Sunday, August 30, 2020

 

#566 Stars in the Palm of My Hand Redux


Yeah, muchachos, I know. I said not long ago that I hoped to put a new AstroBlog article on the air at least twice a month, but I barely managed one for August. What happened? The weather is what happened…or didn’t happen depending on your perspective. It’s been nothing but clouds and thunder boomers here. Well, except when there’s a full Moon of course. As I write, there are two tropical storms in the Gulf. So, no “My Yearly M13;” not yet anyhow. Instead let’s talk about the cotton-picking cellphones.

Now, your old Uncle, Luddite that he is, is not that big a fan of the danged pocket computers. I could, as I often say to the annoyance of everybody around me, go back to a black dial-phone hardwired into the wall. Happily. But I must admit they can be handy for some things--like astronomy.  I’ve been involved in using smart phones and their ancestors, the PDAs, in stargazing for quite a while.

I got started not long after the turn of the century with something some of you may remember, Palm Pilots. If you’re young, or like your old Uncle occasionally a little short on brain cells, what the Palm was was a “PDA,” a Personal Digital Assistant. It did some of the things we do with smart phones these days:  keep a calendar, manage contacts and appointments, make notes, stuff like that. But with no connectivity. Not only could you not make a phone call with one, in the early days of PDAs you couldn’t even connect to the Internet. Well, you could—sorta. Plug the Palm into a PC (via an RS232 cable) and it would update little news and weather apps; stuff like that. Sounds primitive 20 years later, but these things were actually amazingly useful.

And not just because of the built-in apps like the calendar and stuff. Soon there were third parties producing all manner of software to run on the Palm, just like with today’s iPhones and Androids. In a short time, there was a whole Palm industry producing serious software like word processors. And even hardware like keyboards. While it might seem a little strange to do word processing on a PDA, it worked thanks to the devices’ increasingly good screens. That was a life saver for me in the days when I was still riding destroyer sea-trials. I needed to do some writing on deadline, and couldn't bring a non-secure, non-government laptop with me. A PDA was no problem, however, and I was able to get my work done with my Palm and my (folding) keyboard.

And all that was just ducky, but what I was really interested in, as y’all might expect, was the growing inventory of astronomy software for the Palm. Yep, there were quite a few astro apps, some quite powerful; especially the one I settled on for regular use: Planetarium for Palm. One of my fonder memories is of using my Palm IIIxe and my wee ETX60 (by means of an RS-232 cable from Palm to Autostar) to tour dozens of deep sky objects from the dark Smoky Mountains.

Astromist
Planetarium for Palm worked great on my original IIIxe, and even better on my “upgrade” PDA, the Palm Tungsten E2 which had—get this, campers—a color screen and the limited ability to use Wi-Fi with an add-on card! However, soon Planetarium for Palm had competition, a remarkable bit of programming called Astromist. Not only did it sport nearly 20,000 deep sky objects; it took full advantage of the Tungsten’s color screen. The Tungsten had the power and the features to show what hand held devices could (potentially) bring to astronomy.

Not that I needed to be convinced. I was so impressed by my Palm that I started a Yahoogroup just for the use of PDAs in astronomy, "PalmAstro." For a couple of years, it looked like the sky was the limit for the gadgets. Till it all came crashing down and Palm wound up belonging to freaking HP. What happened? Poor management on the part of the Palm execs was part of it, but mostly it was the coming of the smartphone, which made PDAs almost instantly obsolete. 

Palm did sell some phones, but with very limited success. The cells they rolled out that still used the Palm O/S unfortunately used a version of it that made the phones incompatible with all the tons of good software that had been written over the years. That was pretty dumb and that was pretty much that for the company. To this day, HP occasionally releases a phone under the Palm name, but these Palms have nothing in common with the good, old PDAs.

While I kept the PalmAstro Yahoogroup on the air until Yahoo shut all its groups down earlier this year, there’d been little interest in it in a long time, including by moi. It was time to move on to something more capable than a PDA as cool as they were. Something with a still better display and Internet connectivity. What was that? Not the smart phone, not for Unk right away. iPhones just seemed stupid-expensive to me. How about a nice iPod instead?

While the early iPods did very little other than play music, the later ones were more like iPhones, just without the phone stuff. That was the iPod touch. It could do anything my Palm could do—calendars, contacts, etc.—but with a color touch screen, more memory, a faster processor, and built-in Internet connectivity. And, naturally, there was already plenty of astronomy software to take advantage of that pretty screen (most apps designed for the iPhone ran fine on the Touch), beginning with SkyVoyager, the ancestor of today’s SkySafari.

But, soon enough it was time to move from Pod to Phone. Not only to play telescopes, but because I found having one increasingly necessary given changes at work. I was now commuting to both Pascagoula and New Orleans to work on the NAVSSI system (a navigation suite of radars, computers, and other sensors) on the Navy’s LPD landing ships. I found an iPhone made my work much easier with its instant access to my colleagues with  phone and email--not to mention all the other smart phone features we take for granted now. And, naturally, when SkySafari cranked up, I got started with that amazing software.

If you’d like to know more about SkySafari or my take on it, at least, watch for an upcoming Test Report on the app by me in Sky &Telescope. Suffice to say, however, that the program takes all the power of a desktop planetarium program, and stuffs it into your smart phone or tablet (including Android devices). For now, however, let’s switch gears slightly and talk about the other half of the smartphone astronomy game:  how you make your goto goto its gotos with your freaking telephone.

It took me a while to get friendly with the SkySafari's telescope control features. I got my first iPhone, an iPhone 4, loaded it up with SkySafari, looked at the app a time or two, and that was it--oh, used it once in a while to see how high up Jupiter or something was, but not much more than that. Why? Unk practiced a different sort of astronomy a decade ago. I was still ensconced at good, old Chaos Manor South, our huge old Victorian home in the city’s Garden District. There, there was very little chance to observe.

I could look at the Moon or a planet from the front yard, but that was about all and all it had been for the better part of a decade before that. Not so much because of light pollution, which I knew how to deal with, but because of the countless oak trees old and young. My backyard was so overgrown by the end of the 90s that I was limited to a few “windows” here and there—and God forbid you cut down a Garden District oak! So, Moon and planets it was, and I didn’t need all the deep sky objects and stars now packed into SkySafari to tour the Solar System.  There also didn't seem to be much point in connecting the phone to one of my telescopes.

SkyQ Link plugged into CGEM port.
How about dark sites and star parties? When I did dark observing, I wanted heavy-hitter software like SkyTools or Deep Sky Planner or maybe The Sky X if I was in a planetarium kinda mood. Ten years ago, SkySafari was already pretty powerful, but not that powerful.

There things remained for quite some time. Until I heard Celestron was bringing Wi-Fi to their scopes and mounts. Not only that, but that the dongle they’d developed, SkyQ Link, would, they said, not just allow you to control a scope with your phone via Celestron’s SkyQ app, you could use the widget to connect your laptop running NexRemote to the mount wirelessly.

Now, that got my attention. Back in the go-go days of The Herschel Project, I invariably controlled the Advanced VX or the NexStar 11 GPS or the CGEM with NexRemote, which took the place of the hand controller. You didn’t even have to have the HC plugged in. And the SkyQ link would, I thought, make the NexRemote experience a whole lot better.

Eliminating a cable between PC and mount wasn’t just a matter of aesthetics. More than once, one of the zombie-like folks you’ll encounter at most star parties (you know, the people who set up a scope but never use it—instead they wander the field all night long) had tripped on and disconnected my NexRemote cable in their quest to determine, “WATCHA LOOKIN’ AT?” causing me to lose my goto alignment.

When the Link arrived, I was impressed. It looked professionally done, and the instructions for getting it set up were simple enough. Plug it into the mount, connect your PC’s or phone’s wireless to it, start the SkyQ app or NexRemote (along with a helper program for NexRemote), and you were good to go. First problem? It didn’t work with NexRemote. Period. End of story. Game over. Zip up your fly. OK, how about SkyQ? It refused to work with the Advanced VX, though it would work with the NexStar 11 GPS in alt-azimuth mode—in very limited fashion.

Now, normally when something like this happens, I just stuff the junk in question back in the box and return it. But I really, really wanted this thing to work. So I got in touch with Celestron. They readily admitted they knew their app would never, ever work with the Advanced VX or any other German equatorial mount (despite what their ads said). They did insist NexRemote ought to work. They offered me troubleshooting tips and promises about upgrades to the software used to allow NexRemote to access the Link. And they kept doing that, stringing me along, until it was too late to return the SkyQ Link. Oh, well. I stuffed it in a drawer and forgot about it.

And that was the end of wireless scope control for me for some time. Until, in fact, early 2017 when I was assigned to do the Sky & Telescope Test Report on Celestron’s new Evolution 9.25 SCT. There was a lot new about this telescope including a built-in rechargeable battery and a new-design fork mount among other things. Some of these things were good and some not so good, but what was really good was the scope’s main selling feature, built-in Wi-Fi.

Evolution 9.25
Not only could you point your telescope to sky object with your Apple or Android smart device, you could also do your Evolution’s goto alignment with the cell phone or tablet. The app Celestron  paired with the scope, “Sky Portal,” was developed by Simulation Curriculum and was actually a basic version of SkySafari. Anyhoo, it offered various Celestron alt-azimuth alignment options including SkyAlign (pick any three bright stars to align on) and routines for German mounts too. Not only that…the alignment routines were now also included in SkySafari Pro. Sounded like the days when I’d need NexRemote were drawing to a close.

If the Evolution worked as advertised. Some owners had complained about weak Wi-Fi signals with early Evos. Me? I found I could control the telescope just fine from 100 meters away on an open observing field. Naturally, in a backyard with lots of obstructions the range was shorter, but it worked more than well enough nevertheless. I still wasn’t sure I preferred a phone to a hardware HC—I missed the tactile feedback from actual buttons—but I was at least becoming a believer.

Part of the reason for that was my astronomy way of life had changed. Following my retirement, Miss Dorothy and I had moved from Chaos Manor South to the suburbs. I now had a nice, open backyard and skies that would show mag 5 stars at zenith on a good night. Since I could now look at the deep sky any time I wanted (when we had those increasingly rare clear skies), I found I was far less interested in doing pedal-to-the-metal observing from dark sites. Me getting older and less inclined to stay up late and to brave the heat or cold and the bugs also had something to do with it. At any rate, a phone with SkySafari running on it suddenly seemed to fit my lifestyle a lot better than a big laptop packed to the gills with astro-ware.

BUT… (there’s always that annoying “but”). I was perfectly happy with the telescopes and mounts I had. I really wasn’t interesting in dropping a couple of thousand bucks on a Celestron Evo 9.25 SCT; that was for sure. So, I did some research. The SkySafari folks and others offered Wi-Fi solutions of their own that would work with just about any telescope/mount. But these generic solutions didn’t give you the Celestron no-hand-control-required alignment capability. Which was when I began thinking about the SkyQ Link again and doing a little research.

What I turned up was the new dongle Celestron began selling at about the same time they rolled out the Evolution was little different from my old SkyQ Link. In fact, the electronics were exactly the same; the only changes were its slightly redesigned appearance and a new name, “SkyPortal Link.” With the Evolution on its way back to California and me rested up from all the observing I’d done with the 9.25, I decided to hunt up the widget and give it a try with SkyPortal and SkySafari.

Doing an AllStar alignment with the Evolution.
Luckily, your old Uncle thinks long and hard before throwing anything away. Even more lucky? The Link made it from Chaos Manor South to the new digs—and I even knew which box it was in (I’ll admit a couple of years down the road, I still hadn’t unpacked all the astro-junk).  Out it came and into the Advanced VX it was plugged.

With the AVX set up and polar aligned I plugged the dongle into the hand control port, powered on the mount, and grabbed my trusty iPhone. I had some hopes, since the lights flashing on the dongle as it booted up looked correct—unlike with the SkyQ app. I had no trouble connecting with SkyPortal, either. But then came the acid test—goto alignment.

After all the drama I’d experienced with the Link previously, the denouement was almost boring. I centered four stars, two on each side of the Meridian, SkyPortal said I was aligned, and the Advanced VX went to anything I requested for the remainder of the evening, just like it always did. Any downers? Only that after not having used a touchscreen to center a star in a long time, I was back on square one with that.

And now? The events of the years since I tried out the Evolution have just led me more and more in the direction of smart phone astronomy. In 2019, I was laid up for months thanks to an accident I have still not fully recovered from. After I healed enough to want to do some observing, I found I was less likely than ever to traipse around to star parties and dark sites carrying a PC. Often it’s no goto at all…just me, my good old 10-inch Dobsonian, Zelda, and SkySafari in the friendly backyard.

2019 was bad for me, yeah, but 2020 has been just as much of a loser of a year in its own way. And for everybody thanks to the the Bad CORONA (as opposed to the good kind that comes in frosty bottles) among other disasters, tragedies, and constant confusion and mayhem. Now, there are no star parties to traipse to even if I were up to it physically and mentally. I'm moving everything except astrophotography to my phone and tablet, and am thinking about doing the same with that (which is made possible by some innovative products from ZWO and others).

I don’t know that I’m ready to get involved with a gadget that allows me to control my imaging sessions with a phone yet, but what say we kick it up a small notch anyhow? When it comes time for me to do my observing for my SkySafari Pro test report lets’ throw in a curveball. I am told the program now supports the Celestron StarSense alignment cam. How will that work out? We shall see just as soon as I get a clear night here.

Otherwise? Anything else I’ve got planned…the continuation of the New Herschel Project, My Yearly M13, getting a few pics of Mars…will have to wait until the stormy Gulf calms down. I will have something for y’all in September, but unless and until the weather improves, I cannot swear it will be much. 


Saturday, July 25, 2020

 

#565 Night of the Comet


Of course I’m talking about NEOWISE, C/2020 F3, muchachos, which has been hovering above the Northern Hemisphere’s northwestern horizon and shining at a respectable magnitude of 2. That’s down from its height, a somewhat amazing +.5 when it was in its morning apparition earlier in July and a definite naked eye object. Magnitude 2 is still darned good as comets go, however. And this week its altitude is increasing, meaning it's now possible for some of those with obstructed horizons to finally get a look at the visitor.

What’s the ground truth about this comet? It’s the best we’ve had in years—maybe since Hale Bopp departed the inner Solar System. But don’t fool yourself: Hale-Bopp wasn’t just a naked eye object; it was a naked eye object for a long, long time. And it wasn’t just bright; it was BRIGHT. At its height, it was visible in near daylight. This visitor, on the other hand, now requires binoculars to be seen if, like most of us, you are a denizen of suburbia. In fact, its position meant that even when it was at its brightest most observers needed optical aid to see much of it. If anything.

Wish I could have seen NEOWISE in its morning passage. I love morning comets—maybe because they remind me of my first one, long ago Ikeya-Seki. The stars just didn’t align for your old Uncle this time, though. As you might not be surprised to hear, it being July and me being down here in Possum Swamp, the weather, including the dawn weather, has been lousy.  But there was more to it than that; your old uncle was too worried to be much in the mood to wake up at oh-dark-thirty for comet chasing.

“Worried about what?” I was potentially exposed to the COVID 19 virus. The details don’t matter. Well, except for the fact that everybody involved was masked and wearing gloves and the place where the exposure occurred was disinfected. Those things meant I wouldn’t get sick. But I wouldn’t know that for at least ten days.

Where are you little Panstarrs?
As soon as your aged correspondent and Miss Dorothy learned what had happened, we resolved to get tested. We managed that on the Wednesday following my exposure the previous Thursday evening, which was about right time-wise according to the experts. Luckily, there is a clinic right up the road from Hickory Ridge, a drive-in style setup:  make an appointment, drive up to the facility, wait in your vehicle till called on your phone, drive into the large tent where the testing takes place.

All this happened fairly quickly considering the fact that our poor state is facing a huge spike in cases. About an hour after we arrived, one of the heroic nurses was at my car window taking my temperature and my blood oxygen level. The bad? I was running a modest fever. The good? My blood oxygen level was fine, which I was told is more important than your temperature. Soon, a nurse had a swab up my nose. Despite what you may have heard, that is uncomfortable but not painful. I liken it to the feeling you’d get as a kid when you accidentally inhaled some heavily chlorinated pool water.

Next? Back home at the New Manse, there was nothing to do but wait and see. The fever had been worrying, but I was pretty sure I had a mild sinus infection. At any rate, Miss D. had ordered one of those gun-like infrared thermometers and a pulse-oxy meter from Amazon. Both insisted I was fine. Blood oxygen in the high 90s and no more fever. Of course, your old Unk being the way he is, that didn’t help. Every morning I’d awaken with a slightly scratchy throat (from a night in the air conditioning) and would be sure I had IT.

We continued to be symptom free, and five days after we were tested the results came in:  NEGATIVE. In a few more days, the two weeks of our self-quarantine were up and I was a free man. Well, free enough to at least journey to Publix at 7 a.m. once a week for groceries and to the comic book store on Wednesdays to clear my box. The whole thing had spooked me, and other than that I am sticking close to home. Let this be a cautionary tale:  the only reason, I’m convinced, I wasn’t sickened and maybe worse (at my age I am definitely an “elevated risk” kinda guy) was the mask, the gloves, social distancing, and the disinfecting we did. I hope you also do these things, muchachos. If you are like most amateur astronomers and like me, you are not in the spring chicken demographic and do not want to play around with this stuff.

Be that as it may; the end of my quarantine also brought a temporary lifting of the early evening clouds—Neo had now moved into the evening sky. I was ready to tackle another comet in a long string of “my” comets. But how, exactly, would I do that?

The finished mount did look funky.
While I wouldn’t have a prayer of seeing anything close to Neo’s tail’s full extent of 15-degrees from suburbia, I needed to maximize my field of view in order to see as much of it as I could. I’ve got several short focal length refractors…but…one thing I’ve learned from my decades of comet chasing is that when it comes to to the hairy stars the magic word is “binoculars.”

Next question? Which binoculars? Over many years of (occasionally) serious observing, I’ve accumulated numerous pairs of glasses. I’ve never considered myself a real binocular fan, but, like cats, they’ve just come to me:  everything from a sophisticated pair of 40mm roof prism binocs, to the everyday bread-and-butter 10x50s, to my big honkin’ Zhumell Tachyon 25x100s.

Yeah, 100mm binoculars, the “six-inch refractor” of the binocular game. We all want ‘em—or think we do. To make a long story short, about nine years ago I found you could buy a pair of Chinese 25x100s for about 250 bucks. Not only that; they were garnering a reputation for excellent optics. Only 250 for 4-inch binoculars? Yep. Naturally I ordered a pair and found them to be excellent optically and at least good mechanically (you can still buy the Tachyons, but the price is about double what it was a decade ago).

The thing about 100mm binoculars…well the things? They are great on the sky. Not only do they obviously gather a lot of light; they have enough power to make them more usable in compromised skies than, say, 7x binoculars. I’ve even resolved the rings of Saturn with ‘em with fair ease. That’s the good thing. The bad thing is that when you pass 70mms, binoculars’ weight increases exponentially. You might conceivably be able to hand-hold 80mm glasses for short periods. 100mms? Fuhgeddabout it. And a tripod, even a big, heavy video tripod, ain’t good enough. You need a genuine binocular mount.

And there are some very good binocular mounts out there. Like those sold by Oberwerk (nee Bigbinoculars.com). But they don’t come cheap, and you simply cannot compromise when it comes to 100mm binoculars. “Good enough” won’t do. The problem was that, as you well know, Unk is a stingy soul and was even before he retired. The solution came fairly quickly, though, in the form of the EZ Binocular Mount kit.

Out on the CAV field.
Now, I’m normally wary of stuff like this, having been burned a time or two on amateur astronomy and amateur radio garage-style kits. But this was different; the seller was Pete Peterson (of Buck’s Gears fame), and I knew he knew his stuff. 

The assembly of the kit is a story in itself, which you can read about here—as you may know, Unk’s mechanical skills are somewhat lacking. I got it together successfully with the assistance of Miss Dorothy, but was still a little skeptical. Let’s face it; it looks funky. You’d never mistake it for anything but a kit. Ah, but when you mount those big glasses on it out in the dark, it’s a different story. The Peterson EZ binocular kit works better than any binocular mount I have ever used, big or small. If my backyard experiences weren’t enough to convince me, using the EZ on Comet Panstarrs back in 2013 sure did.

So, the Zhumells have gotten a lot of use over the nine years I’ve owned them? Not really. The problem is that even 25x binoculars need a dark sky to really strut their stuff. Oh, they can do alright in the typical compromised backyard…but given the fact that you have to set up the mount to use them at all, it’s really no more labor intensive to assemble a telescope. And much as I love binoculars, there’s simply no doubt a scope is a more versatile and better choice most of the time.

But not all the time. The exception is when a comet is in the sky. Again, there is nothing, muchachos, and I do mean nothing, that will give you a better look at a comet than big binos. Not only do you have a wide field and plenty of light gathering power, you get that 3D effect inherent in binoculars. There’s also the fact that it’s just more comfortable to use both eyes than one. So, I grabbed the Zhumells' case and started hunting for the EZ mount.

However, it was hot, muggy, buggy, and your Unk was feeling lazy. Of course, I still have the Peterson mount, but I haven’t used it since we moved out here to the suburbs, and knew it was in parts and pieces in several boxes that are located somewhere. I decided to cheat. I’ve got a big enough Manfrotto camera tripod, and since the comet would be close to the horizon, surely that would be good enough, wouldn’t it?

ALCON 2003
Luckily, your silly old uncle had the sense to try this idea out in the daytime. At first, it looked like it might work…the binoculars went on the tripod without a fuss and didn’t seem that shaky. The trouble came when I thought I’d try altitude adjustment. There was just no way I could move the glasses up or down in altitude safely. Even balanced as well as I could balance them, it was evident if I let off on the altitude tension on the tripod even a small amount too much, the Tachyons were likely to crash into the tripod and maybe bring the whole works down.

Well, alrighty then. No 100mm binoculars for NEOWISE. We have one of Explore Scientific’s 100mm short focal length achromatic refractors here. On the SkyWatcher AZ-4 alt-azimuth tripod it’s not much of a pain to set up, and it ought to perform well on the comet. But I found myself fixated on binoculars. As above, they really are the perfect instrument for comet viewing (and comet hunting…like many others, the late, great Comet Hyakutake was discovered with giant binoculars). And then the solution came to me:  the good, old Burgess binoculars.

As y’all have probably divined, I am not the world’s biggest supporter of the Astronomical League. We can talk about that some Sunday perhaps, but for now I’ll just say that whatever my feelings about the AL, I had a great time speaking at the organization’s 2003 convention in Nashville. What went on at the Embassy Suites hotel all those years ago (seems like just yesterday to your aging correspondent)? Well, in addition to talks, dinners, even a little video observing in the parking lot, and the usual things found at conventions of all kinds, there were vendors—folks selling astrostuff.

Now, in those days, Unk was still very definitely an astronomy gear junkie. There was simply no way I’d go home without something new. But what?  Well, there was Bill Burgess (who is still in the astronomy business and doing well, I hear) with his wares. Which included a pair of 15x70 binos he was offering for—get this—50 bucks. Trying them out in the dealer room, it was obvious they were well built and seemed good optically (the stars are, of course, the only true test for astronomy binoculars). At any rate, how could I go wrong for fifty bucks?

I couldn’t, as tests in the front yard of good, old Chaos Manor South (remember those hallowed halls, muchachos?) showed when Dorothy and I got home. The humble Burgesses soon became my go-to glasses. In addition to being high in quality and rugged, their strength was and is that they offer more light gathering power than the usual 10x50s, but in a package that is reasonably hand-holdable. Unlike 80s, I can use these 70s for extended periods effectively and without strain.

The legendary Burgess 15x70s.
So, the 70mms it would be. When night fell, finally (curse this DST) I hied myself out on the deck and faced my nice, low northwestern horizon. The stars of the dipper asterism were glimmering through the inevitable haze. I had loaded NEOWISE into Stellarium earlier that day and knew approximately where to look. “Little closer to the horizon…just a smidge west…little more…almost there…almost there…” And I saw…NUTTIN’ HONEY. Well, I saw the undersides of clouds.

There things remained for several days. Which was not all bad. While I waited for semi-clear conditions, the comet continued to rise higher above the horizon though it was dimming a bit. Finally, early last week, I got what I reckoned might be my last crack at NEOWISE what with a storm churning up in the Gulf of Mexico.

Out to the deck me and the Burgesses went again. Same routine:  scan down from the bowl of the dipper while moving to the west. And there is it was. My lasting impression of this one? It was a perfect little comet in the Burgesses with a tiny head, some coma visible, and a cute little tail that extended farther than I thought it would in the nasty skies. A friend, a talented observer, managed to see the comet much better than I did from darker skies, and was able to glimpse the ion tail. Me? No way, but I was satisfied with what I’d seen. Which was admittedly better than what I saw of Comet Ikeya-Seki all those decades ago. Frankly, I’ve never seen a bad comet, y’all, and this was most assuredly a good one. Hope you saw her or get to see her before she is gone.

What next? Obviously, I need to proceed to night three of the New Herschel Project. But as you can probably tell from the above, the weather down here in the Swamp is unlikely to allow that anytime soon. So, it’s, as Rod’s Mama used to tell him frequently when he wanted something, a great, big “We’ll see.”  


Sunday, July 05, 2020

 

#564: The New Herschel Project Night 2, 21 Down 379 to Go



For the moment, I will not tackle the existential query, “Why, Rod?  Why more Herschels?  Why now?”  Instead, I shall stick to explicating the rules of engagement.”

It was hot, humid, and hazy on the longest day of the year. Not a recipe for pleasant observing, muchachos, but your old Unk knew he needed to do something about those Herschels, and it’s rare of late for me to get a night that’s just hazy, as it looked like this one would be. So, when it finally got dark, I got myself outside, uncovered the scope, sat down at the laptop on the deck and got to work…

But, to backtrack for a minute, y'all, I mentioned “rules of engagement” up above (paraphrasing the Julie – Julia blog that inspired the original Herschel Project). What are they? The New Herschel Project will be done from my backyard with 10-inch and smaller telescopes. Likely, the 8-inch Edge 800 will be the baseline instrument. However, I suspect Charity Hope Valentine, my ETX125, will get a shot when those dark(er) winter skies come 'round, and the 10-inch Dob, Zelda, will be in the backyard when I need a little visual horsepower. Just as with the big Project, I shall use video when appropriate and visual observing when appropriate. How long? I'll stick to what I said last time:

365 days. 400 objects. One astronomer and a less than perfect suburban backyard sky.

How far will it go?

The New Herschel Project. Now on a computer terminal near you!

To say I was a bit nervous about Emma following her surgery would be an understatement. Did I get her corrector centered properly? Would she still be in collimation? Time to find out. I lit-off the CPWI software, the New Project's "NexRemote," selected StarSense Auto as my alignment type, and hit the go button.

Just as with an alignment done with the StarSense auto-align camera’s normal hand control, the Advanced VX moved Emma to four different fields and plate solved on each. As I mentioned in the blog entry on CPWI not long ago, the only difference was that instead of having to squint at the tiny text on the hand control—even smaller than that of the standard NexStar Plus HC—I could read about what the StarSense and AVX were doing on the laptop screen in characters large enough not to challenge your old Uncle’s fading eyesight.

Unk's "observatory."
Directly—in about the same amount of time it would have taken to do the StarSense alignment with the HC—CPWI declared we was done. Since I’d had an at least brief opportunity to test the CWPI StarSense goto alignment accuracy some weeks back, I wasn’t overly concerned about that. On that night the program delivered results that seemed to be every bit as good as what the hand control would have produced.

I was curious to see if a star would be placed in the small field of the Mallincam Xtreme riding on Emma’s rear (ahem) cell. Even though I’d screwed a Meade f/3.3 reducer on the scope ahead of the camera, the Xtreme’s tiny CCD chip still produces a limited field. I had already started the Mallincam Xtreme control program and set the camera for “sense up” and an exposure of about 2-seconds, which is good for framing and focusing.

“Hmmm…how about that bright one over yonder?” I located Arcturus on the CPWI star map displayed before me on the computer’s screen, clicked on it, and hit the goto button. Emma immediately started making for the star at her top slewing speed. When the AVX’s weasels-with-tuberculosis motor sound stopped, there was Arcturus, way out of focus but nevertheless on the screen of the old portable DVD player I use as a Mallincam display. In the course of focusing the star, I could see diffraction rings and could tell I had—somewhat amazingly, I reckon—maintained collimation when I put Emma back together.

Well, alrighty then. Time to get to work on the New Herschel Project. No, the sky was not perfect—some clouds and a lot of haze—but it was better than it had been for weeks or would probably be for weeks more, so there was no time to waste. The camera was obviously ready to roll, and a quick test showed my little Orion StarShoot DVR was also good. 

CPWI alignment choices.
So…was it an Uncle Rod night or not (if you’re a newbie here, that means a night of fumbling and bumbling)? It was not, muchachos, mostly not, anyhow. The closest thing to a serious hiccup was that the Orion imaging filter (a mild Deep Sky type filter) I’d experimentally screwed onto the Xtreme’s nosepiece didn’t really seem to help that much. It also gave the images you’ll see below a strong bluish cast. These types of filters work pretty well for DSLR imaging, but I believe I can achieve better results with the Mallincam in the backyard just by playing with its exposure, gain, color, and contrast controls.

I did run into a problem with SkyTools when I linked it to CPWI. Bringing up the Herschel 400 list would cause the program to crash. That only happened with that list and no others, strangely. I’ll have to do some troubleshooting soon, but it was easy enough just to enter object IDs from the list manually into CPWI rather than clicking on objects in SkyTools 3.

Finally, I don’t know what I was thinkin’ (probably “not much”), but instead of using the 2-inch visual back I normally  employ with the Mallincam, I attached the camera to the Edge’s stock 1.25-inch back which is overly long and which resulted in some vignetting in the bright skies and a little more reduction than I like. But, hey, what can I say? It wouldn’t be an Uncle Rod night if it weren’t, well, an Uncle Rod night, right?

Anyhoo, below are the targets Emma and I checked off the list on this second evening. There’s no particular rhyme or reason to the order in which we observed them. It had more to do with what was in the clear at any given time than any overarching plan for the night.

M105 and company.
M105 (NGC 3379)

The ol’ Lion, Leo, was riding high, and Messier 105, a bright elliptical galaxy and one of the Ms in the Herschel list, was an obvious target. The question really wasn’t whether I’d get M105, but whether the camera would see the two dimmer companion galaxies, NGC 3384 and 3389. Verdict? The two bonus galaxies were there—if just barely (they are easier to see on the video than they are on this single frame grab here).

M61 (NGC 4303)

Next up was Virgo’s bright, near face-on spiral, M61. I’d have gone there anyway—it’s one of the showpieces of spring even from poor sites/skies—but I was doubly interested in this SAB island universe because of its recent supernova. Would it still be bright enough to detect in these skies (I hadn’t checked)? Yep, there it was among a few hot pixels, SN 2020jfo. That was cool. But what was just as cool was seeing M61 show off its spiral arms in the frankly horrible heavens.

M104 (NGC 4594)

Also in Virgo, is another Messier treat that is an aitch, M104, the justly famous Sombrero Galaxy. With the Virgin riding high, the galaxy cut through the nasty haze and light pollution with fair ease. The basic shape with “crown,” “brim,” and dust lane was more than obvious despite skies that were becoming ever more punk.

M107 (NGC 6171)

Ophiuchus’ M107 is certainly not its best globular star cluster, but this Shapley – Sawyer Class 10 (loosely concentrated) star ball is a Herschel and was out of the trees, so there went me and Mrs. Peel. I was a little concerned we might not see much…this is a loose cluster (which equals “dimmer”) and it was low in the sky. But, hey, I was using a MALLINCAM. Sure enough, there it was on the screen showing considerable resolution (especially in the video).

NGC 6369 The Little Ghost Nebula

The Little Ghost (planetary) Nebula is another of Ophiuchus huge trove of deep sky objects. It is also a Herschel, so it was what was next on the itinerary. It’s fairly dim and also small at about 28” across, so it’s not something that will put your dadgum eye out.  It was not bad on this night, showing off it’s pink color and small ring shape, both of which things can be hard to make out in an eyepiece.

Pretty M61 and supernova.
NGC 6356

Also in the realm of the Serpent Bearer and not far from the Little Ghost is the magnitude 7.4 globular star cluster NGC 6356. I was pleasantly surprised by this little guy. Lots of stars were resolved by Mrs. Peel and the Xtreme.

NGC 6342

Another, dimmer, glob, NGC 6342, was close at hand, so it was our next stop. What me and Mrs. Peel saw was obviously a globular—there was quite a bit of resolution around its periphery—but it’s relatively small size for a glob (6’) and low altitude prevented us from getting a good look.

NGC 6235

This next glob is brighter than 6342, but it is looser and even smaller. There was obviously a scattering of very dim, very tiny stars onscreen, but more than that neither I nor Emma could say.

NGC 6287

Annnnd…NGC 6287 is another of Ophiuchus many globular clusters. It’s another dim one at about magnitude 10. It’s also small at 5’ across. Nevertheless, we saw a bunch of teeny weeny stars surrounding an obvious central condensation in this medium concentration (VII) star ball.

M108

Did you know Ursa Major’s justly famous galaxy M108 is a Herschel? Well it is. Alas, it's mostly famous for its proximity to M97, the Owl Nebula. M108, a near edge-on, is badly harmed by light pollution. Under dark skies, it can almost rival M82. In the suburbs, it is usually nothing more than a dim streak. On this night, even with the Mallincam, it wasn’t much more than that. Oh, there were a few spots of condensation, but, yeah, mostly, "dim smudge."

NGC 2985

This magnitude 10.1 Ursa Major Galaxy was just a round fuzzball on the screen. I didn’t expect much else. It’s close to face-on in its orientation to us (always tough), and it takes some dark skies to allow even a long exposure to pull out the arms of this active galaxy.

Good, old Sombrero.
NGC 2987

A magnitude 11.1 barred lenticular galaxy, NGC 2987 can show considerable detail under dark skies. On this night what was visible was a round nucleus and some hints of its bar.

NGC 3077

There wasn’t much to see in this mag 10.6 face-on irregular galaxy. But there never is, even in large telescopes. However, I was pleased to see that the galaxy appeared distinctly oval instead of being just a round fuzzball.

NGC 2976

This Sc spiral was visible—but only just. While it’s a strongly oval intermediated inclination spiral galaxy and shows plenty of splotchy detail in its disk under good conditions, on this night it was an easily passed over oval of subtle brightening in the field.

NGC 4041

In deep photos, this small (2.6’ across) face on Sc galaxy shows a welter of delicate arms. To my C8 and Mallincam, alas, it only showed a bright core and a  very subtle disk of haze around that.

NGC 4036

NGC 4036 was at least slightly more interesting than the previous object. If only relatively so. It’s an edge on lenticular, and lenticular galaxies don’t have much—if any—detail to show. In my scope on this (had to admit) yucky night, this 4’ across object was obviously strongly elongated, but that was all I could say.

Little but cute ghost.
NGC 3945

Under good conditions, a deep sky video camera can show an image of this barred lenticular that doesn’t look much different from its Palomar Observatory Sky Survey plates—a bright round center embedded in a subtle haze with the same of the iris of a cat’s eye (seen here in a Herschel Project shot from dark skies). On this evening it was just a small bright spot in some very subtle and shapeless haze.

NGC 2742

This is a magnitude 12, multi-armed intermediate spiral galaxy. That’s what it is from dark skies, anyhow. On this evening I had to stare at the screen for quite a while to assure myself I was seeing anything.

NGC 5322

NGC 5322 is a large (6’ across) elliptical galaxy with a strong oval shape. Curiously, while I could make out its oval envelope, I could not easily detect the brighter center of this magnitude 11 sprite. Go figger, I always say.

And, with that Ursa Major fuzzie recorded, Urania closed down her sky, drawing a pall across it with a flood of thick, lightning-festooned clouds. I was satisfied, though. Well, as satisfied as I ever am when an observing run ends before I am ready to quit.  I hadn’t covered a huge amount of territory, but I had at least scratched the surface of the friendly Herschel 400. And I’d been assured that my beloved telescope, Emma Peel, came through her recent travails in good shape. I covered Emma, brought the computer and other electronic gear inside, poured out some "sarsaparilla," and relaxed in the blessed cool of the den.

What’s next and when for the good, old AstroBlog? I cannot say when “next” will be, because that depends on the cooperation of the Possum Swamp summer sky. The Moon needs to get out of the way, too. And I don’t think I have anything else to bring to you at the moment other than the next installment of the New Project. But you never know what will enter my mind (such as it is). So, muchachos, I guess that means "I will see you when I see you." 

Sunday, June 28, 2020

 

#563: “Celestron Screws Up” or “Poor Emma”


It’s a good thing this is a family friendly blog, muchachos, or that title above would have been a lot nastier. As most of y’all know, when it comes to SCTs I’ve always been a Celestron man. Have been for many a long year. Will that change? I don’t know, but I’m plenty put out at them right now. The way I feel at the moment, if I were to buy another SCT it would have a blue tube, or would at least be a used Celestron from before the Synta era.

Until now, the Celestron scopes I’ve owned have just kept on keeping on year after year after year with only the most minor of minor maintenance needed—like occasional cleaning of the inside surface of their corrector plates. So, imagine my surprise and anger when I discovered my beloved Edge 800, Mrs. Emma Peel, had a serious problem thanks to a mistake made at the factory and would require major maintenance after only seven years of ownership.

I’m not sure exactly when Emma’s problem began to make itself known, but I first noticed it many months back:  a shiny inch-wide streak on the inside of the tube running from almost the corrector to almost the primary mirror. I assumed this was from dew that had condensed and slightly discolored the inside surface of the tube. I figured it would eventually disappear and wasn’t a big deal one way or the other.

Then, when I had the scope out the other day getting ready for the start of the New Herschel Project, I noticed the streak was still there and more prominent than ever. I got worried then. I was afraid that, rather than being a stain left by condensation, it might be lubricant from the exterior of the baffle tube or from the focuser that had liquified and run down the tube. That could be a problem, since if the tube got even somewhat hot, that lubricant might begin to vaporize and be deposited on corrector or—worse—primary mirror. I resolved to open Emma up and do some cleaning. I hadn’t cleaned the inside of her corrector since I bought the scope in the spring of 2013, so it was about time for that anyway.

Prepare a good, safe place to pull the corrector.
OK…so time to pull Emma’s corrector. Early one morning, I prepared a place as I always do with plenty of towels for cushioning in the event the lens gets away from me. I also put a folded towel under the corrector assembly so the tube pointed up a little so the corrector plate wouldn't be likely to fall out when the retaining ring was removed. I thought this would be pretty standard stuff. It would certainly not be the first time I’d torn an SCT down to parade rest. A colleague at the university once timed me to see how quickly I could get a corrector plate off and back on on one of the physics department’s scopes (a student had somehow managed to drop an eyepiece cap down the rear port). I set a personal record of seven minutes that time.

I intended to take my time on this one, though. It was somewhat new territory in at least one regard. In the past, Celestron scopes have used little shims around the periphery of the corrector to properly center it—the center position with regard to the primary may not be centered on the corrector mounting on the tube due to mechanical variances. These shims in the past have been little pieces of cork, or, more often, folded paper…pieces of Post-it notes in recent times.

When you put the scope back together, you naturally want to get the corrector properly re-centered in the interests of best optical performance. It was not that hard to use a pencil on the lip of the tube to mark where the shims went, but, yeah, the little pieces of paper deal was kinda fussy and silly. The Edges abandon that for nylon hex screws around the corrector periphery. They thread through the “ring” on the end of the tube, the corrector assembly, and adjust centering. I think it’s a pretty good system. If Celestron isn’t using this on all their tubes, they should be.

I had a standard Celestron OTA here for a review a while back, but li’l old me can’t remember if the nylon screws were used on it or not. Frankly, a lot of things that happened in the year or two before my accident in the late winter of 2019 are strangely fuzzy in my memory now. Go figure. Anyhow, maybe one of you, dear readers, can answer that question for me.

Mark the cetering screw you begin with so you don't lose track.
So, first order of business was backing out those screws half a turn using a 2mm hex wrench. If/when you follow in Unk’s footsteps, mark the first one you loosen so you don’t lose track. That done, the next step in Edge corrector pulling is the same as it ever was.

Firstly, remove the screws that hold the plastic retaining ring against the corrector. Unk put all them screws in a little paper bowl…small screws love to run away and hide on the floor of Unk’s radio shack, which is also his Workshop of the Telescopes. The plastic retaining ring is now accompanied by some foam-like gasket material. Guess that’s OK, though I don’t see much need.

Before proceeding, use a soft pencil or marker to mark the rotational position of the corrector. Celestron no longer engraves a serial number on the corrector periphery, so you can’t use that for indexing anymore. Retainer off and put in a safe place, I removed the scope’s Faststar secondary and put it in a safe place too. “Welp, now all I gotta do is pull the corrector out.

Alas, Mr. Corrector didn’t want to budge. It’s not unusual for correctors to get “welded” to the corrector assembly by the passage of time. A little prying with a jeweler’s screwdriver always frees them, though. However, I could tell immediately that wouldn’t work this time. The feel told me the corrector was still firmly, and I do mean firmly, seated in place. What to do? What I always do in these situations. I stopped, trotted back to the house, made myself another cup of java on the fricking Keurig, and considered the situation.

Somewhat more awake, and equipped with my glasses, I took a second look at the corrector. “Oh, Celestron, you &%$*!!@ idiots!” My now clearer eyes revealed four spots of RTV where the corrector had been glued in place. Why would they do such a thing? Search me. The Nylon screws and the retainer are more than enough to hold the lens in place. And surely, they are aware the corrector will have to be removed sooner rather than later for corrector cleaning or some other reason—like weird streaks of something on the tube interior. What were they thinking?

Once Unk calmed down a little, a boxcutter retrieved from the shack’s bench made short work of that dagnabbed RTV, and the corrector was off and placed in a safe spot. Your old uncle wasn’t quite fuming now. But he would shortly be fuming again in epic proportions. To the tune of one of his classic melt-downs.

Removing the retaining ring.
“Hokay, let’s get that funny-looking streak cleaned up.” I thought I’d probably better start gently with just a damp paper towel—damp with tap water. I scrubbed a little. “Funny. Doesn’t seem to be coming off. Seems to be…getting worse.” One look at the towel told the tale:  It was black with stuff that seemed to have the consistency of lamp black—if you’re old enough to remember what that was. “What the—?!”

What was going on was all too obvious. The paint on the interior of the tube was coming off with gentle scrubbing. The streak hadn’t been some contaminant; it had been the paint failing. Why? Whoever ran the sprayer through the interior of the aluminum tubing to paint it black at the factory in the PRC hadn’t properly cleaned the aluminum first. A little googling later on the freaking Internet soon showed I am not the only person to have experienced this. And that those people I read about who’d reported the problem to Celestron all received the same response, “First we’ve heard of that problem.” Uh-huh.

When Unk recovered from a meltdown wherein he assumed the character of a small, emotionally disturbed child, it was time to consider what to do about Emma. Ship her to Celestron? Nope. Not only was I not exactly in the mood to deal with those suckers, I didn’t want to pay shipping—even if only one way if Celestron agreed to that. And with the Covid 19 virus still running rampant, who knew how long they'd hang onto the scope? I didn’t want to devise a shipping container, either (after years of ownership I didn’t think I needed to hang onto the box the OTA came in any longer). Finally, I didn’t want to subject my telescope to the tender mercies of UPS. 

What I’d have to do was clean as much of the old paint off as possible and repaint the bad area.
First thing to do was mask and glove up and visit Home Depot. A few minutes turned up a small can of high-quality flat black paint. Latex paint. I was loath to use some kind of oil paint with its associated fumes on the scope’s semi-sealed interior. Oh, and a good quality, small brush. Unless I wanted to pull the primary and do a really complete tear down, which I didn’t, brushing would be the only way. Even a small roller would be likely to generate tiny drops of paint and contaminate the primary.

The crux of the problem--after some gentle scrubbing.
The actual job was not as bad as I’d feared. I cleaned off as much paint as I could in the obviously affected area (my damp cloth easily got me down to bare metal).  That done, I brushed on two light coats of paint. The result looked pretty good. Now, brushed-on paint will never be quite as even or pretty looking as a spray job, but maybe you don’t want it to be so even and pretty. A little texture can help reduce scattered light. One thing was sure:  my paint was a lot blacker than what Celestron used, which was more like “medium gray.”

While the paint was drying, I did some more looking around the OTA. “Well…there’s another spot. Oh, and one over there too. It became obvious the entire tube interior had to be repainted. Which I did, exercising care not to get any paint on the primary mirror. It turned out rather well, I think. I’m just hoping I cleaned well enough in the worst spots to get the paint to adhere, and that in the other places the latex will act as a sealer. Time will tell, I reckon. Anyhow, I left the paint to dry overnight before proceeding to reassembly.

Painting done; I cleaned the interior surface of the corrector plate using my time-honored method; one I’ve been using for well over 30 years. What’s required is a box of Kleenex, the unscented and un-lotioned variety; a can of canned air; and a bottle of original (blue) Windex. While some folks worry that something in Windex might somehow harm the optical coatings on a corrector, that has certainly not been the case with any of the many, many telescopes I’ve used it on over the years. Remember, lens coatings are tough, anyway, very tough; they are entirely different from the coatings on first-surface mirrors.

Anyhoo, what I do is blow any dust off the lens’ surface using the canned air. Like Windex, canned air will not hurt your corrector. Do hold the can upright and keep it about 18-inches away. Next, I spritz a Kleenex with a little Windex and swab gently starting at the secondary mount and proceeding outwards, changing tissues every once in a while. Finally, I dry the corrector with fresh, clean tissues. To finish up, I use the canned air to get rid of any lint left by the Kleenex. Again, this method will not hurt your lens, and Windex does a better—far better—job than any lens cleaning fluid I’ve ever used.

Next morning, it was time to get poor Emma back together and off the operating table. No real surprises. The little studs Celestron places around the corrector periphery to engage the dust cap make it kind of a pain to get the retainer back on—you have to bend it gently and slip it into place. That done, retighten the centering screws by the amount you loosened them, replace the screws in the retainer (just snug only), and you are done.

As good as new? I hope so.
As you can see, the girl was back to being her usual photogenic self. And I was pretty sure she’d get a clean bill of health under the stars once I got some of those increasingly rare clear skies. While Tropical Storm Cristobal didn’t go straight over our heads, it came close enough to dump tons of rain.

The denouement, when the evil old clouds finally scudded off for a couple of evenings? I got Emma out for both visual and video observing (which you will read about next week) and she performed just as well as she ever has. She was even still in collimation. The paint job is holding up despite a couple of days under a Telegizmos cover in the heat and humidity of the backyard, so all is well for now and Unk has his fingers and toes crossed.

So, anyhow, what’s my takeaway? I’m still mad at Celestron. I didn’t go out and buy an Edge 800 the day they hit the streets, so this wasn’t a case of early adopter syndrome. And painting the interior of the tube should have been something they could have done successfully no matter what the design of the scope.

But that’s just the way the cookie crumbles. I plan to stop stewing about it and get out under the stars with Mrs. Peel as often as I can in the service of the New Herschel Project. That’s what our magnificent obsession is about, not worrying over the depredations of telescope companies.

Book Plug Department

This time, that plug is for my own book, the 2nd Edition of Choosing and Using a New CAT. I am as happy with this one as I am with anything I've written, and hope you will be too. It is now available from Amazon in both print and Kindle editions. 

Sunday, June 21, 2020

 

#562: The New NexRemote



Following my re-checkout of my Losmandy GM811G mount after not having used it for way too long, it was time to get to work on the New Herschel Project, muchachos.  But then thunder began to rumble. After several days, I threw in the towel and hauled the scope and my beloved Losmandy inside.

A week later, I thought I might finally get started on the New Project. The scope and camera to do that would be my Celestron Edge 800 SCT, Emma Peel, and the Mallincam Xtreme. Why not the Mallincam Junior Pro or Revolution Imager? The need to get some Herschels under my belt.

I’ve used the Xtreme recently (in the course of writing a Sky & Telescope article) and wouldn’t have to waste time re-familiarizing myself with the camera. I will certainly get to the other two video cameras, since many of you have asked about them. While I’ll turn to visual as well as often as possible, a video camera is usually better suited to the typically hazy suburban deep sky of Possum Swamp in late spring and early summer.

Initially, Thursday night looked fairly good. The Clear Sky Clock, Scope Nights, and the Weather Channel were agreeing it would be the first in a string of relatively passable evenings for observing. But then, despite the Weather Channel still forecasting “clear,” clouds began to fill the sky. I set up the Edge and the Celestron Advanced VX mount in the backyard anyway. What could happen?

Yes, I know I need to get back to the Losmandy mount and get squared away with the Ethernet interface and other software again, but I had a motive for setting up the smaller mount. I’d replaced the AVX mount’s Real Time Clock battery, and, as with the Losmandy, I wanted to make sure the AVX functioned properly after the change. I had little doubt it would be OK, but you never know. Also, frankly, the sky was looking worse than ever. The AVX is easier to lug in and out than the GM811, and I can convince myself to get it into the backyard even if the weather’s looking dicey.

Also, I would also be able to try something new with the AVX. Your benighted old Uncle Rod learned something. Celestron’s CWPI program (“Celestron – Planewave Instruments;” the program was developed in association with Planewave) now works with the Advanced VX mount—it was originally exclusive to the CGX models.

Now, no doubt most of y’all already knew that, but remember, when it comes to astronomy—and more than a few other things—2019 was a lost year for your Uncle. Anyhow, I’d heard a lot about CWPI. It’s sort of like a modern NexRemote, but with model building and star charting added, and I was anxious to try it with my AVX to see if it might fill the same role in the New Project that NexRemote filled in the old.

So, the plan was, the plan was…get started with CPWI. I’d go for the gold with the program to include interfacing it to the Celestron StarSense alignment camera and my Wireless Wingman gamepad (yes, the same Wingman I used with NexRemote for so many years).  If everything was hunky-dory, I might even try connecting SkyTools 3 to CPWI, which appeared to be possible, and start running the Herschel list.

“But Uncle Rod, don’t you know SkyTools4 is out?” I do, Skeezix. I even have a copy of the “Imaging” version, which I reviewed for the Second Edition of Choosing and Using a New CAT. But the imaging version is maybe a little bit of overkill for what I’d be doing, and I do not yet have a copy of SkyTools 4 Visual, so it would be good, old ST3, which saw me through the original Herschel Project.

Set up Thursday afternoon was OK, if not exactly a joy—it’s already awfully warm here. I knew if I waited till the cool of the evening, though, I might lose the will to mess with all the video gear and the computer, so I got on it. The AVX and the SCT are not too bad, and I was able to set everything up without incident. Well, only one. I started to pick up a heavy equipment case with my “bad” arm and it swiftly told me not to do that.

So, it finally got dark Thursday night just as Rod’s favorite 10-meter net (The Lockdown Fun Net, Thursdays, 1900L, 0000Z, 28.420 MHz) was wrapping up after a rollicking session that lasted far longer than usual…10-meters was “open” and we had W2s, W3s, W8s and more check-in for what is usually a local net here in Four Land. Walking out of the shack, I saw what I pretty much expected to see:  brighter stars winking in and out as bands of clouds and haze began to move in on what had been a clear sky in the afternoon. Naturally.

Typical Possum Swamp spring sky.
The sky wasn’t good enough to even think about firing up the Mallincam, not even close. Nevertheless, I uncovered Mrs. Peel. If I couldn’t do anything else, I’d at least polar align the Advanced VX using Sharpcap and my QHY guide cam. While a dead-on polar alignment isn’t necessary for video, it can make the stars look better in 30 second exposures. Also, Sharpcap makes it easy, so “Why not?”

What was it like coming back to polar alignment on the Advanced VX from the Losmandy? Like most other Chinese mounts, the AVX uses bolts for altitude and azimuth adjustment. Good thing is these bolts at least have nice, large handles as compared to the old CG5. Polar aligning the AVX is more “twitchy,” but it wasn’t hard for me to get the error under 15-arc seconds. That done, I covered the scope up and went inside to watch the 100th episode of the exceedingly silly Ghost Adventures on cable TV.

Friday evening found me hoping for at least sucker holes as darkness arrived in Hickory Ridge. How’d it go? I guess you could say it was a classic Unk Rod evening. Oh, it started out promisingly enough. The sky wasn’t exactly clear, but most of it was OK. A check of date and time in the NexStar HC said ever’thing was cool with the RTC battery. The CPWI software connected to the AVX through the hand controller without complaint. OK. Fine Business. Guess I’ll start an alignment, a StarSense alignment.

I mashed the appropriate button, but instead of starting the alignment, CPWI asked me if I wanted to calibrate the StarSense. I wasn’t sure if I did nor not. However, I hadn’t used it in a pretty good while and this was my first time to use it with CPWI, so I thought that might be a good idea. The program instructed me to slew to a bright star, and even highlighted some suggestions on the star chart. OK. Well, how about Arcturus. I clicked goto, and off the mount went.

Despite a very good polar alignment, when the mount stopped, the star was not in the field of the Mallincam. Alrighty then, I left the deck for the yard and peered through Mrs. Peel’s Rigel Quick Finder. The star was reasonably close, but no cigar. A degree or two away, mebbe. I’d just center it up and… Wait. How would I center it? You cannot use the HC with CPWI interfaced to the mount. “Oh, yeah, a joystick just like in the NexRemote days.” I’d thought that might be necessary, and had hauled out the old Wireless Wingman.

I went to the gamepad set up screen where I was told to press “start” on the Wingman. I did. Repeatedly. What happened? Nuttin’ honey. So, I spent the next half hour trying everything I could think of to make the software connect to that old game controller. Nothing worked. What would I do? I recalled I had a wired Xbox controller in the house. I went in and got it, plugged it into the USB hub, and the computer made its bing-bong noise and happily set it up.

OK. Let’s see what CPWI thinks of this one. It liked the Xbox controller just fine, picking it up immediately and sending me to a configuration screen. OK, I’ll just take this out to the scope and center that dad-blasted Arcturus. Sorry, Unk. The cord on the joystick was about 3-feet too short. Luckily, one of my few remaining braincells fired and I recalled I had a 6-foot USB extension cable. I even knew where it was. Fetched it, plugged it between Xbox controller and PC, and had enough slack to get my eye behind the Quick Finder. I centered that pesky star well enough that it was visible on the Mallincam display, and went back to the PC and did the fine centering with the Mallincam’s crosshair overlay and CPWI’s virtual HC.

The program seemed right happy then. Said it had done a plate solve and yadda-yadda-yadda, did I want to start an automatic StarSense alignment? I darned sure did after wasting so much time. Ha! Clouds were pouring in from the west now, impelling me to throw the Big Switch.

So, yeah, it was a prototypal Unk Rod evening. But as with most of those, I learned some stuff about CPWI—mostly how to navigate the new software—and now felt fairly comfortable with it. What next? Well, Saturday evening was slated to be about the same as Friday. If I could just get one freaking H-400 in the can, your old Uncle would be a happy camper.

The sky was clearing nicely late Friday afternoon, but then, as I was out for my evening stroll around Hickory Ridge, my phone beeped with a notification from the cotton-picking Weather Channel. The sky was pretty and blue, but this missive insisted there were severe thunderstorms just to the west. Nevertheless, I thought I’d be OK; it looked like the storms would slide past us to the northwest. 

About half way through watching the latest episode of Harley Quinn’s show, I figgered I’d better check on the scope and all (I’d uncovered Mrs. Peel and had everything ready to go on the deck—computer, video display, etc.). One look at the sky, and I covered the scope up in a hurry and moved the rest of the stuff inside. It was just getting dark, but it was still light enough for Unk to see threatening clouds blowing in from the West. There was a strong breeze stirring and a feel in the air that portended “b-a-d weather coming.”

There was bad weather coming, culminating in a forebodingly early Tropical Storm, Cristobal, in advance of which, I naturally moved mount and telescope inside. The storm was minor in nature, but it did bring wind gusts of 30mph and dump about 6-inches of rain, so it was good Mrs. Peel was safe and snug inside.

Following the storm, the weather improved slowly. It wasn’t good enough for me to get Emma and the Xtreme out, but it was good enough for me to get my old friend, my ETX125, Charity Hope Valentine, out of her case and working again (which you read about last week). That night with Charity Hope Valentine became Night One of the New Project if just barely. I observed a grand total of exactly one object. After that, I sat and waited for better conditions, which it appeared might come the following Tuesday.

CPWI's initial display.
First task once the stars winked on Tuesday night was to see if I could really get CPWI pointing at objects and, just as importantly, interfaced to SkyTools 3. If either thing didn’t work well or reliably, I’d just go back to using the (StarSense) hand control with SkyTools and/or Stellarium. Both things had to work if CPWI were to be part of the New Herschel Project, if it were to be the new NexRemote.

Alrighty, then. I decided to start out with just an eyepiece. Leaving the Xtreme out of the picture initially would allow me to focus on CPWI. So, my good old 13mm Ethos went into the William Optics SCT diagonal I’d screwed onto (ahem) Emma’s rear. That would yield 154x, and despite the eyepiece’s large field would give CPWI’s pointing prowess a good test (I left the reducer off so the scope would be working at f/10).

Polar alignment complete and mount powered on, I started CPWI on the laptop and was presented by the display you see above. Next step was getting the mount talking to the software by choosing the connection type under the Connection menu on the left toolbar. There are three possibilities:  Hand Controller, Wi-Fi, or USB. Most of us will use Hand Controller, which means you’ve got a Celestron serial cable (or a USB cable) plugged into the base of the HC. If you’ve got a Celestron Evolution scope or one of their wi-fi dongles on another Celestron rig, you’ll use “Wi-Fi.” Finally, Celestron’s CGX German mounts allow you to use a USB cable plugged directly into a USB port on the mount.

Select your alignment method.
Once successfully connected, you’ll be asked to verify time and location. I’d already done that during my previous CPWI outing, so it was on to telescope alignment. Next you’re presented with the goto alignment selection window. There are two main choices: CPWI alignment, where you add points to a model by centering stars; or an alignment done with the StarSense automatic alignment camera.


If you choose to do a “manual” alignment, a CPWI alignment, the program will select four points (stars) it believes are good alignment choices, and you’ll center and accept them much as you would with a hand control. The difference with CPWI is you can continue adding as many points to the sky model as desired.

Unk, lazy sort he is, naturally had the StarSense hooked to the mount. Since I’d calibrated it on a star on my previous night out with the software, all I had to do was start the normal StarSense four-star-field automatic alignment. That wasn’t much different than it would have been with the hand control except I could read what the camera was doing on the laptop screen instead of having to squint at a tiny hand control display. After about the same amount of time it would have taken the hand control, CPWI announced we were aligned.

If, unlike Unk, you have not already polar aligned the mount, you may do an AllStar Polar Alignment with the program following either type of goto alignment. Let me add that many of the usual hand control features like PPEC, parking, changing slew rates, etc. can be done with CPWI. Which is a good thing, since as mentioned earlier you cannot use your hand control at the same time you are using the program. It is in a “boot loader” mode and utterly unresponsive.

“Hokay. Let’s see if CPWI aligned anything.” Peering around the patio umbrella on the deck and up at the sky showed bright Arcturus riding high. I located the sparkler on CPWI’s star map, clicked on it, clicked “slew,” and the mount and Mrs. Peel headed for the star just as they would have done with Stellarium or any other program. Trotted out to the scope, and there was Arcturus sitting pretty in the field center.

Ready to begin a StarSense alignment.
How about a deep sky object? M3 was nearly at zenith, and I figgered that would be a good test of the program’s goto abilities—just about any goto system can have trouble with objects near straight overhead.  Instead of locating the globular cluster on the map, I used the program’s search feature, which worked well, and soon had the scope heading to M3. When the AVX stopped, M3 was staring back at me in the eyepiece. It was a little off-center, however, so I nudged it to the middle of the 13mm.

How did I do that nudging? Well, I could have had the laptop set up next to the scope and used the program’s onscreen direction buttons, but that wouldn’t have been very convenient. Instead, I used the Xbox gamepad. It took a little fumbling to get it going again, but when I did, it worked just ducky for the rest of the evening. If you are going to be using CPWI without a StarSense, a gamepad is vital because you’ll be centering numerous stars to do your goto alignment. A wireless PC or Xbox gamepad would be best. Me? Since I’m mainly gonna be sitting at the PC and viewing images on a video screen, my wired controller is more than adequate.

I sent the scope to quite a few other targets, no problem. Well, other than most looked pretty putrid in the haze. All that remained now was to get SkyTools 3 running with CPWI, attach the Mallincam to the scope, and knock off some Herschels.

After using SkyTools with NexRemote for so many years, the concept of using it with CPWI was easy to understand:  I’d connect SkyTools to the scope through the program, not directly. The procedure for doing that is different than with NexRemote, but the result is the same. Instead of establishing a virtual port for SkyTools with NexRemote, what you do with this modern software is start up SkyTools’ Realtime (its goto module) and use the ASCOM Chooser to select “CPWI” as the telescope.

As with the Gamepad, it took a little of Unk’s patented fooling around to get it going, but once I did, SkyTools 3 worked faultlessly with CPWI. I’d click on an object on my SkyTools observing list, SkyTools would announce “Slewing telescope!” (in its sexy British-accented female voice), and we’d go to the object. That was all there was to it.

SkyTools 3 with "always on top" CPWI hand control.
Next? Knocking off some Herschels. Unfortunately, I’d burned most of the evening getting the Herschel Project software squared away. At this point in the late spring, it doesn’t get dark until nine—not even dark enough to do a polar alignment. And a look at my watch showed the time was now passing two. Part of me wanted to get the Xtreme on the scope anyway, but I demurred. I was hoping the next night would be at least as good as this one had been and pulled that cursed Big Switch.

Summing up? I am not feeling particularly charitable toward Celestron at the moment—you will find out why next week—but regarding this (free) software, I gotta say they done good. It is not perfect, but it certainly workable. Most of the improvements that are needed concern the star map (for example, why no constellation labels?). I do understand most of the program’s development, which has been slow, has had to be concerned with getting alignment and connectivity issues resolved. Anyhoo, now they need to spiff up the star map. Also, a little more gamepad functionality would be nice. As is, all you can do is move the telescope (fast or slow) with it.

At any rate, I am convinced CPWI and SkyTools 3 (or Deep Sky Planner, which I'll check out with CPWI next time) are what I will use initially for the New Herschel Project—when I use the Celestron mount, anyway. CPWI has got a feel a lot like good, old NexRemote. Enough of a feel that I’m not missing my favorite piece of astronomy software quite as much as I was, muchachos.

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