Monday, May 26, 2008


Two-and-half Years After the Honeymoon...

With my ETX 125PE, a.k.a. “Charity Hope Valentine,” how are the two of us getting along? I get asked that question a lot of late, mainly because of Meade’s recent huge price reductions on this little CAT, I reckon. Look for a detailed re-review of the ETX in the upcoming Summer issue of Skywatch, but till then how about some impressions from this past Memorial Day weekend, muchachos? I’ll admit I haven’t had the scope out much lately, but with Saturday night looking iffy, but me wanting to see something from the Possum Swamp Astronomical Society dark site, it seemed like the perfect time to let Charity show her mettle again.

How was the weather down here in The Swamp? Normal:  hazy, muggy, and warm (mid-seventies long after sunset). The ETX125 is easy enough to set-up and tear-down, though, 5 - 10 minutes tops, barely enough work to make Unk break a sweat. Given the minimal amount of effort required, I didn't mind taking a chance on not seeing nuttin' honey.

On my way to the site, it did look as if that might be the result; I drove through a fairly intense thundershower on the way to the PSAS Tanner-Williams, Alabama observing field. By the time I'd arrived, unpacked, and schmoozed for a while with the three bubbas of mine who'd also had the intestinal fortitude to head to the dark site, though, the skies were looking a little better—if hardly perfect. While conditions were far from ideal all evening, my dark site getaway turned out to be well worth the trip. Hell, it was worth the trip for Saturn alone. The seeing was very good despite poor transparency.

Some of the stuff Miss Valentine showed me on this evening...

Saturn. The seeing was good. Real good. A 9mm Celestron "Circle T" Orthoscopic eyepiece from way back when did an amazing job on the ringed wonder. As always, I was struck by the way disk details stand out in the little scope's high contrast images. The N/S equatorial belts—and other disk features, too—really are starkly visible. Not only did I see Casini's despite the current (shallow) ring aspect, I glimpsed the far more difficult Crepe ring, too.

M13. Sweet. Certainly the 125 didn't give up too much to a nearby NexStar 8 SE. In fact, the view was slightly better in the 125, I thought, with a slightly darker background (even at comparable magnifications) under these poor conditions—lotsa light scatter from the light dome to the east.

NGC 6210. Well, I saw the Turtle (planetary nebula), at least.

M5: again, Charity kept up well with my buddy's C8. This big ol' grandpappy of a globular star cluster looked terrific.

M92: Hercules' "also ran" glob was nearly as good as Messiers 5 and 13.

M10 and M12 were OK, but both of these Ophiuchus globulars were in a particularly yucky part of the sky all evening, and not as nice as they normally are. That is, both were essentially fuzzballs with a few tiny stars winking in and out.

M82. When the haze would thin a bit, I picked up a fair amount of this weird galaxy’s dark-lane detail.

M3 and M53, the spring globulars, both showed decent resolution.

M80: well, it was there, anyway. This small, compact (Shapley – Sawyer Class VII) glob doesn't let me see stars with anything less than the C11 when conditions ain’t just right.

M4, the Cat's Eye Cluster, did indeed show off its cat's eye aspect, a line of stars, the iris of the cat's eye, running right across the cluster's center.

M68 is not often a standout, and in these skies, this globular star cluster was only a dimmish fuzzball.

M67: This aged galactic cluster has always been one of my faves, and I remembered to catch it before it plunged too far into the western murk. Pretty good, considering. Wish I had caught it earlier.

M65 and M66. I'll admit that under these conditions I had to locate these Leo showpiece galaxies in my pal's C8 first. They weren't obvious in the haze in the C8, and were barely there—but there—in my ETX.

M105 and company. During a time when this galaxy  group's area of Leo was in a sucker hole, I was able to see not just 105, but the brighter of its two companion galaxies.

Omega Centauri was, by the time I thought to go there, about 10 degrees above the truly icky southern horizon. The Mother of All Globs appeared as a vague but large nebulous patch, not much worse than what was in the 8-incher next door.

M104: at times the Sombrero Galaxy’s dust lane was visible.

M87. This monster elliptical was visible, sure, but dimmer than it usually is in this scope.

M107: BARELY there in the 125 or the C8 on this evening. I had to convince myself I was really picking up this globular cluster in either scope.

The Ghost of Jupiter (NGC 3242): this planetary was not only large and bright, but showed off a strong robin's egg blue color.

And so it went until the skies closed down completely at about midnight...

Let me say rat-cheer that every single object I requested wound up in the field of the 26mm Meade Plössl after go-toing a go-to. I didn't obsess about alignment. Didn't level the tripod; just plunked her down, that’s the grab ‘n go way. Didn't pick special alignment stars, either. Merely did an LNT Easy Align and accepted whatever star picks the Autostar came up with (Arcturus and Procyon). I did use a 25mm crosshair eyepiece to center the alignment stars, but that was the only particular care I took. Certainly not everything was dead center in the eyepiece after go-tos, quite the opposite, but everything was, as above, in the Plössl’s field somewhere, from one side of the sky to the udder.

Eyepieces? Ah, there's the wonder of the thing. One of the joys of the ETX is that it is not picky about oculars. I just slung a box of el cheapo 1.25-inchers in the Camry. In addition to the supplied Meade eyepiece (which is not bad at all), I used a 15mm Orion (Synta) Expanse, a 20mm Expanse, an 11mm Birdseye (80 degree AFOV), and as mentioned above, an ancient Circle T Celestron Ortho. None of these oculars cost more than 50 bucks, give or take, but all essentially offered pinpoint stars to the field edge—one of the benefits that comes with f/15.

To sum up? Evenings like this (and vaction trips) are why I bought Charity Hope Valentine in the first place, and she again impressed me in this role. You know what, though? The images she was turning out were good enough that I began to wonder what she might do at a real DARK site. Maybe someday, you never can tell. So, two and a half years down the road, this little scope is still Unk Rod's Best Girl—or thinks she is, anyay.

BTW, we had torrential rains Friday, and the result was the skeeters were REALLY out for blood. Didn't just have to just spray myself with Deep Woods off; I had to practically bathe in the stuff and reapply it every 30 minutes as I sweated it off in the damp and still air of The Swamp.

When the sky clouded over, the scope was back in the Toyota and Unk was headed back to Chaos Manor South in 10-minutes, tops. Once more within the confines of Chaos Manor South's den, the bug spray washed off, the Rebel Yell poured out, and the cotton-picking Ghost Hunters of the boob tube, I ruminated on the evening's adventure. The least I could cay about it was that I'd seen a lot more than I would have if I'd been setting in front of the cable TV all night. And if I hadn't had Miss Charity I'd have been tempted to do just that. That is the real beauty of a Charity Hope Valentine night, muchachos.

Next Time:  Do You VMA?

Sunday, May 25, 2008


CAT Book Thises and Thats

Since some of y’all have expressed interest in “the new SCT book,” here’s an update, bless yore li’l hearts. It is right on schedule, and will shortly enter the production phase at Springer. I hope it will be in your hot little hands by the end of the year. What else? A very special and heart-felt THANK YOU to those of you who helped out on this project over the last year. It is very much because of your aid that Choosing and Using the New CATs will soon be a reality.

That’s not all the CAT book news, however. I’ve just finished a new revision to my FREE Uncle Rod’s Used CAT Buyer’s Guide. The NINTH if you can believe that. In addition to mo’ new scopes, the whole blessed text has been tweaked fairly extensively (awkward prose given the heave-ho, typos exorcised, factual errors corrected). How do you get it? Glad you asked. Go here:

Udder than that? Hope those of y’all living in the good, ol’ U.S. of A. are having a cool-groovy memorial day weekend. Me? I gotta work tomorrow, dang it. But I did get in a few good hours of deep sky observing last night. That’s rare enough down here in Possum Swamp at this time of year that I'm still walking on Cloud Nine and I’m not that miffed about the back-to-the-grindstone thing.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008


It’s H-E-R-E!

The WWT. You know, that Microsoft thingy you’ve been hearing so much about this winter and spring, Microsoft Worldwide Telescope. What the H-E Double L is they-at? Microsoft describes it as a “browser for the night sky,” and in some ways that’s an apt description. In terms we are more familiar with? A great, big online planetarium program. What do I think of it? I’ll tellya (since when has Unk Rod been bashful about speaking his piece?), but keep in mind, the below is based on a bare ten or fifteen minutes of initial use this morning…

What it’s a lot like is Google’s Sky module for Google Earth or its standalone web-app: a representation of the night sky on the desktop, one stitched together from real images. You can drag the sky around with the mouse, and zoom in tight until galaxies or any other deep sky wonder fills the screen in high resolution. WWT, based upon my short exposure to it, is a bit smoother, and the images/sky usually more seamlessly put together (though not always) than Google’s effort. WWT has quite a few more features than Sky, but it is not worlds different from Sky. To be honest, WWT would have had a whole lot more impact on me if I hadn’t been looking at Google’s program for months.

Based on what I’m hearing, expect Microsoft to continually upgrade/improve the program. Google has made a few additions/revisions to Sky over the months, but most have been minor; the most interesting being the integration of the Celestron SkyScout audio material.

Judging by the picture, shore looks like MS is courting Celestron, too.

The program's requirements are not awfully tough (2ghz processior, 1 gig memory, decent vidcard), but it will not run on yer ol' Aunt May's 486-33.

Unlike Google, Microsoft has, even here at the very start (my download was marked “Spring Beta”), given a nod to actual observers. Like any respectable planetarium program, you can change quite a few things, including not just your location, but lines on the virtual sky and a few other configuration items. You can also control a scope with WWT via ASCOM!

UPDATE: Not only that. You can automatically setup field of view indicators for a (small) number of telescopes (mostly Celestron/Orion with some Meades), and do the same for some CCD chips (SBIGs, Meade's DSIs, Orion's StarShoot II, and the Celestron NexImage).

As above, not only are the zoomed-in images of some DSOs not quite as seamlessly stiched together as we were led to believe they would be, image load time seems a little slower than with the Google Sky. ‘Course that could just mean that even early in the a.m. today everybody and her brother is playing with this thing.

How useful will WWT be to us (“us” being working amateurs)? Hard to say. My brief exposure to it indicated it might be a tad awkward to use out in the field. I didn’t see a horizon line, for example, and found it a wee bit difficult to get oriented. Telescope control?
ASCOM is a no brainer and should work well. Keep in mind, of course, that you must have a ‘net connection to make this thing work. That’s not too much of a problem anymore, though. Many folks have wireless broadband that extends well into the backyard. Star parties? It’s been a while since I’ve been to one without wi-fi.
UPDATE: It turns out it's easy enough to establish a horizon--by clicking "view from this location" on the View tab. I do wish it were possible to turn on constellation labels (or star names or planet names or DSO names) but I haven't found a way to do that. Nor does there appear to be a way to print charts--or save onscreen images other than with alt-PrtScrn.

There is no denying that this is an impressive piece of programming, but, as befits its current beta status, there are some mistakes. Bet you didn't know that the little galaxy NGC 3371 (near M105) is a "star," didja? Clicking for data on M79 returned "unknown." I found clicking about half a degree away got the glob's stats. The "click to identify" mechanics also seem a bit awkward. Like Google Earth (and Sky), WWT's sky tends to continue moving after a drag, making it challenging to click in the correct spot to obtain an object ID. On the plus side, a number of good data sources including NED are only a click away from the info window popup.

Where the rubber meets the road? Just go get it. Not only is WorldWide Telescope free, it's flat out amazing in many ways. In part because of what it's obvious it can become if MS keeps on keeping on with it.

Sunday, May 11, 2008


Scopes ‘n Stars

It’s cloudy here at good, old Chaos Manor South, and, in the wake of NEAF, there ain’t much going on in the larger world of amateur astronomy to report on neither—no more Ethos uber eyepieces for a while, I reckon. Being somewhat bored, I suppose, my mates on Unk’s SCT User Yahoogroup started playing a game that turned out to be quite a bit of fun: “spot the scopes in the movies.” This was no doubt inspired by the brief appearance of a CPC 1100 in the current Hollywood mega-ultra-blockbuster, Ironman.

How do you play? Simple, just name/document films that, at least fleetingly, show a telescope. “Telecope” specifically meaning amateur type telescope—countless films have no doubt used observatory domes and radio telescope antennas as backdrops. What kind of scope? Being fixated on CATs, that’s what mainly got mentioned on SCT User, but surely plenty more small refractors than SCTs have appeared over the years (since even the tiniest refractor looks more like a telescope than the most set-dressed SCT). Undoubtedly there have been a lot of small Newts too (usually pointed at the ground, if’n you know what I mean).

Here are some of the films/telescopes we came up with on SCT User:

A Walk to Remember (2002). Mandy Moore as a smart teenager who reforms delinquent Shane West. Mandy uses her homebuilt reflector in several scenes. Near the end, Shane builds her a Dobsonian reflector to watch a comet.

Can’t Buy Me Love (1987). Patrick Dempsey and Amanda Peterson teen romance. A scope is integral to the plot in this one, believe it or not. Our hero uses the money he was a-gonna spend on a Meade SNT (pre-LXD55/75, natch) to hire Peterson to pretend she is his girlfriend. Wotta maroon! The scope in question is used briefly at the beginning of the film to (uh-huh) look at girls at the Galleria.

Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977). One of the good folks on SCT User mentioned an orange tube Celestron being present in the “landing area.” I've never noticed that over the last 31 years; guess I’ll have to dig out that great DVD again.

Contact (1997). Young Ellie Arroway (Jena Malone) uses a small scope with her beloved Dad at the beginning of the film. Make?

Death From a Distance (1935). An astronomer is marked for death and the murder weapon is a telescope. It's not clear to me whether the scope in this one is an amateur instrument or not, and, if so, what make?

Down with Love (2003). This Renée Zellweger/Ewan McGregor spoof of the Rock Hudson – Doris Day films of yore prominently features a White Tube Celestron C10 (that, in the film, belongs to the “Tony Randall” character played by David Hyde Pierce). It’s even used to look at the sky!

In Like Flint (1967). James Coburn battles a cabal of women bent on world domination, apparently using the nice-looking refractors in the picture above (make?).

Into the Wild (2007). In this melancholy film, Chris McCandless (Emile Hersch) gifts his father with a Questar 3.5. There's an Uncle Rod connection too. The graduation scene in this film was actually shot at an Emory University graduation, and Unk's daughter, Miss Beth, one of the grads that year, is seen briefly in closeup.

I.Q. (1994). Meg Ryan is the niece of Albert Einstein and Tim Robbins is the mechanic who falls for her. Tim and Meg go out in a field to watch a comet zoom by, and Dr. Einstein (Walter Matthau) uses an old brass refractor to watch them.

Iron Man (2008). Tony Stark’s (Robert Downey Jr.) mansion is home to the above-mentioned briefly seen Celestron CPC 1100.

It Came from Outer Space (1953). Richard Carlson and Barbara Rush use a lovely old refractor (a Clark?) equipped with a bizarre plumbing-parts diagonal to keep watching the skies.

KPAX (2001). Alleged alien Jeff Bridges uses a C11 toward the end of the movie.

Roxanne (1987). Steve Martin's squeeze (in the movie), Daryl Hannah (Roxanne) searches for a comet. What kind of scope was that, though?

Silent Running (1972). A nice sandcast C8 is seen several times.

Star Trek: First Contact (1996). Zefrem Cochrane (James Cromwell) owns a laughably gussied up Meade LX200.

The Heartbreakers (2001). Jason Lee is an amateur astronomer/bartender pursued by the conman team of Sigourney Weaver and Jennifer Love Hewitt. Can somebody tell us about his telescope?

10 (1979). Dudley Moore’s neighbor uses an SCT to—you guessed it—"observe" women in this much-loved (at the time) Blake Edwards comedy.

Tomb Raider (2001). The lovely Miss Croft (Angelina Jolie, natch) uses an SCT to look at a “planetary alignment” or some such cat-foolishness.

The Mechanic (1972). Charles Bronson cases an apartment with a Questar 3.5 before—yep, you guessed it--blowing it up.

The Wolfman (1941). In the beginning of the movie poor, soon to be hairy, Larry Talbot uses his late daddy’s big refractor. As per usual, however, he uses it to ogle a dame, not Lupus.

Way, Way Out (1966). Wacky Jerry Lewis is seen briefly holding a Questar in this exceedingly silly film.

This is only the merest sampling. I look forward to getting your sharp-eyed scope spottings. Just post ‘em in the comments section and I’ll add ‘em to this list. Wanna branch out into TV, too? Why not? Hey, like I said, it’s cloudy and there’s a Moon in the sky!

Sunday, May 04, 2008


Observing Underwater

From the “How was the weekend down in Possum Swamp?” department… On Saturday evening we had, for once lately, something other than A Dark and Stormy Night, muchachos. Naturally, Old Unk wanted to observe. Hell, between clouds and work I hadn’t been out with anything more’n a pair of 10x50s in weeks. By  5 pm the sky was looking clear and the club Dark Site Beckoned. But.

Yes, there is often that “but.” Earlier in the day, intense thunderstorms bordering on the frightening passed through. How frightening were they? The cats spent the balance of the morning and afternoon hiding under the bed.

We lost the Internet completely, early, too. Despite the best efforts of ATT’s technical “support” to misdiagnose the problem, Unk finally troubleshot it to a blown surge suppressor and got ol' Chaos Manor South back online for a look at Weather Underground. The rain was torrential. Selma Street flooded and then threatened to escape her banks. Despite the nastiness, it cleared by mid afternoon, just as Wunderground predicted. B-u-t. I figured the Dark Site, out Tanner-Williams way, would look like Lake Okefenokee. But. I wanted to look at the deep sky. Hungered for the deep sky. What the hell. Threw the gear in the car and headed out ‘bout 6pm.

Arriving at our sweet little spot of blackness on the Google Earth Light Pollution Map, I found the field not exactly dry, but not full of standing water, either. Didn’t need my galoshes for setting up the Dob, after all. Yep, Dob. As most of y'all know, I use ‘em, and, frankly, when the night threatens to be "iffy" but I want some aperture, that’s exactly what I do choose: Old Betsy, our time-honored f/5 truss-tube 12.5-inch. She goes together quickly, breaks down just as quickly, and her amazing Sky Commander DSCs never miss a beat. That’s what I thought anyway.

Like many of y’all, I’m guessing, I always try to maximize my observing time, so as soon as I can see a couple of alignment stars, even barely, I get the Sky Commanders cranking. On this evening, I used the stars I have been using for the last several months with the DSCs: Polaris and Sirius. Lined up on the two sparklers. Hit enter a couple of times, boom, done. Or so I thought. It was now dark enough to make out brighter DSOs, I figgered, so I punched up M3 as a quick check. Pushed-to the spot the Sky Commanders told me to push-to to. Nuttin’ honey. Slewed around a bit. Uh-uh. Hmmm. Maybe still too bright for even that spectacular glob? My observing buddy for the evening had his Dob pointed to little Mercury, who was skulking just above the western horizon. Thought I’d try that. About 20 degrees off. What the frak?

"Maybe, just maybe," Unk speculated, "Sirius is getting a wee bit low in the west to be a good alignment choice. How about Polaris and Procyon?" Same-same 20 degree miss. Maybe I was pushing some button wrong? Nudder alignment, this time Polaris and Sirius again. And, again, no joy. What the H-E double hockey sticks was going on? I was facing north contemplating the sitchy-ation when my optic nerves and my few surviving brain cells conspired to provide the answer: “Rod, you dummy, you are aligning on Kocab and Sirius, not Polaris and Sirius.” Doh! That sorted, the Sky Commanders were back to their usual spot-on accuracy.

Almost all was to the good after that. Turnout by my fellow club rascals was a little disappointing—just one other die-hard in addition to Unk--but I could see why. With the Sun barely down, scope, eyepiece case, observing notes—ever'thing—were already covered with a nice coating of dew. "Alabama rain," we call it. Looking down-field into the west, ground fog/mist/whatever was all too evident as well. So be it. My buddy and I started working Coma – Virgo hard.

How’d we do? I’d estimate that by midnight, when the fog, real fog, rolled in for good, we’d done, between us, over 100 galaxies--and a handful of other object types, too. Standouts? For me, probably the Whale, NGC 4631 and The Silver Needle, NGC 4244. The Whale was not just bright, showing off her vaguely Cetacean shape, she was accompanied by The Calf, little NGC 4627. I was not overly surprised to see the little guy in the 12.5, but I was impressed that he showed in my companion’s 10-inch Discovery Dob under these humid and hazy conditions. The Silver needle in the 12.5-inch was actually anything but a Silver Needle. It was a sprawling thing, reminiscent of NGC 253, I thought.

Lotsa good stuff, in other words. But it was not all gravy. I had three problems over the course of the evening. First, was the omnipresent dew. Before long I found my secondary fogging up. What to do about the dew? I had my zapper gun with me, BUT I’d neglected to bring a battery for it. No extension to run it off the car’s 12v receptacles either. It was either shut down or find out why the AstroSystems secondary heater I’d installed during the scope's recent repair and refit wasn’t doing its job.

A little poking around revealed the heat from my fingers would warm the temperature sensor enough to turn the heater on. A few minutes of doing that and the dew was cleared. Repeat as needed. Why wasn’t the heater firing off automatically, though? A look at the instructions the next morning pointed to the default temperature setting, which I’d left alone when I'd installed the thing. This setting would probably be great for Colorado. Not for Possum Swamp, though. I’ll disassemble the secondary holder this week and adjust the temperature to the"Spongebobsquarepantsville" level.

My second problem was not really a problem, just an annoyance. Following crazy-heavy rain, the skeeters were out in force. Luckily, I’d remembered the Deep Woods Off this time. In my experience you need something of this strength, something that contains plenty of DEET, or you’ll soon wind up anemic down here. As it was, the little devils buzzed me continuously, but didn’t bite a bit.

The most serious problem, however, was the sky itself. Large areas, anything anywhere near the Mobile, Alabama light dome, were gray. Low power views were vile. That bright background didn’t just obscure detail; it looked plain ugly. I fought this with the only tool that seemed to help, a 13-year-old 12mm Nagler Type 2. This old warhorse, ably assisted by a 16mm Uwan and a 7mm Uwan, provided enough magnification to keep the grays out but enough field to keep DSOs pretty. Alas, as well as the 12 and the 16 did, I couldn’t help thinking TeleVue's new 13 Ethos would be even better. Sigh. There goes the piggybank.

And so it went, galaxy after galaxy looking surprisingly good, even when the ground fog rolled in and we were peering up through it. Man was it wet. Miserable. I hope those of y'all who observe from west of the Missiissip know how lucky you are. Even the coyotes had enough sense to stay in their dens on this night—they usually put in an appearance, curious about what we dumb humans are a-doing. And yet…and yet…miserable as it was—I’m still drying out the gear—today I’m haunted by my memory of that massive whale swimming in a pitch intergalactic sea. Worth the discomfort? Hail yeah it was, muchachos.

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