Saturday, July 22, 2006

 

Email and the Astro Biz

I recently had a somewhat troubling—but illuminating—experience with one of the best known vendors in the U.S. astronomy business. I'm not gonna name names because, for one thing, the folks in question quickly put things right, and, for another, they aren't the only ones in the business screwing up in this area.

Screwing up? In what area? Failing to respond to customer emails. Like many of you, I presume, I've gotten used to doing business via email rather than via telephone. For me, it's much easier to fire off an email than it is to find a spot at work with good cellphone coverage, look up a number, wait while I'm (inevitably) put on hold, etc., etc. Most of the time, email works just fine. But not all the time, not hardly. Unfortunately, many of the folks doing astronomy business haven't gotten the word that there are people like me who depend on email.

The incident that prompted me to think about this astronomy email "problem" was a simple one: I received an incorrect shipment from a well-respected seller. I went to their website (from which I'd ordered the misbegotten item in the first place), and clicked on their "email contact" button. A couple of days went by. Nothing. I launched a couple of more emails. Nothing. I finally broadcast an appeal via my mailing lists and (coincidentally, perhaps) finally received a reply. My problem was taken care of in short order, but why had it taken three days for that to happen?

As above, this wasn't the first time this has happened to me, either. The reason for this lack of attention to email enquiries, I assume, is because even the big names in the amateur astronomy world are pretty small potatos, really. I guess answering email gets shoved pretty far down the list of priorities when things are busy. This is not the case with all vendors. There are several, including a well-known Washington state outfit, who'll jump on your emails like a duck on a Junebug. But that's still not common practice with astro-sellers.

Bottom line? Vendors, if you are going to post an email address as a contact for you, it's incumbent on you to check your email AT LEAST once a day, and answer all the enquiries. If you can't do that, for whatever reason, don't list an email address as a contact for your business. It is not up to your customers to decide which contact method, email or telephone, is the "right way" to get ahold of you.

These are not glorious times for astro merchants...the last thing any of you need is to lose customers, right? Nuff said.

Friday, July 07, 2006

 

She's Dead, Jim?



The 10-inch RCX400
Is Meade having problems in RCX land? Much as I wanted this scope to be a big success from the get-go, a survey of postings on the RCX400 Yahoo group makes it look like Meade has some work to do. Yes, I know reading Yahoogroups gives you a jaundiced idea of the “condition” of a particular scope. Most people only post problems; those who have a scope that works perfectly are less likely to post about it. It has been my experience, however, that when there’s this much smoke there’s fire. I think the RCX has the makings of a classic, a telescope that gives us SCT fans a lot of the things we've been asking for.  If Meade takes action to reverse a seeming slow downward spiral for their flagship instrument. I just hope it’s not too late already.

When I heard the details on Meade's new Schmidt Cassegrain, I was pretty sure there'd be a trade-off. I figured the bargain was this: Meade would offer us these clearly ground-breaking SCTs (an improved and optimized SCT optical set, zero-shift focusing via a motor driven secondary, USB connectivity, a built in corrector heater, and more) BUT they'd ask a much more “realistic” price than they've charged for their SCTs over the last decade. Essentially, the RCXes would cost about twice what we’ve been accustomed to paying for Meade’s (and Celestron's) feature-heavy CATs.

One thing this would do, I thought, would be allow the blue boys to discontinue their all too frequent practice of having early-adopters “beta test” new scopes. Even more importantly, it would allow Meade to spend more time QAing the scopes that come off the factory floor. If you ordered an RCX, you would be pretty damned sure it would work out of the box.

What happened? Well, the RCXes did indeed turn out to be significantly more expensive than the LX200s, if not quite twice as pricey. That doesn't seem to have helped with quality, however. I hear all too many stories about problems. Problems with the motorized focusing/collimation system, especially. Everything from motors running away to “just didn’t work out of the box.” That’s not all, either. There appear to be software problems and drive problems as well. Yes, the optics are good, “impressive” in my book. However, what good is that if you can’t focus or collimate said optics reliably? It’s not just the big things, either. For the price of an LX200GPS, people are willing to put up with small annoyances and shortcomings--like rough castings and poor finishes. For the price of an RCX? The jury’s out on that one.

I do know this: many more upset and angry RCX owners (the customer base for these scopes ain’t huge to begin with), and Meade can pack it in. If the RCX comes to be perceived as a “problem scope” that comes with no more assurance of quality than a garden variety LX200 GPS, I’d guess sales will dry up. I mean, who’s going to pay nearly twice as much for the same old, “it can take pictures pretty well if you buy an SBIG AO-7 to go with it” and “the declination clutch wouldn’t hold/stripped out, so I had to buy an EZ Clutch kit from Petersen to fix it”?

More fatal? Say your RCX's computer drive goes out five years from now. Unlike a dead LX200, you cannot just remove the tube from the mount, put it on a German equatorial mount and keep on trucking. How are you going to focus and collimate it without the RCX's computer's control? You can't.

Is the RCX doomed, then? Will this brave experiment by Big Blue fail? It doesn’t have to. I was quite impressed by the RCX in my initial encounter with the scope (a 10-inch) at the Cherry Springs Star Party. The optics were very good, it worked as advertised, and I had a great time scanning sucker holes with it on my recent trip to Pennsylvania.

 That said, there were a couple of things I found unsettling. Most of all, the motors. As I’ve mentioned on more than one occasion, Meade’s motors don’t inspire confidence. It’s not just that they sound like weasels with tuberculosis. It’s that it’s not uncommon for anybody’s Autostar on everything from the ETX to the LX200 to display “motor unit fault.” I had assumed the RCX would be WAY above all that. But…while the focusing and slewing motors on the RCX I tried worked well enough, they sounded a lot like the motors on my ETX-125PE: stressed-out.

The way the motors sound is not a big deal if they work. But it’s a perception. I saw that in my initial encounter with the telescope (at a star party). People would walk up to the scope on the field and form an impression of it based on the way it sounded. I’m afraid the impression they formed as it moved itself across the sky was: “slot car motors, just like an ETX.” No, that wasn’t fair, but that’s what was happening.

If it had just been motor sounds, I wouldn’t have been quite as concerned, but that wasn’t all that troubled me. While the (carbon fiber) OTA looked great, the fork and drivebase displayed a little less in the way of fit and finish than I’d have expected at this price point. It wasn’t so much that the fork arms and base castings look pretty much like those on the LX200GPS, it was they don’t seem to be fitted together as well as they could be or finished as smoothly as I’d like ‘em to be. Yes, this is largely a matter of appearances only (not completely; some RCXes have apparently been mechanically unsound), but, again, buying a scope is like buying a car. A lot of the purchase decision is based on emotions and perceptions and has nothing to do with a telescope’s utility or capability.

What’s gonna happen to the RCX, then? I think it’s stumbled to the canvas and the count is approaching “five.” There’s still time for it to get up and score a knockout, though. This is a groundbreaking telescope—I really believe that—and it deserves success. Meade deserves success for taking a chance with it. None of the RCX problems need be fatal “if.” If Meade can ensure the telescopes work well and reliably out of the box. If, on the other hand, large numbers of RCXes start/continue flowing back to California not long after they’ve been delivered, look out Meade, look out….

Sunday, July 02, 2006

 

Uncle Rod at Pennsylvania's Dark Sky Park


After finally arriving at the Cherry Springs Star Party late on a wet and foggy northern Pennsylvania afternoon, your old Uncle Rod spent an hour trotting around the observing field, meeting CSSP organizers from ASH (The Astronomical Society of Harrisburg), and getting the lay of the land. In truth, though, there ain’t much fun to be had in surveying a field full of Desert Storm covered telescopes. How about that nice, big dealers’ tent? It being almost 7pm, most of the dealers had decamped. Shoot! But I had to admit I was a mite tired after 12 hours of flying and driving.

I hate to waste star party time sleeping at a motel, but there was really nothing for it. I got driving directions to the little town of Coudersport, Pennsylvania and the Mill Stream Inn where I’d be staying and headed on out. It was getting dark by now, and I was very mindful of the warning I’d been given to “watch out for the deer.” Bubba (my countrified friend, you know, bib overalls, shaved head, no shoes, 300 pound physique) would have had a fine and illegal time…I must have counted at least eight does on my way down into Coudersport, about 10 miles.

The Mill Stream Inn turned out to be a clean and spacious hostelry with some features I don’t normally associate with country motels: wi-fi Internet, a good selection of satellite TV channels, and a decent continental breakfast. I don’t mind telling you I was beat. Figgered I’d have a beer and turn in. Gas station? No beer. Convenience store? No beer. One of the locals told me I’d have to head over to the town bar, “The Beef and Ale,” where they’d be happy to sell me a sixer. ‘Deed they were. A couple of the local Yuengling brews and it was night-night time.

Next morning, Saturday, 24 June, after filling up on motel donuts, I headed back to the site. Wow, lots of scopes, and at least some familiar names from my Internet user groups. After visiting with numerous very nice folks (I take back all those bad things I’ve said about Yankees over the years), I headed to the dealers’ tent.

In spite of the generally poor weather--part of the first night of the event had been clear occasionally--the dealers' tent was just about full. In addition to TeleVue, Camera Concepts, Knight Owl, and others, I found my buddy Bob Black had a nice spread set up. His new company is called “Skies Unlimited,” and I predict big things for it. Before long, Denkmeier, the binoviewer guys, showed up with a bunch of their gear. I was very pleased to be able to meet the “Denks” in person, finally. Did I buy anything from any of these excellent vendors? I got a nice APO barlow from Knight Owl and left it at that.

I spent the balance of a wonderful day touring the field and talking with amateurs. As ol’ Sol finally began his descent, I realized it was almost time for my presentation, “Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Video Astronomy, but Were Afraid to Ask.” I hope the nice people of CSSP didn’t find my down home humor, an integral part of any talk I give, too “rustic.” Whether they did or not, I subjected ‘em to a whole lot more of it after the presentaton as well, since I was the designated “prize ticket puller” for the raffle (lots and lots of cool prizes, you betcha). Whether they found my Southern Manners tiresome or not, my audience was very nice to me, that’s for sure.

What’s a star party really about, though? Observing. Almost magically, despite the dreadful weather that was being experienced all over the northeast at the time, the heavens opened up for us for a little while on Saturday evening. While there was still some haze, the sky was dark and the summer Milky Way dramatic.

I found myself in the odd and unenviable position of being at a major star party without a scope. Luckily, this did not last. The Meade rep allowed that seeing as how I probably knew more about running a 10-inch RCX400 (or any scope) than he did, I should take the controls of Meade’s new top of the line CAT. I didn’t protest too much (!). I spent a couple of hours sending this fancy new SCT (you read that right) from one deep sky wonder to another. I was impressed both by its features and its sharp images, and will be writing a more in-depth article on the scope for the blog in the near future.

All too soon, though, it was midnight. That was “pumpkin-time” for me. There was that punishing trip back down south the following morning. I know it’s a wee bit corny to say so (I’m a cornball at heart), but I left Cherry Springs with a heavy heart. I hope to return some day soon, and want to thank the fine folk of the ASH and the Cherry Springs Star Party for the wonderful reception and the wonderful time I had.

Saturday, July 01, 2006

 

The Night Everything Changed



Let’s go sell our Naglers on Astromart before anybody else finds out about the UWANs

It used to be amateur astronomy was comfortingly changeless. When I got started in this avocation back in the mid 1960s, little changed from year to year—when it came to equipment, anyway. Page through Sky & Telescope magazine (the only major amateur astronomy publication at the time), and you saw the same old ads month after month, year after year. Heck, Jaegers and Unitron (I know you old timers remember them) ran the exact same ads for at least a decade.

But that was then and this is now. Today, amateur astronomy changes at a dizzying pace not only year to year but month to month. Not just equipment-wise, but that’s a big part of the changes that keep coming thick and fast. This change is being driven by two things: advances in technology, and the availability of inexpensive but relatively high quality gear from the Far East. And by the Far East, as you’ve probably guessed, I’m talking about Taiwan and Mainland China. The Chinese optics factories have been pumping out shovel-fulls of astro-gear: scopes, mounts, and, maybe most of all eyepieces for about a decade.

Yep, Chinese eyepieces. Which means cheap Chinese plossls, right? Well, it used to mean that, and nothing wrong with that either. The influx of Chinese oculars has meant that Joe and Jane Novice-Amateur can now expect to receive two or three decent quality plossls with their new scopes rather than the one (usually crappy) Kellner that was de rigueur in the 80s and early 90s. 

“Well,” you say, “that’s fine for the newbies, but the last thing I need is another 50 degree apparent field plossl. I’m in the TeleVue and Pentax league now. Wake me up when the Chinese factories star turning out eyepieces like Naglers and XLs.” OK, well, WAKE UP. In one sense, this has already happened. The guts for most of the TeleVue eyepieces have been coming from Taiwan for some years. But I know what you mean: When will Mainland or Taiwanese factories bring forth something to rival a Nagler or a Panoptic at a bargain price?

The last time I reported on “import” eyepieces here, about a year and a half ago, I said:

Chinese eyepieces with spaceship-porthole fields are popping up everywhere, with several U.S. vendors offering 65° and, more recently, 80° apparent field oculars. Are they competitive with Naglers? No. Not right now. Not even close. 

And, truthfully, if I’d been asked to guess when we’d see ultra-wide type eyepieces with the quality of TeleVue and Pentax and Meade flowing from Taiwan and Mainland China and into our hot little hands, I would have guessed “five years.” Sure, Chinese firms had been producing significant numbers of 80-degree apparent field range eyepieces for a while, but a glance at the field edge of one of these oculars, even in my beloved f/10 SCTs, showed their designers had a long, long way to go before they could hope to challenge TeleVue or Pentax. Or so I thought, anyway. On one recent night, you see, everything changed: the UWANs are here.

What the aitch-E-double-L is a “UWAN”? How do you even pronounce it? Well, I ‘speck you’ll be hearing a lot about this new series of William Optics eyepieces in the coming months, and will get used to chattering about them on the Internet and with your astronomy club buddies. U-W-A-N will roll off your tongue just like N-A-G-L-E-R (which, incidentally, some folks still don’t know how to pronounce). Anyhoo, “UWAN” ain’t a town in Taiwan, it’s an acronym for “Ultra Wide Angle.”

“OK. Whatever. Another wide-field from the East that makes an open cluster look like a flock of seagulls.” I must admit that was what I thought when I first heard about the UWANs. But my opinion began to change as soon as I plucked the first eyepiece out of its TV-like cardboard box. Actually, my opinion changed a wee bit as soon as I laid eyes on the eyepiece’s box. Even the packaging for the UWANs spells quality. It’s about as far from plastic baggies and proletarian plastic “bolt cases” as you can get.  Not that I spent much time thinking about the UWANs’ boxes.  

No, once I’d retrieved the three boxes containing 7mm, 16mm and 28mm eyepieces from the shipping container Daniel and the gang at William Optics had sent me, I didn’t waste any time. In fact, I tore at the 28mm UWAN’s box like a madman.  I focused on the 28 first solely because its box was big. 35 Pan big or 31 Nagler big.

The 28mm UWAN was an incredibly impressive eyepiece at first sight, and not just because of its size (this is a 2-inch only eyepiece) or its weight (2.2 pounds, same as the 31 Nagler), but because, without even looking through it, I knew this was the highest quality Chinese eyepiece I’d ever run across. If you’ll look back at my earlier review, “A Bird’s Eye View of Chinese Eyepieces,” you’ll find that I was fairly impressed with the 80-degree apparent field Bird’s Eye 30mm, which was the first ultra-wide import eyepiece I’d tried. One look at the 28 UWAN, however, and I knew the eyepiece business had suddenly become a whole new ballgame. 

The other UWANs, the 7mm and the 16mm (WO also makes a 4mm, which I didn’t evaluate), are almost identical to the 28 except for size, weight, and barrel format

(they are both 1.25 inchers). That is, they’re smaller, but obviously also made to the same high standards (see Table I for their vital statistics).  

Pretty, yes, but pretty is as pretty does. When would I get to try these things? A peep through one of Chaos Manor South’s windows revealed that it would be a beautifully clear—if substantially light polluted--winter’s evening. Apparently the New Telescope Curse only applies to telescopes, not eyepieces. It’s not an exaggeration to say that I was like a little kid on the night before Christmas as I waited for darkness.

Act I: Chaos Manor South Backyard 

When the Sun finally dipped beneath the horizon and darkness deepened across The Swamp, I gathered up the William Optics 80mm Fluorite refractor and the brace of UWANs and headed for the backyard. This would be a preliminary sort of test, just enough to let me know if I needed to bother with further testing to include taking these eyepieces to a dark site. While my expectations were fairly high, I’ll also admit that there was a bit of prejudice lurking in the back of my mind: “These eyepieces will probably be alright, but they will not be as good as TeleVues. My job will be to see how close they come to the Naglers.”

I’d start out with the 28mm, and work my way down in focal length. What would I look at? Where better to start than with M42? With the 80mm refractor, the 28 UWAN would yield about 20x, and the rich star fields of the sword area would provide a fairly punishing first test for “Big Dog.” OK, tighten those setscrews; this is one heavy mutha, move just a little south, touch up the focus a bit (is my hand trembling?)…take a look….Ahhhh…

Maybe the beauty of the view was enhanced by the fact that I really hadn’t expected too much. But what I was seeing was pinpoint stars all across the field of the eyepiece. Tiny little stars and high contrast nebulosity. It really was that “spaceship porthole” experience that Uncle Al Nagler has preached about for so many years—this time without a TeleVue eyepiece. To say the view reminded me of what I’d seen in a comparable Nagler, a 26 or a 31, was an understatement. The field was wonderfully flat nearly to the edge, without any apparent astigmatism on view.  

Yes, I was shocked. SHOCKED, I tell you. The obvious build quality had meant I’d expected “good,” but not “world class.” Was I crackin’ up? Had the rat race finally become too much for Unk Rod? Was his memory of what a TV eyepiece field looks like slippin’? I wasn’t sure. Unfortunately, I had neither a 31 nor a 26 Nagler available for one-on-one comparison. But I do own a much-loved 35mm Panoptic. I rushed backed into the house to retrieve it. Slammed it into the diagonal. Took a look. "Uh-oh. Things are gonna be different from this night forward."  

While the 35mm ain’t exactly a Nagler, it’s a very good performer, especially in medium focal ratio telescopes. The 68-degree field doesn’t stress things out much, no matter what the f/r. But there was no denying it: the view in the 28mm UWAN was better. The field looked sharper at the edge in my opinion. And…the 28 was more comfortable to use. While eye placement is a factor with the UWAN, it is less so than with the 35mm Panoptic (which can be a real pain in the you-know-what till you’ve used it for a few weeks). On top of that, there’s that giant UWAN 82-degree big-screen-television field. No contest, really.

Back in went the UWAN. So much for the deep sky. A gibbous moon was smiling down on Chaos Manor South’s hallowed halls. How would the 28 handle a bright object? Very well indeed. The Moon was satisfyingly sharp no matter where I moved it in the field. Chromatic aberration? If it was there, it was subtle. I was never quite sure whether what I was seeing along the limb was really due to chromatic aberration or due to differential refraction. A 28mm ultra-wide wouldn’t normally be my choice for Lunar observing. But you could certainly do it with this ultra-wide. Scattered light, whether Diana was in the field or just outside it, was fairly minimal and contrast was very good as gauged by the appearance of stars nearing the Lunar limb.

Yes, I was bowled over by the 28, but I realized I shouldn’t ignore the 16mm and the 7mm. I was particularly interested in the 16mm, as this is a focal length that is quite useful for me given my SCTs’ normally high focal ratios. A good meat and potatoes eyepiece, whether used at f/10, reduced to f/6.3 or barlowed to f/20.  The 16mm performed very similarly to the 28mm, displaying a good, flat field, a lack of astigmatism, and excellent contrast characteristics. As I played around with the Moon, moving it about in the field, I thought the color effects along the Moon’s limb were slightly more noticeable than in the 28, but not more noticeable than what I saw in a comparable focal length TeleVue eyepiece, a 22 Panoptic. As with the 28mm, this slight color was quite likely due to atmospheric effects rather than any optical problems in the eyepiece or the APO refractor. In all respects, from field flatness to field size, the UWAN 16mm was clearly superior to the 22 Panoptic.

While the 28mm UWAN is an impressive eyepiece, for sure, believe it or not, the 16mm has actually seen more use in my SCTs. It’s just a good general purpose ocular, and works surpassingly well in conjunction with my Denkmeier Power X Switch diagonal (which allows you to switch in an f/5 focal reducer or a barlow at will) in my C11. In fact, there’ve been plenty of nights where all I’ve used has been the 16mm. No foolin’.

The 7mm? This is a less interesting eyepiece for me, since, given that I’m Mr. SCT. 7mm of eyepiece focal length isn’t often as useful in an f/10 telescope as 28 or 16 millimeters. In the little 80 APO, it did provide a comfortable magnification of 80x. In all respects, the 7mm is an eyepiece that’s very similar to the 16, just with shorter focal length. While I’m not an eyeglasses wearer, and really not the one to judge what you spectacle users will like or not like, I’d say that the 7mm’s 12mm of eye relief (same as the 16mm) will be at least bearable. This is, by the way, the same amount of eye relief as on the Nagler 7mm. On Luna, the UWAN 7 provided satisfying detail, though I did notice a bit more in the way of stray reflected light, both with the Moon in the field and just off the field edge, than I recalled with a 7mm Nagler.

As I was breaking down the scope, I began ruminating on the evening’s observing run. To say I was surprised would be an understatement. I was surprised, alright. Surprised that the UWANs had appeared to perform identically to comparable Naglers. But the fact was I hadn’t been able to do a direct side by side comparison with TeleVue’s ultra-wide wonders. The only Nagler in my eyepiece box at this time was a 12mm, which falls smack in between the 16 and the 7 focal-length-wise. What did I know for sure? It was undeniably clear that the UWANs were superior to TeleVue Panoptics, but that was all I was willing to say at this point. Were the UWANs really as good as Naglers? After a shot or two of Rebel Yell whisky, I began to doubt what I thought I’d seen.

Intermission

Ah, the clear light of morning. Time to reevaluate the UWANs. Or at least do further testing and checking in daylight. But what could I deduce about the UWANs in the sane light of day following my night of eyepiece debauchery? I started back at square one. Other than that the 28mm is one big, heavy eyepiece, what could I say about the appearance of the UWANs?

Well, all three look surprisingly different from most other eyepieces on the market, ultra-wide or not. We know what an eyepiece is ‘sposed to look like. Black top, chrome barrel. Not these. The whole shebang is a shiny anodized black. While this looks “different,” it’s also attractive and “professional” looking. I like this color scheme for the same reason I prefer all-black single lens reflex cameras to the chrome-top models: the black finish just looks cool.  

What else? The eye guards brought me up short for a while. When I first removed the eyepieces from their packaging the night before, I was baffled by the eyecups—or rather by the apparent lack of them. Oh, there was a rubber thingy at the top of the eyepiece, but try as he might, silly old Uncle Rod couldn’t get this “eyecup” to flip up. Oh, well, I forgot about it in my rush to get the eyepieces out into the backyard on that first evening.  

In the day-lit living room of Chaos Manor South, I got the UWAN eyecups figured out. Turn the rubber part counterclockwise to extend the eye guard, clockwise to return it to its “retracted” position. The tip-off was the raised arrow-like symbol on the side of the eyecup. Well, nobody ever said Uncle Rod was quick off the mark. I found that this system worked very well, and, unlike on the new Meade Ultrawide eyepieces, there is absolutely no yucky grease (that will get on your fingers and will inevitably be transferred to the eye lens).

Good thing these eyecups work well, ‘cause you’ll find you need them. Using the UWANs on terrestrial subjects showed that they are a little pickier with regards to eye placement than Naglers. Especially the 28mm. Don’t hold your head right, and you’ll notice some “blackout”—the field will tend to go dark, at least in places. With the eyecups extended, it’s easy to place your eye so as to minimize any of this behavior. Now, don’t panic. Eye placement is less critical with these eyepieces than with the renowned 35mm Panoptic, and problems in this regard only became truly notable when the UWANs were used on bright terrestrial subjects.  

After looking at a few errant squirrels with the UWANs and the 80 APO, I removed the eyepieces to my sunlit deck where I examined them between draughts of Coors Light. Holding the eye lens up to incident light revealed flawless coatings that reflected back tones of violet and green (the UWANs are, not surprisingly, “fully multicoated”). Not the gaudy greens of the coatings of many of the inexpensive optics you see these days, but subdued reflections set against a dark background. Think of the coatings on a good SLR lens. 

T’other end? Coatings on the field lenses looked just as good as those on the eye lenses. One thing I did note was that the insides of the barrels seemed to reflect more light than I’d have expected. They verge on shiny, just like the eyepiece exteriors, rather than flat black. However, the whole barrel is threaded, not just the end where you’ll screw on a filter, and these threads appear to help keep unwonted reflections in check.  I do think flat black like that used on the TeleVue eyepieces would probably improve the UWANs’ scattered light handling, however.

Lens caps? Who cares about lens caps? We all do. When you spend what seems like half your life removing and replacing caps on eyepieces, they assume more prominence than you’d think. One of the few things I have never liked about TeleVue eyepieces is their semi-hard plastic lens caps. The large ones that go over the eye lenses always seem to be in the process of falling off, and god only knows how many hours I’ve spent searching for them with a red light on a dark observing field. All the UWANs use softer rubber lens caps for both field and eye lenses, which are easy to remove, but which also stay firmly attached.  They are purty, too, with an embossed WO swan logo.

Another thing I don’t like about Naglers and Panoptics? Those blasted safety “undercuts” on the barrels. I don’t know what makes eyepieces with these undercut areas “safer,” really, but I do know that your Uncle Rod says lots of bad words when he tries to remove a TV eyepiece from a diagonal that uses a compression ring securing system rather than a set-screw. The compression ring always seem to snag on the undercut, and I have to spend the next several minutes loosening the securing screw and moving the eyepiece back and forth in hopes of getting it out of the danged diagonal without moving the scope off target. I’ve mentioned to Al and David Nagler how much I HATE these undercuts, but they seem unimpressed.

The good news? The UWANs do away with the undercut and, instead, feature a barrel that slopes-in gently just before it terminates in the upper body of the eyepiece. I really don’t think even this is necessary, but if you need some kind of a safety, this is much preferable to that gull-derned undercut.

How about the eyepieces’ other specs? Eye relief, field stop diameter, etc.? I don’t have anything like an optical bench squirreled away in the bowels of Chaos Manor South, and my pore ol’ eyes ain’t what they used to be (if they ever were), but my measurements agreed pretty closely with those given by WO and shown in Table I.

ACT II: The Chiefland Shootout  

It was time to subject these eyepieces to the ultimate test: A fast scope comparo in the hands of the Big Dob types who swarm into the Chiefland Astronomy Village in Chiefland, Florida for twice-annual deep sky pow-wows. We’re talking people who eat and breathe Naglers, XLs, and Ultra-wides.  To that end, my long-time observing companion, Pat Rochford, and I made tracks for the dark skies of Florida's Nature Coast.

I had prepared a little speech to recite to prospective “subjects” for the testing we proposed to do, explaining what a UWAN was, and that I wanted to get their opinions on the eyepieces in their scopes. It turned out that my little spiel wasn’t needed. In these days of Internet newsgroups, Yahogroups, and Astromart, news about new astronomy equipment travels fast. In no time we’d not only assembled several experienced observers, we’d also been able to find somebody with a 26mm Nagler, which we felt would be a good opponent for the 28 in the Shootout at the Chiefland Corral.

Telescopes? It wasn’t difficult to find several test beds in a field overflowing with dobsonian reflectors of every size and focal ratio. I settled on three. An f/5, an f/4.5, and, the ultimate punishment for any eyepiece, an f/3.26. What did I do? I basically just stepped back and let Pat, an inveterate Dob user, direct the testing. He’s more familiar with the ins-and-outs of Dobonian telescopes than I am. I also felt I was becoming a little less than unbiased. Yes, I was rooting for the UWANs. They were the underdog, and I always find myself taking the side of that puppy, sometimes against my better judgment.  

I needn’t have worried about the 28mm holding its own. There was general agreement that the 28 was “as good or a little better” than the 26 Nagler in the areas of field flatness, sharpness, and edge-quality. This was on a variety of objects, including monstrous Omega Centauri with its countless tiny, tiny stars. In fact, the only time our informal panel of testers felt that the 26 Nagler pulled ahead was in the f/3.26 scope, and everybody agreed that its advantage, even there, was relatively slight.

The quote at the beginning of this review is genuine. The testing over, I was confronted by the sight of my group of eyepiece evaluators walking back to my observing spot on the field like Olympic victors, with one worthy hefting the 28 UWAN like a trophy while chirping: “Let’s get on Astromart and sell our Naglers before anybody else finds out about the UWANs!”

Denouement 

The UWAN eyepieces, those I’ve tested, the 28, the 16, and the 7, are clearly the equal of the TeleVue Naglers (and other premium ultra-wide eyepieces). What does that mean for amateur astronomy? For the average amateur, this is a boon. It means those of us who thought premium ultra-wide eyepieces were out of reach can do a little re-thinking and re-budgeting.   

For William Optics, this is a significant breakthrough. Look for them to assume the role of major player in the astro-equipment biz if they can capitalize on the UWANs. That means continuing to add focal lengths and improve the product. It also means a sustained advertising campaign to get the word out on their eyepieces and other gear (which they seem to be beginning to do). Will they do these things? I don’t know, but if they do, they will be huge.  

For us hard-core equipment-crazy galoots, the arrival of the UWANs is really all gravy. Nagler quality at Panoptic (or lower) prices. Whoo-hoo! Yes, one night everything did change. And it feels good, pardners. Real good. Pass me that 16 UWAN, wouldya?

 

Cherry Springs Star Party 2006


I've been to star parties in most parts of this country since attending them became a popular thing for amateur astronomers to do. But, you know what? Until the other day, I had never, ever been to one north of the Mason Dixon Line. I have been out of the deep south--most notably to Texas and the Texas Star Party, but never to the honest-to-got north.

That being the case, when I was invited to speak at the Cherry Springs Star Party way up in Pennsylvania, near the little town of Coudersport, PA, I just could not resist. Well, that wasn't the only reason. This location, Cherry Springs State Park, just over the New York line, is justly famous for the Black Forest Star Party, a long-time fixture of observing life in the north.

The only bad part of Cherry Springs? Getting there. The powers that be just don't expect someone to want to fly from Mobile, Alabama to Elmira, New York (the cloesest airport to the star party). Your poor, old Uncle had to embark on a journey that involved three separate airplanes with stops in Philadelphia and Charlotte, NC.

Not only were the U.S. Airways (aka, "Aeroflot") flights...err..."unpleasant," they were late, with me not getting into Elmira till 5pm. Evening was coming on in a few hours, it was raining, and fog was rolling in. So, I was a little paranoid about negotiating the 80 miles between Elmira and Cherry Springs, completely unknown territory for me, in these conditions.

I needn't have worried. In this age of online driving instructions, it fairly simple to find the star party location without a single wrong turn despite loads of road construction and detours. The only problem Your Old Uncle had was READING the printout of directions with his middle-aged eyes. I had to put on my readers to make them out, but had to remove those glasses to drive safely. I'm thinking it might be about time for me to get one of those new-fangled GPSes for just such occasions. Anyhow, I rolled into the park at just after 6:30pm as darkness began to really fall--and rain with it.

Folks, Cherry Springs State Park is a wonderful site, which features very dark skies thanks to the fact that  there isn't much else in the area otherwise. The astronomy activities at the park enjoy the support of the State of Pennsylvania (when was the last time you visited a state park and saw a sign directing you to the "astronomy field"?). The State is also in the process of building domes for big Dobsonians, wiring the (expansive) field for electricity, and pouring concrete for observing pads.

Upon my arrival (Friday, June 23, 2006), I was able to meet a few of the Cherry Springs folks from the Astronomical Society of Harrisburg. They were pleased enough to see me, I suppose, but didn't seem to be in very good moods. Mostly because of the weather, I guessed. There had been little or no observing on the first night of the event, and it looked like the second evening would be even worse. I'd say, frankly, weather is the biggest bringdown for Cherry Springs. When it cooperates, the sky is wonderful. Unfortunately, it has a bad habit of not cooperating.

I spent a little time surveying the site and talking to the few astronomers not under cover in tents and RVs, but not much. Between the rain, chilling (in June!) fog, and me being tired, a little voice inside told Uncle Rod to head his Saturn Ion rent-a-car for the motel in Coudersport. More on that and the star party itself next time...

 

End of an Era Part 2

Well, so much for AOL. Most of y'all probably associate me with my long-held AOL address and, in fact, I've been with AOL since 1995, shortly after I discovered that Fidonet Astronomy was going bellyup and that there was this new thing on that new-fangled Internet thing called "sci.astro.amateur."

Anyhoo, amongst many other things that finally caused me to overcome my intertia and leave AOHell, was their recent decision to insert animated java ads into emails. I mean, I don't mind that with Hotmail...it's free. But with AOL, I had to look at these silly ads AND pay a premium price for the privilege of doing so. Frankly, IMHO, it shows a distinct lack of concern for the customer. No thanks. I've had enough.

So, don't use my .aol addy anymore...stick with rmollise@hotmail.com

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