Sunday, August 31, 2008

 

The Nights Everything Goes Wrong


In any pursuit, from turnip farming to teaching third grade, there are those times when everything goes to pot. Amateur astronomy ain’t no different. I have countless wonderful nights under the stars, those evenings when everything goes right—telescope collimation is perfect, go-tos dead on, every image a keeper—but I don’t tend to remember them as much as the nights that are unmitigated disasters. Herewith are a few examples of my blundering offered to you, dear reader, as cautionary tales in hopes you can avoid the murky swamps I seem to find myself frequently stuck in.

It’s easy enough to categorize my mistakes, as they seem to fall into a few distinct families: things I forget to bring with me, things I forget to do (or how to do), and things I cannot control to save myself.

The Things You Forget

I am dang sure everyone of you has heard this legendary tale: Elmo Amateur Astronomer is all primed for some long nights of solo observing at his little piece of dark sky heaven 300 miles from his domicile. He packs everything in his pickemup he can imagine being of service for a weekend of observing: laptop, Millennium Star Atlas, giant Dobsonian, pork rinds, you-name-it. Arriving onsite he spends several hours erecting tent and scope, finishing just as dark comes on. “Ah, time to get started, I reckon. Maybe the new 31 Nag would be nice to get going with; I’ll just fish her outta the ol’ eyepiece case. The eyepiece case. WHERE IS THE EYEPIECE CASE?!”

Of course the denouement is, yep, you guessed it, that the dratted eyepieces stayed home. Has this ever actually happened to anybody? I’m sure it has, though the tale invariably seems to happen to a friend-of-a-friend-of-a-friend from the club in the neighboring town—just like in any good urban legend. Even if something this dire were to happen to me or you I cain’t see it being completely disastrous. Most of us don’t observe alone at remote dark sites (I discourage that for a number of reasons), so it would be possible to cadge an eyepiece or two from a buddy, I suppose. If this tragedy were to befall you at a star party, a vendor would be more than happy to sell you one or more oculars. Still, begging eyepieces ain’t no fun, and paying Dogpatch Astro Devices 75 bucks for a well-used Kellner ain’t cool neither. To preclude this unhappiness, do as ol’ Unk does and squirrel away a couple of OK eyepieces in the scope case or affix ‘em to the Dob's mirror box or rocker box in some fashion. You might be glad you did some night.

No, nobody I know has actually forgotten their eyepieces, but plenty of folks of my acquaintance have forgot other stuff. One of my Bubbas, a well-known astrophotographer whose name would be immediately familiar to y’all, once hauled a massive AP1200 GEM hundreds of miles for a couple of days of serious imaging. Unpacking revealed an immediately obvious lack: counterweights. Luckily, he had packed a roll of duct tape (belongs in everybody’s astro-stuff box), so it was possible to press a couple of large rocks into service and salvage the weekend.

Alas, though, it ain’t always possible to save yourself from critical errors no matter how creative you are or how much duct tape you’ve got. One recent night, I decided I’d like to chase down some of the more beastly Hickson groups using my NexStar 11 GPS and Stellacam II. One of the beauties of the Stellacam video camera is that it doesn't need the services of a laptop computer. Since I was toting enough gear as it was and this was just a one-night-stand, I happily left the Toshiba at home . Arriving at my dark site, I unpacked the gear, setup, and after wandering around the site a bit hunting for deer tracks, I figgered it was dark enough to get aligned. Oh, yeah, need to hook up the hand controller…

What hand controller? Since I usually run the scope with the NexRemote computer program instead of a real HC, I had not thought to make doubly sure I'd grabbed the hand control. No laptop meant no NexRemote, and no HC either meant no NS11. Yes, I suppose I could have used the scope visually manually, but the NexStar’s lack of mechanical slow motions makes that an exercise in frustration. The only thing that saved me from having a major meltdown? Looked like clouds were rolling in, anyway. With just a little disgusted muttering, I packed the gear back into the RAV4 and headed for home. Luckily, that was only 45 minutes, not three hours, away. The balance of the evening was speant with cable TV and Rebel Yell instead of the distant stars.

When I got back to Chaos Manor South the consarned hand control was sitting right where I'd left it on the dining room table grinning. You can bet the HC now lives in the case with the NexStar's power cables and other accessories that I usually remember to pack. More importantly, it got me thinking about ways to ensure I'll never forget anything. Oh, I know that will never happen given my scatterbrained nature, but forgetting fewer things would at last be an improvement.

Moral of these stories? Make yourself up a checklist and scrupulously review it before every run. NO exceptions (“Heck, I’m just using Dobbie; I KNOW I’ve got ever’thang.”). When you start compiling your checklist, you’ll be amazed at how many items go on it, which is why it is so easy to forget something. Below is an example of one of my lists (I’ve got a different one for use with the Dob). Keep in mind that I don’t necessarily take all this stuff every time, but I check each item on the list so I am sure that I take everything I want every time. Pay close attention to the non-astro items, as they are even easier to forget than astro-gear. One November, I found myself six hours from home without a jacket. Yeah, it was Chiefland, Florida, but it can still get nippy there in November, for gosh sakes. Luckily there was a Wally-World at hand.

Equipment Checklist

C8 OTA or C11 OTA
ASGT HC/cords case
NS11 HC/cords case
C11 tripod or C8 tripod
Piggyback refractor OTA(s)
CG5 mount head
CG5 counterweights
Stellacam II
DVD player
DVD recorder
Large eyepiece box
Small eyepiece box
Binoviewer
Binoviewer eyepiece case
C8/C11 dew shield
Two jumpstart batteries
Deep cycle battery and charger
Large Tupperware container
Ammo box
Card table
PC enclosure
Laptop/case
Laptop red filter
Observing chair
DSLR camera case
ST2000/case
Rabbit light or Coleman lantern

For Overnight Trips

Sleeping bags
Pillows
Snacks
Ice chest and ice
Water
Soft drinks
Dining canopy (and tent if required)
Garbage bags
Camp chairs
Coat
Yell
Coleman stove
Food items
Battery powered cooler
Towels
Personal hygiene items


The Things You Forget How to Do

This is my other category of misadventure. Much of the fault here lies not with li’l ol’ me, but with summers along the Gulf Coast. Over the last four summertimes, I’ve had a grand total of one year when I’ve been able to do significant observing between June and September. I’ve made a pact with myself that next summer I will try to make it down to Chiefland at least a couple of times. It is fiercely hot down that-a-way, but it is usually clear, unlike on the northern Gulf Coast. What am I getting at here? That when you go long periods without being able to observe you forget how to do stuff. How did that wedge go on the tripod? What do you have to do to get that Meade DSI working as an autoguider? Where the heck is Ras Algheti?

My classic example is the night I hated my Sky Commander DSCs. Surprised? If you know me, you are, since I’ll tell anybody who will listen that the Commanders are the best derned digital setting circles I have ever used, and that they have given my ol’ 12-inch Dobbie a whole new lease on life. Nevertheless, one night I began to hate the dadgummed things with a passion.

Why? I set the scope up, ready for a night of late spring galaxy chasing. Did as I usually do, align on Polaris and one other star, Sirius this time. Easy as pie—the Commanders don’t make you level the scope or worry about “warp factors” or other foolishness. You line up two stars and the computer is deadly accurate. ‘Cept it sure wasn’t this time. I sent the scope to M3 as my first object, and it was not visible even in the 35 Pan. Looking up with bleary eyes, I was surprised to see the Commanders had landed me degrees and degrees away. Mercury (which a brother obsever was looking at)? The same. Shoot! Realigned. Maybe I’d pushed the wrong button—which would be easy enough to do after not havin’ used the computer in ages. Third time the charm? Nope.

I was just about to panic and get my buddy to help me lift the scope out of the rocker box so I could see if something was haywire with the aziumuth encoder. Before I could embarrass myself further, however, I turned to the north, contemplating my situation. Yeah, Polaris and Sirius, maybe I should use something other than Polaris? Wait. That ain’t Polaris; that’s KOCAB! Shortly thereafter, I was happily touring the Virgo – Coma Cluster, but the experience had been a humbling one. The cure? Get out more. Yeah, it’ll probably be cloudy on the New Moon weekend, but get out, just with a pair of binoculars on a hazy moonlight night and look at the stars and constellations. My problem was that I hadn’t kept in touch with the sky, and even after over 40 years of an intimate relationship, she showed she can still give me my comeuppance if I let that relationship lapse.

The Things You Cannot Control

There's one last variety of Goes Wrong; there are those disasters all the planning and practice in the world will not allow you to escape. Like wut? One blessedly clear autumn night a few years ago (actually more like a decade ago, I reckon), I got a call from one of my PSAS (Possum Swamp Astronomical Society) bros, Pat, wondering if I’d like to observe from his semi-dark backyard across Mobile Bay over yonder in the little town of Fairhope, Alabama. “Hail yeah,” said I. It had been a long cloudy dry spell (maybe “dry” ain’t the right word). I was HUNGRY for the deep sky! I said I'd be out before sundown and that I'd bring Old Betsy, my 12.5-inch f/4.8 scope, and the brand-spanking new 35mm Panoptic eyepiece I'd splurged for a couple of weeks previous. While, even then, Fairhope wasn’t what I’d call “dark,” it was a derned sight better than what I had in the cotton-pickin’ Garden District--you could actually make-out the Milky Way on a good night.

I tossed Bets into Camry, headed to Fairhope, and soon had the scope set up in Pat's side-yard. That done, I helped him tote his 12-inch f/6 Dobsonian out, which was a fair job—I'd forgot how big a 12-inch of that focal ratio is. Yeah, I know, a truss tube Dob is supposed to be portable, but lazy us decided to haul it out in its assembled state. It was worth the labor, though. The skies sure did not disappoint. Dew was a mite heavy, but the Milky Way blazed overhead; I have not seen it that good there since. While Pat was getting arranged, I took a quick tour of the southern skies. M22, M11, and M16 all looked purty in the 35mm. No, the Pan don’t have quite the “porthole in space” AFOV of a Nagler, but, nevertheless, the view in that big glass was downright immersive.

Pat soon had the f/6 on Jupiter, and the view was good, if not overwhelming, due to unsteady seeing, which continued to be a little punk as the night wore on. That being the case, we did most of our lookink with my shorter focal length scope, leaving Pat’s 12 unattended. I was cruising Aquarius. The Helix was basically invisible, so I headed over to the other end of the street for a look at M2, M72, and the Saturn Nebula, NGC 7009. I took a peep, bumped-up the power with a 7mm Nagler, and rubbed my eyes in amazement. I was seeing this marvel's ansae—its “rings”—occasionally swim into view when the seeing steadied down. The nebula itself was an incredible electric blue color. Wow! who would a-thunk it from a site that was basically “suburban”? After Aquarius, I pointed Betsy at Pegasus to see what was hopping in the NGC 7331 area. The galaxy was nice enough, but on this night its little attendant galaxies—the deer in the deer lick—and nearby Stephan's Quintet were only “suspected” (deep sky observer lingo for “I should be able to see 'em so I must have.”).

The dew was getting ever heavier, and it was actually a wee bit chilly—in Mobile, Alabama in October of all things—so Pat and I ducked into his house for a spot of hot Java. When we returned to the scopes I suggested we see what the f/6 would do on the Saturn Nebula since it had looked so wicked-cool in my f/4.8. Pat moved the scope in the general direction of ol' 7009 and put his eye to the eyepiece: "Hmm, shroud must be drooping into the light path. WAIT...DAMMIT...THERE'S SOMETHING IN THERE!"

I hurried over and shone a red light into the interior of the OTA. Two eyes glowed in the darkness of the mirror box. One of Pat’s cats (the four legged kind) was blinking up at me. Naturally, I pulled the shroud up and lifted Mr. Kitty off the beautiful primary mirror. The cat was stretching and yawning as I picked him up and no doubt wondering who could be so thoughtless as to disturb his snooze in the nice cozy box with the wonderful cool, smooth floor. Apparently, he'd nosed up the shroud and crawled in while we were using my scope or while we were in the house (the f/6 was not perfectly balanced so we left it near-vertical when not in use).

With shaking hands, Pat pointed a white flashlight at the mirror; I definitely expected the worst. At first it seemed as if I were right. Looked horrible. Covered with dust (the cat had obviously taken a dust-bath just before bed) and kitty prints. Surely it must have numerous deep scratches from sharp cat-claws. By now, things had descended into chaos (or slapstick comedy) with Pat cursing as he tried to get the mirror out of the scope without removing the truss tubes, me chasing kitty-kats away from my scope (Cat Number One had now been joined by Cat Number Two), and Pat's young son on the verge of tears, believing we were sure to do violence to the felines: “Daddy I LOVE them cats!”

We eventually got the mirror into the house and gave it a bath. Distilled water and USP cotton were on hand, since one reason I'd brought the f/4.8 out was so Pat, my on-call Dob guru, could give the primary a good pre-star-party-season wash. We sure didn't imagine we'd be doing this to his f/6, which had just come back from the coater’s, though. Under Pat's loving touch, the kitty dust washed away. We did find two barely perceptible scratches, but whether they were from the cat or not wasn't clear. They were certainly not bad enough to affect performance. Returning outside, I wasn't surprised to see Mr. Kitty back in Pat's mirror box. He did seem a bit put-out that his nice, shiny bed had disappeared, though—stupid humans! Luckily, my scope had proved sufficiently cat-proof. Miss Dorothy had insisted on putting a drawstring on the bottom as well as the top of the shroud when she sewed it. I shooed away a disappointed couple of cats.

We continued to observe for a couple more hours, but before long that cursed old Moon rose, putting an end to our deep sky pleasure. As I was loading Dobbie into the Toyota, I noticed the cats curled-up together on the porch, snoozing heavily, sleeping the sweet sleep of the just after their exciting night. I had to smile at the juxtaposition of the ridiculous and the sublime. My reverent gazing at distant and enigmatic deep sky wonders had been interrupted by a Cat Chase.

And so it goes down here in the Great Possum Swamp. I try not to be bothered when my nights under the stars turn disastrous or ridiculous. I just keep repeating my favorite mantra: “It is what it is, it is what it is, it is what it is…”

Some of y’all have been kind enough to send us emails expressing concern about us being near the path of oncoming Hurricane Gustav (and maybe Hanna, too). We appreciate your concern, but rest assured we will get out if necessary. Good ol’ Chaos Manor South? She’s survived over a century of storms, including a brush with Katrina. I hope and believe she and her old-lady-sisters on the block will continue to do so.

Sunday, August 24, 2008

 

Those Other Astro Rags

I received quite a bit of comment about and even took a wee bit of heat over a blog entry I did recently, “The Trouble with the Magazines,” Sky and Telescope and Astronomy by name. Ground Truth on this end? Even given their faults and the concerns I expressed, I still enjoy reading them every month. I thought the September 2008 Astronomy was a good effort, and that the corresponding issue of Sky and Telescope was even better. I won’t lie to you-all though: yeah, I still look forward to ‘em every month, but not with the Charlie Brown-waiting-for-Valentines fervor of old. The emails and comments I received on this subject—surely a record number—give me to understand a few of y’all are feeling the same way too. You are either tired of the majors or are looking for a little fresh air to supplement them. You’re a lucky duck. At the moment, even given the supposedly depressed state of the amateur astronomy economy, there are plenty of other astro-mags for you to try-on for size.

Caveat, y’all: I couldn’t cover every astronomy magazine in the world in one blog entry, dadgummit. Believe it or not, there are too many of ‘em. And that’s not all… Some I don’t know about; some, like Tenmon Guide, I can’t read; and others, like Australian Sky and Space and Australian Sky and Telescope, I don’t know how to get.
Amateur Astronomy Magazine

I’ve had a soft spot for this one in my jaded little heart since it hit the streets near about fifteen years ago. I’m a little prejudiced, perhaps, since it was founded by and published for most of its run by my good friend and Dobsonian guru, Tom Clark, and his wife, observer extraordinaire, Jeannie. Tom and Jeannie managed to put out nearly fifty issues without missing a beat, all consistently good. Recently, Tom, deciding he should finally get to really retire, passed AA to new hands, those of Charlie Warren, who, as you know if you read the blog about Amateur Astronomy I did a while ago, is doing a bang-up job with the magazine. Keeping plenty of the old Chiefland Astronomy Village flavor despite the transplant to the rag’s new Tennessee locale. I am proud to say I have read and kept every single issue of Amateur Astronomy Magazine, and refer to it frequently. Does that mean AA is the supplementary or “different” magazine you have been looking for? Not necessarily. Like many smaller journals, it’s a little more focused than the majors, and may or may not fit you. What’s it like?

First of all, if you are an SCT user or an APO-wielder, you may feel a wee bit left out as you thumb through Amateur Astronomy. Since AA was Tom Clark’s creation, and Tom is, I shouldn’t have to tell you, one of the prime proponents of the Dobsonian—the man has a 42-inch in his backyard, for gosh sakes—the magazine tended to focus on these scopes under his editorship. ATMing has always been prominent in its pages, too, not surprisingly. That’s been one part of the AA formula. What else? Star party reports. Tom and Jeannie cruised to enough star parties in their massive RV to inspire even this star party fanatic’s open-mouthed admiration. Naturally, many of the events they visited got a writeup—this has consistently been one of my favorite features. Finally, big dobs plus star parties equals deep sky observing, and the magazine has tended to concentrate more on the larger universe than on topics of interest to Solar System or Lunar observers. I used to say Tom’s mag was like having the much-missed Telescope Making and Deep Sky magazines revived and combined under one cover.

The above describes the Tom Clark Amateur Astronomy, though, what is the Charlie Warren magazine like? At this point, it’s relatively unchanged. Like Tom, Charlie is, I believe, a Dob fancier. He’s also an astrophotographer, though, and I expect the magazine may eventually move a mite away from the old “DSOs with a big wooden telescope and an eyepiece” paradigm (though that was never all of what AA was about). Does the above sound like not quite your thing? Don’t be so sure. I own a Dobsonian or two, but, hey, let’s face it; those telescopes are just a part of my astro-life, not an Obsession. Nevertheless, I have found plenty to interest and inform me in AA over the years and I expect that to continue under the new Editor.

Production values? AA is not and never has been a fancy publication. It is 100% black and white with a nice, heavy-stock, perfect-bound cover. The cover is the only glossy thing you will find. In a way, I guess that is part of its charm: down to earth and info-packed. If you’re an inveterate astro-rag saver like me, don’t be afeared; despite the proletarian look, the magazine’s paper is of good quality and has held up well over the years with no signs of yellowing. The images are usually clearly reproduced and the text is eminently readable. How about the quality of the articles themselves?

Amateur Astronomy is what the current Editor likes to call “user supported.” Its articles are provided by subscribers or culled from club newsletters sent in by their editors rather than by paid staffers or free-lance writers. Since none of AA’s content is done on a for-pay basis as far as I know, you cannot expect professional-caliber prose all the time. Which is not to say there are no professionally written articles in the magazine. Quite a few pros including Steve Coe, Robert Reeves, and even your ol’ Uncle have contributed regularly over the years. Even the “Short Subjects” in the front of the magazine (tidbits from newsletters), are at least decipherable most of the time. One thing is sure: new writers need a place to learn their craft and be seen and AA provides a wonderful venue for that.

Astronomy Technology Today

I’ve taken note of this one in a previous blog entry too, and it has become, to be honest, my absolute favorite amongst the “alternative” astronomy magazines. So, it’s a little embarrassing to admit that when I was first told about this one, I opined, “NEVER make it.” Yeah, I know I’ve often said “Uncle Rod is Always Right.” Scratch that, or at least modify it to “Uncle Rod is Almost Always Right.” This new mag, coming up on its second birthday, has not only survived but appears to be thriving under the guidance of Publisher Stuart Parkerson and Editor Gary Parkerson. Why didn’t I think ATT would make it? Because it was something completely different, the first new idea in amateur astronomy magazines we’ve seen since Hector was a pup. Astronomy Technology Today is a journal for the astro-gearhead.

Yep, “astronomy technology” means ASTRO-STUFF. Everything from scopes and mounts to cameras and red flashlights. All that “junk” the equipment-oriented among us fret and salivate over. The only bad thing? If you can call it that? This is, of course, not a replacement for Sky and Telescope or Astronomy; if that’s what you’re after, look elsewhere. You will not find monthly star charts and observing articles in Astronomy Technology. There’s more here than reviews and product announcements, sure—there are construction articles for example--but the magazine’s content is unabashedly equipment oriented. That is certainly not a bad thing in Unk’s opinion, and you may find, if you search deep down in your amateur soul, the same thing is true of you. C’mon, admit it, you look at the Meade and Celestron ad-spreads in Sky and ‘Scope way before you read the articles about black holes, doncha?

Production quality on this one came as quite a surprise. I reckon I was expecting that initially it would look similar to Amateur Astronomy: black and white with a simple layout. Well, it’s not a glossy—it's on pulp-type paper—but that’s where the similarity ends. It is full-color, is stuffed with image after image, well-reproduced image after image, and I find I hardly notice the lack of high-quality paper stock (the cover is nice and shiny). Layout is another surprise; it is very professionally done. As for article quality? It is generally high. The magazine, like Amateur Astronomy, is supported—in part at least—by unpaid contributions, but it has attracted the notice of quite a few very talented folks who are eager to submit to this endlessly fascinating up-and-comer.

One interesting thing about ATT is that the publisher offers two subscription options: print plus online access or online only. The online version of the magazine is identical to the print version, and is composed of .pdf (Adobe Acrobat) files. The online-only option is particularly attractive for our Canadian brothers and sisters, as it saves ‘em a whole lot on postage. It also allows ATT to be distributed to international readers where mailing a print version is expensive and impractical. While U.S. subscribers can also opt for “online only,” it is no less expensive than “print + online.” The price for either option is insanely reasonable--$18.00 for a year’s worth, 12 issues (that’s right, ATT is a MONTHLY)—but a dollar or two break for U.S. online-only subscriptions would be nice and might save some trees.

SkyNews

SkyNews is the little magazine that is almost there. This Canadian bimonthly is certainly “there” when it comes to names; it is edited by Terrance Dickinson (Nightwatch), one of the best of the best when it comes to the astro-writing game. Contributors include plenty of prominent folks, too, including Alan Dyer and Gary Seronik, to name just a couple. So why “almost there”? Despite some excellent articles—a recent review of DSLRs for astrophotography came to my rescue when I was trying to decide whether to jump ship from Nikon to Canon for my first camera—the magazine lacks focus and is way too skinny. While billed as “The Canadian Magazine of Astronomy and Star Gazing,” there’s little in here that would be out of place in a U.S. rag. The current issue, for example, headlines a story on NEAF. And, while the articles are good, there’s only so much information you can pack into 40 bimonthly pages.

Thin or not, SkyNews is as professional as it gets. Simple but attractive layout, with most pieces written by professional writers. The paper is a good grade of smooth ‘n glossy and the illos are as attractive as anything you’ll see in the U.S. biggies. Well, almost. Quite a few of the star maps/diagrams, I notice, are done with Starry Night Pro (the program’s seller, Imaginova, is based north of the border too), and are maybe not quite as eye-catching and clear as those done by the good folk in the art department at Sky and ‘Scope, for example. To sum up? A lovely little magazine. I just wish there were more of it and that it had a wee bit more of a personality. Not that Mssr Dickinson needs my advice. SkyNews has been plugging along for over fifteen years at last count; it obviously has a devoted audience.

Astronomy Now
I used to joke that back in The Day, back when the kids was livin’ at home, that the normal punishment for misbehavior at Chaos Manor South was being sentenced to reading a year’s worth of Astronomy Now. That was just a joke, y’all. Astronomy Now is not really a bad magazine; in fact, it’s a very good one. If it has had a fault in the past, it’s been that it never quite seemed to compare as favorably with the other newsstand biggies as it should. It invariably seemed just a small step behind, as if one more push would put it over the top. That push never seemed to come, though, alas.

How’s that? To begin with, AN has always been more similar to Astronomy than Sky and Telescope. If you’re looking for “advanced amateur” articles, forget it. What you get is a mix of gee-whizzy astronomy fact articles (“Postcards from Mars"), and basic amateur astronomy stuff (“How Clearly Can I See?”) similar to what’s in the American monthly. Unfortunately, in the past, the magazine’s overall quality has not quite been up to Astronomy standards. Not so much factual errors, but typos and awkward prose and odd layout choices/problems. I used to buy Astronomy Now on a monthly basis, finally got tired of hoping for improvement, and put her down several years ago. Don’t worry. I’m not gonna condemn an innocent astro-rag on the basis of my failing memory. I headed down to Barnes and Noble with the requisite $8.75 (!) to see what had become of this occasionally ugly duckling; to see how it’s fairing under the leadership of Editor Keith Cooper.

You know what? I came away impressed. Despite fairly intense searching, no egregious typos or other faux pas did I find. Yes, it is still heavy on Discover-type armchair astronomy fluff scattered throughout the magazine, but I was favorably impressed by the reviews and other amateur astronomy-oriented pieces in the August 08 ish. Nick Syzmanek, Neil English, and Martin Mobberly in particular turned in some real good stuff. Only complaint? Too short. Mr. Editor, give these folks more room to stretch out, even if that means eliminating one of y’all’s cherished black hole sendups. The observing-centric articles were pretty well done, too, even if, like the gear pieces, they were too short. Almost every article in August got my interest right off the bat, BUT, just as it was gettin’ good, you CUT ME OFF. Don’t do that!

The Astronomy Now package? AN’s production values leave its American cousin in the dust. The cover is of that high-gloss stock favored by quite a few UK mags, and the interior pages are also very high quality paper (if a mite thin)—superior, easily, to what Astronomy and Sky and Telescope have been reduced to these days. The magazine’s format is a little odd, 8 x 11.5-inches, but that just adds to the distinctive look of this beautiful pub. I hope the AN guys and gals continue to push; I think they’ve got a good thing goin’ now, and I will be back to check on ‘em in a couple of months.

The Sky at Night Magazine

When he saw the first issue of The Sky at Night Magazine, your irreverent ol’ Uncle’s reaction was “Hay-soos Christmas, it’s Astronomy Now with a CD!” Yep, and that’s all there was to distinguish this magazine from AN at first. In the fashion of many UK periodicals of all kinds, there was an included CD (every month) rubber-cemented to the rag’s high-gloss cover. The CD was nice enough. On it, most of all, was a video of the current The Sky at Night TV show, which I appreciated—unless you like to look at TSAN on a freakin’ PC, you’re out of luck on this benighted side of the Atlantic. But that was about all of interest on the disk at first. Oh, there was a monthly animated planisphere sky-tour with Sir Patrick Moore and co-presenter Chris Lintott, but not a lot else worth two seconds of yer time. The magazine itself? Yay-ah…reminded me a lot of AN at its nadir. Basic articles plagued by typos and layout snafus. But…

Let me say rat cheer that I support anything—book, TV program, magazine, WHATEVER—with Sir Patrick Moore’s name on it. If it had not been for this man, who I don’t hesitate to call the greatest living amateur astronomer and astronomy writer, I would not be here typing this. One late spring afternoon when I was boredly browsing the stacks of Kate Shepard Elementary’s library with the rest of my 4th grade class, I ran across Patrick’s The Moon and How to Make and Use a Telescope (with H.P. Wilkins). The rest is history (well, maybe the little-bittiest footnote to history). So, I stuck with TSAN to see if it would evolve or just become comfortable in a rut, pressing on thanks to the weight of Patrick’s name and the novelty of the “cover” CD.

Three years later, what is the story? Brothers and sisters, I’m amazed. Far from being just a figurehead, Sir Patrick is a real part of the magazine, contributing a monthly column in his usual inimitable style. The personable Chris Lintott is there, too, providing a professional astronomer’s perspective. Content has been the biggest surprise of all. While the “gee whiz” armchair astronomy articles are heavy on pictures and light on prose, maybe that’s as should be to catch the eye of the current “visual generation.” 

I may not be part of that “current generation,” but even I prefer looking at pictures to reading the basics of them dadgummed black holes one more time. Don’t get me wrong, though, there is plenty of information between the covers. Particularly noteworthy are the monthly gear reviews, and, especially, the shootout comparos. Each issue three or four or more similar items are compared—scopes, mounts, whatever. The biggest plus? The reviewers are not pulling their punches; if the optics in a scope do not perform, that is said; not talked around. The reviews just tend to be closer to what a lot of us have wished for than much of what we’ve seen from the U.S. rags of late. For example, a recent review of 12-inch Dobs actually referred to the author’s star-testing of the scopes.

As mentioned earlier, physically TSAN is similar to Astronomy Now. But that’s just the paper and the cover. In my opinion, the layout of The Sky at Night is more innovative and readable than that of the other mag. TSAN usually looks modern while AN often just looks busy. Content-wise? The groan-inducing typos and similar errors were exorcised early on. What about the CD? It has grown along with the rest of the magazine. The TV program is still there, but Editor Graham Southorn and his staff are beginning to find some ways to move the CD from merely “cool” to genuinely “useful.” For example, a recent disk included plans/drawings to accompany a telescope making project in the magazine. Another how-to was bolstered by a video on the CD.

If The Sky at Night Magazine can keep on truckin’, it threatens to become my newsstand favorite. Bringdowns? Given the current dollar – pound exchange rate, the cover price, $8.75, hurts a little, but, remember, Sky and Telescope is six bucks now and no CD will you find. Here’s a tip for my fellow Patrick Moore fans: most modern DVD machines will play the CD’s TV show so you can watch Sir Patrick on your big screen instead of a consarned laptop display.

AstroPhoto Insight

I reported on AstroPhoto Insight right here in this li’l ol’ blog not many months ago. There was good reason for that. While this one is a bit on the esoteric side, even moreso than ATT, being devoted entirely to the art and science of astrophotography (meaning digital imaging in these latter days), it is not just very good; it’s the only thing of its kind around at this time far as I know: a bi-monthly magazine devoted just to celestial picture taking.

What’s it like? I won’t mention paper stock cause there ain’t none. This is an e-zine presented in Adobe Acrobat format. There is no option for a print version as with ATT. In my opinion, that ain’t a problem. Luddite me can print out an article or a whole issue if’n I need reading material for my, uh, “morning ablutions.” I must admit it’s nice to have everything on a DVD, too. I just add each issue to the disk as I download it. When I want to refer back to an article, I do a quick search, which is much quicker than thumbing a stack of aged magazines. Yep, I said “download.” If you want a disk, you make your own after you download your issue from the website. That may be a small fly in the honey if you ain’t got broadband and want to get the “enhanced” version of the magazine (which includes videos).

Hows about inside? Editor Al Degutis continues to tweak and modify layout, but AstroPhoto Insight is perfectly readable right now. By “readable” I mean the articles themselves, not just the “printing” (or whatever you call a .pdf’s quality). How could it be otherwise since Al’s stable of writers includes almost everybody who is anybody in the imaging bidness? How mucho for an issue or a subscription? That’s maybe the best part. Al makes his current number available for free. All it takes is registering at his website. How can that work? Al ain’t no fool. As soon as you read your first copy, you’ll be more than willin’ to pony-up the small fee for access to back issues and other Good Stuff available on the website.

A Couple o’ Little Fellers
I cain’t talk about astro-mags and fail to mention two long-running and much-loved publications, The Reflector and The Strolling Astronomer. Like AP Insight, these are specialized publications. The Reflector is the journal of the Astronomical League and The Strolling Astronomer is the Association of Lunar and Planetary Observers' (ALPO’s) house organ. How do you get either? By joining their respective organizations. If you belong to a club, you are probably already an AL member and should be getting the magazine. If you have the slightest interest in Solar System observing, you know about ALPO and are a member. You oughta be, anyhow. Unk insists. Both magazines have gone beyond being merely club newsletters in recent years, with Editors Kent Marts (Reflector) and Ken Poshedly (Strolling Astronomer) turning out real magazines of interest to just about any amateur.

How do I call it, then? If I couldn’t get Sky and Telescope or Astronomy no more, what would I subscribe to? That’s a no brainer. I currently subscribe to (or buy every month) all of the above except SkyNews and Astronomy Now. If I had to say who impresses me most at this time? That’s hard. AstroPhoto Insight is remarkable. And I have a long-running love affair with Amateur Astronomy. I guess, though, that the two rags that have impressed me most; not just with their current content, but how far they’ve come in a short time, would be The Sky at Night Magazine and Astronomy Technology Today.

What the—?! You don’t agree? Tell me why. One of my favorite things about doing this here blog is the responses I get. The most valuable of those—though all are welcome—are, often, I find, from guys and gals who tell me I don’t know what I’m talkin’ about and must be outa my cotton-pickin’ mind. I rarely find myself persuaded by these, but I almost always learn something or at least have my neurons stimulated.

Till next week, then…

Sunday, August 17, 2008

 

SCT Mythology

There sure are a lotta tall tales floating around about Unk’s favorite telescope design. Some patently ridiculous, some containing at least a grain or two of truth. Why all the urban legendry? I reckon it’s due to the fact that the SCT, despite having been around in commercial form for dang near fifty years, has never had a whole lot written about it. Until recently, there hasn't been much hard information available on the scopes outside the manufacturers' brief and poorly written manuals.

Not as much as the SCT's status in amateur astronomy as the most popular store-bought telescope of all time would seem to warrant, anyhow. You’ve probably heard plenty of these saws, old and new; my list is hardly all inclusive, but following, and in no particular order, are the most oft-heard SCT urban legends along with my Snopes-style debunking.

That glass on the front of the tube is nothing more than flat glass designed to hold the secondary up. It shouldn’t be surprising quite a few SCT newbies believe this one. The Schmidt Cassegrain’s big lens does look flat. It’s easy to see the MCT’s deep dish corrector is a lens of some kind, but not so the SCT’s imperceptible “4th order curve” (slightly higher in the center, lower halfways out, higher toward the edge). The only way, really, to tell this is a lens is to place it against an optical flat and observe the resulting “fringes.” Or you can get a practical lesson in correctors like my pal Bubba did.

Bubba managed to break his corrector plate—don’t ask how; it wasn’t a pretty story and involved an ex-wife, not a Fastar-mounted camera. Bubba sat and ruminated a spell, considering his options. He could send the scope off to Celestron, yeah, but that would cost at least 500 bills, seriously cutting into his Pabst Blue Ribbon buying. Or… “Elmo down to the autoglass place can cut me a piece of glass just right, I betcha.” First light was predictably a disaster. Despite his best collimation attempts, Jupiter looked like a custard pie. As most of us know, the SCT’s corrector has a vitally important function, eliminating the inherent spherical aberration of the scope’s spherical primary mirror. Without the corrector you’ve got something, as Bubba found out, akin to the Hubble Space Telescope when it was first launched: a mess.

The Celestron 9.25 is radically different from other SCTs. I like the C9.25. It’s a great telescope. Sometimes I wish I had one. I’ll also be the first to admit that it may be a wee bit better than the C8. The field is slightly flatter if nothing else. Good scope, yeah. Magic? Naw. Nevertheless, the rumors began shortly after the 9 ¼ was introduced in 1996: this one was different. Celestron had abandoned the SCT’s normal spherical mirror for a parabolic one. That’s why it was amazingly better than the tired, old C8.

These stories are ridiculous on the face of them. If the mirror was parabolic, what was the reason for a corrector plate up front? The only reason for the presence of a Schmidt corrector on the front of a telescope is, as above, to “counteract” spherical aberration. “Maybe the corrector on the 9 ¼ wasn’t really a corrector, then? Maybe Celestron really was using a flat piece of glass?” OK, but given the scope’s normal, slightly aspheric, convex secondary mirror, a fast parabolic primary would produce a worse field edge, not a better one. “Well maybe the secondary is different, then, maybe a hyperbola or”—dagnabit! Do you think Celestron would introduce an R - C or a D – K Cassegrain or some such and then hide the fact? They’d be trumpeting it to the high heavens, just like Meade did with their recent aplantic SCT (which they initially advertised as an ADVANCED RITHCEY CHRETIEN DESIGN).

The truth about the 9 ¼ is less romantic but more realistic. It is a normal SCT with a spherical primary, a slightly aspheric secondary, and a complex-curve lens (the corrector). Yes, it may be slightly better than a stock C8, but the reasons are pedestrian and don’t involve parabolas, hyperbolas, or ellipses. What Celestron did this time out was go to a slightly slower primary (f/2.3 instead of f/2). That results in the scope’s somewhat flatter field and slightly longer tube. Good, not magic.

MCTs have darker backgrounds than SCTs due to their better contrast performance/better optics. Man, I dig MCTs, even if the only one I can afford is my little sweetie, Charity Hope Valentine, an humble ETX125. That doesn’t mean you should believe everything you read/hear about ‘em, though. A dark eyepiece field background is largely dependant on the MCT OTA’s baffles. The quality of these may be better than that in your average SCT. Or it may be worse. What most folks are actually seeing when they note the nice BLACK BACKGROUND in a Mak (including Sweet Charity) is the naturally smaller exit pupils generated by the scopes’ (usually) slower focal ratios and resulting longer focal lengths—the average MCT is around f/15; the average SCT is an f/10.

The Orange tube C8s were the best. Best what? Oh, I know many of us are emotionally attached to them purty OT C8s (and 11s and 14s). But were their optics better? Usually not. There were some extremely good ones—and some dogs, too. If nothing else, today’s Celestrons (including the new Chinese models) are more consistent. Perhaps Unk does not see as many wildly outstanding OTAs these days, but he doesn’t see as many barking dogs, either. Another factor? Coatings. Orange Tube C8s usually have either no coatings or minimalist coatings on their correctors (there were a few StarBrights, but mostly the “enhanced” coatings on those Orange Tubes that had ‘em were simple silicon monoxide). A modern XLT will blow the doors off one when it comes to light throughput (brightness) and reflections.

The Criterion Dynamax SCT’s cardboard tube was the reason it failed. When the first competitor for Celestron appeared way back yonder in the 1970s, the Criterion Dynamax, us boy and girl amateurs of the day were appalled to learn it had a cardboard tube. Remember, this was before the age of Sonotube Dobs, and we really expected more for a price only slightly smaller than that of a real C8. No doubt it was the Dynamax’s optical deficiencies that put the nails in that pore CAT’s coffin, but I’ve little doubt the cardboard tube story turned some folks away from Criterion despite the company’s assertion that the scope’s tube was STRONG ENOUGH TO FIRE ROCKETS FROM (comparing it to military anti-tank rocket launchers and foolishly focusing more attention on it).

Ground truth? Criterion was right, believe it or no. The dadburned thing really was strong enough to fire rockets outa, and all the Dynamax tubes I’ve seen are still in one piece. Turns out that, yeah, there may have been some paper in there, but the tube was essentially phenolic resin. It was still a dog of a telescope, but the tube was OK.

SCTs are no good for high power. Maybe yours ain’t. I know mine sure are. Many's the night I’ve ramped up to 500x on the C8 for a good look at Saturn’s rings. How did the scopes get this reputation? A couple of reasons, I reckon, collimation being the most important. Make that mis-collimation. A standard SCT uses a 5x magnifying secondary mirror, so any collimation errors are, well, “magnified.” Until fairly recent times, when some of us began to spread the word that SCT collimation is fun and easy, many SCT users seemed afraid to collimate their scopes despite the huge difference it can make at high (and low) power. Another reason? There is no doubt that Meade and Celestron produced quite a few sub-par scopes from the mid-80s to the early 90s (the Comet Halley era). These pore things, which were usually overcorrected and often have “rough” optics, too, do tend to fade away as they approach 200x.

Celestron/Meade use hand picked mirrors for their more expensive scopes. Nope; not as a standard practice, anyhow. Normally, the most expensive LX200-ACF’s guts are identical to those of the cheapest LX90, and a CGE 800 uses optics identical to those in a NexStar 8SE. The situation is maybe not as clear-cut as it used to be, with Celestron making some optics in China and some in California, and Meade selling both “aplantic” and regular SCT optics, but, in general, buying a more expensive scope doesn’t get you better optics.

I said “as a standard practice.” Over the years, Celestron has assembled a few OTAs with hand-picked, triple checked, super-worked-over optics. This has rarely had anything to do with the price of the scope being sold, however. These OTAs were put together for various reasons; sometimes as replacement tubes for customers who’d had bad/substandard optics delivered, sometimes for friends of the company and other “special customers.” Naturally, such scopes are rare and verifying their “hand-picked” nature may be impossible.

Collimating an SCT is difficult. Whoo-boy! is this one a howler! Consider the poor Newtonian telescope owner. This unfortunate soul must adjust the tilt of the primary mirror, the tilt of the secondary mirror, the rotation of the secondary mirror, and its axial position in the tube. If the scope in question is a truss tube Dobsonian, it’s almost guar-ron-teed that some of these adjustments will need to be made before every observing run. Contrast that with the lucky SCT user. There is only one adjustment to make, only one that (most) end users can make, anyway, the tilt of the secondary mirror via three screws. When properly collimated, SCTs may hold this collimation for months or years, even after being bumped over dusty backroads.

Why the bad collimation rap, then? One reason is that, for novices, the physical act of doing anything to that intimidating looking OTA is scary, and fiddling with something positioned on the surface of a pristine corrector plate is even more scary. Another reason is that some folks don’t understand what twitching the three screws does and get confused and frustrated when they finally decide to attack collimation.

Most modern SCTs use a very simple secondary mirror collimation arrangement. Three screws are threaded into three holes on a secondary mirror backing plate/assembly. The center of the backing plate rides on a central pivot; tightening a screw tilts the mirror. The nature of this arrangement means that after a certain amount of adjustment of one screw, its opposite number or numbers must be loosened to continue in the same direction. It also means that if the secondary is to hold collimation, the screws need to be left snug. Normally, you collimate only by tightening screws, and that will ensure the SCT holds its collimation for a long time.

You can use a laser to collimate an SCT. Yeah, you can—if you want a mis-collimated telescope. Lasers work fine on a Newtonian where you have control of all optical elements and everything is (supposedly) centered on everything else. In an SCT, the eyepiece tube (visual back, rear port) may not be precisely concentric with the rest of the optical train. This is compensated for at the factory by shimming and other adjustments. This (likely) lack of concentricity means adjusting the secondary so the laser spot returns exactly back upon itself will probably yield optics that are misaligned in relation to the factory adjustments.

How about SCT lasers, collimators especially designed for our scopes? They work differently from a Newtonian model. What most have you do is perform a precise alignment of the scope the old fashioned way (by observing the rings of a slightly out of focus star). You then mark the return position of the beam on the laser with a sticker or some other device. Supposedly, then, you can precisely re-collimate in the future by adjusting the secondary with the laser in place until the beam returns to this spot. In the real world? Various factors prevent this scheme from working perfectly. Polaris is better and cheaper, still.

Meade invented the go-to. That’s what a lot of folks “remember,” anyway, and there’s no denying the first contact most of us had with a computerized telescope was with Meade’s much-loved LX200 “Classic,” which debuted in late 1992. Meade did not invent go-to, however; neither did Celestron. It was tinkered into life by some dedicated amateur and professional astronomers/electronics hobbyists/computer whizzes. OK, well, then, Meade must be credited with the first mass-produced commercial go-to scope, then, right? Negatory, there, Good Buddy. Seems folks have forgotten that wonder of the late 1980s, the Celestron Compustar.

The Compustar was a fully functional go-to SCT available in 8, 11, and 14-inch apertures. It worked pretty well, and featured what is still probably the best hand controller ever seen on an amateur scope. Then, why the heck is it all but forgotten? Why was it a failure? I don’t know if the word “failure” is exactly right. Celestron kept it alive into the 1990s. But there is no denying that they did not sell many of ‘em. Howcomesthat?

The biggest strike against the C-star was price. The Compustar 8 sold for about 4 grand in big 1980s dollars. You can imagine what they wanted for a C14, even when the list price was heavily discounted. These were also scopes that were best suited for permanent installations. They needed a hefty power source, benefitted from a good polar alignment, and did not like being bumped over country roads on the way to your favorite dark site on the Macon County Line. Shame? That Celestron just ditched these telescopes and went off on another tangent when it developed its Ultima 2000, instead of finding ways to reduce the price and improve the performance and portability of the Compustars. Be that as it may (sigh): Celestron was there before Meade in the go-to race.

The Autostar was the first Meade computer controller. Have we forgotten the Classic LX200 and the LXD series go-to GEM mounts already? It would seem so. I’ve heard the Autostar referred to as the “first Meade go-to system;” not just by casually chatting amateurs on the ‘net, but in a recent Astronomy Magazine article on the history of amateur gear. Meade introduced the Autostar for its first ETX 90 go-to model in 1999. The Classic had been on the market for seven years by that time.

“Flocking” improves images dramatically. Why do people flock their SCTs? Why do they cover the inside of the tube with light absorbent flocking material (contact paper) and paint their baffle tubes a flat(er) black? Supposedly to reduce unwonted reflections in the field of view. Or more accurately? Because their bubbas on the Astromart Forums, Cloudy Nights, and the Yahoogroups did and they want to too. How much good will flocking do? It can do a little when it comes to reducing scattered light effects such as those that occur when the Moon or another very bright object is just outside the field. Darkening the field background? I’ve never been able to see any difference between flocked and unflocked.

There’s also a purty huge caveat associated with this supposedly simple procedure. In the process of removing the corrector, applying contact paper to the tube interior, and painting the baffle tube insides, all too many tyros and a substantial number of veterans have made a mess of an innocent OTA. A tear forms at the corner of Unk’s eye at the thought of broken correctors, scratched secondaries, contact paper stuck to primaries, and paint spots on a formerly pristine main mirror. Yeah, I know you don’t want to hear it one more time, but here it is, Unk Rod’s Number One aphorism: “The Only Enemy of Good Enough is More Better.”

The Orange Tube C8 was the first commercial SCT. NO SIR BUDDY! The original “OT” C8 was a ground breaker, but it was not the first mass-produced (semi, anyway) SCT or the first Celestron SCT; that honor goes to the storied Celestron White and Blue Tube Schmidt CATs of the 1960s. If you want to learn all about these beauties, Unk insists you hunt up a copy of Bob Piekiel’s e-book, Celestron, the Early Years. But I will at least say these things worked as good as they looked. They derned shore shoulda; in 1965 the Celestron C10 sold for about the same amount as a brand new Volkswagen Beetle!

Focus shift makes imaging impossible or difficult with SCTs. Focus shift happens when the primary mirror of an SCT tilts a minute amount as it’s pulled down or pushed up the baffle tube to focus. Even at lower powers, this shift is all too visible in the eyepiece—objects move across the field as they are focused. This is annoying, but it doesn’t do anything to prevent imaging per se. It does make focusing a hairline-reducing experience if you’re usin’ small CCDs, however. Turning the knob to focus Jupiter at f/30 on a webcam chip can make the planet slide right off the edge of the frame. There is a fairly simple cure; however, a rear cell Crayford focuser. This is a standard in/out focuser that screws onto the scope’s rear port. Use the main focus knob to get in the eyepiece’s or camera’s focus “range,” and do fine focusing with the Crayford thereafter. Voila! No shift.

Mirror flop makes imaging impossible or difficult with SCTs. Mirror flop, which is often confused with focus shift, can have serious implications for imagers, but obviously it does not make Astrophotography impossible, since tens of thousands of great long- exposure deep sky images have been taken with SCTs over the years. What is flop? It’s a little like focus shift in that it involves the primary mirror and its carrier tilting slightly on the baffle tube and making an image move in the field. The difference is that in flop this happens without the focus knob being touched. The mirror/carrier can be in a slightly off-balance condition after focusing, and a substantial change in scope attitude—crossing the meridian, for example, can make this off-balance mirror FLOP, shift slightly on the baffle tube. If you are doing a long exposure image, and are not monitoring a guidestar through the main scope (with an off axis guider or an on-camera guide chip) the guider will not know the image has moved in the field (the mount didn’t move) and the stars in the image will trail, ruining the shot.

The good? This doesn’t happen all the time, and can be avoided. Unk Rod has had exactly one image (a nice M15) ruined by flop over the years. How do you prevent it? Easy: don’t image something that will cross the Local Meridian during the exposure. With today’s short CCD integrations, that should not be a big deal. You can also reduce the chance of flop by ending your focusing “uphill.” Make your final focus move a counter-clockwise turn of the focus knob. That will move the primary up the tube against gravity, lessening the chance of it being left off-balance. A Crayford focuser, by the way, will do nuttin’ to lessen the chance of mirror flop. What will? The only true cure is locking down the primary mirror, either with the recent Meade OTAs’ nice mirror locks or some jerry-rigged mirror “stabilization” bolts of your own.

Asymmetrical star images in a star test indicates faulty SCT optics. Bad diffraction patterns in a star test (comparing the inside and outside focus ring patterns of a bright star) mean bad optics. Not necessarily. That esteemed personage, Roland Christen, is on record as saying that this is not a reliable way of judging the quality of a “compound” (e.g., catadioptric) telescope. Much better is comparing the size of the secondary shadow on either side of focus. The closer that is to being the same, the better your optics likely are. A Ronchi test is another good indicator: straight lines good, curved lines bad, hooked lines extra bad. Perhaps the best gauge of how good, though? The appearance of a planet at high magnification under steady seeing. If Jupiter shows plenty of detail, lots of little squiggles and whorls in the belts, you can be assured your scope is a wiener—err, "winner.”

An SCT is, by nature, a very portable telescope. One can be. Certainly a C8 comes close to that long sought goal, a “portable observatory.” But, let’s face it, a fork mount telescope becomes massively large and unmanageable quickly as aperture goes up. A 10-inch is uncomfortable, an 11 is a little disquieting to mount, a 12-inch is crazy, a 14 is insane. Big SCTs are more “transportable” than “portable.” One thing I’ve been careful to point out to novices, and which I say in both my SCT books, is that the scopes look way, way larger in person than they do in those pretty magazine ad layouts.

The SCT’s field edge is comatic. The Schmidt Cassegrain field edge is not perfect, that’s for sure. I know you’ve noticed that stars at the edge of the eyepiece field are never quite in focus when those in the center are sharp and vice versa. The cause is not coma, though, not mostly, anyway. While SCT optics do display some coma, just like Newtonian scopes that use parabolic primary mirrors, that’s not the main cause of the CAT’s slightly icky field. The reason is that the SCT has a naturally curved field. Why?

Without wading too deep into technical waters likely to drown your Silly Old Uncle, suffice to say this is a characteristic of all Schmidt-type telescopes and cameras. The original Schmidts were designed to be cameras only, not visual instruments, so this problem was taken care of in a very simple manner: these telescopes use/used curved film holders to sharpen up the field edge in images. If you want the real why, however, I commend to you Telescope Optics, Evaluation and Design by Harrie Rutten and Martin van Venrooij. It can be difficult going, but is probably the best resource for CAT fanciers at this time (I don’t mind letting slip that the author of Celestron, the Early Years, Bob Piekiel, is working on a book on SCT optics).

Knowing the reasons for this SCT characteristic doesn’t do anything to fix the problem, though. Can anything be done? Well, I’ve never found the Schmidt CAT’s slightly fuzzy field edge a problem; I tend to focus my attention on what’s in the middle of the eyepiece’s view. But I know it does bother some folks. What to do? Good eyepieces can help. TeleVues and other high-quality oculars eliminate or reduce eyepiece aberrations that make the field edge look all the worse—things like astigmatism. How about a Paracorr or other coma corrector? One might make the field look a little better by eliminating some true coma, but will do nothing to flatten the CAT’s curved field. The only real solution is a reducer/corrector. These f/6.3 “r/cs” sold by Meade and Celestron do a good job of field flattening and are inexpensive. Drawbacks? They tend to cause vignetting in 1.25-inch eyepieces over about 30mm of focal length, and do even worse with 2-inchers. That’s a problem for imagers using all but the smallest chips, too, but can be cured with a good flat-field frame.

Well, Pards, that’s my rogues’ gallery of CAT myths and misconceptions, but no doubt there are many more floatin’ around on the Internet and down to the local club. I’d sure be interested in readin’ about the ones y’all have heard if you wouldn’t mind makin’ a post or three on the subject.

Sunday, August 10, 2008

 

Old Go-tos Made New Again

What’s troubling you, Binky? Your once cutting-edge go-to telescope is yesterday’s news? That formerly artful and elegant LX200, Ultima 2000, or Vixen Skysensor doesn’t seem classic? It’s just old? The computer hand control (HC) that once amazed you with its powerful features now reeks of TRS-80 Model I? Believe it or not, there is a cure that doesn’t involve spending a couple of grand on a new mount—or a whole new telescope. There are ways to bring your old warhorse up-to-date, and, if it is otherwise in proper working order, there is really no reason to buy something new.

As you might have suspected, what I am talking about is running your scope from an external computer. I’m sure many of you are doing that already, but even if you’re a full-fledged member of the Rubylith brigade you may not be fully aware of all the options and advantages that come with lodging a computing device on the ol’ observing table. Yeah, it ain’t quite all laptops. I’ve seen planetarium programs running on cell phones and even the Sony Playstation Portable, but when it comes to interfacing to a telescope there are three main paths: laptop computer, NexRemote/EQMOD, or a PDA. Actually, there could be one more—and better—way, but I’ll save my idle fancies for the end.

Until fairly recently, running a scope with a laptop computer usually meant a Windows laptop computer, as there were few software choices for Mac mavens and even fewer for Linux lovers. That has changed of late, with plenty more software becoming available for those “other” operating systems. Even the PC users’ longtime favorite freeware planetarium, Cartes du Ciel is up and running (in beta form) under both Apple OSX and Linux.

I occasionally hear the owners of the most recent Macintoshes, those with Intel processors, assert that they can run all the Win software they want via a Windows partition on their hard drives. Maybe. Oh, I have no doubt that most Win astroware will run in this fashion, but there is a catch. If you want to do more than just use the program as a computerized star atlas, you will have to connect it to a scope, and that’s where problems usually crop up in the Mac/Win game. Not to say you might not be successful, but my advice? If you have a Mac, buy Mac software—there’s plenty of good stuff out there now. You also have to decide which kind of software you’re gonna run. No, I ain’t talking “TheSky or Starry Night?”—a roundup of specific astro-softs is a subject for a future article—but which variety.

As the years have rolled on, adding gray hair after gray hair to Unk’s pore head, astronomy software has divided itself into two broad classes: planetariums and planners. Planetariums, which are what most of us think of when we think “astroware,” put a computerized depiction of the sky on your computer’s screen. Representatives of this sort of soft are TheSky, Starry Night, Cartes, Megastar and many more. Using various tools, you’ll locate objects on this “silicon sky,” retrieve information about ‘em, and send the telescope to them.

The look of the faux sky that is home to all them NGCs varies from program to program. Some strive for the ultimate in realism; maybe even a beautiful representation of the heavens composed of actual images. Others have remained cartoonier, with constellations being represented by dots and lines and deep sky objects by little symbols. Both types have something to recommend them. We all like purty stuff, and a “pretty planetarium” like Starry Night Pro Plus can do a great job of showing the appearance and extent of deep sky objects. On the other hand, at three o’clock in the a.m., I tend to find one of these masterpieces hard to decipher, and prefer dots and symbols instead.

The second species of astroware? The “planning” programs. At first they are a mite-off-putting. Instead of a fancy rendition of the heavens, what you get when you boot one o’ these puppies is something a lot like what you see when you start up Microsoft’s Access: a database. Oh, most offer some level of sky charts, but don’t expect Starry Night’s virtual sky. Ho-hum, right? It’s a ho-hummer? Sorta-maybe. These softs, programs like SkyTools, Deepsky, and Astroplanner can actually be more helpful for working observers than the planetariums.

The thing that makes ‘em so valuable is that they allow you to organize your observing. Ever been outside with the scope unprepared and wondering what you oughta look at? Chances are you couldn’t quite decide, so you observed a couple of bright Messiers and called it a night. The planners allow you to assemble observing lists from their extensive libraries of objects (in most cases something on the order of 500,000 to 1 million DSOs). Most also offer scads of ready made lists; you’ll never be left standing under a beautiful sky stumped as to what you oughta look at. Assemble a list, click on an entry, and the scope goes there, one DSO after anudder.

Of course, before you can send the old scope on its way with either type of software, before you can "upgrade" it to the 100s of thousands of object in the computer program, you’ll need to hook PC to telescope. At the simplest level, that requires only a few things you won’t already have in your gadget box. The most important being the cable that connects scope and computer. That is almost always a serial cable—Meade did experiment with USB connectivity with its line of RCX scopes, but those appear to be goin’ the way of the dodo. Where do you get such a cable? You make or buy. If you’re handy with a soldering iron and an RJ crimping tool, building one is the labor of half an hour.

Since the various telescope makers use slightly different protocols and never (don’t ask why) use standard RS-232 cables, make sure you put together one appropriate for your scope. A good source of plans for Celestron cables is Mike Swanson’s Nexstar Site. Got a Meade? That “other” Mike, Mike Weasner of Mighty ETX fame, has cable plans on his site. Don’t feel too confident about your soldering talents? Scope serial cables are inexpensive and available from almost all dealers.

Before computer will talk to telescope you may have to purchase one additional item, a USB – Serial converter cable. Since most laptop computer makers have stopped furnishing serial ports on their machines, you’ll have to add one. That is done with one of these inexpensive little cords (BestBuy or your electronics emporium of choice should have ‘em). Plug the serial cable coming from the scope into one end of the USB – serial converter, insert the other end into a USB port, and you are good to go. Well, usually. Some go-to users have reported problems with telescope communications using these USB – serial adapters. Most often that is only the case with advanced programs like EQMOD and NexRemote, but if you’re worried about it, buy a Keyspan USB - Serial converter cable. It will work with the most demanding software.

There’s another item you may have to glom onto before you can get your Win PC and scope chatting: software. I don’t mean the planetarium program or planner; I mean ASCOM. Whether you will need ASCOM or not depends on the astro-program you are using. “What the hail is ASCOM, Uncle Rod?” In order for a computer to talk to a telescope, it needs a driver for that particular brand and model of scope. The situation is no different from what you encounter when trying to make a PC talk to a printer. Unfortunately, Windows does not have any telescope drivers built into it, so you will have to bring your own.

How? Some Windows programs like TheSky and Megastar come with built-in drivers for a selection of popular scope models. If that is the case, you just hook everything up (with scope and computer power off, natch), select your scope model and go. Other astrowares rely on another program, the aforementioned ASCOM (Astronomy Common Object Model), a freeware application, to provide drivers and act as an intermediary between telescope and computer. Cartes du Ciel, SkyTools, and Starry Night are some programs that use ASCOM for scope interfacing.

Which is better, built-in or ASCOM? I prefer ASCOM. Yes, having to download and install a second program is a bit of a bother, but the results are worth it. Not only does ASCOM do a masterful job of running a telescope from a PC, often providing features like a virtual hand pad for slewing that built-in-driver programs don’t; it also supports many more telescope models than any built-in-style program does. Chances are, any go-to telescope (or digital setting circle computer) old or new has had an ASCOM driver written for it. ASCOM can also do other cool stuff like control observatory domes and operate motorized focusers. Once ASCOM is set up, it’s no more difficult to connect to the scope with it than it is with a built-in driver. The planetarium or planner you’re using will have a “connect to scope” button or menu selection. Mash that and here comes ASCOM. Select and configure your scope in the windows it throws up and you are ready to have some fun.

“OK, so scope is connected to computer. What good is that and how does it help provide new features for owners of aged go-tos? Being able to click on an object on a planetarium program’s display or a planner’s observing list is cool, yeah, but why is that really better than just using the ol’ HC?” One improvement is the number of objects you can go-to. An older scope may be limited to the NGC and IC. About 12,000 objects, that is. The typical planetarium or planner will “give” your old machine instant access to 1,000,000 or more. Yeah, I know most of us will probably never exhaust the NGC/IC, but number of objects is only part of the advantage to having a program’s huge library available. There is also the variety of catalogs. What if you’re a confirmed open cluster fanatic? You love cruising the Milky Way for cool little Berkeley and Lynga clusters. Or maybe you’re a planetary nebula boffin hooked on the PKs. Good luck finding these catalogs and objects in your 1990s hand paddle. Almost any astro-soft, however, will have ‘em and tons more, besides. Want a PK? Click on it and send the scope to it. No more searching for alternate IDs or entering RA and declination coordinates.

Not only does a PC program offer far, far more objects than an HC, it holds much more extensive information about said objects. Yes, if you’ve got a NexStar or an Autostar, you can access some scrolling data about some DSOs, but this will be limited to Just-the-Facts-M’am: size, distance, type, and magnitude. What if you’re curious, say, about a globular cluster’s Shapley – Sawyer type? You won’t find that in your old (or even new) HC, but it will likely be given in the extensive info most programs have on file. Usually, accessing this information is as simple as right-clicking on an object and selecting “details,” “about,” or “information.”

Other reasons? Software may be able to add features, important features, your telescope does not possess. Owners of older Celestrons, for example, lack “sync.” This function allows you to center an object that was “off” after a go-to, press a button, and have all subsequent targets (at least in this particular area of the sky) fall into the field of view; usually near the center. Sync can be a big help for scopes that occasionally miss objects. That doesn’t help Ultima 2000 owners or users of all but the latest NexStars, however, as sync is not available in their hand controls. No need to bemoan that fact or spend lots of time mashing slew buttons chasing errant DSOs, though. ASCOM and some built-in-driver programs, offer an “outboard” sync feature that works every bit as well as that found in modern hand controls.

Planetariums and planners are cool. But there is Another Way, laptop programs that replace the telescope’s hand control, NexRemote and EQMOD. NexRemote was there first and started out as an interesting project by a couple of talented amateur astronomer - programmers, Andre Paquette and Ray St.Dennis, to see if they could develop a piece of software that could take the place of the Celestron NexStar hand controller. The rest is history: Celestron took an immediate interest in their program, hcAnywhere, and made it and its creators part of the Celestron family (changing the app’s name to the less funky NexRemote in the process). What’s the benefit of NexRemote? If your Celestron is old enough to benefit from a more modern HC (but young enough to be able to use NR), NexRemote will give you all the benefits of the current Celestron programmable hand controller. In fact, NexRemote is the current Celestron hand controller, just running on a laptop instead of a hand paddle. No difference whatsoever.

In addition to being cheaper than a replacement Celestron HC, NexRemote has the benefit of being easily used on a variety of scopes. You can, for example, use it on a CG5 mount one night and a CPC the next without having to “flash” new firmware as you would with a “real” programmable HC. Perpaps the coolest thing? You may be wondering how you slew the scope around the sky with a laptop. Does it have to be at the observing position? Do you have to run back and forth? No. NexRemote allows the use of a wireless PC “gamepad” like the Logitech Wingman as the physical HC. Not only can you slew the scope with the joystick, the gamepad’s buttons can be mapped to perform most telescope functions. Only drawback? As mentioned above, NexRemote does not like all USB – Serial converter cables. The Keyspan USB-serial cable or a PCMCIA serial card will make RS-232-less laptops work fine with NR, however.

EQMOD is much like NexRemote, except it works on those “other” Synta telescopes (Synta owns Celestron), the EQ5/Skyview Pro, HEQ5/Sirius, and EQ6/Atlas. Why not just use NexRemote with these mounts? It will not work on the non-Celestron Syntas due to their different motors and different firmware. That being the case, a team of independent software gurus led by Mon Sarmiento set out to do a similar program for the Atlas and its kin. The result is similar in many ways to NR. It allows the hardware hand control to be left in the astro-stuff case—or at home—and allows a gamepad to be used for scope control (in my opinion, a wireless joystick from Walmart is way better than any telescope hand control). Like NexRemote, EQMOD is currently a “Windows-only” application, I’m afraid. Unlike NR, EQMOD is freeware.

In addition to letting you dispose of the non-virtual HC, EQMOD adds features and usability. While the SynScan hand controllers used on the Atlas and the other Syntas look a lot like the NexStar hand controllers, even the latest versions are missing some desirable features like, yeah, you guessed it, sync (though recent SynScans do feature a similar utility). EQMOD adds the sync feature and much more, and, in the opinion of many users, also improves the mounts’ go-to and guiding accuracy. One thing I like about EQMOD is that it permits the use of almost any joystick imaginable—even an Xbox model will work--NexRemote is pretty much confined to the Logitech ones.

Despite their conceptual similarity there is one major difference between EQMOD and NexRemote—EQMOD is really an ASCOM driver rather than a standalone program; you have to run it with another astroware. But that’s alright. The requirement that it must be used with a planetarium (or a Planner’s sky display) allows it to offer a strikingly simple and effective method for go-to alignment. You align the scope by clicking on stars on the planetarium’s display and having the scope go-to them. Center ‘em, push a button on the gamepad, and you are ready for a night of deep sky voyaging. NexRemote is a masterful piece of programming, but EQMOD is truly astounding.

You ain’t impressed, huh? I hear you, Boudreaux. The problem with laptop computers is not everybody wants to carry one into the field. Most of us are toting a ton of gear as is, and the thought of adding one more major puzzle piece along with its support stuff (like a big battery; forget running off the PC’s internal battery—for long, anyway) does not appeal. Not only that; laptops are much cheaper than they used to be (500 bucks will get a more than astronomy suitable new one), but they still don’t put ‘em in the Crackerjack box, and some amateurs quail about using one on a cold and dew-soaked observing field. Me? I think laptop PCs are the best thing to hit amateur astronomy since Dobs and SCTs, but I do understand this mindset. What to do? PDA it.

By “PDA,” I mean, for those even more technically backward than Unk, a Personal Digital Assistant. You know, a Palm Pilot—that’s what they used to call ‘em anyhow. PDAs are currently available in two major flavors. Palm is still hanging on, but there’s also, yep, Microsoft’s competing device, the Pocket PC (PPC), which runs the Windows Mobile operating system. Pocket PCs are sold by a variety of manufacturers, while Palms are currently sold only by Palm. There is a wealth of astronomy software available for both flavors, software that will frankly amaze. Modern PDA planetariums can do almost anything their PC based big sisters can; sometimes even more.

Which, though, Palm or PPC? I used to say, “Pick the software you want, and buy the device it runs on.” That’s still good advice. Some of the best loved PDA astro-softs are still platform “exclusive.” Bisque’s TheSky Pocket Edition only runs on PPCs, and the single major planner for these devices, Pocket Deepsky, is PPC-only as well. The granddaddy of ‘em all, Planetarium for Palm, is, natch, just for Palms. The trend, though, is for cross-platform PDA software. The current king-of-the-hill (so I’m told) is Astromist, which is available for both types of hand-helds.

All software things being equal, though, Palm or PPC, and which specific model (there are many)? I’d suggest two hardware criteria: display and memory. A high resolution screen as large as you can get is a must if your eyes are as bad as my old peepers and even a laptop screen looks like a parade of crawling bugs without your glasses. Memory is also important if you want plenty of objects and pictures. That’s not as much of a show-stopper as it used to be. PDAs now have substantial onboard memory and the SD memory cards they use are dirt cheap.

One further consideration? After a period when the Pocket PC was generating all the interest and all the publicity, the Palm seems to be back in the lead, and I have begun to wonder how long the PPCs will be around. Why is that? The Palm operating system is simpler and easier to use, day or night, than the PPC's Windows Mobile OS. Also, Palm has insinuated itself into the cell phone biz in a bigger way than PPCs. Many advanced cells are Palms as well. That’s right, while you’re waiting for the scope to slew to M15 you can call Aunt Lulu and ask what she’s fixing for Sunday dinner.

How are PDAs at the scope? They can be fantastic and probably come closer than anything else to providing you with a “replacement” go-to hand control. With one of these slick weasels running the telescope, you will never, ever wish you had a Starbook for your LX200—you will have that and more. The features PDA authors are packing into their programs are amazing. Astromist, for example, will let you slew the telescope around with the Palm’s buttons. Unlike the Starbook, you can use your PDA and astro-soft on almost any go-to scope in your inventory, and any that you will acquire in the future. I swear, it’s sweet: align the scope with the old HC, Velcro it to the side of the tripod, and spend the rest night operating the old war horse via a hand held with a high resolution color display. If you’d like to learn more about PDAs and astronomy might I be so bold as to suggest you sign up for Unk’s long running Palmastro Yahoogroup (which despite the name covers PPCs too)?

Any monkey wrenches to jam up the works? Only one, really. You’ll naturally have to interface PDA to scope. That used to be easy way back when Palms featured serial ports. That’s gone the way of the buggy whip with the coming of USB. Now, all PDAs are hooked to a PC (to load programs and “sync” data) via USB and it ain’t easy to get ‘em to talk RS-232. You can get serial cables for contemporary PDAs, but plan to pay about 50 – 75 bucks for one. Dangit.

So the ideal way to “upgrade” a decrepit go-to is with a PDA? Right now, prob’ly. These small wonders will, depending on the software you choose, be able to add most of the missing features you pine for on your Ultima 2000. As usual, though, I ain’t quite satisfied. PDAs work and work well at the scope, BUT they are generic computing devices not specifically designed for use with a telescope. What if somebody came out with a PDA/HC device designed to be used exclusively with telescopes (see my Photoshop made mockup above)?

What do I have in mind? Something in the size range of PDA – HC – TV remote. It would have a nice high resolution screen. It would also have plenty of well-laid out telescope - centric buttons, including nice, big north-south/east-west ones to mash. What would also make it better is that its software would be in ROM. No memory cards or program loading to deal with. Since “Rod’s HC” would be designed for astronomers, the night vision mode would be perfect—no consarned white border around the screen—and could be dimmed to extinction. The interface would be RS-232 to the scope’s normal serial port. Users would initially align their scopes with the old HC, just like normal (though I’m open to ones that would replace the HC completely, technical and legal considerations probably preclude that) but Rod’s HC would take over afterwards.

Hardware and software details? I ain’t smart enough to work out things like “Which operating system?” “What kinda processor?” “ASCOM or built in drivers?” “How much memory?” “What kinda power source?” yadda, yadda, yadda. I’m sure the Bright Boys can puzzle it all out. It would take some money and talent to produce something like this, but it seems to me this would be very popular in a small amateur astronomy sorta way. There are plenty of old go-tos out there that still, believe it or not, work exceptionally well, and wouldn’t get sent to off to the Astromart if the owner could find a way to add a little more glitz and a few more features. This is especially true as we hit leaner economic times and some of us begin to be of the opinion that them old go-tos were actually better built mechanically and electronically—if not optically—than the modern marvels. Convinced? OK, one of y’all kick in a few million and we’ll setup a company and start crankin’ out Rod’s HC!

Monday, August 04, 2008

 

How to Make Your Star Party Almost Heaven

What makes a star party a success? A continuing success? And what does silly ol’ Unk Rod know about it anyhow? I’ll admit right off the bat that I’ve never been involved in organizing a dark-site hoedown; prob’ly never will be (though I do dream of an Alabama Star Party occasionally). Your Uncle is way too lazy for that job. I do go to a lot of star parties every year, though; probably more than the average Joe or Jane Amateur, and that maybe qualifies me to at least offer my sometimes misguided opinions as to what makes a good star party good.

What the hail is Unk going on about now? We all know what makes a star party great, don’t we? What makes one of these perennial amateur astronomy dark site gatherings go—be it a regional 100 observer affair or a national 1000 telescope one. DARK SKIES, right? Yeah, that’s what I used to think when I started doin’ the star party circuit back in the 70s.

Putting few decades of partying under my (ever expanding) belt, however, has taught me a thing or two about the star party game. Dark skies are good, yeah. Any star party needs to offer observing better than what most of its attendees put up with at home if it’s to be a long-running success. Heck, even the Riverside Telescope Maker’s Conference—err, excuse me, “RTMC Astronomy Expo”--one of the first big events Unk ever attended, and which has never been about dark sky observing, probably features better viewing than what most of the members of its Southern California audience have back home. Howsomever… There are, believe it or no, things that are as important to the health of your star party as inky black skies, and without which even the darkest of dark parties won’t be around for long. What does your star party need beyond good skies? People and Place.

People

I’ve never been to what I’d call an “unfriendly” star party. As I’ve said many times to anybody who will listen, I think amateur astronomers are the nicest, best, and smartest people around. But just being nice to the people you meet on a star party field, taking pains to make even newbies you don’t know from Adam feel at home, is not quite enough. Star party friendliness needs to institutionalized and your audience’s needs and wants must be met if you want to see them next year.

Where does star party friendliness start? Why, it starts at the front gate, Skeezix. I don’t only mean making sure every registered guest who shows up has a registration packet and a meal ticket ready to go, either. I’ve been to a couple of events that shall remain nameless that made getting onsite harder and more intimidating than penetrating a Strategic Air Command base at the height of the Cold War. The registration tent is your GUESTS’ (remember that is what they are, always) first contact with your star party. When they walk up, don’t frown, act bothered, and grunt in your best Commandant Klink voice, “PAPERS PLEASE!”

The first words out of your mouth should be “Welcome to the Piney Woods Star Party; we are so glad you could make it.” If your new arrivals are not registered, and your event has a “no walkons” policy (not a good policy in my opinion unless you are genuinely strained for field space/accommodations/infrastructure), sure, you’ll have to turn ‘em away. Rules is rules, but at least act like you’re as disappointed as they are. Give ‘em a brochure, smile, and say “see you next year.” If a guest walks up to the registration booth with a problem, work to resolve that problem right away; if you can’t fix it, find someone who can--immediately. Most of all, don’t make your guest stand there fidgeting while you discuss your critical reaction to the latest episode of Big Brother with your pals.

One of the most important things a star party can do both for itself and for amateur astronomy is to help out with our somewhat challenged demographic. Do you appeal to young families? That is, do you have kid/spouse activities (and please don’t assume every non-astronomy spouse is a woman)? Are these things presented as integral and important elements of the star party, not as half-heartedly done afterthoughts? One thing I really, really like to see is raffle prizes just for kids (and maybe for spouses, too). Modest enough gifts so it’s no problem to see that every single Little Person and spouse gets a small memento of some kind, even if it’s merely a NASA Space Place coloring book or a coffee mug. Sure, doing that might mean you have to cut back a wee bit on your main prizes, but it is worth it. How do ensure Joe or Jane Amateur comes back next year? Leave Mister or Missus non-amateur spouse with pleasant memories. Everytime Jane Amateur’s hubby looks at that Possum Holler SP coffee mug he “won,” he’s gonna remember the great time he had, and how nice it would be to go back.

“But Uncle Rod, but Uncle Rod, fancy prizes, the LX200s and SkyScouts, are a Big Deal, ain’t they?” I dunno. I’m frankly not sure cutting back on the big prizes is such a bad idea, even if giving out plenty of kids’/spouses’ gifts doesn’t make that necessary. I actually prefer raffles where there are many, many small prizes to ones where there are two big scopes and a NASA poster. Not only do more small prizes leave more guests satisfied, it cuts WAY back on the hurt/bad feelings. You’ve likely heard this before: “Know why the Possum Swamp AS folks always win the big prizes, Bubba? It’s cuz they are in the club that sponsors the star party.” Personally I don’t worry about prizes much. In the course of three decades of partying, I have won a grand total of one flashlight and one Vixen dovetail bracket (Miss Dorothy is another matter; she rakes in prize after prize).

I mentioned them hallowed Star Party Rules a paragraph or three back, and yes, every star party needs ‘em in order to keep things running smoothly and ensure everybody has a good time. What kinds of rules does a good star party have? Not many. If your Organizing Committee has a rule-making session, you’ll no doubt come up with a bunch, and your committee will no doubt have the star party’s best interests at heart. But you don’t want your guests to start feeling that the gist of the thing is, “That Which is Not Compulsory is Forbidden.” Your job is to go through the list of existing/proposed rules and weed-out any that are not 100% necessary and bearable.

What kinda rules? There are, luckily, just a few categories. Light rules are usually the easiest to formulate; it’s purty simple, after all, “no white light after dark.” Well, maybe not quite so simple. It may be advisable to specify dim red lights only. A lot of people are now toting 10,000 candlepower red flashes and headband lights that feature 25 ultrabright LEDs that will do about as much to preserve dark adaptation as a poke in the eye with a green laser. Good luck doing better than “I know dim when I see it” when putting this one on the stone tablets, though.

The most important thing here is friendly enforcement. No, you don’t want some goober to show a light and spoil dark adaptation and (possibly) photos. On the other hand everybody (admit it) occasionally makes a mistake and flicks that fancy new Astro-Gizmos flashlight to “white” by mistake, turns on a PC without the red filter in place, or—DOH!—opens the trunk of their vehicle without having disabled the light. Screaming is not necessary. A chorus of PUT OUT THAT LIGHT! from all and sundry is not overly becoming, not necessary, and is often more distracting that a brief flash of white light—to say nothing of what it does to a novice’s inclination to come back next year. It should be made clear in the Official Rules that star party staff will enforce light rules. And do that.

Two recent light rules issues that have caused a right smart amount of controversy for star party organizers and guests concern laptop screens and green lasers . Laptop screen “enforcement” should be handled just as you do flashlights: red-filtered and not too bright (whatever that is). Some star parties have talked about placing imagers and other PC users in their own corner of the field, but that is not desirable, or friendly, or necessary if laptops have adequate filters over their screens and, maybe, are in easy-to-make enclosures (four pieces of poster board) so that even filtered screens are not visible most of the time. Green lasers? That’s your call. Some star parties allow ‘em, some do not. It’s my belief that it is clear, when you study the issue, that it is not likely a laser will spoil somebody’s astrophoto. I admit they are distracting, and all too many light saber users simply cannot keep them pointed at the sky. If you think green lasers are a problem, treat them like any other lights: not red equals not allowed.

Vehicle rules vary from star party to star party. Some events permit vehicles on the field, some only allow them there for loading and unloading, some restrict them to certain areas. My preference is to allow them to be parked around the perimeter of the observing field if there is space; it’s sometimes handy to have your car close at hand (I’ve waited-out blowing rain in my vehicle a time or two). One other very important vehicle commandment is required: “no driving off the field after dark.” Even with “just” parking lights on, this is way too distracting and harmful to dark adaptation. Not to mention dangerous—I saw an astronomer and scope nearly run down one night by a newbie who just had to go home. No driving off the field except in an emergency and as approved by star party staff.

Course, use common sense in enforcing vehicle rules. I once had my wrist slapped for driving away from a star party with my car’s running lights on—despite the fact that I was, “a,” parked on an access road; not the field, and, “b,” that it was completely cloudy at the time and for the remainder of the evening!
Whether your star party allows dining canopies or camping tents on the observing field itself will, like vehicle parking, mostly be depependent on how much space you have available to play with. If there's enough, being able to at least erect a canopy or a Kendrick Observing Tent or similar sure is nice, especially for those of us running computers. Don't let tents squeeze out scopes, of course.

Probably least important are the "conduct" rules. Why least important? Most amateurs are well behaved. We are not schoolchildren, and there is no need to treat us as if the field is Bluebird Elementary—or Stalag 17. One conduct rule that’s being adopted at more and more venues is “no smoking” on the field. In the beginning this was usually limited to “no pipes or cigars,” since the smell of even a good stogie is offensive to quite a few folks. As cigarette smoking has become less fashionable and more people are concerned about the supposed health issues of second hand smoke, however, I expect more and more star parties to ban ciggies as well. As an ex-smoker, I’m conflicted. On the one hand, you don’t want to appear to be anti-smoking Nazis. On the other, second hand smoke ruins many people’s enjoyment of the night sky, and may not do much good for optics as well as lungs. As with all other rules, the secret is friendly enforcement. If a guest is smoking where/when she/he shouldn’t be, politely remind the person of the rule and maybe suggest they step off the field for some quick drags.

In some cases, alcohol may be an issue as well. Usually, that is only the case if your location prohibits alcohol on site—a church camp or State Park, for example. My inclination? Rather than saying “Dump that out!” maybe just whisper, “be discreet.” We are, again, adults, most of us (way too adult, some of us). What if alcohol is causing a problem? Somebody’s drunk and stumbling on the field or being confrontational in mean-drunk fashion? That’s easily covered by a single broad and useful directive: “Attendees are required to obey the instructions of star party staff at all times.” If someone’s imbibed too much, escort them back to the cabin, or out the gate as appropriate.

Place

Sure, I love TSP, The Texas Star Party at Prude Ranch. Can’t get enough of it. The skies are Grrr-reat. So are the people. But, you know what? There is a third leg to the star party “tripod” that’s as important as dark skies and friendly folks. Facilities; Place, that is. TSP has luckily got both good infrastructure and accommodations (if you can get a room on the ranch and are not forced to tent camp, that is) in addition to its super-dark skies, but what if y’all organizers have to choose? Dark or comfortable? Maybe I’m just getting old, but these days my version of tent camping is staying at the Chiefland Holiday Inn Express. I suspect I am not the only one, either. There’s something to be said for a cool/warm room, a hot shower, and a soft bed after a long night’s observing run.

There’s more to the Place part of the star party formula than just wanting a comfy pillow under my punkin-head. A star party is more than observing. It’s also more than hanging out with your mates. Some of my most valuable star party experiences have been those times I’ve sat-in on a presentation by a fellow amateur who knows more than I do (which includes almost everybody) and learned a thing or three. Being able to do that indoors, sitting on a bearable chair, watching a PowerPoint presentation projection on a real screen is way more fun than trying to figure out what somebody is saying while you sweat, sit on a stump, and watch a 35mm slide show dimly projected on a bed sheet nailed to the side of the shower house.

“Place” is also every bit as important as activities in bringing back non-astronomer spouses and kids “next year”—maybe even moreso. Sure, if What Must Be Must Be means I have to genuinely rough it in return for an otherwise good outing, I might do that (the Chiefland 2002 Spring Picnic was the last time I tent-camped, so that oughta tell you something). Spouses not interested in observing—or at least not interested in looking much? Prob’ly not. That does not mean your site must offer the amenities of the Ritz. Clean cabins (with family cabins available if possible), RV hookups aplenty, some kind of meeting/chow hall, and real bathrooms (not just portapotties) and showers are required in my judgment for a long lasting endeavor.

Does the above sound like a tall order? It is really not. There are plenty of state parks, private camps, and similar operations that feature these things and who will be only too happy to host y’all (most of these camps and parks are literally desperate for users in the fall and spring). Yes, it does mean you may have to compromise on skies. If I have a choice between the Hopping Armadillo State Park with showers and cabins and your Uncle Ezra’s back forty whose only feature is hot and cold running coyotes, you know which one I’ll pick, even if Ezra’s skies beat the pants off that state park.

What else makes a good Place? Not required but very desirable in this day of go-to scopes and laptops on (almost) every observing table is AC power on the field. Being able to run all night long without having to haul out 200 pounds of trolling motor batteries derned shore will attract my business to your event. I understand that providing power, or much power, on the field is not always possible. I can accept that without much heartburn. I’m used to lugging deep cycle marine batteries everywhere with me. I do insist you provide sufficient working AC outlets to allow me and everybody else to recharge said batteries in time for the next evening. Did I say I hate portapotties? Not always. If cabins/bathhouse are a fair walk from the observing field, it might not be a bad idea to station a number of ‘em around the observing field (far enough away so your guests don’t get a constant whiff).

Anything else? One big thing: vendors. If there’s an amateur who don’t like to buy astro-stuff at a star party, I have yet to meet her/him. For those of us who live out in the boondocks a fur piece from an astro emporium, a star party dealer’s table is a huge treat. We actually get to look at and handle the gear we are going to buy, not merely squint at minute pictures on the ‘Net. What can you do to encourage vendor participation? DO AWAY WITH VENDOR FEES if your event has ‘em. I don’t care if you have always charged sellers to setup, make it free for one and all. Now. With gas at almost four dollars a gallon, diesel higher, and most dealers driving hundreds if not thousands of miles, you need to give ‘em a break. Don’t feel much sympathy for Acme Eyepiece and Chain Saw Incorporated? Remember, your guests are also paying those fuel prices, and good dealers provide an encouragement for them to fill up the cavernous gas tanks of huge Dob-totin’ Suburbans and head your way. It should go without sayin’ that you need to provide a covered, secure area for your vendors.

I could go on and on, of course. But rather than listening to me blather on some more, why not get yourself, your scope, and maybe your family out to a star party that does it right? In addition to the aforementioned Texas Star Party, one that fulfills these requirements in spades is the one I just got back from, the Almost Heaven Star Party atop West Virginia’s Spruce Knob Mountain (go HERE for some pictures).

They’ve got the skies, sure, some of the darkest star party skies this old boy has ever seen east of the Mississip. They have also got the people. Attendees and organizers alike are among the friendliest and most considerate I have ever encountered. Place? Their Mountain Institute-run location is remote, but provides most of the things that lure back both spouses and decadents like silly ol’ Unk year after year. Most of all, though, this one is just run right: with efficiency, intelligence, and kindness. There are plenty of good star parties—no, make that great star parties—and I’ve had the good fortune to attend many of them, from Chiefland in the East to the Idaho Star Party in the west and many more inbetween, but for now my model of THAT’S HOW YOU DO IT! is Almost Heaven West Virginia.

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