Adventures in Astrophotography

This is not a good astrophoto.

It’s the famous Ring Nebula, also known as M57, located in the constellation Lyra. I took the main part of the picture, the luminosity values, early Friday morning in a five-minute exposure.

The background is that my go-to telescope had become what my astronomy guru, Patrick Wiggins, called a “go-near.” It wasn’t pointing accurately, and I couldn’t find some targets. In fact, Patrick was being charitable; it was really a “go-not-very-near.” But I had gleaned some ideas from the discussion group dedicated to my type of telescope, a Meade LX200GPS, and thought I might be able to work out the kinks.

Early Thursday afternoon I left for the western Utah desert in our new Jeep Liberty, a gleaming black beauty. I talked to Cory on the cell at one point as I headed along a dirt road. When I tried again, I found I had lost cell coverage. I was on a side road of a side road of the main dirt road when a small dashboard light went on in the shape of a flat tire. The left rear tire was perfectly flat. Thinking back on its appearance, I’m reminded of Michelangelo’s self-portrait on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, as an empty skin.

The obvious solution was to change the tire, a chore I’d done numerous times in my youth, back when I could only afford balding used tires. But I didn’t have a clue how to get to the spare or even the jack. I searched the Jeep for the manual — no manual — then remembered with a sickening feeling that Cory had removed it to study some details about the new car.

We have AAA road protection, which Cory had upgraded for a longer tow in case I broke down in some distant locality. But I couldn’t contact AAA. This was about 24 miles from the last place I knew the cell phone would connect. The temperature was in the mid-90s.

Well, I’d just have to figure out where the tools were. I already knew the spare hung under the vehicle’s rear, tucked into a gap there, but I had no clue how to get to it. I unloaded my heavy telescope and other equipment. Normally it takes an hour to get out the stuff out and set up and another hour to load it back into the Jeep, but I was moving faster now. Telescope, gas can, tripod, generator, tripod leg brace, bags of gear, wedge, nylon line to secure the telescope in the Jeep, food, foam pad to cushion the scope, chair, small step ladder, jump-start batteries to power equipment, folding table — all were scattered along both sides of the gritty road.

I searched every inch of the Jeep’s interior. Did the rear seats pull up, as in my old Cherokee? No. In a separate compartment in the rear, a plastic cap carried a design of tire tread. It was just above the spare. This must be the way to the tire. I popped off the cap and found a steel spindle sticking up inside a small circular well. Could I untwist the spindle? Not by fingers. It must require a specialized tool, probably part of the jack. My vice grips and pliers were too big to fit into the well, so I improvised using a pair of combination wrenches. The spindle wouldn’t turn. Were the tools clipped beneath a seat? No. Were they on the Jeep’s undercarriage, where I wired on a spare key in another vehicle? Lying on the dirt, I pulled myself under. No.

The mind is a master at convincing itself of things that never happened. The longer I searched, the more I became convinced that, stupidly, I had removed the tools. I could picture them in a green plastic bag, with the bag’s cord tied around it, stashed in the basement.

There was no choice. Nobody would come down this stretch for years. Discouraged, disgruntled and dusty, I repacked everything and began to drive on the flat. To reduce the wear on the rear tire, I shifted into four-wheel drive. I kept my speed to about 10 miles an hour. Often I stopped to check the wheel. As I drove the tire remnants flopped around in the wheel well and every smack on the road raised a little cloud of dust. Each mile, I tried calling on the cell. A message would pop onto the screen about an error in connecting.

At bumpy spots, that is, just about everywhere, I was jolted as if driving in a demolition derby. The Jeep and my gear were banging and clanking. Occasionally I got out to inspect the tire, which was shredding. The thin plastic sheeting inside the wheel well peeled off and I stopped to kick it away from the road. The big aluminum tire rim was battered. It was dented and bent. Alarming cracks had developed in it.

If the rim went, I thought, the Jeep would lurch onto the axle. If I were at a bad angle at the time, it might roll. An instrument light sometimes came on, reporting a lack of proper traction, and went off. The tire light remained on.

I crept toward a long hill, which took forever to approach, mile after jolting mile. As I went up it, the road grew rougher and another icon lit up, saying the motor was getting hot. Actually, the indicator showed the temperature was only a hair above the midpoint, but I stopped to let it cool. After a while I resumed the trek up the grade and the temperature light stayed off. I reached the top and continued lumbering down the road.

Ahead, the empty road stretched through the desert. Ironically, while this was going on I was comfortable in the air conditioning, listening to the satellite radio. The Black Eyed Peas had a feeling. Lady Gaga was — never mind.

Two hours after I had started driving on the flat, almost none of the tire remained. Steel strands that had been embedded inside one side now slapped around the axle. The rest was a black tattered band a few inches wide, more steel strands showing in the gaps. I hoped it would cushion part of the rim, which was just barely recognizable.

Amazingly, nine miles before the place where I had spoken to Cory, the cell connected. She was upset about leaving the manual out, but used it to look up the procedure for changing a tire.

The tools were hidden inside a small part of the molded plastic trim in the rear section. It had looked like a decorative segment of the interior, but when I pulled at the bottom as instructed, it popped off, and there were the jack and sections of its crank handle, ready for assembly.

Again, the desert hosted the gear that had been piled in the back. Part of the jack, as I’d surmised, turned the spindle. Instead of opening a compartment, cranking the spindle lowered the spare to the ground. It took a short time to change the tire. The rim was so big I couldn’t fit it in the packed Jeep, so I hauled it into the desert beside the road. I kept the tire remnants and the steel wires, which I had unwrapped from the axle, because I worried that an antelope or wild horse could get entangled.

It took me longer than usual to set up my telescope. Tired beyond endurance, I worked slowly. But I was able to get the kinks out. It pointed to whatever object I ordered. I was delighted when it veered right to M110, an outlier of the great galaxy in Andromeda.

At nearly 4:30 a.m. I had my astro camera positioned and the guide scope working. By then M57 was lower than I would have liked, glowing through the thick atmosphere. A morning breeze was blowing, the stars twinkled, and the nebula was close to the brightening dawn. These factors contributed to the picture’s fuzziness, as did the even worse — much worse — image I took four years ago and used for the color components.

Still, I don’t recall feeling as jubilant about any other photo I’ve taken.

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