Sunday, February 18, 2007

 

Checklist Discipline


Just when you think you’ve got this amateur astronomy thing down, the astronomy gods serve you a heaping helping of hubris.

Can I tell you about my Saturday night? Conditions didn’t look like they were going to be perfect, no. There were scattered clouds scudding across the sky, the wind was rising, and the thermometer was falling. Not a night for deep CCD imaging, that was for sure. However, following my age-old prescript, “Head for the Dark Site Unless It’s Raining,” I said the heck with it, packed up my Nexstar 11GPS, and lit-out for my club site, which is quite a few miles west of Chaos Manor South in the small town of Tanner-Williams, Alabama, close to the Mississippi-Alabama state line.

Frankly, I was excited. While my dark observing site isn't perfect—there's a prominent light-dome to the east—the Milky Way is visible and can even be striking on a halfway decent night. And if I couldn’t do any CCD imaging, well, I’d do some visual work and maybe give my Stellacam II deep sky video camera a workout. God knows, I haven’t used it nearly as much as I should have over the two years I’ve had it. Couple the Stellacam II to a C11 at a decent dark, and you’ll be amazed at just how deep you can go. Wind is not a deal-breaker as it would be for “real” CCD imaging, since the camera's maximum exposure time is a forgiving 12 seconds.

After a halfway pleasant drive (once I got out of the city…this Mardi Gras traffic is murder), I turned off onto the dirt road that leads to the disused airstrip where we do our serious observing and—whoops!—almost got stuck. Rain and work on the scruffy old road made me thankful I’d brought a 4WD vehicle rather than the Camry. Getting stuck out in the sticks ain’t no fun.

Excitement over, I got the RAV4 unloaded, set up the telescope, laid out the rest of my astro-stuff, and was just about ready to sit down on the observing chair and wait for darkness. “Might as well go ahead and plug in the telescope hand-controller,” I thought. Then it hit me. I didn’t even have to hunt through the gear to know. The box containing the NexStar HC was sitting back in Chaos Manor South’s living room.

If you’re a go-to owner, you know that without that all important hand controller you are sunk. Like many go-to rigs, the NS11 doesn’t sport manual slow motion controls. Oh, if I’d brought my laptop I coulda saved the day via the “virtual HC” program, NexRemote, but since I wasn’t gonna be doing any CCDing, I had not packed the laptop. What was there left to do? Nothing except sit and sulk for a few minutes, pack up the Toyota, and head for home. Only thing to salve my wounds? Once I'd got everything back in the car, the clouds were rolling in, and by the time I was halfway home we were totally socked in.

What’s the solution? Don’t get too cocky. We’ve all laughed at the stories of the goobers who’ve wound up at distant star parties only to find they’ve forgot their eyepiece box or GEM counterweight. Yeah, laugh. It will happen to you. After this “fun” evening I’ve resolved to always do what I usually do when packing for big star parties: make up a checklist and don’t even think of leaving home without triple checking that everything on this list is in the car.

“But Unk Rod,” you say, “all I’ve got is an 8-inch Sonotube dob and a box of Chinese Plossls.” I don’t care. I guarantee you will eventually be left standing out in the middle of an observing field with egg on your face just like your Silly Old Uncle. You'll forget your eyepieces. Or the rocker box. Or your star atlas. Or your red flashlight. “Checklist discipline,” as we used to say in the ICBM launch business. Checklist discipline, my friends.

Sunday, February 11, 2007

 

Well, Then, What the Heck Can You Do With a 66mm Telescope?!

I had to ask “what can you do with a 90mm telescope” a while back, but the question “what can you do with a 66mm scope” seems even more pressing given the incredible popularity of the little 66mm Chinese apochromats now making their presence felt in the U.S. astro-market. For the complete answer, you’ll have to wait for my comprehensive review of the William Optics 66 SD “Patriot Edition” in the forthcoming issue of the new Astronomy Technology Today Magazine. For now? Here’s a short list of my general impressions.

--I’m amazed they can sell a scope with this build quality for less than 400 dollars (with a significant portion of that money going to the American Red Cross). Hell, you can get the not-as-pretty standard 66 for less than three hundred pieces o’ eight. This “build quality” includes an excellent-quality two-speed focuser, a genuinely heavy-duty baffled tube, a retractable dew shield, and a real case. Oh, and in the case of the Patriot, that snazzy paintjob, of course.

--I’m amazed the optics are as good as they are at this price. This is what we all hoped the much-loved Short Tube 80 would be but wasn’t. No, 66mm is not a whole lot of aperture, but this little scope can still show you as much or more than the ST80, which was the grab and go scope of choice for many amateurs for years. And you won’t have to deal with THE COLOR PURPLE, either.

--I’m amazed at its utility as a guide scope. I’ve used a similar 66 to successfully guide a 14-inch SCT—no Barlow required.

--I’m amazed at the little thing’s ability to take wide-field pictures. If you are mainly interested in imaging the bigger stuff, this may be all you need, and the 66 SD will certainly not stress your mount. Heck, if you are even a little better at CCD imaging than your Silly Old Uncle, you will be able to amaze your friends. As for the above Rosette Nebula image, the details are: SBIG ST2000, 10-minute auto-guided exposure, Celestron CG5 mount (click for a larger version).

So…that’s it? No…like I done told you, get the full story in Astronomy Technology Today, which looks to be a very interesting magazine in its own right, and one that will not stress your budget since the publisher is CURRENTLY GIVING AWAY FREE INTRODCTORY SUBSCRIPTIONS:

Go get you one, Kats ‘n Kittens!

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