Sunday, January 26, 2020

 

Better Late Than Never…


Yep, better late than never, I suppose—I got it done anyway. Finally.

The whosit and the whatsit?! What in the aitch-e-c-k is your silly old Uncle Rod talking about now? My yearly M13, muchachos. As those of y’all who’ve been here a while know, I have two astronomical traditions I’ve stuck with through thick and thin: Every Christmas Eve I view M42, and some time over the course of a year I take a picture of M13, the Great Globular Cluster in Hercules.

In recent times, catching M42 on Christmas Eve has been dicey. The weather has been increasingly crazy over the last decade or so, and we are now as likely to have thunderstorms, or hail, or snow on Christmas Eve as we are to have clear skies down here in Mobile, Alabama (for you blog old timers, that’s “Possum Swamp.”). Now, M13, that is easier. It’s in the sky for an awful long while over the course of a year. All I have to do is work up the gumption to get out with a telescope and a camera and give it a go.

Which didn’t happen this past year until September for reasons you can read about here. Yeah, 2019 had been one heck of a year, but I still intended to get at least a snapshot of the old grandpappy glob before the annum ran out. If I needed any additional impetus to get a scope into the backyard, that was provided by a Sky & Telescope Test Report assignment; this time on Meade’s new medium-weight German equatorial mount the LX85.

I’d been curious about the LX85 for the last couple of years, but hadn’t heard much about it. Which seemed strange. While the mount’s predecessor, the LXD75, hadn’t been perfect, it had plenty of fans. Many of whom I thought would flock to Meade’s new GEM after years of the company not offering a mount in the LXD75/Advanced VX class. Had all the LXD75 users jumped ship for the Celestron Advanced VX? Was there now too much competition in the sub-1000-dollar mount arena for Meade to stir up much interest? Was there something wrong with the LX85?

I was excited when two big boxes arrived from Meade—I always am when new gear is at my door. But I was feeling a mite skittish. It’s been no secret the current iteration of Meade has had its ups and downs quality-wise. Would a good-quality mount for this modest price (the 85 is currently about 700 bucks at many retailers) be too much to ask?

Those two boxes were duly manhandled into my usual staging area, the Sun Room, in short order, and I dug in. One contained the mount and its tripod and the other a Meade 8-inch ACF Schmidt Cassegrain OTA. While the Test Report had originally been intended just to address the mount, my editor, Sean Walker, and I put our heads together and decided a review that included the SCT OTA normally shipped with the mount might be of interest to y’all.

Anyhow, the first thing that struck me? I’ve seen recycled cardboard, but the box the mount came in was recycled to the point where it seemed ready to crumble. Everything was in one piece, but just barely.

Out of that box came a tripod not much different from the usual Chinese 2-inch diameter steel tripods we’ve become accustomed to since most of our gear began to come from the Far East. There was also a tripod spreader (an oddly curved affair). And there was the mount head of course, a really pretty mount head finished a gleaming white. Finally, there was a white, oddly shaped octagonal counterweight of about 13-pounds, a CD containing Meade’s Autostar Suite software, and a distressingly thin but sufficient (barely) instruction manual.

Well, alrighty then! Let’s get this puppy on the tripod. There were no surprises there. Everything went together pretty much like an LXD75 or an AVX or a CG5. The white-tubed OTA went on the Vixen style saddle without a hitch. Sure looked pretty, I had to admit. Next step? An indoor fake alignment. I like to power a mount up indoors, enter correct date/time/location, and send it on gotos to objects. I can generally tell everything is basically well if the scope is pointing in roughly the correct directions. At this point, alas, Murphy threw a monkey wrench into the works. No matter how I searched through the boxes and packing materials, all of which I was careful to preserve, no power cord did I find.

I was irritated, but figured it wasn’t a big deal. I had numerous spare DC power cords in my inventory here including some from Meade; I’d just fetch one of those. I did, plugged it into a jumpstart battery pack and into the scope. No dice. The mount’s power connector was slightly different from those on older Meade mounts. The cable I had just wouldn’t make a good connection.

A call to Meade got their AC/DC power supply on its way to me, but I’m still not sure what the problem was. Is the DC power cord an extra option (that would seem strange) or was it just omitted from the box by mistake? When the power supply arrived a few days later, I proceeded to give the mount that indoor fake-align checkout. The LX85 seemed to work as it should. Next up? The good, old backyard.

While we’d been enjoying a surprisingly dry fall, naturally the arrival of the LX85 brought considerable clouds and rain. When we finally hit a clear (but substantially hazy) spell, I figured time was a-wasting and got the mount and the ACF OTA set up in the back forty despite the presence of a fat old Moon in the east. The results? Read my Test Report, but I was satisfied enough with the LX85 that I didn’t hesitate to set up for a photo run on the next evening.  

On that night, the first thing on the agenda was an accurate polar alignment. Which I accomplished with the wonderful software, Sharpcap. Sharpcap is an imaging program that is as capable of taking long exposure deep sky shots as it is planetary closeups. What I was interested in on this night, however, was its polar alignment tool, which makes dead-on polar alignment a snap.

I’d mounted my 50mm guide scope and QHY guide camera on the scope. With Sharpcap’s polar alignment tool running, the program used the guide camera to display plenty of stars in the vicinity of the North Celestial Pole, and gave onscreen prompts as to how I needed to move the LX85’s altitude and azimuth adjusters to get the mount’s RA axis pointed right at the pole. In just a few minutes I was only arc-seconds away from a perfect polar alignment. If you are serious about astrophotography, an exact polar alignment is a big help and maybe even a necessity. Do yourself a favor and check out Sharpcap.

Polar and then goto aligned with a Canon DSLR on the rear cell, I sent the scope to M13 and got to work. I brought up that wonderful program, PHD2 guiding, selected a guide star in the field of M13 (I’d only had to move the mount slightly with the AudioStar to center the cluster when the goto completed). I picked a star and let ‘er rip. I didn’t want to waste time fiddling with PHD’s many settingswho knew when those blasted clouds might return?so I just stuck with ones that worked with my Celestron Advanced VX.

That was just fine. Without doing any tweaking, the auto-guiding was more than good enough to yield round stars in a 1-minute exposure. How about a longer shot? Maybe 5-minutes? The mount was behaving OK, but I was skeptical—an SCT sure brings a lot of focal length to the table.

No prob. The shot isn’t perfect as you can see here. The haze and the Moon alone saw to that. The stars are good and round, though. Also, while I’ve certainly taken much better pictures of the Great Glob, this one is kinda special. It was my first astrophoto after a long layoff, not just from picture taking, but from observing of any kind. It was nice to get back in the saddle. And I had also completed my yearly quest for an M13 shot of some kind.

As I said in another recent blog entry, my feeling as I was shipping the Meade gear back to California was “Man, things sure are looking up for ol’ Meade. They really are still in the game.” Ironically, it was only a few days later that I learned Meade had declared bankruptcy yet again. I hope Meade pulls through, and if they do, that they see fit to continue the LX85.

Since y’all responded so positively to my question here and on Cloudy Nights as to whether you’d like to see me bring the blog back on an at least semi-regular basis, that’s just what I’m a-gonna do. The next one is already in the works, and there may be a new observing series forthcoming shortly after that. Well, after it warms up down here in the currently frigid heart of Dixie, that is!

Saturday, January 11, 2020

 

Meade on the Rocks, Rock Bottom...




Aw for—! Meade’s at it again! Muchachos, it’s barely been six years since we last had to visit this subject: the failing fortunes of America’s beloved former telescope giant, Meade Instruments. Last time, things went bust shortly after the company moved its production to Mexico. The familiar faces who made Meade a name were gone, and the company was soon bought by a Chinese corporation, Ningbo Sunny, who was never much more than a cipher. Now, we fans of Old Blue learn she’s sinking again. Ningbo has declared bankruptcy and is looking for a buyer.

You can read more about the story here, and a Google search will quickly turn up further details. The short skinny, though? U.S. telescope dealer Orion (who is, need I say, not the same Orion Tim Giesler started, just like Meade ain’t the Meade John Diebel started and Celestron ain’t the Celestron Tom Johnson started) filed a 180-million dollar anti-trust lawsuit asserting Meade/Ningbo Sunny colluded with other Chinese manufacturers to set prices (we assume that “other” is Synta). Meade is in the process of selling itself under court supervision.

None of which surprises me much. I’ve long been aware relationships between Chinese corporations are almost invariably incestuous sorts of things. And I’ve long speculated that Synta and Ningbo Sunny might actually be the same entity.

What happens next? Does Orion buy Meade? I wouldn’t be surprised. How about Celestron? The FTC has never looked favorably upon a Meade - Celestron merger or buyout, and I would guess they’d look even more unfavorably on it now due to the Synta factor. But how did we get here, anyway? How did two once great telescope companies go right down the drain?

Celestron’s story is relatively simple. The company was started as Celestron Pacific by California electronics engineer and amateur telescope maker Tom Johnson. In 1970, he expanded Celestron’s sales efforts, which had been focused on small colleges and schools, to amateur astronomers. Celestron quickly put hordes of famous Newtonian telescope makers like Cave, Optical Craftsmen, and Criterion in the grave. Despite competition from Meade beginning in 1980, Celestron dominated the serious telescope market. Until two things happened.

First, Tom Johnson decided to sell his company and enjoy life. The buyer was the Swiss holding company Diethelm. The problem was that Diethelm didn’t know much about telescopes—nor did most of the people at the company care—and just wanted to take money out of Celestron. Celestron did make money during Comet Halley, but they wore out their workforce and their machine tools and equipment in the process, and the hangover was nasty. Though Meade had a similarly difficult time during Halley, they were again under the leadership of their founder, John Diebel, who, like Johnson, had begun the company on his kitchen table. Under his guidance Meade began to dominate Celestron as the 1990s came in.

Celestron was chronically undercapitalized by this time and had a hard time coming out with an answer to Meade’s computerized LX200 telescope, a telescope that pointed at sky objects reliably and automatically. The irony is that Celestron had introduced the first goto SCT, the Compustar in the 80s. Unfortunately, it was expensive and fussy. Meade ruled the roost through the 1990s and just went from strength to strength, following the LX200 with the ETX, the LX90, and the LX200 GPS.

Things didn’t change for the better for Celestron until they were free of Diethelm. In the process of freeing themselves, they briefly became an employee owned company, but, again, there wasn’t enough capital. In what we at first thought heralded disaster, they were bought by notorious telescope importer Tasco. Those of us who came up in the 60s and 70s have some pretty unfavorable memories of Tasco’s cheap department store scopes, but there is more to that story than you may imagine. You can read the rest of the story right here. Bottom line was that Tasco’s capital allowed Celestron to develop an outstanding line of goto telescope, the NexStars, which showed the company could again be competition for and even a threat to Meade.

At first, however, it looked like we’d be down to one scope company after all, Meade. Tasco declared bankruptcy (that had nothing to do with Celestron, which was the only money-making part of the company) and Meade attempted to buy Celestron. The FTC said “no,” optical giant Synta stepped in, and, frankly, it was downhill all the way for Meade from there.

Meade’s problems didn’t just concern the resurgence of Celestron. A couple of their actions had contributed. First, the company went public. Certainly, that sounded reasonable when the company was on top of the world, and certainly Mr. Diebel deserved to profit handsomely for his long hard years of work. But Meade wasn’t quite as stable as they appeared to be, and going public just made things dicier. A blow came when most Walmarts stopped selling Christmas Telescopes not long after a major dealer of the things, Discovery Channel Stores, went under. Meade’s numbers were good, but a lot of those numbers were due to the department store end of the business that really wasn’t that profitable anyway. Take away the el cheapo part of the equation and things began to look a lot bleaker for the blue team.

One other misstep, I’ve been told, was the company’s dalliance with an optical communications company. All those ETX 125’s with metal rear cells you’ve seen surplused out were built for this failed endeavor. A company with deep roots and resources like a GE can afford a few disasters. A company built on the shifting sands of a niche market? Not so much.

And so, production halted at Meade’s big factory site in Irvine (not far from Ducks Stadium) and the facility  was soon on the chopping block. Meade still operates from a nearby location, but the once grandiose home/factory of the world’s largest and most successful telescope company is no more. The top-line amateur scopes began to be produced in Mexico and everything else came from Ningbo-Sunny or one of their “friends” in China.

And there things have sat. Read the piece linked in the first paragraph, Pore Old Blue, if you want more details on the circumstances at the time of the Meade's sale (including a couple of utterly disastrous product introductions). Following the Chinese buyout, from what I could see, Meade continued on pretty with business as usual—if at a level that appeared to place them a distant second to Celestron for the first time in a long while. The big, splashy everybody-will-want-one Meade product introductions, and that crazy, wonderful old full-color glossy print catalog were but fading memories, but Meade was still producing good telescopes.

I found that out when I got my hands on my first new Meade in a long time, the company’s new LX80 GEM. Admittedly, some things did  spell t-r-o-u-b-l-e for me. Like a shipping container that was made out of what appeared to be recycled Kleenex, and a manual that was not only incomplete, but which was merely a half-hearted rewrite of decade old LX75 instructions. However, everything worked. I was quite impressed by the Meade answer to the Celestron AVX—I thought the Meade was actually superior in some ways. Certainly, the Meade ACF 8-inch SCT presented wonderful images (you can read my LX85 Test Report in the January 2020 Sky & Telescope).  My thought as I was shipping the gear back to Meade? “I’m impressed. They done good! Things are looking up for Old Blue!” Alas, shortly thereafter the outcome of the Orion lawsuit became known.

What do I think will happen next? If you’re a Meade fan, I wouldn’t worry too much. The name has value, and the products still sell. Someone, Orion or whomever, will buy the company and continue to market most/some of the telescopes, I would guess. What makes me really sad is not the fate of this incarnation of a once great company. It’s that two famous and outstanding American telescope companies are now but fading memories gone these many years.

So, that’s it for this time, Muchahos. When will the next one appear? When the mood strikes your old uncle, but most assuredly before February runs out. If you’d like the blog updated more frequently, tell me. Comment here, on the thread I’ll put in the Cloudy Nights “Astro Art, Books, Websites, and Other Media” forum, or by email or on Facebook. And please spread the word to former Uncle Rod fans who may have lost the thread.

Uncle Rod News! The long-awaited (well, one or two people asked about it) second edition of Choosing and Using a New CAT, my vaunted SCT book, is due to be published in April. It has been completely updated and much has been rewritten. I think you are gonna like it.

Tuesday, December 24, 2019

 

Merry XMAS 2019! Uncle Rod's Astro Blog Slight Return...


Seems like it was just Christmas 2018 a little while ago, and not so long before that it was Christmas 2017.  At your old Uncle’s slightly advanced age, the years have begun to come thick and fast, muchachos. It’s almost unbelievable, when I think about it, how long the 10 days from the beginning of Christmas vacation to Christmas seemed when I was a little nipper. One reward, I suppose? Long-ago Christmases don’t seem so far away anymore.

Enough of that. While I hope to crank the blog back up in the coming year, that is not happening just yet. Nevertheless, I thought those of you who used to enjoy my little epistles would like an update on my doings in 2019.

2019 began rather momentously for me with two book contracts. One for the long awaited second edition of Choosing and Using a New CAT. And one for a new volume on backyard deep sky observing for the BBC. My preliminary title for which is From City Lights to Deep Space--we’ll see what the publisher chooses to call it when it comes out next year. January also brought another Sky & Telescope assignment, a Test Report on Lumicon’s new and (much) improved OIII filters.

It seemed as if my astronomy game was on a definite upswing after a year, 2018, when I hadn’t done much observing for a variety of reasons. I didn’t go to many star parties that year, either. After a momentous season in 2016 when I traveled far and wide, speaking, teaching, and observing at star parties north, south, east, and west, air travel had finally gotten to me. I decided it was time to ring the curtain down on my speaking engagements. A friend and I began calling 2016 “Uncle Rod’s Farewell Tour.” It wasn’t till January 2019 that I realized just how inauspicious that description would turn out to be.

So, anyhow, I found myself on the roof of our suburban home on January the 9th of this year adjusting a new HF radio antenna. I was home alone, and normally don’t do that sort of thing without Miss Dorothy around in case I need assistance. But I was bored and wanted to get the work done. UP I went.

While I might not quite be over the hill, I am older now, and about halfway through the evolution I began to feel a little shaky up on the top of the house. I said to myself, “You know, this is really stupid. Get down and call one of your ham buddies to come help you.” I descended. And if I’d left it at that, all would have been well. Alas, I began thinking, “Everybody’s at work. Might not be able to get somebody to help me for a few days. Left some tools up there. Better get ‘em down.” Up I went without incident.

The spot I needed to be on the roof was adjacent to the deck, so I (foolishly) placed the extension ladder on that deck instead of the ground. I knew the ladder would be less likely to slip on the ground, but, heck, I’d gotten away with it numerous times. Not this time. I retrieved the tools and just as I put my weight on a rung down it went, landing on the deck about 14-feet below. I landed on top of the aluminum ladder.

Was I out for a while? I believe so, but everything was hazy then and now. What I do remember clearly was realizing I’d really gone and done it, that I’d really put my foot in it this time. Next thought was I’d better get my cell phone out of my pocket and call Dorothy or maybe 911. No can do, Rap. It was obvious when I tried to move my right arm that it was badly broken, that my upper arm was badly broken. Naturally my iPhone was in my right pocket. So, there I lay vaguely hoping Miss D. would be home soon. I recall being cold at first, but then just kind of being out of it and feeling faintly, fuzzily comfortable.

And there I was for some time. How long? The paramedics thought at least half an hour if not longer had passed. Finally, I heard Miss D. get out of her car in the carport and came somewhat to my senses, “Dorothy, HALP! HALP!” Dorothy took one look at me aghast and wanted to know what she could do to help me, “Just call 911!” In a thankfully short period of time, several EMTs were standing over me—there’s a firehouse just a mile or two from us. What do I remember most? The Chief EMT got out his HT radio and called the University Medical Center. His words scared me a little, even in my out of it state: “Look I don’t give a (expletive deleted) if you’re full. You’re the trauma center and we’re bringing him there!”

Next thing I knew, I was in an ambulance with the siren screaming. Mostly what I remember from that trip is how cold I was. When the EMTs asked me if I were hurting, and I answered truthfully, “No, I’m just so (expletive deleted) cold!” They covered me with an electric blanket, and began giving me blood (which I later learned is unusual during an ambulance ride unless you are in pretty bad shape).

The ER, surgery, and the recovery room at the hospital are hazy at best. I began to come back to myself when I was finally moved to my (large, modern) room at the University of South Alabama’s hospital. What was my status? The surgeon didn’t sugar coat it. I’d suffered a compound fracture of my upper right arm, I’d lost a large amount of blood, broken several ribs, sustained serious kidney damage, had nearly lost my right ear, and was pretty much a mass of bruises and swelling. He further remarked, “You know, Rod, you were in pretty good shape for a 65-year-old man. If you hadn’t been…well, you likely wouldn’t still be here.” It seemed the physical fitness kick I’d been on for the previous couple of years had served a purpose other than my vanity.

So much for the accident. The next couple of months saw me go from hobbling around the house, to getting about with a cane, to being able to drive again, to getting back to work teaching at the University, to spending blessed Monday nights at Heroes, again. Astronomy-wise, things were for sure at all-stop. It was just a darned good thing I’d done the observing for my S&T Test Report before the accident. I was able to get my copy to my Editor, Sean Walker, who was very understanding, almost on time despite everything.

My eventual recovery was largely due to the efforts of Dorothy and a couple of good friends—you know who you are—who kept me on the straight and narrow and gave untold moral support.

As I began to at least be able to get around—I was not my old self and still am not—two thoughts entered my mind: those two book manuscripts. I’d done little on the backyard observing book and nothing on the second edition of New CATs. I knew I had to get to work even if I didn’t feel like it.

The backyard deep sky book actually went fairly easily. I have logbook after logbook filled with urban and suburban deep sky observations going back over 30 years. All I had to do was pick some good ones of objects suited for observers in the British Isles and, well, put my butt in the chair and write. Once I got into the groove, it wasn’t bad, and with the aid of ace proof reader Dorothy, the MS went out right on time.

Now, however, I had the CAT book to do. Once I started going over my original text, I realized I had a lot of work ahead of me. The telescope buying guide chapter would have to be almost entirely rewritten. So would the chapter on imaging. Things have changed so much in the eleven years since the book came out. Not just in that Celestron and Meade have almost totally revamped their lineups. The cameras we use for imaging and the way we use them have changed every bit as much or more. When I wrote the original book, a big topic, for example, was modified webcams. That seems like ancient history now.

And so, I started the long slog through chapters four and eleven. When they were done, I had a look at the rest of the book. It was obvious there was plenty of work to be done on everything else as well. Changing the two big chapters inevitably changed things in plenty of places in the rest of the book. And there were also lots of problems with my original prose that needed to be fixed. An additional decade of astronomy writing had done a lot to improve my skills. Also, many of the photos in the book would have to be replaced, and I’d need to get with Celestron and Meade and secure images of their current models.

About halfway through, I began to despair. One of the lingering aftereffects of my accident, and one that still plagues me occasionally, is difficulty concentrating and a sometimes-short attention span. However, I persevered and the new CAT book actually went out the door a month ahead of schedule. Dorothy was again a huge help with the MS, and I’m sorry for what I put her through. That difficulty concentrating meant I’d forget what I’d said and how I’d said it a few paragraphs earlier and make mistakes. Thanks are also due to the good folk at Celestron and Meade who graciously furnished me with the pictures I needed.

In all this time, about eight months, I had done exactly no observing with a telescope. I will admit I wasn’t anxious to do any, either. I felt—and still feel—the cold more intensely than before. I have a metal plate in my right upper arm, too, and when it’s cold I can find myself in considerable pain. Combine that with a somewhat nagging fear of falling in the dark and reduced endurance, and I just didn’t want to spend any time at the eyepiece. Nevertheless, I accepted an assignment from Sky & Telescope to do a review of Meade’s LX85 ACF Schmidt Cassegrain.

Maybe I just needed a deadline hanging over my head to get me outside with a scope. That did the trick, anyway, and I was soon out back happily observing and even doing long exposure imaging with the pretty Meade SCT and goto mount. I was not just happy with the resulting Test Report; I was happy I’d got out in the dark with a telescope and done something.

And that brings us to the now. Where do I stand with astronomy as the year fades? I’m continuing my teaching at the university, and have even been able to get the students out with their telescopes a few times. And I have a beautiful Losmandy GM811G that’s gone unused (or even powered on) for well over a year. I’m hoping that as spring comes in, at least, I’ll be hitting the backyard regularly. I actually have an observing program in mind that I might bring to you here:  a (simpler) successor to the vaunted Herschel Project.

As for those pesky wire antennas crossing over the house at W4NNF? They are gone. Replaced by a Hustler 6BTV vertical antenna for 80 – 10. It has a tilt base and I can stand with my feet planted firmly on the ground should I need to work on it. I have learned my lesson in that regard, at least.

Be all that as it may, merry Christmas to you, my friends, and thanks to those who’ve mentioned how much they used to love this blog and how much they miss it.

Oh, almost forgot. How about my yearly Christmas Even ritual? My Christmas Eve look at M42? The sky wasn't looking good all Christmas Eve day. In fact, we were mostly socked in until late afternoon. But then it began to clear. Oh, there was high cirrus in the sky prophesying bad weather to come,  but while not perfect, it looked as if I might even so get a look at that grandest of all Christmas ornaments. Crossing my fingers, I maneuvered my 80mm f/11 SkyWatcher achromatic refractor on its alt-az mount onto the deck. Not only is the scope easy for me to move out in my current state, it's easy to move back in if the weather does not cooperate. It's not a bad little telescope, either.

At 8 pm the hunter had risen far enough to fool with, and--there it was--the Great Orion Nebula shining bravely in the haze and suburban light pollution. The best I've ever seen it? Not hardly. But beautiful still, and, I hope, an omen signaling a better year for your old Uncle.

Tuesday, December 25, 2018

 

Merry Christmas 2018 from the Astro Blog!



I’m busy with a new book (and maybe a revised edition of an old one), writing for Sky & Telescope with some regularity, and don’t have a lot of time for the old blog right now. However, I couldn’t let Christmas pass without at least a short post.

What’s been going on here astronomy-wise? Clouds, that’s what. But in the days leading up to THE BIG DAY, I did get a few nights good enough to warrant dragging my 10-inch Dobbie, Zelda, into the backyard. Admittedly, she hasn’t been used much in the last year, and I was curious to see what I thought about her three-and-a-half years down the line.

Why did Zelda, a basic solid-tube Zhumell (GSO made) Dobsonian, come to stay with me in 2015 (can it really have been that long)? Mostly to replace my hallowed truss tube reflector, Old Betsy, who was destined to go to a new owner in the winter of that year. Betsy had become too much for me to handle thanks to a back injury I’d sustained. One afternoon, out of curiosity, I booted up her computer, a Sky Commander DSC rig, and the last date in it indicated she hadn’t been used in well over a year and a half.

So, Betsy had to go, but I still wanted a little aperture for the visual deep sky, and set about hunting for something more suited to my new realities (which in addition to my reduced ability to lift heavy telescopes included a fairly decent backyard for routine observing). I had an 8-inch Dob, but that just wasn’t enough for some of my backyard observing. Obviously 12-inches (and up) was too much. That left a 10-inch aperture solid tube Dobsonian.

Why a solid tube? In apertures under 12-inches, I find one to be easier to lug around than a truss tube job. It's a pain to have to disassemble a truss tube's tube. Even if you can leave it in one piece, it's still easier (for me) to manage a solid tube in the process of getting it out into the yard.

Anyhow, after I settled on a 10-inch Dob, a solid tube Dob, the questions became: “What sort of solid tube Dobsonian and from whom?”  The first question was easy to answer. I didn’t think I’d be chasing Herschel 2500, PGC, and UGC galaxies from my back 40. I’d be after the relatively bright stuff. Stuff I could locate with fair ease even in my compromised skies with a 50mm RACI (right angle/correct image) finder and a zero power Rigel Quick Finder site.  No goto or even digital setting circles required.

That left the question of where to buy. Which was a little more difficult. Orion, of course, was (and is) a big player in the solid tube Dobsonian game. They had some nice ones back in 2015; especially their goto/tracking models. As above, though, I didn’t want goto and tracking. Their standard (from Synta) Dobs were a little more expensive than the competition, and didn’t offer the features of the other widely available (at the time) brand, GSO. Since I preferred GSO, that also eliminated the Syntas Synta sells themselves under their SkyWatcher brand.

The GSO Dobs, which are still available (sometimes even from Orion) had some features I really liked. While not everybody agrees, I loved the smooth, easy Lazy Susan bearing on the azimuth axis. The knobs that adjust altitude tension were far better, I thought, than the silly spring tension system the Syntas from SkyWatcher and Orion had.

Another huge factor was the GSO accessory lineup:  an excellent 2-inch two-speed Crayford focuser, a 50mm RACI finder, a pair of eyepieces including a decent 2-inch 30mm wide-field, an eyepiece rack, a cooling fan for the OTA, and a laser collimator.

OK, ya’ll…I’ll fess up. The biggest selling point for your penny-pinching old Uncle Rod? In mid-2015 you could get a 10-inch shipped to you for less than 500 bucks (yes). That was made possible by a big and now gone scope retailer, telescopes.com (Orion now owns that domain name), a subsidiary of the enormous Hayneedle operation. Not only did the 10-inch Zhumell-branded GSO go for a great price, they had it on my front porch in two days.

From the time Zelda arrived, she was a comfortable scope for me. She remains set up in the sun room. When it’s time to observe, I separate OTA from base—the OTA will stand safely on its own vertically—get the mount into the backyard with the aid of a nice carrying handle, return for the OTA, carry it across the deck and down three steps, and I am done. There’s also the fact that I can leave the telescope set up in my secure backyard for days at a time if I get a good, clear stretch. All I have to do to begin observing is remove her Telegizmos cover.

It doesn’t do much good to be able to get a telescope into the backyard in a hurry if it takes a long time to acclimate to outdoor temperatures so it can deliver its best images. The built-in battery-powered cooling fan turned out to be less of a mere gimmick than I thought it would. It really helps get the telescope acclimatized and ready to observe in as short a time as possible. I generally run the fan the entire time I’m observing, and have never noticed any sort of vibration even at high power.

Such were my thoughts on this year’s Christmas Eve as I waited for dark. Zelda had been set up for three days while I used her to test a product for an upcoming Sky & Telescope Test Report. That was done. Tonight, it would be strictly fun observing including my traditional Christmas Eve look at M42. Alas, it would be about an hour before the Great Nebula was well placed for observing. What could I look at till then? How about the little comet that’s caught everybody’s attention, C46/P Wirtanen?

The visitor is currently passing through Auriga, and while the constellation wasn’t very high up—it was just above the roof of the house—I couldn’t wait for it to get much higher. A full Moon would shortly be on the rise, and would no doubt extinguish the comet. A quick look at my fave astronomy/planetarium program, Stellarium, showed me where the sprite lay:  just north of and midway along a line drawn between Capella and Menkalian (Beta Aurigae).

I began hunting around with a 27mm ocular, but kept coming up empty. Hmm. The sky was bright to the east where the Charioteer was hovering. That is, in fact, the most light-polluted area of my sky. How do you deal with a bright sky background? One way is by increasing magnification, spreading out the sky glow. In went my vaunted Happy Hand Grenade, a 16mm 100-degree eyepiece once sold by TMB, Zhumell, and others.

A little slewing and a little staring soon turned up a something. Which eventually morphed, as I concentrated and used averted vision, into a little more than that. There didn’t seem to be a star-like nucleus, but there was a subtle central concentration and brightening. The coma wasn’t round; it was distinctly oval. I almost convinced myself I could see a hint of a tail.

After admiring the comet—such as it was—for a fair amount of time, it was time for target two. What’s one of the best objects for urban and suburban observers other than open clusters? Small and medium-sized planetary nebulae. Riding high was one I hadn’t visited in quite some time, NGC 7662, the Blue Snowball.

At magnitude 8.5 and a size of 37”, the Snowball is just about perfect for a suburban sky watcher. Certainly, it was not a challenge for Zelda. Well, not after I found it, anyway. While NGC 7662 was good and high, in my somewhat hazy skies its area was somewhat star-poor. Nevertheless, after consulting Stellarium, the object was in the field of the Happy Hand Grenade in short order.

At 78x, NGC 7662 looks a lot Jupiter shining through clouds. A large, slightly oval, slightly dim, slightly soft-edged disk. And that is about it—well, other than that, as its name suggests, the nebula is slightly (very slightly on this night) blue-tinged.

Is the above all there is to see of the Blue Snowball? Not quite. Inserting my 4.7mm 82-degree Explore Scientific eyepiece and adding an OIII filter to that brought out subtle hints of detail. It was clear the nebula isn’t just the bright and featureless disk it appears to be at low powers. At high power, it shows subtle darker and brighter patches near its center, hints of the inner ring visible in long exposure images.  

What else did I notice on this night? How good Zelda’s primary mirror is. Say what you will; the Chinese telescope factories have their game down. Their optics are almost universally good and consistent, and have allowed many of us to own telescopes better than we ever thought we would.

Blue Snowball essayed, it was M42 time. I was not to be skunked this Christmas Eve as I had been the last couple of years, but it was a pretty near thing. High clouds were beginning to roll across the sky in advance of a front that will trouble us over the next week or so. For now, however, the sky was holding and I was granted my first good look at the nebula this year.

How was it? The haze was undeniable, but there was still so much to see. Not just the huge “wings” of nebulosity, but the fascinating stars of the Trapezium and the many other tiny and brilliant suns scattered across the cloud. Soon, I wasn’t just seeing the nebula with my eyes, but with my mind.  

I began recalling views of Christmases past stretching all the way back to Christmas vacation 1966 and my first look at this incredible wonder. I haven’t seen the nebula every Christmas Eve. Sometimes clouds have intervened, and sometimes other things have kept my eye from a telescope, but to me it will always be the ornament of ornaments.

Nebula admired, and memories reviewed, it was time to ring down the curtain on this observing run and another Christmas Eve. I covered the scope, and was soon inside, relaxing with the cats and wondering whether I needed to watch It’s a Wonderful Life one more time.

Merry Christmas, everybody! I enjoyed bringing a new blog article to you after a long recess. So much so that I plan on doing more as summer comes in (especially if summer somehow, someway brings clear skies with it!). What else is there to say? Dicken’s still says it best: 

“It was always said of him [Scrooge], that he knew how to keep Christmas well, if any man alive possessed the knowledge. May that be truly said of us, and all of us! And so, as Tiny Tim observed, God bless Us, Every One!"

Friday, April 27, 2018

 

The Simple Way Redux: KStars


If you’ve been reading these little epistles for a while, you know I one of my uses for planetarium software—programs that create a graphic representation of the sky on your desktop—is to send my goto telescope mounts on their gotos. When I am imaging, anyway. It’s nice to be able to sit at the laptop with the camera control software running and send the scope to its next target with a mouse-click. No getting up and walking out to the scope (which is set up in the yard while I operate from the deck) to fool with the hand controller. But I do have another use for planetariums, one that’s just as important.

My other use for Cartes du Ciel, Stellarium, and the rest is for quick reference. I want to know what’s going be up at 8 p.m. Or I’m writing a magazine article and need to find out where faint fuzzy number one is located in regard to faint fuzzy number two. Sometimes I need the objects’s basic statistics: the spectral type of a particular star, the magnitude of a cluster, the Hubble type of a galaxy; you get the picture.

For most of my indoor use, I do not need a soft with ten zillion stars and galaxies in its database. I need a program that is, most of all, quick to launch. If a soft takes more than 15 – 20 seconds to start, I become annoyed. I just wanna see when Orion’s gonna be up good and high, and I don't want to wait all freaking day to find out. So what do I use?

Let’s turn the clock back, way back (well, relatively speaking) to the early 1990s. The first truly useful astronomy program I encountered is still one of the best for quick reference—or would be if you could get the DOS based SkyGlobe 3.6 to run on a post-Windows XP machine. Skyglobe was, above all, fast, blazingly fast, to load even on my old 486 (don’t ask, kids). I was still using it when my Toshiba satellite running XP finally gave up the ghost.

Details
After that? I foundered and floundered for a while. Cartes du Ciel is a wonderful program. It’s free, but nevertheless is still one of the greatest astro-softs to ever to be published. Problems with it? While it’s its GUI has gotten a little fancier over the years, it’s still pretty old fashioned in that regard. And the graphics, its depiction of the sky, are old school for sure. More Skyglobe than TheSky X. That last is not a huge problem for my use, but I still like a pretty display, I must admit. CdC is certainly quick to load, too, if not Skyglobe fast. In about 15 seconds max it is ready to roll on my middle of the road desktop.  

I was happy with CdC for a long time. It was basically all I used day in and day out for everything, including for indoor reference, sending my Celestron mounts on gotos, and serving as a front end for EQMOD. I doubt I'll ever stop using Cartes. It simply does some things no other freeware soft does. Just because CdC is a good thing, however, that doesn't mean it is the only thing.

One day I discovered Stellarium. It was just so pretty. And was every bit as fast to load as Cartes du Ciel. Moreover, its drag-the-sky-with-the-mouse trope was so smooth and fast that it was love at first sight. The same went for most of the rest of its GUI. I loved Stellarium, and once hailed it as “the new Skyglobe.”

Alas, there’s this thing called “feature creep.” Stellarium has grown up, and, like a lot of us, in middle age it’s grown out, too. It has put on a few pounds virtually speaking. Even if I don’t turn on much of its extensive (and amazing) feature set, the current release has me tapping my fingers as it loads up—it now takes as long as 30-seconds (like many programs, it’s faster if you’ve recently run it). That may not sound long for you, but it's an eternity for your impatient Uncle Rod when he’s got a hot observing idea or an inspiration as to a target to add to an observing article.

Then, I happened to read a post on everybody’s fave astro-BBS, Cloudy Nights.  A post about a program I hadn’t heard about in a long time, KStars. If you, like me, once fooled around with Linux, even for a little while, the program's name is probably familiar. It was one of the (few) serious astronomy apps for that operating system when I was going through my Linux phase. Reading the post on CN, I was surprised to learn the program is not only still around, it is still being developed. There is now a version for, believe it or not, Windows 10. Huh! From running it on Linux (under the K desktop, natch) I remembered it as small and fast and thought I’d give the Win version a try.

External resources
Installing KStars is simplicity itself; simply download it (here), and double click the install file when Windows (or Linux or OSX) finishes. Installation is automatic with no unzipping or anything like that required.

Installation complete, I clicked on the program’s icon (which I had to send to the desktop manually; it wasn’t placed there automatically) and got out my stopwatch. In less than 10-seconds the program was up and prompting me to begin set up. Which was also painless. About all KStars needed to know from me was my location. You can enter latitude and longitude manually, or just click on a city from KStars long list. After that, all that remains is the additional files window.

Like most modern programs, KStar offers an extensive set of supplemental object catalogs and image files. You can have millions of stars and deep sky objects if you wish. Me? I didn’t wish. In the interest of keeping the program small and quick, I only downloaded one additional item, thumbnail type images of the NGC objects for display in the information window that can be displayed for deep sky objects. If you should change your mind about additional files,  it’s easy to run the installation wizard again later and add or remove files as desired.

What was my first impression of KStars? “Pretty enough. The display ain’t as attractive as Stellarium’s but looks more modern than that of Cartes du Ciel.” Experimentally clicking and dragging the sky around to change my view yielded good results. It was every bit as smooth as this function is in Stellarium. I did note dimmer stars and DSOs are erased during a drag—presumably to speed things up (Stellarium doesn’t do that).

Like other planetarium programs, the next step is to turn on/off features you want or don’t want. With KStars, that mostly involved turning on the constellation lines and setting up labels and their densities (numbers) for constellations, stars, and deep sky objects. When I had the program looking he way I like, I did a little playing around to get the lay of the land.

Hyperlinks
First thing, I picked a DSO, good, old M81, and clicked on it. I wanted to see what sort of data KStars would yield about targets. To do that, right click on an object and select “details” from the menu that appears. What I got is shown above, which is not much. The galaxy’s Hubble type isn’t even given.  All there is is magnitude, position, size, and alternate designations. That’s the bad. The good is that clicking the "links" and “advanced” tabs brings up hyperlinks to web pages concerning the object, and to resources like NED, the NASA Extragalactic database. Unfortunately, I was disappointed to find that many of the web page hyperlinks in the details window are dead links.  Moreover, even if the URLs all worked, I would like a little more info on objects in the program itself. Both Stellarium and Cartes du Ciel do much better here.

One of the things I do most frequently when writing about deep sky objects, is, as previously mentioned, describe their positions in terms of their distance from another object in angular degrees and position angle with regard to that other object, “M78 is 2-degrees 30’ northeast of Alnitak.” Alas, while you can engage an angular separation mode that measures the separation of two objects when you draw a line between the two with the mouse, KStars only gives separation, not position angle as well like most other programs do.

At first, I thought that was it for KStars. Knowing both separation and position angle is important for me. Then, I discovered KStars’ astronomical calculator. One of the many functions it performs is determining the separation and angle of two objects. It’s easy to select objects from a list, and a push of a button then gives both angular distance and position angle. Frankly, I found this easier (and more precise) than using a mouse.

The calculator
Otherwise, what’s the program like? Oh, it’s fairly basic stuff. It has some built-in pictures for the more prominent objects displayed on the charts. Various reticles (like a Telrad) can be overlaid on the maps. A red night vision mode can be engaged. Unlike Stellarium, you can print charts (if not very good looking ones). There’s even telescope control. Alas, that’s via INDI, not ASCOM. I don’t know that I’ll fooling around with that, but I don’t really intend to use KStars on the observing field, anyway.

So, to sum up? It’s a useable program for just about anything. Is there a reason or reasons to use KStars instead of the big two freeware planetariums? Yes. If you, like me, need fast. Or you need small. Or maybe hardware constraints dictate you need both, you could do worse. 

Much as I miss good old Skyglobe, I must admit humble KStars just blows its doors off. And that's good. But. Will I use it? How much will I use it. That remains to be seen. I like KStars, but I’ll admit it’s gonna be hard to make myself stop using those old reliables CdC and Stellarium. Stay tuned.


Sunday, December 24, 2017

 

Issue #551: Merry Christmas Eve from the Astroblog!


Well, it wasn’t quite a white Christmas on the Gulf Coast, but, as you can see from the picture at left, taken a couple of weeks previously, we came close. Closer than in years, and years, and years. Maybe since the 1950s.

Anyway, what is Christmas without the Christmas Eve edition of the little old blog from Chaos Manor South? That has taken several forms over the eleven years we’ve been on the air here (hard to believe it’s been eleven freakin’ annums, true believers). Sometimes it’s been an epistle to Christmas Eve and its ghosts. Sometimes it’s been memories from my Christmases Long Past. Once in a while it’s been a short and sweet “Merry Christmas Everybody and Goodnight!” I thought this time might be a little different. Perhaps a recap of my astronomical year, something I’ve normally reserved for New Year’s.

Before we get to that, “MERRY CHRISTMAS CHARLIE BROWN!” And a wonderful night before Christmas, too. This one looks to be calm and uneventful here. Just me and the cats watching Netflix. Naturally, I put a telescope in the backyard, my 3-inch f/11 achromatic refractor, in hopes of getting my traditional Christmas Eve view of that most beautiful and numinous of all ornaments, M42. Shall we step out into the cold and have a look?..

“OK…what did I do with that darned red dot finder? Oh, yeah, I was using it with the Meade APO. Here it is…hope I remembered to turn the sucka off. Lucky Orion is in a sucker hole...looks like fog coming in. OK…smidge to the right and up.” And there it was, shining brightly through the suburban light pollution and lingering haze. Did M42 look as good as it does with a big scope at a dark site? It did to me. This was my first Christamas Eve look at the Great Nebula in a while, and I cannot help but think it’s a good omen for the coming year (fingers crossed, y’all)…

However, on this deep night the subject is 2017, not 2018.

Winter 2017

The year began with the end of my series on observing the Messier objects as we signed off with Messiers 107, 108, 109, and 110. Most of you seemed to enjoy the voyage through the Ms, which had been going on for most of 2016, but my title for this installment, “This is the End, My Friends” did upset a few of my faithful readers.

Given some of the changes I’d gone through over the previous two years, which I’d occasionally shared with you here, and my slowly decreasing output of blog articles, you were to be forgiven for thinking the title meant we were done, that the blog was finis. Not so—there weren’t to be quite as many updates in 2017 as in the past, but I still kept moving forward in my bumbling fashion. 

As the cold months wore on and the skies grew ever cloudier, I turned to a new series, “The Novice Files.” The entries covered the basics of the sky globe, things like R.A. and declination, star and object names, object catalogs, etc. etc. Things that are familiar and obvious to most of us but puzzling for Joe and Jane Novice. 

That was in part so I’d have something to write about. I sure wasn’t going to be doing many observing articles unless I could glom onto an x-ray telescope. I didn’t just do these articles to have fodder for the blog, though. I thought the subjects covered were pretty darned important for the newbies amongst us.

January also found me blogging about the latest and quite major update to the Stellarium program, which is literally the only planetarium software I use these days (other than the also great Cartes du Ciel occasionally). Yes, Stellarium is free, but it’s also so good, so pretty, so easy to use, and has so many wonderful features that the heavy hitters of commercial software, TheSky, Starry Night, and all the rest, sit unused on my hard drive. Couple Stellarium with the ASCOM scope control add-on, StellariumScope, and I am sitting in high cotton and don’t want for more.

As February came in and the sky began to get a little clearer, I found I needed some images for my magazine work and drug out my trusty Celestron Advanced VX mount. Why the VX? Why not my EQ6 or CGEM? The AVX had one big advantage: light weight. As you know if you’re a faithful reader, I injured my back in 2015 while washing the porch of our old Garden District Victorian home, and have suffered recurrent bouts of pain. Bad enough that the last thing I want to do is aggravate my back.

Light weight is good, but as I recounted in the blog entry, the VX is also surprisingly capable. With the telescopes I normally use for deep sky imaging in these latter days, f/7 5-inch and 80mm APO refractors, it works very well indeed, always delivering round stars. The VX has some cool modern features, too, like auto-alignment with Celestron’s Star Sense accessory.

Since I was doing imaging with the AVX, I thought I’d share some of the issues involving using the Chinese “clones” of the Vixen Great Polaris—like the AVX, the Explore Scientific Exos, the SkyWatcher HEQ5/Sirius, and others--in “Astrophotography with Inexpensive German Equatorial Mounts.”

I’ve always hated polar alignment, so when I found a way to polar align more easily and accurately than ever before using the Sharpcap software, my guide camera, and my guide scope, I just had to share that with you in “A New Way to Polar Align.” There is no doubt in my mind that the better polar alignment possible with Sharpcap is one of the things responsible for me being able to kick my astrophotography results up a notch.

Spring

Spring began to approach, and I found myself out in the backyard ever more frequently thanks to the slowly improving weather. So, I was back to fiddling with everybody’s favorite auto-guide program, PHD2. One of the recurring questions I get from new astrophotographers is, “Rod, what do I do about all those darned PHD brains settings?” I set out to answer that in “Getting Your PhD.”

Despite the time I was spending in that backyard—or maybe because of it—I found I had to bite the bullet and slow the blog down. In “Is This the End?” I broke the news to my faithful cadre of Sunday Morning aficionados that I just couldn’t keep up the weekly publication schedule I’d maintained for years. I hoped, I said, that I could eventually begin to get new articles out the door every week again, but cautioned that “once a month” was more likely—which has turned out to be accurate.

Looking over my output for late spring and summer, I’m actually amazed I published as often as I did. The weather down here was frightful. It was as cloudy as it has been in a long time, and that’s saying something given the nasty weather cycle we’ve been in for the last five years or so.

Summer

Despite Stormy Weather, I pressed on through a tropical summer. I even managed to get my traditional yearly image of M13 in July. From my backyard—I’ve grown weary of lugging a ton of gear out to my dark site. Despite the scudding clouds of a muggy night, one on which I felt like was observing from underwater, I was still able to bring home My Yearly M13 with my SkyWatcher 120mm APO and the reliable and dependable AVX.

Despite raindrops and mosquitoes, July actually turned out to be a good month for the blog, with several entries appearing. It seemed that with the pressure to publish turned off, I was having more fun writing the Astroblog than I’d had in a long while.

One of my favorite articles from this time was “To PEC or not to PEC?” wherein I not just explained the Periodic Error Correction feature of modern telescope mounts, but programmed PPEC into my VX, bringing its RMS error down to a very respectable (for a sub 1000-dollar GEM) 1” RMS or so.

The next July entry, “Good, Old EQ6” was an epistle to my much-loved Atlas GEM mount, which I’d owned for ten years by this time. It was also a goodbye to it. Unfortunately, back problems meant the handwriting was most assuredly on the wall for the EQ6—it was too heavy for me to lift safely anymore, and I’d just have to get rid of it. The article came from my backyard checkout of the mount prior to selling it. The Atlas performed so well that I almost decided not to let it go after all. Until I was removing the mount from the tripod and almost aggravated my back, wouldn’t you know it?

The final July article was in the same vein, and concerned my disposing of some more beloved gear beginning with my Celestron CGEM. The mount had been a great performer for me—don’t believe everything you read on Cloudy Nights—but, like the Atlas, it was just too freaking heavy and I had to sell it too. Which I did.

Perhaps even more sadly, I let go of my C11 for the same reason. If there’s an SCT I’ve loved best over the years, it’s probably Big Bertha, my NexStar 11 GPS. However, I decided leaving the OTA sitting in her case month and month after month wasn’t doing either of us any good. So it was that with a heavy heart I determined that the C11 would follow the CGEM and Atlas.

Don’t feel too sorry for your Uncle Rod, though. Having a small pile of cash before me allowed for the purchase of a new GEM, one a little lighter and easier to manage than the two Syntas had become. A brand spanking new Losmandy GM811G arrived in late August, which was chronicled in “A Losmandy GM811G Comes to Chaos Manor South.” 

Fall

The summer weather was awfully punk, and the fall was most assuredly no better. Thanks mostly to that weather, I didn’t get to put in a lot of hours with the Losmandy. But what little I was able to do with this very pretty mount impressed me. I especially loved the full-color touch screen Gemini 2 hand control and the mount’s Ethernet connectivity.

September and October only featured a single entry apiece. One concerned the experience of using the GM811 for visual observing, and the other my (semi) return to video observing—prompted by the arrival of a wonderful box of video goodies from the legendary Orange County Telescope.

Winter

November? November only got one entry as well, a report on the Deep South Star Gaze for 2017. Alas, that much-looked-forward-to star party was a bust for me this year. Poor food, poor skies, and a couple of rather irritating episodes gave this piece its title, “You Can’t Win ‘em All.”

December looked like it would only be blessed with a single update too, this one—no way am I gonna skip the Christmas Eve blog. But the week before the holiday brought another article. With the pressure to take pictures for magazine articles off for the moment, I thought it would be nice to get out for some relaxing visual observing with my simple, non-electronic GSO 10-inch Dobsonian Zelda. It was and I frankly enjoyed that run more than I have any observing in a while. Sometimes the secret is “Minimize”…

…and so, Christmas approaches, me stirring from my semi-doze on the couch only long enough to click Netflix’s accursed “Are You Still Watching?” button. What more is left to say? Only “Have a great holiday, God bless us everyone, and here’s to a wonderful 2018”—old glass half full me (on my good days) has decided it IS gonna be a good one.

Sunday, December 17, 2017

 

Issue #551: The Simple (Suburban) Astronomical Life…


2017 wasn’t a very active year for me in astronomy. The freaking weather, if nothing else, saw to that. The Deep South Spring Scrimmage, for example, one of two star parties I still attend each year without fail, was clearly in for a rain-out and I didn’t even bother to register. That event’s fall edition, the just-finished Deep South Star Gaze, yielded only one good night out of the four I signed up for. Sigh.

But that doesn’t mean I didn’t do any telescoping. What I did do this year was mostly imaging from the backyard. That can be fun, but I have to admit the actual picture-taking part of it just ain’t that engaging. After set up is done and the mount is guiding and the camera exposing, my astrophotography consists of me sitting inside watching TV while telescope and computer do their thing on their own.

As fall segued into winter, however, the skies improved (somewhat), and I found myself in a nice clear pre-Christmas stretch. What to do? I was tired of worrying about cameras and computers for the moment. I was longing for some of that old one-on-one relationship with the cosmos that’s what got me interested in this crazy game in the first place.

To that end, what went into the backyard the other night was my consummately visual scope, Zelda, a 10-inch GSO solid tube Dobsonian reflector who came to stay with me a couple of years ago.

There are no computers involved with Miss Z. The closest things she has to electronics are her primary mirror cooling fan and her illuminated zero power aiming device, a Rigel Quick Finder. Also into the backyard went the folding aluminum camp table I use as an observing table, and my case of favored eyepieces.  Setup took all of five minutes and I was done. 

Well, I was nearly done, except for star charts. As I tell my undergraduate astronomy students, “You can’t find the stars’ homes without a map!” Did I say “no computers”? I did, but only ON the telescope. My Android tablet running Sky Safari Pro went on the observing table next to the eyepiece box. I could have used one of my print sky atlases, like Sky & Telescope’s Pocket Sky Atlas (or the new Jumbo edition, which I love). And I often do that when the yen for simple visual astronomy takes me. But you know what? In some ways, Sky Safari is simpler to use in the field than a book.

Want to find some object? No paging through an atlas, no trying to remember exactly which constellation NGC umptysquat lies in. Just click a little magnifying glass icon, type the DSO's name/designation, and the target will soon be centered on the screen under a Telrad reticle. Given my (somewhat) aging eyes, I also find SkySafari’s screen more legible than the pages of a book illuminated by a dim red LED flashlight.

On a recent cold (for me) Tuesday evening, the TV was showing nothing but reruns—when did the rascals come up with this "mid-season hiatus" nonsense? That was OK. In the backyard, the curtain was rising on the great sky show. I was excited at that prospect. Maybe more excited than I’d been about astronomy all year.

Excited, yes, but also unsure, as in being unsure exactly what to look at. While I am a big proponent of observing lists—usually if you go out to observe without one you won’t see much of anything at all—I hadn’t made one this time. Lazy? Maybe a little. Just wanting to recreate those spontaneous nights under the stars I experienced as a youngun? Perhaps that too. But I still needed some idea where to point Zelda after I’d had a nice, long look at the sinking Ring Nebula, M57.

Sky Safari sure proved its worth here. I haven’t used the program much since I bought the Pro version some months back—I’d been tied to a laptop and using Stellarium during my picture taking. However, I dimly remembered SkySafari has pre-made observing lists…

I clicked the search icon, and, sure enough, there were those lists displayed before me. Including, thank goodness, “Tonight’s best.” I began running through ‘em starting with the wonderful starball that is M15. When I applied 200x to it in the somewhat hazy (and growing hazier) sky, the Pegasus globular broke into a horde of minute suns.

And so it went till my feet began to grow cold and the haze began to devolve into clouds some time later. I had plenty of fun. But I also had some epiphanies. “Rules” if you will, for observing the deep sky under suburban backyard skies.

Telescope: OK, so you wanna do some casual backyard visual observing, do you? Which scope? If you only have one, naturally that’s it. If you have a stable like some of us do, however, which one to use?

There is something to be said for a small telescope, especially a refractor, for casual backyard use. Especially for spur of the moment observing. I can have my 3-inch f/11 achromat or even my 4-inch f/10 achromat in the backyard and ready to rock in minutes. Since there is basically no cooldown required, I can have a quick look at M13 and be back inside for more Gotham after the commercial ends.

Casual observing, looking at the showpieces in an off-the-cuff sort of way, is great. But what if you want more? I, for example, have been thinking about running through the 600 objects in Orion’s (great) Deepmap 600 list. Some of these objects—in fact a of lot them—are  a challenge for a small suburban refractor. At this point it's time to kick the aperture up a couple of notches.

What is the optimum aperture in the backyard for me for deeper deep sky observing? I’ve found that to be 10-inches. The horsepower gain over a three or four inch (or even an 8-inch) is considerable—don’t believe the old urban legend that says that more aperture doesn’t help in a light polluted suburban sky. A 10-inch solid tube (especially) Dobsonian is also very portable, if not in grab ‘n go fashion.

Equatorial or alt-azimuth mount? Either is fine with me, but my backyard observing does tend to be of a more casual nature than what I do at dark sites, and I usually don’t want to spend a lot of time fooling with a goto GEM. With a decent Dobsonian I don't miss tracking motors. Even my humble GSO “tracks” fine by hand at 300x. Its motions are smooth and easy, and even novices will soon get the hang of following objects with a scope like Zelda.

Yes, even a 10-inch Dobsonian can be a handful for some of us, especially as we grow older. If you’re observing in your backyard, however, you can minimize the amount of setting up and tearing down you have to do. If you have a reasonably secure yard, why not leave the telescope set up through stretches of clear weather? That’s what you'd do at a star party, so why not at home? A good cover like a Telegizmos one will keep your beloved telescope snug and safe from unexpected weather. Doing this is like having an observatory without the expense and hassle of actually putting up a dome or roll-off.

Eyepieces:  Even if you’ve only been in our avocation for a short time, you’ve probably already begun to accumulate a box full of oculars. Which are good ones for the backyard?

As I've said many a time before, don’t scrimp on eyepieces. Buy the best you can afford. You'll be able to use them for the rest of your observing career. Good coatings and light transmission characteristics and build quality (a decent eye-cup is important if you have considerable ambient light to deal with in the backyard) are frankly even more important under the suburban sky than at a dark site.

Getting a good eyepiece does not mean you have to spend a mint. I love my TeleVue Ethos eyepieces, which I bought not long after they were released. But if I had to do it over again, I would likley not spend the money they command. As you know, I'm cheap and to my eyes the considerably less expensive Explore Scientific 100-degree eyepieces are every bit as good. And the even less expensive Meade 100s pleased me a lot when I reviewed them for Sky & Telescope not long ago.

Ethoses and other 80 - 100-degree jobs, are what your old Uncle favors? Yep. Especially if I'm using a Dobsonian without automated tracking. With a non-motorized telescope, keeping an object in view is much easier with a wide apparent field eyepiece. If you've got a wide field eyepiece, it's also sometimes possible to star hop using that eyepiece rather than a finder. That is particularly nice in areas like Virgo where there are few guide-stars visible in a 50mm finder. I can "eyepiece-hop" to those multitudinous galaxies.

A top of the line eyepiece may be wonderful, but that doesn’t mean it’s wonderful all the time, including in compromised suburban skies. I’ve had a 27mm TeleVue Panoptic for years and will never part with it. It’s a classic from a master of eyepiece design. However, in the backyard, I find a much humbler ocular, a 2-inch Bresser 25mm I won at a star party last year, trumps it. Slightly more apparent field, slightly darker field. Would I trade the 27 for one? No way. But the more expensive eyepiece isn’t always better.

Finding Objects:  If you’re gonna see objects, you gotta find ‘em. The question is how to do that. Especially in the backyard where object finding is harder than anywhere else thanks to the bright skies and lack of stars to use as guideposts.

Certainly you can use goto. I’ve been a big proponent of automatic object locating since I realized goto was practical, affordable, and reliable over twenty years ago. Goto makes finding things in star poor suburban skies simple. One big benefit? If you know your goto mount places objects in the field without fail, you may be able to spy a very marginal DSO by scanning that field intensely. Not sure if the object is in the field or not? You’re tempted to move on after a little looking.

However, if, like me, a big part of backyard observing is “simple,” you may want to eschew batteries and cables and computers as I do with Zelda. What is effective for object locating in brighter skies? Not a zero power sight like Zelda’s Rigel Quick Finder, at least not by itself. There are not enough guide stars to allow you to pin an object down precisely without optical aid. That’s why I always use a 50mm finder in concert with the Rigel. I roughly position Zelda with the zero power sight, and then home in with the the  finder scope and SkySafari.

What sort of 50mm finder? I prefer a right angle-correct image ("RACI") finder like the one Zelda came equipped with. The finder has a star diagonal which means I only have to shift my eye a short distance from the main scope eyepiece to view through the finder—very convenient and comfortable. The finder’s special built in star diagonal presents an image that is both right side up and mirror correct.

So, then you star hop. You look at your charts and draw imaginary lines and shapes to find your object: “M57 is halfway along a line between those two stars”…"M15 makes a shallow triangle with those bright stars" and so on and so  forth. One tip? I find that if I can’t locate an object after several tries, it means I’m not just slightly off from its position in the sky, but way off. I further note it’s pretty easy to get out of practice with star hopping. If I haven’t done any in some months, it may take an evening or two to get back in the swim of things. Knowing that, I don’t get frustrated (“Why can’t I even find M37? I’m going back inside!”). I keep going and it all eventually comes flowing back.

Finally, don’t discount star hopping as fun in and of itself. Especially in suburban skies were the objects themselves don’t always look that great. The hunt is its own reward and sometimes that is enough.

Observing. You know all those observing tricks you’ve learned over the years? Or, if you’re a novice, the ones you’re reading about online or hearing from the old-timers at the club? They are very important for maximizing your viewing under compromised skies…

Averted vision:  The light receptors toward the edge of the retina, the rods, are more sensitive than those near the center, the cones. So, if you’re observing an even marginally dim DSO, look “away” from it rather than directly at it to see the dimmest details.

Which eye? If you’re right handed, your right eye is likely the "dominant" one. If you’re left handed, vice-versa. Usually the dominant eye is better for deep sky observing, but experiment with the opposite eye as well.

Shake it! The eye-brain combo has an easier time registering moving objects, so sometimes a tap on the telescope tube will cause a challengingly dim DSO to appear as if by magic.

You can see a lot more if your eyes are as dark adapted as they can be. In the suburbs, what usually prevents that is not so much the general light pollution, but ambient light. Turn off nearby lights and shield your scope and yourself from those you can’t turn off.

Most amateur astronomers tend to use too little magnification on objects rather than too much. In the suburbs, more power darkens the background sky and increases contrast between it and the object of your desire.

Growing older. Alas, it happens to the best of us, even me. Being aware of the changes you’re experiencing or will experience will help you deal with them.

Your eyes’ corneas are probably beginning to yellow for starters. That can be good and bad. Bluer objects won’t be as bright, but if you, like me, are a fan of achromatic refractors, you’ll find the color purple has been much reduced. Your eyes now have built-in yellow filters and it’s as if your fast achromat has suddenly become an APO. Eventually, if you progress to cataracts, your eye doctor will say it’s time for the big fix, surgery. That will both return the stars to their accustomed brightness and turn your "APO" back into an achromat.

You may develop increased sensitivity to cold. I was pretty OK in this regard all through my 40s and well into my 50s. In my 60s, I find I get colder more quickly and can’t ignore that as easily as I once could. When my feet get cold, I know it’s time to quit. There is a big plus for backyard observing in this regard:  When my feetsies get cold I can take a break inside and go back for more when I warm up.

Feeling creaky. Except for my (self-imposed) back problems, I’m pretty good here. The time will come for all of us, however, when it’s harder to contort the old bod to do things like look through straight-through finders. Luckily, there are work-arounds like the above-mentioned RACI finder. Did you know you can even get a right-angle adapter for a Telrad sight?

Weight can become a problem as we age. Make that will become a problem. That’s no reason to stop observing, however. Even if you have to drop down a couple of aperture notches, some telescope is better than no telescope. Also, modern designs like ultralight Dobs mean many of us are going to be able to carry on with at least as much horsepower as we used in middle age. The backyard is a big win here, since you can do things like wheel the scope out of and into a garage on a set of "wheely bars," etc., instead of having to carry the instrument to and from a vehicle.

Some of the older observers I know are beginning to go inactive due to a fear of falling in the dark. If you are in your 70s or 80s, there’s no doubt falls can be dangerous. In the backyard, however, you can do things like position small red lights on the ground to show the way, mark the scope  and observing table with more red lights, and turn on white light when needed. In the backyard, you’re at least very familiar with your surroundings, too.

So, I've given up dark site observing? No. Not quite. I’ll go to a dark site when I’m chasing the dimmest of the dim, or want the best astrophotos I can get. But otherwise, it’s the friendly and comfortable back 40 for me these days.

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