Sunday, December 14, 2014


Destination Moon Night 8: 85 Down, 215 to Go

The good news, muchachos? I’ve been getting clear skies, and with a fat Moon hanging over (the new) Chaos Manor South this past week, it was time to get back to my Destination Moon project. That’s my quest to observe the 300+ lunar features shown on the Moon map in my old Norton’s Star Atlas 15th edition, the hallowed book that helped Unk navigate the sky as a sprout.

‘Course things are never as simple as they seem when it comes to amateur astronomy, are they? While passing cold fronts had brought surprisingly transparent air, they also brought unsteady air, lousy seeing. And that is a bad thing, y’all. What matters most for lunar and planetary imaging and observing? It ain’t your scope. It ain’t your camera. It ain’t light pollution or a lack thereof. It is good seeing, a steady atmosphere for your telescope to peer up through. As the years have passed, I have ever more come to realize that is really the be-all and end-all for the Solar System.

I will say, however, that the Moon is a little more forgiving in that regard that, say, Mars. If the seeing is bad enough, you won’t see much of Diana, but on semi-punk nights, you can shoot a lot of frames and hope to get some good ones in-between atmospheric disturbances. Which is just what I did. Project DM had been idle for over two months, and it was high time to get into the backyard and start kicking the crater count UP.

Before we go there, howsomeever, a couple of things. First off, I promised y’all I’d let you know how  Shelley, the C102 who recently cane to live at the New Manse, did on the Moon. If you read that linked blog article, or are familiar with Celestron’s refractors, you know Miss is an achromat, a 4-inch f/10 achromat. To be nearly color free, she’d have to have a focal ratio of f/15, if not f/20. At f/10, I knew there’d be some color.

My awareness that there would be shades of deep purple on the Moon didn’t just come from theory. I’ve used more than a few 4-inch achromats over the last 50 years, including another C102 that Pat Rochford, who gave me this one, owned years ago. The night I looked at Luna through Pat’s previous C102, almost 14 years back, still seemed fresh in my memory. And what was in that memory seemed to be lots of purple. Not just on the lunar limb, but on the terminator, with the shadows of craters and other features being a fraking Technicolor riot. 

Memory can be deceiving, however. Often, we remember what we want to remember, or our mind simplifies our memories into sharper gradations of black and white (or purple). I knew that, and tried keep an open mind. I’d just see what she could do, and if my memories of that long-ago C102 in Pat’s yard turned out to be accurate, so what? The refractor would continue to do a great job on the deep sky and double stars.

I waited until Luna was high in a dark sky before lugging Shelley and her AZ-4 mount out onto the deck. She only takes a little while to acclimate to our mild (for the Yankees among y’all) outdoor temperatures, and in just a few minutes she would begin delivering her best images. Anyhoo, I wanted the Moon to be as bright as possible to provide a stringent test.

Hokay, then. Inserted my beloved Zhumell (aka “TMB”) 100-degree AFOV 16mm eyepiece, the vaunted Happy Hand Grenade, in Shelley’s Intes 2-inch star diagonal, lined up the Moon with the 50mm RACI finder and had a look…

Verdict? Dang, just dang. The terminator was just so sharp-looking in typical refractor fashion. The welter of craters in the southern highlands was bewildering. Away from the terminator? That is where a fast achromat has trouble; the terminator may look sharp, but get out on the disk and contrast goes to pot. Not with Shelley. Features well away from the day-night line remained satisfyingly sharp.

“Alright Unk, that’s fine, but you know what we want to know.” Oh, I know, alright. How was the color? It depended. On the eyepiece, on the magnification, on the position of my eye on or off axis. On the limb, there was sometimes no purple at all, just a yellow-amber rim. At its worst? There was a prominent but not overwhelming blue-purple outline to the Moon’s edge. The terminator? There was a purple tint to the shadows, but it was hardly as strong as I remembered, and after a few minutes of concentrating on observing, I purty much forgot about it.

Curiously, the amount of purple in the image, whether on the limb or the terminator, didn’t seem to depend just on magnification. It also seemed dependent on eyepiece type, with there being considerably more color visible with a 20mm Plössl than with my 22mm Panoptic. The picture at left, taken by the simple expedient of pointing my cell phone down into a 35mm (Panoptic) eyepiece, suggests how Luna looked much of the time. One caveat? Unk’s eyes; his eye doctor tells him they are well on their way to needing cataracts removed. In other words, I have built in mild yellow filters, I reckon.

Other than chromatic aberration, how was the scope’s performance? Amazingly good. The sharpness held in at nearly 300x despite seeing that was nothing to crow about. There was nothing in Rukl’s Atlas of the Moon, which I had beside me, that wasn’t at least hinted at in the eyepiece. One thing that is different for someone coming from reflectors? The Moon looked warmer, more yellowish, at all powers than in a Newtonian or an SCT. That is not necessarily bad; in fact it’s kind of attractive. But it will be different from what you are used to if you’ve never seriously viewed Luna with a lens scope.

Given Shelley’s superb account of herself on the Moon, only one question remains:  “How will she do on the planets?” Mars, unfortunately, while still hanging on in the west—where he will remain for quite a spell—is tiny and in the trees. Old King Jupe, however, is beginning to come into his own. Right now, he’s rising at just after 10 p.m. and will soon be high in the mid-evening sky. When he’s up good at 10 or 11 in the p.m., your tired old Unk will visit him with the refractor and you will hear how she does.

Despite me having outlined my lunar imaging set-up a couple of times in this series, I am still getting questions about it, so bear with me while I again summarize my rig for those of y’all getting interested in exploring the Moon with a camera yourselves.

While I said the telescope is not the most important thing in lunar imaging, not compared to seeing, it is still important. For high-resolution closeups, you want something that’s got a lot of focal length, whose focal length can be easily increased, and which will easily come to focus not just with a camera, but with Barlows and other stuff in the light path. For high-resolution photography of lunar details, the place you start is at 4000mm. How do I get there? I start out at 2000mm with my 8-inch Schmidt Cassegrain and double that by adding a 2X Barlow in front of the camera (“Barlow projection”).

I do not, however, insert the Barlow and camera directly into the scope’s visual back. Instead, they go in a widget called a “flip-mirror” that is screwed onto the C8’s rear port. When I began doing high focal ratio imaging of the Moon, I quickly discovered it’s almost impossible to get even the big Moon in the field of a small-chip camera with just a finder scope. Even a carefully aligned finder scope. It was difficult enough to make me want to give up and carry the scope back inside before I’d taken a single shot.

A flip-mirror will preserve your blood pressure and hairline.  It is much like a star diagonal, but with some important differences. In addition to an opening for an eyepiece, there’s another port, on the rear of this “diagonal” for a camera. And the diagonal’s mirror is moveable. You flip it down to send images to the eyepiece, and up to send them to the camera. Find the Moon with the eyepiece, flip the mirror up, and it will be in the field of your camera. This is a huge aggravation preventer, and if you plan to do much lunar and planetary picture taking, even with a goto mount, you want one. A goto will put you on the Moon, but the flip mirror will help you find individual features.

Then there is the camera. Like many of today’s Solar System workers, I am using a ZWO camera. This little wonder is somewhat like a webcam and somewhat like a CCD camera. It can take many frames per second—up to 30 at its max resolution of 1280 x 960 and many more at lower resolutions. Years ago, amateurs found the way to attain high-resolution Solar System images is to take many frames and use special software to stack the best ones, those captured during the moments of best seeing.

That’s not all this little cam can do, however. It can expose for as long as 16-minutes, more than enough to capture galaxies and clusters. While it is uncooled and has a small (1/3-inch) CMOS chip, folks have taken amazingly good deep sky images with it. I even use mine for capturing stellar spectra with RSpec. The current versions of the camera also feature ST-4 guide ports, so you can use ‘em as guide cameras. Unk owns the color version, the ZWO ASI120MC, but a monochrome version, the MM, is available for just a little more money and is even sharper and more sensitive.

The ZWO has no way of storing images; it simply sends an .avi video stream to your computer via a USB connection. You must have a computer and software to control the camera and save video on the hard drive. While the ZWO will work with many programs, the best I’ve found, the best software I’ve used for this purpose after a dozen years of working with similar cameras, is the free FireCapture.

When you’ve got those .avi videos on your drive, you stack their individual frames into finished still images. What I am using to do that is an old favorite of a program, Registax. While a new soft, Autostakkert, has a lot of fans, I have had varied success with it. Sometimes it works better than Registax; sometimes I can’t get it to work at all. That’s likely pilot error, and I am continuing to play with the software.

I told y’all I use an SCT for my Moon pictures, but I didn’t mention which one. While I’ve used my Celestron Edge 800, Mrs. Emma Peel, with great success, I’ve mostly worked with my 1995 Ultima OTA, Celeste. Why? Simply because she is set up to use a JMI Motofocus motor, which makes getting sharply focused images easier.

The night after I took Shelly into the silv’ry moonlight, I was out again with Celeste and my ZWO cam. I’d set up in the late afternoon with the scope positioned on the ground next to the deck. I’d sit at the table on the deck with the PC and run the show from there. Before I could get going, though, a couple of things intervened. First, Pat called needing advice on getting his new SynScan mount going to its gotos properly. When I rung off with him, I noticed the consarned Moon had still not cleared the gum tree. That tree’s days are numbered, y’all, I swear.

When the Moon was out of the limbs half-an-hour later, I headed back outside and set the laptop up on the deck. First thing I noted? At 7:30 p.m., the glass tabletop was already wet with heavy dew. Rut-roh. I hadn’t installed the DewBuster heater and heater strips on the scope. Usually, I can get by with just a dew shield in the backyard, but not on this evening.

A check of the corrector showed it was, yep, fogged. I got my little dewzapper (12-volt window defroster) gun out of the shop and zapped the dew off. I knew it wouldn’t stay off, so I headed inside and returned with the ‘Buster and a corrector heater strip. Got those things on Celeste, turned the controller up to 10-degrees above ambient, and there was no more trouble with dew for the remainder of the evening.

Next, I did a 2 + 4 goto alignment with the VX mount, and then essayed an AllStar polar alignment (at high focal ratios, good tracking is important). With the VX purring, I cabled the camera to the Toshiba Satellite laptop with a USB cord, and ran the motofocus motor’s cable to the deck (using extensions) so I could sit at the computer and focus.

When all that was “go,” I booted up FireCapture, got the lunar terminator focused, and started the other software I use during lunar imaging, Virtual Moon Atlas. Not only does VMA help me navigate the maze of lunar craters, its Notes function informs me as to whether I’ve already imaged a particular feature or not. When I am finished with a crater or mountain, I select it and enter “imaged” and the date in VMA’s “notes” tab. It’s a little like using a deep sky planner/logger for the Moon. Oh, as I have mentioned here before, VMA also provides lunar goto.

Why would you need goto for the freaking Moon? It is a tremendous time-saver. Even if you are reasonably familiar with the lunar surface, like Unk is once again becoming, it’s easy to get lost when you are looking at a very small portion of the surface at f/20 with a small chip camera. VMA uses ASCOM, so I can use the on-screen ASCOM “hand control” to center a crater without worrying about fooling with the mount’s HC. When I’ve got a known feature in view, I “sync” on it with VMA and am good to go. I accidentally synced the program on the wrong feature in the beginning this time, and it took me a while to get that sorted, but before long me and Celeste was rolling.

So, what did we roll with?


I thought I’d start with Albategnius, a large and impressive formation adjacent to the crazy-good triple threat of Ptolemaeus, Alphonsus, and Arzachel. Unfortunately, my Notes entry said I’d already gotten it. The seeing was briefly steady, though, and as I had not officially shot the smaller crater that intrudes on the east wall of Albategnius. I centered up Klein and fired off a thousand frames.
Klein, which is medium-sized, 45.0 x 45.0Km, is interesting, with a mostly flat floor, but one that is festooned with numerous small craters and a central peak. This crater is old, apparently dating from  the Nectarian Age (3.92 billion to 3.85 billion years ago), and looks it, with its rim having been badly pummeled and covered with smaller craters.  


After Klein, I temporarily headed back north where I noticed the fantastic dark-floored crater Archimedes was emerging from lunar night. Frankly, I was surprised I hadn’t photographed this one before, but I hadn’t. At First Quarter, Archimedes is particularly prominent. It is also set in an intriguing area on the shores of Mare Imbrium not far from the lovely crater pair of Autolycus and Aristillus.

What is Archimedes like? This  83.0Km. round crater is a lot like Plato, with a dark lava-covered floor scattered with craterlets. With it just coming into the dawn, the shadows from Archimedes’ mountainous rim obscured much of the floor in my shot, but were very photogenic. Looking at those shadows, you can sure see why pre-Apollo space artists like Chesley Bonestell portrayed the Moon’s mountains as needle-tipped spires. Archimedes is a middle-aged crater dating from Upper Imbrian (3.8 billion to 3.2 billion years ago) times.


Just to the north of Archimedes’ area, you’ll find nice smaller crater, Theaetetus. While it’s only 25Km. across, it looks prominent thanks to steep, sharply defined walls. The crater, which likely dates from the Copernican Age (1.1 billion years ago to present day), is far younger and more fresh looking than most of the formations in the region.

Mons Piton

Also to the north of the Archimedes area and out in the “waters” of Imbrium is one of the non-crater formations on my list, Mons Piton, a 2250 meter peak peeping above the lava sea. Dating from Imbrian times, Mons Piton looks steep and sharp, though Apollo images show it as rounded and “weathered” like other lunar mountains. This area is littered with solitary peaks, the remnants of lava-drowned mountain ranges.


If it were located anywhere else, the medium-sized (42km.) and young crater Herschel (named for Sir Willie himself, natch) would be a real standout. Unfortunately, lying just to the north of the trio of Ptolemaeus, Alphonsus, and Arzachel means it gets overlooked. It is attractive, however, with terraced walls and a complex floor, which was unfortunately still in shadow when I made its portrait.


Now here’s a crater for you—though it should really be called a “walled plain.” Ptolemaeus, with Alphonsus and Arzachel, is the most distinctive feature of the First Quarter Moon. Ptolemaeus is the largest of the three big craters at 154.0 x 154.0Km. While distinctive, it is old and softened, having been formed in the Pre-Nectarian Age (4.55 billion years to 3.92 billion years ago.
The floor of this great walled plain is surfaced with lava and cluttered with numerous craterlets. One of those craterlets, Ammonius, is large and prominent enough to bear a name rather than just a letter. The south side of Ptolemaeus has been intruded upon by neighboring and younger Alphonsus.


My favorite crater? Like most other folks, it’s Copernicus. But Alphonsus is in the running, y’all; it is magnificent. Despite its age—it dates from the Nectarian—it is still well defined and offers a ton of detail for visual observers:  a craterlet-riddled floor, a compact central peak, and an extensive network of rilles. Due to its large size of 118Km in diameter, it, together with the two neighboring craters, Alphonsus and Arzachel, puts almost everything else on the terminator at First Quarter to shame.

There is also romance wrapped up with Alphonsus. Do you know about Transient Lunar Phenomena? Also known as Lunar Transient Phenomena (LTP)? Over the centuries since humans began scrutinizing Luna with telescopes, odd things have been seen on her surface—glowing clouds, obscuring mists, and strange lights. Alphonsus has been the site of numerous LTP reports, including a famous one by the Russian observer Kozyrev in November 1958.

Kozyrev didn’t just see a glow on the crater floor, either; apparently he obtained a spectrum of it (which seemed to be the emission spectrum of carbon). Do I “believe” in LTPs? Maybe not as strongly as I believe in another legendary Solar System mystery, Venus’ Ashen Light (which I’ve seen for myself), but I do think some of these weird lunar phenomena are real, whatever they are.


If Alphonsus is in the favorite-crater running, Arzachel, the third of the First Quarter Big Three, is right behind Copernicus. While it is smaller than Alphonsus and Ptolemaeus at 98.0Km. across, it is slightly younger than its mates, dating from the Lower Imbrian. It looks fresher, and more like a crater than a walled plain. Its terraced walls and a central peak accompanied by a large craterlet and a rille are a sight to see at lunar dawn.


We have to journey south of Arzachel across 460Km. of increasingly rugged lunar terrain to come to our next stop. Walther is another flat-floored walled-plain with a lot to offer observers. At 141.0Km. in size, it stands out well even in small scopes. Alas, nobody much seems to look at Walther—I don’t hear it much talked about anyway. Appearance-wise, this is an old formation dating from the Nectarian, and looks it with heavily damaged walls and a “tormented” floor. The northeastern area of the crater’s floor has been heavily pounded and is a welter of ridges and large craterlets.


Aliacensis lies northeast of Walther, and is adjacent to a similar-sized crater, Werner.  Like Walther, Aliacensis is from the Nectarian, and has a soft look in contrast to younger Werner. At 80.0Km in diameter, Aliacensis is nevertheless impressive and sports many craterlets and wrinkle-ridges on its flat floor along with a small, heavily weathered, off-center peak.


With haze and fog creeping in, I hopped back north to the area of the Central Sea, Sinus Medii, for one last pickup.  This location, between the rough southern highlands and the northern plains is detailed and interesting and includes the Triesnecker Rille, the oddly shaped crater Ukert, and more. Pallas itself is a heavily damaged walled plain 50.0Km across that comes from Nectarian times. There’s a large and rounded central peak, and a gap in the walls to the east that gives passage into an even more heavily damaged crater, Murchison.

And just as I clicked off the last few frames of Pallas, the fog began to move in in earnest. Shortly, I was drenched and so was the laptop. If I’d a-had good sense, I would have put up the patio table’s big umbrella, which would have kept me drier, but, alas, I didn't have good sense. I hoped I had a pretty good haul of lunar images, anyhow. Big Switch Time.

Next morning, as I began processing my sequences and ticking them off the old Norton’s list, I was pleasantly surprised, mucahchos. The seeing hadn’t been great, but Registax was able to pull out plenty of pleasing detail. It is unexpected triumphs like that that keep me coming back to my lunar imaging project. Actually, I’d keep coming back to the Moon, project or no. Diana’s silv’ry countenance has kept me enthralled for half a century, and there’s no sign our love affair, at least, is going to wane.

Next Time: As is our custom here, the next edition of the Little Old Blog from Chaos Manor South will not appear next Sunday, but on Christmas Eve and will likely be a tetch shorter and more sentimental than usual...

Sunday, December 07, 2014


My Favorite Fuzzies: M31, The Andromeda Nebula

I reckon I am not the only amateur who loves M31, “Andromeda,” as me and my buddies in the legendary Backyard Astronomy Society called it when we were kids. And I am probably not the only amateur who’s had a decades long love-hate relationship with the big galaxy. For Unk it was most assuredly more hate than love in the beginning.

What was it that li’l Unk longed to see more than anything else in the months between his first look at a telescope that seemed attainable, Stephanie’s Telescope, and receiving his 3-inch Tasco reflector? Which pictures did he spend hours mooning over in Stars and in Universe (from the old Science Service), his only two astronomy books? Why galaxies, of course. Gorgeous spirals like M101 and amazing edge-ons like M104.

When Daddy came into li’l Unk’s bedroom early one spring morning in 1965 bearing that Tasco in his arms, I felt like the whole Universe was about to open before me. I was realistic, however. I’d learned enough from the only advanced astronomy book Mama had on her shelves at Kate Shepard Elementary, Patrick Moore and Percy Wilkins’ How to Make and Use a Telescope, that 3-inches might be a little small for looking at most galaxies. That was OK. I’d also learned M31, The Andromeda Nebula (as it was still often called in them days), was close, big, and bright and would be coming round with the autumn stars in just a few months.

Not that I didn’t hunt a few of the spring galaxies before then. To no avail. I didn’t know what a galaxy should look like in my telescope, and especially not how dim even the ones the books called “bright” would be—I thought M51, for example, should look about as bright in my eyepiece as it did in the pictures, just smaller.  It also didn’t help that my scope didn’t have a finder—it had a pair of peep-sights instead—and that I had no idea how to star hop. Even if I'd had an inkling of how to locate objects I couldn't see with my naked eye, I didn't have star charts good enough to help me do so.

I had plenty of fun with the few deep sky objects I could find, mostly bright open clusters. The Tasco’s optics were on the putrid side, and stars and star clusters looked considerably better in her than the Moon and planets. Still, that was just a prelude. As soon as September, I knew, knew, I’d be glorying in the sight of the huge spiral M31.

When school let back in and Andromeda and Pegasus began lifting over the horizon, you can bet I was out there with my telescope. On the weekends, at least. Much as I wanted to get out every clear night, Mama would not hear of it on school nights, even if I’d already done my homework. Observing was not allowed till Friday evening. Not until months and months after I got the scope, when I got the bright idea of getting Daddy interested in looking through the Tasco. That was sheer genius. All Mama would usually do was fume when Daddy announced, “The boy and I are just going to have a quick look at the Moon.” 

Anyhow, on the first clear Friday or Saturday night in late September, I was in the front yard with the Tasco (the house blocked objects low in the east from out back). I suppose it's amazing I managed to find M31 at all—after about half an hour of hunting. Or maybe not so amazing. By this time, I at least had enough sense to use my longest focal length eyepiece (about 30X) for finding.  M31 is huge enough to be hard to miss, anyway, and I now had a subscription to Sky & Telescope and could use its monthly star chart to get me in the general vicinity of the galaxy.

I put my eye to my little .965” eyepiece expecting, as usual, not to see nuthin’ at all, but there was indeed something there. Not much of anything, but something. What there was was a big, round fuzzy ball. I kept staring and I eventually saw the ball was set in a streak of nebulosity that extended well beyond the puny field of my eyepiece—likely a Huygenian with a 30-degree AFOV. At first I wasn’t convinced this was Andromeda, but a moment’s reflection assured me it must be. All the books talked about how bright the galaxy was, and what else even this bright would be here?

Did li’l Rod jump for joy and run into the house hollering that the Old Man just had to come out and look right now? Nope. I was badly disappointed and a little embarrassed for my poor little scope. The pictures of Andromeda in my books, including the shot done by the Mount Wilson folks, didn't make the galaxy look like M51 or M101.  M31, it was clear, didn’t have the out-flung arms of those galaxies, but it still looked better than this mess, this fuzzball set in a saucer of dimmer fuzz.

But…but…everything I read insisted M31 was bright. To li’l old me, that implied my telescope should show detail like in the pictures, just a lot smaller and maybe a little dimmer. Well, then, could my problem be that Andromeda was still too low in the east and in the light dome from nearby Highway 90 with its hordes of neon-adorned motels?

So, I waited a while, till Thanksgiving Vacation—when Mama couldn't complain about me using the telescope on a dadgum weeknight. In late November, the sky was taking on that beautiful, dark appearance fall’s passing cold fronts bring. Orion was peeping over the trees in the east just before Mama hollered me in each night, but the target for this evening was M31.

The result was yet more disappointment. Yes, Andromeda looked a little better. The ball looked brighter and so did the saucer it was sitting in. But that was it. I didn’t see dark lanes or star clouds or nothing else. The problem, I reckoned, was that my Tasco was just too puny, and, like generations of amateur astronomers before and since, I began dreaming of MORE APERTURE and scheming as to how to get it.

Six months later, I did have a bigger scope. It wasn’t much bigger at 4.25-inches, and it sure wasn’t easy to get, but I did get it. Would it help with that cursed M31? I hoped it would, but I had my doubts. Still, I was heartened by what the book, The New Handbook of the Heavens, included in the box with my new (used) Palomar Junior, had to say about the galaxy:
The Great Nebula in Andromeda. This grand spiral is visible to the naked eye as a hazy star, and is the brightest spiral in the sky. A most interesting object:  with low telescopic power, a large, bright elliptical mass; more detail and spiral structure are seen with larger instruments.
Most interesting, huh? Well, that meant it had to be more than just a fuzzball floating on a sea of thin milk, didn’t it?

Just as the Tasco had, the Palomar Junior came to me in the spring of the year, the late spring of 1966, so I had to wait months to see what, if anything, it would do to improve M31. At least I would be able to find it more easily now. The combo of more aperture, a (small) finder scope, Norton's Star Atlas, and me learning to star hop thanks to the help of my buddies in the vaunted BAS, meant I was beginning to knock off the brighter Messiers. I was heartened that every one of ‘em looked better than in the Tasco (those few I’d even seen in the Tasco).

Well hell!” Li’l Unk exclaimed at his first sight of M31 with the 4.25-inch. It sure was a good thing Mama wasn’t in earshot, because the words that came next wouldn’t just have caused her Profanity Meter to twitch, but to redline. The galaxy didn’t look better than it had in the Tasco; if anything, it was worse.

If the central area was brighter, it wasn’t much brighter, and it filled more of the field, with the disk of M31 being less visible with my new 1-inch Kellner (no silly little millimeters in them days) at 48x than it had been with the Tasco’s lowest power, 30x. Was the Pal somehow BROKEN? Nope. A side trip to the (bright) fuzzball of M15, which I’d conquered not long before—with some difficulty—showed the scope seemed to be working well.

The obvious was finally staring me in the face. M31 was big. Real big. What the books said regarding its size, two-and-a-half degrees, was finally sinking in regarding just how huge this thing was in the sky.  Almost five times bigger than the field of my Kellner. While I wasn’t sure, I suspected this large size might be the reason it didn’t look anywhere near as bright as the magnitude I’d seen listed for it in the New Handbook, 4.3, implied it would. That was just a suspicion, and it took a while longer for me to learn “bigger” always equals “dimmer” when it comes to extended objects.

So, that meant a big scope wasn’t appropriate for the thing. But who wanted to fool with small telescopes? And how did big observatories like Mount Wilson get pictures of the whole thing? I didn’t know pea turkey about wide-field cameras or mosaics. I just figgered they slapped a camera on the 100-inch in place of its eyepiece and snapped away, just like I did with my Argus 75. I put it down to THE MYSTERIES OF  PROFESSIONAL ASTRONOMY, and decided I might as well just move on.

Wasn't nothing for it; I had to admit Sam Brown, in the other book that came with the Pal, his How to Use Your Telescope, had nailed it. In contrast to the New Handbook’s “most interesting,” Sam opined that all I would probably see of Messier 31 would be the round glow of the galaxy’s center.

I suppose before we take another step, campers, I really ort-ta stop and do the just-the-facts-ma’m thing. Messier 31, a.k.a. NGC 224, a.k.a. PGC 2557 is a type Sb spiral galaxy. It is nearly edge-on to us, which is what prevents it from making a show with its spiral arms, which are somewhat tightly wrapped, anyway. It is bright, as you’d expect, since it is close, a mere 2.6-million light years away. Even in these light polluted days, it is still visible from half-way decent suburban locations as a fuzzy star about 4-degrees west of magnitude 3.9 Mu Andromedae, the second star from the end of Andromeda’s western chain of suns. If you could smoosh M31 down to a pinpoint, it would look about as bright as Mu.

Down Chiefland Way...
A small, short focal length telescope is a good telescope for M31, but wider field eyepieces can make it better in any telescope. My first dream scope, a Cave f/7 Newtonian I got in the 1970s, was of moderate focal length, but my eyepieces were still of the soda straw apparent field variety. Orthoscopics. Kellners. Even a fugitive Ramsden or two. 

Oh, I had my eye on the More Better Gooder eyepiece-wise, a lovely Edmund Scientific Erfle I’d wanted for a long dang time, but buying the Cave had temporarily exhausted my treasury.  Before I could get a-hold of a wider field eyepiece, I’d grown tired of hauling the long-tubed Cave into the foothills of the Ozarks in my Dodge Dart in the dead of Arkansas winter and sold it, replacing the Newtonian with a C8 Schmidt Cassegrain with 2000 dadgum millimeters of focal length. Unsurprisingly, the C8 wasn’t very good for looking at M31, at least not the galaxy as a whole, not with my eyepiece lineup.

In the years that followed, I would wander over Andromeda way occasionally, for old time’s sake, but didn't pay serious attention to the galaxy again for a long time. Not till the mid 1990s, when the Celestron f/6.3 reducer and ultra-wide-field eyepieces like the Naglers made my C8 into a lean, mean Andromeda machine.

Wider is better for this object. Sometimes. What was brought home to me one night at the Peach State Star Gaze, however, was not so much that, properly equipped, the C8 could take in a lot—though hardly all—of the enormous galaxy, but how much there was to see of Andromeda at all magnifications and field widths.

I didn’t really set out to tour M31 at the 2001 PSSG; it just happened. I was tired after the drive up to Jackson, Georgia and didn't want to spend hours hunting hard stuff. M31 was bright and well-placed for observing. Also, I’d piggybacked my new Celestron Short Tube 80 on the C8, and I figgered that little bird ought to be a natural for the big galaxy.

I gave M31 plenty of time that night and saw one hell of a lot, from its tiny star-like nucleus, to subtle, barely visible details near the nucleus—hints of odd, branching dust lanes—to the immense star cloud NGC 206, to two dark lanes in the disk. This was the best view I’d ever had of the satellite galaxies, which were big and bold. I didn’t stop with them, though.

I hadn’t intended to spend much, if any, time looking at M31, but before I’d left home, I’d had the idea that if I did get around to it, I might try for the ultimate concerning that object. I’d brought along a finder chart that pointed the way to M31’s most prominent globular star clusters. I spotted the brightest of them, G1, with fair ease. It didn’t look like much, just a slightly fuzzy star, but I was gobsmacked to think my humble C8 could show me a globular cluster of another galaxy. The most amazing thing? When I pumped up the power, G1 actually began to look a little like an unresolved glob. It wasn’t much different, really, from the smudge of M15 in my 3-inch Tasco on that long ago night.

While the C8, my Ultima C8, Celeste, showed Andromeda’s details beautifully, the Short Tube refractor delivered the big picture—in spades. In the 80mm f/5, M31 really looked like a galaxy for once. The little scope picked up both dark dust lanes with fair ease, and the big disk just seemed to stretch on forever. If all I’d seen at that star party had been that vision of the great spiral in the little ST-80, the trip would have been worth it.

What is the best view, overall, of the galaxy I’ve ever had? That came one special night at the 2008 Chiefland Star Party with my 12-inch Dobsonian, Old Betsy. How was it? You can read the blog entry, “The 8mm Ethos Faces Dark Skies,” but here’s the relevant quote:

M31 was riding high, so why not? 8mm may sound like a lot of magnification to use on this elephant of a galaxy, but it really is not, not if you want details instead of just the big picture…I saw more of M31 than I’d seen in a long time. Heck, I don’t know I’ve ever had as good a view of this monster with any scope.

Start with the dark lanes. Two were starkly visible. The satellite galaxies, M32 and M110? M32 nearly ruined my night vision. M110 was large—huge—and I seemed to see some sort of fleeting detail near its core. Speaking of galactic nuclei, M31’s core...was not merely “star-like,” it was a tiny blazing pinpoint. I also noticed that something I have had a lot of trouble with over the years, the galaxy’s enormous star cloud, NGC 206, was not merely “suspected” or “visible,” it was bright and easy. 

In the years since, I’ve never quite equaled that observation, though I came close one fairly recent night at the Deep South Regional Star Gaze. While the galaxy was similar in majesty, NGC 206, which I use as a yardstick to how “good” the galaxy is on any given evening, wasn’t as prominent.

How about picture taking? Curiously, I’ve never really gotten a decent shot of Andromeda. Probably because I haven’t done much trying. Oh, I snapped a few frames with my Yashica SLR and my Cave back in the hallowed Day, but the question regarding my results was always, “Is that M31 or a custard pie?” I have had several wide-field refractors in addition to the ST-80 over the years, but only once have I slapped a camera on one and turned it to M31, and that was kinda as an afterthought.

In January of 2009, I had a big expedition to the Chiefland Astronomy Village planned. I was out to kill the deep sky with my NexStar 11 and my Stellacam 2 deep sky video camera. One of Unk’s doctors put the kibosh on that. It seemed I had developed a small and non-threatening skin cancer on my forehead that nevertheless had to be removed, which took place the fraking day before my trip.

Unk was not about to be robbed of his CAV fun, though Miss Dorothy was skeptical. She was reassured when I promised I’d leave the big, heavy 11-inch at home. I’d back off to the C8 and my CG5 German equatorial mount. Almost as an afterthought, I threw my 66mm William Optics SD refractor and my old Meade DSI camera into the Camry and was off.

At the site, I found the surgery had affected my stamina more than I’d expected. It was also some of the coldest weather I have experienced down south in Florida.  So, I spent my nights at the CAV “just” looking at pretty things, both with the C8 and with the refractor, which I’d piggybacked on the SCT, and with testing new hand control firmware.

One element of that updated firmware was Celestron’s spanking new AllStar polar alignment procedure. How would I test its effectiveness? Why not slap the DSI on the refractor and do some unguided 30-second shots of…well…how about M31? The resulting frames were certainly not masterpieces, but they did show that the polar alignment system worked, and they did allow me to claim I’d finally taken a recognizable picture of the galaxy.

I hope to do better soon. In the past, I’ve never been much interested in wide field photography, but that seems to be changing. As soon as M31 is in the west and out of the Possum Swamp light dome again, I may get that old 66mm scope out of mothballs and see how she'll do on M31 with a modern DSLR.

Messier 31, the Andromeda Nebula (I guess I will never stop calling it that), has been a challenge for your old Uncle for near 50 freaking years. I probably won't surpass that look at Andromeda down in Chiefland in '08, but I’ve got a long way to go with it astrophotography wise. Maybe that is a good thing, muchachos; it feels good and right that the book isn't quite closed on Andromeda for me yet.

Next Time: Destination Moon Night 8...

Sunday, November 30, 2014


Unk’s Astroware Top 10

As y’all know, muchachos, I am a confirmed astroware fanatic. I don’t have every single astronomy program ever to come down the pike, but I have more astronomy software on my hard drive(s) than humans should be allowed to have. And while I ain’t got the latest and greatest of every single biggie, I’ve at least got an older version of almost every one.

So what? The end of the year seems like a good time for taking stock and making lists. Herewith, then, are Unk’s top 10 astroware programs. In no particular order. I couldn’t quite cipher that out…

Cartes du Ciel

I didn't try the first release of Patrick Chevalley’s “CdC” as its aficionados fondly call this famous planetarium program. I first heard about it from my late friend and astroware guru, Jeff Medkeff, in the late 1990s, but he said the early Cartes really wasn’t quite ready for prime time. Then, a year or so later, Jeff changed his tune, opining that this freeware program could be big, real big.

And it is. Patrick first got the program off the ground in 1997, and hasn't stopped improving it since. The most significant update since the early days probably being version 3, which came out a few years back and put the program on the level of any commercial soft. Cartes du Ciel was completely rewritten at that time to improve performance and to (somewhat) streamline its User Interface. Two new versions were also released at that time; one for Macintosh and one for Linux.

What can CdC do? Almost anything, if not quite everything. Certainly, anything your old Unk wants to do at the telescope. No, it don’t offer stuff like plate solving, but that sort of thing is way beyond your silly old Uncle. The good news for folks who do want to do things like that? CdC interfaces easily to other programs. It is the favorite “front end,” for example, of the users of the mount control driver, EQMOD.

“But how many objects, Unk? And how does it look?” CdC features tons of catalogs past the NGC to include the huge PGC galaxy catalog. It can use both the Hubble Guide Star Catalog and the larger/better UCAC star catalog. Cartes’ strength when it comes to catalogs isn't what it comes with, but what can be added to it thanks to its open, friendly nature. Don’t see the catalog you want? If you have the data, it’s easy to build one with the included CATGEN utility. Well, unless you are Unk, who depends on more computer literate folks to do such things.

Looks are admittedly the sticking point for some of y’all when it comes to CdC. It looks OK, but as you can see in the screenshot here, it is plain vanilla plain. But is that always a bad thing? Out on a dark field, “pretty” sometimes also means “not very legible.” Cartes is very easy to decipher with your display a dimmed down red.


Unk was a Stellarium skeptic for the longest time. I kept hearing people going on and on about this new freeware program that was supposedly better than Cartes du Ciel. It was the Big Thing on the cotton-picking Cloudy Nights BBS for the longest time. I was skeptical, yeah, as I always am when it comes to the supposed more better gooder, but I finally got around to trying the program, and I liked what I saw. It’s not better than CdC, and in some ways it is not as good, but it is quite an achievement and is a novice's dream come true.

Unlike Unk’s much-loved CdC, Stellarium is very pretty. While I wouldn’t call it photorealistic on the level of TheSkyX or the upper levels of Starry Night, it is attractive and the comparison between it and the plain Cartes in that regard is like night and day. The program is also very responsive on most machines, and it’s like heaven for Joe or Jane Newbie to be able to grab the sky with the mouse to move around in Stellarium. It’s also heaven for them—and maybe for old timers too—to be able to issue commands from a few big toolbar buttons instead of scratching their heads at Cartes' multiple menus, tiny buttons, and icon bars. If that were all there were to the story, Cartes du Ciel would be history.

But that ain’t the whole story. Stellarium is just fine in the house for quick “What’s up?” checks. And while I don’t doubt casual observers will find Stellarium OK for use at the scope, those of y’all who intend to go real deep may be a bit annoyed with the program’s limitations, as will those who want to control a scope with it.

How many deep sky objects does Stellarium have? Nowhere is that stated. I finally got the chance to ask one of the authors "What's in there?" on the Cloudy Nights BBS. His taciturn answer? "NGC, IC, M, and C." The "M" is no doubt "Messier," and I assume the "C" is "Caldwell," Patrick Moore's (short) catalog. In other words, don't look for PGCs or UGCs or even Kings or Bochums; you ain't gonna find 'em. Unfortunately, there is no way to add more catalogs to Stellarium at this time. Stars are no problem. You can download (from within the program, in nine parts) an unnamed star catalog consisting of millions of stars.

More annoying for some of y’all may be the program’s rather rudimentary scope control system. It has built in drivers, but only for a relatively few telescopes—Celestron, Meade, Losmandy, and SkyWatcher and that is about it. That’s OK for many folks, but if you want to use something other than those scopes, it gets a little hairy. 

You’ll need not one but two outboard programs if your scope/mount ain't on the list. ASCOM, natch, and another separate program that allows Stellarium to talk to ASCOM, Stellarium Scope. Wouldn't it have been best to forget built-in drivers and make Stellarium an ASCOM compliant program? Also, you may find the scope control commands—Press CTRL-0 to go to the currently selected object—a wee bit rudimentary.

Still, there is no denying Stellarium is an incredible achievement. Sitting there watching as artificial satellites streak across the program’s lovely sky (right where they should be) is, for example, not something you want to miss. Even if this does not become your most used program and even if you never actually use it in the field with a telescope, you want it on your box. Like Cartes du Ciel, Stellarium is available for Macs as well as PCs, so there’s really no excuse for you not to have it.


Let me preface this by saying I don’t own a copy of TheSkyX. Not the real SkyX, anyhow.  I might someday, however. Perhaps not the rather expensive ($329.00) TheSkyX Professional, but maybe Serious Astronomer, the next click down. How do I know I’ll like it enough to spend just under 150 freaking dollars for it, then? The DVD that came in the box with my new VX mount last year.

On that DVD was a lower than low, lower than the Student Edition, version of TheSkyX, TheSkyX First Light Edition. This was nothing new. Software Bisque has had low-levels of their programs bundled in with Celestron gear for years and years. Sounded purty ho-hum to me, and I almost tossed the DVD in the round file as I was bustlin’ around getting ready for the 2013 Deep South Regional Star Gaze Spring Scrimmage.

Good thing I didn't. Good thing I was a mite bored when my packing was done and decided to insert the disk into the kitchen computer’s DVD drive. As I told y’all here, First Light is now my favorite quick look program. It is better than Stellarium for that purpose—all I have to do is mash a N, S, E, or W. button to immediately view the horizon of my choice. I don't have to waste time dragging the sky around with the consarned mouse unless I want to. First Light is, in fact, the best quick-look soft I’ve used since my beloved and long-lost SkyGlobe 3.6.

It wasn’t just the utility of the program for sky checks that impressed me; it was its totally redesigned User Interface. TheSky6 was in many ways a fantastic program, but it never endeared itself to me because of its overly complicated UI. Yes, I know the higher versions of TheSkyX will have tons more features than First Light, but examining their screen shots and having a quick brush with a buddy’s Professional version shows me Serious Astronomer and Professional share the clean, easy interface of the humble First Light Edition. For you Apple stalwarts, TheSkyX in all its versions is available for Macs as well as PCs.

Starry Night Pro Plus 6

Starry Night Pro Plus
I really do love Starry Night Pro Plus. In some ways that is surprising, y’all. Like TheSky 6, its User Interface is a mess with all the grace of an elephant in ballet shoes. There are tool-bars, and menus, and buttons galore and there is no discernible pattern to anything. There are also a few minor bugs still resident in the final (I presume) update of v6. But I use the program frequently. Maybe even more than dagnabbed Cartes du Ciel.

Why is that? It just does so much, looks so fraking purty, and performs so well. There are not too many astronomy programs, for example, that will pull up the Clear Sky Clock for your current location. Or show you a satellite weather map. I was a little concerned, when I first got the soft, that all those tons of features would make it sluggish. Nope. Drag the sky around with your mouse and you will find smoothness and speed fully the equal of the much smaller and simpler Stellarium.

One huge draw, I gotta admit, is the Real Sky feature of the Pro Plus version. That came from a now dead program, Desktop Universe. Some dudes took many, many medium/low resolution CCD images of the sky and stitched them together to form the sky background of their planetarium. Desktop Universe wasn't much good in most other respects, but its photographic sky background was something to see.

When DTU failed, its remains were sold to the then-owners of Starry Night who folded it into the top version of their program. It is real cool, y’all, to zoom in on the sky and see the heavens in photographic glory. The only minus is the limited resolution. Zoom in too much and everything fuzzes out. But that’s OK; the normal computer graphic stars and objects—which are just as good as those of any other top planetarium—take over then.

The only bummer? SNPP 6, as above, is not quite there. The bugs and an unwieldy UI see to that. How about the new kid on the block, Starry Night Pro Plus 7? I am happy to see the current owners of the program (and SkySafari), Simulation Curriculum, continuing to develop Starry Night. BUT…from what I hear the new one was released before it was quite ready and may not be quite ready yet. Would I spend an amount almost up there with TheSkyX Professional for Starry Night Pro Plus 7? Probably not, but you never know. If they can improve on SNPP 6 Plus even a little, I would be awfully tempted, y’all.

SkyTools 3

SkyTools' Interactive Atlas
And with that, we are out of planetarium programs, leastways the ones your old Uncle has, likes, and uses. What’s left? Well, for one thing, planners, programs that help you compose observing plans. I sometimes hear people complain about the “learning curve” involved in getting to know SkyTools 3. Usually, however, these are folks who haven’t spent much time with the soft. Yes, it will do a hell of a lot, but at first boot-up, it is one of the least intimidating looking programs I know of, and one of the easiest to begin using in simple fashion.

When you start up ST3 for the first time, what greets you is a familiar, friendly-looking spreadsheet not much different from the one you use at work to report travel expenses. That is exactly what SkyTools is, a spreadsheet front end backed by a humongous database of millions of stars and over a million deep sky objects (from many, many cross-referenced catalogs).

Yes, the program does a great number of things; everything from telling you when the next lunar eclipse will occur to figuring out how much exposure you will need for a particular deep sky object with your sky, scope, and camera. But beginning to use it doesn't necessitate learning to use all these things—not at first. The program comes with ready-made observing lists, and more are easily downloadable from within the program. Load up the Messiers, click the “observed” field on an object’s spreadsheet entry when you’ve seen it, click “log” to enter your observation, and you are using ST3 productively from the get-go.

How about star charts? Typically, planners have lagged behind planetariums in that respect, and in some ways, that is still the case. SkyTools 3’s sky is neither as photorealistic as Starry Night’s, nor is it quite as interactive, despite being named the “Interactive Atlas.” In practice, that doesn't hurt a thing. The Interactive Atlas is like a cross between a print atlas, albeit one much, much deeper than even Millennium Star Atlas, and a planetarium program. For actual use in the field, I put it second to no other charting system, including the top levels of TheSkyX and Starry Night. When I’m using it, I’ve never wanted for better.

Don’t get me wrong, either; the Interactive Atlas is not ugly. It’s better looking, for example, than poor old Cartes du Ciel, for sure. No, you can’t grab the sky and move it around with the mouse, but the chart controls are smooth and responsive. Best of all, on a dark observing field, SkyTools Interactive Atlas is easy to read.

The greatest recommendation I can give SkyTools 3 is that it is the program that allowed me to observe/image all 2500 Herschel objects in three years, a right good accomplishment given our weather in the Swamp. The program never crashed or misbehaved and never got in my way. It just worked.

Deep Sky Planner

Deep Sky Planner
I could no doubt have used Deep Sky Planner for the Herschel 2500 instead of ST3 and been just as happy and productive. The reason I didn't was that by the time silly old Unk figured out how good DSP is and had glommed onto a copy, the H-Project was well underway and I didn’t feel like swapping ponies in mid-stream.

In most ways, DSP is much like SkyTools—it is a spreadsheet front end for a gigantanormous database. There are differences, however. The program is a little more “Windows like,” using a more standard menu layout than ST3. It is also more mouse oriented, allowing you to drag and drop items hither and yon. I also like the default font size of DSP:  nice and big and easy for poor old Unk’s peepers to read when the screen is filtered a dim red. The big difference between SkyTools and Deep Sky Planner, though, is the charts. DSP doesn't have any.

Which don’t mean you can’t click on a list object and see it on a sky map. DSP just doesn't have a built-in charting engine. The program interfaces to most popular planetariums:  Cartes du Ciel, Starry Night, TheSky, and more. I am somewhat torn about that. I do so love ST3’s Interactive Atlas, but I can set up DSP so that when I click on an object up comes a Starry Night chart centered on my fuzzie. Those of y’all not wanting to learn a new charting system may really like this aspect of DSP.


While much of the computer software amateurs are using is designed to draw sky charts or compose observing lists, applications for astrophotography are a close runner up. Since I use a DSLR most of the time, I need a program that will allow me to acquire and process images with my Canon, and Nebulosity is that program.

While the soft supports quite a few astronomy-centric CCD cameras, I would guess most of the folks using Nebulosity are shooting the sky with Canon DSLRs. Why do you need a computer to image the sky with a DSLR, anyhow? Why not just hook up a remote release and fire away?

You could do that, but using a program to run your camera is more effective. “Tethering” (as we call it in the terrestrial photography biz) your Canon—Canons are the only DSLRs currently supported by Nebulosity—to a PC or Mac helps in a couple of ways. First, you can focus with the big screen of your laptop, which beats the tar out of focusing with the camera’s small screen or—horrors—through its dim viewfinder. Nebulosity also allows you to store your images on your hard drive rather than on the DSLR’s memory card and saves them in the astronomy-standard FITS format.

It doesn’t end there with Neb; it contains some awesome stacking and processing tools. It's excellence in that regard means you may want the program even if you use a DSLR other than a Canon. Bottom-line-a-roony-o? Unk ain’t much of an astrophotographer, but Nebulosity allows me to be all the astrophotographer I can be. Nuff said.

Registax 6 and AutoStakkert and FireCapture

No, this ain’t Unk’s sneaky way of getting a couple of extras into the top ten. Not entirely. For planetary observers, these three go together like red beans, rice, and sausage. Registax 6 was for years the unchallenged king of planetary image stacking. A little over a decade ago, amateurs discovered the way you make high-resolution lunar and planetary images is to take many frames with a high-speed camera and stack the best together to form a final image. There’s more to Registax than stacking, however. Its image sharpening tools, its “Wavelet” filters are unmatched for working magic on your images, for bringing out more detail than you imagined was there.

Not long ago, I began hearing about another one, another freeware program like Registax. This one, Autostakkert, was reputed to produce even better results. Could that possibly be? Yep. Not only do the image stacks I produce with Autostakkert seem slightly better—better registered with maybe a better frame selection—it is a bit easier to learn to use than the somewhat daunting Registax. Registax ain't left out of the party, however. Once you stack with Autostakkert, you will still want to run the result through Registax's sweet wavelet filters.

In order to process planetary images, you gotta have planetary images. The best program I’ve found for image acquisition is the (free) FireCapture. Despite its name, it works with USB connected planetary cameras and webcams. See this here for a fuller description of the program’s crazy-good features and tools, but let me say rat-cheer that I’ve been doing webcam/planet cam imaging for nigh on a dozen years, and no program has worked as well for me for image capture as FireCapture.

Virtual Moon Atlas

Unk, as you may know is a confirmed lunatic. I am also a frequent Moon observer and have been since I began in astronomy dang near fifty years ago. When computers hit amateur astronomy big-time twenty years ago, I began wishing for a “A Megastar for Moon observers.” That is, I wanted a lunar charting program with the depth of the old deep sky powerhouse, Megastar. Took a while for that to happen, but eventually Patrick Chevalley, CdC’s author, teamed with lunar expert Christian Legrand to do that very thing.

The result was VMA. It’s like somebody stuffed the Rukl Lunar Atlas into a PC, but didn’t stop there, adding more features, more details, and tons of images from professional lunar references like the Lunar Orbiter atlas. There are several other computer lunar atlases, including a commercial one for PCs and several for smart phones and tablets, but nothing has realized Unk’s wish as fully as VMA. Like CdC, Virtual Moon Atlas is free and available in a Mac version—and believe me, y’all, you’ll dang sure want to run this one on your Mac.


Now for something completely different. I’m pretty sure most of us amateur astronomers occasionally dream of contributing to science—or at least getting a taste of what it’s like to go beyond “just looking.” RSpec will dang sure allow you to do the latter, and may even let you do the former. It is designed not just to allow you to obtain and analyze the spectra of stars and other objects, but to do that simply and well.

Virtual Moon Atlas
Do you remember the old commercial “So easy even a caveman can do it!”? This program, amazingly, is so simple even Uncle Rod has been able to use it to take spectra of bright stars. Rspec can take you much farther than that, though. Coupled with a diffraction grating or an honest to god spectrograph, folks with a lot more talent than Unk are using it to do things like measure the redshifts of distant galaxies. If you are wanting to try something different, RSpec just might be it. It is also inexpensive and as professionally done as any software—astronomy oriented or not—I have ever used.

Runners Up

Not every contestant, no matter how beautiful and talented, will be standing up there onstage when the new Miss America is named, and not every program can be in the top ten for Unk’s astroware beauty pageant. These are the ones that I like a whole, whole lot but ain’t quite good enough to be in the top ten.

EQMOD, is the ASCOM driver that allows you to run your Synta SynScan (Atlas, EQ6, etc.) mount without a hand controller, and do it better than with the “real” hand control. It is a runner up only because it is not really a program, but just a driver. But what a driver. It is a staple of 21st Century amateur astronomy. Got an Atlas or a Sirius? You want EQMOD.

NexRemote is like EQMOD, but for Celestron branded mounts. It is a fantastic program I’ve used for over a decade. It simulates the NexStar HC on your PC (only) and does things the NexStar hand paddle cannot do. Why is it down here, then? Because it is apparently no longer supported by Celestron. There’s now a Plus NexStar HC, an improved hand control, but over a year down the road, there’s not been a peep out of Celestron about a Plus NexRemote or even an update to the existing version. Damn shame.

HeavenSat is for folks like Unk who’ve been space crazy since they were younguns. It’s also for people who just want to view and identify artificial satellites. There are plenty of programs, including plenty of other free ones, that will make satellite predictions, but few are as easy to use or feature such beautiful displays as HeavenSat.

Lunar Phase Pro is now in Version 2, but it doesn't look much different to me than my version 1.10 copy. And that is a good thing; the program is perfect just the way it is. This little soft just keeps chugging along year after year informing us lunatics as to the current circumstances of the Moon—phases, eclipses, libration, rise and setting times, and more. It’s attractive and fast and inexpensive and if you are a Moon observer this will be a bread and butter program for you, I guar-ron-tee.

AstroPlanner is, natch, a planning program and a very good one. If there’s a single down-check to it for moi, it’s just that it’s really best on a Macintosh in my opinion, and I ain’t got a Macintosh. Certainly the Windows version ain’t nothing to sneeze at, neither, and has got many fans—as it should.

Deepsky is also a planning program, and it was one of the first programs of that type on the market. By all rights, it should be up there with the other two. Unfortunately, it’s been badly in need of attention—considerable updating—for a while. I hope its talented author, Steve Tuma, does that, since this program still has some features nothing else does.

Eye and Telescope is yet another planner, and it is at the other end of the spectrum from Deepsky; it is on its way up the ladder, not down. It’s a few years old now, and while it still needs just a wee bit of tweaking, I would not be at all surprised to find it in the Big 10 next time. I know I liked it from the first.

PHD Guiding is famous and it is great. So why is it a runner up? Simply because it’s, well, kinda simple. All it does is guide your telescope for long exposure imaging, but it does that like no other soft. Not even the most expensive pay-to-play programs, like Maxim DL. Need I say more?

And that is it for this time. I don’t know that I’ll make this Top Ten Pageant a yearly affair, but maybe. Depends on how many astroware authors let me know about their new stuff and how many of you, muchachos, tell me about your faves that I overlooked. Hell, you can even preface your comments with, “Uncle Rod, YOU BLOCKHEAD!”

Next Time: More My Favorite Fuzzies...

Sunday, November 23, 2014


Amateur Astronomy the Old Fashioned Way with Shelley and Me

“The best telescope is the one that gets used the most.” “The older I get, the lazier I get.”  Ain’t both of those things the freaking truth, and especially the latter, muchachos?  As Gaia has rolled around ol’ Sol yet another time, I’ve found myself increasingly less likely or willing to set up my 12-inch Dobsonian or even my 8-inch SCT for a quick backyard gander at the Moon—or anything else.

Something else that has increased as the years pass is my nostalgia for the things of my youth—or the things I wish I’d had as a youth. Like those luscious Unitron refractors of yore with their long, gleaming white tubes. You can’t go home again; the stream of time flows on carrying the past out of reach. Sometimes, however, you can unexpectedly get a taste, a whiff of that past. Which happened to me via an unexpected gift.

As you learned here a few weeks back, I received a semi-vintage and somewhat spiffed up Celestron C102 from my old friend Pat Rochford some months ago. Not long after we moved into the New Manse in May. A C102 ain’t a Unitron. But it is at least in the spirit of those icons of refractordom, which your old Uncle, like every other space-smitten little kid dreamed of owning in 1965 but could never afford.

“A Celestron refractor, Unk? I thought Celestron was all about SCTs.” Not at all, Skeezix, not at all. Celestron’s C102 goes all the way back to the early 1980s. In them days, Celestron was selling considerable Vixen gear. That Japanese manufacturer was highly regarded by amateur astronomers of the time, and Celestron had begun selling Vixen’s Super Polaris mount with one of its C8 models. Before long, the company expanded their Vixen offerings to include a couple of that company’s Newtonian reflectors and several refractors including a 4-inch achromat, the C102.

Despite the 1980s being the age of Dobsonians and SCTs, the C102 was highly regarded. While it was an achromat and suffered from excess color—purple halos, that is—on brighter objects, its reasonably long (by today’s standards) focal ratio of f/10 kept that to bearable levels. The only fly buzzin’ in the C102 ointment was that the Vixen Super Polaris mount, which was more than sufficient for the C8, was stressed by the long tube of the 4-inch refractor.

It took a while for Celestron to rectify that shortcoming, but rectify it they did in the early 90s when they began selling the C102 on Vixen’s improved medium German equatorial, the Great Polaris, which is the ancestor of all the Chinese “GP clones” with us today including Celestron’s CG5s and VXes.  The mount, while not overkill, was more than sufficient for the C102.

“And the C102 lived happily ever after, continuing to meet the wants and needs of decades of achromatic refractor fans.” Not exactly. By the mid-90s the bloom was off the Vixen rose for Celestron. Prices for the Japanese maker’s gear were climbing at the same time the Mainland Chinese company Synta was coming on strong. In 1998, Celestron replaced the Vixen Great Polaris, both for the C102 and for its GEM-mounted C8, with the ubiquitous Synta EQ-4, which Celestron dubbed the “CG5.” They didn’t stop there. Henceforth, Synta would also make the refractor’s tube assembly.

Was this new C102 an improvement? No. It was a cost saving measure, and there was good and bad in the new model (which looked almost identical to the GP-C102). The good was that, almost unbelievably for those of us who’d thus far looked askance at Chinese refractors, the optics in the Synta-made C102 were virtually indistinguishable from those in the Vixen. The OTA itself? The focuser was no great shakes, but it was an OK rack and pinion. The dirty little secret? The Vixen focusers weren’t so hot, either.

The mount was a different story. The early manual CG5s have little to do with the latter day goto CG5 so beloved of cost-conscious amateur astronomers. The wooden tripod was history, replaced with an extruded aluminum job just this side of flimsy. What little smoothness there was in the declination and right ascension axes was attributable to the infamous Chinese glue-grease, which was applied in large dollops. The mount was workable for the new C102, but just barely.

Nevertheless, thanks to its consistent optical quality, the C102 OTA just kept on trucking year after year, hopping on different mounts as time passed and occasionally undergoing minor styling revisions, but staying good, very good. Whether on one of the NexStar goto mounts, or, as today, on Celestron’s non-goto CG4, “C102” spells “Celestron” every bit as much as “C8” does. One nice change to the Chinese C102 a few years after its introduction was that the original 1.25-inch rack and pinion was replaced by a 2-inch job.

Want a C102 today? Celestron’s CG4 – C102 combo is nicely priced at $499.95—the scope is not over-mounted on the CG4 GEM, but the mount is sufficient for it. What’s truly amazing, however, are the periodic C102 OTA sales you can find, especially from OPT, Oceanside Photo and Telescope in Cally-for-nye-ay. Right now, you can get an OTA for 170 dineros, and last year they were selling the scopes for the astounding price of 50 bucks. At any of the above prices, the C102 is an incredible buy.

Not that your old Uncle necessarily believed that when Pat dropped the C102 off at the New Manse. Oh, I remembered how Mr. Pat had raved about another 102 he’d owned years ago, how it literally tore up the dark night sky at the Chiefland Astronomy Village one cold winter night in 2001 (the year the Winter Star Party was canceled and many WSP refugees wound up at the CAV). Still, I wasn’t quite convinced. An achromat, a 4-inch at f/10?

To get the cursed color purple down low on a 4-inch, you have to go to f/15 or f/16, like those long, long Unitrons. On the other hand, I recalled having had a hell of a lot of fun with my old Short Tube 80, Woodstock (who has since gone to live with Unk’s son, Chris), and that 80mm f/5 certainly wasn’t lacking in chromatic aberration.

The bottom line on excess color? It bothers some people more than others. Me? I am not overly troubled by it, whether it’s around bright stars or turning lunar shadows a deep purple instead of inky black. The question would not be whether it would disturb me, but how much—if any—sharpness it would steal from the C102’s images. That is the real problem with chromatic aberration. At high levels, it blurs the image. Howsomeever, I well remembered one cold night in 1999 when I watched a triple shadow transit on Jupiter with Woodstock. I was amazed at how sharp the planet was. So, I was willing to give the C102 a tryout.

What with all that was involved in getting settled in the New Chaos Manor South, it took some time for me to get around to giving Miss Shelley a tryout. “Shelley?” I don’t name my telescopes, y’all. Oh, they all have names, but I don’t give them names, they tell me their names, eventually. It took a while but my C102 finally whispered that she is to be called “Shelley.”

Anyhoo, what prompted me to give Shelley a go was that I had come to favor refractors for my quick backyard observing. I can waltz one out of the sunroom and onto the deck in 15-seconds flat. Not that Shelley didn’t have competition there. My 80mm APO does a fantastic job on everything in that role, and Miss Dorothy’s Explore Scientific AR102 does too, and with a little more aperture. Unk got to thinking, however, that it might be nice to have a little more aperture to play with than with the APO and a little less color than presented by Miss D’s f/6.5 telescope.

The results? You can read all about it at the link above, but for visual, Shelley takes the laurels. But not by much. While the C102 threw up a dadgum impressive star test, the 80mm APO, Veronica, does too, and despite her smaller aperture doesn’t fall far behind in visual performance. If she does at all. There’s more to a scope than just performance, though; there was something about the C102’s long tube towering above me. It was if at least some of those daydreams I dreamed while mooning over the old Unitron catalog as a sprout were finally coming true. Color? There’s purple, but it is bearable.

I did quite a bit of touring of the bright deep sky objects with the C102 on the moonless nights that followed, but there’s only so many times you can look at M2, M13, M92, and the rest of the showpiece gang before getting a mite bored. Oh, the summer and fall Messiers were as beautiful this autumn, my 50th autumn observing them, as they ever were, but no matter how pretty they looked in my “new” telescope, I wanted some variety in the backyard. What else could I do with Shelley? What would she be good at?

One afternoon I was shelving some books that had come over from the old Chaos Manor South in a box, and ran across a real blast from the past, Herbert Bernhard, Dorothy Bennett, and Hugh Rice’s New Handbook of the Heavens (1954). It was one of my favorites in the hallowed day, not only because of its clear prose and the observing lists at the ends of its chapters, but because it had come in the box with my Palomar Junior. Surely if Edmund Scientific included the book with their scopes, it must be a dang good one.

The New Handbook is actually a follow-on to the original Handbook of the Heavens (1935), but while it is an update, there is no question it is still about the old amateur astronomy. An amateur astronomy where the deep sky took a decided backseat to other pursuits.

Take a look at the Handbook’s table of contents and you’ll find you have to scan down almost to the bottom to come to the “Star Clusters and Nebulae” chapter. The authors do do a good job describing what there is to see of the deep sky with a small telescope, and at the end of the chapter, there’s an outstanding list of 60 of the best of the best DSOs for little scopes.  Most of the Handbook’s space is devoted to the things most amateurs of 1950s - 1960s observed more often than even the bright Messiers, however. The emphasis in the book is on the Moon, the planets, and double and variable stars. 

Why did amateur astronomers tend to restrict themselves to those subjects when a mere 4-inch refractor or a 6-inch reflector will do one heck of a job on the deep sky? Because most amateurs, even in the 1960s, didn’t have a 4-inch refractor or a 6-inch reflector, with the refractor being a particularly tough nut to crack for most of us. Edmund Scientific’s reasonably priced 4-inch refractor, for example, was $247.00 (their 6-inch Newtonian was 50 bucks less).  Depending on how you calculate such things, that is equivalent to at least $1370.00 today. A high-toned refractor like a Unitron? Don’t even ask, Bubba, don’t even ask.

Because of the way-out prices for store-bought scopes, amateurs in the 1960s, and not just kids, often made do with 2.4-inch refractors and 3-inch reflectors. Yeah, you’d think from what the old timers down to the club say that everybody back then was grinding and polishing 6-inch mirrors, but that was most assuredly not the case. Then as now, most of us, and especially us sprouts, were amateur telescope buyers, not amateur telescope makers. Accordingly, astronomy authors tended to restrict themselves to objects within range of our small scopes:  double stars, the planets, the Moon, and the brightest deep sky wonders.

Its focus on the bright stuff made the New Handbook of the Heavens, Unk thought, just about the perfect guide to what I would enjoy with my 4-inch lens-scope from my light polluted backyard (limiting magnitude at the zenith not much better than 5 on a good night).  There was also just something romantic about pursuing the old amateur astronomy, the amateur astronomy of Patrick Moore in his heyday, with a long-tubed refractor on chilly (well, for down here) fall nights. I’d already done a quick survey of bright DSOs; it was now double star time.

I’ve never been the world’s most committed double star observer. I’ve blown hot and cold on binaries and multiple stars over the last half century. Obviously, my contributions to and support of The Journal of Double Star Observations are signs that these stars are an important interest of mine; I’m just a-saying you shouldn’t imagine I go pair-hunting every dadgum night. I still and always will love doubles, however, and was happy to have an excuse to look at the best of the best with Shelley.

Before I could do that, howsomeever, I needed to rectify the finder stichy-ation. As Mr. Pat delivered Miss Shelley, she was equipped with a pretty but too small 30mm finder. I immediately replaced that with a red dot job, which, even in our gray skies, was sufficient for locating the brightest Messiers. To run down medium bright doubles, though, much less dimmer ones? Uh-uh. Luckily I had a 50mm Orion RACI finder sitting unloved in my shop. It was in a Synta mount and would slide right onto Shelley.  I am not a huge fan of right angle finders, correct image or no, but I figgered the RACI would at least be superior to the alternatives.

So it was that I began a survey of Double Star Gooduns on a chilly (40s, y’all) November evening. The sky wasn’t perfect; haze was moving in ahead of a front and one look at Vega showed the seeing was at least semi-punk. But I’d been down in the dumps—for no good reason, really—all afternoon and figgered an hour or two under the stars would help, even if conditions weren’t all they ort-ta be. While I used the New Handbook as a general guide to what would be fun look at, I didn’t try to decipher its small text under a red light. Instead, I loaded up the Astronomical League Double Star List on SkyTools 3 on my Toshiba laptop.

One of the loveliest things about a refractor? Just a few minutes acclimating to outdoor temperatures on this cool night and one is ready to rock. I’d mastered the fine art of moving Shelley from the sunroom where she lives out onto the deck without removing her big tube from her SkyWatcher AZ-4 alt-azimuth mount, and in five minutes I was ready to start looking and she was ready for me to start looking…

Beta Cygni, Albireo

“Two tiny points of light—one rich orange, the other a deep blue—placed close together in the telescopic field—such is the appearance of Albireo…the concealed beauties of many similar stellar objects lie unsuspected until discovered in the telescope.” So says the vaunted New Handbook, and I agree—do I ever. I love Albireo, the blue and gold “Cub Scout Double,” though I don’t look at it often. I mostly just show it off on public outreach nights, taking a quick glance at it to make sure it’s centered and focused.

On this night, I spent a little time with Beta Cygni. At my finding power, 67x, with the 16mm 100-degree AFOV Happy Hand Grenade eyepiece, the view was scrumptious, and not just because of the deep and vibrant colors as described in the Handbook. What made Albireo doubly outstanding was the tiny perfect appearance stars tend to assume in a good refractor. I stared for at least 15-minutes despite being hunched over at the eyepiece—even at full extension, the AZ-4 tripod is not really tall enough for a 4-inch f/10.

Alpha Ursae Minoris, Polaris

As is often the case when I’m chasing double stars, Polaris was one of the first pairs of the evening. It’s a good test of conditions. As usual, it was easy but not that easy. The secondary was visible, but I did have to look for it in the seeing, which was definitely tending to “poor.” It soon showed itself as a little white spark beside the strongly yellowish primary. Since the separation between the two is 18.4”, you’d think resolving Polaris would be like shooting dadgum fish in a barrel, but it is not so. I could see the comes with the 16mm eyepiece, but I needed the 7mm to make it really stand out. Polaris is tough because of the difference in magnitudes between its primary and secondary which are, respectively, at magnitudes 2.0 and 9.1.

Epsilon 1 and 2 Lyrae, the Double Double

Since I was in the area, figgered I might as well check in on the famous Double Double, Epsilon 1 and 2 Lyare. Epsilon 1 is at magnitude 4.7 and Epsilon 2 at magnitude 5.1 and they are separated by a huge 208”, hardly a challenge—the split was trivially easy in the 50mm finder. That ain’t the challenge, though, the challenge is that each of these two stars is itself a close double.

Epsilon 1 Lyrae is composed of a magnitude 4.7 primary and magnitude 6.2 secondary separated by 2.6”. Not usually a problem for medium aperture scopes at medium magnifications on nights of good seeing, but more than close enough when, as on this evening, the air doesn’t want to hold still. Epsilon 2 is a magnitude 5.1 and 5.5 pair, and is a wee bit closer together at 2.3”. Again, not a huge challenge, but enough of a challenge when the seeing sucks. What helps is that both pairs’ stars are fairly close to each other in magnitude.

Anyhow, despite the relatively lousy atmospheric conditions, Epsilon 1 and Epsilon 2 were split at 143x in Shelley with my 7mm William Optics Uwan eyepiece. I could see that the stars were elongated at 67x, but only barely. Only when the seeing would change and they’d briefly stop shimmering and dancing around.

Gamma 1 Andromedae, Almaak

Almaak is another one of the very best doubles. The “end” star in Andromeda’s eastern chain of stars is a nice, easy split at 9.0”, which also puts the primary and the companion close enough together that the pair really looks like a double star at medium powers. The primary is a beautiful deep golden color and shines brightly at magnitude 2.0. It is made even more lovely by the contrast provided by the secondary, which stands out well at magnitude 5.0 and has a light blue-green tint.

Despite Almaak being over the house and in the extra poor seeing caused by heat rising from the roof, Shelley did a fine job. At 67X I coulda drove a truck between primary and secondary. Other observations? Mainly that the secondary star looked bluer to me than it does in my SCTs. Whether that is due to the smaller aperture of the refractor, or to the fact that it is a refractor, I don’t know, but the difference was noticeable.

Eta Persei, Miram

Miram is a famous double star, but not one that’s really a showpiece in this old boy’s opinion. The separation, 28.9”, makes it an easy but relatively wide one, and at magnitude 7.9, the secondary star seems somewhat lackluster. The mag 3.8 primary was easy to spot, even in the eastern horizon light dome from consarned Airport Boulevard, and is an obvious deep gold-orange. The secondary? From the first glance, the secondary seemed a pale blue. Not the “very blue” the Handbook claims, but blue, not white as it’s appeared in my C8.

Since I was in the neighborhood, I bopped over to the west to have a look at the Double Cluster, just a little less than four and a half degrees away. Despite still being in the heavy light pollution and in increasing haze, the two companion open clusters were wondrously beautiful in the Happy Hand Grenade. There is just no way to make ‘em look bad, y’all. But, as I watched, they began to do a fade out. The occasional bands of thick haze were morphing into genuine clouds and it was time to throw the Big Switch.

Throwing that Big Switch took all of maybe two minutes. Objective cap on the scope, pick her up, and back into the house we went in nuttin’ flat. Grabbed the eyepieces off the patio table and we was done. I didn’t have to pack up the Toshiba, since I’d set up the laptop in the sunroom so I could duck inside and warm my old bones when scoping out the next target star with SkyTools.

Yeah, double stars were great in the refractor, muchachos, but that is hardly all she can do. In addition to a surprisingly good job on the deep sky, she has made a believer out of me when it comes to the Moon, and I originally intended to clue y’all in as to how Luna looked in the achromat. Unfortunately, I see it is time for me and Shelley to run along before we wear out our welcome this Sunday morning. You will hear more about our adventures soon, and not just on the Moon, but on the planets—King Jupe is on his way back into the evening sky, and I am curious what my new friend of a telescope will accomplish there.  

Next Time:  Unk's Astroware Top 10… 

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