Around OCA for March, 2005

Posted On March 2, 2005

To inaugurate this new series of articles, I'd like to start with something of a romance - of the "Girl Meets Telescope" variety.  Of course, in this instance I'm using "girl" as my grandmother used it when speaking of my great-aunts (as in "I went to lunch with the girls on Tuesday "), and the "girl" in question actually had already met the telescope - in fact, had operated it many times.  Let's just say that this is about the cementing of the relationship.  So, let me tell you about -

  The Night The Kuhn Burned Out

First, some context.  Going back to the summer of 2002, Liam Kennedy was OCA President, and I was Vice President.  It was a busy summer, and in addition to the club's usual summer activities, we were preparing for the AstroImage 2002 conference, which (thanks to the efforts of a lot of industrious and creative people) was a very successful event that started on August 23rd.   The particular period I'm speaking of, however, was July - we had the July Star Party and Starbecue Potluck at Anza on July 13, with members of the Riverside Astronomical Society as guests, Liam and I shared the running of the Kuhn for what I recall as a busy evening with a lot of people coming through the observatory, and a good time was had by all. 

My attendance at the July star party was actually a victory of desire over duty, as I was part of a team that was starting trial on a big case that had been consuming most of my attention for months.  So, on Sunday after the star party I was back in the office, working on final preparation for Monday morning.   Monday I was in court, arguing pre-trial motions, and then I headed back to the office to meet with my boss, expecting to work with him on jury selection and opening statements - but discovered instead that, as the last one hired, I was the first of five attorneys the firm had to lay off that week. 

So, in the space of a few minutes, I went from being consumed by the trial to being concerned about how to pay my mortgage - a situation that all too many of our members have faced over the last few years.  I was more fortunate than many, as I found another job very quickly, but I didn't know that yet as that week was ending.  In fact, as I was starting the job-hunt and tying up loose ends from the old job, including saying good-bye to the wonderful group of people I'd been working with, I was pretty depressed.

Fortunately, the Kuhn was available that Friday night.  Nobody else was free, so I went out to Anza alone, and I had the site pretty much to myself.  There was a lot of moon that night - we were past third quarter - but it was beautifully clear, and, although I'd been operating the Kuhn for star parties and other events for a year, that night was the first time I'd spent any time on the telescope just observing for myself.  To give you the flavor of the night, here's part of the email I sent to the ocastronomers email group the next day:

Last night was even clearer than I'd expected from the Clear Sky Clock - clear enough that, in spite of the moon, I was able to see a lot of detail in clusters outside the immediate vicinity of the moon (so, other than in Scorpius and Sagittarius, unfortunately).  Diffuse nebulae and most galaxies were pretty washed out, but denser nebulae like the Ring and Dumbbell showed up well. 

The cluster I remember most was M13 in Hercules, which seemed particularly lovely that night.  I spent a long time tracing out the streamers of stars that made it look almost flower-like, wondering if they were connected by anything more than my imagination and a chance association as they all orbited their common center.  It was a mesmerizing (and comforting) view, and I returned to it several times. 

Usually when I run the telescope for star parties or classes, we do a lot of long slews, as people inevitably want to look at things in different parts of the sky.  That night, for the first time in all the times I'd run it, all my slews after I aligned the scope were short, as I went from one object to another in close proximity to it.  This was more by chance than the result of good planning, but it proved to be a fortunate strategy for that evening

Well, the night and the telescope worked their magic, but exhaustion set in after several hours, and I closed the observatory around 1:30.  The Kuhn went to its "park" position like a dream - it had been working perfectly all evening - but as I turned off the power, there was a smell like burned wiring.  I felt some warmth near the base of the telescope, but couldn't tell where it came from, and after checking around awhile and confirming that there wasn't any actual fire, I gave up on locating the source.

As I found out two weeks later, when I had planned to run the Kuhn for a class, that slew to its "park" position was the last gasp of the system John Hoot had built to run the Kuhn by acting as the interface between the telescope and the program we actually use to control it, TheSky.  The Kuhn didn't respond to anything after that last "park" maneuver, and when John Hoot checked into it, he found that the circuit board for the control system had not just failed, but parts were actually melted.  Dave Radosevich did some additional investigation, and found a lot of mechanical problems that contributed to the failure.  Dave's done the lion's share of the physical work to renovate the Kuhn since then, including cleaning and re-aligning gears, installing the new drive motors and control system, and having the optics recoated.  John has done fine-tuning of the software, and tested the tracking for use with the CCD camera that he generously donated.  And, as I write this, Dave tells me that we now have the replacement chip that should solve the last significant problem with the new drive system, an intermittent "jump" - if all goes well, by the time you read this, that problem should be history.

The Kuhn is a telescope, not really a living entity, though it sometimes seems to be - but I'm still very grateful to it for the gift of that night of wonderful viewing when I needed it most, and for ending the night perfectly by getting to its "park" position before the system expired.  If it hadn't, the night would have ended on a much less pleasant note, as I wouldn't have been able to get the observatory roof closed until I somehow got it into the right position.

Time passes, and circumstances change - now, besides Star Member Trainer, I'm the Observatory Custodian, with overall responsibility for the observatory and the Kuhn.  John Hoot, who held that position before me, will continue to provide assistance as the Kuhn Systems Consultant.  Dave Radosevich is now the club President, but will continue to help with the mechanical aspects of the Kuhn.

Romance or not, this particular girl has definitely bonded with the telescope - and would be delighted if all of you did, too!  The Kuhn is even easier to control now than it was that July night, the optics are brighter, and it's a pleasure to use.  All you need to do to have the privilege of working with it yourself is to become a Star Member, go through the training and then spend some time running it with a more experienced Star Member.  I'm sure you'll find, as I have, that the $150.00 cost of a Star Membership (which helps to maintain the observatory and telescope) is money very well spent!

Moving into the Future at the Observatory

of course there are the plans for the new roof, which, if all goes as we hope, should have the side benefit of being able to close even if the Kuhn isn't in its proper "park" position (not that we won't still have to park it when closing it down, but we'll have more leaway in case of problems).  And the new roof will be lighter and easier to open and close than the current roof, and may even be more rodent-proof - there are lots of benefits, beyond the mere fact that the old roof is visibly deteriorating each month (and the heavy rains and wind this winter haven't helped!).  So, especially if you haven't yet donated any spare objects you might have around the house to help us out on this great cause (plus the cause of the Anza site fence, of course), please use this as an opportunity for some spring cleaning, and get your unused belongings to Larry McManus - you get a tax deduction, some freed-up space and a noble sense of having done a good deed, and we get closer to our goal for financing these much-needed projects.

There are some lesser projects we need, too, though.  The Observatory phones have been out of action for several months now - if you've got any expertise with phones and would like to lend a hand, please let me know!  The lighting in the warming room needs work - what I'd really like to have there is separate white light and red light systems, similar to what we have in the observing area and the observatory bathroom, controlled by separate switches - any electricians out there, I could use your help!  And then there's the issue of the front door to the observatory - if you've ever tried to open or close it, you've probably noticed that the frame is doing its best to separate entirely from the wall, and the door itself is collapsing off its hinges.  Energetic as they are, Don Lynn and Gary Schones can't handle everything that needs to be done out at Anza - if you've got the expertise and can help us out with this long-standing problem, we'd really appreciate it!  My contact information is the same as before - , or 714/606-1825 - and I look forward to hearing from you!

OCA's Own Dark Sky Group!

Yes, indeed, OCA now has its very own Dark Sky group - so, if you've ever been annoyed by excessive light around Anza or anywhere else you like to observe (even around your home), put that sense of annoyance to good use by joining us!  One easy way to start is to join our email group - .