Sunday, April 25, 2010

 

Cool Stuff at NEAF 2010


I planned to be there this year, I really did. I couldn’t stand the thought of sitting on the sidelines yet again. When I got an email from Chairman Alan Traino wondering if I planned to head on up to Suffern, New York for the latest edition, I was tempted to say HAIL YEAH. I restrained myself, but I got to thinking, and thinking hard, about JUST DOIN’ IT, and was about to click on Orbitz.com when we got some real bad news at Chaos Manor South.

What the H-E Double L am I goin’ on about now? I suspect most of the gear heads among you know what “NEAF” is: the North East Astronomy Forum. I actually think the f-word oughta be “fair” or “festival.” Sure, there are oodles of speakers and stuff like that, but, for your ol’ Uncle, the draw would definitely be the chance to ogle all that beautiful ASTRO STUFF. NEAF, held every year at this time at Rockland Community College way up yonder in Yankeeland, is, far as I know, the biggest U.S. amateur astronomy gear/trade show. If you like equipment, it is the place to be: a big hall stuffed to the gills with your favorite vendors and your fellow amateur astronomers.

There was that bad news, though. Out of the blue, my dear wife Miss Dorothy’s yearly mammogram turned up “positive.” We were both still trying to process that information—it just didn’t seem possible—when she went under the knife a couple of weeks back. Next up is a long round of chemotherapy. By the way, I don’t mind telling y’all about it, and Miss Dorothy doesn’t mind me telling you, either. We believe the more awareness there is of the threat of breast cancer, the better.

Naturally, any wild plans I might have had to fly to New York were immediately scotched. It’s been some long, weary days and nights of doctors and hospitals, and it wasn’t until the big show weekend was upon us that I gave NEAF any further thought at all.

The good news is that things are LOOKING UP. Miss Dorothy has a very good chance, an excellent chance, of being right here with us a decade from now. And I even got to experience NEAF 2010, if somewhat vicariously.

I could with good reason have called this article, “Thank you, Tom Trusock and the Cloudy Nights crew!” Because of them, I almost felt as if I were at NEAF. As they have for the last several years, Cloudy Nights and their parent, Astronomics, had a big presence at the hoedown. Just like last year, they streamed plenty of video: talks, shots of the floor, interviews. The star of the show, for me, though, was Tom’s “Walkthrough.”

Tom Trusock, as you’re probably aware, is one of the brightest new stars in the astronomy-writing business. I’m proud to say he got started with my little old newsletter, SkyWatch, but it wasn’t long before he was playing in the big leagues, contributing heavily to Cloudy Nights and writing for the pro-zines. His work has thus far appeared in both The Sky at Night and Astronomy. He’s also one of those lucky few among us who come off really well on camera: relaxed, personable, and professional.

The “Walkthrough” is just what it sounds like. Tom, accompanied by camera and mic, walks through the hall talking to vendors and showing their interesting new (and old) gear. Mr. T., a svelte new Mr. T., had his work cut out for him this year, no doubt about it. Despite the still lingering recession, there were around 130 vendors at the show. It was obviously difficult to even scratch the surface in the Walkthrough’s one-hour time-slot, Nevertheless, Mr. Trusock did his usual fine job of giving us pitiful home-bounds at least the highlights.

If you missed the video, I believe the good folk at CN/Astronomics will archive it on their site as they have previous years’ editions. When they do, please have a look; I suspect you’ll be as engaged and entertained as I was. In fact, I wish Astronomics would sell DVDs of Tom’s yearly outings. It would be great to be able to refer back to them years from now.

Any way you slice it, there were lots of cool new things shown off in the CN video; here are a few of ‘em:

TeleVue

NEAF’s Big News, for—what?—the third year in a row was TV’s announcement of yet another Ethos eyepiece. At least there shouldn’t be as much controversy this time. Yeah, controversy. Not because the Ethoses (I do NOT like “Ethoi;” sounds like them wimpy li’l people from The Time Machine) released last year and the year before weren’t good. Quite the opposite; a sizable portion of the amateur community believes them to be the best oculars ever offered for sale. But that don’t mean all of us have liked them.

For some of our Brethren and Sistren (?) these eyepieces are, as I’ve said afore, too much. Too big, too heavy, too wide, and too expensive. More than a few folks denounce the Ethoses with the fervor or Brother Elmer Gantry preaching against Satan’s housecat. The Ethos seems to run counter to a certain Puritan streak in the American Character—and in more than a few amateur astronomers, apparently. Thankfully for my digestion, I don’t expect near as much fire and brimstone this time.

Not that the new Ethos 3.7mm don’t have some impressive specs beginning with not just 100-degrees of apparent field of view, but 110! Much more and you’ll be seeing the back of your punkin head. It does this magic while retaining at least a respectable degree of eye relief, 15mm, and does it in a somewhat funky-looking package (with a screw-on 2-inch barrel adapter) that weighs in at just over a pound.

According to Uncle Al, this latest nine-days-wonder has its genesis in the work he did on the Apollo LM simulator back in the storied 1960s, providing the optics that gave candidate Moon walkers an impressively realistic simulacrum of the Lunar surface. That, as he told our guy Tom in a one-on-one interview after the Walkthrough, is why he’s calling this new ocular the “SX,” which stands for “Simulator Experience.”

That all sounds pretty revolutionary, but like I done said, I believe this one will be less preached against than the 8, the 13, the 17, and, most of all, the 21mm. That’s because this is a much more specialized eyepiece that’s likely to fly under a lot of amateurs’ radar and stimulate less ire if’n it don’t. I mean, 3.7mm? That’s dang near 350x in my C8 even with a .63 reducer hanging off the rear port. This is an eyepiece that’ll, I think, mostly appeal to owners of small, fast refractors anxious for a way to get their little scopes up to planetary/Lunar powers. The price is gonna be less of a sore thumb, too. It’s still considerable, about $500.00 (when Tom axed, Al said it should be priced similarly to the 10mm E), but that’s quite a step down from the 21.

There was a little frightened scurrying anyway: “110-degrees?! I bet TV is gonna change all the Ethoses to 110-degrees, and my 100s will be WORTHLESS!” Not to worry. According to The Man, the extra-degrees design can’t be scaled “down” to the other eyepieces. Also, he purty much said they don’t currently plan to go any shorter than 3.7mm.

Other TeleVue news? They are introducing a pair of new Paracorrs, which, not overly surprisingly, will be called the “Paracorr Type 2s.” This is a new design optimized for very fast scopes in the f/3 and faster range. In addition to a normal-style Paracorr, there will also be one that’s built into a Feathertouch focuser, and which will be marketed by the focuser’s maker, Starlight Instruments.

And that…was pretty much it for TV. Oh, I understand they sold “blems” again after taking a year off. Wish you were there to scarf a few cosmetically inadequate but perfectly functional TeleVue eyepieces, doncha? I know I do.

Orion

Geezus, Pleezus! Orion had a huge booth this time. Huge. How much new stuff have they introduced this year? Tons. Sadly, Tom only had time to take a look at their star, their piece de resistance, the 36-inch “Monster Dobsonian.” There are supposed to be 40 and 50-inchers (yes) in the Monster line, too, but only the little guy showed up at NEAF. He’s, like the other Monsters—that is really what Orion calls ‘em—an f/4 by renowned telescope artist and mirror maker, Normand Fullum, who was on hand to talk to Tom T.

There was no doubt the Orion 36-inch dominated its area of the floor. It was, as a matter of fact, the second largest telescope at NEAF this year. The Orion, which is made of birch wood, aluminum, and carbon-fiber composites, is a towering six-truss job that sports full go-to via a motor system run by an Argo Navis Computer.

The Monster Dobsonians are just the latest releases in a long line of Orion product introductions this year. Products whose quality is obviously high, and which are backed-up by the always top-notch Orion customer support. Course, that comes at a price. In this case, for the littlest Monster, $55,600.00. Damned good thing Unk really don’t lust after a big Dobsonian. I have a policy: “Never pay more for your scope than you paid for your vehicle!” Normand’s comments indicated he thinks his and Orion’s customers will mainly be clubs and schools, but I have no doubt more than a few of the well-heeled among us will seriously consider the 36, at least.

Unsurprisingly, the Monsters have proven to be at least as controversial as the Ethoses at the online amateur watering holes. And for the same reasons: too big, too expensive. Some people get so worked up you’d think they was bein’ forced to pony-up for an Ethos-equipped Monster.

Any obvious downchecks for the 36? I’ve heard some of the people who saw the scope in person opine that they thought the truss tubes looked a wee bit thin, and that that might be a problem. Don’t know about that, but was that a gull-derned Orion EZ-Finder II red-dot bb-gun sight I spied on that pretty upper cage? Gee-whiz, I hope not. Orion could do better for dang near sixty grand I’d a-thought.

Anyhow, ‘twas a shame Tom did not have more time to wander Orion’s big spread and look at some of their other cool stuff. It was time to move on, to the other Dobsonians Normand Fullum makes.

Normand Fullum Telescopes

If you haven’t seen these, go here and prepare to be amazed. I took note of Normand’s scopes last year, when I christened them the “Hobbit Dobs.” That’s just what they look like. They are of beautifully carved and finished wood. The side bearings, for example, are in the shape of the Man in the Moon. Some tubes are festooned with the classical planet symbols. Others sport comets and crescents. You get the picture. They don’t look as if they were made; they look as if they were grown. In the Old Forest. By Tom Bombadil and his Lady Goldberry. I probably said those exact same things last year, but I am still gobsmacked by these scopes. If nuttin’ else, after contemplating the price of Mr. Fullum’s Monster, 9 grand for a 16-inch telescope that’s also a work of art seems like a positive bargain.

Takahashi

Tom stopped briefly at the setup of Takahashi/Texas Nautical Repair and chatted with the ever ebullient Art Ciampi. The buzz there was about the brand-spankin’ Tak CCA 250. This, a replacement for the BRC 250, is, like thatun, designed mainly to be an astrograph, though it can be enjoyed as a visual instrument, too. Art informed us that it’s a corrected Cassegrain design with a parabolic primary and a triplet corrector that yields a near 90mm corrected image circle. The CCA is useable at three different focal lengths when paired with a reducer or extender: f/3.59, f/5 (native), and f/8.

Naturally, the CCA comes with all the fixins, including a 6-inch rotator on the rear cell, a carbon fiber tube, and, like the goobers say on late-night TV, “Much, much more!” As it should for a price Art estimated to be about the same as the BRC—$15,000.00. Sigh. I never can afford a Takahashi, but I sure like to look at ‘em.

Astronomy Technology Today

Tom didn’t stop by the Astronomy Technology Today, “ATT,” booth, but he did mention ‘em, which was cool. I was happy to see good buddy Gary Parkerson had a presence at NEAF with his always fascinating astro-gear-head magazine.

Great Red Spot Astronomy

I’d heard of Tom’s next stop, Great Red Spot Astronomy Products, before, mostly as a vendor of the minimalist Zhumell Chinese Dobsonians and small products like eyepieces and red flashlights. Imagine my surprise, then, to learn the biggest Dob on display at NEAF was theirs.

The 40-inch truss tube Dob monopolizing the floor like the monolith in 2001, is the first entrant in a promised line of telescopes to be called the “Jupiter Series.” According to the Great Red Spot dude Thomas talked to, GRS is not just the seller, but the manufacturer of this big thing. Well, the body, anyhow; the mirrors are to be done by well-known optician Mike Lockwood.

The specs? 40 big inches at f/3.6, considerable aluminum used in its construction, and full go-to via the Argo Navis/ServoCat system. The Big Forty is to be accompanied by smaller sisters with mirrors by the renowned Carl Zambuto in apertures of 16, 20, 24, and 36-inches. The bigun’s primary is monolithic (no honeycombs or stuff like that) and made of Schott’s borosilicate glass. In other words, German Pyrex. The 40-inch Jupiter, as you won’t be surprised to learn, looking at its mammoth mirror box and dual “landing gear” wheels, weighs in at every bit of 610 pounds.

How mucho? $59,000.00. Is this kinda Dob pricing the start of a new trend? Do some of y’all have a lot more money to spend on your scopes than is dreamt of in Unk’s philosophy? Do Orion and Great Red Spot at least think you do?

Denkmeier

Our old buddy, Russ Lederman, was back for another round of NEAF. It seems the months since he was last here have rung in a few changes on everybody’s favorite binoviewer maker. Most importantly, I reckon, Russ is no longer going it alone, but has, instead, jined-up with another company, Spectrum Thin Films, an optical/coating company. This is reflected in some new products and new directions for Denk that don’t have much to do with their old beat, which was largely binoviewers and diagonals and similar doo-dads.

I don’t mean the “BIPH,” either. The makers of that light amplification thingie seem to be going their own way these days. What the new products circle around, instead, is Solar observing, and specifically hydrogen alpha Solar observing. What I suspect will be most popular is the Spectrum 60. This is an upgrade of the Meade/Coronado PST 40mm H-alpha scope to an aperture of 60mm. For the introductory price of $599.00, Denk will replace your tube/objective and blocking filter (you have to send ‘em your scope, natch). Seems purty reasonable. While 40mm is fine for casual views, at 60mm you begin to come in range of some seriously good H alpha vistas.

Maybe switching the company’s focus away from “just binoviewers” is smart, too. Now, you bino-fans needn’t worry; it appears Denkmeier’s famous binos will be with us for the long haul. But there is no doubt in my formerly military mind that binoviewing is not quite the growth industry it appeared to be a few annums back. Take a gander at the sad state of the once-vibrant binoviewer Yahoogroup and Astromart forum if’n you don’ know what I’m a-talkin’ about.

Skyhound

Tom didn’t stop, but he did mention my favorite software company, Skyhound, who were showing off my favorite astronomy program, SkyTools 3.

Celestron

Mr. T. didn’t spend long at the large Celestron set-up, but he did have time to look at an impressive and surprising product, Celestron’s 50th Anniversary Edition of their CPC 800 fork mount SCT. As soon as I laid eyes on it it was clear how it’s different from the standard model: carbon fiber tube. Tom confirmed that and said the CF is only for this edition, which I presume will only be available over the next year.

What did I really want to see? A great big Edge HD C14 on a CGE Pro. I believe we passed one, and I think I saw one in a couple of long shots, but that was it. Dammit.

Astronomy Technologies/Astronomics

Astronomics’ scope brand had a big presence at the company’s big booth. What impressed me most? A honkin’ huge 8-inch f/9 achromat bearing the AT badge. Da woid, according to Tom, was that the folks who’d been able to use the scope (on bright lights and other terrestrial things, I suppose, given the poor Suffern skies) were pleasantly surprised by the thing’s performance. Even more surprising? The price: $2495.00 for the OTA or 6K with the CGE Pro it was mounted on thrown in. Man! I don’t know what the hell I’d do with such a thing, or how colorful anything brighter than a Pal globular would be, but for that price even stingy ol’ me is tempted to find out. Apparently, the scope is a prototype, but I’d guess that if it garners enough interest it might be put into production.

What else did Astronomics have on offer? Lots of stuff, including lots of eyepieces. Of particular interest to me was the Chinese-origin TMB 100-degree AFOV 9 and 16mm eyepieces (a seemingly identical pair is being sold under the Zhumell badge). At less than 300 bucks a pop, I don’t expect the perfection represented by the Ethoses, but I might be willing to put up with something somewhat south of that for a far less painful amount of $$$. Especially if they do a 20mm.

Carina Software

With computer battery power running low, Mr. Trusock told the Carina Software dude he only had a minute or two. That led the poor guy to try to get the company’s iPhone/iPod/iPad software (SkyVoyager) and wi-fi scope interface (SkyFi) up and running on a ‘Pad in that length of time. He almost made it. Be that as she may, I’ve been impressed by SkyVoyager on my iPod. It is, no fooling, a full-featured planetarium running on the tiny gadget (where it shares space with my Allman Brothers and Wet Willie albums). I’m not sure if the SkyVoyger executing on the iPad at NEAF was the forthcoming iPad version or not, but even if it was “just” the pod/phone app, it sure looked purty on that big screen.

Planewave

Brief detour to the Planewave folks. You know, the makers of the big corrected Dall Kirkhams who was spun off from Celestron a couple of years back. What’s the big news? They are doing a 24-inch. Not so big news? Uncle Rod will not be able to afford one.

Astrotrac

This company has made something of a name for themselves with their very portable, very effective camera/small scope tracking mounts. This year, they’ve kicked it up a notch with one that’s set up for autoguiding. That’s all well and good, but I wonder…is maybe The Only Enemy of Good Enough More Better in this case? I’d a-thought the idea of autoguiding one of these mounts tends to get away from the “simple, simple, simple” philosophy that gives the Astrotrac camera trackers their appeal.

Questar

Tom’s cameraman pointed over thataway briefly. Questar is an amateur institution (yeah, I know, “BUT WHO WANTS TO LIVE IN AN INSTITUTION?”), and I am happy to see them pushing on. Unless I hallucinated it, the brief glimpse seemed to show a fork-mount Questar 7-inch MCT, which I was under the impression Questar wasn’t making at the moment. Hmmm… Naw. Miss Dorothy would definitely notice that much on the credit card.

AP

Nothing new from old Uncle Roland. But there really didn’t need to be. With his beautiful refractors and German mounts, including the monstrous el Capitan, he didn’t have to introduce anything new to get plenty of attention.

Hotech

Hotech’s products hadn’t previously excited much interest in moi. I mean…Newtonian laser collimators? What am I a-gonna to with them? Then I heard they was introducing an SCT laser collimator. Not one of the lame and useless SCT lasers other folks have tried to peddle, but an SCT Laser of a New Type. One that really works. One that don’t require you to do a precise collimation the old fashioned way first.

As the nice man, presumably David Ho, showed Tom, the “Advanced CT Laser Collimator” works on an entirely different principle from what we’ve seen heretofore. Laser beams are directed down the tube of the scope, and are reflected back out by a small mirror installed on the rear port. The user adjusts collimation until the return beam spots on the collimator’s large target are in the right places, and, voila!, the scope is, theoretically, in perfect alignment.

Does it work? Craig Stark, whose opinion on these subjects I trust, seems to think it’s finer than split frog hair. What do I think? I think the price, $455.00, is on the way-high side. Still, if it works, a lot of folks could be interested in a gadget that allows you to precisely and easily collimate your scope indoors. Hell, I could be interested.

Meade

By the time we made it to Meade’s gigantanormous booth, Tom’s time was just about up. But we were at least able to take a look at the company’s also gigantanormous 20-inch MaxMount scope, a huge SCT on a huge German mount. This is actually the second time at bat for this RCX-style OTA (f/8, focusing secondary) and large GEM. After having been gone for over a year, IT’S BAAAAACK…supposedly with an improved mount and a more reasonable price, $34,999.00 (it had climbed into the 50-grand-plus vicinity for a while). Me? I would rather have this big dog—err… “cat”—than a 36-inch Dobsonian if I had that kinda moola. Which I don’t.

Meteorites

Rocks from the sky were BIG, BIG, BIG this year, no doubt due to the Science Channel’s surprise hit, Meteorite Men. Not only were the Men themselves, Geoff Notkin and Steve Arnold, at NEAF to give a talk, Geoff sat for an interview with our own Tom T., who did his usual brilliant job with that. There were apparently several other space rock vendors in attendance as well, takin’ advantage of the sudden celebrity of shootin’ stars. Who’d a-thought a general TV audience would watch two guys hunt funny looking rocks? Just goes to show YOU NEVER CAN TELL.

And, with that, Tom’s Walkthrough came to an end, ringin’ down the curtain on NEAF 2010—for me, anyhow. Without the efforts of Tom Trusock and the Astronomics and Cloudy Nights folks, there wouldn’t have been a NEAF of any kind at all for me. Thanks again, y’all!

Next year? NEXT YEAR IN SUFFERN, for sure!

Comments:
Hi Rod,

You keep thinkin' good thoughts for your Miss Dorothy. My wife had thyroid cancer a few years ago, and I have a sister-in-law who battled breast cancer at about the same time, and while not a walk in the park, they are doing just fine now. I'm sending positive vibes your way that Miss Dorothy will be just fine, too.

Thanks for the summary of NEAF. I've never been to it, and actually, I'm just getting back into astronomy after a long time away. But, boy, there is sure no lack of gadgets to stare at and drool over.

Ron
 
Hi Ron:

Believe me, your kind thoughts and words and those of everybody else who has expressed concern are very much appreciated by me and the indomitable Miss D.!
 
Hello Rod,

If you thinnk it's along way up north to go to NEAF, spare a thought for those of us in New Zealand! Very much enjoy your blog, even if they are only 2nd hand comments on the conference this time.

My wife is a nurse and she has seen many people with your wife's problems pull through well, so best wishes to Miss. Dorothy.

Never underestimate the power of positive thinking.

Alastair Brickell
www.stargazersbb.com
 
I opened the article, saw NEAF, and wanted to read if you had tried out the new superfast mirror paracorr or the new Leica aspheric zoom or maybe the triplet coma corrector from Baader.... the new toys that luckeeeee people like you get to try out before anyone else (and before buying). I saw a pink ribbon image and figured it was very nice of you to support the cause, they must have set up a stand at NEAF, I thought. Then I went on to read the article. I am sorry Rod that I am no good with this kind of words, I will only say that I wish the wonderful Miss Dorothy (I am sure it was not her who hacked Astromart!) a speedy and complete recovery and much strength to both of you. To all readers, if you are female, you should do regular self-test and the exams your doctor advises; if you are male, this disease is very rare among males (but see your doctor if you notice something unusual) please take the opportunity to remind your wife, girlfriend, mother, sister, daughter, female colleague, that this terrible disease can be successfully treated and that it is tremendously important to start treatment at the earliest possible stage. Their doctor will advise with the details and suggest the appropriate screening calendar. Again my best wishes to Miss Dorothy and to you Rod, and thank you for sharing your story and standing up for breast cancer awareness. Daniela
 
Come on out to PATS in California instead. I bet Tom Meneghini would give you a private tour of MWO with some viewing time on the 60 inch...
 
Hi Unk,

From your urban astronomy book and this blog, I really do think of you as a kind of "virtual uncle".

I just wanted to say I'll keep you and yours in my thoughts.

Best wishes.
 
Best wishes to you and Miss Dorothy.
 
Hi Unk!

First time to your blog. I'm sure Miss D will pull through!

Thanks for the entertaining writing. NEAF sound friggin amazing! A little far from Cape TOwn but one day...
:)
 
Thanks for the nice little Blog, Clear Skies and Best wishes for you and your wife, I hope everything works out. I also dream of the Meade 20" RC on GEM Mount.

Lorne L. Reap
 
A very detailed summary of NEAF is given in this blog.One should go through it.
 
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