Thursday, December 24, 2009

 

A Chaos Manor South Merry Christmas

As the sun begins his inevitable descent on Christmas Eve afternoon, quiet has settled over the storied and numinous halls of the old manse, Good, Old Chaos Manor South. All the kids are grown, and the next generation of the clan is barely aborning and far, far away. That makes for a calm but subdued holiday. Your old uncle is thankful he has not had to go a-questing Zhu-Zhu Pets, but a little of the magic seems to have gone out of this night, too. For now. In a few years the old halls will no doubt once more ring with the echo of little peoples' laughter.

Tonight? Miss Dorothy and I did our traditional Christmas Eve dinner at the local Japanese Steak House. Our two wonderful daughters and their many charming young friends made for a most joyful and jolly occasion. I even convinced Miss D to try a little Sake!

Back home now, I'll watch a little TV--probably some Sherlock Holmes DVDs...for your ol' Uncle, Holmes' Victorian London and 221B are the very essence of Christmas. And you know that before the night is out I'll raise a toast or three to The Master of Baker Street, the best and wisest man we have ever known. A trip to the liquor store turned up not just Rebel Yell, but "Rebel Reserve." Can you believe the dadgummed Yell has gone upscale?

Astronomy-wise? The clouds are thick and the rain is falling. For the fourth year in a row, I suppose Miss D. and I will be denied our traditional Christmas Eve look at M42. But tomorrow night we may get a peep at that Christmas ornament to end all Christmas ornaments, which is almost as good.

Maybe next week I'll share next year's astro-plans with you and let you know what that jolly old man with the big belly and the white beard (I do NOT mean Bubba down to the club) brung me. For now, though...I'll just say, "A merry Christmas to all the wonderful friends I've made in that most wonderful of avocations, amateur astronomy." There is surely not a better bunch in the whole, wide world, and I look forward to spending yet another year with all y'all.

Good night! And may your Christmas be as beautiful and luminous as ours is turning out to be!

Saturday, December 19, 2009

 

Computin’ in the Country


That’s what we do at least some of the time, isn't it, muchachos? Take our pretty PCs out into the sticks in the service of our observing? I can’t lay claim to the title, though. It’s homage to a magazine column I read back at the very dawn of personal computing, the early 1980s.

I’d just returned to Possum Swamp bearing my first PC, a RadioShack TRS-80 Model 1, aka “Trash 80.” It wasn’t a perfect computer, not e’en close, but I loved it very much and it was an exciting time to be into PCs whether you had a fancy Apple II or a proletarian 80.

At first blush, my TRS-80, whose graphics, if you could call them that, consisted of blocky ascii characters, didn't seem of much use for astronomy. That didn't matter; it sure played a mean game of Star Trek. When I could get the freaking tape to load off the cassette player that served at the Trash 80's storage medium, anyway.

I wasn't the only cat who was being charmed by what we was calling “microcomputers” or “home computers,” either. Amazingly, the newsstands were beginning to fill-up with honest-to-god computer magazines covering everything from my Radio Shack box to Apples, to newcomers like the Commodore VIC-20 and Texas Instruments' TI-99/4A. These magazines didn't all feature professional writers and professional production values, but, still, they were a long ways from the mimeographed sheets that had fulfilled their role during the previous decade.

In one of those early magazines, I came upon the aforementioned column, “Computing in the Country,” that was, during its brief life, my favorite. The author was a dude who might have been the Uncle Rod of the early PC era. Every month, he dispensed plenty of down-home and often corn-ball wisdom on then-puzzling subjects like dbase II and the CP/M operating system: “Run Wordstar on an 8080 CP/M machine and you are walkin’ in high cotton.” I wish I could read some of those pieces again, or at the very least recall the author’s name, or even the magazine he appeared in.

That could have been a (then) modest little rag out ot Titusville, Florida, Computer Shopper, published by Glen Patch, the same guy who still does the excellent and lively Shutterbug. Or it could have been one of the little-noted-nor-long-remembered self-published computer hobbyist pubs of those days. In fact, I believe it was one of those, another tiny Florida based magazine, Computer Trader, which was popular with the hamfest/computer show crowd during the short time it was with us.

Guess I'll never know. Nobody but me seems to remember the Trader, and my collection of old computer magazines went to the curb in 1987.  All my Traders; Shoppers; Creative Computings (still the best ‘puter rag ever); Bytes, which included Jerry Pournelle writing from the second Chaos Manor (the first was Jazz photojournalist W. Eugene Smith’s); 80 Microcomputings (Yay! Trash 80s only!); Computes (for them new fangled Commodore 64 color computers); and all the rest from the Golden Age are just fond memories. I found a little about Computer Trader on the Internet, but only a little.

Yep, I just loved microcomputers. They were MY BAG, man. Not that, as above, I looked on ‘em as a potential tool for amateur astronomy, you understand, not in the beginning. Mostly, they were a diversion like the first video game I played in the late 70s, Space War, at McCain Mall’s Aladdin's Castle arcade in Little Rock. For most of us lusting after TRS-80s and Apple IIs, PCs were an end in themselves, like ham radio—or amateur astronomy. Sure, the makers of the store-bought computers that were beginning to displace S-100 bus kits said you could do stuff like BALANCE YOUR CHECKBOOK. But that wasn’t the draw. The draw was that they were just so darned cool. All the Heinlein and Clarke and Asimov promises coming true in your den.

By the middle of the 1980s, I was aware computers were a standard fixture of professional observatories, but I didn't have even an inkling of the impact they'd have on amateur astronomy till the afternoon I was browsing Springdale Plaza's Commodore 64 store. Oh, it wasn’t billed as a “Commodore 64 store,” just a “computer store.” But almost everything in it was intended to run on or support the much-loved C-64 and little sis VIC-20.

If you didn't experience those days, you have no idea how popular the Commodore 64 was or the impact it had, not just on the emerging Nerd Class, but the public at large. For the comparatively modest sum of 500 bucks (and much less in a few years), you could have a machine that, while maybe not as versatile as the Apple II, worked about as well and was considerably more affordable. An Apple II+ would cost you almost three times as much—and quite a bit more if’n you sprang for one of those awesome Apple Disk ][ 5.25-inch floppy drives. The C-64’s popularity also meant there was tons of software for it, soon far more than Apple could boast (even if most of the C-64-ware was games).

I have no idea why I was in the C-64 store on that long-ago afternoon in 1985. Maybe I was hunting inexpensive disks for my Commodore 1541 floppy drive. Whatever the reason, a glance at the software rack pulled me up short: “Commodore Presents the Universe by the Magic of Sky Travel, a Window to Our Galaxy.” I snatched that sucker up, quickly read that it would plot stars, constellations, planets, and even COMET HALLEY, and without any deliberation produced the near 35 big 1985 dollars Commodore demanded despite HARD looks from my then-wife. Heck, THERE WAS A PICTURE OF AN ORANGE TUBE CELESTRON C8 TELESCOPE ON THE PACKAGE! How could I resist?

Today’s verdict on Sky Travel (that's a screenshot at the top) would be “primitive.” With the 64’s 320 x 200 display, it couldn’t have been otherwise. Nevertheless, the simple graphics were excellent by the standards of a simpler time, and the soft was surprisingly feature-laden and even useful. It would show what was up for a given date or time, including the planets. It displayed about 1200 stars (considerably more than my Edmund planisphere), had some rudimentary animation features, and would, indeed, plot that scamp, Halley, as he floated through the constellations.

‘Course, at boot-up Sky Travel also displayed “Please be patient while program modules are loading…we’re loading a big chunk of the universe into a very small computer,” and there were long pauses after you did anything. But it was a start. A promising one for doing useful things in amateur astronomy with a PC. I loved the program and used it frequently. It was very well done for Commodore software, which sometimes reeked of snake oil. I know I wish I still had the excellent 140 page book that came with Sky Travel. Or that I could recapture the amazement I felt when I discovered it really would show the sky just as it was right now or years past or years in the future with a few key strokes—no mouse back then, of course.

The Commodore never became a huge force in amateur astronomy, maybe because by the time more astro-ware began to appear for it and more amateurs decided astronomical computing was a Good Thing, the C-64’s race was just about run. A few outfits, notably Zephyr Services, did dispense some decent astro-apps for the Commodore before the thinning of the microcomputer herd that took not just the Atari 400s, TI-99/4As and Timex Sinclairs, but, eventually, the C-64, too. That came when IBM PC compatibles began to come down in price at the end of the 80s. Mostly, good astronomy software had to wait for more capable machines, like my first IBM, a genu-wine IBM 486 with a—GASP!—VGA (640 x 480) color graphics “adapter.”

I was soon having a lot of fun and doing real work with increasingly sophisticated software beginning with David Chandler’s amazing Deep Space 3D, but computing didn’t really change my astronomy life a whole lot till the 1990s began to run out. That was when laptop PCs finally became inexpensive enough to make me willing to lug one onto damp observing fields.

Today? As I intimated week before last, you see darned near as many computers at star parties as you do telescopes. For even PC savvy astro-novices, though, getting up and operating for astronomy with a laptop out in the dark, computin’ in the country, can be confusing and intimidating. Since I’ve been down this road, you might find my (somewhat opinionated) observations of interest.

If you’re gonna hook a laptop to a telescope for go-tos or for controlling a CCD camera, you need a laptop, right? Which laptop, as in which brand, though? I’ve heard today’s laptop computers are usually more alike than different, with the guts often coming from the same far eastern factories no matter whose name is on the case. That may be, and I’m sure it’s possible to get a good computer from any of the major brands. But my personal experiences tell me some are better than others. Do keep in mind that obviously I’ve only owned or heard about a tiny sample, which may not be entirely representative.

If you want to know what I think about brands, it’s this: stay away from HP. We’ve had a fair number of PCs here, and the only problem-children have been from the formerly uber-quality-conscious Hewlett Packard. Example? When the younger daughter started her senior year of high school, Miss D. and I decided it was time to get her a nice laptop. We made some suggestions, but let her do the actual choosing. What came out on top with the features she wanted and within the budget we’d set was an HP. Big mistake, or so it turned out.

Lizbeth enjoyed her computer and used it heavily for about five months. “Used” heavily, but not “abused.” One afternoon, I passed her bedroom upstairs and heard a curious sound, something like a jet spinning up its turbines in preparation for its takeoff roll. A little investigation revealed the sound was coming from Elizabeth's closed laptop. Further checking showed that the screen was black as ink and that the fans were spinning at full tilt. HP’s opinion was “fatal hardware failure.”

Luckily for my wallet, Miss D. had insisted on buying an extended warranty from BestBuy. Normally, I steer clear of such things, which are usually not economically advantageous for the buyer, but in this case Dorothy was correct. We didn’t have any trouble getting a replacement from BestBuy, with the folks there telling Lizbeth to choose another laptop for the same price but, in their opinions, “Maybe don’t let that be an HP.” The curious thing is that that other HP brand, Compaq, seems better. Miss Dorothy has one of their machines and it’s been fine over about two years of relatively light use.

Any computer can go schizoid on ya, of course, but the HP’s quick and ignominious death isn’t the only thing that recommends against ‘em for me. As was the case with the (unreliable) HP desktop I owned for a while, Lizbeth’s machine was absolutely jam-packed to the gills with useless junk-ware programs. Yeah, it was easy enough to delete all that mess that included everything from trial versions of software she didn’t want in the first place to countless crappy games, but why should we have had to?

Who else don’t I like? I say stay away from Sony. Yeah, their laptops look spiffy, but it seems whenever I go in a big box store, the Sony Vaios are the only machines on display that are not working right—or at all. Given the fairly poor design and quality of a DVD recorder I bought from them recently, I judge the formerly famous Sony quality ain’t quite what it used ta be.

In more general terms? I’d avoid the cheapest of the cheap, like those regularly on special at Walmart, no matter whose brand name is on ‘em. Laptops have come down in price, but you still get what you pay for, and it’s likely a three hundred dollar computer will perform and last like, well, a three-hundred dollar computer. Expecting the components in the loss leaders to be of the same quality as those in a brand’s more expensive machines is asking a lot in my opinion.

So who do I like? The two brands we’ve had the most success with are Dell and Toshiba. When the older daughter left for college, we sent a Dell laptop with her, and it easily survived and thrived for four years of strenuous undergraduate life. More to the point, the astronomy computer here for the last five years or so has been a Toshiba Satellite. Not only has it spent night after night on countless dew-soaked observing fields, it’s traveled coast to coast with me giving talks at amateur gatherings from West Virginia to Washington (the state). Never a hiccup, never a problem; it just works.

How about an Apple laptop? If you want to go that way, I salute you. Sort of, anyhow. The Apple machines are high in quality—if considerably more expensive than most Win boxes—and have some pluses. Before you commit to one, though, leastways if you are not already a Mac user, make sure the astro-ware available for “the other guys” is gonna meet your needs. Apples have Intel processors these days and can (relatively) easily run Windows, but why pay more for a Mac if you’re just gonna run Win apps on it?

Once you’ve settled on a brand, which features should you look for when choosing a model for astronomical use? I know what you’re thinking, but there’s no use wishing and pining for serial and parallel ports. Despite the fact that quite a lot of our astro-gear still uses these antique interfaces, it’s not likely you’ll find a new computer with either. The best you can hope for is a good number of USB 2.0 ports.

Raw Power is a consideration to some extent, “raw power” as in processor speed and hard drive capacity. Processor speed is not really that big a deal if, like me, all you’ll do with your computer is run astronomy software, MS Office, and browse the web. With the noted exception of Starry Night Pro Plus, most astro-ware is not at all demanding as far as processor speed or graphics capability. Even SNPP’s requirements pale beside those of something like Fallout 3. If, however, you’ll be processing your CCD images with the computer, especially big CCD images, you’ll want a lively CPU.

How much hard drive space you need also depends on what you will do with your machine. While more drive space (like more processor power) is rarely a bad thing, if you’re just using Cartes du Ciel to send your scope on go-tos, you don’t need much. On the other hand, if you are running a big-chip CCD camera and storing the resulting images on your disk, the more the better.

How about the display? The screen? Definitely, “bigger is better.” Believe you me, even if your eyes are better than my middle-aged ones, you’ll want a nice large display. Take a look at your fave astro app: see them object labels that are so legible? They’ll look like smudges out in the dark with a red filter over the screen and the brightness turned way down. A big high-quality display makes the difference between fun and frustration in astronomy.

One final basic consideration for astro-laptops is ergonomics. Are the USB ports conveniently placed on the side or front of the case? How about other connectors and card slots? Are they easy to get at? Is the keyboard large enough and well designed enough to make it easy to use in low light? How about the mouse-pad or other pointing device? You will find that things that are minor annoyances in the daylight at home will make you cuss a blue streak on a dark field at Chiefland or Prude Ranch.

There is a new breed of portable computer some amateur astronomers are latching on to, the “netbook.” These are small Windows PCs (mostly running XP but now transitioning to Windows 7). What’s the draw? They are cheap and they are very, very portable. I was immediately drawn to these itty-bitties, which are being produced at a frantic rate by all the major laptop makers. I thought one might be perfect for astronomy.

Unfortunately, the netbook displays are something of a problem for me. For my eyes, netbook screens, which are typically 9 or 10-inches in size diagonally, are a little too small and low in resolution (typically 1024 x 600). I have a hard time using a netbook’s small display comfortably in the dark, even with my most powerful reading glasses on. I reckon I might be able to get used to the screen’s small size, but I doubt I’d get to like it.

There is another more serious netbook video "problem," their low resolutions. Many astro-programs will not work exactly right at 1024 x 600. Oh, they’ll run, but some windows will be cut-off. Usually, and unfortunately, the part of the window with the “OK” and “Cancel” buttons. You may be able to increase resolution “virtually” in “Settings,” but that means you’ll have to scroll the screen, which is workable but annoying. Some netbooks will allow you to bump the resolution setting up and fool the machine into thinking it's got a higher resolution display, but that results in graphics that are slightly stretched out horizontally.

The more I’ve thought about it, the less I’ve come believe a netbook is for me. I mean, how much portability do you really need? Even my big Toshiba takes up less space than the eyepiece case. I suppose I might still think about a netbook, not for the telescope field, but to accompany me on my speaking tours. When you’re trudging through an airport, small is definitely beautiful.

One thing about netbooks is superior for astronomy, I’ll admit: their power-sipping nature. Some will run six or seven hours on their internal batteries and go dang near forever on a jumpstart bat’ry pack. Which is easy to do. Some (not all) netbooks, unlike laptops, can be run directly off 12 volts DC with a simple and inexpensive cord that plugs into a cigarette lighter socket.

What do you do about power if you want to use a standard laptop in the field? First, you can probably forget about built-in batteries. My high-speed P4 Toshiba might go 45 minutes on internal power. Depending on the machine, even a jumpstart battery may not be enough. I generally run my laptop with a big honkin’ trollin’ motor (deep cycle marine) battery. E’en if your computer ain’t that power hungry itself, keep in mind that some USB devices will power themselves via the computer’s battery. The Meade DSI camera, for example, will run down a jump starter in a right quick hurry.

What to do? There are two ways to run a regular laptop off DC. First, you can use a DC - DC power supply designed specifically for your laptop. A DC power brick is an efficient, neat way to go, but make sure to buy one with enough current capacity. The one I’ve got for my big Toshiba is on the hairy edge. It will run the computer by itself all night, but if I plug in a power-using USB device, or even just my PCMCIA serial card, the power supply trips off line.

What do I do, then? I use an inverter, one of the little gadgets that transforms flat line DC current into sinuous sine wave AC. Connect the inverter to the battery via a pair of alligator clips or a cigarette lighter connector, and plug the laptop’s normal power supply into one of the AC receptacles on the inverter. Nothing could be simpler, and inverters are inexpensive and readily available; they are easy to find in automotive discounters and in the auto-parts departments of Wal-Mart and other big boxes. The catch? An inverter, like anything else, cannot be 100% efficient. Some of the DC is inevitably dissipated as heat during the conversion process, so a battery will never last as long with an inverter as it will when powering a computer directly with DC.

I’m sometimes asked about the quality of the AC put out by inverters. It’s hardly perfect, but a modern inverter is easily capable of producing AC more than good enough for a laptop. When buying, make sure to choose an inverter that puts out enough current for the computer. In other words, at least glance at the label on your machine’s AC supply before going shoppin’.

You've got a computer and a way to power it, but I know you’ve got other questions. Plenty of ‘em. Where do you put the computer? How do you protect it from dew? What’s needed to connect it to the telescope? All good and valid questions, but, alas, we are outa time and space for yet another week. I have addressed these things here in the past, but I wouldn't mind givin’ you a fresh take on ‘em Real Soon Now, muchachos.

Postscript: So nostalgic was I for the good old days of personal computing, that I got on the ‘Net, located a Commodore 64 emulator that would run on my Vista machine, and soon glommed onto a downloadable copy of, yes, Sky Travel. What was it like to relive the C64 glory days? The emulator, CCS 64, is flat-out incredible, duplicating not just the appearance of the Commodore (“64K RAM SYSTEM 38911 BASIC BYTES FREE” is right where it oughta be at the top of the familiar blue screen), but the sound, and even the keyboard and joysticks of the 64.

There was one bow to the present: I didn’t have to do the “LOAD “*”, 8, 1” thing (younguns: don’t ask). I just selected Sky Travel from a window via my PC’s mouse and soon had the familiar splash screen in front of me. The most amazing thing? Not only did the program work perfectly, just the way it used to, sans instructions I still remembered how to work it nearly 25 years down the road. I must have used it one heck of a lot back in The Day.

Certainly I can understand, looking at those few blocky stars and the paucity of constellation stick figure lines, why I thought my first VGA astro-soft, Skyglobe 3.6, was such a breakthrough. And yet, and yet… I don’t believe I’ve ever loved an astronomy program as much as I loved Sky Travel, and I guess I never will.

Next Time:  As has been our TRADITION over the last couple o’ years, the next edition of The Astro Blog will appear, not on Sunday as per usual, but rather on Christmas Eve, and will probably be a little shorter and more sentimental than usual...

Saturday, December 12, 2009

 

The Herschel Project Night Four: 159 Down, 241 to Go


Hokay, muchachos, let’s see…where was I? Oh, yeah. I’d just wound-up an awfully sweet first night at the Chiefland Astronomy Village. It was after two-thirty in the a.m., which you young sprouts prob’ly consider “way-early,” but I was satisfied. Over the course of a little more than five hours (it was after nine o’clock before the sky well and truly cleared), I’d done seventy-five Herschel 2 fuzzies. When the sky began to fuzz-up, I wasn’t ashamed to head back to the Holiday Inn to lap up some of Kentucky's finest bourbon and begin planning Friday Night.

I slept in until 8:30 a.m., good for me, since it’s hard to sleep late when you’re used to getting up at 4:30 for work every stinking morning. Schlepped down to the lobby for some insane biscuits and gravy, and then back to the room to strategize about the coming night's activities. A glance at SkyTools showed there’d be no lack of targets, and that I had better plan on keeping on keeping on a bit longer than I had the first night if I were to have a prayer of closing out the fall and winter constellations.

I figgered I’d need to set aside time for a nap somewhere over the course of the day, but the first order of business was to hie myself back to the CAV, get registered over on the new field for the Nova Sedus Star Party and, yes, BUY SOME ASTRO-STUFF from their vendors.

As I strolled down the access road to the star party proper, located just to the west of my haunt on the old Club Field, I felt a touch uneasy. I’d registered for the star party, but had not set up on their field. I hoped I’d be welcome. I needn’t have worried. The Nova Sedus (“new start,” I believe) folks were just as friendly as any of the amateurs I meet across the U.S. of A. That is, "very friendly." I’ve said it before and I will say it again: if there’s a nicer group of folks than amateur astronomers, I’ve yet to meet ‘em. Shortly, I had a name-tag and was good to go.

I couldn’t help but be impressed by what the NSSP folks have accomplished in only two iterations of their fall star party. In addition to an expansive observing field, there was a spacious building for talks and use as a warm room/club house. (They even had a cotton-pickin’ foosball machine and a big-screen TV in there!) Food, same as last time, was provided by the friendly and efficient Micki’s Kitchen. There appeared to be plenty of AC power on the field for everybody. And, most of all, everybody I saw looked happy.

Gotta admit to y’all, though, what really caught my eye was “vendors’ row,” a line of tent canopies housing astro-stuff-dealers. While browsing, I was pleased to run across the display of an old acquaintance, Bill Burgess of Burgess Optical. Haven’t heard much about Bill recently, but he and wife Tammy are still going strong, and I was pleased to hear from them that they are preparing to introduce a couple of new series of binoculars. I always thought the Burgess binocs were great—I wouldn’t be without my 15x70s—and I am happy they are getting back into that end of the astro-biz.

Yeah, yeah, I know: “But what did you BUY, Uncle Rod, what did you BUY?” I kept my spending at modest levels. I’m gonna be forking out bucks for the 21mm Ethos before all is said and done, and I’d just bought a new guide-camera, an Orion StarShoot, the week before, so I was trying to be frugal. I limited my purchases to a couple of red lights from Astrogizmos and a book, Scott Ireland’s Photoshop Astronomy, from Camera Concepts, who had the biggest spread I’ve seen at a star party in a while. Two big EZ-ups jam-packed with everything but the kitchen sink—and that was likely in there somewheres. They bill themselves as “The Astronomy Superstore That Comes to You,” and that is just what they are.

I stuck around the NSSP long enough to determine that, as you won’t be surprised to hear, I didn’t win one of their many door prizes. Without my good luck charm, Miss Dorothy, along I never win anything. Frankly, even when she’s with me I never win much; she’s usually the one who brings the good stuff home. I headed back to the Billy Dodd Field empty-handed, gave the gear a quick once-over, and made tracks for lunch and the motel in that order.

Following an excellent meal consisting of the famed Lunch Special at Chiefland’s Bar-B-Q Bill’s (sliced pork, beans, tater salad, fries, garlic bread, salad bar, sweet tea, all for less than 15 bucks), and a couple of hours of dozing, if not really sleeping, back at the room, I returned to the field at 4 p.m. to get set-up. My main tasks were removing the Denkmeier Powerswitch Diagonal from the NexStar 11’s rear cell, replacing it with a Meade f/3.3 reducer and the Stellacam 2, hooking up the portable DVD player I use as a display, and connecting the DVD recorder that saves my “masterpieces.” Luckily, I’ve done this enough that there were no hang-ups.

As soon as Vega and Fomalhaut appeared, I got Big Bertha focused roughly by the simple expedient of making Vega as small as I could make him on the screen, go-to aligned Bertha on the stars, and then improved focus by increasing exposure and working with dimmer field stars. Precise focus? Nope, but I had an ace up my sleeve to take care of that, a Bahtinov mask.

A whatsit and a whosit? A “Bahtinov mask” is the funny-looking thing seen at the left. It fits over the telescope’s aperture and, when the scope’s aimed at a bright star, produces a rather peculiar diffraction pattern. When you are reasonably close to focus, you get an “X” of diagonal spikes around the star. There’s also a “center” spike. When you focus, this spike moves (up and down/left right depending on the mask’s orientation). When it’s exactly centered between the diagonals, you are, theoretically, in perfect focus. The process is really easier to show than tell, and is well illustrated here.

Since focus is critical with the small chip of the Stellacam II, especially at the still fairly considerable focal length of the C11, even reduced with the Meade 3.3, I had decided a Bahtinov might be just what I needed. The question was “how?” There are several websites that will print patterns for do-it-yourself mask-making. That might be a good option for you, but the idea of fumble-fingered old me cutting those many slots with an uber-sharp Exacto knife was not an appealing one. I’d buy.

As always, maybe like most of you these days, and probably moreso than some of y’all, I wanted SOMETHING GOOD BUT CHEAP. Substantial searching, hemming, and hawing later I’d settled on a mask made by Farpoint Astronomical Research and sold by Scope City for a mere $22.50 (you’d be amazed how much some outfits want for such a simple thing). Scope City, out Califor-nye-ay way is a long-time astro-dealer, but one I’d never traded with over the course of the near three decades they’ve been in business. My loss, it turns out, since this purchase showed that not only do they have some good prices, their service is outstanding. I had my mask in just a few days.

How does the Bahtinov work in the field? I removed the dew shield from the NS11 temporarily and placed the mask over the corrector. It’s nice, hard plastic, not a mere film like some people are peddling, and fits over the secondary, which holds it in place. I still don’t have a moto-focus for the C11 (one of these days), so I stationed Good Buddy Pat Rochford, who’d arrived late in the afternoon with his son, at the monitor and told him to holler when the pattern looked right. Which didn't take long. I have no doubt the Farpoint Bahtinov Mask allowed me to achieve focus as good as or better than I’ve ever had with the Stellacam, and in just a fraction of the usual time required. Matter of fact, I liked the results so much I ordered another one for the C8.

Focusing done, all I had to do was sit under the EZ-up with the computer and the video gear and send Big Bertha to one target after the other with NexRemote. One thing I discovered in a real quick hurry? Being out of the dew, even under an open sided tail-gating canopy, keeps you a lot warmer as the wee hours roll in. I didn't even feel the need to put on my fuzzy hat till well after midnight, and I never donned my heaviest coat. From the beginning, Bertha and I were feeling good and ready to face any adventure that might befall the CAT tribe.

If I wasn’t clear earlier, let me be moreso: all these observations were done with the Stellacam 2 on Bertha, my Celestron NexStar 11 GPS. The spacing between the camera and the Meade f/3.3 focal reducer yielded an f/ratio of around f/4, give or take. The matter in italics was transcribed directly from my audio cassette tapes recorded as I observed (or is that “watched TV”?).

SERPENS

While waiting for a little haze to skedaddle, I noted that the west-southwest looked good, so we trotted over that-a-way. The Snake was hangin’-in, but was plunging rapidly into the horizon, so there we went, coming back with one prize…

A small and bright open cluster, NGC 6604 (H VIII.15) is about 5’ across and shines at a combined magnitude of 7.5. It’s in a rich field, though, and not well detached from that. Nothing to write home about. It is associated with nebulosity, however, the nearby Eagle Nebula, which is something to write home about.

SCULPTOR

Cluster observed and recorded and sky now magically cloud free—more or less—it was time to get down with the fall star pictures.

NGC 24 (H III.461) is an impressive if not overly detail-laden galaxy. Like a miniature M31 with little arm detail showing in this magnitude 12.1 5.5 x 1.5’ Sc spiral. Bright center, large disk.

NGC 7507 (H II.2) is a magnitude 11 elliptical, round, about 3’ in size. Bright core with an outer envelope that’s very slightly elongated. There are several small and dim LEDA galaxies in the field as well.


CEPHEUS

So much for Sculptor the, ah, “sculptor”—if’n you ask me, Lacaille displayed all the imagination of a wet dishrag in his constellation names. Ah, well, on to an ancient star-figure, Cepheus, the King of Ethiopia, to pick up where I’d left off with him.

The Small Cluster Nebula, NGC 7129 (H IV.75). On the monitor, there’s a small group of stars surrounded by very obvious nebulosity with a fairly prominent dark lane running through it. Visually, I suspect the nebula would be faint.

NGC 7139 (H III.696) is on the dim side, even with the Stellacam. It is a large planetary nebula, over 1’ across, set in a rich star field. Magnitude 13.5. Appears slightly oval in shape.


The moment the scope stopped slewing, NGC 7354 (H II.705) was obvious on the screen. This planetary is round, and there’s something that looks like a dark bar bisecting the disk. 22” in diameter. Outstanding object.

NGC 7419 (H VII.43) is a 5’ open cluster with a quoted magnitude of 13. Onscreen, it is extremely attractive, a mix of both brighter and dimmer stars in an hourglass shape.

TRIANGULUM

Like Aries, Pisces, and Pegasus before it, Triangulum is the hangout of countless galaxies.

NGC 925 (H III.177) is large and attractive. Over 10’ long, it shows traces of one sweeping spiral arm.

SAB galaxy NGC 890 (H II.225) is somewhat elongated with a bright center surrounded by faint haze. Magnitude is supposedly about 13. It’s hard to tell with the Stellacam, but it looks brighter than that to me.

NGC 1060 (H III.162) is a bright galaxy in a field rich with galaxies. In addition to this round elliptical, which sports a fairly extensive outer envelope, I see at least 6 other small fuzzy-wuzzies in the frame.

NGC 604 (H III.150) is the “little” nebula in M33. Pretty and detailed. Square or dumbbell-like shape.

A large and interesting galaxy, magnitude 11.4 NGC 672 (H I.157) is 6’ by 2.5’ in size and bright, sporting a strongly elongated nucleus enveloped in a considerable expanse of nebulous haze. One spiral arm is obvious.


CAPRICORNUS

The Sea Goat has his treasure, M30, but other than that it’s mostly dauntingly dim galaxies, as maybe befits Pan’s status as the second dimmest zodiacal constellation (after Cancer). Sir William only recorded a single dust bunny here, but it is outstanding:

NGC 6907 (H III.141) is a lovely classical barred spiral. The somewhat tightly wrapped arms are starkly visible with the Stellacam II.

CETUS

If you’ve got even a few observing seasons under your belt, I shouldn’t have to tell you that Cetus, too, is Galaxy Country.

There’s not a whole lot to near face-on Sb spiral, NGC 1070. It’s round, maybe slightly elongated, and set in a fairly star-rich field.

NGC 1073 (H III.455) is a somewhat odd looking barred spiral with a pair of skinny arms. An excellent galaxy despite fairly poor seeing at the moment.

Edge-on spiral NGC 1032 (H 2.5) has an easy to detect dark equatorial dust lane. Impressive, 2 – 3’ across on the monitor.

On both the POSS plate and with the Stellacam, NGC 428 (H II.622) shows off some slightly bizarre spiral structure. Hard to tell exactly what is going on with it. 2 – 3’ across with one prominent and one subdued arm.

NGC 1090 (H II.465) is another galaxy that gives up some detail to the Stellacam. At times, when the seeing settles, I can see one dramatic arm that makes it look a lot like Uncle Charlie’s M106.

NGC 1087 (H II.466) shows a hint of tightly wrapped spiral arms like an M77. Large and strongly elongated mag 11.5 Sc galaxy. Cool.

NGC 357 (H II.434) is fairly attractive with a bright center. Dim but visible. No sign of the bar seen in long-exposure images.

In its POSS plate, NGC 991 (H III.434), a 13th magnitude near-face-on galaxy, shows fairly prominent spiral arms, and I can see hints of them with the Stellacam and the C11 as the seeing changes. Fairly large, about 1.5’ across its longest axis.

NGC 636 (H II.283) is prominent on my screen, but there and in its images this elliptical is nothing more than a bright, round fuzzball a couple of minutes in diameter.

Impressive and strange looking, NGC 337 (H II.433) shows off weirdly warped-looking arms.

NGC 1035 (H II.284) is an interesting little galaxy that looks a lot like a smaller M82. Edge-on with hints of dark detail. There’s "fake supernova," a field star, stationed on one tip of the disk .

NGC 151 (H II.478) Shows intriguing and intricate looking spiral arms. Large, about 3’, and bright with the Stellacam.

In the Stellacam, this one, NGC 217 (H II.480), looks a little like a miniature Flying Saucer galaxy, NGC 4565. This is apparently an S0, and features a bright nuclear region. Nice, despite a supposed magnitude of 13.5.

NGC 1045 (H II.488) is just a smudge, slightly elongated with an extensive outer envelope and a non-stellar core. It is said to be a lenticular.

NGC 171, which looks to be about a minute and a half in size, shows strong barred spiral structure.


ERIDANUS

Ah, yes, that most boring of winter constellations, the meandering celestial river. Since his course steers him well away from the Milky Way, Eridanus’ flow is full of galaxies, including a number of outstanding ones…

NGC 1507 (H II.279) is an M108 imposter. Dusty, near edge on disk. Very thin, thinner looking than M108 or M82. Maybe 3’ in length.

NGC 1637 (H I.122) is interesting enough. It’s several minutes across and is a near-face on Sc spiral. Shows one prominent arm and a bright core.

NGC 1618 (H II.524) is another one that looks somewhat like the Messier galaxy, M106, to me, with an outlying, arcing, prominent spiral arm.

An elliptical, NGC 1700 (H IV.32) is a bright fuzzball with an elongated envelope. One other prominent galaxy in the frame, NGC 1699, is said to be dimmer than 14th magnitude, but is not a challenge for the C11/Stellacam.

NGC 1600 (H I.158), another elliptical, is a standout in a field peppered with small galaxies including NGCs 1601, 1603, and 1606. 1600 itself is bright and elongated with a non-stellar core.

The Stellacam shows NGC 1779 (H III.500), a barred spiral, as a small fuzzball. The center is elongated with no stellar core showing. It’s listed as 3’ in size, but I am for sure not seeing that much galaxy.

NGC 1162 (H III.469) is a round elliptical, nothing more. Looks brighter than its supposed magnitude of 13.5. Possibly slightly elongated.

NGC 1421 (H II.291) looks cool. At least 3’ across its major axis. Stellar core and a prominent, sharply hooked spiral arm. Weird.

A bright, off-round dust-bunny elliptical, NGC 1172 (H II.502) is listed as Magnitude 13 and 2’ in diameter.

NGC 1209 (H II.504) is pretty with a bright and elongated core and outer envelope. No detail, and I wouldn’t expect any from this elliptical.


NGC 1199 (H II.503) is yet another elongated and featureless elliptical galaxy. If it’s interesting, it’s because this 3’, magnitude 12.0 beastie swims in an Eridanus field loaded with numerous other galaxies including NGCs 1189, 1190, 1191, and 1192.

NGC 1114 (H III.449) is a somewhat subdued little sprite with a given magnitude of 13.2. Tightly wrapped spiral arms. There is a dim field star not far from its nucleus.

Back to bright round ellipticals with NGC 1400 (H II.593). The field contains one other prominent galaxy, NGC 1407.

NGC 1353 (H III.246) is bright at magnitude 12.4, but also large, nearly 4’. Obvious spiral arm detail.


NGC 1332 (H I.60) is a big, bright cd elliptical in a field with a couple of small galaxies including ESO 548 16, which is prominent despite a reputed magnitude of 15.7. NGC 1332 itself is highly elongated with a featureless, bright center.

A normal, dusty-looking spiral, NGC 1325 (H IV.77) shows good detail. There is an 11th magnitude star just off one tip of the strongly elongated disk. Supposedly, the galaxy is 4’ across, though I am not sure I am seeing that much of it.

NGC 1187 (H III.245) is beautiful if a little dim due to its nearly 5’ size. Magnitude is listed as 11.3but looks dimmer than that to me. Occasionally, when the seeing settles down, I can see this one looks like M83, a barred spiral with sweeping arms.

LYNX

If the sky’s cat, Lynx, is famous for anything, it’s the distant globular cluster, NGC 2419. That’s not what we’re after, though. What we are after is his galaxies, scattered across his dark den like romping kittens.

NGC 2500 (H III.709), an Scd face-on barred spiral galaxy, looks very good. Elongated with a patchy-armed appearance.

NGC 2541 (H III.710) really is low in the sky, but still shows off some odd off-center-looking spiral arm detail.

There’s not a whole lot to NGC 2493 (H III.750). It’s listed as a lenticular, but I can swear I think I see faint hints of a spiral arm.

Galaxy NGC 2415 (H II.821) is an odd little thing. This small 1’ irregular looks a lot like a planetary nebula.


LEPUS

Back over to the homey and familiar Orion area of the winter sky. That don’t mean we are done with island universes, though. Lepus, the little hare crouched at The Hunter’s feet, has a dramatic globular star cluster, M79, but his main fare is, yes, galaxies.

NGC 1832 (H II.292) is very attractive with a bright core and a prominent bar. One distinct spiral arm.

NGC 2196 (H II.265) is still low in the sky, and in this seeing this mag 12.0 3’ spiral is mostly a round glow. Bright core and elongated envelope, but only hints of arm detail.

A strange looking one with twisted spiral arms and a bright center, NGC 2139 (H II.264) is at magnitude 11.6 and is 2.8’ x 2 ’ in size.


CAMELOPARDALIS

What’s there to see in the camel-leopard? I know there’s a decent planetary, but tonight it’s more galaxies

NGC 2366 (H III.748), an edge-on irregular galaxy, is large, over 5’ across, and even with the Stellacam gain on high, it’s just a dim, oblong smudge in a sparse field near a triangle of dim stars.

Galaxy MCG 11-9-7 is tiny (42 x 32”) but obvious despite a forbidding magnitude of 15.3. As you’d expect, it’s just a fuzzy dot on the monitor.

NGC 2347 (H III.746) is nice, and when the seeing settles I can make out some detail in this small magnitude 13.3 1.7 x 1.3’ spiral. “Patchy, dusty spiral arms” is my impression.


After a quick trot through Camelopardalis’ savanna, that was all she wrote. I still felt pretty good despite it getting on toward 3 in the a.m. I’d run out of fall/winter HIIs, though, and the thought of twiddling my thumbs while ol’ Leo and the rest of the spring bunch pulled themselves up over the edge of the world and out of the haze now obscuring the east did not have a whole lot of appeal. I wasn’t overly cold, but a warm bed and dreams of the deep sky realms I’d tramped on this night had an irresistible appeal.

Next time: I am all caught-up on Herschels for the moment. Herschel IIs, anyhow. I still need to record my Herschel 2500 notes in SkyTools, but, for now anyway, The Whole Big Thing part of The Herschel Project will remain outside the purview of this here astro-blog.

What then? Two possibilities. If the sky cooperates Saturday evening, I hope to give my brand-spanking-new Orion StarShoot autoguider a workout at the club dark site. That dadblasted Wunderground.com is saying “mostly cloudy” for Saturday, though, so I’ll be lucky to get my ETX-125, Charity Hope Valentine, out to Tanner-Williams for a few quick sucker hole peeps. If that is how things turn out, expect one of my semi-regular guides to astro-computin’ hardware issues.

Whichever way the wind blows, I’ll be back here waiting for you next Sunday, same bat-time, same bat-channel.

Sunday, December 06, 2009

 

Eye to Telescope?


Last week we talked about Night One of my Herschel Quest down at the Chiefland Astronomy Village. I hit it hard again the following evening, that time with the Stellacam 2. Like I said last week, though, we’re all probably ready for a break from The Herschel Project, so, if’n you don’t mind, I’ll leave the skinny on the second night’s haul till next Sunday.

Eye to telescope? Sure. Every chance I get, muchachos, but these days I do I find I like a little help. Not just from go-to telescopes and Stellacams, but, like many of you, from laptop computers and astro-ware. PCs and the astronomy programs running on ‘em have become a common fixture of amateur astronomy, with near about as many computers as scopes on the ol’ star party field these nights.

I like astronomy software, but I really like new astronomy software. Unfortunately, there ain’t been much of that of late. Is the market saturated? Is everybody waiting to see what Bisque does with TheSky X? Or is it just the recession? Dunno, but I was a happy camper when I heard about a forthcoming new release, Eye and Telescope. I was even happier when I was offered a chance to evaluate it. And I was happier still when I heard what kind of astronomy software it was.

But that, in my usual fashion, is putting the cart before the nag. Let’s begin at the beginning, shall we? As you’ll hear next week, I worked with a will Friday night at the CAV, making it all the way to 3 a.m., a record for me lately. I didn’t just put lots of Herschel IIs to bed with the aid of the Stellacam 2, I kinda ran out of ‘em. That is, I scored every object that could even be marginally described as a “fall or winter DSO” (deep sky object). Sure, I coulda kept going to the real wee hours and seen some of the springtime crew, but my creaky ol’ bones were ready for some warmth inside and outside via a nip or two back at my warm motel room.

Saturday morning, but not early Saturday morning, thank god, was mostly spent poking around the room. I wanted to get back out to the site and take another look-see at the vendors over at the Nova Sedus Star Party, but there would be plenty of time for that. After a little chow, I thought I’d sit in comfort and do a preliminary check-out of the above-mentioned new astro-soft that had come my way.

Yep, I was right excited to have a chance to preview a new astronomy program. This one, Eye and Telescope, by Thomas Pfleger way over yonder in Germany, was so new that it had not yet been (and still hasn’t been) released in the good old U.S. of A. And, yeah, I was real tickled that this wasn’t just another planetarium program, but a planner.

If you have even a nodding acquaintance with today’s astronomy software, you’ll know programs aimed at serious observers have sorted themselves into two camps: mega planetariums (think TheSky and Starry Night) and planners (like SkyTools and Deepsky). The latter have come to be my faves, since, in addition to doing star charts—if not usually in such pretty fashion as something like Starry Night—they allow me to organize my observing and help me figure out what to look at and when to look. As I’ve noted a time or two, the facilities of a planner of the caliber of SkyTools or Deepsky or AstroPlanner are probably what will make the difference between success and failure with The Herschel (2500) Project. Without my ST3 lists, I’d be well and truly lost.

I prattle on about it often enough that y’all are probably well aware I am a SkyTools fan. It’s become my primary tool for any observing project with any of my telescopes. But just because ST3 is a great thing, that don’t mean it’s the only thing. I’m always happy to discover another goodie, and I had every intent of giving Eye and Telescope it’s place in the Sun…er… “under the stars” on what looked like would be yet another clear night. Before I could do that, I’d have to figger out how to work the thing, though.

To that end I dug around in my suitcase and located the attractive and professional looking package pictured above. Gotta admit I was impressed. How could I not be by the slick looking thing emblazoned with a picture of Sir Willie Herschel’s 40-foot (48-inch) reflector? Despite a decent number of objects in its database, all the NGC/IC, about 100,000 additional galaxies, and the millions of stars of the Hubble Guide Star Catalog, E&T is delivered on a single modest CD. There’s a quick-start guide included, but, alas for this old hillbilly, it’s in German. Luckily, I found all I had to do to get going was insert CD into CD drive and follow the prompts.

Installation went smoothly with my Win XP laptop, and shortly I was clicking on a li’l icon of M51 that had been deposited on my desktop. After I’d got rid of the help file that opened automatically at startup (I soon turned that “feature” off in the Tools/Options window), I had to get the license number inputted so I’d be street legal. There was a little bit of folderol and fiddle-dee-dee involved there, as, in addition to entering the serial number from the package, I had to go to a website and get a license CODE. I understand the need to keep your work secure, but I gotta say that when I have to do stuff like that (RedShift is infamous for this kinda junk) I get annoyed.

Anyhoo, once the program was up and registered. I stopped for a few minutes and (GASP!) read the (.pdf) manual. My experience is that while it’s easy enough to figger out a planetarium program by fiddling around with it, the same don’t go for planners. Take my word for it, read the manual or help files. You’ll save yerself a lotta frustration and maybe even some grief. The Good Thing here was that the manual was only 24 pages long and was reasonably well-written and translated.

I was rarely brought up short by oddly translated phrases in either the program or its documentation. I ran across a few slightly “different” expressions, “galactic nebulae” instead of “emission nebulae,” for example, but I found nothing that sounded weird or even overly clunky or which I couldn’t figure out with the help of E&T’s excellent Help files.

Before I could do anything practical, of course, I had to do the initial setup all astronomy programs demand. You know: enter location, time zone, telescopes, eyepieces, etc. Nothing caused me any trouble there, leastways none I couldn’t get out of by reading the directions.

Where to start? Well, I spied an icon with the bubble-help title of “New Plan.” Sounded like that might be just the thing. Shortly, I was peering at a window with a pane for a list of objects, a pane that was currently empty. I also noted there was a blank field at the top paired with a button labeled “Insert.” I typed in M13 experimentally. Sho-nuff, The Herc Cluster appeared in the list pane and its vitals were displayed to the right. Cool enough, but seemed like that would be an awful slow way of gathering objects for an observing list.

After only a modest amount of muttering and cogitating, I recalled that the “guided tour” in the instruction manual had suggested starting with a Filter document instead of an Observing Plan document. Mashed the “New Filter” icon, and began setting object types, constellations, catalogs, and other filter parameters to bring me all the open clusters in Cygnus. Double clicking one of the resulting DSOs brought up a Plan Document, and punching the Insert button put the cluster in the list. I still wasn’t impressed, though. Still seemed like an awfully slow way to gather fuzzies.

A little more looking around in the instructions and in Help showed the way, edumacating me about one of the program’s best features: you can do a lot by copying and pasting, and often by dragging and dropping. I highlighted all them clusters in the filter document and simply dragged and dropped ‘em into the observing plan.

In some cases, you can import objects from from text documents and other programs by copying and pasting them into E&T. Doing that, I was able to get a fair number of H2500 objects into the program without too much cussing. Unfortunately, Unlike SkyTools, it doesn't have an honest-to-god “import” function, and E&T refused to accept anything beyond just object designations. “NGC 7331” worked fine, “NGC 7331 Galaxy Pegasus” failed miserably. Still, it didn’t take too long to edit out everything but names in my text doc, so it coulda been worse.

Alrighty then, we had a Plan constituting a goodly number of H fuzzballs. First thing I did was save the new plan—mama didn’t raise no fool. Now I could play around with my list and see what was what. At first I was right impressed. In addition to the bare list containing object names, altitude, azimuth, and best time for observing on the date in question, there was a big and cool-looking window to the right. Which sported a bunch of interestingly titled tabs: Catalog Data, Perceptibility, Visibility, and Notes.

The first tab, Data, includes alternate catalog designations, magnitude, size, and suchlike. More interesting is the space at the bottom, “Neighbors,” which displays nearby deep sky objects (you can set max distance from the main object). I think that is really swift, as it gives you a reading of what else is in the area without having to squint at a chart. You can drag and drop the neighbors into the plan, but, unfortunately, clicking ‘em won’t deliver a data window. The Neighbors list does give size, magnitude and a couple of other data points, howsomeever, so that ain’t a show-stopper.

Perceptibility yields an eyepiece-field-sized chart of the selected object and its immediate area tailored to a chosen ocular. There’s also text that uses things like surface brightness, exit pupil, etc. to give a read on “how visible” the fuzzie will be.

Visibility, conversely, is about Sunset, period of darkness, and stuff like that. There’s a picture that shows the object’s placement in the sky for a given time, and which changes background color to indicate sky brightness.

Finally, there’s "Notes!" Don’t ask me what the exclamation mark is for, but this is a nice resource. What it is is log entries for over 8,000 DSOs from observing guru Steve Gottlieb. As I’ve mentioned concerning Deepsky, I find the notes of fellow amateurs often incredibly useful and am very glad to have this here.

Finally, the plan window also sports some buttons, “Into Log,”“Map,” “Planetarium,” and “Images.” “Into Log” brings up the logbook entry system. I ain’t played with it much, but looks like most of what I would want is in there.

Map” starts the program’s fully functional interactive star charting system. No, it ain’t Cartes du Ciel, but sometimes it may be all you need.

If it’s not all you need, you can always mash “Planetarium.” What thisun does is light-off your favorite planetarium software with the DSO selected in E&T centered. There was some stuff in the manual warning that the planetarium should be running before you push the button, but I didn’t have to do that with TheSky 6. Clicking “Planetarium” brought up 6, and after only a brief wait it centered on my fuzzy. Only downcheck? Cartes du Ciel 3.0 is not in the list of planetariums E&T can be configured to use (2.76 is).

At the end of the row is “Images,” one of my fave Eye and Telescope features. Push it with an object in the list highlighted and you’ll be rewarded with a screenful of nice images of the DSO. Since the program contains pictures for 9,000 cosmic lintballs, you’ll probably never have to worry about Internet access when you need a pic. Unfortunately, it don’t look like there’s a way to download POSS plate—I couldn’t find one. If 9,000 objects ain’t enough, according to the program’s author a DVD full of pictures is available.

Was I now ready to hit the CAV field? Hell no. I was troubled. I did not like the Observing Plan layout. Yeah, it was nice to have all that glitz—the pictures and charts and all—but I was not impressed by the DSO list itself. Out on a dark field, I don’t want to have to poke around with windows and tabs. I want to scroll through a list of objects that contains all the vital data right there. This just wasn’t good enough. There wasn’t even a constellation column so I could sort on that and observe constellation by constellation, which is how I usually work. I was just about to hit the X in the E&T winder and terminate the sucka when a voice in my head (some folks would say ONE of the voices in my head) whispered, “Slow down, pard; take one more look at the instructions.”

When I did, I found there is a third type of Eye and Telescope document, “Observing Project,” more suited for large lists encompassing multiple star patterns. Once I glommed onto that fact, it was easy to copy the DSOs in my plan and paste them into a new Observing Project I started with the click of an icon. As you see on the left, this looks an awful lot more like what we are used to in a planner. Double clicking an object brings up the same data available in a Plan document. Given that Observing Project is so familiar and works so well, I began to wonder what good the Plans were. Till I discovered something groovy.

You can print the object list shown in the Observing Project window just like you would with any other program. Click the little printer in the toolbar and away you go. I noticed, however, that that icon was grayed out when a Plan document was onscreen. How the heck do you print a plan, then? You don’t, not directly. You export it to an .html file for printing if you wish.

Until I tried it, that just seemed dadgummed silly. Nope. If you have a fairly short list, this is sweet muchachos, mighty sweet. The Export function does far more than just dump your list to an .htm file. The resulting document is beautifully formatted and each object is hyper-linked. Clicking a link scrolls you to the DSO’s data, which includes Steve G’s log entry and a field drawing from the Perceptibility tab. If you don’t want to lug a computer into the field, exporting and printing a Plan is the bee’s knees.

Out on the field as the Sun was finally setting, I felt plumb confident in my ability to operate this complex astro-soft. For a few minutes, anyhow. Till I discovered I couldn’t find my reading glasses anywhere. Without them, I’d be sunk. I wouldn’t be able to read Eye and Telescope’s small fonts, and, as we saw a cupla weeks back, your old Unk wouldn’t even be able to make out NexRemote good enough to get Big Bertha, my NexStar 11, aligned. Twarn’t nuttin’ for it. They just weren’t anywhere, so I sprinted to the Camry, sped back to the Holiday Inn, grabbed a spare pair out of the room, and made it back to the field just as the first stars were winking on.

Actually, it turned out I needn't have hurried. Them consarned clouds that had played with my head Thursday night were back and didn't scud off for the better part of an hour. Oh, and as you might have guessed, I reached into my jacket pocket and—yep—promptly fished out my “lost” glasses. I swear they weren’t there a half hour previous. All I could figure was…CONSPIRACY! Bigfoot, Mothman, the Little Gray Dudes from Zeta Reticuli II, and the Skunk Ape (who frequents this area of Florida) MUSTA been playing a trick on your hapless ol’ Uncle—surely he couldn’t be that silly on his own.

The rest of the evening was purty anticlimactic. Once Bertha was go-to aligned, I connected Eye and Telescope to NexRemote’s virtual port. Since E&T uses ASCOM, there really wasn’t much to it. Only slight irritant? The program needs a prominent go-to button. As is, you have to right-click on a DSO and select “go-to” from the context menu that appears. Oh, there’s a pretty little icon at the top with a picture of a telescope on it that looks like it ort-ta send you go-toing, but which instead opens a new Plan document.

That sorted, me and my girl Bertha didn’t just rock, we ROCKED, doing all the H2500 objects in Aquarius and most of ‘em in Cetus and quite a few others besides, probably 80 – 100 all told (I still need to transcribe my notes) before I decided it was time to get some shut-eye in preparation for that dreaded drive back to the Swamp. Eye and Telescope behaved fine all night. Didn't crash. Always sent my scope where I wanted. I liked the observing notes and the pictures and the object data.

‘Course, despite its status as Version 3.1, this is still a fairly new application, and Mr. Thomas continues to work on it. Other than the few nits I’ve picked already, what would I like to see? Above all, a library of ready-made plans/projects. Given that you’ll have to do some work to import your lists, it sure would be sweet to have an online repository to draw from.

“That all sounds right nice, Uncle Rod. How do we get this here program?” Well, muchachos, you can’t. Not yet. But that will change soon. I’ve just got word that it’s gonna be published worldwide in cooperation with Cambridge University Press in the spring of this coming year. Yeah, you’re gonna have to wait a while, but I do believe you will find that wait worth it.

What’s the scene at good, ol’ Chaos Manor South? Other than working on some writing projects and surfing Cloudy Nights and Astromart, not much. Miss D. and I will be going out to the theatre tonight, Friday as I type, and I am gonna see if I can convince her to indulge me and spend an hour or three in the Cannon Brewpub after. Astronomy-wise? It’s clouding up, there’s a winter storm warning in effect, and we may get sleet or even SNOW (shudder) late tonight or early tomorrow. My brand new Orion StarShoot guide camera sits lonely on the dining room table, and will probably stay that way for at least another week. Dagnabbit.

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