Sunday, October 28, 2007

 

Comet Update

Despite the presence of that Big Honkin Ol' Moon, I was determined to get a shot of Holmes. Since he is invisible from the backyard (the storied ediface of Chaos Manor South is in the way), I set up the C8 (on our CG5 ASGT) on the front porch. Sighted Polaris through the polar bore, cranked up NexRemote, told it "Quick Align," and I was rolling.

I figgered the best and easiest way to capture this little thang would be with a webcam, specifically with my oft-used and convenient Celestron NexImage. For comfort's sake, I placed the laptop in Chaos Manor South's front hallway, ran the cables out the door, and plunked myself down in the company of a curious cat or two. Didn't expect me to stay outside didja? Man alive, it musta been down in the 50s!

First complication? My Logitech Wireless Wingman gamepad, which I use in concert with NexRemote as a hand paddle, decided its batteries were on their last legs, and I knew there were no double As in the house. I managed to wring their last milli-milliamp from 'em by the expedient of much button mashing and cussing. Second complication? The comet was awful dim with the NexImage, even with the camera's gain and and brightness at the max and shutter at the longest setting. In went an f/6.3 reducer. Uh-uh. F/3.3...? Ahhh... Before the sprite disappeared into a tree limb, I was able to get several .avi sequences, which came out looking purty good after the Registax treatment.

I did take a look or two through an eyepiece, and my general impression was that the thing seemed a little larger and a little dimmer than it had on the two previous evenings. That could, however, simply be due to me using larger aperture and (much) higher magnification than before—in the 15x70s he looked about the same. Tonight? I dunno. I'll be headed for the shipyard at 4 blasted 30 in the a.m., so I probably won't get more ambitious than dragging out the StarBlast. I'll let y'all know.

Friday, October 26, 2007

 

Have You Seen It?

By “it” I mean THE COMET, the bizarre and wonderful Comet 17P/Holmes, which is currently lighting up the northern skies in remarkable and unexpected fashion. Why is it that most amazing comets (Hale Bopp, Hyakutake) come upon us unawares, while the expected spectaculars (Halley) flop? Don’t ask me, but I for one have been hungry for a goodun'. It’s been dang near 10 years since a good naked eye comet hit the Northern Hemisphere.

What’s the story with Holmes? This comet, discovered in 1892 by, natch, Edwin Holmes is normally a sedate little thing, quietly minding its own business in an orbit that lies between Mars and Jupiter. Far away, that is. “Quiet and dim,” are the watchwords for this tiny sprite whose brightness normally hovers around a discouraging plus 16 - 17. Normally.

On October 23 something happened. A gas eruption, perhaps, caused wee little Holmes to suddenly brighten from magnitude 17 to magnitude 2.8 (or brighter) in a matter of hours. As of this writing, it’s a naked eye “star” lying not far from Mirfak in Perseus and drifting slowly northward. How long will this event last? Who knows? If you have clear skies, I advise you to get out and check it out tonight. What sort of optical aid do you need? None. As above, Holmes is easily visible as a point-source-like "star," perhaps looking a little fuzzy, in Perseus.

I arrived home last night after a long evening at the University, determined to have a look at what I had been told was a marvel. While the skies had finally cleared, there was a fat and satisfied lookin’ full Moon hanging in the east. A quick sweep of my Burgess 15x70 binocs in the area where I thought the comet ort-ta be didn’t reveal squat. That would have been the time, usually, when I’d say to myself, “Self, we ain’t gonna see nuttin. Where’s the Rebel Yell?” This time, though, something told me to take one more look.

I popped inside and fired up TheSky 6 Pro, which downloaded the comet’s elements and drew me a finder chart quicker than you can say “Jack Daniels.” One of the reasons I love this program is that it’s not only insanely full-featured, it’s easy to use, especially at those times when you need something NOW. Outside again, I pointed the Burgesses in the proper direction: “JumpinJehosaphat! Is that IT or has OlJupe wandered over to the wrong side of the sky?” I spent several minutes focusing and refocusing, unable to believe this “minor” comet could be so big and bright, and convinced I was looking at a defocused Mirfak. In the binoculars, Holmes looked like a perfectly round, slightly yellowish, madly bright planet.

As beautiful as Holmes was in the binoculars, I couldn’t help wondering, in typical amateur astronomer fashion, what it would look like with a little more aperture. Didn’t feel like wrestling with a C8 or even the ETX-125, but luckily I always have my Comet Scope, an Orion StarBlast, standing by for instant use. This little thing brings 4-inches of fast optics to bear, and is so easy and convenient to get going that it’s become my usual end-of-the-workday-quick-look telescope. It’s not an exaggeration to say that it’s allowed me to see many minor comets I’d otherwise have missed from my urban digs (“Never see that from here, anyway, and I ain't gonna mess with no SCT tonight”).

Before long I had the little green guy on the front porch and pointed to Holmes. With more magnification and more light, the comet was, if anything, even more wondrous, presenting a bright not quite round nucleus surrounded by a perfectly round not-quite-centered “coma.” I stood out there and just stared for at least half an hour until the chilly temps (upper FORTIES, y'all) finally drove me inside in search of the ‘Yell.

I’ll be back out there tonight gazing in wonder at this unlooked-for visitor. Maybe I’ll even set up a bigger gun. Never know. I urge y’all to get out there with me. Take a good long look and let me know what you think.

Thursday, October 25, 2007

 

The Death of sci.astro.amateur

Y’all know about sci.astro.amateur, right? It was the first really active astro group on the Internet. Many of us gravitated there from Fidonet Astronomy and similar groups when the Bulletin Board Age morphed into the Internet Age in the early-mid 1990s. In the beginning, and for at least a decade, until a couple of years ago, s.a.a. was the most vibrant, friendly, and information-loaded place on the Internet for amateurs. Alas, all that has changed. Trolls and downright evil folks have finally destroyed this once fine newsgroup.

s.a.a. always had trolls, spammers, and nutcases, but there was such a large, mature, and dedicated population of serious amateur astronomers that the group withstood these attacks easily. That began to change as Internet astronomy matured and there began, inevitably, to be many more good places for amateurs to hang out—Yahoogroups, Astromart, Cloudy Nights, and many more. That diluted the population of “real” amateurs, and made the group often look like its poor, debased parent group, sci.astro: “Newton was wrong,” “Planet X will destroy earth SOON,” "UFOs kidnapped my mama," etc. Even so, the group managed to struggle on, somehow.

Unfortunately, due to almost unrelenting “sporge attacks” (computer-generated faux posts that have clogged up the group for days and weeks on end), and the efforts of one insane person and several others, the group’s usefulness is over.

Sporge can be lived with. These attacks always end, and it’s possible to filter out the sporge posts. Not so easy for the already damaged group to survive was the effort of a group of folks apparently determined to bring s.a.a. down. Foremost was a person, sadistic or merely disturbed, who took it upon himself/herself to drive off one of the group’s long-term members, Dennis Bishop (aka, “Starlord”), by means of cyberstalking.

Dennis, a disabled Vietnam vet, as you may know billed himself as the “Lone Sidewalk Astronomer of Rosamond (California),” and posted endlessly on his adventures bringing astronomy to his small town, his travails with his junk-mobile cars, his devotion to his Atari computer, his love for his cats, and the realities of life in a trailer park. Now, not all the s.a.a. regulars exactly looked forward to Dennis’ frequent posts, but he was nevertheless a friendly presence and part of a core of amateurs who kept s.a.a. alive.

To make a long and painful story short, Dennis was subjected to endless obscene replies to his articles and the posting of similarly obscene new articles about him. These articles basically purported to solicit Dennis for homosexual activities in the most obscene and graphic and violent terms. It wasn’t long before Dennis disappeared from the group, and it wasn’t long after that that we learned that he’d apparently suffered a stroke and been moved from his beloved trailer and into a “home.” I’m not saying the stalking caused Dennis’ stroke, but it didn’t help, either; I’m sure of that.

Right now? The crazy person, apparently completely consumed by whatever consumes him or her, is still there posting about Dennis, and often posting his screeds under the spoofed names of group regulars and under article titles that look legit. And he’s been joined by at least one person posting under a variety of names who's apparently just as anxious to destroy the group (my guess is he’s a disgruntled former “member”). This person’s M.O./obsession doesn’t focus on Dennis, but on other s.a.a. regulars.

Bottom line? s.a.a. is no longer useable. Because of the tactics of the current group of trolls and nutjobs, there’s no easy way to filter the bad stuff out. I’ll continue to look in occasionally, but I fear this is about it. Couple the idiocy with the fact that the amateur community is much more spread out Internet-wise, and that many ISPs are discontinuing their Usenet feeds, and I think this is, if not the end, real close to it. Yes, the current crazies will probably wander off after a while, but I'm guessing there are plenty more on-deck to replace 'em. That seems to be the nature of Usenet in this latter age. Shame.

Saturday, October 20, 2007

 

Meade on the Rocks? Rock Bottom? UPDATED

I hope so. That is, I hope Meade has reached its low ebb and is shortly going to be on its way to a comeback. You hear a lot of people carping about Meade for one thing or another, be it product quality, customer service, or whatever. To some extent that criticism has been justified. Meade should have paid more attention to its QA and should have been more responsive to customer needs. There’s no denying, however, that John Diebel’s “little company” has been a leader in astronomy products, and leaders always take flack.

Meade in trouble? What the h-e-double-L is your Silly Ol’ Uncle talking about now? If’n you don’t follow such things closely, let me fill you in. If you’re a Big Blue fan, mebbe you’d better sit down first, though.

There’d been concern developing about Meade’s financial health over at least the last year. That seemed to come to a head last summer when it became obvious—to folks in the biz, anyway—that Meade was operating its California plant on a skeleton crew. It also became apparent that Meade had stopped shipping its RCX400 scopes. Not only had the flashy ads for these innovative scopes disappeared, the scopes themselves, save for some being shipped from inventory, were gone. The fork-mount 16 RCX? Don’t even ask. Mostly this was just rumor passed around amongst the amateur astronomy chattering classes--writers, vendors, manufacturers—you know, the usual suspects.

Mostly that was rumor, yeah, until word got around the larger amateur community recently about a Meade conference call posted on the Net and about a written statement also found online. The gist of this information?

Meade RCX production was halted to correct engineering deficiencies.The company is still posting losses.Layoffs have taken place and will continue.All Production will be moved offshore as soon as possible.The company is considering/beginning the process of looking for a buyer.
Shocked? You prob’ly are. Fearful that this wonderful source of gear will go away? Or that support for your Meade scope is going to dry up? I wouldn’t worry too much about that. Meade’s name, despite the travails of the last couple of years, is still worth a lot. Even if worse comes to worst and the company is sold, you can bet “Meade” will continue on in some form. All their product lines might not survive, of course, but I would bet support for existing owners will continue—and might even improve.

Worst case scenario? Somebody buys the company just for its Bresser (Europe), Simmons (binoculars and rifle scopes), and Wal-Mart (department store junk-o-scopes) components and is not interested in keeping the “Advanced Products” (amateur scopes and other gear) going. Even in that case, it’s likely Meade amateur scopes would survive, since the breaker-upper would probably want to sell that end of the biz to a third party ASAP.

Make no mistake about it, I’m rooting for Meade. I’ve used and loved their products for several decades. And I still don’t have the RCX of my dreams. They have GOT to survive so Unk’s gigantic aplantic SCT dreams can be fulfilled

UPDATE:

On Monday, October 22, Herb York of Anacortes posted an "ad" on Astromart containing a Meade letter to their dealers. This letter has since been removed at Meade's request ("Other dealers complained," said Meade), though, strangely, it was openly available on one of the company's (Meade's) web pages for all to see for a couple of days. Apparently they finally got wind of this and decided MAYBE there's something to that "password" bidness.

The gist of it? The RCX 400 is not going to be reintroduced in a few weeks as implied in the conference call; instead it is going to be unavailable for an "indefinite" period. Larger scopes like the 14-inch R will be back in "the second half of 2008" (except the 14-inch OTA sans mount, which will apparently not be available at all—"suspended indefinitely"). Many of Coronado's scopes including the calcium K scopes are outright discontinued. The Max Mount and the 16 and 20-inch RCX OTAs are apparently gone too.

Meade implies that the "temporarily suspended" products like the large R scopes (not the "indefinitely suspended" scopes like the RCXes) will be back after they finish "moving" their manufacturing facilities. One has to wonder, however, why they couldn't keep manufacturing while the move was made, ensuring continuing product availability for Christmas. Finally, their stock is now going for about $1.43 a share, not a good sign, in my opinion.

STILL...I'm still hoping, and have both my fingers and toes crossed for good, old Blue.

Monday, October 15, 2007

 

Long live Astromart

I’m not a big used astro-gear buyer. I used to not be, anyhow. The prospect of dialing-up somebody I didn’t know in some distant part of the country (mebbe even north of the Mason-Dixon Line!), talking to ‘em long distance, and then sending ‘em my hard-earned bucks based on a nearly illegible ad in The Starry Messenger just did not appeal. That’s the way it used to be, young folks. What was Starry Messenger? I'm not talking about Galileo's candle against the darkness (even Unk ain't old enough to remember when that came out). The Starry Messenger I'm talking about is what we had before there was an Astromart.

The way it worked back in the day was this: you waited for the mailman to deliver this slim little black and white pulp-paper magazine full of blurry little ads for astro-gear each month. If you were lucky, the smudgy ad that interested you was accompanied by a dark black and white photo. If you were really lucky, the mailman brought your issue before he brought your friends their copies—and before those danged Yanks got their issues. If not, you were sunk. All the bargains were done-gone by the time you got around to ringing up long distance charges (no “10 cents a minute” back then).

Then along came the Internet and Astromart with it. Astromart probably wasn’t the first classified venue for astronomy ads on the ‘net. I believe, if what few brain cells are left post the weekend Rebel Yell fiesta are still working, that the folks at Astronomy Mall were there first. Why is it, then, that your buddies are all the time calling you up and chirping about the cool stuff they saw/bought/sold on Astromart and not on Astronomy Mall (or Cloudy Nights, or wherever)?

The answer is a simple one: Astromart’s owner, Herb York. Lots of people like Herb and his Astromart. Some don’t. Those that don’t don’t because he is one tough customer. In addition to being an imposing figure in person (big enough to squish your olUnk like a bug), he runs a tight ship on the Internet. Astromart has a set of rules. Violate those rules and your Astromart membership is gone like the wind.

Why does Herb have to be so darned tough? Why does he do stuff like refuse memberships to folks with Hotmail and Yahoo addresses, insisting that a prospective buyer/seller present a “real” Internet addy? Easy. Go look around Ebay. That’s what Astromart would look like if there were no mean-old-rules. There is no way all the scammers and rip-off artists can be kept off any classified ads site, but Astromart is, I think, about as good as it ever will get in that regard.

Some folks also complain about the one-time $12.00 registration fee being “too much.” Don’t make me laugh. You’ll soon find you’re getting more fun—and use—out of that “expensive” Astromart registration than you do out of some astro-things that cost far more—a subscription to an astronomy magazine, for instance. In addition to the exciting prospect of seeing new ads every day, Astromart also features forums, reviews, news, an auction site, and other fun and interesting things.

I doubt Herb and crew are getting rich off your 12 bucks, either, if that’s what you’re worried about. In fact, I’d guess Astromart ain’t exactly a gold mine, period. Sure, A-mart probably attracts some customers to the Yorks' other business, Anacortes Telescope and Wild Bird, but I doubt that makes up for the money Herb has to shell out to keep Astromart on the air. Frankly, I don’t know why Herb and company keep on keeping on given the expense and the headaches, but I’m sure glad they do. One thing your 12 dollars probably does do is keep some of the riff-raff out. I would guess that it provides at least some deterrent, as some of the bottom of the barrel thieves no-doubt balk at paying anything to run their scams.

I said I don’t do much used trading, but, as I implied, that might change. I recently sold my second item on Astromart since its inception and I was impressed. It was just so easy to sell my small doodad—an OIII filter—and so much fun to see the responses roll in, that I’ll probably find myself hankering to do some Astromart horse trading again soon. It made doing something I’d been putting off because of the hassle, selling a piece of unneeded gear, an absolute joy instead of a pain. I can sure understand how buying and selling the Astromart way could become, well, addictive.

Long Live Astromart!

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