Sunday, October 28, 2012


Amateur Astronomy and Amateur Radio Redux

Well, muchachos, it’s been a while since I said anything about the current state of our avocation, so why don’t we do a little talking about the health of amateur astronomy as another year winds down? In the past, I’ve used the condition of our “sister” hobby, amateur radio, as a reference, which I will do again, since these two seemingly different pursuits actually have a lot in common. One thing we do not have in common, alas, is numbers. To cut to the chase, Ham radio is growing, and amateur astronomy is either shrinking or—at best—remaining static.

Unk, who’s been a licensed ham since 1969 (currently as AC4WY, a.k.a., “Alpha Charlie Four Whiskey Yell”) is what you would call an “old timer” (OT), so if you don’t know what the ham stuff is all about, I can fill you in. Oddly, to your old Uncle, anyway, a lot of people confuse ham radio and Citizens Band radio. Actually, the two pursuits couldn’t be more different other than the fact that hams, sometimes talk into microphones like the CBers do. In the 70s, CB was huge (“CONVOY!”), but in the intervening 40 years CB as a hobby has died, and it is once again mostly the provenance of long-haul truckers. I reckon the Internet and cell phones did CB in.

Cell phones or no, ham radio is still around, probably because it is and always has been more than just yakking into a microphone. There is that, which we hams call “rag chewing,” but there’s a lot more. If you want to know about that “lots more,” go here, but amateur radio, for one thing, allows a lot more room to stretch out. CB is one band of frequencies, 11-meters. Amateur radio’s allocations in the spectrum (a word hams use at least as much as amateur astronomers) ranges from the medium waves of 160-meters up into UHF and beyond.

Ham radio was born with radio in the early days of the last century. In those heady times after Marconi’s first trans-Atlantic transmissions, everybody interested in radio was an amateur. It wasn’t long, of course, before radio also became “commercial” and “military,” but by that time hams were organized and in for the long haul. Numerous folks are responsible for that, but the person who probably did more than anybody else was the original Old Man, Hiram Percy Maxim, W1AW.The Old Man died in 1936 when he fell ill as he was returning from a visit to Lick Observatory. Just another of the many intersections of our two magnificent obsessions.

Amateur radio continued on its merry way for the next several decades, becoming an important national resource, since it contributed trained operators to both the Wars, and especially to the ranks of WWII. The fifties were boom years. People were relatively affluent and there was plenty of war surplus radio gear and parts, and a burgeoning commercial “rig” industry. The end of the decade and Sputnik brought—for once—a greater appreciation of science by the public, and amateur radio was at heart a “scientific hobby.” The nuclear scare of the 50s and 60s helped, too, with everybody suspecting it might not be long before we’d need the wide-ranging emergency communications of ham radio.

Then came a one-two punch that stopped amateur radio in its tracks. First was Incentive Licensing. This idea, cooked up by the F.C.C. and the national ham radio organization, The American Radio Relay League, was not a bad idea. It rewarded hams with more frequencies on which they could transmit in return for upgrading to higher license classes. Each step up the ladder from Novice to Technician to General to Advanced to Extra Class licenses would require Joe Ham to answer tougher questions about radio/electronic theory and (depending on the license class) to copy Morse code at ever higher speeds.
Trouble was, a lot of the rank and file hams didn’t want to take harder tests in order to be allowed to continue to operate on the same frequencies they’d always been on. You see, amateur radio wouldn’t be given more bandwidth; instead, those who did not upgrade to the Extra Class license would be evicted from some areas of the radio spectrum where they’d formerly been able to operate. Yes, the ARRL led, but it led in a direction many hams didn’t want to go. Most buckled down and upgraded or contented themselves with the band-space they had, but a not insignificant number did drop out of the hobby.

The second punch was Morse code as a requirement for a ham “ticket.” Amateur radio hung onto “CW” long after military and commercial interests had abandoned that “obsolete” communications method (which does have some real strengths). As the seventies came and went, young folks, especially, were ever more turned off by the code. It just didn’t seem as relevant as those shiny new TRS-80 and Apple II computers. Another strike against the code was that not everybody can learn to copy code at any but the slowest speeds. Most people can, but not everybody. No matter how hard they tried, more than a few people could not learn to decipher Morse at the 20 words per minute the Extra required.

Thus began the long and slow but seemingly inexorable decline of ham radio. Frankly, for a while I was convinced the Radio Art might die out with my generation. Oh, the number of hams increased, but not the number of young hams, and as a percentage of the population we were probably shrinking. But then two things turned it around. First, was the F.C.C.’s insistence about five years ago that Morse code requirements be dropped. What also helped was the increasing integration of computer communications methods, which turned the jungvolk on, into ham radio. Amateur radio’s numbers are now over 700,000, and I would not be surprised to see 1,000,000 hams on the air before my time on the third stone from the Sun is done.

I suspect most of y’all know a little about the history of amateur astronomy. In the beginning, just like in the early days of radio, following that beautiful Italian evening when Galileo first took a peep at Jupiter with his little OTA, everybody doing astronomy was an amateur. There continued to be considerable overlap between "professional" and "amateur" through Herschel and even to the day of Lord Rosse. Until the dawn of the Twentieth century, when astronomy morphed into astrophysics and the sundering came, with amateurs and professionals becoming two distinct and different classes.

As that was happening, a few far-sighted individuals like Unk Albert (Ingalls) and Russell Porter and Charles Federer picked up the torch and began amateur astronomy as we know it in the first decades of the last century. They are the Old Men of amateur astronomy.

We were not much more than the very tiny and somewhat odd preoccupation of a few people until the end of the 1950s, till 1957 to be exact, when the space age began and Americans and people around the world began to turn to the skies in both fear and fascination. Amateur astronomy exploded in a small way, and kept on keeping on even through the post-Vietnam/post-Apollo blues of the seventies when space and science were in ill-repute with the public. In fact, our growth took a sudden and dramatic spurt a couple of years before the arrival of Comet Halley, and it looked for a while like the sky was literally the limit.

Alas, ‘twas not to be, through no fault of our own. The public’s letdown following the Great Comet’s poor showing hurt. The commercial telescope industry, which had suddenly blossomed after years of slow growth, crashed, and a lot of the new faces at our clubs began to drift away as their new telescopes, which had shown nothing but a dim fuzzy where a glorious comet was supposed to have been, hit the closet. After Halley, amateur astronomy’s number declined rather precipitously. Us long time amateurs didn’t let that bother us, too much. We’d suspected a lot of the new converts might not be around for the long haul, even if Halley had turned out better than we thought it would.

Post-Halley was a time of rebuilding, and we soldiered on. The coming of CCDs, wide field eyepieces, and go-to over the last two decades has helped attract some new folks, even some young folks—but I don’t think anybody would say we are growing. In other words, brothers and sisters, there is now a lot of gloom in our ranks, especially among the OTs.

“The club is dying. Nothing but gray heads like us. Those cotton-picking kids are more interested in…” Sound familiar? The rest of that quote, though, is “In going to the drive-in picture show and playing with their slot cars.” Folks have been predicting the demise of our hobby since I was in short pants. Yet, we are still here. In other words, “DO NOT PANIC.” We can turn this around, y’all.

What are our numbers? That’s a little difficult to say, since we can’t just count issued licenses like the hams can. What I will give you here is based on what I’ve learned by looking at the astronomy (with a lower case “a”) magazine sales figures and talking to people in the amateur astronomy industry (who for obvious reasons may be a little pessimistic these days). OK, OK…bottom line?

I would guess there are about 100,000 reasonably serious amateur astronomers in the U.S. of A., amateurs who are active to the point that they will at least haul a telescope out into the backyard for a look at the pea-picking Moon every once in a while. I would further guess that we have maybe another 25,000 hangers-on, armchair astronomers, folks with a serious interest in astronomy, but who don’t own telescopes or belong to a club. If y’all think I am wrong, let me know, and tell me what your figures are, but I reckon I am about right. I would further speculate that that number has been relatively stable over at least the last decade. 100,000 is a pretty big number, but for the whole country? You can see why the equipment merchants were not having an easy time ever before this consarned depression we are in.

So, we are static. How can we change that—if we want to change it? I for one want there to be more amateur astronomers. Beyond the selfless wish I have to turn everybody on to the wondrous Great Out There, more folks in our pursuit mean more gear for sale at cheaper prices and More Better Gooder lighting ordinances.

What do we do? How do we do it? Maybe looking at what the hams do and have done can help, since they seem to be more successful than us right now. The first thing we need to do is get new people into our clubs. If nothing else, being in a club helps a new amateur stick with and progress in the avocation. The hams have a leg-up here, since hams themselves have been administering licensing exams for over 25-years. These exams are usually given by clubs, and having to go to the radio club meeting or a club event like a hamfest for the test naturally makes the newbie aware of said club. Many new hams just naturally jine-up right then and there.

In amateur astronomy, you get a telescope, these days usually from an online dealer, you set it up, and you start looking at stuff with the aid of a book or something you found on the Internet. A new amateur astronomer may not even know there is a club in her town. Unless she has an amateur mentor (an “Elmer” in ham radio parlance) or happens to see a club mentioned in an issue of Sky and Telescope or in the listings on the magazine’s website, it may be a long time before the local astronomy club is discovered, much less investigated.

So we (amateur astronomers) need to get the word out. How? A good place to start probably is those club listings Sky and Telescope and Astronomy have on their websites. Most new amateurs will eventually pick up one of the magazines and visit one of the websites. Make sure (CHECK) that your club’s info is up to date and that the person designated as the contact responds promptly and in a friendly manner to all requests for information.

That’s just a start, and is not necessarily the best way to grab new amateurs. If your club doesn’t have a Facebook page, get one up right away. “But Unk, we’ve got a web page and a Yahoogroup.” Forget those things. Both are as dead as dern door-nails. The young folk want Facebook. The last thing they want to do is hunt for you-all on that ugly Yahoogroups search page.

It is easy to set up a Facebook page, and I would guess there is a member in your club who can get you going in a few minutes. A Facebook page is also much better for current members than email, webpages, or Yahoogroups. Members can receive monthly meeting and other reminders on their smart phones, y’all can store club files and pictures on the page, and do a lot more. The Possum Swamp Astronomical Society Yahoogroup is still on the air, but I suspect it will go the way of the dodo purty soon.

The Internet is a way you can get the word out on your club, but does not necessarily the best way. The best ways, surprisingly, are still the old ones. The local ways: the newspaper (if your town still has one), the cable TV community announcements channel/scroll, radio (only FM these days; AM is even deader than the Yahoogroups), and fliers posted at libraries, schools, and shopping malls—anywhere anybody will let you put one up.

Also important is what is on your fliers. Be careful what you say. Don’t: “Pixley Astronomical Society Sky Watch, Come and look at the Moon, Kiddies!” Do:  “The Pixley Astronomical Society will have a public viewing session, which is open to people of all ages interested in astronomy.” At the public star gaze, have a table set up, maybe just a lowly card table, with a sign on it with the club’s name and, in big letters, “MEMBERSHIP INFORMATION.” At least be watching for prospective members. You’ll know.

OK, you convinced Janey New Amateur to attend a club meeting. How do you ensure she comes to the next one? T’ain’t easy. Whether a radio club or an astronomical society, the first visit will be intimidating. Lots of (mostly) male (mostly) gray heads. You have to make Janey and her friends welcome. How? Whether your club is big or small, designate a person to meet and greet visitors. Even if your club is tiny, you might prepare a new member packet, at least a sheet of paper giving meeting dates (some clubs change dates and times for various seasons), dark site location and schedule, etc., etc. Just don’t just leave new members to their own devices. However you do it, ensure they are connected with the club and remain connected.

Whether ham radio or amateur astronomy, the first toe in the water is quickly followed by what seems to be a plunge into the deep, cold end of the pool. All that jargon, all that complicated theory, all that scary equipment. And we don’t always make it easy for the novices. Ham radio didn’t by sticking to the code for way too long, and we’ve been guilty of the same thing when it comes to go-to.

With telescope prices what they are today, almost any youngun can get their hands on a pretty good instrument. Then comes the problem. Where do you point that telescope to see the good stuff? What lots of astronomy club old timers told Mr. Newbie in the past was, “Get a pair of binoculars and a planisphere and start learning the constellations. Then you can move up to Sky Atlas 2000 and learn to star hop, and in few months, or maybe a year or so, you’ll start seeing them Messiers.” How many newbies stuck with that? Some obviously did, but only a minority.

Then came computerized go-to telescopes, reliable automatic pointing for amateur scopes, beginning in the late 80s and culminating in good, cheap go-to rigs by the end of the 1990s. Problem was, a lot of the old timers, like their ham OT counterparts were aghast. Goto? Why should these younguns have it easy? They ort ta suffer before they begin seeing all those deep sky objects. These goobers would come out against go-to stridently at meetings. I’ve had more than one newbie ask me how to “turn off” the go-to on their shiny new Meade or Celestron, since they obviously shouldn’t be using it. Remember, novices will take to heart what we say. They put great store in what we, their elders—at least in astronomy—say, even if it is (mostly) in jest. Why are some old timers so dead set against go-to, anyhow?

Beyond learning the sky supposedly making a novice into a more “worthwhile” amateur, there is also the gatekeeper thing. The need to learn the sky and star-hop kept the riff-raff out. The bad news is that this kind or attitude is one of the major reasons we’ve stopped growing. The good news? I hear less and less criticism of go-to scopes lately. What do I tell newbies? “Learning the sky is a wonderful thing. But you want to be able to do some fun observing while you are learning it.” Anyway, new amateurs will almost inevitably gain a basic knowledge of the sky even if they don’t buckle down every night with a dadgum planisphere and a pair of Wal-Mart binoculars. When they get to wondering what else is in the area of M42, and start looking at a chart (or a smart phone these days), learning the sky follows naturally.

You’ve got the novices over the first hurdle. How do you keep ‘em for the long run? Ham radio, not unlike amateur astronomy, can be a rather solitary pursuit. Yeah, you are communicating with your fellow OPs, but you are usually by yourself in the (radio) shack while you are doing it. There’s the monthly club meeting, but that’s not really enough. Most amateur radio clubs schedule events that help with “unit cohesion,” that instill a sense of camaraderie and community. Those range from hamfests (sorta like a star party), to antenna/tower raising bees (sorta like helping your buddy put up that Pod dome), and Field Day (like a run at the dark site).

One thing that helped the PSAS survive the days when the membership roll was in a downward spiral was attending star parties as a group. We would convoy up to the Mid South Star Gaze or the Deep South Regional Star Gaze, have a ball, and would hardly be able to wait to go to the next meeting to relive the fun and to lord it over the non-attendees, describing in detail all the fun they’d missed.

We’ve just finished a group project, creating a Human Sundial on the grounds of the public school facility where we hold our meetings as a memorial to a deceased member. In the past we’ve built a club observatory, set up booths at the fair and at the shopping mall, and, naturally, done plenty of public outreach. All these things can help, not just in attracting new members, which is what we usually focus on when planning a set up for Astronomy Day or some such, but keeping old members active. Doing things as a group is fun.

Ham radio only does Field Day once a year; we can have our field days, our group observing runs, every dark of the Moon. Which is very important to keep old and gain new members. The biggest membership crisis our club suffered was during the years when we did not have a club observing site. One of the first things a new member/new amateur will ask is, “Well, when do y’all get out with the scopes?” Blank looks and the response “We don’t have a place to observe from at the moment,” just don’t get it. Not just with new members. Old timers may begin to wonder why they belong to a club that doesn’t do much astronomy. If you don’t have a dark site, or at least some place where you can observe together, get one. If you don’t, your club will not remain in good health for long.

One place where neither hams nor amateurs are doing very well is with women and minorities. Oh, there are more female and minority hams and amateur astronomers than there used to be, but we still have a long way to go. I think we are actually doing a little better in this regard than the hams, but we are still not doing well enough. We need to get the word out to (for us) non-traditional groups that amateur astronomy is fun for everybody. These folks form a huge and mostly untapped reservoir of new amateur astronomers.

What else could help us bounce back like the hams have done? Sometimes I think we need a stronger national group. The ham national organization, the aforementioned American Radio Relay League, is and always has been more involved in the day to day activities of amateur radio than our own outfit, The Astronomical League. How can The League, the AL, change to make it a more unifying force in amateur astronomy? I have some ideas on that subject I’ll share with you some Sunday, but for now I will just say the League needs to do more to make themselves visible to and indispensible for Joe and Jane Amateur. The observing clubs are good, but there needs to be more.

So, can we attain the numbers the hams now have? Amateur astronomy is a special pursuit, one best suited to a very thoughtful and curious sort of person. It’s also, as we all know, sometimes a lot of work. “Many are called, few are chosen.” You can’t expect to keep every bright eyed newbie who shows up at the dern club meeting. Still, I think amateur astronomy is at least as interesting and engaging as amateur radio. We amateur astronomers just need to get the word out, muchachos. And be more friendly to the newbies, especially the kids who will replace us in our great obsession.

Next Time:  Requiem for the Personal Planetarium... 

Sunday, October 21, 2012


Unk’s Yearly M13

Weekend before last’s dark of the Moon observing run? Let’s just say Murphy ran rampant, muchachos. Your poor old Uncle’s rather modest plans came to naught. Not that there weren’t any amateur astronomy related goings on at all. Miss Dorothy and I traveled to Pensacola, Florida to spend some time with our old friends Doc Clay Sherrod and wife Patsy and to hear Doc’s yearly talk for the erstwhile Escambia Amateur Astronomers’ Association (EAAA). Clay’s talk on the Mayan calendar and the 2012 business was excellent, but that was the only successful amateur astronomy we did that weekend, which was a problem...

With the year two-thousand and twelve beginning to wind down it was past time for one of your old Uncle Rod’s annual traditions. No, I ain’t talking about my Christmas Eve peek at the Orion Nebula. What I am referring to is another tradition and resolution: that if I don’t do anything else astrophotography-wise over the course of a year, I will at least take a picture of M13, Hercules’ Great Globular star cluster.

It ain’t like I am exactly overwhelmed by the number of opportunities to do honest-to-god imaging down here in The Swamp. Couple my natural laziness with my wide array of astronomical interests and the usually poor Possum Swamp weather—it has been particularly bad this year—and months and months sometimes goes by without me opening a shutter. But I still want to keep my hand in, and thus was my yearly M13 born. I figgered that resolution would ensure I got out with the gear at least once between late spring and mid fall.

Film SLRs

I’ve talked about my three tries at film astrophotography once in a while, and suffice to say I didn’t begin to get the images I wanted till my last go, which began in the early 1990s. That culminated with what I considered my dream rig: a Ricoh KR5 Super 2 single lens reflex, an Ultima C8 SCT, and Fuji’s Super G800 color film. I got some shots of ol’ Globby that pleased me, but, let’s face it,  most of my efforts were more like the one here: underexposed and slightly out of focus. Hey, let’s see you younguns try to get sharp stars while kneeling on a wet field peering at the dim focus screen of a film camera.

Aside from the mis-focus, there is a little star trailing, too, even though I did my best to guide (manually). I didn’t drift align; as usual I was in a hurry to get something before the weather shut me down. I just used the polar alignment reticle on the U8’s finder scope, and while that was OK, there was detectable field rotation over the course of the lengthy (by today’s reckoning) exposure M13 required.

Starlight Xpress MX516

Shortly after this new century began, I decided it was time for me to join the CCD revolution like some of my Bubbas. I was attracted to Starlight Xpress’ MX516 for two reasons:  it was slightly cheaper than the equivalent camera from SBIG and it featured self-guiding. Using an interlaced chip, the camera devoted one field to guiding and one to taking the picture, alternating between the two tasks. That meant I could guide through the imaging scope and not worry about a guide scope or off-axis guider.

It was not a bad little camera, really, but I didn’t have much luck with it; in fact this ugly M13 taken one late summer night was one of my better efforts. I was happy, frankly, to get anything. The tiny chip delivered small pictures, and, worse, made it hard to find targets with my non-go-to Ultima C8. It was a fracking pain to get even bright M13 in the frame. I thought I’d use a flip mirror in concert with the Meade f/3.3 reducer to make things easier, but that didn’t work. Neither camera nor eyepiece would come to focus with the flip mirror assembly in the imaging train.

If I’d a-had good sense I would have bought Celestron’s new NexStar 8 or at least a set of digital setting circles before a CCD camera. I haven’t made too many Bad Mistakes in amateur astronomy over the years, but that dern shore was one.


I sold the MX516 on the pea-picking Astromart after a couple of years of struggling. It was 2003 and I needed a camera, preferably a color camera, to capture the greatest Mars opposition of me or anybody else’s lifetime. I’d gotten some OK (monochrome, natch) shots of Jupiter with the MX516, but I well and truly ready to be done with it.

What I wound up with was the SAC 7b, a cooled color camera from a tiny outfit down in Florida. The story of the SAC cam and its maker is probably a worthy subject for a blog entry someday, but, to cut to the chase, the SAC 7b worked phenomenally well on Mars and Jupiter and the Moon and Saturn. On the deep sky? Not so much. It was nothing more than a long-exposure-modified and gussied up webcam. Still, despite a chip even smaller than the one on the MX516, I was able to get some recognizable deep sky images, including one of M13 one early fall night.

Meade DSI

I’d been studying Meade’s advertisements for their new CCD cameras for a couple of months. This “Deep Space Imager” looked interesting (assuming I wasn’t just reading more Meade hyperbole): easy to use, color, an at least somewhat larger chip than the ones on the SAC and the Starlight Xpress, no need to worry about cooling since it didn’t need to be cooled. Less than 300 George Washingtons was the entry fee, which got my attention, you betcha. I hesitated, but, dang it, that CCD revolution was passing Unk by. Yes, I’d done some good planetary work with the SAC 7B, but that wasn’t like doing deep sky shooting with a real CCD.

One thing that really helped me get the DSI going when it arrived was software that, as I have written before, while a little complicated, did everything in automated fashion. Instead of, for example, leaving it to your discretion to take dark frames, the DSI software, Envisage, reminded you to, prompting scatter-brained ol’ Unk to cover (and uncover) the scope’s aperture. What also helped a tremendous amount was my new CG5 mount.

The Celestron CG5—which I still have and use—was easy to polar align with a built-in routine in its hand control, and go-to meant I didn’t have to struggle with flip mirrors or other foolishness to get my targets in the small field of the DSI. If something didn’t wind up in the frame after a conventional go-to, I could engage Precise Go-to mode, which would put the target on the DSI’s chip every stinkin’ time—after a short stop to center a nearby bright star. The CG5’s gears were good enough for me to do unguided 30-second shots with the C8 at f/3.3. Yay! No guiding!

My initial results with the DSI were not pretty, even by my humble standards, but they were OK and much better than what I’d done with the MX516. One early June night in 2005 that for some weird reason turned out semi-clear, the shots began to roll out of the little camera: M57, M10, M12, M5, and, yes, M13. My focus was slightly off, my processing was wrong-headed, and I didn’t know how to get rid of the background color gradient caused by the light pollution at my club’s in-town observing site, but it was a first step. It heartened me, and on that night I decided to remain in the ranks of the CCD army, even if I was in the rear guard.


After a year or two of getting my feet wet with the DSI and coming to believe there was something to this CCD business after all, I was lucky enough to move up to a big boy’s camera, the (black and white) SBIG ST2000. In one fell swoop I went from the teeny-weeny DSI sensor to a 1600x1200 Kodak chip. Not only was there cooling, there was regulated cooling, which some of today’s cameras don’t even feature—set the camera for a chosen temperature and it would keep the camera at that temperature. Oh, and there was a second, smaller CCD chip onboard for SBIG’s proprietary self-guiding system.

Hoo-boy. That was a lot of new stuff for CCD fumbler me to grok. The larger CCD chip helped both in framing bigger objects and finding smaller ones. I didn’t have to use Precise Go-to anymore. But I had a lot to learn. Starting with the fact that if you used an f/3.3 reducer on your SCT with the 2000 as I sometimes did, you would see one hell of gradient from light pollution and vignetting. It was easy to banish that with a flat-field frame, but I had to learn how to take those. The self-guiding system seemed like a dream come true—no guidescope or off-axis guider from Hell required—but it was dang sure not as easy to get working as I had hoped.

That was not so much because of the camera, but because of its software. I had both the software that shipped with the ST2000, CCDOps, and the step-up program from Software Bisque, CCDsoft.  CCDSoft gave me fits, especially with its guiding calibration routine. Basically, there were two choices: recalibrate the guider before every exposure, or enter your declination in the guide window, which would supposedly allow you to skip further calibrations. Unfortunately, entering declination of the current scope position didn’t seem to help. My guiding was putrid unless I did a new cal. If I were able to successfully complete a calibration. It failed more often than not, and it wasn’t always clear why.

I finally settled on calibrating before each shot, not that big a deal, and, gave up on CCDSoft and just used CCDOps, which seemed easier to use if not nearly as full-featured. It was more prone to completing guider calibration successfully, too. One thing both these programs did? Give me a better appreciation of how good PHD Guiding is.

The above might lead you to think I had nothing but bad luck with the ST2000. Quite the opposite; I had very good luck with it. As soon as I had an idea of how to proceed, the 2000 began cranking out images like this annual M13. Yes, the core is blown out and it’s a little too contrasty, but the stars are round and small. I still like it. AND the camera managed this with my humble CG5 German mount, which it had no trouble guiding as long as I kept the balance right.

So why haven’t I used the cotton-picking 2000 in a couple of years (at least)? First, as always, I want color. Yes, I could get color with the ST2000 via multiple exposures through filters, but trying to do that in the (not bad but not insignificant) light pollution of my dark site would likely be a challenge for image processing challenged me. Also, my opinion is that a real CCD camera is probably best for folks who have observatories, or who at least can roll the scope out. Doing flats, for example, is an absolute pain when you have to re-do them every single time because you have to take the camera off the scope and pack everything up.

Still, I may get back to the SBIG before long. It would be nice to use a cooled camera when winter goes and spring comes. My DSLR does fairly well on warm nights, but I’d be a-lying if I said I wasn’t troubled by noise on hot nights down in the ol’ Swamp. I do plan to make some changes to make the 2000 more pleasant to use:  I’m going to forget the self guiding and just go with PHD and my StarShoot autoguider. Since I won’t be self-guiding, I’ll be able to use the wonderful Nebulosity 3 to run the camera. And if I stick to the f/6.3 reducer, I’m thinking Gradient Xterminator might allow me to forego flats.

Canon Rebel Xti (400D)

Ah, yes, the DSLR. I got my Canon Xti mainly to take the terrestrial pictures for my last book, Choosing and Using a New CAT, but it’s been wonderful on the sky, too. No, it ain’t as sensitive as the dadgum ST2000, but it is more than sensitive enough for my needs. I hadn’t been able to get out with it much over the last year due to the aforementioned punk weather, but I was determined to change that the weekend before last and bring back 2012’s M13 in the bargain. I wanted to better last year’s effort shown here, which was plagued by haze and a too low Great Glob when I finally went after it as November came in.

I loaded up a passel of gear: Atlas, C8, computer, guidescope, etc., etc., and headed for the Possum Swamp Astronomical Society’s storied dark site. Got set up. Guzzled a Monster Energy Drink. Took a few snapshots of the field and my new PC setup with my little Fuji Super-zoom camera. This time out, I placed the PC and its ancillary equipment in the back of the 4Runner, Miss Lucille Van Pelt, rather than using the camp table and computer shelter. Less stuff to worry about, and I hoped the PC and everything else might stay a little drier when heavy dew began to fall. Worked great.

But that was the only thing that worked great. Fired up the Atlas and EQMOD on the laptop. Got out the game pad I use as my “hand control.” Tried to slew the scope to put it in position for a borescope polar alignment. No workie. A look at EQMOD’s joystick setup screen told the story:  The Toshiba laptop is fairly new and I’d never got around to setting up the gamepad and assigning the many EQMOD functions to its buttons. Wasn’t about to try to do that on a dark field. Drug out the SynScan HC.

The alignment went OK, with M13 being in the field when I went there. Hokay, get PHD Guiding and the guidecam, my cool little StarShoot autoguider, focused. Hmm. The stars in M13’s field seemed dimmer than I remembered from last time. Whatev. Mount the Rebel and focus up. What the—? l Not only was there no M13 visible, none of the relatively bright stars in the field showed up either, even when I upped the exposure and slewed around a little bit. Puzzled, I looked up to see clouds. Lots of them. I gave it another hour, but at 9:30 in the fracking evening I packed up and headed back to the Old Manse since it had become evident I wouldn’t be even get any visual observing done.

Mallincam Xtreme

Deep sky video has always been a parallel interest of mine when it comes to imaging. You can get a lot of fiercely dim stuff with a deep sky camera, but the pictures I got with my old Stellacam II black and white rig hardly compared to the big beautiful color shots that came out of the Rebel. That changed a little with the coming of the color Mallincam Xtreme to Chaos Manor South. No, the pictures it produces, the still pictures you can grab from the video stream, still don’t measure up to the Canon’s output, but even single frame grabs look purty dern good. And it dang sure is easier to get those shots than it is with either a CCD or DSLR.

One thing was clear, if I was to get this year’s M13, I would have to get a move on. My last decent no-Moon opportunity to try for it in 2012 would be on Saturday 13 October; by the next dark of the Moon it would really be low. The weather, as is par for the course down here in October, continued to be unsettled, and I wasn’t about to drag a ton of stuff out just to be skunk bitten again. I also thought that even if I had to shoot through haze the Xtreme might still bring home the bacon.

I headed for our Tanner-Williams, Alabama observing field a little later than I should have Saturday afternoon, but I wasn’t worried. Yeah, it takes a fair amount of gear to run the Xtreme—computer, monitor, DVR, cables—but still considerably less than what’s needed to go DSLRing. What did worry me was the bands of clouds in the west.

Didn’t take that long to get Celeste, my C8, on her CG5, the Mallincam connected, and the computer and video display set up in the back of the 4Runner as I had the Saturday before. Turned out all my worries were groundless. Despite arriving at the site later than I usually do, after set-up I still had to cool my heels for a while before the bright stars winked on. And the clouds that had concerned me looked to be scudding off to the east.

Soon as there was a goodly selection of alignment stars, I fired up the CG5. I was using the hardware hand paddle this time out instead of running the mount with NexRemote. I love NR, but using the NexStar hand control cuts down on the gear burden and is a little quicker to get going. Powered up the Xtreme, told it (via the Mallincam software running on my Asus netbook) to draw crosshairs on the screen, and got started. Did a 2-star alignment followed by 4-calibration stars, ran the (old fashioned point-at-Polaris) polar alignment routine in the hand control, and re-did my 2+4.

The last two cal stars landed in the field of the Xtreme, so I thought my alignment would be good enough, despite my realization that I’d forgot the Up and Right Rule. For best results with the CG5, always center the alignment stars using the up and right keys on the HC only (use the other keys to position the star so you can center the stars with up and right). The CG5 has plenty of declination backlash, and up-and-right-only helps the mount deal with that. My R.A. balance was off, too, judging from the sounds the CG5 was making, never a good thing for go-to accuracy.

Mashed the keys to send Celeste to M13, and held my breath for a minute. The CG5 has been uber-reliable over the seven years I’ve had it, but I am used to computers pulling their little practical jokes on poor old Unk in the middle of the night on a dark observing field. Not this time. When the motors stopped their weasels-with-tuberculosis sounds, M13 was in the frame. Not centered, but in there.

Wheeew! Focused up with my JMI Motofocus—which I would not live without for imaging of any kind—set the exposure to 14 seconds (7 would actually have been enough), and pushed the button to start my Orion StarShoot digital video recorder rolling. That little thing is one of the best buys I have made in quite a while. It is considerably smaller than a pack of cigarettes and will go all night on an 8gb SD card and its internal battery.

Talk about easy to use, too: pushing and locking the StarShoot DVR’s one-button wired remote will turn it on and start it recording. Release/unlock the button and it will stop and turn itself off. I still focus and frame using my ancient portable DVD player (I use a cast-off cable TV switch box to send video to either the recorder or the DVD player as necessary), since the display on the StarShoot is a little small for my old eyes. Back home, I can either output NTSC video to a DVD recorder to preserve my “masterpieces,” or connect the recorder to a computer and drag the night’s video files to my hard drive. Simple and sweet and the video looks very good, even on our big-screen LG TV.

So how’d I do? See for yourself (above). No, the Xtreme cannot compete with a DSLR for prettiness. But its results are at least as good as my early attempts with the Meade DSI, and it sure is easier to use than either. No guiding. No dark frames. Just turn on the camera, slew to your target, adjust exposure and other settings to suit you, and do a little recording. When doing The Herschel Project, I found I could easily record 100 objects over the course of a short PSAS observing run, and upwards of 200 on a long night at the dadgum Chiefland Astronomy Village. I was happy and satisfied when this year’s M13 flashed onto the big screen at home.

When M13 was in the can, I found to my surprise that the skies were still acceptable. The last of the clouds had scudded off, and while it was very damp it was not unpleasant. What to do? First I took a couple of videos for The Herschel Project Phase II as part of my quest to get better looking color pictures of some of the more spectacular H-objects. After that, I just toured the best of the best of the fall sky. The standout was probably The Sculptor Galaxy (a.k.a. The Silver Dollar Galaxy, a.k.a. The Golden Galleon Galaxy), NGC 253, which stretched all the way across my monitor and showed a lot of detail despite being way down in the Possum Swamp light dome.

Another target Saturday night was the current comet de jour, Hergenrother (168/P). It’s caused quite a sensation in our ranks in a small way. Probably because we’ve been experiencing something of a comet drought over the last year. It looked good in the Mallincam, sporting a pretty—if small—tail. I did think it was a little disappointing in a buddy’s 15-inch Dobbie. Considerably dimmer than I expected, maybe magnitude 11 rather than the 10 I’d been hearing about on the Internet amateur astronomy boards.

Hergenrother’s dimness may have had more to do with the heavy haze that was coming and going than this cute little comet’s intrinsic brightness, but if you haven’t seen it, better get out and take a look now. The Moon is on her way back and the comet only looks as good as she does now because of an outburst—weather made me miss Hergenrother’s outburst peak of near 9. I suspect the comet has begun to fade already and will soon be on her way back to magnitude 15 or dimmer where she would normally be.

After the comet was recorded, I took a second "insurance" M13 sequence, and did some more hopping around. What finally shut me and my pals down was not the return of the clouds, but the extremely heavy dew. I’ve seen it worse in late October, but not much worse. By the end of the evening Celeste’s OTA was raining. I finally pulled the big switch about 11, and when my mates saw what I was doing they decided that looked like a good idea and threw in the cotton-picking towel, too. Soon enough I was back within the comforting walls of Chaos Manor South reviewing the night’s videos on the TV in the den while sipping, err, “sarsaparilla.”

And that was that for another year, muchachos. 2013’s M13? Oh, I would be lying if I didn’t say I have big plans for it, as usual. Maybe a tricolor exposure through the SBIG ST2000. Ground truth, though? Given my weather and my skills, all I can promise is that I will come back with something. Sometimes, like this year, that is just good enough.

Next Time: Amateur Astronomy and Amateur Radio Redux...

Sunday, October 14, 2012


The Star Party Zoo

This was supposed to be an article on imaging, muchachos, but pore old Unk was well and truly skunked last Saturday, which had looked close to perfect all day. Just after I had, natch, lugged a ton of gear out to the Possum Swamp Astronomical Society dark site, the sky closed down with an audible thud. No DSLRing for moi. So, since the fall star party season is now in full swing, I thought I'd say a few words about that instead.

Star party zoo? The whosit of the whatsit? Believe it or not, it is fall star party season again. That means it’s not just time for observing under blessedly cool(er) hurricane-free skies, it is time for my semiannual rant about how we should conduct ourselves at star parties. I know you get tired of hearing this every cotton-picking fall and spring, but I still see way too much questionable behavior, and me and you and Sister Sue can do better.

I am an animal lover. Not just cats and dogs; I even love Bambi—shame he and his kin have to be so dadgum tasty. But there are a few species I would like to see go extinct. I expect you will recognize some of these critters, and I also expect you, embarrassedly, like Unk, will have to admit you’ve sometimes shared some of their traits:

Fieldus Territorialis

These aggressive beasts are highly territorial. Their natural habitat is the observing field, where they can be spotted during the early hours of an event. Please approach with caution, as they will vigorously defend their range with, at least, blood-curdling howls

I am happy our major national star parties and even our smaller regional ones are so popular. The growth of light pollution and the more social character of today’s amateur astronomy have seen to that. But that causes problems for events that have experienced explosive growth over the years—The Texas Star Party and the Winter Star Party come to mind. Observing fields that used to be spacious are now cramped, and you can’t expect more than just enough room for you, your scope, your observing table and maybe a tailgating canopy.

Alas, some folks just don’t understand that. Why shouldn’t THEY get two spaces? THEY like plenty of room, and it is all about THEIR needs, after all. Fuhgeddaboutit. If space is at a premium, you grin and bear it. When somebody pulls in beside you, smile; don’t act like they’ve got the cooties.

Observicus Noticus

These curious creatures, which sometimes travel in herds, are usually inoffensive but sometimes annoy their fellow beasts. They don’t seem to build nests, remaining constantly on the move…

I really have to wonder why some folks go to star parties. I’m talking about the people who set up a scope but never uncover it, or at least never use it. The telescope may be a nice one, but the owner never does a thing with it. They don’t even seem much interested in looking through other peoples’ telescopes. They wander the field all night long without seeming purpose. The Noticuses wouldn’t bother me if not for the fact that in their aimless shambling they tend to do things like bump into tent ropes and poles and trip over cables. More than once, I’ve lost my mount’s go-to alignment when a Noticus has snagged my NexRemote cable in his unending progress from Here to There.


The Watchalookinatamistus is not dangerous. It is just a pest, if sometimes a big pest; especially for the larger animals of the field. This scavenger’s constant search for the leavings of fellow creatures has occasionally driven field inhabitants to near madness…

Like the closely related Observicus Noticus, Watchas never use their own telescopes. If they have brought one with them it stands unused and unloved collecting dew all night long. Unlike Noticus, Watcha doesn’t just shamble up and down the field, though, the Watcha cadges looks constantly. In fact, its name comes from its distinctive call, “Watcha lookin’ at mister? Can I see? Huh, can I?”
Most of us are happy to let all and sundry observe through our scopes occasionally, but people with serious observing programs, especially those with the large telescopes, which draw these field denizens like flies to—err…honey, get tired of not just being asked for a peek, but their guests’ near insistence that they turn the scope to M13 or M42 one more time.

Raffleus Mopicus

Mopicus’ survival mechanism is its extreme suspicion of other animals at feeding time. This scavenger finds it impossible to cooperate with its fellow creatures, even those of its own species, when choice prey is at stake…

Everybody loves star party raffles. The exciting prospect of winning an Ethos or an ES 100, or even just a book or DVD is a powerful inducement to buy tickets. Alas, even when there are lots of prizes, not everybody can win. Unk, who rarely wins a dagnabbed thing, has learned to accept that with good grace. Some folks cannot, and in their disappointment forget how to be good sports. You are allowed to be disappointed when that beautiful 13mm Ethos goes to Cousin Ezra and not you, but keep your whining and muttering about RIGGED RAFFLES to yourself. We really don’t want to hear your conspiracy theories about why the Pixley A.S. members always win everything.

Foodus Horribilus

Foodus is something of a contradiction. While it is an enthusiastic omnivore, feeding on just about anything, it never seems able to find the sustenance it really wants…

When you sign up for a star party meal plan, don’t count on five star dining. If you do you will be badly disappointed. That said, most star party fare is at least edible. I can count on one hand the times I’ve had meals at star gazes that were or were close to indigestible. Good old Foodus, though, never stops complaining about the victuals (and also never, ever volunteers to help prepare meals).

Funniest thing? Foodus complains a lot, but only between large mouthfuls; a meal’s supposed poor quality never affects his appetite. He usually fails to sign up for the bad old meal plan in advance, but is right put out if he can’t be accommodated at the last minute when he decides supper looks OK after all.

Whiteliticus Rex

Whiteliticus is less common than it used to be on most observing fields, thanks in part to the downright aggression most other species display to these dim-witted beasts. One’s mere presence evokes the deafening call “DOWSE THAT LIGHT!” from other fauna…

You would think amateurs who attend major star parties would know not to blind everybody around them with a white flashlight or a too bright red one, but a few folks never seem to get the message. Even when they’ve been embarrassed a time or two. The way to make this one go extinct? I don’t know, but hollering won’t do it. Having one of the star party staff give ‘em a good talking to, which, if appropriate, includes the phrase “Or you will be shown the gate” is the best defense against these brutes.

One promising development? Use of (too) bright red headlights, the LED lights that go on your head with an elastic band, seems to have fallen off. These things are not a bad idea, but their red LEDs are almost always too bright, and most wearers are not careful to keep them pointed down, even though that is easy to do.


Most star party species are nocturnal. The Earliupicus, conversely, is out foraging at the break of dawn and returns to its nest shortly after sundown…

I used to be surprised to be awakened at 6 a.m. at a star party, but eventually came to expect it. At oh-dark-thirty a few worthies start rustling around in the bathroom, gargling their little throats out and SINGING, and trotting around the field chatting happily and at full volume with fellow Earliupici. You can shush these folks, but they will never change, and by the time you’ve finished giving them a good piece of your mind, you are fully awake, anyhow. Best bet? Ear plugs.

Why do some people get up so early at a star party? Because some folks go to bed early, even at star parties, I reckon. Yeah, I know it’s difficult to switch over from the 9-5 routine for just a few days, and it’s rare for Unk to make it past 2 or 3 a.m. for that reason. That doesn’t explain why it is not unusual to see some Bubbas hitting the hay at 2100, though. When I ask ‘em “why,” the response is invariably “Big day tomorrow, best turn in.” OK…well bless their pea-picking little hearts, I reckon.

We all enjoy star parties in own way, and if you are an Earliupicus, that is cool; all I ask is that you keep it quiet in the a.m.—no more marching to the showers singing "Hippity-Hop to the Barber Shop" in off-key fashion. Oh, and don’t get all huffy about observers returning to the cabin in the wee hours and disturbing your beauty rest.


These lumbering, solitary beasts have no home range. They are strictly nomadic, appearing on the field’s savanna without warning…

In principle, “walk-ons,” folks who don’t register in advance for a star party, are not a bad thing. Nothing wrong with a little extra moola in the event’s coffers is there? But when you think about it, they are another species that needs to go extinct. What’s so bad about somebody appearing at the star party after it’s got underway and asking to register? Planning, for one thing. If the organizers don’t know how many folks will attend, they cannot guarantee there will be space on the field and in the cabins for everybody. If there’s to be a meal plan, it will be impossible to know how much food will be required.

If everybody were to decide to play this game, not registering in advance for the Possum Holler SP and only showing up for it if and when they are sure the weather will be nice, there wouldn’t be many star parties. The organizers would not have the money to put on the event even if they were able to estimate the resources they’d need.

The worst thing about walk-ons? Many of ‘em do not arrive in the morning. Or in the afternoon. They wait till dark and try to drive onto the field in a vehicle with headlights blazing, causing major disruption. That alone is enough to encourage this as a standard response:  “I am very sorry. You can’t attend the star party if you are not already registered. We look forward to seeing you next year.” I’ve got a heart, and am willing to consider individual/special cases, but, hey, y’all, in the absence of extenuating circumstances just register by the date you are told to register by.

Musicus Dratticus

Who doesn’t enjoy the melodious calls of our wildlife? Unfortunately, few of their fellow creatures can tolerate the loud and grating song of Musicus. Despite the annoyed and even threatening responses of other creatures, Musicus persists in his unending symphony of distraction...

I like music. Sometimes I even like to listen to music while I am observing. Usually when I’m doing casual star gazing rather than a serious project, and usually when most of my fellow partiers have gone to bed. And when I listen to music, I listen with headphones. I wouldn’t dream of imposing my musical tastes on the people around me on the field. Amazingly, some amateurs don’t get that.

To put it simply: if you don’t want to be made to listen to Uncle Rod’s music, Tammy Wynette’s “This Good Girl’s Gonna Go Bad” or The Allman Brothers’ Live at the Fillmore East, don’t make me listen to your “Pachebel’s Canon” or Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. Nuff said?


Most species do not foul their own nests. Messasaurus, who is anything but extinct, is an exception. Evolutionary biologists speculate these animals save energy by forcing other field inhabitants to clean their dens…

I’ve addressed this more than once. Bottom line? Unk ain’t your mama. In the cabins, clean up after yourself. On the field, clean up after yourself. I don’t want to see or deal with the mess you leave in the bathroom. The star party organizers sure don’t want to deal with the mess you leave on the field after you’ve gone home. Savvy? I thought so.


The Anything is a creature that is seemingly poorly adapted to the observing field. Nevertheless, they are common there...

Why do people go to star parties? I know there are many reasons other than or in addition to observing: to spend time with their fellow amateur astronomers, to look longingly at dealer tables, to attend presentations. Still, I wonder about some folks. I mean the people you’ll find on the field and in the chow hall talking anything but amateur astronomy or astronomy in general. Ever. That's not the problem, though; the problem is their choice of topics.  They aren’t always obnoxious, but often are, since their gab-fests almost inevitably devolve into elevated-volume “discussions” of Democrat versus Republican/Conservative versus Liberal. Y’all can listen to Rush Limbaugh or watch Bill Maher at home, so why doncha?


This creature is notorious for its tendency to sudden flight from the field at any moment. It may be grazing peacefully one second, and take to its heels the next, sending its fellow field residents into a panic...

I do not mind people walking off the field early. Hell, I don’t even mind them driving off early. Hardcore as Unk used to be and would still like to be, by 3 a.m. he most assuredly feels the strong pull of the motel or cabin. What is hard to stand is Headlightonicus’ usual behavior: blinding the whole field with his vehicle’s backup lights, interior lights, trunk lights, and headlights.

This is a no-brainer, y’all: if you know you will want to leave before dawn—and most times you will know—park your car well off and facing away from the observing field. Turn off interior lights and disable backup and running lights if possible, but if you are sufficiently far from the field, that won’t be a problem. If it is possible to do so safely, you might even navigate by parking lights until you are down the road apiece.


The most timid of all star party field creatures, Burglaraticus will emit deafening alarm cries when it feels threatened, which is “often.” This species is so constantly fearful its howls of terror are frequent even when it is not in observable danger…

It happens every star party: Goo-goo Mew-mew decides he needs something out of his vehicle. He grabs the door handle, forgetting he’s turned on the car alarm. Or he squats down at his scope activating the horn and lights with the key fob in his pocket, or at least unlocking the jitney and flashing the lights and beeping the horn. Nobody likes him.

Kats and Kittens, it is easy to turn off the car alarm. Or, if you can’t do that, you can leave the vehicle unlocked. Scout’s honor, none of us is out to pilfer your beautiful Ford Fiesta.  Put the keys somewhere where you won’t keep unintentionally mashing the buttons—and where you won’t lose them, of course…

Yeah, every one of these beasts should go extinct, and that could happen very easily. If each and every one of us—including Unk, who is hardly innocent of assorted star party foolishness—would simply remember the good ol' Golden Rule: TREAT OTHER PEOPLE LIKE YOU’D LIKE TO BE TREATED.

If we all did that, there’d be none of the unhappiness and friction that sometimes happens at star parties. Which would be a good thing. Star parties are supposed to be fun, and I don’t know about you, but I have a hard time having fun if the people around me aren’t having a good time, too. Now, get out there and party. Just be sweet and all will be well, muchachos.

Next Time: Unk's Yearly M13...

Sunday, October 07, 2012


Uncle Rod and Uncle Al

Al Nagler, that is. I met him at the Texas Star Party years ago and have talked with him on the phone a time or three—but who hasn’t? Al is friendly and gregarious and always willing to talk to any amateur astronomer. But this is really more about me and his eyepieces and the changes they’ve wrought on our avocation. Or maybe what it’s really about is the evolution of eyepieces over my near 50 years (ulp!) as an amateur. Even in that case, Al and TeleVue are a huge part of the story.

When I got started in 1965, most of us didn’t give too much thought to eyepieces. At least me and my fellow teen/pre-teen buddies in our little club, The Backyard Astronomy Society, didn’t. Not at first. One or two eyepieces came with your telescope. You used them to look at stuff. If you only had one, you could use the Barlow that was usually in the box with the scope to give you one more magnification.

The eyepieces you got with your wonder-scope? That depended on the scope. Those of us who started out with Japanese import telescopes were at the bottom of the power curve. Most Tasco/Sears/Jason telescopes came with multiple eyepieces. Almost always two and sometimes three. That was the good. The bad was that what you got, with a few exceptions, was very simple ocular designs, usually of the Huygenian persuasion. That was how the sellers could afford to include several “eye-lenses” as some of us called ‘em.

These oculars, sometimes also referred to as “Huygens eyepieces” consisted of two simple lens elements. The books, or at least some books, say a Huygenian can be OK with a longer focal length telescope. Maybe so if your focal ratio is in the neighborhood of what Huygens himself used way back in 1654—say f/200 or so. Even with a long Tasco refractor these poor things are bedeviled by short eye relief, tiny apparent field of view (AFOV), and much chromatic aberration.

The designs of our eyepieces were not just punk, the execution of those designs left a lot to be desired. The oculars that came with most of our telescopes were what we came to refer to as “the little ones.” At first, these eyepieces, “Japanese Standard” eyepieces with barrel diameters of .965-inches, seemed OK, about like the eyepieces for the microscopes we used in school or maybe found under the Christmas tree. That changed when some dog—Unk in the case of the B.A.S.—moved on up to a Real Telescope, like an Edmund or Criterion.

Once you got beyond the least expensive Space Conquerors and Dynascopes, you got real eyepieces, 1.25-inch barrel diameter American Standard oculars, to go with your real telescope. The designs were still simple, mostly two element Ramsdens and three element Kellners, but they were at least somewhat better than the Huygenians, and the larger diameter barrels allowed slightly more field. In general terms, the 1.25-inch eyepieces were and still are of higher quality than the .965s, though there have always been a few good .965ers around—Takahashi has made some excellent ones like their LEs over the years.

How were the Ramsdens and Kellners? The Ramsdens with their two simple lenses were pretty bad. Mostly, they share the foibles of the Huyenians, if to a lesser degree:  excess color, small fields, tight eye relief. Their main attraction was that they were cheap and would do a reasonable if not perfect job on telescopes—like Newtonian reflectors—with smaller focal ratios like f/8 and f/10 that stymied the Huygenians. Ramsdens are bearable, or at least they were bearable for us sprouts who didn’t know no better.

Kellners are a lot like the Ramsdens and Huygenians, but with a doublet achromat as the eye lens. The Kellner is better at everything. The eye relief ain’t so hot, but it is still better than the Huygenian in that regard, color is pretty well controlled, and the field is reasonably large, or was by the standards of the time—somewhere around forty degrees of apparent field of view. The drawback? The eyepieces tended to fall apart at shorter focal lengths, with performance getting worse when you got shorter than 15mm or so. The short eye-relief, especially at short focal lengths, made high power Kellners a royal pain to use and consequently rare.

‘Course, we all wanted more better gooder, and most of us sprouts (and adults in the avocation) were at least dimly aware there were better eyepieces than Ramsdens and Kellners, and that one might dramatically improve views through almost any telescope. At first, the name of that better eyepiece was “Orthoscopic.”

With four lens elements, the “Ortho” is more complex than any of the previous eyepieces. Its arrangement makes what can be a nearly perfect eyepiece at some focal lengths. Distortions are very minor across the field. Alas, that field is the Ortho’s downfall, with its AFOV being restricted to a miniscule (by modern standards) 40 – 45-degrees. More serious, perhaps, is the eyepiece’s lack of eye relief, making shorter focal length ones impossible for eyeglass wearers to use.

Even today, a good Orthoscopic can be an impressive, and we sure loved them in the late-sixties/early seventies. In theory at least. The problem with the Ortho for us wasn’t lack of apparent field or lack of eye relief; it was our lack of cash. An Ortho from Edmund would set you back about $15.00 (compared to $5.00 for a Ramsden), and one from Criterion was about the same, equivalent to at least $75.00 in today’s miniscule money. Yet most of us, including Unk, began to accumulate a few of these babies as we finished college and entered the workforce as the seventies began to wind down. I was crazy about the Vixen Orthoscopics that were beginning to come in from Japan. But by that time most of us, those of us who were focused on the deep sky, had moved past the Orthoscopic and were embracing a new (old) design, the Erfle.

The Erfle really wasn’t new, having been designed by Heinrich Erfle back in the First World War for military use. But they were new to us kids and really to amateurs in general. Prior to the sixties any commercial astro gear was rare, but by the time our days in the Sun (and under the stars) began, the equipment industry was burgeoning in a small way, and as the seventies came in, the usual suspects including Edmund and Criterion as well as upstarts like Celestron and Meade were selling Erfle eyepieces, if not that cheaply, with one going for as much as $30.00 by the mid 1970s.

What would all that moola get you? A cool-looking five-element eyepiece for which you would sometimes need a 2-inch focuser (or just a 2-inch visual back for your C8). Cool looking not just because of that big 2-inch barrel, but because of the humongous eye lens. When you finally glommed onto one and inserted it into your Orange Tube, you were presented with this gigantic field. With an AFOV of 60  - 65-degrees, using one of these puppies was like looking through a spaceship porthole. Who wanted to go back to peering at stuff through a soda-straw sized Orthoscopic?

Not that the Erfle was or is perfect. It suffered from a variety of problems, most centering around poor edge of field quality. Erfles are particularly prone to astigmatism, and they suffer from ghost images, too. B-U-T…at longer focal lengths they are bearable even today, especially in a slower scope. Longer focal length eyepieces were not a problem back then, since most of us were trying to get a little less magnification out of our new f/10 SCTs. Ghosting? We were using these things on the deep sky, not bright stars or planets, so that was not a problem, either.

As amateur astronomy, or at least the business side of amateur astronomy continued to grow, a formerly exotic design, the Plössl, signed in. This eyepiece, composed of two lens doublets, couldn’t match the Erfle for AFOV, but the edge of that 50 – 55-degree Plössl field sure did look a lot better. Unk became a fan of the legendary Celestron Silver Top Plössls in the 80s, but that was not the big eyepiece story of the decade. That was TeleVue and THE Nagler and Al Nagler. Uncle Al, that is, the first person I recall being given the now-common amateur astronomy honorific “Uncle” after the legendary original, Unk Albert Ingalls.

Al Nagler started out just like a lot of us starry-eyed young-pup astronomers in the 1950s and 1960s, but he quickly showed he was going to take things just a wee bit farther than most of us. In the late 60s, most of us schlemiels were still trying to figure out how to build a 6-inch Newtonian that would take us deeper into space than our puny 60mm refractors. Al? In the early 50s he’d already hand-crafted a prize-winning 8-inch—an 8-inch Newtonian was a huge, and I do mean HUGE, telescope in the 50s and 60s.

Al didn’t rest on his laurels; he became a regular at Stellafane, and it was obvious he was a rising star of an ATM. The 1960s found him at Farrand Optical working on the optics for the Apollo LEM simulator. Al’s story is one of a talented hard worker who, in 1977, started his own company, TeleVue Optics Incorporated, located (then) in Spring Valley, New York. The only surprising part of the Nagler story? His company didn’t start pumping out eyepieces and refractor telescopes for a little while.

TV’s first big product was for TVs, lenses for projection televisions. One of the common features of the mirror-ball festooned discos in the age of Saturday Night Fever was a projection TV. Since there were no commercially available color flat panel displays, tubes projected images onto a curved screen almost the size of the HD TVs we have in our living rooms today. The projectors were crude and the images dim, and a good projection lens was essential and that was what TeleVue supplied.

Not that Al had abandoned astronomy, not hardly. By the late 1970s he was also selling a line of Plössl eyepieces. By this time, most of us Jane and Joe Amateurs had had some experience with “symmetrical” oculars, but Al’s Plössls turned out to be something special, with much attention being given optical quality and build quality. Reviewers and rank and file amateurs noticed how sharp the TV eyepieces were. We were further attracted by a price, $45.00 initially, which, while not cheap, was doable for most of us who’d started out as kid astronomers in the 60s. Almost from the get-go, Al established himself as the king of quality eyepieces.

Unk Al had something special in mind for his next big product. An eyepiece that not only equaled but surpassed the apparent fields of the Erfles by a fair margin with an 82-degree AFOV as compared to the 60-something of the older eyepieces. More importantly, Al, using the experience he’d gained working on the NASA optical systems, was able to achieve a big field that was impressively sharp and aberration free, even when used with the increasingly fast optics of them new-fangled “Dobsonians.” Not only was the Nagler the first new significant eyepiece design in many years, it was far more complex than anything else being marketed to amateur astronomers at the time, with some of the eyepieces being made up of eight lens elements.

In 1980, the first Nagler, the 13mm, went on sale. It wasn’t cheap; in fact it was scary expensive, $250.00, which is equivalent to at least 600 of today’s smaller greenbacks. You’d a-thought we-all would have laughed Al Nagler’s Nagler out of town: imagine paying more for an eyepiece than you did for your telescope! But we didn’t. The few reports we were getting said Al’s claim that viewing with the Nagler was like walking in space was true. And maybe the preaching of Al and Lumicon founder/owner Dr. Jack Marling that eyepieces contribute a lot to a telescope’s performance was finally sinking in. Bottom line? We all wanted a Nagler, even if we couldn’t afford one.

A 9mm and a 4.8mm followed the 13mm by 1982, and as the 1980s wore on more focal lengths were introduced along with an improved models of some of ‘em. The Type II Naglers and the monstrous and, for the time, monstrously expensive ($425.00) 20mm Nagler coming out in 1986. I reckon all us old timers remember Al’s funny but succinct ad for the 20mm. Anyhoo, that was about where my story with Al began. Not that I immediately rushed out and bought the 20, young engineer not long out of the military with a young family that I was.

I continued on happily with my Vixen Orthos, a Konig  or two, and, when I wanted More Better Gooder field wise, a University Optics Erfle I’d finally acquired. It was not bad at all in my SCT, if not perfect either. In other words, I was a happy little camper because I didn’t know no better.

That changed one fall night in 1993 at one of the first Deep South Regional Star Gazes I attended. While taking a break from my telescope, which at that particular time was an 8-inch F/7 Coulter Odyssey 8-inch, and strolling around the field I came upon the setup of a nice feller, a fellow Coulter user. Except this was a big dog of an Odyssey. I can’t remember if it was a 13-inch Odyssey I or a 17-inch Odyssey II, but it was way bigger than my humble 8. This kind soul asked me if I wanted a look at M13 before it got too low. I said, “Sure,” which he responded to with, “Hold on a minute. Let me put the 13mm Nagler in the focuser.”

To say my first look at the Great Globular with a Nagler was a game changer would be an understatement. Dern good thing I wasn’t standing on a ladder or I’d have been knocked off it. The first thing that struck me, surprisingly, was not that huge 82-degree field, but how sharp and tiny the cluster stars were. And how good the contrast between those stars and the background field was. The pea-picking Coulters were not exactly optical marvels, but the Nagler went a long way to making this one act like a marvel. Even without a coma corrector—I didn't know pea-turkey about coma correctors in the early 90s, anyway—the stars at the edge of the field of this f/4.5 scope were dang good. As good or better, I thought, than they would have been in a narrower field ocular. I just looked and looked, probably outstaying my welcome, but I couldn’t help it.

So I started dreaming of a Nagler of my own. Not that TV was the only game in town when it came to 82-degree AFOV eyepieces. Al had been competing with Meade for a while in Plössls and soon enough they came out with their own “Naglers,” the Ultra Wide Angles, that, with some justification, a lot of us referred to as “clones.” Clones, maybe, but good ones, and in slightly different focal lengths than the Naglers.  Some people really liked ‘em, liked ‘em better than the “real” Naglers. Some still do. Honestly, differences were fairly minor. But only when compared to Al’s original eyepieces. The difference was that Unk Al continued to improve and upgrade his eyepieces with the Type II Naglers and beyond. Meade made no real changes to their UWAs till 2006.

Christmas of 1995 I finally got a Nagler of my own, a 12mm Type II thanks to the dear Miss Dorothy. I loved the 12 very much and I used it happily for over a decade. I was never really a Nagler hog, though. I got back into astrophotography in the mid 90s and progressed on to CCDing and webcamming when those things came into the picture. When I did “just look,” I tended to think my 12 Nag was enough. With an f/6.3 reducer on the C8, or barefoot on the C8, or with the TeleVue Big Barlow on the C8 I had a purty fair range of magnifications with the single Nag. If I had to have “way down low,” I slammed in my trusty 2-inch 38mm Rini Super Plössl (sorry you younguns missed Paul Rini’s plain but lovable oculars). Oh, I sometimes ruminated wistfully on the 20mm Nagler, but never got around to buying it.

One thing other than Unk’s basic stinginess diverted him from the Nagler path: TeleVue Panoptics. I loved and still love these 68-degree eyepieces. They are very fine. I have the 35, the 27, and the 22, and they perform splendidly in my driven SCTs. No, you don’t get quite the spacewalk effect you get with the Naglers, but almost. And they are cheaper. Considerably cheaper, which is always a draw for little old me.

I did eventually get more 82-degree eyepieces, but not Naglers. As the 1990s ran out, the Mainland Chinese optical giants began spitting out spacewalk eyepieces. At first, they were pretty punk, with field edges near bad enough to make my Aunt Lulu’s poodle dog throw up his Gravy Train. But they got better in a hurry. In 2006, a series of 82-degree eyepieces that ranged from “almost as good” to “a little bit better” than Naglers appeared. These were and are sold by William Optics as the Uwans, and are also available from Orion (U.S.) as the Megaviews. If there is a down-check to the Uwans, it’s the limited number of focal lengths, 4, 7, 16, and 28 millimeters and the fact that the Chinese maker has, like Meade with its Ultra Wides for so many years, not continued to improve the oculars.

Did the Chinese clones or semi-clones hurt TeleVue? Not really. Plenty of amateurs realized that while the fare for a TeleVue was higher, it got you THE BEST. In some cases a Meade or a Uwan might be slightly, ever so slightly, better in some focal lengths, but it was slight and that was offset by TeleVue’s consistently better build quality and customer support.

In the early years of this new century, Uncle Al was in the doldrums as far as I was concerned. Oh, he continued to release new and better eyepieces, making it all the way to the type 6es in the Nagler line, adding focal lengths, and introducing zooms and specialty eyepieces like the Radians. I was waiting for something on the blow-you-away order of the introduction of the first Nagler, though, and began to think that might not ever happen.

Then it did. In 2008 I purchased an eyepiece that changed everything again. Some time before, my good buddy Pat Rochford and I had begun hearing a rumor that Al was gonna do it again: this time with a hundred degree apparent field eyepiece. Surely that couldn’t be true? 100-freaking-degrees? It was true, and the first look through one—coincidentally maybe, again a 13mm—that Pat and I had out on the Chiefland Astronomy Village observing field convinced both of us we had to have one.

I spent one November CAV starparty doing nothing but using my two Ethos eyepieces--I couldn’t resist also buying the 8mm that followed the 13 out the gate. I looked at everything in my 12-inch Dobsonian. I looked at every halfway decent object I could think of because every object looked new again. The experience, which I can only call EXTREME space walking, was just like the time I put my eye to that old 13 Nagler. After that I could never go back to 55-degrees. After the Ethos, I didn’t think I could go back to a mere 82.

Over the last several years Unk Al has continued to add more focal lengths to the Ethos line, a line of eyepieces that even the naysayers—and there are a few of those—admit is probably the best series of oculars ever released. As always, though, Al has competition. This time from Explore Scientific, whose ES 100s are, like the Meade UWAs were, a little less expensive and available in slightly different focal lengths. Will ES, unlike Meade, continue to upgrade and expand over the long run? Only time will tell, but Scott Roberts and company seem to be pulling ahead of TeleVue in innovation at the moment, having just released a ground-breaking (and expensive) 9mm eyepiece with a dadgum 120-degree apparent field.

And good on ‘em. Honest competition never hurt anybody. I am not immune to the allure of better and cheaper, muchachos, not hardly. My eyepiece box ain’t TeleVue only—hell, I even have a Zhumell 100 in there. And yet, and yet... When I want the best, I keep coming back to good, old Uncle Al. Things haven’t changed in that regard since the night I put my wondering eye up to that funny looking eyepiece and nearly fell into its field.

Next Time: The Star Party Zoo

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