Tuesday, February 19, 2008

 

Y'all Don't Forget!

Those of you lucky enough to have clear skies will be treated to a spectacular total Lunar eclipse on the evening of February 20 - 21. For us h'yar in North America, the eclipse is smack in the middle of Wednesday evening, with the event winding up early enough to make going to work the next morning not too painful. Want all the details? Check out Sky and Telescope's in-depth coverage.

I was derned excited about this one, since this will be the first decent eclipse of the Moon to hit my neck of the woods in a while. I was running around yesterday evening gatherin' up cameras, mounts, scopes, etc. Even the weather looked like it would cooperate for once, I thought. That's what I get for thinking; a look at wunderground.com this morning shows we down here in the Great Possum Swamp are likely to be skunked. Totally skunked. You never do know, but I ain't optimistic. Maybe I'll get a look or two at Hecate through a pair of binocs if I'm lucky. So it goes...

Update: looked like a nice, if not overly dark eclipse from what I could see of it. As predicted, the clouds moved in right on schedule. I did station a pair of 15x70 binocs in Chaos Manor South's front hall, and between sips of...err..."sasparilla," I made frequent expeditions to the front porch to check eclipse progress. Luna was always obscured by at least a thin layer of haze, but I'm sure those of y'all whom the weather gods smiled upon had a good night. Certainly the shots I've seen; especially one from Jerry Lodriguss, look impressive. Me? 'Bout mid totality we was socked in for good, and I headed inside for more Yell and to finish watching a recent addition to the Chaos Manor South DVD library, Invasion of the Both Snatchers. The 50s edition, not the ersatz stuff.

Monday, February 18, 2008

 

Unk Finally Gets Some Astrophotography Help

Two great new amateur astronomy magazines are currently making waves in our community. The first, you’ve already heard about here, Astronomy Technology Today. That’s a professional-quality brick-and-mortar publication available by subscription. The udder one, which I’m here to preach about today, is a little less conventional in that it’s an e-zine.

That means it’s an Adobe Acrobat file you download off’n that dadgummed Internet. It’s also a little more narrowly focused than ATT, being devoted to that wonderful—if sometimes aggravating—pursuit of amateurs, astrophotography (read that as “digital imaging” these days). If you ain’t guessed already, I’m talking about AstroPhoto Insight.

It might be a bit of a stretch to call AP Insight “new,” since publisher Al Degutis has been plugging along steadily delivering quality issues for a couple of years now. But, hey, this here’s my blog and if I wanna call it new, I’ll call it new. Seriously, it’s really been over the last six months that this .pdf mag has taken off in my judgment. The quality of the articles, while always good, has skyrocketed recently. But what persactly is AP Insight like, anyhow? I’ll let Al tell you himself:

“AstroPhoto Insight, published by Professional Insight, is a bi-monthly digital astrophotography magazine dedicated to exploring and sharing the latest innovations and techniques in the field of cutting-edge amateur astrophotography.

Astrophoto Insight publishes articles by well-known experts in astrophotography such as Jim Burnell, Adam Block, R Scott Ireland, Jerry Lodriguss, Greg Piepol, Noel Carboni and more. However, all readers are encouraged to submit articles, and some, like Neil Fleming and Craig Stark, are sure to become household names as well.”

Purty impressive roster, pards, but without a professionally assembled venue, even the best articles don’t have much appeal. Rest assured, AP Insight is one heck of a good-looking magazine. Being “virtual” doesn’t preclude a professional look and layout, and AstroPhoto Insight has that in spades. What if you don’t like to read a magazine on the consarned computer screen, though? Well, print ‘em out. That’s what I do. I place ‘em in binders for future reference and browsing, too. Yeah, this rag is that good and that valuable.

All that goodness is not all there is, howsomeever. In addition to the magazine itself, the accompanying website offers numerous articles, how-tos, and even videos. There is plenty here of interest to imagers of all skill levels and types. There are rank-beginner articles and pieces so advanced they read like Greek to li’l ol’ me. Not only does the magazine address all skill levels, it covers the full range of hardware interests. Whether you’re using a DSLR, a cooled CCD, a webcam, or a DSI, AstroPhoto Insight has got you covered, pards.

How much? You can sample a current issue for free. Back issues are reasonably priced, too. But if you’re as imaging mad (make that “as badly in need of help”) as Unk, you’ll want to sign up for one of Sky Insight’s membership plans. These give access to all the good stuff: the website articles, the videos, and more.

While this new-fangled digital imaging business still leaves Unk scratching his head (at best) most of the time, there’s no doubt his pictures have finally begun to show some improvement, largely thanks to AstroPhoto Insight. Go get it, Kats ‘n Kittens.

Saturday, February 16, 2008

 

Moving Forward!



I suspect many of y'all have already seen this, but if not, you'll no doubt be as surprised and pleased as I was. We amateur astronomers tend to feel isolated and insular most of the time. Nobody knows about us or about our magnificent obsession. Obviously, that's not true or is changing. Not that we will be as prominent in the public's consciousness as say, NASCAR, anytime soon, of course, but I do sense we're getting a wee bit more exposure in the media and are now at least a tiny blip on the public radar screen.

Thank you Toyota!

Sunday, February 03, 2008

 

Everybody's Telescope?

Amateur astronomers still love Everybody’s Telescope, the Meade ETX, despite it having been a fixture on the market for more than a decade. Plenty of amateurs old and new still wonder about it, though. Is it a real telescope? Is it really Everybody’s Telescope? Or is it just a plastic-laden toy designed to lure gullible novices?

I’m here to tell you, brothers and sisters, the ETX most assuredly is a real telescope. Is it everybody’s telescope? I don't know about that; she's actually more easily handled by more experienced amateurs despite her reputation as a "novice scope." But almost everybody will find the ETX  pretty useful, if not for everything. Its prime attraction for seasoned amateurs is as that cliché of the amateur world, the grab-‘n-go scope. Cliché or not, EVERYBODY needs a scope that can be set-up easily and quickly and which can deliver optical excellence.

Beyond proving the value inherent in John Diebel’s Small Wonder, yesterday evening was one of those nights that showed me, if I needed to be shown again, the worth of something some blasé and equipment-happy amateur astronomers sneer at: small scopes in general. Saturday night. Bi-monthly astronomy club darksite outing. And the sky looked anything but promising. One of those afternoons when the skygods just can't make up their minds. One minute not-so-bad...the next...ulp. If I hadn't had my ETX125 at my disposal, I'd probably have stayed home. As it was, I didn't mind grabbing ETX and tripod, a small box of 1.25-inch eyepieces, and a short list of objects I generated with Deepsky (the planning program) just before I left and driving out into the boonies for 45 minutes.

At the PSAS darksite my little scope, an ETX Premier model, a.k.a. "Charity Hope Valentine" proved herself--in spades. At sundown, there were enough stars in the clear to allow me to do a go-to alignment, which goes very quickly with a Premier. These scopes' alignment routine is like GPS without the GPS. Thanks to an internal battery they retain and update date and time. The mount is also equipped with level sensors and an electronic compass. What does they-at mean to Jethro and Ellie Mae Amateur Astronomer? Plunk the ETX down. Rotate it left until it stops at the “hard stop” and re-lock it. Turn on scope. It does a little dance, pointing north and leveling, and heads for two alignment stars. Center these two with the aid of the red-dot “LNT” finder, and the scope is ready for an evening's enjoyment.

Did I enjoy the little scope? Did I ever! At least when the clouds scudded off long enough to allow her to show her mettle. The skies at our darksite are OK. To the west they are purty derned good and the Milky Way is regularly prominent when it's there or overhead. There is the (intense) Possum Swamp light dome to the east, though. Despite Orion's fairly low altitude in the east early in the evening, Charity gave a view of M42 that was incredibly pleasing. Yeah, I know, that huge and bright cloud looks good in any scope, but under these far from perfect conditions (including some haze), the ETX was clearly displaying M43's comma shape, something a lot of smaller scopes (and some larger ones) struggle with. IOW, impressive contrast despite a rather sizeable central obstruction.

Other stuff was also cool when the clouds parted. Miss Valentine resolved a surprising number of stars in Lepus’ rather subdued glob, M79. M37 in Auriga was perfectly framed and a thing of wonder. Orion’s reflection nebula, M78, looked big and surprisingly bright. Mars showed good detail at high power when the seeing steadied (only occasionally).

How did she go to her go-tos? OK. There’s only so much you can expect in that regard from a long focal length MCT mounted on a heavily plasticized fork mount. And yet, I’d rate her go-to accuracy as at least “acceptable.” When objects were missed (often in a part of the sky most distant from the alignment stars), they were not off by much. A more careful alignment (y’all know how slap-happy I am) might have delivered even better results. Don’t get me wrong; the ETX did fine and her accuracy was no worse—maybe even a tad better than—that of a neighboring observer's Celestron NexStar 8i. Charity actually displayed less backlash than her Celestron sister.

The only problem was the sky; the clouds came to STAY at about 9 p.m. Despite their depredations, I did see a lot by the end of this short evening, far more than I would have seen if I'd stayed home and watched the dad-gummed boob-tube. The ETX-125’s great value is that she is an encourager. She encourages a vacillating amateur astronomer like yours truly to take a chance on a not-so-hotski sky. Often with memorable results.

How was your Saturday Night?

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