Sunday, May 17, 2020
#560: The New Herschel Project, the Preparation
How far will it go? We can only wait. And wait. And wait...
The New Herschel Project. Coming soon to a computer terminal near you!
Putting the Losmandy GM811 back in service had been remarkably trouble-free—especially considering my increasingly fumble-fingered and forgetful nature—so, I was on to the next step, Muchachos, getting a laptop computer connected to the mount. While the New Project's 400 objects wouldn't require the organization the Big Enchilada's 2500 demanded, even 400 meant I'd want a planning program running in the field. "What have I seen? What do I still need to see? What can I see tonight?"
While there was a fat, waxing Moon in the sky, she wouldn’t prevent me from testing the GM811/PC Ethernet connection--indoors, at least. Since I’d set the mount up for Ethernet before, that wouldn’t be a problem to get going, I thought. That’s what I get for thinking.
I am—as usual—getting ahead of myself. What about night two with the Losmandy I alluded to last time? I did get out the next evening following the replacement of the Gemini 2 computer’s battery (hardest part was getting the darned thing open so I could swap out the little button cell). Result? The new battery was fine; clock time was right on the money.
As I also mentioned I might do, I swapped out the refractor for my Edge 800, Emma Peel. Every goto was bang on, with me just leaving the 8mm Ethos eyepiece in the SCT for the duration; even at 175x everything was somewhere in the field. Well, what I could see was in the field. Luna was really interfering now. I did a few more slews, shut down, quitted the backyard for the den and TV, and the next morning tore down mount and scope.
Next up: wringing out the mount’s LAN connection. Why Ethernet in the first place? Well, no darned old USB - serial adapters to fiddle with. No restrictions on cable length. Most of all, in my experience from when I first began using the mount, Ethernet just works with the Gemini 2.
|The object goto page of the web interface.|
After puzzling over pages of small type for more than a few minutes, I recalled that after I’d first received the GM811, I’d written up a simplified set of Ethernet instructions and posted them on the Cloudy Nights bulletin board in case some other new Gemini 2 user was as bumfuzzled by the instructions as Unk was. A search of the Cloudy Nights turned them up, I printed them out, and was ready to roll—or so your benighted old Uncle thought, anyhow.
Sat down to the nice, new Lenovo laptop in the dining room where it had been stationed during the weeks when I’d been teaching my university courses online. First thing was to open the Network and Sharing Center, go to “change adapter settings,” and right click on the LAN/Ethernet icon. Welp… There wasn’t no Ethernet icon. There was one for Wi-Fi and one for Bluetooth, and that was it. What the—?! As I wrote last time, a sneaking suspicion gripped your correspondent. I started examining the connectors on the lappie. USB 3? Yep, three of them. HDMI? Uh-huh. Ethernet? Nope.
|Mallincam Junior, hand control, and receiver.|
I was done, but was I done successfully? There are a couple of ways to connect to the mount with Ethernet. You can use the Gemini 2 ASCOM driver, which is much like the serial ASCOM drivers you are used to. That will work with any ASCOM compatible astronomy program—which is almost any astro-ware these days. Or you can use the Gemini 2 computer’s built-in web page. That allows you to connect to the mount using a web browser.
Since it was daytime and me and the GM811 were sitting in the sunroom instead of out under the stars, I didn’t think it was necessary to mess with planetarium programs and ASCOM. The web interface would show if all was well in a hurry. It did—well, as soon as I went to the Gemini 2 website and looked up what the user name/password the browser was asking me for should be (“admin,” no password).
Typing http://Gemini into Microsoft Edge (or whatever you use) allows you to do lots of stuff including slew to objects. All I wanted to do, however, was see that I was connected to the mount. I pushed the virtual HC slew buttons on one of the pages, the mount moved, and I was done. I’d get the ASCOM driver set up as soon as the old Moon got herself out of the way…
A check of Junior showed he needed batteries for both his hand control (AAA) and hand control receiver (CR2)–Junior, you see, uses a little HC to set and initiate long exposures. A survey of the junkque drawer in the kitchen showed that there were no AAAs on hand, much less the CR2 required for the receiver. I might coulda got one of those CR2s at WallyWorld, but I’ve gone from trying to avoid the place pre-Covid to staying out of there period. Amazon, then. The batteries would arrive about the time Moon began to seriously wane, so I decided I’d start the Project with the Mallincam Junior in hopes of giving him a clean bill of health after the battery replacement.
While I call my little camera "Junior," as was kindly pointed out to me my Mallincam extraordinaire, Jack Huerkamp, he is actually a Junior Pro. The plain Junior is an entirely different camera. Anyhow, I holed the little cam to my new laptop upon which I’d installed the Mallicam Junior Pro control software (which allows you to set everything except long exposures). I wouldn’t be able to test the long exposure hand control, no, but I'd be able to see that the camera still functioned, and that the program was set up correctly. Fired everything up, started the software, selected the correct com port, and enabled the crosshair overlay, which appeared on the screen of my good old DVD player/monitor. So did the color bars when I enabled them. Looked like Junior was just fine despite not having been used in—get this—SIX YEARS!
Well, darn. The CR2 batteries finally arrived from Amazon on Thursday. Do you wanna guess what else arrived? Yep, clouds. Every night between Thursday and Tuesday showed up a disgusting red or yellow in my fave astro-weather-app, Scope Nights. Adding insult to injury? I discovered Publix sells CR2 batteries, so I coulda had one a week ago. Ah, well, such is the fate of this oft-bumbling astronomer.
I told y’all not to expect a new blog entry every Sunday, but it looks like you might get just that for a little while, anyhow. But don’t get used to it. As I mumbled the not long ago, I am thinking in these latter days “twice a month” sounds about right. However, twice a month it will be, no foolin’, and when I have the material to bring you an article every Sunday for a while, every Sunday you shall have.
Plugeroo Department: If you are an imager and aren’t reading Amateur Astrophotography Magazine, why not? It’s evolved to the point where I can say it’s the best thing done on the subject in a long time—maybe ever. I should have mentioned it more often, but with the near-demise of this here blog over the last three years, I never got around to it. Well, the blog is back and I’m telling y'all to get to this magazine's website and get your hands on it. I am proud to say some of old Unk’s simpleminded articles on the subject have even appeared in this fine publication in the past (don’t let that stop you from reading it!)…
Plugeroo Part Deux
I can say without reservation this is a much better book than the First Edition, and if you like that, you should really, really like this one. What’s changed? Naturally, the buyer’s guide chapter was almost completely rewritten thanks to a decade of changes in the telescope market. Same with the imaging chapter. And a lot of my MESS has been cleaned up elsewhere in the book. Did the publisher do some things I don’t like? Sure. That’s the way the game is played. But, I’m happy with the results, no ifs, ands or buts.
“When,” you ask? Amazon got “mid-May” from the publisher, but here is the thing, y'all: Up until about two weeks ago I was still working with the production department making corrections. And there’s the Covid virus. So…I am doubtful about May. All I can say is "When I know, you will."
Sunday, May 03, 2020
#559: Return of the Losmandy
—including onto an observing field or even into the backyard for almost two years.
I received the mount in the latter part of 2017, was able to use it one night and part of another at the somewhat misbegotten 2017 Deep South Star Gaze, and employed it to help me with my Sky & Telescope Test Report on Meade’s 115mm APO (June 2018). That was pretty much it other than a few casual observing runs in the backyard that winter of 2017-18. Over most of 2018, truly lousy weather and the return of some lingering back problems discouraged me from using anything heavier than my Advanced VX, and often not even that. Then, in January of 2019, I was involved in the accident that sidelined me from observing with anything—even an 80mm refractor on an AZ-4 mount—for the better part of a year.
In the natural order of things, cursed 2019 finally marched off and 2020 took, its place. The new year has found my physical (and mental) condition improved, though I’m certainly not completely back to my old self. However, I’m improved enough to do a little observing from the backyard if not yet at star parties or other dark sites.
As we talked about last time, I recently got my Advanced VX and C8 into the backyard for a little video work, and in the course of doing so discovered the mount’s real time clock battery was dead as the proverbial doornail. Which got me to thinking the RTC battery in the GM811’s Gemini 2 computer was probably dead too. I decided the next clear stretch we got I would get the Losmandy outside and see if she needed a new battery.
What would I put on the Losmandy, though, campers? I was thinking that might be my beloved 6-inch refractor, Big Ethel. I had been planning on using her to do some Herschel 400 observing, and figgered it was high time I got started on that.
Anyhow, I began rounding up the pieces and parts of the Losmandy last Wednesday afternoon. The tripod, the excellent LW tripod that even broken down old me can carry around with ease, was in the sunroom closet. Also lurking there was the mount head itself in a big, plastic Tupperware-style container. And I knew the HC and some accessories were in an aluminum case labeled “Losmandy,” natch. The counterweight was sitting on the floor of said closet. “OK got everything, right? Wait…where is the Gemini 2 computer? And the cables to connect it to the mount?”
|The Gemini 2 Computer.|
Yep, all was cool. Until I realized I no longer had the foggiest notion how to do a goto alignment with the Gemini. I went to the Gemini 2 Internet site and downloaded and printed a bunch of the documentation there. Biggest help of all, though, believe it or not, was your old Unk himself. I printed out the pages of this blog entry wherein I led y’all through the GM811 setup step by step. Sometimes my longwinded nature comes in handy, I reckon.
When Thursday afternoon began to die under a clear blue sky, I got the mount into the backyard starting with the LW (lightweight) tripod. As I remembered, it was light enough not to be a pain, not even in my somewhat pitiful current condition. Frankly, it’s easier to handle than a run-of-the-mill Chinese 2-inch steel legged tripod. Bolted the Gemini 2 computer onto that, and it was time for the only (somewhat) painful part of the process.
Next, natch, was the GM811 mount head. I won’t lie, it’s a bit of a handful. It’s lighter than a G11 head, since it utilizes the GM8 dec assembly (hence its name, GM811), but still heavier than the AVX to put it mildly. Still, it’s lots easier to handle than my old and long-sold Atlas and CGEM mounts and is capable of a 50-pound payload, including for imaging, something those old Synta mounts could not approach. I carried the head into the back 40 and up to the tripod in its container (which has nice handles) and got it onto the tripod with only a little whining and complaining.
The mount was assembled and pointing roughly north with the Gemini computer in place, the hand control connected, and the counterweight installed. Now to mount the six-inch refractor. I failed in doing that, friends
Pretty Hermione went on the mount without a hitch, and I had her well-balanced in just a couple of minutes. While I was doing that, I ruminated on my defeat at the hands of Ethel, and recalled I had developed a system for mounting her safely. A system I had ignored on this afternoon because I had forgotten it. I was actually pleased that in the somewhat befuddled mental state I still occasionally fall into, I had pulled that info out. While I was pretty sure I knew how to get Ethel in place, now, I decided to leave well enough alone and stick with Hermione for the GM811’s re-commissioning run.
After checking into a new 10-meter net we have going down here, the Lockdown Fun Net (28.420 on Thursdays at 23:59 UTC) and sharing a few yuks with the fellers, it was time to see what was up with the Losmandy. Would the battery be dead or near dead and cause problems? Would she work as well as she had in 2018? Would she work at all?
OK, rubber meets road time. I plugged in the Losmandy AC power supply, flipped the switch on the Gemini 2, and waited for the HC’s color touch screen to come to life. It did, which was reassuring, displaying “initializing.” That took a little bit, but I recalled that to be normal. Soon I was presented with the good, old opening menu. I chose “Cold Start,” and shortly was beginning my alignment. As you’ll know if you read the above-linked blog entry on the mount, my procedure is to line up on three – four stars west of the Meridian (at home I have my best view to the west), and one on the east side. I touched the align button and was presented with my first choice, Denebola. Wait. What? That part of Leo was still on the east side of the Local Meridian…could it be?
Yep, I backed out of the alignment and checked system time. It was off by nearly an hour. After almost three years the little button cell in the computer was still trying to keep time, but having a hard time of it. That was OK. I’d ordered batteries for both the Losmandy and Celestron RTCs (naturally the two mounts use different batteries), and those would arrive from Amazon on the morrow. For tonight, I’d just set the clock to the proper time and hope for the best.
|Align screen on the hand control.|
Oh, by the way, I’d performed a precise polar alignment with Sharpcap before beginning. While there is a polar alignment helper in the Gemini 2 HC (a’ la AllStar), I have never tried it. Anyway, I doubt it would approach the accuracy of a Sharpcap alignment, which quickly gets you to within a few arc-seconds of the pole and is very easy to do. How sensitive is the Gemini 2 system to polar mis-alignment? Don’t ask me. I just do a Sharpcap alignment, even on visual nights.
“Hokay, let’s give her the acid test with a goto.” I was reasonably sure I’d be OK given the way the alignment stars had fallen into the field of the eyepiece, but you never know. “Hmm…let’s see; how about Messier 37?” I touched “goto” on the screen (I’d now had the sense to switch the color screen to night vision red), the motors whirred and purred—no weasels with tuberculosis sounds with this mount—and stopped. There was the beautiful open cluster centered in the 13mm Ethos. “Alrighty then; how about ‘harder’? M3 is still well on the east side of the Meridian.” The big spring glob was not quite centered, but almost. Swapped the 13mm eyepiece for the 8mm Ethos, and Hermione busted the thing into many tiny stars.
And so it went: M37, M3, M35, M36, M38, M51, M82, and, finally, just to remind myself how good Hermione is, Venus, who presented a color free little crescent. Almost all were pretty despite the presence of a fattening Moon riding high and considerable haze. Well, with the exception of M51. I could pick out the Whirlpool Galaxy with averted vision, but just barely.
As I was wrapping up, I began to believe it might be a good idea to revise my somewhat sanguine take on what I am calling “The New Herschel Project.” My original aim was to essay the 400 with Big Ethel, the 6-inch. Five years ago, that would have been more than possible from my backyard. Now? I’m not so sure.
|Mrs. Emma Peel.|
So, here’s the plan: The New Herschel Project, which will, like the Big Enchilada, be visual plus video, will at least begin with an 8-inch, Mrs. Emma Peel, my Celestron Edge 800. If she starts knocking them off with ease visually, I will drop down to Big Ethel, perhaps. Video cameras? In tune with the kinder/gentler – simpler nature of the New Project, I intend to stick with the Revolution Imager, the Mallincam Micro, and, if either has trouble, the Mallincam Junior.
The plan for the Friday morning following the mount’s successful revival was to get my laptop squared away. The mount is most versatile and most pleasant to operate from a PC when you utilize the Gemini 2’s Ethernet connection (it will also do serial or USB). Unfortunately, the laptop I was using when I bought the Losmandy has long since gone to its reward. I’d have to spend some time configurating the new one, a nice Lenovo.
First thing, I downloaded Stellarium, Stellarium Scope, Sky Tools 3, the ASCOM platform, and the Gemini 2 Ascom driver. Installed all of that stuff. Next up was configuring the Ethernet connection—which I recalled was not a horrible experience, if not exactly fun. I’d been successful before, though, so I wasn’t skeered.
Okey-dokey…first step is assigning a static IP address to the Ethernet port on the laptop. I opened the network center in Win 10, went to the adapters window and… What? In the window was an icon for Wi-Fi, and an icon for Bluetooth. Where was the icon for “local area network”? I had a sinking feeling and began eyeballing the laptop’s connectors. HDMI? Sure. Several USB 3 receptacles? Yep. Ethernet? No. Nope. Nada.
What would I do, what would I do? First thought was just to set up for USB. But I recalled how darned good Ethernet worked. I wouldn’t give up without a struggle. Could there be such a thing as a USB – Ethernet adapter? A trip to Amazon showed that indeed there was, and I got one on its way to me for less than 20 bucks.
Tonight, Friday night, I will be back in the backyard again at least briefly to check that the battery replacement for the Gemini 2 worked OK—the little button cells arrived right on schedule Friday morning. I’ll probably look at a few purty ones as well, and I will, I guess, switch out Hermione for Mrs. Peel. But next step on the road to the New Project is getting the computer squared away. We are expecting maybe four more clear nights, but the moon is waxing, and I expect it will be week after next before there's much chance of getting any Herschels in the can. You will learn about my success with that—or lack thereof—in the next installment.
Speaking of installments, how often will the blog be updated now that it is, no foolin’, back? I don’t think you should expect “every Sunday” as in days of yore, but “a couple of times a month” sounds reasonable—though that will depend on the weather. It’s not like, given the Covid Lockdown and my still somewhat frail condition, that there will be any trips to big (or even small) star parties for me to report on anytime soon. I think we will be able to have some fun in the good, old backyard, however.
Thursday, April 23, 2020
#558: Astrovideo, Slight Return II
Why? One reason is, as I say in the above piece, a matter of money—something near and dear to your stingy old uncle’s heart as you know. The older technology allows you to get started, get some results, and decide if video is for you for very little moola—the good folks at Orange County Telescope can get you going for less than three-hundred bucks with their Revolution Imager Kit. That includes a camera; a monitor; and all the cables, adapters, and more you need to get started. And you can indeed get some impressive images with the Revolution.
There’s also the fact that, nice as modern digital cameras, cameras that pipe digital video directly to a laptop computer, can be, there’s still a reason to use the old stuff beyond cost. In my experience, top of the line analog outfits like Mallincam’s Xtreme are still more sensitive than their digital counterparts. Period, game over, end-of-story, zip up your fly. If you’re after the dimmest of the dim, if you want to, like Unk Rod did one time, go hunting quasars, you still want analog gear.
As for the rest of the ins and outs of choosing and using video cams, go buy the latest issue of Sky & ‘Scope if you don’t already subscribe to the best astronomy magazine there has ever been. The subject for today is what your silly old Uncle had to do to get his video mojo working again after a long, long layoff from deep sky picture taking with a Mallincam.
the Herschel Project ‘round about 2013. Why not? Several reasons. For one thing, the go-go days of the Project, which involved dragging out lots of gear anytime I wanted to observe, had kinda burned me out on the video. That and some major life changes that began about that time encouraged me to simplify. As 2015 came in, you were much more likely to see me peering into the eyepiece of my simple (but fun) Zhumell Dobbie than you were to see me staring at a video screen.
Even on those rare occasions when I got the yen to do a little imaging, I didn't use video. Astrophotography of late for me has been, “Set up Losmandy GM811 in backyard, attach DSLR to APO, get PHD tracking, go inside and watch TV while the exposure is in progress.” Oh, sometimes I’ve got a little wistful about those long, long nights on distant and dark observing fields sending the C11 to frighteningly distant Herschel galaxies with SkyTools 3. Wistful, perhaps, but not wistful enough to make me want to recreate the experience.
There things remained until I accepted an assignment to do a beginner's video observing article for Sky & Telescope. I decided that if I was gong to write an introductory sort of video piece for the magazine, I really should get out and do some new video observing; not just recount my experiences from years gone by. But would my Mallincam Xtreme still work after not having been used since the summer of 2014, the year after the Project wrapped up? And where had I stored all the video gear?
It didn’t take much rooting around in the sunroom closet to find the little picnic-cooler-cum-case Mallincam shipped their Xtremes in in days of yore. Looked like everything was there; all else I’d need would be a display screen and a video recorder (so I could capture sequences for later processing on a PC).
I also turned up both my mini-DVRs, one from Orion (Telescope and Binocular Center), and one from Orange County Telescope. Same-same as with the display. I charged up the batteries of both video recorders so I could give both (which save video sequences to SD cards) a checkout in the backyard.
The only remaining question was “Which telescope?” I decided to stick with one of my tried and true astrovideo rigs. Alas, it couldn’t be “Big Bertha,” the C11—she was sold long ago. It couldn’t be the Ultima 8/CG5, “Celeste,” either, as she and her mount also went to new owners some years back. What I still had, however, was Mrs. Emma Peel, my Celestron Edge 800 SCT OTA and her Advanced VX mount. While the scope and mount hadn’t been used at the height of the Herschel Project, they had been in service toward the end of my Julie-Julia inspired quest to view those thousands of deep sky objects.
Finally, I was relieved to recall that despite selling more than a few SCT accessories, I’d held onto my Meade f/3.3 SCT focal reducer, and that it was in its accustomed place in my accessory box (a big Plano tackle box, actually, y’all). A 3.3. – 4 focal reducer is a must-have item if you’re going to use an analog video camera with a relatively small sensor chip with an f/10 SCT.
OK, the VX/Edge 800 were out in the backyard and the video display and DVR were set up on the table on the deck. And… that was about it. Well, there was also the laptop computer. I planned to use it mainly to operate the camera with the Mallincam camera control software, however. In the service of my “simpler” mantra, I’d send the telescope to objects with her NexStar hand control. The amazing thing was that I’d somehow remembered how to hook all this stuff up: video cables, computer-camera connection, power supplies, and the old analog cable TV switch I use to send video either to the DVR or the display (the Mallincam doesn’t have quite enough drive to do both at once).
After set-up, there was, of course, alignment. Polar alignment first. I needed the laptop for that as well as for camera control. Since I wanted as little star trailing as possible in 30-second plus exposures, I used my QHY guide camera and that wonderful program, Sharpcap, to do an exact polar alignment of the Advanced VX mount. To tell the truth, it would really have been good enough just to do the NexStar hand control’s built in AllStar alignment, but, you know what? Sharpcap isn’t just far more accurate; it’s easier.
Next up was goto aligning the mount using my Celestron StarSense alignment camera. As with the Xtreme and other gear, I frankly wasn’t sure it would still function after years of sitting, but it most assuredly did. And with the same alacrity as always. Turn on the mount, mash a couple of buttons on the HC, the StarSense slews the mount to a couple of star fields, plate solves, slews to a couple more, plate solves again, and you are done and have a goto alignment as good as what you could have done manually.
Unlike the StarSense camera and video gear, I had used the Advanced VX mount once in a while over the last several years. Still, I found I had to manually input date and time into the hand control—the little battery inside the mount that keeps the clock current was dead as a doornail. Once all this virus stuff is in the rearview mirror, I’ll hie myself to WallyWorld and get a replacement button battery.
Being near on to Messier 57, the Ring Nebula, that was an obvious first target. How would it look in a sky that seemed to be getting hazier by the minute? In my mind I probably knew how the Ring should look on onscreen. But after not having used video for so long, it was still amazing to be reminded of its power. Not only was the ring attractive, showing off pretty greens and subtle reds, its elongated shape was obvious. As was detail in the nebulosity. And, that bane of visual observers, the central star, was just as easy as pie. In my suburban backyard. Under a hazy, light-pollution-scattering sky. With “only” an 8-inch telescope.
After that? I did a tour of all the old late-fall/early winter faves. The Horse’s Nose globular star cluster, M15 in Pegasus, was an amazing ball of tiny suns. Gemini’s M35 was a wonder of an open cluster, and was made an even prettier view when I slewed the scope off center a bit to bring its distant companion cluster, NGC 2158, into the frame. At first 2158 was merely a blob, but with a little fiddling with exposure and contrast and other camera controls, it resolved into a cloud of minute stars.
What did I find most challenging about this inaugural “new” video run? It wasn’t really setting everything up. That was easy enough with a hiccup or three. What was most challenging was learning how to operate the Mallincam again. When people used to ask me how easy the camera was to operate, I’d tell ‘em it was easy enough to get decent results from night one, but that getting the most out of it required practice, and that I found learning to really make the Xtreme perform was analogous to learning the guitar.
The showpiece objects were pretty and all, but how about a challenge before I wrapped up the evening? Over in Orion, Zeta was peeping above the trees, and with it the great Flame (aka “Tank Tracks”) Nebula. On 99% of suburban nights, trying to observe NGC 2024 is a guaranteed FAIL visually with an 8-inch telescope. What would the video camera see? Despite deteriorating conditions, the Mallincam returned a respectable vista of the nebula—naturally the real-time video looks far better than this single frame grab. What do they always say about the Flame, though? If it is prominent, LOOK FOR THE HORSEHEAD!
What’s next for me and video? I’ll no doubt get the Mallincam back out soon—probably should have got it out to observe Comet Atlas, but I didn’t. But what I’d also like to do is get the little Revolution Imager out of mothballs and see what it will do. I know it’s capable of astounding results given its wee price. When I do that, you will hear about it here.
What will (probably) come next in the Astro Blog, though, is a new Herschel Project. No, nothing like the real Herschel Project. A kinder, gentler sort of Herschel Project. The focus this time will be on seeing how easily the Herschel 400 can be done (visually) from a suburban backyard—with a 6-inch telescope. When will that happen? I hope to have the first installment for y’all in May. See you then! Stay safe and stay AT HOME.
Sunday, January 26, 2020
Better Late Than Never…
The whosit and the whatsit?! What in the aitch-e-c-k is your silly old Uncle Rod talking about now? My yearly M13, muchachos. As those of y’all who’ve been here a while know, I have two astronomical traditions I’ve stuck with through thick and thin: Every Christmas Eve I view M42, and some time over the course of a year I take a picture of M13, the Great Globular Cluster in Hercules.
In recent times, catching M42 on Christmas Eve has been dicey. The weather has been increasingly crazy over the last decade or so, and we are now as likely to have thunderstorms, or hail, or snow on Christmas Eve as we are to have clear skies down here in Mobile, Alabama (for you blog old timers, that’s “Possum Swamp.”). Now, M13, that is easier. It’s in the sky for an awful long while over the course of a year. All I have to do is work up the gumption to get out with a telescope and a camera and give it a go.
Which didn’t happen this past year until September for reasons you can read about here. Yeah, 2019 had been one heck of a year, but I still intended to get at least a snapshot of the old grandpappy glob before the annum ran out. If I needed any additional impetus to get a scope into the backyard, that was provided by a Sky & Telescope Test Report assignment; this time on Meade’s new medium-weight German equatorial mount the LX85.
I’d been curious about the LX85 for the last couple of years, but hadn’t heard much about it. Which seemed strange. While the mount’s predecessor, the LXD75, hadn’t been perfect, it had plenty of fans. Many of whom I thought would flock to Meade’s new GEM after years of the company not offering a mount in the LXD75/Advanced VX class. Had all the LXD75 users jumped ship for the Celestron Advanced VX? Was there now too much competition in the sub-1000-dollar mount arena for Meade to stir up much interest? Was there something wrong with the LX85?
I was excited when two big boxes arrived from Meade—I always am when new gear is at my door. But I was feeling a mite skittish. It’s been no secret the current iteration of Meade has had its ups and downs quality-wise. Would a good-quality mount for this modest price (the 85 is currently about 700 bucks at many retailers) be too much to ask?
Those two boxes were duly manhandled into my usual staging area, the Sun Room, in short order, and I dug in. One contained the mount and its tripod and the other a Meade 8-inch ACF Schmidt Cassegrain OTA. While the Test Report had originally been intended just to address the mount, my editor, Sean Walker, and I put our heads together and decided a review that included the SCT OTA normally shipped with the mount might be of interest to y’all.
Out of that box came a tripod not much different from the usual Chinese 2-inch diameter steel tripods we’ve become accustomed to since most of our gear began to come from the Far East. There was also a tripod spreader (an oddly curved affair). And there was the mount head of course, a really pretty mount head finished a gleaming white. Finally, there was a white, oddly shaped octagonal counterweight of about 13-pounds, a CD containing Meade’s Autostar Suite software, and a distressingly thin but sufficient (barely) instruction manual.
Well, alrighty then! Let’s get this puppy on the tripod. There were no surprises there. Everything went together pretty much like an LXD75 or an AVX or a CG5. The white-tubed OTA went on the Vixen style saddle without a hitch. Sure looked pretty, I had to admit. Next step? An indoor fake alignment. I like to power a mount up indoors, enter correct date/time/location, and send it on gotos to objects. I can generally tell everything is basically well if the scope is pointing in roughly the correct directions. At this point, alas, Murphy threw a monkey wrench into the works. No matter how I searched through the boxes and packing materials, all of which I was careful to preserve, no power cord did I find.
I was irritated, but figured it wasn’t a big deal. I had numerous spare DC power cords in my inventory here including some from Meade; I’d just fetch one of those. I did, plugged it into a jumpstart battery pack and into the scope. No dice. The mount’s power connector was slightly different from those on older Meade mounts. The cable I had just wouldn’t make a good connection.
A call to Meade got their AC/DC power supply on its way to me, but I’m still not sure what the problem was. Is the DC power cord an extra option (that would seem strange) or was it just omitted from the box by mistake? When the power supply arrived a few days later, I proceeded to give the mount that indoor fake-align checkout. The LX85 seemed to work as it should. Next up? The good, old backyard.
While we’d been enjoying a surprisingly dry fall, naturally the arrival of the LX85 brought considerable clouds and rain. When we finally hit a clear (but substantially hazy) spell, I figured time was a-wasting and got the mount and the ACF OTA set up in the back forty despite the presence of a fat old Moon in the east. The results? Read my Test Report, but I was satisfied enough with the LX85 that I didn’t hesitate to set up for a photo run on the next evening.
On that night, the first thing on the agenda was an accurate polar alignment. Which I accomplished with the wonderful software, Sharpcap. Sharpcap is an imaging program that is as capable of taking long exposure deep sky shots as it is planetary closeups. What I was interested in on this night, however, was its polar alignment tool, which makes dead-on polar alignment a snap.
I’d mounted my 50mm guide scope and QHY guide camera on the scope. With Sharpcap’s polar alignment tool running, the program used the guide camera to display plenty of stars in the vicinity of the North Celestial Pole, and gave onscreen prompts as to how I needed to move the LX85’s altitude and azimuth adjusters to get the mount’s RA axis pointed right at the pole. In just a few minutes I was only arc-seconds away from a perfect polar alignment. If you are serious about astrophotography, an exact polar alignment is a big help and maybe even a necessity. Do yourself a favor and check out Sharpcap.
Polar and then goto aligned with a Canon DSLR on the rear cell, I sent the scope to M13 and got to work. I brought up that wonderful program, PHD2 guiding, selected a guide star in the field of M13 (I’d only had to move the mount slightly with the AudioStar to center the cluster when the goto completed). I picked a star and let ‘er rip. I didn’t want to waste time fiddling with PHD’s many settings—who knew when those blasted clouds might return?—so I just stuck with ones that worked with my Celestron Advanced VX.
No prob. The shot isn’t perfect as you can see here. The haze and the Moon alone saw to that. The stars are good and round, though. Also, while I’ve certainly taken much better pictures of the Great Glob, this one is kinda special. It was my first astrophoto after a long layoff, not just from picture taking, but from observing of any kind. It was nice to get back in the saddle. And I had also completed my yearly quest for an M13 shot of some kind.
As I said in another recent blog entry, my feeling as I was shipping the Meade gear back to California was “Man, things sure are looking up for ol’ Meade. They really are still in the game.” Ironically, it was only a few days later that I learned Meade had declared bankruptcy yet again. I hope Meade pulls through, and if they do, that they see fit to continue the LX85.
Since y’all responded so positively to my question here and on Cloudy Nights as to whether you’d like to see me bring the blog back on an at least semi-regular basis, that’s just what I’m a-gonna do. The next one is already in the works, and there may be a new observing series forthcoming shortly after that. Well, after it warms up down here in the currently frigid heart of Dixie, that is!
Saturday, January 11, 2020
Meade on the Rocks, Rock Bottom...
this subject: the failing fortunes of America’s beloved former telescope giant, Meade Instruments. Last time, things went bust shortly after the company moved its production to Mexico. The familiar faces who made Meade a name were gone, and the company was soon bought by a Chinese corporation, Ningbo Sunny, who was never much more than a cipher. Now, we fans of Old Blue learn she’s sinking again. Ningbo has declared bankruptcy and is looking for a buyer.
You can read more about the story here, and a Google search will quickly turn up further details. The short skinny, though? U.S. telescope dealer Orion (who is, need I say, not the same Orion Tim Giesler started, just like Meade ain’t the Meade John Diebel started and Celestron ain’t the Celestron Tom Johnson started) filed a 180-million dollar anti-trust lawsuit asserting Meade/Ningbo Sunny colluded with other Chinese manufacturers to set prices (we assume that “other” is Synta). Meade is in the process of selling itself under court supervision.
None of which surprises me much. I’ve long been aware relationships between Chinese corporations are almost invariably incestuous sorts of things. And I’ve long speculated that Synta and Ningbo Sunny might actually be the same entity.
What happens next? Does Orion buy Meade? I wouldn’t be surprised. How about Celestron? The FTC has never looked favorably upon a Meade - Celestron merger or buyout, and I would guess they’d look even more unfavorably on it now due to the Synta factor. But how did we get here, anyway? How did two once great telescope companies go right down the drain?
Celestron’s story is relatively simple. The company was started as Celestron Pacific by California electronics engineer and amateur telescope maker Tom Johnson. In 1970, he expanded Celestron’s sales efforts, which had been focused on small colleges and schools, to amateur astronomers. Celestron quickly put hordes of famous Newtonian telescope makers like Cave, Optical Craftsmen, and Criterion in the grave. Despite competition from Meade beginning in 1980, Celestron dominated the serious telescope market. Until two things happened.
First, Tom Johnson decided to sell his company and enjoy life. The buyer was the Swiss holding company Diethelm. The problem was that Diethelm didn’t know much about telescopes—nor did most of the people at the company care—and just wanted to take money out of Celestron. Celestron did make money during Comet Halley, but they wore out their workforce and their machine tools and equipment in the process, and the hangover was nasty. Though Meade had a similarly difficult time during Halley, they were again under the leadership of their founder, John Diebel, who, like Johnson, had begun the company on his kitchen table. Under his guidance Meade began to dominate Celestron as the 1990s came in.
Celestron was chronically undercapitalized by this time and had a hard time coming out with an answer to Meade’s computerized LX200 telescope, a telescope that pointed at sky objects reliably and automatically. The irony is that Celestron had introduced the first goto SCT, the Compustar in the 80s. Unfortunately, it was expensive and fussy. Meade ruled the roost through the 1990s and just went from strength to strength, following the LX200 with the ETX, the LX90, and the LX200 GPS.
here. Bottom line was that Tasco’s capital allowed Celestron to develop an outstanding line of goto telescope, the NexStars, which showed the company could again be competition for and even a threat to Meade.
At first, however, it looked like we’d be down to one scope company after all, Meade. Tasco declared bankruptcy (that had nothing to do with Celestron, which was the only money-making part of the company) and Meade attempted to buy Celestron. The FTC said “no,” optical giant Synta stepped in, and, frankly, it was downhill all the way for Meade from there.
Meade’s problems didn’t just concern the resurgence of Celestron. A couple of their actions had contributed. First, the company went public. Certainly, that sounded reasonable when the company was on top of the world, and certainly Mr. Diebel deserved to profit handsomely for his long hard years of work. But Meade wasn’t quite as stable as they appeared to be, and going public just made things dicier. A blow came when most Walmarts stopped selling Christmas Telescopes not long after a major dealer of the things, Discovery Channel Stores, went under. Meade’s numbers were good, but a lot of those numbers were due to the department store end of the business that really wasn’t that profitable anyway. Take away the el cheapo part of the equation and things began to look a lot bleaker for the blue team.
One other misstep, I’ve been told, was the company’s dalliance with an optical communications company. All those ETX 125’s with metal rear cells you’ve seen surplused out were built for this failed endeavor. A company with deep roots and resources like a GE can afford a few disasters. A company built on the shifting sands of a niche market? Not so much.
And so, production halted at Meade’s big factory site in Irvine (not far from Ducks Stadium) and the facility was soon on the chopping block. Meade still operates from a nearby location, but the once grandiose home/factory of the world’s largest and most successful telescope company is no more. The top-line amateur scopes began to be produced in Mexico and everything else came from Ningbo-Sunny or one of their “friends” in China.
I found that out when I got my hands on my first new Meade in a long time, the company’s new LX80 GEM. Admittedly, some things did spell t-r-o-u-b-l-e for me. Like a shipping container that was made out of what appeared to be recycled Kleenex, and a manual that was not only incomplete, but which was merely a half-hearted rewrite of decade old LX75 instructions. However, everything worked. I was quite impressed by the Meade answer to the Celestron AVX—I thought the Meade was actually superior in some ways. Certainly, the Meade ACF 8-inch SCT presented wonderful images (you can read my LX85 Test Report in the January 2020 Sky & Telescope). My thought as I was shipping the gear back to Meade? “I’m impressed. They done good! Things are looking up for Old Blue!” Alas, shortly thereafter the outcome of the Orion lawsuit became known.
What do I think will happen next? If you’re a Meade fan, I wouldn’t worry too much. The name has value, and the products still sell. Someone, Orion or whomever, will buy the company and continue to market most/some of the telescopes, I would guess. What makes me really sad is not the fate of this incarnation of a once great company. It’s that two famous and outstanding American telescope companies are now but fading memories gone these many years.
So, that’s it for this time, Muchahos. When will the next one appear? When the mood strikes your old uncle, but most assuredly before February runs out. If you’d like the blog updated more frequently, tell me. Comment here, on the thread I’ll put in the Cloudy Nights “Astro Art, Books, Websites, and Other Media” forum, or by email or on Facebook. And please spread the word to former Uncle Rod fans who may have lost the thread.
Uncle Rod News! The long-awaited (well, one or two people asked about it) second edition of Choosing and Using a New CAT, my vaunted SCT book, is due to be published in April. It has been completely updated and much has been rewritten. I think you are gonna like it.
Tuesday, December 24, 2019
Merry XMAS 2019! Uncle Rod's Astro Blog Slight Return...
Enough of that. While I hope to crank the blog back up in the coming year, that is not happening just yet. Nevertheless, I thought those of you who used to enjoy my little epistles would like an update on my doings in 2019.
2019 began rather momentously for me with two book contracts. One for the long awaited second edition of Choosing and Using a New CAT. And one for a new volume on backyard deep sky observing for the BBC. My preliminary title for which is From City Lights to Deep Space--we’ll see what the publisher chooses to call it when it comes out next year. January also brought another Sky & Telescope assignment, a Test Report on Lumicon’s new and (much) improved OIII filters.
It seemed as if my astronomy game was on a definite upswing after a year, 2018, when I hadn’t done much observing for a variety of reasons. I didn’t go to many star parties that year, either. After a momentous season in 2016 when I traveled far and wide, speaking, teaching, and observing at star parties north, south, east, and west, air travel had finally gotten to me. I decided it was time to ring the curtain down on my speaking engagements. A friend and I began calling 2016 “Uncle Rod’s Farewell Tour.” It wasn’t till January 2019 that I realized just how inauspicious that description would turn out to be.
So, anyhow, I found myself on the roof of our suburban home on January the 9th of this year adjusting a new HF radio antenna. I was home alone, and normally don’t do that sort of thing without Miss Dorothy around in case I need assistance. But I was bored and wanted to get the work done. UP I went.
While I might not quite be over the hill, I am older now, and about halfway through the evolution I began to feel a little shaky up on the top of the house. I said to myself, “You know, this is really stupid. Get down and call one of your ham buddies to come help you.” I descended. And if I’d left it at that, all would have been well. Alas, I began thinking, “Everybody’s at work. Might not be able to get somebody to help me for a few days. Left some tools up there. Better get ‘em down.” Up I went without incident.
The spot I needed to be on the roof was adjacent to the deck, so I (foolishly) placed the extension ladder on that deck instead of the ground. I knew the ladder would be less likely to slip on the ground, but, heck, I’d gotten away with it numerous times. Not this time. I retrieved the tools and just as I put my weight on a rung down it went, landing on the deck about 14-feet below. I landed on top of the aluminum ladder.
Was I out for a while? I believe so, but everything was hazy then and now. What I do remember clearly was realizing I’d really gone and done it, that I’d really put my foot in it this time. Next thought was I’d better get my cell phone out of my pocket and call Dorothy or maybe 911. No can do, Rap. It was obvious when I tried to move my right arm that it was badly broken, that my upper arm was badly broken. Naturally my iPhone was in my right pocket. So, there I lay vaguely hoping Miss D. would be home soon. I recall being cold at first, but then just kind of being out of it and feeling faintly, fuzzily comfortable.
And there I was for some time. How long? The paramedics thought at least half an hour if not longer had passed. Finally, I heard Miss D. get out of her car in the carport and came somewhat to my senses, “Dorothy, HALP! HALP!” Dorothy took one look at me aghast and wanted to know what she could do to help me, “Just call 911!” In a thankfully short period of time, several EMTs were standing over me—there’s a firehouse just a mile or two from us. What do I remember most? The Chief EMT got out his HT radio and called the University Medical Center. His words scared me a little, even in my out of it state: “Look I don’t give a (expletive deleted)
Next thing I knew, I was in an ambulance with the siren screaming. Mostly what I remember from that trip is how cold I was. When the EMTs asked me if I were hurting, and I answered truthfully, “No, I’m just so (expletive deleted)
The ER, surgery, and the recovery room at the hospital are hazy at best. I began to come back to myself when I was finally moved to my (large, modern) room at the University of South Alabama’s hospital. What was my status? The surgeon didn’t sugar coat it. I’d suffered a compound fracture of my upper right arm, I’d lost a large amount of blood, broken several ribs, sustained serious kidney damage, had nearly lost my right ear, and was pretty much a mass of bruises and swelling. He further remarked, “You know, Rod, you were in pretty good shape for a 65-year-old man. If you hadn’t been…well, you likely wouldn’t still be here.” It seemed the physical fitness kick I’d been on for the previous couple of years had served a purpose other than my vanity.
So much for the accident. The next couple of months saw me go from hobbling around the house, to getting about with a cane, to being able to drive again, to getting back to work teaching at the University, to spending blessed Monday nights at Heroes, again. Astronomy-wise, things were for sure at all-stop. It was just a darned good thing I’d done the observing for my S&T Test Report before the accident. I was able to get my copy to my Editor, Sean Walker, who was very understanding, almost on time despite everything.
My eventual recovery was largely due to the efforts of Dorothy and a couple of good friends—you know who you are—who kept me on the straight and narrow and gave untold moral support.
As I began to at least be able to get around—I was not my old self and still am not—two thoughts entered my mind: those two book manuscripts. I’d done little on the backyard observing book and nothing on the second edition of New CATs. I knew I had to get to work even if I didn’t feel like it.
The backyard deep sky book actually went fairly easily. I have logbook after logbook filled with urban and suburban deep sky observations going back over 30 years. All I had to do was pick some good ones of objects suited for observers in the British Isles and, well, put my butt in the chair and write. Once I got into the groove, it wasn’t bad, and with the aid of ace proof reader Dorothy, the MS went out right on time.
Now, however, I had the CAT book to do. Once I started going over my original text, I realized I had a lot of work ahead of me. The telescope buying guide chapter would have to be almost entirely rewritten. So would the chapter on imaging. Things have changed so much in the eleven years since the book came out. Not just in that Celestron and Meade have almost totally revamped their lineups. The cameras we use for imaging and the way we use them have changed every bit as much or more. When I wrote the original book, a big topic, for example, was modified webcams. That seems like ancient history now.
And so, I started the long slog through chapters four and eleven. When they were done, I had a look at the rest of the book. It was obvious there was plenty of work to be done on everything else as well. Changing the two big chapters inevitably changed things in plenty of places in the rest of the book. And there were also lots of problems with my original prose that needed to be fixed. An additional decade of astronomy writing had done a lot to improve my skills. Also, many of the photos in the book would have to be replaced, and I’d need to get with Celestron and Meade and secure images of their current models.
About halfway through, I began to despair. One of the lingering aftereffects of my accident, and one that still plagues me occasionally, is difficulty concentrating and a sometimes-short attention span. However, I persevered and the new CAT book actually went out the door a month ahead of schedule. Dorothy was again a huge help with the MS, and I’m sorry for what I put her through. That difficulty concentrating meant I’d forget what I’d said and how I’d said it a few paragraphs earlier and make mistakes. Thanks are also due to the good folk at Celestron and Meade who graciously furnished me with the pictures I needed.
In all this time, about eight months, I had done exactly no observing with a telescope. I will admit I wasn’t anxious to do any, either. I felt—and still feel—the cold more intensely than before. I have a metal plate in my right upper arm, too, and when it’s cold I can find myself in considerable pain. Combine that with a somewhat nagging fear of falling in the dark and reduced endurance, and I just didn’t want to spend any time at the eyepiece. Nevertheless, I accepted an assignment from Sky & Telescope to do a review of Meade’s LX85 ACF Schmidt Cassegrain.
Maybe I just needed a deadline hanging over my head to get me outside with a scope. That did the trick, anyway, and I was soon out back happily observing and even doing long exposure imaging with the pretty Meade SCT and goto mount. I was not just happy with the resulting Test Report; I was happy I’d got out in the dark with a telescope and done something.
And that brings us to the now. Where do I stand with astronomy as the year fades? I’m continuing my teaching at the university, and have even been able to get the students out with their telescopes a few times. And I have a beautiful Losmandy GM811G that’s gone unused (or even powered on) for well over a year. I’m hoping that as spring comes in, at least, I’ll be hitting the backyard regularly. I actually have an observing program in mind that I might bring to you here: a (simpler) successor to the vaunted Herschel Project.
As for those pesky wire antennas crossing over the house at W4NNF? They are gone. Replaced by a Hustler 6BTV vertical antenna for 80 – 10. It has a tilt base and I can stand with my feet planted firmly on the ground should I need to work on it. I have learned my lesson in that regard, at least.
Be all that as it may, merry Christmas to you, my friends, and thanks to those who’ve mentioned how much they used to love this blog and how much they miss it.
At 8 pm the hunter had risen far enough to fool with, and--there it was--the Great Orion Nebula shining bravely in the haze and suburban light pollution. The best I've ever seen it? Not hardly. But beautiful still, and, I hope, an omen signaling a better year for your old Uncle.
Tuesday, December 25, 2018
Merry Christmas 2018 from the Astro Blog!
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. The biggest 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 & Telescope Test 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 began 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 concentrated 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 every Christmas 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 Life one 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!"