Sunday, March 14, 2010


Simple. Simple and Good.

Wussup? Hey, y’all, if the weather cooperates, I promise The Herschel Project will be back on the rails come next weekend. This past weekend, however, I just couldn’t bring myself to lug a ton of gear out to the dark site. Miss D. and Miss Lizbeth and me had spent a fun but tiring day at Coastcon. The weatherman was being a pill, too. Predictions had started out “clear all night,” but by late morning had devolved into “30% cloud cover.” Which meant it was a perfect night to hang out with Unk’s little girlfriend, Charity Hope Valentine.

Yep, you know, Sweet Charity, Unk’s beloved ETX 125. As I’ve often said here, I love her very much; her exploits usually get at least one blog entry every single year. I can’t say that, much as I love her, my girl always behaves, though. As you might gather from her name, she does have a somewhat neurotic streak. While she’s never collapsed to the ground of the observing field in a self-pitying heap, she has most assuredly threatened to. So it was this past Saturday’s eve.

I arrived at the PSAS dark site a good half-hour before Sunset, earlier than I normally would be moved to show up when toting “just” Charity. Ya see, my goal wasn’t just to scan some deep sky delights with the 5-inch MCT, but to report on a couple of astro-ware programs, Stellarium and RTGUI, I thought y’all might like to hear about. Using ‘em to drive Charity to her targets seemed peculiarly appropriate since they, like she, represent the simpler side of amateur astronomy life. Anyhoo, I got out to Tanner Williams early so I’d have plenty o’ time to set up table/laptop/laptop shelter before dark.

Before I could think about getting the two programs running, Charity would have to be go-to aligned, which I did just as the first bright sparkers popped outa the twilight. That went smoothly enough. Set Charity in “home” position (cranked counterclockwise in azimuth to the hard stop). Power up, and Miss Charity did her dance, leveling and finding “tilt” and north. Then she headed to the first of two bright alignment stars, Capella, I believe.

I centered that with some difficulty, and she moved on to Rigel. I lined that up as well, though, as with Capella that wasn’t so easy. Why? I don’t know about your Autostar, but I find that if I don’t use Charity’s for a while (the last time, I’ll admit, being about a year ago), the buttons require you to mash ‘em like the dadgummed Incredible Hulk before they’ll “register.” After a little use, they become easier again, but, initially, trying to precisely center a star given that and Charity’s inevitable backlash ain’t no picnic. I got ‘er done, though, and Missy claimed “alignment successful.”

Like Ronald Reagan, my mantra is “trust, but verify.” I sent Charity to M82, and plastered a peeper to the eyepiece, a 20mm 66 degree AFOV job that gives a decent amount of true field in this 5-inch f/15 MCT. No galaxy did I see. A little slewing finally turned up the culprit. It was at least half-a-degree—if not a whole degree—away from the field’s center. Hokay…M35. Same-same. CHARITY!

Honestly, I wasn’t surprised. Charity hadn’t had any training in about a year. By “training” I don’t mean in the latest steps favored by taxi-dancers. I mean drive training. Since the ETX mount is err… “somewhat” prone to backlash, the computer has to be aware of backlash magnitude and sign in order to place objects in the field. You do that by centering a terrestrial object (which for some reason seems to work better than Polaris). The ETX slews off this target and you re-center it, performing the operation for both altitude and azimuth. Seems like if’n you don’t do this about once a year, your go-tos will suck righteously, even if the scope ain’t been used much over the course of that year.

I looked around. It was getting good and dark now, and I noticed the red beacon of a distant cell tower on the horizon. That would be just about perfect. Before doing the drive training, I ran “calibrate motors” to update Charity as far as the quality/quantity of her power supply. Didn’t think that was necessary, but, since it only takes a few seconds, I did it anyway. I’d started Charity from ground zero with a power off, though I’m not positive that’s necessary for drive training either, so following the training session, I had to do one more go-to alignment. When that was over, I punched-in M82 once more. Charity’s motors emitted that famous Meade Sound (not unlike weasels with tuberculosis), and, crossing my fingers as always, I put my eye to the eyepiece.

M82 was a perfect little sliver of light in the 20mm ocular, showing some of its famous dark lane detail. Just to be sure, I entered M35 again, too. There was that luscious cloud of stars in the middle of the field. And so it was for the remainder of the evening. Charity put almost everything in the field of a 15mm Orion Expanse eyepiece at 125x. Expanse? Yeah, one of the inexpensive (Synta) 66 degree AFOV oculars I’ve had for years. Put one of these in an f/4.5 telescope and you’ll start thinking about that moldy-oldie band “Flock of Seagulls,” but in f/15 Charity the edge of field is Nagler-like. These eyepieces are light, cheap, and simple. Perfectly suited to Miss C.

With all well on the Charity side, it was time to get the laptop going. I’d already plugged a Meade format serial cable into the Autostar (why in the hail can’t scope makers use STANDARD SERIAL CABLES?!) and had my old reliable Toshiba Satellite fired up. Five years ago, this 3.2 ghz P4 laptop was a real powerhouse. These days? Maybe not so much, but OK. Easily OK enough to run Stellarium.

What exactly is “Stellarium”? It’s your Uncle’s latest FREEware planetarium program fave. It’s been around for a few years, but it’s only been in recent times that this soft, which gets better with each release, caught Unk’s eye. What really caught his interest at first was that this is one of the most beautiful planetariums ever to run on a PC or a Mac (versions for both are available). No, it ain’t got Starry Night Pro Plus’ “virtual” CCD sky, but, in some ways, it’s even prettier than that mega masterpiece. Maybe it’s Stellarium’s lighting effects, the haze at the horizon, the twinkling stars—I dunno what—but it is just bee-you-tiful. It’s also a lot smaller than Starry Night PP. It is fer shure cheaper, since it is free. Mostly, though, it’s simpler.

Which ain’t necessarily a bad thing. Yeah, SNPP will, admittedly, do just about everything for you but pop the popcorn. You can even get satellite weather pictures with it. How many times do I use those tons of features, though? Most of the time, I just click on NGC objects to go-to ‘em with the scope. For that, and most of the what else I do, Stellarium is more than sufficient. And I don’t have to stand around on a dark observing field scratching me head and trying to remember how to work the thing, as I sometimes do with Starry Night Pro Plus or TheSky 6 Professional.

Just because it’s relatively simple feature-wise don't mean Stellarium is easy on your computer. Doing them cotton-picking Open GL graphics and such-like means your laptop’s got to be up to snuff. Mine mostly is, but not quite. I had originally intended to test the program with one of my Celestron scopes, but since I never use ‘em without NexRemote, that proved impossible. Running NexRemote at the same time as Stellarium slowed the planetarium program to a crawl and caused NR’s Microsoft Mary voice to get a bad case of the hiccups. Hence, Charity Hope Valentine.

This would be my first time to use Stellarium in the field with a telescope, and it took some fiddling to get ‘er going. Mainly because I decided to eschew the program’s built-in telescope drivers and use ASCOM. Why? ASCOM will control just about any scope under the Sun—like my Atlas mount when running EQMOD—Stellarium’s built in drivers are pretty much limited to “Autostar and NexStar” at this time.

I hooked Stellarium to ASCOM using a little add-on program called StellariumScope (which, before Stellarium version 10.3, was mandatory for telescope control), and told Stellarium to “use external software” instead of one of its drivers. That shoulda been that. Uh-uh. Nosir buddy. Wouldn’t connect. Dadgum frikkin’-frakkin’ computers! Not sure what I did, exactly, but unconnecting, setting everything back up, and restarting the program did the trick. Clicked on M42 on Stellarium’s display, punched the “CTRL” and “1” keys, and off Charity went to the Great Nebula, which wound up sitting pretty in the middle of the field.

So it was with everything I selected from Stellarium’s screen thereafter. Following the initial folderol and fiddle-dee-dee, there were no more problems. The program behaved and Charity behaved as Stellarium sent her to multiple objects. How many? A pretty good bunch; see below. How many DSOs does Stellarium include, by the way? Dunno. I ain’t seen a list of the program’s objects anywheres, but it much have all the NGC—even the obscure objects turned for up me up using the program’s Search function. Which, like all Stellarium’s functions, is initiated by clicking a pretty icon. The icon bars at the bottom and left sides of the screen appear when you mouse over ‘em and disappear when you mouse off ‘em so as not to mess up all the prettiness. All in all? Uncle Rod sure likes the program’s good looks, simple functionality, and price. Will it take the place of that freeware giant Cartes du Ciel for me? No, not for everything, but it will replace CdC for some things around here.

And that was Stellarium. Simple and good. But it is not the only simple and good (and free) astro-app out there. Another program that fits that description is “RTGUI.” What the hell? Yep, RTGUI, “Real Time Graphic User Interface.” Like Stellarium, it ain’t exactly new. It’s been around for at least six years, and I even wrote a review of it in my old Skywatch newsletter one time. But I ain’t used it much of late—not as much as I should have, anyhow—and new versions have added substantially to its capability without compromising its vaunted simplicity.

What you see here is what you get, a little window with a few buttons. Nevertheless, it can do a surprising amount, including sending your telescope to any NGC or IC object (and many, many double stars), running scripts, making brief log entries, sharing GPS data with telescopes, and more. At this time, several additional catalogs have become available for RTGUI, including a Messier marathon list and the Herschel I and II, but the heart of the thing is still the original “full” catalog, which contains the NGC/IC (revised and corrected) and the aforementioned large selection of binary stars.

I hadn't interfaced RTGUI to a scope in a long while. Maybe since I wrote that review all them years ago. So I was a little apprehensive--when I get much beyond the most basic "point and click," I begin to have problems. I needn't have worried, since getting the program going with the ETX turned out to be nothing.

I’d already entered the info all astro programs require, latitude and longitude; the program took care of date and time with the PC’s clock. All that remained was to set my telescope type and com port: “Meade Autostar, Com 5.” And, of course, to select a go-to target, which you can do with either RTGUI’s Simple Search tool (input the object’s name or number), or with the program’s Search Wizard (which can return multiple results, just like a planner program). You toggle through retrieved objects with “Next Match.” If’n you want to view all your matches at oncet, click “view matches.” When the object of your heart’s desire is onscreen, all you gotta do to go there is press “Go-to.” That’s it. No further configuring, no connecting, just go.

Which I did to some pretty DSOs till them dadgummed ol’ clouds closed us out at about 11pm. What really tickled me? RTGUI’s Best of the Sky button. Don’t know what you wanna look at? Click “Best of,” and the program will offer suggestions it considers the greatest objects available for a given night and time. It’s like “Tonight’s Best” in the HC, but it don’t require you to mess with the Autostar and its many menus.

Is RTGUI maybe a wee bit too simple? Sometimes, yeah. Sometimes I want a bit more information on my targets. Or I want a graphical representation of the field. That is no reason to abandon this simple, small program, though. If you want More Better Gooder, just mash “Skychart.” Doing so brings up Cartes du Ciel 2.76 with your selected object centered (you must have that fine program installed on your machine first, o’ course). Cartes will deliver just about any data you could possibly want—even pictures if you have an Internet connection—for any of the objects in the RTGUI catalogs. Frankly, I almost always use these two programs together. They are an unbeatable combination.

Any downchecks? Not really. It is what it is. It is not a sprawling masterpiece like SkyTools 3; it’s a simple little program more than adequate for many tasks much of the time. No, it doesn’t support every telescope under the sun with built-in drivers, but if your scope happens to be one RTGUI does not include, you can still do the robo-scope thang using Cartes’ ASCOM fueled go-to system. You select your objects in RTGUI as always, but CdC handles the go-to part of the deal. I do wish RTGUI would support Cartes du Ciel 3.0 as well as 2.76, but the fact that it doesn’t do so yet is not the fault of RTGUI’s author, Robert Sheaffer; it just means CdC 3.0, still in beta, is not quite ready for prime time in all ways.

It had been a long time since I’d had as much fun with any astro-soft as I had with RTGUI on this night, sending Charity from one “best of” to the next. Below is my tally (the first objects were “captured” with Stellarium). Admittedly, nothing overly challenging for even a 5-inch telescope, but it may be of interest to novices and others wondering what the heck they should look at in this brief hold-your-breath spell between the winter and spring skies.

The Haul

When my silly little telescope finally got there, M82 was nice sliver of light, with several of its famous dark patches/lanes obvious

M81 was surprisingly large in the 15mm Expanse, showing off its oval, elongated central region.

NGC 3077, the third and least obvious member of Ursa Major’s M81-M82 group, looked nice in the 20mm Expanse eyepiece. Basically a roundish glow. No central condensation apparent, but this area of the sky was just emerging from the Possum Swamp light dome in the east.

M42. One of the better looks at the Great Nebula I’ve had recently in any scope. The “wings” of this great bird-shaped cloud were well-defined, the Trapezium burned away (if the seeing had been better, I suspect I could have seen the two “extra” stars), and the southwest expanse of the nebula was extensive. The comma shape of M43 was also easy to see, along with hints of the dark lanes running through it. Many colored stars apparent. 20mm Expanse.

M79. The only even marginally nice “Winter Glob” was pretty low in the sky, but did show off a few stars around its periphery in the 9mm Expanse.

M46 and NGC 2438 were looking good. The planetary nebula, NGC 2438, which is supposedly just a line of sight object and not really involved in the cluster, was surprisingly large and easy to see. No filter required to pick out this round fuzz ball. Best with averted vision. Since I can never remember which Messier, M46 or M47, contains the planetary, it was nice to be able to zoom in on M46 with Stellarium and see an image of the nebula. Stars were very sharp at the edge of the 15mm Expanse, and the beauty of the view impelled me to forgive Charity her faux pas earlier in the evening.

By the time I finished with M46, it was clear the sky was beginning to degrade. I enjoyed using Stellarium—a simple click/Control 1 and away we went, object to object—but it was time to give RTGUI a spin (via its Best of the Sky function) before I found myself in Sucker Hole City.

M35 was large, rich, and very attractive in the 20mm. Didn’t see the “companion” cluster, NGC 2158, but I didn’t want to spend too much time looking for it given the scudding patches of clouds. Onward!

M37 was RTGUI’s next “best” pick. Lovely and field-filling with the 15mm Expanse. The red star at the center of the cluster was prominent and looked startlingly red—moreso, maybe, than it usually is in larger aperture scopes.

M47 ain’t no M46; it’s larger and sparser than its neighbor. Fairly well framed in the 20mm. The impression was “some bright stars” rather than the “many dim ones, too” of M46.

M48, the Hydra open cluster, was what RTGUI gave me next. Like M47, it’s nice enough, but its sprawling size makes it less impressive than it would otherwise be in this long focal length telescope. I remember struggling with this one in the city with my Palomar Junior 4-inch when I was writing The Urban Astronomer’s Guide; the cluster is fairly low from our latitude, and spring hazes tend to just kill it.

Then came M50. Sweet. Little more compact and better looking than the last opens. Main body of the cluster looked box-shaped. I had the impression of nebulosity in the 15 Expanse, but that was just unresolved background stars, I reckon.

NGC 2362, a.k.a. the “Tau Canis Majoris Cluster,” a.k.a. “The Jumping Spider Cluster.” Wow! A real showpiece. A triangle-shaped mess of tiny stars less than 10’ across surrounding bright Tau Canis Majoris. Contrast effects between the dimmer cluster stars and Tau (one of the intrinsically brightest stars known) seem to make Tau hop around, like a big spider jumping in its starry web. How do you get this spider to jump? Once you’ve got it centered, tap the tube of the telescope and Tau will seem to move—to jump—with a motion different from that of the cluster stars.

Despite its location over to the east in the light dome, The Spindle Galaxy in Sextans, NGC 3115, was bright and obvious when the ETX stopped moving. Even if I couldn’t see its spindle shape too clearly, I could at least see that it is strongly elongated.

NGC 3242, The Ghost of Jupiter, was up next, said RTGUI. Whether at high or low magnification, this planetary nebula still just looked like nuttin’ more than a featureless blue-gray disk…like, yes, the ghost of Jupiter.

M51 was in the field when Charity’s slew ended, but I had to stare for a minute to pick him up. Still low and in the bad part of the sky. Haze was continuing to creep in, too. Nevertheless, I could see a big blob that was M51 and the smaller blob that was the little interacting galaxy, NGC 5195. Once in a while, I seemed to notice a stellar core in the big galaxy. Some faint haze was visible surrounding the two. Probably best in the 20mm, despite the fact that the sky background was a little brighter in it than in the 15mm.

Leo was still mostly in the light pollution, and M65 didn’t put my eye out, but it was there and surprisingly prominent. Obviously elongated and almost seemed to want to give up some detail. If you want to see spring galaxies from light polluted areas, now is the time to do it, before the season gets truly underway and brings more and more haze and humidity with it.

Member Two of the Leo Trio, M66 was also right pretty. Obviously more elongated than M65, and stood out well from the background glow thanks to Charity’s good contrast—despite her rather large central obstruction (DO NOT tell her I mentioned that!).

NGC 3628, the third Leo Trio bandito is larger and dimmer than the other two, and I needed averted vision to see it much of the time. Occasionally I thought I could make-out hints of its impressive dark lane. The 15mm improves the object’s contrast with the sky background, but the galaxy is not framed as well as in the 20mm. That’s always the tradeoff when dealing with light pollution.

M95 was smack dab in the center of the 15mm when Charity stopped her squealing. Not overly impressive; just a round—if fairly sizeable—blob. No sign of the central bar.

Like 95, M96 was dead in the center of the eyepiece when Charity finished her slew. Prominent, and looked round most of the time. When the seeing settled down, it became clear M96 is strongly elongated. I could also pick-out a small nucleus once in a while.

M105 was hardly a challenge, even for a little 5-inch Mak girl. It’s a bright, round elliptical galaxy that looks mucho like an unresolved globular cluster. The challenge is seeing its two nearby companions. NGC 3384, another elliptical, ain’t hard either, and I picked it up right away. What I had to fight for was NGC 3389, the third member of this little triangle, a magnitude 12.0 Sc that has a scary-low surface brightness. After a while, though, I did begin to see it with averted vision. Yay Charity!

The Owl Nebula, M97, was good in the 20mm Expanse without a filter. I could easily make out some of the dim stars involved in its disk. I almost thought I caught the eyes once in a while. To convince myself I’d actually seen ‘em took an LPR filter. On this evening with this scope, the Lumicon UHC did considerably better with Owley than the Lumicon OIII did. With the UHC I could occasionally see the two mottled areas/dark spots that represent the bird’s eyes—if not easily.

On a good night in a medium – small telescope, M108 tends to look a lot like M82, though, in reality, it’s not much like M82 at all. Tonight, 108 was somewhat subdued, though obvious with direct vision. Its edge-on self occasionally gave up hints of the clumpiness than makes it resemble M82 in smaller telescopes.

M109 was there, and that’s all I could say about it on this evening given worsening conditions. Elongated glow with no hint of the bar. Best in the 20mm, with the 15mm Expanse yielding too much magnification for the iffy seeing and poor transparency.

RTGUI insisted I take a gander at M63, The Sunflower Galaxy, despite the fact that it was still low. What the heck. Didn’t look that bad. Obviously elongated, and, in the 9mm Expanse, I thought I could see traces of the patchy arms that give it its moniker “Sunflower.” That may have been averted IMAGINATION, though.

M64 was at least as compromised by haze and low altitude and light pollution as M63, but it burned through the mess with fair ease. No, I couldn’t really see the black eye, the huge dust spot near the nucleus, but I could see the impressive large, bright, elongated core.

M3 was very low, but I just had to have a look at the premier spring globular anyhow. Bright core, but I needed averted vision and the 9mm to see many of this monster glob’s stars.

The bright Seyfert type galaxy M94 in Canes Venatici has always a fave of mine for city observing. I don’t care how bad your skies, this strange galaxy shines on like a diamond. Surprisingly large in the 9mm Expanse. Looked a lot like the average planetary nebula.

M106 was pretty good in the increasingly punk sky. This galaxy is odd-shaped in images and visually with larger scopes, but under these conditions Charity showed only a large and obviously elongated patch. Bright, stellar-appearing core winks in and out.

RTGUI didn’t suggest it, but I wanted to take a peep at NGC 4565, the famous Flying Saucer Galaxy in Coma Berenices. All I had to do to bring it back was push the “Simple Search” button, type-in “NGC 4565” (just typing “4565” won’t do), and hit Go-to. When Charity came to a stop, this edge-on galaxy was in the field of the 15mm, and despite the fact that there were now enough clouds and haze that some of my bubbas was beginning to pack up, this galaxy was fairly impressive. The central bulge was visible along with at least some of the saucer-disk on each side.

Clouds ever’where now. I took a quick look at Saturn—nice disk detail and a brace of little Moons—and Mars—polar cap and some dark features visible in the 6mm Expanse—but the seeing was not good enough to let Charity strut her stuff.

And that was that. Urania had given us just about as much as she as willing to give on this night. Wouldn’t you know it, though? As soon as we resolved to call it a night at about 2300, conditions began to improve again. I figgered that ol’ dame was just a-teasing us, though. Whatever. My feet was getting colder and colder in the punishing (for us Johnny Rebs) mid-30s temps. I threw the Big Switch.

The real beauty of a Charity Hope Valentine night? In less than five minutes, I had the little scope snug in her case and her tripod in the back seat of Miss Dorothy’s Scion Xb. I did have to put the laptop back in its case and pack the observing table, but that was the work of maybe another five minutes. I waited around for my bros to finish breaking down their monster GEMs and forks, but that was easy to endure since I knew I was all ready to go and would soon be enjoying my vehicle’s heater and some iPod tunes on the trip back to Chaos Manor South.

Nice article as usual Rod. I too have an EXT-125PE. It has been a while since I have had it out (not quite a year yet) -- weather here in Florida has been dismal as well as unusually cold. Anyway, from your article it looks like I will need to (in order): calibrate motors, train drives and then do my goto alignment. Do you let it pick the stars or do you?
I let it do the pickin'...but I'm lazy. ;-)
I have used the program Best Pair II to select alignment starts, though I don't know if it applies to the controller used by the ETX as well.
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