Sunday, September 26, 2010
The Herschel Project Night 12
Why ain’t there no score up there? You know, like, “390 Objects Down, 10 to go”? Because I didn’t stay on the beaten path of the Herschel Project this past weekend. As y’all know, the focus of The Project, at least as far as its presence in this blog goes, has been the Herschel II list. I am very close to the end there, with only a few objects remaining. So why didn’t I pursue some of those this past Saturday evening? I couldn’t.
Saturday afternoon’s weather was, at best, “mixed,” with periods of occasional clearing being interspersed with times of plenty of clouds. The sky was rancid enough that I didn’t bother to start marshalling my gear in Chaos Manor South’s front parlor till close to four o’clock, when it began to look as if I might get some time under the stars after all.
My mind made up to go for it, the question was “with what?” I ruled out the Stellacam right away. I didn’t feel like dragging out a lot of astro-junk for what looked to be a cotton picking skunk festival. Also, I’ve recently come to believe I need to emphasize the visual side of the Herschel project a wee bit more than I have thus far.
Which scope? The C8 without doubt. The 8-inch Schmidt Cassegrain is still king when it comes to a perfect balance of aperture and portability. What would my Ultima C8 OTA, Celeste, ride on? If I’d had good sense, I would have grabbed the CG5, but I promised y’all I’d give EQMOD a go on the Herschel Project, and decided this would be as good time as any to do that—that’s what I thought, anyhow.
Arriving at our club dark site in Tanner-Williams, Alabama, about an hour’s drive from the Old Manse, I was immediately dismayed. It was hot. It was humid. It was cloudy, particularly to the west, never a good sign. There was one good thing, however; the mosquitoes didn’t seem as hungry as they were earlier in the summer. I fired up the Thermacell, anyway, but I wasn’t bitten once while I waited for it to heat up and start doing its thing. I also noted that, while plenty of clouds hung ominously in the west, we seemed to be getting a few sucker holes across the rest of the sky. Might as well get set up.
As I said not long back, the Atlas is big and it is heavy, but in truth is not much more of a pain to set up than the CG5. Once you get the EQ head on the tripod (which is almost identical to that of the CG5), it’s no more of a pain at all. Bolt it on to the tripod, leaving that bolt a mite loose until polar alignment is done to facilitate azimuth movement, plug in the power cable and the SynScan hand control or EQMOD cable, and you are done except for attaching the OTA and rigging the dew heaters (which I’d obviously need in a bad way this humid night).
Since I wanted to give EQMOD a spin, I eschewed the HC and plugged a standard serial cable into the mount, hooked the little EQDIR module to the other end, and plugged that into the Keyspan USB – serial adapter I use with my ASUS netbook. The Keyspan has made all the difference in the world both with EQMOD and with NexRemote. A run-of-the-mill USB-serial gadget from BestBuy will usually work if all you want to do is send a mount on go-tos with a planetarium program, but get fancy, as with NR or EQMOD, and most of these fall flat on their faces. Just can’t handle the increased message traffic these very special programs require, I reckon.
Speaking of netbooks, my little Asus has done more to make my setup easier than anything has in a long time. It’s small, maybe half the size and a third or fourth the weight of my good, old, Toshiba Satellite (which has recently gone to the Happy Hunting Grounds, sad to tell), but its screen is still more than large enough to be legible. Yeah, I have to wear my reading glasses, but lately I have to wear them no matter what the size of the monitor. The Asus’ max screen resolution, 1024x768, is more than sufficient to accommodate any astro-program I’ve got in my inventory. Storage? At 250 GB, its hard disk is three times the size of the pore old Satellite’s drive.
Better than any of the above, though, is the little PC’s power-sipping nature. Miss Dorothy encouraged me to get a netbook with the best battery I could find, I did, and that has proven to be a godsend. My Asus has an advertised battery life of 11 hours, and, while I don’t know if it really will make that, it sure does run for a long time, even with lots of serial port/usb activity. It easily lasts as long as your tired old Uncle does. Which means my days of toting an enormous deep cycle marine battery and an inverter just for the ‘puter are over, muchachos.
Yeah, I plugged up EQMOD, but as darkness came on, more clouds flowed in, and I decided there hadn’t been much reason to. The west looked a little better than it had earlier, but now the entire eastern side of the Local Meridian was completely covered. One of the major benefits of EQMOD is that it kicks the Atlas’ go-to accuracy up a notch over what is available with the SynScan hand controller. Really taking advantage of that, however, requires aligning on six stars or so on each side of the Meridian. With only the west now clear (barely), I wouldn’t be able to do that.
I was hot, a little tired, and put out at the weather. I decided I didn’t feel like messing with EQMOD, and unplugged the serial cable, replacing it with the SynScan HC. Which turned out to be a mistake. Oh, it needn’t have been. The SynScan HC actually worked rather well on its last outing. But I was, again, tired and in a snit and took the easy way out.
After I’d polar-aligned the Atlas, which is easy with it polar scope, one of the best in the business in my opinion, at least as regards the quality of its optics and the AFOV of its eyepiece, it was time to do a go-to alignment. The only two viable options with the SynScan are “two-star” and “three-star.” I chose three-star, since it usually—but not always—results in a slightly more precise alignment.
If I’d done what I did last time out, all would have been well. But I didn’t. Instead of carefully scrolling through the alignment stars the SynScan offers and picking the best choices, I just accepted whatever it came up with on its own. It is critical the first two alignment stars in a three-star alignment be as far apart as possible, especially to include being several hours apart in R.A., and most of the time the first two stars offered by the HC do not satisfy that requirement. In my defense, there were enough clouds that I probably couldn’t have done much better with alignment choices than the SynScan did.
After some fiddling around, I got an “alignment success” message, and sent the mount off to M13 as a test. The Great Globular was not centered, but it was well within the field of the 13mm Ethos eyepiece at f/6.3 via my Celestron reducer/corrector. Not bad, I thought. And it wasn’t bad, not at first.
Alignment done, on-deck was the question of what I was gonna target on this increasingly poor evening. The remaining few Herschel IIs were out. The single one still above the horizon, a wee galaxy in Virgo I missed this past spring, was just about to set and in a cloud bank, anyway. And this sure didn’t look like a night for running through the Big Enchilada’s, the Herschel 2500’s, dim deep sky objects. So, what?
The original Herschel 400 list’s DSOs are, naturally a part of the 2500, and while I’ve been through the HIs a time or three, I want to re-observe everything for the Herschel Project. Also, I am guessing you might enjoy reading about my observations of ‘em more than you would the about the non-Herschel I/II fuzzies of the Big Enchilada (“small, faint 14th magnitude elliptical”). There are some real gems in the first 400, including some spectacular Messiers. So, now that the HII is about done, I am gonna take you-all through the original H400, I reckon.
I started out with a couple of Hercules aitches, since I was in the area already, and, them done, I walked over and took a gander at SkyTools 3 running on the netbook. Looking at the H 400 list and the current condition of the sky, it ‘peared Ophiuchus would be a good place to begin. The Snake Handler was getting on toward the west, but not outrageously so, and had the big plus of being relatively free of the worst of the clouds. I punched up the first of his H400s and was soon rocking with my beloved Ethoses.
That didn’t last, alas. After I’d worked my way through the OPH fuzzies that weren’t too low or obscured, I switched over to neighboring Sagittarius. Before starting Chiron’s Herschel Is, though, I thought I’d take a quick peek at one of my all-time faves, that great big granpappy of a globular star cluster, M22. When the SynScan HC beeped, indicating the slew was done, I put my eye to the 13E and saw…NOTHING. A couple of other experimental targets in the area were also out by fair amounts. That simply would not do.
What would I do? If I’d a-had good sense, I woulda realigned the SynScan on better alignment stars or fired up EQMOD. Amazingly enough, the sky was beginning to clear off by this time, with the Milky Way beginning to, if not burn, at least glow prominently, and there were plenty of good alignment targets horizon-to-horizon. Unfortunately, I again chose the easy way out. I used the SynScan’s sync function, which is called “PAE,” “Pointing Accuracy Enhancement,” when I entered areas where my go-to accuracy began to fall off.
That mostly worked OK (though it sometimes seemed as if I needed to sync on a couple of stars/objects in a given area before my go-to accuracy improved). In retrospect, it would have been easier just to realign the SynScan or go with EQMOD, but my syncing worked. I didn’t miss a single target due to go-to inaccuracy, though the PAE business was something of a pain.
Lesson learned? If the sky ain’t what it oughta be or I’m tired or distracted, the CG5 is a better choice. The alignments offered by the current Celestron firmware are deadly accurate, with “bad” star choices and poor polar alignment not doing pea turkey to lessen accuracy. Yes, the Atlas is worlds better for long exposure imaging, but the CG5 is more than good enough for either visual or Stallacam work. You know what? If my CG5 ever bites the dust (knock on wood), I will go right out and buy anudder one. This little mount has become my astronomical security blanket, and, like Linus, this kid his keeping his trusty blanket at his side from now on.
I suppose it sounds as if Night 12 of the Herschel Project was a bust, but it really wasn’t. Yes, the weather was a pain in the rear at first, and I could have managed the Atlas better, no doubt about that, but in the couple of hours we had before the sky closed down for good, I managed to bag over twenty Herschel Is in three constellations. Not a record by any means, but not bad for a below-average summer’s eve. I promise I’ll resume ticking the fuzzies off with more alacrity and regularity now that the sky (I hope) is getting clearer and calmer as October comes in.
First up was NGC 6229 (H.IV.50), a magnitude 9.4, 4.5’ diameter globular cluster in Herc (yes, there’s a third globular star cluster in Hercules). With C8 and 13mm Ethos (97x), it is very prominent. Round, unresolved. Forms a triangle with two magnitude 8 field stars about 6’ to the west. Granular in appearance as if it wants to resolve.
NGC 6207 (H.II.701) is the little galaxy 28’ northeast of M13. Easy enough with direct vision in the 13 Ethos, but averted vision shows a little more of this 3’ across intermediate inclination SAc spiral. A soft glow that’s obviously elongated.
It’s a Messier, but not much of a Messier. M107 (H.VI.40) is OK in the 8mm Ethos (157x), but given its somewhat lackluster nature and the fact that it is near the horizon, this loose, Shapley-Sawyer class X (10) globular would have been easy to pass over if I weren’t paying attention. Some resolution, with a few of its teeny-weeny stars winking in and out.
NGC 6287 (H.II.195) is a large globular star cluster, nearly 5’ across, shining serenely at magnitude 9.3. Unfortunately, it is currently low on to the horizon, and most of the time looks like nothing more than a round smudge. Easy in the 13mm eyepiece, however. A few cluster stars are seen, popping off like fireworks, with averted vision.
Yet another glob, NGC 6401 (H.I.44), is also very low in the sky. A round cosmic dust bunny without any resolution or graininess apparent. A magnitude 9.3 field star is 8’ to the south. In truth, this globular looks a lot like an undistinguished planetary nebula on this night in the C8 with the 8 Ethos.
NGC 6284 (H.VI.11), still another Ophiuchus globular cluster, is quite decent. This magnitude 8.9, 6.2’ object shows off a condensed core. A pair of mag 9 field stars lies about 10’ to the west. No evident resolution or graininess in the 13mm Ethos.
NGC 6355 (H.I.46), a magnitude 8.6 globular, is just barely visible in the 8mm eyepiece. It is no more than 10 degrees above the horizon, and given the haze and humidity, I am surprised I can see it at all.
The next globular, NGC 6293 (H.VI.12), is very good tonight. It’s big, 8.2’ in diameter, shining bravely at magnitude 8.3. Shows graininess and even some resolution around its periphery. Most resolved stars are picked up with averted vision.
Low down in the sky, Ophiuchus glob NGC 6316 (H.I.45) is a ghostly glow in the 13mm eyepiece, a round smudge a few minutes in size. There’s a magnitude 8.5 field star 19’ northwest of the cluster.
NGC 6818 (H.IV.51), the Little Gem, is a very pretty planetary nebula. A round, tiny (22”), and strongly-colored blue ball. Thanks to its small size, it is very bright at magnitude 10. 13 Ethos shows it well.
NGC 6440 (H.I.150) is a small but attractive globular star cluster. I don’t see many—if any—hints of resolution in this 4.4’ mag 9.3 fuzzy, but it is attractive nevertheless, positioned along a line of four magnitude 11 – 12 stars.
Planetary nebula NGC 6445 (H.II.586), “The Box” is fairly large, 35”, and fairly dim, magnitude 13, but it’s easy enough to see in the 8mm, though all that’s visible is a round smudge with no sign of the object’s weird, rectangular shape . A prominent double star is 5’ to the east.
NGC 6629 (H.II.204) is an OK small (16”) planetary nebula. An OIII filter helps a little, but there is really not much to see in the 8E other than a tiny disk near a magnitude 9.5 field star. This nebula is, if nothing else, set in a lovely, rich field.
A small but beautiful globular star cluster, NGC 6642 (H.II.205), is also set in a very rich star field. Best in the 8mm eyepiece, where it looks grainy and almost resolved. I seem to catch sight of a few tiny stars occasionally with averted vision.
NGC 6544 (H.II.197) is very nice. This glob is not overwhelmingly bright at magnitude 7.5 given its large 9.2’ size, but it is in a pretty field of dim stars. Fair resolution with the 8E.
NGC 6638 (H.I.51) is a small globular with a small core that’s very prominent in its field. I am not sure I detect a bit of resolution in this 9.2 magnitude cluster, though.
Globular cluster NGC 6522 (H.I.49) is near the horizon and is somewhat loose with a Shapley – Sawyer class of VI. In the 13E, I do see some cluster stars. The 8mm eyepiece doesn’t improve the view much, if at all.
NGC 6624 (H.I.50) is also very low now. Large at 8.8’ and bright at magnitude 7.6, I suppose this globular would be very attractive when higher in the sky. Easy to see in the 13mm, though I don’t note much resolution. Prominent, condensed core.
The Digital Sky at Night
If you read “Digital Issues,” you’ll recall I praised the UK’s Sky at Night Magazine for continuing to do a great job with its “cover CD,” but I also said I sure hoped they, like Sky & Telescope, would soon offer an honest-to-god online edition of the magazine itself. Wasn’t but a day or two later that I got an email from Graham Southorn, who, as you may know, is the magazine’s talented editor. He said Sky at Night was on course to go digital, and that he’d see I got a subscription once all was in place.
That happened just the other week, while I was up in DC for Miss D’s daughter’s, Miss Beth’s, wedding. I spent a fair amount of time sitting in the hotel room while Miss D and Miss B and the other women in the wedding did girl stuff, so I was absolutely delighted to get an email saying my digital Sky at Night subscription was ready to go. I hustled right over to the website of Zinio to have a look see (SAN, like S&T, has a third party doing their online digizine version).
What I found was very similar to Nxtbooks’ Sky and Telescope. And that is a good thing. Oh, there are a few things missing from the Zinio e-reader that I hoped to see, like the ability to save issues as.pdf Adobe Acrobat files, but mostly I was impressed. Looks good, works good.
If nothing else, this will be a boon for English speaking amateurs who live outside the UK. With the digital version, we are no longer nearly a month behind Old Blighty, which is where we are with print issues of Sky at Night Magazine. Expect a full review/rundown on the digital SAN “soon.”
Guess what, y'all? I have just received one of Hotech's new "Advanced CT" SCT laser collimators for evaluation. I've just barely got started with it, but if all goes well you'll get a full report on it either next Sunday or the Sunday after. First blush? I am very impressed with the gadget's build quality; it's just plain luverly!
Sunday, September 19, 2010
On (Astronomy) Writing
Yeah, I know, this was supposed to be a Herschel Project report. Unk was in the air flying across the U.S. of A. again this week, howsomeever, so you'll have to wait till next Sunday for that. In the meantime...
I get quite a few questions from y’all about writing. Not that I hold myself up as any kind of paragon of the literary art—far from it. But I have had a little experience along those lines, and I’ve had some real good teachers from high school to graduate school who at least tried to show me how to produce decent prose. I don’t have the time and space to teach you the basics of writing this morning, but that’s OK. Most of the questions I get asked aren’t about writing per se, anyhow; it’s more “Where do you get your ideas?” and “How do you get started?” and “How do you sell your writing?” That, we do have time for.
Since I know more about my own writing than anybody else’s I suppose the place to begin is with me. If I’d had good sense, I would have got started as soon as I left the Air Force and returned to Possum Swamp. But I didn’t have good sense. I was a late bloomer and didn’t start writing professionally till the 80s ran out. Like most people interested in the pursuit for any but the basest reasons, I’d actually been writing for a long time before that. How could I not? As somebody, I can’t remember who at the moment, famously said, "A writer is pregnant with words and must seek parturition." If you are destined to put pen to paper, if you have the affliction, you know how true that is.
Foolishly, I let most of the 80s slip away before I got serious. I was way too distracted with getting my engineering career underway and dealing with the explosion of a marriage and the fallout from that. In a way, though, I began at just the right time, when computerized amateur astronomy was taking hold. Not Internet astronomy, since nobody I knew twenty years ago had access to the Internet, but online astronomy nevertheless. We were sharing newsletters across the country via modem to modem communications. Also with the first, shaky computer network for civilians, Fidonet. We chatted on its wonderful Astronomy Forum and arranged to exchange newsletters and newsletter articles there or on our local Bulletin Board Services (BBSes).
Computers and modems meant you no longer had to jump right into the deep end of the pool, sending unsolicited manuscripts to the glossy magazines. You could establish a presence in the field first by having your work read (and criticized) by your fellow amateurs in club newsletters, lots of club newsletters. Soon enough, the Internet opened up to Joe and Jane Amateur Astronomer, and you could “publish” yourself in places like sci.astro.amateur, the Internet’s original amateur astronomy forum. And it got even better with that WWW World Wide Web thing; you could post articles and gear reviews on your website or on the other amateur astronomy websites popping up like dandelions on a spring lawn.
From there, for me, it was a fairly easy jump to getting my work into semi-pro-zines and small press pubs like The Practical Observer and Amateur Astronomy Magazine (where I appeared during the Tom Clark days and for a while beyond that). But I had yet to make a sale, and, frankly, my prose and my work habits needed improvement before anyone would want to give me money for my stuff. That’s where I lucked out. A buddy of mine mentioned me to somebody who shortly gave me a ring, wondering if I’d like to work on astronomy cards.
The card fad seems to have died out, but for a while it was big and advertised heavily on late night TV. Wha? "Cards" were were two to four pages on any subject under the sun printed on card stock, usually arranged as a fold out so four pages could be printed on one sheet. The cards were punched and were meant to be stored in loose-leaf binders purchased by subscribers. While their subjects could range from gardening to military aircraft to everything in between, many of these collections (which could number in the hundreds of cards) were aimed at the young folk, as was The Secrets of the Universe.
I won’t bore y’all with the details, but what it boiled down to was I had to submit 1300 words every Monday morning. The subject of Secrets of the Universe was ostensibly space and astronomy, but to ensure a decent number of cards in the final collection (four fat binders worth), topics could range far afield; I did articles on everything from Dinosaur DNA to balloon-borne telescopes. It was hard work, but paid well, almost insanely well as a matter of fact, and I was proud of what my fellow contributors and I produced, which was essentially a cool science encyclopedia for tweenagers.
Yeah, the pay on SOTU was superfine, but in retrospect I shoulda paid them. I’ve had some excellent writing teachers over the years, but I believe my tenure on Secrets did more to round-off the edges of my prose than anything before or since. Maybe even more important, I gained the discipline required to crank out professional prose week after week; not just when I felt like it. I also learned how to research subjects I knew nothing about, thoroughly and in a hurry, and work what I learned into something understandable and fun for my audience.
In addition to doing a lot for the quality of my prose, the SOTU project did wonders for my self confidence. I discovered I could write on spec—on demand. The fact that I was one of a smaller group of the original Secrets authors chosen to stay on to the very end of the work, led me to believe that, while no threat to Tennessee Williams, my work must not be that bad. Thank god that just when I was beginning to get big-head-itis, I was brought down to earth by a challenge that scared me.
Seemed as Springer – Verlag, a publisher long famous for their textbooks and technical – scientific publications, was starting a new series. A big series, practically a separate imprint, under the aegis of everybody’s favorite amateur astronomer: “Patrick Moore’s Practical Astronomy Series.” A kind friend of mine gave my name to the new Editor of this series when he mentioned they’d like a book on Schmidt Cassegrains in the first go-round of releases. In just weeks, I had signed a contract and was wondering where the hell you start when you have to turn out two or three hundred pages of book, honest-to-god BOOK, and the clock is ticking.
I suppose what kept my rear end out of the fire was the memory of what some good and true teachers had drilled into me. Particularly, Ms. Beverly Strickland of the University of South Alabama. Start with a good outline (I HATE outlines). Tell ‘em what you’re gonna tell ‘em. Tell ‘em. Tell ‘em what you’ve told ‘em. That’s all there is to it. That, the help of Miss Dorothy and many friends who read the manuscript of Choosing and Using a Schmidt Cassegrain Telescope, and the kind attention of my understanding Editor at Springer, John Watson, meant the book was not a total disaster. I got it in on time, and some people seemed to like it. I can hardly bear to pick it up now, since my many mistakes glare at me from its pages, but it was a small success in a small amateur astronomy sort of way despite my fumbles.
After Choosing and Using? I took some time off from books, but continued to contribute articles to small-press magazines, and turned my club newsletter, Skywatch, into a little something more, an online semi-magazine of my own read by three – four thousand of my fellow amateurs each issue. I was also initiated into the interesting business that’s a big part of amateur astronomy writers’ lives, speaking at star parties and club meetings. Hell, I was a featured speaker at an Astronomical League Convention one year. Me.
I hardly felt I’d triumphed, though. I had yet to break into the biggest of big leagues: the astronomy magazines. I’d sent a few unsolicited articles off to Sky and Telescope and Astronomy over the years, but they were dreadful and belonged right where they no doubt ended up, on the bottom of an Editor’s slush pile or in a landfill somewhere.
I had a book under my belt, now, though. Maybe, my skills were finally appropriate for those Valhallas of amateur astronomy? Just as I began to screw my courage to the sticking point, another contract intervened. It seemed I was to be given the chance to write the book I’d really wanted to write in the first place, one about a passion of mine, urban deep sky observing. Writing that book is a subject for a separate blog someday, but I was and am pleased with the result, The Urban Astronomer’s Guide, and it is the piece of work that’s still closest to my heart. No, it’s not perfect, but it’s very close to what I wanted, and I am content. I can still pick it up and thumb through it without too much pain.
I finally did achieve my heart’s desire, appearing both in Sky and Telescope and in a pub I think was the best beginners' astronomy magazine anybody’s ever done, Sky Publishing’s Night Sky. The realities of economics, especially given the miniscule audience for magazines about star gazing, meant Night Sky didn’t live long, but I am extremely proud to have been a small part of it. I made some money, too, if, as with Secrets of the Universe, I should probably have paid it back as tuition, given the kind and valuable coaching I received from legendary editor Kelly Beatty.
What’s next? There’s this blog, which I love. I can be as corny and silly as I want and write on anything I like from the plastic space toys of the 1960s to my first look at a comet. Y’all seem to enjoy reading it, so I’ll continue doing it as long as I can. It’s evidently taken the place of good, old Skywatch, since I haven’t felt moved to publish an issue of that in a long time. I’d like to sell more to the magazines, and I will work on that, but I also have some ideas for a new book. Maybe two new books.
• You must write.
• Finish what you start.
• You must refrain from rewriting, except to editorial order.
• You must put your story on the market.
• You must keep it on the market until it has sold.
Rule One: You Must Write
This seems self-evident. You are a writer, you write. As the Great and Powerful Wizard of Oz liked to say, though, “Not so fast, not so fast.” This rule does not read “You Must Write When You Feel Like It,” which is the way some folks smitten with the desire to see themselves in print interpret it. It means you sit down and write every day. Somebody, sometime—maybe Dashiell Hammett, maybe Mary Heaton Vorce, maybe Kingsley Amis—once said, “The art of writing is applying seat of pants to seat of chair.” This quote is no doubt attributed to many people because it is so true.
Look at it this way… How many times have I referred to Sir William Herschel’s opinion that observing is like playing a musical instrument? That you’ll never be any good at either unless you practice a lot? Well, it’s also—maybe even moreso—true for writing. Even a person with virtuoso talents will never reach their full potential without practice and one hell of lot of it. The very idea that you sit down and write only when you are "inspired" is ludicrous.
You sit down and write every day, about something. What? It doesn’t much matter . If you don’t have a current project, keep a journal. Blogs are another good way to keep your writing muscles toned. In fact, I think the idea of a blog, at least in addition to if not instead of a journal, is a good one. The knowledge that at least a few people are gonna read what you have written tends to keep you on your toes. As silly and informal as this blog can be, I believe it has gone a long way toward sharpening my skills. I do know one thing: some of my ideas come out of the blue, but most come out of daily writing sessions.
So, you write every day. You try to, anyway. I miss a day once in a while, though not too often. I don’t beat myself up if I do, I just keep on truckin’. I rarely suffer from anything even approaching the much feared WRITER’S BLOCK. I can always get some words out. Even if, sometimes, I don’t feel too much like it. That’s when I apply a rule, not from Bob Heinlein, but from Dorothy Mollise, something she calls "The Ten Minute Rule." When you don’t feel like applying seat of pants to seat of chair, just tell yourself you’re only going to have to write for TEN MINUTES. Do that, and, when you come up for air, you’ll usually find an hour or two has elapsed.
So, you’re gonna write every day. When? That depends on you. My buddy Phil (Harrington), an author of no small repute, tells me he prefers to write early in the morning. That’s a good thing for many folks. In the morning it’s quiet; there are few things to distract. Me? I can write anywhere, anytime. Nothing much bothers me, so I tend to work in the afternoon after I get home from the day job. With the TV blaring. With the Allman Brothers Band on the stereo.
Rule Two: Finish What Your Start
Another important one for any writer in any field. Failure to obey this rule has been the ruin of more than one person I thought was destined for fame and fortune. You know the sort I mean. The person down to the club who is working on an article about the wonderful new telescope design they’ve discovered. Or the friend at work who’s gonna hit it big with a breakthrough novel. They are going to send it off to Scribner's just as soon as it's finished. Which turns out to be never. The subject of the novel changes once in a while, but the “just as soon as it’s finished” never does.
This is avoidance behavior. If you don’t have a finished piece, you don’t have to send it off and suffer rejection. Not having the guts to send baby out into the world is bad enough, but what’s worse is these people never learn how to finish their work. Make a pact with yourself: even if you know you will not submit your article or book anywhere, if you know it is absolute odiferous crap and there is no hope for it, you will finish it anyway.
Rule Three: You Must Refrain From Rewriting, Except to Editorial Order
Obviously, Heinlein was a huge success in almost everything he did. But not everything. Some of his later novels could have stood a bit or rewriting if'n you don’t mind me saying so. I don’t agree with his Rule Number Three, and I don’t think most writers and writing teachers do either. There is no doubt any piece can be worked over until it’s completely bloodless and no longer says what you wanted it to say. But to suggest, if that’s what Heinlein was doing, that you never revise and rewrite is just plain silly.
I am pretty good at getting words on paper, but I would never DREAM of submitting a first draft of anything. It’s not my style, anyhow. I write fast, turn the pages out, and don’t worry too much about mistakes and wrong turns. I fix that on the second and third and fourth passes. Even if I were maniacally careful with my first draft, I know good and well there would be problems in it, plenty of ‘em. I rarely detect anything but the most egregious foul-ups till I come back to the work the next morning.
So why did Heinlein say this? I think he was using hyperbole. He just means you should not mess with your work till it falls apart. I hope that’s what he means. Or maybe he figured everybody was as famous and hugely talented as he was and had a copy editor who was only too happy and able to fix the faux pas of an early draft.
Rule Four: You Must Put Your Story on the Market
This is also very important. How can you be a writer if no one ever reads your writing? You have to get your finished work to the readers. Which used to be horribly difficult in our field. We are smaller, far smaller, even than the tiny science fiction market. We have two domestic newsstand magazines and a couple in the UK to sell to. Amateur astronomy books take up one or two shelves at the local chain book store.
Magazine sales can be particularly tough. Naturally, anybody who wants to write about amateur astronomy is trying to get into Sky and Telescope and Astronomy. Plenty of highly experienced and talented people are eager to be seen in either. Even if the Editor of one of the glossies decides they need to fill a slot in the magazine with somebody other than one of their staff writers, they will likely go to a freelancer they know and have worked with before, not an unknown.
Why would they do such a thing when your excellent article just came in the mail? Because, for one thing, they know a person who’s written for them before will be easy to work with when it comes to the inevitable changes and revisions that will be required. Believe it or not, I’ve known several unpublished authors who have almost MADE IT, but, when told by their editor that changes would be needed, have balked or not been able to revise their work in a timely manner. Which is, I guess, why these people remain unpublished.
The above said, the editors of the U.S. and UK astro-pubs are more open to using submissions from unknowns by far than the editors of many other types of mags. Trying to get into Popular Mechanics, for example, is a lot harder. If your article is decently written and on a subject the editor needs/is interested in, you might strike gold on your first try. So don't be afraid to try.
How about books? Even publishers with strong astronomy/amateur astronomy lines publish a relatively small—tiny, actually—number of new titles over the course of the year. Even fewer in recession years like the last couple. Consequently, not many book editors are willing to hand out contracts to people they don’t know or aren’t known in the field. If you have a completed book to show, and it is good, you will have a chance, but the competition is pretty fierce.
If some book and magazine editors are not too interested in unknowns, what’s the best way to get known? The two major amateur astronomy websites, Astromart and Cloudy Nights. Both run gear reviews and articles of other types, and both will publish just about any decent material you send them (though you may take a while to appear depending on how many submissions they’ve had). You can even bypass that and “submit” your reviews, your observing reports, or just about anything else as a post in either of these websites’ many forums. Just be aware you’ll need to keep ‘em relatively short and oriented strongly to the topic of the forum you are posting in.
Next step up is semi-pro-zines and non-newsstand astronomy magazines. The two biggies of that sort currently are Amateur Astronomy Magazine and Astronomy Technology Today. The former prints material on anything related to amateur astronomy, and will also accept articles of the “astronomy-fact” persuasion, articles about goings-on in the science of astronomy. Astronomy Technology Today tends to concentrate on equipment reviews and reports. Which is a good thing, since that’s what many newbies in our field want to write about.
No, you probably won’t get paid by these magazines or the others like them, but you will get read, maybe even talked about if you did good--or bad. I can't overemphasize how instructive seeing your work in the context of a magazine and hearing the comments of readers can be. I also can’t overemphasize the ego boost you'll get from finally getting there, being printed.
None of the book editors are interested in your magnum opus, The Remembrance of Telescopes Past? You can consider the modern take on the old “self publishing” thing, which is now called “publish-on-demand” (or "print-on-demand"). Publish-on-demand means no copies of your book will be kept in stock by the publisher, who is really more like a printer. Books will be printed as they are ordered. As far as I know, most of these outfits will accept just about any manuscript submitted to them.
Publish-on-demand has worked for some authors, but it sounds like a hell of a lot of work to me—you will be doing most/all the layout and graphics for the book yourself (and promotion of the finished book, too). I want somebody who knows what they are doing, a real publisher, to take care of that. And I want MONEY in the form of an advance (on royalties), which you can forget about getting from a publish-on-demand house.
Rule Five: You Must Keep it on the Market until it has Sold
This is a corollary of the previous rule. Course, in our little world it doesn’t take long to exhaust the places where your work can be published. What if nobody likes it and it doesn’t get published? Not even online? If you’ve done what you oughta do before submitting, that likely won’t happen. Somebody will take it, though they may not give you any money for it. If nobody wants your work, that means there is something wrong, seriously wrong, with it that needs fixing.
“But Uncle Rod, I know it’s good; I revised it a hundred times.” That in itself can be the problem, but usually the problem is that when we read our own work we read what we want to read. I don’t just mean you miss spelling, punctuation, and grammar errors, but that what seems clear to you ain’t necessarily clear to Joe Schmoe when he reads your article or chapter. That’s why it is terribly important to have someone look at your work when you are done.
That doesn’t have to be someone who’s a writer or even knows pea-turkey about writing. It is helpful if the reader knows something about your topic—Aunt Lulu might not be a good judge of your article about CCD image processing (or she might). The important thing is to have another set of eyes look at it. Even today, I would not dream of sending out a professional for-pay assignment without having the talented Miss D. give it the once-over.
Rule Six: Start Working on Something Else
Heinlein, great as he was, didn’t have all the answers or even all the questions. So, I've decided to throw in a couple more rules of my own. What I am saying with thisun is, “fun is fun, but done is done.” Once you’ve given it your best and have submitted the copy (or hid it under the bed), you do not continue to agonize over your work. You move on to something else. You are done and you do the seat of pants to seat of chair thing. That’s how you get better and how you develop a body of work.
Rule Seven: Get Help if You Need It
Something I hear once in a while is, “Unk, how do I learn to write?” If you are interested in writing anything, you probably stayed awake at least part of the time in the English/creative writing classes you took in high school and college. You know the basics; you just need to work and practice. Unless you don’t know the basics, of course.
Which is possible. I’ve known people who slept through their English classes, and then, years later, were bitten hard by the writing bug. They don’t know a fracking apostrophe from a dependent clause, and, if they are lucky, they know they don’t. The first thing an editor is going to expect, what an editor is going to, in fact, assume, is that you are able to turn out professional, readable prose on demand. If it’s obvious your work, even if it is interesting and a good idea for a book or magazine article, will require extensive corrections and revisions, your poor little pages will go right back into the slush pile—or into the round file.
How do you get help? There are numerous books, starting with Strunk’s famous Elements of Style. If you are just a little rusty, that may be all the help you need. Perhaps aided and abetted by something to refresh you on English grammar/mechanics. I still favor The Little Brown Handbook; not just for its advice and tutelage on grammar, but for its sensible guidelines on clear expository writing (which is what astronomy writers do). If you think your case is a little more serious, investigate the night/non-credit courses in writing and English your local university/community college no doubt offers. In fact, that’s usually the best idea, since you will get not just pointers, but critical eyes on your work.
Next time: "Hello again, Willie and Lina!"
Sunday, September 12, 2010
West Virginia is Still Heaven
Country roads, take me home
To the place I belong,
West Virginia, mountain mama,
Take me home, country roads.
Almost heaven? Uh-huh. As a matter of fact, maybe there ain’t no “almost” to it.
Did y’all know there is good sky—great sky—east of the Mississip? When us hardcore deep sky hounds think “real good,” we generally think “Texas and points west.” But there are some sites in the eastern half of the U.S. of A. that, while they can’t compete with the western deserts for dryness, can go neck and neck for darkness and beauty. You just have to get off the beaten path: northern Louisiana…central Florida…the lonely parts of the Midwest…and West Virginia.
If you’ve been reading this little epistle for a while, you know Unk Rod, like most astronomy writers, spends a fair part of the star party seasons, spring and fall, in the air flying-in to distant gatherings to speak to my fellow amateurs on whatever strikes my somewhat odd fancy. Yeah, I’ve been a lot of places, from Cherry Springs in the east to the Idaho Star Party in the west, and I have had a great time everywhere I’ve been and love all of y’all dearly, but for years my heart has been in the mountains of West Virginia.
Maybe you don’t associate WV with a big amateur gathering. It’s still rustic, with its little towns mostly untouched by the hand of time. Yes, the state is blessed with a rather cosmopolitan city and some excellent colleges and universities, but much of it still looks about the way it does in Unk’s fave film October Sky. West Virginia, the eastern part of the state anyway, does have the advantage of being in proximity to the cultural mecca of the Washington DC metro area, while remaining out of the congestion and the light domes.
One of the premier resources of DC as far as I am concerned is that well-known group of amateurs, NOVAC, the Northern Viriginia Astronomy Club. They are an outstanding bunch, well-known for everything from their observing skill, to their untiring efforts at public outreach, to their talent for putting on a bang-up star party. Amazingly for such a distinguished group, they seem to have taken a liking to your old Uncle.
Some years ago, the NOVAC gang began hosting a star party at a facility belonging to The Mountain Institute, their Spruce Knob site. This location being well over the border in West Virginia, the obvious name for the new event was the Almost Heaven Star Party, which must be just about the best name of any star party in the world. Where did I come in? A few years back, the good NOVAC folk asked me up to AHSP as a speaker, they did that again not long after, and (you’d think they’d learn their lesson) they had me back for another bow this year.
I was sitting around the old manse, minding my own bidness when Microsoft Outlook made the weird sound that means “YOU’VE GOT MAIL!” I set down my tumbler of Rebel Yell and moseyed over to the kitchen workstation. Hmmm…from NOVAC’s Kathryn Scott. Seemed to be about the coming edition of the AHSP, to be held over Labor Day weekend. She was asking if I’d be interested in doing a presentation…
Would I? I’d be nuts not to. Great site, great skies, great people. What was the downside? None. Well, aside from having to once again experience first-hand the current sorry state of the U.S. air transportation system.
Getting to Spruce Knob involves a near-four hour drive from Dulles International Airport in addition to the air miles, so to arrive before dark my day had to start early, real early, with the first leg, to Atlanta, departing at six fracking a.m. That meant I had to drag my carcass outa bed at 3:30. I consoled myself with the idea that in return for the suffering, I might be able to avoid crowds and any problems caused by the stressing-out of the airlines by all the Labor Day travel. Hah!
I made it to Possum Swamp International in due time and plunked myself down in the gate area as close to the podium as I could get; I have learned to keep at least half an ear open for any weirdness. Just as I was beginning to think my trip would be trouble-free, the young woman at the desk answered the telephone and, after listening for a moment, turned to her compadre and said, “TSA says they have a problem!” Rut-roh.
You can dang well bet that got Unk’s attention. What got his attention even more was when the Agent picked up her P.A. mike and announced: “TSA says they missed screening a couple of people. The airport is closed and they are trying to decide what to do.” I had over an hour’s layover in Atlanta, but I was not sure that would provide enough of a cushion to allow me make my connection to Washington-Dulles if the security folks spent much time deciding.
When the hapless TSA finally figured out what they wanted to do, it got worse. What they wanted to do, it turned out, was rescreen everybody in the dadgum airport. That meant patting down everybody and doing a detailed hand-search of everybody’s carry-on bag. I do not blame the rank and file; they managed to have us on our way “only” about an hour after our scheduled departure time. What I do blame is the concept. All too much effort is utterly wasted, as with some foolishness I witnessed on this morning, TSA agents trying to get a wheelchair-bound grandmother to stand up so they could search her by the book. Ah well.
Y’all know about the Atlanta airport I am guessing. If’n you don’t, it is big, it is busy, and the airlines have a system in place that ensures your connecting flight’s gate will be just as far from your arrival gate as possible. There is a subway/tramway system, but given the time it takes to get to that, you are usually best off just hoofing it with the aid of the airport “slidewalks,” which is what I did. I actually made it to my airplane with a couple of minutes to spare, but no more than that. The stewardesses had given my seat away, but they found a spot for me in the back of the plane, and I was off on the last leg of my journey to heaven.
The rest of the trip was, mercifully, smooth. Well, almost smooth. I was flying north in the wake of Hurricane Earl, which had just brushed the east coast. There was some turbulence, but what I was more worried about was clouds. There seemed to be plenty of ‘em beneath us, and I just hoped they were not extending west into the Appalachians. I was reassured by the thought that not only had Earl stayed out at sea, Spruce Knob Mountain is the highest point in West Virginia, nearly 5,000 feet above the coastal muck.
On the ground at Dulles, I hustled. I had eschewed, as I usually do, checked baggage, so I was able to get to the rent-a-car shuttle without baggage-carousel delay. One of the best parts of the trip was that I would not have to find my way up to Spruce Knob by myself. Sky & Telescope Editor Bob Naeye would also be speaking, and wonder-worker Kathryn was able to arrange things so Bob’s flight from Boston and mine from Possum Swamp would arrive in Dulles at the nearly the same time. That meant we could share a car. Theoretically, anyway. Given the vagaries of today’s airline “service,” I had my doubts.
Just as I was setting down in the rent-a-car shuttle bus and beginning to wonder where the heck Bob might be, a dude got onboard. I glanced that way and caught a flash of a Sky & Telescope logo on his shirt. “Howdy Bob!” said I. Dang, everything was working out—finally.
Neither Bob nor I was overly confident about getting up into the mountains without help, even with GPS, so a kind member of the NOVAC, Alice McDonnell, would meet up with us and navigate. In just a few minutes we were off in search of those fabled Country Roads.
Given Alice’s patience and kindness, I hope we didn’t disappoint her with our conversation. Bob—a cool dude I’ve known for some years now—and I talked a little astronomy and cosmology and telescopes, but mostly about one of our other common interests: the outlook for the upcoming NFL season. Sorry Alice! After four hours of driving through plenty of this country’s most beautiful scenery (and Alice putting up with plenty of our foolishness), we found AHSP/Spruce Knob without a problem.
Kathryn soon had me and Bob oriented, settled in the site’s clean and comfortable dorm, and reacquainted with the field and the place where everything other than observing happens, the Big Yurt.
Yurt? Yep, “yurt.” The buildings of the Mountain Institute Spruce Knob facility are almost all done after one “theme,” the Mongolian Yurt. Not only is this a striking trope architecture-wise, it is very efficient. I believe the Big yurt is one of the largest structures of this type in the western hemisphere. The AHSP makes full use of this yurt, or, actually, “yurts.” There are two big ones, one serving as a lecture hall for presentations, and the other containing the kitchen, a little library, and a “meditation room” at the top beneath a Perspex dome that yields an impressive view of the night sky.
I walked around the site, getting reacquainted with old friends like Allan Mayer, marveling at all the work NOVAC had done to get the site ready for us, and taking in the beautiful surroundings and the beautiful telescopes arrayed across the expansive observing fields. Ever’thing from 25-inch Obesssions to a Questar 3.5 or two. The only slight downer was the weather. After all, a hurricane had passed not far to the east in the Atlantic.
You’ve got to expect some effects from a big, rip-roaring storm, and when I left the terminal in DC it was obvious something nasty had brushed by. The wind was gusting, and bands of dark clouds were flooding across the sky. There were clouds at Spruce Knob, too. At least they were moving, but, unfortunately, more kept coming in to take their place. Just as disturbing, the wind pushing them along was gusting with enough force to shake telescopes.
I tried not to think about the weather, and just enjoyed the afternoon, including Bob’s talk on Saturn. In the first of two parts, he edumacated us about Saturn’s disk and ring system. Mr. Naeye is passionate about the sixth planet, and it showed. His audience was large and enthusiastic, as it should have been.
After Bob was done, I peeked out at the sky: clouds still coming and going, but plenty of blue now in evidence, which made it easier to enjoy supper when 5 p.m. came. The food is cooked onsite by The Mountain Institute people, and they take their job very seriously. While choices tend to the healthy/vegetarian, there’s something for everybody. On Saturday night it was good, old hamburgers, with the option of “cow” or “veggie” patties. Both the burgers and the sides were excellent; I started out hungry after a day in the air and finished more than satisfied.
The other astro-merchant onsite was Astrogizmos, which complemented Hands On Optics perfectly. ‘Gizmos’ products are mostly the small things: red lights, telescope covers batteries, etc., etc. Which was a lifesaver when my camera’s AA cells gave up the ghost. One other thing should be mentioned, for sure: Astrogizmos provided the star party with free wi-fi Internet. No, it wasn’t fast given the size of the site and the bandwidth available, but it was darned sure better than nothing and allowed me to publish last week’s blog on time. Thanks, ‘Gizmos!
Despite all the good times to be had at a star party in the daytime or under clouds, we all wanna see cool stuff away from city lights, don’t we? Initially, the scent of skunk was in the air, but that didn’t last. As the sky darkened, it began to clear, and the few remaining clouds couldn’t obscure the majesty of Sagittarius and the southern Milky Way, which began to burn in earnest. Soon, the last of the clouds fled, and I could trace the Great Rift for most of its extent. It was telescope time.
I ain’t gonna lie to y’all: I was weary and didn’t make it long. I spent most of my time with Allan Mayer and his friends on the end of the field nearest to the road back to the dormitory. A nearby Obsession 25 beckoned, but I felt too tired and shaky to be comfortable on top of an orchard ladder.
The best view I had Saturday night, though? It wasn’t through a telescope of any kind, but through star party organizer Phil Wherry’s 15x50 Canon IS binoculars. M31 was great in these glasses the second I got it in the field, but pushing the “image stabilize” button turned it from great to “a thing of wonder.” It looked as much “like a galaxy” as I’ve ever seen it in scopes big or small, with one dark lane easy to see and those added attractions, M32 and M110, brilliantly on display. You wouldn’t think just steadying down the image would make so much difference, but it does. In my opinion, the view of M31 was superior to that to be had in a pair of hand-held 70 or 80mm binocs.
And that was cool. But I was also cool. Actually, I was cold. The wind was still whipping up occasionally, and with the temperature somewhere in the 40s, my light leather jacket wasn’t doing much good. Even the Jim Beam kindly dispensed by bro Allan didn’t help for long. Next time I travel to Spruce Knob, I’ll check a bag with a real coat in it. At 11:30, I’d had enough and walked back to the dorm, occasionally looking up to marvel at the ever more lovely heavens.
Sunday morning, which felt more like Saturday, since the star party would continue on through Monday, Labor Day, I awoke earlier than I should have, before dawn. But that was cool. I peeped out the window and was rewarded with a vista of the western sky that featured Pegasus galloping into the west pursued by old Jupiter. If only I could awake to such scenery every morning.
Breakfast was a little on the unusual side—for luddite ol’ me, anyway—make your own breakfast burritos. As I announced to all and sundry, I am not able to enjoy a burrito without a margarita to go with it, so I settled for just scrambled eggs and a little sausage and some of the good salsa on the side. Thus refueled, I went on walk-about, looking for interesting scopes and talking to old and new friends.
Rest of the day? I walked around, had a nice lunch, and sat in on Part 2 of Bob’s Saturn presentation. I was less interested in his focus this time, the planet’s moons, but he kept my attention nevertheless, and definitely that of the rest of the audience, who kept peppering him with questions long after he was supposedly done.
Supper was next, and, after that, that star party staple, the raffle. As is always the case when I don’t have my good luck charm, Miss Dorothy, at my side, I didn’t win a blessed thing. A lot of folks did win lots of cool stuff, of course. The NOVAC has an interesting slant on raffles. Rather than just putting all the tickets in a hat and drawing for one prize after another, they have a jar for each prize, allowing entrants to put their tickets in the jar of the prize/prizes they are most interested in.
Then darkness came rushing up the mountainside. The skies were darker and clearer on this night, and the wind was mostly absent. What did I want to see? More than anything I wanted to see what a long-time pal of mine, Lyle Mars, could do with his new Mallincam VSS deep sky color video camera and a C14. This is a configuration I think about a lot lately, and while I’m somewhat doubtful I want to wrestle with a “portable” C14, I am not ruling that out. If nothing else, what the camera could do with Lyle’s C14 would give me a clue as to what I could expect with one and my C11.
To be brief, the VSS was incredible. Lyle showed me quite a few cool things, but what’s stuck in my mind is how M101 and M51 looked. The first thing that blew me away was the color. It was strong and it was true. The cores of these two face-on spirals were golden yellow and their arms sapphire blue, just as they should be. Then there was the detail the camera delivered in 53-second integrations. It was delicious. It wasn’t a question of seeing dark dust lanes in M51, but of seeing how far you could trace them toward the nucleus. I still love my Stellacam II, but there is no doubt the Mallincam VSS represents the next step in deep sky video.
I finally dragged myself away from Lyle’s setup. I wanted to allow him to pursue his work without me constantly bugging him with questions and object requests, and I also wanted to get a sampling of what the rest of the folks on the field were doing with their scopes big and small. I saw plenty of beautiful things thanks to the kindness of the owners of the many telescopes I visited. Beautiful as these views were, though, they were not quite diverting enough to allow me to ignore the cold seeping into my old bones. I made it to midnight, and that was the best I could do.
Sunday, September 05, 2010
Uncle Rod’s Telescope Academy: The Autoguiding Auto de fé
What say I lay off the nostalgia for awhile? Oh, rest assured, you’ll eventually get more of the exciting adventures of Li’l Rod, Wayne Lee, and Miss Jitter, but not right now. Go to the old memory well too many times, and you start dredging up more bad than good. Most of my memories of my early days as an amateur are good ones, but, like just about everybody else’s, my early adolescent days had plenty of downs as well as ups. Time to leave-off and let some more good memories rise to the surface.
So, then, what’s the topic for this morning? One I’ve covered before. But also one I keep getting questions about. Lots of questions. And it is a confusing subject. What I’m a-talking about, brothers and sisters, is autoguiding. What hardware do you need to buy? How about software? How do you hook everything up? How in the H-E-double-L do you get it all work?
You are a sopping wet behind the ears newbie and ain’t got a clue what I am going on about? Well, listen up, and your old Uncle will edumacate you. Let’s say you want to take a picture of the night sky, of the deep sky. You want a detailed close-up of a nebula, a galaxy, or a star cluster. In other words, you want to take pictures through your telescope, not just through the lens of a camera riding “piggyback” on your telescope. What does that require?
Back when I was a youngun, I used to see advertisements for stuff like guide scopes and drive correctors in Sky and Scope, but for the life of me I couldn’t figure out what you did with the stuff. If you wanted to take a picture of, say, M42, you just mounted a camera in prime focus position on your telescope, plugged in the mount’s drive (no battery clock drives in them days) and let her rip. Open the shutter and come back in a half-hour or whatever. Sure, I knew you did need a good polar alignment, but that was it, right?
That’s what I thought till I got my first C8, a Celestron Orange Tube, and decided to get serious about deep sky picture taking. With careful polar alignment and balancing, the C8's drive could maybe have delivered OK 30-second images. I let it go for 30-minutes while I watched the latest episode of Mork and Mindy. When I developed my picture, I got, yep, STAR TRAILS. Bad ones. What the—?!
A little asking around at the club and a little reading of the few books on astrophotography I could find ‘splained what was going on. While I knew poor polar alignment could make the stars trail due to “declination drift,” I hadn’t heard about something called “periodic error,” which, it appeared, was the cause of my star trails.
The thing is, campers, most drive gears are not perfect, not even close. Take a gear, size it to where it’s appropriate for a normal, portable amateur mounting, drop the price to something acceptable to most of us, and you darn sure are gonna have imperfections. The gears will do a wonderful job for visual observing, but will stumble when it comes to imaging. Nothing is more demanding of a mount and its drive train than deep sky imaging. The smallest bump, the smallest irregularity in the gears, will cause the mount to speed up or slow down a small amount.
That is periodic error; it’s “periodic” because it repeats every time the bad spot on the gear rotates back around. The effect in the camera is a slow east-west back and forth of the target. In modern drives this deviation from proper tracking is usually less than 30 arc seconds, less than the diameter of Jupiter.
But that is enough. Even that small amount of periodic error will cause stars to trail in a long exposure. They will at best be oblong rather than perfectly round, and there’s not much tolerance for that on the part of most astrophotographers. Even just slightly off-round stars look horrible to most of us. What to do? You have three choices: live with it, throw money at it, or guide.
The simplest solution, and one that’s maybe recommended for beginning imagers is “live with it.” Almost any current mount, even an humble CG5, can track for a fair length of time without error. If the mount can expose for 30-seconds to 1-minute at reasonable focal lengths (say, less than 1000mm) and produce good stars, you can get started.
I found my CG5 was able to do good 30-second exposures at 800mm of telescope focal length most of the time. Yes, I’d get occasional frames where the stars would be oval or worse, but I just threw those pictures out. The rest I “stacked” in the computer to produce the equivalent of one long exposure. I could capture just about any deep sky object I wanted in this fashion with my C8, CG5, and Meade DSI camera.
I was happy with this “unguided imaging” solution while I was learning (finally) the difficult art of CCDing. Before long, though, as amateur astronomers always do, I wanted More Better Gooder. What’s the problem with stacking unguided short exposures? For one thing, I got tired of throwing out 1/3rd to 1/4th of my images. I had to spend more time with each target than I should have. There was also the noise problem.
Every CCD camera produces a certain amount of noise due to various electronic gremlins. Some types of noise are more prevalent in shorter exposures than in longer ones. While stacking multiple frames together tends to reduce this electronic noise, the result is never quite as noise-free as longer exposures . This was especially problematical with my DSI. As much as I liked and still like the little one-shot color camera, it was by nature noisier than its more expensive and (especially) monochrome cousins.
What then? I could have gone the “throw money at it” route. If you are willing to shed 10k dollars for your mount, you can begin to do longer unguided exposures. Maybe several minutes. My problem with this approach? In addition to my naturally stingy—err… "thrifty"—nature, living where I do, it’s impossible for me to have an observatory and permanently mounted telescope. If you are going to spend a lot on a telescope mounting for unguided imaging, you really do need to have the polar alignment dialed in as well as possible and the telescope precisely balanced in order to maximize the mount’s unguided potential. Having to set up at the club dark site every time I wanted to take pictures does not lend itself to either of these things.
That left autoguiding. I was no stranger to guiding per se. In my second go-round with deep sky astrophotography back in the late 80s and early 90s, I guided plenty of pictures. That was well before the advent of the autoguider—for amateurs anyway. Which meant that for the duration of an exposure, which with film was usually ½ to one hour, I had to squint through a crosshair eyepiece and keep a dim star centered. That blamed star would wander, and I’d push a button on my hand paddle to put it back in the crosshairs. Not fun.
Things are different now. Theoretically, at least, you should be able to guide without tearing your hair out and assuming the old astrophotographer’s 1000-yard stare. Guiding has been automated. Computerized, actually, like everything else. A CCD camera watches the guide star instead of you. It pipes its images to a computer program that can tell when the star moves and issues guiding commands to the telescope drive to move it back where it oughta be.
That is way-oversimplifying autoguiding, of course. In the real world there are just so many things to go wrong: camera, guide scope, cables, computer programs, etc., etc., etc. It is possible to conquer the various demons that will most assuredly bedevil you, but before you can begin troubleshooting/tuning your system, you have to have a system, and you have to make some decisions before you get one.
Guide Scope or Off Axis Guider?
The first of which is “Guide scope or off axis guider?” There are a few cameras that can guide and image at the same time through the same telescope. But in most cases you are going to have to either provide a separate telescope for a separate “guide camera,” or a means of picking off some of the main telescope’s light and sending it to that guide camera.
The simplest solution is a separate guide scope mounted to, riding piggyback on, the big scope. The usual choice is a small refractor, a 60mm to 80mm rig, maybe. Back in the days of manual, visual guiding, it was necessary to use as high a magnification as possible to ensure accuracy. You had to be able to notice the tiniest “excursions” of the guide star. That is no longer necessary. A CCD camera can do perfectly well with a short focal length guide scope like a Short Tube 80 refractor or one of the ubiquitous 66mm ED lens-scopes.
Naturally, you’ll have to mount the guide scope to the main scope, and how you do that is critical. You want “as sturdy as possible.” If there is any potential for flexure in its piggyback mounting, the guide scope may move a little over the course of an exposure. If the guide scope moves independently of the imaging telescope, that will cause stars to trail in the image no matter how well the guiding actually worked. “As sturdy as possible” is the answer.
Sometimes the fault isn’t with the guide scope, but with the main scope. If you are an SCT fan, you have probably heard of “mirror flop.” Since the telescope’s mirror moves back and forth to focus and is not securely mounted, there is the possibility it may move a little during an exposure. That will, like guide scope mounting flexure, cause the stars to trail, since, in essence, the main scope has moved independently of the guide scope—its image has, anyway.
Solution? Some modern SCTs, like the Meade ACFs and the Celestron Edge HDs, have mirror locks to fasten down the main mirror, preventing flop. Your CAT ain’t got ‘em? Some mechanically inclined imagers have fabricated their own locks, usually with bolts threaded through the rear cell. That’s not an option for the all-thumbs brigade headed by your old Uncle, though.
Actually, I’ve rarely had problems with mirror flop over the years, since I am careful to do one thing and avoid another. I always finish focus “uphill,” counterclockwise, which leaves the mirror in a stable position. I am also careful not to image anything crossing the meridian, since the change in the telescope’s attitude when tracking across the Local Meridian is when flop often happens. If you want to be sure of eliminating mirror flop, no ifs ands or buts, there is only one real fix, however.
The off-axis guider, the “OAG,” doesn’t just totally eliminate mirror flop in SCTs, it eliminates the need for a separate guide scope. How? It does so by stealing a little light from the edge of the CAT’s field. An off axis guider is a very specialized prime focus camera adapter. In addition to allowing you to attach your camera to the scope, it includes a star diagonal-like setup. There’s a focuser tube into which either an eyepiece or a guide camera can be inserted, and there is a diagonal mirror, just like a star diagonal. The difference is that it’s a very small mirror, and extends only into the very edge of the light cone.
This mirror, the “pickoff” mirror, grabs a little of the main scope’s light and allows the stars around the very edge of the field to be delivered to an eyepiece or camera. Since it’s very small, the pickoff mirror only shows a few stars. In order to locate a good guide star, the OAG is constructed so the mirror can be rotated around the edge of the field. Usually, but not always, a suitable star can be found this way. Some pickoff mirrors can be extended a little farther into the field in the quest for stars, as well. Since it’s small and at the edge, the mirror’s shadow isn’t likely to show up in the field of the imaging camera.
How does the OAG eliminate mirror flop? Actually, it doesn’t. But it does allow the guide camera to see star movement caused by mirror movement. If the guider sees the star move, whether due to periodic error or flop, it will issue the appropriate guide command to follow it.
I used an OAG for years, and got some good pictures, but it wasn’t pleasant. The OAG’s irritants are twofold. First, it is a pain to locate a good guide star when you are restricted to the small choice offered by the small mirror. Often, I’d have to compromise framing of my target in the imaging camera by moving the scope to bring a good star in. Today’s guide cameras are far more sensitive than my eyes, though, so that is not as much of a problem as it used to be. Nevertheless, the guide scope is still the winner here, since it can be moved in its rings to search for more stars, and the guide camera is, of course, taking in the full field of the guide scope, not just the edge.
One thing that is still a problem with OAGs is the shape of the field edge stars. Many scopes, particularly SCTs and faster focal ratio refractors and Newtonians, deliver misshapen stars at the field edge due to coma and/or field curvature. A star that looks like a blob or seagull may be impossible to guide on. Field-flattener lenses or coma correctors can help, and with some telescopes may be a necessity.
One last potential down-check? The OAG comes between camera and telescope. While an OAG can potentially be used on Newtonians and refractors, those scopes may not have enough focus range to accommodate one; especially if a focal reducer is being used. The camera will be placed too far out to come to focus.
All in all? I prefer the guide scope. It’s less painful to get going. On the other hand, once you have located a good guide star, the off-axis guider is capable of delivering better results. The Celestron f/6.3 reducer corrector I use with my DSLR for imaging delivers pretty good edge-of-field stars, so I’m thinking I might dig out my old OAG (if I can find it), the next time I have a hankering for some deep sky snapshots.
There is a third option, too: “OAG without the OAG.” Santa Barbara Instrument Group, SBIG, the famous CCD maker, offers cameras with built-in guide cameras. There is a guide chip arranged right at the edge of the imaging chip, and this guide chip, like the OAG, picks up stars at the edge of the field. No OAG is needed, and the very sensitive nature of the guider in these cameras means finding a star is rarely a problem.
The main limitation with Santa Barbara’s “self-guiding” cameras is edge of field star shape. I’ve had good luck imaging with my ST-2000 CCD camera with the f/6.3 reducer; not so good, variable anyway, when using Meade’s f/3.3 reducer with the C8. If you are in the market for a new imaging camera, the SBIGs with built-in guiders most assuredly deserve your serious consideration. No guiding setup is closer to plug and play.
Which Guide Camera?
Beginners tend to shy away from SBIG’s self-guided cameras for a number of reasons: cost, perceived complexity, they just want to use the family DSLR for astrophotography, etc. If, for whatever reason, you don’t want an SBIG ST, you will need a separate guide camera in addition to your imaging cam (self-guiding is proprietary to SBIG).
One thing I urge is that you not scrimp. Some new imagers waste precious time and reduce their hairlines by playing around with webcams. One can work with the appropriate software, like the freeware Metaguide, but only if you are lucky enough to have a nice, bright guide star in the field. Which is rarely the case. Unless modified, a webcam cannot expose for longer than 1/30 second. Even semi-webcams like the Meade LPI or Celestron NexImage that can expose for longer are not sensitive enough for easy guide star acquisition and good guiding.
If you need to save bucks, almost any CCD camera can work. Many last-generation cameras can be had for a song on Astromart, and if you can find guiding software that supports your camera of choice, you are in like Flynn. One caveat: eschew really old cameras that use a serial or parallel interface instead of USB. You will have a very hard time getting them going for a number of reasons, including that modern PCs have neither parallel nor serial ports. A good choice of used camera in my opinion is one of the (no longer produced) Meade DSIs. I, II, III, it really don’t matter. All are sensitive enough to make good guide cams.
Don’t have an old DSI lying around and don’t want to buy used? Today, there are numerous cameras sold specifically for use as guiders. Many of ‘em come from the same factories in China, and all are basically similar. A lot of us are using the Starshoot guide cams from Orion. Their attractions are that they are quite inexpensive—the base model is less than 300 bucks—and are equipped with ST-4 guide outputs (more on that later). The Orion guide cameras do have the deficiency of using CMOS instead of CCD chips, and are less sensitive than the Meade DSIs and similar cameras. Nevertheless, I have always been able to locate a suitable guide star in any field with my Starshoot.
There’s another type of guide camera you may be interested in; especially if you don’t like toting a computer in the field, the self-contained guiders. They don’t require a PC to operate; they have a small hand unit that takes care of all the computer work. The old SBIG ST-4 and STV cameras, long since discontinued, used this all-in-one concept, but for the longest time, there didn’t seem much call for it. If you were using a CCD camera, you’d need a computer in the field anyway, so why not just let it handle the guiding, too?
Self contained “solitaire” guiders are back in a big way. Things changed with the advent of the DSLR for astrophotography. Some of us run our DSLRs with laptop computers, just like we do CCDs. But some DSLR imagers eschew PCs and use a simple remote shutter release, relying on (increasingly good) DSLR video displays for framing and focusing. These folks don’t need a PC for imaging, so it’s wonderful for them to be able to dispense with one for guiding, too. If this sounds good, look at the Orion Starshoot Solitaire, the LVI Smartguider II, the SBIG SG-4, and the Celestron NexGuide.
If you are not using a solitaire guider, you will operate the guide camera with software running on a computer. There are numerous CCD software packages that will autoguide. Most of the top-of-the-line imaging programs, like MaximDL and CCDsoft guide as well as image. Be sure these programs will interface with your guide cam before you pull out your wallet, though. And be sure you need this expensive software. If you are using a DSLR, you probably don’t.
Whether you run a DSLR or a CCD, one autoguiding program is head and shoulders above everything else, and, believe it or not, it is free: Stark Labs’ PHD Guiding. “PHD” in this context don’t mean “Doctor of Philosophy,” it means “Push Here Dummy.” And that’s the truth. Hook everything up, push a couple of buttons, and the puppy just LOCKS ON. Hell, my first night of imaging with PHD, I had set up EQMOD wrong. My Atlas mount was tracking at the wrong speed as a result. PHD said “so what?” and kept the guide star in the crosshairs anyway.
PHD is not for imaging, only guiding, so you’ll need a separate program for your imaging camera. While PHD works great with Stark Labs inexpensive (and great) imaging program, Nebulosity, it is just as happy alongside any other imaging program.
Another freebie that should be investigated is the aforementioned Metaguide. Not only will it do a superb job of autoguiding, it will help you precisely collimate your telescope with the aid of a webcam. The only problem is that it’s limited in the cameras it can use, being restricted to webcams and video cameras at this time.
Hooking It All Up
Hokay, you done got a guide camera, a telescope mount, and a PC (maybe). How do you hook it all together? This is where a whole lotta folks get awful confusticated. They plunk down mount, camera, and computer and start pluggin’ in cables where they think they should go and are dismayed when nothing at all (good) happens.
Now the sticky part: that serial cable. If you intend to guide via a serial cable, you do NOT connect it to the autoguide port. You connect to the serial port on the telescope mount, usually on the base of the hand controller. You also do not use the guide cable that came with the guide camera, if one came with it. You connect using the serial cable designed for your mount. The same one you use to send the scope on go-tos via a planetarium program running on the laptop.
In serial guiding, when the computer needs to move the mount to follow the guide star, it sends a computer command not much different from what gets sent from a planetarium program to move the telescope. Don’t worry about congestion on the RS-232 freeway if you intend to use your planetarium software while imaging. Cartes du Ciel (for example) and PHD Guiding (for example) will coexist peacefully. When you are guiding, not too much is happening with the planetarium software, anyhow.
Naturally, before you can begin guiding through the serial port, you have to tell the software that’s what you intend to do. In PHD, that involves using the (free) ASCOM telescope interface software. Once ASCOM is installed, it’s not much of a hassle. Just select your telescope from the “chooser” that pops up when you begin the connection process.
Some imagers don’t like to guide serially. There are a variety of reasons for that. One is that some think the autoguide port on the mount is better, that there is less of a time-lag between issuing guide commands and telescope response. That may be, but I don’t think there’s enough difference to make much difference. I’ve used both serial and autoguide port (“ST-4”) guiding and have never noticed much difference. It is true, however, that if the mount and camera both both have autoguide ports, you can save a little cable tangle by eliminating one wire going to the PC.
What do you need for ST-4 “Way Two” guiding? In addition to an autoguide port on the mount, you need the appropriate cable. That is not a serial cable, but an ST-4 compatible cable. What’s an ST-4? That was SBIG’s famous early imager/guider. One of its breakthroughs was that it inaugurated a simple relay/switch closure guiding system. Yep. What the autoguide port on the mount understands is not fancy computer commands, but simple switch closures. In this day and age, the switches/relays are virtual, electronic switches, but what’s happening is still the simple opening and closing of connections. Just like pushing east/west/north/south buttons on the HC.
So, to get started you will need an ST-4 type cable, which is wired differently from a serial one. If the guide camera features an autoguide output, you were likely provided with an ST-4 cable. How do you hook up for ST-4 guiding? If the camera has an ST-4 output, it’s simple. Plug the ST-4 cable into that and into the autoguide port on the mount. You will still need to connect a USB cable between the camera and computer for image downloading and camera control, of course. What do you tell the guiding software? In PHD, select “on camera” for the guiding interface. You do not need and will not use ASCOM for autoguide port/ST-4 guiding.
There’s also a Way Three. Let’s say you want to use your mount’s autoguide port, but are using a camera, like a DSI, without an ST-4 guide output. Does that make ST-4 guiding impossible? No, it doesn’t, thanks to a little company called “Shoestring Astronomy.” They provide something called the “GPUSB.” This is a small module that plugs into USB ports. It allows the guide software to send ST-4 switch closure commands out a USB port and down an ST-4 cable that plugs into the mount’s autoguide port as per normal. Assuming the software will accommodate a GPUSB, you have to tell it about it. In PHD, just choose “GPUSB” on the “mount” menu.
Is there a Way Four? Yes there is if you have a solitaire style autoguider. The exact connections will be peculiar to the particular guide camera, so read the manual, but there’ll be a cable (or cables) between camera and the solitaire’s handbox. Most of the time there’ll also be a normal ST-4 output either on the camera or on the handbox to connect to the autoguide port on the mount. Read the instructions, though, since these systems tend to be more involved than simple PC-operated guidecams.
So that’s all there is to guiding, huh? Not hardly. We’ve Only Just Begun. We’ve selected a camera and got it all hooked up. But that’s when them dadgummed gremlins rear their heads, when you actually start trying to use the junk. Exterminating those buggers and getting everything working in optimum fashion is somewhat long story, though, and it will have to be in a “Part II,” which I’ll give you-all Real Soon Now.
Next Time: By the time you read this I will probably be back from the 2010 Almost Heaven Star Party in the hills of West Virginia. It’s one of the country’s great star parties, muchachos, and you will want to hear all about it and you can bet your bippy I will tell you about it next Sunday.