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Bringing the Universe to Your Classroom!

Showing posts with label color film. Show all posts
Showing posts with label color film. Show all posts

Wednesday, May 22, 2019

The O-TEAM: A Thousand and One Nights

(Late - very, very late; one night in 1989...)

As one-third of that, one-time, infamous trio of hard-core, dedicated, 'back-woods', 'MacGyver'-ish, observational astronomers: the 'O-Team' - Mike Petrasko, Muir Evenden, and myself, who's late-night and, sometimes, 'deep-freeze' telescopic adventures, back around 1989 (typically, in below-freezing temps) -- I would never, ever have believed that one day - our telescopes would be able to, practically, "take us by the hand", and give us a detailed, orated tour of the night sky - all by their artificially intelligent selves. Nope - that's the kind of thing that only happened in sci-fi films...

Moreover, how could any of us possibly have imagined, that, variable stars - those, peculiar stellar anomalies who are light-output, vary over periods of time, from about a few hours to several days, should turn out to be *variable* - because there were planets getting in the way! - by crossing the faces of those stars (as seen from our perspective)...of all things!!

Telescopes used by the O-Team on The Woods Hole Golf Course - Illustration by Dale Alan Bryant.
Telescopes used by the O-Team on The Woods Hole Golf Course - Illustration by Dale Alan Bryant.

Many times, over the "O-Team years", some 30-something years ago, I had made painstaking efforts at trying to capture such things, as, the North America nebula, or the galactic core in Sagittarius, on film, using a piggy-backed, 35mm SLR, loaded with Fujichrome 200, acetate slide-film. With a lot of patience, and, even more, practice, something like this could be gotten - in as short a span as 45 minutes - using the telescope, as a guide scope, during the exposure. I could never have imagined (not even in any of my wilder dreams) that, film - the conventional platform for photography, since its invention - the century, before last - would soon be replaced with the microchip capable of generating an equivalent image in 10-20 seconds - un-guided!!

Unfortunately: I have missed out - entirely - on the GOTO, computerized, Dobsonian-mounted telescope revolution: that is - the kind of amateur astronomical telescopes that are capable of re-positioning themselves, by 'slewing' across the sky, via, computer-controlled, stepped servo-motors - to any celestial object in the heavens, using the celestial coordinates, right-ascension, and declination - by converting them into their alt-azimuth counterparts - all on command!"....

I've never used one. In fact - I've never even SEEN one (at least, not 'in person').

No. My active days (or rather, nights) as an observational astronomer with the O-Team were the kind, where, in the cold months, you got dressed for the weather using three layers of outer garments, three layers of warm socks for your feet - wrapped over, with plastic trash bags to keep the warmth in under your boots - and, at least, one wool cap and a pair of mittens (mittens hold in heat better than gloves).

If you didn't look like you were ready to start training attack-dogs - you were missing some clothing.

When you were finally ready - you disassembled your scope and packed it into the back seat, trunk, or bed of your vehicle, and - if you could, still, just slide into the front seat - you were ready to drive yourself, along with your gear, to one of your, very, best-kept secrets: a chosen, dark, secluded and, preferably, isolated observing site! (We actually had two sites that we frequented, but, one, in particular, was, by far, our preferred nocturnal "delinquency". You see: on many, many starry nights, you could find me, and my telescope (well - and, my truck!), and Mike and Muir, and their vehicles, perched on one of the fairways at the Woods Hole Country Club's plush, green carpet, of highly-manicured grass. To say that we were obsessed - well, that would be a really, really accurate statement...

On any, given, clear night, we would abandon the warm, blissful comfort of our cozy beds at around 12:00 midnight, and drive out to our, apparently, God-given observing station; or any party-cloudy night, for that matter - just in case. And if you've never seen the unlikely, ominous sight of a silhouetted Volvo, parked in the middle of a golf course in the middle of the night - before, well, you just haven't lived!

From our perspective, golf courses were built, and designed, for astronomers. They offer wide expanses of sky, and - serendipitously - are covered with a durable, and, surprisingly well-kept swath of grass - which, seems to run on, in all directions, forever! Now, what philanthropic soul had done this great service for science? (I never did believe in the rumors, that, they also used these green havens, for other, unimportant 'sporting activities', as well).

Here's how it usually went...

After arriving at the golf course, and, having driven, up, onto the fairway, you set up your scope and connected it, via, mini-jumper cables w/alligator-clips, to your vehicle's battery. This was to run the electro-mechanical clock-drives, that, slowly moved the scope, in synch with Earth's rotation, across the sky to follow the particular celestial object you were observing. Muir used an 8-inch Celestron Schmidt-Cassegrain. Mike had an Edmund Scientific, 4.25-inch AstroScan, and I used an 8-inch Meade Newtonian reflector.

The next step was to set up the card table and lay everything out on it: a very good, laminated star atlas with reticle templates, a red-filtered, military-style elbow flashlight, eyepieces w/case, pocket shortwave radio, tuned to WWV (for timing anything you wanted to time) along with, Mrs. Holmes' home-made brownies, if you were fortunate enough - and pray that you didn't completely drain your vehicle's battery, by dawn. (There were actually statements, like: "Oh, well; if my battery dies, I'll just call a tow-truck in the morning.", made, frequently...who cared?!)

Now, all this was usually set up near the frozen, ice-covered, first-hole putting-green of the WHGC - regardless of winter, or its threat of frostbite, or - of the threat of getting booted off the course by the local law enforcement. You see, we once (once?!) had a brief encounter with a police officer, who, was out on his rounds and, spotting, three, parked automobiles - in the middle of a golf course - had decided to drop by our private, highly-manicured observatory.

Having noted our three, rather large-ish, optical instruments, tables, chairs, ladders, and vehicles - electrical connections and all - the officer, slowly and cautiously approach our bunker, and asked, "What kinds of weapons", we were using to, obviously, protect ourselves against, the potential, horrors of the night sky. Naturally, we all-too-excitedly broke into a rather lengthy discourse about the myriad wonders - galaxies, nebulosities, etc., that we had seen that night, and offered him a view for himself; with such fervor and passion (which, he, apparently didn't share with us), that, he probably just couldn't wait to escape the bizarre situation.

Over time, they eventually learned to ignore us, entirely and, for the most part, we continued to have the WHGC, all to ourselves for our continuing, awesome onslaught of the universe, at large.

And that's how those days went.

But times have changed dramatically. Today, all this is done, remotely, with a laptop, or tablet, or even, smartphone - right from the comfort of your own bed!!

What will the next, 30-something years in amateur astronomy bring?.....

Dale Alan Bryant
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Thursday, September 3, 2015

Checkbook Astronomy

Held annually under the dark August skies of Springfield Vermont, a large gathering of amateur telescope makers unfolds on weekends chosen to coincide with the Perseid meteor shower. Called Stellafane, this “Shrine to the Stars” happening is attended by thousands of amateurs from around the world. They are all hoping to get in some dark-sky observing and to admire telescopes designed and fabricated by others. This is all conducted in a friendly outdoor-camping, "down home" atmosphere (which belies all the genius and mind-boggling technology at hand).

1990 Stellafane Convention - Springfield, Vermont.
1990 Stellafane Convention - Springfield, Vermont.

In the late seventies, during a Stellafane's Friday night “Under the Tent Talks” sharing, I had the good pleasure of hearing a relative newcomer to the world of amateur astrophotographers. He had quickly zoomed nearly to the limit of what one could do with amateur gear, and his inspiring work was showing up in Sky and Telescope and Astronomy Magazines. His name was David Healy, and he was from Long Island, NY.

David stepped behind the modest podium and said respectfully to the assembly of mega-nerds, “I am not a telescope maker (huh? This is Stellafane!), I am a telescope BUYER.” The audience was caught off-guard and cracked up. He then went on to explain how his astrophotos were made with gear he had purchased. It was a talk graced with wit, insight and plenty of self-effacing humor.

Hey, who has not lusted over those shiny Schmidt-Cass telescopes, CCD cameras, and exotic telescope mounts, jumping from the full-color pages of astronomy mags? But oh those prices! Gonna cost you to crank out dramatic astrophotos, son! David Healy candidly admitted he had the dough, being an NY based stockbroker/analyst. But he lacked fabrication skills and hit the hobby head-on with his checkbook, with superb results.

I have always been scratching for funds to do astronomy. It’s just the way it is. No sour grapes toward Mr. Healy or anyone else who can afford big ticket toys, particularly if they are used as productively as David’s were.

But for me, there is a significant upside to being a "bucks down" amateur. Maybe I can make what I need. If you think there are limits to the telescopes and gear that can be made by nonprofessionals, take a trip to Stellafane, or browse the pages of Sky and Telescope to nix that notion. True, I had a decent scope that I had saved up for, to serve as the platform for my system. What I needed but could not afford, were costly accessories to create long focus color shots of galaxies, nebulae, and clusters.

Many of my homemade projects cannot be described in detail here, but they were necessary items, like a permanent scope pier, gear racks, a heated dew cap, modest electrical gear and the like. One particularly rewarding item was a “cold camera”, which chilled film with dry ice during exposures to enhance light response. (These were pre CCD days!) Challenges to keep the film dry (but cold), handling film under the night sky, and developing exposed color film chips all had to be overcome. But they were.

And there is the nub. Sure it's exciting as ever to open that FedEx package to extract the astronomical treasures therein. But how about “rolling your own” once in a while? Let’s get our hands dirty because benefits abound. An accessory that you’ve designed, constructed, and put to successful use can be a source of immense pride. I still take joy in the fact that Astronomy Magazine used an article and photos I put together describing the construction of the aforementioned dew cap, to produce a three-page feature color article on it! Best of all, that dew cap worked beautifully. Total cash outlay? Ten bucks.

I guess one could call that piggy bank astronomy.

By Harry Hammond
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