Sunday, July 27, 2008

 

“Uncle Rod, I Want to Take Pictures”

Sure you do. You think you do anyway. Despite its very real rewards, astrophotography is still the most frustrating way for a beginner—or anybody else—to spend time under the stars. Probably always will be.

The good news is that with today’s gear it is not as difficult as it used to be to get images that will make you happy. The astrophotography game has gotten easier and cheaper if it still ain’t easy and still ain’t cheap. Yeah, you’ll shell out bucks, and no matter how many greenbacks you sacrifice, you’d better be prepared to take on legions of gremlins who will try their dangdest to make your astrophotos look like hell. Before you can begin the struggle, though, you have to get off square one. What you gonna take them pictures with?

The imaging equipment question I hear most frequently from newbies of late? “Uncle Rod, what should I buy, a DSLR or a real CCD camera?” If you’ve seen my astrophotos, you know I ain’t no great shakes at celestial picture-taking despite 40 years of trying. But, while my results might make you wonder, I have spent a lot of time tinkering with a lot of different cameras, and can at least share my thoughts on what works for me and what might work for you. What I’m gonna do here is look at the three major groups of cameras and outline their individual strengths and weaknesses. Three kinds? Yep. In addition to astronomical CCD cameras and digital single lens reflexes, I like to put the lower-end astro cams in their own group—in some ways they are markedly different from DSLRs or astronomical CCDs.

At the bottom of the price ladder, cheaper than either mainline astronomical CCD cameras or, in some cases, DSLRs, are the bargain astrocams. I’m thinking of the Meade DSIs, the Orion Starshoots, and a few other similar cameras that lurk at the five and dime end of the scale. At this time, Orion and Meade seem to be turning away from their low-priced-spread roots and moving on to more expensive and capable “pro” versions of their cameras (which are actually quite similar to their earlier models in most ways). Some of the cheapies are still being made; however, and all are readily available used.

The first of this new breed of CCD to make its appearance was the original Meade DSI. When it landed several years back, it was an honest-to-god revelation. My initiation into deep sky CCD imaging about a decade ago had been rough. I’d been able to scrape up the funds for a Starlight Xpress MX5, but despite my hopes, what a gull-derned disaster that turned out to be. Oh, it was well built and engineered for the time, and people smarter than me made impressive images with it. But it was just too hard for Unk to get going despite 30 years of playing with film. My images were poorly framed, poorly guided, poorly exposed, just poor in general despite me working like a Trojan and sweating like a pig. I sold the MX5 and took up webcam planetary imaging with a SAC7 as my sole concession to the CCD revolution. But I still wanted to do deep sky imaging, and, with film obviously dying, it looked like CCDs would soon be the only game in town.

When Meade debuted the original DSI, which they claimed would allow e’en a goober such as myself to take good deep space pictures “the first night out,” I opened my wallet pretty quick; hope springs eternal, they say. The DSI was, unlike my MX5, a one-shot color camera. That meant it could take a nice color picture with one exposure, just like my friendly Instamatic. To get color with the MX5—and almost all other CCD cameras of the time—three separate red, green, and blue filtered images had to be taken. I wanted color, and this looked like a way for me to get it. The DSI didn’t beat the MX5 in one regard, however; it wasn’t cooled. Most CCD cameras, then and now, are chilled to low temperatures to reduce the thermal noise emission that will make your picture of M13 look like it was taken through a Maine snowstorm. The DSI, according to Meade, wasn’t cooled because it didn’t need to be.

The Deep Space Imager, said Meade, was designed to shut down at least some of its heat-producing internal electronics during exposures. That wasn’t the only innovation, either. Unlike Meade’s earlier “Pictor” cameras and many of the more expensive cameras on the market four or five years ago, the DSI was equipped with a modern, fast USB 2.0 interface. What a relief that would be. I could go inside, pour a shot of Rebel Yell, and watch an episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer while my serial MX5 downloaded a single exposure to the PC.

The software shipped with the DSI was purported to be no slouch either. Not only would it do the usual things other camera control programs could do, Enivsage could expose and stack multiple short exposure subframes to produce the equivalent (well, almost) of a long exposure image—discarding any frames that didn’t make a user-selected “quality” level. That was just the beginning. Envisage had features like its “magic eye” focus indicator that some of the most expensive CCD-ware of the time did not boast.

The above was what was in Meade’s big magazine advertising spreads, anyhow. And…well…some of us were of the opinion that the company’s breathless ads might occasionally be a trifle optimistic—at least when it came to what the bunglers among us could accomplish with Meade gear. How did this 300 buck camera/software combo work in the hands of one of these bunglers? I found the DSI to be flat-out amazing. Almost unbelievably, Meade’s claim of great pictures the first night out came true; my first light M13 and M17 looked great--to me, anyhow--and were at least as good as anything I had ever done with film. I was finally a CCDer. Me.

It wasn’t even that hard, though, admittedly, those many years struggling with an OM1, an OAG, and a roll of Fujicolor stood me in good stead. I at least had a vague idea of how to proceed. I set it up DSI and scope in the simplest fashion possible—unguided on a CG5 mount exposing through a C8 speeded-up to about f/4 with one of Meade’s reducers. I mashed the “go” button on the software, walked away, and let the DSI do its thing by itself.

I was frankly amazed by the images that appeared on the laptop screen once my sequences finished. This simple set up was able to bring home not just bright stuff like M13 and M17; examining a shot I took of the Deerlick Group (NGC 7331 and company) revealed the presence of not only the big galaxy and her wee NGC buddies, but little sprites, frighteningly dim PGC galaxies. I was mucho impressed with the camera’s color rendition too. It was, frankly, the first time I had seen anything like “accurate” color delivered by a one-shot camera.

Minuses? The main downcheck was the small size of the chip, 5.59mm x 4.8mm. The CG5’s deadly-accurate go-to was pretty good at putting objects in the minuscule frame at f/4, but there was no denying the resulting pictures were on the small side, and that some of my friends with less well-behaved go-to rigs were having trouble acquiring dimmer targets. Still, who was I to carp when the price of the thing was about 1/3 what I’d paid for my mean ol’ MX5?

While some of my Boudreauxs found the Envisage software difficult or even maddening to work with, I never had any trouble with it. Oh, the user interface could have been less clunky and less complicated, but there’s a limit to how much simplification can be done when a program has as many options and abilities as this one did and still does. Oh, how did the no-cooling/passive cooling thing work? Pretty well. The images were noisier than those produced by chilled cameras, but were quite acceptable.

Yeah, I’ve outgrown the DSI, I reckon (it still does yeoman duty as my autoguider), but Meade did not. To their credit, they stuck with their creation, continually upgrading and improving both hardware and software. The current top of the line version, the DSI III with a price tag of $1295.00, moves away from the bargain-novice territory a bit, but it’s still very reasonably priced compared to much of the competition (the previous generation, the $599.00 DSI II, is still available). The big advantage of the III? A 2/3-inch 1.4 megapixel sensor that produces nice big pix. The DSI III is available in both monochrome and color versions, so you’ll need to decide between the greater sensitivity of the black and white camera and the greater ease of producing color of the one-shot model.

Who is the DSI (or the similar Orion StarShoot II) for? For the CCD novice? Most definitely. But not just for the novice; they are for anyone who wants an easy to learn non-intimidating camera. If you can get a target centered on a chip and focused, you are assured of bringing home images that will please—and maybe even produce nods of respect from the imaging gurus down to the club. No, you probably won’t be doing 16 hour LRGB exposures with one, but most of us don’t aspire to that anyway. Heck, given the capabilities of the DSI III (or Orion’s Starshoot Pro), you may find you never need to move up to the SBIG or Apogee league.
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You do want to take that next step up? Or you just want to start out with something a little more sophisticated? Up one tall tier from the DSIs and their sisters are the cooled astronomical cameras. What’s that you say? Some entry level cameras like the Orion StarShoot are cooled, too? That’s true, but the next bunch, represented by SBIG, Starlight Xpress, Apogee, FLI, and quite a few others, are different. Most of ‘em don’t just have solid state Peltier coolers like the little guys, but regulated coolers. Not only that, their Peltiers can often be supplemented with water cooling when necessary.

Why the regulation? If the camera’s temperature is not kept steady, noise reduction from subtracting dark frames will not be nearly as effective. Water cooling? That is not a new idea for amateur cameras. Way back at the beginning of the CCD era in the early 1990s, folks used windshield washer pumps and buckets of cold water to carry heat away from their homebrewed Cookbook CCD cameras (but not me—I admit I never did finish building mine). In modern CCDs, this liquid cooling allows the temperature to be kept low under high ambient temperatures (like down here in Possum Swamp).

The biggest plus for the big boy cams ain’t their coolers, though; it is their chips. They are, yep, big. Some are considerably larger than even the nice-size sensors in the DSI III and the StarShoot Pro. More importantly, most of these high-falutin’ CCDs are also more sensitive than the video camera chips and similar that have often been used in the bargain cameras. They are frequently of better quality as well, with fewer hot/dead pixels to make for trouble during image processing with Photoshop.

Deciding to go for caviar instead of Vienna sausage for a first camera is often just the start of a confusing journey. Not only is there a passel of companies selling cameras in the 1000 buck and up range (and that is the range is for cooled astro-cams), each outfit makes a bunch of models. Which one? If you insist, I’ll identify my ideal step-up/better CCD, but mainly what you should do is eliminate from consideration any of these manufacturers’ bottom-of-the-pile models. Sure, SBIG’s ST-402, for example, is a well-made, reliable camera, but for your $1500 smackers you’ll be getting a relatively small 6.9 x 4.3mm monochrome chip. If you really need to stay on the cheap side of the street, I advise seriously considering the DSI III or the StarShoot Pro. They have significantly larger sensors that produce bigger images and are easier to work with. Nice, big high resolution images are not the only reason to choose bigger chips, however.

Lots of boys and girls get started in CCDing, and lots of them never make it very far. Some just decide they prefer simple visual observing to the cart-out-a-ton-of-gear game, but many are defeated by their cameras. The main reason for that, usually, is they scrimped or chose unwisely and bought something with a too-small CCD chip. Small sensors present two very disheartening and difficult hurdles to the CCD newbie. The biggest stumbling block is that, as mentioned earlier, it’s hard to get objects in the field of a small chip. Even if you have a fairly accurate go-to system that will place DSOs in a 25mm eyepiece every dad-gummed time, you may—no, you WILL—find it frustrating to center targets with a small chip cam, even at short focal lengths. Hair-tearingly frustrating. Also, once you’ve got said target acquired, you will quickly discover the “magnification factor” imparted by a small sensor makes even minor guiding errors very noticeable. Your images will have egg-shaped (or worse) stars unless they are accurately guided.

So, if you want to do this right from the beginning—or at least don’t want to do a lot more work to get good pictures than you hoped—my advice is be prepared to bite the bullet and spend around 3 grand for a camera that will make learning imaging a little easier and will grow with you as your interests become more sophisticated. There are many cameras that will fulfill these things, and you can go all the way up to big, ol’ SBIG ST11000s (make sure a real big chip matches the resolution of your scope before you spend needlessly) and even bigger and more sophisticated rigs from SBIG and others. What do I think will please an awful lot of folks, though? My pick is the SBIG ST2000. While this one is available in a one-shot color version, my advice is get the monochrome model. Not only is it more sensitive (the built-in filters of one-shot color chips mean they will always lose out to black and white CCDs when it comes to sensitivity), it is more suited to scientific tasks should you decide you want to do more than take pretty pictures.

The ST2000 has just about everything I’d recommend for imagers old or new. Start with a good-sized sensor, the 11.8 x 8.9mm Kodak KAI-2020, which boasts nearly 2 megapixels and delivers an expansive 1600 x 1200 pixel image. It’s got a very effective, regulated cooler; it’s available with the easy to learn and capable CCDSoft camera control/processing software; is compatible with just about every other camera control program sold; and, maybe nicest of all, it can be ordered with an onboard guide chip.

As you likely know, even if you’re new to imaging, you can’t just set up the scope, slap a camera on it and expose for as long as you want. Even if you are well polar aligned, small irregularities in most mount’s gears, the “Periodic Error” you’ve heard tell about, will make your stars trail in the final images. How do you get around that? You either combine many short exposures as I did with my DSI (works) or take longer exposures (much better for keeping noise down). To take long exposures, you will need to guide. How do you do that? You use another CCD camera, usually a small inexpensive one, to monitor the position of a “guide star” and make small aiming corrections via the scope drive when that star drifts off center. It’s possible to do this by mounting the “guide camera” on a small “guide scope” (usually a refractor) piggybacked on the main telescope, but that requires more gear, and care must be taken that everything is bolted down securely or you’ll get trailed stars no matter how well your mount is autoguided.

SBIG’s proprietary autoguiding system makes taking longer exposures a snap. Guiding is done, as with a separate guide scope, by another CCD camera. In this case, though, that’s an additional CCD chip mounted alongside the main (imaging) chip in the same camera housing. In the ST2000, it’s done by a little CCD identical to what was used in the company’s pre-ST402 entry level cam, the ST237. The ST237 chip monitors the same field as the imaging chip through the same telescope, making guiding easy and effective. The combination of the onboard guide chip and SBIG’s good software means I can easily do 15 minute exposures (that go very deep) with my humble and inexpensive Celestron CG5 mount. How much will this goodness hurt? A “dual-chip” ST2000 will set you back about $3500.

So, you have to be willing to shell-out three grand plus to get More Better Gooder than a DSI? Not necessarily. There is a third path to astro-imaging enlightenment, Grasshopper, in the form of the digital single lens reflex, the DSLR. When these cameras first appeared (well, the first popularly priced ones) about a decade ago, astrophotographers were eager to try ‘em. With their removable lenses and standard lens mounts, they could be used with the adapters and accessories we already owned. They might be more convenient to use than an astronomical CCD, too, since they could be used without the services of an expensive laptop computer and its complex software. Unfortunately, early tests were not encouraging: lots of noise due to the lack of cooling, and not much sensitivity due to the CMOS chips most used in lieu of CCDs. The early cameras couldn’t even expose for more than about 30 seconds, meaning many noisy frames had to be stacked into final images.

That would have been the end of the DSLR story for astrophotography if the camera makers had stood still. But they didn’t. All the biggies—Nikon, Olympus, Pentax, Minolta, and, especially, Canon—continued to improve their DSLRs, reducing noise, lengthening exposure time (before long most cameras sported a “B” exposure setting just like their film ancestors), and improving sensitivity and spectral response of the chips. One maker, Canon even went so far as to not only acknowledge that its cameras were being used for astrophotography, but actually produce one (for a brief time) designed for celestial picture taking, the Canon 20da.

In addition to the other improvements, DSLR makers continued to increase the size of their sensors, and today all cameras sport CMOS chips that are at least “APS” sized, just a wee bit smaller than a 35mm frame; typically delivering resolutions in the 4000 x 2600 pixel range, larger than the chips in all but the most obscenely expensive astronomical cameras. Soon, DSLR-crazy astrophotographers were turning out color pictures that rivaled the best tri-color shots done with astronomical cameras costing five times as much or more—the average mid-range DSLR can be had for less than $1000 with a decent zoom lens.

Should you steer toward the DSLRs instead of the SBIGs then? Maybe. If nothing else, it’s much easier to justify the purchase of a DSLR to a non-astronomer husband or wife than it is an astronomical camera. Not only will it be cheaper, it can be used to take pictures of the kids the next time y’all pack ‘em up and head to Dollywood for a vacation. There is also the fact DSLRs are much easier to learn than astro cameras.

While some advanced imagers use DSLRs in much the same fashion as astronomical cameras, running their Canons and Nikons from laptop PCs and “calibrating” images with dark, flat, and bias frames just like they do with SBIGs and Apogees, it is possible to get extremely nice DSLR pictures with without worrying about any of this complicated stuff. As mentioned earlier, a laptop is not needed to take long exposures; the only additional item required is the camera manufacturer’s remote “cable” release (to hold the shutter open in B mode). I once asked one very advanced STL11000-totin’ astrophotographer I met down Chiefland way what he thought of DSLRs. Though I’ve been impressed by these cameras and have come to love my Canon 400D, his reply still surprised me, “Rod, if all I were after were pretty pictures of showpiece objects, that’s what I’d use. There is no reason to buy anything else anymore.”

As I usually say about any astro-gear, however, it ain’t all gravy. There are some pretty substantial minuses, too. Not only are DSLRs less sensitive to light than astronomical cameras, even the under $1000 brigade, they are much less sensitive to red light. All DSLR manufacturers place an infrared blocking filter over their cameras’ sensors. CMOS chips, like almost all electronic imaging chips, are overly sensitive at the red end of the spectrum. Without a filter to remove the deep-red, terrestrial images are hard to color-balance, and pore li’l Bobbie Sue will look like she fried in the Sun on your trip down to the Redneck Riviera at Gulf Shores, Alabama. So what? This filtering makes it hard to get good exposures of dim red nebulas.

DSLRs can be modified to remove these filters, or purchased with them already removed, but this is a job for experts like the good folk at Hutech, and this service begins to drive the price of the “cheap” DSLR into SBIG regions. The good news, however, is, despite what you may have heard, it is quite possible to get credible images of even faint clouds like IC434 with an unmodified camera—it just takes longer exposures and more processing work.

What else do I turn my nose up at? The heralded “don’t need a laptop” thing turned out not to be strictly true. Sure, you can run the camera with just a remote release, but a laptop makes life much easier. Remember how hard it was to focus an SLR on even a bright star? DSLR viewfinders are even dimmer and smaller. Yes, the latest models do have “live view”—a constantly updating video display on their LCD screens—that makes focusing easier. These screens are relatively small, however, and it will always be easier to focus using the large display of a laptop running a DSLR-centric camera control program like Nebulosity. Software like “Neb” makes DSLR imaging easier in other ways too. Since most imagers stack numerous relatively short exposures (5 minutes or less, typically) in the interest of keeping thermal noise down, it’s nice to be able to tell the laptop to have the camera take a series of exposures and be freed to walk around the observing field and annoy your buddies while PC and DSLR do their thing without supervision.

Finally, if, unlike Your Silly Old Uncle, you have dreams of doing real science, a DSLR is not the camera for you. Their one-shot color CMOS sensors are neither sensitive enough nor linear enough to make most scientific pursuits practical. Nobody says you have to have only one type of camera, though, and even if you add a top-of-the-line astronomical CCD to your stable later, you will still find uses for the DSLR on the ground and in the sky.

If I were just starting out in imaging and were able to spend 800 hundred bucks or so, I would glom onto a DSLR in a real quick hurry, no doubt about it. It’s just so easy to get your feet wet with one of these cameras. Even if you are not sure you are ready for the autoguided - prime focus bigtime, you will still be able to take some knock-your-socks-off pretty color pictures of the heavens with a DSLR right away. Buy a cheap piggyback bracket for your telescope and a remote release for your camera, do a halfway decent polar alignment, slap that Canon on the scope, and start squeezing off 30-second – 1-minute frames through your “kit” zoom lens. A little processing of these images and you will literally be jumping for joy.

How do you process images? And how about that autoguiding stuff? Do you need PEC, too? Do really have to spend all that money for Adobe Photoshop? These things are subjects for a whole ‘nother blog entry on another day. Or, more properly, a whole book like Mike Covington’s or Ron Wodaski’s or Jerry Lodriguss’. Whether your rig is a simple DSI or a complex SBIG, astrophotography is unavoidably a complicated and often maddening pursuit, as I’m sure every astrophotographer you’ve talked to has warned you. You can’t read and learn too much. There’s a long and steep learning curve, and you can’t expect to master this craft in a week or a month or a year. Don’t let that scare you off, though. It’s also a wonderful and infinitely rewarding part of our avocation.

Once you understand it will be a long, long time, if ever, before you see your images in Sky and Telescope’s “Gallery” section, and, like me, just look on your pictures as souvenirs of your deep sky travels—like that snapshot you took of Aunt Lulu up at Rock City—you will be one happy camper, egg-shaped stars or no. Yes, you can go online and look at a million beautiful and perfect amateur and professional pictures of The Whirlpool Galaxy. But I guar-ron-tee none will look half as good as your first underexposed M51. No, it will not be perfect, but it will be yours.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

 

The Astronomer Looks at 55

Mother, mother ocean, I have heard you call.
Wanted to sail upon your waters since I was three feet tall,
You've seen it all, you've seen it all.

--Jimmy Buffet

I mentioned a while back that The Little Ol’ Blog from Possum Swamp is two years old in July. Well, that ain’t the only birthday we’re celebrating this month; your Old Uncle Rod is looking at double-nickels. 55, that is. Since I’ve been a part of this wonderful avocation, amateur astronomy (it ain’t just a hobby), for 43 of those 55 years, this seems as good a time as any to take stock of where we were back then, where we are now, and maybe where we are goin’ in the next decade or so.

The People

What’s the most frequent comment I hear about the folks doing amateur astronomy? How dadgummed old we all are. This “fact” frequently leads to impassioned threads on Astromart and Cloudy Nights opining that amateur astronomy is doomed, DOOMED I TELLS YA! That it will die out with the baby boom generation. What’s my observation on the amateur demographic? What changes have I seen over the forty-odd observing seasons that have come and went since I jined-up in 1965?

There is little doubt in my formerly military mind that amateur astronomy may have skewed a little younger back in ‘65. Why do I think that? The Space Race, prompted by our deadly fear of the Soviets’ soaring Sputniks, meant there was a major push on to get younguns involved in the sciences. Not just that, though. In those (supposedly) simpler and more naïve times there wasn’t as much distract us, no Nintendos and 100 channel big screen TVs and organized “playdates.” Telescopes and microscopes and chemistry sets were still cool; they were in fact actually considered “entertaining” by the average sprout--compared to duck and cover air raid drills with Bert the Turtle, anyway. Combine that with the excitement and romance of Mercury and Gemini, and the adults really didn’t have to do much to push some of us in the direction of astronomy.

Amateur astronomers did their part too. While there was probably not as much outreach in the form of public star parties, most clubs and universities did yeoman duty in this area nevertheless. If you’ve read my astro-bio, you know the first look I had through a “real” telescope was thanks to the kindness and insight of a local college’s Physics Department. Many clubs didn’t just solicit younguns, they made provisions for ‘em with “junior sections.” I used to think that was a bad thing, ghettoizing the pore wee folk in their own sub-clubs. Now, I ain’t so sure. Junior sections shepherded by committed adult amateurs have the benefit of making the astronomy club experience more appealing and less intimidating for teens and subteens. When all you do is throw your younger members into a general club meeting you risk boring ‘em: “OK, Ernest T. Bass is going to continue the discussion from last month on the question of where we’re going to hold the Christmas dinner—it’s already June.” Or intimidating ‘em: “Next, Joe Spit the Ragman is gonna talk to us at length about galaxy morphology.”

So, amateur astronomy is finished when the last of us Children of the Sixties do the big fade-out? Not so fast, not so fast. Things ain’t quite as dire as that. Yes, there are more gray haired folk doing astronomy, probably, than there were forty years ago. The main reason for more oldsters is not necessarily a lack of youngsters, however. Yes, there are a lotta gray heads, but that’s probably an inevitable spike brought on by us Boomers. Folks are now looking for a “retirement hobby,” and there are just so derned many of us retiring that the over 50 crowd is artificially inflated in amateur astronomy.

Also, I ain’t really so sure that amateur astronomy was as much of a kid thing in the 1960s as many of us remember. As far as I know, my town, good, ol’ Possum Swamp, didn’t have a real astronomy club until the mid 1980s. Well, there was the informal group me and a few teen and subteen buddies got up, The Backyard Astronomy Society (BAS) but we were hardly “serious.” Not unless you consider our meetings, where the main attraction was PB&J sandwiches and Kool-aid provided by somebody’s mom, “serious.” I suspect most of us outside major metro areas were pretty much in the same boat; there was no organized club, and thus little chance of us coming in contact with adult amateurs unless a teacher happened to be one.

Heck, if I hadn’t seen pictures of serious looking grownups in the group pictures that occasionally appeared in Sky and Telescope’s “Amateur Astronomers” column, I wouldn’t have believed any adults not affiliated with a university were into astronomy. I just tended to assume amateur astronomy was mostly a kid thing, and that perception stuck. In our failing memories, the amateur astronomy of the 1960s was all—or almost all—people our own age. Ground truth? Yes, a lot of mid-60s kiddles played around with Christmas scopes for a little while or did the occasional astronomy-oriented science fair project, but the ratio of youth to adult amateurs--practicing, committed, serious amateur astronomers--back then was probably similar to what it is today.

Now? Sure, I’d like to see more youth in clubs, but I am not as concerned about our appeal to the Lollipop Guild as some of my brothers and sisters. I teach astronomy to 18-19 year olds month after month after month at a university. Yes, many of the little people are there only to satisfy that dratted science requirement—at first, anyhow. I guar-ron-tee you would be surprised and relieved and pleased at how many wind up getting the amateur astronomy bug without much prompting. Not just interested, but seriously interested, in fact. On their own with only a little help/advice from the Physics Department adults, our kids formed their own student astronomy club and have kept it alive—and growing—for several years. Bottom line? Nintendo Wii or not, there is still interest and the kids are there to be had if we are willing to go out and get them—and figure out how to keep them.

One thing we have got going for us that amateurs of the 1960s often didn’t is that we, most of us, realize there is a huge potential for growth in a nearly untapped astronomy audience: women and minorities. I am seeing substantial gains in this area in the last decade. It is finally uncommon for me address a club or star party audience and see mostly all white male faces. Not only are there many potential recruits in these groups, they offer real “advantages” over youngsters. The Rugrats are often enthusiastic observers and club members in their pre-teen and early teen years, but then they hear the siren call of cars and boys/girls and are gone, often for quite a while if not forever, till they finish college and/or get settled in a vocation and start a family.

How about light pollution? When amateurs shoot the breeze, especially in the company of Jack Daniels and Bud Weiser, that’s often cited as a reason for our supposed decline. The skies are so punk nobody could observe if they wanted to. New amateurs starting out in the backyard soon give up. No wonder we can’t get kids—or anybody else—to join the club. There may be some truth to that, but, in my case anyway, the problem didn’t begin yesterday. By the early 1970s the Milky Way was invisible on most nights from my parents’ suburban yard. If light pollution is hurting recruitment, it has been doing that for a while. What can we do? In the short term, make sure our newbies know about the club dark site and feel welcome there. No club dark site? Find one (the subject of an upcoming blog). It’s also just barely possible light pollution may begin to be less of a burden for us.

The next decade may show the light pollution problem was, after all, a short-term and self-correcting one. With oil as expensive as it is, and the fact being that it is not gonna get appreciably cheaper--ever--cities and businesses and individuals that never cared pea-turkey about efficient lighting are finally getting the message. Which doesn’t mean we should stop campaigning against fencepost-dumb lighting. Even if it is on the wane, presenting an organized opposition (as in the IDA) can only speed-up the process.

Assessment: In the people sector, amateur astronomy is holding its own, but we need to do more. Our avocation will likely grow very slowly without our help, and growth is a good thing for us. We also need to work to make our clubs more appealing and interesting for the under 40s we have already got—make that “for everybody.”

The Gear

A lot of older amateurs wax nostalgic for the happier times of the 60s when everybody was building their own scopes, fantastic telescopes that put the current crop of Chinese cheap-cheaps to shame. Not exactly. Most of us who built scopes built ‘em for one reason only: we had to. And most of the scopes we turned out were not just bad, but real bad. Back then, I don’t think I ever saw anybody’s mirror that didn’t have at least some turned-down-edge. In those days, when a bare-bones (by 21st century standards) Criterion RV-6 Dynascope Newtonian was $194.00 ($1274.00 simoleons today), the po’ folk among us (like Unk) had to build if they wanted 6-inches or more of aperture. The well-heeled? Easy Street adults or kids in the Beaver Cleaver socioeconomic group whose parents had more moola and were more apt to spend it on sonny-boy’s (or girl’s) current obsession?

Let’s take a stroll through Chaos Manor South’s massive astro-mag archive, the place where old astronomy rags go to live out their remaining days. Don’t mind the dust, just think of it as “a fine patina of age that adds to the charm of these old periodicals.” OK, here’s one (kaff-kaff), Sky and Telescope, November 1967. Reckon that’ll do. Now, stand back while I pull her out of the stack. Wouldn’t want you crushed in an avalanche of Chuck Federer issues. They were skinny, yeah, but they was dense. Hokay…lessee... One thing you notice right off is there wasn’t a whole lot to buy. Ads, sure, but not scads of multi-colored extravaganzas like you see in Astronomy Technology Today. Secondly, what there was was purty derned expensive. Let’s browse. Values in today’s dollars are in parentheses, and are calculated using the Consumer Price Index.

Hmm…inside front cover is occupied by Questar’s full pager, just like ever’ month from the sixties and on through the 70s I believe (don’t dare tunnel through that mountain of Astronomy Nows to get to the 1970s section—that’s where the mutant rats hang out). Right pretty li’l scope. Sure, Unk wanted one, even if he was not completely convinced this 3.5-incher would best his humble home-grown 6-inch f/8 mirror. Luckily, perhaps, he didn’t have the $795.00 ($5222.00) price of admission required to find out.

Getting to the first ad past the inside cover requires thumbing through about 15 pages of various serious (if surprisingly interesting) articles: “Budapest Symposium on Active Solar Regions.” And there, smack on page 307 (they used volume-style page numbering back then) is the Pretty Baby, a big, honkin’ pier-mounted Celestron Pacific C16. Needless to say, Yore Old Uncle was afraid to e’en dream about one of these, seeing as how mama and daddy were not likely to come across with $11,500 ($75,552,00) at birthday time. Dang. How about a nice Unitron, then? I literally wore out their little catalog-pamphlet one summer. Probably dissolved by my drool. They sure had some beautiful scopes that still look beautiful today, and how. But the impediment, even for a 60mm was, again, price. The bottom of the astro line 2.4-inch alt-azimuth required $125.00 ($821.00) more than I had or likely could accumulate no matter how many lawns I mowed that summer.

While not exactly packed with ads, there’s plenty more, too: Caves, Starliners, Optical Craftsmen, Tinsleys. Lovely to look at, expensive to buy, and maybe not quite as good to use as we might have hoped. Sure, just like you, I complain about the depredations of Meade and Celestron today, but the simple fact is, not only are today’s telescopes much more affordable for kids and novices of all stripes; they are better, and not just because of go-to and other modern obsessions. Yeah, those big ol’ 1960s German mounts look impressive, but they are all—almost every one—shakier than they should be. They are also not as portable as most of us would want today (I wish I had a dollar for every time I got yelled at by Mama for bumping my 4.25-inch Palomar Junior’s pedestal into a dining room table leg).

Optically? Some of those old scopes were good, very good indeed. What some of my brethren have forgotten, though, is that there were plenty of bow-wows too. Yeah, Alika Herring made some mind-blowing primaries for Cave, but not even all of his were good. Frankly, the one thing we’ve really got going for us in this new century is consistency. Your average Chinese machine-made mirror may not be the world beater some of the fully handmade 60s optics were, but it will likely be good enough, and you will pretty much be assured of getting one that is just as good as the one Bubba down the street got. In the 60s it was as easy to get a lemon as a plum.

You might, in fact, say we are living through a golden age of astro-gear. Everything and I do mean everything—not just scopes, but eyepieces and accessories of all kinds—is dirt cheap. And almost insanely good. The question is not whether we have got it easy, but “Will it last?” As long as the Chinese Yuan remains low, we’re walking in high cotton. Let that change as it likely will, and cheap but good gear will instantly be a thing of the past. We may be seeing that beginning right now as a matter of fact. The Yuan is stable, but the dollar is falling, and one APO maker who formerly had all his optical components done in China has cranked up U.S. production—it’s now cheaper and easier to do the work at home. What will happen if this continues? Will we see a return to the old days, and the rebirth of storied U.S. names like Cave and Unitron? Perhaps. Just as likely, we’ll soon be complaining about them cheap Vietnamese telescopes.

Assessment: Those of us who’ve been doing astronomy since the 1990s sure have been sipping cream: cheap, good, very technologically sophisticated astro-stuff. My opinion, I’m sorry to say, is that we are currently on the edge of a knife gear-wise. Likely the U.S. and world economies will soon ring in changes for amateur equipment. If you want something cool on the cheap, better think about getting it now (do I have to twist yer arms?).

The Pursuit

Y’all may think I’m crazy (so what else is new?), but I think the biggest change in amateur astronomy over the last 40 years has not been in what we look with but what we look at. Yeah, go-to has made a big impact. It’s made observing the deep sky less of a chore for old and new folks alike. But the experience of using a NexStar 8 SE is not really that much different from that of using a Celestron Pacific C10. No, what’s changed is what we do with these scopes. Back in The Day we were very much focused on the Solar System. Oh, sure, we glanced at the Messiers, but the deep sky was very much a secondary thing for the average Joe Amateur.

Why weren’t we chasing NGCs? Aside from the fact that almost nobody had a telescope larger than 12-inches, and that the Solar System was still a very mysterious and romantic place to play around in, we just didn’t know we could. An example is the Veil Nebula. A lot of us wanted to see this thing, intrigued by professional pictures, but very few of us did. Mainly because we didn’t try. There was a weird idea that NGC objects were “professional” objects, and that me and thee should stick to the good, old Messier.

Those of us who tried wade out into the deeper end of the pool were hampered by long focal length scopes and poor eyepieces (relatively speaking), but most of all by a lack of information. Most of us were using the greatly beloved Norton’s Star Atlas as our guide, and, frankly, that 6th magnitude thing, classic though it may be, was so devoid of detail that it was difficult to find M87 with its aid. Yeah, some of the more sophisticated among us were gobbling up print runs of the Skalnate Pleso Atlas (the “forerunner” of Sky Atlas 2000), and Walter Scott “Scotty” Houston’s monthly “Deep Sky Wonders” column in Sky and ‘Scope was beginning to lead us out of the deep sky wilderness—he talks about the exotic NGC 246 in his November ’67 piece—but it really wouldn’t be until the late 70s and early 80s and the coming of Bigdobs before we really began to stretch our legs. Mostly it was not because more aperture always meant the difference between seeing and not seeing, but because we thought it did.

Assessment: There is no doubt amateurs are performing feats of deep sky observing that would have flat-out amazed me and my buddies back in our Possum Swamp Astronomical Society and Softball Team days. I mean…I mean…a not inconsiderable number of folks have seen Einstein’s Cross. Seen it visually. How much farther we go depends in part on what happens in the light pollution arena. As I said in the “People” section, the tide may be turning in that regard; but even if not, technology like Mallincams and Stellacams—crazy-sensitive and easy to use deep sky video cameras--means we will continue to push back the frontiers nevertheless.

The Future

My prediction? Amateur astronomy will be alive and well in 2051 if our children and our grandchildren want it to be. What will it be like? Technologically? I won’t hazard a guess. I could say, “more and more computers,” but the obvious ain’t often correct--the future isn't an extrapolation of the past. Back in the 1960s, my prediction for the future would probably have been, “Everybody will be able to afford a 16-inch f/8 Newtonian on a solid steel English mount.” Instead, the next big movement was astrophotography and 8-inch Schmidt Cassegrains, and, after that, large visual-only alt-az telescopes made of wood and cardboard.

I can make a guess about the people, though. Young or old, you (Ol’ Unk Rod will be just a fading amateur astronomy footnote by then) will still be the planet’s dreamers. Whether scanning the face of Luna--straining to see the lights of Moon Base Alpha--or imaging the faint envelopes of distant QUASARs, amateur astronomers will still be that small group of special people who look up and wonder.

Sunday, July 13, 2008

 

The Good Tasco


The good Tasco? Ain’t that what the bright boys call an “oxymoron?” Wouldn’t you need to be a moron of some kind to call one of those stinking Tasco, TRASHCO Department Store telescopes “good?” Yeah. Except…there was a time when Tasco was importing excellent telescopes, muchachos. Oh, maybe not quite up there with Unitron, but occasionally close, very close indeed. Notice I said “imported,” not “made.” Back in The Day, I imagined a giant Tasco factory in some far-away Asian city. Something resembling the set for a Fu Manchu movie. Opium den ‘round back. I was wrong. Truth is, Tasco never made a blessed thing.

“Tasco” was and is the company George Rosenfield founded in 1954 as the Tanross Supply Company of Miramar, Florida. His simple goal was importing fishing tackle and similar small items for post-war leisure-crazy Americans. As the 1950s rocked-around-the-clock, George both shortened his outfit’s name, and changed his product focus. To optics; first in the form of binoculars and other “sport” optics. By the dawn of the 1960s and the Space Age, George was also selling astronomical telescopes from a variety of Japanese manufacturers to starry-eyed kids (and adults). The reason there were, yes, good Tascos was the wise decisions George and his compadres made as to exactly which scopes they would bring-in.

The choices Tasco made for its astronomical telescope suppliers are today a litany of excellence: Royal Optical, Goto, Towa, Carton, and more. You want irony, though? None of these outfits were thought of highly by American amateur astronomers—heck, the average Joe or Jane amateur (most often “Joe” in those benighted times) wouldn’t pay two nickels, a bottle cap, and a dead frog for any Japanese telescope.

Strange as it may seem to you younguns, well into the 60s U.S. consumers considered the words “Made in Japan” to be synonymous with “cheap crap.” No matter what we thought, though, the fact was these companies were producing excellent telescopes. Actually, many of us were already praising Japanese made scopes to high heaven--we just didn’t know it. Unitron, like Tasco, was really “only” an importer, and all its scopes/parts also came from Japan (with the infrequent exception of an occasional U.S.-made objective).

If you’re still not convinced the Tasco of the 1960s and 1970s was sumpin special, consider the Tasco 20TE “Observatory.” This luverly 4 ¼-inch f/15 refractor was made by Goto and used an objective fabricated by Carton. Accessories? In addition to its beautiful GEM mount, which was equipped with an electric RA drive and an impressive pedestal for support, there was a brace of accessories including, among other cool stuff, two (!) star diagonals, and a boxful of eyepieces in which lurked an Orthoscopic, the ne plus ultra of oculars when Unk was young(er). Price? That was hardly Department Store either. Try 950 smackers in the late 1960s, which equates to at least 4500 small 2008 dollars. That doesn't sound like the Tasco you know from WallyWorld, now does it? As you might expect, the 20TE is a highly sought-after telescope today; one you won’t buy for 15 bucks on the ‘Bay.

What was my personal experience with Tasco telescopes? Despite the above enthusiasm, it was distinctly mixed. One thing to remember about the company’s products, even the old ones, when you’re standing transfixed by some white tube wonder down to the flea market, is that even way back when Tasco sold junk. Unk’s first telescope, a 3-inch Tasco Newt on a little fork mount, was pretty, but its mirror was pretty punk. The Moon was OK, deep sky objects were passable, but what I really wanted to see, Jupiter and Saturn, looked like something that came out of the wrong end of Unk's Aunt Lulu’s poodle-dog. Luckily, this kind of “quality” was mostly reserved for the cheapest Tascos, not the “Observatory” or the Lunagrosso.

In the mid 1970s, Arkansas’ Little Rock Air Force Base, where I was stationed, was a thriving and growing concern despite the post-Vietnam military depression. It was host not only to Unk’s outfit, SAC’s 308th Strategic Missile Wing (Titan II), but to a large and active Military Airlift Command C130 force. That being the case, LRAFB was blessed with a large and modern Base Exchange. Think “Wal-Mart” before there was a Wal-Mart.

One of the features of this big “BX” was a well-stocked photo/optical department. Once I convinced myself I needed an “interim” scope of some kind to use when I wasn't on Alert as a SAC Missile Combat Crew member and while saving up for a big honking Cave Newtonian, I moseyed over and had a look. I didn't have any trouble finding Tascos there; the store’s large and somewhat motley scope collection contained plenty of Tascos and Jasons in every variety and color imaginable. A quick scan turned up one I figured might do, a Tasco 4.5-inch reflector which at the time was designated the “11TE-5.”

The 11TE-5, which is better remembered by us astro-old-timers as the peculiarly but memorably named “Lunagrosso” (“big Moon,” I reckon), was a 4.5-inch aperture f/8 Newtonian. This is a good size; one that’s exceedingly portable but capable of showing the basic wonders of the sky, both planets and Messiers.

While a 4.5-inch loses out to a 6-inch scope, it does not do so by much. Optically, the Lunagrossos were not bad, not bad at all. Yes, the Pyrex primary was saddled with a spherical figure, which placed an upper limit on its resolution, but this sphere was a good one and the images it produced compared favorably with the excellent ones of its more famous contemporary, the 4.25-inch Edmund Scientific “Palomar Junior,” which also possessed a spherical primary. The Pal Junior did have a larger focal ratio, about f/11, and was thus capable of slightly better wave-front performance. In practice, the optical quality of the two scopes was nearly indistinguishable, and the Lunagrosso pulled ahead a bit in the field-of-view department, at least.

The 11TE’s secondary mirror was maybe slightly larger than absolutely necessary, but well suited to the scope’s somewhat tall rack and pinion focuser. Both primary and secondary were in easily collimatable cells, with the secondary featuring a real spider instead of the lousy single-stalk-attached-to-the-focuser dealie of the Edmund Pal. The Tasco’s tube was finished a gleaming, beautiful white (much nicer than the red paintjobs the company later favored) that sported sturdy and attractive black tube end rings. Most amazing thing by today’s Department Store scope standards? The lack of plastic. Thinking back, trying to access my poor Rebel Yell-soaked brain cells, the only things plastic on the OTA were (maybe) the focuser knobs.

Mount-wise, the German equatorial furnished with the Lunagrosso was not overkill, but was sufficient if you didn’t insist on trying the scope at the 300x advertised on the box. It was a nice little mount with smooth movement in right ascension and declination, good slow motions (via the ubiquitous flexible cables), and a passably stable (black) wooden tripod equipped with an accessory tray. While no clock drive was included with the standard scope, the mount did feature a gear that would allow it to be driven in RA by an optional motor. The all-metal GEM head was nicely appointed and closer in size to one of today’s Chinese EQ-2 mounts than the EQ-1s seen on most current Department Store GEM reflectors.

The Lunagrosso was fairly well equipped with accessories. Two eyepieces were provided, an H20mm and an H6mm. These two-element Huygenians, which are mostly a thing of the past today, thank god, had small apparent fields and only fair eye-relief. The 20mm was useable, the 6mm not so much. Do I have to say the Lunagrosso’s eyepieces and focuser were of the .965-inch “Japanese standard” format? Oh, how you gonna get an f/8 4.5-inch up to the claimed 300x with them eyepieces? With a Barlow, of course. The Barlow lens shipped with the Lunagrosso was about as useful as the useless ones found with today’s crap-o-scopes—well, maybe a little better than that, I reckon.

Other stuff? The Lunagrossos, all those I’ve seen from the 1960s to the 1990s—white or red tubes—have been equipped with too small 5x24 finders. In the 1970s, these finders were still optically acceptable and made of metal, but as the 80s came in and disco suddenly sucked, the finder de-evolved into a laughable stopped-down single element objective plastic-body job. There wasn’t much else in the Lunagrosso box other than a right nice metal aperture cap. The cover’s small cutout with removable cap was intended to reduce the aperture of the scope for use with Tasco’s (dangerous) eyepiece Solar filter, I suppose, but there was, if I recollect, no Solar filter shipped with my mid-seventies scope. There was a marginally useful Moon filter.

All this sounds good by today’s department store standards, but I stood there in the BX aisle for quite a while feeling skittish, like an antelope ready to dash at the faintest whiff of lion. Based on my experience with my 3-inch Tasco, the company was indeed a predator, luring its victims with visions of 300x multicolored nebula glory. Hell, I, who’d already done most of the Messier with my Palomar Junior; ground, polished, and figured a 6-inch mirror or three; and constructed my own workable if not elegant “pipe mount” was way beyond Tascos, wasn’t I?

Yeah, I did have big boy scopes back home in Possum Swamp. B-U-T… There seemed little chance of retrieving either my Pal Junior or my homebrew 6-inch Newt any time soon, and there—right there—was a nice-looking 4.5-inch telescope staring me in the face, whispering, “Buy me, Rod, BUY ME.” Let’s be honest: the main thing that gave me pause was the price. Like the 20TE, if not to quite that degree, this Good Tasco was not cheap. The Lunagrosso sold for $89.95 in 1960 when it was first imported, and the price of this Towa-made scope had slowly climbed to somewhat more than $150.00 by the mid 70s, about $575.00 today, not an inconsiderable sum for a young GI. Luckily, the Base Exchange price tag read “$100.00,” still a lot, but doable, barely.

I clutched the Tasco like a little drowning person grabbing for a lifeline. That’s exactly what I was, too; I hadn’t had a look through anything but binoculars in over a year. I had seen magnificent Comet West with a pair of, yep, Tasco 10x50s, but that just made me hungry for a telescope. I needed this Tasco. As I manhandled the garish box into my shopping cart, my eyes lit on an AC clock drive hanging on a nearby peg. 30 bucks ($50.00 in a civilian shop)? “OK,” though I wasn’t sure whether I wanted or needed it.

Even in those days, one sure thing was the New Scope Curse. My act of buying the Lunagrosso attracted not just clouds, but the threat of truly severe weather. Back at my digs, a glance out the window revealed not just overcast, but a dark, almost black line along the horizon that portended one of central Arkansas’ often awesome thunderstorms—which not infrequently came equipped with a line of tornados. Turning on my trusty Sears 12-inch black and white portable TV (in the white plastic disco-style cabinet), I tuned-in Channel 7, KATV. They had already broken into The Gong Show with weather warnings, and it became obvious I wouldn’t be able to observe squat this evening. At least I could admire new baby. She looked right COOL with the lights off and my black light on (of course I had one).

That’s not all I could do. There was good reading material on hand. In addition to a surprisingly well done instruction manual—which contained lots of good information including fairly well-done collimation instructions—I was surprised to find an honest-to-god astronomy book in the box. A Key to Worlds Beyond (1966) by Arthur P. Smith of the Astronomical League was a very readable 62 page guide to the heavens that is still treasured by many former Tasco owners  long after their telescopes have returned to dust (or rust).

“Hmm, not near as good as The New Handbook of the Heavens,” I grumbled (the book that came with the Pal Junior). But I soon found myself not just browsing, but learning. Maybe young Rod didn’t know quite as much about the astronomy game as he thought he did. So passed a stormy night with a new scope.

Next evening? Cloudy again. In fact, I was not able to get my new scope our under the stars for another week and a half. The only clear spell before that was, wouldn’t you know it, when I was on Alert Tour at Launch Complex 373-4. Not that I hadn’t done a little looking—through the windows at telephone poles and the distant tree line. Images looked purty good, especially with the lower power eyepiece, but well I knew only the sky will reveal “good” or “bad” when it comes to telescopes. I was in an agony of suspense, but the night finally did come when it was clear (albeit with a gibbous Moon in the sky).

I plunked my pretty new telescope down in a spot with a clear view of the fat Moon and, with trembling hand, inserted the H20 ocular, centered Luna in the finder, pressed my hungry eye to the eyepiece, and saw—nuttin. At first I wondered whether the finder alignment I had done (on a distant power pole insulator) had been accurate enough, whether the target had been too close and caused parallax problems. Nope. It helps to take the aperture cap off the scope. Now I saw something--a bright, white blur.

A careful turn of a focus knob, first in one direction and then the other, delivered the goods. The terminator stood out in stark relief with excellent contrast and sharpness. What else did I notice? Focusing required a light touch or the mount got the shakes in a hurry, even with a 20mm eyepiece. My impression at the time was that the mount was decidedly less stable than the Pal Junior’s GEM, but, in retrospect, there was not much difference. The Edmund’s mount, despite looking hefty, was hardly the Rock of Gibraltar.

One area where my new scope was clearly inferior was in its eyepieces. When I got tired of the 44x view of Luna in the 20mm, I fished out the H6mm, which would deliver about 140x, and gave it a try. Not so hotsky. Maybe not quite as bad as the .965 6mm Edmund Ramsden I’d got for the 3-inch Tasco one Christmas, but close. Nearly zero eye relief, an apparent field to match that, putrid edge of field sharpness, and center-of-field performance that was nothing to write home about.

I didn’t panic. I knew enough about eyepieces, especially cheap, crummy eyepieces to be fairly sure that was the problem. I did resolve to check collimation again, though a quick look had shown it to be, surprisingly, pretty close out of the box. Back in went the 20mm. While it was not perfect either—also deficient in eye relief and AFOV—it was derned sharp, with the field edge more than acceptable.

I loved the Moon then just as I do now, but after admiring her silv’ry countenance for a good half-hour, I began to wonder “what else?” Over in the west, creeping toward the horizon with Gemini, was Saturn. Not exactly well placed, but what the hell? Over to the Ringed Wonder we went. In the 20mmH, the view was similar to what I was accustomed to in the Pal Junior with a 25mm Kellner—sweet, that is. With the rings nearly open, Cassini’s Division stood out beautifully. There was also some banding visible on the disk, which I thought was actually a little easier to see than it was in the Pal. Despite the eyepiece’s obvious shortcomings, I inserted the 6mm—Saturn cried out for more power. Acceptable, barely. Maybe looked a little better than the Moon. “Hmmm…how about that little Barlow?” Out went the 6mm, in went the 20mm and the Barlow. Not too good. Slightly superior to the 6mm? Perhaps. Not by much.

I continued to ogle Saturn, and came to appreciate the Lunagrosso’s mount. It’s RA slow motion control, anyway. Turning it produced almost no shaking in contrast to the constant and severe vibrations caused by nudging the Pal to track a planet at anything but the lowest magnifications. Despite just casually adjusting the altitude of the mount’s polar axis and pointing it approximately north, I was able to follow Saturn for quite a while with before an adjustment via the declination slo-mo control became necessary. I did give the AC powered clock drive a try (by means of a mile-long extension cord). It worked, but seemed like more trouble than it was worth for such casual viewing with such a casual telescope.

I just looked and looked, going back and forth between Luna and Saturn, and became ever more proud of my Lunagrosso. When I finally called it a night and hauled the scope back inside—a considerably more pleasant experience than wrestling the Pal Junior’s pedestal indoors—I was amazed to discover my mechanical-digital clock radio read 12:30. It seemed as if I’d only been outside for 15 minutes at most.

Oh, how pleased was Unk; I had taken a chance on a Department Store scope and it had actually worked out. Despite the cheap eyepieces’ problems—which I’d expected—I’d had some amazing views. The Tasco far exceeded my expectations. For the first time in a long time, I’d almost had my fill of observing—for one night, anyway. Sure, I hungered for the deep sky, and in time would cart my new love up into the dark Ozark Mountains, but for now I was satisfied. Time to crack open a Hamm’s, flick an imaginary speck of dust off the Lunagrosso’s tube, and tune-in Tomorrow with Tom Snyder.

What happened to my Lunagrosso? That’s a mystery. Somewhere, sometime over the next decade in the course of many moves and one divorce it disappeared. I will tell y’all one thing: I didn’t sell it, give it away, or discard it. Yeah, when I went on to a Cave and, shortly thereafter, began my long-running love affair with Schmidt Cassegrains, the Tasco faded into the background a smidge. Not completely, though; it still got used frequently as a grab ‘n go scope. The Tasco showed me countless wonders and carried me through some lonely times. I’m sorry I don’t even have a picture of it left, but, really, I don’t need one. In my mind’s eye I can still see the Moon just as she appeared on that long ago night with my wonderful new telescope.

What happened to the Lunagrosso? I wasn’t the only person Tasco made happy with the 11TE. I’d guess thousands of astronomers, amateur and professional, got their start with the Tasco. Even those owners for whom astronomy was a passing fancy wedged between pet rocks and mood rings remember their scopes fondly, I’ve found. What killed the Lunagrosso? The same thing that killed a lot of other scopes: Comet Halley. By the mid 80s, Tasco found itself faced with both more competition and more possibilities. The main possibility being the chance of making oodles of dollars from a suddenly scope-mad public.

To do that, they had to keep up pricewise with the Jasons, and Focals, and Bushnells that were crowding store shelves, and way undercut “better” brands, like Bausch and Lomb, which were suddenly being peddled in America’s shopping malls too. To that end, by the mid 1980s Tasco was importing cheaper telescopes. Goto and Towa were fading memories as the company searched Taiwan for the more affordable and available. The Lunagrosso transitioned from white tube to red tube, and gained ever more plastic as the 80s wound down into the 90s. It was still pretty good, but the handwriting was on the wall.

What happened to Tasco post Halley? Not much. Unlike some other scope sellers, they apparently made a nice pot of money and continued on their merry way. By the mid 1990s, when ol’ Mr. Rosenfield sold out, Tasco was doing 110 mill a year. Hell, as I talked about in the last installment of this here blog, “Telescope Anxiety,” Tasco was riding so high by the end of the decade that they went out and bought themselves Celestron (in 1998). That was the high point, though, and the plunge into bankruptcy in the new century was sudden and steep. But not fatal.

All Tasco ever was was a NAME, nothing more, and that name still had and still has value. Despite the company having passed through a couple of hands after flaming out, it’s still alive today. The brightly colored boxes still draw dreaming buyers with promises of wonder, but, alas, the scopes in those boxes have a harder time delivering a taste of that wonder than the old ones did.

Every time Wally World stocks up on scopes—in my area usually only at Christmas—I can’t help wandering over for a look at the current 4.5-inch Newts, the Luminova and Spacestation. I don’t know what I expect. The Lunagrosso is gone and she ain’t never coming back. I know that; still I can’t help feeling a little sad.

If any of the above has piqued your interest in Tasco (or any of the underappreciated but good imported scopes of the 60s – 70s) have I got a great resource for you: Cloudy Nights Classic Telescopes Forum. There you can read about and discuss 11TEs and 20TEs and many more to yore little heart’s content. Another great place to read about ‘em is in the pages of the Rosette Gazette, the newsletter of the Rose City Astronomers. Browse through the back issues; several have excellent and erudite articles on these old and (till recently) ignored ol’ scopes.

Sunday, July 06, 2008

 

Telescope Anxiety

Brothers and sisters, telescope anxiety is abroad in our land. Telescope company anxiety, that is, and us Schmidt Cassegrain fanciers, us bubbas and bubbettes who rely on Meade and Celestron for our scope fixes have got it bad. What’s the problem? Ain’t M&C the world’s biggest amateur telescope sellers? Well, yeah, maybe still, but things ain’t quite what they used to be. Some of us have begun to wonder how long these two fabled and fabulous outfits might be around, at least in a form we recognize.

Who put the fly in the SCT ointment? Well, the decline didn’t start yesterday, but it has been accelerating over the last five years or so. What happened? The main thing is that the profits that can be got out of SCT sales keep shrinking. Meade’s and Celestron’s fork mount scopes, the big sellers in their amateur gear lines, have become ever more technically advanced and complex as the years have rolled on. Their prices, however, in real dollars, have stayed nearly the same. Or, actually dropped. For example, a Meade 8-inch LX90 is $1995.00 in 2008 dollars. This dadgummed thing will do everything except get you a beer out of the fridge and peel the shrimp. And yet…in 1980 dollars its “true” worth is only $792.00 (using the Consumer Price Index as a basis for comparison), which is less than what a fully-up Meade 2080 went for in 1980.

Well, why not up the cost of the SCT to something that gives the makers and dealers a little more profit wiggle room? Fear of the competition keeping their prices low and stealing a march, I reckon. And a belief that consumers expect these prices and will desert in droves if they go up. Let me add rat-cheer that amateur telescope sales, contrary to what has been buzzed around the amateur astronomy rumor mill, are still very important to Meade’s and Celestron’s bottom lines. Department store refractors and riflescopes help, yes, but ETXes and up aren’t just “prestige items,” they are bread and butter.

How do you sell so low in the wake of the The Incredible Shrinking Dollar? How do you maintain a near-40 year old price structure? Only one way, cats ‘n kittens: production costs (including QA) must stay low and get lower. Technology helps—a good PEC routine in the computer is way cheaper than a set of Byers worm gears. But at some point the need to cheapen and a reliance on low-priced but complex technology makes these CATs less reliable than they used to be. That’s exacerbated by the fact that Meade and Celestron, two similar small companies selling very similar products to the same small customer base, have been locked in a features race for years. How do you convince Joe Newamateur to buy Celestron instead of Meade? Tempt him with ever more go-to goodies. Which have to be paid for, and which have been paid for by Celestron and Meade rather than passed on to the consumer.

How much less reliable does all this stuff conspire to make our CATs? That is hard to say. Some folks use an LX200 or a NexStar GPS for years without problems. Other scopes purchased by the less lucky are DOA outa the box, something that has become distressingly common. Bottom line: ever-cheaper scopes with ever more complex features means ever less reliability. Even scarier? Since the companies have less money to spend on QA these days, getting a good CAT is often the luck of the draw.

Until recently, this sitchy-ation has been a bearable one for CAT fanciers. Life has been good. Sure, your LX200 might suffer from “declination runaway” some night, suddenly morphing into Pippi Longstocking on a sugar high, B-U-T… While Meade might make you wait for a repair, they were pretty reliable. Same with Celestron. They might have your beloved scope for weeks or months, but it would eventually wend its way back to you. The trade-off was a fair one, most of us thought: cheap scopes that usually worked, and, when they stopped, you could get them fixed with fair ease. If nothing else, the prospect of having to eventually send the scope back for “treatment” and being without it for a long spell was a sneaky way to self-justify the purchase of a “backup SCT” (don’t tell Miss Dorothy I said that).

There things remained until the new century dawned. As it did, winds of change began to blow across the SCT landscape. Those of us who pay attention to such things sensed all wasn’t well out Calli-for-nye-ay way. That it might not be so easy to keep our complicated and inexpensive fork mount wonders working. It was already clear that once a scope went out of production, even one as popular as the LX200 “Classic,” its days as a repairable item were numbered. But that’s the way it’s always been with Meade and Celestron: support the old stuff for a few years, then tell the customer,“Sorry Charlie, no parts.” That was OK in the pre-go-to dark ages; an old synchro-motor-drive C8 was fairly easy for users to repair. A dead LX200? Nosir buddy. Even if you are an electronics geek, where you gonna get them custom chips? An even greater concern lately is that it's possible neither of these companies may be around much longer to service any of their gear old or new. How did Meade and Celestron get to this place? To being the sick men of the amateur astronomy economy?

As the 1990s wound down, Celestron owners began to feel a little anxious about “their” company, though I’m not sure why it took ‘em so long to notice. Celestron had been struggling somewhat since Halley’s Comet. Not only did they make some wrong decisions in the course of that craziness, they seemed to have a hard time finding a direction afterwards, and made more bad guesses. The innovative Compustars, the first commercial go-to SCTs, were abandoned rather than built-on. Meade was allowed to practically carry off the store with the insanely popular LX200. Celestron did deliver a few innovative products in the mid-90s, including the excellent C9.25 OTA and the remarkable (if underappreciated) Ultima 2000 go-to scope. Unfortunately, the company didn’t do much to promote these products. In the face of Meade’s multi-color multi-page magazine ads, Celestron ran ugly spreads touting LED flashlights and cheap Plössls.

Why did Celestron seem to be sinking? Maybe because they had been owned in absentia by a non-astronomy/optics oriented Swiss company, Diethelm, since Tom Johnson had retired back in 1980. As Diethelm’s enthusiasm for the telescope business waned, Celestron drifted. Then came word that Celestron’s owner was looking for a buyer. That made some of us long-time Celestron users a mite nervous, but most of us looked on this as a possible good thing. The company undeniably needed a fresh start. We just didn’t reckon that fresh start would be spelled T-a-s-c-o.

Today, Tasco is notorious amongst amateur astronomers for importing cheap and junky Department Store Telescopes—the worst of the worst--and has had this reputation for at least twenty years (the company sold some excellent telescopes in the 1960s – 1970s). So y’all can imagine how shocked Celestron’s fanboys were when word leaked out on sci.astro.amateur that Big Orange had been sold to—Tasco! Oh the ignominy! Oh the ribbing Celestron users put up with on the I’net and down to the local club. Us pore saps moaned that Celestron would soon be selling 675X x 60mm refractors, conveniently ignoring the fact that Meade and Celestron both had been selling cheap and junky Chinese imports since the 1980s. The reality was different and better. Tasco didn’t seem to know doodlum-squat about what made Celestron a success, but they brought cash with them. This cash infusion helped the Big C to catch its breath and introduce some much-needed new products.

In their scorn for Tasco, a lot of Celestron’s supporters forget it was under Tasco’s reign that the NexStar was born. Celestron let go of the sickly Ultima 2000 8-inch and the stillborn U2K 11-inch, and brought out a couple of cool-looking SCTs, the NexStar 5 and 8. These single arm fork mount CATs looked like they’d be right at home on the bridge of the U.S.S Enterprise. They made even the beloved LX200 look, not “classic,” but just old. Under Tasco, Celestron seemed to go from strength to strength, introducing a full line of NexStars, including the much and still beloved NexStar 11 GPS. These wonderful telescopes are a subject for a whole blog entry, but, suffice to say, they reinvigorated Celestron.

As you might expect, Meade did respond with a GPS scope of its own, the LX200GPS, before long, but for a while, Celestron appeared unstoppable. Until ever’body was blindsided by the seemingly sudden failure of Tasco in 2002. The importer was gone just like that and its assets were being sold off, including Celestron (the Tasco name lives on in different hands). And, horror of horrors, Meade expressed interest. “Horrors” for Celestron mavens because they purty much figgered Meade would buy their competitor only to obtain patents and technology and would strangle what was left. Before Celestron fans could worry too much about that eventuality, howsomeever, the FTC stepped in with a great, big “no” (just as they had twice before when Meade and Celestron had floated the idea of a merger). Where did that leave Celestron? For a short time, as an employee owned company headed by Rick Hedrick, Joe Lupica, and Alan Hale.

That sounded right good to us, and, for a little while, good it was. But then Celestron was in trouble again. In bankruptcy and looking for an angel. What the--?! Why hadn’t Celestron made it as an independent company? Maybe because it was undercapitalized. Maybe because the company found itself embroiled in a money-sucking round of lawsuits with Meade (who’d decided having a telescope point north and level itself during a go-to alignment was patentable). Whatever the reason, C was on the block again, and Meade was sniffing around again.

Salvation came in the form of Chinese/Taiwanese optical giant, Synta. Celestron had been importing and selling lots of Synta gear since they ended their agreement with Japan’s Vixen back in the early 90s, and Synta seemed a natural. Did they live happily after ever? At this point it seems so. In this economy, in this niche market, never say never, but it looks as if Celestron is stable for now, and that its new masters are running the company in an enlightened fashion. The trade off? Most of Celestron’s legendary SCTs are now made in China.

That’s the orange. How do things stand on the blue side of the railroad tracks? Meade’s problems, which began in the late 1990s, didn’t have much to do with SCTs. Under the leadership of their founder, John Diebel (who’d bought the company back after selling-out briefly), the company was riding high, dominating the worldwide telescope market. The logical move, it seemed, would be to take the company public and onto the More Better Gooder. Which Diebel did. For a while, John’s little kitchen table company was wildly successful in the Wall Street arena—in a modest sorta way. Share prices climbed with the 1990s go-go economy. Till the bubble burst. Why Meade freaks were surprised the effects of that big balloon pop were heard in Irvine as well as Wall Street is beyond me. We were too focused, I guess, on the latest Meade marvels like the LX200GPS, and, later, the RCX400 Ritchey-Chretiens (uhh… “aplantic SCTs”) to notice the way Meade’s stock prices began to decline and then fall as the new century rolled on.

At first I thought the RCX would be just what sickly Meade needed to get back on track. There’s no denying the RCX400 series was a bold and brave move. These SCTs featured just about everything amateurs had been asking for for years: sharper optics, zero image shift focusing via a moving corrector system, motorized collimation, a built-in dew heater, a carbon fiber tube, USB connectivity, and more. All this came at a price nearly twice what Meade charged for equivalent aperture “traditional” design LX200GPS SCTs, a price that might even allow them and their dealers a hint of a profit. The only question in my mind was whether we, amateur astronomers, were willing to pay this more “realistic price” in return for these advances. I managed to get one evening with an RCX400 at a star party, and my verdict was, “Any SCT users who get their hands on this one will want one.” The RCX wasn’t perfect—the focus and drive motors still sounded like weasels with tuberculosis despite the higher price--but it (I tried the 10-inch) was a fantastic telescope. One of the best SCTs I’ve used over the last 35 years.

Unfortunately it’s not clear whether the public would have responded to the RCX as Meade (and I) hoped they would. Things did not go as planned (when do they?). Lotsa boys ‘n girls wanted the RCX at first, sure, but then, when a slew of problems began to be reported, Not So Much. From its introduction, the RCX was plagued with bugs and, most of all, QA problems. Returns of defective and DOA scopes were high, sky high, and the word inevitably got out. This combined with Meade’s obviously declining financial fortunes by 2007 to make most amateurs leery of the new CAT. Even brave sorts like Your Old Uncle, who normally might have been willing to take a chance, shrugging his shoulder with a, “Hell, if she breaks down in a couple o’years, I’ll put her on a GEM.”

Why so leery? Many RCXes didn’t work correctly for two months, much less two years. Worse, even assuming the mount held-on for a couple of years, when it did go south there was no guarantee, it was becoming obvious, Meade would be there for you. Worse still, there was no easy way to adapt the scope to GEM use. Without the complex electronics built into the mount, it could not be focused or collimated. And, gull-dernit, as if that weren’t enough, the scope also garnered a passel of negative publicity due to a lawsuit by Richey – Chrétien makers Star Instruments and RCOS. These folks said Meade was wrong and deceptive to call the RCXes “Ritchey – Chrétiens” when their optical design was really a Schmidt Cassegrain variant. The lawsuit was settled out of court to both parties mutual satisfaction, more or less, but more damage had been done to the scope’s reputation

All them cotton-pickin' chickens came home to Irvine to roost in late 2007. With loans coming due, sales down, and the—I hate to say it—the failure of the RCX, something had to change. Pretty soon, we knew what that would mean. Part of it, anyway. First of all, the new management team now in place in Irvine determined all production would have to be moved offshore. Amateur level telescopes would be made in Mexico, at the factory the company had formerly used to assemble ETXes. The ETX and everything else would be done in China. The Irvine facility would become a warehouse, at least until the company could divest itself of this now too-large facility.

What was the impact on us ATBs (amateur telescope buyers)? Naturally, all amateur scope production was suspended until the move to Mexico was complete, and there things stood for some months. At this time, Meade’s LX200-ACF (née LX200GPS) telescopes, the LX90s, and the ETXes appear to be back in production. Just as I was finishing hunting and pecking this out, I received word from a very authoritative source that Meade is on the verge of shipping new LX400-ACFs (the revived RCX's moniker per the agreement). What--if any--changes have been made to this problematical scope remains to be seen, and whether this is a harbinger of an improvement in Meade’s fortunes I do not know, but it is at least a ray of hope for Meade fanatics.

How about folks who already own Meade scopes? What’s the current prospect for repairs when needed? It’s not clear to me at this time where repair work will be done in the long run or what the company’s repair philosophy will be. Meade is doing repairs at this time, including for its Coronado solar scopes. Some folks report long repair times, some don’t. I have been told scopes returned to Meade for fixing are now going to Mexico to have the work done. I have not verified that, but it makes sense. I just hope Meade is aggressively training the folks there who will put their hands on our prized scopes’ innards.

What are Meade’s continuing prospects? I wish I knew. I certainly do not think Meade telescopes will go away. The name is too well known and marketable. I do wonder what Meade will look like five years from now. At this time its stock is trading for less than a dollar--86 cents a share as I write--and don’t suppose that can go on forever. I would guess Meade might have to wind up finding a buyer (they have admitted they have been “exploring options”). That could be OK. It could even be the saving of the company, as Celestron’s acquisition by Synta appears to have been for it. The unknown would be whether the folks who buy Meade will continue to support the amateur part of the business at at least current levels, or whether it will be a repeat of the Criterion story.

For you younguns, Criterion was a force to be reckoned with in the tiny world of amateur telescopes from the 1950s to the 1980s. Then, a couple of missteps (including the costly introduction of a poor and poorly received SCT, the Dynamax, shown here on Phil Harrington's wonderful antique scope ads site) brought ‘em down. They sold out to optical giant Bausch and Lomb. At first it appeared B&L would continue Criterion as an amateur telescope company. Alas, the Big Dog soon decided amateur scope production was way more trouble than it was worth, and shut the whole thing down. Today, Criterion is just a fond memory. Let’s hope that if Meade gets sold, it’s to somebody interested in telescopes and astronomy. How about GSO?

My advice? To prospective SCT buyers? It’s free and worth every penny. Don’t wed yourself to either company. Celestron is doing well right now, but, as we have seen, tomorrow could be a whole ‘nother story. Meade? Need you ask? If you’re after an SCT, you will obviously have to buy from one of the two, but you can reduce your vulnerability emotionally as well as financially.

Understand and accept that your beautiful new computer-crazy Meade-o-tron on its lovely fork will not be the scope of a lifetime. Eventually, the optical tube assembly will have to go on a German equatorial mount from a third party. A GEM from a company that at least looks stable (if any company making amateur gear really is): Vixen, Losmandy, Takahashi. Until that time comes, take what you can get out of it. If you get some years of service or manage to get the mount repaired when it goes on the fritz, fine. But expect minimal support from either company. They can’t afford to hold your hand. Even if they are still around, they may be unable or unwilling to do much more than warranty service. Look, instead, to your fellow amateurs for help, to people like Doc Clay and Mike Swanson.

Can’t deal with that reality? Never thought I’d say this, but maybe you’d be better off just steering away from M&C altogether. There are plenty of alternatives. You might not get the SCT of your dreams, but you can get a similar scope. Vixen makes catadioptric OTAs. Russian MCTs are being imported in droves. I hear Uncle Roland is preparing to crank-up MCT production again (start saving your pennies, there, Boudreaux). Still want an SCT? There’s always “used.” A time-tested SCT OTA on a brand new techno GEM might be just the thing. In some ways that might be the best idea of all. While most of Meade’s and Celestron’s problems have to do with mount electronics and mechanics, their OTAs have been turning up with deficiencies large and small lately as well. Me? This old hillbilly will stick with ‘em to the end, I reckon. For me, amateur astronomy is Meade and Celestron. Uncle Rod start totin’ Astro - Physics or Takahashi? Not dang likely. But I am going in with my eyes open.

However you slice it, now is the time to at least think about weaning yourself from our two lost loves. I know that is tough to hear, and I hope everything does work out for ‘em. Maybe it will, but, especially in amateur astronomy, remember: nothing is forever. My generation never thought Cave, nor Edmund, nor Optical Craftsmen, nor Criterion, nor Starliner would be mere memories only a couple of decades down the line, but they are and here we are, and we are still havin’ fun nevertheless.

Editorial Note: Hard as it is for me to believe, this here Little Ol' Astro Blog from Possum Swamp is derned-near two-years-old in its present form. In recognition of that, look for something maybe a wee bit lighter in tone next time by means of celebration. As you know, howsomeever, Ol' Unk has gotta speak his mind; that's what this here astro blog is for, and is, I reckon, why you keep a-reading it.

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