Sunday, August 21, 2016


Issue 506: On the Road Part II: The Northwoods Starfest

I’ve covered many a mile in the course of my restless travels back and forth across the country to bring you my brand of astronomical wisdom (ahem). However, while I’ve visited state after state in the lower 48, there are still a few I haven’t been able to cross off my “been there” list, mostly in the Midwest. Wisconsin, for example.

Since I was missing Wisconsin, when I was invited to give a presentation for the North Woods Starfest, which takes place not far from Eau Claire, I was intrigued. Not only would I be able to visit a part of the country I’d never been to before, the North Country, but judging from the event’s website the NWSF would be a fun event.

So it was that I found myself back in the air barely a week after returning home from my previous engagement, the Maine Astronomy Retreat (see last week’s article). Was I tired? Maybe a little, but I was nevertheless looking forward, at least, to escaping the dreadful heat, humidity, and rain that had settled in on the Gulf Coast in August.

Since I’d only be gone for three days, Friday – Sunday, I was able to pack minimally in a smaller suitcase.  It was good not to have to wrestle with a large, heavy bag, but that also meant that for the second time I didn’t take my orange tube Celestron C90 with me. I’ve thought it might be fun to take a small telescope on my star party engagements, but I decided to put that off one more time until my next gig, the Almost Heaven Star Party.

I made it from Mobile to Atlanta without a problem and was soon winging my way to Minneapolis - St. Paul, an airport I’d never flown into before. Lindbergh Terminal sure is nice and modern, with every group of three-four gates featuring a modernistic bar/grill where you do your ordering with an iPad. I loved the big sculpture of Snoopy and Woodstock in WWI flying gear (where was the statue of Mary Richards, though?).

My contact and ride, all around nice guy and expert observer Bill Childs, was waiting for me in baggage claim, and it was the task of but a few minutes to grab my small suitcase and get on the road to Eau Claire, Wisconsin and my hotel, which was about an hour and a half away.

While I liked staying in a cabin in the Maine woods well enough, I had to admit the brand new Fairfield Inn and Suites where Bill had booked my room was more to my liking. When I can stay in a beautiful motel for a star party rather than in a chickie-cabin, I will; that’s just how roll these days.

After unpacking  and spending a few relaxing hours in my room watching the LG big screen TV, surfing Facebook and Cloudy Nights,  and enjoying a small amount of shuteye (the flight out of Mobile had been one of my customary early ones), Bill arrived back at the Fairfield. We were shortly on our way out to the site of the star party the Beaver Creek Reserve, which was maybe ten miles from the motel.

There, I gotta say I was mightily impressed. In addition to being the site of a lovely nature-center/museum, Beaver Creek is the site of Hobbs Observatory, an impressive installation that is used jointly by the star party sponsor, the Chippewa Valley Astronomical Society (CVAS), the Beaver Creek Reserve, and by the University of Wisconsin Eau Claire. The observatory consists of two domes and a spacious workshop/laboratory building. What’s in those two classic Ash Domes? One houses a 24-inch Newtonian and the other a Meade 14-inch SCT. To say I was looking forward to looking at and through the two instruments would be an understatement.

Also prominent adjacent to the observatory building was the CVAS’ large radio telescope dish. The group has a prominent and active radio-astronomy contingent (affiliated with SARA). I was very interested to look at the gear in their control room in the observatory building and shoot the breeze with these amateur radio astronomers, most of whom were also radio amateurs.

Time for supper in the dining hall, which was just a short walk from the observatory. Planning a star party? Looking for a venue? Do yourself a favor and seek out one with a place where people can take their meals in comfort, and one which has a sufficient kitchen to prepare said meals. The NWSF had both. What was on the menu? Something called “brats.” I vaguely recalled hearing the word, maybe in a TV commercial, but wasn’t sure what a brat actually was. Turned out to be a hotdog sized sausage (bratwurst?) served on a hotdog bun. I loved it.

Following supper, I walked the observing field visiting with my fellow partiers. Soon enough, however, it was time for a presentation in Beaver Creek’s nature center (which reminded me a lot of our own Environmental Studies Center here, but with more elaborate exhibits).

NWSF’s first big talk was by my fellow Sky & Telescope writer Bob King. His presentation was on the Chelyabinsk Meteor, a subject about which I thought I’d heard everything there was to hear. How wrong I was. Bob’s talk was one of the best I’ve heard at a star party in a long time, and he easily kept me and the rest of the audience interested and excited. I was thankful my recent back problems had alleviated enough to allow me to sit still and listen to his presentation. Heck, I feel so much better that I am hoping I can soon go back to carrying around my beloved 10-inch Dobsonian, Zelda.

With darkness slowly, ever so slowly, beginning to creep in, and the scattered clouds that had been haunting the sky all afternoon beginning to disperse, it was time to check out the Meade SCT. And I do mean “check out.” Bill and other CVAS folks wanted me to give the telescope a once-over, since, they said, it rarely, if ever, produced truly acceptable images. They were not sure whether the problem was the concrete pier the scope was mounted on, the dome’s seeing characteristics, scope cooldown, or scope collimation.

As soon as I walked out onto the observing floor (on the second floor of the facility), I became pretty sure about at least a large part of their problem. It was easily 10-degrees above ambient temperature in the dome. Not surprising. There was no ventilation other than the open slit of the (pretty) Ash Dome. The dome itself didn’t help, either; it was unpainted aluminum, and even in the moderate Wisconsin Sun it was soaking up heat like crazy.

It was clear to me what was happening. The dome sat in the Sun all day long. When night finally came, an observer opened the slit to begin a run. Then, all the hot air in the dome would rush out the slit and all the cold air outside would rush in. That would create terrible “artificial” seeing; especially for a long focal length telescope like a 14-inch SCT. Look, folks, yes, domes are beautiful, but there’s a reason it’s been decades since professional observatories have been built with traditional observatory domes, and that reason is their invariably punk seeing characteristics.

Then there was the telescope itself. A look through it at Antares revealed something that looked like an amoeba. The star was so misshapen that I had a hard time deciding whether the SCT was in collimation or not (I finally decided it was). Not only would the air in the dome heat up during the day, so would the telescope, for hours, and would, I thought, probably not cool-down to the point where it could produce good images till the wee hours of the morning (when I did a star test, I could see a heat-plume emanating from the baffle tube).

Finally, there was the pier. A two story concrete pier, no matter how solid it looks, is not a recipe for stability. One tends to ring like a bell. At least the observing floor appeared to be sufficiently isolated from the pier, and I judged the situation at least acceptable.

So, my prescription? I told the CVAS folks that the first thing to do was deal with the temperature inside the dome. That might be done very simply by taking care to open the slit at least an hour before beginning a run and by running a big fan inside the dome. More elaborate improvements might consist of a forced air ventilation system and applying some light colored paint to the dome exterior.

As for the telescope, that could be helped by an SCT cooler, built or bought. That’s essentially a fan that blows air into the tube through the rear port. Several members expressed reservations about that, worrying about dust entering the OTA, but I pointed out that a filter would help in that regard, and that, anyway, the telescope seemed next to useless as things stood—after an hour I could finally almost make out Cassini’s Division on Saturn.

The pier? I didn’t find the problem too serious. As long as no one was walking around at the base of the pier, the telescope was fairly steady—as steady as a large SCT on a wedge ever can be. I suggested a simple fix would be just to remind observers to make use of this scope’s (an LX200 GPS) built in Crayford focuser. Using motorized focus where possible would banish any wiggles generated by using the main focuser.

The LX200 duly diagnosed, it was time to look at and through some of the wonderful telescopes the NWSF partiers had set up on the field by the time darkness fell. What was most popular scope design-wise? There was a wider variety of telescopes at NWSF than I’ve seen on many observing fields lately. Yes, there were plenty of refractors, plenty, but there was also a goodly number of Newtonians (including a positively enormous solid-tube Discovery Dob). SCTs too. There were even classics like Caves and Starliners pointed at the increasingly pretty sky.

And how was that sky? Good. Very good. There was a bit of a light-dome in the northwest, but it was not bad. The Milky Way was bright and prominent. If the Great Rift wasn’t quite as stark and detailed as it had been for me in the backwoods of Maine, it was at least comparable. In other words, a very superior site and one capable of allowing plenty of serious deep sky work.

I looked through many a beautiful scope at many a beautiful object Friday night, but as mid-evening came and went, I had to admit I was t-i-r-e-d. It hadn’t been a bad trip by any means, but any airline trip these days tend to be exhausting. I hated to tear Bill away from the observing field, but he’d mentioned that he, like me, isn’t an all-nighter kinda guy anyway. Back at the Fairfield, I watched a little TV, but just a little, before my eyes closed and I knew nothing more for some hours.

And so came the dawn, if a little late for me. Finally stirring myself at 9 am, I scurried down to breakfast which was a just-fine free motel one: decent scrambled eggs, good bacon, but sausage that had the consistency of hockey pucks. All in all it left me ready to face a big day and a big night. Beginning with a journey to downtown Eau Claire and a visit to historic Carson (ball) Park.

Bill had mentioned that he thought I’d be interested in visiting the park due to its connection with one of my hometown heroes, Mobile’s Hank Aaron. Turned out he’d played a season long, long ago with the Eau Claire team at their beautiful and seemingly mostly unchanged ballpark. There, I was very pleased to pose with the bust of Hammerin’ Hank, one of the truly good guys in the game. Before returning me to my hotel, we also had a look at the CVAS “Planet Walk.”

You’ve seen these Solar System scale models before. Solar Systems at a scale that allows a nice walking tour from the Sun to Neptune (and sometimes Pluto), but you’ve never seen one in more beautiful surroundings than the CVAS version, nor with more attractive and informative plaques for each planet. After the Planet Walk experience, I requested Bill drop me back at the motel so I could spend a few hours resting and preparing for my after-supper presentation.

Back at Beaver Creek in time for supper, I was pleased to see a well-known item on the menu, jambalaya. How was it? Wisconsin is many a weary mile removed from Cajun country, but the CVAS did a good job with the meal. Almost felt like I was back home. Couple that with a door-prize giveaway that featured many goodies, and the whole group left the hall in good spirits and ready for a long night of observing.

Prior to that observing, however, it was time for my presentation, The Astronomer Looks at 60, which is the story of amateur astronomy from the 1960s to today as told by our changing tastes in telescopes. Specifically, it is a PowerPoint presentation that features over 100 slides of historic (and not so historic) telescope advertisements. I got a tremendous response to this one both in Maine and Wisconsin, and it looks like I’ve got a hit on my hands. Everybody, well, everybody in my generational cohort anyway, sure likes looking at Unitrons and Caves and Criterions.

Thence to the field. I once again looked through many a beautiful telescope that night, including, especially, an absolutely wonderful f/3.3 24-inch Dobsonian. Thanks to the kindness of its owner, I observed numerous objects and was simply blown away by the scope’s mechanical and optical quality. I also had a look through Hobbs’ 24-inch Newtonian in the facility’s western dome.

This is a surplus military tracking telescope on a massive alt-azimuth mount and has a lot of potential. I know the CVAS has done much outstanding public outreach with it, and if its dome’s thermal/seeing characteristics, like those of the Meade’s dome, could be improved, I can scarcely imagine the work that might be accomplished with this instrument.

Then, alas, came midnight, the witching hour for me, since it would be a long day on the ground and in the air on the morrow. I also had to admit I was getting a little chilled, I had a hoodie, but temperatures were beginning to dip into the lower 50s, and for me that is indeed a cold night in August.

The next morning Bill and his charming wife, Beth, arrived to haul me back to Minneapolis. It had been a wonderful trip, and for once was not spoiled by the airlines, though it almost was. I got out of Atlanta just before Delta’s computer network (such as it is) crashed, stranding fliers all over the country.

Summing up, if you can make your way to the North Country for the Wisconsin Starfest, just do it. A nicer bunch of people and a better facility for a star party you will not find. Good skies, too, and even the jambalaya is good. My thanks to Bill Childs, the CVAS, and the Starfest rank and file for making me feel welcome, sharing their telescope with me, and for making my first visit to Wisconsin a great one.

You can see many more photos from the Northwoods Starfest in an album on my Facebook page…

Sunday, August 14, 2016


Issue 505: On the Road Part I: The Maine Astronomy Retreat

I am not a big fan of air travel as experienced in these latter days (“the world has moved on”). The complications and annoyances imposed by the TSA and the deregulated airlines, even if sometimes justified, are not to my liking. But that doesn’t mean I don’t like to get away once in a while, and I still enjoy doing my traveling- speaker thing. This year’s fall star party season would be a big one for that, starting with two new ones for me, the Maine Astronomy Retreat and the Northwoods Starfest (Wisconsin).

Maine was up first. I am no stranger to the Vacationland state, having spent quite some time there one winter doing work for the Navy at Bath Ironworks (shipyard), but I’d never contemplated observing under a Maine sky. Temperatures in the minus-teens the winter I was there didn’t encourage me even to step outside and look up at the sky naked eye. So, it was not until my friend Kelly Beatty (of Sky & Telescope fame) invited me to do a couple of talks at the Maine Astronomy Retreat that I began to think about star gazing way down east.

Yes, Maine is on the east coast, and, as you well know, few sites east of the Mississippi can compete with dry western skies. Nevertheless, the state has something going for it:  not too many people. Once you get away from the coast, it is still possessed of many dark miles of forests. I began to suspect the Maine interior might be an undiscovered deep sky paradise.

So it was that I set out on my adventure on Saturday, August 23. Mr. Beatty had been able to arrange a late Saturday morning flight out of Mobile for me instead of my usual 0600 super-redeye, so I was looking forward to being more rested than I usually am when I reach my destinations. I made my connection in Charlotte without a hitch and was soon on my way to Boston.

Why Boston? Why not Portland, Maine? The plan was for me to meet Kelly in Beantown on Saturday, spend the night with him and his wife, Cheryl, and drive up to the star party with them on Sunday. Charlotte to Boston is not a short hop, but I had a decent book, David Weber’s Field of Dishonor, part of the Honor Harrington space opera series, to entertain me.

Eventually, it was wheels down at Logan, where I found Kelly waiting for me just outside the secure area. In a few minutes we were picking up my checked bag and were on our way to the Beattys’ home, where I was introduced to the charming Cheryl. Shortly thereafter, the three of us were off to have some fun.

A good time was indeed had by all at Kelly’s and Cheryl’s favorite sports bar, the Brickhouse Grill in Chelmsford. This is normally an activity I reserve for Mondays (at Heroes), but it was fun to spend a Saturday night in a crowded and lively place watching baseball—even if it was the Red Sox instead of the Braves. The wings were good, if not quite as good as those at Heroes—nobody has wings as good as Heroes.

When Kelly suggested I fly into Boston  the day before the Retreat was slated to begin, I was dubious. It’s gonna be a long summer on the road and an extra day away from home was not entirely to my liking. Doing Boston turned out to be a blessing, though. I was able to spend that fun evening with the Beattys, rest comfortably in their guest-room Saturday night, and was feeling good when we departed for Rockland, Maine (actually the star party is closer to tiny Washington, Maine) at a reasonable mid-morning hour on Sunday.

The drive up was actually relaxing, and after three hours we pulled into the venue, the Medomak Family Camp and Retreat Center. What was it like? Like a summer camp from the 1950s that has been magically transported to this new century. Pin-neat cabins, historic dining hall/auditorium, beautifully maintained grounds, and an expansive lake all surrounded by cool and dark Maine woods.

First order of business was getting settled in my cabin, one of two brand new ones near the main camp building. One of the things that impressed me was that not only was Medomak well maintained, it was obviously being improved and expanded. How was my cabin? Quite traditional—no phone, no TV, and, most of all, no air-conditioning (or even a ceiling fan). I didn’t care a fig about a landline phone or TV, and normally wouldn’t have cared about the lack of air-conditioning. Even in July, Maine temperatures are normally comfortable compared to the Gulf Coast. But not this summer.
While it was not as blisteringly hot as back home, at mid-day temperatures in the upper 80s and relatively high humidity made my cabin uncomfortable. Like much of the east, Maine was sweltering under a tremendous “heat dome.” The good news was that it would still cool dramatically after Sunset and was quite comfortable then. During the day? The solution was to turn off Facebook (Medomak had good wi-fi) and get out of the cabin. That was fine, since I wanted to tour the camp and surrounding area.

The first thing I did after getting unpacked for my week at Medomak was walk up the ¼ mile or so of wooded road to the observing field in a meadow at the top of a small hill. If I was impressed by the camp in general, I was doubly impressed by what the Maine Astronomy Retreat organizers and the camp folks have accomplished with the observing area.

The field, which was covered in gravel, was not huge, but it did not have to be. The MAR is an intimate event currently limited to 40 observers. That doesn’t mean amenities are lacking; there was a brand new, large warm room adjacent to the field. Need to shake off the Maine chill or use a real bathroom? This beautiful facility is just steps away.

In the evenings, not only was coffee laid on in the warm room, plenty of delicious snacks were provided to keep star gazers going through the night. Oh, and there was wi-fi too. Having wi-fi on the field comes in handy for a variety of reasons. It’s nice, for example, when you’re chasing a really faint fuzzy, to be able to download its picture of it from the Digitized Sky Survey and get an idea of what it should look like.

How about telescopes? There was a good variety of scopes on the field and ready to go: SCTs, Dobs, and, most of all, refractors. As I’ve noted before, ED/APO refractors seem to be pulling ahead again, and so it was on the Retreat field.

In addition to a couple of beautiful A-P 130s and some absolutely amazing Brandon refractors, what really caught my eye was not a scope but a mount, one of the star party organizers’, Bruce Berger’s, iOptron CEM 60. I’d heard a lot about these “center balanced” German mounts, but this was the first time I’d seen one (and, later, seen one in action) in person. My conclusion? If I were more serious about doing astrophotography than I am at the moment—the nasty weather we’ve had this summer isn’t encouraging that—I’d be sorely tempted to sell my CGEM and use the funds to help finance a CEM60.

I wasn’t just impressed by the mount’s good looks or its innovative design, I was blown away by how quiet and just good it sounded while slewing. The hand control is also an upgrade over what we’ve been used to with Meade and Celestron. In other words, quite an impressive package. The icing on the cake was that Bruce had added one of QHY’s new Polemaster polar alignment cameras, which he promised to demonstrate for me after Polaris peeped out. Next on the agenda, however, was supper.

What is there to recommend the Maine Astronomy Retreat beyond great skies, great people, and great facilities? Really great food. The description on the event’s website says it all:

All our meals are chef-prepared, small batch and from scratch. This isn’t institutional food. We grow many of our own organic vegetables; we milk our own cows, and bake our own breads and desserts. There is always plenty to go around of our hearty, healthy, comfort food. Coffee, tea, fruit and snacks are available all day and well into the night, so you can keep your eyes open waiting for that next brilliant shooting star.

This first evening, I recall, was Mexican Food Night, a fairly standard feature of many star parties. But I’d never had Mexican food like this at any star party. What was most amazing was not just the freshness of everything, but the obvious care that had gone into the food’s preparation. Nuff said.

Observing-wise, Sunday night was not perfect. Oh, it was better than the club site back home, and a least showed the potential of the site, but intermittent clouds and haze kept it from really rocking. That was OK, though. If you have to have a semi-punk night, the first night, when everybody’s tired from travel and set up, is a good night to have it. I did get a chance to see Bruce’s Polemaster camera in action, and was impressed by the speed and ease with which this gadget allowed him to achieve a precise polar alignment. If I can get my hands on one sometime I’ll give y’all a complete review of this fairly amazing gadget.

I hadn’t had to do any setup, since I didn’t have a telescope with me (I may begin traveling with an orange tube C90 shortly, but didn’t bring it along on this one), and I hadn’t had to do any driving, but I was still pretty tuckered, and by 11 p.m. was ready to head to the cabin, especially given the so-so state of the sky. There, I watched an episode of Constantine thanks to the Camp wi-fi and was soon off to dreamland.

Monday, I spent the (overly) warm daylight hours out and about, hanging with my fellow campers, and looking around. As above, it didn’t take long for my little (non-insulated) cabin to assume the character of an Easy Bake Oven.

Monday night was, alas, a cloud-out with overcast closing in by afternoon. It was obvious there’d be no observing, so Kelly and I volunteered to do “extra” presentations. In the interest of keeping everybody’s spirits up, I did my “fun” show, Things that go “Bump” in the Night Sky. Between the silliness of the talk and the wine we were drinking, I believe all and sundry had a good time clouds or no.

Tuesday morning, I rode into the little town of Liberty with Kelly and Cheryl for a look at its quaint shops, including a junk shop largely devoted to old and obscure tools. That is not really anything I am overly invested in, but in typical junk shop fashion, there was a little of everything, including, hiding in a corner, a stack of Silver Age comics. I got a 1960’s issue of Sgt. Fury and his Howling Commandos, a 1950s issue of Walt Disney’s Comics and Stories, and a couple of other goodies for practically nothing.

When night began to fall on Tuesday, there was no doubt in my mind it was going to be a good one. It was one of those spectacular evenings that make themselves known early on.  As sunset came on, the sky became a deeper and deeper blue, turning a dark purple just before going black. The Milky Way was soon burning, with the Great Rift, the galaxy’s equatorial dust lane, not just prominent but detailed.

I had some great views that night, including a survey of bright planetary nebulae like the Blue Snowball (can you believe Andromeda is back already?) and the Blinking Planetary with an exquisite Astro Physics 130. Also wonderful were the views I got through the classic C8 belonging to Sandy Mesics (my Sister from Another Mother), which she had mounted on a modern Celestron goto fork. In addition to bumming looks through the telescopes of various kind observers, I got to run a scope myself, a Meade 10-inch Lightbridge Bruce had set up. How would my somewhat atrophied finding skills do in these star crowded skies?

Like riding a bicycle, star hopping is a skill I guess you never lose. I did a tour of the sinking summer constellations, concentrating on globular star clusters. With the aid of SkySafari running on my iPhone, nary a Messier glob did I miss. All looked wonderful in the inexpensive. Lightbridge, which impressed me quite a bit more than I thought it would. I won’t tell y’all I stayed up till three—that’s usually not how I roll these days—but I stuck it out for quite a while before returning to the cabin for relaxing and DVD watching on my laptop.

Wednesday afternoon, I did quite a bit of hiking of the camp’s trails. You can bet I was careful not to step off The Path (I’ve finally learned my lesson about that) lest I wind up like Stephen King’s Patricia McFarland. Looking around, I couldn’t help wondering if poor little Trisha had wandered through these dark and slightly claustrophobic woods. I also hiked over to the lake, which is across the state route that runs past the camp. You had to be careful doing that since the road, right out of King’s Pet Semetary, is frequented by roaring trucks.

Despite some occasional bouts of clouds and even rain, the Maine Astronomy Retreat’s dedicated observers pushed on and were rewarded with some good views on both Wednesday and Thursday nights. These days, I am not one to stick it out to the wee hours, or even the semi-wee hours waiting for clearing, but that’s often my mistake. Stick-to-itiveness is sometimes rewarded by spectacular skies.

Friday evening, which started out partly cloudy, was the next to the last night of the Retreat, but, alas, my final evening on-site. On the morrow, the Beattys and I would head back to Boston, so, while I hoped it would be a good evening of star gazing, I planned to turn in fairly early. This was also the night of my main presentation, and I figured I’d be a little tired from that anyway.

On the subject of presentations, there were plenty of good ones at the retreat, and not just by me and Kelly Beatty. There were various speakers on various interesting subjects at all skill levels. Unfortunately, while my back’s problems have alleviated, I am still babying it, and was reluctant to attend any presentations lest my need to stand up after sitting for a while prove to be a distraction to the speakers.

Before the observing and before my presentation, it was time for one final dinner, and a spectacular one it was, Lobster Night. Not that I didn’t face that with a little trepidation—I’d never eaten a whole lobster in my life. Luckily, my friends Sandy and Sara were able to show me the ropes. Seemed like a lot of work to me, but the lobster was good and the associated fixins, mussels, corn, potatoes, and coleslaw, made for a great repast. Add good wine and good friends and what a great conclusion to the week it was.

My presentation, my current big one, the history of amateur astronomy as told by our telescopes, The Astronomer Looks at 60, went extremely well. As did the night’s gazing. While it began with clouds, they scudded off, and Friday turned out to be the second best evening of the event. I circulated around the field, enjoying the telescopes of my fellow star partiers, and even scoping out an object or two on my own with the Lightbridge. All too soon it was time to get some shuteye, though, and I reluctantly said adieu to the assembled observers.

Saturday began smoothly with Cheryl, Kelly, and me having a pleasant ride back to Boston where they dropped me at Logan. Got to my gate and all was well. Till my phone beeped, informing me my flight time had been changed to 12:30 pm. That didn’t seem right, since it was already 1:30. Then, the flight, which was initially scheduled for 2:30, was rescheduled for 4:30. Then to 6 pm. Finally, there was an announcement. Looked like the aircraft would not be coming at all, American said, due to “maintenance problems” (uh-huh). The upshot was that I spent the night in the Boston Courtyard Marriott rather than at home. I was put out, but it was not too bad. The bar had cold Michelob Ultras and (more or less) hot wings.

Back home, I reflected. Eight days was a lot of time to be on the road, but you know what? I was glad I’d spent those days away. What a wonderful experience and a wonderful star party (only one completely punk night, something of a miracle east of the Mississippi) it had been. My thanks to Kelly and Cheryl for their (overly kind) hospitality, and to Bruce and the other organizers as well as to the star party rank and file for making me feel welcome. Want a comfortable (in some ways luxurious) and intimate star party with great skies and great people? Can’t do better than the Maine Astronomy Retreat. Recommended.

You can see many more photos from my Maine trip in an album on my Facebook page…

Sunday, August 07, 2016


Issue 504: On the Road Again Redux...

As I told you last week, dear readers, I am now on the road for the beginning of the big 2016 star party season. That means you are again to be deprived of your customary Sunday reading material. Never fear, though. Next week you'll get the first installment of a two-parter, beginning with a report on my adventures at the Maine Astronomy Retreat. The following Sunday you'll learn about Wisconsin's Northwoods Starfest. Until then? As I also mentioned last time, hard as it is to believe there is 10-years worth of articles here for your perusal. Yes, ten years worth. I suspect even my biggest fans haven't read them all. Heck, I'm not sure I've read them all!

Monday, July 25, 2016


Issue 503: On the Road Again...

Well, cats and kittens it's that time again. What time? Star party time! The opening of the late summer/fall star party season brings with it my Annual Road Tour. First one I'll be speaking at is the Maine Astronomy Retreat, which will be underway as you read this. I hope to maybe do some brief reporting from the scene, but don't expect too much in the way of a blog for a couple of weeks (Maine is followed closely by Wisconsin's Northwoods Starfest).

So what's an Astro-blog deprived astronomy maniac to do? Look to your left. Hard as it is (for me) to believe, this blog has been rolling along for ten years now. There's plenty of stuff you might have missed. Some silly, some misguided, but mostly fun, anyhow.

Sunday, July 17, 2016


Issue 502: How Low Can You Go on the Messiers?

As in “How little aperture can an experienced observer use and still get rewarding views of the brighter objects from the backyard?” This is, friends, a follow on of sorts to last week’s edition. If you read that, you know one of the things that have concerned me of late is the size and weight of my telescopes and my ability to handle them comfortably and safely, not just years from now, but right now.

Last time, I mentioned, somewhat in passing, that I’ve been having back problems and that that might make my continued use of my Zhumell 10-inch Dobsonian problematical. That was brought home rather starkly the last dark of the Moon Saturday night when I transported the Dob, Zelda, to our club site for an evening—I thought—of relaxed deep sky cruising with a few good friends.

Zelda, a GSO scope with a solid, steel tube is not overly heavy. At least that was what I thought till that night. My backache had at least lessened, if not gone away, so I wasn’t overly concerned about loading Z into the 4Runner, setting her up at the dark site, and reloading her in the truck at the end of the evening (I can leave the scope and gear in the 4Runner overnight after I get home, unloading the next morning, unlike when I lived downtown). I was feeling good and looking forward to some nice views on a good if not perfect evening.

And Zelda did deliver those views:  spiral arms in M51, countless stars in M10 and M12, and even a little resolution of great Omega Centauri, which was descending and only barely above the tree line. No, conditions were not perfect. The Splinter Galaxy, NGC 5907, was not as prominent as it usually is in a 10-inch, but it was not much better in the 15-inch set up next to me. Finding that galaxy and anything else I wanted to look at was duck soup with the aid of my 50mm RACI finder, my Rigel Quick Finder, and SkySafari running on my ASUS tablet.

So, I was one happy little camper? Uh-huh. Until about two hours into the evening when my back began to let me know I was going to pay for loading and unloading the Dob. I considered sticking it out for a little while longer, but then the wind changed and the smoke from a nearby field that was being burned off blew over and settled onto the observing field. I reluctantly gave the evening’s run up as a bad business. Back home, I pondered what to do about my telescope/back problem. Not just at the dark site, but in the backyard.

While my backache has alleviated over the last week, I am still wary, and have decided that for now I’m only using reasonably light telescopes. Not just at the dark site, but in the backyard. Wary? I am at the moment afraid to lift the 10-incher’s tube. A pretty pass, doncha think? So, what shall I do?

The obvious candidate for use while I am on the DL, I decided, was Charity Hope Valentine, an ETX125, who I neglected to mention last time. I simply forgot about her. Maybe because she’s been squirreled away in the sunroom closet in her case almost since we moved to the suburbs. She is light, if not as light as an ETX90, and would, I thought, not be a challenge for suddenly decrepit me to move around, not even with the tube/drive base affixed to the tripod. Best of all, she is a complete little system with built in goto via the Autostar computer. The only ancillary item I’d need would be a battery or AC power supply and a dewshield.

She would have been almost perfect, but the poor little thing has gone to that big star party in the sky after being my faithful friend for a decade. I set her up in the backyard one night last week, hoping for passable if not exactly transparent skies when, suddenly, the rain began to fall. I threw a cover over Charity and scurried inside. “Maybe tomorrow,” I thought. Late the following afternoon, I thought I’d check to make sure Charity’s LNT real time clock was working—I’d replaced the battery the previous day. Hooked her to a jumpstart battery, threw the switch, and she beeped as normal, but the LED display on the Autostar controller did not illuminate. What the—?

Nothing I could do helped, so I shut her down, disconnected the Autostar, and took it into my shop, The Batcave, for examination. What the problem was was immediately evident when I opened the case:  a couple of chips had been turned to charcoal. How had that happened? There’d been a tremendous nearby lightning strike that morning. While the scope was not plugged into AC, she was close enough to the strike that the Autostar had been fried. But good.

What to do? My tests indicated there’d been some internal electronic damage to the scope, too. There’s not a lot of active circuitry in the PE, but there is some. I might try to repair the scope and replace the Autostar with one off eBay or something. Or I might put the scope on some sort of new mount—maybe a driven alt-azimuth mount like one of Celestron’s SE rigs.

But I am not going to do anything immediately. I have decided to see how it goes with my back. If my problems abate completely, I’ll go back to using the 10-inch. If not, I’ll either fix Charity or defork her. Having a light scope on a driven mount, a driven alt-azimuth mount, will be a good thing if I am not all better soon. But what do I do for now? What do I use at home and at the dark site while I am waiting for my back to tell me what to do?

Simple:  I use my good old SkyWatcher AZ-4 un-driven alt-az mounting. It’s very light and has a Vixen style dovetail saddle, so I can use any one of several scopes with it, and especially my refractors. Which refractors? The mount will happily accommodate either my C102 4-inch f/10 or my wife’s 4-inch f/6.5 Explore Scientific. Either of those should be bearable even if my backache returns. But only marginally bearable, and the C102 is approaching “Danger Will Robinson!” territory. I decided to start out smaller and lighter, with the 3-inch (80mm, actually) f/11.4 SkyWatcher OTA that came with the AZ-4.

I haven’t used this pretty OTA a whole lot, she was just lagniappe; I really only wanted the AZ-4. But from what little I’d used her five years ago, I knew she was more than sufficient for casual looks at the Moon and planets. The big question was whether she could also deliver at least somewhat satisfying Messiers while I am under the weather.

Yes, I could use my undeniably (much) better William Optics Megrez II 80mm instead, but I like the idea of the 910mm of focal length the SkyWatcher delivers. That makes her more effective on the planets—I can get higher magnifications without fooling with Barlows and very short f/l eyepieces. Having more power eyepiece for eyepiece also keeps the sky background darker in my somewhat light polluted backyard.

The weather—naturally—prevented me from answering the above question about the little scope’s efficacy for some time. Typical Mobile summer: thunderstorms every afternoon, often extending into the evening. Even if the clouds disperse they leave plenty of haze behind. And there are the bugs, of course. And walking into the night is like walking into an absolute steambath. Not the sort of environment that impels you to grab a telescope large or small.

Nevertheless, as the Allstar Game was winding down the other night (it had become obvious my National League team was gonna lose to the American League), I fetched the SkyWatcher 3-inch refractor, whose, name, by the way, is “Eloise,” out of the Batcave and sat her in the backyard to warm up—the Batcave’s air-conditioner was going full blast, and if I’d uncapped her objective immediately it would have promptly fogged up.

With the game over, I ventured back into the backyard to, first of all, reacquaint myself with what the telescope would do on the Solar System. Eyepieces? Nothing special, just my old Orion/Pro Optic wide-fields and a 6mm Celestron (Vixen made, I think) Orthoscopic that is at least 35 years old. The telescope is equipped with a 1.25-inch (only) focuser, but I hadn’t found that a limitation. Her aperture and focal length give a decent, wide field at 25mm.

Alright, onto Luna. The just before First Quarter Moon looked terrific. Of particular note was the Straight Wall, which was near the terminator. It was so sharp, like an obsidian knife lying on the lunar surface. I bumped the magnification up to close to 150x with the Ortho, and the image remained good, very good. Higher? I could have gone higher; the little scope takes magnification well, but at 150 the image is getting dim thanks to the small aperture.

Otherwise? Color, for example? What color? Yes, I know for the chromatic aberration in an 80mm achromat to be really well-controlled, it needs to be at a focal ratio of at least f/15, but no color did I see with this scope  at a smidge over f/11 (admittedly my eyes are not as sensitive to spurious color as they once were). Away from the terminator, the disk remained sharp, if maybe not quite as sharp as in an APO—still looked good, however. There is little doubt in my mind that a dedicated observer could do some fairly serious lunar exploring with this telescope.

By this time, Jupiter was getting low in the west, and was in fact behind a pine tree to the southwest. To get a look, I’d need to move the scope. That is one of the beauties of Eloise on her AZ-4. Light. No polar alignment or goto alignment. Need to move her? Just pick her up and freaking move her!

Which I did, lining up Jupe with the SkyWatcher’s red dot (“bb gun”) finder. While I have a 50mm RACI finder I can use on the telescope when needed, I don’t often need to. The Combination of the red dot and a 35mm – 40mm eyepiece makes it easy to get anything I want into the field. The verdict on Jupe? Sharp, particularly the Galilean moons despite the low altitude. There was no false color I could see other than that produced by differential refraction thanks to the altitude. The major cloud belts were easy and high in contrast. When the seeing would occasionally get really good, I could see some detail in those bands.

Saturn was nice and high by this time, so I headed that-a-way, figuring the altitude of the planet and the excellent seeing on this evening ought to allow Eloise to really strut her stuff. It did. At 150x, the ringed world was just lovely. Cassini’s Division was sharp, disk detail obvious, and a couple of Moons in addition to Titan were visible with the Ortho. Honestly, I can’t say the image was much worse than what I saw in a beautiful 4-inch Takahashi at the dark site a while back.

I already knew the 3-inch could deliver the goods on the Solar System, however. Her objective is of excellent quality, and prior to the SCT explosion of the 1970s a good 3-inch refractor was the chosen tool of many a Solar System observer. The question was would the views she’d give of the Messiers and other brighter DSOs be good enough to lure  me into the backyard with her on a regular basis while waiting for my back to decide whether it wants to punish my faux pas further?

To find out, I began with an easy one, M57, the Ring Nebula in Lyra. It’s bright and small and easy. Which doesn’t mean it’s always terrific in a small scope in light pollution. I’ve often struggled to make out the “donut hole” with a 4-inch Newtonian in light polluted areas. I inserted a 20mm Expanse eyepiece and positioned the scope on the Ring’s well remembered spot.

And there it was. It was too small at 45x to make out much, but, yes, there it was, easy to see and shining bravely amongst the dim field stars. Upping the magnification to 182x with a 5mm SkyWatcher wide-field eyepiece made the ring shape and the fact that the nebula is elongated rather than perfectly round reasonably easy.

How would Eloise stack up against other similar aperture scopes in similar conditions? The C102 would have done a better job, but only a bit better. However, the ring shape of the nebula was easier to make out than in a 4-inch reflector in comparably punk conditions. I would say the view was pretty much equal to what we had in a friend’s StarBlast (4.5-inch rich-field Newtonian) from the dark site a couple of weeks back.

In other words? Not bad. Back in the 60s, people liked to say that a 3-inch refractor is the equivalent of a 6-inch reflector. That’s not true now and wasn’t true then. In a 6-inch, the Ring is more sharply defined and it’s elongated shape far easier. There’s just no way to get around the 6-incher’s 400% increase in light gathering power. Still, a 3-inch will show the same details, just in slightly subtler fashion.

M13 was, I realized, riding high. Almost too high, nearing culmination. Where has this summer gone? Hercules’ Great Globular was OK. I did not note any resolution on this night, but the cluster looked grainy, as if it wanted to resolve. I can achieve some resolution with my 80nn APO on good nights, and certainly I can with the C102 4-inch refractor under clearer skies, so it’s not out of the question that Eloise might pull out a few suns from M13 on a superior evening, even in the backyard. Anyhow, I thought the cluster looked better in the 3-inch refractor than she does in the average 4-inch reflector.

M92, Hercules’ other globular star cluster is a good target for medium aperture telescopes under reasonable skies. It is in no way a rival of M13 for appearance, but it is good nevertheless. For a little scope peering up through humid haze? Not so much. M92 looked pretty good, all things considered, and did appear somewhat grainy, but I didn’t see any stars. As with M13, however, the Megrez will pick out a few on an OK backyard night, so I expect Miss Eloise might be able to do the same.

I thought I’d look for M51, and look I did, but no M51 did I see. That was not overly surprising considering the sky and the fact that it was getting worse as the night grew older. I was somewhat disappointed at first, but recalled that in the past, even years ago when my eyesight was no doubt more acute, I have had a very difficult time making out the two blobs that are M51 and NGC 5195 with a 6-inch Newtonians on nights such as this one.

M27 wasn’t exactly at its best, but it was there. If I’d waited for it to get a little higher, it would no doubt have been better, but despite Deep Woods Off and a citronella candle, I was literally being eaten alive by mosquitoes. As it was, the Dumbbell was a not too bad fuzzy oval at medium power.

Do you like double stars? I always have, even though I’ve gone through periods when I haven’t observed them much. One thing I know is that a longer focal length 3-inch refractor can be a powerful portable tool for viewing double stars within the limits of its resolving power. Stars are quite tight in Eloise, and she can frankly best somewhat larger reflectors on binaries. How about Polaris, then?

Uh-uh, no joy. Polaris can occasionally be a challenge for a 4-inch, so I wasn't too disappointed not to pick out the companion. I don't think the problem was resolving power, but more the dimness of the comes in the hazy, transparency-challenged skies.

The three inch proved herself, mostly,  and I think will serve admirably while I wait to see what the story is with my current infirmity. If my back goes back to normal, out comes the 10-inch. If not, if I have to baby it and seek treatment, the 3-inch, maybe supplemented by the ETX, perhaps on a new mount, will be it for a while I fear. No, 3-inches or even 5-inches is not in the same performance league as 10-inches, but I’d rather see something than nothing, and seeing what you can pull out with a wee scope is, I must reluctantly admit, challenging fun!

Sunday, July 10, 2016


Issue 501: “Lo, there shall be an ending…”

The time has come, my fellow Baby Boomers, for us to have a talk. A rather serious talk. Yes, we’ll be back to chasing Messiers next week, but this week we need to discuss weightier matters. Matters broached by my friend Barry Simon in a recent post on the Cloudy Nights Refractor Forum. The subject of Barry’s post was, to summarize and paraphrase, “What are we Boomers going to do with all our equipment, our telescopes, as we age and approach the final fade-out?”

That for me is an interesting and relevant topic and one I’ve been thinking about more than a little for the last year and a half.  It is also not one I find at all's just life and the inevitable conclusion to that story. As we retire or at least proceed past middle age, it is something that demands our attention even if, like me, you are pretty sure your last page hasn't yet been written (or at least read by you).

Why am I thinking these (supposedly) gloomy thoughts? No, I am not planning on checking out anytime soon, but I have to admit I am definitely well into my spring semester. It's not like I'm approaching  final exam week yet, but I am at least coming up on midterms. It is time to ponder these sorts of questions. If there were a title I'd bestow upon my current mindset, it would be the title of this blog entry: "Lo, there shall be an ending." 

As a natural consequence of months I’ve spent ruminating on my life’s journey, the Universe, and my place in it, I began to consider one of my life’s big passions, astronomy. Which led to me thinking about all the astro-stuff I’ve accumulated, mostly over the last 30 years, thanks to that passion. Like Barry, I had begun wondering about and worrying about what the heck to do with it all.

Surveying my gear, I realized I'd become something of a telescope hoarder. I won't say "collector," because what I had was mostly (though not all) Fords and Chevys, Meades and Celestrons. Utilitarian telescopes I liked and used. Or liked, anyway. It became clear to me that over the last decade or two I had strayed from my long time precept that telescopes are tools, and that they had become an end in themselves.

In my late 40s I got into the habit acquiring stuff I did not need:  "Well, that's a nice C8. Be good to have a backup. And she is so pretty." Soon I had backups of backups. When I finally decided to take stock about a year ago, to take inventory of all my astro-stuff, I gotta tell you I was a bit shocked.

My shop/garage, “the Batcave,” was host to over 20 telescopes, several of them heavy or otherwise cantankerous to the point where I knew I would seldom (if ever again) use them. And there was another herd inside the house. It became clear to me this wasn’t a good thing for either my physical or mental health. 15 years ago I’d have reveled in it all. Not now.

My central concern was that the scopes, mounts, accessories, and all the rest of the stuff that was the result of 50 years as an amateur astronomer not be a problem for my wife, or my kids, or my friends when I shuffle off this mortal coil. Whether that be in 10 or 20 or even 30 years--or tomorrow. The approach I took was "Anything that doesn't get used has to GO," and I got work to reduce telescope headcount.


First on the chopping block were three standard C8s. I have a Celestron Edge 800 and that is the SCT I use when I use SCTs these days (I mostly do refractors of late for a variety of reasons), and I didn't need three standard C8s. Hell, nobody really needs three extra C8s. I had them because I could have them. All three went to good homes and brought in some money.

Next up was my beloved truss tube Dobsonian "Old Betsy,” a time-honored 12-inch I’ve had since the early 1990s. She was an older design truss and quite heavy for me in these days when I have a back that occasionally complains. I made a good deal on her with a young couple who were enthusiastic about astronomy. I really hated to let Bets go—so many pleasant memories of using her—but what good was she doing sitting on the floor of the Batcave rotting away month after month? And I still have those memories.

There was also my retro telescope, my Criterion RV-6 Dynascope Newtonian. If I'd bought this one back in the day, I'd have had a hard time parting with her, but she was given to me some years ago, so it was easier to let go. Beautiful primary, drive worked fine, amazing performer. I sold the RV-6 rather than giving her away in hopes that placing some monetary value on her would give the person who bought her the impetus to take care of and use her and that appears to have happened.

Then there was an assortment of other telescopes large and small—like my StarBlast—that went out the door too, to good homes. Despite my efforts, however, I’m not quite done selling and/or giving away just yet. There is still…

My carbon fiber C11 OTA. It has taken quite a while to get up the gumption to sell her. I can remember, when I got her just after the turn of the century, going around for days with my head in the clouds chanting, “I have a C11, I have a C11!” But I'm pretty sure I will part with her. She, Big Bertha, does me no good sitting in her case in a closet night after night when she could be making some younger amateur happy. She is just too heavy for me even now and that trumps everything else.

An 8-inch f/5 Dobsonian. This ultra portable 8 has, alas, a somewhat bum focuser that needs to be replaced before I sell her (one of JMI's ridiculously bad RCF focusers). Or I might just give her away to a good home crappy focuser included. She's a pretty, pretty telescope but simply doesn't get used. Like the 12-inch, she sits on the floor of the Batcave.


My Edge 800 SCT is in this category. I don't use her too much of late, but I'd like to keep my hand in in the SCT game for one thing. For another, when I need a little more image scale for pictures, she might serve me well. Like every other scope I own, however, she could go on the chopping block as the next few years roll by. I will always have a telescope and will always observe—well, as long as I am able—but not necessarily all or even any of these current keepers will be with me to the end. Well, actually one certainly will, tail-end Charlie below.

The SkyWatcher 120 Pro ED, “Hermione,” is maybe one of two or three of my remaining scopes that might be exempt from the above. She is light and she is very capable. She is today my most used telescope and I can’t ever see her becoming difficult for me to handle, even if I have to downsize her mount a little even from the Celestron VX. She shouldn't be any trouble for someone to sell or otherwise dispose of when I depart.

Big Ethel, a 6-inch f/8 achromatic refractor, is something of an aberration, a skylark of a telescope when I was, I thought, done with skylarking telescopes. I bought her from Barry and she was for sure something of an indulgence. I always wanted a freaking 6-inch refractor, you see. On the up side, she will not be as much of a hassle for someone to collect/transport, etc. when I am not around as the 12-inch Dobsonian would have been.

Zelda, a 10-inch GSO Dobsonian, is simple and sweet, and I intend to hold onto and use her as long as I am capable of using her. No batteries, no computers. This is what replaces the C11. With the 12 and (soon) the C11 gone, I want to have a little aperture for visual work. Unfortunately, the twinges my back is emitting of late indicate “as long as I am capable” may not be as long as I might wish. We’ll see.

My most used imaging scope today—and one of my most used telescopes for any purpose—is an 80mm fluorite William Optics Megrez II. I am pretty sure she’ll will be one of the two or three with me to the end. She can do a lot and is light enough that she is at least bearable even on a camera tripod.

If I will likely keep the 80,  I will surely keep the 66mm WO Patriot refractor. Not only is the Patriot a superb wide-field imager, she takes up virtually no room in storage, and I would have to be pretty far gone not to be able to use her at all. Also, I am constantly amazed at how much I can see with this wee telescope.

I have a Celestron 4-inch f/10 C102 that gets used frequently, so she’ll likely stay along with a 3-inch f/11 SkyWatcher achromat. Both are good for when I’m feeling lazy but still want to observe with something. Unfortunately, their grab ‘n go goodness is somewhat duplicated in more elegant fashion by the two William Optics refractors, so either or both of these might hit the road at some point.

Finally, there is one telescope that is a sure survivor, my Edmund Scientific Palomar Junior. This was my first scope. I will keep her to the end. After that she is on her own.


The CG5 I used extensively for 10 years has found a new home. Funny thing? This inexpensive mount never failed me. Her gotos were always spot on and her tracking was more than good enough for me. Almost to the end she was out on dark observing fields grabbing Herschel 2500 objects.

Not gone yet, but destined to leave soon is a Synta Atlas EQ-6. This is not a bad mount. It just never gets used due to the fact that its payload and tracking capabilities are duplicated by my CGEM. The Atlas doesn’t take up a whole lotta space in the Batcave but, once again, why hold onto something that you just let sit and rot?

Several smaller mounts and accessories have also gone out the door. Stuff like EQ-1s and EQ-2s, wedges, tripods, etc., etc. None of this stuff has been missed or is likely to be. I also sold the fork/drive-base/wedge/tripod/case of the NexStar 11 when I removed the tube from the fork. I loved the setup and had used it for well over a decade, but it had become way too heavy and awkward for me.


In the short term, my CGEM is staying. It’s a good mount that makes my modest imaging programs easy. However, as soon as I get to the point where I am afraid, really afraid, to mount the head on the tripod, it will have to go. If my current back problems do not abate, that will be sooner rather than later. Why do I have a CGEM as well as an EQ-6? Never could get friendly with the EQ-6 HC and was never impressed by the EQ-6’s goto accuracy, even with EQMOD.

There is no reason I can think of to dispense with my SkyWatcher AZ-4 alt-azimuth mount. Not the greatest thing in the world, but it works, even with the Edge 800. If you want real grab 'n go, you want some kind of an undriven alt-az mount like this—especially one that’s so light and small.

And that leaves my Celestron AVX. I presume I'll use it till it (or me) fails. Far lighter than the CGEM, but still capable of taking nice pictures if you keep the focal length of the telescope reasonable. I believe I’d have to get close to being too decrepit to dare get out on an observing field at night before I’d have to give up the VX.

The astro-junk I’ve accumulated over the last half century includes more than just scopes and mounts, of course. I divested myself of my collection of decades worth of Sky & Telescope and Astronomy magazines some time back. As soon as the S&T DVDs came out, I put a huge pile of magazines on the curb (nobody, and I do mean nobody wanted them, alas). They really weren't a very practical reference tool—not like the DVDs. I kept a few from the 1960s and those I appear in and that was it. Astronomy? I still like the magazine, but I rarely open a back issue so there was no reason to keep them. Every copy of Astronomy I had went away.

Other stuff? Selling and giving away telescopes has gone a long way toward thinning the eyepiece/accessory herd as well. "Have fun with your new scope and take some nice free Kellners and Plossls with you."

So, there’s still some gear that needs to be OUTA HERE, and especially the C11 and Atlas, but even with a ways to go it has been absolutely FREEING to get rid of all that stuff. Those unused telescopes were actually stressing me out rather than making me happy. I'd walk past Old Betsy in the Batcave and think, "I've really GOT TO drag her out tonight" even if I didn't want to. As I said, in the beginning, I believe the last page of my story hasn't been written yet, but slowly, ever so slowly, beginning to make preparations for the last chapter and beyond—whatever that turns out to be—feels good.

Is this really the end of my gear lust? Will I give in and get back on the equipment train? I don’t think so. I have rules now.  I began with "Nothing comes in unless something goes out." I upped that to, "Nothing comes in unless several somethings go out," but even that didn't seem enough.  Today it's "Nothing comes in unless you have sold or given away EVERYTHING. Unless you absolutely, positively have NOTHING, not even a Short Tube 80, to star gaze with." Will I stick to that? I seem to be sticking with it so far.

I will say that if the VX mount went up in smoke tomorrow, I'd have to replace that with another VX or a similar mount, even if I still have the CGEM when that happens. As above, the CGEM is borderline heavy for me right now, and I really need a GEM in the VX's weight class. Actually, maybe that is about all I need mount-wise. If the VX is like the CG5, which is still going more than ten years down the road, this is not likely to be a problem anytime soon, thankfully.

Beyond the reduction of my stress level, I feel relieved to be working not to leave a mess or trouble behind. Oh, don’t get dewy-eyed on me, friends.  I am in good health and I plan to be observing for quite a few years yet. That's what I plan, anyhow, but you have to keep sight of the truth. And the truth, the ground truth, is in this old adage: "When your number's up, you gotta go." Don't want to cast a pall over the proceedings, but let's face it, Boomers...our numbers could be up tomorrow. I can't put it any more succinctly than that.

Whatever happens, amateur astronomy and, particularly, the last thirty years of it has been quite a ride. Wouldn't trade those years for anything—well, that's not quite true. Not quite anything. But it has been fun. I loved almost every minute of it, though I must admit I view our avocation a little differently now.

Biggest change in my thinking of late?  What I value most at this time is not the gear I’ve owned or the sights of I’ve seen or the pictures I’ve taken, but the friendships I’ve made in our hobby. The most valuable thing about the process I’ve outlined here is that it is (in part) responsible for an epiphany. The epiphany that what matters isn’t stuff, but the people you love and the people who love you. Nothing else matters, friends.

Sunday, July 03, 2016


Issue 500: The New Deep Sky Planner

It’s the 4th of July weekend! Here just on the cusp of the late summer star party season, when I will soon be logging lots and lots of air miles to bring my particular take (ahem) on amateur astronomy to your club or star party, I am feeling a little lazy. I know you like your Sunday blog, though, so I am not going to leave you high and dry. This one is a wee bit short, but it’s on an important subject:  the new release of one of the best astronomy software programs there ever has been, Deep Sky Planner.

I suppose—no, I know—there are amateur astronomers who don’t use computer software in our avocation. Some folks like the old finder-Sky Atlas 2000 way of locating objects, and when they want information on one, they turn to a book like Burnham’s Celestial Handbook. And that is fine. What matters in amateur astronomy is that you enjoy doing whatever you are doing however you are doing it. Computer-free is not how I roll in astronomy, though.

I got hooked on what we called “microcomputers” back in the dark ages, as you can read here, and they became an end in themselves for me for quite a while. It would sound funny these days to say your hobby is computers. That would be like saying “my hobby is typewriters.” But in the 70s and 80s and even into the 90s (barely), computers were as much a hobby as astronomy or radio or photography or comic book collecting. They hadn’t yet evolved into everyday tools, and not only were there computer hobbyist magazines, there were computer-fests just like hamfests, events where the microcomputer crazies among us could gather to buy-sell equipment and swap tips.

Those days are, of course, long past. Creative Computing magazine and even Byte have been gone for a long, long time. In a way that is sad. But on the other hand it’s also witness to the fact that the microcomputers, which evolved into PCs and Macs, have come of age. They are no longer things to fiddle with and play with, but useful everyday tools for getting stuff done. Including astronomy stuff.

Not long after “home computers” came along, there was astronomy software. It took a while for us to get past the first crude efforts like SkyTravel for the Commodore 64 and get to programs that could genuinely enhance the observing experience, but we got there. And it really didn’t take that long.

By the time really capable computers—the IBM and clone 486 machines—began to sprout on everybody’s, even your old Aunt May’s, desktop, it was only a little while before the first hesitant attempts at PC astronomy, software like SkyGlobe 3.6, gave way to heavy-hitters like Megastar and TheSky.

Today? I wouldn’t dream of doing astronomy without a PC. Having incredibly deep charts and access to a whole world of information about deep sky objects, information access than in the 80s would have been reserved for the professionals, has changed everything. Thanks to computers, I’ve seen more and imaged more and enjoyed the pursuit more than I would ever have dreamed possible. Which begs the question, “Well, Uncle Rod, which computer software do you use?”

That tends to change year to year if not month to month. In part it depends on the project I am working. Viewing and imaging all 2500 Herschel deep sky objects, for example, required different software than what my current interests, imaging the Messiers and doing casual deep sky visual observing with a Dobsonian, demand.

Also, the types of software I use can be divided into two types—when you leave aside specialized software for things like camera control, image processing, and spectroscopy. There are the planetarium programs, programs that put sky maps, representations of the night sky, on your computer's display. And there are planning programs, essentially giant databases of objects that allow you to make observing lists and record and manage observations.

Planetariums? I’ve used ‘em all. TheSky has been a long time fave. So has Starry Night. I suppose, however, that what I’ve used most has been the free stuff. Mostly the wonderful program Cartes du Ciel. Unfortunately, it simply won’t run on my current laptop. Not sure why and have been unable to find out. It throws up access errors at random intervals for no easily determinable reason. It’s great software and I often miss it. Or would if my problems with CdC hadn't coincided with the maturing of another great free program, Stellarium.

Stellarium is beautiful. It contains more than enough deep sky objects for me. It easily controls the goto telescope—any telescope—I am using. It is quite customizable through its scripting system. It is very easy to learn and use. Is it better than TheSkyX Professional? Not hardly, but the price is sure better, and I haven’t found anything I need to do that Stellarium cannot do. I love the program and it looks like I’ll be sticking with it for a long while.

Then comes the real subject of this article, planners. I’ve purty much used them all, starting with Deepsky, moving on to SkyTools, and experimenting with newer ones like Eye and Telescope. These giant deep sky databases have all had things to recommend them, and I could use any one of ‘em happily, no doubt. Of late, however, what I seem to be stuck on is Phyllis Lang’s Deep Sky Planner, "DSP.".

DSP is mature software, having been one of the first planners to hit the street. And Ms. Lang has kept after it, working on DSP continually over the years, making it at least incrementally better with each release. It shows. This is one of the most professional looking (and operating) astronomy programs I’ve run across. Also worth noting is the high level of user support Phyllis provides. Sometimes that is just as important as the features of the program itself.

 If you are new to DSP or planners, have a look at my review of  Deep Sky Planner 6 in the July 2015 Sky & Telescope. That will tell you all you need to know. If, however, you don’t have access to that ish (I bet your local library can pull it out of the stacks) , you can read a short review by me in Astronomy Technology Today.

So why do I love Deep Sky Planner so much? There are numerous things I like about the program, including one thing that might seem a little mundane or even silly. I like its nice big fonts. I don’t have to fool with the program or the computer to get text of a size I can read easily with six decade old eyes. The observing list displays are incredibly legible with text that’s just the right size. Doesn’t seem like a big deal in the house in the daytime, but even if you are a youngster with good vision, get on a dark field with a dim red-filtered laptop display and you will appreciate DSP’s legibility.

Another thing I love about Deep Sky Planner is its adherence to a basically standard Windows menu interface. You know, “File,” “Window,” “Help,” etc. Yes, there are special menus to support this special application, but in general everything’s where you’d expect it to be in a Windows application, not buried in non-standard menus and links.

Finally, I really like the idea that it doesn’t come with its own charting engine.  I used to think that was a liability, but not so. The program interfaces with a wide variety of planetariums (though not Stellarium, darnit). Once you establish a link to the planetarium of your choice, it works just like a built-in sky mapping engine would. That means you not only get the highest quality charts possible (as with TheSkyX Professional), but that you don’t have to learn a new charting program.

So, now we come to DSP 7. Rather than bore y’all with a point by point description of what DSP does, I’m just going to hit the “new and improved.” And there is considerable new stuff here, if more of an incremental nature compared to DSP 6, which was the Really Big Release. So, yeah, I loved DSP 6. It was great. The game changer.  The release that made Deep Sky Planner world class. That does not mean, however, that DSP 7.0 is a trivial advancement. It has some genuinely important new features/improvements:

Expanded and updated database contains over 1.55 million objects and uses the latest professional, peer-reviewed data available. Many catalogs have been updated. Please see catalogs for more details.

Any other enhancements pale beside this one. Let’s face it, planners live or die by the accuracy of the object data in their databases. What good is having tons of fuzzies if  the information on them isn't correct? No one expects every single entry in these massive catalogs to be right, of course, but I certainly appreciate the efforts by Ms. Lang to improve and correct data. I’ve done some checking haven’t run across any bum entries yet.

Object designation matching engine can find matches for designations that you enter using sophisticated pattern matching technology. The engine is forgiving of case mismatches, extra or no spaces in designations, and can match some commonly used catalog mnemonics that are not IAU approved (e.g., B for Barnard Dark nebulae).

You know what I hate? Planners that are picky about the way you enter the object designations for a search. Nothing is more frustrating than being made to enter M103 instead of M 103 or vice versa. Deep Sky Planner is good in this regard, and I am glad. Almost as important as the accuracy of the data in these programs—or maybe moreso—is your ability to easily and quickly search for the objects you want. Once you catch on to the DSP way of doing things, finding the objects of your heart’s desire is easy.

Drag and drop objects from any Deep-Sky Planner report into a plan, or add your own objects.

One feature that speeds up my composing of observing lists and projects is the ability to drag and drop objects into a plan (a list). Search result window on one side, plan window on the other, and I can happily drag whatever I want into the plan with my mouse. Why some other planners don’t offer this functionality, I’ll never know. DSP already featured this before v7, but the dragging and dropping seems smoother than ever now.

Display essential object information from the latest professional data, DSS images and other graphical data for objects.

When I’m doing a project that involves the dim and difficult, it’s often helpful to have an image of what I am looking for at hand. While DSP has long had the ability to download Digitized Sky Survey images, this facility has been substantially improved since Version 5. It had become more reliable and quicker in 6 (which introduced the ability to batch download object images), and Phyllis seems to have now put the finishing touches on it. Image downloads are faster than ever (within the limits imposed by the DSS server).

Includes emission line data for planetary nebulae which is useful for selecting the best optical or narrowband filter.

Is the above something I’d use frequently or at all? Maybe not, but it demonstrates the depth of features and capabilities the program boasts. It is not a piece of software you’ll quickly outgrow; it’s a program you will grow into.

I could keep on chirping about DSP 7’s features, but I don’t want to talk your ear off--it's time to get that grill going. To sum up, Deep Sky Planner 7 is more an evolution than a revolution. It’s the filing off of a few rough edges—and there weren’t many left—on Deep Sky Planner 6. But does that mean you shouldn’t upgrade if you have Version 6? Not at all. Not hardly. The bottom line is that 7 is better. Maybe incrementally after 6, which was something of a revolution, but it is better. You want it.

To learn more, just go to the DSP website (where you’ll find links to excellent videos, including instructional videos) to learn more. One thing you’ll find out there is how modest the price is for all this goodness:  a measly 75 bucks for a download (a “real” CD is just a little more). Upgrading from 6? How about $37.50? Given the utility of this program, I just don’t know how you can beat that with a stick. Have at it Kats and Kittens and tell Ms. Phyllis I sent ya.

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