurs. Can you see the shape?

The larger cluster to the southeast is called M-7. This group is bright enough to be seen with the naked eye from a place of moderate light pollution. The distance to this cluster is about 800 light years. At that distance, the cluster will be about 20 light years across. It was originally discovered by Hevelius in 1690 but may have been observed by Ptolemy. Messier added it to his list in 1764 (Burnham 1978).

I will stop for now. Take a look around the tail end of the Fish Hook (aka, Scorpius) and soak in the view. If you do observe this, please comment about your observations! I would love to read them.


–RV    27.45 N   81.45 W



Burnham, Robert;    Burnham’s Celestial Handbook, volume three. Dover Publishing,  New York   1978


recommend reading:

Rey, H.A.;   The Stars, a new way to see them,  Houghton Mifflin, New York, 1952, renewed 1980.

July 20, 1949

Fox Able I

July 20th is most remembered for an event that took place a quarter million miles from here.

There were 16 other important landings, on this date in 1949.

The Soviets were testing Western resolve with the Berlin Blockade. The Berlin Airlift, to relieve the city had just started.

The postwar reduction in force in Europe left little in the way of NATO airpower to confront any danger. Shipping more fighters from the U.S. meant loading them on slow ships for the trip across the Atlantic.

David C. Schilling had a better idea, that he had been promoting for some time. Events gave him a chance to use it, with the full blessing of Air Force Headquarters.

Schilling had risen to the rank of Colonel, in the elite 56th Fighter Group during WW-II. This was the first unit to fly the P-47 Thunderbolt from England. They shot down more Luftwaffe planes than any other group. Shilling himself, had over 20 Kills, five of them on a single mission.

After other duties, he was again in command of the 56th, at Selfridge AFB, Michigan.

He led 16 Lockheed F-80 Shooting Stars to Germany, by air, saving the boat ride, and weeks of precious time. The operation was named “Fox Able I”. The phoenetic letters stood for ‘Fighter, Atlantic, first flight.

They flew the Pond in stages, as the F-80 had only a 900 mile range. Selfridge to Dow AFB, Maine. Then via Newfoundland, Greenland, Iceland, Scotland, England, and finally landing inGermany.

Fox Able I proved to the world, that Europe could be reenforced quickly, …a point certainly not lost on the Soviets!

It was the first combat-ready, squadron strength, deployment of jet fighters across the Atlantic, however, they were not the first jet fighters flown across. Six RAF Vampires flew the other way two weeks earlier, to provide demonstrations at airshows in Canada and the U.S.

Schilling led other long-distance fighter flights, including the first nonstop England to U.S. flight, (with three aerial refuelings,) and the first Wing sized deployment of jets from the U.S. To Japan.

A starry night

After twenty-nine years of visual and photographic observing, I think it is time to share a bit of what I know about the sky. I do not know as much as some of my contemporaries in the hobby, but we will give it a go.

If you can see the sky, you can join me on this journey. All you need is your eyes and a little bit of an imagination to link the stars into the patterns that our  ancestors invented long before the advent of radio, TV, and the internet. If you have a pair of binoculars, the journey gets even better. A telescope and we can go deep into the universe!  I will be posting tours and observations in this blog that you repeat at your leisure. I may throw in some spaceflight into the mix to keep things interesting along with some historical stuff from the history of astronomy. Lets go observing!

Next: A celestial camping trip….

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